Chapter Two

I'm No Alice

She waited for a breath . . . two . . . three. But the look on Jefferson's face never changed. He was completely serious, and there didn't appear to be the faintest glimmer of insanity in his gaze, either—and after coming face-to-face with so many Death Eaters, too many of them driven mad by the crimes they'd committed in service to their Dark Lord, she knew well what that sort of subdued depravity looked like.

The only thing she could detect in his expression was a concern over her reaction. Of course, that was natural, to worry that she wouldn't believe him.

Despite all that, though . . . . She couldn't bring herself to trust what she'd just heard.

"Wonderland?" she echoed, in a breathless whisper.

He swiveled his gaze about and then returned his attention to her as he shrugged, nodding.

For another painfully quiet moment, she simply stared at him. This was madness, and yet, she knew in her gut that it was true.

A sad-looking half grin curved his lips. "Not what you were expecting to hear, was it?"

Hermione shook her head, turning away from him to examine the tree she'd . . . fallen out of? Through? From? She wasn't even sure how to think of her arrival here!

"I mean, where I come from, there's magic—" she was rather positive she didn't have to concern herself with the Statute of Secrecy in the middle of a land out of a fairy tale—"but this isn't the sort of thing anyone expects will happen to them when they wake up in the morning."

Jefferson's mouth tugged to one side as he watched her careful study of the now wholly-unremarkable bark. Well, wholly-unremarkable with the exception that it was pink with shiny copper swirls shifting across its surface, but that was Wonderland for you.

Clearing his throat, stuffed his fists into his pockets. "So you're what, exactly?"

"All right, considering where we are and how I got here, I suppose you'll believe me—but please don't panic—when I say I'm a witch." She tacked on hurriedly, "The good kind. I don't curse people or steal babies, or anything."

"That is good to know."

Every sound in the trees made her jump just a little and she hated that. It was a forest, and there were nocturnal creatures in the forest, it seemed the one normal thing she could count on, and yet . . . .

"I swear," she said with a sigh as she turned around to face him, once more, "I think I keep expecting the Cheshire Cat to leap out at me, or something."

He started, tearing his gaze from hers to look into the branches overhead. "Oh, hell, I hope not."

"Well, perhaps not specifically." She dropped her gaze to the ground, shrugging as she went on. "But you, know, Wonderland . . . . I wouldn't be surprised, at all to see the March Hare, or that knackered, opium-smoking caterpillar, or the Mad Hatter, maybe."

The words were out of his mouth before he could think to stop them. "Mad Hat—people where you're from think I'm crazy?"

Hermione snapped up her gaze to lock on his. He was wide-eyed, and looked a little hurt, she thought, but as before appeared completely serious. "You . . . ." She swallowed hard. "You're the Hatter?"

"Well, considering hat making is what the Queen of Hearts imprisoned me to do for her, I'd have to think so."

Her shoulders slumped and her eyes gaped as she started back at him. She was talking to the Mad Hatter and he was a prisoner of the Queen of Hearts? The bloody thirsty, beheading-happy tyrant from the fairy tales?

Bloody hell, what had she stumbled into?

"Who am I? Alice?" she asked herself in a whisper.

His face scrunching up in question, he darted his gaze about as he mouthed the question, Who's Alice?

"I can't—" Shaking her head, she licked her suddenly, mysteriously, parched lips in a quick gesture of anxiety. "I can't even imagine what in the world I'm doing here!"

His brow furrowing as he winced, Jefferson kept his gaze pinned on her even as he backpedaled a step. "I have a thought on that, but you might not like it."

Grousing silently, Hermione swept the folds of her dress against her bum and took a seat on a nearby toadstool. She tossed her hands in the air as she said, "I'm already in bloody Wonderland talking to the bloody Hatter as I sit on a mushroom the size of a dining room chair; I'm pretty sure whatever you've got to say can't set me any more 'round the bend than that."

He opened his mouth to speak, but just as quickly closed it. With a head shake of his own, he started again. "I know how this is going to sound, given the whole 'mad' thing . . . ." He paused, allowing himself a moment to roll his eyes at the moniker he was apparently known by in her world. "But do you believe in fate?"

She sat up a little straighter, her gaze locking on his face. He had said earlier that he thought he'd been expecting her, hadn't he? "Why would you ask me that?"

Heaving a weighted sigh, he moved closer, his steps cautious. Jefferson crossed his legs and settled on the ground before her. He offered the most serious expression he could muster as he stared up at her. "Because, somehow, I knew I was going to meet you."

The witch blinked several times in rapid succession as she said, "Explain before I actually start believing we're both completely barking."

Arching a brow at the term—he would guess that was another word for crazy where she was from—he frowned thoughtfully and nodded. "Before I ended up out here, I had a dream and in it, well, I saw you."

"Me?" Her voice was barely a thread of sound.

"You." He widened his eyes in emphasis as he nodded, once more. "Your face, your wand . . . your hair."

Hermione sputtered a giggle in spite of herself as she touched a hand to her wild locks.

"Then I woke up, and heard a noise. When I followed it . . . ." Despite that she'd literally tumbled through a tree to get here, he thought maybe leaving out the teleporting wardrobe was a wise idea, given the whole Mad Hatter thing. "I wound up out here and found you."

They stared at one another for a stretched, wordless moment.

"And just when I was wondering how the hell I'm supposed to find magic so I can get back to my daughter."

Her brows pinched together. "Your daughter?"

Tipping his head back, he blinked up at the mix of leaves and stars hanging over them as he let his shoulders slump. "She's safe enough for now, but . . . ." He didn't like to think he was playing on her sympathies, but he needed her to understand the urgency of the position he was in. "But I'm the only family she has."

Nodding, she couldn't help but reach toward him. Nearly before she realized what she was doing, she'd rested her hand on his shoulder. She would ignore the immediate—and not at all mysterious—relief at not hearing any mention of a wife. God, that was selfish, wasn't it? What if he was a widower? What if she'd left him and her absence had torn out his heart?

Focus, Hermione, you git.

"Well, then, if I can help you, of course I will. C'mon." She dropped her hand to her side and stood up. "Let's go, you can explain precisely what your situation is on the way."

Jefferson shot to his feet, a smile that was equal parts relief and disbelief curving his lips. "You'll really help me?"

Exhaling through her nostrils as she looked up at him, she nodded. "Your daughter needs you. I'm going to guess time is of the essence. And, as I'm far from heartless, I don't see what other option I have. If I can help you, my aid is yours."

Oh, God, he could kiss her! He shook his head at his own thoughts over that, though he couldn't wipe the grin from his face. "You have no idea!" Pivoting on his heel to lead the way, he gave himself a moment to get his bearings. He'd figure out how to explain her to the Queen and her horrible minions on the way. Wait, this girl was a witch, wasn't she? Maybe she had some way to sneak in there so he wouldn't have to explain her presence, at all.

As they started off, something struck him, and he halted just as fast. She stumbled into him, uttering a quick sound of surprise before she backed up, giving him space to turn and look at her.

"You didn't seem ready to believe me until I said this could be fate."

Swallowing hard, Hermione held his gaze, her eyes going wide as she blinked. "Oh . . . caught that, did you?"

The way her voice shivered—ever so slightly, barely noticeable, in fact—caused his eyes to narrow. "Why?"

She drew in a deep breath, letting it out slow before she could answer. Goodness, it was difficult to tell him something so . . . well, dark and sad, really, while he stared into her eyes like this.

"In the world I come from, there was a war. At the last moment, I was caught on the battlefield by a wizard on the other side. He . . . ." She shook her head, feeling tears well up. God, it was so stupid, she'd barely known Corvus Selwyn, why did thinking about his death always do this to her? "He had the chance to kill me. I'll never know quite why, but he stayed his hand. It was so stupid, really, we were just there, sort of staring at each other."

He watched her in silence, her struggle with the scene she was reliving obvious.

"Something in that look we shared, something in that moment, made me think if, maybe, we'd met under different circumstances, he and I could've been . . . something. Someone else took advantage of the distraction and killed him. That was a fortnight ago, and I can't get it out of my mind." She forced herself to tack on one last thing. "He died staring into my eyes."

Jefferson's face fell as he forced a gulp down his throat. He didn't think he was going to like where this was going, but he had to ask. "What's that got to do with fate?"

With a watery smile, she sniffled, blinking to keep her tears in her eyes where they bloody well belonged. "He looked exactly like you."

He felt his heart drop into his stomach. Well, it was too late now to wish he hadn't asked.