A bitterly cold wind swept through the open field, but nothing could chase away the stifling thickness of the air. It was full and heavy, bloated with anticipation. The only visible movement was the sway of the emerald grass and, in the distance, the rustling of the trees that lined the field. Alice felt a tremor of fear whirl through her as she gazed around at the bleak, foreboding surroundings and wondered where she was and, most importantly, how she’d gotten there.
"Where and when and why and how?”
Alice spun around, looking for the source of the voice, but she was still alone. The voice had seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, a condescending tenor with a strange, sing-song quality. “Who are you?” she shouted, but her voice was carried away on the wind so quickly that she hardly heard it herself.
"No-one of importance but someone of great consequence.”
Whoever had spoken had clearly heard her, but she couldn’t find them anywhere. “What do you mean?” she asked, and then decided on a more pressing question, “Where am I?”
"In a dream, of course.” This sentence was punctuated by a low rumbling sound, something that she knew she had heard before, but couldn’t directly place.
"Why?” she asked, narrowing her eyes as she scoped out the trees for some sign of life.
The rumble rose in volume, staggering slightly so she almost thought it was laughter. “Why does anyone dream, Alice-of-Legend? Because there’s something they need to see.” Alice’s heart jumped into her throat at the response. Alice-of-Legend. There was only one place where that name meant anything.
"Am I in Wonderland?”
"No, you’re in a dream.” Alice felt a ticklish brush along her ankles, soft and slight so that she broke out in gooseflesh. She glanced down and found herself facing a squat grey-and-violet tabby with luminous yellow-green eyes like lamps in its furry face. The steady rumble was its purr. “I did just tell you that, after all.” The cat’s mouth wasn’t moving, but there was something in the intensity of its eyes that made her certain; it was the cat who had been speaking to her all along. “You Alices really are so illogical.”
She was about to respond to that, but a sudden disturbance of noise pulled her attention upward. Two figures were flying out of the trees on either side of the field, heading straight for each other at a dizzying speed. It took her eyes a second to make out the details of the sight.
On the left hand was a jet-black unicorn, steam billowing from its nose as it charged with its silvery horn lowered threateningly. To the right was a massive, golden lion; a primal roar exploded from between its fanged teeth and the wind tossed its bronze mane so wildly it looked like fire. She had barely gotten a good look at them before the two collided in the dead centre of the field. Alice baulked and turned her eyes away at the sickening sound of the crash.
"You aren’t here to ignore the signs,” the cat’s voice chastised her mockingly. “Scared little Oyster, afraid of the truth.”
"What truth?” she rebutted, staring down into the glowing eyes.
"You shan’t know unless you see. With your head in the sand, you see nothing but sand.”
Alice desperately wanted to snap back in annoyance, but instead she lifted her gaze to the chaos in the middle of the field. The unicorn and the lion were engaged in a vicious battle; horn stabbed and claws slashed. All around them the grass fell, as if it had been trampled flat despite being untouched, and the dirt below seemed to be a dark crimson.
Suddenly the unicorn reared and kicked the lion. When the large beast staggered under the blow, the unicorn bolted straight for Alice. She wanted to run – to hide and protect herself – but her feet seemed to be frozen to the ground. A scream caught in her throat as she watched the unicorn’s blood-streaked horn coming closer.
And then it slowed, and finally stopped only a few feet in front of her. Its eyes - unnaturally pale - stared at her calculatingly before it ducked its head and became interested in something at its feet. Alice leant forward in curiosity, peering over the fallen grass, and her eyes landed on a worn black top hat between the unicorn’s front hooves. It stuck its nose inside, then drew back with an angry snort.
She guessed what would happen right before it did, but her exclamation of alarm never made it passed her lips. The unicorn stomped on the hat, crushing the brim and collapsing it beneath the force of its heavy hooves. Only after it had been thoroughly flattened did the unicorn lower its head again, and this time when it lifted its head there was a shining gold pocket-watch clutched in its teeth.
At that moment the lion recovered and it leapt back into the fray. While they fought savagely, the poor hat was battered and torn up beneath their angry feet. For a reason she couldn’t explain, Alice felt an anguish she’d never known flood through her, bringing tears to her stinging eyes.
The longer the lion and the unicorn brawled, the worse the land around them deteriorated as well; the grass lay yellow and dead, and the trees dried and branches broke as their leaves tumbled away on the breeze. Soon there was nothing left but destruction and the battle.
The cat purred loudly and drew Alice’s eyes downward again. Sitting on the ground next to it were the shredded remains of the hat, and on the other side was the golden timepiece with a large fracture in its face and the hour-hand bent at an unnatural angle. Another voice came, echoing distantly like the cat’s, but this one was familiar.
“The clockwork’s not ticking properly.”
At her feet the cat’s lips stretched and curled into a grotesque grin, filled with sharp, pointed teeth, and its voice came one last time with an ominous warning in its tone.
"And then, Alice-of-Legend, all will be lost.”
Alice Hamilton bolted upright in bed with a startled scream, her heart racing as her eyes darted around in the darkness for some clue as to where she was. The movement woke her sleeping partner, who was instantly on his knees on the mattress, his right hand coiled into a fist in preparation for trouble. When he saw there was none, his gaze turned to Alice, who was still struggling to catch her breath.
“Alice, love, what’s’a matta?” he asked anxiously, relaxing his hand and scooting closer to her on the bed.
Taking a deep breath, Alice let her eyes sweep over the man kneeling beside her. He was wearing only a pair of boxers and his skin seemed to glow in the darkness beneath the unruly mop of chocolate-coloured hair on his head. He had one hand on her shoulder comfortingly, but it was truly his eyes that spoke to her. Those deep, brown eyes were fixed solely on her with concern and compassion. Her Hatter.
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “Bad dream.”
Hatter reached across her to turn on the bedside lamp, and as the orange light flared in the room she felt his eyes examining her face determinedly. “You sure?” he asked uncertainly.
“I’m fine,” she said and this time, her voice was a little more under control. It had only been a dream. There was no reason to get worked up over a silly nightmare. She’d certainly had plenty of those in the ten months since she’d come back from her adventure in Wonderland; nightmares of brightly coloured liquids in bottles and suit-clad men with guns and crumbling pathways that descended hundreds of feet into grey fog. And yet even while there, she’d never seen anything as outlandish as a lion and a unicorn having a deadly battle over a hat and a pocket-watch.
Even though he still didn’t look convinced, Hatter’s free hand reached up to trace along the side of her face tenderly. Alice sighed and leant into his warm palm. “Your da again?” he asked gently. She couldn’t stop herself from shuddering. Those were some of the worst nightmares of all; the crack of the gunshot, her father’s pained face, the halo of blood, and the feel of the man who she’d only just gotten back slipping through her fingers like water.
Hatter seemed to take that as an affirmative answer because he pulled her into his arms and began rubbing her back soothingly. She accepted the affection gratefully, nestling her head into the curve of his collarbone and allowing him to wrap himself around her. No matter how badly her dreams shook her, this was always her safe place. With her Hatter.
“You want a cuppa?” he asked when her shivering had abated.
Alice smiled against his skin at the characteristic gesture – he firmly believed there was no trouble in the world that couldn’t be solved with a cup of warm tea – and shook her head. “Let’s just go back to sleep.”
Hatter hummed his agreement and he loosened his grip on her just enough to reach out and turn the lamp off again. They slipped back beneath the covers, and the moment they were tucked in he drew her back to his body securely. With any other person, the closeness may have made her feel stifled, but he was different. They were different.
“I’ll make sure you’re safe, yeah.” The sleepy assurance warmed her heart, and Alice nuzzled her head against his chest. Clearly now that he knew there was no danger, Hatter’s exhaustion had crept back up. It only took a few minutes for his breathing to slow into low snores, although his thumb never stopped its steady swipes back and forth across her upper arm.
Closing her eyes, Alice let the rhythmic thumping of Hatter’s heart beneath her ear calm her. Despite what she’d told him, she was still unnerved from the dream. It wasn’t so much the bloody and violent battle, or the mysterious talking cat, or even the perplexing anomaly of the pocket-watch and the top hat. No, what worried her worst of all was the one sentence that had been spoken in an all-too-familiar voice.
"The clockwork’s not ticking properly.”
That voice had belonged to Hatter, and it wasn’t the first time that she’d heard him say it either. It was one of the random phrases he sometimes muttered to himself when his mind was occupied. She had always accepted it as one of his many eccentricities, but its appearance in her dream – especially in connection with the broken face of the pocket-watch – sent an ominous prickle down her spine.
The clockwork wasn’t ticking properly because the timepiece was broken. And she couldn’t help but wonder just what lengths the battling animals would go to in an attempt to get their hands on that watch.
This is stupid, she chided herself irritably. What was she fussing about so badly? It was only a dumb dream, the result of one too many slices of pizza before bedtime or something. Wonderland – and all its madness – was in the past now and that’s where it would stay. She forced the images to the back of her mind and curled herself closer to the sleeping form of her Hatter. They were just dreams.
Content with that line of thought, she finally drifted back to sleep a short time later. She didn’t dream this time, but when the alarm clock woke her in the morning she could still see the after-image of a fanged smirk and a pair of gleaming eyes burning against her retinas.