Whoa. I'm back.

Sorry about the long wait: I got distracted writing another short fanfic (that's almost finished) and then I had a research paper due for school. Actually, the research paper isn't finished either, so this is going to be the last chapter for a while.

I actually wanted to wait until the chapter after this was finished before posting this one (as is my method of fanfic writing) but I thought it unfair to you readers. So this is my present to you :)

I promise you all: I WILL finish this story! It's almost done—maybe three chapters left.

Anyway, I apologize again, and hope this was worth the wait.

She had always pictured her return as a joyous occasion: a pivotal moment in both her life and in Underland itself. In her mind's eye, she would stand there, head held high as she burst through the White castle doors, exclaiming "I'm back!" at the top of her lungs—causing heads to turn every which way in delight. "Alice!" They would cry, rushing over to greet her, eyes dancing and arms open for embrace. And she would take it in—their smiles, their laughter—her heart overflowing with happiness as her vision brushed over their heads, and into the green-eyed gaze of the man who thought himself as good as forgotten. With a grin stretching from ear to ear, she would place her hands on her hips, and say softly: "I told you I'd remember."

Reality, however, was a very cruel thing. When the fog cleared and her head stopped spinning, Alice realized this with profound dismay. There was no one to welcome her—to refuel the dying flame in her heart.

There was no green-eyed man for her to contradict.

Just the low, dull ache gnawing at her chest.

She was—the more she studied her surroundings—not even standing in front of the castle doors. Quite the opposite, actually: it appeared as though she were sitting on the balcony.

A turn of her head over her shoulder confirmed her suspicions. This was the balcony, alright. She would recognize it anywhere. From its marble-white walls—bits of ivy winding around its massive columns—to the spectacular view stretched below it.

A view she had overlooked not once, but several times, the last time she was here.

In Underland.

"Well, that's somethin' I 'ope I never 'ave to do again."

Alice looked down, silently thankful at being shaken from her thoughts as her gaze fixed itself on the Dormouse, who had by this point hopped off her knee and was currently recapping the now empty bottle. Perceptive as she was, Mally sensed the larger girl's observing eyes, and raised her head with a dismissive "What?"

Alice shook her head. "Nothing. Just…." She drew in a breath, "Just thinking I suppose. I didn't expect to be back so soon. At least…." She faltered, feeling her throat tighten"….not like this."

That same, vulnerable side of Mallymkun she had witnessed earlier flashed across the swordsmouse's silver-furred features. "None of us did." She paused, her lip quivering as if unsure whether or not to continue her train of thought. "But...." the Dormouse said finally, "You're 'ere now. That's what counts."

Taken aback by this unexpected—encouragement?—from the other female, Alice only found herself able to stammer an astonished "I-I suppose it is."

"It'll 'ave to be, anyway." Mally went on, tucking the glass vial—for she had finally succeeded in capping it—safely between her sword sheath and right side of her body. "If this doesn't work…."

"I know." Alice cut in, scrambling to her feet. She did not want to think about 'ifs.' 'Ifs' served no purpose other than to damper the spirits and shatter one's confidence.

Neither of which would serve to her benefit should she succumb to them.

And she most certainly did not want that to happen ….

"My my my. Is that Alice, I see? How little you've changed since the last time!"

Recognizing this new—though it was more like unexpected—voice almost instantly, Alice spun around….or rather, she would have, had a particularly blue and fuzzy head not materialized in front of her; green eyes gleaming with a delight that reflected the crescent-like grin carved into his face.

Almost immediately, Alice's features lit up. "Chessur!" She exclaimed, extending a hand to scratch between his ears. "It's so good to see you again!"

"Likewise." He purred, willing the rest of his body—still in mid-air—to appear. "My ears needed a good scratching."

A sharp scoff came from somewhere around Alice's ankles. "Really now Chess," Mallymkun scolded, waving a finger, "now ain't the time for such behavior."

The Cheshire cat's face darkened. "Wonderful to see you too, Mallymkun." He chided, nevertheless floating away from the blond. "But you're right, of course."

Like the cat before her, the temporary ecstasy upon seeing another familiar face quickly evaporated, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides.

She never could stand to wait.

Especially now.

"Chessur…." She said after a moment, gaze wandering about until it came to rest on the Castle's entrance some twenty or so feet away, "….it's lovely to see you again, but—"

"Ah yes, the Hatter." He interrupted, hovering back towards her worried face. "I suppose you want me to go alert the Queen of your presence, hm?"


"Say no more, say no more." The cat concluded with an eloquent bow, allowing Alice no time to explain she really would prefer to inform the Queen of her own presence, but the aqua-colored feline disappeared before she had the chance to clarify.

"I suppose it's just as well," she muttered, in an effort to convince herself, "I really do have poor evaporating skills." With a sigh, her gaze once again trailed down to a visibly impatient Mallymkun.

It took everything she had not to squirm under the Dormouse's gaze.

"You done babblin' to y'self?" the smaller female snapped—for it really was more of a snap, not a question—"I didn' bring y' back for nothing, did I?"

That hurt. "N-no." She replied brisky, mentally cursing both the instability in her voice, and Mallymkun's apparent lack of faith "not at all."

You can do this, Alice.

Silently begging her nerves to hold themselves together, her chestnut eyes darted from the Dormouse, to the looming door a few feet away. "Let's go."

You can save him.

It was much more convincing on the balcony.

At least there she as free from the gaping stares currently boring through her very being as she ascended the staircase into the main corridor; blushing heavily.

The Queen, McTwisp, Thackery—and of course, the Cheshire cat—were all there; three out of four pairs extraordinarily large eyes—for the cat held little surprised, having met her moments ago—continuing to gaze at her as if she were a complete stranger, rather than their own champion. She herself found this a bit unsettling—if not somewhat offensive: one would think they would recognize an Alice when they saw one.

"I don't much like being stared at." She alleged before realizing she had spoken the words aloud and promptly clamping a hand over her mouth. After months apart from this fantastical world and its inhabitants, and the first thing she says to them is a critique of their behavior?

Perhaps she was a stranger after all.

An exasperated sigh came from somewhere around her ankles; an equally exasperated Dormouse stepping forward with a furrowed brow. "You'll 'ave t' forgive Alice here, Mirana. She's not entirely in 'er right mind at th' moment."

If Mally had not been quite so small, Alice would have jabbed her with an elbow. However, as that was not currently possible, the blond girl simply frowned, muttering a sarcastic 'thank you' under her breath.

"It's quite all right, Alice dear." The White Queen chimed in, interrupting the other two females, "You have every reason to be apprehensive." Mirana broke away from the group, gliding towards Alice with a wan smile upon her porcelain face. "You've done magnificently, Mallymkun." She continued, placing a gentle hand on the Alice's shoulder, "but I believe it is best if I take it from here."

Again, Alice looked down, wondering vaguely how the Dormouse would react to such a statement. Indeed, her bottom lip was twitching around the corners—desperately wanting to speak but not allowed to do so—and her ears had lowered so that they were but centimeters away from lying against her head.

I suppose even someone as rash as Mallymkun knows to hold her tongue in the presence of royalty.

Done with her observations, Alice turned her attention back to the fair-haired Queen. "….I take it we should be off then?" She asked, half-dreading each word as it passed through her lips. Despite Mirana's understanding tone, Alice still found herself rather terrified of the task—for it was indeed starting to seem as such—the corridor's occupants had thrust upon her shoulders. She may have been their champion, but that did nothing to ease the fear coursing through her veins. After all, killing a monster and trying to prevent a dear friend from dying were two drastically different things.

The latter of which Alice knew little or nothing about.

But you must do something….her thoughts cut in like a light through the fog ....they're depending on you. She stopped, her gaze drifting back to the group huddled a few feet away ….and so is he.

Taking a deep breath, she tore her eyes away from her friends, and turned to the Queen. "Take me to the Hatter."

Did she feel the least bit confident in what she was about to do?

Certainly not.

Did that make the slightest bit of difference?

Not at all.

"I'm still not entirely sure why they looked at me like that." Alice confessed, once she and Mirana had traveled further down the corridor, "They seemed positively shocked at my arrival…."

Despite their nearing destination, a small smile tugged at the edge of the Queen's mouth. "That's because they were."

Alice raised an eyebrow, undoubtedly confused. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."

That small smile morphed into a playful smirk, not unlike a child withholding a secret. "It was my idea to send for you. And—with the exception of Chessur, who has a terrible knack for eavesdropping—only Mallymkun knew of it, as she was the one I sent." She still wore her smile, but her chocolate irises darkened. "I didn't want to risk exciting the others in case—"

"In case what?" Alice curtly interrupted, locking eyes with the Queen, "In case I didn't agree to return?" A look of hurt flashed across her face. "With all due respect your majesty, why ever would you think that?"

Mirana sighed, but nevertheless, elaborated with a soft "because you seemed so willing to break away from us before. It seemed—to some—as if their champion hadn't cared as deeply for them as she thought." The fair-haired woman stopped once again, examining Alice closely—so closely, in fact—she nearly came to a halt. "You know how dearly Tarrant cares for you, don't you?"

Alice's face reddened, her heart beat escalating in her ears as she replied with a nervous "Yes. I am."

The Queen's head bobbed up and down, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "And….what of….your feelings?" She inquired, tilting her head a fraction of an inch.

Still under Mirana's gaze, Alice squirmed uncomfortably. Oh how she wished people would stop asking her that question. "I…." she started, fumbling for a response, "I…." Her cheeks were burning; images of her previous stay in Underland floating around inside her head.

Images of a red-headed, green-eyed man with wildly colored clothing.

A man who had practically destroyed his tea things after leaping onto and walking across the table upon seeing her for the first time in thirteen years.

A man who had hastily stuffed her into a teapot upon the arrival of the Knave and his soldiers.

A man who had willingly sacrificed his freedom so that she could continue on with her mission.

A man who had stood by her side, feeding her confidence, while they stood facing the Red Queen's army.

A man who had, in his own way, begged her not to leave him behind.

"I….I hardly think my feelings are important at the moment." She said hastily, silently pleading the Queen to drop the matter.

It did very little good to ask someone a question they themselves knew not the answer to.

Thankfully, her wish was granted, and the subject of love—no, feelings, it was feelings—was in fact dropped.

Still, that did not prevent the curious looks Mirana would throw every so often, as if trying to answer her own question.

This continued right up until they reached a rather large, pearly white door; wooden in material but framed in marble pillars stretching from the floor all the way to the ceiling, save for a few inches.

And just like that, the oh-so familiar wave of anxiety crashed over Alice. "We're here….aren't we." She croaked, heart pounding so strongly she could barely hear her own voice. "This is….this is his room, isn't it."

The Queen merely nodded, clasping her hands and drawing them both to her bosom. "Yes."

Again, her gaze trailed to Alice, and again, the girl's chest twisted painfully. She knew what the Queen expected; for her to reach forward, throw the door open, and march into the Hatter's room with a bold determination.

But this was not the same as Frabjous day. There was no silver armor to shield her emotions. No Vorpal sword to defend her aching heart.

No one to stand by her, whispering words of encouragement.

This time, she was defenseless. Alone. Terrified.

"Alice?" Mirana questioned softly, eyebrows knitting into a look of concern, "Alice, are you all right?"

No. No, I'm not alright, thank you very much! She screamed inwardly, keeping her eyes glued to the massive door before her. The door separating herself from her task. From him. However, aloud, she muttered a shaky"Yes….yes I-I'm fine" before sucking in a breath.

Mirana did not appear convinced. "Are you sure? You look as though you're about to cry."

Was she? She had not noticed her watering vision. Blinking rapidly in attempts to clear her eyes from their liquid sheath, she stammered a half-hearted "I-I-I'm sure." Which of course, she was not, but there was very little she could do about that right now.

Lips pursed into a tight line, Mirana nodded once more, taking a step back. Alice knew the Queen did not believe her—that was obvious—yet they both knew there was no way to approach this situation without being anxious. No way to open those doors without wanting to bolt in the opposite direction, if only to save one's self from the inevitable pain.

Deciding to act on her behalf, her thoughts chose to remind her of her previous decision on the balcony: You can do this, Alice. They told her, guiding her shaking arm towards the door handle, aiding her hand as it curled itself around said handle, You can save him.

With every ounce of strength she possessed, Alice pulled on the heavy door, gritting her teeth together when it opened with an echoing SQQUUUEAK.

This was it.

There was no going back now.

A lump in her throat, tears stinging her eyes, Underland's champion slipped into the Hatter's quarters, the door closing behind her with a startling THUD.

The first thing she noticed: it was dark. Very very dark. So dark, in fact she could barely see her hands—extended before her—let alone the surrounding furniture. It felt as though she had stepped into one overwhelming, silent, shadow…..

Wait a moment.

There was a faint noise coming from the center of the room—a soft, rhythmic sound. A breathing sound.

Biting her lip, Alice peered into the darkness, focusing intently until she could barely make out an average-sized rectangular shape jutting out from the wall on the right. A shape that, the more she stared, seemed to have someone lying atop it….

A strangled gasp escaped her throat.

She had been staring at a bed.

And he was the one laying on it.

Still. Silent. If his chest had not periodically risen and fallen, she would have thought he were dead.

A sudden chill attacked her spine, and the tears broke free, rolling down her cheeks like miniature, salty waterfalls.

"Oh Hatter…." She hiccupped, taking a hesitant step towards his shadowy form, "what have I done to you?"