A/N; Yes, it's chapter 11.…and alas, coming to you quite a bit later and shorter than planned. I'm afraid I have some sad news for you, readers----through a combination of my somewhat waning enthusiasm and the impending specter of spring finals week looming in the near future, this fic has dropped considerably on my priority list. I beg your patient indulgence, dear readers. I am definitely going to try to finish this story, but updates are probably not going to be as frequent as they have in the past. And I know from experience that if I try to rush writing a chapter, it probably won't turn out very well, and I don't want the quality of the fic to suffer. So I'm going to postupdates as soon as I can finish them respectably, and hopefully there will still be someone around to read them.

Sorry to put a damper on things…hope you still enjoy chapter 11!

Disclaimer; I own nothing. Alice in Wonderland the novel belongs to Lewis Carroll, and the film belongs to Tim Burton.

Dreams of a Memory

Chapter 11

Mirana's eyes were veiled and thoughtful, her fingers lighting delicately on her chin in contemplation and her face turned toward the floor, as she and Alice came to a gradual halt at the end of the hallway, outside an enormous door of what looked like cream-colored marble carved in shapes of tree branches and fantastical birds.

Alice gave a small exhale of relief after relating to the Queen all the details of the Jubjub's attack, as well as her discussion with the Hatter. Mirana stared intensely at the floor for another moment, then slowly lifted her eyes to Alice's face.

"You understand, my friend," she said quietly, her gaze narrowing seriously. "That you are speaking of things never before spoken of."

Alice swallowed, took a steadying breath, and nodded. "Tarrant said something similar."

"And he was right," the Queen insisted gently. "In Underland today….well….there may as well never have been a time before the Oraculum. It is the be and end of all things, the absolute truth…it's word is as good, better, even, than any history…history can be falsified and defamed, forever subject to perspective and interpretation, but the Oraculum….the Oraculum does not give accounts of events, it gives the event itself. It is beyond reproach. To defy the prophecy is has foretold of you…it…it simply isn't to be fathomed."

Alice took Mirana's hand abruptly in hers, catching the Queen off guard and catching her gaze with a deep, penetrating stare. She flattened her mouth into a firm, unyielding line.

"Mirana," she said quietly. "I know that what I'm saying sounds impossible. I know that I sound foolish and deluded, that I'm chasing after something that isn't there, but….but…..but if there's even the slightest whisper of a chance that anything can be done, I've got to take it. You're the only one who can help me now. Please….if you know something, anything….if there's anything at all you can tell me….." her stern voice faltered slightly, and she leaned closer, wetting her lips. "I can't leave him again," she whispered, and she could see a visible play of emotion cross the Queen's face. She knew who Alice meant without having to ask. "Not again. Not like that."

The Queen closed her eyes and gave a long, weary sigh.

Then, with a sudden glow of energy, she opened them again and smiled, placing her hand comfortingly on top of Alice's.

"There may be something," she whispered.

Alice's spirits leapt up at the word, and she beamed gratefully in return.

Turning an abrupt about-face that made her skirts whirl and twist around her, Mirana seized the handles of the tall, ornate marble doors and heaved them slowly open. They protested the unfamiliar motion with loud, languorous groans, clouds of pale dust billowing out from their crevices as they inched reluctantly outward. Mirana managed to open them just wide enough for she and Alice to slip through sideways, and the moment they were inside the doors boomed shut again with a resonating echo. Alice blinked curiously as she found herself standing in total darkness, the blackness so complete she couldn't make out the movement of her owns hands below her face. She felt the Queen's hand reach out to snake around her wrist, and she followed obediently as she was led forward into the invisible space, her bare footsteps padding along behind Mirana's smartly clacking shoes.

"As far as the Jubjub is concerned," the Queen began, the echo of her voice the only indicator of the vast size and emptiness of the dark room, "…I cannot say for sure why it seems to be attacking you repeatedly. I suppose one explanation may be that it seeks vengeance for what you did to it two years ago----it managed to survived its blow to the head, you see, and escaped from your battle with the Jabberwocky, but with dire injuries----although I wouldn't have believed it to possess the brainpower needed for a such a concept. If it does not attack out of vengeance, however, the only other explanation I can see is that someone must be controlling it."

"The Red Queen?" Alice suggested timidly, still following blindly through the dark.

"Oh, I doubt that very highly," Mirana answered, suddenly letting go of Alice's hand and leaving her stranded in the blackness, her footsteps continuing on away from her. "The Jubjub was my sister's unwilling slave throughout her reign. It obeyed her only because it had no choice. Why…if the creature is indeed able to feel such things as bitterness or vengeance, I should expect it to bear Iracebeth a far worse grudge than even you."

Alice sighed, looking all around her for some trace of visibility but finding none.

"Then I suppose there's nothing for it but to be careful. No matter what the Jubjub's motives, if it has any….I'm not going to let it interfere with breaking the prophecy."

Even though she couldn't see her, Alice somehow knew that Mirana was smiling warmly as she said, "Ever the courageous one, my brave Champion. And believe me, you'll need that courage---and a fair share of luck---if you really intend to do what you say you do."

Alice narrowed her eyes indignantly into the emptiness, despite being unsure which direction the Queen was in. Her hands closed involuntarily into tight fists.

"I'm going to do it," she said, her voice quiet, but as hard as hammered steel.

I'm going to do it.

I've got to.

She felt Mirana smile again.

"Then this…" she said calmly into the darkness, "…may be the only lead I can give you. But I'll warn you.…it isn't much."

From somewhere in the room, Alice heard a soft whhhhrrriiing sound, as if someone had just tugged on the pull-chord of a very tall set of drapes. Then, all at once the blackness of the cavernous chamber vanished into a blaze of white, and Alice's eyes were assaulted with such intense, consuming light that it seared like a physical ache. Her pupils dilated rapidly and her eyes flushed with tears…she winced away, covering her face with her hand, and only after a moment of careful peering through her cracked fingers was she able to adjust enough to fully open her eyes. She cautiously lifted her gaze, blinking madly and wiping away the lingering traces of salt water….when she saw what was in the wide, circular room before her, her jaw dropped in amazement. Mirana, who was standing near the wall at the far end of the great room, smiled appreciatively, the dark spots of her mouth and eyes seeming to hover by themselves for a moment until Alice could see clearly enough to distinguish her pale outline from the dazzling white stone of the floor and walls.

There, in the epicenter of the circular white chamber, was a tree….and yet, she was not entirely sure it was a tree. If it was, it was certainly unlike any tree Alice had ever seen. She walked slowly toward it, her mouth opening wider as she drew near, her hand reaching forward of it owns accord to touch one of the low-hanging branches.

The tree was as white as snow from top to bottom, so white that it seemed to glisten transparently, as if it were spun from glass…yet when Alice cautiously leaned forward and ran her fingers across the trunk, its surface was as soft and worn as aged paper. It was growing directly up from the floor of the room, inside a walled circle where its trunk was buried in the richest, blackest soil Alice had ever seen. The tree's branched reached all the way to the peak of the great domed ceiling, and as Alice followed it upward with her eyes she saw that directly above it was a large circular skylight cut into the roof, through which light poured into the room when a dark curtain was pulled away as Mirana had done moments before, and through which she could clearly see the peach and gold-colored hues of the early twilight, and the occasional dark, whirring little shapes of birds flitting back and forth.

"It's….lovely," Alice breathed, walking in slow circles around the trunk of the great tree and gazing raptly up at its wide spreading branches. She heard Mirana's footsteps approaching her and suddenly narrowed her eyes at the white boughs, staring thoughtfully. "But….it doesn't have any leaves," she realized aloud. "Is it real? Is it…dead?"

"Neither, in the academic sense. Watch," Mirana said plainly, stepping toward the trunk of the tree and inclining her head briefly, as if bowing to it. She delicately lifted her hand and felt along the smooth, papery bark for a few seconds before the tips of her fingers found five small indents marked in a circle which was so faint, one might never have noticed it merely by looking. Smiling knowingly, the White Queen plunged her fingers into the holes, and as she did a pale, thick pearly liquid squelched out of them, running over her skin like trickles of condensed milk. Alice made a face, but Mirana only retracted her hand and stepped back from the tree, sucking the gummy substance eagerly from her fingertips as she did. She noticed Alice's jilted stare and smiled, extending one sticky finger toward her face.

"Sap of Eternity. Try some? It's delicious."

"Er….no, thank you," Alice stammered, trying to smile politely in return.

The Queen shrugged, but pointed with her clean hand up toward the branches. "Look now."

Alice eagerly followed her gesture with her eyes and gasped faintly with delight. At the end of every sprig of the bare branches of the tree, little white buds began blooming before their eyes…after a few seconds, they had unfurled into tiny leaflets, then grew into wide, diamond shaped leaves, only one on the end of every twig, so that rather than shading them over with a mass of foliage the tree was sprinkled selectively with the adornments, almost as one would trim a Christmas tree. About half of the leaves were white, but the other half shone in the setting sunlight in all different colors, blue and green and red and pink and turquoise, glistening like polished jewels. Alice gaped at the wondrous spectacle for a moment longer, then looked questioningly at Mirana.

"But what does it mean? What is it?"

"This, Sir Alice," the Queen answered, her eyes turning dreamily skyward for a moment, as if losing herself in the branches, "….is the Royal Family Tree of Underland."

Alice's eyes widened.

"It extends back to the beginning of Underland….to the beginning of all things as we know them. This tree was planted by the first king of Underland more than five hundred years ago. This tree, Alice, is the oldest historical record of Underland in my possession."

Alice stopped, turning to look at her quizzically. "Historical record? But….I don't understand. It's only a tree."

"Look closer," the Queen smiled, pointing high into the branches. Alice squinted as closely as she could, but could see nothing other than white branches and diamond leaves. Mirana then lifted her chin high into the air and called out, in a very loud and clear voice, "Mirana of Marmoreal."

Alice glanced at her curiously from the corner of her eye, but her attention was swiftly drawn back to the Tree when there was suddenly a great creaking noise from high above them, as if a fierce wind had blown through the boughs. She blinked in surprise as she stared…for a moment, it seemed as if a fierce wind were blowing the boughs….they were swaying softly from side to side, waving back and forth as if caught in a gale….but then, all of a sudden Alice realized that the branches weren't only moving to the left and right….they were moving downward. She watched in wonder and alarm as one of the highest, narrowest boughs of the tree bent down in a smooth, curling U and reached all the way down to the floor, like a colossal rubbery arm. It moved down until the tip of the branch was hovering just in front of their faces, its single pale leaf held out like a palm for them to see.

Her heart beating fast with surprise and fascination, Alice watched as Mirana calmly took the leaf in her hands and smoothed it out, holding it flat for her to look at. Alice blinked and leaned closer, staring at it with swiftly dawning recognition.

There, written as plain as day in dark black lettering across the white, glistening surface of the leaf, was the name….Queen Mirana of Marmoreal.

"Do you see?" Mirana asked, releasing the leaf as the bough of the tree slowly drew away from them, straightening up until it pointed again toward the skylight. "And there, on the branch directly beside it….that one is for my sister, Iracebeth. And the larger bough, that both of our branches stem from? The leaf on its left side, the white one, is for my mother, and the blue one on the right is my father's. Father entered into the family through marriage, you see….that's why his leaf is so brightly colored. Only the white leaves are children of the Royal line through blood."

"Through blood…." Alice repeated quietly to herself. Through blood….

At the center of her mind, a spark of an idea was flaring into life, growing brighter and hotter as she turned the thoughts over and over.

"Then that means…."

She moved forward toward the Tree and walked in circles around its trunk until she spotted what the sparking thought had hoped would be there…..a name, different from all the others….it was not written on a leaf, but carved in deep letters into the trunk of the Tree, so that unless one was looking for it, it might have gone unseen forever. It was a few feet above the top of Alice's head, and she leaned carefully forward, bracing her hands on the trunk, standing on tiptoe to read it. She mouthed the name silently with her lips.

King Matimilee of Underland.

"King Matimilee," she said aloud, her voice seeming to resonate forever in the wide white room. The gears churning madly in her brain, thoughts all teeming and tumbling over one another, she took a step back from the Tree, her eyes fixed on the single name. "King Matimilee…."

"My ancestor," Mirana said softly, moving to stand beside her and gazing up at the etching. "My great, great, great grandfather…..the first king of Underland."

"The first king of Underland," Alice whispered beneath her breath.

With every second that she stared at the name carved into the tree, a maddening feeling of urgency was welling up inside of her…the urge to act, the urge to run, to move forward, to do something, anything. This was a clue….this name, this Tree….she was certain of it. This was the first step to uncovering the secret of defeating the Oraculum, the first step to breaking the prophecy….she didn't know how, and she didn't know why, but as certain as she had ever known anything in her life, she knew…..

This was where she had to begin.

"Then he….King Matimilee….he was the one who planted the Tree. He was there at the beginning of Underland….the 'beginning of all things?'"

Mirana nodded in solemn reverence. "His name is the absolute earliest earmark of Underlandian history. Before him, before his name written on this tree….we know next to nothing."

Alice whirled about to look at her, her eyes wild with a sudden excitement. "Then he must be the one who created the Oraculum! There's no one else it could have been! That's what I've got to do to defy it, I've got to learn all I can about him, and how he did it, and what he----"

"Alice," the Queen interrupted gently, a strange, unsettling light of consolation in her eyes, "….I'm afraid it isn't that simple."

Alice's face fell, her brow knitting in frustration. "But…what if I---"

"Do you see that stump?" the Queen asked suddenly, lifting her arm and pointing midway up the trunk of the tree. Alice followed her hand and immediately saw it…indeed, she had seen it already, but hadn't thought to pay it any mind until this moment. Just a few feet above the etching of the first king's name was what appeared to be a branch of the Tree that had been sawed off long ago, leaving behind nothing but six or seven inches of healed-over stump that would never grow again.

"The Oraculum's parchment was made from the wood of that branch."

Alice's eyes shot wide open, her heart rocketing into her mouth as she jerked her head to pin the Queen with an incredulous stare…but before she could open her mouth to speak, Mirana laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, silencing her with a dark-eyed gaze.

"We know that the Oraculum was made during my great, great, great grandfather's lifetime. We know that it was likely he who ordered its creation, and that the earliest event it ever revealed was one that concerned him---"

"The hole in his garden," Alice blurted before she could stop herself.

Mirana nodded. "---yes. And we know that this missing branch of the Royal Tree is the material that was used to create the parchment itself. But beyond that, Alice…I'm afraid there is nothing more I can tell you. There's nothing more that we know. Not about my ancestor, not about the Oraculum, not about the first days of Underland….nothing."

As quickly as they had risen, Alice felt her hopes and spirits plummeting. The spark of an idea that had burned so brightly in her mind seemed to turn a corner and run into a dark, walled off tunnel, trapped and suffocated with nowhere else to go. She looked back up at the sawed-off branch of the Royal Tree….the poor, dead stump seemed to be mocking her with its barrenness, tantalizing her with the faint hope of a lead, then simply ending…dying off into nothingness as abruptly as it began.

It's impossible, the dead branch whispered to her. Give up. Accept the inevitable.

It's impossible….

NO, Alice told herself defiantly, shouting in her own mind as if to drown out the plaguing doubts. No….nothing is impossible!

Not if I refuse to believe that it is!

Her heart throbbing in her chest, she turned back to Mirana, holding her gaze with a pleading, desperate gleam, struggling to fight off the dark grip of despair threatening to immobilize her completely.

"That can't be all," she begged, forcing herself to retain at least a portion of her calm. "It….it just can't! There must be something else, anything else….something in all of Underland that can give us some account of the past. Please, Mirana, think! Think!"

The White Queen's face took on a sad glint of pity as she looked into Alice's eyes. "I'm sorry, my friend," she said gently. "But I told you that there was only so much I could---"

"No!" Alice cried, reaching out and seizing Mirana's arm, mortified to find that her eyes were beginning to sting with unshed tears. "There has to be something more, there simply must be!"

And why….why, as she felt the panic coming on, as she stared so intensely at Mirana….why was it only the Hatter's face that she could see? Why was he suddenly present in her every thought, her every fear…?

"Anything. Anything," she pleaded, squeezing the Queen's arm tighter as her voice began to quiver, refusing to give the tears license to fall. "There has to be something….something ancient in Underland, doesn't there? Something that's been here since the beginning? Somewhere….anywhere, that I could look?"

Mirana sighed heavily. There was a long, pregnant silence, every second of which felt like hours to Alice, who stared at the Queen without so much as blinking. Her hands were beginning to tremble, but she forbade herself from breaking down. Finally, after what seemed an eternity of unbearable waiting….Mirana looked up.

"I don't want you to give yourself false hope," she said softly.

Too late, Alice thought. But she said nothing aloud and simply nodded vigorously, hanging eagerly on Mirana's every word.

"The odds of finding anything at all there are slim to none….let alone finding anything of meaning….and if you go getting your spirits up too high, it's only going to be that much more painful if there isn't anything there."

She nodded again, even harder. "I won't, I promise I won't," she lied through her teeth.

"There is….one place…..that just may be old enough to have existed in King Matimilee's time…"

"Yes, yes. Anything."

"….the ancient catacombs," Mirana finished, her voice lowering to a dark, near whisper, her eyes taking on a strange light. "The royal burial place of the kings and queens from the first centuries….before less medieval methods were adopted. But they've been searched before, and I can guarantee you, nothing of any historical account was ever found there….nothing but crumbling walls and empty crypts."

Her voice was thick with warning, but Alice was already too hopeful to care. She had been to the very brink of defeat and pulled back again, latching onto this single faint beacon of light like a drowning man to a lifeline, heedless of the Queen's reticence. She was smiling ear to ear, sniffing back her almost-tears as she shakily let go of Mirana's arm to dash a hand across her eyes. She shook her head, stifling relieved laughter.

"It doesn't matter. It's certainly better than nothing….I'll go, I'll go right now and I'll scour the place top to bottom, every day for thirty days, if I have to!"

"Alice…." Mirana held up a calming hand, a faint, irrepressible smile breaking through her serious demeanor. "….firstly, it won't do to be rushing off anyplace tonight."

The Queen gestured with one hand toward the open skylight, and Alice remembered with a wince of sheepishness that it was nearly sundown. She touched the back of her neck and grinned awkwardly, glossing over her uncharacteristic burst of over-eagerness with a small laugh.

"Well, I….of course I didn't mean right this moment…."

The Queen's smile hooked in one corner and she raised an eyebrow ever so discretely. "Of course not. And secondly….I think you'll be wanting an escort or two."

The tone of her voice struck a nerve, and Alice's face straightened as she blinked questioningly.

"Why? Where exactly are these catacombs?"

The White Queen opened her mouth to respond, hesitated for an instant, then shook her head with a small sigh, as if what she had been about to say brought up troublesome memories that demanded a moment of her reflection before speaking.

"Well….you see….eleven years ago, when my sister Iracebeth began her dreadful siege on the country and seized control of Underland…she wasn't content merely to reign over the land from our ancestral family palace, from this palace. I think the place holds bad memories for her….a shame, really….but she never did get along very well with our parents, you see. Wanting a fortress of her own, she rallied an army of subjects---slaves, most of them, I'm afraid---and ordered the construction of her own palace….the Castle of Hearts."

Alice narrowed her eyes. She knew the nasty place all too well….at the very mention of its name, all of her submerged memories came bubbling in ugly blooms up to the surface….the twisted heart-shaped doorframes, the gaudy red and gold hangings on every surface, the servants and court threatened with beheadings every hour of the day, the walled courtyard with its vile red river of blood running beside it, and the Hatter….the Hatter, her poor friend chained by his ankles to his work table in that terrible milliner's prison she had locked him in….the very thought of it was enough to make her jaw clench.

"I remember it," was all she muttered bitterly beneath her breath.

Mirana nodded sadly. "The real tragedy, however, isn't what she built, but where she built it. She ordered the Castleof Hearts, you see, to be built directly over the ancient sight of the Royal Catacombs. I can only imagine that she had some angry ideas about paving over the remains of our past so that she could start afresh with her own Underland regime….but at any rate, the only way to reach the ruins now---or whatever there is left of them---is through the Red Castle."

Alice pursed her lips in thought. "Well….that shouldn't be too terribly difficult, should it? After all, with the Red Queen banished….I say, what has become of her Castle these days? Is it empty?"

Mirana shook her head, her small, sly smile suddenly returning. "Not quite. Since we didn't have any formal use for the wretched place, we decided that the grandiose artifice of my sister's atrocities might as well be offered up in sacrifice to those she had so gravely wronged. We simply opened the palace up for anyone to enter or leave as they wished…..and consequently, it's become a sort of boarding house for a great number of displaced creatures. I think you'll find the décor much improved, in fact….as full of dirt and nests and weeds as it is. Nevertheless….there's no need for you to go exploring the caverns on your own. First thing tomorrow morning, I'll assemble an escort to take you there---in fact, perhaps I'll accompany you myself. It's been years since anyone has had access to the ancient catacombs, and I do have a few fond memories of the crypts….I was once taken there in my childhood as an educational outing. I saved a bit of shoulder bone that I found still intact in one of the chambers; I think it may have belonged to my great, great Aunt Helenia---she was a hunchback, you see."

Alice smiled broadly, partially from the thought of theRed Queen's horrid palace now serving as lodging for all manner of forest beasts and birds---many of whom she had likely rendered homeless herself, what with the tales the Hatter had told of her commanding the Jabberwocky to burn down entire acres of woodlands---and partially from the sheer, nearly uncontainable excitement she felt at even the frailest possibility of discovering more about Underland's past.

Anything….anything at all that might help her in breaking the prophecy, was worth it. If she had to search until she went blind, she would do it….if it meant finding only the most meager clue to unraveling the mystery.

"Mirana," she said. "I don't know how I could possibly thank you enou---"

"Ub, ub ub!" the White Queen broke her off gently and raised a pale hand to silence her. "We've been over this, my dear Sir Alice. It's settled, and I don't want to hear another word from you on the matter." She smiled, and her dark mouth was marked with the definite sign of a wink. "Now…while I prepare the arrangements for tomorrow, why don't you make a return journey to the infirmary and see how our Court Milliner is recovering? Surely it must be time for his boneless friends to have been removed by now."

Alice opened her mouth again to try and say thank you, but caught herself just in time and clamped her lips shut with a knowing smile….turning to give Mirana one last look of gratitude that she could only hope expressed it all, she crossed the room, struggled to heave open one of the enormous doors, and left the White Queen alone in the chamber beside her enchanted family tree.

The moment she was alone in the corridor, Alice felt as if she couldn't contain her glee any longer…she hugged her elbows close to her body, squeezing her eyes shut and curling her fingers into fists, and did a small sporadic dance of happiness right there in the hallway. She was immediately struck with strong déjà vu as she remembered her feeble attempt to perform the futterwacken atHamish Ascot's garden party more than two years ago---how terribly long ago it seemed!---but rather than indulge the surge of memories, she instead turned and began hurrying down the long corridor back towards the infirmary two floors below. When she reached the spiral staircase, she found herself so overwhelmed with a sudden burst of energy that she took first step at a half-jump, very nearly tumbling head first down the stairwell….when she reached the floor of the infirmary, she positively ran to the door.

Hurrying breathlessly into the white---though indeed, now rather golden, due to the cast glow of the darkening twilight---room, Alice skidded to an abrupt halt, her elation replaced with an instant cringe of nausea as she entered the infirmary just in time to see Dr. Flinspint peeling the purple, sickeningly bloated body of the last leech off of the Hatter's back as he lay face down and apparently unconscious on the bed, just as she and Mirana had left him. Alice immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, watching in transfixed repulsion as the porcupine physician first struggled to stuff the wriggling, inflated leech back into the jar with its brethren, then apply a wad of cotton to the bleeding, sucker-mouth pinpricks on Tarrant's skin.

After staring in horror for half a moment, Alice swallowed thickly and urged herself forward, hurrying to the Hatter's bedside and causing Flinspint to jump in alarm as she popped into view.

"Bloody bottle wings!" he growled, holding a paw over his heart and nearly dropping the now mercifully sealed jar of leeches. "You know, it's terrifically crude to sneak up on a doctor so!"

"How is he doing?" Alice demanded, ignoring his annoyance. At the sight of the Hatter still bedridden, her excitement had all but evaporated and been replaced with worry and the guilty memory of his predicament, which she was mortified to realize she had nearly forgotten.

The porcupine muttered irately under his breath as he dabbed away the last of theblood and climbed down from the bed, closing things up in his medical bag.

"Oh, stop your wretched worrying, he's going to be just fine. He's weak with blood loss, is all…he'll sleep like a stone through the night, then be up and as normally loony as ever by tomorrow morning-----but only if you stop pestering him and let him get his sleep!" the doctor snapped, noticed as Alice absently began stroking gently at his wild red hair. She caught herself and yanked her hand away, her face almost flushing with embarrassment. She cleared her throat quietly and folded her hands, nodding obediently.

"Of course. Absolutely….I….I only wanted to make sure he was alright."

Dr. Flinspint sighed tiredly, at last storing his little black bag away in the cabinet under the nightstand, then waddling wearily toward the rug and flinging it back to reveal the door to his underground hole, which he jerked carelessly open. He began descending backwards down the small ladder, but paused with his head just poking above the floor and shot a penetrating glance at Alice, his little black eyes pinning her like darts.

"Now you leave him bloody be until morning, is that clear? He doesn't need anyone fawning and fidgeting, making a fuss over him now."

This time, her cheeks did flush. She shook her head at the doctor, trying vainly to stifle the warmth creeping up the sides of her throat.

"I won't. Promise." She raised her hand to demonstrate her sincerity.

The porcupine scoffed, muttering a few more muted curses under his breath, then finally vanishing down into his burrow with a definite bang of the wooden hatch.

Alice looked at the place where he had been for a few more flustered moments….then slowly grew a soft, relieved smile, the butterflies in her stomach settling quietly.

"Thank you, doctor," she whispered, nearly inaudibly.

The sun was now sinking fast below the horizon, the sky painted in watery layers of orange and lavender, the staining light seeping in through the infirmary windows and tinting the room with swathes of color and long, creeping shadows.

Alice looked down at the Hatter.

He was still asleep…likely, he hadn't woken up since they'd left him. She felt better imagining that he hadn't been conscious during the dreadful removal of his leeches…she shuddered at the mere memory of the nasty creatures, and before she knew what she was doing she had laid her hand gently over the skin of his back, running her fingers along the pale, bruised skin. Admittedly, though, it looked as if the bloodsuckers had done their service well….the cuts on his back had shriveled into little more than thin lines of discoloration, and his half-snoring breathing seemed to be a bit slower and shallower than it had been before.

Alice smiled at his calm, expressionless face….the mad colorings of his eyes and his mouth seemed to stand out starker and more strangely in the shadowy light of the setting sun….the ends of his orange hair were ringed with a halo of light, a fiery outline of illumination that almost looked as if it might be hot to the touch.

He was exhausted.

She would leave him to his rest….she would let him have these hours of peace undisturbed.

Creeping on her tiptoes, Alice turned to leave the room….but she hadn't made it further than the end of his bed when she found herself looking back at him, biting her lip with temptation as an overwhelming urge suddenly flared up inside of her.

And for once….for no reason that she could readily think of….perhaps, for no particular reason at all, other than the indulgence of a mad whim, a stirring moment of unchecked, fanciful emotion….she didn't question the temptation at all. She simply gave in to it.

Walking so slowly and silently that her footsteps didn't even creak the floorboards, she crept back to the Hatter's bedside and knelt down next to his pillow. Leaning forward, almost holding her breath with a wild anticipation she didn't dare to question….she slowly, carefully smoothed the hair away from the side of his face and moved silently towards him.

As lightly as the feet of a landing butterfly….she touched a single, silent kiss to his cheek.

He didn't even stir.

Smiling into the darkness, Alice leaned back, looking at his peaceful expression one last time before rising noiselessly to her feet and slipping to the door as swiftly and quietly as a shadow.

"I've got good news for you tomorrow," she mouthed silently into the room…then closed the door behind her, leaving him alone to what she could only imagine were the wildest, most wonderfully nonsensical dreams anyone had ever had.