5. Alice Kingsleigh & Tarrant Hightopp[1]

After a thousand years of Alices and hatters, of kings and queens, of monsters and death, I had begun to think this was the way of things. The years have left me Wise and Mad, but not Omnipotent. Perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that the slaying of the beast would put an end to it all. Perhaps I had been wrong to ever believe there could ever be an End.

Hope springs eternal, however, even for cats.

I could not help but hope that Alice Kingsleigh would be Alice enough. That she would be The Alice. That Underland would rest at peace. If for no other reason than I would not have to watch its fall yet again. That had grown so tiresome.

Let me be perfectly clear: I helped the Hatter, because I wanted his hat. It had nothing at all to do with Adalheidis and Alvis. Nothing to do with regret.

Alice had slain the Jabberwocky with jaws that bit and claws that catch. But then the Alice left. Without so much as a kiss for our Hatter. I knew from experience that merely slaying the beast would not be enough. I knew from experience that Alice's leaving would no doubt mean no good for Underland. I could find no lasting relief in the fall of the Red.

Tarrant began to worry when the Alice did not immediately return, and he was not aware that the Fate of Underland itself might be in the balance. Although, I am not sure it would have made much of a difference in the intensity of his Want. I could see the slurvishness, the possessiveness (humans believe things belong to them, while cats know better) spreading through him, as he began to think of the Alice as something more than a Champion. The Hatter's first concern may have been He and She no matter if he knew about the machinations of Underland or not.

It all seemed rather familiar. Regrettably so. Cats are creatures of habit, but we do enjoy something new to amuse us now and again. Every century or so.

Everyone else seemed content to celebrate the reign of the White. While I was unwilling to do anything about it—had I not done enough, mixing myself in politics, no less?—it did occur to me that things had gone very Badly when Underland was ruled by three and then two. How much worse could it get in the hands of One? We are all Mad here. Mirana is not above being numbered amongst us. Mad people can be delightful, no doubt, but they can also be Deadly Dangerous.

Everyone else seemed content to Pretend that the Hatter—our resident madman—was waiting. Everyone else seemed blind to the fact that he would gleefully kill Time again if necessary.

No one paid any mind to any of these dangers except for me. Instead of seeing the danger, we played at croquet, composed riddles and rhymes, and sat for tea more than once a day. I spent a good deal of Time making my fur look as luxurious as possible in case some eligible Cheshire Cat presented herself to me. I had no use for Love, but a little toy and teasing would be no great inconvenience if the opportunity arose. It would certainly break up the monotony at very least.

Well, I did a bit more than that. Just a bit. I teased the Hatter. Let me assure you that my teasing of the Hatter was not for any other purpose than my own Amusement. It was not to prepare him to share his Truth should the Alice return. No, not at all. I could care less about their illogical interactions.

"Should the Alice return, you should think of doing something with your hair, Hatter," I suggested, floating before his looking-glass. I was not in the habit of helping people with their grooming for fear of hairballs, but he certainly could have used my assistance.

"How did you get in?" he grumbled disagreeably.

I ignored him, because he knew very well how I came to be anywhere: walls could not hold me. "It's dreadful. Very orange and overly curly. Yes, you should begin to think of it immediately."

He frowned at me. "I can not see myself to look upon it, let alone think on it."

I quickly dematerialized, solving his problem and leaving naught but a grin to block his view of himself.

"My hair is the least of my problems," Tarrant groused. "Better not to look at all." His hand moved to wipe away his image, but he was Real and not a figure drawn upon a steamed up glass.

I sighed, coming to sit weightlessly atop his glorious hat. "You do have the hat. The Alice cannot fail to appreciate that." If she did, she was completely daft.

"Aye," he smiled faintly, no doubt partially charmed by my rhyme. "But the Alice is young," he quickly amended.

"The human child grew up," I reasoned. "She is not as young as she once was." If humans had at least nine lives, like a superior species, they would not be so concerned with age, which is necessarily fleeting.

He adjusted his hat, unseating me unapologetically. "She may never come back. It would be a waste of Time to think vainly about my appearance."

The Hatter had never worried about cherishing Time before. Therefore, I knew his statement was a Falsehood. The faster the grains of Time slipped through the hourglass, the better, whether waiting for a Champion or waiting for a Wife. Oh, I could tell: the Hatter wanted the Alice hearthside, fully Hightopp.

"There is no improving your looks," I conceded. "You are hopeless there." I always looked my best. A quick wash of the fur and I looked Marvelous. Not so with the world weary Hatter.

He snarled at me, throwing a length of linen over the looking glass.

"But," I purred, coming to light upon his dressing table and picking my way around the clutter. "You might prepare yourself in other ways. You might consider what you will Say to the Alice when she returns."

"If," he corrected.

"She promised," I reminded him.

He blinked, looking down at his shoes. "She did," he lisped softly. "How very ungenerous of me to doubt Alice, when she has given me no reason to do so, when she has done nothing but been a true and good Friend. That makes me the worst kind of…"

"Hatter," I groaned testily. It would not do to have him getting lost in his own mind, and I could see he was beginning to circle that drain quite resolutely.

Straightening up, he pulled at his cuffs. "It is Time for tea."

"One moment, please, Hatter. I only ask you to consider telling the Alice how you feel. Words can be just as important as Appearances…with ladies of character."

"Alice has more Character than you can even begin to Imagine," the Hatter insisted, sounding as affronted as his yellowing eyes showed him to be.

Before I made the mistake of making myself sound too solicitous, I grinned, "Then think on what you will Say," I drawled. "Your friends have no wish to watch you moon over her if she does return. Save us that indignity at least. Be direct and be done with it. So she may proceed to rejecting you and we might proceed with our lives."

If only she would Not reject the Hatter. But he was correct, mad though he was: the Alice was young, the Alice was most likely a great deal more appealing than our Hatter, and the Alice was not from our world. Surely she would not come to stay, if she returned. Surely she would not come for our Hatter, if she came at all. Surely Underland would once again come to No Good.

I take no joy in the admission that I may have also suggested Nivens make a trip Above to seek out the Alice. Just for Curiosity's sake, mind you. Just to See what it was Alice was taking care of up there that was taking so very long.

Twitching, Nivens stood before the Queen to deliver his acquired information. "The Champion is traveling."

"How lovely," Mirana said, tilting her head with a serene smile. "Won't everyone be glad to hear how pleasantly our Champion is spending her Time Above?" she mused, with a twirl of her fingers.

She meant the Hatter, not everyone. I knew as much. Presumably everyone knew as much, although no one spoke the obvious. Unmistakable facts can be terribly boring when you compare them to the obscure. It was worth no one's Time to bring up what was as plain as the nose on Bayard's face.

Needless to say, I doubted very much that our Hatter would be consoled by tales of Alice's travel, but then, Mirana has always been overly Optimistic.

"She traveled to another land entirely," Nivens continued. "On a ship. I couldn't follow. I simply couldn't."

I shivered. Sea travel. I could think of nothing worse. All that blasted water in which to soak and drown. "What would cause her to do a fool thing like that?" I sneered. Even an almost nearly Alice enough Alice could make very dubious decisions, it would seem.

"Trade."

Just one word. A word that gave me pause: another Alice with long distance trade on the brain. Brilliant. There is nothing new in this world or any other.

Months passed. With middling interest I watched the Hatter for signs of increasing madness and I did the same with Mirana. I watched for signs that Alice's hoped for return would be too late—either romantically or politically—for Underland.

Yes, it seemed increasingly possible that the Alice would not return. In spite of the improbability, I continued to tease—not prepare—the Hatter for the Alice's return. Prompting him numerous times to know what he would say if she should appear, to tell her how he felt. For, slaying is simply not enough: that much was absolutely clear.

Perhaps the Alice realized for herself just how dreadful sea travel was, however, because despite the seeming improbability of it all, one day she surprised all of us by waltzing into tea time. And oh how much more appealing a surprise is to that which is expected!

What follows, I must warn you, is not my story. What follows is the Tale the Hatter Tells. He told it to anyone who would listen at least once a week for any number of years. Quite possibly his favorite story to bend a listener's ear with, I believe. It is, I suppose, rightly His Story to tell.

...

Alice waltzed from the woods like a blonde vision, and the Hatter quite nearly crushed the teacup in his hand in shock. Instead, drawing upon some inner calm that he had not thought existed, he replaced the teacup in its Proper Place and stood, brushing his hands on his trousers, as his napkin fluttered to the ground. Alice was here—finally, miraculously!

"Move down!" he directed under his breath to the occupant of the seat next to his.

Nivens frowned slightly, hating to always be made to move down at the Hatter's tea parties—he was fastidious enough to find the whole thing rather repugnant—but then, seeing that it was for the returning Champion, he acceded to the demand cloaked poorly as a request with an exaggerated sigh.

A chorus of hello, Alice and good day, Alice, and you're back, Alice and the clapping of paws followed the blonde as she strolled down the length of the table towards the newly abandoned chair, which the Hatter had pulled out with as much gusto as he could demonstrate.

His heart was hammering out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat," because it seemed a very Alicey song and his heart was having a very Alicey moment, as she approached him smiling a very Friendly Smile. It did not escape him that this smile was saved most exclusively for him, for she was not looking to her right at the others gathered there for tea.

"Welcome back, Alice," he lisped with a shy smile, when she stopped before the chair he held for her.

She reached up to touch his sleeve as she took her seat, and he could very nearly feel the softness of her fingers through his woolen coat.

"I'm so happy to be back," she said softly.

The feeling was most definitely returned—tenfold! His mouth could not find the words, but he was certain that his eyes and fidgety face were speaking for him. Oh, there was so much to say.

He reached for the sugar bowl—for salt could not be had at the moment and Luck was desperately needed—and took a pinch, throwing it over his shoulder before taking his seat.

"Well isn't this a happy reunion," the Cheshire Cat purred.

Hatter did not rise to the bait of the thick sarcasm of Chessur's tone. He could only stare in wonder at his Alice here before him. He shook himself from his reverie, however, recognizing that he was being a most Negligent host. If he wanted her to be His, he best pour on the charm in addition to the sugar.

"Tea, Alice?" he asked, his hand shaking only slightly as he reached for the teapot. First, he had not cracked his cup, and now it looked like he might manage to pour tea without scalding anyone. He was doing, for all intents and purposes, better than he had expected he might if…no, no, no! doubting Alice would never do!...when Alice tripped back into his life.

Except, he realized just in Time, there was a dormouse asleep in what had been Niven's teacup and what was now Alice's teacup, so he could not actually follow through with his offer unless he wanted to drown his friend and offer Alice Dormouse Tea, neither of which sounded terribly pleasant.

Hatter cleared his throat. "Mallymkun," he said rather loudly in order to wake her, for the little, fierce warrior had returned to her former form as a drowsy eyed dormouse due to the effects of peacetime, no doubt. "Klotchyn."[2]

"Don't wake her," Alice protested, holding her hand over the cup.

"Yes, don' wake me," Mally mumbled, having awakened enough to speak and adjust her position within the cup so that her back paws dangled over its edge.

"I'll simply have a scone," Alice explained, when she saw the disappointed look that Hatter could not hide quickly enough from her, as he set the teapot back down.

"Barrie norrie!" Thackery exclaimed with a closed fist pound on the table that helpfully sent a tray of scones flying in her direction.[3]

Granted, it was her head they were aimed at and she had to duck, but it was a cleverly efficient delivery method nonetheless. Even Hatter could appreciate that, despite Alice's close call; particularly when it gave him the opportunity to pick wayward crumbs from Alice's loose curls, which he did rather adroitly. This was not, after all, their first tea party: Hatter was skilled in crumb, jam, and cream removal from cotton, wool, silk, and all varieties of fur.

In thanks, she turned that Only for Hatter Smile on him once more, and the things he was supposed to Say to her began to tumble around his mind most noisily, his hand freezing near her cheek. Close enough to touch.

"Have you returned to us?" Nivens inquired with a little twitch of his nose. "For more than a visit?" he added. He might have had more than a passing interest in her answer, as he was always tasked with seeking her when she was Above. He did not particularly relish that role, although it added to his air of importance.

Alice nodded, smoothing her napkin across her lap. "Yes, I expect to stay."

Tarrant's elbow, which was rudely resting on the table's edge, jerked and slid from the table, knocking off his teaspoon and sending it flying harmlessly off to the right.

She turned her gaze on Tarrant, looking a little amused at the disturbance. "If my friends will have me."

"Tae hiv an' tae haud," Thackery twittered, giving a good yank to one ear.

Tarrant giggled to relieve the nervous bubbling in his stomach.

"You've done travelling your world?" Nivens pressed, stirring his tea silently.

"You have such an adventurous spirit," Tarrant lisped with reverence.

"That is great praise, indeed, but I do enjoy travel. I should very much like to explore this world," Alice asserted.

"I think we can all guess who would be willing to go with you, the Alice," Chessur drawled.

"Well, I should be glad of the company," Alice nodded.

Tarrant's eyebrows reached high, as he realized that he was being spoken about. It made him feel distracted and unraveled. "You will have scones, and your friends will have…I'll have…have…" Hatter stuttered.

"Tea?" Alice offered, nodding towards the teapot.

"No, no…that is not right," he said, shaking his head. "I have some tea, you see," he said, bending over to feel for his napkin. It was somewhere on the ground, when properly it should be on his head or on in his lap. His hat was already on his hat, so he intended to replace the napkin on his lap.

"Hatter?" Alice said, addressing him from above. "Are you aware that you have made a rhyme?"

A rhyme? Why, yes, he did! The realization was rather shocking, and he knocked his head in his hurry to sit back up, setting the china rattling. He giggled, napkin in hand, before smoothing it over his thigh, as his Adam's apple did a visible dance. "Yes, I believe I did," he lisped.

"It was lovely," Alice assured him.

"Quiet, please," Mally begged from her cup. "Some of us are trying to sleep, you know."

Tarrant quickly conducted an imaginary orchestra, his lace cuffs brushing the crumbs from his plate as he did, singing so as to put his little friend back to sleep:

"Wee little fingers

Eyes wide and bright

Now sound asleep

Until morning light."[4]

"One of us is trying to sleep," Chessur corrected. "The rest of are trying not to be sick."

"The singing wasn't so bad really," Nivens offered helpfully.

"I wasn't referring to the singing," Chessur said, slowly blinking his bright eyes.

"Have you a cold?" Alice innocently asked, turning an anxious gaze on the Cat.

"Nausea," the Cat corrected, "sickness of the stomach churning kind due to Ridiculous Humans. I could cut the Frivolous Flattery at this table with a fish-knife."

"How unfortunate that we don't have any fish-knives at hand," Alice smirked.

Tarrant could not help but giggle once: Alice was a Snark. It was a good thing he had a great deal of thimbles on hand.[5]

"Divna bowk on the table, Cattie," Thackery warned the sarcastic feline.[6]

"I would never be so Rude," Chessur stated with indignation.

Hatter merely wanted everyone to go silent or go away, because there were things he was supposed to say, things he had practiced telling Alice, and which needed some measure of quiet to do so. Otherwise, they would come out in a muddle, which would not suit.

"What is so fragile even saying its name can break it?" he asked, as his be-thimbled fingers traced the silverware set before him.[7]

Mally's head peeked over the cup, eyes a blink. "Quiet now!" she called out. She paused to nod at Alice, as if she had just realized the Champion had returned, which may have been the case, given her sleepy repose. "Hatta's got something he wants to say," the Dormouse finished authoritatively.

Hatter nodded. Yes, he did. Except, there were now five pairs of eyes trained upon him, most importantly Alice's eyes. Alice's lovely brown eyes, looking just at him and waiting for him to speak. She would be disappointed, he feared. He could never say this as eloquently as he wanted, and she deserved nothing but the best.

"I'll have…" he began again, pausing to nervously straighten his bowtie so that his hands did not flap uselessly as they seemed to want to do. Breathing deeply, he began again, "I'll have you, Alice…if you'll have me."

He closed his eyes as soon as the words were out. That was not exactly how he had planned to say it over the past few months; no, he reminded himself, more than a year. More than a year he had been running through what he would say, and perhaps that had been too long, perhaps the anticipation was too much. His words had not been pretty or according to plan, as he had wanted them to be when he asked the Alice…

She touched his hand. Her fingers, just as soft and warm as he had imagined them to be countless times, worked his hand open so she could place her hand in his.

"Hatter…"

"Tarrant," he interrupted her, which may have been Discourteous, but which was also entirely Necessary, because he so wanted to hear her say it.

"Tarrant," she corrected herself. "Is that a…?"

"An offer," he interrupted again, frowning at himself for being so very Impatient. "It is an offer," he reiterated, his words insisting on being heard. "I'm offering myself, but I'm doing it all out of order."

"Start at the beginning," she urged, squeezing his hand, which he was attempting to pull back, so he could grip at his hair in disgust for doing it all wrong.

"I've spoilt it by being Early," he grimaced.

"On the contrary: you're late. You have no idea how late," Chessur sighed with a flick of his tail.

Nivens began to feel for his pocket watch to assess the Cat's pronouncement, as he considered himself to be an Authority on Lateness.

It did feel like a very long Time in coming, Hatter could not help but admit. But for Alice, it no doubt felt very Sudden. It occurred to him, however, staring back at Alice and feeling her hand in his, that he had begun with the offer and yet Alice was still here, having not stood up and skipped back Above. That was either extremely Good Luck or a very Good Sign.

Whatever the case, he gathered his nerve to begin where he had intended on beginning. He wanted very much for Alice to know how highly he esteemed her. "You are very muchy Alice, and I quite like that muchiness. I quite admire it. You are kind and curious and dedicated to friends and very useful in a crisis. All very good qualities."

"She is pretty," Mally supplied. "You think her pretty, and she would like to hear it, I suppose."

Tarrant was glad for that suggestion, for Mally might be a dormouse, but she was also a female. If she thought Alice might like to hear how very pretty he thought her, he would be happy to oblige. If he had some paper, he would happily compose a sonnet in her honor. But as he did not, he said whatever flew into his mind: "You're as pretty as a bread-and-butterfly indulging in weak tea with cream. Or a lizard lazing on a sunny stone. Or a flamboyant flamingo. Or a particularly eager eaglet. Or…well, Alice, dear, I think you're the prettiest lass in all of Underland."

Alice blushed to the tips of her ears. It was a becoming blush, but he could not help but think that she looked rather uncomfortable. Not at all the feeling that he was hoping to kindle in her heart.

Concerned that he had embarrassed Alice by comparing her to non-human things, he worried his lip. "Did I do wrong to praise you just so?" It might have sounded absolutely gallymoggers to her Aboveland ears for all he knew. Such pretty, Alice ears, he considered.

"It was done just right!" Mally called from her cup, thumping the side enthusiastically. "Wasn't it, the Alice?" she asked encouragingly.

"I'm sure the Alice is completely enamored," Chessur said flatly.

"It was…most unusual, most creative," Alice conceded with a nervous smile. "Thank you most kindly, but should…are these the sort of the things to be said in company?" As she asked her question, her eyes roved over the table, taking in the other teatime guests, who were all evidently exceedingly interested in this discussion.

"I should like to hear them," Nivens put in. "If indeed you are asking my opinion, which I rather think you should: I am something of a representative of the Queen at this tea."

"You are nothing of the sort," Chessur contradicted. "Nevertheless, I would like to hear his nonsensical ramblings as well. They're bound to beTerribly Amusing."

"We all would," Mally agreed. "We've been waitin' to hear 'em."

"Pins and needles!" Thackery called out.

"Shall I?" Tarrant asked, waiting for Alice's permission to continue, for it was only Alice's opinion he cared about in this case. When she did not immediately respond, Tarrant felt Dread grow inside of him, crowding out all other emotions. "The thought that you could feel the same for me as I do for you is Nonsense, for I know there are any number of things that would keep you, Alice, for caring for me, a mad hatter, but…"

"For shame!" Mally called out, climbing from her cup. "I'll stick 'er myself if that's 'ow it will be."

"Now wait," Alice said, looking from Mally, who was currently threatening with a hatpin at her elbow, to Tarrant, who was looking rather expectantly at her. "Wait one moment, please. I rather think I am not being given much Credit."

"We don't have a great deal on hand, I'm afraid. It went on sale—ten shillings, six pence—yesterday and it flew off the shelves," Tarrant said with a giggle, miming with one hand the flapping of wings.[8]

Alice stood, her one hand still in his as she placed her napkin on the table and turned to address the rest of the table. "It is very good to see all of you and I expect we shall visit more soon, but Tarrant I have things to discuss. Private things," she added looking squarely at the Hatter. "Despite the evident interest of the group, I can tell what kind of Offer this is and it is not the kind that should be made before a crowd."

Tarrant stood at this pronouncement, nearly knocking over the table and dragging a corner of the tablecloth with him in his eagerness to go Anywhere with Alice. Even if she was a little cross with him, for he liked cross, bossy Alice—it was the First Alice he ever had the pleasure of meeting.

"How very selfish," Chessur observed.

"Don't follow us," Alice pointedly directed at the Cat.

"Where are we going?" Tarrant asked quietly. It might be his world, but at the moment he was at Alice's command.

"I think the Windmill will suit," she said nodding to the ramshackle building just steps away.

Tarrant responded most adeptly to this idea, half dragging her towards its closed door, which was only ajar for the briefest of moments as he opened it wide enough for Alice to step through and happily slammed it behind them, leaving them peaceably alone. He leaned against its surface, drawing strength from its solidity, as he stared agape at Alice. His thimbles tapped metallically against the wood, providing an atonal musical accompaniment to their private meeting.

She looked just as he remembered her, for he had learned her face well. He wanted to learn how she felt, tasted, and smelled too.

"Are you cross?" he murmured.

"Should I be?" she teased softly.

He swallowed, reminding himself to silence his chirping Fears: Alice is still here, listening to what I would tell her. "Alice, I love you."

Oh, but did it have to be that? He did not recall speaking the words, but he heard them reverberating back at him off the walls and there was no one in the Windmill but himself and Alice, so it must have been himself. For, it would have been very odd for Alice to say such a thing to herself and the doorknob was pressed into his back effectively silencing it, which left only him, the Mad Hatter. Admittedly, that he was in love with her made him the likely culprit whether they were alone or not.

He blinked, having very nearly confused himself. He would have sighed at himself, but he was quite familiar with doing things and only learning about them later. Yes, he was certain he had said it: it was him.

It gave him a strange kind of self-assurance to already have those words floating about the room and Alice still standing before him, so he pressed on, "You are a most excellent friend to have, Alice, and a wise man would be satisfied with Friendship, but I am not a wise man. I am thoroughly mad, and I found myself quite madly in love with you by the Time you laid waste to the Jabberwocky. I have stayed in love with you while you were Above, wishing that I had told that important detail you before you left." He took a deep breath, having used all of the air inside of him like a deflating balloon in his rush to tell Alice how he felt.

"I thought…" Alice said, looking down at the dusty floor as the toe of her boot drew meaningless shapes in its grime, "I thought perhaps that you might be...or that at very least you might fancy me. It occurred to me just as I was leaving on Frabjous Day…Is that terribly presumptuous?"

"It isn't Terrible at all, except to say that it is terribly astute," Tarrant suggested. "Shows that you're rather saganistute."

"I…liked the idea," Alice said softly, looking at him with wide, suddenly muchy eyes.

Tarrant wanted to dash back outside to check her teacup for traces of Cock and Bull Tonic, but he remembered with a start that Mally had occupied the blonde's cup and therefore, she could not have ingested any Cock and Bull.[9] The only conclusion must be! That must mean! There could be no other explanation! If she claimed that she liked the idea of him loving her, then she must mean it, for Alice would never knowingly lie to him. Confidence bloomed within him as brightly as the chatty, cheery Tiger Lilies that danced beneath his bedroom window.

"I think I am very much on my way to feeling the same. To," she paused to reach out a hand to run her thumb and forefinger over his lapel, "loving you. That is why I have come back: to tell you how I feel."

It was simply beyond his abilities to constrain himself. He held out his arms to her. To her credit, Alice, muchy Alice, did not hesitate: she stepped into his arms and pressed her head to his chest.

He felt her breath stir his bowtie, he held her narrow waist, and he smelled her sweet Aliceness. His Senses were very nearly overwhelmed with Alicey goodness. He was learning her already, and yet there was so much more to learn. It had been many years since he sat at a desk, but he was certain he could be a very good student in the subject of Alice.

"There will be Time enough for Offers, Tarrant. Private Offers without an audience," she said with an upward quirk of her lips, as she lifted her head to meet his gaze.

Yes, he would find out later that Alice was not fond of Public Pronouncements and Offers. He was not aware of that at that moment, but he felt a bit sheepish nonetheless. "I was quite…carried away, Alice," he confessed. "I frequently am."

Alice's little nod indicated her agreement just as he felt her fingers rub against his the tweed of his jacket. He wished he had never put the dastardly thing on this morning so that there would be less between himself and his dear Alice.

"I will certainly forgive you your eagerness, as long as you forgive my tardiness in returning to you. Alices are uncommonly late creatures, I'm afraid."

He would forgive her much graver things, but he imagined he would never have to. Not when he took into account the earnest look she was giving him—this was the look of someone who would take great care with him, who would take him into her heart. It had been so very long since he had felt that particular comfort; and this would be far finer, for Alice had the Heart of a Champion. This would be cherishing of the highest order.

"It is forgotten, Alice." Indeed, the months since Alice left were already very much Forgot. Who could spare room in one's already crowded mind for thoughts of an Absent Alice when there was Absolutely At Hand Alice waiting to make memories to fill up that space? "I am fortunately forgetful," he promised her.

"Excellent," she said biting her lower lip in contemplation. "If that is forgotten, we can begin building new Memories, can we not?"

Oh, she read his mind: clever Alice. "Indeed," he hurriedly acceded.

"I should like to explore Us—you and me—types of Memory creation," she whispered conspiratorially to him.

He nodded, his nose bumping hers slightly. Yes! Yes, what a Grand Suggestion. One he was more than happy to pursue. "May we begin?" he asked inches from her lips. He quickly removed his hat with one hand and tossed it onto a deserted table, using his hard earned hat throwing skills for a more pleasant purpose than he had previously had cause. "Begin at once?" he asked again on a whisper.

Her sly smile almost put him in mind of a certain Cat, as he bridged the distance between his lips and hers, while her hands snaked under his coat to lie flat against his chest. The contact of her soft lips and the tempting feel of her warm hands smoothing across his front were enough to make him gasp.

She pulled back slightly, but he chased her; there was a slight clicking of teeth, but he was not deterred, he would not give up so easily. There was a popular Confusion abroad that First Things were Perfect, but he knew better. First Things were exhilarating, exciting, excellent, but they were not elementary and rarely perfect. His first hat was not perfect, but he remembered it most fondly. This kiss would not likely be perfectly choreographed, but he would remember it forever, and he and Alice would learn how to better it—together.

He anchored himself to her as he wrapped his fingers under her jaw and into the fine hair at the nape of her neck before pressing his lips to hers once again. She tasted of…Alice, just as he had imagined she would. Not strawberry tarts or lemonade or spun sugar—inferior things all of them—Just Alice. And she felt like Alice too, leaning against him; her lithe form inclining against him most pleasantly.

Alice was kissing him back—A miracle, indeed!—and slipping one of those naughty, wandering hands along the band of his collar, as if she was feeling for a pulse. If she located it, she would find it racing along merrily enough, trying to outpace his racing thoughts, no doubt, in a race to the finish line.

He wanted more—he always would, for he was greedy and slurvish and covetous—but he stopped, he broke their first kiss as his breath became ragged with awe and fever and restraint. He cursed his meddlesome clothing for the second time today for denying him what he Wanted.

This was only the beginning, he reminded himself: he need not carry away Alice or let himself be carried away by the Madness. The kiss had begun soft and not reached the desperation that it might have with his mouth open against hers, his tongue sweeping against hers, and the answer of hips pressing against hips. No, that was for another Time. This was a kiss that promised future Kisses, a kiss that would no doubt keep Tarrant awake that night with thoughts of Endless Possibilities.

"Are we stopping?" she inquired, blinking confusedly.

"We're just beginning," he promised her.

"Oh," Alice sighed. She was not, it seemed, entirely satisfied, however: she rocked forward on the balls of her feet and pressed one last kiss to the corner of his mouth, just off-center, a pleasantly irregular kiss, only slightly demanding. She stood back flat on her heels.

For a moment he merely admired Alice Just Kissed, who was just as pretty as Just Alice, but also imbued with a flush across her cheeks and moistened lips.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" he asked, reverently stroking her temple with be-thimbled and bare fingers both and touching his forehead to hers.

Alice licked her lips, causing Tarrant to ponder whether he would ever be able to think upon anything other than those lips ever again. Those lips were beginning to imitate that Cheshire smile once more, as if she had just caught a canary. He rather hoped she had not: he liked canaries. But then, he had not noticed any canaries flapping around the Windmill. So, it seemed unlikely…

"I have thought a great deal about ravens and writing desks."

A riddle—his favorite; why, yes, he could think of other things, he realized with relief. Riddles, canaries, cats, and Alice lips all could fit inside his crowded mind if he concentrated hard enough. For he would no doubt become a very tiresome and useless hatter if he spent Time dwelling on nothing but Alice lips. There would be plenty of Time for Alice lips and Explorations and Offers and any number of wonderful things, including the investigation of previously unsolvable riddles.

He giggled, his shoulders shrugging, "So have I! Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

She beamed at him, positively beamed, and his mind went blessedly silent as she began to answer, "I would very much like to find out."

And they did. They most assuredly did. Together.

I was there the day Underland inverted, going from Above to Below. I was there the day it became Underland. We—Underland and I—have witnessed it all together, which might be why Underland speaks to me. Not regularly, mind you, but on occasion. On this particular occasion, sitting outside the Windmill as those two whispered and promised behind its door, Underland whispered in my ear: It is done.

I can see now that Underland was correct. Since the Alice returned and the Hatter spoke his Truth and she took him into her Heart, darkness has not swept our world as it did in the past. I finally see what was hidden to me for all those years: it was not enough to simply slay, because Underland required Love—the Love of an Alice and a hatter. And this pair, this Alice and her hatter were more than enough; they were absolutely Alice and Hatter.

Their Love produced children for the thrones of the Red, Green, and Blue. By the next generation it had created grandchildren for the kingdoms of the Hearts, Spades, Clubs, and Diamonds. In their care and under their careful guidance, balance and harmony have settled over our land.

Cats do not feel regret. If I had dabbled in politics earlier and if I had come to Alvis' aid before the world inverted, there would have been no Underland as it is now. I would not be immortal and immaterial. There would have been no Other Alices. No additional hatters. There would have been no Alice Kingsleigh and Tarrant Hightopp.

I was rather fond of some of those Alices and hatters, but…

Cats have no regrets.

It all happened as it should.

THE END


[1] Alice is an English name meaning noble. Tarrant is Welsh and means thunder.

[2] Klotchyn – heads up, pay attention (Glossary of terms for Burton's Alice in Wonderland)

[3] Barrie – excellent (Sc); norrie – notion (Sc)

[4] This is a verse from "Rock-a-bye Baby," which is both a lullaby and nursery rhyme. Origins are debated, but the earliest recorded version of the rhyme can be found in Mother Goose's Melody (London, c. 1765), possibly published by John Newbery.

[5] Lewis' poem, "The Hunting of the Snark," describes the Snark as being unimaginable. Alice's snarky behavior is just another aspect of her unimaginable character, for she is as curious to Tarrant and he is to her. According to the poem, one of the ways to seek the Snark is with thimbles.

[6] Divna – don't (interrogative form) (Sc); bowk – vomit (Sc)

[7] Answer: silence.

[8] 10/6 is the price of the Mad Hatter's hat, according to the card tucked in the brim.

[9] A cock and bull story is one that is fabricated to deceive or amuse. The earliest recorded use of the phrase is in John Day's 1608 play, Law-trickes or Who Would Have Thought It, but the proverb evidently was already much in use by that time.