Voilá, in case anyone is still reading AiW-related stuff. I apologise for having been, well, umm, let's say 'indisposed', thanks to dear old Fate, that mazy fellow, who thought it amusing to turn my life into a rollercoaster. Anyways, more input for stories ;P

Chapter 16 – A Hatter Went A-Courting...

Tarrant woke late in the morning, noticing that he was lying sprawled on the sofa in an odd position, legs dangling over the armrest, head perched on a crumpled scatter cushion, hat carelessly dropped beside him on the floor. He hastily arose, picked up the hat, dusted it off and put it back on his head. It took him a few moments to realise the situation and its cause. He had finished Alice's present. That was, the first one of many to come. He smiled at the image how she would find and hopefully like it. The smile changed into a hearty yawn and he stretched and adjusted his jacket. He had spent the rest of the night creating the present. Nothing special, just some small gift to cheer her once she woke up and found it. And she would look lovely in it... Another dreamy smile. He could hardly wait. Would she already be awake? Would she appreciate his present? Would she pay him a visit? Would she accept his invitation? Would she enjoy herself? The many questions lined up and started a circle dance in his head until he resolutely stopped them by just answering each of them with 'yes'. No use in worrying now when he could do so later just as well. He changed into a less crumpled jacket and picked a cup and a teapot from the table to get his breakfast ready. The teapot was surprisingly heavy and contained a dormouse. A yawning dormouse who blinked at him sleepily.

"Morning Mally! Did you sleep well?" Tarrant asked brightly, raising his eyebrows in slight surprise. This wasn't Mallymkun's favourite teapot!

"Well but little. Why, it took you two ages to finish your tea so I could go to bed! I already thought you were going to stay up all night!" scolded the mouse gently.

"I would have, but Alice was already so sleepy, you should have seen her, and then I walked her back to her room, and she lay her head on my shoulder, and I took a few detours because I just couldn't bear leaving her so quickly..." He noticed his little friend's frown and bit his lip. Mallymkun looked adorable when she frowned, but one better not told her. He knew, for he had tried once, shortly after she had been equipped with her sword for self-defense against the Red Queen's minions. Bad idea. Not the sword, but mentioning the word 'sweet' in connection with her. Tarrant harrumphed and put the teapot on the table, looking for another clean one. "I know it was selfish, but you should have seen her! I really do hope she is already awake and we can go for that walk together that I have already planned, you know, to Tulgey Wood by that lovely path over the meadows, and... Or would you suggest going a bit further west? Maybe she likes green hills, I mean even if we don't go too far towards my homeland there's still plenty of very nice surroundings a few miles to the west, maybe we could ride, as long as Alice doesn't mount that horrendous bandersnatch again. What would you say, Mally?"

"I must confess that I missed a part of our conversation. But as you started with 'Alice' and 'aven't yet come further than to 'Alice' again, I seemingly 'aven't missed much," sneered the mouse when she climbed out of her teapot, fully dressed now.

"Why, what's wrong with Alice? A lovely, innocent, curious..." he hesitated. E-words were particularly tricky. Elephant? Ephemera? Eclair? "Englishwoman! Yes, that she is..." On second thought, it sounded almost too plain. There must be a better word to describe his dear Alice, but somehow his thoughts got caught between eggplants and earwigs, there branched off and he mused if he had ever seen an earwig the golden colour of Alice's hair, and if dodos and mock-turtles had any use for earwigs, as neither of them had ears, and how many earwigs had survived the great rush on them in the times of Miredon the Furious when wearing earwigs (either the colour of one's own hair or a contrasting one) at court had been the latest fashion.

"Innocent?" Mallymkun interrupted his reverie with a giggle. "You don't mean that seriously? Tha' girl slew the Jabberwock, she ain't innocent at all!"

"Well, then intelligent, interesting, incredible..."

"And will she stay this time or is she going to leave you again? You know I won't go through this annual after-Gribling-Day-depression-thing again, I've 'ad enough during the past four years!"

"...immaculate –" A short pause during which the Hatter's mood sank a little before he answered with considerably less enthusiasm. "She doesn't know yet. But she promised if she could, she would."

"Then she'd better stay, for I've 'ad enough of your terrible mood-swings! You can tell 'er that!" Mallymkun stated and crossed her arms to emphasise her words. Anyone who didn't know the dormouse as well as the Hatter would have marveled at this gruff demeanour, but to him it was well known that gentle, flowery words were not her style.

"Don't worry, Mally, I will. And maybe it helps to persuade her." He assumed a beamish expression again, for the morning (or rather early midday) was far too nice to be spent brooding over things that might, hopefully, never happen, and surveyed the breakfast that had been put on the table seemingly while he had still been asleep. "But now to breakfast! Oh good, the bacon they brought is already cold, the toast too... Did I really sleep that soundly?"

"You did. I 'ad to answer the door, or those walnut-brained guinea-pigs would've unhinged it with their knocking, and the doorknob wouldn't let them in until I threatened to lockpick it with my sword."

"Quite uncomfortable, I imagine..."

"Well, told ya I hardly slept!"

He had actually meant the lock being picked by Mallymkun's sword, but setting the misunderstanding alright would be pretty impolite. No good morning for quarrels, when he was just waiting for Alice to stop by. Maybe. Hopefully! She did like going for walks, didn't she? Or should he have sent her a boater and planned a boat trip? Riding hat for a horseback ride together? (Provided she did ride at least as seldom as he, and not only on dogs or bandersnatches; he wouldn't mount a bandersnatch, for sure!) Nightcap for a night of star-gazing? No, that might cause a misunderstanding. The Hatter snickered about this idea, his cheeks assuming a slightly pinkish colour. Whereas, maybe he would leave the nightcap for later...

"Are ya list'ning?"

Tarrant jumped.

"Of course, Mally!" he answered dutifully and poured the breakfast tea.

If Alice wasn't sure if she should stay in Underland, Tarrant mused while he enhanced the cold toast with some delicious marmalade, he would have to gently persuade her. And if she still would not consent... He frowned at this thought, but the thought was not in the least impressed and stayed, vexed him and grinned impertinently. In return, Tarrant chased it away with the memory of Alice-just-returned. It worked, and additionally made himself smile dreamily. At least for a moment, then the thought of Alice not consenting returned, and it had brought reinforcements. Dear Alice. He would, of course, be the last one to force anything on her she didn't want herself. So if she decided to leave again, he would have to live with it. More years without Alice, without the fresh breeze that made breathing and living so much easier and so much more enjoyable... Oh, but maybe he'd just follow her the Otherland! Why not. If she would not stay here – he, on the contrary, would not hesitate an instant! What she had told him about her world seemed odd, very odd, but it would certainly be an adventure! The decision was satisfying enough. He liked to have more than one option. One hat was not enough, as it was known in common parlance. And as with hats, he would just keep creating satisfying options to have Alice by his side, be it in Underland or in any other land imaginable.

The walk with Alice was most delightful. They strolled along beneath blooming apple trees – thankfully the White Queen had a penchant for blooming trees and had them planted everywhere around her residence; her courtiers spent much of their time persuading the trees to keep up their nice apparel, and honestly, if one of those polite and gentle-minded fellows kept talking for hours on end, who would not sprout a few blossoms just to make him shut up? –, over rolling meadows and along rippling brooks, chatting away with such ease as if none of them had ever left. Everything was talked over. Alice was eager to hear what had befallen while she had been away, how everyone was who she had not seen for such a long time, and Tarrant told her countless stories with delight, only suppressing some minor details that she would not have liked too much, like the black days that had followed every Gribling Day, or how Thackery once had thought the Red Queen had returned and for two days the horrible feeling of the Resistance days had returned. The Hatter noticed his shirt frill grow dull and quickly angled for a new subject. But Alice's acute glance had already noticed the change. Her hand stole into his, and this alone would have sufficed to brighten every colour of the Hatter's outfit.

"I thought you might want to know that I've made a decision this morning," she added with pretended casualness, a twinkling smile in her eyes. "I have decided to stay for a while, at least until Frilwick Day – and until then maybe we'll be able to find a solution for, well, for everything."