Finding Alice

“Every time I close my eyes
It’s like a dark paradise
No one compares to you
But there’s no you,
Except in my dreams tonight.”
-Lana Del Rey

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12. Chapter Twelve

Jefferson could make out the sound of Alice’s song through the tall blades of grass. The sun was shining in Wonderland, bright and warm and pungent with the scent of blooming apple trees. The smell used to remind him of summers in the Enchanted Forest, but now it smelled like fresh cut grass, watered hedges, and an apple orchard. It reminded him of Alice.

It was the sound of her humming he caught on the breeze. He recognized the song as something he’d heard before. His heart skipped a beat when he considered the possibility of it being the song they’d danced to, but he couldn’t recall it exactly.

The most massive mushroom in the patch was tall and wide enough to be used as a cushion if one weren’t afraid of rolling off. It was thick, red, and fat and Alice was stretched over the top of it. Kicking her feet back and forth over the edge of the cap. She was holding a book over her head, and her hair hung loose and free over the other side. He wasn’t even sure if she realized she was humming while she read.

He thought it was strange that she was dressed like a child again. Her realm might have different customs for unmarried women, but he had the distinct feeling it was a form of punishment. Her mother’s penalty to Alice for going mad instead of focusing on preparing for a husband.

Alice had pulled the black ribbons from her hair and tied them around her wrist. The pungent breezes caught on the strands of gold and twisted them in the air, fluttering the pages of her book as she hummed the tune.

He jumped onto a smaller mushroom and saw her jolt violently. The humming halted, and she let out a startled yelp.

“Mr. Jefferson!” she stated as he crossed his arms over the mushroom cap.

“Just Jefferson,” he reminded her. She set the book down and sat up to lean on her elbows. “Apologies, Miss Liddell.”

She rolled her eyes in a very unladylike way. She seemed so much freer in Wonderland. She looked happy. With her legs on a mushroom cap and the sun freckling her skin. Jefferson would have taken 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.”

“I understand. You win.” She rolled onto her stomach and slid off of the mushroom, bouncing onto the smaller one beside him before hopping back onto the ground. He followed her. “You had a business proposition for me?” she asked as she smoothed out her periwinkle dress with a high lace collar and an obnoxious amount of buttons.

“Right,” he said, standing tall. “You’re in want of freedom and I—well—want to survive. Correct?”

“I suppose so,” she agreed with an incredulous stare.

“I figured we might be able to assist one another. Two thieves are better than one. Especially if our employers are seeking the same objects. We can help each other. Split the profits. Take on more work. How does that sound?” She studied him, looking him up and down and taking in his unusual clothes, his long coat, tight vest, and brown hair that was always messy.

“And what makes me believe I can trust you?” she questioned. He laughed. It was a carefree laugh. Nothing more than genuine, unfiltered joy.

“What have you got to lose? The worst thing that can happen to you is that I skip out on a deal and you miss out on some gold. It’s not like you’re hurting for gold anyway.” She crossed her arms, her book hanging limply from her 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 what your plan is? To save up enough gold to escape your life of privilege and parties?” She ground her teeth in irritation.

“I plan to save up enough gold to not have to rely on a husband to care for me. Or to own me. I can’t own my own land. But at least I can have my own fortune. Maybe I’ll travel. I’ll need nothing but my looking-glass.”

“Or you could—come to my world.” She stiffened.

“Your world?” He nodded and chewed on his thumbnail to hide his nervousness. “What’s in your world?”

“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 in. Lots of places to build nests, lots of flocks to choose from. Princesses. Fairies. Dwarves. Dragons.”

“It doesn’t sound very different from Wonderland,” she said with a laugh.

“Ah. Well, there are more people. People like us I mean. No one talks funny. Animals don’t talk either. Most of the time. Clocks don’t go backward. As far as I know.”

“Are you happy there?” He didn’t expect that question. It was home. It didn’t matter if he was happy there. He shrugged.

“I’ve visited a lot of realms, and it’s the only one I’ve ever wanted to live in. Wonderland is my favorite to visit. But I could never live cut off from people and—sanity. Couldn’t imagine making a home in any of the other places I’ve been. Some worlds have hardly any magic at all. Yours for instance.” She shook her head.

“Doesn’t matter,” she decided. “I’ve only ever been to Wonderland. I wouldn’t be able to get to your land.”

“What about the world between lands?” She looked confused.

“There’s a world between lands?”

“With all the doors?” She shook her head.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. How does your portal work anyway?”

“It’s a hat. Unfortunately, though, I’d never be able to bring you with me. One person in; one person out. Two people in; two people out. I’d have to trade you for someone else. Hat’s rules. Not mine.”

“I wouldn’t want that.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“How did you come by your portal anyway?” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly. He didn’t like talking about the family that turned their backs on him. They meant nothing to him now. But this wasn’t pillow talk with a strange woman he had no intention of ever seeing again. This was Alice, and he intended to see her as often as he could for as long as he could.

“My father was a hatter,” he admitted. “He apprenticed me when I was young. I was meant to continue the business. One day I made 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. A few years later, when I was confined to my room, I was thinking about Wonderland. I really believed I’d just gone mad, you know? And I wanted some proof that it had been real. I fell through the looking-glass and found my answer. Though, I’ve never tried bringing someone through with me. So I don’t know if it has a limit to it, like yours. I just know that it’s only ever taken 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 have met others, though. I don’t think there’s more than one in every land. I don’t know why they all work differently.”

“I’ve only ever met you and one other.”

“The White Rabbit?”

“Yes. His portal doesn’t work like ours. It moves through my land and Wonderland. Like my looking-glass. But I was able to fall through the hole he’d made. It’s peculiar. He was very upset about it.”

“He’s madder than I am.” She laughed and shook her head. She avoided looking directly at him.

“Everyone in Wonderland is madder than you. This is probably the sanest conversation I’ve ever had in this place.” She caught him staring and blushed.

“We call it the Enchanted Forest,” he told her quietly.

“It sounds lovely,” she replied.

“You’d never be obligated to attend a party 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 privacy 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 go 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 her head against the cap of the giant mushroom.

Wonderland was making his heart flutter. He thought he’d never seen anything more beautiful than the sight of her under twinkling chandeliers in her family ballroom. But it was only there, in Wonderland, when the colors were so vibrant. He could see the gold strands in her hair, the pink of her lips, and the purple bruise on her chin.

He reached out and touched it. Her eyes popped open 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. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought she might have actually leaned in closer. He could see the faded freckles on the bridge of her nose now. He hadn’t noticed them before.

“She seems like a bird with a sharp beak and even sharper claws.” She smiled, and he wasn’t mistaken this time, she was leaning closer. Drawn in by the same spell Wonderland seemed to have placed on him.

“Sharper beak, I’m afraid. She did have a lot to say about you after the party. Tried to convince my father you were a spy.” He laughed, and it lit up his whole face.

“Who’s to say I’m not?” he asked, leaning in just a little closer.

He still had her chin gently pinched between his fingers. His other arm moved to lean against the mushroom, close enough so that he could twist his fingers in her hair without having to reach. She didn’t seem to mind that he was touching her. If she noticed at all. He suspected she was as hyper-aware of him as he was of her.

“Are you here just to spy on the mad daughter of the Baron, Just Jefferson?” He smiled.

“It’s Wonderland, Alice. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t all mad.”

He looked into her eyes and seemed to forget all at once that he’d vowed to prevent himself from getting attached to others. He told himself his career was more important than love or friendship. But Wonderland was pulling him in. He wanted to lose himself to her completely. 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 all of her was exposed to him. He would claim it was just Wonderland playing with his mind, but it wasn’t. Even then, he could feel something swirling around in his heart that could only be love.

He had, completely and utterly, met his match. And for the first time in his life, he wasn’t afraid.

So, of course, the jittery hare with his crooked ear and jerky movements 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 hare said as he shivered, trembling the blades of grass and making the canopy above them shake. “Miss Alice.” Alice cleared her throat with her hand over her heart, and Jefferson was almost sure that she’d been as dazed as he was.

“Yes, Mr. Hare?” she asked.

“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 pushed his irritation down and resisted the urge to kick the hare into the grass and pull Alice into his arms to kiss the freckles on her nose.

“You did promise,” she reminded him. He groaned and reached into his pocket to procure the small bag of tea leaves he’d brought from the Enchanted Forest to trade for the cup. He tossed it to the hare, who vibrated 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 slid 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 if tea with the hare were all it took to make her smile that way, he would suffer through it. He smiled back, getting pulled back into the darkness of her eyes.

“Just Alice? I will agree to tea with the hare in exchange for one thing,” he said. Her eyes narrowed with skepticism, but she kept the smile on her lips.

“And what’s that, Just Jefferson?”

“Tell me your favorite color?”

“My favorite color? Why do you want to know that?” Because he wanted to know everything 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.

“Like the color of your cloak?” he noted. She shook her head once.

“No,” she admitted. “Like the color of your eyes.”

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