A/N (please read): This is the prologue, (obviously), of a fanfic that is still being written, but I'm going to upload this bit before someone thinks of the same idea. Now, seeing as I've only seen the movie twice, I'm bound to get some details wrong, such as whether they have a gramophone at the tea party or a radio. I just made it a gramophone because I liked the idea, but it could be completely wrong. Just bear with me.

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I just sit here and pretend to know the hell I'm talking about.


PROLOGUE – A VERY CRUEL JOKE

The record was old and scratchy, just like the gramophone it spun on, and the music came out old and scratchy, the singer's voice warbling over the clearing cheerfully, the lyrics mangled.

The same song had been playing all day, and all of the day before, and all of the day before that. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was the only record that the trio owned, which in turn probably had something to do with Thackery's tendency to throw things. It didn't help either that whenever Mallymkun or Tarrant tried to turn it on off they found themselves pelted with an assortment of tea-serving paraphernalia and baked goods.

Usually the music would fade into background noise after the first few plays of the day, but nowadays Tarrant was finding it especially grinding on his nerves. This probably had something to do with the fact that these were the days during one of Alice's departures, and the Hatter was finding that everything ground on his nerves just a little bit more than it did before the Red Queen's brief but disastrous reign. From broken teacups to cold tea to Thackery's senseless screeching and Mally's darting, concerned looks at Tarrant when she thought he wasn't watching; the Scotsman was far more easily set off and more prevalent in him than he should have been. Even just a few moments ago when Thackery had hurled a fork at his hat, Tarrant had found himself suddenly standing and shouting in a thick and threatening mix of brogue and Outlandish. Thackery had promptly fallen out of his chair, shrieking and giggling, whilst a desperate Mally had been forced to stab Tarrant in the finger to knock him out of it.

'Hatter!' she had shouted, hanging from his lapels. 'Calm down!'

She had taken Thackery home, casting one last irritatingly worried glance over her shoulder as she left the clearing.

Now the Hatter sat alone at the head of the three mismatched tables surrounded by their mismatched chairs and cluttered with their mismatched teacups and teapots, sucking on his bleeding finger forlornly and missing Alice.

He spent a lot of time missing Alice now, and he couldn't help but notice the dull ache in his chest whenever he thought of her, or the sick worry that was crawling in the pit of his stomach. It had been so long since her last visit, and the chest-ache and the worry-sickness were increasing with every day of her prolonged absence. To almost everyone's surprise she had managed to keep her promise after the battle for Underland; she had returned. Tarrant could clearly remember sitting here many, many, many days ago, in the exact same chair and probably with the exact same lost-pet expression on his face, missing Alice. Mallymkun and Thackery had suddenly fallen mysteriously silent, and he had looked up to see an oddly lumpy figure appearing from the shadows of the trees surrounding the clearing. Her blonde hair had come loose of its sensible, professional bun, falling in a rather charming tangle around her face; she was clutching her dirtied, dark blue dress around her, practically wading in it, but she still smiled as she met his eyes.

'You wouldn't happen to have any ulpelkuchun on you, would you?'

'Alice.' His wide grin matched hers as he rose from his chair, tipping his hat to her. 'Would you care to join us? We were just starting tea.'

As soon as she had gotten a nibble of ulpelkuchun into her and grown back into her dress she had dropped into the seat beside him and assaulted them all with eager questions about how every Underlander she could name was getting along. She had stayed with them all day, chatting and laughing and throwing food, but when the sky darkened overhead she stood.

'I really must be going home now,' she had said, brushing cake cream off her skirt with twinge of sadness. Tarrant had stopped laughing at that, and Mally and Thackery had exchanged a glance.

'Thank you for the tea,' she smiled, 'I've had so much fun today, but I really must go.'

'But you haven't visited the White Queen yet,' said Tarrant, jumping to his feet, knocking over several plates and china tea cups and not caring, 'yes, she'll be awfully happy to see you, Alice, and she'll be awfully sad if she finds out she's missed you. And the Tweedle Twins too, and McTwisp and Chessur …'

He saw her hesitate for a moment, before looking up at him, her mouth quirking.

'I'll have to come back another day,' she said regrettably, 'I'll see them another time. But tell them I'm sorry I had to go …'

Tarrant could barely believe it. She had come back just to leave them again?

She seemed to guess his thoughts, and touched his arm softly.

'Don't worry, I will come back,' she promised, 'I'll always come back.'

'And you won't forget me?'

'I won't forget you.' She dropped her hand and turned away, starting back towards the door and the Otherland.

'Alice!'

She had stopped, looking back at him.

'Fairfarren,' he said, curling his fingers in small, sad wave.

'Fairfarren, Hatter,' she had echoed, waving back with one last smile before disappearing into the darkness.

She had returned many times after that – at first she would stay for only one day, but in later visits it sometimes stretched out into two or three blissful days, travelling around Underland visiting old friends and making new ones. Tarrant had done his very best to make her every moment in Underland wonderful, hoping that maybe, just maybe, she might one day …

But now he sat here, brooding and melancholy, missing Alice and scaring his friends away. Of course he wasn't constantly sad when Alice was away, he was just mostly sad – quieter than usual with a much shorter temper. And with this longest absence of absences he had gotten worse and worse, feeling more insane than usual and rather like an uncontrollable monster for frightening poor Thackery so – it was no wonder Alice didn't want to be around him.

And then apart from the sadness was the worry, and he had recently decided that the worry was far, far worse. It was the worry that made him short tempered and edgy, with one knee jumping under the table constantly and his hands always fidgeting. For it hadn't escaped his notice that every time Alice came back, she was different. The changes were slight and barely there, but there all the same, and there enough to give cause to worry – a tiny wrinkle in the corner of her eye, her hair growing in length, the tiniest change in height and a certain richness to her laughter that he was certain hadn't been present before. Alice was quite a bit older than she had been when she had slain the Jabberwock, and he couldn't help but remember that she had another life up in the Otherland, a life that was continuing all the time and a life that was eventually going to lead her to death. The Otherland was taking her away from him, little by little, and he knew there was always a small part of her secreted up there, in her sister and her mother and her work and the few close friends she would tell him about. He knew how much her mother wanted her to marry too, and how much her mother wanted grandchildren, and he couldn't help but think that what her mother wanted didn't include childhood friends from a fantastical world. How much longer did they have before she had to grow up?

Perhaps that was it, he mused to himself now. Perhaps his time had run out.

He was about to throw a spoon at the gramophone to shut it up now that Thackery had gone, when something blue caught in the corner of his eye. On reflex he straightened in his chair, his bright green eyes fixed on the shadow moving amongst the trees outside the clearing.

'Alice?' he whispered hopefully.

There was a pause, and after a moment she emerged from the trees, hair just as bedraggled as usual and soft smile in place.

'Alice!' he shouted, waving at her madly. 'You came back!'

'I came back for you, Tarrant,' she laughed, and his heart glowed. She was picking up her skirts and walking to him as he rose from the table, his arms extended for the routine greeting hug.

'How are you?'

'Oh, I'm splendid now that you're here, Alice,' he babbled happily, beaming as she neared him, 'and I am so very, very glad you've come back, I hoped you'd come back, I knew you'd come back, you said you would come back and I had to believe it, you know, or - or I would have gone …'

He faltered, still reaching out to her, as her smile spread into a grin – a far too wide grin full of mischief and empty of Alice.

'… Mad?' she finished. Her dark brown eyes suddenly glowed a luminescent turquoise green, the pupils dilating to slits and shrinking even further as she suddenly evaporated into thin air, thin wisps of smoke the only trace of her.

Tarrant stared at the air she had occupied, one hand still stretched out. Then the realisation hit him with agonising force, snapping him in two and letting the carefully checked anger, loneliness, despair and frustration that had been building up inside him for too many days loose.

'CHESSUR!' he roared, the brogue hitting the air harshly. 'COME BACK HERE, YOU FRUMIOUS SLACKUSH SCRUM!'

A grin appeared in the air above his hat, closely followed by two lamp-like blue-green eyes and a smooth chuckling sound.

'Now, now, Tarrant,' said the Cheshire Cat mock-reprovingly, 'temper, temper; you'll lose it if you're not careful.'

With a bellow of rage he sent three plates and a tea cup hurtling with all his might at the now materialised head of the Cat, which swiftly disappeared before the collision.

'Already lost it, I see,' Chessur noted, reappearing full-bodied over Tarrant's shoulder. The Hatter made to hit him, but again missed when he vanished with the slight voosh of air filling a suddenly empty space. He reappeared in one of the chairs, sniffing at a stone cold cup of tea momentarily before again disappearing and taking up space midair a foot away from the table.

'I do a good 'Alice' don't I, Hatty?' he grinned, preening as he floated along on his back, arms tucked behind his head.

This was more than Tarrant could bear. More consumed by his own rage than he could ever remember being, he hurled plate after plate after pot after cake, cup and scone at Chessur as he popped in and out of existence in the air, laughing and rolling.

'SLURKING URPAL SLURVISH RURPIST WYTH YE HID UP YE SCUT!'

Chessur stopped as Tarrant ran out of things to throw, surveying the wreckage the man was now surrounded by – the shattered remains of china scattered everywhere, crumbs exploded over the ground and cutlery embedded in the grass. His grin slipped ever so slightly.

'Oh, Tarrant, you do overreact,' he said lazily, regaining his self assurance, 'you know it was only a little joke.'

Tarrant glared at him, breathing hard, hands clenching and unclenching and his eyes a dangerous fiery orange.

'You take everything so personally, and besides,' continued the cat, not fully noticing his friend's anger, 'you need to lighten up. All this moping and carry on, I'm sure it's no good for your remaining sanity.' He grinned even wider, his head spinning a slow three-sixty and floating down, face to face with him.

The growl started deep and low in Tarrant's throat, bursting out of his mouth violently as he leapt forwards, ploughing straight through the half-materialised Chessur and charging at the tables, upturning them one by one, sending chairs flying, still ranting and raging in old Outlandish, and underneath all the pure, undone anger, feeling like such a fool for ever hoping she would come back for him. What did a hatter have to offer her? Some riddles and some wonders and his own insanity...

'My, oh my,' muttered Chess, his eyes widening at the chaotic scene, 'I think I've rather upset him. You won't get her back if you keep on like this, Tarrant,' he added more audibly to the Hatter, who ignored him and instead continued to rip the furniture apart, stomping on the china and smashing it even further. With that Chess disappeared with one final gasp of shifting air, leaving Tarrant to wreak havoc upon everything in his sight.

And that was where Mally found him the next morning, curled up amongst the debris, bleeding from lying atop a bed of teacup shards and sleeping with the closed, tear-streaked face of a child which has screamed itself to an exhausted sleep.


A/N: This was in some ways an exercise to see if I can pull the characters off, so reviews on whether they're in character or not are even more appreciated than usual. I know the Hatter went kind of ballistic in this, but I think if a friend played a trick like that on me I'd be pretty damn miffed too. Anyway, I'm getting down to writing this; I've almost finished planning and I'm about to start chapter one