"Goodbye, my dear friends."
It was the last time she had seen them. She was twenty-three.
"We'll miss you, Miss Alice." the March Hare had proclaimed solemnly.
She tried her best not to cry. She was not a Miss anymore, but nobody called her Mrs Hargreaves in this world.
"I have to. I am no longer a child." she said, holding the dormouse against her for the last time.
She had done it a lot since her first trip to Wonderland. She liked the small creature a lot. She had liked small animals for as long as she remembered. She stroked his fur gently, unable to face her friends' dismay.
"You haven't been a little girl for some time." a nuage of smoke that Alice knew to be the blue caterpillar observed.
She didn't cough. She was used to it, after all those years. Not that she liked the smell much. She put the dormouse down on the table and took an empty dirty cup in her hands.
She had this need to manipulate things at all times, her hands unable to rest.
She knew what she had to say wouldn't please the Wonderlanders. However, she was a fervent supporter of the truth. That was why she had talked of Wonderland with her husband.
"I have been a married woman for two years. Reginald says it is time for me to let go of my imaginary friends."
She remembered this conversation. She had been in tears when she had left her husband's study. His words had been harsh. She had to grow up, she will have to settle an exemple for their unborn child, not encouraging them in everlasting fantasies.
"Imaginary ? Is that all we are for you ?" the Mad Hatter had lashed out.
She winced a bit, her hold on the empty teacup became tighter.
She knew she had it coming, and yet she felt wholly unprepared.
"Hatter, please -" she begged, standing up. He also stood up.
He looked composed, but his eyes… His inhuman, tortured eyes. Their strange brightness seemed to pierce your soul. Alice could read the unbearable pain in them.
People said he was mad. Alice could only tell he was suffering.
Younger, she had yearned to fix him. She wanted to learn him how to be happy. Their lenghty discussions helped, she thought. He guided her when she was a little girl. He wasn't guide material, but he tried. And Alice would have benefitted from more people trying in her entourage.
It was before she was able to understand that you couldn't make mental pain disappear but only dull the ache.
Alice was nineteen when her friendship with the Hatter started to feel different from her others. She had friends in her world. Her sister Edith, and Milicient Pearson, and Johnatan Ingell and Lily Everbridge. Not very close friends, except Edith, but people she liked to talk to. And she had special friends in Wonderland. But what she had with the Hatter was beggining to be special in a different way.
She liked laying in the grass and looking at the sky with her head on his knees.
Hearing him laugh was like seeing shooting stars. Scarce and mindblowing.
Her heart was beating faster when he was close and she was melancholic thinking about him at her parents' house.
It was also when she realised that Wonderland had slowly but surely taken her family house's place as home in her young woman's heart.
It was too much. After her revelation, she didn't come back to Wonderland for a year. By then, she was engaged to Reginald Hargreaves. It was a great shock for Wonderland's inhabitants. Alice was not a small child anymore. They knew she was going to drift away from them. Even if time was a funny thing in Wonderland, and her absence of a year was barely noticed, her friends felt hurt.
The Hatter had refused to talk to her for what Alice thought was two solid hours but were possibly mere minutes. Eventually, they talked. Alice told him her parents wanted her to marry Mr Hargreaves and that it was the sensical thing to do. It was the wrong thing to say to the Wonderlander.
They had never talked about their tender feelings for each other. They knew and Alice had made it so they couldn't act on it.
The first time she went back to Wonderland after her wedding had been stranger than ever. The Hatter was nowhere to be seen and the others hid from her. None of them had time to talk with her. She had cried bitterly under a large tree. It reminded her of the river of tears the child-Alice had produced, and she had cried even more, the dormouse pressed against her heart. Him being asleep prevented him to run away from her like the others.
The Hatter returned before she had to come back to her new home, though. They talked a lot, about their feelings for once. They accepted the situation they were in, he tried to understand she did what was best for her. They remained good friends, even if they longed for something else. It had to be that way. Her wedding had been a good opportunity for Alice. It had to be that way. What future could they had had together ?
And now, she was leaving. Forever.
She blinked the tears away.
"Don't we feel real ?"
She was startled by a cold hand on her naked forearm. She hadn't seen the Hatter moved. She dropped the teacup she was holding. She watched the cup rolling under the table in the grass, shattering in thousand pieces when it met the table's leg. A proper metaphor for her heart. It escaped from her chest, fell, rolled a bit and broke in tiny shards.
The Hatter hadn't removed his hand from her flushing skin. Propriety wasn't something taught in Wonderland. Or if it was, her friends lacked it seriously.
Her friend's question brought memories back.
She thought about Mr Dodgson and his funny book about Wonderland. A story for children. She had trusted him with her world and she felt betrayed, like he had mocked it. She had been so certain he had believed her, then. She shook her head. How could THIS not be real ? How could the dormouse's heat against her chest ? How could the Hatter's haunted glance ? How could the March Hare's bouncing steps ? How could the wise Caterpillar's narghile's foul smoke ?
"Of course you do. But-"
She struggled with her words. The Hatter's presence at this moment was unsettling.
"The poor woman is trying to save her marriage. Let her." the flowerbed nearby said.
Surprisingly, her relationship with Wonderland's flowers had improved greatly with the years. She gave them a relieved smile. They understood. Maybe her other friends will, with time.
"You're welcome to come back anytime." the March Hare said, looking at her earnestly.
She looked away. Were all farewells this painful ?
"You know I won't. I promised Reginald." she said, a lump in her throat.
A broad smile appeared in the air, soon followed by the rest of the Cheshire cat. Alice clasped her hands together. She wasn't sure he would come to say his farewells. She was glad to see he had.
"The child you're bearing would find a path to this world if she wishes so. And so would her own daughter and each eldest daughter of her direct descendants." he offered.
"I am grateful for your gift, and saddened that I have to depart. You will always live in my memories." she said.
Her heart felt heavy in her chest. She was ready. She just needed to touch the grass and wish for her house. She was about to kneel but remembered the Hatter's hand still on her forearm.
"Stay, Alice." he implored.
She knew she would remember his troubled eyes years away from now. She took a deep breath.
To hell with propriety. She threw herself in his arms.
"I can't." she said, thinking about her unborn child.
A girl. The cat had said so.
Before anyone could react, she backed away from him and knelt on the vibrant green grass.
"Thank you." she said before touching it.
She felt herself disappear from Wonderland and reappear in her own garden.
If she had stayed one more minute, she wouldn't have been able to go back to her life. Her boring, sensical life, like the Hatter used to say.
She felt hollow.
Hopefully the baby's birth would change that.