Chapter 1: Silver Linings Still Start As Stormclouds
Something about that day tasted different. It could have been the weather was particularly nice, the sun not too hot, the wind a constant gentle breeze. It could have been the post-rain shower zip that happens in places where rain wasn’t too frequent.
It could, very possibly, have been the fact that Mally and Thackery were successfully teasing the group’s resident Mad Hatter while Alice laughed, and the trio’s hijinks were making even ever-stoic Absolem crack the tiniest of smirks. It was a rare occurrence that the entire Mad T Party Band headed to rehearsals at the same time and even more so, that they all started from the same place, allowing them to travel together.
But most probably the likeliest reason was that the sun was a useful tool in keeping the shadows in their minds at bay and the park’s resident Underlanders were working extremely hard to not think about one particular set of Mad T from a week and a half ago and the creature that had been unceremoniously thrust into their lives.
All this effort was for naught, of course. As the boisterous group approached the rehearsal warehouse, magnetically each gaze was drawn to the dark figure braced against the wall next to the double doors.
There was a moment of slowing, the instinct flowing between them warning them to stay away, run, fight!
Alice tightened her hold around Tarrant’s arm before the Hatter shuffled her to his other side to surround her in the group. Thackery and Mally’s teeth set on edge as Chessur and Absolem stood up stiff and at the ready. In perfect unison they marched up to the building, Tarrant’s eyes glowing acidly as he none-too-gently pulled the door open with a snap, never taking his eyes off the figure.
Eirian looked up from her phone, natural crimson glow hidden behind blue contacts that turned her eyes purple.
She blinked at Alice - the singer looked down and hid closer to Tarrant.
She looked at Tarrant - he didn’t blink.
She glanced at Absolem, Chessur, and Thackery in succession - Chessur was the only one who didn’t scowl back.
She swooped her gaze over Mally’s head, refusing to meet his snarl. The Dormouse growled as the door closed behind them, cutting off the stare downs.
Outside, Eirian cast her eyes skyward for a second, letting them fall closed as she took a deep, steadying breath. Grabbing the bag at her feet, she slipped through the doors and slunk after the band.
Chapter 2: Mice With Fangs Are Still Mice
Thackery’s ears twitched, jerking his head up from plucking lazily at his bass. He didn’t see the rest of the band react to the sudden movement. His eyes were focused on the main door of the practice space.
The press bar of the door went down - someone was coming in.
A few steps away, Mally stood with hands resting on his guitar and head tilted towards the Hare. He noticed where the other man’s eyes were set and turned his head that way.
The heavy metal door shivered and opened slightly.
Chessur and Absolem stopped fiddling with their instruments, heads snapping up to stare at the door. They shot each other narrowed glares, pretty sure they knew who was about to intrude upon the band’s space.
A hand poked between the door and the frame, a black-clothed arm attached and a dark head of hair following.
The two human performers were the last to turn, noticing their friend’s collective staring. Tarrant took two long strides up beside Alice and Thackery.
A slightly hunched figure squeezed through the barely-opened door, head bowed and movements jerky. For a second the small instrument case slung across their back got wedged, yanking the figure to a halt. A soft string of muttering could be heard as the figure wrestled the case clear and turned. Faced with the combined unwantedness of the entire Mad T Party Band, Eirian froze.
The metal door boomed shut behind her, making her jump.
“You’re late.” Tarrant’s voice was icy, dispassionate. Eirian flinched and nodded sharply, hurrying towards the outlined performance space. Shrinking in on herself, she scurried past the front four, nearly running into Mally before she looked up and managed to dodge with a gasp. Despite his scowl, Mally’s eyebrow raised slightly at the girl’s odd behavior. The Dormouse shot Tarrant a look. He was watching her with the same expression.
The band stared at the Jabberwock as she scuttled around to set up her violin and get the all clear from the techs. Panting slightly, she finally took her place where Niven’s T Cup would be and readied her bow.
For a moment Tarrant blinked before looking to the rest of the band. They all nodded - everyone was set. Nodding back, Tarrant signaled the techs rehearsal was a go. As the crew began gearing up for the first song, Tarrant grabbed his mic off the stand and walked backwards to where Eirian stood poised with her violin. Her eyes flickered towards him but remained firmly fixed on the floor.
“A couple minutes is fine. Just try not to let it happen a lot.”
The girl nodded heavily but didn’t look up. Tarrant felt the corner of his mouth quirk almost ruefully at her weirdly submissive behavior but didn’t have time to ponder it before the first chords from Mally and Thack blared through the speakers and pulled him into performance mode.
Chapter 3: Let Music-Euphoric Dragons Lie
Mally glanced at his watch as he sprinted down the pathway to the rehearsal buildings. His wrist bounced in time to his frenetic pace and it took him a few tries to find the small hands. When he did, he promptly skidded to a stop, his lung muscles instantly cramping and making him hunch over. Panting, the Dormouse braced his hands on his knees, his face scrunching up into an annoyed expression as his heartbeat slowly came back to a normal pace.
“Stupid, idiot, fool that didn’t think to look at a clock before running all the way here from the bus.”
Forcing himself upright again, Mally huffed heavily and skirted to the side of the path before yanking his phone out of his pants pocket. He flipped the device open but before he could poke at the tiny buttons, something caught his attention.
Faintly, almost a frequency more than a sound, the unmistakable hum of an acoustic guitar was floating through the air.
The man’s ears twitched before his head raised, eyes looking around shrewdly to find the sound’s source. It couldn’t be coming from one of the other buildings, they were all designed to keep the music inside them silent to the outside world. As a more utilitarian area of the Disney campus, there weren’t any crowds or rides here. Occasionally the general crowd noises from the parks themselves could be heard if you really listened, but never any of the performances or parades outside of the fireworks show.
“No rides, no guests, no shows. So where …? ”
The Dormouse titled his head like a bird, trying to pick the sounds up better. Slowly he began walking along the path in his original direction.
The sound got a smidge clearer.
His head remained tilted but Mally’s steps quickened a pace. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of people who used this particular path regularly, apart from the performing cast members, so he didn’t worry too much about running into anyone in his current position.
The search ended much sooner than he thought - about a minute later, in fact. He was approaching the Mad T Party Band’s designated practice warehouse, still in his ridiculous crouch, when he realized two things. The main double door to the building was propped wide open. And the guitar sounds were most certainly coming from the other side of the doorway.
The Dormouse blinked as he slowly stood upright.
“Huh. AC must still be out.”
He glanced at his watch again. If he had been insanely too early, there was no way any of the others would already be prepping to rehearse.
A tiny speck of thought crossed his mind. He blinked again and the thought speck glittered. He squinted, trying to mentally bring it into focus. The speck grew a little, becoming a shiny black crystal. Unconsciously Mally’s brow furrowed. Now he knew what piece of information his brain didn’t want to recall.
Now he had a pretty damn good idea who was responsible for the noise.
His hands were plunged deep in his pockets, his head tilted far forward to cast a shadow over his already dark eyes. He’d been right, the AC was still out, so as many doors as possible had been propped open in an effort to keep the building cool. This close to the door, he could easily hear the dull roar of several large floor fans that had been stationed 'round the space since the outage, but the white noise created an odd punctuation to the musical noises he’d heard from outside.
Mally leaned with his shoulder against the doorframe leading to the warehouse’s large inner space as he stared into the brightly lit room. Their faux stage was there, the equipment still covered up and at rest, waiting for the designated rehearsal time. What was out of place was a small circle of people sitting inside the stage space.
Youthful exuberance coloured their bouts of laughter as two teenage boys shot guitar riffs at each other. The one’s acoustic had been what had caught Mally’s attention outside.
Echoes of so many songs crowded the warehouse’s rafters, mingled with the happy exclamations of the musicians as they played and danced amongst themselves. He didn’t know most of them, though they looked slightly familiar.
He did, however, know far too well the dark figure standing on one side of the circle, short dark hair swinging wildly beneath the headphones masking her horns for what they were. He was a little surprised to see her in shorts and a tank top, but even a Jabberwock isn’t immune to Californian summers.
Eirian was cavorting around the ring, dancing and beaming as she played. Her bow flashed with the rapid movements, and her body bent in impossible angles. even Mally couldn’t find it in the depths of his distrust to fault her the joy he saw.
It was clear to anyone these were her friends, and this was something they did often. The entire circle bobbed and moved as people darted in and out of the ring as they performed. Mally felt the pull of their joy tug at the artistic threads of his soul and he didn't realize when a half-smile curled the corner of his mouth in a deep, knowing expression.
For just a second, he felt a chink in his distrust form, a hairline crack in the impenetrable defense around his heart. Eirian was in the center, twirling as she interacted with different people until she was practically pirouetting before she planted her feet heavily. For a moment, from where he stood, her face was clear. Tendrils of hair clung to the sweaty skin across her brow. Crimson eyes flashed, sunlit rubies of unabashed joy. Flushed cheeks curved with her open-mouth laugh, the two rows of small fangs glinting weirdly in the light.
Her eyes glanced over him, met with his, he couldn’t tell if she really saw him or not. But he saw her. Not The Jabberwock that cast fear across all Underland; not the Jabberwocky that toyed with the Mad T Party Band onstage each night; not even Eirian Fang who had been shoved unceremoniously into their little group and was fighting desperately to find her place in it. He saw just a teenage girl, pouring her soul into the medium of her art as she danced, surrounded and encouraged and loved.
Mally stood back braced against the outside wall of the warehouse, next to the open double doors. The raucous from the jam session inside occasionally floated out to him when the wind changed direction, and a soft smile quirked the corner of his mouth each time. It wasn’t long now before the rest of the band would start to trickle in. Besides, he could stand to chill for a few moments, collect his energy before squaring up to Thackery and Eirian as they tried to out-play each other. He had to admit, Eirian Fang was one of the fiercest violin slingers he’d met in this Mundane world, she would always give him a run for his money.
This time, the smile quirked clear across his whole mouth. Tilting his face up, Mally let his head rest lightly against the brickwork and closed his eyes to happily soak up the early golden afternoon.
Chapter 4: Sometimes A Violin String Is Also A Wrench
For a moment, Alice forgot what everyone was so uptight about lately. Even without her stage clothes and the blinding lights and the taste of alcohol and fun sliding around the lyrics on her tongue, the notes called to her, ignited the rhythm in her blood. She stomped her red-shoed feet to the beat, twirled so fast her hair flared out behind her as she threw her head back with unfettered passion.
Tarrant’s next verse gave her a second to pause for a sip of water and she couldn’t help but grin around at her friends, her family. Their guitarists were cutting a rug all around the space, as oblivious as her to the fact they weren’t actually performing. Absolem’s head was bowed over his keys, eyes closed and smiling behind his yellow lenses. The smirk of the Cat behind the drums was less smirky and more genuine, despite the trademark fangs poking through still.
Her gaze skipped to the teenage girl swaying stage right. Eirian’s face was split into a beaming grin as she danced in place, head bobbing energetically to the beat. Her bow hand rose and fell as she dropped chords and riffs between established sections where her violin was meant to be focal.
Even the Jabberwock’s presence didn’t dim Alice’s joyous musical high today.
The singer tuned back into the song, jolting into action when she realized her next bit was fast approaching. She downed one more tiny sip and darted for the mic stands at the front.
A screechingly discordant wail of instrument strings nearly made her tumble headfirst into both Tarrant and Mally as the men startled and whipped around defensively. Almost on instinct, Mally reached out to steady her before they turned to look at the source of the dissonance.
Eirian had stopped dancing, her posture now ridged as she hunched her head over her violin. She was still playing, but her movements had fallen from exuberant to stiff, tightly controlled, almost mechanical. The snapped string on her violin was plainly visible even from where they stood.
Assured there was no immediate threat, Mally picked up his playing again and moved back to his area. Tarrant eyed Alice as she straightened her rumpled shirt before giving him a reassuring nod. Satisfied, he fell back into the song and she joined him, working to get her voice back to matching his.
As they slid into the next song, Alice meandered over to Eirian’s space. The teen glanced up at the woman’s approach but remained silent. Alice gestured at the girl’s instrument with a questioning thumbs up. Eirian blinked before nodding a little. Alice smiled and gave her a real thumbs up. Eirian only nodded again, her gaze falling back into staring at nothing. She was barely moving with the music at all now.
Alice frowned and waited a moment before walking reluctantly back to her and Tarrant’s area. The disruption had thrown her slightly off her groove and the woman unconsciously rolled her shoulders, trying to shrug the feeling off.
By the time they had plowed through that song, Tarrant was only waiting for the first opportunity to call for a break. The second the music stopped, everyone watched Eirian bolt around behind Chessur’s drum stand to deal with the problem.
Afterward, Alice thought they really ought to have timed the girl as she worked. The singer could swear she had never seen anyone replace an instrument string as quickly as the mortified teenager did.
When the Jabberwock crept back to her place, everyone in the room looked pointedly anywhere else.
“If we’re alright to continue...?” Alice glanced back in time to see Eirian’s stiff, single nod to Tarrant’s question. “Gentlemen, as you were.”
There was a jolting pause as everyone tried to get their heads in gear. All of a sudden Chessur’s sticks tapped out a quick 1-2-1-2-3 and Mally and Thackery jumped into the music with a start. Tarrant cast a cool eye around at his band, letting them play through a few chords before he gave Alice a nod.
She thought the deep breath she took was going to get stuck in her throat and wind up throwing the whole thing off again, but she managed to power through. The words she sang weren’t quite as loud as normal, but they were heard and that simple act seemed to help smooth things out a bit more.
The effect was further improved as Tarrant smoothly joined his voice to hers. It wasn’t a long or complicated song, which meant they didn’t need to spend much time on it, but by the time she and Tarrant were drawing out their last notes, Alice felt the edgy feeling in her chest settle most of the way down.
We’ll be alright, just a small hiccup. It’s still a wonderful day.
There had been no further problems as rehearsal went on, but Alice couldn’t deny the uncomfortable feeling was beginning to flare in her mind again. Something was still off and she couldn’t put her finger on it. Each time she pointedly looked around, nothing looked amiss. Mally and Thack were goofing off like always, Chessur and Absolem smirked behind their instruments, Tarrant’s smile for her was as beatific as always.
She suspected their dark horse, but Eirian’s fingers flew without hesitation, her bow glided and dipped and wove like water. Several times Alice locked eyes with the girl and none of those times did Eirian look hastily away.
Alice absently considered the interesting way the Jabberwock’s eye glow mixed with her contact’s artificial colour to make the mesmerizing purple they were so familiar with. For once, the teen’s dark hair wasn’t shielding her face or being whipped into a frenzy.
Alice’s head cocked. Eirian’s hair wasn’t moving.
Eirian wasn’t moving.
Alice suddenly knew what was wrong with the picture. Amidst the energy and movement and carefreeness the rest of the band exuded ... Eirian had stopped dancing as she played, stopped feeling the rhythm in her bones, had let the vibrant joy seep out of her like a sieve.
All when she messed up that one note.
And just like that, Alice’s happy spell shattered.
Chapter 5: Even Heartstrings Need Occasional Tuning
oh. my. GOSH, this one tried to KILL ME, honestly. took me so long to get down, and then my betas were all wonky, and THEN I got sick with a stomach bug and I'm still not quite back to 100% but almost. so yeah, super late update here. luckily the rest won't be so bad, barring unforeseen apocalypses, dragons, or eldritch beings ;)
He sniffed. All that floated across his nose were the fragrances of nearby flowers, the unnatural, harsh chemical particles of the human world, a particular swirl of gray from a passing cloud being pierced by a sunbeam.
The barest trace of a tongue poked out between needling eyeteeth. All that tickled his tastebuds was the tang of a bird in a nearby tree, the fizzle of sunlight glittering off moving water, the thick, rich smoothness of true want and love.
His eyes narrowed and he swept them around suspiciously. All he saw was manipulated metal and constrained gaia and the wavy glow of life and magic filling the spaces between the world’s reality.
Chessur sighed, letting his head dangle off the side of the roof he was currently lounging on. Something was wonky in the state of Overland, and he had yet to poke it with even a single claw.
“The more you hunt it, the faster it will run away.”
The teal cat eyes flared as they drug lazily over to observe the speaker. Absolem leaned casually against a duct vent as he took a slow drag from his e-cig. Disney had requested he curb his smoking tendencies while in more public areas of the grounds. In general, he just found it easier than carting real cigarettes around.
“But I do so like a good hunt.”
The man’s blank expression flickered into a smirk for a moment. Shaking his head, Absolem pointedly ignored Chessur’s measured stare and gazed out at the world around their little hideaway.
From that vantage point, it was easy to see where the more industrial park ended and the amusement ones began. the taller attractions sprinkled around the two adjoining parks jutted into the wide wide sky, their various moving parts darting in and out of view on the properly-timed intervals. Absolem even imagined that tiny blink of white in the distance was the hotel their Mad-capped band currently deigned “home.”
Chessur leisurely twisting himself onto his back brought the bespectacled man’s attention back to the current here. Absolem stared archly at the Cat, noticing the playful pout on the other man’s face.
“It hasn’t done anything remotely interesting for at least half an hour, why shouldn’t I hunt it down? I am so very curious what it could possibly be.”
Absolem rolled his eyes and took another pull. Wisps of colour-tinged smoke curled from his nose.
“Whatever it is, it has been moving for the past 15 minutes. You and I both have it pinged - if it’s still around after, I promise I’ll go poke it with you. Would that sate your yawning curiosity?”
Chess purred, stretching languidly. “I suppose it will have to do. For now.”
This time Absolem chuckled softly at the blue-haired man’s playful, wheedling tone. He slipped around the side of the vent and began walking across the rooftop.
“Come on, then, the others will be here just soon.”
Chessur stretched again, giving Absolem enough time to reach the access ladder and begin his descent. The Cat’s smile widened frighteningly, splitting his face even as the man melted away in a puff of smoke.
The metallic squeaking sound was so faint, if he hadn’t been just off the door at one of the tables, Absolem wouldn’t have heard it over the band’s general happy din. He stilled himself and let his eyes dart around in search of the source.
Not the AC.
Not their gathered faux audience in their rickety folding chairs (though those did produce an endless litany of annoying sounds).
Absolem blinked. He looked over at the wide double door that led out to the main hall.
His head tilted curiously. The push bar was ever just so slightly ... wiggling.
When Absolem strode over and pulled the door open, the last thing he expected was for a teenage Jabberwock to stumble headfirst into him from where she had been leaning her forehead against the other side of the door.
Without thinking he reached out to steady her, his long fingers curving gently over her bony shoulder. Eirian’s head tilted slowly and she blinked up at him, more owl than Jabberwock.
Absolem’s eyes flashed as he did a double take and peered into her disguised crimson ones.
“Steady on there?” He didn’t mean it to sound like a question, but the girl nodded her head all the same before stepping back and out of his grasp. He watched closely as she plodded to her spot and methodically began setting out her things.
“And our Jabberwocky makes seven, that’s the whole gang here, places, everyone!”
Absolem glanced at Tarrant as the man stood grinning behind his mic, nodding when the Hatter's roving eyes found his. But the Caterpillar’s eyes were still narrowed in contemplation while Chessur watched the man slip behind his keyboard and hold his spindly hands over the shiny plastic keys.
The Cheshire Cat barely paid attention when Tarrant signaled him to lead in. He went into muscle memory and was only dimly aware of the official start to rehearsal. His attention remained firmly shattered between his thin-faced friend and the feeling he was missing something that tingled behind his left eye.
That feeling always ended up interestingly.
Today was simply not having it with the Mad T Party’s rehearsal plans. Absolem grimaced against another throb in his skull - he couldn’t recall a worse day for the band, even back when they couldn’t play well enough to call themselves one.
Within the span of 30 minutes: one of Mally’s guitar strings had snapped and sliced his hand AND cheek; Alice had dropped her sheet music and gotten the pages all mixed up; Thackery had managed to sucker-punch Tarrant in the stomach with the head of his guitar, making the Hatter double over and the mortified Hare to wildly backpedal and crouch down behind Chessur’s drum kit, hiding behind his great ears; Chessur’s bass pedal somehow punched through the drum skin; and Absolem was almost positive three of his keys were one wrong look away from dying altogether.
For everyone’s sake, Tarrant called a break for lunch. A very, very long break. Absolem took the chance to at least try to deal with his small problem.
He was so absorbed in checking and re-checking the settings on his keyboard, the Caterpillar almost missed the tale-tell prickle across his scalp. In his right form, it would be one of his antennae twitching. Even without them, he couldn’t help the odd little jerks he made with his head, shoulders jumping along occasionally.
To his left, out of the corner of his eye, Absolem could see Chessur’s manifested tail twitching madly, the gray-and-teal fur all on end. The Cat’s eyes slid to the side of his head, teal-rimmed black saucers meeting glinting butter-cornflower.
Here it was.
Neither visibly moved, but for the briefest moment, Absolem and Chessur froze in place at the back of the stage. Both were rapidly casting about, trying to get a solid lock on it.
Absolem almost didn’t register Eirian’s presence to his right as she squeezed past his keyboard and shuffled across in front of him and Chessur to get to her area.
He did, however, register the sluggish traces of muted, unvibrant specks hovering in the air behind her.
Chessur suddenly found a thin, serious presence hovering at his elbow. His ear twitched around, letting Absolem know he was acknowledged but Chessur’s eyes did not move from staring just in front of his stand.
“Doth my eyes deceive me.” Absolem’s voice was barely a low hum.
“I do believe it is.” The Cat’s bassy purr was equally as murmured.
“Seems like it. Didn’t know it could be seen here, though.”
“Suppose the madness is why. It is a wholly tangible thing for us.”
“Possibly, quite. Even so, that much? It can’t be healthy.”
“It’s not. Well-hidden though. Think it’s being dealt with?”
“Don’t know if it’s even been realized.”
“What to do, then.”
“Nothing to be done.”
“Something at least? That much could kill.”
Absolem huffed softly in annoyance. If he’d known the Cat was going to show his rare soft side, he wouldn’t have gotten involved. Chessur turned his head to match his ear, blinking owlishly at the Caterpillar.
Absolem sighed. “…. I might have some to spare.”
Chessur’s trademark grin flitted onto his face, albeit in a much smaller, kinder capacity. “Oh goody. Shall we meddle, then?”
Glancing out of their little council, Absolem noted the rest of the band scattered about the room, wearily trying to consume bits of food and keep their spirits up. “Might as well. Maybe it will change the luck. Today has been horrible.”
“Splendiferous.” Without warning, Chessur popped up from his stool and began herding Absolem out from the drummer’s area. “Let’s go get this little tidbit sorted.”
As quixotically as usual, Chess began to floatingly wander towards the figure sitting alone against the far wall, a deadpanning Caterpillar in tow.
Up close, the muted specks were clearer to see (as clear as such things could be, Absolem reasoned). The precise opposite what they usually were, the ragged things neither danced nor floated nor swirled through the air currents around them. They just hung there, suspended and sludgey, weighted down with their very existence until they eventually petered out or found something to cling to and infect.
“Always such a joy seeing the little bites about and about.”
The tense shudder that rippled through the girl’s thin frame when Chessur spoke wasn’t missed by them. Absolem noted when Eirian’s head twitched but she didn’t look up. The visible mist of specks spread out from her like a mass of creeper vines.
Absolem’s frown at the grody veil coloured his voice coldly. “I pity the poor souls these ones, in particular, have found to glom onto somewhere.”
“Their day probably looks like ours.” Chessur waited for the implied sting of his words to sink in.
It didn’t take long.
The tangled dark hair gave the impression of peering into a foreboding wood when they looked into her face. Gone were the coloured contacts. the crimson glow had spread out from her iris, and they found themselves reflected in the surface of a molten ruby, burning nearly white-hot and utterly, purely exhausted.
“Just say bad luck, it’s faster. No, scratch that. Curse is one word, it’s faster. Go with that one.”
Eirian watched the Cheshire Cat step down from his floating and take a real step across the floor. The uncommon action put him just off her left knee. She forced her head to tip back slowly until she could look him head on again.
She wasn’t prepared for the small, almost sad smile that replaced the usual toothy grin. Eirian’s brow curved into a perplexed expression.
“It is nobody’s fault when they can’t see it happening to themselves. That is the hardest of all things to know. What they do when they are taught is what turns the hands to their right place.”
And looked to the other man. “Is his Madness flaring up?”
“What he means is, it’s not your fault the lessness has made today not pleasant. It’s very difficult for people to recognize when they are hardly themselves, something about it feels like a failing, or an omen.”
The teen squinted harshly at his words, and she dropped her head heavily back onto the arms wound together atop her knees.
“Believe me, I’ve been hardly myself much longer than today.”
Absolem’s frown deepened. Eirian jolted slightly when he suddenly sunk to the floor and knelt next to her. The Caterpillar canted his head forward, peering very hard from behind his glasses. The Jabberwock froze, staring back with wide eyes.
After a moment Absolem sat back, not breaking the stare. “You are not wrong. In the end, not sorting this will most likely kill it in you for good.”
“What are you talking about?”
Chessur knelt down and reached out a hand, laying it gently on the girl’s head to urge her to look at him. The sudden sheen of frustrated tears in her eyes made his face contort in the one look he hated most - a frown.
“You are losing your muchness, dear Jabberwock, and if you lose too much ... it will kill your will to live. You’ll die.”
“How do you know that?” The fear in her whisper was unmistakable. Absolem and Chessur exchanged a glance.
“We are ... not strangers to it.”
“When someone’s muchness depletes as quickly as we suspect yours has, they have no time to find a new harmony with reality.” Chessur’s face twisted at the word.
Absolem regarded her for a moment, reading her mannerisms. “You know about this.”
Eirian’s eyes darted to his, then flickered away. She swallowed.
“My ... mother. She always used to say my muchness had taken a hit whenever I had a bad go around. She warned me to never let it get too low.” The red eyes vanished behind tight-shut lids. “It was only After … that I realized she wasn’t being figurative.”
A few seconds passed before something smooth and cool pressed against the back of her hand. The teen cocked her head sideways, squinting down at the small glass bottle Absolem was holding out. The iridescent liquid inside shone prettily, and small, nearly invisible bubbles drifted through it. A small, worn tag fluttered from the stopper:
Eirian met the man’s eyes behind his yellow glasses. From memory, she knew the pale cornflower tint, and for a moment she watched the reflection of the Drink Me play across his face. He gently pressed the bottle against her hand again. Still looking at his eyes, she freed her hand and turned it enough for him to slide the container into her grasp.
“Drink Me is known to work in ... not necessarily expected ways. Perhaps it will give you what you need to feel much more yourself.”
She bit her lip before nodding, pulling her hand, bottle held fast, back out of sight. Nodding himself, Absolem stood, pausing to brush off his knees and put himself back to rights. Chessur watched him before tilting his head to brush his forehead across the girl’s hair. She didn’t move but he thought he saw the muscles in the side of her face contract in the exact way it takes to create a smile. He was sure of it, though, when he playfully brushed his tail across her neck and shoulders like a warm, fluffy snake. The corners of her mouth were visible now, an unmistakable grin.
“We are all mad here, dear Jabberwock. All of us.”
He took the minuscule dip of her head at face value and left her to her solitude. Absolem was already returning to their space and their friends. Chessur began walking after him, his silent footfalls traveling up to return the Cat to his regularly scheduled floating.
Chapter 6: The Weather Channel Can’t Predict The Winds Of Change
dear gods I think I'm dying - or at least my muse is trying to kill me. this would have been up earlier, only *someone* insisted I pad out the wordcount "a smidge or whatever." ugh.
sudden onset malaise and brain fogmire didn't help either. I fear for the readability forthwith.
The push bar creaking before it went down tugged at Thackery’s concentration, focused as he was on making sure both his basses were ready to go. Casually the Hare glanced over as Eirian bodily pushed the door open and walked in.
He raised a mental eyebrow at the oddly-shaped hat she had managed to finagle over her horns. Watching her yank the headwear off as soon as she was safe in their warehouse had him giving her an unseen nod of solidarity - out of everyone in the band, he knew that particular annoyance all too well. Instinctively Thack reached up beneath his bandana to scratch the base of one of his ears and smiled ruefully.
Turning his attention back to the girl, he watched nonchalantly as she paused just inside the door, head movements sharp as her eyes darted around the room.
Are we looking for something?
The bassist’s brow furrowed slightly and he stood up a bit straighter as Eirian walked among the sea of folding tables. She stopped at one closer to the bandstand, shrugging off a small backpack and dropping the offending hat into a chair.
The buzzing vibrations suddenly coming from her back pocket made the nerves in his ears tingle. Her hand darted back to clumsily dig out a small phone. Flipping the front open, she began to intently stare at the screen. Thack absently blessed his genetics as he easily picked out the minuscule tale-tell movements in the girl’s face as her muscles relaxed a smidge. Whatever she was looking at on the little device had released some tension he hadn’t even noticed she’d been carrying.
Both Eirian and Thackery jumped when Chessur let loose with a spontaneously crashing drum solo. Mally zinged out a few chords while Alice and Tarrant laughed. As the unexpected musical interlude came to a deafening climax, the Hatter moved center stage, clapping his hands once. He looked back at the two instrumentalists, the Dormouse and Cat shooting him toothy grins in response.
“On that rousing note, I believe we’re all here and ready to begin?”
General noises of ascent were heard, these near-white noise sounds a hum to Thack’s ears as he watched Eirian shove the phone back in her pocket and head for the stage. He realized she’d never removed her violin case off her back.
It took her only a minute or two to plug in, her belated actions overshadowed by the rest of the band finding their places. As Tarrant gave the signal to start, Thack risked one last glance behind him. The Jabberwock looked bright and alert and ready to play. Thackery made a mental note and turned his attention back to their leader.
As used to the attributes as they had become, the older Mad T Party members would forever agree it was a fascinating sight to see their Jabberwock gallivanting around the stage, her elegant horns cutting a striking profile as she bent and twisted with violin in hand.
Alice and Tarrant were firmly planted front center stage, giving Eirian room to cavort around them as she coaxed out her contributions to the song. She played her impish role well, teasing and sidling around and occasionally charging one or both of them, forcing the singers to scoot together to avoid the faux attack.
If she wasn’t messing with their singers, she was full out antagonizing their guitarists. The trio of string musicians had carved out a particular web of relationships with each other while on stage. Mally remained forever the showboat, grandly flaunting his mean shredding skills and roguish charms, while Thackery stayed the ever-present sweetheart with a penchant for oddball behavior.
But when Eirian stepped on the scene, she became simultaneously the cheeky little sister and the thorn in Mally’s side. Smaller and more nimble with her chosen instrument, it was child’s play for her to dance literal circles around Mally and to goof off with Thackery in between. Currently, Eirian was skipping around Thackery as Mally chased her, his clever fingers punctuating her playing as the song approached its crescendo.
As all the musical threads realigned, Eirian led Mally to center stage and rounded sharply to square off with him. Thackery, Tarrant, and Alice circled around the pair, fighting to stay in character for those last notes lest their laughter at the pair’s antics break the vibe.
A devilish grin split the Jabberwock girl’s face as she bared her teeth upwards at the Dormouse leaning snarkily over her. Her bow slithered between them, jabbing dangerously close to the neck of Mally’s guitar until Eirian stepped backward onto one foot and let loose a scorching series of notes to merge with Tarrant and Alice’s final vocals.
They all held their poses for a few seconds, panting as the electronic reverb warbled back into the depths of the speakers. Mally’s bright blue eyes were locked onto Eirian’s crimson - along with no headgear, she was sans contacts, letting her glowing eyes actually tinge his face. As he wondered when that eerie glow morphed from deadly to delighted, the sight of her growing smile told Mally the pause was over. He relaxed his shoulders, rolling them beneath his guitar strap for good measure before reaching out to lightly slug Eirian’s shoulder.
“You’re getting good at that, Jabber. Pretty soon you might even have a chance to upstage moi.”
“Oh, I don’t know, seemed to me like you weren’t quite up to snuff just now.”
Smiling, open-mouthed gasps echoed in the fresh silence. Tarrant was the first to crack, a nasally chuckle erupting loudly before he could stop himself. Thackery tried valiantly to suppress a barking laugh and only managed to half-smother himself with a hand over his nose and mouth. Even Absolem and Chessur couldn’t help their growing smirks as they looked towards Mally.
The blonde man stood stock still, agape as Eirian’s smirk twisted up into a goofy, fangy grin.
“Sorry, not sorry?”
The band exploded into howls of laughter. Tarrant and Thackery fell against each other, almost instantly sobbing with glee, while Alice doubled over, clutching at her suddenly aching stomach. Absolem was slumped over, arms braced against his keyboard as his shoulders shook with laughter.
Chessur’s purring chuckle slithered around the space until he materialized next to Mally and slung an arm jovially across the shorter man’s shoulders.
“It is a sight indeed to see our dear Mouse with his tongue got, and not by me.” Through his chuckles, Chessur grinning at the violinist. Her own laughing grin was all the reply she could manage through her humor.
Gripping her bow and violin in one hand, Eirian found herself bracing a hand against her knee to steady herself against the waves of amusement. Each time she fought to contain her chortling, her eyes were drawn to another band member still in the throes of hysterics and the tide came crashing back.
Reserved by nature, she almost couldn’t believe it when the snarky words just slipped out at the Dormouse. Even as the hilarity had welled up in her chest, Eirian’s mind jumped between wondering at the ease of her ribbing and how it had come to pass with these of all people. She could admit it had become much easier to act chill around them, but somewhere in those carefully maintained parameters, something had apparently changed.
Alice staggered against him, making Tarrant hastily wrap an arm around her waist to steady the woman. From his spot between his two dear friends, he had the best vantage of the glee affecting his band. He took the best mental snapshots - after all, it wasn’t every day they got to see Absolem doubled over laughing - and filed them away into the little corner of his mad-capped mind that was safe and stable and reserved for the things he loved best.
Through the captivating merriment, he seemed to be the only one who noticed a newcomer entering the warehouse. Between eyes blurring with tears of laughter and his friends knocking into him, Tarrant managed to identify their excellent Talent Liaison, one Miranda Sparks, as she made her way to a table and was greeted by the other occupants before taking a seat. It was easy to guess she was asking what all the hullabaloo was about by deciphering the various exchanged looks and gestures. Tarrant was pleased when a mildly laughing smile appeared on the woman’s face as she observed their temporary madness.
A sudden lack of motion on the side of his field of vision made Tarrant’s eyes shift. His gayety quieted a bit as he saw Eirian no longer caught up in the revelry, but now peering pointedly in the direction of the tables. A thoughtful expression furrowed the man’s brow slightly - he had a sudden suspicion, but he couldn’t be quite sure.
Wait and see, Hatter lad, just you wait and see.
“That sounded fantastic, good job, boys!”
A chorus of happy whoops and grins answered Alice, making her beam as she leaned forward to turn the sheet music to the next song. It was only a few songs into the first set of the session and already the energy of a good, fun practice was starting to fill up her lungs.
Tarrant playfully bumped her shoulder with his as she found the opening for their next song. Turning her head, the blonde giggled at his dancing around.
“Stand by for track cue-in!”
Everyone nodded to the tech sitting behind the simple soundboard before falling into various waiting habits. Tarrant wandered over to where Thackery had was fiddling with his tuning pegs. Alice joined Mally chatting with Absolem with Chessur leaning over from behind his drums.
Eirian glanced at the other band members, all preoccupied with each other before her eyes darted towards the people sitting at the tables behind the makeshift sound booth. Turning sharply, she carefully set her violin and bow on their stand. With furtive glances at the chatting band members, she ducked around Tarrant and Thackery in the direction of the sound table. The two men glanced up as she passed and watched her retreat for a moment.
Eirian’s movements were small and solid as she wove through the tables towards one that had a man and woman sitting off to the side. Coming up to the pair, she stopped and waited. The woman seemed to sense her and paused her conversation with the man to look over at the teen.
“Eirian! Good job out there, you’re really settling into the band well.”
The girl bobbed her head slightly. “Thanks, Miranda. Sorry to bother you, but, um, about that thing I called you about earlier ...?”
The woman’s face shifted into business mode. “Yes. I’m glad you brought that up with me. I know things like that can come out of the blue and I’m happy to try to help.”
“How long do you think it’ll take?”
“I’m actually waiting for a call now. I’ll let you know if that comes in while you all are rehearsing, okay?”
Eirian inhaled deeply, trying to center herself. Miranda reached out and patted her arm reassuringly. “Don’t worry, we’ll get it sorted. You just focus on today’s practice, yeah?”
The teen gave a weak smile before she turned to go back to the group.
As she approached, Eirian felt eyes on her and looked up to see the Hatter watching her thoughtfully. Her head ducked down, avoiding the gaze as she hurried past and back to her violin.
“Track loaded up, ready when you guys are.”
Tarrant waved acknowledgment and strode to the front mics. Picking his up, he looked around for his Songbird. Alice split away from next to Mally as the blond man prepped his guitar and she bounced up.
“Ready to use that beautiful voice again, Alice-My-Dear?”
“Always, Tarrant.” Her smile was starlight brilliant as she took up her own mic and turned forward. Tarrant smiled to match, glancing over his shoulder once to see the teenage girl behind him, violin in place and bow ready.
“Alright! Chessur, Mally, as you please!”
Chapter 7: A Watched Clock Never Tipped The (Dragon) Scales
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The Mad T Party Band huddled between Absolem’s keyboard and Chess’s drum kit as they watched their leader apprehensively. Tarrant stood at the forefront of their outlined stage zone, hip cocked, one hand hooked casually in a pants pocket. From the other dangled a golden, time-burnished pocket watch, swinging slowly to and fro. The ginger head was tilted downward, green eyes following the watch as it moved.
The Hatter hadn’t blinked for ten minutes.
Alice made to approach him several times but always thought better of it before she took even one step. Thack was plucking nervously at his bass while keeping his right hand clamped firmly around the fretboard lest he actually make any noise. Absolem and Mally wore matching pensive looks and crossed arms as Chessur pretended to amuse himself with spinning his sticks around. The feline’s teal eyes glowed softly every time they wandered the Hatter’s direction.
Thackery and Mally stared openly at the woman. Her shrug made Chessur’s ever-present grin widen ever so slightly, and Absolem smirked to himself.
A tense, pregnant silence fell over the room. The band remained sequestered, keeping an eye on the Mad Hatter and the door beyond him.
Even the attending techs and creative team seemed leery of moving too fast or too loud.
The minutes stretched out impossibly long, the ticking from Tarrant’s watching sounding louder
“Clean cup.” He felt the whole room jump behind him, despite the soft tone to his words. Tarrant didn’t look around for his friends, only gave the watch an extra hard swing to loop it around and land in his hand, the hinged lid opening on command.
Looking down at the relentless hands, he sighed. He rubbed his thumb over the worn glass, through a dimpled area that interestingly matched that finger perfectly.
A vague fog of spice and warm smoke filled his nose, belying the Caterpillar’s approach as Absolem slid in on his left. Tarrant glanced at his old friend.
“She’s not coming.”
“We could give her a few more minutes. I know you had hoped.”
The Hatter shook his head. Alice’s slender fingers wound gently around his right arm and he tilted his head that way to give her a faint smile.
“Clean cup, Alice-My-Dear.”
She nodded. “Move down. I’ll tell everyone we’re going to start.” He gave his Songbird a quick peck on the cheek before she moved off. Absolem squeezed his arm sympathetically and followed her.
As the sounds of tuning instruments and low vocal warmups began behind him, Tarrant glanced from his watch to the warehouse door one last time. A rueful frown turned his mouth.
“What happened to you, Jabberwock?”
yes, indeed, what oh what has become of our Jabberwock? anyone who guesses correctly or close gets a cookie! see you in the next update!
Chapter 8: When Following A Moral Compass Actually Gets You Out Of The Woods
well, we made it, TCups, 8th and final chapter. hope ya'll enjoyed the ride on this one, I deffo enjoyed spinning the tale. here's to the last piece in this puzzle, and onto the next one (yah, next one, you're not getting rid of me that easy ;P)
Alice wasn’t expecting their Talent Liaison to be on the other side of the suite door when she opened it. She gave the woman a confused head tilt even while trying to manage something approximating a smile of greeting.
“Hello, Miranda, we didn’t expect to see you today.”
Tarrant wandered up behind her and, catching sight of the person outside their home, let an easy smile slide onto his features and waved. “Greetings to the lovely Miranda Sparks!”
Miranda smiled at the Hatter’s words. “Hello, Alice, and greetings to you, too, Tarrant. Sorry to just show up like this, but we were already in the neighborhood.”
Alice’s confused expression turned quizzical. “We?”
Miranda bit her lip for a moment before she leaned back on one foot and looked down the hallway. Slowly, Alice and Tarrant leaned out the door to follow her gaze.
A few paces down the hall, leaned heavily back against the patterned wall, Eirian Fang stood with hands shoved deep in the pockets of her hoodie, staring blankly out the wide windows across from her. The cord of her headphones disappeared into the pocket next to her hands, and even from that distance, the two singers could hear faint strains of music escaping the speakers.
Tarrant suddenly found himself pushed closer to Alice as Mally appeared behind him.
“Hey, Miranda. What’s everyone looking at?” The Dormouse mimicked his friends and Tarrant knew the second he spotted the girl. “What’s going on?”
Miranda took a small, sharp breath. “Could we come in? There’s something I’d like to discuss with the band.”
Eirian glanced up when a hand set a glass of water in front of her on the kitchen table. Seeing the White Rabbit, she gave him a small smile of gratitude before looking back at her phone. Nivens pressed his lips together thoughtfully and retreated back to the living room where the rest of the band was gathered with Miranda.
Alice and Tarrant sat side by side on the couch closest to Tarrant’s great chair that the Talent Liaison was currently occupying. Absolem and Mally stood behind them, with Mally leaned backward against the couch back, watching the proceedings cooly over his shoulder.
Alice was staring behind Tarrant’s head at the kitchen door when Nivens entered. He nodded briefly before walking to where Dinah was perched on the arm of the second couch. Chessur floated along the back of the same couch, giving the appearance of nonchalance while he lounged. Thackery was stretched out on the other end of the couch where he’d been parked most of the day with a book.
They were all very quiet and staring at Miranda. Tarrant found his voice first. “She doesn’t have a home? Did she lose it? We can help her find it, we’ve all lost at least one house, well, perhaps not Alice, she’s incredibly sensible like that, but Thackery—“
“That was one time, Tarrant!”
The ginger grinned at his friend. “Ah, but you still did it.”
Thackery opened his mouth to protest even as Mally pressed a hand over his mouth and turned away to hide his laughter.
Alice put out her hands to shush them. “As amusing as that story sounds, perhaps we should stick to the topic at hand.” She looked at Miranda. “I agree, it is a terribly sad situation, but why come to us? I’m not sure how we can help, most of our group aren’t even from this world.”
Miranda smoothed out her jacket and eyed them. “Before I lay it out, I want you all to know I discussed every possible option a great deal will several other parties before we decided to try this path. We know this is a very delicate situation and we are approaching it as such. That being said - and please don’t answer right away - would you, the members of the Mad T Party Band, at all consider letting Eirian have a room in the suite?”
Eirian had been gazing wistfully out the window at the clear light outside when a sudden void of sound hit her ears and she looked sharply at the door to the living room. There was a distinct lack of noise - no movement, no breathing, no blinking.
And thus the A-Bomb question of all time makes impact on Underland Hiroshima.
One of Miranda’s tight-shut eyes crept open. She had braced for a barrage of yelling, quite possibly in Underlandish tongues and not-entirely-human voices, so the soft, perplexed words threw her off a little. She glanced around the room. They’d done what she’d asked, they hadn’t answered right away. She could see it on Mally’s face that he had expected to want to throw out a particular answer, only to find himself actually considering the request - and the person it concerned.
The majority of expressions, though, were thoughtful, with mild hints of concern and inner debate. Most everyone was currently retreated inside their own mind to wage war with themselves on the topic. Only Alice and Tarrant were looking outward rather than in for their sounding board. Miranda discreetly averted her eyes when she noticed the pair sitting with knees folded together and fingers tangled, their heads inclined toward the other as they held council within their locked gazes.
She would admit later that it was curiously unnerving to see the group of Underlanders come out of their respective thoughts and look around at each other almost simultaneously, without speaking a word. As one, they turned to watch their Hatter and Champion.
The pair met the group’s patient gaze with a single nod.
Eirian heard the moment the silence void was filled with a single, unified, deeply inhaled breath.
She went back to staring out the window, before remembering the glass of water and taking a sip.
“Does she have much luggage? Do you need the boys to help?”
Miranda glanced at the girl standing at the elevator bank far down the hall. Alice leaned out of the suite door to mimic their previous actions before she caught Miranda’s eye. The other woman shook her head. “She’s been dealing with ... an interesting living situation for a while. Rarely the same place twice. As far as I know, the bag she’s coming back with is everything she owns.”
Alice’s lips parted in a soft gasp. “One? Just one?”
Miranda nodded sadly. “It’s ... a long story. Maybe she’ll get to a point where she’ll tell you. It’s not my place to say.”
“Maybe you can convince her to go shopping, get some fun stuff just cause.” The liaison’s face was hopeful.
Alice smiled brightly. “That, I would be very happy to do. I bet I could get Dinah to join us too!”
“Make it a proper girl’s day!”
The two women were deep into shopping plans and coordinating schedules and various suggestions from the rest of the group when Eirian stepped back out of the elevator. Adjusting the over-full camping backpack, she began to stalk down the hallway. With her eyes on her feet to avoid tripping, she gauged her distance from the suite by the volume of the two adults still standing in the door.
Their voices faded away as she walked up and Eirian looked up. Both Alice and Miranda were smiling at her- the liaison’s expression hopeful and benevolent, the singer’s soft and understanding in a way that made Eirian arch a brow. Miranda’s smile widened slightly as Alice bid her goodbye and stepped back into the suite, leaving them alone.
Eirian suddenly felt the urge to shuffle her feet.
“If you need anything, I’m still just a phone call away.”
The Jabberwock looked up. It wasn’t hard to see the thinly veiled protective instincts in the older woman’s eyes. She meant what she said. Eirian grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Unless it’s four in the morning, cause you’re scary as hell when you get woken up.”
Miranda laughed, grimacing at a particular memory of that very situation. “You’re right, but that also means I get shit done, kid, and don’t you forget it.”
The teen’s grin fell into a quiet smirk. “Couldn’t if I tried.”
“Good. I’ll probably swing by practice sometime next week, so I’ll see you then if not before.”
“Aye aye, captain.” Eirian held out a loose fist towards the woman. Miranda shook her head laughingly and returned the fist bump easily before turning to head to the elevators. Eirian stepped to the slightly ajar suite door, pausing to watch her leave. Miranda threw a final wave before she vanished into the lift and was gone.
Looking warily at the sliver of room she could see past the door, Eirian squared her shoulders and gave her head a hard shake. Feeling the weight of her horns pull at the back of her skull helped calm the nerves starting to tingle in her chest.
Don’t be a jerk. It’s a room and a bed and a real kitchen. It’s better than where you’ve been. Not as good as where you were but so much better than where you’ve been. You can do this. They’re not going to stab you in your sleep. Probably. Oh my gods, Eirian, shut up and just MOVE.
Eirian blinked as she stared at the one person in the living room. Thackery had resettled himself on the couch and was once more engulfed in his book. One of his ears twitching slightly as she closed the door was the only sign he even noticed she was there, and Eirian reasoned the twitch was probably more of an instinctual muscle reaction to noise anyways.
The room wasn’t complicated and she memorized the floor plan quick enough, deducing the halls where the bedrooms probably were.
Alice’s blonde head popped out of one of them and smiled at her. “Your room’s down here.”
Quickly Eirian nodded and scuttled after her.
Fourth door on the right. A window. En-suite. And a few basic pieces of furniture inbound to tide her over until they could get more ‘Eirian-styled things’ as Alice put it. She’d almost missed thanking the singer before Alice was leaving her to her own devices until the furniture arrived.
Eirian allowed the backpack to slide from her shoulder as she wandered to the window. It was edging towards later afternoon, the white light gaining that familiar golden tint. Her room faced a bit west, letting the sun spill through the glass.
Do you think they’ll let me stay, Mom? I think I might like to stay. Please let them let me stay.
She sighed and let the light flood against her closed eyelids.
It’d be nice to not be alone anymore.