Alice and Tarrant were swept away in a flurry of horses, banners and cheers and joined the Queen and her army, and as one, they stormed the village of Farowen. When the local clans and village natives realised that Marmoreal's army had arrived, they were more surprised at the show of support than they were to be fighting all of Stayne's reserves, and weren't certain how to proceed. Marmoreal had typically turned a blind eye to the affairs of the Outlanders, and to see them at all was fairly unnerving. Several had even thought that they were being hoodwinked and weren't sure who to fight.
Tarrant, knowing the queen's arrival would cause confusion, had quickly rallied his countrymen and women and joined alongside a white Knight that had been struggling against a ridiculously enormous man who had injured at least a dozen Outlanders that night. Together they brought him down, and then the battle was then well and truly on.
Thanks to the unexpected aid, the Loyalists quickly found themselves on the losing side, and within a relatively short amount of time, the clans and the queen's army defeated them. When the Reds' cries of surrender began ringing out on all sides, the villagers cheered, and for the first time in a year, there was much rejoicing to be had in Witzend's largest town.
Thankful to have the violence and bloodshed over with, Mirana had immediately set about seeing her company raise tents to create a shelter for those who had lost their homes, and then everyone was given tasks to handle the aftermath. Alice's injuries, and that wicked gash, had been seen to by the queen, who then asked her to assist with tending the wounded. Tarrant was designated impromptu overseer for prisoner control.
At some point in the busy night, Arris had learned of Mae's attack and had set out to locate her and Lilas while Allander worked alongside Tarrant. Mallymkun, in conjunction with Chessur and his imposing set of teeth, worked the line of Loyalists, threatening immediate action if they so much as put a toe out of order. And if they did, she promptly stabbed it.
For hours they had all worked diligently, and it wasn't until the sun rose the following morning against a backdrop of rosy pinks and soft purples that Alice and Mirana finally got a chance to rest. The queen bid a quick farewell to her Champion to catch a few hours of sleep, and Alice wearily made her way towards the tavern. Her body ached with fatigue and stung with mild pain, and her mind roiled with a thousand jumbled thoughts. She wanted a bed, she wanted the Hatter, she wanted to sleep for hours and not move for days. Preferably beside him.
Mechanically, her feet shuffled towards her intended destination, when halfway there she stopped in the middle of the road. Her sleepy logic caught up to her, and she realised that there would be more room at the inn as it was currently full of the injured and newly homeless. Internally she groaned with frustration, and looked all about. Given her previous experiences she wasn't entirely sure where she could go that she would be welcome. At once the stress and exhaustion from the past day began seeping into her bones, and in a fit of pique tears stung her eyes and a desperate loneliness consumed her.
Hesitant hands slid across her shoulders and she spun around in surprise. The sight of Tarrant's wide green eyes greeted her brown ones, and for a moment all could do was look at one another, each silently acknowledging what they had come through and survived. He stood before her offering solid, unspoken support; his simple presence was a welcoming, soothing balm to her frazzled nerves.
When Alice didn't pull away, his hands slid down her arms and for several quiet moments his thumbs rubbed comforting circles against her tired muscles while she regained her composure.
"How is Mae?" he asked softly.
Her eyes fluttered open. "Arris found them a couple of hours ago. Lilas is tending her at the tavern. Between the pair of them, she'll be just fine," she said and looked away. She still hadn't told him about the Healer's treachery.
Tarrant cocked a lopsided grin and nodded. His emboldened fingers ghosted down her arms to thread in hers as he studied Alice in the blossoming morning light. She fought the compulsion to turn away for she knew she must look horrid. Her hair had reached a new level of unkempt previously unknown; her eyes were faintly ringed with purple smudges; one lip was busted; a long, pinkish-silver streak marred the half-healed spot where Stayne had flayed her (Mirana's poultice be praised), and there were numerous scrapes, scratches and bruises dotted across her skin.
He smiled. To him, she had never been lovelier.
Tears again threatened to fall under his affectionate gaze and she blinked them away.
"I'm tired," she whispered.
"Have you some time?" he asked with hesitation.
Keeping her hands in his, he led her away to a stable where several horses had been bedded down for the night, some still in their saddles.
"Will you come with me?"
Alice quirked a brow in question.
"It isn't far," he promised.
They rode out of the village and into the woods, and as before, said nothing during their journey. Alice abandoned all pretense of nerves and linked her arms around his waist and leaned heavily against him. She greedily absorbed the warmth from his back against her cheek and chest and sighed with contentment.
They picked their way along, and to Alice, the sounds of the waking woodland at daybreak were pleasantly different than the sounds she'd previously associated with the forest. There were cheerful birds chirping along the path; a soft wind kindly rustled the leaves in the trees and on the ground. In the golden morning light, it somehow felt safer now. Welcoming. Protective. As it, perhaps, was meant to be.
True to his word, in no time at all they arrived in a clearing beside a sweetly bubbling brook in which a slightly ramshackle, but endearing, modestly sized cottage sat at its centre. Limbs and branches littered the property, overgrown shrubbery had nearly claimed the front door, and gobs of leaves and debris lined the roof where a fallen branch from a nearby oak had punctured a hole through the thatching. Obviously, it not been inhabited in recent times.
Tarrant tied the horse to a leaning hitch post and raised his arms to Alice. She regarded him quietly, and with a soft smile, slid into his arms, allowing him to help her down.
He bit his lip to stifle a smile that Alice suspected was brought on by a bout of pure Glee, and again, he took her hand in his and timidly led her to the front door.
"This is where I grew up."
Her eyes widened in surprise as she vaguely recognized the area they had passed near the other day. He had… brought her to his home.
Tarrant stared sadly around at the sparse patches of growing grass around the cottage, and the few be-leafed trees nearest the edge of the clearing. The ones further out were dry and lifeless.
"It took a long time f'green ta return ta Iplam," he murmured.
The door creaked open at his touch, and inside it was quaint if not dusty. There was furniture draped in moth-eaten cloths, dark wooden beams in the ceiling were frosted with a layer of spider webs, and in places the windows were so caked with years of dirt that light could hardly shine through. Alice smiled. There was something else here. Even through the dust and perceived gloom there was an underlying feeling of a once well-loved…home. It was perfect.
Tarrant led her inside and waited quietly as Alice inspected his childhood home with curiosity.
"I haven' been here in years," he said, following her into the kitchen where heavy, cobwebbed, black skillets hung on racks, and an empty hearth took up one entire wall. "Could'nae risk it."
Alice nodded. It made sense, of course, that he wouldn't want to lead anyone here and chance having it destroyed. He'd chosen to sleep in caves, or trees, and the hard, cold earth rather than lure anyone here. It was his last physical link to his family.
He watched her carefully and as the minutes ticked by and appeared more and more apprehensive. The home, despite very obviously not having been occupied in so long, held onto that spirit of Home. There were towels on racks, dishes on cupboards – it was as if Life had very abruptly stopped here one day.
"It used ta be nice," he explained. "'Fore tha… before the jabberwock, our family had been fortunate to enjoy some amount of privilege. We were employed at Court, of course." He had drifted towards a dark mantle where small dust covered objects were arranged on top. His fingers brushed lovingly over the worn wood. "Yeh should've seen it then."
Alice watched him with sleepy eyes and a sad heart as his eyes melted into a melancholic yellow and his wild brows wilted with the pain of memories past. How much it must have taken him to be able to come back and allow her in. She watched as he continued his exploration of relics from his youth and imagined how wonderful it could look in the future. All it needed was a little time and care. And several feather dusters.
"It's lovely," she said.
Tarrant's anxious eyes fixed on her and, at her expression, cleared with relief.
"I'm glad to hear you say it," he lisped, once again full of cheer. "This is the ancestral home of the Hightopp Clan." He gazed around at the kitchen he'd spent countless hours in with his family as a young boy. He flicked a glance at Alice. "One day I hope to make it so again."
Alice felt her heart pulse at the thought. Would he want to include her in those plans one day?
"Come," he said merrily, reaching his hand out for hers. "I want to show you my Fa's workshop."
He led her excitedly through a few more rooms, promising to give her a proper tour another time, until they reached a large, cobwebbed room at the end of the cottage. Numerous dusty windows filled with muted but glorious sunshine illuminated this space, lending a cheerful air to the neglected room.
His eyes wandered affectionately over every surface, and Alice gazed in appreciation at the shelves upon shelves of old fabrics and bric-a-brac of a hatter's trade.
"This is where I stitched my first tam o'shanter!" he grinned. "And over here is where I learned how to tie a formal bow."
Alice laughed at his enthusiasm as he flew around the room pointing out this First that and that First this. It was truly wonderful to be in a place as special and sacred as his family home, sharing in his memories. Her chest tightened and an all-encompassing feeling of happiness washed over her.
Tarrant turned and gazed at her with his dopey grin, the perfect picture of peace. She reached a hand out to him in invitation.
He walked towards her, taking it, and pulled her into his arms. There was a sudden bashfulness about him, in the tense way he held her, and she peeked up into his eyes. They were blue.
She chuckled and tilted his chin up to get a better look. "Your eyes are enchanting," she murmured.
He blushed, the darling thing, and kissed the inside of her palm.
She stared up into those fathomless pools and strongly considered kissing him.
"We must get you to bed."
Her eyes widened, and her eyebrows flew to her hairline.
A half-second later his jaw dropped, the flush deepened to an interesting shade of crimson, and he stammered an apology that rapidly slipped between his courtly lisp and rakish burr.
"That is you've been a Very Busy Alice, and of course yeh'll need a bed, an' I jus' happen ta have one – no!, that is, I do, but upstairs, and you will sleep in it on your own time, if you like rather, but don' feel like I'm suggestin' anythin' untoward—"
"Hatter," she said softly, placing her fingers over his lips.
He closed his eyes in embarrassment and quieted.
A bed was exactly what Alice wanted, and even more than that, she wanted him beside her. She laced her fingers through his.
"Will you lie down with me?"
He swallowed and nodded immediately then led her away from the workshop and up a set of stairs to his former bedroom.
Her exhaustion prevented her from taking in too much detail, but a small but comfortable looking bed sat underneath a window hung with dusty, checkered curtains. She sank onto the wobbly mattress, avoided his stare, and undid the laces of her boots then toed them off. He did the same and then anxiously waited for her to signal his next move.
Not intending or otherwise having the energy to strip any other article of clothing off, she slid over to one side of the little bed. An uncomfortable couple of positions later, Alice rolled onto her side and twisted her head around to look up at him. Her heart fluttered nervously in her chest at the look he gave her as he stared down at her lying in his childhood bed.
He cleared his throat and gently eased himself down beside her, and after his own awkward moment of trying to keep from falling off the side to accommodate her, resigned himself to simply curling up with his chest to her back.
He lay tense against her, but regardless she revelled in the warm feel of him and sighed with deep contentment. Boldly, she reached for his arms and wrapped them around her; a move he happily complied with as he instantly relaxed around her with a soft hum.
They lay together on the too-small, creaky bed, in the quiet of his childhood bedroom. As Alice's mind finally drifted off with his arms tightly wrapped around her, a smile graced her lips. She wouldn't trade anything, in either World, for this moment.
Unbeknownst to Alice, Tarrant had awoken and watched her sleep for nearly an hour before he'd finally, gently, shaken her awake a lamentably too small amount of time later. He'd brushed Alice's sleep-mussed curls from her eyes and suggested they return to Farowen to assist the queen before she sent out a search party to look for them.
With a groan, she had reluctantly agreed, and rolled over to blink at him until her gritty eyes came into focus. He smiled that crooked smile that made her breath hitch and leaned forward to place a kiss on her forehead. Alice had to bite her fist to stop from reaching out and tugging him back when he sat up to pull his boots back on. The bed creaked as he turned and held a hand out for her when she hadn't moved quickly enough, and eventually she pulled her own boots on, grumbling. He chuckled and left to untie their waiting mount outside.
Alice sighed. If she were perfectly honest, she was a little upset at having to leave his warm embrace, his bed, and his charming home in the clearing so soon. If indeed at all.
The return trip took no time at all, and they arrived at roughly mid-morning, to Mirana's great relief, and awaited her next orders.
The queen's large brown eyes gazed adoringly at her subjects, and she asked Tarrant to please assemble those who were considered local leaders to meet her for a Much needed discussion as quickly as possible. He agreed and gave Alice a look so filled with longing that it made her positively want to melt where she stood, and left.
Mirana squeezed Alice's hand and gracefully led her to where she'd set up her temporary quarters.
"Alice," she said, gesturing for the young woman to sit in a modest wooden chair beside her equally simple one, "you have been Very Busy." A mischievous twinkle flashed in her doe-like eyes with a grin to match.
Alice quirked her brows, slightly confused and possibly a little embarrassed. "Your Majesty?"
Mirana waved her off with a sly smirk. "You've Found him."
Alice sat calmly on her hard little stool and tried to understand what her sovereign was explaining. Locating him had been her task, hadn't it?
She opted for a safe, simple reply. "Yes."
The queen nodded and smiled. As she spoke her voice grew momentarily sad and contemplative. "You found where he was hiding, and then you Found him and convinced him to come back to us. He'd been missing for so long that I thought even had he come home he would be lost."
With a glance at Alice, though, she shook herself and placed her wide grin back where it belonged.
"But enough of that. Now you're back, and he's back, and everything is getting to the way it should be."
A guard cleared his voice outside the tent and poked his head in respectfully.
"The Hatter has returned, Your Majesty."
"Yes, he has, and excellent, please show him and his guests in." She turned to Alice. "As my Champion, Alice, I'd like it if you stayed."
"Of course," she replied.
Tarrant entered with several men and women who followed cautiously behind him. Allander winked at her as soon as they made eye contact.
Mirana stood while they trailed in. "Hello, everyone," she said as politely and respectfully as possible.
The Outlanders nodded, some returned the greeting, but all regarded her warily. Tarrant aside, there roughly six others gathered.
"Your Highness," Hightopp said with his lisp, "I believe these are the best candidates with whom you should speak."
"Thank you, Tarrant." She addressed the representatives. "I'm sure you're all wondering why I've asked my Royal Hatter to call you here. It is no surprise to any present that the relationship between Marmoreal and Witzend has become… strained to say the least."
Several grumbled in response.
"So yeh've come ter claim yehr authority, have yeh?" said an older man with a long, wispy beard and one squinty eye.
Mirana bowed her platinum head. "I would never wish to encroach where I am unwanted. Witzend has not had a monarch for many years—"
"An' it will stay tha' way!" exclaimed another.
"Let her speak, yeh ignorant goat," a plump, wizened woman interjected, quieting her riled up countryman. Tarrant flashed the tiniest of grins at her in approval. She was head of Clan Longbow.
Mirana smiled politely. "Thank you. I simply meant to say that I have failed you all in lending assistance in the past. It is no excuse, but Marmoreal has had quite a few troubling years recently, and my continuance to overlook the needs of the West resulted in a dangerous situation. You have my sincerest apologies."
A tall man with steel coloured hair stepped forward. "What is it Marmoreal wants in return for its assistance?"
Mirana's lovely eyes fluttered in surprise. "It's friendship."
The gathered clansmen and women considered her words and held a brief meeting before continuing its talks with the Queen.
Tarrant and Alice stayed mostly silent during the discussions, and when the meeting was almost over, the Lady Longbow voiced a question at large.
"An' who exactly did yeh have in min' ta represent us an' our interests a' Court?"
The leaders all mumbled in response and Mirana's brilliant smile was directed at the Hatter.
"Fortunately, I've had a dear member of my staff who has always had Witzend's best interests at heart."
Tarrant's askew eyes boggled and he gazed at the queen with surprise.
"In fact, if you'll forgive me once again, he's been here this whole time on my orders. I couldn't risk letting Stayne's power grow any further. My only regret is that I didn't send him sooner."
Alice felt a warmth blossom in her chest as she gazed at him in full reticence.
"Well then, boy?" asked the steel-haired lord.
The Hatter's mouth worked silently for a moment. "I am merely a hatter," he said quietly to the group at large.
Alice stepped forward and placed a hand in his. "You're more than that."
He turned his emerald eyes on her and beamed.
Mirana gazed at the pair of them. "Mm, you do have a point, Tarrant. Should you accept a role as Witzend's diplomat, I would certainly need to find another hatter as skilled as you." She sighed and went on. "I would also terribly miss your company as, of course, you would be required to divide your time between your two homes. Oh, you do have a home here, don't you?" she asked sweetly.
Tarrant turned to look at her, understanding dawning on his face.
"Aye, tha' he does," Lady Longbow said. "An' it's been empty for too long. It's high time tha Hightopp Clan re-established itself if yeh ask me."
A few members nodded in agreement. Tarrant's cheeks and the threads of his tattered jacket flamed pink with unspoken happiness.
Mirana placed a delicate hand upon his arm. "Do you accept, dear friend?"
Alice squeezed his hand in encouragement and he nodded a weak affirmative.
"Excellent, then it's settled. The Hightopp's shall be named Witzend's official diplomat to Marmoreal until such time as they deem necessary." At his sudden stricken look she added, "With limited official hatting duties. Tradition is tradition of course."
He sighed with relief before another concern flashed before his eyes.
"Your Highness," he lisped and cast an uncertain gaze about the assembly, "a Clan, that is, there is still only the one Hightopp. You said 'Hightopp's'…" his voice trailed off sadly, a vacant expression settling across his features.
Mirana shook her head and flicked a glance to Alice. "I'm certain it won't be an issue for much longer." With a grin, she turned towards the snickering clan leaders and continued light discussions. Alice tugged on his hand to lead him away.
While they exited, the Hatter blinked rapidly at the queen's suggestion and snuck glances at Alice through his lashes. She, for her part, was full to bursting with pride, and as soon as they left the tent, she brushed a kiss to his cheek and flashed a radiant smile at him.
"Tarrant, this is wonderful for you! You'll be back at Court, and making hats, and can work on your family's home." She sighed with happiness and leaned her head against his chest.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close, an equally beatific smile on his lips.
Quietly she murmured, "Soon everyone will be home."
Tarrant held her in his arms, and at her words his grin faded. "Everyone will be home," he repeated with a whisper.
Alice found herself suddenly released from his hold and looked up to find Dark Hatter staring back down at her. His eyes had returned to a sickly yellow and the smudges underneath were black. "Home."
He flinched and took a step back. "Hatter again?" he said accusingly.
His fists balled at his sides and he paced anxiously back and forth. "Hatter again. Hatter, again," he repeated over and over.
Farther off the queen and clan leaders had emerged from the tent. Mirana said goodbye and waltzed to where Alice stood staring at Tarrant in alarm. She looked between the pair.
"What has happened?"
Alice shook her head and shrugged. "I have no idea."
The Hatter was grumbling nonsense to himself and continued pacing back and forth.
Mirana watched him warily. "Perhaps he needs a distraction. We're getting ready to leave, but before we go, I would like to check on the sick once more. Will you come with me?" She cast another glance at her Hatter and fluttered her fingers. "Let's bring him with us."
Alice assented, and when the queen asked Tarrant to come along, he briefly snapped out of his mental tirade with a shake and followed after.
The trio made their way to the tavern first, and all the while Alice snuck concerned glances at him. He, for his part, ignored her entirely.
They made their rounds with Mirana showing serious concern about the lack of suitably trained people tending the ill.
"Where are your Healers?" she asked a young woman changing bandages.
"We don' have many, Highness. An' Thistle won' come ou'v Mae's room."
"Thistle?" the queen asked.
Alice stepped forward. "She's a Healer. Her sister owns this tavern and was injured." She added, "They were part of the group who helped Tarrant."
Mirana nodded and furrowed her brows. "Was she hurt gravely?"
The young woman replied. "Nae, ma'am. She's doin' much better nauw."
The queen and healer looked around at several people quietly moaning in pain. "I don't understand. Why isn't Thistle out here then?" To her logic, leaving people who needed care unattended was simply unacceptable. It was akin to purposefully causing harm, which was, of course, against her vows.
"Guilt." Tarrant said quietly.
The queen's lips thinned silently, but they moved on eventually making their way to where Mae was resting peacefully abed. Lilas was sitting in a chair by her side and barely made any move to acknowledge their entrance. Alice frowned.
"How is she?" the queen asked gently.
Lilas glanced at her briefly. "Weak. She lost a lot of blood."
The queen nodded and opened her lips as if to add something further but paused. Then, "Battles and war are never easy, but you mustn't place the blame for your sister's condition solely upon your shoulders. She volunteered to help Tarrant and knew the full repercussions of her actions. You both should be proud of what you've managed to accomplish."
Alice narrowed her eyes remembering exactly was Lilas had "accomplished" and itched to speak, but was stilled by the look of pure misery upon the anguished Healer's face. Lilas turned her face away and said nothing in reply, refusing to even look at anyone.
Mirana placed a hand in sympathy upon her shoulder and swept out.
Alice and Tarrant stood tensely in the room while Mae slept. Through the silence Lilas glanced at Tarrant with an expression filled with heartache. He met her eyes once with his flame red ones, and then looked away, specifically, to Alice. Lilas bent her head and drew in a shuddering breath. He had made his choice.
Despite her underlying anger, Alice couldn't help but feel sorry for the woman in her hour of darkness. And while had she longed to say something about her role in her capture, a larger part of her accepted that Lilas' protection of Tarrant and the fact that, in the end, despite her unwavering loyalty to him she had still lost, was enough to call them even. Exposing her for something that now had no bearing on the future would do no one any good, and at any rate, Lilas seemed to be in the midst of her own personal torture as a result.
"I hope that Mae has a swift recovery," Alice finally said. She sent Mae one final look and turned to leave the room.
Tarrant, who had remained silent the entire time, began to follow, and when Alice disappeared around the door, he stopped in front of the woman, keeping his gaze fixed ahead.
"Lilas." One word, hard as stone and edged with Madness, was all he said.
Her lower lip trembled and a silent tear fell to the floor.
The last Hightopp stood before her one moment longer and then resolutely left her and the room behind.
Rounding the corner, he nearly slammed into Alice, who had been waiting in the hall. She stared up at him, her eyes wide, and jaw set.
"Do you know?" she asked, having heard his exchange.
He opened his lips to speak but ultimately said nothing and brushed past her.
Enraged, Alice tore after him. Once outside he continued on to find the queen as bid.
"Hatter!" she yelled.
He spun around, eyes wild. "Not. My. Name."
"I'll call you what I bloody want!" she shouted, temper fully engaged. "Did you know about Lilas?" she asked again, her blood boiling, and willing the word 'betrayal' to stop echoing around her skull.
He stared at her, chest heaving with emotion, and pursed his lips. "I had many suspicions, but I had hoped… to be wrong."
She gaped at him then as her jaw fell open.
"You knew her alliance this whole time? And you said nothing?"
His fingers fluttered anxiously and he squeezed his eyes shut as Madness threatened to consume him once again. "Her loyalty was ultimately—"
"To you? Well then, in that case, you should be up there with her and everyone can get back to way things were, and you can all be one happy family!"
She knew she was being childish, but her jealousy and hurt had overridden Sense, and the idea that he perhaps preferred her was too much to handle on too little sleep. This time she brushed past, leaving him behind, and stomped off.
In shock, Tarrant stared and then set his jaw and strode after her.
"Perhaps I should, yeh'll be wantin' ta ge' back Home. Far be it for me ta try an' stop yeh."
"What?" she hissed, glaring ahead.
Several yards off the queen, along with Chess, Mally, the Longbow brothers, their mother and a few passers-by had stopped conversing to watch the spectacle.
"Lovers quarrel," Mirana sighed mistily.
"Lovers?" Allander repeated, scandalised.
The pair's voices carried over again.
"Yeh never stay, Alice." he finally said with a broken voice.
This stopped the Champion in her tracks and she stared at him.
Tarrant wrung his hands then shook his head in despair and once more began to pace in a way that resembled a tiger she had seen once at a zoo in London.
"Yeh never stay," he said again, exhaling a great rush of air, wilting before her like a man defeated.
"Yeh always come when tha World is fallin' apart. And once yeh've fixed it, yeh go off again an' leave me to crumble into a thousand tiny pieces." His voice lowered and his eyes fell to the ground. "They are very hard to find and put back together."
Alice was struck speechless.
Beneath a mop of red, a pair of pale green, sad eyes pleaded with her to Understand. "You'll leave again. And again. And again and again and again—"
He closed his eyes.
A rush of emotion swept through Alice, nearly knocking her off her feet, and more blasted tears stung her eyes. Carefully, and with Purpose, she closed the distance between them and placed her hands on his cheeks. Was his behaviour really because of something as simple as fear?
"Tarrant." She leaned her forehead against his. That road that Alice had been trying to avoid crossing while they'd been fighting to survive appeared as if it had finally arrived. It was all or nothing. "When I said 'home' I meant… with you. I feel more at Home here than anywhere else."
She felt him tense beside her and when he looked up, he regarded her as a puppy might its favourite child.
"My family is in Upland, and of course I'll go back to visit, but I hope, that is, I know you would like to rebuild your childhood home, and I would love nothing more than to," she stuttered, feeling completely vulnerable on the brink of her admission. "And I know you have a history with others but, if there was any way that you—"
Tarrant, having now experienced being on the other side of someone's inane rambling, decided the best way to handle such a thing was with a kiss. He gently pressed his lips to hers and slowly, his clasp against her tightened with the hope that this would be all the answer she would need. Alice felt a huge weight lift from her at his touch, and she eagerly responded. Laughing through tears and fierce kisses, she clung to him with all the desperation and affection she could manage.
"Och, look a'tha'!" Allander Longbow groaned in disgust and disappointment from his place beside the queen. "I haven't a chance in all of Underlan' nauw."
At his side, Arris clapped him sympathetically on the shoulder. "I'm not sure yeh ever did, brother. Come on, let's go check on Mae."
The pair turned away from the queen's party and headed towards the tavern, past the oblivious couple, with Allander ribbing him good-naturedly. "I nearly did."
"Yeh weren' there a'th'start of tha evenin'. Eatin' ou've tha palm o'me hand, I tell yeh."
"Yehr dreamin', lad." Their voices faded until they disappeared, and Mirana attempted to not see her Royal Hatter passionately embracing her Royal Champion as if Underland were ending that very night.
After a moment, she politely cleared her throat, twice, and eventually they broke apart to find they'd had an audience. Alice immediately stood up straight and averted her eyes in embarrassment, while the Hatter smirked at Lady Longbow with a swagger in his stance.
"I beg your pardon," Mirana said, "but my emissaries and I are ready to leave for Marmoreal, and it would be of great service to me if you both came along to retrieve supplies to bring back to Farowen."
They both nodded in agreement, and Tarrant, who was already missing Alice's presence against him, took a long sidestep towards her and craftily slid his arm around her waist. From then on out he would have absolutely no shame when it came to her.
The queen exhaled happily. "Very well. You shall come to Marmoreal, I will swear you in as my newest dignitary, and then the pair of you can return to help rebuild and," she pursed her lips and arched an elegant brow, "get settled." Aside, she leaned over to Alice and whispered, "I'm very excited for you, my dear."
The White Queen's page led her brilliant, snowy stallion over (with footstool), for her to mount, and she daintily took hold of the reins.
"Oh!" she said with a start. "There are so many things to plan! We'll need to get started at once on a celebratory ball to mark our victories – you'll both be in attendance, I trust?"
Alice's eyes widened in surprise while Tarrant nodded emphatically.
"I've never been to a Royal Ball before," Alice mused.
"Had you waited even a day, you would have been stunned at the last one," Tarrant murmured sarcastically.
"Will this be a formal occasion then?" he asked with excitement. A gleam appeared in his emerald eyes, and he fairly bounced on his toes. To those gathered, it seemed as if the Hatter was starting to come back to his old self.
"Of course," Mirana answered.
He flashed his trademark gap-toothed grin and clapped. "Excellent! I have so missed my hat."
At this, Chess frowned at finally having to relinquish the beloved head wear and bid the group goodbye with a puff of smoke.
The bandersnatch arrived, looking much improved after a good night's rest and care, and affectionately greeted Alice, and Tarrant helped her to climb up, with Mallymkun following shortly.
"I'll be happy to see you reunited with your top hat again," Alice said.
He leaned forward on tip-toe and placed a kiss on her lips.
She turned her chin to the side and whispered into his hear in a tone full of promise, "I look forward to afterward taking it off of you as well."
Tarrant went stiff, his mouth agape, eyes wide and brilliantly blue-green. An instant later, he snapped into action and leapt up behind her, patting the bandersnatch enthusiastically.
"Well, let's be off then! We haven't another moment to spare, and I'm very tired of waiting."
With that proclamation, the White Queen's escort, the dormouse and bandersnatch, the Champion and the Hatter, set off into the late morning sun with full hearts and the promise of a bright future.
And like most fairy tales, they all lived happily ever after.
A/N: Thank you very much to all who gave this story a shot and read this little Alice fic. It was... a learning experience. ;) I would SO love and appreciate any feedback or con. crit you may have - not kidding when I said it was a learning experience.
Thank you again, everyone!