Strange Asylum

A/N: Only one chapter left! I'll update as soon as I can, so please be patient. I appreciate your interest more than I can say. Thank you! Also, a new Alice/Hatter fic will be up soon, too.

Chapter Eleven: The Handfasting Hilarity

Anxiety and doubt, those things were the first to torment her when Alice woke up the next morning.

In every romantic story she had ever read, when the hero and heroine ended up in bed together, they always woke up facing each other, or better yet, in each other's arms. Alice had always taken it as a sign the couple was meant to be.

When Alice opened her eyes, she was turned away from the Hatter, lying on the edge of the bed - he was snoring quite obnoxiously, the poor dear, and Alice had stolen all the blankets.

Alice had to close her eyes and give an internal laugh. She was living a fairytale, but she was too cynical and selfish to be the princess, and instead of the apple, the prince was poisoned.

Alice shifted gingerly on the bed, thankful for its sturdiness as she sat up and stood. The mattress and frame didn't make a sound.

Moving silently in the light of dawn, Alice walked around the bed, and looked down at the sleeping Hatter. He looked content despite the snoring, and she smirked a little at the odd noises reaching her ears. He even snored eccentrically.

Sighing, Alice stood watching him with a thumbnail caught between her teeth for the longest time. It wasn't until he moved that she did, and as he opened his eyes, she perched on the edge of the bed beside him, careful not to startle him.

"Did you sleep well?" Alice whispered.

Tarrant watched her calmly. "My lady. I dreamt of silk worms." He gave a seemingly uncontrollable hoot of laughter, and then shook his head to calm himself.

Alice blinked. "Is that good?"

"Oh, indeed," he lisped happily, his eyes soft. "They wove champagne silk all through the night - yards upon yards of it - and it looked just like your hair, Alice."

Flattered, and surprised, Alice gave a small, incredulous laugh, and leaned down to kiss his cheek. "You're very kind."

"Not always," he whispered uncertainly, eyes downcast, thick white lashes dusting his cheeks. "Those with my...affliction have never been accused of being overly kind."

"Then you're different," Alice told him, refusing to let him go running off again. She wouldn't insult him by dismissing his madness, but she also wouldn't let him use it as an excuse.

"You are my best friend and I love you, and I couldn't possibly fall in love with a man who wasn't kind."

Lifting his eyes to hers again, Tarrant smiled, the lazy drifting of his pupil and the gap in his teeth making her feel hopeful and light-hearted.

"Do you really love me, then, Alice?"

Alice nodded, unable to hide her smile. She took his hand in hers and twined their fingers together. "No man I've ever known has treated me like you do. Like I should be cared for and protected. When you talk to me, you're honest, and you say what you think. You don't try to hide things. Your smiles make me feel like everything is going to be alright. I'm happy when you're around. I want to be with you forever."

Tarrant dropped his head over their joined hands. He lifted his other hand to cover them, and then hesitated, his palm drifting just above. "Forever is a verra' long time, here, Alice."

"I like it here, Tarrant. I've always kind of lived in my own little world, anyway. At least here, people know me." Alice laughed a little, and closed the distance between the back of her hand and his palm. She lay her other hand atop it, and then lifted their joined hands to lay a kiss on the back of his - and that's when she noticed the long, elegant braid of rainbow ribbons suddenly knotted around their wrists. Confused, Alice lifted her eyes to his.

"Tarrant? Where'd this come from?"

Tarrant looked up at her solemnly, so intently that she suddenly felt incredibly shy. "I want to be with you forever, too, Alice, my darlin'. You are what makes me brave, what makes me content, you are my every hope, my only love, my one link to sanity, " the Hatter said, and then closed his eyes and kissed their bound hands as well.

Alice hadn't known such a feeling of pure joy was possible. Her lips parted on a gasp as the ribbon binding them began to glow, and then quickly dispersed into ropes of light that gathered into separate braided bracelets on each of their left wrists. The soft, thick rainbow of ribbons seemed impossibly seamless now, and a tiny, ornametal golden lock dangled from the center of each bracelet.

It was obvious something very special - maybe even sacred - had happened here. Alice caught the Hatter's eye with an incredulous look. She had seen many impossible things here in Underland, but this...?

"A Handfasting!" came a delighted cry from the doorway, and Alice and Tarrant looked over in unison to see the White Queen standing there with somewhat scheming dark eyes and a pleased, wide smile on her face. As they watched, she clapped her hands together and loudly cooed, "How wonderful!"

"How interesting that you just happened to be available to witness the Handfasting, your highness," Chessur said later over tea.

"The first in Underland since my parents own," Mirana commented with a blissful sigh. "It was quite legendary." She'd been smiling since that morning, and Alice, seated down from her, could only wonder if her flawless face was hurting yet.

"I do wish you would allow me to plan a celebration ball, Alice," Mirana cajoled again. "It is tradition."

Alice smiled weakly, and felt Tarrant's hand carress hers under the table. "I don't mean to offend, truly, it's just...I'm not much of a party person, I'm sorry. Being around a lot of people makes me nervous."

"How unfortunate," Chessur hummed. "If only you could disappear at will like me."

Alice narrowed her eyes.

Mirana sighed, clearly disappointed, but she remained sympathetic. "I understand, dear." She took a sip of her tea and then brightened. "What if it was just a small gathering, only familiar faces? Just a little something to celebrate your moment of joy?" She held up her hand, her forefinger and thumb held just-so to show how little.

Alice couldn't help but relent. "Okay...I guess."

"Oh, joy! But be assured I shall only invite the closest of friends - the bloodhound and his family, the brothers, the hare, the white rabbit, the dormouse, the loyal families of Witz End, of course, oh, and - "

Alice's eyes almost crossed in an attempt to keep up. "O-okay, but, again, this is just a sort of engagement, right?" Alice held up the wrist the bracelet had appeared on.

"Sort of," Chessur coughed.

Alice tensed up. Something funny was going on -

Tarrant shot the instigator a dirty look. "A Handfastin' used to be a trial marriage - "

"Marriage!" Alice almost fell off her chair.

" - or a marriage for as long as love shall last, at least," Chessur added cheekily, taking a loud sip of his tea with a curl of his tail.

"It is left up to the couple, at any rate," Mirana interjected severely. "But yours is quite rare, quite rare indeed. Almost completely unpremeditated. Only the truest of hearts can enter into a natural one such yours and Tarrant's. You'll notice the bracelets - they are an exclusive tradition of the Hightopp clan only - a token of affection, if you will."

"A symbol of possession," Chessur purred, the mischievous thing.

"A sign of unity," Tarrant growled protectively, his eyes flashing a rusty orange.

"Like a ring," Alice said numbly, weakly, unable to look at the Hatter. "Like ring?"

If Alice hadn't been affected by the surrealness of Underland before, the knowledge that she was as well as married to the White Queen's Royal Hatter surely brought it home.

Feeling the bracelet with her fingers, Alice sat alone upon her swing in the little autumn clearing and stared at it. The rainbow of ribbons were each woven with a specific color in a plaid pattern, accented by a thick thread-of-gold. The tiny lock was embossed with a feathered top-hat. When she looked closely, it really was very extravagant and significant-looking.

Alice sighed and closed her eyes, leaning her head against the rope - the night before had gotten totally out of hand. It was her fault, admittedly. The thought of being instantly married, and knowing that it only could have happened if she had really wanted it to was, well, disconcerting to say the least.

A memory of the Hatter standing when she did at the tea table, asking for a little time alone, made warmth enfold her heart, and weaken her her knees. He hadn't looked surprised or saddened by her request, and had simply pulled out her chair for her and then laid his hand against her cheek with such heat and tenderness in his eyes that she hadn't been able to move for an instant. He'd bowed and kissed the backs of the fingers on her left hand, and stepped aside to let her go.

God, what if he let her go because he he wasn't sure about what had happened, either?

But no, it couldn't be that, since he'd wanted it to happen, too, or else it wouldn't have, right? The Queen had said, "Only the truest of hearts."

So what the hell was she waiting for?

Standing, Alice brushed off the short, pleated blue skirt she wore, and straightened the matching, sleeveless, vest-like shirt and ruffled white tank under it. She ran a hand through her loose hair, and dislodged a few leaves before taking a steadying breath and walking out of the clearing.

Thinking too much had become her enemy, she decided fiercely. If all she did was sit alone and entertain her doubts, she end up destroying herself. She had the most intriguing man in two worlds waiting on her, loving her, and there was no way she was going to make him prove it to her. There was no way she was going to give him up.

Feeling excited and energized, Alice found herself smiling so brightly it almost hurt, and suddenly she couldn't keep herself from running...home.

To be continued in the final chapter, Chapter Twelve: Love is the Drug