Epilogue

The fever had broken. Like the storm in his soul, the fire in his body had finally spent itself and he slept deep and peaceful. Alice blinked at him, the mid-morning light picking up the red glints in his dark brown hair. His dark lashes were fanned out high on his flushed cheek, his breathing slow and deep. Healing.

As if those three words were all the medicine he'd needed in the first place.

Not that it was going to be so easy. Or so immediate. Alice was aware now that there was so much she didn't know about Hatter, about his family and his life before leaving Wonderland. And it was time to hear his stories, to heal old wounds and find forgiveness. For the both of them.

She watched him for nearly half an hour, her gaze soft.

Finally, he began to breathe lighter, a touch quicker, and his brown eyes fluttered blearily open. She smiled at him, instinctively reaching out a hand to his cheek. Nice and cool. His eyes sank closed briefly at her touch, then opened again when she shifted and got up.

Hatter watched her dress, drawing the brush through the dark waterfall of her hair with languid, practiced strokes. The morning light hit her from behind, giving her body an ethereal halo. He sighed; he could look at her forever.

A trickle in his head made him reach for a tissue, wincing a little when the paper came in contact with his chapped nose. All in all, he felt worlds better today than he had last night. His head didn't pound, his limbs were stiff but no longer aching, and he could breathe without his chest wheezing and chuffing like a walrus in heat. But he was exhausted. And his nose was twice as active. Tickly. Sneezy.

"-iihhh!! Hk-KKhtsch! ....hkNGKtshh-uu!

"Bless you."

"Thags," he murmured, noting that his voice was still deep and rough. He reached for another tissue and blew, taking more than one try to get rid of what had accumulated while he slept. He finished with a harsh cough, wincing when it dragged just a little in his chest. Still, this was an improvement. He was getting better.

"Medicine," she announced, forcing him to swallow down and breathe in each unfamiliar item, one after the other.

"I'll be glad when this is done," he murmured, rubbing his eyes and cracking a yawn.

She glanced at him, then turned away to pull her hair up and tie it back. He frowned. Her eyes were shadowed with a sorrow that hadn't been there the day before. A knowledge that she bore like a weight.

"What?" he asked as he sat up.

"What, what?"

"What is it?" he pressed, swiping the tissue at his fluttering nostrils without thought has he stared at her, intent. "What is that in yo--... hahh! --hp'IHHdshh! Ugh, bloody hell..." he tossed the tissue down with a frustrated grunt before piercing her with a hard stare. "You're looking at me like you've been told I'm dying, love. And, surprisingly, I don't feel like it right now. So unless you know something I don't about 'sinus infections'..."

"No." She looked at him backwards in the mirror. "You're not dying."

"Then...?" Why was she looking at him like that... A creeping dread gnawed at his gut. Last night was mostly a haze, but he had random flashes of the nightmare with the alley and the suits... only this time it was Alice's face he saw instead of his mother's, her hands dark with blood. Her arms around him as he sobbed. But he couldn't have. She was standing there looking at him. Still here. So she couldn't possibly know "Did I--..." he swallowed. "Did I... say anything last night? Anything strange?" Please say no.

She didn't answer, confused. He didn't remember?...

"What?" he stood, coughing roughly but recovering quickly. "What did I say?"

She thought about lying. Alice was a terrible liar.

"It was about Wonderland," she hedged. "When... when you were young."

Hatter blinked. His gaze abruptly shuttered, but not before she saw a glint of memory flicker in its depths. "I was sick," he muttered. "Fever and all that. Strange dreams." He stopped to clear his throat, looking away and running his fingers through his hair. "Fever dreams don't mean anything." Then, he crossed to the bathroom and shut the door. She heard a pair of harsh, wet sneezes echo from inside, followed by a low curse.

Alice took a deep breath, steeling herself to go do the hard thing. He deserved to know that she knew. That what he'd said was not just a dream, and that it did mean something. It was important, what had happened to him. And what's more, he needed to know she loved him. To hear her say it in the light of day without a fever to cloud his understanding of it.

The shower came on. Her lip caught between her teeth, and she pushed the door open.

He was a fuzzy outline behind the translucent shower curtain, silent and unmoving as Alice quietly shed her clothes and stepped in behind him. His back was to her, face down, both hands splayed against the wall as the water pounded his shoulders. She slipped her arms around his waist, laying her head between his shoulder blades.

He tensed.

Gently, she told him what he'd said. About his parents. How they were killed. How he'd broken down in her arms. As the words tumbled forth, she felt him turn to stone beneath her. Heard his breath catch and then grow still.

"And more than anything else... I love you," she finished quietly.

Only the sound of water pounding the tile broke the thick silence.

Hatter couldn't breathe. How... she... but I... He struggled not to start shaking as fear coursed through him in waves. How could she know and not turn away?

And that's what this was really about, wasn't it? That he didn't feel he deserved her love. That he didn't deserve care. He was afraid to love - to be loved - and at the same time terrified not to. To be alone. Loving meant opening yourself up to pain. To loss. But the feeling of her soft cheek pressed against his back, her slim arms around him, her words hanging in the air between them... was so good he ached down to his very soul. He needed this. He wanted it. And - just maybe - someday he would deserve it. Deserve her. One corner of his mouth curved up ever so slightly, and he closed his eyes.

If she let him, he would spend the rest of his life trying.

After another long moment, his hand covered hers where it rested against his stomach. It was enough. She closed her eyes and gave him a gentle squeeze before slowly reaching for the soap. The moment was precarious, fragile, and she was afraid to say or do the wrong thing and pop it like a bubble.

But he turned.

In two heartbeats she was cradled in his arms, one of his strong hands pressed to the small of her back, his breath stirring the fine hairs just behind her ear. His fingers skimmed lower and he dipped down to kiss the crook between her neck and shoulder. Her lips curved in a slow, bedroom smile.

"Alice..." His touch was gentle and insistent, his voice all whiskey and dark smoke.

"Hatter." She rolled her hips against him and was ridiculously pleased when a fine tremor shivered his lean frame. It was a while before they left the shower, their lovemaking in the new peace of this morning as gentle and slow as it had been furious and passionate in the maelstrom of the previous night. That had been about despair and need. This was about peace. And love.

Love.

They each murmured it to the other about a dozen times, their every touch - every breath - cracking the vise around their hearts open just a little wider. Easing the fear just a little more. But even when they finally emerged, fingers wrinkled from prolonged exposure, they stayed close. Found excuses to touch each other as they dressed and ate. To steal kisses and caresses as they settled on the couch with a movie and hot tea.

"Hhk'SCHghh!"

"Bless you."

"Hk'tsch! ehh?... hh-HH!--"

"Bless you, again."

"-HAK'GZTSChu!"

"Bless--"

"Will you stop saying that?"

A brief pause. The whisper of a tissue drawn from the box.

"Hh! ik'TSCHhh! -ke'iIIZTsjch! Bloody hell..."

"I love you."

A sniffle; a soft sigh. "I love you, too."

~Fin

Authors Note:

Thanks to all of you who read and posted reviews! Honestly, if you hadnt I probably wouldnt have finished this. If you like any of my stories, please do review. Often it helps keep me motivated, and sometimes even inspires a new story!... Again, thank you so much! J