Author's note: Oddly enough, I don't own any of the characters in Alice in Wonderland (of any era, medium or flavour). My apologies for the random full stops marking the section breaks but, for reasons unknown, ffdotnet has developed allergies to everything else I've tried to use.


.

Before You Know It

She never meant to be away quite so long. Confident and adventurous she may have been but she was still barely twenty and, mainly through the fault of her gender, rather naïve. Assumptions were made about a young lady acting the businessman. Lord Ascot, being a gentleman, had done his best to arm Alice against the prejudices of his contemporaries – the assumptions that she was ignorant, that her opinions could and should be swept aside, that she was merely there to provide decoration or, occasionally, light refreshments. However, since he was a gentleman, he could not really bring himself to discuss with Alice the rather less savoury assumptions that some men were bound to make. Those, she was unfortunately left to discover for herself. Still, fresh from her triumph in Underland with the feel of the Vorpal Sword still in her hand, Alice met this new challenge with every ounce of her muchness. Word got around that Miss Alice was not the toy of Lord Ascot nor willing to be the toy of any man there. Word also got around that she had a sharp tongue and an exceedingly hard knee.

Muchness and the knee of a Champion aside, business cannot be hurried and the Orient is a long way from England. Alice is astounded when, the eve before they are due to arrive home, dinner with Lord Ascot and his colleagues - our colleagues, she reminds herself with a secret smile - turns into a party to celebrate her twenty-second birthday. How can two years have gone by so fast? She thinks guiltily of the promise that she made on the battlefield of another world. It can't be helped, she tells herself sternly. She had made promises to her father before she ever fell back through the rabbit hole. But those have been fulfilled now and she is finally in a position to reclaim the lost fragments of her heart. After the other men have retired for the night, she settles down to her customary chess game with her almost-father-in-law, but her mind is far away and she finds herself drifting.

"You are even more pensive than usual," Lord Ascot says.

Alice looks up, startled out of her reverie. She realises that she has been tracing the squares of the chessboard over and over with a fingertip. "I'm sorry," she says. "I was wondering what Father would have thought of…" She sighs deeply. "No matter."

"Alice, I am afraid that your refusing my son has entirely failed to stop me thinking of you as a daughter. Charles would have been very proud of you. As I am. You have become a formidable businesswoman. On our next voyage, you will find that many of the obstacles will be far less than this."

Alice opens her mouth to reply but the words fail her. She closes her fingers around one of the white knights in front of her.

"Of course," Lord Ascot continues, as though he can see into her head, "the company is very secure now. Were you to embark on a different adventure, it would be easy for me to ensure that the Kingsley name remain in good standing across all of the Oriental trade routes."

"There is something I am considering," Alice says slowly, "but I am not entirely sure that it is possible. Or wise."

"My dear girl," says the man who has become her truest friend, at least in this world, "whenever has that stopped you?" He gestures to the carved figure clutched in the young woman's hand. "Sometimes, you know, the piece that you need isn't even on the board."

With that peculiar blessing, Alice is left alone in the cabin, a contemplative smile upon her face. Two weeks, she tells herself. A month at most. The waves rock her to sleep, the chess piece still cradled in her hand.

Three weeks later, she stands on her mentor's grounds, looking down at the rabbit hole with tears in her eyes. Every desperate wish of her heart leads her there rather than back to the house with its silence and grief but she cannot leave now. Alice has no fondness for Hamish or for his mother but the look on Lady Ascot's face four days ago as she gazed at the ruin that the seizure had wrought of her husband has opened a well of compassion. Even if he could have spoken, Lord Ascot would not have asked Alice to stay but it is for precisely that reason that she will remain here. And, if she is honest with herself, Alice knows that she trusts no one else to mind the business now that her friend is all but lost.

Alice presses a kiss to the smooth surface of the carved white knight. "Soon, I promise," she whispers into its ivory helm and releases it to fall into the rabbit hole.

.

... & ...

.

"Aunt Alice, Aunt Alice! He's doing it again!"

Alice quirks an eyebrow at the shrill six-year-old tones piercing the thick wooden door. "Excuse me, gentlemen," she says, rising from her place at the head of the table. It has been a hard-won battle requiring the nerves of a Champion and prodigious muchness to get to this point, but not a single gentleman seated there lets any expression of exasperation or, worse, patronising indulgence cross his face. Instead, there is only fond respect.

Alice opens the door to reveal her niece pointing anxiously at her three-year-old brother who is, once again, intent on scaling the table so he can ride the Tang horse standing upon it. Frowning, she scoops the boy up out of danger and glances around the hall for the maid. Understanding though the board may be, it is still irritating to be interrupted. Especially now. She has spent the five years since Lord Ascot's death bringing the company to this point, creating security for her family and building Hamish's confidence enough that she is content to leave things in his hands. She had really never intended that it take quite so long but, that is the way of business, she has told herself on numerous occasions. Still, the new Lord has matured a great deal and Alice is, finally, ready to hand over the company and keep old promises.

"Annabel, while I would love to spend the afternoon with you and Charles, you really need to find your Mama just now," Alice scolds gently.

"Mama had a letter and she sent us away," the little girl says.

"Mama's crying," says Charles into Alice's shoulder.

A sense of dread pulls Alice into the parlour where she takes the letter from Margaret's trembling hands. It is only a few lines long. Just enough scant pen strokes to break a woman's heart, destroy her reputation and ruin her children's future.

"That misbegotten son of a pox-ridden whore!" Alice says, crumpling the letter angrily in her fist. It is a mark of Margaret's desolation that she does not even flinch, never mind chastise her sister for her dockside language. Alice takes in a long breath, fighting the wild temptation to look up some of her less salubrious associates and ask them to track down her brother-in-law. She wants to run from the room, to scream, to throw things. She cannot don shining armour and swing a legendary sword to slay the demons of this world though and, even if she could, there is no gallant madman watching her back. Alice carefully tucks that memory deep in the hidden corner of her heart alongside the smell of tea and the vivid blue of butterfly wings, then turns back to her sister.

"It will be all right," she says. "I will look after you." For what use is a Champion if she cannot protect her own family?

.

... & ...

.

Throughout Alice's youth, one of her mother's most dire threats was, "You will end up like Aunt Imogene!" Now, Alice reflects, she shares many of the late Imogene's eccentricities and she minds them not one bit. She has found that she can get away with far more as the Slightly Peculiar Spinster Aunt than she ever could as a mere wayward young lady. It is in this role that she smoothes her hair and takes her last step as her niece's informal guardian.

"I wish that Mother could have seen this," Margaret says, misty eyed.

Alice gives her sister a level stare. "I should imagine that it would have sent her into fits," she says. "Especially since I am wearing neither stockings nor a corset. However, I doubt anyone will spare me a glance when they have this beauty to look at."

Annabel blushes under her veil. "I can hardly believe that this is happening," she says. "Everyone said that Robert is quite mad to marry me after…" She glances at her mother and bites her lip.

"Well," says Alice matter-of-factly, "he probably is quite mad, but all of the best people are. I should know. Now come along." She ushers Margaret out of the room and offers Annabel her arm as the musicians start the wedding march.

A few hours later, Alice finds herself sitting next to Hamish in companionable silence. They watch the newlywed young couple with similar indulgent smiles. Almost a quarter of a century after the idea first took flight, the Ascot and Kingsley families have been united in his nephew and her niece. Hamish raises his glass to Alice, a salute between equals, and she muses how much better their relationship is for her having refused him all of those years ago.

"You know," Hamish says, "I don't think I ever thanked you for everything you did for Father."

"Thanked me?" Alice asks. "I always thought you and your mother considered the voyage to have worsened his health."

Hamish shrugs. "I know Mother still blames you in some ways. But I think that's guilt. She never brought that spark back into him. You did. When I was a little boy, he had such a sense of adventure and it seemed to fade away with my childhood. And then, when you were planning the trip to the Orient, he was alive again, filled with so much joy and fire and..."

"Muchness," says Alice quietly. She runs a finger around her glass, remembering the feel of an ivory knight in her palm and the benediction of a dear friend on a journey long ago.

Hamish smiles. "A wonderful nonsense word," he says. "Yes. Muchness. You brought him back his muchness. So I wanted you to be the first to know, I'm building a museum to honour him, on a corner of the grounds. I've had the site levelled already. It's up beyond the hedge maze. You wouldn't believe how derelict things had become. The workers found massive holes under trees and all sorts of... Alice?"

She forces her hand to release the glass before it breaks. There is a great weight falling through her world, pulling her heart with it, spinning out of all control. From a thousand miles away, she hears Hamish asking if she is all right, if she would like a glass of water or some air, but she cannot answer. Over and over, her mind screams at her. I meant to go back. I promised. I have to go back. She claws her way back to the drawing room and takes a deep breath.

"Sorry Hamish," she says. "Would you excuse me?"

And, as it turns out, there are many advantages to being Like Aunt Imogene. She can walk a young lady down the aisle. She can neglect corset and stockings. She can sail around the world. Most of all, she can run through the grounds alone, late in the evening, run until her lungs are aching, run until she casts herself onto a piece of earth apparently like any other. Weep as though her heart is breaking, over a stretch of flat unblemished soil.

.

... & ...

.

Sometimes, she thinks that there is another way back into Underland. Sometimes, she catches glimpses in the corners of mirrors. Sometimes, she sees something different in a patch of sky. But then, other times, she is starting to believe that it was nothing but a dream or a hallucination. How could she have been a Champion in another world? How preposterous. Alice knows that she sees the world in a way that many do not but that is not, she tells herself sternly, any indication that she has been something incredible. It was a sign of an unruly, headstrong young woman; of a forthright if rather odd spinster aunt; and now it is a sign of a peculiar and contrary old lady.

Time after time, she has told herself that she will start looking for a way back. Truly looking, turning to face that flicker just on the edge of vision, pressing her hand against mirrors just in case the glass should melt away. Yet there have always been reasons why it is not quite the right time. She wonders, now, if these were mere excuses. She asks herself if she did not try with all of her heart to get back to Underland because, that way, she could tell herself that it was real. What if she was to go hunting only to prove that it was a delusion? Even worse, what if she succeeded in getting back and she was no longer wanted or needed? In this world, Alice has always been needed.

She is not needed now. She is loved deeply by her niece and nephew, and by their children who call her 'Granny Alice'. She is respected by the men who are running the company and still occasionally come to her for advice despite the fact that she has officially retired. She is admired almost to the point of hero-worship by the two young ladies who have thrown aside the shackles of familial expectation to become part of the company. But needed? No.

Alice spends a great deal of her time in the Ascot museum these days. Paradoxically, it is here that she feels the closest to Underland despite it being the place which removed her so thoroughly from it. The museum is a source of comfort, an echo of the voices of two men who she loved deeply and who shaped her whole life. Here are her father's elaborately drawn maps of places he had seen only in his imagination. Here are many of the artefacts found by Alice and the old Lord Ascot on that first journey to the Orient so many years ago. It is a somewhat eclectic collection. The stuffy, finicky Hamish that Alice first knew would never have conceived such an idea, never mind carrying it out. Alice smiles to herself, but there is an edge of melancholy. She misses Hamish more than she could have imagined, in many ways because he is the last link to the old Alice. With him gone, there is no one left to remember the anxious, whimsical girl who was prone to such flights of fancy. No one who was there that day.

On her way out into the gardens, Alice pauses to wave goodbye to the portraits in the entrance hall. The museum staff smile indulgently as she leaves. They have always allowed her an extra half hour or so of solitude once the public have left. Today, it seems, she has lingered later than usual. Twilight is creeping in, softening the shadows and transforming the bright colours. Alice wanders into the rose garden, running absent hands along fading petals, listening to the crunch of her shoes on the gravel. The sound is oddly like the clash of swords. She is shaken from her reverie as her trailing fingers find a thorn and her soft exclamation is loud against the silence. Alice sinks onto a bench to examine her injured finger. In the half light, the blood looks almost purple. She sticks the finger in her mouth, cursing her carelessness, and pain strikes the centre of her chest as though the thorn has gone straight through her heart.

Shadows have turned the paths into a chequered pattern, an endless chessboard with sliding gravel making the sound of a battle as she falls to her knees, the taste of purple blood on her lips. The world twists suddenly, disorientating, nauseating. Alice closes her eyes, trying to get to her feet...

...

...and suddenly she is standing, the pain still there but bearable, and the rose garden is gone. Black and white squares stretch across her field of vision. In one direction, peculiar soldiers are dragging two struggling victims, one short, one tall. In the other is a rag-tag collection of characters fronted by two shining figures. The first is a vision of crowned white purity. The second is a warrior clad in silver armour, standing far too close for propriety to a kilted man but it doesn't matter because she is a Champion and he is her guardian and even though Alice is too far away to see their faces she knows that he loves her.

"Be back before you know it," Alice whispers, echoing the words of the warrior, and pain strikes her again as the distant Champion raises a phial of purple liquid to her lips. Her throat aches with the warped justice of it all, that she has kept her promise after all in such a strange manner. Tears blur her eyes, she raises her hand to wipe them away and finds the world moving again.

This time, when her vision clears, she is staring into astonished impossible-green eyes. She glances down to see herself clad in the Champions armour. For a soaring moment, she thinks that she is twenty once again but her hands are still thin and liver-spotted and the armour never felt this heavy all those years ago. Too heavy to bear, she thinks, both the metal and the weight of her breaking heart. Easier to let herself fall.

She is caught, cradled in strong arms against a faded coat which smells of roses and tea and chemicals. Around her, a babble of voices stir memories from decades past.

"Who's the old lady in the armour?" Small, belligerent.

"Oh, my Champion, what happened?" Graceful, ethereal, yet with an edge of steel.

"That's never Alice! Look at her. She's old."

"It is absolutely Alice," says the man who holds her in his lap. Calloused fingers brush her brittle white hair away from her lined face. "I would know her anywhere. Anywhere, and anywhen."

Alice tries to speak. She wants to tell them all how sorry she is that she took so long, but that would be ridiculous. She was back before they knew it, after all. Cool fingers lace around hers and she manages to turn her head slightly.

"My Champion," the Queen says softly. "How poorly Time has treated you. But you are safe now, we will take care of you."

How can they take care of her? It is impossible, impossible. The armour is a crushing weight on her chest and each breath seems harder than the one before it. And yet, she has believed the impossible before, on this very battlefield mere moments – or a lifetime – ago. Six impossible things.

"You just need to close your eyes, my dear," says Mirana.

She can't. What if they all disappear again? What if she loses them, loses this moment? There will not be another chance to return, she knows that. And she wants so desperately for this to be real. All of her life, she has been so conscious of other people's wants and needs, of promises both spoken and unspoken. Now, in the aftermath of all of those battles, there is only this wish left in her heart.

One, she counts in her head. I sailed the world with no sign of a corset.

Two. I am a successful businesswoman.

Three. I saved my sister, and her children.

Four. Hamish Ascot turned out to be my best friend.

Five. I came back to Underland, my wonderland.

Six...

"Alice, the Alice," says the Hatter, "trust us. Trust me. I won't let you fall."

Six. I trust you, Tarrant.

She closes her eyes.

.

... the end ...

.