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Best Intentions

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When Helen Kingsleigh’s youngest daughter was seven years old, she was stolen by the Wee Folk.

She knew this as a certainty; an undeniable fact. She knew it in the same manner she knew her maiden name was MacTavish, and that when she was sixteen and a wide-eyed cobbler’s daughter, a handsome stranger had ridden into town and swept her literally off her feet, marrying her the next week by announcement at her father’s dinner table.

Helen knew Alice was different--Touched--in the way that she knew London was her current city of residence, and that she still loved her late husband with a ferocity none of the limp-wristed Society girls he’d courted before her could have ever dreamt of. It was irrefutable; Alice had been taken by those that lived Underground, forever marking her as not-the-same as proper society.

That day had started promisingly enough. They’d been visiting Lord and Lady Ascot at their country estate (although how Charles was friends with Rupert Allen Ascot, Helen had never worked out, and she was too intimidated at the time to ask Ermintrude, Ascot's wife. As a young woman it had never occurred to her to just ask her husband, and by the time she did think of doing such a thing, it had been so many years that it hardly seemed to matter anymore). Country pursuits abounded; there was shooting and hunting and fishing for the men, riding and leisurely walks through private gardens and lawn tennis for the ladies to relish. In fact, the Kingsleighs had been so enjoying themselves on that visit that Helen and Charles had been seriously discussing the idea of purchasing a country estate themselves; a place for their family to escape the bustle of town, at least for a few months of the year.

Until it happened.

Margaret had returned from the field behind the estate, frantic. Faith and Fiona Chattaway were directly behind her, having been invited for a picnic planned later that weekend. “Alice wandered off,” she gasped, “I tried to stop her, mother, I really did, but it was like she couldn’t hear a word I was saying! I called and called to her and I even shook her upon her arm but she wouldn’t look at me and--”

Helen rose from her chair, looking over at the Lady Ascot in alarm. Ermintrude simply appeared mildly amused, as if she were observing a species of creature newly introduced into the London Zoo1 (which was not helpful at all). “Slow down, Maggie, please, and tell me what happened.” she commanded her in her best I’m-your-mother-and-everything-will-be-just-fine voice.

So Margaret did, and what she said stirred even Lady Ascot out of her air of mildly amused superiority. “We were all in the upper field” (Margaret had not really wanted to admit this, as they were not supposed to wander that far off) “and we were picking wildflowers and…” she looked a bit nervously over at Ermintrude, knowing that she would disapprove of such behavior as she was describing, “…and dancing about, singing little songs…and Alice said that Dinah had run off again, so she went to fetch her. But she was gone ever so long! So Faith, Fiona, and I looked for her and when we found her she was just standing near this tree! We tried to call to her but she didn’t respond to us--she just gaped at this great hole in the earth under the tree! And--”

“For heaven’s sake, child, just get to the point!” Lady Ascot interrupted, leaning forward in her chair.

“Alice fell down a hole,” Fiona broke in, eyes wide, and Faith finished, “that we can not see the bottom of!”

“How could such a thing happen?” Ermintrude had demanded, raising a ruckus even as Helen, in the dream-like state of determined calm that some individuals can gather about themselves in a crisis, rose and marched to the study to find her husband. The girls and Lady Ascot trailed in her wake, spouting questions and wringing their hands.

The door to the study was thrown open, and both gentlemen therein blinked stupidly at Helen, even as she demanded, “Charles, I need you.”

A slow smirk had curled up one side of Charles’s face at this proclamation (as he’d experienced his wife doing such a thing before during a tedious party at the Lancaster estate, which led to a much more enjoyable time for them both) and he rose, more than willing to put business aside for the moment to assist his wife. Then the misses Chattaway pushed their way into the room, followed by Margaret and Lady Ascot. The hint of salaciousness that had been on his face was wiped away and replaced with concern. To have all of them in here, like this, without…

“What’s happened to Alice?” he asked.

Helen related what Margaret, Faith, and Fiona had told her. Charles was shedding his coat and rolling up his sleeves at half-way through the explanation, and charging out of doors before the end, his mind full of ropes and pulleys and some way to shine light down a fathomless hole.

“How could this happen?” Rupert had asked, and despite the gravity of the situation, the twins had huffed a bit in laughter at how the Lord of the estate seemed to have much the same turn of mind as his wife.

“Alice leaned forward,” Margaret panted, answering him quite seriously, “and then tumbled downward.”

“Yes.” Rupert blinked. “Quite so, I’m sure.”

Lord Ascot set about rousing his household, ordering them to prepare for the possibility of an injured child before all went to rescue the dear girl, fear in their hearts. Even small, sickly Hamish joined their party, (despite his mother’s insistence that he do no such thing,) intent on helping his age-mate. “Alice is always ever so kind to me, mother.” Hamish had asserted. “She sits with me and she tells the best stories.” (Hamish was ill so often that it often prevented him from participating in the more vigorous activities that the country estate abounded in. He spent much of his time convalescing in a lounge chair, his nurses hovering nearby and scolding him when ever he tried to do anything more than play chess or read a book. As a result, he had few friends, but he counted Alice among them, even if the girl herself did not consider him to be one of hers. Why, she would even sit with him for up to an hour some days, something that few others had been willing to do with nine-year-old Hamish.)

“Besides, mother, haven’t you said…”

“Yes, yes! Of course, dear.” Ermintrude cut her son off, before he could say something indelicate.

“Well then it’s my responsibility to help her, is it not?”

How could Lady Ascot deny this to her son? She knew the boy had taken quite a liking to the young girl, to the point where he’d even suggested when they were older…Ermintrude had simply agreed with him at the time, thinking it a school-boy crush on a pretty girl that showed him attention that would fade when he found someone more suitable…

“Of course, darling.” she conceded, and with that the boy was trailing after Charles and Rupert, walking as fast as his short legs and asthma would allow him.

Yet when they arrived at the place the girls directed them to, none of the plans concocted by Charles or the well-intentioned determination to help from Rupert and Hamish were needed. Alice lay outside of a small, seemingly normal rabbit hutch, fast asleep. A wreath of orange blossoms2 crowned her head.

“Mother, look!” Hamish had whispered, voice tinged in awe. “She looks just like a maiden in one of her stories. Have I told you about the one where the nymphs and the--”

“Hamish!” Ermintrude scolded, worried and embarrassed at what her guests might say about her boy, despite the fact that they surely couldn’t care less at the moment if he spouted nonsense in Mandarin Chinese.

Yet when Helen looked at Alice, she knew that Hamish was right. Alice did look like a maiden in one of the Auld Tales. Her peaceful smile and relaxed disposition did nothing to dispel the fact that there was a crown of unearthly, beautiful flowers about her head that were (and had she gone mad, or were they really) singing to her.

It was this, the sight of those pale flowers swaying, singing words of love, duty, and devotion, that decided Helen’s actions. A fear for her little girl unlike any other she’d felt before churned her stomach, and she fought the urge to retch even as she stepped forward and commanded her elder daughter, “Margaret, to me.”


What they did next Helen was not exactly proud of. She didn’t regret the action, no, but neither was she proud of it--for who could say that they are proud of deceiving their own child, even if that deception was kindly done, with the best and most noble of intentions?

Charles had come forward with Margaret, and he carefully lifted Alice’s sleeping form away from the hole, setting her back down several yards away under a different tree altogether. Helen and Margaret proceeded to brush the dirt (and soot and jam, of all things! There was one splotch that seemed to be rather tea-like, but there was nothing they could do for that) from her clothing, and wipe her face and hands clean. An ornate thimble that neither Helen nor Margaret recognized capped Alice’s right hand ring finger3, which Margaret removed and held out to her mother, in silent question on what to do with the item. Helen jerked her head towards the hole, and said, urgently, “Throw that back down. Quickly, now!”

Helen herself lifted the crown of orange blossoms. When she did so, her half-imagined (or so she thought) fancy of them singing a lullaby to Alice was confirmed, as one of those flower-faces turned to her and huffed. “We’re just doing as we’d been told, ma’am.” Barely resisting the urge to shriek (unlike Faith and Fiona, who did so with abandon) Helen marched over to the rabbit hole, and glared at the recalcitrant blooms.

“Ye tell whomever ’as marked me daugh’er this: She’ll no be ga’n back Below. She’s my child, aye? A little girl. Ye canna have ‘er!” Then she tossed the crown down the hole, not even wincing at the distressed cries of the flowers as they tumbled downward.

Slightly floundering, the Ascot family and Chattaway girls stood off to one side and watched Helen arrange her daughter’s clothing and position to be as similar to a young girl having just fallen innocently asleep as possible. When she was finished, she turned to them, her voice a hiss.

“Nothing happened here. Do you understand me?” Raising her brows, she focused on Lady Ascot. “Trudy? Naw a ting ‘a all!” She fought the sharp edge of her own hysteria to say in a commanding manner, “Should any ask, we tell that we came because Margaret thought her sister had met with misadventure, but she was mistaken. Alice is to hear nothing of this. Ever! Not one word, Hamish Ascot! You either, girls.” she added at the last moment.

“Yes, Mrs. Kingsleigh” and “Of course, Mrs. Kingsleigh” were her answers.

“Now you, Margaret…” Helen held her elder girl by her shoulders, and looked deeply into her eyes. “The Ascots, your father and I are going to be in that copse there.. You and the girls will stay here and wake Alice. After she wakes, say nothing of what you saw here…and for the sake of the good Lord above, do not be frightened! No matter what she says or does. We will stay long enough to see that she is hale once awake, and if so, we will then go down to the house.”

“Helen, I really don’t think all of this subterfuge is--”

Expression hard, Helen turned to her husband. “You are not thinking, no! We will do this, and everything will go as I say!”

“Mrs. Kingsleigh,” a small male voice interrupted her, as Hamish stepped out of the protective circle of his parent’s embrace, “May I stay here? With the girls? I want to…that is, Alice…” he gestured helplessly towards the sleeping girl, and Helen’s face softened.

“I’m sorry, Hamish, but no. It would be too commentable for her if you were to be present. You must wait with us in the trees.”

“I’ll slow you down!” Hamish insisted, giving the woman pause. Hamish was hardly ever insistent on anything, other than his dislike of bread pudding and boiled eggs. “You do intend to get back to the Manor before them, do you not?” he asked, his freckled nose twitching. “If you have to go at my pace,” his face flushed from embarrassment that he had to acknowledge such a weakness, but pressed on despite that, “you will never get there in time. Yet if I stay here, it will perhaps…?”

It was a small detail, in the scope of things, Helen conceded. Yet plans such as this succeeded or failed depending on such details…in the end, she agreed. “Alright, Hamish, you may stay. Now come along!” she called to the elder Ascots and Charles. “Let us wait over here.”

Trudy and Rupert made a few noises about the preposterousness of being thus treated on their own property, but the majority of their bluster was diminished by the bizarre nature of what had occurred there. Once in the coppice, Ermintrude repeatedly asked her husband, “Were those flowers speaking?” and Rupert fussed that perhaps this was all his fault, for having skipped the leavings of bread-and-milk4 with honey this year.

For a quarter of an hour they waited in a sort of tense uncertainty. First the girls had to position themselves around her, and then Hamish had insisted on sitting right beside Alice, for which Margaret scolded him severely; finally they were ready, and Margaret reached out and shook her sister awake.

When the girl’s hazel eyes fluttered open, Margaret was calm and collected, allowing not a single preposterous thing that passed the child’s lips to be considered to be seen as truth or reality in her eyes. Faith and Fiona had less luck here, their small mouths dropping open into circles of shock as Alice excitedly chattered about a place she called ‘Wonderland’. Hamish hovered nearby, hands in his pockets, his lower lip bitten in uncertainty, saying such things as, “Really, Alice, I don’t think that--” and “How silly! Why, are you making a brand-new story just for me?”

Margaret, though, had smiled, nodded, and exclaimed in all the right places, telling Alice that she must have had the most vivid and fantastic dream (from falling asleep in the sun, no doubt; had mother not warned them of such an activity?) and didn’t she want to go to supper now?

With the logic of youth (which was not going to question why her strict older sister was not keen on punishing her for wandering off and falling asleep, like she normally would, nor yet why Hamish Ascot trailed after the girls, when a boy being alone with females was most improper) Alice accepted her adventure as a dream (“Though it seemed so real? Why, when I awoke I expected the Hatter’s thimble to be upon my finger! But of course it was not…”) and started chatting on what was to be for supper that night. Would cook perhaps prepare them an extra tea, even though they missed her afternoon offerings? She’d desperately wanted some in her dream, but she never seemed to get any!

Helen and Charles stood together in the trees while this duplicity was carried out. Charles’ hands shook in his wife’s grasp as their beloved daughter returned to speaking of Queens, beheadings and talking animals. When the children were out of earshot, he dropped Helen’s hands and said, very seriously, “This will not be the end of this. Would that it were, but…” Shaking his head, he continued, “They say I am mad, for daring to dream of new trading routes and performing risky investments.” The fear in his eyes was reflected in his voice as he said, “What now, will they say of her, when she speaks of this? Helen…what has happened to our daughter?”

Instead of answering just then, Helen quietly suggested they begin walking to get back to the Manor house before the children (whom were taking the longer route back, per Helen’s suggestion) to complete the charade that nothing had even been amiss. She simply had not known what to tell him, aside from the stories of her youth, and there was no comfort to be found in those.

No, she couldn’t tell her husband that she suspected their daughter had been led away by the fae, nor that she had no idea why those of that Realm had ever let go of their precious daughter once they had her in their grasp. The fae loved the young and imaginative, of which Alice was both. For all that Helen had heard and been told, such a thing was nearly impossible.

Rupert and Ermintrude followed behind, silent specters that Helen hardly noticed in her distraction.

That is not to say that Helen was not extremely grateful that the child did return, oh no! She loved her daughter very much. In the following weeks, she would smile at her insistence in wearing one of Charles’ old tophats, and indulged in her random pirouettes in their home that hinted the land that had taken her was not yet done with Alice.

Yet any true mention Alice made of the land Under (those words she spoke outside of her childish games) frightened Helen, badly. She immediately silenced the girl when she'd begin rambling on that subject; to speak of such things, she thought, was to invite them to you. Let her have her games, Helen had thought to herself, as long as they remain that, and nothing more. Alice would grow, and she would marry, and the fae would never touch her again.

It was only after Alice was taken for the second time (and what a horrid sight that was; she’d walked into the room just as the child stepped through the mirror--she’d rushed to it, but by the time she reached it Alice was through, and there was nothing but a cool, solid surface under her fingers) that she realized the depth of her self-deception. Just because she didn’t wish what had happened to Alice to be so didn’t make the truth any less than what it was. She’d known what had occurred, and had purposefully blinded herself to it.

She’d collapsed into the closest chair in that dining room and cried for hours. “She's too young,” Helen had wept. “Much too young, for what they intend of her.” She was convinced she'd never see her daughter again.

But see her again she did.

Alice returned a half-day later, speaking with confusion in her hazel eyes about being made a Queen in the Looking-Glass land. Helen hugged the little girl tight to her chest, raining kisses on her golden curls and fighting back new tears.

After shuffling her off to get a warm bath and go to bed, Helen ordered the staff to destroy the Looking Glass. That portal, she reasoned, was how those that lived beyond and Under were keeping track of her girl. Inside, however, she feared destroying their means of observing Alice was too little, too late. Unfortunately, she was right.

Her daughter was changed.

At the very first, there were not many signs to indicate this change. She tried to talk in public about her experiences, much like her reaction to her last visit, and Helen was able to force her silence with stern glares and subtle pinches. (Alice was told she could speak of it with her and her father while in the privacy of their own home, she told her, but she was never to speak of it to anyone else--not even Margaret.)

A few weeks after the incident, though, the poor thing began having what she described as ‘strange, mad dreams’ and had a somber cast that one so young should not wear. Although she no longer spoke of her ‘Wonderland’, she rarely slept and always had a drained, haunted look about her eyes. It was a look, Helen had been told by her own mother, that the elf-struck5 wore when they were unable to contact their adoptive realm.

Other things occurred. Helen didn’t know precisely when it was that random items were moved throughout her house, nor yet when the watcher animals, as Helen dubbed them in her mind, began tracing her movements. Sometimes they were spiders; other times, birds outside the window, or flies on the ceiling. Helen spoke to no one of those creatures, not even her husband, for she knew she ran the risk of being called quite mad if any knew what she suspected: that they were sent to watch her girl. The insects she was able to squash, but the birds...she'd had to resort to keeping the curtains drawn at all times of the day and night, something which did not help her now-sickly daughter's health.

Helen's vigilance with the watcher animals paid off; she began to feel their presence less and less. Afterwards, the only signs Helen ever saw (besides Alice's lingering illness, which Helen firmly refused to think on) that would indicate that there was someone perhaps...interested in her daughter were the odd trinkets found throughout the house. Small gifts neither she nor Charles had given her began appearing, every year, on her birthday. Once, when Alice turned nine, Helen had even found a piece a scrap of paper with very poorly written verse on one side and the numbers 10/6 on the other.

She’d immediately chucked it into the fire, shoving aside the clenching in her stomach the masculine, slanted words had given her.

Charles had helped their daughter as best he could by lifting Alice’s spirits. He’d not lied to her further, but instead told her nothing with wrong with her. He assured her of his love, of the idea that madness was not necessarily a bad thing--between that and Helen’s sternness, they struck a balance that was enough to keep the majority of Alice’s oddity hidden from society.

A large part of Helen had been afraid to show her child affection. How could she allow herself to care for her, when at any moment she could be snatched away?

They made me a Queen, mama! Can you imagine? It was so very thrilling. But then they made me practice my arithmetic, and that was less so...

Yet it was impossible to not love Alice. Despite the scare of her second trip to the land Under, and the various signs that appeared around the house, Helen had grown complacent as more years went by without any actual sightings of the Wee Folk. Alice had matured and gradually forgotten her adventures, and they slipped into the pattern of a normal, happy family…and if Alice was a bit closer to Charles than she, well, then, that was simply because some little girls were closer to their fathers than others, wasn’t it? It had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been the one to soothe her after…and if Alice’s gaze occasionally seemed to catch on things that weren’t actually there, then that was ignored.

After Charles passed, though, Helen had been overwhelmed. Margaret was of age; she set about making a decent match for her, accepting the first offer to come along that was not completely ludicrous. Lowell Manchester had seemed to be everything a young man petitioning for her daughter should be; young, well-bred, wealthy. What Helen hadn’t realized, what Charles would have been easily able to learn had he still been alive, was Manchester’s growing reputation for unsavory activities…chief among them womanizing and gambling.

Still, Margaret was married. She was settled, and seemingly safe enough. It was the best that Helen could do for her. Alice, however….Alice, she feared, would never make a suitable match. Despite everything that she and Charles had done over the years, there had still been enough instances where her daughter’s head had been in the clouds when it should have been on the ground, and people had talked. That, coupled with the fact that she was a sickly girl (the health and vigor of her younger years was but a memory) worked to Helen's disadvantage when trying to find a suitable match for the girl.

The day that Hamish Ascot had come to her, more nervous than the one time she’d ever seen him be truly naughty (when he’d smuggled a frog to dinner in an attempt to impress Alice; she’d been talking about a variety of animals serving foods and being present at a meal, so he’d thought to either tease her or impress her--Helen still wasn’t certain which--and the unfortunate creature had escaped from his trouser pockets before he’d had a chance to present it to her. Several expensive broken fine china plates and one dead frog later, Hamish was desperately trying to console a heartbroken Alice, who railed at him for being ‘so extraordinarily cruel’ as to ‘be the instrument which brought about ending an innocent creature’s life’ while his mother screamed above him that he had no business bringing amphibians into her home, especially at her dinner table while they were entertaining guests, and couldn’t he leave that poor little girl alone for one moment and attend to what she was saying? Come to think of it, that had been when the rift between Hamish and Alice had started to grow--when the awkward friendship of their early youth gave way to the half-formed hostility of their elder years) was a relief and a concern, all at once.

“I mean to ask Alice for her hand in marriage,” he’d said, nose held high in the air. His weak chin was nearly one with his neck, and he held the lapels of his jacket tight. Only keen observation showed Helen the fine tremor of his hands, the subtle tightness about his eyes. “Do I have your consent, madam?”

It was highly unusual for Hamish to be making his petition to her; yet they had no male relatives besides Lowell who would be able to hear that request, and she and Hamish both knew that unfortunately it would be best if they existed as if the man didn’t.

“Of course, Hamish. When will you be asking her?” She didn’t try to keep the relief out of her voice. Hamish knew--he had been there, that day in the field--and he was willing to marry Alice regardless. Thanks be to God, Helen whispered in the back of her mind as she maintained a stoic expression for the man’s benefit. I only hope that the marriage can occur before they try to claim her for the third and final time. Three journeys, three marks on her soul. But if she is already safely wed, then maybe, just maybe, they will release her, instead of binding her Below. She Ignored the voice that told her marrying Alice off would be too little, too late.

A scuffing of his expensive Italian-made leather shoes upon the drawing room floor had been Hamish's only initial answer. “Mother is planning a garden party for next week. Here.”

He withdrew an ostentatiously decorated envelope and passed it to Helen, who accepted it with an amused tilt to her brow that belied her fears.

“Trudy is…excited, about your decision, then?”

Uncharacteristically, Hamish snorted. “She is thrilled beyond measure. All she can think of is physically attractive grandchildren. Why, it’s almost as if she doesn’t remember…” he cut himself off mid-speech, suddenly clamping his mouth closed.

“Doesn’t remember what?” Helen inquired. Was he, she thought with dread, referring to that incident years ago?

It was something else entirely. “I told my mother when I was nine years old that I intended to marry Alice one day. She didn’t believe me. Told me I’d be better off waiting for a young lady better suited for my rank and title.” He shrugged, semi-apologetically, and Helen waved the insult away. She knew perfectly well what her family’s position in society was; it never had been as good as the Ascots, and she’d long ago accepted that. To be offended when reminded of one’s place would lead to a very frustrating and sorrowful life.

“I know that Alice is…different.” he said, large blue eyes meeting Helen’s own. “Yet I believe with a strong hand guiding her and someone who understands…where her fancies come from…she will completely overcome her more...flighty tendencies.”

“And is that the only reason why you are offering for Alice?” Helen asked him, voice knowing. “Because you are a gentleman who wishes to assist a lady?”

After a long, quiet, tense moment, Hamish admitted, “No.” His sweaty hand went up to rub the back of his equally sweaty neck, and his grimaced in distaste before sighing and saying, “She sat with me--spoke to me!--when there were woefully few who would. Alice was kind to me when no one else ever thought of being so, and unkind to me when I deserved it. I think she is the only person in my entire life who has ever been completely honest with me.” Swallowing, he said, “That is why I am offering for your daughter.”

It wasn’t love, but it would have to do. It was the closest Alice was likely to ever get in this life.

“What day is the party?” Helen asked, and Hamish huffed a breath in relief.

“Thursday; Mother would like you both to be there by four.”

That party was supposed to be Alice’s salvation. It was to go exactly as Margaret had outlined it to her sister: she was to marry Hamish, pleased that she’d managed to attract the affections of a Lord, and be content with her lot in life. Instead, she ran away from the young man’s proposal, had left him kneeling in the gazebo with a bit of his heart and most of his pride in his hands, and took off into the brush. Helen had wanted to go after her, but a firm hand on her arm from Lord Ascot prevented her.

“Rupert!” she’d hissed, jerking out of his confining grip. “My daughter is distressed! I need to go to her!”

“You need to stay put!” the elder Ascot said warningly. “This already looks bad enough for the both of you--if you go rushing off after her, all you’re going to do is add fuel to the paper-writer’s fires. Don’t do that, Helen.”

Chafing under the reprimand, but agreeing once she’d exerted control over herself (and her instincts) she resigned herself to waiting for her girl. She immediately regretted it when she saw her appearance when she returned.

Something strange had happened to Alice once again.

Thick clumps of dirt and mud clung to her ice blue dress; three seemingly deep yet fully healed gashes marred the previously unbroken skin of her right arm, and above all there was that Look in her eyes. The Look she’d had when returning from the faerie realms, before Helen had been able to convince her it was all a dream--the look that said that anything was possible, and if you refuted her, she’d set about proving herself to you. She positively glowed. Helen was amazed and hopeful, oh-so-hopeful, that perhaps Hamish's proposal alone had been enough. Had been enough, that is, to heal her elf-struck sickness, to bring her fully back into this world. A ramble in the woods before accepting a proposal could and would be overlooked; her bedraggled appearance could be smoothed over, even if it looked like she'd climbed Mount Pleasant6 with someone. All she had to do was accept him, and she'd be safe. Safe!

Then she’d gone and refused Hamish.

Refused him and publicly humiliated him, no less.

Helen had begged the girl, had pleaded with her to reconsider. Alice, however, was resolute. “Hamish is not the man for me,” she said with absolute conviction when asked, and that was all. She tried to reason with her, explain why it would be an advantageous match for both—she even went so far as to inform her of Hamish's long-standing regard for her.

Alice had blinked, face blank, for several moments. Helen felt a surge of hope—perhaps she'd only refused because she thought Hamish offered out of a sense of honor? Then Alice got a far-away look in her eyes (the look she got when thinking about that place) and said, “I am sorry to have given occasion to cause Hamish pain, then, but mother....he is not for me. I'm sorry.”

China had been the only viable solution after that. Alice later told her that Hamish had gone to her privately--an impertinence she wouldn’t have expected from Lord Ascot’s only child!--and renewed his suit, only to be denied again (although apparently with much kinder words this time; some good came of Helen informing Alice of Hamish's regard, at least). Helen had to get her away—as far away as possible from those that would steal her. Be she married or be she off of English soil, it didn’t matter. Either way, she’d be out of the clutches of the sidhe, and that was what mattered the most.

She really should have known better, to think that sending her to China and away from the English mounds would be the end of it. Alice had to come back eventually, yes? And when she did, the same problems that she’d left behind would still be waiting for her upon her return, would they not? Yes, of course they would. Her health when she set out on the voyage had been the best it had been since she was a child, and even as Helen suspected why, she'd waved to her daughter on that ship and hoped. Helen was so proud of her hale and healthy girl, with her luminescent smile as she didn't wave to them from the bow of the ship. When Alice returned, though, another occurrence that Helen feared happening had taken place.

The pale, thin girl that disembarked that ship was not the same young woman who'd climbed aboard. Her hair, skin and nails looked lifeless and dull; physical exertion expended for more than a half-hour at a time exhausted her. She was Fading; there was no other word for it. Being so far away from the land Helen knew she was bound to had weakened her considerably.

Faerie hadn’t let Alice go out of any kindness or compassion in their cold hearts; something whispered to Helen that those that lived below had been simply waiting until she was old enough to survive being taken there permanently. It was only a matter of time before they came for her—before he, that one that had slipped the thimble on her tiny finger, walked into her home and sought out her girl.

Unfortunately, Helen had this epiphany too late. Much too late, for she had it when she stepped into the hall, prepared to visit an acquaintance, and saw the creature standing on the bottom of her stairwell, looking wistfully upward. Much too late to actually protect her daughter from what was about to occur.

Chapter Text

Helen didn’t know where to look first. Even with only his profile visible to her, the creature was a study of contradictions and confusion. A patched and singed top hat wound about with a salmon colored ribbon finally succeeded in drawing her eye first, but soon she was distracted by the tall striped socks that were proudly displayed under pants that were unfashionably short. The man-shaped creature’s waistcoat was a very fine embroidered piece, completely at odds with the rest of his disheveled appearance. When she stepped forward with one shaky, uncertain step, she noted the suit jacket upon his shoulders was made of a high quality silk, instead of the inferior fabric she'd expected.

A full view of his face was not necessary for Helen to know what he was--she knew what this creature’s presence in her home meant, as surely as she had known what the orange blossoms crowning Alice’s head had meant fourteen years ago.

“You’ll not have my daughter,” she said to its back, the control and clarity of her voice surprising her.

His head whipped in her direction, then, and any niggle of doubt (that part of her brain that had become thoroughly English during her years of living in London) Helen may have had about what this man--no, man was the wrong word, for this looked like no man she’d ever seen--this Under monster’s purpose for being in her home was completely eliminated.

Tri-colored eyes widened upon seeing her, burning vibrantly against his ghostly pallor. Damaged hands removed the top hat. A smile she was sure was meant to be reassuring split his dark lips.

He was gat-toothed1, and his hair was of a dissembling color2. Helen fought the urge to cross herself and succeeded in suppressing the ingrained action--barely. It was a sign of how shaken she was; it had been years since she’d relied on such Papish3 nonsense when faced with a Situation. (She should not do such a thing, even if the riot of hair that had been suppressed under that hat was the color of hell itself when set free.)

“You must be Mrs. Kingsleigh!” He made to step towards her, the smile even wider upon his face, and Helen violently backed away from him. His entire person drooped at her reaction; even the the silk of the jacket she reluctantly admired darkened in hue. “Yes, you must be indeed.” Heaving a sigh, his be-thimbled fingers worried the rim of the hat in his hands.

“I’m afraid, madam, that there is nothing to be done. Alice has eaten of our food, and she is finally of age.” The word ‘finally’ was spoken with a sort of longing desperation that was hard to mistake. Helen stared at the thimbles that capped his fingers, then took a long, hard look at the expression on his face.

This was the one, then. He’d been the one to place that thimble upon such a specific finger on her daughter--her little girl!--all those years ago. The 10/6 card stuck in the brim of his hat recalled the snatches of verse Helen had burnt in the fire, with it’s overly masculine script. Had it been his hand to pen those rhymes? Helen had never had the Sight, but she could right then See clearly this beast sitting at a low writing desk, lips pursed in concentration and muttering to himself as he attempted to craft little bits of nonsense to amuse her little girl.

This was the one that had been waiting for her daughter to grow; had been waiting for her to mature from the first time she’d been lured to that land. She shuddered at the idea of Alice at six years old in the company of this creature; of him forming salacious plans for her and thinking such mature thoughts based upon her delicate girl-child beauty.

Finally of age. Yes, Alice's twenty-first birthday had been a fortnight prior. Yet she'd only returned to port a week ago, and Helen had hoped...had thought that perhaps, if she were not here for the actual day...but it was no use. She looked up at the creature and wanted nothing more than to rip him apart, right then and there. She must proceed with caution, however—who knew what powers might be under this being's control?

Mostly green eyes looked down at his feet, almost guiltily, as if he could hear Helen’s outraged thoughts. From habit, Helen’s gaze followed his own, and they both stared at his bright red shoelaces until she forced herself to look upon his face once again. The creature rushed to fill the charged silence.

“I know not when it occurred, save it was never with me. Clean cup, clean cup, move down! Never let her eat a crumb, nor have a drop.” The corners of his nervous smiled wobbled. “He became quite cross with me, but it was for his own good! I would never allow anything to harm the Alice, and--”

“Hatter?”

Her daughter’s call echoed down from the top of the stairwell. Disbelief and hope colored that one word. Helen watched the man-that-was-not-a-man, saw the absolute radiance of emotion pouring out of him at the sound of Alice’s voice. His clothing became brighter, his eyes an almost solid green (with none of that off-putting yellow or orange). Even his bowtie perked to attention. A new, genuine smile transformed his face, making him appear decades younger despite the gap showing clearly in his stained teeth. Helen shuddered, as every fear she’d ever held in regards to her youngest daughter came to life at once. Why couldn’t Alice have simply accepted Hamish when he proposed? If she had, this wouldn’t be happening! She’d be married, maybe with a little one on the way. She’d be safe from…

“Alice!” the ginger creature trumpeted, rushing halfway up the staircase. Only halfway, because Alice had stumbled down the other half, and they met each other in the middle. The hat he’d been fussing with was abandoned on the bottom landing, where it rocked back and forth from where it had tumbled out of his beastly hands in the rush to reach her daughter.

“You remember!”

Her daughter’s reply nearly broke her heart.

“Of course I remember! How could I forget?” Then the child smiled, a wide, gloriously pleased smile, one that she hadn't seen since Alice boarded the Wonder. Helen could feel panic steal her breath. She knew why this particular creature had been permitted to be the one to come and collect her, now. It was not just his claim on her, oh no.

No! Helen wanted to scream, the passionate part of her nature wanting nothing more than to burst forth and attempt to rend this monster limb from limb. Years of English logic forced her silence instead, and she clenched her fists so tightly she would not have been the least surprised if the bones of her knuckles forced their way through her skin.

“I’ve come to take you home, Alice!” This was said with such joy, such sincerity, that even Alice was a bit startled. Helen could tell from the way the skin about her eyes tightened, even if Alice still smiled at the absurdity standing before her.

“Hatter, I am home.”

Hatter’s (for Helen realized that must be the creature’s name, as Alice had called him that twice now) entire demeanor darkened. The tie that had been crisp and bright under his chin drooped; the jacket that had been a vibrant blue was suddenly a murky gray.

“I’m afraid you must come with me, Alice. You’re of an age now--”4 and Helen was sure she didn’t imagine the look of avarice that overcame his features at that statement, “and you’ve eaten of the food, or drank of the wine. If you don't return--”

“No!” Alice’s denial was a sharp interruption, and the Hatter flinched. “Hatter, you must know…” she took his battered hands in her own. “I tried to eat something other than upelkuchen or pishalver, but Queen Mirana always insisted that I didn’t need to eat while I was there. She said I would never become truly hungry! And…” Alice stopped speaking of a moment, a memory flickering behind her eyes. “The soup.”

Taking her gently by the arm (and Alice did not protest this forward action the way she should have! Why Helen was fretting about that when such a situation was upon them, she wasn’t certain, but she felt it was important) the Hatter led her down the rest of the staircase. He walked her right up to Helen, and they three stood in a tight little circle for several moments, silent.

The footman came to see what was happening, his curiosity and general nosiness momentarily overcoming his common sense. Helen hastily waved him away. He left, reluctantly, no doubt wanting to pick up gossip to spread about to the other households.

“I tried a finger of the March Hare’s soup, right after I escaped from Stayne and Salazem Grum. I told him that it needed salt.” Alice said faintly, staring into the Hatter’s eyes. A silent conversation that Helen could not follow passed between them.

“My fault, for not being there. I could have prevented it, I…” Words seemed to fail him. Finally he took a deep breath and started again.

“You ate of Underland, my dearest. So surely you must agree that the most reasonable thing to do is come home. You’ll stay with me at Windmill House, of course--I’ve made ever so many repairs, you would hardly recognize it now!--and you will never want for anything.”

Alice’s mouth opened and closed, incredulity splashed across her features at the earnestly spoken words.

“Yes, Alice, it’s true!” the beast pressed, kissing the knuckles on the hand he still held. “You’re to live in Underland now. Don’t you see, you’ll be with me!”

Apparently he had misunderstood that particular gob smacked expression of Alice’s, but Helen had not. It was the same one she wore when Hamish had proposed to her, so Helen knew it very well.

Words were failing Alice, but they did not fail Helen, even if they were a bit shaky when they flew out of her mouth. “I do not see. You’re taking my daughter for one innocent taste of soup? No! I will not allow it!”

It was always difficult for the hero of an Auld Tale to bargain with the fae; difficult, and often with a high cost to the petitioner, but not impossible. For her daughter, Helen was willing to face any difficulty.

“One bite, one finger, and forever?” she continued on. “How was she to know?”

Hatter blinked heavily at Helen, and then turned his attention back to her daughter. “Alice?” he said, a question creeping into his voice when he saw she was still immobile--she was neither screaming in horror nor yet jumping with joy. She was simply…existing, staring between her mother and Hatter, an expression of utmost distress on her face.

“You half-faced grout!5 You think you can come into my home and away with my daughter, just like that?” Helen snapped her fingers under the creature’s nose, drawing his attention back to her. His eyes flashed with a glimpse of their inner fire at the action.

“I should think I am more of a halfpenny6 than a grout, in this case, madam.” he said coolly, his grip on Alice’s hand tightening almost imperceptibly. “If it were in my power, I would not have this be so. I want her to chose to return to…I was told before coming, though, that the Alice's health was at stake, nay, possibly her very life, so the Alice I have come to fetch. I'd the thought of allowing her to decide if she wished to return...”

“Oh! You are kindness itself!” Helen broke in sarcastically. The creature continued as if she hadn't spoken.

“But now that I am here, and I see in person...yes, perhaps it would be better if...”

“I will not have my daughter become Lotoph’agi.”7 the woman said, imperiously.

“Even if that is what would make her happiest? If it would ensure her good health?” the ginger asked, eyes hard. He truly was of the devil’s ilk--he knew precisely where and how to push her.

“I am not convinced that would secure her joy. Look at the girl! Does she appear as one well-pleased with the proposal you have laid at her feet?” Helen knew what the words he’d spoken to Alice--of her staying in his home with him--meant, even if they had not occurred to the girl herself. Her ‘Hatter’ was intending on wedding and bedding her, whether she was willing or not.

When insecurity and a dash of fretfulness danced across his face, Helen pressed her advantage. “It might be reasonable to say that if my girl had eaten a full meal that your land could mark her in such a manner.” (She thought this not reasonable in the slightest, but simply said so to turn the conversation to her favor.) “But she had only a drop of soup--a mere dribble! The magic that would hie her back down the rabbit hole to your realm should not be so strong as to force her to stay there for all time.”

Alice found her voice. “Mother, what are you speaking of. The rabbit-hole?” She pulled away from both of them, lips quivering. “You know of rabbit holes? You’ve known and allowed me to think I’m mad?”

As much as her heart was breaking for her child, as much as she wished nothing more than to scoop her into her arms and reassure her that everything she’d done was for Alice’s own benefit, she knew she would not be able to do so until the danger was over, and it was not over yet.

Not hardly.

Hatter’s eyes seemed to beseech Helen. She was unmoved. “She must come, madam. I’m sorry. If she doesn't...” Enormous green eyes grew wider and almost...gray, at the notion.

“A week per anum.” Helen said, the words tasting like ashes as she spoke them.

“Mother, what are you--?”

The faerie turned to her, also ignoring Alice’s growing distress. When he spoke, a thick brogue became evident. His eyes yellowed to a demonic hue as the true nature of the beast surfaced. “I have no the power to bargain wit ye--”

“A month!” Helen cut him off before he could protest further. What was she thinking, to condemn her daughter to even that long in a place full of beings such as this one? Yet it was either successfully bargain for a lesser sentence or she would be there forevermore, and that was a concept more abhorrent still. When the creature told her Alice had to go Below, she reluctantly believed him. The way her health rapidly declined after her second trip below, and then her startling improvement after the third (followed by her subsequent relapse aboard the Wonder) supported the beast's words.

Red-purple lips tilted to one side, considering. Helen believed the monster to think his expression compassionate; all it did was make her want to slap him.

“She’ll just age here, Mrs. Kingsleigh. Time is ever-so unkind to those that live in the Above world…he will kill her, as surely as he is destined to kill you, and all of those that abide in his favored realm. The Fading already makes her body older than what her years would indicate.” The words were not spoken unkindly, but to Helen they were a knife slicing her down to the bone.

“Her health.” Helen said. “You are saying that I was correct in thinking that...”

The creature nodded.

Tears began to stream down Helen’s face. “Two months. Surely that will be all that is needed per year,” she begged. “Unless Alice herself decides otherwise.”

“You’ll not barter me about like a cow at auction!” Alice was fuming in the background, but Hatter and Helen only had eyes for one another, and heard her protests not at all.

“Three months,” he lisped, his brogue completely gone. “Three months of Above’s time per year, unless Alice decides she wishes to stay longer. She does that, Mrs. Kingsleigh, and you agree to cede to her desires. That is the very minimum amount of time she can be with us without showing obvious signs of the Fade.”

“Let me come with you?” Helen clutched at his jacket sleeve. If she were able to be there with her, watch her health improve, possibly nurse her as she had been...

“Nay.” He shook his head, ginger curls quivering with the movement. “I've only potion enough for the pair o' us, and if I dinna go with Alice, then her journey to Underland will be for naught.”

“She is...connected to you, then?” Helen whispered. She could not bring herself to speak the word for what type of connection she suspected between them. Hatter nodded.

“It was...no o' my choosing. But...aye.”

A wave of sudden and unexpected sympathy welled within her for the man-shaped creature. She swallowed it down—there was no place for sympathy here. Even if he had not chosen their...connection...himself, he was still a strange being from the fae, and he, very obviously, desired that connection now, despite however he may have felt about it at its inception. No, she would not feel for him, not when he was preparing to take her daughter away from her.

“You’ll not coerce her decision.” Helen pressed. “No lotus blossoms, nor any other similar substances to suppress that which should always be remembered.”

“Aye,” the Hatter nodded his head. “As long as you do not do the same at any point, should she choose to come back Above.”

Closing her eyes, Helen swallowed, hard. She wished, with a sudden wrenching pain in her chest, that this was not something that she had to face without Charles at her side.

“Agreed,” Helen said, choking on the word. She opened her eyes, and looked back at the cause of and solution to her daughter's misery. “Agreed,” she repeated.

The bargain struck, the fae turned his attention back to a shaking Alice. “Pack whatever you believe you’ll desire, my dearest heart,” he cooed at her. “Worry not about clothing or hats or boots, though, love…you know I can provide those for you well enough.” He knelt in front of Alice and took her hand, kissing her palm. “But please hurry, my sweetest Alice, for home is calling to us most insistently. We must gie ye there, make ye well again.”

A fury that Helen had witnessed several times (mostly at the hapless Hamish Ascot, poor boy) rose within Alice, and she sharply withdrew her hand from the Hatter’s grasp. He moved forward and hugged her, and she began struggling, thumping her hands on his chest. “I’m not going anywhere with you!” she hissed. “You think because you and my mother came to some sort of strange agreement without my input or consent whatsoever that now I’m going to happily take your hand and abandon my home?”

“Alice…Alice, please!” Hatter cried, “Dearest--”

“I am not your dearest! Nor yet am I your love, nor your sweetest!” Alice howled, struggling further more. What color had managed to sneak onto the Hatter’s face was bleached clean at this ascertainment. “Let me go!”

“Aye, ye are.” he choked, the brogue back. “And nay, I willna let ye go.” Fighting against her flailing limbs, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. Alice fell limp in his arms, fast asleep. He stayed kneeling as Alice’s body relaxed against his own, and Helen thought she detected more than the hint of tears on his lashes as he closed his eyes and gathered her close. Alice’s reaction had seemed to pain the creature, and for the first time Helen wondered if perhaps it had been a kindness that this one was the one to come and collect her…it almost seemed as if…

“Mrs. Kingsleigh,” Hatter nodded at her. He was fully standing then, Alice on the ground before him. As he walked over to retrieve his hat, (which was squashed atop his head in a hurried, inpatient manner) a vial was withdrawn from his inner waistcoat pocket. This he unstoppered with his teeth, and Helen believed he would have spit the cap upon the ground had he not taken a quick look in her direction. Instead, he placed it in the jacket pocket the whole vial had originally come from, a guilty grimace on his brow.

Kneeling back once more at Alice's side, he poured a bit of the substance within down her unresisting throat, then swallowed a mouthful of his own. A cloud of smoke rose about the pair of them, and just that quickly, they were gone.

“...Alice?” Helen called weakly, stumbling over to where her daughter's body had just lain. “Alice!” she cried, the full import of what she's just done (had she just sold her daughter's soul for security—for peace of mind, for her physical health? What of Alice's eternal reward? Had she just damned her for the possibility—not even the guarantee!--of a few more years on this mortal plain?) and, turning, she grabbed the first breakable item she could find—it happened to be a lamp—and threw it with all of her might against the far wall.

Damn her English-ness! How could she let propriety and what was 'real' or 'imagined' sway her so greatly as to barter her child away? Had she gone that far astray? Helen Kingsleigh, you are a useless, sniveling, spineless creature, she thought, as she growled under her breath. She was of no use to anyone. Helen would have never behaved as such, once. Once, she would have fought the sidhe herself, would have...

“What have I done?” she whispered, afraid that if she screamed, she may never stop.

Chapter Text

Hatter laid Alice down upon the softest bed to be found in Windmill House. He positioned the pillow underneath her head, and drew the blankets up so they covered her just so. He’d considered dressing her in a sleeping gown, but the recollection of her sharp words and bitter struggling put him off any such ideas.

I am not your dearest, she had wailed at him. Nor yet am I your love, nor your sweetest!

“Oh, Alice…” he said, on a broken sob. “You are all those things and more to me.” He huddled into the chair close to the bed, face in his hands. “What have I done? Now you shall hate me.”

Had there not been any other solution he could have tried? Other avenues of healing her that he could have pursued more fully? No, instead of even attempting another solution, what had he done upon learning of her ill health? He went Above and brought her back below, like a mome rath dragging a reluctant mate back to his lair.

“Tarrant?” A shadow appeared in the doorway, then light footsteps were striding towards him, barely audible. “What is wrong? Has Alice not--oh, but here she is!”

Mirana of Marmoreal stood beside the young woman's sleeping form, all gossamer skirts and blankly pleasant smiles. “There is no need for tears, Hatta! Alice is here, in your bed, and all will soon be as it should!”

He looked up at his sovereign, misery acute. “She didna wish to return.”

“What?” Mirana asked. The call of Underland should have been strong enough within her that Alice would have been almost desperate to go; unless she hadn’t been unhappy in her land, even with the illness that leached her strength away. If she was truly pleased with her life Above, if she had not felt something missing…

“Oh, Hatta.” Mirana said, laying a soft white hand on the back of his head. “You had to give her the Kiss, then?”

“She fought me.” he said. “Told me she wasna going anywhere with me. She didn’t want this, your Majesty, and now I…I am the one that has forced it upon her.”

“You knew that was a possibility.” Mirana reasoned, but Tarrant was inconsolable.

“She hates me!” he said forcefully. “Or she will, when she wakes. And why not? Could I have not taken an extra day to think of a more palatable solution? Something other than ripping her away from her life, her home...”

“She is your wife, Tarrant. She will not hate you.”

“Wife in name alone.” he whispered, staring with longing at the still form on the bed. “She was so young when Underland wed us, I never thought that I…would ever come to crave her, in this manner…I thought…”

Slow down! Oh, Cheshire Cat, I simply can not walk that fast! Chessur!”

Tarrant had heard her before he saw her. Her plaintive voice, frustration clear.

“How much further?” she’d demanded of the Cat, and he couldn’t hide his smirk. So Chessur had finally found a creature that was just as pernicious as himself! Good--he couldn’t think of a beast who deserved it more.

No further, my dear. For here we are!” Chessur misted into being in front of him on the table, grinning at him in a manner much too smug for comfort. Something was wrong with how pleased he looked (not that Chessur didn’t always look pleased with himself, but this was different) and when he spoke, his smile showed all of his teeth, even the ones hiding behind the back ones. “You can thank me later, Tarrant.” he said, and then evaporated in a puff of teal smoke.

Cheshire puss, where have you--oh! Hello there.” Large hazel eyes flicked from Hare, to Dormouse, to Hatter, and back again.

No room! No room!” Mally and Thackery had cried, when Alice made move to sit at the table.

She made some noises about there being plenty of room at the table (or so the Hatter assumed, as he heard not a word that was spoken, intent as he was upon her little-girl frown and her hair). He was transfixed at the sight of her.

Oh, her hair was glorious! Blonde and wild and tumbling every which way, with no regard to how it may make others feel when gazing upon such beautiful locks. Why, a good portion of the ladies in Witzend would scalp her as soon as they saw her, just to weave the hair upon her head into wigs for their trade. She flopped down in an armchair--his usual armchair, he was disturbed to note. The only reason he hadn’t been currently sitting in it was that they’d been playing at rotating about the table, and he’d not gotten back ‘round to that point yet.

It seemed she and Thackery were not getting along very well, if the Hare’s twitching nose and the child’s stubborn set of jaw were any indication. Her hair flowed around her shoulders as she leaned forward to say something else, and the Hatter broke in, concern for her safety being foremost in his mind. A warm feeling and a rustling sigh from the land itself echoed through his head as he said:

Your hair wants cutting.”

Stiffening in her chair and turning to give him a basilisk stare, Alice had sniffed and replied, “You should learn not to make personal remarks. It’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this, but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” 1

General topics of pleasant conversation followed (well, pleasant for Tarrant; to Alice, everyone seemed to be quite rude) until Mally consented, under duress, to tell them all a story. The particular story she struck upon made Tarrant nervous--why would she tell of the three girls in the well? Unless she was suggesting…

But that was preposterous! This Alice child was a slip of a girl! Underland wouldn’t…hadn’t…

Here then.” Thackery stood upon the table and waved a piece of cake at him from over Alice's head. Desperate for the distraction from the direction his thoughts had taken, he'd snatched at the cake. Thackery held it fast in his grip, though, causing the treat to crumble over Alice's head, and sniggered at her shrieks of dismay when the crumbs rained down upon her.2 It wasn't even March!3 Why in Underland would Thack do such a thing?!

Yet as he looked about him, everything was beginning to make a horrible sort of sense. As much sense as such a thing could make! They were out-of-doors...she was wearing blue...her hair was loose upon her shoulders, and here they were, at a table, eating a feast worthy of... 4

He was so overcome with nervousness at the very notion of what his friend was implying--what Underland may have already forced upon them, with the first meeting of their eyes across the tea-table--that he was rather harsher towards young Alice and her questions than perhaps he should have been.

But I don’t understand.” she had asked Mally cautiously, “Where did they draw the treacle from?”

You can draw water out of a water-well,” Tarrant retorted, sharply answering her in place of the Mouse; “so I think you could draw treacle out of a treacle well--eh, stupid?”

But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse after an apprehensive glance at the Hatter, apparently thinking it better to address concerns to her rather than the tautly giggling man beside her.

Of course they were,” Mally told her, not unkindly. She narrowed her eyes at the Hatter as she said, “well in.”

Alice was not the only one lost in confusion as Mally continued with the tale, barbing her friend with particular emphasis on the phrase, “and they drew all manner of things--everything that begins with the letter ‘M’--”

Mally’s eyes slipped closed in satisfaction at this remark, so Tarrant leaned forward and pinched her, hard. She gave a little shriek, glared at him, and then continued on with the story, describing any number of things that began with an ‘M’, and the Hatter was very afraid she was going to say that one particular ‘M’ word that he believed they may already have been by Underland--damn Chessur, for bringing this lost child to him! He knew what Underland would do--what it had always done, when unmated males and females of the opposing realms met, despite their ages! Damn him, and damn this girl for--

Really, now you ask me,” said Alice, very much confused, “I don’t think--”

Then you shouldn’t talk!” the Hatter had nearly roared, teacup shattering in his over-tight grip.

Alice’s small lips had pursed together, and she stood with quite a clatter of dishes. “I’ve had enough of this!” she shouted, stomping one of her feet. “This is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to!” She spoke with the type of passion and indignation that only the very young can produce. Then she was gone, in a flounce of skirts and shining golden hair.

Hatter half-rose to go after her, and Mally stuck him with a pin. He yelped, then put the injured finger in his mouth, glaring.

D’ye really want a bride tha’s aged younger than either Tweedle?” she growled, and Tarrant sat back down.

I think it might rather be too late, Mally,” he said around his finger. Underland was consistent about such things; if he’d been the first compatible male she’d seen, the first one to feel a sense of protective concern, then aye, it would…

Well, that’s easy enough to see. Check your finger!” she ordered.

He did, and the tell-tale dark line stood boldly out against his skin, thin and slightly wobbly, but still there.

Bugger and blast!” he’d howled, standing up suddenly. “Mally, I don’t--”

The Dormouse seemed extraordinarily sad at seeing the dark circle on his left hand ring finger. 5 “I’d hoped we’d gotten rid of her soon enough,” she fussed.

It wouldn’t have mattered how soon she was gone; I felt something with the first words I spoke to her,” Tarrant admitted, face scrunched into a grimace.

She’s getting further away,” Thackery reminded him, and Tarrant’s eyes grew wide once again..

Let her go!” he’d said, badly shaken. “Maybe once she’s gone, the mark too will go away?”

Mally had snorted in doubt as to that, (she knew at this point Tarrant saying such a thing would accomplish nothing but filling Queen Mirana’s stores of Wishful Thinking) but agreed aloud to Tarrant’s suggestion. Thackery had eyed him severely, then nodded once and said, “If tha’ be what ye’re wishing to do, then. But ye know…”

I know, Thackery,” Tarrant said, burying his face in his hands. “Never another. I know, damn it.” Then, quieter, “My life as I knew it is over now, isn’t it?”

No more futterwacken,”6 Thackery had smirked, making his hapless friend groan.

Tarrant lifted his head just enough to stare at that line, and then his gaze flicked to the pincushion ring on his right hand. He moved the ring to his left hand ring finger, where it covered the dark circle--barely.

“So make her wife in more than name.”

This suggestion was extremely jarring for Tarrant, lost as he’d been in the slightly unpleasant recollection of his ‘wedding’.

“I’ve told ye she fought and screamed in my arms and you’re honestly suggesting to me that I try to roger7 her?” he croaked.

“I saw the way she looked at you, Tarrant. When she was here before…like you were the sky and the moon. I think, with a few carefully spoken words and some planning that she would willingly share herself with you.”

Tarrant shook his head in denial. “You didn’t see her face.” he said. “Not when it mattered. Not when she demanded I let her go.”

 

*~*~*~*

 

Alice awoke slowly, her head pounding, feeling as though a baker's dozen of bricks had been dropped on her head—individually, brick by brick. She winced, and sat up carefully, before finally opening her eyes. She slammed them shut again almost instantly, sorry that she'd opened them to begin with. It was so very bright outside!

A vague recollection of an argument between her mother and the Hatter (she must have been dreaming again! In some ways it was a relief to be dreaming new things, since her third trip to Underland, and in others...did her dreams always have to be so queer?) rose to the surface, and she snorted, feeling her way carefully out of the bed. “At least that didn't happen,” she muttered. She stumbled to the floor, the bed being much higher off the ground than what she was used to. Why, at home, she could reach one slender foot out and tap the ground, with no problem at all...but here...

Her eyes snapped open. She picked herself up from her sprawled position on the floor and looked around. It hadn't been a dream after all; she was in Underland...Her mother and Hatter really had fought. Hatter really had bargained for her, and her mother...Alice forced her thoughts away from Helen's desperate eyes and tear-tracked face, away from the words that were insisting on echoing through her mind: Three months....

Mother doesn't know—can't know!--how long three months Above would be to Alice here in Underland. She'd only been absent from the gazebo the day Hamish proposed for a quarter of an hour, and three days8 had passed in Underland. So how long would three months of Above's time translate to down here? Alice attempted the figures in her head, but arithmetic had never been her strong suit. Giving up for the time being, she transferred her attention to her surroundings, instead.

The room looked comfortable: there was a lovingly pieced together quilt that was soft and soothing under her fingers upon the bed; a wide bedside table, equipped with a pitcher of water and an empty glass; a thick rug upon the floor, that Alice's toes seemed to curl into of their own accord; a large bed frame with carved bed posts, each of which appeared to tell a different story; a wardrobe, with a scene carved on the front of it as well. A thickly glazed, curtainless window across the room displayed a familiar set of tables and chairs on the lawn below, although they were not currently set for a party.

She wanted to hate it. All of it, for it was here, and not there, where she should be. Yet she couldn't, because it was so...lovely, in its own simple way.

And...despite her blazing headache, the fatigue, muscle aches, and soreness deep in her joints...Alice felt better. Clearer of mind. Not yet stronger, as the Hatter had insinuated she would feel when speaking to her mother, (oh! Would she ever get used to such a memory as her mother and the Hatter actually conversing with one another? The more she recalled of their discussion as sleep fell from her, the odder it seemed to Alice) but she felt as if regaining her strength was more of a possibility than she had just yesterday. She'd been frightfully close to accepting that her lot in life was to be ill, Alice realized.

Stumbling to her feet, she lurched over to the water glass and filled it, drinking greedily. A glint of dull gold on her left hand ring finger caught her attention, and she paused in her drinking without lowering the glass, causing water to dribble out onto the front of her dress. With a curse, she set the glass aside and studied the band, momentarily ignoring the wetness on her front. It was of two hands linked together, similar to the claddaugh ring she'd seen her Aunt MacTavish wear during their one visit up to the 'heathen North'. She tried to tug it off, but it held fast to her skin. She tried twisting it; she tried pulling it. Neither worked.

"How did you end up there?” she asked aloud, slightly surprised when she received no response. Apparently, the ring had no sentience. (Which was a bit disappointing; Alice had gotten rather used to the idea almost everything in Underland being able to converse with her.) She began licking it, remembering something Margaret had once told her about removing stubborn jewelry. Why would she have a ring on that finger, right after she was taken by...No, he wouldn't. The very idea was ridiculous in the extreme. There would be absolutely no reason for...Hatter wouldn't!

Alice had heard of girl of her acquaintance taken to the Green, but Hatter was not the sort of man to...did Underland even...what possible reasoning could he have for doing something such as that? No, she had simply been forced into the silly and gossip driven company of Faith and Fiona Chattaway far too often this past week (as they'd taken to visiting “the invalid” as much as their mother would allow); their newspaper romance stories (a turn of events Alice really should have anticipated; the twins had always been rather muchier than was proper; they becoming authoresses was not so wild as some things they'd already undertaken in the past. As their mother said, “At least they didn't run off in an attempt to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West9 when he was in Town”) must have addled her brain.

Hatter unfortunately chose that moment to step into the room. He paused, an odd expression Alice could not name crossing his face when he caught her mid-lick. “Alice?”

She straightened and walked over to him. “What is this?” she demanded, shoving her jeweled finger in his face. Without waiting for a response, she pushed onward, both with words and her demanding, albeit shaky, physical presence, saying, “Tell me, Hatter, or I'm leaving. Right now.”

Tarrant set his jaw. He'd been prepared for an Argumentative Alice, but the proof of her righteous anger still stung. He would not let her bull-headed nature interfere when his actions were best for her health! Even if...

No, he told himself. He did what he had to do, when he had to do it. Reconsidering now was pointless and would only lead to greater Madness. Looking Forward was the best course.

“That is not possible,” he told her, stiffly. Perhaps if he didn't directly mention the ring, she wouldn't bring it up again, either? With the temper she was in, Tarrant didn't think she was quite ready to hear about that yet. Should he have waited to slip it on her finger after he'd a chance to explain? Yet he'd waited so long to see it grace her hand...

“I believe many impossible things,” she retorted tartly. “This one is nothing at all. I am leaving. You will not stop me.” She shook her head. “I thought you were my friend, Hatter.”

“I am.” One shod foot moved towards her, causing Alice to back up two steps.

“Friends do not force each other to do things they specifically state they do not wish to do! I told you that I didn't want to come with you. What made you think, by my actions or words, that I would be amenable to...”

Her angry diatribe trailed off as she finally noticed how hunched upon himself Hatter was, the way his shoulders were rounded in a nature more despondent than rejection alone would cause. Any further words she may have hurled at him died in her throat at his quiet, “I know.” She stood staring at him, and, avoiding her eyes, he set the tray holding simple soup and plain bread on the nightstand. Hatter muttered, “I am sorry it's not more...but with how ill you've been, I thought...this was for the best,” before he slunk out of the room.

“Hatter...” she called out, but received no response. If he'd heard her, he was ignoring her—something that Alice wasn't certain she didn't deserve. Yes, he'd brought her here unwillingly, but if she'd heard and understood the circumstances correctly, it had been a matter of some urgency to get her back down Below. Slowly she walked back towards the bed, and thus, the tray on the nightstand beside it.

The food looked absolutely delicious. Thick wisps of steam came from the top of the red-gold colored soup, and the crust seemed to be soft and flaky on the two slices of lightly buttered bread resting on a plate beside that. Despite this, Alice refused to eat it. Hadn't the Hatter said, in that argument in London with her mother, something about the food of Underland being what had gotten her into this mess to begin with? No, she wouldn't be eating anything offered to her here!

The smell of the soup on the tray made her traitorous stomach lurch with a surprisingly loud growl of hunger, and she looked down on it with a frown. “Quiet, you. We just resolved to not sup at all here, remember? Besides, the Queen told us that we would never really need to eat while here...you're just being greedy.”

Crawling into bed and facing the wall away from the food, she resolutely closed her eyes and counted sheep. If the sheep turned into succulent legs of mutton the closer she got to slumber, that was something else she refused to think upon, and was simply grateful when sleep finally claimed her for the night.

Chapter Text

The next day brought the Hatter again, and only he. Alice had been hoping one of her other Underlandian friends might be stopping by to visit her, but that was not to be the case, it seemed. She sat up the bed just enough to see Hatter's thin-lipped frown at the still-full tray of food from the previous night moldering on the bedside table. He collected it up, glanced in her direction and promised quietly to return with something perhaps more to her liking.

While he was gone, she attempted to pull herself up further in the bed, but her muscles shook with fatigue and refused to cooperate. All of the excitement and exertion of the day before had exhausted what little reserves of adrenaline-fueled energy she had, it seemed. Mouth dry, Alice swallowed, wishing almost desperately for a sip of water.

The new tray, when presented, held a wider variety of tempting treats on it; a small tea-pot, designed for a single drinker, steaming with freshly brewed strong black leaves; egg-battered toast, thick with butter and whistlebush syrup; round and linked sausages; clotted cream and indecently large scones dotted with cheese...there was even a small flower in a miniature clay pot in one corner, smiling encouragingly at her.

When Alice simply blinked at him, then at the flower, and back again at him again before softly saying “Thank you” and then nestling back down into the bedding with her face towards the wall, Hatter felt Disappointment drag his features down. The flower raised the petals above its eyes in a sympathetic manner.

“You go on, dearie,” it told Tarrant, shooing him away with a verdant leaf. “I'll talk to her, hmm?”

Yet try even with the flower trying with all of its might, Alice would not eat. In fact, she didn't even turn around to look at the bloom.

By the third day the Hatter was desperate.

He sat by her bed. With one hand on her shoulder, he rolled her over to look at him. She scooted away from him, a careful blankness in her eyes that nearly broke him. Still he pressed on. “Will you not eat something?” he asked. “Please?” Begging was not something he liked to make a habit of, but for Alice...if it would get her to eat something, even a few small bites, than he was willing to beg. Being in Underland and in his presence would only help so far—she needed sustenance as well!

Her large hazel eyes blinked slowly at him, as if focusing on his face was difficult. Then a decision crossed her features, and she opened her mouth, speaking slowly and roughly, as if she'd not used her voice in many days. Tarrant worried that he should have allowed one of the others to sit with her while he was rushing about with his things that needed doing, his very-last-moment preparations in making the House Ready for Alice.

Mally in particular had been quite insistent on having contact with the Champion, but Tarrant had refused, afraid of what she might tell Alice, afraid of what Alice herself might have to say to the Dormouse about him.

So instead he'd allowed Alice to sit by herself in the stuffy bedroom, with no one to speak to, no amusements, and only one tattered book upon the nightstand—a book without a single picture or conversation in it, he recalled with a frown—while he went back and forth from Marmoreal, gathering up all the Alice-bits he'd kept stashed at his workshop there...Alice dresses and Alice hair ribbons and Alice slippers...

Worse than leaving her with little entertainment, Alice had been forced by his hours-long absences to either wait for his return or to use the chamber pot stashed under the bed. He'd only had that particular realization that very afternoon, when, blushing brilliantly, Alice asked him to hold one moment before escorting her to the necessary room, reached under the bed and pulled the pot out with a shaking hand. Her Pride was greater than her illness-caused weakness, though, for she'd insisted on cleaning it out herself, and gently shut the washroom door in his face.

That would not happen again, Tarrant told himself. It was inexcusable for him to not think of such a basic need. He would be here if she needed him. He would do Better.

“I had planned to return, you know. I had a few more affairs to resolve, but then I was coming back. I wish...” she paused, and Tarrant could hear her wet her lips (as he'd lowered his eyes from hers, unable to continue looking at her when they were so full of reasonable condemnation) before she admitted, “I wish you had allowed me that decision, Hatter.”

“I wanted to, Alice, I did, but--!”

“Please, stop.”

The distress in her voice lodged the words, the excuses, that wanted to tumble and rush out of Tarrant's mouth. His mouth snapped shut, and he took a deep, shuddering breath. Alice waited for him to collect himself, then began again, in a soft voice. It was free of accusation, but to Tarrant, the effect was the same as if she were raging. “I don't want to hear your reasons, Hatter. The time for you to explain would have been before...because now, I have no desire to debate with you on this matter, sir. I have told you my desires, and you've ignored them. I'm too tired to argue today.”

Hatter silently listened to this, heard the exhaustion in her voice. His hands shook with the need to reach for her, to attempt to offer her some sort of comfort. Instead he nodded. “I understand, lass. But... why willna ye eat? Will ye please tell me that? Being in Underland and with m—being in Underland will make you healthier eventually, it's true, but eating is a needful part of the process too, my Alice.”

Brows tilting in consideration (or perhaps it was disbelief; he was shamefully out of practice in reading Alice-expressions) she said slowly, “Yes, I suppose so. I thought you knew. Or at least would have been able to make a very good guess.”

Tarrant leaned forward, dread and a bit of unreasonable hope (truly unreasonable, for Alice had given him no indication that hope even had a place here right now!) infusing him. Alice was speaking to him, she was not unwilling to Talk! “Yes?”

“I heard you and mother, you know. I was right there in the room, even if you both acted as if I weren't. The soup did this, that finger-full that I took in the kitchens, and if I had known, than I would have never, and--” Alice stopped, took a deep breath, and said, in a calmer tone, “What I would have done is irrelevant now, I suppose.”

“It is,” the Hatter agreed. “What matters now if that you must eat something, Alice. Tis the only way for you to be fully well again.”

Smiling in a sad, winsome way, Alice said, “I've guessed that. I just...I'm afraid, Hatter. This is not what I wanted from my life. Underland is a beautiful place—literally, the land of my dreams! I would love to belong here, but...I don't. My place is Above, with my family, with my father's company, and...and I just thought maybe...if I don't eat while I'm here this time, and then I go home when the three months have passed...I would able to divorce myself from this situation. To be free.”

Hatter froze. There was no other word for what his body did upon hearing those words. His face was stuck in that expression containing the odd mix of hope and dread on it, yet his eyes—those eyes, if they could speak, would be screaming.

“Oh,” he finally said, simply. “I see.”

He flinched so violently then that his whole body shook, a much delayed reaction to her words. His green eyes floated down to the pincushion ring on his left ring finger, and Alice was a bit horrified when he closed his crystalline lashes and a small glimmer of moisture leaked out. “I'll leave you be, then,” he said brokenly, as he stumbled to his feet.

Alice looked down at the gold on her own left-hand ring finger. The way he'd stared at his pincushion was almost as if... “Impossible,” she murmured. He'd always worn that ring, hadn't he? Her illness was making her think things that were absurd in the extreme. Raising her head, she was determined that she would simply stop with her school-girl prevaricating and just ask the man what the ring could mean, but by the time she looked to where he had been, he'd already quit the room. She was alone once more.

“No, no, dearie,” the doorknob chided her when she rose on unsteady legs. “I don't think you going after him right now would do either of you a bit of good.”

“I didn't ask for your opinion,” Alice tartly replied, and turned the handle. It screeched in indignation, but did not open.

“You can twist and turn all you wish, girlie, but I don't have to open for you if I don't want!”

Alice huffed, threw her hands in the air and, turning on her heel, clumsily shuffled towards the window. The doorknob called out, “Don't bother asking him! He'll agree with me, he will!”

“Well?” Alice asked the window, grasping the sill for balance with a sweaty grip.

“'fraid he's right, missus. I won't be letting you out either.”

Hands clenching in impotent frustration, she returned to the bed and flopped upon it with a sigh. “I just wanted to--”

“Leave?” the window said.

“No, I wanted...”

Alice stopped. Not once—not for a moment!--had she ever considered leaving...Something that should have been at the forefront of her mind! At any time, she could have gotten out of bed, walked out of the house, and tried to find her way home. But she hadn't.

Why not? Alice didn't know.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Later that night she heard violence. It started suddenly, a dull roar that jerked her out of an uneasy dream of flying teapots and weeping napkins. The roar was followed by breakables smashing, then wood splintering, and finally his voice again, a growling wail.

Alice crept out of bed and tried the handle of the door. Surprised when it gave away easily under her hand, she leaned against the wall and shuffled on rubbery legs down the hall, towards the noise. She knew she'd found the correct room when she saw what appeared to be a glass mason jar fly through an open doorway and smash into the opposite wall; its contents scattered everywhere, like pellets from a shotgun blast. Buttons, she realized dully. The jar had been full of buttons.

Unable to step around the shards of broken glass and still support herself by leaning against the wall, Alice grit her teeth before taking the next step. Pain lanced, hot and sharp, and even prepared for it as she was, Alice still grunted as her foot met the glass. Three more such steps, and she was in the doorway, bracing herself against the frame. And the Hatter...

The room looked completely destroyed. Feathers floated down from the ceiling, and for a moment Alice wondered if it were raining feathers inside the room—until she realized the cause was much more prosaic—a feather pillow that had been ripped in half and flung to opposite sides. Hatter sat in the center of the room, hunched in upon himself, keening.

Alice took a deep breath, and then pushed herself away from the door frame. Stumbling, shuffling, she made her way to him. Her hands set down upon his shoulders, and Hatter shuddered under her touch.

“Hatter,” she whispered, throat tight. A glance upward confirmed her suspicions; this was his room—there was a bed a few paces away. Sincerely hoping she would not be required to carry him that distance (as she could hardly carry herself) Alice wound her fingers into his tightly matted, wild hair, and took a moment to wonder where his hat had gotten off to. Something deep within her chest clenched tight at the sight of him here, like this, so despondent, so broken. Frabjous Day would help to heal much of his pain, Alice had thought, when she'd gone back Above.

Seeing him in this manner, though, revealed that thought for the selfishness that it was. She'd believed he'd be fine because she'd wanted to believe that...but his entire clan was still dead, weren't they? Her slaying the Jabberwocky hadn't brought them back, hadn't made him more sane, hadn't given him the peace he so desperately needed and deserved...

“Hatter,” she tried again, and this time his head tilted towards her, just in the slightest. In a confused voice, he asked, “Alice?” and she hummed in agreement. He's starting to come out of the worst of it, Alice thought, relieved.

“Yes, Hatter. It's Alice.” She wanted to ask him if he was alright, but she already knew the answer to that; he most certainly was not alright. Instead, she said, “It's time to go to bed, Hatta.”

“Tarrant,” he muttered. Alice paused.

“What was that?”

“Tarrant. Call me Tarrant, lass,” he requested. “Have waited so long to hear you call me by my name...and I just realized you didn't know it. One can't call out what they don't know, can they?”

He was still in the grip of his madness, Alice realized. This reprieve was just due to his body's exhaustion, nothing more. She stumbled around on her scraped and punctured feet to face him, and his green-yellow eyes were unfocused, staring at the floor. “Come to bed, Tarrant,” she said, his name tripping awkwardly off her tongue. Slowly, very slowly, his face lifted to meet hers. Chilled at the blank expression on his face, at the madness that still controlled him, she continued nonetheless, “Rest, Tarrant.”

Following after her like a small child listening to his mother, Hatter rose and shuffled towards the bed. Luckily he was able to do this under his own power. All Alice had to do was hold onto his arm and murmur encouragements. If she'd had to do more, she wasn't certain that she would have been able to succeed, with her strength the level it was at.

He settled into the mattress, whimpering softly as he continued to stare at her face. Alice clumsily pulled the blanket over him, turned away to look for a pillow that was not shredded, and was stopped by a hand on her left wrist. His unfocused gaze narrowed in on the ring upon her finger. A silly smile danced on the corners of his lips.

“Still wearing...oh, ye make me sae happy, my Alice. Stay w'h mae, just fer a while?”

Once again, there was an explanation tugging at the back of her mind as to his relief at seeing the ring on her finger, and once again, Alice made the decision to ignore it. Sinking down onto the edge of the bed, Alice agreed, “As long as you try to sleep, Tarrant.”

“Aye, lass. Sleep...”

It was a full hour before the Hatter finally drifted into a deep slumber. Before that, whenever Alice tried to move even the slightest bit, even to check upon her aching, bloody feet, his body would tense and he would shift and grasp hold of her arm once again, and she would be forced to subside until his grip slackened. Eventually, though, he did sleep, and Alice carefully rose, exhausted. Somehow, she made it back to her own room down the hall (which required stepping on the broken glass once more, but she was so far gone at this point that she hardly noticed the fresh lacerations) and, without bothering to pick the shards from the bottom of her soles, collapsed on top of the bed and knew no more for the rest of the night.

 

*~*~*~*

 

The next day when he came in her room Hatter looked almost unspeakably tired, as if the rest he'd gotten the previous night had not been nearly enough, but he still seemed calm. Calm enough, at any rate. There was a strange cast to his features that made the skin around his eyes and mouth tight. He woke her by slamming the tray down hard enough onto the nightstand that one of the rolls positively heaped atop it fell off and tumbled to the ground.

Blinking blearily, Alice watched as a growling Hatter stooped, picked up the roll, and threw it towards the rubbish bin across the room. The roll bounced off the edge of the bin and onto the floor, and exasperated, he left it there with a wave of his hand that practically screamed the words, oh, fine then.

Yellow-green eyes flicked over her, bright with leftover tinges of anger. They were yellow, that is, until he saw how weak Alice was. She was struggling to push herself into a sitting position, her arms trembling with the effort.

Half-collapsing on the edge of the bed, he stretched for one of her hands, which she withdrew from his reach. She wished to sit up under her own power.

“Alice,” he said, and his voice was rough—from emotion or from the last night's raging, Alice didn't know. “Please,” he said, looking longingly at her hand left hand. She tucked it out of sight under the blanket, and Hatter shook his head as though to clear it. “Let me help you?”

“I'm fine, really,” Alice lied, wincing. Tarrant's brilliant eyes flicked from her face downwards, checking the veracity of her statement. All was well until they reached the bottom edge of the blanket, and then he stilled.

“That's blood on your...” Without even so much as a by-your-leave, Hatter was jerking the blankets back. When the cool air hit her feet, Alice hissed, forcibly reminded of the injuries she'd sustained the night before. “Your feet, Alice, how did this--”

Memory must have returned to him (at least in part) of the night before, because he stopped the question before it could be fully formed, and snarled. “I did this. I hurt you...and then I...” Jaw clenching, Tarrant turned and walked out of the room. Alice could hear a clatter and clanging float down the hallway from the washroom, and she wished Hatter would return soon, if for no other reason than to help her tend to her feet, (an irony of which she was well aware, as only moments before she'd been rather insistent with herself that she needed no help at all!) which were beginning to throb quite painfully now that she was forced to acknowledge once more that they were, in fact, injured.

The Hatter was back not long later, with a steaming bowl and several towels. Silently he assisted Alice into a sitting position. Then he pulled a stool over to the side of the bed, set the bowl of hot water atop that, and gently eased her feet into the basin. Alice hissed through her teeth, but kept them in the water.

“I'm sorry, Alice.”

Removing her attention from the pinkening water, Alice focused on Tarrant, who stood across from her, staring into the water that she herself had just been so fascinated with. She reached out for him, found his elbow, but he withdrew from her touch to kneel at her feet. Carefully he removed one from the water.

“This will likely sting,” he warned her. A tug, and then he held a curve of glass in his fingertips, clean except for a faint smear of her blood on the sharp edge. “So selfish...I'm sorry,” he said again, as he pulled out another sliver. “Alice, I'm--”

“Hatter, it's fine,” she assured him. This time when she reached for him, he didn't flinch away. Her right hand found his shoulder, which felt warm and solid and reassuring to her touch.

“It is not fine,” Tarrant argued. “I did this to you. If not for me, you would be...”

“Hatter,” Alice firmly interrupted him before he could self-flagellate further. “It was an accident. You didn't intentionally set out for this to happen.”

Lowering that foot back into the water to soak again, he switched his attention to the other. Carefully removing the first shard, his eyes very much (too much, Alice thought, as he was never this steady) riveted to his work, he asked, in a small, lisping voice, “Will you forgive me?”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Alice insisted. Hatter twitched, and changed topics rather abruptly.

“Ye mun eat something,” he continued, patting her feet dry, “Ye willna get well without eating more of the food of Underland. Ye are hurting yerself by refusing, my Alice.”

“I'll eat something,” Alice agreed, and his head snapped up to meet her eyes, tie fluttering. “But only after you tell me what exactly happened last night.” He could try to prevaricate, but that didn't meant that Alice had to let him.

Face blank, the Hatter repeated dumbly, “What happened last...” as he carefully placed her feet back atop her blood dotted sheets. He twitched at the sight.

“Yes,” Alice said. “In your rooms.”

“I...I am not certain what you mean.”

He was lying; he was a terrible liar, Alice decided, suddenly furious. What was so bloody difficult about being open with her? Swallowing down her inclination to rage at him, Alice said levelly,

“What caused this bout of madness, Hatta? What was the last thing you remember thinking of before it came for you?”

“I...I...” Alice could see Hatter's eyes flit about, could practically feel the panic as it rose within him. “I don't wish to speak of it. Please.”

Her anger flared back up, and Alice gritted out through clenched teeth, “Perhaps it would be better if you left the room then, Hatter.”

Tarrant's mouth fell open, in either shock or to spill forth that which he had just denied her, but Alice was unmoved. Despite her anger at him for dragging her to Underland against her will, last night's fit of madness worried her, and his refusal to talk about it worried her more. If she allowed him to stay, she might say something in her anger that she would regret; it was better, for right now, if he simply left the room.

“My Alice, I...”

At his possessive qualifier she shot him a look full of reproach, but his gaze was steady, resolute. He picked up a roll from the tray and held it out to her. Her hungry gaze gave her away; she'd very much wanted to accept, but her pride was preventing her from doing so. She looked away from the food, nose in the air. “The others would like to see you,” he tried again, holding the roll out imploringly. “Yet they will not until you are more well. If you will not eat for me, what of them?”

The fact that he was attempting to change the subject away again—and not very well, either—made her angrier still. She knew if she opened her mouth this time, she would say things to her friend that she would regret.

So she ignored him until, with a sigh, he placed the baked good back on the tray, picked up the basin of now-cool water, and went to exit the room.

A roll, obviously thrown by a weak arm, landed with a small plop by his feet. Alice was most disappointed in herself; she'd hoped to strike him on the back of his head, perhaps even knock his hat loose. Why did he have to be so infuriating? All she wanted was for him to talk to her! Hatter looked down at it, and Alice could see a small shudder wriggle down from the top of his head to his feet. Without responding, or even turning back around to look at her, he stepped out of the room and shut the door behind him. Alice waited, but he did not return for the entirety of that day.

Chapter Text

The next day Alice was too shaky to pull herself out of the bed. As soon as Hatter entered the room, she requested his help with getting to either the privy or a pot. Blushing slightly, Tarrant carefully put his arms around her and pulled her into a sitting position, then attempted to help her stand. Upon the realization that her legs would not support her weight, he'd tucked one arm under her knees, another round her back, and carried her to the washroom two doors down.

 

Usually, Tarrant would help her walk down the hall, and then she'd go into the washroom herself and knock upon the door when she was ready to exit. That day, though, she needed more than that. Assisting her with her business was an awkward and clumsy affair, but soon they were done, and Tarrant carried her back to the bedroom.

 

There he set her upon a chair, and she'd watched, silently, as he'd stripped the bedding and replaced it with new. “I should have done this yesterday,” he acknowledged, but did not apologize. Once this was complete, he'd turned to her, and without even seeing if she were able to stand on her own once more, picked her up and tucked her into the veritable pile of quilts he'd though necessary to make her bed up with.

 

“I'll return in but a moment,” he lisped to her after this, reaching up and tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

 

The entire business had been humiliating in the extreme for Alice. Being unable to rise on her own, requiring being carried just to empty her bladder, having to sit in impotent disuse and watch as he remade her bed...the situation was no longer bearable the way it was. Yesterday she'd resolved herself to the fact that she would, indeed, need to eat while she was in Underland; this morning only cemented that resolve. She would stop doing as the Hatter had accused her of yesterday and harming herself with her stubbornness, and she would eat.

 

Tarrant returned, bearing a tray with tea and toast, and naught else. The toast was plain and dry, the tea weak and watery. Setting the tray down, Hatter sat on the edge of the bed, set the plate of toast in Alice's lap, and began shredding the bread into smaller pieces. The reason for this became evident when he reached for the still-steaming cup of tea.

 

Wordlessly, he soaked a bit of the toast, and held it out to her. Her eyes moved from his hand to the toast and then his face. A challenging expression rose on her own, and she clamped her mouth shut. She'd not be fed like a child! Yes, she wished to be well, and yes, she'd agreed with herself that delaying eating any longer would be foolish, but he'd already--! How would Hatter ever be able to look at her the same way again, if he not only carried her about, assisted her with...and fed her?

 

“I was hoping you would be reasonable to-day, Alice,” Tarrant said. Guiltily, she noted the gray pallor to his skin, how his lips were even darker than usual against the ash tone. Her mind abruptly veered away from any other thought of his lips, a flush covering her face, neck and chest.

 

He leaned over, forced her jaw firmly open with one hand, and shoved the bread into her mouth with the other. Alice would have spat this soggy and unappetizing concoction back out, but he held her jaw shut, and reluctantly, she swallowed, tears brimming in her eyes. She wanted to cry over her weakness, but refused to allow herself.

 

“It is my responsibility to see you well, Alice,” Tarrant told her, voice low. “I will not be so remiss as to allow you to harm yourself. Not anymore. I...I only agreed to fetch you in order to heal you, not to...” Tarrant trailed off, and Alice was uncertain if he was trying to convince her, or himself. “There was no other reason. There can be no other reason.”

 

“I never said there was,” Alice replied, softly. Hatter blinked, his green eyes very large in his face, and a flush crawled up his neck and across his cheeks.

 

“So you didn't,” he agreed. Silently, he dipped another small corner of toast in the tea, and held it out to her. Alice opened her mouth and looked into his eyes. Peripherally she saw him swallow convulsively, and then he was lowering the toast into her mouth, and after that her concentration went to swallowing the soggy mass before she had a chance to taste how unpalatable it really was.

 

She allowed him to feed rest of the toast to her slowly, scrap by scrap. She no longer had the urge to try and fight him, and when he saw this, he no longer tried to hold her jaw shut. When she was finished he stood slowly, and Alice realized (for perhaps the first time) that he is not exactly a young man.

 

“Tomorrow I shall take you out to the gardens,” he told her, touching her hair softly. “Mayhap I should arrange for a few of the others to be there? Mally? The boys?”

 

Alice said nothing, but just nodded slowly, her thoughts elsewhere. “Alice?” Hatter called to her, but Alice didn't respond. “The expression on your face...” he said, slowly, “Reminds me of someone who is perhaps Pretending Things They Ought Not To,” Tarrant mused. “Doing that is something I know about very well...” he said, almost to himself.

 

Who is that in the distance?”

 

Which distance?” Hatter asked absently, sipping at his tea. The Unicorn really did have the better of the Lion today, poor fellow. A few more pummelings such as this and they’d be ready to pass ‘round the plum cake.

 

That one, there.” Thackery pointed, his skinny arm going directly under Tarrant’s nose. His gaze followed the arm right to the end of the pointed finger and beyond; there, at the edge of the woods, stood the White King, conversing with a disturbingly familiar mass of blue skirts and golden curls. Tea and bread and butter stuck in his throat, and he coughed to clear it, eyes watering. Despite having obviously seen what his friend wished to point out, Hatter turned away and focused with new intensity upon the match. “I am sure I do not know what you mean,” he said.

 

Shall I go and fetch them, then? Bundle her up and bring her directly message-like from he to you? You are the one that is to carry, after all.”

 

Hatter’s eyes opened very wide on hearing such a suggestion, but before he could turn back to his friend and tell him to not do such a thing, Haigha was gone. Tarrant took a new sip of tea from a tea cup that was now shaking unsteadily in his grip; perhaps it wasn’t the same little girl as before. Maybe it was just a child that looked and gestured like an Alice child should (for her could not tell anything else about her other than her general appearance at this distance). Maybe, he thought, but knew it was unlikely. The swirling in his guts told him otherwise--he’d know her anywhere.

 

It was sooner than his shaken nerves would have liked when Thackery returned, Alice walking by his side. (Tarrant saw this out of the corner of his eye, for, although he was loathe to look directly upon the Alice for fear of how he might behave towards this wife-who-was-not-yet-still-was, he also felt terribly curious about her. What would the child be like now?)

 

He’s only just out of prison, and he hadn’t finished his tea when he was sent in,” Thackery said in a sotto whisper to Alice, and Tarrant felt a surge of annoyance that his friend had thought it necessary to mention his having been in prison at all; “and they only give them oyster-shells in there--so you see he’s very hungry and thirsty.” Sidling up to him and throwing an arm around his neck (Tarrant wasn’t sure how Thackery managed this, being so much shorter than himself, and without even a box to stand upon! Yet he did, and the arm was still there, and he was not one to usually doubt things that were right before his face, even if he wished to. “How are you, dear child?” Thackery teased him, speaking the words that he believed Hatter should have been speaking to the Alice at their side.

 

Color still high, Tarrant nodded quickly at the girl and then returned to facing towards the action (the Lion had somehow managed to flip the Unicorn around, so now he was the one with the greater advantage for the moment) . His stomach knotted dreadfully, despite the bread-and-butter he was munching upon, when Thackery pressed, still in that teasing tone, “Were you happy in prison, dear child?”

 

Hatter quickly looked round again, and saw girl-child Alice watching him, waiting for him to answer the Hare with obvious curiosity. For some reason this upset him greatly, to think of his small wife being privy to such humiliation as having been caught up in the Queen’s prisons. To his horror, shamed tears sprang to his eyes, and one or two trickled down his cheek. He’d not speak to her, then she’d go away, and he could go back to Pretending, even if Pretending was what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. The way he figured it, he’d already been punished for the crime of Pretending Things he Ought Not to, so he should to just do it, now; there was no incentive not to.

 

Speak, can’t you!” Thackery warbled at him, becoming impatient with his continued silence. Tarrant was just resolving himself again to not say a word for a very long time when His Majesty the White King Asher came up behind him, and pounded him heartily on the back.

 

Speak, won’t you? How are they getting on with the fight?”

 

Hatter made a desperate effort, and swallowed a large piece of bread-and-butter. “They’re getting on very well,” he was finally able to manage past his nearly closed throat, “each of them has been down about eighty-seven times.”

 

A small, eager voice near his one side said, “Then I suppose they’ll soon bring the white bread and the brown?” Her hazel eyes flashed with excitement, her small cheeks rosy. She was the perfect epitome of innocence, and Hatter felt like a miscreant of the worst kind, to be looking upon her, even knowing that Underland had united them and, had he his choice in the matter, it would have never happened at all.

 

It’s waitin’ fer ’em nauw,” he finally replied, blinking solemnly at her. “Tis a bit o’ it as I’m eating.” He swallowed hard. He was just thinking he should say perhaps something else to the girl (for he’d like to think that he could learn to be friends with his little wife) when the King announced that he should like to have the refreshments brought round. He sketched a half-bow in her direction and then walked away, kilt swinging about his knees.

 

When next he saw her he was passing round the breads White and Brown. Alice’s small hand reached for a White piece, and he tapped her hand, gently. “No, ye’ll no be wantin’ tha one,” he warned her. Asher gave him a look of incomprehension when he went to leave her side, and he had no choice but to serve her something. Was all of Underland conspiring against him to make this troublesome child stay? “The Brown, perhaps, would be more to your liking?” He knew this was unlikely; no one liked the brown bread. It was terribly dry. Hopefully she would do as all the others did and take one bite and…

 

She did. Her small face scrunched up into the most comical of disgusted expressions and she spat the bread out upon the ground. “That was the most dreadful bread I’ve ever tried to eat!” she accusingly informed him, and Tarrant couldn’t help the smile that curled his mouth at the corners at the sight of her indignant muchness.

 

Tis awful, isn’t it?” he agreed, to which Alice only gaped at him.

 

But you said--”

 

Why don’t you see about the drums, old chap?” King Asher broke in, looking from Tarrant to Alice and back again, seemingly to only just then make the connection of who they were and what they were to each other. Mirana would be most cross with him for his meddling, but Tarrant looked like he needed an escape, and he thought much the same way their Royal Hatter did about such things: if he’d already been punished for Pretending Things He Ought Not To, then he saw no reason for him to not carry through and actually do the Pretending.

 

Hatter looked up with alacrity, and bounded away.

 

“Hatter?”

 

Tarrant gasped and turned to his young wife, blinking hard, deliberately. “Yes, I'm fine. What was that you asked, Alice?”

 

“Where were you, just now?” she softly inquired.

 

“Right here, I believe,” Tarrant answered. “It doesn't feel like I went elsewhere, but one can never really tell, can they?”

 

His answer seemed unsatisfactory to Alice, but she let the matter go. Licking her lips in a nervous manner, she said, “If you will not tell me where your thoughts had led you just now, Hatta, will you tell me something else?”

 

Nodding, Tarrant asked, “What do you wish to know, Alice?”

 

Taking a deep, fortifying breath, Alice said, “Why am I here? In Underland, I mean. When you came Above, you told my mother that my health required it. And before yesterday, you said that being here would not be enough, but that I would also have to eat the food to be well...What has happened to me, Hatter? I've thought and thought on it, but I can not form a clear answer on the matter. Will you tell me? Please?”

 

How much to tell her? Tarrant was very nervous, indeed. While he wanted nothing more than to be able to tell Alice all, to explain the situation in its entirety, to assure her that despite the nature of their Binding, that he still had somehow fallen in love with--! But he was still not certain that was the best decision. After all, he'd tried that very thing (explaining what was happening in an honest and direct manner) when she'd come on Griblig Day, had he not? And look at how that had almost turned out! Still, Alice deserved the truth, did she not? Even if the idea of delivering the truth to her ears terrified him.

 

“Underland learned...I learned...that your health was very poorly in Above, Alice. After consulting with the Queen on the matter, it became clear that the reason for this was a connection to Underland that was stronger than what we had anticipated. By all rights, you should have been able to return to your London, your Above world, with no ill effects...we hadn't known that you'd eaten of the food, you see. Eating even just a dribble of soup, or a bite of an apple, or even a nibble of bread is enough, my dear Alice...enough to bind you to Underland. Permanently. Without the land the bounty you ate from to sustain you, you will...Fade. So I went Above to collect you...to save your life.”

 

“Couldn’t there have been another way?” Alice pressed. “Bring me food, perhaps, make visits Up There?”

 

Sniffling (he would not start to cry!) Tarrant said, “I did what I thought was necessary.”

 

“Well, you should have thought of something else,” Alice asserted, softly.

 

“Aye, you're right.”


Alice stopped all motion. It appeared that he'd shocked her by agreeing.

 

“Why didn't you, then?” This question was asked through a bitten lip.

 

“Because,” he said, and that answer might have been enough for a lesser woman, a different woman, but it was not enough for an Alice. A touch on his forearm, and she pressed forward.

 

“Because why?” she asked, and Tarrant grimaced, his face refusing to follow his mind's order to not show an outward sign of pain. A glance in the mirror revealed his eyes to be bright yellow; he turned from Alice, so that she might not see this physical manifestation of his internal struggle.

 

“Because I was afraid of losing you to Death,” he whispered. “It is one thing to know that you are Above, and happy, and another altogether to...”

 

Lose her? This man, who'd already lost so much in his life, had been afraid of losing her as well. She'd known that they were friends, that they cared for one another, and that he would have willingly laid his life on the line for her, had laid his life on the line for her, (more than once!) but she was beginning to allow herself to suspect....could his regard really be that strong, to...her left hand twitched, the weight of the ring on her finger suddenly seeming heavier than it had been moments before. Alice felt terrible for badgering Hatter, but she'd needed to Know, and there was still more she wished to have Answers about.

 

“Hatter--” she reached for him, but Tarrant was already withdrawing into himself. “I'll bring you another tray. Perhaps broth this time?” he said, refusing to meet her eyes as he slunk out of the room.

Chapter Text

Long’s Orphanage Home for Boys, the sign read, and Helen Kingsleigh supposed that was technically true. It was entirely plausible the original proprietor of the establishment’s last name had been Long, and the male children residing within were more likely than not orphans. It was the word ‘home’ that gave her pause, that dreary winter London day, because the ramshackle building didn’t look like a fit dwelling for mice, let alone motherless children. The things that would typically make housing a home--a sense of cheer, the warmth of a fire peeking through the windows, even a wreath upon the front door--were all conspicuously absent.

Underneath that sign sat another, fresher sign, recently painted in an untrained hand: Assistance Sought. Inquire Within.

She wasn’t precisely sure after taking notice of the signs why she didn’t simply pull her caplet tighter around her shoulders and bustle on towards a more genteel street, the way that innumerable other woman of fashion (and men, and quite a few of both sexes who were not considered so, as well) had done. Perhaps it was that the amount of packages under her arm were not nearly as numerous this year as she felt they should have been, or it could have been something more mundane, such as the way the light struck the faded clapboard shingle. Either way, Helen stood for nearly fifteen minutes out in the snow, staring at the building. When she finally did stir from her silent reverie (prompted by a jostled arm against her elbow and a hasty apology from a gentleman in a battered derby hat) her fingers and toes had gone numb.

That evening, she’d shuffled through her wardrobe, looking for a drab brown dress that she’d ordered when initially fading out of her widow’s weeds. The milliner that had constructed it had not been especially talented, but during that time the last thing Helen had truly been concerned with was fashion, so she’d worn it anyways until Trudy abused it as ugly so many times that she’d retired it simply so she no longer had to hear of its numerous faults.

“Take off the lace on the collar,” she murmured, once she found it in the back of her wardrobe. “Remove the tortoiseshell buttons, and…yes, that should work.”

Exactly one week to the day since she’d first considered the shingle for Long’s Orphanage Home for Boys, Helen Kingsleigh walked up the front steps, wearing her altered, much simpler brown gown, a pair of Alice’s old battered boots (that she’d been much to fond of to be rid of them, she remembered around a lump in her throat as she pulled them on) and an overcoat she’d purchased ready-made from a random shop. A brisk knock on the door yielded no results, so she just turned the handle and stepped inside.

She almost turned right back around and left due to the stench.

In the end, though, it was the very same stench that had nearly sent her running that convinced her to remain. If she could barely stand to walk through the front door of the establishment, how must those whom had to resign themselves to actually living there feel?

Just beyond the foyer, down the hall and to the left, a small sign hung by a yellow faded door that read Nathanial Long, Administrator. The response she received upon knocking briskly upon that door was much different than when she’d attempted the front door.

“Come in!” an harried voice called, and Helen did just that. A small, wizened scrap of a man with a sharp, angular face and a riot of black curls that were just beginning to recede atop his skull sat behind a high desk, scribbling furiously. He looked up, blinked myopically at Helen, and then turned his attention back to his paperwork again. “We are not the sort of establishment to cater to bored High Society ladies looking for a charitable cause to champion.” he said, his voice a surprisingly pleasing tenor. “I thank you for your time, but may I suggest The Children’s Mission two streets to the east? They are much more likely to be responsive to your genteel attempts, madam.”

Helen blinked, looked down at herself, and frowned. Had she really been amongst London Society so long that she couldn’t even appear to be lower in rank than what she was? She cleared her throat and stepped closer. When she spoke again, it was in a voice that she’d had to re-discover this past week, one that she had once worked so hard to completely cover.

“I’m thinking perhaps ye’re misunderstanding mae position in Society, sir.” she brogued, and once again the man looked up, this time in surprise. He picked up a pair of spectacles that rested just to the right of his papers, and placed them on the end of his nose. Only then did he take note of her several-years-out-of-fashion gown, old boots, and untailored overcoat. “I beg your pardon, madam, but I have no interest in amusing a northern malcontent, either. Perhaps you should go home to your husband and children?”

“Mae husband is dead, and mae children gone,” Helen replied. Those things were true enough, and although she was going to be lying quite a bit during her time here, she saw no need to do more than necessary. “I saw yer establishment and thought tha' mayhap as it could use a womanly touch. Perhaps…” she shifted on her feet, and she didn’t have to feign her nerves as she said, “you’ve an open position, sir? Somemat that one such as myself could apply myself towards?”

“Was it a paying position you were looking for, Mrs…?”

“MacTavish, sir. And aye, twas precisely what I was looking for.” Helen reigned in her temper, at the very nerve of the man thinking she had come to him for employment! She reminded herself that it was exactly what she’d wished for him to think--exactly what she wished for him to provide for her! If this Mr. Long knew what circles she was involved in with Society, he’d likely just get an atavistic gleam in his eyes and suggest she make a sizable monetary donation--the idea of her actually working here would be unthinkable to him.

“Mrs. MacTavish, then. Forgive me for saying so, but the type of assistance needed here at the Orphanage may not be the type that you are best suited to provide.”

“Have you no objection to my working for you other than your general belief in me unsuitableness? I can assure ye, sir, that I am not afraid of hard work. Were that I was a High Born lady seeking charity work givin‘ ye siller instead of asking for it, would ye turn mae away then?” Helen shook her head, and wondered for the first time what her life might have been like if she’d run off to be an actress, the way Josey Pyle did when they were thirteen. Helen fancied that she herself seemed to have a bit of an affinity for it; Josey, from what she could remember, had not. “It’s not a position I would envy any other in, sir, but I am needful of the employment, and yer shingle said...” she finished, quietly.

“Ah….I….excuse me, I’ve been remiss.” He introduced himself. “Nathanial Long, at your service, madam MacTavish. Please, sit down.”

Shaking his wrists so that his shirt cuffs fell, he continued by saying, “Firstly, let me address your questions. It’s not that I object to High Born ladies involving themselves in charitable works--no, certainly not! Nor is it that I doubt the veracity of your stated commitment to hard work. It is only that at our establishment, some of the boys that are here…well, to speak frankly, they are not the sort of children one would want around those with delicate dispositions. We are a reformery as well as an orphanage, Mrs. MacTavish. Would you be willing to apply yourself to working with troubled youth? Some of the boys here are quite coarse, and would take great joy in tormenting a genteel woman.”

“Are you attempting to scare me away, Mr. Long?”

“No, madam! Merely speaking the truth. I have no desire for any lady to come here, and then be…disinclined to pursue that which she wished to do, be it pious, charitable works, or gainful employment, simply because of a few misbehaved children.” Mr. Long dabbed an intricately embroidered handkerchief on the top of his sweating skull.

“Children do not frighten me, Mr. Long. Even odd children.”

His small eyes looked at her again, took in her attire, the way she sat in her chair. She could see him weighing and measuring her, trying to find her worth in Society’s ever-sliding scale of Importance, and finally, he nodded. “If you are certain, Mrs. MacTavish, I would be pleased to have your assistance. When will you be able to begin?”

“Immediately, sir.” Helen said, smiling, and she did not have to feign her relief.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Little David Foster had wide gray eyes and a broken smile. Within a weak of working at the Orphanage, he’d attached himself veritably to her side, and Helen had not the heart to send him off with the other children. Mr. Long had been right, for the most part--many of the boys here were little better than thieves and maladroits in the making--but wee David…he was an innocent soul, one that somehow or other in the unfair vulgarities of life had ended up here, amongst older boys who bullied him and younger, sneakier ones who took advantage of his kind disposition. He was not the sort that would survive long in an environment such as that provided to him at Long’s without extra assistance.

So that is what Helen gave him. For weeks, she brought him extra food, medicines, even warmer undergarments, with the strict instructions that he was not to tell any of his dorm mates—or the other children in the orphanage, period—of what she was doing. Helen wasn't certain why this boy in particular pulled at her heart the way he did, but she also knew that he needed extra assistance—needed her—and that was a call she could not deny.

Helen knew what she was doing was completely indiscreet. The chances of being caught bringing items into the orphanage were high, and how would she explain herself then? Yet there was no way that she was going to take extra items from Mr. Long's already meager supplies—she'd feel guilty enough about accepting her pay is she didn't work so bloody hard every day.

Yet still, if she openly brought David items, then she'd be questioned about how poor widow MacTavish could afford such luxuries as what she was bringing. Then where would she be? Her position in the orphanage would be gone, and it had come to mean too much to her to simply walk away. Helen still didn't know what had driven her to be employed at this place, but she knew that she did not want to give it up. Not now.

“Mrs. MacTavish, do you mind telling me what, exactly, it is that you are doing?” Helen jumped, and David squeaked, hiding himself behind her skirts. She'd never had occasion to dislike Nathaniel Long before, but at David's reaction to seeing the man, she felt something very much like hate towards the man.

“I just be feedin' the lad,” Helen said, hoping (but with no real expectation of success) that bravado would see her through.

“Really? And where, pray tell, is this alleged food at?” Mr. Long looked exaggeratedly around the room, peering his small eyes so that they were bare slits in his sharp face. Those eyes alighted on the medicine bottle on the counter, the printed label proudly describing it as a fix for coughs and the catarrh. It also, very clearly, was of a brand and make that the Mrs. MacTavish he had come to know would not be able to afford, as a single bottle was worth two month's of what he paid her. Helen swallowed thickly.

“David,” he said, in a low voice, “would you please go back to the dormitory?”

Large brown eyes looked up at Helen from under his floppy fringe of hair, and she nodded. “Go ye on, Davie,” she said, reaching up to tuck the unruly locks behind his ear.

“Thank ye, mum,” he said, then looked over at Nathaniel. “Sir,” he bowed his head, then scurried from the room. Helen wished briefly for her brave Alice, who would never have left her alone with such an obvious threat implicit in someone's voice, but then reflected that if she were present, Helen would just be telling her to do what David had just done, and so she should count her lack of presence as a blessing instead of something to be mourned, in just this instance, at least.

Mr. Long watched and waited until the door was fully shut before he returned his attention back to Helen. With a sigh, she said, in her normal tone of voice, “I suppose you want answers, then.”

For his part, Nathaniel Long simply blinked long and heavy, clearly nonplussed at the change in her speech and just as clearly trying not to show it.

“Yes, Mrs. MacTavish. I think a candid discussion would be an excellent place to start.”

Chapter Text

“Will she be coming down today?” Queen Mirana asked Tarrant the following morning, when he finally gathered himself adequately enough to make an appearance in the garden outside the Windmill’s door.

“Nay,” Tarrant said, shaking his head. “I don't know that she has the strength yet. I'd been hopeful that she would be able, but...” He spread his hands in a helpless gesture.“I did force her to eat summat.”

Mirana touched his arm sympathetically. “That is unfortunate…I had hoped to be able to see my Champion during my visit. Next time, perhaps? It is…for the best, that you…encouraged her to eat. She’ll heal now.”

“I never did thank you, your Majesty.”

Dark eyes widening in surprise, Mirana said, “Thank me? Whatever for?”

“For allowing me the use of your Mirror, these years. For giving me the opportunity to see…if I hadn’t looked, then…” he trailed off, unwilling to speak the words aloud. They both knew what could have occurred if Tarrant had not gone up Above to fetch Alice. It was not something either one of them wanted to contemplate long.

“We each did what we felt was necessary, Hatta.” Mirana murmured.

“Necessary, needful, noble…she still said no, Mirana.” He did not blame the White Queen, despite how his last words might have sounded. It was as he’d said before--if she had not been allowing him the use of her viewing mirror to Alice’s bedroom, he might have never known that the effects of Fading had come to visit themselves upon her, and if he hadn’t known that, he would have completely lost her. If that had happened, there would not even be Alice frowns and Alice silence--there would be a complete absence of an Alice at all, a thought which was unbearable in the extreme.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“Shall we just have a look, then? It’s her birthday again, you know.” Mirana had said that day, the day that had led to him becoming fully aware of just how likely it was that he could lose Alice. A smile had been on the Queen’s lips as she danced around her desk to open the looking glass to a very specific location.

Hatter had known that it was Alice's birthday; the first few years of his marriage, he’d been a semi-unwilling participant in this little ritual. Mirana would call him to her Study, she would open a viewing mirror between Here and There, and he would catch a glimpse of Alice’s growth. The first year he’d almost refused to look in it altogether; the second, which came after her second visit to Underland, he’d only glanced quickly before looking away again. The third year, though, he shyly presented to Mirana a bit of childish verse, which he requested be sent through a glass and placed on her dresser.

In the years following that, he’d fashion different small gifts for her, and always they would be left upon her dresser or the desk in her room. Sometimes it was more verse, the way it was the first year he’d given her a gift; other times it was small trinkets he’d saved all year for, (the locket he’d been able to give her when she turned 13 he was especially proud of) or even bits of frippery he’d crafted himself. He never looked for long into the mirror, though--if he did, then he couldn’t pretend she was simply any girl whom he gave presents to every year, and he’d be straight back to feeling like even more of a lecherous fool. He had no physical desire for her, despite the knowledge that she was intended for him, and he for her, but he'd hoped to, someday, renew their friendship.

He hadn‘t even allowed himself to consider it after the events of Alice’s seventeen birthday.

“I…she…” his eyes had flicked rapidly from Mirana, to the mirror, to the floor, his hands--everywhere and yet never the same place twice--except for the mirror. That kept drawing his gaze, most certainly. Alice stood on the other side, oblivious to the inner turmoil she was causing in the Hatter as she grasped her bedpost with both hands, a massive frown pulling her lips downward. Her maid’s grumbles while she tightened her corset were visible even if they were not audible; it seemed the young miss hadn’t wanted to put the item on. This year’s gift (a small stuffed animal, which now seemed wildly inappropriate to him, when she was…she was…!) fell from his lax hands. “Excuse me, your Majesty.” he said, barely remembering to bow before rushing from the room.

Many hours were spent after that convincing himself that what he’d seen had not been so. Alice was a child! She was hardly old enough for corsetry! Why, that place were she lived in the Above world must be savage indeed, to be having young persons unwillingly laced into too-tight undergarments!

After that, he lasted the entirety of a week before asking to look through the glass once more. Just to make sure that those Above were not subjecting her to more corset torture, of course.

He’d gone to the White Queen, his hat in his hands, gaze lowered to the marble floor. If he looked up at Mirana while he asked, then she’d think, she’d believe he’d had an Impure thought (or maybe even many Impure Thoughts) about his still-too-young wife and…

“Of course, Hatta.” Mirana told him, leading him inside her Study with a gentle hand upon his arm. “Take as long as you’d like,” she encouraged, patting him once on the shoulder before discreetly exiting.

There Alice was, (luckily or unluckily, the Hatter was not sure) making various faces in the mirror. She pulled her lips away from her teeth and bared them, then turned her head this way and that. Her nose was wrinkled and then studied in profile. She smoothed down her fair eyebrows with her fingertips, fussing when a few hairs were reluctant to lay properly. Her lips moved as she talked to herself, too rapidly for him to make it out; it appeared she was asking questions, though. Tarrant found himself laughing at her silliness. She’d smiled then, nodded her head, and flounced out of the room. Tarrant was entranced once more.

He forced himself to wait yet another week before he went to Mirana again. Once more he was encouraged to take as long as he wished. This was lucky, for Alice was not immediately in front of the mirror when he began watching. In fact, he waited upwards of an hour and one half, and was just thinking morosely that perhaps today was simply not his day for Alice-viewing, when she walked into the room.

She was not wearing blue. What she was wearing was dark, much too dark to be a proper Alice-color. Tarrant tried to convince himself that perhaps it was simply a very deep navy, but part of him knew that just wasn’t true. Black was the shade that clad her, and it was extremely unflattering.

Still standing, Alice smoothed down the front of her dress, then turned this way and that, studying how the light caught the even-blacker pinstripes in the sun. Straightening the collar, she reached into a drawer on her vanity and withdrew a piece of jewelry. She clasped the locket (his locket, part of him was thrilled to notice) around her neck, her fingertips touching the small ’A’ engraved upon its surface. Then she sank back down into her tufted chair, took a good, long hard stare at herself in the mirror, and suddenly burst into tears.

Tarrant was standing before he was even aware of it, his hands pressed to the glass in the next moment. This glass was not a travel mirror; it was simply for viewing. Impotent fear curled upon his shoulders, and he slammed his fists against the glass. What could cause the girl to cry in such a manner? Was she ill? Just a week prior, she’d been so happy, so seemingly carefree, and now…

Someone was knocking on her door, it seemed, for Alice froze suddenly, and hastily wiped away her tears. She rose on unsteady feet and went to answer it, revealing a young man with ginger hair and a weak chin. He stepped into Alice’s room (his Alice’s room, a possessive side Tarrant wasn’t even aware he had in concern to his wife rumbled) in an impertinent and familiar manner, gathering the young woman into a hug.

Hatter hated him instantly.

Alice melted into the young man, clinging to his shoulders and sobbing in a clearly incoherent manner. The youth seemed to be torn between being awkwardly pleased Alice had attached herself to him in such a manner and affronted by the impropriety they were engaging in. His pleased side won out, though, for he didn’t release her, but merely rubbed her back in a soothing manner and whispered things into her ear that Tarrant could not decipher.

He’d backed away from the mirror, the visions he was seeing being too much to endure if he did not want a bout of madness to overtake him. Stumbling backwards, he’d left the room swiftly, slamming the door behind him in a way that suggested he thought if he didn’t, then it would swing back open and force him to continue watching the display.

Mirana, drawn by the noise, came out of the nearby Observatory and into the hall. Her hands had floated about her face as she’d asked, perplexed, “Hatta, what is wrong?”

“I’ve seen enough,” he’d growled. “Put it away until next year, please. I’ve more important things to concern myself with, what with the Frabjous Day approaching a bit closer every day.”

“Tarrant--”

“Just…put it away. Please,” he'd requested, quietly. Mirana had nodded as she placed one hand upon his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.

“If you ever change your mind…”

“I won’t,” he'd assured her, and he hadn’t. He’d only looked in on her twice after that day, once on her eighteenth birthday, and once on her nineteenth. Neither year did he bring her a present. To bring her a present, he’d have to first find one that was suitable, and if he pondered the suitability of a present, he’d have to think about her age, and if he thought about her age…well, he’d decided that presents were just going to have to be skipped. Best for all involved that way. He told himself she was just a little girl, and that was final. The words tasted like self-deception on his tongue, but he swallowed them down anyways.

He hadn’t been able to fool himself any longer when she’d casually strolled back to his tea party, that Griblig Day.

The first thing he’d seen was her shining golden hair; that hadn’t changed at all. Second, he was astonished to see firsthand how she’d grown. Well, grown was perhaps the wrong term, as she was shorter than when he’d last seen her; at that moment she was only two feet tall. Perhaps a better term to use would be ’how she’d matured’.

Gone was the precocious girl revealed to him by the mirror just months prior, and in her place stood a pale wisp of a woman. Even at two feet tall, Tarrant could tell that breasts and a round bum had blossomed onto her form, and her angular face, while still holding traces of baby fat, mostly fulfilled the promise her youthful beauty had hinted at. He stared, lost in wonder at the sight of his wife--he’d only just gotten used to the idea of her as a little girl, and then she presented herself to him like this? By simply walking up to the tea party he’d established to wait for her return looking so…looking so…

He vaguely recalled jumping upon the table and rushing across it to her; he had a notion that he might have dropped to one knee before her before beginning to babble almost incoherently. He had picked her up by her miniature Alice hand and led her back across the table, and her touch, despite being so small, had nearly burnt him from the inside out.

The Frabjous Day had been mentioned, and Tarrant had been ready to cheerfully, nay, almost breathlessly, inform his young wife of his preparations these past years for her role in the coming days when Chessur had pricked his ire, and then the Knave had arrived, and…

Well, he’d never gotten the opportunity to tell her, that’s all.

If the Red Knights had not found them in the woods, he would have told her then, after her small brow had furrowed as she asked what the Red Queen had done. If there had been more time between them in Salazem Grum, he would have told her then, preceded by kissing her soundly, of course. Or possibly the kissing would have happened after the telling; that part always jumbled itself together in his mind. He just knew after that point, he became less concerned about telling her of his preparations and more so with tasting her mouth. The way she’d settled his hat upon his head told him that she wouldn’t have been adverse to the action, had he been so bold to pursue it. But there had been no time! There had been Red Queens to watch out for, Vorpal Swords to fetch, Bandersnatches to escape upon…

He’d been nearly certain that he was going to die after that. The time leading up to his almost-execution was spent in torturous contemplation. Have I done enough for them? he wondered, thinking of all those in the Revolution that had depended upon him. Had he done enough to accomplish their ultimate goal, the end of the Red’s Reign, a new beginning for the White? Was Alice able to escape to Marmoreal with the Vorpal Sword? He just didn’t know, and a terror unlike any other he’d ever felt before pounded through his chest at the idea that perhaps Alice hadn’t gotten away.

It was there, in that darkened cell, that he realized somehow, in the handful of hours he’d spent with her since this, her third return, he’d fallen in love with his young wife. With the Champion of Underland. It was preposterous in the extreme. If they hadn’t already been married, he would have told himself that he hadn’t a chance with her. Being as they were, though…it gave him the hope, the muchness required to try something absolutely reckless, when Chess had smilingly suggested it.

So they’d escaped to Marmoreal. And Alice was there, waiting for him, when they reached the main courtyard. He’d wanted to wrap his arms around her, to dance her about the courtyard, but something or someone (he blamed Exhaustion) prevented him from doing so. Still, there was the reward of her luminescent smile, of her hand upon his arm, and he told himself that it was enough for now.

That resolve had lasted all of an hour. He’d been led to his old chambers within the Castle (which he’d been pleasantly surprised to see had been kept in the same condition they’d been in when he’d abandoned them for the tea party) where he washed away the reminders of Salazem Grum. Instead of immediately retiring for the evening, though, as was surely expected of him, he’d redressed, and gone in search of Alice.

He’d found her out on the balcony of her rooms, (A place that he would have never dared to go if they hadn't already been Wed!) leaning against the railing and staring up at the moon. His hat had been under his arm, his hair pushed back from his face in a vain attempt to tame it, a deep breath sucked in and a step had been taken in her direction before Tarrant was even aware he’d decided to join her. Bread-and-butterflies had erupted in his belly, and he was half-afraid of opening his mouth to speak, thinking that they’d come up through his throat and give him away. Open his mouth he did, though, stuttering out his riddle for her (Why is a raven like a writing desk?) and trying to remember the slippery rules of proper courtship that he’d never paid much attention to, even when he’d been able to use them.

They’d discussed much that night; dreams and reality, swords and slaying, waking and staying asleep. She’d smiled so winsomely at him even as she told him that he wasn’t real, that he couldn’t possibly exist. He’d wanted to argue the point--his feelings had, well, felt too strong to be the product of someone else’s imagination, but who was he to disagree with a Champion? His brows had twitched and his mouth had turned down. If he kissed her there, would that have proved to her his existence? It was a sorely tempting thought, and the one that ultimately had him taking his leave of her. The last thing his wife would want while worrying about slaying or not slaying was the advances of the mad milliner husband that she didn’t even know she was married to, nor believed was even really real!

He’d lain in bed that evening, staring up at his ceiling, unable to sleep. Real or not? He didn’t know how that could even be a point that his mind could debate, not when his blood was burning so hotly for Alice and her right proper shape and size. She’d fit right up against him, her face right at the level of his neck; were they to join, she’d--

Abruptly he veered his thoughts away from activities of that sort as he snatched his traitorous hand away from where it had crept when he was unawares. He’d not…while thinking of…no, he certainly wouldn’t! The moonlight on her hair had been most becoming, his mind unhelpfully provided, and he’d stroked himself several times through his trousers before he came back to himself. No! he thought furiously. The poor lass was due to face the Jabberwock on that morrow, and all he could think about was frigging himself? Rolling out of his bed, he’d shoved his feet into his shoes, and with a determination driven by guilt, taken himself down to the throne room, where he industriously polished the Champion’s armor.

He suspected Mirana knew why he’d stayed awake all night when she’d floated into the throne room the next morning. Every last scale upon Alice’s chain mail skirt gleamed; all the joints had been well-oiled. Dark brows lifted as she took in his battered hands and the nearly blinding armor, but instead of commenting she’d merely smiled and said, “We are gathering on the steps for the reading of the Oraculum,” before sweeping out of the room once more.

It appeared Alice had not slept well the night before, either. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and even though her hair was neatly combed and her clothing well pressed, both drooped about her in a tired, limp manner. Seeing her there, still so young upon those steps, he knew he couldn’t be one of the silent many that demanded she step forward and be the one to slay. So he stepped forward instead.

It had still been odd to Tarrant, to see Mirana in any place without Asher by her side. The White King had been killed along with his clan on Horvendush Day, and he’d watched the Queen glance to her side quickly, as if she were going to ask her long-gone husband what he thought of the developments. She had checked herself at the last moment, and turned her raised her eyebrows at him, instead. It was a Knowing look, but Tarrant didn’t care. Let her Know; the day, he’d thought, would be too short for any more hidden truths and unspoken desires.

Alice had run, as Alices sometimes do, and Tarrant went to run after her. Only the discouragement of his friends and the Queen herself had prevented him from seeking her out. He’d wanted to be the one to dress her in the armor he’d shined for her; to place the padding she would need to wear underneath, to tighten the straps that held it to her slender frame. By doing so he would have told her that she wasn’t alone, despite what Mirana had said. As more time passed and Alice still did not come back, he’d resignedly gone to his rooms and dressed himself. Oraculum or no, Alice or no, Underland needed a Champion to step forth and fight the Jabberwocky, and that should be him. He’d felt, not for the first time, the absolute pressure Alice must have been bearing, to be expected to save them all, save him, from a beast that terrified the bravest of men. She had done what Mirana's first Champion had not been able to on Horvendush Day: she'd stood up to the creature, had battled it, and triumphed.

So was it a surprise, then, that after defeating the creature Alice had decided to go back to the Above instead of abiding Under (with him, the churlish voice in his mind added)?

No, not a surprise. A disappointment? Yes, assuredly. But there was no one to blame for that disappointment except himself. Despite his bold thoughts to the contrary earlier that day, he’d revealed nothing to her, had spoken not a word of his desires beyond three (the wrong three, not the three he should have said) little words: You could stay. He’d done nothing to assist her during her battle other than jab at the beastie with his sword, like a boy with a wee stick. Nothing, nothing that could have told her what she’d come to mean to him, and what he wanted to mean to her.

Not a surprise, no. Tarrant had long ago discovered that if one prepared themselves for the worst possible scenario, then they were seldom surprised. Disappointment, though, was harder to battle. The days immediately following the Frabjous Day were silent ones, when others were in his presence. All (save for those that knew the Alice best) had expected her to stay in Underland (with him, the voice reminded him) and upon hearing that she did not had given him a wide birth. Those that did draw near to him almost immediately ceased their merrymaking (for there was much merrymaking in those days) and regarded him with apologetic eyes and silent lips.

It was for the best, he supposed. Tarrant hadn’t felt much like making merry, anyways. Instead he removed himself to the Windmill House, and began the long process of repairing it. Alice had said she would return, and he wanted her to feel comfortable when she did. A small part of him believed, deep down, that should the Alice come back to Underland, she’d likely stay at Marmoreal instead of with him. The larger part of himself, though, simply needed the focus repairing the house gave him; a goal, as if to say: when I am done, Alice will be prepared to return. This thinking had him rapidly flying about the house some days, straightening and polishing and fixing. Other days he did hardly anything at all, worried of what he would do if he completed the home and there was no Alice to live there (with him, again).

Alice’s twentieth birthday had come, and he’d practically crawled to Mirana’s study, prepared to beg if he had to (he wasn’t certain if he would be begging to look at Alice or to not look at her). The doorknob had swung open without him having to turn it, and Mirana stood within, waiting for him. A steaming pot of tea sat on the desk next to the mirror, a clean teacup beside that. Silently Mirana had glided over, grasped his arm, and sat him down in her rolling chair. “When you are ready, simply tap your fingers upon the glass,” she’d reminded him, before kissing his temple as his mother used to do and then drifting away, shutting the door behind her.

Hours (or minutes, Hatter was not certain which; Time still threw the occasional temper tantrum) passed where he’d sat and stared at the blank glass. His fingers finally decided his course of action. They’d reached of their own accord and touched the glass, and Tarrant had gasped at his first sight of Alice once again. Oh, she’d looked radiant! Another woman stood behind her, untangling snarls from her long curly hair; the similarity in features between them told him she was a relation, most likely a sister or cousin. She'd never said that she wanted to return to her family, but Tarrant should have known, should have expected...Alice watched the slightly older woman’s face as she worked, hazel eyes sparkling.

Flushed cheeks and glowing skin told the rest of the story. His greedy eyes drank her in for a few minutes more--then he banked the glass and sat in the silent study, face in his hands. “She’s happy,” he told himself. “Happy.” It was what he’d wanted for her, what he’d hoped for, but the reptile part of his brain couldn’t help the small shiver of disappointment that told him he’d also wanted her to miss him as much as he missed her.

Her 21st birthday showed the Hatter a very different Alice.

It is inaccurate to say her birthday, per se: he’d not seen her on the actual day of. Tarrant had gone to Mirana, as he’d done every other year, except this year he’d decided to re-establish the tradition of gifting her something. He’d chosen a posy, wound in Alice blue ribbon, hoping that she would be pleased with its elegant simplicity. Mirana had taken the gift with the promise to have it delivered, and left him. He’d eagerly touched the glass, ready to see Alice smiling, Alice laughing, Alice happy once more--ready to have a visual confirmation that what he’d done (by saying the wrong three little words) had turned out to be the right thing, the thing that Alice most needed.

She wasn’t in her room. Tarrant watched as McTwisp laid the flowers on her bedside table, saw as he scurried away, and waited, and waited, but there was still no Alice entering to enjoy them.

No matter, the Hatter had thought. He’d wait for her; he’d gotten especially good at it, after all. No use in allowing such a honed skill to dull!

He was still waiting when Mirana returned at sundown that evening.

Admittedly, he was not in the same state of excited anticipation he’d been in when he’d entered the study early that morning, but he’d been determined. “Go to bed, Hatta,” the White Queen had coaxed him, but he’d refused.

“What if Alice returns whilst I am gone? Please, do not make me leave, your Majesty.”

Mirana had pondered his request, but really, she needed her office. She’d let too many things go undone just allowing him the span of a total day in there; she could not leave them be any longer. “I’m afraid I have to, Hatta.” she’d explained, and Tarrant wondered how she could say such a thing without worrying for her vows as his jacket darkened and his mouth drooped. “But that does not mean that you can not take the mirror with you when you go.”

His demeanor had instantly brightened. The Alice mirror, with him? Frog footmen had marched the ornately framed piece into a guest chamber, and he bedded down with the mirror directly in front of him, so that he may wake at any moment and see if she’d arrived again.

For the span of a week, the mirror went with him wherever he ventured.

The first few days, he was not concerned. What if Alice was visiting friends? Then by all means, she would not necessarily be at hand to walk into her room. Visiting friends was an activity that a happy Alice would partake in, after all, and last he’d seen her, she’d seemed very happy indeed.

The ending of that week told him a different story. Maids had burst into Alice’s room, startling him from his watchful reverie (he and the mirror had currently been in his workshop, where he was very industriously not getting a single thing done), opening curtains, changing bedding--doing things that maids do. They seemed to be in a state of some agitation. Alice must be coming home! Tarrant set down the pouch of peacock feathers he’d been absently sorting through (and by sorting, it is meant that he was stirring them around with one finger while staring at the mirror, the only result of which was ruined feathers) and leaned forward, intent on spotting his Alice (the Alice, he irritably reminded himself) as soon as she entered the room.

The sight that met his eyes when she did was disturbing in the extreme.

Gone was the healthful flush to her cheeks and shine in her eyes. Alice now seemed dull and washed out, as if the very color that had graced her before had been leached away. She was being assisted by an older woman (her mother? Hatter just didn’t know--!) and the woman he’d decided was either her sister or cousin. They laid her upon the turned down bed, speaking in what appeared to be a gentle manner while stroking her brow. Alice’s lips moved, but slowly; it seemed as if speaking alone tired her.

Alice was ill.

He’d fetched Mirana, with shaking hands and a stream of babble that even the Queen, adept as she was in Hatter speech, could not comprehend. He’d gesticulated wildly to the mirror, and then she’d understood. He'd demanded to know what was wrong with her, and Mirana promised to look, to see if she could tell what was wrong.

Alice wasn’t just ill, she told him solemnly after studying the image for several tense minutes. Alice was Fading.

“She is not of us, your Majesty!” Tarrant had argued.

“During her last journey here, she must have eaten of the food, or possibly drank of that which was not a potion created specifically for her. Now that she has come of age, the protections of her land will no longer apply.” Mirana paused, seemingly reluctant to say the next words, but uttering them nonetheless. “Either that, or her prolonged proximity to…” she trailed off, hand fluttering towards her face, as if just realizing that the words escaped her mouth.

“To what?” Hatter asked, already knowing, somehow, what it was that the Queen’s words implied. “…To me? Is that what you were going to say, your Majesty? That I am the reason that Alice is…that she…”

Imploringly, Mirana had reached a hand out to him, to stop his stream of self-recriminating babble, but once Tarrant had reached that conclusion, censuring himself was his last concern.

“That is what you were going to say! It is my fault! You’d not be wrong, even if the food were the reasoning. After all, she was my responsibility whilst she was here, was she not? I should have stayed by her side, watched over her--that is what I was Bound to do!”

“What you are still Bound to do.” Mirana interjected softly. Tarrant paled, but was silent. Pressing this unexpected advantage, Mirana continued speaking in a low, careful voice.

“Those events are in the past, Hatta. Few can say how everything may have turned had those days passed differently. We could run to those days past and see, but who is to say that past would be any better than the current situation? If it were worse, should you wish to return to this future, it would be difficult to find the exact thread--you may never return, and then this Alice in this time, in this thread, would still perish.”

Throat moving, Tarrant swallowed hard, knowing that the White Queen spoke the truth. Whispering as the tree leaves do after the first hard frost of Fall, he said, “Am I now to be the reason why the Alice can not follow the path she has chosen? Even 'twere I to go to her, she may not wish to come with me. She may still have questions to answer, things to do, and I mustn’t press her before she is prepared to return.”

The words had the flavor of an old argument, even to Tarrant. He could only imagine how tired and worn they must have sounded to the Queen.

“She said she’d return…” he whimpered softly, the denial of a child.

“She did.” Mirana walked up behind him, as he’d turned his back to her with his last words. Two deceptively strong hands landed on his shoulders, and Hatter was a bit ashamed to feel the sob he’d attempted to conceal vibrate through his shoulders and against those hands, giving him away. Mirana paused.

“Would you leave her this decision, even knowing that it will kill her?” He'd made a small sound of protest--either a gurgle or another sob, he wasn’t certain--at this scenario.

“She cannot conceivably know why she is truly ill, Hatta.” Mirana had pressed, hands tracing the air. “It is still your decision. Please know I would never order you to retrieve her…but mark this: if Alice stays Above, she will perish. Is that a price you’re willing to pay, in order for Alice to have her freedom?”

Hatter was silent for a long time, long enough that the Queen surely had begun to wonder if she'd get an answer at all. “No,” he finally was able to say. “No, that price I am not willing to pay.”

A clatter from the front stoop pulled Tarrant out of his recollections and he turned to see Alice bracing herself against the jam. She looked even more frightful out-of-doors than she had inside her room; her hair was lank, her face was smudged with unidentifiable traces, her clothing positively hung off of her, and she was no doubt frumious, but she was an alive, on-her-way-to-mending Alice; Tarrant had never been so happy to see anyone in his life. The food must have set her to rights sooner than he'd expected, if she'd made her way down the stairs under her own power!

“Come, come!” he enthusiastically ran to her and grasped her arm, assisting her down the stoop and into the front yard. Her eyes watered from the sunlight, he saw. “I shall get you to the shade, my Alice, I shall!” He stopped himself just short of kissing the nearest part of her to his lips (at this point, her shoulder) and instead walked her towards an accommodating tree, which lowered its branches to give her shade from the sun. “The others will be ever-so-pleased to see you, Alice,” he said, with a gentle touch to the top of her head once she'd settled onto the ground. “I shall go and fetch them, directly-like.”

Hazel eyes looked up, locked with his own green. A shaky hand reached for him, and Tarrant took it between both of his own. “Thank you, Hatter,” Alice said softly.

 

*~*~*~*

 

And indeed the others had been pleased to see Alice. Even Mallymkun, whom was not her staunchest supporter when she was in Underland last, seemed overjoyed to see her. It was a bit overwhelming for Alice, but she was determined to enjoy herself, and so she did.

Tarrant, for his part, was simply overjoyed that Alice had been able to come down the stairs at all. The effort had left her obviously weak and shaky, but she had done so on her own, and he couldn't help the surge of pride in her that he felt when he thought on that. She was already so much improved from what she'd seemed in the London mirror that he could scarcely believe it...but to see her there, with him and their friends, out in the sunshine, with a smile tugging her lips at Thackery's current antics gave him the type of hope he'd nearly been ready to give up on.

“Does the Champion look a-rights to you?” the Hatter heard from behind him, and he stilled to listen to the conversation the Dodo was daring to have with someone other than himself about his wife.

“Nauw, that she doesn't, Uilleum, and make no mistake. I heard,” the unidentified second voice dropped down to a whisper, “as how she didn't really want to come home, and Mad Tarrant had to go and fetch her! Against her very will, he did!”

“I'm sure if he did do so, that he'd a very good reason,” Uilleum said, and Hatter silently thanked him for being such a good friend. He'd help quash that rumor, (never mind if it was true!) and with any luck, no one would be attempting any foolishness like “saving” the Champion...for them doing so and assisting her in returning to London could accomplish the opposite of their goal, and kill her.

Chapter Text

“Have you heard what Helen Kingsleigh has been up to lately?”

Hamish paused outside his mother's sitting room. Indoor pursuits had left him bored and restless, but outdoor activities were not to be had, unless he wished to romp about in the snow like a lad of twelve. That is not to say that he made a habit of listening at doors in the wintertime simply for amusement, but the likelihood of him hearing something indiscreet outside of sitting room doors was raised exponentially with the onset of the colder months. Therefore, it was with only a few twinges of guilt that, upon hearing the surname Kingsleigh, he abandoned any pretense of self-imposed, strident rules of civility and pressed his ear flush against the door.

“What was that, Penelope?” Lady Ascot (Hamish hardly even thought of her as 'mum' in his own mind, she was such a fearsome creature) asked, in her highly developed distant-but-yet-riveted tone of voice that she reserved for gossiping with Mrs. Penelope Chattaway.

Like her daughters, Mrs. Chattaway was a notorious gossip. If she were speaking of the Kingsleighs in the manner he believed she was about to, it would not bode well for their family name.

“She's decided to fund a charity.”

“Oh, pshaw! And here I thought you were going to tell me something interesting, Penelope! You and I have been encouraging her to take up a useful activity since Charles passed.”

“Yes, but you won't believe where she is applying herself at.”

“Oh?”

Hamish pressed himself closer to the door, holding his breath so that his inhalations didn't accidentally drown out the words in case Mrs. Chattaway decided to whisper the way she did when she was relating something especially 'deliciously scandalous'. He was glad he did when she predictably lowered her tones, and said, “An establishment called Long's Orphange Home for Boys.”

Lady Ascot sighed. “Once again, Penelope, I fail to see your point. An orphanage is a fine place to champion, indeed.”

“It's in Cheapside.”

A teacup clattered onto a saucer. “Oh, now you're just being ridiculous.”

“It's true!” Penelope Chattaway insisted. “I got it from Mrs. Wickham, who'd got it from Mrs. Collins, who got it straight from her maid's sister, who works for Mrs. Kingsleigh!”

Hamish gnawed on his lower lip to prevent a laugh from escaping. What a circuitous route ladies gossip traveled on!

Sighing noisily in a manner that Hamish was quite familiar with (he could practically see her eye-roll through the door; she was of much the same mind about servant's gossip that he was) Lady Ascot very deliberately changed the subject in a way that Mrs. Chattaway would not consider a complete re-direct. His mother was very good at that sort of thing, Hamish thought fondly.

“Have you heard anything about the younger Miss Kingsleigh?”

Yes, his mother was savvy indeed. She knew perfectly well that Mrs. Chattaway would not mention Miss Alice Kingsleigh without her broaching the subject first; but when the subject was broached, well...

“You would think that young woman dropped right off the face of the earth!” Penelope squealed indignantly. “Faith and Fiona have tried to call on her, and have left their cards multiple times, but nothing!” A pastry must have been shoved into her mouth at this juncture, because her next words came thickly, as if being forced out beyond frosting and cake. “Miss Alice hasn't made a return visit, or even sent a note thanking them for their concern! They'd visited her the first week after her arrival back in London, and then suddenly, it's 'Miss Kingsleigh will not be receiving visitors' this and 'Miss Kingleigh is ill today' that. It's almost as if she is not at home at all!”

“That...is unusual. They'd been quite welcome in the Kingsleigh residence before now.”

“And just why wouldn't my girls be welcome?” Mrs. Chattaway asked defensively. Hamish could well picture her, back ramrod straight, and her...heroic...nose, held high in the air.


“Oh, Penelope. Honestly?” Lady Ascot did something that set the tea things to clattering, and then she said, “I do hope that Alice is quite well. She'd looked very poorly indeed when she came off that ship that Rupert put her on. I told him that was no place for a young lady, especially one of breeding, but did he listen to me?”

“Has Lord Ascot heard naught?”

“No, nothing,” Hamish's mother replied, and then paused. “Which is odd in and of itself. I do wonder what is going on with those Kingsleigh woman. Perhaps I will invite Lord and Lady Manchester to dine later this week.”

“You will let me know how that progresses, will you not?” Penelope asked, an eagerness coloring her voice.

“Let you know? I shall invite you and Theodore as well.”

“Splendid! Speaking of Lady Manchester...”

Hamish backed away from the door. He'd heard enough. Something was going on with Alice, and he was determined to find out what.

 

*~*~*~*

 

 

“What do you think my mother is doing right now? My sister?”

“Beg pardon?”

Alice rolled over onto her side, propping her head upon the meat of her palm. “My mother, Hatter. I'm concerned about her.”

“You could always write her a letter.”

“What?” Alice leaned over the Hatter, ignoring the growing-more-familiar feeling that tugged at the bottom of her stomach at the sight of him. He was in his shirtsleeves and vest, stretched out full length, hat resting beside his splayed orange frizz. A piece of sweet grass was in his teeth, which he was gnawing and suckling on absently.

“I said, you could always write her a letter,” Tarrant repeated, patiently. “Or look in upon her through a mirror.”

“You never mentioned that I could do that before!” Alice said, agitated.

“You never asked,” Hatter replied, looking at her strangely.

She wished to be angry; she really did. But his reply was simply such a Hatter thing to say, that she found that she couldn't be upset with him. Of course he would only suggest she communicate with her mother if she asked...even if he should have known that she would wish to do so without mentioning it. That thought stopped her. It was unfair to expect him to know her wishes and thoughts—if she'd never spoken them, how would he know?

All she'd ever told him was that she wished to return to London, when she was first taken to Underland...but even that she'd stopped speaking of after her second or third day in the Hatter's presence. Alice had never asked if there was a way to speak or to see her mother while still staying in Underland. This, even after Hatter had told her that he'd used a mirror to check upon her while she was Above! Why, it was no wonder he'd not thought she'd wish to do so, if the first words out of her mouth after finding out about the existence of such a thing was not a demand to see her mother!

“I have much to tell her,” Alice said, sitting back down on her rump.

“Oh?”

“You sound surprised,” Alice teased.

“While any and all time spent in your company is enjoyable, Alice, I do not imagine that we have partaken of any activities worth writing home about.”

Alice snorted. “Your imagination is suffering acutely, than, Hatta. Oh, my fingers simply itch for parchment and quill now!”

“Where would you begin?” Tarrant asked, seemingly diverted.

Where indeed! It was an excellent question.

While they had gotten off to an...unfortunate start, Alice had determined, that day after she finally was able to venture out of her sickroom in the Windmill House, that she would make the most of her time here in Underland. A part of her was thrilled to be there; a very large part. To be in Underland with no need to hide where she'd been from her mother, to be able to correspond with those Above and share all of her adventures seemed too great of an opportunity to pass, and so she grasped it. It would have been a lie to say that it wasn't a relief, to be in a place where she could be herself, with no threat of censure.

There was still a lingering guilt, and, yes, part of her was still angry with Tarrant for the way he'd brought her to Underland, and there were questions she was afraid to have him answer for her, but the stronger parts of her were simply grateful to be here, with him, for however long she was able to be.

The day following her first outside, she'd gone to Tarrant and asked him, in a quiet and careful voice, if he would mind sitting with her in the living room. His eyes had shined in surprise and delight, and he'd eagerly ceded to her request. There he had constructed her a seat so cushioned with blankets and pillows that she hardly needed to extend any effort to remain upright, and they played chess well past nightfall. Tarrant won twice, as Alice fully expected he would, but she surprised them both by winning the third match.

The next day, feeling a bit stronger, she had forgone the cushioned hollow and instead sat upon the piano bench, determined to practice her admittedly very rusty musical skills. The sound of the keys clinking and clanging discordantly had brought Tarrant to the room, and he'd sat, hat in his hands in the wingback armchair still pulled up to the chess table. From the mirror hanging above the piano, Alice had been able to see his reactions as she tinkled out certain melodies, his delight with some and his ambivalence with others. His face had became Rapture itself, though, when she began to sing. His mouth had parted and his eyes became even more unfocused than usual, and she had not thought it was her imagination that saw his chest rising and falling rapidly under the fabric of his waistcoat.

“Allow me,” he'd said, when her voice finally gave out. Tarrant had directed her over to what Alice had swiftly began to consider her cushions, settled her in, then returned to the piano, where, after a dramatic shucking of his jacket and rolling upwards of his sleeves, he began to play.

Tarrant, bless him for all of his other talents, was simply awful when it came to music.

It was a tableau that should have had her giggling like mad, and abusing him for the most untalented of musicians. Instead something tight clenched in her chest at the sight of him, so earnest, sitting at the piano and carefully plunking out notes for her enjoyment. Alice knew not how long he played, or what exactly the songs were that he sung. She only knew that when he had finished, she had tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.

He'd seen this in the mirror's reflection and was up off the bench and by her side in a moment.

“Alice! I'm sorry, I know I'm not the most talented of singers—the Red Queen once threatened my head over the quality of my singing! What was I thinking, to subject you to my terrible voice? Look, I've made you cry!”

“No, Tarrant.” Alice had reached out and touched his jacket sleeve. “You weren't terrible. In fact, you were wonderful.”

He'd looked very chuffed indeed, but had giggled past his pride and said, “If you think so, my dear, you must be completely tone-deaf! But it is an Alice compliment, and I shall take it nonetheless.”

A few days later had her up and about, walking for several minutes at a time under her own power without assistance from Tarrant whatsoever. He'd still insisted on dressing her hair that morning (“One hundred brush strokes, is it, Alice?”) brushing it until it gleamed before plaiting it and then pining that plait into a tightly wound chignon. There had been something extremely intimate about him tending to her hair, and when the Hatter had finally stepped away, lips still pursed in concentration, before nodding and exclaiming, “I like it!” Alice felt like she could breathe again. She'd grinned up at him, said, “I'm glad it meets with your approval, sir,” and, before she'd known what her body's intentions were, had stood, rose upon her tiptoes, and bussed him on the cheek. Giggling at his dumbstruck expression, she'd left the room, with a reminding, “You don't want to be late to meet the Queen!”

Thackery and Mally had been waiting for her down in the kitchen. Alice had donned an apron (which Mally helpfully tied for her in the back) heavily floured her hands (which the Hare had insisted was absolutely necessary before one spent too long in the kitchen) and pestered Thackery until he agreed to show her how to bake something.

“Biscuits!” he'd shouted. “Easy fer a beginnin', aye? Course, tis a mite bit late to be sayin' yer just startin', but...Aye! 'Twill do well enough!”

Mally had scampered upon the windowsill to offer helpful suggestions as Alice cut, rolled out, and then mixed the biscuit ingredients. Hours later, she'd been up to her elbows in flour, laughing like a loon over Mally's rather colorful commentary on her lack of culinary skills, when Tarrant came into the kitchen. He'd stopped, anxious yellow-green eyes roving from the alarmingly large pile of burnt, brick-like biscuits in the corner, to Alice, and back again. Then he'd smiled, walked over and plucked a biscuit from the top of the pile, and bit into it. He'd made a comical face of absolute revulsion, but still swallowed, and said, forcibly bright, “It's good!” He'd gone to take another bite when Alice stopped him.

“It's awful! Tarrant, you are a terrible liar. You don't have to eat that, honestly.”

“You made it, didn't you?” he had asked, staring up at her hair, which was coming loose every which way out of her chignon. Alice had patted the loose strands, self-consciously trying to fix it, but only succeeded in sprinkling flour all about her person.

“Yes,” Alice had said. “If Thackery had, it might actually be edible.”

“It's edible now,” Tarrant had argued, and then took another bite. He'd struggled bravely with it, swallowed, and then admitted, “Although perhaps...not as tasty as one would hope...”

They'd all laughed, then, and decided to scrap her cooking lessons for the time being.

The following day Tarrant hadn't had an appointment to keep in Marmoreal, so he'd suggested they talk a brief walk, saying that the outdoor air could do her some good. He'd taken her not far afield, to a riverbank that had a picnic lunch set up next to it. Alice had exclaimed in delight.

“You planned this!”

A gap-toothed grin had been her response, and he'd led her to a seat. Together they'd sat and watched the birds going overheard, the fish jump and play, and the river roll on, a constant, steady presence. They had stayed outside that day for hours, talking of nothing and everything, munching occasionally on the treats Tarrant had arranged for. Only when the sun began to set did they start back for the Windmill House, and outside the door, Tarrant had paused, had stopped and looked at her lips as if...but then he'd cleared his throat, looked down at his shoes, and opened the door for her.

“Ladies first,” he'd said, and, surprised at her level of disappointment, Alice entered the house. Shortly thereafter Tarrant had made his excuses and gone to bed, leaving her to puzzle over the conundrum if he had or had not been considering kissing her in that moment, and her own, (decidedly favorable) reaction, had he decided to do so.

“Will you tell me a story?” had been the first words Tarrant spoke to Alice the next evening upon returning once more from Marmoreal, causing her to drop the milk pitcher she'd been carrying. After much profuse apology, the crying milk (as milk will always insist that someone cries when it is spilt, to the point that if no one does, it will up and start crying itself) had been cleaned up, and the pieces of the broken pitcher had been swept into the bin. It had been while this tidying was occurring that Alice had pressed for a clarification of Tarrant's request.

“You want me to tell you a story?” she'd asked. Tarrant nodded.

“I feel a bit like Scheherazade, but alright,” Alice had agreed. She took a breath and opened her mouth to begin a tale, (although she'd no idea what story she would tell him; she was hoping that if she began speaking, something interesting would come out) when Tarrant had stopped her with a question.

“Whom is Scheherazade?”

Alice smiled. She'd had her story to tell!

Dawn had broken the horizon when she was done; Tarrant had sat before her, spellbound, for the entire night, not interrupting her unless to inquire as to a plot point or for a clarification on the meaning of a word. Yawning and too sleepy to bother rising from her cozy hollow of blankets and pillows by the time she was finished, Alice had simply nestled down further into them, pulled a corner of one of the blankets over herself, and announced her intention to go to sleep.

The feeling of strong arms lifting her and carrying her up the stairs and to her bedroom could have been a dream, would have been dismissed for one, had she not woken hours later to the afternoon sun shining through her porthole window. The words she believed she spoke to the owner of those arms would have been written off as mere imagination (“Stay with me?”) had not the gentleman in question still been curved around her, his breath tickling her ear and his chin comfortably settled on her shoulder. A little whistling snore emanated from him, and Alice didn't know if she'd ever heard a more endearing sound in her entire life. She'd carefully, quietly, pulled herself free of his grip; Alice would not have been surprised if she'd been blushing hard enough to wake the Hatter with the sound of her blood rushing to her face. He'd grunted, and curled into a tight ball in the place she'd been, face nuzzling where her hair had rested upon the pillow.

Alice had gone downstairs, marched into the kitchen, and resolutely thrown herself into the effort of finally managing an edible batch of biscuits. By the time Tarrant made his way down the stairs, his hands in his pockets and a confused, sheepish tilt to his brows, Alice had made not one, but two batches of biscuits that didn't make her despair over her cookery skills. Before he'd been able to utter the apology that was clear in his eyes, she pressed a biscuit into his hands, and insisted, “Try it!” She'd had no interest in him apologizing and spoiling her pleasant memory.

He'd taken a bite, and those tilted brows had climbed upward. Another bite was taken, and he said, slowly, “I do believe, Alice, that these are actually...good.” A smile had curved her mouth, and they'd sat together at the table, enjoying a bit of tea and her biscuits. Not a word had been spoken about her request that he stay with her, much to Alice's satisfaction. Wonderful things, she'd thought, should not be over-thought, but just enjoyed.

More days had passed, in which Alice continued her attempts at cookery, (with a bit more success; cake, it seemed, she was able to make without burning) Tarrant sang to her again, (and it still brought confused, pleased tears to her eyes) more chess was played (Alice won twice more, an accomplishment she was very proud of) and another walk taken. Life at the Windmill House had been slipping into a pattern, it seemed, until Alice had suggested Tarrant give her an Official Tour, as he'd never done so when she'd initially arrived. Agreeing with alacrity, he'd led her from room to room, explaining in great detail the benefits of each, and what exactly he had done whilst renovating them. Alice exclaimed in all the proper places, assured him that she appreciated the amount of work he'd put into the building, and generally was well-pleased with everything that was revealed to her. There was one room, though, that the Hatter had attempted to walk her right past without opening the door, and she'd tugged on his arm, pulling him to a stop.

“This is your room, isn't it?” she'd asked.

“It is,” Tarrant had agreed.

“Aren't you going to show it to me?”

“You...wish to see my room?”

“Of course,” Alice had told him. “I've seen it before, but I'd like to be properly invited this time round.”

So, with a shy, nervous smile, he'd turned back, consulted with the doorhandle, and they entered his space.

Although, as she'd told Tarrant, Alice had been in there once before, the night of his raging madness, Alice had not really been in any condition to take note of much of anything. It was spare—much more spare than she'd expected from a space belonging to Tarrant Hightopp. There was a low, plainly made bed with a simple nightstand next to it, with only a candlestick and a book atop it; a curtainless porthole window, high up on the wall which was very similar to the one in her room, and a woven rug on the floor, with a pair of battered slippers beside it. There was only one fixture hanging on the wall, and it was this set of shelves that had soon drawn her attention.

Miscellaneous bits and bobs had been scattered on the lowest shelf, as if Tarrant emptied his pockets at the end of every day there; spools of thread and broken thimbles, (and just what was the man doing to actually break his thimbles? She'd resolved to speak to him about that) scraps of paper with what appeared to be hat sketches and words scribbled across them, snapped pencils and bent feathers. The next shelf up had held even more interesting contents.

A smile had coiled the corners of Alice's mouth as she'd stood on her tiptoes to reach a small plush skunk, wearing a cheerful yellow ribbon. “This is cute,” she'd said, wondering why the Hatter possessed such a toy.

“Do you like it?” he'd asked her, an eagerness coloring his voice that she hadn't understood. Turning to face him, she'd noted his expectant expression, and, although she hadn't known the reason behind it, hastened to assure him:

“Oh! Yes, I do! It's very sweet, indeed.”

“It's yours,” Tarrant had told her, pride evident after her reassurance that is was to her liking. “I made it for you.”

“For me?” Alice had asked, batting aside the swell of disappointment that bubbled under her breast. Just how old did the Hatter think she was, she'd wondered. Perhaps she'd been wrong about how he'd been behaving towards her; but what sort of man gave an individual they still considered as a child a ring? Not that he'd given her the ring with any clear indications at all as to its purpose—or even while she was conscious! For all she knew, it could be a token, a simple gift of affection...the giving and accepting of a ring (for she had accepted it, hadn't she, when she had decided to not press the matter of how it came to be on her finger and why she was wearing it) could mean something completely different in Underland than it did in Above, she'd fussed.

But no, she'd argued with herself, it could not be just a simple trinket. She knew gold when she saw it, and she'd seen Tarrant sneaking looks at her hand when he believed she was unawares. Its continued presence on her finger Meant Something to him, something beyond the enjoyment one gets from knowing they've bestowed a well-received trifle upon a friend. What it meant, though, Alice still was not certain, but she hoped...she hoped...and when had she begun to hope that it meant what it would mean in London?!

“Yes. It was to be your seventeenth birthday gift, but I...failed to have it delivered to you.”

“A birthday gift?”

“Yes,” Hatter had repeated. “As I gave you a gift every year, on your day of birth, so too was that to be. Only that year...well, I realized that such a gift may not have been appreciated by a young woman, as you actually were at that point, instead of the young girl I had imagined when I'd created it.”

“You gave me gifts?” Alice had parroted, feeling slow and dim-witted.

“I did,” Tarrant had confirmed, looking at her with concern. “They were left upon your bedside table each year. I know you received them, for I saw you with some. The locket I gave you when you turned thirteen, the book of verse when you were nine...”

“The gloves when I turned sixteen,” Alice had breathed. “Those were all from you?”

“Indeed. Whom did you think they were from?”

“My father,” Alice had replied, reeling. Hatter had been the one who had those items snuck into her room each year? She's always believed that her father had done so, and he'd played along when she'd asked, (even though, after she'd considered it, Charles never had specifically said that they were from him) so she never thought to question where they came from further, and...

“How did you see me with the gifts?”

Shifting uncomfortably on the balls of his feet, looking for all the world like a young boy preparing to be scolded by a strict nanny, Tarrant had said, “The Queen permitted me the use of her Looking Glass once per year, to check in upon you, to see how you were. She also arranged for the gifts to be delivered; I'm not sure by what method, but I suspect McTwisp was involved.”

“The gifts stopped when I was seventeen—when father died. Why did you stop?” Alice would not have expected that the idea of those years of being deprived of her special birthday gifts would upset her, but it had.

“I...saw that you were no longer a little girl...and I questioned the appropriateness of continuing on with such a venture.”

So Hatter did not see her as a child any longer, part of her had thrilled. She'd wanted to dance about the room and crow, but her curiosity was stronger, and the questions on the tip of her tongue would not wait for spontaneous expressions of victorious joy.

“What caused this revelation, Hatta?”

Looking very uncomfortable indeed, Tarrant had replied while staring firmly at the floor, “Your maid was dressing you. I might have been able to dismiss the way she was lacing you into that contraption, but...” he swallowed, closed his eyes, and visibly commended himself to whatever gods Underlandians believed in. “I asked to see you the next week, and the week thereafter. I didn't want to catch you whilst you were dressing again!” he hastily reassured her, “But it was quite a shock to me to think of you as an adult woman, and not...but the last week I looked, the third week, you were dressed in black, and that pompous, no-chin, guddler's spitting pilgar lickering toadstool of a bootstrap let himself into your room, and I...”

“I was in black? I never wear black. Unless...my father turned ill right around my birthday, and passed three weeks after...but no one would have been in my rooms, it would be...” Alice had stopped, the memory trickling back to her. “You can't mean....Hamish?” Alice had asked faintly, fingers tightening on the plush skunk. “You stopped sending me gifts because of Hamish?”

“You seemed attached to the lad, and I didn't want to intrude, and...”

“You think I seem attached to Hamish? Bright red hair, bad teeth? That Hamish?”

Alice had only realized how using those two particular identifying traits in such a negative tone might have seemed when the Hatter flushed to an almost purple-red, and his brilliant green eyes fixed themselves onto the floor. When he'd spoken, he did not raise his face to look at her. It seemed he'd noticed her use of the present tense, though, for he'd said, in a carefully measured tone:

“Are you? Attached to him, I mean?”

“No!” Alice had insisted, shaking her head in vehement denial. “If I were as attached to him as everyone seems to think I should be, I would have accepted his proposal of marriage two years ago!”

Burning, raging, sulfuric irises had been the Hatter's response—that had gotten him to look at her once more! “He proposed to ye? That no-good, weak-limbed, hand wringing child actually thought he was worthy of asking ye for yer hand in marriage?”

“It was what caused me to follow McTwisp down the rabbit hole, actually,” Alice had told him. “He found me just as Hamish went on bended knee. I probably would have told him yes, if I hadn't seen that Rabbit right then. It was what everyone expected of me. Instead I chased the Rabbit, fell to Underland, and regained my muchness.”

“That was what you had to answer,” Tarrant had guessed. “You had to leave Underland to tell that boy that you didn't wish to marry him.”

“That, among other duties called me, yes. You may call him a boy, Hatter, but he's an honorable man, if a bit boring; he deserved an answer.”

Tarrant had deflated at this defense. He'd looked about, as if just realizing they were still in his room. “Shall we resume our tour?” he'd asked, cementing the change in subject by holding out a hand. Alice took it.

“As long as my long lost friend can come with us,” she'd said, holding the skunk up in illustration.

He'd smiled. “But of course,” he'd said, and together they'd gone about the rest of the house, Tarrant's laughter and slowly renewed cheer warming her from the inside out.

Come to think of it, what would Alice tell her mother? That she thought that...possibly, she could be falling in love with...?

“Penny for your thoughts, Alice,” Tarrant broke in, interrupting the letter she'd been crafting to her mother in her head.

Blushing, she replied, “I should like to think they're worth at least a pence...but it's nothing, Tarrant.” Standing, she extended her hand to him, and helped him stand. “Shall we go back to the house? I have a letter to start writing.”

Although what she was going to put in it, Alice hadn't the slightest idea.

“Windmill House?” Tarrant seemed surprised. “I thought you would wish to travel to Marmoreal and view her through the glass?”

“I...not today,” she finally told him, after another quiet-filled moment.

“Alright then,” Tarrant nodded, still holding onto her hand. He tucked it into the crook of his arm, and said, “A letter it shall be then. But you know, you only have to ask...I should have offered before, but I thought...and you never mentioned it, so my belief was that you'd no wish to...but that's a ridiculous notion, that you'd not wish to see your family, and conceited, to boot, to think that I would...”

“Hatter,” Alice said firmly. “It is quite fine.” He subsided, but his chin still tightened in a show of doubt. “Honestly!” she insisted, and in a rush of muchness, reached up to pet his jaw, to soothe away the tension there. Her fingers rounded and chucked him under the chin. A look burned through his eyes—a look that she'd seen a fair few times before since returning to Underland, starting with when she'd licked the ring on her finger that first day—and he leaned towards her, his mouth soft and half-parted. Alice closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it (Was he going to close the distance between them? Did she want him to?) when Tarrant abruptly cleared his throat. Her eyes popped back open to see him shaking his head as though to clear it.

“A-After you, Alice,” Tarrant said, nodding towards the house. Snapping her mouth shut before a string a disappointed expletives could issue forth, the blonde instead exhaled strongly through her nose, and nodded to herself, before tugging gently on his arm and leading them back to the Windmill.

Chapter Text

“You must tell me, Mrs. Kingsleigh. We’ve had no word or letter, nothing to tell of Miss Kingsleigh's condition.”

While he'd told himself that he would wait, that he would not immediately charge over to Kingsleigh Manor and begin demanding answers, that was exactly what Hamish did after overhearing his mother and Mrs. Chattaway gossiping. Mrs. Kingsleigh, though, was decidedly tight-lipped with the answers Hamish requested, refusing to even allow him to see the young woman.

“Alice is fine, I told you, Hamish.”

“Then let me see her, Mrs. Kingsleigh, please.”

“I can’t!”

Can't?” An echo of Penelope Chattaway's words resounded in his ear, and, taking a gamble, Hamish said, “Alice is not here, is she? Otherwise you'd say that you won't allow me to see her. Instead, you said that you can't.”

“Hamish, I--”

Hamish reached forward and took the tea cup from her shaking grasp. “Please, Mrs. Kingsleigh. You know I only have Alice’s best interests at heart...and yours, as well. I'm concerned, Mrs. Kingsleigh. This whole business with the orphanage...” He set the cup on the table and then took her hands in his, looking deeply into her watery eyes. “Where is Alice? If she were still at home no doubt she would have been cheering on your actions, but from the way you act...” He looked at her trembling shoulders and tightly-clasped lips as he said, “She hasn't done so. The only way Alice would not encourage such flouting of convention and scandalous behavior would be if she were not present. So I ask you again, Mrs. Kingsleigh: Where is Alice?”

“I can’t tell you, Hamish. You’ll never believe me. Maybe…years ago…you might have. Not now, though.” She sniffed, and Hamish could not recall her ever looking more miserable than she did right then.

Smiling, Hamish squeezed her hands briefly. “Try me, Mrs. Kingsleigh.”

“I…I sold her. I sold her away.”

Tilting his head to one side, Hamish said, not unkindly, “Mrs. Kingsleigh, you know that Father would never press Alice for more than she was capable of giving, nor will he force the issue of her contract whilst she is so ill.”

“I don’t mean to Rupert!” Helen angrily brushed away a stray tear. “I know your father is an honorable man, Hamish.”

“If you don’t mean to Father, than to whom—or what--are you referring?” Hamish asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Suddenly hard, cold eyes met his. “I believe you know whom, Hamish, if you allow yourself to think on them.”

Letting go of the hand he still held, Hamish sat back, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, madam.”

“You do,” Helen hissed as she leaned forward. “Alice is no longer in London. She is no longer even in England, Hamish.” She hiccuped, and Hamish realized that it was the result of a repressed sob.

“She is...no longer in England?” Hamish parroted back, stunned. “Where is she? Who has taken Alice, Mrs. Kingsleigh?”

Looking him squarely in the eyes, Helen said, “The sidhe. The one as had marked her when she was young. She called him Hatter, and embraced him as a friend. He came to me, told me that her health would continue to suffer if he did not take her away. I...believed him. And so I let him take her.”

Hamish didn’t know what to think of Helen’s claims. The part of him that had been raised by his mother immediately balked at such notions, but a deeper part of him, the part that Alice had fed when they were children with stories and her giggling encouragements to Just imagine it, Hamish! stirred and whispered Maybe in his ear. He couldn’t, even though doing so would be what his mother and father would most certainly do, discount any of her claims at this point; she was the only one who had any clue of what might have happened, and he needed to sift through her ramblings to have any idea whatsoever where to begin looking.

“Say that the…sidhe…did come for Alice. Why would you allow him to take her?” Had she said something about it being for Alice's health? Hamish was beginning to wonder if he was having an episode of hysterical hearing; he'd heard of such cases before, where the listener only thinks they've heard something and....

Pressing her eyes tightly closed, Helen grimaced and said, “It was for her health. She is no longer like you and I, Hamish. Without the raths to sustain her, she’ll perish. He implied that she would be allowed to return when…but I am a fool to believe the promise of one of those creatures!”

“Helen, this is--”

“I know that you think me mad, Hamish.” Helen turned away from the young man, her lips compressed in a thin line. “How could you not? Even I think it sounds mad. Yet there is no other explanation, nothing else that makes a whit of sense!” Miserable, she continued, “She didn't wish to go with him. Despite the warm greeting she gave the beast, when it came down to it, she wished to stay home. I allowed that...Hatter to take her anyways.”

“Hatter?” Hamish stood from his chair, paced about the room twice, and then turned to Helen once more. “Are you certain she called him Hatter?”

“Yes, as certain as I can be.”


A memory flickered at the back of Hamish’s mind, of an Alice with bright eyes, in that time before she became ill as a child. She sat at his side while he reclined on the chaise, which had been carried to the apple orchard. Her hands had fluttered and she’d sighed dramatically as she sketched a story for him, with talking dormice and flying tea-trays and…

“She mentioned this Hatter to me.” Stunned, Hamish sank back down into his chair. This time it was Helen that stood, and she loomed over the ginger in his seat.

“What?”

Instead of answering, Hamish grunted in thought. “Yes, it must be. Alice was…telling the truth?” It was too incredible for Ermintrude Ascot’s son to comprehend, but Alice Kingsleigh’s childhood friend understood perfectly.

“Helen--” Hamish shocked himself with both his informality and temerity by standing again to grasp the older woman by the shoulders. “How do I get there?”

“Wh-what?”

“In the stories, the ones that Alice always told me, it’s possible to save someone from the fae. Stories that you originally told to her. You must know how one gets into the mounds. If rescues happened, they must have been able to get there in order to do the actual rescuing, yes?”

“Would you be willing to do that, Hamish? Are you really willing to go and fetch my Alice home?”

His mouth opened and closed. What madness was this? Were they were actually discussing...? Was he really going into a fairy mound and rescuing Alice from beings that, in all likelihood, did not even exist? His logical side failed in the mental struggle, though, because eventually he nodded. “I care for her, Mrs. Kingsleigh. That hasn’t changed simply because she refused my suit.”

Grateful seemed an inadequate word to describe how Helen gazed at him after that, yet it was the only one that Hamish could think of. “It would have been an honor to have a son-in-law such as you, Lord Ascot.”

Grinning, Hamish said, “Well, it may still be, at that, Mrs. Kingsleigh. If you will help me?”

“Of course,” she paused, then continued with, “There are only a few ways one can get to the land Under intentionally, from what I remember of my mother's tales. Mirrors are one way, and the least risky, aye, but they are rumored to be heavily guarded and warded against those of our world. Alice herself went there once by this method.”

“The others?” Hamish had pressed, a bit unnerved by her sudden Scottishness. He'd known, in a factual sort of way, that Helen Kingsleigh was not an Englishwoman born, but he'd always been able to forget that in the face of her graciousness and gentlewomanly behavior.

“Candle-light, if your horse be good and your spurs be bright, will take you there and back again,” she told him seriously, to which Hamish arched a brow.

“As I lack the ownership of shiny spurs, and possess even less faith in Babylonian candles, perhaps we should think of another method?”

“Blood,” Helen said bluntly. “Spilt on the standing stones, but that only works on the Fire Feasts, Beltane and Samhain…and Beltane be being months off, yet...”

“I do not know that I would be comfortable…offering a blood sacrifice, in any event,” Hamish said stiffly.

“There are only two other ways, and of those, only one is purposeful.” Her eyes were as large as an owl’s. “Tis very dangerous. Ye must go by their causeways.”

“Tell me how,” Hamish demanded.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Which is how he found himself to be sitting, fully clothed, in the Kingsleighs' cast-iron bathtub.

“Madam, I don’t really see…”

“Hush, now. I told you already, the tub will protect you as you travel their seas. Without the cold iron, they’ll attack you and you’ll never make it to the land Under.” She put another bucket full of water into the tub (and why she couldn’t just use the spigot, a perfectly good modern device if there ever was one, Hamish still didn’t understand, despite her explaining that to him as well), eyed the level, and then nodded with apparent satisfaction. “Aye, that’ll do. Now lean back.”

“Perhaps we should talk about this a bit more...” Hamish felt ridiculous. Here he was, a grown man, fully clothed in a bathtub, completely soaked, in the presence of a woman he thought of as a mother, and preparing to go off to fairy-land. If anyone had told him he’d be participating in anything of the sort even a month prior, he’d have called them barmy. “This is madness, Mrs. Kingsleigh!”

“Do not speak to me of madness, Hamish Ascot!” the Kingsleigh matriarch scowled. “I watched my daughter be taken by a creature that could not have been human and in a plume of smoke, too! You were there that day on the hilltop, those years ago! You saw the flowers crowning Alice's head. You heard them sing just as clearly as I did. Now you may be more comfortable living a life where you deny hard facts laid before you, but I am not the sort who will continue to deny strong evidence when it's presented before her! Do you love Alice, or no?”

“I...Mrs. Kingsleigh, that is...she....” Hamish stuttered, taken aback by Helen's blunt question.

“If you do, then you mustn’t back out now, wee Hamish.” Helen said, a maniac gleam in her eyes. “Remember what I said?” She shoved a spoonful of poppy syrup in his mouth. He suckled on it, broodingly, as Helen then proceeded to sprinkle thyme and apple rinds atop the water he sat in. She recited for him once again:

I have to just shut my eyes

To go sailing through the skies

To go sailing far away

To the pleasant land of Play

To the fairy land afar...”1

“If I only need to close my eyes, is the tub full of water really necessary, Mrs. Helen?” Hamish slurred, the poppy syrup quickly doing its work of relaxing him into re-assumed acquiescence.

“Just relax,” Helen chided, as she removed the spoon from his mouth. Handing him two bunches of lilacs, (and where Alice's mum managed to find lilacs at this time of year, Hamish was very curious to find out; they must have cost her a pretty penny) which he took with clammy hands, she filled the teaspoon with poppy syrup once again, and stuck it back in his mouth. Salt crunched under her feet as she shifted her weight. “Sleep now, wee Hamish.”

There was no help for it; he couldn’t not succumb to slumber. Hamish began to sink, but struggled to stay afloat, and was able to stay as such only under a great effort. “Mrs. Kingsleigh, you will not let me drown, will you?” he asked, eyes blurring.

She spoke, but Hamish could not understand her words; they sounded like they were coming from a long way off. Blinking hard, he tried to focus his eyesight, but couldn't.

Something else had to have been in that syrup, Hamish mused, and only felt a mild surge of concern over that thought. He held his head up as long as he could, but it was a losing struggle. Eventually he sank below the surface of the water, and he sucked in a mouthful of foul tasting water. He choked as an apple rind found its way into his mouth, tried to get up, failed, and then succumbed to darkness just as a woman's strong hands found the hair atop his head and began pulling him back to the surface.

“Hamish! Hamish, can ye hear me, lad?”

His eyes struggled open to the sight of Helen Kingsleigh, the entire front of her dress completely soaked through (enough so that he could count each stay in her corset, he noticed, and would have likely blushed if he'd been able, but he was too busy coughing up foul tasting water and fighting to keep his eyes open. It appeared he was on the floor next to the bathtub; he attempted to curl himself about it, but a strong hand on his shoulder forced him to stay laying flat.

“What was I thinking? What was I doing? Hamish!”

Warm hands wound into his hair, attempting to tug him back to reality. After a massive effort from both parties, he was forced to his feet and sent off to bed, Helen Kingsleigh's soft apologies ringing in his ears the entire way. She helped him change out of his sodden clothing (he would be embarrassed later, he knew, but right then he was simply so tired!) and tucked him into bed. A snuffling sigh, a luxurious stretch into the mattress, and Hamish fell into a deep sleep.

 

*~*~*~*

 

“I’ve had dreams like this before,” Hamish said. He’d woken up, dressed in a nightshirt, in his usual guestroom in the Kingsleigh residence--that was not so odd, nor dreamlike. No, it was when he’d stepped out into the hall that the oddness began. It was its usual wainscoted and wallpapered self, but as soon as the door shut behind him, the entry to his room completely disappeared. His fingers traced the wall desperately, looking for cracks, but finding none. Then he looked down the hall.

The now never-ending hall.

Turning to face the opposite direction, he started at the site of a glass table before him, bearing a small, clear bottle, beside an equally small key. Picking the bottle up, he read the tag. Drink me, it said, in delicate handwriting.

“I think not!” Hamish snorted. “Why, it could very well be poison!”

As he set the bottle back down, he noticed something he had not before, with the sudden appearance of the table distracting him. There were now two small doors set into the wall of the hall. One was in the base molding, and so tiny it would be best suited for a mouse. The other was in the upper part of the wall, where the wainscot ended and the wallpaper began. It was a rather traditional looking dumbwaiter.2

He swallowed and once again continued to consider the dumbwaiter in front of him. “When continuing to go left or right will fail you, where is there left to go?” he asked himself. “Up or down, that’s where,” he told himself, nodding firmly.

The handle was tiny, and made of brass. It slipped out of Hamish’s sweaty grasp twice, but on the third try, he was successful in turning the miniature knob. The door opened with a low creak, and there, sitting on the waiter’s tray, was the largest, hairiest, most ferocious looking weasel Hamish had ever seen. Neither a yelp nor a gasp was able to escape his throat; in fact, all of his muscles had bunched and tensed together. Hamish was hardly breathing, as he stared at the sharp claws, ruffled fur, and bright glint in the creature’s eyes. Then it grinned at him--a full, humongous, anatomically impossible grin, full of sharp, wickedly curved teeth.

“Up or Down?” the furry beast that was much too large to be a proper weasel asked.

“I…beg your pardon?” It was speaking. The giant weasel was speaking.

“’Tis a simple question, biped. Up or Down?”

“D-down,” Hamish said. The animal’s smile curled ever-wider.

“Excellent. Climb in, sir.”

It was awkward, and tight, but eventually Hamish was able to pull himself up and curl into a ball tight enough that he and his furry companion both fit.

“That was a decent suggestion, that I sit upon your lap,” the animal conceded begrudgingly (as when Hamish had first mentioned it may be necessary, he’d been set against it straight away) “but I am not a weasel!” (Hamish had been being careful not to call the animal a weasel, or so he thought, but it must have slipped out in the frustration of attempting to fold himself into the elevator’s shaft. )

“Well, what are you, then?” Hamish demanded, a bit belligerently.

“I, sir…” and here the beast tried to straighten itself up with pride, but there was simply no possible way for him to do so, on Hamish’s lap the way he was, so he settled for a stubborn tilt of his head, “am a Wolverine.” 3

“Is that not a type of weasel?” Hamish asked, suspiciously. He’d heard Lord Kinbote4 speaking of such creatures after his hunting trip to frozen Russia. From what he remembered, Kinbote had said that they were…

“Hrmf!” the Wolverine huffed. “I am nothing like my slithy cousins, I’ll have you know. If it will assist you in not speaking of me as such, you may call me by my proper name.”

Hamish waited for a beat of time, but when the Wolverine seemed unforthcoming, he prompted, “What is your name?”

“Well! How do you like that! Demanding an introduction, without bothering to introduce himself! Why, it’s the very height of Rudeness, that is!” Sniffing in an injured manner, the Wolverine finally said, “My name, sir, is Ferdinand. But--!” he hurried to add, “I prefer to be called Ferdie.”

“Ferdie,” Hamish repeated, in a stupefied stutter. “Hamish Ascot, at your service.”

“I don’t think so! I am rather at your service, am I not?”

“I…beg your pardon?”

“You’re the one that wished to use the lift, were you not? And I am the Lift Operator.” Reaching out a claw, Ferdinand casually swiped at the rope that supported the pulley behind them. Half of it sliced free, and the car they were in swayed alarmingly.

“What are you doing?” Hamish squealed, as the Wolverine swiped again.

“You did wish to go Down, did you not?” he paused long enough to ask. When Hamish stuttered out, “If that is what will take me to Underland…” Ferdie nodded, and finished his task. The rope fell away, and they were impossibly, briefly, suspended in the air, and then they began to plummet down.

Hamish could not help himself. He began to scream. Loudly.

“Oh, stop that wailing!” Ferdinand shouted over top his cries. “And enjoy the trip down. You won’t want to really start screaming until we hit the Sea of Tears.”

“Thewhat--?” Hamish yelped.

“Oh, did I forget to mention that?” he responded casually, as the elevator continued to plummet downward. “Yes, we’ll get you to Underland. But we’re going to crash into the Sea. At least, I think we will.” Ferdinand did not sound particularly concerned if they did or not. “I’ve never actually gone Down before. Everyone else always wants to go up, see.” Still speaking in that cheerful, detached manner, he said, “Hold your breath now; it smells as though we’re getting close!”

There was no time for Hamish to draw a breath, though, for as soon as Ferdinand was done speaking, there was a great crash, and they were both tumbling outwards, into a great body of briny water. Hamish swallowed a mouthful, choked, tried to spit it out and ended up swallowing more.

What a great ending to my rescue of Alice, he thought in disgust, dying before the real adventure can begin by being unable to regulate my breathing! Distantly he heard Ferdinand shouting instructions at him, but there was naught for it. He helplessly swallowed another mouthful as blackness overtook his vision, and then he was aware of nothing more for a very long time.

*~*~*~*

 

The sunlight was blinding, even with his eyelids closed. With a groan wrenched from his lower belly, Hamish sat up, looked around, and stared. Spitting absently, what appeared to be a half-chewed sock covered in unappealing-looking purplish bits plopped out of his mouth and onto the sand. He hadn’t expected Helen’s half-pagan foolishness with the bathtub to work, and was therefore more than a bit dumbfounded that simply wishing himself to the faerie realm seemed to have actually do the trick. Yet here he was, on a beach, staring up at a sky that he’d never seen before. He could tell it was not the sky in, say, Cornwall, because there were birds in it that were chittering at him. Not a the normal chitter of birds in the sky, no…these birds were saying things he could understand.

“Look at that fellow! Half-drowned, he is!”

“Serves him right for gallivanting about in the Alice's Sea in his nightshirt, if you’re asking my opinion.”

“Good thing no one was, then, isn’t it?”

He gave a startled scream and struggled to stand upright on the sand of the beach. His previously fine woven nightshirt was soaked completely through, and when he landed on the beach, sand coated the fabric thoroughly. It would itch terribly in an hour or so as the nightshirt began to dry, between the sea water and sand, Hamish knew. He struggled for purchase, failed, and fell on his face with an inelegant splat.

A voice that sounded fatherly and friendly spoke to him from just above his shoulder. “You alright, ole chap?”

When he was able to flop around onto his back, he saw that the speaker was one of the seagulls that had been circling above him, one of the ones that he’d been hoping was a fevered hallucination. Hamish gave a girlish scream and scrambled for purchase in the sand. “You’re talking!” he squawked, stating the obvious.

“Well what would you have me do, boy? Meow?”

With a meeping sound that was embarrassing in the extreme, Hamish was finally able to pull himself upright. He took advantage of this by running as fast as his shaky legs would take him in the direction opposite the talking bird.

“Bipeds!” the seagull squawked after him, but let him go.

Chapter Text

Tarrant dressed carefully for dinner that evening. Not that he'd a vast selection of clothing already made, but what was the use of being a milliner if one could not whip oneself up something to wear when one needed? The latest styles at Court confounded him, and he was glad that he would not be required to make a showing there. No, tonight it was just to be he and Alice, here at the Windmill House. It wasn't really a night made special by anything other than Hatter's expanded expectations, he knew…but Alice had been warming to him lately, had she not?

She'd allowed him to dress her hair, she'd finally consented to wearing the gowns he'd provided for her, they'd laughed and joked and teased each other, and it even seemed as if she'd been poised for a kiss, not a few days past...(And oh! How he'd wanted to close that distance between them and press his lips to hers! But he wanted the decision to do such a thing to be hers more so. If Alice kissed him, he wanted it to be because she wanted to kiss him, not because he'd selfishly pushed himself upon her! All he wanted was the smallest sign...a sigh, her body leaning towards his...anything to show him that she might not be completely repulsed by the idea of he and she...)

Yes, he fancied he had much reason for his renewal of hope, and was determined that, at tonight's dinner, he'd finally tell her exactly how he felt about her. He'd tell her that they were not just good friends, but man and wife. Maybe then she would fully realize that he never would have wanted to bring her to Underland against her wishes, that he was just as much of an unwilling party as she was? Maybe then, when he leaned towards her, she'd sway towards him, and then-!

His luxuriously knit silk hose went on first. When he'd explained to the worms the reasoning why he wished for such a large quantity of their product, they'd been most obliging. It was nothing more than a fantasy at this point, he knew, but if Alice were to reach out, if she were to suddenly become curious and wish to explore his hosiery, he didn't want her fingers to find rough wool or unremarkable cotton. Next came his breeches, followed by his voluminous shirt, which was cinched closer to his body than it otherwise would have been by his waistcoat.

A new silken bowtie went around his throat, the same shade as his hose. Tarrant thought it a rather dull having his tie be all one color instead of a lively pattern, but Alice seemed to prefer dull. Was London-town not full of fashions such as these? Did she not still pine for that land, as evidenced by the veritable mountain of letters she'd sent through once she realized it was possible to do so?

Finally his jacket and shoes were put on. The shoes he'd had to unfortunately get from the Royal Cobbler, and that grated a bit on his pride, but he'd not the time to make those and everything else for the evening. When he stood to walk they creaked in protest, not having the same affability of his only other footwear-but they were new, and aside from the occasional protest, they were sedate. Therefore, they would be acceptable.

His hat he left off completely. Instead he bound his hair in a ribbon at the base of his neck, tying it into a smart bow. It felt odd without the familiar weight upon his head, but he was willing to try, at least. The hat was placed on a stand in the corner of his workroom, and he stroked the top of it gently. Nerves bundled, twisted, and churned his stomach. "Wish me luck, Fa," he said, bending at the waist to kiss the edge of the top before turning and quitting the room.

*~*~*~*

The table was already set outside; firecrackerflies and gloworms dotted the clearing; their meal was prepared. Thackery had done the honors, and then taken himself away from the scene. Tarrant was still nervous; this was the night, he told himself. This was the night he told Alice of their marriage, and hoped that she would understand, and forgive him for not speaking to her of it before.

"You look very lovely tonight, Alice," Tarrant told her, as she came into view. Her hair was swept away from her neck and into a loose chignon; she was wearing a dress that he'd crafted for her just the day before. Pulling out her chair for her solicitously, he waited for her to take her seat and then tucked her towards the table.

Their conversation traveled along usually pleasant lines at the first; Alice complimented the meal, and spoke of the beauty of the table settings; Tarrant tried his best to reply, but was distracted by his goal for the evening. Talking petered out between them, until finally:

"I've been meaning to ask you, Hatter..." Alice said, wiping her mouth with her napkin, "about something for quite some time. I wanted to ask before now, you see, as my curiosity was nearly brimming over...but, well then I didn't, and then the longer I waited to ask, the more ridiculous the asking seems to me, and I have my own ideas about it, but those very ideas are so confusing to me, and..." she trailed off, blushing. "I am going about this wretchedly, aren't I?"

What could possibly have his Alice in such a tizzy? She was hardly ever inarticulate. Usually she was able to tell him exactly how she felt about something, with words that were the very spirit of indicativeness!

"When I...awoke here, that first day, I discovered something in my possession that had not been there before."

Stilling, Tarrant nodded his head, just once. He knew where this was going; the very subject he'd wished to discuss with her she was broaching! A glass of water was in his grasp and brought to his lips for a sip; his mouth had gone dry.

"Oh?" he asked, politely, after setting the glass back down. Sweaty palms were wiped on his trouser legs as he smiled at her from across the table.

Alice laid a hand on the tablecloth; her left hand. The puzzle ring glinted in the candlelight, and Tarrant felt the same surge of satisfaction, pride and guilt at seeing it grace her finger as he usually did. Licking his lips, he removed his eyes from the shine of the gold to Alice's hazel eyes.

"This ring. It was on my finger when I awoke. But you knew that already, didn't you, Hatter?"

A shiver, starting from the top of his head and wriggling down to his toes, then back again, wracked Tarrant's body.

"Yes," he admitted.

"How did the ring get on my finger, Tarrant?"

Why was she asking him this now? All of his carefully laid plans shifted like sand stirred by the wind in the Crimson Desert. Just one more evening, he had told himself; one more evening where he tried to build what was between them into something more, something that would hopefully survive the weight of the Truth settling atop it; something not quite so fragile, not so new to Alice.

But he'd promised to not lie to her if she asked him a direct question. She'd used his name, his actual name, besides; Tarrant had to answer her.

"I put it there. On your finger."

Never had his plate seemed so interesting before now! Hatter found that he could not lift his gaze from that round food platter. The hunch of meat on there stood and gave him an encouraging gesture; he could almost hear the words Buck up, laddie! spoken, even if his dinner had not said a single thing.

"Why, Tarrant?"

Picking up his knife, Tarrant cut off a small piece of potato, speared it with the fork in his opposite hand, and then lifted it to his mouth. Alice wanted him to look at her; he could practically feel it. Instead he worked at cutting more of the potato into pieces, and said, "I wanted to." An unknown impulse had him adding, "Tis simply a gewgaw1, Alice."

"This is a simple nothing, Hatta. Have you forgotten I'm a merchant's daughter? That I myself have sailed the seas of Above trading items to earn the very substance of which this ring is crafted from? I know gold when I recognize it, Tarrant."

That same hand that had been taking its rest on the surface of the table floated upward, landed on his wrist, stilling the movements of the knife. "Don't tell me this is a simple gift." Was it his imagination, or was her voice quivering? In a pleading tone, she whispered, "Tarrant, please look at me."

Reluctantly, he did so. His glass face would give him away, he knew, but when she used his given name to make a request, Hatter did not know there of a single thing he would deny her.

"Why that finger? In London, rings on this particular finger mean something...very important."

A chuckle burbled up his throat. "Yes, yes. The thumb is too busy to be set apart. The forefinger and little fingers are only half-protected...the middle finger is called medicus by some, and is too opprobrious for the purpose of honor, so there was only one finger left that would be suitable..."2

Alice knew what he was saying; he could tell by the sudden stillness of her body, the way her fingers twitched upon his jacket sleeve, the sudden flushing of her ears, neck, and chest. This had not been the way he'd wished to tell her! Hazel met green, and he nodded to the question present in them.

"Are you telling me...?"

"Yes, Alice. My Alice..."

Her mouth was trembling, Tarrant noted. The lower lip looked so much fuller than the upper; he'd an urge to reach across, to pull himself towards her, throw aside the food and dishes, and clamber upon her lap. Instead, he forced himself to stay on his side of the table by gripping the edge tightly with both hands. It creaked under the strain, but held.

"Twas not something I ever expected to happen, my Alice," he heard himself babbling, "I wouldn't have chosen you for a wife for myself, never! Not that I wouldn't have chosen you if I'd been able to make such a choice, because a better choice there can not possibly be, but at the first, you were so young, and then, when you returned...why would you wish for a man such as me? Underland knew, though, and Bound us. Underland must have known what you would come to mean to me, and what I hope to come to mean to you, and I really mustn't speak in such an impertinent manner, but I simply can not help myself, my Alice, as I've wanted to tell you for so long that you are mine and I am yours and we belong to one another but I'd expected you to react poorly and you're not and you have no idea how pleased that makes me, Alice, no idea at all what this gift you're giving me means, and I swear-"

He leaned over the table towards her, eager to find out if her taste would be anything like what he had imagined. Would she taste like apple cider and cinnamon snap cookies, or lemon drops and snow? Would she be mellower, cream and lavender with a touch of honey? Or, quite possibly, an amalgam of all of those tastes?

"I swear, I will do all in my power to deserve this. To deserve you."

His mouth watered as he got closer, and closer, close enough that his intent had to be clear-his eyes flicked to her mouth, now just a hair's breadth away from his, and she must want him! She was watching his approach, seemed to be anticipating the moment their lips met as much as he! He'd told himself that he would wait for her to move towards him first, that she must be the one to kiss him, but Tarrant could not wait a moment longer, not while she was sitting there, her chest rapidly rising and falling, that dark look in her eyes, his promises and proclamations fresh from his lips...His heart felt like it could burst from his chest and she was so close but he didn't dare close his eyes because he didn't want to miss a single thing and-

Alice positively flinched-pushed-cowered away from him.

Hatter stopped, his forearm braced on the wingback chair's arm being the only thing holding him upright. Alice scuttled back further, her malt-liquor eyes completely round in her now-colorless face.

"Oh." Tarrant sat back, feeling a thousand ways the fool. "Oh, yes. I see. Of course, I…" Standing abruptly from the table with a clatter of dishes, he ran away, leaving Alice to sit alone amongst the cutlery and crumbling bread crusts.

"Hatter-?" he thought he heard, as he hurried further away, but that could not be the case. Alice did not want him. If Alice did not want him, then there would then be no reason for her to call him back to the table, would there? He made it to the house, threw the door open, and clambered up the stairs to his bedroom. In his state of agitation, he'd not bothered to shut any doors behind him. There was no need, after all. Alice would not follow him. He'd frightened her with his pernicious lust; she was no doubt desirous of his absence from her presence.

Tarrant's eyes fixated upon his wardrobe. There were very few items in it, as he was not a proud Hatter, nor the sort of Man who felt the need to have a new outfit for every day. He had the two jackets (well, not now just two-after the Frabjous Day it was insisted upon by all and sundry that he craft himself a second—no, three now, including the one that he'd made for himself for dinner) and two pairs of trousers, and that was all…unless one counted the other outfit hiding in the bottom drawer.

That particular outfit, though, Tarrant had tried very hard not to count as an actual part of his wardrobe. It was for a very special occasion, and was not to be included with the riff-raff of his everyday clothes, nor even to rest on the same shelf as his battle-tartan. No, this whole outfit-stockings, socks, shoes, jacket, waistcoat, gloves-had its own drawer, lined with cedar and sprinkled with fragrant oils-and once he'd completed work on it, he'd packed it away, to not be tempted by the promise of what those items offered. Now, though...

What did it matter? It most certainly didn't. Alice didn't want him. She didn't even want to be in Underland, did she? He'd been fooling himself to think otherwise.She'd…she'd…

He remembered the days they'd spent together outdoors and under the trees, the nights of laughter and small smiles. He recalled that one particular morning after staying up much-too-late when he'd carried her to bed and laid her down, of how she'd fumbled a hand out of her freshly-tucked-in covers and reached for him...of how she had asked him to stay with a husky murmur.

Had he imagined her growing regard? Had the madness shown him what he'd wished to see, instead of reality? It would not be the first time. Perhaps proper and acceptable London-style clothing made one more sane, and that was why he saw the Truth tonight. Alice didn't want him. In fact, it she had seemed almost...almost frightened of him.

He pushed aside the memory of her flinch with a grimace, and walked over to the wardrobe. He opened the tall double doors and looked at the aforementioned few items hanging. Then he looked down at the drawer that held It.

The drawers (empty) above that drawer (the one that held It—the suit he'd crafted while thinking that maybe, possibly, he could, if he was careful and humble and showed her how happy they could be together, Alice would not be adverse to the idea of Marrying him again, to make their Binding about more than Underland's whims) were taken out and flung across the room. Only one of them shattered in any way that was remotely satisfying, so there was no help for it in the end, was there? The madness required that something precious be destroyed, to commiserate with his shattered illusions of a happily-ever-after. As he wouldn't (couldn't!) bring himself to even think of the blue taffeta and silk resting on a form just behind a mirror to his right (and wasn't it funny how he knew exactly where it was when he was very carefully not thinking about it!) because to think on it and destruction and Alice all at the same moment would undo him.

So he went for that which was a representation of himself. He was the one to blame for this whole mess to begin with, wasn't he? For not protecting his Alice the way he should have, because he was afraid of losing her to Death? For not thinking of some alternative to dragging her below, once he'd learned of her illness? Or one could argue that his blame went back even further than that, to the day he first met her as a little girl with shining golden curls. If he'd run from her then, would she have ever met with one whom Underland would Bind her to? Or would she be free of Underland, able to live Above as she so clearly wished to do, not subjected to the unwanted advances of her freakish husband...

The drawer plopped out at his feet with a dull clatter. Pushing aside the layers of carefully selected tissue paper, he grasped the item on top-a ruffled shirt-and proceeded to rip it apart with his bare hands. It wasn't enough. Soon more fabric was flying past his face as he laughed, and his cheeks were wet…he only stopped his flurry of motion when the last scraps of the former suit floated down past his face, and he was panting, either from relief or shame, he couldn't really say.

He turned around, and Alice was in the doorway. Her mouth hung open, making her the most unbecoming he'd ever seen her. With a snort (that expression settled his emotions-it was definitely shame he was feeling, not relief) he pushed past where she stood in the doorway, disappointed that he couldn't slam the door the way he wished to with the way she was blocking his path.

"Hatta..." Her hands reached for him, but he shrugged away from her touch. There were many things he wanted Alice to feel for him, but Pity had never been one of them. The Poor Mad Hatter, who was in love with a wife that cowered away from his touch. No, he did not want to be that man to her—but it seemed he had no choice in the matter. He already was.

"Nay, Alice. Dinna...dinna trouble yerself."

If she'd reacted in such a way to him simply leaning forward to kiss her, how could there ever be any possible way they could become what he had wished them to be?

No. She couldn't know. He would not willingly lay his heart bare for her once again. Even as he promised himself this, he knew that if Alice ever broached the subject, he would tell her all. Everything. Every dream he'd ever had of he-and-she.

He'd admit to the nights he'd thought her present, while she was Above doing her things that needed doing and answering the questions she'd needed to answer. Of the moments when he'd reached for her and found nothing but cold sheets and fragmented dreams; he'd tell her how, in his bouts of more extreme delusion, he'd wake to find himself stroking a feather pillow, not a rounded Alice belly, as he'd thought in his languor. How the jerking tingles against his palm were not the shifting of a new life within her, but the mere pins-and-needles of a hand fallen asleep and dreaming right along with his mind. How her murmured endearments faded away until they revealed themselves to be nothing more than the Wind, enjoying its sport of teasing a lonely madman.

All such confessions would accomplish was more Alice Pity directed at him. Tarrant would not be able to survive any more than he'd already been given.

He was not able to slam his bedroom door shut behind him due to Alice's presence in it still; she had not moved a centimeter. Tarrant would simply have to settle for slamming the front door of the Windmill House, instead. Perhaps he should go and visit Mallymkun at her burrow...anything, to be out of what he'd long ago begun considering their house.

*~*~*~*

Alice watched Tarrant storm out of the room, feeling as though something deep within her chest was being forcibly wrenched out the further he walked from her. She reached for him again, but pulled her hand back at the last moment, recalling the tracks of his tears and the abject misery with which he'd laughed as she'd watched him destroy something that—from the way it had been packed in his wardrobe—obviously meant Something.

Stomach flopping, she stood stupidly in the doorway. The urge to go after him was great—extremely so!-but she'd no idea what she'd say to him if she did. Would the words that came out of her mouth be ones of forgiveness, or bitter recrimination? Parts of her were angry, incandescently angry (How did this happen? They were married? Had that been his goal, all along? It hadn't sounded like that, from his rush of words at the table, but...wouldn't she remember something of what he'd described?) and yet other, stronger parts...when he'd pushed past her, without even trying to really pause to speak to her... hurt. A lot.

Did he hurt as much as she did right now? Alice suspected it was more. After all, she had been the one to cower away from he, hadn't she? She hadn't been prepared for him to actually tell her that they were married. She'd suspected something of the sort, had even begun to hope that maybe it meant he cared for her as more than a friend or a sister, that maybe it was his was of declaring an intent to court her. And now...

Walking into the room as if in the midst of a dream, Alice floated over to the closest pile of discarded fabric. Going down to her knees, she picked up the largest scrap immediately available to her fingers and held it aloft. Rich, swirling embroidery in a multitude of colors against a deep midnight blue met her eyes. "What were you?" she murmured.

She gathered up all the spare bits she could find (some of them were in unusual places, like the top of the wardrobe and, somehow, underneath the plant in the corner) and was just reaching under a tall mirror to grasp what seemed like a bit of tartan when her fingers encountered a different fabric texture than what she'd been expecting. Crawling on her hands and knees, she got closer to the mysterious fabric.

It seemed to be a silk of some sort, in a familiar shade of blue, and seemed to go up, and up...from what she could see under the mirror, at any rate. She stood, and using most of her strength, pushed the mirror aside. What she found on the other side had her gaping in a mixture of astonishment, befuddlement, and a sense of vertigo. Had she made this discovery even a few weeks ago, she likely would have fainted dead away, she mused.

It was a dress, although dress felt like a terrible understatement for such a glorious garment. What she'd thought was regular silk in reality the softest silk tulle she'd ever felt. The body of the dress was beaded with thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of seed beads in a complimentary pale, pale blue, accenting the lace that made up the majority of the gown. Small straps held up the bodice, which had a v-neckline low enough to make Alice blush. The tulle she'd felt previously was actually the hostess-style overskirt, which was topped at the waist with a centered bow, a train bunched around the base that would, she estimated, be at least a foot long.

As delightful as the entirety of the dress was, however, her eyes kept being drawn back to the bow in the center. There was something about it that was just so familiar, but she could not figure it out. Hesitantly she reached out to touch it, startled to feel that despite appearances it was not made out of the same fabric as the rest of the gown. In fact, it felt very suspiciously like...

"My slip," she whispered. The very slip she'd used to dress herself in the Room of Doors, the slip that Hatter had used a scrap of to fashion her a gown when...

The implications struck her, making it hard for Alice to breathe. This dress was for her. It must have taken Hatter, whose fingers could fly at a rate that would make a London seamstress murderously envious, days to do. (It would take those very same envious seamstresses and milliners weeks or, in some cases, months to complete.) Just as the repairs to the house had been for her, and all of the innumerable other small things Tarrant did every day (convince trees to give shade, prepare picnic lunches, fluff pillows) were for her.

The scraps of fabric, the gown, the glint of gold that was ever-present on her left-hand ring finger, his words of love at the table before she'd...before she'd...

It was all too much, just too much-! She was a terrible, horrible, selfish child, and she did not deserve such devotion!

She bolted from the room with her small basket of fabric, not bothering to replace the mirror.

Chapter Text

"Give your evidence," the Red King Rurik1said, "and don't be nervous, or I'll have you executed on the spot."

Tarrant sucked in a deep breath and went to bite his bread, but instead snapped the edge of his tea cup clean off. He cut his tongue on the sharp edge, and would have touched his fingers to his mouth to see how badly he was bleeding if the King's eyes were not fixed on him in such an intent manner. He was having a horrible time concentrating on anything either he or the Queen said; the Alice child was here, in this very courtroom. What in Underland she was doing there, Tarrant had no wish to begin to guess. As soon as he, Thackery, and Mallymkun had entered (All three having been summoned to testify that the Knave had been harassing them at the time of the alleged tart theft; Tarrant suspected Rurik himself had eaten the whole batch again, and was simply too afraid to tell his wife so) they'd noticed her presence.

It would have been difficult to not notice her. She was the only child in the room, to start, and for another, she was craning her head back and forth, in the manner of one desperately curious about their surroundings; not a very subtle girl, his little wife. They filed in, and Tarrant had been immediately called to the stand, where he was still sitting, trying to pay a whit of attention to what the temperamental Royals were asking him.

Which was nearly impossible with the way that the Alice-girl seemed to be growing. He was certain she had been smaller when she had fled the tea party...Did children from Above grow at such a rate? A flicker of teal and a flash of white teeth gave him his answer to that conundrum: Chessur. Had that interfering Cat slipped her upelkuchen? Whatever could his reason for doing such a thing be?

The questioning went on in such a circuitous manner that Tarrant began to wonder if it were really another Tart Trial or perhaps something else; Rurik acted most especially displeased with him, where before this day he'd thought they were, if not friends, than amiable acquaintances, what with his constant trips to Marmoreal to speak with the White Court. He chanced another look over at Alice, whom seemed to be involved in a minor tussle with Mallymkun, and babbling his explanation for his sudden marriage (For Rurik kept interrupting himself to stare at the Alice-child in a disconcerting manner, and Tarrant wondered what the girl could have possibly done to irk the King so) when the Red King snapped, "The twinkling of what?"

"It began with the tea," Tarrant replied, swallowing convulsively.

"Of course twinkling begins with a T!" said the King sharply. "Do you take me for a dunce? Go on!"

A draft blew through the Courtroom, and Tarrant shivered. When had his shoes come off? Surreptitiously, he tried to slip them back on as he started to explain how Thackery had insinuated said-

"I didn't!" he jumped up, twitching. Tarrant shot him a desperate look, and insisted, "You did!"

Sniffing in an injured manner, the Hare insisted, "I deny it."

Oh, now all of Underland would go about thinking he had wanted to be wed to the child!

"Well, at any rate, the Dormouse said..." Tarrant interjected, but recalled too late that Mally had really said nothing at all during tea, save for her story of the girls in the treacle well, and he couldn't very well tell the King that. It wasn't his story to tell!

"After that, I cut some more bread-and-butter," he said, cutting to the end of his tale. Rurik would have let such a thing pass, but one of the jury members (Tarrant thought it might be Bill the Lizard—he'd have to have words with him, after this) asked just what Mally had said.

"That I can't remember," he prevaricated.

There was some insistence that Tarrant must remember what had been said, and this made him nervous indeed, for nothing had been said, but he'd insinuated that something had been, and therefore stating that nothing happened would not be believed, would it?Finally, though, (After the successful suppression of the Guinea twins; noisy lot, those two) with another shrewd glance from the ever-growing-larger Alice and the Hatter, the Red King nodded.

"If that's all you know about it, you may step down."

"Darling, wait a moment. I'm having that list of singers from that concert Mirana held fetched. Doesn't this witness look remarkably like the murderer of Time?"

"Go now, Hatter," Rurik said, shifting in his seat. While he possessed a terrible temper, he'd never had approved of his wife's fondness for executions.

"No. I want the Hatter to stay," the Red Queen said absently, as she accepted the scroll from a page and began to study the list.

"I'd rather just finish my tea," Tarrant said hastily, and without bothering to get his shoes back on (as they'd stubbornly refused to slip back on) was up out of his chair and down the aisle. Mally hissed at him from her seat beside the Alice, trying to gain his attention, but he refused to look at them. He ran out the doors and slammed them behind him, breathing heavily. Worry for the child tickled the back of his brain.

"She'll be fine. Mally is there with her. Mally will not let any harm befall her," he assured himself, knowing that if he loitered out in the hall there was a greater likelihood of being subjected to more of Iracebeth's foulness...but he could not bring himself to quit the courthouse altogether, as he really should have. No, instead he stayed just outside the door, pacing.

Just as he was preparing himself to go back into the courtroom and retrieve the Alice, (as there was a terrible clatter coming from within the room that had stirred his fretting to a fever-pitch) the door burst open, and all manner of creatures great and small burst out, shouting incoherently. From the bare snatches Tarrant was able to make make out, he heard the words "little girl" "giant" and, clearest of all, most worrisome of all, "The Queen will have her head for this for sure!"

Ignoring the selfish part that screamed to follow his desperate inclination to leave, Tarrant ducked into the courtroom and took in the chaos prevalent there. Cards soldiers were scattered everywhere; some lay on the ground in a heap by the door, yet others were pinned against the furthest wall.

Iracebeth was screaming in a choleric manner on the Judge's bench, waving her mace and demanding that the Alice-girl be arrested. Any number of the simpering courtiers or obedient animals at her feet would have been more than thrilled to assist their Queen with such a task, had they been able to figure out the trick of arresting a twenty foot tall girl. Alice was continually knocking down more of the Card soldiers that came at her, screaming in a queer, high tone. The Hatter was not able to tell if the sound was made from anger, or fear. Either way, it twisted something deep inside of him to hear that, and so he approached the bench, and as surreptitiously as possible (for he really had no wish to draw the Queen's attention to himself) gained Rurik's attention.

The Red King looked over at the fidgeting Hatter, widened his eyes, and looked significantly from him to the Queen. He very clearly thought Tarrant was daft for returning to the courtroom when the Queen had all but stated she was looking for an excuse to relieve his shoulders of his head. Tarrant gave Rurik a very significant look of his own, staring hard into his eyes, then over to the raving child, and back again. A light of understanding flickered over the Red King's face, and he nodded.

"Dearest!" Rurik boomed, causing Iracebeth to turn to face him, "Have you forgotten our purpose in being here today? Why, we were..."

While the Queen was distracted by her husband, Tarrant waded through the downed Cards and towards the Alice, who was now sniffling and holding the back of her hand to her nose, as if trying to restrain sobs. As her choked sobs began to subside, tears leaked down her face, and she shrank, and shrank, until finally she was her original size, and silent. Tarrant knelt down next to her, touched her gently upon the arm.

"Girl?" he said. "Alice?" She didn't answer him. The Red Queen was still shrieking in the background, so perhaps she did not hear him, he reasoned. So he tried again. "Alice?" He shook her arm, but nothing. She'd cried herself to sleep.

She looked like an entirely different creature when she was asleep. The brash and bold squeaker that had admonished him for being rude at his own tea party was gone. In her place was nothing more than a lost, vulnerable and frightened girl. This, Tarrant realized, must have been what had stirred his protective instincts when he'd first spotted her. This underlying alone-ness that caused shadows to linger under her eyes as she slept.

He crab-shuffled infinitesimally closer, and gently scooped her up into his arms. Alice whimpered and buried her small tear-streaked face against his chest.

"This is no place for you, little one," he murmured, standing carefully so as not to jostle her. He knew what he needed to do. It was against the tenets of the land, but the Hatter did not care. The slight weight in his arms was too young to stay in Underland. She needed her family, and the comfort of consistent things, not this unsteady land of dreams and thoughts.

He had to return her to her home.

The Room of Doors was reached much more swiftly than Tarrant would have expected. He paused outside the Door that entered that chamber, swallowing hard. "Hatter, Hatter..." the flowers flanking the Door sighed. "Where do you take your new bride?"

"To her home, in the Above. In Underland she can not abide."

"With no gifts, no mementos of this day? Shameful, shameful."

"I have no Luckenbooth2 to bestow upon her, nor shears upon my person to craft her a proper ring of hair...Imagine, me a milliner, and no shears! Entirely unacceptable."

Several of the flowers leaned close to one another, murmuring among themselves. "We shall offer ourselves, then," the orange blossoms said, pulling themselves out by their roots and walk across the ground to him. They inched their way up his pant leg and crawled up, and up, until they reached Alice's head. There they wound themselves, leaf in leaf, to form a crown upon her small head.

"What you are doing for her is noble indeed. Not driven by lust, nor yet by greed. We shall stay with her, for as long as we are able."

"Thank you," he lisped. "Thank you."

Then he went through the Door, walked to the Above, and, upon hearing the call of concerned adult voices in the distance, laid her down on the ground at the base of the closest tree. At the very last moment, as the voices drew extremely close, he twisted the thimble he wore on his left hand pinkie finger off and placed it on her right hand ring finger. Then he bent to her, kissed the top of her head on her golden curls, and ducked back down the rabbit hole.

"Blundering bandersnatches!" Tarrant hissed, searching about his person for a scrap of fabric. His blood welled, thick and bright red against the white tablecloth. The porcelain of the tea cup had punctured his hand, as porcelain has an unfortunate tendency of doing whilst one grips it too tightly. Ribbons-no, couldn't use those! A snatch of lace? Wholly unsuitable for wound binding. What he needed was a good cotton, or perhaps a slather of caramel. Did they have caramel at tea to-day?

At least he hadn't bitten right into the tea cup. That was extremely unpleasant to do.

He was preparing to hop upon his chair (in order to have a better survey of the table, to search for said caramel that may or may not have been there) when a small, soft hand alighted on his shoulder. Thinking it was the White Queen, returned from using the Windmill's necessary room, (as he'd specifically requested her presence on this day, to perhaps ease Alice's mind of the worry that he would press himself where he was not wanted again) he turned to wave her away, but froze in stupefaction to see that it was Alice, instead.

Alice, whom he had not seen since he'd slunk back to the Windmill House in the dead of the night, unable to bear being even only so far away as Mallymkun's Burrow. He'd come home to see his bedroom cleared of all scraps of fabric, and the dress—Alice's dress, the one he'd made back when he still held the hope that she would perhaps one day wish to be joined to him, the dress he'd made to be worn when they'd confirmed to one another and all of Underland that theirs would be a true marriage, not just a Binding of convenience—visible to the room. Alice had found it, then. He'd known he should not have brought it from his workshop at Marmoreal to the House, but he'd thought things were going so well...

She was looking at his hand and frowning with such indignant muchness that he was quite pole-axed. She looked up into his eyes, and he felt his lips part at the emotions swirling there.

Alice turned away, and Hatter felt himself sway, his body having already been unconsciously leaning towards her. His eyes lost what focus they had as he tried to track the swirling Alice movement, but she was too close or he was too faint to really catch what it was she'd turned her back on him to do. When she'd faced back around, though, it was evident enough.

Her napkin was neatly ripped in half. Where Alice had found such a tool to accomplish the task, Hatter didn't know, and in his current state of mind only half-cared. She reached for his injured hand, which was still dripping, a steady plop plop plop! upon the tablecloth. Lips compressed in a tight line, she set about binding the wound. Each small tug of the fabric upon his hand caused a pleasant building warmth to jerk at the base of his stomach. Alice touching, the feeling said. Alice warmth. Alice kindness.

Hatter used his uninjured hand to brace himself upright, clinging to the table edge so he didn't swoon right into the pudding. His lips were still parted, he knew, and he was likely panting like a dog begging for scraps from her table. He well and thoroughly did not care.

"Alice…" he whispered once she was finished. He stood, curling his body towards hers. She still held his hand cradled between her own, the neat little bow where she'd tied off the fabric peeking between her fingers.

She stayed still, her face upturned towards his. Her lips were the ones parting now, and did he imagine that she leaned towards him as well? He searched her eyes, hoping that this time her willingness was not imagined; this time, when he leaned towards her, when he lowered his head to meet her lips, she would not flinch away from him. "Please…" he heard himself breathing. Their trembling mouths were a hair's width away when, of course, Something Happened.

*~*~*~*

"ALICE!"

The younger Miss Kingsleigh scuttled away from her captor as if waking from a spell, and Hamish fancied that she was. What had she been forced to endure during her time here? His mind shied away from the scenarios his unfortunately well-developed (due to the very blonde that he was now concerned with) imagination provided him.

He'd been watching from the shrubbery for some time. The flora had wanted to give him away as soon as he'd crouched amongst their greenery, but a significant glance to the machete at his side and a lifting of his left brow had silenced their protests immediately. He was very glad he'd thought to imagine finding it; such a tool was proving invaluable here in Alice's Wonderland.

His first inclination had been to rush to her, scoop her into his arms and away with her, but after several days in Underland, days of hearing of the Mad Hatter of Marmoreal and his reluctant bride (Hamish had nearly swallowed his tongue the first time he'd heard Alice described as such) made him cautious. Alice was considered a sort of savior here, a Slayer of a Jabber-whattsit. Hamish couldn't imagine the Alice he'd known, the Alice who sobbed over squished frogs at dinner parties (caused by the lucky swing of a server, not himself) slaying anything, let alone a beast as fearsome as the Jabber-thing had been. She was delicate. She was weak and sickly. She was soft and caring and a daydreamer, not a hard-edged war veteran or savior of anything except him. Alice had saved him from despair with stories and fanciful flights of whimsy, a saving of his spirit-if the beings here spoke of her doing such things for others, that would not shock him. But to hear them say that she'd lifted a sword, that she'd saved this entire land through bloodshed and sprayed ichor…no.

Still more daunting were the stories they told of the beast at her side. The last survivor of his people, they said. Leader of the Underland Underground Resistance, a rebel group whom, from what Hamish could piece together, had cobbled together just enough support to usurp the proper ruling authority of the land and put her pretender sister upon the throne. He Killed Time, they whispered, awe and more than a bit of fear in their voices. He'd heard the Capitalization in the sentence, had stupidly outright asked the Lizard who'd said such a thing to explain himself.

Eyelids flicking closed over his bulbous eyes, the Lizard had told him, in a manner that suggested he was expecting the Last Hightopp to spring from the shrubbery and split him straight down the middle with his equally infamous claymore, "He needed Time to Pass so the Alice could return to him, you see. So he took some Thyme with him to the very table he wedded her at and Killed it. Took the scissors upon his person and snipped it apart, leaf after leaf after leaf. Then he pinned the roots to the table, spread them out, chopped them up. Left them right there amongst the tea-things to die of thirst. All around Thyme, drinks aplenty-but not a drop for him. When he was just about gone-when the leaves the Hightopp had chopped away had dried to brittle sprinkles, when his roots were screaming from the agony of there being no dirt to protect them, no water to sustain him…" The Lizard had gotten even closer to Hamish, so his mouth was just against his ear. His tongue flicked his skin as he whispered, "Hightopp gathered up all those pieces of him that had been green, the Dormouse helping all the while, and gave them to the Mad March Hare. He baked them up into cheese and cream scones….and then they ate him."

Startled, Hamish had jerked away from the Lizard and his tongue, and said, "What, they ate Time?"

"No, they ate Thyme...because eating Thyme in such a manner causes Time to pass very quickly, eh?" the Lizard corrected, looking at Hamish as if he were quite dull witted. The young man had been going to ask how eating Thyme could kill Time, and why these people seemed so obsessed with it in the first place, closed his eyes and took a deep breath to do so, but when he'd exhaled and opened his eyes again, the Lizard had been gone. Annoying habit of the creatures around Underland, that-appearing and disappearing willy-nilly. So he'd not had the chance to ask at all. Yet one thing was certain, whether it be Time or Thyme that Tarrant Hightopp had killed that day-he was not above murdering for Alice.

His opponent seemed to be cunning and patient-a dangerous combination. Hamish would have to exercise caution when going for Alice, he'd told himself. The weak-willed, wimbly man in him wanted to dramatically fling his makeshift camping items upon the ground and hie out of this damned land, but the boy in him-the one that was still desperately attached to Alice, the one that had sworn to his mother at nine years old that he would marry her one day-stubbornly refused to leave without Alice at his side.

So he'd stayed, and traveled the strange land, asking the various creatures and very occasional person he passed (whom all seemed very hostile) where the Alice was to be found. As he'd traveled he'd found some useful items, and dreamed others; on the second day he'd found a pair of trousers and a shirt that was a bit large, but serviceable, hanging from a clothesline strung between two trees. Hamish had hastily put them on, shucking the nightshirt in relief—it had itched, just as he knew it would.

He'd eventually managed to make his way here, to the small Windmill in the woods. Despite being obviously recently cared for, the house still had an air of long-standing neglect about it, a certain sadness about the windowpanes. Several large tables of varying sizes and shapes were strung together in a vague semblance of order, new and mostly pristine clothes upon them. A wide variety of delectable-looking dainties were scattered about, and no less than fourteen steaming pots of tea sat there, despite there being only two beings present at the table. One was the Mad monster he'd heard so much about-there was no mistaking whom he was, with the descriptions he'd gotten of hellfire hair and luminescent eyes-the other was Alice.

The caution he'd demanded of himself was enough to have him crouching among and threatening the foliage, so he could watch, wait, and see what was occurring: if Alice was injured, or if the beast was armed and prepared for an attack. Alice seemed fine, but agitated. An odd sort of tableau seemed to be occurring-Hightopp was muttering furiously to himself, picking up various dainties and setting them back down. His throat worked in painful-looking swallows, and his hands, when free of foodstuffs, clenched and unclenched in the white tablecloth.

Throughout all this, Alice stood directly behind him, an expression of such sadness upon her face...but she never said a word. She did not seem to even be making an attempt to speak. Occasionally she would reach forward, but then snatch her hand away, her brows titled in such a manner that told Hamish she was scolding herself severely. They were onto their third round of this odd little scene (Hatter was griping the tablecloth again with one hand, and held a cup of tea in the other) when Hightopp growled, a frightening sound deep from within his chest. His barely restrained rage physically manifested itself as well, as he destroyed the cup in his fist, the porcelain of which pierced his skin, making his blood splatter across the fine white tablecloth.

Alice's attention had gone from the back of the creature's head in front of her to the wound on Hightopp's hand, her hazel orbs becoming very round. The fae still had his back to Alice, curling his body towards his injury the way an animal would, to hide it. Alice had none of that. Hamish watched as she straightened herself up and touched Hightopp's shoulder, turned him around to face her. Then she rotated away to pick something up, giving Hamish had a clear view of Hightopp's face. He recognized the expression upon it quite easily, having worn it around Alice often enough himself. Still, this was not enough to convince Hamish to reveal his location, not enough to have him standing and blustering into the clearing, caution and planning be damned. What happened next, though, was.

Hightopp sat as Alice bound his wound, only standing slowly when she finished. Alice was still turned towards him, and her mouth was quavering in a way that Hamish had only ever dreamed of it doing when she looked upon him, and Hightopp was leaning closer, clearly intent on…

"ALICE!" Hamish had shouted, out of the shrubs and halfway across the clearing before he was even aware he'd made the decision to move. All activity at the tables ceased as both personages there turned from each other to stare at him. They all stood as such for several moments, Hamish clenching his fists and snorting through his nose like a bull prepared to charge, Alice and Hightopp standing together, their hands clinging to one another's. Then Time began moving again.

It was an odd experience, even for one who'd been wandering Alice's Wonderland for several days. The creature that at turns seemed solicitous and controlling shoved the blonde behind him, his face the very picture of frustrated lust. Alice had been resisting him, then! He'd arrived just in time, to save her from falling under his salacious spell! Hamish felt his chest puff out a bit at this, and had to remind himself that the damsel was not rescued yet, and too much early pride would only result in himself being distressed just as much as she.

"Who are ye and what are ye doing at our home, laddie?" Hightopp growled. Hamish had the odd sense that this creature knew exactly who he was, and what he was doing there. A kind of desperate fear flitted across the madman's face, boosting Hamish's confidence. Why, if this Hightopp were afraid of him, he must not be so fearsome as all the creatures of the land seemed to think he was! (Hamish did not fool himself into thinking he was the most intimidating specimen of a man.)

That confidence wavered and then hid altogether as he saw the beast's entire countenance darken, and his eyes-! They actually turned red, like he was summoning the forces of hell to his command! Hamish was very concerned about his unmanly urge to piss himself, when something happened which completely deflated the beast's rage, and left a broken, trembling man in his place.

"Hamish?" Alice said, her voice rough, but still hers-still clearly Alice. She stepped around Hightopp and towards him, then smiled-to think, Alice, smiling at him!-as she walked over. "Hamish, it is you!" she cried, tears pricking her eyes. "Have I gone mad, or are you truly here?"

It was just like in the fairy tales Alice used to tell him, as he laid on his chaise and watched the other children run by; the fair maiden was being rescued by her (admittedly not very handsome) prince from the dastardly beast who'd confined her. It was enough, more than enough, with all of the things he'd seen and experienced the last few days, for him to regain his faith in storybooks and their endings. He felt shame for ever having doubted Alice, for allowing his mother's influence to sway him from her words and fantastical images. He smiled, still imagining himself as the prince come to bear her away.

"It is, Alice, it is!"

They were interrupted by the cracked, disbelieving voice of the mad creature by the tea table. "Alice?" The look the animal-man turned to give Hamish had him suddenly remembering that in this story, his and Alice's story, the ending had not come upon them yet. There was still a beast to vanquish before they could go home and live happily ever after. When his gaze returned to Alice, though, he was a too-thin, fragile seeming madman once more. The rapid shifts of character unnerved Hamish to the extreme.

A waver of indecision danced across Alice's face, but she turned to Hamish, as the ginger haired young man thought she should. "Have you come to take me home?" she asked.

Battered tan boots tromped across the clearing until their owner was just in front of them. Grotesquely stained hands reached for Alice as the mad thing mewled, "I thought you understood, I thought..." he bowed his head, shook it, and started again.

"Alice, how many times must I tell ye? Ye are home."

Hamish put a hand on Alice's arm to move her out of Hightopp's path, and the Hatter snarled, jerking towards them in a threatening manner. Yelping like a startled chambermaid, Hamish scrambled both he and Alice back two steps, just out of the man's reach. All traces of the almost apologetic lover disappeared when Alice spoke to him.

"Hatta!" she said, voice cracking with the words, "You stop this instant!" (She sounded for all the world like a scolding nanny.) "Hamish is a friend, who likely heard from mother how you stole me, and-"

Furiously interrupting, the Hatter roared, "I couldna have stole ye, ye ungrateful wee nab! Ye're my wife!"

Stunned silence filled the clearing. Hamish wasn't sure who was the first to remember that breathing was necessary, but noticed when he did begin breathing again, it was shallowly, as if afraid that heavy breathing would break the still tension that coated the air. The milliner's skin actually took on a greenish cast, and he looked like he was one hiccup away from being physically ill.

"Oh. Is that how this is to be, then?" Alice finally said, words strong, but unable to look at Hightopp's eyes. Instead her gaze drifted down to her left hand ring finger. Hamish sucked in a distressed breath at the stacked golden bands that rested there. "Am I a creature to be possessed, Tarrant? I don't even remember marrying you."

"No, Alice, I..." Tarrant stepped forward, eyes darting about the clearing as he spoke. "Ye didna remember me at all afore, lass. And...marriages here in Underland...are not being as they are in Upland, I dinna think."

"What, consensual?" Alice mused sarcastically. Hatter's response disarmed her.

"Yes."

She took two steps back from him, further insinuating herself into the circle of Hamish's waiting arms.

"I wouldna have it this way betwixt us, lass, no if I could help it! 'Twere a mere little boy when ye first came to this land, and so charming that I couldna help feeling protective of ye, and then..." he shrugged his shoulders, as if that explained everything.

"I fail to see how being protective of me when I was a little girl could have resulted in our marriage," Alice said incredulously.

"That, my dear Champion, is the result of Underland itself, I'm afraid."

The tension in the trio shattered and fell away with the approach of a fourth. Alice and Tarrant bobbed their heads in a respectful way, while Hamish made incoherent gargling noises in the back of his throat. His grip on Alice loosened as he gaped unashamedly at the sight before him.

A beautiful woman with long, flowing hair and graceful, fluttering hands entered the clearing, her dark lacquered fingertips, painted lips, and heavily kohled eyes only accentuating the brilliant whiteness on the rest of her person. She looked very much like a faerie queen Hamish had once imagined in a daydream. All that was missing to complete the fantasy were gossamer wings.

Floating towards Alice without seemingly a care in the world, this faerie queen held out her hand to the young woman. Alice accepted, and together they walked towards the table set for tea.

Chapter Text

"Underland, as you well know, Alice, is not always the peaceable place you find yourself in now." Two lumps of sugar crawled into the newcomer's tea cup, while her spoon stirred itself. Tea splashed over the side of the porcelain, but the Lady was calmness itself in the face of this, and thanked both the sugar and the spoon for their services. "Often times, the land and its inhabitants will reflect the very nature of the one who rules them. That is why when my sister ruled, much of the land you traveled through was dark, sickly, and the ones who lived there violent and suspicious. They simply couldn't help themselves, you see: it was all the result of how the Red Queen ruled and her...mental state."

"If you'll excuse my saying so, Mirana, I fail to see what this has to do with myself and Tarrant," Alice said, after the white woman lapsed into expectant silence. Hamish, surprisingly, (He was simply full of surprises today! Why, if Alice counted each one of his actions as an impossible thing, he'd have already used up her daily allotment! He hoped Alice had made him as a whole an impossible thing, rather than compartmentalizing his current behaviors...otherwise she'd be fresh out of designations for the entirety of a week at the current rate he was maintaining!) was the one who connected what the faerie queen had said with the Hatter's earlier statement.

"It's because he felt protective of her. That's it, isn't it?"

A pleased smile softened Mirana's (that was what Alice had called her, was it not? A very pretty name, Hamish thought) features. "Indeed it is, Sir...I'm sorry, but I don't believe I've had the honor of your name."

"Oh! I beg your pardon. Sir Hamish Ascot, madam." He extended his hand, brows raised in a friendly manner.

"She is no ordinary woman, Ascot," Tarrant butted in, before she could respond in kind. "You'll do well to use her title when addressing her Majesty, aye?"

"Hatter!" Alice reproached, when an awkward silence descended upon the table. "How could he possibly use her title when they are just now being introduced? I'm very sorry." Alice turned her attention to Hamish, who was suffering from an acute case of everything seeming very surreal. "I should have made introductions from the start, and then we would not be...yes, well, I can remedy this! Hamish, lower your hand. We'll just start again."

Diverted, Hamish did so. Alice's friends (for despite the fact that Helen told him that Alice had been brought here against her will, she seemed very comfortable and at ease with these two creatures, and thus, he could think of no other title that would fit them other than 'friend'...even if they had been discussing the ginger's other title in regards to Alice) did not appear to be off-put by her strange request; in fact, they seemed to enjoy it as much as Hamish had. The woman in glimmering white hummed in acceptance, while the madman to Alice's left grunted in reluctant agreement, a twinkle of something that could have been amusement in his eyes.

"Your Majesty, this is Sir Hamish Ascot, of London, England, in Above; Hamish, this is her Royal Majesty the White Queen Mirana of Marmoreal, in Underland. We just call her Mirana most times, though," Alice added in an aside whisper, causing both the Queen and Tarrant to chuckle.

"The...Queen Mirana?" Hamish sputtered. This was the Pretender Queen? She didn't look like someone that would encourage and foster the idea of Revolution, but then again, he'd never met a Rebel before, either, so whom was he to judge? He'd expected someone fiercer when imagining the White Queen, despite how her subjects lovingly described her. "Well, yes, I suppose, then the crown would make much sense, wouldn't it? And I thought you did seem rather regal, and...well, it matters not what else I thought! I beg your pardon, madam!"

Perhaps the creatures had overthrown her sister for her, and she'd had nothing directly to do with it whatsoever. Perhaps she was a victim of circumstance, forced to don a heavy crown by the demands of her people. Looking into her chocolate liquor colored eyes, he could not imagine this Queen doing a single purposefully manipulative thing. Then something flickered behind her eyes, and Hamish shifted in his seat, reconsidering both of his hastily-developed stances on the Queen, uncomfortably recognizing that this particular woman was an Alice sort of woman—one that would not be easily categorized or happy with a stereotypical role of femininity, one that was made of sterner stuff than one initially would suspect when first looking upon them.

"No begging is necessary, Sir Hamish," Mirana said gracefully. She picked up her tea and sipped it, regarding him over the rim with those unsettling dark eyes. "I believe you were most distracted by a matter of some import, were you not?"

"Erhm. Yes, quite," Hamish agreed, embarrassed. Was a pair of dark, mysterious eyes and a veritable cloud of gossamer and glitter all it really took for him to forget his mission as Alice's rescuer?

"Yes!" he exclaimed as he stood. Extending his hand towards Alice, he said imperiously, "Come, Alice. I'm here to rescue you! We'll away from this place!"

"We'll away from this place?" Alice snorted. "Oh, Hamish. Sit back down. The time for you to throw me over your shoulder and hie back to London passed about a quarter of a hour ago, wouldn't you say?" Turning to the Hatter, she said, "Would you pass me those scones there?"

"Which, the cheese or the fruit?"

"Fruit, please."

"Alice, you act as though you don't even wish to go back to London!" Hamish protested, sitting down nonetheless. Mirana beckoned a slice of quiche towards her plate, and with a flick of her fingers, directed one to find its way to Hamish's as well.

"Of course I want to go back to London!" Alice asserted. All movement from the Underlandian inhabitants of the table ceased. The Queen looked from the woman she called her Champion to her Hatter, saw that he was almost ready to slip into a bout of madness. Luckily, Alice continued speaking, and her words staved off such an attack. "Mother must be desperately worried about me by now, even with the letters I've sent along."

"She is," Hamish agreed. "She is whom sent me, you know." Pausing, he said, "Letters? Mrs. Kingsleigh never mentioned that you'd written her!"

"I hadn't, until very recently." She explained, with a wave of her fingers. It seemed the Queen's mannerisms were contagious. "How could Mother send you, though?" Alice asked. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

Hamish looked down, saw the quiche upon his plate, and shrank back involuntarily. If he ate that, he'd be ill for the next two days! The quiche looked very insulted by this reaction, and sulkily slunk off his plate only to be replaced by a danish and a fruit compote.

Seeing his food walk and form expressions did not help Hamish's stomach in the slightest, and he shoved his plate away. An expression almost like disappointment flickered across the Queen's face, and Hamish supposed he was being rude, but it was either be rude or suffer from his delicate digestion's violent protests, and he knew very well which he'd rather deal with the consequences of.

"There was some sort of ridiculousness with apples and kitchen spices and me sitting in water while wishing very stridently to be here," Hamish answered Alice. "But then she pulled me out, and I met a wolverine in a dumbwaiter in one of your upstairs hallways."

"Ah!" Mirana said, nodding her head. "She was thinking of sending you by the causeways! How very clever! Alice, your mother must be a sanguistane woman, to know of that pathway to Underland. I've sealed most of the others—for safety reasons, which I'm sure you can appreciate—but have not gotten to brewing anything for our waterways yet. Tell me, Sir Hamish, how did you plan to avoid the Old Man of the Sea?"1

"Erm..." Hamish wasn't certain how to answer that. "I had not taken his presence into account, your Majesty."

"Really? It is most fortunate that Ferdinand brought you to Underland, instead, then," Mirana said, sounding amused.

"Erm. Yes. Fortunate. Although I did end up in the sea, anyways. Well, from what I remember of it. It all happened so very fast. One moment I'm in the waiter shaft, with Ferdie blathering on," (Alice and Mirana looked tickled at his use of the wolverine's nickname; the Hatter simply sat and glowered at him) "and the next, he's telling me he'd forgotten about the Sea of Tears. We were swept up into it, and the next thing I knew, I'm on the beach, with the gulls snickering at me. It was a terrible way to get here, but must say, in the end, it was infinitely preferable to Mrs. Kingsleigh's bathtub."

A sound that suspiciously resembled choked laughter came from Alice's side of the table, and Hamish looked to see the Hatter holding his hand to his mouth, shoulders shaking.

"Bathtub?" Alice confirmed, sounding as if laughter was threatening her, as well.

Hamish nodded.

"Yes, she said the cold iron would protect me while I was traveling."

At the word 'protect', all amusement fled the table, as the four were forcibly reminded of that which had been mentioned earlier; that the Hatter's protectiveness of Alice was what caused their marriage. For Hamish, it was sobering indeed to realize that not only actions had consequences, here: thoughts and ideas did, too.

"Yes, Alice, your mother is sanguisntane indeed..." Mirana murmured. "To know not only how to travel here, but to know that the iron would protect one on their journey...even if that is not eventually how you came to be here, Sir Hamish."

"She told me," Hamish put in awkwardly, "that she'd much time to study the subject, as she'd always suspected that...there may be a need for someone to come and retrieve Alice. Someday."

"Something she would not have had to have done so, if she'd only spoken to me of it as I grew," Alice said, shaking her head.

"I'm sure she only had the best intentions, Alice."

It was Tarrant who said this, his hand cautiously reaching out to meet Alice's own. She allowed it to find hers, and they laced their fingers together.

"Well, you know what they say about good intentions," Alice mused. "You've had some of those yourself, Hatta, and look where it has apparently gotten us." She looked down at the bands of gold, a slight frown tugging down the corners of her mouth.

The Hatter's chin jerked to the side, away from Alice. "I never meant my concern for you to cause this between us, Alice, but I can not say that I regret it, now." The words were punctuated by Tarrant rubbing his thumb over the ring on her finger.

"Yes, about that..."

"Ah, yes," Mirana said. "I was telling you of that, wasn't I?" Clearing her throat delicately, she said, "You see, Alice, Sir Hamish...Underland is a very transitory place...except for certain elements that have been woven into the very fabric of what Underland is. What all of those things are is unimportant for the time being. The one that concerns us here today is how those from Above are accepted into this, the land Below. Since Underland was formed, Uplanders have had an unfortunate habit of..." Here she snorted a bit (in a very ladylike way, of course) at her own pun "dropping in. Because of that, certain...protective elements, shall we say? Are in place. Because of that, certain... protective elements, shall we say? … are in place. One being that any unmated Abovegroundian, upon discovery of an Underlandian whom is... sympathetic to their plight? … and is compatible and also unmated, will be Bound together."

"But that's...that's..." Hamish protested.

"Barbaric? Outdated? Of course it is. Do not think that I would not change that particular aspect of Underland if I could, Sir Ascot. But Underland is stubborn on this issue, and refuses. I've cited cases such as this when communing with Underland, where the Uplander in question is far too young when they are Bound, but the only answer I've ever received on that matter is this: Time will fix that."

"How is it that you're able to speak to Underland?" Alice asked, seeming more fascinated than disturbed. "In London, we can not speak to the city, or to the country of England, or any of the land, for that matter. And it certainly never concerns itself with who marries whom or why!"

"That is because London, England, and all of the Above, were formed atop preexisting land. Underland was created. There was a time, before, when those that lived in Underland and those that reside in the Above all lived Above. But War, Famine, and Greed separated them, and eventually those that would come to be called Underlandians knew that, to ever know Peace again, they would have to abdicate from the soils of Above. So they created a new place to live, and placed it under the Earth. It took many powerful Imaginations to kindle this place, to place within it the basic tenants of what it should be; thereafter, however, Underland was supported by those who lived here, and most especially influenced by those who rule it."

Tarrant sat silently, still stroking Alice's fingers with his thumb. She turned towards him, sorrow in her hazel eyes.

"That was why you never argued with me. When I told you I'd dreamed you up," she said. "Because you thought it possible I really might have."

"It...was not outside the realm of possibility. Although my feelings seemed to be stronger than Imagination would normally provide, I could not say that it was not possible, no."

"Your feelings?"

The Hatter flinched, seemingly reminded that he and Alice were not alone at the table by Hamish's outburst. Yellow-orange eyes reopened to glare once at the young man.

"If ye're desirious o' keepin' all of yer appendages ye entered mae home wit', laddie, ye'd best be learnin' to keep yer trap clappered!"

"Tarrant, please. Please," Alice soothed, her hand reaching up to cradle the side of the creature's face closest to her. Closing his eyes, he nuzzled against her touch, and Hamish quashed the jealousy he felt rise within him at the sight. Emotions such as that were obviously not helpful, if entertaining them required Alice to consistently put herself forward to soothe the Hatter afterwords. "Hamish," Alice added in a warning tone to him, not that it was needed.

"Apologies, Alice."

"Now then," Mirana said, "with that all settled, who wants more tea?" A cheerfully patterened tea pot was held aloft. Alice's hand snuck into the Hatter's hair, where she began to scritch him, like one would a cat.

"I will, please, your Majesty," Alice said. "And while things may be settled to your satisfaction, they are still not to mine." Hamish watched as the Hatter's now green eyes slid open, as he gently untangled her fingers from his hair and laid a kiss on her open palm. Alice blushed slightly, causing Hamish to struggle with the jealous urge to wrench her across the tabletop towards him once more.

"What is there left to settle, Alice?" Mirana asked, pouring her a fresh cup.

"Well...when did this happen? When did Tarrant and I..." Her nervous hazel gaze flickered to Hamish, and he sighed.

"You can say it, Alice. When were you...married."

"Yes. When did we...marry?"

Tarrant visibly tightened his grip on Alice's hand, resettling it into his lap. "When you very first came to Underland, Alice. At Thack's tea table," he told her, and held his breath as a man preparing for a blow will.

"When I first...but Hatter, I was six years old!"

Hamish choked a bit on his own tongue. Six years old?

"Aye, and I knew it very well then, too! Don't think that I was well-pleased when I first realized what had happened, lass!"

"No...I don't suppose you would have been, would you?" Eyes alighting with a new understanding, she said, "That's why you were so cross, wasn't it? You realized what had happened! Oh, Hatter...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I've been awful to you, and..."

"Here, have a bit of cake," Mirana said at Hamish's elbow, distracting him from the veritable outpouring of hearts occurring across the way by shoving a small frosted confectionery in his hand.

"There's nothing to apologize for, Alice, nothing at all! It is I who should apologize to you...I never said anything, when you were in Underland this past time, because I wanted you to love me for whom I am, not due to the machinations this land, and..."

Rolling his eyes at the woman's insistence at plying him with delectables, and miserable by the growing-more-likely-by-the-second prospect that he'd lost Alice long before he'd ever had a chance to have her, (or had known he'd wanted her for himself) he accepted the cake, and went to place it in his mouth.

"Love you? Does that mean that you-"

"Yes, Alice! I have since I told you the Jabberwocky Prophecy in the Woods, likely longer! I do so completely and utterly and consumingly lo-"

"Gander's saucing 'er Goose!"

A scruffy, bulging eyed, twitching, screeching Hare hopped up to the table, breaking the moment between the couple across the way, and interrupting Hamish's impeding introduction to Underlandian treats. A large Mouse sat on his shoulder, wearing a crinkled pinafore and scowling magnificently.

"Mir-a-na! Hamish, stop!"

Startled at Alice's strong admonishment, (as just seconds before he'd been determined to drown out the sounds of her imminent Declarations to the creature beside her with frosting, as alcohol didn't seem to be directly available) Hamish lowered the cake while the Queen started in a guilty manner. Then she smiled, an unapologetic grin that was at odds with the look in her eyes. The blonde raised a brow in warning at the monarch, (and just how Alice was able to boss about a Queen, Hamish was very interested in) then turned her attention back to her childhood companion.

"Put that down, Hamish."

"Unless ye've grown fonder of Underland than ye've been acting, Sir Ascot, I wouldn't recommend eating that, if I were you," the Hatter advised, reinforcing Alice's warning.

Setting down the cake hastily, he looked over at the Queen inquiringly. Her hands fluttered in the air. "Oops?" she said.

Dropping all pretense of innocence, Mirana then waggled her fingers, and said, "Well, it seemed to have turned out so well for my Hatter, I simply thought...and it has been a long time since the King's passing, and Sir Hamish is handsome enough...and if it made you feel more at ease to have another Abovegroundian here with you, Alice, that could not be a negative thing, could it?"

"I...beg your pardon?" Hamish stuttered.

"Handsome?" The Mouse that had ridden in on the Hare's shoulder piped in. "Well, to each their own, I suppose, your Majesty, but he's not the sort that would tempt me!"

"Mirana, you haven't...that is, you don't feel particularly protective of Hamish, do you?" Alice asked, eyes wide.

"No," the Queen admitted. "But I easily could. Sir Hamish, would you please set about doing something that would require my saving you? That should stir my protective instincts up very nicely!"

"Are you saying...?" Hamish stood, and began backing away from the table. "You're all mad! Barmy! Completely bonkers! Alice-" he turned to his old friend, sure that desperation was writ across his face, and not caring. "Please. Allow me back to escort you to London. We've idled here in insanity long enough."

"You'll not be escorting my wife anywhere!" the Hatter stood as well. They were of an equal height, but the hat atop the man's head made him seem taller, and Hamish could feel something low in his belly start to quail.

"That should do it," Mirana said, cheerfully. "Good show, Sir Hamish! I wasn't sure if you were going to be a sport about this or not!"

"Alice-!" Hamish said, urgently, as the Queen rose from her seat.

"Hatter..." Alice began, turning to the frizzy-haired being, her face reflecting an inner turmoil, "I need to go with Hamish."

"What?" Multiple voices, none of which belonged to the Hatter, echoed through the clearing. The Dormouse recovered first.

"After all the 'atter has done for you, you're just going to up and leave with toggle-toes here? You don't deserve him, you slurvish girl! Why I oughta go over there right now and..."

"She's right, Mallymkun."

Tarrant's voice stopped the Mouse in her tracks. Hamish turned to him, surprise etched on his features. Mirana wilted, a pout on her dark lips. She must not have been feeling quite protective enough to activate whatever-it-was that made Underland marry folk, much to Hamish's relief.

"You willna be able to stay long, though, Alice. I told your mother true; three months per year of Above's time is what Underland will minimally require to sustain you, but I was being greedy, and...it need not be all at once." This admission was given with a wince; he must be as familiar with Alice's temper as what Hamish was. Hurriedly, he continued with, "I do not think it has been so long as all that, though?" he asked Hamish, to which the man shook his head.

"No. Mrs. Helen said it had been about two fortnights."

"Hatter, if I haven't fulfilled..."

"You're healthy enough now, lass," the Hatter interrupted her. "If you do not delay your return when you start feeling poorly again, all should be well. I'll not be selfish again and keep you here when you so obviously wish to go."

"Tarrant, you can't still think that I was entirely unwilling to be here. I could have left at any time. I could have fought you, or demanded a way back to London, or snuck away...but I didn't. Don't you want to know why?"

"Alice, you don't have to-"

"I think I love you."

Chapter Text

Oh, God.

Oh, God. Why had she said that?

It wasn't that she hadn't already been thinking it, because she had been, but...

Oh, God!

"Alice...?" Tarrant said, voice trembling querulously.

"Sir Hamish, let us away from the table, shall we? Mally? Thackery?" the White Queen's voice was like a distant dream to Alice, as she continued to coax all away to give her and Tarrant a bit of privacy. She'd appreciate it more later, Alice knew, but right then her only concern was Tarrant, the expression on his face, and the look in his eyes.

"I wanted to tell you. Today. Before...everything...happened." Alice said, capturing her lower lip with her teeth. "I wanted to, but had no idea how to even broach such a subject, and...well, I'd thought that you'd not be too terribly off-put by the idea, because of last night."

"Off-put?" Tarrant said, as if it were the most ridiculous concept in the world. "I thought you felt that way about me, lass, with your reaction when..."

"Yes, well. I've never...and I was a bit frightened. I had just gotten confirmation that we were married."

"Never?" Tarrant asked, his unfocused gaze narrowing in on her lips.

"No," Alice admitted, the trace of shame in her voice audible even to herself. Forcing herself to meet his eyes, (She would not shrink away now! Where was her muchness?) she said, "But I would like to. With you. That is...I think I should very much like it if you kissed me."

Instead of the reaction she'd hoped for, Tarrant actually drew away from her, a frown creasing his brow. His extravagant eyebrows pulled down, and he quavered, "I don't want our first kiss to be a kiss goodbye, Alice."

"If you kiss me now, then it won't be. It will be an until-later kiss." She held her breath, waiting for the Hatter's reaction.

"With logic like that," he said slowly, "how can I refuse?" In the very same chair as the night previous, in nearly the very same position, he leaned forward, mouth slightly open. His eyes were fixed on Alice's as she leaned forward and met him.

He tasted fresh and warm, like just-picked herbal leaves and fall cider and melted butter. Alice dissolved into him, into the sensation of another's mouth moving slowly, carefully against hers. Hands reached up and threaded themselves in her hair, pulled her closer. His nose nuzzled against hers, breath tickling her, and she gasped appreciatively against his mouth. Tarrant took this opportunity to deepen the kiss, nudged his tongue forward, pressed himself closer still. Alice accepted him, hesitantly gliding her tongue along his, heat flooding her lower belly as she realized that parts of each of them were inside the other. She pulled away, it all becoming too much, too soon; if she stayed as they were, she would damn the consequences and allow this new feeling flowing through her body to decide her actions. He whimpered as they pulled apart, but did not fight her, did not struggle to stay as close as they had been.

"I'll return, Tarrant," she panted.

"I know you will, my Alice." Tarrant leaned his forehead against hers. "I could go with you."

"I don't think that's a good idea this time," Alice said. "The only knowledge my mother has of you was when you came to take me away, remember? Not exactly the most rousing of endorsements. I also...will need to prepare her. As to the knowledge of our..."

"You seem unusually accepting of our Bond, Alice," Tarrant said. "Not that I'm complaining, mind, but I expected more..."

"Anger? Bitterness? I've suspected we were wed from the first night you brought me back to Underland, Hatta." At his surprised and perplexed expression, Alice laughed. "At first, I will admit, it wasn't something I seriously entertained. I saw the ring on my finger and thought that perhaps you'd eloped with me, but then when you acted so distant, that possibility left my mind. Different things have tickled that fancy at the back of my brain, though, and I was never able to fully dismiss the notion that perhaps we were...connected. And the more I thought on it...the more I realized that I didn't mind the idea."

"You don't?" Tarrant asked, eyes glowing, deep green and fathomless.

"Not in the slightest."

The Hatter grinned, his tie fluffing so that the corners nearly touched his cheeks.

Alice grinned in return. "I'm not saying I realized that all at once, mind. And I am still decidedly ambivalent at the idea that we were brought together beyond our own will. But if I am to be Bound to any man, Aboveground or in Underland...I am glad that man is you, Tarrant Hightopp. And I will come back to you."

"Just as soon as you answer your questions you have to answer and finish those things you have to do."

"Exactly. It will not take me so long this time, I swear it."

Something akin to guilt tightened his jaw, and Tarrant lowered his face, turning slightly away from Alice as he reached into his jacket. He extracted a familiar-looking vial, and handed it to her.

"Hatter, is this-?"

"Aye," he confirmed.

The Blood of the Jabberwock, Alice heard Mirana say in her memory. It would take her home, if that was what she wished.

"But how?"

Seeing that she was not angry with him, Tarrant smiled gently, his shoulders relaxing as he reached out and stroked her arm with his fingertips.

"The Jabberwock's head was an obscenely large thing, if you recall, Alice. Plenty of blood within it to be harvested. The Queen would not let such a resource go to waste."

"And you've had it with you this whole time."

"No," he shook his head, seemingly distressed at the idea that Alice believed he'd always held the key to returning her to London. "The Queen brought it to me today. Nivens took a note to her very early this morning with my request for both it and her presence at tea; after last night, I was certain that you'd no wish to be in my presence, and I thought that if I had the Blood...then you could return to London without having to wait a single moment longer. I also requested that a room be prepared for you in Marmoreal for when you needed to return, so you would not be subjected to me and my...unwanted affection."

Softly, Alice felt the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. "I do not think that room in Marmoreal will be necessary, Hatta," she said. "That is, if you do not mind company here at Windmill House." While he stuttered incoherently and blinked in shock, Alice quickly kissed his cheek, and then stood.

"Alice?" he was finally able to manage calling out, as she turned to go to Hamish, who was standing by the doorway of the House, watching Alice and Tarrant with a forlorn expression on his face. While she felt badly for causing him pain, she could not deny what—or whom—was in her heart...and it wasn't Hamish.

"Yes, Hatter?"

"I love you, too."

*~*~*~*

Phfffffaw!

Hamish sat bolt upright, sputtering as his forehead banged painfully against a hard surface. Both he and the surface gave a sound of pain, but after having been in Alice's Wonderland for several days, this neither surprised nor alarmed him.

"Hamish!"

Blinking eyes that teared from pain, Hamish spluttered, "Mrs. Kingsleigh!"

"Oh, Hamish!" Helen scolded crossly, and when his eyes cleared, it was to see Mrs. Kingsleigh's severe frown as she held her own forehead. So that had been the surface he'd banged against!

He must have looked either upset or peaked, because Helen quickly became contrite, and said, "Please forgive me. You must still be ill from—this is mad, perfectly and absolutely mad! I don't know what has come over me as of late, with first allowing Alice to be taken, and then that business with the orphanage, and then you with the...and now I'm crashing into you! Why, I never saw you in this hall at all! My only indication that you were present was when I smashed right into you!"

"I've brought her home! Mrs. Kingsleigh! She's here! Alice is here!" In his determination to be heard, Hamish did not care if he was interrupting a very interesting (and seldom heard) apology from an elder. Alice's mother needed to know that she was home, as soon as possible.

"What did you say?"

"Alice is here, Mrs. Kingsleigh. I've brought her back home." While technically Alice had brought herself home, Hamish chose to ignore this fact. She would not have received her magic travel potion if he had not gone to get her when he did, would she? So it was not a complete lie; he was still somewhat of a hero, wasn't he?

Gathering him tight in a bone-grinding hug, Helen demanded, "Oh, Hamish! Where is she?"

"Where she was taken from...said that's how it worked...last time," Hamish choked out.

Releasing him abruptly, Helen pushed past the sputtering young man and was gone, just that quickly.

"Oh, the rewards of the conquering hero. Hear the adulation as it is shouted from on high," he wheezed, and then went to follow her. The following, though, was put on hold as he found that he was in his nightshirt again (or would that be still? This whole between-worlds business was very confusing!). Taking the time to change would have the double advantage of him not greeting Alice in his nightshirt, as well as giving the two Kingsleigh women a few moments alone. So that, he decided with a nod, would be what he would do.

"Alice? Alice!"

Helen rushed through the hall, down the stairs, and threw herself into her daughter's waiting arms. "Oh, Alice...my darling girl," she sobbed. "Can you ever forgive me for such high-handed foolishness as what put you into this predicament?"

"Mother...mother, please, I can't breathe..."

Releasing her just as suddenly as she'd embraced her, Helen smiled, abashed, but then gripped her daughter's face in both hands, staring at her in open-mouthed disbelief. "Alice, you're practically glowing! Why, you look the very picture of health! Oh, damn that beast for telling me you needed to be there longer! And damn me for a fool for believing him! Oh, my sweet girl..." she began again, gathering her close for a hug.

A creak on the stairwell signaled Hamish's arrival, and Helen turned towards him. "And here is your hero, Alice! Hamish, come closer." Grasping him by the arm as soon as he drew close enough, Helen said, "Now, I'm sure that Hamish is going to want a private audience with you, Alice, and I will grant him one, but right at this moment I just want to see you. Oh, when I got those letters, I honestly didn't know what to think! You seemed almost happy to be there, what with how cheerfully you penned them...but I knew it to be a lie of the whitest kind, the most well-intentioned sort!"

"Mrs. Kingsleigh," Hamish came down the stairs, clearing his throat as he once again interrupted her. When she ignored him in favor of fussing further over her daughter, he cleared his throat louder and tried again. "Mrs. Kingsleigh!"

"What is is, Hamish?" Helen asked, too full of joy and goodwill to deny him attention any longer, or truly resent him for the interruption.

"I do not believe a private audience with Miss Kingsleigh will be necessary," he said, blue eyes very sad in his bulldog face. He reached out and grasped one of Alice's hands, while Helen looked down and gaped at the stacked gold ring on a very important finger of her left hand. "You are not miserable with him, I do not think?" he asked. "If you can not bear him, I will find a way to permanently free you, Alice, and you need never go back to him again. I will speak with your Queen, I will make a bargain..."

"No, Hamish..." Alice assured him, and with those words, Helen knew Hamish had been too late. Years too late, if her suspicions held true. "I'm not unhappy with him. Far from it."

Then her daughter turned to her, and all the joy Helen had been feeling moments before drained away, to be replaced by apprehension. "This is only a reprieve, mother, in order for me to get my affairs in order here. I must go back. And...I want to. Go back, that is."

"Alice, we'll go to a priest, he'll be able to help us. That creature—"

"Is named Tarrant. And he's my husband, mother. I will thank you to never refer to him in such terms again."

"What have they done to you, Alice? You didn't want to go at all, before, and now-!"

"They've done nothing, mother, except allow me to be myself. You know that I've never quite fit with London or the English life. I'm too outspoken, too fanciful, too..."

Utterly defeated, Helen said, "Foreign. Otherwordly." She sniffed, wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and said, "When will you be going back?"

"Tomorrow," Alice replied.

"So soon?" Helen whispered.

"We'll have the night, mother. You can tell me all of your adventures while I've been gone, as Hamish has told me you've at least the one to relate—something about a home for boys?-and I shall tell you mine...all of mine. And in the morning, I'll drink my elixir and return to Underland, and you will be happy knowing that I am married to a man I love more than this life itself. We will write each other long letters, and I will come to visit you often."

And so it was. Hamish declared his intent to sleep straight through until the morning, and after enjoying a light dinner with both women, went upstairs to do just that. Alice and Helen had stayed up the entire night, telling each other stories. Helen spoke of her spontaneous urge to champion Mr. Long's orphanage, and her surprise when one boy in particular worked his way into her heart to the point where she'd decided, (much to Society's shock and flutterings) to not only introduce him to Lord Ascot in hopes of getting him involved in trade, but opening her home to him as well. Alice had delightedly asked what her new brother's name was, a response that had Helen reaching for her handkerchief, and hoping aloud that Margaret would be even half as accepting as her sister.

Alice said all the things that she'd been too afraid to pen in her letter, about how Tarrant made her feel, about the joy she felt simply waking in his arms (to which Helen had tutted in shock, but reluctantly smiled when Alice reminded her that she had been married to the man long enough that any sense of propriety could not possibly be compromised) and the laughter he incited within her, laughter so pure and lengthy that when it was done her cheeks hurt and her sides ached. Alice spoke of how she wished for those laughter-aches to be soothed away by kisses and warm hands in her hair, to which Helen blushed and informed her daughter she didn't need to know all of her new life...just that she would be happy.

When Hamish clambered down the stairs after dawn, grousing irritably that he'd "not had a wink of sleep!" and that he thought since he was "awake anyways, I might as well come down and say good-bye." Alice knew it was time for her to leave. She asked her mother if she wanted to watch her drink the potion, but Helen declined.

"Just go," she said, rising to leave the room, gesturing for Hamish to follow her out. "Before I change my mind and beg you to stay with a lonely old woman, just because."

So Alice went.

*~*~*~*

"Alice! Would you…come in? I am sorry that I didn't hear you knocking at first, but I was in the middle of a project, you see, and because I had not expected you to return for many more days, I'd not informed my ears that they should be listening for anything other than suggestions from the fabric, and the door handle is a bit cross with me for slamming the door shut a few days past, and..."

Tarrant trailed off as he stepped aside, holding the door open just wide enough that she could pass through. The warmth of candlelight in the house beyond was her first indication that night had fallen in Underland; she hadn't noticed.

"You sound surprised to see me," Alice said, making no move to pass Tarrant and enter the house. Her palms were sweating on the inside of her gloves.

"Alice surprises are the best sort," he said, nervously shuffling on his feet. Shy green eyes peeked out at her through the fringe of his lashes. It seemed he didn't know what else to say to her, for he lapsed into silence. Or perhaps the problem was a surfeit of words; Tarrant seemed to struggle with something deep within his throat, until finally, he said very cautiously:

"I am glad that you have returned to Underland, Alice."

"Underland is not all that I have returned to, Tarrant."

"You….forgive me, then? I'd hoped you had, when I found this."

Tapping a jumbled piece of fabric pinned to his waistcoat, Alice peered at what she'd first thought to be an uncharacteristically foppish corsage, startling when she saw what it truly was.

"That's a bit of fabric, twisted into a flower. From the suit you..." Alice wasn't quite sure what words to use to describe his actions towards that unsuspecting outfit; Tarrant had several.

"Abused, mauled, destroyed? Yes, it is. You...saw the dress, that was to go with it. Do you know what this suit was to be for? What I dreamed while I stitched and sewed and embroidered?"

"It was a wedding suit," Alice said. "I asked Thackery." (And that conversation had been circuitous and frustrating in the extreme, with more than a few sighed, gentle redirections away from soup and back to the topic at hand!) "When he told me...I just couldn't let it be, I had to try to fix it." She stepped closer and touched the uneven and inexpertly done stitches holding the two small scraps of fabric together. "I will admit to some confusion, though. I thought we were...I mean, aren't we...?"

"Already married? Aye. But... well...perhaps it was sentimental and foolish, but I'd hoped, when you'd said you'd be back before I knew it, on Frabjous Day...that ye'd be back for me. And so I sewed, and repaired the House, and...waited. I would have kept waiting, Alice, from now until the end of Underland, if you hadn't taken ill. But when I saw you...it was beyond my control; I had to bring you home." Tarrant spoke towards the toes of his shoes as he said, "Do you still forgive me, now that you know everything?"

Alice felt an ache under her breastbone at the way his lashes hid his eyes from her. "There is nothing to forgive, Tarrant. True, I was quite cross with you for the way you first brought me to Underland…and your behavior towards Hamish could have been more genteel…but you've done nothing to prompt such fear of censure from me."

"What of me not telling ye before? Of what there was betwixt us, lass. I should have at the very least done that."

"I don't know that I would have been ready for it, before."

"Are you now?"

"No," Alice admitted. "But I am more ready than I was a fortnight ago. I'm ready to try. I love you, Tarrant, and I'm ready to take the chance that it can grow into more." She raised her hand to his face, the hand with the finger her golden rings rested upon.

"What more is there than love, lass?"

"This," Alice said, as she grasped his ascot and pulled his lips down to meet her own. Tarrant melted, mouth clinging desperately to hers, and it was only after a thorough (and mutual) plundering that Alice released her hold. Her Hatter's eyes were half-lidded and muzzy.

"More Love," she answered, a cheeky smile blooming on her face. And then she stepped across the threshold and into his opened arms.