Reginald woke in his bed with a start. The morning sun shone through his open window, the lilting birdsong heralding another day. He could hear the low drone of chatter as people passed in the street below.
He tried to sit up, wincing. Not a dream. Oh how he hurt!
A steaming tea kettle and empty cup in its saucer lay on a platter on his bed stand. He reached for the folded newspaper, eyes locked on the heading: Wonderland Saved!
Ears found him, whimpering and struggling to reach the tea kettle from where he lay. The newspaper, along with whatever he could get his hands on, was thrown at the offending kettle, standing serenely out of his immediate reach. Ears sighed and hopped over to pour the tea, turning a deaf ear to all the 'Thank you-s' and 'What a fine friend you are-s' and 'Will you get me that—"
"I had forgotten what a humongous baby you are when you're injured." Ears muttered.
"You watch your tongue!" Reginald scolded. "I just saved all of Wonderland!"
"Yes," Ears rolled his eyes as the Hatter all but snatched the tea from his hands. "And we will never hear the end of it, now will we?"
Reginald hugged his stuffed manatee close, recounting loudly how brave he was, and how manly for going to their defense.
Ears watched him as he sipped his own tea, eyes half-lidded. He already knew all of what happened, having got the complete story from Alice.
Speaking of which…
"There was an angel there, Ears!" Reginald was saying loud enough for passerbys to hear from the street. "An Angel killed the Jabberwocky and saved me!"
"Well that's interesting." Ears smiled. "Did she have wings, this angel?"
"Well no…" Reginald said, a little confused. "She did look an awful lot like my Cricket though."
Reginald's face froze, his eyes wide and round with realization.
"My Alice… she's home…" He said, his voice full of hope and wonder.
Ears just stared, his face neutral.
The bedcovers exploded into the air, stuffed manatee and pillows flying. Ears fell backwards out of his chair and scrambled to save the tea from hitting the ground as the Hatter ripped the prepared clothing off the chair, flying into the bathroom and slamming the door behind him. The sounds of the shower and the sink simultaneously being turned on were heard and what sounded like a small heard of elephants as the Hatter made himself presentable.
Ears righted the tea set and looked at his watch.
As the second hand hit one minute, the Hatter burst out of the bathroom, clothing immaculate and hair/teeth brushed, fresh from his shower.
"That'll be a new record." Ears said casually. Hatter pumped his fist in the air in victory.
"You wouldn't even think that you were injured, now would you?" Ears commented.
The sudden realization of pain nearly doubled him over.
"Ugh… owwww…" he whimpered.
"Well quit your whining, Reg, we have a few things to do today now that you're finally up."
"Finally?" Reginald asked. "How long was I out?"
"Oh… about five days or so."
"WHAT?" Reginald ran to his window and leaned out, his feet leaving the floor enough to terrify Ears, who ran to keep him from falling.
The town repairs had almost been completed. There was hardly any sign that the battle had taken place. However, colorful flags and streamers lined the street, and a great pavilion had been built in the town square. The people below his window had caught sight of him and were excitedly pointing and waving at him. He stared at them owlishly, watching a few men carrying long tables make their way down the road towards the pavilion.
"What's the occasion?" Reginald asked, straining his eyes to see the people milling about the square in the distance.
"You are the occasion, you nitwit!" Ears panted, stretching with the effort of keeping his friend from falling. "Now get back in here before tonight's tea party becomes your funeral!"
Alice paused beneath the Hatter's window, hidden from his view. She could barely hide her relief at his recovery. She sidestepped, hugging the wall in her attempt to not be seen by him as he all but fell out the window. She fought the urge to run out and catch him, hearing Ears' scolding. The townspeople raised many a curious eyebrow at her, but thought better of asking. As the Hatter withdrew from the window, she made her way quickly through the crowd to the Bookstore.
She had spent a greater part of those long, heart-wrenching days ignoring her own need for rest and recovery to sit at Reginald's bedside, helping Ears and Belle as they cared for a fever-delirious Hatter. She was there when he cried out his grief over Mary Anne's death, his regret at being unable to save her slicing Alice's heart to ribbons. He cared for Mary Anne, but never in a way that the woman recognized, Ears explained. Alice cried with him, held his hand as he fought through memories both beautiful and terrible. She made that side-step into madness and spoke to the purple squirrel. Time, it had said. Time will cure all. As his final fever broke and he finally fell into a peaceful, healing sleep, Alice took her leave.
The repairs to the bookstore were complete and she filled that day with busy work, logging long orders that had gathered during the time she and Belle had been gone. Deliveries finally complete for the day, she told Belle of her plan to meet Reginald on the night of the celebration.
"What are you going to tell him?" Belle asked. "I promise you, after all that you've been through, if you push him away again…" She left the threat hanging in the air.
Alice smiled, unafraid. She pulled the sketchbook out of her pocket and opened it to a page towards the end, bookmarked with a hand-woven cricket bookmark. Belle gasped as she stared at the page, a wide grin splitting her face. She squealed with delight and nearly knocked the fair-haired woman over with her enthusiastic hug.
Alice's laugh faded as her face slowly became somber.
"I just hope it's not too late." She whispered.
Reginald spent the entirety of his morning and afternoon looking for Alice.
He checked the bookstore and was greeted by an overly-giddy Belle, who was happily keeping his Cricket's location a secret from him. She sent him to Alice's home, where Mulan met him, handing him a note with Alice's delicate handwriting on it.
'Come to the Tea Party table at 6 o'clock sharp. Don't be late. -Alice.'
Naturally, that was the next place he would run, but when he arrived at the long dish-strewn table, she wasn't there.
She did say 6 o'clock. It was only 4.
He sat down and pouted. He spent all this time searching for her and found not a single thread of her golden hair. More importantly…
His hat was still missing.
His orange coat was mysteriously transported and dropped in his room, but the whereabouts of his magnificent hat remained unknown. He had been forced to wear a backup: a derby that he sometimes wore in the autumn months. It just wasn't the same.
He slammed his face on the table, moaning. His Cricket and his Hat, both vanished.
He heard the clink of glass and turned, eyes alight. He froze and gave a disappointed huff.
"It's just you…" He groaned, planting his face down on the table.
The Cheshire Cat, in his humanoid form, sipped tea with an unconcerned air.
"You know," he grinned, "Once upon a time, people whispered my name with fear and trepidation."
"Psh…" The Hatter said, rolling his eyes. "That's because they didn't know you."
"True." The Cat smiled. "Why the long face, Hatter?"
Reginald checked to make sure his face was still the same length. He sighed.
"I had just hoped that after all that we've went through, Alice would have had a change of heart, that's all." He lifted his head and clunked it down on the table. "First, she hides from me. Then, she leaves this note with such a straight-forward message… I just know that she's going to tell me off again."
The Cat lifted a brow. "And what will you do if she does?" He asked.
Reginald sat up straight. He remembered the dream-that-wasn't-a-dream where he was sitting with Alice, watching her cry, his heart bleeding. Then he remembered what he said to her in the one as the town was attacked. He remembered the love and hope in her eyes.
"I won't give up." He said finally.
"Why?" The Cat asked.
"Because she is my Happily Ever After."
The Cat smiled into his Teacup.
The celebration was well underway.
The sun was sinking down into Tulgey Wood as the fanfare announced the arrival of Queen Elsa and her Entourage, then Merida and her family, followed by Princess Rapunzel and her Consort, Prince Eugene. The final, most grand fanfare, announced the arrival of the Queen of Hearts, who basked in the overwhelming roar of the happy townspeople.
However, the real guests of honor had not arrived. Alice and Reginald were nowhere to be found.
Reginald arrived at the gate, hesitating for the first time, with his hand on the small white gate. He slowly opened it, giving an exasperated sigh and a look to the heavens when he saw that Alice wasn't there. Grumbling, he walked over to the table and planted himself in a chair.
The sound of water splashing over stone caught his attention. He looked around for the source and saw the fireflies, floating merrily over the hedge. He curiously walked up, standing on his toes to see over the greenery.
There Alice sat, on the edge of a grand fountain, a delighted smile on her lips as the fireflies flitted about her, landing on her hair and sleeves. He held his breath at the beauty of her, not willing to break the spell.
His calf muscles, however, insisted that he stop standing on his toes like that.
He stood back and watched the purple squirrel disappear into a gap in the hedge, reappearing to motion insistently for him to get a move on.
He made it through the gap as noiselessly as he could, but she was still alerted to his presence. She somberly regarded him, her eyes unreadable in the light of the evening.
He took a deep breath.
Alice watched him as he walked towards her, not moving as he lowered himself to sit next to her on the edge of the fountain. She did her best to hide her nervousness. The sounds of the crickets melded with the burbling of the fountain as they sat, watching and waiting for the other to make the first move.
Alice took the initiative, reaching down to grab Reginald's hat from where it was hidden behind her skirt. She held it, eyes lowered shyly. He wore the orange coat that she recovered from the Looking-glass parlor, shortly before the Queen's rescue party arrived. She recalled how she had savored the feel of the soft, durable fabric that she had buried her face in, becoming lost in the smell of musky, brushed leather and sun-warmed tea leaves. As she looked up at his waistcoat and blue tie, she remembered the strong, pale chest and the dusting of freckles on his arms.
Belle certainly wasn't fooled by her request to wash the fever sweat off his arms and chest during his illness.
Reginald smiled at the delightful pink flush that bloomed on her face. This was certainly a welcome sign. She reached up and removed the derby from his head, and replaced it with his hat, her hands gently falling to the sides of his face as she lowered them.
For a breathtaking second, he thought she was going to touch him.
Her hands fell to her lap instead.
"Cricket," He whispered, eyes searching her face. "Thank you."
She gave a small smile. Her eyes were swirling with emotions that he couldn't recognize.
He lifted one foot, placing it in the fountain's water so he could face her as he straddled the edge of the fountain.
"Alice, listen… I remember what you said back when we were on your porch, the day you asked me to back away." He whispered. "I want you to know that I understand."
Alice's eyes flew up to his, a hint of surprise and hurt in her eyes. He could understand the surprise, but why the hurt?
"I know that you didn't want to be hurt and you were afraid. But I want you to know that if you still want me to go, I will." He almost kept the tremble out of his voice.
Alice looked up at him, eyes glowing intermittently in the fire-fly light. She had never looked more sad and lovely to him. His precious Cricket.
"I will leave you alone, but I will never stop loving you." He whispered.
She moved to face him fully. He heard a small splash, almost masked by the burbling of the fountain. He looked down and saw that she had put her own leg into the fountain, mirroring what he had done. He looked back up to find her eyes were fierce and bright.
"Reginald, I wanted to tell you something in those dreams."
He nodded mutely. Her eyes filled a strange glow, warm and resolute.
"I wanted to tell you that despite all your silliness, your irreverence, your madness—"
"You're really laying it on there thick, Cricket." He muttered dryly.
"—Your impulsiveness, I've never in my life wanted to be with anyone more."
He held his breath, hardly daring to hope.
"I made a mistake on that porch for all the right reasons. I've grown up now and I know exactly what I should have said." She murmured, taking his gloved hand.
"Reginald, I love you. I hope it's not too late to tell you that."
The world became still. He couldn't stop staring at her beautiful face, even as the seconds ticked by, and as she blushed and looked away, uncertain. He removed his hand from hers wordlessly, watching as she tried to hide the sudden hurt in her eyes.
He slowly removed one glove, then the other, placing the pair in his coat pocket. He lifted one hand to her face, running his thumb over her lips. The other found her arm, gently pulling her close. He watched as her eyes fluttered closed, lips parting as he moved closer. His lips brushed hers, testing the waters. Then she leaned forward, deepening the kiss.
It was everything he had dreamed it would be.
He broke off the kiss gently, trailing a few down her cheek. "Alice," He whispered, repeating his words from the dream. "I love you. No matter what, I have always loved you."
Her passionate response was all the answer he needed.
Thank you all for your patience and understanding as I spent the long years completing this story. What started out as a need for closure turned into a passion project that was as thrilling and fulfilling as any happy memory would be. I had an amazing time with this, and I am happy it is done. Thank you for your wonderful words of encouragement and for the ever important criticisms that I took to heart. This isn't meant to be a professional novel, but a story I am happy to share with you. Thank you to Briana Garcia and Rain Tulgey for your amazing story and inspiration. And finally, thank you for all you readers who brought this magic to life. I love you all.