The last place Alice would have thought to look for the Hatter was the stable, but that was where Mallymkun had directed her, so there she went - even if she did have her suspicions as to the accuracy of the direction she'd received. She hoped Hatter - Tarrant, she reminded herself, Tarrant - was in a more forgiving mood than the dormouse had been. How was she to have known that while she slept a single night, nearly a month would have passed in Underland?
It was late afternoon, and the stables were mostly empty. The few beasts she passed whispered to their neighbors as she went, so that her name floated down the row of stalls ahead of her, but Alice ignored it in favor of the voice she could just make out. Mally hadn't mislead her after all.
"Now this one," Alice heard the Hatter say, from the stall at the very farthest end of the stable, "is for a certain lady who, being gentlemen, we shall not name, yes?"
Alice crept up to the door, left open just by just a few inches, and peered inside. She could see Tarrant in profile, turned just far enough away so as not to see her. He was holding his hands parallel to either side of his hips, as if to indicate an individual of rather large proportions. The Bandersnatch reclined in an enormous mound of fresh hay, its attention all on the Hatter.
"Yes?" Tarrant said, addressing the Bandersnatch. "Yes. You comprehend. Now -" He turned, not toward Alice, but to something behind him, obscured to Alice's narrow, door-frame view. When he reappeared in her field of vision, he was holding a green hat with a very wide brim and a great deal of voluminous ribbon-work. "What do you think of this? Flattering? Proportional? Will bring out the color of her eyes? She does have rather lovely eyes, though of course not so lovely as - yes. Persons of whom we will not speak, especially as to loveliness. Being gentlemen."
The Bandersnatch appeared to eye the hat with genuine interest; it leaned forward and sniffed, then flicked a bit of dangling ribbon with its tongue.
Tarrant frowned, plucking at the ribbon in question. "Too much, you think?" He turned the hat this way and that, while Alice stared, strangely reluctant to interrupt the scene.
The Bandersnatch huffed a sigh and flopped its head back down, sending a cloud of dust and hay into the air. Tarrant coughed delicately, flapping his hands around the hat to ward the dust away but entirely careless of how much of it ended up on his own person. Bits of hay hovered and shimmered in the air for long moments, catching the late afternoon light.
"Yes, yes, I see what you're saying entirely," Tarrant pronounced, sighed, then tossed the hat haphazardly away, vaguely in the direction of the Bandersnatch.
The Bandersnatch, for its part, made a lazy grab for the discarded bit of millinery. It chuffed and snorted over it, turning it around in its paws, and gave it a thorough licking before moving to tuck it away under its chest - which required it to prop itself up on front paws, just briefly, which allowed Alice to see the rather extensive collection of hats it already possessed.
Alice had to bite her lip to prevent a giggle; she'd come here with every intention of announcing herself immediately, but now found herself desperate to linger in this moment. In the instant she was seen she knew everything would change, hopefully in good ways, but there was a quiet wonderfulness to this that she didn't want to interrupt.
"I do hope this one meets your approval, or I shall be awake all night re-making hats, at this rate," Tarrant was saying. "Why, I shan't have any fingers left, which will make the making of hats a great deal more difficult. I've never attempted to make a hat with my toes before - which is, I suppose, a shameful oversight. Why, my fingers sometimes have the best of ideas, far better than my ideas, and who knows what my toes might produce, if given the chance? But yes - hat. This hat. It's a gentleman's hat, as I hope you can tell." He giggled.
The Bandersnatch sniffed and snorted again - then suddenly paused.
It backed up from the hat. It kept scenting the air.
"You know the gentleman, who, being gentlemen ourselves, we shall not -" Tarrant began, then seemed to realize he'd lost the Bandersnatch's attention and frowned, eyes following its increasingly excited movements.
The Bandersnatch's furiously working nose was tracking some trail in the air, snuffling in Alice's direction.
"I think it's perfect," Alice said, pushing the door open and stepping forward. "Or at least, as perfect as I can judge it to be, without knowing the gentleman in question."
The Bandersnatch gave a snorting sort of bark and leapt for her, its nose knocking into her chest with enough force to tumble her backward a step. It was with some difficulty that she kept her feet as it snuffed and licked and sniffed so furiously that it inhaled a bit of her dress, and had to back away, sneezing.
"Yes, hello!" Alice laughed, grabbing its face in both hands and, careless of its still truly wretched smell, buried her face in the fur between its eyes. She'd missed that wretched smell. Its tongue kept on lapping at her shoulder, so forcefully that she heard seams pop with the onslaught. "Shall we go riding, very soon?" she murmured into its fur, then backed away so she could see into its eyes. The Bandersnatch, of course, made no reply, save for a loud, snuffling snort and a final, almost careful lick to her chin. Then it sat back and looked back over its shoulder to the Hatter, eyes shifting back to Alice in a way she could have sworn was quite deliberate.
Tarrant, for his part, was simply standing several paces back with his hands still arranged as if holding a hat, though no hat was in them - the hat was currently adorning the end of one of his shoes, utterly forgotten.
"Hello," said Alice, more quietly this time. She wiped her face with a clean bit of sleeve.
"Alice?" Tarrant asked, hushed and disbelieving.
"I understand it's been rather longer here than it was up there," Alice offered. "I shall never work out how time shifts between the two."
"It's been - long?" Tarrant stumbled. "Alice?"
"Wouldn't you know me anywhere?" Alice dared to ask as she stepped around the Bandersnatch.
"Of course I would," Tarrant said, hands finally falling to his sides, then rising again just as quickly as she came within his reach. They hovered around her face, her hair, not quite touching, then falling away. "But you wouldn't. Know me. Remember. You never remember."
"I did. I do," Alice insisted. "It's only been a day above, Hatter. Only a day, and I couldn't stand it. I know where I belong now, and it's here." She bit her lip. "Can you forgive me for leaving?"
"You had things you needed to do," he reminded her, still rather dazedly.
"Not as many as I supposed," Alice confessed, shrugging. "Perhaps all I needed to do was wake up."
"And - and are you awake, now?" Tarrant asked; he took a careful half a step closer to her.
"Nearly," Alice replied, stepping closer still. "I do believe there's one more thing I need to do to be entirely sure."
"What would that be?" Tarrant asked, a bit warily, but also a bit hopefully.
And she kissed him.