Disclaimer: Of course not.
Author's Note: Uh, let me first apologize for taking so long to do this. I feel terrible. I promised a chapter in a couple weeks, and here we are, two weeks later, with it finally being posted. Ugh. I'm terrible. And on top of that, this was thrown together because I just wanted to get it off my hard-drive. If the quality you expect isn't there, I apologize in advance.
If anything in here confuses me, just message/review and I'll explain/edit what confused you!
This chapter is dedicated to Ngoc Chau, for helping me with future chapter ideas and being generally awesome!
He was extremely tempted.
Tempted to do what, he didn't know. But he did know that, somewhere inside him, the familiar itch of anxiousness was beginning to fester.
"What to do, what to do," he murmured, absentmindedly reaching for a cream cheese Danish. He grabbed it between the tips of his fingers, and when the weight of the pastry proved too much and it toppled back to the table, he didn't even bat an eyelash.
It was just…for once in his life (or whatever this endless existence was - perhaps an Unlife?) he wasn't content with just sitting there. It seemed like suddenly, tea wasn't enough; parties weren't enough; Wonderland wasn't enough.
A surge of irritation seized him, and he stuck the slick, sweet filling into his mouth with a brisk pop.
Mallyumpkin watched from her seat beside one of the kettles, worry etched on her little furry face. Clawed paws clenched along the sides of the thimble, and with a resigned sigh she set the steaming make-shift cup down on the stained linen.
"Clearly, you're not enjoying the tea party," Mallyumpkin remarked, words tinged dark with vexation.
Tarrant offered a weak smile in return. "It's a very fine party."
"And you're a very terrible liar, Tarrant." the Dormouse retorted immediately, the words tumbling from her pea-sized mouth. Square incisors clacked in place of a snort. "Is there something you'd like to get off your chest?"
"Is there something you'd like to get off your chest?" he snapped childishly, eyelids slowly transitioning to a green-flecked orange.
He wasn't surprised when Mallyumpkin crossed her arms and turned, refusing to answer. She stalked away silently, only stopping when her padded feet hung only slightly over the edge of the table.
"…you didn't have to say that." the words were pale, starkly contrasting the preceding mood of their conversation. Subconsciously, he wondered when their chats started getting so catatonic; but the other part of him acknowledged that she was right.
He'd broached a very taboo subject.
His lips felt strangely dry, but he resisted the urge to touch them. Instead, he stood, drawing himself to his full height as he took the few steps necessary to reach the mouse.
"I apologize." he said quietly, crouching to level with Mallyumpkin. The words hung between them for a full minute, brushing against her back as she still refused to face him. "I wasn't in the right mind. When am I ever?" he joked lightly, and the insanity that made up the core of his essence burned for the immediate return to a lighter mood.
The pregnant silence continued to grow, and he was beginning to think it would simply stretch on to time indefinite like so many other things in Underland, when the small mouse finally turned, lips set in a watery smile.
"I'm sorry, Mally. Truly." he repeated.
It wasn't true. Or, at least, all true. He was still angry, and he was sure it showed - quite literally - on his face. But he gave her a trying half-smile, and she seemed to accept it.
Reaching forward, she lay a small paw on his nose.
"I know it's hard for you to accept this, Tarrant, especially at a time like this," she said quietly after a moment, large eyes looking directly into his own, "But she wasn't the only one who loved you. So…so please stop acting that way.
And once again, that wavering smile emerged like a beacon, and he found himself hurt and comforted all at the same time.
But as much as he wanted to take the words to heart as Mallyumpkin's, all he could hear was a lilting, nymphetic voice calling, calling, calling him…
Like so long, long ago.
The space between them is vast as an ocean, and as he sits there in silence, he can't quite understand why. From the corner of his eye he watches her shiver, drawing her thin arms around herself in a vain attempt to counter the cold.
Finally, he can't take it anymore.
"Alice?" he turns to look at her, but she does not move. A faint frown touches his lips as he reaches out, resting a large palm on her shoulder. It feels like ice under his skin; an involuntary tremor runs through him.
Pale digits curl against Victorian lace. The young girl bites her lip, and he worries slightly at this. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." her words are short and biting, and for reasons he cannot explain it hurts him, deeply. He wraps an arm around her, drawing her closer until they are knee to knee before he reaches out and lightly takes hold of her chin, turning her to look at him.
What he sees shocks him.
Her eyes, once a vibrant shade of cobalt, are dull and flat, as colorless and glossed over as a smooth stone. The flesh beneath her eyes is baggy and wet from silent tears and sickness, and he can see in the pale moonlight that the pink skin there is diffusing into green. Her nostrils are inflamed, and a thick trail of excretion dribbles down her cheek.
"Oh, Alice…" is all he can say, wrapping himself around her in a hug. And suddenly the white noise between them is lifted: she lays her forehead against his chest and cries, cries, cries as he rocks her, shutting his eyes at the sound of her labored breathing.
"How could I let this happen to you?" he whispers. He speaks to himself, but she answers anyway, pushing her pale palms against his chest, staring up at him with cloudy eyes.
"Because you love me," she says softly, pausing as if those words mean the world to her, and she smiles weakly at him. "You love me too much to notice something's wrong with me. And I love you too."
His heart pangs at the conviction in her voice.
Love you? He thinks. How could I love you and let this happen?
And he begins to cry, wide-eyed, silent, and unnoticed; because Alice has relaxed in his grip and dozed off.
How could I? How could I?
He asks silently, looking but not seeing into the night.
He asks, but receives no answer.
He wondered when he'd gotten so….testy.
There was a time when the Hatter hardly ever snapped or raised his voice above an excited chatter. Sometimes, on the days when he could remember the Past better than the Present, he could recall entire moments and conversations where all he did was chortle and smile.
But now, it seemed a foreign thought. As the days progressed, so did his anger, until the point where he almost considered cancelling - Queen forbid - a tea party for the fear that in the throes of anger he would toss the March Hare into a kettle and hold the lid until the bubbles stopped.
Not that he hadn't considered doing that on a good day, but, still.
It had gotten to the point that his…fits became so obtrusive that, finally, a very irate Petunia stopped him.
"Tarrant," she began, ruffling her pink petals and straightening her stem, "it has come to the Golden Afternoon's attentions that you have not been in your right mind as of late."
He raised an eyebrow.
"You haven't been yourself." she a
mended quickly, picking up on the fact that, well, he was never in the right mind. He simply looked at her. The creases of her face pinched into a scowl.
"If this is because of Alice's return -"
"Petunia. Please." his words came out sharper than necessary, but he didn't bother apologizing. The flower gave him a long look.
"Fine, Tarrant." she said bitterly after a moment. "But don't ever say that we didn't try to protect you from that girl."
"Good evening, Petunia."
"Really, she's a good for nothing tramp and -"
"Good evening, Petunia."
And as suddenly as it had come, his anger boiled over and away, leaving the Hatter cold and empty feeling.
Sitting down in the middle of the ramshackle road, he let his thoughts drift to better days.
The words are uttered with such intensity that it seems only proper that the man straightens, turning his back on the flat glass of waves.
"Curious?" he repeats, immediately interested in her activities. He steps away from the sandy shoal, no longer reminiscing over the many times they have come here spontaneously, and enters the copse of trees.
Scattered on the grey-green patches of grass, Alice lay spread-eagle , holding a fat brown magnifying glass over her face. He notices the runs in her stockings with a smile, although he does not know why the sight of this makes him happy.
One cobalt eye blinks at him. Suddenly she sits up, grinning up at him.
"Did you know," she begins excitedly, flipping onto her hands and knees as she runs her fingers along the patchily covered ground, "that the term 'millipede' is actually a deception? Most millipedes only have around eighty limbs! See?"
Finding what she is looking for on the ground, she brings her palm up to show him; a long, brindle colored insect, wriggling wildly against the vanilla flesh of her hand.
"Indeed," he says softly, and, after acquiring her nod of approval, extends a hand. Moving slowly, she tilts her hand, sliding the bug into his large palm.
It is cold, and slightly clammy against the heat of his hand, but in a strange way, it is a welcome change to the faintly humid air.
It scuttles along his palm, thin antennae brushing inquisitively against his skin. He grins when it coils around his index.
"Curios indeed." he laughs, ruffling her hair with his free hand. Beside him, Alice beams.
And when she does so, he can't help but smile back.
"Are you planning on obstructing traffic forever, or just until I get annoyed? Because you've already achieved the latter of the two."
The Hatter's eyes snapped open and he turned, running a hand through his fiery mop with a slightly sheepish expression.
Absolem's manacled eye glared up at him. Immediately, the irritated expression within them dissolved, leaving behind only a mix of serious and sorrowful.
"We need to talk."