Written in response to the opening line prompt for aiw_big_bang over on LJ. This is unconnected to my upcoming fic, Merry Month of May. It is a stand alone.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, for which the author receives no compensation.

The Key

Alice tried to remember who had given her the key. She stared down at the diminutive black key in her palm, willing herself to Remember. She had picked it off her pillow, when she found it resting there upon waking that morning. Tilting her palm, so that the morning light caught the turned metal edges, she considered its size, wondering if this might be a clue to its purpose: it was small enough to open a jewelry box, but looked more like a door key. No matter how hard she squinted at it, however, she had no idea from whence it came or what it was meant to open.

Alice turned her face into the pillow, breathing so deeply that the pillowslip stuck to her mouth. She could not remember the last time she felt this tired. Even her toes were tired. Poor toes, she thought, wiggling them beneath the sheets: they would probably be the first part of her to fall asleep. They deserved it, having been on her toes for the better part of thirteen hours. Three too many at least, but the bed felt like heaven and she could not bear to consider all of the hassles and harangues she had endured during the course of the endless day…

As the light shifted, Alice wondered why, when she had just rested her head, the sun was choosing to rise. She would have grumbled at the infusion of light, but she inexplicably felt refreshed as she stepped forward into the sunshine. She blinked, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the bright burst of light, nimbly stepping through a wide array of flowers.

"Hello," she said to a bobbing pink rose. She crouched down amongst the floral display, wondering at herself for greeting a rose. Cocking her head, she realized that the rose was not what she was expecting. For one thing, it was had no aroma. It also appeared to be made of paper. She reached out a hand to test the petals: sure enough, instead of the softness of a rose petal, she met with the feathery fibrous feeling of colored tissue paper.

And it did not speak. Why should it though? What made her think such a thing would be notable?

She eyed the foliage around her—it all appeared to be made of non-vegetative material: tissue paper flowers, leathery leaves, carved wooden tree trunks, and sugary white sandy soil. Dipping a finger in the white stuff beneath her feet, she lifted her sugar coated finger to her lips. Did she dare taste the stuff? It would be the muchy thing to do, a voice in her head advised her. Licking the stuff, she found that it was indeed sugar—not sand—a bewildering, but welcome discovery. She had no desire to eat sand.

She stood once more, winding her way along the sandy path of sugar, searching for something that she could only assume would be just around the bend.

"Hello?" she called out once more, as she peered around a tree-like structure, although she was now assured that the flowers would not respond to her.

Stepping out from underneath the spreading greenish brown leather leaves, she entered a clearing. A house stood before her, yet it could not properly be called a house, since it was made out of folded paper. "At least it is not made of candy and cake," she mused aloud, as she approached the strangely sturdy looking building.[1] Nevertheless, would a knock on its door be the undoing of the carefully constructed dwelling? She was not lupine: she would hate to bring someone's house down, but she also hated the prospect of rudely bursting through someone's door without warning.[2]

"Excuse me?" she inquired rather loudly—too loudly to be considered a ladylike salutation, but still preferable to denting or otherwise damaging the house. "Anyone home?"

The door flew open and Alice's heart rose in her throat. Her breath came quickly and she gasped as tears began to pool in her eyes. His arms went around her, drawing her to his chest. His chest. How could she have forgotten, she wondered, as she blinked back tears against the roughness of his coat? He was her Hatter. She had faithfully promised not to forget. Sliding her hands along his back, she felt the weave of the fabric beneath her fingertips.

"Alice," he whispered into her hair.

She felt him say it as much as she heard it, raising the fine hairs along the nape of her neck and stirring the pace of her heart.

"You're not made of paper."

"Should I be?" he asked, pulling back slightly to stare blinkingly at her.

"Everything else seems to be."

"Paper and fabric and leather and baking supplies. I used what I had on hand," he explained, smiling softly.

"You made all of this?" Alice asked, realizing that she should perhaps not be so closely pressed against the Hatter, but failing to disentangle herself nonetheless.

"There was no one else to make it," he said, as one of his be-thimbled hands began to thread itself in her hair.

"I could help. I can make tissue flowers too."[3] She leaned into his hand as his fingers massaged her scalp. This was highly improper, but Alice felt compelled to stand still and submit to whatever he would do with her.

"I would always happily accept your help, Alice, but we can't stay here."

She did not like the word 'can't.' "Why? Where are we?"

"Why? Because we must eventually wake up: this is my sleep place."

Alice frowned. "Sleep place?"

"I don't like to dream," he said, his voice lowering a register. "You never know what nightmares await you. So, I come here when I sleep."

Taking a deep breath, Alice finally stepped out of his embrace to look around the world of Hatter's creation. "How did I come to be here?"

"That is something you would have to tell me, cricket," he said, straightening his waistcoat.

"I fell asleep, I think, and woke up here. Were you waiting for me?" she asked, her gaze shifting back to his large green eyes.

"Always," he lisped.

His answer pulled at her heart. She had failed. Failed to remember. Failed to find her way back to him. Years had passed, and they were worlds apart, only here together in their sleep. "I don't know how to get back…" She did not know how she would ever manage to come back to his sleep place, but she also did not know the way to Underland. Now that she remembered him, the idea that he would be lost to her when she awoke was making her feel rather panicked. She wanted to throw her arms about his neck and hold tight. To fight the urge, she gripped her skirts instead.

"The rabbit hole is closed, but where one door shuts, another opens," he said, digging in his pocket and producing something.[4] "Give me your hand, Alice," he said, reaching out to her.

Putting out her hand, Hatter pressed something small into her palm and curled her fingers closed, stroking them with the cool of a thimbled finger.

"What is it?" she asked, since he kept her hand closed around the object with the light pressure of his fingers.

"What force and strength

cannot get through,

I with a gentle touch can do,

and many in the streets would stand,

were I not as a friend in hand."[5]

As he finished his rhyming riddle, he shook his head. "You're waking up," he said, sadness written across his features as plainly as Indian ink on white paper.[6]

"I am? I don't feel as though I am," she countered, but even as she said it, she began to feel as if she was a puff of candyfloss being pulled apart by greedy hands.[7]

"Alice, please come back," he said, seizing her arms, although she could no longer feel his touch. "I need to…tell you things…show you…Not here, but where we are both Fully Awake."

"I won't forget," she promised.


[1] The witch's house in Hansel and Gretel is made of candy and cake. Hansel and Gretel is a fairy tale of German origin, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, who published fairytales and folklore in the first half of the nineteenth century. The story concerns a young brother and sister who discover a house of candy and cake and a cannibalistic witch in the forest.

[2] Three Little Pigs is a fairytale about talking animals. The earliest printed version, found in Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Tales by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, was published in 1843, but the story is likely much older. The three pigs build houses of straw, sticks, and bricks, and the big bad wolf blows down the first two houses.

[3] In the Victorian era, women made paper flowers to decorate their homes. The process began with the dissection of real flowers, so they could trace the petals on tissue paper to create a template. The flowers were made by carefully folding and twisting tissue paper, produced lifelike flowers suitable for decorations. Paper flowers were arranged in bouquets and placed on display in Victorian homes.

Paper folding was not limited to tissue flowers, and therefore, Tarrant may have had the skill to fold a house out of paper. While we are more familiar with Japanese origami, independent paper folding traditions existed in both East Asia and Europe, and it is unclear whether they had a common source. The earliest evidence for paper folding in Europe dates to the fifteenth century, but it may have originated with the Moors at a much earlier date.

[4] "Where one door shuts, another opens," is a quote taken from the 21st chapter of Cervantes' Don Quixote (published 1605).

[5] Answer: a key.

[6] Indian ink ('India ink' in American English) is a simple black ink that was once commonly used for writing and printing.

[7] Candyfloss (called cotton candy in the US) is made of spun sugar, and it was first recorded in the mid eighteenth century, when it was very expensive and labor intensive. Machine spun cotton candy was not developed until 1897 and not popularized until 1904 at the World's Fair held in St. Louis, where it was sold as fairy floss. As a proud St. Louisan, I can go on endlessly about all the delicious things you enjoy that were either invented or first introduced here in 1904, like ice cream cones, iced tea, hamburgers, hot dogs, peanut butter, and Dr. Pepper.