The bunnies had fangs, that day. They were lurking behind the coffee mug on the trolley, behind the vase of flowers - petals sad and drowsy - and behind the drip connected to his arm, munching fleshly carrots as liquid oblivion seeped into him from the tube, at once too slowly and too quickly.
Above him, Dumbo flew circuits like a Messerschmitt 109, eyes glazed and threatening peanut artillery. Mickey peeped from behind the footboard, beckoning with impatient gestures. What are you lying there, for? Haven't we got things to do?
Walt had done his best not to mention them to the doctor. For one, he didn't want anyone to think he was crazy, and for two, if not assumed to be crazy, it would be difficult to explain it all without being taken as speaking in metaphor.
-But why not metaphor, anyway? Metaphor writ large. Indeed, why not? These funny animals had accompanied him all his life. Was it not fitting that they should be here, now? Each was a little part of himself. Yes, Walt loved his wife, and his daughters. He probably adored Hazel even more. Even closer, perhaps, was Roy - the brother with whom he had shared that little slice of apple-pie perfection that had bound them together all the long years - but even he paled into insignificance against Donald, Goofy and the gang.
Folks had usually supposed that Walt walked Main Street as a kind of publicity exercise. That he would clutch a balloon - its twin ears bobbing upward in plucky ambition, uncowed by the string - as a means to sell more balloons. They thought that he kept a tiny apartment there, just above the board-fronted firehouse, to check on his nightworkers. As a man in charge of the largest empire the world had known (barring perhaps Britain's Victoria, but he was working on her), those business-savvy reasons were not bad to have publicised - internally, at least.
Of course, they were not really true. Walt slept at the park sometimes, because he so badly wanted to. He would peep through the cute false-perspective shutters and see 'second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning!' and feel a thrill in his heart and a lightness in his chest that nothing found in the adult world can replicate.
Nothing at all.
Walt snoozed awhile; he was not sure what time it was when the visitor came, but it was still light outside - the crows at the window crooned in squeeze-box silhouette. The man was tall, with a patrician nose and trim, whitening beard. He had long hair, and Walt would have dismissed him as a flaming hippy if he hadn't also had that upper-class English voice that sounded like educational newsreels from childhood, and made him sit up and take notice. "Mr Disney, I understand. I do hope you'll pardon the intrusion."
Now, as it happened, Walt couldn't sit up, because the Cheshire cat was sleeping on his chest. So, he extended a hand, still trying to own the encounter. "No problem. Call me Walt. And you are...?" The man was clearly an entertainer of some kind; he was costumed just like Merlin from 'The Sword in the Stone'.
"Forgive me. I am Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. And, in common with yours, my work involves creating and using magic."
"Is that so?" Even from his supine position, Walt looked down his nose at the pretender. "I confess, I haven't heard of you."
"Ah, it is, perhaps a... smaller operation." The stranger smiled genially. "I'd like to show you some sights, though. I'm sorry to have left my visit this long." He glanced around the hospital room and frowned. "You see, Walt, although our worlds are very different, you have always been something of an inspiration to me. I'd love to have the chance to give something back."
"Ha, well, that's very kind but..." Walt gestured around him at the obvious, "It doesn't look like I'll be going on so many trips, today."
The stranger - 'Albus', he'd called himself - took a step backwards and focussed on a point not-quite on Walt's face.
"Oh, of course; I quite understand. Cheshire, if you wouldn't mind, awfully?"
"Sorry, wha-?" The words died in Walt's throat as the cat on his chest lifted his nose from behind his pink and purple tail and looked at Albus, balefully.
"Oh, come along. The radiator's just as nice. If you disapparate, you won't even notice the move."
There were two very pressing questions in Walt's brain, at that. They battled for a moment, but the more whimsical one popped out first. It always did. "What d'you mean, 'disapparate'?"
"Oh, 'vanish and appear somewhere else'. That's what he does, isn't it?"
"-And Dumbo, that is really very bad manners. Didn't that mouse of yours teach you anything? Now, why don't you come down and shell them nicely for the rabbits? I'm sure those carrots aren't supposed to be off-red."
Walt watched in disbelief as the little elephant did just that. He felt a gentle tickle somewhere deep in his brain - a loosening of tension that gave a great sigh of relief - and the characters around him lost their glazed eyes and sharp teeth. Noses twitched, ears flopped akimbo, cotton tails bobbed, and Mickey started to play a cheerful tune on the fiddle. Walt couldn't help but smile - oh, it was beautiful; the most he had smiled for weeks, months maybe - and he found himself just enjoying the moment.
Soon, though, that other darned question - the one wrapped up in adult nonsense - tugged to be answered. "You can see them?"
"Of course I can," Albus replied, as if he had just been asked whether he could speak English. "Now, please keep your hands and arms inside the car..." He gestured toward the hospital bed, and Walt felt the back rising and the foot falling until he was seated in - not a bed! But a comfortable leather chair. For a drug-induced vision, it was pretty realistic.
"Wow, how d'you-"
"Just a little trick of mine." Albus offered Walt his own paisley robe from behind the door. "Perhaps you'd like this?"
He stood shakily, finding the sleeves.
"We are, now, I believe, 'all set'." With that, Albus placed his hand on Walt's shoulder, and there was an incredible falling, twisting sensation - just like riding the Matterhorn.
Goddammit, how much morphine are they giving me, here? thought Walt, as they alighted on a cobblestoned passage. I'm pretty sure that hospitals don't have coasters. Not even private ones.
"Sorry about the trip," said Albus, "I kept us as level as I could. Now..." - another gesture to the chair, and Walt felt it rise, slightly.
"You've put this car on tracks, I guess," Walt declared, deciding - as with the rabbits - to just go with it. There was not much point in arguing with a hallucination, after all. He found himself gliding forward and around a corner. "Pretty good suspension, actually."
"I try," Albus replied, eyes twinkling. "This is similar to your Main Street, I think."
The alleyway opened out into a bustling thoroughfare lined with quaint shops and filled with actors costumed just like Walt's host. Ah - not exactly like - the scheme of robes and pointed hats were similar, but they'd invested in a great variety of colours and subtly-different styles. The cast members were numerous and well trained. They must have shipped him here in a van of some kind when he'd snoozed off... the sights and sounds before him made memories of the hospital seem foggy and distant, receding away like mist in a magic mirror.
Gliding along in his wingback chair, Walt seemed to be the only guest that day; he couldn't help but smile. "This is quite something!" he said. "I like it. You've gone for more of the English medieval look, I guess" - an elaborate ice-cream parlour caught his eye, "Overlaid with Victorian. And a private opening - wow."
Albus inclined his head graciously, and let Walt direct where he wanted to explore. "Golly, that's some merchandising operation you've got going on. And live animals? How'd you get the licence for those? - Wow! Did that man just... appear out of nowhere? What d'you call this place, anyhow?"
The question seemed to give Albus pause. "This, specifically," he gestured around, "is Diagon Alley."
"Ha. Cute name. And the whole park?"
"I suppose we call it... the Wizarding World."
Walt shrugged. "Fair enough. A bit generic, but I guess it has potential. I do like the way you guys are all themed, though. What else have you got?"
The twinkle returned. "I understand that you like trains?"
At the simple, boyish word, Walt's heart danced in his chest. He thought of his locomotive lawn at home, and the hours he could spend riding in figures of eight squatted aside the perfect miniature, as the geraniums whizzed by. He had claimed to have built it for Diane and Sharon, but the girls weren't really interested, past the first few rides. They didn't appreciate the hiss of steam, and that taste of air and freedom and foreign lands.
He was catapulted back to Marceline, sketching by the creek, stubby chalk on a precious last piece of paper as the breeze blew through the dappled shade. A horse would bay, and footsteps clatter. The locomotive's in! people would shout, and he would run barefoot to its red, shining glory.
Walt swallowed hard. "Yeah, I like trains."
He was flagging a bit, so they stopped for some food and drink. Walt hadn't managed any solids for days - maybe a couple of weeks - but it seemed just about possible, now. In this place, away from doctors and drips and daydreams gone sour, so much seemed possible. He bit into something that looked like an apple turnover, but it turned out to be filled with pumpkin; it was pretty good.
Walt turned to smile at his host. "Great park! Really is. I'm amazed you haven't advertised." It was a throw-away remark, with little heat in it. Walt vaguely recognised that he should be alert to the competition - to see this Wizarding World as a rival of some kind. Such business concerns seemed so dull and tawdry, now, though - from this turret-top lookout full of things that whizzed and popped and clicked - he could barely bring himself to think about them.
"We tend to keep things under wraps," Albus replied. He offered Walt another pumpkin pasty. "Tell me, my friend: is there anything you need? Anything else you would like to see?"
Walt considered; it really had been a comprehensive tour. There was one thing, though - something to take home for the others. "Thanks. Yeah... could you show me the backstage areas? I'd love to learn how you do it all."
He had expected Albus to smile and agree, but for the first time, the man looked chagrined. He pressed his lips together, and looked down at the crumbs on his plate.
"It's funny," Albus said, after a pause. "The whole time I wanted to bring you here, I knew we'd get to this bit. I've rehearsed it so many times in my head, and... sometimes it's happy, and sometimes it made me wonder whether this was not the right thing at all. - Bringing you here, I mean. Whether I had the right." Walt raised his eyebrows, and Albus pushed on, all of a flurry: "I just so wanted to reciprocate a little of the strength you have given me - having such will to believe and create and to live with the idea of magic as a positive force, when you couldn't even know that..." He trailed off.
Another pause, then Albus stood up, seeming to come to a decision. Slowly, deliberately, he pulled a... magic wand... from his sleeve and moved it in a circling, flicking gesture. Right there, in the middle of the room, a creature took shape: four legs; mane; tail; golden shimmering coat; single horn.
The young beast whinnied and walked over to nuzzle Walt's hand. It was warm, soft and slightly snotty, little huffs of breath falling on his skin and gentle eyes blinking at him with interest. Walt stroked her nose, and wove his fingers into the strands of hair at the base of her iridescent horn. With a hand on her flank he felt the unicorn's breaths, and could almost notice her pulse. She felt... It was just as if... She was...
His eyes widened and he felt his mouth fall into a gape.
Walt came over dizzy, but this time he was pretty sure it wasn't just the drugs. Reeling, some part of his brain fancied that his whole life was one of those crazy domino displays that people spend hours and hours setting up, just to topple in one marvellous show. Some folks would lament all that hard work, just to have it blown apart in seconds.
Albus caught his gaze. "Are you angry with me?" His voice was level, but there were nerves behind the plummy tones.
"No." Walt shook his head, and felt a smile reach his face - a smile that had started in his socks and buoyed his heart like Jules Verne's airship on its ascent to his mouth. "I'm the sort who'd just watch the show."
Good magic, wicked magic, magic places and people and animals. Magic spells and potions and books and things and fruit. Magic castles and lakes and trains and streets and shops. Subtle magic, showy magic, magic of love and trust and betrayal and peace. None of it escaped his attention, and Walt took in every detail like a child in Macy's at Christmas.
A conviction bloomed in his breast: this was how the world was supposed to be. He'd known it; he'd just known it. Pale imitations and part-time joy were a thing of his past, now. The wonder! Oh, the potential! Just wait until -
- But then another thought stopped him short. Walt took a deep breath. "I'm guessing you're going to say... I can't tell the world about this, aren't you? My world, I mean."
Albus nodded, soberly. "That wouldn't be possible, I'm afraid. Technically, I'm breaking the law by bringing you here."
Walt considered that. "But now I know all about it, what's to stop me from..." He trailed off, as the answer to that question became remarkably obvious.
"I'd be very sad to have to do that," replied Albus, and it was confirmation enough.
"Right. Gotcha." He couldn't decide whether that made the whole thing less pleasant or more special. Again, Walt paused as another question made itself felt. "But if it's all so secret - and illegal, you say - why bring me here at all?"
Albus shrugged, the very picture of an Englishman downplaying his own generosity. "A gift." He walked to the window, gazing past stone mullions to the forest far below. The silence was so long that Walt thought it was all the explanation he was getting - but then Albus spoke once more, partly to Walt, but partly to the general air. "Our world is magical and marvellous, yes - but it also contains much pain and turmoil, much like yours. I carry, perhaps, a greater burden than most, but it is one of my own choice and making, so I must bear it as best I can... and alone. Sometimes, in a state that's rather lonely, in fact.
"Magic is a powerful force, my friend. I have learnt the hard way that it can be used well or very badly, and at times... I've wondered whether I was worthy to use it at all.
"And then, I discovered you. Vicariously, of course. I'm no expert on the cultural milieu of the world in which you live, but I know that you have captured half of your people around the globe with the force of... magic.
"And that seemed to me quite the extraordinary thing. You create magic as a power for good. Magic as a way of inspiring children and bonding families and helping those of us who are weary and anxious to see something better in life. You have been such an inspiration to me, in my darkest times - by that simple fact, and such rare, wonderful faith."
Albus turned, and found Walt's gaze. "My friend, you have given me no end of peace - knowing that a person could believe so fervently in the healing power of magic, without even having clear evidence upon which to base it. You've helped me remember what it's like to be hopeful; what it's like to be an eleven-year-old starting school and joining a world that is supposed to merit his innocence and imagination. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."
"I..." Uncharacteristically, Walt found himself lost for words.
Albus smiled and gave a small chuckle. "It's alright; you really don't have to say anything. This is me being a drama queen, after all. It needn't have too much effect upon you." He spread his hands wide. "As I said before, I'm just sorry it has taken me so long to do this. Perhaps I was being a coward." Albus paused, as if considering the empirical logic of that statement. "I just hope that coming here might give back some measure of that peace - to know that all you believed and hoped... is a part of the world."
Only then did Walt realise that tears had been pricking at his eyes for some minutes - as they made a break for it over his cheeks. "It does," he said simply, and found himself embracing Albus as Pinocchio might have clung to the Blue Fairy.
He knew that he was getting tired and short of breath; whatever Albus had done to make him feel a bit better wasn't permanent. And now, more than ever, he had plenty of things to live for, dammit!
Not so long ago, he had boasted that he was more famous than the Queen of England, and his work was better known than God's. Indeed, deep down, past the place of rational thought, Walt had always considered himself to be immortal - as if he could somehow transcend onto the page and live forever in his creations, never worried about whether his physical form could manage to house him. He had far too many things to do, after all; he and Mickey had barely begun their adventures.
Walt's thoughts were interrupted by a coughing fit that left him dizzy, and that was ended only by another wave of Albus' magic wand.
"Thanks," he managed.
Albus inclined his head, and the pensive depth of kindness in his eyes was not something that Walt wanted to analyse closely. "There's one more thing you might like to see," Albus said, gently.
He gestured at Walt's armchair when assent had been given, and it floated in Albus' wake - down the spiral staircase, along several corridors, and climbing some straighter staircases that - Walt did a double-take - that actually floated in and out of position, like living things. The pictures on the wall smiled and waved. With his new-found knowledge, Walt's mind reeled.
"I suppose you're going to say they're real, too?"
Albus gave a kind half-smile. "Yes... and no. In a way, they are like your moving pictures, created by living people in the knowledge that they will outlive their creator." Those words hung in the air between them, proud and poignant. "But being magic, the creations take on something of a life of their own - isn't that right, Violet?"
A well-preserved woman of fifty-something years and eighteenth-century brushstrokes nodded emphatically from the portrait on Walt's left. "I should think so too. Otherwise we'd have these spring-chicken Headmasters thinking that they run the place. And welcome to Hogwarts, Mr Disney; pleased to make your acquaintance."
Walt raised a hand in greeting, wondering if he could really get to talk to Snow White if he drew her in the right way. Such a lovely, special girl. Oh! And what fun he could have with the dwarves!
They reached the uppermost landing and continued along a stretching corridor - darker than the others, and dustier, too. Some suits of armour creaked in agitation as they passed, and Albus hushed them, whispering, "It's alright".
Reaching the final door on the left - wreathed in cobwebs and securely padlocked - Albus turned and gave another of those unknowable smiles.
Walt swallowed hard, but he wasn't quite sure why. Summoning a key out of nowhere, Albus let them in. Inside was a huge, arched mirror - ornately decorated around the frame - and emitting a faint glow across the otherwise empty space.
"Take a look?" said Albus, gently.
Walt shrugged, but didn't object. He couldn't imagine what was going to be so special about his reflection - especially in this clapped-out, sad old state. But he obliged, and saw-
Wonderful things. Marvellous, fabulous, happy, happy things.
There he was, as a boy in dungarees, beautifully animated. He was scampering across a grassy clearing, toward a gleaming train that was just pulling-in to a picket-fenced station. The train waved, and he waved back. There was apple pie brought by a team of mice in smart, white aprons with little smuts of icing sugar across their noses. Peter Pan was urging him to come and fly while waving a treasure map of pirate gold, and Mickey was training Pluto to do tricks just beside a house made of cookies. There were pink, fluffy clouds in the shape of dancing elephants, and a travelling circus popping out of the train carriages with juggling seals and tumbling penguins and hippos on unicycles. His shorts and shirt didn't crease, and his cartoon face was rosy and loved.
Walt's cheeks crumpled as he squeezed shut his eyes, overwhelmed and desolate. He sobbed, but the sob caught at his chest and he started to wheeze. This crumbling container was no longer meet to hold the magic of his world.
Albus put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Would you like to go?"
Walt nodded, eyes fixed forwards. He felt drawn there, floating closer as each second passed, becoming calmer and more joyful and closer to his heart's desire...
Distantly, and from far below, he heard Albus' call: "Goodbye, my friend. Have the most wonderful of adventures!"
Albus climbed the stairs to his office and sat quietly by the turret window as the sun set, in the shadow of its masonry. It was getting cold, but he didn't light the fire.
He thought of war and hope and loss and love and fairy tales. He thought of the power of belief, and the luck of the ordinary. With good times and bad twisting in his heart, he wondered whether magic could ever really make dreams come true.