It had always been the case for Alice that she didn't usually remember her dreams unless they were bad ones, the most common involving falling or her father disappearing. Both of which had cropped up in her nightly REM cycle more often than she'd liked those first few weeks after returning from Wonderland. But eventually they had gone from 'regular' back to 'rare' as the time passed, and now if she had any dreams, good or bad, they mostly revolved around Hatter.
That she saw him everyday and her mind still felt compelled to keep him around even in sleep told Alice she had become well and truly hopeless when it came to her rogue Wonderlander. There had been a time, beginning that first week after he had followed her back to her world, that she had worried with Hatter literally taken out of the context in which their relationship had begun, that the two of them wouldn't make sense anymore. He would realize what a boring Oyster she was, and what a boring place she lived in compared to the mad chaos of his homeland. And she would realize that she had gotten the feelings wrong, again, and it was only the situation that had made what she had felt between them seem different, special, real.
But then he had come home from work one evening with a cake to celebrate passing his ninety-day probation period, and an hour later they had looked at each other over a thoroughly demolished pile of chocolate and cream, and both of them had started laughing, and kissing, and using the leftover cake in some very naughty ways, and while Alice might have forgotten both their names for a moment at the end there, the only thing she forgot for good were her fears.
But that was neither here nor there, as she was pondering the nature of her dreams right now and the fact that the one she was currently having was very much out of the norm for her, as it didn't involve Hatter, or her father, or falling—the last of which she was grateful for.
It involved a cat. And tea.
Alice watched with bewildered amusement as a very rotund tabby sipped daintily from its teacup, one fuzzy pinky aloft, nail politely retracted. The cat vaguely reminded her of Dinah, if her late pet weighed twenty pounds more than she ought and had a purpley sheen to her fur. And if she knew how to properly prepare and serve tea—but that went without saying.
The cat set down its cup and picked a sweet roll off the tray. For a table that barely sat two, there was quite a spread. A multitude of tiny cakes, cookies, fresh bread and scones, with butter and a variety of jams to go along with it all. Plus three different pots of tea, a giant bowl of sugar and two of cream.
"Your tea will get cold if you don't drink it soon," said the cat.
Alice looked down at her cup, which did indeed seem to be shivering with the beginnings of a chill.
"This must be the strangest dream I've ever had," she declared.
"In what way?" asked the oddly-colored feline.
"Well, to start, I've never had tea with a cat before."
"And what a terrible thing to miss out on, as I've been told that I make quite an excellent tea partner," it said with the utmost sincerity. "I can't tell you how many times I've left the table only to have them call after me, 'Our dearest, Chesh, do have one more cup before you go! Give us a parting tail!' But of course I never do, as I've only got the one you see and have no inclination to part with it, no matter how much they beg me to."
At the name "Chesh", Alice started. She gaped at the overweight feline, which had finished its roll and was now cleaning its whiskers free of the crumbs. "You mean… you're the Cheshire Cat? The Cheshire Cat?"
It looked up at her, yellow eyes huge and luminous in its face. It's lips parted in an impossibly wide grin, teeth sharp. "As surely as you are the Alice."
"But I'm not 'the Alice'," she said. The words came out weary. She'd been over this with people too many times. "I'm just… Alice. An Alice. At most, the current Alice, though even that is giving me too much credit, I think."
The Cheshire Cat cocked its head, that unnerving smile not shrinking an inch. "Why do you think that?"
"Because! The only reason I got involved in that whole… escapade… was because I felt guilty and obligated to Jack. And the only reason I defeated the Red Queen was because I was fortunate enough to find people to help me." She added in a mutter, "Along with a lot of pure, dumb luck."
"And that doesn't make you Alice—why?"
Alice huffed. She wasn't going to waste her breath arguing with a cat. "Nevermind," she said.
"What an odd thing to say," mused the Cheshire. "Never mind what? Everything should be minded at least sometimes. Otherwise, if you never minded something, it's for a surety that you would become neglectful with whatever it is, and then who's to say you wouldn't mind other things? Your step, for instance. Or your manners! What a dreadful thing that would be, if you stopped minding your manners. They're very important, manners are."
Was it possible to become mentally dizzy? Alice was certainly feeling close to it now.
"Shouldn't you be in Wonderland?" she said.
The cat tipped its head back thoughtfully. "Should I be? Perhaps. That's where I usually am. Though I can't recall a reason for me to be there now."
"But you have a reason for being in my dream?"
"I do, in fact," said the Cheshire, much to Alice's surprise. "I have something to tell you." It tapped its furry chin with an equally furry paw. "Hmm. It's quite important, if only I could recall it. Tea is such a delightful distraction, but a distraction nonetheless. One forgets all sorts of things when counting out the sugar cubes."
"This sugar isn't cubed," Alice pointed out. "You're either teasing me or stalling. If it's important, you need to tell me. Is it about Wonderland? Jack? Is it Charlie?"
"Do you like guessing games?" the Cheshire inquired abruptly.
"Not really," said Alice, not sure what it was getting at.
"Then why are you playing one now?"
Alice bit her lip and sat back, waiting. The Cheshire took another sip of its tea, lazily swishing the contents around as if fascinated by the dregs. Faintly, she heard him purr. Definitely teasing. The damn cat was milking the moment for all it was worth, which was almost all of her patience.
At last, it said, "Ah yes, that's right. It's about the Hatter."
Alice had been reaching for her teacup as it said this—the poor cup was turning a distressing shade of blue and rattling quite noisily on its saucer now—but at the mention of Hatter she jerked so badly she nearly knocked the little thing over.
"Hatter? My Hatter?"
"Indeed. They are coming for him."
This had her sitting up straight. "They who? Why?"
"They should've arrived by now," the Cheshire went on, as if she hadn't spoken. "So I would wake up now, if I were you, before it's too late. You don't want them taking him, trust me."
It didn't occur to Alice that the cat might be lying, or that this was just a dream, and shouldn't have any bearing on reality at all. If someone was coming for Hatter, she had to wake up. She had to warn him, protect him.
Alice shoved away from the table so hard she almost upended it. Silverware rattled. Grass crunched under her feet as she stumbled away. She hadn't been aware of her surroundings before, but now she saw that they were in some sort of clearing. It was night, and the long shadows made everything looked gloomy and faintly menacing. In the distance, a windmill with ragged fans turned slowly, counter-clockwise.
Wake up! Wake up! she told herself. But even as panicked as she was, she stayed asleep.
"Try the tea," the Cheshire suggested, plucking up another scone. "Tea always helps."
"How will tea help me wake up?" Alice demanded, turning in circles as if she could find an exit somewhere. Gritting her teeth, she pinched her arm. It hurt, and it didn't work.
"Like this," said the cat, and when Alice turned back around to look, received a splash of cold tea right in the face.
Alice came awake with a jerk. The bedroom was still dark, though it had lightened enough that she could make out the books in the bookshelf across from her, telling her it was sometime early morning. Her gaze landed, as it did every time she woke up, unerringly on the worn book halfway up the shelf, squashed between a copy of Catch-22 and a binder full of dessert recipes: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Everything was quiet, all was as it should be, and though panic lingered, she couldn't recall why. Did she have a bad dream?
Hatter was warm and snug against her back, one leg pushed between hers, the fingers of his left hand curled loosely over her hip. His breathing was deep and even and it helped calm Alice's racing heart.
She pressed further against him and sighed, reassured by his closeness while acknowledging the irony of it. When they had first moved in together, she had not been so enamored with his clingy sleeping habits.
"Have you always been such a cuddler?" she had asked him after waking up in a similar position for the third night in a row.
"I am no' a cuddler," he had been quick to defend. Giving her nose a playing poke, he said, "But you, my Alice, are a blanket hog."
"I am not!" said Alice indignantly. She had avoided sleepovers with her previous boyfriends whenever possible, but surely she had stuck around long enough for at least one of them to notice such a thing and point it out to her, if that were the case.
"You most certainly are," said Hatter, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her over so that she was flush against him. "And the way I see it, I can either fight you for the sheets every night—which, considerin' your tendency to kick, isn't per'aps the greatest idea—or I can stick to you like honey so tha' no matter how much of the blanket you take, I'm still covered. Between the two, I think the choice is obvious, don't you?"
"It's 'stick to you like glue'," mumbled Alice. "Not honey."
Hatter made a face. "Who wants glue all over them? Honey, on the other hand…" And rolling her under him, he had proceeded to show her, with much cuddling and hands-on demonstration, just how much better his version of phrase was. Needless to say, by the time he had gotten through with her, Alice had found herself very much converted—to both cuddling and honey.
A thump came from the living room, quiet, but not something Alice recognized as a normal night sound for the apartment.
"They are coming for him."
Like that, it all came back to her. Her dream, the Cheshire's warning, and her fading sense of urgency, now returned in full force. Run! Hide! Fight! Protect!
Behind her, Hatter's breathing stuttered as he woke and he went tense. Lightly, he squeezed her hip. Alice nodded, knowing he could feel it. Yes, she was awake. Yes, she had heard that too.
Silently, they untangled from each other and crept over to the door that led to the living room, both adjusting their nightclothes as they went. Luckily, they had been too tired to do much more than fall into bed last night, so they were fairly decently dressed for a confrontation. Hatter had on boxers and a t-shirt; Alice, a tank and pajama bottoms. She wished there was time to grab Hatter's old Kevlar vest out of the closet and throw it on him, but she knew even if she could dig it out, he'd only force it on her instead.
She was a little ahead of Hatter and so claimed the right side of the doorway, giving her first crack at whoever was on the other side when it opened. Hatter tried to nudge her over, but she stood firm and met his gaze as well as she could through the darkness. Her point was clear: I'm not moving.
He nudged her again, more firmly this time. She batted him away and made a quick judo move in the air with her hands. I know how to fight, remember? I got this.
He waved her off and mimed shooting a gun. That won't help you if they're armed.
He made a fist with his right hand. Alice rolled her eyes and jabbed a finger at him. That won't help you if they're armed, either.
From the other side of the door came another thump and a muffled curse. It sounded like someone had stubbed their toe on one of the boxes she and Hatter had yet to unpack from their move. There were whispers from what sounded like several men. Alice didn't recognize any of them.
Hatter still wasn't budging and Alice had to fight the urge to snap at him. They didn't have time to argue this. If the Cheshire was right, these men were coming to get him, and that meant, armed or not, she was taking the lead on this. He was just going to have to deal.
So she punched him. It wasn't a hard punch, more a fisted shove to the solar plexus, but it caught Hatter by surprise and he stumbled back. It was only a couple of steps, but it was enough to get him on the other side of the door and out of the way. His shadowed expression said he wasn't happy with her, but at least he stayed put.
The whispering abruptly ceased; the doorknob turned. Alice readied herself. Across from her, Hatter did the same.
The door swung inward and Hatter used the momentum to kick it back, catching the first person who stepped through in the face. The man fell back with a grunt, knocking over two more men who were behind him.
"They're awake!" someone yelled, and Alice leapt forward as a fourth man came charging through. She grabbed him and, in one graceful motion, flipped him over her shoulder, sending him crashing to the ground and hearing the air leave his lungs with an audible, "Oof!"
She faced the three rising men. Even when the first one made it back to his feet, he hesitated to attack. Alice, in turn, made no moves. He was very tall, having almost half a foot on the other men and more than a foot on her—not that it intimidated her at all. As someone of her diminutive size, she was used to sparring with such height differences.
Hatter was around the door now. He grabbed the man she had thrown and hauled him up by his collar, reaching over and slapping on the bedroom light with his free hand as he did so.
Everyone was forced to squinted against the sudden brightness. From the corner of her eye, Alice saw Hatter's shock as he took the man in. He looked just like the three standing in front of her: dirty, with a scruffy beard and bulky, layered clothing that was faded and worn. But he was clearly older then the others, his skin saggier, with wrinkles around his mouth and eyes and copious amounts of gray in his hair and beard.
He grinned up at Hatter, revealing several missing teeth.
"'Ello, mate," he said. "Long time no see."
"No," Hatter breathed.
"You said tha' the last time, too. Didn't help you then, either, if I recall." He directed a glare over Hatter's shoulder at the others. "Stop yer gawkin' now, boys, and finish this. We haven't got all day."
Nodding, the tall man pulled something out of his pocket. It was small and square, much like a ring box, and Alice hesitated, unsure what he intended to do with it and whether or not she should touch it in order to take it from him.
Hatter whirled around, saw what the man was holding, and yelled, "Alice! Don't let 'im—"
He never got to finish. There was a flash of blinding light and the next thing Alice knew, she was flying backwards across the room.
She crashed hard into the bookshelf, crumpling into a pile of agony. Her vision was a mess of spots and every nerve in her body felt like they were trying to vibrate right out her skin. Her stomach heaved and she gagged hard enough to make her eyes water, but there was nothing there to give up besides some bile, which she spit unceremoniously onto the carpet before wiping her mouth with a shaking hand, fighting the overwhelming urge to pass out then and there.
The older man used the distraction to yank himself free from Hatter's grip. He spun away just as Hatter swung at him, ducking and returning the hasty right hook with a better-aimed one of his own. Alice opened her mouth to yell out a warning, but her tongue felt swollen and the words wouldn't come out right. Hatter's head snapped back and he fell to his knees.
Immediately, the others were there, shoving him down and pinning his arms. Alice tried to get up, to go help him, but her legs felt like Jell-O. Jell-O filled with needles, and she collapsed with a choked gasp of pain.
"Don't s'pose you'll give up and come with us quietly?" said the older man, coming to stand over Hatter. Hatter didn't respond, only struggled harder to get away, but they held him firm.
The older man sighed and crouched down next to him. There was something in his hand now. For a second, Alice thought it was another one of those things they had used on her, and she struggled to rise once again so she could stop them. But then he held the object up and she saw that it was a… petite four?
Hatter cursed, snapping his mouth shut and locking his jaw as the older man brought the tiny cake to his lips, wheedling, "C'mon now. I just need ya to take one little bite for me."
Hatter tried to turn his head away, but the man caught him by the jaw and forced him back, using his thick fingers to pinch open Hatter's mouth and shove the cake in. Hatter choked and immediately spat it out—but not all of it. At least half of it, he had swallowed.
His struggles immediately weakened. His head dropped back, eyelids fluttering closed.
"Bastard," he wheezed.
Oh God, had they just drugged him? Poisoned him? Alice was on her feet now. Pain radiated up her legs, but she forced herself to move, a wobbly shuffle that was nowhere near fast enough.
"S'thop it," she said around her numb tongue, which was beginning to tingle as feeling returned to it. "Leab him alone."
The older man glanced over at her. His eyebrows rose in surprise. "Well look at you, up and about so quickly. I'm impressed. You really are the Alice of Legend. I can see why Hatter followed you."
She didn't have the ability to give the scathing retort she wanted to. Instead, she could only say, "Hadder."
"Is fine, as you can see. Just had to make some… small adjustments for the trip." He laughed as if he had made some great joke. The others laughed too.
Alice made it to the bed and grabbed the footboard to steady herself. The pain was receding faster. If she could just keep them from doing anything else until—
Hatter groaned, and then his body twisted and he screamed. The three holding him let him go, giving him room, and Alice gasped as, in the next second, Hatter visibly shrunk before her very eyes, clothes and all.
No. No, it wasn't possible. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. Her brain refused to process it.
"Ah, there we go," said the older man, beaming. "Perfect."
Alice stared as Hatter sat up, looking dazed. He was no more than foot tall. He shook his head as if to clear it, tiny cowlicks flopping.
"Hatter," she gasped.
Hatter looked over at her. Then had to look up, and up. He blinked, then took in the men surrounding him, looming over him in the most literal sense of the word. In a voice that sounded surprisingly normal, if a little weaker, he said, "Bollocks."
He scrambled to his feet, but the others were already grabbing for him. The older man plucked him up and held him to his chest like a child might their favorite doll. Hatter thrashed but his arms were pinned, his little legs kicking air.
Alice stumbled towards them, steps more sure but still awkward. "Let him go right now."
"Sorry, love," said Hatter's captor. "But your man's gotta come with us now. It was a pleasure meeting you, though. We should have tea sometime." And with a wink, he slipped out, the other three following close behind him.
Alice made a desperate lounge for them, but she was still not anywhere near recovered and they dodged her easily. She hit the doorframe and clung as her legs threatened to give out.
Out of the apartment they went. She heard the slam of the stairwell door. This wasn't happening. She refused to accept it. To lose Hatter… No!
By the time Alice reached the stairs, she was able to walk normally again. By the time she hit the street, she was able to run. She didn't have to stop and wonder where they'd gone. Even if she hadn't had that chat with the Cheshire, people like that, with their incredible weapons and food that could shrink you down to impossible sizes, only came from one place: Wonderland.
The Looking Glass was where it always was, tucked away where the maze of forgotten backstreets dead-ended. Alice caught herself before she could trip into it this time, taken aback by what she saw within the large gilded frame.
Instead of being faced with a deceptively innocuous mirror, she found herself staring at, not her reflection, but a painting.
It was a landscape piece, boring for all that it was huge. Hills of grass stretched in every direction under a plain blue sky. There were no animals or clouds, nothing to fill the space besides a fat oak tree off to the side, near the top of one of the steeper hills.
Alice looked closer. Four familiar figures had been painted halfway up the hill. Their poses were all of men frozen mid-climb, like they would be in a normal painting. But unlike in a normal painting, there was no denying that they were steadily getting closer to the tree, one still inch at a time.
Alice pressed her hand against the surface of the canvas and pushed. Before, the Looking Glass had had very little resistance. It had been like falling through water. But this… she pushed again, harder. This was closer to rubber. It didn't want to let her through at all.
She retreated back until there was a good bit of distance between her and the mirror-turned-painting. She was out of breath and her feet hurt from running barefoot over the hard, gritty cement, and no doubt this was going to be unpleasant, but she ignored all of it. She had a Hatter to rescue.
She took a breath, crouched, and then sprinted full-tilt towards the Looking Glass, springing up at the last moment so she didn't catch her toes against the bottom of the frame. It was like doing a vertical belly flop against a trampoline, and Alice had a moment of panic that it would slingshot her back. But then it gave with a slurping rip and she found herself sprawled on her stomach in a thick mess of grass.
Dragging herself up, she looked around, struggling to get her bearings. She expected to find the Looking Glass behind her, but nothing was there, just more field. No going back that way then.
The tree was to her left. Hatter's kidnappers had reached the top and were vanishing one by one around the back of it. Alice chased after them. It was much hotter here, and by the time she reached the top, she was sweating and the backs of her calves were covered in dirt and bits of grass she had kicked up while running.
She rounded the tree and stopped. There was no one there. Had they evaporated? Flown away? At this point, such things didn't seem at all impossible.
She looked down and her eyes caught on a dark space hidden between the exposed roots at the base of the tree, no more than three feet wide. A… hole?
Ooooh no. Damn it, Alice knew how this went. Falling through the Looking Glass was one thing, now she had to fall down a rabbit hole too?
She stomped around a bit, cursed, then stomped a bit more, but it didn't change the fact that she had to go down, and quickly, before they escaped from her altogether.
Carefully, she picked her way over to the hole and, crouching down, swung her legs over the edge. Pure blackness beckoned. Alice squeezed her eyes shut against the rush of vertigo and felt around until her fingers hit one of the thicker roots. She grabbed it tight, and, with deep breaths and more cursing, lowered herself down. Her feet scrapped the edges of the hole, causing looser rocks and roots to break free and fall in echoing tumbles that made her stomach clench. She could feel the cool air from the updraft and wondered how deep a hole had to be to get that kind of gust.
All that was left to do now was drop, but Alice couldn't make herself let go. What if there was a trick to this? What if she let go and plummeted to her death because she hadn't eaten the right cake, or drank the right tea, or because she was an Oyster and Oysters were not meant to fall down impossibly deep rabbit holes and live to tell the tale! As Hatter said, Wonderland wasn't just a story in a kid's book. It was very real, and so were the dangers, and this set-up was sickeningly familiar. The last time she had tried to bluff her way down a bottomless pit had been with two crazy doctors looking on, and she had almost gotten herself killed. If she'd missed something…
But there was no time to make sure. It was either go, or stay and give up on Hatter forever, leaving her stranded in this empty field and Hatter to whatever fate those men had in store.
Alice let go.