“Welcome home, Alice.”
“Mother! It’s good to see you again.”
Alice stepped down from the carriage and ran into her mother’s arms, the warm, motherly embrace a comfort after years of being gone. It had taken a couple years to finish up all the business and trade affairs she had talked about doing, but accomplish them she did.
Each day, she thought about her six impossible things with regard to the trade routes, and she managed to accomplish many of those impossible things with the help of others traveling with her. She was now a wealthy woman for all that she had seen and done, and she was glad to be done with setting all of those routes up, her part of the business done. Truth be told, she still liked traveling, but she just wanted to stay on dry land and enjoy a somewhat normal life again for a time.
The servants brought in all of Alice’s belongings as the two women settled in a private room for tea. While they talked and drank tea, a footman brought in a delicately carved box, which he handed to Alice’s mother.
“What is this?”
“It’s a present for you, Mother. I hope you’ll like it.”
After taking a few moments to marvel at the intricate carvings on the box, the mother opened the box and smiled.
“Alice! How did you know I wanted a new tea set? It is so beautiful!”
The blonde smiled at her mother’s excitement. Her mother loved tea, and she had complained about the older tea set before Alice had had her second adventure in Underland.
“I thought you would appreciate a new set, and since starting my travels, I’ve begun to collect teacups. They’re pretty to look at, and they’re everywhere where I was traveling, in all sorts of styles.”
“This set is gorgeous. I wish I could say the same about your complexion, Alice. You have gotten so…brown,” the mother said, gesturing toward her daughter with a grimace.
“Mother, I spent a lot of time at sea. It can’t be helped,” replied Alice with exasperation.
“It most certainly can be helped. You could have brought that parasol that I suggested. Or just stayed inside your cabin.”
“That parasol is too frilly and silly for me, and you knew it. Of course I left it here when I left. Also, I spent more than half of my time on that boat. There was no way I was going to be cooped up inside that cabin the whole time just to avoid a little sun.”
Alice continued speaking after seeing her mother shake her head in sad resignation.
“Besides, I think it did worlds of good. I never had sunburned skin, not redder than some people’s hair I know of, and I’m still nowhere near as brown as our writing desk.”
“Still you talk that nonsense, after all that time in the world of trade. I guess it could be worse; you could have come back talking like those sailors.”
Alice chuckled at the thought of all the colorful things she had heard and learned while on the ship. There was no need to share that with her mother in any case. If anything, the “nonsense” that she spoke about became more pronounced the more she tried to explain to others why she was the only lady on a trade ship. The men had actually accepted her when she explained herself.
“Anyways, I hope you are ready to eat a good meal tonight. The rest of the family is coming over soon, as they are all eager to see you again and hear of your travels.”
Alice’s stomach growled at the mention of real food, not the stuff dried up and sitting on the ship, or the foreign things she tried. Food, glorious food.
The rest of the day passed by in a blur for Alice. The family just kept appearing, and she stuck close to the side of her sister and new niece once they came with the brother-in-law. He had cleaned up his act and was the most doting father there could be, much to Alice’s delight.
When Alice made it to her bedroom for the first time that night to sleep, she fell asleep immediately. Her bed had never felt so good.
Alice awoke the next morning after having the same dream that she had been having for months now. One moment, Alice was in her ship, and in the next, she was standing on top of the water, a dark, cloudy sky with a stormy sea the only thing in sight. She would wander on the sea, trying to find her boat, or land on some occasions. She only knew she was headed toward the boat because of a candle in the distance, shedding light, however feeble, toward her.
Alice felt so helpless and lost in that dream, and it was not until it was decided that they were going home to England that some change in the dream happened. That night, the candle appeared closer in the stormy darkness, its reddish-orange flame dancing and moving faster than normal. Wherever it was, it felt warm and welcome, like home. Alice had missed home for some time now, so she was more than ready to go home.
The next two days flew just as fast as her first day back. Her family was very attentive, listening to her stories and admiring all the teacups that Alice had collected from each place.
Alice’s favorite things to show, though, were the drawings that she made of the people that she met while traveling. Her mother had forced her to bring all of her drawing and painting supplies with her, just in case she had some down time.
Alice had stubbornly refused to practice or use the drawing supplies until a particularly dull couple of days on the ship when the wind had not been with them. At that point, she needed to do something, so she took out her pencil and started to draw.
At first, there had been no set model, but then Alice thought of Absolem, the beautiful butterfly, as he had seen her off. It encouraged her, so she drew the fine wings, and eventually colored the drawing. That gave her some satisfaction, but then she felt a desire to draw more of her friends from Underland.
Her mind wandered from one inhabitant to another until her mind showed her the bright reddish-orange hair of Hatter. A smile crossed her face, and she drew with excitement, not stopping until her Hatter was grinning (since she had only drawn a bust of him) at her. Then, she tried to do justice to all of his color. It took many tries to get the right shade for his hair, but she figured it out.
After she was done with Hatter, she ended up drawing each person and creature she met while in Underland. After a time, some of the people traveling with her asked her about her drawings, so she proceeded to tell them all about her “dreams” as she met each character that she drew. That gave more than enough reason to think about her dear friends in Underland, and once she finished individual portraits (except for Tweedledee and Tweedledum), she began drawing more group portraits of everyone.
It had been in the second port that she arrived in that Alice found it necessary to buy more drawing and coloring supplies. While there, she also came upon a simple set of white teacups that she liked, so she bought them. In the next port visit, she came upon a group that painted teacups for a living, and they showed her how to use her painting supplies to draw on teacups.
Alice had been delighted to learn how to paint like that, but she did not use the skill until one time that some traders came on board, asking for something different than what her group proposed to give for the trade. The other traders saw her sketches and the teacups sitting next to her, and they asked for the sketches to be on the teacups. Alice asked for more time, and she agreed, much to the group’s surprise.
After that, Alice began the process of buying many more white teacups so that she could put more of her drawings on the teacups. Other traders saw them and loved them, and Alice eventually wanted to have a set for herself. Painting her friends onto teacups brought her hours of fun, thinking back on all the memories she had shared with them. Sometimes, it brought her more happiness than the thought of going home to England.
Now that she was back at where she had grown up, Alice saw why she had left, why it had not been home for her. Three days into coming back, the hustle and silliness of society’s rules were already beginning to grate on her nerves, and the newness of being back was wearing off. The bed felt great, but she figured any real bed would feel like that.
Even the notion of being in her old room did not give her the warm feeling she expected it to have. This manor had been her home all her life. Why did it not feel like that anymore? The boat certainly had never engendered such feelings from her. The ship was a means, an uncomfortable means at that, to an end.
Even at home, the dreams of drifting on the water still haunted her. The flame and its golden stream of light seemed to be getting closer, chasing the darkness away, and yet, she still could not find what she was looking for. That was her biggest sign that she was not truly at home, which made her wonder where her home was. She felt restless, and when she finally had some free time away from the family trying to smother her, she wandered outdoors among the gardens, searching for something that she could not name.
When Alice came back inside, she went to her room to prepare for dinner. She went looking for a particular set of earrings on her desk, only to see a white envelope resting against the mirror. How long had that been there? Alice had not looked at the desk much since coming back, and now she regretted it.
Snatching the envelope and ripping it open, Alice saw a handwritten invitation.
“Her Royal Highness, Queen Mirana of Marmoreal, invites Alice Kingsleigh to a ball. Upon receipt, please send back the invitation through the looking glass with a response. Please respond back by circling yes or no below. Thank you!”
Alice stared at the invitation and its odd wording for a long time before finding a writing utensil. She circled the yes before hastily putting the invitation back in the envelope and pressing it against the mirror. The mirror swallowed the envelope, and Alice flopped onto her bed, heart racing.
She felt awful! How long had that invitation been sitting there? It would seem so rude for not responding back right away. It was odd to not see a date for the ball, but surely the White Queen had her reasons. But what if the ball had already happened? And what kind of ball was it?
These questions and more plagued Alice as she sat at the dinner table and listened to her family talk about all the happenings that she had not read about in their letters to her.
When Alice returned to her bedroom, she half-hoped that there would be a response waiting for her. It was close to impossible that it had just been sent, them just waiting for her to respond back.
As Alice continued to realize, however, anything was possible.
Another white envelope sat on her desk, fancier than the last. Inside, there was another handwritten note, thanking her for her quick response, as well as informing her that the ball was to be held in two nights’ time. She was to meet the White Rabbit at the entrance to her garden, and he would escort her there.
Joy began to build inside Alice, tiny tendrils of it spreading its warmth to every inch of her body. Her fingers now itched to be doing something, and her mind felt calmer than it had in a long time. She would see her friends again!
Alice could not just sit there idly and do nothing, now that she was going to see so many of her old friends. What should she wear? How many people were expected to be there? Should she bring a gift?
After so many times of bringing gifts to the traders to establish a relationship, Alice had gotten used to the idea of not coming to a meeting empty-handed. She felt more at peace at the idea of bringing something, so she went and found more of the white teacups she had. She had more painting to do.
Two days later, Alice had an impressive set of teacups ready to give to the White Queen in thanks for the invitation. Broad brushstrokes had become her key to getting cups done quickly so that they were ready for surprise visits, and she supplemented what she had gotten done with some others she had done previously.
It helped that she had not gotten much sleep the last two nights, despite her recurring dream becoming more clear, the darkness replaced with lifting clouds, making it feel warmer and brighter. But she had painting to do, and she wanted to get it done for her friends.
Once Alice found a dress from among the bunch she had bought abroad, she made her way to the garden. Sure enough, the blue jacket of the White Rabbit stood out, and he was standing there, twitching with a clock in hand, mumbling about being late. Alice ran to the White Rabbit and hugged him, overjoyed at seeing him again.
“Alice, it’s so good to have you back. Come with me, quickly now. We haven’t much time; we mustn’t be late.”
Alice asked questions as they walked toward the rabbit hole. Right before they jumped in, Alice asked, “Who is the ball for? Why are we having it?”
“For you, of course. For your joyous return. We’re all glad to have you back.”
“Despite the long wait for receiving the answer?”
“Alice, you had to go away. But when you came back, we wanted to be ready.”
Alice accepted the answer and took the rabbit’s hand, and they jumped. Once they landed, Alice saw the castle up ahead. They dashed for the door, the rabbit continuing to encourage her to move faster. Just when she thought she would not have enough energy to go faster, they made it to the doors of the castle.
The White Rabbit opened the doors for Alice, saying, “Welcome back, Alice. Please join us.”
The palace had been scrubbed of any and all reminders of the Bloody Red Queen. While white was the predominant color, there was more than enough small swatches of pastel colors to make the palace much cheerier than it had ever been before.
Creatures of all sorts crowded the dance floor. All manner of aquatic animals stood in a line on one side of a room, while cards and humans danced in another corner. Closer to Alice were the birds and other animals that danced in circles.
When Alice stepped through the doorway, the music stopped, all eyes on her. A path was opened to her, all watching and staying silent in respect for the girl that had killed the jabberwocky, The Queen’s Champion.
Queen Mirana got up from her chair and started to approach Alice. Alice met the queen halfway. The queen was ready to hold out her hand, but when she saw the face of Alice, she opened her arms. Alice dove into them, the queen’s soft eyes and smile all she needed to know that she was truly welcome and not in trouble.
“Alice, it is high time you returned. Please know that you are always welcome, as a friend and champion. I just knew that today would be a brazzle dazzle day. Underland has missed you so. But what’s this that you dropped?”
“It’s a gift,” said Alice with a little shyness, “I thought it proper to bring something. I hope you’ll be able to use it.”
“I’m sure I will,” said Mirana, opening the box.
More people from court rushed in from behind to see what was inside the box, only to be pushed aside by a variety of humans and animals all eager to see Alice again. They all took turns to hug Alice before examining the contents of the box.
Mirana was hasty to put the box and wrapping aside, but once she saw what was inside, she took slow, measured movements with her arms as she took out each one to show off to everyone nearby.
“Well, I never thought I’d see my face on the side of a teacup, of all things! How did you do this, Alice?”
“I painted it myself. I painted all of them based on my memories of you from the last time I came.”
“They’re beautiful! Thank you, Alice. Here,” said Mirana, handing off the cups to the others around her.
Soon, all of the cups were in hands, all looking at Alice’s handiwork. Alice was grateful that she had been forced to take all those drawing lessons as part of being a proper lady. Maybe some of those rules were not so bad after all.
“Alice, what shall we do with these when we’re done looking at them?” asked Tweedledee.
“Here, give it to me,” replied the Mallymkun the dormouse, already holding a teacup.
“Sure,” replied Tweedledum.
“Just be careful,” said Alice.
In quick succession, Tweedledee and Tweedledum threw their cups at the dormouse, who balanced them on her fingers pushing them up and throwing hers toward the dodo bird.
Alice began to say, “Excuse me, but those are the queen’s, and you don’t want to break them.”
The only problem was that they still continued to smile and toss away the cups at her words. The dormouse laughed and said, “She’s afraid we’re going to break them!”
The dodo bird head-butted the cups when they came toward him, sending the teacups toward the March Hare, who caught and threw his cups into the air.
“Break them? Scratch the outside, chip the inside, that’s what Alice doesn’t want,” said the March Hare with glee as he threw his teacups.
Alice became afraid for the teacups when she saw no one in the air, and she was about to speak when a head appeared, and the Cheshire Cat caught the cups on the tip of his tail, letting it slide down his tail into the eager, twitchy hands of the White Rabbit, who was standing in front of the queen.
“You’re doing quite well so far, but still, you ought to be-“
“Hush,” said Mirana with an indulgent grin, “they’re just doing this to get you going. Can’t you see? They’re just glad to have you back and want to welcome you properly.”
At that, the White Rabbit started placing the cups in the box. Once all the cups were back inside, he handed the box to the queen.
“Good, good. I’m glad we have this treasure. We shall use them at tomorrow’s tea!”
Amidst all the shouting and cheers, Alice saw what she thought was the flame from her dream. That same reddish-orange flame danced as it grew brighter and closer, and she began to walk toward it. Could it be? Had she found the wandering flame?
Then she stopped.
No, it could not be. Was that…. Hatter?
Yes, it was. The fly-away, curly hair could belong to no one else, and even if it stood up more than usual since there was no hat on top (for the moment, while he hurried along), it was his. Then, Tarrant was in front of Alice, and she found that her mouth had gone dry.
“Alice? Is it really you?”
Wide eyes took in Alice in all of her grown-up finery. The same eyes that had been so sad when Alice was about to leave Underland for the second time. Those eyes were not sad anymore, but curious. Soon, his be-ruffled hands were reaching out, touching Alice’s nose, then her chin, and finally her hands.
“Yes, this is definitely my Alice.”
Tarrant reached out to Alice, and she eagerly hugged him. The tiny tendrils of joy she had first felt upon finding out that she was going to the ball now turned into devouring flames, bright enough to rival Tarrant’s hair.
As much as she could trade among the best, that had not been the life she wanted in the end. Nor had staying at home, conforming to its silly rules.
No, she had drifted because her home was somewhere, with others, and one special someone. The same someone who had guided her through the darkness and uncertainty, even if she did not realize it then.
But the way her heart soared at being wanted and held by him could mean nothing else. There could be no other reason for him based on the way in which he kept holding on to her, even sliding his hands through her loose hair. There was no other reason for why she suddenly felt so happy, as though she had found what she had been looking for: friendship, love, and a home.
“Alice, you can’t go, not for a long time. I’ve missed you too much.”
“I’ve missed you too, Tarrant. More than I realized.”
“So you won’t go?” asked the Hatter with hope.
“No, I’m not saying that,” she said, pulling back to look at his fallen face as she spoke, “but, if I do go, you can bet that you’re coming with me, or else it will be for only a short period of time.”
“I can accept that,” said Tarrant with a grin.
“Good, because while my family is elsewhere and I can’t just disappear on them again, I think I’ve finally found my home.”
“Your home is here, Alice,” he said, cupping her face and making it clear what he had not said aloud, that her home was beside him.
Then, he kissed her and made sure she understood. She responded in kind with plenty of enthusiasm.
Everyone else looked on with smiles, glad to see Tarrant looking lively again, after all the time that he had spent making up and singing songs with the hope that they bring her light wherever she was, her own candle on the water. Eventually, they left the couple alone after they stopped kissing and took to quiet embracing.
It was only a whisper from him, but Alice heard it all the same. This time, she knew he was right.
“Welcome home, Alice.”