Fic: Of Tea & Chess

Rating: R

Summary: Alice & Hatter travel back to Wonderland for innocent reasons and discover that there is no such thing as coincidence.

Author's Note: Yes…the last one and with such a simple title too! Writing this during a rain storm made it somehow more...emotional to write and bring it to an end (I think I've gotten attached). I had to let this one go, otherwise it would sit forever in my editing pile, never to be finished as I doubt I would ever be content to just let it go…but here we are. The conclusion and the finality of that is rather shaking right now. Along with the thought: what on earth am I going to have to write next? :-D

Chapter 48: Home

Wonderland was a strange place, even by its normal standards, after the Red King and White Queen's attempted coup d'état. Birds migrated east in mass droves, led by large crows, while the wild borogroves attacked man for the first time in their odd existence. The strange behaviour of the Wilds quieted after several days, the animals seeming to settle once more, but no one noticed or cared by that point. Dealing with the wildlife of Wonderland had little interest for anyone in the City, and the complaints about the animals fell on mostly deaf ears when compared to the harm that had befallen the City. The winter that had stormed in with the White Queen's power had left its stain on the grounds: killing most of the plant life that had started to seep through the decay of the lower city, damaging the older buildings, and the moment the pipes unfroze there was mass flooding in every building not equipped to cope. People were forced to abandon their homes and search for higher ground in the City, and the sudden influx of people put a strain on the City's mid-level buildings. It also made for incredibly busy work for Jack's government just to make sure that everyone was fed and safe, and even Hatter's Tea Shop was swamped with people coming in just to avoid the poor plumbing they were forced to cope with. The Tea Shop rang in tremendous business, but its owner was only seen on occasion, a switch from times when he used to be seen out and about at all times.

Whispers went through Wonderland City that the Hatter had actually gone mad and, true to the strange behaviours of Wonderlanders, business actually increased due to people coming in to see if it was true. Dormie was the culprit of that exaggeration, poorly timed words to the Gnat gossips twisted around and brought to a totally different conclusion about his employer. By the time it went around, there was no helping it and Hatter had hardly cared, content to try to absorb himself in his work and avoid the public eye. Despite Dormie's insistence that it was stupid to grieve over the loss of an Oyster yet again, Hatter ignored his critique and kept to his work.

The only problem was, he lacked motivation to do such work. Unlike the first time Alice had gone back to her world, he couldn't console himself with the possibility of following her. He had to be content with his lot in life and for the second time in his life Hatter was anything but content with his own existence. He was disgusted with what he had done to send her away, disgusted with what he did now, and unable to care about how he had to live now. Jack had given him a Royal Commission for selling and importing wares, saying that it was from his service that Wonderland had survived but it was no comfort to Hatter. Hatter's memories of his 'service' were bitter and sweet at the same time and he found himself slipping into old habits to try to forget them. It was so easy to fall back into the routine of trying to forcibly change his emotions, to drug himself into a stupor and work until his body begged for rest.

The first days without Alice were the better days, made short by his constant activity and an unusual drugged haze that clouded his mind. It did not take long, however, for those first weeks to lose their pleasant lull when he ran out of his last stash of 'Clear Conscience' and 'Forgetfulness'. The fall from those emotion teas was abrupt and the equivalent to a detox, plummeting him into several weeks of illness that had him crippled and in his bed for most hours. The blissfully bland 'Forgetfulness' wore off first and the memories that pierced through that fog had burned like a hot poker. It had ripped through him with a dark edge of madness that he had forced himself to get through, the struggle leaving him exhausted and more susceptible to his own self-loathing. Then the 'Clear Conscience' had worn off and he was plunged into his own guilt about how he had let Alice go, how he had tricked her by never telling her the full truth.

After the last of those Emotions were gone, he was left without any crutch or way to divert his attention from what had happened and what he had lost. The Tea Shop and his day-to-day routine were the only things left, and he threw himself at them with increased vigour. The days began to blend together, Hatter working himself to complete exhaustion each day and still not able to sleep even when the shop closed. The routine of it, once so comforting and easy to adapt to, drove him to furious boredom, and now he was simply going through the motions and barely aware of what was around him. He knew - was polite enough - to recognize when Jack had visited, or when Charlie had stopped in on his way back to the Kingdom of Knights. He wasn't certain if his deception worked or if they actually believed that he was as well as he was putting across, but he stopped caring the third week in Wonderland when Alice was gone. Jack had tried on numerous occasions to talk to him, using his own problems as a way of creating conversation. The entire time that they did speak Hatter would masterfully keep Jack from learning anything about how he really was, until eventually Jack stopped visiting as frequently. The last time had been when Jack had told him about his private re-engagement to Amelia, but that had little interest to Hatter, despite the business it could bring in for him and the obvious happiness it brought a man he was starting to consider a friend.

It was hard to be enthusiastic these days, not when the weeks turned into a month, then two and a half months for him. Most times, he dozed at his desk and scribbled nonsensical recipes on pieces of paper that he eventually lost in the piles around his office. What recipes that he did remember to hand over were usually an extraordinary success with the people who bought his teas and Hatter eventually forced himself to try to remember give Dormie or one of the other workers his scribbles once a day. The Flower girls took their turns getting the notes from him, each trying to gain his interest, trying to drag him into a healthy gossip about their customers. Once or twice, Rose had boldly tried to flirt with him but he could barely summon the interest beyond a kind but firm refusal of her advances. Alice's departure had taken with it any chance he could have of desiring someone without being slipped some drug.

For girls with rather healthy egos, it was a devastating change in the Flower's employer.

"Hatter?" Daffodil's voice floated from across the space between Hatter's desk and his door, forcing him to jerk out of his doze to see the willowy girl's shadow in the distance. She was wary of coming any further into his rooms, worried that she could have her head bitten off for intruding. Of the Flowers, she was the gentler one and she found his grief for his lover so hopelessly romantic. Not to mention an interesting change; Wonderlanders found any real or extreme depth of emotion absolutely fascinating and his was almost a textbook case of deep romantic love.

"What is it?" Hatter asked grumpily, annoyed at being disturbed out of his first sound rest in days.

"We've got a few traders in, sir. The ones you asked to see?" she explained, clearly not wanting to be on the receiving end of any anger. Daffodil came in a few more steps and stopped, clutching her clipboard of notes tight to her chest.

"Did I ask to see any?" he asked, clearly confused though he stood and walked toward her. She handed him the clipboard she held and he scanned it quickly.

"You had a few you wanted to see yesterday that we couldn't find. You were...tired," she offered, not wanting to point out how raging drunk on bread-and-butter beer he had been last night when she had left. No one, not even Dormie at his most sarcastic, dared to bring up the boss' latest drinking bouts. He shrugged, not remembering anything about last night though the pounding pain in his head was telling him he had definitely done something to warrant a headache. "Dormie was able to find one or two for you, if you'd like me to show the first one in?"

"Yeah, yeah," Hatter rumbled, waving his hand dismissively at her before he turned around to sort through the papers on his desk. Rolling her eyes in exasperation, Daffodil left him to send in the first trader.

He smelled him before he even saw him, and the moment he did Hatter groaned inwardly while wishing for air freshener. Ratty always had that distinctive unwashed, oily smell of the sewers and Hatter jotted down on a blank piece of paper that he would need a good scrub brush to get the stains out of the chairs if he had Ratty sit. Which he rarely ever did but it did pay to be polite on occasion to the trapper.

" 'Ello, Ratty," Hatter said without turning around. "What can I do for you?"

"I haven't seen you in a few weeks, Hatter. But I remembered," the older man said, pausing to cough up the phlegm trapped in his throat. The disgusting hitch in his breathing made Hatter wince involuntarily and he continued to scribble the various items he might end up having to clean if Ratty touched anything. Ratty cleared his throat harder. "I remembered how you said you was lookin' fer stuff. Antiques and what have you, stuff you could use in the shop. I found some prime things near the Palace, just lying about."

"Anythin' found floating near the sewers is not likely to be...'prime'," Hatter pointed out. "Need I remind you that last time you brought me something from that side of the City I ended up having to close the Shop down to spray for the roaches?"

He thought, could have sworn on his favourite hat, that he heard someone giggle, a sound that Ratty would never ever give. The sound didn't come again and he chalked it up to his overly active imagination. He was likely going mad after all.

"Everythin' I got is clean!" Ratty protested. Hatter made a sarcastic face, one he was glad that Ratty couldn't see, and shrugged his shoulders as casually as he could. The trapper's voice was slowly grating in his ears and giving him more of a splitting headache than before.

"All right. Let's hear it. And be quick about it. I've got other appointments."

"I've got a few items," Ratty said and Hatter rolled his eyes, still not turning around. Ratty always had something to trade, usually something of appalling value, but Hatter was savvy enough to pull out a decent price that benefited them both normally. "I ain't lyin' to you."

"So spill it then, I ain't got all day," Hatter grumbled, flipping his cabby hat from one hand to the other before tipping it just so on his head. The action was mindless on his part but a sign to Ratty that he had better start talking before Hatter kicked him out for taking too long.

"Well, if you could take one particular item off my hands, I would be appreciatin' it. Keeps complainin' about how we don't build cities proper and on the ground, like," Ratty said. "And I keeps tellin' her, 'we do things sensical, you know,' but she don't listen."

"What?" Hatter asked, not having been listening to him at all at first. He chewed on the tip of the pen and quickly added 'disinfectant' to his list of cleaning supplies.

"I found this one up in the alleys instead of at the dock and this time she was lookin' for me. Me of all people! She was just standin' there all, all unmindful that it was rainin' out. Typical. Had nothin' to pay me with but I figured you'd give me a hefty price for her," Ratty continued on as if Hatter hadn't spoken. Behind Ratty, there was a faint sound of someone walking and the door Ratty had come through clicked closed.

Hatter stiffened, recognizing the faint floral scent in the air and his heart began to pound painfully hard in his chest, constricting his breathing and making him light-headed. Ratty continued on in his spiel even when Hatter turned on his heel toward him, struggling to maintain his calm. Standing just behind Ratty was Alice, her eyes locked on Hatter's the moment he turned around. It was a strange feeling of déjà vu for Hatter, though she was dressed differently and the circumstances had changed. Alice's long dark hair was glimmering with raindrops and she was shivering, the same way she had when they had first met, but her eyes were going over him as thoroughly as his were going over her.

Oh, by every mad thing in Wonderland, Hatter thought, I really am losing it.

Leaning back against his desk, Hatter rubbed at his chest; the way his heart was beating so frantically against his ribs burned. The banging rhythm matched the faint pounding of blood rushing through his body and he squeezed his eyes shut hard. When he reopened them, Alice was still there, standing beside Ratty and twisting her fingers into a nervous knot when Hatter stared at her. Ratty had changed subjects now, holding up what looked like a cross between a bear trap and an old lobster cage and trying to expel its virtues to Hatter. His prattle didn't even penetrate Hatter's concentration as he stared at Alice.

What did break it was when Ratty gave a rude sound and stamped his foot impatiently. Hatter forced himself to look away from Alice's glimmering blue eyes and focussed on Ratty's cagey expression. He had the suspicion that even if he asked Ratty as to where he found Alice, the trapper wouldn't be giving him a straight answer any time soon. Alice had likely threatened him not to.

"How much?" he demanded instead, looking down at his clasped palms. Ratty may have been one of the lowlifes of Wonderland, but he was clever enough to understand that Hatter was really asking how much it would take for him to leave. Wrinkling his pointed nose slightly, he thought it over and then raised his hand, wiggling it in a '50/50' gesture that any trader would know. Hatter squinted at him, making it clear that he didn't believe him, but Ratty merely squared his shoulders up and stood as erect as he could. Behind Ratty, Alice still stared at Hatter but he ignored her. He did something he rarely did and relented to the asking price, reaching blindly behind himself. He tossed the box he found at Ratty, a tin filled with one of his higher quality mint teas. The trapper cackled greedily, rolling the box in his hands before taking a quick sniff of the contents.

Eyeing Hatter again, he pocketed the box and grinned. "Now, that gadget's price is..."

"I paid for what I wanted, the only thing I'm interested in," Hatter said, lifting his gaze to look at Alice. She almost went red at his words and Ratty grunted.

"But, you did say you wanted some old things for this shop, anything special seemin' and I..."

"Leave!" Hatter shouted, the strained tension in his voice warning Ratty that he was in no mood to banter with him.

"As I was sayin', pleasure doin' business with you as usual," Ratty said instead, plopping his hat back onto his greasy head before he sprinted for the door. Alice turned to watch him, jumping slightly when the door slammed shut, before she took in the sight of the room. The Flower girl had brought them to the very first office she had met Hatter in and the familiar sight had made Alice remember the first time she had come here. The office hadn't changed at all, perhaps a bit messier with stacks of teacups and crumpled papers randomly piled around. Everything else was the same. Quelling her sudden case of nerves, Alice rubbed at her stomach and turned back around to face Hatter.

She gave him an uneasy smile. "It's nice to see that some things never change around here. He's definitely the same."

Hatter simply stared at her, folding his arms across his chest. His silence made her nerves flutter in her stomach and she took a few steps toward him. Hatter's eyes roamed over her face, dark and expressionless, and she stared back at him for a moment. He hadn't changed, though she hadn't expected him to; the grey checker patterned shirt and navy trousers were just eccentric enough and his hair was still wild. When she had followed the Suit back into Wonderland after making her choice, he had told her that her time away would equal a few months in Wonderland. What had changed was that Hatter seemed a bit scruffier, if it were possible, his face hallowed with lack of sleep and lack of good food, but she was certain she had never seen anything she wanted more.

It was hard to tell if he felt the same way about her.

"You look...tired," Alice said but still he just leaned against the desk and stared at her. Pushing her damp hair away from her face, she rubbed at her arms briskly to get rid of the chill. "I wasn't really expecting it to rain here."

"Alice," Hatter said, pausing to give an exasperated sigh and tipping his hat slightly so that it slanted more over his eyes. "I don't think you're here to discuss the weather."

She stared at him and a bewildered expression flickered across his face.

" didn't come here to discuss weather, right? 'Cause if you did then my expectations about you are clearly off their mark and I might need help then," he continued, scratching at the back of his head in confusion.

"I missed you," she blurted out. His head jerked to the side and he looked at her curiously. Alice flicked her hair over her shoulder, tugging at the ends nervously. "I...I never thought I could miss someone as much as I missed you."

Hatter's eyes lowered, his brow furrowing. His shoulders shivered, as if her words had sent a chill down his back, and Alice moved until she was standing just a few strides away from him.

"I was hoping that it would get easier for you, the longer you were away...made sense, it's how it works in my world," Hatter muttered, wishing he had something he could fiddle with. "Well…it's how it used to work."

"You didn't ask me what I wanted," she pointed out.

"Why are you back here?" he asked, trying to divert her attention. She tensed, her fingers going into fists.

"Why did you want me to go back alone?" Alice retorted as she glared at him and he flinched, still not lifting his eyes to hers. "Hatter, look at me."

"I already..."

"Something happened." Alice raked her hands through her hair again, impatient with him. She had come back with such expectations, all of them falling flat now that they were face to face. "You didn't make up your mind on the spot like that. The whole time we were together in that last knew you were going to let me go, didn't you?"

The way she bit that out made her sound furious and he flinched again. "I didn't have a choice, Alice. That last fight with Chesh...he made it impossible for me to follow you," he admitted. The words relieved some of the weight that had been on his shoulders but Alice's eyes were fierce.


"Lots of explainin'...won't do any good." He saw the way she was looking at him and sighed. "Curses and such."

Without thinking about it, she gave a strange chortle of a laugh. "You don't believe in curses."

"I don't...didn't." He tipped his head back, sitting on the desk and crossing his ankles. "Not until now and I realized just how much of a hold Wonderland had on me. I didn't want you to stay because of it."

"You didn't even tell me," she started and then sighed. "You didn't think I'd make the right decision." He didn't answer her, still staring at the ceiling to avoid looking at her. Alice sucked in a hurt breath, "You didn't trust me to."

"I've seen too many lives destroyed for ridiculous reasons," Hatter started and she stepped forward, wanting to slap him suddenly to wake him up out of this melancholy of his. She was close enough she could smell old tea and liquor on him, see the strain of the past weeks etched on his face, and it made her irrationally angry and despairing to see him like this. She wanted that cocky, arrogant Wonderlander, not this depressed man who looked worn out.

"You are not a ridiculous reason, Hatter!" she protested. She was tired and a bit sore from her trip through the Looking Glass, and his attitude was grating on her nerves. "God, it's like you went and grabbed onto this martyr attitude like it was your right! You think you know everything, that you know what is going to happen all the time, and that you know what I need! How could you be so smart yet be so utterly stupid? What could that curse have possibly done that we couldn't fight?"

He moved fast and without any warning, grabbing hold of her arms and whirling her around so that the edge of the desk pressed into her backside. Alice, too shocked to retaliate or shove him off, bit back a cry of pain when his fingers dug tightly into her biceps. Hatter shook her hard enough that she bit into her tongue accidentally, the effect rattling her teeth when he squeezed her hard and did it again. He seemed furious with her, his grip almost too much for her to bear before he stopped and pulled her close, Alice's hands splaying out against his chest to steady herself.

"Chesh wasn't stupid, Alice. He knew what he was doin'. The thing he knew would kill me, destroy me...would be if I killed you. That niggle of a curse, we don't think much of it normally in Wonderland. There is too much to worry about day-to-day…but this time it slid into my head. He used my family's trap against me, to get his revenge on me for what I did to him. The minute we stepped toward that Looking Glass, the curse was there, cracking open a place I don't want to go back to again. It would have changed me, led me down a path I couldn't come back from." Hatter's fingers flexed against her arms and Alice squirmed slightly, trying to get him to loosen his hold.

"You don't have to protect me..."

"You wouldn't have been able to stop me," he ground out angrily, the threat lying between them. "You would have tried to fight me off, I know you, but it wouldn't have been any good for either of us. I would have killed you without thinkin' twice about it, the moment we stepped through that mirror. That madness would have driven me to it when it was unleashed. Do you think that that was something I wanted to live with? That I wanted to chance? I wouldn't risk hurtin' you."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Alice whispered while wincing at the grip he had on her arms. "Did you want me to hate you? To forget that I loved you?"

"It would have been easier for us both," Hatter ground out, letting her go when she wrenched herself free of his grip. Alice shook her head.

"For you maybe."

Hatter tensed at his words and turned around, slamming his palm down onto the desk. "Is that why you came back, Alice? For answers to questions I couldn't bring myself to let you ask?" he asked, his voice gone husky and dark. Alice sniffed back bitter tears, furious with his stubbornness and her own lack of control.

"I came back," Alice whispered, "but not because I wanted answers."

He still refused to turn around and she looked to the side, wishing she knew what to do. She couldn't do this staring at the back of him, wondering what he was thinking. She wanted to see his face, to know what he was thinking, because he was acting so strange. Twisting her fingers nervously, Alice closed her eyes.

"I came back for you," she said, her voice low but strong. "Because I thought that there may still be a piece of you that wanted me to be with you, least as much as I wanted to be with you." Staring at the back of his head, she saw that he was still unwilling to turn around to face her. "I just wish I hadn't been wrong about you," she finished.

She heard him suck in a deep breath but still he didn't turn around. It left her with little other choice; she couldn't make him do anything, not when she felt so helpless. Her breathing suddenly constricted in her throat, Alice ran. She wasn't sure why she left him there or where she was going, but she ran, nearly knocking over tables and shop customers on her way out. Through a glimmering fog of tears and hopelessness, she ran for the doors and swung out into the afternoon mists, tripping down the stairs and across the platform that ran between the buildings. She was vaguely aware of people shouting at her to slow down or stop, felt one or two grab at her to see if she was okay, but she shook them off. The telephone booth across the way made a welcome shelter, made for something to focus on, and she grabbed onto it to avoid falling to her knees when she reached the other side of the platform.

What had she been thinking?

Her mother had told her that it was up to her, had hugged her and said she would support her in whatever she did...and Alice had moped around Hatter's old apartment for a few hours after her mother had left to go to work the next morning. She had lain on his old bed, still smelling the faint trace of his cologne and tea, and made up her mind then. A decision that could have, would have, changed her life and she did it in a matter of hours. Alice had thought that she had made the right choice to come back to Wonderland, even though she knew it would be to stay and that her visits back to her world would be few. In the end, it had been easy. It had been nothing to pack a quick bag and bribe a Suit with what money she could afford to let her come back with him, and after that it was so easy to get her chance to go back to Wonderland. She had hugged her mother tightly good-bye, Carol still bewildered by the sight of a Suit disappearing through the mirror, and had promised that she'd find a way to get regular messages back to her. Then she had gone willingly back through the Looking Glass, falling down the misty tunnel.

It was a nostalgic gesture, to get Ratty to bring her to Hatter; a slice of drama she had thought that Hatter would appreciate. Nostalgic, a little silly, and yet it had seemed so important to her. The trapper had been unenthused about helping her again until Alice pointed out that Hatter would likely give him a good price in exchange for her. That greed had worked and he had brought her with him to the Shop. She had been so eager to see what Hatter would think, what he would do. Then, when he turned around, she had seen the strange emotions that had chased one another across Hatter's face: horror, surprise, longing, and anger. Every emotion had warred for dominance on his expressive face before he assumed a blank look she knew all too well. But what had she expected? Despite her rather repressed emotions, Alice was at heart a romantic. She had hoped for something...rather romantic from this but what had she wanted? A declaration of love, an apology, birds to sing, perhaps a cinematically epic style of kiss? Maybe even for Hatter to finally express his utter delight at having her near?

And what had she gotten for her imaginings? His anger that she had gone against his wishes to keep her away, an explanation of a curse he clearly believed in, and the sharp knowledge that she felt he didn't want her as badly as she wanted him. His hesitation and anger with her had just cemented that in her mind. She wasn't certain how it could have gone worse.

It was yet another bitter pill to swallow and Alice leaned against the old phone booth for support as she gulped for breath. Struggling to rid herself of the tears she felt coming again, she rubbed at her cheeks and cleared her throat huskily. She tossed her head back as she tried to regain what was left of her shattered confidence, and pushed herself away from the phone booth. With a grimace at the sight of her now dusty hands, Alice crossed her arms over her chest and began to walk off once more back the way she had come. She was getting soaked once again from the light rain and mists but there was nothing she could do about that. What was she going to do now? All of her planning, her hope, had rested in staying with him and now she was going to have to think something else up.

She felt numb and suddenly cold, so when her boot suddenly slipped on a loose piece of turf and concrete she was barely aware of it. Her foot skidded along, slipping on the muck and sending her sliding dangerously close to the edge. It was only when she actually started to teeter and felt the pull of gravity that Alice realized how much trouble she was in. Arms swinging out, she tried to stop her fall and get her balance back. The plunging distance below the ledge swam in her vision and she opened her mouth to scream.

Cool hands wrapped around her wrists, yanking her backward to a safer position on the ledge with a ferocity that nearly pulled her arms out of their sockets. The shock of it stopped the scream in her throat and she kept moving backwards, terrified that she might still fall if she didn't. Alice gulped in a breath, staring at the waterway stories beneath the ledge she had nearly fallen over. It twisted dizzyingly in her vision and she swallowed the lump in her throat, struggling to get a grip on her sudden panic attack. Her hands went out behind her, finding the warm but slick feel of a leather coat and she shut her eyes when the hands on her wrists slid to hold her hands.

"I swear, you insist on tryin' to scare the hell out of me," Hatter rumbled in her ear as he pulled her closer and forced her to sit down on the grass near the building. Alice crumpled gratefully onto her knees, still hating to admit her weakness for heights, hating that she wanted his arms to stay around her. She stiffened, not sure how he would react to that admission right now, and let go of his hands. Hatter seemed to sense her need and then her sudden tension, the odd change in emotions confusing him and forcing him to drop his arms to his sides. Tearing his eyes away from her ashen face, he looked out across the way and sighed, turning away from her before she could see way it had hurt him. He shifted his legs over the edge of the platform, letting them swing slowly back and forth with careless ease.

"Hatter..." Alice started and then stopped herself, unable to continue. They sat in silence for a few minutes, Hatter's tension almost palpable beneath his indifferent expression and Alice's tears drying on her pale cheeks. It took that time to recover her equilibrium, her fear of heights slowly fading as she forced herself to relax and breathe deeply. After a while, she was ready to turn to him, to try to explain again, when she saw him heave a sigh and then look down at his clasped hands.

"I had my reasons for wanting you to go. But I would have forgotten them in a heartbeat if I could have…I didn't lie about that," he said, his raspy voice familiar and soothing. "I would have left with you in a heartbeat if I could have. I could handle life here is mostly work and no one to call family anymore. That's why I did it so easily in the beginning, you know, because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more than come to your world. Then it all changed; I couldn't go back with you, not this time. What I did in going to your world… I wouldn't ask you to do that for me, Alice. You have a family, a life...things you loved."

"Why didn't you just ask me?" Alice asked, relieved at this soft change in him. He seemed so defeated, as if her presence had broken down a wall he had been building around his emotions. He smiled, shaking his head slightly as if her question amused him.

"I saw what happened...before." He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, revealing the vulnerable line of his throat. Alice stared at him, wanting to reach out and touch him but knowing that it would do her no good. Hatter's eyes opened and still he stared out across from him, never once looking at her. "If you stayed because of a curse...what would happen? You might stay with me in the beginning, never thinking twice about going home until you were here for a longer time, a time when you actually became a Wonderlander. A time when you might realize what a mistake you made."

He looked down at his hands. "Oysters who stay in Wonderland...often never leave after the first year. It is too hard on them, the change in times and the worlds. Going back and forth between the destroys them if they do that too frequently. It is one thing to go and leave in a few days but to stay for longer periods of times causes more stress. The Heart Family learned this when they were using your people and it was generally accepted that after being harvested and drained, captured Oysters would be left to die in our world. Letting them back into their own world was actually more a cruelty."

Alice reached out and took his hand, tightening her fingers around his. "I felt that, when I went back. It was cruel, Hatter, and I never realized it until I began to look at my own life."

He looked at her then, shocked by that admission, and Alice shook her head.

"Whether you were trying to protect me or not, Hatter, you did me no favours in sending me back. Without having you near I started to realize how much I changed by being here, how much of a hold Wonderland…and you had on me." Summoning up her nerve, she slowly scooted forward until she had swung her legs down beside his and was pressed close against him. Leaning on one hand, Hatter stared at her, eyes narrowing as he took her casual pose.

"You hate heights."

"I think I have to get used to heights now," she responded dryly, fingers still clasped around his. "I'm not like the first Alice, Hatter, or the others that hated being here."

He stiffened at her words, hand trying to pull free of hers but she held him tight.

"When I went back, I told my mother everything," she started and he gave her an incredulous look.

"Everything?" He whistled lowly when she nodded and gave a small shake of his head. "I'm sure Carol took that real well."

She nodded again. "From when Jack was still Jack Chase to me to the defeat of the Queen of Hearts. I told her about the White Queen and Red King, about almost everything that happened until the time I came back. She took it...surprisingly well, even I'm still surprised about that. She had suspected something else was wrong with me the moment I came back to our world, and she was going to make sure I told her. Hatter, I couldn't bring myself to live like I used to. I changed too much. So she told me to make a choice, that I had to be the one to decide. Not her...not you. It was my choice."

Hatter looked away from her and Alice reached out with her free hand to touch his cheek.

"I want to stay in Wonderland, Hatter. Not because I feel guilty thanks to some curse or because I feel I owe you that," she whispered and his eyelids lifted so that he could stare at her with his dark eyes. He seemed even more guarded than before, as if he was afraid of her reasoning, of what her words could still turn into. Alice trailed her fingers along his scruffy jaw and gave him a soft smile. "I want to stay because I want to be here."

"The fantasy isn't always as good as the reality," he warned her and Alice smiled, remembering him saying that to her before.

"Sometimes, reality is better than the fantasy," she parroted, staring into his eyes. He closed them after a moment, as if her blue-eyed gaze was too much for him and then opened them again to stare at the cityscape surrounding them. The silence stretched between them, Alice following his example and simply staring out at the buildings. Hatter struggled with himself and his reasoning, knowing he should try to argue with her, to force her away. That he should do it for her own good though it would kill him to lose her again.

He just couldn't bring himself to do it.

"I..." he started; looking over at her and when she met his eyes he forgot what it was he had been about to say. He saw the irony in their situation, that this time it was Alice having to make the choice to leave her world behind for him, the way he had left his world for her. It was as if everything had come full circle and the impact of that shook him more than he was letting on. Alice continued to stare at him, trying to see what he had been about to say.

Hatter finally rolled his eyes up to the sky and shook his head wearily. "Bossy Oyster."

The affectionate rumble made her blink and almost smile. But she was still on edge, still waiting for his arguments. Hatter clicked his tongue.

"You know, this is the second time I've had to buy you from someone, and again I had to pay a considerable price for you. You could bankrupt me, Alice," he pointed out, looking down at her. Alice stared back at him and, moving even closer to him, leaned in against his side.

"I'm not worth it?" she asked, arching a brow at him. Hatter looked her up and down appraisingly, a devious glint in his eyes that made her breathless.

"Oh, I'm not saying that." He reached up and adjusted his hat brim, the gesture almost absurd but also making it clear how nervous he was. Alice kept her eyes on him, not daring to look away this time. He shrugged his shoulders and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "This is just rather… permanent, you know."

"I think I can handle permanent now," Alice stated and he reached out to take her hand in his, fingers brushing over her palm gently. "As long as we can share the insanity of it."

"I have more than enough of that for both of us," he grumbled though he was smiling. His grip tightened and Hatter reached out with his other hand to caress her cheek. Alice stared back at him, licking her lips nervously when he studied her intently. "My Alice," he murmured and she smiled at him, reaching up to hold his hand against her face.

"Don't ask me to leave you again, Hatter. I won't," she said firmly and his eyes trailed down her face, his thumb trailing a small circle over her cheek. The gentle touch almost made her close her eyes and Alice felt him lean closer, his breath brushing her lips.

"I think you're stuck with me then. I told you I'd take care of you if you ever were stuck in Wonderland," he said and pressed a kiss against her lips that was surprisingly chaste. She pulled back and met his gaze with a small smile; reaching up and pushing his hat back from his forehead.

"That's the best news I've had in days," she answered before moving forward and kissing him soundly. She broke the kiss quickly before he could deepen it and leaned her forehead against his.

"Stay with me then," he murmured, fingers holding her chin still and Alice nodded.

"You're stuck with me," she said. Hatter chuckled and dove his hands into her hair, pulling her close to kiss her once more. He was too tired of fighting his emotions, of fighting what she meant to him, and at the feel of her mouth against his he knew that she had made her choice. He'd be damned if he'd ever give her a chance to regret that choice.

Curling her hands against his arms, Alice felt a strange release in his declaration. It was terrifying and exciting, the realization that her entire life was about to change further. But feeling his strong grip holding her hand and steadying her while they kissed on a precariously high ledge, Alice let go of the lingering doubt and fears she had had that she was worth this kind of love.

Stay with me.

The words had had a strange finality about them, one that neither of them feared, and a declaration that made it clear how tightly bound they were becoming. Alice, who might have been terrified of such words not so long ago, found the soft plea reassuring and touching, while the once emotionally ambivalent Hatter was struck by his own need. Even as they touched, sitting on a ledge overlooking the misty city, it was a startling realization that both of them had changed so much from their first meeting, and just how much both had been willing to give up for the other since that first tense exchange of words. Alice broke away from the kiss, giving Hatter a small smile before she leaned into him and put her head on his shoulder.

"What do we do now?" she asked after a while, staring at the city. Hatter shrugged and eyed her sidelong, seeing the anticipation in her face.

"You trust me, luv?" he responded and Alice lifted her head from his shoulder slightly to look at him. He looked over at her, noticing that she had a bit of her old glow back again. Hatter couldn't help but grin, the cocky reassurance in his grin making her smile back at him. She wrapped her fingers about his and squeezed warmly.


Many many deep thanks to everyone who sent me reviews and gave me encouragement through the course of this fic (it was certainly a long ride, wasn't it?). Coming to the end of it, I think that I haven't enjoyed writing something like this in a few years, whether original fiction or fanfic based. It was wonderful to do it again, but you all definitely made it worthwhile to keep writing, and I hope I have done the ending justice. Considering how short this story was to be (a simple tea party ending at chapter 2) this has definitely spawned into one of my favourite things I have written lately, though it was absorbing. Ending it was so very difficult...all of these characters took on a life of their own at chapter 2 and kept propelling forward, going places I had not initially planned to go.

Pardon me while I go grab a glass of wine and stare out into the storm as the realization that this has come to an end sinks in.