Hatter stopped at the door and took a breath. On the other side was the Looking Glass. And Alice.
He wasn't ready for this. What was he going to say to her? She was leaving. Going back to her world, exactly as planned.
Only, he hadn't planned on that outcome making him feel like this. What was this feeling exactly? He wasn't sure, but he didn't like it. He opened the door.
And there she was.
With her arms around Jack.
His shoulders fell. She was still Jack's girl.
He'd hoped it meant more than it did, when Alice had thrown her arms around him.
"She was just happy you weren't dead. Nothing more than that," he said to himself.
Well, didn't that make it easier? He didn't have to think of anything to say now. He couldn't stomach watching her stand with him, so he turned to go.
"Hatter!" Alice called out.
No, no, no. I cannot do this.
She told him he cut it a little close. Yeah, that he had. Come close to thinking he could be more than a friend. But friends come to wish one another...
"Goodbye," he heard himself say.
"Goodbye?" she asked, but he didn't notice. What was he supposed to say after goodbye?
"If you, y'know, ever fancied coming back..." Well, that didn't make much sense. What was he going to offer that Jack couldn't?
"You want me to stay?" she asked eagerly.
What? Alice, please don't make this so hard.
"Hell, no." That sounded harsh. Even in the light voice he spoke with. He tried to rephrase. That he thought she should go home. Go home, where at least I won't have to see you with Jack.
"Yeah." At least it seemed like Alice didn't know what to say to him, either. "Yeah, I've had enough of Wonderland for a lifetime."
"I am sure you have." But I have not had enough of you. He couldn't very well say that. "Right."
She said something in return. And she began to take off his coat.
"You don't have to…"
But she already had.
"Brilliant. Thank you."
And then they hugged. And it was awful. Like people who barely knew one another.
"Y'know, you could always visit my world," Alice said. "You might like it."
What? Oh, sure. She still wanted to be friends.
"Yeah. We could… We could do pizza." What the hell, Hatter. Say something real.
"And lots of other things."
He lifted his head. What was that supposed to mean? Was that an offer?
But there was a man, taking Alice by the elbow, guiding her away. Hatter couldn't make sense of her words fast enough.
"Really? I was just – "
Just what? Just going to get up the nerve to tell her how he felt about her? How did he feel about her?
And then she was gone.
Hatter stood there for a moment. Then he noticed Jack Heart looking at him. Hatter gave him a tight smile and turned to go. He'd made it just outside the doors when Charlie called to him.
The older man sidled up to Hatter. "I will miss Just Alice," he said.
Hatter nodded but didn't trust himself to speak.
"She would have made an excellent Queen of Wonderland," Charlie said.
"What?" Hatter asked, distracted. "Oh, yeah, probably so. I'm sure Jack will think of that in the future."
Hatter was eager to brush Charlie off. He just wanted to be away from this place.
"Why, I most certainly think he did think of it. He proposed." The knight added a flourish to the word.
This news stopped Hatter in his tracks. "He what?"
"Our young King, a moment ago. He, ah..."
"Were you eavesdropping, Charlie?"
"I happen to have very good hearing," the knight harrumphed. "He asked her to wear the Stone of Wonderland as his Queen."
Hatter waited. But it seemed Charlie was done speaking.
"And did you happen to hear what Alice said?" Hatter asked impatiently.
"Oh, she said no." Charlie began walking.
"No?" Hatter asked. No? Hope sparked in his chest. He followed the old man. "Alice told Jack 'no?'"
"That's what I said."
"She didn't want to marry the prince?"
Charlie stopped and spoke to Hatter slowly. "She told him that she was no longer the girl he knew. That she had changed. That she wanted... something else."
"Something else?" Hatter asked. Hope was no longer a spark; it flamed through his veins.
"Mmm," Charlie mused. "I think she would have made a lovely queen myself."
But Hatter wasn't listening to Charlie anymore. It had begun to crash down on him. Alice's face when she echoed the word "goodbye?" The fall of her features when he said "hell, no." The way she seemed to search his face. The cleansing breath before she took off his coat. The veiled invitation to her world. The promise of "lots of other things."
Oh, he was an idiot.
Why didn't he say anything? Why didn't he grab onto her when he had the chance? Why didn't he kiss her, just once?
"Charlie, I think I am a very stupid man."
"Bah, no," Charlie replied. "Well. Maybe." He cocked his head to the side and gave the younger man a long look.
"If you care deeply for Just Alice and you let her step through the Looking Glass without knowing, perhaps. You could be less than bright."
"I need to go after her." Hatter was decisive.
"And how," the knight asked him, "will you do that?"