Chapter 1: Alice
She had not known what to do, here, on this battlefield. Honestly, she is still not sure how she had managed to defeat the Jabberwocky. With pure muchness, the Hatter might say. But now is not the time for reassurances meant for her. She regards the Hatter – the tasteless, thick blood of the Jabberwocky coating her tongue – and knows that this moment is not for her. It is for him. And, for the first time in her life, Alice knows the right thing to say.
"Hatter, why is a raven like a writing desk?"
The smile he gives her is full of sorrow and pride and hope and something else that does more than tighten his stretchy smile and puff up his chest. Something that makes his eyes glow and the tension bleed from his brows. Something…
"I haven't the slightest idea," he confides.
She is entranced by that look, by the meaning that is bursting to make itself known to her.
The Hatter takes half a step forward – Why only half a step? she wonders. He is not a man who bothers with half measures! – and whispers softly in her ear.
His breath is warm and stirs the strands of her disheveled hair against her sweaty neck. When he half-steps back, that look is still there, straining against his simple, happy smile. Straining…
She leans toward him, entranced by that look, aching to understand… and then suddenly she is floating-flying-soaring (Yes, now she knows what it must feel like to fly!) up the rabbit hole. The light from the mildly overcast day blinds her as she scrabbles and scrambles out of the hole. For a moment, she sits on its edge, contemplating the abyss below her soles. Her dress is smudged and probably ruined. Her hair is loose and she suspects the sharp pain in her head, near her temple (where she'd knocked it against the stones on the battlefield) will develop into a very annoying goose egg before the day is out.
But she cannot dawdle here, dwelling on that; she has much to do. The party, Hamish, her mother… they all have to be dealt with. But not yet. Alice takes one more moment to remember the Hatter's parting expression, to savor his proud smile. She recalls his nearness in that instant in which he'd bidden her farewell. "Fairfarren, Alice…" She regrets that she hadn't thought to inhale just then. Or even lean her forehead against his shoulder. Or…
"Humph!" she scolds herself. She could not stay. There are questions she must answer and things she must do!
And she does them.
"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."
"I love you, Margaret, but this is my life. I'll decide what to do with it."
"You're lucky to have my sister for you wife, Lowell. You'd better be good to her. I'll be watching very closely."
"There is no prince, Aunt Imogene. You need to talk to someone about these delusions."
"I happen to love rabbits, especially white ones."
"Don't worry mother. I'll find something useful to do with my life."
"You two remind me of some funny boys I met once in a dream."
Part of her is proud of herself for asserting her independence – she makes the path, after all! – yet, as she listens to herself, part of her is appalled by her own very poor manners. These guests had taken the trouble to come all this way to attend her engagement party. True, she had not consented to – or even been properly informed of – the engagement itself until it was too late to do anything about it, but these people do not deserve such ungrateful words.
And yet, for this very bad behavior, she is rewarded.
"You've left me out," Lord Ascot gently interjects.
"No I haven't, sir. You and I have business to discuss."
And they do, despite her childishly daring dance. Lord Ascot listens to her proposal, asks her to apprentice with the company and Alice can feel herself smiling but…
She is confused. Horribly confused. What is going on here? Why does she feel as if she is a passenger in another girl's body? Why is her life moving onward without her expressed permission? Why does she keep moving forward, as if she is a mere puppet or an unwilling actor in a play? What can't she stop herself?
Suddenly, Alice is overwhelmed with new work and responsibilities. The tedium of her burgeoning career, her mother's disappointment and London itself swirl, become a frightening whirlwind, around her. Surrounding her! For a time, she can only close her eyes and imagine pressing her palms to her ears. She does not want these duties, these boardroom meetings, these colleagues who look down their noses at her, a mere girl in their midst! But, despite her efforts, she cannot shut her eyes and ears to them completely. The Alice that everyone sees does not seem to mind or notice their scorn. But the Alice within – her true self – feels the sting acutely.
And then – at last! – a peaceful patch of clear weather calls to her. When she dares to look around her, she finds herself on the bow of a ship, dressed for travel. The color of her suit mocks her, reminds her of the garments she had worn in Underland, the garments that had been thoughtfully altered for her, but this is not Underland! Where is she going? To China? On an adventure – a meaningless, silly quest that hardly compares to the death-defying trials she has already endured – to buy spices for people who will only ever want more-more-more? She stands on the bow of the ship, alone.
Is this her life now? Having rejected Hamish, she must now take this lonely path? She stares out at the flat, featureless water and the endless horizon. Two halves that are destined to be apart, no matter what her eyes show her.
This is WRONG!
Alice despairs as she considers the wide world before her. Where are her friends? Why is her life leading her away from them? Away from Underland and him?
And then a bright blue butterfly flutters past her cheek. Her heart leaps with painful intensity within her chest. "Hello, Absolem," she whispers, relieved. Absolem is here and even if she is a stupid girl, he will take her home.
She watches as he ascends into the uncharacteristically fair English sky. She aches to join him, to go with him, to fly. The suit she wears is too bulky, layered, stuffy and heavy. The shoes are too stiff and tight. The air is too empty of laughter and the world around her lacks any trace of friendship or goodness or even warmth.
Friendship, goodness, and warmth… She had felt them in Underland, even in the most unlikely of places: at a moldering tea table in the shadow of a ramshackle windmill, in the Bandersnatch's frumious hut, in the hat workshop at Crims with the Hatter's iron shackle clinking with his every movement…
She stubbornly stares up at her fluttering friend. Tears stream from her eyes. They burn her skin as they spill onto her cheeks but she doesn't blink, doesn't look away.
Take me with you! Take me HOME!
The sky seems to scream with light, to pulse with infinity and still she does not look away.
She screams back in silence. Regret bursts forth from her very being in the form of a single word:
She flinches, cringes against the odd, unyielding casing that rubs against her body. Her mouth feels sticky and too warm: with her silent screams, some of the Jabberwocky blood she had swallowed has pooled in her mouth again, clinging to her tongue and teeth and lips.
"Alice?" a man's voice whisper-lisps at her. She feels his hands on her face, cradling her head.
Emotion rushes, hot and thick, into her throat. Hatter? she wants to ask, but can't. Asking implies an acceptance of whatever answer is given and she will not tolerate a denial. He must be the Hatter. He must be! She doesn't know what she'll do if the sound of his voice is merely a trick that her ears are playing on her.
"Alice?" he tries again. His tone is tireless and taut with tension. "Have you decided to stay?"
And because the answer is a resounding yes, she opens her eyes and sighs with acute relief.
The Hatter is kneeling over her on the battlefield, beneath the overcast sky. The clouds themselves grumble as the sun endeavors to shove his way through and illuminate the realm of the White Queen with the light of victory. At the periphery of her sight, the queen herself and Alice's friends still stand. Alice knows she ought to be embarrassed by her predicament. Here she is, having quite obviously collapsed onto the stones, and now the Hatter cradling her across his lap in a posture so intimate she ought to be alarmed. She isn't.
"Alice?" he prompts again, waiting. As he waits, his fingers brush against her cheeks, wiping away her tears, and she sees the iridescent gleam of a viscous, purple liquid upon his stained and scratched fingertips. The blood of the Jabberwocky, she realizes, and the tears that had felt burning-hot against her face are one in the same.
Still, she cannot speak around the knot of Everything in her throat. How is it she is here again, having just lived months – no, years! – Above?
"Have you chosen Underland, Alice?" he lisps, his brows twitching as he supports her armored shoulders amongst the weed-crowded stones.
She studies his face. Behind the pleasant expression, she senses a desperation that makes him stare at her, unblinking.
Is that what she had just experienced? A choice? The blood had shown her what her life could be, were she to return?
"You…" he rasps. His tone sharply contrasts with his benign countenance. He clears his throat. "You could still go back," he warbles, his voice cracking on the final syllable. "But you must take care not shed another tear while your eyes are open here."
The fact that he does not even notice the rhyme shocks her, awakens her to the gravity of the situation. She has cried out most of the Jabberwocky blood. If she loses any more, the path that leads back to her family and London will be closed to her. Alice thinks about that path and considers its destination: China. She then imagines a different way she might choose Above, an alternative choice… until it leads her to marriage to a lord. Unacceptable!
The Hatter gently brushes her damp, Jabberwocky-blood-soaked hair back from her temples and she leans into the thoughtful touch. She does not know where this path – the one that leads her from this battlefield – will take her. She suspects that, just as she had lived the one in London in a whirlwind of moments, she is living this one with the speed of a slow spillage of treacle.
She takes a deep breath. She fights against the hinges of the gauntlets and uncurls her fingers, reaches for the Hatter and holds onto him as he holds onto her.
His wide-eyed gaze travels over her erratically as she moves and shifts closer to him. He looks as if he expects to wake up any moment, as if he suddenly fears it is he who is the dreamer and she the dream. "Alice…? Your family…" he reminds her, breathlesssly. "Your home…!"
"Is here," she answers, at last raising her arms. He leans forward just as he had when she'd replaced his hat, accommodating her as she loops her shaking arms around his shoulders. She curls her steel-encased fingers into his jacket and hangs onto him. "I am home."
She does not know what she will do here, who she will be, but she will not be that lonely, ungrateful, ambition-drunk girl on a boat. She will not. She will be better. She simply hopes that the Hatter, and all her friends here in Underland, will show her how.
But first she still has things to do and questions to answer.
"Is it real?" she asks him, her throat tight and eyes stinging. "If I go back now, and speak to them – say my farewells – is it real?"
He considers both her expression and her words. "If you're dreaming, then nothing is real."
"No," she suddenly decides. "If I'm dreaming, then everything is real."
"Including me?" he dares.
She smiles. "Especially you."
The Hatter grins happily and Alice sighs, content in that moment. But it doesn't last. It can't last! Not when there are people waiting for her Above. Yes, there are things she must do, but…
Alice removes her arms from the Hatter's shoulders and then shakes off her gauntlets, tossing them aside carelessly. She reaches for the Hatter's purple-smeared fingers and wraps them around her left wrist. "Hold on to me," she orders him thickly. She can feel the last of the tears burning against her eyes. If she sheds them now, she will lose this chance forever. But if she sheds them above, she will lose him… "Hold on tightly and don't let me go."
His expression moves from a flicker of puzzlement to earnest dedication in an instant. "I will help you remember," he swears.
With a nod and a tight smile, Alice closes her eyes and swallows deliberately so that every last drop of blood slides down her throat. She thinks of her home, the party, the rabbit hole, and…!
"Ow!" Alice cringes away from the root she'd butted with her head. Dirt from the rim of the rabbit hole rains down on her and she spits and shakes her head to get it out of her mouth and eyes. She sighs and glances up at the bright circle of light just beyond her reach. She digs the toes of her boots into the hole's earthen walls and, with a bit of scrambling and a great heave, she manages to emerge.
Alice levers herself onto the grassy knoll and gazes down into the hole's depths. Her eyes sting, as if she'd just been crying. She lifts the somewhat clean backs of her hands, pressing one after the other to her cheeks, but feels no trace of wetness. How odd. With a sigh, she returns her attention to the abyss beneath her. Had she truly fallen down there? She must have. Her head aches a bit and, when she lifts a grimy hand to her hair, she feels a hard bump on her scalp. What had happened? It's difficult for her to remember. Before she had fallen, she'd been running, chasing something… She'd seen it just after Hamish had asked her to—
"Hamish!" she gasps, horrified. "Oh, well done, Alice. Running off like that. Truly a moment of grandeur, that." Groaning, she pushes herself to her feet. What is she going to tell him? She doesn't know. But she certainly can't hide out here or even down that old rabbit hole forever! "I have to tell him I can't. I can't marry him," she mutters to herself.
But then the oddest thing happens. A strange pressure – from some invisible source – squeezes her left hand. She looks down at it as she curls her fingers in and then stretches them out and wiggles them. She waits. Nothing happens. Perhaps it had simply been her imagination that, just now, it had felt like someone had grasped her hand tightly. Yes, just her imagination. Nothing more.
"Right. Hamish," she scolds herself and with a deep breath, sets off in the direction of the unwelcome engagement party.
Next up is the continuation of Chapter 1, from Hamish's point of view. (I think you'll enjoy it.) (^_~)