A.N.; Well, this is random. The story came to me after I was viciously attacked by plot bunnies in my sleep and I simply had to write it down before I lost the last traces of my already questioned sanity. Enough said.
Disclaimer; I don't have a clue about who started those rumors in the first place (maybe the orange bunnies did it… and if you don't get what I mean it's just fine; it only goes to show you're much more sane than me) but I really don't own any of the characters from Alice in Wonderland. There, I said it.
MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE.
Alice Kingsleigh was looking outside through her window to the gardens of the Ascot residence. It had been a month since she had returned from her Wonderland and she was about to embark in her first journey as an apprentice for Lord Ascot in just three short days. Three days and she would be off to China; to China of all places on a ship, doing the impossible just like her father always wanted her to.
She sighed and went back to observing the view from her window; the moon was peaking through the clouds and its light donned the gardens and the forest beyond the estate a silvery white tint, making Alice's mind sift back to a different kind of impossible. And even if the moonlight was unable to recreate the stunning whiteness of the Marmoreal she still could find resemblance enough to make her nostalgic.
She closed her eyes and allowed her mind to travel back to the days she had spent at the majestic castle of the White Queen. She was still afraid she would wake up one day and find herself forgetting how real this crazy world she had once believed to exist solely in her dreams was. So, she consciously thought about it every day. She replayed all her latest adventures in her mind; the pleasant ones such as the ending of the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day, the waterfalls outside Marmoreal and the talking flowers. She even though about the bad ones such as the Red Queen, Iracebeth and her Knave Stayne. And most of all she thought of her friends; new such as Mirana, the White Queen herself, or old such as the White Rabbit, the March Hare, Absolem, the Cheshire Cat and, of course, she thought of Tar… well she thought a lot.
She sighed again, considering she was being utterly ridiculous. It was normal to miss her friends and, since he was one of them, she was supposed to miss him too. So, reasonably enough, even if reason had never been a faithful companion of hers, she should be able to speak his name. Still, there she was unable to even think about it. 'Where has my muchness gone all of a sudden?' she pondered, not really expecting an answer.
It had been like this since she had returned. She couldn't help but recall his face fondly, more fondly than she should, in all its fantastic colors. She neither could nor would ever find such a combination of colors anywhere in London, she was sure of that. As a matter of fact she was quite convinced that she could never find colors like that in this world at all. So striking and bright and unique and, strangely enough, so fitting; all those different shades managed to fit together and produce the amazing picture that was Tarrant Hightopp.
Even at the mention of his name she felt warm all over, her stomach fluttering, her heart filled with a feeling unknown and yet so very familiar. She had heard other women her age talk about feelings like these but she had never experienced them herself and frankly; could she really be in love with Tarrant? She barely knew him after all! And yet she knew him better than anyone, just as he knew her. And besides, things like that were supposed to happen fast, sometimes even at first sight. Now Alice could by no means claim that she had fallen in love with him at first sight -she was six at the time after all- but when he had proposed she could stay in Wonderland she felt so tempted to do as he had suggested, even if it was just because it was he who suggested it. She hadn't realized at the time, but the more she thought about it the more she could tell that the only thing that would have been able to keep her in Wonderland at that given time was him. And she still wasn't sure if it was a good thing that she hadn't realized how important he was to her back then.
But, as she had told herself over and over through restless nights, she didn't belong in Wonderland; not yet at least. She was sure she would return one day, maybe for good this time, but that would be sometime in the future. She had things she wanted and needed to do before she was ready to return and she fully intended on doing them. That didn't help missing him more everyday.
And her mother didn't help either. After she had refused to marry Hamish, her mother had been vexed and had almost fainted at the publicity the declined proposal had attracted. Alice on her part thought that her mother would have been fine and dandy with the attention had she accepted Hamish's proposal, but had prudently avoided to mention that to her, especially after she accepted Lord Ascot's invitation to stay in their home until it was time for her to embark. Her mother had turned bright red and then chalk white as she considered her daughter's decision a scandal. Yet, Alice was never one for propriety and had truly appreciated being able to stay close to Lord Ascot and plan every detail for the voyage.
Her sister, Margaret, was equally shocked and both her and her mother seemed to be set on finding her a suitable husband before she sailed off to China in order to replace the 'hole' Hamish left behind him and avoid the scandal of her being considered intimately involved with Lord Ascot. Personally, she found the claim absurd but her mother insisted that everyone would think it to be the case. To that she had answered with a 'why should I care what other people think' making her sister scowl at her and her mother gasp. As a result, despite her protests, the last weeks had been filled with parading young or older men that were deemed suitable future husbands for her. Alice had apologized time and time again to Lord Ascot but if anything he seemed to be rather amused by the whole attempt. 'At least someone was enjoying it', she thought to herself and moved away from the window and back to her bed.
She lay down thinking of the difficult day she would have tomorrow; one of Lord Ascot's possible financers would arrive at the manor bright and early the next morning. Lord Blacknight was one of the wealthiest men in the empire and his suggestion to finance the maiden voyage of the Wonder and Alice's attempt to establish trading relationships with China had been a great surprise for her and Lord Ascot. As Lady Ascot had hastily explained while making all preparations she deemed needed to welcome such an important guest, Lord Blacknight had his own thriving business that was spanning from one corner of the empire to the other therefore had no need to invest on somebody else's plans. But that wasn't what scared Alice, quite the contrary; she would have been thrilled to know she had inspired such a man to invest on her idea. Unfortunately, Lord Blacknight was a widower, ergo a possible fiancé for her. The fact that he was nearing sixty made no difference to her mother.
Alice had protested and even had made Lord Ascot persuade her mother that any possible attempt from her side to approach Lord Blacknight with intentions of the kind might sabotage any possible future business agreement between them. Her mother had ruefully agreed and had given up on her schemes. For an hour and a half that is. Because that's when she found out he had a son. Alice turned on her right side on the bed to look at the moon again. Not even Lord Ascot had managed to talk her mother out of pursuing young Blacknight as her future husband.
And the most maddening part was that nobody seemed to know who this son was or where he had come from. Rumor had it that he was sent for schooling abroad and had just returned to help his father run their business. And now, she seemed to have been appointed as his tour guide of the Ascot estate while his father and Lord Ascot were to talk about any future investment in her journey. And because of her mother she wouldn't even be present.
Alice closed her eyes tight and wished for sleep to grant her a way to deal with her possible new suitor without insulting him. It didn't help that a little voice in her head -oddly similar to that of a familiar Cheshire cat- whispered she had better chances on a second round against the Jabberwocky. Unarmed. No, it definitely didn't help at all.
The next morning came by too fast for her liking. As she was getting dressed she actually considered that time on her world had picked up a leaf from Wonderland's idea of time; going faster, slowing or stopping at will. She sighed as she got dressed, deliberately not wearing a corset or stockings for that matter. Even if it wasn't a great act of defiance she felt better with herself and a little smug as she tied her hair up in a tight bun. She was about to come out of her room when her mother stormed in. Her door opened, almost hitting her straight on the face, and a very flustered Helen Kingsleigh entered her room. She turned around to her daughter frantically and grabbed a still shaken Alice by the arm, not even noticing the lack of corset.
"Alice you must hurry!" Alice looked at her mother panicked.
"Mother, please, calm down! Is there something wrong?" Had something happened to her sister? Lord Ascot? Her mother soon explained.
"They're here! The Blacknights!" Alice sighed in exasperation. Of course they were. She could now hear the carriage pulling over. With another sigh she realized there would be no breakfast for her today. "Oh do hurry Alice! You can't keep young William wait!" William? Well at least now the unknown Blacknight had a name.
"Fine mother, I'm coming." With that she allowed herself to be dragged all the way to the great hall where the Ascots, minus Lord Ascot who had gone outside to be the first to welcome their guests, and her sister, along with her very bored looking excuse of a husband, were waiting for the Blacknights.
"You took your time Alice." Lady Ascot sneered.
"Good morning Lady Ascot." Hamish just harrumphed as an acknowledgement with her brother in law ignoring her completely. Her sister came forward to fix her hair and pinch her cheeks in order to get a 'healthier' color on them.
"Oh, Alice where is your corset?" She asked in disbelief while Alice inwardly smiled.
"In my room."
"No time for that now!" Her mother chastised as the door opened. She fixed another strand of Alice's hair behind her ear and stood next to her daughter, fingers crossed. Alice rolled her eyes and then turned her attention at the two figures entering the house followed by the Ascots' personnel. Lord Ascot and Lord Blacknight, for all she could tell from his age. So the question remained; where was the son?
Lord Blacknight was tall and slim with brown, graying hair, looking younger than he really was and with a mischievous glint in his blue eyes. Alice thoughts immediately lead her to Wonderland. She couldn't tell why, but she felt she would like this man. Lord Blacknight shook the men's hands and curtsied the rest of the ladies before reaching to Alice. Once he stood before her he smiled.
"And that must be young Alice. It's nice to finally meet you my child. I'm Theodore Blacknight." He bowed politely, making Hamish and Lady Ascot widen their eyes in shock; the man had barely taken notice in them.
"Nice to meet you too Lord Blacknight." Alice said, trying to hide her amusement. Hamish looked positively awestricken.
"Please call me Theodore Alice. After all we might just be partners after today." Alice smiled at him politely while Lady Ascot and her mother looked at each other in shock.
"As you wish Theodore." She amended making him smile.
"I believe we should get started." He said turning to Lord Ascot who looked a little surprised from the previous conversation himself.
"I agree. If you would follow me to my office." He said pointing to the library.
"But of course. And I expect Alice to join us after she shows the grounds to my son that is." Alice's eyes widened as Theodore's sparkled even brighter. "He decided to wait for you at the gardens." 'So that's where he has gone', Alice thought dejectedly. Was he trying to get create a romantic scenery for their meeting or did he honestly wish to see the gardens? And why did Lord Blacknight seem to be that amused by the idea of her meeting his only son?
"Oh she will be delighted!" Alice's mother chipped in for her, a little too cheerful. That only seemed to amuse Theodore more. But Alice didn't get to see any further reaction as her mother and sister drew her towards the gardens after hastily saying their goodbyes to Lord Blacknight.
"Remember to act politely." Her sister said. "Don't keep talking about the journey."
"And keep his interest." Her mother added. "Fake if you must." Alice was ready to complain but her sister cut in.
"And laugh at his jokes, even if they aren't funny." Now enough was enough!
"And try to be sensible! Young William is the heir of one of the greatest fortunes in the empire! And he's going to be a Lord someday!" Alice turned to look at her mother annoyed.
"And what if I don't like him?" Both her mother and sister looked at her frightened.
"His young, healthy, unmarried and rich!" Her sister exclaimed, William Blacknight looking obviously perfect in her mind. "What's not to like?" And like that she opened the balcony doors and ushered her out. Before having any second to react she found the door closed and locked behind her. She turned around and found the two older women smiling encouragingly at her through the glass, her mother crossing her fingers. But did they really have to latch the door? It's not like she was going to run! At least not through the way she came, she mused sighing as she made up her mind to proceed towards the mystery heir. She had her muchness to consider after all! She wouldn't bear to see herself cower in front of a single man. As long as he didn't have orange hair and bright green eyes and… Alice stopped dead in her tracks to gather her scrambled thoughts. It really wasn't going to help thinking of him when meeting another man would it? It was only going to make the comparison so much more prominent. With another sigh she moved forward; muchness, she reminded herself.
The grounds did look beautiful even in their normalcy Alice thought. The roses, thankfully white, might have been silent but they were in full bloom and their scent was heavy on the chilly breeze. It was nice in its way, she thought. As she moved forward she saw him under the gazebo where Hamish had proposed to her. He was facing away from her and straight to the forest so she couldn't see his face and still… It was the way he stood she supposed that caused her thoughts to wonder again. The way he had leaned sidewise to the gazebo for support just stirred the memories of a conversation held a month ago under a dark sky in the most white balcony she had ever seen. But it was impossible.
"Some times I believe up to six impossible things before breakfast." She remembered telling him once upon a battlefield. Alice suddenly realized she hadn't had breakfast yet.
"That's good practice." He had answered. Maybe she had taken his advice more to heart than she had realized because she found herself reciting impossibilities once more as her legs lead her forward.
One, there is a drink that makes you shrink.
This man's hair was a deep brown, so different from the vivid orange she remembered, and short even if a bit tussled for a gentleman of his upbringing Alice thought, her mind reeling back to the way Hamish did his hair. She shuddered at the comparison.
Two, there are cakes that make you grow.
His clothes where exactly what you expected from a future Lord, a dark blue stripped suit, no bright, amazing colors to catch your eye. He did have a top hat that he tagged in his hands however, Alice noticed and her heart started racing, her mind still unable to catch up.
Three, cats can disappear.
The man on the gazebo sighed. She was close enough to hear him now. Alice had heard Tarrant sigh in the past and she found it weird her mind could so easily recall the sound. And how could she even recognize a sigh?
Four, animals can talk.
Alice was almost at the steps of the gazebo. He could see the man who was identified as William Blacknight had white knuckles from latching his hands onto his hat for too long. Still, the rest of his skin was not even close to pale. On the contrary it was quite tan with a soft golden shade.
Five, there is a place called Wonderland.
Alice reached the first step of the gazebo and the noise she made as she walked caused the man to turn. He only looked a few years, maybe two or three, older than her. He had high cheekbones and beautiful full lips she noted. No pale cheeks tinted with dark pink, no purple shade around his eyes. He had amazing green eyes. Not vivid lime green but a deep emerald color that suited him now that he was less pale.
Six, I can slay the Jabberwocky.
Yes, she had slain the Jabberwocky and still this was one impossible she couldn't believe. The man that was and wasn't her Hatter smiled at her and she noted he didn't have the small gap between his front teeth anymore. But how?
"Hello Alice." The man said. She almost fainted; his voice was deeper than she remembered. Half his deep growl of an accent when he was angry and half the innocence of his normal way of speaking; her legs were giving way.
"But… you… how?" She looked at him again and he never lost his smile.
"Let's say I realized I would never figure why a raven is like a writing desk on my own." He said. Alice heard a soft gasp and had thrown herself in his arms before realizing she was the one who had produced the sound.
"Tarrant?" He heard him laugh at her breathless voice and felt his chest tremble under her cheek that was placed right over his heart. He was still taller than her.
"Actually it's William Blacknight. For now at least." He explained still making no sense to her. Reluctantly Alice moved backwards to look at his eyes. She considered briefly why she had thought it such a good idea as she found herself lost at his emerald gaze. She was thankful his hands were still on her waist -but when did they even get there?- or she would definitely fall.
"But how?" She asked again, stuttering less this time. He smiled again and looked a bit smug.
"You're not the only one who has ever visited Underland, you do realize that?" he asked, one hand leaving her waist to thread into her hair, loosing the bun she had held them up in and letting them fall down her back.
"I'm not?" Tarrant, William, or whatever his name was now laughed again.
"No, you're not." Alice just tilted her head to the left, still trying to wrap her thoughts around the prospect of him being really here and her being awake. "Lord Blacknight too stumbled down that rabbit hole twenty years ago." Alice just gapped at him and he continued. "He had just lost his wife and I had just lost my family to the Red Queen." He said his features hard. "We became friends for as long as he was there; he almost felt like a father to me, for I had lost mine years before the Red Queen. After you left I wasn't faring well. Truth be told, I wasn't faring at all. Mirana finally took pity on me and, since she somehow knew what I felt for you, sent me up here under the identity of Theodore's son. The man was kind enough to agree; if you ask me I think he was feeling a bit lonely away from Underland." Alice was still bewildered but managed to utter;
"So he doesn't really have a son? And how did you explain suddenly appearing here out of nowhere? And how did you know where to find me? And how did you make the trip here? And why do you look different? And…" At that Tarrant raised his hand to stop her, still smiling.
"You do have a lot of questions I see. I did think you would." He looked straight at her eyes, making Alice forget how to breathe for a while. "Let's see if I can answer everything; no, Theodore doesn't really have a son, but I've already told you he thinks of me as one. He explained my sudden appearance by paying someone to, well, create all the papers needed to prove I was here all along. I believe him being rich helped." He looked at Alice a little bemused. "Honestly, why would one need papers to prove he was born? Can't they just look at him?" Alice smiled at his question but didn't speak, waiting for more explanations. "I knew where to find you for Mirana told Theodore about you and it turns out he knew your father. As for how I got here, now that was a big Jabberwocky you slay." His smile turned even brighter. "Did you think the blood you used to get here was all it had?" Alice looked more and more stricken as his words sunk in.
"But you look different." She muttered. His face fell a little. "The White Hare looked the same once he got here."
"Ah, that. Well, all I can think to explain that is what Mirana told me once I first saw myself in a mirror and I asked the exact same question; apparently, the Hare looks the same because there are other white hares in this world, even if they don't speak. But there aren't men like me. So I changed." He looked at her in a way that betrayed fear. "Do you mind? Me looking different that is?" Alice considered his question and shook her head negatively.
"I was really fond of the way that you looked before. But if you're still you, then I wouldn't mind even if you ended up looking like the White Hare." He raised an eyebrow questioningly and Alice giggled. "Fine, maybe not like the White Hare, but what I'm trying to say is that you look fine." She looked at him once more. With his lean frame, high cheekbones and full mouth, and of course those eyes, she was forced to rephrase. "Actually you look beautiful." And then Alice did something she had never done in front of him and as common practice avoided altogether; she blushed.
"That's nice to hear." He admitted and smiled brightly once more, hands tightening their hold around her waist.
"And what about your voice? You sound different too." She asked uncertainly.
"It came naturally once I stepped foot on this world. I can try to find a way and change it if you mind."
"No!" She exclaimed swiftly and he smiled again as she blushed a deeper shade of red.
"I see." He answered quite cryptically, making Alice wonder how much he really saw.
"And are you going to stay?" She asked before managing to stop herself. She dreaded his answer. Alice was sure that if he chose to leave now she would follow him, journey or no journey.
"I'm staying yes." Her smile surpassed his this time.
"I go where you go." He simply stated and her eyes widened.
"But… why?" Alice stared at him expectantly. He had after all left his world to come to her and even Mirana thought he had feelings for her and now he was willing to stay and follow were she led. But dare she believe he cared as much as she did? His expression turned solemn and he moved one hand to cup her face.
"When I asked you to stay, you said you had things to do and answers to find alone. I knew you would return, I felt it. But I couldn't wait for that long; not again, not after twelve years without you, especially since you are the right Alice now."
"The right Alice?"
"You were but a child when I first saw you. You're not any more." He explained and Alice's heart leaped forward. "As I said you were ready to leave and I knew you'd have to stay for a while. So, I decided to follow you; I'll stay till you're ready and then we'll go back together. But I won't let you walk away again. I already did twice too many times than I would like to." Feeling her eyes water Alice looked deep in his.
"I didn't wish to leave you behind you know; I understood I had to go, but I would have stayed if you insisted. I missed you." She admitted waiting for an answer. His thumb moved on her cheek, softly soothing away all traces of wondering if he was really there from her thoughts.
"I missed you too. And if waiting for you to be ready is what I have to do then wait I will. Besides, this world is new to me." He looked around in wonder, eyes taking in as much as he could. "Even with Theodore explaining to me how things work for the past week, I would still like to see everything on my own. Time has stood still for long enough." Alice suddenly felt a wave of fear reach her.
"But, will you be able to live here? Won't you mind? And I'm leaving for China in three days…" And there it was again; she was willing to abandon her journey for him and she couldn't bring herself to feel guilty.
"I know you're leaving and as I said, I'm going with you. I'm not exactly sure where China is, to be completely honest, but I'm coming none the less. As for fitting here, I have spent the last week trying to realize how this world works. From the things I've heard it is in its own way just as mad and confusing as Underland. If anything I believe I will fit right in." He finished with a large grin as if travelling half way across the world was something he did every day.
"You're completely bonkers, you know that right?" She asked still not believing her own ears.
"A wise young woman once told me that all good people are." He answered grinning madly. And Alice kissed him. She hadn't really kissed any man in the past but it felt the right thing to do at the moment. His lips were softer than she expected and she let out a small gasp when he kissed her back. They only came apart when breathing became a necessity. Alice tentatively peaked at his face only to find a smug grin plastered on those lips.
"Ehm, sorry for that. I didn't quite plan it." If anything his grin became more smug.
"Do you think I travelled all the way from Underland to have a cup of tea with you?" This time he kissed her. Her head was spinning and her heart threatened to flutter out her chest if he kept going that way. "Oh and Alice?" He asked as he pulled back all too soon for her liking.
"Yes?" She whispered through her haze-filled mind.
"I believe I love you." And her heart stopped altogether.
"I'm dreaming aren't I?" For surely she was either asleep or had gone utterly crazy, no other explanation fit. Her mind was making her hear the words she wanted to hear the most and she would soon wake up to find it all a cruel dream she was quite sure of it. He laughed as a response and kissed her again, making her lean more towards the insanity scenario, since she knew no kiss could feel like that in a dream.
"What would make you think you're dreaming?"
"Because I love you and I've dreamt you would tell me you loved me too. Can't you see? I'm going to wake up anytime to find you'll turn out to be a figment of my imagination." Alice whispered knowing the words she spoke were the truth the moment she uttered them. How easy it was to realize her true feelings now, she wondered. Tarrant brought both his hands on her face.
"You love me?" He asked with a shaking voice that only made Alice think her mind was far too imaginative for her own sake; the hallucination she had fabricated actually sounded surprised.
"Of course I love you. Then again, you already knew since you're in my head." He smiled and kissed her again more passionately than ever before. The world around her was spinning by the time he pulled away.
"I believe we have had such a conversation while you were in Underland and we'd reached to an agreement about me being real." He said smiling broadly, making Alice more confused than ever.
"That is just what a hallucination would say."
"Yes, but would any hallucination of yours do this?" And by 'this' he apparently meant lifting her upwards and pushing her against the gazebo to kiss her again.
"As a matter of fact, it would." She admitted.
"Naughty." He only commented and chuckled. And as his soft breath reached her neck and his scent, a mixture of tea and spices, all sweet and dark, just like he was, made its way to her dazed senses, she realized that maybe, just maybe, this was for real after all.
"You're really here aren't you?" She sounded to disbelieving even in her own ears.
"So I've been telling you for the last fifteen minutes." He replied teasingly, his face buried on her shoulder, his lips nuzzling her neck. "And you love me." He added. She could feel him smile against her skin as he placed soft kisses everywhere he reached making her shiver. Having finally managed to persuade herself he was really there with her, the impact of their words hit her full force.
"And you love me." She said, her voice ringing with wonder.
"That's what I said." He offered as he pulled back to look at her eyes.
"No, I mean you really love me!" He smiled and rested his forehead against hers.
"Yes, I do. I came here to tell you, but I never hoped you shared my feelings. I thought you would just want me around as a friend at the best, but I didn't dare to hope you would love me back. I guess Theodore was right." He said and took a step backwards to fully take her sight in. Her hair was a bit tussled and her lips were even darker than usual and a little swollen. She looked perfect in his eyes. And as to make his vision even better she smiled and threw herself in his arms laughing like mad and repeating 'I love you' as many times as she could, almost chanting the words. Tarrant felt like he could fly. But because he soon found out he actually couldn't, he did the next best thing picking Alice up and twirling her around. Once he put her down he found her looking upwards at him with bright eyes, red cheeks and lips slightly parted. He leaned down to kiss her again, inwardly glad she seemed to always stay at the right size in this world.
"Theodore was right about what?" Alice suddenly asked after a few minutes when only three simple words were spoken, exchanged back and forth between kisses as both wanted to assure the other and themselves this was for real.
"About the fact that you would return my feelings. I believe Mirana spoke to him about us and she apparently thinks likewise." The White Queen knew?
"I understand. Or I think I understand." Alice said thoughtfully.
"Theodore also spoke about something else." Tarrant said solemn once more.
"He said that in the past month your mother was trying to engage you, is that true?" Alice ducked her head in embarrassment. From all the things he could have found out about this world he had to hear that particular bit of information didn't he?
"I'm afraid so." She admitted as he reached to tilt her face upwards so she could meet his eyes. Alice was blushing and she seemed to have trouble looking at him. That only made Tarrant worry more.
"But she hasn't succeeded yet?" He asked uncertainly.
"Of course not! How could I marry someone else when I love you?" Alice cried out with ferocity, eyes ablaze, head held high and body tense. Tarrant had never been more pleased to find someone glare at him.
"That's a relief, or that would be completely useless." He pulled a small round box from his pocket and fingered it nervously with long slender fingers. A ring box? Alice's breath caught in her throat as her morning took yet another turn towards the realm of surreal. Tarrant noted the stunned look on her face and hastily explained, opening the little box to reveal a beautiful ring with a large sparkling blue stone in the middle and two smaller ones of a lighter shade on each side. "That's Theodore's wife engagement ring. He wanted me to have it since I'm technically his son. I know it's too soon but I love you Alice." He looked at her eyes, something he had avoided while speaking earlier only to find them moist once more. "You don't have to marry me right now if you don't feel comfortable with the idea, but I want you to know that when you're ready…" Alice never heard what he was going to say next as she found it was high time to silence him. The proposition was as crazy as he was himself and, sharing his level of craziness, she reveled in her decision.
"And, in case you were wondering, that's a yes." She said through the kiss.
"Yes? Really yes?" He asked as she held her hand in front of him so he could put the ring on her finger.
"Really yes. Alice said laughing. "But we might have to wait for the wedding until after we return from China."
"I can do that." He stated and pulled her in his arms again. Alice laughed in pure delight.
"You're truly coming with me, aren't you?" Tarrant nodded that he was.
"Theodore must now be informing Lord Ascot that I'll join you in your journey under the pretense that he wants to secure his investment. He wasn't so sure I would find it in me to ask your hand." He grimaced at the thought. "I don't really enjoy having my muchness disputed."
"I have never disputed your muchness." Alice reassured him and he broke into a smile again.
"Thank you my love." Her answering smile to her new title was as bright as his and that really said something.
"Now all that remains is that you should talk to my mother." For the first time since she saw him in her world Tarrant looked as pale as he had in Wonderland.
"Do I really have to?" Alice giggled at his fear.
"Yes, you do. But she will be delighted, I assure you. Too delighted I fear." That seemed to put Tarrant at ease, if only slightly. "Shall we?" Alice asked pointing back at the manor where her mother no doubt expected her. The diamond on her ring sparkled as she motioned him with her hand and she took a few seconds to admire it and smile at the sparkling stone. As Tarrant saw her smile all fears evaporated. He offered her his arm and, once she took it, he simply spoke;
"Lead the way." They moved through the gardens lost in their own private world and only when they reached the garden doors did Alice realize they had been locked. He explained what had happened to Tarrant, making him laugh once more, and they moved towards the back entrance of the house. They slowly moved through the corridors, stopping now and then for a quick kiss. As they moved towards the living room next to Lord Ascot's office they heard the voice of her mother talking to Lady Ascot.
"I think that young William will like Alice." Her mother said with conviction, making Alice smile. Tarrant squeezed her hand gently and peck kissed her on the lips. 'Yes mother,' she smugly thought 'young William did like Alice.'
"I'll be calling you Will by the way." Alice informed him. "I like the sound of it better than William." She added and he shook his head in surrender.
"I don't know my dear." Lady Ascot's voice was heard behind the closed door. "Alice is a bit of a wild thing and he is one of the most eligible bachelors around. And very wealthy; men like him usually marry royalty." Her tone was demining, but Alice, being used to it, didn't care in the least. Tarrant on the other hand seemed to get angrier by the second. Alice was mildly surprised his eyes didn't turn bright red.
"Mother is right." Hamish's bored voice echoed. "Besides I can't see her marrying. She did turn me down after all." To that Tarrant looked half smug and half enraged. Alice realized they probably shouldn't eavesdrop, but then again this was far too amusing.
"Hamish that isn't very nice of you to say." Margaret defended her cautiously. Tarrant turned to Alice questioningly.
"My sister, Margaret." She informed him immediately realizing the reason for his confusion. He nodded in acknowledgement just as Lowell, Alice's brother in law added.
"Don't be silly Margaret! Alice has been turning down one suitor after the other. I'm afraid your little sister is a spinster in the making." Alice thought it would be nice to rub his words in his face. And as Tarrant pushed the door open still holding her hand, she knew she was about to do just that. The room fell silent as they walked in side by side, Alice smiling, Tarrant effectively hiding his anger. They couldn't see Alice's ring since Tarrant was grasping her hand so she decided to break the news. With a reassuring look from her fiancé who seemed to feel what she was about to do she began;
"Mother, Margaret, everyone; may I introduce you to William Blacknight. My fiancé." Alice saw her mother's eyes bulge out as Tarrant hesitantly let go of her hand so she could show them the ring. Lady Ascot had gone sickly pale and had to fan herself while Amish looked ready to faint. Her sister seemed too shocked to even react as she eyed Tarrant appreciatively and her brother in law appeared to have chocked on his own words, making her need to stifle her laughter.
"Mrs. Kingsleigh I would like to officially ask you your daughter's hand in marriage." Tarrant said bowing slightly at the woman Alice had addressed as her mother. Alice looked at him appreciatively; whether it was his stay at the Marmoreal or his short training of sorts with Lord Blacknight, Tarrant was right when he said he could easily blend in her world. Alice's attention shifted to her mother who stared from her to Tarrant in turns unable to speak.
"Mother!" Margaret urged her, even if she herself didn't seem better off.
"Why yes, of course. You have my blessing." And she fell in a stunned silence again. Alice smiled realizing this was as good as it was going to get.
"Thank you." Tarrant said bowing once more while claiming Alice's hand in his. They smiled contently to each other causing more confused stares and proceeded to Lord Ascot's office to inform the two men for their engagement. They entered the office hand in hand. Once they closed the door, they heard a soft thud and Hamish cry for his mother while Lowell exclaimed a "What on Earth was that about?". They turned to look at each other and as a result burst out laughing, leaving a very confused Lord Ascot and a very pleased Lord Blacknight take their turn at staring at them.
"Alice, are you all right?" Lord Ascot questioned with concern. Alice couldn't find it in her to stop laughing for all her efforts. Tarrant seemed in the same mood as they held each other laughing their hearts out. Lord Ascot turned at a very amused Lord Blacknight who merrily explained.
"I believe Will asked Alice to marry him and she accepted." Lord Ascot thought that if with that statement Theodore was supposed to make things clear he had failed miserably. So he turned back at Alice who had now hidden her face in her fiancé's chest, still shaking with laughter, and noticed the ring on her finger. He also noticed the loving look her still smiling fiancé was giving her and reached the conclusion he should stop drinking on mornings no matter how annoying his wife got.
"Is it true Alice?" He asked trying to clear his mind.
"It is true; Will and I are engaged." Alice said and if anything, Lord Ascot thought, that smile of hers couldn't lie. Alice was in love with young Blacknight as impossible as that appeared.
"But, the marriage will have to wait after the journey to China." Tarrant said and Lord Blacknight nodded appreciatively.
"I had just informed Lord Ascot that I wished you to accompany Alice on her voyage." He turned to a stunned Lord Ascot and added. "I believe you now see why my son would wish to do so."
"I do see why, it's the how that eludes me." Lord Ascot muttered. "How did you get engaged?"
"The old fashioned way I'm afraid; I asked Alice and she, thankfully and miraculously, said yes." Tarrant offered shrugging.
"But how? You're complete strangers!"
"No, we're not." Alice chipped in, having figured someone would sooner or later ask her about that. "I met Will in London when I was much younger and we ran into each other again only recently, around the same time Hamish proposed to me." She was practically saying the truth except the London part, and she didn't feel that much guilty for that small lie. They should probably come up with a more detailed answer for this question in the future.
"And I can't even describe how happy I am you turned him down." Tarrant added. "No offence, Lord Ascot."
"None taken my boy." Lord Ascot said sitting back on his chair. "That explains a lot." He whispered, his thoughts travelling back to the numerous refusals of suitors and young William's offer to accompany Alice to China. "Were you aware of your son's intentions Lord Blacknight? Pardon me, but you don't seem highly surprised."
"I knew of his feelings and thus I gave him the ring, but I wasn't certain he would act on them just yet." Theodore admitted. "Congratulations son." He said and moved to pat Tarrant on the back. He on his part still looked smug.
"Thank you father; I figured it was better to do it soon than wait. I'm afraid we have surprised your family Lord Ascot and Alice's too." His grin got manic and for a moment Lord Ascot could see the connection between the two. In a sudden realization he saw in front of him two kindred spirits and came to the conclusion there was more to their story than they had let on. He also deduced that as long as young Blacknight kept looking at Alice, a girl he had come to see as his own daughter, like he did now, the explanation they had provided would be more than enough for him.
"Don't worry William. My wife will recover from the shock I assure you." Tarrant smiled at him and then turned to hold Alice. "So, have you decided what to do with the voyage?" He asked gaining a heartwarming smile from his betrothed.
Alice had sincerely wished to attend the meeting; she knew everything they said would be of great importance for her. And still as they all talked she could only concentrate on the man who held her by his side. The man who had abandoned everything for her. The man who was apparently very interested in getting a new compass for the journey. The man she loved. And she was sure that as long as she had her Hatter by her side, whatever name he went by, she could bring Jabberwockies to their knees and travel around the world a thousand times. And as they locked eyes over a map of a new world they were about to embark to explore together it was very clear to them both that somewhere between their two different worlds they had truly found their Wonderland.