Title: Choices (1/?)
Pairing: Alice/Mirana (White Queen)
Rating: PG-13, for now
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the recognizable characters. There will be some OCs, yes, but chances are they won't be main characters.
Summary: It's the choices we make that make us who we are.
She couldn't have said exactly what it was that had woken her up.
For a long while, she simply lay in the darkness, trying to discern what had disturbed her rest. The dark itself held no fear for her, nor had it ever. Not even the Jabberwocky had changed that. She didn't hear anything out of the ordinary, merely the creaking of wood and spray of the ocean that she'd become so accustomed to in the year since she'd first set foot aboard the Wonder. She couldn't even detect the muffled voices of the crew, which told her that it was very early, indeed.
And yet, she could not fall back asleep. Now that she was fully awake, she felt a curious impulse to get out of bed, to get moving, to do something. Only, there was really nothing for her to do. She had no duties at present. She merely felt restless, with an odd feeling in her stomach that was somewhere between hunger and nausea. And given that the only time she'd been seasick had been while the ship had endured a rather nasty storm...
"You're being foolish," she told herself quietly, even as she slid out from under the covers and began the rather lengthy process of getting dressed. (Thankfully, she was, at least, able to forgo having to don a corset. She was on the ship for a reason, after all, and that reason was not to lure men.) "There is nothing wrong." Even as she said it, though, she realized that was what she felt: that same ball of anxiety that sat in her stomach whenever it seemed as if a negotiation was about to go badly, or when people kept telling her that she was destined to be Underland's champion and slay the Jabberwocky. That something wasn't right.
And one of the many things that Alice Kingsleigh had learned during that adventure was to pay attention to her instincts.
She finished buttoning up the powder blue frock coat given to her by Lord Ascot to stave off the chill of the sea air that first day and left her small cabin. She'd often amused herself in the beginning by thinking of her mother's probable reaction to being expected to stay in such quarters, and how she would likely demand to be moved into the finest stateroom that they had. The Wonder was a merchant vessel, however, and as such passenger accommodations were limited. Far from being put off, Alice only appreciated being treated the same as everyone else. Having a woman aboard a ship was unusual, to say the least, and to have one in the position she was in... Well, not everyone would have taken orders from her, no matter whose apprentice she was. Lord Ascot had assembled a good crew, no doubt.
She inhaled deeply as she walked out onto the deck, enjoying the salty tang of the sea air. It was a bit chillier then usual, as the sun hadn't yet risen, leaving the sky a murky shade somewhere between black and midnight blue. A few stars were still visible, and as she reached the rail she noted that she could just make bout the shining moon overhead. It was so white and radiant, she couldn't help but be reminded of-
No. Don't think about it.
It was too late, though, of course. She'd already made the critical mistake of allowing herself to remember the Jabberwocky, and all those who'd been so confident that she was their savior, "the" Alice. Once she'd opened the door a little, everything - everyone - else had snuck through before she could stop it.
"The Vorpal Sword is home again. The armor is complete. Now all we need... is a champion."
She clutched the rail and drew in a ragged breath as an entirely different sensation slammed into her with seemingly physical force. It was like that, sometimes. There were days when thoughts of Underland would rarely, if ever, cross her mind; then there were days when she could barely think of anything else. The worst was when, as they did now, memories of what she'd left behind rose up and struck at her without warning.
"You're a little taller then I thought you'd be."
She could truthfully say that, with one or two obvious exceptions, she missed everyone she'd met in Underland. (Except perhaps Absolem, whom she's reasonably confident she'd encountered more then once when the Wonder was in port back home.) But for reasons she couldn't quite explain, even in her own head, only one of them made her heart clench so severely that she might have gone to see a doctor the first time it had happened, had they not been at sea.
"I had hoped to have a champion by now."
"Stop it," she whispered to herself, eyes stinging with unshed tears. It was no use, though. Once her thoughts had strayed in this particular direction, they stayed there until she could find something to distract herself with. It was telling - though telling of what, exactly, she hadn't yet worked out - that whenever she thought of Underland, no matter who or what she might be thinking of, always, always, her thoughts would drift to the White Queen, Mirana of Marmoreal.
That she was beautiful could not be denied. She was also kind, compassionate... Somewhat quirky, perhaps, but Alice firmly believed that all the best people were mad, so that didn't bother her in the slightest. And graceful? Oh, yes. So much so that she seemed to dance more then walk. Alice had looked up the meaning of the word Marmoreal after her return to the "real" world: of, relating to, or suggestive of marble or a marble statue especially in coldness or aloofness. That did seem to suit her palace, true enough. Some may have considered the Queen herself to be aloof, but Alice was no longer one of them. Not after having gotten to know her. She could be so warm and caring... But there was a darkness to her, as well. (She hadn't forgotten Mirana's reaction to the buttered fingers, after all... though she was trying to block out how that had made her feel: almost... excited, in a peculiar way.) Having met the Red Queen, Alice wasn't surprised to find that it evidently ran in the family to some degree. Unlike her sister, though, Mirana controlled it, rather then let it control her. She'd even taken vows specifically aimed to help her do so. There was still much about Underland that Alice didn't understand, but she half-suspected that they might even have invoked some kind of magic that would actually not let Mirana break those vows, no matter how much she might want to.
"It goes against my vows to harm any living creature."
"Does this not count as harm?" she asked aloud. There was still no one around to hear her - as far as she knew, the only other one awake was whoever was currently manning the wheel, and she was nowhere near that - but she knew that could change soon. Why do you haunt me so? she wondered, as if this time, somehow, she would actually receive an answer. As ever, there was only one.
You could have stayed.
No, she couldn't have. She knew that. There had been too many things she'd needed to take care of. But she had promised to return.
Then why don't you?
And how was she supposed to do that? The only method she knew of was by falling down a rabbit hole, and those were in short supply on a sailing vessel. Besides, those had been McTwisp's holes. Regular rabbits likely wouldn't do. She'd gone over all of this with herself multiple times.
It never helped. Despite everything, despite knowing how it simply couldn't be done, the craving always returned. She was always overcome by an almost desperate urge to lay eyes on the White Queen again, to see her smile, to touch her, to... Well, there she ran into trouble. She didn't know what else. She'd never experienced anything like this before, so she had nothing to compare it to. Saying she missed Mirana was like saying that the ocean was rather damp. No matter how confused she might have felt at the time, she'd still... liked it. Leaving hadn't cleared up that confusion in the slightest. And it should have. Distance should have helped her figure things out. Instead, all she felt was a small but growing certainty that she wasn't where she was supposed to be.
The creak of the deck behind her alerted her to the fact that she had company, and she swiftly composed herself. She wasn't so much concerned about propriety as she didn't wish to needlessly worry anyone. "Good morning, then, Miss Alice. You're up a mite early, if you don't mind my saying."
Even with her current mood, she had to smile. She'd tried to get the crew to use her first name from the moment she'd come aboard, but the best she'd been able to manage thus far was for them to stop calling her 'Miss Kingsleigh'. Carter, the second mate, had taken longer then most to come around. Not that he'd ever disliked her. No, it was more that he was a gentleman. She'd never been able to find out if Carter was the middle-aged man's first or last name, and no one she'd spoken with on ship or off seemed to know, either. It made no real difference, she supposed, except to help illustrate how little she knew about the crew in some respects, and vice versa. Carter was always unfailingly polite to her, but generally didn't seem to be the sort for personal conversations. "Not at all," she replied, not turning around. She felt more then saw him join her at the rail. "Good morning, Carter. What time is it, anyway?"
"A little after oh-four-thirty," he told her. "Nothing exciting ever happens this early in the morning, if you were wondering."
Translation: Why aren't you still in bed like a sane person? she thought with mild amusement. "No, I merely..." She shook her head. "Truthfully, I don't know what woke me up. I don't know why I couldn't fall back asleep. I just... don't know!" She sighed in frustration. "Something felt wrong, in some way, but as you can plainly see, nothing is amiss."
"And that would be why you're out here, brooding?"
She had to stifle another smile, lest he think she was having fun at his expense. She must have looked unhappy in the extreme to worry him enough to ask that. "No, that's something else, entirely."
She saw him nodding out of the corner of her eye, and it struck her how odd this conversation was, with both of them watching the inky black seas instead of looking at each other. Yet, it was right, somehow. "Some of the boys get that way, before a storm hits," he offered.
She considered that. The weather was perfectly normal, but in a way, that was how she felt. That something was coming, something big and unpleasant. She made a contemplative sound, but said nothing. For a long minute, they simply stood in comfortable silence, watching the sea. For a moment, she imagined that she could even see storm clouds brewing in the sky, but if there really had been something up there as energetic as what she thought she saw, they would already have been feeling it. No, that was just her imagination running away with her. If nothing else, Carter would have reacted, and he hadn't even noticed, despite looking in the same place. Perhaps she should have tried harder to get more sleep. "Carter," she began tentatively, then hesitated. She wasn't quite sure how to phrase what she wanted to ask, or even if she had the right to.
When the seconds kept ticking by and she didn't continue, he prompted, "Miss?"
"I..." Another hesitation. "Do you remember McCall?" she asked finally.
"Of course I do," he replied. "Fine lad."
Alice privately agreed with that. What she was more concerned with, however, was his behavior in the weeks leading up to his departure. Not being able to judge her own thoughts and actions from the outside, she couldn't say for certain, but from everything she'd seen, he'd seemed to have been going through something similar to what she was experiencing. As embarrassing as this conversation might be, she needed to know what this was. At least, she consoled herself, Carter wasn't likely to repeat it to anyone else. "Do you know why he left? I was never quite sure."
She turned her head a bit in time to catch him smile. "He left because he found what most sailors only ever dream of: a woman to replace the sea."
She could have sworn the deck lurched FAR more sharply beneath her then the tide could account for. "He... fell in love?" Her voice had dropped to a whisper again, but Carter heard her anyway.
"Aye, Miss, that he did." He eyed her shrewdly. "Is that the problem, then?"
"I... I-I don't..." She took a jerky step away from him, unaccountably alarmed. She wasn't... No, she couldn't have been... Unbidden, the memory of how she had told her mother that Hamish wasn't the right man for her resurfaced, and of how she hadn't been able to explain just what being 'right' to her had meant. She'd never really been drawn to any of the men she'd been introduced to, not at all... And really, how had she never picked up on that?
He laughed. "Oh, no, Miss Alice, I don't mean to imply that you're seeking such a woman yourself." His laughter abruptly trailed off as he got a good look at her - or as good as he was able in the dim light - and she swore inwardly. He knew. "Oh," he said, sounding surprised. "I see."
"Could you perhaps explain it to me, then?" she requested, looking down at the deck, cheeks burning with embarrassment. As much as she now wanted to flee this conversation, she knew she had to deal with this now, to make sure that the knowledge didn't go beyond the two of them. The crew had accepted her as much as they were able - more then she would have expected, frankly - but she knew that only went so far. Women loving other women... She'd never heard of such a thing, herself.
Perhaps she had been too sheltered, growing up.
He kept his voice low and soothing, and his movements nonthreatening, as if not wanting to scare her off. In other circumstances, she might have laughed at the idea that she would be scared by him, after everything else she'd been through. "Nothing wrong with that in my book, Miss. You love who you love. Nothing to be done about that. She must be something special, though, if you don't mind my saying."
Her lips pulled up into a smile almost against her will. "She is," she whispered, heart pounding as she dared to voice her recent revelation aloud for the first time. "She's... a queen."
"And what does she think of you?" The tone of the question said that he was more concerned about her, not wanting her to be hurt, then really interested in any kind of gossip, but the question itself still made her pause.
What did Mirana think of her?
Well, now that she knew what she was looking for, many of Mirana's words, actions, even looks took on entirely new meaning. She could only wish she'd understood then. Alice looked out at sea, smiling again. "She called me her champion," she said softly. "Said that she'd been waiting for me for... quite some time."
Carter, naturally, had no idea what she was talking about. The longing in her voice, however, was plain to hear. "You know, Miss, you don't actually have to accompany us on our trade missions."
That was stretching the truth to the breaking point, and they both knew it. If it was that easy, though... "I'm afraid she lives a bit... farther away then that," Alice said with a sigh. She looked up at where the phantom storm had seemed to be, reassured that she couldn't see anything unusual there any longer. Abruptly, she came to a decision. She had endured this too long already. "I hope Lord Ascot will not be overly disappointed by my departure." Despite that worry, she could only feel relief now that she knew what to do.
"You will be missed, lass, I won't lie to you about that," Carter told her. "But I dare say you're already being missed elsewhere, far more then even we'd ever be able to manage."
"I do fear that the rest of this voyage will be interminable, though," she admitted, and they shared a laugh... even though she suspected it would be the absolute truth. She resolved to enjoy her remaining time aboard the Wonder as best she could.
Because she knew that this would be the last time she ever set foot aboard her ever again.
She didn't even notice the ghostly light briefly flicker off in the distance, up in the sky.
It was the strangest storm Underland had ever seen.
The most curious thing was that it made no noise. Storms that were all sound and fury, storms that only rained, storms that rained toads, storms that backed up if they'd missed someplace... Those were all normal enough, but they all made some kind of sound. What hovered over them now, like some malignant blight in the sky, was eerily quiet.
There also seemed to be a menacing green hue to the roiling clouds, as if they were more energy then water vapor. Some had suspected the exiled Red Queen at first, but eventually even they had been forced to concede that she'd never had the power to make something like that.
Then there were the creatures. Sightings had been few initially, but were being reported with increasing frequency. Most seemed to be phantasms, frightening to look at but harmless. Others, though, seemed to be real enough, demonic-looking things that were fully capable of injuring or killing the populace. They had no uniform appearance, but all shared one major characteristic.
They were all dead.
As alarming as that may have been, it was most definitely a good thing as far as the Underlandians were concerned. While their former ruler might have long studied dominion over living things, her sister, the White Queen, practiced dominion over the dead. As such, she was able to keep her people safe from the unknown menace, though only with constant vigilance. And if things kept going the way they were, there would ultimately come a point where all her powers and skills wouldn't be enough.
Mirana stood on her balcony, looking up at the baleful sky. Whatever it was up there, it defied all of her attempts to divine its secrets. She was worried, of course, but couldn't let it show. She needed to be strong for her people, to present the image that everything was under control.
Control. Always, always control. That was critical. She didn't dare relax her guard for a moment, lest the madness gain hold of her. The current threat gave her something to focus on, true, but lack of sleep and the need to employ her abilities so often, combined with a near paranoia about where it would strike next, were all adding up to take their toll upon her. She needed some kind of relief. She needed... She needed...
Abruptly, she swished back inside her palace, gliding down corridor after corridor. One wouldn't think a white-haired woman with dark eyebrows, lips dark enough to look black (it was difficult to pin down the exact shade, as that would mean staring at her reflection more then she was comfortable with), wearing a white pouffy dress could go anywhere unnoticed, but she managed it. That it was so horribly early in the day helped.
She found herself in a position she'd been in more times then she could remember: standing in front of the armor of Marmoreal. Now, though, she had a face to attach to the long dreamed of champion. What Alice might have done against the nameless, faceless threat that stalked them now she couldn't have said, but she somehow just knew that everything would be better if Alice was just there... with her.
For a moment, she experienced a burst of sympathy for her sister. Truly, being so alone was a special torture all its own. That was, of course, exactly why she had banished Iracebeth in such a fashion. She had vowed not to harm any living creature... but that didn't mean she couldn't make them wish that she would, even beg her to just kill them and get it over with. Which she would never do.
She wondered if her sister still thought her weak because of her vows.
She sighed quietly - it was unseemly for a queen to react so - and trailed a hand down the front of the armor, memories of Alice banishing her dark thoughts with surprising ease.
She regretted not asking her champion not to stay herself. Alice had promised to return, and Mirana believed her implicitly, but she couldn't help but wish that she was there now. She regretted not having made her feelings clear when she had the chance. She regretted...
Well, she regretted a lot of things. Most of all, though, she regretted that they had been interrupted.
They had talked about a fair number of things after she had restored Alice to her proper size. She'd been afraid her champion would see the darkness within her and recoil, which was exactly the reason she didn't let much of anyone get too close to her, but... Well, she suspected Alice had caught glimpses of it, but she hadn't seemed scared in the slightest. Perhaps... intrigued?
She'd tested the waters carefully, casually mentioning that she was certain a woman as lovely as Alice had all manner of suitors waiting for her to return. Alice had blushed and looked down, charmingly embarrassed. She'd seemed more flustered by the compliment then the suggestion, and had admitted that many thought her to be a bit peculiar back at home, mostly because of her refusal to conform to what was deemed 'proper'. Mirana had subtly moved closer that it was obviously their loss, as individuality was hardly a bad thing. Alice had smiled wanly and countered that that was yet another of the differences between Underland and where she was from.
It had been tempting - oh, so very tempting - to suggest that perhaps she should just remain in Underland, then. But that would have been too soon, especially since Mirana was still trying to get her to be their - her - champion. Instead, she had simply remarked, "I do not believe you to be peculiar at all." Not in any kind of negative fashion, anyway. She thought Alice had caught her moving closer that time, but she hadn't said anything, so Mirana had continued, "And we're glad to have you here." A slight pause. "I'm glad that you're here."
Alice had looked understandably wary. "I've told you, I can't-"
Mirana had interrupted her, then. Doing so was horribly rude, but she hadn't quite been able to help it. She'd needed to make sure Alice understood what she hadn't been saying. "I'm still happy that you're here." She'd been close enough then to allow one of her hands to drift down from where she customarily had it in the air at her side and take hold of one of Alice's hands, giving it a squeeze.
Alice had blushed again, but not looked at all upset, smiling instead. "I do like being here with you more then much of the rest of this dream," she had replied.
Mirana hadn't known just what to say to shake her of the belief that everything she was experiencing was just a product of her own mind - and really, who knew? - so she'd simply smiled back at Alice and stepped closer, until bare inches separated them. She hadn't missed the way Alice's breathing had picked up in response, and she'd been slowly leaning forward when the knock at the door had come.
By the time she'd gotten rid of the page, Alice had retreated to the balcony, and Mirana had instinctively sensed that the moment was over. The subject had turned to more serious matters, then, and they hadn't really been alone again afterward.
And then she was gone.
"Hurry back, my champion," she whispered to the armor. "Your queen needs you." She allowed her hand to rest on it a moment more, then headed for her chambers.
If she was lucky, she might be able to steal a few hours sleep before the next attack.