"Alice, are you listening to me?"

Alice's eyes shot up from an illustrated picture of The Monkey King, and fixed instead upon her business partner and mentor, Lord Ascot.

"Sorry," she muttered, tucking a twisting strand of blond hair behind her ear. The particular strand had a particular habit of falling in front of her face at no particular time, but at all times altogether, and was resilient to all forms of pins, hats, buns and clips.

"-and that is why I think it the best way to approach Huizhong-san tomorrow with our proposal."

Alice blinked at him in concentrated confusion. "What is the best way?"

"I just repeated! To present him not only with…" a slow smirk pulled at the man's face. "Sod it. What is it that you're thinking about Alice?" It was a testament to how much he thought her an equal for him to actually swear, if only mildly, in front of her, a lady. Usually she would have been flattered. Such was the strange relationship of young woman and father's friend. However, today, the second part of his remark drew her undivided, if flustered, attention.

"Nothing," she muttered again, looking back down at the illustration. It was fixed in a book of illuminations, all of which depicted characters and scenes from the ancient Chinese legend The Journey to the West. A pity she hadn't yet been able to find a translation into English. And her Chinese was rudimentary and mainly focused on trade matters. Not nearly sophisticated enough for such literature. For now, she would have to satisfy herself with the pictures.

"Come, come, come Alice. Tell me what's on your mind," said the lord teasingly, settling back in his armchair, away from his plans and bills, making himself more comfortable. "We're in lonely country here. No secrets."

Alice smirked without looking up. "China's now a lonely country, is it? With the population that it has?" She turned the page, and found herself looking at a picture of a sort of warrior pig. He looked very much like the Twiddle Twins. Her smirk widened.

However, she couldn't enjoy her book. Lord Ascot had fixed his eyes on her in a way that simply wouldn't give her peace. She had never been comfortable with staring. It had probably been the one thing that bothered her about Chesh… apart from the disappearing, reappearing act… hum…

…Though nothing in this world, or in England, or even in the world below the rabbit hole, could ever bother or had ever bothered her as much or as often as the vision of those two green eyes, so longing and so full of hurt, vanishing before her…as she once again left their holder behind…

"Does he have a name?"

Alice nearly tore the page out as she turned it. "What?!"

"HA!" He smacked a hand down on the arm of the chair. "I guessed right." Alice was the brightest, cleverest and most daring partner and apprentice he could ever have hoped for, (far better than his own idiot son) but he did have the advantage in years, worldly knowledge, and the understanding of the comings and goings of goods.

And love was a rare enough commodity to be recognizable on sight for a man of his experience.

"Actually," Alice said, swallowing hard as she tried to regain some of her composure – page flip – "I was thinking along more…vague lines."

"Oh?" Lord Ascot reached into his coat for his pipe, never tearing his eyes off of her.

"Yes well, as you know, I'm almost twenty one and a half.'


"And we have solidified the outpost so successfully that even Huizhong-san is showing a truly keen internet and-"

"Alice," pipe in mouth, he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Heh," Alice slackened back into the couch on which she was sitting, and smiled sheepishly at her mentor. "Almost two years ago I embarked on this venture because I felt to do otherwise would be to leave a part of me undiscovered and unexplored. She closed the book and ran her fingertips over the British bound leather spine. "Now however," she shrugged at the book in embarrassment and nervousness, "I feel that there's something that is calling me home again. Something else…that I did discover… but also left…unexplored…"Someone…

Lord Ascot puffed away at his pipe languidly. Then he cracked his mouth open. "What is he?"

Alice smirked and finally looked up from her book again to meet his half lidded gaze.

What is he? What a question that was.

She knew what he was asking. Was he a baron, a duke, and earl or a lord, like his son whom she had rejected almost two years ago, or perhaps only a pitiful viscount. What is he?

"Utterly and exquisitely mad."

Her mentor's face twisted into a smile mirroring her own, twisting the pipe along with it. "Good. My greatest fear was that you might dare consider marrying someone below your station."

The White Queen laughed as the Hatter plopped yet another hat artistically askew atop her head. It was a sort of nest of black and white wire, with two peacock feathers, (which had been quite willingly donated by their owners for the purpose) one black, one white, flying out from it, their tips bobbing merely with her every movement.

"I like it immensely!" she cooed, twisting her head around to thank him properly, but also to delight in the knowledge that the peacock tips were quivering wildly.

"The pleasure, your majesty, is entirely mine," he said with a sweeping bow which made one wonder precisely what laws of gravity his own top hat did obey to be able to remain so snuggly on his head.

"I expect that you ought to go now," she said, pouting a little, as she looked at the large clock which hung on the wall. It showed no specific time, and was therefore the clock which the entire kingdom consulted devotedly.

"I'm afraid I must," the Hatter smirked, heaving back out of his bow, his quavering mass of orange-fire hair putting the two little feathers to shame. Time was a curious thing in Underland. It never seemed to move forward, yet it did shift around in place in its own moody way. For example, the Hatter would now leave the White Queen for a relatively brief shift of time, to have his daily tea party. Although no longer a perpetual affair, the tea parity of the Hatter was still a daily one.

The White Queen sighed. "Very well. We wish you the usual merriment."

A bitter streak turned up the mad smirk oh-so gently, and his voice darkened. "Th' usual merriment. A truly stoatin amoont, 'at." The bitterness eased. "Tootles for now!" A final bow, and he was sweeping out of his workshop where the Queen visited him daily for the latest feast of hats.

Sure of his retreating back, the White Queen beckoned to Mallymkun, the Doormouse, who was busily re-arraigning the pins stuck into the pin cushion. She was one of the Hatter's best and oldest friends, and also a daily guest of the tea parties. The White Queen knew she would be departing shortly to follow the Hatter.

Mallymkun saw her beacon and sighed. It was one of those days. She had hoped to see the last of them. The Queen had asked her more and more rarely as time shifted about.

"How is he?" she whispered when the mouse had clambered into the palm of her hand.

She shrugged sheepishly. To tell truth she didn't feel very comfortable confessing her best friend's feelings to the monarch of their entire world. And besides, the Hatter kept himself to himself. Mallymkun was sure that even she didn't know the half of it.

"You always ask the same thing," she muttered evasively, kicking an invisible bit of dust across the Queen's palm.

"That is because I do not see any improvement," she said airily.

"I told you. War changes people. You oughtn't expect the man to be as cheery and blithe as he was before your Big Headed Sister. It isn't even fair," she said, crossing her arms and accusing the Queen more than a little.

The Queen half lidded her eyes and smiled her most disarming dreamy smile at him. "He was perfectly cheery and blithe when he performed the Futterwacken on the Frabjous Day."

Ah. That had been quite a few shifts of time ago. And besides… besides… Alice had been there to watch him. Messick's nose twitched in discomfort. "He's well enough," she finally said defeated. "I think he takes the walks from here to the long table to vent a little. Still… well enough."

The Queen sighed. "Always the same question. Always the same answer?"

"Well, they say time heals everything, don't they? But time doesn't go anywhere here, does it?" Mallymkun shrugged a last time, and then pointedly jumped off of the Queen's hand and back onto the table. "S'cuse me, Your Majesty. There are scraps to be picked up." It wasn't entirely true. The Hatter was rather thorough with his work. More so, actually, than with his tea sets.

The Queen's hand fell limply back onto the armrest of her chair, and she gently shook her head to make the peacock feather quiver, all the while looking on down the carpeted walkway to the doors through which the Hatter had vanished.

There was always the dilemma of walking too swiftly to the tea party grounds, or walking too slowly. To walk too swiftly would mean to get there too soon, and cut down on the time he had to compose himself. To walk too slowly would mean that he would have to restrain his venting altogether, and that would defeat the very purpose of these leisurely afternoon strolls.

"Damn," he murmured darkly, kicking out at an arbitrary rock and sending it into the underbrush. A while ago he had asked the flowers, very politely, to stay clear of his walk path while he was passing along it. They had obliged him, and thus he never had to worry about injuring the chance bystanders when he vented… except perhaps his big toe, which was smarting now.


He had never had these mood swings before the Red Queen's reign. Oh he had been mad, but this was a sort of madness he did not like. It was not pleasant, and it only brought misfortune to others. It was an ugly side. Before Alice had returned to Underland Mallymkun had been the only one able to remotely restrain the Hatter, and his mood swings. However, after Alice had come… well, she had spoiled everything. No… no she hadn't.

Not yet.

She had been able to calm him more easily than anyone. Much more easily than Mallymkun, who would wrap a teacup sharply with a spoon in the hopes of jolting Hatter back to his senses. It worked. Usually.

And then he had snapped in front of Alice. Utterly snapped. Kicking, shouting, hurtling furniture. And she had, without being the least bit afraid, taken his face between her hands and directed his eyes into her own. It had been a terrifying moment, when his eyes locked with hers. He had never… never…wanted her to see him like that.

But she had. She had seen him at his maddest, and had not minded it. Had calmed him. Had made him feel… mad, and in good company.

Hatter touched a hand to his cheek as he walked, and then brushed it off. Idiot.

He had thought that, with the fall of the Red Queen, his darker mood would subside. After all, its original cause was gone. But so was its cure. Alice. She had left. She had returned to her own world because she said that… "There are questions I have to answer. Things I have to do."

And what about his questions? What about what he had to do?...and now never could.

…Anyway, with her departure, the mood swings found new flame. Yes, she had spoiled everything. No amount of Mallymkun's teacup-wrapping could bring him back now.

Hence these walks.

One of which now came to an end, as he entered the glade wherein stood the long, presently clear, table at which all of their tea parties were held. He sighed, wondering if he had walked too quickly or too slowly, and headed to the patched up windmill, wherein the mountains of tea sets and utensils were stored. Mallymkun and the March Hare both knew to give him some time to set up before they themselves came along. Their excuses were that the March Hare needed the time to bake the scones and wanted them to the ready just as everything way laid out on the table, so that they wouldn't get cold, and Mallymkun said she needed the extra few minutes to clear up in the Hat workshop.

Lies. And Hatter knew it, as he carefully distributed too many cups to too many seats along with too many saucers. When their tea parties had been never-ending the March Hare had not given one fig as to the state of the scones. And Hatter always made sure, when he left the Hat workshop himself, that what needed to be in its place was in place and what didn't wasn't. There was no need for clearing anything up.

Still, they gave him the extra time, lest the walk to the table did not prove enough… lest he walked too slowly rather than too quickly…or was it the other way around?

He filled all of the pots with hot water that perpetually poured out of the Curious Spout jutting out from the side of the mill, dropped a different teabag into every pot, and set them all on the table. He smiled.

There. His foul mood was quite gone. Now he was only a little tired. The merriment of the party would soon remedy that. With a sigh he collapsed down into his armchair at the head of the table, poured himself a cup of Earl Grey tea, dumped a spoon full of honey and a quarter of a lemon after it, and waited for the entire lot to cool.

He knew that she remembered her journey to Underland. Or had when she first climbed back into her world. So had said the old caterpillar…butterfly… Absolem…whatever… Yes, she had remembered.

And still she did not return.

A growl deep in his throat rumbled out and almost despite himself he looked along the long table, out towards the path down which no Underlander ever came, since it led to nowhere but the Overworld. One would think that he, the Hatter, would have picked a different seat to sit at along the table, after Alice left. After all, how many times between sips between days between parties could he look up in vain… and not see the little blue-dressed blond-haired girl coming toward him for that third, most exquisite, most desperately waited for, time. Ha. And he had thought that waiting for her to come the second time to slay the Jabberwocky had been an agonizing wait. What a laugh. At least it had come! This… the third time…It never came. And he never changed his seat. Stubbornness, really. The Hatter shoved his top hat forward to shift over his eyes, blocking out the table and the empty path. He might as well catch a few blinks while his tea was cooling. The other two wouldn't be long…

He heard the clinking of cups and blinked himself awake, only to stare into the inside of his hat. The other two had arrived and had started at the tea. With a shift and a groan, the Hatter reached out a blind hand and groped for his teacup. No… that was a napkin. Onward his groped. Ah, there was the teacup. Trying not to betray that he had been asleep, but only very still, he brought the cup smartly to his lips…and swallowed.

…Wait a moment. Since when did napkins have such solid centers… and since when did napkins stand upright?

"Good morning Hatter."

The Hatter jolted up in his seat, shot out an arm to prevent his hat, (which suddenly seemed to oblige gravity all too keenly,) from falling off his head, and bit down on his teacup to vehemently that a loud Crunch resounded throughout the woodlands.

The voice whose form was still obscured by his hat laughed. "You know… I almost did the exact same thing with a page from a book not a few months ago when someone asked me about you."

Very carefully he readjusted his hat atop his head and pushed it back so as to uncover his eyes. Very carefully he looked at the table see that what he had originally taken for a curled napkin was actually the sock of a very dainty foot which had been carefully placed between crumpet dish and saucer. Very carefully he looked up, and up, and up along a yard and a bit of a light blue traveling dress and dark blue petticoat to an absolute vision of loveliness… whose mouth was now twitching in the restraint to laugh. Very carefully once more the Hatter raised his master-craftsman fingers to his mouth and gentry extracted the bite-size amount of porcelain wedged therein.

He swallowed again.

"Dearest Alice," he said in a rather dry voice. "Why are you on top of the table in your socks?"

"Dearest Hatter," she said charmingly, holding her traveling boots in one hand, crouching down in front of him and causing his heart to leap into his mouth and his body to recede as far back into the armchair as it could go, "why am I the only one on top of the table in my socks?"

"The other two," he blustered on rather smoothly, carefully depositing the shards of porcelain into the now unusable teacup, "they'll be here presently." He looked up from teacup to Alice. She had grown. Of course she had grown! That was the nature of her world. To change. However, he was happy the change was not as great as it had been between her first and second visit, when she had grown from little girl to young lady. Now she had grown from young lady to young woman. Still… the change did frighten him. He didn't think he wanted her to grow much more than this…

Despite all that… "You haven't lost your muchness this time around," he said.

"Well I can't say the same for you."

The Hatter blinked at her in shock. "Excuse me?"

Her smirk widened. Was she actually being coy with him? The little brat! "You heard me. Why, you're not the same as you were before. You were much more…muchier." Her smile saddened a little. She was so like him, to hide the sadness – the truth – within the little joke. "You've lost your muchness. In there," she said, pulling out one white-gloved finger and gently prodding him in the chest. It was like an arrow to the heart. He took a sharp, shaky breathe. "Something's missing." Those were the very words, the very gesture,that he had used on her the last time she had been here. Word for word. Gesture for gesture. Regret for regret. She continued. "You're almost like a teacup that's had a bit loped out of it."

Wordlessly he raised his broken teacup to her eyes, and raised his eyebrows. As a motion it was innocent enough, but his blank expression and his still and level grip both quivered silently… as if daring her to continue. What she was saying was bothering him. It was bothering him immensely. And Alice didn't know the way Mallymkun and the March Hare knew… she didn't know Not. To. Push. Him.

She laughed, unwary of the danger. "Exactly! Just so, as if someone's gone and taken a large biteout of you!" she giggled again, tauntingly, uncertainly, nervously, rocking back and forth in her crouch, on the balls of her socked feet. And then her giggle caught in her throat and changed to a gasp when the Hatter shattered the teacup against the forest floor, shot out of his armchair onto his feet, and locked her in an iron grip with his hands on her upper arms.

"Ain pray teel, 'Dearest Alice,' if Ah took th' bite it ay th' teacup, who took th' bite it ay me? Whit. Is. Missin'?!"

"H-Hatter… s-stop," she muttered, gripping a hand at his own, trying to pry him off.

"Who!?" He shook her, just to spite her attempts, as she had once spited him… by vanishing before his very eyes!

"As Ah recaa ye hud questions ye needed tae answer an' things ye needed tae dae. Weel!? Hae ye answered and… an' dain! Ur ye haur noo only coz yoo've finished yer explorations an' noo ye hae naethin' better tae dae than grace us wi' yer happy presence? An' ye expect us aw tae be happy an' merry an' Futterwacken fur yer pleasure?! Is 'at whit ye expect ay me?" He had forced her from her crouch and she had crashed back into a sitting position on the table, knocking and rolling a pot clean off to spill herbal tea all over the earth ground below.

"I…" Alice swallowed hard, her smirk quite gone. "I never stopped answering questions, or doing things. But… but in everything I did…I thought of you." she took a shaky breath. "I couldn't figure out why that was. It was maddening. I breathed in the Underland in everything I did. Everything I said. Everything I felt! I read many stories about different adventures and journeys just to try and think about something different. And I knew you were real because, when all else deserted me, I had the scars from the Bandersnatch's claws on my arm." The Hatter's grip only tightened.

"And then…as time went on…rather that thinking about you less, I began thinking about you more and more." He had forgotten how mesmerizing those blue eyes could be. "It was maddening," she repeated. "And…and I realized, when I turned twenty-one, that I was really growing older." She smiled nervously at him. That smile… "Almost three years ago I left here… because I wanted to discover myself. I wanted to tie up loose ends with my own hands. I wanted to…" She swallowed hard. Everything… everything about her… "But you see… when I turned twenty-one, having established what I left this world to establish…" her mouth hovered open uncertainly, her words coming out in breaths… "I realized that the greatest loose end… the greatest question that needed answering… the thing I needed to do more urgently than anything else in my entire life…was here…"

Somewhere during her little speech, the Hatter had loosed his vise grip on her arms, and had begun to slowly move his thumbs in circles. "I…I'm sorry," he rasped. He felt himself beginning to shake. Fear. He had hurt her. He had waited for her so long… and he had hurt her. "I…I'm so sorry, I-" Alice raised a hand to his face, pinched to fingers around his nose, and slid them off, thumb in between.

"What are you doing?" he asked hoarsely.

She smiled at him unsteadily. "It's like you. And like the teacup." She waived her pinched thumb between her fingers. "Got your nose."

He smirked momentarily at her, the usual weariness after his rages coming on. "Oh? And what do you intend to do with it?"

"Give it back," she said, scooting forward on the table, and sliding her two fingers around his nose again. "See?" she said, showing him an open – free nose and thumb – palm.

"Ha!" he croaked, easing himself back into his armchair. "If only it was that simply. How exactly would I go about replacing the bite I took out of that teacup or, for that matter, the bite you took out of me? The Something, that you so perceptively notes, is missing. Has been missing, since you left."

It was said. No more delusions. He had told her what she had done to him.

She leaned forward a little more, and cocked her head with a smile. "Give it back." And before the Hatter could comprehend what on earth she meant by that, she was kissing him. She, Alice, his Alice, was kissing him. She slid fully off the table and onto his armchair, and he reached up into that golden sun of hair, and once more felt those maddening, soothing hands on his cheeks.

"Thank you," he rasped with a smile, "for giving me my Muchness back again."

I didn't like that Hatter and Alice had to part at the end of the movie. Why do directors and authors so often feel the need for these types of endings? (ie. Peter Pan, Labyrinth, Spirited Away, etc.) I would have preferred a Nutcracker ending, with Hatter waiting for Alice on the ship as its Capitan.