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Holding up the ring in triumph, Alice could have laughed at the roar of approval coming up around her, at the heroes’ victory, at the fact that many of the Oysters (and when had she started using Wonderland terminology?) probably had no idea what the ring was. But she didn’t laugh, because she knew the cost, and she didn’t know the future. Just right now, though, that didn’t bother her, and she turned her head to smile at Hatter. It was a smile of comrades, a smile that said Look, we both got what we wanted--together. And maybe even, You were right.

Hatter smiled back at her, and did one of his hat tricks, and this time Alice didn’t pointedly not watch, because before she hadn’t wanted to admit that it was impressive and he was clever and she always wanted to watch him, but now, well, now…

Alice took a few steps towards Hatter and they slid into a hug as natural as sunshine. Hatter sighed into it and they lingered, because now they had time, and he said “That feels good” again, but then he couldn’t stop himself from a small cough and a bigger wince, and Alice drew back in alarm.

“Hatter?” She exclaimed and examined him closely with narrowed eyes. “It’s not just a few cuts and bruises, is it?” Her eyes lit on his ear, and her voice lowered from concern towards horror. “Hatter, there is blood coming out of your ear.”

He looked discomfited by her sudden attention, and a hand came up to touch the offending body part and scrub away some dried blood with another wince. “Yeah, well, I had Dee and Dum in to play, didn’t I? It’s nothin’ to be worried about, no how—any how,” he corrected the phrase grimly, as it put him in mind of his jailors, and after pushing his hat a little better into place, smiled brightly at Alice. “I’ll be fine.”

This tired phrase didn’t even slightly deter Alice, who looked even more horrified and was rapidly checking over his body for injury. “Dee and Dum? But why? What could you even tell them? They already had the ring!”

Hatter barked a laugh. “Resistance leader, remember? But I expect it was for their own amusement as much as anything else. Anyway, when they couldn’t get anything from my mind they just moved on to my body.” His statement was corroborated by another cough, this time bringing up blood to show on his shirt cuff, and he hissed in restrained pain. His eyes darted back to Alice to see if he would get away with it.

“Hatter,” Alice said, “You are not fine.” Her hands hovered over his body as she looked around worriedly. “Where should we—where is some—“ Her mind raced in circles. Does wonderland have ambulances?  It was probably the craziest question she'd ever asked herself.

“Alice,” Hatter interrupted her thoughts and rested a hand on her shoulder, brought it up to cup her face when that didn’t quite grab her attention. “Calm down, just a bit, right? I’m far from bleeding out, there’s no need to panic.”

She looked up at him helplessly. “But you’re hurt, Hatter, and it’s because of me.” Her voice cracked, and a hand came up to scrub furiously at her eyes before she turned her head to keep looking around. “And I don’t know where to go to take care of you, or with what, and, Hatter—oh, Hatter, my Dad.”

Hatter enfolded her in his arms in another hug, a different kind of hug, bittersweet and aching with her shoulders shaking under his arms, her head tucked into his shoulder, her hands grasping at his jacket. He turned his head so his lips met her ear, and luckily, her short gasps of trying-not-to-break-down-in-front-of-an-entire-alternate-universe-I-just liberated stopped and she was able to take a deep breath and exhale into his lapel.

“Don’t worry, Alice,” he said quietly, “We’ll go to my place. Safe, well-stocked, out of the way. At least until you get your feet under you.” He felt Alice nodding into him, felt her breathing calm after a few moments. She shifted gently and he let her pull back as she smiled at him, brittle but okay for now. They were okay. They could heal.

So, of course, that’s when Jack stepped up. “Alice! Are you alright? What happened, how did you escape? And…” He gestured at the crumpled casino/palace. “Well, clearly, a lot has happened.”

While he talked, Hatter released Alice completely and stepped back, ready to be put aside, prioritized away, already trying to get over it, to remind himself that what was best for Alice was the best period. Alice had to grab his sleeve to keep him from retreating completely, and she looked at him concernedly before responding to Jack.

“Um… Hatter and I both escaped at the same time, and used the Oyster… people’s… bad emotions to—” she shook her head, looked back at Hatter, bloodied and bruised and looking down at the ground, his arm limp in the sleeve she grasped. “Jack, do you think we could 'debrief' later? I think we need some time to recover.”

Jack looked between her and Hatter, eyes very slightly narrowed. “Of course, of course—I can offer you both rooms at my own safe house, if you’d like?”

Alice felt a tug on the sleeve she was holding, but only gripped it tighter. “Actually, we have other accommodations in mind, but thank you.” At the same time, she barely raised an eyebrow and looked between him and the Duchess, whom she’d seen standing very close together during that last confrontation. She and Jack were over, and they both knew it, and while they should probably talk about it sometime, now was not that time.

Jack got the message, but took it well. “Of course. Only call on me if you—either of you—need something. I believe the Library will be the new seat of power, if you will report there when you are sufficiently rested…? Yes, quite, good.” He inclined his head gracefully, then hesitated for a moment. “And… thank you, both, so much, for your service to the kingdom.”

He leaned in and kissed Alice’s cheek, and then deliberately stepped over to Hatter to shake his hand. As he did, he leaned in to whisper something in his ear that Alice couldn’t catch. He nodded at both of them one last time and stepped away, and they were alone again, as alone as two people could be on the edge of a crowd of celebrating Wonderlanders.

Alice looked back to Hatter, stepped closer to readjust his hat for him for no reason, noticing that he let her. “What say we get out of here, huh?” And she hesitated to bring it up, but… “Hatter… didn’t your shop get ransacked by those suits?”

“What, you think I live in my shop? What do you take me for?” He cocked his head just-so, spoke so dramatically, and it was so Hatter that she laughed and found her smile again. “No, important resistance go-between like me? I got me own safe house, hidden and proper like. Not too far from here, really, but we should still catch a boat.”

 

It was not hard for the Champion of Wonderland and her Vassal to catch a ride, and one boat and a secret passage or two later they slipped through a cunningly hidden alley door into Hatter’s place.

It was surprising, in a way Alice couldn’t pin down at first. There was the eccentric Wonderland style, of course, all clean lines and fixtures she didn’t know the purpose of, and she could see some of Hatter’s style in the beautiful (and well-used ) hatrack and glass tables, but it was so… cozy. There was a brown paisley sofa, and a bright blue armchair, and the carpet was soft. No part of Wonderland had ever seemed remotely cozy before, and Alice finally felt like she could relax. It took her a moment to stop savoring the feeling and remember why they were there.

“Hatter, where’s your first aid kit?” she asked, looking back at him from where she had been taking in the place.

“Oh come on now, you haven’t even taken off your coat yet, and it’s straight to business?” he sighed and shook his head mournfully, “I should have known.” Alice rolled her eyes and started to take off the purple coat Hatter lent her, but he beckoned her to turn around and insisted on helping her out of it. He hung it on the coat rack by the door, and almost in retaliation, she slipped behind him to help his coat off. She was glad she did when she saw what was under it.

“Hatter! What happened?” she exclaimed, fingers hovering over scorch marks, holes in his shirt over more and more wounds. It was a stupid question, she admitted to herself as he laughed hoarsely.

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, o’ course.” He didn’t even try to say he was fine, this time, and Alice took his wrist and started leading him to the hallway, determined to take care of him without any more delay. He pointed the way to the bedroom and she left him seated on the bed (purple) while she rummaged in the glass bathroom cabinet for a first aid kit.

When she returned, he had already removed his shoes and shirt, and even hat. She took in a breath when she saw the vicious wounds he’d earned. They still didn’t distract her completely from the smooth skin and muscle that had always been covered by so many layers before. And even just the absence of his hat… Suddenly the situation seemed much more intimate than she had expected, she reflected, and tamped down her desire to run her fingers through his hair.

Instead she sat down next to him quietly, and dug around in the kit to pull out a clean cloth and antiseptic. She started on his face, gently washing away blood and dirt and sweat, wincing with him every time she had to go directly over a cut or scrape. She washed away the blood that had come from his ear, hoping the internal damage would heal on its own—she was no doctor. That blood trail took her to his neck, and then torso, and she silently encouraged him to lie back on the bed as she went for the blackened skin as tenderly as she could.

The silence was strong, but comfortable. Loaded with good things. Thank you, Alice was saying with every dab, and the way Hatter looked at her… well, it spoke volumes all by itself.

It was really too bad Alice was too focused on his torso to see it.

It took a long time, but finally everything was clean and bandaged and done for now, and Alice and Hatter both sighed in relief at the same time, and shared a brief chuckle at that.

“Well, I’m knackered, and I don’t have a guest bed, so I’m off to kip on the couch,” Hatter said finally, gingerly sitting up and making to leave.

Alice was horrified. “Hatter! I’m not kicking you out of your bed! Besides, you’re injured from trying to rescue me—there is no way I’m—”

“—well there is no way I’m going to let the bleedin’ Champion of Wonderland, let alone a lady, sleep on the couch when I am perfectly fine with—”

“—actually, as I’ve brought up, you’re the one who’s bleeding, and you did just as much to save Wonderland you know, we were in this together and—”

“—besides I wouldn’t get any rest if I knew you were out there on my bleedin’ couch, would only feel guilty the entire night, really you’d be doin’ me a favor—”

“—Fine!” Alice interrupted suddenly, fed up. “Let’s just… share the bed, okay? It’s definitely big enough.” Which was true.

Hatter hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Alright then. I know how to keep my hands to myself, don’t worry.”

Alice’s eyes softened. “I wouldn’t worry, Hatter. I trust you, remember?”

Hatter let out a long sigh, a happy one. “Yeah.”

And nothing else needed to be said, as they both slipped under the covers on either side of the bed and slipped with equal ease into long peaceful sleep, trusting each other to still be there in the morning, along with all the things that were left to say.

Chapter Text

When Alice awoke, it was with a jolt of panic, a jolt of what am I doing where am I this is not my bed. However, sad to say, she’d gotten used to it over the last week, and she stifled it mercilessly before she finished waking up.

            She was comfy. And warm. And there was something across her waist, a weight that contributed to her comfort and warmth. Alice’s hands shifted curiously and she realized it was Hatter’s arm, held there by her own grasp. She quickly released it, wondering if Hatter had placed it there or if she had dragged it across her like a security blanket. She kind of hoped it would escape Hatter's notice, but that hope was quickly spoiled by a husky chuckle behind her.

            “So, are you always this cuddly, or were you just cold last night?” Hatter teased in a low, sleepy voice that absolutely did not make her blush as she flipped over to punch at his shoulder.

            “Ow! Oi!” Hatter protested, “I don’t know if you remember, but I was shot there recently!”

            “Only through your bulletproof vest!” Alice rebuffed quickly, but she did lean in to peer at the spot for a moment, making sure it was still only bruised. Hatter leaned back just a little, letting her look, and when she looked up he was smiling smugly at her. “Oh hush,” she said, but it was through a half smile that gave way to some of the concern from the night before. “How are you feeling?”

            “Oh, nobbut middlin’, lass, nobbut middlin’, and aye as these things will happen an’ we tyke ‘em as th’ come,” Hatter said forlornly in the thickest accent Alice had ever heard. She couldn’t help but burst out laughing, and Hatter grinned at her, pleased. “Seriously, Alice, you’ve no need to worry over me.” Apparently it was the wrong thing to say, because Alice sobered right up again, and Hatter sighed, looking down.

            “Hatter, I’m sorry I didn’t trust you until recently,” Alice said earnestly, “But you do know… you have to know… you do matter. In general. And to me. And it also matters to me that you’re hurt, especially seeing as you got hurt for me.”

            Hatter looked up to see complete sincerity in her eyes, and suddenly found that he had to look away again. He cleared his throat vigorously a couple of times, but was unable to speak. “You don’t only have to take care of me, you know,” he heard Alice add quietly. “I wish you’d let me take care of you, too.”

            He swiveled his head to nod at her a couple of times, and neither remarked on the brightness of his eyes. Alice felt the warmth of a strange sun on her skin as it poured in the window. As she let her gaze wander that way, she gasped and sat straight up. “Hatter, how long did we sleep? It looks like nearly noon!”

            Hatter let out a brief bark of laughter and then rolled over in bed to pick up a mechanism utterly unfamiliar to Alice. “Half after, actually,” he said, and replaced it before turning back over. “But it’s not as if there’s anything we’re late for.”

            Alice rolled her eyes a little. “We were supposed to report to the library, remember?”

            “When we’re rested, Jack said. As far as I’m concerned, it'll take another day or so before I’d classify myself so optimistically.” He let the word roll off his tongue with a cocky smile. “I’m sure even your Jack’ll grant us that.” Though she listened for it when he mentioned Jack, Alice didn't hear any of the bitterness or resignation Hatter might have held towards him even just a day before. She let herself smile tentatively, and tipped her head in acquiescence.

            Still, they couldn’t just stay in bed, and after allowing herself a moment to stretch (Hatter looked away politely) she quickly got out from underneath the covers and started re-gathering the materials to check Hatter’s wounds. “Well, I’m glad you’re no longer inclined to ignore your injured state,” she said primly and sat on his side of the bed. “Let’s see too it, then,” She prompted when he gave no sign of moving.

            Hatter had already been watching her with an expression of mild horror, and now he just groaned and let his head fall back on his pillow. “Oh no, you’re one of those, aren’t you,” he said as he reluctantly peeled the covers away from his bandaged torso. “A morning person.” He said the words like it was a terrible disease, and Alice poked him in the ribs in retaliation.

            “Actually, I’m not sure it can classified as morning anymore, when it’s half-past noon,” she said pointedly, as she began peeking under bandages, replacing a few that were too bloody for her comfort, re-salving the burns.

            Hatter didn’t make any snarky reply, only cooperated, and the comfortable silence from the night before fell smoothly into place—only this time, without the exhaustion and the slight panic that had been excellent distractions before, Alice couldn’t help but focus on the smooth expanses of skin before her. She felt like her fingertips were tingling to explore the muscles of his shoulders, she felt like her whole body was basking in the heat that radiated from his, and she wanted more.

            When she was done, she folded her hands in her lap and surveyed her work. Something wasn’t quite right still, and she frowned slightly before her eyes landed on the hat on the nightstand. She picked it up before she could second guess herself and gently placed it back on his head, where it belonged.

            She couldn’t help but smile as something right seemed to click back into place, and soothed some of her worry. “There’s my Hatter,” she said with satisfaction, taking him in. Then she stopped in acute embarrassment—vulnerability?—and she couldn’t think of a single thing to say as she looked into his face.

Hatter was still looking back at her, calmly, openly, intensely, a look she couldn’t recall ever having seen before, a look she couldn’t look away from, though she felt heat rising in her cheeks. “Yes,” he said, and captured her hand to bring it to his cheek. “Here’s your Hatter.”

He turned his head to kiss her palm, and her breath left her all at once. She let her other hand come up to rest on his shoulder, firm and warm and so, so, trustworthy. And when he brought her hand back to his face, it was so easy to follow it, to pepper his face with her lips, tasting his skin for the first time, kissing just under the brim of his ridiculous, perfect hat until he took the back of her neck in his other hand and drew her lips to his.

It was a chaste kiss, and when it ended Hatter simply tipped their foreheads together. Alice studied the brown-and-honey patterns in his eyes. “Well, that was a long time coming,” she remarked and got a huff of amused breath in return.

“Alice,” was all Hatter said, with such awe and joy that Alice couldn’t help but kiss him again, hoping he could feel her smile against his. She chased the taste of that tea-scented breath back into his mouth until he did something characteristically tricky with his tongue. When Alice had to pull back for air he just continued down her jaw, with playful nips and presses that were not helping her catch her breath.

When he got to a sensitive spot under her ear, she couldn’t hold back a shaky sigh. He let out a low pleased chuckle, and she felt it shiver through her spine. But when he tried to sit up more for more accessibility, he couldn’t hold back a hiss, and Alice put both hands on his shoulders and pushed him back flat in an instinct of alarm. “Bossy,” Hatter muttered good-naturedly and tried half-heartedly to lean up again but Alice glared him into submission.

“Hatter, I need you to heal. I need you to be okay. Stop pushing yourself: you've already saved the world—well, one world—let alone me. You don’t need to prove yourself.” She was deadly serious, but it didn’t seem to affect Hatter’s good mood, as he let a thumb come up to trace her cheekbone.

“Nah,” he said, “You saved yourself, and the world. I just had the honor of helping.” Alice couldn’t stifle the urge to let a corner of her mouth curl up, or to swoop down to Hatter’s level and steal another kiss.

“You’re so stubborn,” she rolled her eyes at him, and he just tipped his hat in agreement. “But I think it’s time we ate, anyway. Do you have anything around?”

Hatter started to sit up again and this time Alice helped him up to sit on the edge of the bed. Day-after soreness, she knew from much experience in martial arts, was often worse than day-of. “Wouldn’t be much of a safe house without supplies, would it? I don’t have any pizza, or whatever that was that Charlie gave us, but I think we can scrounge something up.”

“Got any chocolate and cream cake?” Alice teased, as she helped tug him to his feet.

“Trying to forget me already, Alice?” Hatter mourned facetiously, his expression belied by the easy way he folded her into an embrace.

“I’m fairly certain there’s not enough cream cake in any world for me to do that,” Alice murmured back, and her arms came up to hug him back.

“Do you know, you really give the best hugs?” Hatter remarked after a moment more.

Alice laughed and they went to raid the pantry.

Chapter Text

After a strange but satisfying breakfast—or maybe it was lunch—Alice and Hatter were sitting on the paisley couch in Hatter’s living room. Alice yawned, surprising herself, and turned to lean her forehead against Hatter’s shoulder, tucking her feet up under her. “What were those little purple things called?” she asked. Hatter was wearing a bright green silk shirt today, and the texture felt nice as she rubbed her face on it.

            “Blarney fruit,” Hatter said, letting his arm come up around her and grinning. “Like this shirt, love? You remind me of a cat.”

            “’M just sleepy,” Alice grumbled. “And full.” She tucked her face against him and yawned again.

            “Yeah, it’s nice, not being on the run any more.” Hatter tilted them back, the silk shirt easing friction between his sore body and the couch, till they were laid out. He scrunched a pillow under his head and brushed Alice’s hair out of her face. “Nice to be safe,” he added quietly. “It’s the first time in years.”

            Alice was already asleep, and he quickly followed her lead.

 

 

            Hatter was still asleep when Alice awoke this time, and she was careful not to jostle him when she carefully levered herself up. She stretched, refreshed by the afternoon nap, and looked fondly at Hatter’s face. He looked young in sleep, she mused, with his face relaxed and his hat crooked not-on-purpose. He didn’t have the hard edge he needed when he was awake.

            It was an edge to him, Alice had discovered, that contrasted with a deeper-running decency, even a valiance. Hatter acted so wily, so detached and tricksy, but when it came down to it, he was fearless, not only with his actions but with his heart.

            That was the kind of bravery Alice had never been able to find in herself. But now, with Hatter’s example and with finding out her Dad had never meant to leave them… Alice trusted Hatter more and more, not only with her life, but with her heart. Alice snorted at the corniness of her thoughts, but grinned at the same time. She could live with a little cheesiness seasoning her happiness.

            Feeling more steady than she had ever felt before in Wonderland (the real bed and the nap probably helped), Alice quietly stood and grimaced at the feel of her clothes. She’d been wearing them for days now, and not withstanding her multiple dips in large bodies of water, or maybe because of them, they were stiff and musty.

            She wandered back into Hatter’s room, wondering what the odds were that he’d have clothes she could wear. He’d had that purple coat for her, and it fit perfectly, so she could hope.

            Sure enough, and yet still surpassing expectation, Alice soon found a huge walk-in closet off of Hatter’s bedroom strewn with all sorts of clothes. Wildly patterned and brightly colored shirts, corduroy and linen and even leather pants, and a truly staggering amount of hats were draped and stacked and hanging everywhere in an exuberant, highly unorganized manner. It was all very Hatter.

            She was poking hesitantly through a pile of shirts for one a little more toned down when a shadow fell over her and she smiled up at Hatter. “Raiding my closet, Alice?” he teased, absently switching out the hat on his head for a taller black one with a violet ribbon and rolling the discard down his arm and away to knock over a pile of scarves. “We’ll make a scoundrel of you yet.”

            Alice rolled her eyes. “I just want to get out of these clothes, and I was looking for something I might fit into.”

            Hatter’s eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t take the obvious opening except to smirk at her provocatively. “Well, love, if you’re looking for something to fit into, you’ll have better luck in the basement. I keep spare clothes of every size down there, for the odd refugee I trust enough to bring here.” His head dropped a little, and his eyebrows drew together as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Or, you know… who trusts me enough to come here.”

            Alice hated seeing that look on Hatter’s face. She grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the closet towards… wherever the basement was. Hatter chuckled at her hesitation and led the way to a spiral staircase down, to a small warm storage room that lit up when Hatter smacked the lamp.

            It might have been small, but it was bursting with clothes of every size and color. Hatter pushed back his hat slightly and dove right in, throwing clothes around Alice’s size over one arm.

After some appraisal, Alice picked out black and white striped pants, skinny enough to stay out of the way and not get caught on anything (she was excited to wear pants again), and a dark blue tunic in rough silk Hatter had not-so-subtly been pushing at her. She shook her head at him, smiling, to show she noticed. “What?” he said defensively, “You just look best in blue.”

She laughed and agreed while he busied himself putting the rejects away. “Underthings are that way,” Hatter nodded to a corner, “And, uh, I’ll just be… in the hall, then.”

Alice swiftly changed (the pants fit her especially well) and ran her fingers through her hair, taking a deep breath. It had been… a very long few days. How long had it been, anyway, since she fell through the looking-glass? Long enough to make her feel like a new person.

She stepped out of the room in socked feet, and Hatter looked her up and down appreciatively. Alice wiggled her toes at him. Her socks were striped too. “Thanks, Hatter. I feel much better.” He gave a little sweeping bow and followed her back up the stairs.

            He looked a little somber in the light coming from the front windows upstairs. Alice looked at him closely. “How are you feeling? Still sore, I’m sure…” She frowned and got him a cup of water, pushing it into his hands and pushing him down on the sofa.

He chuckled at her, but was compliant. “I’m fine, I’m fine! Honestly Alice. I was just… thinking. Not my strong suit, I suppose.”

Alice rolled her eyes at this obvious untruth, but waited for him to continue. The pause was longer than she expected, and as Hatter inhaled for a while and let it loose in one blast, she sat beside him. There was a stop and start, Hatter looking at her and away, before he started talking in a nervous rush.

“I just… I know I haven’t always played it clean with you, with the Stone of Wonderland situation, but I want you to know… I’m an honest man from here on out, alright, at least with you, and I’m ready for whatever you’re ready for, and if…” he gulped,” If you go back to your world, maybe at least I could visit? Or you could visit? I’ll make it happen, Alice, even if I need to take a leaf out of Jack’s book and steal the Stone myself. Because… because I’ve never met anyone like you, and you’ve made me better, made Wonderland better. You’re not just Alice of Legend, you’re… Alice. And maybe someday, you could be… my Alice.”

She felt a great welling up of affection for Hatter, and just grinned at him for a second, entwining their fingers. She knew they were going fast, maybe too fast, but Alice had tried slow, she’d tried careful. It hadn’t helped her trust the many people she’d dated, hadn’t even protected her from Jack’s manipulations, well-intentioned though they may have been.

            With Hatter, in contrast, everything seemed… easy. Not that it had been, in the beginning, for obvious reasons, but knowing that he had stuck with her through all that, and was now saying he would put in any effort for a relationship… between worlds? How could she not love him for that, despite any distance?

            Luckily, she knew something he didn’t when it came to that. But now wasn’t the time for more explanation, she felt, and so instead of saying anything, she leaned over and kissed Hatter with all the trust she could physically express. He kissed her back fervently, and when they parted to breathe, Alice leaned her forehead against his, cozy under the brim of his hat, and whispered, “I think my luck is changing.”

Hatter grinned and kissed her again. "I know mine already has."

Chapter Text

The thing was, Alice liked Wonderland. And the fact that she even could, after the hellish experience she’d gone through here, really said something. Even more importantly, she liked herself the way she was here.

Not the Wonderlanders' perception of her, which was inaccurate and too close to hero-worship/suspicion for her to be comfortable, but the way she saw herself. The way she was more able to be fearless, and open, and accomplish more things than she ever had in her own world.

And the thing was... she didn’t really want to go back.

To visit her mother, sure, and probably to pack a few things to bring back (her own clothes, for example) but she was definitely wanting to stay in Wonderland. She had people here. She had important things no one else could do. It wasn’t just for Hatter, or for anyone else--it was for herself.

That didn’t mean necessarily that she’d be selfish with her time here, but she did feel more than justified in taking some time out with Hatter. They were kissing on the couch now, lazily, Hatter so gentlemanly and nervous Alice had to hum amusedly into his lips and tug his hands onto her waist herself.

She was careful not to aggravate his injuries, which basically amounted to her kneeling over his lap so he didn’t have to twist somewhere, her head tipped cosily under his hat brim and her arms around his neck. It was sweet, indulgent, getting to know the taste and touch of him, warm silk and warmer skin under her stroking fingertips.

Necks do get sore, however, and breaths need to be caught, so eventually Alice sat back on Hatter’s knees and grinned at him before clambering as gracefully as possible off the couch.

“I need a snack,” she announced, and strode the short distance to the kitchen “What do you want?”

“How do you know I want something?” Hatter asked, amused.

“We’ve been living off wild animals and prison rations the last few days,” Alice called. “I’m pretty sure we have a good amount to make up for.”

There was a short, consenting pause. “Whatever you’re having!” Hatter called back. Alice knew a defeat when she heard one, and grinned.

She wasn’t in the mood for anything fussy, just quick comfort food, so she got some butter in a pan and made grilled cheese sandwiches. She didn’t really understand, Alice mused as she flipped the first one onto a plate, how this place had perfectly normal butter one moment, and purple bread the next. If Hatter hadn’t been so genuinely confused at her surprise that afternoon, she would have strongly avoided it.

As it was, she poured them both a glass of chocolate milk from the icebox (seriously--although it seemed like the ice didn’t melt?) and got their dinner to the living room in a couple of trips. Hatter accepted his gratefully, and they munched for a while off the “tea table” as it was called here. Everything (or almost everything) seemed to be at least slightly different here. But somehow, it all just felt so right so quickly to Alice.

Even her relationship with Hatter--if she stopped to think about it, it was going crazy fast, terrifyingly fast, the kind of fast your mother got worried over and told you stories about distant cousins for. But as one who had never gone faster than a snail in relationships, one who could pretty much say she had used all possible caution, her relationship with Hatter did not seem idyllic and fleeting. It had been forged through a lot of conflict, plenty of it between them, and she walked into it with eyes wide open and happy with what she saw.

As they finished their last few bites, Hatter sighed unexpectedly and leaned into her, pressing his face into the back of her shoulder, which pushed his hat back precariously. Alice craned her head back for a look at his face. When she couldn’t get one, she set his hat on the couch for him and started carding her fingers through his hair like she’d wanted to earlier. “Hatter, what’s wrong?” She asked quietly.

He sighed again into her shoulder blade before sitting up enough to give her a strained, sad smile. “Oh, it’s just--I just wish it could always be like this, is all.”

She looked back at him, hoping he could see the honesty in her eyes. “Why can’t it be?”

Confusion began to enter Hatter’s expression. “But you’ll be wanting to go back to Oysterland--back to pizza, and your mum--” and here he looked abject, “--and whoever else.”

Alice took his face in her hands. “There is no one else, Hatter,” she said, gently but firmly. A smile played around her lips, “There has never been anyone, really, compared to what I have with you. And that terrifies me a bit,” she admitted quietly. “I’m more tied up in you than I’ve ever been with anyone else. But I do trust you, which is important for me, and that makes it easier to know I’m falling in love with you too.”

She carded her fingers through the hair behind his ear again, considering. Hatter was utterly speechless, a rare event indeed, all his attention focused on her. “And I’m also starting to love Wonderland,” she continued, “Separately, or else I’m not sure I could take the risk.” She nodded at Hatter’s dawning, hopeful face. “I want to stay here.”

Hatter whooped and grabbed her in a tight embrace, laughing with such pure joy that Alice couldn’t help but laugh with him. Hatter laughed at that, he laughing with him, and it took a while for them to level out.

When they’d calmed down, Hatter leaned his forehead against Alice’s. “I love you,” he whispered, and grinned: “This is going to be so much fun.”

They leaned back against the couch, still clasping hands. “So can I stay here while I find my own place?” Alice asked. She was confident she could, but thought it polite to ask.

But as always, Hatter eluded her plans: “Can’t you just live here?” he asked, a bit deflated. “Or I mean, if you want, we can find someplace bigger or better or--”

“Hatter,” Alice shushed him with a finger on his lips, “I love this place. I’d love to stay and live with you.” It was true; it was a lovely apartment, if a bit eccentrically furnished, and Alice could easily see herself living there with just a few changes. “It’s just...” she hesitated, absentmindedly removing her finger and folding her hands together, “I don’t want to feel... dependent on anyone, especially as I’m starting out here. I need to feel independent, to support myself--not, you know, emotionally necessarily, but practically.”

Hatter just smiled. “I think it’s more likely that I’ll be the dependent one.” He started ticking off his fingers. “I don’t know if you remember Alice, but my shop was ransacked, we’ve effectively destroyed my product source and suppliers, and after playing both sides of the resistance, you may well be my only business reference.” Alice could only laugh at that idea as he concluded blithely, “You may very well be the breadwinner in this household.”

Alice very much doubted it, after seeing his pride and stubbornness, but she could see his meaning. After thinking a moment to be sure, she grinned at him. “All right then. We’ll start over together.”

“Seal it with a kiss?” Hatter beamed back at her, and Alice rolled her eyes good-naturedly before leaning over to press one against his lips. Before he could pull her in anymore, though, she withdrew and sipped from her glass again.

“This chocolate milk is really good,” Alice remarked. “The best I’ve ever had.”

“Really?” Hatter’s brow crinkled a little. “Are all the brown cows in Oysterland sickly, or something?”

“Brown cows?” Alice gave him an ironic and unimpressed look. “I’m afraid you’ve been beaten out twenty years by my Grandpa for that joke.”

“What do you mean?” Hatter said. “Chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Where else would it come from?”

Alice just narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Nope. Pull the other one.”

“Alice!” Hatter laughed out.

Alice refused to believe it until she saw it, and Hatter promised to take her to a Wonderland milk farm as soon as possible.

“Not tomorrow, though,” said Alice. “Tomorrow we need to go to the Library, maybe help organize some of the chaos and tell people what happened.”

Hatter groaned a little, but nodded. “It’s going to be a mad house in there. And it’s just as well I like you best in blue,” he added, “As it’s the color associated with Alice of Legend--and while I know you feel you’re just Alice,” he spoke over her half-formed protest, “I feel you’ve earned your own legend status by this point, and you could probably use the cachet, as they say.”

Alice acquiesced, and they curled up into each other for a moment. “Would I be a bit short of my marbles to say I’d like to go back to bed and sleep some more?” Hatter said after a bit.

“Not at all,” Alice said firmly. “Your body needs energy, it’s healing.” She sat back and checked him over. “How are you feeling, anyway?” She was still worried about the things she couldn’t see. “Any... I don’t know, unusual symptoms? Internal injuries? We should probably still go see a doctor...”

Hatter pressed her hand. “I’m fine, Alice. You can check me over if you like,” he gave her a teasing, knowing smile that she ignored, “But I’ll be right as rain in the morning.”

Alice gave him a look, but when she’d gathered a damp cloth  and bandages and dressing, and opened his green shirt enough to check on the worst of the wounds, she had to admit relief as well as surprise. “Hatter! I’ve never seen wounds heal so fast,” she said, looking at him sideways as she leaned over for the wet cloth to dab at still-crusted skin.

Hatter sighed, a little resigned. “Yeah, I’ve always been that way. Almost always. When I was a kid...” he looked at his right hand, fisted it and flexed it. Alice could see a bad subject, a wound that maybe hadn’t healed yet, and patted his leg as she shook her head, eyes still on her work.

“Tell me later, Hatter,” she said gently. “When you’re ready.” She had some ideas, naturally, after seeing the laboratories at the red palace and an assassin with a rabbit statue for a head, but this was not the time for old stories of dark days. They needed to put some brighter ones behind them first.

With all the progress Hatter’s body had made, it didn’t take long fixing him up, and when Hatter drew his shirt back on he didn’t bother buttoning it before shuffling tiredly back to bed and hanging his hat on the bedpost. Alice found something to sleep in, first, (she probably shouldn’t even have bothered getting dressed that day, but something about it made her feel more accomplished) but she soon followed him.

When she slipped under the covers, yawning, Hatter held his arm out and gathered her in, and he was healing so well she felt no qualms about resting her head on his shoulder and her hand on his heart. She breathed in the unique scent of Hatter and warm silk, and felt his arm wrap warmly around her shoulders before she closed her eyes, smiled, and dropped back to sleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Alice woke up much earlier. She felt very well rested after a full 24 hours of mostly lazing around. She slipped out of bed without jostling Hatter and went to the restroom across the hall. After a minute of poking around, she couldn’t find any shower. Apparently they just used baths in Wonderland--Hatter had a huge, beautiful clawfooted tub. Still, Alice thought she’d get one built later.

She started filling the bath after some trial and error with the unfamiliar knobs--some of them seemed to put in bubble bath rather than water, and some she wasn’t sure the purpose of. While the bath filled, she went to the kitchen and ate some blarney fruit standing up. Then, she went and took one of the longest, most luxurious baths she’d ever experienced. The bubbles were thick and smelled amazing, and the water was the perfect temperature to melt away the tension in her muscles.

Time seemed to stretch deliciously, and she was perfectly relaxed by the time Hatter walked in and did a violent double-take. The surface of the water was completely covered in blue bubbles, nothing uncovered but Alice’s bare shoulders, but Hatter still turned an interesting color, making Alice giggle, something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl.

“S-sorry Alice!” Hatter sputtered and ducked right back out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Alice’s giggle grew into a full laugh that echoed in the bathroom. Then she got out, dried off, and got dressed so Hatter could use the room. She twisted her hair up in a wet knot and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked... happy. Happier than she’d been for a very very long time. She gave herself a slight smile.

She left the bathroom door open to air out some steam and found Hatter in the kitchen, to kiss him good morning. He kissed her back enthusiastically, wrapping her up in his arms against the chill of the morning.

“Still a morning person, I see,” he teased her with a smirk, but she just rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

“Sure, whatever. You seem to be feeling better,” she remarked. “Maybe we can go to the Library today and figure out what’s happening?”

“I reckon it’ll be more like helping them figure out what’s happening,” Hatter grumbled, “But yeah, I’m feelin’ better. I’m game if you are. After all,” and his face split in a brilliant grin, “Wonderland will be yours now, too, and no one could do a better job of prodding it into shape than its Champion.”

Alice laughed again. Hatter seemed to be good at making that happen. “Well, I’ll do my best. How far away is the Library?”



They were able to walk to the Library in a somewhat labyrinthine path of stairs and walkways. Alice could never have found her own way, so she felt glad to have Hatter acting as the faithful guide. The heights still bothered her, but Hatter made a point to keep between her and the edge.

They approached the Library before too long, and it was easy to tell even for Alice, because there was a sizeable line of people outside. Alice hesitated, wondering if they were expected to wait in line, but Hatter just grabbed her elbow and encouraged her past them and in into the building.

“Hey!” she protested half-heartedly, but it was hard to be too annoyed at being prodded into skipping a long line.

“C’mon, Alice, the people in here don’t want you waiting in line,” Hatter murmured pleasingly into her ear. “If anything, they want you to help solve all the problems of the people in line.” He just smiled brightly at her glare.

“I don’t want to be a politician,” Alice murmured back.

“And good for you. Never could stand a politician. And speak of the devil...” Hatter cut himself off as a harried, bureaucrat-looking-person approached.

“I’m terribly sorry, but there is a line, and--wait. Alice? The Alice? Of Legend?” his mouth dropped open and he darted forward to shake her hand vigorously. “ Much obliged--can’t thank you enough--awfully sorry for the wait-- must get you to the Prince and Council--follow me, please--and your Vassal, of course--” he beckoned them both urgently down a hallway and down some stairs to a large room with walls made of bookcases.

Inside, on one end of the room, was a long table, ornate chairs all on one side, facing the door. The people seated there were all shapes and sizes, but well dressed, and included Jack, in the center, with Caterpillar, and others.

The person who had brought them there cleared his throat pointedly and announced “To the illustrious Council--I present the Champion of Wonderland, Alice of Legend,” he glanced at Hatter, “And her Vassal, Hatter, former agent of the rebellion.” He bowed deeply and left them there.

It might have been awkward, except that Jack immediately stood and smiled warmly. “Welcome, Alice. Thank you for coming. I hope you’ve recovered well from the Battle for Wonderland?” He said it like that, like it was capitalized and official.

“Yes, thank you,” Alice nodded. “I’m fine. It’s... very impressive, how you’ve managed to organize everything here.”

Jack shrugged modestly. “A lot of this was already in place. And I’ve been trained to lead my whole life.” He glanced at the council around him. “If anything, shouldering responsibility as a council is less pressure than my mother would have placed upon me. But please,” he waved aside other considerations for the moment, “There have been many, many questions and speculations. Can you tell us exactly what happened to bring down the tyranny of the Casino?”

Alice took a deep breath. She could do this without getting too emotional. She ended up telling the whole story, but tried to talk as little as possible about her father, only mentioning that he died a hero. When she was done, a lot of the council sat back in satisfaction and nodded very approvingly at her, and some praising her amongst themselves.

“Just so!”

“Trust Alice of Legend to save the day!”

Very well thought of.”

Alice didn’t feel quite comfortable with it all. “But again, as I’ve explained, it was also largely Hatter and the White Knight--Charlie--and you should know, I’m not Alice of Legend, I’m just Alice.”

The Council looked on her kindly, but they didn’t quite look like they believed her. Alice sighed with frustration, but didn’t press the point.

“Of course, Alice,” Jack said smoothly, “But you must understand, people look to you as a hero. There have been precious few people to look up to. Surely you cannot begrudge our people the inspiration they’ve found in you.” He smiled genuinely at her, then went on, “And of course, now that the Stone of Wonderland is restored, and after all that you’ve done for us, you may go home as soon as you wish.”

“Ah,” said Alice. “Well, thank you. I certainly do wish to return, briefly, to see my mother, and to collect some things. But, actually,” she took a deep breath, “I’ve decided to stay here. In Wonderland. You have a wonderful, interesting place here,” she turned her smile on each council member, making them each perk up, “And I’m excited to see it flourish even more under fair leadership.” (Perhaps a part of her also wanted to make sure it stayed that way, it suddenly occurred to her. No sense in helping save a place if it didn’t stay that way, after all.)

Jack looked very surprised, even shocked. More than he had a right to be, in Alice’s opinion. “Ah. I see. Well, this is very unusual. An Alice has never stayed in Wonderland.” Many of the council members were making significant facial expressions at him, and the ones closest even tugged at his sleeve. “It seems the council needs to confer, if you’ll just grant us a couple minutes...”

There were a lot of loud, awkward scraping sounds as council members eagerly scooted their chairs across the floor to gather, facing away from Alice and whispering. It didn’t seem very dignified. It might even have been funny, except she had no idea what was going on. Did she need their permission to stay? Was it not allowed?

While the council muttered back and forth, Alice looked back at Hatter for comfort. His expression said he had no more idea about what was going on than she did. He stepped forward and wrapped an arm around her shoulders in solidarity.

“Don’t worry,” he spoke softly into her ear, “They’d never dare have you leave. An’ even if they tried, we wouldn’t let them.”

Alice smiled at him and nodded firmly. She would do what she had to restart her life her. She--like Wonderland--had earned a new start. And some part of her, deep and integral, told her this was the place for her, and had already rooted here. The council was still muttering back and forth, but Alice suddenly lost her patience and stepped forward.

“Excuse me,” she said loudly, “But is there some kind of problem? If so, I’d like to address it directly.” When faced with Wonderland craziness, she had found being direct helped more than just going along with it. This seemed to scandalize the council a little, but some of them wore knowing smirks, as they all, with a skid and clatter, returned to their former positions.

“Alice of Legend, Champion of Wonderland,” Jack announced very formally, almost solemnly, “If it truly be your wish to live here, then this council has a proposition for you: that you, yourself, join this council, to help rule and judge this very people of Wonderland.”

Alice kind of froze in shock, her mind racing. “Ah, I don’t wish to offend the council, but--”

Jack cut her off mid-sentence. “I believe the council needs a recess, after so much excitement. We shall have a tea break, and reconvene in 15 minutes.” As though this were quite normal, the council members all nodded placidly and stood to mill around, many going to a short table of refreshments in the back corner that Alice hadn’t seen before.

Alice found it difficult not to sputter at being interrupted so suddenly, and decisively, too. She again turned to Hatter, incredulous. “Is this kind of thing normal?” she hissed, throwing her arms out in frustration. “Picking random people with no experience to help rule a country, then suddenly interrupting them for a tea break ? And what kind of tea are they drinking, now, anyway?”

Hatter shrugged. “Well first off, we don’t really have 'normal' in Wonderland, so you’ll have to get used to that straight off. Secondly, they should want you on the council: you probably have more sense then the lot of them, though I’m surprised they have the sense to see that. Most likely they want you to help them look more legitimate, you know--all the people here already looking up to you an’ all. Thirdly, we do have normal, like, leaf tea as well, you know--much cheaper, just a different thing altogether from what I used to sell. And lastly,” he had started to gaze over her shoulder, “Looks like his Heartness himself is about to explain why he so suddenly felt everyone needed tea.”

Alice turned to see Jack coming towards them with a slightly sheepish smile. “Deepest apologies, Alice, really. I know this is all a bit unexpected. For me as well, somehow, though this rebellion has been in the works for so long. Hm, but perhaps we could just have a chat in the corner... there are some things we really ought to discuss before you give your answer to the council. That was why I had to call the break--before you refused.”

Alice heaved a sigh. “I don’t know what you think you can say that will convince me, honestly, Jack. I’m no politician. I don’t even really know hardly anything about Wonderland.”

“You raise some interesting points, Alice, but I really think you should hear me out,” Jack insisted, shooting an anxious but controlled look at the council members (still adequately distracted by their refreshments). He took her elbow and started trying to tug her gently into a far corner. What was it with people trying to manhandle her here? Jack, of all people, should know better, and she pointedly broke his grip.

“Alright, fine,” she said, “But Hatter’s coming he too. He’s my...” (she was not a big fan of the word Vassal) “My Guide. Er, Advisor. Or something.” A quick glance to Hatter showed him smirking at the floor at that. Alice couldn’t tell whether he was secretly laughing at her or not, but she raised her chin to show confidence and led them both to the back corner.

This explanation had better be good.

Chapter Text

Alice, Hatter, and Jack were gathered in a corner of the council meeting room of the Great Library. It wasn’t exactly private from all the council members milling about and having tea, but they at least wouldn’t be overhead, which seemed to matter to Jack. Alice had some idea that Jack was supporting this wild idea of putting her on the council, but she had no idea why, and she was slightly wary of what he might say to convince her.

Jack sighed and rubbed his eyebrow as he, Alice, and Hatter all faced each other. As charming and smooth as he’d seemed before, he was letting them see behind the facade now, and Alice couldn’t help but feel for him. On the other hand, she knew that was probably his goal. And this was why she wasn’t cut out for politics.

“Alice, look,” Jack murmured, “Wonderland is in a state of flux. Not only are we dealing with a new and untested system of government, people are going to start coming down from their Tea addiction, and because the rebellion all kept such a low profile, most of the council are not well known outside of the rebellion. Leaving me the most recognizable member--the son of the oppressive former regime.” He gave Alice and Hatter both a wry, self-recriminating look. “Wonderland needs leadership right now, it needs someone that people can look up to. Honestly, it’s teetering on the brink of chaos right now.”

Jack let that sink in, then took a step closer, imploring. “I wouldn’t have asked this of you, Alice, you’ve done so much already--but if you’re staying. If you really care about Wonderland. Please. Help me make sure it stays saved.”

Hatter was nodding, slowly, shocking Alice. “I can well believe there’s a hard road ahead. People’ll go crazy about Tea, sometimes, and without it... and without the Hearts.... Well, I myself have a lot more chaos in my life.” He looked at Alice. “Even just your name, the Legend of it, it could help people feel a lot safer, maybe.”

Alice hissed back, “I want to remind you , Hatter, you said you couldn’t stand politicians! And Jack, I have zero experience with this kind of thing, I’m sure I would do a terrible job. I’m not--I’m not a politician, I don’t know anything about running a country--”

“It wouldn’t need to be that,” Jack hurried to assure her, “We have a council for a reason. Everyone plays to their strengths. You could help reassure the people but also provide.... Your.... unique perspective.”

“Your common sense,” Hatter added, nodding slowly. “Not that you don’t sometimes misplace it, but that’s where I’ll come in in the background.” He winked.

“Not a bad idea, to have an adviser,” Jack admitted graciously. “We could include a proviso allowing Hatter to attend meetings with you if you so desire.”

Alice looked back and forth between them, a little helplessly. “Well.... if even the two of you are agreeing on something, I’m not sure what choice I have. It’s just...” she sighed. “It’s not exactly what I was planning, you know?”

“What were you planning?” Jack asked curiously.

“Well, honestly, I was planning on playing to my strengths. Opening a Martial Arts school, probably. Getting Hatter to help me with the business side of things.”

“Ah, I see. Well. If you wanted... perhaps we could make you a Council Member, but with limited responsibilities? Only coming in for more important decisions, and so forth. I would ask, however, that you be here frequently in these early days. We need to show Wonderland that the leadership is coming together.” Jack looked into the middle distance, his eyes calculating. Alice could see he was truly raised for this role--measuring every option, predicting every outcome. IF he really thought Wonderland needed her... perhaps it really did. And if anyone could manipulate things so she could still have her own life, it was him. It was that manipulative side of him that honestly meant they couldn’t work well together, but she could see it would work to make him an excellent leader.

She couldn’t in good conscience refuse. “Well... then... okay. I’ll do it. But you both had better help me, because you are the ones who convinced me.” She pointed accusingly at both Jack and Hatter.

Hatter, annoyingly, just looked kind of flattered. “Well, sure. And then later you can tell me what ‘martial arts’ is and we’ll start my new commercial empire.”

So this is how a new life starts, Alice thought to herself, and she couldn’t help but smile. Getting pushed out of her comfort zone? Doing things she never ever thought she could? So what else was new.

The council soon gathered back to their seats, and Alice took a deep breath before walking back in front of the table. “I am honored to accept your proposal and become a member of your council. I intend to do all I can to help Wonderland through this transition. I just...” she glanced at Jack and straightened up again. “However, I do plan to open my own business and spend less time politicking as things stabilize. Also, when I do attend, I intend to bring my... adviser, Hatter here, to ensure I have all the perspective I need to contribute a well-rounded opinion.” She tried to make her voice ring out clear and confident. Fake it till you make it, she thought to herself.

The council seemed happy enough. “What business will you start?” one woman asked, seeming curious.

Alice let a smile reach her lips. “Well, I plan to teach classes in martial arts. Self-defense, you know.”

They didn’t really look like they knew what she was talking about, but they vigorously nodded anyway. “Probably glad you aren’t interested in hogging any political power,” Hatter leaned forward and muttered in her ear.

“Well then,” said Jack, “Let us have a chair for the Champion of Wonderland!” He drew one up next to him, near the center of the table, and there was one placed for Hatter on the opposite side. “Now if I am not mistaken, the council has much other business to hear this morning. Seneschal, let the next citizen in.”

As Alice moved with Hatter to take her seat, she felt a shiver like a thrill run up her spine. Who would have thought she’d end up here? Seemed like Wonderland wouldn’t stop putting her through her paces. But she could work with that.

 


 

Council work was exhausting, even if it didn’t involve any physical work. Many of the people who came had many concerns about infrastructure, commerce, and power that Alice had to work hard to understand, let alone solve. Hatter was a great help to her with unfamiliar words and concepts, but some problems were impossible to easily solve, and many the council had to send away unanswered before further deliberation.

“I wish there was a book or a manual on this,” Alice muttered to Hatter when the council adjourned for the evening. “I’m working blind here.”

“Well, Alice, this is a library,” Hatter pointed out, and even helped her track down some books on Wonderland’s trade and economy, as well as some of their traditions. Alice ended up borrowing a whole stack, with the permission of a very sweet but nervous librarian.

They caught a canal boat home as the sunset glittered on the water between the buildings. Where before Wonderland had seemed like a ghost land, there were now flashes of activity, people visiting their neighbors with news, impromptu restaurants and pubs opening to be hubs of social activity.

“Wonderland is resilient, isn’t it,” remarked Alice, then grinned before anyone could reply. “I love the sunset! I love the way people are... unique, and unafraid! And I love...” she turned and smiled at Hatter, “I love you. Thank you for all your help in there. You have good judgement. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Hatter leaned in and kissed her deeply, warmly, urgently. After a moment, his hands went to some interesting places, but Alice’s were trapped between him and the books and she made a small noise of protest at that inequity. Hatter pulled back and grinned a mischievous smile of his own, showing he had been well aware of his advantages. “Nah, I’m not much more than a scamp and nabber, Alice. But... I have no idea what I’d do without you. I love you, too, for not makin’ me find out. I’d follow you anywhere, you know. Be it the Red Casino or right back to Oysterland. If this council business gets too dodgy, if you get homesick. Just remember I’m right here with you, on your side.” He nodded firmly.

Alice fumbled her stack of books into the seat next to her so she could grip his hand. “Thank you. But don’t you have your own life here?”

Hatter shrugged matter-of-factly. “To tell the truth, Alice, most of my life has been wrapped up in helping take down the queen. I have plenty of contacts, used to be on both sides of the fence, but few enough friends. No family. I guess I never really thought about what I’d do if we actually got that far. Bit of a odd shock.” He shook his head and changed the subject abruptly. “Should we stop off here for a bit? Speakin’ of contacts, I know a bloke just around this corner who runs a bit of a pub, makes a mean hot sandwich.”

Alice hummed and kissed his cheek, deciding not to press him for more just yet. “Sure. I’m starving.”

 


 

When they finally sank into bed that night, Alice pressed close to Hatter, resting her head on his shoulder. “Hatter,” she asked quietly after a few moments, “Why did you decide to join the rebellion?”

Hatter let out a long sigh.“It’s a long story, love.” There was a long pause, and she could feel his strong right hand flexing on her back. “Y’see, I’m not exactly.... Normal. There’s a reason lots of people don’t trust me. When I was a kid I was on the streets, you know. No parents to speak of. And... the queen took me in. Well, not her personally, o’ course. Reckon she just asked for kids no one would be missing. And I got plucked off the streets. Thought it a great stroke of luck, at the time.” He was quiet for a moment, fidgeted into a different position, and when he spoke again it was quieter. “Of course, it didn’t really turn out that way. The queen was looking for... test subjects, you could say. They experimented on us. Different things for different blokes. On me, it was... Teas, mostly. Injected in, some of them. Some surgeries. In my arm.” Alice didn’t say a word, just squeezed him tighter, offering her support as he continued. “I was one of the luckier ones, really. Most of us died, some just went wrong. The stuff in my arm actually worked, made my right arm and hand... stronger. Least I didn’t end up like the March Hare we had chasing after us.” He shuddered violently, and he whispered, “I’d rather be dead than like that, just bits and pieces of what her majesty and her mad scientists had laying around.”

Alice held him through it, stroking a hand through his hair. “How did you escape?” she asked. It seemed to her like they should have it all out now, rather than repeat this conversation ever again.

Hatter chuckled mirthlessly. “Didn’t really escape, as such. It was the Teas. Too many, too strong. They got in my head. Made me, ah, erratic. Flipped my switches. I’d get angry, sad, violent, laughing, all without a moment’s notice. Called me Mad Hatter, they did, for a while. Some of it I played up, but I was messed up but good. So when the figured I wasn’t as useful anymore, the queen decided I could be a tea vendor for her.

“My tea shop was my way out. Every now and again I’d be her eyes and ears in the streets. I’d make sure people kept drinking the tea, kept under her her thumb. I hated it, but I didn’t have much choice, and anyway, the tea in my veins dulled it all down for a while. But I got better, and then the Resistance reached out to me. An’ I became their eyes and ears in the Hearts, every once in awhile. I became known as a bit of a broker, someone good to sell to, whether it be information or something a bit... different. An’ so that’s why Ratty brought me you.” He finished his story with an air of finality, and Alice didn’t ask any questions.

“I... I’ve never told anyone all this before, Alice. Either they knew or they didn’t. But I thought you should know. I am almost all better now, though, you know? Sometimes I... I do still get a bit erratic now and then, but. But I’d never, ever hurt you.” He tried to draw his right hand away from her, as though she’d be afraid of it, but Alice caught and held it.

“I know, Hatter,” she said firmly. “I trust you. I’m... so sorry for all that’s happened to you. I’m just amazed you’ve been able to turn out as good as you are. But we have a real chance now, both of us, to start a new life. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Hatter scoffed. “I didn’t think you ever did get afraid. Except for of heights,” he admitted.

Alice shook her head and thought. “I... think I have been, though, for a very long time. Since my father, left, really. Or... was kidnapped.” She swallowed hard. “I’ve been afraid of getting close to people, afraid that they’d leave. Afraid of committing myself to anything. But knowing that my father never meant to leave me, and you coming after me to help me... I think I’m learning to trust more.”

“Well, I’m glad.” Hatter said. “Maybe we’re both a little bit broken, but we can patch each other up, yeah?”

“Yes,” said Alice, pressed close enough to him that she could hear his heart beating. “Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”

 


 

Epilogue

 

It was a beautiful day, sun shining with a cool breeze stirring the long grasses Alice stood in. She tilted her head to admire the blue, cloud-scattered sky and feel the warmth on her skin. She felt as though she were on a school trip to see the countryside, and laughed at the thought. She’d been doing a lot more laughing, lately.

“Come on, Alice! Farmer Jack’s finished bringing all the cows in to be milked,” Hatter called from behind her. She turned towards him willingly and they walked together towards the barn.

“I think he thinks we’re a bit odd,” Alice murmured.

Hatter snorted. “You’re kiddin’ me, right? The Champion of Wonderland herself wants to try his milk and see his farm? No matter how odd it may be, he’ll be braggin’ about this to all who’ll listen.”

The barn smelled like... well, cows, but also like wood and straw. It looked very clean, and the ten-odd cows in it looked very pleased to be there. “You have a charming farm,” Alice said, and smiled at the farmer who was just then bringing a milk stool, a large bucket, and a tin cup down the center aisle.

“Why, thankee, lass! Tha’ is to say, Champion, o’ course. We’re modest, but we’ll do.” He looked delighted at the praise. “Now jus’ a minute, an’ I’ll have you up a nice fresh cuppa th’ best milk you’ve tasted yet in yer life.” He looked at Hatter and whispered, though Alice could still hear perfectly, “An’ you said they don’t have cows in Oysterland?”

Hatter hid a smirk. “Just not proper brown ones, apparently.”

“Ach!” The farmer exclaimed, “Imagine that! And they’re my favorite, an’ all. Just as well I’m no oyster, I suppose.”

Alice didn’t bother to explain.

In practiced, comfortable movements the Farmer slipped into the stall, nudged the stool into place, and after just a few expert squeezes that Alice watched carefully over the door to ensure no Hatter-style trickery, handed up the cup halfway full. There was a delicious smell to it, which made Alice feel better about taking a sip.

As she did, her eyes opened wide, and she must have made a sound because the farmer chuckled, his head resting against the cow as he finished milking her into the bucket. “Aye, it’s a bit stronger when it’s fresh, no? But to my mind there’s nothing like it.”

It was thick, and still warm from the cow, and probably the most chocolatey milk Alice had ever tasted without being too sweet. “It’s--wow,” said Alice, eyes still wide. “It’s delicious!” She took another sip, but it was quite rich and strong this way, so she handed it off for Hatter to try.

“And you didn’t believe me!” Hatter crowed before taking his sip, his eyes crinkling at the corners in a way Alice had found she loved.

“Yes, yes, for once you’re right, I guess I’ll have to owe you something,” Alice sighed dramatically. “You did promise me, after all.”

“And I’ll always keep my promises to you,” said Hatter seriously, taking her left hand in his strong right hand and kissing it right above the ring he’d given her the week before. It wasn’t as large as the Stone of Wonderland, but it suited Alice much better.

"I know," Alice smiled.