Disclaimer: I do not own Tin Man or Alice and I make no money off this work.
The characters DG, Wyatt Cain, Glitch, Raw, Longcoats, Jeb Cain, Azkadellia, Queen Galinda, Ahamo, Dorothy Gale, and Ozma as used in this story come from Tin Man and L. Frank Baum's classic Wizard of Oz series.
The characters Jack Heart, Ten of Clubs, the Duchess, Charlie, Hatter, and Alice Hamilton as used in this story come from Alice.
This story contains drinking of alcoholic beverages and frank discussion of sexual situations. If you're not mature enough to handle it, go read something else.
This story takes place after Tin Man: Pirates of the Nonestic.
The flight of the Scarab over Shifting Sands and the Nonestic Ocean past the Isle of Yew to the kingdom of Wonderland gave Azkadellia plenty of time to think. So she sat beside the pilot, stared out the glass of the flying vehicle, and found she couldn't stop thinking about her traveling companion. Yes, that man watching the mechanics of this vehicle partly because it fascinated him but mostly because it put him on the opposite side of the compartment from her.
He would have much rather buried himself in his laboratory after their confessions to each other, but her mother had insisted he be part of this official envoy to Wonderland. A new monarchy had asked for help, and the kingdom was outside the Sorceress' sphere of influence. Azkadellia and Ambrose would make the perfect ambassadorial team. "And please, my dear Azkadellia, keep a more open mind than your sister. The Ten of Clubs said his King is unmarried."
Not for the first time, she wondered if her mother planned to skip her daughters in the succession and leave the crown of the Outer Zone on the head of a hypothetically granddaughter. The populace wanted DG on the throne, especially after her miracles so similar to her namesake; most nobles and the Queen were aghast at the thought; and nobody wanted Azkadellia. She couldn't blame them.
The footsteps of hard soled shoes echoed in the metal compartment. The Ten of Clubs stopped near Ambrose. "Lord Ambrose, we are approaching the City. Would you care to see how the Scarab maneuvers around the buildings?" That at least got Ambrose to brush off his trousers and join the other passengers. He may have a strange name, but the man in the black suit was an efficient courtier.
They were escorted to a beautiful gilded building that had the atmosphere of a hotel. A commercial grade ballroom beside the lobby had been turned into a receiving room. A blond man in a red suit style she had only seen in her father's drawings of the Other Side sat on a throne across a sea of purple paisley carpet. The Ten of Clubs led them straight to the dais. "Your Majesty, Her Royal Highness Princess Azkadellia of the Outer Zone and Lord Ambrose, Royal Advisor and Savior of the O.Z." He paused dramatically before gesturing to the seated man. "Jack Heart, King of Wonderland."
King Jack stood as Azkadellia curtseyed and Ambrose bowed. He was taller than she had anticipated. "Thank you for honoring Wonderland by accepting our invitation. I trust the voyage wasn't tedious?"
"No, your Majesty," Azkadellia answered. "Long but fascinating. The O.Z. doesn't have a method of travel like the Scarabs." Not yet, any ways.
"We have arranged a banquet in your honor for tonight. Two of Hearts shall show you to your rooms, so you can refresh yourselves." Farewells were exchanged and they followed the man in a white suit with a red heart and the numeral two stitched on the jacket further into the hotel turned palace.
She was seated next to King Jack for the banquet, and he explained the recent past of Wonderland. "There was a palace in the City, but my mother hated it. When my father built the Hearts Casino, she had it destroyed." A smile teased his lips. "Hard to believe but this hotel is less gaudy than the Casino ever was."
"Most of the infrastructure in the O.Z. suffered from neglect. The witch that possessed me didn't care about maintaining things for the people's benefit." Azkadellia toyed with her fork. Perhaps she shouldn't have shared that.
"The teas had the same effect. The ones who were addicted didn't care about anything but the next taste; the ones who overdosed had other issues; the ones who weren't addicted were too busy surviving. And now the withdrawals." He shook his head.
"That is what you need the O.Z.'s help with?"
"The Hospital of Dreams is swamped with the overdosed victims. The two scientists who designed the teas were killed during the coup, so we don't have anyone qualified to study the withdrawal symptoms to see if there is anything that can be done to alleviate the pain."
The Vapors addicts sprang to her mind. But after a few days, provided that they were not exposed again, the tremors stopped and the mind would clear. "How long do the withdrawals last?"
The remainder of their conversation replayed in Azkadellia's mind as she and Ambrose retired to their suite. She had worried that she would be subjected to inane prattle, but King Jack was intelligent and concerned about the welfare of his people. And he didn't assume that such concerns were beneath her notice. However, she didn't think Ambrose had been entertained nearly as well as his end of the table with how he silent he was now.
"You and the King found a lot to talk about." Ambrose lingered in the parlor of their suite after the doors had shut and they were alone. He picked up a writing utensil off the desk and twirled it in his long fingers while looking at the heavy velvet drapes covering the windows. "Quite the intense conversation."
"He was telling me about the problems Wonderland is facing."
"How fascinating. Hardly worth the daggers the shapely blonde in the skimpy dress were throwing at you with her eyes."
Azkadellia searched her tired brain. "The Duchess?"
"Believe so. Course, I'm not sure of anyone's identity after sitting next to the antediluvian in white who kept prattling about his Just Plain Alice of Legend, her harbinger, and a pink flying bird steed."
"I was only doing the diplomatic duty Mother entrusted to me. Why do you care? Aren't you the one who told me no? There could never be any public acknowledgment of the ties between us?"
Ambrose's hips and feet shifted into a rest stance she had seen him use in the training room before striking out at his sparring partner. How odd she had never noticed he did the same for his verbal spars. "I told you the truth, your Highness. It is what I am best used for as Royal Advisor. That and speculations and inventions. Do you think your mother will forgive DG if you snag a king?"
"If this is the unveiling of your great scheme to fix the fractures in the House of Gale, it will not be one of your more successful campaigns. One, Mother thinks she has forgiven DG even though every action she takes concerning my sister screams otherwise. Two, I doubt King Jack as charming as he is can measure up to you. Three, you are assuming my heart is for sale."
"I assume no such thing." He still refused to face her. "Only you have any say over your heart, but your hand is most definitely up for sale, your Highness. You could do much worse than the King of Wonderland."
"I won't discuss this with you."
Ambrose ignored her. "He can offer your refuge as well, away from the wagging tongues who will point out two rebellious children flocking together."
"I don't care what those wretched gossips say about me. You forgave me."
"And if you are his Queen, your mother will have to start the succession with DG and her children, or combine the two realms. Taking on the needs of the tea-heads I can assure you will not be popular with the citizens of the O.Z., which renders the idea infeasible and the burden falls back on DG's shoulders." He realized he twirled the pen and wrapped his fist around it. "As small as they are, I trust her better with the responsibility."
Azkadellia felt like she was buffeted by a strong squall and suffocating at the same time. "You trust DG to rule better than me?"
That plaintive cry made Ambrose whirl around. His toffee-colored eyes widened. "I trust DG's ability to make the right decisions for the Zone and her family better than I trust Queen Galinda's. Your qualifications did not factor in that statement at all, your Highness."
"Because I will never rule the Zone as myself." She could breathe again. "And that should leave me free to marry you, but you won't have me. Good-night, Ambrose." Her head stayed high while she marched into her bedroom, but her magic slammed the door behind her and locked it.
Jack Heart didn't know what to make of the pair of Outer Zone ambassadors. Lord Ambrose didn't care to see any of the sights of Wonderland and buried his nose in the Resistance's copies of the technical manuals of the Carpenter and Walrus' work with draining Oysters and making teas. He was supposed to be Princess Azkadellia's chaperone, but he was the O.Z.'s mechanical genius and working on helping them. Jack drafted Sir Charlie to perform the role as he gave Azkadellia the tour of Wonderland. His ruler or not, the White Knight would stop anything inappropriate originating from Jack.
The Princess Azkadellia was an enigma as well. She didn't behave like royalty on the marriage market. She had a sharp mind, and Jack suspected a sharp tongue as well, not that she showed it. But there was a wistfulness that she tried to hide. It might have worked if the same expression didn't lurk in his nightmares. It took a couple of days, but he finally caught what he searched for. Azkadellia's adoring gaze fell on Lord Ambrose's back and fled when the man with the zipper in his head turned. He sighed. He would have the woman's heart honestly or not at all; Alice taught him that.
Jack finally intercepted the man after dinner and Princess Azkadellia had retired for the night. "Lord Ambrose, I'm interested in hearing if you've made any progress with the manuals. Care to join me for a drink?"
"As long as it isn't tea," he muttered as he followed the King into a small lounge.
The blond man winced. "There will never be teas like that again." He handled the bartending himself, fixing a pair of martinis. "I understand how upsetting it must be, given the House of Gale's history with Oysters."
A grin broke across Ambrose's pale face. "You are a lucky man, your Majesty, by not meeting the youngest princess. She would need to hit you over how the Slippers were treated."
"Princess Dorothy Gale?"
Ambrose nodded. "And calling her and the Consort Oysters," he shook his head before swallowing some of the alcohol, "don't. Won't endear you to the in-laws." He drank again. "Now, what questions do you have about the research?"
"Have you found a way to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms?" Jack loosened his tie as he leaned against the bar.
"You want to trade one addiction for another?"
"It's only a working theory. The tea-heads don't remember how to feel their own emotions. The spell in the vapors acts as an artificial stimulant for the subject's emotions, targeting very specific ones. I want to double check that before asking Azkadellia how we can modify the magic and make it not addictive and target feeling normal."
Jack sipped his martini. "Is it difficult to talk to Princess Azkadellia? About things the witch was responsible for?"
"As long as she's not bludgeon with it. Azkadellia's practical. She knows she can't change the past." Ambrose's brown eyes met Jack's. "But that's not the question you really wanted to ask, is it, your Majesty?"
Jack tried to regain his footing. At least this verbal opponent didn't have a mania for decapitation. "I suppose it isn't. Why aren't you marrying her?" The slightly mocking expression wiped clean from Ambrose's face. "I've seen the looks she has aimed at the back of your head."
"I suppose they match the looks the Duchess has aimed at yours." Ambrose drained his glass and poured his own refill. "Azkadellia is practical. She does not want to remain clandestine lovers, which is the only relationship I can offer her. My duties in the O.Z. court will keep me there. It may take time, but she will accept your suit." He sniggered over the pun.
"But she loves you."
Ambrose drained the martini glass and slammed it down on the counter top, shifting at the last possible second so his fist took the impact instead of the glass. "You can give her what I cannot."
"She is a princess; she has no need for another title."
"What do you know of the history of headcasing?" His brown eyes were screwed shut as he gestured at the closed zipper splitting his head.
Jack pursed his lips. This subject obviously caused the man great pain, but there wasn't an avenue for a graceful exit. "Only that you were the first subject to survive for so long and to be successfully reconnected."
"It is fascinating to study. It was invented in the rule of Shell Thropp, who crowned himself the Emperor Apostle and ruled the O.Z. with an iron fist until Ozma the Great and the Great Gale overthrew him and restored Ozma to her birthright. He thought it was more humane or at least, easier to deal with criminals by making them prisoners of their own minds. But out of fear that the reprobates might continue to increase the population as they survived, they would be sterilized as well as removing half the brain. The Alchemists working for the witch followed the procedure to the letter." Ambrose's back was rigidly straight as he walked out of the lounge as if a pole had been shoved up his coat. He paused at the door, turning his head, but not far enough to actually see Jack. "You can give her a child, where I cannot. If she does not marry you, it will be to another whole man."
Jack let him leave. It gave his hand a chance to stop shaking long enough to refill his glass.
Azkadellia leaned against the balcony railing watching the reflections of light on the lake. They could help the people of Wonderland, and with something nasty the witch had developed and slapped her name on. It helped, but it didn't make her fully buoyant.
"Excuse me, Princess." The tall blonde woman is a purple dress short enough to show nearly her whole leg stood in the doorway back inside. "May I speak privately with you?" Azkadellia nodded and the Duchess moved beside her at the railing. "Jack entrusted me with the pursuit of delicate information." Her laughter was airy. "How does he think that is possible?"
"What does the King want to know?"
"How was Lord Ambrose's performance as a lover."
Azkadellia whirled around and met amused grey eyes. "Why in the world does the King of Wonderland want to know that?"
"I've started badly." The Duchess perched gracefully on a nearby chair at a diamond-shaped table. "The men had a conversation last night and Jack was perturbed by what he heard. He really is the King of Hearts. Lovers unhappy pains him."
"Your pain doesn't." Azkadellia sank into the seat across the table from the Duchess.
Her bright red lips smiled tightly. "He looks at me and sees the mechanizations of his mother. Hopefully, someday, he will see past that. Now, you and Lord Ambrose, it is plain to see that you love him."
The dull ache in Azkadellia's chest sharpened. "I have loved him since I was twelve-annuals-old. Then the witch came into our lives." She looked back at the lake. "I fought her so much for him. She finally agreed to spare his life and only took his brain to fulfill her plans. But he was alive and I had to be content with that."
"Until he was restored," the Duchess said.
"And he forgave me and loved me back." The tears felt so close to falling over. "It was so perfect until I screwed it up." What devil possessed me to take DG's advice? All my baby sister has ever managed to do is get me into trouble. "He was so content with the way things were, and I thought that it was my position. My mother was harping on a prince for my sister, he's only a lord, so I asked him to marry me. He told me no. Since he couldn't give me a child, all he could be was a bed partner." A few tears slid down her cheeks. "How we fought. I finally refused having a bed partner without a ring, and here we are now."
The Duchess frowned. "You had no idea he could not father children?"
"But you were intimate in the ways to create one?"
Azkadellia gathered her wits and her pride. "Look, if Wonderland can't provide entertainment of that nature, I do know a former Tin Man who can probably name a safe place in Central City for that sort of thing."
The Duchess laughed again. "You misunderstand why I ask. Apparently, there is more than one way to castrate a man." She shrugged her shoulders. "If it is done a certain way, the Other Side has a surgery to repair it."
Azkadellia traced the House of Gale's crest on the tabletop. "My sister told me. She grew up on the Other Side. But Mother forbade the use of travel storms. I think she's afraid we won't come back. But I can't afford to defy her."
Her blonde waves bounced as she nodded. Then she leaned across the table. "But what if you didn't use a travel storm?"
Ambrose finished editing his report for any glitches that made their way into the written words. His days of trusting his first draft were long gone, and Azkadellia would read over it before they let any Wonderlanders see it. Still it wasn't a bad piece of work.
The main doors of the suite flung open in front of Azkadellia and the Duchess, carrying garment bags. Before he could formulate a question, the Princess seized his lips in a kiss that left him gasping for breath. "Change into these clothes." A garment bag was dropped into his arms. "That's an order." The women vanished behind Azkadellia's bedroom door.
He blinked as his brain reconnected from the electric jolt of that kiss. Azkadellia's bedroom door was closed. Someone had been with her? She kissed him in front of the Duchess. One thing you could count on was Azkadellia's sense of propriety; what had Wonderland done to it? The closed door didn't answer him.
He had been given an order, hadn't he? He carried the clothes into his bedroom and realized it was a suit like King Jack's but black. He figured out how to drape the fabric over his body and fasten it closed, all except a flat rope of black silk. The King of Wonderland wore one as neck adornment, so Ambrose knew what the final look should be. Yet, all his fingers could manage was to turn it into a garrote under his collar. He gazed longingly at his simple coat draped across the bed. The reason he insisted on a high collar was not to be bothered with fussy neck adornments. He returned to the sitting room while adjusting the silk. His necklace was safely tucked away under the shirt.
Azkadellia's voice came into the sitting room clearly even filtered by the closed bedroom door. "No, this is completely improper. I'd rather wear those blue gene trousers my sister loves so much."
The Duchess threw open the door. "I don't have anything like that and there's no time for a tailor to make some." She saw the state of Ambrose's neck adornment and rolled her eyes. "Besides, Lady Alice dressed very similar so it is proper."
Azkadellia gingerly stepped into the doorway. Ambrose's forehead creased. Azkadee always walked confidently, even when suffering from her self-doubts. His eyebrows shooting up wiped the worry away.
Her legs were technically not bare, but the skin-tight, white material covering them left no guesses about their shape. The red velvet dress had long sleeves with a lacy triangle descending from the collar and matching lace covering the cuff, but the hemline stopped at the top of her thigh. Matching red leather boots started below her knee. He couldn't stop gaping at parts of her anatomy he had only felt in the dark and under blankets before. He wanted to start a fashion revolution in the O.Z. Cain would probably support it; Jeb certainly would.
The Duchess laughed and quickly corrected his neck adornment. "I think the issue will be you wearing anything else now." Her hand pushed up Ambrose's chin until his mouth closed. "You need a hat."
Azkadellia's hands fluttered near the hemline. "Do I really look acceptable?"
"Acceptable?" Ambrose blinked. "Delectable!" Her long brown hair was pulled up in a high ponytail, give her eyes the illusion of a slant. "You are the brightest, reddest candy apple with the sweetest flesh in the whole orchard and I don't know if I can make the trees throw you to me." The blush on her cheeks nearly matched her dress. "With that settled, what's going on?"
"It's a surprise Jack has arranged for you," the Duchess answered. "Now, come along before we're late for your very important date." The blonde woman rushed them through the hotel turned palace and through the multi-leveled streets of Wonderland's capital city. She paused to snatch a bowler from a startled Spade's head and plopped it on Ambrose's. "I'll get you a new one," she called into their wake.
The madcap dash ended at a building similar to one of Central City's transportation stations, but instead of platforms for trains or lifts, there was only a large mirror with a strange cube-ish frame hooked up to humming machinery. A relieved King Jack stood in front of it. "I was about to send someone after you."
Azkadellia stepped up to him. "I can never repay you for this."
"It is the least I can do, especially with your breakthrough with the tea addicts." Jack set a piece of paper into her hand. "This is directions to Alice Hamilton's home. She'll be able to guide you on the Other Side. Hatter's probably been over there long enough now to know his way around, but asking Alice will be easier."
Before Ambrose could question what would be easier for this Alice to answer, an official in a clear lab coat escorted him and Azkadellia to the mirror. "Remember to breathe." And a hard shove sent them through the glass.
Glass that didn't behave like glass and let their bodies through instead of shattering. They fell through a tunnel of colors and the air pressed hard against his body. What air he gulped down felt like trying to breathe underwater. Then they landed, sprawled out on a hard floor. Ambrose groaned, replaced the bowler on his head, and climbed to his feet. "Forgive my speaking like your sister, but what in hell was that?"
Azkadellia accepted his outstretched hand. "The Looking Glass."
"We're on the Other Side? The Queen forbid that!"
She finished brushing herself off. "Don't look so dismayed, Ambrose. This is only a fact-finding visit."
"Facts? What facts? To discover if DG can use mirrors to get items she misses?"
She took his arm. "Don't be silly. Wyatt Cain would never let DG jump through a mirror. Let's go find this Alice."
Hatter had just gotten home. This was Alice's late class day, which put him in charge of supper. And since he still hadn't figured out all the kitchen doodads, that meant ordering take out. Marvelous inventions Alice's world had, people would deliver food right to the door. While the kettle boiled, he laid the various menus on the table to survey the choices before making the phone call to order. So the knock on the door was too early and unconnected to food.
He didn't recognize the brown-haired couple, though something about the woman's face seemed vaguely familiar, but their clothes were enough to make him fling open the door. "Found yourselves on the wrong side of the Looking Glass?"
The woman in the short red dress smiled, relieved. "You must be Hatter."
"Got it in one, ducks." He let them in, noticing the fellow in the bowler did not like his familiarity with the lady. "So is something wrong in Wonderland or did Jack Hearts decide we need checking up on?"
"Neither," the brown-haired man snapped. "And we were told to ask for Alice."
The tea kettle whistled. "Alice is still at work. Care for a cuppa tea?"
"Yes, please," the woman answered as she sat in an armchair carefully keeping her knees together. "Ambrose, don't be rude."
"Rude?" Ambrose snatched the bowler off his head and Hatter saw the gleam of the zipper parting his hair.
Not Wonderlanders but from the Outer Zone, Hatter decided as he gather the serving tray. But a tea party is still a tea party no matter where the guests are from.
"I have been forced into uncomfortable clothing," Ambrose continued, "shoved through a mirror, sprawled out on concrete, dragged around the Other Side that is definitely not Kansas until we ended up here. Not one complaint have I uttered, and now you say don't be rude." He landed on the couch and folded his long legs away from the coffee table. "King Jack said we should ask Alice whatever we are asking Alice, since I still don't know what we are doing here despite the fact that your mother forbid going to the Other Side."
"She banned using travel storms, which we didn't do."
"I like your logic, ducks." Hatter filled the teapot. "Always look for the rabbit hole around the situation."
"Your approval is noted." Ambrose ran his hand over his pale face. "Azkadellia, why are we here?"
Now the face finally clicked and the teacup fell from Hatter's hands, shattering on the galley kitchen's tile floor. "Outer Zone? Azkadellia? I'm about to serve tea to the Sorceress of the O.Z.!"
She waved a hand and the broken shards of the teacup reassembled and flew back to Hatter's hand. Ambrose jumped to his feet. "The Sorceress hasn't existed since the Double Eclipse. Princess Azkadellia of the House of Gale was possessed by an evil witch and restored to herself!"
Hatter blinked at the thin man's rigid stance and Azkadellia's shrinking into herself. "Evil witch? I didn't know Wonderland's former monarch had a twin sister." He carried the serving tray to the coffee table. He hummed slightly as he poured the first cup. "We shouldn't mention it to Alice; bad history there. Her father wasn't possessed but he wasn't in his right mind either. Sugar?"
"Two please," Azkadellia answered. The pleases really sealed the deal. He couldn't see the Sorceress saying please for anything. She cradled the china cup in her hands. "You are accepting it better than my own people."
"I'm from Wonderland, your Highness. Six impossible things before breakfast. And then this side." Hatter blew air past his lips rudely. "The label on this tea said it was green and look at it, nothing green about it at all. But they're the logical ones." He passed a cup to Ambrose and fixed his. "Though I do have one question, Azkadellia," he stretched her name out as much as he was able. "Is it an old family name or did your parents not want kids?"
The question made her smile. "It has never occurred to me to ask."
Hatter settled back on the couch next to Ambrose. "I ended up with David. Honestly, do I look like a David? But all the documents necessary for living here got labeled with it and now I'm stuck."
"Do we need different names for our duration on the Other Side?" Ambrose set his empty cup down on the coffee table.
"Visiting or relocating?"
"Visiting," Azkadellia answered.
"There weren't enough sites in Wonderland to see?" Ambrose's hand snaked up to one of his curly locks and he tugged on it. "Your mother will have a fit worthy of going on record for posterity."
"Drop the titles, and shorten yours, ducks. Maybe Dellia." Hatter watched the pair of them over the rim of his cup.
"I like that. And Ambrose, if you bring up my mother again, I will do that thing that shuts you up. Audience or no."
Ambrose's brown eyes got as wide as saucers with Azkadellia's threat and his skin turned crimson. "That's not necessary."
Keys jingled in the lock. "Hatter, I'm home." Alice kicked the door shut before Hatter could reach it. "Oh we have company?" A perfectly arched eyebrow over a brilliant blue eye told Hatter now would be a good time for introductions.
"Alice Hamilton, Azkadellia and Ambrose of the Outer Zone by way of Wonderland." Ambrose stood up and bowed slightly.
"Hello." Alice hung up her purse and circled around to be in the parlor section of the large room that held the dining room and kitchen as well. "Outer Zone?"
"A neighboring realm to Wonderland, well, neighboring if you discount the Shifting Sands desert, and the Nonestic Ocean," Ambrose answered. His eyes darted to Azkadellia, who couldn't figure out how to stand up without the short dress riding up past where it shouldn't.
Hatter tugged Alice to the other armchair, so they could all sit. "Apparently, they're on a quest and Jack sent them to us, my Alice." Hatter and Ambrose both looked at Azkadellia, so Alice did too.
The dark-haired woman adjusted the cuffs on her sleeves. "It's not really a quest; it's for Ambrose. He needs to see a special doctor."
Hatter shifted his gaze to Ambrose as soon as Azkadellia started talking. He saw the tall man's microscopic flinch.
Alice leaned forward sympathetically. "What's wrong?"
"He can't have children. Both my sister and King Jack said there are alchemists," she shook her head, "doctors on this side who might be able to help."
"I should've known you'd talk to DG about this." Ambrose stormed to the windows and glared down at the street.
"You're angry?" Azkadellia stared at his back. "Why are you angry?"
"Viewers can't fix it, alchemists can't fix it, magic can't fix it. But you and DG won't leave well enough alone."
"Of course I can't leave it alone! It's why you won't marry me!"
Hatter glanced down at Alice looking up at him. He shrugged; after all, this wasn't his fault. They had shown up on the doorstep without an invitation.
Azkadellia threw up his chin defiantly. "Or is it just a convenient excuse to get sexual favors from me?" She was holding back tears, but Hatter could see it was a fragile dam.
Ambrose whirled from the window. "Don't you dare accuse me of that! Don't reduce how I feel for you to a political ploy or a twisted sense of revenge." His hand waved at the zipper bisecting his scalp. "I remember the Northern Palace, how you and she bickered. I remember our childhoods, such that we actually had. To imagine I would just use you!"
"What else am I supposed to think when you only offer yourself to be used by me?" Azkadellia freed herself from the armchair without an immodest mishap. "Babies don't matter to me; I doubt the citizens will even let me raise my own flesh and blood. But it's all important to you."
"The future of the O.Z.—"
"I know all your arguments, Ambrose. But science on the Other Side is different, DG has repeated that at nausea. And you, the best scientific mind the O.Z. has ever produced, won't even explore the options here. Why?"
"Why?" He exploded at the thrown gauntlet. "Because I have been poked and prodded and cut enough by medicoats for a hundred lifetimes! You have no idea what I went through getting rebrained, what I made Cain and DG and Raw promise before I went under again. I couldn't share it with you and watch you blame yourself for what you didn't do. What you're blaming yourself for now."
Azkadellia's brown eyes brimmed with tears. "Ambrose, please."
He shook his head and strode out the apartment's door. Her mouth fell open as the door slammed shut, and then she collapsed back into the armchair sobbing copiously.
Alice jumped to her feet. "I'm going after Grumpy, you handle Weepy here."
"Sure, leave me the damp one. Alice!" Hatter snatched the abandoned bowler off the couch and flew it across the room to his girl. She caught it with a cheeky grin before leaving. She'll get Ambrose the uptight straightened out in two ticks of the pocket watch. He considered the crying Princess. "First, find the box of soft napkins that Alice hides until there's a sad movie before you flood the apartment. Second, see if we have any cream cake."
Stop him before I fall through the Looking Glass again. Alice paused on the sidewalk until she spotted the striding man and jogged after him. The next time Hatter wanted to buy Jack an inappropriate gag gift, she wouldn't talk him out of it. "Ambrose! Ambrose, stop!" He didn't, so Alice ran faster.
Only to duck back as his leg came up in a roundhouse kick. She dropped into stance immediately, hands and bowler raised.
Ambrose raised his eyebrows at her reaction.
"I'm a black belt; do you really want to do it this way?" Alice challenged.
"Is that a mark of your competency?"
Ambrose straightened and bowed slightly. "My apologies, milady. Most of the people chasing after me in the recent past haven't been trying to return my hat."
She handed it over and straightened as well. "You didn't know why she wanted to come."
"No, my princess didn't tell me. I can name the others in her conspiracy." He put the bowler on his head and leaned against the brick building. "Though I'm just as much at fault. I did not know the King of Wonderland had spent time in this world, otherwise I would have kept my big mouth shut."
"I'm guessing you didn't elect to have the zipper added as a permanent fashion statement. Or the vasectomy."
"In a fashion, I did. I refused to give a dictator the scientific knowledge she wanted, and she plucked it and a good chunk of my brain matter out of my head. As for the other, you Other Siders have actually named it?"
Alice felt her face heat up. This was as bad as explaining the Viva Viagra commercial to Hatter. "It's a form of birth control, permanent birth control." Ambrose snorted. Alice pressed on. "Is having children that important? Why can't you adopt?"
"Because the O.Z. is in need of magic users and royal heirs. Azkadellia's children would be both. I would have liked to see if my marbles were an inheritable trait, but the choice was taken from me." The wistful look on his face vanished. "I'm not strong enough to face it again. My love isn't strong enough for that."
Alice put her hands in her pockets and was glad the street was deserted this time of the day. "I can understand having a phobia about scalpels."
"Phobia? I couldn't get my brain back in until my friends promised not to leave my side during the surgery, to keep reading the alchemist for any duplicity, and to shoot him if there was. In retrospect, I'm glad he was an honest man."
His fingers twitched, so she led him around the block that wouldn't go near the Looking Glass but would work off his nervous energy. "So you don't trust Azkadellia to protect you like that?"
Ambrose sighed as his fingers found a piece of paper in one of his pockets to fold and twist. "It certainly looks like that, doesn't it? But she has been blamed for so much and taken the blame for so much. She doesn't need the burden of my scars as well."
"And what does this give her? Leaving her because of something that's not her fault or yours?"
He shook his head. "People usually bring these conundrums to me to solve."
"What advice would you have if it was my problem instead of yours?"
"Someone actually sedated your hooligan in order to perform surgical experiments on him?" Ambrose asked. Alice raised her eyebrow, but he continued on. "That's my first thought not actually the solution." The paper folded into a square and then twisted into a stick. "I don't have enough data for a solution. Without knowing details, how can I say if there is or isn't a procedural change that can ease the young man's fears?
It was a little creepy how fast he came up with something useful as long as he wasn't thinking about himself. "Information I can help with." Alice held the door open to an Internet café.
Ambrose devoured the information about reversing vasectomies on three sites that Alice found for him. "I don't have to be sedated," was his first comment after he leaned back from the screen. "But there's still no guarantee it will work."
"It's never guaranteed with healthy people either."
"That's true." Ambrose straightened. "I'm sorry, are you and Hatter?"
"No!" Alice laughed. "We're not ready for that step. Are you ready to find a doctor?"
"I would think apologizing to Azkadee and then concocting what to tell the doctor would be first."
Alice smiled as she paid the cashier. "It's Hatter's job to concoct. He would be hurt if you didn't let him do it."
They headed back to the apartment. Hatter greeted them at the door wordlessly embracing Alice and laying his head on her shoulder. Ambrose had been present for enough of Azkadellia's understandable emotional breakdowns to wince in sympathy before he stepped further into the apartment. Alice led her paramour down a hallway, leaving him and the princess alone in the larger room.
Azkadellia had stopped crying, but it looked like she had used up wads of tissue paper. She started to rise from the chair but Ambrose beat her movement by kneeling beside it. "I can't force you to do something you don't want to do." Her chin wobbled, but she didn't burst into tears. "I won't watch you sacrifice—"
Ambrose kissed her hand softly. "And I can't make you do what you don't want to do. But you were right." Azkadellia couldn't speak her bewilderment. "I wasn't being scientific about it, just afraid. I always said I was braver with half-a-brain. I'll see the doctor and we'll decide from that." He cupped her face, still raw from crying. "I can't promise that I can see that part through, Azkadee. I want to, I want to be the father of your child, but when faced with the facts of this…."
She squeezed his hand on top of the armrest. "We'll face it together. You would not abandon me while I was shattered. You made me whole. I will not let this make you less than whole."
He did not deserve the fierce protectiveness that planted itself on her face. Not when he had been such a fool and coward. He let go of her face to pull the purple gemstone out from under his shirt. "Do you remember this?"
"My treasure," she said softly, brushing a finger against the gold wires wrapped around the polished shard to attach it to the gold chain. "Father took me to look for treasure and we found this stone the day DG was born."
"And annuals later, you gave it to a gawky and awkward child so he would know he was welcome in your family, in your lives." He locked his eyes with hers. "I have been yours ever since."
"You managed to keep it all these annuals? Oh Ambrose."
He wrapped his hand around it and tugged it loose, holding it out to Azkadellia. "Is there enough there to make a pair of rings?" She didn't question him as she laid her hand on top of the gold and stone. He felt the materials heat and shift against his skin, but the sensation did not hurt him. She lifted her hand and two bands gleamed in the light: half the circle made of smooth gold, the other half polished purple gemstone. He picked up her left hand and slid one of the rings on to her ring finger. "We'll make this official once we get back to the O.Z."
"I love you." She pressed her forehead to his as she slid his ring onto his finger.
"As much as I love you." He seized her lips and trapped them with his passion. They eased apart, almost afraid of letting go of each other and losing this. "You make me whole. You always have."