Mallymkun's hatpin stabbed and slashed at the tree trunk in front of her, her thoughts punctuated by each slice. They mostly seemed to be disconnected words nowadays, anyway.
She paused and blinked at the mutilated bark. If that tree had been a creature of flesh her height, then it would be lying in a pool of its own blood. The dormouse found that thought oddly satisfying. It made her feel powerful. "Powerful" was something she hadn't felt much of lately. But now, now that she was running free, with no one—no one!—influencing her decisions at all, she felt in more control than she had ever been.
Maybe that was why she'd come here, to this forest somewhere between Iplam and Witzend, near where she'd lived before the Red Queen had showed up and changed everything, before she had met the Hatter…
The Hatter. Mallymkun snarled and shoved her hatpin into the tree as hard as she could, imagining that with it she pierced the bond he'd wrapped around her, keeping her there, working for him for all of those years…
But did he even realize that he had trapped her? Or was he too oblivious even for that?
The Dormouse sighed and tugged at the hatpin, but it was stuck firmly in the bark. She pulled harder, putting all of her weight on it, but it stayed stubbornly wedged in the tree.
"Stupid hatpin!" she shouted at it. "Stupid hat—Stupid hatter! Stupid, manipulative Hatter! You had me at your beck and call, you did, and there was nothing I wouldn't do for you. But I see you now. You're conceited and vengeful, and so obsessed with your little games, and heartless, and cowardly, and such a jerk, and so utterly funny and handsome and sweet, and your eyes…oh, your eyes…!"
And she sagged to her knees and began to cry, because she could see his eyes in front of her, in all of their colors… It was his eyes that had caught her attention first, so vibrant and expressive…it was frightening to look at them when he was angry, and heart-wrenching to look at them when he was sad, and when he was happy, truly happy, they would light up in such a way that the dormouse would give anything, anything, to keep him that happy…
It was so hard to be angry with him. She knew that, given the circumstances, leaving had been the best thing to do, but even now, with this distance between them, and being gone for twenty days—she knew that it had been twenty days, her mind subconsciously keeping track against her will—she also knew that she loved him still. But what could she do? He had hurt her heart, and she had left. It was time to move on. She wiped her face on her sleeve and studied her hatpin more calmly. Maybe if I wiggled it…
Someone's footsteps sounded from very near. Mallymkun cursed softly. In her distress she hadn't heard whoever-it-was approach, and her hatpin was still stuck, and now it was too late to disappear into the trees because the tall figure was coming into view and she was momentarily frozen by surprise and indecision.
"Mally!" Tarrant exclaimed as he saw her.
The Dormouse gaped. What's he doing…How did he find…Chessur, you slurking cat!
She regained control of her legs and turned to flee, but her hesitation had cost her dearly. The Hatter placed a foot in her way.
She didn't want to hear, didn't want to talk to him anymore. She tried to run around his boot, but he bent down and grabbed her around her torso, his fingers trapping her arms to her sides.
"Unhand me!" she snapped, her voice coming out squeakier than she would have liked.
"No. Not until you listen."
"Chessur told you where I was, didn't he!" Mallymkun challenged. "I'll kill that cat…!"
"You've got to hear me out," Tarrant begged. "Please, Mally, I want to talk."
"Oh, so now you want to talk?" the Dormouse sneered. "Great, it's all right when you want something, never mind what I want!"
She struggled against his fingers, but they were shut tight. His grip didn't hurt, but it was firm.
"Well, fine, then! What do you want, Mally?"
The Hatter's eyes wavered near yellow, but pulled back to green as she turned her head from his face. She didn't want to see his eyes. Right now, she needed to hate him.
"I want you to put me down," she said. "And I want you to go away and stay out of my life."
Part of her hoped that her words were hurting him. Another part of her was screaming at her for her unkindness. This is Tarrant! How can you be so cruel? … I have to! I can't be taken in to be hurt all over again!
"I'll do that," he said. "After you calm down, stop struggling, and listen to what I have to say."
It sounded like he was barely keeping his emotions in check. Mallymkun tried to calm herself, mainly by thinking about her list of the ten most painful places to stick a hatpin into a Cheshire Cat. An angry Hatter was a danger to face unarmed and helpless.
There was a long silence, in which he searched for the right way to begin and she stared at him challengingly.
"I've been a fool!" Tarrant exclaimed suddenly. "I've been self-centered and abusive and blind, blinded first by revenge against the Red Queen and then by my own desires. It was easy to just live without care, easy to accept you as just a part of life. But you're more than that, Mally. You're so much more than that. You're brave and smart, and you never give up, and you place everyone else's needs before your own, and on top of all that, you're beautiful. You really are. Some people wouldn't see it. They'd see a mouse, just a mouse, but I see so much more, Mally. I truly do."
Mallymkun glanced up at him. There was so much honesty in his face, so easily seen in his bright green eyes as they met with hers…
"Those eyes," the Hatter murmured. "Simply dazzling, Mally. You're simply dazzling. You're such a treasure, and I handled you horribly…"
He sighed. "What was I thinking when I let you slip away? …oh, yes…I was thinking of me," he sang. "Only of me…What was I thinking, spending each moment of each waking day thinking of me? Shutting you out…"
"Sometimes," Mally added, a part of her uncomfortable with how he was attacking himself.
Tarrant shook his head. "Making you wait," he insisted.
"S-Sometimes…" It was hard to deny what she herself had felt so strongly.
"Too self-involved to say how I do need you…"
…He needs me? The Dormouse barely dared to think the words. He needs me…!
"But why pretend?" Tarrant continued. "I missed the music, I missed my friend. No need to wonder what I would do, I choose the music I make with you…I love the music I make with you…"
And then, as she was staring up at him with tears resurfacing in her eyes, he brought her up to his mouth and kissed her.
Mallymkun gasped, or she would have gasped if she could breathe, which she couldn't because the Hatter's lips were covering her mouth and nose. All of a sudden, a discarded dream was unfolding again before her, and everything felt so complete and perfect… She was so overcome by shock and a thousand other emotions that the one that pushed its way to the front was irrational fear, and she struggled against his grip again.
He felt her resistance, and pulled away, taking her reaction horribly wrong.
"Mally, I'm so sorry, that was so terribly wrong of me to take you like that, I mean you left and I've treated you so poorly that you wouldn't want me anyway so I shouldn't have kissed you and it's odd to think about, a man and a mouse together, how could that work, knowing me I would get it all wrong, I've already gotten it all wrong—!"
"Tarrant!" Mallymkun cut off his rambling. His grip had slackened, and she raised her hand and wrapped her fingers around one of his.
"Do you think," she said slowly. "That I would have stuck around as long as I did if I didn't think that, somehow, we could make it work?"
"I—I don't want to hurt you," the Hatter replied.
"I was just a tad…overwhelmed," Mallymkun explained. "You couldn't hurt me."
"Yes, I could," Tarrant corrected. "I already have."
She couldn't deny that he had, then mentally and now nearly physically, but she wasn't sure how much it mattered anymore.
"Tarrant, I love you," the Dormouse said. "I love you!"
"And I love you!"
"You see," Mallymkun smiled slightly. "If you love me too, then I can't be heartbroken. The pain's already going away."
"Tell me what I need to do to make it go away completely," said the Hatter.
Mallymkun's smile widened. "…You could kiss me again," she said. "Just a bit more gentle this time."
Tarrant's face brightened and he drew her close again and lightly pressed his lips to her forehead. Mallymkun sighed and leaned into his affections this time, placing her hands on his chin.
"Is that better?" the Hatter whispered, his lips brushing against her fur as he spoke.
"Right now, I don't think things could get any better than they are right now," the dormouse replied. "But I wouldn't mind being proven wrong."
Soft chuckling drew both of their attentions to a nearby tree, where Chessur was sitting, watching.
"How sweet," said the Cat. "You can thank me later."
Mallymkun shook her head. "You're unbelievable, Chess."
The Cat grinned. "By the way, it's later, Mally," he said.
"Not yet, it isn't," Tarrant corrected. "There's going to be a lot of later, with the two of us together. Days and days of it."
Chessur winked and evaporated.
"Let's go home, Tarrant," Mallymkun said, placing a kiss on his chin.
"Yes, let's," the Hatter agreed, placing her on the brim of his hat and turning back east, towards the Tulgey Woods, the tea table, and his house—their house, now, and hopefully for a very long time.