When Alice finally dared to open her eyes again, the rain had stopped. She could see that the sun was starting to come out again through that one small window in the garden shed. Alice stared at it, but a person can't sit on the dirty floor of a garden shed staring out the window forever. Alice braced herself against the large flower pot and rose to her feet, brushing herself off, examining her dress for dust – or water. It was free of both. Alice wasn't sure whether this was comforting or terrifying, since every ounce of her being told her that something had just gone entirely wrong in her head, or else… but it must be nearly time for dinner. She embraced this idea completely, as it allowed her to put everything else aside for a moment. Yes, she must be late. She went to the door and opened it, letting herself out into the garden. It was muddy, just as she'd expected. That was what happened when it rained, the garden got muddy. It worked like that because the world made sense.
All the sense in the world couldn't keep Alice from casting a long look back over her shoulder at that big flower pot.
The rest of the evening was an awkward affair. Alice remained wary even after she had finally crawled into bed and blown out her candle, lest the room tilt on its head and send her spiraling downwards into whatever kind of madness it was that made people hallucinate things instead of just shuffling through the streets with uncombed hair and wild eyes. It was very late before Alice finally drifted off to sleep.
The bright morning sunshine made things look clearer, as it usually did. When Alice opened her eyes again, she turned them up toward the window, where the light was streaming in and realized that she'd simply dreamed the whole thing. There had been no fall, no Wonderland and no peculiar young man with questionable taste in so many facets of his life. She had simply been lulled to sleep by the sound of the rain and had had a very strange dream that was in no way an indication of some underlying mental oddity. Alice felt much better about things then.
By the time she had breakfasted, Alice was feeling downright charitable. It had been, she thought, a rather nice sort of dream after all, even in spite of all its frustrations. At least, it had been interesting. Although, she reflected with some contrition, it probably wasn't very good manners to go about dreaming of slogging about strange countries with strange young men, unchaperoned and bareheaded. Still...
There was a noise from outside the kitchen door. One of the kittens getting into trouble again, she supposed. There were always at least a few pouncing about. Alice would love them and cuddle them and then entrust them to some child in the neighborhood or other. After that, they might pass one another from time to time with polite acknowledgement, but would rarely carry on a conversation. Alice hadn't made really good friends with a cat in years, but she didn't take it personally. She stood now and went to the door and opened it. There was the kitten she had heard – a roly-poly orange fellow – gone belly up on the front step and defending its honor with a glow of pure moral outrage in its eyes against a gloved hand that was squeezing its fat little sides and tickling it under the chin. Alice's jaw dropped away from the rest of her mouth.
The hand under the white glove jolted guiltily, and the body that owned it drew it back to settle on the rim of a crimson bowler. The kitten had just gotten a solid grip on the thing, and it went along too, front paws clamped firmly down, bottom ones trailing along behind as it arched gracefully through the air with its little teeth sunk into the offending hand. The Hatter raised his hat to her.
"Hello, Alice. I – oh." He noticed the kitten dangling before his eyes apparently for the first time and quickly plopped his hat back into place to set about releasing himself from the beast's jaws. "Healthy little fellow, isn't he."
Alice had little thought she could spare for kittens, not when a person she had only just finished neatly dismissing as a figment of her own overactive imagination was standing outside her kitchen door, dressed like a traveling circus in a luridly red coat and bowler hat with a blue polka-dotted waistcoat underneath. The spectacle was as blinding as it was shocking. The only thing Alice could even settle on for a certainty was that yesterday hadn't been a dream at all, unless today was a dream too, in which case what was reality anyway? She accepted it because she had no choice. Mad Hatter was here and he was at least mostly real. And he was here. "But – why – how?"
"Oh, come now," he said scoldingly, peeling one little paw away only to have it reattach itself when he turned his attention to the other. "After all, surely you didn't think you were the only one who knows the way in and out."
This was precisely what Alice had thought, and to have it presented to her as a schoolgirl's fancy was a little shocking. She gripped the doorjamb tightly. "But what are you doing here?" it finally occurred to her to ask, and the Hatter had the decency, at last, to look slightly sheepish.
"Aha. An excellent question, I was hoping you'd ask it. Well – that is…." He detached himself at last from the orange kitten and bent quickly to set it on the ground before it could ready another assault. It swiped at his escaping hand anyway, then contented itself with chewing on his shoe as he straightened to address Alice once again. "To be entirely frank – "
"I wish you would."
"Uh, yes, quite. You see… to be entirely frank…well, the sum of it all is that, through very little fault of my own, I seem to have found myself in something of an awkward situation, you know. Rock and a hard spot, what."
Alice was watching him through squinted eyes, because although it wasn't an experience she had personally encountered before, she was savvy enough to understand that this was alarmingly near to the kind of language a man might employ when he was about to ask you for money or something. The Hatter was hesitating now, and reached up to remove his hat. She tried not to pay attention to what kind of interesting shape his hair sprang into as he did so. His fingers began traveling around the rim of the hat, passing it back and forth from one hand to the other, and this was when Alice realized that he was actually nervous. She frowned. "What sort of awkward situation?"
The Hatter shifted, left foot shuffling about as he tried to avoid stepping on the orange kitten, who had no intention of yielding. "I'd rather not discuss it just here. Complicated. Suffice it to say that I've a rather limited supply of excellent ideas just presently and…well…dash it, I need your help."
"My help?" Alice gaped at him. "What could you possibly need my help for?" Unless it was money. She narrowed her eyes at him further and the Hatter squirmed.
"I'd rather not say – not out in the open at least. You never know who might – " he broke off midsentence to glance down at the kitten rolling around at his feet. "…who might be listening."
Alice pursed her lips. "I see. Well, Mr. Hatter, I'm terribly sorry for your predicament, but If you can't tell me what the predicament is, I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for you. Furthermore…." Alice paused, looking him over intensely. He swallowed. "Furthermore, I have no idea how you found my house, but I can only suppose your methods were entirely sinister, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Mad Hatter's mouth opened and shut once, before he drew himself up stiffly and looked more offended than a man in a polka-dotted waistcoat had any business looking. "I shall do nothing of the kind. I've done nothing remotely untoward."
"Is that so?"
"Then how did you come to find out where I live?"
"Simple." Alice waited. The Hatter sighed impatiently. "I merely employed the process of elimination. Being as how you weren't anyplace else, I concluded that you must be in the place where you were and here you are. There's nothing sinister in that and I think it's shocking that young girls these days go about saying such things. Why, to listen to you speak, somebody might think you were –"
"Were what?" Alice interrupted him harshly. "A man?"
Having no idea what that was supposed to mean, Alice didn't respond. Both of them fell silent. At length, he cleared his throat and addressed her again, in a hushed tone. "Look, I… I wouldn't ask you if I wasn't in a dashed tight spot, but I've examined the thing from all sides and there simply isn't another option." Alice had been looking down at the kitten, who had finally lost interest, or else declared itself the victor, and waddled off. She glanced up now and was startled to find that the Hatter was looking right at her. His eyes were even bluer than she remembered them from yesterday. "I need your help," he repeated quietly, and Alice felt a little spike of something she would spend a long time trying to forget. It only lasted a moment, but in that moment Alice realized quite clearly that she wanted to help him. In spite of the fact that he was probably crazy, possibly imaginary, and that she knew nothing useful about him at all, she wanted to help him.
"What am I meant to do, anyway?"
The Hatter's face lit up, but Alice swiftly raised one hand. "I haven't said yes, yet, I'm merely gathering information with which to make a decision. And it had better be important. And it had better be sensible or else I'm going to shut this door very hard and I will not look to see whether your foot is in the way or not before I do."
"Oh, naturally," said the Hatter, taking a step backwards. "And I assure you, this is an errand of utmost practicality. All you need to do is come along back to Wonderland with me."
"Back?" He nodded, and Alice lifted a hand to rest against the door, as if it could offer some sort of protection against the way her heartbeat quickened a little at such an idea. "But that's out of the question. Anyway, what could you want me back there for anyway? I thought my prior invitation was an accident."
"It was," he shrugged. "But this one is on purpose."
"And you need my help."
"Desperately." He nodded, entirely without shame. Alice was still frowning, but he could sense her weakening and so could she. Whether or not it had anything to do with him and his scarlet coat was hard to say, but a direct invitation to Wonderland, no matter what mischief might come of it was a sore temptation. The Hatter clapped his hat back on his head and broke into a wide grin that displayed his faintly horse-like, irritatingly charming smile beautifully. "Oh, you will come, won't you? I've always said you're a cracking good fellow. Do say you'll do it."
Before she could convince herself otherwise, Alice bit her lip and slowly nodded her head. "Oh…all right."
"But you have to promise to show me the way home again immediately afterwards, and not the way you did before." Remembering now fully for the first time since their meeting had begun, Alice's spine stiffened. "Speaking of which, how dare you throw me into the water that way! I thought it was all a dream before, but now you're here, and that means it wasn't a dream at all, and that means – you threw me into the water!"
The Hatter looked defensive. "I didn't either, I was seeing you off, that's all! Standing on the shore singing bon voyage and my bonnie lies over the ocean with a fond tear in my eye, what. Besides, how else was I meant to send you home, via the post?"
"Well, you had better think of another way or else I'm not going anywhere," said Alice, who didn't tell him not to be ridiculous because there didn't seem to be much point in it anymore. Mad Hatter made an impatient sound through his nose, which resonated it loudly.
"All right, all right, if you insist on being unreasonable about everything once you've got a fellow boxed into a corner. Next I suppose you'll want this coat off my back, too –"
"I don't want it," Alice interrupted again. The Hatter gave her a baleful look.
"Fine. Another way home. Now can we go?"
He looked very sullen just then for somebody who was receiving a favor he probably didn't deserve, but Alice concluded this was as much as she was going to get out of him at present and didn't press the matter further. She inclined her head and, fully aware of the magnitude of the mistake she was making, stepped out to join him on the porch, shutting the kitchen door behind herself. He swayed back and forth and then halfheartedly offered her his elbow, but Alice ignored it, much to his apparent relief. Together, they walked back down the garden path. Stop and consider, the rosebushes seemed to warn her as she passed them, but Alice looked the other way.