by Katsuko

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"You haven't been yourself for weeks now. Something is troubling you," Jack Heart said seriously, his expression one of concern for the male who he had come to admire for his role in the fall of the House of Cards. "Would you like to talk about it?"

At his side, Duchess very nearly rolled her eyes. She loved her Jack, really and truly she did, but he was such a male sometimes. "What Jack means to say is, if there's something wrong we can try to help, dear Hatter."

Hatter remained silent, giving the Hearts long enough to fret even further. He was paler than was normal for the male, hair in disarray and toying with his hat more than wearing it. He didn't look as if he'd managed to eat in a few days, which was one of the things that had gotten Jack's attention in the first place. The peoples of Wonderland were for the most part healthy; an illness was a rare occurrence and therefore cause for concern.

"I've just been a bit out of sorts since Alice left, that's all," he finally replied, trying for a casual tone and coming across instead as tired. "Just need to focus on rebuilding and I'll be right as rain, nothing to worry about."

At the mention of Alice, Duchess narrowed her eyes and let her instincts pay attention rather than her five general senses. The moment she did so, she could feel and see and smell the strain of a distant binding, and a surprised sound slipped from her throat. Her mate turned to look at her in concern, but Duchess' eyes were locked on Hatter.

"Oh, you poor thing," she said, voice a soothing note as she slipped forward and pulled Hatter into a hug that she was certain he needed. "You should have said something rather than just suffer in silence, silly male."

"Darling?" Jack asked, a faint frown on his lips. His female rarely even looked at males other than him from the moment they'd been promised to one another. At first he had been angry at his mother for taking such a huge decision from him, but when Duchess had rescued him from the Eye Room he realized that she had come to love him. And he'd found his heart answering the call of hers, and hadn't regretted bonding with her for one moment in the month since that day.

Duchess glanced back over her shoulder with sad eyes. "Oh, Jack," she said mournfully, "he managed to bond with her."

Hatter winced at hearing it said so plainly but let his head rest against the female's neck. He'd grown up hearing that it was for the best to avoid people who came from the Other Side, but had written it off as just another story. His mother had said that it was because Other Siders were too open and too needy and didn't even have a way to keep from reaching out to everything around them. She'd told the story of the Original Alice as a cautionary tale, saying that he needed to just walk away if an Other Sider ever found its way to where he was, that it was safer to not even speak to them for fear that they'd take without giving back.

Turned out she was right all along; Alice had come to Wonderland desperately wanting and needing something, and Hatter had unknowingly answered her heart's call.

Jack was stunned briefly, but found that he wasn't too surprised. He had probably only resisted the call of Alice's need because a part of him was aware of Duchess' love. Otherwise it might have been him suffering from a bond strained far too thin.

"Well, then," he said, "there's only one thing that can be done." When both Hatter and Duchess glance up at him, he smiled softly. "We can't bring Alice back here, so we'll just have to send you to her."

Jack knew he'd made the right choice; the only thing that warmed him more than the hope and gratitude in Hatter's eyes was the love and pride bursting from his Duchess' half of their heartbond.