Working with Alice had been a brilliant idea on Jefferson’s part. To be completely honest, he had concocted the plan as part of his lie. It was an excuse to see her and to travel to her realm, but he had to congratulate himself on his brilliance.
They worked well together. Sometimes she found jobs from her realm, but more often than not, the jobs were his. And having the two of them together brought in a faster revenue. They were quicker as a team and began devising their own techniques. Whoever had made the deal and got the pay would bring in half the share to the other. Alice was hesitant to trust Jefferson at first, but she didn’t have nearly as much to lose. After a while, he seemed to gain her trust as well as her friendship.
But the increase in gold wasn’t the best part of his plan. Not only was he getting more money than he’d had before, but he also had someone to spend his time with. He had been lonely most of his life, and he hadn’t really noticed it. People were messy and complicated. He never made permanent friends and only acted friendly to secure ties that would get him better deals. But he tried not to get emotionally attached to anyone, just in case he had to back out of a deal and they turned on him. It was easier to make enemies than friends.
He couldn’t do that with Alice. He tried to get the hang of Wonderland’s unusual time just so they could spend as much of it together as possible. Sometimes they would spend all day looking for their next catch. Sometimes they had it within an hour, and would spend the rest of the day exploring Wonderland until they got tired and laid her blue cloak down under a mushroom so they could rest.
Jefferson was always touching her in some way. Men usually kept their distance in her realm, and so it was always a bit unusual to her when he would reach out and hold her hand before the two of them raced down a hill. Or when he would tuck her head beneath his chin while they talked to an animal about a deal. Or like he was at that moment, lying on her cloak in the sunshine with his eyes closed as he gently brushed his fingers over her arm absentmindedly.
They had been hunting for this latest objective for days. It was possibly the largest, most profitable hunt they’d ever taken together. It had taken them days just to track down the object, and once they’d got it, Jefferson had rushed right through his portal to hand it in. He’d shown up the next day just as he promised, and gave Alice her half of the pay. But he hadn’t made another deal, and neither had she. So they decided to waste the day in a clearing in the sunshine. The air smelled like fresh cut grass and apples for him. But for her, it smelled like a pine forest with blooming lilacs and rich buttery cookies.
She was lying on her stomach, reading her book and humming to herself as she kicked her legs back and forth. He was lying next to her, close enough so that her mother would have called it scandalous. Jefferson was from another realm and didn’t seem to care much for personal space. She liked that about him. He didn’t feel forced or restricted around her. He acted on his thoughts as they came, and she found herself relaxing into the same patterns. He hadn’t been at all startled the first time she’d lifted his hand and traced lines onto his palms. He had only wrapped her up in his arms and carried her down the path to their destination, laughing in that same joyous way he always did.
But now he lay dozing on the cloak as he listed to her hum. He was lying on his back with his knee lifted as he moved it back and forth. His arm was stretched out in front of her so that his fingers could touch her forearm whenever he felt like. If it weren't for the movements, she would have thought he’d fallen asleep.
He was only enjoying the moment and the peace that he found with Alice. They had worked together so easily and so quickly. She had brought light into his life. He had thought about love before, but never in a realistic way. People always talked about finding true love and having families and things like that. But somehow that never seemed appealing to him. He couldn’t imagine finding a woman who would want to marry him after the things he had done in his business. Or that she’d put up with it for long. Love was messier and more complicated than people, and he usually tried to avoid it.
But that was the problem with love. You couldn’t avoid it.
He had wanted Alice from the very start. And even though some logical part of his mind reminded him of how he wanted to avoid love. Or how it wasn’t real or simply not meant for him. He had stuck to her anyway. He also remembered that Wonderland had the ability to exacerbate emotions. But he couldn’t stop himself whenever she was near. His heart leaped when he would see her waiting for him at their mushroom patch. Or when he caught sight of her coming down the road away from her looking-glass. But even when he was back home in the Enchanted Forest, she was on his mind.
Sometimes when they were together, he couldn’t stop talking. He would drill her with questions about her life and her passions. He wanted to know everything about her. And she seemed to return the interest. They would chatter on for hours, even while they worked. And sometimes they didn’t need to. Sometimes just lying under the mushrooms, basking in the warmth of Wonderland was enough. He was satisfied just being near her, and dreaded going home.
She always had to go home. He had spent nights in Wonderland before. It was always risky and strange since the weirdest, and most dangerous of Wonderland’s creatures came out at night. But he knew how to do it. Alice never could. She always seemed to know exactly what time it was in her land, despite Wonderland’s strange schedule, and she would be back on the road to her portal before the sun had a chance to set.
He hadn’t asked her yet, but he wanted to. Sometimes he thought about the family she left at home. He knew that she came through the portal at night when her mother locked her up in her room with nothing but her looking-glass. He knew that she had a sister and a dead brother and that she apparently loved her father. Once or twice, she’d told him about a cat named Dinah that she loved. But she’d never talked about her family in depth. And their odd differences from her sometimes made him curious.
“Tell me about your brother,” he said, feeling her skin beneath his fingers as she turned the pages of her book.
“What about him?” she asked.
“His name was John.”
“What happened to him?” She had gone silent, and nothing could be heard in Wonderland but the songs of birds and the flap of Flutterby wings from a nearby mushroom patch.
“He died,” she explained, turning another page.
“Tell me about him.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I want to know everything about you. Even the sad things.” She paused and even though his eyes were shut, he could feel her gaze on him.
“He was much older than me,” she told him. “Already a man by the time I was born. He was the only one who believed me about Wonderland. Or at least he pretended to. But he told me not to tell anyone about what I had seen. I didn’t listen. They locked me away when they thought I was mad, and when I came home, they told me he had died. They never told me how.”
“And you loved him?”
“I loved him very much. I love my father, and I love my sister, of course. But my father is so busy, and my sister’s always been so different from me. Always so narrow and perfect. John was too, but he liked to play with me. Sometimes we would ride out into the apple orchard together and play hide-and-seek until the sun went down. I miss him dearly.”
“Seems like he was a good man,” he stated. “You were lucky to have someone who cared for you like that.”
He could feel her skin under his fingers, and he longed to reach out and pull her closer. To burrow his head beneath her arm or tangle his legs in hers. She never seemed to care when he touched her, but he didn’t want to overstep his boundaries. He wanted her to be comfortable with him and to trust him. To love him even.
So he was startled by her for the very first time when he felt her lips touch his. His eyes shot open, and he looked up at the girl with her dark eyes and her golden hair. She leaned over him as she smiled.
“What was that for?” he questioned. Though his lips were still tingling and his heart was pounding.
“For being beautiful,” she said like this was evident. He laughed.
“Wonderland actually has made you go mad.” She huffed but was still smiling.
“I’m not mad!” He reached up and brushed his fingers along the soft skin on her cheek.
“Sure you are,” he retorted. “We all are.”
“No! Just you, Just Jefferson.”
She poked him in the ribs to get him to laugh, and he reached out for her. He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her to him so that her weight rested on half of his body. She gasped when he pulled her in close, unaccustomed to being touched in that way. But he’d locked his fingers around her back, and she made no move to pry them away. He would have let her go if she wanted him to, but she didn’t. Instead, she put her hands on either side of his head and smiled down at him as the shock faded.
“Just Alice?” he said.
“Yes, Just Jefferson?” she replied.
“Would you kiss me again?”
“Absolutely not.” His heart dropped for just a moment, but she still had her sneaky smile on her face. “You kiss me.”
So he did. He smiled and lifted his head, she came down to meet him, and their lips touched again. The first time she kissed him, she had been gentle, curious, and sweet. But now. Now he couldn’t stop himself from kissing her roughly, parting her lips and tasting her. She melted against him, lowering her arms so that he didn’t have to lift his head. Her hair surrounded them like a small, private tent. And he could see the sunlight filter in through the gold even with his eyes shut.
Her body was warm, and she smelled like an apple orchard. He could feel the buttons of her dress beneath his fingers, and he longed to pull them apart. He knew that no one in her realm would know, and her reputation wouldn’t be soiled by his hands. But he wasn’t sure how she would feel if he loosened one of her buttons. It just wasn’t the right time. For either of them.
The realization of what he really wanted struck him as he kissed her deeply and tangled his fingers in her golden hair. He didn’t just desire to pull open her buttons and release her from her tight constricting clothing. He wanted to love her. Properly. And he had a gut feeling that he already did. He just couldn’t be sure if she loved him back.
She pulled away and smiled down at him again. Her lips were more vibrantly pink from his rough lips, and so were her cheeks from blushing.
“Just Jefferson?” she asked as she leaned on her elbow at his side and slipped her leg between his. He still had his arm beneath her shoulder and so he pressed his hand against her back and pulled her back in, just to rest his head on her arm and feel her heart beating in her chest. She fiddled with the silver buttons on his vest as she waited for him to get comfortable.
“Yes, Just Alice?” he replied.
“You like me? As a person?”
“Of course I do. That’s an odd question.”
“I just mean—you like spending time with me, yes?”
“But do you like me?” She emphasized “me,” and he shifted his head so that he could look up at her. But she was gazing off through the tall blades of grass instead of looking back down at him.
He wanted to tell her that she was mad. Of course he liked her. He loved her. He thought that was very obvious. But maybe love was different where she came from. And he remembered, from what he had seen, that marriage was an exchange of titles and assets and nothing more than ensuring the continuation of blue bloodlines. She had likely been taught that love didn’t matter.
His other hand was still resting on her hip so he lifted it and took her hand into his. He brought her fingers to his lips and thought of all the ways he could tell her he loved her without saying it. To prove to her that he loved her personhood and not just her beauty. Titles and assets and blue blood meant nothing to him. He just couldn’t find the words to say what he felt. And she had gone silent as she waited for him to answer. He didn’t want to lie. Not to her. She made him want to be good. To be kind. To give up his life of stealing and trading just so he could take her home and be a good husband. If she ever learned that marriage could be (and should be) nothing more than an exchange of love.
So he worked up the courage to tell her the truth.
“I like you,” he said, dragging her knuckles across his lips. “And I love you.”
She didn’t say anything, but she sucked in a breath of air and never let it back out. She didn’t pull away from him, but she didn’t move either. Not for a long time. And so he held her fingers to his lips and waited for her to speak.
“But—why?” she finally asked when she began to breathe again.
The question had come as a surprise, and he really wished she would drop the subject so that he didn’t have to keep telling the truth. He knew that would be the best way to deal with it. It was how he usually dealt with emotions. The worst thing that could possibly happen is that she would never want to see him again. And that really would be the worst thing.
But if that’s what she wanted—he would respect that. He would do anything for her. And not just because she had a pretty face and a sly wit that matched his own. But because he felt that ache deep within his heart. Even if Wonderland was causing him to mistake attraction for love, he didn’t care. He wanted to love her. He would stay in Wonderland for the rest of his life if it meant he could keep loving her.
“Because,” he started. He lifted his head to look around at the view. They had come to rest on a hill. So that between the blades of grass they could see far and wide. Even the Queen’s maze from far off, the Hare’s burrow, the forest where the smiling cat stalked the strange trees. They could see it all. “Because I would give up—all of this—if that’s what you wanted. I’d become a farmer. A stable boy even. I’d hunt mushrooms for a living. I’d give it all up.” She scooted down to his level so that he had no choice but to meet her gaze and stare into her dark eyes. He was nervous, and she was curious, and it was obvious to the both of them.
“You would do that for me?” she questioned.
“I would do anything for you,” he admitted. She pulled her hand from his grasp and pressed her palm against his cheek. Her skin was warm, and he shut his eyes.
“You know you’re the only man I’ve ever known who actually wanted to know me,” she told him. He opened his eyes again to study her. “Every man I’ve ever met outside of my own family has treated me like property to be bought. But not you.”
“Women aren’t property where I come from, Alice.”
It was always serious when they used each other’s proper names. “Just Alice” and “Just Jefferson” were used in fun and games, but when the conversation became serious they would drop the joke. He wanted her to know that he meant what he was saying. That he loved her and never wanted to own her. He just wanted to be close to her. Her happiness meant more to him than all the gold in any realm. The only thing he truly wanted was for her to love him back.
“Even still,” she said with a shake of her head. “I doubt all the men in the Enchanted Forest are like you.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m the scum they scrape off the trees. The worst of them. Next to the ogres, of course.” She laughed and leaned forward to kiss him again. He dropped his head onto the cloak so that she could hold his face in her hands and lead the kiss that left his mind dazed and his heart soaring.
“And that is why I love you,” she spoke against his lips.
Kinda had to jump through time a little bit here. Trying to keep the storylines even while covering a lot of time. But they're nerds and they're in love. :3