Hamish Ascot, for the first time in his life, really felt like he understood how Alice Kingsleigh felt under the scrutiny of a society that didn't understand her.

His mother was glaring down her nose at him from across the room, and he was struck by the fact that Alice had told him (more than once) that he often made that very same look at her when she was behaving "out of sorts," as he would put it. He held his own head as high as his dignity could manage, ignoring his mother's dissaproval as best he could (which was difficult, as his mother's dissaproval was not something he was used to bearing, but reflecting and enforcing).

It was just another testament to just how much Alice Kingsleigh had shaped his life that his mother would be the one giving him that look now.

He couldn't blame her, though. Hamish knew he must be loosing his own mind, allowing this strange man into his – their - home. But, all the same, the moment Alice's name had slipped through the rambling lips of the outrageous scottsman, Hamish had known there would be no turning the man out.

Not if he was a friend of Alice's.

And, despite a very embarrassing rejection in front of practically everyone, Hamish still couldn't shake his love for the young woman. She had, after all, been the woman he had thought he would spend his life with; a thought that had been instilled since early childhood.

Being rejected hadn't been something that had ever occurred to him - though, upon reflection of Alice's habit of doing everything that was unexpected, it should have. Or something along those lines.

He was giving himself a headache, and the odd man with the vibrant orange hair's nervous twitchings and ramblings wasn't helping.

"Please," Hamish cringed at his own politeness, as he was sure this strange man did not merit or even deserve it. Only for Alice's friend, he reminded himself. "Sir-" Realizing, belatedly, that he still didn't know his "guest's" name, he paused, waiting for it to be offered.

The man didn't seem to notice, and continued his ramblings, which, to Hamish's worry, were growing more and more vehement, and after that episode in the garden-

"-an i' i'nna doin me nau' good ta' ezel 'ere ifin she made 'er choice, naught for usal, ef she be pickin' ya slurvish lot, e'en ef I bein plum gallymoggers BUT NAH ENUF TA' TELL THA GIRL 'NUNZ' SHUD A TOLD 'ER 'NUNZ'-"

Growing very, very worried, Hamish clapped his hands loudly between himself and the growling man. "Sir!"

Instantly the man snapped his mouth shut, and Hamish could have sworn his eyes flashed – but then the pale stranger was smiling like a dumb child, trailing off lightly, "-nunz, scrum, size, fez...I'm fine."

I most certainly believe you are not, sir, Hamish thought to himself. But, then agian, he had heard many people speak the same of Alice, in whispers, and he, in his foolishness, had tried to protect her from herself and make her conform to "sane" standards. But Alice would not be supressed, for Alice was Alice, and would be Alice, and no other. Maybe he was the mad one, having tried to take that from her.

He was not going to even try it with what was shaping up to be Alice's mad friend.

Getting back to proper eticate (for Hamish knew nothing else), he replied, "Yes, well sir, I am Hamish Ascot. Might I have your name?"

The man stood, with none of his earlier nervousness or anger, and smoothly whipped his large, rather tattered top-hat from his head and bowed. "Tarrant Hightopp, Milliner to White Queen Mirana, of the High Court of Marmoreal, one Hero of Underland in respect to the Frabjous Day, humble servant of The Alice."

Hamish vaguely heard his mother's sharp intake of breath at the long and obviously distinguished title of the supposed madman before them, but he was more taken with the way Tarrant Hightopp had said Alice's name. Reverently, breathlessly, like it was a holy title, the sound a caress on his tips.

No one had ever spoken so highly of Alice in all of Hamish's life as this man had with only two words. Not even Charles Kingsleigh, who had adored his youngest daughter to no end and had dotted, with pride, on her and her eccentricies (most of which she had undoubtably inherited from him). Not Helen, who, despite doing her best to never tarnish the Kingsleigh family name, had never been one to take hearing any of her precious ones spoken ill of, even if she herself thought that her husband and her little girl where odd – that was something she loved about them both, even if they had frustrated her to no end.

No, the way this man's eyes sparkled as he repositioned his hat (with much unnecessary florish, but that could be expected of a hatter showing off his work, couldn't it?) and the way he obviously revered Alice made Hamish feel like his love paled in comparison – and Hamish had (agian, foolishly) once believed there was no man alive (God rest Mr. Kingsleigh's soul) who could or would ever love Alice as much as he did (though Mr. Ascot had once joked he'd give him a run for his money, for Hamish's father would always see Alice as his daughter, marriage or not).

But no, he shouldn't be jumping to conclusions so quickly. He'd barely learned the man's name, let alone his relationship with Alice – or even if they were referring to the same Alice (not that there was any real doubt that there were any other Alices about the area who would befriend such an...eccentric looking...and behaving...foreigner).

It was then that Hamish clicked his tiring emotions off and started sifting through the facts he'd just been given. His mother had been much quicker on the uptake than he.

Lady Ascot took a hesitant step forward, forcing a pleasantly curious smile and failing only slightly. "A milliner for royalty, are you Mr. Hightopp? I'm afraid I don't recall the country you spoke off, but as much as dear Alice travels-"

So she's 'dear Alice' now, is she mother? Hamish wanted to sigh at her petulance. His mother had never been too extremely keen on having Alice as Hamish's bride, though when faced with all the good it would do the family as presented by his father (for Alice Kingsleigh was a prize, to be sure – Lord Ascot hadn't always thought Charles Kingsleigh sane, but he had enough sense about him to know bringing his son with him on business trips to the Kingsleigh household couldn't not be beneficial, though he'd had no idea how true that would become) she'd warmed up to the 'arrangement' slightly. Everyone in his family, and even Alice's, to be honest, had just assumed that, since Alice was such an odd girl and she and Hamish had been friends since childhood, that he would always be the one with her, as he had always been (he hadn't bothered to correct them on the fact that, though he and Alice were always thought to play together, they had rarely spent any time together after they were left alone).

How wrong that had turned out to be.

But his thoughts were getting away with him again, as they often did when he thought of Alice (and only when he thought of Alice, for Hamish had been raised to be a serious man to balance out Alice's dreamery, and was not often taken with thoughtful fancies). His mother was listening closely to Mr. Hightopp's surprisingly innocent voice prattle on.

"-and now, I know I promised myself I'd be patient, but I just couldn't wait any longer, in case Alice had once again forgotten her own promise to come back, and I figured me breaking my promise to myself (since I'd never break a promise to Alice, so it was a good thing she'd had no part in it) was much better than Alice breaking hers, as she is Alice and as such is so frightfully good-hearted that I'm sure she would be very cross with herself over the whole matter, and as she is the Champion, she shouldn't be chastised for such things – not even by her own self, for no one would want to be chastised by the Champion, such a dishonorable punishment, and I'd hate to see Alice make herself cry, for she almost drowned Nivens once, crying so hard, but she wasn't much her own size then, and obviously didn't have her muchness about her, and Alice isn't hardly Alice without her muchness, Absolem agrees with me on this, and Absolem rarely agrees with anyone on anything even when they agree with him. And speaking of Absolem, he told me he found Alice out and about some six months ago, sailing and such. Sailing! Is there nothing Alice can't do?"

When the hatter actually paused, looking at them curiously, Hamish decided that this man was much more prone to talking than Alice was, but just as much of a scatterbrain, and he was going to need to keep him on track if they wanted to learn anything. Taking this opportunity, he asked politely, "Might I inquire as to how and when you met Alice, Mr. Hightopp?"

The other man slowly frowned. "I could be asking you the same thing. You say you know Alice, but I have no proof of that. And even if you do, Alice spoke as though she never much liked it here, so that means you must not have been very good to her. And as happy as I am that Alice came to Underland and I met her in all her great Alice-ness, Ah sorely wudna tolerate anaone who hasna made Alice's life anathin but the perfect it shuda been-"

Starting to recognize the growl of scottish brogue in the hatter's voice, Hamish quickly decided it was time to interrupt, eticate sacrificed for the better. "I'm afraid Alice is out sailing at the moment. She and my father are on a business trip to China, though they sent word last that they were on their way home. Still, it will be some weeks before they return."

Hamish locked eyes with Tarrant Hightopp and stared, shocked, as the man's eyes truly did turn colors while his face seemed to battle with his emotions. And then, suddenly, he was all innocent smiles again, gap-toothed and polite. "What's a week?"

Hamish thought that was an odd question, but he wasn't so ignorant of other cultures that he didn't realize they might not use the same words for things (though this was something that he probably should have learned before coming to England). "Seven days makes a week, sir."

The man's face twitched. "And how long is a day here, normally?"

Hamish's frown deepened slighlty. "Twenty-four hours."

Again, a twitch. "And an hour is..."

"Sixty minutes."

"And Time always runs on schedule here, not fickle or prone to dilly-dally?"

Now Hamish was worried. This was most definately not a normal question. "No, sir. Sixty minutes is always an hour, sixty seconds are always a minute, and there are always twenty-four hours in a day, as well as seven days in a week."

The hatter's smile fell, and his eyes dimmed. Even his clothes seemed to loose some of their outrageous pomp – but that just wasn't possible...

"My father said he sometimes believed in six impossible things before breakfast."

He remembered Alice's face as she'd said that, dancing in his arms and smiling, laughing melodically as she talked about what it would be like to fly. It had been precisely ten minutes after that that he had gotten down on one knee in that gazeboo...

...and it had been another ten after that when Alice had looked him in the eyes and said "I'm sorry, Hamish. I can't marry you. You're not the right man for me. And there's that trouble with your digestion."

(Really, what on earth had his digestion had to do with anything? Had she really had to bring that up?)

Was the idea that she could marry Hamish, live happily, that he could be the man for her been so impossible that even Alice couldn't have believed in it?

Hamish abruptly drew a loud breath up through his nose. Now wasn't the time to be thinking such things. He had a crazy man to worry about. And said crazy man was speaking distractedly.

"So Alice won't be back..."

"For at least two more weeks, maybe more." Hamish finished, eyeing the now sad milliner. He looked so downtrodden, it was almost pitiable.

But then-

"Then I suppose I'll just go to Alice's home and wait there until she returns!" He pipped up, looking chipper at the prospect.

Hamish flushed. "You can't just go up to the Kingsleigh's and demand to stay there and wait for her!"

The other man frowned. "Why not?"

"It's not polite and it's not proper." Hamish seethed, feeling like he was a kid again, trying to talk Alice out of one of her crazy dream-schemes. "A man just can't come calling on a single woman's home like that, and he especially can't stay there, even if said woman isn't home. Besides, you would be a burden on Mrs. Kingsleigh, Lowell, and Margaret."


Now Hamish was getting annoyed. This man was Alice's friend, but he didn't know her family? "Alice's mother Helen, obviously, as well as her sister, Margaret, and Margaret's husband, Lowell Manchester. They tend to stay with Mrs. Kingsleigh when Alice is away, so that she won't be alone."

"Why would Alice's mother be alone? Isn't her father home?"

Hamish stared in horror at the man, unable to believe he didn't know of Charles Kingsleigh's death over a year ago. When Mr. Hightopp started speaking again, Hamish thought he was going to correct himself and apologize for being so foolish as to forget Mr. Kingsleigh's death, but instead he found himself horribly offended. "Oh, I know! How silly of me – Alice spoke highly to Absolem of her father, and he to me, though it took some time to get anything out of him as Absolem always has to be so wise and such, though I'm not at all sure he isn't just doing it to show off, but I take it Alice's father is the sort to be just as muchy as she is, and thus out on the seas as well?"

Hamish clenched his sweaty palms at his sides, trying both to make sense of what was just said and, in figuring it out (mostly), not to be appalled. "Charles Kingsleigh was indeed much like his daughter, and I'm sure he would have loved to travel the world, but I'm afraid Mr. Kingsleigh is no longer among us."

The hatter frowned agian. "Isn't that what I just said?"

Hamish felt himself sag in the shoulders at the incredulity of it all. "I mean to say-"

"Well, if you meant to say it then why didn't you from the start?" Mr. Hightopp snapped.

If he isn't the moodiest man I've ever met...

Hamish fought to keep his composure, raising his head high again and straitening his posture, deciding to be blunt. "Charles Kingsleigh passed from this world over a year ago."

"And to what world did he go?" The hatter asked, sounding as annoyed as Hamish felt.

Having lost all patience, Hamish replied, "The world of the dead, Mr. Hightopp."

It took all of five seconds, watching his eyes slowly drain from a washed out green to a dangerously golden yellow, for the Hatter to have another incident.

This one, Hamish later reflected, was much worse than the first one in the garden.