The sun was low in the sky when Mally reached the clearing. She paused before approaching the table, peering out around a tree. Tarrant was already there, sitting in his usual chair with his chin resting in one hand in a ponderous sort of way.

No good hesitating now, the dormouse reproached herself. I'm here to hear what he has to say, and I won't get that hiding from him. Whatever he's going to say, that is.

She hadn't dared try to guess what he was going to say. It had been easy enough to say that she'd come; convincing herself to actually go had taken most of the day. She'd caught herself wasting time trying to decide what to wear, of all things! As if she had a large wardrobe. In the end, she'd worn her usual breeches, white shirt, and red jacket. The jacket that he'd made for her, all those years ago.

The Hatter quickly lifted his head when he saw her coming, his hand falling to the table with a slap.

"Mally!" he exclaimed cheerfully. "Come, sit. You're just in time for tea."

Mally gaped for a moment. Never mind what she hadn't dared guess would happen; she hadn't expected that kind of greeting! She quickly shook off her shock and climbed up to her old seat. Best to go with the flow. Probably.

As she settled herself atop the skinny tower-like seat, she looked at what was on the table, and again found herself staring. The table was neatly set, and it was covered with absolutely delicious looking food. There were finger sandwiches and tarts, and even a cake. It was just like the first time she'd come to the tea table with Tarrant and Thackery, after convincing the Red Queen of her madness. In fact, if she overlooked the absence of the March Hare, whom she really wasn't sure where he was these days, it was exactly the same, as best as she could remember.

"Squimberry tart?" Tarrant offered, moving the platter closer to her.

"Yes, thank you." Mally stepped onto the table and pulled a tart off of the plate. She broke off an appropriately sized piece and took a bite. Tarrant took one of the pink-juiced pastries for himself, but then he stopped and stared down at it.

"You used to bring these berries back to me, in the years before Gribling Day," he said.

Mally froze. She tried to swallow the sweet tart, but her mouth had gone dry.

"That was a very strange time," the Hatter continued. "So much had gone wrong… It was like time stopped for me. But it didn't for you, did it."

That time. The Lonely Years. Years of hiding from Red Knights, of caring for an unresponsive Hatter, of living without any hope for the future.

Tarrant was looking at her now. "That must have been a very difficult time for you," he said, his voice low and soft with sympathy. "But you stayed nonetheless."

Mally shrugged, not knowing what to say and relieved that her full mouth excused her from answering.

Why did he say that? Why bring that up? He's never talked about that time—I never dare to think about that time! Why bring it up now?

But before she had to respond, Tarrant had abruptly switched back to cheeriness.

"Delicious!" he said, taking a bite out of the tart. "I've always liked these. But it's been so long since I've baked anything; I had to find Thackery to help me out. Took me ages to find that silly hare, and my kitchen was such a rathsty afterwards! I guess that's why I don't bake very much."

He flashed her a toothy grin, and Mally found herself resolutely gulping down the piece of tart and smiling back at him.

The evening continued in a very merry fashion. Tarrant seemed eager to engage Mally in conversation, and she gradually began to counter his banter and laugh at his jokes, bad though they often were. They talked about everything from the weather ("It's a bit warm for this time of year, yes, but that makes it much more comfortable to spend time outside." "True, but it will be nice once it finally snows.") to their old friends in the Woods ("The bloodhounds passed by the other day; those pups are growing so quickly, and they're the most energetic balls of fur you've ever seen!"), Mally's job training recruits for the army ("I think they're ready for real combat. There've been complaints from Iplam about Outlandish beasts crossing over; the Queen might send us to drive them out."), and riddles ("No, Tarrant, I still don't know why a raven is like a writing desk." "Neither do I! When we know the answer to that, then we'll know everything, now won't we?")

It wasn't just the table that was like the old days, Mally soon realized. It was everything. She felt like she was getting to know Tarrant all over again. When was the last time they'd just sat and chatted, leaving all troubles someplace far off as they laughed the hours away?

Too long ago.

This is where I fell in love with him, Mally thought suddenly as Tarrant stood up, his plate clear and the sun long since disappeared beneath the horizon. Here at the tea table, me and a man who'd saved my life and I his, recovering from a war. That's what I fell in love with. That crazy man who taught me how to care again and who made me laugh even though I'd lost everything.

Where has he been all this time? Where have I been all this time?

"Come along," the Hatter was saying, holding out a hand. "The stars are out and about; let's spy on their party."

Mally nodded and stepped onto his open palm, and he carried her into his house, through the halls to his bedroom. Then he set her down on the windowsill and leaned against the wall, his eyes trained on the heavens.

The dormouse looked at the sky. There were the stars, twinkling high above like they always had.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat, how I wonder where you're at…" Tarrant sung under his breath. Mally smiled to herself. That silly little song, that had helped them out so much in the past. What had gotten them together at the tea table in the first place.

"It was so easy back then," Mally said suddenly, surprising herself as her thoughts were voiced. Tarrant turned his deep green eyes down to look at her, silently waiting for her to continue.

"Everything seemed so…so simple, just sitting here being happy and free," Mally slowly went on. "You, and me, and Thackery… Sure, there was a war, but it always seemed to be somewhere else. Here, things were happy and simple. And then, after the war was over, that was when things became difficult."

She paused. "That doesn't make much sense, does it?" she asked. "You'd think all the troubles would have left with the Red Queen."

"She was a bringer of troubles, that she was," Tarrant said. "But life itself is full of troubles. Troubles with uncooperative weather, troubles with daily chores, troubles with other people… But if there weren't troubles, would we ever know what was truly good?"

Mally shrugged. "I guess not," she said.

Tarrant looked out across the clearing, off towards the distant horizon.

"You are in love with me," he said. "I thought I knew what love was, not too long ago. Now, I'm not sure. Things have changed so much; there have been so many new troubles… But I have been thinking, Mally, and there are still a few things that this mad mind of mine knows for certain."

He looked down at her again, and his eyes met hers.

"I know that I care about you very much, Mally," he said. "I know that I would do anything to help you. I know that you are someone who makes me laugh one moment and who makes me feel absolutely gallymoggers the next. I know that I can talk with you and fight with you and cry with you and just sit with you, saying nothing for the longest time, and take comfort from your presence. I know that throughout all of the hardships, all of the war, you've been there at my side, ready to help, always willing to do what needs to be done. I know that we were friends, and that distance after the war dampened that friendship.

"That is why I invited you here tonight. To see if all that was still true, if that friendship, that caring still existed somewhere inside of me. And it did, Mally. It does. I don't know if it's love; I don't even know if I'm ready to try to love again so soon, but I'd be willing to take things one step at a time, if that is all right with you. You are a very special dormouse, Mally. I'm willing to try, for you."

Mally felt like her heart was going to beat its way out of her chest.

He'd be willing to try. To try, for me. It might end up as nothing. But it's a start. Oh, it's a good start.

"Of course it is, Hatter," Mally replied. "That is absolutely all right with me."

Tarrant grinned down at her, his white teeth glinting in the moonlight and his eyes reflecting the starlight as he set a hand down on the windowsill, palm-up. The dormouse set her paw in his hand, a smile coming easily to her face for the first time in many weeks.

On the roof above them, the Cheshire Cat stretched contently. He briefly considered dropping down and ruining the moment, for old time's sake, but he wisely thought better of it.

He'd meddled enough for one lifetime.

Finis.

XXX

I just wanted to thank everyone who kept this story on their Alert list, even with the three-month gap between chapters. Everyone who read, everyone who reviewed…everyone who argued over the direction I took the plot (my first controversial story! I feel like I've accomplished something, haha)… To all of you, thanks.

I'll return to Mally and Tarrant and the other Wonderlandians eventually, but I think I owe my other stories some care first. See you later!

I wrote this chapter after listening to the song "Ready to Take a Chance Again" by Barry Manilow If you're interested, here are the lyrics:

You remind me I live in a shell,
Safe from the past, and doing' okay, but not very well.
No jolts, no surprises, no crisis arises;
My life goes along as it should, it's all very nice, but not very good.

And I'm ready to take a chance again,
Ready to put my love on the line with you.
Been living with nothing to show for it;
You get what you get when you go for it,
And I'm ready to take a chance again with you.

When she left me in all my despair, I just held on,
My hopes were all gone, then I found you there.

And I'm ready to take a chance again,
Ready to put my love on the line with you.
Been living with nothing to show for it;
You get what you get when you go for it,
And I'm ready to take a chance again,
Ready to take a chance again with you,
With you.