A/N: So this is the end of this story. Thanks for reading!
The sight of land was a relief to Alice, far more than she had ever expected. The long time spent on the Wonder had strengthened her taste for adventure and cultivated in her a habit of walking nearly sideways to compensate for the roll of the ship; but beyond such things, she was pleased to find that China was waiting for her with eager, open arms.
She packed her things carefully, finding space for the hat and wrapping it up carefully so that it would not be crushed, and the charred and blackened bits would not be knocked off. The Hatter was sure to come back for it, at any rate, and she would have it for him when he arrived, in just the same condition as he had left it. She couldn't think how he had come to leave it behind; he must have been distracted indeed. But the memory of their last interview was painful still, and she dismissed it as quickly as she could.
She followed the man bearing her trunk on his shoulder, out of the cabin and onto the deck, moving inexorably towards the waiting gangplank. As much as she enjoyed the novelty of shipboard life, there was no doubt that a change would do her good.
As she passed along the deck, she caught a glimpse of auburn hair, of face strangely unburnt by the sun; and with her heart in her throat she turned towards it. But it was not the Hatter; it was the poor simulacrum, the blighted sailor, the over-eager Carter.
She really had been quite cruel to him, she reflected. Since the unfortunate incident just outside her door, she had avoided him absolutely. Now, if any, was the time to make amends. Decided on her path, she strayed from the wake of the porter and moved towards Carter, who was hiding himself poorly behind a complicated knot of salt-encrusted ropes.
He came forth to greet her with an abashed look.
She put her hand out for him to shake.
"I owe you an apology, Mr. Carter. I suppose--- I suppose my actions must have been rather confusing."
"They were that," he said, the abashed look giving way to one of indescribable, insensible gratitude. He took her hand eagerly. "But I don't mind. I enjoyed your--- your company, Miss Kingsleigh."
"Perhaps, in the face of things, you might call me Alice." She accompanied this overture of friendship with a grave sort of smile; and the way his eyes widened and a dimple started at the corner of his mouth made her realize all over again what he was missing.
"Alice," he said; and she knew for a certainty.
"Well," she amended to herself, withdrawing her hand. "Perhaps not." But to Carter she only said, "My thanks for a pleasant voyage, Mr. Carter; and goodbye."
He said nothing, only bowed his red head deeply; and she made certain that, when he looked up, she was already gone.
Alice settled into her offices quite easily, and left her things to be unpacked for days. She was waiting; she was watching; she was hoping.
She was disappointed.
The Hatter did not make a reappearance, and neither, likewise, did the rest of Underland's citizens. Even Absolem refused to visit, foregoing the pleasure of insulting her. (She was quite sure he did find it a pleasure.) At long last she unloaded her trunk, finding spaces for her things, wondering if she should ever feel quite at home here.
My father had a dream that stretched halfway across the globe---
And a daughter, she added mentally, that traveled even further.
It put her in mind of something, though she could not quite recall what; so she shook her head, and took the hat from its resting place in the trunk, and found it a place to live in her bedroom.
It was in a dream that she remembered the fall.
Cascading down like a waterfall, her hair streaming behind her, and after the initial shock she felt no alarm, no concern as to what she would find at the bottom of the rabbit hole. There was only the falling, and the things she was surrounded with, falling with her, as nonsensical as any dream.
But it wasn't a dream.
And as the girl fell, she talked to herself, for her mother had been unable to break her of the habit.
"I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time? I must be getting close to the center of the earth." she said; and a little while later, "I wonder what Latitude and Longitude I've got to?" And then again, a bit later, "I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people who walk with their heads downwards! But I shall have to ask them what country this is, of course--- Australia, or New Zealand---"
The words were on Alice's lips when she awoke.
Why not, after all?
She went out early the next morning, and purchased a spade, just in case.
The rabbit hole was dusty; it had obviously not been used in some time. She poked at it experimentally with her shoe, to see if it was really there.
"Well," she said, for even now she never had been broken of the habit of talking to herself, "I said I had things to take care of. I've taken care of them, for the present. And I wouldn't have to stay long, if I didn't want to; I could always come back again, easily."
She had the oddest desire to hold her nose closed, as though she were plunging into deep water as she took the leap. But she didn't; left her hands free, let them flail and tangle in her streaming hair as above her the light got farther and farther away; and she fell deeper and deeper and deeper and then---
"Att-tt-tt-ack!" gibbered the March Hare, and flung himself under the table.
"What are you talking about?" Mallymkun planted two tiny paws on her hips and stared at where her friend had so recently been. There was nothing to be seen of him other than a furry, quivering rump with a bobbed tail. "We're not being attacked. It's Alice."
She had landed in a patch of flowers near the tea table, and was still picking leaves out of her hair even now, ten minutes later. Rather unsteadily, she smiled at the Hatter, who did nothing. He didn't appear able to move. As soon as she had taken a seat at the table, he had fixed his wide green eyes on her, developed a curious sort of twitch around the mouth, and set to staring as though his life depended on it.
"The real Alice," she said, and reached a hand out to take his. "No substitutions accepted. Oh, and, "she added, withdrawing the hand momentarily to join it with the other, "I brought you something."
The hat sat between them on the table, innocently. Slowly, the Hatter's drifted down to it; then, just as slowly, back up to Alice.
"The real Alice," he whispered, one eyebrow lifting.
Alice leaned forward to echo his whisper. "You're spoiled too, you see," she said quietly.
The Hare, meanwhile, had discovered the other object Alice had brought with her, and now popped back up above the table clutching it. "Shovel!" he screeched, brandishing it at Mallymkun.
"Call a spade a spade," said the Dormouse.
"Alright--- it's a spade!" He collapsed on the table, giggling, and she shook her head and took a sip from her tea cup.
"I told you not to let him have any cake," she said, rounding on the Hatter, only to find that he had disappeared; along with, as it further turned out, Alice. Mallymkun stared around for a moment, searching, but wisely gave up rather quickly. She had bigger things to worry about, at the moment; for one, the Hare had roused himself and was advancing on her with the look in his eye that signified he was about to try and stuff her into a teapot again. Again.
She reached for her sword, just in case, and brandished it at him.
"Just you go on and try it, bucko," she said.
They were walking through the woods; the Hatter's step faltered, and he came to a stop.
"We'll get lost," he said.
Alice took a firmer grip on his hand.
"I don't mind," she told him.
But he was shaking his head, his heavy, hatted head, and his fingers in hers were curiously cold. "Because you've never been lost; not really lost, Alice. But I have. I've spent too much time being timeless not to know the difference. It's not like you can wind a clock and make everything go back to the way it was, you know."
"I don't want everything the way it was," she told him, and tugged gently on his hand. "I want them like this." He stood still, stoic, and would not budge. "Besides which," she added, "how can you possibly get lost? I know exactly where you are."
She slipped a hand under his chin and lifted it till he looked at her.
"Here," she told him, "with me."
His lips were cold at first; then not; then warm as hers; then warmer. His hands, too, stretching round her, reaching, grasping, holding, pulling, till they could be no closer. The sky darkened around them, the woods lowered, the grass rose up to meet them, and when he managed to pull away his hat was lost somewhere close by and he said, somewhat dazedly, "They'll be holding tea, you know."
"And you'll be holding me," said Alice, trying not to laugh. "Isn't that better? Or different, at least."
"Don't look down on tea," said the Hatter, almost savagely, and kissed her shoulder.
"Never," agreed Alice. "It all began with the tea, after all."
"Indeed," said the Hatter, "and most things twinkled after that."
The stars in the Underland sky shone most improbably bright; and when morning came, more improbably still, they shone on. I believe that, thought Alice.
The hat lay a little ways away from them in the tall grass. Once, she had been of the size to crawl under it and sleep for a while. I believe that, thought Alice.
Mallymkun had managed to persuade the March Hare to dig himself in deep with the spade; he snoozed in the ground, only his head and ears showing. The Dormouse herself had set up a guard over him, in case a rocking-horsefly came and tried to settle on his nose, causing him unbearable itching. She slumbered near him, a steady friend, always at the ready to defend when someone needed defending. I believe that, too, thought Alice.
In the distance she could see the arch and spires of a castle, too far away to be comprehended, but there all the same. On the throne within, the Queen watched over her citizens and subjects, and waited for the day to come that absolute peace should be restored. I believe that it will, thought Alice.
Closer at hand, a breeze began to stir the ruined windmill that housed the Hatter and Hare. It spoke wordlessly of a change, of things taking a turn for the better. I believe that it's coming, thought Alice, and, further, and that I will be here to see it.
She had not slept much during the night, but she was rested; felt soft, mossy, as though the Underland had grown over her and accepted her as part and parcel. As belonging. I believe---
"Breakfast," said the Hatter in her ear.