It was over.
The Hatter walked slightly ahead of her, and slightly erratic, which was normal for him. Or, as normal as would be for him; he had so many strange ways. Alice didn't mind, he was her friend and she had become accustomed to his gentle madness.
Through their time together in the adventure that was Underland, the Hatter had been chaotically protective of her, but what need of his protection did Alice have now that the battle was won and they were safe? And they were safe, weren't they? He seemed to think so, tramping about the Red palace as he was.
Alice followed him in his search for the perfect place where they might take their evening meal, alone. In the time since the battle, they had spent most of their time apart; the White Queen had ordered a contingent of soldiers to go to the Red castle and free those still imprisoned by her sister. The Hatter had insisted on returning there, and Alice had gone along with him on the assumption that she would stay in his company, but there turned out to be so many things that had needed doing.
Feeling the urge to help, Alice had taken to assisting those who had been injured on the cruel whim of Iracebeth. So it went, while the Hatter had been confined with historians, giving his skewed vision of events to the royal scribes, Alice had learned a few of Lady Mirana's healing arts and had come to find herself greatly fulfilled in helping those who had been in need of a kind hand.
But they had been apart for too long, or so the Hatter had asserted to her earlier that day. He had barged into the library (a cavern bare of books per the Red Queen's lack of interest in any genuine exercise of her bulbous brain) that had served as a healing ward for the tortured victims of Iracebeth, and, with his typical flourish, coaxed her out to the garden for a picnic.
"Come, come, Alice. The garden awaits us, and I've packed your favorite!"
The White army had stormed the palace of the defeated tyrant, reclaiming the stolen treasures and freeing the wrongly imprisoned. Lady Mirana, the right, White Queen, had decreed that the palace was to be razed to the ground and a memorial to her sister's victims be placed in its stead. A noble plan, Alice thought.
Her eyes wandering over the ruins of a toppled parapet, Alice was satisfied to see the Red Queen be erased from the land. Things would soon be as they were meant to be, that's what the White Queen had told her before Alice had followed the Hatter back to Salazen Grum.
It wasn't that Alice had any desire herself to go back there, but she'd suspected the Hatter of harboring an ulterior motive for following the White contingent back to the horrible place. As it turned out, Alice had been right.
She had followed him late the night before, curious about the real reason he'd chosen to return to his prison. The answer had been a frightening sight. Standing just outside the door of the room, Alice had watched as the Hatter whirled like a dervish with his sword in one hand and a mallet in the other, tearing apart the workshop and the hats he'd been forced to make for the Red Queen.
She'd seen him lose his temper before, but that night Alice had found that the Hatter's madness could become a dangerous thing. Still, she refused to look on him with an untrusting eye. He was her protector and friend.
Ahead of her, she could hear him muttering aloud to himself in his search for the perfect spot. "No, no, she deserves better- there it is too close to the vines…when we return to the White palace I shall make the queen a hat even grander than her crown…"
All around them in the garden, the red roses were burning amidst the rubble of monuments dedicated to her once-royal eminence. It was a sight of wreckage and ash, it was the end of a reign of terror and so every shattered stone and charred petal was welcome.
But Alice's appetite was getting the better of her, and she called out to him, "Hatter, will this spot do?" She was pointing to an ornate graystone table and two benches, impatiently hoping that he would accept it as a place for their picnic. She had skipped lunch and her stomach was roaring for a supper.
Several steps ahead of her, the Hatter turned around to see where she was indicating, and he gave her a withering look. "No. I'll not have you sitting on the precious stones she stole and carved into her likeness. The bloody big-head…"
Alice sighed lightly. He had been so eager to have her dine with him, practically dragging her out of the castle, and now he was unable to settle on a spot. She really shouldn't be surprised.
The man's wild eyes darted about, searching, searching for the one spot where they could most enjoy each other's company for a time. Then…there it is! Excited, he stopped and jabbed his finger at a grassy knoll under a tree not far up the gravel path.
"Alice, here, this spot will do very well! And look, it's half in the shade and half in the sun, do you see, Alice?"
The girl nodded and followed him over to the grass; she was more concerned with the meal than where it would be eaten. "Yes, it's a very nice spot. But why did you want a picnic? We could have taken our meal in the palace, Hatter."
The Hatter frowned at her and shook his head, "No, no, I tire of the palace. It is still much too red. Everywhere you turn, there is the Red Queen staring down from a portrait or a tapestry, they cannot tear them down fast enough!" He then waved his arm to encompass the spot he'd chosen. "But here it is perfect. And here's a perfect riddle: what else is half in the shade and half in the sun?"
Her stomach growled quietly. "I really don't know."
Her companion set down the large picnic basket he'd packed for them. "Think on it, sleep on it if you must. It will come to you soon, and if it does not, I will be glad to tell you. But here, we must eat first." With great flourish, Hatter spread a brightly patterned quilt over the grass and then began to set out the meal.
Alice knelt down across from him and felt her mouth begin to water at the spread. It seemed the Hatter knew her tastes. Sandwiches, salad, tea and tiny cakes of all kind. Mmm…
Alice ate, but her mind was always wandering. If the Hatter noticed her distraction, he did not comment on it.
The vial of blood was in her pocket, always kept so close at hand. She had been ready to drink of it, to gulp the vile stuff down on the calming battlefield and leave this strange world behind forever…but the strange, singular suggestion of the Hatter had stayed her hand.
"You could stay…"
Alice sighed deeply, and moved to lay back on the blanket. She was content to reflect on the enormity of what had happened only two days ago; yes, she was content and sated with a feeling of peace. The sky swirled above her, shades of intermingled pink and the bright gold of sunset. Above her was a tree, so dead and barren just days before, its branches were covered in tiny green leaves and new buds. In another week it would be in full bloom.
With a new ruler, new life had been breathed into this world, the Underland.
Again Alice sighed lightly, taking the mingled scents of fresh grass and burning roses into her lungs. "I can't believe it's over. Wonderland is free of the Red Queen and her Knave, this whole world seems brighter now."
The Hatter looked on as she reclined back on the blanket, a serene smile drifting over her lips. Gone was her gleaming armor but she was in no way diminished. She had found her muchness, reclaimed it and wielded it, the most powerful weapon that anyone could ever possess. He admired her greatly, and thought that she might even make a grander queen than Lady Mirana.
A visitor to Underland from another world, a strange place where the flowers did not sing and the animals were kept as mere pets. Imagine!
The man set his hat aside and followed what she had just done, laying back on the blanket to look at the clouds swirling above them. The sky was brighter, the very air was sweeter. He closed his eyes for a moment, just once.
It was pleasant to be alone with Alice like this, simply laying beside her. Hatter was happy, happier than he had been in many long years. With the White Queen back on the throne, Underland would return to the natural way: wild and chaotic, yes, but never as frightening as it had been under the Red Queen and her vicious monsters.
Ideas of fun and freedom rapidly flitted through his mind and he gave in to the swell of happiness he felt inside, laughing with the joy of reclaimed hope. "Yes, yes, the land always blooms with a kind queen on the throne. Aren't you happy, Alice? The world is safe now. Oh, just think of the parties we'll be invited to, hailed as heroes."
Alice glanced at him, and just as quickly she turned away. "I am happy, it's just…"
Hatter sat up at her hesitance. "Yes? What's wrong?"
It could sometimes be difficult to speak with the creatures and people of this land, but she and the Hatter had always been able to understand each other. She suspected that his fondness for her was an incentive for him to concentrate through his madness.
Alice unconsciously laced her fingers together over her stomach. It was a strange thing to be laying back, only to have the colorful Hatter looking down at her. She did not sit up.
"I helped to do what needed to be done here, but I have to go back to my own world."
He struggled for a moment to organize his thoughts. "Your world. What is it like there?"
Alice scratched her temple. How could she explain her world to him? She felt that she might be forgetting it already. "It's…well, to start it's very formal, not like it is here. There is a lot expected of me. There are rules to be obeyed and customs to follow."
"Yes, and the only madmen are sick, kept locked away in asylums. I remember that you told me as much when you came here as a child. Do you like it there?" He asked.
It was a difficult question to answer. "I…I love my family, and they love me. Or, I believe they do."
Hatter ticked his head to the side, his curious nature getting the better of him. "What do you mean?"
Alice shook her head. "Oh, Hatter…it's just that, since I've grown up, things have been very different. My mother wants a life for me that I don't even know if I want for myself."
His smile faded for Alice's unhappy expression. "But you must have friends, yes? Friends who make you laugh and friends who play games with you, friends who give you presents on special days?"
Alice sat up and again avoided his eyes. "No, not exactly."
Hatter shook his head, quickly becoming upset. "But you're happy in your world, aren't you, Alice? Oh, please tell me that your world makes you happy, that you aren't sad or lonely or afraid."
"I'm not, Hatter. At least, not always."
Hatter reached across and took her hand into his, his grip tight in his upset. "Stay here, like I said. Don't go back. You would be so happy if you stayed."
Alice shook her head, "I can't do that, I don't belong here. I'm not like you."
Hatter tightened his grip on her hand, almost hurting her. "You can stay, you can. I'm mad enough for both of us. I'll clear a room for you in my house- I can make hats and you can tend to the garden."
Alice managed to pull her hand from him. "You don't understand- I have someone missing me."
Hatter ticked his head to the side once more. "Who misses you?"
Alice sighed lightly. "It's difficult to explain. I…his name is Hamish Ascot."
"You have a special friend?"
Alice felt hesitant to speak of this, but the Hatter would see his curiosity satisfied one way or another. "Yes. He asked me to marry him just before I came here. He's still in my world, waiting for my answer."
They were simple words, spoken plainly, but their impact hit him like a mallet. With this secret exposed, Alice was all at once Different. Hatter shifted his weight, anxious now. It was true that she had changed since her last adventure with him in Underland, but these changes were more profound than the size of her body and the style of her dress.
His eyes were fixed on her, seeing clearly that Alice was no longer the stubborn child she'd once been on their first meeting. Of course, to him she had always simply been Alice, a visiting creature who stood alone in Underland. Gone was that amusing child from years ago; he'd been thrilled to recognize the same spirit in the body of a woman, much in the same way that he had observed Lady Mirana change from a girl to a woman during his years at court.
But the truth of a man from her world wanting her as his wife…Hatter wasn't sure if he knew how to see Alice in that light.
"A man wants to marry you, Alice. That is no small thing. Does he make you happy or is he a part of your world that makes you feel alone? What do you intend to tell him?"
Alice turned her attention to the picnic meal set between them and she reached for a pinch of chocolate cake. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Hatter frowned. "I am mad, Alice, but that doesn't mean I can't understand things. If you stay here, you would be so happy- the danger's passed now. It's safe to have guests over for tea parties all the time, wouldn't that be grand?"
Alice nodded, but she was not convinced by the pretty picture he's drawn for their lives, should she decide to stay. "Yes, that would be a nice life. But I have a responsibility to return to my own world."
Her words had a peculiar effect on him: he felt the air rush from his lungs, deflating his hope like a spent balloon. "I wish you would change your mind, Alice. When you leave here I will miss you all over again, even more than your man Hamish."
Alice was swirling her finger in her empty teacup. He wished she would meet his eyes. "Hatter…"
He tried to make another point to her, "Think of my house, how nice it will be once you have a room to yourself. You can make it up in any way you choose, and there will be as many dresses for you as there will be flowers in our garden."
At that, Alice looked up and laughed, "Oh good Lord, you're trying to bribe me into staying!"
He reached forward and took her hand into both of his. His grip was gentler this time. Another approach was needed. What did she call it? Polite logic, yes. "You will have to stay somewhere while you are here, so I insist that you stay with me until the time comes when you decide to return to the Otherworld."
Alice knew she had been won over, and so did he, for she hesitated one moment too long on her refusal. Stay in Wonderland for a time? The chance to learn more about this strange world, to experience and explore it with the friends she'd made- well, wouldn't it have been mad to reject such wild opportunity? Her father would have boxed her ears if she'd refused...and what would be the harm in a few more days, really?
She met the Hatter's eyes and knew she'd been bested by a master. He knew it too, for his smile. "Oh, all right. I'll stay for a while longer, but you have to know that I can't stay forever." She raised her brows for the last, "And I'll stay with you at your house if you like, but no funny business."
The Hatter adopted a stricken expression, as if the notion apalled his pride. He took her hand and squeezed it in reassurance. "My dear, I will be the very spirit of stoic English reserve."
And thus the Hatter convinced Alice to stay on in Underland.