A song latched itself to a breeze and lifted the tune through the tall blades of grass. The sun was shining in Wonderland. Bright and warm and pungent with the scent of blossoming apple trees. The scent used to remind Jefferson of summers in the woods in the Enchanted Forest, but now the scent leaned more toward fresh cut grass, watered hedges, and sweet blooming fruit trees. Alice.
It was the sound of her humming that caught a breeze and drifted to him as he walked off of the road and went to find the giant mushrooms that were hiding in the large blades of grass. He recognized the song as something he had heard the night before. His heart leaped when he realized exactly who he’d been holding in his arms while that song played.
The largest mushroom was tall and broad enough to be used as a cushion. It was thick, red, and fat and Alice was lying on top of it. She stretched across her back, kicking her feet back and forth as they hung off the edges of the mushroom’s cap. She was holding a book over her head as her golden hair hung over the sides. He wasn’t even sure if she realized she was humming as she read.
She was dressed like a child again. He could see from where he stood below. He thought it was strange that she dressed so young for her age. But in her realm, she was unmarried and passed the marriageable age. It only made sense that her constricting mother would dress her like a child. It was her punishment for going mad instead of finding a husband.
Alice had pulled the black ribbons from her hair and let her golden locks go free. The pungent breezes caught on the strands of gold and twisted them in the air, fluttering the pages of her book as she hummed a tune.
He jumped onto a smaller mushroom and appeared at her side. She jolted in her place on the mushroom cap. The humming halted.
“Mr. Jefferson!” she stated as he crossed his arms on the cap at her side and sent her a wide grin.
“Just Jefferson,” he reminded her. She set the book down and sat up. She stretched her legs out as she leaned on her elbows and soaked in the rays of the warm Wonderland sun. “Apologies, Miss Liddel.”
She rolled her eyes, very unladylike. But she seemed so much freer in Wonderland. She didn’t appear to care that she was sitting with her legs spread out over a mushroom cap, with her hair free in the breeze and the sun on her skin. She looked happy. And he would have stolen from the Red Queen herself if it meant he could keep her that way.
“Please, don’t call me that?” she begged. “Just Alice.”
“Just Alice. Just Jefferson.”
“Fine. As you wish.” She rolled onto her stomach and then slid off of the mushroom, bouncing on the smaller one beside him before hopping back down onto the ground. He followed after her. “You had a business proposition for me?” she asked as she straightened out her lavender dress with the high lace collar and an obnoxious amount of buttons.
“Right,” he said, standing tall and remembering the lie he had concocted once he’d returned to his portal. “You’re in want of freedom and I’m in want of—well—survival. Correct?”
“Indeed,” she agreed with a slightly incredulous stare.
“I figure we may be able to assist one another. Two thieves are better than one. Especially if our employers are seeking out the same objects. We can help each other. Split the shares. Take on more work. How does that sound?” She studied him, looking him up and down and taking in his dark and unusual clothes, his long coat, tight vest, and hair that was always messy.
“And what makes me think I can trust you?” she questioned. He laughed. The same giggle her mother swore was a mark of insanity, but she saw as nothing more than genuine joy.
“What have you got to lose? The worst thing that could happen to you is that I skip out on our deal, and you lose some gold. It’s not like you’re hurting for gold anyway.” She crossed her arms over her chest. The book hung limply from her bare hand.
“I’m not hurting for things, certainly, but gold is another matter entirely. The gold I earn goes toward my own freedom. I can’t be my own person if I don’t have my own wealth.”
“So that’s your plan? Save up enough gold to escape your life of privilege and parties?” She sighed, irritated.
“My plan is to save up enough gold to not have to rely on my husband to care for me. Or to own me. I can’t own my own land. But at least I can have my own money.”
“Or you could just—find your way to my realm.” She stiffened.
“Your realm?” He nodded as if this was the most obvious thing in all of Wonderland. Then he chewed on his thumbnail and watched her expectantly. “What’s in your realm?”
“Magic,” he said with a grin and wide eyes. “Ogres too, unfortunately. But—we do have a lot of trees to land on, skies to fly through, nests to build, flocks to choose from. Princesses. Fairies. Dwarves. Evil Queens.”
“Doesn’t sound much different from Wonderland,” she said with a laugh.
“Ah. Well, there are more people. No one talks funny. Animals don’t speak either. Usually. Things aren’t backward. Most of the time.”
“Are you happy there?” He shrugged.
“In all the realms I’ve ever visited, it’s the only one I want to live in. I couldn’t stomach living in Wonderland. Couldn’t imagine going to any of the other places I’ve seen. Some places have hardly any magic at all. Your realm for instance.” She blinked her dark eyes a few times before shaking her head.
“Doesn’t matter,” she decided. “Wonderland is all I’ve ever been able to reach. I wouldn’t be able to get to your land.”
“I’m sure there’s a way. There’s always a way.”
“How does your portal work?”
“It’s a hat. Unfortunately, though, I wouldn’t be able to bring you with me. The same amount of people that goes through has to come back. One person in. One person out. Two people in. Two people out. I’d have to leave someone here to get you there. Hat’s rules. Not mine.”
“I wouldn’t want that.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“How did you come about your portal?” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly.
“My father was a hatter. He apprenticed me when I was young. I was meant to carry on the business. And then one day I was making a hat and—it turned into a portal. Been doing it ever since. What about yours? How does it work?”
“It’s a looking glass. I fell through a rabbit hole when I was a child, and it brought me here. Later, when I was confined to a room in my home upstairs I was thinking about Wonderland, wondering if I actually had gone mad. And I decided I wanted to go back. Climbed up onto the mantle and fell through the looking-glass. I’ve never tried bringing anyone through with me. So I don’t know how it works. I just know that it’s only ever brought me here.”
“Every portal jumper inevitably finds a portal. Or makes one. Accidentally.”
“Are there many where you come from?”
“Just me that I know of.”
“I’ve only ever met you and one other.”
“The White Rabbit?”
“He’s madder than I am.” She laughed and shook her head. “We call it the Enchanted Forest,” he told her quietly.
“It sounds lovely,” she replied.
“You wouldn’t be obligated to attend parties there. If you didn’t want to. You could be whoever you wanted. You could be free.” She gazed off at the tall grass surrounding them like a private fence. She had a far off, dreamy look in her eyes before it disappeared and she turned back to him, seemingly startled by a realization.
“Why do you want me to come to the Enchanted Forest?”
“I don’t. It was just a suggestion. A goal for you to reach. Seemed a lot better than ‘save up my money so I can buy my own things when my husband owns me.” She sighed heavily and rested the back of her head against the cap of a mushroom.
Wonderland was making his heart flutter. He thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful when he saw her under the twinkling chandeliers of her home realm. But it was only there, in Wonderland, when he saw her in the vibrant colors. He could see the pink of her lips, the gold of her hair, the purple bruise on her chin.
He reached out and touched it, and her eyes opened in surprise. He ran his thumb over the bruise and then looked into her deep dark eyes.
“Your mother?” he asked.
“How could you tell?” she questioned. She didn’t pull away, or ask him to move his hand. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought she might have actually leaned in closer to him. He could see the faded freckles on her nose now. He hadn’t noticed them before.
“She seemed like a bird with a sharp beak and even sharper claws.” She smiled, and he wasn’t mistaken this time, she was leaning closer to him. Drawn in by the same spell that Wonderland placed on him.
“Sharper beak, I’m afraid. She had a lot to say about you after the party. Tried to convince my father that you were a spy.”
He laughed, and it lit up his whole face. She loved the way he laughed. It was free and happy. Not forceful or polite. Or the way men usually laughed when she spoke to them. Careful. As to do it properly. Jefferson didn’t seem to care that he was showing his teeth or his smile crinkled the skin around his eyes. It was real.
“Who’s to say I’m not a spy?” he asked, leaning in closer. He still had her chin pinched between his fingers. His arm moved to lean against the mushroom, close enough so that he could twist his fingers into her hair and feel the smooth strands. His touch was so gentle, so non-threatening, that she couldn’t help but allow him to invade her space.
“Are you here to spy on the mad daughter of the Baron, Just Jefferson?” she emphasized “just” again, teasing him. He smiled.
“It is Wonderland after all, Just Alice,” he told her. "Everyone is mad here."
He looked into her eyes and he swore he’d gotten lost in them. Wonderland played tricks on his mind, and her eyes drew him in like the vortex of his portal. He wanted to lose himself to her. To lean in closer until there was no more space between them. Better yet, to lie her down beneath the umbrella of the mushroom cap and pull apart each and every button until her skin was exposed to him. He would claim it was Wonderland, but it wasn’t. Even then he could feel something swirling in his heart. He had, honestly and utterly, met his match.
And, of course, the jittery hare with the crooked ear chose that moment to burst through the tall grass and scare the both of them so fiercely that Jefferson jumped, and Alice let out a startled yelp.
“Mr. Jefferson,” the brown creature said as he shivered and shook, trembling the blades of grass and making the canopy above them shimmer and shake. “Miss Alice.” Alice cleared her throat with her hand on her chest, and Jefferson was almost confident that whatever he was feeling, she was feeling too.
“Yes, Mr. Hare?” she asked him.
“Forgive me—f-for interrupting. But I was wondering, Mr. Jefferson, if you’d managed to find my tea. M-Miss Alice said that you had it.” Alice shot Jefferson a knowing look with her sneaky, wicked smile. Jefferson hated the hare for interrupting them. He wanted to kick him back into the grass and pull Alice into his arms so he could kiss all the freckles on her nose.
“You did promise,” she reminded him. So he groaned instead and reached into his pocket to procure the small bag of tea he’d brought from the Enchanted Forest to trade for the cup. He tossed it to the hare, who actually seemed to vibrate with excitement.
“Oh wonderful!” he said. “Do come to tea. Both of you. Please join me?”
“I’d really rather not,” Jefferson tried. But Alice lifted his arm and placed her hand into the crook of his elbow.
“Why not, Just Jefferson?” she asked him. “Tea would be lovely, Mr. Hare.”
“Splendid!” the hare decided as he hopped back into the grass. Jefferson looked down at Alice, who was smiling wildly and freely. And if tea with the hare were all it took to make her smile like that, he would suffer through it. He smiled back, getting pulled back into the dark pools of her eyes.
“Just Alice? I will agree to tea with the hare in exchange for one thing,” he said. Her eyebrow rose in question, but she kept the smile on her face.
“And what’s that, Just Jefferson?” she questioned.
“Tell me your favorite color?”
“My favorite color? Why do you want to know that?” Because he wanted to know everything there was to know about her, and it seemed like the best place to start.
“It’s a valid question.” She took a moment to consider it.
“Blue,” she decided. “A pale, icy kind of blue. Like the color of the sky on a cold winter morning.” She gave a nod, satisfied with her answer and then looked up at him.
“The color of your cloak?” he noted. She shook her head once.
“No,” she admitted. “The color of your eyes.”