Faith and Fiona Chattaway were known within their social circle for many things. Always being together was a given, as was being giggly, yes, and gossipy, most certainly. But for making wise or unscandalous decisions? No, for that, they were not.
So it came as a surprise to no one when, after Alice Kingsley's shocking refusal of Hamish Ascot, that she and the Chattaway sisters, whom were at best acquaintances beforehand, became fast and close friends. Scandal begets scandal, the society marms would whisper, as the trio of girls would rush by, arms linked and voices lowered for the better trading of secrets. During the six months of preparation it took to make the Wonder suitable for sailing, they would all meet as often as possible, laughing, giggling, and generally making themselves as ridiculous as possible. It was the first time Alice could remember having such good girlfriends, and she was exceptionally glad she had taken the time to get to know them.
What was shocking for society was that the twin girls had managed to (through no doubt the designs of their new dear friend Alice's part) make excellent matches for such well-known troublemakers. Two best friends whom, though not related, were as close as brothers themselves; as well as members of Alice's employ, began to court them with very serious designs. Alice could see the quartet's growing attachment to one another, and was contented that her new friends wouldn't miss her too terribly in her long absence to the Orient.
When Alice returned, some nine months later, she was not surprised by the news the sisters had waited to relate to her in person-a bit saddened, maybe, that she would not be able to laugh and giggle with them as she once had, but not surprised, no. She knew that someone would eventually snap them up, and she was gratified it was two gentlemen she knew to be gentle-natured and broad minded.
It was on the eve of their wedding (as it was going to be a wedding, singular-well, that is to say, a double wedding, to accommodate the sister's close bond) that all three friends were sitting about the Kingsley sitting room fire, laughing at small jokes and guessing as to what the bride's lives would soon be like. Fiona turned to Alice, a gleam in her eye that should have warned the blonde as to her intent. She glanced over at her twin, and she nodded her agreement. Yes, it was time to find out!
"So, Alice, is there anyone-who would make you the happiest of women-the way our dear men make us?" Nearly married and newly married women of all ages are happiest when, if not expounding on their delight at their happy state, attempting to induct all of their non-attached friends into an equal state of bliss. As were the sisters now going to try to undertake with the notorious Miss Kingsley. Unbidden, a shock of violent ginger curls and desperately burning green eyes flashed to Alice's mind. She stared down at her toes and shook her head, both to dispel the image and answer the Chattaway's well-intentioned question.
"No. There is no one." she said, quietly.
"Methinks, dear Alice-that perhaps you are being a bit disingenuous-with ourselves?"
Looking up sharply from the study of her toes, Alice insisted, in a voice too strident to be believed, "Oh! No, there is no one at all!"
Fiona pursed her lips. "I know you are holding back, dear one."
"If she says there isn't, then there's not, Fiona!" her twin snapped.
"She saying there's not in such a manner most assuredly means that there is, Faith!" the other rejoined.
The overwhelming urge to confide in her friends overtook Alice. She had spoken to no one, not her mother, or sisters, or anyone at all, of her trip down the rabbit hole; everyone had accepted her story of falling and hitting her head with no questions. (It was whispered that perhaps that knock to the head made her take leave of all her senses.) Knowing that even they, as loving of silliness and drama as they were, would not believe such a wild tale, Alice tempered her comments to be as mundane as possible, and conceded, "There may have been someone, once."
"I knew it!" crowed Faith.
"No, you said if she said there wasn't then it couldn't be! I was the one that said there was !" Fiona insisted.
"Do we know him?" both chimed in together.
Alice paused, and spoke slowly. "N-no…" Now that the initial confession, that she had held a tendresse for someone was out (as she had not even really admitted this to herself, before now), she was reluctant to speak. The sisters, despite being such good friend, were terrible gossips, and Alice so did not want her mother's hopes raised in such a manner. Since her return from China, every other dinner guest had been an available gentleman-Alice could see that her mother wanted to marry her off to someone, anyone, it seemed, as less and less respectable guests could be seen filling the table day after day. Margaret had still not conceived with Lowell, and Helen Kingsley was getting desperate for grandchildren. However, none of the guests her mother tempted into their household seemed, well, mad enough for her liking.
"Oh, don't not tell us now!" pleaded Faith.
"What is his name?" asked Fiona.
"Is he amiable?"
"Is he handsome?"
"Is he why you refused Hamish?" they rushed out, nearly making Alice dizzy with the rate of their questions. Finally she laughed, and held out her hands to forestall any other queries before they could tumble out. "One question at a time, friends! For the start-yes and no, I believe."
"Yes and no what?" they demanded. "That's a right strange way of answering-a proper set of questions-that was presented before you!"
Giving them a long stare down her nose before answering, (because really, anyone in Underland would have understood exactly what she was saying…well, no. Perhaps they wouldn't. And they'd question her in just the same manner the twins just had. Was that why she got along so famously with them?) Alice said, "As to why I refused Hamish, yes and no, T-Tarrant…" she stumbled over his name-she had never spoken it aloud, she realized! "Tarrant did and did not have to do with why I refused Hamish."
"How could he both cause-and not cause-such a decision?"
Alice turned her gaze to the fire, taking in the sight of the crumbling logs. Sometimes focusing elsewhere helped to sharpen her thoughts. "I knew I didn't want to marry Hamish."
"Who would, he's so dull!" interjected Fiona, but Alice continued on as if she hadn't spoken. Sometimes, when dealing with the twins, that was best.
"Tarrant just gave me the courage to refuse him, that's all."
"Is he terribly unsuitable?" asked Faith, face sober as she came to the only conclusion as to why Alice was as of yet unwed to this Tarrant who animated her face so when spoken of.
"He…he is in trade." Alice murmured, and both girls winced in sympathy. "A milliner."
"Oh, dear." the sisters sighed. It would be considered terrible indeed for such a well-bred young lady as Alice to marry so far below her station, even if her own father made his fortune in trade. But still Alice was not done.
"And he is completely mad!" she cried, a tear in the corner of her eye. Even if there were a way for him to live with her, here, in her London, it could never be, would never be considered proper-
"Well with you, Alice dear-we hardly expect-anything less!"
A set of even-more-rounded than usual eyes peered through the window into the Kingsley sitting room, amazed and not a little glad to be hearing what he was. There was hope yet, that something would induce Alice to return to Underland!
"You, Alice, have never cared for propriety or convention!" asserted Faith.
"Yes, why don't you just tell stuffy old Lord Ascot and your mother to go hang and go after your lad?" encouraged Fiona.
Alice turned to look at each girl's face, very seriously. "I would have to give up this life, this world completely. I would only be able to visit very occasionally, if at all."
This quieted the sisters, until Fiona ventured first, "If that is what should please you…"
"Then that is what you should do. We'd miss you…" continued Faith, "But understand." finished the other.
They all sat in silent reflection of several moments. Suddenly, Faith stood up with a wordless cry, and her sister hurried to follow suit. "Enough of this nonsense!" she trumpted, and Fiona huffed, "Nonesense indeed! We're helping a friend!"
"And so we shall continue to do so! This is the day before our wedding, is it not? And as such, should we not be in a celebratory mood?"
Fiona squinted one eye at her sister, but finally nodded her assent.
"Well, then, I say we've given ourselves enough to think on!"
Now Fiona understood. Her eyes sparkled as she added, "Now is the time for fun!"
The sisters walked up to where Alice sat, bemused. They continued with, "Do you think we should?"
"No, we shouldn't!"
"Then we shall!"
"Shouldn't what?" Alice asked. She hated surprises, but the Chattaways adored them.
"One last time!" they agreed. Each held out a hand and pulled the blonde to her feet.
"How do you feel about swimming?" grinned Fiona.
Turning crimson, Alice stuttered, "I-I don't believe…"
"Oh, but we do!"
"It will be great fun!"
"You must, please? One last night of impropriety, before we're horrid married old hags?"
Alice laughed. "Well, when you put it that way, who can refuse?" And soon they were clamoring out the door, trying to giggle softly so as not to wake the household, and have them ruin their newly hatched plan.
He very briefly considered not following them at all. But, he did want to make a complete report, and to be honest, he was so terribly interested in what was meant by "night of impropriety" (it sounded so promising!). So he hurried after them.
"Alice is fine…and…well…"squeaked out McTwisp, who kept nervously running his paws through his ears and rubbing his whiskers. Unusual behavior, if everything was as fine as he said it was. Queen Mirana raised an eyebrow, silently asking him to continue. "It seems she arrived back in London a fortnight ago."
All of Alice's friends were sitting around the March Hare's tea table, sipping from the mis-matched cups an enjoying pastries while the rabbit told his tale.
"There appeared to be preparations for a wedding occurring." he stated, at which point the Hatter choked on his bread-and-butter. Thackery helpfully pounded his friend on the back, until he was able to gasp out, "Not Alice's?" in strident tones of horror.
"Yes, was it Alice's?" the Dormouse joined in, an entirely different, eager tone coloring her voice.
"No, no!" McTwisp hurried to assure the Hatter. "It was friends of hers. Twin sisters, I believe. I arrived at the Kingsley manor on the eve of the event, as it were."
Here the unfortunate rabbit became more uncomfortable, and the others had to cry out, "Continue!" before he spoke.
"What was Alice doing?" the Hatter pressed. He wanted to know what was keeping her, these things she needed to do and questions that needed answered. They couldn't possibly be taking this long, could they? She said she'd be back before he knew it, but he'd known it several times over already, and was getting tired of the waiting.
"She was..they were…discussing things of a womanly nature." McTwisp hedged, but the Hatter had long ago given up any idea of discretion.
The rabbit sighed, obviously seeing that he wouldn't have any peace until he answered the man. He just didn't want to get his hopes up too high, and knew what he would say would do just that. "If Miss Alice herself had ever fancied a gentleman enough to marry."
Here the Hatter slid to the edge of his seat, and leaned his face forward, quite in the rabbit's personal space.
"And her reply?" Mirana called out, curious herself, and wanting to put the poor mad man out of his misery, one way or the other. Everyone around the table waited with bated breath, leaning forward and eyes wide-but none so much as the Hatter.
"She may have mentioned…that is to say she…she conceded to the ladies that there was one gentleman, whom she held a regard for, but he-"
"But he WHAT?" they all shouted together.
Sighing again, the rabbit gave over. "That he was a milliner, and unchangeably mad."
At this the Hatter let out a whoop of delight so loud that the gossiping birds in the trees above them were startled out of the perches, and he jumped upon the table. He jumped, and began to futterwack so…vigorously…that all the tea things clattered and broke upon the ground, splashing tea and pastry-bits all over the party-goers clothing. All the attendants (save Mallymkun, who looked decided crushed) laughed with joy at the display, until Mirana noticed McTwisp was still grooming himself obsessively. There was more to tell, then.
"What else, McTwisp?" she called out, to be heard over the breaking china. The Hatter abruptly stopped his dance, and leaned so as he was nose to nose with the White Rabbit.
"Yes, yes, dear friend! What else did she say about me?"
The rabbit took a step back. "After that she…that is to say, they…" he looked pleadingly over at the White Queen, but she wanted to know too badly herself to let McTwisp stop talking. He looked back at the Hatter, who growled audibly, and the frightened rabbit rushed out-
"When I realized, Tarrant, I tried to avert my eyes, I did! But they were…and I was…and they…!" He took a deep breath, and said in one long breath, "!" And then he promptly fainted.
No one, not even the Hatter, whom had been hanging on his every word, understood what he said. Soon he was roused by a helpful pot of tea to the face (one of the few pots that had escaped the Hatter's futterwacking frenzy). "W-what?" he spluttered, and awoke.
"No, tell us again, what she did?" A whole ring of faces surrounded McTwisp, and he felt a faint coming on again, but fought against it. He explained, and the Hatter was the first to sit back, transfixed. No one spoke for several moments, until he breathed, "She went swimming…naked?" The word naked was squeaked out reverently, as reverently as a word can be squeaked, in any case.
"Er…that is to say…yes."
"How…how…" Tarrant paused for a moment again, as the image of Alice swimming naked with him assailed his mind, and oh, how delightful would that be? How rapturously divine, his mind whispered.
"McTwisp!" he shouted instead. "I do believe a trip to Aboveground is in order!"
"Hatta?" Mallymkun questioned.
"She said she fancied me, and then she went swimming naked! I believe that says it all! I can't wait for Alice to come to me! I'm going to her, now!"
Alice was having tea with the newly married Faith and Fiona two days later, on the eve of their respective wedding tours. Fiona was just relating a shocking thing her husband could do with his tongue when a footman stepped into the room and coughed loudly.
"A begging your pardon, mademoiselle, madams. There is a…" here the footman paused, searching for the right word. He soon gave up, and settled with, "a gentleman…here to call on Miss Kingsley?"
"How strange. I'm not expecting anyone." Alice murmured to her friends, and said aloud, "Send him in, please, Reynolds."
Almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth, the Hatter pushed his way into the room. He held his tophat off to one side, under his arm, as a properly calling gentleman would do.
Alice sat, transfixed in her chair. Surely this was just-? But a quick look at the open-mouthed expressions on her friend's faces told her otherwise. He was really here.
"Alice…" he breathed, and was across the room in two strides. She herself had just stood as he arrived to her, and he pulled her to him in one swift motion, an arm about the waist, and then his other arm dropped the hat and wound itself into her hair as his lips crashed to hers, kissing her hungrily. Alice gave a small gasp of surprise, but gave herself over to the kiss until the sound of the former Chattaway's twittering broke through her haze.
"So you must be-Alice's hatter-Tarrant?"
"Telling tales of me?" he burred, his eyes not leaving Alice's face, and the twins shrieked in undisguised delight.
"Oh, he's Scottish, to boot!"
"You didn't tell us that, naughty cow!"
"Alice, your mother will just die!"
They seemed to relish that idea.
Alice, though, acted as though she couldn't hear them. "How did you-?"
"McTwisp. He came up to check on you, see what was taking you so long. Heard you talking to those two-" here he inclined his head to them, acknowledging them for the first time, "hello, ladies," then continued with, "and heard you missed me, then went for a swim."
A hot flush traveled through Alice's entire body. McTwisp had seen her swim with the twins? It wasn't that anything salacious happened, but still, they had all been naked…and then he told the Hatter about it?
"He told all of us at the Tea Party." the Hatter said, seeming to read her thoughts.
"All of us?" she asked, faintly.
"Oh, yes. We were all there…myself, Thackery, Mally, Queen Mirana…"
"The White Queen knows I go swimming naked?" hissed Alice. The Hatter ignored her.
"Are you ready to go home?" he asked, instead.
Alice paused. Her eyes found the twin's, and they all shared a smile of pure evil intent. "Not quite yet." Alice purred. She turned to the nearly apoplectic footman. "Reynolds, would you please fetch my mother? I have news for her."