Alright, last chapter! I'm not going to lie, last chapter was not my favorite to write so I don't know if it turned out as well as the others, so I'm really hoping this one ends on a good, strong note. Also, I hope my frequent updates haven't made this all gone by too quickly. I'm kind of on a deadline, and won't have internet for the next little while starting some time tomorrow.
So thank you to all who reviewed and I'm looking forward to return in a week and see what my final critiques are. :)
Stayne did not die that night.
Of course he didn't, because in reality the villain never dies after a first attempt. The ending is never as simple, or never comes as easily, as in a fairy tale – a genre which this tale is not. And as we all know, nothing is more real than Wonderland.
The other reason Stayne did not die was because his injuries were not fatal. His face was badly beaten: broken nose, cracked teeth, fractured cheekbone and concussion. Bruises covered his face, but miraculously his one uncovered eye had not been hit. It remained unbruised, shifting back and forth in his skull in an uneasy watch.
The worst of it was Stayne's hands and wrists, which were the only part of his body the knife had touched. Due to several bad slashes on his left wrist, Stayne's left hand (which was left with three and a half fingers) would never feel anything again. Only two fingers remained on his right hand, but during his rage the Hatter and made sure that Stayne lost both of his thumbs. The Red Knave would never be able to fully use his hands again.
At that moment, Stayne sat in one of the palace's living rooms. Everything from his forearms to his hands was wrapped in shear white bandages. His arms resembled puffy candy floss on a stick, but if only that was so. Candy floss was sweet and pure and beautiful, and reminded Stayne of a pale ghost from the past. Whenever he tried to dig deeper and unbury who the figure was, an image of the Hatter with amber eyes always got in the way. So horrifying was this image, that Stayne did not dare to explore that part of his memory, leaving the pale ghost unnamed.
The Red Queen entered the living room. Her entourage tried to follow before the Queen quickly shooed them away. She had remained fairly calm when she found out that mad Hatter had escaped, deciding it was better to have a maniac on the outside of the palace walls rather than in. Surely they would capture someone else who would lead them to Alice. As for the strange disappearance of Um, the Red Queen only cried for a minute or so before remembering what bore the pet had become.
At that moment, all the Red Queen cared about was her precious Stayne. She walked slowly to her lover, her mushy lips turned down in a frown. "Poor Stayne," she cooed, "all battered and bruised. You must be in such pain. I am certain though that our love with surpass this tragedy, dear Stayne, and to prove that I will love you no matter what I have devoted myself to you. You will never have to do anything ever again."
Stayne's one eye widened in horror as he watched the Red Queen hike up her skirt, allowing her to straddle his legs. He wanted to grip the Red Queen and smash her to the ground, but of course his hands would not respond. He even would have yelled at her if he could, but his face was in too much pain.
All Stayne could manage was a groan – a groan which the Red Queen read incorrectly.
As it turned out, the Dormouse and the March Hare found it easy to return to the way things were before their journey to the palace. Nothing ever shakes a simple minded creature for long, especially when they've been raised in the world of Wonderland. For Alice though, who was new to Wonderland and brighter than the Dormouse and March Hare (thank goodness), things were a little more complicated.
Two whole days had slowly turned by since that night, and Alice had yet to speak to Hatter. It was like their clocks were on different times. Both of them would spend the whole day sitting at opposite ends of the tea party table, never making eye contact because they had fallen out of sync. For hours Alice would think about Hatter, and for half that time she would be staring at him. Unfortunately, Hatter never knew this because he was always looking away. It was the same case when Hatter stared at Alice.
Hatter was not a monster. He knew he wasn't, and yet this thought was not enough. A layer of guilt had settled over his skin like filth, and could not be washed away until he knew Alice had forgiven him. It was strange to find that something he had believed to be so right at one time was now the very thing he regretted the most.
Since arriving in Wonderland, Alice knew she had changed. Saying she had matured or grown up sounded odd to admit and felt even more pathetic. So although Alice was unsure how, at least she knew that a change had taken place. A sigh escaped her as she watched Hatter with a frown. Finally, Alice rose and left her cocoon of a chair.
"Here," she said softly when she reached Hatter, handing him a cup of tea.
Hatter stared, bemused that Alice was giving him something he already had so much of. Nonetheless, he accepted the cup with shifty eyes and took a sip. A sound gurgled from his throat like some sort of toad, and his shoulders lurched forwards before he spat the tea out in a spray of mist. "What was that for?" an appalled Alice asked.
"What did you try to give me?" Hatter asked right back. He sank into his chair as if some weight were being pressed on his chest, and stuck out his tongue. "It tasted like old bathwater."
"It's just tea," Alice insisted. Growing insulted, she crossed her arms over her chest and muttered, "It's not like I made it out of used soap."
Hatter sighed, "Well that's a relief. May I ask, what, exactly, were you trying to make?"
"Tea!" Alice repeated. "All I did was steep dried strawberries in water."
Hatter's mouth suddenly curled into a smirk. "That's just it then," he said as he sat up quickly. With flashing eyes, he pointed at the cup and said, "You never just steep dried strawberries - or any tea leaf for that matter - in water. There are unspoken rules when it comes to making tea."
"Oh, joy," said Alice flatly.
"First, it must always be made in hot water," Hatter began. "Never serve lukewarm tea, which you did."
"I didn't want you to burn yourself –"
"Waiting for tea to cool is half the fun of drinking it," cut in Hatter, his smirk growing now. Although Alice did not quite understand, she gestured for him to continue. "Secondly, you did not steep the strawberries for long enough. There's no flavor in this cup. In the case of dried strawberries, you will know when it is ready because the water will turn a shade of pink."
Alice's eyes narrowed. "Which shade?" she asked, to which Hatter's head tipped in confusion. "Which shade of pink?" she rephrased. "There are many shades of pink. If you ever expect me to make a decent up of strawberry tea then you must be specific."
"Just a nice shade of pink," stammered Hatter.
"Tell me a color," Alice insisted. "Give me an example."
"Well it's like…" Hatter hesitated. He swallowed as he held Alice's gaze. Oh, how he had missed that faded blueberry stare. Taking a breath, Hatter finally said, "It's like the color of your lips."
Alice's hair fell in her face as she dropped her head. Through that pale blonde veil, Hatter could make out the small smile Alice struggled to contain. Her eyes were sad when she looked back up though, and with quiet words she said, "Hatter, when we were at the Red Queen's palace…"
"I know what you're going to say," Hatter said quickly, "and I'd take back if I could, Alice, I would. That's not who I am, not really anyways. It was just because of the Red Queen and him and you."
"Well not you yourself, exactly, but you because if something had happened to you yourself exactly then I would have been…" Hatter was rambling now, words tumbling out of his mouth that even he could not make sense of. Alice took more notice, though, to the way he was wringing his hands, and she took a step forwards to gently place a palm on them to get him to stop. Hatter hoped she would keep her hand there forever, but after a moment Alice removed her hand and clasped it with her other.
Gulping again, Hatter hesitated, "I was just curious, Alice, as to what your thoughts were. That is, if you have any, your thoughts on me."
"I don't know," Alice replied frankly. It made sense that she felt slightly anxious around the Hatter after seeing what he had done to Stayne, but that's not to say he didn't make her anxious because of other emotions as well. Hatter's whole face dropped at her response. Even his hair seemed to droop, following the lowering of his eyes.
Once again, that small smile began to play with Alice's lips. Bringing her hands behind her back, she began to walk around the back of Hatter's chair as if she were about to give a formal lecture. "That is," she started, "I don't know yet, but perhaps we could look at likes and dislikes."
Hatter's eyes narrowed, not positive if he was going to enjoy this.
"For starters, I enjoy your hats. I am fond of the layout of your table, and of your friends who sit at it. And, I have recently decided that I like your green eyes."
One corner of Hatter's lips curled up into a smirk. Without looking up at Alice, he asked calmly, "And your dislikes?"
Alice sat down on the arm of his chair, picking up the cup of tea she had offered him. "I dislike the way you criticize my tea so harshly."
"That tea deserved to be criticized harshly."
Alice's eyes narrowed playfully. Lifting the cup up to her lips, she sniffed the liquid with curiosity before taking a sip. When the taste hit her tongue, she began to choke and sputter, and it was all she could do to swallow it. Hatter chuckled, "I told you; old bathwater."
Wiping her mouth, Alice put the teacup back on the table. She continued to sit on the arm of Hatter's chair. They were both silent, both staring straight ahead, their arms lightly pressing against each other. At that moment, the sun seemed to burn a whole through the sky. Streams of pale light fell through the trees, illuminating spots on the forest floor. A lone bumblebee hung lazily in the air. Its tiny wings seemed too small for the insect, and yet managed to carry the bumblebee with complete ease. They watched it until a warm breeze blew in, pushing the bee along its way.
With a nod, Alice said, "This could work." Her voice was the quietest of whispers, but Hatter had heard her.