Actions

Work Header

How Bright the Lights

Chapter Text

Alice Kingsleigh, for all her beauty, was terribly ill suited to fashion modeling.

If Alice didn’t have the perfect blue-blood-British with a dash of Eastern European flavor of beauty so desired at the moment, her agent, Yelena Kingsleigh, (who was also her mother) would have given up and tried to figure some other way out of their family’s insolvency. Yelena took her seat in the back row of chairs in the dimly lit room, holding the program passed out at the door by two excited girls who were trying desperately to seem nonchalant—no doubt aspiring design apprentices. The walls were covered in black fabric screen-printed with images of exotic birds. This was Alice’s first show with a major house in over a year, and Yelena took several deep breaths and tried to assure herself that Alice would do nothing tonight to jeopardize her future career.

Alice wasn’t so bad at photo shoots, but live events were a gamble. She seemed quite as likely to step off the runway and ask a question of a photographer in the front row as complete her walk without incident. Not that she had exactly done such an unheard-of thing, but rather than spending her time backstage dutifully primping and mentally preparing herself before her mirror, Alice managed to get in everyone’s way. And whenever she wasn’t dreamily staring off into space in the path of a rack of clothes and a harried dresser, she was asking questions. Alice wanted to know how the makeup artists got just the right shade and coverage, and how the hairstylists managed to defy gravity, especially with her thick unruly locks. She hounded the stage manager about the reasoning behind the timing of runs, and bothered designers about everything from placement of zippers to the reasons for the order of presentation.

Yelena did her best to control the damage, steering Alice away from those most likely to lose patience with her. At photo shoots this was rarely a problem, but there was no place for mothers or agents backstage at fashion shows, so Yelena was forced to trust her daughter to stay out of trouble. It shouldn’t have been too much to ask from a young woman soon to turn twenty, but Alice remained stubbornly childish even in the face of the ruthless world of fashion. Her naïveté was not really that unusual amongst very young models. Many of them, especially those still in their teens, were similarly sheltered by parents and agents who were all too aware that growing up meant growing old, and that the sex, drugs, and eating disorders that were so popular in their profession were most often the beginning of the end of a modelling career.

Of course there were always mature and clever girls who managed to apply these vices judiciously, partying with just the right crowd or sleeping with the right journalist or designer to launch themselves into international stardom. For every one who managed this feat, however, there were dozens of hopefuls who crashed and burned, their fire quickly doused by a stifling blanket of obscurity. It was much better to stay a safe distance from the glitz and glamour and remain one of the ranks of the young, dependable, hard-working girls who did not stand out too much to make them unsuitable for catalog work, but had just enough edge to their innocence to sell as sexy.

Yelena had no hopes of superstardom for her dreamy daughter. All she needed was to keep her in the game for a couple more years, keeping a roof over their heads and supporting the elder Kingsleigh sister, Margaret, through medical school and into a residency. Once Margaret was safely ensconced in a job and bringing home enough to meet their expenses, then Alice could have her turn. She could go to Uni full-time and decide what to do with herself in the long run, though Yelena did of course have some further plans for her younger daughter. She was a mother, after all.

The show started. The lights dimmed all the way and the designer took the stage to introduce the new summer line. Thankfully this was a well-established individual, so the remarks were relatively brief and there was no unsightly sniffling as was so common with those just starting out. Alice’s first walk was toward the beginning. She came out on the runway, tall and sophisticated in heels, a minimal ruffled brown top and a patterned full-length skirt. Atop her head was the most exciting feature of the show, a hat by the scion of the Bembury haberdashery house. Though Bembury was synonymous with quality and had been known for years as the exclusive hatters to Queen Elizabeth II, it had also been years since anything particularly interesting had come out of their studios. Apparently, however, they had been hiding a new designer away in the wings, a nephew of the late August Bembury. No one could accuse these hats of being made for octogenarians. The diversity of designs included in the headwear was amazing, yet they held together through the use of common elements such as prints and the feathers of exotic birds. Alice was wearing a small pillbox affair with a single long brown feather which bobbed after her as she walked. Yelena had worried this would only draw attention to the flaws in Alice’s walk, but the effect of the bobbing was to bring out a playfulness that was strangely appropriate to the show. Even Alice’s carefully controlled runway expression was augmented by a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Yelena was instantly suspicious. Any deviations from their carefully-rehearsed choreography usually spelled trouble—but Alice reached the platform, paused, and turned smartly (and a touch sassily—not once in all her coaching had Yelena seen Alice properly execute sassy), making it back to the curtain without incident. What in the world could have happened to coax so inspired a walk from the dreamy and waifish Alice?

-o-o-o-

The blonde girl stuck her lip out petulantly in a manner that could be in no way construed as sexy, and then proceeded to make the most violently silly faces she could think of in the mirror at her dressing station. The young women around her just rolled their eyes and ignored her, having long since given up trying to get either fun or sensible conversation out of their contrary coworker. She was dressed and ready, with her hair flowing just so over her shoulders and her makeup done. Now Alice just had to avoid spilling something on her clothes, or tripping and ripping the excessively long feather-print skirt she was wearing. This was always the hardest part for her.

“There you are! I had almost given up on you, number four.”

Before Alice could see who was speaking, he was upon her. She ducked down as the top of her head was assaulted with a flurry of fabric, feather, and hatpins. Practiced motions secured the small hat to her head efficiently. It seemed she’d been found at last.

“I’m right at my station,” she grumbled, pointing at the large numeral four in the corner.

“For the first time in the last hour, I’d wager,” said the pleasant and precise voice of her assailant. “The dressers had seen you at some point, but couldn’t tell me or my assistant where you might be. It seems you have something of a reputation for exploration.”

The sure hands released her head, and Alice looked up into the mirror to see bright green eyes twinkling over her shoulder. Bright ginger hair curled around a pale face and the hat-dresser gave her a kind smile that belied his exasperated tone.

Alice snorted, “I bet that’s not how they put it.”

“Not exactly, no,” he admitted. “But there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of curiosity. I’d imagine these things get dreadfully boring for you, just sitting around until the right moment.”

“You don’t find these things dull?” Alice asked in surprise. It was rare to find a dresser who, while often harried and rushed, did not hold onto their air of supreme boredom like a talisman against primadonna models and totalitarian designers.

“Well, this is my first real show” he admitted, “and I’ve been kept so busy running this way and that I haven’t had a moment to reflect on it ‘til now.”

He still stood behind her, their eyes meeting in the mirror. His traveled up to the top of her blonde curls and he straightened the long feather with his fingers. Alice followed his motion with her eyes and for some reason felt her cheeks heat with a blush. Uncomfortable, she turned away, squirming at the unfamiliar feeling of hatpins in her long unrestrained hair.

“Something the matter with the hat?” he asked, and Alice could detect just the hint of an accent underlying his carefully cultured tone. Scottish, perhaps?

“Oh, it’s fine I suppose.” She looked around, surveying the other models in this show, who she only just now realized were already wearing their own hats of widely varying shapes and sizes. “They’re amazing in fact. So many colors and feathers. I wonder where they got all the birds?” Alice realized she was in danger of wandering off-topic, something she was frequently scolded for doing, both by herself and her family. With a struggle, she returned herself to his question. “I don’t feel comfortable in hats. I never have.”

The face in the mirror, which had taken on a pleased aspect at her compliment to the hats, shifted. The eyes narrowed speculatively.

“I shall consider that a challenge then, number four. After all, we still have two more rounds to go, don’t we? I’m sure I can find something to suit you.”

Her eyes widened.

“You mean, give me different hats than on the list? But you’d mess up the lineup! They’d be in fits if anything changed now.”

He grinned at her shock. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d balk at a little. . .rearrangement in the name of exploration.”

She arched a brow at him. His enthusiasm was infectious though, and she found herself grinning in return. The idea was interesting. Alice found herself curious as to what the green-eyed hat man would come up with. She turned to take him in better. Now that she faced him she could see that while still young, he was older than her, maybe in his mid twenties. She didn’t recognize him from fittings, though that wasn’t terribly surprising as Alice rarely paid attention to the instructors or noticed anything aside from what directly affected her. He was wearing two pieces of a red-brown three piece suit. The trousers looked neatly pressed but the vest was unbuttoned and the sleeves of his pale green shirt were rolled up to the elbows. Not the conventional black on black of a dresser. Alice liked it.

“You want to flout the designers’ wishes just to find a hat that I like?” she asked, curiosity brimming in her voice.

He grinned again, “I like a challenge. And it’s a sad thing when a person has never found a hat to suit them. Let’s consider it public service.”

Alice found herself drawn to his enthusiasm and playfulness, but she still had one hesitation.

“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” she blurted. “I mean, I’m always doing something that annoys the planner or the stage manager, but I don’t want to drag you into it.”

He giggled a bit and said, “There really won’t be much they can do about it.”

Just then a wild-eyed stage tech in black rushed up to them.

“Kingsleigh!” he hissed dangerously, “If you don’t get out there now, so help me I will not be responsible for the wrath of the designer.”

This was when Alice and her companion realized that most of the other girls stationed by Alice had disappeared to the curtain side of the spacious backstage and that only the dressers continued to scurry about readying the next round of outfits. Her mother would be furious if she ruined the timing or was pushed back in the show! Alice quickly moved to follow the irate stage tech, but the green-eyed man caught her hand.

“I’ll be thinking about what to try next,” he said, grinning widely.

Alice smiled back conspiratorially and made her way to the curtain where she walked past the designer who was standing tersely at the monitors without a word and was just in time to step out for the fourth run.

Upon returning backstage, Alice was surprised when the designer, one of the old guard of the fashion world and an old acquaintance of her mother’s, stopped her with a hand to the shoulder.

“Nicely done, Alice,” said Absolem, “Now if you could only do that every time, you stupid girl.”

Alice was much more shocked at the praise than at the fact that he had afterwards insulted her, but she was quickly rushed out of the way and into her next change of clothes. The next segment was somewhat more formal, so Alice donned a purple knee-length princess cut dress and waited uncharacteristically patiently at her station for the hat dresser to return. As someone came by to retouch her makeup she caught several glimpses of ginger hair as he doubtlessly flitted back and forth dressing other models with hats.

It was almost time for her next walk when he came running up to her with what seemed like a tuft of blue tulle and lace in his hand. Without saying a word, he began pinning and fanning out the headpiece until all the layers were arranged to his liking. He stepped back just enough so that Alice could see in the mirror that it was a fascinator style hat in powder blue with quite intricate lace veils layered over one another.

“But the dress is purple,” she blurted.

“But you look so much better in blue,” he returned. “The dress will just have to make allowances.”

Alice looked a bit more and saw that there were some paler blue shimmers hidden in the deep purple material that she hadn’t noticed before. Clearly the dresser knew clothes as well as hats. The hat was extremely well conceived and well made. It partially hid one eye from view while artfully flattering the shape of her face, which her mother often complained was too round to be truly interesting. Well, it was interesting now.

“Off you go,” said the hat dresser, ushering her toward the curtain with a strong hand to the small of her back.

“Don’t you want to know what I think of the hat?” asked Alice a little breathlessly, as he was rushing her and the dress was quite tight.

“Why don’t you tell me when you return?” he said. She looked up at him, and he winked at her. She noticed that there was a tiny gap between his front teeth. She thought it was endearing and refreshing that he’d never had it straightened. After years surrounded by people desperately trying to look perfect a touch of imperfection seemed all the sweeter to Alice. She could not help but feel flattered by the attention he was showing her. Perhaps it was just the hat, but Alice stepped onto the runway feeling more confident and interesting than ever before.

-o-o-o-

Yelena watched her daughter emerge from the wings this time looking mysterious and alluring. What had gotten into the girl? Usually Alice could do bored, haughty, dreamy and something that they often passed off as sexy that was close to how Alice regularly looked when cross. Where was this new confidence and verve coming from? If she wasn’t certain there was something troublesome brewing, Yelena might have given herself a chance to hope that this could mean good things for Alice’s modelling career. For two thrilling years in the 80s Yelena Parikova had been a major swimsuit model, and though Alice would never be able to follow that path, she did still have some contacts in high fashion that she hadn’t tried tapping yet, knowing that her daughter’s skills were not quite up to snuff. If she continued in this vein, however. . .but no, Yelena wouldn’t get ahead of herself. There was definitely something going on, but what?

-o-o-o-

Alice all but ran back to her station after changing into her third and final look of the show, missing the speculative glance the designer had given her in lieu of praise. This outfit was supposed to be the most casual of the summer line, but Alice could hardly imagine wearing the high-necked black blouse of heavy satin and lace out to dinner, let alone to the beach as was implied, no matter that it was sleeveless or that the beige skirt was well above her knees. She was just wondering whether or not the hat dresser ever went to the beach—with such pale skin it seemed he didn’t spend much time out of doors—when a sunhat was unceremoniously tossed onto her head. Alice looked up to find the hat dresser looking at her intently.

“What do you think?” he asked, after a moment.

The hat was a straw sunhat, yes, but it was not quite right to call it simple. It had been woven in complex patterns with varying natural shades of straw. The brim was fashioned to look like a seven-pointed star and the pattern was echoed less obviously in the crown. It was a beautiful hat. Unassuming at first glance, but with plenty of depth and interest. Though Alice’s blonde hair might not have provided enough contrast with a standard straw hat, the darker edging made an attractive border that would separate hat from hair on the runway.

“It’s lovely. I may not like wearing hats, but when I have to, I’d want one just like this.”

He looked disappointed that she was still professing not to like wearing hats, but mollified that she agreed this was wearable under some circumstances.

“Well, it may not suit you, but you certainly suit it,” he muttered. He continued in a louder tone, “If only the same could be said for that outfit.”

The hat man looked at it askance, and Alice took the chance to take in his delightfully different appearance. He had located his suit jacket somewhere, and though it hung open still, he had done up the buttons on his waistcoat. Alice was again charmed to notice a gold pocket-watch chain hanging from the pocket. His hair was still defiantly disheveled, but he looked a bit more together than when she’d seen him last.

“Don’t you want to know about the last hat?” she asked.

“It clearly wasn’t right, though you did a nice job showing it off,” he replied distractedly.

Alice felt her cheeks warm a bit at the thought of this busy hat dresser stealing a moment to watch her on the monitors. She was very surprised by the strength of her own reactions toward him. It wasn’t often that someone caught her attention, and it was almost unheard of for her to speak to anyone who did. Yet here she was, being at least somewhat sociable. She’d never fit in with the other girls, drinking champagne and teasing the reporters who tried to catch them undressed, but finally there was someone backstage at a fashion show that she could talk to. Amazing.

He sighed loudly. “I think I’m going to have to do something drastic.”

He grinned manically, and Alice was suddenly very worried. But overriding that concern that he would do something to get them both in trouble was intense curiosity as to what he wanted to do. It seemed she wasn’t to be given either a choice in the matter or a chance to find out beforehand.

“Hold still, Miss Kingsleigh,” he said, and whipped a pair of scissors from somewhere on his person and began cutting out the high lace neck of the shirt Alice was wearing. If she’d had a chance to realize what was happening she might have yelped or backed away, but as it was there was nothing she could do to stop him, so Alice held still, closed her eyes, and waited for this charming but regrettably mad dresser to do his worst.

It was over before she knew it.

“You can open your eyes,” he said softly, close to her ear.

They both stared into the mirror for a moment, the green eyes looking critically over her shoulder.

“I like it,” he announced.

He had drastically altered the shape of the neck, taking all the lace and cutting into the thick fabric. He’d woven a thin orange ribbon through slits in the neckline of the shirt, and had added the same ribbon as a hatband that held two short brown feathers. The edges of the altered fabric were of course frayed, but he’d taken care to make them artfully so. It actually looked lovely, but Alice could hardly let that thought have voice amidst all the other clamour in her head. She was deathly afraid to approach the curtain for fear of the designer’s wrath. He would probably pull her from the show and her mother would know it and be furious.

“Absolem will kill me,” she whispered.

The green eyes looked at her with some disappointment. She felt a pang of annoyance that he expected her to jump for joy at the thought of pissing off the man who could advance or end her career. Alice knew she was not such a good model that she could afford to make such bold moves. Not with her mother and sister still depending on her to bring home whatever contracts she could.

“I would have thought your spirit of adventure would take you a little further than that, number four.”

Her brown eyes widened. The anger burned brighter and she practically spit, “Be as disappointed as you want. If I get cut for this it will be more than a disappointment to my mother and sister when I tell them why we can’t make rent. Not all of us do this out of boredom or dreams of fame and fortune you know.”

He looked taken aback, then abashed. He grabbed her arm when she moved to turn away from him.

“Hold on there,” his accent was definitely melting toward Scottish now. “Jus’ wait. ‘Twon’t be a problem at all. You’ll see. Here, I’ll go with you.”

Instead of removing his hand from her arm, he repositioned it to tug her along to where the designer stood watching the monitors behind the curtain. Alice reluctantly followed, unsure as to what this man could do to salvage the situation.

“Absolem,” he said.

“Hatter,” said Absolem. He did not even turn to face them, but continued to watch the row of monitors closely.

“I’ve made one of those changes we’d discussed.”

“Ah.” Absolem finally turned to look at them, not showing any sign of surprise that it was Alice brought up to him in a drastically altered version of one of his creations. He sniffed a little, looked back to the screens and said, “Wear it well, you stupid girl.”

“Yes sir,” she said, more than a little confused by the exchange.

“Well, that’s it then,” said the Hatter with a cheerful grin as he ushered her to the side to wait her turn to walk. Alice was now beginning to understand that though he had rushed around all night like a regular lackey, this was someone rather more important than she’d first believed.

Who could he possibly be? she wondered. Alice knew that this show was to feature Bembury hats, but all she’d ever heard about that house of haberdashery was that they hatted rich old aristocrats. Though these were not hats for fussy old ladies playing bridge. He must be a new designer. Probably everyone was talking about it and, as usual, she had avoided learning anything about the new developments in the fashion world. So much as she would like to blame him for being mysterious about his role, it was most likely her own fault for remaining in willful ignorance. Alice decided to scold herself more thoroughly later in hopes of changing her deplorable behavior.

“You made the hats then?” she queried.

A beaming smile was her confirmation.

“And now you will model my first er, offering, in the world of women’s casual wear,” he joked. “Though be sure to give Absolem all the credit. He could use some shaking up,” the Hatter winked at her and despite her recent upset, Alice felt herself smiling back. The outfit really was lovely, and with the altered neckline the top was much more comfortable than previously. If she had looked strange or wrong, Absolem would have had no qualms about pulling her from the show, so Alice began to relax.

“My mother told me he was just as stodgy in the eighties, though since he used to be allowed cigarettes backstage you could hardly see him for all the smoke. People thought it gave him an air of mystery,” she whispered.

“You can still hardly breathe in his studio,” the Hatter whispered back. He nudged her shoulder playfully with his own. “It’s a good thing his assistants actually make all the clothes or you’d all smell like the back of an after-hours club.”

Alice wrinkled her nose at the thought, but most of her brain was dedicated to thrilling at his casual touch. She scrambled for something witty to say, but her brain was frustratingly blank. She wasn’t good at making chit chat.

“So, what should my forfeit be?” asked the Hatter.

“Sorry?” said Alice, quite unsure as to how to take this question.

“You challenged me to find you a hat that suits you, and I have sadly failed in my task. What can I do to make it up to you? Climb some mythical mountain in search of the coldest rose, or recover some long-lost family heirloom? What will it be?”

Alice laughed happily. The stage manager motioned her forward.

“Let me think about it,” she said, smiling.

-o-o-o-

Alice breezed onto the runway in six inch heels, looking as carefree as possible without actually smiling. Satisfaction and confidence pervaded her every step, giving her an allure not often seen on the runway. Too much expression would make it hard for a model to keep her eyes open the entire time on the runway, but Alice seemed to be managing very well. A happy woman was a desirable woman, Yelena had been told in her youth in Yugoslavia, and she’d found that to be mostly true. So why was Alice practically radiating joy at an event that she saw as a necessary chore at best? There had to be an answer, and Yelena was getting a very bad feeling about what it might be. She decided to hope Alice had finally accepted some champagne and made friends with another girl.

The casual section had concluded with Alice, and after the requisite two-to-four formalwear pieces, the show was over and the designers came onstage to receive applause. Absolem first wandered out to polite applause, but the crowd grew more enthusiastic when a tall figure in a red-brown suit and a matching top hat bounded onto the stage. Yelena was surprised by the brightness of both his hair and his attire. She noticed that his shirt was neither white nor blue and was a little confused at how such a man could make such elegant hats. The young man beamed and fidgeted with his pocket watch chain while Absolem briefly thanked the crowd of journalists, photographers, and other guests. Then he spoke. Thankfully, Absolem’s brevity seemed to have rubbed off on him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he cried, as if he were some sort of ringmaster, “Thank you for coming to witness the debut show of Bembury with Vetvier. I am delighted to be here tonight and I’d like to thank everyone willing to take a chance on my hats. Especially those who still haven’t found the right hat, as you are who I craft for.”

It was an odd little speech, not at all the normal thanking of senior designers and crew and fashion icon influences. Yelena didn’t think much of it, but the reporters in the front row were buzzing like he’d said something profound, all scrambling to write that down like it was very important. Unimportant, more like it. Yelena had little patience for anyone in the fashion industry pretending they were in it for the people. True, some designers started out dedicated to their art, but profit margins quickly eclipsed artistic integrity for most. She gathered her things, carefully listening to the journalists and photographers as they filed out.

“. . .That blonde who actually looked happy, what’s her name?” inquired a woman who Yelena knew to be a writer for Paris Vogue.

“Alice,” replied the photographer standing with her. “Alice Kingsleigh. Seemed to be something of a pariah with the other girls, but that may just be professional jealousy. She looked stunning in the blue veil, and that beach outfit looked like it had been made for her. Definitely one of Absolem’s more interesting pieces.”

“Hmm, Alice. That makes a bit of a change from always fussing about the Brazilians. Is this her first major?”

“I believe she did some work for Incando a few seasons ago, but I could be mistaken,” he replied.

“Yes she did,” Yelena replied, feeling the moment had come to break into the conversation, “though she took the winter and spring to concentrate on some contract work.

“Yelena Parikova, Alice’s agent.” She shook hands with the journalist, then the photographer. It was best not to use her married name in these instances, as being Alice’s mother added an undesirable element to the interaction with the press. Also, if anyone were to remember her own career and forget her late husband’s it would only be to the good for Alice’s reputation. Yelena knew she shouldn’t build Alice up too much, as the performance tonight was most likely a fluke, but a little positive media attention couldn’t hurt, could it?

“How lucky to run into you Ms. Parikova,” smiled the journalist.

-o-o-o-

Alice stood half-dressed in front of the monitors, the only model backstage to still be concerned with what was happening in front of the curtain. All the other girls were drinking champagne and talking to each other and the press who’d managed to get to them. There would be an afterparty, of course, and Alice was expected to make an appearance. Most often she was dragged reluctantly through the door by her mother, who would then abandon her with instructions to mingle. Much as Alice usually detested these parties and did her best to leave early, tonight she thought she wouldn’t mind so much. However, the idea of being shepherded into the room by her mother was a little more than Alice could bear. What if she asked the Hatter for a ride to the party as his forfeit? Could she be so bold? Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair, as the party was for him and his collection as much or more than anybody else. Still, she wouldn’t expect him to pay attention to her once they were there necessarily.

Could she do it? Alice stood pondering this barefoot by the monitors, in a bra and the beige mini she’d yet to return to the racks. The Hatter bounded happily round the curtain, eyes scanning for something, even as he fielded congratulations on a successful first show from the crew.. When he caught sight of her he smiled widely and rushed right over.

“Well, all things considered that seems to have gone rather well!” He seemed so pleased that Alice decided to risk vexing him with her request.

“Indeed. You’ve had a wonderful showing. And now there’s only the party. About that—” Alice trailed off as she noticed a scarlet blush staining the Hatter’s cheeks. Apparently he had just noticed her state of undress and it was making him uncomfortable. Alice could think of no other explanation, yet this one was so unlikely as to make her doubt herself. Why, all night they’d been surrounded by girls in much less clothing than she was wearing now. Alice was sure she’d seen him affixing a hat to the head of a girl in nothing but a thong just twenty minutes ago. Still, his discomfort was tangible.

“Perhaps we should, er, discuss this once you are more substantially, subtly, suitably, ah—” he seemed to finally catch himself, “. . .once you’re dressed,” he said in a rush.

He started to lead Alice off by her elbow but quickly thought better of it, releasing her skin and forcing his eyes to remain on her face. Alice was amused, but quickly dismayed as a new wave of models, dressers, and apprentices noticed the Hatter and came up to congratulate him. He looked apologetically at Alice, but the crowd around him pushed him toward the stage door and the brisk air outside.

“I’ll do that then,” she said, disappointed, to the empty air where the Hatter had been moments before.

Alice found her way back to her station and more carefully than usual dressed herself in the outfit that her mother had tucked into her bag for her to wear to the party. It was thankfully not too awful. Instead of the sort of little black dress her mother generally favored for these parties she’d packed a floaty dress of periwinkle blue. It was still quite short and would need to be worn with the horrid black spike heels her mother had added, as the trainers she’d worn to the show were out of the question, but all in all it could have been worse. By the time she had dressed and found her coat, Alice was sure she’d missed her chance to speak with the Hatter. She chastised herself for not immediately asking him if she could accompany him and instead letting him be swept away without a word on it. He’d probably already left to go have drinks with some more forward girl before the party.

She decided she might as well go outside and find her mother, so she grabbed her bag and walked out the door. She pulled her coat on over her shoulders but didn’t fasten it, instead relishing the chill air on her too-hot skin. Just when Alice was about to succumb to the waves of self-pity washing over her, a throat was cleared beside her. She turned, surprised, though it was not very difficult to sneak up on Alice. She was always dreaming. The Hatter smiled.

“That dress is more Alice than the others,” he said. “Not quite, of course, but almost an Alice dress.”

“What are you still doing here?” she asked

“Well, I was wondering. . .I mean, that is to say, hoping, that you might ride with me to the party. You had indicated that you were going. At least, I thought that’s what you were saying,” the Hatter trailed off, evidently perplexed to find himself so tongue-tied.

“Yes,” she agreed. “I have to go. That is to say, I’m supposed to show up.” She tried again. “It’s expected of me.” Still not good. “But I’d be happy to go, with you.”

She looked up at him (only slightly up due to the extra height granted by her footwear) and saw that she was understood and accepted. Alice and the Hatter beamed at each other in the cold October air until he finally extended his arm to her, seized her bag, and led her to the waiting car. Their mutual enthralment was dimmed, however, when he helped her into the back of the limousine and she was greeted by the sight of an irritated Absolem. Though come to think of it, irritation was his default expression, so who knew what the eccentric man was thinking.

“Hello Alice.”

“Absolem,” she said, still not sure if that was how she ought to address the venerable Vetvier designer.

The Hatter scrambled through the door after her and Alice was struck by his confusing mishmash of grace and awkwardness of movement. He grinned cheekily at Absolem, who rolled his eyes and tapped the glass behind him with his cane. The car started moving, and Alice settled in for a silent, tense, but still stomach-flutteringly exciting ride next to the Hatter.

Chapter Text

The party was much as Alice had expected. The bar, Zenith, was very posh, and the party mostly confined itself to the upper floor that had been specially reserved. There were journalists and photographers, but also plenty of the world’s rich and famous. London, Paris, New York—wherever Alice ended up attending one of these parties there always seemed to be the same people floating around the room, sucking down alcohol and avoiding the intricate-looking canapés.

The Hatter had politely acknowledged the applause as they entered the room, but soon turned back to Alice, asking if he could find her a drink. She nodded, not about to tell him she didn’t drink. Though she’d worried that would be the last she’d see of him, he was back before she knew it, something clear and bubbly with a lime held out for her. She saw he was drinking the same, so she accepted it with a smile. The gin was a little rough to swallow, but the sweetness of the tonic and the tartness of the lime and the pleasantness of the Hatter’s attention all made it quite bearable.

“Well here we are, together again at last” said a dapper young man in, of all things, a purple suit with pink pinstripes. He’d appeared out of nowhere at the Hatter’s other side while Alice was concentrating on not making faces over her drink. He was short and stout with dark hair, curious yellow eyes, and an arrogant set to his chin.

The Hatter glared at this newcomer.

“Chessur,” he acknowledged coldly.

“Why the hostility, Tarrant? I knew you couldn’t keep away from the fashion parties. Tell yourself all you like that it isn’t your thing, yet this one at least is all for you.”

So his name was Tarrant! Despite the antagonistic tone of the conversation between the two men, Alice was grateful to at last have a first name to put to the fascinating person beside her. It occurred to her then that his full name and professional titles were probably plastered all over the posters and programs for the show, and that she’d probably passed it uncaringly countless times that evening. Clearly she was due for a very sharp scolding on her disinterest in the fashion world, and she was paying for it in advance.

“Why is it that you always turn up when you aren’t invited, yet always make yourself scarce whenever anyone wants you? Though why they should ever want to see you is beyond me,” Tarrant growled.

“Perhaps they see through the obvious. Something that your regrettably opaque mind will never allow you to do.”

“Oh stuff it, Chess.”

The little man seemed unaffected by the Hatter’s attitude and merely grinned, nodded to Alice, and slunk away.

“Who was that?” Alice dared to ask.

“A friend of a friend, I suppose you might say. Or an ex-friend. But never mind about Chessur.” The Hatter set his drink on a convenient table and removed his top hat so he could agitatedly drag his hand through his own unruly locks. The two of them together would take a hairdresser a whole morning to straighten, Alice mused. “Though he’s right about fashion parties, so far as it goes, I’ve never thought of this as my scene.”

“Oh, me neither,” Alice hurried to make that known. “I already alluded to my circumstances. Well, let’s say that the fashion crowd has never enjoyed my company, and vice versa.”

She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Though I couldn’t say what my scene is. I suppose I have never tried to find out.”

The Hatter named Tarrant smiled. He seemed about to ask her a question when they were again approached, this time by a contingent of bloggers and journalists and other media types. Alice remembered to put on her haughty face, as that one kept most people from speaking to her at parties, and then tuned out per usual, and reflected that her evening was turning out much differently than planned.

She had remembered to text her mother from the car to say she’d found a ride to the party but had so far avoided both reading the answering texts and running into her mother at the party. Alice had seen her perfectly highlighted hair and perfectly tailored suit make their way up the stairs while the Hatter was getting drinks, but thankfully the crowd of people between the door and the bar was so thick that she had managed to remain unseen. Yelena had probably drifted over to Absolem who was thankfully holding court on the other side of the large space. Anyway, at the elbow of the man of the hour was after all the last place her mother would think to look for her. The young model looked up at Tarrant beside her, and despite the press of people taking up his immediate attention Alice felt very pleased to be there with him. He had not wandered off, nor had he seemed anything but pleased when she stayed by his side. It was a new feeling for her, and perhaps a little scary, but absolutely thrilling.

“Alice Kingsleigh?” asked a woman who had been listening to Tarrant answer questions about hat and plans for shops and collections.

Being addressed at fashion parties by strangers who already knew her name was also new for Alice, who was largely ignored in these circles. She carefully repressed any signs of surprise and answered in the affirmative.

“Bayelle Tibeau. Paris Vogue.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Alice replied politely.

“You were stunning on the runway tonight. I’m surprised we haven’t seen much of you before now. Why is that?”

Alice was never encouraged to speak to the press, as she never knew quite what to say to questions like that. The truth would be that she was a mediocre fashion model with little to no interest in her career outside of earning enough to keep her mother and sister afloat financially until it was Margaret’s turn to do so. Her mother had made it perfectly clear that this was not an acceptable answer. So what could she say?

Tarrant had been keeping half an ear out for Alice even while he’d been trying to pay attention to the various party goers vying for his attention. When she hesitated in answering he interjected,

“She was lovely tonight. I could not have asked for a more enchanting head to put my hats on. Whatever the case, I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of her.”

Bayelle turned to the Hatter with a gleaming smile, pleased to have succeeded in getting his attention via the lovely but tongue-tied Alice.

“Oh? Do you have plans for Miss Kingsleigh to continue to model for you in the future, Mr. Hayes?”

Now Tarrant was caught slightly off-balance, and Alice seemed to look even more perturbed. He recovered however, deciding that Alice probably wouldn’t mind a few half-truths.

“In concept only, madam. Nothing has been finalized, formalized or finished. There’s much to be done before we can begin to think seriously about another collection. Though it would please me very much if Miss Kingsleigh were to be involved.”

He fielded a few more questions about his hypothetical next collection and saw Alice relax as they left the topic of her career. Finally the journalist drifted off and Tarrant managed to avoid well-wishers and news-fishers long enough to get Alice’s attention. She was carefully scanning the crowds, while standing a little behind his shoulder. Clearly she was avoiding someone.

Tarrant well knew how obsessed some people could become with fashion models. The thought of elegant airy Alice being accosted by some pathetic wretch made him more angry than he had any right to be. Really, he barely knew her. And yet she was the most intriguing girl he’d ever met. It upset him to think of her at the mercy of the hangers-on to the fashion crowd.

“Are you quite alright, Alice? Is there someone here that you don’t wish to see?” he asked. When that didn’t seem to turn any lights on, he carefully continued, “Is there someone who’s been bothering you?”

Alice, bless her, looked embarrassed at being caught hiding, confused, then embarrassed again as she caught on to what the Hatter was asking.

“Oh no,” she shook her head vigorously, “Nothing like that. Not at all. I was just hiding from...” Here she muttered something unintelligible while blushing brightly.

“What was that?” He was determined to learn what she was shrinking from.

She sighed and collected herself, feeling foolish for speaking to Tarrant about the matter, and then foolish for feeling foolish. She’d already made it clear to him the modelling wasn’t her idea. With a quick glance around to be sure no one was listening in, she repeated herself.

“My mother. I’m hiding from my mother, who is also my agent. Since, as I have mentioned, I have very little interest in the fashion world and am completely unable to keep track of what’s what and who’s who, my mother does it for me. There would be no career if not for her.” Alice could not manage to keep herself from sounding wistful at the thought of no fashion career, and the Hatter got the impression that whatever the financial situation of her family, fashion model was not Alice’s first, second, or third choice for a job. This actually came as a relief, as he had sworn to himself not too terribly long ago that he’d never date another model and was now contemplating doing exactly that. If he had to go and break his word on models, at least it was only to himself and with the most reluctant specimen he’d ever met.

Alice ducked her head as though afraid of his reaction to the news that her career was dominated by her mum. However, she thought better of her reaction, straightened, looked him in the eye and calmly admitted,

“I don’t blame her for it, as this is the best she could come up with at the time, but the modeling was all her idea. She was a swimsuit model in the 80s, and still had enough contacts to get me started. I absolutely loathed it at first, and still do in lots of ways, but it’s worked well enough to keep us afloat so far.”

“Ah.”

“Still, I don’t think it’s unusual for one to want some time away from one’s mother at a party like this, so if it’s all the same I’ll postpone introductions.”

Alice blushed a bit as she realized this sounded as though she planned on introducing him to her mother at some point. Still, he seemed pleased and turned to shield her further from sight.

“Well Alice,” he began, “since you seem to have as little interest in remaining at this party as I do, would you consider accompanying me someplace a little less...like this?” He gestured airily at the room full of very thin people swathed in black.

Alice was momentarily shocked. Was he really asking her out? But she couldn’t deny that this was the sort of chance she’d been hoping for.

“It’s your party,” she hedged, “won’t you need to stay?”

He shrugged. “I’ve already spoken to heaps of journalists, been congratulated more times than I can count, and we’ve had our picture taken by the party photographer at least twelve times. I think it’s safe to go. Anyway—” he paused and his green eyes gleamed, “there was another party tonight that I’d been hoping to make. I’d love it if you’d go with me.”

And so it was that without a word to anyone, Alice and the Hatter collected her bag from the coat check and slipped out of the party largely unnoticed. They grinned madly at each other on the way down the stairs and dashed out onto the street to hail a taxi.

Chapter Text

They arrived at a block that looked like it was all warehouses. It had to have been somewhere near the river, but Alice had completely lost all sense of direction on the cab ride over. Tarrant, while not exactly ignoring her, had been rapidly texting his friends to find out where and when this event was being held.

It was some sort of dance party, from what the Hatter had said. He seemed concerned that she wouldn’t like this particular type of dancing. Alice hadn’t wanted to say, but all dancing was the same to her: she couldn’t do it and hated trying, but didn’t begrudge others the pleasure they apparently took in it. While she had a pretty good idea that this would bear little to no resemblance to the ballet/tap/jazz lessons she had been subjected to most of her life, Alice could not say she had any idea what it would be like.

Soon enough they arrived at an old ex-warehouse much like all the others in style but had a bright green and pink neon sign over the door proclaiming it “The Tea Shop”. They were off a side street of a newly-trendy neighborhood that Alice faintly remembered Margaret going on about. A frighteningly huge man with a bald head, a faux-leopard-fur jacket, and a patch over one eye clapped Tarrant on the back and waved them through the doors with a toothy smile. The club was dark and smelled faintly of smoke, though due to the recent ban no one was actually smoking inside. Instead, it seemed that the old walls of the space were exuding the remnants of many years of smoking done in the room. It was large, but not a cavernous warehouse space like the facade had suggested. It must have been broken into smaller spaces, but it was hard to tell how the thing had been done since it was so dark inside, and the walls were all painted black though some had pseudo-victorian flower print wallpaper covering the upper portions with dark paneling beneath.

Tarrant had stuffed his jacket into Alice’s commodious orange handbag before checking it along with her coat at a low table manned by a very bored girl with heavy eye makeup and enormous hoop earrings running up the sides of her ears. She looked especially unimpressed with Alice’s ultrashort party dress and spike heels. Alice had been tempted to dig out her trainers from her purse, but before she had a chance, Tarrant was rushing her along to a bar on the far side of the room. He greeted many of the people they passed, and Alice didn’t miss how people whispered as he went by, and often gave a critical glance at herself afterwards. Now further in the room the smell of cigarettes receded a bit, replaced by central air, vanilla candles, and slightly of old beer. The combination somehow managed to intrigue rather than disgust her. Everything was so new that it was hard to pick it all apart. When they reached the bar, Alice picked at the multicolored strands of lights hung around the edges of the dark wooden bar and asked for a gin and tonic, figuring it had gone down fairly easily earlier. The Hatter provided her with one, fortuitously waving away her futile attempts to pay. She looked down and realized it was a good thing he had, since she’d left her wallet in her checked purse.

Alice surveyed the crowd. The music was loud, but from the preparatory bustle at the raised platform with all the dj equipment she gathered that it wasn’t the main event. No one was dancing, but rather people were standing around and shouting each other’s ears in groups of twos and threes. Lots of twenty-somethings in tight or straight-legged jeans and long t-shirts under a muted rainbow of zip hoodies that made Alice feel terribly out of uniform clutched beer bottles and plastic cocktail glasses. Racially, the crowd was loads more diverse than the Vetvier after party, though accomplishing that wouldn’t be hard, Alice thought ruefully. Alice’s blonde hair and pale skin wasn’t exactly unique in the room, but it also was not the norm. There were a few extremely eccentrically dressed people there, including a trio in gold lamé suits and what looked like a set of chubby twins in red pants and black and white horizontal striped shirts which only served to make them look all the wider. Alice started as she noticed something familiar in the sea of bodies and colored lights.

“Isn’t that... ?” she started before she could check herself.

Tarrant looked, and groaned upon seeing the back of a pink and purple striped suit go by.

“Of course, one Chess sighting a night is bad enough, but it’s just my luck that he’d show up here as well,” the Hatter sniffed disdainfully, “We’ll just have to do our best to forget he’s here.”

With that, he gave Alice a new kind of smile that made her so weak in the knees that she didn’t so much as ask what he was doing as he drew her away from the tables by the bar, and out toward where the dj equipment was still being set up. He walked right past the cordoned off area without any hesitation and lightly punched the arm of a tall man of Southeast Asian descent with thick brown hair that fell in his eyes and an unfortunately pronounced hooked nose. Alice had seen him carrying a crate of various gadgets and wires up the stairs only moments before.

“I made it after all!” Tarrant cried happily.

“Hatter,” the man nodded. “You got here in plenty of time.” His soulful brown eyes looked Alice over with some interest. An eyebrow arched at her posh appearance. “And you brought a friend. How wonderful. I’m Guillam.”

“Alice. Pleased to meet you,” said Alice.

He reached out and shook her hand. Alice was thankfully feeling the drinks she’d had this evening enough to ignore his obvious interest gracefully. Tarrant seemed completely oblivious. He beamed at Alice.

“Guillam, better known as Dodo, is the best dubstep dj in London. We’d better let him start his set or the crowd is going to get restless.”

Tarrant put his hand around Alice’s waist—maybe he wasn’t so oblivious after all!—and gestured back toward the dance floor.

“Hmm, yeah,” replied Guillam morosely. “Catch you later.”

They barely made it past the line of speakers when the music started. Still electronic, but the live quality of the sound gripped Alice’s attention.

“Hatter!” cried two rather high-pitched voices simultaneously. The twins in stripes were making their way over. Despite their lack of hair, they seemed rather young for the crowd.

“You’re here!” they announced in unison.

“I said he’d make it!”

“No, you said he’d miss it for the fashion party.”

“I never did.”

Tarrant cleared his throat.

“Alice, Tweedles, Tweedles, Alice.” They all nodded politely, and the boys’ argument seemed to be over.

“Anyhow, you’ve got to watch what we’ve come up with.”

“He doesn’t got to, but he should.”

Tarrant again cut into the conversation. “I’m sure there’ll be plenty of time to watch what you’ve come up with.” He glanced at Alice. “I wasn’t really planning on doing much dancing tonight in any event. I just wanted Alice to hear Dodo’s set.”

They boys’ jaws dropped in soundless indignation.

“But you must dance.”

“You’ve got to. Everyone’s expecting it.”

“Dance?” Alice interjected, immediately curious. “People here are expecting to see Tarrant dance?”

The boys eagerly turned in her direction.

“Course they do—”

“Since he’s the best.”

“Only, they call him the Mad Hatter in the clubs—”

“On account of the hat.”

“It is a fine hat,” said Alice, glancing up at her companion’s top hat.

“Eh,” said a Tweedle, “It’s usually a better one.”

Alice arched her brows curiously toward the Hatter.

“This one matches the suit,” he half-explained. “Well lads, I’d love to stay here and chat,” he glanced over at Alice mischievously, “but I’m not going to.”

He took her hand and led her to a tall table on a raised platform at the edge of the room. He indicated for her to take the single stool, and after a minute came back with another he’d borrowed from one of the other tables.

“So is this your scene then?” Alice half-shouted, nodding out at the crowd. The music had swelled in volume as they’d gone toward the tables and Alice found she had to move closer to Tarrant and repeat her question in his ear. After he scooted his bar stool around to her side of the table and pressed his leg against hers in order to be close enough to understand her, she found she didn’t mind the noise so much.

Tarrant smiled widely, and replied in a shout close to her ear, “Has been since I moved to London. My mates got me into it. Most of them’re probably about somewhere. I’m sure we’ll run into someone or other sooner or later.”

He grimaced and turned back to take a sip of his drink. Then he leaned back in, “I hope it’s not too traumatizing for you.”

Alice shook her head and smiled at him, though she selfishly wanted to keep Tarrant to herself for as long as possible. Lord knew she’d have trouble getting out of here without his help. Her bag check ticket was in his waistcoat pocket, so heaven help her if he abandoned her. However the usually timid Alice found herself unconcerned with an exit plan that evening. She wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or just the electric energy of the room, but this experience was making her feel like a completely different person. A more daring and adventurous person. A more likeable and easygoing person, anyway. The lights in the club caught her eye, all red and purple and gold, causing the whole room to look like an ocean of manic glinting scales. They flashed in the mirror behind the bar, and Tarrant indicated his glass and returned for another drink. Alice found to her surprise that she’d finished the drink in her hand and that all that was left was ice that she surreptitiously crunched though she knew it was terribly bad manners. A different person indeed. Though maybe, she reflected as she watched the hipper-than-thou crowd finally give themselves over to the music and start to dance, she wasn’t a different person so much as finally able to meet a new aspect of herself. After all, she hardly knew liquor-drinking fashion-party-escapee Alice and it might be interesting to further the acquaintance. More fun than her usual boring life of being ceaselessly fussed over.

Tarrant returned, bearing a fresh drink for each of them. He was easy to see in the crowd, as he’d kept his top hat on and it stood well above the crowd, looking bright red in the lights, all the brown forgotten in the shine and the heat of the evening. Once he’d handed her plastic cup off, he grabbed her hand and pulled her off her stool. She stumbled slightly, but he gave her another huge grin in response to her questioning glance.

He dragged her through the crowd, and despite the two of them being on the taller side, made even more evident by her heels and his hat, it took effort to push through enough of the crowd that she could see the Tweedles, surrounded by a thick ring of spectators watching their dancing. Tarrant approached, and the people parted, giving him room with interested eyes. When he merely nodded thanks, they all turned to watch the Tweedles in the center. Tarrant pulled Alice in front of him so she could see, resting his arm loosely around her waist. A hot and giddy feeling rushed through her at his touch and she wanted to squirm back into his arms. Instead she forced herself to stay still and focus on the Tweedles’ dancing, which was so spastic yet precise that it made Alice laugh to think of how carefully choreographed it must have been. However funny their limbs looked, flailing and pausing, what was truly impressive was how throughout it all they were completely in sync. Perhaps it was easier being twins, but the visual effect was stunning regardless.

They shuffled and shook, and eventually moved back into the crowd with identical bows. Alice clapped despite herself, and a few others did the same, though there was no hope of hearing it over the pounding music, which even at its softest and most melodic moments blasted through the speakers and throbbed into Alice’s heart and gut. Everyone began to focus more on their own movements than those of others and Alice felt herself sway tentatively back and forth as the Hatter started to move behind her.

Then the black and white stripes reappeared, closing in on her. The Tweedles had sweat literally dripping off them, but both uncaringly rushed up to Tarrant, one on each side, and pushed Alice back out of their way. She noted rather detachedly that the backs of her arms were suddenly wet where they’d brushed against her and an involuntary shudder raced up her spine. The Hatter noticed the accompanying cringe and grimaced sympathetically. Then he turned his attention to the Tweedles, gingerly patting them each on the shoulder and not terribly subtly wiping his hands on his trousers afterward.

There was no way Alice could hear what they were saying, but judging by expressions and the earlier conversation she’d been party to, it seemed the Tweedles wanted Tarrant’s opinion on their dancing. He regarded them kindly, but Alice did notice that he was not as amazed by their routine as she had been. She wondered again if she would see the Hatter dance.

The Tweedles seemed to be thinking along the same lines as they each grabbed one of his arms and pulled him past Alice, thrusting him into the midst of the dancers beyond her. He rolled his eyes and stalked back toward Alice. He leaned in.

“They’re being pushy,” he shouted apologetically.

Alice smiled. She took his drink from his hand, and since it was finished anyway stacked the little cup outside her own. They fit together snugly. “Go on then,” she encouraged playfully.

Tarrant smiled mysteriously at her and undid his cuffs, rolling the sleeves of his pale green shirt up past his elbows as he stepped back into the crowd.

The ring of spectators formed almost instantly. It was obvious that most of the people here knew who the Hatter—the Mad Hatter, Alice corrected herself—was, since they looked on with anticipation, quickly turning away from their own dancing to watch. Tarrant didn’t seem to care particularly much whether anyone was watching or not, getting a far off look in his eyes as he went from doing the sort of front and back side to side shuffle she’d seen a lot of to vibrating more and more quickly with the break.

Even Alice could tell that his dancing was a level above that of the boys. Tarrant still had the kind of spastic energy he usually radiated, but now it was channeled into motion with a beat that was as stop-and-start as he was. It worked well. Tarrant seemed to have complete control over all his limbs, moving in ways that were impossibly slow one moment, then outrageously quick the next. He made the robotic movements fascinatingly alive, if still inhuman. Alice found herself extremely impressed with the way his hat stayed on his head despite the bizarre angles he held himself at while dancing.

Since she was a bit fixated on his hat, she uttered a cry when it was smacked off his head by a tall figure in black who laughed nastily even though Tarrant managed to snap his hand out and pull it from the air before it fell to the floor. This newcomer had chin-length dark hair pushed behind his ears and was dressed in black jeans and a black t shirt with a red cartoon heart printed where his real heart would be, assuming he had one. Judging by the sneer on his face and his challenging posture, that was not an assumption Alice was prepared to make of him at the moment.

Tarrant had stood up after the attack on his headwear, and though he was quite tall—well over six feet Alice would guess—this new fellow seemed to tower over him. Was this some sort of scene dominated by giants? Alice wondered tipsily. But no, the boys, Chessur and most of the other onlookers seemed to be of varying heights and sizes, most shorter than Alice herself. It was the Dodo, practically invisible up in his booth, Tarrant and now this cranky-faced hat-smacker who were outrageously tall. The black-hearted one mockingly punched Tarrant in the shoulder while smirking, and the Hatter rolled his eyes in response, but nodded. Tarrant gestured for a moment, then turned back toward where Alice was standing.

She looked at him with wide eyes and was surprised to feel the weight of Tarrant’s top hat on her head. Though he had obviously been exerting himself, the warm and damp feel of it didn’t squick her out the way the Tweedles unfortunately had. Alice idly wondered why. The Hatter leaned into her and shouted,

“Sorry about all this. I’d hoped to avoid him tonight, but of course Stayne would be where one doesn’t want him to be. Sorry about the bother. It’ll just be a minute.”

He gave her an apologetic look then turned and tied his hair back in a tail with something or other from one of his pockets as he walked back to Stayne. Did he still have those huge scissors that he used at the show in his pocket, Alice wondered. Those could be quite dangerous to carry while dancing. But she hadn’t felt them on him though he’d been standing quite close since they’d arrived at the club. Alice’s face heated--she was sure there was a lewd joke in there somewhere but she’d never been very good at sussing them out. Margaret would always pat her head at moments like these and tell her to go play with her toys. Maybe the scissors were in her bag with his suit jacket.

Coming out of this gin-induced reverie Alice found Stayne had already made his move, and the crowd had swelled as the whole place seemed to have decided that watching the two on the dance floor was the most exciting thing going. It was only by virtue of the hat on her head that Alice hadn’t been completely elbowed out of the way, and several people nearby were looking at her curiously. Her cheeks flushed at the attention. She knew her blue dress stood out practically white in the lights and her impractical shoes marked her as different. She wished she were wearing anything else. If only she’d thought to change into her jeans and trainers before checking her bag! Looking sloppy seemed like a far better proposition than standing out the way she did now. Hurriedly, Alice forced herself to focus on the scene before her. Hatter stood off to one side, watching with everyone else as Stayne danced. He was good, Alice noted. It was difficult to be graceful with such long limbs, as Alice knew from personal experience, but Stayne’s style was controlled and athletic. His body moved through the music, not catering to every jitter and break as Tarrant had, but nevertheless keeping the beat the foundation of his movements, which were more bboy than anything else Alice could come up with. She might not know much about popular music but she’d still seen street performers in the square, same as everyone, and Stayne seemed at least as good as any she’d encountered. His hands went down and his legs went up, and he pushed off with just his arms and managed to stay suspended in the air for a beat before gracefully flipping and coming back up. The crowd clapped and hollered, and Stayne sneered even as his chest heaved with exertion.

Tarrant wasted no time, his eyes still holding the far-off look that Alice had noticed before. Again, his robotic and super-slow moves were perfectly aligned to the breaks and flares of the music. His style was so well-integrated with the beat that Alice almost missed it when he first put down his hands and spun on them in a wide flare, his legs whipping around just as he moved his arm out of the way. He did it again and again, stopping in a handstand just as the music paused and went on in a new direction. The crowd clapped and cheered. The Hatter jumped up after this and seemed ready to walk away, but Stayne stopped him with a hand. He said something with a snide and angry expression and gestured for the Hatter to step back to the side once more.

Stayne started in hard and fast, doing an even crazier version of the flares Tarrant had just done. The movements were a lot larger, but also jerkier and less controlled. Stayne came up, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he put down both hands and began to execute a spin. Most of the way through the turn he lost momentum and fell gracelessly to the floor.

The crowd reacted largely with goodnatured clapping but some gave hoots of derision. This incensed the dark-haired Stayne whose arrogant face contorted in anger and embarrassment. He pushed Hatter’s shoulder, he was smirking slightly, and Alice was afraid things would come to blows. Thankfully several members of the crowd including Chessur, Alice was interested to note, got in between the two of them. Alice couldn’t see much else as Tarrant quickly left Stayne behind and returned to her side. He put his arm around her shoulders and herded her off even as he took his hat back.

“Time to go!” he shouted cheerfully, and Alice allowed herself to be dragged on toward the entrance to the club. She had been having a lovely time and hated the thought of some dancing rivalry ending her stolen night out early, but Tarrant hadn’t let go of her, so perhaps there was still more to come.

Chapter Text

Despite a tense moment at the coat check when Tarrant couldn’t remember which of his many pockets the claim ticket was in, they got her purse and both their coats and got to the front without further incident. Alice begged a minute to go to the ladies’ where she debated hotly with herself about changing into her jeans and trainers. She ended up staying in her dress and heels, almost solely based on the memory of the Hatter unconsciously smoothing his hands down the gauzy layer of her dress, inflaming the skin beneath from waist to hem as they stood together on the dance floor. Even the comfort of her jeans couldn’t convince her to put up any impediments to that happening again. The shoes she was still on the fence about, but she thought she might look odd in a tiny dress and Adidas trainers, so she regretfully left them where they were. She hefted her orange leather purse onto her shoulder and returned to where Tarrant was loitering by the door, talking to the bouncer in his spotted coat.

He stopped and stepped toward her as she arrived. Alice didn’t miss the way the man at the door rolled his eye drolly and she wondered if it was a reaction to Tarrant’s behavior or to herself. Oh well, she really couldn’t bring herself to care, not with the Hatter’s eyes fixed on her own.

“Shall we walk?” He put his hand round her waist again and they stepped out onto the street, turning toward the main drag of the little neighborhood.

“Sorry y’ had to see all that back there,” Tarrant said, his accent fading in.

“What? Why? It was brilliant! I’ve had lessons since I could walk and I can’t begin to dance like that. Totally amazing,” Alice gushed.

The Hatter smiled, “Thank you, but I was alluding to the bit with Ilosovic Stayne, villainous leech of the London dubstep scene. We all keep hoping he will move on, but he keeps coming back.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that. Though he didn’t seem like a half bad dancer…” Alice bit her lip, thinking perhaps it was insensitive of her to praise a rival.

“No, no he’s not. He practices hard and learns quickly, having him around would be fine if he didn’t have such a bloody miserable, maniacal, misanthropic. . .personality.”

He shook his head as if to dispel thoughts of Stayne and turned to another subject. “Sorry, I’m fine. What did you think about the music?”

“I liked it! But I have so little experience with, well, anything, that it’s hard for me to say why.”

“Don’t worry about it Alice, judgement will come as you get out a bit more, but I’m glad it made an impression anyway. Guillam is very good, so I’m not surprised you appreciate it on some level.”

She listened to him chatter about the club and his friend who owned it—she went by the Duchess apparently—and all her colorful employees. Half an ear was about all Alice could give as she had no faces to put with the names he flew through, and most of her functioning brain was devoted to luxuriating in the feel of his hand tucked under the edge of her black woolen coat to draw little circles of her hip. Before she knew it they ended up sitting in the same side of a booth in the furthest corner of a dark little dive bar called “The Windmill” drinking beer and making fun of their mutual acquaintances from the fashion world, Absolem and his chief henchman Larry being popular targets.

This went on through most of a second (or third?) pint until Tarrant cut off her giggles with a swift kiss. His lips lingered centimeters away from hers as he allowed her to process the action. Alice’s eyes grew large and her breath hitched, though those must not have seemed the right signs to the Hatter. He pulled away, bright green eyes cast nervously off to the side, and said,

“Forgive me, I--”

Whatever apology he was planning, he didn’t get any further since Alice seized him by the lapels of his suit jacket and gave it her best effort. Kissing wasn’t her sharpest skill, coming in far behind her uncannily accurate impressions of friends and family members, her drawings of cats in unlikely settings, and her ability to quickly locate a title on a bookshelf. She hadn’t even put as much time into it as she had her (drastically improved) masaman curry, but she found herself very willing to slog through the necessary practice with Tarrant. He was warm and largely gentle with her, though the occasional nip or nudge, or when he pushed her back flat against the back of the booth and came right at her, surprised her in a way that she was shocked to find she liked. A lot.

At some point a throat was cleared behind them and Tarrant stuttered out an apology to the bartender-owner-busser, and helped her out of the booth and back into the chill of the autumn night. Things had become a bit of a blur for Alice, though she distinctly remembered refusing to let him take her home. She couldn’t possibly be expected to remember her address at the moment, she declared, and the Hatter laughed at her and said it was lucky he could remember his.

“Let’s go then,” she said boldly, and he hailed a cab, tumbling her into the backseat.

-o-o-o-

Alice giggled madly as a nineteenth-century hatter as she and Tarrant stumbled drunkenly up to what she could only surmise was his front door. The cab pulled away and she backed up, almost teetering off the edge of the sidewalk as she tried to get a good look at the building. She’d expected a posh flat she supposed, like those of all the other designers she’d ever known, one like her mother and sister were constantly yearning for. Instead, Alice was thrilled to see that this was a charming little brick house with arched Victorian windows peering out at the street. It huddled up against another house on one side while it was distanced from the building on the other side by a narrow alley shut off by an arched wooden gate. Above the door a painted wooden sign read “Witzend House.”

It looked positively historic, and there was nothing Alice liked more than the old and peculiar. With some quiet pleading and blatant flattery Tarrant managed to cajole the lock into turning. He opened the door and looked around in confusion for Alice. Before his slightly blurred vision could take her in, she was charging him with a tinkling giggle. He had just enough time to throw his arms out to catch her as she flung herself out toward him and went limp with joy.

She looked up into his wide eyes—he was torn somewhere between concerned that she was going to pass out entirely and thrilled that she would so willingly come into his arms—and said seriously, “Tell me you have the original window sashes.”

Tarrant laughed at her and dragged her backwards up the step and through the door, her toes brushing lightly over the ground. Alice realized that she no longer had her shoes, but she had deeply disliked the spike heels anyway, so she couldn’t bring herself to really care. And in the face of all that her mother would have to be angry about when she caught up with her, one lost pair of shoes probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Though there was undoubtedly much to take in and be charmed by in Tarrant’s house, Alice found that she was not up for any active architectural appreciation since he had started kissing her once again. The feeling was dizzying, more intoxicating than all the bottles of champagne at fashion show and afterparty combined. Her skin tingled where his hands touched, and he lead her from one room to the next with such tantalizing kisses that she soon found herself in what must be his room without remembering a bit of how she’d gotten there. Most peculiar. She took a breath as he turned on the bedside light and looked around her.

The room was simpler than she’d expected. Most of the walls were empty, with a Bjork poster and a handful of party flyers tacked to the wall above the table serving as a desk. The surfaces were covered with books, buttons, candle stubs, ribbons, cds, teacups, and other odds and ends, though the floor was clean and clear. The bed itself was by far the most impressive item in the room. A solid dark wood four-poster, its commanding presence quickly intimidated Alice despite the cheerful paisley spread in yellow, white, brown and blue. Just as quickly, however, she was tossed back on the covers and had to make her peace with the bed. It didn’t hurt that it was extremely comfortable.

Tarrant was there, and all thoughts of the furnishings faded away. His mouth was on her neck, and while Alice had not escaped five years of modelling without a bit of kissing experience, she’d never felt so aflame, so topsy-turvy that she wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to find herself trying to walk on the ceiling and look up at the floor. Tarrant’s sure hands made their way under her dress, caressing her skin as he slid the blue material up over her hips.

Suddenly, despite the passion she was feeling, or maybe in reaction to it, Alice started to giggle. Tarrant ignored her at first, but soon stopped what he was doing to regard her in frustrated amusement.

“What’s so funny?” he demanded.

“All of this. That I of all the girls should be going home with the designer. My mother would have six fits. Though most likely she just wouldn’t believe it if anyone told her. Margaret certainly wouldn’t believe it. She thinks I’m broken since I don’t, I mean since I’ve never, well, I don’t do things like go home with people after shows.”

Alice was drunk, and she was babbling, and she shouldn’t have been, but she was surprised to find the Hatter watching her intently.

“You don’t do such things.” he echoed. He pulled back a little and propped himself up on one elbow next to her on the bed. He asked pensively, “Then why are you here Alice?”

She smiled up at him, not at all troubled by his serious expression. “Because I want to be. I may not be supposed to say it, but I like you. I’ve never met anyone like you and I’ve had a wonderrrrful time since we’ve met. I hope we’ll have lots of wonderruffl times. I may not have any experience in this sort of thing, but I suppose that can be easily remedi—rem- remedied.” She smiled sleepily, pleased to have gotten the correct word out despite her bleary brain, and snuggled into his unresisting shoulder.

Tarrant resumed running his hands over her, but in more of a soothing, meditative way. Alice was not at all what he’d come to expect from his experience with fashion models thus far. She was so fun—hilarious even—but still guileless and young, and had all but confessed to being completely inexperienced in that way. As much as he admired and desired her, when he asked her to leave the fashion party with him he hadn’t thought she would be interested in him as more than company for the evening. Instead, here she was, drunk, at his mercy, and completely out of her depth. It would be wrong to let things go any further, whatever Alice’s expectations.

He glanced down at her, and realized that the decision had already been made for him. Alice was fast asleep, face childlike and sweet in the small amount of streetlight that filtered through his blinds. With some effort, he settled her under the covers, stripped off his vest and boots, and climbed back into the bed with her. She immediately turned toward his body and curled up against him. Under other circumstances, Tarrant reflected that he might have felt tempted to wake her back up. However, it had been a long day; he was tired, and a little bit of cuddling couldn’t hurt anything.

Chapter Text

Alice woke up feeling like she’d been run over by a herd of wild elephants. Her eyes couldn’t so much as blink before she realized that however much light was filtering in through the plain horizontal blinds was far too much. Maybe if she shut the curtains—but no, Alice realized there was no way on earth she could get up to do it. The red and gold striped curtains hung open, taunting her. She felt disgruntled, and realized that the warm body she had been shamelessly snuggling was moving away from her.

“Hush, luv, I’ll be right back. Get some more sleep.”

Not even the sound of Tarrant’s voice could entice her to open her eyes, so Alice grunted sleepily and obeyed.

When next she awoke, the Hatter was urging her to drink some water. He also had a couple of aspirin that he held out to her expectantly. She dutifully swallowed them, and with a groan, laid back on the bed.

“How are you feeling?” asked the Hatter, solicitously brushing back her unruly hair.

“Terrible,” replied Alice. “I’ve never felt so sick.”

“Just sleep then Alice, it’s early yet.”

When she surfaced into consciousness once more, a conversation was taking place in the hallway.

“...dunno, Thack, she didnae drink all that much last night, three, maybe four G&Ts and barely more than a pint afterwards. Unless—” here he ducked his head back in the room. He looked disgustingly well in an orange t shirt bearing a logo for Griblig’s Tea Cakes and a pair of dark blue jeans. His hair was combed and tied back. It was wet, so he probably even smelled good and freshly showered. Traitor.

“Alice, love, were you drinking champagne during the show?”

“Of course not,” groaned Alice, pulling her own sweaty grungy head up from the pillowcase so she was up on her elbows. “I don’t drink.”

Tarrant’s face dropped. “Oh. Well.” He turned back to the voice in the hallway. “She says she doesn’t—”

“Heard her mesself,” said the voice. “Let her sleep for another hour, then toss her in the shower and make her eat some breakfast. Nothin’ big unless she wants it, buttered toast mibbe. And no sweets!”

“There’s nothing you can give her?” the Hatter asked. From where she was propped on the bed Alice could see Tarrant wiggle his fingers in the air. “None of your little potions?”

“Remedies, yeh arse. And no, nothing until ye follow directions and see how she feels.”

Then the voice became a lot quieter and Tarrant leaned further into the hall. He seemed to be furtively yet feverishly denying something. Alice must have been feeling slightly better, as she leaned forward to try to catch the conversation.

“Well ah should hope not fer the sake of yer immortal soul.”

Alice caught sight of the source of the second voice as an attractive light brown face peered past Tarrant’s arm and into the room with warm honey-colored eyes. His brown hair was in neat dreadlocks and his nose was wide and well-formed. He was decidedly good-looking but had a rather furtive cast to his expression. Alice didn’t feel up to meeting anybody, but managed to give a little wave. He pulled back with a dramatic gasp. His perfectly audible whisper continued, “Looks like she’s all of twelve years old got into her mam’s cosmetics.”

This was followed by some hushed whaps and grunts as very quiet and hopefully playful blows were exchanged in the hallway. Alice decided that as miserable as she felt she couldn’t let that comment slide. At five foot nine inches she was not often mistaken for a twelve-year-old. Sure her face looked young without makeup, but she usually made it to at least fifteen or sixteen in strangers’ estimation. Upon sitting up, she realized the chafing pain around her chest was due to the fact that she had slept in her bra. It was the strapless kind made to be invisible under her dress, so it was extra tight. Alice gave a wince. What a miserable feeling. This couldn’t go on. Much as she desperately wanted to pull the covers back over her head, Alice knew that a shower would bring much needed relief to her grungy body and mascara-crusted eyes if not to her aching head as well.

She forced herself to look around. Light streamed in from the window on the wall to her left. Books tilted this way and that on the bookcase against the far wall on her side of the room. Even with her recently corrected vision, they were too far off to read the titles. Pity. Her eyes next lit on a fireplace that took up the middle portion of that far wall, and Tarrant’s desk area had the part closest to the right wall. There were matching nightstands on either side of the bed and a wardrobe and dresser stood against the wall with the door that led into the hallway. Everything was clean but cluttered as she had noticed the night before in her exhausted haze.

She couldn’t see her handbag anywhere. A sudden fear hit her. Had she left it at the bar? In the cab? She would be in such trouble if she couldn’t find it.

“Tarrant,” she croaked. She slowly peeled back the covers and struggled to straighten her dress which had bunched up around her waist in the night.

There was one further scuffle and a loud “Ow!” before Tarrant stuck his head back around the door frame, looking satisfied.

“Yes, Alice?”

“My bag?” was all she could manage from her creaky throat.

“Ah—I think it made it as far as the kitchen counter. I’ll get it for you.”

He shut the door behind him as he turned and Alice could hear his friend—housemate?— laughing at him as various doors opened and shut throughout the house. Alice thought she heard a shrill voice—a girl?— and some more indistinct male voices. She tried to gather what she knew about where she was and who she was with and came up with the realization that she hadn’t been listening closely enough when the Hatter was telling her about his friends because she couldn’t remember if he’d mentioned that any of them lived with him.

Of course a residence in the middle of London would require additional housemates in order to be affordable. There had to be at least three bedrooms—and possibly extras if they’d sacrificed the dining room or parlour. This sort of cottage might go back quite far from the road. In the most historic areas there was often space for a decent-sized garden on the lot. Alice found her desire to poke around warring with her headache and very unhappy tummy. Aside from all this was the fact that she was being a burden on Tarrant. They barely knew each other, and best Alice could figure she’d passed out on him last night, though they were both so weary it was hardly surprising.

She tentatively touched her toes down onto the floor and glanced down as they met soft carpet. There was a persian runner rug on the floor with an intriguing labyrinthine design in red, white and gold. It was well preserved but had seen considerable wear. She stepped around to the foot of the bed, pleased to see an identical runner on the other side. Ugh. Even that much movement was more than her poor body could handle. Alice sat down on the wide wooden chest at the foot of the bed and tried not to be sick on what she now believed to be valuable antique carpets.

She closed her eyes and tried to will her stomach to settle.

Alice heard the shrill voice again speaking to someone, and being hushed. It then replied louder than ever, “Who’s she then, the queen? Why should I have to lower my voice for some tarty model who can’t manage a couple of drinks?” Someone replied chidingly, maybe Tarrant, maybe his friend with the dreads or some other unknown male. Alice buried her head in her hands. This intervention didn’t bode well for getting on with Tarrant’s housemates, but the voice was so high and loud that Alice couldn’t bring herself to be anything but grateful when she finally shut up.

It seemed an age before Tarrant returned, knocking lightly on the door before opening it. Alice slitted her eyes open and relief washed over her at the sight of her trusty orange bag in his hands. Her mother had objected to the color, but it was excellent craftsmanship and since the only reason they could afford it was due to the unpopular color it seemed pointless to quibble over it. He passed it over, and she took it gratefully.

“The washroom’s just down the hall on the right,” he said, hovering at her elbow in case she needed further assistance.

Alice had enough people hovering in her daily life, so she rallied herself and walked steadily into the hall. So determined was she not to seem pathetic that years of training took over, and Alice stalked out the door with her spine straight and her head held high, a queen attending her own execution. Tarrant tried not to laugh, knowing it would hardly be appreciated. Even miserably hung over and sick to her stomach, Alice was delightful.

Despite her muzzy head Alice noticed the charming arched ceiling in the hallway, which she followed a few feet before stepping through the open door of the bathroom. She chuckled at the unexpected rubber-duck-print shower curtain, then groaned at the stress her laughter had put on her stomach. Sickness was itching up her throat and Alice determined that it was no longer possible to avoid vomiting altogether, so she might as well get it over with. She turned on the taps, hoping to muffle the sound of retching, then went down on her knees and got on with the unpleasant business of recovering from the night before.

-o-o-o-

When Alice exited the bathroom she still felt dreadful, but her hair was clean and combed, though it had taken a very long time and the use of someone’s conditioner and wide-tooth comb (she’d conscientiously cleaned it afterward) to get herself looking presentable. This was certainly not her mother’s level of presentable, but Alice figured it would have to do under the circumstances. She had jeans and a light blue tank top in her bag, along with a thin white cardigan. It wasn’t the warmest outfit, but it would do for indoors. Luckily she also had clean knickers tucked away in the pocket of her purse, and her trainers completed the outfit. She had to wear yesterday’s ankle socks, but she had only put them on before taking the underground to the venue for the fashion show, so it wasn’t too unhygienic. Alice had piled her hair on top of her head in a bun and secured it with several pins that she’d found by emptying every last item out of her bag and sifting through the detritus.

Though she had the bag of cosmetics that her mother insisted she drag everywhere, Alice had shoved that down into the depths of the orange cavern. If there were housemates to be met who were going to make assumptions about her, it might as well be based on her actual face.

In all of this scouring, sorting, and sifting through her belongings, Alice had studiously avoided her mobile. She wasn’t sure whether or not to hope her battery was dead. She had a few coins but no other cash, though her Transport Card was good through the end of the month. Forestalling any further thoughts about getting home, she let herself get lost in the joys of the present and the adorable house she was about to explore.

The door to Tarrant’s bedroom was ajar and he was not inside, so she passed on by. She had to stop herself from opening the three other doors off the hallway. Alice tried telling herself that she should resist the temptation they posed because it was none of her business and impolite to pry, but in truth it was only the threat of getting caught that put a lid on her curiousity.

She went down the winding wooden staircase and found herself in a well-lit and cheerful kitchen. The yellow and green patterned wallpaper zigged and zagged up from the sturdy wooden countertops with natural wood cabinets beneath, and a wide old white-grey sink stood under a wide casement window. Alice was thrilled to see it was stone, and probably original to the house. The counters were clean, mostly, but covered in canisters, crocks, and containers holding spices, ingredients, and who knew what all else.

She had only taken a few steps into the kitchen toward the sink and the window above when a small shape darted around one of the two narrow doorways into the room. At first Alice thought it was a child, as the figure was wearing a black uniform skirt with black and pink argyle knee socks and a grey hoodie with round mouse ears cunningly stitched onto the hood. Then she noticed that under the grey cotton hood was short hair dyed bubblegum pink, followed by heavily lined almond eyes which rounded and then narrowed in suspicion, and continued on to a button nose with two hoop piercings on one side. A belligerent scowl rounded out the face. Her figure also indicated that she was definitely not a child.

Alice held up her hands to forestall a shout but it was too late and her head pounded as the short girl shrieked, “HATTER! Your MODEL has got into the kitchen. Come stop her before she BREAKS something!”

As she had suspected, Alice had located the source of the shrill voice. She lifted a hand to her aching temple, then lowered it, thinking it was probably rude to do so. Instead she held her hand out to the mouse-eared girl.

“I’m Alice,” she said, deciding to ignore the girl’s ill temper.

She snorted, blatantly refusing her offered hand. “Of course you are,” she said rudely, crossing her arms over her ample chest and leaning forward threateningly. “And I suggest you climb right back out of THIS rabbit hole and return to your normal model life. This is no place for a little girl.”

Alice arched her brows, finding it a bit rich that she was being called little by a person who barely made it up to her chin. The guy with dreads stuck his head around the doorway furtively, which Alice was beginning to see was a bit of a thing for him, and tapped his fingers against the frame nervously.

“Mally!” he admonished. “Ah was jus’ joking.”

He fully entered the kitchen and tugged the small girl away from where she’d been on the verge of infringing on Alice’s personal space. Then he looked up at Alice speculatively, and Alice sighed.

“Ask,” she commanded, in the imperious tone she used to use to boss her best friend when they were little.

“Er, exactly what age—?”

Alice fished out her City University ID from the wallet in her bag for him to inspect. She was only a part-time student, but no one would know the difference unless they’d seen the other type of ID. She liked it. Her picture wasn’t particularly good to the distress of her mother, but she loved how the small piece of plastic made her feel a connection, however tentative, to a future of her own making. With all the modelling jobs she had to take to make ends meet there was barely time for one or two classes a semester, but she was still proud to be a student, even part time. He took it, and Mally pulled his arm down lower so they could both read it.

“Alice Kingsleigh,” Mally began.

“Born November 30. . .” The young man devolved into some muttering figures, “That would make you—”

“Almost twenty,” said Alice patiently.

He nodded. “Not so bad then,” he said, handing her back her card.

Mally sniffed, “Still a year younger than me.”

“Less than half a year, Mally, no need to be fussy,” Tarrant came up behind his friends. Alice was very pleased to see him, and it must have shown on her face, because Mally went into a fresh round of harrumphing and the nervous one twitched a knowing smile at her that made her blush despite her queasy stomach and her pounding headache.

“Allow me to introduce Mallymkun Mannan and Thackery Eames. Thack lives here with me in the house and keeps the garden too. Good thing as I’m rubbish at it. And Mally, well, Mally. . .hmm. . .” Tarrant cut off and looked down at her teasingly, finger tapping his lips as he pretended to think.

“She’s like a pest that keeps comin’ back day after day. Our own teensy wee rodent problem,” Thackery said as he began rapidly patting her head. Mally stuck her tongue out and gave him the finger, but seemed mollified when Tarrant finished,

“Mally is a dear friend.”

Tarrant had turned to fully face Alice, so he couldn’t have seen, but Mally’s face softened into such a sad and yearning expression that Alice gained a little insight into the situation. Thackery must have seen it too, because he distracted the short girl with a flurry of obnoxious shoves until they were both beyond the door and out of sight.

“Sorry about them, Alice, they’re really quite harmless.” Tarrant walked up to her and reached out, his hand stopping just short of taking hers. “How are you feeling?” he inquired intently.

Alice looked down and boldly bridged the distance, twining her fingers with his.

“Better,” she tried, but the truth of her sickness was plain so she continued, “but still not very well.”

Tarrant’s face had lit up when she had taken his hand, but at her admission he nodded and led her to sit down. There was a little round breakfast nook off to the side of the counter by the sink that was surrounded by windows and overlooked the garden that Alice had wanted to see. The little wooden chair she sat in was old but sturdy and the table had a stout green glass vase with fresh pink chrysanthemums in it. She wondered who put them in it. Tarrant said that Thackery did the gardening, but despite his twichiness, he still seemed to have a very practical personality. Tarrant seemed much more whimsical, but also much more like the kind of person to bring in flowers, arrange them spectacularly, and then forget all about it and let them turn into a forgotten pile of goo on the counter. This tastefully understated arrangement wasn’t quite his style. Mally, despite her preference for pink, did not seem the flower-gathering type.

“Could you eat something? Thackery recommended buttered toast I think. He’s a naturopath and studies alternative medicine, so he knows what he’s talking about. He may look twitchy, but he was top of his class for biology at Uni. He was a conventional pre-med before his interests took a turn. He was in school for ages, and does have credentials—he’s very skilled. We’re lucky to have him.”

“Interesting,” Alice liked him all the more for deviating from a path that started much like Margaret’s. Margaret was always preaching to them about cardiovascular exercise and the merits of some new wonder drug or other. Still, it sounded like they both expected to be taken seriously as the medical authorities in their homes. “I suppose I’d better try the toast then, though I’ll warn you, there’s a strong chance it won’t stay down.”

Tarrant pulled a face then turned to her sympathetically squeezing her hand. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so poorly Alice, if you’d told me your preferences I could have got them to leave out the gin, no one would have even noticed.”

Alice’s face burned at his kindness. “Thanks, but that wasn’t really the point. I think I mostly wanted to see what it would be like. Not just the alcohol, but the whole experience. Sorry you got stuck with the aftermath of my experiment. It’s hardly fair to you.” She squirmed in her chair, tucking her feet up under her on the seat without letting go of Tarrant’s hand. His hands were strong and long-fingered and his blunt nails had a few chips and scrapes, evidence of his trade. “I haven’t gotten many chances to try, well, anything,” she mused.

The Hatter speculated that this must be true, as most of the musical references and items of note in popular culture that he’d tried on her last night hadn’t worked. Still, she’d been knowledgeable enough about cinema, provided it wasn’t too recent, and she must have been very well-read, as her literary references often surprised him with their incongruous appropriateness. It was too bad, since there was a lot Alice was missing out on, but there was a piece of him that rejoiced that he might get to be the one to show it all to her.

He dropped Alice’s hand which he’d kept hold of up til then and set about getting her the aforementioned buttered toast. Alice admired the bright yellow metal bread box he opened, and noted that it went very well with the wallpaper. While the toaster was doing its work on the thick slices of bread he’d put in, Tarrant deposited a quart-sized mason jar of water in front of her. She looked at it balefully.

“Drink,” he commanded mildly.

Alice did as she was told for once, letting her attention wander out the window to her left. The garden was lovely! Despite the chill of Autumn, several kinds of flowers were still blooming, and what looked like thriving clumps of lavender and mint spilled onto the walk. Tarrant had said Thackery studied herbs and did the gardening, so it was a fair bet there was a full medicinal garden out there. Alice pressed her face flush against the glass, trying to see off to the side.

“You can go out there if you like.” Tarrant tried not to sound too amused, but Alice looked like she was trying to melt through the glass. “In fact, you can go wherever you like in the house. None of us will care. Well, not as long as you knock. Well, Mally might care, but as I said before, she doesn’t actually live here.”

Alice didn’t want to quibble, but Tarrant hadn’t been the one to tell her that Mally just liked to show up daily. She looked at him a bit critically, but his mind was no longer on Mally, so Alice couldn’t glean anything to do with his feelings for the girl in the mouse hood. Though, she reflected, the fact that he left the topic so easily probably said something unfortunate for poor Mally. Alice tried to feel sympathetic, but she couldn’t muster up too much compassion. Maybe Mally would improve on further acquaintance.

Tarrant had moved on to buttering toast, precisely and efficiently spreading the butter in a thick layer atop the even thicker toast. Watching Tarrant’s hands move put a blush on Alice’s cheeks and a few thoughts in her head about what she’d wished might have happened last night. She dared to hope there might still be possibilities in that direction at some point in the future.

“Did you note the original window sashes in the front rooms yet Alice?” he said pleasantly.

A smile lit Alice’s rather pale and sickly face, and Tarrant couldn’t help but think that if she looked this lovely hung over in day-old clothes it was a miracle she wasn’t plastered all over every billboard in the world. He ought to give her a proper tour of the house since she seemed so interested, but that could wait until she’d eaten something. Despite having such charming company before him, Tarrant’s fingers twitched and he found he desperately wanted to get to work. Not a hat for once; that would have to wait until her knew her a little better. But maybe a dress or at least a skirt—a full one that would land in waves around her lovely calves.

He passed her the plate of toast in a bit of a daze, pulling the pencil with the magnet on it from the front of the yellow refrigerator so that he could sketch a bit on the underside of the grocery list. There were only a few items on it anyway, so he went ahead and pulled the sheet off of the pad. He could rewrite the list later, if he remembered. He took the sheet with him as he wandered over to the table and sat across from Alice, the better to gauge her proportions. She took a bite of toast and made a little sound of contentment.

“This bread is good! I can’t remember eating anything so delicious. The butter too, mmm, real butter, I don’t think I’ve had real butter since. . .well, for years.”

Before Tarrant could pull himself out of his haze enough to process what she’d said, Thackery popped into the kitchen. He’d obviously been listening.

“First time you’ve had real bread an’ butter?” he asked incredulously as he bustled about the kitchen, pulling things out of cupboards even as he filled the kettle and put it on the gas stove.

“Well, not the first time ever,” she defended, “but the first time in a long while.”

“Years, yeh said?”

“Since. . .since I started modeling. It was about five, well, closer to six years ago now. We needed the money, and Mum and Margaret agreed that she would concentrate on her studies and Mum would find the jobs and I would try not to mess them up.” Alice’s smile was very weak as she related this. “I’m not supposed to eat bread. Or butter.” Alice looked at the thick slice in her hands consideringly. “But I am feeling sick, and I think it might help me feel better, so perhaps I could look at it as medicine,” she mused.

Thackery was looking at her with his mouth open. His fingers were tapping on his sides, perhaps indicating deep thought.

Tarrant caught up to the conversation and set down her paper, both sides of which had become very busy with sketches and notes of possible fabric and notions. He indicated his jittery friend.

“Thackery always says, food is the best medicine.”

“No bread, AND no butter? Neither standard nor low-carb diet then,” he was muttering. He resumed puttering about the kitchen, though at a slower pace.

“What do you eat then? Lots of eggs?” he demanded.

Alice finished chewing another bite and replied. “Hardly. I miss eggs. Let me see. I have lots of power bars. Salad. Fish. Fruit. Steamed vegetables. I suppose there’s more variety than I realize, but it never feels like quite enough,” she said ruefully. “Though I take a vitamin, so that probably helps some. Mum is religious about giving it to me every morning.”

“Vitamin?” he queried. “What for? What’s in it?”

“Well, I don’t know, I guess the usual sorts of things one finds in vitamins. I’ve been taking it for so long that I hardly think about it anymore. Such a small pill one hardly notices.”

Thackery seized on this last point as if it had great import. Alice couldn’t help feeling he was overdoing it a little bit.

“Small! A vitamin! What’s it look like? What’s it called?”

“Well,” said Alice, “I don’t know that it’s called anything. It’s a small, round, blue pill with a little ‘r’ on it.”

“Uppercase or lower?”

“Um, lower,” said Alice.

This seemed to pacify Thackery for the time being, and Alice found she couldn’t be too annoyed, for the end result of his bouncing around the kitchen was to thump a mug of hot fragrant tea down on the table before her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Drink!” he seemed fired up, and not about to quit. While Alice ate and drank, Thackery pulled out pots and pans, packets and containers from the fridge, and even produced a sketchpad from just beyond the door to what looked like the living room and presented it to Tarrant who had been leaning sideways trying to write on the very edge of his purloined grocery list. He took it with an absent nod and opened it to a clear page.

Alice was quite pleased with the peace that settled over the kitchen. Thackery kept up a fairly constant clatter, but she was free to look out the window or sneak glances across the table to try to see what Tarrant was so rapidly drawing on the sketchpad that he loomed over so intently. She couldn’t see much from her angle, though it didn’t look like hats.

All this was dashed however, when Mally came back into the room. The pink haired girl sulkily sat herself down between Alice and Tarrant and leaned over to look at his sketching. She harumphed and, ignoring Alice, turned to Thackery.

“Sure is dull ‘round here today. Where’s Nivens?”

“Upstairs.” Thackery cocked an ear. Water was faintly audible. Alice hoped she hadn’t used all the hot. “Shower, I think.”

“Is his beau still here?” Mally asked idly.

“Nae, he said he had to get back for tea. Had somethin’ to go to.”

“Tea, already?” Alice inquired.

Mally gave her a scathing glare. “Some of us didn’t sleep all day. Tea time comes same as ever for the rest of us,” she sniffed disdainfully, “Most of us can’t afford to spend the whole day in other people’s beds.”

“Mally!” Tarrant reprimanded. “That’s quite enough, thank you.” He looked up from his work, though his fingers didn’t want to part with his pencil, so it danced around in his hands, being twirled like a miniature baton and flicked over his knuckles like a magician practicing a coin trick. It quite mesmerized Alice, who found once again the curious connection between looking too closely at Tarrant’s active hands and the blush that swept over her cheeks. She shook her head to clear it.

She seized on her former topic “But surely it’s still a bit early for tea.”

“Not really, Alice,” Tarrant added, “You did sleep quite a long time, though we didn’t get in until very late, and then you were ill, so it’s understandable you’re a bit muddled.”

“Tea’s wha’ I’m working on now,” Thackery added.

A creeping feeling of doom descended Alice’s spine and she set down her mug, delving into her purse which she had slung over the top of her chair. She pulled out her mobile. Message notifications flashed before her, both text and voicemail. The time...was already ten til four in the afternoon! She shot to her feet.

“I’m late!” she cried.

“Alice?” asked Tarrant, “Was there somewhere you needed to be?”

“Yes. Oh no!” she grabbed her bag and started toward the front room to look for her coat. “Oh Mother will positively slaughter me.” The three in the kitchen followed after her. Tarrant and Thackery hovering concernedly and Mally looking quite thrilled at the prospect of Alice slaughter.

“Where’s the nearest Underground station?” Alice asked desperately, locating her coat spread over the back of a green upholstered chair in a charming front room that she wasn’t able to take in much of around her upset.

“Out the door to the left, one block over on Winchester!” said Mally quickly. Alice was grateful for the sudden help, and would only later realize that Mally was eager to do whatever necessary to see the back of her.

“If you could wait a moment, Alice, I could take you in the car—” Tarrant started, but a highly visible wave of horror broke over Alice at the thought of showing up at the Ascots’ townhouse accompanied by the Hatter and she held up a hand.

“Thank you, but no. I absolutely must run, there’s no time at all! See you later!”

And without even stopping for proper goodbyes, Alice frantically raced through the front door, which Mally had helpfully held open for her, and sprinted off down the street.

Chapter Text

The three friends watched with varying degrees of shock as Alice hared off around the corner. Tarrant had opened the front closet, searching for his coat to go after her, but the slam of the door had him looking up.

“And stay out!” Mally said, giggling as she slid the bolt. She turned and was met with two uncharacteristically grave expressions.

Mally’s shoulders went up defensively and she jutted out her chin at their disapproval. She pulled her beloved mouse hood further forward where the grey cotton had started to slide backwards over her shockingly pink hair. This gift from Tarrant, made for her last birthday, had become her uniform and her armour and she drew confidence from it. She wouldn’t let these two great lumps boss her about unjustly.

“Mallymkun, you are going too far. You were abysmally rude to Alice all afternoon, and heaven knows why. She certainly didn’t do anything to you.”

Tarrant started lecturing in his typical overly pedantic way, which Mally found infuriating. She went on the offensive.

“You know why. Bringing home models. Didn’t you learn your lesson after last time?”

Thackery twitched in a sharp breath at her audacity. He wanted to go hide, but was uncomfortably aware that he was often the only thing preventing his two headstrong friends from damaging their relationship permanently. Mally must be very hurt to throw salt in such recent and ill-healed wounds. Thackery had been glad to find Tarrant had met someone new. All his blustering about her age was teasing and curiosity, but now he wished he’d kept his mouth shut, since Mally seemed determined to make a scene over it. Tarrant’s expression iced over, distancing himself further from the situation. It had to be the last thing Mally wanted, yet she always ended up driving in a wedge between herself and the man she admired with her prickly behavior.

“I learned many things from my entanglement with Mirana. One thing that I seem to recall observing was that you did not treat her in this woefully disrespectful manner.”

Mally crossed her arms, sulking despite herself.

“That was different.”

“Oh, how so? I seem to remember you meeting her under circumstances that were not so terribly different on the surface of things.”

“‘S nothing like it. You’d told us about her for one thing. An’ Mirana at least was kind, an’ interesting, an’ sophisticated. She was three times as pretty as that washed out waif that just bolted out of here like Nivens with an eight o’clock meeting.”

“I hadn’t realized you found Mirana so enchanting, Mally. I can dig up her number if you like, since evidently you’re much more her type.”

His voice had turned bitter and Mally cursed herself for opening up this gate. Her mouth tended to go off on its own without her mind’s consent, but instead of properly apologizing she stumbled ahead, wounding herself further.

“Don’t be like that. No one knew you didn’t know. . .it’s terrible what she did! But it’s not the point.” Mally’s traitorous tongue never could leave well enough alone until she’d said all she had to say on a subject. “At least she was older!” she blurted.

Tarrant stalked toward her with one arm through his coat sleeve, his icy detachment melting into something hotter and meaner. “Old’r than what Mally?”

The moment hung. Thackery decided it would do no one any good to go down this well-trod path again this afternoon. Every so often Mally felt the need to declare her love for Tarrant, and for years he followed the course he’d set down when she’d first come over flustered and blurted it out over her Gran’s Sunday roast at fourteen years old. Thackery, his mum, and Mally’s whole family had all held their collective breath, knowing how bull-headed Mally could be, but Tarrant had neatly diffused the situation.

He’d smiled kindly, told her he was very flattered, but he was much too old for her, and she’d best find someone better able to appreciate all her considerable talents. She’d melted at his compliments and everyone had heaved a sigh of relief. This tactic had worked all while he was at university and Mally was in secondary school, but not the way Tarrant had thought. It turned out Mally was merely biding her time, waiting for that oft-imagined day when Tarrant would wake up and magically decide that today was the day he would sweep Mally off her fierce little feet. It was obvious to everyone but Mally that they weren’t well-suited romantically, but equally obvious to all but Tarrant that without a firmer approach Mally would never see it that way.

Once Tarrant’s Great-Uncle August had died of a heart attack brought on by the shock of his football team winning the cup after a sixteen year dry spell, she’d followed them to London, ostensibly to clean out the house. There had been one awful spat started when Mally all but threw herself at Tarrant, and still he attempted to hide behind her age. She’d brought home an investment banker in his thirties in retaliation. It had backfired rather spectacularly when he and Tarrant had got on famously and Tarrant had made him a suit to wear for his big bid for partner in his firm. Mally had ditched the poor fellow immediately and still screamed in fury whenever anyone mentioned his name. She’d also moved out of the house. Nivens McTwisp was then a clerk at Tarrant’s uncle’s haberdashery house, Bembury, which Tarrant had also inherited in a manner of speaking. Nivens had moved in, and things had been much less volatile ever since, though Mally still spent most of her free time at Witzend.

This Alice catching his attention at nineteen couldn’t possibly rankle worse for Mally, and until she made her peace with it the issue was likely to fester. Mally was the kind of person who needed to get things out in the open. She liked to air her grievances long and loud, but once they were over, it was water under the bridge. Thackery understood this, yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to let the situation play itself out. Tarrant was slower to come to a boil, but he held grudges, and for the sake of his sanity he couldn’t afford to lose anyone else right now.

Thackery cleared his throat rapidly and loudly.

“Enough! Yer tea is getting cold, and there’s no point raking up all this now. Mally, wuld you set out the cups?” Mally looked like she was going to protest, but caught Thackery’s eye and turned sharply, heading off to the kitchen. Once she was out of the room, Thackery put his hand tentatively on Tarrant’s shoulder.

“Alice will’ve got on her train by now, so there’s no point in going after her. Ye can call her later. Now come in to tea. ”

Tarrant nodded shortly, and began to extract his arm from his sleeve. Then he stopped stock still. Thackery had turned, but glanced back and saw his friend stalled out, coat fallen to the floor. His face lost what little color it had.

Thackery hopped over and whacked him on the back, hard. “Breathe ye divit! What is it?”

“Bloody fucking hell. Damn. Shite, fecking shite. Dammit!” This string of profanity was joined by more colorful varieties as Tarrant grew increasingly agitated.

Instead of growing more concerned, Thackery twitched a smile. Chuckles spilled out of him, the tension of the earlier scene alleviated. “Ye forgot tae get her number.”

“It’s nae funny ye. . .argh!” Forgetting the coat entirely, Tarrant stalked out the front door, slamming it behind him.

Thackery’s laughter grew louder as their housemate Nivens McTwisp tentatively entered the room behind him. Nivens’ short fair hair was wet from his shower and he’d neatly combed it back. He was wearing a white polo shirt and khaki pants, typical weekend casual for the fastidious young man. Together, they watched Tarrant pace up and down the sidewalk, heading toward the Underground station, realizing again it was futile and swinging back around toward the house, tearing at his hair and muttering to himself all the while.

“What happened while I was upstairs? The girl left? Did Tarrant finally lose the last of his marbles?” Nivens’ smile was nervous, despite Thackery’s continued laughter. Nivens could be as twitchy as Thackery, but despite their close friendship, he was still a little wary around Tarrant when the Hatter got into one of his darker moods.

“She left, but just coz she’d forgot she had somewhere tae be. He’s off his rocker cause he forgot tae get her number and has no idea how tae find her. She probably forgot same as him, with the way she rushed out.”

“And this is funny because. . .?”

“Weel, look at him!” Thackery pointed as Tarrant distressed several passing pedestrians by getting down on his knees on the sidewalk and banging his head against the pavement.

Nivens cocked his head and joined Thackery with a titter of his own. They stood companionably looking out the window at their utterly ridiculous landlord making a spectacle of himself over a nineteen year old girl who wasn’t even there to see it.

There were days when it could get tedious and demoralizing being friends with Tarrant. Not so much due to the money and property he’d inherited, which no one with a beating heart could begrudge him when it was clear how much he suffered due to its origin. But there was plenty to resent that was Tarrant alone. Not only was he tall and good-looking, but he attracted people to him as naturally as breathing with his charm, his kindness, and his uncanny genius in working at almost anything with his hands. But then there were satisfying moments like today where one was reminded that they were really dealing with an overgrown teenager with precious little practicality and a faulty sense of decorum. Perhaps it was unkind, but it felt like it leveled the playing field a bit.

“I wonder how they’re dealing with him over at Bembury now that I’ve left,” Nivens mused.

Thackery snorted. “Probably getting closer to losing their own marbles. Shuld be better after last night though. He seemed pleased with the show. Mibbe he’ll even give them a break.”

Nivens rolled his eyes. “Unlikely. You’d never know it to look at him, but he’s a slave driver at work.”

“Oh I believe it. He’s always been like that. Cannae see why everyone else isnae a’ his level of perfection.”

“Exactly.”

“But,” Thackery’s mouth twitched into a wide smile, “He’s still a right mess.”

Mally’s shrill voice called out from the dining room, “Where the bloody ‘ell is everybody?”

Thackery and Nivens turned toward her and shouted back, “Coming!”

Nivens cast a nervous glance back out the window.

Thackery clapped him on the shoulder briefly.

“A’ll deal with him.”

Nivens went in to tea, relieved to leave the unstable craftsman to the care of his oldest friend.

-o-o-o-

Alice was amazed to find she was not having a panic attack. It was confusing—she thought that by the time she boarded the train she’d need to find a paper bag to breathe into. However, around that time, the battery in her mobile died and with it the prospect of having to review her messages. Alice entered the carriage, sat down, and slipped into a reverie about the past twenty-four hours. She hoped that Tarrant would forgive her for running off. She’d call him as soon as she could. Hopefully his interest was sustainable past this obnoxious interruption. He had certainly seemed interested the previous night. Alice clasped her hands to her burning cheeks as she relived all the slowly-resurfacing memories of Tarrant’s kisses and his incredibly capable hands roaming over her skin.

She changed trains in a daze and it was a wonder that she made it to the Ascots’ at all, let alone in as short an order as she did. It was only long familiarity with the area that got her through, for the Kingsleighs’ former London residence was on the same street block as the Ascots’. Though the path to both houses was well-worn in Alice’s experience, she was still surprised to find herself in such a state that she walked right past their front door, heading instead for the house they’d had to sell off along with all the rest of their worldly possessions after Alice’s beloved father had died. Alice stopped and backtracked, heading up the steps flanked by imposing tropical plants in heavy stone urns, kept alive even in the chill weather. She was still thinking about kisses and dancing and hats when Chemsford opened the door.

“Miss Alice?” the tall man in the traditional black and white day uniform of his profession inquired with surprise. “Are you all right?”

His genuine concern shocked Alice out of her reverie, and she looked at him with wide eyes. Chemsford’s solid bulk and considerable height were as familiar to her as her own face. His bald head probably needed less shaving than it did when Alice was a child, but he was still the same comforting Chemsford Alice had known almost her whole life.

“Yes!” she said, though something in her manner must have indicated the dread that clenched her insides at the thought of the dragon’s den she was about to enter. She had not quite decided whether the dragon was her mother or Mrs. Ascot, but either or both would do.

Percival Chemsford was a jewel of a man who had decided after his military service that his best chance for a financially secure future was following in the footsteps of his grandfather as a butler to Britain’s wealthiest families. After entering service, it became apparent that Chemsford’s skill set was more valuable than anticipated. Besides being an excellent and fastidious household manager, he had thwarted countless burglaries and scams and most impressively five separate kidnappings on behalf of his various employers. When he had come to work for the Kingsleigh family Alice had been a precocious toddler and he had enjoyed watching her grow up, often thinking of her as a daughter he never had. Hers was the last kidnapping he had halted in its tracks, and one of the few in which there had been bloodshed. Though the man had lived, Chemsford always wondered if his affection for the girl had made it more difficult to coldly assess the situation.

After Charles Kingsleigh’s untimely death and the subsequent upheaval, Chemsford had stayed on as long as he could. Even though there was no way the Kingsleigh women could pay him, he stayed with them until the house sold. Mrs. Ascot snapped him up as soon as he was out the door, and he had taken the position despite her unscrupulous reputation because it was one of the few places where he would be kept apprised of Alice’s situation. And, if things went the way Mrs. Ascot and Mrs. Kingsleigh planned, it might allow him to once again work for Alice in the future.

Seeing the waif at the door of the Ascots’ townhouse, Chemsford couldn’t help but mourn the fiery creature that she had been before her father’s death. Today she looked frail and sick, unhealthily thin and with dark circles under her eyes. And, were those bruises on her neck? He swiftly but gently took Alice by the arm and led her inside.

“Miss Alice,” he said, voice low so as to avoid attracting the attention of anyone else in the house, “do you need medical attention?”

Alice stopped looking quite so pathetic, her over-plucked eyebrows arching in surprise. She took herself in the hallway mirror over Chemsford’s shoulder and gave a little laugh. Well, now she could see why he was so distressed! Her hair had come half-loose from where she’d secured it with a few too few pins, and her pale skin showed how very sick she still felt. Her headache seemed to have returned full force now that she had a reprieve from her meeting with the dragon(s). Chemsford’s eyes seemed to be boring into the reflection of her neck in the mirror and Alice’s eyes widened. Her face flushed instantly. She couldn’t possibly go in to tea like this! No wonder Mally had looked at her with such disgust and anger, especially if she was harbouring feelings for Tarrant. Alice pulled her coat collar up and gave an embarrassed shrug to Chemsford.

“Er, no. But. . .” she let the formal facade fall. “Oh, Chemsford, Mummy is going to kill me!”

Chemsford searched her ravaged face, but for all there was real angst in her words he found something in her tone that heartened him, as well as a twinkle in her eye that he’d feared was long extinguished. Her appearance took on a different tone. Ever since Mrs. Kingsleigh had decided to use Alice as a model, her body had not been entirely her own. She had always been a tall child, but where she used to glow with proportional health, for years now she had stayed in a suspended state, looking like a stretched-out version of herself, taffy that had been pulled but not yet folded. It was something you saw frequently in adolescents, but Alice had been this way for years, he reflected. The effect had been obscured by the heavy makeup, elegant clothing and elaborately styled hair she always sported when she showed up at the Ascots’ door.

Without these masks she looked like a wreck, but the slight smile curving her cheek was the one she’d worn as a child when she had pulled off some successful caper that she knew she was about to be scolded for. Judging by the marks on her neck and the circles under her eyes, a night out without her mother’s permission seemed the likely venture. Well, Alice was grown now, and if wouldn’t hurt for her to have a little experience of the world before she was taken back into the constraints of high society and big business. Chemsford’s features relaxed, and a minute smile pulled at his own face.

“In that case should I be offering you an aspirin and a glass of water?” he asked dryly.

Alice blushed, and a real and dreamy smile broke out on her face. Ah, there was certainly affection involved toward whatever boy had gotten to her. Good on her. Chemsford struggled not to smirk at Alice.

“Thank you, but someone already did,” she said shyly. Then she touched her hand to her head with a wince. “Perhaps it’s worn off by now though. Yes, an aspirin would be nice. And if possible, if they didn’t hear the door, might I have a moment before you tell them I’m here?”

Chemsford nodded and hurried to do her bidding as he had long ago. The bell rang from somewhere deep within the house, and Alice figured Chemsford would have to take a detour to answer it. She sat down on the heavy dark wood bench under the mirror and tried to think of what she should say to her mother. Most likely nothing. Her mother would probably have plenty to say all on her own.

Alice must have dozed slightly, she was so dreadfully tired, because the next thing she knew, Margaret was shaking her shoulder. Chemsford was standing off to the side, the promised aspirin and glass of water laid on a little silver tray.

He coughed. “I thought it best under the circumstances that you not go in to tea in this state. Mrs. Kingsleigh already informed the Ascots that you were home with a sudden cold when they arrived without you. Miss Kingsleigh had an urgent message and needs to leave early, so she can take you home.”

Alice smiled. How like Chemsford to sort it all for her. Margaret didn’t look too put out at having to leave the Ascots’ early—who would?—so the fictional message wouldn’t be detected. Alice reached out her hand for the glass of water and Margaret handed her the aspirin.

“Thank you, Chemsford,” Alice said, a bit of her old imperious attitude resurfacing.

Margaret rolled her eyes, but a fond if somewhat patronising smile lit her face. The elder Kingsleigh sister had her own share of good looks, her face more angular and sophisticated than Alice’s, though she had always felt eclipsed by the beautiful child that had been indulged in ways she never had. Margaret’s hair was darker though still in the realm of blonde, her skin less perfect but still fair, and she was about five inches shorter than her younger sister. She was average height, but between Yelena and Alice with their willowy limbs, Margaret looked like a midget.

It was little surprise that Margaret had poured her efforts into an area that might yield her some recognition of her own. Even before their father’s death, Margaret had focused on her studies, eschewing business and striking out toward medicine in a bid to stand on her own merits. And so little Alice, whose head was so full of dreams, would play in her father’s office for hours listening to him think out loud while Margaret spent her time with the girls from her school, learning how navigate the world and to be both popular and clever.

Their father died when Margaret was just seventeen and she had been forced to deal with the realities of keeping the three of them afloat until their mother was able to function again. Alice had fallen apart with grief and had been no help, and even years on, Margaret still resented her for it. Still, six years was time enough for things to evolve, and Margaret had to admit that Alice had gotten the short end of the stick in having to model. When their mother had first suggested the scheme, Margaret had boiled with anger that it was Alice who would wear the beautiful clothes and have pictures taken of her beautiful body. However, as Margaret became more aware of the realities of the job and contrasted them with her sister’s character, it was clear that Alice was sacrificing all she could for her family. Margaret’s guilt kept her hoping that Alice would make it out of this situation happily. Indeed, she tried always to think that they all would, and that the magical and carefree world of their childhood was not lost to them forever.

Today, dwelling on her issues with Alice took a back seat to getting her home and away from the Ascots without Mrs. Ascot noticing. It was pretty hard to feel insecure and jealous when faced with a hung-over teenager in scuffed trainers. Margaret’s fashionable grey suit contrasted with Alice’s manky jeans nicely, putting them both back into the dynamic they preferred: Margaret as responsible and graceful, Alice as willful and disinterested in appearances. This could hardly be more obvious than taking a look down Alice’s hastily turned-up collar.

“Here,” Margaret said, unwinding the purple flowered scarf from her neck with a smirk.

Alice took it, blushing, and knew that her sister would never let her hear the end of this. At the moment, she couldn’t bring herself to care. She allowed Margaret to pull her to her feet, and the two of them decided to splurge on a cab to make it home.

“Bye Chemsford!” Margaret said breezily as she flowed out the door.

Alice turned and raised up on her toes to peck Chemsford on the cheek. She flashed him another grateful smile.

“Thanks so much!” she said, running out after her sister.

Chemsford had barely had time to shut the door when footsteps behind him in the hallway caused him to turn.

“What was it, Chemsford?” Mrs. Ascot’s cultured but rigid tone rang out.

Unsure how much she had seen or heard, Chemsford tried, “Miss Kingsleigh was just leaving ma’am.”

“Hmm.” Mrs. Ascot narrowed her eyes and turned back toward the drawing room. “Take the tea things. We’ve finished.”

Chemsford hastened to comply and hoped the girls getting in a taxi outside had escaped his employer’s hawk like eye.

Chapter Text

Once they were safely ensconced in the anonymity of the taxi, Margaret began to grill Alice. Since Alice had only a few pence to contribute to the cost of the cab, she figured she had to pay somehow, and did not try too hard to thwart her sister’s efforts and the bare bones of the story gradually unfolded.

“So this—hatter—took you out to a dance club and got you drunk, took you home, and then you fell asleep on him!” Margaret was shocked, but also seemed pretty disappointed about Alice’s showing in the situation.

“Well, yes, I’d undoubtedly had too much to drink, but Tarrant,” she tried desperately not to sound as if she was about to go into a swoon as she said his name, “was incredibly decent the whole time. Really, his friends were quite shocked that I should be so rough considering how little I’d had to drink the night before.”

Margaret smiled. “Not too bad, really, considering it was your first try. I think I spent an entire term throwing up in Lowell’s house lavatory. As long as you get into the swing of it, you should be able to keep yourself from disappointing this Tarrant.”

The elder Kingsleigh’s eyes flickered out the window and a shadow flitted across her face. “Alice,” she began hesitantly, “how did you feel when you met him? What were you thinking when you decided to go with him?”

“At the first moment we met I knew he was skilled with his hands. He pinned that pillbox hat to my resisting head like it was no effort at all,” Alice recalled.

Margaret snickered at her. “If only we’d known that was what it took to get you going! You might have scored ages ago if we’d just confined the search to haberdashers and shop assistants.”

Alice blushed and huffed in annoyance. “What I meant to say was that. . .he knew what he was doing. That made him interesting. I hardly ever know what I’m doing, at least—not anymore. And of course he was good looking and all that,” Alice hurried to brush this aside, “but I wanted to go with him mainly because I got the feeling that there were things I needed to learn from him.”

Margaret gave her a sly look, “So I take it you would like to see your tradesman again?”

Alice wrinkled her nose at her sister. “Are we back in the Victorian era?”

“Well, someone who makes hats is not the kind of well-educated successful partner our parents likely envisioned us attracting.”

Alice defended him swiftly, “Margaret, you do realize that he was the one of the two headlining designers at the show last night—his house is lovely and in a historic district. He’s hardly to be looked down upon. Especially by people in our circumstances.”

“Maybe now. . .” Margaret began.

“Ever,” Alice snapped. “Tarrant is a genius, and the kindest and cleverest and most charming man I have ever met. He had lots of friends, flatmates who respected and cared for him, and he is an excellent dancer.” She finished this list of virtues with a righteous sniff.

Margaret’s eyebrows rose in delight, and Alice realized she had been successfully baited. Her cheeks flushed.

“Aww, you really do like him! Well, call him up! You’d better, if you really left in such a hurry. He might think you were just messing about with him.”

Alice looked to her sister again, mistrustful as to whether or not Margaret was really giving her good advice. Though Margaret had been on again off again for years with Lowell, her slimy cheating leech of a first boyfriend, she had done plenty of other dating, sometimes even with decent human beings. She certainly knew more about these sorts of situations than Alice, and Margaret had been there for her in the past when they’d truly needed to band together. But still, their relationship had been largely antagonistic when nothing big was at stake. Would Margaret give her bad advice about talking to the hatter just to tease her?

The London streets flew passed the window of the cab as Alice reached into her purse to finger her mobile. She picked it up and then groaned as realization washed over her, both that it was dead and that it didn’t matter since the one number she wanted was not within.

“Bugger!” she said.

Margaret’s eyebrows raised in question.

Alice leaned back in her seat and sheepishly admitted, “I never got his number.”

Margaret scoffed at her carelessness, and Alice knew her sister was about to pile a load of scorn on her head so she hastened to say, “I know how to get back to the house though. I could go now—if you’ll just let me out of the cab—”

Alice made to attract the cabbie’s attention, but Margaret stayed her hand.

“Alice, you can’t go over there now, looking as you do!” she said reproachfully. “It’s all very well to have a walk of shame leaving, but coming back still sick and dishevelled simply isn’t done. You may have got on famously, but I’ll bet you didn’t catch your hatter’s eye looking like a diseased scarecrow.”

Alice pulled a face at her sister, but reluctantly had to admit she was right. The hatter had seen her dressed up last night, and while she ardently hoped that they would become close enough for appearance not to matter, there was something to what Margaret said. The whole thing was too new to jeopardize over some messy hair and impatience.

“Tomorrow, then,” she said resolutely.

“I’ll help you get away from Mother,” Margaret vowed, and Alice was relieved to hear that for once she had her sister on her side.

They soon arrived at their flat. It had been important to Yelena that the girls have an address in a somewhat decent area of town and be close enough to school and jobs to manage without a car. “Better to have a broom closet in the best part of town than a mansion in the slums,” she had said.

A broom closet could not have been much smaller than the one-bedroom they’d been sharing for the past five years. They’d done the best they could, sharing the bunk beds in the bedroom and the couch when Margaret was at home. They barely had room for a table, let alone closets to store the sorts of wardrobes belonging to three of England's’ former wealthiest women. Yelena had charmed some storage space in the basement out of the landlord, but they’d had to get rid of loads of stuff. Of course jewels and furs had all been sold to rid them of their debts, but there were tons of other clothes that would have been more worth it to them not to have to purchase again than to sell. It irked Yelena endlessly when older styles came back into fashion. She would scream and throw the couch cushions at the telly whenever the presenters gushed about whatever purse or shoes or classic frock was now back in vogue that she’d had to get rid of when they’d left their house.

Margaret had mostly been out of the house at Uni, but since she’d officially graduated and had rated free tuition and fees but not housing for med school she’d been back at their flat to save money. Alice personally thought Margaret had been counting on the unctuous Lowell asking her to move in with him. She didn’t see that as being terribly likely. A live-in girlfriend would definitely cramp his style. Margaret knew full well that Lowell was not the faithful type, so Alice could only regard with perplexity her sister’s tears when she’d brought her bags back and announced she’d be staying at home. Spoiled wife and heiresses they may once have been, but the three Kingsleigh women did not bicker or fuss, instead making what little room they could and contemplating springing for murphy beds with built-in storage if Alice could pick up an additional job in the winter.

The problem with this living arrangement was that it was virtually impossible to be alone—something that did not suit the three independent women at all. Margaret usually managed to be out at school, the library, or Lowell’s, so Yelena and Alice had found semi-private spaces of their own in the mid-sized apartment building. The basement storage room that housed most of their wardrobes became Yelena’s lair, and not three weeks into their residency Alice had jimmied the lock at the top of the stairs so that she could get out on the roof. It wasn’t the highest roof around by any means, but Alice loved it because she could hide behind the parapet and watch people go by on the streets below, distanced enough to be alone, but close enough not to feel lonely.

Upon arriving home Alice plugged in her mobile and then tried to make a run for the roof, but Margaret was having none of it.

“Sit down Alice,” she said. “Mother will be home soon. What are you going to tell her?”

Alice plopped onto the comfy grey sofa with a grumble while Margaret perched on one of their three small wooden dining chairs.

“I expect she’ll want to do most of the talking,” Alice said somewhat petulantly.

A rueful smile passed over Margaret’s face, “Well, that’s true enough. But despite the fact that you didn’t actually do anything much last night,” she said this disdainfully, “Mother will want to know where you were and who your were with. It should mollify her somewhat that you were with the designer. That’s a very model thing to do. Who knows, maybe she’ll be proud of you.”

Alice found that doubtful. “I’m not sure I should tell her after all. Maybe I’ll just say I went out with one of the other girls and slept over.”

Margaret leaned over and tugged on the end of her purple scarf so that it flowed loose from Alice’s neck.

“With those marks on your skin that story won’t make her feel better. Though maybe it would. At least with a girl you couldn’t get knocked up. You’re on the pill and I hope you’re not stupid enough to do it without a condom, but I think it’s still Mother’s greatest fear that you’ll fall pregnant and ruin your career.”

“What, like she did?” Alice bit her tongue. She shouldn’t have said that. Even though their parents had been in love and had gotten married right away once they found out, it still bothered Margaret that she’d been unplanned.

“Yeah,” said Margaret tonelessly. “And then where would we be?”

Alice flopped back on the couch, “Ugh maybe we could all just get jobs like normal people?” Another thing not to say to her sister, whose guilt about living and going to school off Alice’s earnings made her mean and snappish.

“Right, you little prat. If you had your selfish way you’d force your poor mother to clean houses for the ladies she used to reign over at charity functions. You’re too cruel Alice.”

Alice sighed. This was how it always went with Margaret. If she complained in the slightest, Margaret got defensive and accused her of being a disloyal daughter. They could hardly speak without Margaret going off in a huff about Alice’s selfishness.

Further descent into bickering was forestalled by the sound of the key in the lock. Alice scrambled for Margaret’s scarf to hastily cover her neck, but the elder Kingsleigh wouldn’t give it up. The door opened on Alice and Margaret engaged in a juvenile tug of war over a purple silk scarf that cost far too much for them to be jeopardizing.

“Alice! Margaret! Let that go!”

The sisters released their fingers in shame at being caught acting so childishly, and Yelena lunged forward and caught the silk before it could fall to the floor. She huffed angrily as she returned to the doorway, sharply closing the door and locking it before taking a deep breath. Her hair was immaculately styled and her clothes were perfect in the especially crisp way they always were when interaction with the Ascots was on the docket. Her eyes beneath the tastefully blackened lashes took in her younger daughter’s dishevelled appearance, not missing the several love bites that Alice couldn’t quite cover with her hand at one time. Another deep breath was in order.

“Alice. I want you to think very carefully about this question before you answer. Where have you been?”

Alice gulped. She supposed the ‘think very carefully’ part was a tip-off that Yelena already had some idea of where she’d been and lying would be unwise. Her eyes lit on a framed drawing she’d done for her mother a couple of years ago. It was of a field full of daisies, each with a carefully inked face that was only visible when you viewed it close up. From far away on the wall, as her mother had chosen to hang it, it only looked like a landscape.

“I went to the show, then the after party as you’d instructed. I was invited to another party afterwards. It got late so I stayed over. And then, well, as I said it was late, so I slept through most of the day. As soon as I realized the time, I ran to the Ascots’ as fast as I could. I didn’t know that you’d told them I was home sick. My mobile died. Luckily, Chemsford opened the door and got it sorted.”

“Yes,” Yelena said solemnly, “Thank heavens for Chemsford or we’d be in a terrible situation. Do you realize what a scene it would have made for you to come into tea half-dressed with those—bruises—on your skin? Alice, how could you have let anyone do such a thing? Your body is your greatest asset and this outrageously irresponsible behavior shows me that you are too immature to take care of it on your own.”

Alice’s eyes were downcast, but for some reason she couldn’t keep herself from muttering sulkily, “Daddy always said one’s sharp mind was one’s greatest asset.”

“That may well be for rich men who toss about other people’s money, but we women have to be more practical.”

“Thanks so much, Mummy,” Margaret said sarcastically, “It means so much that you have such faith in my intellectual abilities.”

Typical of Margaret to make it all about her. But if it took the heat off, Alice wasn’t going to complain.

“Margaret, I wasn’t speaking to you. I know you’re doing your best in your own way,” Yelena said exasperatedly.

“Oh, the best I can do? You mean the best I can do with stubby legs and a soft stomach! Maybe if I got to write off gym memberships and facials I could do a little better too.” Margaret crossed her arms fiercely.

Alice sat down on the couch and covered her head with her arms. Both her mother and her sister could take anything personally. If the price of tea in China rose or fell, Margaret and Yelena could somehow trace it back to their own actions. They were so alike in some ways that it was inevitable that they fought. It wasn’t a coincidence that Margaret had spent most of the past few years in dormitories and friends’ apartments. Alice wanted nothing more than to bolt out the door and run away to her rooftop sanctuary, but her mother still stood squarely before the door. Alice tried tuning out her surroundings and pretending she was up there, a skill that she’d had plenty of practice with over the past few years.

Yelena and Margaret continued bickering about who rated what kind of beauty treatments and why without any input from Alice, until there was a pause. Yelena stepped forward and thrust her open laptop onto Alice’s knees.

“And just what,” she asked, “are we going to do about that?”

Alice opened her eyes and looked at the webpage open before her. It was a blog called “Under the Cheshire Moon” that seemed to be about London’s fashion and party scene. The most recent post featured pictures from the Vetvier show, followed by pictures of herself and Tarrant laughing together at the afterparty. The text was mostly a snarky narration of events, but Alice hardly bothered to read it since the pictures were so damning. The next to last one was of Alice alone standing under the colored lights of the Tea Shop dance floor with Tarrant’s top hat swallowing up the top of her head so that her eyes, large and alight with interest, were just visible under its brim.

“Who could possibly have taken these?” Alice puzzled out loud. They were surprisingly good, for party photos. She scrolled down and found that the last one of the post was Stayne in a handstand, with the Hatter standing in the background, hair pulled back and arms crossed. The text described the run-in between Stayne (billed for some reason as The Knave) and the Mad Hatter. “The Knave attempted to introduce fists into the battle, but luckily for him, the tussle was broken up before the Mad Hatter could be induced to retaliate,” the text read. Hmm, was it lucky for Stayne? She had rather thought it was lucky for herself and the Hatter.

Her finger traced its way over to the “About” link, where she was met with the enigmatic smile of a certain purple-suited antagonist.

“Chessur!” she cried. That made sense. He was the only person she’d known was at all three of the events. Thank heavens he hadn’t followed them to the Windmill Bar or there might have been a more interesting concluding picture. Alice tried not to let her embarrassment show, since her mother was scrutinizing her reactions and Margaret had given up on sulking in favor of climbing on the couch and peering over Alice’s shoulder.

“You know this blogger, Alice?” her mother asked disbelievingly.

“Not really, no,” said Alice quickly. “I met him last night when he came over to talk to Tarrant.” She figured there wasn’t much point trying to be sneaky about who she’d been with last night at this juncture. “He and Chessur seem to have had a falling out, so when we saw him later on that evening we tried to avoid him. I really can’t believe he got close enough to take that picture without me noticing. He’s not the least visible of people.”

Margaret rolled her eyes and interjected, “It’s not like you’re the hardest person to sneak up on Alice. Besides,” her tone turned teasing, and she snatched the computer away so she could get a better look at the pictures, “you seem to have been pretty focused on someone else! And a very tall and good-looking if somewhat peculiar someone else he is! It works though, if he were too perfect he would never catch your attention, now would he?”

Margaret’s giggles faded when she looked up into her mother’s severe gaze. Yelena knelt and turned the computer around.

“There’s also this, which is even more troublesome from a professional standpoint.” She navigated away from the Cheshire blog and went to another, this time on the Paris Vogue site. It was in French, but all three of them knew enough to get the gist of the writing. The article was a glowing review of the show, particularly mentioning Alice’s name in the context of the collection. Further down, the journalist implied that Alice would be featured in any future Bembury collections and went on to speculate that she might be the face of Vetvier’s upcoming ready-to-wear campaign.

“Oh lord,” said Alice. “That frenchwoman. Oh drat.”

Yelena’s eyes widened. “Did you talk to her too? What did you say to her?”

“Nothing! You always told me to say nothing. But Tarrant was standing right there so I guess he attempted to rescue me since I’d completely stalled out. Though he didn’t say any of those things. Just a sort of vague ‘Alice did a nice job, didn’t she’ and ‘yes, I’ll probably make more hats in the future as I’m a hatter.’”

Yelena sighed. “It sounds like both of you need a great deal more training in talking to the press. You can’t give those harpies an inch or they will take a hundred miles! Though I will confess I did speak to her briefly, telling her that you were working for Vetvier on the ad campaign as well.”

“Oh, am I?” Alice said vaguely.

“Yes, Absolem confirmed it with me after the show. I’m to go into the Vetvier office about it tomorrow. But after this he may be angry enough to stop the whole thing. Oh I knew this would blow up in all our faces,” she sighed.

Alice cautiously attempted, “It isn’t that bad though, is it Mother? I mean, they were saying nice things even if they were exaggerating, so is it really such a disaster?”

Yelena looked at her with an expression of resigned annoyance. “Alice, you know that making any money whatsoever as a model is a balancing act. Any slip too far in one direction and you lose all your chances of making money with others. You aren’t suited to be a fit model, but you are good enough for catalogue work if we could get you seen as suitable for women’s wear and not just juniors as you’ve been doing. I thought doing a little high-fashion work might give your portfolio a boost though before last night you’ve never shown much aptitude. But if your face is too recognizable they aren’t going to want you. And it’ll be back to hand modelling for the foreseeable future.”

Alice shuddered. There was good money in hand modelling, and it was how they’d started out. Alice’s willowy hands were actually displayed prominently about the city several years ago in a major jewelry campaign. But to stay ready for the job she’d had to stop drawing, was barely allowed to pick up a pencil or pen for years, and wore gloves everywhere she went. Her mother had taken her out of school to be home educated, which pretty much had to happen anyway as they couldn’t afford the school fees. Most of Alice’s day-to-day work were jobs that her mother had contracted under the table so that there wouldn’t be problems with her working so much as a minor. The upshot was that she’d had to sit at home for great swaths of time and not draw or write or do anything. It had been a huge relief to Alice when her mother had finally declared her ready for catalog work where the focus would not be so much on her hands. She couldn’t go back to that now.

Yelena, seeing her daughter’s consternation, caved a little and said, “Well, it may not come to that. We’ll see what Absolem says. Take the next few days to heal up, go to the gym, go to your little class, and be ready for the shoot on Thursday. And no hatters!”

Alice made a noise of protest, “It wasn’t Tarrant’s fault what she wrote!”

“It is his fault that you may need extra-thick makeup on your neck. And it’s down to both of you that I spent the last day worried out of my mind about what could possibly have happened to you.”

The younger girl hung her head a bit. “Sorry. I really am sorry for causing you concern.”

Alice reflected that she could have at least texted her mother to tell her she’d be out all night, but she hadn’t mostly because she was avoiding reading the texts that would likely have told her to come straight home this instant.

Yelena looked at her skeptically. “Show me by doing as I say for the next few days Alice.”

Alice did not nod, as she knew this promise would be too difficult for her to keep. Yelena held her gaze until she looked away, telling herself she was satisfied.

Chapter Text

Tarrant ran through the halls of the London Vetvier building much as he had been wont to do in the weeks leading up to the show. Some of the patternmakers, junior designers and office workers smiled when they saw him, calling out greetings that were returned with a chipper wave. Others, who had been more directly under his tyrannical reign for the past while, muttered to each other that they hoped he was just here for a visit and not to critique the show.

He bounded on past and the workers returned to their tasks, though after a major show like the one on Saturday, everyone wanted to take it easy. Everyone but Absolem, apparently, as he already was in a meeting with someone when Tarrant arrived at his office door. Larry, Absolem’s Personal Assistant, told Tarrant to wait as he was due to be finished at any moment. Waiting was a difficult thing for Tarrant to do in his current state. He sat down, thinking perhaps he would be able to sit still if he opened his sketchbook and tried to do some work like he’d been doing non-stop for the past day since Alice had run out of his house. Not so. Now that he was a little closer to the one person who seemed to know them both, he was too wound up. He thrust the sketchbook to the side and wandered over to the window, looking down and out over the bustling streets, teeming with people out on their lunch breaks.

Oh, damn, would Absolem refuse to see him until he’d eaten? The old fussbudget could be very particular about his routines. Tarrant was tapping his foot and tracing something with his finger on the glass. Did it begin with an “A”? Perhaps, perhaps. The Hatter turned sharply, and caught Larry, half-risen from his chair, trying to see into the sketchbook Tarrant had left sprawled all over the tasteful leather chair next to the identical one he’d been occupying.

The PA shot him a guilty look, but Tarrant waved it away. He supposed it was intriguing, that he should arrive promptly after the show they’d done not two days ago with a book full of womenswear designs rather than hats. However, Tarrant had been to the most prestigious fashion-design program in the country—it was silly to think he could only do headwear. In fact, there’d been precious little in his degree that was even remotely useful in the realm of haberdashery and running a venerable house of such.

If Tarrant hadn’t been brought up to it, fitting in his apprenticeship to his uncle into school holidays and then in between his university classes, it would likely have been too much for him to handle despite the accolades they’d heaped on him at school. Thankfully the place came with clerks and managers and assistants aplenty to run the more mundane aspects.

As it was, hats were familiar, and comforting, and indeed probably what he would be very happy doing for the rest of his life, but every so often Tarrant got fixated on making something else. Like when that fellow of Mally’s had needed a suit. Tarrant had been happy to comply, but couldn’t stop himself at just one, and nearly all the males of his acquaintance found themselves one bespoke tailored suit the richer for it. He’d also made himself a few, since there were several improvements he wanted to try out that no one else seemed particularly interested in. While Tarrant loved to be inventive, innovative, and inspired, it was also very important to him that the people he was crafting for feel comfortable and pleased with the result.

Thus, when he’d asked Mally if she’d like a three piece suit—skirt or pants, her choice—and she had wrinkled her nose and asked for a “punk-rock disney princess day dress in red and black, like Harley Quinn meets Snow White” he’d done his best to deliver. Unfortunately, that had led to him much later asking another female of his acquaintance if he could make a suit for her, and that had not turned out so well. Not the suit—the suit was lovely—pure white, classic and modern all at once, he’d been very proud of that suit. Just, the rest of it was still painful to think about.

The past couple of days though he hadn’t had to worry much about the path his thoughts took; almost all of his thinking had been about Alice. It had been pretty much a constant state since he’d seen her making faces at herself in the dressing station mirror, oblivious while the other models haughtily rolled their eyes at her. Her figure looked well enough, he supposed, though maybe a little too much like a starved model for his usual tastes. What had really grabbed him, however, was her playfulness, her curiosity and intelligence, her kindness and her resolve. These qualities showed in her lovely face, and he was smitten.

Truth be told, Tarrant was also a bit of a sucker for a sob story, and he knew it. Perhaps it was an effect of having such a lengthy one of his own. Alice’s tale of being forced into modeling was still only half-told, but he admired her for being both matter-of-fact about relevant facts and refusing to splash the details about like a daytime soap opera character. He desperately wanted to know more, but that would have to wait until he’d gotten in touch with her.

What he could do, and had been doing, in the meantime and between trying to think up new ways to locate Alice, was design dresses for her. Again, not so much for her physical form, which was perfectly nice, but for bringing out the merry twinkle in her eye and the devious curve of her smile. He’d been on a roll, tearing through his sketchbook and even starting one or two things in his workshop at home.

So let Larry look, it would make a good pretext for going in to speak to Absolem, though all the Hatter really wanted from this encounter was Alice’s number. Tarrant was still debating as to how best to ask, straight-out or in some fashion-related white lie, when the door opened. Absolem had courteously opened it (strange enough in itself!) for a tall woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair to exit. Her suit was very well-made, and her manner was cultured and sophisticated. She seemed pleased, and took Absolem’s offered hand warmly. Her entire manner changed, however, when she turned and looked up at Tarrant.

Her jaw tightened, her eyes narrowed, and although her posture had been perfect before she drew herself up even taller and if the lady were not so elegant, the Hatter could have sworn her nostrils actually flared with disapproval as she took him in. He was not dressed that strangely, he thought. Perhaps his button-up shirt was a shade or two brighter than the most popular yellows, but his trousers were brown, well, orange-brown corduroy actually, but for him that was practically funereal. His leather jacket was green, yes, but not the brightest of greens. Her eyes flicked up to his hat, not a top hat today, but a more socially acceptable brown fedora with an orange-flecked feather in a leather band. Right out of Uni Tarrant hadn’t given a toss about catering to the social mores of others and had worn the top hat proudly wherever he went. But these past few years trying to haul Bembury out of the ditch that his great-uncle’s advanced age and failing faculties had driven it into had given him some appreciation of the value of compromise.

Absolem had noticed Tarrant as well, and was looking between the Hatter and the blonde woman with a mildly inquisitive expression. Hatter’s face was completely perplexed. He shrugged helplessly at Absolem. The woman had made her way down to his shoes when her expression went from frigid to overtly hostile. Tarrant winced, as even he had to admit his footwear was not terribly professional. They started life as Adidas Sambas in orange and white, but he’d taken out all the white stripes and facings and replaced or covered them over with his own versions in various rainbow colors. He thought the shoes were rather splendid, but they were not what he usually wore to work.

Honestly, he hadn’t been paying very much attention when he left the house that morning. The past few days had been a bit of a haze, actually. The calmest and clearest he had felt in weeks really was the half-hour or so he’d had to sit with Alice in his kitchen. While he was well aware that courtship should be a little more exciting than that, he found he very much hoped that there might be more of that sort of comfortable companionship in store for the two of them.

Absolem cleared his throat, and Tarrant realized that he had been daydreaming while being glared at by the woman Absolem was showing out of his office.

“Sorry,” he said, then stepped forward and extended his hand to try to make the best of it. “Tarrant Hayes, I worked with Absolem in the most recent show.”

The woman took his hand with decided reluctance.

Absolem piped up, “This is Yelena Parikova. She worked with me as a model when I started out, and now is a freelance agent.”

The woman nodded coldly and added, “But I am still sometimes known by my married name of Kingsleigh.”

Tarrant’s eyes widened. Oh damn. Oh wretched twist of fate! He took the woman in again. There were definite traces of Alice in her face and build, but this creature was much more severe and...scary.

“I believe you know her client, Miss Alice Kingsleigh,” Absolem said mildly, though a glance showed a horrified Tarrant that the old coot was thoroughly enjoying his discomfort.

“Oh, she’s my daughter first in situations such as these, Absolem,” the icy blonde replied.

Absolem only nodded, and Tarrant couldn’t do much more than stand and gape so surprised was he. The thought of running into Alice’s mother before the girl herself had never crossed his mind.

“How do you do,” he said a little belatedly, his green eyes huge in agitation. “Very pleased to meet you,” he managed, wishing it were not so obvious that he was anything but. “Alice has told me all about you—I mean, some things about you, I mean, that you act as her agent.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Yelena said.

“And, and how is Alice?” the Hatter continued, figuring he might as well make the best of an awkward situation by hearing what he could on the subject he’d come about in the first place.

“Alice is. . .recovering. From the show and a busy weekend,” she said shortly, as if it had nothing at all to do with him. “She has a job coming up so I doubt she will have time for anything other than work and her studies for the foreseeable future.”

Yelena turned to Absolem. “See you Thursday.”

Tarrant waved lamely as she stalked off. Well, that hadn’t gone very well. The whole encounter had wilted him, causing even his buoyant curls to seem to droop. Being judged and found wanting was something that had certainly happened to Tarrant many times before, but it never failed to leave him feeling drained.

“Hatter.” Absolem’s features had returned to their standard mix of irritation and ennui. “You needed to see me about something? I would have thought that even you would be pleased with the results of Saturday night.”

Tarrant’s jaw worked without his permission.

“I have absolutely no idea why I’m here,” he said dazedly, mind on whether or not Alice would still want to talk to him after he’d made such a bad impression on her tigress of a mother.

Larry had been ignoring this interaction in favor of nosily shuffling through the sketchbook that the Hatter had left on the chair. He took the liberty of interjecting, holding out the book for Absolem to see, opened to a page where Tarrant had drawn a parade of dresses.

“Somebody has been busy,” Larry remarked, pointing to the plethora of designs.

“Evidently,” said Absolem dryly, his eyes still on the Hatter’s.

Then Absolem turned, taking the book from the hands of his PA and entering his office. “Get in here, you stupid boy,” he called after Tarrant made no move to follow him. He pulled himself from his thoughts enough to walk inside.

-o-o-o-

Alice walked up to Witzend House, her feet carrying her ever closer to her goal. Though it had only been a day and a half since she’d first seen the place, it held a homey sort of fascination for her. She had longed to go back ever since she’d first left, and Alice’s heart quickened to see the place before her. She jogged up to the door and knocked thrice, boldly. As she stood about waiting for an answer, Alice examined the exterior. Though there were several windows on both the lower and upper floors the structure looked much smaller from the street than she remembered. How could the housefront be so small? It had felt light and airy inside, and Tarrant’s room must have been plenty large to house that enormous bed. Her cheeks lit again with a blush as she thought of how she had entangled herself in his embrace that night.

Her ardor cooled a little bit when she realized that no one had answered the door, and at this point, no one was likely to. She stepped up to the door and knocked again, just to be sure. When it yielded the same result, Alice sighed a bit not so much at her failure as at the disappointment of having to wait longer to see Tarrant. But it was only lunch time, it was perfectly understandable that he would be at work like everyone else until the evening. Perhaps she should have waited til then. Today her mother had swept out of the house, barely stopping to mention that she had an appointment. Alice had hopefully seized the chance to return to Witzend. It would be much more difficult to escape Yelena in the evening. Still, she would have to try. Alice needed to see Tarrant again, if only to give him her number and take the chance on his interest.

As she was turning to head back to the Underground, Alice’s eyes settled on the little gate across the alley next to the house. Tarrant had mentioned having a car, but this space would be much too narrow to function as a drive. She approached and peeked past the arched gate. Hesitantly she reached out a hand. Latched. Not quite willing to give up, Alice reached her arm over the gate to see if it was just latched or truly locked.

Her fumbling fingers found the catch and lifted. Unlocked! Alice told herself very soberly that as much as she liked Tarrant, entering his gate without his permission was still trespassing. She should slip a note into the letter slot on the front door instead and then wait for him to call her. It was very good advice, but by the time the thought had filtered through her head she’d already passed into the alleyway past bicycles of varying sizes and colors, a shopping trolley full of tin pails (there had to be a story there), and a unicycle, along with various and sundry other items of recreation and transportation. Some of these were hung neatly but most had been piled haphazardly, leaving just enough space for Alice to squeeze through and follow the red brick walk.

The alleyway felt like it went back for a mile, though Alice was fully aware that it could only have gone as far back as the house, which though charming and unexpected, was not that large. Alice tried to peek through the windows as she went along, spotting a room that must have been Tarrant’s workroom because it was chock full of various bolts and spools and feathers and tools. The next couple of windows had curtains drawn, so Alice couldn’t tell what might be inside. A little further and she was peering into a neatly kept office. Probably not Tarrant’s then. Not with the perfectly spare wooden desk with a single closed laptop set in the middle of the surface.

This space got plenty of light, as it rounded the corner with windows on two walls. Alice had noticed that the tangle of equipment in the alleyway had given way to some flowerbeds as she drew nearer to the back. They probably got just enough sun to thrive in the further parts of the alleyway.

Peeking around the corner, Alice was finally in the garden which she had seen from the kitchen window. It was autumn, so there were all the cut-back plants and drab browns that went with it, but other than some necessary concessions to the season, the whole place was wonderful. It was far larger than she’d expected, the brick walls extending outward like the spokes of a wheel from the house, whose rear face was much more sprawling than what it put out toward the street. However had they found this house? Alice was half in love as she moved among the different plantings, laid out precisely but all done in an informal style. There were no rows and boxes, just curving lines and unexpected views. Alice found a statue of a fearsome looking bird that was more than half gargoyle, and wondered if he’d fallen from a church somewhere.

A threesome of old fruit trees covered the back of the garden proper, going right back up to the garage that marked the end of the property. Behind it there was a regular vegetable garden, putting out some greens and winter squash though most of its surface had been covered over with straw. Alice darted around to the front of the garage, and peeking through the window into the dark interior saw something red with glinty chrome. Could that be the Hatter’s car, she wondered. It seemed a bit much for even a rising star in the design world. However, as Alice knew from her childhood circles, earning money oneself was not the only—or even most usual—route to having it. She frowned, knowing that she was being a bit prejudiced toward the elite children she’d gone to school with, but Tarrant seemed so pleasant and unpretentious that she couldn’t imagine him among their ranks.

Alice turned and scampered back up the paths leading to the house, thinking she ought to leave a note after all this. Near the back door, which seemed to open into the dining room, she found a wrought iron table with flowers cleverly inserted into its curlicues and with four matching chairs round it, and sat down in one of them to compose her note. In it she gave as much identifying information as she could, stopping short of her tax id number as that didn’t seem quite appropriate. Still, she gave her full name, mobile, email, name as it appeared on facebook, and even (though her mother would be horrified) her home address. Just in case. When Alice set out to rectify a problem, in this case the Hatter not being able to contact her, she didn’t do it by halves.

She was just getting up from the table when the door to the house swung open.

“Trespasser!” a livid voice shrieked, waving about a red-capped can of what must have been illegal pepper spray.

Alice put her hands out in front of her quickly.

“No! Mally! Don’t! It’s just me—it’s just Alice,” she cried. Everything she knew of the diminutive girl before her led her to think she would shoot first and ask questions later.

Indeed, Mally, again wearing her grey sweatshirt with the mouse hood pulled up, looked a little disappointed as she lowered her cannister. Still, her eyes narrowed shrewdly and she sniffed.

“Hmph! Just Alice indeed! I should still call the police—what do you think you’re doing breaking and entering here?”

“I didn’t break and enter—” Alice looked only slightly guilty as she said this, “the gate was unlocked. I just wanted to see if anyone was home and leave a note. Besides, you don’t live here either, so what would the police have to say to that?”

Alice’s own eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared a bit as realization came upon her, “You must have heard me knocking earlier. If you’d just opened the door in the first place I never would have thought of trying the gate.”

Mally didn’t seem capable of looking guilty. Instead she humphed and bristled and looked like she wanted to start biting and pulling hair. Alice took a step back, completely uninterested in having to explain to her mother that she’d gotten into a fistfight with a pint-sized friend of the man whose house she’d stayed over. That would hardly help her case for being allowed to date.

Unconsciously shifting her stance from wary to imperious, Alice folded the note in her hands. She held it out to Mally.

“In any event, I must go. Would you please give this to Tarrant or leave it where he will find it? Thank you.”

She stepped forward and thrust the paper at the smaller girl, forcing her to take it out of reflex. Mally glared at her, but reluctantly nodded, since Alice was waiting for some kind of confirmation before she would leave.

Alice also nodded. She wished she didn’t have to have such an antagonistic relationship with this girl who was clearly a good friend of Tarrant, but there seemed to be little she could do about it now.

“Good day,” she said, and swept off, though she suspected that to Mally that move had come off rather like how Mrs. Ascot treated her. Well, Alice hoped to have time to make it up to Mally if she’d let her, but nothing could be done until Tarrant decided whether or not he’d like to see her again. She’d done what she could, but Alice still felt longing twisting inside of her as she hoped against hope that he would.

-o-o-o-

“Well, now I’ve gone and done it,” the Hatter announced upon entering his living room later that evening.

Mally and Nivens looked up briefly from the telly where they were raptly watching House Hunters Abroad, but when Tarrant paused too long his dramatic effect was lost and they turned back to their program. Tarrant huffed and walked past them into the kitchen, setting his messenger bag down on the counter. Thackery looked up from the sauce he was seasoning on the stove.

“What’d ye do now?” he asked disinterestedly.

Tarrant saw that he could either forge on or go off in a huff while no one listened, so he went ahead despite the lukewarm reception.

“I went to see Absolem today. I didn’t get Alice’s number, and I didn’t see her, though unfortunately I ran into her mother. Didn’t make a terribly good impression I’m afraid,” he said fretfully.

“Her mother, eh?” Thackery looked as though this reminded him of something. He continued his kitchen ritual of banging through cupboards and slamming drawers with slightly more agitation than usual.

“Weel, that’s what you didnae do. What were you on about doing this time?” he questioned.

“Oh. I think I’ve accidentally petitioned Absolem to create the Vetvier summer ready-to-wear line under my own sub-label. And despite trying to tell Absolem that the whole thing was a misunderstanding I was accepted. And did I mention I still don’t have Alice’s number?” Tarrant frowned as he snaked under Thackery’s arm to taste the sauce on the stove.

“Mmm, this is delicious. For pasta?”

Thackery paused and looked at him disbelievingly. “How did ye manage to do tha’ ‘accidentally’?” he demanded.

Tarrant shrugged.

“Meatloaf, actually,” Thackery conceded. “‘S in the oven.”

“These things always seem to happen to me,” Tarrant complained. “I go in somewhere for one reason, such as to find the communication information of the most interesting girl I’ve ever met, and then come out having promised to make a great number of dresses for a company that I don’t even really work for. My accountant is going to give me hell about this one. I can jest hear it now, ‘employer number’ blah blah ‘tax status’ blah ‘ineligible income’ blah. She doesn’t seem to grasp how deeply I neither care nor understand what she has to say.”

“Oh poor lit’le Tarrant, getting major design contracts wherever you go. I’ll be sure to tell yer former classmates so they can write out sympathy cards,” he said sarcastically.

The Hatter paused, and grimaced. He was being selfishly arrogant again, wasn’t he? Thank goodness he had friends who didn’t let him get away with this sort of thing or he wouldn’t have any friends at all.

He waved his hand dismissively. “Forget about the design contract. It all stems from the same problem: it’s been a whole day and I can’t find Alice, despite having found her mother, who I definitely didn’t want to find.”

“Sae Absolem didn’t have her number?” Thackery asked, rustling around in the silverware drawer for just the right sized serving spoon.

“Nae. He gave me the contact information of that sabretooth tiger of a mother of hers, but I’ve not quite lost all hope yet. Maybe I will have to use it.”

Thackery turned to him with a sigh. “Have ye even looked her up yet? Online, like a normal citizen o’ th’ twenty-first century?”

Tarrant’s eyes widened. What a good idea! Yet another reason to be grateful for his friends.

He rushed off without a word and retrieved his tablet from where it was charging under a pile of drawing and a landslide of ribbons on the desk in his workroom. When he got back, Thackery was inspecting some sauerkraut in a large crock he kept in one of the bottom cupboards.

Tarrant pushed past him, plunking down at the table and agitatedly trying to start up his tablet. Oh, it was off. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the table as it loaded.

“There,” he said with relief as the browser came up, “now what do I put in? Just her name?”

“It’s a start,” Thackery said.

“Alice K-i-n-g-s-l hmm. Now is it ‘ey’ or ‘ee’ or—”

“e-i-g-h,” Thackery finished, coming over to look. At Tarrant’s questioning glance he explained, “Mally an’ I saw her ID, remember?”

“Oh yes. She was a Sagittarius. That’s coming up. What was the date again?”

Thackery rolled his eyes at his friend’s eccentric methods of cataloguing information.

“It was the thirtieth of November. And she goes to City University, that might be relevant.”

They scrutinized the search results together. One of the first hits was AliceKingsleigh.com, and from the headshots and resume it contained was clearly her professional website. From the wording and design, Tarrant doubted that Alice had ever even looked at it. Sure enough, the contact number and email were the same as those Absolem had smirkingly furnished him with for Yelena.

“Damn.”

They tried again. But her facebook profile and LinkedIn accounts were also strictly for professional use. They tried the City University website, but surmised that you had to be logged in to access any student directories they had.

“We could call in th’ mornin’,” Thackery said doubtfully.

Tarrant had resorted to whacking his head against the table hopelessly.

“I suppose I could call her mother. . .” Tarrant said. “Or maybe get Nivens to do it pretending to be about a job?”

“She still wouldn’t give him Alice’s number mos’ likely,” Thackery argued.

“Well, maybe I could set up a photo shoot or something.”

“A pretend photo shoot to get a real model to waste her time an’ energy? Sounds like trouble. . .”

“Yes,” Tarrant sighed. “Most likely. But. . .” something was niggling at his head. He continued speaking slowly, trying to connect the dots, “Yelena said she’d see Absolem on Thursday. Absolem told me he couldn’t meet on Thursday morning, because they’d be shooting the ad campaign. Could Alice be in that shoot?” He blinked his green eyes. “Was he. . .trying to help me out after all?”

Thackery shook his head at his friend.

“Weel, heaven knows ye need all the help ye can get.”

“Huh. That’s true enough I suppose,” Tarrant allowed. “Still, I didn’t expect it to come from Absolem. And Thursday is ages off. I wanted to speak to Alice as soon as possible. I’ll be completely mad by Thursday for certain.”

Thackery turned back to his kitchen, pulling the meatloaf out of the oven and steadfastly ignoring Tarrant’s melodramatics.

“Also Alice will be very busy and her mother will be there. And Larry. Honestly Thackery, he’s such a pill.”

The young man looked up suddenly like an animal hearing the crunch of a predator’s paws on the forest floor. He pulled the red gingham potholders from his hands and lunged back over to the table where Tarrant was sitting.

“Giv’ me tha’,” he said hastily, grabbing the tablet from Tarrant’s startled grasp. “Ah knew there was somethin’ about Alice ah was forgetting.”

He started typing as rapidly as the touch screen allowed, muttering and tapping his fingers against the table. He set the tablet down, and Tarrant looked over to see Thackery scrolling down a list, one hand worrying a stray dreadlock that had come loose from its tie.

“What is it?” asked Tarrant. The suspense was killing him. “What did you forget about Alice? Was it some way to find her?”

“Nae. It’s what ye said, and she said—about a pill. A small vitamin. With a small letter ‘r’ she said. I knew it sounded peculiar. Ah was going to look it up, but, weel, she left an’ you and Mally got into it, an’ I jus’ forgot. What color?”

His intense honey colored eyes flicked up from the screen and bored into Tarrant’s. Tarrant tried to cast his mind back. Alice had been sitting right in the chair he had now. She’d been talking about the very boring diet she’d been kept on for the past several years and he’d been thinking that it practically amounted to child abuse—no bread nor butter! And she had said. . .

“Blue. She said it was blue.”

“Are ye sure?”

Tarrant smiled wanly, “I’m very good with colors.”

“Ye are, at that.”

Thackery narrowed his search on what Tarrant had now ascertained was a prescription drug look-up site. Thackery seemed confident navigating it, and Tarrant wondered if this knowledge was a holdover from some of Thackery’s earlier recreational interests. His eyebrow raised of its own accord when he recalled some of the messes those pursuits had gotten them into. Most seemed to have burnt themselves out harmlessly, but March would come again.

“Can you really tell exactly what pharmaceutical from that scanty amount of information?”

“Nae. There’s also a code imprinted on th’ other side, but most people don’t notice it. But ah can tell what products are out there that match the criteria we have. There’s not many.”

Thackery looked closer.

“And they’re none of them good. I need ta see that bottle. Ah thought that her mother might’ve been slipping her diet pills. Ah hope ye noticed how awfully starved that girl looked.”

“Well, she had a rough night. And she’d looked fine enough the evening before.”

“When she was wearing about a kilo of makeup, surrounded by girls who were similarly starved. Bu’ there’s nary a diet pill on here. Jus’—” Thackery gulped, then twitched. “Oh lord. Oh shite.”

He clicked on a link and began rapidly scanning a new page. He raced to tap in a new search, this one for a drug name that Tarrant couldn’t begin to pronounce.

Thackery stopped short and looked Tarrant straight in the eye.

“We’ve got to find tha’ girl immediately.”

Chapter Text

“Mally!” Thackery shouted. “Ge’ in here RIGHT THIS BLOODY MINUTE!”

Tarrant was shocked to see this kind of a response from the often-timid man beside him. His alarm grew and Tarrant tried to make sense of the webpage Thackery had left open. Something about “gonadotrophin-releasing hormone agonist”, the language was too densely packed with medical jargon to tell what the jist of it was. However, it had become clear that Thackery believed Alice was being given—had been given for years apparently—some drug without her knowledge.

“Do you really think it couldn’t be a vitamin, then?” Tarrant said in a small voice.

“Ah dunno. But I don’t think sae.”

Mally came rushing in, alert but annoyed.

“What have I done this time? An’ can this please wait just a mo’? They’re about to choose which house in Morocco to renovate!”

Thackery leapt up and grabbed Mally by the shoulders.

“I know ye’ve got a better memory than most, Mally. That girl, Alice—an before ye start ah don’t care if ye hate her guts—can ye remember if there was a phone number on her ID? Or her student ID number? Was there an email? Anything?”

Mally looked a little taken aback by Thackery’s intensity. Her eyes shifted to Tarrant who was at the table, looking pale and worried but slightly hopeful.

“What’s happened? Why are you lot so worked up?”

“It’s something Alice said when she was here yesterday. It may be nothing, or it may be bad. She’s being given something, something that could be very bad for her, but in any case she needs to hear about it right away.”

He then lowered his voice, even though Tarrant wasn’t very far away. He turned a little, pretending not to notice, eager to spare Mally’s feelings whenever possible.

“Ah know ye’re jealous. Bu’ ye’re also a gud person, Mally. Don’t let yerself down.”

Mally’s brown eyes grew even more troubled. They kept flicking downward, and Thackery noticed that her hands were balled in the pockets of her hoodie. She finally nodded tightly, and pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her left hand pocket.

“Not so good then,” she said with a weak grin. “But here. She was here round lunchtime.” Mally regained a little of her fierceness as she continued, “Let herself right in the gate even though it was latched! I caught her writing that out on the back table, sitting there like she owned the place.”

Mally’s voice faltered a bit at the end, as she recalled exactly who did own the place, and how mean and spiteful it was to withhold Alice’s note from him. Her head lowered, making her mouse ears droop in shame.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Tarrant hardly seemed to have heard. He’d leapt up to receive the note from Mally. His eyes were dancing over the paper and despite the serious turn events had taken, a faint smile pulled at his lips as the loops and spires of Alice’s hand reminded him of her quirks and cuteness. Here was proof that she wanted to see him as desperately as he wanted to see her. Or nearly so, for he was fairly tied in knots with desperation.

Tarrant tried to muster up some severe words for Mally, but she looked so down that all he could do was pat her head and say, “Thank you.”

Thackery took this opportunity to pluck the paper from Tarrant’s grasp and with a lunge grabbed his mobile from where he’d set it on the counter.

“Don’t you think I should call her?” Tarrant said, reaching for his mobile even as Thackery was tapping out a text on his iPhone.

“Nae. Ye can call her later. Or tomorrow. Or actually, can ye pick Alice up before work if she says it’s alright? Or Mibbe tonight wuld be better. I need tae see her and the bottle these pills came in tae be sure. We can hope it’s a vitamin, but if it is there’ll be no harm in skipping it. I’ll bet gud money though, it’ll be a prescription bottle and if it is what I think it is we’ll need to get her away from her mother as soon as possible.”

Thack sounded grim, and Tarrant neither wanted to belittle that possibility nor jump to any harmful conclusions. Concern for Alice’s welfare warred with elation that he would hopefully see her and hear her lovely voice sooner than he’d expected.

“I’ll go get her immediately if she’ll let me,” Tarrant vowed.

“Let’s see wha’ she says,” Thackery replied.

-o-o-o-

Alice had never been so interested in her mobile in her entire life. Even when she’d been sick in bed and its tiny screen was her only entertainment in the miniscule and boring apartment, she would toss it carelessly on the nightstand where it might fall to the floor unnoticed whenever she moved anything on the surface. Now she held it clutched in her right hand, ringer on plus vibration as she did her reading for class the next day. It was on burial mounds in the British Isles, and normally she would find the subject completely entrancing. As it was, Alice could barely go six words without her eyes skittering over to the blank screen in her hand which she would turn on and unlock before concluding that yes, there really had been no communication from the Hatter.

Finally she gave up on her reading for the time being—she could fit the rest of it in the next morning before her class. Alice took the mobile and went up to the roof where despite the chill she felt a bit calmer than in her cramped apartment. How was it, she wondered, that she found some small spaces claustrophobically cramped, and others she found comfortingly cozy?

Alice thought about Witzend House, and how its corners and crannies definitely fell into the latter category. Even the upstairs bath, which no one could be so generous as to describe as even large enough for all its plumbing, hadn’t bothered her the way the rooms of the Kingsleigh flat below her grated on her nerves.

The screen of her mobile lit up, and Alice looked at it, surprised. This time she was sure she hadn’t let her nervous fingers light the screen. No! She had a text. Would Tarrant text after all that?

It read:

[Find that pill bottle! Not likely vitamins but prescription. Check all cabinets and drawers open bottles til you locate the pill.]

The number was unfamiliar. But what on earth was this? It didn’t seem likely to be Tarrant at all. But she had talked about her vitamin with him, hadn’t she? Though she supposed it was his friend who was more interested.

Oh, a second message:

[Call as soon as you locate. Tarrant will pick you up. Thackery.]

So it was Thackery! Alice’s heart beat faster. Tarrant would come to get her? Tonight? Alice couldn’t believe it. It was already after six, and her mother was likely to soon turn up from wherever she went off to most afternoons. Margaret was also out, but she too came and went as she pleased. It was only Alice, she thought resentfully, who caught hell whenever she wasn’t where they expected her to be. She wasn’t quite locked up though. She could often go out to wander in the mornings as long as she checked in at the gym afterward—her mother could check her attendance online, something Alice loathed but was part of the place’s accountability service. Being hounded by one’s mother about one’s whereabouts as well as calorie loss was probably not the intended purpose, but it was how Yelena used it.

The part about the pills was puzzling, but Alice wasn’t quite alarmed. Tarrant’s friend had seemed rather oddly fixated on the details of her diet, so maybe there was some academic reason for his wanting to know more about the pill she’d described. However, the thought that it wasn’t a vitamin was disconcerting. Why, what else could it be? Alice began to imagine she had some sort of rare disease that she didn’t know about. But no—she hadn’t been to the doctor in ages, and then just for a persistent cough.

She hurried back downstairs though, for a large part of her was quite as motivated by the part about Tarrant coming to get her as the mystery of her morning pill’s significance. Alice realized that she would have to be quick if she wanted to have this wrapped up before her mother or sister barged in and asked her what she was doing. She opened the cabinet next to the tiny stove where her mother kept the herbal supplements that she took for colds and such. There were several standard health-food market style bottles, but none contained her daily pill.

Alice continued her search in the bathroom, a cramped space that had been the source of countless hours of arguments between the three people who needed to use it. Yelena and Margaret each thought the other spent far too much time monopolizing it, while Yelena felt that Alice ought to put her time in it to better use than baths and seeing to bodily functions. Alice couldn’t think of why she ought to spend even more time staring at her reflection than she already did, especially since aestheticians and makeup artists and hair stylists regularly slaved over her for hours. Still, Alice couldn’t so much as apply lipstick without her mother sighing and picking apart her technique.

Needless to say, the bathroom wasn’t Alice’s favorite space. She poked her head in and looked at the bins lining the shelf over the toilet. Lots of bottles, but all were filled with creams and gels and liquids. Alice opened the medicine cabinet beyond the mirror and reflected that this was where she should have started her search if she were really following Thackery’s advice. Somehow it had seemed too strange to think that he would be right about this. She’d been expecting to find the little blue pills in the kitchen cabinet with the other harmless remedies and supplements.

Her eyes took in the three flimsy shelves packed with items such as cotton swabs, painkillers, cough syrup and makeup remover. The top one had the expired eczema cream Margaret had been prescribed as a teenager and her mother’s sleeping pills. Next to those, however, was a sizeable white bottle with a childproof cap and a prescription label made out to a woman who didn’t exist any more. Alice took it from the shelf, and within she found the tiny blue pill, one of which she had been given each day for years.

Alice felt tears sting her eyes. The label was made out to Helen Kingsleigh, as her mother had been known for the duration of her marriage. She’d changed it back after her husband’s death and the ensuing scandals made it uncomfortable to bear, but despite being the same woman physically, Yelena Parikova had never felt quite the same as the mother of her youth and childhood.

Brushing the tears away before they could spill over, Alice reflected she must have looked at that bottle or one of its predecessors hundreds if not thousands of times since they’d lived in the flat. She’d never once thought—never suspected that it was the source of her daily vitamins. Her nature was dreamy, she existed half in the murky past of legend and fairy stories, but could that really excuse her failure to question for six years…?

A noise from the door to the flat had Alice scrambling to shut the medicine cabinet. She took the bottle with her. “Riftorelin”, the prescription label had said. Not that the name gave her any hints as to what it might be. She peeked out the door, and saw Margaret digging through the fridge in search of something to eat.

Trying to act nonchalant was not Alice’s forte, so she shut the door to the bathroom and locked it. As quickly as she could she tapped a reply.

[Found pill. Riftorelin. Made out to Mother. Please advise.]

Alice waited a moment, then her phone began to ring. She answered it, knowing that Margaret would likely hear her through the thin walls. Indeed, at the sound of the ringer she was probably already listening intently, thinking she was spying on Alice’s fumbling attempts to talk to the man she’d run out on the day before.

Which proved to be true.

“Hello?”

“Alice,” Tarrant’s warm voice sounded relieved and anxious all at once. “How are you—all this is shocking of course—but are you all right?”

“It’s—I don’t know what’s what. What is this all about? Is it dangerous?” Alice practically swallowed the last word in her haste and confusion and fear.

“Thackery says you’re to remember that health-wise you aren’t in any more danger now than you’ve been in at any point since you’ve started taking the drug. But he is a little concerned about, well. . .he wants me to ask you if anyone knows about your discovery yet. Do they? Does your mother?”

“No,” Alice whispered, putting her hand around the receiver to try to muffle her voice. “Margaret’s just gotten home, but Mother is still out. I’m still in the bathroom where I found the bottle.”

“Thackery has contacted a physician mentor of his, and he can see you in the morning if that’s alright with you. Thackery says he would be happy to explain what he can tonight at home, but not over the phone. Would you,” Alice heard him hesitate as though he wanted her to be sure she had a choice, “Would it be alright if I came to get you? I can be there in less than half an hour. I have the address from your note. . .”He trailed off, obviously expecting to be interrupted and awaiting her response.

Alice knew the silence was probably getting to him, but she needed a moment to think. She had her class in the morning, and didn’t want to miss it. Her mother had already made her miss once so far this semester for a photo shoot and another absence would mean begging for leniency from her professor. She hated to have to do that—she didn’t want anyone at school knowing what she did for work. It was important to her to have one place where she was judged on her own merits. However, sometimes scheduling could be too difficult to avoid and she had to say something so she wouldn’t be failed.

If she didn’t go with Tarrant tonight though, she would definitely see her mother, and be expected to take her pill as usual in the morning. Alice didn’t think she was a good enough actress to fake that. Nor did she think she should be taking something without knowing what it was, despite the fact that she’d done so countless times before. Really, Alice couldn’t even begin to think how she felt about her mother right now. As much as she wanted to confront her and demand answers, a canny part of Alice that had long laid dormant knew that she shouldn’t listen to her mother’s explanation, whatever it might be, without already knowing the relevant facts.

“I’ll go. But pick me up two blocks away at the bus stop at Mosney Street. I need to—” Alice took a breath, tamping down her emotions, well aware that her sister was likely listening outside the door. “I’d like to leave before my mother arrives.”

“Yes, of course,” relief that she’d decided to get out of there filled Tarrant’s voice. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Alice could hear him opening a door even as someone or other in his house called out.

“And Tarrant,” she said quickly, “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing Alice. I’ll see you shortly. Call if anything changes.”

“Yes. Bye.”

Alice hung up quickly, scouting round the bathroom for anything she might need. She settled on her toothbrush and a comb, as she didn’t want to have to borrow someone else’s two days in a row. Not toothbrush, she amended quickly, she’d just used some tooth powder on her fingertip at Tarrant’s. Alice shoved the implements along with the pill bottle into her travel toiletries bag that laid under the sink in readiness for Alice’s frequent trips for work.

Margaret was there when she opened the door, as expected, and Alice tried to make her face as neutral as possible, hoping that any traces of anxiety would be put down to talking to the boy she liked. Indeed, Margaret seemed delighted and scandalised to see the travel bag in Alice’s hands.

“So you’re going over there already?” she asked, surprised. “I would have thought an appointment for a date later would be more what’s called for. Oh, mother will be furious. And I suppose you’re going to try to leave her all to me.”

“Well,” Alice said meekly, even as she ransacked the bedroom for what she thought she might need for the next day. “You did say you’d help.”

Margaret sighed gustily, and Alice knew she wasn’t really feeling all that put upon, or her tone would be much more cross.

“You’d better hurry then. She could be home any minute. If she catches you sneaking out she’ll be furious. What do you want me to tell her?”

Alice paused in between stuffing her school books into her backpack along with some clean clothes and grabbing her orange handbag. This time she had the presence of mind to unplug her charger and toss it in as well.

“Um, whatever you like. As long as I’m gone there’s no need to lie. I’ve gone to Tarrant’s. Neither of you knows where that is, so there’ll be nothing she can do but call me, though I won’t answer if it’s not convenient.”

Alice shrugged. “You know.”

Margaret’s salacious smile proclaimed just what she was thinking and she shoved Alice playfully. Alice frowned as she almost went down at the push. She was feeling faint. She hadn’t eaten anything yet, and there was no time now. She hefted the backpack and grabbed up her orange handbag. She was still wearing jeans and her blue trainers, but her hair was done and her sweater was a bit nicer than last time at least.

Alice ran for the door and Margaret passed her her coat and scarf with a smirk.

“Have fun!” she called, shutting the door behind her sister who bolted down the hallway at top speed.

Chapter Text

It had started raining by the time Alice reached the bus stop, the pitter-patter rapidly increasing in pace until sheets of rain were pouring down. All of the pedestrians cleared off to shelter wherever they could find it and Alice huddled alone on the bench under the minimal roof the Transportation Authority had provided. Alice briefly wondered if her mother had gotten caught in the downpour or if she’d been savvy enough to take a taxi. It was probably the latter, and nothing would be solved by Yelena getting soaked anyway.

Rain pelted down, and the knot in Alice’s stomach tightened every time headlights slowed in front of her. She clutched her bags and hoped she wouldn’t miss the car in the rain. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned feeling before seeing Tarrant again. Her pleasant memories of the weekend seemed already faded around the edges in light of this new and confusing development. What had her mother been giving her? And why? Alice bit her lip distractedly and hunched down into her damp clothes.

A cherry red vintage car pulled up to the curb and before Alice could even rise, Tarrant had hopped out of the driver’s seat and helped her up from her freezing damp refuge. He didn’t bother to speak since the sheets of water pouring over them were so deafening, or if he had said anything she couldn’t hear it. Tarrant had grabbed the backpack from the bench next to her, and Alice’s face flushed when she realized how heavy it must have felt. She didn’t want him to think she was planning on imposing on him indefinitely.

He opened the door for her, which Alice suspected she might not have been able to do for herself since it seemed to entail jiggling the door handle and lifting its weight straight up. Alice hopped in the front and settled her handbag by her feet, relieved to find no one else inside. Tarrant ran back over to his side, and tossed her bag in the back over his seat even as he got in.

“Well, that was an unnecessarily dramatic addition to the evening on the part of the fates,” he proclaimed.

Alice turned to him and smiled, though it was probably tinged with her rueful regrets that her meeting with the man she had been thinking about ceaselessly since she’d met him would be colored by this highly personal family drama.

“It was rather, wasn’t it?” she answered vaguely.

Alice looked around her, noting the roof of the car above her was a removable hard top. The seats were nicely redone in cream leather, but the dash was rather scuffed. A red Triumph convertible must be the very thing to run around in during warm weather, but there was already some dampness seeping in through the seams where the top was attached. Tarrant pulled out from the curb in a sharp U-turn that had Alice clutching at the armrests.

“Sorry it took so long—I had to get the top on the car, and then everyone was driving slowly due to the rain, but it won’t take much time at all to get home, and then everything will be alright.”

He glanced over at Alice, and then revised himself, “Not to say that everything will immediately be alright. Thackery would not tell me exactly what he discovered, so I’m sorry, but I cannot tell you about the pharmaceutical aspect, Alice.”

The dear really did sound so sorry and she could hardly blame him anyway, but Alice found she wanted to talk about absolutely anything else. She blurted the first thing that came to mind.

“How’d you get this car?”

She wanted to retrieve the words and stuff them back in her mouth. They sounded so rude and personal! But she’d been wondering since she’d seen it in his garage (was it really just today? it seemed ages ago) whether it was something he’d chosen particularly. She rather thought not.

Tarrant looked a little surprised, for he had clearly still been thinking on earlier lines, but answered her gamely.

“It was my Great-Uncle August’s, along with the house and everything in it. He passed away a couple of years ago and as both relative and apprentice I got the lot.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. He must have been the hatter that started your business,” Alice murmured.

“Don’t be, it was his time, poor fellow. If he’d lived any longer there wouldn’t have been a business to revive. At one hundred and two he was still showing up to work every day, demanding things be done just as they always were, and he’d not lost enough of his faculties to prevent him from noticing if you didn’t do as he said. He was still, technically, the boss so everything sort of ran down before his death. I was still at school part time finishing my Master’s, so I wasn’t yet able to see quite what had or hadn’t been done. But it’s been almost three years now and things are looking decidedly brighter for Bembury.”

Tarrant glanced over at Alice, and saw that while she seemed to be listening, she did not seem up to holding up her end of the conversation. That was alright. He’d never been accused of being short-winded, especially on the subject of hats. But she’d asked about the car.

“It’s a Triumph Herald. I believe he bought the car new in sixty-eight and took excellent care of it for years. He had finally had to give up driving sometime in his early nineties though, so I’d only seen the car working when I came to visit London as a child. It took quite a bit of fixing up. I’m still working on it, in fact, you might have noticed the passenger door is a little off. I hate leaving things unfinished. But cars aren’t like hats or clothes where you first gather everything together and then proceed until finished. One is forever discovering some new ancient part that must be ordered from some far-flung place. Though at least it’s old enough that I can work on it easily. If it had a computer it would be hopeless. I haven’t the slightest idea why cars had to become so bloody complicated. . .”

Tarrant realized he was on the verge of ranting, or perhaps had unknowingly crossed over a while back. He shot a look at Alice and saw her smiling softly. Well, at least that had amused her.

“Sorry,” she said. “You just reminded me of someone for a moment.”

“No one bad, I hope?”

Her smile grew sad. “The best person,” she replied.

Tarrant waited, but she didn’t continue. Really it was ungentlemanly of him to want to pry but she was killing him with all of these mild allusions to her past. This was also very foolish of him, as her reticence should be considered a good thing—perhaps she would give him some leeway about sharing some of his own past. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to know, but there was so much of it, and so much of it was unpleasant to tell. But if not told in the right order or at the right times it might be disturbing for her. Lord knew it had disturbed him to have to go through it all. He hoped someday Alice would know everything and still be able to look at him with that soft smile, but it would be exhausting nevermind upsetting to relate it all to her.

During this thoughtful silence they had arrived at the house. Tarrant elected to leave the car on the street for the time being to get Alice into the house most expediently. The poor girl was drenched and shivering, and clearly dreading whatever it was that Thackery had to tell her. With his usual energetic speed, Tarrant heaved her bag out of the back seat and ran around to open the door for Alice. Thankfully he’d gotten there before she tried to do it herself, as he really should have explicitly mentioned that the door was quite likely to fall off. Ah well, it didn’t matter now.

Alice grabbed her handbag and rushed with Tarrant through the rain, which had let up a little but not enough to be out in on such a chill night.

Tarrant opened the door to the house, but as soon as Alice stepped inside, a warm brown hand caught her own and she was dragged through the house by a determined and agitated Thackery. He seemed nervous in the extreme. He had a dreadlock between two fingers and was worrying it relentlessly even as he pulled her through the front room and down a small hall. Tarrant was following closely after her, but when they got to a certain door—the one to the spartan office Alice had noticed when peeking in from the outside windows as it turned out—Thackery pulled her swiftly inside. Tarrant said something, and tried to enter, but his jittery friend slammed the door in his face.

At Tarrant’s muffled protest, Thackery opened the door enough to pop his head out and said, “Go park the car. This is none of your business. Go on! Get!”

Once the door was firmly shut once more, Thackery took a deep breath and let it out. He held his hand out toward a chair, and Alice seated herself. She was still wearing her wet coat and clutching her orange handbag, though she set that down by her drenched feet.

“Ye’re probably wondering why I’ve made such a fuss so suddenly,” he started. Thackery was wearing brown checked pants with suspenders, though they were only up over a plain blue t shirt. His thumbs kept sliding between the fabric and elastic nervously. He was pacing, though with an effort he stopped and seated himself in the chair on the opposite side of the desk from Alice.

“It’s about the pill. You told me to get the bottle, and I have. Though I don’t understand how you knew.”

“You said yer vitamin was small, blue, and had an ‘r’ on it, whereas most commercial multivitamins are large, ‘natural’ or neutral colors like white or yellow, and unmarked. Prescription drugs usually have an inscription and tend to be smaller, as the contents are much more potent.”

He rattled this off while looking furtively around the room. His index finger tapped rapidly against the desktop. Alice began to wonder if the room was so spare to give Thackery half a prayer of focusing his attention. Alice reached into her bag and unzipped the travel bag with the bottle. She handed it to Thackery who scrutinized it carefully. He even popped the lid and examined the pills.

He sighed.

“It’s as I thought. Riftorelin is one of a class of drugs called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone agonists. They’re usually injectables. I’d never heard of an oral type, but apparently this one has had a limited trial for the past however many years you’ve been on it.”

“What is it though?” Alice could no longer keep the question inside. “You’ve said what it’s called, but what is it meant to do?”

Thackery hesitated. “The real answer is highly scientific and specific, and we can get into that later if you’d like, but I’ll try to tell you what you want to know. The drugs have several uses, sometimes being used to stop the body producing hormones that interfere with cancer therapy.” At Alice’s wide eyes he hastened on, “But there’s no way you could be being treated for cancer without your knowledge. Sometimes they’re used in small doses in IVF for women having trouble conceiving, but that’s not you either,” he continued. “If you’ve truly been on them for years it’s horrifying you didn’t know. They’re a pregnancy risk x drug, meaning they cause birth defects if you use them long enough. Were you at least warned about that?”

Alice shook her head in horror. “Not beyond the usual, ‘don’t ever have unprotected sex’ talk and not being allowed to date.”

Thackery shuddered a little, but composed himself enough to say, “Ah hate to have to ask it, but in light of new information, is there anything about the other night ah should hear abou’?”

Alice’s eyes grew wide. She didn’t have unprotected sex with Tarrant, but that was through no fault of her own. How could she be so stupid? Though of course she hadn’t the faintest idea then that there was this extra layer of consequences hanging over her head. Alice held in a sniffle, as she still hadn’t heard anything like an explanation for why she’d been on this medication.

“No. No! But why—” she started.

“Ah was just gettin’ to it. Sorry, Ah had to ask abou’ the other part. ‘S too important not to. But the only other thing that these drugs have been used for is in children with gender dysphoria. When a child feels they’ve been born in the wrong sex body, and has convinced their doctors and therapists they want a reassignment, they’re often given a gonadotrophin-releasing hormone agonist to prevent the onset of puberty. Gives them more time to decide whether they truly want to go on with hormones an’ surgeries and such.”

“What?” Alice had never felt so aghast. She hadn’t been the girliest of children, but she’d never once to her knowledge begged to become a boy.

“Ah wuld guess from your reaction that that was not yer situation. Tha’ correct?”

Alice nodded dumbly.

“When did you first start taking this pill?” he asked.

“When I was fourteen, best I can remember. It was after we’d had to leave our house and Mother told me I would start modeling.” Her voice sounded strange and detached as it drifted past her lips.

“And, sorry to put it this way, but were you, well, a late bloomer?”

“Excuse me?”

Thackery sighed and pulled together his best professional demeanor.

“Had you started menstruating?”

“Yes, but only just twice.”

“And since?”

“Very erratically. Hardly at all really. But I was given to understand that was not so terribly unusual for girls in my...profession.”

“Loss of reproductive function is one of the body’s reactions to being in a state of extended stress due to starvation and chronic cardio exercise, yes,” he said. “But in your case it is likely that the real onset of puberty was delayed.”

“What—what does that even mean?” Alice cried.

“While you are almost twenty, I think that your body has been arrested in a prepubescent state. It’s conjecture, but my guess wuld be it was done to keep you suitable for fashion modelling.”

Thackery tapped the desk quicker than ever. Alice could see his eyes scanning her face and body, trying to figure out what she thought of this. She wondered what answers he was getting, as she would also like to know what she thought of this hypothesis. Had her mother really set out to willfully alter her physiology just so she could model? She wasn’t even good at it! She hardly made enough money to keep a roof over their heads! Alice had long thought that she probably had enough financial knowledge left over from her work with her father that she could earn at least as much playing the stock market. However, they had no capital for that. Hadn’t her mother said that outright just yesterday? Her only asset was her body?

“It’s never a sure thing,” Alice mumbled.

“Wha’ was that?” Thackery asked.

“It’s never a sure thing, in modelling. Any day you might walk into a shoot and find that you’ve been sacked for measuring an inch off of what they wanted. People’s bodies change. But it’s never happened to me.”

Thackery acknowledged this with a nod and continued.

“I’ve called my former professor—a physician with a practice not far from here, and he’s agreed to see you in the morning. I had to report the prescription fraud in any case as this is made out to your mother and been given to you without your knowledge.”

Alice’s eyes grew wide. “Fraud? My mother? What will happen?”

“I can’t say for certain. But Alice, this is a serious case of child abuse. You were only fourteen when this started, and your body has been artificially prevented from, well, from growing up. You are going to need professional help to get through this.”

Alice shivered, and Thackery finally noticed her sodden attire and wet hair.

“Ach! What are you doing sitting about in those wet clothes?” he hurried over to her chair and hauled her up. “We’ve got to get you warm an’ fed an’ rested.”

Alice turned to him, closing her hand over his on her arm and looking into his concerned honey eyes. “Tarrant. What do I tell him?”

Thackery patted her shoulder lightly. “Don’ worry about tha’ oaf, ye don’t need tae tell him anything if you don’t want. Seriously Alice, you don’ owe anyone an explanation. He’ll worry, it’s just how he is, but you don’t have to say anything you don’ want to. An ah won’t be telling him or anybody else about this, though I’ll go with you to the doctor if you’d like.”

She nodded, relieved that he would both not tell tales and be there to explain what she could not even begin to wrap her head around. They walked into the hallway, where a fair young man in a button-up shirt and dress pants was pacing nervously with a blanket neatly rolled under one arm. He looked up, startled, when the door opened.

“I’m to give the Alice this blanket and to scold you for not taking care of her sooner, as Tarrant is too angry with you to tell you himself. And I think he’s arranging some dry clothes for our guest. Hello, Alice, I’m Nivens, the other housemate.”

Alice, rather shell-shocked, shook his hand politely. “How do you do?” she said.

“Oh, please let me take your coat.” The formal young man handed off the blanket he’d been clutching to Thackery and took her drenched coat. He then swapped it out for the blanket which he wrapped carefully around her shoulders without actually touching her.

“Please come into the living room while you warm up. Tarrant’s started a fire.”

Thackery sighed, starting down the hall with Alice’s wet coat in hand.

“It sounds like he’s worked up. I shuld go check and make sure he isn’t going tae set the whole place on fire.”

Nivens politely indicated that Alice should follow him, and they crossed through the kitchen and into the living room beyond where a toasty fire had been lit in the hearth. Nivens saw her comfortably settled in a chair and ran off before Alice could gather her usual curiosity to ask him anything. Despite her shock, Alice did want to know what she was expected to do for the night. Apparently she would be staying here, but with Tarrant? On the couch? Alice could hardly say what she would prefer at the moment, so perhaps this time alone was the most she could ask for.

-o-o-o-

Tarrant finally turned up with a towel and a bundle of clothes for her, though Alice was already warm and mostly dry and dozing in the overstuffed brown leather chair that had been pulled close to the hearth for her. He saw from the empty plate on the end table beside her that she’d been brought some of Thackery’s meatloaf for dinner. There was hardly a crumb left on the plate, so he could assume she’d been hungry.

Tarrant was half-tempted to carry her up to bed as she was, as the poor girl looked like she could use the rest, but he couldn’t leave her in such an uncomfortable state. He lightly shook her shoulder.

“Alice,” he said quietly, watching as her long eyelashes fluttered open. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I’ve found you some dry clothes and I thought you might like a bath.”

She blinked sleepily, then sat up from where she had snuggled back in the chair. Alice yawned.

“I suppose I ought to.” She shook her head. That didn’t sound as she wished it to. “I mean, that would be lovely, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. The water’s running now. I’ll just give you these,” he handed her the clothes and towel in his hands. “I know you brought a bag, but it was soaked from the rainstorm so I doubted your clothes would be wearable.”

Alice started to nod in thanks, then inhaled sharply. “Oh no!” She got to her feet, almost tripping on the blanket that had been wrapped around her as she sat. “I left my books in there!”

Tarrant put his hand on her shoulder. “They’re fine. I hope you don’t mind, but I got them out and nothing seemed damaged. I’m sorry to have opened your bag, it’s just that it was very heavy and I thought it must have had something in it, whether books or something electronic that ought not to have gotten wet.” He shrugged sheepishly. “I couldn’t help but notice that it was rather a lot of books though,” he added curiously.

“Oh, thank you,” said Alice. “I don’t mind at all. And they’re mostly for class and a paper I’m supposed to be writing. I have class in the morning, but not until eleven. I suppose I should check with Thackery and see if that conflicts with my doctor’s appointment. If necessary, I’ll skip but I’ve already had to miss one class due to work, and they are not very lenient.”

“Ah.” Tarrant nodded. “Go on upstairs, I’ll be sure to get an answer out of him. You know where everything is.”

He smiled, and Alice found herself returning it. Despite the very strange turn events had taken, she was back where she wanted to be, in Tarrant’s wonderful warm homey house with him and his kind if somewhat eccentric friends. Mally didn’t seem to be about, and Alice certainly wasn’t going to complain. However even an ill-tempered shriek or two couldn’t break the spell of Alice’s feeling of safety at Witzend. Perhaps it was her overwhelmed mind trying to replace the security she’d apparently been lacking in her own home since her father’s death, but she felt like the very air of the cozy house was giving her hope and health she’d long been missing.

Alice moved toward the stairs, then stopped and turned toward Tarrant.

“This is all so strange, and I know I’m still a bit in shock, but thank you,” she choked a little, trying to keep her emotions from spilling over. “Thank you for picking me up and letting me stay the night. We hardly know each other, but you’ve been so kind.”

Alice found herself meeting Tarrant’s green eyes and concerned expression, and then felt his arms around her. Tears started to flow down her cheeks without her permission, but Tarrant continued to hold her, only releasing her with a sad smile to say,

“You’d better go up and turn off the bath before it runs over. We’ll talk later Alice. There’s no rush.”

She went upstairs and Tarrant turned to the doorway to the front room where Thackery had been listening.

“So? Is Alice’s schedule workable?”

“Probably. We’ll be going over early, so eleven shouldn’t be a problem timewise. The concern is whether or not she’ll be too upset.” He paced further into the living room. “She seems pretty composed now considering what she just learned, but she’s right, she’s still in a bit o’ shock about it.”

“And what did she just learn?” Tarrant asked, intensity coloring his gaze an even brighter shade. “What has happened?”

Thackery looked at his friend. “Ah willnae tell you Alice’s personal medical details, but ye already know she’s been given a prescription drug for years without her knowledge by her mother. Child abuse is most insidious when the child has no idea what’s being done to them. This woman must be heartless.”

Tarrant thought about the proud woman he’d encountered earlier that day, and frightening though he may have found her it was hard to believe that she’d be so fiercely protective of a daughter she didn’t love. However, as he well knew, loving your family and treating them with kindness and good judgement were not always the same thing.

Thackery hesitated. “Should I make up the spare bed?” His fingers touched the edge of a picture frame hung on the wall beside him, a print of an abstract design done by one of their friends. Thackery wobbled it back and forth, leaving it further off center than it had been to begin with.

“That shouldn’t be necessary. She’s already slept in my room. I can sleep elsewhere if that’s a problem.” Tarrant’s eyes questioned his friend, and he realized that though Thackery felt bound not to discuss the particulars of the situation he was probably trying to give him a hint.

“She’s...well, very fragile right now and facing a lot of changes. I trust you to do the righ’ thing, but with all this family stuff. . .ye know how ah said she looked twelve years old?”

Tarrant nodded, puzzled as to why that was being brought up when Alice’s age was already well established.

“Perhaps it might be best if ye thought of her as if she was for a while.”

Tarrant’s eyebrows shot up.

“I don’t think Alice would appreciate being treated as a child, especially now.”

Thackery waved his hands around. “Tha’s not wha’ I meant.” He sighed. “Jus’ wait, and see what she decides to tell you.”

“Alright.”

Thackery turned and started to leave the room. However, he twitched his head over his shoulder and quickly added,

“And don’t have sex with her.”

“Thackery!”

He moved even further away.

“Sorry!” he called, “‘S too important tae leave alone.”

Tarrant was left embarrassed and puzzled. Should he wait for Alice upstairs as he’d been planning to? Perhaps not if this was some sort of sensitive sexual issue. So Tarrant did what he usually did when he didn’t know what else to do: he went to his workroom and buried himself in a project. He’d been in there just a few minutes ago to make Alice a quick pair of flannel pajama bottoms. He’d given her a pale pink tank top Mally had left lying in the laundry room he found when he’d hung up Alice’s clothes to dry (Mally was sure to be angry about that) and one of his old sweaters to go over the top for warmth, but he hadn’t been able to find anything that would fit Alice’s lower half. Since it was really the easiest thing in the world and much faster than watching Nivens dither about whether or not he could give up any of his own pajamas, Tarrant had noticed some serendipitous green, pink, and yellow striped flannel on a white background spilling over the counter and made some for Alice. He’d even had time for French seams with green piping while he’d sent Nivens to take care of Alice and then Thackery to make sure she ate.

Now he turned to the designs he’d been working on for Vetvier. His Alice designs. It was to be the summer ready-to-wear line, and so would not be part of any major fashion week displays, this was still a chance to do something different. Absolem obviously saw some potential for mass-market consumption if he thought this enterprise would be worthwhile, though Tarrant wasn’t too sure, as everything he’d ever done in school had tended toward couture. He did suppose though, that from his time in the London club scene he had a few more ideas about pieces that people would actually wear. If they were going to try to drop the prices low enough to sell his designs in department stores, they would almost certainly adulterate the fabrics and any trickier constructions he chose. Would he be okay with that? Tarrant was not at all certain that this was a good idea.

He was staring into space when a knock came at the workroom door, although he’d been careful to leave it ajar so that Alice could find her way in. Sure enough, a head peeped curiously around the corner, wet hair spread across the towel on her shoulders. Tarrant watched Alice’s interested gaze take in first the room, its proportions and window treatments and somewhat faded striped wallpaper, then the shelves, counters, and cutting table overflowing with materials and projects and sketches and notions and finally himself, elbows up on the elevated table, pulling at his dishevelled hair and watching her. A blush stained her pale cheeks pink to match the tank top that peeked out from the vee of his old green cardigan.

“Come in,” he said.

Alice entered the room, padding on bare feet over to the shelf where some of his sketches had been taped over the edges to mark where the materials for their construction were kept in bins above. He noticed she lingered a little on the last one, which was the one most recently put up. It was a rather fanciful dress to be done in the perfect shade of Alice blue—not the hideous Roosevelt stage shade, but rather something between Cornflower, California and Columbia. He still hadn’t found the fabric for the dress, but he’d decided to make a pinafore to go over it in classic Alice style just to be cheeky and he’d already put the white cambric and lace in the bin along with some buttons he’d been saving for something special.

Alice was not looking in the bin but was still scrutinizing the drawing. Instead of a typical fashion sketch he had drawn Alice in some detail wearing the dress in several poses, some standing, one sitting on a low wall holding a kitten. Tarrant had to admit he’d been getting a little fanciful with that one, but he’d done it the night before when he’d despaired of ever finding her again. Twenty-four hours on and here she was looking at it. Perhaps he should have felt silly, but he was too glad to see her and know that she was safe with him.

“Is that, is that me?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t want to sound arrogant or impertinent, but. . .”

“No, no you don’t,” said Tarrant, not at all embarrassed. “You’re quite right. It is you. I hope you don’t mind, but since we met the other night I’ve been quite overrun with ideas. Those clothes at the Vetvier show, while nice enough classic styles, weren’t really right for you, and I suppose I’ve become a little fixated on trying to find what might be.”

Alice smiled a little. “Since you’ve had to give up on a hat for me, you’re trying clothes instead?”

Tarrant raised a challenging eyebrow. “Who said I’ve given up on a hat for you? At the show I only had those I’d already made for the collection to choose from. Even if I’d found one to suit it wouldn’t truly have been a hat for only you. I’m biding my time, learning a little more about this unusual Alice creature before giving a hat a real attempt.”

Alice’s smile became brighter at that. “I’m glad to hear you’ve kept your spirits up. They’re wonderful designs.”

“So perhaps in the meantime you’ll try some of these other clothes for me and tell me how they measure up to your exacting standards.”

At this, Alice’s bright demeanor faded. In fact, she looked like she might start crying. Bravely she sniffed back a tear and answered, “I’d love to, if I’m able. But, well, due to recent occurrences. . .I probably won’t be modeling any more.”

The other night Tarrant would have gotten the idea that an end to her modeling career was Alice’s most fervent wish come true. This must have something to do with Thackery’s discovery. Still, he’d like to hear it from her, if she’d tell him.

“Why do you say that, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Well, you must know that Thackery has discovered that I’ve been given something. Something to keep me. . .the right shape for modeling, I suppose. Without it, well, who knows how I’ll end up.”

“I see,” said Tarrant, though he didn’t really. “Then, I look forward to seeing the end result Alice-shape. It will be very helpful in deciding which of these is right for you.”

“But I might not be—probably won’t be—model-shaped anymore,” she said. “You’ll have to find someone who’s the right fit.”

Tarrant looked mildly offended.

“Alice,” he began, “I don’t know what you think I think about these things, but I have been both trained and brought up as a tailor, hatter, and couturier. I make the clothes to fit the client, not the other way about like all of these shortsighted and lazy designers. They wonder why they struggle to keep their houses open? I don’t, if their standards of beauty are so pathetically rigid that they can’t make clothes for anything other than a six foot size zero. No offense,” he added quickly.

“Under the circumstances none could possibly be taken,” she said, her tears again threatening to drip out of the bounds she was so carefully confining them to.

Tarrant set aside his work and walked up to Alice, putting his arms around her once again. “I”m sorry I keep doing this,” he said, “but you look like you could use a hug.”

At this, The floodgates opened, and Alice let his kindness do its work, allowing herself to finally let out all the fear and confusion and frustration she’d been feeling. As she sobbed, she realized that it had been building for far longer than just Thackery’s text this evening. Ever since her father’s death and the confusing nonsensical accusations and revelations that followed it, Alice had been carrying these emotions around with her. She’d been kept too busy and too distracted to ever fully process them despite the time that had passed.

Alice finally calmed herself, knowing that if she was truly going to pour six years and the death of a beloved father’s worth of tears on Tarrant he should at least have some warning of what was coming. And maybe she should be sitting somewhere uphill or with a drain so she did not create an ocean by mistake. Still, she’d released enough emotion to relax her body.

Tarrant, sensing her exhaustion, urged her toward the door. His arm still around her shoulders, he led her up the stairs to his room, and he somehow didn’t make it back out before morning.

Chapter Text

“Alice?”

An incessant knocking roused Alice from her sleep. She yawned and opened her eyes blearily. She experienced only the briefest moment of disorientation, quickly realizing that it was Tarrant’s red sheets and paisley coverlet that were pulled up around her ears, and his warm hands wrapped around her body. She sighed happily.

The knocking sounded once again, along with a repetition of her name and Alice realized that it could not have been Tarrant calling her, for he was fast asleep half on top of her. His ginger curls sprawled and spiraled down from his relaxed scalp to touch on her shoulder. His breath fell steady and warm against the back of her neck, and all Alice wanted to do was to remain cocooned in his embrace with no grand plans of metamorphosis, suspended in an indefinite state of sleep and cuddles.

“If ye don’ get up right now I’m coming in!” threatened the voice in the hall.

This caused Alice to reluctantly but speedily crawl out from under Tarrant’s embrace and rush to the door. Exactly what happened last night before bed had faded into a muzzy muddle, but Alice was sure that as he tucked her into the big four poster bed Tarrant had protested against her tucking him into it as well, saying that Thackery had scolded him to give her some space after her upset. He hadn’t protested very hard, but Alice still didn’t want him to have to wake up to his friend’s disapproval. She was sure Thackery would have no problem waking Tarrant in some unpleasant way to voice it either.

“Here, I’m here,” Alice declared quietly as she opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.

Thackery’s eyes narrowed. “‘S Tarrant in there?”

Alice held out her hands in a placating gesture. “Yes, but please don’t be angry. Nothing happened. We were just talking and fell asleep. I’m rested and up and I’ll find my clothes and be ready to go in a moment.”

He had been tapping his finger to his lower lip as she spoke, deciding whether or not to make a scene.

“Ye might as well wake him up then. He has to go to work too you know, and he’ll know where your things are.”

“Alright,” said Alice meekly.

“Come downstairs when ye’re ready an’ I’ll have breakfast ready.”

“Thank you,” Alice said. They continued to stare at each other for a moment, Thackery expecting Alice to go back in the room and Alice expecting Thackery to turn toward the stairs. They did an awkward little jig wherein Alice tried to walk around Thackery to the washroom while he attempted to enter his room across the hall while she was in front of the door. Thackery grabbed her by the shoulders and swung her around with a chuckle. Alice giggled as well. Thackery was doing his best to be serious, but he was as silly as Tarrant at times.

Finally, Alice accomplished her goal and returned to Tarrant’s room a little cleaner and more put together, though she had to use her finger as a toothbrush again since her handbag was missing again. She’d also used the comb she’d found the other day, but felt less guilty about it since she’d discovered a few ginger hairs on it today. As long as it wasn’t Nivens’ it was probably alright to use. He seemed the sort that would pale at the sharing of personal hygiene items, while Alice couldn’t imagine Tarrant caring a whit.

She approached the bed, soaked now in filtered daylight, for, as before, the sun shone bright through the paltry defenses of the Venetian blinds. Alice first said his name and lightly shook Tarrant’s shoulder, but when that only elicited a groan and a snuffle whilst he hid his face deeper under his pillow, she climbed right up on the bed behind him. Alice blew in his exposed ear and seeing he was showing signs of waking whispered, “Ohhh little wind that blows, whips through the trees as it goes,” she leaned in further to shout, “gusts up cold and bites your nose!”

This was accompanied by a leap and a tickle and a pinch to the nose that had Tarrant pushing her away and laughing and rubbing his nose even as he rolled her over under him to stop her playing. Alice laughed at his messy hair and how surprised he had been, and then laughed all the more out of sheer happiness when he didn’t seem at all cross with her, but rather retaliated with tickles of his own. Finally after much noise and scuffling, Tarrant tossed Alice off the bed, saying, “You’d better appear downstairs unscathed after all that commotion or Thackery will scold me even more severely than I’m sure he’s already planning to.”

Alice did not look very contrite, but obediently followed Tarrant’s directions down to the laundry room, which turned out to be more like a laundry cupboard, and let him dress in peace. The stacking washer and dryer unit inhabited the back of what was once a pantry, with a drying rack that hung down from the wall taking up all the space in front of it and a few shelves below. Alice grabbed her clothes down and also her backpack from one of these. Her books were not to be found in the tiny room, but she managed to squeeze in and shut the door so that she could dress. She wasn’t sure what to do with her borrowed pajamas, so she folded them neatly and left them on the bottom shelf along with her backpack. Alice had the odd sense of staking her claim, even if it was just to the mostly-empty bottom shelf in a tiny closet of a laundry room, but still it felt better than having a suite to herself at a fancy hotel booked for a photoshoot.

When she emerged, Alice followed her nose to the table in the kitchen, where Tarrant and Thackery were already digging into a full breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and jam, with vegetable hash on the side and strong tea to drink. Alice surprised everyone, including herself, by finishing the generous portion Thackery doled out with gusto.

Nivens ducked into the kitchen about then, seemingly in a huge rush. He kept pulling out his mobile to stare in horror at the passing minutes and claimed to be far too late to eat anything, but took Tarrant’s toast right off his plate and then a piece of Thackery’s bacon while he wasn’t looking.

As he ran out the door, Alice asked if this was normal behavior.

“Oh yes,” both housemates agreed.

“He’s a little better when his boyfriend stays over,” Thackery mused. “Ah think Nivens doesn’t want him to realize quite how bad he is with time.”

Tarrant added, “The first time I met Nivens I almost sacked him. He’d been clocking in late to work for months before my uncle died, and I thought he’d been taking advantage of the unfortunate situation. But no, it seems he truly can’t judge how much time it takes to do anything, even get up and eat breakfast. I’m glad I gave him another try though.”

“Oh, does he work for you then?” asked Alice.

“Not anymore. He’s very organized and dedicated, but he has some traits that make him a less than ideal shop assistant. We both decided he’d do better elsewhere and I was able to give him a mostly truthful and glowing reference. Now he works as a personal assistant for some big businessman—owns one of our suppliers, or something like that—and that position seems to suit Nivens much better.”

Thackery began to tap his own watch.

“We’d better get going, Alice. We’re to see Dr. Tuttle at 8:30.”

Tarrant rose, bringing his breakfast things to the sink.

“Do you want me to drop you in the car?” he asked.

“There should be no need,” Thackery said briskly. “The office is close so we can walk just as easily. I’ve got to check on somethin’ outside tho’. I’ll meet you out front Alice.”

“All right then,” Tarrant said as his friend left the room for the back door.

“I’ll have to go now if I’m to get in on time.” Tarrant ripped another half-completed grocery list from the fridge and scribbled on the back of it with a pen from his shirt pocket, moving back to Alice who had come to rinse off her plate in the old stone sink. He turned her about and looked in her eyes.

“Before I forget, again, here is my number. I have a little work to do for Bembury this morning, but it shouldn’t take long and then I’ve just got the Vetvier project, which I can do here as easily as the Bembury workroom or wherever Absolem wants me to set up. Please, please call me if you need anything. I can come get you after your appointment or after class or meet you for lunch later. Whatever you want.”

A thought struck him as Alice nodded and looked around for her bag. Once she’d located it on the living room floor Tarrant caught up with her and handed her a little key with a leather keychain in the shape of a flower.

“Here’s the house key. Come and go as you please. I really must dash, the clerks all get terribly smug if I turn up late.”

He leaned in and kissed her cheek quickly, but not so quickly that Alice could not catch his head and kiss him more properly on the lips. Which she did, blushing.

“Thank you. And have a good day,” she said, feeling quite grown up to see him off.

“You as well, Alice.” And with that, the hatter turned and rushed out the back door.

-o-o-o-

Doctor Tuttle was a melancholy man whose considerable girth housed a sympathetic soul. He hated to see the powerful abusing the weak, and it was made even more tragic when those abused gained enough power over another to abuse them in turn. When his student Thackery Eames had contacted him about a case of prescription fraud being used to delay puberty in a completely ignorant subject he had felt tears sting his eyes. When he’d heard the name of the prescribing physician though, his eyes had lit up. Perhaps something good would come of all of this after all. Dr. Lustwig was a well-known physician who catered to the highest class of clients—those who would pay his exorbitant fees to prescribe them practically whatever they wanted. Somehow those clients always arranged for any complaints brought against him to disappear since they had as much to lose as he did. But if this case was what it promised to be, Dr. Lustwig’s hour of reckoning was at hand.

Tuttle was in demand as a university lecturer and expert witness for court cases, so he only had office hours once or twice a week in the mornings, mostly for patients he’d had for years. This Alice would be the first new one in quite a long time, but the girl was also very likely to be in a fragile state after learning about her situation. The doctor buzzed his receptionist from his desk. She answered the phone, surprised that he was in the office so early, he told her to send in Thackery and his friend as soon as they arrived.

When Alice walked through the door Dr. Tuttle stopped himself from sadly shaking his head. The girl was clearly malnourished and had tired circles beneath her eyes that she hadn’t bothered to hide with makeup. That was good, actually. If she was up to seeing things as they really were it would save a lot of trouble.

Thackery took one of the chairs in front of the desk, crossing his legs and jiggling his foot absently, while Alice sat in the other. She looked nervous, but determined. They exchanged greetings, and Dr. Tuttle began speaking.

“This is a highly unusual situation. Completely unheard-of! I can’t tell you how shocked I am that this has happened. Lustwig has finally gone too far! But today our concern is you, Alice. Thackery has discovered that you have been taking Riftorelin for five years and nine months, halting your normal growth process and giving you a false extension of the adolescent state. I’m here to answer any questions you might have about the drug and its effects and to do a baseline exam for your recovery, as well as put you in touch with a counselor who can advise you about the emotional and psychological aspects of this case.”

He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his ample belly.

“Now. The drug itself is modeled after the naturally occurring hypothalamic neurohormone gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH for short) that delivers the correct amounts of pituitary hormones within your body. Riftorelin’s goal is to shut down production of these hormones, and get you down to a hypogonadal state—a level where your body is not producing normal adult amounts of estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones needed to stimulate puberty.”

Alice’s eyes had glazed over even as Thackery’s gleamed with interest. Now was not the appropriate time to cater to his former student’s questions, but rather to address the more pressing concerns of the victim in this situation.

“Side effects of the drug include hot flashes and loss of bone density. I am concerned about the latter, and will need you to undergo testing, especially as you have not been adequately nourished at the same time as you have been on it. But have you experienced any of the former? Or any unexplained headaches?”

Alice shook her head.

“I have the occasional headache,’ she admitted, “but nothing chronic.”

Dr. Tuttle continued. “We’ll see to the test after your examination, but I wanted to speak to you a bit about your recovery. Thackery tells me you are a fashion model, indeed that is likely why you’ve been subjected to this ordeal. I must warn you that your body is quite likely to undergo changes after you have been off the drug for a time. Hopefully, your body will have no trouble producing the levels of hormones needed to function in a post-pubescent state. Unfortunately I can’t be more specific, as there isn’t very much data available about Riftorelin being used alone and not in conjunction with additional hormone treatments. In your case, I’m afraid we will have to wait and see, though we can take steps to make sure that you are well cared for as you go through these changes.”

Thackery nodded and broke in, “Alice will be staying at our house, if she’s willing, and I’ll see to her diet and exercise. I can also record her progress to be sure nothing goes wrong.”

“Good,” said Dr. Tuttle. “It’s really very fortunate you have Thackery to care for you personally, Alice. There are few practitioners, in my experience, whose attention to detail is at his level. You’ll be in good hands.

“As to what you can expect, it should progress much like puberty in a typical adolescent female. You obviously began this process before you began taking Riftorelin, but many of the sorts of changes you might remember will begin again. Your breasts may feel sore to the touch, and you may even lactate slightly. Menses should return and regulate. These physical changes may leave you needing far more food and rest than you are accustomed to needing, so please listen to your body. As to how drastic the changes will be, well, that depends largely on genetic factors.”

Alice took this in stoically, though she feared the changes might be drastic indeed. Her mother was a swimsuit model, after all, at a time when it was still expected to have plenty going on up top. As to her father’s side, he was an only child but the portrait of her grandmother that had hung in the drawing room suggested no lack of bosom there. Any increase would be a distinct change to Alice’s scant A-cup, and would likely spell the end of anything but hand modeling, which she refused to go back to.

“Do you have any questions?”

“Is there any indication. . .when might I reasonably expect changes to my body? I have a shoot on Thursday, and I believe there are a few other engagements next month, the income from which will be sorely needed. Will I have to cancel?”

Dr. Tuttle noted her matter-of-fact demeanor. He’d thought from Dr. Lustwig’s name he was dealing with a highly wealthy family, but this young woman, though well-mannered and with a very high-class accent, seemed unduly concerned with income. It was curious indeed.

“It is unlikely that any significant change will occur within a week, but certainly within a month you should expect to see some changes if all is well. Might I ask—do you have another way of supporting yourself? The counselor should be able to inform you about unemployment options.”

Alice looked grim. Her family had fallen on hard times but hadn’t yet had to accept government handouts or charity from anyone other than their closest friends—and even that came with a price to be paid.

Thackery shook his head. “Don’t worry, Alice, we’ll be able to set you up with somethin or other til you can enroll in uni full time. Tarrant will hire you himself if he needs tae.”

Dr. Tuttle nodded, and rose from his chair.

“And now, Alice, if you’ll just follow me to an examination room, we can get started.”

-o-o-o-

Alice tapped her pen on a random scrap of notepaper she’d pulled from her bag. After dragging all her school things to Witzend she promptly forgot all about bringing her class materials when she left in the morning. She’d insisted on Thackery leaving her to go to class on her own as usual, though now she wasn’t sure she should have come. Alice was extremely distracted, wishing she’d had time to call Tarrant before rushing across town to school. Her mobile flashed a message, but it was from her mother like the others and Alice had no desire to check it yet. The professor was lecturing about bronze age artifacts found on the northern continent, but Alice could not muster up her usual rapt attention. The minutes dragged on, and finally she was released. She followed the tide of students out the doors of the lecture hall and out to the landing of the second floor. Below her she same a familiar head of ginger hair with a hat resting on it that she hadn’t seen before.

“Tarrant!” she called out after him, guessing it was her that he was looking for as she couldn’t come up with another reason for him to be hanging about the Cultural Anthropology department.

His face lit up and he turned toward her. She ran up to him and could not bring herself to participate in an awkward greeting, rather throwing herself into his arms. He reciprocated and lifted her off her feet to twirl her about. He kissed her then, and it felt like ages before Alice could gather her wits enough to look around her and acknowledge the dropped jaws of her classmates. Well, she’d hardly given them any reason to suspect she was prone to such blatant public displays. She saw her professor gawking along with the rest of them and giggled. She was always quiet and standoffish in class, mostly so she wouldn’t have to explain her job and part-time status which left her feeling like an imposter of a student.

“How did you know where I’d be?” she asked.

“It was on the syllabus tucked into your books. I brought it and your notebook in case you needed it, but I’m afraid I didn’t make it in time to give it to you before class. You said you had a paper, and I thought it might be inside.”

“Oh thank you, but it’s not due til next week. I was just working on it. I‘m sorry you came all this way, and had to wait around so long—” Alice was troubled that he’d gone so far out of his way.

“I’m not. And now, if you’re hungry, or even if not, let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving and Thackery phoned me to say you needed to eat and might not have any money.”

Alice’s face burned at that, all the more so because it was true. She’d run off with no cash at all. There might be a little in the account connected with her card, but her mother was probably checking it, so she was nervous about using it anywhere near school or Tarrant’s house. If her mother ever paid any attention at all to her class schedule alice might have expected her to turn up, but since Tarrant had the syllabus it was unlikely that Yelena would be able to find any information on her class around the flat.

Tarrant whisked her out of the building, and they walked around until they found a sandwich shop that looked appealing. Alice started to object when Tarrant ordered the large version of the sandwich she’d selected, but then figured that if her body was going to change anyway, she might as well enjoy fueling it. She found she had no trouble finishing the larger size.

He’d brought the car since he hadn’t been sure how to get to her school via public transportation, so they rode home together. Alice played with the old-fashioned radio receiver and she and Tarrant laughed at the staticy mess that assaulted their ears all the way back to Witzend.

-o-o-o-

Yelena Parikova went into the bathroom of her tiny flat, half to refresh her makeup, half to get some space from her elder daughter. Margaret was full of arrogance and recrimination, implying had Yelena not kept Alice on such a short leash she would not have rebelled so abruptly. The girl had no idea what was at stake. Not just Margaret’s living expenses, which Alice’s earnings had never really covered anyway, but instead the whole bid to reclaim their lives which had been ripped so brutally from them six years ago this January.

Searching for a cotton ball, Yelena opened the medicine cabinet. Something drew her eye to the top shelf, where all was not as she had left it. Artfully lined eyes opened wide. The bottle of Alice’s pills was missing. Yelena had been meaning to call Dr. Lustwig to ask what effect missing two doses in three days might have, but she hadn’t got around to it yet. No, this could not be happening. Alice would definitely misunderstand. Everyone would. Yelena turned on the taps and dug her mobile out of her jacket pocket.

She tried Alice, but it went straight to voicemail. Yelena dialed another number.

It rang, and as soon at the line picked up, Yelena hissed, “Gerald, Alice knows! She’s taken the pill bottle!”

There was a muffled exclamation of surprise and then a sigh of dismay and then a blustering admonition to “not get too worked up old thing” which Yelena found extremely irritating. Not to mention unhelpful.

“I hope you realize that if this gets into the wrong hands it will not be me going down alone. Lustwig’s office knows who pays those bills. I’m going to try to find Alice—she’s suddenly run off. I have an idea about where she might have gone, but I don’t have an address. She’s not answering her mobile. I’m afraid this must be why.”

Yelena was careful not to mention where Alice had said she had gone. Things were going to hell, but everything wasn’t ruined yet as they might be if Alice’s attachment to this hatter became widely known. Yelena comforted herself that the one person who it was most essential to keep this from did not run in the same circles as this Tarrant Hayes, eccentric dreamwrecker.

She tuned back in to the conversation that had been kept up by the other party in her absence.

“Yes, I’ll meet you for lunch as planned. Thank you, I’ll try to get the situation under control. Have a good day at the office. You too.”

Yes, things were going to hell, but they hadn’t arrived yet. There was still time for a course correction. Perhaps it was time to get the details of their arrangement out in the open after all this time. She needed to speak to Alice—if only the foolish child would answer her calls.

Chapter Text

Though she was not normally the attention-seeking type, Alice basked in the concern of the three housemates of Witzend. She was fed, clothed and entertained as well as listened to and taken seriously. It all felt like wonderful dream. Mally had not yet reappeared, and Alice was beginning to think she’d been warned off. She felt a bit bad for the girl, but not yet enough to broach the subject with any of the others. Perhaps Mally was busy with her own pursuits. It had only been two days, really.

Alice had been sleeping a lot, luxuriating in this new environment where anything she wanted to do was possible. She’d been taken out to dinner, had met a few more of the folks that Tarrant and Thackery hung around with. There were cute coffee shops and dusty antiques stores near the house, and Tarrant had insisted she take some pocket money. An advance on future earnings, he said mysteriously, though how he thought she was going to get any earnings was beyond her. When she’d protested he’d just shaken his head.

Alice spent Wednesday working on her paper and lounging around the house while Tarrant was at work. That morning he’d dug a battered and be-stickered laptop out of the piles of papers on the counter in his workroom and handed it to her, saying he barely used it since he’d gotten a tablet. She ate what Thackery made her for lunch (beef stew which was delicious and a salad slathered in dressing that went down much easier than the dry salads Alice was used to being subjected to) and volunteered to do the dishes afterwards. He dried, saying the kitchen was his duty, and she discovered that he didn’t even have to pay rent. Thackery’s responsibilities included tending the garden, doing the shopping most of the time, cooking regular meals when convenient and alerting the others when he would not be able to. He also saw to the day to day maintenance of the house.

“Tarrant doesn’t need the money,” Thackery concluded, “Bu’ he’d be lost without th’ help. Not havin’ tae pay rent lets me work when ah want to and make mah own schedule. Not sittin’ at a desk all day suits me best.”

“Does Nivens pay rent then?” Alice asked. This was all making her feel a little bit better about being a freeloader, for she had been very concerned about settling in too much in a house that was already occupied by three housemates and that she could not contribute to monetarily.

“I think he pays something paltry like a hundred pounds a month to an account that goes straight toward property taxes. He also gives me about the same per month for board and has to do weekly cleaning excepting the kitchen that I do and Tarrant’s workroom which he’s fussy abou’ keeping a disaster zone,” Thack replied.

“Quite a bargain,” Alice said mildly, though she added anxiously, “And you all don’t mind his boyfriend being over?”

Thackery twitched his teasing smile, seeing that she was concerned she was intruding.

“Nah, he’s fine. Doesn’t bother us a bit. Besides, Nivens’ real responsibility is too vital: he organizes all the inspections and negotiates repairs with the historic trust. The house is so old that we cannae scarcely change a light bulb without putting in a request in triplicate ahead of time. Nivens hires plumbers and roofers and all tha’, though Tarrant pays the repair fees. Good thing there’s someone else tae handle that sort o thing. I’m no hand at it, and it drives Tarrant straight up the feckin’ wall. I think he scared the living daylights out of the last historical preservationist who came by to do an inspection before Nivens turned up .”

“Tarrant frightened an inspector?” Alice asked this incredulously, as if she’d never heard anything so absurd.

Thackery flinched visibly, and Alice couldn’t see why. He twisted his tea towel around the lip of the bowl he was drying over and over. Something was bothering him, that much Alice could tell.

“I’ve known Tarrant for years, since we were weans. He’s a fantastic person, my best mate. Bu’ it’s probably good fur ye to know, especially under your current circumstances, that he’s no saint. He has the gift of those clever hands from his mum and a spatial mind to go with em from his da, but he’s also got the curse of the Hayes temper. Been in more scraps than ah can count because o’ it. He’s loads calmer as he’s got older, but the anger is still there. He’s just better at never letting it out.”

Alice looked taken aback. Tarrant had been so unfailingly kind and gentle with her since they’d met that she couldn’t imagine him otherwise. Though she knew Thackery had the benefit of years (decades even) of experience, whilst she’d only met Tarrant days ago, she wanted to defend him against this accusation.

“I can’t possibly imagine Tarrant ever hurting me,” she said stiffly.

“Oh no, no no. He’d never do tha',” Thackery agreed quickly. “But you must have noticed that he’s dreadfully protective. Only met you on Saturday and by Sunday he was probably ready tae take a bullet for ye.”

Alice recalled Tarrant’s mistaken notion at the Vetvier afterparty that she might have been avoiding some sort of stalker. He had seemed awfully concerned. Would this extend to defending her physically? This seemed to be what Thackery was suggesting. Something about this rankled in Alice’s feminist spirit. She would like to see to her own defense, thank you very much.

Though this week had shown that she’d been much too oblivious about what she’d needed defending from, She’d never thought to look at her own family as potentially harming her. Thackery had seen it, and Tarrant had removed her from the situation and together the two of them had arranged for her care and recovery. Not terribly self-actualized of her, but Alice still felt extremely grateful. She would have to figure out how to assess dangers for herself in the future.

“I don’t want anyone to die for me,” she said slowly. “In fact, I don’t want anyone to die at all.”

Thackery nodded. “That’s sensible. And I’d like tae leave it at tha’ except fur both your sakes I’d like to warn you of one more thing, which follows from the other. Tarrant--he was getting better about this also--but he’s had something happen not too long ago an well, the less said about tha’ the better,” Thackery mumbled that last bit and hurried on, “But he can get terribly jealous an paranoid if he thinks there’s somethin’ going on behind his back. If there’s ever anything you suspect he ought tae know, jest tell him straight away. Wi’ Tarrant, honesty really is the best policy. He might not like it, but he’ll cope if it’s said outrigh’.”

Alice nodded. That made sense. If she wanted to be her own person and forge her own path, she would leave behind her mother and sister’s tools of manipulation. Being forthright came most naturally to Alice after all. She’d be careful to apply this to her dealings with Tarrant and all would be well.

The back door in the living room slammed.

“Speak o the devil,” Thackery said loudly, as Tarrant stepped into the kitchen. “Yer home early.”

Tarrant shook a few droplets of rain off of his hat. He wore a cap that fit under the hood of his rain slicker, though he removed it to squeeze out his soaked hair. Thackery scowled at the resulting puddle on the black and white tiled floor of the kitchen.

“Told ye not to cycle this mornin’,” he grumbled as he looked in the lower cupboard for a rag to toss on the floor over the wet spot.

Tarrant shrugged. “It wasn’t too bad until just now. I finished the Royal order this morning, so I thought I’d better clear out so it could be packed up and delivered. Thankfully,” he grabbed an apple from a bowl on the countertop and chomped into it, “that is not my department.”

Alice finished the last of the dishes and dumped out the water, suddenly grateful for the turn in her family’s fortunes that allowed her to assist in such simple tasks. If they’d retained their lifestyle after her father’s death, Alice wouldn’t have had the first idea what to do with a sink full of dirty dishes except to leave them for the maid.

“Royal order? As in for actual Royals?” Alice sounded more curious than impressed, but Tarrant agreeably responded. He was proud of this accomplishment, but not unduly so. It had been hard work updating their standards and still providing the stability that the older clientèle had come to expect.

“Yes, for many years now Bembury has hatted the Queen. She held out through the worst of it too, thank goodness, though I was always called in from wherever I was to at least look those hats over after Uncle August’s eyesight started to fail. It’s only now that some of the other members of the family have started ordering. Thankfully not yet Kate Middleton, or I’d never be able to climb out from under orders.”

Alice looked surprised, then replied vaguely, “Oh yes, Kate is supposed to marry William now. Well, that’s good, she always was one of the nicer ones.”

Thackery and Tarrant shared a look of perplexity, both waiting to see if Alice would follow this remark with anything further. When she did not Thackery shrugged and went back to cleaning the counters.

Tarrant finished his apple, tipping the core into the basket of compost that Thackery had grabbed to take out to the bin by the garden. As soon as he was out the door, Tarrant wrapped his arms around Alice and kissed her. The usual thrill rippled through her, and Alice savored his attention. Things hadn’t progressed any further with them than kisses, and while this frustrated Alice, she had to admit that it was probably for the best considering her current liminal state. She suspected that Thackery had said something to Tarrant despite saying he wouldn’t release medical details, but she couldn’t really blame him. Besides, and there was a lot to be said that might not fall into the realm of disclosing things he ought not to.

When Tarrant had eaten a little more they went back to his workroom and settled into their own tasks. Alice loved this sort of easy camaraderie that developed so naturally with him. He was generally the perfect parts interested in her and absorbed in his own work. Once he got going she didn’t like to disturb him, so she was surprised when he paused in the middle of cutting some blue denim and spoke.

“Alice, I believe you have a shoot tomorrow at Vetvier. Are you planning to go?” Tarrant asked hesitantly, setting down his scissors and walking over to where she was scrunched on a stool at the end of his cluttered countertop.

Alice hugged her knees to her chest. She’d been using his sketchpad to draw one of her cat drawings. This time a trio of sophisticated felines stared out at the viewer even as they presided over a tea table in a sunsoaked rose garden. Tarrant looked over her shoulder and giggled.

She smiled shyly. “Do you like it? It’s just doodles, nothing fancy.”

“Alice, you have a charmingly absurd style. It’s wonderful. I would love to see as many cat drawings as you can come up with. But I do think you should warn Absolem if you don’t want to go tomorrow.”

Alice’s face scrunched into a pout. “I know. I’ll go. Do you know what time it is then?”

Tarrant’s eyebrows rose. “I happen to know you’re to be there at eight if you’re going. But are you certain you want to go, considering your circumstances?”

“Well, modeling is my job after all. I don’t think I’ve gained enough in two and a half days to make me ineligible, and whether or not mother has wronged me, she and Margaret still need to eat and pay rent. Nevermind the fact that you all have been allowing me to impose on you. I suppose I shall soon have to look for other employment. Do you think perhaps the Duchess would let me pour drinks? Or at least check coats? I don’t think I could be any worse than her current employee.”

“Alice, you are not at all obligated to continue earning for your mother and sister. I hope you’ll come to realize that you never were. And you are absolutely welcome here. I understand that you will need to choose your own occupation, but please don’t worry about your daily expenses. That can be easily taken care of. I’ve put friends on the Bembury payroll before, and none of them claimed to have gotten paid for nothing. There’s always something to do. And I hope—I very much hope—that you feel comfortable staying here. Not just for your recovery, but for as long as you wish to. I know it’s sudden, and the circumstances are unorthodox, but I would hate to lose you just because our situation falls out of the bounds of what is usual.”

“Oh Tarrant, thank you. And I appreciate your kindness more than I can say. I’ve had to rely on it this week and I daresay I’ll have to do so for a while longer. However, I do think I need to learn to take care of myself. Don’t you think that’s as important a part of all this growing up Thackery and Dr. Tuttle have gone on about as gaining weight and increasing hip and bust circumference?”

“Of course I agree, and I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of whatever educational experiences you feel you require,” Tarrant sighed and pulled at his hair a bit. He knew Alice needed to feel free, and didn’t want to constrain her, but he still hoped she would stay. “If you decide though, that being here with me is what would be best for you, not to be taken care of, but as a full participant who makes her own choices, please remember that path is open to you as well.”

“But everything here is so easy!” she blurted. “Don’t you think I should need to endure a little more hardship? My whole life I’ve had everything handed to me. Even the bad things. It all just sort of happened to me. I want to decide.”

Tarrant smiled at her determination. “I well understand that feeling of rebelling against the hand fate has dealt one. I do not mean to sound patronizing Alice, but perhaps your sheltered lifestyle has prevented you from fully exploring these coming-of-age feelings before.”

Alice squirmed. She had not told him in so many words that her physical development had been delayed. She hoped desperately not to put him off of any physical attraction he might have for her, and admitting she was not physically mature seemed to put things in very awkward territory. Though it was not out of the question that he was more right than he knew, and her hormones might be beginning to pull her down certain emotional paths without her noticing. She would have to be more vigilant, and remember to logically evaluate the best course of action.

Tarrant continued as if reading her mind, “It’s not so long ago that I cannot remember finishing primary school and insisting that I was going to be a professional footballer and bollocks to hats and tailoring an’ posh accents ah wasnae ashamed of mah accen’ an’ if all tha didnae work out ah was a fair lockpick and safecracker.”

“You considered crime as a potential fallback career to football?” Alice sounded intrigued and not even slightly judgemental.

“Well, my mother had plenty to say against the idea, but it took several years of losing school championships and one juvenile court complaint which was mercifully dropped (no harm was actually done) for me to be persuaded to completely give up. On either pursuit.”

Alice laughed. “I’m glad you weren’t convicted, but it does sound rather colorful.”

“I was mostly in it for the thrill. I would frequently be challenged by my cousins or older siblings to get into various buildings around town, and I was rarely thwarted.”

Tarrant’s smug expression had Alice giggling into her hands.

“You seem very proud of adolescent Tarrant’s antics.”

“You know, I am. But I’m sure Alice the young girl was also a handful.”

“Oh, I was a terror! I was never exactly a docile child, but once I reached the age eleven or so I became almost intolerably bossy. I had my best friend completely under my thumb. Some of the capers we got up to undoubtedly caused trouble for our parents and caretakers. I remember Chemsford--he was the butler--once finding us in the heating ducts of our country house after a few too many spy films. We’d gotten stuck and they had to take part of the ductwork down to get us out. Mother was livid but Daddy just laughed and said it was a good lesson in not attempting anything that would prove too tight a fit.”

Alice’s face had taken on a merry aspect when relating this nostalgic tale, so Tarrant didn’t want to discourage her by leaping on these telling details. This was the first time he could recall Alice mentioning her father. He had to admit that the allusions to extreme wealth were not terribly surprising. Alice and her mother did not seem like women who started out barely scraping together the rent every month. Turning to modeling was more a way to keep up appearances of a posh lifestyle than a financially sound career choice. Models were as frequently paid in clothes, handbags, and the next round of head shots as cold hard cash. There must have been some sort of catastrophic event to reduce their circumstances so drastically.

Kingsleigh, Kingsleigh. The more Tarrant considered the name, the more certain he was that he’d heard it before in some capacity or other. Had there been anything in the news about Alice-life-changing events? If they were truly wealthy enough to have butlers and be acquainted with royals, it was not out of the question. Perhaps he could search, but it seemed rather gauche to ask Alice to hold on a tick while he googled her family tragedy.

Alice turned to another page to show him a drawing of more cats sunbathing on a cliff in Southern France and he couldn’t bring himself to risk upsetting her with such talk. He eventually went back to his project which was jeans for Alice with expandable seams that would be very easy to let out if she did in fact grow as she’d warned she would. He usually left denim to the specialists who were more accustomed to rivets and thick seams than he, but if Alice was so tetchy about taking money right now she would probably object to spending the small amount she had accepted on a quality pair for whatever size she needed at the moment when that was likely to change.

So far she hadn’t objected to the clothes that had turned up on her shelf in the laundry room, and he’d stayed fairly simple thus far so that she wouldn’t feel out of place with his friends. Today had been simple small-check plaid trousers in blue and grey and a brown wool knit top with gathered seams that swooped back and forth, moving out from the collar. This hadn’t seemed warm enough for the day, so he’d quickly made her a blue silk undershirt with long sleeves to retain her meager body heat. She’d put it on without a word one way or the other, so he hoped he could get away with the same again the next day.

He’d already made a green and blue tunic for her, sort of quilted from various small print cotton fabrics stitched together in wide vertical stripes. That could go over the jeans. He hadn’t had time to knit her a loose cardigan which would have gone best over it--even for him such things took some time after all--so he’d sought out the softest thinnest wool felt he could find in his workroom (it was an acceptable cream color, thank goodness, or he might have had to change plans) and sort of stitched layers of it into sweater shape though much of it would hang down low as the tunic. It was rather sculptural, but not too inconvenient to wear, he hoped.

He’d stuck to trousers because as far as he could tell Alice had only her blue trainers for footwear and this was about as classy an outfit as he could pull together while keeping her looking acceptably chic and still wearing somewhat battered blue and white Adidas. She still hadn’t seen his orange ones yet, but he thought tomorrow at the photo shoot was not the time. It would be best to present a moderately professional front for the two of them. Tarrant hurried to finish this for Alice, knowing that he’d have to have something further to show Absolem to justify his presence tomorrow, if only to satisfy appearances.

-o-o-o-

Tarrant and Alice went together to the Vetvier building on Thursday morning as planned. Thackery had wanted to come too in case Alice’s mother was in attendance, but Tarrant had convinced his friend to leave Yelena to him. Thackery had clearly cast Alice’s mother as the villain in this tale, but something told Tarrant that it wasn’t that simple. That being said, he had suffered through calling Larry the PA himself before bringing up the issue with Alice to avoid having her call her mother for the specifics of the shoot. Larry had sounded extremely interested in the fact that Tarrant was arranging Miss Kingsleigh’s schedule at the moment, and Tarrant knew that his involvement with Alice would be a known factor throughout the fashion world by the next day. Well, let them talk. He would much prefer to have it clear from the outset that Alice was with him and would need to be treated with more respect than the average expendable pretty face.

When they arrived, there was no mother in sight and Alice was whisked away by a team of stylists to a chair in the corner of the studio. Leaving Alice with her mobile in her hand and the instruction to text him the instant anything happened, Tarrant found someone to show him the empty space where he was supposed to be working on the summer line. He’d done loads of work already, but most of that was at home and a little bit at Bembury. Today he had brought some very specific drawings--more like diagrams really--of his planned garment construction that he passed off to one of the assistants to begin preparing the patterns with patternmaking software.

Tarrant had never enjoyed that sort of virtual design, always preferring to work with his hands and judge with his eyes. However, if these were truly going to be mass-market products it would be better to see from the outset what would need to be done to create the best possible quality clothes rather than creating one-offs for Alice and leaving it to the patternmakers to adulterate his designs as they saw fit after the fact. That was the usual way of things, and one for which Tarrant had developed a high level of scorn. He still had his doubts as to the potential of the finished products, but if this was going to happen, he wanted to give it his best effort.

The empty space was making him jittery, so Tarrant pulled a few designs at random from his sketchbook and sent them with another assistant to be copied and hung up. They had high quality scanners and printers at their disposal, so just for fun he had them enlarge the one he’d colored in of Alice standing in the pinafore and blue dress to put up on the glaringly white wall. It would be something to compare with the finished product.

Tarrant was in the middle of the tedious process of submitting fabric requests when he received a text from Alice.

[She’s here]

That was all it said, but Tarrant shoved his notebook at the lackey who’d been assisting him and ran off down the hall without a word.

-o-o-o-

Alice was still having her makeup finished when her mother walked through the door. The makeup artist, Ernesto, was someone Alice had worked with before on several occasions, and he raised his eyebrow at the tension that suddenly filled Alice when her mother walked into the studio at Absolem’s side.

“Trouble with mummy dearest?” he queried in a low voice.

“You have no idea,” Alice murmured back, even as she quickly texted Tarrant.

“Is it about your new boyfriend?” Ernesto asked in the same de sotto voice.

Alice raised a delicate eyebrow.

Ernesto laughed at her, a deep chuckle that she had heard some other models describe as too sexy for words. Ernesto was very popular with female models, as he seemed to at least appreciate the girls he worked with on some level other than blank canvasses as most of the other makeup artists (male or female) did. Whether or not he also appreciated men was neither here nor there, but Alice also liked Ernesto. Mostly because he answered her many and varied questions without getting angry. Still, she hadn’t thought he would notice anything personal about her. She’d been surprised that he realized Yelena was her mother, but she was shocked that he’d made such an (astute) assumption about Tarrant. After all they’d only walked to the door of the studio together. There had been no touches and only a vague “Bye” spoken.

“It’s all over the building since he called Larry to see what time you were supposed to be in this morning. You know what a gossip he is.”

Alice hadn’t actually, but now added gossip to a list of Larry’s negative qualities that she had observed. Nor had she stopped to wonder how Tarrant knew when she was to arrive. He must have called Larry yesterday before he’d even broached the subject with her. Hmm. Was that thoughtful or high-handed?

“And your mother certainly didn’t pick out that outfit you’re wearing. He made it, didn’t he?” Ernesto asked eagerly.

Even Alice wasn’t oblivious enough to watch Tarrant at work in the evening and in the morning find the same colors and fabrics resolved into clothing waiting for her to wear without being clued in. At least not twice in a row. Embarrassingly it had taken a day for her to realize what was happening.

Yesterday she’d marvelled that these clothes that happened to be lying around the house had fit her so well and had darkly wondered if they’d belonged to some other girl he’d brought home before her. So it had come as much as a relief as an embarrassment when the tunic she’d been admiring in his workroom the previous evening turned up on a hanger on the drying rack with a tag saying WEAR ME in case she was oblivious as she actually was. Alice shook her head at her own foolishness.

Ernesto clucked and smoothed over the eye makeup he was finishing.

Alice found her voice and answered, “Yes. The whole outfit. Do you like it?”

He nodded excitedly. “Even the trousers? Wow. I’d heard he could do more than hats, that at uni he’d won the couture prize in their annual show every year he attended, but I’d never seen anything but the hats until now. It’s much better suited to you than what you usually turn up in, that’s for certain.”

Alice looked at him askance. Usually her mother dressed her for shoots, though for less important events she was often left to come in whatever she happened to stumble into that morning. She hadn’t thought anyone would notice. Still, she couldn’t help but agree with Ernesto’s assessment.

“Anyway, good luck to you. He’s a bit odd, by all accounts, but also a bit nice, huh? And you’re hardly the typical girl we get through here yourself.”

Alice looked up at Ernesto from the chair, and realized that this could be the last time she ever saw him. If the doctor was right, another month would see her out of the game. Even though she could see her mother out of the corner of her eye, lying in wait, Alice touched his arm and smiled at him sincerely.

“Thank you, Ernesto. I know I’ve never been the easiest girl at shoots, but you’ve always been kind. I appreciate it. And good luck to you too.”

She ignored his questioning glance and stood with a little nod. With that, she turned and prepared to meet the dragon.

And she would have, except on her way to close the few yards between them, she was waylaid by the photographer’s assistant, recognizable by the light meter around his neck and reflector in one hand. He seized her wrist loosely. Then Alice really looked at him and he saw he was even more so for despite the fact of his much less outlandish attire it was Chessur! Chessur in jeans and a horizontally striped pink and purple polo shirt. Alice’s eyes grew wide, and Chessur winked at her.

“Not yet, I think, my dear,” he murmured. More loudly he said, “The photographer wants to get started with a few solo shots in here while the other girls finish getting ready for the roof shots.”

Alice saw her mother’s eyes narrow as she was hurried off to the other side of the room by Chessur. He really did seem to work for the photographer as she had earlier guessed, running about at the older man’s every bark and growl. Bernard Grabes was well known enough for the name to mean something even to Alice, and she sighed that she should be getting solo shots from him just at the closure of her career. This was the sort of opportunity her mother had been coveting all along. More than one superstar had been launched through his efforts. Oh well, such was the whim of fate or the push and pull of karma or whatever one wanted to think.

Alice was quickly shepherded over to be dressed, and was surprised to recognize a copy of the top that Tarrant had altered for her at the show on the rack. It was obviously a copy, since that one had been black and this one was a warm creamy-yellow color. She put that on along with one of Absolem’s flowing long printed skirts. Her straightened hair was in a complicated bun and though she had expected one, no hat was forthcoming.

She turned toward the photographer’s assessing gaze.

“I’ve been told,” he started, “that you can look happy. Joyous, contented, fulfilled, yet not like an idiot. I’d like to see what you can do.”

Alice looked at him oddly. She’d never heard of herself being described as any of those things in a professional capacity and come to think of it not in a personal one either, at least, not for years. And after the week she’d had, and the things she’d learned about her mother’s at best careless disregard for Alice’s health, wasn’t it ironic that he’d ask for this and not tortured angst?

Just then, the door to the studio opened and Tarrant stepped in, visibly trying not to rush though his dishevelment indicated he’d run down the stairs as soon as she’d texted him. Alice smiled.

“Yes, like that,” said the photographer, seemingly oblivious or uncaring as to the source of her expression.

And come to think of it, perhaps this was the perfect week for him to ask for happiness. For when else in the course of the past six years had she experienced such perfect pleasure and comfort than with Tarrant and his friends? She’d been welcomed into their lives and their home with little fuss, but much respect and care. And this mad wonderful man was the cause.

The photographer recaptured her attention and got to work, but Alice’s thoughts stayed on Tarrant, allowing her to get the expressions the photographer wanted. The other girls were prepared, and Alice went up to the roof with them to finish the shoot, unaware that she was leaving Tarrant down in the studio with Yelena and Absolem.

Tarrant and Yelena had eyed one another warily as the shoot progressed, but once the room emptied the charged silence became unbearable. Absolem rose from where he’d been sitting by Yelena, walked a little ways toward the door and lit a cigarette. The small man was dressed in his usual dark clothes--today a navy suit with a navy shirt and a perfectly matched ascot.

“Everyone’s gone, so you may as well sort it out. I’ll be staying as an impartial witness.” Absolem managed to sound as though the tense situation was boring him to tears.

“Really,” started Tarrant, not wanting to air Alice’s medical business (though he still did not know the specifics of it) in front of Absolem, “there’s no need—”

“Shush, boy. Your temper is legendary, second only to your father’s. Your uncle made it clear that you were not to be underestimated.”

Yelena looked shocked and gritted her teeth as this sunk in. Tarrant, annoyed, protested, addressing Absolem rather than Yelena.

“I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong in this case. This woman whom you seem to know well, is guilty of child abuse on several counts. She’s had Alice out of school working since she was fourteen years old to keep herself and her elder daughter well-heeled, a charge which alone would have her brought up in court. However, that pales in comparison to unknowingly dosing her with a prescription drug to keep her modeling.”

Yelena looked shocked. “I don’t know what Alice told you, Mr. Hayes, but this is a completely unfounded accusation. Alice ran off rashly without hearing any of the real story—”

“Unfounded?” Tarrant could not believe the gall of this woman. He wanted to reserve judgement, but if she insisted on blatantly lying this would not be easy. “My housemate, a medical professional, questioned Alice about her poor diet and discovered a fishy-sounding ‘vitamin’ was being administered to her daily. It was after that that Alice was encouraged to find the bottle and learned that you had perpetrated prescription fraud for six years, under the very nose of a medical student no less, or was your elder daughter complicit? I can’t imagine applying for her license will go very smoothly now.”

“How dare you threaten Margaret! You have no idea what those girls have been through. No idea! Do you think I wanted to see my youngest daughter put through the ringer for all this time? This is the only way her future can be secure!”

Absolem’s sleepy eyes had widened during this last exchange. “My dear, is this true? Have you been giving Alice something illegal? You might want to stop talking now and speak to your solicitor instead.”

This interjection went unnoticed by Tarrant, who continued on, becoming more and more incensed. “So I’m to believe that you were forced to give your younger daughter prescription drugs for six years and farm her out as an underage model while neither you nor your elder daughter sought gainful employment despite both being the legal adults in the situation? That’s exploitation, Madam, and the drug fraud is flagrant abuse. And you dare to claim this was selflessly done for Alice’s benefit?”

“Of course if is. This is the only way she’ll ever get what’s rightfully hers, if your interference doesn’t ruin the whole thing! I’m sure Alice was easy prey, a weak young girl with no experience to shield her, but if you care about her at all you need to leave her alone or Alice’s future will be ruined as irrevocably as her childhood.”

Tarrant was starting to get angry, though his temper wasn’t quite lost. His voice became quieter, and his accent crept into his tense speech. “You’d like tae turn the blame onto me, then, and put Alice in the role of victim? If she’s sheltered, you know it’s down t’ you and your selfish manipulation of her loyalty. Whatever plans you have for her, Alice was devastated by your betrayal. She needs help, and I am determined to give her whatever she needs.”

“You interfering fool! You have no idea what your ‘help’ may have cost her.”

At this point a throat was cleared, and Tarrant looked over to see that Absolem had failed or plain abdicated his role of lookout, for Alice stood at the door, and the entire crew of the shoot with Chessur at the fore were attempting to peer over her shoulder at the dramatic scene being played out among Alice’s mother and Vetvier designers old and new.

Alice entered the studio, firmly closing the door behind her with a sharp click.

“Tarrant, I didn’t call you down here to defend me to my mother, and certainly not to get into a shouting match,” Alice said mildly. She’d rather hoped that having Tarrant there would have dissuaded her mother from making a scene with her. Alice turned to Absolem reproachfully.

“And you let them get into such a personal discussion at a photo shoot?”

Absolem looked shocked at being called out so plainly. He spluttered, “I thought the issue was purely the Hatter whisking you away from your mother, something that might be solved by getting to know one another a little better.”

Alice looked skeptical. “I don’t think that would have worked in any case, but now as you see there’s much more to it than that.

She turned to Tarrant. “As you have now undoubtedly heard, there’s a bit more to it than I’ve told you. Indeed,” her eyes flicked to her mother’s for the first time, “there’s more than I’d ever suspected. However, this is neither the time nor place to be discussing such personal issues.”

She took a breath and squarely faced Yelena. “Mother. You may send me my schedule for the next few weeks. I have gone off the Riftorelin though, so presumably I will only be able to fulfill so many obligations before my body is no longer suitable. Still, I’ll go until I’m sent home, and you may keep the wages as you’ve always done. Hopefully this will provide enough of a grace period for you and Margaret to decide what you’d like to do next. Though I am being monitored closely by a physician and nutritionist to ensure my recovery and will not jeopardise that by starving myself to suit you. I suppose my biology will dictate the duration of this last portion of my career.”

Absolem started at this. “You can’t say you’re quitting now, Alice. Not just now that you’ve finally gotten good.”

“It’s not so much a matter of quitting, sir, as of accepting the body I have been given. If this is not my natural state, then I intend to discover what is.”

The venerable designer turned to Tarrant. “What will you do then? Alice was to be the star and inspiration for your summer line. If she’s not going to headline, will you choose another?”

Tarrant slowly shook his head. “Alice is the reason for my designs, so it would be foolish to continue without her. I am still not clear on the whys and hows of the situation, but whatever size and shape Alice results, my designs will still be for her. If that is an unacceptable gamble for you, say so now and I will happily go back to Bembury as long as Alice is safe and free.”

Absolem looked shrewdly at each of the three others in turn.

“I must be getting bored in my old age,” he said dryly. “But I will accept this risk. Proceed with the collection. You may keep Alice as discussed.”

Alice turned to Tarrant, eyes wide. “What do you mean?”

He smiled slightly. “My proposal to do the Vetvier summer line was always contingent on having you under contract to show it. I told you. I make the clothes for you, not the other way about. Anything else is illogical.”

Yelena looked a little ill. A week ago a contract like this would have been her wildest dream. Something that would give Alice the caché to catapult her back into their old social circles. Now, the dream was horribly twisted, and Alice’s dewey eyes toward the Hatter spelled bad news for all that Yelena had worked for.

“You can’t, Alice. How can you just give up on everything your father worked for?” she choked out.

Alice turned, fury suddenly blazing bright. “Do you really think Daddy would have approved of your plan?” she spat. “Selling me to that woman for the benefits of his money back?”

Yelena turned sad. “Apparently neither of us knew your father as well as we thought, Alice.”

Instead of taking the same subdued turn, this declaration further angered Alice. She took two steps toward her mother then thought better of it, halting abruptly.

“There is nothing you can say that will ever ever make me believe those dreadful lies. I don’t care if the whole world believes them. I don’t care if you do. I won’t, and someday I am going to prove I’m right,” she vowed.

Yelena continued to look at her sadly, the last remnants of their world crashing in.

“Tarrant,” Alice said, turning toward him, “I’d like to go home.”

“Of course, Alice,” he practically lisped in his worry, “whatever you need.”

Alice turned, the tilt of her head more convincingly royal than any score of monarchs, and accompanied him out of the building.

Chapter Text

Alice cried on the way home. They’d taken the Tube there, but Tarrant hailed a cab when they got out to the street in front of the Vetvier building. Once they’d gotten into the back seat Alice folded herself over on his shoulder and sobbed. Tarrant held her, unsure what he could possibly say. He’d lost precious family members as well, and knew that there were no words that could comfort after so great a loss.

She calmed before they reached the house, and though she was quiet and subdued throughout the afternoon there were no more tears. Alice even ate her lunch with no trouble, though she sat a long time with her spoon in her bowl before finally finishing the soup and washing it out.

Thackery looked at Tarrant questioningly and at the first opportunity--when Alice went upstairs a while after lunch to lie down--pounced on him for more details.

“Wha’ happened then? Was it her mother?”

“Yes,” Tarrant said. “And you were right--the woman is intolerable. But I was also right--there’s more to it, and through some twisted lens she thinks she’s acting in Alice’s best interest. There’s some kind of tragedy involving the death of Alice’s father that necessitated a lifestyle change for the two girls and their mother, though I still don’t know any of the particulars. Apparently there was some sort of scandal revealed afterwards, as Yelena said they neither of them truly knew him, but Alice vowed she’d not believe a word against him. It was very dramatic.”

“Huh.”

They’d stepped outside so that Thackery could pull some veg from the garden. If their location also prevented them from being overheard by Alice, well, Tarrant wasn’t going to mention it. Thackery was cutting greens for dinner and pulling beets and turnips before they got too huge.

Tarrant paced around, fiddling with the dry leaves that were falling from the oak trees of their neighbor’s house.

He said hesitantly, “I can’t help thinking that if this scandal was truly so huge, there might be something about it connected to the Kingsleigh name. I thought it sounded familiar. . .”

“Let’s find ou’,” said Thackery. He set down the basket he’d been filling with kale and pulled his iPhone from the pocket of his trousers.

Tarrant fluttered his hands anxiously. “Don’t you think that’s a bit--well--too nosy? Prying? I’d hate for Alice to feel I’ve betrayed her trust—”

“Oops! Too late!” cackled Thackery, search already executed. Then his expression sobered as he read the first results.

“Oh shite. Fuck.” He stared at his phone as the distressing details poured in. Tarrant tried to peer over his shoulder but Thackery waved him away in annoyance. After a moment he huffed.

“Ah know why th’ name sounded familiar to ye. S’nothin’ to do with any life-changing event. Ye realize all those big boxes yer fabric comes shipped in ta Bembury say ‘KACon’ on them, righ’? Well tha’s Kingsleigh-Ascot Conglomerated, one of the hugest shipping contractors in the world. Running the place as you do you must have seen an invoice at some point whether you wanted to or not. According to this it used to be just ‘KingsleighCorp’ but got bought out by some bloke named Ascot after stock prices dropped tae practically nothing six years ago. There was an accident, and the former CEO, Charles Kingsleigh, bit it in an airplane crash along with his entire legal team. It was found out then that they’d been involved in a bunch of dodgy deals exploiting companies in China, an’ that there was a factory collapse they were held responsible for that occurred right after that. Blarg, there’s pictures. Ach. Pretty gruesome stuff.”

Tarrant’s eyes had grown wide as Thackery related this tale.

“And that’s how Alice’s father died?” Tarrant asked.

“Apparently,” his friend replied, “though it’s not like they talk specifically about his family. I’ll do a proper search on the computer later if you like.”

Tarrant shook his head, though he suspected that wouldn’t deter Thackery from searching for his own purposes. As flip as he had been about her father’s demise, Tarrant could tell that he was concerned. Alice was growing on Thackery. He’d been the one to discover her troubling health situation after all, and now felt responsible for her care, often calling Tarrant to be sure Alice had eaten and preventing Tarrant from waking her if he thought she needed the rest. The dreadful circumstances surrounding her husband’s death set the stage for Yelena’s decision to put Alice on medication heedless of the potential side-effects, so neither could help but be interested.

Still, Tarrant hated to feel like he was infringing on Alice’s privacy. His eyes flicked nervously to his bedroom window, where the late Charles Kingsleigh’s beautiful daughter was presumably sleeping in his bed. He’d wanted to let Alice tell him in her own way, but he was also glad to have a better idea of the troubles weighing on her. The world was a very strange place.

-o-o-o-

Alice spent that night and the next day soberly reflecting on the turn her life had taken. She could allow that it looked like brooding to the three men of Witzend, and Alice had dodged most of their well-intentioned efforts to cheer her up. Though sitting with Tarrant in his workroom remained peaceful and calming, Alice was probably shorter than necessary with everyone otherwise. She knew things were getting a little strained, so when Tarrant brightly suggested at Friday lunch that they go to see Mally’s band play that evening, Alice forced herself to smile agreeably, though she could not begin to predict what sort of musical experience she would be in for.

They went out to eat with Thackery and Mally beforehand. A little Chinese Noodle shop around the corner from the place where Mally’s show was to be was selected. Mally greeted Alice coldly, though she seemed a little more interested in her than previously, and Alice wondered what she’d been told about Alice staying at the house and by whom. It was probably Thackery, since he kept giving Mally pointed looks whenever she opened her mouth in Alice’s direction. Tarrant as usual looked pleasantly oblivious. Alice now realized that this was on some level an act, but one could never be certain quite how deeply it went.

The Treacle Tears were not nearly so unpleasant as Alice had dreaded. All her fears of eardrum-splitting death metal proved to be unfounded. It was a three-piece girl-band with Mally on bass. The music was a little too harmonically sophisticated to dismiss as twee, but the vocals were soft and sweet. Mally’s voice, which Alice had been concerned about hearing in a rock setting, was surprisingly mellow, if still high, as she sang in close harmony with the guitarist. They wore standard t shirts with logos on them, though each girl wore a tulle skirt in a pastel color over her jeans and trainers. Mally’s was pink while the others were yellow and orange. Each of them had painted an artful stream of tears down their cheeks with stage makeup. It could have been over the top, but instead it looked appropriately otherworldly.

The show was at a little cafe-type venue called the Wishing Well, and Thackery and Tarrant seemed well acquainted with the servers and most of the other attendees. The place wasn’t packed by any means, but there were enough people there to consider it a successful show, Alice would guess. The girls were actually opening for another group, so the room filled as their set went on.

Tarrant asked Alice what she would like to drink, but Thackery leaned in from her other side at the tiny table they were at and overrode whatever she might have said by stating unequivocally: water, flat or fizzy. Tarrant gave her an apologetic look and ordered the fizzy water with a lime so she would not be quite so out of place. Alice looked a little uncomfortable, but went along with it. After the drinks arrived though Alice stole some sips of Thackery’s whiskey and soda while he was engrossed in watching the show just to get back at him. She would have included Tarrant’s drink in her thievery but she was less interested in beer.

The third time she tried it Thackery caught her and pinched her arm, harder than she was expecting.

“I’m not a baby!” she protested.

“Never said ye were. Just wait til later, an you can drink whatever you want. Take it easy for now,” he said, rolling his eyes at her petulant expression.

Normally Alice would see this as sound advice, but tonight for some reason the last thing she wanted to do was whatever Thackery advised. Her arms crossed on her chest without her permission, and though she knew she must look childish she stuck her tongue out at him. Their interaction had attracted Tarrant’s attention. He pushed her tongue back into her mouth with his finger and Alice blushed brilliantly. Thackery rolled his eyes once more.

After the Treacle Tears’ set their little group gathered to discuss whether they’d stay for the main act or leave for elsewhere. Mally was the biggest advocate for leaving.

“I told Caterina here,” She indicated the raven-haired drummer who she’d hauled over to them after the set, “that she could come see you all dance. Come on! No one cares if we leave. It’s just Jess’s boyfriend’s band anyway,” she said carelessly, waving over to where the Treacle Tears guitar player was wrapped around a bloke wearing oversized sunglasses inside. At night. Mally rolled her eyes in disgust.

“C’mon, let’s go!” she urged.

Tarrant and Thackery both looked toward Alice hesitantly, as if she might need tending to. This irritated her, and Alice also felt suddenly concerned that Mally would detest her even further if she didn’t go along with her scheme.

“I’d like to go too,” Alice said firmly. “I have no reason to stick around here now that Mally’s set is done. It was quite good,” she said, smiling kindly at the wide-eyed Caterina though she didn’t dare to do the same to Mally. “I don’t want to go home yet though.”

“But Alice, you hate dancing,” Tarrant protested.

“Hate is such a strong word,’ she said dismissively, even though it was the word she’d used when telling Tarrant about the endless dance classes of her childhood and young adulthood. “Besides, even if I’m dreadful at it, I love watching other people dance.”

She caught Tarrant’s eye at that and suddenly remembered watching him from under the brim of his top hat. Tonight he was wearing a different version, a little bigger and brighter, shimmery despite being basically black. He was wearing a long coat that went down to his knees of a heavier fabric but with the same dark and shimmery qualities. This was over a basically normal ensemble of a bright green shirt with a pixie in a garden of flowers drawn on it in dark green advertising Kemp’s Garden Stores and grey jeans, though Alice had half-swooned at the glory of his orange trainers when he’d put them on as they passed the hall cupboard before leaving that evening.

Their shoes would have originally been a matched set, but Alice found hers woefully lacking in the kind of pizazz that Tarrant’s shoes now had. Rainbow colors and sparkles adorned the sides where the white stripes had once been and the back had been redone from the Adidas logo into a green and purple rose. Very splendid.

Though Alice’s footwear was much less interesting, her clothes for the night were sure to turn a few heads, at least in the kind of crowds of young people they’d been in so far. Tarrant had foregone the step of putting her clothes away for her, instead handing over the outfit as soon as he’d finished. She was wearing leggings with thin black and white stripes that climbed horizontally up to the rolled hem of a shimmering blue tunic cut so cleverly that when she was standing still it looked like the sorts of long tops all the other girls would be wearing, but when she moved it swung around her hips, flowing outward if she were to spin. Not that anyone had seen her do that. Though she had done, many times, in the big mirror inside Tarrant’s wardrobe as she’d dressed upstairs. He’d given her a warm and flowing cardigan sweater in black to go over it, and a black bow for her hair. She could easily wear the coat she had come with and look good. Her hair was still down free, but Alice had put in the bow as a headband, off slightly to one side. The whole thing had inspired her to dig out the hated cosmetics and apply enough to prevent her face from looking washed out against the black. She spent some time blackening her lashes which were quite acceptably long, though they were pale at the tips and so looked shorter without plentiful mascara to make them visible.

Usually she scorned these steps, but today they seemed important--to do any less would be to refuse to get into the spirit of Tarrant’s costuming. Overall she was wearing far less makeup than when they had met, but the minimal look suited Alice much better. She felt good, for once, and realized with some shock as they walked about that she was actually enjoying her appearance, pleasantly surprised when she caught herself reflected in windows and washroom mirrors.

The friends bickered a bit longer about where to go next, but a text from the Tweedles about a dance party being hosted at a club in the neighborhood they were in cinched the deal. Tarrant paid for his and Alice’s drinks and he held his arm out for her as they stepped outside.

The place where they arrived was called LoobyLu, and their whole party was waved through without paying though there was a queue of people waiting to get in, and a sign advertising a cover. Alice heard several whistles as she walked by and looked up in startled surprise. She looked around, but they seemed to have been directed at her. Tarrant leaned in and whispered, “Never mind them, you’ll be fine inside. Just stay close” Though he shifted his grip so that his arm went round her waist while the other held the door for her to walk inside.

The rest of their group had already checked their coats and gone through, so Alice and Tarrant walked into the room together after doing so. Alice had been a little afraid that she would still be overdressed judging by the crowd at the Tea Shop, scene of last week’s dance party, but here there were people dressed in a variety of colors and styles. The others were still nowhere in sight as Alice followed Tarrant up to the bar. He ordered a drink, another gin and tonic, and Alice placed her order for one as well. Tarrant looked at her askance.

“Thackery said at the show I could drink what I liked later,” she said with pious honesty.

Somehow, this did not seem to impress Tarrant. He tapped her nose with his forefinger and said skeptically, “I’ll be counting, my little bread-and-buttercup.” Though he did pay for both and happily pulled her across the dance floor to look for their friends. They found Mally and her mate Caterina, Thackery, both Tweedles, and Chessur standing about by some tables in the corner.

“Chessur again!” Alice exclaimed when she saw him.

He was wearing his pink-and-purple suit once more, and his eyes gleamed bright and interested under the stands of his dark hair. Alice got the feeling he wasn’t ever nearly so surprised to see her as she always was to see him. He smiled widely, and Tarrant sulked and threaded his fingers through hers.

“How are you, Alice? The shots from Thursday turned out beautifully, and one of you on your own holding that clutch purse is very likely to find its way into some very popular venues, though of course I can’t release any details for certain. Bernard was exceedingly pleased with your capacity for expressions--”

At this, Mally, who was nearby and had been listening, snorted loudly. Thackery smacked her over the head, which had regained its mouse-eared hood on the walk over.

“--and said he would be pleased to work with you again,” Chessur finished smoothly.

Alice made a noise of acceptance, still thinking of anything further to do with modeling as unlikely to actually happen. Tarrant’s determination to use her for his project notwithstanding, she was eating so much that it was likely to be more like hours rather than months or days before she would be found too large for their parameters.

“That is quite a compliment, Alice, coming from someone with so much experience,” Tarrant said happily, more pleased than if his work had been so complimented. Then his face turned speculative. He hesitantly addressed the shorter man before them.

“Say, Chessur, do you think Bernard would be interested enough in Alice to consider doing some shots for this ready-to-wear summer line Absolem has me on?”

“Bernard is very busy, so I couldn’t say. I, however, might be able to find some time for you,” he said with a sly smile.

Tarrant sniffed and turned his head to the side. “Your work is very satisfactory, Chess, and you know it. But this is more about getting all the help we can get. Things might be a little...unusual with this production cycle and a big name might soothe some ruffled feathers in the industry.”

“Bigger than Absolem?” Chessur’s brows rose. “Why Hatter, what are you planning?”

Tarrant smiled enigmatically. He waved his free hand about.

“Who knows how such things will work themselves out. It could well come to nothing.”

Alice found herself as curious as Chessur. What would Tarrant be doing that could annoy the industry at large? She wasn’t to find out at the moment, however, as Mally seized Chessur and Tarrant, who was still holding Alice’s hand, and towed them out to the dance floor.

“Dance you bampots! I didn’t invite poor Caterina along to listen to your endless yammering about work,” she shrieked.

The music, which had not been so deafeningly loud in the corners as to prevent conversation, did so quite effectively on the dance floor. Alice found her tiny plastic cup of drink had been left behind on the tables, which was just as well, for it had been finished down to the ice anyway. She flushed and watched Tarrant and Chessur begin to dance, while Mally went back for Thackery and Caterina. The Tweedles bounded over and began a playful competition. Alice found it was impossible to actually stand still with so much movement around her, but she still felt too awkward to really participate. Perhaps another drink would help.

Since Tarrant seemed occupied with his friends and dancing, she slipped away to the bar before Thackery arrived to catch her. This time, Alice had a pocket thoughtfully sewn into her leggings just big enough for her id and a little money. She did have to fish under her long top for it once she got up to the bar though, which felt a bit weird with the eyes of so many blokes on her. Alice felt uncomfortably on display without the others to shield her. She was tall enough to automatically attract attention, but in flat shoes she didn’t tower over the men in her vicinity as she often did at fashion events. This seemed to make them think they could approach her with impunity. Alice fended off several offers to buy her drink with fierce “No thank you!”s and a disapproving expression.

She took her drink and retreated to the corner where she could see Thackery and Chessur dancing while Mally and her friend Caterina whisper-shouted into each others’ ears and laughed. It must be nice to have a best mate like that, Alice thought wistfully as she sipped.

Suddenly someone was there next to her, doing all the towering that she was used to doing herself. A rather arrogant smile expected things of her that Alice found extremely distasteful. His longish black hair was tucked behind his sharp ears, and as before he was wearing all black. Stayne, Tarrant had called him. The Knave, Chessur had said on his blog. Lord, but he was tall.

“I don’t think we’ve yet been introduced,” he said smarmily. “I am Ilosovic Stayne. What is your name?”

“Alice,” said the girl. Though she didn’t want to talk to him she found that the social pressure on females she’d always read about in an academic context was more powerful than she’d realized. She wanted to turn and walk away, but when asked this direct question she felt like it would be far too rude to do so.

“Alice Kigsleigh,” she repeated softly, half-hoping he wouldn’t hear her right.

At this the Knave ceased his active towering and drew back, surprised. “I’m sorry, did you say Kingsleigh?” he said.

Alice nodded a little perturbed at his reaction. Six years ago when all the accusations came out after Daddy’s death it happened frequently. Today, however, and among people of her own age bracket, it was unlikely to be so remembered.

He leaned forward again. “Little Alice Kingsleigh, all grown up. I had some connexion to your late father’s legal staff. I’m sure you won’t remember me.”

The last part was a bit of a question, but one that Alice had to concede. She did not remember this man in the slightest. Never mind the fact that he looked scarcely older than her and not at all older than Tarrant. Certainly too young to be a professional at the time. Perhaps he made photocopies as a summer job? Anything was possible, she supposed.

“I’m sorry, no. I need to go find my friends now though, so if you’ll excuse me--”

Stayne barred her way, with a long arm extended across her path through the tall chairs in the corner.

“Hold on a moment,” he began.

“Alice! There you are.”

Tarrant caught her up by the arm, gentle as always but quite firm all the same.

“Stayne,” Tarrant said, a little too quietly for the venue.

“Hatter,” Stayne acknowledged with a sneer. “I suppose now that you’ve cleared off it I can join the crowd on the dance floor. Pleased to meet you, Alice.”

He pounded his drink, which Alice found a rather lame act of posturing, and left them.

Tarrant immediately turned to Alice, running his hands over her as though to make sure she was still properly assembled after that disturbance.

“Alice, whatever were you doing? You ran off without saying a word.” Tarrant looked so hurt that Alice immediately felt contrite.

“Oh Tarrant, I’m so sorry! I was watching you all dance, but still felt so awkward, and thought that perhaps another drink might help. I thought to drink it up by the bar and come straight back, but people kept trying to talk to me, so I tried the corner, and then he came up and rather trapped me. It was so strange. I knew logically that I could just walk around him and he would be unlikely to prevent me, but it was almost like the force of his expectation kept me in place.”

Alice sounded so perplexed by the everyday human interaction, even if it was with a particularly vile specimen, that Tarrant’s distress lifted. He pulled her to him and kissed her adorably furrowed brow.

“You will learn how to put such people off Alice. And you can always ask for help if you need it, you know. That’s an important part of being able to take care of yourself too, you know, knowing where the line is past which it’s better to have help.”

Alice turned her head to lay more comfortably against Tarrant’s shoulder, and made no move to get away from him. She did not want him to be, but he was probably right. He finally tugged her back out to the dance floor, where he stayed by her side and whisper-shouted in her ear about nonsense until they were both laughing and Alice found herself dancing despite it all.

“There ya go!” said Mally loudly, almost friendly after diluting her blood so heavily with alcohol. “Just like you’re having a really fun seizure. That’s how they do it!” Mally nodded her head toward Tarrant and Thackery, who were dancing at each other with hilariously overstated moves. Caterina smiled encouragingly, and Alice realized that she was interacting with people her own age with some degree of success. This made her extremely happy.

Finally, after wheedling one more drink out of Tarrant who took Thackery’s rolled eyes to mean, ‘fine if it shuts her up’ and dancing with Mally and Caterina more than the boys, Alice realized it was quite late and everyone was preparing to go. Outside there was some discussion about transportation, but in the end she and Tarrant got in a cab together while the others dispersed or went to walk Caterina home since she lived nearby. Alice waved as she got into the cab, and everyone waved back, smiling and drunk.

Tarrant had had more than she to drink, but still by sheer bodyweight and experience seemed barely affected while she was tottering up the step to the house. They got in and there was no sign of Nivens or his boyfriend, so Alice pulled Tarrant down onto the couch in the front room and got in some of that kissing practice that seemed so especially important to her after she’d been drinking.

At the moment, Alice felt as good as she ever had, in nice clothes, cosmetics of her own choosing, with the ginger of her choosing, and was more than ready to take things as far as she could manage. If Tarrant wasn’t going to go all the way with her until her doctor released a written statement, well, there was still some middle ground, wasn’t there? Alice intended to explore some of that uncharted territory. But probably that was best done in the bedroom, especially as the lights of a second taxi had stopped outside. Alice squirmed out from under Tarrant in the dark room and squinted out the window.

“Thackery has Mally with him!” she reported, a little surprised. She wouldn’t have thought Mally would go from one housemate to the next so quickly.

Tarrant was not shocked, since there was nothing shocking on. “She often stays in the spare room here when her flatmate has people over,” he explained.

Alice lept up. “Then up to bed!” she urged. “I don’t want to get scolded.”

Tarrant looked back at her over his shoulder as she marched him up the stairs.

“What were you planning to do that you would be scolded for?” he asked with an arched brow.

Alice wanted suddenly to trace that saucy arch with her tongue. Hmm. She really was outside herself tonight.

“Oh, lots of things,” she said airily. A little breathily.

Tarrant groaned and shook his head, but pulled her through the door of the bedroom after him. Once it was quietly but firmly closed, Alice scrambled up onto the bed, pulling off her trainers as she went. Tarrant did the same. Alice looked off the side of the high bed at their shoes in a pile.

“They seem happy that way,” she said with a little nod.

Tarrant laughed at her and pulled her close. Was it her imagination, or was his grip a little firmer than sometimes? Might he be a little more willing tonight? She kissed him to find out, and let her fingers roam up under his shirt. His stomach was hard and soft all at once in a way that made Alice giddy with want. Before he could stop her, she pulled it up off of his head and over his arms, easy enough since hat and coat had been left downstairs. She boldly pulled off her own sweater and top, even the pink camisole she’d been wearing in lieu of a bra for the last couple of days. Pressing her chest to his, Alice sighed deeply as their skin finally touched without obstruction. Tarrant hissed as if she had scalded him, but his hands went to wrap around her back and his fingers traced intricate patterns on her flesh without really meaning to. Alice closed her eyes and breathed in, her face in Tarrant’s neck and their tousled curls mixing together on the covers. She tipped her lips up and kissed the underside of his jaw.

Pressed against him in nothing but leggings as she was, Alice could feel that he was not altogether put off by these developments, at least not physically. Alice let her hand creep slowly down his body, biting her lip in anticipation as she brushed through the ginger hair of his chest and stomach, traveling down, down into some of that territory that she desperately wanted to explore. They had been sleeping and waking together for a week, so she had some idea of what was what with Tarrant's body. But Alice still had never deliberately touched a man's penis, and though she was fully aware of how everything worked and may or may not have read some highly educational material online, she still hesitated. Before she could get up the nerve to close the distance, he sighed and rolled her away, panting slightly.

“Alice, we have to stop. God. I’m not sure I’m going to make it,” he said, tugging at his hair with a crazed laugh.

“What happens if you don’t make it?” Alice asked, a little petulant after being rebuffed once more. She'd been so close too! If she wasn’t so certain that he was only holding off due to Thackery’s medical authority she would feel quite rejected.

“Either I perish from frustration or you get ravished despite doctor’s orders.”

“I vote for ravished,” Alice declared, snuggling into his side and looping her arm around him. He put his arms over hers to prevent her moving.

“I know you do, and it’s flattering, but just at the moment I could use a little support in the following orders department. I’ve never been the best at it, but this time it’s supposed to be pretty important, right?”

“That is correct,” she acknowledged reluctantly.

Alice pouted, knowing it was unfair to press him as he didn’t even have the full details. He shifted, his shoulder slightly digging into her chest. Alice winced and drew her breath in sharply.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, drawing back and rolling on his side so he faced her. “Are you alright?”

“I suppose so. But my breasts are awfully sensitive.” She thought of the doctor’s warnings. Was she growing? Alice touched them experimentally. They didn't feel heavier, but the tips were very sore.

Tarrant groaned and stuffed a pillow over his face, flopping onto his back.

“Stop that immediately or just go ahead and kill me now. I can’t take much more of this Alice!” His voice turned to a barely audible mutter, muffled as it was by the pillow. “Honestly, feeling yourself up after I’ve valiantly abstained for a whole bloody week. Insupportably rude!”

“I can hear you, you know,” Alice said, giggles spilling out of her.

“If you can hear me then go to sleep. Immediately. And put a shirt on!”

“Alright, alright!” Alice dug her pink tank top out of the pile of her shirts and put it on. “I’m taking my leggings off though. They’re too tight to sleep in.”

Tarrant didn’t seem to have heard her. He was laying perfectly still and breathing with such precisely even breaths that it was clear great effort was involved.

“Tarrant?”

“Yes Alice?”

“Aren’t you going to take your trousers off?”

This time the groan was accompanied by Tarrant sitting up and whipping his pillow right into Alice’s teasing face. She yelped and laughed and grabbed one from the head of the bed to retaliate. They kept it up until they were out of breath, and the alcohol and long night finally got the better of Alice and she fell asleep. Tarrant, though, laid awake for an uncomfortably long time, wondering what he had done to deserve this, both the good and the perfectly awful.

Chapter Text

When Alice awoke on Saturday morning, she experienced a troubling moment of deja vu. The light blasted through Tarrant’s blinds just as it had the previous weekend, and her pounding head responded with the same sort of gritty pain. Alice groaned, and sat up. Tarrant was still face-down with his head pressed into his pillow. They’d both exhausted themselves the night before and while Alice had originally wished for things to progress further between the two of them, now she was glad that she didn’t have to concern herself with the worry that she’d been irresponsible under the influence of alcohol.

Neither Thackery nor Dr. Tuttle had given her a straight answer about how long the risks of the Riftorelin side effects would stick around in her system. They were equally obfuscate about when she could expect further changes in her hormones, though at least there Thackery candidly admitted, “Alice, we jest plain don’t know. It depends on yer body, yer genetics, how well you bounce back from the suppression, how well yer eating, exercise, mood, too many factors tae say. Be patient. We’re watching with ye.”

And then he’d asked if she’d contacted the counselor whose number Dr. Tuttle had given her. Not yet. She knew it was a good idea objectively, but too much had changed recently for Alice to feel ready to pour out the details of her story to another stranger. Plus, these pesky hormones seemed to be intent on making her feel things she didn’t want to feel.

Still it was obnoxious. There must have been some recourse—some way for them to discover what to expect. Alice crankily wondered if they were being lazy about searching for the answers, but then felt bad. They’d both been nothing but concerned and supportive. Besides, she was the one who was going to have to figure out how to navigate the changes. Having a timetable would be no guarantee that her body would adhere to it.

Though the haze of pain in her head made her want to lie back down and forget about it all, Alice’s bladder wasn’t having it. She groaned. Normally she wouldn’t dream of running through the house in her knickers, but she was still tired, her stomach felt awful and all her muscles ached. She hadn’t had that much to drink last night, had she? Far less than last time, certainly. Anyway, she covered up her tiny tank top with Tarrant’s discarded dress shirt that laid over the back of his chair and half-heartedly looked around for some pajama bottoms or trousers to pull on, but the impulse to make it to the loo before it was too late won out.

Alice dashed through the hall, hoping against hope that no one opened their doors or chose that moment to come up from downstairs. Success! As she quickly brushed her teeth and her hair (her own brushes had finally made it onto the crowded shelf over the toilet) Alice reflected that this hangover wasn’t so debilitating as last time. She could move, she just felt achy and unpleasant. Her headache had receded a bit, and she’d certainly woken up hours earlier than the previous week.

Stretching out on her tiptoes to try to alleviate the ache in her lower back, Alice wondered if perhaps she had slept in an especially awkward position. She’d ended up cuddled with Tarrant, but that had been the case all week and she hadn’t felt nearly so bad on waking. It must have been the alcohol then. Preoccupied as she was, Alice opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She moved forward and bumped right into someone coming out of the door across from the washroom.

All she could register was that this was not Nivens and a stilted “Terribly sorry” before her world came crashing down once more.

“Hamish!” she all but screamed, shocked as she was.

“Alice!” The tall lump of a ginger stood before her in a white button up shirt open at the collar and crisp grey trousers. Hamish’s slack jaw wobbled with absolute surprise. “What in heaven’s name are you doing here?”

He then took in her attire, or lack thereof, and his eyes goggled further. “Good Lord! This can’t be happening.”

“What can’t be happening?” Alice snapped, speaking to Hamish Ascot as she hadn’t dared to for years. Her mind raced, trying to put the facts into the relevant order. When everything slotted into place, Alice said quietly.

“You must be Niven’s boyfriend.” She practically choked on the word. The situation was so inconceivable that she could hardly catch her breath. “You bloody—fucking—absolute prat of a bastard!”

Her voice had risen to a Mally-esque note, and a door opened in the hall, though Alice couldn’t be sure which one.

“BOYFRIEND!” she screamed. “His bloody BOYFRIEND and I’m living in a broom closet of a flat not allowed to date for six years. I had to scrimp and save and work extra to get fucking laser eye surgery last summer because you couldn’t abide girls with glasses and you are Nivens bloody McTwisp’s bloody BOYFRIEND?!

The other two doors had opened in rapid succession by this point and Alice’s arm was seized in the grasp of Tarrant’s warm hand. She hadn’t even realized she’d raised it. Oh wait, from the way Hamish was clutching his hand to his cheek, apparently she’d already hit her mark and was going for it again. She blinked the haze of fury back enough to notice Nivens pressed in shock against the doorway behind Hamish. Thackery hovered by Tarrant’s shoulder and the rapid pounding of dainty feet signaled there were only moments before Mally would join them from downstairs.

Hamish looked completely shocked that she’d hit him. Not that this was the first time, but this Alice that stood before him was so blazingly different than the bland stick with elaborately styled hair that sat opposite him at tea with his mother that he couldn’t quite get his head round it.

“Alice?” he questioned, just to make sure.

This timidity brought Alice’s fury back to a boil. Tarrant held her arm more tightly though she threw herself forward away from him to shout directly up into Hamish’s fish face.

“Oh, did you not recognize the girl whose life your mother bought for a string of empty promises before my father was cold in his grave? Can you not fathom my existence outside of a target for your poncy arrogant criticisms? Do you realize what I’ve had to do to make myself acceptable? No television, Hamish hates girls who watch telly. No slang, that’s too low for the Ascots’ standards. On and on and FUCKING ON. And you. have. a. BOYFRIEND? Unbelieveable. Even for pond scum like you.”

Hamish drew himself up, all too aware of the audience assembled in the tiny hallway. “My personal affairs are nothing to do with—”

“Oh go fuck yourself Hamish. Very hard. You know what your mother has in that prenup. CHILDREN! And you would trap me into a lifetime of slavery to that ogre while you were off weekends with your BOYFRIEND?!”

Hamish raised his hand to indicate Alice’s scanty attire and the shirtless Tarrant still holding her wrist. “You don’t look very confined at the moment. At least not by me!”

“Yes well,” Alice sniffed haughtily and raised her chin. “Things have changed recently. But you didn’t know that. You’ve been dating Nivens for ages!”

“Oh, have things changed? Then I’ll be expecting Grandmamma’s ring back.” Hamish held out his hand sarcastically and all the eyes in the hall (including Mally’s wide and delighted ones on the stair) reflexively went to Alice’s left hand.

“Ha! As if Mother would ever let me touch that gaudy old bauble! That went straight to the safe deposit box and good luck there. You’ll have to pry the key out of Mother’s cold dead hands if you seriously want it back.”

Alice paused to catch her breath, and Tarrant took the opportunity to shift his grip on her arm and interject.

“I can see that you two know each other. . .” he said mildly, though his friends were uneasy about the quietness lurking in his voice, “. . .well. Would you please explain the connection?”

Nivens gathered his courage to add, “Yes, how do you know each other?”

“He’s my,” Alice started with a disgusted sneer.

“She’s my,” Hamish began with a dismissive wave.

“—fiancé,”

“—fiancée,” they finished together. Alice stuck her tongue out at Hamish and pretended to gag, and Hamish snorted at her childishness but then pulled a face of his own.

Tarrant now looked completely bemused, on his way to amused along with Mally who was cackling on the stairs and peering raptly up around the corner at the unfolding scene.

“Alice, what can you possibly mean, you’re engaged to Hamish? Nivens’ Hamish?” Tarrant asked.

She turned to him with a rush. “I’m glad to see you realize you can’t possibly be jealous. It was decided by our mothers long ago—nothing to do with my preferences I assure you. It’s much the same as if I were engaged to a toad. Except then there’d be some chance of coming up with a prince, though even I am not brave enough to try the procedure for that. Or I’m too practical: I know I’ll just end up too close to Hamish’s awful breath!”

“Come now you little rat—” Hamish started angrily.

“Don’t take that tone with me, my boy!” Alice said, turning to poke Hamish hard in the chest with her forefinger even though Hamish was almost as tall as Tarrant.

Despite the antagonistic tone between the two, Nivens was feeling relieved. At first he’d thought Hamish was subject to some sort of well-hidden homophobia that surfaced when Alice recognized him from her outside life. Instead, well, this was an interesting turn of events.

“Wait,” he reached out the centimeters it took to touch Hamish’s shoulder. “This is The Alice? The one your mother picked out? I can’t believe it. You always described her as an insipid mousy thing. Nothing in the least like This Alice.”

“Insipid?” Alice gasped. “Mousy? Oh what I won’t do to you Hamish Ascot! This is going to be the goldfish bowl episode all over again.”

Tarrant had crossed over into amusement some time ago and now had given up on restraining Alice in favor of trying to hold back the giggles that threatened to spill from his mouth at the ridiculously adorable ferocity Alice was displaying at the moment.

“Goldfish bowl episode?” Thackery had been silent up until now, but was clearly as enthralled as the other spectators in the tiny hallway which was quickly becoming too hot with so many people clustered together in it.

Alice got a rather cruelly amused look on her face and began, “Once, when we were eight—”

Hamish slapped his hand right over her mouth. His dignity had been irreparably damaged already, but he couldn’t allow Alice to air out all of his childhood embarrassments.

“You promised!” he reminded. “You said we would never speak of that again!”

“Well, yes,” Alice retorted, pushing him away. “But that was before—” She stopped herself, and the fire which had been sustaining her through confronting the arrogant bully of her teenage years died out in remembrance of earlier times.

“Before?” Mally prodded from the safety of the stairwell.

“Before Hamish became such a hateful prat.”

Hamish scoffed, “Before Alice became a piece of wilted lettuce.”

“Before we were engaged!” she protested hotly.

“Before you started listening to your mother!” he argued.

“Before Daddy died,” Alice said, and as much as she wanted to she couldn’t keep the tears out of her voice. “Before your father bought the company. Before your mother bought our house. Does she still have my pony held ransom?” Alice asked bitterly.

Hamish seemed utterly off-balance by this sudden turn from anger to despair.

“So now you all know,” Alice said to the hallway at large. “Once all that was Hamish’s family’s was my family’s, and my mother’s grand plan to get it back again was to have me marry him. Not like that would have worked anyway, Mrs. Ascot’s demon of a solicitor put so many safeguards in that marriage agreement that the only people related to me likely to get anything at all after her death would be ‘heirs’, and you can see how likely that is to happen.” Alice gestured to Hamish with a sneer and he returned an ugly chin tilt of acknowledgement.

“Still,” he said, “You didn’t have to turn into a bloody ghost over it,” he said defensively. “As soon as we were engaged you became a helpless waif who could hardly get up for coming over feverish.”

“My father had just died, you heartless moron!” Alice was back to railing at him exasperatedly. “He’d just been slandered horribly in the press and we’d lost our house! Both our houses! Having unexplained fevers was the least of my worries!”

Tears welled back up and she sniffled as she added stiffly but more quietly, “And then to top it off, after all those other losses, I lost my best friend too.”

Hamish looked absolutely stricken at this. All his arrogance faded away. “Oh Charlsey-mimsey. You can’t have thought—”

“What was I supposed to think? You practically threw that ring at me and never looked me in the eye again.”

“Oh, Alice, I’m so sorry,” he said, and to the surprise of everyone in the hallway, except Nivens who had heard parts of the story before, he enveloped her in a huge hug. Alice gave a few ragged sobs, but controlled herself, though Hamish’s eyes were not at all dry.

Tarrant coughed, and put his hand on the back of Alice’s neck as Hamish pulled back.

“This is a fascinating revelation,” he began, nudging Thackery out of the way and herding Alice back toward his door, “”But perhaps it is time for Alice to have a moment to collect herself.”

Her cheeks blazed as she realized that everyone in the hallway had now seen her red and white polka dotted knickers. Strained laughter finally spilled from her lips. Even Hamish Ascot! If Margaret knew she would die of shock!

Thackery glanced at Hamish, shook his head rapidly to clear it, and followed Tarrant and Alice into Tarrant’s bedroom, his hand on Tarrant’s back hurrying him forward. The door was promptly shut behind him.

Hamish looked at Nivens in distress. “I hope that’s not what that just looked like.”

“What?” Nivens asked, eyes wide.

Mally, who had seen the same thing from her post at the top of the stairs answered. “Nah. No way. Can’t be. I’ve known those two wayyy too long. That would just about wreck my entire understanding of the world and everythin’ in it.” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “It would be kind of hot though,” she muttered in spite of herself.

Nivens caught up with a rounded “Oh.” Then he shook his head triple time. “No no, no! Just Tarrant and Alice I think. Thackery, well, I have no idea what he’s doing in there actually. But it probably has something to do with Alice’s health. She’s recently had a scare.”

“A scare?” asked Hamish, concerned. “What sort of scare?”

Nivens looked at Mally and shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. Do you?”

Mally shook her head. “Nah. They won’t tell me anything really. Just that her mum put her on some sort of drug when she was young to keep her thin for modeling. She didn’t have a clue. She hadn’t noticed a thing til Thack asked her about some pill she thought was a vitamin.”

“Diet pills?” asked Hamish sharply.

Mally again shook her head no. “Thackery said it was way worse. I asked him again and again what’s up but he said Alice is his patient now and he won’t tell me a thing.”

“Good Lord!” Hamish exclaimed. “I can’t imagine Aunt Helen ever considering such a thing. Alice was always her golden girl despite her fussing over bad behavior. I can’t believe she would ever put Alice on anything dangerous. Thackery must have misunderstood.”

Mally eyed him skeptically, and Nivens twitched a not terribly convincing smile.

“I’m sure you must be right,” he said, and hurried back into their room to finish dressing for the day.

 

-o-o-o-

“Fevers?” Thackery asked intently, after Tarrant had let Alice go. He had leaned over Tarrant to ask Alice quietly, but she answered openly.

“Yes, for a year or two there I would suddenly start sweating and panting regardless of the temperature. I thought I was possessed.”

“Hot flashes,” Thackery murmured.

Alice’s eyes widened. “That would have been right after—”

Thackery nodded excitedly. “It’s not unlikely that it would also explain a drastic shift in your behavior. Especially with everything else that was happening. . .well, it would have been stranger if you weren’t changed. You had been getting closer to maturity. The reduction in hormone levels was quite likely to have left you unusually docile for a while at least.”

Tarrant had been listening. “Hormones?” he asked in confusion. “What exactly was happening?”

Alice looked at him in horror. She’d forgotten he was right there. Apparently Thackery had too.

“Sorry, Alice, I didn’t—” he started

Alice gave a little growl. She felt hot and cranky and extremely irritated that Thackery had let the cat out of the bag after saying he absolutely wouldn’t. Careless jerk! She closed her eyes and tried to take a couple of deep breaths as she’d been advised when she was younger.

“I know you didn’t mean to,” she gritted out. “I’m sorry, I’ve just been feeling so awful.”

“Awful how?” asked Thackery sharply. “Hung over?”

“I guess,” she replied, a little guiltily. “Achey, and cross, though I could swear this started before I had a thing to drink. Tired, slight headache.”

Thackery was casting his eyes about shiftily. “Okay, I can hazard a guess.” He turned to Tarrant. “Time to clear out! Need to talk to Alice alone!”

He started pushing against Tarrant, who was having none of it. He was taller and considerably broader than Thackery, and there was absolutely no way he was shifting him.

“What do you mean, reduction in hormone levels?” he repeated carefully, trying not to get annoyed. “I thought you said these were some kind of diet pills, Thackery.”

“No, I said it was worse than mere diet pills—”

Alice felt ready to burst out in tears. She cut Thackery off, saying “Oh, you may as well tell him now. Everything’s gone mad today anyway.”

She clutched her lower abdomen. “Ouch.”

Thackery turned. “Maybe you should just go get Mally,” Thackery urged Tarrant.

“Mally?” he asked, perplexed. “Why on earth?”

“Oh no!” cried Alice. With the onslaught of an unfamiliar gushing sensation in her nether regions, everything was suddenly crystal clear. Aches, irritability. She turned to Thackery. “PMS?” she queried. She’d observed the phenomenon often enough in Margaret, but hadn’t even suspected it in herself.

He nodded rapidly. “Go ge’ Mally. Go!” he urged Tarrant. Tarrant hesitantly backed up. Was all this fuss about Alice getting her period? Tarrant had grown up with enough female influence that this was hardly offputting, but their frantic attitudes were perplexing.

Thackery was edging Alice closer to the bed, though she was leaping back, saying “Not on the carpets! Have you any idea how old these runners must be?”

Tarrant looked at her questioningly. “Do you want me to ask Mally if she has anything for you to use? Or somebody could pop round to the chemists. . .”

“Maybe I should call Dr. Tuttle,” Thackery was muttering, “This is much too soon. Far too soon really. Even if you stopped Sunday and the Monday dose didn’t count it would be a bare week, far too short a time! Alarmingly short. . .”

“Do you think something’s wrong? But please, I really do not want to be responsible for ruining a valuable antique--” Alice started.

Tarrant opened a drawer and dug out a handful of old handkerchiefs. He handed them to Alice.

“Alice, stop worrying about the carpets and take care of yourself. Thackery, stop dithering and call the doctor. I’ll get Mally afterwards if you really want, though I cannot comprehend why. I will give you both a moment, but afterwards I would like to know what the hell is going on.”

Tarrant delivered this speech evenly, but by the time he got to the end both Alice and Thackery were eyeing each other guiltily. It was time to set things straight with regard to her health. Alice just hoped Tarrant wouldn’t be too angry or repulsed by her by the time they’d got to the end of it.

Chapter Text

“What exactly is going on?” Tarrant’s voice was careful but a note of impatience underlaid his even tone.

 

Tarrant and Alice were sitting facing each other on the bed that Alice had to remind herself was still only Tarrant’s and not also hers.  A few nights of sleeping in it did not give her an official stake.  It was difficult sometimes for her to remember how new and how very likely temporary this comfortable life at Witzend was.  Alice felt fear trickle down into her gut at the thought that Tarrant’s reaction to this conversation might forever remove her from this bed and the comfort she’d enjoyed in it.

 

Thackery had offered to apprise Tarrant of her medical situation for her, but Alice had declined.  Since this had to happen, she wanted to do the work of it herself rather than sitting aside and wringing her hands over what his reaction might be.  At the moment her hands were captured in his larger ones, a temporary imprisonment that Alice didn’t mind in the least. Thackery had gone out both to call the doctor uninterrupted and to get some supplies for Alice.  She had dressed in the jeans Tarrant had given her but was still in his shirt now buttoned up snugly to her neck.

 

Alice took a breath and began as best she could.

 

“I told you rather obliquely that I have a lot of ‘growing up’ to do.  Perhaps you took that to mean that living under my mother’s thumb all this time I need to learn to function on my own.  That is not exactly untrue, but the part that Thackery and Dr. Tuttle are supervising is, as you have undoubtedly guessed, my finally achieving physical maturity.”

 

Tarrant looked at her, confusion clouding his eyes.  She hastened on.

 

“Riftorelin, the drug Mother started giving me soon after Daddy died, is apparently given to children who believe they’ve been born in the wrong sex bodies—nothing to do with my case by the way, please remember that—to suppress puberty.  Despite the fact that I was a bit older than the typical candidate, I was given this drug and it apparently altered my hormone levels to the point of halting and even reversing some of the changes of puberty on my body and even changing my personality.”

 

Alice looked at his eyes boldly, but could not tell what he might be thinking of this.  She was unused to seeing such a shuttered expression on Tarrant’s usually pleasant and open face.  It worried her. Instead of halting her progress however, this fear had her acting even more aloof as she defiantly held her head up and continued, though Tarrant’s hands were now the ones imprisoned in Alice’s nervous grip.

 

“I suppose this should throw me into a morass of confusion, and it has, in a way, but more than anything else I feel relieved.  I was a child who knew my own mind.  I lived in my own world, and having it so dreadfully altered has been disturbing to say the least.  That there is some explanation, however painful, for why I have been unable to act true to my nature is oddly comforting.  Thackery wants me to attend counselling, and I’m sure I will, I just...I just want to meet this Alice—this cranky PMSing yelling and cursing Alice—and learn what to do with her before anyone else tries—however kindly—to intervene.”

 

Tarrant smiled then, a little unsurely, but still definitely a smile.  He cleared his throat slightly.  “I too would like to meet this Alice, if you will permit me,” he said.

 

She looked at him and some of the emotion she’d been tamping down threatened to spill out.  He was so kind.

 

“But I don’t even know who I am, you see.  My mind, my body, they might all change drastically and you might not—that is to say—I might not—be who you’d hoped I’d be.”

 

Tarrant nodded, not wanting her to think he was making light of the huge changes she was having to undergo.

 

“That is so,” he said, “but at the same time, Alice, we are both just getting to know one another in the first place.  Expecting people to live up to one’s first impressions is an exercise in futility and disappointment.  I’d much rather see how we get along as we go where we’re going.”

 

“Hmm,” said Alice.  “I’m not sure I quite follow.”

 

“And you needn’t, Alice.  Sometimes I’m quite content to follow so long as we take proper turns.  Or one of us might go off in some direction or other, but if the other is willing to seek, or at least wait and meet up again, well, that’s more than most people can hope for.”

 

Alice nodded slowly.  Hope was dawning, but she quashed it back and tackled the heart of her fears and discomfort head on.

 

“And the part where—the part about not being physically mature?” she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to ask him, so she just let it hang.

 

Tarrant did squirm a bit then, his gaze sweeping over everything in the room but Alice.  He sighed. “I can’t pretend it doesn’t make me a bit uncomfortable—it’s hardly anything to do with you, more that I feel a bit of a creep.  Here I’ve been practically perishing from desire, and come to find out, well. . .”

 

“Yes, I certainly see how it might be off-putting.  I’m sorry.” Alice said this hurriedly, hoping he would go on, needing to know.

 

“And perhaps it’s odd to tell you this, but I don’t generally go in for your current body type anyway.  Not to make you feel even more awkward,” Tarrant grimaced but rushed ahead before she could dwell too much on that.  “So I have decided to like you for your mind, your conversation, and your delightful cat drawings.  Which is certainly true.  As to the physical side of things,” he smiled wanly, “I suppose we’ll just have to continue waiting and seeing.”

 

Alice nodded.  Part of her wanted him to swear that he liked her just as she was, but of course she realized that she wasn’t going to stay just as she was, to that would only serve to make her worry further.  He sounded so dejected at the end though, she wanted to explain. Despite all that was happening to her, losing Tarrant’s interest seemed like the most horrible consequence of all at the moment.

 

“It’s not just about physical development. For as you know in the modeling industry and of course elsewhere there are plenty of people with measurements like mine who are all properly developed and mature.  So what I’m trying to say is, there were other complicating factors—reasons not to have sex, that is.” Alice gulped and tried her best to be matter-of-fact about it all. Tarrant was doing remarkably well with it all, so she had to do her part to keep the discussion on-track.

 

“Riftorelin apparently has some dreadful side effects which I was not made aware of.  Well, not until I was made aware that I had been on the drug in the first place.  It is apparently something that one absolutely cannot take while pregnant, since it causes birth defects.  The doctor has assured me that as my body recovers, these effects should fade, though there are some other things like loss of bone density that are potentially troubling.”

 

She hurried on, now unable to look him in the eye and quite aware that her cheeks were unfortunately flaming as she recounted these last bits.

 

“I asked about precautions, and the doctor said that I would not be able to take any sort of hormone pill until things settled out with my body, and that the same went for most other methods on the female side of things.  I asked about the male side of things and Dr. Tuttle seemed to acknowledge that as workable, but Thackery leapt in and said no, that abstinence was the best policy in my particular case.  I’m not sure why…”

 

Now it was Tarrant’s turn to blush.

 

“Thackery was probably, well, how embarrassing really!  As if I haven’t been able to get this far by being extremely careful.” Tarrant shook his head and took a breath.  “He was probably referring to my family’s unfortunate track record with birth control.  It’s not fair to put it on me personally, as I do not have the details in any of the other circumstances, but taken as a group we do—we did—have a habit of procreating early and often.”

 

“Oh?” asked Alice.  “Do you have a lot of brothers and sisters?”

 

Tarrant’s face retreated to the shuttered look of before, though he answered quickly enough.  “I was one of six, though several of my aunts and uncles had more.”

 

Alice didn’t like to press him, and instead returned to their current situation.

 

“I wouldn’t object to trying if you think it’s safe,” Alice started hesitantly.

 

Tarrant’s expression shifted, and now he looked a little spooked.

 

“No, no no.  Thackery’s probably right in this as well.  You see, I really like you.  And that is generally where the trouble starts.  As much as I would love to, well, Alice, we should really wait. Can you?”

 

He looked at her then, so dejected and hopeful and intent on her answer.  Alice nodded solemnly, and he smiled brightly. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she might have agreed to rather more than she had intended.

 

She clarified.  “Yes.  I’m sorry to have pushed you.  I will wait, if you think it’s important.

 

Tarrant laughed happily then, puzzling her slightly, and he pulled her up off the bed.  

 

“Good.  Well, don’t let’s worry too much about all of the rest of it.  And from a professional standpoint, well, not to sound callous, but this provides a certain challenge that will be extremely interesting to see through.  Now, Absolem has, perhaps unwisely, given me free rein over this problematic summer collection.  Most other houses have a standard spring/summer line and leave it at that as far as top tier showings go.  And that is pretty much what we did with the show last week.  Still, Vetvier has always issued a separate summer line, a little lower down on the scale, an early concession to changing times and the emerging middle class in Paris after the revolution.  Very historical.  However, there is always the question of how to approach it.  The board always float the option to get rid of it, but thus far they have always made enough off of it that pays for itself. Not to mention having another opportunity to surprise competitors with designs that are significantly different from what they’ve seen in the collections.”

 

Alice tried to follow this, though it was such a switch from what they’d already been discussing that she had a little trouble jumping into it.  Unaware, her hatter blithely continued.

 

“I was known in school as unrelentingly scornful of our modern production system wherein the clothes for ordinary people become increasingly flat and straight as you go down the production scale, as paying for curved seams and careful construction is exactly what the board members and profit-mongers want to avoid doing.  So here I am given an opportunity to create one of these very lines that is often adulterated to the point of being unrecognizable by the time it reaches the department stores.  And at the same time, I have you with your changing body as my inspiration.  Additionally, as you may or may not have gathered, I am the son of a small town tailor whose ever-shrinking business has been mirrored by shops across the country.  Across the world, really.  So what I am trying to do is to draft patterns that are made to be altered.  I’d like to sell the clothing, yes, but with instructions to be made over for customers by a professional with that individual’s measurements and body type in mind.”

 

Alice took this in, eyebrows raised.  This indeed was something that would raise many an eyebrow in the fashion world.

 

“But if you were truly to do that, well, people come in plenty of other sizes and shapes than the ones I am and will be.  Won’t you need some others?”

 

“Certainly, that’s absolutely true, and you’re right that there should be other types represented.  Still, I think that the point can be made with you and a few others.”

 

“The point?”

 

“That fashion today is a scam that forces women in particular into such unflattering clothing that most would be better off wearing paper sacks.”

 

“Hmm.  I can’t imagine that this is going to go over terribly well in the boardrooms,” Alice said mildly.

 

“No, no, not if everyone is still so caught up in profit at any cost.  However, I think there are enough people out there, that is to say, there are still enough of the older generation left who can remember what it felt like to have a suit tailored, and enough of the new generation to feel outraged at their getting screwed over, that it could work.  Or at least give some people an idea of what might be possible.”

 

Alice thought for a moment.  

 

“How much of this have you told Absolem?” she asked.

 

“Not much at all.  At least not directly.  Just that I’m working on a summer line, lots of dresses, tunics, whimsy and fluff, that sort of thing.  And that I want to make the patterns ahead of time and approve everything.  That is an extremely unusual request, in case you didn’t realize, so he’s sure to suspect something’s up.  But Absolem came in at a time when the bulk of design work was for individual clients and ready to wear did not mean complete shite.  I think he’s ready to retire anyway, so I might as well take this chance if he’s giving it to me.”

 

Alice smiled at Tarrant’s firm conviction.  He was strange indeed, but such a genius with clothes that he could probably create quite a stir if he tried.  And he seemed determined to try.

 

“Excellent.  I like your mad scheme, and am happy to be a part of it.  I just hope I don’t end up too awkward looking to do for the finished product.”

 

Tarrant shook his head.  ‘“I’m sure you won’t.  You do seem to take after your mother physically, though thank heavens you aren’t quite so scathingly sharp.”  He shuddered.

 

“Poor Tarrant, she does seem to have put the fear in you,” Alice teased.  “But you never know, I may end up just the same.”

 

Tarrant fiddled with something on his desk while Alice looked about her for a shirt that belonged to her.  His voice was suspiciously casual as he said, “And on your father’s side?  What sort of genes have you inherited there?”

 

Alice looked a little sad, but answered him promptly.  “Daddy was tallish, probably just over Mother’s height.  Dark hair, though neither Margaret and I got it.  We both have his brown eyes rather than Mother’s blue. I do favor Mother in looks, while Margaret’s face shape is more like Daddy’s.  Aside from physical characteristics though I’ve grown up being told I’m very like my father.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Yes, I suppose that’s why I can’t believe the awful lies that were said about him.  Father took risks—growing the business was like a delightful game to him—but he would never cheat!  They accused him of running up great personal debts, of bribing Chinese officials and strong-arming factories in Indonesia into going against labor laws in order to keep prices low.  That’s not like him.  After Grandfather died in the fifties, my grandmother transformed Kingsleigh Shipping into a network that drew on and supported local businesses in Asia rather than trying to keep a stranglehold on the whole supply chain like so many others.  Father was committed to keeping the company adaptable—true to her vision.  There’s no way he would suddenly change all that.  I mean, why?  Even if he had lost out, Daddy wasn’t one to be a slave to his investors.  He’d much rather have lived in the broom closet apartment with us than have compromised his principles.”

 

Tarrant looked at Alice, noticing her sad eyes and determined face.  They both had causes driving them.  They were very different, but he hoped that they could support each other in whatever endeavors were necessary.  He cleared his throat.

 

“And now that you are in...touch again with your friend Hamish?  Can you find out anything from him?”

 

Despite their parting embrace, Alice looked a bit put out at the idea of Hamish Ascot as her friend.  Though they’d spent a happy childhood together he had still spent the past six years making her life a living hell.  Alice wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget.

 

“He’d better cooperate.  Though I’m not sure how much he knows about all this.  We were both young at the time, and I don’t think he was nearly as aware of his father’s affairs as I was of mine.  Still, perhaps he can ask questions on my behalf.”

 

“Perhaps.  But now, if you don’t mind Alice, we’d really ought to go down and eat breakfast.  I’m starving.”

 

“Oh alright,” said Alice, giving up and tucking Tarrant’s far too large shirt into her jeans.  “Me too, now that you mention it.  And hopefully by now Hamish will have cleared out of the kitchen.”

 

“Are you planning on avoiding him?” Tarrant asked.  That could be tricky.  The house was small, and he came up from uni almost every weekend.

 

“Not really,” huffed Alice, “I just don’t want my digestion spoiled by having to look at his disgustingly smug fat face.  I wonder any of you can eat with that awful gob glaring at you over the breakfast table.”

 

Tarrant laughed.  “He’s not really that terrible, Alice.  He’s always been very polite, if a little stiff.  And he’s been very good for Nivens.  You might not believe it, but he’s not nearly so twitchy now as when I first met him.  Why, back then he could hardly give a handshake without reaching for the antibacterial sanitizer.”

 

“Oh, really?  I supposed it doesn’t surprise me to hear he’s a little OCD. With that and Thackery’s easily recognizable attention deficit disorder, you’re running quite the little madhouse here,” Alice smiled.

 

Tarrant shifted uneasily.  “I suppose we are a rather odd lot...”

 

“And Mally certainly has anger issues.  Did I tell you she almost maced me when I came to drop off my number?”

 

“Did she?” he asked vaguely.  That sounded about par for the course for Mally.

 

Tarrant presented Alice with a flower he’d tied together out of some of the ribbons cluttering his desk in hopes of distracting her from any further diagnoses.  They really didn’t know each other well enough for that yet.  But if things continued to go well, perhaps soon he would be the one having revealing conversations about his past.  It was not the most joyful prospect, but at least then he wouldn’t have to feel so secretive around her.

 

She smiled and tucked the flower into her hair.  Tarrant guided Alice out the bedroom and down to breakfast.

 

-o-o-o-

 

Tarrant had delivered a new set of clothes on a hanger at the same time he’d given her the box of pads Thackery had gone out to get at the suggestion of the doctor.  Supposedly this would make it easier to measure whether or not she was bleeding too much.  Alice felt rather indolent letting Tarrant and Thackery run around for her, but after suffering through a couple of nasty cramps at breakfast she’d gone right back to bed and let them do as they liked.  She’d lazily dressed in the loose skirt and warm sweater and gotten back on the big bed to read.

 

When Thackery got off the phone with the doctor he came in to see her and reported that occasionally the body’s response to a flood of hormones was to be quite overactive and so it could actually be a good thing that her period had come on so soon.  It showed that she was able to produce the necessary stuff to get things going, anyway.  The trouble would be watching to see whether she self-regulated or whether her body remained overzealous in its reproductive function.

 

There came a knock at the door.  This in itself was odd, since except for first thing in the morning most people just walked in.

 

“Yes?” Alice called out.

 

“Alice? It’s Hamish. Might I have a word?”

 

She winced.  Perhaps she had been attempting to put a bit of space between herself and Hamish despite what she’d told Tarrant earlier.

 

“Alright.  Come in!” she called out, still not bothering to get up from the bed.

 

The door opened, and Hamish looked around the room shiftily while remaining in the hall. He gestured for her to come out.

 

“If you would, please, Alice.  I’d prefer to talk somewhere. . . not here,” he finished lamely.

 

Alice grudgingly rose and followed Hamish down the stair.  They walked away from the sound of the telly in the living room and back down the hall from where Tarrant was industriously applying himself to making clothes for Alice like a man possessed.

 

Hamish hustled Alice into Thackery’s office.  Once inside, he looked unhappily around at the wood paneling and the empty walls.

 

“Nivens loves working in here, but I think I would go mad in such a spare place,” he commented offhandedly.

 

Alice giggled.  “Thackery needs it to focus.  Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Nivens is similarly distracted by a normal amount of clutter.”

 

With a half-smile that was considerably more human than his usual expressions, Hamish looked Alice over carefully as she seated herself in the solid wooden chair behind the desk.  It didn’t swivel, and was far too solid to tip up on two legs.  Alice smiled at the thought of the two twitchy young men shopping for such an item.

 

“How did you meet Tarrant?” her longtime fiancé asked without preamble.

 

Alice raised her eyebrows.  Somehow that wasn’t what she was expecting.  However, Tarrant was her entrée into this mad world, so it certainly wasn’t completely out of nowhere.  

 

“He did the hats for the Vetvier Printemps collection.  I was in the show.” Alice answered as succinctly as she could, not quite comfortable with spilling out the details to person who had so recently been nothing less than her mortal enemy.

 

“Is this a frequent thing for you—dating the designers you meet at work?”  Alice’s eyebrows rose.  Hamish looked uncomfortable but determined to have her answer.

 

“No!  Not at all. I have not been allowed to date—and you well know why,” she grumbled.

 

Hamish held out his hands placatingly.  “Please, Alice, I am trying to understand the situation.  If this is not a usual thing, then how did you become entangled?”

 

Alice blushed slightly, thinking about how they had and had not literally become entangled.  “I don’t know that it’s any of your business,” she began, “but if you must know, he was very kind to me at the show.  I don’t get along with many people in the fashion world.  Well, I don’t seem to get along with many people at all these days. But Tarrant—well, we hit it off.”

 

“Just like that?  You don’t date anyone since the sixth grade and then suddenly, hit it off with Tarrant Hayes?”

 

“He—we—we played a game.  During the show.  It was fun, and he fixed a shirt that was uncomfortable for me.  He’s incredibly talented, and we liked one another.”

 

“But you just met him out of the blue?  No one introduced you?” Hamish asked insistently.

 

“Well, Absolem knew us both of course.  He’s the Vetvier designer who did the clothes at the show.  Very established, very old guard, friends with my mother,” Alice said, unsure what Hamish was driving at.

 

“But that’s a professional relationship only,” Hamish said, as if it wasn’t a good enough beginning for millions of relationships across space and time.  “You didn’t know anyone who really knew him or even knew of him personally.”

 

“Well no, but as soon as we left the Vetvier afterparty he took me to a club and introduced me to loads of people he knew, and then the next day I met all this lot.  Well, Thackery and Mally, I don’t know why but I never saw Nivens that day.”

 

Hamish winced and Alice looked thoughtful.

 

“Were you here, Hamish?  That night?  I suppose it was only a week ago, though it feels like it’s been an age since then.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I think I remember hearing that Nivens’ boyfriend had somewhere to go...”

 

“Yes. To tea, of course.  Your mother assured us very convincingly that you were home sick with a cold.  I don’t think even Mother suspected a thing.” He  paced around, annoyed at the lack of furnishings and knick-knacks to pick at.  

 

“But that’s not the point, the point is you went home with a man you didn’t know at all and now are completely installed in his house for goodness knows what reason!”

 

“I know him plenty well!” countered Alice.

 

“No you do not!” Hamish hissed, closing in on her so as not to be overheard by the other denizens of Witzend.  “Why, if you knew half of the things there are to know about him I’m sure you’d run directly in the opposite direction.  I’m not best pleased Nivens is living here under his roof, but for you to be in such a. . .vulnerable position physically with regards to Tarrant Hayes. . .it’s not good at all.”

 

Alice looked shocked and angry.  “It is absolutely none of your business, but I’ll have you know that there is much less physical about our relationship than I would like there to be.  Tarrant has been nothing but restraint itself where I’m concerned.  I have no idea why you would say such awful things Hamish!  Thackery has told me Tarrant has a bit of a temper, but as long as I’ve known him I’ve never seen a hint of it.  But, but Thackery has, and he’s still friends with him!  Mally as well, though that’s perhaps not saying much.  That girl loves a good row more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

 

“Alice,” Hamish put his hand on her shoulder and looked at her most patronizingly, “you must believe me that you don’t know Tarrant in the least.  His reputation—it’s not good.  Doubtless it is a result of his troubled past, but nevertheless I would hate for you to get involved with someone like him due to some sort of late-term teenage feud with your mother.”

 

“What?” Alice’s mind reeled.  Troubled past?  Why Tarrant said the only time he’d gone before court as a minor the charges had been dropped, and it had only been for a dare anyway.  Hamish sounded so serious, but it was impossible for him to know better about Tarrant than she did.  Why, this must be some weird sort of possessive jealousy.  Even though Hamish had never desired her, he had doubtless looked on her as his.  It must be something to do with that.  She pursued the latter part of his comment to give herself some space from his troubling assertions.  

 

“It’s not a feud with my mother.  I mean, yes, my mother is involved, but all other interested parties have been referring to it as child abuse, so I don’t think your ignorant assumptions have much ground to stand on here.”

 

Hamish’s eyebrows rose. “Child abuse?  I know you all lost your worldly goods, but I can hardly believe Aunt Helen would start beating you over it.”  He scoffed.  “What an accusation!”

 

Alice scowled.  She didn’t have to sit here and listen to this.  But she still didn’t want Hamish to go off thinking she was telling tales or being unreasonable.  She tried to think of a measure of the truth that might shut him up but keep some details private.  Alice did not want to have to talk to the scornful Hamish about her bodily functions.

 

“After Daddy died Mother started giving me something.  A drug.  I thought it was a vitamin—I never questioned it until Thackery had me describe it to him.  But it was considerably more than that!  Those inexplicable fevers I had?  Turns out Mother wasn’t worried because they were a well-known side effect.  She changed me, Hamish!  She was determined to preserve my body for modeling even though she had to change my personality to do it!  She did that, Hamish!  To her own daughter!”

 

Alice stifled a sniffle and hastily wiped her eyes.  She’d done far too much crying over this for her tastes.  

 

Hamish was doing his impression of a fish out of water again.  With his pale pink fish-face he did it rather well, Alice had to admit.  If she looked long enough she could almost see his cropped ginger hair and rounded eyebrows as fins.  Alice stopped herself before she broke out in a giggle.  Laughing like a madwoman wouldn’t help her credibility.

 

“I can’t believe this of Aunt Helen! Have you any proof?”

 

“The proof is by now with the police.  I gave the pill bottle to my doctor, who registered an official grievance with the licensing board against the prescribing physician.  Mother will be interviewed as part of the investigation I suppose, and then me as well.  Dr. Tuttle says I will have to decide whether to bring charges or allow the state to stand in as I was a minor for most of the time in question.  I’ve decided to cross that bridge once I come to it.  I haven’t sought legal counsel yet in any case.”

 

Hamish looked doubly gobsmacked to hear that this was an actual legal matter and not some fancy of Alice’s overactive imagination.

 

“I say!”

 

“Yes,” said Alice.  “This is a real thing that really happened to me Hamish.  I can’t go back with Mother.  Tarrant has been kind enough to take me in, so I’d appreciate a little more care from you about what you say about him.  I’ve few enough friends as it is.”

 

“So you consider him your ‘friend’ then?”

 

“I’ve only known him a week, yet he’s already my best friend.”

 

Alice nodded her head firmly and moved to the door.  The ginger lump of judgement and doom shook his head disapprovingly, but Hamish but didn’t try to stop her as she left the room.  This day had been absolutely too much.

 

Chapter Text

Yelena looked down at the address carefully entered into her mobile.  It had taken her hours yesterday to persuade Absolem to give her the hatter’s address.  He’d been far more concerned about the situation with Alice’s little ‘vitamin’ than Yelena would have thought.  Lord knew none of their set had reached middle-age and beyond without a little pharmaceutical aid.  Still, everyone seemed to make much of the fact that it had been given to Alice without her knowledge.  It did sound bad, Yelena had to admit, but Dr. Lustwig had assured her that once off of the Riftorelin Alice would develop normally.  She had wanted to be sure it wouldn’t impair her reproductive capacity, especially since that was what Clarissa Ascot wanted most out of the whole deal.  The fact that it had curbed Alice’s tendency to dig in her heels and demand answers for inconvenient questions was also an unexpected blessing.  Things had been bad enough without Alice crashing in and exacerbating the situation.

 

Didn’t every parent want to keep their child young as long as possible?  Yelena had the means and the reasons to do so.  It was done in the service of Alice and Margaret’s futures, and Yelena could not think of a more worthy cause.

 

The house she had come to on a narrow side street was ancient and leaning.  It looked to Yelena like an architectural disaster waiting to happen, but she supposed if it had stood for so long, it was unlikely to fall down before she got herself and Alice out of it.  She took a breath and knocked on the door.

 

“Coming!” someone called from within.

 

The door was opened by a young man with fair hair and rather nervous blue eyes.  Yelena had not prepared herself to consider that there might be others in the house aside from Alice and the Hatter, though now that she thought about it, hadn’t he said that his housemate had been the one to notice Alice’s pill was not as it seemed?  Yelena’s eyes narrowed.  Here was the source of all her troubles.  Or most of them, as they could be more directly traced to the obnoxious ginger her daughter seemed obsessed with.  

 

“Yes, can I help you?” the young man at the door asked politely.

 

“I’m here to see my daughter,” Yelena said, and when this caused him to react with widened eyes and distress, she stepped up and pushed past him, though he had already pressed himself flat against the wall to avoid coming into contact with her.  

 

“Ha—" he started, then blanched and tried again.  “H—elp!  Tarrant! Thackery!” he cried.  When no one seemed to attend he helplessly called out, “Mally!”

 

Yelena continued into the house, noticing that for all it was an awful mishmash of colors and styles it was clean and the furniture was of good quality.  Some of the furnishings were likely valuable antiques.  This probably had more to do with the fact that it had belonged to the hatter’s great-uncle than through any good taste of his .  Absolem had filled her in on the little fact of his inheritance along with a few others, some much more troubling, that had solidified her resolve to come and retrieve her wayward child.

 

Her progress was halted before she reached the kitchen by a diminutive young Indian woman in a child’s hooded animal sweatshirt.  Yelena started to brush past her, but the girl advanced on her threateningly, and Yelena got a good look at her dangerous expression.

 

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?’ she asked fiercely, her arms out.  Yelena was suddenly concerned that perhaps barging in had not been the wisest plan.  She held her arms out placatingly.

 

“I’m Alice’s mother.  I’ve just come to get her and I’ll be on my way.”

 

The hood with the mouse ears slid back a little to reveal shockingly pink hair.  Yelena sniffed in disapproval.  Mally sniffed right back.

 

“I don’t know about all that, but you’ve frightened Nivens and done something to Alice that they all won’t tell me about. Normally I would tell you to take her and good riddance, but it seems she’s got her bossy ways from you, so perhaps I can forgive some of them a little better.”

 

Yelena looked at her warily and wondered what Alice had revealed about her situation.  She still thinking how best to diffuse the situation when Alice walked down the stairs.

 

Alice came down from upstairs looking a little pale and wan but otherwise healthy and well.  She was wearing a fitted dress of green and yellow stripes that made a bizarre picture as it almost exactly matched the wallpaper on the kitchen walls.  In fact, as she came further into the kitchen Yelena could see that the fabric was identical to the wallpaper and Alice blended perfectly into the pattern.  It was almost eerie and certainly bizarre.  Why on earth would Alice be dressed to match the kitchen?

 

When Alice saw Yelena she stopped short.  

 

“Tarrant!” she called.  Yelena scowled and shook her head, but her daughter was not attending.  She raced back up the stairs, and Yelena could hear her speaking with a lowered voice to a man at the top of the landing, presumably her hatter.  Her feet then scampered back into the kitchen, where she stopped as though nothing had happened at all.

 

“Mother,” Alice said cooly.  

 

“Alice,” Yelena said crisply.  “I’ve come to take you home.  I let you have some time to come home when you felt ready, but enough is enough.”

 

“I am not inclined to go with you, Mother,” said Alice.  “Not while there are so many unknowns regarding your treatment of me.  I said all I had to say to you at the photo shoot on Thursday.  I don’t know how you got this address, but I’d ask you to please leave before you further upset the inhabitants of the house.”

 

“You seem to be operating under some misapprehensions which we need to clear up,” Yelena said smoothly.  “There are answers, but none that I’d like to discuss among strangers.”

 

She looked dismissively at Mally and the cowering Nivens who was hovering helplessly behind them in the living room.  Tarrant was still upstairs.

 

“Oh no, Aunt Helen? Then perhaps you might be willing to allow old friends a chance to understand what is happening here,” said a new voice from the stair and Yelena suffered the vicious shock of witnessing Hamish Ascot come down the stairs to stand at Alice’s shoulder in the kitchen.  Alice looked surprised he had chosen to show himself, but if she was it was absolutely nothing to the way that her mother was suddenly gasping for air.  Her beautifully made up eyes widened in pure shock.

 

Tarrant had followed Hamish down the stairs and was standing next to Hamish behind her other shoulder.  Yelena gaped helplessly to see her wished-for future son-in-law standing so peaceably next to Alice’s hateful hatter.  She shut her mouth with a snap.

 

“What,” she hissed to Alice, “is going on here?”

 

Instead of allowing Alice to be drawn in, Tarrant stepped up to her side.

 

“Mrs. Kingsleigh,” he said.  “How surprising to see you here.  Though I suppose Absolem can’t help himself when it comes to interfering in this situation, despite its complexity.  Since you’re here, Alice is here, and Hamish is here, and Thackery has returned after recently having spoken to the doctor, why don’t we all go into the living room and discuss these misapprehensions you were speaking of?”

 

Yelena pulled herself up stiffly, not appreciating his mildly threatening tone.  “I don’t think—” she began.

 

“Then ye shouldn’t speak,” said Thackery blandly, coming in from the dining room.  “Thackery Eames.  I don’t believe we’ve met yet.”

 

Yelena took in this new young man with his dark skin and dreadlocks and upsettingly cold expression.  He was looking at her as if she were some particularly unpleasant insect.  She revised her opinion.  This seemed much more likely the one who ferreted out her small deception with the pill.  They had said he was some sort of medical professional.  Yelena wondered what kind.  He did not look at all professional in his jeans and plaid flannel button-up over a t shirt, though this house was full of surprises.

 

Yelena made no reply, but turned back to Tarrant.

 

“Perhaps we should sit down then,” she agreed.

 

-o-o-o-

 

Alice had been upstairs trying on the first dress that Tarrant had finished that might find a place in his summer collection when she heard all the commotion downstairs.  

 

The dress Tarrant had made perfectly matched the zigzag wallpaper that Alice was so taken with in the kitchen.  At first she had marvelled that he had found a print that was identical to the wall covering, which though in good condition had to be a couple of decades old at least.  Then she had gotten closer and her marveling changed to wonder at Tarrant’s skill, for each stripe had been sewn on—quilted together— from yellow and green fabric in the right shades.  The fitted bodice of the dress came up straight across the upper part of her chest so that while it was carefully fitted, it was not revealing at all, and the skirt flowed out from the waistline into ruffles that made it almost to her knees.  The skirt was lined with some frothy white material to help it achieve its satisfying swish.  Like everything else Tarrant had made for her the fit was perfect.  To her knowledge he’d never measured but had done it all by looking, and when she hadn’t noticed at that.

 

An image of him looming over her while she slept, tape measure in hand induced giggles rather than shudders in Alice. Even when creeping about it was impossible to see Tarrant as anything other than fun and silly.  Besides, he probably did do it just by looking. Some time spent with him assured her that Tarrant’s capabilities were just shy of supernatural.  He seemed able to effortlessly judge distances and use his body with such confidence and ease that she sometimes found herself feeling twice the klutz she normally did around him.  While Thackery wasn’t nearly so showy as Tarrant, spending so much time around him some of his skills seemed to have rubbed off on him.  She’d only been here a week and the number of dishes the two of them had saved from her slippery grasp was far into the double digits.  

 

Tarrant had also become adept at touching her arm in just the right way to prevent her from slamming her shoulders into doorframes or knocking her knees against end tables.  Once he had actually thrown an extremely well-placed scone from across the dining room that hit her in the forehead and prevented her from slamming her head on an open cupboard door blocking her path in the kitchen.  He’d apologized, but she was so shocked at being pulled from her thoughts that she’d accidentally caught the scone and had taken a bite before having fully realized what was happening.

 

She had protested against trying on one of his fancy creations on today of all days—she would have been mortified to stain it! He had laughed and shaken his head and said that half of repairing clothes was a solid grasp of stain removal.  Besides, he reminded her, this dress was to be a rough draft that would need to be revised many times before it was shown in the late winter showcases.

 

The sounds of shouting drew Alice downstairs and into an altercation between Mally and her mother.  The nerve of that woman!  Alice could not believe that her mother was here in the cozy house of Witzend.  It was the worst kind of collision of worlds, and one that Alice was not prepared to suffer lightly, especially not after the shock of Hamish turning out to be Nivens’ boyfriend.  Two world collisions and her first period in six years was far too much excitement for one day.

 

Alice did not greet her mother but raced up the stair.  She called for Tarrant, but belatedly remembered that he was just in the shower and met Hamish instead.  Despite this being the first time they’d seen each other since the dramatic conclusion of their argument that morning, Hamish didn’t comment on it, or on her drastically different attire.  

 

“What’s all the commotion?” he asked, concerned.  “I think I heard Nivens—”

 

“Mother is here,” she hissed.  “Tell Tarrant but keep yourself hidden or she’ll find out and then who knows what’ll happen!”

 

Alice stayed only long enough to see Hamish’s eyebrows raise and hear his concerned, “I say, this is unsettling!” Before she bolted back down the stairs to return to her mother and new friends.  

 

Now they were sitting in the front parlour, the one with such beautiful early Victorian arched window casings as to make Alice shed a tear at their peculiarly narrow beauty, but even she was paying them no mind.  Yelena had taken the large chintz armchair to the left of  the fireplace, while Hamish had seated himself in the one to the right.  Alice had chosen the antique sofa facing them, its orange velvet and dark wood solid and unyielding in the face of her mother’s scrutiny.  Thackery and Tarrant flanked her on the sofa, leaving Nivens and Mally to scramble over the remaining seats.  Mally got the armchair and Nivens perched nervously on the unusual pink plaid upholstery of the settee.  Everyone stared at Yelena, though she did a fairly stand-up job of staring right back.  Most people would be quite unnerved with six pairs of eyes boring into them, but Yelena held up impressively.  She did not even deign to break the silence, sitting imperiously until Hamish coughed rather obviously and took charge in much the pompous way Alice had become accustomed to in the years since their childhood abruptly ended.

 

“Aunt Helen,” said Hamish, completely unaware of how childish that sounded (as if he couldn’t fathom addressing her in any other way!) “I understand the crux of this matter involves the serious charge that you have given Alice a prescription drug that altered not only her body but also her personality. Is this true? I can hardly imagine such a thing to be possible.”

 

What a prat, thought Alice, silently cursing her hesitancy which had led Hamish to assume control over the conversation.  She’d just told him it was true scarcely a half-hour ago!  Alice took comfort in the silent but angry on her behalf Thackery-and-Tarrant that surrounded her.  Their disapproval was joined by Mally’s support for seemingly any kind of conflict, and while Nivens seemed just a hair’s breadth from bolting from the room her stared in fascination between Yelena and Hamish.  Alice imagined it must be awkward for Nivens, to not only have all this drama rained down upon his home but to find that it is connected to his boyfriend.  And now Hamish had to decide whether or not to let the cat out of the bag to Alice’s mother.

 

What Yelena would do with the information of Hamish’s relationship status and sexual orientation was anybody’s guess.  Alice couldn’t imagine that her mother would keep it to herself unless for some devious purpose of her own.  She wasn’t exactly what Alice would call close with Hamish’s parent’s, but their monthly teas with the Ascots were one of the only real connection Alice had to her previous life.  Margaret still had friends from school and was generally able to still pass as one of the elite as long as no one pried to deeply into her family misfortune.  Alice found she didn’t know whether or not her mother kept up with any of her other friends from her life as Helen Kingsleigh.  For the past six years their existence had revolved so heavily around Yelena’s remaining friendships and contacts in the fashion world that was all Alice knew of her mother’s social involvement.  She was gone a lot though, so perhaps there were others who might use Hamish’s situation against him.

 

Yelena looked squarely at Hamish to answer, ignoring the rest of the people crowded into the room before her.

 

“Thank you, Hamish dear, for your belief in my good intentions.  This matter has been blown so far out of proportion that I can hardly speak about it and expect to be fairly heard.  Where our fortunes were so horribly ruined after Charles’ death, your parents were kind enough to help me think of some options for keeping the girls as close to the standard of living they’d become accustomed to as possible.”

 

Alice sat up sharply at this.  “Standard of...how about the standard of having one’s thoughts remain unaltered in one’s own head!” she hissed hotly. Tarrant took her hand, mainly to give her something to squeeze the daylights out of other than her mother’s bejeweled neck.  The pearl choker she was wearing was providing a very tempting target.

 

Yelena continued as if she had not heard this slice of righteous indignation.  “Having Alice model was an acceptable option, but due to her changing body it was not one that was likely to provide the stability that we required.  Your mother introduced me to the wonderful Dr. Lustwig, who was able to suggest a solution to our plight.”

 

Alice drew breath to protest this trivialization of an extremely serious event in her life.  It seemed Thackery could no longer stand this tripe either, and he beat her to it.  His voice rang out stiffly, and Alice could tell he was doing his best to remain calm, for he was the stillest she’d ever seen him.  He was hardly even fidgeting in his seat.

 

“An illegal and medically irresponsible one!  Ah can’t even count the ways this case breaks medical ethics laws.  What about the physical and psychological side effects that Alice suffered?  The hot flashes and headaches and loss of bone density and hormonal imbalance?  What about the fact that she shouldn’t have been working as a minor to support you in the first place?  You couldn’t even tell her about it far enough to get the prescription in her own name, so for you to sit there and act like this was the lesser of any evils whatsoever is preposterous!”

 

Yelena swallowed tersely.

 

“I am not in the habit of speaking to strangers about highly personal family choices, Mr. Eames.  Our circumstances—”

 

Thackery scoffed.  “A family of two able bodied adults who depend on the labor of a minor to pay their way is hardly the kind of ‘circumstances’ a court is going to find compelling.”

 

Yelena was finally thrown off-balance.

 

“Court?”  

 

This was voiced not by Alice’s mother, but from the back row by Mally who continued to revel in Alice’s twisted fate as if it were her own personal interactive reality television program.  Their situation was certainly as sordid as any Alice had heard of on telly.

 

“Charges will first be brought against the prescribing physician, but he will likely be seen as an accomplice to your twisted act of child abuse,” Thackery answered Yelena as if it was her who had spoken.

 

Alice watched her mother’s face turn pale and then blotchy from fear and anger.  Yelena turned to her daughter in horror.

 

“Alice, you wouldn’t take this to the authorities—”

 

Thackery cut her off.  “Alice had no choice in the matter.  According to my own professional oaths I would have been complicit in the crime had I not immediately reported prescription fraud when I noticed.  Don’t try to lay the blame elsewhere Mrs. Kingsleigh—this falls squarely on you.  Alice has had to suffer for six long years due to your selfishness.”

 

Yelena blustered. “Selfishness?  You can possibly think that I would do something like this for my own benefit!  You have gone too far, sir.  Everything I’ve done has been for Alice.  Modeling was never about the money for us —indeed the work I had to do to get her hired far outweighs any of the time Alice spent on her career.  The money was never the point.”

 

“What was the point then?”  Another interjection from the peanut gallery as Mally tried to get the right of it.

 

Alice answered.  “Why, to keep me at a ‘level’ acceptable to Hamish’s mother of course.  Hamish Ascot couldn’t marry some common girl who worked in a shop.  A model might do though.  Was there ever anything of greater import than Clarissa Ascot’s opinion?”

 

Alice! ” Yelena hissed.  “ What are you thinking? ” Her eyes were moving between Hamish and Alice frantically.

 

Hamish interjected.

 

“I’m sorry if it pains you to hear it, Aunt Helen, but Alice and I are in complete accord regarding our engagement.  It cannot proceed.  We are not marriage material I’m afraid.”

 

“No!” The word was a sob, Yelena’s world ripping apart.  Alice found she could still feel sorry for her.  She’d had her world ripped apart often enough lately.

 

“All Charles’ hard work, gone forever?  Alice, how could you possibly take this chance away from you and Margaret after all we’ve done to ensure it?”

 

Hamish had risen, and placed a hand on Yelena’s shoulder.  Whether it was meant to be restraining or comforting Alice did not know.

 

“Aunt Helen, surely Alice and Margaret at least will be coming into their trusts soon, and surely you can draw on your retirement accounts in such a dire situation. . .It’s not so hopeless as all that, I’m sure.”

 

Yelena looked at him desolately.  “All gone.  Drained in the aftermath.”

 

Now Hamish blustered.  “ All ?  I can’t believe it.  Why, whatever happened with the company, it was incorporated. . .”

 

“Indeed,” said Alice, turning her mind to this puzzle that she had been forced away from every thime she’d asked for six long years.  “What could have happened to drain all our accounts like that?  To necessitate the sale of every last asset?  I tried to keep a pair of diamond earrings for emergencies and you turned them over to Hamish’s mother like I was a thief!”  Alice remembered this disturbing incident in the days after they had vacated their country house through a haze of pain and confusion.  It had been so bizarre to be parted with a birthday gift from her father in such a harsh manner.

 

“You don’t understand, Alice!” Yelena wailed.  “And if you try to pry further into all of this you will only regret it!”  She looked around at the audience to her misery, shrugged off Hamish’s hand, and rose from her chair.  “I bid you good day.  Alice, I suppose I will see you in court!”

 

Even with all her anger and upset, Yelena still managed to sweep out of the room elegantly.

 

“Wow,” said Mally.  That was a truly impressive exit.

 

“I’ll—I’ll see her out,” said Hamish, running after Alice’s mother.

 

As her mother took her leave of the house, Alice slumped onto the couch, her perfectly rigid posture spent.  Tarrant wrapped his arms around her and pulled her over to lean her forehead on his shoulder, and Thackery reached over from where he’d been sitting and gave her head a couple of rapid sympathetic pats.

 

“Ugh,” she said into Tarrant’s shirt.  “That didn’t go very well, now did it?”

 

Thackery sighed.  “Ah dinnae think it possibly could have gone well.  I have t’ say after meeting her that I don’t understand your mother at all Alice.  She seems far too bright to have fallen for it if Dr. Lustwig had tried for some unknown reason to convince her to put you on the Riftorelin.  Yet she doesn’t seem so uncaring that she should have completely discounted the side effects.  I mean, they’re printed right on the bottle.”

 

“Easy.  She’s pure evil!” said Mally from off to Thackery’s right.  She looked interested but not terribly concerned about the outcome of the proceedings.  Alice supposed that at least they had provided Mally with some entertainment.

 

“It is puzzling,” said Tarrant, his brow furrowed.  He ran his hands consolingly across Alice’s back.

 

Alice slowly pulled herself back upright and turned in Tarrant’s grasp so she could look at Thackery.  She heaved a beleaguered sigh.

 

“That’s just how she is though.  For whatever bizarre reason, Mother grew up revering doctors.  It’s as if they have a direct line to God or something.  That’s probably in part why Margaret chose that path now that I think on it.  She’s always seeking Mother’s approval.  Mother has always trusted completely in the wisdom of an MD—Daddy used to tease her about it.  If the doctor told her that it was the best course of action I’ve no doubt she would have done just what he said despite any dubious legality.  She does not have the same reverence for the law that she has for medicine,” Alice finished wryly.

 

“But I do not understand why the doctor would do such a thing.  It must have been quite a risk, not to mention expensive,” Tarrant wondered.

 

“Dr. Lustwig is only known for working with the richest clientèle,” Thackery added.

 

Nivens coughed.  The others turned, having “Do you think,” he looked around carefully to be sure no one was sneaking up on them and lowered his voice even further. “Could it have been that Mr. Ascot had something to do with it?  It’s only that she said Hamish’s parents advised her. . .” he trailed off nervously, worried that he was being disloyal by voicing such a thought.

 

Alice looked at him carefully.  “If it’s either of them I’d most likely guess Mrs. Ascot would be the culprit.  I suppose you’ve never met them, Nivens, but Mr. Ascot is not so bad.  The woman, however,” Alice shuddered.  “If there were ever someone who I might refer to as evil, it would be Clarissa Ascot.  I could believe almost anything of her.  But why?  She’d already seen my family brought low, and acquired all our worldly possessions.  She’d already contracted for me as a broodmare once we came of age.  What reason could she—or either of them—have for wanting me on such a medication?”

 

Thackery shrugged.  “It’s all the stranger if she really did hope for you to have children with Hamish.  There’s no reason to think that your fertility is compromised, but mucking about with it is risky, especially if that’s what your goal is in the future.”

 

Mally humphed and got up to leave the room, apparently being uninterested in these details of Alice’s circumstances.  She gave Nivens a hand up and they went out toward the kitchen.

 

Alice blushed and looked at Tarrant out of the corner of her eye.  He had a frown furrowing his brow though his arms around her were comfortingly gentle.  She remembered Hamish’s horrible insinuations and shook her head.  How could he ever have said such things of this kindest and sweetest of men?  True, she didn’t know Tarrant all that well, though they were getting to know each other as thoroughly as possible.

 

Well, maybe not quite as thoroughly as she’d like, at least not yet, but there was absolutely no reason to suppose Hamish would have any sort of insight of that type.  Still, maybe she should ask Thackery or even Mally if they knew what Hamish might have been blathering about.  She could ask Tarrant, but it might upset him to have to hear Hamish’s true opinion of him, especially since he’d been so charitable toward him when Alice had been abusing Hamish behind his back.

 

Thackery also rose and stretched.

 

“It’ll be alright Alice.  Jus’ keep yer head and it’ll turn out fine,” he said.  “Now I’ll go and see about tea.  Mally never does the sandwiches right.”

 

This left Alice and Tarrant alone, which suited Alice just fine.  She turned back into his embrace, and he dropped a kiss on the top of her head as she snuggled into him.

 

“Do you like the dress?” he asked.

 

Alice looked up at him for a beat, then remembered that she was wearing the first of his candidates for the summer line.

 

“Love it!” she said.  “It’s surprisingly comfortable.  I forgot I was in a couture dress during that whole ordeal.  I hope I haven’t sweated in it too much,” she said with a grimace.

 

“Again, Alice, please don’t concern yourself with such things.  All the clothes I make endeavor to meet the requirements of their wearer.  You require comfort, full range of motion, and ease of laundering above all,” he teased her.

 

“Right enough,” she laughed.  “I’m so glad you’re coming to understand me so well.”

 

She smiled, but his expression turned serious.  “I’m glad too.  I want us to understand one another, Alice.  I think in some ways we do better than you presently realize.”

 

He looked suddenly so sad that Alice reached her hand out to stroke his face.  

 

“Please don’t let all this upset you, Tarrant,” she said.  “Now let’s go put this dress up, have tea, and see what everyone is planning for the evening.”

 

She held out her hands and was pleased when he seemed to set aside whatever was troubling him and allowed her to help him up.  Arm in arm, they went in for tea.



Chapter Text

Hamish and Nivens were cleaning up after dinner, or rather, Nivens was cleaning while Hamish idly toyed with the fringe of a tea towel.  Nivens had his cuffs neatly rolled up to his elbows and was carefully and precisely washing the silverware.

 

They hadn’t seen much of Alice or in fact any of the other inhabitants of the house.  Alice and Tarrant had gone out to eat with barely a word.  Thackery had prepared a meal but hidden away with Mally in his office to eat it.  Hamish wondered if he and Nivens were being shunned after his performance with Aunt Helen that afternoon.  He had to admit that it hadn’t gone very well.

 

“I say, Nivens,” he started hesitantly, “Do you think Father could have been involved with putting Alice on this drug?”

 

Nivens started.

 

“How should I know?  I didn’t know either of you—I was still a child at the time too you know.  I only started working for your father a couple of years ago.”

 

“Still, being his assistant you see a lot more of him than I ever have, in fact you probably see more of mother too, as interested as she is in the running of the business,” Hamish continued.  “Do you think it fits their character to do something like this to a helpless young girl?”

 

Nivens shifted.  He didn’t quite meet Hamish’s eyes when he said, “Mr. Ascot is a perfectly genial employer, but it’s so difficult to ever truly know anyone.  And I’ve already warned you about some of his. . .indiscretions.”

 

That had not been a comfortable discussion at the time.  Nivens had tortured himself for months about whether he should remain loyal to his employer or tell all to his increasingly-serious boyfriend.  It had come as something of a relief when Hamish had been surprised to see Nivens at the house after hearing from his mother that his father’s assistant had phoned to say Mr. Ascot would be working late with him that evening.

 

Hamish hadn’t wanted to believe it, but eventually he’d had to concede that Nivens had no reason to make up such a tale, and indeed throughout their whole association Nivens had been nothing but honest if a bit shy with Hamish.  Nivens boldly offered to show Hamish the receipts for rent on the separate flat his father kept as well as those for dinners and jewelry that he’d been asked to conceal in the business expense accounts.

 

Hamish realized that just now Nivens had pointedly avoided giving a character assessment of his mother.  He sighed.  It wasn’t as if he didn’t know the kind of impression she made on people.  Even amongst the stuffiest of aristocrats, his mother was a top-tier snob.  Before their fortunes had risen with the death of Charles Kingsleigh Clarissa Ascot was derided and pitied for her hard-nosed snobbery, but now that they had such solid wealth on their side no one could say anything against her and get away with it.

 

Hamish shook his head.  “Still, I can’t imagine my parents conspiring with Aunt Helen.”

 

Nivens coughed and Hamish realized he was trembling slightly.  Nivens had seemed troubled this evening, but Hamish had put it down to the excitement of the day.

 

“Have you considered,” Nivens began hesitantly, “that this plan might have been hatched by your father and Alice’s mother without any input from your mother? Or perhaps the other way about.  That maybe Alice wasn’t the target, but her mother in some sort of play for revenge?”

 

Hamish looked at Nivens, perplexed.  “Revenge for what?  I can’t imagine what Mother could have resented Aunt Helen for after Uncle Charles died.  Alice was right—we got everything they had.”

 

“Well,” Nivens continued, uncomfortable to be speaking out against his boyfriend but determined to be heard, “I certainly purchased that pearl choker.  Well, ordered it anyway.  And went to the high street to retrieve it once it was completed.”

 

“That’s preposterous!” Hamish blustered.

 

Nivens turned back to the dishes and rolled his eyes, allowing Hamish some time to process his words.

 

“Wait, you mean father and Aunt Helen?”

 

Hamish put his hand on Nivens’ shoulder and turned him to face away from the sink.  

 

“You think that Aunt Helen is the one father’s been putting up in that penthouse flat?”

 

“Well,” Nivens said. “I know that’s the same necklace.  Pearl with interspersed diamonds in a gold setting.  And I’ve spoken to her on the phone before.  I didn’t realize it at first, but once I noticed the necklace I recognized her voice—the same woman who calls to confirm appointments with your father.”

 

“Oh dear Lord,” Hamish exclaimed.  “This is awful!”

 

He stepped back into the middle of the kitchen and ran a hand through his short hair.  Then he froze, hand still in hair.

 

“Do you think she recognized you?” Hamish asked in horror.

 

Nivens knew objectively that this could be quite bad for both of them.  Being Mr. Ascot’s personal assistant was a job that Nivens mostly enjoyed, and one that was still paying off some extremely ill-advised consumer debt he’d gotten into straight out of secondary school.  Still, he found it wrenched his heart that Hamish seemed so horrified at the thought that someone from his “other life” might find out about his sexuality, or especially about his relationship with his father’s assistant.  

 

“I doubt it,” Nivens said cooly.  “I’ve never seen her before yesterday and I barely said two words to her after answering the door.  If she didn’t recognize me then I see no reason for her to have noticed me later.”

 

“Well thank heavens for that!” Hamish said.

 

Nivens looked away.  Hamish noticed and awkwardly touched Nivens’ elbow.

 

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it like that.  It’s just—all this mess is so confusing.”  He leaned toward Nivens, looking him in the eye.  “But it’s not all bad.  Now that you’ve met Alice and you see for yourself how impossible that engagement always was.”

 

Nivens nodded slowly.  Hamish had been up-front with him about his engagement, but he couldn’t say he hadn’t worried that Hamish would sooner or later cave in to his parents’ wishes and marry the girl they’d chosen.  Hamish swore that he just needed to keep his sexuality a secret from his mother for a few more years until he finished uni and had a way of supporting himself (in the manner to which he was accustomed, Nivens figured went without saying; that they both enjoyed the finer things in life was what brought them together to begin with).  The pretense of engagement to Alice was a convenient cover as to why Hamish never brought home a girl.  

 

Still, Nivens would be lying if he said he hadn’t been a little concerned about the situation, especially once Hamish had spoken to him about his childhood.  Almost every story, Nivens couldn’t help but notice, seemed to feature Alice as the star.  Hamish had clearly cared for the girl deeply once, even if he professed to hate her since their engagement as young teens.  Learning that Hamish’s family benefited from the death and subsequent public shaming of Alice’s father while the remaining Kingsleighs were left to fend for themselves also explained the angry guilt with which Hamish always seemed to regard the girl.

 

“Should we tell Alice?” Nivens asked.

 

“Does she know you work for Father?” Hamish asked.

 

“I’m not sure.  I almost mentioned it to her earlier but she was so distraught I thought I’d leave it til I’d spoken to you.  If I’d known she was a Kingsleigh—as in Kingsleigh-Ascot—I would have told her all of this sooner.  But I had no idea.”

 

“Hmm.  Well, Alice may not think to ask.  For someone who’s so purposeful she can be incredibly oblivious.  Please leave it for a while.  I’d like to think a bit more about what to do about it all.”

 

“I won’t hide it from her if it comes up,” Nivens warned.

 

“No no, of course not.  Wouldn’t ask you to,” Hamish blustered nervously.  Nivens gave him a skeptical look and turned back to the dishes.

 

“You can dry these with that towel you’re strangling you know,” Nivens remarked.

 

“Oh—yes, yes of course,” Hamish said, and reluctantly put the item to its intended purpose, though he did it so ill that Nivens had to re-dry them all afterward. There were some things about dating an heir to one of Britain’s wealthiest families that made it difficult to remember why it was worth it.

 

-o-o-o-

 

Alice enjoyed the downtime that Tarrant insisted she take after all the unpleasantness of Saturday, and didn’t even mind terribly when he sent her off to bed so that he could put in some extra hours in his workroom. Sunday morning he woke her apologetically to mention that he’d neglected to tell her he had a prior engagement for the day. In all Saturday’s commotion he’d forgotten entirely that his friend had solicited his help in making her new music video.

 

“You’re doing a music video?” asked Alice blearily. “For television?”

 

“No, no,” said Tarrant dismissively. “It’ll just be online I imagine. Daisy is an excellent singer, but certainly hasn’t hit it big—at least not yet. And it’s not all me. I believe I’ll be one of several dancers.”

 

“So you’re dancing then, not making costumes?” Alice asked, waking up a little more. Tarrant shuddered.

 

“No, and to tell you the truth I’m rather dreading what Daisy and her friends have come up with. I try—very hard and not always successfully—to appreciate the imagination and verve of amateur costumers who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. At least they want to do something for themselves—which should be applauded! And many times it is charming, cute and inspiring! But, oh Alice, if I have to look too closely at the seams. . . “ He shuddered again. “Well, I’ve packed a bag with several options for myself, just in case. I don’t know who else will be there or I might try to bring something extra.”

 

Alice sat up and smiled.

 

“It’s very nice of you to do this for your friend, especially if you’ve got to put up with clothes you don’t like. I’ll look forward to seeing it when it’s done.”

 

Tarrant stepped closer to the bed and Alice reached out and pulled him down to sit beside her, then pulled him further into a sweet kiss. He threaded his hand through her messy curls and deepened the kiss.  Finally Alice had to shift her position and Tarrant broke away.

 

“Have fun,” she said, breathless, “Come home soon.”

 

Tarrant looked at her with soft eyes and replied fondly, “With you here how could I not? Though it may be dinner time before I’m home. I have no idea how well they’ve planned this. Call me though, if it’s too long I can just duck out and leave them to finish.”

 

“I wouldn’t!” Alice said. “I’d hate to be the cause of putting out your friends. Besides, I still have a bit to do on my paper.”

 

He pulled back a bit further, but still sat at the edge of the bed, gently holding Alice’s hands.

 

“Will it be a problem—well, Hamish often stays through Sundays and leaves Monday morning. If you can’t bear being around him, please call me. We’ll think of some way for you to get out.”

 

Alice sighed.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’d have to be in a sorry state indeed not to be able to handle Hamish Ascot.  I’ll be fine.”

 

She smiled at him, and he reluctantly took his leave.

 

Alice tried going back to sleep for a while, but the daylight was beating its way past Tarrant’s ineffectual blinds once more, so she responded to her body’s urging toward breakfast.

 

She readied herself for the day and descended the stair.  Thackery was bustling about the kitchen is his usual spastic way.

 

“Alice!  Excellent!” he cried, and Alice looked at him  askance.  

 

“Why?” she asked suspiciously with a concerned arch of her brow.

 

Thackery just grinned and plunked her breakfast down on the table.  He took her food intake very seriously, and as usual she had buttered eggs, meat, two vegetables (today it was broccoli and pickled beets) and a slice of homemade stone ground whole wheat sourdough bread slathered with more butter.  She knew there was jam somewhere in the kitchen, but Thackery usually hid it when she was around.  He was such a tyrant about sugar.  Tarrant said it was very hypocritical of him, as Thackery had quite a sweet tooth, but Thack just sniffed and said Alice was his patient who should benefit from his wisdom, not his weaknesses.  Then he gave her quite a lecture about priming her body to burn fat rather than sugar.

 

Today, however, he didn’t seem in a lecturing mood.  He got Alice a cup of tea and another for himself and they sat at the little round table looking out at the garden while Alice ate.  Thackery was paging through an interesting-looking old herbal, and while he fidgeted a bit Alice was able to ignore it.  For a while Alice’s thoughts turned to the paper on Newgrange that she still hadn’t finished for her anthropology class.  Sure, a lot had happened, but she ought to get to it.  One never knew what else might happen in this house to distract one.

 

When she was finished eating, she took her dishes to the sink and rinsed them.  She thought she might just slip upstairs but Thackery called out,

 

“Where do you think you’re going?”

 

Alice turned back to him.  “Upstairs.  I have a paper...”

 

Thackery waved his hand dismissively and leapt up.

 

“Ye’ve had that paper since ye got here.  Work on it later,” he said.

 

Now Alice was curious.  “Why?  What are we going to do?” she asked.  

 

“It’s been a week and I’ve let you rest and recover, but I think you’ve regained enough strength to start thinking about exercise.”

 

Alice groaned.  “I’m sorry Thackery, but I must tell you that I absolutely loathe the treadmill, and spin class is no better.  If I have any say in my life whatsoever I’ll never get back on another bloody beeping heart-rate-monitoring exercise machine in my life.”

 

Thackery laughed at her dismay.  “Poor Alice, they really did get ye.  But there’ll be no machines.  At least, not unless you make that choice yerself.  However, a fitness routine is a necessary evil fer modern folks with a largely sedentary lifestyle.”

 

He bounded up and motioned for Alice to follow him out through the living room and into the back garden through the door there.  They walked straight back through the chill until they reached the garage.  Alice walked next to Thackery more eagerly since she’d realized where they were headed.  She hadn’t yet had a chance to go inside.  Perhaps a little exercise would be worth getting to explore.

 

Thackery unlocked the door, and Alice peered inside.  The building was again deceptively spacious.  The part with the car was off to the  side, but Alice was surprised when she realized that there was another vehicle in the place next to the red triumph.  

 

“Whose van is that?” Alice asked, curiosity bubbling over.

 

Thackery eyed her with amusement.  Alice certainly had a bit of a lust for exploration.

 

“It belongs to th’ Tweedles.  They do furniture moving and they recently got a full-sized lorry.  I think this is just parked here until they sell it.” He sniffed.  “It’s been sitting here taking up space fer months tho.  Tarrant is far too lenient with them,” he grumbled.

 

He opened a back door and Alice saw that there was a separate room that ran along the back of the garage with two windows looking out on the vegetable garden.  It seemed to have once been a workshop of some sort, for there was a heavy wooden workbench long the back wall.  Its top and all its shelves were completely covered in large cardboard moving boxes, however.  Alice glimpsed a few neglected woodworking tools hung on the wall behind the jumble of boxes.

 

The rest of the room, however, was painted white, and neat and clear with a few exercise mats laid out, a set of free weights, and a pull-up bar.  Not terribly involved.  Alice wasn’t sure what he was going to ask her to do with such minimal equipment.  She eyed the weights with concern.

 

Thackery caught the direction of her worried gaze and waved his hand.

 

“None o’ that for ye today, Alice.  Today there’s jus’ four simple things ah want tae get though.  Pull-ups, push-ups, plank, and squats.  Are you used tae doing them?”

 

Alice looked at him in dismay.  “I don’t know that I can do any of them,” she allowed.

 

Thackery shook his head.  “And ye had personal trainers and fitness coaches at yer old gym?”

 

“Yes,” said Alice, “But they mainly guided me from one machine to the next and told me when I could finally stop.”

 

“Pathetic,” he muttered.  “All righ’.  Start with th’ squats.”

 

He proceeded to guide her through each of the movements, only encouraging her to go as long as she felt she was able.  When it came to the push-ups and planks, Alice was encouraged to put her knees on the ground to make it easier.  Finally they turned to the pull-up bar.  Alice looked at it doubtfully.

 

“Even in my best shape when I was still at school before Mother took me out, I could only do one,” she warned.

 

“Then we’ll start with a chair.”

 

Thackery went out into the garage area and returned with a folding chair.  He had her get up on it and support part of her weight with her legs while she tried to do a pull-up.  She had doubted that this would work—wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of upper body exercise?  But she found that Thackery was right, and she still had plenty of work to do with her arms.

 

Thackery had been keeping pace with Alice, though doing his own levels of the exercises and his usual number of reps.  They were both panting by the end of it, and he offered to run inside for water before they started the next round.

 

Alice nodded, depressed at the idea of a whole new set to struggle through.  When he left, however, if occurred to her that she could explore the garage unimpeded.  She jumped up from where she had been sitting on the floor and hesitated.  Should she go for the boxes on the workbench, or look out in the area with the cars?  Thinking about how much larger the structure was than she’d realized, but how the ceiling, though high enough, was not open to the rafters, she stepped out of the bright room and into the darker garage.

 

Alice looked about her and—there!  Off to the far side beyond the Tweedles’ van was a steep stair—more like a ladder than anything really—and Alice longed to peek up into the loft that she was sure existed, perhaps full of dusty treasures from the house’s previous occupants.  She was on her way to do this, however, when she tripped on a fallen tennis racquet.  Alice picked it up and turned to discover where it had fallen from but there were a multitude of pegs holding up various pieces of sporting equipment and bags of gear, some dusty but others well-used.  Peeking inside a familiarly long zippered case, Alice grinned as she realized it was indeed a fencing foil as she had suspected.

 

Not stopping to second-guess herself Alice hung the racquet on a convenient peg and drew the thin metal foil from the bag.  She looked it over, saw that it was properly tipped, and before she knew it she was in position, lunging despite her thighs which burned from the squats she’d just completed.

 

“Oh, do ye fence?”  

 

Alice whirled around, clutching the weapon to her in surprise.  That was not terribly good form, she chastised herself.  Forget the fact that Thackery had entered the building without her noticing.

 

“Erm—once upon a public school education.” She blushed. she must sound so foolish.  “That is, not for many years.”

 

A sympathetic smile flickered across Thackery’s face.  Alice’s eyes widened hopefully.

 

“Do you fence?  Does Tarrant?”

 

Thackery shook his head.

 

“Ah don’t mesself,” he answered.  “Nor does Tarrant.  He takes his pointy objects a mite too seriously fer tha’. But Nivens does, and Hamish.  They met at a London salle I believe.”

 

Alice snorted.  “ Hamish still fences?  I can hardly believe it.” She brandished the foil.  “Why, if I had a shilling for every time I’ve got a point off of Hamish Ascot, I’d be rich again.”

 

Thackery smiled.  “He must have improved, as he beat Nivens who does well in his club matches.”

 

Alice lowered her weapon—which was actually Nivens’ weapon—with a small frown.  A moment passed while she carefully replaced it where she had found it.  When she spoke next she was the closest to self-pity Thackery had heard her.

 

“I suppose I’ll never catch up to him now—to either of them.  I’ve spent too long sitting around idle and starving.  It’s not nice to brag, but I used to be a rather good junior competitor.  Now—well, now it’s just one more aspect of my life I’ve got to accept is gone forever.”

 

She looked up at him, and Thackery saw tears shining in her eyes.

 

“I don’t even understand why .  I know Daddy didn’t do any of those horrible things, but even if people thought he did I don’t know why the Ascots got all our money and worldly possessions while I was drugged up and set to sit at home alone in between modeling jobs.”

 

She sniffed and wiped her eyes.

 

“God, I hate sniffling.  Sorry for being so bloody emotional.  I suppose it’s possible that this is all my hormones, but I’m afraid there’s just so much .”

 

Thackery furrowed his brow in concern.

 

“It’s understandable Alice, an’ more than you realize probably is down tae yer body chemistry changing.  But I have tae ask ye again, have ye called the counselor Dr. Tuttle recommended?”

 

“No.”  Alice sighed shortly.  “I know it seems irrational to you, but I just want a little time before I’m expected to parade the whole story in front of another perfect stranger.”  

 

She held out her hands in dismay.  “Not that you are a perfect stranger, and I’m glad to have you all, I don’t know what I’d do without you, but—”

 

“It’s fine Alice, really,” Thackery assured her.  “Ye’ve had a lot happen.  But sometimes a fresh perspective, especially from someone who deals with cases like yers might be helpful.”

 

“I will call—just not quite yet.”

 

Thackery sighed but accepted this for the time being, and led Alice back into the gym space to do some dynamic stretching followed by more exercise.

 

-o-o-o-

 

That evening, the entire household including Mally, Alice, and Hamish, sat down to dinner together.  Tarrant told the assembled friends about his obnoxiously long day with none other than Ilosovic Stayne.

 

“I couldn’t believe it!  Daisy said she’d been talking about needing another dancer at the coffee shop the other day with her friend Rosa—the one who made those barely-assembled costumes—and Stayne volunteered!”

 

Mally snorted.  “I can’t imagine that one ever volunteering for anythin’!”

 

Alice gulped her water before returning to her roast and veg.  Stayne again.  He’d said that he had worked for her late father.  His loathsome glances had haunted her, but his words had haunted her even further.  What circumstances in the world could connect Stayne to her father?

 

The others were debating Stayne’s motivations, but Alice toyed idly with her food, wondering how she could start to unravel the mysteries of her circumstances.  Tarrant noticed her from where he sat next to her at the head of the table.

 

“All righ’, Alice?” he asked, concern sliding him into the accent of his childhood.

 

She smiled thinly at him.  “I’m fine, just mulling over a few things.”

 

He looked at her and for a moment his expression was hard to read.  “Did anything happen while I was gone today?” He flicked his eyes to the opposite end of the table where Hamish was expounding on something or other he’d learned in his freshman philosophy seminar and Mally and Thackery were poking fun at him without his catching on.

 

“No, nothing at all.”

 

Tarrant nodded, but even though they turned back to their friends and companions with a reasonable semblance of good cheer, Tarrant looked carefully at Alice all through dinner.  Afterwards, when Alice joined him in his workroom with his old laptop and her stack of books on the Neolithic period, he couldn’t help but approach her.  He hated to interrupt her, but Alice was so adorable that the thought of her spending a whole day alone and unhappy seemed completely unfair.

 

Coming up behind her, Tarrant reached out and lightly touched Alice’s arm as she sat on a stool at the high cutting table.  She turned, surprised, but smiled and pulled him closer.

 

“I’m sorry if you had a bad day, Alice,” He said into her hair.  Sometimes it was easier to say such things to her blonde curls than to her big brown eyes.

 

Alice turned her head to look at him questioningly.  Then she turned back to more comfortably fit in his embrace.  

 

“It wasn’t a bad day.  A hard day, in some respects.  Thackery decided that one week was long enough, and forced me into doing some exercise.”

 

“Nothing too taxing, I hope?” Tarrant asked concernedly.

 

Alice snorted indelicately.  “He kept saying that we were going to start off light though it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time.  But now I must say, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”

 

Alice felt Tarrant nod against her.  

 

“Good, good.  Thackery does know what he’s doing you know.  It’s amazing to me to see him so confident and professional—-he was rather wild for a bit there—we both were—but once Thackery decided to study human health he’s thrown himself into it wholeheartedly.  I’m rather jealous sometimes. It must be satisfying—doing something that matters to people on such a basic level.”

 

“Fashion matters to plenty of people too—it makes loads of people happy,” Alice hastened to reply.

 

Tarrant smiled wryly.

 

“Yes, but mostly for all the wrong reasons.  Our basic need for clothing has transformed into another bevy of consumer goods to make people feel discontented that they don’t have them.  That’s actually one reason why prices are so high.  They don’t want everyone to be able to purchase an entire line—or even more than a couple of pieces.  Not having it all sustains the illusion that if one could have it all it might make one happy.  It’s all so bleak.”

 

Alice frowned.  It was consumer psychology 101, but Tarrant sounded so depressed about it.

 

“But you’re trying to change that, right? That’s part of what your project is all about.”

 

Tarrant noded slowly.  “At one level, you’re right.  But I don’t know that it can be changed so easily.  Anyway, it’s fun trying.”


He smiled finally, and Alice snuggled her face into his shoulder.  Tarrant really was wonderful.  Alice knew she had very little experience with this sort of thing, and yet she knew deep within that she would never meet another man who held a candle to him.  He was just so...right.  The thoughts and feelings that he shared with her both echoed her own and expanded upon them, giving her things to think about and topics to explore that she wouldn’t have thought about on her own.  She determined not to do anything to ruin his regard if she possibly could.

Chapter Text

The next week featured quite a bit of hard work for both Alice and Tarrant. Monday morning Alice buckled down and finished her paper for her Anthropology class. She also began the process of reviewing for the upcoming midterm.

On the fashion side of things, several more of Tarrant’s “drafts” were finished and tailored to Alice’s current size. Chessur apparently got wind of the project, though no one seemed to know precisely how the information about Alice’s physical situation reached him. He showed up before dawn on Thursday morning all set to photograph Alice in the garden at first light despite the plummeting temperature, going so far as to rope Mally and her friend Caterina into showing up at five in the AM to assist him with these “before” shots. Tarrant took the morning off of work at Bembury, though Alice supposed this was technically work for him.

There was a bit of a fuss as Chessur demanded that Thackery clear out the entire kitchen to photograph the dress that matched its wallpaper. Tarrant and Thackery rushed about clearing off the countertops and dumping the contents onto the dining room table then restashing it in the corner of the living room when Chessur pointed out that the dining table would be visible from one of the angles he wanted to get. Tarrant was fairly growling under his breath at Chessur’s smug demands but forced himself to remain appreciative of Chessur’s willingness to donate his time to the project. Alice personally suspected that Bernard Grabes may have agreed to take the final shots for the collection in the spring and Chessur wanted to ensure that his name would be up there with his mentor’s when the final versions were displayed.

The preparations ran into further stumbling blocks. The girls were dismayed to find Alice had absolutely no confidence in her ability to do her own hair and makeup. Alice shrugged helplessly and told them that even when there were no professionals on hand for a job her mother had always stepped up. Chessur and Tarrant wasted ten minutes arguing about whether or not they should have forked over the money to call a real makeup artist while Caterina gently induced a reluctant Alice to do her best and Mally scoffingly offered advice.

Faced with her little bag supplemented by the contents of Mally and Caterina’s purses Alice managed foundation and applied the false eyelashes her mother had packed in her cosmetics bag. Chessur finally looked up from where he’d been calling Tarrant cheap and telling him he was shooting himself in the foot by not having budgeted for a stylist—nevermind that Chessur had only told them of his intention to shoot Alice the day before—and saw the progress she’d made. He rushed to her side and snatched the liquid liner Mally was reluctantly offering.

“Tarrant—that thing you did to your hair for Mardi Gras sophomore year—do it to Alice!” he commanded. Tarrant looked perplexed for a minute before huffing out a laugh and looking around for any available styling implements. Alice quirked a brow at the description—very telling that Tarrant and Chessur went to university together. She hadn’t even considered that they might be the same age.

“Quick, man! We’re going to lose the light!” scolded Chessur, lining Alice’s eyes with a surety and steady hand that had Alice wondering why he hadn’t stepped up to do her face in the first place.

Tarrant sent Mally out for a can of old-fashioned aerosol hairspray and got to work brushing out Alice’s unruly locks. She was wearing a tunic shirt that Tarrant had made her that was long enough to function as a shift. It had the necessary quality of buttoning up the front, making it possible for her to get out of it without mussing her hair or makeup.

After finishing her makeup with some smoky shadow and pale gloss, Caterina and Chessur went out to the garden to work out the lighting situation in the locations he had chosen for the outdoors shots. This left Alice to teasingly question Tarrant about this hairstyle of his they’d be copying.

“Nothing fancy, Alice. Don’t get the wrong idea. Really it’s just making a huge rat’s nest out of the whole thing and calling it done. I used to get needled about my long hair, though I generally kept it tied back. The occasion in question I’d had enough and determined to maximize the situation.”

Tarrant laughed in remembrance, and Alice had a sudden longing to know all of his silly college stories and to have him be part of hers.

“How long was it?” asked Alice. “Not as long as mine?”

Tarrant regarded her hair as he brushed it out, adding in some sort of product from an unmarked tin that Alice recognized from the upstairs bath. It must have been a diffuser of some sort, for her curls were suddenly all the more pronounced and abundant.

He smiled as he pulled a lock straight down so that it ended far past Alice’s hip. He released it and it bounced up to above her waist. “Not quite, but probably closer than you’d think. My hair grows like weeds. It’s the same for all my siblings.”

“It’s just me that got Daddy’s curly hair,” Alice contributed. “Margaret’s is as straight as Mummy’s.”

Mally bustled back in with Thackery who said lightly, “Heaven help us if the two of you were to procreate. That child would be as curly-haired and stubborn as any Hayes thus far.”

“Thackery!” protested Alice, not wanting to scare Tarrant off with talk of children when they hadn’t so much as gotten past second base. She made a horrified face and looked to Mally whose tight scowl indicated her feelings on the proposition. Tarrant reached for the hairspray, laughed slightly and said, “Oh I don’t know about that. There’s been many a stubborn Hayes to compete with. Though Alice has plenty of tenacity all her own.”

Thackery winked at Alice who quickly schooled her perplexed expression, both at why Thackery would make such a comment and at Tarrant’s easy acceptance of it. Well, she was far too young for any of this sort of talk anyway. Alice was spared having to reply as Tarrant started in with the hairspray causing a round of coughing and wheezing in the kitchen. Thackery and Mally ran about opening windows until it was almost as cold outside as in. Alice concentrated on regulating her breathing until the goosepimples on her arms subsided.

They began outside with a full-length green dress that Tarrant mercifully accessorized with a fawn shrug of the sort of layered felt construction he’d used for her white cardigan-substitute of last week. Chessur cursed them all out when he realized that no one had thought to get any shoes whatsoever for Alice. He claimed this was the most disorganized shoot he’d ever been a part of, and Alice had to agree with him there. Still, she could well sympathize with Tarrant who had never participated in a photo shoot in his life and was suddenly being scolded for not having it all perfectly arranged, especially impossible considering it was so last-minute.

Chessur stalked out of the garden for a few moments, but soon burst back in and unloaded his camera onto the tripod, suddenly all business. Alice found herself impressed with his ability to both direct her and to work with the few suggestions that she put forth. Soon they moved on to a couple of floaty tunic-and-leggings type ensembles that Tarrant professed not to be sure about including. There was one more bright red party dress that was the shortest of the whole collection thus far at mid-thigh, somewhat of an oddity for a summer line, though Alice was glad of it in the crisp fall weather. Chessur insisted on getting shots of everything he had.

“Even the Alice dress!” he commanded.

Tarrant stopped in his tracks. “How do you know about the Alice dress?” he demanded.

Chessur looked at him scornfully. “It’s only plastered up in the Vetvier studio in full color larger-than-life, moron.”

Tarrant opened his mouth but Chessur shushed him.

“I don’t want to hear that it isn’t finished! Do your best. I’ll do the striped dress in the kitchen while you fiddle with it if you must. Come, Alice.”

Since she had to go barefoot for every shot, Chessur frequently had her leaning against various surfaces or up on her tiptoes to stretch out her legs to typical-model proportions.

“Remember, Alice,” he prodded, “these are to be to more typical shots of the collection. On the other end of things we may go in some less conventional directions. Now, I understand you have ballet training. Let’s see you work through some of the basic positions. I want to find something that lets us see the limits of this ridiculous wallpaper pattern you and Tarrant are obsessed with.”

Chessur had her go through the whole thing—he must be familiar with classical ballet training for he was very thorough, going so far as to correct her footing in several instances. Finally he had her in a full arabesque which with her long limbs took up most of the space in the kitchen, indeed her elevated leg was up over the counter, leaving Chessur to crouch on the stair with his camera to get the shot. He then gave her a break, though he noticed that he did not stop snapping his shutter as she sat on the counter and idly swung her legs as she drank a restorative cup of tea furnished by Thackery from a yellow cup that perfectly matched the fridge and the breadbox.

Tarrant reappeared while she was sipping and Thackery handed him a cup of his own. Nivens emerged around this time to rush off to work, surprised to find his kitchen empty of food and filled with people and photography equipment. Thackery handed him some buttered bread and sent him on his way.

“If you’ll come with me, Alice,” Tarrant said nervously. “This last dress is still not finished, so we’ll have to be a little careful with it.”

She nodded and let Thackery relieve her of the cup. Sliding down from the countertop, Alice followed Tarrant to his workroom where he had laid out a dress in the most beautiful blue—deep without being dark and crisp without any tawdry sparkles or excessive shine. He helped her into it and pinned the back carefully with safety pins, as it had not yet received any fasteners. Indeed, Tarrant confessed he hadn’t even decided whether it would zip or button, let alone found the appropriate ones. Alice found that the front came up quite high, as did many of the designs Tarrant had crafted for her. However this dress was not like the others. Several things set it apart.

For one, the other pieces Alice had worn were all modern in construction—more interesting versions of the sort of clothes one saw out on the street everyday. This dress seemed more like a historical piece, some sort of late Victorian costume though it only came to her calf instead of falling to the floor. When he reluctantly reached for the pinafore with a bit of a wince, however, Alice realized that this was because it was a child’s dress. The high neck received a removable white cambric collar delicately smocked to match the pinafore. Tarrant carefully pinned it in place and stepped back reluctantly to let her look in the full-length mirror hung on the back of the workroom door. It was perfect and lovely and creepy and awful all at once.

“I understand that this must seem strange, Alice,” Tarrant said hesitantly, after clearing his throat two or three times beforehand. “I thought about it for a long time, trying to get the essence of an Alice dress, even before I knew about your physical issues, with the hormones and such. If you remember I first drew this design right after meeting you—it was one of the first things that crossed my mind. Sort of a bizarre throwback—for someone beautiful and interesting in body and spirit but kept a child a bit too long. It’s—well, blame Thackery, he was the one banging on about how you looked young.” Tarrant ran a hand through his hair distractedly and sighed.

“I decided to keep after it though, because it seemed like an important starting place. An early impression that I have no stake in you living up to, but something that felt right at the time.”

Alice quietly took in his words as she gazed at her reflection. Her sophisticated makeup and still stick-thin frame provided the bizarre element of contrast to this dress that screamed wholesome childishness. It was strange, but though Alice had noticed the sketches for the dress right away when she’d entered his workroom it had seemed like another wonderful piece of Tarrant’s mad talent. She hadn’t singled it out as any sort of judgement or personal indictment.

“This is not who I want to be,” Alice said softly as she regarded herself.

Tarrant sighed. “It’s not meant to be anything more than one point upon a continuum,
Alice. And I’m afraid it’ll make me seem horrible, that people will only see the childishness of it and think that’s what I see in you.”

Alice whirled to him, her beautiful skirts flying out around her legs in a swoosh which even under the circumstances was highly satisfying.

“Is it not?” she asked, and though her words sounded cold, Alice could tell that Tarrant unlike anyone else she knew was not taking offense, but considering so he answered as best he could.

“Well I won’t deny there’s something childlike about you—but I’m frequently enough told to start acting my age, so I can’t put too much stock in one being completely stodgy all the time as the sign of ultimate maturity. But that’s not all I see, not even the largest part.”

He walked around behind her and straightened the creases on the back of the dress. Sighing once more, he continued in a low voice.

“It’s more about seeing someone who has been stuck in a chrysalis for far too long and wanting to help them out of it before—before it’s too late.”

Alice’s eyes widened, and she wondered that he had such a dire feeling about her status. But then, hadn’t she been avoiding such feelings in herself? Thinking she could just go on, one day at a time, facing only the problems right in front of her and turning her back on the deeper issues. She’d avoided calling the counselor Dr. Tuttle recommended, telling herself there’d be time later. But when would the time come if she was not willing to let it? Putting off Time seemed a dangerous enterprise.

She opened her mouth to reply—to try to put voice to some of her tumultuous feelings, when the door opened. Mally poked her head round the frame and took in Alice’s appearance with a raised eyebrow.

“Doing costume dramas now?” she asked, shaking her head. “Anyway, get out there before Chessur causes even more havoc. He’s already rearranged the garden six times. Says he has something special for this last shot that has to be perfect.”

Tarrant looked concerned and motioned for Alice to leave with Mally.

“Please go on ahead. Tell Chessur he can do whatever he likes for this one. I’ve a few things I want to take care of in here.”

Mally shrugged and turned back into the house. As she followed, Alice wondered if Tarrant was reluctant for Chessur and their friends to see the childish way he’d dressed her or if something further was bothering him about the situation. When she stepped back out into the garden with her pale bare feet Alice shivered. Shouldn’t it have warmed since the last time she’d been out there?

Mally hurried her toward the back of the garden where they could hear Caterina excitedly cooing about something. Mally and Alice exchanged a questioning glance, but emerged near the three ancient fruit trees to see Caterina crouched over a new plastic case Chessur must have just brought in. The dark-haired girl turned toward them, beaming, and held up a tiny black and white kitten.

Alice immediately thought back to Tarrant’s drawing and slowed. Chessur seemed to be taking it very literally. Mally hopped up toward her friend with a squeal, surprisingly tenderhearted where tiny baby mammals were concerned.

“Here Alice, meet your costar,” Chessur said, scooping up the little kitten from Caterina and handing it to her.

She held it gently, reveling in its sleekness and warmth. It evidently was old enough to show some curiosity, as it stretched a tiny paw out toward her.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Alice murmured politely.

“Where’s Tarrant?” asked Chessur sharply.

“Sulking in his workroom like you predicted,” Mally returned.

“Excellent!” he cackled. “Now go find that hat! Turn out every cupboard if you have to, but be quick about it and for heaven’s sake be quiet. I know he’ll try to stop you if he hears you.”

“Right boss!” chirped Mally as she determinedly scampered back toward the house.

Alice broke her eye contact with the cuddly ball of fluff in her hands to ask idly, “Oh a hat? We hadn’t used any thus far so I thought Tarrant just didn’t want to mix messages, or media or what have you.”

Chessur merely laughed maniacally and set about positioning her on the wooden bench he’d had Thackery drag in from a far part of the garden. Alice sat with her feet up on the bench, clearly showing off her lack of stockings, while he artfully arranged some twigs from the overhanging apple tree in her mass of curls so that it looked like she’d just climbed down from its branches. He took a few shots, but soon Mally returned, bearing Tarrant’s black shimmery top hat—the one that he wore out to clubs.

Alice raised her eyebrows. “That hat? Tarrant certainly won’t like it. And with how strange this dress is anyway I don’t think—”

“Then you shouldn’t speak,” said Chessur, once again cackling as he set the over-large hat on her head.

Alice realized that the larger-than life hat would only serve to make her seem tinier and more childlike in comparison. She saw what Chessur was going for, but wasn’t sure how such an artsy moody shot so different from those they’d taken earlier would serve the collection. Still, she allowed him to direct her, holding the kitten close on her knees, taking off the hat and letting the tiny creature peer up at her from inside, and one charming one where the little darling perched on the back of the bench and tipped its wet pink nose up to touch Alice’s nose as she watched it.

“Aww!” sighed Caterina, though she cut herself off short when Tarrant emerged from around the corner. He took in the scene and rolled his eyes, growling at Chessur. “A kitten? Really? How incredibly trite you’re getting in your old age, Chess.”

“Oh come now Tarrant, you’re the one who started it. Besides, I’m sure even your battered heart is warmed by such a domestic picture,” Chess needled.

Tarrant looked again at Alice whose attention was completely occupied by the creature in her lap. Mally and Caterina flanked her on the bench, reaching out to play with the teensy paws.

“Where did you get the creature, anyway?” he demanded.

“Oh, I picked her up from the local shelter last night. Apparently the creature has just left its mother as it made a rather pitiful racket the whole night through.”

“And where is it going now?” Tarrant asked pointedly.

“Back to the cold halls of the Humane Society, I suppose. Unless one of you good people says otherwise.”

At this, the three girls who had been petting the kitten looked up in distress. Caterina gave a little wail of dismay. Alice and Mally turned to her.

“Do you want to keep her?” Alice asked, reluctantly offering the tiny being.

“I want to,” Caterina replied, “but my lease absolutely forbids pets.”

Mally also looked dismayed as she added, “I’d do it, but my flatmate’s allergic. Plus I’m gone too much to have a pet. I’m always over here when Tuppy’s got her boyfriend staying the night.”

With that, three sets of plaintive eyes turned to Tarrant. Alice’s big brown ones peered hopefully up at him from under the huge hat that he’d just noticed—he’d been quite distracted by the kitten. Rolling his eyes, he snatched it from Alice’s head.

“Oh, give me that hat! I can’t possibly take the cat. It’ll shed everywhere and shred my ribbons. Plus we’ll have to feed it and—where would we put its litter box? Besides, the house isn’t pet-proofed. . .”

His protests petered out as Alice rose and pressed the kitten into his large hands. It must have been sleepy after its photo shoot, because it merely nosed Tarrant’s hands a few times before giving up and falling into a doze as he held it against his chest. His ginger brows furrowed then relaxed as he began unconsciously to pet the little creature.

Chessur smiled his widest grin at Tarrant and Alice who still stood before him. “Well, you’ve always got to start baby-proofing somewhere, and kitten-proofing is an excellent first step.”

Alice colored. Really, what was with everyone teasing about her and Tarrant having babies today? It seemed to have come out of nowhere.

Thackery piped up from the sidelines, “Before you know it they’ll be evicting Nivens and me. Tossed out on the street to make way for a passel of weans.”

Alice positively glared daggers at him.

Tarrant however rolled his eyes once more. “We can’t get rid of you, Thack, or however would we feed them all? Is the kettle on? I’m famished. Aren’t there some of those butter biscuits you’ve been hoarding about?”

Still clutching the sleeping kitten he headed inside with Thackery, and Mally. Caterina hurried after them with the cat carrier and the basket of kitten care products Chessur had brought with him. Alice hung back with Chessur to help him with the various stands and lighting equipment they’d used.

“Do you think he’ll let us keep the kitten?” she asked anxiously. She retracted the tripod rods until it fit snugly into its little case. Chessur looked up from where he’d been stowing his reflecting screens.

“If you ask him, my dear, I’m sure he’ll put up with any number of additions to the household. Actually, I happen to know he’s fond of small animals. He’ll come round with very little prodding, no matter what he says.”

Chessur looked at her relieved expression with interest. “So are you planning to install yourself as mistress of Witzend permanently? That’s it for Alice Kingsleigh’s fashion career so time to move directly to playing house with the first convenient provider-type that came along?”

Alice scowled at Chessur as she rubbed her arms for warmth, irritated both by his words and by the fact that he was keeping her out here in the cold in a summer dress while he wore a navy wool scarf accented with a pink and purple striped scarf.

“No, that’s not it at all! Look, I don’t know how much you know about my situation, but I’m more here because I’ve nowhere else to go than any sort of desire to snare Tarrant.”

“Oh?” ased Chessur with an arched brow. “I’m sure he’ll be very disappointed to hear that.”

“That’s not what I meant!” said Alice stamping her bare foot which was numb with the cold. “I just meant that I haven’t ‘given up’ or whatever you were insinuating. Fashion was never my career of choice, you know.”

“Oh yes, Daddy’s little girl wants to take over the business, is that it?”

Again Alice frowned at Chessur. “If you know about the business then you should know it’s no longer ours for me to take over even if I wanted to.”

“And why is that exactly?” Chessur asked innocently. “I don’t mean all those rumors about your father, rather, what happened to your family stake in the shipping business? How did it just. . .evaporate?”

Alice crossed her arms fiercely over her chest.

“I should like to know the same thing! Maybe since you’re so good at finding things out you can tell me?”

“Ah, well, Alice, I’m afraid there are areas a mere curious photographer’s assistant cannot access. A daughter of a disgraced shipping magnate though. . .shouldn’t she have a bit more leeway?”

“But I don’t know where to start! No one wants to tell me anything!” she protested.

“Perhaps you’ve been asking the wrong people, or haven’t bothered to find the right people to ask,” Chessur returned.

Alice stood there in the cold as Chessur finished packing up his things, and accepted the bag that he asked her to take inside. Was Chessur right? Was she capable of solving this mystery for herself? She looked down at the beautiful child’s dress she wore and suddenly wanted to rip it from her body. This is who she was, against her will, but she would be the one to decide who she would become. She marched inside and pulled Tarrant from his morning tea to help her escape it. Lovely as the garment was, she had no desire to see it ever again.

-o-o-o-

“Hello, have I reached Ratchford and Stokes? I am Charlotte Dodgson of the Post. I’ve been researching the circumstances of Kingsleigh-Ascot Conglomerated’s transformation from Kingsleigh Shipping and wondered if you could direct me to the records department for the specifics of the sale.”

“Hold, please,” the pleasant voice of the receptionist returned. Alice waited impatiently while listening to the tinny classical music on the hold line.

“Hello?” the same voice came back. “I’ve been told that you can look up any sales in the government records office, but that all internal records were damaged in a fire six years ago. There’s nothing here.”

“Oh,” said Alice. “Could you direct me to the proper government agency to look at the merger agreement?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have that information for you, but good luck. Have a good day!“
And with that, the no-longer-pleasant voice rung off.

“Curious,” Alice said to herself.

Being a resourceful girl she found a directory online of some likely offices, though it took her most of the afternoon to find anybody at any of them that could give her any useful information whatsoever. Finally she had the address of the Office of National Statistics anti-trust archive where any takeover of a major company would be recorded. It was too late in the day to attempt a visit, but Alice determined to go the next day.

Chapter Text

Hamish had taken a cab straight from the station after his Friday-morning class, inflicting his presence on Alice for the entire afternoon while Nivens was still at work. He’d seemed to be trying to mend bridges with Alice, frequently reminiscing about their shared childhood capers as Alice worked on acclimating their new pet into Witzend House. Nivens had looked appalled Thursday eve when he’d been asked whether or not he minded their taking her on. Once his concerns about the cat’s ability to use a litterbox had been allayed, though, he had shrugged and agreed. Thackery had heaved a long-suffering sigh and told Nivens that this was the beginning of the end of their free ride for rent, only relenting once Alice’s fierce blushes caused Tarrant to smack Thackery upside the head to get him to lay off the teasing. Thackery snickered at her discomfort but claimed that since Alice was wholly ignorant of the Hayes clan and their rapid proliferation it was his duty to inform her of the risks.

“Seriously Alice, I wouldn’t even share drinks with this one if I was in your shoes. The Hayes boys are known for being able to impregnate a girl just by making eye contact. And what with his being the oldest unmarried member of the family I’ve ever heard of, Tarrant is way overdue for destiny to kick him in the arse.”

“Shut it you, you’re scaring Alice,” Tarrant reprimanded.

“Someone needs to put the fear in her, she’s far too young for the life of a Hayes wife—endlessly barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Our Alice is far too high class for that,” Thackery needled.

Tarrant narrowed his eyes and hit him again. After a fair amount of somewhat-playful tussling, Thackery quit the room, leaving them alone with the kitten.

“I wish he wouldn’t do that,” Alice grumbled.

Tarrant smiled sympathetically. “Sorry, Alice, but I suppose Thack feels he has to fill in since nobody from my family is here to do it. I’ve been teased about the Hayes’ reputation since I can remember, so I hardly notice.”

“Do you miss them?” Alice asked curiously, wondering if perhaps he would open up a little more about them.

“Yes,” he said shortly, looking away. When he turned toward her though, his eyes were warm and caring. “Now what were we discussing before Thackery so rudely drew us offtopic?”

Tarrant remembered their previous topic of conversation and handed Alice a credit card telling her to purchase whatever supplies she deemed necessary. When she stutteringly asked how much she should spend, he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and assured her that she should get whatever she wanted.

“Have you decided what you want to call her?” Tarrant asked Alice.

She looked up from where she had been teasing the black and white ball of fluff with the leather rosette on her keyring as she sat next to Tarrant on one of the high stools in his workroom.

“Oh? Well, I thought you might want to name her, as she’s technically your cat,” Alice smiled.

Tarrant rolled his eyes and snorted at that. It turned out that Chessur had been so certain Tarrant would end up keeping the animal that he’d forged his name on the adoption papers at the Humane Society when he’d gone to get the kitten. He had gone so far as to have them bill Tarrant’s office for the adoption fee. He had raised a confused brow at Tarrant’s incoherent threats and angry rumblings, shrugging and pointing out that they’d ended up keeping the thing, so he had in fact saved them all a great deal of trouble.

“She reminds me a great deal of my cat Dinah,” Alice continued musingly. “Dinah was also black and white, with a similar marking above her nose.”

“We could call her after your cat,” Tarrant said.

Alice frowned. “I wouldn’t like to. You see, I’ve no idea what happened to Dinah after Daddy died. Everything was so tumultuous, and I was so sick, that we’d been bundled out of the house before I could even ask. Chemsford—he was our butler—looked for her when I asked him, but he said he found no trace. I like to hold out hope that Dinah is still out there somewhere, though she would be rather old by now. Still, they’d be a matched set if they were stood next to each other.”

Tarrant’s lips quirked.

“Dinette, then?”

Alice was successfully pulled from her melancholy, laughing at the leap in logic. “Perhaps, though I’m sure we can do a little better than that.”

Tarrant leaned over and kissed her. “We’ll think about it then,” he said, and Alice hoped the kitten was not too scandalized by their lack of attention toward it for the next while.

While the rest of the household’s inhabitants went off to various places of employment, Alice spent Friday morning futzing around with the kitten as she perused various cat enthusiast web sites for a complete list of equipment. Thus, she was still getting her things together when Hamish arrived after lunch and insisted on accompanying her. Since she could think of no polite way to put him off, they went shopping together. Alice was glad to be making peace with Hamish, but his thoughtless arrogance made her ashamed to think that but for the change in circumstances that she and her sister constantly bemoaned, she might be as obnoxious as he. He unthinkingly called a car that Alice had no way of paying for, as Tarrant’s card was the only method of payment she had. While Hamish had paid once she pointed this out, several similar instances of carelessness tested her patience through the afternoon. Hours upon end in his presence got tedious and his well-bred insistence on carrying all the parcels for her was the only counterweight to his monotonous smalltalk about various barely-remembered acquaintances.

While Hamish had droned on, Alice had been trying to get up her nerve to ask him what he knew about their parents’ business dealings after her father’s death. It was certainly a change of subject, and Alice wanted to get on better terms with Hamish before risking offending him. After all, he might be an important ally in her quest to understand the events of six years ago. Once they were at home, however, Alice got a text from Tarrant giving the address of a pub near Mally’s where they were all to meet before going dancing.

Alice hastened to put away the cat care items and changed into the outfit Tarrant had left out for her. She descended the stair intending to bid Hamish farewell, but instead discovered both he and Nivens waiting to escort Alice to meet the others. The car they took was from a different company than the one Hamish had called earlier, something that Alice only noted because Nivens reminded him not to use Loblolly Car Service. Curious, Alice almost asked why, but something about the discomfort both men displayed about the subject prevented her from asking.

“Anyway, Alice,” Nivens chattered, “Tarrant tells us that you might have something to report regarding your investigations. Thus why Hamish and I are invited along tonight.”

Ah. Well, that made more sense. If dancing was not her thing, it most certainly was not something she thought of along with Hamish Ascot. Though he had been much keener on the ballroom dancing lessons they’d begun at twelve than she had been. Alice snorted into her hand at her memory of Hamish’s enthusiastic foxtrot. Recovering from her poorly-hidden snicker, Alice straightened and nodded.

“Let’s go, then.”

 

-o-o-o-

The pub was packed, as there was some sort of significant football match on. Most of the audience was well past pissed, so even Tarrant, Thackery and Hamish could barely hear Alice’s explanation of her calls to various solicitors and government offices despite being crowded around her. Despite Nivens leaning half over Hamish, he and Mally were straining to catch even a word, and all of them were wishing that Mally had not insisted on this venue.

“What? They have the best chips in the neighborhood,” she defended, as if that trumped all other considerations. “You lot said I couldn’t spend the night so it’s only fair we stay close by my flat,” she pouted.

Alice schooled her annoyed expression and continued, “I called the listed office, and said that I wanted to inquire about the details of the KingsleighCorp takeover in 2004. They said that they didn’t have any documents on record! How could that be? They were down in the public record as the firm dealing with Daddy’s estate. Were they lying or was the register incorrect? It seems highly suspect that such a sizeable company could have been handed over with no legal or governmental oversight. Would Mother have even had the authority to do so? There was a board and trustees and though the senior members of the legal team were also on the plane with Daddy when it went down, there would have been plenty of documentation at the offices.”

“This is highly puzzling, Alice,” Hamish said ponderously. “Your trust funds and your Mother’s personal savings and retirement funds should have remained untouched. Even if all the allegations against your father were true—and I’m not saying they are!—your trusts could not legally have been seized, as everything untoward took place in the corporate and not the private sphere.”

Alice nodded, relieved to hear it, as it confirmed her earliest protests to her mother after her father’s death.. “I could never believe, well, any of it, but that Daddy would leave us so unprotected in the case of an accident was just unthinkable. He took risks professionally, but he was always extremely prudent about essentials. He showed Margaret and I how to open the safe in the study, telling us to look there in case anything happened. There was cash, a pistol, and copies of all of our official documents.”

“And did you remember to look, after you heard the bad news?” asked Tarrant.

Alice nodded. “I did, but not right away. And when I did nothing was there. I’d assumed Mother or Margaret had taken them, but they both swore there was nothing when they’d checked.”

Hamish looked as puzzled as Alice.

“Did you tell Chemsford about the missing pistol, at least?” he asked

“I think so. I couldn’t tell you for certain. It was so long ago now and I was so upset. But whenever anything to do with firearms happened I would almost certainly have told Chemsford.”

Tarrant’s eyebrows rose. “The butler?” he questioned.

Hamish answered before Alice. “Chemsford was Special Ops before becoming a butler. He’s more a multitasking security chief than anything. He foiled Alice’s kidnapping when we were seven and put two men in the hospital.”

Ginger brows remained elevated. “Alice’s kidnapping? You mean, the kidnapping of Alice, or. . .?”

Hamish scowled, “Yes of course the kidnapping of Alice!”

“Well,” the kidnapee cut in, “the attempted kidnapping. They never actually got me into their vehicle. It took place on the street outside of our London house on my way home from school.”

Alice did not seem terribly traumatized by her long-past attempted kidnapping, Tarrant noted.

She continued, “Now that I think about it, I did tell Chemsford about the pistol, but he told me he’d take it up with mother and then everything went even further to hell and I never got to ask him about it again.”

Hamish shook his head. “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to keep making enquiries,” he said.

Alice turned to him, tensely perched on the edge of her chair.

“That is so. And I was wondering, Hamish, if in light of our renewed acquaintance you might be willing to bring this up with your parents. It might seem out of the blue, but surely you could find some reason to enquire about my accounts. After all they think we’re to be married—it would be you looking after your own assets as far as your mother is concerned. Though perhaps your father would be a better place to begin, since he’s a little less. . . “

Alice trailed off, not wanting to say anything too uncomplimentary when asking for a favor. Yet she wasn’t too sure how to get her point across without sounding horrid.

She cleared her throat delicately and continued. “I know you may not often be in the midst of the business affairs as I once was, but if you are able to access your father’s office, any documents pertaining to his ascent to CEO would be extremely interesting to review, as I’ve no idea really how he happened to jump up to the top as he did.”

Hamish stared at Alice long and hard while the others fidgeted, trying not to miss anything of the conversation. “You don’t?”

Alice shook her head slowly.

“He inherited your father’s shares in the company on his death. It was in the will. Didn’t you attend the reading? I didn’t, but I know Mother and Father did and I assumed that you were there with your mother and sister.”

Alice gasped. “In Daddy’s will? I don’t remember anything about a reading at all. I was so sick and miserable that I can hardly recall but I’m sure I would have noticed something like that. Especially if our company was willed away to your father. That is, they were friends, but professionally. . .” Alice trailed off, again not wanting to insult her only potential ally with access to the business.

“I know,” Hamish took pity on her. “Father often used to curse himself for a fool for not investing when your father asked him.”

“So will you look into this?” Alice asked. “I’ve been wracking my brains as to how to gain access to this information. I suppose if it was something at the house I might ask Chemsford, but he’d have no way of finding anything from the business. You’re the only one I know who might be able to help.”

Nivens cleared his throat abruptly, but Hamish shook his head. Everyone was then shocked to find that Nivens, rather than giving in, outright glared at Hamish. Hamish immediately winced looked guiltily.

“Alice,” Nivens hesitantly spoke up, “That is not exactly true. You see, for obvious reasons we’ve been a bit cagey about this. However, I trust that all here,” at his he particularly glared at Mally, and Alice briefly wondered if she might have been the weak link that tipped Chessur off earlier that week, “will keep this to themselves. You all are aware that since leaving Bembury I’ve been working as a PA. What I’ve generally kept quiet about since meeting Hamish at the office, is that my employer is Gerald Ascot, of Kingsleigh-Ascot Conglomerated.”

Thackery let out a low whistle. Alice looked around at her companions and saw that this was news to Thackery and Mally, though Tarrant’s slightly arched brow perhaps indicated that he had some inkling of this beforehand.

“I thought you met at fencing competition,” Thackery interjected.

“We were surprised to meet again at the tournament,” Hamish hastened to add.

“But that was not the beginning of our acquaintance,” Nivens finished.

At this there was a slight lull, and Alice awkwardly tried to judge whether it would be alright to renew her pleas for help, but this time to Nivens as he was in the ideal position to help her. The trouble was, he was already compromised in his loyalties and this might indeed be too much to ask.

Nivens flashed a rueful smile at her hesitance. “I see you appreciate the delicacy of the situation, Alice. If out of the blue I make too many enquiries about the transfer of the company it might be noticed. Still, if I am able to help you in the normal course of my duties, I certainly will. While Mr. Ascot is a satisfactory employer in many ways, Hamish and I share several concerns about his practices. However,” Nivens looked distastefully around the dingy pub, “those would be better discussed in a more private setting.”

Alice bowed her head gratefully, and conversations devolved to shouting in the ear of the person sitting nearby as the pubgoers around them swelled in number and volume. Their little party attracted some attention from the largely working class crowd. Tarrant unconcernedly whipped some knitting from one of his many pockets. With his outsized tophat tipped back on his head as he counted rows, Alice could hardly imagine what the people nearby thought of him.

“Is this some sort of significant match?” Hamish asked Tarrant carelessly. Alice chose to take it as a good sign that Hamish was attempting to engage Tarrant in conversation as he generally ignored him. While it probably came off as arrogance, Alice could tell that Hamish was still wary of Tarrant. Whatever tales he had been told about the older man he clearly believed them. They had carefully avoided the subject all afternoon.

Tarrant looked surprised, then glanced up from the mass of maroon lace knitting he had his hands buried in. His eyes flicked to the telly then returned to Hamish and an amused expression stole across his face. “I’m afraid I could not tell you; I don’t follow football.”

Alice rolled her eyes at Hamish’s assumption that the largest male of their group would certainly be able to tell them all about this season’s football. Then a thought gave her pause. But, but didn’t Tarrant say he’d wanted to be a footballer?

She turned to him and asked over the din, “I rather would have thought you’d at least follow the teams of your youth. You did tell me you wanted to play professionally yourself at one point, did you not?”

Mally and Thackery both responded as if she had said something in terribly poor taste; with Maly’s horrified scoff and Thackery’s worried wide eyes and rapid shake of the head she guessed she had stumbled on a sensitive topic. This reaction was not shared by Tarrant, however, whose pleasantly bland expression didn’t shift at all as he responded,

“I haven’t followed football for many years.” This might have sounded somewhat foreboding, but he turned quickly to Hamish. “Nivens tells me you’re a fan of Formula One? Do you think Vettle has it sewn up for the driver’s championship?”

Hamish looked surprised that he and Tarrant might have any sort of sporting interest in common, but warmed to the topic shortly.

“Red Bull certainly has the Constructor’s Championship in the bag, and something would have to go very wrong with the race tomorrow to keep Vettle from the podium!”

Alice rolled her eyes, but noticed that racing seemed to be a fairly common interest amongst the other members of their party. Her father had been an enthusiast (Kingsleigh Shipping had always backed the Williams team) and Alice had pleasant memories of attending the Monaco Grand Prix long ago. However, it had been years since she’d last spared a thought for the sport, and she found her gaze wandering around the dank and low-ceilinged room she found herself in, ringed round with flat-panel televisions.

There were many blokes at the bar that Alice would describe as oafish, but a pair of them had zeroed in on Hamish’s hand on Nivens’ knee as he leaned across to hear what Thackery was saying about the Mercedes designers. Alice watched as a fellow in a red and black checked shirt with an unfortunately pronounced brow elbowed his mate and said something derogatory that mercifully could not be heard over the din. Alice glanced around, but only Mally seemed to have noticed the pair by the bar. Hamish and Nivens still seemed oblivious, still talking about Formula One racing with Tarrant and Thackery.

The dark brows in the checked shirt was now gesturing and laughing in a rather menacing manner. Alice thought perhaps she ought to say something to Hamish as he was holding forth obliviously on the merits of the latest formula one engine specs but Mally shook her head.

Leaning in she said, “You’ll upset Nivens. He can barely tolerate touching in public as it is. If those arseholes try anythin—which I doubt they will—it’ll get taken care of,” Mally boasted.

Taken care of by whom? Alice wondered. Hamish would not have her money on him in a fight with a jellyfish, and it was almost laughable to think of Nivens fighting anybody. Was Mally planning to take on both of them herself? Alice didn’t doubt her ferocity, but her reach certainly left something to be desired when pitting herself against such large opponents.

Alice was drawn back into conversation by Tarrant but the peace was short lived as several of the idiots by the bar started flicking cardboard beer mats from the bar at Nivens and Hamish’s heads. It took them a while to notice, as their aim was very poor and the two targets were facing away from the increasingly boisterous crowd, but finally Alice’s shocked intake of breath as a glass sailed over their heads caught their attention. Tarrant reached out before it could crash on the floor and pulled it from the air despite his hand still being caught up in the tangle of yarn and needles. In doing so he had snagged the sleeve of the purple tailcoat he was wearing on a rough spot on the table. He tutted, but merely set down his knitting and strode to the counter to return the glass. Alice held her breath, worried that a confrontation might ensue. However, so far as Alice could see, Tarrant merely tipped his hat at the barkeep and strolled back toward the table and set about locating needle and thread to fix his sleeve. He half-shrugged out of his jacket and set to work as the others exchanged worried (in Mally’s case, furious) glances with one another and surreptitious looks at the troublemakers by the bar.

“Shall we go?” Alice asked Hamish and Nivens, who were starting to look quite concerned indeed. The three of them quickly stood, ready to retreat while the football match held the attention of the pub.

At that moment, however, the match reached its conclusion and there was much moaning from the crowd. Most rose from their seats and downed their pints, heading toward the door. The two blokes from the bar, checked shirt and his mate glas-flinger, were joined by a crowd of their mates at the door, and Alice could now see that everyone in their party, with the possible exception of Tarrant who seemed blithely involved in mending his torn coat-sleeve, was aware of the friction. Hamish stood stiffly next to Nivens, and Alice wondered if he’d had to deal with this sort of bigotry before. It was certainly unexpected, but Alice felt weirdly protective of her once-friend. Their party had all finished their drinks but were waiting to leave until the last of the brutish looking drunks were through the door of the pub. As soon as they were, Tarrant surprised her by biting off his thread and announcing to the group, “Out the back then?”

Nivens looked nervous, but Hamish nodded and strode ahead while Thackery tugged Mally along to the hallway where the restrooms were located. It wasn’t technically the back entrance as it was closer to the street than the table they’d sat at, but it seemed to let out onto a side alley that could work out fine as an evasive strategy. Hamish and Nivens stepped out of the door and into the alleyway, but Thackery noticed one of the prime idiots relieving himself in the alleyway just beside the door they had come out from. Thack tried to pull Hamish and Nivens back in but it was too late. They’d been seen.

“Oi! Dave! Boys” he called, and a menacing group of men appeared around the corner. “These faggots were trying to catch me with me trousers down!” he accused. His drunken slur matched his off balance stance, but some of the others seemed a bit more alert if just as belligerent.

Hamish snorted, but Alice could tell that any haughty aloofness would only fuel the fire.

“Sod off,” Mally shouted. “You’re the ones wouldn’t leave them alone!”

Alice tried to look at the situation strategically. Despite Mally’s ferocity, they were vastly outnumbered, never mind overpowered.

“Back inside, please” Tarrant said cooly, pushing Alice back through the door and stepping out to grasp Mally by the shoulders.

“That’s enough, Mally,” he said, pulling her with him back through the doorway.

“Where ya going ya little Paki slag?” one of the oafs slurred.

Mally bristled, but Tarrant now had a hand on her shoulder and his other on Alice’s and was pushing them back from the doorway while motioning with his head for the others to follow. Nivens started back toward Tarrant, but the bloke with the red and black checked workshirt stopped him.

“I think ya owe my frien’ an apology, homo,” he growled, gesturing at his mate who was taking his time doing up his zip.

Mally, looking back at the scene over her shoulder, positively growled. “You can’t just leave them there, Hatter!” she exclaimed. “Let me—”

Tarrant sighed. “No, no, Mally that’d be too much fuss. You’re right, of course. We can’t leave them. Thack, take the girls out the front and keep them there. I’ll bring Hamish and Nivens along presently.”

His voice still managed to sound light, but the look he gave Thackery brooked no argument. Thackery nodded and his hands replaced Tarrant’s on Alice and Mally’s shoulders. Alice looked back, started to object, but he smiled encouragingly at her and stepped out of the door, letting it bang behind him.

Alice protested but Thackery was deaf to her and Mally’s admonishments to go back. “It’ll be fine, Alice,” he said tensely. “Nivens is there. He should know what to do if—if things go too far.”

Mally’s dark eyes went wide. “Maybe I should go back out there, Thack.”

He shook his head. “Another temper lost will only fuel the fire.”

This did not comfort Alice in the slightest, as it seemed utterly nonsensical. She ceased her struggling though and allowed Thackery to herd her obediently out the front entrance. He had released her as they went through the door together and so was unprepared when she suddenly darted forward and around the corner and into the alleyway where the rest of their party were trapped. Alice came up behind where the drunken louts had been and stopped short.

The sight that greeted her was as terrifying as any she had imagined in the tense moments while they hurried through the pub, but the players were all wrong. Hamish and Nivens were huddled against one wall, seemingly unmolested but Hamish for one was white with fear. Against the other wall the bloke who threw the glass in the pub was down on the ground clutching his stomach and groaning. His mates were alternately checking him over and hanging back in terror. Checked shirt stood against the same wall as his fallen comrade and something glinted in the bare space between he and the terrifying figure that loomed over him.

Alice had never considered that Tarrant’s considerable height and eccentric dress could add up to the frightening spectre she saw before her. His dark hat added to his already towering presence as he pressed a longbladed knife to the throat of checked shirt, who squealed in fear. An absolutely chilling grin split his face as he alternately whispered and shouted threats at the gasping man before him. A cry rose and died in Alice’s throat as she saw one of the unharmed louts step forward, a knife of his own clutched in his unsteady hand. Quick as lightning, another silver glint flashed out from Tarrant’s left hand, knocking the knife to the ground and scaring the daylights out of the would-be assailant. A cry of fear went through the assembled crowd. Tarrant hadn’t even turned his head. How on earth could he have seen the man, let alone thrown something so accurately to have deflected the blow?

Soon the only sound in the alleyway was Tarrant’s terrifying growl. His brogue completely dominant now, he waxed on in some detail about the ease with which he might eviscerate his victim if he so chose.

Hamish was clearly quaking in his highly polished boots, and at the sight of him Alice’s voice chose that moment to return in a shocked and fearful mewl. Tarrant’s eyes flashed to the mouth of the alleyway and he finally realized she was there. The look on his face wrenched Alice’s heart, but intellectually she didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed shocked and pained and resigned and relieved all at once.

Thackery uttered an oath and stepped up to his wayward charge. “I’m sorry. So sorry,” he called out to Tarrant. He none too gently grabbed Alice’s shoulder. “Come away, you.”

The crowd of frightened drunks now seized this chance to escape, and Tarrant let them go, pacing back further into the alleyway. Several loud and metallic bangs signalled trouble for whatever unfortunate dustbins lurked in the depths. Hamish pulled Nivens ahead with him. He grabbed Alice’s hand as he went by, wresting her from Thackery. Without realizing what she was doing, Alice shrunk toward his familiar presence and away from the Witzend crowd.

“You see now,” Hamish was whispering. “Completely unstable.”

“Hamish,” Nivens protested. “He was helping us!”

“I don’t care—those were not the words of a sane man. I—I’ve got to get Alice away from here.”

“What are you talking about?” Nivens asked, jerking his hand away from Hamish’s. He straightened his cuffs in agitation. “Go on if you must. I’m going to go check on Tarrant. You can call me once you’ve calmed down. You’d be absolutely the worst thing for him at the moment.”

Nivens pivoted and hurried back down the alleyway to join Mally and Thackery where they were hovering. Alice peered over Hamish’s shoulder but she could not see Tarrant, so far back in the darkness was he.

Chapter Text

“Let’s hurry then, before he returns,” said Hamish, hauling Alice to the curb of the darkened street even as he frantically hailed a cab. Hamish’s face was still white as a sheet but his breath was returning to normal. A flush covered his face next, and he was actively perspiring by the time they were situated in the back of the cab.

Alice detachedly observed her one-time best friend change colors as he struggled to compose himself. It gave her something to do other than analyze her own reactions to the unsettling situation. Hamish gave the driver the address of an establishment that Alice had heard spoken of in disparaging tones from the fashion set as too preppy for words. A quick ride, and the two of them stumbled through the heavy oak and glass doors, Alice eye-catchingly out of place in her club clothing while Hamish fit right in with his oxford and navy jacket. She dazedly realized that he was nodding in recognition to a few people by the bar, further startled when she found she recognized one or two of them as well, though from the distant past. Judging from their curious glances, they didn’t remember her.

Hamish ordered two double whiskies and plunked down in a convenient plush armchair in one corner of the elegant room. They were not exactly in private, but they were at least not on display. Alice sat in the matching chair, still dazed. They sipped their drinks in silence.

“Hamish,” she finally asked, “what happened in that alley? Why did you rush me out of there? Do you think the others have gone home, or gone on to the party without us?”

They had been planning to go out to some acquaintance or other’s birthday bash that Dodo was DJing at the teashop, and Alice had been looking forward to returning to the scene of her first night out with Tarrant. Then everything had gone to hell, and it seemed she at least wouldn’t be attending.

Hamish gaped at her, dead fish impersonation in full force.

“Surely you saw enough? I had to get you away from that—that madman! You must see now that I was right all along. He’s dangerous!”

Alice tilted a brow upward.

“Hamish, wasn’t he helping you? I know Tarrant must have—gotten carried away—but still, whatever happened was done to save your skin.”

Hamish leaned forward over the small wooden table that separated them, earnest terror filling his face.

“Didn’t you see him? He stepped out of the door cool as ice but as soon as that fellow rushed him Hayes snarled like—like a wild beast—and had the poor sod down on the ground quicker than I could blink. Then he started speaking—in a completely different voice no less!—and and smiling. I had started to think that what I’d heard of him was an exaggeration, but now that I’ve seen it for myself I can no longer deny the truth—that man is dangerous.” Hamish lowered his tense voice to a fearful whisper. “A killer.”

Alice drew in a shocked breath.

“Hamish Ascot, how dare you voice such a—such a terrible lie!” Alice stumbled around, trying to line up her words. “What on earth could make you say such a thing?”

Hamish’s eyes went shifty in a way that long experience told Alice not to trust, at least not completely. He puffed his chest with an agitated breath and defended himself with a touch of hurt at Alice’s disbelief.

“I had it from an extremely reliable source. A person quite close to Hayes, if you must know. I was told most definitely that the fellow came from a notoriously violent family, that his elder brother was in prison for murder, and that he had also killed a man himself, though how he escaped the law I could not say.”

“And who was this person?” Alice pressed.

“I am not at liberty to divulge a name. I swore I wouldn’t. I gave my word.”

Obnoxious he may be, but Hamish still took his word very seriously. Still, who could it be but Nivens? He was Hamish’s sole link to Tarrant after all. Alice gritted her teeth at the idea of Tarrant’s own friend and flatmate encouraging Hamish to spread such abominable lies. Nivens had an extremely nervous disposition, perhaps he couldn’t help but exaggerate some confused grain of truth and left Hamish’s imagination to run away with it.

Alice cast her eyes to the side, declining to look at Hamish who dared to deliver such a rain of blows. Desperately she sorted through Hamish’s revelations seeking what if anything she could take from his words. The villain in this tale did not at all match up with the sweet-tempered and whimsical, talented and silly man she’d come to know over the past weeks. Whenever Tarrant had made reference to his admittedly mysterious family it had been with a slight melancholy, yes, but always with love and fondness. He’d spoken of them as if there was some distance, but whether that was just the physical separation of having left them behind in Scotland after coming to London to live a more glamorous life as a designer or some further strain she could not say. Never once had she imagined there was any sort of criminal reason for the silence. Alice thought of Hamish’s shifty look, and decided that she wouldn’t believe a word that came after it.

Leaning forward so as not to attract attention, she hissed, “Hamish, you swine, I can’t believe that anyone would ever come up with such a tale in the first place, let alone that you could be so stupid as to swallow it. There’s no way that I can believe such things of Tarrant. Absolutely not. I won’t even ask you to prove your assertions, since there’s no point in following up on such an impossible lie.”

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared at Hamish, who looked perplexed that she wasn’t going along with him.

“Alice, you must realize—” he began, but before he could launch into a further tirade against Tarrant he was interrupted by a loud and lively feminine voice advancing on Hamish’s side from across the room, speaking rapidly all the while.

“Hamish! How unusual to see you in town during term time! Whatever are you doing here? Lovely to see you of course. How are you? So glad you’re well. But tell me! That can’t be—” the source of the voice, a young woman who Alice had once known quite well, turned from Hamish to face her. “Could you possibly be Alice Kingsleigh?” she asked eagerly, brown eyes sparkling in a heart shaped face framed by a short shock of artfully coifed brown curls.

“Fiona,” Alice acknowledged with a nod. The girl’s eyes widened a bit in surprise, unused to being so easily confirmed rather than somehow lumped with her sister. Then she self-consciously touched her fingers to her temple with a reminiscent grin.

Fiona Chattaway was hardly the worst of the crowd of Alice’s youth but she and her twin sister were even then notorious as incurable gossips. They were supposedly fraternal twins but nevertheless next to no one could tell them apart. Alice had an advantage as she knew of the existence of a slight scar on the left side of Fiona’s forehead, having given it to her during a primary school tussle wherein Faith and Fiona had ganged up on Alice to try to steal a necklace her father had given her, thinking it was instead a scandalously acquired gift from a boy of their own age. Fiona had fallen against the edge of a desk and the scared girls had quickly run for help. There were no hard feelings, thankfully, but even after all this time Alice was one of the very few who could tell which sister was which.

“You are, you must be Alice! Alice Kingsleigh! Wherever have you been hiding all this time? Of course all that business with your father was dreadfully shocking,” even the careless Fiana seemed to realize that this was a gross understatement and hastened to change the subject. “But what are you wearing? Who are you wearing? It’s marvelous! Rather a common style at first glance, but when you look closer, well, beading of that calibre is hard to find. Wherever did you get that jacket?”

By now Fiona had left Hamish’s side and was running her hand over Alice’s sleeve—an iridescent dark purple that had matched Tarrant’s tailcoat but with an intricate silver-black bead pattern that spiraled across the fabric of the bolero jacket. Alice had kept the kitten back from the thread the night before as Tarrant had finished it. The speed with which he completed projects never failed to shock her, but he had bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t time to put in another line of beadwork in a complementary color, saying with a yawn that perhaps he could stay up a little later to finish it. Alice had stilled his twitching fingers and pulled him from his workroom, the kitten trailing after them up the stairs and into the big bed which was more than large enough for them all to sleep comfortably. And that was the man that Hamish persisted in slandering so horrifically. But she must put that aside for the moment.

Alice smiled wanly at the exuberant Fiona, hoping that she wouldn’t detect the friction between herself and Hamish. If a Chattaway had even a sniff of scandal, particularly of a romantic nature, they could not be pulled from the scent. Alice supposed that Fiona would know of her engagement to Hamish, so perhaps it would be best to let her think that was still in effect. To do otherwise would be to set Mrs. Ascot on her trail, as Fiona’s mother was well known for hosting the sort of lavish parties that Clarissa Ascot would deign to attend, and Mrs. Chattaway’s chin was at least as prone to wagging as either of her daughters. Still, Alice wanted to give Tarrant full credit for her clothes. She just needed to be careful not to sound too...enthusiastic about him as a person.

“A new designer I’ve been working with did them all specially. Tarrant Hayes is his name.”

Fiona’s slender finger tapped her brightly painted pout as she murmured, “Hayes, Hayes…” She suddenly stopped tapping and leaned forward with her finger outstretched. “Wasn’t that the name of the hatter who did the wildly successful show for Vetvier? Don’t tell me he designs clothes as well!?” Fiona waited breathlessly for her to do exactly that.

“He does.”

“And he did your whole outfit you say! How remarkably generous.” Alice felt edgy as Fiona’s calculating gaze seemed to take in each article of clothing, tallying the potential cost of such bespoke items.

“In trade!” Alice blurted. Hamish looked at her with a raised brow. “I am doing the campaign for his summer line for Vetvier, so…”

“Ah! So you’re being paid in clothes! Faith did tell me she’d heard from Penny Carraway that you were modeling,” Fiona caught on. “I understand accepting the latest styles as payment is a regular thing for models to do, and I suppose you don’t need the money anymore now that you’ll soon be marrying Hamish!”

It was a rather tactless thing to say, but it was so typically Fiona that Alice felt a strange wave of nostalgia overtake her. She smiled tightly at the girl before her but could think of no safe reply. Nervously, she fingered her mobile, which she had been watching compulsively for messages. Tarrant might still be upset at her earlier intrusion, but surely Thackery would respond to her texted plea for intersession? The moment stretched as Alice’s thoughts bore her further away from the present conversation.

“You seem to be taking quite an interest in fashion, Miss Chattaway.” Hamish came to the rescue with a his usual blandness.

Fiona positively beamed with pleasure at this mere observation and clapped her hands together delightedly. “Yes! Faith and I have decided to start a blog! There are a few favorites that Faith and I always read, and one day we thought, why not start our own? We will be covering fashion and society mostly, and it should be such fun! Faith has been working on her photography, so I will be mostly responsible for gathering news. So it’s such good luck to run into you Alice! Perhaps we can meet up soon and you can tell me all about your life and work and everything!”

Fiona darted forward and snatched Alice’s mobile from her grasp. Alice awkwardly tried to grab it back, but Fiona had retreated back to Hamish’s side and seated herself on the arm of his chair.

“Don’t worry Alice! I’m just putting in my number so you can call me! Any time is fine. Well, any time after eleven of course, but then the fashion life hardly takes place before noon I would wager!”

Alice thought of all the early morning photo shoots and before-dawn workouts and wardrobe sessions she had suffered through and looked at Fiona dubiously.

“Oh Alice, Margaret has left you ten new messages and you haven’t even looked at them! You’re as bad as ever about responding promptly I see. At least you seem to be reading messages from that designer, though you’ve always been more attentive to work than social niceties.”

Alice’s eyes widened in alarm. She jerked her head at Hamish and he seemed to get the picture that her mobile might have information on it that would cast doubt on the state of their engagement. He coughed awkwardly.

“Now, Fiona, it’s hardly sporting to read all Alice’s private messages,” he spluttered, reaching to take the device back from the brunette.

“Something on there you don’t want me to see, eh Hamish?” she teased with a slightly salacious wink. In point of fact, there was, but Alice and Hamish exchanged a subtle shudder at the insinuation that they might be passing back and forth steamy texts.

“Don’t worry! I’m just putting in my info.” Fiona smiled and finished with Alice’s phone, handing it back. “Now I just called my mobile, so I’ll have your number too! Call me tomorrow then!”

As she spoke the rather surprising strains of Carmina Burana could be heard coming from Fiona’s little black purse. She pulled out a mobile in a bright pink chevron case and cheerfully tapped at the screen until she looked up, satisfied.

“Til then, Alice! Hamish,” She added, springing up and scampering off, doubtless to spread news of the first Alice Kingsleigh sighting in recent memory.

Alice downed her drink and motioned at a passing waiter for another. After subjecting her to this place and to his outrageous accusations, the least Hamish could do was foot the bill. Looking back to her irksome companion, Alice could see Hamish was staring at her with an expression of concern.

“So does this feud with your mother extend to your sister as well?”

“To Margaret?” Alice cast her eyes to the side. She hadn’t thought so, but then, she hadn’t even been able to bring herself to read the texts that she’d sent. Her distress manifested as a deep desire to ignore the troublesome repercussions of her situation until they could no longer be avoided.

“To tell you the truth Hamish, I’m not sure. Feud, as I have told you before, is not at all the right word for it. A crime has been committed. Thackery and Dr. Tuttle assure me of it. The question is, did Margaret know? I confess to complete shame that I never noticed—but, well, it is hardly out of character for me to neglect to notice what is right before my eyes. There are so many other things to focus on...but Margaret has never been like that. She has always been straightforwardly concerned with whatever she observes in front of her. And she prides herself on being observant.”

“Ah.” Hamish pursed his lips. “So you think that perhaps Margaret was aware of the situation with the pharmaceuticals?’

“I scarcely see how she could not be. She was insistent on being the authority on anything health-related since she decided to become a physician. But even if she wasn’t, well, I’m worried this might be nearly as bad for her as for me.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, what if the medical board thinks Margaret had something to do with this? Would they grant her license when the time comes with all this behind her? And if they don’t it shall be my fault for being so bloody oblivious.”

Hamish sighed. “Alice, if it turns out that Margaret was as blind to the situation as you were, then she can scarcely be blamed for it. No one is blaming you, certainly. And if she was aware, well, perhaps medicine is not the best place for someone whose judgement is so unsound.”

Alice looked up at Hamish, and realized that she was pleased to hear this declaration of morality from him. She had not been sure exactly how much like his mother he had grown. Years of sitting across from their similarly disappointed glares at Sunday tea had led her to believe that the Hamish of her youth ad been molded by his mother into an ever-obedient son. When they had been younger, Hamish had a surprisingly strong sense of right and wrong, and as they had grown more aware of the world around them it had become clear that this was not a trait that he shared with his parents. Certainly not his mother, whose self-interested machinations caused Hamish no end of anguish. This had at least in part led to his spending more time with the Kingsleigh family than he might have otherwise. Clarissa Ascot, only capable of calculating social advantages, had heartily approved of Hamish’s acceptance by a family of such renowned wealth and beauty.

She had of course hoped that his attachment to Alice would turn romantic, but in fact it was as much an attachment to Charles Kingsleigh’s steady ethical influence that had drawn Hamish to their home. While his own father was nice enough despite being cowed by his wife, Hamish had longed for a parent who was both moral and confident in expressing his views. Charles Kingsleigh’s death and disgrace must have come as almost as much of a blow to Hamish as to herself. Alice, so entrapped in her own despair and sickness, had not really considered this thought. She wondered what he really thought of the accusations of corruption. Did he believe her father a greedy lying scoundrel who deserved what he got? Or was he also able to resist the incriminating picture the newspapers had painted of him?

It was this thought that primarily occupied her mind on the way home. They finished their drinks and left before any of the other familiar faces closed in to cause more problems for them. Hamish was unlikely to admit it, but it had been quite a risk to go out together and be seen. Hamish had been upset, and bolted to one place where he knew they’d be safe from any connections to the Witzend crowd. But news of this outing would most certainly reach his mother in the morning if it hadn’t already. After years of distance Alice was unsure what sort of message their sudden date-like appearance would send.

She had of course not forgotten the events of earlier that evening, but since she had not received word from Tarrant objecting to her texted declaration of intent to return to the house, Alice tried to remain optimistic about her welcome. Of course, everyone might have gone on to the party afterwards, in which case she determined to wait up for them. She squared her shoulders. Soon she would see Tarrant and straighten out this whole mess.

-o-o-o-

There were no lights on in the entryway, so Alice capered up the stairs, waiting for Hamish to go through to Nivens’ room before nervously turning the knob on Tarrant’s door. The shadows in the room were long, but the only inhabitant of the big bed that dominated the room was the little kitten, who Alice had almost forgotten in her distress.

Alice picked her up and fairly ran back down the stairs, looking around the silent house. There was a slight light shining from under Tarrant’s workroom door, but it barely illuminated the planks of the floor right before it. If he was there, doubtless he would have the room better lit so that he could work. Thinking she’d prefer to wait for him in the workroom rather than sit upstairs in the cold bed without him, her thin fingers closed around the handle. To her shock, the handle did not turn. She pressed down on the end of the old brass handle with increasing force, thinking that odd as she’d never had trouble with the door before. It took her a few loud rattles before another possibility reared its head, then took root as truth. The door was locked.

“Tarrant?” she called out. When there was no answer, she tried again, louder, “Tarrant? Are you in there? The door seems to be locked!”

Another beat, then finally his voice reached her ears, muffled by the heavy wooden door. At first she didn’t realize it was him, as his careful tones had fully slurred into a Scots accent that was strangely unfamiliar. Somehow it made his voice sound deeper, less restrained, and utterly devoid of the lisp she frequently found so charming.

“Aye, Alice. ‘Tis. I didna realize you’d come back.” He made no move to open the door, much to her surprise and disappointment.—’’Ye’d best go up ta bed.”

“Al-alright,” she stuttered. “I will, if you want, but might I say goodnight to you first? There’s something I’d like to ask you.”

Alice wondered exactly which of her many questions would spring to her lips when he did finally appear before her. Instead of steps advancing on the door as she’d expected, she heard a faint tinkling of glass—fallen but not broken she’d say. Then there was a rather ominous thump.

“Tarrant?” Alice questioned, worried.

When he spoke again it was in his usual careful manner of speech. “I apologize Alice. I think it best however if we leave communication until tomorrow. Perhaps speech will be easier in the light of day.”

Somewhat relieved to hear his normal tones, Alice nodded her head. Then, realizing he of course could not see her, she said meekly, “If that’s what you wish, then we’ll speak in the morning. Please come up to bed as soon as you are able.”

She waited a few moments, kitten clutched to her chest, for a response. However, none was forthcoming.

Alice mounted the stair and entered the room that she had to constantly remind herself was still not her own. She laid down, head swimming with thoughts of Tarrant’s distressed behavior, whatever had happened in the alley, and the unpleasant strain that had sprung up between them as a result. Determined to wait up for Tarrant, Alice was very surprised to wake to the full sunlight beating into the room through the insufficient blinds. She looked to her side immediately, gut clenching when she realized that she was quite alone. Judging by the unruffled state of the covers, the kitten had been her only company through the night.

Dressed only in the shift-like tunic she’d used at the photo shoot, Alice shot out of bed and through the bathroom door. Upon finishing, she shivered at the chill of the landing, but raced down the stair to Tarrant’s workroom, poised to hammer on the door until he admitted her, no matter how he was feeling about her presence. Intent on her task, she was startled into a small squeak when a hand reached out to prevent her pounding on the door.

It was Thackery, already dressed for the day in a warm jumper and jeans, feet snugly bundled into striped wool socks pulled up over his trouser cuffs. He shook his head, whether at her attire or her intentions toward the poor workroom door Alice could not be certain, and urged her back into the kitchen.

“Is Tarrant still in there then?” she asked, worry creeping from her stomach to her throat and squeezing its way into her voice.

“Aye, though he’s likely passed out by now. He was so keyed up after last night that it’s for the best though I very much regret the loss of the bottle of whisky that got him down.”

Thackery nodded toward the counter where various liquor bottles usually resided, lined up carefully by height. Probably the work of Nivens, Alice suspected. Now they were thoroughly disarranged, some knocked sideways though nothing seemed to be broken. However the dust pan and broom were out on the floor, so perhaps Thack had already cleaned up any broken glass. Alice tried to remember whether she had noticed any sort of mess when she had gone upstairs the night before. Shaking her head she forced herself to attend to her current situation.

She turned to stare at Thackery. “You say he drank a whole bottle of whisky and locked himself in the workroom, and you think we ought to just leave him there?”

“Aye. I do. He’ll be fine, if left to himself. The best thing to do is not give him the chance to make things any worse for himself. Tricky, that, with you being here.”

“But—I want to talk to him! Shouldn’t I? Then he’ll know that I’m not—that I don’t-”

”That ye don’t what precisely?” asked Thack, eyebrow twitching in question. “Don’t you think he’s going ta see you’re shaken up?”

“As much by his absence as by anything that happened last night!” Alice stubbornly avowed.

”Oh is that so?”

“It is!”

Thackery sighed. “Aye, well we’re happy ta have you staying here, that’s not changed Alice. But you’re helping no one to pretend you’re fine with things you canna possibly understand.”

“How can I possibly understand if no one will speak to me about it?” Alice protested. Of course, Hamish had jumped on the chance to deliver his verdict, but his horrible suppositions were not what Alice wanted.

Thackery sighed. “It’s not my place, Alice. I told ye I’d not discuss your situation with Tarrant, and I’ll not discuss his with you. There’s plenty to get to, but the two of you are just starting out. Give it some time. Ye’ve got ta have some patience, or it’ll never work out. Goodness knows Tarrant requires a substantial amount of patience even on his best days. You’ve been managing well enough so far, now’s the time ta show us what you’re made of.”

His mouth twitched a brief smile, and Alice was able to manage a small one back. She rubbed her hands over her arms briskly, and Thack sent her straight upstairs to get dressed with promises of breakfast when she returned.

Coming down much more warmly attired, Alice found herself alone in the kitchen with a heaping plate of food, a post-it next to it on the table proclaiming “EAT ME (Alice ONLY.)” Smiling slightly at Thackery’s appropriately angular penmanship, Alice tucked in, but for once was unable to finish. The knots her stomach had tied itself into had eased a little with Thackery’s words, but every half-hour that passed without Tarrant’s presence was twisting her back into pretzels of anxiety. If only she had minded Thackery last night, perhaps Tarrant wouldn’t have retreated as he had. This thought irritated Alice. Even if she had not interrupted the scene in the alleyway, it would have played itself out anyway. What should it matter if she saw for herself what had happened, or if she had heard about it afterward. Perhaps Tarrant would not have wanted to tell
her himself, but surely he would have realized that Hamish at least would speak to her about it.

And what had happened anyway? Some thugs had been threatened, but Tarrant was just protecting Nivens and Hamish, wasn’t he? He wouldn’t have gone any further than that, right? The memory of that unexpected blade sent a shiver down her spine. It had gleamed wickedly in the streetlight, longer than she would have thought possible for something so completely concealed from her. Hadn’t Thackery said something about Tarrant and pointy objects once? At the time she had thought no further than scissors and sewing needles, but now she wondered if it wasn’t a hint.

None of these thoughts comforted Alice, so she turned her mind to her coursework, though most of her books were shut in the workroom with Tarrant. Still, the laptop was conveniently upstairs, so she went online and completed the course reading for the next class. It was past noon, and surely no one could blame her for seeking Tarrant out now. She crept out into the landing and peered down into the kitchen. No sign of anyone.

She scuttled into the hall, pleased to find that the workroom door was ajar. She pulled back the heavy door, hoping to find Tarrant and finally put to rest all the fears that had been plaguing her. Tarrant was not there. Indeed, she hardly noticed at first, as the scenery before her was so vastly different than the last time she’d been in the comfortably disheveled space. Normally the fabric never quite stayed on the shelves, and it was best to watch out for pins if in bare or stocking feet, but other than that the buttons were mostly in the button bins and the ribbons mostly wound onto their holders. The spools of thread that were supposed to stay on their rack often migrated around the room, and both reference books and paper patterns tended to get strewn about, but all in all it was controlled chaos.

Now there was nothing controlled about it. Broken glass littered the floor, and the entire metal wire shelf that held Tarrant’s current project bins was overturned, crashed into the cutting table which seemed to have broken a leg in the process. Everything that had been on the cutting table was now strewn about the floor. In the midst of her shock at the scene Alice spared a thought for her anthropology texts, which had been neatly piled on one end of the cutting table before they went out to the pub the night before. Alice became aware of tattered pages interspersed with mess of glass and ripped fabric and jumbled odds and ends on the floor. Incredulously she toed a leather-bound cover out of the destruction. Iron Age Europe. The pages seemed to have been individually ripped from the binding. This, more than anything else, disturbed Alice deeply. Had Tarrant really sent her to bed, downed a bottle of whisky and then proceeded to destroy one of her very few material possessions—a defenseless book, no less?

Who else? was the only answer she could give herself. How could he have done such a thing? Hamish’s ‘source’ must be right in this at least-Tarrant was unbalanced. At this admission, another thought inserted itself in her mind before she could deny it entry: If he was capable of this, what else might he have done?

She surveyed the wreckage for any other signs of her meagre possessions. Somewhat disturbingly she found them in a neat pile in the cupboard under the counter by the window. Why? Tarrant must have put them there, but why had they escaped while poor Iron Age Europe had been shredded page by page? Alice considered herself to have a first-class imagination, but in this circumstance it failed her. Why would Tarrant have done these things? She tried to reconstruct the events of the evening, to imagine what he must have done when, but she found herself completely adrift.

Sounds in the house beyond the workroom door reached her ears and she looked up from where she’d been kneeling in the disaster. Eyes, huge and round, Alice turned toward the doorway, expecting Tarrant or perhaps Thackery with more cryptic remarks and non-explanations. Instead, Nivens and Hamish peered around the doorway, Nivens slight build allowing Hamish to easily look over his shoulder. They were standing close together, so Alice supposed they had made up after their disagreement last evening.

“Good lord!” exclaimed Nivens, blue eyes wide. “Thackery said it was bad this time, but I’ve never seen it like this.”

“What have I been telling you Nivens? That man is unhinged. completely barmy. You and Alice need to get out of here as quickly as possible—” Hamish stopped, mid-tirade as he caught sight of Alice behind the landslide that was the cutting table. “Alice! What are you doing there? And barefoot no less! Come away at once! You’ll cut your feet. Honestly, has no one any sense in this house?” He gestured impatiently, though Alice could tell he was reluctant to enter the room himself. Alice was somewhat surprised that Nivens hadn’t retreated at the sight of such furious disorder, but instead he seemed to be assessing the damage calmly. Much more calmly than Hamish, certainly.

Alice gathered up her little pile of belongings and began picking her way back across the floor. When she was almost to the door, she reached toward Nivens. She did not quite touch his sleeve out of courtesy for his preferences.

“Please, Nivens. What is going on?”

Hamish huffed a loud sigh to her left but she ignored him, instead watching Niven’s nervous eyes skitter around the destruction of the workroom. “Why did Tarrant do this?” She stooped and picked up the cover of Iron Age Europe. She held it out to him helplessly. “Why would he destroy this book and leave the others intact? What is going on?”

“Oh dear. Oh my. This is most—that is, I’m not sure how best to start. Well, have you not talked to Tarrant at all about his—well, his family history?”

“His family?” asked Alice, unsure as to how Tarrant’s infrequent but fond mentions of his parents and siblings could have anything to do with this destruction.

“Ha!” said Hamish. “So you see now, it’s as I said—”

Nivens glared at Hamish. “I don’t think you know as much as you insinuate Hamish. You make me wish I’d never said a word.”

Did that mean Nivens was the source of Hamish’s story about Tarrant’s murderous background? Or was he actually disagreeing? Alice hastened to encourage him.

“So you do know what the matter is—why he was so odd last night and why he won’t speak to me now? Please just tell me what’s happening, and maybe I can make him talk to me about it.”

Nivens shook his head rapidly.

“No no, Alice. It’s up to Tarrant whether or not to speak to you about any..events in his past that might...affect his present condition. Attempting to make him do anything would only compound the problem. I’ll not say a word.”

Her eyes widened as she realized just how horrid her response sounded. As if she could or even would attempt to force Tarrant to do anything. Alice looked so chastened at this firm refusal that he hurried to add,

“Please, don’t misunderstand. You want to get things straightened out, and that’s admirable. But you must give Tarrant some time to come round. He’s not the sort of person who takes kindly to being rushed.”

“Whether or not he wants it, the more pressing question is how to get Alice out of here—you said yourself it’s inconvenient having her here,” Hamish plowed ahead despite Alice’s indrawn breath of anguish at this. “I spoke to Father, told him to free up the Hethering flat, and he agreed. Alice, you do not need to stay here, indeed you should not be here. You never should have been. This is not the sort of place for a girl like you.”

Tears stung her eyes at this callous declaration. If Witzend was the most wonderful homey place Alice had ever been admitted to, and it was, yet she was not the sort of girl who should be there, then where did that leave her? Nivens hastened to soften the blow of Hamish’s words: it wasn’t that it was any trouble having her here, it’s only that Tarrant was very particular about needing his space. Really, she should take all the time she needed to think about what she wanted to do next, and in any case she must wait and speak to Thackery. He would know what to do.

Alice bowed her head as Nivens prattled on, determined not to give too much weight to Hamish’s hurtful words. Still, doubt was growing in her mind. Perhaps Tarrant was not one to need immediate resolution of conflict, but she was. If he couldn’t provide it for whatever reason then she would insist on getting some answers from Thackery. She managed a stiff nod at Nivens and left to put up her books before anything further could befall them. There were things she needed to think about without Hamish breathing down her neck. His protests at her lack of self-preservation rang through the hallway behind her.

Chapter Text

Alice was in the small exercise room in the garage going through the routines that Thackery had been trying to lay down with her. Tarrant and Thackery were still missing, and her sudden desire for exercise conveniently confirmed that the car was gone and probably had been since she’d had her unpleasant conversation with Nivens and Hamish earlier that afternoon. To her surprise the simple but challenging movements did help to calm her nerves. If she was in the position to immediately know when the car returned, well, that too was comforting.

When she finally heard the heavy old-fashioned garage door roll upwards, she bolted through into the larger space. Instead of Tarrant pulling up the old manual door, Thackery was struggling to push the finicky door up on its rollers. Alice hurried over to help him. She held it in place while Thackery went back to the car and backed it into its space. The thought of Thackery driving seemed a strange one, but he managed well enough.

He shut the door with a clank and hurried to where Alice was bearing the entire weight of the door on her own. “Sorry! That damned car is such a piece of junk. I hate driving it! Tarrant keeps claiming he’ll get rid of it once he’s fixed it up, but he’s becoming as obsessed with it as his uncle was. Not like he couldn’t afford a better one,” Thackery grumbled as he helped Alice ease the door back down.

“Where is Tarrant then?” Alice tried to let the question out nonchalantly, but her desperation showed in her voice. She could scarcely think of anything else.

“I dropped him off with Daisy and Violet. They’re pretty good with him. I thought it would be best to get him somewhere a little less. . .well, a bit more. . .”

 

Thackery nervously tugged at his dreadlocks and turned to fiddle with the ancient looking lock on the door runner. He looked chagrined at being unable to put that a little more clearly.

Alice’s brow furrowed at this news. Tarrant wished to avoid her, and so had gotten roaring drunk, trashed his workroom and one but not all of her textbooks, passed out and then had been spirited away to two female friends who Alice had never met. She tried to remind herself that she had only recently met Tarrant, that naturally there were many of Tarrant’s friends who she did not know yet. Just because they were women was no reason whatsoever for her to feel an unexpected stab of jealousy.

“Daisy, the singer?” she quietly asked.

Thackery was determined not to be put off by her tone, but rather walked back to the pegboard to return the car keys to their hook.

“Aye, though she’s as much a dancer as a singer. Tarrant sometimes does stuff for her.”

This non-specific assertion did not ease Alice’s worry in the least. She chewed her bottom lip in agitation, something she had believed her mother had broken her of long ago. Thackery sighed.

“Seems if I’m not babysitting one of you, it’s the other,” he muttered under his breath. “Well, might as well get some benefit out of it. Get your coat and you can help me dig turnips in the garden. I’ve also got some potatoes still in the ground for the soup tomorrow. Then if you’re still feeling mopey you can help me organize the cupboards and shred beets for pickling. That should sort you out til Tarrant gets back.”

“He’s coming back then?” Alice asked nervously.

Thackery arched a brow at her. “O’course he’s coming back. This is his house, remember?”

“I just thought—with everything everyone’s been saying—he might. . .prefer to be somewhere I’m not. That perhaps I ought to leave.”

Thackery pursed his lips. “Oh, ‘everyone’ is it? I know Hamish thinks a lot of himself but I wouldn’t go so far as to consider his the only opinion out there, Alice.”

“Not just Hamish!” Alice hastened to add, “but also Nivens and of course Mally’s been saying I ought to leave since I first set foot in the door, but you too. You said it was difficult for Tarrant—whatever it is exactly that’s happening here, I still don’t know—but that it’s harder with me being here.”

Thackery held out his hands, though he didn’t quite reach toward her. Alice wouldn’t have minded if he had. She could probably do with a hug just about now.

“I didn’t mean—well, I did. But the problem is that Tarrant is having trouble talking to you. So yes, if you weren’t in the equation, this problem might not exist, but it does, because Tarrant wants you to be here, and so far you’ve seemed like ye wanted to be here as well. S that still the case?”

“Yes!” Alice rushed out with this answer before she had the chance to filter it at all. Truth be told there was nothing more she wanted in the world than remaining at Witzend forever. All her previous thoughts of how she ought to strike out on her own and make her own way in the world had lost their hold. Alice had become painfully aware of how much uncertainty existed in her life and the comfort and predictability of her time in the house had become precious to her as a result. Still, it was not her house, but Tarrant’s, and she would have to leave if it didn’t suit him. She struggled to get herself under control. “That is, only if I’m not being a—a burden. I know I’m not pulling my own weight, that I’m just here due to kindness—Tarrant’s and yours of course. But you should know that if I’m too much trouble it’s not as if I have nowhere else to go.”

Thackery did touch her then, moving swiftly forward to grab her forearm lightly.

“Ye’re not thinking of returning to your mother?” he asked, concern evident in his eyes.

“No-o, not yet. There’s still too much I need to find out before I could get anywhere with her. And Margaret, well, I’ve just been putting off dealing with her to tell the truth. But Hamish says—”

“Hamish again,” muttered Thackery.

“Hamish says,” Alice restated, “that there’s a flat his father keeps for work that I might use for a while if need be.”

“And what would you do all day shut up in a flat by yourself?”

Alice bristled, as if she hadn’t had to occupy herself for years before Thackery came around to give her chores!

“I’m sure I could think of something,” she answered haughtily.

“Och, here now, Alice. It’s not that I’m trying to fight with you. It’s that I can’t help but think, honestly, that this is the best place for you at the moment. Throwing yourself back onto the mercy of these Ascots, well, isn’t that how your family got into a bad situation in the first place?”

Alice’s brow furrowed.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, if yer father left Hamish’s father control of his company, doesn’t it seem like the least Ascot could do was to see you all comfortably settled somewhere? Perhaps with your mother or Margaret or both found a job of some sort if the money for keeping you all was too dear. But instead you are mysteriously given a drug to prevent your growing and then kicked out of school and shut away from all your previous acquaintances and set to flout child labor laws while your mother and sister go on much as before. If I were you, I’d think long and hard about the alternatives before giving yourself back over to his care.”

Alice pursed her lips. Everytime one of her new friends offered her their opinion on her circumstances she was forced to reevaluate a time in her life that was so hazy with grief and illness that she had hardly been able to do a thing but to put it behind her. She reluctantly followed Thackery out to the garden and accepted the muddy trowel he held out to her. She frowned. She didn’t even like turnips.

 

-o-o-o-

The afternoon passed slowly, and Alice began to feel like the ball in a game of playground keep-away between Hamish and Thackery. Hamish clearly wished to speak to her alone, but whenever he approached, Thackery would mysteriously appear and set her another task under his direct supervision. Alice’s eyes were magnetically drawn to the clock, tension mounting as she realized how long it had been since she’d last seen Tarrant. She knelt on the floor before the washing machine, putting in a load of household linens for Thackery, when Hamish bustled into the tiny cupboard-like room and hurriedly shut the door behind him. He smiled slightly at his successful outmaneuvering of Thackery, but sobered as he turned to Alice earnestly. The seriousness of the situation was marred by the drying rack full of Alice’s mostly-dry laundry hanging between them. Hamish pushed a pair of pajama pants to the side to better regard her.

She sniffed at his large-eyed serious expression. As if she hadn’t just seen him triumphing at catching her.

She spoke before he had the chance, “Whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it Hamish. Thackery has assured me that Tarrant will soon return, and I will wait and sort this all out with him. There’s no need to pester me further with lies and hearsay.”

“Please Alice, I am telling you the truth. I was unequivocally told that Tarrant Hayes has killed a man in cold blood. He is not someone to waste your time mooning over. If he has gone, you should consider yourself lucky to have had a clean escape. Please let me get you out of this house,” Hamish implored, “It is no place for a girl in your position.”

“A girl in my position?” Alice asked, beginning to get angry. “What position is that exactly? Helpless and ignorant? That seems to be how everyone would like to keep me. I might not know everything about what’s going on—whether it’s Tarrant or the business or Daddy’s death and what came after, but I’m going to find out! Stop trying to get in my way!”

Hamish seized upon her words. “Yes Alice, I agree with you—there’s much to be found out. Let me get you out of this house and we can start looking for answers. We’ll find out all about the business details and Hayes as well. Then you’ll be able to see what’s what without being clouded by the haze of this peculiar house. All you need to do is let me help you.”

Alice searched the face of her long-time enemy and longer-time friend. He seemed completely sincere. She sighed.

“I appreciate you offer Hamish. And I really truly would like your help figuring out what happened after Daddy died. But as far as my—my relationship,” Alice tripped over the term, never having labelled whatever it was between herself and her host and kissing practice partner before, but she soldiered on with a blush, “with Tarrant, I must ask you to leave me to work things out for myself.”

She started the machine and began pulling down her clothes, tossing them into the now empty laundry basket though some were still damp. Well, it would give Hamish a chance to make his exit.

Yet he could not leave without having the last word.

“When you’re ready to see reason then, Alice, I will do my best not to say I told you so.”

With that, Hamish made an awkward half-bow and exited the closet, pointlessly shutting the door behind him. Alice shook her head. Hamish really was too much.

Gathering up her laundry basket after completing her task, she opened the door. Her ears zeroed in on the sound of Thackery’s voice scolding in the other room. Was he—could he be speaking to Tarrant?

“Weel don’t come crying to me when it doesnae work out!” said Thackery, his voice coming closer. He rounded the corner, passing her where she stood by the back door. He looked exasperated but amused, and gave her an encouraging nod and a twitchy wink as he passed out the door into the garden.

Alice’s heart jumped into her throat as she turned the corner and spied a ginger head hung in contrition in the living room. Torn between rushing him and setting down the laundry basket, she awkwardly started forward until she ended up tipping some of her pile of shirts and knickers over the side onto the floor.

“Er, Alice!” Tarrant tried to rise from where he had been sitting with his feet hooked around the legs of his chair. Somehow he was not quite able to disentangle himself, and instead tripped and fell forward, catching himself with one hand out, forced into bearing his full weight in a bizarre display of clumsiness and strength all at once. He scrambled up and began to help her replace the laundry in its basket..

“I must apologize to you,” he lisped quickly, green eyes meeting hers and then dropping away as he continued. “I seem to have damaged one of your books. I will of course replace it—in fact Thackery has been so good as to order one already. It should be here in three days if the shipping estimate is to be believed.”

Alice was so happy to finally see Tarrant that she merely waved this away. He was not making eye contact, which was a somewhat troubling sign, but since he was finally there, Alice didn’t want to quibble.

“Really, don’t worry about it. I’m just so—so glad to see you finally. I don’t want to press you, but I have been so confused—no one will tell me anything—but now you’re back and I’m sure things will be alright.”

She tried again and failed to get him to meet her hopeful gaze. “Won’t they?” she finished, intending to be upbeat, but instead ending up sounding a touch desperate.

Tarrant took a slow breath.

“Yes,” he said shortly, without as much conviction as Alice had been hoping to hear.

“But for now, I’m afraid I’ve been scolded most dreadfully by Thackery and have to get to work fixing up the workroom. I—er—tripped, and made quite a mess I’m afraid...and it must be sorted out immediately.”

Alice rose swiftly, “I’ll help you,” she said quickly.

Tarrant also stood and finally met her eyes. He looked tired and hesitant, the sparkle of humor she usually found there disappointingly absent. His gaze dropped to the laundry basket in her arms.

“No, Alice. There is broken glass. You go upstairs, put your things away, and I’ll see you when I’ve finished.”

He reached toward her, his fingers hovering bare inches from her arm, but he did not close the gap. Instead he nodded to her, turned and walked slowly toward the other side of the house.

Alice reluctantly went upstairs. She puttered around, putting away her laundry and flipping the pages of a book on the eighteenth-century silk trade she’d found on Tarrant’s bookshelf. Finally she drifted back down the stairs, finding herself before the workroom door once more. It was closed, and Alice couldn’t bring herself to try the brass knob. It would hurt too much to find it locked once more. She sunk down onto the floorboards, determined to wait until Tarrant emerged. She shivered a bit despite her woolen jumper. The kitten who was not actually named Dinette approached and settled herself in Alice’s lap. The dim lighting and sleepy weight of the kitten eventually lulled her to sleep.

Alice awoke in the bed bed upstairs to the daily blinding rays that hit her side of the bed earlier than she’d prefer. Once again, the other side of the bed covers remained smooth. Tarrant had slept elsewhere, if he’d slept at all. A hollow ache hit Alice in the gut. What should she do?

As she dressed, this melancholy turned to frustration, which turned to anger. Really, what was the point of all this fuss? Hamish ran about spreading lies and sowing dissention, while everyone else in the house pussyfooted around, refusing to address the issue. Something was troubling Tarrant, and she needed to find out what. Alice knew she was capable of taking the initiative to set things straight, and wasn’t there no time like the present? They might treat her like a helpless waif, so it was down to her to show them she was made of sterner stuff.

She washed and dressed quickly, determined to settle matters as forthrightly as possible. Carefully waiting at the doorway until she saw Hamish enter the washroom, Alice bounded down the stair with a stubborn set to her jaw. She nodded at Mally who stood by the toaster, and approached Tarrant, who she found at the round breakfast table munching toast. There, he looked much better, she told herself. Ignoring the sound of Hamish’s tread on the stair behind her, she fearlessly stood before Tarrant, took a deep breath and announced,

“Hamish says that your elder brother is in prison for murder and that you have yourself killed a man. Tell me right now that this cannot possibly be true,” she demanded. His eyes were ringed with circles that matched the ones on her face from her own mostly sleepless night.

Tarrant’s eyes widened, and he tried to rise from the breakfast table but again his grace deserted him and he fumbled, his legs catching against the tabletop while he struggled to push his chair back. His mouth was open, an expression of horror painting his face an agonized ash grey. Tarrant gaped at her soundlessly. A sharp gasp behind her reminded Allice that they had an audience for this exchange. Alice waited for his impassioned denial, tears pricking her eyes as the seconds ticked by and she realized that none was forthcoming.

“No.” Her word was firm, but Hamish was already pulling her away by the wrist. Tears streamed silently down her face. It seemed like the house had exploded, and she had been deafened in the blast. Alice could hear the sound from the words others were speaking, but they were muffled and she could not take the meanings in properly. Hamish was spewing out vitriol about Tarrant having trapped Alice into living with him, using her unfortunate circumstances against her. Mally was shrieking back at Hamish, calling him terrible names and threatening to rip him apart. Nivens was there also, practically crying, shrinking back from Hamish and his terrible shield of arrogance.

Thackery rushed in from outside, the commotion having drawn him from his work in the garden, and seeing his friend in such distress ran to Tarrant’s side. He cast a quick glance at Alice and understanding seemed to reach him. Hamish had practically dragged through the front room to the door at this point, but she had one last flicker of hope that Thackery would sort it all. Instead of sparing another look for her though, he was slapping Tarrant’s cheeks, trying to get a reaction.

“Stay wi’ me,” Thackery was shouting over the chaos.

And then Alice was out of the house and being pulled into a waiting cab that Hamish had somehow managed to procure. The sobs wracked her body and as much as she wanted to blame Hamish for his horrible handling of the situation all she could do was cry and allow him to pat her back worriedly.

Chapter Text

The address he’d given the driver was unfamiliar to Alice, but she stared bleakly out the window at the frosty and miserable day. They arrived in a quietly fashionable part of town. Alice arrived at a huge building with a well-maintained carving above the door proclaiming it the Hethering Arms. She and Hamish ascended to the penthouse floor and he presented her with the key and a credit card with his name on it for daily expenses.

Alice could only muster up a fraction of her usual interest in new circumstances. “What is this place Hamish? Why have you brought me here?” she asked tiredly.

Hamish’s eyes went shifty and Alice braced herself for another half-truth.

“It is a place my father keeps for...business. I asked him for the keys and he gave them to me. It was until recently occupied, albeit on a part-time basis, so you should be able to find basic supplies in the cupboards and bath. I wish I could stay Alice, but I must catch the train. I’ve a paper to write and class first thing tomorrow. Call Nivens if you need anything.”

Hamish stepped forward as if to embrace her, but instead awkwardly stopped himself, gave her a sharp nod, and then turned and left, locking the door behind him. Though Alice knew she had the matching key in her hand, she could not help but feel imprisoned. Alone now, she sank to her knees on the cold tiled entryway and felt the strain of the past few days wash over her.

Alice stayed in the room ordering takeout and watching telly for three days. She missed class. She cried endlessly and thought for the first time about what it might be like to die. Alice would have refused to call her thoughts suicidal exactly, yet they frequently turned to how she would do it if she were to do it. Despite a staunch dislike of pain, Alice imagined that bleeding out would be a suitably dramatic way to act out such a desperate act. If she couldn’t stand the feeling of it, what right would she have to die anyway? Pills would be too easy, and where would she get them anyway? She tried to ignore the thoughts of how it would make those around her feel, as she was not so ignorant to believe such an act would have a positive impact on any of them, and despite her many failings, Alice did not want to succumb fully to maudlin self-pity.

Nivens had sent her a bag of her things which the porter had delivered to her door. She’d taken in numbly and it had remained in the entry, just inside the wide door to the apartment. He’d also called each morning, but Alice had not bothered to answer the call. Those from her sister, mother, and even Thackery went unanswered as well. There was just one caller that Alice would have picked up for. Indeed, it made her realize that hope was not dead within her whenever the ringer went off and she stumble-tripped-leaped across the room only to disappointedly press “ignore” when it did not read “TARRANT” in all caps, as she had entered it in her excitement over finding him again.

***

Alice had left Witzend on Sunday, and Thackery managed to visit her on Wednesday. After telling the desk he was expected in the penthouse suite and having the staff confirm with Nivens over the phone, Thackery was surprised to find the door unlocked. He had tried to call ahead, but as Alice had not responded, he had half expected to have to stand out here and bang on the door. The place was huge, airy, open, modern, and white. Its gleaming stainless steel fixtures seemed most unlike Alice. He walked about, taking in the messy surfaces, the ice cold bath in the tub and Alice’s miserable position sprawled on the bed.

“I don’t need any bloody towels!” she called, half asleep.

Thackery ignored this tired outburst. He picked at a digestive biscuit wrapper on the table by the bed as Alice slowly became aware of his presence. She looked awful, which pricked his conscience. Nivens had been tracking her through the credit card, so they knew she was eating and drinking and ordering films all day long as well as spending several hundred pounds on what they could only surmise to be random eBay auctions through her mobile. She wouldn’t have known they were keeping watch though, and likely felt woefully neglected. She looked woefully neglected, even by herself. He forced his expression into neutral territory. Before anything else, they would have to get a few things straight. He cleared his throat two or three or maybe four times and began.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. Tarrant—well, he hasn’t been fit to be left until this morning.”

Alice looked like she had taken a knife to the gut at the sound of his name. She twisted around on the bed and squinted at Thackery, her expression unsure. Was he really there, or was this just another dream?

“I’m so confused.” Alice said this matter-of-factly, but it rang through her hollow insides. Thackery still stared at her inscrutably, weighing her very carefully. She propped herself up on her elbows and decided that specter or not, she might as well demand some information. She couldn’t possibly end up with less than she already had.

“Is it true then? Does Tarrant come from a family of murderers? Did he kill a man in cold blood? He barely spoke to me of his family, though when he did tell me of his childhood it sounded happy. I just—I can’t put it all together.”

Her blurry eyes finally focused on Thackery’s calculating ones.

“Help?” she pleaded.

This seemed to have been the right thing to say, for his tense posture relaxed, his eyes softened, and he began scraping dried bits of fried rice from the bedside table into the bin. Alice looked around her as if seeing the penthouse for the first time. The open plan flat was surprisingly filthy from the few days she’d spent there. She didn’t remember doing anything to cause such a mess, though she did remember sending away housekeeping on three separate occasions. She moved and realized that she was wearing only her pink camisole and a pair of hastily washed-out knickers.

Thackery handed her a bathrobe visible on the back of the bathroom door. She put it on and joined him in straightening the room. She certainly hadn’t remembered knocking over a lamp—mercifully not broken—or spilling tea on the white carpet. Thackery continued picking up the various food containers, tutting over an empty half-gallon of triple chocolate chip he found under a pile of towels beside the bed.

Finally as he was consolidating the trash to be taken out, Thackery spoke.

“So yer Hamish just dropped ye here and left for uni?”

Alice looked relieved that he’d broken his silence.

“My Hamish? I thought he was Nivens’,” she said vaguely.

“I’m not sure Nivens will have him after the damage he’s caused.”

Alice looked up sharply. “I thought Nivens was in accord with Hamish—trying to get me out of your house.”

“I believe Nivens cooperated far enough to help get you another place to go.” Thackery nodded at the surrounding opulence.

Alice seized on this. “Then, then if Nivens is displeased, was he not the source of what Hamish—what he told me?”

Alice didn’t want to face the words again. The uproar caused by her forthrightness had been echoing in her ears these past days. She’d been so sure that facing the terrible accusations would have dispelled their power. Instead they had exploded in her face.

Thackery took pity on her. “Certainly not. Nivens doesn’t know the whole story, but he knows enough that he’d never—ever—say such things about Tarrant.”

Hope flared bright in Alice’s heart.

“Then it’s not true?” she gasped this out, the words flying from her lips in hopes of speeding Thackery’s answer.

When he just stared at her, hard, she gulped and sat down with a graceless thump on a conveniently placed ottoman.

“It’s not a matter of true or not true, Alice. Jeannie is in gaol—Tarrant’s elder sister, not his brother—because two drunken blokes picked a fight wi’ the wrong distraught lass. She could’ve got off on a temporary insanity plea but she’s as stubborn as the rest of them when it comes to talking about mental illness. At this point I don’t think she even wants to acknowledge what happened.”

Alice’s face clouded. “Then does this—event—have something to do with why Hamish said that Tarrant. . .”

Thackery sighed. “Not directly. But I’m not here to tell you the whole story of either case. If Tarrant ever decides you deserve to know then you can hear the whole tale from him. All I’m telling y’ is enough to realize what a wasps nest you’ve stepped in.”

His voice had grown hard, but he relented, leaning away from her and admitting, “I believe ye tha ye didnae do it on purpose, but ye’ve got to know, killing someone is not the same as murdering them.”

Alice’s mind raced. “You mean something like, self-defense, I suppose?” she asked.

“Very like,” he admitted.

Alice waited, but Thackery went back to tying up the trash bags he was organizing. She got up and walked over to him. Grasping his arm she pleaded, “Please, please tell me. I know you don’t want to tell tales, but the thought of trying to ask Tarrant again after last time—if he couldn’t tell me this then, why do you think it would be easier after so much hurt?”

Alice wasn’t sure that she’d made her case very well, but Thackery’s brow twitched a deep furrow, and he tied knots that were unnecessarily complex in the plastic sacks he was fiddling with.

“Alrigh’,” he said. Alice stepped back, but Thackery made no move to seat himself. Instead he paced around, wiping down surfaces with a found face cloth as he bounced around the open space. Alice trailed after him trying to catch every word.

“Tarrant had a second cousin, Calum, who was actually a double cousin as his mother was Arabella’s (Tarrant’s mother’s) cousin but was also a relation on Tarrant’s father’s side, since he was also a Hayes.”

“How unusual,” remarked Alice.

“We-ell, not really. It was a small town,” Thackery said carefully.

“Oh.” For the first time, Alice realized that she really did not know any particulars whatsoever of where and how Tarrant, Mally and Thackery grew up. She’d guessed that they were childhood friends, but now that she thought about it she only really knew Mally’s age as it was close to her own. They’d said the age difference between her and Tarrant wasn’t “too bad” but that was a highly subjective measure. Presumably they grew up in Scotland, more southerly than northerly if Thackery’s accent was an accurate indicator, though Mally sounded London through and through. Hmm. Alice hadn’t even considered this. And Tarrant only slipped into his accent if it was for effect, though sometimes it bled through if he was distracted or speaking to Thackery. The only other times being when he was...not quite himself. Given Thackery and Mally’s ethnicities Alice realized she had expected to find they were from a city. Mally had joked about her extended Pakistani family’s attempts to rescue her from her wayward ways, but honestly Alice didn’t even know Thackery’s ethnicity beyond the visible evidence of the color of his skin. Which was fine, really, it was up to him if he wanted to say, but to assume he grew up in an urban environment was disappointingly presumptive of her.

She nodded to Thackery encouragingly and he continued reluctantly.

“Anyway, Calum and his mother Eva lived in a tiny village about half an hour outside of our town. He was also a grand-nephew of August Bembury—the hatter—and his mother wanted him to be accepted as an apprentice. Calum was a couple years older than Tarrant, but even when Tarrant was a wean it was clear he was the most talented of the lot, and would likely be chosen to apprentice in London, no matter who was older than who. But Cal wasn’t unskilled himself, so there was a hope, at least held by Eva, that maybe their uncle’d take the both o’ them. So there’s that in the background.” Thackery stopped and took a deep breath, and continuing his cleaning circuit they moved into the bathroom.

“Everyone knew Calum wasn’t quite right in the head, but his mother would never admit a thing, and he was never diagnosed and certainly not treated. You couldn’t tell there was anything the matter some days, but those who spent enough time with him knew something was wrong. There was a little lass in the village where he lived that was nasty to him, and he seemed to have developed a fantasy wherein all wee girls were demons out to get him or some such narcissistic delusion. He’d been getting worse and worse, almost completely out of touch wi’ reality, but we all only found this out after the fact. Classic schizoid behavior, but even discussing such a thing with a Hayes is nigh on impossible. It’s taboo, due t’ other reasons I’m not gettin into right now.

“So Calum comes for a visit, and Eva tells him to go find Tarrant who’d just come back from London and try to cozy up and find out if their great-uncle has said anything officially about the apprenticeship. Everyone had been expecting the old coot to kick th’ bucket and leave the business to someone in the family but Tarrant was not yet old enough.

“Anyway, the problem was that Tarrant had been set to watch his six year old sister and a couple o’ her mates. The girls were playing. They had some complicated game they played involving pretend horses that they could converse with. Calum lost it—thought they were talking t’ demons or some such insanity and pulled a knife on them—tried to stab little Niamh. Tarrant was alone watching them. There wasnae time to leave them and get help, so there was only one thing he could do.”

Thackery sighed and ran his fingers through his dreads from root to tip.

“Tarrant got the weapon away from Calum but by then it was too late—he’d switched his sights to Tarrant and if someone had got there mibbe. . .but by the time Corrinne—Tarrant’s little sister—ran to get their da, and he’d run back with her. . .it was too late.”

Alice’s eyes were wide. What a horrible tale!

“Calum was dead? Tarrant had the knife then? How awful!”

Thackery winced. He looked away shiftily, making Alice suspicious. “What? What else, Thackery? I need to know, so that there can be no more misunderstandings. So that I won’t once again say the absolute wrong thing. Tell me please.”

Thackery was twitching worse than ever, worrying one of his small gauge dreadlocks and practically wriggling his nose in anxiety.

“Tarrant hadn’t got the knife. When Calum dropped it he’d kicked it away. At seventeen Tarrant was no’ a small lad, but Calum was older an even bigger. Tarrant was desperate, trying to keep Calum from getting the weapon back. Corrinne got away but the other two lasses were still there and Calum had well and truly lost hold of reality at that point, raving and screaming. I wasn’t there, but I know some who heard it. Calum kept hitting him, but Tarrant finally got a hold on Calum. . .it was just. . .round his neck.”

Thackery didn’t say any more, but this time he didn’t have to. Strangulation. That must have been extremely traumatic for all involved, and all the more so for the brute physicality of it. There wasn’t even a weapon to blame on the slip of a trigger or the depth of a thrust.

Alice gazed ahead and thought carefully on what Thackery had told her. It was horrible, but it was not at all the kind of thing Hamish had been led to believe. It was more than just self-defense. . .Tarrant had been a teenager younger than herself charged with watching little girls at play who were threatened by a very sick person. Tragic yes, but all the more so that Tarrant should then be cast as some sort of murderous beast.

Thackery was polishing the sink for what could have been the fourth or fortieth time. Alice only knew she had been lost in the labyrinth of her thoughts for some time.

Slowly she spoke.

“And are these then—poor Calum and the two drunks who assaulted his sister—the only deaths attributable to Tarrant’s family? I’m not trying to be cruel, but I want to know so that I can properly defend against Hamish’s wrongheaded accusations. He is so convinced that he is right—it’s almost impossible to shift his thinking when he’s being self-righteous.”

Thackery sighed. “In a way Calum’s death is just the tip o’ the iceberg of the Hayes family tragedy. There’s so much more that I won’t get into today. But as far as I know Jeannie is the only one in Tarrant’s family t’ be charged with a violent crime—Tarrant never was I hope you realize.”

“It is so unfortunate that this happened,” Alice lamented. “If I’d had any idea—”

Thackery looked at her skeptically, and Alice stopped, chastised. He’d warned her to some degree, it was true. And hadn’t she known better? Hadn’t her better judgement told her there was more to the situation than she was aware of? And instead of finding out what she was missing she’d allowed herself, however reluctantly, to be swept along in Hamish’s anti-Tarrant crusade.

Thackery spoke again. “The thing is, Tarrant isnae even secretive about all this. He’s told girls he’s dated about these things before. But the two of you had known each other for what, two weeks? And most of that had been taken up with your own issues. I asked Tarrant if he’d said anything to you and he’d said not yet, that he didn’t want to seem like he was trying to one-up yer suffering. And he can, you know, Alice.”

“One-up my suffering?” she asked in confusion.

Thackery waved his hand. “I’m sorry. That’s a terrible way to say it. Just know—Tarrant has lost family members too, and sometimes it seems there’s more pieces of him missing than pieces remaining.”

Alice’s mind raced. So that was why he’d seemed so distant and so sad sometimes. She certainly understood the feeling of missing too many pieces of oneself. Still, Tarrant was nothing if not a skilled craftsman, and so he appeared to have fashioned new pieces that suited him quite well. Still, perhaps they didn’t fit as well as the originals.

Thackery interrupted her musings with several more clearings of the throat.

“So that brings us, I hope, to the reason for my visit.”

Alice swam back up through the layers of her thoughts to blink at him. “The reason? You didn’t come just to check on me? Or to...straighten things out?”

“Weel yes, to some extent. But I’ve also come in a more professional capacity. It seems you’ve let your diet and exercise completely lapse,” he said with a disapproving scowl toward the bags of food wrappers piled by the door.

“And I’ve also called round to the psychiatric services office that Dr. Tuttle mentioned and found you still haven’t registered.”

Alice shifted. “Are they really allowed to tell you whether or not I’m registered?” she hedged.

He twitched a smile. “You underestimate my powers o persuasion, Alice. I suppose you haven’t found another counselor on your own?”

She shrugged. Alice had not even given it a thought since leaving Witzend.

“Ah. Well.” He pulled a card from his pocket and presented it to her. “Here is the therapist Dr. Tuttle personally recommends. You need to call and give them your availability, but they’ve already got a copy of your chart and know not to contact your mother or use your home phone line for any reason.”

He had gone back to puttering about. He passed close by where she still sat plunked down upon a white ottoman on the white carpet. “So you’ll need to do that first.”

“Wait, what? First?” she asked.

Thackery nervously nodded. “Yes. You need to make an appointment and have your first session before you try to get back in touch with Tarrant.”

Alice looked at him scathingly. “And who decided this?”

“Me. I did.” Thackery met her eyes, but quickly looked away, on to straightening the large monochrome prints that decorated the walls. “You need to have a third party, completely uninvolved with either your mother or your work or your friends who you can talk to before you try to patch things up.” He hesitated. “That’s assuming you do want to patch things up…”

Alice looked down at her hands. She very desperately wanted to, but was that just pitiful? Still chasing after Tarrant despite having caused him so much distress. She knew a little more of the story now, but so much of his behavior and reasonings still remained a mystery. The tale of his cousin’s death must have been well and truly traumatizing to effect his behavior now, but Alice didn’t know much about how these sorts of things worked. Maybe some professional advice was in order.

“I do,” she admitted. “But I won’t—that is, if Tarrant doesn’t want to, I’ll understand.” She held herself very carefully as she braced for Thackery’s response.

He twitched a kind if slightly condescending smile and said, “Of course he does. The idiot is mad about you. Literally, I’m afraid. But he agreed it was best to get you some sort of support network independent of both your family and us so that you needn’t feel trapped. So he’s said it’s up to you. No pressure. You decide, but you must follow the doctor’s advice on this one and get some help. I’m afraid your situation on its own is too complicated for anyone to handle, but when you add on dealing with Tarrant and his pack of issues you absolutely need a full team of professional support.”

Alice found herself with an answering half-smile on her face.

“So, does Tarrant also see a counselor?”

Thackery’s face froze and he sighed. “I wish I could tell you he did, Alice. On the one hand, he certainly ought to, but on the other, I’m not sure what they’d make of him. All I can really say is that he’s dealing with it, in his own way and as best he can. Hopefully that’s good enough, at least for now.”

Alice nodded slowly. It was a bit annoying that she should be made to do something that it seemed Tarrant needed far more than her, but she couldn’t deny that he had more of a support system in place than she did.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

Thackery handed her the mobile that had fallen to the floor.

“No time like the present,” he said with a smile.

That, thought Alice, was not always the best philosophy. She took the device and, holding up the card she still held in her other hand, began to dial.

Chapter Text

Claire Robinson, newly minted Doctor of Psychology, looked down at the case files in her arms and groaned. Since Dr. Glassman had gone on sabbatical everything had been topsy-turvy. She had thought that she was to smoothly take over his entire caseload, but no, apparently he’d left his more challenging cases to other more senior members of the practice. Objectively, Claire knew that despite the hours upon hours she’d put in first at the University Counseling Centre, then in various nonprofit clinics as the completed her thesis, she was still new to Treswick Youth Crisis Centre and had never done more than write recommendations for others to use in court. They were probably right to be wary of putting too much on her plate just as she was starting out. Still, it stung that Dr. Glassman had particularly reassigned all his cases that were likely to require court appearances to other counselors. It didn’t exactly fill her with confidence.

Claire shoved her way into the tiny closet of an office that they’d granted her and let the files spill onto her desk. Her finger drifted up of its own accord to push back her serviceable dark-framed glasses. She pushed them back against her medium brown fringe and Claire allowed herself a sigh of frustration. The case file on top had to be dealt with immediately. A client had called to make an appointment with Dr. Glassman, and the new girl in reception had somehow managed to trick the computer system into granting her one even though Dr. Glassman had been taken off the roster for the next six months.

Hailey was the sweetest, kindest, and most incredibly unfortunate receptionist anyone could ever ask for. Even though she’d been working at the Centre for months longer than Claire, she still bungled everything from the names of the therapists to the client's’ billing information. It figured that she out of everyone in the office would be the only one not to realize that Dr. Glassman was leaving for six months rather than a week. Tears streaming down her cherubic cheeks as they huddled in the break room where the other staff wouldn’t hear, Hailey had admitted to Claire that she’d thought a “sabbatical” was some sort of religious event like a wedding or a bar mitzvah and that he’d be back directly afterwards.

Claire snorted at the memory, sighed once more, and took the file. Perhaps it would be fastest if she went ahead and called the client to reschedule herself. This was supposed to be the responsibility of reception, but if she had to get another receptionist to deal with it, Hailey would get in trouble. Claire certainly couldn’t leave Hailey to call back herself--that would surely lead to further confusion. Upon opening the file, Claire’s eyebrows rose. She quickly scanned Dr. Glassman’s horrific penmanship and discovered why this case already had a file prepared before the client ever entered the office. Why, here was the exact sort of opportunity she’d been looking for. This case was certain to require interaction with not only social workers and police, but would likely lead to at least one court hearing she would need to brief. This would make a change from the usual sort of troubled youth she’d been dealing with. She read the notes from Dr. Tuttle with a hand over her mouth. What a bizarre situation! She could hardly wait to get started. Claire picked up the phone neatly set on the side of her desk and made the call at once.

-o-o-o-

Alice had been sitting on the floor in the big empty flat atop the Hethering Arms when she received a very welcome call. She’d been sorely disappointed when the receptionist at the Tresswick Centre had told her how long she’d have to wait to see Dr. Glassman. She’d related the conversation to Thackery, but he’d just sniffed and told her that perhaps if she’d called right away she could have caught Dr. Glassman before his holiday. He’d gone on to enter the appointment in his own phone calendar, so Alice knew there’d be no hope of cheating her way through to Tarrant ahead of schedule.

Thackery had also made several appointments of his own with Alice, some for exercise and some for cooking lessons, which he disparagingly stated she obviously needed. Alice gritted her teeth and bore the criticism. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had plenty of practise with that after six years of model training under her exacting agent/mother. At least when Thackery pointed out her faults it was with the purpose of guiding her to help herself improve. Supposedly her mother had the same goal, but it certainly hadn’t felt like it at the time.

Besides leaving her with instructions to contact a certain yoga studio where she would have her fees waived (he’d just waved her off when she’d tried to ask why) Thackery’s last admonishment was to put her affairs in order. She’d thought at the time that was a rather macabre way to put it. Wasn’t that what one did before committing suicide? Still, the more she considered what her affairs were, the more she was forced to realize she’d been neglecting them. For one, she’d missed a second class and needed to beg her instructor to excuse her absence or else she faced a failing grade for the semester.

Before she could enumerate more of her failures, the stressful encounter had taken its toll and Alice had fallen asleep. She’d slept straight through until Thursday morning. It seemed odd that she could sleep even more after three days of haze, but finally her sleep had been untroubled and she woke feeling rested and somewhat ready to face the day. Thackery’s care package of clothes, books, and food had included the sketchbook that she’d been using at Tarrant’s so she dropped to the floor, turned to a clear page and began to list the things that she’d been avoiding.

Her mother topped the list, followed by Margaret, Anthropology class, Fiona Chataway (whose calls Alice had avoided every day of her exile from Witzend), and calling social services. She wasn’t certain whether she’d been avoiding Hamish or he’d been avoiding her, but probably they ought to speak as well.

The whole thing was such a muddle that Alice hardly knew where to begin. Thus, receiving a call telling her that her appointment needed to be rescheduled was at first quite disconcerting. Once she ascertained that she was actually speaking with the therapist, however, and that she was being told her appointment could be rescheduled for as soon as that very afternoon, her consternation lifted and she felt as though she were being given a chance to straighten things out.

Alice snapped up the chance for a meeting that day, despite the counselor asking whether she might like a little more time to think about what she’d like to get out of therapy so that she could enter the first session focused on what she hoped to achieve. Alice liked that she’d framed it that way, as if she would be in charge of this experience. Many things needed fixing, she reflected, but none tore at her like the gaping hole where her tentative relationship with Tarrant had been growing. Not that her relationship with him should be the focus of her therapy sessions. Indeed, Alice wasn’t even certain that she ought to mention her relationship with Tarrant.

She returned to her list of loose ends. None of them seemed as important as they had the day before. Alice stared out the huge glass window in the bedroom area of the the penthouse. Fluffy clouds replaced the somber ones of the the previous week and the sun shone through in a bluer sky than was usual for early November. Alice felt a bit of hope. If she could get things sorted with this counselor, then she might be able to see Tarrant as soon as the next day! Well, perhaps that would be pushing it. She would need to call him first, and perhaps it might be best to do that with a specific reason in mind. She’d also gotten nowhere last night as she’d tried to sort through her affairs such as they were. Perhaps by the time she’d gotten down to the modeling Tarrant wanted her to do for his collection she’d have something to ask him about.

-o-o-o-

“I am Dr. Robinson, pleased to meet you.”

Despite her very best efforts, Alice was still several minutes late for this much-anticipated meeting. She’d got off at the wrong station and had to walk much further than she’d expected. Once she finally reached the cheerful office of the Tresswick Youth Crisis Centre, she was red in the face and out of breath. Perhaps Thack was right about her need to exercise more frequently.

Alice caught her breath and stared with wide eyes at the short young woman whose staunchly professional tone of voice and severe square-framed glasses could not begin to mask the fact that she didn’t look a day older than Alice. Well, maybe Margaret to be fair, but still far younger than her mental image from speaking on the phone. She stood, blinking, and tried to determine whether or not this would be a problem for her. No matter how competent, the counselor standing before her could not possibly be very experienced compared to someone the age of Dr. Tuttle. Still, she’d been a little relieved to think of having a woman counsel her, as some of Alice’s concerns might be more deeply felt and understood by someone of her own sex. Might that shared understanding not apply to someone of her own generation too? Alice realized that she’d been staring for some time, and was pleased to note that Dr. Robinson had been waiting patiently for her to tune back in.

“Alice Kingsleigh,” she said, taking the offered hand.

"This way please," said Claire brusquely. There were few things that made Alice more uncomfortable than ruthless efficiency. She hoped this was not how Dr. Robinson would be once the door was closed.

Alice was ushered into a smallish office with several comfortable-looking chairs, a window, and a potted plant. Dr. Robinson waited while Alice selected a chair, and then took one beside her. She pulled a notebook from a black bag that she had slung over her shoulder. Alice surmised that the comfortable little room was not Dr. Robinson’s personal office. Notebook opened and pen uncapped, the smaller woman began.

"Now, did you give any thought to what I asked you on the phone? It is often very helpful to have a certain understanding of what one would like to get out of therapy before starting. I understand that you are in a somewhat unique circumstance, but please expect to experience many of the emotions and difficulties present that other victims of childhood abuse face."

Alice tried to jump in--goodness, she'd had the idea that it would be her doing most of the talking! "I'd like to say, please, that I'm not exactly comfortable with calling what's happened to me abuse. I suppose the bit with the medication must fall under that heading but...I can't quite bring myself to think that my mother could have intended me lasting harm. Why, she was determined to make certain that I was able to marry and have children with a son of some friends of the family. I highly doubt that she would have wanted to endanger me."

Just like that, as soon as Alice had begun talking, Dr. Robinson had stopped, removed her glasses, and proceeded to listen intently. It was a little unnerving.

"Do you think your mother was not fully aware of what was happening to your body while on the pills?" she asked.

“I really couldn't say. She seemed so certain that her reasons were justified, but that's how she is. She always assumes she's right and proceeds as if her notion of what to do is sacred. But she does gather information before coming to her conclusions. She must have talked to that doctor. Lustwig was his name, I believe. It seems most likely to me that he persuaded her to give me the medication. She would trust a medical doctor with just about anything. She took their words as gospel."

"And what reason might Dr. Lustwig have had to mislead your mother?"

Alice paused to think, then responded, "Well, that's the part I'm not so clear on. I suppose if he told her that this drug was a safe but not totally legal way to keep me from changing sizes so that I'd be suited for modeling, then she'd take his word it was the best course. But I can't imagine why he would want to. It might possibly be bound up with that same family friends that I mentioned before. They are Clarissa and Gerald Ascot and their son, Hamish. Mr. Ascot was a friend of my father's though one whose business sense my father had not been terribly impressed by. Which is why it puzzles me to no end to find that my father left his business to him. I realize that I was not old enough, and Margaret and my mother were hardly suited, but there were others that he could have left as trustees until I was ready to take the reins."

"Do you know if perhaps that was his intention, but you are not yet of age?"

"Perhaps, but I'd think I'd have been told something. No one’s said anything about me having a thing to do with the business. But oh so much has been said about me marrying Hamish." Alice made a face. “That’s not happening in any case. We’ve agreed on it.”

Dr. Robinson nodded and made a note, then returned to an earlier subject.

"You mentioned that your mother and Margaret weren't suited, but you imply that you were. What gives you that thought?"

Alice pursed her lips, thinking seriously about how to answer the question. If she had to explain to a stranger who did not know her before her father’s death why she was capable of running a multinational corporation when few people were, she might end up sounding completely out of touch with reality. Circumstances had altered drastically. Alice took a breath and began.

"I have always listened when my father spoke to me about the business. That was how my father learned the business from his mother before him. And how she learned from her husband, whose father began Kingsleigh Shipping in the 1890s. We've come a long way, mostly due to pioneering a decentralized distribution system, something that's been copied over and over in other realms of business since. It troubles me greatly to see that the Ascots have been so remiss as to begin trying to acquire the different areas of the supply chain with the aim of cutting out businesses they’ve no stake in...But anyway, you asked why I'd be a better choice than Mother or Margaret. I suppose it's because I like stories, and remember them, and learn from them. All my earliest ones were about the business. Margaret never cared much for waiting patiently while Daddy was on the phone when there were horses to ride and other little girls to impress. Mother was much the same way but without the horses. I got up to plenty of mischief, it's true, but I knew that I would likely have the business to deal with and I'd better figure out how it worked. Daddy said it was a responsibility we owed our forbearers, and that we owed our employees to do right by them and not throw them under the bus to a bunch of greedy shareholders.”

“Then do you want to become involved in the company once you finish school?”

Did Alice intend to regain control of Kingsleigh-Ascot Conglomerated? Well, assuming that she could, it was her duty, wasn't it? She had not been able to complete her training by any means since her father's death, and Alice had to admit that she was not drawn to business study on its own merits. Though to befair, it was mainly that any course of study would begin with basics that Alice had learned as a young child. Also, her father's way of teaching had dealt much more with the ethical implications of business than most business courses liked to focus on. "We must do our best," Charles Kingsleigh had often said, "to treat our workers and sources fairly. This has become increasingly unpopular, though when you look at history it has almost always been so, as least in the western world. Exploitative behavior is very much the norm. And we must function in such a world. Compromises must be made to keep the company afloat. But at each juncture it is necessary to reflect on why we are doing so. What is Kingsleigh Shipping? What good is it to the world? Other companies would pick up any slack that we dropped, so we must also have a reason for existing outside of delivering products."

Alice knew that for her father that reason lay in those who worked for the company. There were many employees under the various wings of KS, but her father insisted that all of them be treated fairly and kindly. This led to loyalty that was surely being tested in the years since Alice's knowledge of the company had been limited to what she could find online when she wasn't too depressed to look.

"I know the business better than Mother or Margaret, and while I haven't had the chance to make choices unguided, I am hopeful that if I ever do have the opportunity to work with the company once again it will--"

Alice cut herself off. Had Mother thought that marrying Hamish would place her back in a position of power within the company? She had never considered such a thing when most of her mother's talk of Alice's future concerned keeping herself presentable for the next interview or open call. She found herself slightly choked, partially in shock and regret, but partially in shame for assuming that her mother was such a shortsighted tyrant that she would want to keep Alice from succeeding in the realm she had been groomed for as a small child. It was shocking that she hadn't considered this before. But her thinking had not been clear.

"I'm sorry. I just realized...well, she's kept her reasons close to her chest, so I am not certain, but maybe mother put me on the riftorelin so that I would be able to model, a profession acceptable to Hamish as a wife. Once married to him, there would be little reason to keep me out of the business. Perhaps mother really was trying to fulfill Daddy's wishes. Why this convoluted path though? I just don't understand."

Dr. Robinson's eyebrow quirked a slight bit before she could smooth it out into her practiced receptive professional expression. Alice smiled vaguely at that. Dr. Robinson cleared her throat, glanced at the notepad that she'd jotted a few things down on during Alice's responses, and brought the discussion to a new area.

"Dr. Tuttle commented that you were living with a former student of his who now practices naturopathy. Did you come in contact with him because you were seeking out a holistic medicine practitioner?"

Alice colored. She'd supposed she'd have to tell about her relationship with Tarrant, but now that he was in the conversation it seemed she would have a little trouble telling about her meeting with him. It was silly really.

"Actually, it's his roommate I met. Through work. He was a designer for the last show I was a part of, and we," she blushed a bit brighter and cast her eyes to the side again in remembrance. "Well, we hit it off. Tarrant invited me over, and I met his friend Thackery. We somehow got on the subject of a daily pill I took assuming it to be a vitamin. He asked me to describe it and I did. I thought nothing of it until the next day when he texted me demanding that I find the pill bottle. Apparently the pill I’d described was nothing like the typical vitamins on the market. They took me in after I found it and I’d been staying there for a while, though...my friend Hamish offered me another place to stay a few days ago.”

Dr. Robinson’s eyebrows rose. “The same Hamish who is the son of the man running your father’s company?”

“Er, yes, you see, through some strange coincidences--or maybe not so strange, I kept meaning to ask Tarrant if he knew who Nivens worked for as he’d implied he’d gotten him the job--Tarrant’s roommate is dating my childhood friend Hamish. Whatever his parents might have gotten up to, Hamish is alright...I think…”

Alice trailed off, not wanting to seem naive. Though perhaps she was. Hamish’s future depended on her father’s company, and that was pretty good motive for him to keep her from it. Though it had always seemed that his mother and father cared far more for that way of thinking about the world than Hamish had.

How strange it was to think of the Ascots--stern to the point of ridiculousness Clarissa with her less-than-lovely face and Gerald whose bumbling good-heartedness had been such a fixture in her childhood that casting them as villains rather than comic relief was difficult. Still, it was impossible not to see how the had benefitted from the death of Charles Kingsleigh while everyone else had suffered. Alice had been looking into recent articles dealing with KAC as the company was now known and could only see a royal mess. Ascot had not yet been able to go public with it, thanks be to the Lord, but it was clearly his intention and it was only a matter of time before all of the legal details settled into the proper alignment for a sale to take place. Once shareholders owned the company and not the president, there would be no incentive to protect employees or even to have a superior service. The only marker of success would be quarterly profits and it would not only behoove the CEO to make them a priority, it would legally be his or her responsibility to the shareholders to prioritize profits over all other functions of the business. This was a lesson her father had drilled into her, and Alice knew that while Kingsleigh Shipping was seen as a relic--the owner at the helm rather than allowing the public to buy shares in the company--that this was another myth to devalue the employees of a company. While it was true that anyone could buy shares in a public offering, it was only significant shareholders that would have substantial say in meetings. Therefore only the ultra-wealthy and other corporations who could afford to snatch up the bulk of the offerings would be in any position to benefit measurably from the sale of shares.

In this way, the company would no longer be operating on its own merits, but would exist to further the global wage disparity and the consolidation of wealth at the expense of the erosion of worker rights. This firm conviction that this state of affairs was immoral was something that Alice had grown up hearing about extensively from her father, and was a large part of the reason why she simply could not support the idea that he had been responsible for horrendous working conditions in that Indonesian factory. There was simply no reason why he would condone that particular deal after working so hard to prevent such situations.

Of course, the public (especially the Business Journal reading wealth aspirants playing the market) was all too ready for another tale of a supposedly great man brought low by wickedness and greed. Of course the fact that those baser desires drove the actions of the other players involved in the market was not remarked upon. It was a sad state of affairs but something that Alice could only sigh and ignore during her teenage years. But it was too strange. There had to have been a set up. In looking at who benefited, it seemed likely the Ascots were involved, but how? It would seem that the two lacked sufficient resources to pull off this calibre of stunt. Who could have put them up to this? Or alternatively, who could they have convinced to try such a risky and far-reaching scheme? While dozens would not necessarily have been required to know what was on, hundreds and thousands of employees would have been affected by the change. Surely someone else in the company would have been aware.

And this brought her to the question that she'd toyed with over and over since hearing the news almost six years ago: had someone sabotaged that plane and murdered her father and the four senior members of his legal team who accompanied him?

There was little Alice could do to help any of her once and possibly future employees until she had figured out what had happened with the company's transfer to Gerald Ascot. Presumably as Charles Kingsleigh's daughter she should have some rights to see his will and any accompanying legal documents. Still, with the troublingly suspicious fire at their solicitor's office after Charles Kingsleigh's death which had in fact killed the man himself, there was little that could be done.

“It was important to him to keep the company private, so we were virtually unique in the shipping world. But yet it meant that most of our holdings were tied up in the company. We didn't have much in the way of extra earnings that weren't reinvested in Kingsleigh Shipping. Of course, there were some, and my friend Hamish pointed out that trusts and retirement for mother and such should have been inviolable even if the company completely tanked. I don't know what mother did, or what father did, but something happened to lose not just the totality of our stake in the company, but also all of our private holdings right down to the houses, clothes, jewels and cars...We had to get rid of it all."

Alice raised her eyes to where they'd drifted off toward the single window in the little room. She looked straight at Dr. Robinson, her posture straightening on the midquality chintz sofa. "And I intend to find out why."

Dr. Robinson had raised her eyebrows at this. She twisted her pen around in her hands for quite a time.

Then she spoke.

"Alice, have you spoken with the police yet?"

"No,” Alice looked startled, though she supposed she shouldn’t have been as she was slowly working toward an accusation of murder. “Why would I speak with the police?"

"Dr. Tuttle's report to the medical board will likely open a police investigation into the abuse of a minor. But it sounds as though some of this may tie into any investigation into your father’s death.”

Alice leaned forward but Dr. Robinson held up her hand.

“Before you go ahead, I would caution you against rushing into anything. Still, it sounds as though you have information that should be taken into account. If you know for a fact that your sister, mother, and yourself were entitled to certain money in the form of trusts, you fully deserve to find out what happened to them. But again, as you said, there’s so much you don’t yet know about the situation. If there is something to your fears, then it could be dangerous to proceed alone. I can only recommend that you try to find out using the proper channels. There must be records of all of these transactions and a police detective would have the best chance of tracing them.”

 

“Do you think I ought to ask mother about them?”

Dr. Robinson hesitated. “I am not here to dictate your behavior, Alice. But you have experienced great hurt at your mother’s hands. I would advise you to think carefully about the likely outcome before speaking to her.”

Alice nodded and looked pensive. A bell rung softly, and Dr. Robinson shifted. Alice left with instructions to make an appointment for the following week with the receptionist.

As soon as the door closed Claire Robinson let her head fall into her hands and let out a groan. This was, if not the most complicated, certainly the most intriguing case she’d had the opportunity to sink her teeth into. And come to find out she shouldn’t. Thank goodness Alice had been fiercely blushing and looking out the window when she’d mentioned Tarrant Hayes or she would have seen the look of recognition flash across her face. And Thackery must be his friend with the dreadlocks. How horrid. It wasn’t a huge conflict of interest though, Claire argued to herself. She barely knew Tarrant and Thackery. Just because they were friends with her former flatmate Daisy was no reason to have to drop the case. Still, another part of her argued, having a bit of a crush on him certainly was.

It was barely a crush though! It consisted mainly of watching him rehearse with Daisy whilst she sat in the corner doing her studying. She’d barely spoken to him. And she defied anyone with interest in the male form not to be impressed with Tarrant Hayes, hot and sweaty with his shirt off. ...Which was not a thought that she could ever let cross her mind again if there was any possible way for her to continue working with Alice. Claire’s mind raced as she considered her options.

Would Tarrant and Thackery recognize her name when they heard Alice speak of her appointments? It was too much of a risk that they might. She ought to ask Dr. Whitman to take over the case. But his schedule was already full, and he specialized in physical abuse cases. With Dr. Glassman out of the office, Claire was the most qualified to deal with this mess of medical and emotional abuse, having dealt with a broader range of drug related family cases in the clinics she’d worked in during her training than Dr. Smith, who mainly dealt with addiction. This case would likely go to court at least once, but likely not until Dr. Glassman returned from sabbatical. Would it be too unethical to continue on until he returned?

Perhaps if she could disclose to Alice that she knew her friends (and ridiculously attractive love interest) she could let Alice choose? Claire bit her lip and left the interview room to go look up conflict of interest disclosure policy in the Association guidelines.

-o-o-o-

Alice began online, looking for every last detail about the fallout of her father’s death as it affected the company. She’d thought that it would be painful, and it was, but Alice found she was not as emotionally crippled by it as she had feared. Why had she felt that she was incapable of looking into this? Alice doubtfully chalked this up to the Riftorelin, but suspected that it might have had something to do with her family’s attitude.

There were leads she could follow, but not from here. No, she needed a ride. And it was time to work through all this confusion. She positively would not take no for an answer this time. Firmly resolved, Alice took a deep breath and touched the name that her fingers had hovered over for the past week. Under “M” for “Mad Hatter”, as Alice had blithely entered it in her phone thinking to make it more difficult for her mother or sister if they’d got her phone. Amused by the reference, she hadn’t even considered that it was perhaps a thoughtless slight toward someone with real problems.

“Hello? Alice? Are you there?”

Alice came back to the present with a start, Tarrant’s voice over the phone shocking her into a stutter.

“Y-yes. Tarrant.” There was no need to question for there could be no mistaking his voice. He sounded at once desperate, hopeful, worried. “I need to go to Suffolk. Could you drive me?”

“When?” he asked.

“As soon as possible, please. When would be convenient? Are you otherwise occupied now?”

“No, well, I could—but I really should warn you—I’ve got—”

“Good.” She interrupted, not wanting to allow him to make excuses or go into their personal issues on the phone. Discussion of such delicate matters could surely wait until they were face to face.

“Do you need the address?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “but—”

“Then I’ll see you downstairs when you get here. I’ll be waiting outside,” she finished, then rung off before her calm disappeared.