Disclaimer: Not mine, will never be mine.

Do I know it's been ages since I've updated? Yes. Do I know you are all mad at me for taking so long? Yes. Do I care? Obviously, since I'm finishing the story. I won't apologize for the delay, though, as it was caused by much more important, real-life things (such as applying to college).

For those of you who actually read these author's notes, thank you. For those of you who review, thank you. Even when I don't have time to reply to each and every review, I do go through and read them all; I love reading what you have to say. And so, our story comes to an end in this final chapter. I could extend it, certainly, but it was always my intention to make it ten chapters, and to write it within 2010; I actually made completing this story within the year my New Year's Resolution, and I am proud to say that I accomplished it.

So, anyway, I would like to present the final chapter of Children at Heart. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! As always, reviews are love.

In her dream—and she would later discover she was dreaming—Alice was warm and dry, out of the torrential downpour and away from the worst of the storm. In fact, there was no storm at all; instead, Alice was standing in the center of a rather large room inhabited by various pieces of furniture. Besides that, though, she had no idea where she was. She felt off somehow, as though her world had been upended and she had been dispelled into a foreign void.

Of course, that could just as easily have been caused by the presence of so many straight-backed chairs.

Alice stood in the center of the room, spinning slowly in place and trying to get the measure of her location. It was small, as rooms go, windowless but for a tiny square nestled in the wall opposite of her, and, worst at all, was painted a horrible pastel peach. After the vibrancy she had come to expect from Wonderland, Alice was horrified by the muted color. "Eugh," she muttered under her breath, flicking her eyes from the walls to the furniture to seek a respite from the agonizing décor. She found none, however, for the sofa and chairs were all stiff and formal, and exuded such an aura of inhospitality that she actually took a step back.

"Where am I?" she wondered aloud, passing a hand over her eyes. As grateful as she was to be liberated from the shivering, soggy mess of humanity she had been seemingly moments before, and as commonplace as disappearing from one place and reappearing in another had become for her, Alice nevertheless preferred to know at least the general details of her location.

She had all but ruled out Wonderland as a possibility; this new place simply did not feel the same to her.

"Alice? Is that you?" Footsteps clicked with crisp precision on the wooden floor, and a stern-looking woman stepped into view. Her hair, once blonde, was now steely grey with age, and done up in a severe bun. Her face was drawn up into a ferocious frown, and her eyes met Alice's in a ferocious scowl.

Alice blinked. Her mouth opened of its own accord, and then closed. She blinked again. "M—Mother?" The word slipped from her lips with incredulity. It couldn't be her mother. Her mother was in England. Alice was in Wonderland. This was impossible.

The woman clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "Who else?" Her voice was irritated. "Alice, you were supposed to be ready to leave an hour ago." She waved an irritable hand at her daughter. "Quickly, now, put on your hat and come with me."

Poor Alice was confused beyond belief. Hadn't she just been in Wonderland? Wasn't she living with and in love with the Hatter? Hadn't she just had the fight of her life and left everything that she knew and loved behind?

What on earth was happening?

She took a hesitant step forward—no way better to find out than to ask. "Where are we going?" she inquired.

Her mother favored her with an irritated scowl. "Why, to your engagement party, of course," she said snippily. "An event we have been planning for weeks now and for which," she looked pointedly at a clock fixed on the wall behind Alice, "you are now fifteen minutes late."

"Engagement party?" Alice was horrified. "To whom am I engaged?" How could she be engaged? How was such a thing possible? She had been living in Wonderland for the past six years of her life; an engagement was impossible!

Impossible or not, though, she soon found herself being dragged to the elaborately decorated lawn of an enormous estate and presented to the most boring young man she had ever had the misfortune of meeting. He sat with evident lethargy at the head of a long table, and barely even blinked as Alice's mother hustled her daughter over to his side.

Lip curling with disdain, Alice stared down at the figure seated before her. "This is my fiancé?" She did not bother attempting to hide her disgust. The man at the head of the table was pallid and red-haired, two characteristics that combined to give him a feeble, washed-out appearance. It was quite obvious that he never spent a moment longer than was necessary outside, and equally apparent that he could care less about it.

Her snort of disapproval roused him from his stupor, and he slowly straightened from his slumped position. "Alice, darling," he said, retrieving her hand from her side and placing a sloppy kiss upon it. "You're late." For all his facial expression changed, her timing did not bother him in the least.

Wincing at the pitiful display from the seated scrap of humanity, Alice rescued her hand from his grasp and retreated a few feet, safely beyond his reach. Something about this pitiful man unnerved Alice, something more than his obvious ineptitude and spinelessness. She frowned and stared down at him, shaking her head disapprovingly as he met her glare with a wince and a slight twitch. Lips pursed, Alice tried to determine what it was about this man that bothered her so badly.

As she was forced to stand by and watch him drink his tea (pinky extended, of course), Alice realized what it was. Like a lightning bolt, the revelation struck her suddenly and without warning, rippling through her with an electric certainty.

He wasn't the Hatter.

The Hatter, who had been her friend and constant companion for going on seven years. The Hatter, who had forced her to live and love, to be and express herself. The Hatter was life itself, and this man had all the looks and personality of a soggy fish.

He was not the smiling, jovial, friendly face she had come to anticipate seeing. He was not lively, he was not sarcastic and witty and full of hidden surprise. In fact, he was everything that the Hatter wasn't, and that bothered her more than she would ever willingly admit to anyone.

The Hatter was rude and all but oozed impropriety. He was hyperactive and excitable and emotional to the extreme. He was creative and caring, eccentric and untamable.

She missed him terribly, and their argument had only been hours before.

"Oh, I'm such an inept, indecorous idiot!" she wailed, looking miserably up at the sky. "Why'd I have to go and ruin everything?"

"I'm sorry?" The feeble man before her looked at her with an expression of utmost confusion. Behind him, all of the party guests had frozen, and stood staring, mouths agape, at the distraught blonde at the head of the table.

Alice blushed and mumbled an embarrassed apology, sinking quietly back into her thoughts and obscurity. She inevitably returned to her comparison of this man and the Hatter, unable to turn her mind from all that she believed she had lost.

The Hatter was life. He was the sun that woke her up every morning and propelled her through the day. He was the moon that lit her nights and granted her peace of mind. He was everything to her, and she had simply thrown it all to the winds and left.

Biting her lip to keep from exclaiming again, Alice stared around the large lawn and took in all the details of her surroundings—best to familiarize oneself with one's punishment.

This man, the poor, pathetic individual whom she was seemingly doomed to marry, was muted and dull. He was two-dimensional and shallow, a shadow of Wonderland and its inhabitants—highly ironic, since Alice currently stood in the "real world."

That was her problem, though. This world didn't feel real. Her home—her native England—was no longer her home; Wonderland was her home, whether she was there or not. The shift had occurred many years before, she realized now, looking at the pitiful excuse of an engagement party, but it had taken her until now to acknowledge that fact.

"I want to go home," she murmured, closing her eyes and desperately pretending she was back in that storm, that she was still huddled in the rain and overflowing with irritation and fury. At least if she were there she would be where she belonged. She would have the Hatter, if she could resolve their argument. She would have security, and life, and excitement. She would have love and understanding. She would have him, and thus she would have herself.

"Alice!" Her mother's voice was loud in her ear, and Alice jerked back to her current reality, blinking in the muted sunlight. "It's time for the meal!"

Without saying a word, Alice turned and trudged to her place at the table, scuffing her feet and taking as much time as possible. She did not want to be here, could not imagine that she had once despaired at leaving. As these thoughts passed through her head, she stumbled and fell forward to meet the ground, arms extended. She fell rather slowly, she thought as she arced towards the ground, watching the grass fly forward to meet her. Screwing her eyes closed, she braced for the impact that never came.

With a gasp, Alice awoke to the uncomfortable sensation of being jostled up and down. Blinking, she stared blearily around, attempting to reorient herself. The sight of the bright blue sky above left her befuddled, her eyes clouded with confusion. Where was she now? Clearly not in England—the brightness of her surroundings guaranteed that. However, it had been nighttime and storming when consciousness had finally escaped her, while the sky now above her showed every promise of developing into a shining summer day.

Slowly, her senses filtered back to her, and she realized that she was snugly secured in a strong grasp of unknown origin. She also realized that she was sopping wet, and bone-chillingly cold despite the season. Her clothes were saturated with water, her hair sodden and lank. Goosebumps dotted her exposed skin even as she could feel the sun-kissed warmth from the arms of whoever held her. In a panic, she flung her head about in a weak but desperate attempt to glean the identity of her captor.

As he sensed her discomfort, the owner of the white-gloved hands that held her tightened his grasp to keep her from slipping. "Peace, love." The Hatter kept his voice low in an effort not to startle her. "I've got you."

At the sound of a friendly voice—his voice—Alice relaxed, all of the adrenaline draining from her body in a sudden rush, leaving her limp in the Hatter's arms. After the previous day, such a statement should have alarmed Alice, should have been the stimulus for a fit of indignant rage. His words should have brought back memories of her earlier wrath, not infused her with the skin-tingling warmth that it did. She was just so tired.

And, her nightmare hadn't helped her mental exhaustion by presenting her with such a conflicting scene.

The Hatter picked up his pace, looking worriedly down at his groggy burden. "I've got you," he repeated. Alice allowed her head to relax against his chest, a distant part of her realizing that he was just as sodden as she. The logical part of her reminded her that he must have been out in the worst of the storm to have found her, and she smiled, snuggling into his damp vest. Wet as he was, irritating as he could be, he was hers.

"I'm glad," she whispered, sinking back into the oblivion of sleep.

When she next woke up, she was cocooned in blankets before a fiercely roaring fire. Warmth flowed through her, coursing through her veins from her head to her feet. Dimly, she recalled that it was supposed to be summer, and that there was no real reason for the fire to be lit. It felt so good, though, that Alice ignored her sense of logic and simply basked in its glow, silently regaining her bearings.

Beside her sat the Hatter. He had forgone his sodden overcoat and hat, and was reclining in the chair beside Alice's sofa, feet propped up on the coffee table, his posture giving the misleading sign that all was well. "Good morning, starshine," he chirped, giving her a cheeky grin and maintaining his cheerful charade.

Alice managed a weak smile in return, sitting up and casting aside some of her blankets. The warmth of the room, so welcome only moments before, was beginning to become overwhelming. She combed her mussed-up hair out of her eyes, blinking at her savior. "How long have I been out of it?" she mumbled, blearily looking about for a clock of some sort.

He tapped his fingers together. "Total?" he asked. "Close to twelve hours. It's been five hours since I got you home." He leaned in towards her and frowned, examining her from head to toe with a scrutinizing gaze. "How do you feel?"

Wiggling her toes experimentally, Alice took a mental inventory of her physical state. Nothing hurt, she was warm, all digits and limbs in working order… "I feel great," she declared, casting aside her blanket nest as a form of tangible evidence for her declaration.

The Hatter stood and began to pace. "Good," he said, the relief in his voice evident even though his face was turned from her.

He stopped and turned, his face a mangled web of emotion. "Look, Alice…" Never one to beat around the bush, he sighed and strode back and forth before her, wearing a divot in the rug before the fireplace. He knew what he wanted to say, but the cost it would have on his pride was immeasurable.

The Hatter had been a solitary figure for so long before Alice's arrival that his personality—dominant to begin with—had fermented and established itself as a prevailing component of his routine. He had lived for himself, before and even after Alice's return. To say what he now wanted to say was a severe blow to his independence, a betrayal of his inherent masculine pride.

His face mirrored his internal struggle, his mouth drawn into a thin line and his freckles standing out vividly on his cheeks. "I'm tired of fighting," he finally said. The words cost him, but once they were uttered they burst from his lips, escaping into the air with such a tangible aura of relief and confession that he sagged back against the wall after they were uttered. "I'm tired of fighting," he repeated softly, his eyes turned to the ground.

Conceding defeat—or compromise in general—was not his strong suit, and to back down before Alice was nearly intolerable. Their whole relationship revolved around their ever-entertaining struggle for independence and dominance, and to back down was a severe blow to his pride. He sank to the floor with his back against the wall, knees drawn up to his chin and arms wrapped tightly around his shins. "I want us to be normal again." The words, now released, burst forth like a torrent, flowing from his lips without any conscious effort on his part. "I want to hold you in my arms, wake up in the morning and see you beside me."

They were both proud people—they knew that. Fights were inevitable, and always had been. Hardly a day went by without some minor argument or another. Nothing in the past could ever rival the previous day's blow-up, though. Never, never, would the Hatter have imagined that Alice would actually leave, that she would pack up and just go.

The simple memory of the event sent a sharp spike of pain through his heart, and he grimaced. The expression looked odd on his generally jovial face, the scowl displacing years of laugh lines with almost effortless ease. He and Alice annoyed each other. They got on each other's last nerve, argued and squabbled over minor discrepancies. He was immature, she mature; he made the mess, she was there to clean it up. That was how they were.

He loved it.

The Hatter looked imploringly up at Alice, who had managed to stand and stretch and was pacing back and forth on the rug, just as he had been mere moments before. His hands flexed compulsively, and he stared down at them for a long while. "I love you, Alice," he finally said. His blue eyes were filled with hurt as he turned them on her. "I know I can be a bit…unusual and irritating at times, but I love you. I wish you would let me."

It was the closest thing to an apology he had ever uttered, and Alice's steady pacing stopped as she absorbed his words. Yes, he could be "unusual and irritating." He went on expeditions to hunt for Swedish fish, he refused to bend in any way on any matter, he made her so mad sometimes—and she loved him, was completely and hopelessly in love with him.

Without warning, Alice turned towards the Hatter, her flaxen locks falling forward and hiding her face from his tormented gaze. "I…" Her fists clenched and then relaxed, fingers trembling. "I do love you." The words themselves were the easiest she had ever said. She knew he needed to hear them, and she had no problem uttering them, as they were completely and wholly the truth.

"Then what is the matter?" He stood in one fluid motion and walked over to her, peering intently into her face. "I know I'm irritating sometimes" (this was delivered with a slight grin) "but you have been wound so tightly lately. You made your feelings clear last night, but I desperately want to believe that your words were the result of some underlying issue." Gently, he coaxed her into his embrace, gingerly wrapping his arms around her and holding her against him as if she were a fragile package. "What is the matter, Alice?" he repeated, his embrace firm and unyielding and the most comforting thing she had known in weeks.

Blushing at the sudden attention, Alice hid her red face in his chest. "I don't know!" The muffled reply floated up to his ears, and he smiled, trailing one hand idly along her back.

"Do you ever?" he quipped.

Alice giggled despite herself, drawing back enough so that she could meet his eyes.

"There." A white-gloved hand reached up and traced the shaky smile. "That's what I want to see. That's what I should always see. I never want you to be unhappy, Alice. I never want you to be sad."

Alice said nothing in return, simply looking in his face with an expression that said everything her voice could not. They both knew such a reality was impossible, of course. They were at odds far too much for such a bold statement ever to be upheld, but the intentions were there, and they were true.

It was quiet in the house but for the distant ticking of a clock, and Alice and the Hatter stood for a long while in silence, frozen in their confused half-embrace.

"I do love you," Alice finally blurted, tilting her head so that she could meet his eyes, "so very much." She combed his erstwhile hair from his eyes with hands that shook. "I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else in my life, and it terrifies me. You have become my everything. You were my mother and father, my sister and brother. You are my companion and my friend, my best friend in the entire world—Wonderland and my home both. You are the only person I have ever loved in this manner, and…" Her voice grew softer, "You're the only person I ever will."

When he said nothing in return, she drew back, afraid that her words had insulted him.

That was the instant the Hatter sprang to life. He swept Alice back into his arms with a grand flourish, whirling about the room with her in his grasp. "Alice, dear, I live in absolute terror of your frightening personage," he confided with a broad wink and an extra twirl. "I've been scared of you ever since you waltzed back into my life all those years ago. I couldn't help but love you—first as that precocious, lost little child, and now as the stunning woman you are today." He paused and tipped an imaginary hat, realizing only after he began the gesture that his own was propped up against the opposite wall. "Ma chere, vous tue moi chaque jour."

By the end of this spiel, Alice's face was as red as a tomato. "You'd think I'd be used to such language by this point," she muttered, hiding her blush in his shirt.

"If you are ever used to me, there is something wrong," he teased. "As it stands, though, you've become quite a bit like me yourself-all this yelling and spontaneity and whatnot." Pursing his lips, he gave her an appraising look. "You'll not be so much like me that you know me, though, right?"

Alice giggled. "You'll never be predictable," she promised.

His face broke into such a comic and overdramatic expression of relief that Alice burst out laughing, all traces of her anger dissolving into nothingness.

The Hatter hugged her tightly. "Nor will you be, I'm sure." He thought back to numerous instances where her behavior had been downright illogical and most un-Alice-like, and there was a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he added, "You seem to be developing more and more quirks, Alice, that remind me of someone..." He grinned outright as she twitched and looked down. "You'll be more me than me in no time! Why," he stepped back from her, dancing a little jig, "I may need to go ahead and make you a hat, just so we can match!"

Shuddering delicately, Alice shook her head. "I think not," she proclaimed. "My head is happy as it is now, unadorned by that towering monstrosity that you call a hat."

Pouting, the Hatter stooped to retrieve said article from the floor, perching it atop his wild, white mane of hair. "You don't like my hat?"

"On you? I love it." She nodded decisively, contemplating man and hat with a thoughtful gaze. "On me? It would be most unbecoming."

Of course, this did nothing but encourage the Hatter, and one hop, skip, and a jump later and his hat found itself resting on Alice's blonde locks. The brim came down well over her eyes, and she pushed it up to level an irritable glare at him. "You see what I mean?"

The Hatter took no notice of her grumpy mien. He was enamored, gazing at Alice with such obvious adoration that she blushed and allowed the hat to flop back over her eyes so that she might avoid the intensity of his gaze. "It is perfect," he announced. "You're perfect."

Suddenly the hat was gone from Alice's head, whisked away by well-meaning hands and returned to its rightful perch. Tilting her chin up so that her eyes met his, the Hatter looked down at Alice seriously. "I love you, Alice." It was a declaration, a promise. "I will always love you, regardless of any fights that we might—and will—have. Promise me that no matter what, no matter how we both might feel and act in our anger, promise me that you'll never leave me. I need you; I can't live without you."

It was the softest Alice had ever heard him speak, his voice little more than a whisper and laced with such dependence and longing that she was embarrassed. He had never shown such weakness around her, always playing the part of rambunctious jester. His words lit a fire within her, infused her with a myriad of emotions. They comforted her—she would always be needed. They promised her—she would always be loved.

They reassured her—she wasn't the only one.

"I'll stay," she promised. Memories of her earlier dream were not far off, and she fervently and repeatedly rejoiced that such a reality could never be. "I'll stay forever." The words were more than a simple assurance, more than a promise. They were a bond, a pact between two people who needed each other more than any other thing in the world.

The Hatter exhaled, all of the tension he had been hiding escaping his body in a great gust of air. "I had hoped you would." His lips sought hers, and they embraced for a long time, standing in the colorful, open room beneath rays of the bright Wonderland sun.

Some days later, they were out in the yard enjoying the lingering vestiges of a warm summer afternoon. Alice sat at a small table, a teacup in her hand and a book in her lap, and the Hatter perched in a low-hanging tree, his bare feet dangling from the extended branch.

"I've been thinking..." His drawling voice carried across the yard to Alice's ears, and she put aside her book with a sigh; such an introduction rarely yielded reading time.

"A dangerous pastime for you," she teased.

He nodded in agreement. "And don't you forget it! Anyway, as I said, I've been thinking. About you, in fact."

An eyebrow rose. "Me? Whatever could you be thinking about me?"

He hooked his legs tightly around the branch and swung down so that he was looking at Alice upside-down, dangling from the branch like a gymnast from a trapeze. "About your birthday, specifically," he said.

Alice was puzzled. "What about it, exactly?"

Pumping his legs, he swung back and forth, the ends of the branches shaking with the movement. "Well," he said, in between swings, "you'll be eighteen this year, won't you? In Wonderland—and in England, I believe—eighteen is the age that you cease to be even remotely considered a child. At eighteen, you are legally independent and such."

Alice drummed her fingers on the table. That much was certainly true. Were she in England, she would be a legal adult, for all the freedom it would have given her. She hadn't even considered that the same rules still applied in Wonderland. "And?" she asked.

"And," he gave her a pointed look and flipped gracefully from the branch, landing with both feet firmly on the ground, "that means that you'll never be a child. You'll stop having fun. You'll change, lose part of your Alice-ness." He frowned. "You'll grow up."

Alice could see a gaping hole in this logic. "You're clearly older than eighteen," she pointed out. "I don't see you forgetting what it is like to be a child."

"It's different for me." He dismissed her argument with a wave of his hand. "I'm designed to be a perpetual child. It's in my nature; I stopped growing up well before I started having my unbirthdays. Plus, I was born in Wonderland."

Born in Wonderland? Alice frowned. "Where you were born has something to do with growing up?" she asked.

The Hatter came to stand beside her. "Certainly. You come from a world where, forgive me, adults do not believe in the impossible. Everything is explained by reason or not explained at all—and therefore inexistent. So, you turn eighteen in a place that does not exist, you cease to believe in it, and then at best you simply become a typical adult."

"At best?"

His mouth thinned into a worried line. "At worst, you cease to exist."

Alice's mouth parted in surprise. "You know this for certain?" she asked, hoping he was simply speaking from speculation.

"Unfortunately, yes. I've been wondering about the effects of your aging for a long time, so I went to see the Caterpillar recently, and he had quite a bit of light to shed on the situation." He looked at her with sad eyes. "If you allow yourself to fully grow up, I'll lose you."

Alice reeled. She had all but forgotten the age-related quirks of Wonderland, had allowed birthday after birthday to pass with a simple, solitary celebration and the recognition of the fact that she was another year older. She had not stopped to think about what she would do when she caught up with the Hatter, had not considered that she might grow up forever.

"Growing up" had always been a frightening concept, from that first trip to Wonderland and even before. Yes, she loved order and reason, but she also loved the irrational and fantastic. She always had. Her youth in England had attempted to quell this love, had attempted to eradicate all traces of what Alice was meant to be—but Wonderland had intervened.

For Alice, the idea of growing up was of becoming independent, of being her own person free to make her own decisions. Because society had so dictated, she had always associated such freedom with coming of age, deluding herself as a child that all of her obedience to society could be cast aside as soon as she was old enough to be an "adult."

The Hatter watched her think. He knew growing up meant a lot to her, knew her headstrong mentality and independent nature drove her to strive for the age of independence. He had watched her mature year after year, witnessed her transformation into the intelligent, beautiful young woman who now stood before him. He knew she had made reaching adulthood her goal—which is why he knew he had to let her go.

Despite the pain it would cause him, despite the fact that he would lose everything that mattered, the Hatter was willing to allow Alice to grow up if she wanted to.

Alice thought of all of the fun she had had in Wonderland, remembered all of the food fights and tea parties and games and adventure that she had experienced-all of the childish good times. She thought of the Hatter, and how much she loved him. She cast a long look back at the Hatter's house, thought of the room upstairs that was all hers, shuffled through memory after memory of trips she—and only she—had made throughout Wonderland.

Decided in her course of action, Alice nodded resolutely. Her mind was made up.

The Hatter watched as Alice's eyes shone with some unidentifiable emotion, watched as she smiled and finally turned to face him. Heart heavy, he awaited the news that she would grow up, that she valued her so-called independence more than she did her childhood—more than she did him.

"I have decided," she said slowly, "that you should throw me a party."

"A party?" The Hatter was briefly confused. Then he nodded dejectedly. "Oh, of course. You mean a birthday party." He had sworn off of them a long time ago, had not attended one in over a century, in fact. For Alice, though, as much as it pained him, he would make an exception. "You want me to throw you a birthday party?"

Slowly, Alice shook her head, a smile budding at her lips. "Not a birthday party," she said. "And, to be quite honest, I've never had a party of this particular sort before, so without your expertise I'm doomed."

"Not a-?" His head tilted to the side as he thought. "Then what kind of party..." His eyes lit up suddenly, gleaming a brighter blue than Alice had ever seen. "An unbirthday party?" he asked, voice cracking with excitement. "You want me to throw you an unbirthdayparty?"

Alice beamed at him. "I do."

"Oh, Alice!" He threw his arms around her waist and buried his head in her shoulder. "I'm so happy! I thought you were going to grow up completely, that you were going to leave me!"

She poked him on the forehead. "I promised, didn't I?"

He regained his composure, stepping back and straightening his hat with a flourish. "That you did." He all but shook with excitement. "An unbirthday party—your very first! We'll have to make quite the occasion of it, invite everyone in the neighborhood..." His mind whirled with plans.

Holding her hands out in surrender, Alice stepped towards him. "I leave it all in your hands," she told him solemnly, "as long as there's cake."

He cackled, eyes alight with glee. "Cake? My dear, you'll have seven kinds of cake! We'll have trifles, puddings, scones, pies—anything your heart desires!" He swept down upon her and planted a big kiss on her lips. "I love you, Alice, so very much."

She smiled and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I love you too," she said. "I don't need to be an 'adult' to be an adult. I'm completely independent now as it is, and I never want to forget what it means to be a child. That would mean forgetting you."

Leaning up for another kiss, she closed her eyes and reveled in the feel of his lips against hers, in the love he expressed. He was her home, her independence, just as she was his.

She kept him an adult, he kept her a child.

Together, in love, they were and forever would be children at heart.

And, in the words of many an old French film, fin.