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Illusions & Destinies

Chapter Text

The Hospital of Dreams hadn't been prepared for such an explosion of desperation. It had spent well over a year with little else to disturb it except for its usual bizarre clientele of junkies and those driven to the occasional bouts of obsession with tea. The Hospital had even been doing so little business that it had started to cater strictly to those able to afford its bizarre treatments and doing less charitable work. It had been very quiet and thankfully so for the once overworked doctors and nurses. Yet that was all in the past and the building was crawling with people trying to use it to hide instead of heal.

Less than a month since Jack Heart's death had brought on refugees with nowhere else to go as Wonderland crumbled at the edges. Joining the refugees from the tumultuous outer regions were people that were avoiding the re-emerging reign of the Queen of Hearts and who used the Hospital as a gathering place to avoid her secret police. There wasn't a citizen who didn't remember her frequent fancies that often resulted in executions on the spot. It now took even less reason or evidence to end up at the executioner's block.

One of the men who occupied the Game Ward, a private little room meant for rich and ill politicians, was a previously established businessman. He'd prospered from the overthrow of the previous Queen of Hearts in selling relics from her reign. But when she'd sent in her cronies to dismantle his pawn shop, Leo Pardenlace had run off and sheltered himself in the Underground trade. It didn't help that he was a new citizen to Wonderland City and he'd had no friends to go to. So he had chosen the hospital to hide in.

It didn't make his life any easier, living in the cavernous building and its bizarre changing rooms that warped to help a patients treatment. He tended to stay away from the room that always put straitjackets on its patients and put them upside down like cocooned caterpillars. Too many memories for his liking once he'd spent one terribly long night there.

The Game Room, once used to help reattach limbs lost in the more bloody croquet games, had been converted into a small lounge for those who could afford it. Which made for very people nowadays, so goods were exchanged instead and favours were bought. Crowded around a small card table and playing endless games of poker were those who had managed to worm their way in through wheeling and dealing.

The Hatter's faithful employee, Dormie, and Leo were two such men in the many that came here. One of the Queen's own Executioners, Fred, had come for a few drinks after his shift spent guarding the displaced Amelia Heart. They were on their fifth round of poker, with Dormie cheating openly and Leo crunching on small corners of toast and treacle to annoy them, when Fred finally spoke.

"Have you two heard that a large section of the desert sunk in?" he offered as he shuffled the cards from hand to hand. Dormie, dozing at his place, jerked upright and twitched his nose. The Executioner's eyes, almost hidden under the semi-permanent half-mask he had to wear because of his line of work, glinted with delight that he'd woken up the Dormouse. "Same thing with Port Town's sister city, Caucaut; all gone and only a few witnesses to what happened."

"I got cousins in Caucaut," Dormie admitted. "They'll be headed in this direction then. Not that I like 'em. My cousin doesn't shut up and then she's always plannin' on marryin the next man she sees. No wonder... she's been... married..."

The words ended on a lull that made them both look at him. His head retreated like a turtle's back into his massive collar and he began to snore. Leo reached over and tweaked his nose hard but the Dormouse was asleep again.

Fred began to deal cards out. "Southern cities are still intact for some reason."

"I've been getting reports about how the South is still stable enough to at least get some product out. But with these storms," Leo began and jumped as there was a loud bang and flash outside their window. The storms had been raging for well over a few days now and there was mass flooding in the lower levels of Wonderland City. It had reduced itself to spotty rainstorms now though but the thunder was erratic enough for it to be startling. Resisting the urge to go close the drapes, he instead looked back at Fred and Dormie. The other man was trying to wake the Dormouse but Dormie was still sleeping deeply.

Leo checked his cards and frowned at the bad hand he'd been dealt.

"You cheatin' at cards?" he asked the Executioner, who gave him a cold look.

"I never cheat."

Leo caught a glimpse of the knife scabbard strapped to the other man's wrist and gave a shaky smile. He didn't mind playing with one of the Heart's servants but he was cautious about it. "'Course not."

"Have you been hearing any other news?" Fred asked as he looked at his cards. He shuffled them around and his jaw twitched at the hand he'd dealt himself. They both exchanged two cards and Leo shrugged.

"Beyond places crumbling to ruins in less than a few days and various members of old resistances being killed on a whim, nothing more than the usual. Old Queen is letting her presence felt, that's for sure. I've not lived here long but makes me unsettled." Leo settled his boots up on a low ottoman and leaned his head back. "Can't even run a decent business thanks to this mess."

"Perhaps if you dealt in more legal objects, you wouldn't have such problems," Fred pointed out.

The businessman gave him an innocent look. "Hey, when the Hatter went into running the more legal side of trade, business was booming for me. Nothing should be able to take that away from a man. I pay taxes, same as everyone." Leo cocked his head on the side. "Plus, I get to hang out with fine upstanding Loyalists to the Queen such as yourself."

Sensing that he was beaten in trying to give Leo some morality, the Executioner sighed and shuffled his cards again. Leo laid his hand on the table, a poor pair of twos, and stared at the other man expectantly. The hand that was laid down was a low straight and Leo blinked in surprise. With a grimace, he gave Dormie a kick under the table. Dormie responded by not really stirring from his sleep and instead just flipping his cards over casually.

A high ten-straight stared back at them and both of men groaned. Dormie cracked open an eye and looked around, then promptly fell back asleep. This time there was a smug smile on his face that neither man missed.

Leo shoved a small pile of tea leaves, which replaced chips for betting, in front of the Dormouse. They'd decided on using it for their currency but he had been tempted into making a cup of tea for himself. He'd been losing badly even since and mostly to Dormie.

"He has gotten better in the last few hands."

Fred snorted. "Comes from too much treacle. According to what I got out of him, the Hatter used to control that but once again he's just a regular junkie for it."

"They say the Hatter's been killed. Which means his tea shop goes under the ownership of the Heart Royalty," Leo grumbled unhappily, tipping his tea cup to see that it was empty. Dormie twitched and stirred, blinking his eyes curiously. He stared with a deliberate expression on his tiny face, for once looking very alert.

"They say the boss is dead but I won't believe it till I see it." Despite his cowardly nature, Dormie thought of himself as loyal.

"He was travelling South," Fred said pointedly, lifting his mask enough to sip his own tea. "And much of the land close to the Farming South is gone, disappeared into darkness. Not just water... just nothingness that is all shadow and the like."

"Strange things happening, even for us," Dormie agreed.

"No word of the Drawling Master? He'd be good to muster forces under if he was willing."

"Not one single word of him, nor of anyone who followed him," Leo admitted. "And I would know."

Both Dormie and Fred looked over at him but he'd resumed a perfectly innocent expression that made it all the more suspicious.

"How is the Trial going anyway? Get to take some heads yet?" Dormie asked the Executioner. When Fred looked at him, his face actually brightened and his nose twitched. "Spare me none of the gory details. I like to hear a good story of maiming and eviscerating."

"There is a Mental Ward here, Dormie," Fred pointed out. "Perhaps we should have them look at you concerning that obsession."

Dormie waved his hand. "Please, that therapy's been done. I've had enough experiences with the strange in my life to frighten any doctor."

Fred's eyes narrowed a bit behind his mask. "I was thinking more of an experiment. They were having people 'volunteer' to see if Emotions could be taken from Wonderlanders temporarily."

The Dormouse squeaked and his head shrunk down into his shoulders. He didn't like the thought of being no more than a drained zombie and the look he was getting made him want to crawl under the table.

Leo cleared his throat. "The Trial? I hear more than a few people from the Guinea-Posh district received notice for jury duty."

"Still a matter of making this all legal. Plus the number of votes will be tricky considering how well liked Amelia Heart is." Fred sounded neutral about it all, the sign of a well-trained soldier. He wasn't about to say a word against his ruler, and especially not to them.

"No word of Jack's heir?" Leo asked and Fred shook his head.

"Not a one and the Queen's got the right to rule if the trial goes poorly for Amelia Heart. Laws from thousands of years ago were never changed."

"We're wordless. How utterly terrible," Dormie muttered, suddenly sad. For all his woebegone expression, he'd been hoping for something to cheer him up.

As if in reverence to his words, they sat in dull silence, the game forgotten on the table. It lasted for some time, Dormie nodding off now that he'd said what he wanted to say and the Executioner flipping the cards over and over again in a mindless shuffle. Leo uncrossed his feet and leaned back in his chair, lighting a water pipe as he did so. He smoked in silence, letting small billows of smoke escape his mouth to almost fill the small room in a soft blue haze.

Fred began to re-deal as the silence between them became too much. He was on his second round of passing the cards when the inner ward alarms blared loudly, sirens shrieking and bells banging away in the hallway. Jerking his head up, he stared at the door and half-expected hundreds of Suits to come flying through and Leo became equally tense as the alarms continued to sound. The Hospital was still home to so many refugees and those hiding from the Queen that there was little chance of guessing what was going on. The Suits had come storming in for a reason and it could be anyone's guess who was going to get taken in for execution.

To his credit, Fred managed to look untroubled about being caught in the company he was keeping.

The door to the Game Room flew open and a youngish man stumbled through, slamming the door behind himself with his foot. They all stared, with even Dormie waking up enough to shriek and hide under the table, and the man stared back. He took them all in, gave a shaky smile as he sucked in a few breaths, and then turned to the door. Behind him, Leo and Fred both glanced at each other in confusion, neither recognizing him.

He was holding an old croquet mallet in one hand, the handle twisting over and over between his fingers and he gave it a brief shake. With a loud cry he swung it hard to the left and promptly smashed it over the lock. The metal gave immediately, the handle and lock flying off the door, and the man stepped back as he clicked a button on its long handle. The mallet folded itself back up into his hands so that it resembled a regular hammer more than a croquet mallet and he slipped it into his green coat.

He turned around with a bit of a whirl and met their confused looks with arched brows.

"Right then, this is all going rather south. Sorry to interrupt your game, gents. I have a very good reason and normally I would stay to explain. But, unfortunately for you, I have to fly," he apologized. He grinned and looked down at his clenched hand as if he was delighted with it.

"Who..." Leo stared and the other man's grin went a bit proud and wild as he looked back up.

"Someone who just outwitted the Queen's treasury guards. Most effective I'd say. Be sure to tell your neighbours about how fantastic I am, because it is true. Feel free to make me sound like a legend." The door on the other side began to be slammed into repeatedly, and there was the voices of men shouting orders. The man pointed to the other door that led out behind Dormie. "Do you mind?"

He was bouncing out the door before anyone could respond, before any of them could warn him that that particular hallway led to nothing more than a dead-end and broom closets. The Executioner stood half-way up from his seat just as the door crashed open, ten black dressed Suits storming through. They were all dressed in the old style, their suits embroidered with their ranks, and one of the Aces paused to look at the confused trio staring back at them.

"You're on off duty, I hope? Either way, you're getting reported for this," he asked Fred, momentarily distracted by his own protocol. The taller man shrugged so casually that the Ace ignored them all after that minor rebuke, knocking their table to one side in his rush to get to the other door. The entire group of Suits slammed through like bulls through a china shop and Dormie cowered behind Leo instead.

The Executioner and Leo followed the Suits to the door and, with a faint whimper of fear, Dormie pressed in between them to watch. They could just make out the shape of the escapee running down the hall he'd stumbled into, and he was slamming open the doors to various closets as he tried to find an escape route. The Suits poured out of the tiny room they'd been in, each pulling either stun guns and regular pistols from their holsters. There was a small group of people, geriatric refugees who'd been woken by the noise, clustering around one of the side doors nearby, staring at the man and the guards with equal worry.

"What's this then?" one of the old men demanded, holding up a brass ear trumpet so that he could hear the answer.

"Stop him! He's stolen the Stone of Wonderland!" the lead Ace shouted and he sent a charge out to hit their quarry. The young man narrowly dodged it and then straightened up again, looking offended at the near miss that had ruffled his dark hair.

"Gents, no offence, but I'm thinking I've got more use for this than any old Queen at the moment. There's not even a mirror to use it with, so what's the harm? Besides that, I'm just borrowing it for a time," the thief said, twirling his croquet mallet again as if preparing for battle. The odds were heavily stacked against him, with ten well-armed Suits all training guns on him.

"Drop your weapon! Or we will shoot to kill" the Ace warned and the thief shook his head.

"I really, really can't do that." He knocked it four times against the one door he'd already checked, an old broom closet, and then turned to them. "But do give her Majesty my coldest possible regards."

He swung the door open and disappeared into the closet, leaving everyone else stunned. He'd just trapped himself, hadn't he? And given them more than a little license to execute him on the spot.

Watching from their doorway, the three gambling men wondered just what sort of insanity they were watching as the Suits crowded around the broom closet. One of them blew the lock and handle off with his pistol, sending a spray of wood and metal up into the air. The Ace kicked the door in with a loud crunch and charged in. Even the geriatrics were listening eagerly, hoping for a bit of a fight to gawk over.

There was only a rattle of pots and pans and cleaning supplies, and the Ace came back out cursing.

"How the hell did he do that?" the Ace shouted.

The Suits all began talking at once, blaming each other. "'Tis a bloody broom closet, not some hallway."

"You should have shot him!"

"She wants any resistance members to be taken alive first, remember?"

"We don't even know who he is!"

Dormie poked his head out further and got a better look. "He's gone. Gone."

Leo looked down at him. "Gone?"

"Only Suits in there and they're all about to start fighting," Dormie explained.

The Executioner pulled back into the room and thought it over to himself, knowing that they'd all be questioned about being in the Hospital of Dreams. A thief had just stolen one of the remaining relics from the Wonderland Looking Glass, one of the ones the Queen had insisted on being guarded better this time around.

Coming back to their poker table, Leo met his eyes and gave a crooked grin.

"Someone is going to be in very, very deep trouble when she finds out about this."

Chapter Text

"Merry unbirthday! Terribly unmerry if it best serves a purpose that rests in the month of May."

The manic and yet jovial feminine voice pulled Alice from her sleep under the shade of a twisted willow tree. She blinked up at the black shadows that the branches created, and for a moment felt cradled by the massive roots that protruded from the thick grass. Her body still languid and ready to go back to blissful sleep. Lifting her head enough so that she could take in her surroundings, Alice could only see some of the shadows before she felt dizzy and had to lie back down against the rough trunk.

Her hands smoothed down her body in reflex, feeling a bit of stiffness from her awkward position. Her fingers snagged on Abigail's necklace and she winced when the harsh chain rubbed on her skin. When her fingers moved and crinkled in a foreign fabric she managed to push herself up a bit to take a look. Alice opened her eyes to see that she was wearing a heavy blue pinafore and white under-dress and she could feel the itch of high wool stocks that ran from her thighs down to her feet encased in patent black heels. Something so far gone from what she'd ever wear that she gave a knowing nod.

"I must be dreaming again," she whispered. "Because I wouldn't wear this even on Halloween."

The idea that she was dreaming wasn't comforting at all. Looking back on how her dreams often went when it came to Wonderland, Alice found herself bracing for something to go horribly wrong. Ignoring a fogginess in her head that made her feel disorientated, she lifted herself up onto her elbows and squinted through the shadows. The dimly lit grotto provided a strange shelter of darkness despite the gently lit tree and grass, and nearby she could hear a faint twinkling sound like ceramic cups being moved around. Groaning, Alice rested a hand on her stomach and rubbed at the ache growing there but despite her gentle touch the pain was becoming sharper.

"Get up, Alice," she ordered herself and she reached out to grab at the roots bowed to either side of her. She could feel the slimy, cold moss under her fingers as she slid her hands along the roots and she dug her fingers into them, her arms shaking with effort. Her legs felt leaden from too long a sleep and with a groan she leaned back against the tree trunk.

"Least I'm standing," Alice said out loud to encourage herself but the numb sensation in her legs was slow to leave.

Suddenly, from under one of the tree roots, a small white rabbit hopped out from a tiny hole it had made. It snuffled among the small tulips that grew along the root edges, its ears twitching this way and that. It chewed on a flower for a few moments before it seemed to realize Alice was standing there. It froze mid-step, red-tinged eyes flicking up at her and Alice cocked her head on the side. The rabbit stared at her unblinkingly, as if considering something, and then darted out into the darkness.

Realizing she should know better than to follow a dream rabbit, Alice pushed herself away from the tree. She picked her way over and through the tree roots, intent on following the white rabbit. It seemed to be waiting for her just yards away and she sprinted to catch up with it. With a twitch of its tail, it leapt away again. The rabbit hopped frantically ahead of her, always just out of her reach and moving in a strange zigzag way. Not able to see clearly, Alice followed its pattern along the grass pathway and kept just behind it.

It may be her dream, but she'd didn't trust it at all.

She wasn't sure for how long she ran after the rabbit into the shadows, but the sudden appearance of a large, gold framed mirror had her stop mid-stride. It stood out awkwardly from the darkness, stretching from the ground to just a little over the top of her head. Alice stared at her pale reflection, unable to help but roll her eyes at how childish she looked. Glancing down at the rabbit, Alice waved a hand.

"Well, now what?" she asked.

With a squeak and wriggle, the rabbit bounced through the mirror and it shimmered as the rabbit disappeared through its silver surface. The shimmer grew so that the mirror looked like the surface of pond, ripples growing all over its surface. Tiny streams of silver and blue lights began to splash out from the surface and Alice stared in amazement as they wrapped themselves around her legs and arms. The lights felt shockingly warm and alive. She couldn't think to move out of the way and the translucent lights suddenly became solid and strong like shackles. She only managed a bit of a struggle before the shackles yanked her into the mirror's liquid surface.

Alice opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out as her feet found solid ground. Opening her eyes warily, she saw that she was in yet another empty grotto and this time there were no trees or shadows to hide her. It was still dim but there were hanging lanterns hovering all around, providing a blue and green tinge to the grotto. The lights seemed to be blinking in rhythm.

Turning her attention from them, Alice jumped in her place when she noticed that the once empty grotto was now occupied. She was standing at the end of a long, elegant tea table and the rabbit disappeared under the table without looking back at her. This new sight reminded Alice how treacherous her own fantasies could be and she wrapped her hands in her skirts. The heavy pinafore was scratchy against her palms but it gave her something to hold to hide her nervousness.

The table was set for at least twenty or more places; there were varied fine china tea sets in blues and greens, plates piled high with scones and crumpets, and large cakes with slices already cut out as if high tea had already begun. Teapots were whistling away to themselves; one actually grew a pair of ceramic legs to walk over and pour its contents into a tiny teacup. The teacup screamed as if burned and scuttled away to the other side of the table. The odd tea settings rearranged themselves into a new order and the twinkling sound was almost musical as they clattered around.

It was all beautifully decorated but as Alice began to walk alongside the table, she could see dust and cobwebs disturbing the pristine settings. Some of the food had black mould growing on its edges and one of the fruit dishes held rotting peaches with bugs crawling through them. What made the Victorian tea-setting seem even more morbid was when Alice noticed that the white linen table cloth was spotted with fresh blood at some place settings.

The sight made her stomach turn and she was almost ready to turn around to go when she heard soft singing.

"Will you walk a little faster... said a whiting to a snail. There's a porpoise close behind us and he's treading on my tail."

Alice looked up sharply and saw there there were now four people... or two people and two creatures, sitting at the opposite end of the table. She stared at the creatures first: a man with a ceramic rabbit head, sipping oddly at a tea cup though the tea dribbled down the front of his black suit, and a large mouse sound asleep inside a saucer. Resisting the urge to call out, Alice stared at Hatter next. His chin was resting on his arm as he leaned onto the table and he was spinning a butter-plate on the palm of his other hand, humming an inane little ditty as he did it. He was dressed in what he'd worn when she'd first come to Wonderland, though his face was gaunt and bruised, and the nostalgia that flooded Alice was almost bitter.

The singing had stopped again and Alice finally looked at the woman sitting at the head of the table to Hatter's right. Alice nearly forgot she was dreaming as she stared at the woman.

The green-eyed woman she'd been seeing time and time again was methodically fixing her narrow, felt-tip hat over one eye. She was humming the same song as Hatter, keeping perfect time and harmony with him, and she lifted up a small hand mirror to check her appearance. She clicked the mirror shut and arched her back, sitting as primly as possible. Dressed in a high-necked dove grey dress and with her pale skin only given colour by the deep grey circles under her eyes, she more resembled some Victorian porcelain doll than a human.

Which was making it more obvious to Alice that she likely wasn't one.

The woman's long fingers curled around the delicate china teacup in front of her and she lifted it to her lips. She paused before drinking and nodded to Alice.

"Sit, child. You look positively peaky and we can't have that. What man marries a waif, after all? A good cup of chiapia tea will take care of that. Fills the belly and eases the mind," she ordered before taking a sip of tea.

"I'm still dreaming," Alice reminded herself as she took a seat gingerly beside this version of the March Hare. The high-backed chair was painfully uncomfortable and she scooted forward as its arch pressed into her lower back. The large rabbit head turned toward her and Mad March leaned in, his chair creaking noisily.

He offered a candy dish filled with tiny turtles to her.

"Turtle-snap? They're ripe this time of year." His voice was tinny with its oddly Bronxian accent. All of the turtles in the dish looked up at her and immediately retreated back into their shells when she looked at them.

"No, thank you," Alice whispered, turning her attention to where Hatter was sitting across from her. He had lifted his head a bit, eyes going to hers but there was a glaze in them that made his own eyes look milky. "Hatter?"

The woman reached out and touched Alice's hand. "He can't hear you, you know." When Alice looked at her, she tapped her temple meaningfully. "He's all worn out and so needs to rebuild everything he's lost."

Alice blinked at her.

"Oh do forgive me for not rhyming, but I do feel I've lost the capability for it. Yet another thing that has changed that I don't like. Rhymes are fun," the woman explained and Alice huffed impatiently. "But back to the Hatter, of course!"

Mad March held out the candy dish to and she clapped her hands childishly, making a show of choosing. She popped one of the turtles into her mouth and crunched loudly, black shell pieces clinging to her lips. She took another swallow of tea before continuing. "His mind, for example, needs more than a little bit of care, and my oh my it certainly does need rebuilding. The Hatter family always was an odd riddle, when they lived long enough to become one."

"Oh I love a riddle!" Mad March exclaimed. "Why is a raven..."

The woman's head darted to the side sharply and her eyes glinted furiously at him. "I'm not talking to you, Albrecht."

The long-dead assassin looked down. "You never do anymore."

"Oh shut up," she answered. "Your purpose was over the minute you went completely off the deeper end. You're just here because for some reason Alice's mind remembered you."

Her attention went back to Alice, who was staring at Hatter. With a roll of her eyes, she banged her spoon against the rim of her tea cup. When Alice looked at her, she arched a brow and then scoffed rudely. "Love. The things it makes us do; creates life, causes death. Makes us forget madness of the mind in favour for agony of the heart. Rather masochistic, I think, to indulge in it as deeply as you have, Alice."

"Who are you?" Alice asked and the woman blinked before giving Hatter a nod.

"He knows me." She made it sound as if that was all that mattered.

Alice rolled her eyes. "He seems to know everyone somehow. I don't. Who... are you?"

"For all intensive purposes which suit little to my own purposes, you may call me Unda." The woman looked under the table and then picked up the white rabbit who was lying on her feet. She stroked at its head for a moment before she seemed to realize that Alice was staring at her. She met her gaze with her own startling emerald eyes and grinned. "Problem, my dear?"

The grin had an eerie similarity to the Cheshire Cat's and Alice pressed back in her seat. "Your name is familiar." Alice struggled to place it, the fogginess in her head making it tricky, but when she glanced at Hatter it became clear. "Hatter's mother mentioned that name... her mother's..."

Unda's gaze was unwavering with that awful grin still in place. "Did she now?"

"This is just too weird. You can't be Hatter's grandmother."

"Could be that. I could be just assuming a likeness for the sake of little better to do. I do get so bored and when I do, I tend to lie to make up a glorious story with absolutely no truth behind it." Unda waved her hands in the air and splattered tea as she did so. "It could all be so very tricky!"

Alice rolled her eyes. "This is just too much."

"Is it?" March twisted his head with a mechanical crunch. "You've not questioned a thing before."

"I've questioned it all the time," Alice pointed out. "I just don't say it loud enough for all of Wonderland to here."

"You don't question the fact that Hatter hid so much from you? That he's now madder than a box of frogs? That Wonderland is likely using..."

Making a small sound of discomfort, Unda leaned over the table and clicked a switch on the back of March's head. He shut down immediately with a whirr, head dropping into his chest, and Alice blinked again in shock before glancing over at Hatter. He'd removed his hat and was running the brim through his fingers to fix it, eyes not rising from what he was doing. There was a deep shudder through the small grotto then, one that caused the tea table to rattle, and Alice watched as several plates crashed to the grass floor.

Turning her head from side to side, the green-eyed woman gave the appearance of thinking something over. Then she clapped her hands together and leaned toward Alice. "So, as I was saying, this whole business is so very troubling."

"You weren't saying anything," Alice interrupted absentmindedly.

"Don't interrupt and don't nit-pick. It's rude." Unda poured a cup of tea and placed it gently in front of Alice. "You see, Alice, just because you are invited to a tea party, it does not make you a friend nor does it mean you are invited to all functions."

"What exactly does Wonderland being destroyed have to do with a tea party?" Alice asked.

"Everything! Jabberwock's teeth, you don't pay attention at all do you?" She threw her hands in the air and Alice narrowly dodged being struck. With a sudden groan of pain, Unda put a hand over her chest. Her face twisted into an ugly contortion, sudden black scratch marks appearing across her cheeks. "This hurts, Alice. It hurts so badly and I've no way to deal with such pain anymore."

Alice stared at her, concerned when she noticed that the other woman's hands clenching desperately at the pain.

"It has not stopped, Alice, and each day it gets worse... and the most recent of events makes me wish the pain would leave, but no matter what I do, it doesn't. In fact, it feels worse."

"What do you want me to do?" Alice asked and she saw Unda's hand go to curl around the handle of a teacup. The black marks faded from her cheeks in slow inky trails but the whites of her eyes became black instead, which made the green of them more startling.

"Everything needs to be risked or nothing, and I do repeat nothing, is worth fighting for." Unda lifted the tea cup to her lips and her eyes went over Alice's slim form in an almost condescending way. "As you should remember."

Alice felt a sudden cramp in her belly and she bent over, wrapping her arms around her sides at the ache. The cramp seemed to clench her entire belly and she wanted nothing more than to sink to the floor and cry. Groaning, she raised wide blue eyes up to Unda, to see that those green eyes were staring at her intently. Hatter's attention was on her as well but the blankness hadn't left his expression. Alice reached out and grabbed hold of the tablecloth, her knuckles going white as she kept a firm hold. She gritted her teeth as it continued and jumped when a gentle hand pressed against her stomach.

Her eyes darted up to stare at Unda's concerned face. "So you can imagine my dismay when you were further along than thought. And it just won't do," the older woman said softly, her fingers curling around Alice's stomach. "You've risked so much, Alice, and now you have to risk even more. Hardly fair but necessary. I'm sorry."

There was a faint glow of light in her hand. "And for you, I will turn back time just a bit. As favour to your lover. No father with a past such as his should learn of this too late."

Alice had to squint her eyes as Unda's face seemed to blur. "Who are you?"

"You'll figure it out eventually," was the encouraging answer and Alice frowned at the curious coolness in her stomach. As her surroundings grew dimmer and dimmer, Alice glanced over at Hatter and saw that he was once again spinning his hat around his fingers. The coolness had gone right to her toes and Alice shut her eyes at the dizzy sensation that followed it.

When Alice opened her eyes, she was once again lying against a sloping tree trunk with the hard bark pressing into her back. The sunlight streaming through the branches was warm but there was a cold breeze that made her press a bit deeper into the thick grass. The overcoat she was wearing was fine tweed, perhaps too fine since she could feel every cold draft through the fabric, and Alice dug her hands into her sleeves to get rid of the numb feeling. Overhead, the branches were swaying with the wind and Alice felt her eyelids start to droop again.

"Don't go falling asleep again, Alice. You scared me when you dropped off like that and then started talking in your sleep," Carol Hamilton admonished from where she was sitting in front of her daughter. She put the book she'd been reading on her knee and Alice glimpsed the title of "First Five Hundred Years of Rule". Carol caught her looking and gave her a dry smile. "It's a picture book, really. The Drawling Master just had a few books left over at this place. Boring otherwise but it tells of events in Wonderland."

Pushing herself up from her position against the tree, Alice swiped her hand over her face. The sunlight glinted off the brass and silver of the charm necklace she still wore, and she had to look away from the bright glow it created. Only a few hedges away was a tall townhouse, skeletal and rather shabby compared to most of the places she'd visited in Wonderland. The garden she was lying in was mostly wild and overgrown but she remembered it.

She had had a temporary lapse in memory, triggered by her odd dream, but she remembered this now.

The trip through the door had been very painful and it was all still blurry what had happened after she'd stepped through. She'd woken to a shabby bedroom that was part of the safe house, and had been poked and prodded by a kind though strict Abigail Drawling, who'd been intent on saving both Alice and her baby. She'd been drugged to keep calm and given some sort of drink that had made the ache in her body recede, though it had made her dream constantly. It was only today that Alice had managed to convince her worried mother that she wanted outside.

Only when she promised to explain everything about her condition did Carol actually allow it.

The house was at the very heart of the Far South Central Metropolis, in more rough area, and had been almost abandoned until the Drawling Master and Pidge had taken it over. Like most houses here, it wasn't built to be pretty with its twisted frame and mismatched shutters. Despite its narrow exterior, inside it was a large house and Alice had already learned as many of its rooms as she could.

She was learning to be a little more than cautious when it came to these places.

"Alice?" her mother reached out and squeezed her knee. "How are you feeling? You've only been out of the bedroom a few hours, I know, but you didn't touch any of the food we brought with us. Chesh ate most of it before he went back up the tree."

Alice put her hand on her stomach, suddenly realizing why she felt so dizzy. "Just haven't been hungry."

She glanced up and saw the grinning Cheshire Cat reclining on one of the branches.

Resting her hand back down on her own leg, Carol eyed her. "You had me worried, Alice."

"I'm... still a bit shaky about what happened, Mom. But I was scared too."

"You know where we are?" Carol insisted and Alice nodded, resisting the urge to give her mother an exasperated look. Her mother had been asking questions to test her memory constantly, worried about the concussion her daughter might have suffered. She'd noticed the cuts and bruises on Alice's face, a sign she'd been hit, and it was only because she was cautious about mentioning Hatter that she'd not demanded where they'd come from.

"It's just hazy, that's all." Alice bent over at the waist and stared at the ground, trying to ignore the way it seemed to be filtered by blue light.

"Lady Drawling said you were lucky. She knows only the very basics and I wasn't much help either. You were in serious trouble," Carol said and it came out more forcefully than she'd intended. Alice didn't look over but simply continued to rip blades of grass up between her fingers.

"I know." She could remember the painful inspection she'd undergone, which had involved a bit of intrusion that she could only just remember.

"Alice," Carol paused to take a deep breath and then reached out again. Her fingers slipped along Alice's stomach and her daughter jerked in reaction. Carol masked her hurt easily and assumed a firm look while withdrawing her hand. "You risked so much and you nearly lost your baby in the process."

"I know, Mom. I really, really don't need a reminder about that!" Furious with her mother's questions and with herself, Alice ripped out another chunk of grass and stood up. Her legs felt shaky from sitting so long and she leaned against the tree, letting her head fall back against its comforting strength.

Carol looked up at her. "Alice, I understand about Wonderland and how strange it is... at least I think I do. There's been enough for me to see in the past month to know that this place is never what it seems." She gave Alice's stomach a pointed look. "But you were showing heavily just a week ago and now you look almost as thin as ever."

Alice's head jerked and out of reflex she smoothed her hand down the dressing gown she wore. Her stomach was more softly rounded now, not protruding and not noticeable, and she prodded herself a bit. There was nothing she could feel; no movement, no fluttering like before. She felt a brief panic until she remembered Unda's soft touch and words about turning back time.

"I think it's just reversed," Alice muttered and caught her mother staring at her. She cleared her throat. "Lady Drawling said that it was just a scare."

Carol sighed. "I'm not sure my heart can stand more scares, Alice." She stood and dusted off her own skirt quickly. "I wish there was a way we could get home, safe and sound."

"Somehow it doesn't seem likely," Alice answered, looking up at the house again. "And even if there was..."

Her eyes scanned the house's exterior and she saw Hatter standing at one of the windows just a few stories above her. He was leaning out of the window, his arms braced on the ledge, and Alice stared. They hadn't spoken since their arrival here. In fact, no one had really talked to Hatter and no one knew what was going on in his mind. He had had a rudimentary form of healing done on the worst of his wounds but he kept to himself and seemed to be taking care of himself.

No one had really dared to ask him how he felt. They were all too worried about the answer they would get.

Any hopes for an instant reunion had been ruined for Alice the first day she'd wandered around the townhouse. They'd met in the hall, Alice supported by her mother's comforting hand and Hatter limping around with his chest bandaged, and it had been like staring at a stranger. He had stared at her, eyes lingering on the bruising on her cheek and the stitching above her own eye, and Alice had felt a bit freakish under his gaze. He had looked equally rough and though she'd been tempted to simply go to him, Hatter had just turned around and walked into the nearest room he'd just left. The flipping of a lock on the other side of the door had made his disappearance all the more final.

What had been more painful for Alice was that she'd been relieved by his decision to escape first. She'd longed to throw herself at him, to be comforted by him again, but something had held her back. She just wasn't sure why his avoidance made her feel relieved but there was no one she could talk to here to figure it out. Her mother had made her feelings clear about the problem of Hatter and Chesh was opinionated enough about Hatter for Alice not to trust him. With the Drawling Master making plans, Pidge disappearing for hours on end and Abigail making herself scarce, Alice began bottling everything up inside. It left only Charlie to talk to and the White Knight remained almost hopelessly optimistic.

One of us has to be, Alice thought to herself, and I feel worn out from keeping hope alive that this will all turn out okay.

"Even if there was a way out?" Carol prompted suddenly, twisting the book around in her hands. Alice couldn't tear her eyes away from Hatter, despite the distance between them.

"I don't think I could leave. Not now." Her hand patted her stomach. "Maybe we just need some time."

For the first time, Carol actually laughed though it was a morbid sound void of any humour. "That, I think, Alice, is something we don't have," she answered.

Hatter's head turn in her direction and his eyes locked with hers even over the distance. Alice knew her mother may be right. They were racing against unknown forces with unknown plans and to what end no one knew. She stared up at Hatter and wondered if everything she'd risked to bring Hatter back had been done so in vain.

In vain because the few times they'd seen each other, she had still not seen much of her Hatter there. The madness had been contained, redirected, but it had been there. Far more dominate than ever before and with more directness than she could remember him having. It left her to wonder if Hatter was hiding behind it or if the darkness she saw there was now more a part of who he was.

When he looked away from her to stare out over the decaying cityscape, Alice jerked her head and looked at her mother. She flashed a false, overly bright smile and tucked her hand into her mother's. "Come on. I'm sure we can find something to do here that won't get us both into a world of trouble."

As they exited the small garden to the kitchen, Alice glanced over her shoulder and saw that Hatter was watching them again. The look she could see on his face was so full of longing that she stumbled in surprise. Then it was gone and his expression was skilfully blank. Staring back at him, Alice began to wonder if what she'd just seen was real or not. Just what side of Hatter was real, what side was holding the most sway over him?

The knowledge that the man she knew was still in there made Alice grin and follow her mother back into the townhouse. For the first time in a few days, she felt like smiling. Carol looked over at her and gave her a questioning stare. Alice merely smiled and shook her head, knowing she couldn't explain the sudden hope that she felt. Hope that everything she had risked had not been for nothing.

Chapter Text

Hatter stared out the window, resting his head on the frame and watching his breath fog up the glass. He watched Alice and her mother slowly make their way back into the house and noticed that the Cheshire Cat was following them in his swirling, evaporating way. A surreal feeling of being out of place briefly overran his desire to see even a last glimpse of Alice; it was a feeling that he didn't belong in this reality. He wasn't sure where the feeling came from and he didn't like it. It made his body feel cold all over again.

He wrapped his arms around his chest and overcame the urge to shiver as a fresh hot flash went over his skin. Needing relief, he pressed his cheek against the cold glass and sighed. His thoughts turned away from that odd, other-world feeling to the present. Alice had looked up back at him just now but he hadn't been able to see what her expression was.

It was still hard to believe that she was alive, after a month of losing himself to the belief that she was dead. Hard to believe that he was no longer being tortured day in and day out with her memory and the illusions that had tormented him into killing the replicas that had been made of her. Replicas that only added to the guilt weighing at him.

The memories of it all were foggy but the feelings of pain, madness, and grief had remained sharp and clear.

He'd woken up the first night feeling like he'd been run over by a Jabberwock and then cracked over the head with a mallet. The shock of it had made him ready to fight the blurry figure that had been hovering over him but he was restrained tightly by the arms. Whoever it was had moved fast, so that he couldn't fight the restraints. He had only caught a glimpse of the vial before it was pressed to his mouth. He'd been given some strange cocktail of drugs that had sent him into an even deeper sleeper for a few more hours.

Which only had given him more time to dream and to think, and those were dangerous things for him to do.

He tried to ignore the brief pain in his hand when he clenched his fist too tightly. He was only days out of a self-inflicted coma and still felt groggy from tranquillizers, but that was really nothing to him. It was everything else, everything that had happened before that bothered him and kept him from wanting to see the others that called this place home.

Kept him from going to Alice when he knew he needed her.

"You believed Alice was dead, that's all," he whispered to himself, staring at his reflection in the window. He could just make out the tired lines of his own face, his weary eyes still green. He couldn't remember what colour his eyes were now; had they always been this strange shade?

Hatter closed his eyes and felt a shiver go through his body again.

And nearly killed her because you believed in a lie, because you released that part of that you were trained to hide, some treacherous little voice whispered back

"I could have stopped myself," he declared. "I did stop myself."

Just barely. You wanted to kill her, and part of you still thinks this is just some more fantasy of yours... that you'll have to kill her to get rid of it. What happens if you can't control yourself when around her?

"I won't touch her," Hatter stated, willing the voice of doubt to go away.

It was still hard to do.

"I won't," he repeated to himself. He swept his hand over his face and rubbed at his eyes. He was exhausted and hungry; perhaps that was why he was feeling so terrible.

But food sickened him and every time he tried to sleep something, a voice or a dream, would trouble him before he'd be snapped back awake. His brain wasn't about to shut down for rest it seemed... and he knew he needed it to. The last time this madness had overtaken him, he had forcefully knocked himself unconscious, and that sleep had helped heal him. But now, he felt no sense of control and his mind still felt so busy that it was hard to keep track of his own thoughts.

"How do you sleep when you are so exhausted you can't even trust that you will wake up yourself again?" he muttered in a voice he still wasn't used to hearing. A voice accent-less and almost without a hint of emotion. It echoed in his ears, and he knew that it was nothing like his voice but he couldn't think of how he used to speak or how this had changed.

He wasn't sure what he'd been like before that month of insanity and agony.

He wasn't sure what part of that life was left.

"Sitting there moping doesn't move us all forward and out of this hell of a city. I always hated the city, South or North."

The gruff, heavy South accent penetrated Hatter's melancholy and he jerked away from the window. His hand went to his side when the suddenness of the movement caused a fresh flash of pain through his battered ribs. It caused his breath to come shallow and fast and he groaned at the burning sensation. Cursing under his breath, he limped out to where he'd been sitting earlier on an old, threadbare sofa. He kept his face to the shadows of the poorly lit study, not liking being so exposed when he was still not even sure where he was.

For all he knew, he had just traded one prison for another.

The old man who hobbled into view from the doorway, weighed down with several large books, was not likely to be a threat. He gave Hatter a quick once-over before slamming the books onto a nearby table.

"So, up and about are we? 'Bout time you started showing your face 'round here. I don't abide by all this bed-rest of yours, no matter what was ordered. Mind you, I doubt you were even sleeping; Wonderland knows what was going through that mind o' yours." He set about fixing his old green hounds-tooth coat so that it fitted more closely around his wrists and then looked around the room. "Bet you're thinking: 'out of the frying pan, into the fire', eh?"

He cast an amused eye at Hatter. "Your Alice likely thought the same thing."

He got nothing for his attempted humour beyond Hatter simply staring back. Though his expression was guarded, his eyes showed both wariness and curiosity.

"North Abel," came the introduction after a few more seconds of awkward silence. When all he received was a blank look from Hatter, he adapted an insulted posture. "Now I might be old, lad, but surely you know who I am."

Hatter adjusted his seat on the sofa, and he reclined a bit to ease the pain in his chest.

Abel slid into an overstuffed chair across from Hatter before holding out his hand. "North Abel, South Governor and Drawling Master, boy."

Though the younger man hadn't moved there was a visible change in the air between them, with the tension so thick a knife couldn't cut through the air. Hatter's expression became even more guarded as he felt the pressure increase in his head. It was a pounding ache again and he felt the compulsion of the torture throbbing through him. When he looked up though and saw the old man staring at him intently, he wasn't sure why but every thought of violence left him.

There was something vaguely comforting about the Drawling Master.

Hardly realizing what he was doing, Hatter reached out and shook the worn hand offered to him. Abel held onto his right hand though and pulled suddenly, so that Hatter had to lean forward. His hand was turned over to reveal the stitched wound on the back of it and then turned the other way, as if to judge the strength of his grip. Abel's brown eyes, crinkled at the corners, swept over Hatter's more youthful face. He was seeing something in Hatter's face and an expression of delight came and went quickly.

"You do have the look of your father on you, but you aren't him or his father. Your looks, the way you move... remarkably different from them," Abel commented. He let Hatter go and leaned back in his seat. "Not a bad sign. Not a bad sign at all"

Hatter didn't answer and Abel wisely decided to drop the subject of family.

He knew of a far more interesting subject to goad Hatter with.

"Interestingly enough, it was your girl who insisted that you were worth saving. Worth trusting." Abel rested his chin in his hand and stared critically at him. "Me? I'm still trying to decide if you are worth it."

He tapped at his chin as if thinking.

"But I suppose if Alice thinks it..."

"Baiting me won't work," Hatter answered politely, but his eyes glinted dangerously. The Drawling Master noticed but hid his grin behind his fingers. He was trying to keep Hatter's thoughts from returning back to his obvious misery and this might be one way of doing it. They needed a relatively intact Hatter to help them, not one bordering on the brink of hopelessness.

"You and Alice of Legend... your exploits have reached a legendary status, with the amount of trouble you get into. But yet all I heard was of you trying to protect her. I can't wait to see if that is indeed true," he continued. "To see you two go into adventure..."

Hatter shook his head and held up a hand. "Don't."

He paused and glanced out the window he'd been staring through earlier. "Just don't."

Abel debated on pressing the matter of Alice but he saw the tension and weariness in Hatter's face. Wisely dropping the matter, he watched as Hatter closed his eyes. He was deeply worried about his grandson. Worried about how to break it to the lad that they were closely related, and worried that this may not be the same man Alice had been so in love with. He seemed nothing more than a shell; ready to answer but there was no real feeling behind it.

He doubted Alice was the sort to love a shell of a man, therefore he had high hopes about this boy. It would be a shame, Abel knew, if those hopes fell flat.

Though Abel didn't like the thought of forcing Hatter to answer any questions, he had to know what had truly transpired in the past month and Hatter was the best course of finding the real conspirators. But, from what he could tell, there was no way of dealing with Hatter now. Abel watched as Hatter stretched out on the sofa, looking like a cat hunkering down for a nap, and sighed. He didn't know the other man well enough to bring it all up at once without pushing Hatter further into his own shell. Short of anything, he needed a friend of Hatter's.

However, friends seemed to be few and far between right now.

Abel leaned back in his seat and grabbed one of the books from the table beside him. He propped it up against his knees and tried to resolve himself to reading it. Hoping that he could wait out Hatter's silence, he dismissed him from his mind and set about engrossing himself in an old book on Wonderland's borogroves.

Resting on the sofa, Hatter could hear every movement that the Drawling Master made. He had no fear of the older man now; the few words they'd exchanged had let Hatter take quick stock of him and know that he was not a threat. But it was far easier to avoid questions by pretending to sleep. He'd noticed Abel trying to wheedle information from him, but Hatter had shut down as quickly as he could to prevent it. He didn't want to talk, didn't want to explain the problem of his lapsed and hazy memories and he certainly didn't want to pass the time with idle chatter.

Yet, in the silence between them, he felt a languid peace overwhelm his tensions. For the first time in days, his body actually relaxed and his breathing deepened. Hatter felt the edges of sleep, a blissful dark sleep with no lights or mad voices to torment him, and he sighed. It would be nice to sleep for a little while, if the sleep didn't hold dreams of death and madness.

The door squeaked open and Hatter's eyes opened. He first looked at Abel, who was also nodding off with a book sprawled on his lap, before glancing at the door. He slipped his right hand against his chest, feeling the scarring there through his shirt, and tightened his hand into a fist.

He'd thought that this strange peace was too much to hope for and clearly he'd been right. He went on edge, felt that peace he'd been feeling go flying through the window. Another other part of him, the dark mad part that had been in control for so long, began to resurface gleefully. As he stared up at the ceiling, a narrow face, aged and ghostly, peered over the back of the sofa.

His father grinned down at him and tipped his top hat. Ever ready for action, eh puppy?

With a shout of surprise, Hatter jerked upright and fell off the sofa. As he moved, his forehead cracked against something hard and he saw stars spring before his eyes. The blinding sensation made him lose his footing and he shook his head to get rid of it.

"Damn it all, Hatter, you nearly knocked me out, movin' like that!" Pidge snapped loudly, while rubbing his chin. Hatter picked himself up and went on the defensive, still seeing the lights and shadows of his mind and only vaguely aware of Pidge standing there. Startled awake, Abel lurched to his feet and stared at the two men incredulously.

"What in Wonderland is going on now?"

"Just thought I'd be sure it was Hatter there and not a corpse... nearly got knocked out for my trouble," Pidge said, speaking a bit funny since his jaw had been rattled. Abel rolled his eyes and looked over at Hatter. It was like looking at a soldier ready to fight and he reached out, grabbing hold of Hatter's arm.

"Calm it down, lad." Muscle by muscle, the arm he was holding began to slowly relax, but he held on until he was sure Hatter wasn't about to leap in and throttle the tall man across from them. Content that he'd not have to stop a fight, he looked back at Pidge. "You got it then?"

Pidge dug into his coat pocket and tossed a tiny ring to Abel. Without looking up, Hatter intercepted the toss and then stared at the feminine ring as it rolled around in his hand. The Stone of Wonderland lay cold and grey in his palm and he turned it over curiously. It had been a long time since he'd seen it this close.

"You stole the Stone?" Hatter asked and looked up at Pidge. The older man grinned, his blue eyes bright and mischievous.

"Hello to you too, Hatter. Nice to see you alive and somewhat sane, Hatter. I'm doing well myself, Hatter," Pidge stated pointedly.

Hatter looked at Abel, not in the mood to indulge his friend's humour. "Why?"

"It was necessary. Pidge is the only one I could send in to steal this before the conduits started being made or at least formulated. He's not been in Wonderland City for some years so he would be able to slip in relatively unnoticed. It was a risk that we needed to take," Abel explained and he cocked an eyebrow at Hatter. "Because, in all honesty, we can't be sure what exactly they gleaned from your mind. The Ring is an ingredient, after all."

"I'd know if I said something so damning," Hatter bit out and Abel shrugged.

"Maybe you would but maybe you wouldn't. I can't very well trust what happened in the past month or so to have gone well. Certainly I can't just hope that we were given a chance of preventing utter chaos."

After tossing the ring back to Abel, Hatter looked away from them both. He knew exactly what the old man was inferring: Hatter wasn't to be trusted nor would he be.

Pidge cleared his throat. "How are you feeling, Hatter?" he asked, voice gentle in case the injured man would take offence.

"Not as mad as I was before, though I would put it about halfway as to whether I'm about to go insane again. Still, fifty percent change is better than one hundred. A pleasant change, don't you think?" Hatter answered flippantly as he moved back to the sofa and sat down. The action made his ribs ache again and he pressed his hand to his side.

Pidge glanced at Abel and the man made a slicing motion at his throat, the signal clear. They were going to have to avoid telling Hatter more than he needed to know for now. Throwing up his hands in defeat, Pidge walked over to the windows and peered out.

"Wonderland isn't the same. The big cities aren't the same. Here or there," he muttered.

"The old Queen has rule again?" Hatter asked reluctantly. "I can't see that being easy."

"That's one way of looking at it. I've not seen it this bad before. Police state everywhere with the White Rabbit's old members back in power. People are being brutalized and locked up, and those that are unfortunate enough to really piss her off get beheaded... or tortured... or both." Pidge glanced over his shoulder at the Drawling Master. "It was like walking into an overly large prison."

"Miserable, I wager." Abel turned the ring and slid it onto his pinkie before holding it up to the light. "But we've temporarily evaded a bit of crisis for now. Without this, they won't be able to rebuild the old Looking Glass without getting into magic no one really remembers and formulas not many would know."

Thank Wonderland, he thought, that there is only a few of us to remember... and two of us are standing here.

Though he doubted Hatter was aware of that.

"I'll be happy to get more sleep," Pidge said suddenly to break the silence. "I've been on the run through the City without a bit of rest and I think I'm ready to drop."

With a slip of his hand, the ring on Abel's pinkie disappeared. "You can sleep when we get back."

Pidge groaned like an upset child but Hatter looked up, eyes fixed on Abel.

"We're going back to the Manor: you and I, Pidge. There's something I need to bring back and I need to be sure the Manor's begun to rebuild itself."

"Fantastic. For all we know Selena left her men there to kill anyone who comes back," Pidge snapped irritably and Abel shook his head.

"No, lad. Believe me when I say the Manor wouldn't let any attackers live." He glanced over at Hatter. "Well, with some exceptions."

The young man had his hand pressed to his head, rubbing there slowly as if to ease an ache. Or to stop a voice. Then, as if he'd decided something in the precious few seconds he'd been quiet, Hatter straightened up.

"I'll be going with you," he stated firmly and both men stared at him.

"You?" Abel asked. "You're little good to anyone. I think I could set a child on you and they'd be able to beat you into a pulp. You're weak, boy, and you need some rest."

"You really think I'm able to sleep? Knowing what I have done, what I've nearly done? You think I can even try to rest?" Hatter countered, his voice so soft they could barely hear him. "I can't even remember much of this beyond bits and pieces and I need to remember! So at the least we know what they managed to pry out of me head, or else I'll be goin' mad from lack of knowin'."

The way his voice had slipped from its accent-less tone to the thick Northern spike caught their attention and Pidge glanced at the Drawling Master.

He growled a curse and then rolled his eyes. "Oh, blast it. Fine. But I draw the line at bringing the girl or her mother with us, if either of you are thinkin' this will be some sort of social visit for us all. We'll need to be quick and it is still risky."

"I don't want Alice to... go," Hatter replied but it was clear he'd been about to say something else in. "Whatever scare she had, I don't want her to get hurt for the sake of a visit to a burnt building. But I need to go back."

"Why?" Pidge asked, cleverly knowing that they shouldn't discuss Alice's health just yet. While waiting for both Alice and Hatter to recover, they'd all discussed it amongst themselves. It'd become clear that Hatter was likely ignorant of Alice's pregnancy and that for some reason she had wanted it that way. Sensible or it, it was, as Charlie had stated, Alice's privilege to tell him.

Though Pidge wondered that if these things were left too long whether Hatter would find out in a different and perhaps worse way.

"I left someone behind and I know I'll need her," Hatter said and Pidge groaned, following his meaning easily.

"You want to go back for a horse? How is that head of yours? Still crazy?" he jibed. Hatter simply stared back at him, not reacting.

"Guinevere is important to me and to this whole mess. I'll not sleep easy knowin' that she stayed with me only for to end up lost in the wilds."

"The man wants to go back for a horse," Abel muttered, rolling his eyes to the ceiling again. He stared there pensively for the moment before looking back down at the two men who were both still staring at one another. He had a feeling he might regret putting these two together where they could get up to mischief. "Fine. But first sign of trouble and you're back here. I'll likely be chewed out for risking you as it is."

"I'm not a child," Hatter grumbled.

"No but something tells me you'll sulk like one anyway," the older man agreed. He looked at Pidge. "Which door did you come through?"

"Broom closet out the Hospital. Had to wait for the glow to collapse but you should be able to use the study doors now to get back to the Manor... provided a door there is still standing." He looked at Hatter. "Old magic, Hatter. Never thought I'd be holdin' to it but it has been helpful."

Hatter's eyes locked on Abel. "Makes me wonder how long this sort of magic was used to go between places. Considerin' it was outlawed and supposed to be out of use save for the old remaining Taiga magic."

For once, the Drawling Master seemed flustered. "Call it a miracle of Wonderlandian nature, a side-effect of consequence. The possibilities are endless, eh?"

Hatter didn't respond to that hodgepodge of an answer, but he looked at Pidge expectantly.

"We'd best get a move on before Alice figures out we've left. She'll kill me for lettin' you out, you know? We're tryin' hard to keep her calm and relatively quiet," Pidge said, and something about the way he spoke of Alice made Hatter stare at him harder.

What he saw there made him wonder just how long he'd been unaware of his own surroundings and the people around him. This was a side to Pidge he hadn't seen much of before.

"I'll be along in a moment," Abel said as he turned on his heel. "If we're retrieving a horse, we might as well bring Charlie along and he can find his own old gelding. We left all our animals behind, save for that damned cat. Plus the old Knight might have... insight."

"You're trusting Charlie's..." Hatter waved his hand in the air as he searched for the right word, "episodes? And here I was thinkin' I was done feelin' mad."

He sounded so incredulous that both men hid grins.

"Nothing of the sort, boy, but the Knight does amuse me something fierce," Abel admitted. "And Wonderland knows that I need a good reason to feel some humour right now, considering the current state of things."

Chapter Text

Amelia had decided that she was getting rather used to being a prisoner.

Not that she was happy about it but the thought helped to comfort her when the jail walls felt like they were closing in around her.

Day by day, as more and more of Wonderland fell under the grip of Mary, Queen of Hearts, Amelia's cell became more like a jail and less like an apartment. Each comfort had been stripped slowly from the rooms, until all it contained was a small bed and basic toilette needs. Strangely, it wasn't the loss of the comforts she'd become accustomed to that troubled her. She'd done without them before. It was the inevitable loneliness that she felt as the hours crawled by. There were no visitors, not even members of her family, not even a few soldiers on their way through, and she was considered by order of the Queen an enemy of the state.

Though, in comparison to her last imprisonment under the Red King Archibades, this was a cake walk in theory.

So most days she was battling her boredom and grief by entertaining thoughts of escape, fantasies of finding Jack alive and healthy, of learning that her son was to be returned to her. All the while hoping that this was nothing more than a nightmare.

Twisting a few strands of blonde hair around her fingers, Amelia ground her perfect teeth together and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. She stood up, her legs a bit shaky from lack of exercise, and kicked her cot back into the corner. The sparse furnishings made her cell seem even colder now and with a sniff of disgust, she began to pace its length. Not that it was much exercise: six strides and she had to turn and go the other way. So she made it a game, humming and banging on each jail bar as she went. Eventually, she found a rhythm and melody that suited her and she picked up the pace.

It quickly irritated the on-duty guards so much that they started to stare at her from their table and clear their throats noisily. They would have likely tried to shout at her but she still commanded some respect from them as a former Queen. So, with a grin, she began to hit every bar hard with her palm. It stung to do so but the loud metallic ring and momentary pain distracted her from more morbid thinking.

Such as thoughts about her upcoming trial.

Her crystalline eyes flicked to a standing guard, one of the two executioner guards always on duty with the regular Suits. Those guards were allowed to kill without orders and she was careful around them. This one, a Diamond by the look of his masks, almost always seemed to be sleeping and his laziness tended to grate on her nerves. She gave one of the bars a hard bang and he jumped but didn't lift his head from his chest. With a scowl that didn't detract from her beauty, she made a face at his bent head. Once it seemed that he wasn't about to pay attention, she braced both hands on the bars and arched her back, giving a faint groan when her muscles gave a relaxing stretch.

When she straightened again, she felt an intense stare and looked over at the guards. The one who'd been sleeping was watching her intently and she felt a shiver go up her spine involuntarily. Wrapping her arms around her middle, she gave them as nasty a look as she could and retreated to the other side of her cell. Maybe it would be better to do her daily exercise when the guard changed over.

Which left her with nothing to do and it was only ten in the morning. She had the sinking feeling that it meant that this day was about to get a lot longer. Maybe she'd find out some news if the guards gossiped between themselves.

The elevator doors slid open with a hiss down the small hallway and she jerked away from the wall, knowing that it could mean a visitor. Wrapping her hands around the bars, Amelia tried to see around the corner. The minute she caught a glimpse of red silk and two black-suited guards, she back-pedalled until her legs bumped the cot. She sat down heavily and neatly arranged her skirts around her legs before arching her neck proudly. All to give the picture of nobility.

Which, when the shorter but regal woman came into view, Amelia knew it was a desperately needed illusion.

"So, here we are, Duchess." Mary Elizabeth Constance Heart, one-time longest ruler in Wonderland's history, pursed her blood-red lips and arched a well-groomed brow. The look she gave was one of pure disdain.

Amelia tossed her head a bit, lifting her chin a bit more. "I am still considered Your Majesty."

The queen of Hearts smirked. "Not for long, my dear."

"I was married to your son," Amelia continued.

"An unfortunate accident, but then, that is how I used to refer to dear Jack himself," Mary stated heartlessly and she stepped close to the bars. Small a woman as she was, both her girth and her way of moving made her intimidating to most that encountered her. She exuded a vicious, cold-hearted air that had not been dulled by her time in prison. But at the mention of her beloved husband, Amelia stood and stormed over to the bars. Blind with rage, she didn't see the Suits put their hands on their gun holsters.

"Don't you dare speak his name!" Amelia shouted, reaching through the bars to try grab hold of the Queen. "You weren't worth the dirt on his boots, you heartless bitch!"

The smirk simply widened into a smile as she stepped just out of Amelia's reach. "So, you two did fall in love. How interesting, considering the pair of you used to be little more than puppets for things greater than either of you." She pushed her wide sleeves up around her elbows. With a long, red nail, she tapped her chin thoughtfully. "There was a time I thought my own dear Winston was lusting after you but then I realized something."

Her eyes narrowed a bit in memory of her own departed husband. "That he never was one for Card Trash."

"Surprising that he married you then," Amelia answered lowly and Mary's smile left her face, leaving her with a skilfully impassive expression. But the way her eyes glinted let Amelia know she'd struck a raw nerve in the older woman.

"Never doubt for a minute, girl, who it was that ruled Wonderland. And who, even as we speak, holds your life in the palm of her hand." She lifted her hand, fingers outstretched and then with a swift movement she crunched them into a red-nailed fist. "How quickly I could arrange an execution for you, though a trial is necessary but that is all for show of course. It would be especially quick to happen since we've found the true ruler of Wonderland."

Amelia's eyes widened. "What?"

"It was what I came to tell you, that and to make certain that you aren't manipulating your guards into more comforts. Comforts that you do not deserve," Mary admitted, making it seem that she was doing Amelia some great favour.

"My son?" Amelia demanded and she reached out, trying to grab hold of the Queen of Hearts by her dress again. Mary swirled her skirts around herself and gave the younger woman a nasty and predatory once-over.

"Recovered from East Wonderland. Quite healthy too and the very image of his family lineage." She pressed a hand to her chest and assumed an innocent look. "As his grandmother, I feel it quite my duty to see him brought back to the central cities so that he is raised by the soon-to-be only surviving member his father's family."

Even as she turned her back on Amelia, the Queen of Hearts could feel the other woman staring at her, her rage so palpable that it was like daggers in her back. It made her smile all the more and she snapped her fingers at a waiting guard as she walked to the door.

"Make certain that the guards are tripled on her. Since the Drawling Master stole the Stone of Wonderland - and I know it was him - I do not like the idea of this woman getting even a chance to escape to raise forces against me," she ordered and he bowed to her before leaving to go to the barracks. The Queen looked back, narrowing her eyes at the young woman who was now on her knees in the cell and was weeping with wretchedness.

"Who knows what that old man has up his sleeve now?" she muttered to herself.

South Wonderland...

The last standing door of the Drawling Manor was held up by a few burnt timbers and crumbling mortar arches. Its surface had gone from light cherry to black and was crusted over with soot. Remarkably, it was still in one piece though the rest of the Manor was in ruins. Every now and then the door would shudder as if it was being struck from the other side. With each shudder, the door splintered a bit from its frame, and the dense soot and crusty wood that kept it closed began to crack.

There was a loud creak and without much warning, the door flew open. The Drawling Master and his followers came falling through the door in a heap, all coughing violently at the dusty air. The swirling darkness on the other side of the door lashed out with tendrils of dark blue and violet and the frame shook violently as they too moved into the Manor air. The group lay in the ashes and burnt cement, eventually rolling away from one another and struggling to regain their wind. The black and violet mist clung to their clothes, lingering and climbing over their arms as if trying to find a new place to stay.

The darkness suddenly sucked the mist back into itself and the door swung shut on its own with a loud bang that caused its framework to rock dangerously. The Drawling Master pushed himself up onto his elbows and watched it. When the door remained standing, he sighed in relief and stood up slowly. The fall had agitated his old bones and he cracked his neck with a satisfying crunch.

"Good thing it's still standing," he muttered as he dusted himself off. "The last thing we need to have is the doorway collapsing and us getting stuck here. Then I certainly wouldn't hear the end of it from the women."

He looked around and gave Hatter and the others a concerned look. He was used to doorway travel but they clearly weren't, with even Pidge seeming a bit nauseous as he too got to his feet. Hatter was shaking his head rapidly, muttering something under his breath. Charlie was up and walking around... staggering around actually in a drunken way.

"By Wabe, what a feeling," the White Knight exclaimed, his eyes bright and glassy. He swayed dizzily and Pidge reached out to grab him by the arm.

"Easy. No use fainting on us, old man," Pidge ordered and Charlie blustered, wrenching his arm free.

"Now see here, villein! I am a Knight, the White Knight, and we do not do such ridiculously un-knightly things as 'fainting'," Charlie responded and then he put his head to the side. He thought about something and gave a nod. "Except, of course, in instances where such things are required in the interest of self-preservation."

Pidge goggled at him but Charlie was already off on a tangent about the occasional need for retreat. Hatter had finally stood up and was bent over at the waist, looking ready to be sick. Coming up beside him, Abel gave him a gentle clap on the shoulder. Hatter flinched, his face contracting as if the touch had hurt him, but Abel didn't seem to notice.

"Rough way of travel, eh lad?" he asked, his eyes on Hatter's face. He had seen a momentary flash of something that concerned him but it was gone before he could question it.

Hatter seemed to think it over before he straightened up and looked at the old man. "It's like travelling through the Looking Glass, except rougher. Almost like it is barely controlled version."

"So it is," Abel commented with a grin that made Hatter stare at him. There'd been something in that smile that he wasn't sure of.

It almost erased that unnatural illness he had felt travelling through the door. He had felt his vision darkening and only a stringent hold on his self-control had kept him from losing it. He hadn't felt that way since the Looking Glass Chamber and he didn't like it any better now.

"This Manor looks frighteningly similar to my home... just after the burning of the Kingdom of the Knights," Charlie commented, breaking their attention to the surroundings. The Manor was nothing more than burnt wood frame, smoke-darkened stone arches and fallen bricks now. The haze of mist and rain merely made the sight all the more depressing. The sheer size of the Manor meant that most of the grounds looked like a scorched battlefield, and what parts remained standing were skeletal and frail-looking. It was close to all falling apart, and as they all took it in, they could see the occasional brick falling into the rubble.

There was nothing left of the old, grand Manor.

Pidge glanced over at the Drawling Master, expecting to see grief on his face. But all that showed was a look of determination, as if in those few seconds he'd come to a decision.

"Nothing but rubble," Hatter whispered and he began to pick his way through. They followed him, slipping on the stone and wood and having to stagger around when something moved from under them. Once or twice, Pidge had to catch Abel from falling to a pile of fallen timber or brick though the old man waved him off grouchily. Charlie went along, muttering about old spirits of Wonderland being a match for everything but fire, but no one paid him much attention.

Bouncing up on one of remaining pedestals in what had once been the garden, Hatter squinted to see through the light rain. "Nothing."

"What did you expect?" Pidge asked as he adjusted the satchel he was carrying.

"I don't remember this place, not even like this," Hatter answered, his voice back to that strange monotone now. "But I know I was here..."

"Here to find the beasts, aren't we? It is why you came along, wasn't it?" Abel demanded to distract him. He didn't need a melancholy Hatter right now. He pointed down the lane-way. "My guess is they'll be near the pastures on the Southwest, likely just beyond the courtyard. You and Charlie go there and I'll take Pidge with me to find out what remains of this place."

"We shouldn't separate," Pidge started and Abel gave him a quick glance.

"We should," he ordered, and the look on his face cowed the taller man easily.

"Right-o. I believe that the Harbinger and I can most certainly discover the whereabouts of our precious steeds." Charlie was off before they could stop him, his odd bow-legged run carrying him remarkably fast over the ruins. Hatter rolled his eyes and followed him, barely keeping up with his own limping stride.

Pidge stepped next to his grandfather and stared after them. "You think it wise to let Charlie be alone with him?"

Abel seemed to be considering. "Well, considering the alternative of leaving you alone with him... I think I made the right choice."

Pidge made a face but it was clear that he understood the meaning. With a grunt, he started to go the opposite way, pretending not to notice Abel laughing behind him.

"You really are afraid that he'll discover anything about your more devout attentions to Alice," he commented.

"It is nothing of that sort, and I'm not afraid of him," Pidge protested and he paused mid-stride, toying with the satchel strap nervously.

"Best not to be. I'd hate to be on his bad side if this were to explode at any point. Watch yourself, Alastair." Abel watched Pidge turn back to him and they stared at one another.

"You've noticed it as well?"

"Haven't seen someone hiding themselves like that since my late wife, and she was awfully good at it," Abel admitted. He came up beside Pidge and squeezed his shoulder to comfort him. "He's your friend, Pidge, such as things are in Wonderland."


"Friendships are hard to come by here, even ones built on such shaky ground. I trust you'll be there to defend him, to help him, when the time is right. Not to let a newly discovered set of emotions to rule your usually sensible head." With a curt nod to punctuate his point, the Drawling Master stepped around the tall young man. He started to crawl over a collapsed gate, pausing mid-way up. "Now what was I looking for?"

The change in subject worked well enough, with Pidge grabbing hold of his leg and boosting him over the gate with a bit more force than he would normally do. Once he landed on the other side, Abel bounced and straightened up with the agility of a far younger man. He waited for Pidge to follow before he started off to where the conservatory wing would have been. All the while, they were both keeping an eye out for trouble.

There was a faint squawk from nearby and Abel jerked, one hand going to the knife scabbard he had strapped to his belt. The crow that was perched on one of the ruins stared back at him, its black eyes unblinking and curious. It batted its wings and squawked loudly again, recognizing him. Sighing with relief, he held his arm up and the bird immediately flew to him.

"So, you and your brothers remained here. What happened to our books and such, hmm?" he asked but the bird only stared back. With a grin, he reached out and gently stroked its chest feathers. "I trust you did what Alice asked you to do?"

The bird chirped happily and preened itself a bit. Abel shook his head. "Well, did you do what I asked you to?" When all he got was a noncommittal chirp, he snorted. " Figures. Always do things for a pretty face first."

"What did you ask them to do?" Pidge questioned casually, as if the old man talking to a bird was nothing unusual. Then again, he'd seen him talking to the Manor as if it was a person, so it wasn't that strange to him. He looked up and around, noticing that there were several crows making lazy circles high in the sky.

"Just to save some things. And to make sure that whoever attacked the Manor would regret it," Abel answered. He bounced his arm a little and the bird flew off into the ruins, its black body absorbed by the shadows. Abel eyed Pidge. "Don't you wonder why Selena isn't here?"

Pidge paled a little.

They walked in silence, narrowly dodging the crumbling bits of building and slippery patches of thick ash and mud. It was, in Pidge's opinion, as if the Manor had been pounded with bombs after they had left. It was strange; he'd been told that only a fire had gone through its many wings and buildings. Perhaps the Manor's way of protecting itself was to destroy itself completely so that no one would survive. When he noticed something shining in the ashes, he bent and picked up a few pieces of debris. It was the remnants of a very old and expensive tea set, and he turned them over in his palms with a sad sigh. Abel heard him and looked back.

"It's all right, you know." He waved his hand around casually, as if the thought of replacing everything didn't bother him. "This all gets rebuilt."

"At extraordinary cost, I'm sure," Pidge answered dryly and Abel smiled.

"Oh, the building takes care of itself, my boy. So don't worry yourself about it." Abel kicked aside a few burnt boards and turned a slow circle to gain his bearings. "Now it doesn't make sense. We're standing right in the middle of the old conservatory. Shouldn't be this..."

He scuffed at the blackened dirt with his toe and stared at it. With a whistle, he gestured down at the dirt. Obediently Pidge knelt and dug at the dirt, still feeling the heat of a long-dead fire smouldering in it. After a few moments of digging, until his hands were completely black, he glanced up at Abel and wondered what he was supposed to be looking for. The old man simply looked back at him and with an exasperated sigh, Pidge dug a bit deeper until he felt something cold. He gasped, yanking his hand back in reflex.

"Perfect!" Abel went down on his knees beside Pidge with a pained groan and began to help him dig. They worked together until there was a large pile of dirt to one side. But it was what had been under it that mattered: a shimmering white and green sapling that had been bent under the debris and dirt. It sprang up, the leaves and tiny branches unfurling as if excited to be free from the dirty.

Pidge stared in surprise. "The... it..."

"Soultree? Yes, it is." Abel tickled one of the leaves. "The Manor is certainly able to replenish itself and I know it for certain now."

The sapling shivered as if in pleasure at his touch. He bent his head and began to dig a bit more around the base of the sapling. "And which is why I need to take just a little bit of it. I need it for an ingredient."

He dug until the roots were exposed and very carefully tore a sizeable root away from the base of the sapling. The sapling shuddered violently and one of the branches on its skinny trunk immediately fell off in response, turning black once it hit the ground. Abel stroked the sapling again and murmured something under his breath. He handed the sapling's root to Pidge and stood up with a crack of his joints.

"Let's find the others."

Pidge tilted his head a bit as he put the root in his satchel. "You're not going to explain?" he asked and Abel stared back quietly. Pidge sighed and stared down at his own hands. "Course not."

Charlie eventually had to stop, bending over at the waist and heaving in deep breaths. He'd been keeping up an admirable pace, and hadn't stopped talking the entire way. He remarked on the Manor's destruction now and again, telling Hatter about what it had looked like before the fire, and wondering aloud at the mystery of the South. That he only received monosyllable answers from Hatter seemed to escape his notice and he kept chattering until he stopped.

It allowed Hatter to finally step up beside him as they came to what had once been a courtyard. There was still a fountain, decorated with an archaic gryphon statue in the middle that was spouting brackish water from its beak and wing-tips. There were a few flowers still in the tended beds, and even the hedges were standing and lining the different paths. It was the one section of the Manor's extensive grounds that didn't seem to be as ruined as the others.

"How's that for... wondrous marvels," Charlie gasped out and he wiped at his sweated forehead. Hatter eyed him and Charlie nodded to the statue. "That this would remain still intact."

"Not sure what is so wonderful 'bout it," Hatter responded as he looked around. Charlie was silent for so long that eventually Hatter glanced back at the Knight. He was staring at him with an oddly intense expression. "What?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing at all." He waved his hand in the air as if trying to find the words. "It's just... well."

"Just what, Charlie?"

"I'm used to seeing you in a hat, that's all."

Hatter stared at him, the random statement catching him off-guard. Charlie gave him a sheepish grin and turned away, missing Hatter's reluctant smile. The younger man followed him through the courtyard, both of them looking around for the horses that should have been near. This was the greenest area they had come across, with plenty of food and water, so it would make sense for them to stay here. Charlie was humming loudly and off-key, punctuating his melody with the occasional shout for Arthur.

But beyond the mist, ruins and rain, they couldn't see a sign of the horses.

"How is Guinevere?" Charlie asked suddenly and Hatter couldn't meet his eyes. The Knight seemed so trusting that it actually made him wish he'd gone alone without him.

"I don't remember, Charlie," he lied and the Knight scoffed.

"You are certainly eager to find her again. Not that I mind, you see..."

"I'm worried, Charlie, and need to be sure she's okay. I know that Guin was taking care of me. Can't explain it but she was, and I need to know why I get that feeling," Hatter explained. "I can't explain half of what I feel anymore."

Charlie's bushy brows rose high on his forehead and he blinked several times.

"You cannot tell me that you now speak the language of the equine, Harbinger. I just will not believe it, even of you," he insisted. Hatter didn't respond to that absurd statement, knowing that he couldn't explain his feelings to Charlie.

After waving Charlie's muttering to silence, he whistled sharply and they strained to hear anything. Whistling over and over again, they began to slowly walk, hoping for even just a hint or sign that the horses had been here.

It took a short time before they heard the soft clatter of hooves on cobblestone and out of the shadows came Arthur and Guinevere in slow procession. They were both still tacked up, their reins dragging sticks and brush along underneath them, and there was soot coating their legs. But they seemed to be walking fine and without any clear sign of injury. The grey gelding neighed in delight at the sight of his master, his large ears flopping back and forth. Charlie immediately went to Arthur and rubbed his neck affectionately.

"What a lad, I knew you'd be okay." Charlie cooed at his horse and Arthur grunted in pleasure as his ears were scratched.

Hatter was staring at Guinevere, shock keeping him silent at the sight of the thin and unhappy horse. "Oh Guin," he whispered and slowly approached her. Now that she was closer he could see that she had some superficial cuts on her legs, likely from wandering through the debris.

As he stepped closer, her ears flicked back and forth and she shook her head. The mare's eyes rolled till the whites of them showed, and she jerked back when Hatter tried to catch her reins. She whinnied in actual fear, though Hatter knew he would not have hurt her. He would have remembered it, he knew. Tossing her head, she snorted and began to paw at the ground furiously.

"Easy, easy," Hatter crooned to her, his hand outstretched to her nose. He could feel Charlie watching them and it made him more desperate to coax the mare. "It's me, darlin'."

He just touched the velvety smoothness of her muzzle and she snorted again, a blast of hot air to warn him. Guinevere's ears flattened to her skull and she half-reared, striking out. Her teeth snapped at him and Hatter felt the sharp bite of teeth on his hand. He jerked his hand out of the way and shook it, waiting for her to turn her head. Despite the sharp pain in his hand, he didn't relent, but dodged her flailing hooves and grabbed hold of her bridle's cheek-piece. Guinevere shook her head and he pulled her head down gently.

"Guinevere, I won't hurt you," he whispered and the softness of his voice froze the mare in her place. "Easy, easy."

She was still shaking but her ears were pricked forward, as if she was desperate to hear his voice. Hatter slid his hands to either side of her jowls and was stunned when the mare actually seemed to be staring him down. Her large brown eyes locked with his and Hatter felt an odd sensation go through him and right down to his toes. It was like the mare was staring into him now and waiting for him to explain the past month.

"I'm sorry," he apologized, loud enough for Charlie to hear though Hatter's eyes did not move from Guinevere's equine stare. Eventually, Charlie came up beside them and laid a trembling hand on Guinevere's neck. The Knight's own jaw was ticking and he was clearly about to say something cutting now that he had seen the rough shape the poor horse was in. Hatter shook his head. "Charlie... please."

Something in the way Hatter spoke made Charlie turn back to Arthur though it was with some effort. "I know, Hatter, you'd not hurt her normally but you were also not yourself. If you did indeed lose that kind part of you, who knows what damage could have been done?" He turned to look when he heard Guinevere give a blasting snort and saw that the mare was watching Hatter warily. She was rubbing her nose over his hands and smelling him at the same time, as if deciding something about him.

"So I will forgive you for her shabby treatment, for what happened that couldn't be controlled," Charlie continued. "But I am not so certain it will be as easy for you to regain her trust."

There was an underlying meaning in his words and Hatter knew that it wasn't just Guinevere that Charlie was referring to. Once again, the Knight was showing more insight into how Hatter himself was thinking. Forgiveness, Hatter decided, was something that he wasn't even sure that he could have quite yet.

He wasn't even sure he could forgive himself yet, not until he had some answers... some knowledge of everything that had been done in the past month. Answers he needed.

Grasping Guinevere by her bridle, Hatter began to lead her through the ruins. "Come on, Charlie. I don't know about you but this place gives me the creeps," he said softly and without argument Charlie followed him, secretly just as glad to be leaving. The once beautiful Manor now was little more than a tomb and he didn't relish the thought of experiencing more of its strangeness. Things were strange enough as it was, even for him.

Chapter Text

Despite the frequent occurrence of strange events that happened on a daily basis in Wonderland, the sight of two horses in the kitchen was almost too much and too soon after the strangeness of the past few week. Alice, intent on finding something for a dinner she wasn't actually hungry for, had come in at the worst possible moment and nearly been knocked over in the process. The pantry door had burst open with a loud vacuum sound and immediately the entire kitchen was in chaos as dark and light tendrils whipped out in brutal gusts. A chestnut mare and grey gelding appeared from it, whinnying to one another as they escaped the darkness. The horses skittered on the cobblestone floor, banging into tables and dishes as they headed to the open rear door. Alice could only stare stupidly at them, still holding a forgotten slice of bread in one hand and wondering at her luck in not being run over.

"Guinevere?" she asked once she recognized the chestnut mare who was throwing such a fuss on her way out. The mare spared her a passing look and neigh before immediately trotting to the rear garden door, and she gave the door a vicious kick as she passed it. Arthur plodded along through the kitchen, giving Alice a loud brassy neigh in greeting before following his herd-mate.

On the other side of the kitchen, Carol had jumped onto the counter to avoid being run over and she planted her hands on her hips. She had to duck to avoid knocking herself out on the ceiling struts but she managed to stand straight enough to look imposing.

"Oh really, this is getting silly, Alice. We can't even have something to eat without being interrupted," she commented but she was smiling, amused by the chaos around her and mostly because of what she noticed on Alice's face. For once, she'd seen Alice actually look stunned by the happenings. Strangely, the thought of her daughter still being able to be surprised made her day.

It might mean that she isn't as jaded as she likes to put across sometimes, Carol thought to herself, knowing better than to voice that thought out loud.

Alice closed her mouth eventually and huffed impatiently, crossing her arms over her chest. She stared at the door with one hip cocked to the side and began to tap her fingers on her arms, her jaw tensing as the time passed. She hadn't forgotten how furious she'd been when she found the house empty except for herself and her mother. Who knew where Abigail was anyway? She'd been in a self-imposed hiding for the past day and Alice didn't often obsess over her absences because she didn't have the time to worry about everyone. It was the thought that she'd been left behind that had made Alice stalk up and down the halls, growling out loud angrily a tirade against the male species.

She was more than ready for a fight when the dark pantry closet finally spewed out four men in a heap at her feet.

Charlie rolled to his back and coughed harshly. He was only wearing his linen white clothing and it was covered in soot and dirt. Once he'd cleared his lungs, he beamed happily and declared in a cheery voice, "I say, we should do that again!"

"'Cor, bloody Wonderland, absolutely not," the Drawling Master answered, his voice muffled by the floor. He was somewhere underneath Pidge's taller frame and had his nose almost planted into the cobblestone. "Felt rougher that time. I wonder if the door fell apart after we left."

Pidge groaned and dislodged Charlie's heel from his armpit. "So you're saying we would have been trapped in that?"

"High possibility," replied the older man as he wormed his way from under Pidge. Lying to the side, Hatter grunted as he was nudged in the side by the Drawling Master's sharp toe. "Sorry, boy. Keep forgettin' about those ribs of yours... and every other wound that seems to be decoratin' that battered body of yours."

"Yeah yeah, sure," Hatter muttered as he rolled to his stomach and pushed himself onto his elbows and knees. For a moment he debated on throwing up but both the emptiness in his stomach and the gradual ease of nausea he felt ended that decision before he could follow through. With a groan, he lifted his head and immediately froze in place. His eyes caught sight of a very scuffed and worn pair of black calf-high boots, and one of the boots was tapping an impatient rhythm that he knew meant trouble. Swallowing hard, he looked up and into Alice's furious eyes. Her anger was very clear even to him, especially since her eyes were now icy blue and almost blazing with emotion. She stared back at him for a second before focussing on Able and Pidge.

"And just where were you?" she asked shrewishly, her voice high and tight.

"Oh, here and there, you know..." Pidge began, waving his hand as if that explained everything.

"No, I don't. Explain. Now."

Abel stood up and stretched with creaking joints before pressing one hand above his heart. "It's all right, lass. We just had to go the Manor, that's all."

"That's all? You went back to the Manor?" Alice demanded. Both Pidge and Able winced at the higher pitch in her voice, instinctively knowing they were in trouble. "You went back to a burnt ruin, where you could have been killed?"

"Ah, but we weren't!" Pidge pointed out as if that would ease her anger.

"Shut. Up." Alice glared at him and he actually cringed at her tone of voice. Still crouching near her feet, Hatter tested the now soaking wet bandages on his sides and felt the blood oozing from his old wounds. But, even injured and aching as he was, he knew better than to try to escape Alice when she was angry. She focussed again on Abel, her blue eyes pinning him in place before he could try to move away. Her voice dropped slightly as she stepped toward him. "You went to the Manor, left me behind, with no inkling as to where you all decided to go."

"We thought we'd be back sooner," Abel began apologetically.

"So that I wouldn't know you were gone? Alice snorted. "That's not my point. You went and took... Hatter, who is clearly still hurting. You were risking everyone else as well to visit a place we only just had escaped from."

"He didn't want to be left behind, Alice," Pidge interjected to defend his grandfather. From his place on the floor, Charlie looked ready to pipe up but wisely stopped himself in time.

Alice ignored Pidge, and Abel actually took a step back when he saw the look she was giving him. "All of you have a habit of risking lives but sometimes none of you actually think. Perhaps I should have locked that pantry door, like I had planned to keep the mice out. Then where would you have been, hmm? Trapped in some void between doors and likely dying, that's where."

Still standing on the counter, Carol fidgeted while she tried to hide the fact that she couldn't stop smiling. Alice was sounding more like a worried mother than an independent woman who had never once thought twice about putting herself in danger. Motherly protectiveness was something that Alice, as a teenager, had always yelled rebelliously that she would never act with.

Realizing how stupid it looked to stand on the counter, Carol waved her hand at Pidge. He sighed and went over to her, grabbing her hands and helping her bounce to the ground among the broken dishes and overturned chairs. She smiled at him in thanks and took a spot behind Alice so that her daughter wouldn't see her amused expression. Pidge frowned at her smiling but didn't comment on it.

"If I thought we were about to be in any sort of danger, Alice, only I would have been going," Abel responded, feeling about fifty years younger under her accusations.

"I would not let them fall to harm, Justalice!" Charlie declared as he used the table to pull himself up. "After all, I am a Knight of the highest order, dutifully sworn to protect the weak and helpless."

Both Pidge and Abel began to argue that they were not helpless, their voices overlapping with increasing volume as they detailed the reasons why. Charlie's statement had turned the argument around so abruptly that Alice was struggling to think of how to keep chastising them all and how to keep from laughing. It would ruin her scolding to laugh, she knew, and they all deserved it.

"Thanks, Charlie, you just made me feel so much better. Not only that but you gave me a new blasted headache," Hatter muttered as he stayed on his knees and Alice jumped as if his words had stunned her. It wasn't that she'd forgotten that he was there. His dry voice made her realize that she hadn't heard him speak since the Manor. Ignoring the others now arguing around her, Alice swept her skirts tight to her legs and crouched beside him.

"Hatter? Are you okay?" she whispered, holding out one hand expectantly but he didn't take it. She waited for him to let go of his side but he remained holding it, as if protecting himself. Reaching out, she grasped his hand to make him pull it away but he resisted her, jerking his hand from her touch. But Alice had felt the warm moisture on his hand and she pressed her hand to his other side. Hatter hissed and his head jerked up.

If anyone had bothered to look at him, they would have warned Alice away from the hurt man. But they were all so caught up in their bickering that it passed without notice. Eventually, his expression became stony and he stared at Alice intently, only seeing the dark hair that swung into his vision when she bent closer.

Alice didn't look at him, gently peeling aside the bandages on his side. "You're still hurting, aren't you? These are soaked."

"No kidding," he responded sarcastically. "Could be what the blood is."

"Did you have to go?" Alice asked instead of responding to his sarcasm. As she tried to readjust the bandages more firmly against him, she became aware that he was shaking under her hand. But whether it was from the travel through the door or her proximity she wasn't sure. When she pulled her hand back her palm was damp with sweat and blood. "Hatter..."

"I'll be fine." He jerked his shirt closed and grimaced.

"You don't look..." she started as she laid a hand on his. Hatter pulled his hand away as if her touch burned him and looked up. Alice couldn't help but flinch, feeling like he had burned her. At her reaction, he looked back at her and she stared for a moment, forgetting her hurt. Hatter's eyes were a deep forest green and the change it made in his face, making him seem more severe and dark, made her stand back up.

As if he could see what his look had done to her, Hatter looked back down and swiped his hand over the back of his neck.

"I'll be fine."

That said, he stood and adjusted his shirt sleeves. Alice bit into her lower lip and turned around to where Abel and Pidge had ceased arguing and were trying to help Carol put the table back up. The White Knight was coming back in, carrying a load of tack in both arms and almost falling over with the effort. He dropped it in a heap and smiled widely at her.

"The horses seem most happy, which is a pleasure to see," Charlie remarked as he looked out the massive rear windows. He leaned up and wiped his hand over the dirt and condensation to give a better view and Alice joined him, giving him a weak smile.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you, Charlie."

"There are far worse things, Alice," he said and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He squeezed her affectionately. "I rather like your concern."

Managing a smile, Alice looked out with him into the yard. Guinevere had actually lain down on her belly and was grazing on the overgrown grass surrounding her, while Arthur was dozing near the dead rose bushes. Every now and then Guinevere would look up, looking jumpy and ready to leap up to run. But eventually, exhaustion and hunger would make her just put her head back down and eat. Eventually, she too stretched out in the graze as if the mere act of eating was tiring.

"Where did you find them?" she asked and the Knight shrugged. "Hatter did," he offered and she looked over her shoulder at him. He was staring at Pidge intently and Alice followed his line of sight. There was nothing outwardly odd about the taller man but Hatter's look made Alice wonder.

Then she saw it, a small detail that had escaped everyone's notice till now. The satchel slung around Pidge's hips was rocking a bit and the longer she looked the more it moved, though it wasn't strong enough to actually make Pidge aware of it as he moved the tables. Suddenly, a green vine began to peek out from the flap and started to wind its way down to the floor. Once it felt the cobblestones, the vine suddenly began to crawl quickly along the floor like a worm.

"Pidge?" Alice called out and when he looked over at her she pointed down to the vine. He yelled and threw the satchel off just as more vines began to shoot out, glowing different colours and spinning and rolling on the ground. Abel jumped out of the way by landing onto the table and the satchel seemed to crawl out of the room on its own. With the same action as a bug crawling to escape, the satchel disappeared through the door, leaving them all to stare after it.

Stunned silence kept the kitchen quiet and they all looked at each other in confusion.

"So... that wasn't a hallucination?" Hatter asked suddenly to break the quiet. They all looked at him but he was looking at his bloody hands. "Just need to be sure. It's been a very confusing month or so."

That darkly humorous way of talking should have made them all smile but Abel was already hopping out the door with the others right behind him. Alice went to follow them but paused at the door, glancing over at Hatter. He'd removed his shirt and was standing at the one remaining basin. With one hand on the door, Alice found that she couldn't look away from the sight of him. Hatter had always been thin but the sight of him rail thin and marked with a furious set of scars and fresh wounds was almost too much. There was such pain showing just on the surface of his body that she wondered just how deeply these new scars went into him.

Hatter's head turned to the side, as if he felt her looking, but he didn't actually look at her.

Alice sighed and followed her mother into the gardens.

The satchel had implanted itself into the ground near the high hedge fence and the ground was rumbling under it loudly. The bottom of the heavy bag had been ripped apart and a small tree was already sprouting from between it and the ground. The sapling was a miniature version of the one Alice had see in the Manor Conservatory; only it wasn't glowing as brightly.

Abel reached out to touch one of the shimmering leaves and hissed as if he'd been shocked. "Well," he rubbed his fingers on his jacket, "at the very least the transfusion works."

"Transfusion?" Carol looked at him as she crouched down and stared at the tree. Its roots were beginning to dig themselves deeper and deeper into the ground and the sapling's trunk was twisting like a spiral. It was growing again, from what she could tell, and the shimmering was becoming more like a rainbow of colouring.

"Well, the soultrees are so rarely transferable between locations as whole trees. So it needed only a portion to be planted. This is exciting that it is working again," Abel exclaimed with the eagerness of a young child. "Just a matter of seeing if everything else transfers well or if this is the only portion that can be moved. If so, it is back to square one and I'm not sure I remember the steps to that square."

Pidge and Alice both sent him equally odd looks, wondering what he was really up to. Either unaware or uncaring that he was talking in riddles, Carol was busy packing dirt around the base of the sapling. Once she was satisfied that it was packed deeply and properly, she stood and scuffed her toe along the grass along its still raised roots.

"It is getting harder to be surprised by anything," she admitted, looking up and catching Alice's eye. Alice could only give her mother a smile before looking around the overgrown garden. Charlie had moved away from them and was standing at a murky pond that coated with algae and leaves. He looked puzzled and was stroking his neatly trimmed beard with the air of a professor about to give a speech.

She could hear her mother starting to ask questions about the tree but something in Charlie's changed posture made Alice wonder what was going through his head. Not knowing anything better to do, she went to the Knight and squeezed his hand when she came beside him. Charlie shot her a quick, confused look before his attention went back to the pond. He cleared his throat noisily but when nothing came out, Alice let his hand go and gave him a gentle nudge with her elbow.

"Charlie? You okay?"

"Well, yes." He stopped himself and frowned.

"But?" Alice prompted, knowing that something else was bothering him.

"I just saw something in the water. And it was most certainly not a fish." He pointed and drew a big circle in the air as if to map out the location of what he'd seen. Alice looked as well but frowned.

"Charlie, maybe you're just tired..." she started but then she saw it as well. Like a mirror reflection, she saw Unda's form in the pool; she'd recognize those eyes anywhere after being haunted by them for the past month. Even through the algae, the phantom's rippled image managed to look like a lost, drowning girl as she twisted this way and that in the water. Alice stared hard and the reflection sudden;y seemed to turn around to stare at her directly. Then Unda smiled and with a sly wink she faded from view, as if sharing a joke with Alice.

A joke Alice wasn't sure she actually understood.

"I wonder who that is?" Charlie asked aloud.

"Who what is?" Pidge's voice, smooth but loud, made Alice jump in her place and whip around. He was so close to her that she almost stumbled back but he caught her elbow with his hand, his grip gentle yet strong. Alice stared at him as he kept his hand on her arm and he met her eyes in a friendly way though something else, newer and stronger, seemed to be in his stare. Something in his gaze unsettled her and she looked away.

"As I was saying to Alice, there was a woman in the water," Charlie said, pointing again to the pond. Pidge looked over Alice's head and frowned.

"I don't see anything. Maybe Alice is right, Charlie, and there's no one there. It was a long day for us all..."

"You think I'm mad," the Knight commented. "I can read it in your eyes, Villein."

"I've asked you time and time again not to call me that," Pidge protested and Alice smiled, shaking her head.

"Give up, Pidge. He's been calling Hatter the Harbinger even though Hatter's been threatening him for well over a year."

"Harbinger is much better than being called 'Villein'," Pidge pointed out.

Alice grinned. "He called him Vassal too, so count your blessings that it doesn't get worse." Gently, she removed her arm from his grip and turned around, ignoring his grumbling about nicknames. "But I saw it too, Charlie."

Her eyes went to the Drawling Master, who appeared to be telling Carol something important by the way she was intently staring at him.

"And I'm starting to think that it isn't a coincidence." With a sudden desperate need for answers, Alice started towards Abel and her mother. It was only a matter of steps and she was sure she could corner the old man before he could slip away from her again. But grey mist suddenly swirled around her feet, causing her to jerk to a halt with a frustrated groan. The sight of the Cheshire Cat, his head the only thing appearing in the air, did nothing to ease her determination or her annoyance in being thwarted.

"What?" she snapped and the cat's green eyes slid over her face.

"You could be more polite," he pointed out as if her rudeness had offended him. Alice gave a dry chuckle void of any humour and Chesh's head rotated upside down. Like two big shutters, his eyes blinked. "After all, I have been of great help lately and you've not had to use your charm bracelet to threaten me."

"If you're looking for a reward, Chesh, now is a really bad time to ask me for it," Alice countered and Chesh's eyes rolled around.

"Hardly, my dear. Even I know better than to interfere with you when you are feeling... moody. Which seems to be more and more frequent these days, I might add. It must be your current 'condition' that makes you so."

"Can you please get to the point?"

Chesh rotated his head back to a more normal angle and his neck appeared, though his body was still invisible. "What I had come to say before your bout of rudeness was that someone had best return to the house," he explained loudly.

That caught everyone's attention and they all stared at him.

"There is, as one old saying would go, someone who is as mad as a hatter. Someone who is, at this very moment, demonstrating just why that saying came into existence. If you catch my drift that is. Considering the utter lack of intelligence around here, I would not be surprised if you didn't," Chesh rambled. Alice and Pidge glanced at each other before they started running back to the house, Abel following with a bit less speed. Charlie paused before following them, glaring at the cat.

"One would hope that you demonstrated more grace when it comes to referring to Alice's Harbinger," he admonished but the cat turned suddenly serious eyes on him.

"I don't think we have time for niceties, Knight." Chesh evaporated instantly, leaving a grey mist swirling where he'd once been.

Alice and Pidge ran at full speed back up into the house, Alice getting the lead on him despite his longer legs. She skidded to a halt as they came into the destroyed kitchen and he narrowly missed crashing into her though she didn't notice. The kitchen didn't seem like it had changed at all beyond the overturned chairs and broken dishes, but now there were splotches of blood that had been dripped onto the floor. The kitchen itself was empty though and eerily quiet. Pidge took a careful walk around its perimeter and checked the pantry again. It had become a simple closet once more, filled only with food and some supplies, and there was no sign that it had been used for anything beyond storage.

Abel came in, heaving for breath, and he wiped a hand across his sweated face. He tilted his head on the side and listened intently. "Bit quiet, isn't it?" he asked finally and Pidge nodded.

"Suppose it's lucky that this townhouse block is abandoned on all sides. Be bad for the neighbours to hear the ruckus we tend to cause."

Abel grinned. "I hardly think that neighbourly relations are at the top of our list of..."

"Oh do shut up," Chesh said as he materialized beside Alice on the low counter. "Why in Wonderland do you assume that just because you don't see Hatter in this room that he isn't causing problems?"

Alice looked at him. "Where is he?"

The large eyes rolled up to the ceiling. "Second level, the old study." Chesh paused uneasily, his tail twitching. "Or what's left of it. I didn't... want to go up there." Despite his animal body, he managed to look uncomfortable in admitting that he was a bit frightened.

"Right," Alice whispered and she patted her shoulders. The Cheshire took the hint and leapt to his old place, disappearing once again. Alice took a strange comfort in his familiar weight, knowing that she might need his old magic to help her again.

Though she wasn't sure she had the strength to face Hatter's madness if that indeed was the problem. Not yet, not again.

"Maybe we should go," Pidge offered but Alice was already at the narrow stairwell that led upstairs. He sighed in exasperation, and knew that there was no point in arguing with Alice when Hatter was involved. He followed her like an obedient dog, inwardly cursing himself for this need to protect her. He caught Abel's eye as the Drawling Master plodded up the stairs behind him and the old man cocked an eyebrow that spoke volumes.

The second landing was just as quiet as the kitchen but as they went through the narrow halls they could all hear the faint sound of muttering. Alice looked around, and a sudden thought struck her. She whirled past Pidge and grabbed hold of Abel's arm.

"Lady Drawling, where is she?" she demanded softly and his eyes met hers. It took him only a moment to realize just what she was inferring. If Hatter had seen his mother it could push him over the edge... it could lead him to even kill for all they knew.

But he shook his head, grateful for once for his daughter's eccentricities. "She's gone deeper into the Metropolis, to see if she can find any other survivors from the last quake that went through here. I didn't want her to go but now... I'm thankful."

Pidge looked at them both, confused. "Anyone want to fill me in?"

"Later," Alice and Abel said in unison and he sighed.

"Not like I ever know what's goin' on. Just here to protect and serve, I am." He pushed ahead, pausing outside the study door. Cracking open the door a few inches, he peered in and felt Alice move under his arm to look as well.

The study looked as if it had been torn apart by a whirlwind, with books and papers strewn all over the hardwood floor. The desk was overturned and there were broken chairs that had been thrown against the wall. Several sections of wall had been punched, repeatedly it seemed. The only thing undisturbed was the fireplace, a decent sized fire crackling away on old wood logs, and sitting before it on the floor was Hatter.

Pidge grabbed hold of Alice's collar when she tried to slip by him and with a sharp gesture he wordlessly warned her not to rush in. Not liking being grabbed like a disobedient puppy, Alice glared back at him but did as he ordered, walking a wide circle toward the fireplace and Hatter. He was sitting cross-legged with his head buried in his hands, the faint sound of muttering coming from him.

Alice took a moment to study him and felt a hollow ache of pity. The fire's glow only highlighted the thinness in him and he was still shirtless, a sign that he'd gone to the study just after she'd left him in the kitchen. The light danced over his scars and as she took a few steps closer, Alice saw that he was bleeding from the wounds on his ribs and chest. She lifted her eyes to Pidge and he shook his head.

"Well, he did a fair number on some of my papers, I admit," Abel said loudly as he came into the room, ignoring Alice's and Pidge's attempts at stealth. Hatter jerked and made an odd sound in his throat, his hands wrapping in his still dreaded and knotted hair. The warm firelight made his short growth of beard look like it was stained with blood and the sight was disturbing.

"Must you?" Pidge asked his grandfather and Abel snorted.

"No use in tip-toeing around the boy." He jerked his thumb at where Hatter sat. "He's perfectly aware you're here."

Ignoring them, Alice crept closer to Hatter and knelt beside him. He was taking deep, shaking breaths through his nose as if he was trying to stop himself from hyperventilating. "Hatter?" she tried, wanting to touch him but not daring to. "Are you all right?"

"All right. What's all right but just the same as everyday?" he muttered aloud. "I'd kill for an every day but it hardly seems to be the time or place anymore."

Abel approached from behind. "Hatter, I need to ask you a question and it cannot wait."

Staring at Hatter, Alice rapidly drew her own conclusions and she felt a fresh flush of hot rage. "You took him back with you deliberately!"

Abel stared at her. "Yes."

"To provoke him into remembering!"


Pidge stared aghast at his grandfather, for once siding with Alice. "How could you? You saw what he suffered."

"And I saw what he caused and I know what will happen if I do not find out everything he told them," Abel responded. "I am willing to dare a little more to prevent Wonderland's destruction."

Pidge had no words and couldn't think of anything remotely clever in response to the Drawling Master's callousness. He'd long admired his grandfather as an honourable if not a very eccentric man but now he was seeing a side to him that was as ruthless as any Heart Queen. He didn't like it either.

Ignoring the sudden tense air around the room, Abel stepped closer behind Hatter.

"You remember the Manor, lad?" Hatter gave a jerk of a nod and trembled as if the memory hurt him. "Do you remember how you got there? Why?"

Hatter's gaze stayed on the fireplace but Alice saw the blankness on his face from her place near him.

"We were there to gather ingredients, to... destroy illusions," he whispered. He lifted one hand and seemed to address it. "So says one hand to the other to do the dirty work and yet the other one never knows why."

"Do you know who Selena was working for exactly?"

"Never cared for knowing too little or too much. Too much was stored inside the trap as it was," Hatter commented. "Snake in the grass, finding the eggs for the bird. Or eggs of the birds." His head snapped to the side and he stared up at Pidge. "Or the hearts of them. Or to help the bird eat other birds."

Pidge backed up a few steps, something in Hatter's vicious gaze making him uneasy.

"Do you remember what she wanted?" Abel asked and Hatter looked away from Pidge. His entire body shuddered so hard that his feet jerked on the floor and Alice watched the movement of his bare skin.

"Stop this," she said, looking over at the Drawling Master to try to plead with him.

"Motivations are better left unsaid but what's the point? Said is said and done is done," Hatter stated firmly, as if it explained everything. "Gateways can only be created when you give life to them, is what I told her and I stand by it."

As Alice watched, she saw his eyes dart frantically around the fireplace. His hands went back to his head and he raked his fingers hard through his hair.

"Wonderland, I hate this!" he shouted, the volume of his voice making them all jump while he managed to get to his feet. The pain in his expressions almost matched the agonized way he staggered to the large bay window, and he clutched at the edge of its seat desperately. He looked ready to drop and, shooting a murderous look at the Drawling Master, Pidge quickly went to him.

"Hatter, it's all right, you don't need to remember," he said, gripping Hatter's shoulder. He felt the other man's skin jump at the contact and Hatter shook his head, still staring at the bay seat.

"I need to and I don't need to, don't want to. But I have to," Hatter started before his words became jumbled and his voice took on a more frantic note. Pidge shook his shoulder.

"Hatter, calm down," he ordered, trying to shake the shorter man out of it. Hatter suddenly snapped, one hand lifting from the seat. Pidge saw it coming too late and the sound of Hatter's right hand meeting his cheek was like a crack of gunfire. The tall man crumpled under the blow, and he went down into an unconscious heap. Alice cried out and Abel stared, stunned by the change in Hatter. The other man had turned away from them and was slamming his fist repeatedly into the wall.

Chesh leapt down from Alice's shoulder and materialized at her feet. Frantically trying to decide what to do, Alice looked down at him and met his calm stare. Something in his gaze steadied her enough that she could think rationally. Pidge was lying on the floor; he was dazed but thankfully Hatter had not hit him hard enough to cause real damage. But with him out of the picture, she really had no other real option.

Hatter's voice was constantly changing now and the rhymes coming from him were frantic, as if he was trying to calm down his own hysteria and failing miserably. Alice saw that his hand, the one he was using to slam into the wall, was coated in blood and wood slices. She knew that Hatter might not stop until he did even worse damage, perhaps until he mangled his hands past the point of repair. Closing her eyes, Alice took a deep breath in and then opened them again.

She clenched her jaw and dove for him. There was no point in trying to use her strength on him so she simply pressed into his back and held on for her life.

"Hatter, Hatter," she repeated over and over, grabbing hold of his arm. She didn't stop him from punishing the wall for whatever sin he thought it'd committed but merely held onto him. The bare skin under her fingers was icy cold though it was sweaty and she slid her glow around him, using her own feelings of fear to draw him back. Slowly, second by second, the blows to the wall became less punishing, less forceful, and Hatter's body became weaker.

Still repeating his name, Alice slid her fingers around his wrist and forcibly stopped him from hitting the wall again. Hatter's eyes lifted to hers, dark and pained, and Alice bit into her lower lip.

"I'm sorry," she whispered and let her power lash out between them. It struck him so hard that he was unconscious before he hit the floor.

Chapter Text

The narrow interior of the townhouse had left little room for any large rooms, and even less for luxuries. It was drafty and cold, and more often than not its interior smelled of old must and smoke. There was no place to retreat properly nor any luxuries like a full bathroom or decent sized bedroom. The only space that was spared was only for the mass amounts of paper and books that had been stored here over the years. It was not a home made for true privacy and when privacy was found, it was hoarded in the days they'd all been there. It made them all agitated, to have to share such a limited amount of space, and more than once they'd all had had a blow-up or two at least once a day.

Alice found solace in the single shower room they had, a tiny waterproof closet that was dim and tightly enclosed. Normally, it might have made her claustrophobic to be in such a small shower. Now, however, it gave her some relief to be alone and she had been in the shower for well over twenty minutes with no desire to leave. The pounding water was harsh and hot, stinging at her shoulder blades, and while it was a pleasure to be clean, she found no real reward in it. She hadn't come here to wash but to just avoid the renewed arguments and fury of the others about the dangers they were in.

She'd retreated so that they would not see how her own strength was crumbling.

She'd come here to cry, the way she'd been doing so for the past week since Hatter's brief relapse.

Not sure how long she'd been crying for, but knowing she might run out of tears sooner or later, Alice leaned her head against the wall and tried hard to relax. But the stinging water did nothing to help her feel punished for what she'd done; whether it was necessary or not to hurt him, she felt the pain she'd caused. She had no one to talk to about it, she figured, and she couldn't think of how to bring it up to the people around her without having to take a side in what was to be done.

After the mixture of Alice's glow and Chesh's added influence had finally subsided, there had been a strange quiet in the house once Hatter had been knocked to sleep. No one had dared speak, afraid of waking him up, though Alice wasn't sure what she could say. Hatter had been carried to another bedroom, more open so that, as Abel had claimed, he'd not feel enclosed nor as caged. Pidge had stood up with no more than a swollen jaw and a contrite attitude, and eventually they had to explain everything to Charlie and Carol.

None of them had been able to agree what had really been the cause of everything or who was in the wrong.

Now they were coming to the true crux of the matter. The longer they stayed in the townhouse, hiding, the more danger they put Wonderland in. The few people who stayed in the dying Metropolis had brought news of more destroyed lands, places that simply fell into a pit of darkness, and of people who were falling ill with no explanation as to why. From the North, the Crows brought reports from Abel's spies that the Queen was executing any who dared to question her or even was suspected of treason. There was no Resistance to this atrocity and there was no real way of bringing it back; not yet at least.

They had to move on and they may have to travel light, Abel had told Alice at breakfast before rolling his eyes up to the ceiling and she knew what he'd meant. They couldn't move with Hatter like this, couldn't risk him in the open where the possibility madness would be a severe crutch in gathering Resistance fighters. Hatter had killed people, had helped track them down, and even though he'd been drugged and under tortured influence, that might not matter to those who would still be feeling the bite of Selena's razing of the South. They needed a saner version of Hatter, the Drawling Master had explained, a version once more in control, or they'd be just walking into disaster.

Alice's argument that he'd simply recreated the problem by letting Hatter go back to the Manor had fallen on deaf ears and she'd spent most of her afternoon in the garden with the horses. She didn't trust herself not to go flying off the handle at the old man. She wasn't just angry at what he had done, but that he might be right about Hatter and that leaving him would be necessary.

Turning off the water, Alice sniffed loudly before she brushed her hand over her cheeks and smoothed them down her neck, feeling the weight of Abigail's necklace still there. It was supposed to be a good luck charm, one to protect her, but it wasn't doing much good right now. Her problems never seemed to go away, she thought to herself as she grabbed her towel and began to roughly dry herself. As her hands swept over her shoulders, she felt the raised ridges of her gryphon mark rippling along her skin and the feel of it made her shudder. She'd felt sick after using her glow and now figured that it was the marking warning her that she was still too tired to keep using her power.

But her mind was more troubled about her surroundings and the people in them than it was with her magic. She was now also contending with Pidge and Chesh in equal bouts and neither one made her comfortable. Chesh had proven that a cat could be both sarcastic and incredibly depressing at the same time in their few conversations and she tried to avoid him as much as possible.

But even that didn't bother her as much as the tall man who she'd considered as a friend. Pidge presented the greater of her problems and part of it was because she was feeling so low that she wasn't sure she could trust herself. Not around him right now when her spirits were down. She'd first thought he'd only been wanting to make her laugh but now it wasn't feeling that way.

He'd cornered her in the kitchen several days after Hatter's relapse and set about making her laugh with stories about the education the Resistance had tried to instil in their members. It had made her laugh, Alice admitted as she thought over the interaction.

They had been re-stacking the repaired dishes together, Pidge reaching into the top shelves. Alice had taken up the task of putting the wrecked kitchen to rights but it was more to keep herself busy than an urge to clean. He'd asked her about what she'd learned in her schools, a random question that had startled her into wondering in return what he'd learned. Pidge had been delighted in her question, she remembered, and had asked her what she thought they had learned.

"I would have thought you all would learn the basics," she'd said to him. "Math, reading, those sorts of things."

Pidge shrugged and reached over her head to put one of the plates on the top shelf of the pantry. "Well, in Wonderland, we learn rudimentary things in the state schools. But things change as you get older. If you stayed with the Queen's Service, you learned things like 'how many minutes does it take to torture someone with an ear-worm before they break?'"

At her cocked brow he'd grinned. "So I've heard, not through any specific experience. Now in the Resistance, because the teachers are less specialized and you are being taught to be a spy and infiltrator, you learn more."

He ticked off the items on one hand as he grabbed another dishes and moved around her. Alice dried her hands, and for once she had felt a bit light-hearted with this easy conversation.

"You learn arithmetic, writing in four languages, reading plant signs and building layouts, ambition setting, quadrille dance, treacle well dipping, that sort of thing," he'd explained. Alice had chuckled.

"I can't imagine you dancing," she admitted. The tea towel was suddenly whisked out of her hand and Pidge had leaned over her, suddenly grinning a sort of grin that made her breath still.

"Oh I'm very good at dancing," he had countered and she'd known it wasn't dancing he was really referring to.

Alice shuddered and put her hand on her stomach. The soft swell there, reappearing again as each day went by, steadied her and she swayed on her feet. There'd been no doubt in her mind that Pidge's attentions had turned less friendly and more flirty in the past few days and she'd avoided him for the rest of the day. It was her own despondency and hurt from Hatter's rejection of her touch that had caused to seek Pidge out in the first place; he didn't mind her around. It had flattered her, to be wanted, but she was regretting that flattery now.

Hatter, on the other hand, hadn't left the room he'd been placed in. Certainly he didn't seek her out for any conversation. He only came out to shower or to retrieve a new book from the basement library. He'd been through at least twenty volumes of history and, never knowing him to be so studious before, Alice had found that change strange.

Not any stranger than normal maybe, she thought to herself, maybe he's recreating tea formulas again. That delightfully silly idea made her shake her head and she decided that she was spending too much time alone. As she squeezed the water from her hair, she glimpsed her reflection in the mirror. Her face was thin and wane, tired even to her eyes, and for a second she tried to wish Unda to appear, to give her a reason as to why this was happening. The apparition was behind some of this and why?

But no ghost appeared and no voices came to her ears and Alice angrily grabbed her clothing from the bench. It was a struggle to deal with this old style of soft corsets, skirts and blouses but it was worth it in her opinion; she didn't want to run into Pidge wearing just a bathrobe. He'd likely take it as an invitation and that thought made Alice tighten her belt even more. Tossing her damp hair over her shoulder, Alice picked her way carefully through the darkness to the stairs to the kitchen.

Coming to the first landing, she jumped when the shadows moved and pressed herself against the wall instinctively. She could make out the faint outlines of two people in the darkness and from the sound of their hushed whispers they were arguing. Alice strained to see and, not wanting to be heard herself, she tried to still her breathing. The lantern the taller shadow was holding swayed in the draft and highlighted them more, so that their gestures and faces were easily seen.

"You aren't being fair to Alice, Pidge," Abigail's voice, quiet and condemning, lifted through the darkness. Pidge scoffed and shrugged his shoulders as if to brush her comment off.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You shouldn't vote with Abel about leaving Hatter here. My father has found what he wanted from Hatter, cruel but true, but he won't risk liability. But I don't think he understands that we can't separate them not again. She needs him with her and I don't think Alice will leave him," the older woman hissed and Pidge ran a hand through his dark hair.

"We can't be sure of that, yeah? She's seen the change in him, we all have. He's scared out of his wits that he'll hurt her and he'd rather hide in a shell than come back to her. Maybe Alice will... see that," he answered, breaking off at the end. The lantern light swung on his face and Alice realized that he was actually blushing.

Abigail leaned toward him. "And turn to you? Alastair Pigeon, you aren't naive. You are not to interfere with this just because you are finally experiencing emotion!"

Alice had to bit into her hand to keep from gasping. Pidge clearly was feeling more and deeper around her than he had before, and the responsibility of that was not something that Alice wanted right now. She shook her head and remembered how bewildering Hatter had found the idea of deep emotion. She wasn't angry with Pidge, nor embarrassed; just once again saddened about the cruelty of Wonderland sometimes.

"Not like you've ever fallen in love before, Aunt, what would you care?" he snapped back. Even in the distance, Alice could see that his words had hurt Abigail and the smaller woman looked ready to rip him to shreds.

"Don't you dare speak to me of love. You've no..."

Deciding to interfere before things became heated and Hatter's mother said something she might regret, Alice noisily began to make her way down the stairs. The pair broke apart, trying to look casual but obviously wary of what she might have heard. Alice paused on the step above them and gave a cool smile to Abigail.

"You're back?" she asked politely and the woman nodded.

"Just an hour past. The Metropolis Centre was badly hit by the quakes; refugees are starting to flood its interior though to escape the Queen." Abigail waved her hand in the air, trying to act nonchalant but she eyed Alice's damp hair and thin face with interest. She seemed to be deciding on what to tell her. "The news that's been coming in hasn't been good. I hear we're to leave soon?"

She phrased it like a question to Alice but her eyes were on Pidge.

"Supposed to be. We'll see. Things change around here so quickly I lose track." Alice gave her a smile that she wasn't sure she felt and walked around them. Pidge's arm blocked her way and when she went to duck under it he blocked her again.

"Are you okay?" he asked, seeing the stress on her face. Alice stared back before rolling her eyes while she ducked under his arm and started down the stairs.

"Other than my lover struggling to recover from torture, being pregnant and Wonderland collapsing around us?" she said as if thinking of the reasons aloud. "I'm just... peachy."

She ignored his look and kept going.

Pidge looked at his aunt and shrugged. "See? She might be fine."

Abigail's only response was to cuff the back of his head and start up the stairs to her bedroom.

Alice let the grumbling of her stomach take her down to the kitchen. She'd been eating more and more, though she had no excess weight to show for it, and for the first time since before the Manor she had an actual appetite. Charlie had taken some delight in cooking for them all and had made it his personal mission to be in charge of overseeing Alice's needs. The fatherly concern he'd shown for her since the Manor hadn't ceased and Alice found it touching.

Not grating like she would have last year.

The Knight in question was banging around in the kitchen, gathering up the jarred preserves, finding the few tart shells left over, and somehow managing to turn a small spit over the fire at the same time. The kitchen was looked like a war zone again, with pots and pans piled up in the sinks and flour dusting the floor. Charlie was singing loudly as he went about his cooking and Alice grinned as he carried on, off-key and enthusiastic.

"Belly to the back, we cook the rack, till there is no more back and no more belly," he sang and Alice took advantage of his turned back to quickly palm a fruit tart from the oven tray on the table. They were filled with a thick jelly and when she bit into one, it tasted bitterly sweet. But it was food and her hunger welcomed it over its taste.

She had stuffed the rest in her mouth just as he turned around and managed an innocent look when he stared at her. He pretended not to notice her puffy cheeks and the crumbs on her lips, and just smiled in welcome.

"Why, Alice! It is nearly..." he squinted at the nearby clock, "Eleven o'clock. Why are you up at this hour?"

"I can't sleep, Charlie. Why are you up?" she responded, taking a seat on the stool before the table. He puffed up proudly.

"I, with all the skill in my vast repertoire, am preparing a breakfast. A sumptuous feast of culinary art for both the eyes and taste buds," he declared. He then lifted a ladle from one of the bubbling pots on the stove. A thick green fluid dripped down slowly like molasses and Alice felt her stomach turn at the sight. Charlie made a face as well. "Well, I am trying to."

"We're still good for supplies?" she asked as she took another tart, greedily eying a half-full bowl of stew as well. Charlie noticed her looking and wisely pushed it over to her, handing her a spoon and a slice of bread as well.

"As good as could be expected. Every time I run out of supplies, someone brings something useful or the pantry somehow restocks itself. For example, Pidge managed to get me a very rare Grindlelor tree-snake. Tricky to catch, from what I hear," he explained and he turned to the fireplace. The long but large hunk of cooking meat was rotating itself slowly. "But will be delicious. I hope."

"Aren't those venomous?" she asked absently and he shrugged.

"Be a meal worth dying for, but no. You're thinking of the Grinal Snakes of Wabe." He watched as she started to spoon the stew into her mouth. "Hungry?"

"Starved," she managed around a mouthful. "I haven't been this hungry in a long time."

"Well, you are eating for two and you are thin enough for every ounce of food to be needed." Charlie cut her another slice of bread and sat across the table from her. "You didn't come down to dinner before. You missed quite a meal."

"I was tired." She speared a hunk of borogrove meat from the thick stew and chewed slowly. "And..."

"I know, Alice. The topics of conversation these days leave much to be desired. I listened to the endless discussions of what should be done with the Harbinger and quite frankly, it was from unqualified parties," he said. Alice swallowed but refused to meet his eyes, knowing if she did he might think she didn't want to talk. Charlie in one of his more serious modes reminded her vaguely of her own father and she didn't want to disturb that.


"Your mother, the Villein and Lord Drawling. All meaning well but surely even you can realize that they do not actually know him."

"Pidge knew him back in the Resistance. Years longer than either of us have, Charlie," Alice responded and she began to tear up the bread to occupy her hands.

"And he never saw him in the light that you and I have seen him. Hatter is capable of great good. We know that, Alice, but they don't. They're still only seeing this side to him, not the side of a man that you and I know he often is," Charlie stated firmly. Alice stared up at him, wondering at this oddly lucid and intelligent conversation. Something in Charlie's bird-bright eyes made her wonder how long he'd been thinking this over himself.

"Hatter's also capable of hiding a lot of things, Charlie. And I'm not sure who we thought he was is who he is."

Charlie snorted, grabbed the bowl of dough and began to roll out some tart dough in short methodical strokes on his side of the table. "Well, I know who he is and I've faith in him." The accusatory note in his voice made Alice flinch and he noticed it. His stern face melted into concern as he watched her finish her stew. "I'm sorry, Justalice. I am merely tired and..."

He looked out the window. "Lonely."

Alice stared at him and realized in that instant that of all of them, Charlie had never once complained about this strange adventure. But he did have a wife now, one he hadn't mentioned once, and he looked so lonely that her romantic heart felt for him. "You... Charlie, I'm so sorry. I forgot but the way things have been..."

"It is of no merit, Alice," he began and she shook her head.

"You married the Cook fast, Charlie, because you loved her instantly. It's not forgivable for me to just think only my world has fallen apart. I've been so selfish," she whispered and he reached out to touch her hand.

"You've not been selfish, Alice, and if you have been and I've missed it, I'm sure it has not been without cause. I don't voice my own loneliness because I am your friend and Hatter's but I do miss my Marta, the adorable cook that she is." He still sounded so besotted that Alice didn't have the heart to point out that no one in their right mind would ever refer to his fiery and stout little wife as 'adorable'. Not when her own first memory of the woman was when she'd dragged Hatter around the kitchen by his ear after throwing pots at him.

She bit back a smile and focussed on what he was saying.

"I want to go home as badly as your mother does, but I will see this through with you first." He patted her hand. "That is what friends are for."

He turned away and checked his green concoction again. It had thinned a little and he pursed his lips. "Still too thick."

"Well, all of my friends and people I know, you are one of the ones I'd want around," Alice said with a smile and she took another tart. He shrugged.

"I spent many years on my own and it is highly overrated. I am merely one who thinks life is too long to spend it lonely," he said, and he clearly meant it. He glanced over his shoulder at her as he stirred the green liquid. He didn't seem to notice that the liquid was now so thick that the spoon could stand up on its own. "Or constantly fearing the world around us."

Something in his gentle voice made the brittle shell she'd been trying to build start to crack and Alice picked at the edges of her tart.

"I'm scared, Charlie."

The words took weight off her shoulders and she almost sighed in relief. He looked at her in surprise and turned away from the pot.

"You, Alice? You are more like a Knight than even I in your courage. Though Knights were never women..."

"Scared almost witless." She stared at the table. "And I don't know what to do. Hatter wants to be left alone, I can tell, and he doesn't want any of us to bother with him. He's feeling... guilty I guess, and part of him thinks this is all still a dream, some fantasy his mind has made up to punish him."

She sighed and rested her chin on her hand. "I remember in the first months when we lived together, when he would wake up screaming and soaked in sweat. When I'd ask him about it, he would get this flat look. The kind of look a dog gets before it's beaten."

"He looks like that now," Charlie admitted.

"He's punishing himself, Charlie. I doubt anything I say will change that. He's showering at least and dressing his wounds and eating, but..."

Charlie cleared his throat. "Barely eating." At her look he gestured to the now empty bowl in front of her. "Whose stew did you think you were eating? He's eating but not much, and doesn't touch more than a cup of tea sometimes."

Her lips thinned and she frowned, unable to hide her misery from her friend. "I almost think he wishes I'd killed him."

The admission made Charlie lean back on his stool and regard Alice with veiled curiosity. She looked like she'd aged just by that statement alone and she was unconsciously rubbing her belly in slow circles. For a moment, he almost wished that he was her father, so that he could hug her and let her know the world would be all right.

But he wasn't and it wouldn't, and that knowledge alone kept him from giving her some empty words of comfort.

"I'm terrified that I can't bring him back because he won't let me, Charlie. If I could reach him somehow... but something is different." Alice popped a bit of tart into her mouth and chewed slowly. "I feel like if I just let him be on his own, he might come back to us or he might not. It might just get worse."

"Perhaps you should talk to him," Charlie commented. "Because I think he is as scared of you as you are of him. More-so, he's scared of himself."

Alice blinked, surprised by Charlie's choice of words.

He stared at her. "Don't look so shocked, Alice. I am allowed my moments of serious lucidity. Where your happiness is concerned, I take matters very seriously." He rested his hands on his own belly and sighed. "Do you remember when we met in the Wabe?"

She nodded, confused.

"In between my anger at the trap being set off and you two snapping back at me, I did observe something curious. As much as I considered Hatter's dealings more often than not... criminal, he did some things some lesser men might not do." He leaned forward. "He protected you. Most Wonderlanders would have left you to a Jabberwock's hunger."

He gave her a wink. "Though you would have left it hungry."

Alice took the jab well, blushing and giving a grin as she looked out the window. When he cleared his throat she looked back at him.

"He also made sure he was almost always between us, to protect you and he kept doing that no matter the situation. He did not run from the idea of following you around and making sure you were all right, no matter the quest we ended up on." Charlie caught her gaze and held it. "To me, as a Knight, that was more a measure of a man than what he had done in the past."

Alice remembered, as she and Charlie stared at each other, all of their past adventures. In all of them, despite the teasing and arguing, Charlie had been the one to defend Hatter and to help him in time of need. He'd been more a friend to Hatter than she had been, Alice thought miserably and Charlie read her thoughts in her expressive face.

"Perhaps, Alice, it is time you protected him."

He stood up and went to the spit. To him, he had effectively ended the discussion. He heard the scrape of Alice's stool on the cobblestones but focussed on making sure the meat wasn't burned. The tap on his shoulder made him jump but he managed to move the meat from the fire before turning around.

Alice stared up at him, a curious smile on her face. "You really are a Knight, aren't you, Charlie?" she asked before hugging him tightly. He made his strange guffawing laugh as he hugged her back.

"Through and through, Alice of Legend. Through and through." He felt her head turn into his shoulder and knew she was deciding on something. "You know, Alice, that you already have a great weapon in bolstering your belief in Hatter?"

She tilted her head back to look at him curiously and he reached between them to give her stomach a pat.

"I highly doubt you and Hatter wouldn't have created such a miracle if you didn't believe that you would be with him."

"Well, that's not exactly how 'miracles' are created," she answered, an impish grin ghosting across her face. He rolled his eyes.

"I do not need details, Alice." His face became a bit troubled. "Perhaps you had best let him know the truth about everything. About your baby, the Manor, his mother."

She jerked out of his embrace and stared at him.

"You know that Abigail is his mother?" she demanded and he gave her an unconcerned nod. "How? No one else knows..."

"Alice, I am a Knight. Trained to utilize and focus on my Dark Arts, which allows my powers of observation beyond that of mere mortals." Seeing her lifted eyebrow, he gestured in the air. "Plus, to me, they look a bit alike; same eyes and build, the same way of expressing herself. Just an educated guess. He did run through the Manor easily when none of us could."

Alice shook her head. "Charlie, sometimes I suspect that we underestimate you."

"Likely." He watched as she went to the stairs. "You aren't going to finish your dessert?" he asked, pointing to the table where a tart still remained. Alice flashed him a grin, a full one that reminded him of happier times.

"I've got something to do, Charlie. Thank you though." She was gone before he could answer and Charlie turned back to his cooking, humming once more. Ever Alice's Knight, he was ready to spring into action if she should need him, so he left the kitchen door open to hear for any calls for help. With one eye on the old clock, he set about making more tarts to replace the ones she'd eaten.

Chapter Text

Alice wasn't sure how she made it to the third floor of the townhouse without her knees giving out. Or without breaking down and running back to the kitchen to tell Charlie she just wasn't ready to face Hatter yet. Now that the weight of her decision was starting to hang heavily on her shoulders, Alice figured that those might be intelligent things to do.

In spite of those cowardly feelings, she kept going.

She was more nervous than facing any number of White or Heart Queens, and it made her stomach turn to think of everything that could go wrong in these next few minutes. But she kept herself walking, willing herself not to run over to her own makeshift bedroom or to make an excuse and hide in another room. If she did that, she knew she would never get back to this point again. She'd been so bolstered up by Charlie's encouragement and belief in both herself and Hatter, and she wasn't about to let it go to waste.

Still, it took her ten minutes of standing outside the third floor study to muster her courage. Alice talked to herself impatiently, trying to coax her nerves to calm down but they still rumbled in her stomach like iron-weighted butterflies. Though she knew that she sounded crazy, Alice had a debate that rivalled any argument she'd had with Hatter before and the pros and cons of what she might have to do were rather daunting things to remember. It was when she glanced at one of the many clocks that decorated the walls that she knew it was now or never. She thought about knocking but decided against it; he'd likely never answer the door anyway. Judging by the half-eaten food on the tray by the door, he wasn't interested in visitors. Alice had half-expected it to be thrown across the room.

"Stop it," she whispered to herself, determined not to go in pessimistic. She squared her shoulders and straightened her blouse and skirt again before grasping the icy door handle and twisting.

The study was rather comfy even though it had clearly been abandoned for some time; its walls were covered with shelves half-full of books and a rickety looking desk was set before a plush armchair. It smelled old and the faint odour of candle smoke made the musty smell more pungent, though not entirely unpleasant. The walls had a few lantern globes attached to them, the candlelight making the room strangely inviting though it was chilly. Even the fireplace, lit with a slowly dying fire, didn't give much warmth and goose-bumps went up Alice's arms. Rubbing her hands briskly, she leaned against the doorjamb and flicked the switch to turn on a few more lanterns.

With the help of the moonlight and the low lighting, it didn't take long for her to find what she was looking for. Hatter sat in the windowsill near the front of the room, his forehead leaned against the glass as he looked out at the dark rainstorm outside.

Standing in the doorway, Alice almost felt like breaking into tears at the sight of him. Highlighted by the cold silvery light, Hatter looked so pale and listless, and she noticed that though he must have bathed, his hair was a mixture of dreaded locks and shaggy uneven strands. He was even thinner than before, to the point of being too gaunt and bony, and when he shifted a bit in his seat Alice could clearly see that his collarbone was protruding beneath his shirt. The deep wound that had run from his ear down to his neck was healed now but its leftover scar made an ivory mark on his skin that shone in the light.

There was a marked difference in him this time, in this moment, and one she hadn't seen before. She'd been too wrapped up in worry about his mind to really see this all. Now that they were still and she could look at him without him trying to avoid her, it was glaringly obvious. Hatter had changed in just a month and from what she could see now, it was not just a superficial change.

While he had gone mad before in the Taiga, he had fought it and Alice knew that he hadn't fought it this time, not really. He had submitted to it because he had believed her dead, that his friends were lost to him, and that a life spent in his own mind was preferred to such loneliness. From what she could reason, Selena and the Doctors had encouraged this, to the point where they had been able to persuade him to lose himself. It accounted for his haggard appearance, for the way it was heartbreakingly clear that he didn't care right now and yet... he had recovered some pieces of himself. Even though she knew they should be moving on, Alice also knew that there was no way she would leave this place without her Hatter back in some way.

Wrapping her hands around the tiny charms of the necklace, Alice shifted away from the doorjamb and took a deep breath.

"They said that you haven't been eating," Alice said as she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. Hatter turned his head lazily toward her, flicked a disinterested gaze over her that sent a chill up her spine, and then looked back out the window. He traced a small pattern in the condensation on the window and then wiped it away.

"Haven't been that hungry."

"You should eat," she said, feeling somehow inadequately prepared to handle this. Charlie had insisted that she was the only one to be able to pull Hatter free and the others had agreed at one time that he was what they needed to reclaim Wonderland and heal it, though at the same time they had dismissed him as unstable and unpredictable. Unda's strange words in her dreams had been an attempt to encourage her. Yet despite all of this belief in her, Alice was filled with doubt. She had never really had to deal with a mad Hatter before in terms of healing him. She had pulled him back a bit but during his brief bout in the Taiga he had been the one to heal himself.

Her healing him was going to be a far different undertaking.

"What do you want?" Hatter barked out and she jumped, looking up to see that he was staring at her. Stupidly, she realized that he had already asked her that but she hadn't heard him. He hadn't moved but his one hand was braced on his knee, the fingers flexing slowly. "You didn't come up here to discuss my eating habits."

There was a warning tone in his voice that caused her to want to shout back but she reined in her temper.

"I'm worried about you; we all are."

"I'm fine." It was said so abruptly that she was certain that if he could have, Hatter would have put even more scorn in those words.

"Hatter, I..." Alice broke off and ran a hand through her hand. "I'll be honest, I don't know what I'm supposed to do here. I... I thought that when you came free of your mind that you'd be back to normal."

Her moment of naive honesty cost her when the look he shot her was hostile and cold.

He shook his head and leaned back against the window.

"What's normal?" he said snidely. "For me, I mean."

Alice rested her hand on her hip and thrust it to the side, trying to look more casual than she felt. "You need to talk to someone, Hatter. I'm here for that; no more secrets between us, no more hiding."

"No more secrets?" He cleared his throat and then grinned viciously. "So when were you going to tell me that my mother was still alive?"

It took her a few seconds to process what he'd said and when she did, the clear and very human curse of 'Oh shit' came to mind.

Stunned, Alice tried to work her mouth but no sound came out. Damn, she thought, this is not going as planned. That vicious grin made her stomach turn and Hatter slid from his seat on the windowsill, walking towards her with a slow, controlled pace. A pace that reminded her of his violence in the Manor. The way he walked, talked, even gestured... all of it was a warning that she might be out of her league with this version of Hatter.

Alice had never liked to be outmanoeuvred though and it only firmed her resolve to deal with him. However, the look on his face made her wonder if she was mad to think she could do this.

Hatter misread the mix of emotions showing so plainly on her face, seeing only the guilt and none of the stubbornness. "You didn't think I'd figure it out? That I would recognize her even though I was drugged? That I wasn't paying attention to the streets below when she came in tonight?" he asked, accent slipping from his voice again and Alice was suddenly more aware of the danger she was in. Yes, he had come back but not completely. This split personality was intimidating to deal with and she had to clear her throat to try to steel herself against him.

"I... I haven't know that long myself and I didn't want to hurt you. You'd been badly hurt and I thought that it would make it worse..."

"You really shouldn't think," he growled out. "I can see where your mind went. I thought she was dead for over twenty-five years, what was a few more days?"

Her cheeks flushed red immediately. "I was trying to do what was best in the situation. The others don't even know, except for Charlie. I didn't tell the others because it wasn't my place to tell them."

"How long did you know for?" Hatter demanded. Alice flinched, knowing he was believing the worst.

"A few weeks, that's all, and it was only when I really talked to her about you that I figured it out. You were still hundreds of miles away and she was trying to encourage me that you'd come for me. She asked me to keep a secret for the time being, especially if we found you... the way we found you. She... we didn't want to see you hurt," Alice explained and he scoffed, running a hand through his hair.

"Fat lot of good that did any of us in the end."

"She's your mother, Hatter. You need to talk to her, to understand why she left," Alice answered. She wasn't sure where the urge to defend Abigail came from but she stuck to it, not wanting more anger to be directed at Hatter's past.

If anything, she'd figured out that delving into his past was equally as dangerous as his brushes with madness.

"Really? You think I should?" He stepped around her, circling her in a way that reminded Alice of when they had first met. Only this time, he wasn't trying to be flirtatious and roguish. He leaned in and his lips brushed the tip of her ear. "Did it do you any good when you lost your father, to know what he'd done? Did it help you understand? Did it really? You still act like an abandoned little girl sometimes."

She twisted around, glaring at him. Hatter took the look easily and leaned in again, so close she could feel his hot breath on her cheek. He'd hit a sore spot in her and he knew it.

"I don't think you're... qualified to be tellin' me what to do in situations that deal with dead parents. Not. At. All," he said and he slid his tongue around the words to emphasize them.

"You need to come to terms with this all, Hatter. I won't have them leave you behind. Talk to me," Alice insisted and he rolled his eyes, starting to circle her again. He knew what the others had been thinking of doing and he wasn't surprised at who had shown up to warn him.

"Reconcile my past, my madness, my killing, and all within," leaning forward, his mouth brushed against her ear while he checked the nearby clock, "the next few hours. My, your requests start getting better and better."

"No, Hatter. You just need to face the fact that you're scared. Scared of yourself. You can't start to come to grips with anything when you're still wallowing." Turning, she reached out and brushed her hand over his shoulder. He stepped out of her reach as if she burned him. "And that you still have people who love you despite this all."

She went to touch him again and he grabbed her hand with his right. A shock of hot pain went up her arm at the tight grip and she had to steel herself to hide how much it hurt.

"I need you to come back to me, Hatter."

He looked furious. "You have no right, Alice, to ask this of me."

"I have every right. I stayed in Wonderland to be with you and I'm not about to let you fall prey to this!" Alice shouted and he released her hand.

"What if I don't want you to save me?" At her stunned look he smiled coldly. "Oh, you pulled me from my madness in a way but you can't erase the rest of what happened. Can't get rid of the fact that this," he pointed to his head, "is now always going to be a part of me. Perhaps the largest part now."

"I would help if you let me," she whispered.

Hatter shook his head. "You've already seen the end result to this. You'll end up like my mother, alone, when I finally can't control myself. Be as hopeful as you like, Alice, for what you assume will be some rose-tinted future. But you don't want this."

He spat it out with venom but Alice caught the brief pleading look in his eyes. He was trying to protect her from him by pushing her away, she realized as she caught the vulnerability in his gaze. Tensing her jaw, she also knew that she wasn't going to allow that to happen when they'd already come so far and she clenched her hands into fists. Hatter seemed to take her silence as acceptance and turned away from her, everything in his body language saying that he thought this conversation was over.

"No, I'm not done talking to you! I'm not about to let you scare me," Alice cried, grabbing hold of his arm and turning him around hard. Growling a low curse, Hatter went on the defensive instantly. He stalked toward her with such speed that she almost lost her footing when she tried to back-pedal just as fast.

"You're not scared, eh?" he demanded. "I think you should be."

"I'm not leaving till I know how to solve this somehow. Until we both can leave together," Alice answered, her back meeting the wood panelled wall. Hatter continued to close in on her and he lifted his right hand to strike.

His hand slammed into the wall beside her head, hard enough to splinter the wood, but she managed not to flinch though every instinct screamed at her to do so. Hatter's unnaturally changed eyes had taken on a dark look and she stared back up at him, feeling a bit like a rabbit faced down with a wolf. Especially when it seemed like his eyes flickered between green and brown. But she wasn't about to fall back with fear now, not when she had gotten to him finally, when she had finally managed to stir up his emotions. He was finally reacting to her but she wondered, just for a shaky moment, if she had pushed him too far. What Hatter lacked in physical intimidation he made up for in just a look alone, considering he never usually looked this way. He didn't move toward her any further, though he was close enough that she could feel the brush of his grey shirt against her arm.

Then his eyes caught hers, snared them, and she almost forgot to breathe.

Her heart began to pound in her chest painfully hard and she could hear her own blood roaring in her ears, as if her body was on high alert. Hatter's head tilted slightly as he stared at her and he didn't move any further, though his breathing was just as deep and ragged as hers. Alice glanced over at the hand beside her head, seeing the way he kept clenching and unclenching his fingers, and then looked back at him. There was a vicious look to him, the way a starved animal might stare at a weakened prey, and she couldn't stop the faint tremor that ran through her body at such a look.

He noticed.

"I'm frightenin' you," Hatter said, his voice low. Alice jutted her chin out defiantly and tried hard not to look away from him.

"I'm not scared of you, Hatter," she retorted and his eyes narrowed a bit. There was a flash of anger in his expression, so miniscule she might have missed it had she not been watching him so closely, and that flash frightened her.

"You're lying," he muttered. His mouth was just a breath away from hers and she shook her head, trying hard not to tremble at the feel of the warm air grazing over her lips.


"You are. You're scared and you're tryin' so hard to hide it." His lips just brushed hers but she couldn't take her eyes away from the darkness in his green eyes. Knowing that he was right didn't make her feel any better being this close to him. He was scaring her, more than he had before in the Taiga, even more than when he had threatened her in the South Forests or the Manor, and she had to resist the urge to try to step back further against the wall. Hatter looked her over closely, seeming troubled, and Alice pressed her palms flat against the wall. Hatter's lean frame only continued to intimidate her and eventually she looked away from him.

His hand grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "I stopped this for you once before... then again days ago, but just barely. Do you realize how close I came to killing you this time? How much I wanted to when I thought you were an illusion? I wanted to feel you dying in my hands, wanted to alleviate the pain of losing you. And I almost didn't stop myself," Hatter admitted harshly, his grip painfully tight. She wrenched her chin from his fingers, his proximity more disturbing now that he had hold of her. Alice squirmed, raising her hands to try to push him away but he grabbed hold of her wrists and pinned them over her head, using just his right hand to hold her still. His other roamed down her shoulder, trailing a pattern that sent a mixture of ice and heat through her. It was a familiar touch but the way he moved made her feel that seduction was the last thing on his mind.

"How easy I could still find it." His finger trailed over her delicate collarbone and his head bent slightly to watch the path he was drawing. It was like he was mapping out the perfect way to break her neck and Alice felt her heartbeat quicken.

"You wouldn't, and I know that," she said, trying to subdue the quiver in her words. Her skin prickled wherever he touched and though her arms were aching she didn't dare move.

"Do you now?" Hatter asked, sounding like a teacher encouraging a disobeying student to admit to some offence.

"I trust you," Alice whispered, her voice broken as she felt his grip on her pinned wrists tighten just a bit. He was staring down between them, as if thinking about something else.

"Trust trumps self-reliance. Terrible way of thinking," Hatter said in a voice that had an almost robotic quality to it.

"I know you, Hatter."

"You know nothing about me, not really. Everything I've protected you from knowing," his head lifted and he met her eyes, "and you know nothing."

"I know what I need to know," she murmured. "I know you're in there."

"You know..." he ground out before he lifted her wrists and pushed them back to the wall with a hard thump. He pressed in so close that Alice felt his heartbeat thumping against her. "Little miss know it all, eh?"

"I know you love me. Even when you try to frighten me," Alice said with more conviction than he had expected. She tilted her head and her mouth just brushed his. Hatter jerked as if she had bitten him.

Alice's eyes bore a challenge he hadn't expected.

"So frighten me then."

Startled, he stepped back a bit, releasing her hands as he stared at her. Moving fast, Alice grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him back to her. Hatter resisted her but lost his balance and fell into her hard enough that she slammed into the wall behind her. Keeping hold of him, she brought him so close that her nose bumped his and his eyes kept locked with hers. He stared at her and she stared back, drawn into this strangely seductive dark dance.

She leaned forward so that her mouth brushed his and Hatter's hands grabbed hers from his shirt, his face jerking away as if her touch scalded him. His grip tightened and she struggled to get him to let go. Baring his teeth a bit, he twisted with her as she tried to dislodge his grip and then spun her around so that her front was pressed against the panelling. He had angled her arms just so that she couldn't break his hold like she normally could. Alice tasted blood when she accidently bit her inner cheek and her arms ached from where he was gripping.

"Hatter!" Alice hissed but found it hard to try to move.

"Don't you remember what its like?" he demanded. "Over a year ago, when the White Queen almost stole your mind? That dark loss?"

He was pressed so tight against her that she had to press her cheek against the wall to keep from crushing her nose. "I remember," she whispered, still trying to pull her arms free. He let her go when she pulled hard but didn't move, his arms still bracketing her.

"You lost yourself, felt the way every piece of you started to go missing," he said against her ear and she shivered, not at the sensation of it but at the way he spoke. "And you couldn't do anything about. You were completely controlled and yet out of control."

His voice, still without its accent or rough inflections, was starting to make her paranoid that she had indeed made the wrong choice.

"I remember," she repeated and he lifted one hand to move her hair away from her ear. She could feel the gentleness in his touch and she remembered what had happened that day. Remembered how he had pulled her down and kept her safe. "I remember, Hatter, but you pulled me out of it."

"You suffered for an hour at the most," he continued as if she hadn't interrupted, "but can you imagine what it would have been like after two hours? Six? A day? You would have been lost." Alice felt his lips brush against her skin as he leaned closer, his voice still dropping lower and lower. "I was lost. And I still feel lost, Alice."

He shivered. "So lost."

Alice closed her eyes and licked her suddenly dry lips. "Hatter, I..."

"Hmm?" He sounded distracted, one hand tapping an off-beat rhythm on the wall beside them.

"I just want to help you."

The hand that was tapping paused and she saw it slide down the wall again. The feel of both his hands on her ribcage made Alice jerk, startled by the touch. The shirt was thankfully thick enough that he might not be able to tell how frightened she was by her banging heart.

"I want you to let me be," he grounded out. "But you won't. Why?"

"I know I'm getting to you, that's why," Alice answered and heard him chuckle but there was no humour in the sound.

"Only the insane would equal pain with success and confidence breeds stupidity," he commented.

"And only the weak give up hope."

"Well now, that's one way of lookin' at it, Alice," he agreed, his voice changing slightly. It was his old inflection and nuances. Her ears perked up but only momentarily when she felt his fingers tighten against her blouse.

His hands roughly traced over the sides of her breasts, before pulling apart her blouse with a hard yank that sent buttons skittering to the floor. Staring at the wood before her, Alice stifled the urge to cry out and began to shiver instead. He'd done it to frighten her, to try to get her to fight him, and she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of it. He took her one hand in his and then pressed it into her ribcage so that she could feel her own wildly beating heart.

"I know I killed others, people brought to me," he said in a conversational tone. "I remember that much. I remember not caring who I tortured, who I killed. It was almost a game at the time."

They both felt her heart leap at that admission under their joined hands. The movement made Hatter lean back a bit, taking in the sight of her dark hair and the way her body shifted uneasily against his. Alice's eyes were wide and clear, staring at the side so that she could still see him in her peripheral.

"Things can't be the same, Alice," he said, his voice softening.

"I don't expect them to be, Hatter," she answered, feeling the hands on her bare sides moving slightly.

He continued as if she hadn't spoken, "Knowing what I've done, what I'm capable of when I'm consumed...I don't trust myself, Alice. Not around the others or around you," his voice cracked slightly. "I don't want to touch you."

In contrast to his words, his fingers slid around her skin and Alice felt a flush of heat go trailing from her face to between her legs. The air was thick with tension and suppressed violence and she shouldn't feel like she wanted him to just keep touching her. Not when moments before he'd look ready to hurt her.

It showed, Alice decided, how volatile her moods were as much as his. Even now she still wanted him as desperately as she had months before.

"And you shouldn't want to be near me, Alice," Hatter stated. "Not after what I've done, what I've seen, and what I've caused."

Closing her eyes at the hopelessness in his voice, Alice bit into her lower lip and slowly turned around. She pressed her hands against the wall and looked down. The way she'd turned had left his hands just covering her breasts and when he noticed he jerked them away. Hatter's hands were stark white in the shadows of the room, an effect from his morbidly dark clothing, and she watched as he gestured wildly.

"You should just go," he muttered.

"You'd have to frighten me a lot worse than that, Hatter," Alice said, a ghost of a smile on her face. She saw the effect she was having on him and she raised her hands to brush her hair away from her face. Hatter's eyes followed the movement in a desperate way, as if he was afraid she'd touch him again.

Deciding to speak her mind, she blurted out, "You don't want me touching you?"

He shook his head, backing up a few steps. "I still don't think this is real, Alice. Don't ask me to decide if it is."

The change in him, one that reminded her of someone about to twitch and bluster nervously at her, made Alice arch a brow.

"I don't want this to be an illusion, Hatter, because I'm not. I am real. What do I need to do to prove it to you?" she demanded, her voice almost shrill. "Grab a knife and stab myself? Bring Pidge out and have him..."

Something snapped in him at that choice of words and he grabbed her arm in a crushing grip. She swore, startled by how fast he'd moved, but he was pressing her into the wall. His breathing was shallow and he had closed his eyes. His face was like a sea of emotion, the expressions going across it giving the impression that he was going through some strange vortex of thought. She half-expected those eyes to open and pin her with the feral look of his mad self but she forced herself to remain still.

"Why couldn't ye just go, Alice?" he demanded. His voice was trimmed with his accent again, the desperate tone gone and replaced by something dark and yet strong. "Why do you have to always be so damned stubborn all the time?" His right hand slammed impatiently into the wall beside her head, as if he was trying to punctuate his point. "Even if I want to prove to myself that this isn't some illusion, I don't want to hurt you." He took in a deep breath. Eyes snapping open, he fixed a dark-green gaze straight on her and she felt her stomach flutter nervously. "And I will hurt you."

Alice shook her head and managed to croak out from a dry mouth, "I don't care."

The silence loomed between them, making Alice more aware of the moisture on her palms and the cold sweat in the small of her back. She tried to control her erratic heartbeat as she stared at Hatter and watched his eyes shutter half-closed. He was thinking about something and she nervously tightened her hands into fists, squeezing her eyes shut. She could feel the gryphon mark on her neck shifting around impatiently but she stilled the urge to use her glow.

Whatever had caused Hatter to be still seemed to leave him at the same time she opened her eyes and his right hand curved around the base of her skull. Alice made a soft gasp as he tugged her forward, his hand so tight in her hair that it cranked her head back as she was pressed up into him. She reached up to brace her hands on his shoulder and he shot her a look that warned her and made her drop her hands back down to her sides helplessly. He was looking at her again and now and again his fingers would flex so that the hair wrapped around them pulled on her scalp. She winced but didn't dare to cry out, even when it felt like he was starting to pull harder and harder on her hair.

His grip loosened slightly, so that his fingers were deeper in her hair but no longer hurting, and Alice watched as he ran his eyes over her neck. He stared at her gryphon mark for a moment, his penetrating gaze sending her heart into flip flops and she sank her teeth into her lower lip. Hatter looked back up at her face, his eyes narrowed and contemplative.

Alice met his look and arched her brow in a challenging way.

She almost regretted it when his grip tightened again and this time he hauled her in so close that she couldn't breathe. With the hunger of a starving man, he kissed her, lips fumbling for position as she squeaked a protest at the rough treatment. Then he found the right angle, with her head tilted back painfully far and her body pressed into his as he bent over her, and she was lost. They hadn't touched like this in so long and she moaned in her throat as his tongue swiped out over her lower lip, coaxing her mouth to open. His lips were pushing and pulling at hers, a hard kiss void of any warmth and she squirmed.

She broke away a little, her breath coming painfully fast in her chest, and arched her neck as Hatter stared down at her. She didn't dare to touch him yet.

"I..." she stuttered to a stop and he watched her face closely.

"I do frighten you," he muttered with just hint of smugness. When she shook her head in denial, the hand in her hair tightened and tilted her head back further, until she thought her neck would snap. She felt the brush of his knotted hair, still slightly dreaded from his lack of care, against her skin and swallowed when she felt his tongue trace the delicate edge of her throat. It was both seductive and calculating, and she held her breath as she wondered what he was about to do.

"I'm not scared," Alice breathed, relaxing as much as she could so that the tension didn't hurt her.

"You taste of it," Hatter answered and his mouth trailed up over her neck to her cheek. Alice watched as his head angled towards hers, his eyelashes brushing over her cheek in an impromptu caress. His lips left hot burning trails along her skin and she felt the sweat on her skin grow equally hot, so that she was no longer shivering from the cold. "But..."

He moved forward and she was moved back against the wall again, the ridges of the wood panelling pressing painfully into her back. Any hint of those small moments of gentleness are gone, leaving only a roughness that Alice wasn't sure she could say no to.

Hatter's mouth moved back over hers, his lips pulling at hers as she leaned up into him, returning the kiss though her common sense was warning her about it. He groaned something against her lips, his slightly superior height forcing her head to tilt back. His one hand released her hair as he kissed her and she gasped against his mouth as his hands forced hers over her head again. His right hand held her clasped wrists together and when he broke the kiss and leaned back, Alice gave a faint whimper of disappointment and opened her eyes.

His eyes were dark onyx, and there was a condescending smirk of arrogance there.

"You taste of lust." His tongue traced the outline of her lips and he felt her tremble. "Beneath all that fear."

Alice bristled at the way he made it sound like she was sinning. "And beneath your depression, you," She gave a jerk of her hands, wishing she could point her finger at him. "Want. Me."

"You could be right," he ground out. "There's only one way to find out, I suppose. Though I doubt you want this."

"I'm real, Hatter. And I'm not about to..."

Her argument was lost as he swooped in and kissed her again, his teeth actually pulling at her lips to part them. She grunted unintelligibly, startled and frozen, but he clearly didn't care. His free hand grabbed at her hip, forcing her to stagger her legs to keep her balance, as the grip on her hands tightened to the point of pain. Despite the layers of cloth between them, Alice could feel him pulsing against her, his body inexplicably warm to the touch, and she moaned when his tongue slipped into her mouth and met hers. He stroked along the seam of her lips, toying with her and never once letting her return the caress.

Moving his mouth along her neck, he growled in a breathy voice, "Only ever was one way to get you to shut up in the end."

It was her only warning before the hand on her hips yanked so hard on the belt of her skirt that it tore off with a snap. He was back kissing her before she could move, his hand tearing her skirt down past her ankles. It pooled into a silken pile at their feet and he kicked it aside, his mouth still occupying hers. Alice opened her eyes against the kiss to see that his own were open, staring into her face as if gauging her reaction.

His hand almost tore at her leggings next and Alice squirmed, wanting to help but his grip didn't release her hands. In moments of desperation, he had always proven a bit stronger than her and when she tried to slip her hands free, his grip only tightened further. She was trapped, and she was a willing victim, determined to prove something to him. To herself.

She felt his mouth against her neck, felt his desire grinding against her stomach as he nipped at her, and she moaned, transported back into other times. Times that had never been as rough as this, times when she'd been certain he was doing this for her enjoyment; now it wasn't clear. Alice stood on her toes, the effect pushing his face back a bit from hers and she lifted one leg around his hip. His tight grip on her hands loosened and she slipped them free as his hands dropped to her legs. He gripped her by the back of her thighs and lifted her hard enough that her head banged against the wall.

Tightening her thighs around him, she hitched them higher on his waist and wrapped herself around him as best as she could. Determined not to let him get rid of her easily, Alice held on with her legs even as she kept her hands against the wall. His threat not to touch him seemed to have fallen flat and she heard him groan something against her neck. His head moved and she heard the soft thunk of his forehead meeting the wall behind her.

"I wish I could absolve my sins," he muttered suddenly and Alice turned her face to him. His head lifted a little and she gave an experimental twist of her hips, one that made him shudder against her. His eyes locked with hers and Alice tightened her thighs even further, feeling the hands on her legs give an answering squeeze.

"Hatter..." she broke off and gave him a smile. "I do forgive you, for whatever it is that you think you've done."

The look on his face let her know that her words both were and were not enough and she tentatively reached out with one hand. Knowing how badly he'd flinched back from anyone's touch, she moved slowly. She was more than a little aware of the awkwardness of their position and wondered if in seconds he'd just drop her.

When her fingers met his skin, stroked his cheek roughened by a short scraggly beard, Alice felt herself tremble. He was actually accepting her touch and like she would with a frightened animal, she smoothed her fingers gently down. Hatter's eyes closed and he sucked in a deep breath as her touch trailed along his face, skimming over the scar on his neck and then smoothing back the hair from his face.

The changing grip on her thighs warned her and she quickly retreated, putting her hand back against the wall just as his lips moved over hers. The kiss was no gentler than before and he groaned, dominating the kiss easily when she let him. Alice arched her back, suddenly desperate to move but unable to as he kept her pinned.

Hatter's fingers slid against her from beneath and she hissed when his hands brushed her sensitive skin. He muttered against her lips, the moisture his fingers felt causing him to shiver with need. Alice whimpered, squirming with no thought of modesty, and she felt his stomach clench when she ground against him, desperate for more. He leaned back slightly and she dropped her hands, reaching between them to unbuckle and unzip him.

The sound echoed in the space and they both looked at one another silently, Alice still braced up against the wall and his legs bent slightly to hold her weight. His eyes were dark and his expression unreadable, though he was watching her intently. Alice could hear the blood pounding in her ears and she flicked her tongue across her lips to wet them as she pushed his pants low around his hips.

He shivered again and he moved forward, his head dipping so that he could nip at the tip of her breast. Alice hissed, daring to put one hand against the back of his head to hold him against her breast as he sucked and bit at her nipple. He shifted his legs and she caught a tiny dreaded lock between her fingers as he moved into her in a long stroke. She gave a faint hiccuping sound; the breath squeaked out of her at that first thrust.

It had been too long...

Hatter released her nipple from his mouth and his head lifted so that his mouth was pressed against her ear. "I remember that sound," he said in wonder, as if it startled him that he could remember it.

She sobbed faintly and knew she was as lost in him as he was in her. He seemed to be accepting her hand in his hair and that was almost as wonderful as the feel of him moving inside of her. Tightening her legs, Alice started to guide him into long strokes that set her body on edge and ready for release quickly.

Hatter was equally lost, trying hard not to become so and failing when he felt the familiarity of her body. Even though he was still wearing a shirt, he could feel the heat of her body and the solid thud of her heartbeat pounding against his own chest. It was too much to hope for but it felt real, felt like this absolution was real. He could feel her breath against his cheek and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to build up his resolve in case this was some twisted fantasy his mind was playing on him.

Alice moaned against his ear, drawing him from his introspection, and he knew in that moment that fantasy or not, he didn't want to stop. His right hand left her thigh and he rested it on the wall beside her head. He started to touch as much of her as he could reach, desperate to at least absorb as much sensation as he could. He felt her body tremble around him as he thrust up harder against him and Alice ground her hips down to counter it, her head thrown back as she gasped for air. Instinctively, he moved his left hand between them and trailed it down her stomach.

He felt the faint rise to her belly that hadn't been there before but ignored it, so caught up in a haze of frustration and desire. Alice twisted against him as he moved harder against her and turned her head to the side. Hatter grabbed her chin with his right hand, softening the strength of it to keep from hurting her too much, and her eyes, impossibly blue and clear, stared up at him. Searching her eyes, he saw that she was debating on talking to him but about what he didn't care.

He pressed his mouth hard against hers and she groaned, dropping her hips back so that he almost slipped out of her. He jerked and thrust up harder into her to keep her from getting away. His mind was a white blur of lust and he slipped his hand down between her legs, to where he could feel her throbbing around him. His right hand slid down to her neck to anchor her against him as he began to pound harder and harder into her.

His nail scraped against her clit and she cried out, accidently sinking her teeth into his lower lip. Hatter growled something nonsensical against her mouth, tasting blood and not caring why. Alice's fingers yanked hard on his hair and she groaned as his continued pounding set her teeth jarring. Every bone in her body felt like it was being banged back and forth and she didn't care and Hatter didn't seem to notice.

When he opened his eyes and saw the bruising his grip had caused on her shoulder, he stopped so suddenly and abruptly that Alice felt the breath sucked out of her body.

"Need to stop," he gasped out, his own body screaming at him that he was a mad idiot. He was ready to dislodge Alice's grip when he felt her nails tighten.

Hissing angrily, Alice grabbed him by the back of his head and lifted his head by force.

"Oh no you don't," she whispered tightly, her thighs tightening on either side of his hips. Hatter felt her body clenching around him and he groaned in despair, knowing that despite his best intentions, he couldn't stop.

"I'm hurting you," he answered thickly even as he resumed thrusting hard into her.

"It's not a bad hurt, Hatter," Alice snapped, her forehead creased as she struggled to hit that pinnacle her body was desperate to go over. "Just don't...stop."

"Hurtin' you," he muttered and he felt her fingers in his hair. He reached back and grabbed her hand, pinning it back with her other one against the wall.

"Has it," she made a hiccuping sound as the angle caused his pelvis to rasp against her clit harder," ever occurred to you," the hand on her neck reached back to tug her hair, pulling her head back and their eyes met again. Hers were stormy with repressed release and his were dark brown. The sight made her grin, an impishly lustful one. "That I haven't once asked you to stop?"

It clearly hadn't, Alice figured, as he gave her a stupefied look. She leaned forward and caught his mouth with hers, so that she could kiss him as deeply as she wanted. He seemed to give up all pretence of resistance then and he stroked deeply inside her, the parrying movement of his tongue stroking along hers mimicking the action of their bodies. As if trusting her more, he let go of her hands and she had to drop them to his shoulders to hold on.

Though wishing it could never stop, Alice almost cried in frustration as her body repeatedly kept dropping back from her climax. It burned through her body, white hot sparks going from nerve-ending to nerve-ending and she actually sobbed against his mouth. Alice raked her nails down his back, hard enough that he could feel tiny impressions being left through his shirt, and Hatter's free hand slapped down against her thigh as he boosted her up against the wall.

Ripping her mouth away from his, Alice cried out and squeezed her body desperately around his as she started to find her release. She tightened her grip on his shoulders and moaned impatiently against his ear, whispering how she'd dreamt about him just like this. Hatter's shoulders trembled under her hands and he finally thrust at an angle that sparked off a chain reaction that felt like her body was exploding in pleasure and pain.

She clung to his shoulders, burying her head against his neck as she fell over the edge with dizzying speed. Hatter was almost too stunned by her easy acceptance of his rough handling of her to follow. Feeling the clenching muscles of her body and the way the heat in her body seemed to increase, his body pulled at him until he too felt that release in tension. He was only dimly aware of the bone-aching slam of an almost painful orgasm, hearing her crying out against his ear as he bit into her neck to hide his own cry.

With the draining effect of tension leaving his body, he knew he had no more strength to keep them up as his body still moved against hers.

With a faint moan, he sank to his knees, bringing her down with him and letting her sit astride his lap. Alice was shaking in his arms, her torn clothing hanging around her, and her hands left his shoulders slowly. Trying hard to recover their breathing, neither could resist when Hatter feel a wave of dizziness and laid down on the cold hardwood with a thud. Alice followed him, moaning as he slipped out of her body and rolled to the side, before she pressed her overheated body against the coolness of the floor.

She couldn't remember a time when sex between them had been so intense, even in their first time. There had been no foreplay, no true seduction, and her brain tried to process it but failed. Her body was too languid and wonderfully relaxed for Alice to wonder what had changed between them.

But there was no denying that what charged the air between them was more than just mere desire.

Lying on her side, her body still trembling and her lungs aching for much needed oxygen, Alice instantly knew that Hatter's attempts to put her off had only increased his need to be with her. The same way she had thought distance might bring her closer to him eventually, when she had hoped that he could heal himself. It hadn't and the intensity that had just happened between them had been almost insane. Her arm cushioned her head as she sucked in deep gulps of air and her entire body throbbed in rhythm with her own breathing, the aftershocks still causing her to twitch a little.

Beside her, Hatter lay with his back to her. Covered in a thin layer of sweat that caused his shirt to cling to him, he stared blankly at the nearby wall. His personal vow to not hurt Alice, to distance himself, had failed when faced down with her need for him. Yet, he couldn't find the will to berate himself for such a thing as giving in to her. He hadn't realized how he would react; his small concession to the darker side of his mind in an attempt to frighten her had not done what he had thought it would do.

Now it hung in his head, an odd comfort, that Alice was not as afraid of the dark madness inside of him as he thought. That she loved it as a part of him was possible.

He just didn't know how to cope with that.

Once the sensation came back to his legs and hands, Hatter rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself up. Alice looked over at him, unable to disguise her heavy breathing and not covering up her nudity. The shadows hid parts of her body and Hatter stared.

She smiled at him warmly, somehow resembling a cat that had gotten its milk. Her body had a glow to it that had nothing to do with magic and for a brief moment, he felt the old surge of pride that he'd done that to her. But then he noticed the bruising on her neck from his hands and teeth, and he remembered, very clearly, why he had tried to resist her.

"I... well," Alice broke off and the smile left her face slowly as she read his expression. "Hatter."

"I'm okay," he answered but there was an automatic tone in his voice that made her sit up and grab her clothing around her ankles. She wriggled into the skirt quickly.

"Normally," she ground out, inexplicably angry at the look on his face, "it's the woman that experiences the morning after regrets. You beat me on the time record."

Alice was furious that, after just what happened, Hatter could retreat so quickly back into himself.

She tried to put her shirt to rights and failed when she realized that it had no buttons left. Hatter closed his eyes and stood, re-buckling his pants before he reached down. His breathing was still fast but his eyes were, for the first time, truly seeing the dark-haired woman in front of him.

"Alice." He held out his hand and she stared at it for a long time before she took it. He helped her up, bracing her when she swayed unsteadily on her feet. She looked uncertain and angry, and he reached out, cupping her cheek. He could see the faint line where his short scruff had rasped against her skin and he traced it with his thumb. "I hurt you."

Alice breathed out sharply. "We're back to that again."

He looked at her and she sighed. "A little, but I'm not complaining."

The touch on her cheek softened further. "Alice, I don't... trust myself around you."

"Because of sex?" she asked darkly and he shook his head.

"No. Because when I'm around you, I still worry that the part of me I'm fighting to keep down will never leave. That it'll destroy you in the end." Hatter sighed and scratched at the back of his neck. "I'd never want that."

Alice gave a frustrated nod. "And you need to realize that if I give up on you, Hatter, that I'm going to be destroyed."

They were silent for a few minutes, Hatter staring at her and Alice doing anything but look at him. Eventually, he reached out and touched her face again with shaking fingers.

"I need time," he said bluntly.


"Time." He dropped his hand from her cheek. "I can't just recover, Alice. It isn't how it works. I've done things that I can't..."

"I don't care about that," she insisted, ready to expound on her trust in him.

"But I do." His interruption stopped her cold. "I can't risk you anymore than I have. Do you trust me?"

Alice exhaled slowly and closed her eyes. The smell of sex and sweat was still heavy in the air and she sniffed back the urge to cry. Hatter was waiting for a response and she looked back at him, and almost did burst into tears when she saw his eyes.

They were a clear brown, the eyes she remembered, and there was a faint hint of the man he'd been.

"You trust me?" he asked again and she nodded. "Then give me time to just... piece my mind back together. I'm only trying to do what's best for you, for everyone. Before I face everything that's happened."

His head lowered a bit so he could stare into her eyes better. "I've always wanted what's best for you."

"No more secrets then," she countered, determine to take advantage of this change in him. "I want you to tell me when you're feeling on the edge. I won't have them leave you here, Hatter. I need you, whether you believe it or not, but if you want me to trust you, you need to trust me." She clasped her shirt closed around her chest and gave him a shaky smile. Knowing she should tell him of her pregnancy, she was suddenly feeling tired and bruised and in a moment of spitefulness, she decided it could wait a day longer. Not knowing if she could cope with the answer he was clearly thinking over, she moved back to the door and slipped through, letting it bang behind her. Even through the door, Hatter could hear her running down the stairs.

"I never stopped," he whispered to the empty room.

Chapter Text

Wonderland City...

After years of quiet prestige at a mid-level in the grand cityscape, the mysterious Library had been sunk... somewhat, both literally and figuratively. For the first time in the collective memory of the Resistance, its location had been found with incredible ease and the past few weeks had been hell for those desperate to keep it hidden. The top levels had been almost destroyed by a recent razing from the Queen's re-enlisted White Rabbit; nothing had been spared in it, not the furniture, nor the food stores, and the books had been burnt and precious security recordings were smashed. What was left in the top levels were the few stairways and tunnels leading outside, but those were still carefully monitored by all parties involved in the mini-war going on in the Library. Yet the lower levels, which were directly above the Tunnel, were untouched and the ones that were under the waterline remained damp but safe. The books there were the most precious and well guarded; old volumes that were from, presumably, the very beginning of Wonderland.

Thus containing the some of the most dangerous written knowledge in existence.

The Dodo had always been a man to take care of his books and was obsessive to such a degree that it was not often he cared for much else. But for the purpose of the Caucus meeting going on in his luxurious office, he pasted an indifferent yet indulgent smile on his face as he listened to their reports. They were all old members: the majority of the younger ones who had been considered unworthy of his trust had been cast out. It left only a few younger men and they were there because they had been incredibly insistent on remaining. Dodo had debated on how best to throw them out but ultimately decided that it wasn't worth the effort. If he removed everyone he didn't trust, there would be no one in the room. Over the past two years he had become accustomed to not trusting anyone, even old friends, and he was going to hold true to that believe. To reassure himself, he always kept reaching under his desk to pat the gun strapped to his leg.

A gesture that those closest to him noticed and wisely said nothing about.

Duck and Owl were huddled together on a pile of stacked books, her eyes massive behind her thick glasses and his face heavily lined with exhaustion. They were on almost non-stop guard duty now but their attempts at complaining at these odd shifts had only resulted in them being punished severely for their complaints. Duck's hands still bore the burn marks from the electric rods used on him the last time. Yet despite his advanced age and weak looking frame, he had not even cried out though it was clear that he thought this punishment unjust. It was something that Dodo had not hesitated in doing; he did not bear weakness well anymore, from anyone or anything. Where once he had found their friendship endearing, if not a bit trying, now he could not bear them in even the smallest of doses.

Not when they represented the very moment that everything had gone so horribly wrong for him. The moment he'd lost control of everything he had tried so hard to build and attain.

Dodo flicked his eyes over the two members of his Caucus who were arguing about moving some of the refugees out and the reasoning behind such need. The Lory and the Eagle were the two in question and he looked at the beak-nosed Eagle intently. Lory, he knew, was being kept loyal to him by means other than just a good heart, so he had no concerns about Lory's obedience. Eagle, on the other hand, had been a bit... obstinate lately and Dodo knew that he needed to keep a close eye on him. The man kept swiping his hand over his bald head to get rid of the traces of sweat and Dodo frowned. He'd noticed how jerky Eagle's movements were, as if he was hiding something, and he was in no mood for such secrecy.

"Eagle!" he interrupted and the man jumped. Dodo straightened in his chair and folded his hands on his desk in a slow, precise way that sent a chill up Eagle's cowardly spine. "Explain your report."

"It was just hearsay really, from a man called Leo Pardenlace who was at the Hospital of Dreams."

Dodo's frown deepened as he tried to place the name and failed. "Never heard of him."

"Nor have any of my sources," Lory agreed and he shook his head. His brilliant yellow eyes were oddly unfocussed. "Which is why I've been telling Eagle that it makes absolutely no sense to even take this as a warning that the Queen is onto our Tunnel location."

Eagle managed to look offended. "You may not have heard about him but this man's been around. He had information I didn't even fathom, and then he just... disappears. Just has a habit of being in the right place at the perfect moment; almost seemed like I knew him. He's not very old but I think I'd remember if we'd met before."

Dodo stiffened a little and forced himself not to fathom the impossible. But in Wonderland, the impossible was always possible, so Pardenlace could be someone who had been very important in the past. The mere thought of that disturbed Dodo and he fixed Eagle with a firm stare.

"Go on, Eagle," he insisted and his soldier shot Lory a triumphant look. Lory gave a disgusted grunt and began to braid his multi-shaded hair with methodical slowness. His eyes however remained unfocussed and glassy, the look of a man who may have consumed a hallucinogen. The sight made Duck and Owl glance at one another. Lory had never once used the Queen's fabricated Emotion drugs... had he found a supply and decided to start?

He glanced at them and gave such a loopy smile that the sight of it made Duck put his arm around his Owl to comfort her.

"This Pardenlace was at the Hospital when a robbery occurred at the palace. Said that he was just playing poker with a freelance Executioner and the Dormouse and he saw a young man stealing what the guards claimed was the Stone of Wonderland," Eagle explained.

"Hat-ter?" Owl piped up, her thick accent drawling over the name, and Eagle shook his head. He was aware of Dodo's darkening gaze at the almost happy note in the small woman's voice. He knew that she would likely pay for that later.

"Wasn't Hatter. His description matched the Pigeon or from what I remember before he defected to the South. A taller thin man, blue-eyed and overly confident." Behind Dodo, the shadows shifted about, which Eagle immediately dismissed as a trick of the light.

"The Hospital is one large dead end in most areas. How did he escape?" Duck asked. Eagle shrugged.

"Pardenlace said he disappeared into a broom closet. That the guards went to look and no one was there. How he did it..."

Dodo exhaled sharply, his face an odd shade of grey.

"North Abel," Dodo muttered, remembering the stories of the Southern magic all to well. He looked up. "Pidge defected to work with the Drawling Master, as you will remember. It was only natural that he picked up some form of that witchcraft."

"There's no evidence that this was him," Lory commented and Eagle snorted.

"Please. We only know of two men who would go into the Heart lair and think they could get out. Hatter and Pidge... and Hatter just because he was mad enough to do it the other times. When Pardenlance described this man this time, it suited Pidge," Eagle argued. "Everyone else in the City Resistance is under orders to stand down, so who else? Pidge stole the ring and for who knows what reason? Perhaps he means to start a new Resistance in the South."

The same way his grandfather did just to spite me, Dodo considered to himself, his ego getting in the way of the real history of that matter.

"Please," Lory waved his hand, a dry chuckle escaping him at the thought of that theory. "Pidge never was much of a mastermind. Clever yes, but he only cares for those who he cares about. Not about the fate of politics and rulers. He hated operating as a squad leader as I remember."

"And he was also the right hand man of one of the most dangerous and oldest members of the South," Dodo snapped. "I wouldn't underestimate Pidge any more than I would underestimate the Hatter."

Which was something I did before to my own damned bad luck, Dodo thought privately.

"The Hatter is still declared dead?" Duck asked and Dodo nodded. It did narrow it down quite a bit when the one of the two rebel Resistance members was dead.

"Yes." He shifted in his seat and grinned. "Thankfully."

"But you're not sure?" It was a sudden comment from one of the more silent members of the Caucus, Midge. He was a younger man, fair haired and tiny-eyed, and ever since the Red King's attempted coupe he had taken to speaking his mind when he could work up the nerve. "That is not much comfort."

Dodo cast an imperious eye over him. "I do not see you volunteering to go to the South, Berkley Midge."

Midge blushed scarlet. "I only meant that he was dangerous when none of us expected him to be. Then he went mad and we all heard of the death and mayhem that happened in the South. I would certainly rest easier knowing he is not about to arrive in the City to kill us all in some insane ploy."

"Grow a set," Lory snapped at him. "The boy was never that dangerous."

"Not unless he was provoked," Midge retorted, "or mad. And we know that he was driven to that point. Because of orders our leader gave to penetrate the traps set up in his mind."

"As we have discussed, the formula was needed to prevent..." Dodo began, the practised speech flowing so easily from him that the sudden interruption made him sputter to a halt.

"You were never that clear on those details, Dodo," said another Caucus member named Twitch. He, like Midge, was youngish and had been a part of the Resistance since he was a child. Over the past year he had been rising through their ranks till he had had as much say as Dodo at times.

Something Dodo was not fond of.

"If we can gain control of the conduits, we can control what goes on in Wonderland. They were always keys to controlling this place, and if we can, Wonderland will change to how the Resistance knows it should be!" Dodo responded and Twitch sucked in a breath, privately astounded at the almost delusional sense of entitlement that the other man had.

"We could have just killed both Oysters and been done with it, without the fuss of losing a potential ally in the Drawling Master, " Twitch snapped. "You had someone in our ranks destroy his home. I never met the old man but I doubt he's going to take that lying down. He'll know it was you just because you sent your personal pet down there instead of operating more discreetly. You let her off her leash and now we have to deal not only with the Queen but the Drawling Master now!"

The rant made the entire room of seven people hold their breaths collectively, their attention so raptly fixed on his audacious disrespect that no one noticed the shadows behind Dodo shifting again.

"I shall handle the Queen. It is because of my decisions and my bargaining that we are all still alive in the first place. Why do you think they stopped at the first levels and didn't come down here to kill us all? Why do you think that she doesn't realize that I am housing fifty refugees down in the Tunnel right now?" Dodo countered, his brown eyes almost blazing, and he rose half-way from his seat.

The two younger Caucus members bristled. "Fifty refugees after you turned away how many?" Twitch snarled. "We had a thousand come to us for aid and you had us refuse them! Now they are all scattered throughout Wonderland, terrified that the very Resistance they had once depended on is nothing more than a puppet for the Queen."

"You would dare insinuate that I would jeopardize our honourable nature by aligning the Resistance with the very reason why we fought in the first place?" Dodo spat, his face turning purple in his rage.

"Honourable?" Twitch answered. "Honourable?"

He knocked a pile of books over and Owl cowered closer to Duck for protection when a volume struck her foot.

"What honour is there in hiding behind either the bravery of an Oyster or behind Jack Heart? All the while you cowered and became reduced to no more than a relic? What honour do you have left, old man!"

He shouted it at Dodo, his raised voice letting the insults echo through the safe room. Dodo's expression was open and clear, his anger so evident that others may have backed down. But Twitch was frustrated by his leader's seeming inaction... no, calculated lack of care that the very land they had fought for was going back to how it was under the Queen's oppressive rule, how it had been before their freedom. Twitch put his hand on his belt, ready to pull his gun from the holster tucked in the back of his pants, and staggered his body in preparation.

He didn't move more than step toward Dodo when there was whizz through the air, a soft sliver of sound that made them all look around. Twitch fell to his knees immediately, one hand clasping his throat as his eyes bulged. Dodo stared at him dispassionately as he coughed and sputtered, blood slowly leaking between his clutching fingers. Twitch's fingers moved to reveal a tiny wound in his throat, a slice made deeply enough to hit his jugular, and they all recoiled at the sight. His eyes locked on Dodo's accusingly before they rolled back into his head and he fell forward onto his chest, his legs doing final twitches as he convulsed in his death throes.

Dodo sniffed and sat back down.

"Are there any more accusations that you would all like to share?" he demanded, ignoring the open shock on their faces. His stern gaze was like glacial and they all shook their heads quickly while looking around the room to see who could have acted. But there was no sign of an assassin and that made them all even more jumpy. Dodo's eyes turned to Eagle once more. "So. Any more relics gone missing for no apparent reason?"

The easy and free way he asked it made Eagle shake his head quickly.

"Good. I'll think on this and let you all know what we should go forward with in the near future." He opened a ledger book and waved his hand dismissively. "Now get out."

Not knowing what else to do, his Caucus filed out one by one but when Eagle and Lory passed him he cleared his throat. When they stopped, he gestured to the corpse of Twitch.

"And take that with you."

Dodo had the good sense, born of years of survival, to wait until the Caucus was likely to be in the lower levels once more before he made for the roof. The Caucus made barely any noise as they went, their own training making them no more than shadows in the halls of the lower Library. Still, Dodo could tell where each one went, whether to another room or another level. He'd become too accustomed to the sounds of them moving to miss where they went. Duck and Owl to their posts near the bus elevator, the others to various sentry stations that would let them see any possible threat.

It was easy once they'd gone back to their assigned posts to slip through the rear door of his office, and he began to follow the path through the shadows as he made his way to the roof. The upper halls, the ones taken over by the Queen's men, were filled with patrols and tiny security scarabs that shone their robotic light into every nook and cranny, looking for any rebels it could find. Yet it was easy for even a man Dodo's size to slip by them; easy when they weren't actually expecting anyone to dare to come out. The patrols and scarabs were not used for their intelligence, something that was obvious as they had not found the route into the deeper areas of the Library in the weeks they had been here. Even if they did, Dodo was not concerned. The chances of him being caught were slim; he'd made enough deals in his life to be certain of that.

The upper roof was only accessible through either flying Scarabs or by utilizing a complex network of elevators. Dodo knew it all like the back of his hand and he knew which direction to send each of the elevators, at times leaping from one to the other in mid-flight. The elevators only operated under with an odd code of the right knobs and buttons, the right sequence of such was necessary and yet confusing for anyone who did not know what to do. Thankfully, Dodo had been one of the people to build the system and he had no worries about getting lost.

When the final elevator came to a bone-jarring halt, Dodo had to stand for a moment just to settle his turning stomach. The topsy-turvy journey had also reminded him that the old system was not as stable as it had once been. Which, if he was to be honest, was rather how the rest of Wonderland operated these days. He threw open the rusty elevator gate, winced at its loud screech and then stepped out into the bitter wind of Wonderland City. He sucked in a deep breath and promptly coughed it out; the mixture of fog and old smoke was almost painful on his lungs, an arid odour of burnt flesh lingering noxiously nearby. He managed to control the urge to keep coughing and took a look around. The Library's building was surrounded by even larger, more coarse buildings, but even in the shadows he could see a faint measure of moonlight through the fog.

But it was still so cold, reminding him of a year ago when winter had returned to Wonderland. There was no snow yet, just a bitter wind and cold rain that made him wish he had thrown on a heavier coat. He flinched when he heard the sound of crows cawing as they flew overhead, like scavengers getting ready to feed, and he then had a wish to have brought a gun for target practise.

But he scolded himself to remember that there were far more pressing issues at hand.

Dodo slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a flashlight. He flicked it on and off several times as if to test it and then looked up. The overhang nearby, which hid one of the straight passages to the Silk shops of Wonderland City, was having rain pouring out of its eaves-troughs but Dodo saw a movement there. The shadows shifted, just enough, so that he could see the slim figure of a woman standing there. The same shadow he'd seen in his office just before Twitch's murder.

"It's about time you showed up," the quiet female voice said, carried by the wind. Dodo stared, wondering at the best way to respond and not finding it. After a few moment's of hesitation, she began to walk toward him, her movements slow and jerky. It was as if even the act of moving caused her great pain.

Dodo flicked the light over her elfin face and she hissed, recoiling from it like a racoon from the light. He put the flashlight back in his pocket when it became clear that she wouldn't stop flinching if he kept the light on. The way she'd hidden her face was curious though, especially in a woman who'd prided herself on her looks, and Dodo tried to see through the shadows to get a good glimpse of her face.

She thwarted him though by retreating a few more steps into the shadows. Irritated, Dodo crossed his arms over his chest and huffed

"So, Selena, my precious snake, it is about time you made your presence known," he said by way of greeting and he heard her breath sharpen.

"I've been here for a few days. When I got wind of your meeting, I made sure that I was there the whole time," she countered and the moonlight parted the fog enough for him to see the wild shade of red her hair was now and the incredibly pale skin of her body. Her skin was more grey now, as if she'd been ill, and he looked over the rest of her with frank appraisal. Selena's clothing was in tatters all around her, revealing bare, almost indecent patches of skin; she should be feeling the bite of the wind, he thought, but there was no sign of it.

"I had thought so. Twitch did go with a rather elegant death," Dodo remarked and he saw that he'd flattered her in the way she straightened herself up. "I was surprised to see him die via hair-wire. You usually preferred knife work, Selena."

"New technique," was the only answer she gave and he watched as she reached into one of her few pockets. She was fishing around, as if trying to find something important, and Dodo waited patiently. It was a let-down to his expectations when all she pulled out was a small tablet that she promptly popped into her mouth. From what he had seen, it was a painkiller and one of the stronger kinds.

"I'm surprised you let him go on that way for so long," she commented and he snorted.

"It is better to let them hang themselves before getting rid of the problem."

She shrugged. "I suppose."

"What do you have for me?" he asked, preferring not to discuss his assassin's sudden need for explanation. She'd acted without his orders because she knew him well and he appreciated that. But if she was doubting his leadership abilities, this was a new change in her that he did not like.

Selena began to tick off points on her fingers like a sarcastic teenager.

"Manor destroyed, Hatter's mind destroyed, King killed, the Oysters running, Drawling Master temporarily without base. Seems to me that I've done quite a bit under your cryptic orders," Selena responded and there was an obstinate note in her voice that had never been there before. Dodo frowned and watched her as she began to twitch, her fingers constantly curling and uncurling.

"You've never cared before," he pointed out.

"I never had consequences like these before," she snapped and the ferocity in her voice was vaguely familiar. "I had to deal with far more elements to my past and I am not happy about that, sir."

Which meant that she'd been feeling again and Dodo did not need a Snake who experienced guilt or doubt. She was, in essence, a sheer and uncompromising killer and he didn't want her remembering the innocence of her youth.

Or anything that could remind her of it.

Which meant that either Hatter or Pidge had gotten to her.

"You... you were aware of Pidge working exclusively for the Drawling Master?" he asked and she snorted impolitely, a 'please, let's not bring that up again' sound. "Or was it Hatter that affected you?"

"Hatter," she spat the name out venomously, "is nothing more than a lap dog to an Oyster. Even when he was insane, it was all he could think of: some skinny Oyster with blue eyes and with no nerve at all. He'd see nothing and no one else."

There was a bit of jealousy in her voice, which was better than guilt, Dodo decided. He could use that.

"Ah... he rejected you, I see," Dodo goaded and watched her fingers curl into fists. "This is clearly something you deem important."

Selena sucked in a deep breath and it was clear that the memory of his continued rejection of her stung. Dodo noted, and not for the first time, that she was too proud and yet too naive about the emotions of some Wonderlanders - a by-product of her being almost completely unable to feel deep emotion herself. Hatter was one of the few able to feel deeply and few could understand why. Selena had likely thought that even insane he'd be an easy conquest and it had not gone to plan in her idealistic mind.

"Not anymore. That Manor burnt to cinders with no one inside of it that I could find. Hatter went off by himself to die and you only asked me to use him to find a formula." She fished back into her pockets and she jerked out a piece of paper, shoving it at him roughly. She fumbled with her grip, as if she didn't know where he stood. "So there."

To hide his eagerness about this information, Dodo cocked a brow and eyed her. "And Pidge?"

She stiffened. "Pidge is a traitor to the end. No matter what he tries to believe in."

"So I can imagine." He wasn't going to bring up Pidge again, judging by the tension that was clear in her slim frame. "So you are still prepared to continue to act in the interest of the Resistance?"

"Do I ever not?" she retorted and he smiled, watching as she fished out yet another tablet. His smile faded as he saw that this was, again, a strong painkiller.

"No, and it is why you are so dependable," he answered, watching intently as she popped the pill into her mouth. "Is it really necessary?"

"Very necessary," she snapped before cracking the pill between her teeth. "It... hurts." She backed up as if to leave, her face still hidden in the shadows.

"Selena, come here!"

Cringing like a dog about to be kicked, she stepped forward and he reached out to pull her closer and closer until he could see her face clearly. He wasn't able to help but feel physically ill at the sight of her. Selena's oddly pretty features were marred by patches of ruined skin and bruises. Scars lined the right side of her face, fresh ones that were tiny but multiple in number.

But it was her eyes that troubled him.

Or rather, the lack of them.

He'd heard that she had been injured but not to this extent. Her eyes had not simply swollen shut or surgically closed because of one too many punches. They'd been... pecked out, gouged by something vicious and sharp, something that had been very thorough. Her black eyes, once her strangest and yet most beautiful features, were gone. It left only black hollow pits for eye sockets in her face. Somehow the wounds had been healed to prevent her from bleeding to death but it gave Dodo no comfort.

He almost felt guilty.

"What... what happened? Did Hatter do this?" he demanded, a sudden cramp of fear going through him. She shook her head though and put her hand to her empty eye-sockets. The pain was too fresh to discus it more.

"No. Crows... working for the Manor I suppose."

She moved slowly, hesitating as she did so to make it clear that she could not see. Her hand went out and she brushed her fingers over Dodo's clenched fists.

"Which is what I get for underestimating them, sir."

He nodded. "A brutal lesson."

And one I think you won't forget, he thought to himself.

"Even without the Hatter, they'll all be dangerous. Whatever plan you have in store, you should start it now. We have come too far and we've taken too much time," Selena said before she began to back away. Dodo watched her hesitant movements, saw the way she stumbled here and there, and felt a strange pity. His most precious assassin would be rendered almost useless. Unless he could find some kind of use for her.

He glanced down at the piece of paper clenched in his hand and read it over in the dim light. With each ingredient, he began to smile. It was a complicated formula but not at all impossible. This might not be as terrible as he thought; it was just giving his enemies enough time to find it all for him before swooping in to take the credit.

The thought of his enemies made him look up to see Selena just slipping through the door to the tunnels. He then thought of a perfect use for her that would get rid of the possible rebellion he could see starting inside of her. A rebellion that, if left unchecked, could see her destroying everything for the sake of her blind anger and hatred.

Chapter Text

It was over an hour after her confrontation with Hatter and Alice still could not bring herself to go back to her room yet. She didn't like the thought of being alone again, always wondering what was going through Hatter's mind and then waking up to a cold and lonely room. She'd felt the way he'd closed himself off from her and knew that there would be no arguing with his logic. He needed time and she needed to give that to him. She should go to bed, try to sleep off the ache in her body from the previous hour, and try to forget that she'd come close to fully drawing him out of his shell.

All of that would have made sense to do after the night she'd just had.

Instead she went to the rear balcony that overlooked the silent backdrop of the Metropolis, the dismal landscape of almost Gothic architecture and the occasional flickering of lightening across the sky not improving her mood. There was a drizzle of rain still, seeping through the collar of her torn blouse, and she shivered as it dripped down the back of her neck. Alice adjusted her shirt closer around her neck and then leaned over the railing, her hands clutching the iron tightly. Her blue eyes were intent on the distant buildings but she felt oddly unfocussed and disorientated.

The sting of a bite mark on her shoulder and the uncomfortable ache in her legs let her know that it had happened.

Alice closed her eyes and moaned lowly, her fingers tightening on the railing as she thought back to the previous hour. The memories were so fresh that she could still feel the ghostly touch on her arms, and the brush of his mouth on hers... yet she was still shaky on what had happened. It had seemed like some fantasy she might have had about a darker Hatter but the physical evidence was there that this had happened, and she knew she had seen something deeper arise from it. She had seen a glimpse of her Hatter, a glimpse that had given her hope, but now it had faded into an uncertain doubt that maybe she'd done the wrong thing.

Her hand pressed to her stomach as she thought, for the millionth time since she'd come to South Wonderland, that she should have told him. Her pregnancy felt like it was coming back to normal now and there was only so much time left. But he had seemed so fragile then that she wasn't sure he could handle it. As Alice stroked her belly, she shut her eyes and wondered. Would it have been so bad?

"Standing out in the rain is a sure way for you to die of pneumonia and then where would we all be?" Pidge said suddenly from the doorway and she turned on her heel abruptly. In an oddly endearing but thoroughly ridiculous move, Pidge was holding a parasol over his head to ward off some of the rain. Alice stifled the urge to laugh out loud, since he seemed so serious as he walked toward her. The parasol looked like something out of a Victorian-based movie, its lace edges soaked and frayed, and he tipped it over her. It gave her barely any protection from the drizzle and Alice cocked an eyebrow at him as a fresh drip of cold rain travelled down her cheek.

"Well, I never said it actually worked," he pointed out and he shook the parasol out before snapping it closed. Alice shook her head and smiled, turning back again. He leaned over the railing beside her and sighed.

"How'd it go?"

The question hung in the air for a few tense seconds and she cleared her throat noisily.

"How did what go?" Alice countered nervously and he turned his head toward her, his blue eyes cool yet interested.

"I spoke to Charlie earlier, Alice. I won't lie, I was waiting for you down in the kitchen but you never came back. And there is only so many tarts I can eat before I lose my 'physique'." Grinning, he patted his stomach and then began to rub his hands together to keep the chill from them. "Did you see what you needed to see?"

"I did." And did what I needed to do, she thought to herself.

"I see. Hatter is...?" He left it open and waved his hand impatiently for her to finish the sentence for him.

"Better," she conceded. "It's just going to take some time. But he's in there."

"Just not quite yet? Alice," Pidge started and he shifted uncomfortably. "Will he be ready to go in the next day or two? We're running out of time. Especially since more of Wonderland keeps, well, disappearing."

Alice stared over the city, taking in the macabre design of decaying archways and crumbling mortar, and didn't answer. Pidge glanced at her face and sighed. He could see the answer in her set face.

"I never did like working with unknown equations," he grumbled and Alice gave a harsh bitter laugh, as she turned toward him halfway.

"And you decided that now? After everything that's happened?"

"I never said it wasn't worth it." He said it quietly but there was more than a little bit of meaning behind his words. "I don't like the thought of abandoning him, Alice. I know that some may think him no more than a mad creature, a by-product of torture and circumstance... but I've seen Hatter do enormous good. I've known him before anything like this started to afflict him."

She nodded, her eyes focused on his sharp features while Pidge kept his eyes away from her.

"It is how I've been raised, Alice, to always figure out the end and the means before everyone else, and I can't for this." Pidge made a face as water began to drip down his collar. "I don't like that feeling. Makes me feel almost useless."

He glanced at her and she shrugged, not having an answer for him.

They stood in silence together again, watching the city and trying to ignore the underlying tension that still brewed between them. Alice understood his fears and knew that they were bothering him as much as her own bothered her. But she couldn't think of what he wanted her to say to comfort him or if he even wanted that comfort if she could think it up. It brought an odd feeling of discomfort to her. Needing to occupy her hands, she tugged on the ends of her shirt, retightening the temporary knot in an effort to ignore the chill up her spine.

The thought of Hatter's tearing of her shirt made Alice's eyes well up with tears and she sniffed hard to try to keep them contained. Pidge, noticing the sound, turned toward her and frowned. He saw the tension in her face, the lines there almost creating an aging look on her pretty features. There was no glow to her skin anymore, not the way there had been when he had first seen her out here, and the lack of glow almost gave her skin a grey tone. Sniffling, Alice turned her face away and Pidge gently touched her chin, looking her over. For the first time, he noticed the torn apart blouse that gaped wide at her breasts, the bruising on her pale throat and shoulders. She was normally so neat and tidy, even in moments when there shouldn't be time to be orderly, and the sight disturbed him.

"Alice... he didn't hurt you did he?" he asked, his grip gentle but firm. Alice fixed her shirt closer around her body, shivering as she began to realize she was getting very cold now.

"No, Pidge."

He brushed his fingers over the bruising on her neck. "Doesn't look like nothing to me," he pointed out and she pulled back.

"It's nothing!" she snapped, her fingers grabbing hold of his coat as she started to push him away. Pidge dropped his hand and grabbed her fingers in his.

"Alice, come on."

She stared away from him, still pushing on his shoulders but no longer with any real feeling behind it. Pidge's head tilted as he looked down at her, his dark hair flopping into his eyes. Alice licked her dry lips and shivered again, unconsciously moving into him for warmth.

"It's... it's hard, Pidge," she admitted finally, her forehead brushing his coat lapel. "It was how many weeks of hoping to be back with him? Expecting it to be so easy to bring him back, like the last time. Last time it wasn't so bad; he was already coming back, he'd forced himself to. And now..."

"Now he's hesitating to come back?" When she nodded, he sighed. "I can't blame him, Alice. Madness in Wonderland has never been like madness in your world, I suppose. Here, at least, one is aware of the things going on but is powerless to control it."

Hatter's earlier words to her had been oddly similar to Pidge's remarks.

"You lost yourself, felt the way every piece of you started to go missing."

Alice bit into her lower lip and shivered. It was not a pleasant memory of that time long ago when she had become nothing more than a vessel for the White Queen's malevolent power. She had been aware of what she'd been doing and it had terrified her that she couldn't keep herself from nearly killing Hatter.

Pidge shifted and she felt him suck in a breath as if he was thinking. "It takes an exceptional person to return from that."

He slung his arm across her shoulders when he felt her shivering still and Alice sighed, leaning into him again. They stood in a companionable silence for a while and watched the moonlight gradually touching all the rooftops of the city in the distance. The Metropolis looked broken, even from the distance, and Alice was struck by how dissimilar it looked to Wonderland City. Still, it made her long for home and she thought back to just months previous. How almost carefree life had been.

Now she had lost friends and her lover was a broken shell of a man.

"Most of me wants it to be like before but it can't ever be," Alice said and she pressed one hand against her stomach. She felt, for the first time since Unda had reversed her pregnancy, a tiny sensation of warmth and it was like her unborn child sensed her distress. "Not even now."

Pidge patted her arm. "No one said life was easy," he muttered and she gave a watery chuckle.

"Especially not life in Wonderland."

"It has its beauty," Pidge pointed out and turned her slightly, feeling the tension in her.

"And sometimes it is hard to see," she countered and he gave a half-smile. He was ready to start bantering with her when he caught glimpse of her face and he felt his own heart drop at her obvious melancholy. Not for the first time, he missed the rebellious and feisty woman he had first met and now only occasionally glimpsed. He felt a cold anger at everything that the lies of Wonderland had ripped from her and the emotion startled him so much he made a faint strangled sound of surprise. She was almost ready to cry and the sight touched him.

The arm slung around her shoulders tightened and he pulled her close to try to comfort her.

Alice pressed against him, unable to help but feel a fresh wave of depressing hopelessness, and wondered at his sudden tension. She didn't dare ask what was wrong. All she could do was stare at the leather and cord of Pidge's heavy coat and hope that she didn't break into tears around him again.

"I wish this hadn't happened to you, Alice," he said softly. The firmness in his touch was like he was trying to prove to her that he could be relied on and she lifted her head to tell him that she was okay. She was unaware of the way her eyes lifted in a way that was almost beguiling and very unaware that he was not seeing just her hopelessness.

The instant she looked up, his mouth came down onto hers, not roughly but thoroughly. She was startled into simply standing against him, feeling the comfort he was trying to give her. Then she remembered just hours before the fear that another man had been trying to inflict onto her. Pushing against his chest, Alice struggled to pull back but his fingers tightened on her arms. He held on to her and she felt herself caving slightly, exhaustion of the emotional and physical kind lowering her guard.

Pidge's manner was that of a desperately unhappy man seeking to put himself in the place of a shattered dream.

Pidge's kiss grew gentle but insistent and Alice let her hands rest against his chest. She was ready to push him away but she hesitated, Hatter's recent rejection of her help only adding to her hesitation. It was so easy to remember what had happened in the hours before and easy to remember Hatter instead of Pidge and even easier to feel Hatter instead of the tall man trying to comfort her. She kissed him back for just a moment and then felt an instant wash of betrayal that made her realize what she was doing. She could feel Pidge's heartbeat racing under her hand as his mouth slanted harder against hers, parting her lips further.

How she still missed Hatter, how she regretted not telling him about their baby...

The thoughts of both her unborn child and Hatter made her put her hands to Pidge's chest and actually shove gently. He felt it and broke the kiss, staring at her. Alice stared back and then pulled back further.

"I can't Pidge."

They were both panting for breath but he wisely let her go. "I'm sorry, Alice, I just..."

She took a deep breath and shakily stepped back from him.

"Pidge, I think that we need to stop this now," she insisted and he nodded.

"I've not been fair to you, Alice," he started and she smiled, touching his hand.

"No, it's not all your fault. But your grandfather did say you'd only try once," she rolled her eyes up, trying to ignore the phantom feel of his mouth on hers, "and this was twice."

"Hope does that to us Wonderlanders. Makes us reckless, you know," he answered, his eyes still blazing. The sight made her wish she could look away and not feel as guilty.

She wasn't sure whom she felt she had betrayed here.

"Many ways, I wish I'd met you first, Alice," Pidge said as if reading her expression. "Wish I'd been that lucky to experience what Hatter experiences with you. That sort of devotion, love, whatever you'd like to call it, you share between you. He's my friend but I can't help but want that."

Staring at him, Alice suddenly realized that the sudden grief on Pidge's face was not only because of his strengthening emotions but because he felt he'd betrayed his friend in falling for his lover. Pidge's level of caring for Hatter was deeper than she'd thought. Alice wondered if part of the reason why he seemed to be so stuck on her was because of Hatter. If she'd been with anyone else, would he have been so focused on her? It wasn't just because it was something he couldn't have.

Or was it? What exactly did he want?

But she knew who'd she had been meant to be with now more than ever.

Alice smiled wistfully. "It's funny, in an odd way, about us meeting, Pidge."

He looked at her curiously.

"I know you think we'd might have been together if things had changed. If I had met you first and maybe you're right. Maybe I would have ended up being with you instead of Jack when he asked me to stay. Wonderland's been teaching me that sometimes these moments are already fated to happen." Alice brushed her hair away from her eyes and sighed, closing her eyes at the memory of the other man she had to hurt to bring about the right order of things. "But despite that, I don't think it would have lasted. In the end, I still would have found Hatter, still would have fallen for him. And then I'd be betraying you."

Pidge sighed. "I see."

"Your grandfather said he believes that this was all some odd plan of Wonderland." Alice paused; knowing what she was about to say would hurt him. "So I was always meant to be with Hatter, not you."

He sucked in a hurt breath and she continued on, "Even if it seemed like that was the last thing I should do."

Pidge gave a shaky nod; suddenly looking like a hurt little boy and she felt a deepening guilt when she saw just how hurt he was by her words. The tall man had been so enthralled by his own emotions that his ego had slowly come into it as well. For her to say that there was never a possibility beyond a dalliance had stung. They stared at one another and Alice knew that, in a way, she'd betrayed Pidge as much as she had betrayed Hatter.

There was no other way though and she watched as he backed away from her, picking up the parasol from the ground as he went. Muttering an embarrassed apology, he quickly retreated through the balcony doors again, leaving her alone in the cold drizzle.

Turning back to look out at the city, Alice waited for the sound of him walking up the stairs before she lowered her head and took in a shaky breath.

It scalded her to think of how willing she'd almost been to take an easy route out. But she had too many memories of fighting for what she wanted to ever do that and that alone made her steady in her lack of regret. She would not, Alice knew, ever regret deciding to fight for her belief in Hatter. Not even when she was offered an easy alternative.

In the few minutes of blissful silence, the drizzle slowly left the air and she stopped shivering. It was so late at night now, practically early morning, and she longed to go get some sleep. But she stayed out and tried to enjoy the silence until it was interrupted.

She heard the soft snick of shoes on the concrete and Alice froze, knowing instinctively who it was. Her luck had been rather rotten tonight in dealing with two men who clearly cared about her; where would the surprise be if this went well? She didn't dare to move, knowing that what had just occurred between her and Pidge had been witnessed. Taking in a shaky breath, Alice stared out over the townhouse garden and tried not to think.

It was harder to do as Hatter slid his arms out onto the railing and leaned over the edge a bit, his eyes focused on the garden as well.

They stood in silence for a few minutes, Alice's nerves fraying with each passing second and Hatter's fingers tapping a slow rhythm on the rail. The tapping made it clear that he was thinking something over and that he wanted to be sure what he said was the right thing. The consideration he was showing was lost on Alice's mind; to her, she'd inadvertently cheated on him and she was braced for a full shouting match. A shouting match which would be certain to happen in her home world with any other man. But she'd forgotten that this was not her world and this was not any other man. No raised voice or hastily flung insults came; it was just a companionable silence.

When Hatter finally spoke, the sudden flatness of his accent made Alice jump in her place.

"He's in love with you."

Hatter made it a declaration, not a question, and Alice felt fresh tears spring to her eyes at the nonchalance in his voice. She nodded, unable to speak, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw him rubbing his hands together slowly.

"Can't blame him really."

"You saw..."

"Everything. I followed you after a while. Wanted to make sure I didn't really hurt you." Hatter straightened a bit and looked over at her, his expression bland. "Thing is, Alice, a part of me just wants to push you to him. He'd be a good man for you, you know."

He made a face. "Though it would kill me."

A denial was burning on her lips and she turned to look at him. He wasn't looking at her and she felt a resentment growing that he would think to try that. Slamming a palm against the railing and deciding not to cope with any more depressing conversations, she went to leave.

Hatter had noticed her tension and straightened himself up, watching the way she moved. He shifted quickly, arms blocking her against the balcony before she could get more than a few steps. The bracketing feeling, done earlier to threaten her, was now more to keep her from running and he made it clear that he wasn't going to let her move far.

She wasn't sure which one had been worse and she pushed weakly against his chest, giving him a solid thump when he didn't move. She was tired though from the earlier confrontation between them and now from her emotionally exhausting moments with Pidge. After a few pushes she stopped and gave up.

Alice's eyes nearly crossed as Hatter leaned in close to her. She could still smell herself on his skin, along with the faint odour of sex and books, which made for an odd combination. The smell was even stronger when she lifted a hand to wipe at her damp collarbone and she sniffed her skin. It was strong on her skin as well. It made her feel a bit ashamed; Pidge had likely smelled Hatter on her as much as she could smell herself on Hatter.

The thought made an odd numb sensation travel through her and she blushed. She felt absurdly embarrassed over such a small detail. Flicking her tongue across her lips, Alice squared her shoulders and tried to stare him down.

"You could let me go to him, that's true," she started and he put a finger against her lips, warning her into silence so that he could finish.

His eyes narrowed a bit to give the impression that he was very serious. "But I won't lie, Alice. I can't let that happen. Won't let it happen."

"I'm not a possession," Alice hissed with a bit of her old insecurities showing. Hatter's eyes wandered over her face.

"No, you're not." He leaned close, his hand drifting down her face to move over her chest before his palm pressed over her heart. His warmth was strangely intoxicating, in a way very different than Pidge's had been, and Alice leaned closer to him before he moved his hand back to the railing. "But we're bound together, and like you said, this was probably meant to be."

"So you did hear everything," she said weakly.

He shrugged and looked down at his hands where they clenched the railing. "Couldn't help it. I was worried." Hatter exhaled slowly and she felt the warm drift of air go over her brow. "It would make it a worse turn of events if I lost you again. Even to him."

He leaned against her. "I never like to admit to being scared, Alice. But I have to admit that the moment when I saw him kiss you was likely the worst fear I've felt."

With a touch of his old humour, he actually smiled. "Which, considerin' all we've been through, is certainly sayin' somethin'."

Startled by the lightness in his voice, Alice stared up at him and tilted her head on the side. "I would have thought you'd have beaten him into a pulp because of it. Like how it would be in my world."

He pointed up at himself. "Wonderlander, remember? And I do trust you."

Unable to help it, she smiled. "I know." Leaning forward, Alice rested her nose against his and sighed, feeling his breath on her mouth. "I just need to have hope, Hatter. It's something I am finding harder and harder to have."

She heard the screech of iron being crushed as his right hand clenched hard on the railing.

"You've got family and friends still, Alice. Don't give that up if you can. You won't like the path it leads you down," he growled.

"I don't just need that, Hatter. In this world, I need you." She flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Not to protect me but to just..."

Alice's words drifted off and she looked away.

Staring down at the ruined railing, she knew that in some ways, she did need his protection, though it killed her pride to admit it. He lifted his hand, bloody now because of the sharp edges that had cut through it, and stared at it. Alice gave a soft murmur and ripped a small slice of her shirt. She began to wrap his hand for him, focussing on the task so that she couldn't see his reaction. He stared at the top of her head and shivered when he felt her fingers graze over his palm.

"This is why you don't need me, Alice. Why I don't deserve you," Hatter said fatalistically. Alice looked back at him, tearing her eyes away from his wrapped hand, and gave him a sad smile. She understood his desire to protect her but she'd not let him go now.

"You're wrong, I do need you, Hatter. I may not say I need you to protect me but sometimes I do, whether it is from myself or from Wonderland." Ignoring his resistance, she took his right hand, the one that had crumbled the railing behind her into a twisted mess, and brought it down to her stomach. "We both need you."

Hatter stared into her eyes, for once speechless, and his eyes seemed to flicker between colours again.

"You okay?" she whispered, petrified that her words had prompted some sort of change. Hatter tipped his head on the side and stared at her intently.

"Care to say that again?"

Alice felt his hand press tight against her belly, his fingers curling and tracing the curve to it as if he'd never touched her before. "I didn't want to tell you until I was sure, until...this was all over with. I only figured it out when we first left the city. But then Selena happened and I lost you, for even just a month. It became more and more obvious then. Yet every time I've tried to tell you, something or someone has always interfered, till I wasn't sure I could tell you without consequences. But I've realized there was no way I would lose you when I wanted our child to know its father."

He still stared at her stupidly.

"'re pregnant?" Hatter stuttered and he lifted a hand to run it through his hair. He looked as if she'd thrown a bucket of ice water on him. "I had noticed you looked different but had... You're pregnant." He was trying to absorb it quickly and was failing. "Pregnant. And you knew that and you still came after me."

She gave a weak smile. "You're mine, Noble Hatter, no matter what you say. I was prepared."

"I could have killed you."

"No, you couldn't. And you know that now."

Hatter acted as if he didn't hear her. "I could have..."

"Hatter," Alice cupped his face in her hands, determined to derail those thoughts before they led him down into more remorse. "I love you, you know that. And I could never leave you behind. I know you love me." She could feel his fingers still resting on her stomach, drumming a worried beat there and she sniffed, desperate not to break into tears as she saw his face go skillfully blank. He was considering everything and didn't want her to see what he was thinking. "You swore you'd never leave me, remember? A long time ago, when I came back for you after Chesh's curse, and we both said we'd stay together. I'm holding you to that."

The weight of the promise hung between them, Wonderland's emphasis on promises very much a reality. She could feel it in the way the city itself seemed to hold an imaginary breath and wondered if Wonderland was in some way watching.

Judging by the way he looked at her, Alice knew that Hatter remembered what he had said, back in the City when she'd come through the Looking Glass after he'd tried to push her away.

"I think you're stuck with me then. I told you I'd take care of you if you ever were stuck in Wonderland," he said.

Strangely, Hatter said nothing to give away what he was thinking. Instead he slipped down to his knees, ignored the puddle he landed in, and pressed his forehead against her stomach. His breathing was shaky and his hands cupped her waist tightly, almost like he was afraid to let her go. Alice felt him trembling against her and put her hands in his hair, stroking the dark strands to try to comfort him. It was a relief that he didn't seem to be minding her touch now.

Finally the silence became too much to bear and she gave his hair a gentle tug. "Say something, Hatter."

"Why do you keep forgiving me for this?" Hatter whispered and Alice shrugged.

"Because I love you and I knew what may happen from the moment I decide to stay with you. I never regret what happens with you, Hatter, and likely never will. No matter what happens, I still want to be with you." Alice felt his hand press against her stomach and put her hand over his gently. "Especially for this."

He was silent again for a long while and she recognized the tension in his body. This was Hatter deciding on something for himself, something that mattered to him. No matter how badly she wanted to try to get him to talk and how much she wanted some obvious show of either joy of being a father or absolute fury that she'd hidden this from him, Alice also knew that she couldn't dare force him to talk. Not after what they'd both been through. She owed him this moment.

Shifting again, Hatter's fingers brushed against the curve of her stomach, testing the small bump there curiously.

"I'm going to be a Dad," Hatter muttered, his voice soft before he looked up at her. Alice smiled down at him and watched as he tilted his head on the side, the familiar gesture touching her emotions. Hatter's face was still, as if he thought of something that had terrified him to the soul and Alice frowned in concern.

"You okay?" A million possibilities and scenarios went through her head: he was going to leave her, or that this had only convinced him that he should stay as far as possible from her; he was angry not scared, his trust destroyed because she'd hesitated to tell him right from the start. She must have worn her emotions plain on her face because his caress of her stomach grew a touch stronger.

When she relaxed again, Hatter shrugged and commented weakly, "Your mum is going to kill me."

She couldn't help it. She blurted out her laughter in his face and kept giggling when she saw his open distress. Hatter huffed and got to his feet again, staring down at her.

"Very likely...but then she's already in love with the idea of being a grandmother all the same." Alice grinned at him and watched his face. Her smile faded a bit and she touched his bearded cheek uncertainly. "You... you're sure you are okay with this?"

Hatter stared at her. "Alice, you've been one of the best things to happen to me in this life. something I'd never would have dreamt up in all my madness."

He cupped her face in his hands, his thumb tracing the faint scar she'd received from their last fight. As if he couldn't help himself, he pressed his other hand against her stomach again. He glanced down between them.

"So I'm thankful that this is reality. Hopeful that it is," he whispered as he looked back up at her. Their eyes met and the look of both pride and guarded hope on his face made Alice feel fresh tears spring to her eyes.

She slid her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tight against her, crying silently into his neck. Hatter held her just as tight, stroking her hair as he let her sniffle.

"I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked.

Alice sniffed back tears and saw his concern when she broke the hug. "Sorry...hormones. Makes me feel like a watering can."

"Oh sweet Wonderland, that's all I need." He rolled his eyes playfully, a touch of his old self re-emerging. He backed up a few steps and looked at her critically. "How far along are you?"

Alice chewed her lower lip in thought. "I should be nearly six months now."

"But?" he prompted, obviously trusting her.

"It was turned back and I have no idea how," she admitted and saw his frown. "I...she said that it was a favour to you, that you shouldn't miss any of this."

Memories of Unda's hauntingly odd face and the cold grip of her hand on her stomach made Alice's insides churn unhappily.

"She?" Hatter repeated slowly. "Who's 'she'?"

"Someone I've been seeing. I think I'm going crazy and I know the others would think I'm crazy," Alice started and Hatter grabbed her arm.

"Alice, who is 'she'?" he demanded, his demeanour changing instantly. She felt his tight grip almost bruise her but he let her go before he did any damage.

"She's someone I've been... seeing. In dreams or mirrors," Alice explained and saw him stiffen up. "She's sort of pretty with silver hair, usually with black marks on her skin that are different each time, and her..."

"Her eyes are the most incredible green you've ever seen," Hatter finished for her and Alice stared at him. He arched a brow, waiting for her confirmation and she finally nodded. Hatter raised both hands to his mouth and exhaled, dragging his fingers down his face slowly. "Oh, Wonderland."

"Hatter? You've seen her?" At his nod she jerked a bit. "She said her name was Unda."

He didn't answer her but simply stared hard at Alice. "You said she turned back your pregnancy?"

"Something that is scientifically impossible in my world but yes. I mean, do I look six months pregnant to you?" Alice demanded, cupping her hands around the curve to her stomach meaningfully.

Hatter rolled his eyes. "Alice, even if you did, even I know better than to agree that you do. That is just a word trap waiting to happen."

The old banter made her smile but it dropped at the seriousness on his face.

"What's wrong?"

"I just worry that anything she decides to 'gift' you with is more trouble than you can imagine." Hatter reached out and traced his fingers in a circle over her stomach, the touch so light she barely felt it.

"Do you know her?"

He shrugged.

"Hatter, please!"

"Alice, I only have guesses at this point and most of them are hazy." He opened his shirt with the other hand and she flinched at the sight of the still healing wounds on him. "Am I in any shape to really start investigating? And in this place, who is to know the truth?" he pointed out.

Alice stared into his eyes, saw the familiar brown of them, and her jaw clenched tightly.

"I know someone who should."

Chapter Text

It had seemed like a simple enough plan to find North Abel but it quickly became clear that Alice had no idea where the Drawling Master was hiding. Which, as Hatter pointed out several times, was not a good sign for her directional guide capabilities. Had she not been so pleased to hear him trying to make a joke, Alice might have been offended by that slight but she let it go. She was tired and needed his occasional lapses into his old self to make herself go on. The house was only so large and she went to almost every floor, shadowed by Hatter. The walking still caused him pain but when she'd tried to insist that he should go back to his room, he'd merely kept walking and ignored her.

Which was a vast improvement on the fact that hours before he'd have obeyed her out of sheer fear and guilt.

Alice was still careful though to not let him go into Abigail or Pidge's rooms with her as she looked. Something told her that this complacent Hatter would still be dangerous around his newly returned mother and the man who had just come on to her rather heavily. He kept outside anyway without being asked and waited patiently, often seeming half-asleep when she came back out. Abigail had been no help and Pidge had been no where in sight, hardly surprising to Alice but still disappointing.

Hatter said nothing to the lack of help, now and again pressing his hand against the deep wound in his side to test the bandages. When his hand still came away clean from blood, he'd rest his head back and yawn. Yet he showed no signs of leaving Alice to find his bed; if anything, he was more like a shadow than before.

It was when they were in the kitchens again that Hatter started talking to himself; a fervid argument between two changed voiced. It unsettled Alice so much that she was ready to try to escort him back to the third floor and go to bed herself. It wasn't worth risking a relapse for the sake of chanced information. For all she knew, the old man would be long gone until the morning and she wanted some sleep. When she glanced at Hatter, Alice knew that his exhaustion was creeping up on him; his gaunt face seemed set in tired lines and his limp was worse.

Moving to the door, she started up the stairs and was half-way to the second floor when she realized that she was walking alone. Alice huffed, rubbing at her sore neck in irritation, and made her way back down the stairs. Her head hurt from a lack of sleep and too much tension and her eyes actually stung when she tried to look through the dim light. Highlighted by soft shadows, Hatter was standing at the rear counter, leaning over one of the sinks with his attention on the overgrown garden. Alice leaned against the door-frame and stared at him for a moment, the restless way he fidgeted telling her that something was up.

When she noticed his right hand clenching on the edge of the sink, Alice quickly came to his side and stared out with him. Hatter's attention didn't waver even when she hesitantly went to touch him. But before her hand made contact, she saw his arm jerk a bit and she quickly moved her hand to rest on the sink beside his.

"What is it?"

"What's he doin' out there?" he asked, his voice losing some of its inflection as he stared. His head tilted on the side and, before she could think to stop him, he was half-walking, half-jogging out into the garden. He seemed determined to see if something was real, his attention like a bloodhound on the trail.

Guinevere and Arthur both looked up as he passed them and whickered and he glanced at the mare. As Alice watched while she struggled to catch up down the garden stones, Hatter and the mare stared at each other. He paused mid-step and turned toward the horse. She jerked her head up higher, her ears strained forward as her nostrils flared to take in his scent. Hatter tipped his head on the side and gave a soft whistle. The horse snorted and then lowered her head a bit, whickering again.

Watching them, Alice had the impression that they had come to a strange understanding in those matter of seconds. Then he was moving again and the horses went back to dozing in the rain. Hatter continued down through the garden, nimbly avoiding the jagged stones and overturned flower beds as he went, and lifted his hands defensively to his sides. Over his shoulder, Alice finally saw what he'd been headed for and she slowed down, keeping several paces behind him.

Long before Alice had even glimpsed it, Hatter had noticed the iron table and chairs set beside the tiny sapling Soultree. He hadn't been surprised to see that that was were the Drawling Master was sitting, looking for all the world like a nobleman of leisure. The old man was flipping through a holo-book, occasionally using a dial to bring maps and pictures up and then changing the page. He clearly knew Hatter was there by the way he kicked one of the other chairs so that it was away from the table.

Hatter stood, not sure he trusted himself to be this close to a man he had just weeks before been ready to kill. He was even more suspicious that Abel likely knew why the Resistance had wanted to penetrate the protective layers of Hatter's mind to find what his family had hidden.

But his mind, ever constantly moving, set on the subject he wanted to know about the most right now.

A silver haired woman with green eyes.

"I was wondering when you'd come around," Abel said as he adjusted one of the pages of his book and then held the book up on an angle. He took in the new landscape view carefully and then turned the page with disinterest.

Flicking his eyes over at Hatter, he smirked. "So. What do you want?"

"Bit late for you to be up, isn't it?" Alice asked from behind Hatter and Abel arched a brow.

"I believe that you are up later than you should be, my dear. And you have far more to worry about than I."

"Nothing she can't take care of herself, stop deflectin'," Hatter ground out between clenched teeth.

Abel looked them both up and down with a smirk.

"Clearly we are both feeling better," he remarked with a pointed look at both of them which made Alice blush. Hatter's own expression didn't change, his eyes focussed on the Drawling Master intently. Alice let herself have the luxury of a few seconds to look at them both sitting there together.

Now, standing so close, she could see the slightly similarities between the two men. Hatter did resemble his father more than his maternal grandfather - at least, from what she remembered of Grey Hatta's ghost. Yet, there was a similar purpose of mind, of the way they both seemed to let their eyes do the talking, that let Alice know that they were related..

Though Abel was long past the age of roguish carelessness that Hatter seemed to be permanently experiencing.

"We need an answer and Alice thinks you're the one that has it," Hatter began and Abel rolled his eyes.

"So you are on better terms. Speaking terms, that is, and likely other additional ways of communication. How... interesting." He looked at Alice and saw the faint bruising of a bite mark on her neck. "I'm surprised her mark let you that close."

Hatter glanced over at her and noticed the mark as well. When Alice went scarlet red, a colour that showed even in the dim garden, he smiled. "I might be a bit senile but I'm not blind, children."

Hatter refused to be embarrassed though it was clear he was not comfortable looking at Alice so steadily. Clearing his throat, he tried to focus on the subject at hand. "You're a historian of Wonderland, so everyone tells me."

The old man scoffed. "Historian? No. I've just lived long enough in this world to know some things. That comes from a long life, my boy. You get to be a fount of natural knowledge, not a locked safe like your mind is."

"So you can tell me why Alice and I are being haunted by the same ghost," the younger man snapped.

Abel, to his credit, did not react outwardly, though his eyes glinted a little. Hatter did not frighten him; he had, as he had just said, been alive too long to be scared by much. But the young man did possess a way of carrying himself that made Abel feel a bit of pride to see how he'd turned out after such a strange, adverse life. He'd always looked forward to meeting his grandson, though he'd always denied that to his own daughter. Not the shadow of a man he'd seen the past few days but this one that he could see simmering just beneath that skilful mask of blandness. The one that gossip had said was as outwardly deceptive as any good Wonderland con-man and yet deep-seated in integrity.

The one that, for a moment of nostalgia, almost reminded Abel of how he'd been before time and grief had made him what he was.

He looked back down at his book and turned it over, his eyes on the holo image that popped up. It was Wonderland City in its infancy, the old hedgerows that lined what were now the tunnels high and already overgrown, the buildings not as high and the Heart Palace was still the centre of the city. The map then whirled out and expanded, showing a 3D map of the City and the paths that had once led across the Lake. He traced a pathway with one finger and then turned the book to Hatter.

"You don't recognize this, do you?" he said, ignoring Alice's curious look as he focussed on Hatter. Hatter's eyes were intent on the page. He reached out and touched the diagram hesitantly.

"I... I don't know," he admitted.

"You've seen them in your dreams if you've talked to her. She carries it all with her," Abel pointed out and Hatter frowned, fingers trailing over the holo-tree tops.

Alice stepped behind Hatter and glanced at the book over his shoulder.

"You know we've been seeing a woman. A pale-haired woman with green eyes," she accused and the Drawling Master leaned back in his seat. He crossed his legs and began to tap his fingers on his knee.

"I know." His eyes lingered on the page Hatter had just turned to, a holo-image of the Checkerboard Taiga with its different coloured squares, and he sighed. "I just thought I'd not see her myself 'till I was dead."

He flicked the edge of the book's cover with his finger. "Which, in truth, has been a long time coming."

Despite his melancholy words, Alice didn't really notice the sudden change in his mood. She was focussed on Hatter; his tension was so intense that it was nearly crackling off of him. Reaching out, she stroked her hand down his shoulder and felt him relax a little. Abel saw the touch and noticed that Hatter didn't flinch as badly. He raised an eyebrow and stared at his grandson.

"You know who she is, Hatter. You've seen her," he persisted and Hatter tipped his head on the side so that his dark hair swung into his equally dark eyes.

"I've only suspicions and guesses. And bein' that I'm of a suspicious nature, that's not proving much," Hatter answered finally. He reached up and tugged one of the knotted strands of his hair impatiently. "I don't... can't trust everything I've seen in the past few weeks."

Abel shrugged and gestured with his hand at Alice.

"It, like many things in Wonderland, is too painful to remember and too painful to retell. So I made sure that someone or rather, something else, remembered for me." He waved a hand when it looked like Hatter might interrupt again. Looking at Alice, he clicked his tongue and then gestured beside him. "Touch the sapling, Alice, and think about your own memories of this world."

She looked at the sapling that shivered nearby and made a face as if expecting it to bite her. Abel smiled but there was no warmth in it this time.

"You want answers that I will likely refuse to give you?" When they nodded, he gave the sapling a pointed look. "Then you need a history lesson. Tear off a piece of the sapling and picture a mirror, a memory of one."

Hatter and Alice looked at one another and finally she sighed, wiping her palms on her skirts. Hatter scooted his chair back and stood behind her as she approached the tiny sapling. It shivered at her approach, branches unfurling as if beckoning her closer. Yet she had never felt less like approaching it.

"Be sure to ask it first. No use risking more damage if it takes offence," Abel said as he flipped his history book closed. Hatter looked over his shoulder at the Drawling Master, a warning look that threatened damage if anything bad happened. Abel merely smiled back and tapped his fingers on the book impatiently. He seemed content to wait for them to discover things on their own.

Alice stroked her finger down the sapling's branch. The leaves unfurled into her palm and felt curiously warm.

"I'm sorry but I need to ask a favour," she whispered, feeling more than a little foolish talking to a tree. She remembered how silly she'd felt talking to the Crows though and the memory made her smile. As if in answer, one of the tiny branches wrapped itself around her hand and travelled up her arm, resting just above the gryphon mark on her neck. "I need one of your leaves. He said you can tell me who she is..."

She didn't finish the sentence as the sapling branch retreated down her arm again, leaving a small silvery green leaf in her palm. The sapling retreated further and stopping shaking, as if content that it had completed its purpose. Alice poked at the leaf curiously, feeling its slippery surface scratch at her skin and a slight coldness that went from her hand to her shoulder. She knew almost instantly what to do and she trotted off down the garden path with Hatter close on her heels.

Abel watched them and sighed.


Alice continued quickly down the path until she came to the grimy pond and its fetid smell made her wrinkle her nose. It smelled so heavily of algae that her empty stomach roiled at it and she staggered back. She bumped into Hatter and she looked over her shoulder at him to apologize.

He wrinkled his nose as well and coughed at the smell. "Could have been a better place to come to. Especially in a garden."

Alice shrugged and stepped up onto the cement ledge that lined the pond's edge. She braced on hand on a fountain statue of a large jabberwock and leaned over the pond. Her eyes were only for the grimy surface and she remembered seeing the woman in the water. Her skin glowed in memory, as did her mark, and she shut her eyes at the warmth that flooded up from her toes to her nose.

Watching her discreetly, Hatter knew that something was happening and he wisely stepped back.

Without opening her eyes, Alice brought the leaf to her mouth and blew gently over its surface. The leaf sprang into the air and then fell onto the still pond, its thick green surface rippling the moment the leaf touched it. Instead of floating on the surface, it started to sink immediately below until its silver edges were no longer visible beneath the thick layer of scum. Alice opened her eyes and exhaled again as she looked at the surface of the pond.

For some reason, she had a vivid memory of the White Queen in the Taigan Manor and the way she'd used a mirror to plunge Alice into an illusion. That memory was still painful, remembering how Alice the First had used a mockery of her father to inflict the most pain to her when she was vulnerable. Alice swayed on her feet and brushed her damp hair away from her face absentmindedly.

"I'm still a memory, my dear. I may be flesh and blood to you but to some I will remain just a shade," the Queen said.

"Memories," Alice whispered and she knelt on the ledge, reaching out with one hand. The surface of the pond began to ripple with silver light and deep beneath the grime Alice started to see something glowing. Intent on seeing what it was, she leaned so far that she started to lose her balance. She heard Hatter saying her name and felt his right hand grab her arm. But she was too off-balance for him to jerk her back and together they fell into the water.

Thick algae and brackish water filled their lungs as they sank, the pond astonishingly deep. Alice felt Hatter twist her around and in a moment's panic she fought his grip, opening her mouth to scream. Sinking just as quickly as she was but not panicking, Hatter managed to cover her mouth with his hand to keep her from swallowing any water in her panic. She blinked in shock, realizing that she could see him clearly even though the water should have been dark. It was like he was highlighted by a pale blue light, the same as she, and Alice fought down panic as she stared at him.

It as an oddly peaceful moment, ruined when the water around them seemed to shift with a new current.

Something wrapped around her leg and tugged her down and Hatter plummeted with her, his hand gripping hers loosely as they were dragged into the blue light. A haze of green and blue filled the water and Alice shut her eyes, prepared to sink to oblivion...

Only to open them to find that whatever had dragged her down had brought them to a place void of any water or darkness. She was in a large pathway lined with mirrors, one that she quickly recognized as the Mirrored Tunnel. As she turned her head and noticed Hatter beside her, she realized that they were both bone dry and the water, and the smell, had disappeared completely. He stared back her, blinking owlishly as if he was thinking something over. It almost a relief to see him as confused as she felt.

But before he could speak, they both saw the darkly shrouded man coming down the tunnel path. He was walking toward Hatter and before he could move, the man walked through him without any hesitation.

Alice went to cry out but Hatter's body didn't seem solid, only shimmered as the man walked through him again in his pacing. Alice lifted her hand and stared at it, realizing that her hand was just as translucent as Hatter seemed to be. He looked at her and cocked his head on the side, looking a bit disgruntled at being walked through.

"A memory," Alice whispered and without thought she followed the man walking past all the mirrors and strangeness of the tunnel. Hatter was close behind her, muttering about the insanity of dreams. His presence was a comfort and blindly she reached back to take his hand before drawing him close beside her.

"We're stuck in a memory, a dream." She tried not to sound too wondrous at it all, her eyes on the odd visions in the mirror. Flamingos, card towers, tea sets, everything she would have remembered from her reading of Lewis Carroll's books seemed to be dancing inside the walls. Not at all like the stillness she had seen when she had been in the Tunnel a while ago.

"Been stuck in better places," Hatter grumbled, shaking his head. He frowned and looked around as the tunnel began fade and change. Alice clutched his hand tighter as the ground beneath their feet shifted fiercely, the path itself transforming until it was gone. In its place was a massive cavern; a strange place of iron and fires. Massive iron vats suspended on chains hung from the ceiling and there was a smell of smouldering metal that almost overwhelmed the odour of algae that still lingered in the air. The man they'd followed was standing on a metal grating just over the lip of one of the vats, leaning over the railing and staring into its iron belly.

"Vats are conduit makers," Hatter muttered and Alice looked at him, wondering how he knew that. Hatter shrugged and gestured around. "Just a guess. Why else would we be in a place like this."

She wasn't sure she believed he was as ignorant as he was pretending, so she only nodded.

"Good guess," she answered and they followed the man up onto the temporary balcony. Alice stared at the back of his head and Hatter looked into the conduit.

"I don't like the looks of these," he whispered. As if hearing him, the man turned around and they both jerked back.

The man they'd followed was a very young and athletic looking North Abel, the wrinkles and grey hair gone but the set of the eyes and the set to his face was the same. The familiarity struck Alice first and she looked at Hatter, seeing that he recognized him as well. He was focussed on the contents of the vat below him, and as they watched he pulled out a thick notepad. It was filled with scribbles and drawings of every kind, coloured in some patches and splattered with water stains in others. He was jotting something down with a desperate scratch of his pen and after a moment he looked up.

"None of it is working," he whispered. "I'm going to die."

He flicked the book shut. "Guess it's what I could have expected taking this job on."

"What are you doing in here still, love?" a soft female voice asked from behind them and in almost comical unison they all turned around. The woman approaching them was dressed in almost all black with a thick red scarf tied around her throat, but it was her eyes and long pale blonde hair that was more stunning. Her eyes were like emerald jewels in her very pale face but this time she was smiling. The smile changed her face, made her seem warm and motherly, and yet she was walking with a slow and seductive pace.

A walking contradiction, Hatter thought to himself.

"Darling," the young Abel answered, smiling a crooked smile that spoke volumes as he looked at the woman. She drifted up the gangway and Alice gasped when she walked through her. Hatter looked at her curiously and she shook her head, not liking the chill that had gone right to her bones.

"You should be in bed. You've been working too hard."

"I've got to finish this, Unda."

Hatter's hands tightened into fists at his sides and Alice glanced at him in concern.

"The Conduits? I thought you had weeks," Unda questioned, slipping her arm through his. He held up a pocket-watch that told the date instead of the time and dangled it before Alice.

Beside Alice, Hatter stiffened as if he recognized the watch.

"That was last week." He put the watch back. "And I've run out of time."

He put his hands on the railing and sighed as he leaned a bit. "And I'm not a step closer. The Royals will be... upset."

Unda's eyes roamed over his tired face and she bit into her lower lip. As if not sure what she could do, she tugged on his arm. "You should come to bed, love. The children were asking about you. Daniel wants you to help him with his butterfly collection, and Mary Ann has been fighting with Abigail. Mary Ann doesn't like Abigail's latest interest in the Mad Hatter stories, you know. But then, twins are never fun, no matter what the world or how they're raised."

As she spoke of her children, she seemed to glow. She looked over the conduit with her husband and Alice saw the black and green mark of a unicorn on her forearm. Alice put her hand to her mouth, realizing what it meant immediately. Unda was an Oyster who had come to this world the way Alice had, and the way she almost vibrated with a strange power made it clear that she was just as strong as the White Queen had been.

Hatter had noticed glow but showed no surprise at it.

"The girls will be fine, Unda. I just... I need to present myself to the Queens, Matilda and Temperance, shortly." Abel arched his back a little and then put his head in his hands. "I think they knew I was doomed to fail from the start."

Like a tape being fast-forward, the scene suddenly spliced quickly, swirling with black mists and blue lights. Alice grabbed hold of Hatter's hands to steady herself and he drew her close, watching the vision before them warp and change. When everything settled again, the Drawling Master still stood above the conduit vat, but this time he held a knife in his hand that he held just above his wrist. Unda stood to one side, looking as bruised and battered as her husband. The bodies of soldiers lay to either side and whose blood it was that was spattered around the floor was unclear.

"We need to finish this," Abel whispered and Unda shook her head, grabbing his arm and tugging on it.

"We can't, love. Look what's happened just from us trying! You cannot control Wonderland like this!" she yelled at him above the roar of water in the vat. The Drawling Master didn't seem to be looking or even listening to his wife, his jaw set with purpose. Alice and Hatter stared, horrified, as Abel slit his wrist and held it over the vat. Blood dripped quickly from the small cut, a wound not deep enough to kill but deep enough that the blood flowed freely.

Almost instantly the entire room seemed to rumble and shake, the water in the vat bubbling over. Unda and Abel stared into it as if expecting some sort of miracle. But nothing happened and Alice leaned over the edge to watch as well. The water seemed to be straining to do something, occasionally solidifying only to start moving as water again. When the water still again, Alice noticed that there was a mirror-frame suspended in the vat, held down by a heavy set of chains.

"That's the Looking Glass," she told Hatter and he nodded but his eyes did not leave the sight of the other couple. Abel had collapsed to his knees and Unda was wrapping her red scarf around his wounded wrist.

"It's no good. I can't do it. I'm too frightened," he said aloud, his dark eyes staring sightlessly into the conduit. Unda put her hand in his hair and held him tightly against her.

"My love," she whispered but he didn't seem to hear her.

"This means my execution date is set." There was a flat yet accepting tone in his voice that sent a chill up Alice's spine. "There was just so much still to do."

Unda's hand tightened in his hair before she slipped down to her knees in front of him, cradling his face in her hands.

"I told you when I came here that I would find a way to keep you all safe." She kissed his mouth gently, a kiss he returned as if it was the only thing keeping him alive. When she broke away, she stroked his cheek and smiled. "And I think I know of a way. I've always known. We've just backed ourselves into a corner and I won't have my children lose their father when they are going to need him so badly in the future. When Wonderland will need him in the future."

Before he could move, she struck him hard on the face so that he fell dazed and hurt to his stomach. Standing gracefully and tossing her hair over one shoulder, she looked like a regal queen about to give a command. She slid her coat from her arms and picked up the knife gingerly. She closed her eyes and slid her fingers around the hilt of the knife.

"It is the right of those with Oyster Blood, when they come to Wonderland, to change its history, to change its very landscape."

The voice, hauntingly clear and sexless, made Alice jerk in her place, wondering if she was hearing things. But the way that both Hatter and this past-Unda also jumped made it clear that they'd heard the voice. Unda's eyes were shiny and wet with tears as she tilted her head back and bit into her lower lip. Abel, lying on the ground nearby, got to his hands and knees and whispered her name.

Unda turned slowly and smiled at him. "I do this for our children's children, my love. You and I will have our time."

He screamed her name then, a desperate agonized sound torn from the depths of him, as Unda raised the knife and plunged it into her stomach. The only sound she made was a faint whimper, as if she'd just been pinched, and she exhaled slowly. The knife clattered to the ground as her hands numbly released it, blood dripping down the blade of it. She stared at her blood-soaked hands before raising her eyes to Abel.

"It will be worth it," she whispered and her eyes raised to where Alice and Hatter stood, as if she saw them there. Then she closed her eyes and toppled backwards over the railing into the vat below, the splash of water filling the air and covering Abel's scream for her.

Hatter grabbed Alice's hand as the world around them began to tremble violently and she tried to pull away, pity making her want to comfort the man on his knees nearby. She didn't feel the dreamscape dissolving but Hatter, having been in worlds like this before, could feel the warning signs already. He wrapped his arms around her tightly just as the roar of falling water overwhelmed Abel's screams and immediately they were plunged under water once more.

They surfaced, breaking through the water like submerged buoys, and Alice gasped desperately for air, supported by Hatter's arm. Together, they swam to the edge of the pond and Hatter half-boosted her out of the water onto the ledge before following her up and then rolling to his back. Coughing up brackish water and struggling to see through the haze in the air, they both still heaved for breath.

Unable to help it, Alice cried out at the pain she'd just witnessed, a pain almost parallel to what she had felt once upon a time. Lying on the other side of her, Hatter put his hand over his eyes and shivered.

"I was wrong," he whispered. "But it didn't feel like I was wrong. She's more than I thought."

"She killed herself to create the Looking Glass," Alice thought aloud, "oh God, that's how it is done."

Alice rolled to her stomach and pushed herself up onto her knees. She saw through her dripping wet hair that dawn was breaking over the city roofs and there was no question that they'd been underwater for too long. Her own lungs burned badly even when she sucked in more air to try to feed them, and her limbs felt numb with cold.

She heard the snick of boots on the cement and looked up to see Abel stand just before her. At his feet was Chesh, the cat curling his tail around his own body as he stared at her. Abel looked at her and then at Hatter with a solemn type of amusement.

"So. Did that make it easier for you both to understand how much trouble we could all be in?" He turned his eyes to the lightening sky. "My wife will have died in vain if this world destroys itself and I will be damned if I allow that to happen."

Before either of them could answer, Pidge came running down the paths, his long coat flying behind them. Ignorant of the two dripping wet people still lying half in the water, he reached out and impatiently shook Abel's shoulder.

"We..." He took a deep breath. "We've got a problem."

Chapter Text

Amelia settled at the desk she'd been provided and stared at the long scroll that was sprawled over it from end to end. It was filled with black calligraphy and small pictures, a type of contract judging by the overly long words and legal mumbo-jumbo. The type progressively became smaller and smaller, until even if she squinted hard she could not read it. But she knew what it said; she hadn't been a prisoner for this long without knowing what a confession probably looked like.

It didn't help that sudden ball of nerves that gathered in her belly.

"I, Amelia Heart, hereby do confess to the murder of Jack Heart and the staged kidnapping of William Winston Heart," was how it began and it quickly became more and more demeaning. A list of crimes she'd heard and some that she hadn't... and all she hadn't committed. A side note had been put there; that as she was confessing, she'd be relieved of a public trial and executed informally. It was a bought confession, as her family would be assured safety from the Queen's vengeance.

Resisting the urge to scream from pure frustration, she pushed her chair back and grabbed the scroll in one hand. The guards across the way, the Diamond Mask that always watched her and the Club who was the only speaker of the two, shadowed her movements as she went to the doorway to her cell. The Diamond moved first and she saw his shadowed eyes go over her in a vague yet hungry way that sent a chill down her spine. She handed him over the scroll.

"You may tell 'Her Majesty'," she spat that out with an appropriate amount of venom, "that I refuse her offer."

She paused for effect. "As I refuse to recognize her as 'Queen'."

She glared at the Diamond but the portion of his uncovered face behind the tiny eye slits and face covering did not change expression. If anything, he seemed amused by her attempt at bravery. He handed the scroll back to the Club and took his place once again at the wall. Amelia stared after him, that tiny niggle of a plan intruding on her thoughts.

But the sound of a Club arguing at the door drew her attention from the Diamond. Turning her eyes away from him, she looked over to see two Clubs arguing with a strange man with dark eyes and grey hair. He was wearing an odd ribbed green and gold vest over striped trousers and was carrying a briefcase, which made him look something like a lawyer. But she'd already had a court appointed lawyer, so she'd been told, and that would be one from her family. Most likely one of the minor Spade families and paid off to do a poor job defending her.

The oddly dressed man gave the Diamond guard a curt nod and then handed over piece of paper that caused the two Clubs to immediately let him pass. They blustered at one another, muttering about new dwellers and arrogance but he ignored them. The man brushed past the two men and a Club hustled after him to unlock her cell door. Amelia eyed them both warily. She'd not slept well in the past few weeks, always petrified and leery of someone getting it into their head to abuse a former Queen. But besides the Diamond guard, none of the men looked at her with more than pity.

The man who entered her cell gave her only a passing look as he pulled a chair before her desk. He thunked the briefcase down onto the desk and pulled out several papers, spreading them in methodical order.

Amelia stared at him. One hand lifted to her hair to pat it self consciously, her paranoia only growing when they were locked in together but he put all of his attention to organizing his papers. He did it with such methodical obsession that she soon lost her unease and started to feel annoyed. Not used to being ignored, she pulled her own chair out and made sure it scraped noisily. The iron on cement sound made everyone wince except for her and finally the man looked up.

"Was that really necessary?" he asked curiously, like a teacher annoyed by a student.

"Who are you?" Amelia demanded as she sat down, mentally swirling her dignity around her like a protective cloak. It was an easy thing to do; every bit of her stringent Court upbringing made her seem imperious even though this man made her nervous.

A strange thing for a complete stranger to be able to do.

"My name is Leo Pardenlace."

Amelia lifted her chin defensively. "A lawyer?"

"Something of that nature," he answered with a wink. "I've petitioned to be your defender, milady."

"I've not asked for one," Amelia began and he held up a hand.

"It was not your request I came by but by another source. I'm not from the City myself." He held out a piece of paper to her. "But from a different academy of learning. One the Queen is not likely to ignore. The Father William Brigade, if you will."

She took the wrinkled paper as if it was a snake ready to bite her and scanned the page. It took some skill not to let her emotions show on her face and when she looked up at him, her expression was cool. Only a slight glimmer in her eyes betrayed anything of the hope building in her.

Pardenlace leaned forward and handed her a second piece of paper. It was filled with illegible scribble but it was clear that he was only handing her it to look formal. When she touched the paper, he grabbed her fingers in his and held them. Startled at the first human contact she had had in weeks, Amelia stared at him.

"They will torture you to get the confession they want, Majesty," he warned. "I was sent here to keep such a thing from happening."

She tensed her jaw and slipped her fingers free.

"I have the means to help you escape this place," he whispered. "You have but to ask."

"For all I know, you are an agent of the Queen who is here to catch me in a lie," she countered and he shook his head. One eye on the nearby guards, he slowly exposed his neck and the burn mark there, a Card torture brand in the shape of a broken heart, was glaringly clear. His eyes were forbidding as he pulled his collar back up and stared her down.

"My loyalties are my own," he answered. There was a hardness in his voice that made her sit back and assess this man differently. He had looked bookish, perhaps almost weak before, but there was no sign of it now. It was like he had managed to shroud himself in strength, the same way she could use her own dignity to hide her emotions.

"Torture does not worry me," she responded in a cavalier way. "I was tortured by the Red King, bullied and raped..."

"Beg your pardon, mistress, but the Red King was a different kettle of onions." He turned a third piece of paper to her, a carbon copy of her confession that they'd wanted her to sign. "The Queen wants this signed."

"I won't."

"You will if the Examiners can break you. And they have broken many good people before, strong people and you may be no different, if you will pardon the inference. The only ones who came out unscathed were either Alices or Hatters,and even then there were repercussions." He eyed her, seeing the fragility in her that she was trying so hard to mask. "You have seen them in action. Even without the Doctors, they will find a way."

He cracked his knuckles meaningfully. "Or they will simply rack you and flay you. It all depends on the Queen's mood."

He was here to warn her and it had worked. Amelia's face lost all colour and she stared at the papers. Confession or escape; both ways to avoid the painfully inventive ways of torture known to the Cards. Even if put under a trial, as was Wonderland law, she'd not be saved from the Queen's orders of interrogation. It would a form of torture, and she had no doubt would leave her begging for execution.

Without thinking, she touched her stomach and immediately her mind stilled, knowing what she had to do. There was no question: she could not leave her son. Not without fighting for the child she had tried so hard to conceive and to carry safely. She'd fight hard to be certain he would never know that painful loneliness of the old Court, the treachery of his grandmother's 'love'. So that he would never have to be nursed upon forced emotion and cold affection traded only for total obedience.

She could not leave without having a chance to twist this to her advantage. She was, after all, a Duchess and Queen.

Taking in a deep breath, she stood gracefully and Pardenlace scrambled to his own feet out of respect. Remembering her brief lessons in Queen-ship, Amelia extended a slim hand to him.

"Master Pardenlace, you may represent us in this Trial," she said, using the Royal plural and knowing fully well that the Clubs were staring. "I will not let my husband's kingdom fall like this. Present yourself shortly if you will and have the Queen's council know that I will take this to Trial. Their confession will not be signed, no matter what consequence that may be bring me."

He stared at her, absorbing the hidden message of defiance before leaning forward and kissing her ring finger.

"I will do so, my Queen."

He bowed again and stood to leave her cell, leaving the papers there for her to peruse. She stared at the one he'd first presented with her, not even noticing when he left her cell with the Clubs keeping close guard to him, and she turned it towards herself. The tiny insect crawling around the edges she recognized and its meaning was not lost on her. The caterpillar was one of the Blue Tulip variety, poisonous yet beautiful, and she used one of the candle snuffers to pick it up and place it in a spare jar left over from her earlier meal.

Staring at the insect, she knew that Pardenlace had been telling her more than just a little bit of information and it was up to her to use it to her advantage. Amelia squared her shoulders and flicked her eyes up at the impassive yet always staring Diamond guard. She knew she could use everything here to her advantage.

South Wonderland Metropolis

Pidge had been quick to tell them they needed to follow him but hadn't explained anything more. He was in a rush, a mad rush apparently, but Alice refused to let him rush her. She was exhausted just from these past few hours and when she looked at Hatter, she saw that he felt the same way. The odd plunge into Abel's memory had disorientated them both and she longed to just sit down to try to absorb just what it had been that she'd seen.

Or, at the least, sit down and dry off. She was soaked to the bone and she shivered hard to try to get warm again.

A familiar hand slid up her back and tugged her tangled hair free from her collar. Alice jumped and looked at Hatter but he was already on his way, following the two older men with the pace of a man going to executioner. Confused by these infrequent displays of both kindness and then coldness, she frowned at his back and felt something rub against her legs.

Chesh sat on her one foot and stared up at her, his feline face amused. "I see he is feeling better," he commented.

"I wouldn't be so sure. Don't try to goad him, Chesh. I think whatever control he has is still thin. Why is Pidge in such a rush?" she asked as she started off after the men, Chesh keeping pace at her side.

"Oh it is nothing much. Merely a crowd of rioters outside demanding your head," he offered and Alice stumbled in her step. "Or your mother's. I really can't be sure which. They were terribly unclear and I left early to see how well you liked seeing the history of the Drawling family."

Alice stared at the cat as his body disappeared and then reappeared before her eyes again, just his head and tail coming into substance. He looked so smug that she narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

"You knew all this?" she demanded as she started off again and the cat smiled widely.

"I think you will find there is very little I don't know, Alice." His head twisted on the side and it started bouncing along beside her like an obscene ball. "But what I don't know is often something very very new to Wonderland. Or it is something I forget until a key moment."

"How old are you, Chesh?" Alice asked as she raked her eyes over the cat when he reappeared properly. It was hard to remember the man he'd once resembled when the cat sat there, his body wiggling as he prepared to jump onto her shoulders.

"Old enough to know better and old enough not to care about the consequences," he jibed just before he jumped effortlessly and she felt his weight on her shoulders, his nose just inches from her ear. "You think you are the first Oyster to deal with me? No. But you are the first to trust me thus far."

"And I hope I don't live to regret that," Alice snapped as they reached the house. She could hear the almost deafening rumble of people shouting and banging things and she followed the sound, Chesh's crypticness forgotten. Finding her way through the narrow corridors of the townhouse, Alice found Hatter and the others in the front parlour, staring out the windows intently. At first she thought that the dawns light was what was giving them a glow but as she came further into the room, she saw that it was the light from torches and lanterns.

The crowd was well over one hundred people, of different ages and races, speaking a multitude of languages all at once as they gestured at the townhouse. Alice came between Abel and Pidge and stared and almost immediately she was spotted through the window by those at the front of crowd. The shouting increased in volume and rocks were thrown at the house, but the distance was still too great to get any decent power behind the rocks. Alice swallowed audibly and looked over at Hatter nervously.

He was leaning against the wall, shadow hiding him from the crowd outside, and his right hand was flexing repeatedly. The wrapping around it was soaked in blood and he seemed distracted and distant. The way he had looked just hours before when Alice had confronted him. The shouting outside seemed to have shaken him, forcing him to retreat into that shell he'd built.

A retreat that wasn't helped when Charlie, Carol and Abigail came running into the room. They nearly collided with him but the sound of the riot outside was distracting enough for them to ignore his presence for the moment. Carol touched Alice's shoulder in greeting and they both looked out.

"Who are they?" she asked for them all and Pidge shrugged.

"City dwellers, refugees, whoever still remained in this ghost town," he answered. On Alice's shoulders, Chesh materialized and his tail twitched from side to side.

"I always did dislike the populace. So unwashed and unmannerly," he smirked and Alice pulled on his tail hard.

"They might enjoy a furry ball to kick around," Alice threatened lowly.

"I say, never have seen a gathering like this before. Do you think they are looking for refuge?" Charlie asked. A rock was thrown through the window, this time with enough force to shatter one of the panes and it landed at his feet. Charlie sniffed. "I suppose not."

"They're hear to blame someone for their current conditions, by my wager," Abigail said as she peered out one of the smaller windows. She was recognized and the shouting increased instantly. "Typical."

Carol looked over her shoulder and saw Hatter standing near the wall, his eyes closed and his head rolled back on his shoulders.

"Him, maybe?" she asked and Alice followed her gaze.

"Mom, no," she started but Hatter opened his eyes and looked at her mother.

"Would make sense wouldn't it?" he admitted. "I did cause quite a bit of trouble. All that murder and mayhem."

Alice and Charlie both saw that he was deliberately goading Carol, likely to mask his own conscious. It was Abel who spoke, his voice stern,

"Enough, Carol Hamilton."

"They aren't here for him, anyway," Abigail said and for the first time, mother and son looked at one another with equal recognition. He rolled his eyes dismissively and looked away first. Abigail flinched but carried on, trying not to show how hurt she was. "I let the rumour grow that he'd been killed. Figured it was safer that way since the Drawling Manor went up in flames; better than having the Queen and the Resistance both looking for him."

"So that means?" Pidge had turned from the window, staring at his aunt in ill-concealed impatience.

"Really, Alastair, don't be thick," she scolded and jutted her chin out at the two women standing beside him. "They are here for them."

"Us?" Carol repeated out loud. "Why us?"

Abel leaned away from the window. "A very good question. Let's ask."

Before anyone could respond, he was already out the door, giving Hatter a hearty clap on the shoulder as he went. Game as always, Charlie and Alice followed, leaving a blustering Carol and Pidge to follow. Abigail was the last to leave and she went into a near run to get by Hatter.

His arm lashed out across the door frame, nearly knocking her down, and he blocked her from leaving. Abigail leaped back from him though the rest of him hadn't moved and she swallowed noisily. Hatter stared at her, his expression void of any curiosity or interest. There was almost nothing in his face to show what he was thinking. But his right arm still remained blocking her, his fist clenched and she raised her chin, not wanting to back down from the obvious threat he held.

It was his disinterest that caused a chill to go up her spine. His eyes went over her face and not once did a hint or tick change that disinterested and unaffected look to him.

Abigail took that moment, precious as it was to her, to really look at her long-lost son. Twenty-five years had passed since they'd last been together, twenty-five years of pain and longing. Of wanting to change her decisions time and time again. When all she'd wished was that she could take each regretful moment in her past and erase them, to somehow change the horrible decisions that had brought them all to this point. She'd never dreamed of this chance to see him again and she drank in every detail about her son with almost greedy eyes.

Their brief meeting in the Manor had not really satisfied her curiosity. Especially when what she'd seen had brought back a multitude of memories.

Dear Wonderland, he even stood like his father; casually arrogant and still a bit twitchy. Even now, like his father, it made him seem always on edge for something new and exciting. The way his fingers would flex and dance at his sides, as if the energy inside him was boundless and needed an outlet; the way his head tilted to look at her intently and the set to his features. All things that let her know that some things could never change. Everything about him practically screamed of his parentage, the little pieces of herself and Grey that manifested themselves together in the young man looming dangerously next to her. She'd never doubted that he'd become something more than what history demanded of him and now it was clear that she was right.

He was something far more than just a mad Hatter, born to madness and magic.

Even though the noise outside was becoming deafening, Abigail ignored it to stare at her son. But her eagerness fell flat when she looked into his dark eyes, still tinged with traces of green and amber, and saw nothing there. No emotion at all. Not happiness or rage, laughter or guilt, relief or furious agony.

Just nothing.

She cleared her throat noisily and Hatter's one eyebrow lifted a bit. He took it as a hint that the silence was making her uneasy.

"Well well," he said, his voice flat and without any emotion. "So you're alive."

Behind him, Alice suddenly reappeared with Chesh still perched on her shoulders but she didn't speak a word when she saw the pair of them. She knew how dangerously on edge Hatter was still and she pressed against the door-frame to listen.

"I..." Abigail licked her suddenly dry lips. "Yes."

Hatter eyed her still, his expression not changing. "Interesting."

"Noble... Hatter, I'm sorry. I did not want to hurt you." She reached out to touch him but he was already turning from her. He saw Alice standing there, staring at them apprehensively, and arched a brow. She stared up at him, her own blue eyes wide and he gave her a sardonic half-smile that made her feel edgy.

"Far more important things to get done, don't you think?" he asked Alice and she blinked. "I'll stay in the house. Better for them not to know I'm alive and I doubt I want this sort of company right now."

Alice saw Abigail flinch at Hatter's veiled insult and felt a bare pity for the woman but not much. Anytime she thought to pity Hatter's mother, she would remember the times Hatter's sadness at her supposed loss had caused him madness, and she would lose that pity. Nodding to Hatter, Alice managed to look away from his intense expression and glanced at Abigail.

"The Drawling Master wants you out there."

With her head down like a scolded child, Abigail squeezed by Hatter and went out into the front yard. Alice looked over her shoulder at Hatter and saw him still staring at her, the stoic mask he'd had crumbling. He looked like a lost little boy and for a moment she thought to go and comfort him. But Hatter was already turning away from her, retreating to the shadows of the room to watch the outside.
Chesh's claws sank into Alice's shoulder. "It is best," he warned, "not to overplay your hand. Leave him alone for now."

When faced with the state of Wonderland, the rioters were almost blinded with their fury. Nearly all of them had lost their homes in the swallowing darkness of Wonderland's seeming wrath or had been chased from their cities by Selina and the Resistance, and by the Queen's secret police. The propaganda that they had been fed by both the Resistance and the re-formed White Rabbit had at first been ignored but now it had gnawed away at them. All of them were hungry and frustrated, weary of the endless variations of bad news that had bombarded them in the past weeks.

And they'd come to believe, as the Queen had planned, that it was all the fault of an Oyster named Alice. Gone were the times when Alices were thought of as mythological heroines who always heralded a new age for Wonderland. Now the ideas of Oysters and Alices were nothing more than a curse. A curse they all had come together to break when word had gotten out that she was hiding in their city.

As volatile as the crowd was, having been whipped up by the latest sinking of a desert town into the very earth, into blackness, they were almost cowed when the famed Drawling Master appeared through the morning fog to stand on a low wagon before them. Few of them had ever seen him but the whispers went through the crowd by those who did know of him. Instantly, they all quieted in some reverence for his reputation.

It was when Alice and Carol came into view, Alice's face recognized by the wanted posters and holo's that had gone out over the course of the past week and Carol by the unchecked glimmer to her own person, that the crowd became wild again. Abel looked over his shoulder at Pidge and the younger man bounced onto the box, wielding his croquet mallet once more. The threat was obvious when he slammed it hard into the wagon-bed and several boards cracked on the sides. It silenced the crowd and he looked at a few of the rock throwers as if daring them to see how good their aim was. He swung it back over onto his shoulder and twirled the handle between his fingers casually.

Abigail and Charlie followed last, Charlie wisely keeping an eye on the doorway leading to the house. Abigail looked visibly shaken but she took her place beside her father with her usual dignified grace.

After a few moments of silence, Abel cleared his throat. "Well? Are we all out here for a tea party or do you all have some sort of reason to disturb my family?"

"We want the Oysters!" someone shouted from the middle of the crowd and Abel arched a brow.

"Oh, and what will that solve?"

"The Queen is scouring the cities, looking for the Oysters. She burned Stableton to the ground!" the same person shouted and he held up a soot-soaked child as if to give evidence of it.

Abel made a rude sound and rolled his eyes. "I highly doubt that the Queen herself has physically done anything. She always lets others do the dirty work."

"You know what we mean, Lord Drawling!" a very young man shouted and he focussed on him. Abel recognized him as one of the refugees that had been at the Manor. Likely he was a reason why they knew the Oysters were with him. The boy blushed under the look and stammered. "Y-you know that she wants those Oysters."

"It's all the Oysters' fault in the first place!" a woman shrieked and there were shouts of agreement from the crowd. "Our kingdom fell under their emotions in the first place!"

"The Queen rose to power because of them!" another man added and Abigail scoffed.

"You absolute idiots!" she shouted back and even Alice jumped at the strength in her voice. "It is your own damn faults for falling under her sway. You always had the power to resist her but were too scared to! You were nothing more than Bilihoop cows to a slaughter!"

"Easy for you to say, Lady Drawling! Born to riches you were," the woman yelled and Abigail made a face.

"Hardly, Leona Act. Do not make this into a riot about class!"

That started a whole new batch of yelling and Alice frowned, looking at Abel. He was staring at her solemnly and she felt her heart leap into her stomach. It almost looked like he was considering giving her up to them. Her fear showed so clearly in her eyes that he suddenly smiled and took her hand in his.

"None of that, my girl. Like I said, you are family now. Do not hold this against them," he said as he gestured at the increasingly deafening crowd. "They are merely frightened."

"If the Oysters' sacrifice is what will keep our world from falling apart, I say we give them up!" the boy shouted.

"What does that solve?" Pidge said suddenly, his low voice carrying. He sounded threatening without really raising his voice.

"The Queen will reward us for our loyalty!"

"What loyalty? When we all rejoiced her downfall when Jack Heart and this Alice took her down? Do you really think she will just smile and reward you all?" Pidge countered. "She'll have your heads the moment the Oysters are in her grip. Don't you all remember how it was under her rule? Or has your fear addled your heads?"

There was a titter in the crowd, a ripple of confusion going through them. Alice looked over them all, seeing the desperation and fear that each of them was feeling, and felt her body grow cold with sympathy. It flooded her and the strength of the feeling made her stumble a bit. Carol caught her and she looked at her mother to see that she was feeling the same thing. In fact, for the first time, Alice noticed that her mother seemed to be paler than normal, as if the fear here was dragging her down.

"Wonderland's effect on emotions can be reversed, in a strange way," Chesh whispered in Alice's ear, his invisible fur brushing her cheek. "Can't you imagine how easy it is to blame others?"

Alice's mind snapped back to the first time she'd come to Wonderland, when she had blamed Hatter for trying to sell her, blamed Jack for betraying her for the Duchess, blamed the world for conspiring against her, and ultimately blamed herself for her father's death. The last had been one of the most painful times in her young life and she shut her eyes at the memories. Curling her arms around her middle, Alice felt a very real sense of loss and without realizing it, she let the others feel it too.

The others on the cart didn't notice the shift in the crowd until the first child started to wail as if struck. Then it carried until everyone was crying and carrying on like infants. Wrinkling his brow in confusion, Abel looked at his daughter and she shrugged. Pidge glanced and then gave his grandfather a hard nudge before nodding at Alice.

She was glowing faintly, a shimmer to her skin that made her seem fragile, but she too looked sad and downtrodden. Abel looked at her and then at the crowd and then back at her, his brain clicking away. She'd granted them a few moments to collect their wits and he was thankful for it. Squeezing her hand gently, he looked back at the crowd to see that some had recovered a bit and were ready to start shouting once more.

"We are leaving this day to go to the City," he announced, not hearing his daughter's faint gasp of surprise. "To form a Resistance to bring down the Queen. We ride out shortly and I will not let you take Alice from her family."

Alice opened her eyes and stared at him incredulously at this open declaration but he didn't look at her. He only had eyes for the crowd and Alice felt a faint prickle of energy go from her hand to his, like a static shock. It made her fingers feel almost numb and she grabbed hold of Carol's hand to steady herself. The prickle and snap of a shock went through her hand to Alice's and then to the Drawling Master and she saw him sway a little as if he'd felt it as well.

"Go away," he whispered and it was like a wave of energy flashed out across the crowd. But instead of a shock-wave that would knock them over, it was like a soft glimmer of light that passed from person to person. Like people departing from a funeral, they all backed off as if overwhelmed by their own self-pity. Abel kept a tight hold of Alice's hand until the last person had turned away and headed back into the dim streets.

Once that person was walking away, he collapsed back into Abigail's waiting arms.

"You overexerted yourself," she scolded, checking his pulse. Alice turned, shocked at the grey tone to his skin and at the way his hands trembled. Both she and Charlie knelt beside him, the White Knight helping Abigail brace Abel onto his seat in the wagon. Abel had faint beads of sweat on his forehead and his daughter wiped them off gently, the affection she had for him clear.

"I wish you'd not do that. You know you don't have that strength," she whispered and he scoffed.

"Of course I do, dear girl. Just need a bit of rest."

Pidge stepped beside Alice and she looked up at him. "He's not well?" she asked curiously and he looked her over.

"No. He hides it well but he is old, Alice. Happens when he uses that remnant of magic he has left." He made a face. "The family has always had a bit of magic but he's the only who really uses any of it."

"Because I'm closer to the source of it than the rest of you mongrels," Abel grunted in annoyance. "Get me up."

They all helped him to his feet and with a disgusted sigh, Abel brushed himself off and Carol crossed her arms over her chest.

"What was that?"

"Just used your magic with mine, that's all."

"So they all left because of us?" Carol asked, glancing at Alice. Unlike Alice, she'd never used any sort of glow because she did not have it manifested. Alice's gryphon tattoo was moving on her skin a bit, rippling with green light, and Alice wondered if it was just the mark that was the reason why Carol did not have a strong glow.

Her baby moved inside of her, a multitude of tiny flutterings that sent a flood warmth through her body, and Alice put her hand on her stomach. It had felt like there was a whole mass of butterflies in her stomach and she swallowed down the bit of nausea that came with it. Abel was trying to explain the glows and she cleared her throat noisily.

"We're riding out of here?" she demanded.

"Well... ah, no." He rubbed at his cheek thoughtfully. "Just was something to put them off the scent. I'd wager ten momeraths to one bandersnatch that the Queen and Dodo both had their spies in that group. We can't risk them finding us, especially if Hatter is coming with us."

He looked at Alice expectantly and she nodded.

"Good. I think his company will be entertaining," he said.

"Not to mention instructive," Charlie interjected and Abel shrugged.

"I suppose."

"So just how are we leaving, if not by horse?" Abigail demanded, furious that he'd derailed their careful plans. He gave a sheepish grin.

"Well, by train of course. The Ouestern train will be making its rounds back this way now, since it had to go all the way south."

"The train? Wouldn't it have fallen into the darkness?" Pidge asked and Abel smiled.

"One would think but we," he gestured to Chesh on Alice's shoulders, "happen to have heard a little bird say that it had survived. Good luck that, hmm?"

"Too good of luck," Pidge muttered to himself.

"We can catch it on the run if we must. I highly doubt it had stopped to pick up passengers. Be a week's journey from here to the outskirts of the Lake, Charlie's area I believe, and well worth it to cultivate some allies. We need to defeat the Queen of Hearts and save the prince and his mother," Abel finished.

"Catch it on the run?" Carol asked weakly. The Drawling Master winked at her.

"Always sounds worse than it is. It runs near to the start of the Singing Woods, and I do believe the Woods will help us if a certain someone sweet-talks them," he answered, looking at Abigail. She rolled her eyes.

"Fantastic. I get to talk to the plants again."

"Don't quibble. They may be the only ones interested in your conversation," he responded.

"Least they have better wit than most who talk to me," she snapped back, but her eyes were dancing with humour.

"So what are we going to do then? To help take back the City?" Carol asked. Alice looked at the house and saw the shadow of Hatter in there.

"We're going to build a new Resistance, right under the Queen's nose. With people she'd not expect to try," she answered for the Drawling Master and he grinned widely at her.

"I always did love a challenge, dear girl."

Chapter Text

Hatter stared around the ruined train station with his brow furrowed. Now and again, he'd pop a piece of tart into his mouth and chew thoughtfully; he'd been through almost five meat tarts already, his body demanding the food after weeks of hunger. It didn't ease the twisting ache in his stomach for more but it helped a little to keep tension at bay, And not just his own. He'd been noticing the concern from Alice about his thinness and eating the small tarts he'd stolen from the kitchen seemed to keep her content.

He hadn't realized how badly his body needed the food until now.

At his shoulder, Guinevere was champing on her bit in irritation while another piece of smoking debris nearly landed on her. The massive station, once beautiful with tall carved columns, painted arches and decorations made from gear-work, was no more than a large ruin falling down all around them and its skeletal framework seemed delicate enough to fall down in an instant. The only thing that seemed to have survived was the large platform and tunnel leading out into the Wild once again. Even those were no more than scarred remnants of what they must have been. The wreckage was incredible and haphazardly done, like an afterthought.

Whether it was done by Heart or by Resistance hands, or even by Wonderland's constant tremors, wasn't clear.

The others were wandering around as well, Pidge helping Abel check the train schedule consul and Alice was using the charred map still on the walls to explain Wonderland's geography to her mother. Hatter watched her for a moment, taking in the strange sight of her dressed like a South Wonderlander with her blue riding dress and high collared checkered coat, and then turned his attention to Charlie and Abigail. They too were wandering the wreckage, picking through it to see if there were clues as to whether the train had come by or not.

Hatter's eyes narrowed. It was still too surreal to be seeing someone he'd thought dead for the past twenty years. He didn't like the thought of even more deceptions lurking beneath this latest revelation but knowing their luck, there could only be more. It seemed like Wonderland had no end in sights for the secrets it held.

Not wanting to be caught staring, he looked up at the massive clock that still hung by its stripped and burned gears. It was frozen at six o'clock and the little hand was ticking but not actually moving very far. As if time had literally frozen here, he thought. Guinevere gave him a bump and the jarring movement caused him to straighten. Like a wash of cold water, he realized that he remembered this place. He staggered over to an overturned bench as a flash of raw memory bit into him. It was odd but he had the feeling, stronger now, that he'd been here before.

His head started to ache atrociously and each throb of pain brought another memory to the bitter surface.

Selena leaned close to his ear while her fingers clenched tight in his hair. She pulled his head back as he stared blindly at the populated station below them, not truly seeing the people there.

Only seeing strange monsters and conspirators.

"What if they are here?" she breathed in his ear. "What if who we need is here?"

A shock of pain trailed up his right arm as every nerve screamed in agony. He turned to look at her and she grinned, knowing she'd snagged him.

Groaning in pain, Hatter put his head in his hands and grabbed fistfuls of his dark hair. It felt better to pull at his hair now, as knotted and shaggy as it was, and he did so repeatedly. It eased the rising guilt inside of him. He knew what had happened now to the station.

He'd been so manipulated that he had destroyed a harmless place like this for the sake of getting rid of an illusion.

An illusion that had force-fed to him, one that still lingered in the back of his intemperate mind.

Guinevere nudged him again, eager for a pat, and he scratched her nose gently. The sweet mare, at least, seemed ready to forgive and forget the past weeks of frightening travel.

"I'm all right, darlin'. Just shaky," he whispered and she blew out softly against his cheek.

Something else brushed the top of his head and he jerked his head to the side. With a flutter of wings, a crow landed on the bench beside him. Its head cocked to the side as it hopped from foot to foot eagerly and batted its wings repeatedly. It was holding something in its beak and was eyeing him from its black eyes eagerly.

Frowning, Hatter reached out and the bird immediately dropped a battered, dark coloured hat into his hands. Pushing Guinevere's curious nose away, he turned it over in his hands and muttered in astonishment. It was his old Homburg, lost when he had lost Alice in the Changing Hall. It was a bit battered but was still useable by the looks of things. The brim was a bit singed but there was no other damage.

"Where did you get this?" he whispered, eyeing the bird. It bristled its feathers like it was pleased with itself and squawked loudly. Hatter blinked, having the feeling that the bird was trying to tell him something. "Thanks."

The bird squawked again and lifted off into the air, careening out the window in careless flight. Hatter watched it and then shook his head. Brushing his hair back, Hatter slanted the Homburg over one eye and fit it securely on his head.
Odd but he felt a bit better. The world always did look different with a decent hat on, he decided as he got to his feet.

He'd felt the rumbling and knew that the train was likely coming. The anticipation he felt was almost surprising. He hadn't looked forward to anything in a while.

He glanced at Alice. Well, almost anything.

Alice stood next to her mother, staring at the massive map before them on the wall. Carol was tracing the river line that led from the Taiga to the Lake with her finger, her tongue sticking to the side of her cheek. She looked very thoughtful and had been quiet during the long trek to the station. Alice had been kept busy making sure they weren't being followed but now that they were nearly alone she was going to see what was wrong.

Her mother beat her to it though, turning and crossing her arms across her chest.

"So what exactly does being an Oyster mean here?" Carol demanded and Alice blinked.

"What do you mean?"

"The way they're talking is making it sound like we're going to die," her mother answered bluntly. "Whether we want to or not."

"Mom, no..." Alice protested and Carol sighed, rubbing a hand over her eyes.

"Sorry, Alice. I guess I've just been tired and it's making me a bit pessimistic. Dreaming so much lately when I do sleep."

Alice for a moment forgot her own sleepiness and stared at her mother. "Dreaming of what?"

"Nonsense, Alice. It is always nonsense. I'm starting to think that dreaming sense might be the highlight of my time here," Carol answered.

"Are you dreaming of anything in particular?" Alice prompted and Carol shook her head.

"Nothing much. Just rabbits and keyholes. I'd pay good money to get a normal night's sleep."

Alice tilted her head on the side and looked hard at her mother. She was dodging the question and that was something Alice wasn't used to with her normally outspoken mother.

"Mom, I don't want you to..."

"Worry?" Carol rolled her eyes and turned toward her. "And just what do you think I've been doing for the past... year or so? I'm your mother, Alice. It is natural for me to worry about you."

She gave Alice's belly a pointed look.

"All of you."

"It is going to be okay. I know it," Alice insisted and she watched the way Carol twisted her fingers into nervous knots.

"I hope so. I don't like living with worry and it seems like this place has just been one leap from bad to worse lately." She slapped her hands against her thighs as if to rid them of the tension she was feeling. "Except I am wondering about this train business."

Alice frowned and looked around. "Should be here by now. It's..." She realized that the clock was broken and let out a sigh. "It might be time for it to arrive."

Carol chuckled and hooked her arm through Alice's. "It could be worse." She made a face. "My God, how much sense that phrase actually makes now."

The ground began to rumble beneath their feet like a slow-motion earthquake and from nearby, Charlie perked up. "Sound like a train arriving to me," he said eagerly, tugging Arthur after him. The grey gelding was snorting loudly, as if he was smelling he didn't like, and Alice glanced at Guinevere and Hatter. The hat he was wearing made her stare, a bit startled, and she recognized it as the one he'd lost in the Changing Hall. But Guinevere's soft whickering caught her attention. The chestnut mare had her nose against Hatter's coat and he was murmuring to her as he rubbed her silky neck. But the way her ears were moving rapidly showed that she too was sensing something.

The rumbling was disjointed. Not at all like the strange surges that had afflicted Wonderland now and again. It felt like something was being slammed repeatedly into the ground and the entire building began to shake. Charlie clicked his tongue and made a grab for Arthur's draping reins. He yanked out a curved piece of scrap metal he had pulled from the wreckage and wielded it like a sword, nearly walloping Pidge in the process.

Across the ruin, Hatter arched a brow and allowed himself to grin.

"Well, whatever it is, I am ready!" Charlie declared as he swung the make-shift sword around.

"I feel safer already," Pidge grumbled and he sniffed the air. "Anyone else smell that?"

Abigail wrinkled her nose and stepped around her father. "Smells like..."

"Something that's rolled in a manure pile," Abel finished for her with a disgusted look.

"Could be worse," Hatter muttered. When Alice looked at him, he shrugged. "Could be the ground falling beneath our feet." The morbid joke made her shiver but he looked expectantly up at the ceiling. "Or the sky falling."

"So said Henny Penny," Carol jibed and it made Alice smile and give her a mother a nudge.

"Don't encourage any of them."

"What is a Henny Penny?" Charlie asked, instantly curious about the rhyming name as he stepped closer. Carol opened her mouth to answer but before she could get a word out the archway above suddenly cracked under the pounding. Having been watching the ceiling, Hatter instinctively launched himself forward and grabbed both Carol and Alice by their waists, shoving them out of the way with Charlie toppling over an upturned bench. Carol sprawled over, rolling as she went while the archway crashed down in hunks of cement and mortar.

From her prone position, Alice cried out, seeing the large cement starting to fall towards her, and Hatter grabbed her by her arm, whirling her under him and rolling quickly. The sound of the broken pieces slamming into the ground ricocheted and a boom of dust sprayed out, and Hatter kept her underneath him as the chunks of mortar fell onto the ground around them. His arms bracketed her head and she stared up at him mutely, her blue eyes wide and surprised. Hatter stared back, feeling the grip of her hands on his shoulders and the way her legs had slid around his. Out of reflex, his one hand had pressed between them against her stomach. As the dust started to clear, she swallowed hard and her hands relaxed on his shoulders.

"Thanks," she whispered. It had become suddenly intimate and he picked himself up away from her before it became too obvious that her proximity had rattled him. He extended a hand to help her up but she ignored it, instead slapping his fallen hat into his hand with an abruptness that made him look at her sharply. Her attention was on her mother and she crawled over to check on Carol. Charlie was already there and Carol apparently had been knocked unconscious; no matter how loudly Alice called her name, she wasn't responding.

Hatter winced in sympathy and his hand stole to his wounded side. It ached and throbbed from the force of their fall and he exhaled slowly to ease it.

"Are you all right?" Abigail asked lowly from where she was helping Abel stand. He glanced at her and nodded, eyes shutting as the throbbing in his side seemed to leap to his head.

This could be a dream still, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his father's whispered in his head.

"Stop it!" he hissed at himself. The startled looks Pidge and Alice gave him made it clear that he was speaking out-loud again. Abigail was still looking at him as well and he shook his head at her. "I'm just fine."

Abel rolled his eyes. "Children," he muttered impatiently as he moved over to Carol. He tested her pulse and other vitals with a perfunctory thoroughness, and then clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "She'll be fine. I think the wind was just knocked out of her."

"Hardly was the opportune moment for it to happen," Pidge said suddenly and Alice looked up at him.

"There's an opportune moment?" she demanded furiously. He wasn't looking at her but at the hole the fallen archway had made in the roof. He shrugged.

"Well, it certainly isn't right now."

Hatter frowned and stepped next to the taller man, the pair of them staring up at the roof. There were crows circling far above in the sky, resembling a dark cloud more than birds, but something heavy was walking on the roof, causing more and more cracks to go through the already damaged structure. Hatter could just make out the birds starting to harass whatever it was that was moving but they were clearly not going to come any closer. The birds shrieked loudly and Hatter tipped his head on the side, his eyes flicking from the building to Pidge.

Pidge was frowning. "Never could be easy."

"Where'd the fun be in that?" Hatter said and Pidge looked at him, startled at the faint humour dancing in Hatter's eyes.

"Clearly your idea of fun is getting darker and darker," Pidge muttered with a grin.

"Just gettin' on level with yours, old man," Hatter responded. Alice stepped beside him, looking as well.

"What's wrong?"

Hatter tensed at her nearness and glanced over her upturned face, fighting down the fit of longing he hadn't expected to feel. When she turned expectant eyes to him, he shook himself out of his stupor and pointed out at the fog-covered sky.

"Somethin's up there."

"Jabberwock?" Alice asked curiously and Pidge shook his head.

"Too far south for them. They like the colder North." He frowned in thought. "Likely a momerath or bandersnatch. Those things are tiny. No need to worry about them."

The entire roof shuddered and a massive shadow appeared.

"But I've been wrong before, once or twice," Pidge allowed.

"Once or twice?" Hatter pointed out caustically and his hand grabbed Alice's arm tightly as the shadow seemed to fill the hole in the roof.

"Nit pick, nit pick," Pidge sniped back.

"Alice," Hatter muttered and she looked at him. "Get the others to the tunnel to get on that train."

"What about you two?"

Pidge was already drawing his croquet mallet out of its side satchel, snapping it together with the efficiency of a sniper putting a gun together. His eyes hadn't left the roof and he seemed to be judging the distance. As they watched, he slammed the mallet against a cement chip and it went flying in an arch. It struck the shadow and the black shape retreated, seeming to cower. The rumbling increased, steady this time and in such a deep bass that Alice felt it through the soles of her boots. The train was coming and she looked at Hatter expectantly.

He made a face, making a so-so gesture with his hand. "I think we'll be fine."

Much as she wanted to argue, Alice quickly went back, leaving the two men alone.

"I hope that this wasn't your idea of getting me alone to kill me off," Pidge said, resting the mallet on his shoulder again. Hatter didn't answer at first, watching the creature on the roof so intently, and his silence made Pidge uneasy. "Cause it wasn't like I meant to do anything. Things happen."

"But even if you did...," Hatter answered, finally turning his attention over to the other man. "You didn't get very far did you?"

A whistle distracted Pidge from answering and another chunk of cement slammed just inches away from his feet. Hatter arched a brow and fixed his hat on his head more firmly.

"I don't think this is the best place to have an argument like this, yeah?" Hatter pointed out and Pidge shrugged. Just behind Hatter he could see the others running for the platform as the steady beat of the arriving train continued to intensify. Abigail was the only one not with the others; instead she was opening one of the large doors and reaching out into the trees beyond. Pidge frowned but then looked up.

"Depends on what that thing is up there," he said, twirling the mallet back down and then bringing it back up in the air.

"My guess would be something warped by Wonderland's latest... difficulties," Chesh's voice said suddenly and Hatter looked to see the Cheshire perched on the end of the raised mallet. The cat had his tail curled over his own feet. With a faint, superior sneer, he looked up at the ceiling. "These things do happen."

"Why?" Hatter asked and Chesh sneezed as a cloud of dust rose from the latest chunk of cement to fall.

"Perversions of reality and size. Something can just be a little off and boom! There goes normality." Chesh's ears flattened a bit to the side. "But then again, what is normal?"

His eyes darted to Hatter mockingly.

The young man glared back at him. "We just need to distract it for a little bit so the others can get on the train. You fancy a game of furry croquet?" he asked Pidge and Pidge twirled the mallet in his hand, causing the cat to go flying off.

"Be interesting using a different kind of live ball. 'Course... hedgehogs don't complain half as much as this cat probably does. Though the sound he might make would be interesting."

"Snicker-snack," Hatter finished with a grin at Chesh. The cat bristled from where he'd landed.

"If you must know, I had intended to give you some help but since neither of you are grateful, I'm sure you can do this on your own," Chesh sniped back and he promptly faded from view just as the shadow leapt down from the roof. Hatter and Pidge jumped out of the way as the odd shaped animal sprang down from cement block to cement block.

"What in Wonderland?" Pidge wondered aloud as he got a glimpse of it. It swiped large talons at him and he ducked back behind a cement block. "You're seein' this too I hope?"

"If that was a 'mad' joke, I think you can do better, eh?" Hatter shouted back from where he was hidden. Through a hole in the woodwork, he got a good look at the strange creature. In some ways it resembled a momerath in the piggish hindquarters and rear hooves but the front end was like some horrible gryphon creature. It was like it had been created simply to be ugly and foul-tempered. It roared repeatedly, its floppy ears almost appearing to rotate around its head while its tiny eyes were obviously not able to see much at all. Hatter popped his head up to get a better look. It was wagging its head back and forth like a snake, the shimmer of silver fur on its bulky body showing its agitation. Hatter sank back down on his buttocks and gave a skeptical scoff.

"Don't think even my brain could imagine that one," he muttered and he caught the sight of a woman in the reflection of the clockwork. She was shaking her head.

Don't be so sure, boy, he heard in his head and he shook himself. He glared at her and threw a piece of cement hard at the clockwork to disrupt the reflection.
"So this is your brilliant plan?" Pidge was shouting in annoyance. "Hide?"

"I'd planned on using you for bait," Hatter responded. There was a tense pause that showed Pidge believed him. "But... I doubt you're pretty enough for something to want you. I'll do it. You shoot."

Even with the creature's heavy snorting and rumbling, he heard Pidge respond with, "I think I liked it better when you were sane but silent. This little bit mad and full out insultin' is not as good for me."

"I don't quite see why they did not request my help!" Charlie insisted as Alice impolitely shoved him ahead of her. They'd put Carol on Arthur's back to avoid struggling with her unresponsive body and the horses were both uneasy about the rumbling and roaring.

"I think they got this, Charlie," Alice insisted. "Will you move?"

"But I am a Knight! Surely my skills and intelligence would be of far more value to Hatter than Pidge's... uncouth and rather rough way of fighting."

Alice thought that things must have improved between Hatter and Charlie if Charlie now thought that Hatter was more worthy of a Knight than the other man. But she couldn't think to remark about that when she wasn't sure they'd make it to the train if Charlie kept jabbering. She pulled Guinevere along behind her and gave Charlie a fake smile.

"But I needed you with me, Charlie. To protect me, of course."

He looked skeptical and ready to just wobble back to the others so she put a hand on her abdomen and tried her best to look pathetic.

He was immediately contrite. "Of course, Justalice! I am ashamed that I forgot your most delicate condition." Beside Alice, Abel snorted in disbelief but Charlie ignored him. "Naturally my Knightly duties extend to your child as well and therefore, I shall stay with you!" Charlie declared.

"I feel safer already," Abel drawled but before Charlie could respond to the dig he was up on the edge of the train platform, staring into the tunnel. Alice joined him and looked down the darkness.

"It doesn't sound like it is going to stop. How are we going to get on?" she asked curiously with a worried look at her mother still unconscious on Arthur's back.

"Don't look like that," Abel said. "Do you really think that any of us can jump on a speeding train?"

Charlie sputtered and Abel held up a gnarled hand to appease him. "Except for you, of course, Knight."

"So how...?" Alice began and she stopped when she saw the shining headlight of the train coming toward them.

"That would be why my daughter works in negotiations," Abel answered and there was a loud squeal of brakes being forced to work and a thump and crash. Abigail appeared suddenly at one end of the platform, sprinting for them and she skidded to a halt beside her father.

"We've got about two minutes, if that."

"Two minutes to..."

Alice stared in shock at the train as it came to a slow halt before them, the large boxcar doors being thrown open with the force of it stopping. The train wheels were still moving though, but they'd been lifted off the track to keep it still. Looking closely, they could all see tiny vines caught up in the wheels and holding them. The train was shaking with the force of its own stalled locomotion, and Alice gave Abigail a nervous look. The older woman shrugged.

"They owed him a favour." She gestured to the vines and then poked Charlie. "You, get the horses on now!"

It was a rush to get the nervous animals into one of the boxcars that had been abandoned at some point. It was still full of bedding, water barrels and hay, signs that until recently it had held animals, but it didn't comfort the horses. Abel dragged Carol off Arthur's back just as the horse finally leapt off the platform into the train. Guinevere followed hesitantly, her ears pinned and her eyes rolling in anxiety but she immediately went to cower beside Arthur. Charlie disappeared with them into the livestock car and Chesh bounced along beside him, quickly commandeering a low beam for his perch.

The other boxcars still had the look of the old elegant cars with their windows and brass work, but they seemed to be abandoned. Alice stepped up into one of the cars and gave it a quick glance. It was just like the one she and Hatter had come South in with its plush interior and woodwork frame.

The thought of him made her press past Abigail to look out. The loud rumbling and roaring was coming nearer and she looked desperately for anything to show where the two men were. Abel dumped Carol onto a bench seat and leaned out the car with Alice.

"This distraction business should be over by now."

"Unless they decided to try to kill one another," Abigail muttered and he looked at her.

"Why would they do that?" he asked and she gave a pointed look at the back of Alice's head. "Oh, right."

"I don't see them. I'm going to go," Alice said, one foot off the train but Abel jerked her back.

"No," he ordered and as she went to argue he grinned. "They're coming this way."

She turned to look and stared stupidly.

Hatter was sprinting over the various wreckage, leaping over obstacles with surprising agility and rolling when the pursuing creature took a swipe at him. All around him, there were small explosions like mines being set off, and he narrowly dodged one that blew up near his feet. He turned mid-run and ducked a swipe to glare at the man in the distance.

"What the bleedin' Wonderland is wrong with you? Have you had too long a vacation in the South? You can barely aim straight!" he yelled at Pidge. The taller man was standing atop a small block, using his croquet mallet to whack cement bullets at the creature with enough force to explode.

"I'm not missing!" Pidge shouted back. "I'm just waiting for the perfect moment!"

The mome-monster took advantage of Hatter's distraction to get in a good swipe that took him clean off his feet.

"Now would be perfect! Or are you gettin' too old to have decent aim?" Hatter yelled as he rolled out of the way of the massive tusks aiming at him.

"Picky picky," Pidge shouted even as he threw a piece of cement into the air. Using his mallet, he hit it so hard that the piece slammed against the creature's head and it went down, stunned. Hatter picked himself up and glared at Pidge as the other man leapt down from the block and jogged to him.

"This is why I work alone."

"Ah come on, we don't want you ruining your pretty face, do we?" Pidge asked cuttingly.

"Right, because then I'll end up lookin' like you," Hatter snapped.

"If you two can stop flirting, there is the matter of this train about to take off!" Abel shouted over the rumbling screech of the train. The vines were losing their grip, the constantly churning wheels sawing through them. The train was starting to jerk forward as it gained more and more power.

"Hatter!" Alice called out and her voice jerked him from his need to insult Pidge a bit more. Giving the other man a sneer, he took off for the train, Pidge close on his heels. The train jerked again and again, the vines making sharp twang sounds as they came apart like ripped fibres. Hatter had barely made it to the cab when the last holding vine snapped like an over-stretched elastic. His hand just curled around the bar as the train sprang forward like a released wind-up toy and he almost fell to his knees at the force of it.

"I've got you!" Abel shouted over the squeal of metal wheels meeting the rail again, and his hand latched around Hatter's to yank him to safety. Pidge just missed the bar with his hand and Hatter rolled to his stomach, catching Pidge by his arm. Using the strength of his right hand, he kept firm hold and Alice grabbed him around his waist to help pull. Pidge barely managed to get his feet to safety before they were plummeted into the darkness of the tunnel.

Abel was the first to move from the entangled heap they all made. He looked at them all and gave a satisfied sigh.

"There, was that so bad?" he asked and Pidge groaned. "Quit whining, Pidge, and act like a man. I'm going to see if there is still a conductor running this train or not."

"I'll go with you. I'll need to find food somewhere in here," Abigail muttered, not wanting to be left alone with her distant son and a woman who still did not trust her. When it seemed like Pidge would hesitate, she grabbed him by his collar and pulled him along like a child. He complained the entire way about just wanting to rest until the sliding door's hiss drowned him out.

It left Hatter and Alice alone in the darkness.

Alice moved over Hatter until they were nose to nose in the dark. "You okay?" she asked, feeling his warm breath on her mouth. She stole a hand down his front, feeling his erratic heartbeat and the way he tensed a bit at her touch.

"I'm fine," he answered abruptly, his hand stealing down to hers and giving her a brief squeeze before he picked himself up from under her. He seemed determined to put some distance between them. "I don't like trains."

"Well, considering the last time you helped explode a car and that got us kicked off... I'd say as long as you don't do that, we're fine." Alice stood up, using her sarcasm to mask the hurt the distant attitude he was taking did to her.

He looked at her, his hat slanted over one eye rakishly. "That, Alice, I can make no guarantee over."

Chapter Text

"There are far worse things than train travel... and yet I can't think of them at the moment," Chesh's irritated voice floated from the straw bale nearby and Alice glanced up from where she was brushing through Guinevere's straggly mane. The train was on its seventh day of its strange round trip and not once had Chesh left the safety of the livestock car.

Though he never stopped complaining about it.

The train rattled and rambled on, slowing now and then as if trying to brake itself to pick up any passengers at the stations they passed. But it never came to a stop the way it should have, never let any passengers on as it continued its course over South Wonderland. It was hard to get used to the swaying and the pitching of the train but what was worse was the eerie silence of it. They were the only ones in the train, and the signs of frenzied panic of those who had fled the train before made everyone a bit tense.

Chesh only spoke lately to complain about the trip, yet Alice found his company better than the rest of them at times. His company and that of the more amiable horses. They'd all been too enclosed with one another, and beyond returning Abigail's necklace to her, Alice didn't often speak to the Drawlings. Charlie and Carol spent time playing games of chess and checkers in the dining car, and Alice only occasionally joined them. The only time everyone met was to have mini-meetings in the morning to be certain that everyone was still fine. That no one was ready to just jump off the train.

As lonely as the silence should have been, Alice now found herself relieved that she was being left to her own devices again.

The more cooped up she felt, the more restless she became, bored even, and her boredom had led to her wanting to know more about this glow of hers. Months had gone by with her just not thinking about it very much, the odd quirks now and then of it working being strange but she'd not dwelled on it. She had had that fear of becoming corrupted, of losing herself, and it was caused by the memory of the White Queen. That fear had left when she realized she could use her power for actual good.

Now she had time on her hands and a sudden desperate need to know how this could be used. Really used.

Even Hatter knew how to use his right hand better than she knew how to use her glow.

So she went to Chesh, knowing that this strange know-it-all attitude of his wasn't just for show. She'd sneak out of her shared bunk with her mother, tucked into a coat and her night-gown and barefoot to avoid making much sound, and would have lessons. Strange lessons that went beyond what she'd ever been taught before. Chesh was well-rounded in the history of Wonderland.

And he was clever. Very clever. He insisted on cajoling more bargains from her, though the price was usually quite... cat-like. String bits, pieces of soft meat, milk; not at all like a clever sorcerer. The latest thing had been a soft blanket to sleep in and now he was perched there, lying like some prince on a silken pillow, watching Alice with Guinevere. The lessons had always been simple; more old history than actual work. Today, Chesh had insisted that the history was more important than the doing and Alice had felt almost instantaneous suspicion. He was not telling her everything, Alice felt, and today she had said so aloud.

The clear pleasure on his cat face had been one of unexpected pride. As if he was proud of her for noticing.

Chesh's slow drawl drew her back to the present. "Trains aren't comfortable."

"Trains in Wonderland aren't meant for comfort really," Alice pointed out and he licked at a paw to clean his ear.

"I suppose not. Where were we?" He dissipated suddenly and Alice started, catching her fingers in a knot in Guinevere's mane. The mare snorted and Alice whispered to her as she undid the knot and looked around the room. Chesh's voice, disembodied and typically smarmy with its condescending tone, floated around her.

"The entire concept of 'magic' here is probably different from your world. No one expresses surprise or real disbelief here," he said from somewhere around her. Alice stepped into the middle of the livestock car, knee deep in the scratchy straw, and turned as his voice echoed and drifted through the room.

"It's not real in my world," Alice answered and heard a strange chuckle behind her. She turned, cursing the bits of straw that stuck into her toes, and tried to see the Cheshire.

"As far as you know," he said snidely, his voice surrounding her like an echo. "And considering you've been wandering around Wonderland for as long as you have, how can you still have doubts? About Wonderland's magic? About yourself?"

"Because I'm just..."

"Alice. Yes of course. So, Justalice, why do you think you glow?" he asked like a teacher about to rip her apart for thinking the wrong thing.

"My... emotions?" she asked weakly.

"Partially. Emotions, strengths. For whatever reason, you Oysters exude them, like a pearl with lustre. Which is what makes you all so valuable. When you are used properly of course," he dropped off, voice just in her ear now and Alice turned quickly. Her eyes darted over the dark rafters.

"What do you mean, used?"

"Slip of the tongue," he muttered from overhead and she thought she saw a drift of smoke from where he was floating. At his words, a strange feeling of déjà vu came over her and she shook her head.

"You, like all Oysters, are like one big attraction for the once-hidden," Chesh continued.

"What do you mean?" Alice took the leading bait, still trying to see the cat. He liked this trick of disappearing on her and she knew it was because she would get angry and frustrated with him that he'd do it as often as he did.

"Why do you think Hatter's right hand, indeed, most of his dormant capabilities, have come out? It isn't just because of who he is. It's because just being near Oysters can affect any Wonderlander with the slightest of capabilities." He laughed, a purring rumble. "Well, almost any Wonderlander. Oysters that give up their power and become true Wonderlanders still have ability. Then there are the... hybrids, so to speak. When the Wonderlander has Oyster blood somewhere in their background, it's magnetic in attraction for them when they meet a true Oyster."

His head suddenly appeared beside her and there was a knowing look in his eyes. "Which explains Mr. Pigeon's latest affections as well. Not to mention the Hatter's rather...intense emotions for you."

Alice glared at his head, not liking that he was claiming that Hatter loved her just because of a strange sort of biology.

"Which explains as well why you and Hatter are stronger together than you are apart. You both reflect power back on one another. It is a strange thing for one such as me to see. The thing of legends, as it were," Chesh commented. " So I suggest you remedy this distance between you, to keep that strong."

"It doesn't concern you," Alice snapped and he shrugged.

"I notice things, Alice. I notice that you wander the halls every night until you are exhausted, though he is only several compartments over. That you and he do not sleep in the same bed. You want one another yet when you all are together you stare at one another and make no move. Even when you all were speaking about saving Wonderland a few nights ago in your little 'conference', you stared at one another when you thought no one was looking. Who couldn't notice that this incredible tension between you has made you," he grinned evilly, "tight, Alice."

She jutted her jaw out and lifted her eyes to the ceiling, counting to ten in her head to calm down. She didn't need a cat telling her what she already knew. She wanted Hatter more badly now that she had him back, but there was the feeling that it was wrong to want him right now; a feeling she was starting to get from the others. He was still dangerous and though her mind was warning her, every other part of Alice was more attracted than ever.

"So how do I use it?" she said, trying to lead the conversation to safer ground. "That's something you've not really told me."

"Focus on what I've taught you about Wonderland, about how Wonderlanders don't often feel deeply in the same way you do, which is why they don't... glow. Think about how you've used it before." He moved around, his head looking like an absurd fur ball being bounced by an imaginary hand. Alice pursed her lips, her frustration with Chesh's crypticness building inside. His words sunk in slowly and she thought about the glow of her own emotion warping around him and making him clear to her sight, so he could feel her frustration.

Like the flash of strobe light, a chain of blue light lashed out and grabbed the cat's head. With a yowl, he was yanked back in front of her and he reappeared, clearly against his will. The blue light suspended him in the air like a cloud, and his ears flattened to his skull in agitation. Alice crossed her arms over her chest and arched a brow expectantly.

"Well, it seems you can be taught," Chesh muttered.

"That's all?" she asked.

"Well done," he answered grudgingly and she smiled finally.

"So it's just emotion? Why can't my mom feel it then? Use it?" Alice countered.

"Because that would mean every Oyster who entered Wonderland had strong power and it just isn't so. The same reason why there are only few families that have some strange power or ability, like the Hatters or the old Whites did. There is something about you, Alice, that Wonderland has decided is worth power." His eyes glinted. "Which is most interesting."

His cat-green gaze dropped to her belly.

"Though I do wonder what it is you are carrying, as your glow is stronger than before." He watched her put a protective hand on her stomach. "You don't think that being able to change the entire interior of the Drawling Manor was a tad bit out of your usual ability range?"

"I thought it was you helping me," she pointed out and he shrugged.

"Somewhat. How much power do you think I have left, trapped in this body?" he said with a heavy venom in his voice. Alice frowned.

"You said Oyster blood dilutes though."

"So no wonder why I am most interested to see what this new bloodline produces. Wonderland must have substantial interest in you, Alice, if it even reversed time a bit to allow this child to be kept safe."

"It was Unda who did it," she started and stared at him, seeing the serene smugness on his face. Her face paled. "It wasn't just Unda."

"Wonderland is its own entity, Alice, has its own mind. And it always has a reason for something it allows. Her ghost, her power being used, is definitely for its own ends."

She felt a faint thump under her hand and she chewed on her lip. "How do you know all this, Chesh?"

"Who, exactly, Alice, did you think locked me up in the Woods the first time? The very first time?" he said with a sly grin.

"I'm starting to think I'm still underestimating you, is what I think," Alice whispered and he shrugged.

"The first step to understanding anything about me is admitting to that, Alice. But you wanted lessons but I need more from you." He disappeared and then reappeared on Guinevere's back. His face was intent. "When, exactly, will I get my real form back?"


"Have been stalling." With an odd expression, he swiped his paw in the air. "Though it is understandable. But did I not help you? Save your life even?"

Even she couldn't argue that. "You did."

"I cannot stay in this form longer, Alice." His face did an odd twist, half of his mouth twisted down in a parody of a frown. "I am losing my self. My mind and power. Which, I might add, is something I am quite attached to."

"What do you mean?" Alice stepped to him and ran a hand down Guinevere's flank to keep the edgy mare still.

"Did you think my demands were not a bit odd for me?" he asked harshly. She nodded and he rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "My brain feels smaller. My mind... animal like."

"Hatter would argue that it was punishment enough considering what you did to us in the Taiga."

"She unleashed me first, you were second. So it was natural for my loyalties to shift." His tail curled around his paws. "Though I only have one true loyalty. To myself." He made a face. "And to Wonderland, I suppose, if you want some added truth."

Alice shook her head. "How could you, Chesh? You almost destroyed Wonderland the first time by your deceptions, you killed the Knave, almost killed Hatter."

"I also saved your life by bringing you out of the Taiga to the White's Manor, saved your life in the Drawling Manor, and that of your child's. Which has helped end some of Wonderland's self-destruction." His eyes narrowed. "So when do things even between us?"

Alice had no answer for that and sighed. "I don't know, Chesh." Her fingers flexed. "I could only do it because the Sceptre focussed my power last time. I don't think I can do it without it this time."

Hoping she wouldn't regret it, she fixed her blue eyes on Chesh. "But if you agree to help us with taking back Wonderland from the Queen, I'll turn you back when we reach Charlie's Kingdom. We've hidden the Sceptre near there."

He responded without any hesitation, "Agreed."

Alice stepped away from Guinevere and made her stumbling way over the compartment doors. She'd only just grasped the handle when Chesh's voice called out to her from his place on the horse. "Though, Alice."

She stopped mid-step and turned to look at him. He disappeared and then reappeared again above her on a ceiling beam.

"What would you do if I did betray you again, despite our agreement? What can you do?" Chesh asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm and promise. Alice's eyes glinted and she felt angry memories of what he had done to all of them in the Taiga surface. Wanting to him to fear her as badly as she had been afraid at the time, she let it course out of her.

The globe of fiery light that exploded from her fingers and into the ceiling beam was fast and brilliant enough that Chesh was sent flying from the ceiling into a pile of straw. It left a deep scorch mark on the beam, though no embers sparked, and the cat stared at the beam in shock from where he'd fallen. Alice stared dispassionately at him and then turned around, sliding the door open.

"I guess you'll have to find out, Chesh," she answered before shutting the door behind herself.

Chapter Text

The train rocked steadily from side to side, its pace having slowed in the past half hour but still fast enough that the motion of the train hadn't eased. Using the railing to support herself with one hand and holding a glass lantern with the other, Alice moved slowly along the narrow corridor of the boxcar. Her attention was divided between keeping her balance and going over the earlier conversation in an attempt to dissect its real meaning. It was hard enough to think of her mini-lessons without feeling a little depressed now. Chesh's melancholy had almost been contagious and it made her steps feel heavier and heavier. That he clearly thought there was no hope for himself if he wasn't turned back was a strange guilt for her. He had helped her and now she wasn't sure she could help him, not sure she could trust him.

She shouldn't trust him at all. It did linger in her mind that of all of them Chesh was a master manipulator and he could be lying to her. It would not be the first time and it certainly would be fitting his character to lie. But he'd been almost pushing her into some sort of action and for that she was a little thankful. Chesh might look after his own interests but when they ran parallel to her own, she stood to benefit from his quick thinking.

The number 7 door was unlocked when she came to it and she slid it open without truly thinking of what she was about to get herself into. Her intentions had changed thanks to Chesh's snide observations and she needed more than to just go back to bed and rest. A momentary selfishness, she knew, but the only one she could afford right now.

She needed more than a lonely bed and tension that burned inside her. She wanted more and it was time to try for more.

The dimly lit berth was narrow but it was warmly lit by the few lantern globes that were braced on the walls. Alice slid her own lantern onto the tiny half-moon table and squinted through the darkness. The berth was small enough that she didn't have to really look all that hard. She could just make out Hatter's outline in the shadows, a pale figure bent over on the edge of the bed. He had his head in his hands and he was trembling as if he'd been woken from a bad dream, softly murmuring nonsensical words as if to bring himself back to reality.

"Hatter?" she whispered and he jumped as if she had shouted suddenly at him, though his head remained lowered. "Are you okay?"

His head lifted from his hands and he looked her over, his expression startled. Then he relaxed a little as if finally realizing who it was and his hands dragged down his cheeks slowly. Still eyeing her, he rubbed at the back of his neck and then shrugged.

"Can't sleep, darlin'. Feelin' a mite bit sick in this thing, and that feelin' isn't about to leave any time soon," he answered, finally smiling at her though his face remained drawn and tense. Alice went further into the room, the ragged hems of her night-gown and coat dragging along with her and making whispering sounds on the wood. She looked around the strangely quiet berth, hearing only the faint sounds of rumbling wheels, and focussed intently on a wall-globe to try to get her eyes to adjust to the shadows in the room.

"How long has it been since you really slept?" she asked before reaching up and drawing the edges of the coat closer around her chest. No wonder he couldn't sleep; there was a draft from the floorboards that sent a chill up her toes.

"A good sleep? Not drug induced or because I was knocked out?" Hatter took his time answering and counted off on his fingers until he gave up on the effort. "Hard to remember but I'd say a month and a half."

Alice stared at him, shocked. She hadn't realized how badly he was still needing it and had taken it for granted that since his somewhat return to a more natural state he'd been sleeping. He hid it all so well and his face was not showing the signs of true sleep-deprivation. He just seemed a bit groggy more than anything else. Hatter looked back at her and gave a sheepish half-grin when he saw her disbelief.

"How are you even still standing?" she asked curiously. She thought for a moment perhaps he was taking something like pep pills but then pushed that from her mind. Even if he could take something, what would it be? They were on an abandoned train that didn't stop for anything.

"Stubbornness and adrenaline, I guess. Considering I lived on that alone for how many days before I got a wink of sleep, it's not really as impressive as it sounds," Hatter pointed out and she shrugged, not having any response to that.

He got to his feet and moved past her. The narrowness of the compartment made him brush against her and Alice swayed unconsciously into his body when he was passed but he was already moving beyond her. He shut the door she'd left open and touched the globes on the panelled wall so that they brightened a little, giving the room a warmer glow. It made her blink but she welcomed the light now and the warmth it seemed to bring with it. It made her see him more clearly and she gnawed on her lower lip in thought.

He looked sleep-mussed, and he was only half-dressed, something she felt even more acutely when he started to squeeze past her again. Watching him, she took in the changes of the past week that he'd done to himself. Since they'd boarded on the train he'd thoroughly washed and cut his hair back to the usual length he'd had when she met him, and the familiar sight attracted her more now that they were close. He had even shaved at some point and he was back to looking a little scruffy. It was like looking at him from the first time they met and it made her glad to see he was taking care of himself again.

She stared him covertly and ran her eyes over his wiry frame. He was still on the thin side, the wounds he'd suffered from fading to pink and white scarring on his chest and arms, but he didn't seem as fragile as he had before. He'd recovered some of his weight and she said so aloud with some surprise.

Hatter cocked an eyebrow as he paused beside her, stopping mid-step. He looked down at her and she tilted her head back to meet his eyes squarely. "You say it like you're shocked."

"I'm happy to see it, that's all. You look healthier," she answered, smiling up at him. Something else shone in her eyes and he opened his mouth to say something before closing it with a snap. Hatter's eyes lingered over her face before dropping to her hands as she removed her coat. He took his gaze away immediately, as if afraid she'd catch him looking.

"Glad my weight makes you happy." His voice drifted off and he took a seat on the bed again. The almost weary way he spoke tugged at her and she sighed, momentary happiness and attraction fading inside of her.

"I wish I knew what it would take to make you happy," Alice whispered, so lowly that she thought he'd not heard her. But his eyes shot back to hers. With a casualness she didn't feel, she threw the coat onto the tiny chest at the end of the bed and then turned back to him.

He seemed to be debating asking her what she meant but cowardly she changed the subject before he could.

"I couldn't sleep," she blurted out and went red at his arched brows. He shook his head and gave his half-smile that sent a shock of tingling butterflies into her stomach.

"That's a terrible club to join, though a popular one these days," he joked half-heartedly and she sighed.

"Hatter, please. I don't like it; don't like the cold and this incessant rocking of a train and feeling like I might fall out of bed, but most of all..." She toyed with the sleeves of her night-gown. "I miss you."

He was silent again and when she peeped at his hands she saw that they were clenched on his thighs.

"I'm not exactly fantastic company these days, Alice. But I shouldn't have to tell you that," he answered seriously. Flicking her tongue across suddenly dry lips, Alice smiled wryly.

"No one is it seems." She took in a deep breath. "But I don't like sleeping alone in my bed anymore." She lifted her eyes to his and saw him staring at her curiously. "I fought so hard to gain even a smidgen of you back, Hatter, and I'm tired of feeling like it's... forbidden for me to want you still."

She'd remembered how everyone had been so careful to always be around when she and Hatter seemed close to being alone. He was still dangerous, was the argument, and she knew it was a good excuse, which was why she'd allowed it for so many days. It had been to protect her but she didn't need that. It was going to stop here, if she had any say in the matter.

"Whose to say it isn't?" He sighed and lowered his head, pulling his hand through his hair.

"Me." She watched him, knowing he too still felt the tension of the others around him, the mistrust. He'd thought that she was one of them and it made her determined to prove him wrong. She'd already been able to seduce him into realizing she wasn't afraid of him and she wasn't afraid of doing it again.

"Alice, it's not just my head and what's gone wrong. I might... I still don't know what I'll do. Then you're pregnant now and I just don't think you actually want..." He paused as he heard a slither of ribbon through fabric and he looked up.

Alice let the night-gown fall to her feet in halves, and stood naked and exposed to the dim light. She felt the cold but lifted her chin as she decided to ignore it for as long as possible. Hatter swallowed and didn't finish his sentence. His eyes, impossibly dark and intent, took her in with an almost critical interest. It made her feel like a bug being inspected before dissection and she waited for him to touch her.

But he didn't.

In the long moments that went by, Alice felt goose-bumps go crawling up her arms and legs and felt a hot bundle of nerves churn in her stomach that sharply contrasted the cold of the room. Her body had changed a little, though not by much, but with him staring at her like this she felt as if she'd undergone some radical change that only he could see. She'd only been self-conscious once before with him; it had been during their first time together and that had passed quickly once she'd learned how easy it was to be with him. But now an almost childish wish to cover herself was creeping up. She was suddenly too aware that her belly had rounded a little, that her breasts were fuller as were her hips, and the idea that those changes could repulse him suddenly reared its nasty head.

Deeply regretting her desperate boldness, Alice shut her eyes and despite her best attempts felt a few tears slip out. It was nothing more than final evidence that things can't go back to the way they were, Alice thought to herself. For a moment she longed for her old Hatter, who had needed no excuse to seduce her at the most inopportune of times. She even wished for the more violent Hatter that had wanted her desperately just over a week ago. The one who would have thrown her against a wall and taken what he wanted.

Two versions of Hatter that were definitely different from this silent man who had retreated into jokes and slights to mask his own needs. Who could only stare at her it seemed.

When he sighed she opened her eyes and watched as he bent over, his hair brushing her stomach he was so close. He picked up the silken folds of her night-gown and she shut her eyes again, knowing what was next. He'd put it back on her and gently but forcefully tell her to get out, to leave him to wallow in his own brand of guilt and misery. But when he didn't try to slip it back over her she peeked again and held her breath. He was simply folding the night-gown up neatly, obsessing over the tiniest flaw in its folds, before setting it on the end of his bed.

Alice watched him, curiosity overwhelming her self-consciousness. Hatter turned back to her and glanced up, his expression calm, and she jumped when she felt a hand slide up her bare leg to her hip. His palm was ice-cold, warming slowly from the friction of his skin on hers, and his fingers tapped an odd rhythm against her hip bone. Without speaking, he wrapped his arm around her hips and pulled her hard into him. Her knees banged into the edge of the bed-frame and Alice hissed in pain, her fingers clenching into a fist.

Hatter's head dropped and his other hand lifted to take her balled fist in his grip. He opened her fingers slowly and then gently grasped them. Not daring to breathe, Alice swayed with the movement of the train and felt his mouth brush her stomach. After a moment's hesitation, he slid his knees on either side of her legs and sat up a bit higher. The feel of his mouth on her breast was so sudden and intense that she couldn't stop the moan that came from deep in her throat. Her fingers tightened against his and she felt her knees almost buckle when his warm mouth caused her nipple to harden to an almost painful point.

The week had been too long and the tension between them made everything seem far more intense. She felt so on edge that she started to tremble against him, her breathing coming quick and panting.

Hatter's other hand tightened on her hip, steadying her and keeping her from pulling away when the sensation became too intense. Her hand slipped from his, her body almost caving in as she tried to ease the intensity a bit by pulling back a bit. Squeezing her eyes shut, Alice took in a deep breath and gripped his shoulders as he began to caress down the curve of her spine with his free hand. It felt like tiny rivers of heat moving over her bare skin and she squirmed closer into him again, no longer fighting the sensation. His tongue flicked out over her nipple and she made a sound in her throat as his hand slipped around her hips again, sliding down against her thigh. He nudged her one leg further forward and she did it willingly, her head spinning.

The room was still quiet, disturbed only by her deeper breathing and the soft whisper of his shifting on the bed's edge. Alice readied herself for him to pull her down but he didn't move to do so, his hand instead curving under her shifted leg. Hatter seemed more than content to keep her standing and she tightened her fingers on his shoulders as he took his mouth from her breast and trailed it over her chest.

"Sometimes it's hard to get rid of this feeling," he murmured against her skin and Alice blinked, struggling to focus on his words.

"How?" she managed as she stared blindly at the wall behind him. Struggling to control her rampaging heartbeat, she started to count the whorls on the painted wood. Hatter seemed to sense her distraction and shook his head.

"Feels like," he began and his fingers caressed the backs of her thigh before sliding between her legs from behind, causing her to jerk in surprise at the cold touch. She immediately lost count of the whorls on the wall and stared at the top of his head instead. "Sometimes you can make time stand still, Alice, and for a moment everything that's happened means nothin' at all."

He gently stroked her, feeling the heat emanating from her body, and lifted his head so he could watch her face. Alice sank her teeth into her lower lip and exhaled sharply. Her one hand lifted to tangle in his soft hair, her lower body thrusting forward to follow the stroke of his fingers.

"Then sometimes it feels like I'm so bound up that I can't live without you, and you go and speed up time, so that I can't do more than follow you blindly," he admitted, her loud moan interrupting him. His fingers danced along her warmth, touching and relearning how to get the response from her he so desperately wanted. He continued to talk, as if her moaning wasn't disturbing his train of thought. The thickening of his accent let her know, even in her foggy state, that she was affecting him by her response. "I watched you the past week, saw yer eyes burnin' sometimes when you looked at me, saw the passion in yer face when you spoke about saving Wonderland. Not just for your sake but for the sake of everyone. You remember?"

She gave a shaky nod as he circled her clit with his thumb and slowly slid a finger inside of her, causing her to rock into him. Her body clenched around him and he shivered as her nails slid along the back of his neck. She made a soft sound and moved closer to him.

"Sometimes feels like my soul is gone, Alice, when I'm without you," Hatter admitted as he slid his leg up between hers so she could rock impatiently against his thigh. "I can't help but feel that way. Makes me a slave in some sense."

She trembled, her fingers tightening in the hair at the nape of his neck. She wanted desperately to say something back, not knowing what it would be, but he knew her body too well. He knew how to make her feel incoherent. Even being 'out of practise' he still knew how to get the response he wanted.

So close, she thought to herself, crying out as he slipped another finger inside of her and began to thrust his fingers back and forth slowly, and he can still carry on.

"Then other times, it feels like you give me a sense of being back." Hatter took in a shaky breath and lifted his lips against her skin. His fingers continued to slide inside her and she felt him move against her, his pants rough against the inside of her legs. She whimpered, biting so hard into the inside of her cheek that she tasted blood. She was so close and with a moan she tried to push her body over the edge.

"Alice, look at me," he ordered suddenly, his fingers stilling so that she nearly cried out at the loss of friction. She shook her head, not wanting to open her eyes. It felt so alike to standing a precipice of a cliff that she was strangely frightened by it. Her body clenched painfully tight and her breathing was shallow and fast.


The way he spoke her name reminded her of the time, so long ago, on the edge of a Wonderland street when she had been terrified of the dizzying heights. It was soft, encouraging but also commanding of her. She opened her eyes and stared down at him. It surprised her that she could see real warmth in his gaze, though there was a hint of cockiness there. It made her body tighten to realize that he knew exactly what he was doing to her by hesitating like this.

"Thing is," he continued on, fingers teasing her again, just keeping her release out of reach. "When I look at you in times like this, it's like a mirror. It shows how you feel. And I know what I'm feelin' isn't just one-sided. Selfish as it is, it's how I want it; but it was hard to hope for sometimes when we had that distance between us."

He used his arm to tug her down harder against his lap, letting her rock impatiently against his hand and thigh. Hatter lowered his head and lipped at her nipple gently, worrying it for a moment as if to gather his thoughts. "So, I have to admit the truth, Alice."

"The... truth?" she whispered brokenly, trying hard to use her body to encourage him to touch her harder, higher, anything to bring about what her body needed.

"Mmhmm," he nodded against her breast and tilted his head back. His eyes went over her face and he smiled.

"What... exactly... is the truth?" she breathed out, groaning when she felt his teeth nip against the underside of her breast whenever she swayed closer to him.

Hatter smiled against her skin. "That I've been wantin' to do this to you since last second Tuesday. That I don't like feelin' like wantin' you is wrong. So I don't want you feelin' that way right now, Alice, especially when I want you to come apart the way you used to."

He moved quickly, taking her nipple into his mouth and tugging hard with his teeth. His fingers quickened inside her and Alice cried out, clutching at the back of his head to steady herself and him. He remembered exactly the rhythm he needed, the right pressure, and with the skill of a dedicated artist he began to pull her into a release. His fingers curved and slid, thumb doing circles on her clit while he bit her nipple hard enough that she felt the sharpness of his teeth. Golden sparks exploded behind her eyes and she cried out again, hunching her body against his desperately to try to support herself. It thrummed through her, pulsing so strongly that her knees buckled and she softly cried against his ear when she sunk onto his lap further.

Hatter trembled against her, releasing her from his mouth and watching the glow increase on her skin as she came apart in his arms. The glow seemed to wrap around his own body, warming his skin, and he drew her closer, absorbing it as much as he could. Alice fell into him, her legs sliding to either side of his hips and forcing him to him to move his hand from her. She shivered against him, her hips still rocking against his as aftershocks ripped through her body, and he nestled his face against her neck. She wrapped her hands into his hair and held him closer, murmuring nonsense against his ear. Her breathing was still heavy but her body was relaxing, inch by inch, against his.

"Thank you," she whispered suddenly, her body still twitching. He smiled, breathing in the scent of her through the silky curtain of her hair, and felt her lips grab at his earlobe. Between them, the faint swell to her stomach seemed to... flutter, and he pressed a hand against her belly. The tiny jump happened again and he tensed a little, irrationally worried that they shouldn't be doing this.

"We need to talk about..."

Her hand covered his mouth quickly and she leaned back. "Uh uh."

He tried to mutter through her hand but felt her grip tighten a bit to keep his lips closed.

"Not now. Not when I have you where I want you." When he still tried to talk she squeezed a bit harder so that his lips pursed comically between her fingers and then using her other hand she shoved him down. It was an awkward position for him to be in with his feet still planted on the floor and his back arched on the lumpy mattress but he was too stunned to move. Alice straddled his lap for a moment longer, giving him a warning look when he opened his mouth to protest the uncomfortable way he was lying. Once she was satisfied that he'd keep quiet she stretched out beside him and propped herself up on an elbow so she could look down at him.

He looked so adorably worried that she couldn't help but grin.

"You look scared."

A cool, bland look came over his face suddenly and she bit her lip at the chill she felt. Not a chill she minded but it went right through her from head to toe. That momentary worry was gone from his face, replaced with an almost condescending smirk that was an echo of his old arrogant smile.

"I'm not scared, Alice. Just a bit... wary," he tapped his head with a finger. "Remember, this part of me thought you were an illusion till a few weeks ago."

"That's true," she answered, nodding as if she took it very seriously. She leaned her body into him a bit and slid a hand down his front. Her fingers traced over the faint ridges of scars and healing wounds and he shifted under her touch. "I've already proven I'm not an illusion to you."

"True," he admitted, squirming a bit when her nails tracked lightly over his abdomen. Alice leaned closer to him and placed her lips against his ear.

"But I think that I still have to work at letting you know I'm not a fantasy all the time? Though I'm flattered you'd have constant fantasies about me," she joked though her voice had gone husky. She popped the buttons on his trousers slowly, so that each metallic sound of them releasing echoed in the still air. Bringing her hand up to her mouth, she flicked her tongue across her palm and then moved it back to its place on his stomach.

"So seducing you is the only way to really convince you, is that what we're saying? The way to let you know I have no intention of spending my nights alone now?"

He shifted as if trying to decide whether he wanted to move closer or farther away. Her cool hand slid down his hips and slipped under the waistband slowly. "Alice, you don't have..." He swore aloud when she actually stroked her fingers down into his trousers and wrapped them around him. His hips did an involuntary arch and she smiled smugly as she watched him close his eyes. His head turned a little so his face was pressed her neck and she stroked her fingers around the sensitive skin, feeling his breath quickening when she moved a bare leg over his. Shifting cloth out of her way, she clenched her fingers tighter around his cock and felt his body jerk.

"You were saying?" she murmured against his ear and heard him make a faint sound even as his body tried hard to follow the teasing strokes her hand was making.

"That... you didn't have to...this..." he muttered haltingly and she lipped at his earlobe, biting the sensitive skin when he felt ready to twist from her. Even the cool moistness of her palm couldn't hide that he was rock-hard and on edge, and she twisted her fingers a little, pressing her thumb at the tip of him.

"Oh?" She answered, lifting her head and staring at him. She stopped moving her fingers and he actually choked on his next words, his dark eyes impossibly wide as his hips tried to thrust up into her hand. He looked so innocent for a moment that she smiled indulgently.

"I don't have to do this?" she asked curiously and he couldn't answer when she dipped her head and kissed along the ridged column of his neck. She felt his Adam's apple bob against her lips as he swallowed and smiled. "But, Hatter, I really think I do."

As much as Hatter knew her body, she knew his and she stroked and pressed, feeling him jerk into her hand now and again when she hit the perfect spot. He was trying to hold back his own groans and it made her move her hand in more varying patterns. Slow, fast, it all seemed to work for him right now. But it was more fun to toy with him, since he'd insisted she might still be an illusion.

"I really think you're real," he gasped out, one hand clenching the mattress hard.

"What was that?" Alice lifted her head. His eyes were closed, his mouth twisted in a grimace.

"You're real," he admitted, groaning when her fingers tightened harder around his cock. He was close, she thought, or he wouldn't be fighting to respond to her. She stilled her moist strokes enough that he actually made a soft whimper of pain.

"How, exactly, am I real?" she asked, starting once again and debating whether to slide down and take him in her mouth. Her body actually trembled at the thought of tasting him again and she pressed against his leg, unconsciously grinding against him in time to her own stroking. She could feel the tension of impending release going through him, his entire body was so rigid, and she grinned, starting to move down the bed. Maybe teasing him still wouldn't be such a bad idea since he seemed so helpless.

"Or can't you manage a coherent sentence?" she muttered against his ear as she pressed hard into him, flicking her tongue across her lips in readiness.

The sudden grab for her hand warned her too late and she cried out as she was yanked across Hatter's body. The strong pull on her wrist was not gentle or relenting. She only caught a glimpse of his dark eyes before she was planted on the bed face down. Grappling for a hold, she threw her hair out of the way at the same time he landed on her back, his one arm curled around her hips.

"What are you doing?" she whispered, her breath coming in short but excited pants.

"I know you're Alice," Hatter growled against her ear and his one hand slapped down hard on her buttock, causing her to cry out in shock. The stinging pain went away quickly and left only a burning sensation that tingled up her body. "I know it because only you would know to tease me like that to get what you want."

She laughed into the mattress, a pure joyful sound even though she could hear him muttering in annoyance about her teasing him so cruelly. The sound melting into a moan as he slipped a hand between them and pushed into her. The other hand around her waist slid up over her ribcage, cupping a breast firmly, and she felt his teeth against her shoulder. Alice moved her head and looked at him, blue eyes twinkling.

"You enjoyed it," she whispered, hiccuping between the words as he started to thrust into her, and he glared at her.

"Minx," he muttered against her shoulder, his teeth flashing out as he nipped her. His hips rocked against her buttocks and he felt Alice clench around him.

"So says the bastard who," she started but he grabbed her chin and kissed her. It was like being made love to by two different men now: a gentle one who only wanted her trust and the rough one who wanted her more than anything in the world and wouldn't hesitate to take her. It was a heady sensation and she reached back to grab his hip, her fingers slipping on the slick skin and she dug her nails in. When he hit a spot deep inside her that caused her body to do a hard flutter of boiling nerves and pausing heartbeat, she cried out and clenched her nails harder into him.

Hearing her cry out and feeling the way her body's clenching was already pulling at his own body, Hatter suddenly minded very much that he'd orgasm alone. Even he had some principles about things like this though his body was almost throbbing at being put off its release for so many long minutes. Moving his hand down her stomach, he cupped her between her legs and never stopped moving against her. Alice gasped, her hand leaving his hip to grasp into the pillow under her forehead. His thrusts slammed into her so hard that Alice actually felt pushed forward violently, only to be pulled roughly back to meet another movement. She started to cry out in time to the movements and her body felt braced on edge once again, desperate for more. She was almost ready to ask for something more, anything to stop this throbbing pressure inside her body, when she felt his teeth sink into her shoulder sharply at the same time his palm ground into her. Every sensitive nerve was suddenly divided between the pain of his bite and the pleasure of his hand and endless thrusts.

Feeling her body spasm and tighten around him, Hatter let out a thankful groan that was covered by her cries and continued to move harder into her. Her body was quivering underneath him and he felt her hand tangle up into his hair, pulling his head over her shoulder so she could kiss him. Her teeth raked against his tongue as they kissed and he let himself go, crying out against her mouth. The contractions still wracking her body drew out his release in slow throbs, the tension leaving him instantly.

He collapsed against her back, practically smothering her into the pillow until she made a sound and shifted underneath him. Pressing his lips against the back of her neck, he breathed in the smell of her before moving away. He rolled onto his back and stared blindly at the ceiling, his pulse still beating rapidly. If there had been any lingering doubts that he was alive or that this was a fantasy, they were chased away by the racing heartbeat drumming through him.

Alice's face swam in his vision when she leaned over him, a sated grin on her lips that was oddly similar to a Cheshire Cat's. Her eyes were almost shining and he saw the glow of her skin seeming to pulse in time with her heavy breathing. She slid one leg over his hips and sat there on his stomach, her arms bracketing his head and her face close to his. He felt her fingers toy with his hair and after a moment of silence, his numb mouth started to work again.

He blurted out the first thing on his mind.

"Give me twenty minutes," he muttered sleepily and Alice smiled, lying on top of him fully. His body did a good attempt at trying to respond to her nearness but the exhaustion going through him was incredible. Her dark hair swung over her shoulder like a curtain and he felt the brush of it over his face. Reaching up, he weakly pushed her hair to one side and gave a sheepish grin.

"Twenty minutes?" she inquired politely as she rested her chin on his chest and peered up at him. Hatter didn't respond for a moment, reaching over his head to touch the lantern over the headboard. The lights in the room dimmed instantly at his touch but he could still make out the pale outline Alice made on top of him. He looked back at her, feeling her comforting weight on his body and his grin widened a bit.

"Then you can prove to me that you're real again," Hatter answered with a grin and she chuckled, tucking herself into his body as his arms went around her waist. He let his hands wander just below the small of her back, stroking gently, and she responded by shifting against his hips. He could feel the fading sting of her nails on his own body and when he grimaced at the thought that maybe he'd bruised her, Alice shifted on his body. She looked down at him and grinned happily, making him forget the slight discomfort. She bent lower and brushed her mouth against his but before Hatter could respond to the kiss she moved away, lying down into his body again with her head just below his chin.

"I'll start the timer then, but I won't hold you to the twenty minute rule after that performance. I think I can give you an extra ten minutes as a bonus to rest up," Alice answered finally and she jumped a bit when Hatter laughed, low but long, while his arms tightening around her. It felt good to laugh after all this time and he felt Alice smile against his chest even as her breathing evened out in sleep. Hatter lay awake longer, stroking her back and staring at the ceiling. For once, his mind felt wonderfully still.

Chapter Text

Pidge had decided a long time ago that train travel was not for him and there was no convincing him otherwise. He didn't like the swaying floors, the sudden jerk of train cars being forced to follow the locomotive at their head, and he didn't like the confinement of being stuck in one place for so long. He'd been crawling the walls for days, only the relief of walking the halls to get exercise helping his stir-crazy feeling. He'd talk to his grandfather sometimes, pester Charlie and Carol for amusement but he'd been avoiding Alice and Hatter out of sheer embarrassment for his lack of control around the young woman. But occasionally he'd check on them when they weren't looking. He knew that he would feel guilty if anything terrible happened between them because of his actions.

His aunt had noticed and said nothing to it, though she would shoot him the occasional meaningful look. But he'd noticed her tension around Hatter and who wouldn't? Hatter went out of his way to not even look or speak to her and she would scuttle from his path in a rather girlish fashion. Pidge had at first thought Hatter just didn't trust her and when he'd brought it up one night, alone in the dining car, she'd finally told him just who she really was. Of what it meant to his own family and to the young man he'd always looked on as a friend. They were cousins, which made Hatter the only one that Pidge really had. The knowledge hadn't eased his discomfort about what had happened with Alice and he found himself really looking at Hatter during their 'meetings'. Now he could see their similarities underneath the stark differences and knew that it would be a trial to start thinking of Hatter as family. They'd always been good friends since their time in the Resistance, even when that friendship had been tested by a woman before, but somehow this new-found blood relationship made everything feel... awkward.

Not to mention he felt more guilty about his out-of-control emotions regarding Hatter and Alice's situation.

Pidge had resolved to put that from his mind, as far as it would go, and focus on the now. There was too much to be worried about. He had to move beyond repressed desire and unstable love and he'd already made up his mind what he was going to do when they reached the city outskirts. Which, at the rate the train was going, would be soon enough. It was just a matter of stopping the train or making a decent leap into the Lake when they passed it.

It would let him get away from the awkwardness he knew would develop if Hatter and Alice didn't resolve their problems. He couldn't help with that; he never did like interfering much with relationships. It never turned out well when he did.

But that is neither here nor there, Pidge thought to himself, and he had to tell Hatter what he had planned. Of all the people on the train, Hatter would be the most likely to understand what he was going to do. The others would see it as insane and maybe even nostalgic. His aunt would definitely protest and his grandfather would forbid him to go. But Hatter... Hatter would not hold him if he knew and would be a valuable asset.

There was more he had to give Hatter beyond the location of where he was heading but it would depend on if he saw any lingering madness in the younger man.

Pidge cast fleeting glances down the side of the hall, wanting to be sure he wasn't followed by Abigail or his grandfather. They'd almost been like shadows lately anyway but he wouldn't put it past them to suddenly show up. But when the halls remained silent, save for the rumbling of the train, he sighed and knocked softly on the berth door. There was no answer and he pressed his ear to it curiously. Even after a few moments it was still silent on the other side and with a faint apprehension, he slid the door open and stepped in.

Hatter had been dozing on and off during the night, sometimes slipping into actual sleep, sometimes just barely awake and ready to spring awake. It was hard to convince his body that it was safe and that he could rest without being threatened by mad dreams. Hard to convince because he didn't quite believe in it himself. Days and nights of mad visions had taken their toll on his nerves and he had to force himself to relax. Eventually, his muscles unclenched and his body started to feel heavy, while his mind hit a pleasant state of silence.

The light sleep he'd falling into was eventually interrupted by Alice's dreaming and murmuring. Though it was likely uncomfortable, she'd rolled onto her stomach and now and again she'd whisper in her sleep. Sometimes he'd recognize the names and people she talked of, sometimes not, but it had been enough to keep him awake. The few precious hours of sleep he'd managed to snag had refreshed him and he watched her sleep for a while longer. He'd debated on waking her since the urge to touch and taste her was still so strong but he'd noticed her waning glow before and knew that she needed her own sleep.

His hand drifted over her naked back, fingertips just skimming over the smooth skin, and he watched the gryphon mark seem to ripple under his touch. It didn't bite him like it had once before; instead, it simply warmed under the movement of his fingers. Alice murmured whenever it moved and he smiled as he moved to lay a little on her back. She curled into the warmth of his body, still asleep but wanting his comfort. Hatter brushed his lips over her shoulder as he pushed her hair out of her face. Her peaceful expression made his smile widen before he let his hand drift down to her waist. His palm brushed over the tiny, hard bump of her belly and he stared down at Alice's face. She didn't wake, but one hand of hers went down and cupped around the hand on her stomach, and he felt her squeeze his fingers.

It still unsettled and yet thrilled him to know that he was going to be a father. Especially when there was a time when it had looked like he never would be. That time and fate would never be on his side to ever have a family. Using his knuckles, he caressed the exposed skin and thought about his own dismal childhood. The aching loneliness of being part of a mad family, the guilt when he'd once felt he'd caused his mother's death, and that nagging fear that he might fail at his own life.

You could fail this kid, boyo, a dark voice whispered in his head, the one that lingered at the back of his mind and always threatened to overwhelm him. Hatter's eyes narrowed.

"I won't," he whispered and Alice stirred under his fingers, still asleep but somehow disturbed by his mood change. He soothed her with murmured words of comfort, feeling the moment she started to drop off into a deeper sleep. Her body shifted up against his, more fitted to the curve of his own body, and she sighed.

The soft scrape and thump of his berth's sliding door opening again made him stiffen, body hunching half over hers in an instinctive move to protect Alice. The shadows parted just enough with the glow of the hall-light to show Pidge's lanky frame, his head lowered so he could fit under the top of the door. Not saying a word, Hatter watched him look around the berth, using a tiny glow-globe to illuminate the space.

Pidge hadn't been expecting to see Hatter in bed; he'd gotten used to hearing him pace up and down the halls. He had thought that Hatter would be pacing his small cabin this time or at least staring blankly at the wall. But seeing Alice lying there with him was more of a shock and he did an actual step back in surprise, eyes darting to the quiet man in the bed. Hatter was watching his reaction closely despite the darkness and Pidge righted himself, assuming a casual lean against the door.

"We need to talk, Hatter, just you and I," he said lowly. But Alice, bothered by the light and noise, opened her eyes sleepily and pushed up onto her forearms. It exposed her breasts a bit, the paleness of her skin only highlighted by the shadows, and Pidge discreetly turned his head to the side. He could almost feel the heat of Hatter's unrelenting stare.

"Something's wrong?" Alice whispered, her voice husky with sleep. "I should get up..."

Hatter shushed her, using his right hand to gently push her back down. She went willingly, not speaking when he crawled over her or when he pulled the sheet up around her breasts. He thrust his legs back into his discarded trousers and stood up to buckle them. He looked at Pidge but the older man shook his head, giving Alice a meaningful glance.

"I can get up," Alice insisted and Hatter sat down beside her again, smoothing her long hair down her back.

"Get some sleep, Alice. You're going to need it," he answered. He pressed a possessive hand against her covered stomach. "Both of you. I'll be back in a few minutes."

It was a sign how tired she was when she nodded and curled up onto her stomach again, her eyes fluttering closed. It was done with the innocence of a small child and Hatter smiled. He looked at Pidge and, as if deciding on it last minute, pressed a kiss against Alice's bare shoulder while never once breaking eye contact with Pidge.

The meaning behind it was very clear and Pidge respectfully stepped back into the hall again to wait. Hatter followed quickly, sliding his battered hat onto his head but leaving his linen shirt open. It revealed the healing wounds and scars that decorated his chest, a sight that Pidge tried to avoid seeing though his eyes did catch the nail scratches that were obvious just above Hatter's hipbones. Not sure what sight bothered him more, Pidge looked out the window at the passing woods and waited for Hatter to close the berth door again before speaking.

"You're feeling better then?" he demanded without any preamble or niceties. Hatter leaned back against the door, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared at the other man.

"Define better."

Pidge turned and tapped his finger against his temple. "I need to know that at least something in there is working."

"It never stopped workin'. Just a different section was workin'." Hatter eased his right leg to the side and shook it, the injuries in his ribs making it hard to stay in this casual position. "You want somethin'? Or were you just hopping to ogle Alice?"

Pidge snorted and rolled his eyes. "I didn't know she was in there."

"Small keys to me," Hatter said, using the Wonderland phrasing with his usual dismissive air. "Have you gotten over this crush of yours?"

"It wasn't a crush, Hatter," Pidge started and Hatter shook his head.

"I'm not havin' this argument with you, Pidge. I've got a pregnant girlfriend in the next room who would likely be pissed if we started a shouting match. And Wonderland knows she could probably beat us both down for it if she came out," Hatter said, pushing away from the door. He stood a few feet from Pidge, legs braced to rock with the train, and his eyes were dark from under the brim of his hat.

"So she told you then." Pidge rubbed his fingers over his lips thoughtfully.

"Nearly a week ago."

"Good." Pidge looked down at his boots as if their scuffed surface intrigued him. "No doubts then?"

Hatter wasn't so dense as to not know what Pidge was referring to. "Not a one."

"She doesn't look as pregnant as you would think..."

"I trust her, Pidge. Believe me, I know the child's mine." Despite his words, Hatter's hand tightened into a fist at his side. "Why? Did you try?"

Pidge scoffed loudly and looked up, his blue eyes incredulous. "Please. The Oyster is so in love with you that even if I slipped her a lust tea she'd likely only want you. Would probably only be thinking of you and I only make love to women who stay in the moment."

It was meant as a joke but Hatter wasn't in the joking mood when it came to Alice and Pidge. He caught Pidge by the throat and pinned him against the wall. He moved so fast that Pidge was shocked into not retaliating, his head banging back against the wall hard enough that stars swam in his vision. The pressure on his throat was incredible, as if all Hatter had to do was twist his right hand a little and Pidge's neck would snap like a twig. He choked a little, real fear creeping up that this time he might pay for his casual quips.

"When I asked you to take care of Alice, I'd thought you'd remember just what that would entail." Hatter's voice was very quiet and more intimidating because of it. "Why, Pidge?"

"You know how easy it is for us Wonderlanders to fall for Oysters sometimes," Pidge answered, his voice breathy from being choked. He rolled his eyes up at the ceiling. "You know that moment when you see something that could be perfect and yet have that temptation to touch it so you can know that it isn't perfect? So that perhaps it isn't as worthy of what you want? I'm starting to think of it that way."

"Infatuation aside," Hatter said, privately knowing that that was what Pidge had experienced but not about to let him off the hook. "I asked you to take care of her, not try to worm your way in. You've always done that, Pidge. Why?"

"Please, we're not referring to Selena are we? You didn't love her. You were using her as much as she used me a few years ago. The way she still used me up to a year ago."

"Why?" Hatter barked out as loud as he dared and Pidge put his hand on Hatter's to try to ease the grip on his throat. "I never cared a whit when you flirted with Alice, 'cause for you that is as natural as breathing. But you almost took advantage of her when she was vulnerable. Why?"

Pidge didn't answer and Hatter's grip tightened. "Answer me!"

"I don't know!" Pidge snapped back, his chin jutting out. His eyes almost shone with his confusion and Hatter leaned back a bit, his fingers easing just a little. He tipped his head on the side, watching as Pidge struggled to find the words.

"I don't know," he whispered finally, his voice lower. "I don't know why, Hatter. Infatuation or love or admiration or even... guilt. I had risked you all by not being truthful about how far Selena could have been corrupted. I did not want Alice to suffer as we all have because of our pasts."

"Selena's corruption wasn't anyone's fault," Hatter answered sharply. Pidge's answer for his actions wasn't solid but Hatter knew there was no chance of getting anything better from the older man. He honestly seemed at a loss at how to express anything when it came to his actions with Alice. Hatter had no choice but to accept that answer and to take the red herring Pidge was offering him into a different road of conversation. The only comfort he had was that he had made his feelings clear about Pidge's interest in Alice. And Pidge was not one who needed to be warned three times.

"It was our fault. Partially. We had a chance to keep her controlled but Dodo simply got there first."

Hatter released him, a faint murmur of disgust coming from his lips as he shook his head. "Selena is not my concern."

"She should be." Pidge rubbed at his throat to get the feeling back. Hatter arched a brow and he shook his own head. "I saw the signs of her influence in the city. Saw some bodies killed in her style. Assassinated. That woman survived and that is a problem."

"Dodo won't let her live long if she has information that can harm him," Hatter pointed out.

"Which is why I want to find her before anything happens." Pidge slid his fingers down his neck and touched his mallet holster unconsciously.

Hatter looked at him thoughtfully. "Do you still..."

"No." Pidge said it quickly, a blurting sound that almost didn't seem believable but his eyes were cold and hard. "Selena's destroyed too many lives, both her and that corrupt Resistance. I can't justify it."

"No one can. If you tried, I'd call you a fool. What are you going to do?"

"Get to the City before Abel does. Once he puts even a foot into Wonderland, he'll attract attention and Dodo will want to tuck up any loose ends. If Selena is our one chance at finding out what has caused this, what his aim is, then I need to get it out of her by any means necessary," Pidge explained, his words heavy and troubled. Any means necessary in Wonderland often resulted in torture and it made his stomach turn to think of doing that to a woman. Even Selena.

"The train won't stop. How are you planning on getting to the City before us?" Hatter asked. "Though the train won't be stopping any time soon as it is without help."

"Simple. I jump at the Lakeside town. There will be flamingos I can use to get in the city. Boats even. You all will be going towards Wabe, most likely, and the Taiga won't let the train get far. Magic and all that."

"I should go with you," Hatter started, thinking over everything that would have to be done to find and trap Selena. He didn't like the thought of leaving Alice again but he didn't want Pidge to face this alone, considering what he would have to do to get information out of her. Hatter also had his own private agenda when it came to the Snake, his own scores to settle. But he felt no eagerness for that and he frowned. Pidge reached out and grasped his shoulder, and for the first time since his return Hatter didn't flinch at his touch.

"No." He waved his other hand at the berth's door. "You are going to stay with her. Alice is important to this and you're the only person who can really protect her."

Pidge dropped his hands and then shifted. "Plus, I need you to take care of something else for me." He fished around in his pockets, ignoring Hatter's odd look and struggling to find what he wanted. When he finally found it, he clenched his fist tightly. "The old man will kill me if he finds out I've taken this back from him but it's not safe with him."

He held out his hand and dropped the Stone of Wonderland into Hatter's palm. Its lightweight and opaque shine was familiar and he stared at it in surprise. Pidge merely smirked back, glad to have shocked Hatter.

"There's a solid chance I'll be caught and I'd rather not have that on me." His voice dropped. "Plus, I heard rumour that you need it to start a Looking-Glass. Maybe it can help somehow."

Hatter's fingers curled into a fist around the ring. Pidge did not realize just what else was needed to recreate the Looking Glass. A problem Hatter was struggling to keep from his own mind until the moment when he'd need to deal with it.

"We'll probably meet up in the City then," Hatter said and his chin lifted. "I'm trusting you a lot again, Pidge."

"I stopped being a double agent years ago, Hatter. I doubt I could play that game if I tried," Pidge countered.


"I know I know. I betray you, I get killed. Why do you think I knew better than to really put a move on Alice? If I'd acted with my full charm attack, she'd be putty in my hands," Pidge jibed and Hatter took the joke this time.

"Or, in the more likely case, you'd be a eunuch right about now," he countered dryly and Pidge winced.

"That was below the belt."

The two men chuckled, for a moment forgetting their tension and becoming friends once again. When the silence stretched to uncomfortable limits, Pidge sighed and put his hand out. Hatter took it firmly in his right.

"I'll see you in the City," he offered and Pidge nodded.

"We'll end it somehow. Keep her safe, Hatter. She's more important to this than I think she realizes." Pidge gave him a smile and then released his hand to walk back down the hall. Hatter stared after him and then sighed, looking back at the berth door.

Alice was standing in its frame, swathed in a bed-sheet and looking more alert than he'd expect. They stared at each other for a moment, only feet apart and yet feeling the distance, before Alice held out her hand to him. Her eyes were made dark by the pale sheen of her skin and she sank her teeth into her lower lip. All at once she looked both innocent and coquettish without really trying. He was in her embrace before he truly thought of it and he pushed her back into the berth without looking back down the hall. He was too focussed on the woman in his arms and when she kissed him, he knew he'd made the right choice to stay with her than to go with Pidge.

Selena always travelled at night in the City whenever she was staying there. She was not as familiar with it as she was with the South and not many people here had learned to fear or respect her code name of Snake. Considering Wonderland's current police state, she was as open for attack as any normal citizen. It made sleeping in a safe-house in the day and traipsing the twisting high streets of the City at night safer than the alternative of daring to live in the sunlight. But, considering how many years she'd been in her line of work, she had never really known the alternative.

Except for a few short weeks of vacation and those had ended badly enough for her to never repeat them.

"Blame not my eyes for darkness," she quipped, using her walking stick to find her way along the docks near the sewers. She travelled with her head down and her coat collar turned up high to ward off the wind, and every now and then she could feel the earth rumbling beneath her threadbare shoes.

Her hopes at a triumphant return to Dodo's headquarters had not ended well. She was still in clothes that smelled of smoke and horse, and her stomach rumbled hungrily. There had been no kudos for a job done, not even a damned offer of tea and food. He'd not offered to put her up nor even paid her what was owed, just sneered and taunted her about her jealousies about Hatter and Pidge. All those weeks spent and nothing to show for it. As much as she craved approval, even Selena knew that Dodo's actions were wrong.

She deserved more. She deserved at least to get some food for free rather than scrounging with her measly funds.

Everything was made worse by her blindness and the pain in her body. The constant torment of her now empty eye sockets had caused her to turn to the numbing blasts of tranquillizers and leftover Numb Tea she'd bartered for in the Tea Shop from a suspicious Dormouse. It helped a little and she used it sparingly; often she would wait until the pain in her head became so much she could barely move a few inches. But even the pain didn't scare her as much as the vulnerability she felt. Her eyes had been a part of her livelihood and now she had to strain to hear warning signs of danger. It made her edgy and she didn't walk where she thought she'd be seen by anyone who knew her.

"Vulnerable and too many enemies to count. If I last a few days it will be a surprise."

She wasn't stupid though. Selena knew that she had badly underestimated Hatter and his Oyster, though she stood by her belief that he'd died in that Manor fire. It was her only achievement that had brought about Dodo's praise and even she had been surprised that he'd hated the Hatter that much to go to such extents. Dodo had, after all, raised Hatter for a while before Hatter had turned on them all to become apparently neutral in the war on the Hearts. She had hated the young man with the bitterness of a scorned lover but Dodo's emotions were almost out of control.

Almost insane.

"And I've had it up to here with insane people," Selena muttered to herself as she stumbled on a raised piece of ground. "Where has it gotten me? I've no men, no standing, nothing to live on but blackmail so that I stay alive."

Her broken nails tightened into the shaft of her stick.

"Not sure how long it will be. Time to find Dodo and get out of the streets."

So she shuffled along the boardwalks, trying her best to look like a hobo out for a walk. It was paramount for her not to attract attention, not when she was still so weak. Selena had never felt this sort of pain before, never as strongly at least, and each step was a lesson in agony. Biting into her cheek, she used her stick to find her way down an alley that smelled of sewer and dead animals.

The tiny signs that betrayed her, the low swing to her stride, indecently ripped clothing and the stark red of her hair, were all noticed by the men following her at a distance. They were using their holo-mics to verify their orders and when she turned a corner down into a dark alley, the order came through clear. It was repeated several times, with great stress on the 'bring in alive' end of the order. But that was all that was said, nothing about her condition or anything that could be misconstrued as using kindness. Grinning at one another, the two Suits clicked on their tasers and started down the alleyway after the wounded woman.

Chapter Text

The massive holo-screens, stretching from the tiled floors to the gilded archways of the ceiling, were flickering with a constant stream of images, as if someone was changing the channel for something new to watch. The screens encircled the Great Heart Court and were strapped down to prevent them from floating away in the cross-breeze of the windows. More often than not, they were used for the occasional concert or play that would be put on at the yearly festivals of Wonderland City, so that every citizen could see them as a goodwill gesture on the part of the Royals. The years before, during the Wars, they'd been used to showcase political prisoners or to promote the Hearts' shameless propaganda of instant gratification after they destroyed the Colours in the Wars.

This was the first time they were being used for a Royal Trial and no expense was being spared to make sure everything was perfect. Lights, sound, picture, everything had been brought to the Court at great expense.

But even with all this effort, the galleries and balconies above the judicial floor were mostly empty. The Clubs who were in charge of filling them were starting to feel the strain of constant fear for their heads. The Queen of Hearts wanted witnesses to this cross-examination though she did not give any reason why. She'd never once cared about the populace's opinion before but now it was a near obsession to get them to accept this Trial. She wanted those galleries filled to the brim and the Clubs were at a loss as to how to do it legally.

They were merely lucky that the Trial was only on its first day and nothing important was happening, so their failure had not quite been noticed. It had taken the full three hours slated in the morning to just read the charges and another three hours to explain it all again when it was found that jury was barely listening. Wonderland law was filled with pomp and circumstance, and several times the lawyer reading the charges fell asleep on his feet through sheer boredom. Only a prod from a Judicial Spade had brought him back to a moderate state of wakefulness.

Though everyone else had fallen asleep at one time or another, not once had the attention of Amelia Heart wavered from the face of the older Queen of Hearts. Mary Elizabeth had done her best to ignore the younger woman's accusing stare and had even stared back on occasion. But after the long hours passed without Amelia relenting, Mary's fingers had tightened on her water glass. It was as if she was debating on throwing the glass at the other woman to get her to stop.

Amelia narrowed her eyes when she saw the gesture and felt a sudden pressure on her instep. A curse on her lips, she whipped her eyes around but saw nothing incriminating. Beside her, Leo Pardenlace was taking endless scribbles of notes and data, hemming and hawing over this and that in an irritating way. But she never could make any sense of what he was writing. The man himself didn't seem to make much sense to her as it was. He'd just shown up when she'd been dragged to the Court, following her like a shadow and then taking his spot beside her at their table as if he'd always belonged there.

When the Queen had seen him, she'd immediately demanded his removal.

"I know you from somewhere," she'd said while her eyes narrowed suspiciously from over the edge of her high desk. Her long red nails had curled into talons as if itching to carve into him. Pardenlace had turned guileless eyes up at her while he clicked open his briefcase and tossed a pile of papers onto the table.

"Did we meet at the last croquet match in the South? I admit that I was quite drunk on Bread n' Butter Whiskey but certainly I would remember you." He had clicked his pen rapidly in a way that set everyone's teeth on edge and then pointed the pen at her. "Or was it at the last Hatter tea party? Aeons ago...or at least thirty years ago?"

"GET OUT!" The Queen had roared and all at once his face had been a mask of sobriety, losing that almost playful sarcasm that he always carried.

"How would that look to the people you are trying to convince? To the ones whose belief you so desperately need? How would it look indeed?" he'd responded, calling her bluff. The Queen had blustered but had been only subdued by that and she'd waved aside the approaching guards.

Except now she was glaring at him again and Amelia felt puzzled about that. The Queen had been unusually vocal about this man and for someone that prided herself on control, there was likely something very important about Pardenlace. Not just his attempts at blackmail or his status as a lawyer. There were enough of those in Wonderland and most under the Queen's pay.

Amelia felt more pressure on her instep and realized that it was being done on purpose. She jerked her foot from under his boot and glared at her lawyer in irritation. He simply turned the notepad toward her and tapped its surface. The last of the charges were being read out loud and Pardenlace had written down them all. Amelia scanned the incredible list and groaned inwardly. There was no way even she could keep them straight and judging by the odd claw-shaped angle he was hold his hand at, it had caused him some pain to write it all down.

"And what say you to these charges, Amelia Heart, once Queen of Hearts?" The Judge, an elderly Diamond who looked crusted over with dust and wrinkles, peered over his spectacles at her and then had to fix his traditional white wig back over his bald scalp. Pardenlace took her by the elbow and helped her to her feet. Beside Amelia, the two guards who had escorted her stepped forward as well. She cleared her throat, made dry from the long hours without water, and opened her mouth to speak.

"Does she need to speak a word when we already know of her guilt?" the Queen demanded instead, her red lips pursed in annoyance. She leaned over the desk and glared at Amelia. "It is all over her face, I would say."

The Judge turned half in his seat toward her and made a wheezing sound.

"But, your Majesty, you had insisted on this being an open trial. Had you wished a pre-arranged verdict, we would have had to submit different forms. Now that it has begun... think of the red tape it would cause," he stated. He spoke very very slowly, as if each word had to be carefully thought over. A true sign of an old lawyer, Amelia thought wryly while watching the Queen's cheeks flush with matching red spots.

"Of course. How silly of me to forget. Proceed," she said, pasting a fake smile on her face though her eyes glinted dangerously down at Amelia.

"Duchess?" The Judge asked, his voice kind though the dropping of her married title set Amelia's teeth on edge. Pardenlace gave her arm another squeeze to warn her. There were more important battles to be one, she reminded herself and she cleared her throat again.

"Not guilty," she said, her voice ringing out clear and strong. The jury, a mixture of Noble Cards and rich merchants handpicked by the Queen, began to murmur at such audacity and her teeth ground together in irritation. She knew that fighting this was a losing battle but she intended on fighting it anyway. She just needed time.

Darting her eyes to the Diamond guard at her side, she knew that she was close to escape if things went to plan. But she needed her son first and the only way to do that would be to play this sick game of the Queen's. Perhaps right to the end or perhaps just so long as to make the Queen think that she had won.

"I plead not guilty to any of the charges," Amelia repeated and pointed at the Queen. "And I accuse Mary Elizabeth Heart of conspiracy, regicide and kidnapping the Royal Heir!"

That set the entire Court into an uproar, with several jury members fainting and the few in the immediate galleries getting up and shouting either agreement or denial. Through the obnoxious din, Amelia continued to stare at the Queen who simply arched a thin red brow at her and then smiled as if acknowledging an opponent. The stare was broken when a man, shouting of his loyalty to the true Queen, leaped over the balcony edge and ran out into the Court. The guards on either side of Amelia grabbed her and pulled her after them down the hall again, apparently to protect her from such zealousness.

Pardenlace followed, muttering about how this unexpected recess would disrupt his case findings, but Amelia wasn't paying attention to him. The noise in the Court was still deafening and she could hear the slam of the Judge's gavel being pounded onto his desk. They would not get far if this happened frequently, which would only buy her more time. Flicking her eyes up to the two men on either side of her, she allowed herself to smile and focus on the real task at hand. Her mind was on getting the Diamond guard, the one who liked to watch her like a perverse voyeur, alone long enough to filch his keys.

"Well, you can't say I never take you places. Especially now."

Hatter's voice carried over the whistling roar of the train passing through the last leg of its journey and Alice looked over her shoulder at him. Her dark hair whipped before her eyes, obscuring the view she had of him but she managed to give him a good glare. He met her look easily, sweeping his hand out at their Lakeside surroundings as if to prove his point, and then rocked forward on his heels a bit. But she saw his cocksure grin and felt her heart pound a little harder at the sight, her annoyance at his reckless enjoyment of the danger they were in tinged with just a bit of admiration.

They were both leaning halfway out the livestock car, watching the wilds go by while behind them the horses nervously paced. Despite Hatter's attempt at joking with her, he hadn't been able to make her forget the real reason why they were in the livestock car instead of still cured up in bed together. They were going to have to jump soon and Alice had never felt less like doing something so foolhardy. But, as Abel had pointed out when he'd informed them all that the train was not going to just stop, it was better than the alternative of dying in a fiery train crash. So here they were, waiting for the signal to jump into a lake.

Alice had never believed that Abel had meant it literally until faced with the actual reality of jumping off the train.

Alice looked away from Hatter to see the crystalline surface of the Lake and the dense green forests surrounding it. It felt so odd to be back in the centre of Wonderland after their time spent in the South. The Centre almost felt foreign to her; it almost seemed colder yet brighter here and she rubbed her free hand over her shoulders. Out of reflex, she looked around at the other train cars and saw Charlie, Carol, Abigail and Abel all ready to leap out at the signal. Charlie was leaning joyfully almost all the way out of the car and he looked like he was singing at the top of his lungs, if his constantly moving mouth and Abel's annoyed expression were any sign of it. Her mother looked pale as each stretch of track went by, though her eyes weren't leaving the surface of the lake. Oddly, she'd not complained about having to jump during their min-conference in the dining car.

If her mother could do it, Alice could.

Though it was a very high jump to make. Alice felt her stomach turn over and she was certain that she was turning green already.

"Hey." Hatter's hand curled around hers and she looked up at him. He'd moved closer to her, one hand braced above her head to hold the railing there while he leaned into her. His dark eyes were on her face intently. "I'll be right by your side, okay? It's just a short jump and swim. Once we reach shore-side, we can get to the other horses Abel said his men would leave behind."

"I guess," she exhaled. "I hate heights."

"I know you do," he allowed in mild exasperation. That was something he'd doubt he'd ever forget.

"And I'm pregnant. How exactly is this safe for me?" Alice demanded impatiently, fear making her irritable.

"Tuck and roll with accommodation for your additional girth?" Hatter offered with a wicked smile and she thumped him on the arm for that remark. She was most definitely not an inch bigger but he'd momentarily distracted her from fainting on him. When he didn't apologize, she thumped him again, causing him to groan in pain. "It was a joke, luv."

"Do not tease me about my weight!" she snapped.

"All right then. You're as slim as you ever were. You sure you're pregnant?" he tried instead, slipping into their banter easily in an effort to keep her distracted. That earned him another thump on the arm and he groaned. "Keeping you from gettin' sick all over me is not good for keeping me from gettin' bruises."

Alice felt a heavy weight suddenly press down on her shoulders and turned her head to see Chesh perched close to her ear.

"You really have to ask how you can take care of your little bundle of mad joy?" the cat asked curiously and Alice glared, knowing what he was referring to.

"I still don't like heights," she insisted stubbornly and Chesh rolled his eyes around as if she was stupid.

"And I never did like eating mice, but I adjusted. So will you." His nails sunk in a little and his head rolled toward Hatter so that his wide smile was upside down. "What of you? Brain scrambling might occur. Wonderland knows how devastating that would be for us all."

"How much worse could it be?" Hatter asked absently but his attention was on the others now that Chesh was distracting Alice. She turned her eyes from Chesh and studied Hatter. He'd been quiet all morning and when they'd discovered Pidge was missing, he'd been so defensive and adamant that Pidge and he had come to a decision that they'd dropped the subject. Abel hadn't liked it but there was little anyone could do now. But once they'd come to the livestock car and he'd started fussing over Guinevere, it was like seeing the old Hatter back again. Never once did he stop talking and Alice found the change strange yet refreshing.

She only hoped that it would last.

"Get ready," Hatter warned and he turned to grab hold of the horses. They stepped forward reluctantly but balked at the open door.

"How exactly do you plan on getting them out of here?" Chesh asked and Hatter shrugged as he leaned back out the door with the horses' reins looped over his hand. Abel waved his hand at them from his train car and as Alice gasped in shock, he gave Charlie an indiscreet shove out the door. He waited only a second before he too jumped, pulling Abigail and Carol after him. They plunged down towards the Lake and over the train's rumbling they could hear the screams of the two women and the hooting laughter of Abel. The train was going too fast for her to see them land in the water and she stared wide-eyed at the Lake. The train was going over a lower piece of track and the water seemed all the closer now.

Alice swallowed and looked at Hatter. He was grinning wildly, a mad grin that sent a chill up her spine, and he reached out toward her. Alice flinched but he wasn't going to touch her. Instead, his hand grabbed Chesh by the scruff of his neck and he quickly hurled the cat onto Arthur's hindquarters. The Cheshire yowled loudly and instinctively sunk his claws into the round flesh he landed on. Arthur whinnied in fright and launched forward without thinking, Guinevere following him when Chesh leaped onto her as well. The horses leaped out of the train and immediately shrieked in unison as they fell down to the Lake, Chesh's terrified cat-call following as he fell after them.

"Don't you dare!" Alice screamed just as Hatter grabbed her arm and yanked her into him. His body absorbed her impact and she bunched his jacket into her hands. He grinned at her, leaning close so that she could hear him.

"Come on, not like we've not fallen into a Lake before," he pointed out.

"I think you're certifiable sometimes!" Alice snapped and he grinned, cupping her cheek.

"It's that obvious,hmm? Wonderland knows if I wasn't, I might never do these mad things with you." Before she could think of a response, he slammed his mouth down onto hers and kissed her until the breath felt like it was sucked from her lungs. Her heart hammered painfully hard in her chest but still he kissed her until she was only breathing the air from his mouth. When they broke apart, Alice stared up at him while swaying into his body with the movement of the train. Hatter smiled, that cocksure grin that made her heart skip a beat again at the reassurance the simple expression gave her. Maybe he'd thought of a way for her not to have jump off the train into the Lake...

"Remember to cushion your fall."

Without much preamble, he jumped off the train with her hand in his. Alice screamed loudly as they fell, squeezing her eyes shut. Her nails dug into his hand and he managed to yank her close while they fell toward the surface of the Lake. Through the length of her prolonged yell she remembered Chesh's words and Hatter's instruction: she had too much to protect still. Her eyes snapped open instantly and she took a breath before crying out again. The blue and green of the Lake surface shone towards her vision and Alice's scream intensified though a spectre of glow suddenly shone out around her. Next to her, the speed of their fall forced Hatter to let her go though she grappled for his hand desperately. She saw him hit the water before her, sending a spray of water up that slapped her in the face like a thousand tiny icicles.

She was unaware that as she was falling, her body resembled a small meteorite with white smoke trailing after her, but she did see the white glow to her hands. It was only for a moment that she saw the glow before she focussed on the water again. The surface of the lake, broken up by Hatter's fall, rushed up to meet her and she opened her mouth to scream again. What she got for her attempt was a lungful of water and an ice-cold slap of impact on her skin. The effect was blinding and she plummeted under the lake surface into a darkness that felt suffocating and frightening.

Alice was about to panic when she felt a hand grab around her wrist and yank her upwards to the sunlight. She swam desperately and strained to see through the darkness. But she was alive still and that thought made her push through the fear. If she was alive then so was everyone else, her mind insisted and she kicked her legs out with renewed strength.

When she broke through the surface of the water like a submerged buoy and saw Hatter treading water beside her, Alice was more than ready to yell at him.

"You made me jump out of a train!" she yelled stupidly.

"Alice, is this really the time to argue about this?" he asked calmly, treading the water and watching her warily.

"I just jumped out of a train!" she yelled again and he nodded at her.

"Oh yes you did." He cocked his head on the side and gave her a boyishly eager smile. "Want to go again?"

Reaching out, she promptly dunked him back under the water and swam off before he could retaliate. The beach wasn't that far she hoped and she had her annoyance to wear off. Hatter surfaced behind her, coughing up water and cursing hormonal women at the same time, and she continued to swim on. But he wisely didn't push the argument and swam more sedately after her, eventually catching up and keeping a gentle pace beside her.

The beach they dragged themselves onto was the same one they had been on before, when their flamingo had been shot down. It had taken them some time to swim to it, the ice of the water and the harshness of their fall making the distance seemingly endless. Hatter supported Alice by the waist as they crawled up the rocky ground until they found safe enough purchase on the beach and he collapsed onto his back into the sand. Alice fell beside him and her lungs ached as she heaved for air. The fresh breeze outside the water made her teeth chatter since her clothes were so soaked that they were a second skin. Every bone in her body had felt the impact and with a groan she rolled into Hatter's body. He was just as cold as she was but she tried to curl into his chest for warmth.

"Let's not do that again."

"I think you said that last time," he answered, panting for breath. He clutched his hat in his hand and spat out a mouthful of water before he patted her shoulder reassuringly. "And it didn't work obviously."


Alice pushed herself up slowly, running a shaky hand through her tangled mess of hair before looking around the beach. In the distance she could see the tree line that had hid the train tracks that wound back to the Taiga line and on the opposite side, the one that led to the hills. There was no sight or sound of the train now and Alice chewed into her lower lip as she looked at the dense forests. How much forest had they passed between their jump and her mother's?

"Mom!" she yelled. "Charlie!"

"I still don't like being in the open like this. They fell a few hundred feet before us, they could be in another section or even closer to the woods." Hatter had stood up behind her. He shook out his soaked clothing and made a face. "It's too quiet."

Alice turned a slow circle. "What if they didn't surface?" she asked anxiously. A sudden rush of panic flooded her. "What if Mom drowned or if Charlie couldn't swim with his armour on? What..."

"Alice," Hatter said sternly. "Relax."

"Relax? We just jumped off a train into a lake. Do you realize how dangerous that was? I mean, how can you describe how insane I must have been to let this happen," Alice snapped, lifting a hand to her head in exasperation. Hatter gave her a look but his eyes wandered behind her, a smile breaking out on his face.

"Guin," he muttered and a confused Alice watched as he darted around her, jogging towards the brush. She followed him and realized that just behind a few of the sparse trees, the soaked and uninjured Guinevere and Arthur were standing head to tail. Guinevere's ears flicked up and she nickered at them, shaking herself so that a fresh spray of water greeted them as well.

"All's well when they find their way," Hatter exclaimed as he jogged up to Guinevere and immediately gave her a pat on the neck.

"You are just lucky that animals instinctively swim and that their legs didn't break," Chesh's voice ground out irritably from the nearby bush and they both turned to see him materializing in the leaves. His tabby fur was soaked and he bristled in anger at the sight of Hatter.

"Cats land on their feet, what's your concern?" he responded. "Where are the others?"

"I hardly care." Chesh flicked a soaked paw up and began to groom himself. Hatter rolled his eyes up at the sky and looked around. Alice was pacing a circle, eyes frantically searching the coastline. Chesh noticed as well and he suddenly appeared on Hatter's shoulder, the first time he'd come so close to the young man in a very long time. The contact made Hatter stiffen a little but he restrained himself for Alice's sake.

"She looks no worse for the wear," the Cheshire said and Hatter looked at him.

"Let's keep her that way."

"Indeed, t'would hardly suit my purpose if something happens to the Oyster," he agreed and when Hatter eyed him suspiciously he grinned again and then disappeared off his shoulder again. He reappeared on Arthur's saddle and began to groom himself carefully.

"Mom! Charlie!" Alice called out, cupping her hand around her mouth so that her voice carried. Hatter looked around, squinting his eyes to see through the bright sunlight, and sighed, plunking his damp hat back on his head. Its shade helped him see better and there was a glint of metal on the beach that caught his eye. On a deserted stretch of beach like this, that could only mean one thing. Whistling to Alice, he jerked his head over in that direction and she took off at a careless run with him following behind with the horses.

The sight they came upon was oddly like déjà vu. Charlie already had a fire going and his armour was hanging on a nearby tree to dry while he sang away in his long underwear. Abel was crouched beside it, squeezing water out of his socks and scarf, and humming along with Charlie's song. Abigail and Carol were both pacing around the tiny campsite, clearly on the lookout for them.

"Mom!" Alice called out, racing up and grabbing hold of the older woman before she had a chance to answer. They hugged tightly, talking lowly about the fall and Carol worrying over Alice. Startled from his song, Charlie mumbled happily that his Arts had alerted him to her presence and then immediately embraced them both in a bear hug that made them squeak in shock. The sight made Hatter smile wistfully and he quickly tied Guinevere and Arthur to another tree before turning to the fire. He shoved his sleeves back up to his elbows and held his palms out to the fire to try to get some warmth back into his numbed fingertips. Slim fingers suddenly encircled his outstretched hand and he grunted in surprise, trying to jerk his hand free from their firm grip.

Abigail held onto his hand while she stared up at Hatter. Her grip was painfully familiar and his numbed hand suddenly felt like it had too much sensation all at once. Her full lower lip was thrust forward in the thought, the same way his did at times, and her eyes roamed over his face. Hatter stared back and didn't move his own hand, too startled that she'd actually taken the initiative to touch him after days of his deliberate ignoring of her presence. Her fingers clenched gently around his, bringing some warmth with them, and she tugged him around a bit so that she could see him better.

"Are you all right?" she asked lowly. Hatter was oddly grateful that the attention of the others was on Alice and not on them at the moment. He nodded and she tangled her fingers with his. "I was worried when you both landed so far out."

"We've done it before," he answered when he found his mouth able to work again.

"I'm glad. I don't think I've been that worried in... a very long time," Abigail said. Her eyes roamed over his face again, taking in every detail of his still weary looking features, before she gave him a weak smile. She dropped her hand from his and kneeled down beside her father, taking off her lace-ups to dry them by the fire. Hatter stared at her, his mind confused by her patient handling, and he shook his head.

"How exactly did you all get here so quickly?" Alice was asking Carol.

"That would be Charlie," her mother admitted, gesturing to the White Knight. He almost preened at the compliment. Alice looked at him suspiciously.

"How exactly?"

"I am a Knight, Justalice, if you will recall," he insisted.

"Yes but you were wearing some armour and then you had all of them..." Alice started.

"Well, we could tell you," Abigail said and Charlie made a slicing measure against his throat to stop her.

"No no, remember? Very hush, top secret and patent pending!" he exclaimed and Hatter frowned.

"Wasn't it patent pending over a year ago?" he asked curiously. Charlie scoffed.

"Such grandiose inventions take time to perfect, Harbinger. Not just impatient attempts at patenting my inventions so that they are improperly used," Charlie explained and Hatter raised his hands in the air.

"I'm sure it works well, Charlie. You're alive again," he pointed out.

"Yes, well... even that being said, I am not at privilege to delve into the complexities of my device and neither," the Knight jabbed a finger at Abigail, "are any of you."

Carol smiled at the bantering and then turned towards the vast expanse of forest just a few hundred feet away. "That looks... pretty thick, even compared to the South."

Alice stepped beside her and took her hand. "It's beautiful though, Mom, in a strange way."

"And uninhabited?" Carol asked curiously.

"Except for myself and my dear wife, Marta Cook," Charlie said over his shoulder. "Oh, how I can't wait to taste her delicious goods."

Hatter seemed to choke on air and then started to chuckle. Alice, catching the dirty joke he was close to making, promptly slid up beside him and pinched him on the shoulder. Carol was asking questions about Wabe from the Knight so no one noticed Alice's censoring of her boyfriend. Or the way he jumped when she touched him. When he gave her an innocent look she held her finger to her lips.

"Don't even think about making that joke," she warned lowly.

"What joke?"

"The one I can see dancing around in that head of yours. It's on the tip of your tongue and you are not to say it," Alice threatened.

"Your mind is in the gutter," he muttered at her. "I was thinkin' pure, innocent thoughts."

Alice rolled her eyes. "I don't think you've had a pure thought in your life."

"That's a shameless rumour without any proof," Hatter responded, his face serious though his eyes sparkled.

"No proof?" Alice curved her hands around her stomach. "What pure thought do you think caused this?"

Hatter grinned and leaned into her, lowering his head so that his lips brushed her ear. "An encounter that ended very well for both of us. So it should; when don't those moments end pleasurably?"

His tongue flicked out against her skin and then he was moving away from her, leaving her speechless and shaky. Turning her attention from the trees, Carol looked at her and frowned.

"Alice, are you all right?" Her eyes went over the two bright red spots on her daughter's face with concern. "You're flushed."

"She's likely just getting some heat back into her," Hatter commented, which caused the flush to deepen. He crouched down on Abel's other side. "You all right, old man?"

Abel cracked open an eye at him. Hatter's interest almost bewildered him but in his long life, he'd learned that there was always stranger things that could happen. "I've done far worse things in my lifetime, but to be fair, I was a far younger man back then."

"Good." Hatter nodded to the trees just behind Abel. "Because I'm really hopin' that you know those people and they're not here to kill us."

His voice carried and the women and Charlie all looked over at them. Coming out of the trees was a line of men and women, dressed in variety of fashions and all looking worse for wear. There were several holding guns and all of them were clearly ready for a fight. Abel got to his feet, using Hatter's shoulder as a crutch, and made a face.

"I really hope I know some of them as well," he admitted before making his way over to the line of people with the careless air of a man with nothing to lose.

Chapter Text

The alabaster-skinned man that met Abel at the head of the line made Alice jerk in surprise, though his strict expression was rather ominous. It was Alicorn, one of Abel's advisors that she'd met at the Manor, and as she looked at the men and women that gathered around them, she recognized several of them who had been at the Manor as well. They were too focussed on the Drawling Master to notice the rest of Abel's small group. The only person missing to make this a full reunion was the Gnat but he was the one old spy that Abel had not been about to reveal the whereabouts of when she'd asked out of sheer curiosity. They were all looking rather worse for wear, splattered with dust and soot as if they had come a long way to get here and some were marked with still fresh wounds.

Alicorn reached out and shook Abel's hand though he looked over the others thoroughly. His ruby red eyes met Alice's in recognition and he gave her a pearly smile. It made his imposing gaze bearable and she smiled back with obvious relief on her face. He held out a massive hand to her and she took it gingerly, hiding a wince when he squeezed and pumped her hand too hard.

"Miss Alice, a pleasure again. I doubt I've seen a better sight than seein' ye walkin' about."

"Smooth, old man," Abel answered and Alicorn shrugged, letting Alice's hand go. "This all of you? I'd thought..."

"Give us some credit, boss. There's more waiting back at the camp. These are just the patrol units. I had them stationed to be on the lookout for the train that would be carrying you. The crow messengers weren't terribly specific and every time we've had the slightest hint of a whistle, we've been down here like over-eager children." Alicorn ran a hand through his mop of white-blond hair and gave a crooked grin. "Nice seein' you too."

He spoke with the familiarity of an old friend and since he'd been called out about his rudeness, the Drawling Master looked a bit put out and just a hint humbled about it.

"Yes, I suppose... Job well done," Abel said grudgingly. They both started off down the beach, leaving everyone to scramble to follow. They made a comical pair, with the massive Alicorn walking and Abel having to take three steps for every one of Alicorn's. However, the pale man was able to keep himself a respectful stride behind his leader and it was clear who was really in charge.

Hatter, suddenly uneasy about this new group that they were being absorbed into, kept to the rear under the guise of moving the weary horses. Flipping his coat collar up, he lowered his head to hide his face under the brim of his hat. There was too much to risk right now for him to be noticed right off until they were a safe distance way from the Lake.

No one noticed his lagging behind, even Alice too caught up in shamelessly listening to Alicorn's explanations about the change to the Drawling Master's tiny Southern Resistance and why they weren't all where they were supposed to be.

"The safe houses were compromised when the Manor dumped us in them. Some of the land was collapsing around us around us when we arrived in them or there were Heart Soldiers already in them, purely by accident we had to assume. Led to a scramble and people got hurt. Once I got out of the Port where I ended up, I got the word out to come to Wabe district. Figured this forest is dangerous enough for the Queen not to send her lackeys." Alicorn gestured to an older woman just behind him. "Sparrow was lucky enough to get here first and set up some form of order before things got out of hand."

"Out of hand?" Abel stopped mid-stride just as they entered a small portion of wood and stared at his second. "Out of hand how? Only a hundred or so of you were real members of the Resistance and some would still have ended up in the City."

"Word got around that there was a safe place. Things are a bit more... packed than we'd expected. You'll see." Alicorn turned slowly, eyes darting around as if suddenly realizing something. "Where's Pidge?"

"He's gone to Wonderland City on some personal mission of his," Abigail said as she helped Carol over a piece of driftwood. She dusted off her hands and looked up at Alicorn. "Likely one of his usual jaunts."

"Boy never did like workin' in groups. Shame. He'd be useful for getting into the City without being noticed. None of us have been back there in a long time. I've already seen Alice and I recognize the Knight and the elder Oyster," Alicorn said and his red eyes narrowed at the figure wandering slowly up the last stretch of beach toward them. "But who's he?"

Alice turned, startled that Hatter had lagged so far behind, and her eyes darted to Abel. The Drawling Master seemed strangely reserved with an expression of patience on his face, and she bit into her lower lip. Hatter came through the group, still leading Guinevere and Arthur, until he was beside Charlie. He seemed self-absorbed, his head lowered though his lips were moving soundlessly. When Charlie coughed discreetly and dug his elbow into Hatter's side, the younger man jumped in his place and looked up. His eyes met with Alicorn's and the man hissed, his recognition instantaneous and explosive. His hand flew to the gun holster tucked into his belt and they all heard the buzz of an taser being charged.

"We've seen the footage from the South on some of the propaganda holo-posters being put up on the building walls. I couldn't not recognize his face! You brought the Hatter with you?" He turned to Abel with his mouth agape. "Boss, are you insane? You're endangering everything!"

"You know me better, Alicorn, than to accuse me of that," the Drawling Master answered, folding his arms across his chest. Alicorn threw his hands up in the air, away from the taser still humming in its holster, and made a disgusted face.

"I saw what he did with the Snake's Resistance, the destruction and death he helped bring about. Just how he brought it on is even more frightenin' than any Heart assassin. He's madder than a mome-rath in a satchel and when they said he was dead, I won't lie. I rejoiced," Alicorn protested and several of the people around him put their hands on their weapons in readiness. At some unspoken signal, they pressed closer and there was a sudden charged air that spoke of coming violence.

Hatter didn't move, his eyes on the older man with the wariness of a trapped animal. The kind of look that meant something very terrible was about to happen. Swallowing down her own fear, Alice stepped around her mother to be beside him but he didn't look at her. The tension going through him was almost palpable, his breathing shallow and fast. Alice took a fast look at his eyes and only felt a little bit of relief that though they were dark, they were still brown. His hands were almost shaking at his sides and she bit into her inner cheek to keep from asking him what was wrong.

It would be a stupid question to ask anyway. It was plain for anyone to see what Hatter was reacting to.

"If 'e's wit 'er, that Snake, then 'e's against us," Sparrow said from Alicorn's side. She had a North accent so thick that it made it hard to understand her but the point was made when she raised her shotgun on level with Hatter's chin. His eyes darkened a little, his right hand clenching into a fist, and Alice stepped between them so that the gun was pointed at her instead. She could feel Hatter's eyes boring into the back of her head with a hot intensity that was not remotely comforting to her.

"He's not with her, he's with me," she ground out.

"There be a diff?" Sparrow demanded. Alice glared at her.

"There's a huge difference," Carol interjected for her. Hatter looked at her, surprised by her defence, but her eyes were on Alice instead.

"Who's gonna vouch for a madman? We all heard about what happened with the Hatters before. Stuff of legend and disaster. They're loose cannons, they are," a short man with green hair piped up. There were murmurs of agreement all around them and Alice stepped back a bit. Hatter's chest brushed her back and she felt him still shaking though his breathing had deepened. Alicorn waved his hand for silence and he looked at Abel.

"They've got a point, boss. People are already on edge, those that were in the South that is, and they can't trust him. He's supposed to be a ghost... would it be so bad to make it so?"

Alice stared in shock. "You're joking!"

"Not about the safety of our people, I'm not! I'm sorry, Alice, but you're thinkin' with your heart, not your head. No one will vouch for him that we know and trust. Even the boss looks like he's hesitating!" Alicorn snapped back. Alice bristled, ready to fight, but the sudden move of Abigail from her quiet place at Carol's side surprised her into silence.

With a calm grace, Abigail stepped beside her father and laid her hand on his arm. Their eyes met for a moment before she turned a defiant expression to the crowd around them. "He's my son, Alicorn, and Abel's grandson. From a family I had before I was forced to abandon that life. He's of the North and the South and he's proven himself enough to us to earn my trust. That should be vouching enough," she said softly.

There was a sudden titter that went through the crowd, excited and nervous, at the revelation. The Lady Drawling was well-respected by all of them as an heir and advisor to the Drawling Master. Abigail licked her lips nervously before she stepped around her father to face Sparrow.

"He's not here to cause problems. Alice recovered him in the Manor and he's chosen to come back with us. The Hatter background is uncontrollable, yes, but in a way that makes him more trustworthy as he has fought that mad history and succeeded. The Snake's attempts to handle him did not come to pass. We have to trust him," she insisted. There were a few half-truths in her speech, those who knew Hatter realized, but no one else would know that.

"Trust him? He helped murder, helped destroy your own home!" the green haired man exclaimed and she turned fiercely protective eyes on him.

"We've all killed for our beliefs. How can you judge that? What choice do any of you have in this matter anymore? We will need him. He's the only one here who knows the ins and outs of the City, the Tunnels and the Library, beyond Pidge and even Pidge doesn't know all the places we can use to get in and out of the City without being seen," she spoke softly but it was more effective than shouting. They were cowed into silence when Abel cleared his throat noisily and demanded silence.

For the first time in a while, Alice admired Abigail and when she glanced at Hatter, she saw the speculative look in his eyes as he focussed on his mother. He wasn't showing his emotions on his face but there was something less cold about him as he gazed at the woman defending him.

"We've got more important matters on hand, children, and I for one am tired of standing in damp clothing," Abel was saying, clapping Alicorn on the shoulder. He was able to dismiss the matter almost instantly, the group's well-earned respect for him making it easy for him. He knew that it would come up again and he could find a better way for handling it if he was given some time to think it over. "Where are we set up?"

The Kingdom of the Knights had been abandoned for a very long time by normal society and even its surroundings were far more complex than anyone had thought. During their short stay Abel's rebuilt Resistance were still finding nooks and crannies that hid paths and rivers to other places that surrounded the Lake and City. The pathway to the beach had been only just found and made for a thankfully shorter trip back.

Charlie at first had been a little reluctant at the news that his beloved home would be shared with perfect strangers; decades of living alone had made him naturally wary of sharing his home with anyone. But when they came to the entrance to his home, he saw the carefully built shelters and the respect they showed his 'security system', and he relaxed. He seemed eager even to show Alicorn just how his security system worked and from behind the group, Alice and Hatter both smiled at his chatter.

Carol was walking ahead with Abigail, likely gossiping as they'd become used to doing when they were bored, and Alice took the opportunity to sidle close to Hatter. Guinevere was walking quietly beside Hatter, her ears flickering eagerly back and forth as they approached her home. Arthur was trudging along behind them loyally and Alice had left his reins on his neck to walk beside Hatter.

"Any time I think Charlie will get truly upset, he always surprises me," Alice said lowly.

After a moment's thought, Hatter shrugged.

"He still surprises me sometimes. But don't tell him I said that. He'd get annoying if he knew that," Hatter answered. Alice slid her hand into his and leaned a bit into him.

"I'd like to talk to you once we're settled," she stated seriously and he looked over at her in surprise.

"Talk?" At her nod, he gave a half-grin. "As I recall, the last time I tried to 'talk' serious-like with you, you stopped me. Not that I'm complainin, because that was an enjoyable way of stopping me, but..."

"I'm pregnant, let me have my moments of oddness. You don't own the rights to being a bit strange," she countered and he shrugged.

"You actually think we'll get a moment to be more alone than this?" Hatter asked, waving his other hand in the air around them, and she sighed. With Chesh bouncing around from tree branch to tree branch, and the others talking to one another, they were close to being alone and he had a point. If the camp was as large as Alicorn was inferring, there might be no opportunity for them to talk. Especially if guards were set to watch Hatter and Alice knew that it was very likely Hatter would be very heavily guarded.

He saw her frown of concentration and smiled as they continued down the wooded path with Guinevere beside them and Arthur tailing. "Out with it. What's on your mind?"

"Are you scared about us having a baby?" she blurted out before she could stop herself. It was still a private fear of hers. Hatter had been so... quiet, about this pregnancy business. Normally, if he was excited, he'd be talking a mile a minute about the most random associations with the chosen source of excitement. But there's been nothing but an almost quiet acceptance to her condition. Alice was aware that it stemmed from the roughness of the past weeks but if she didn't ask, then her mind would start leaping to conclusions. Which was a dangerous path to be going down at this time, Alice knew.

Hatter glanced at her and at her fearful expression he pulled Guinevere to a halt. He took in a slow, deep breath and then turned to face Alice, watching as she stepped close to the mare to lean against her. With one eye on the group still ahead of them, he took a few steps towards Alice so that she was boxed in between him and the horse. Her fingers tangled nervously together as she watched him.

"Who's to say I'm scared?" he questioned, his voice blandly polite. He raised a hand and braced it on Guinevere's saddle. She glanced at the hand and then back up at him.

"Me." Alice brushed her hair from her eyes; he felt almost too close, his proximity almost disturbing with this sort of intensity focussed on her. She looked back down and childishly scuffed the toe of her boot over the dirt. "Sometimes I just feel like you are still pulling away. And I know sooner or later my mom or your mom..."

He pulled a face and she sighed.

"Abigail then," she corrected herself, not quite ready to have that argument yet. "I'm worried they're going to start pushing you about the fact that I'm pregnant. My mom is still so protective about me, you know. It worries me that you might be... scared. If they push, it might make it worse."

He said nothing and his face revealed nothing when she looked up at him.

"I don't think your past should make you scared," Alice finished lamely. Behind her, Guinevere stamped her hoof impatiently and Hatter shushed her, his eyes not wavering from Alice's face. She resisted the urge to look back down at her toes again. Hatter's eyes were roaming over her face intently, as if he was seeing something there in her expression, and eventually he sighed deeply and looked away.

"I'm not scared because of what I've done recently, Alice," he began, his voice soft. Beside her head, his hand tightened into a fist and then relaxed finger by finger. His eyes were half-shut in thought. "I do want this baby as much as you do."

"But?" she prompted quickly, nervous that he would stop. He raised his other hand and stroked it down Guinevere's neck. Unconsciously, he'd trapped her in but wasn't trying to intimidate her.

"I don't want to fail at having a family," he whispered, shame colouring his words. She exhaled sharply, startled, and his eyes locked with hers again. "Don't know if you realize this, Alice, but I do have a way of cockin' things up in the worst way. My family just for starters and even you know the general gist of how that all happened..."

His voice dropped to a darker tone, as if the thought disturbed him, but he broke off before he could continue. Alice made a soft murmur of comfort and lifted one hand to gently touch his chest.

"Hatter, everything you've done is often for some nobler reason. Even when you were more of a con artist, you were trying to do what was right. You are a good man."

"Is that enough though?" he demanded. "I lived my life believing half-truths: that I'd killed my mother by asking her to find my Da, which then resulted in him no longer loving me. Then I became the sort of man neither had raised me to me. I'm still not proud of that time in my life you know. I'm a royal mess sometimes, Alice. When this baby gets older, boy or girl, I'll have to train 'em to avoid the same madness I can still feel inside me. Madness that can burn and fester. And teachin' was a skill my father was lax on with his first children beside me."

Alice looked at him quizzically and then remembered Abigail's twisted tale earlier. "Thyme and March..."

Hatter smiled coldly. "Oh I knew about Thyme in the end. She made sure I knew just who she was the daughter of when she tried to torture me as a boy." He shuddered at the violence of that memory. "March was... more of an accident of poor timing, what with the wars keeping my Da from raisin' him. I never knew him enough to grieve him. Which made the other events surrounding the two of us easier to accept."

He reached up and rubbed at the back of his neck. "If my father failed at teachin' all of us to live a life not always in the threat of madness, who is to say I won't fail too?"

They stood in silence, Alice watching the melancholy go over his face at the thought of his long dead family and Hatter thinking on it far too deeply. It was a painful thing for him to admit; Hatter never had liked feeling like a failure but it was one he had to admit to. Alice could see the change in his face and the hand she had on his chest lifted to brush over his collarbone.

"I'm just as scared about not being a good mom," she admitted bluntly and his head jerked back a little, shocked. Alice never did like to admit to being scared about anything. She gave him an exasperated look at his clear surprise. "Come on, Hatter. You're not the only one with some family scarring." She shrugged. "I grew up thinking I had done something to make my Dad leave us. It didn't matter what my mom said or did; I believed my own version for a long time. At first, I was petrified that maybe my guilt about Dad would make me a bad mother. That I'd be the worst kind of parent. But Hatter..."

She cupped his cheek and ran her thumb over his lower lip while she stared into his eyes.

"We are not our parents and we are not our pasts. You've proven that and so have I. We'll be good parents. I know it."

She spoke with such conviction that Hatter could only nod in agreement. Looking into his dark eyes, Alice knew it would take some time for him to really believe it. But eventually, she'd make him understand what it was she saw in him that would make a good father.

His eyes drifted over her face, lingering on her mouth for a moment before he leaned in. Alice moved into him, meeting his kiss with her own. Ignoring that Guinevere was stamping her hooves in irritation at being used like a wall, Hatter took comfort in the familiar warmth of Alice's body. Her still damp clothing crinkled as he moved against her and her long hair tangled in his fingers when he tipped her head back to deepen the kiss. His other hand stole down her body and he felt the tiny and tightly rounded bump through the heavy material of her jacket. When Alice pressed up into his body with her hips fitted to his to try to get even closer, Hatter thought he felt a tiny flutter under his fingers and a sudden fission of warmth from Alice's glow.

He broke the kiss and looked down between them. The flutter felt strangely lively and he looked up to see Alice still watching him intently, her lips swollen from the kiss. He debated on kissing her again but Guinevere gave another snort of impatience. She looked around at them and snorted again, the message clear.

"All right, all right," Hatter muttered. " I can take the hint from all parties involved."

He reached over Alice's shoulder and took Guinevere's bridle in hand to lead her down the path. Alice whistled to Arthur and slid up beside Hatter again, their hands brushing as they walked together. She felt oddly and completely safe just standing beside him. She'd almost forgotten what that had felt like and knew that her relief was being felt by Hatter as well.

They caught up to the rest of the group and only Carol's sidelong look let them know that they'd been missed. Hatter's hat was pulled low over his eyes again, his eyes intent on the encampment they'd come to. Alice looked up at the trees as they passed and saw Chesh on one of the lower branches, his tail twitching back and forth as if he was thinking. His attention was on Charlie and then his gaze darted to her as if feeling her eyes on him. His strange grin appeared and Alice knew exactly what he was thinking.

If they were in the kingdom of the knights, then they were close to finding the Sceptre that would turn him back into a man. Chesh would never forget that and Alice knew he wouldn't be letting her forget either.

"It was already pretty well set up, you know. So we just made some changes and it worked well for the first few days," Alicorn was explaining as Hatter and Alice came near the front of the group. Charlie was tugging his own satchel open and eventually he hefted out a small telescope so that he could look around. He was staring wide-eyed through it and, puzzled, Alice stepped up beside him. He passed it over to her and she peered through the twisted lens to get a better look at their surroundings.

The sight of several hundred or more people making a temporary camp in Charlie's once tiny camp made her gape as well. Charlie was sputtering nervously about how the ratio of fresh water might be compromised and how this would ruin his singing petunias. But Alice could only stare. She'd not seen people gathered like this since the Resistance had hidden in the Tunnels from the Red King and even then there hadn't been this many. Alicorn stepped close beside her and she looked up to see his sharp eyes also on the mass of people.

"They arrived here just days after us. Refugees from the South and from the City. This is only a portion of them. Rumour has it that some of them are hiding in the Tunnels as well." He swiped a hand over his forehead. "One doesn't want to even imagine how many are lurking in the Tunnels. Or even in the upper parts of the City still."

"How've you been feeding them?" Abel asked curiously and he watched Alicorn's little group disperse. Likely to tell the others they'd arrived but Abel could only watch and wonder just what had happened to cause so many to come to a little known spot.

Judging by Charlie's still slack-jawed expression, he too was wondering the same thing.

"How many in total?" Abigail asked, toying with her necklace absently.

"Thirteen hundred spread around, but in this section, three hundred or so. Every day some go missing into the rural towns, and more come in to replace them. These are only the ones willing to travel to join a formal Resistance." Alicorn rubbed at the back of his neck, his eyes darting nervously overhead. "Mind if we get down under tree cover again?"

Hatter looked up as well and saw nothing. "Why?"

"Queen's been sending Scarabs all over. We shot down a few and salvaged them, but there seems to be more and more." Alicorn gestured down to the camp and Hatter felt a rude jab from one of the rear men who'd been posting guard around them. He half-turned, hands clenching into fists, but Alice had hold of his arm.

There were whispers as they walked further into the camp and Alice pressed close to Hatter, feeling her mother take her hand from behind. Hatter was staring straight ahead, watching as Charlie proceeded to badger Alicorn about what changes had been done to his precious home, but his own expression didn't change. Gripping hold of Hatter's sleeve, Alice gave it a tug until he dipped slightly to lower his ear.

"Do you recognize anyone?" she asked over the noise of the crowd's mutterings. He shook his head.

"Not one." He made a face. "But considering that some of the people I know are now known to be traitors, that could be a positive thing."

"Doesn't make me feel any better," Alice muttered. Hatter shrugged.

"Doesn't make me feel better either," he admitted. He looked over her head and his eyes narrowed a little. Huddled around a small fire barrel filled with old wood were a few familiar though miserable looking faces. Hatter arched a brow thoughtfully. "Toby Mouse's family is here, but I don't see Toby. Could mean that..."

"Charles Eustace Fortheringhay Le Malvoy the Third!"

The longwinded screech was familiar and, instinctively, both Hatter and Charlie retreated behind Alice and Abigail respectively. The people that were walking up and down up paths, closer to where a small house stood, parted a little at the screech and they all looked curiously. The house, with its chipped salmon paint and heavy black cross-beams, was also familiar and Hatter and Alice looked at each other, surprised to see it still standing. The Mock Turtle Inn had moved here over a year ago, when Charlie and the Cook had married on a spur-of-the-moment, and had stood as a strange sort of mix of old Taiga magic with the old Wabe's Kingdom of Knights. Much like their marriage.

The front door had been flung wide open and a portly little woman was striding down the white-stoned walkway. Her heavy violet dress and black bonnet stuck out in the midst of the odd clothes of the weary refugees and the pepper shaker at her side bounced against her thigh, sending out a fresh puff of black pepper with each stride. She moved with an awkward strut, shoving everyone out of her path until she was on level with Abel. The Drawling Master stared at her curiously and she sneered up at him.

"Just who are you?" she demanded and before he could respond she shoved him rudely out of the way. She came toe to toe with Abigail next. The slimmer woman stared at her and felt the man who was crouching behind her shake when the woman slammed her foot on the ground in irritation. "Charles! You come out here this instant! I will count to ten and then I shall get very angry!"

Beside Alice, Hatter rubbed at his ear in memory of the Cook's anger when he'd accidentally insulted her cooking. Alice saw the gesture and snickered, stopped only when Marta the Cook swung her beady gaze to her. Her face lost some of its sternness when she recognized Alice but she quickly looked back at Abigail before stamping her foot again.

"All right, skinny, out of the way or I'll go through you to get to him."

Abigail almost flew to her father's side, leaving a cowering Charlie unprotected. He was crouching low, his hands covering his head and eyes, but after a few seconds of silence he realized that he was not being protected and he stood ram-rod straight once again. He peered down his long nose at his wife and sniffed elegantly.

"Hello, dear Marta," he offered. Her face turned a faint puce colour and Hatter wisely took a step back. Alice followed him and Carol watched curiously. Charlie had told her during their capture all about his wife and the way he'd spoken about her, Carol had expected a tiny slip of an older woman with a meek and mild manner. Definitely not this veritable steamroller of a woman who looked ready to murder her husband.

"You've been gone for months, Charles. Months! And the best you can say is hello?" she demanded and he cleared his throat.

"Well, I had worked out a truly wondrous speech that would expound upon our adventures and journeys but at the sight of your beauty, I find my tongue quite unable to find the words," Charlie responded. The Cook seemed to melt a little and Hatter scoffed under his breath.

"Smooth, Charlie. Real smooth."

His eyes widened and he back-pedalled when the Cook swung around to him. "And you!" she reached out and caught Hatter by his shirt collar. "You didn't tell me the whole truth!"

"I had meant to but things happen." He winced when she pulled him down until he was on eye-level with her. Alice stared at them both, not sure what to do. She wanted to protect Hatter but the Cook was not someone to trifle with when she was angry or irritated.

"Just what things prevented you from telling me that my husband was in mortal danger, or that he still lived? Do you realize the heartache I have gone through these past weeks, months?" the Cook asked, her voice cracking a little. Hatter stared back at her and his eyes darkened a little to a strange forest green. After a moment, she gaped at him and tilted her head on the side to get a better look.

"I understand too well," he whispered back to her. Her eyes travelled from his forehead downward, catching a glimpse of the scar that ran along his neck, and she looked back up at his eyes. With her years of experience with creatures even stranger than Hatter, the Cook could see the sincerity and still hidden pain that Hatter was keeping deep under the surface of his bland expression.

"I believe you do," she said, releasing his shirt. She gave him a slap-pat on the cheek affectionately and then whirled on her husband again. "Back to you!"

He winced, and then tweaked at his moustache as if to make himself look more dapper. "I have missed you, my love."

"You... you..." she walked up to him and gave him a hearty nudge in the ribs. "If you ever do such a thing again, I will stuff you so full of pepper that when you finally die, your carcass will be black from the inside out and maggots will be peppery from eating you!"

He gobbled open mouthed at the threat and then her round craggy face broke into a smile. "You handsome man you!"

Hatter almost didn't avoid being slapped by Charlie's flailing arms as the Cook grabbed her husband and planted a wet kiss on his mouth that made everyone look away. Alice suppressed a giggle and looked to see her confused mother staring at them as if she was trying to draw conclusions. She couldn't blame her; Alice wasn't sure that two more opposites in love could be found in Wonderland.

"Don't try, Mom," she warned lowly with a grin. With a wet smack of her lips, the Cook released Charlie. He sagged to his knees, winded and red faced, and behind him Arthur gave his shoulder a thoughtful nudge. The Cook was looking at Alice and Carol and she stepped close.

"Miss Alice. And..." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"This is my mom: Carol Hamilton. Charlie protected her for me," Alice introduced and the Cook made an awkward curtsey that made her knees creak loudly. Charlie was being helped up by Hatter and Abel and Alice smiled only to have her sight blocked by the Cook's close face.

"Your glow is stronger," she stated and Alice blinked. The Cook's eyes were analytical and she looked Alice up and down in an almost intrusive way. Her eyes lingered on Alice's stomach as if seeing beneath the layers of heavy cloth and the light corset Alice wore in the South fashion, and then snapped back to her face while she raised her eyebrows in question. Not sure what else to do, Alice nodded and the older woman's face became smugly satisfied. "I did tell you in the Taiga that you needed to keep that glow of yours close. That it would help light your way. I'm glad you took my advice to heart."

Alice stared at her, the fuzzy memory making her put her hand on her stomach. The Cook was turning away, making her way over to Alicorn and the Drawling Master again. The Resistance second was introducing Abel in a low voice and again the Cook made her creaky curtsey. Alice felt Hatter take his place at her side but he seemed distracted again by the way he kept flexing his fingers and touching his hat. When she looked at him he was looking away from her, toward the ruins in the distance that led to the Checkerboard Taiga Paths.

It was on her lips to ask if he was okay but the Cook clapped her hands loudly.

"All of you. Into my inn if you will. There is much to discuss and not much time to tell you all everything you need to know." She didn't wait for anyone to agree with her, just started marching back to the transplanted house with Charlie scuttling after her. Abel and Abigail followed with Alicorn and several of his own group behind them, about ten men and women that Alice remembered from the Drawling Manor in the last few hours they'd spent there together.

Carol looked at her and sighed, rubbing at the back of her neck. "I'm tired," she declared and Alice frowned. Her mother did seem a bit down and her eyes were even a little dull.

"Are you feeling okay?" Alice asked and Carol nodded.

"Just worn out, honey." She started up the path without them and Alice turned to Hatter. He still looked uncomfortable with the attention the refugees were putting on him, though they were trying to be discreet by the way they would look away now and then. Alice reached out and touched his shoulder.

"Hatter? Something wrong?" she asked and he shook his head.

"Nah, just... plannin'," he answered when he finally looked at her again. "Let's see if we can get something to eat. Cook always was good for a quick meal."

At the mention of food, Chesh suddenly materialized on the path, scampering through the doorway. Alice shook her head and tugged on Arthur's bridle to bring him along to the tiny barn while Hatter and Guinevere followed. It suddenly felt like something had come full circle by entering the Mock Turtle Inn and Alice felt a twinge of nerves when she realized just how close to the City they were. How close to an out-and-out war they were.

Chapter Text

"I don't care how many men it takes! I want the Drawling Master found!" The Queen of Hearts shrieked as she threw a glass paperweight at a cowering Club. He had wisely ducked a while ago in preparation for her anger and when the paperweight passed over him with just an inch to spare, he breathed a sigh of relief. One of the few Clubs to be given any sort of power, he knew better than to chance her anger by asking her to stop throwing things at him.

If that hadn't worked in the past, it certainly wouldn't work now.

"Your Majesty, what with the storms and the wild animals, sending any additional scouts out towards Wabe would be sending them to almost certain death," he tried and she slammed her hand down on the arm of her throne. Sitting at the end of a long conference table, she managed to dominate the entire room by sheer presence alone and her attention was riveted on the Club before her. Her nails scratched at the white paint and her blood-red lips puckered.

"You are questioning my orders?" she threatened lowly and he shook his head.

"No no, of course not, only..." He gestured to the windows. "What with the guards needed for population control and the secret police patrolling to try to find fragments of rebellion, we do not have the man power."

The Queen of Hearts raised a dark brow. "Are you saying I do not have enough men and women loyal to me who would do my bidding?"

"No, it is not that it is just," he started and couldn't finish because he knew what was coming next. A darted glance to his right and left to see his fellow Clubs not even looking at him made his stomach drop to his knees and he stared at his feet instead.

"Off with his head. I cannot have such incompetence!" the Queen yelled and she swivelled her throne around to permanently end the conversation. The Club whimpered and fell to his knees, begging for his life even as the other men surrounding him came forward and grabbed him by his arms. They hauled him out kicking and screaming, the pleas for mercy falling on deaf ears.

The Queen rested her chin in her hand and tapped her red nails against her cheek. They always did scream, she thought to herself; few ever had the good manners to be executed with dignity.

A sudden movement in the shadows behind one of the ceiling pillars made her eyes narrow and she sat up straight once more, one hand hovering over the alarm button on her armrest. But the man who slipped out from the shadows and who flinched at the over-brilliant fluorescent lights was no threat and she moved her hand back to her lap. Her lips parted in a congenial smile though her eyes remained like ice. No real emotion went over her face and the only betrayal of any anxiety was the way her fingers clenched in her skirts.

"Majesty," Dodo said as he bowed lowly to her and she tipped her head on the side.

"Master Dodo. I had never thought to see you of all people bowing to me," she sniped and his face twisted a bit. But he swallowed the insult down and gave her a clear-eyed look of acceptance.

"Necessity dictates it, does it not?" he countered as he walked around her throne and took a seat on one side of the long table. He was limping badly and when the Queen deigned to look, she saw that he had several bandages wrapped around his leg. He met her stare evenly. "Experiments gone awry, your Majesty."

"I see." She leaned back in her chair and put both hands on the table. Whimsically clicking her nails on the ceramic surface, she watched the almost nervous way he took in the room. He was clearly looking for threats, perhaps an assassin here or there, perhaps poison darts; considering their past history together, could he expect any better? The Queen grinned again and twirled her finger in the air. "If I wanted you dead, Dodo, you would not have made it past the window."

"While I'm thanking you for holding off on my execution, need I remind you that if I wanted you dead, dear Queen of Hearts, you would not have ever made it out of your little prison cell," he snapped and she widened her eyes a bit.

"I assume you are referring to that Snake agent of yours?" she asked and he shrugged.

"One of many," he said.

"While I'm sure she is, as per our agreement, she will not be a threat for much longer," the Queen said. "My men have been following her for several days."

"Your first four men have been killed, have they not?" Dodo countered and she shrugged this time.

"Mere sacrifice plays. One has to let their prey get weak first if they were strong to begin with." She leaned forward and stared intently at him. "Which is why I need to know what you plan to do about the Drawling Master. Did you find the train he took?"

"We did." Dodo unbuttoned his heavy coat and wiped at his sweated neck with his sleeve. "After it crashed at West End Station."


"Empty. No bodies."

Her face went pale and then mottled at her cheeks. "He has escaped again?"

"In all fairness, why did you not have him killed in the very beginning?" Dodo asked and she waved her hand.

"He had his uses. He helped trained the Carpenter you know, and that man was of value until that bitch daughter of his took him from us." Her lips pursed into an ugly grimace. "Had I known that he was of the Resistance from the very beginning, North Abel would have been dead thirty years ago."

"Unlikely. That old man is more wily than the Caterpillar ever was."

They sat in awkward silence for a moment and then Dodo pulled out his pocket watch. He checked the time and calculated how late he was going to be. The Queen's eyes were on him and he met them steadily.

"Why did you come here, Dodo?" she asked softly and he shrugged.

"Passing of Information. I know that Selena's apartments, the abandoned ones, are on the Fletch Street above the Ouest Quadrant. I'll leave her a message to wait for me there. Then I expect that you have the proper drama set to play out. She is taking the full brunt of the blame, is she not?" he questioned and she gave a curt nod.

"I am good at theatrics, Dodo." She watched as he stood and walked back around her to take the secret stairs back out of the Palace. She stared at her hands and then spoke loudly, curiosity tingeing her voice, "But I do wonder, Dodo, if do you not regret turning over one of your most loyal members of the Resistance to be used as a sacrificial lamb in this hideous play we have started."

Dodo pressed the lever that opened up the sliding door before he looked back at her. She had turned halfway in her chair to stare at him, one thin brow arched in question. He made a face.

"Hardly. I have lived too long, played this game too long, to have such an attachment to a creature I trained to be used." He started to close the door. "Just be sure she is taken before passing on any information to anyone else. At this rate, what she knows could play a major part in starting a rebellion. She will soon figure out she was used and that would be most... unfortunate."

He let the door slam shut behind him and the Queen smiled to herself. If Dodo ever figured out how much she was planning on using his Resistance to do her dirty work, he might not have sacrificed his prized assassin to play the role of scapegoat. But he had never been a true game-changer. Eagerly, the Queen pressed the intercom button on her chair arm.

"Send me the White Rabbit's hit squad. And make it quick. There is work to be done," she ordered and then closed the link before the guard on the other end could answer. She shut her eyes and smiled a serene smile, already planning the little speech she would give when this all played out. It was now just a matter of keeping it all under control while her scientists figured out the answers from the half-finished formula Dodo had provided. Then Wonderland would be back in her control and things would be as they should be.

It didn't take long for Alice to realize that without Abel's presence, his advisors and lieutenants had fallen to complete and utter disorganization. Even as a group, they were almost unable to keep control of the extensive amount of refugees that had come into the Kingdom of Knights and few had kept any sort of records of who was there. No one knew what was really going on beyond planning food and water rationing. There were no signs of who was in charge of what and there were no actual plans when it came to how to reclaim Wonderland. They had been waiting for someone else to take control and Abel's absence had let them all become lazy and strangely resolved to being refugees for the rest of their lives.

The chaos it had created made the control freak in Alice bristle like an irritated cat. Never before had she bitten her tongue so much the way she had during the short meeting between Abel and his advisors.

The kitchen of the Mock Turtle Inn had been filled to the windows with people and it had been deafeningly loud with people shouting and arguing. Claiming that she was no use because of exhaustion, her mother had retreated to one of the guest rooms to sleep and Abel had sent one of the few physicians to check on her. When the doctor had returned, he'd just said she was tired but he had seemed concerned and Alice tucked that to the back of her mind to ask him about later. There was little chance of it being figured out before the people in the kitchen had their say. Everyone had wanted to be the center of attention and Alice had thought that something must have been planned for everyone to seem so eager.

Though, when it all came out, Alice learned that they really had nothing much to say. Certainly no new ideas had been thrown out. It had all dissolved to more shouting, more insults, and then several punches had flown and the arguments became fistfights. It had reminded her of a bar fight and a dirty one at that.

"Typical politicians. Talk and talk, but no action," Alice muttered to herself as she sunk low down in the copper bathtub that had been filled for her at the Cook's orders. The grime of travel and the ache of the fall from the train had made the hot water heavenly and she kicked a foot up thoughtfully. The meeting had felt endless and she was uneasy at the thought of how many people seemed so ready to keep Hatter prisoner though he hadn't said more than two words to anyone. They didn't trust him but they also did not really like the idea of having Alice or her mother around. They were symbols of bad luck, the Sparrow had growled as she glared at Alice, and it had taken considerable willpower for Alice not to childishly stick her tongue out at Sparrow.

Alice had eventually given up on trying to make heads or tails of the loud arguments and with a simple smile and nod she'd gone upstairs. Leaving the meeting had been her best idea in some time. She doubted anyone had noticed anyway and the Cook had already had a room assigned to her in the tiny Inn. The Cook hadn't stayed and neither had Charlie; they had too much catching up to do. So Alice had not felt remotely bad about escaping from the fistfights and name calling in order for her to take a bath. Her mother was sound asleep in a small room nearby and Alice had left her alone when she realized how peacefully she slept.

The arguing was still going on below and she sighed, swiping a bit of soap over her raised leg. The sudden click of her door latch made Alice sink back down in the tub and she licked her lips warily.

The door opened slowly and she watched it, ready to leap up and grab her towel if necessary. The arguing was still very loud downstairs, so it was possible that someone had come upstairs to escape it. The sight of Hatter coming through the door made Alice sigh in relief and rest her head back against the copper lip. Hatter, looking worn and ready to drop, glanced at her and then locked the door before leaning against it. He swiped his hat off and tossed it in the air so that it landed perfectly on a brass bed-knob. It was a sign of how tired he was when he only gave her another passing look before pulling a chair up beside the tub and sitting in it with a loud thud. Alice lifted herself out of the water a bit and hugged her knees to her chest.

"You okay?" she asked and he sighed, running his hand over his face. He had their saddlebags hanging over his shoulder and he let them fall to the floor with a loud bang.

"Things could be better. I think my ears are still ringing from when those two women downstairs decide to have a hen fight about who had done more work in the past four hours." Hatter made a face while resting his elbows on his knees. "Abel looks ready to kill someone so I decide to escape and not let it be me that he kills."

"Good choice," Alice said with a smile, as she looked him over. He looked as dirty and tired as she'd felt earlier and she bit into her lower lip thoughtfully. "Water's still hot?"

The offer made him smile at her finally though he didn't answer and he stood up, pulling off his jacket as he walked around behind her. Alice turned her attention to finishing her own washing, intent on giving him some time to himself if he needed it. She heard him moving around and throwing things onto the bed but she kept her eyes on a faint bruise on her calf. Scouring at it with the soap, she didn't hear him approaching her until he had slipped into the tub behind her. Ignoring her small protest about there not being enough room, he pushed her forward a bit so that he could sit.

She scowled; feeling a bit cramped while he leaned forward and dunked his head into the water, scrubbing at his scalp quickly. When he lifted his head and then shook it, sending a spray of hot water over her back, Alice gave his knee a thump.

"I appreciate you being clean but can you not make such a mess? We do have to sleep in that bed and if you get it wet, you might be on the floor tonight."

"Correction: you love it when I'm clean. I love it when you're wet."

She made a soft sound of shock and he chuckled.

"I am so lucky that no one else can hear you making those jokes," Alice groaned and he leaned forward, pressing a quick kiss between her shoulder blades.

"But at least I'm makin' them, yeah?" he offered and she nodded.

"I suppose."

"Picky Oyster," he muttered before wrapping his arms around her waist and tugging her back into his chest. She made a token struggle that only resulted in more bath water on the floor before leaning back into his arms. Hatter lifted a hand and began to tick things off on his fingers. "Let's see: hot water, my girl Alice, chance of being clean and on a soft bed... all I need is a good cuppa and I'd be blissed out," Hatter muttered as he leaned back.

She chuckled. "This is not really what I meant when I mentioned the hot water," she began and he shushed her, taking the soap from her hand and rubbing it through his fingers.

"A beautiful woman does not sit in a bathtub, hot water and all, say that and then not expect a man to jump in with her. Really, Alice, you are such a tease," Hatter scolded playfully and she laughed again when he tickled her side. His skin, cold from head to toe when he'd first joined, quickly warmed up due to the piping hot water and Alice leaned back into him after a while. Hatter was quiet, washing up thoroughly and at times running a hand over her own skin as if to be sure she was okay. His touch was firm enough to be comforting and Alice closed her eyes. It was easy, so easy, to be lulled into a warm doze while Hatter sang softly under his breath. His heartbeat thudded hypnotically through his chest and against her back and she slowed her breathing to match his.

She must have fallen into a light sleep because the sound of people walking through the house and slamming doors made her jerk up a bit in surprise. Hatter didn't react, merely rested his head back against the ridge of the tub and closed his eyes. Alice turned halfway in his arms, stared lovingly at his face, and then reached up with a hand. She traced her fingers down the still raw scar tissue on his chest and stared at the trail of wounds that marked his chest. They formed an odd sort of map of pain from his shoulders to where the water lapped at his stomach and Alice felt bitter tears well in her eyes.

Alice sniffed, hoping he'd mistake it for just a bit of allergies but she felt him staring at her. She hesitantly met his gaze and gave a half-hearted smile that drew his concern instantly. His fingers traced over her cheek and she leaned into his warm grip before sighing and moving back into his arms again. Taking his hand in hers, she leaned back so that his chin rested against the top of her head and she kicked a foot up again to look at the bruising decorating her leg from their fall.

"Did I miss anything important beyond the shouting?" she asked and Hatter sighed, his lips brushing her ear.

"Not much. I think they didn't want me there," he said and then hesitated. Alice dropped her foot into the water again and shifted in his arms.

"But?" she prompted and he shrugged.

"It's going to be an all out war. Not like the other times the Resistance tried and failed. Abel's got reserves and additional know-how I'm not sure of. It's going to be a bloodbath." His troubled voice made Alice tighten her fingers around his.

"Is there anything we can do to stop it from reaching that point?" she asked and felt him shake his head.

"Not unless you can wave a wand and transport us all back to times of peace," he drawled sarcastically but his cutting words were said absentmindedly, letting her know that he wasn't actually demeaning her. Staring at his fingers caught up with hers, Alice remembered the cat she'd locked out of the room earlier. Hatter's body relaxed though hers tensed up and Alice cleared her throat several times. He didn't appear to notice as he ran his free hand over her collarbone, and she tipped her head a bit to glance at him from the corner of her eye.

"Hatter, about that..." She sucked in a breath. "You gave the Sceptre to Charlie, didn't you?"

"What about it?" he asked back, his voice wary.

"I need it."

Hatter raised a hand and swiped it over his face again as if to show how exasperated he was by that question. Like her, he remembered the last time it had been used too clearly. He'd seen the change it had nearly wrought in Alice and the expression on his face showed that he wasn't likely to forget it.

"I won't have you usin' that piece of Taiga kit. It makes Oysters... change." He dropped his hand from hers and the distance it brought between them felt cutting.

Alice shook her head, dismayed by his obvious frustration. "I need it to change Chesh. We made a bargain and I think he might be useful in his other form. If...well... I had to make that decision back in the South and I need to stand by it now."

The silence that resulted from that blunt statement was agony. Hatter didn't speak, only swirled the water with one hand and hummed in his throat as if he was thinking to himself. Alice waited patiently but when it was clear that he wasn't going to answer her, she scooted forward and rose from the water. Wrapping a towel around her body, she quickly retreated as Hatter stood up and followed suit, slinging a towel across his waist and padding over the spare dresser. He checked his wounds in the mirror and made a few faces as if making sure his face still obeyed him.

Their eyes met through the reflection of the mirror and Alice looked away first, staring out the window at the dark shadows of the forest. She brushed by him, cursing when she stubbed her toe on the bed's frame, and she quickly towelled off the lingering drops of water. Satisfied that she was a little bit dry now, Alice sat on the bed and wrung her hair out before tossing the damp locks over her shoulder.

"Hatter, did you hear..."

"I heard you." He turned finally and leaned against the dresser. He seemed so relaxed that Alice almost thought it didn't bother him. It was easy enough to deceive her own mind into thinking that until she met his eyes and saw their stony darkness. It was the look of someone controlling their anger. "I just wish you meant change as in skin alive and find a new cat to hunt mice for you."

"We had an agreement," Alice began and he snorted rudely. She continued on, raising her voice a bit when his agitation caused him to start banging things around the room. "He helped me in the Manor to bring you back, to change that place enough that I could get you away from the Doctors. I owe him something and he says he is losing his mind. That soon he won't be of any use. Something has to be done."

"Buy him a ball of string." Hatter gave the dresser a vicious kick and spun around to face her. He glared at her and Alice sat up straighter, meeting his fierce look with one of her own.

"Hatter, this has nothing to do with you. It was a bargain between him and I," she snapped and instantly knew it was the wrong thing to say. Hatter almost charged at her, he moved so fast, and gave her a furious stare once he reached the edge of the bed. She wisely back-pedalled on the bed a bit and wrapped her arms around her knees protectively.

"Nothing to do with me?" he demanded lowly, his accent slipping from his voice. Alice's swallow of fear was audible but he ignored it. "I still remember holding the Knave's dead body, feeling his blood on my hands. I still remember the agony of what he did to me when we fought." He dropped his shoulder and even in the lamplight she could see the white puckered circle of an old scar. "I can still remember what it felt like when he drove that dagger of his into me. I can only imagine what happened to the poor Knave when Chesh slit his throat and drove his blade into his belly."

Colour drained out of Alice's face at the imagery his words provoked and she looked away. Almost growling in frustration, Hatter put both hands on the bed and leaned close to her.

"So forgive me, Alice, if I do not wish to see the same thing happen to you just because you had a moment of conscience towards a murderer."

"You don't trust my judgement," Alice whispered and Hatter turned halfway from her. He grabbed his trousers from the chair he'd thrown them over and yanked them on. Ignoring her accusing eyes, he rifled through their saddlebags and found a clean shirt and his hat as well. He tossed her an unreadable look and moved to the door.

"Get some sleep," he snapped and he slammed the door behind him. Alice stared at it in bewilderment and wished she'd not said a word. The urge to sob was strong because she knew that he did trust her but not when it came to Chesh. He was voicing her own worries about releasing the Cheshire from his feline body but Alice knew the weight of her own conscience would have her change him back.

Lying back on the bed, Alice tugged a pillow down and hugged it tight to her. How quickly the mood had changed between them but what had she expected? She wanted Hatter to just accept what she wanted to do and when it concerned a creature he hated so furiously, she was wanting quite a bit. Alice shut her eyes, wanting to think it over badly, and almost instantly fell into a numbing sleep.

"I'm dreaming," Alice whispered the moment her eyes reopened. And she was. Her real world was not as dark and shadowy as this, and the long tea table and endless teapots and plates of food were familiar only because she had dreamed this all before. The only thing missing was the reduced number of creatures sitting at the end of the table. Hatter was no longer in this dream and the chair he'd occupied was gone as well. However, the large mouse snoring in a teacup and the cyborg man with a rabbit head were there and nothing had changed with them that she could see.

Mad March was singing loudly, his voice reverberating around the tiny dark grotto, and he wasn't alone. Keeping time with a spoon banging against a tea cup was Unda, now wearing a gown of black and white and when she bobbed her head rhythmically with the song, Alice saw that two colours had split her face in halves: one half black, one half white. Her hair was plaited back in intricate though frizzy coils, and from what Alice could see, the black and white colouring had continued into her hair as well.

She turned fierce emerald eyes to Alice and squealed like a little girl seeing a beloved toy. "Alice! Welcome to our little Palace! How dee-lightful to see you, you are far overdue!"

Alice stared back before she took a cautious seat across from Unda. Unremarkably, she was back in the blue pinafore and white skirts once more, but this time they seemed a bit charred and dirty. There were no shoes or stockings this time and she felt a chill right up her dress. Making a face, Alice tucked her skirts beneath her legs and dangled her feet over the chair's edges. Her toes felt a bit numb and when she looked at them, the normally white skin was pale grey.

Alice jerked her feet up under her buttocks to hide the discolouring and looked up when the singers hit an ear-splitting note.

Unda's voice had taken on an almost operatic tone as she sang along with March. Alice focussed on the song, recognizing it as one that they had been singing the last time she was here for their strange tea party. Except the tune and rhythm had changed. Now it was like sitting in the audience at a musical theatre during a big show stopping number where the singers were trained in opera. The notes they were hitting were impossibly high and long and Alice would have been impressed if it didn't irritate her so much to hear so much noise. March hit his favourite part of the song and rose from his chair, waving his hands in the air like a singer to an adoring audience.

"Will you walk a little faster... said a whiting to a snail. There's a porpoise close behind us and he's treading on my tail."

Alice cringed when their voices reached a high volume and she clapped her hands over her ears as Unda began to improvise with the words. The strange aria that Unda was almost screeching was at a higher pitch and the words had twisted to a strange language, something of a cross between a guttural German language and something vaguely French. Then the song was continued on by March, who continued to sing in his robotic voice though Unda had trailed off in her song.

Her eyes were completely focussed on Alice with a smug look of utter satisfaction.

"We have been waiting for you to arrive, we'd thought you'd lost your drive," Unda said as she snapped her fingers. One of the teapots floated over to her and poured its contents into a dusty teacup before flying away again. Alice watched it instead of looking at Unda's unnaturally bright eyes.

"I still have it," Alice answered and then she blinked in thought. "You... you're rhyming again."

Unda thought it over and then grinned. "Ah yes. You see, I find myself almost having the energy to again. It is rather exciting, my friend. But I don't do it often; too much energy is consumed and I need that for something else."

March was smashing plates on the table with the whimsical carelessness of a spoiled child and when Alice checked, the tiny mouse was still snoring away in his teacup. March threw something at the pale woman's head and she ducked easily, whipping a teapot back at him that conked him in the centre of his ceramic head. The ceramic cracked and splintered and he instantly sputtered. The lights at the back of his neck went out and he seemed to shut down, the sound of gears grinding to a half making Alice stare in surprise.

The other woman was not concerned and she only gave him a cursory look before returning to her guest. Unda took a long sip of her tea, her eyes glinting over her teacup at Alice, and then set it down carefully. She set about correcting her place setting like an irritated etiquette teacher and Alice watched her pale fingers linger over a silver knife. She wrapped her fingers around it and then set it methodically to one side, so that the sharp point was directed at Alice.

Something about the sight of her doing so sent a chill up Alice's spine.

"Why am I here?" Alice asked and she lifted her chin enough to meet Unda's square gaze. Unda stared back, her head tilted on the side.

"I want something from you, Alice." She waved a hand at the empty place beside March. "Or did you think I would let him return to you without expecting repayment?"

"You..." Alice cleared her throat. "I thought you were helping us. So that we could keep the Queen from destroying Wonderland again..."

"You thought that I chose sides?" Unda actually laughed at her, a joyous sound that reminded Alice oddly of the twin Doctors when they'd laugh during torture. Her entire body vibrated with her laughter and her teeth bared in a half-moon of pearly white. With the shadows touching her face, her mouth had a fanged look that made Alice shrink back into her chair. Then the laugh stopped abruptly like a stopped record and Unda's eyes focussed on Alice's intently.

"Even after all this time in Wonderland, you are so naive, dear Alice." She shook her head. "Dear... sweet Alice."

"But Hatter..."

"Is both key to my survival and my destruction. I knew you would want him," she swivelled her hand in the air, "somewhat intact. I have helped you regain your lover, helped you keep your baby though that pregnancy of yours was on very shaky ground several times. I even turned back time so that your child would not be born as mad as a weasel in a burlap sack. I did it all for you, Alice."

She leaned close to Alice and with her came a smell of decay and death that set the girl's stomach twisting in revulsion.

"Am I not generous?"

"You need us to help you," Alice started and Unda grabbed her by the back of her head, her fingers twisting tightly in her hair. Alice gasped, her head cranked back painfully as Unda quickly stood over her.

"You were his grandmother. You helped us," Alice protested.

"I am so much more than some magical Oyster, little girl. Am I not generous!" she shouted into Alice's face, her eyes blazing with fury. The entire area around them trembled and rocked, and Alice stared up at her. This Unda felt more real than any other dream Alice had had in the past months, the grip was definitely real, and the terror she felt was growing by the second.

"What do you want?" she whispered and the grip on the back of her head loosened a bit. Unda smirked down at her, one hand reaching up to caress her face. Underneath the apparent affection was a sinister air that made Alice's stomach turn.

"I want what you can give me, Alice," she whispered. The hand on her face trailed down and rested on her belly. "I do not save lives for nothing. Even your lover suspects what I am... what it is I want from you and it is only a matter of you both giving me what I want. What I need. How I have waited."

Alice tried to wriggle away from her hand but the grip on her head was painful. It felt like her scalp was being pulled apart.

"I have waited so long," Unda whispered, her stagnant breath wafting hot against Alice's cheek. "So long for someone like you, Alice. Do not disappoint me."

Her fingers curled talon like on Alice's stomach and she struggled to keep the scream of fear from escaping her mouth. Every inch of her body felt ready to fight back but her mind was slow to respond, too terrified by this change in someone she'd come to view as an ally. Unda's eyes blazed like emerald fire, reminding Alice of Hatter at his peak of madness. The thought of him stabilized her and she closed her eyes.

"Hatter brought himself back." Her eyes opened slowly and with a calm she wasn't sure she really felt. Unda's pale brows arched high on her bi-coloured face. "What influence you think you have is his own strength. Who do you think you really are?"

Unda's face twisted and she snarled like an animal. The hand in Alice's hair twisted to cup her around her throat, and with surprising strength, she threw her onto the table with a loud bang. The teacups went flying into the air and Alice gasped for air, unable to avoid the blow about to come. A pale hand struck her on the face with far more strength than she'd expected, sending her head rocking to the side, and she felt hot blood drip from her nose. Sniffing back tears of pain, Alice looked up into the shadows and wisely kept herself from retaliating.

Unda leaned down over the table, upside down to Alice's vision, and she stared down at Alice, letting her nature shine from her eyes. Her eyes seemed to splinter in colour until the many facets of them became little more than bottomless pits that captured all the light in the tiny grotto. Alice screamed as pain invaded her mind and she let her glow wrap around her body like a shield but it did no good. What she saw in Unda's eyes was more terrifying than she'd expected; it was as if the entire history of Wonderland lay in her eyes and it was terrible to behold. There was beauty and peace, but also so much death and madness that seemed strangely attached to those times of peace. Alice's scream died in her throat and she stared almost stupidly into Unda's eyes, unable to look away though her sense of self-preservation begged her to.

Unda closed her eyes when Alice finally seemed to realize who she was and then reopened them to reveal very normal green eyes. Alice swallowed down the lump in her throat and twisted a bit under her grip.

"You're not just his grandmother..." she whispered. The sneer on Unda's face was made more twisted by the black and white of her face and her fingers felt claw-like around Alice's throat.

"I can bring you a very different yet very real kind of pain, Alice. I do not like to be trifled with," Unda hissed. She leaned closer. "You should not wish to owe me favours."

"You were doing it to help Wonderland," Alice choked out, her throat raw from her screaming. "We're trying to save Wonderland!"

"To help myself," Unda corrected darkly. "Do you think I care of Queens and Rebellions? Hardly. I have helped you, Alice, far more than I have helped any other Oyster. Helped you because I see something so much more inside of you and I expect repayment."

Her hand lifted and hovered over Alice's stomach once more and she squirmed.

"No!" she snapped and Unda's expression hardened. "I won't let you harm my baby."

"You? You have no say in this matter. Something must be paid back in return. It is how the rules of Wonderland work," the pale woman drawled and her grin was sadistic. Alice felt renewed fear gather in the pit of her stomach like a cold ball, as the hand seemed to draw closer. Her glow gathered on her skin and Unda jerked her hand back with a hiss, as if she'd been burned, and she slammed the hand down onto the table beside Alice's head.

Alice felt tiny pinprick of pain on her hand, as if something had bitten her, and she winced when the pain grew sharper. Her vision of Unda dimmed a bit, blurring around the edges.

"You will regret not coming to a full agreement with me, Alice. You will regret it in the end," Unda threatened and Alice opened her mouth to respond when the pain in her hand became so sharp that she squeezed her eyes shut.

When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on the floor of her room with a cat sitting on her chest. Chesh's large eyes were on her face and his teeth were glinting in the light from where they were imbedded in the heel of her hand. He was purring around the flesh in his mouth, the glint of his cat-green eyes almost merry as he chomped down a bit harder. Alice stared at him in shock and then jerked her hand free.

"Hey!" she snapped and he sat up, his heavy weight resting on her belly.

"You were dreaming," he purred calmly and Alice shook her hand before propping herself up onto her elbows.

"And you were using me as a chew toy," she countered. His head tipped on the side and his eyes went to slits.

"Dreaming of her, were you?" His tail twitched. "I can't say I envy you. I used to scream when I dreamed of her."

Alice shoved him off and with an indignant meow he leaped onto the dresser. Realizing that she was naked, Alice quickly snagged a blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her body. She sat onto her buttocks with her back leaning against the bed frame and stared at the cat above her. He rested his chin on his paws and twitched his tail back and forth like a pendulum.

"Who is she?" Alice whispered and his grin appeared. "She's not just Hatter's grandmother, not just a ghost or some magical old Oyster like the White Queen was."

"You know who she is. Just say it, Alice. Try not to keep yourself in such suspense," Chesh encouraged.

"Wonderland." She breathed out the word, feeling like if she spoke it, the entity would appear. The Cheshire's grin widened to his ears.

"And the slowest Jabberwock finally enters the nest. Congratulations, Alice, you have found a new reason to fear the place you now call home."

"You always knew she was appearing to me and who she was. Why didn't you warn me?" Alice accused and he made a feline shrug.

"Because there are far more important things to be concerned about..."

Alice almost threw her shoe at him. "She threatened my child!"

It gave her no satisfaction that Chesh actually looked surprised.

"She did?" His eyes widened more. "What did you say back to her?"

Alice gave him a condescending look. "What do you think I said to her?" she snapped and he licked his paws thoughtfully.

"Well "no", I think. Unless you are made of different stuff than I previously believed." His whiskers twitched. "But Alice, I must warn you. She makes a deadly enemy."

Alice picked herself up from the floor and found the saddlebag that Hatter had thrown onto the bed. Ignoring Chesh's interested gaze, she found her only change of clothing and slipped into the riding dress. The growing chill in the air made her thankful for its long sleeves and she grabbed her coat as well after she'd put on a pair of leather-patched leggings and her old favourite pair of boots. Flipping still damp hair out of her eyes, she met Chesh's gaze with her own.

"You can't say I didn't warn you," Chesh commented. "Must you make enemies everywhere you go?"

"Is Hatter downstairs?" Alice demanded and he sat up a bit before shaking his head.

"It is still very early, just before dawn. He went for a walk by himself once he was able to slip by the guards. I saw him headed towards the hills overlooking the Kingdom. Likely arguing with himself if he is acting normally." Chesh rolled to his back and looked at her upside down. "Why do you ask?"

Alice stared at him. "Because we need to discuss this together. About what I'm going to do about you and what I'm going to do about Wonderland."

She was gone before the Cheshire could stop her, leaving only a faint scent of tulip perfume and rumpled bed sheets behind. The cat shifted on the dresser and looked out the half-moon window. Below, he could see the tents and shacks dotting the once barren forest landscape and walking between them all was Alice. Chesh tilted his head on the side and began to tap his tail thoughtfully on the dresser's edge. His eyes were drawn to the treetops in the distance and when they suddenly shuddered and began to wave in the opposite direction from a new wind, he hopped off the dresser and headed out the door to follow Alice into the forests.

Chapter Text

It didn't take Alice long to find Hatter though she dragged her feet and dawdled her way around the camp. The disturbing dream Unda had given her had Alice constantly looking over her shoulder, her fingers clenched tightly in her coat sleeves, and her eyes darting up to the treetops. But there was nothing to be so nervous about; no followers, no strange rumblings in the ground that signalled something more nefarious. The forest, even with all the people having camped along its edges, felt very still and silent.

Too silent by far, Alice thought, when I know we're nothing more than sitting ducks even here.

Alice picked her way past the remnants of Charlie's old camp, with its old bed-frames, water mills and old artefacts still lay strewn around in a haphazard fashion. His security system was almost in tatters from the constant traipsing of people and animals and Alice looked up at one of the larger trees. There was a guard sitting up, very high, in the pines, but whether he was awake or not, Alice wasn't sure. A slight flutter of movement caught her attention and she looked up higher to see that the crows were lining the trees the surrounded the massive hillside that led up to one of the clearings she remembered. They were almost forming an odd guiding path of their own, as they gathered on select branches, and Alice took it as a hint that Hatter had come this way.

Using a rather rusty memorization of Charlie's home, Alice found the old path that led to an impossible steep hill, and she began the long, difficult task of climbing up the crumbling dirt. Occasionally, she stumbled or had to take a bit of a rest. The hill wasn't large but it was steep and she remembered the last time when Hatter had followed her up this hill he'd been gasping for breath. She couldn't blame him. When her boot-toe snagged in the dirt and sent her tumbling to her knees, she found herself having to remember that she needed to keep going. She needed to speak to Hatter before the camp woke up and their legions of problems were added to.

She was breathing hard by the time she reached the crest of the hill and she staggered a little, pushing sweated hair off her forehead. The view, however, was well worth it. The hill overlooked a breathtaking vision of the Kingdom of Knights. The dawn's light was just touching the white and mossy-green statues in the distance, shimmering off the crumbling buildings and bridges that still remained. They were still untouched by the recent troubles of Wonderland and still looked abandoned. They were a testament to the struggles of Wonderland and, just looking at them, Alice felt a morbidness she hadn't known before.

For some reason, the sight now reminded her more of a carcass left to rot than that of a glorious ruin.

"I really need to stop thinking like Chesh," Alice muttered to herself and she took a few steps further up the small slope.

A soft snuff of air caught her attention and she looked over to see Guinevere standing nearby and cropping the grass with an air of contentment. She'd forgotten that Charlie liked to leave his horses to roam free among the grounds and Arthur was no doubt nearby. The mare had probably travelled up the hill to find the fresher grass not yet touched by the bitter frosts still in the air. Alice scrunched her toes up in her boots and bit into her lower lip, eyes darting over the clearing when she remembered that Guinevere had probably not come here alone.

The horse's sounds were nothing compared to the soft muttering she could hear now. It was pitched so low that she hadn't heard it when she'd first arrived.

Standing in the middle of the hill's clearing was Hatter, his hat pulled low over his forehead though his head was lifted higher. His hands were held at his sides but he was constantly wiggling and stretching the fingers of his right hand in a thoughtful way. He was watching the distance and his coat collar was popped up to ward off the chill in the air. It was hard to see what his expression was, if he had any, with the way he was turned away from her. His dark grey and brown clothing almost blended with the surroundings and, other than his moving hands, he was so still that Alice was afraid to disturb him.

She twisted her fingers within the long sleeves of her coat and chewed on her lower lip again before she started to rock back and forth on her heels. There was the possibility that he was doing something important...

"It's early for you to be up," Hatter said and Alice jumped at the suddenness of his voice. The lack of accent and inflection made her instantly wary and she took a step back. Sensing her hesitation, Hatter dropped his head and glanced over his shoulder at her. His eyebrows raised thoughtfully. "You okay?"

"Are you?" she replied. He did a three quarter turn and tilted his head on the side.

"Are you?" Hatter countered, dry humour in his voice. Alice crossed her arms over her chest and huffed impatiently. She hadn't come here to play games and he was clearly in the mood to annoy her.

"Do you have to do that?" Alice demanded. His eyebrows lowered and his lips pursed; Hatter read her tension very clearly even through the distance.

He walked to her and she looked away, her long hair swinging to the side of her face to hide her tense expression. Sighing, Hatter stared at her for a silent moment before reaching out and tucking her hair behind one ear. It made her feel more exposed and Alice focussed on one of the distance ruins to try to ignore him. When she resolutely kept her eyes on the skyline, he cupped her cheek and turned her face to his. Alice met his gaze with trepidation and didn't move away even when he lowered his mouth to hers. It was a mere press of warm flesh to warm flesh; like old friends greeting each other and still it was one that made her stomach still plummet to her knees. The kiss was fleeting, over before she could return it, and then he was moving back to where he had been staring out over the ruins. Finding her breath, Alice slowly made her way over to him.

"Are you okay?" she asked, feeling a bit like a broken record. He took in a deep breath and released it so slowly that she wondered if the question had bothered him. But then he was looking at her again, his eyes warm.

"I'm fine. Got over my little snit about Chesh." He rubbed his hands together to get rid of the cold. "But I still can't say I'm happy about it."

"I don't like the idea either but we'll need his magic. If he becomes more cat-like, which I have noticed, then we're going to lose another ally." Alice shook her head. "And we're running dangerously low on those, Hatter."

"Tell me about it. I think I've lost track of who we can trust and who we can't," he jibed and he dropped his eyes to the ground. "If you're sure, then I'll trust you on it."

Alice stared at his face, taking in the familiar lines of it. "But you were so angry."

"I was annoyed. Big difference. Maybe a little angry but mostly annoyed. Which can be close to the same thing for me, at times. I don't track my emotional state much lately." Hatter exhaled again and rubbed at the back of his neck. His eyes still didn't lift from the ground. "But then I remembered that you've got quite the mind of your own. No matter what I say, when you make up that mind of yours, there's little I can say to change it."

Though he likely meant it affectionately, Alice realized just how unfair it made her sound. However, she knew that it was one of her flaws and it was not something she was proud of. Alice had been independent for a long time and it was a hard habit to break when pain and struggles reared their ugly heads. She'd been forced to take so many decisions into her own hands during their separation that she'd forgotten that once again she had a partner who cared for her. Who'd shared in the struggles she'd undergone before in the Taiga and had dealt with his own as well. Chesh had become very much her responsibility that she'd taken it for granted that Hatter just did not want to know her plans.

The stark realization that she was almost being untrusting once again made her reach out and take his hand.

"Hatter... if you truly think this is a bad idea, I'll change my mind." He gave her a surprised look and she looked at his chin instead of his eyes, not daring to look higher. "I just... Where Chesh is concerned, I get worried that none of us really know what to expect."

Hatter shook his head.

"This is Wonderland, remember? We live day to day not knowing what to expect. But I do trust your opinion, Alice. I'll stand by you for it if you think it needs to be done. You just have to ask me to help you. I hope we don't keep things from each other like this much longer. We don't need to keep doin' this dance," Hatter answered but his eyes had dropped to the ground again as if trying to tell her something. But his words caught her attention and Alice squeezed his hand to get him to look at her. When his attention was on her, Alice pulled his hand and let it rest against the tiny bump of her belly.

The smile he gave was slow but happy and he pressed his palm flat against her stomach. Alice watched his bowed head as he seemed to check her belly over and when she saw the scars on his neck, she remembered the threat of her dream.

"Hatter, you knew that this vision of Unda was Wonderland itself, didn't you?" she blurted out and he made a face, his hand dropping from her stomach. He looked like he'd just drunk a whole cup of bitterroot tea and the sight made Alice hold his hand tighter. "Please."

"I suspected early on that something was different. I remember seeing the ghosts of my father and grandfather at certain points. Still hear them rambling on in here." He tapped his temple with a finger. "But not once did I ever meet my grandmother on my moth...Abigail's side. Never saw a picture, nothin'. She was dead long before I was born," Hatter explained and waved his right hand in the air absently. "So how would I know who she was?"

Alice sorted out that distorted thinking slowly, remembering his reaction when he'd found out they'd both been dreaming of the same person. "But you suspected she was Wonderland."

"No. I knew she was Wonderland just using a woman's face. Some things you can't not know, after all; when the land's soul appears to you, you notice. The other pieces of just whose face she was using just sort of came together. She seemed to know me but in a distant way; but she acted as if she'd been planning something for me. The final pieces of the puzzle came together only a little while ago but especially when you brought me back and had me around the Drawling Master." Hatter shrugged. "My family is weird enough without thinking that the world's soul is related to me. It's Wonderland that's been talking to us. Maybe thought I'd react better if the body it used was related to me."

"Fair enough," she whispered.

He looked at her intently. "Why do you want to know?

Alice touched her stomach. "She wants something from me, from us. But she wasn't specific about it, just lots of threats but..."

"Alice, just what did she threaten?" Hatter asked forcefully and her hand clenched against her stomach.

"She just sort of hinted that she wanted my baby. But who knows?" Nervously, she pushed her hair behind her ears again. "I... she's been making my pregnancy a big deal in each dream I've had of her."

That caught his attention and he turned fully to her, grasping her shoulders tightly. "What did you say back?"

"'No' of course! What else could I say? 'Here! Take my baby and have fun?'" Alice retorted sarcastically and Hatter raised his hands in the air submissively.

"Easy. I'm just wondering, that's all." He looked her over. "Do you think there is anything different about this baby?"

"I've never been pregnant before, Hatter. What do you think I know?" Alice snapped wearily.

"You know we'll be on our own now, if she has been helping us."

"If she hurts my baby, I'll..." Alice started and Hatter raised his hand.

"We've got enough problems, Alice. We're going to have to figure that one out once Wonderland stops destroying itself because there's no conduits between worlds."

"Because Earth stabilizes Wonderland?" Alice guessed and he nodded, pleased that she had caught on.

"Which could be why she wants the baby. Bloodlines, destinies, and all that. But, like you said, who knows? Considering how bizarre this place, I wouldn't like to guess its motives. Cross that bridge when we come to it, I say. My mind's too full of schemes as it is." Hatter looked at the ground yet again and Alice, finally exasperated that he was easily distracted, looked down as well to see a brown satchel half-buried in the brush.

"Hatter, what is this?" she asked, bending to pick it up.

"Well, remember I hid it before? I gave it to Charlie so he'd have an extra lever for his traps. Charlie couldn't find a use for it right now because the amount of people around who might get snared in his traps and then when I said I wanted the bar I gave him, he handed it right over because I doubt he ever knew I gave the Sceptre to him in the first place," Hatter started and continued to ramble as Alice unwrapped the satchel carefully.

A rusted iron bar slid out and she dropped the leather bag in favour of holding it. The bar almost vibrated in her fingers and in a glimmer of light the iron became gold. Twisted up like a unicorn's horn, three sapphires crowned its head and almost hid the tiny compartment where the Stone of Wonderland would sit. Memories came back from the last time she'd held this; she'd not known how to use her glow before and it had been a mere guess on how to use it. Now, especially since she understood how to use her power, the Sceptre's potential power was seductive. The vibration of power only intensified under Alice's fingers and without thinking of it, she let a little bit of her glow out to test it.

A beam of pure blue light shot out and struck a nearby tree. It exploded in a shower of blue lilies and tulips, leaving them both speechless and sending crows flying up into the air to escape the blue light. Alice and Hatter stared at the scene stupidly as the flowers fell around them until the hill was carpeted with petals and stems. After a moment, they looked at each other, Alice sheepish and Hatter perplexed.

"That worked without the ring," he muttered. "Don't want to know what it's like with the ring if you're going to use it."

"Just wanted to be sure it worked," Alice answered, her voice childishly apologetic. Aware that he was still watching her intently, she quickly grabbed the satchel. Once she let the Sceptre go, it transformed back into an iron bar and the vibrating power was lost. The momentary hesitation she felt, the reluctance not to relinquish the pure power she could feel just holding the formidable weapon made Alice drop the satchel's cover quickly. Hatter eyed her warily, as if expecting her to snatch it back out and try to turn something else, but Alice gave him an overly bright smile and patted the bag.

"Thank you."

He inclined his head a bit and then looked out over the Kingdom. Alice turned as well, sunlight grazing her features in soft warm light and she sighed, tilting her head back a bit to enjoy its warmth. Hatter glanced and then stared at her with his attention riveted. His eyes followed the soft lines of her face, pale skin made tan in the light, her dark hair softly blowing back and forth in the chilly breeze, and then to the curves of her hip and legs. Alice's Southern riding dress, with its boned corset edges, blue lace trim and velvet skirts, suited her even more than her blue dress so long ago. While he'd always thought her beautiful, now, with magic still shining from her eyes, something about her now seemed more intensely and impossibly lovely. The gryphon mark on her neck shone and even her glow seemed stronger, her pale skin luminous and yet fragile.

Suddenly, she looked almost as wild and magical as a fairy creature.

Like she belonged here permanently and he knew what he had to do. He'd wanted to do it months ago but had never gathered his nerve. Their time in the South had only solidified his determination, once it'd become clear that Alice accepted him, madness and all, and that he needed her to keep sane.

Hatter's eyes were on Alice's face as he reached into his pocket, digging intently. At the sound of coins and keys jingling, she turned her own gaze from the distant statues of horse heads and chess pieces to his and she nearly froze at the intensity of his stare. The satchel fell from her numb fingers and landed on her toe but she didn't register the numbing pain of it. She flicked her tongue to the corner of her mouth thoughtfully and raised an eyebrow but he shook his head, still searching. Whatever he'd been fishing for he found fairly quickly, considering the amount of odd things he kept stashed in his pockets, but not once did his gaze waver. Alice felt her stomach turn to a pit of nervous at that look and she brushed her hair behind one ear while looking away again.

He turned something between his fingers and cleared his throat.

"I do trust you, Alice. More than I've trusted most people and it's been an adventure since the moment I've met you," he said. The phrasing seemed oddly formal for him and she looked up when he picked her hand up from her side. He turned her hand over so that her fingers pointed palm down towards his stomach. Alice could almost feel the crows and horse staring at them curiously and she blushed red when Hatter's fingers slipped over hers seductively. His fingers encircled hers, as if testing the length of them, and then he rolled something between his other fingers again.

"Hatter," Alice whispered, suddenly aware that this was not just Hatter thanking her for something. There was meaning behind this and her heart pounded painfully hard in her chest.

"It's probably the reason why I have no intention of letting you go. Why I've never wanted you to leave me."

"I'd never wanted to leave you," Alice answered lowly.

"I know. Which is why I needed to do this now, before we run headfirst in to danger, yet again." He exhaled slowly. "Jack did say that this meant more than just an old relic of Wonderland past."

He smiled at her crookedly and then slipped a tiny band of silver iron and black jewels onto her ring finger. It was done slowly and Alice had the strange feeling that it signified more than just a ring being put on her finger. Startled by its weight, she looked up at Hatter and then down at the ring. The Stone of Wonderland winked back up at her in the growing sunlight, the first brilliant rays of light dancing over the tiny jewels. The ring felt warm from Hatter's palm and she stared at it for a long silent moment before looking up at Hatter. While her logical brain was wanting to know how he got hold of it, her romantically illogical heart was a pile of mush.

"I think I'm making a promise to you, Alice. I'm not about to lose you for any reason. You've already had me since the moment you showed me what Oysters truly were. What I'd been missing all those years trying to be on my own," Hatter muttered, his voice edgy with excited nerves. Alice rolled the ring on her finger, closing her eyes and opening them again to be sure that this was real. She'd pictured a moment like this, once or twice in her life before, and had always thought she might just laugh it off.

But instead, she felt like laughing and crying, like jumping for joy and then falling to her knees.

"Hatter, I..." She stopped her self, aware that she was seeing her hand through a mist of tears. She sniffed and looked back up at him once she'd gotten control of herself once more.

Hatter was still staring intently at her, fingers still holding hers, and Alice felt like he had somehow captured her. After so long of keeping herself a little apart from people, she was ready to throw herself heart and soul into something that would have once terrified her. Even pregnancy had not terrified her as much as this. Judging by the look in his eyes, Hatter felt the same and his fingers slipped a little from hers.

He seemed, for a brief moment, certain that she was about to rip the ring off when her lips parted to speak again. But then Alice stepped into him and caught his lips with hers, stilling her own words since she couldn't trust herself to speak anyway. Hatter wrapped his arms tightly around her waist as he felt her hands go into his hair to hold him even closer. The kiss was deep and absorbing as Alice tucked her body up tighter against his so that their hips and stomachs almost felt locked together.

Between them, she could feel his fierce heartbeat pounding through his chest and matching her own racing heart. In an involuntary reaction, her glow suddenly expanded and wrapped itself around them until it made them both open their eyes. Alice gasped as Hatter's hand tightened on her hip and pulled her back into him, his mouth finding hers once more. She lost herself in the kiss, leaning up into him on her toes as she wrapped her arms tighter around his shoulders.

Behind Alice, one of the crows gave a discreet squawk and they broke apart slowly. Alice stared at the ring on her finger and then up at Hatter. He gave her the crooked grin she so loved and tipped his hat back a bit.

"Looks like my Alice addiction is going to be lifelong," he muttered as he looked down at her. Her hands still grasped his shoulders and Alice gave him a cheeky smile.

"Like you're complaining."

"Hardly." He cupped her cheek and smoothed his thumb over the soft skin. "My Alice."

Her eyes almost fluttered closed, a faint rising of tears starting again. Every ghost of doubt almost left in that moment, the lingering worry about his belief in her, in them, evaporated, and Hatter seemed to sense her sudden emotion.

"Hey, come on. It's not that bad." He tilted her chin up and smiled. "It's only a life sentence."

"It's forever and you know it," Alice pointed out and with a smile she shrugged. "And I'm not scared of that. Which is big for me."

He grinned, all at once lover and scoundrel. "How do you think I feel?"


"I was going to go with in love but that works, yeah." He pushed her hair behind her ear for her and smiled. "Thank you."

Alice only nodded and moved into him again, hugging him tightly around the shoulders. "I love you."

They stood in silence for a few more moments, the sounds of birds and horses the only intrusion on their peace, and Hatter closed his eyes as he rested his cheek against the top of her head. He could still feel her glow surrounding him, erasing his own doubts and pain and he let it seep into his body.

"No matter what you think you have to do," Hatter whispered, knowing that their earlier argument might be fresh in her mind, "I'll help you see it through."

"And no matter what you have to do, I'll help you," Alice agreed. Her hand stole down and clutched around his, so tight that he could feel the ring pressing into his fingers.

"Time to take back Wonderland?" he asked and she smiled.

"Time to take back Wonderland," she agreed and then pulled him after her down to the camp.


Alice walked through the trees, becoming more and more aware of Hatter walking just behind her. Every step made her feel the slow build-up of tension that went from the pit of her stomach and up her shoulders. Even her skin felt a bit more sensitive, so that the soft breeze made goose-bumps go up and down her arms. Not sure why, she cleared her throat and pulled her coat tighter around her body.

But still the feeling was there and the warmth of her coat did not ease the sensations going up and down her spine.

Brushing her hair out of her eyes, Alice looked back over her shoulder and saw that Hatter wasn't paying attention to her. He was looking over their surroundings intently and she bit into her lip thoughtfully. Maybe she was imagining things.

But then his eyes swung to hers. Immediately, she saw a dark heat in his eyes that sent her stomach to her knees and brought heat flushing through her entire body.

She paused mid-stride before turning a slow circle around the small patch of woods they'd taken as a shortcut back to the camp. Her eyes flicked to their surroundings and then back to his face as he walked, stalked, towards her. She barely had time to catch her breath or even guess his intentions when Hatter caught up to her. His hand grabbed hold of her wrist, his fingers cool even through the thick protection of her coat, and he pulled, swinging her so hard that she collided against him with a solid thump.

His legs staggered to take her weight and she felt herself drop further into him so that her body was cradled by his. Alice dropped the satchel on the ground thoughtlessly, her body numbed by the suddenness of his movement. Hatter's mouth crashed down on hers and she leaned up to meet his kiss eagerly. Ignoring his faint murmur against her lips, she knocked his hat off and dove her fingers into his hair, clenching her fingers tight in the thick strands to hold him still. His grip was tight on her waist as he hauled her in even closer so that she felt every inch of his body and there was no doubt to her then that he wanted her as badly as she wanted him.

Hatter dragged his mouth away from hers and pressed his lips against her throbbing pulse while she gasped for breath. Her eyes shut as he sucked on the tender portion of skin and a soft, strangled sound escaped her lips. They staggered backwards until her back met the rough ridges of a tree trunk and his one hand slide down to cup her knee and drag it up against his hip. The soft folds of her riding skirt parted around his legs and he groaned while he pushed up against her blindly. The intensity he felt was almost mind-numbing when he felt Alice's nails rake against his scalp and he bit at her neck to hear her moan once more.

Reaching down between them, he pushed her coat over her shoulders as he continued to kiss her neck and collarbone and with a flick of his wrist he threw it over the satchel nearby. Her skin felt cool under his touch but her body moved eagerly against his, her breathing loud in his ear when she bent her head to whisper nonsensically in his ear. Hatter smiled against her shoulder and his nimble fingers undid the clasps holding her boned bodice together before she could react. The bodice's hidden clasps parted and snapped loudly, almost echoing in the silent woods. Alice's hair swung around them as he boosted her up higher against the tree. He felt her fingers tug his hair and he lifted his face to hers, his own hands still holding her bodice together. Alice stared at him for a moment before her hands went to clasp his face between them and she held him steady while she kissed him.

Hatter broke away for air, his eyes almost dancing with heat and amusement though his breathing was harsh and loud.

"Want to hear a truth?"

Alice groaned and rotated her hips impatiently, brushing up against his erection to show just what she thought of conversation right now. "As long as you don't stop, I'd hear a lie right now and be content, if you must know."

"No no. You might be interested in knowing this," he insisted and she sighed. Alice almost wondered if she looked silly, with her bodice hanging on her arms and her slitted riding skirt shoved up around her waist. But Hatter seemed determined to tell her something and from experience she knew it was better to let him speak his mind. Even now.

Reaching between them, she unbuttoned his shirt quickly and nodded for him to continue. Hatter's mouth dropped to her ear, his breath shaky and unbalanced as her fingers drew hot circles on his skin. Her chest heaved against his, her nipples hardening with each soft touch, and he lowered his head, biting and licking at her neck. Hatter's attention was diverted when he felt her trembling in his arms and he could feel her growing need. Alice's concentration was broken when he blew in her ear next and her fingers faltered as she came to one of the last buttons on his shirt.

"Know...know what?" she asked dizzily as his mouth went back to hers. His lips just hovered over hers and she groaned when he stayed just out of reach from her kiss.

"Do you remember the last time we were out here? Well, over a year and a half ago?" he questioned, leaning back from her though his hips still braced her up against the tree. His hands trailed up her ribs and then covered her breasts, smoothing circles over the soft curves he found. It sent hot chills up and down her spine.

"When I worried you weren't coming back from your rendezvous with Dormie about Caterpillar?" Her breathing hitched as he bent his head and flicked his tongue across the top of her breast. The bodice still hung off her arms and she lowered her hands to shrug it off.

"Yeah." Hatter pressed his lips against her collarbone and she felt his tongue lap at her skin whenever he spoke. "I stared up at you, from the base of the hill, and decided then and there that if I didn't control myself..."

He growled, his own focus when she put her hands back in his hair and raked her nails against his scalp gently. Alice arched her back and braced her foot on the tree trunk, pushing back at him though he still held her too tightly for her to move far.

"That if you didn't control yourself?" she prompted and he laughed against her throat. The vibration of it was not unpleasant and she smiled when he tightened his grip on her. "Hatter?"

"That one way or another, one of us was going to end up gettin' rid of the tension between us."

"You tried to kiss me then," she pointed out and he lifted his head enough to kiss her on the corner of her mouth.

"So I did. As I recall, you leaned in as well." He turned her face toward him and put his lips over hers, tongue twisting with hers as he deepened the kiss. She moaned but before she could truly return the kiss he was moving back, a grin on his face when he saw her open disappointment. "And if Jack hadn't interrupted us, I likely would have put you on one of Charlie's old beds, creaks and all, and had you very early on in our relationship."

"I might not have wanted that," Alice moaned as his hand caressed the underside of her breast. His thumb strummed her nipple and he made a delighted hum when it hardened further under his touch instantly.

"No? You saying you didn't want me?"

She made a faint sound at the casual way he said it. "I...I... Never said that. Thing is... the harder I fought with how much I wanted you, the more intense the feelings got."

She tugged his head back to her neck and pushed her breast up to his hand.

"Must be my sex appeal," Hatter groaned against her neck as she ground her hips against him.

"Very likely."

Laughing, he kissed her again. The playful kiss deepened and he poured his desire into the kiss with a thoroughness that stole her breath, and with another moan she reached down and unbuckled his belt. "Wonderland how I still want you," Hatter said as he broke the kiss and rested his forehead against hers.

She trembled, staring into his eyes wonderingly. "I know the feeling."

Alice glanced around them and blushed. "But we're in the woods, Hatter."

"You're right," Hatter answered and he shrugged off his coat before she could move to help him. He whipped it to the ground and grabbed her hands before they could reach under his shirt like she intended. She whirled about in his arms as he spun and sat roughly down on his coat. Alice laughed in surprise and he pulled her down onto his lap so that her skirts were spread around them.

She tilted her head back and he kissed along the pale column of her throat, his fingers wrapping in her dark hair. It fell like a silken curtain around them when she lowered her head and kissed his mouth ravenously. His moan was almost muted when she flicked her tongue past his lips, and Alice felt his tongue stroke against hers teasingly. Her breasts rubbed against his bare chest and she pushed his shirt off his shoulders so that it soon joined his coat under them. Moving her lips to his now bare shoulders, she traced one of the scars she found gently before leaning back and looking at him.

Hatter grinned at her. "Just means we'll need to be quick, wouldn't you say?"

She nodded speechlessly, not trusting her voice anyway, and reached between them to unbutton his trousers. The worn material was as soft as the skin beneath them and she hesitated for only a moment before clearing her throat and eyeing him meaningfully. He shifted his hips to help her shove them down a bit farther. When she came back to sit on his lap, one of his hands slid up under her skirts to part them better around his hips.

The position made her sink even further against him and his grin widened when she spread her knees wider to get comfortable. It left her exposed, more than she realized. Alice jerked her hips into his when his fingers brushed her wet core through her underwear and he tugged it to the side while he lowered his head and sucked a nipple into his mouth. Her moan was loud even to her own ears and he growled when she ground down against his fingers, making him harder when she moved just right against his lap. They used her leverage to wiggle the underwear from under her and Hatter tossed it aside with a flourish, still grinning at her when she gave him a look for being so careless.

Alice lifted her hands and pushed hard on his shoulders so that he fell back against the ground, cushioned by leaves and his coat. He felt only a little of the discomfort caused by the twigs in his hair and the ones poking him in his back despite the coat's protection. It faded to when she smiled at him and lifted her hips, so he let his eyes close. Alice's head fell back as she sunk down onto him, every inch throbbing through her lower body till she felt almost faint from the sensation.

She wasn't sure who groaned louder, him or her.

"Will it always be so intense?" she whispered as her body shuddered on top of his in a slow rocking motion. She opened her eyes and peered down at him.

Hatter's eyes were shut but he answered her anyway, "I hope so, luv."

She leaned back again, hands braced on his legs as she moved her hips in quick rhythm that he matched as best as he could. The smooth motion of her hips was one they both knew well and Alice trembled as she felt him drive deep inside her. Her back bent into a bow, one that he supported with a hand trailing down her breasts. His fingers slid around her nipples, caressing her lightly but it was enough so that her breathy moans soon deepened. Alice set her own rhythm, her body's demands driving her on and on, and Hatter lifted himself to a sitting position when the sensation became almost too much.

She groaned loudly, bending over to kiss him as they rocked together. Hatter wrapped his arms around her waist and jerked his pelvis up at hers repeatedly. Her own arms were trapped between them but she bit into his lip hard. He slowed his movements down, knowing what she wanted by the way insistent way she kissed him. Her hips circled and ground down on his, forcing him deeper and deeper inside of her. Moaning when her fingers pushed at his chest, Hatter lay back down and guided her hips with his hands instead.

Alice trembled under the strain of keeping the rhythm, her breathing fast and growing louder as the tension built up in her body. Every inch and nerve in her body felt like it was on fire and she cried out sharply when her body pulsed with a fierce shimmer of pleasure. Her skin felt hot wherever he touched her and she raked her nails down his stomach to where they were joined, feeling the muscles in his body tense at the sharp feeling. But it felt strangely empowering to be teasing him like this and she chuckled deeply when he groaned out loud before cursing when her hips slowed. She repeated the movement over and over again, the harsh downward thrust almost matched by her more sensuous, tight lift back up.

Hatter's control snapped when her teasing became too much for him, his own orgasm just dangling out of reach, and he looked up at her. She grinned at him with a glazed expression, so lost in her own desire though he could see her need shining in her hungry eyes. Growling under his breath, he jack-knifed up, gripping her by the back of her neck and twisting them around before she could think to fight him. He pressed her down under him into the ground, moving his mouth onto hers when she cried out in protest. He ignored her, grabbing her one leg under the knee and pressing it back under his elbow so that Alice was more open to him. His hips began to move urgently against hers and she moaned as he touched deeper and deeper, her head dropping back to the ground.

Satisfied that she wasn't about to struggle, he flicked his tongue against the ridge of her throat, tracing a hot path that led from her jugular to her breasts. Alice cried out again, her head thrown further back to bare more of herself to him, and her hips moved impatiently under his. It was a painful squeeze in her body now and Hatter felt it drumming through her body with the same intensity that he felt. Alice's hands lifted and grasped his upper arms so tightly that he had to jerk his arms free and braced them over her head. She struggled under him, biting and licking at his earlobe when he began to move harder into her. Each thrust felt like it went through her entire body and she cried out repeatedly when it drove the tension inside her to painful pleasure.

"I'm so close," she sobbed against his neck, one hand reaching up and gripping him by his hair. Hatter didn't answer her, lifting up on his arms to make his thrusts harder and deeper. Her body shook under the force of his thrusts and he kept the pace, feeling her body start to throb and pulse around him. The tight squeeze of her body around him almost made his mind feel blissfully blank but his own body had a will of its own.

She heard him cry out but she went over the edge first, a blinding sensation of light and rippling muscles that sent her orgasm racing through her body from head to toe. It seemed like every beam of the dawn's sunlight was flashing against her closed eyelids and down through all of her nerve-endings. Alice cried out loudly and her arms flung out to grasp him tightly around the shoulders so she could hold on. Hatter's thrusts became even harder as he drove himself to his own release, his fingers gripping the grass and dirt underneath the coat beside her head. Alice's nails raked across his shoulders, hard enough to sting and leave marks, and then her mouth went to his. He felt her cry out again against his lips and with an almost anguished groan he jerked on top of her, letting go of his control as he emptied himself into her.

Even as it pulsed through his body, he let himself collapse on top of Alice and her embrace was welcoming. His tension fled from his body, leaving him feeling boneless and exhausted, and when she shifted under him he wasn't sure he could move. Her legs fell uselessly from his hips and he felt the tight clench of her nails eventually loosen as well. The feeling came back quickly to his own legs but his breathing was still heavy and strained, and he felt like he'd just finished a mile long sprint. But he couldn't bring himself to move, not yet.

Alice's chest heaved for breath and he lifted his head to look at her. She smiled at him, a satisfied smile that matched his own, before reaching out and pushing his hair from his eyes. He grinned cheekily at her, reminding her of a self-satisfied cat who'd caught a mouse.

"You know," Hatter began before clearing his throat. "I think if we'd done that, if we'd kissed..."

"Yeah?" Alice asked, her voice husky from her earlier cries. Hatter's grin widened and he was arrogantly satisfied when he saw the completely satiation in her expression. Her hips shifted under his and he caught his breath, shutting his eyes to maintain his focus.

"If we'd done this back then, we'd have never left the Kingdom of Knights in the first place. There wouldn't be a revolution to help Jack to the throne, no chance of helping the Resistance. And poor Charlie would have had an eyeful," he joked and she snorted as she tried to control the laughter threatening to bubble up. Hatter smirked and tickled her side with one finger. "Can you just imagine Charlie's face if he'd found us like this back then? Or worse, what he'd say?"

That did the trick. Alice couldn't hold it back any longer and she looked away as she started to laugh. Her giggles infectious enough that he soon laughed as well, unable to resist smoothing his hands over her body. When the temptation became too much, he kissed her mid-laugh, and she relaxed into his hold willingly. It was a gentle kiss compared to their earlier hunger and they broke apart with a mutual sigh of contentment.

"I don't think I'll ever get enough of these moments," Hatter commented and Alice nodded, raising her hands over her head to stretch her arms and ease the ache she felt. It pushed her breasts into his chest and made him suck in a sharp breath. She grinned and wriggled her hips to tease him.

"Me either..." she admitted, lowering one hand to trail over his cheek. She smoothed a finger over his lips and he kissed it gently. "But we have a lifetime for this, Hatter."

He nodded, a smug grin on his face. "I'll hold you to that, luv."

"You'd better," she answered. They lay in silence for several long minutes, still wrapped up in one another and smiling like fools. Hatter enjoyed the sight of Alice lying beneath him among the grass and leaves, his coat rumpled beneath her while sunlight danced over her skin. He was opening his mouth to say so when her brow suddenly furrowed and her smile faded.

It was Alice who felt the sudden rumbling underneath her body and she lifted her head a little to make sure she wasn't imagining things. Hatter felt the next tremor beneath his hands and with a disappointed groan, he stared at Alice. As much as he didn't want to leave the warmth of her body, he disentangled himself quickly.

"It never lasts long enough," he whispered to himself as he put his hat back on his head and set about fixing his clothing. Alice heard him though and sent his back a rueful smile as she stood up and looked for her clothing in the grass. Hatter dressed quickly, having little to do except button up, and turned to help her. Alice snatched her underwear out of his hand when he dangled them at her. It was hard to ignore the satisfied look he gave her when she wriggled the panties back on.

"Turn around," Hatter murmured and she eyed him as he dangled her bodice from a finger to show her his intentions. As he slid the bodice around her front, his fingers brushed over her pale breasts. Alice bit back the urge to moan, his touch still igniting her when her skin still felt hyper-sensitive to his touch. Hatter didn't look up as he expertly redid the clasps of her bodice before stepping away from her. It took him a moment to find her coat and the satchel and he handed them over to her shaky hands.

Once she was warmly wrapped up again, Alice reached out and grasped him by his hand. She turned Hatter into her and when he finally looked at her, Alice stood on her tiptoes and pressed her mouth against his. He kissed her deeply, so hungry and hot that she almost forgot the rumbling under their feet, and it was a long few minutes before she pulled away.

"We'll find time to make it long enough soon," she promised him. He nodded, satisfied with that answer, before bending to grab the satchel they'd left at the base of the tree.

"I know, Alice. Keeps me going, so to speak." He winked at her rakishly and Alice rolled her eyes playfully. Hatter's hand gripped hers again just the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Alice looked at him, worried, and he shrugged with a casualness he didn't quite feel. "Let's see what this is all about then." He set off at a jog and she picked up the pace beside him. Their brief time together was almost forgotten with the sudden fear that the camp was under attack.

Carol woke with a pounding headache and sore feet for the third week in a row. Groaning, she sat up and pressed the heel of her hand against the bridge of her nose. The room swam in her vision and the exhaustion she felt was so palpable that she was certain if she pushed a bit harder on her face, she'd fall back onto the bed. The soft cotton sheets crinkled as she pushed them off her legs and bowed her head low.

"I think I'm getting too old for this," she muttered to herself. Certainly since she'd come to this strange place, everything in her had felt drained and worn out. She'd tried to hide it from Alice but it was like something was leeching her strength. She'd just dreamt of being a soda with a straw sticking out of her while a thousand people drank from her, one by one.

It felt real enough to leave her shaky and tired even after hours of sleep.

Yawning, she put her feet to the floor and wiggled her grey toes. So strange, Carol thought, that after how many weeks after she'd nearly fallen into the conduit vat her toes were still not the right colour. She rotated her ankles and wiggled her toes but there was no change in colour. Still, she had feeling in them and that was better than nothing.

Planting her hands on her knees, Carol pushed herself up and stood in the centre of the tiny room. The strange little Inn was humming with sound as people moved around it, trying to be quiet but failing completely. Carol winced with every banged pot and pan and eventually made it over to one of her windows, cracking it open.

A blast of cold wind made her teeth chatter and her skin bristled with a fresh crop of goose-bumps. Lowering her head a bit, Carol leaned out and sucked in a lungful of the chilly air. It almost made her feel light-headed and with a sigh, she opened her eyes and stared out over the yard. The distant tents that dotted the forest were all quivering though the breeze wasn't that strong and she frowned thoughtfully.

What is with Wonderland's almost insane weather patterns? She thought to herself grumpily.

The thought left her quickly when the basin of water left on the low night table began to clatter. She glanced at it as it shivered and leapt about on the wood, until finally falling over the edge in a mess of ceramic and water. The urge to throw herself under her bed was almost childish but the building's tremors weren't terrible. She'd grown up in the city after all, where jackhammers and construction made buildings do this all the time.

Clasping her hands tightly on the window-frame, Carol braced herself again and stared out into the clearing in shock. She could make out Abel and Abigail near the paths leading to the lake, both returning from some sort of conference they must have been having, and she waved desperately, hoping they'd know what she meant. They both stopped, hundred of feet from the inn, and stared at her. Carol opened her mouth to shout but was drowned out instantly by the loud pops and cracks of explosions being let loose all around the campsite, until the very air itself was thick with smoke and fire.

The deafening loud screams made Carol lean further out the window as the ground around the tavern, the ground that led to the forests was exploding upwards in almost fountains of dirt. People and animals were running in a mass panic, but at the very centre, separating the hills from the clearing, the earth was caving in. But there were no signs of some deeper caves or valleys.

Just a gaping darkness.

In absolute horror, she watched as the ground caved in on itself, a rumbling roar of shifting earth and fiery explosions following it. The people who had panicked and were running desperately were not going to make it. They were running against something too fast and before her eyes they began to fall through the ground. That the Inn was still safe and the explosions seemed to be placed methodically didn't matter to Carol. The sight of people falling and screaming was terrifying.

"Alice," Carol whispered, running out of her room to the larger bedroom across the hall. It was empty, the bed slept in and still unmade, and sheer panic made her stomach turn over. There was no sign of Hatter or Chesh either, and Alice wouldn't likely leave Hatter alone right now. Carol turned around and ran for the door. She exploded in a sprint down the stairs, tripping over her skirts and almost sliding down to her knees as she went from twisted landing to twisted landing. The house was shuddering, as if it was repelling something, and she felt the rooms actually tilt. The building seemed to be bracing itself against the tremors.

Gritting her teeth, she grabbed hold of the doorway leading out to the yard and yanked it open. She was only a foot out the door when a firm hand grabbed her shoulder and yanked her backwards.

"Let me go!" she yelled, kicking and struggling. But the Cook had a good hold on her and it meant nothing to the Cook that the younger woman was at least six inches taller and much lighter.

"If you go out there, my girl, you'll not be saving any lives, let alone yours."

"My daughter is out there!" Carol shouted and her other arm was grabbed by Charlie as he sprinted out of the kitchen to help his wife. "Charlie, tell her!"

The Knight looked at the Cook but she shook her head. "The Inn will protect us but its protection only goes so far, Charles."

"And I did swear to protect you, Ms. Hamilton."

She gaped at them both but there was no dislodging the firmness of their hold on her shoulders. Charlie and the Cook watched with her as the clearings caved in further until there was only a massive bowl of darkness carved out of once solid ground. The darkness of it was so deep that Carol saw no sign of those who had plunged to their deaths.

The air became eerily silent and with a pale drawn face she stared out over the dark chasm. It had ruptured the ground so completely that the only way over was the way that also led to the Kingdom of Knights, which Charlie had told her was several miles away. The ridges where Abel and Abigail stood were still connected to the land surrounding the Mock Turtle Inn and the refugee camp was mostly intact...except for the empty space between the hills and the inn.

Licking her suddenly dry lips, Carol watched for a sign of her daughter.

The sound of someone whistling caught her attention and she looked up into the distance. On one side of the chasm was Abel and Abigail, and on the other was Alice and Hatter. Hatter was whistling and waving his arms to get their attention and she felt a brief shot of relief that Alice was with him. They were both fine, from what she could see, and with a soft prayer of thanks, she waved back frantically. The Cheshire Cat appeared on a tree branch near Hatter's head and behind them, Carol could just see the outline of Hatter's horse.

The shouts of people and calls of animals finally moving from where they'd taken refuge made her look away. The signs of life were still there, thankfully, and she turned her attention back to Alice to see if she was finding a safe way across somehow. But Alice only waved her hand, pointing towards the lake paths and then giving another wave. The message was clear and Carol waved back again, her hand falling to her side in sad realization.

Alice was leaving her in presumably safe company.

When Carol looked over at Abel and Abigail, she saw that they were rallying the people on their side of the chasm. The people looked terrified and behind Carol, the Cook and Charlie slowly let her go, content that she was just not going to throw herself outside now.

"She's going to the City," Carol whispered. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"Incredibly," Charlie blurted out without thinking. The Cook dug her elbow into his side and he yelped, cupping his side in an offended way. "What was that for?"

The Cook ignored him and tucked her arm through Carol's. "Now don't you fret, child. Young Alice is a very capable young Oyster and the Hatter will protect her, I'm sure of it. We'll plan something, don't worry. Charlie will go help with the refugees; sortin' them out and the like."

She led her through to the warm, cozy kitchen. "Now, how about some Morning Oatmeal Tarts? You look like you need some plumping up and there's nothing like a cup of hot tea to make the world right again."

With little else she could do, Carol followed the stout little woman into the kitchen and wondered when she would see her daughter again.

Chapter Text

"This looks familiar," Alice said as she stood up to her ankles in the stream near the trail. It felt icy yet good against her sore feet, the almost endless miles of walking having blistered the back of her heels and the soles of her boots felt almost worn through from the rocky terrain. Hatter was stooped over, cupping water into his mouth to drink greedily and making a mess of his shirt. He was gingerly walking as well and Alice figured that he was likely feeling as sore as she was. He had been adamant that they save Guinevere's strength and, happily unburdened, the chestnut mare had followed them obediently through the forest paths that led along the lake. Alice at first hadn't minded but she did when the bottom of her feet went numb and she started to feel every rock jab at the bottom of her feet.

Hatter wiped away the drops of water from his lips and straightened up with a groan. "It should. We're on the South part of Old Forest Road."

She blinked, feeling a bit dim because it didn't ring a bell, and he grinned.

"We came here sometime in the last year, remember? Big metal lion? The one that nearly ate me?" he offered to jog her memory. Finally clueing in, she rolled her eyes.

"It did not."

"Felt like it did. Tried to bite into my hand and all, gave me a splittin' headache," Hatter answered but when she arched an expressive brow he gave up on trying to get sympathy from her. Instead, he looked around impatiently and pursed his lips. "Where's that mangy sack of..."

"Unlike you, I prefer to drink with more dignity," Chesh said as he materialized on a nearby boulder that was warm in the sun. He looked as if he'd actually had a tiring day. Chesh had taken to pouncing on field mice as they went and the cat-like behaviour had caught Alice's reluctant attention. He'd never shown such interest before. He had always been too dignified, but now it was like he couldn't help himself. Once the mice bored him, he had followed them along, sometimes appearing around the trees or bushes, other times perching on Guinevere's back. The mare had made her feelings about that apparent when she'd bucked him off but the Cheshire was persistent and more than a little lazy after his little excursions around them.

"You don't fancy a full bath?" Hatter asked, indicating the icy water rushing around their feet and the cat pulled a disgusted face.

"Absolutely not."

"Yet if you're a man, you'd want to," Hatter countered and Chesh's face almost twisted. Alice could have sworn if he'd been able to spit at Hatter, he would have.

"Bathing with just skin is one thing. Being doused with water when you are covered in thick fur is quite another."

He went back to licking his paws, effectively ending their banter and Hatter looked at Alice. She was eying the cat and tapping her fingers on her stomach thoughtfully. The glint of the ring on her slim finger caught in the sunlight and Hatter looked away at their saddle bags reluctantly. Just peeking out of the top of the one was the iron bar, rusted and old. Chesh hadn't noticed it but Hatter knew that Alice had felt its presence. She'd walked along beside him, almost too docile about it and had not mentioned it once. But she would take quick looks at Guinevere's saddle, would look away and then sigh. It was as if the pull of the Sceptre was tiring her and she might break under her own curiosity.

Giving himself a shake, Hatter resolved to keeping a stern eye on the situation. He knew better than Alice the lure of something so powerful; he had experienced it when he'd succumbed to madness. Madness that had made him feel stronger and without care, but it had ultimately been destructive. Alice now had two very strong pieces of Wonderland relics at her disposal and the temptation to use it would be strong.

He could only trust that she'd know what to do if something started to tempt her so strongly that she might ignore her own misgivings.

Exhaling slowly, Hatter picked his way over the slippery stones and climbed up the bank where Guinevere was grazing. The mare seemed unconcerned by their new travels and Hatter quickly checked her tack before eyeing the saddlebags longingly. It didn't help when he remembered that they were empty except for the Sceptre, a few quickly stashed weapons and some warmer clothing. His stomach was already growling with hunger and for the millionth time he wondered why he hadn't though to stash some emergency food.

Judging by the way Alice was rubbing her stomach and licking her lips, she was starting to get hungry as well. Neither of them had eaten before they'd left the Kingdom of Knights; though, Hatter allowed, neither had through the forest floor would cave in like that either. They'd been in such a rush that they'd forgotten some necessities and Hatter figured that they were going to pay for it now with being hungry. Not to mention very sore by the time they did stop for a real rest.

Oddly, for a pregnant woman, Alice didn't complain out loud about her discomfort. Midday had already come and gone and despite a few worried comments about her mother, she didn't have much to say. Hatter hadn't tried to lull her out of her quietness, since he'd needed to think on their situation himself. All conclusions were looking murky and he wasn't happy that realization.

"We need to get towards the City edges by nightfall," Hatter said and Alice jerked her head up.

"How? There's probably guards everywhere," she pointed out and he nodded.

"I'm still working on that problem," came the almost surly admission. "But I've got a good idea. We're close to the Ferry."

He tightened the girth and then swung up into the saddle easily. Guinevere twitched her tail impatiently, eager to go, and Hatter looked down the bank at Alice.

She was staring up at him, one hip cocked to the side and her eyes almost piercing. Hatter unconsciously swallowed and averted his own eyes.

"The Ferry? Toby Mouse's Ferry?"

"Well, rumour has it he's gone missin'...but his family might be around there."

Alice sighed and ran a hand through her hair.

"It's worth a shot, Alice," Hatter pointed out.

"Last time we had to trade something. What do you suggest we're going to trade now?" Alice asked as she started to climb up the bank towards him. Hatter shifted his reins to one hand and kicked his foot out of a stirrup.

"Not a clue." He reached for her hand, waited for her to get her foot in the stirrup, and then helped pull her up behind him. She settled against the cantle, hands gripping his waist loosely, and impatiently nudged his ribs. Hatter grinned. "I thought I'd appeal to his better nature."

"Toby has a better nature?" she countered, remembering the bad-tempered little man who had tried to barter for her. Thankfully they'd had another horse to trade instead.

Hatter shrugged. "I said I'd try." He whistled through his teeth at where Chesh was still cleaning himself meticulously. "Time to go, little flea-bag."

Chesh bristled defiantly and Hatter held up Alice's wrist to display the control bracelet she still wore. Even despite the distance, they both saw the way the cat's eyes nearly bugged out of his skull.

"Or would you like to see how many lives you got left?"

Chesh immediately came running up the hill, springing into the air and disappearing the moment his paws touched Alice's shoulders. Guinevere pinned her ears in irritation and gave a small hop to display her displeasure about the cat once more. Soothing her with a gentle hand, Hatter grinned and pretended not to notice Alice's annoyed huff when she was bounced around by the hop.

"Least it's a good day for a ride, eh?" he asked without expecting an answer, clicking to Guinevere and steering her down the path again.

The way to the Mouse Ferry became slowly familiar the further they went. The paths ran close to the river now, further from the open sight of the lake, and Hatter stopped acting as if every shadow was about to leap up and attack them. Finally able to relax, Alice took in the almost tranquil countryside as she swayed with Guinevere's easy canter. Hatter rode the mare so well that Alice barely felt any slight hitch in the gaits when he had to steer around a more complicated stand of trees. He would talk, mostly to Guinevere, sometimes to himself, and Alice let her eyes drift close as she enjoyed the feel of the sunlight and cool breeze. It was almost peaceful after a morning of destruction and she held onto Hatter's hips lightly to make sure she didn't fall off and ruin the quiet moment.

The paths went smoothly by, well-worn sand trails that went over the occasional stream and through the brush. Hatter felt Alice's relaxation and smiled to himself as he stroked his rein hand down Guinevere's neck. It almost felt shameful to be enjoying this moment when they'd just witnessed explosions and cave-ins, but he resolved to take Alice out riding more when this ended. He could do with more peaceful moments like these.

Guinever's pace slackened on her own as they came towards the river that fed into the Lake. The closest to the City, it was still far enough away that they could ride easily without fear of discovery. The Queen, Hatter figured, would have her men stationed at more well-known spots. He steered the mare over a few fallen logs and reined her around the brush carefully. Guinevere hesitated and snorted loudly at this new place and Hatter shushed her, feeling Alice stir at his back.

"We're close?" she asked fuzzily, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder before sitting up straighter and he nodded, already missing her warm embrace. He heard her yawn and then heard an accompanying cat-like yawn. Confused by the sound, he turned his head to see Chesh now perched between them, toying with a piece of leather string fraying off Hatter's saddle. He seemed so cat-like and consumed by it that Hatter had to do a double-take.

"I know," Alice muttered and he looked up at her. Her eyes were serious and reserved as they focussed on the cat. When she looked at Hatter, he almost looked away.

"Like I said, luv, it is all up to you," he said. She nodded and Hatter turned away to look around. The trees around them seemed darker than the others that they'd passed and this new sight made him wary. The smell in the air was of old charred wood, like that of a fireplace, and he gathered up his reins when Guinevere balked at moving forward.

"Whoa." He reined Guinevere over to a tree and carefully reached out. The black bark was charred under his fingers and when he pulled his hand back it was covered in soot. Wiping his fingers together, Hatter looked around them, turning Guinevere in a slow circle to get a better look.

"What is it?" Alice asked over the loud purr of the cat resting on her legs.

"Somethin' isn't right about this," Hatter answered, touching another tree. This time its bark was still warm to touch and when he pulled away a small chunk of it, embers were still glowing faintly. Throwing it to the ground, he nudged Guinevere in the ribs and they began their slow procession down the slope. The path was overridden with burnt bushes and trees and at first he thought a fire had gone through. But he noticed that the tops of the trees were still green and that the blackened bark of the tree wasn't uniform either. It went in jagged streaks like horizontal lightening bolts and some of the trees had been split in vertical halves.

"An explosion," he muttered to himself, wrinkling his nose at the burnt smell in the air.

"Hatter," Alice said and she pointed over his shoulder to the riverside they were approaching. "Wasn't that the place we saw last time?"

"Son of a momerath bitch," Hatter cursed out loud and he swung his leg over Guinevere's neck before jumping to the ground. Alice scooted forward in the saddle to catch the reins and, after a brief hesitation, urged the horse to follow him. The old deck to the Ferry was completely gone except for it's railing still implanted in the river bank. It left only pieces of debris floating near the riverbank, and the ferry itself was half-sunk, caught between two large rocks just peeking out from the river.

Hatter picked his way through the mess towards the skeletal remains of the tiny house. It had once been hidden by trees and bushes but the blast had destroyed most of them. He had to kick debris and wood out of his way but eventually he managed to stumble through the doorway. The house itself was only being held together by its frame work and pieces of thatched siding, and it creaked and groaned with even the softest gust of wind.

Standing in the door-frame, Hatter took in the destruction quickly. Someone had rummaged through and burnt almost all of the contents of the house's tiny main room. It was almost meticulously done and the sight disturbed his common sense. Toby would never be caught like this, not from what he remembered of him. The old Mouse wasn't that stupid. He always had that shotgun close at hand to at least get a good fight in yet there were no signs of any shotgun blasts.

Bending over, he ran his hand down an overturned table that was stained and burnt. The sticky warm fluid that almost painted it caused his stomach to turn but he resisted the urge to look away. The blood that came off on his fingers was still wet and he raised his hat off his eyes a bit to get a proper look.

Alice crept into the house behind him, having tethered Guinevere to the deck remains outside. She paused mid-step and stared at the damage with pitying eyes. "Hatter, I'm sorry. I know he was... sort of your friend."

He didn't answer her, merely raised his other hand to his mouth and stared thoughtfully around the room. Bracing his elbow on his bent knee, he tilted his head and looked at the walls curiously.

Alice righted a few chairs and checked for any signs of messages that might have been left behind. But there was nothing. Overturned dressers, clothes thrown around by the blast, papers charred at corners, but no signs of who had done the explosion. Or what they'd been wanting to accomplish by not only killing the Mouse but by destroying his home as well.

"Who would do this?" she asked aloud. "The Hearts? Dodo?"

Hatter looked over his shoulder at her. "Is there a log book? Toby recorded everyone he ever took on the ferries."

Alice rifled through the papers scattered around the floor and eventually shook her head in the negative. Hatter whistled under his breath and rubbed his jaw curiously.

"That's what I thought." Wiping his other hand off on his trousers, Hatter stood and went to the broken window. It had a perfect view of upriver and he could see that there was a path of bent branches and bushes along the river bank. The only person who would know these paths so thoroughly would be Toby but someone else must have come that way. Perhaps even known to Toby, for him not to open fire on them instantly.

Without saying a word, Hatter stepped out of the burnt building and slid down the embankment to the river's edge. Water splashed at the bottom of his trousers but he ignored the cold water as he followed the path of disturbed underbrush. Chesh was nearby, purring and meowing to himself. He was still playing with his bit of string and absolutely no help at all, a sight that made Hatter grit his teeth in annoyance.

Determined to find something to explain this, he squinted through the sunlight glinting off the water's surface. "Likely looking for something that I won't recognizes," Hatter muttered to himself and felt a painful throb at his temples.

"That something that you don't know means that something exists ," a chorus of voices echoed in his ears and he growled to himself to keep it down, rubbing at his temples to try to erase the sounds. When the clamour in his head died down, he breathed a sigh of relief and opened his eyes again.

The faint shine just resting in the riverbed, something that shone green under the dark blue of the river, caught his eye. Resisting the urge to shout in excitement, he forced himself to move slowly to keep from losing sight of it beneath the moving water and he bent to fish it out. The piece bit into his fingers and he hissed in pain, lifting it out gingerly.

"Hatter? Is something wrong?" Alice called out from the doorway of the house. She was watching him and Chesh with equal concern and when he turned toward her still holding the metal, she frowned. "Did you find out who did it?"

"No... not exactly." Hatter turned the metal over in his hand and she took a few steps out of the house to get a better look. "This is piece of Heart explosive. Jack showed me the designs on it last year when he was wanting new trade items from your world. Remember how I was in charge of goods exchanges for him? Well,... when we got along."


"Only people who knew of it would be Jack and me, maybe even a technician. Why would it be here?"

Alice stared at him. "The Queen has a lot of spies, Hatter."

"Yeah, I know," he answered but by the way he started to worry his lower lip Alice knew that he wasn't convinced. Hatter turned the piece of metal over in his hand. "Just doesn't seem right..."

"This whole place is a wreck," Alice pointed out and he nodded.

"And I think we were meant to think that it killed the Ferry's family. The blood is still wet in there, oddly. It's almost too perfect, isn't it?" Hatter waved his hand around them. "Dodo's men are more meticulous than this though. The place would have been completely wiped off the map. The Queen would merely bring Toby in to torture him. He's probably been kidnapped or something but they don't want us to know why."

"But why would they want Toby?" Alice asked, her brow furrowed thoughtfully. "No offence, but he wasn't exactly the brightest person I've ever met."

"Yeah, I know," Hatter agreed. He dropped the piece of metal and sighed. "We can't use a ferry to get into the Waterway Tunnels. So we're going to have to go another way."

"I don't like the sounds of this already."

"We'll be using the tunnels that run adjacent to the Sewers. Which aren't terribly safe. Sorry, luv." Hatter grimaced. "It's just a short distance here. We might even find some of the Resistance down there or Wonderland knows what else."

"So we'll need to be on high alert then," Alice finished for him. Hatter nodded and turned slowly to the cat sprawled on the ground, bouncing the string between his paws like a pet at play.

"We'll need extra pair of hands."

Alice sucked in a breath, catching on instantly to his meaning. "You're sure?"

"Couldn't be any less helpful than he is right now," he said gruffly. "Just do it."

She moved hesitantly, only picking up her pace when he gave her an impatient wave of the hand. Hatter waited with barely concealed agitation as Alice went to retrieve the iron bar from their saddlebags. At her touch, it flashed brilliantly as it transformed back into the sapphire crowned Sceptre and she sucked her lower lip into her mouth thoughtfully. The flash had sent a numbing sensation up her arm that left quickly but it still made her hesitant about using it. Still eyeing Hatter and half-expecting him to blurt out something cutting, Alice came back to his side.

"You're sure?" she asked again and he nodded, meeting her eyes finally and giving her an odd smile that didn't reach his eyes. Licking her lower lip again, she twisted the Stone of Wonderland off her finger and popped it into the tiny compartment in the Sceptre's gold rod. The Sceptre began to hum in almost musical tones, vibrating in her hand so hard that it took some strength to keep it still.

Alice cleared her throat nervously and looked at the reclining cat. Chesh didn't appear to notice her and she lifted the Sceptre. Staring at the cat, she remembered how he'd told her to use her glow and memories and feelings started to invade her calm facade. It wasn't hard to remember the pain he'd caused and her hand waved on its own accord, led by the power of the Sceptre.

Almost immediately, the cat was lifted into the air and with a yowl he was snapped completely upright, so that his legs were stretched from sky to ground. Beside Alice, Hatter kept looking between the two of them. He could see the look in Alice's eyes and knew she was being flooded by whatever power it was that made the Sceptre. He lifted his right hand so it hovered just under her arm, ready to try to yank the Sceptre out of her grip if necessary.

Alice swayed unsteadily on her feet. This was not like the usual warm flow of her own glow but a tidal wave of pain and memory. Memories of people who she wasn't and feelings she'd never experience. Power she'd never once felt before. Almost immediately she could hear the White Queen's wicked laughter in her ear.

"Alice, just focus," Hatter whispered as if sensing her growing distress and she focussed on the familiar nuances of his voice to steady herself. His breath was warm in her ear and she closed her eyes.

She remembered Chesh's sly words and manipulations but also of his odd type of help over the past month. She allowed that memory to dominate her thoughts and the gratefulness she had felt at the time. Her fingers clenched tightly around the handle and her nails dug into her own palm with a painful pinch. Her glow was so bright now that she could see it from beneath her closed lids and the sensation of being filled with power was heady, almost like being drunk. The sapphires that crowned the Sceptre began to glow as well and slowly blue light beamed out from them to wash over the suspended cat. He yowled loudly and Alice ignored the sound as she controlled the extent of the manipulation. She wanted him as a man but also wanted to be able to have him turn back into a cat and she pictured the sight in her mind of him changing. It felt more controlled this time and she found herself wielding it with more ease.

The yowl deepened in pitch and slowly lost its animalistic edges, becoming that of a man's scream. Hatter watched, incredulously as the cat's body twisted in the air. It was grotesque to watch as muscles lengthened, joints popped and bones cracked and reset themselves within the skin still growing on the body. Beneath the skin, Chesh's bones almost seemed to strain against their tight confines before resettling in new formation. The fur was even falling off, the tail disappearing, and still the magic poured out around the Cheshire's body to warp him to Alice's vision. To her memory of the odd man he had been.

Alice moaned softly under her breath as the strain of magic and glow started to act on her as well. She felt all at once tired and yet strong. The multitude of voices in her ears had melded to become little more than loud white noise and her ears popped at the volume of it. But the power was so tempting and fierce in her hands, and her fingers tightened around the Sceptre. It felt scalding hot under her fingers but she couldn't, wouldn't, let it go. Not when this felt so incredible.

She'd never been so in control in all of her life.

"Alice, that's enough, it's done," Hatter whispered as he watched the man be created and the cat completely disappear. Everything had settled where it should be though Chesh was still twisted back and forth in the air. But when the magic continued to pour out of the Sceptre, Hatter looked over at her and jerked his hand away from her. It was as if Alice was a lightening rod that was being continuously struck and he resisted the urge to shield his own eyes from the sight. Alice's eyes were still shut and the glow on her body was strong but beneath it Hatter could see how grey her skin was growing and the wind that her magic had stirred up was bitter cold.

"Alice!" Hatter hissed and he took her free hand in his. Her skin was like touching ice but he gripped her fingers tightly and squeezed. He softened his voice a bit and leaned close to her ear. "You can stop. Come on, luv."

She shivered at the feel of his breath in her ear and slowly opened her eyes. Her eyes were almost like twin sapphire jewels in her pale face and she squeezed his hand back hesitantly. Looking at the magic still raging out of the Sceptre, Alice blinked and swayed dizzily on her feet.

"Oh...right," she whispered and dropped her hand immediately, all at once turning her own glow off. The burning sensation left her hand and she coughed loudly to try to ease her dry throat. Even her eyes felt sore from being closed for so long. With a faint murmur, she clutched Hatter's hand to keep herself from falling. He looked at her curiously before they both turned and stared at the naked man lying on the riverbank. He looked unconscious, not even the loss of power waking him.

Glancing at Alice, Hatter breathed out a sigh of relief when the rest of the strong glow left her skin. She still looked grey though and ready to be sick. After a moment, she looked up at Hatter.

"You okay?" he asked, reaching out and cupping her cheek. She was damp with a cold sweat but her eyes were once again a normal blue. Alice smiled wearily at him before her eyes rolled up into her head and she fainted forward into his arms.

"I had to ask," Hatter whispered to himself as he caught her. The Sceptre fell uselessly from her fingers and transformed back into an iron bar, the ring falling out without the compartment there to hold it.

"Alice? Alice, speak to me," Hatter insisted. Her eyes fluttered but she remained unconscious. He smoothed his hand down her face; her skin was still too pale and her body was shivering out of reaction to the amount of magic she had used. Cursing under his breath about old magic, Hatter laid her on the ground as gently as he could. He muttered to himself as he quickly retrieved the ring and slipped it back onto her finger to make sure they didn't lose it.

Moving Alice was out of the question, since there was nowhere better to take her. The house was falling to pieces and the brush was likely no better than the riverbank. Kneeling at her side, Hatter took off his coat and bunched it under her head before testing her pulse and temperature again. Her heartbeat was strong but she was still cold and shaky. Frowning, Hatter dropped his hand to her stomach and rubbed a slow circle.

"You okay in there?" he asked softly, tapping his fingers against the tiny bump. He didn't expect an answer and instead he smoothed his hand over her stomach thoughtfully. Nothing felt different but this was just the outside. What if using the Sceptre had affected their child?

It was a thought he couldn't bear and instead he fixed his attention on the naked man nearby.

"Great. Two of them unconscious and only one of them I'd actually want to see naked. Fine mess, fine mess." Hatter rubbed at his jaw thoughtfully. He could scrounge up clothing for Chesh from the remains of the house, he was sure of it, but what to do until they both woke up? He couldn't just sit out here talking to himself; he already did that quite enough.

Letting his eyes roam over the treetops, Hatter thought carefully. He'd need to send word to the City to Pidge, to at least alert him of what was going on, and he should also warn Abel that the Ferry was now out of the question and they had to go in through the Sewer-side Tunnels. But how?

There was a flutter of movement in the trees and he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Whistling through his teeth, Hatter held out his hand and gestured.

"I know you are all up there. You've been following us for this long now," he called out. Hesitantly, a pair of crows appeared from the dark foliage, hopping on the tree branches. They both looked down at him from their higher place and squawked as if in greeting.

Hatter cocked his head on the side, staring back at them and feeling just a bit ridiculous for speaking to birds. "You've helped us this far. Would you mind makin' a trip to the City and back towards the Wabe?"

They flew down from the tree branches and took up spots on the destroyed deck railing near Guinevere. Watching them carefully to be sure they didn't fly off, Hatter went into the house and found a piece of charcoal and several scraps of paper not completely destroyed. He scrawled carefully on the papers, letting them know that the ferry was gone and the only way in might be the Sewer tunnels. He couldn't write much more than that on the crumbling paper. For a moment he debated on signing his name but knew better. Though his writing was almost unrecognizable thanks to the charcoal's messy edges, he couldn't chance it and hoped they'd realize it was from him if the crows carried the messages.

The crows both watched him with interest as he rolled the pieces of paper up. Satisfied with his messages, he pointed at one crow and felt all the more ridiculous because he remembered how Alice had given them orders once. Wincing, he held up the tiny rolls in his other hand.

"First boy," he mumbled and the first crow squawked, hopping closer to him. Blinking, Hatter held out the paper to the bird and it was snatched out of his hand by a sharp beak. "I need you to find the Drawling Master. Give him that."

He might have felt stupid for giving the bird such a direct order but the crow didn't appear to think that he was. It batted its wings and took off into the sky like a black rocket. Hatter watched it and then looked back at the other crow. It cocked its head curiously at him.

"Next boy," Hatter ordered, his voice a bit stronger now that he didn't feel so foolish. The bird squawked immediately and took the roll of paper in its beak. "Go to Pidge, in the City. He'll likely be around the Ouest Quadrant...the old section nearer to the waterways."

Like its brother, the bird flew off without any ordering and Hatter stepped back to watch its flight. He pushed his hat back a bit on his head and sighed loudly. Rocking back and forth on his heels, Hatter clicked his tongue and shook his head.

"Right. Talkin' to birds, hopin' they know how to be messengers, watchin' cats get changed to men... and I'm not supposed to be crazy."

Guinevere snorted from her place beside him and Hatter looked at her.

"Who asked your opinion?" he asked with a grin and when she whinnied loudly at him, he laughed.

The crow headed for the Forest found its mark easily. It had remembered the Drawling Master well and with some devotion. The Drawling Master had been one of the first, after the Alice of course, to show the crows any sign of respect and friendship. He'd even given some of them a home in the South and the crows didn't forget things like that. It flew fast and hard, determined to help in anyway.

The crow flying to the City was not so lucky.

The bird was flying higher and longer than normal. It was a slower trip for it, since it was trying to remember its way through the Cityscape without getting lost. It was twisting in the sky, tired from a long flight and growing careless with it. The crow had thought it had seen its mark earlier but it had been someone else and it had only just escaped being caught in a rat trap.

Circling a tall building and gazing down at the almost empty high streets, the bird squawked to itself. It caught a warm thermal wind and spiralled around the building. It took several passed before it spotted the dark haired man it was familiar with and the crow started its slow descent towards him.

Only vaguely did it hear the blasting sound of a rifle and the pain in its tired breast was almost an afterthought before it died instantly.

The Club Ace on guard duty ran underneath the bird, watching the quick descent as the dead crow fell towards the roof where he stood. He had a sack outstretched as he wove and ran to try to catch the body before it went over the edge of the building it had been flying over. The gunner Ace, a Diamond, was reloading his rifle and watching as his companion caught the bird in his sack and swung it over his shoulder.

The other man made disgusted scowl as he picked the bird out of the bag. He gave its body a cursory glance before focussing on the piece of paper in its beak. He wrenched its beak open and then dropped the bird over the side of the building once he had the message it had held so tightly. He felt no guilt at the crow's death; to him, he had more important things to worry about.

Like keeping his head, for starters.

"So why do you think the Queen told us to watch for any crows?" the Diamond reloading his gun asked as he came up beside the other Ace. "Seems rather... strange."

The Club Ace shrugged. "Heard stranger things. You've seen the creatures roaming these streets. These days are getting stranger and stranger when the wilds start invading Wonderland City."

"Fair enough. What's it say?" the Diamond asked as the Club unrolled the piece of paper. He read it quickly, deciphering the smudged print to the best of his ability.

"Looks like a Resistance member getting ready to move people into the Tunnels." He carefully pocketed the note. "I'll get this to the Queen."

The Diamond shrugged. "Suits me. I won't go near her if you pay me."

The Club made a face but walked to the roof ladder that led to the lower City. The Diamond watched him and then looked back up at the skies warily. If crows were seen as a royal threat, what next? Jabberwocks?

Chapter Text

Wonderland City was silent and so still and perversely tense that Pidge was certain that if he shot a gun off, it would echo through every street and alley. Yet it wasn't that unusual for the darker regions of the City to be so still. Only tiny differences made him walk with a bit more caution than normal. The high streets were as crumbling and decayed as usual but the ladders that led from street to street were now covered in vines and ice. It was making his journey to the Ouest Quadrant more and more dangerous as the winds became colder and the streets more treacherous. It was familiar though; the Wonderland City Pidge remembered from his infrequent trips North were of a decaying metropolis. The City had been badly neglected during the previous Heart reign; their focus had been the Casino and the harvesting of captured Oysters.

Wonderland City had merely become the ruin that they had allowed it to become.

After Jack's ascension to the throne, much of the population had returned to the City during that seemingly safe new reign of Jack Heart and thought that they were safe. Pidge could still see the signs of the sudden influx of people but now they meant much more. The City had struggled under the mixture of police state and terrified populace. Rumours flew; of limited food supplies, sorcery, wild creatures that roamed the streets and people disappearing in the middle of the night. Pidge had a fair idea of how much of the stories were true and how many were incredulous fabrications. He had seen the people lining up to get food but there was no actual shortages. People went missing all the time in Wonderland City, with or without Heart influence. But as to the wilds encroaching on the City... that was true. He'd seen the creatures and quickly growing trees himself.

But even all this growth and wildlife meant nothing that Pidge could see. The City was dying once more and with each terrible tremor or Lake storm, more of it succumbed to destruction.

Yet the Ouest quadrant, closer to the West and safely tucked deeper in the heart of the City, hadn't been as damaged by the tremors or storms. So it made sense that more people had come here for shelter. Word had it that thousands had moved around and abandoned the outer edges of the City. Pidge had heard of the numbers but there were no signs of it.

Every street he walked down had been empty.

Pressing himself against one of the cracked walls of a dark brick alley, Pidge peered through the shadows and watched the streets all around him. They were so empty that he knew he'd stand out if he just went strutting through likely he normally did. Normal, law-abiding Wonderlanders were frightened and wouldn't risk being caught out in the open. Pidge exhaled sharply and made a face. He'd attract more than a few of the Suits that were moving around; Scarabs were hovering low over the streets, going from level to level and shining lights down each of them. There were even Flamingos zipping about, carrying Aces who would likely shoot first, ask questions later. It was clear that they were looking for any hint of subversives.

It was making Pidge's life a little bit harder than normal.

Clicking his tongue impatiently, he waited as a Scarab hovered by, shining its lights through the streets below. Once it was turned around and headed back towards the Palace, Pidge raised his coat collar up around his face and shuffled out of the shadows. It was icy cold out, the temperature dropping by the minute, and the Suits didn't seem very fond of being out in it. Not that Pidge blamed them; he was used the seasonal warmth of the South and these cold blasts made him long for home. But then, he considered, it might make his trip safer already. However, it meant more frozen walkways and ladders and those thoughts kept him from praying for more cold.

After a careful look around the abandoned streets, Pidge checked his own route and smiled, thankful to be recognizing just where he was now. Trying to keep himself from seeming too eager, he made the quick jog to the nearby dimly lit pub. The Card ReMark was inside a tiny building, rustic and old but Hatter had told him that it was a good place to rest when you didn't want to be found. Pidge had only been here once or twice and never been able to stay very long to judge its safety.

The owner had been a friend of Hatter's and yet was notoriously neutral in the matter of Hearts and their rule. Tortoise had never been anything to anyone in the Resistance or in the Heart ranks; he ran his pub and was left alone for the most part. He was one of the few untouchables in Wonderland City simply because he had no interest or stake in whoever won whatever game was played. There was no real way to make him care who ran what; he only cared who bought his latest pints of mixed beer and wine. He ran his business as he had for the past eighty years and would likely continue doing so until Wonderland City sank into the water below.

But the Card ReMark pub would still be dangerous and as he opened the door, Pidge slipped one hand down to his belt to rest just above his mallet holster.

Even on his guard, he somehow managed to walk right into the middle of a barmaid fight. Two burly women were throwing each other around atop tables and chairs, all while screeching about stolen tips and who had slept with clients. Their noise was so high pitched that it reminded Pidge of two alley cats fighting over territory. He narrowly dodged a pair of nails aimed at the other woman's eyes and ducked around poorly aimed punches. Still, he was shoved and kicked in the shins by pointy toes until he managed to wriggle out from between them. When he landed against the cracked mahogany bar, Pidge almost felt like he'd been tackled and beaten up himself.

No one had noticed his arrival, they were so consumed with the fight going on before them. Over the bar, neon signs were flickering as an array of bets were placed on which barmaid would win and shouts of encouragement only increased the amount of noise. Picking himself up from the sticky floor, Pidge slid around a particularly enthusiastic pair of men. Spying a large heavyset man behind the bar, he cleared his throat and knocked his hand on the bar before dodging a glass thrown in his direction by a drunk.

With almost exaggerated carefulness, Tortoise turned around and braced his gnarled arthritic hands on the bar's cracked edge. His bald head was shining under the low-lighting of the bar and he cocked a bushy grey eyebrow at Pidge. He looked him up and down with exaggerated care and then cocked his head on the side.

"Ain't seen you in a long time. What's your drink again?" he asked in a raspy voice, licking his lips repeatedly between pauses. He gave Pidge a gap-toothed grin and flicked his eyes back to the fighting barmaids. "Or are you here to watch the show?"

Pidge glanced over his shoulder at the women still throwing each other around the bar. "I take it you aren't going to stop 'em?"

"Nah," Tortoise cracked his neck loudly. "Those girls need a way to fight. Life's hard again, so sometimes they need to burn off their anger so they don't take it out on my customers. What'll it be?"

Pidge waved his hand. "Just two fingers of Butter-bread whiskey. Got a booth around here?"

Tortoise took his time answering, more concerned with finding a clean tumbler glass and the requested drink from the rows and rows of bottles kept safe behind the bar. Pidge buried the impatient urge to repeat the question and took his time looking around instead. Unlike the clubs and bistros of the higher street levels, this pub was old and rickety. Every ceiling strut and wall brace was scarred and each table looked to be on its last legs, but still, the dark, smoky little place was probably one of the safest places in Wonderland.

Considering he no longer had the magic of the Drawling Master's doorways, Pidge needed every safe spot he could find.

A glass slid from the bartender to Pidge's hand, making a white scuff on the otherwise dirty counter, and he slapped a few coins down in return. Not caring that he might insult Pidge, Tortoise bit down on their edges and then gave him a reluctant smile when they didn't bend. Taking an experimental sip of the liquor, Pidge coughed when it burned the inside of his mouth. He managed not to choke and simply nodded, and the bartender pointed at a tiny booth near the door.

Pidge shook his head. "Need some quiet."

Getting the hint, the old man jerked his thumb to the back of the bar near to the exit signs. Not bothering to thank the man who clearly wanted to think nothing more of him, Pidge slipped around the raucous crowd. It was dark and quiet in this corner, so dark that with his own black clothing he'd be near invisible, and he slid onto the threadbare cushions with a sigh of relief. Propping up his boots on the table, he rubbed at his calves to ease the ache.

How many hours had it been since he'd sat down?

"Never thought I'd miss a train," Pidge muttered to himself while he leaned his head back against the booth's headrest. The croquet mallet was still strapped to his hip and he checked the handle out of habit. While normally he would have spent his time cleaning it, he couldn't be bothered. There were only a few spatters of blood anyway and nothing that would harm the antique wood.

Groaning lowly, Pidge leaned back and closed his eyes wearily. He blindly kept lifting his glass to his mouth, sipping at the biting smoothness of the liquor and feeling its warmth settle in his belly. It caused a warm sensation from his head to his toes, much like an Emotion Tea, and he involuntarily relaxed. The almost bare cushions were uncomfortable but far better than spending another moment sitting on cold concrete in an alley. He'd spent too many hours out in the cold and the almost muggy air in the bar was strangely welcome now.

Pidge yawned and then took another long sip of the alcohol. It sent a fresh buzz through his body and in a languid way he rested the glass on his stomach. He was mere moments from dropping off, he was so relaxed, and his muscles felt wonderfully loose.

"New orders coming down from the high-ups," a gruff voice whispered nearby from the other side of the booth and Pidge jerked awake. Blinking away the dozy glaze in his eyes, he sat up straighter and put his glass on the table again with almost numb fingers. It sent his glass skittering around the table and he let it, dropping his head back again. Discreetly as possible, he pressed his ear to the panel separating the booths and closed his eyes to feign sleep if he was caught eavesdropping. Pidge cracked open one eye to keep watch on the busy bar but he saw no one watching him. He didn't know who was behind him but by the sounds of the educated voices and the guns being put on the table, they were likely Suits who had dropped in to review orders.

"I don't like these new men who've been put in charge," another voice said. "Smacks of something terrible going to happen, eh?"

"Rumour has it that they're mercenaries, brought in from the Lake Prison. So many Suits were killed in the takeover last month that they need all the help they can get," a third voice, squeaky and nervous, joined the conversation.

"Makes sense if they're hired," the second voice commented, this one tired and old sounding. "Jack Heart wouldn't allow their sort of cruelty."

Pidge eyed the bar again and through the reflection on the brass trim, he saw the three men sitting just behind him. They were all older Suits, men who would have probably served Jack Heart and his own father. That they looked almost nervous about being caught here did not sit well with him. Suits had been notorious loyal to the ruling Heart. These ones... almost looked ready to bolt and abandon their posts.

"Families killed for subversion. That's the price you pay I guess for sympathizing with the rebels," the first Suit, the gruff voiced man, growled. "I didn't like having to bring in those families like that."

"No one does."

"What's the new orders anyway?" Squeaky-voice demanded.

"We've been assigned surveillance of the Ouest Quadrant. Looking for the person responsible for the death of Jack Heart, Wonderland bless his soul," Gruff explained.

"They've found out who?" Tired asked and Pidge heard a faint thud on the table that sounded like a bottle.

"Queen has sources that have brought the murderer to light. Supposedly, also a conspirator that kidnapped Prince William Heart. Wonderland might be able to move on if this is all figured out now. Especially with the old Duchess on trial." Gruff adjusted his seat so heavily that Pidge felt the old booth boards press back onto him. "Orders are to bring her in alive."

"Her?" Squeaky sounded a bit shocked though everyone in Wonderland knew that women were equally as dangerous as men.

Pidge held his breath and stared at the other side of his booth.

"Her. Old Resistance assassin called Snake."

"Rumour has it that she was dangerous. We've lost the four men who were in charge of tracking her," Tired pointed out.

"So we need to be careful, eh?" Gruff snapped.

"That's puttin' it lightly." Squeaky sounded ready to bolt by the quiver in his voice.

Pidge adjusted himself more comfortably on the cushions and took another sip. So they'd been put in charge of finding Selena. He didn't envy them that. She was never an easy one to corner and if she was desperate and knew that she was in trouble, she'd kill without qualm.

This also meant that Dodo had betrayed her to the Queen, and that unlikely pair were going to use her as a scapegoat. But why would Dodo, who had once been so loyal to Wonderland's freedom, join forces with the very reason why they'd all been on the run for so long? Of anyone to betray Selena, Dodo would have been last on Pidge's list, simply because of the relationship between the pair. Pidge knew that Selena viewed Dodo as a surrogate father in many ways, as her family had been murdered by the Hearts during the Wars, and Dodo had always had a strange affection for her.

If Selena was disposable, then Pidge was not sure he wanted to see just who else Dodo would use to get his own way.

The door to the bar suddenly slammed open, letting in a brilliant street light that caused everyone in the bar to hiss in irritation. The door way framed two large Suits, Aces by the look of them. They took their time looking around the bar, shoving people out of their way as they moved and ignoring Tortoise's angry insults. Pidge immediately threw his arm up and covered his own head, blending into the shadows again. He heard the heavy clump of their feet on the floorboards and reaching under his arm he grasped the handle of his croquet mallet. His heartbeat quickened but he forced his breathing to grow shallow as the footsteps came closer and closer. The Suits behind him had gone into a sort of hushed silence.

Something heavy and metallic was thrown onto their booth table and Pidge felt the vibration through his own booth.

"We've sighted her," one of the Aces said. He was standing so close to Pidge that he could smell the man's sweat. Pidge kept his head covered and put his other hand over his mouth to quiet his breathing. All the time, he prayed to Wonderland that the shadows would keep him hidden. The Suit continued on, "She was shuffling along, all limp and hobo-like. We almost thought she was one of those rat catchers."

"That was fast," Squeaky muttered.

"Unlike some Suits, we do our jobs. Our target is living in one of the apartment rentals, near the old Towers on Fletch Street. The ones with the high spires that were abandoned years ago. It's just a matter of which Tower and which room," the other Ace snapped. "Except we're on double orders. Which one of you is the engineer?"

"Me," Tired volunteered and Pidge smelt an increase of sweat and blood, which meant the first Ace had leaned in closer.

"You're to go to the Tunnel entrances, near the Sewers. There's rumour going around that the Resistance is going to try to come up through there and the Queen wants us to flood them out. You're in charge of statistics and mechanics."

"We're... going to flood the Tunnels?" Gruff asked, his voice hesitant. "But we all know the rumours. There are thousands of Refugees reportedly down there. Who knows how many are in the base levels that would be drowned?"

"We'll be killing thousands," Tired protested. There was a loud scuff and something slammed into the table that sounded like a hollow hardball. Judging by the shout of pain from the Tired Suit, it had been his head that had slammed so hard into the table.

"You will do as ordered or your head will roll!" the Ace snapped lowly. "All of you, get to work!"

There was a flurry of movement and chatter, but Pidge wisely kept himself quiet and still. He moved slowly, lowering his jacket from his face just as the last man left the bar. No one had seemed to really notice the Suits that had just come and gone. Moving slowly to not attract attention, Pidge slipped out the emergency exit and into the rear alley. It was a narrow one, for the drop-off into the water far below was only feet away from the wall, but it was quiet and abandoned.

Pidge leaned his head back against the old brick and sighed. He could see the Towers nearby; they'd once been beautiful buildings used to school the Noble Cards but now they were no more than abandoned shells since the Court revolved around the Heart Palace. It would suit Selena to be in those buildings; she wouldn't want company after all.

But he also knew, with uneasy and guilty awareness, that just a mile away was one of the entrances into the Tunnels. The very way he had seen several people come up from. The Tunnel he had come through himself had been a steady stream of busy traffic. He'd seen the people there, not thousands like the Suits thought, far less, but it didn't make the Queen's plans any less horrific. The Tunnels were so vast that the people would be scattered all underneath the City. He might find ten below him directly, or he might find hundreds. There was no telling.

He looked at the Towers again. He was facing a difficult choice. Go into the Tunnels or find Selena and make her talk. The Suits would never succeed in that and Pidge suspected that their orders were not going to be to extract a confession from her. She'd be brought before the Queen so she could use her as a blind for her own plans. There wouldn't be any sort of trial and she would be executed quickly and in a public display to put fear into the people's hearts. He had to find her.

But if he did that, he'd be leaving the Tunnels exposed.

"Been in worse conundrums, I'm sure of it, but none come to mind," Pidge muttered to himself as he thought over the Tunnel possibility. But he didn't like this one either. To follow the Suits would be suicide; they'd eventually find him out. It would take him well over a day to reach the bottom of the Tunnel, and he didn't remember exactly where the Sewers were. Perhaps near a bridge?

He'd be risking so much to go in blind.

"What I wouldn't give for a crow," he said and quickly he went over the possible plans in his mind. As much as Pidge prided himself on finding solutions to almost impossible problems, he couldn't find a way out of this one. Shutting his eyes, he thudded his head back against the brick in a painfully hard motion. The throbbing ache it caused made him swear out-loud at his own stupidity and he rubbed at the back of his skull irritably. He really had no choice in this matter. He could only hope that whoever was going into the Tunnels would feel the threat.

Feeling almost tremendous guilt, Pidge turned his attention back to the Towers. He trailed his gaze over the rooftops and what led there, planning out an escape route that would work. He'd have to check the occupant names first but he knew almost all of Selena's code names. His only hope would be to catch Selena unawares and trap her. It would work so long as the Suits were slow.

Which, if memory served correct, they were always late to a party.

Grinning to himself, Pidge pushed the problem of the Tunnels from his mind and started off down the alley towards the first Tower.

"So you do not deny that you had reason to conspire against our King?"

"I am denying that I had reason to."

"But you have not sworn to our Court that you are innocent!"

"I am innocent but no amount of swearing will cause any of you to believe me as long as she runs this Court."

The day's trial events still ran through Amelia's mind as she sat in her prison cell. Surrounded by papers and odd trappings of office left by her lawyer, she took no notice of it all. The cell was blissfully silent after the raucous trial, which had once again been interrupted by rebels and sympathizers alike. The higher galleries had been filled to the balcony railings with citizens forced to come and watch. From what Pardenlace had told her, most had been rounded up by the Queen's revived White Rabbit. So it was only natural that they had caused a fuss.

A fuss that had left her with a splitting headache.

Amelia laid out the cards of her incomplete deck with careful precision. A game of Solitaire was somehow less thrilling when you only had forty-eight cards but she found a way to make it last for at least a little while. She was only playing it with half her attention anyway, her boredom having a hazardous effect on her attention span.

Flicking her tongue to the corner of her mouth, she tilted her head on the side and stared at the first row of cards. There was no immediate solution and she fiddled with the folds of her dressing-gown as she tried to find a solution. Then, feeling that strangely intent gaze, she looked up and saw the guards standing there. As ever, the Diamond Execution guard was staring at her but he had no real expression that could be seen on his face. The ceremonial mask meant that she never did see his expression, though she found his staring curious.

Not to mention a bit unnerving still.

Amelia fingered her remaining deck of cards and stared back at the guard. Tipping her head on the side, she let her thick blonde hair go over one bare shoulder and watched as the guard turned his gaze from hers. When the edge of a card sliced the delicate skin of her finger, she looked away as well and sucked the finger into her mouth to stop the blood oozing from the tiny cut. The bitter tang of her own blood made her wince but she stood all the same, her eyes on the guards once more.

With her finger still daintily held in her mouth, she approached the iron bars and leaned against them. Even through the heavy quilt of her robe, the bars felt cold but she ignored it in favour of pushing her body to its best angle. Both guards looked at her expectantly and she slowly slid the finger from her mouth while arching a finely groomed brow at them both.

She could have sworn that both men swallowed in unison.

"I'm hungry. Get me my meal early," she stated imperiously, focussing on the Spade guard. He glanced at the executioner guard and when he nodded, he slipped out the door. Amelia turned her attention to the tall guard still standing there and she snapped her fingers. "Come here."

He moved slowly, coming until he was just out her reach, and stood in proper military position with his arms held behind his back and his legs staggered. Amelia rested her arms through the bars and pressed up against them once more as she fixed her clear gaze on the guard.

"Why are you staring at me?" she demanded. He was silent, as usual. She'd asked him this question every day for the past week and never had a straight answer from him. Or any answer at all. He just stared back at her.

"Cat got your tongue? Cheshires do that I recall," Amelia jibed and saw his mouth tighten. Pleased at that slight reaction, she leaned in closer. "So that is it then? You lost your poor tongue?"

She sneered. "Then I'm surprised you haven't lost your eyes as well, since you insist on staring so rudely at me."

He didn't answer, not that she expected him to, but moved a little, his head tipped toward the doors as if listening. When no one came through, he reached with a leather-gloved hand towards the ridged point of his mask that covered him from forehead to chin and across the cheekbones. Amelia watched curiously, trying to see through the tiny eye-holes but there was nothing there. No slight betrayal of emotion in a tick or frown. Nothing.

He adjusted his mask carefully and made sure it was fit more closely to his nose. Amelia insolently rested her chin between the bars and arched her brows at him.

"So you are just going to keep staring at me? What would your wife say? Or are you the sort to just dip your pen in other inkwells like so many men I know ?" she asked. Her words dripped with venomous dislike. But even watching him this close, she wasn't expecting him to move so fast.

Leather fingers grabbed her by her neck and held her still before she could jerk away. The strength in them was alarming and for one dizzying moment she had a series of agonizing flashbacks of the Red King's torture. Amelia could suddenly feel his hot breath on her face, taste the sourness of his mouth on hers, and even the pain he'd inflicted on her body came rushing back. But the grip on her neck wasn't as painful, just a steady pressure meant to restrain her and with a deep breath she suppressed the memories of the Red King. The effort cost her bravado and a few tears trickled down her cheeks while she heaved for breath.

The restraining hand softened on her throat until the fingers merely ghosted over her skin. Cracking her eyes open halfway, Amelia stared at the guard and thought she saw his mouth twisted with something other than anger. The tension in him almost reminded her of someone still suffering a deep, very personal pain. She forgot who he was for a moment and her own expression softened with pity.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

The moment broke when he stepped away from her and made his noisy way back to the guard table where her guards so often spent their time. He made a show of ignoring her and settling down to read his own papers. Amelia watched, startled in the change of emotion and wondering why it bothered her so much.

Still watching him, she retreated back to her own table and sat down to her abandoned game of Solitaire.

She only had a few hours before the next round of the Trial began and she needed to focus on that. But still, as she sat and stared at the cards, her mind didn't go to the Trial. She was now wondering if she had would have to find a different way to handle the very guard she'd thought to seduce.

Chapter Text

"Could be worse," Hatter muttered aloud. "Not sure how much worse but it can always get worse."

He was sitting on the hillside overlooking the City's entry bridge, just a little ways from where he'd left Alice and Chesh resting in a temporary camp in a clearing. It had been more than a little hassle to move them, especially since Chesh was in human form but there something about staying in the old Mouse house that was a bit too eerie. Hatter had almost envisioned the old Toby rising from the dead to snatch Alice and in a bout of mad fear he'd destroyed the rest of the small house. He had only come back to himself when he had finally sunk to his knees in the river. The cold water had revived him, made him think very carefully. He had remembered seeing Toby's grandchildren at Charlie's home but not Toby himself. It only made him believe even more that Toby had known something and had been silenced, but not killed.

Once he had haphazardly dressed Chesh in the scraps of clothing he'd found in the wreckage, it was easy to decide what next to do. He had made quick work of putting Alice and Chesh both on Guinevere's back when he realized they would lose the valuable daylight if they just lay around for a few more hours. The Wabe Woods and the surrounding Forests were best not travelled at night; not with the strange creatures and noises that roamed it that could make it even more dangerous. Hatter didn't like the idea of being caught by wild animals anymore than the possibility of being caught by the Queen's Suits.

They were a mile or so down the road now yet Hatter hadn't felt that they'd travelled long. But he'd noticed the signs pointing the way to the Wonderland City Entry Bridge and had diverted off the path to go deeper into the Woods where they wouldn't be seen. He'd been able to make a small blind out of brush and tree branches and scrounged for food unsuccessfully. Uneasy about leaving Alice, he had waited till she'd finally woken up before he'd made his way up the hill with Guinevere to scope out the terrain. It had been very quiet but he was enjoying it. He sat, enjoying the warmth of the sun despite the cold breeze and began to think and plan.

His boot nudged the satchel he'd packed when he stretched his legs out. The wrapped Sceptre was in there and so were the few bottles. The tiny glass bottles were filled with the Storm Chemicals he'd seen Toby use often when crossing the Lake. Without really thinking why, he had helped himself to the small stash of he had found under the rotten floorboards of the Ferry deck. The bottles jingled whenever they knocked together and Hatter made a face, telling himself to be more careful. The last thing he needed was to start a storm out of the blue by breaking a few bottles of Toby's "Special Brew".

The thought of storms made him look out at the Lake in the distance, and then at the guarded bridge.

"This... might be more difficult," Hatter muttered to himself as he plucked a long piece of grass and then nudged his hat up a bit so he could see better. Behind him Guinevere was grazing contentedly on the little grass that was remaining under the mid-day frost. Hatter's backside was almost numb from sitting on the cold ground for so long. He didn't want to think of the weather getting even colder.

Hatter bit into the stalk of the grass and let it slide between his lips. Leaning back on his elbows, he worked the stalk between his teeth and let his mind go blank for a while, enjoying the stillness of the growing dusk light and the view of Wonderland City in the distance. Guinevere nickered suddenly behind him and stepped closer, her reins dropping against the back of his head. She nudged his hat, still muttering impatiently, and he smiled. Reaching back to stroke her velvety nose, he felt her lips nuzzle his fingers.

"It's all right, darlin'," Hatter muttered and she snorted. "The worst thing will be the smell. It's somethin' that I am not looking forward to but I won't put you through that."

She nudged his head again, harder this time as to get his attention, and Hatter looked around. Between Guinevere's mud-spattered legs, he saw Alice making her graceful way up the hillside toward him. When she reached his side, she crouched down onto her knees and sighed. Hatter smiled at her warmly and she gave an almost shy smile back, brushing her hair out of her face. She still looked a bit grey and tired, but her short sleep seemed to have refreshed her enough that her eyes were bright and alert. Alice patted Guinevere's nose and then sat down on her buttocks, quickly scooting closer to Hatter.

Hatter flicked the stalk of grass to the other corner of his lips and whistled lowly.

"Looks almost peaceful, doesn't it?" he asked and then made a grim face. "Same way a sleeping Jabberwock does and I'd never trust either, no matter how pets of them I make."

Alice followed his gaze and resisted the urge to shiver. Wonderland City did look quiet, at least from this distance. But Hatter's observation was one she took seriously. There was something cold and deadly about the City now, especially after the wilds of the South, and Alice almost had the urge to run back in the direction they'd come. Even though the City had been her home for a year, with the Queen in power it was unlikely they would get a warm welcome.

Hatter didn't move from his spot though he saw her tension out of the corner of his eye. Instead, he gestured to the smaller draw bridges that ran almost parallel to the massive one nearest to them.

"Guards have been posted all along there," he said and then pointed directly ahead of them, "and up there. No way of sneaking in with the crowds. We'd be spotted instantly. There's no disguising we don't fit, I'd say. No smuggler boats either. My guess is the Scarabs are patrolling in every level."

"Do you think they know we're coming?" Alice asked. She could see the large gates that led past the bridges, metal imposing gates that were now shut and being opened only now and then when citizens were allowed in. No one, from what she could see, was being let out.

"It's likely they think that someone is coming, for the City to be on lock-down like this. If those explosions were any sign of it, someone is working as a double agent and will probably have told them the Drawling Master still lives." Hatter sighed and let the grass wobble between his teeth. His eyes squinted as he watched a pair of guards march along the bridge. "They're certainly patrolling like something is going to happen."

"I don't like this, Hatter."

He nodded. "Me either. But... what choice do we have? I'll bet three ounces of tea that Abel will bring any men in through the Lake front, using the Scarabs they scavenged before. We don't have that option or the time... or even a way of meeting up with them if they are mid-air."

He shifted again and snapped the grass stalk between his teeth, spitting out the stem. "So, we go in as fast as we can. No stopping for idle chit chat if we can help it."

"Look who is talking about idle chit chat," Alice retorted and they stared at each other. He grinned after a moment, conceding the point. Letting his hand cover hers, he squeezed her fingers gently and then looked behind them. Still standing over them, Guinevere rubbed her nose against his face and he patted her gently.

"Sorry, Guin, this is one place we can't take you." He let his fingers comb out her forelock gently. Alice watched his face and frowned.

"Are you sure you want to leave her behind?" she asked and he nodded.

"Sewers are only big enough for us. Plus, might be nearly impossible to climb ladders with a horse," he pointed out sarcastically and she sighed. Guinevere whickered and he looked away. He'd pulled the saddle off her earlier but he hadn't been able to bring himself to unbridle her yet. It was hard to want to let her go but he knew that this would be for the best.

Sighing, Hatter got to his knees and reached up. He gently pulled the leather head-stall over her ears and she dropped the bit willingly. She snorted, running her nose over the top of his head and he gave her shoulder a gentle clap.

"You can go find Charlie, darlin'. Just be careful," he murmured. He didn't doubt for a moment that she understood him and would go back to Charlie. She bobbed her head and nudged him once more. Alice turned to watch and reaching out she gently stroked the mare's neck. Guinevere turned to get a scratch on her neck and Alice put her hands on the mare's jowls gently.

"Thank you, Guinevere," she whispered and the horse's dark eye met hers. For a split second, she thought she saw something more intelligent than just a horse staring back at her. Alice frowned and looked at Hatter for an explanation but he was folding up the bridle and putting it in the satchel at his feet. The horse moved away and started grazing once again. Hatter watched Guinevere for a moment longer and then looked at Alice.

"So. Is the little prince awake?" he asked. She blinked, confused to the point that she looked down at her stomach but he shook his head and gestured to the woods. "The cat, Alice."

She coughed to cover her embarrassment. "He was getting used to using his legs just as I left. Not to mention complaining endlessly about wearing scorched, smoke-smelling clothes."

"You act surprised," Hatter scolded and gave her a superior look. "I fully expected that."

The temporary campsite was empty when they returned and Alice felt Hatter stiffen in reaction. She knew her own experiences made her instantly wary of anything Chesh might try. But she didn't want Hatter flying off the handle either and she put a hand on his arm to restrain him.

"Just a second, Hatter."

Reaching up with her other hand, she waved it through the air, ignoring Hatter's look. Everything felt still and calm, the air still heavy with moisture but cold all the same. Alice bit into her lip and focussed on her thoughts of Chesh. The air suddenly vibrated beneath her fingers as a fresh surge of energy went through her skin and she gasped. Her hand was hovering towards the smaller trees with low, sturdy branches and she dropped her hand. Cocking her hip to the side and rolling her eyes, Alice snapped her fingers.

"Chesh, knock it off."

Slowly, inch by inch, a man appeared out of thin air. He was sprawled on one of the low-hanging branches and looked half-asleep. Really looking at him for the first time since she'd woken up, Alice was struck by a heady sensation of déjà vu. There were some differences, of course. His odd tabby coloured hair was longer, hanging to his shoulders and he seemed more gaunt than before. But the pose, the threadbare clothing and the general look of him reminded her of when they had first met in the Taiga.

It was when he turned his head and opened his eyes to stare down at them that they both recoiled. Without his yellow spectacles, his eyes were on full display and it sent Alice's skin crawling. His eyes had stayed like a cat's: large black ringed by a thin circle of piercing yellow green. They shone in the dusk light and resembled almost hollow pits in his thin face. The sharp angles of his face lent a sinister air to his eyes that made Alice clench her hand tighter around Hatter's.

Chesh grinned, that slow, methodical grin of his that nearly split his face in half from ear to ear, and Alice felt Hatter squeeze her hand back. Propping his head up on one hand, Chesh's eyes went to slits and then he grinned even wider. The eerie expression made him seem both mischievous and deadly.

Beside Alice, Hatter adjusted the satchel hanging from one shoulder and resisted the urge to ball his right hand into a fist.

He didn't want Chesh to know just how badly he wanted to hit him just for looking at Alice like that.

"There's no use making such noise." Chesh cleared his throat loudly and several times, trying to get used to using his normal voice. The constant purr was gone from his voice, leaving only the usual snide, well-cultured tones of his real voice. Beyond his eyes, nothing cat-like seemed to have remained.

"We're leavin' soon," Hatter ordered when it seemed like Alice wasn't going to speak. Chesh raised his eyebrows and looked at Alice. His jaw tightened when he saw her fiddling with her control bracelet and then he pasted a friendly, artless smile on his face.

"Into the Sewers?" He rolled his eyes up to the sky. "You two certainly never pick the nicest ways to travel. Although..."

He slid down from the tree, landing on all fours before he straightened back up. He walked towards them in a slow, calculated way that made Hatter want to push Alice behind himself.

Chesh simply grinned. "Could be interesting."

"Best behaviour, right?" Hatter demanded and Chesh looked at Alice.

"I suppose." He stepped intently towards Alice. "Though I do have to thank you for this..." He pirouetted a circle and Alice stepped closer to Hatter. Her stomach was turning knots just looking at Chesh. He caught her look and noticed the way she almost pressed into Hatter. His white smile was intense and almost starved in appearance though his eyes danced merrily. "Come now. What use would I have to turn on you now?"

He looked at Hatter. "Especially with your watchdog keeping such close eye."

"No one knows your motives better than you," Alice countered and he shrugged.

"We can sit out here all day, chit-chatting about who is going to betray who in the future... or we can go into the City." Chesh waved his hand in the direction of the bridges in the distance. He then gave them a look of patient indulgence. "But perhaps a little chat wouldn't be terrible."

Hatter glared at him and then looked at Alice. "We don't have time for this."

She nodded, not breaking her gaze from Chesh until Hatter squeezed her hand. "We need to get in the City before it gets too dark. Guards will probably double up then."

Chesh turned around and stretched his arms up to the sky with a satisfying pop and crunch of bone. His fingers spread out and as Alice watched, she noticed a faint trace of glowing magic. His fingers curled back into fists and he looked over his shoulder at Alice. He winked slyly and she raised her own hand, a tiny glow of light appearing in the palm of her hand as she mirrored his action. Her head cocked slightly to the side and she raised her eyebrows meaningfully. His face fell instantly and he put his hands back in his pockets, cowed by her cool display of power.

"What's the plan then?" he asked.

The Suits in charge of gate control were growing cold and hungry. They patrolled in pairs, keeping up a steady flow of conversation between themselves to stave off boredom. There weren't many people who tried to get into Wonderland City these days, and any who tried to leave were stopped and turned around promptly. Some were even sent to the Heart Palace for interrogation and often were never seen again around the gates. That was something that no Suit wanting to keep his head ever questioned.

The pair closest to the Wabe Road entryway were tucked up close together, watching the forest road intently but seeing nothing of interest. Every now and again, they'd swap with the guards that were closer to the gates for a few hours but they were on the road watch this time. They'd been told to keep a close eye on the City boundaries but for the past week there had been nothing really. All the action seemed to be happening at the other bridges; the Suits there had to fight off wild beasts, crazed monstrosities and trees that seemed to be springing up out of nowhere. But their gate was always quiet.

The imposing steel gate was well over six stories high, made with heavy bars and electrified slates, and it took an impressive mechanism in the overhead tower just to open it. The Suits didn't know exactly how their higher officers thought anyone could break in through the bridge with so much in their way. Anytime anyone had snuck back into Wonderland City, it was through the waterways or through the tiny paths that tended to lead from the shoreline to the long quays that lined the City edges.

No one in their right mind would even try to use the bridges.

The one Suit exhaled sharply. "Almost time for our shift to be over. Think we'll see anything yet?" he asked his partner and the man snorted.

"Like we've seen so much in the past twelve hours," was the sarcastic reply. "I almost expect to see someone marching up and demanding to get into Wonderland City, all intent on war..."

An elbow dug into his side and he jerked, looking in the direction that the other Suit nodded. There was a man walking toward them up the paths leading from the Wabe Road. He teetered on his feet a bit, as if he wasn't used to walking on them, and kept looking from side to side. But he was moving with determination and his odd-coloured hair and clothing were so out of place that the two Suits just stared at him as he approached.

The first Suit recovered himself and put his hand on the thin man's chest to stop him in his tracks. "Whoa there, mate. Let's see your papers."

"Papers?" A pair of black and yellow eyes lifted to their faces and both men stepped back, startled by the look of them. The second Suit cleared his throat and managed to keep a fearful stutter from his voice,

"Identification, for starters. We're looking for any subversives."

"Oh right. First time I've had that in a log time but then, that is such a Heart thing to demand."

They frowned at each other and then looked at him. "What's your name, mate?" the first asked and he shrugged.

"Never really had one. But, because of my district, you can call me Chesh." It went over their heads and they indicated for him to hand over his ID. Chesh patted his clothing curiously, sending up an odd combination of smoke and evergreen that made both men sneeze. Giving up, he lifted a hand and raked it through his hair. "Well, Wonderland be, I seem to be all out of identification."

He looked around and clicked his tongue. "But considering how old I am, that's not a surprise. Papers like that would be dust by now."

"What's your reason for visiting the City?" the second Suit demanded and they both put their hands on their gun holsters. Chesh rolled his eyes thoughtfully and made noncommittal face.

"Since you asked: I'm here to help restart a rebellion against a particularly nefarious Queen of Hearts who just does not know how to keep her head out ridiculous schemes that do her no good. For the good of Wonderland and all that, before Wonderland itself gets royally pissed and decides to just destroy us all for our incompetence."

He grinned at their astonished expressions, the malicious Cheshire grin that made them stare fearfully. It took them a moment to process that he was telling them the truth, since it wasn't clear if he was being sarcastic by the way he insolently looked at them both. Looking at one another again, they nodded and quickly pulled their guns. Chesh looked at them both and raised an eyebrow curiously.

"Really? This is where we want to take this?" he asked curiously though his eyes narrowed to slits. If he'd been a cat, his ears would have flattened to his skull in warning.

"Don't try anything funny, laughin' boy. Hands up. You'll go straight to the Barracks for interrogation," the second Suit threatened as he pulled a pair of manacles from the bag at his side. Chesh lowered his chin a little and rocked towards them.

"I'm shaking with fear, I assure you," he sniped in a hushed tone. The loud cock of their guns being armed made him sigh in pure exasperation. When one was pointed at his chest, he straightened up a little and nodded. "Well. That's a little bit different."

He grinned and took off in the direction he came. Knowing the trouble they'd be in if they let him get very far, both Suits took off after him and down the tree-lined road. He was hard to follow, for despite his slight limp he was fast and wove between the trees and boulders with feline grace. One Suit paused to catch his breath when his lungs felt ready to give out and watched as his partner still gave chase.

A piercing whistle caught his attention and he turned sharply, right into a fierce right hook that made him see stars before he blacked out and collapsed to the ground.

The other Suit sprinted after Chesh, circling around a tree and taking aim at his back. He paused mid-stride and pressed the trigger. The kickback from the gun was accompanied by a loud bang and the bullet struck the tree that Chesh ran by. It sent a spray of wood chunks up into the air and through them the Suit watched incredulously as the man seemed to dissolve down into a black and tabby cat before his very eyes.

The Suit's eyes widened and he lowered his gun hand. "What in Wonderland?" he asked, blinking to be sure that what he'd just seen was real. The cat bounced up into the tree branches and he took aim again, though his hand shook with nerves.

A strong arm wrapped around his neck, pressing hard onto his windpipe. He struggled, grabbing at the arm and trying to dislodge the grip but it was carefully arranged to keep a strong hold. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a curtain of dark hair that swung around as he tried to throw the attacker over his shoulder. He spun a full circle and came face to face with dark eyed young man that grinned wolfishly at him.

"Sorry about this," the man said apologetically and before the Suit could think he lashed out with his right hand. The loud crack of flesh on flesh resonated around them and the Suit dropped to the ground in an unconscious heap as the arm holding him let go.

Alice gave the man a nudge with her toe and then looked up at Hatter. He was shaking his right hand and when he saw her scolding look he gave her an innocent one back.


She rolled her eyes and looked up at an approaching Chesh. He'd shifted back to looking like a man and thankfully had managed to remember to make his clothing part of that shift. "Not bad," she admitted and he grinned, adjusting his collar.

"Gave me a bit of exercise, though I admit that I would think that Hatter would be better bait," he pointed out and Hatter snorted rudely.

"Please, you look like a refugee more than I do," was his response. It resulted in a whole new spout of bickering between them and Alice looked at them both. Hatter was still gaunt looking, though his still healing wounds were only evident when his shirt would ride up when he twisted around. Chesh looked rougher than him though and she decided not to take a side in this little spat.

She coughed loudly to get their attention.

"Can we get moving, please?" she insisted and Chesh grinned.

"Oh yes, let's. I cannot wait to see how this will be!" he crowed sarcastically.

Hatter glared at him and led the way back to where they'd come from. The other guards hadn't come looking for their comrades yet and he crouched low against the stone wall of the bridge. He waited patiently until they had completely turned away before he slipped down the hill. Alice and Chesh followed him, moving as silently as they could down the hillside that led from the tiny pillars at the foot of the gate. They were forced to move slowly, mud and grime sticking to the bottom of their boots, and Hatter kept one ear out for the guards above them.

Midway down the hill, he found what he'd been looking for. The grate leading to the Sewers was covered in moss and was made of heavy rusted metal. Hatter grabbed the chain wrapped around it with his hand and listened carefully before making his next move.

It almost came apart under the strength of his hand when he pulled sharply, and he set it quietly on the ground as the grate swung open on its own. Ducking his head inside, he took a deep breath and stepped in. There was an immediate squishy feeling under his boots and the stench was overpowering.

Behind him, he heard Alice give a muted dry heave and Chesh mutter irritably about the indignity of going into a Sewer. The Sewer tunnel was tall enough for Hatter to stand upright and there were tiny cement ledges just wide enough for them to walk in a single file. Running between the ledges was a thick brown and green sludge, something that made Hatter's stomach turn over.

"Well, what an incredible odour this is," Chesh hissed and Hatter glared over his shoulder at him. Chesh turned his snarkiness on Alice. "Aren't you glad you aren't experiencing morning sickness now?"

She didn't answer, merely turned a shade of green and followed Hatter down along the ledges. Chesh sighed in exasperation and turned around to shut the grate behind himself. The less evidence of where they were, he thought, the better.

He wasn't content to follow behind Hatter and Alice like some tame little cat, and he jumped to the other concrete ledge to walk parallel to them. The slow-moving sludge moved like a tiny creek between them, bubbling now and then, and Chesh made a face, containing the urge to throw up under his snide mask. He traced one hand along the wall, memorizing the path they were coming down using his eyes and fingers. Hatter was moving very cautiously and Chesh looked at him when he shifted the satchel at his side. His attention was drawn at the tinkle of bottles rattling and as if feeling his gaze, Hatter looked over his shoulder at him.

Chesh adopted a more innocent expression and kept walking, following Hatter's directions with a suspicious amount of obedience. Hatter watched him carefully out of the corner of his eye until they came to a junction in the Sewers. The smell had died a little and he didn't have to worry about what puddle he stepped in anymore. Judging by the careful way Alice kept right behind him, her hand pressed into his, she was not thrilled about the Sewers anymore than he was. The three different entryways across a pool of sludge were of the similar make of old concrete but Hatter could smell the cleaner air down one.

Whistling to Chesh, he skipped across to the other ledge and turned to help Alice. She landed in his arms quickly, making a disgusted face when something bubbled near her feet. But she followed him and Chesh wasn't far behind, his own expression making it clear that he was thankful that the smell had died a little.

The oval shaped tunnel they were in seemed to get smaller and smaller, so that they had to travel with their necks bent at an uncomfortable angle. It was quiet though and overhead in the steel pipes they could hear the constant rushing movement of water.

Alice traced her hand down the slimy wall and then wiped it off on her coat.

"I can see why we didn't come this way before," Alice whispered to Hatter and he nodded.

"It's a relatively fast way but not one that we could take before, not with that weird winter. Once these pipes freeze over, no door opens and you really don't want have to squeeze through the furnace vents," Hatter answered and made a face at her over his shoulder.

"You've done this before?" Chesh asked as he skipped over to their ledge when his came to an end around a curve.

Hatter shrugged. "Sometimes you need to make a fast escape without being followed. Queen's men would never think to come down here; it's beneath them."

Chesh winced as an exceptionally large rat ran over his foot when he put it down. Baring his teeth, he hissed loudly at it and watched as it went squeaking away. He shook his foot out and looked around before saying, "I can see why."

"See why we left Guinevere behind?" Hatter asked Alice, ignoring Chesh. She made a face and shook out her own leg when a rat suddenly scurried across her foot as well.

"I think I miss the Tunnels and I never thought I'd say that," she answered and he wiggled his fingers in a so-so move.

"Well, if we went in the old way, we'd be five days out just getting through."

Hatter ran his other fingers along the wall at his side, and began knocking on the tiles. He stopped mid-stride and Alice bumped into him, followed by Chesh bumping into her. Chesh grumbled loudly.

"What exactly are we lingering in this section for?" Chesh sneezed and wiped his nose. "The smell is getting overwhelming."

"Wimp," Hatter muttered before he walked a bit further and then stopped again. He knocked on the tiles, listening closely and eventually the sound became hollow. He knocked down in a line from the top to bottom. Alice watched curiously, trying to ignore the urge to retch when another rat went over her foot.

"What, there's a hidden door that you just happen to know about?" Chesh sniped impatiently. Hatter didn't answer but leaned back a bit and pushed Alice over a little. His right hand lifted and Alice and Chesh both covered their heads when he lashed out in a hard punch against the concrete. It cracked down the height of the wall under the strength of his blow. Hatter shook his hand out, the cracked skin weeping blood from the force of splitting the concrete.

"We can't go any further and get out in time. For the most part," he muttered and then punched the wall once more, this time with unchecked strength. The concrete fell to pieces, the wall crumbling in a large hole, and Hatter fell through as well.

"Hatter!" Alice yelled and she stumbled over the concrete chunks to the hole in the sewer wall. The hole was flooded with light and Hatter lay sprawled on his stomach atop the large chunks of concrete. He was covered in plaster dust and dirt, but from what she could see he was unhurt. He groaned loudly and got to his hands and knees, cracking his neck loudly.

Chesh leaned through the wall on the other side of Alice and whistled. "What a sight," he exclaimed and Alice looked away from him to stare into strangely familiar setting. Hatter had fallen through a curved wall of one of the Tunnels and its light was from the lanterns floating through the air like tiny green fireflies. It was familiar, this earthy place that was buttressed by strange twisted pillars wrapped in vines.

"We haven't been here in a long time," Alice said, looking up at the dark ceiling. "I remember Jack..."

"Remember later, Alice," Chesh scolded and pointed past her. "Because right now problems are far more immediate."

Alice followed the direction of his finger and sighed. "Of course we'd find them."

Just down the slope was a small huddled group of people, all crowded around a barrel fire. Alice stared at them, not recognizing anyone, but they all started at the sight of the trio standing at the new hole in the wall.

"Well, that went as planned," Hatter said. He picked himself up and brushed the dust from his shoulders. Both Chesh and Alice looked at him and he gave faint smile. "What can I say? My memory is better than I previously thought. Two miles under and three knocks down." He gestured around them. "So we can find the ladder up from here."

Chesh stared at him. "I'd be annoyed about you not telling us this but since we're no longer in the Sewer, I won't complain."

Hatter eyed him in return and gave a sniff of disgust. "That would be a first."

Chapter Text

"Everyone heard that you were dead, killed in the Manor fire but not before being driven mad as bats in a crowded belfry."

Adjusting his coat closer around his chest against the cold draft, Hatter grinned in a lopsided way. "Those are the rumours, eh?" he asked.

Hatter looked at the older man who had joined him and Alice at the fire barrel while they were trying to keep warm. Alice had insisted that they stop for a little bit and Hatter, trying hard to ignore how tired he himself was, had willingly agreed though he had been a bit unsure of the company they were in. Chesh had made almost everyone uncomfortable in the first few minutes when he had caught and killed a large sewer rat that had followed them into the Tunnel. The only thankful part was that he hadn't tried to eat the rat but Hatter had made the aside to Alice that he didn't doubt Chesh would eat things like that. Hatter and Alice hadn't flinched but Chesh had quickly realized that no one was happy to be around him.

Eventually, he had sat down on the ground by himself, back pressed against the wall, and he appeared to be mediating, which left the tiny group they had stumbled upon to watch him warily. But everyone left him alone and Hatter and Alice had gone to try to scrounge any information they could.

Alice stretched her hands out closer to the fire and then buried her chin down in her upturned collar. The chill in the air seemed to get past the protection of her coat and her rumbling stomach didn't make her discomfort any easier. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a few small children watching her curiously and she smiled at them hesitantly before focussing on Hatter again.

The man in charge had introduced himself as Gil, a Suit who had escaped the call of duty, and the people around him were his extended family. He was a rough looking man who limped heavily to the left and he had tried to interrogate them until Hatter had managed to convince him that they meant no harm. Gil had recognized Hatter and Alice, having worked for Jack before his 'retirement', and was more than a little familiar with the stories about them.

That the two might not quite match their almost legendary status didn't seem to cross his mind. While neither Alice or Hatter could remember them, he apparently knew enough about their relationship with Jack to make him treat them like comrades-in-arms.

He'd been in soldier-mode ever since Hatter had said that they were sneaking into the City.

"The streets above are swarming with old Royalists and mercenaries released from the Lake Prison," Gil said as he threw another log onto the fire. "Every building that is occupied is under surveillance. There's no getting in or out of Wonderland City."

He looked at the hole Hatter had punched through the Tunnel wall. "Though there might be exceptions."

"Any news about Jack's wife, Amelia?" Hatter asked and the ex-Suit shrugged.

"Any Suit that expressed the tiny bit of loyalty to her or Jack, that doubted her guilt, was executed. I just barely escaped but I know her Majesty loved her husband dearly. We all saw it. To accuse her of murder is ridiculous. But not everyone saw that and the ones who have let her be accused are not necessarily sure of her guilt themselves. But the old Queen is terrifying and we all remember how it used to be."

"There's still a trial though?" Alice asked curiously and he shrugged.

"Supposedly any day now she's to be found guilty of regicide, attempted coupe, kidnapping and general havoc. The papers are all full of it," Gil answered, nodding at the fire. Alice saw the face of a newspaper in the flames and even though the fire was consuming it, there was still large print in tabloid fashion declaring Amelia guilty.

"Most of the papers are Heart-run anyway. You should have seen what they used to write about the Resistance," Hatter explained to her before pointing up at the ceiling. "What's the air up there like?"

"Bleak. People are tired and just waiting for a glimmer of good news." Gil rubbed his chin with a hand. "Seems like that is getting harder and harder to hope for, with the world like it is."

Alice felt his melancholy acutely and couldn't help but share it; it seemed like everything would start to go right before plummeting viciously into hopelessness.

A tiny hand slipped through hers and she looked down to see a small boy, likely Gil's son, pressing against her side. He smiled up at her and rested his head against her waist. Alice smiled back and wrapped her arm around his shoulders, letting him take comfort in her. Gil noticed and gave a small, sad smile.

"He lost his mother, few days back. Queen's men found her as subversive and we've not seen her since."

Hatter looked at Alice as well, a strange look on his face at the sight of her and the boy standing together. He had to tear his eyes away to gaze into the fire barrel instead. Gil cleared his throat, a small sheen of tears in his eyes, but whether they were from pain or despair it wasn't clear. The oddly intense emotion on his face was odd to see on a Wonderland Suit but he wiped at his eyes and a stoic expression came back to his face.

"There's many rumours about you in particular, Alice, and the Southern Resistance." They both looked at him curiously and he arched a brow. "People don't forget things, Alice. There's enough stories about you and Hatter both and quite a few do remember the rumours about the Drawling Master and the Southern Resistance. They need it, especially since the Dodo doesn't seem to be helping any. He's been holed up underneath his library, doing... something. People go into that place to seek help and come out... different."

"How different?" Hatter demanded and Gil shrugged.

"They don't act like Wonderlanders, or even Oysters. They just stare, dead to the world. Those that last more than a day in there come out and just... start walking. Sometimes right over the edges of the sidewalks and into the lakes below. Those that are caught before they fall are being brought to the Hospital at the order of a man called Pardenlace. He's been doing something to help people at least. Word through the vine is that he's come from the East or West. But no one knows who he is to trust him."

"Sounds about right," Alice whispered and the older man looked at her. "No one can stop him or the Queen?"

"What can we do?" He nodded to his family. "Those of us found in the open are killed or, if we're unlucky, taken to interrogation. There's no chance for anyone to act out so we hide, or we conform. The people Dodo's been releasing... they're shadows of what they were. Who knows what he is doing?"

"Experiments," Hatter muttered to himself. Gil eyed Alice.

"What are you two doing here, anyway?" He looked at Hatter again. "And how are you not dead?"

"Vines, glows, and crows," Hatter offered absently, his brow furrowed as he thought over the information they'd just received. "Wonderland, Dodo is going over the deep end again."

He stared sightlessly ahead of himself.

"What?" Gil glanced at Alice and she shook her head.

"We came with the Drawling Master's force but were separated, so we came here on our own," she explained while her eyes were on Hatter, and Gil tilted his head to the side.

"So you have a plan?" he asked, voice almost hopeful.

Alice smiled sunnily at him. "Not a one."

He gaped at them. "You two are insane to come here without a plan."

"That's what I said," Chesh piped up from his place nearby. Hatter blinked as if to chase his own thoughts away and then gave a cocksure grin at Gil.

"The thing about plans is, if you make 'em, sure enough someone is going to find a way to counter them." He adjusted his hat neatly on his head and looked around. "I prefer not planning anymore. Plans got me into trouble last time."

Gil looked at Alice again and she nodded. "It's true."

The little boy that was pressed against her suddenly coughed, a hoarse sound that was too violent for such a small child. Alice ran her fingers through his curly blonde hair and a soft touch of glow followed her fingers, touching his face. His cough lessened and he rubbed at his throat, his eyes bright as he looked up at Alice. Gil had watched the movement of Alice's glowing fingers and he stepped forward.

"So you can..."

Hatter's hand immediately came up and he blocked him with just an arm. They looked at each other and Gil backed away at the expression on the other man's face. It was clear that this was not something Hatter wanted noticed by the rest of Gil's family who were wandering around the small Tunnel. There was enough of a threat in Hatter's body language alone that Gil didn't question him. Instead, the Suit looked up at the ceiling and nodded.

"So we should go with you," he offered and Hatter arched an eyebrow.

"How do you figure?" He flexed his fingers at his side while staring at Alice and the boy.

"We can help you."

Hatter shook his head. "How?"

"I don't know. We can though, just give us something to do! I've got a least ten strong people here, my brothers and cousins, and we can do you some good. Tell us what to do!" Gil exclaimed and Hatter took a step back, actually startled by his fervour. No one had ever really asked him for orders like these before, certainly never a Suit, and he looked at Alice. She saw his confusion and pulled away from the boy leaning against her. She smiled at Gil and quickly tugged Hatter some steps away.

"They want you to lead them," she said bluntly in a low voice and Hatter frowned, his agitation clear to her. "Hatter, remember how he said Wonderlanders needs something to hope for? What if you could help with that?"

"Their need for 'hope' doesn't mean I'm about to lead them anywhere. I'm better on my own, without too much extra baggage," Hatter snapped, reverting back to his old loner persona easily. Alice stared at him, annoyed but not surprised that he still had this side to him.

"Are you saying I'm baggage?" Her voice was low and deadly and Hatter made a face, his eyes narrowed at her.

"Don't be puttin' words in my mouth, woman." He gestured to the people around them and his hands lifted to grip her by the shoulders. "If you want them to come with us, explain how I can get us past all those guards on the upper levels when there is at least... twenty? How do you feel about bringing children into the middle of a Heart war?"

Alice sighed, knowing he had a point. She would never risk children in a possible war; going into this while pregnant was already hard on her conscience. "Yes, I know. But Hatter..."

"Not open for discussion. I said I could get us into the City, and the only other person who is going with us is Chesh and Wonderland knows I ain't happy about that. I don't have the know-how to declare all out war on the Heart Queen, Alice, and leading a suicide charge isn't on my list. " Hatter leaned close to her. "Alice. Look at these people. Really look at them."

She did it obediently, taking in their scared, almost starved expressions. There was such despair even in the way they moved and she looked back at Hatter's solemn face. The hat he wore lent a harsh shadow to his features that made him seem forbidding. His fingers flexed on her shoulders and he put his mouth to her ear so he didn't have to raise his voice.

"They are so desperate for a way to take back their world that they'll take desperate measures," Hatter explained and his voice grew bitter. "Even trust a mad fool."

Alice watched as he stepped back to the fire, almost hurting for the clear lack of belief Hatter had himself. Hatter alone, as a con artist, or even just concerned about her; that was something he did without thinking. But it seemed like he was unsure of trying to be more than what his past had made him. You are more than that, Alice wanted to say, but she kept silent; she'd only just been able to get him back to her, with only fragments of his mad past lingering. He'd come back to her but it would take time for him to truly trust himself again. She stared at his face for a moment longer before going beside him and taking his hand, squeezing it for good measure.

"You can take your family and go into the forest. Take the Road north towards Wabe, and you'll find the Kingdom of Knights to the left past the wild toadstools. There is still some Resistance out there," Hatter said. "You'll do them more good there."

Gil shook his head. "We should stay and fight."

"Your son," Hatter started, dropping his voice so the attentive little boy couldn't hear, "has already lost his mother. He shouldn't be made to lose his father as well. Trust me that no child should experience that loss."

Alice saw the change in Hatter again, a mercurial change from cold to sad, and had to resist the urge to warn Gil not to press it.

The older man looked away first from Hatter's dark eyes, seeing the mixture of mad despair and resolute anger.

"Where's the nearest ladder?" Hatter asked and Gil waved his hand.

"Just around the next bend. Leads to the old wharf decks." He looked at his scattered family and sighed. "How do we get through the Sewer? Aren't there many turns?"

Chesh suddenly straightened up so abruptly from his position that they looked at him in surprise. His odd cat eyes were wide and staring down the Tunnel.

"You'd best tell them quickly," he said. "'Cause if you don't, I certainly hope you can all swim."

Hatter frowned, confused, but Alice stepped beside Chesh. The air suddenly felt heavy and damp, as if it had been saturated with water. She glanced at the thin man beside her but his green-ringed eyes were staring down the darkness, and she almost swore that she saw his ears twitch.

Behind her, Hatter began to give quick instructions that she didn't really hear as a faint rumbling started beneath her feet.

"A tremor?" Alice asked aloud and Chesh shook his head, his attention not wavering.

"Not a tremor. Can't you smell it?" he demanded and she shook his head. "It's the lake water. Fresh water but highly ionized thanks to a pumping system."

She frowned. "You can smell that?"

"Good thing too," he muttered. Alice would have dismissed it but she was starting to smell a metallic odour in the air as well, like hard water and copper mixed together. The rumbling was deepening beneath her feet.

"Hatter?" Alice called out and he looked at her. Alice was pointing up at the Tunnel ceiling, where the buttresses were now sweating water. Sheets of it soon began to fall down the sides of the Tunnel and Hatter swore furiously.

"They wouldn't," Gil said beside Hatter and the younger man gave a humourless laugh.

"Looks like they will. Get your people out of here," he snapped, stepping toward Alice and Chesh. Gil grabbed his arm.

"What about you?" He glanced at Alice. "Shouldn't she be protected?"

"She will be but we've come too far to go back now. Go!" Hatter repeated and pulled his arm free. Gil tried to work up the nerve to argue but the shaking ground under his feet convinced him that it was a waste of time and breath. His own family was already trudging up the hillside and disappearing into the broken Sewer, and he bent over to pick up his small son. The boy clung to his shoulder, crying in fear, and he hugged him tightly as he plunged into the safety of the Sewer. He knew they were going to need to run hard and fast to get to the outside, if the Tunnel was about to be destroyed like he expected.

Hatter grabbed Alice's hand once Gil had gone into the Sewer. "Come on!" he ordered and pulled her after him. Chesh followed on their heels as they ran around the corner. The floating lanterns didn't help ease the darkness of the Tunnel and Hatter had to pause to catch his bearings. Alice clung to his hand and then turned to look behind them. Chesh had stopped as well and the rumbling began to get worse. The tiny rocks that dotted the Tunnel floor were clattering against each other and the water was now cascading down the sides of the Tunnel to form a muddy slop at their feet.

Alice pulled her boot free of the suction of the mud and felt Hatter let her hand go.

"I know it's here. Optic illusion and all that," he muttered, swiping his hat free from his head and flipping it over in his hand. The hat spiralled out when he flung it in a wide arc, a hat trick that Alice recognized from the last time they'd been in a Tunnel like this.

"Hatter," Chesh said suddenly and Alice looked at him. "Now would be a good time to find that way out."

As he spoke, the mouth of their cavern started to crumble and Alice stared over Chesh's shoulder, her mouth open.

Water was rushing towards them like a tidal wave, crested by foam and spray. In the narrow Tunnel, it sounded like a train out of control and her heart leapt in fear.

"Hatter!" Alice shouted just as his hat struck something solid.

"This way!" he answered over his shoulder and he sprinted for his hat. Hiding in the darkness and wrapped up by thick vines was an old metal cage ladder, hanging from the ceiling. Hatter scooped his hat up and gazed up the ladder to be sure that this was the one he was looking for. He slid up into it, Alice close on his heels and Chesh on hers, and they began the torturously long climb up. The water struck the bottom part of the ladder just as Chesh got his feet clear and he leapt to the other side of the ladder to avoid being swept away.

Below them water pounded at the walls of the Tunnel and there was a deep pained groan of earth and cement moving. Around them, the walls of the Tunnel began to collapse. The narrow pathway only forced the water to beat against the walls harder and harder. Their part of the Tunnel felt like it was shaking as more and more water was being forced into it, and though the water flowed out into the adjoining Tunnel paths, more kept rushing in. The water below the ladder became a tiny, sucking maelstrom at the force of the flooding.

Hatter reached the top and almost fell when the manhole refused to budge when he tried to open it. The twisted wheel that held it closed was rusted over and he wrenched at it desperately. Alice reached his legs and twisted to the other side of the ladder to let Chesh get away from the water.

"Hatter?" Alice asked, her voice weak as she clung to the ladder with both arms wrapped around a rung.

"Just be a second," he offered with mock cheerfulness, trying to ignore the ominous booming sound of the water flooding the Tunnel.

"Hope we have a second," Chesh snapped and he yelped as a cold sting of water splashed his back. It was then that Alice heard, under the roar of water, the sound of screaming from the Tunnel exit just south of them.

"There's people in the other Tunnels," she said, shock and fear settling in her stomach. If Hatter heard her he gave no sign but Chesh focussed on her face, aware of her thoughts. Alice stared down the Tunnel, hearing the screaming start to die as the people were swept away by the water, and feeling a hopelessness that almost seared her like a painful cut. Hatter was still clinging to the ladder above her as he twisted harder and harder at the manhole wheel. It screeched as it started to give under his strength.

Alice wrapped her arm tightly around the rung and leaned out slightly, swallowing a mouthful of water in surprise when the water surged and splashed around her legs. Something else brushed her legs, heavy and yet soft, and beneath the foamy surface of the water she saw a corpse of a woman being swept by her. Unable to help the scream from escaping her throat, Alice tried to look away but her eyes were almost captured by the sight of the bloated face staring sightlessly up at her. The corpse was carried away by the current only to be followed by more and more bodies. It was a sickening sight and Alice couldn't look away.

"People are dying," Alice whispered and she leaned out further. "I... I could stop it."

Chesh's eyes snapped away from the corpses in the water to her face, seeing the desperate determination in her face. "Alice, no!" he snapped but her eyes were on the distance again as she bit into her lower lip.

Above them, Hatter slammed his fist into the manhole and it popped up with surprising ease, the lock falling into the water below them. He was about to shout his success when he felt slim fingers touching the satchel at his side. He jerked, almost expecting to see Chesh grabbing at his side but it was Alice. She had hold of the Sceptre before he could stop her and Chesh looked up at him. He was hanging by one arm now, the pull of the undertow grabbing at him and he hauled himself up beside Hatter's legs.

"She's going to try something stupid," Chesh shouted over the deafening noise. "It'll kill her."

Hatter reached down without thinking and grabbed Alice by her wrist. It felt almost frail in his hand, but also warm from her glow and he hauled her up between him and the ladder.

"Hatter!" she cried out, shoving at him. "I could save them!"

He saw the agonized guilt in her face, for people they didn't even know, and hardened himself against the way Alice looked at him.

"No, Alice," he said, his voice quiet but forceful. The water was at their knees now, only a fraction of space left for them, and he shook his head. "They'll be dead... and I won't lose you to this. Up, now."

She hesitated, bordering on fighting him to do what she thought she needed to do. Her fingers clenched around the Sceptre and Hatter squeezed her wrist painfully hard until she let it go. He grabbed it, dropping it back into the satchel, and then shoved at her roughly.

"Now, Alice!" he yelled, lifting her up through the manhole. She tried to fight him but once he had her halfway through he used his hand on her buttocks to boost her the rest of the way. Hatter turned back around to see Chesh hanging precariously from the other side of the ladder.

The Cheshire looked genuinely frightened, his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his knuckles bone white from clenching so hard to the rusted ladder. Hatter blinked, startled by the sight of weakness in the other man.

"Cats and water," he muttered to himself and he caught Chesh's arm just as the water grabbed the man and began to pull him away from the safety of the ladder. Without another thought, Hatter pulled him free and up the ladder ahead of him. Chesh did it all without opening his eyes and Hatter had to shove him the rest of the way before he could get out.

He leapt up through the manhole followed by a spout of water, and promptly collapsed onto his stomach. Like Alice and Chesh, he was soaked to the skin and the night air was freezing cold. The air though was fresh after the stagnant odours of the Tunnel and he gulped it in thankfully.

Water surged through the manhole and he stood up on shaky legs. Acting on adrenaline, he grabbed Alice and Chesh by their shoulders and hauled them up the platform they were on, vaguely recognizing the old abandoned docks around him but not caring. The wood dock were trembling from the churning water underneath them and he forced Alice and Chesh to follow him up onto a grassy partition that separated the second floor streets from the dock. Once they reached a dark alley, he let them go and watched as they dropped to their knees.

Ignoring the urge to fall over and kiss the ground in thanks, Hatter forced himself to move, grabbing hold of Alice to check her over. He pulled her to her seat and looked at her.

She was shaking violently, her lips almost blue from the cold water and frigid air, and he rubbed at her arms. But her shock wasn't from the cold and her breathing bordered on hyperventilating. He had a moment where he wondered if stopping her mid-glow had been a deadly mistake, but the shimmer that lingered on her body, though subdued, was still there. Feeling relieved, he pulled her into his arms. She snuggled tightly into him, her sobs heart-wrenching and he realized just how much she had felt down in those tunnels.

Hatter tucked her face against his neck and rocked her, whispering soothing nonsense in her ear and humming an inane song he would often hum to himself to keep calm. Her sobs muffled by his coat and he kept rocking to comfort her.

When he looked at Chesh, he saw the other man staring at him warily.

"You saved me," Chesh said softly and Hatter stared back, still running his hand over Alice's back to calm her. The Cheshire shook his head, looking up at the city buildings the alley was surrounded by. "I can't say I'd do the same."

"That's why you and I are different, Chesh," Hatter answered and he looked down at Alice. She had stopped sobbing but her shaking was still bad. She was staring at the water close by and her fingers tightened on his arms.

"Hatter, those people," she started and he shushed her.

"There'll be time to grieve them, Alice," he whispered back, "but we need to make sure this doesn't happen again."

"But why?" Alice asked and he shook his head.

"Who knows why when it comes to the Queen?"

"Your orders have been obeyed, Majesty," said the Seven of Clubs as he bowed to her. The Queen stood at her balcony, sipping a glass of blood-red wine and drumming her other fingers on the railing. She was dressed for the evening in a regal red silk gown and her painted lips were parted in a smirk.

"Excellent, Seven." She looked over her shoulder. "How many Tunnels?"

"Twenty, Majesty. Ten confirmed to have collapsed," he reported and shivered at the malevolent light in her eyes.

"Even better." The Queen looked back over the City. "I always did say that the best way to control the rabble of this City was to drown the rats first. Tell the other Clubs to organize a meeting of citizens in the square shortly. It is time to win back the hearts of my people."

"Yes, Majesty." The Club bowed formally and scuttled away as quickly as he could. One of the White Rabbit was standing guard and he glared at him but the Club was so glad to be escaping with his head that he ignored it.

On the balcony, the Queen smiled widely and tilted her head back as she stared at the distant shoreline. "Let us see you get into the City now, old man," she muttered to herself.

Chapter Text

The stairs within the apartment tower were narrow and crumbling, with only a few lights fixed on the walls to give a muted glow to the stairwell. Occasionally, Pidge would come to a crooked door on a landing, usually boarded up but easy enough to break into. The rooms were empty though and through some of the doors there was nothing but a sheer drop on the other side of the threshold, something he found out when he nearly fell through on the fifth floor.

It was a long steep climb and the narrow stairs only made him edgy. There wasn't much room to move and the nearly abandoned building had a musty smell of mould and sitting water. Pidge hadn't been too worried until he slowly started to realize that getting out of here might be next to impossible.

"But when isn't it?" he muttered to himself as he came to another landing. He'd been careful not to be followed into this building. The Queen's men had split up at Fletch Street and he'd seen several go into the nearby apartment towers, the ones still occupied by several low-rent citizens and after a few minutes of waiting, he'd gone into the abandoned one that had a condemned sign on its windows. Knowing Selena, she'd never be stupid enough to live in a building that still had people who may recognize her. Once the coast was clear, Pidge had managed to squeeze between the boarded-up doors.

A homeless man had been sleeping on ground level and after a few moment's coercion, he'd told Pidge that there was only a few other people in the building, squatters mostly on the ground floor, and no one went to the top anyway.

True to his word, there had been no one in the rooms above the first floor and Pidge had kept climbing the stairs.

Pidge ceased talking to himself the higher he went, and started to walk more carefully. The floorboards were old and creaky, and he didn't want to alert anyone to his presence. Sliding his hand up the wall, he felt the gnarled mixture of cement and wood and wondered how long it would take before the building collapsed.

He forced his attention on the matter at hand, trying to get rid of that uneasy feeling about being in such a dilapidated building. Under his feet, the entire building felt ready to fall but it was made in the style of some of Wonderland's best architecture. The very core of which had specialized in building massive structures on-top of one another, sometimes up to fifteen buildings staggered. There was no real reason why this building should collapse but he kept one ear out for any tell-tale creaks that might foreshadow the supports breaking.

Pausing at one of the last steps before the final landing, Pidge took a moment and closed his eyes. He sucked in a few deep breaths and put his hand to his side where the holster was strapped. He'd had to abandon the thought of carrying a gun for this; a bullet's ricochet would likely draw the wrong kind of attention which he most definitely didn't want. The mallet, on the other hand, might pack the right kind of punch to keep this from getting too ugly.

The stairwell changed into an impossibly narrow spire and the last door was just as crooked as the others, though the ceiling was so low he had to duck down. There was nothing to distinguish it other than it was the very last door he could try before he'd have to give up and go back down the stairs. When Pidge swung it open, the room itself was incredibly warm and almost inviting, very different from the cold drafts from before. He stood at the doorway, running his eyes over the sparse flatlet with the same caution he'd use with any trap. Besides a low-burning fire to one side near the window and some spare furniture scattered around, the room looked abandoned. Which meant that Pidge was more certain that Selena had been here; the room just had a faint odour of cooking and the fire was still burning brightly in the open fireplace.

But just the fact that it looked like she'd left made Pidge instantly on guard. He took a few steps back from the door and looked at the door frame curiously. There was nothing that looked out of the ordinary and he reached down to grab a long piece of discarded wood from a woodpile stacked near the door. Flicking his tongue to the corner of his mouth, he dragged the wood from top to the bottom, down the middle of the door, and watched as it was sliced into pieces at his head and foot level.

"Hair-wire," he whispered, impressed at her ingenuity. Throwing the remaining wood to the pile, he ducked and stepped through the doorway, pulling the door closed behind him and locking it just to be safe. Reaching down to his side, he pulled the mallet from his holster and let it slide through his fingers. The handle skittered out to its full proper length and he twisted it carefully to keep it locked at that size.

It felt like the room itself was holding its breath and he inhaled sharply.

"I know you're here."

Pidge turned a slow careful circle and looked around the flatlet. The window was open to let the smoke escape and he went over to close it, only to find a rope hanging down the side. Leaning out, Pidge hefted the rope in one hand and checked its length. It was long enough to meet the rooftop of the next building and he squinted to try to see the end of it.

The whisper of movement just behind him made him duck instinctively, feeling the graze of a knife against the back of his neck. It just sniped off a piece of hair and he whirled to the left, snapping back out with his hand to chop the knife from his assailant's hand. It went skittering to the ground and he grunted in pain as a foot jammed itself onto his. The heel dug so sharply that he knew it was a woman who had done it and he reached out, grabbing hold of a hard leather bound arm.

"Damned man!" a familiar voice hissed and he yanked hard on the arm, twisting his attacker around into his arms and into the firelight.

A badly scarred Selena stared up at him, her thin elfin features so marred by multiple scratches that it almost made him miss the hollow pits that had once been her eyes.

"Wonderland," Pidge whispered and in shock he shoved her away from him. Selena fell against an opposing wall, covered in shadows and Pidge took in a breath to recover. Judging her distance and his hesitation, Selena launched herself again, a second knife flashing into her fingers from the wrist holster and he narrowly ducked the swipe at his throat. She tried to back him against the window but he bent and danced out of her way, his mallet still held loosely at his side. She followed him, her head turning to track the sound of his movements and blindly she thrust out.

He felt the sting of the blade catching his arm and slicing deeply and Pidge clasped his arm tightly, cursing himself for forgetting to be quick around her. Selena, even at her weakest, was very fast and he was underestimating her. Something he'd sworn not to do again.

He used the mallet handle to block her next blow aimed at his stomach and he twisted it so that she went stumbling back when the impact struck her own belly. Circling her again, Pidge continued to block her thrusts and swipes and each time she came into the light to reveal more of her hideously scarred face, he felt his hardened resolve weaken a little. He had always been soft-hearted towards her, forgiving even in times when he pretended not to care, and it was obvious by the odd way she moved that she was in considerable pain. She'd strike and retreat, acting so much like her namesake in her attacks that he almost felt a bit out of his element. The attacks weren't straightforward or brave; they seemed like her last attempt at staying alive, as if she'd anticipated him. That'd she knew he'd come here to kill her.

So much for catching her unawares, Pidge thought wryly to himself even as he saw another knife join the one she held. She clenched the knives between her fingers like a pair of sharp iron knuckles and he parried a blow aimed at his face. He snagged the mallet head around her elbow and blocked another punch before trying to disarm her. Her leg lashed out, catching him in the shin and he hopped to dodge another kick.

"Stop it!" Pidge snapped as he grabbed hold of her arm, trying to twist it at an angle as he pulled her closer. "We don't have to fight, Selena."

He tried to keep his voice calm, to soothe her, but she snarled like an animal at him. Drawing her closer still, Pidge pressed his hand against her neck.

"Selena," he tried again and she leaned back. Before he could stop her, she jerked her leg up hard and kneed him in the groin, sending him to the floor howling in pain. She listened to him fall and grinned fatalistically.

"But we do, Pidge. We really do," she murmured. "After all, you're here to kill me, aren't you?"

Pidge didn't answer. Once the throbbing pain between his legs lessened a little, he rolled silently to his stomach and crept over to the wall behind her. Selena's brow furrowed as she tried to hear him but his silence made her wave her knife hand in the air blindly. When it hit nothing, she sneered and held it steady.

"That would be too easy, for you to fall like that," Selena said lowly. "Where are you, Pidge? Or are you going to be a coward about this? You can't even face me like a true Resistance fighter; maybe you are just the lapdog of the Drawling Master. Come on, lapdog, I'm blind. How much of a challenge can I be?"

He let her insults slide harmlessly off him, his temper cool and in control. Selena continued to spit out vile insinuations about him but he didn't hear her. His attention was on the stiffly held arm she had, on the blood-rusted edge of the knives in her hand, and he waited. Selena's arm was wavering from the strain of her defensive posture but still he didn't move from where he crouched near the fire, where the crackle of the flames covered his breathing. It let him see her face and the weakness in her body, a weakness he'd never seen before and he carefully judged his distance.

The knife hand lowered a fraction of an inch as Selena focussed on her hearing, desperate to locate him. Waiting seconds more, Pidge let her turn from him towards the centre of the room before he struck. The mallet handle slid back down his arm to its place in his hand and he swung it as he jumped out. Impossibly, her head turned at the moment he moved, having heard the scuff of his boots on the cement floor, and she swung out with her knife hand. It sliced through the front of his shirt, scraping his chest, but Pidge sacrificed his defence for his attack. He increased the strength of the swing of his mallet and the head of it cracked against Selena's wrist.

The sound of fracturing bone was covered by her shriek of pain and she dropped the knives from her agonized hand. Pidge narrowly dodged her other hand as she swung wildly out at him and he moved behind her again. He made a wide loop with the mallet and caught the handle in his other hand so that it was in front of her. She lurched forward and shrieked again when her throat met the firmness of the mallet. Yanking hard, he dragged her back against his chest, the wood pressing into her windpipe.

Choking, Selena grabbed the handle and tried to struggle against the strength of his hold. Pidge grunted and jerked on it hard to stun her, while using his one leg to force her to her knees. He followed her down and pressed harder when she struggled, not stopping even when her breathing became alarmingly uneven.

"Stop it," he said softly in her ear. "Stop fighting and I won't crush this through your throat."

It was a sign that her self-preservation was very much alive when she relaxed totally against him, her hands limp at her side. Not trusting her, Pidge kept the pressure there and leaned back on his legs a bit.

"Now, this is comfy, wouldn't you say?" he asked in a conversational tone. Selena turned her head and if she'd had eyes, she would been glaring at him.

"Son of a Wonderland whore," she spat out at him and Pidge shrugged.

"That's for her to know. But considering how long she's been dead for, who knows for sure if she'd tell the truth?" Pidge secured his arm around her throat, still holding the mallet in his hand, and used the other hand to grab her wrists before she could try anything. Knowing her, she had more than a few knives stashed on her thin body. Her clothing was ripped in almost indecent patches, threadbare and revealing, but he didn't trust his eyes when it came to her. Deciding on his options, Pidge quickly unbuckled his belt.

The sound echoed in the silent flatlet. Selena's whole body stiffened and he snorted, guessing where her mind was heading. "Please, if I wanted to take you, Selena, I wouldn't need to restrain you."

"You pompous..."

"Though you've been begging me for it since we were kids," he insulted back and she struggled as he bound her hands in front of her chest with the belt.

"Who would want you?" she snapped and he grinned, patting her cheek and standing behind her.

"That's my old spitfire. Insult me all you want, it won't help you," Pidge said, his breath brushing her cheek. It made her choppy red hair lift from her forehead and he saw her tremble. Both of them knew why he'd come after her and it had nothing to do with sex.

Selena, Pidge knew, had anticipated him but wouldn't know exactly how he might interrogate her.

He walked around in front of her, leaving her on her knees, and grabbed an overturned chair. He didn't miss how she winced when he scraped it loudly on the floor and he grinned as he plunked down into it. Reclining back, he twirled the mallet idly in one hand so that its movement caused a breeze against her cheek. Selena flinched every time the air touched her face and Pidge took her in silently.

"You look terrible," he said finally and she made a face.

"I think all of us have seen better days."

"Yes, but you aren't quite 'seeing' anything now, are you?" Pidge asked. The joke felt bitter on his tongue and Selena made a disgusted snort. He reached out with the mallet handle and tilted her face up with it. "Wonderland, you did piss the South off, didn't you?"

"I underestimated it," Selena corrected and her self-loathing was obvious. "I ignored our first lesson we were taught as kids."

"Our following lessons didn't involve killing innocent people," Pidge snapped and she arched a brow over one empty eye-socket. It made her face look comical but her mouth soon twisted into a fierce grin.

"Perhaps yours didn't, Pidge," she answered. Her head tilted and her face lost its scarred ugliness for a moment as she turned inquisitive. "So, why are you here? I knew you were still alive but I didn't expect you to be let off your leash."

"I came because of what you've done. I want to know why you drove Hatter to madness like you did. You were once his friend, more than that, but surely nothing he did deserved that, Selena."

Her lips thinned. "That's all, Pidge? You just want sheer gossip? My little slant on things?"

"I would like to hear the truth, Selena, but I doubt your serpent tongue is used to speaking it anymore." He tapped the mallet against her cheek gently. "So maybe you can talk and I'll let you know if your lies are getting out of hand. You've destroyed enough lives with what you believe is the truth."

A sly look came over her face. "So that's it? You are doing this for an Oyster?"

Pidge didn't answer for a moment, registering the hatred that twisted her mouth once again. "I am doing this for her," he admitted and she laughed.

"Oh I am so sure Hatter's ghost will be so happy that you are taking care of his woman...again," she bit out.

"So that Hatter himself doesn't have to," Pidge finished as if she hadn't spoken. Her face lifted to his, shock making her pale face bone-white and her lips tremble. Hatter's apparent survival hadn't been something she'd anticipated.

Pidge knew he had spoken the truth; he was doing this for Alice, because if he didn't, Hatter would. Alice should not be subjected to seeing Hatter do what he could to break Selena, Pidge decided to himself. He himself could only guess, by rumour and some experience, just how Hatter would return the favour on Selena for her attempt to break him. Alice loved Hatter too much to witness that dark side of him once more and Pidge, out of an odd admiration and caring for both her and Hatter, would do anything to keep that from happening.

Selena recovered, her scarred face mask-like once again. "How much you love," she snapped irritably. "I wonder which you might love more. The Oyster or the Hatter."

"What can I say?" Pidge rolled his eyes though he knew she couldn't see it. "I love and trust, family or not. But not without good reason: they deserve it."

"So he's alive," Selena muttered, still digesting that information. "He should be dead."

"You repeated your first mistake, Selena; you underestimated Alice. She loved him enough to fight for him," Pidge explained and he leaned forward. "Which is more than I could say for you and your odd form of 'love'. Even years after, nothing has changed in your attitude, your sheer disregard for frailty and our need to understand emotion, though we don't necessarily feel it."

Selena jerked forward on her knees so they were mere inches from each other. "You never complained before, when you came so eagerly to my bed after Hatter left me." Her head tipped on the side, her lips barely brushing his. "You wanted me back then, because I was his. You came to me, wanted me, toyed with me because I let you play all your games with me and enjoyed them all, even when you tried to hurt me. But still, in the back of your mind, you were pleased that you had been with Hatter's old lover. You are as twisted and odd as I am, Pidge. Don't pretend you are like Hatter, with his emotions and odd type of madness. You aren't; there is no Oyster waiting for you who would understand your nature. You are a killer to the end, like Hatter; only he had become better at hiding it."

"In that, you are wrong." He stared into her hollow eye-sockets. "No, I'm a torturer, Selena." He tilted her chin forcibly and his mouth moved over hers, so that each touch his lips was threatening. "And you are right, after all. I can hurt you and not feel any guilt about it."

For a brief flash, her face looked frightened before it hardened again. "You don't frighten me," she answered.

"But I will, if you don't tell me why and who you did this for," Pidge threatened. She was struggling for words and he leaned back, taking his mallet and casually banging it on the floor beside himself. With each tap on the floor, Selena winced in anticipation for coming pain.

"I won't," she started and Pidge stopped tapping the floor.

"Do you honestly think Dodo is going to save you?" He lowered his voice. "Selena, there are Queen's Suits scouring the Towers to find you. Only a few people knew where you live."

"Maybe..." she started and he leaned back close to her.

"Selena," he drawled her name out and her face lifted to his. "You know that he's using you. You've done his dirty work for him and now you're a liability. Remember? That is a lesson he himself taught those of us being used as assassins. When you've planned something, you destroy the path that led to its conclusion."

Her face turned from his and her body shivered. Pidge watched her steadily. It was like watching a wall crumbling and he was too well trained not to recognize the opportunity it presented. Despite all she'd done, he had no stomach for torturing women but he knew he might have to make exemptions on that rule. However, with her kneeling in front of him in ripped clothing, it was hard for him not to think of her as female.

But all he had to do to refocus was remember the dark madness of Hatter and Alice's fear for her baby. The things she had done and the things he had had to do to counter her. The things all of them had to do to try to make things right.

"I don't know why," Selena blurted out suddenly, her face tipped down to the floor. "I only had my orders."

Stunned at how easy she was admitting this, Pidge watched her face carefully, waiting for any tells on her neutral face. The only betrayal was the occasional wince when her eye-sockets would twitch in phantom pain. But nothing too obvious and he had to wait patiently.

"Orders to get the formula for conduits from Hatter. Orders to separate him and drive him to madness, to destroy him if need be," she explained. "I didn't believe the Queen's involvement, not even when I was ordered to work with the Twin Doctors."

Pidge stared in shock, not having realized that the very doctors Dee and Dum, who had been once considered nothing more than bogeymen, had been involved.

Selena frowned at his silence. "You see, Pidge? I was under orders and like any soldier, I followed them through."

"Why the razing of the South? Why did you make Hatter kill people?"

"In the end, it was like setting a hunger-starved jabberwock loose in a field of bili-hoop cows," Selena observed, shifting uncomfortably. "You do it to see what happens and then you realize you have no control."

"But Dodo wanted it to happen."

"It attracted attention, didn't it? Attention away from the City?" she sniped at him and he resisted the urge to slap her for her glibness. "Dodo wanted me to capture the Alice once Hatter was out of the way. We had destroyed the mirror but didn't realize we needed an Oyster to remake it. Her mother was an added bonus but Dodo particularly wanted Hatter mad and Alice captured."


She turned her head away from him and impatiently, he used the mallet handle and struck her across the face. She spat out a mouthful of blood and shivered when he leaned close to her.

"Why, Selena? We're running out of time."

He wasn't just threatening her. As they sat there, he could hear the sound of Scarabs flying close by, which meant that Suits were likely searching this tower now.

"Because of what she seemed able to do with that glow of hers, which no Oyster has done before. Because the one that controls the conduits controls Wonderland and its fate," she said slowly, as if speaking to a stupid child. "The Resistance could finally fulfill its destiny to change Wonderland."

"So you justify torturing Hatter, killing the King and trying to kill thousands of others because the Resistance and its old members didn't get their real way the first time?" Pidge asked, disgusted by the belief in her voice. "You never were that stupid, Selena."

"My duty was to take care of Hatter and the Oyster. Whatever happened to the King was not my doing," she denied and then shrugged. "But I suppose you are right. The means justify the ends."

"An end that you won't share," Pidge informed her. "Dodo wants you dead, Selena."

"I gave Dodo what he wanted," she defended, as if that would protect her life. She sneered at him. "You can't stop this anyway. What's mean to happen is going to happen."

He ignored that, starting to lose his temper at the casual way she admitted to her guilt.

"This reeks of more than just his plans, Selena. The Queen had her hand in this and she is a mistress of manipulation. By Wonderland, did you never once pay attention to any sort of conscience? You've acted like one of the Queen's Suits, not someone truly devoted to a freedom we fought for!" he shouted furiously at her. "You've signed thousands of Wonderlander death warrants practically with your own hand. She hasn't forgotten how happy people were at her overthrow."

She snorted indifferently and he knelt in front of her, grabbing her by a hunk of her hair and twisting it painfully in his hand. Her neck made a small crack when he forced her head back.

"I have heard people screaming, seen them interrogated. Don't you remember how it was to see your family butchered in the South when the final years of the War happened? Just see that time and time again," he hissed against her cheek. "Imagine it, the children dead or crying for their parents, like you did, and remember how it was to feel that agony. Then tell me you did something for the good of Wonderland."

He shoved her away, not caring where she fell, not hearing her gasp of pain. "I saw what you had them do to Hatter, saw what you caused. I almost mourn the girl you were. Almost. You've hurt too many people, Selena, to earn any place in this world."

Pidge stood and walked over to the window, suddenly desperate to breathe fresh air. The air around them felt hot and stagnant with suppressed anger and he welcomed the cold breeze. He listened to the scuffle of Selena righting herself from her fall, and then stared hard at the street below the window. There was a group of Suits at the foot of the tower and by the way they were guarding the doors, more were probably inside and making their way up.

He closed his eyes.

"He told me to kill the Duchess... the King's widow." Selena's voice was soft and troubled. "I never questioned it because I am not to question things."

Pidge looked over his shoulder and saw her blindly turning slow circles to search for him, her hands still bound before her. Her wrists were oozing blood from struggling against the tight binding and when she swivelled on her feet, she looked ready to drop from exhaustion.

"I'm to obey, it is how I live," Selena finished.

"That is the difference between Jack Heart's Wonderland, Selena, and the one Dodo wants to create. Blind obedience is no life to live," he said with an ironic tone in his voice. "At least in Jack's world, we were free."

"We have never been 'free'," she argued. Pidge sighed, not wanting to press the argument, and turned to look at her.

"Why didn't you kill the Duchess?"

"Lack of opportunity, Pidge." She gestured obscenely to her empty sockets. "Blind, remember?"

"You've never hesitated before."

"I was still valuable back then," she snapped in retaliation. "Now I am staying alive because I hide."

She turned her attention to the door, her head whipping around and her mouth tightened. "Not that it does much good for me now."

Pidge could hear the men coming up the steps like a stampede, and focussed on her instead. "Dodo wants you dead because of what you know, Selena, there's no hiding from that."

She laughed bitterly. "You want me dead as well or have you forgotten?"

"I haven't. You killed without question and let Wonderland burn in the South. You helped destroy lives and nearly lost us the chance to keep it from falling apart." Pidge sighed again. "And I can't help but feel like we're going to pay for that in the end. Why would Dodo want to work with the Queen?"

"He wouldn't. He hates her almost as much as he hates Hatter."

"Yet Hatter's a player in all of this," Pidge muttered to himself and her head turned curiously to him. "The information in his mind, his place in Wonderland society, his Alice, everything... comes down to him and what his family could do."

His voice dropped and he whispered to himself, "Why?"

He walked back to her and stood at her side, hearing the footsteps coming closer to the door. "Selena, for Wonderland's sake, what does Dodo have planned?"

She turned her head to the side, determined to ignore him and he turned her face to him. Her defiance was clear in the jutting set of her chin and he stroked the edge of her jaw.

"Then for my sake. For the friends we once were, for what we once felt, for any reason. Just try to see that what could happen, what this could mean to this world we've fought so hard for."

Something softened just slightly in her and her chin dipped towards her chest. The assassin part of her retreated a little, revealing another side he had so rarely seen over the years, and he watched her hopefully. The empty eye-sockets and scarred features of the young woman suddenly seemed to ebb, her attempt at nonchalance nothing when compared to the utter defeat in the slump of her shoulders.

"I don't know... he wanted things to be how they should have been. I took the ingredient list to him. Hatter had spouted it out at me but I could only remember a few things, we had so little time before he'd retreat to utter madness. He never said the same thing twice it seemed. It is hard to remember." She raised her bound hands and ticked things off on her fingers. "Thrice charms of an Oyster past, the Stone of Souls long dead, and a sacrifice of utter freedom. Combined in quicksilver and burnt in lightening."

She closed her fingers into fists. "It made no sense to me and he said it all so fast. But Dodo seemed to understand the pieces I gave him."

"If Dodo doesn't have the whole list, he can't pull together a real conduit," Pidge realized to himself and felt a dash of hope. "He can't gain control."

"And without a conduit, Wonderland falls apart," Selena countered. "We need that other-world."

"So only Hatter knows how to pull it together," he said and she shrugged.

"Or the Drawling Master. But Hatter seemed to have been told a different formulation because he started using multiple voices at the time that argued with one another."

Pidge stared at her, realizing just how much she had told him and willingly. But why now?

There was a pounding on the door and they both turned towards it. For a moment, Pidge hesitated, looking around the room. He spied the rope still dangling from its tie-ring at the window and knew that that was the only route. Grabbing her by her hands, he undid the belt that he'd tied them with and watched her rub her bloody wrists curiously.

But when he saw Selena's face pulled into a look of serenity, his hesitation became grief.

"Selena," he whispered and her head turned to him. "Ask me to save you."

My conscience can't let it be another way, he thought weakly.

She tilted her head and he put his hand on her cheek.


Her face grew stony as she thought it over. "No, Pidge."

He stared at her, not anticipating that. Selena's personal selfishness had always been centred around her survival but there was no hint of it now. She just didn't care what was about to happen. The change was sudden and so radical he couldn't think of what to say.

A weary smile came to her lips, making her look younger and tragic. "Could you really forgive yourself if you save me now from this, considering all I have done? Could your friends? All you would be doing is prolonging what will be inevitable."

She shook her head. "I suppose if I can redeem one thing in my life, the only thing I think I regret, it would be the pain I did cause you and the pain you caused me. If nothing else."

Pidge knew what she was trying to say, though as Wonderland assassins neither had been brought to feel that way, and he smiled regretfully, glad she couldn't see his face.

"I don't want any forgiveness, as I stand by what I have done," Selena said, trying to retreat behind her old facade.

"I'm not offering any," Pidge answered and he cupped her around the nape of her neck. Leaning in, he kissed her gently, suddenly feeling an overwhelming sorrow between them. Despite her scarred appearance, he had no revulsion in touching her and he felt her soften against him, as if she was thankful for that last comfort. Her mouth was warm under his, her hands shaking as they buried themselves in his hair, and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut when she shivered against him. He remembered, just for one moment, when they had been younger and times like this were just fantastical nonsense to them all. When sorrow and hope had seemed like something for people addicted to Emotions, not for them. Now he felt crippled by those odd emotions of grief and resignation, knowing that he could not change what both of them knew was right.

Selena returned the kiss before giving a small hopeless sound and breaking the contact with clear regret. Her head dropped and her hands slid down his chest, pushing lightly so that he stepped back from her.

He stared at her hard, mourning the loss of the girl he'd once been mad about and regretting the people they'd both been driven to become.

"Go, Pidge," Selena said forcefully, backing away from him to her place in the shadows. He moved over to the window and wrapped his belt around the rope. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw her turn to face the door.

"Good-bye, Selena," he said. "I can't forgive what you've done... but I can thank you for what you have tried to amend."

He jumped out the window, missing the faint sound of pain she made, and using the belt to protect his hands he rappelled down the side of the building. He was only a quarter of the way down when he heard the Suits break down the door and heard one scream when he was cut into by the hair-wire trap. Selena's loud laugh was almost maniacal over the loud crackle of tasers being blasted and to stop himself from hearing more, Pidge let the rope fall more freely from his hands so that he almost plummeted towards the next rooftop. He was focussed on not crashing into the roof and dying. It was the only thing he could do now.

Chapter Text

Hatter kept Alice close to his side as they slid from alley to alley, and wondered if he was making the right decision in keeping them moving. Despite the familiarity of the streets, the sense of forbidding was so rampant just in the feel of the city that Hatter felt like he had someone breathing down the back of his neck. Above them, he heard a clang of metal on metal and he tensed instinctively, until he caught sight of a long tail disappearing up a fire escape.

"Stupid cat," Hatter muttered. He'd forgotten that Chesh had converted back to his cat form and pouncing along. Despite his earlier snide words, the Cheshire was keeping close to them and staying strangely quiet at the same time. Something that both of Alice and Hatter were thankful for. It already felt like the tension was running exceptionally high without Chesh's added input about how dismal it all was.

Hatter didn't need a cat to tell him that the City seemed almost depressing with its lack of people and usual vitality.

The Cheshire was prowling along one of the upper escarpments, his tabby body weaving through the rails, and he picked his way with so much care that he almost seemed like a regular cat. Hatter watched him from the corner of his eye but Chesh seemed content to have retreated to silence and not offer any input about the strange mood of Wonderland City.

Alice clung to his hand, gripping tightly, and she was looking around them with hurried glances. Every now and then, when her nerves overcame her usual calm, she'd squeeze his hand tightly in hers and the ring she wore would bite into his fingers. Hatter almost started to ask to her to let go since her own fingers were clamped fiercely around his, but one look at her face had kept him quiet. It was an odd compliment, Hatter guessed, when he knew it was comforting her to hold his hand like this.

"It's so quiet, Hatter," Alice whispered, leaning in close behind him as they slowly walked through the alley. It was one of the longer ones and twisted in different directions of up and down, following the way the buildings had been stacked on-top of one another. Hatter had been leading them with so much care about where they went that Alice wondered if he was as nervous as she was. It didn't show in the calm way he looked in all directions but there was a slight edginess whenever he looked at her that made her nervous.

Hatter nodded at her question and adjusted the satchel at his side to keep the bottles from jingling too loudly in it. In case they had to hide, he didn't want their position to be given away because of that noise.

"Weird, eh?" he murmured back. The streets were almost completely bare, save for the few people in the distance who were going to and from various buildings. No one seemed to want to linger out in the open. With the wind icy and biting even through his clothing, Hatter himself didn't want to be outside for that long either. He was leading them towards the only place he knew might be safe and it was taking much longer than he'd expected. Every time they turned a corner or tried a different set of stairs, there would be the signs of a Scarab flying at one of the street levels or the sounds of group of Suits patrolling. He wasn't sure if Alice had noticed it at all, but he wisely kept silent so not to make her even more nervous. Their time in the Tunnel had clearly shaken her up more than she was letting on.

Glancing down at her dark head, Hatter wondered if she was seeing that horrific sight of the flooded Tunnel and the bodies in it as clearly as he still could.

"I remember coming here, before we met, and it seemed quiet. But this... this is worse somehow," Alice explained, pushing her hair out of her eyes when the wind made it snap around them.

"I know," he agreed.

Hatter hadn't seen the City in a state like this since he'd been a teenager and even then there would have been people around. People who had fought back against the turmoil of the War in their struggle to regain their normal lives.

Now... there was nothing. Not even shadows or hints of day-today Wonderlander life.

The only things moving without any concern about being caught were the small wild animals that could be seen wandering around. That was another odd thing; Hatter could only remember seeing the odd bird or cat in Wonderland City. Not actual wildlife like they may have seen in the wilds. Hatter had kept them away from the packs of odd creatures that seemed to be clustering around the patches of wild grasses and empty buildings. It was unusual enough to see bandersnatches and mome-raths even in the Wabe, but here it was unheard of.

"Get down!" Chesh hissed the warning from his place on the railing and Hatter pushed Alice behind himself. They both pressed back in to the shadows of the tall building and watched as a troupe of Suits went by. The pins on them signified they were of the White Rabbit Group and, suddenly even more cautious, Alice pulled Hatter down into a crouch beside her to keep from being seen easily. The men were marching in precise order, their focus entirely on what was in front of them, and they didn't turn to check the alleyway. When Hatter was able to get a good look at them, he could see that they were not regular Suits; most had the rough, fresh out of Lake Prison look.

They were more of a mercenary type of Suit and not a type he'd ever seen before.

Alice breathed a sigh of relief when the group kept walking down the street, their footsteps fading. Hatter touched his hat and then looked at her, giving her a grin.

"Good to be home, eh?" he whispered to her and Alice smiled wryly.

"Why can't we ever come back to peace and quiet?" she asked and he shrugged.

"My guess? That would be too easy." Hatter rose half-way and clicked his tongue. "Wonder where they were headed. Not like regular Suits to ignore good hiding places if they're lookin' for rebels."

The relative quiet of the street was broken up by the sound of gunshots and men shouting nearby to one another. Cautiously, Hatter ducked his head out again and squinted his eyes to get a better look. He watched as the Suits that had passed them went running for one of the opposite streets and began to cross one of the turn-tile bridges that spanned across the streets to get to whatever they were chasing.

It was a bit of good luck, he thought to himself and he reached for Alice's hand. With the Suits distracted, they could get moving down the streets.

"You ready?" he asked Alice and she gave him a look.

"Always am. Let's go."

With Chesh still running along the fire-escapes and fences, they ran along the sidewalks. Hatter remembered to keep to the outside while Alice almost clung to the walls. Even after all this time, she was still afraid of the impressive heights that the streets had been built up to. Hatter kept one eye on the streets for any ascending Scarabs but everything seemed to have been focussed on whatever mess the Suits were dealing with.

Glancing over his shoulder, he looked at Alice's pale face. "Won't take too long, you know, I...ooof!"

When a larger man slammed into him, Hatter went tumbling back against Alice. She yelped, going to her knees and ducking his flailing hands. Automatically, he righted himself and pivoted, ready to fight if he had to. His hand was in a fist and he pulled it back.

The only thing that saved Pidge from being knocked out was Chesh's loud groan above them. "Him again?"

"I never thought I'd be glad to see you two!" Pidge exclaimed as he pushed himself up against the wall. They both stared at him stupidly and he smiled. "What? Did I interrupt something?"

The loud noise of Suits running nearby made him curse under his breath before he grabbed Alice and Hatter by their arms and pulled them into the closest alley. They all pressed against the walls as the men ran by, shouting orders and insults at one another. On his side of the alley, Pidge gulped for breath and pressed his hand to his side to try to ease the cramp he could feel growing. He was in reasonable shape but the last half-hour he'd spent running had nearly worn him out.

On the other side, Alice and Hatter watched the Suits continue on until their voices and footsteps grew faint in the distance. Hatter breathed deeply to calm his own frayed nerves but Alice looked at the dark haired man still panting across from them. Pidge looked worn out and his usually pristine clothing was badly soiled, his shirt bloody at the edges and slashed at the stomach. When he regained his wind, he looked at her and grinned.

"Hello. Fancy meeting you two crazy lovers here," he joked

Without a thought, she crossed the aisle and hugged him tightly. "Pidge! You're okay?" she asked in a motherly voice, which made him grin though his wounded side ached at the squeezing.

Pidge gave her a squeeze back before letting go, patting her shoulder gently. Though Hatter seemed unconcerned by their embrace, Pidge wasn't about to risk it. "Just fine and dandy. My usual charming, immensely good-looking self," he answered and then frowned. "Why? Don't I look it?"

Hatter looked at him and shrugged. "You always look pretty hideous to me, so ask Alice."

"Nice, very nice," Pidge muttered at the insult. He smiled at Alice and the smile faded when he saw her solemn expression. She could clearly see that he wasn't feeling as care-free as he was putting across.

Tearing his eyes away from her, he cleared his throat and looked at Hatter. "Where'd you two come from?

"You didn't get my message then?" Hatter asked and at Pidge's shake of the head, he sighed and looked around. "Wonderful."

"Mind filling me in? Why didn't you two come with Abel?"

"Big explosion, divided up land, no way of crossing from our way over," Hatter rambled absently as he analysed their surroundings. "You know, the usual."

"Eh, sounds about right to have things not go to plan," Pidge agreed and he frowned at Alice. "You okay? You seem... paler than normal."

"Just a lot of things going on," she said simply.

"Yes, well, 'many things' would be putting it lightly." Chesh's voice echoed as he bounced down from the railing and mid-bounce he transfigured back into his more human form. Pidge jumped back with a yelp and stared wide-eyed at him.

"Wha...Ok, I'm not going crazy, that just happened?" he demanded, pointing at Chesh. Hatter squinted his eyes and took on an innocently mad grin.

"By Wonderland, it must be that since I saw it. I know I'm crazy and you must be going mad too. Looks like it's contagious, this madness business."

Pidge looked so incredibly worried that Alice took pity on him. "Hatter, knock it off." She gestured at Chesh. "Pidge, meet Chesh in regular Cheshire form. I transformed him back when we were separated from your grandfather."

"Oh." Pidge knew that single word was almost too insignificant for telling just how he actually felt but he couldn't think of anything better to say. He eyed Chesh like he might a gun to his own face and then looked at Hatter. "You let that happen?"

Despite Alice's annoyed huff, Hatter glanced at Chesh and made a so-so gesture with his hand. "Can't say I was thrilled about it."

Chesh came beside Alice and cracked his neck loudly to irritate her. His cat eyes stared at the two younger men and he sneered. "If you two are finished sharing your rapier wit and wisdom, can we get a move on?"

"Glad to," Hatter answered. He made a face. "There's just one big problem."

"Isn't there always?" Alice sniped and Hatter glared at him.

"You're sounding like him, knock it off." He pointed out the alley. "Those Suits who ran through here 'bout thirty seconds ago? The ones I figured were hunting you?"

He looked expectantly at Pidge and the taller man shrugged.

"Why were they hunting you?" Alice asked curiously.

"Probably because of a woman," Hatter commented.

"Isn't it always about a woman?" Pidge countered sharply and Chesh cleared his throat.

"Really! Can we get back to the problem at hand?" he snapped.

Hatter tipped his hat back a bit so he could see the streets better. "As I was sayin', the Suits that are wanderin' around like Jabberwocks on a mating-season bender are blocking our way."

"Where are we going anyway?" Alice questioned as she peered out the alley and saw what Hatter meant. In the open road that lead up a slant to the upper streets were a group of Suits, who, by the look of them, were not about to move very soon either. She exhaled sharply and looked around, recognizing the vague layout of these streets. She looked over her shoulder at Hatter and arched a brow.

"Figured there's no place like home. Since they all decided I'm dead, hiding in the heart of them won't be difficult. Would be the last place they looked," Hatter said, knowing she'd guessed his intention.

Chesh and Pidge looked at each other before the Cheshire shrugged.

"Won't do us any good to try to avoid them out and out," Hatter continued and he pointed along the streets. "Would take us half a day to go around them. Best way is to go right through."

"I can see how cat-boy here could do it with his animal impression. But I'm thinking that the rest of us would get spotted easy." Pidge nodded at Alice. "Especially since she's still glowing and not just in the maternal "carrying a bundle of joy" sense."

"Helpful," Alice mumbled under her breath.

In response, Hatter pulled his satchel up and began to rummage through it. "Pidge, go and... distract them or something," he ordered though he didn't lift his eyes from his search. Pidge shot his bent head an offended look.

"Me? I just ran over ten blocks to get away from them! Now you want me to go back and run around like a sitting duck?" he almost whined.

"Sounds about right. Go do it," Hatter answered. Pidge looked ready to complain more as he kept gesturing uselessly around them.

Standing beside Hatter, Alice rolled her eyes.

"Really, you two. It's like dealing with two little kids," she scolded and then caught Chesh grinning at them. "And you're no better either!"

He frowned, not have expected to be caught up in her sweeping opinion. But he didn't move to do what Hatter wanted Pidge to do. Muttering to herself about cowardly males, Alice left the alley before anyone could stop her. Hatter scrounged hurriedly through his pack while whispering her name and insisting she come back.

But Alice had made up her mind to do what Pidge clearly didn't want to and she stood half-way out in the sidewalk. The Suits nearby didn't notice her, since she was just a thin slip of a woman dressed in dark clothing, and she looked up and around herself. Deciding on a course of action, she remembered about how strangely beautiful the City looked when it was lit up at night and she reached up to one of the streetlights that were turned off. It shimmered dully and she flexed her fingers around the iron pole.

Immediately, the streetlight crackled and the globe at its top began to shine so brightly that there was a white glow all around the sidewalks and streets. The Suits a little ways down the street turned around in comical unison, their mouths hung open as all the street lamps suddenly flickered on brilliantly. The power seemed to hum from light to light and the glow was incredibly bright. Alice let her hand drop to her side and she backed away slowly as the Suits all came out into the open.

Behind her, Hatter was muttered under his breath about her being stubborn, while Pidge came out beside her.

"There's no need to show me up," he grumbled and she eyed him.

"No need to be ashamed of being too old to be much good," she teased and he frowned.

"Oh, you are just..." He looked around. "I can't think of a word to describe you when you're being insulting but I'm sure there's a few choice ones."

"Take your time thinking them up," she answered before turning away to look at the dumbfounded Suits. Still needing them to move and to get their attention off the dazzling light show, Alice whistled loudly. The sound echoed off the surrounding buildings and the Suits seemed to finally see Alice and Pidge through the bright lights of the lamps.

"Come on, Pidge," Alice answered as she backed away with him. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Right up there with my thoughts that if I let something happen to you, Hatter is going to kill me," he snapped as he took her arm and pulled her after him. They ran down the sidewalk, followed by the Suits, and Pidge looked over his shoulder at where Hatter and Chesh were hiding. "Just hope he had a plan and wasn't just rummaging for nothing."

They ran for cover when Hatter shouted a warning, his own hand lifted high in the air. Bracing themselves in the shelter of a doorway, Alice and Pidge watched the Suits came running towards their hiding spot and Pidge swallowed audibly when it seemed like nothing was going to happen to save them from being caught. Alice instead looked at Hatter, who was holding a glass bottle up without its cork. He saw her and winked before throwing the bottle down to the water far below the streets.

"Wonderland, I'm startin' to worry about him," Pidge muttered from nearby as he leaned past Alice and watched Hatter. The Suits were getting even closer now and he put a hand on his mallet handle in preparation.

There was a loud sucking sound that reminded Alice of the flooding of the Tunnels and the horrible memory made her stomach turn. Unmindful of the danger the Suits presented, she stepped out onto the sidewalk to look at the waterways below them. The Suits had all clustered together, stopping mid-run to stare at the rapidly darkening sky above them. There was already lightning crackling across the sky and the first droplets of rain were fat and cold.

Far below, the waterways were churning madly and the water actually seemed to be lifting up.

Alice had only seen something like this once before and she looked at where Hatter and Chesh were still in their alley. Hatter was gesturing for her to make a run for it, right through the Suits headed her way. Looking over her shoulder at Pidge, who was staring up at the sky, she ignored the rain that was starting to fall in sheets around them and grabbed him by the elbow.

"Got your stick handy?" she shouted over the thunder roaring through the air.

"You going to explain about the change in the weather?" he demanded and she shook her head.


"Right then, that would be too much to ask for right now," Pidge whispered more to himself than to her. He yanked his mallet out. "And it's a mallet, not a stick."

"Whatever." Alice gestured for him to go out before her. "On three?"

They counted off together and then raced out into the group of Suits. The rain was gathering strength, beating down and making the walkways slippery. Pidge and Alice skittered around, and in the confusion one of the Suits went to grab Alice by the arm. Pidge snapped warning before slamming the butt of his mallet into the man's chest, sending him flying off the sidewalk. He propelled Alice forward just as the rumbling became worse and, in a large wave, the water rose above them.

Hatter raced out to meet them, grabbing Alice and turning with her.

"Storm in a bottle?" she demanded. "That was your great plan?"

"It worked."

"A bit too well," Chesh shouted as a large water spout suddenly formed up from the water below. Heavy white foam and icy cold water sprayed outward as the spout began to spiral in fast revolutions. The wind that spun it around roared loudly and made the streets almost shake with its force. The spout was travelling around the street level like a tornado on a destructive path, sucking the Suits in with its heavy winds that followed and sending the men flying down to the water below. Alice gulped when she saw that it was headed right toward them.

"Time to go," Hatter said and he pulled Alice after him. They sprinted for the street ramp and Pidge and Chesh followed close on their heels. The storm continued to grow in intensity and unleashed its fury on the surrounding buildings, bursting windows and toppling streetlights. The wind was howling fiercely as they ran up the ramp, the sheets of rain making it hard to see where they were going. Hatter was travelling by memory only, leading them up the twisted ramps and stairs as the storm's heavy rains and turbulent winds caught at them.

There was no way to outrun the storm, Hatter realized, and he winced as the rain began to turn to icy pellets. They pounded down around them and he felt Alice cringe when the pellets struck her on the shoulder. Swinging her around his body, he turned to look at where they'd come from. The Suits and the water spout were gone but the rain was falling so hard that it was a blanket of falling water.

Not wanting to admit that with the storm in his eyes he had lost his way, Hatter tried to re-orientate himself through the rain and hail.

He checked his right and left, trying to guess where to go when a hand grabbed his shoulder and yanked him into a doorway. Both Alice and Hatter fell through the door, Chesh and Pidge not far behind. The rain passed them, sounding like a train now with the force of its falling, and a fresh spurt of water blasted through the door to soak them all.

Sputtering through a mouthful of water, Hatter rolled onto his back and stared up incredulously at the craggy, familiar face of North Abel. The Drawling Master wore a crooked grin, though his own clothes were soaked to the skin, and beside him Abigail was shaking her own wet coat out.

"You never were too good at subtleties, eh boy?" Abel asked curiously. Hatter groaned and picked himself before helping Alice get to her feet.

"What's the point of that? Being subtle takes too long." Hatter snapped, wincing as he tried to peel his soaked jacket away from his chest. Pidge and Chesh both got to their feet as well, equally as soaked as the others, and Pidge shut the door on the storm.

"How did you get here so quickly?" Alice asked Abigail and the older woman gestured to her father.

"Scavenged Scarabs. This one thought it would be funny to fly in like a maniac and crash it."

"We got here, didn't we? And most of our men are now scattered through the City, gathering intelligence," Abel countered smugly. He looked at Pidge. "So, you've rejoined the fold eh?"

Pidge grinned. "Nice to see you too, sir."

"Did you find her?" Hatter asked, finally able to ask the question he wanted to know.

"Yep." He didn't expound on that and Abigail sighed.

"I think finding safe shelter is more pressing than sharing who did what and to whom. This place will only be safe for a little while." She pursed her lips and looked out one of the iron barred windows. "Who started the storm exactly?"

They all pointed at Hatter and he looked sheepish.

"Not bad," she allowed, ignoring his surprised look that she was addressing him so easily after weeks of tension. "The streets are being watched though. Guaranteed it is going back to the Queen that someone is here to cause trouble."

"How long have you been in the City?" Alice asked and Abel made a face.

"Few hours... Who is that?" He gently pushed Alice out of the way and stared at Chesh, who looked miserable with the way he'd been soaked. He shook his head and when he realized Abel was staring at him, he raised his cat-like eyes and blinked widely at them. The Drawling Master actually laughed but the sound was cold. "Oh you have to be joking."

There was enough censure in Abel's voice that Alice saw Chesh recoil a bit.

"This is the Cheshire?" Abigail asked, her eyes narrow as she stared at Chesh. The man stared back at her, meeting her speculation with his own snide look. Abigail eventually looked away and Alice frowned, wondering at Chesh's look.

It was almost as if these two made him even more nervous. He was afraid of Hatter, she knew that, but Chesh actually seemed squeamish about being near Hatter's relatives.

"You sure that doing this was a good idea?" Abel asked Hatter and Alice glared at him.

"If someone asks him that one more time as if I'm not here, I'm going to scream," she threatened and the older man put his hands in the air.

"Never-mind that then. Where were you headed?" Abel gestured to Abigail. "We had a few men with us but I've sent them on to check out the Hospital."

"Tea Shop," Hatter said and his eyes were on his mother now. She didn't flinch, only stared back him with remarkable self-control.

"There?" Pidge frowned. "Won't they look for us there?"

"They think I'm dead, and if I'm right - and as Alice will tell you, I usually am," Hatter boasted, ignoring her incredulous snort, "They'll have ran-sacked the first level and left it alone, because not many people know the way to get into the inner parts of the Tea Shop where I keep my supplies. Without any new wares to be served, Dormie will have shut it down but not completely."

"Could be risky," Abel warned and Alice shrugged.

"When hasn't this been? If we go now, we can get there before the Queen's men hit the streets looking for whoever started the storm."

Hatter slung his arm around her waist. "I love the way you think."

"Really? Are you sure that's the only thing you love?" she teased huskily and there was a collective groan from the others.

"Sickening, it is, the way you two carry on," Abel grumbled and Hatter grinned, though Alice blushed a bit. The storm had lessened a bit and Hatter opened the door again to peer outside. Without another word, he and Alice started out down the street back to their home. Though she should feel more cautious, Alice actually felt a bit excited to be close to the place she'd called home for over a year. She just hoped that the Suits hadn't destroyed the place. When she looked at Hatter, she could tell he was feeling the same way though he grinned at her as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Chapter Text

Charlie settled his hands on his stomach and grunted loudly, not caring who might overhear the rather obnoxious sound. His skinny white-trousered legs poked out from under a heavy wood contraption and the odd pose his legs struck made him look somewhat like a squashed spider. He was lying underneath the 'Ensnare Completia Snare Mark VI', which had stopped working ever since the massive explosion, and anyone who passed wouldn't think twice of who was there. They all knew better, mostly because he was the only person who wandered about the camps so freely, and no one stopped to ask if he needed any help. Charlie had been under the contraption for the better part of the day and hadn't made progress in fixing the intricate trap.

Not that he had any intention of doing so. He was staying under the trap to hide. From the camp rebels, from his wife and from Carol. The Cook had been incredibly demanding that he not cause anymore trouble to her and her almost jealous actions had made Charlie feel a bit suffocated.

However, it was Carol Hamilton who puzzled Charlie more than even his wife. As if on a whim, she had cornered him and had wanted to know as much as possible about the Kingdom of Knights and the forest of Wabe. If she had been genuinely interested, Charlie would have indulged her but he had the sneaking suspicion she was only being overly bubbly because she was purely bored and worried about her daughter. Underneath all that worry and boredom, Charlie wondered if she was trying to hide just how changed she was becoming. He could remember her when she was first come to Wonderland; bright eyed, a little leery but all in all she was a healthy woman. Now she seemed changed somehow and her cheerful masks no longer fooled any of them, but no one had done anything to solve the problem she presented.

Charlie himself had no deal how to deal with a depressingly giddy Oyster.

The White Knight tipped his head and looked over the gears curiously. One of the curled springs actually sprang out and the trap groaned as if it had heard. The underside gears were a hopeless mess and likely to be a terribly complex thing to fix. Charlie could remember when he had first put this thing together and it had taken him months and months to get it perfect; this might take months just to repair. Not that he really needed a snare lately but it would keep his hands and mind busy if he could actually focus on them.

"Bullocks and bother," Charlie cursed aloud when a drop of oil spattered out from the gears and spoiled his otherwise pristine white tunic. His wife was adamant about him being tidy and now the material was ruined.

"I don't see why I must remain here, spattered in oil and mud. There is no glorious combat, no interesting adventure. Nothing that will write me into ballads and poems. Here I lie, gear fixer."

He kicked out and his heel caught the brace that kept the massive wheels steady. The wood popped out easily and he cursed aloud again when he realized what he had done. Something above him sputtered and the entire device lurched while the wheels began to turn from the force of his kick. Charlie lay still, stupefied and listening as the snare rolled down the hillside and promptly crashed into one of the ruins. By the sound of it, Charlie decided over the loud noise of splintering wood, it had been smashed to pieces.

He pushed up onto his elbows and looked down at the wrecked snare that was scattered around the ruin it had crashed into. Twitching his moustache and wrinkling his nose a bit, Charlie finally stood up and to calm his temper he looked around the nearby camp. There wasn't much to see, now that there was a gaping hole in the centre, but the Kingdom was still a hive of activity it had not seen in days.

Refugees were wandering around his home, looking as lost as he felt, and Charlie huffed.

"They've left me here to act like some sort of mother," he said to himself, waving his hand in the air to punctuate his own points. "I am a Knight. Of the oldest of orders, the noblest of orders that have spanned the ages! Maternal nature is not my... not my nature!"

He threw up his hands and rolled his head a bit back to look at the treetops. The sight of an abandoned watchtower reminded him just why he was feeling more than a little upset by the recent turn of events. Lady Drawling and the Drawling Master had essentially escaped, though they might claim they had only 'left', with only a few instructions to him and the others. The camp had emptied itself out nearly, save for children and the elderly, as most of their 'soldiers' had gone with them in the Scarabs and on horseback. The Drawling Master's insistence that it would be for the best if Charlie stayed behind had at first made him think that it meant that he was the only one to be trusted.

But now, with so much time on his hands to wrack his brain and go over each word and innuendo, Charlie was thinking that they had done it to get rid of him and that certainly was unacceptable.

"I am Alice's White Knight after all. Purveyor of truth and justice, master of the Black Arts." He began to pace while ticking off mental points in his head. "What do they know of such mystical elements? Who better than I to secure a safe passage for dear Alice? I am her guardian after all in this strange realm."

He kicked out and sent a rock skipping out his path. A few of the refugees who were walking back from the creek that ran through the Kingdom looked at him curiously but gave him wide berth. Charlie talking to himself wasn't really out of character. But the almost wild way he waved his hands in the air made it clear he was more agitated than usual. Several people looked between themselves and rolled their eyes in exasperation, but wisely kept walking.

"After all," he declared, "who better than I to combat the forces of evil? Am I not a Knight?"

One of the old women nearby who had been mocking him jumped when he fixed his bright eyes on her. "Am I not?" he demanded.

"Yes, you are," she answered meekly, nodding even as she backed away and took off for her companions. Her obvious unease went over Charlie's head; he paced back to where his contraption lay in pieces. Staring at the wreckage, he shook his head and licked his lips.

"What I need is a plan!" He picked up a thin piece of wood and snapped it in half. "A grand plan. Full of deception and brave acts that will no doubt assure my place in legends to be sung. The usual thing a Knight must do, after all. A plan that is worthy of my cause and grand stature."

He held up the wood pieces and addressed them as if talking to two listeners, "After all, this is for the good of Justalice and her unborn. For Harbinger and his family. Indeed, for all of Wonderland!"

He paused when he realized how ridiculous it seemed to be talking to wood pieces. "But how exactly to start such a plan? They cannot find the Queen's palace unguarded unless we have ways of attacking them, of drawing away the guards with some sort of army. That palace is nigh impregnable, especially since the Queen will expect an attack. There will be no sneaking in as we have done before."

He eyed one of the skeleton guards that were still propped up against a nearby ruin. A foggy memory of the last time he and his 'army' had attacked the Heart Casino sprang to mind. It was almost an ideal plan but he turned his head to the side and then shook it.

"No no, that would be too obvious," Charlie mused aloud. "Not to mention that it is not terribly original."

He sighed and tossed the wood pieces to the ground. "What I must do is think like the Harbinger! Something... unlikely is likely to arise then. The unusual does appear to follow him about."

Charlie stood patiently, waiting for inspiration to hit but it seemed slow to come. He debated on standing on his head if it would help the ideas come but dismissed it just as quickly: it would not be a very dignified pose for a Knight.

Perhaps, he thought, it is easier for the Harbinger because he is most certainly mad. Even when he is not mad there are still elements of the ridiculous about his plans. Mad people always find it easy to think up mad schemes. With a grimace, he turned a slow circle to try to see some sort of visual inspiration. When none came, he continued to turn his circles so dizzyingly fast that his addled head got the better of him and he collapsed to his buttocks.

Gripping his head with one hand, he looked around himself and then up at the sky. "Wonderland, what I wouldn't give for some sort of plan! Anything with which to aide dear Alice! To save Wonderland's peace!" he prayed aloud.

As if in answer, a distant Jabberwock roared. It sounded remarkably close and, by Charlie's past experience with the creatures, it was likely a female Jabberwock guarding her eggs in one of the nearby nesting grounds. The creatures always liked to howl and roar to warn any possible intruders that they'd be in for a fight if they stumbled upon their lair. The only things the Jabberwocks ever truly cared about were their nests and their appetite for destruction. The roaring continued and Charlie felt a tiny niggle of an idea start to sprout in the back of his mind.

It was a truly interesting idea if he did say so himself.

But a stupid one, his good sense warned him.

"A stupid one, yes," Charlie said even as he thought about the potential destruction it could bring. But it would get him into the City and allow for distraction. It was an insanely stupid idea and he tried to push it away.

The thought that this might be a truly mad plan gave him pause and he smiled to himself.

"Oh, and mad ideas most certainly work these days! I am pure brilliance!" He almost clicked his heels in his delight. It was, in Charlie's opinion, proof that he was actually a genius. With surprising agility for a man his age, Charlie ran down the hill to his small armoury and whistled for his horse. With any luck, he mused privately, he could be gone before the Cook figured out he was trying out another of his mad schemes.

Carol heard the Jabberwocks roaring in the distance and felt a vague shiver of warning go up her spine. Alice's one story about being chased by one of the creatures came almost instantly to mind. Of all the stories, the ones about creatures that haunted Wonderland's wilds always seemed to stick in Carol's thoughts. Wonderland was dangerous even without its wild creatures, she knew, but the thought that one of those things might come rushing in to destroy this place was...uncomfortable.

Not to mention very likely, considering how this entire 'trip' into Wonderland had gone for her.

Carol brushed her short hair out of her eyes and resisted the urge to sigh too loudly. She didn't have too much to complain about right now. Everything for her had settled into a sort of stasis until she could get back home. She'd even started to really befriend Charlie and his wife. The Cook Marta had been very kind to her, almost motherly and had not let Carol far out of her sight. She was always there with an encouraging word and a toffee broth that gave Carol more energy and strength than she'd felt in weeks. But she never explained why Carol felt so tired or why her toes still stayed as grey as cement; she'd only smile in a vague way and turn the subject to other things.

In terms of people hiding things, she actually wasn't as bad as most of the people Carol had met in Wonderland.

Setting her bowl on her lap, Carol leaned back in the garden chair and let the sunlight caress her face. It was still very cold in the tiny garden of the Inn but she was, at the Cook's insistence, bundled up and the broth she'd been sipping had given her a bit of warmth. It was just too nice to sit inside, cooped up as she had been. Lately Carol felt like she'd been spending too much time hiding from the outside and since it felt like winter was coming, she had decided to enjoy a bit of sun. All of her time inside was spent worrying about Alice and her unborn grandchild, and she'd thought that a change of scenery would keep those thoughts at bay.

But it didn't.

It wasn't just Alice she worried about but also Hatter. She'd seen Hatter's obvious protectiveness for her daughter, his love and affection dominating even the glint of madness Carol could swear she saw lingering in him. Yet it was hard for her to trust him as implicitly as her daughter. There was still something that could crack, she was sure of it, but whether it would be triggered again wasn't something she could predict.

With some effort to be fair, she reminded herself that she had never once had a real say in this intense relationship between Hatter and Alice. Not from the moment the pair had coupled up in her world, to when Alice had left for permanent residence in Wonderland and even now when Alice had for a moment seemed close to giving up. Carol was smart enough to know that she should keep her words to herself, so she tried her best to put her own woeful thoughts about Hatter to rest. It was her daughter's pregnancy that worried her. Rather, Alice's almost indifference to the danger she was putting herself into.

With a small smile, Carol remembered all the silly things both Robert and herself had done when she'd been pregnant and knew that perhaps Alice was more like her parents than she realized.

Carol wiggled her toes in her shoes to try to get some sensation in them as she thought to herself. There wasn't much else to do but think to herself. Charlie had been rather morose about being left behind, and she had agreed with his attitude privately. She hadn't liked the way that Abigail and Abel had abandoned them like this, especially when they had all been together for so long. She'd wanted to get into the City herself, to try to find a way home, and they'd left her here to sit on pins and needles waiting for any hint of news.

It hadn't been more than two days and already she was sure that she was going to pull out her hair waiting for news.

Carol could hear the Cook humming loudly to herself inside the nearby kitchen and smiled. At least someone was almost permanently chipper, if not acidic tongued. The Cook had been protecting her and, like Alice, Carol was not used to being coddled. For once, she didn't mind.

She was just so tired all the time and the Cook acted as a buffer from the real world, even for just a short time. Carol shut her eyes and leaned back in the chair.

"You're the Oyster's ma, eh?" The harsh North accent made her jerk upright in her seat and look up into the sun. Dark spots sprang into her eyes and blurred the face of the stout woman standing on the other side of the fence. It took Carol a moment to recognize her, since there was little to really set this woman apart from the others. Sparrow was her code name, she remembered, and not one of the friendlier members of the Resistance either. The woman had permanent scowl on her worn features, as if she'd recently drunk sour milk but her bright eyes were sharp and cunning.

She smiled at Carol and the look made her skin crawl. Even a smile seemed somehow unnatural on her rotund face. Still, Carol thought, she had to play nice. There was no telling who might give her news about Alice and the others.

"I'm Carol, yes. You're Sparrow?" she asked politely and the woman jerked her chin up as if to agree. Carol waited patiently as Sparrow appeared to inspect her closely and then look away.

"So that makes you an Oyster." Sparrow rested her arms on the fence and Carol's eyes were drawn to the multitude of bracelets she wore. The shine was almost blinding in the sunlight but she managed to hide her discomfort. The movement had been deliberately done to distract her, she guessed. Sparrow leaned against the fence and gave Carol a crooked smile. "Did you know that two years ago, Oysters were worth more than their fair share of currency here?"

"Yes, I knew that," Carol answered. She could feel the inference of Sparrow's words crackling in the air between them.

"Fascinating. I never saw one of you up close. You don't look any different than a Wonderlander, 'til we really look past it all." Sparrow narrowed her eyes. "You see, me? Never was an Emotion junkie. Hated the thought of it, which was why I was so valuable, back in the day. Now I'm a relic, like most of the Resistance."

"That's a shame," Carol muttered lamely and her eyes darted to the kitchen door. Sparrow caught the look and tsked loudly, having guessed her thought.

"You really don't want to call her out here. Not when I have news."

"You have news?" Carol couldn't hide the eagerness in her voice even as her caution screamed at her. "But... no one else has heard anything."

"We all use different channels for news, same as we use different places to hide when the moment is right. It is why I managed to be left behind." Sparrow turned her hand in a circle. "Else wise, no one would hear anything."

"But the Cook should hear this then," Carol pointed out and the woman shook her head.

"No. This is for you. After I tell you, you either go into the kitchens, or you do the wise thing and walk down to the meadows outside the Kingdom boundary. Those were my instructions from the City's old Resistance. It is very much one-sided information; I never get to gossip you know. But you get a choice." Sparrow gave another smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Don't you love a good choice?"

Carol jutted her chin out and bravely stood up on almost numb legs. "What is your news then?"

"Your daughter is going to die." Sparrow watched the colour drain from Carol's face with satisfaction. "She is a very powerful Oyster, you know, but the Queen will not tolerate any sort of uprising. In the upcoming battle, Alice will either be killed, or brought in and drained to create a new Conduit. My bet is she'll likely be drained."

"You sound very sure of yourself," Carol whispered.

"It is a matter of fact from what I've been told. She cannot be guarded forever and her rumoured... condition makes her vulnerable." Sparrow's voice dropped. "Especially since the Drawling Master's intended path will be intercepted."

Carol almost ground her teeth together. "You betrayed them."

"Several of us did," Sparrow countered and her voice took on an almost sad note. "We had no choice. We do what we must to survive in this world. For all of our families. You don't realize how terrible things were for us in the past month; my own husband was tortured and killed in the City for nothing more than rumour."

Despite the small trace of sympathy she felt, Carol managed to glare at Sparrow. "So I am to offer myself?"

The woman shrugged. "Up to you. You'll be a trade. We give you up, our families will be released back to us. It is an even trade, you know. Oysters have always been bad luck for Wonderland."

Carol sucked in a breath but her mind was made up before much time passed. The choice between Alice's life and her own was not a hard one for her. If she could buy some time, she could find a way to solve this. "I have to." She could see that she had startled Sparrow by her prompt acceptance of her own self-sacrifice. "I won't let them hurt her, even if it means they use me to put the Conduit together. They...they won't need her?"

Sparrow nodded. "From what I was told, they only need one Oyster. There is only two pure pearls in Wonderland now; you and her. Though they wanted her, because of her strength, trying to take her comes with risk. With you in their grasp, the message said that they'd call off their trackers. They haven't found her yet, you know, but the White Rabbit is one of the best for finding people. With luck, the Conduit can be up and running before more damage is brought down on our heads. You might be lucky and she'll escape into exile with the others. It is ultimately your choice though, Oyster."

She stepped towards Carol and her eyes took on a hard, desperate look. "But if you don't go now, they will invade the camp. They know where we are and no one will be spared here. Children, elderly... it won't matter. Without the Drawling Master's best to save them, it will be a massacre."

The threat sunk in slowly and Carol turned her head away. "I would never ask for something like that to happen if I can help stop it."

She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping for forgiveness from Alice, and put her hand on the gate. "Which way do I go to the meadows then?"

Chapter Text

Hatter crept around the telephone booth, keeping low and well-covered, as he looked over the buildings nearby. The rain was pounding down on the streets, making them slick and deadly, but also giving him a bit of cover from the possible Suits around. Shaking out his soaked coat a bit, he ignored the water dripping down his collar and along his spine. Across the way, he could see Tea House's marquee running in its blinking red neon through the fog and the front porch looked abandoned. It was a long way to go however if they were caught on the land-bridge that separated the streets.

With a glance to his left and then right, Hatter exhaled slowly and watched as another flash of lightning lit up the sidewalks. When no Scarabs or Suits were in view, he looked over his shoulder and through the rain he made sure that they were all there. Everyone had been strictly ordered to keep hidden in the nearby alcoves and no one had moved very far. Catching Chesh's eye, he wiggled his fingers and pointed at the door. With almost surprising obedience, the slight man moved out from between a crouching Pidge and Alice. He transfigured quickly and his tabby form raced like a shadow across the land-bridge to the porch. Hatter watched him intently and felt Alice creep up beside him, her fingers brushing his arm gently.

"Looks like he's being useful for once," Hatter muttered and Alice sighed, agreeing with him.

"If he put as much energy into being useful as to being sarcastic, we might be okay." She flipped her coat collar up again her chin and shuddered at a sudden chill. Hatter looked over his shoulder at her and frowned. Her pale face wasn't just from the cold; it looked as if she had had a sudden thought that had frightened her.

"You okay, Alice?"

The smile she gave him was vague. "Just a feeling that's all. Might be the rain... it's making me feel a bit down I guess."

Hatter looked around them at the stormy skies and flinched when lightning streaked the skies and the thunder made the sidewalk tremble under his feet. Without the right cover, they'd be in trouble soon with this storm. "Can't say it thrills me either."

He glanced back at the tea shop's porch and saw that Chesh was back to his normal form, peering in through the doors. His back was to them for only moments before he waved his hand and disappeared through the front door. Hatter whistled to Pidge and signalled with his two fingers. Pidge gave him a meaningful look that let him know what he thought about trusting Chesh but Hatter sliced his fingers across his throat and made a face. Shaking his head, Pidge turned to go back to where Abel and Abigail still hid. Grasping Alice by her hand, Hatter led her out to across the bridge at a careful, low run. The rain had started to fall hard once again and the way it made the sidewalk's grass and mud made it dangerously slick. Alice skidded slightly as they dodged one of the puddles and he pulled on her hand to bring her close to him once more before pushing her ahead onto the stairs. Without hesitating she yanked the door open and they leapt inside.

The dry warmth of Hatter's Tea Shop was welcome after the rain and they both shook to try to get rid of the icy drops. Alice's teeth immediately started to chatter and she rubbed at her arms rapidly, causing a stinging pain as her numbed skin started to warm once more. Through her soaked hair, she took in the foyer of the Tea Shop and resisted the urge to try hug a wall of her home. She hadn't thought she'd be as happy to see this place as she was.

Hatter shook his sleeves and sent a fresh spray of water in the air that drenched them both once more. At a loud cough, he immediately froze mid-shake. Alice had been about to take off her coat when she noticed him standing there, staring down the foyer hall.

"What's wrong?"

Hatter made a face and pointed. "That."

Alice turned. She was half-expecting to see an army of Suits ready to gun them down and the sight that was before her was a bit more comical than that.

Chesh was pinned up against a wall with a shotgun pressed against his throat, his hands up in the air limply and his expression bored. Standing in front of him was the diminutive Dormie, who was shaking badly and stammering out threats. Hatter took in the scene and though Chesh looked relaxed and Dormie steady, he wasn't about to take a chance on someone else's trigger finger. He walked towards them, keeping his own hands low and his eyes on Dormie. The Dormouse wasn't really known for having a steady hand when it came to holding a gun.

"Take it easy," Chesh was muttering repeatedly and Dormie shoved the gun harder into his throat. His moustache was stained with treacle and judging by the slight drowsiness in his stance, Hatter wagered that Dormie was a bit drunk on his favourite syrup.

"You... you just keep quiet! I'm warning you! I've... I've got great aim and I'll be dead before you know what hit me!"

Alice and Hatter looked at each other, and she failed to hide the giggle that came when she heard Dormie's bad phrasing. The giggle drew the tiny man's attention and he whipped around with the gun. His finger brushed the trigger and the gun exploded, the kickback knocking him into Chesh. The bullet strayed far, sending a spray of wood up as it imbedded itself in the wall, and causing Hatter to curse at the damage. The Dormouse yelped loudly when he saw Hatter standing only a few feet away.

"Ghosts! First old Queens and now ghosts? Oh Wonderland, I'm haunted now!" With surprising speed, he scuttled across to a nearby door and slammed it behind himself. He seemed to forget that he'd just locked himself in the broom closet. Hatter sighed in exasperation and walked over to knock several times. He heard a frantic scream inside and the clatter of brooms and pails being knocked around inside the tiny space.

"Dormie! Open up!" he ordered. "Come on, I haven't got all day."

The Dormouse's voice was shaky and high-pitched, "Absolutely not! I've seen what happens when you ghosts start walkin' and you... you are definitely dead! It was all over the news, you know, and the rumour mills and I had to hold a lil' memorial for you and all, with tea sets and cakes. I even sang a song... at least I think that's what it was. It could have been a limerick."

"I appreciate it, really," Hatter interrupted the rambling before Dormie could work himself up even more, "but Dormie... I ain't dead. Guaranteed and right as rain. Open the door."

The clatter in the broom closet stopped suddenly and the door squeaked open. The long length of the shotgun pointed out at Hatter's chest and at the other end, Dormie's beaky nose twitched back and forth in anxiety. "You... you ain't dead?" he demanded.

Hatter shook his head. "Nope." He gestured to the shot gun. "Take that out of my face."

"Not on your life," Dormie began and Hatter grabbed it with his hand, flipping it out of his grip. Dormie gulped. "Ah."

"I'm alive, Dormie. Come on out," Hatter tried as he set the gun down on the ground.

Dormie thought it over and then yelped, retreating back into the closet with a bang. Hatter groaned and pounded on the door again. Behind him, Pidge, Abigail and Abel finally came in, bringing with them a fresh blast of cold, wet wind. Alice looked over at them and shrugged at their confusion, gesturing to Hatter. He was leaning against the door frame and speaking softly to try to lure the Dormouse out.

"What's wrong, Dormie? I know I'm happy to be alive. I thought you'd be all matter of pleased to see me," Hatter asked through the door. He looked around and mentally began to tally up the damage it cause to the room to break down the door.

"I would be most happy, but you are probably madder than a box of frogs. I don't like mad people! I've seen you on just a bad day and I don't like to think it can get worse than that!"

Pidge stifled the urge to chuckle and Abigail gave him a hard nudge to keep him silent.

"Your dad was bad enough. I don't need to deal with you too!" Dormie answered. Hatter growled a curse to himself and grabbed the door handle. It crunched under his hand and with a hard twist, he pulled the door open. The Dormouse shrieked and tried to hide behind a broom at the sight of the younger man.

"Now knock it off!" Hatter snapped and Dormie cried out, cowering a little more and shaking. "I ain't mad but I swear to Wonderland's Taiga if you keep shrieking like a woman you might see what it's like for me to be bad."

He looked over Dormie and saw the way he swayed on his feet. With a disgusted sigh, he grabbed Dormie by his shirt collar and hauled him out of the closet. He shook him a little and peered into his face. "Why do you look like this? Have you been into the treacle again?"

Dormie regained a bit of his bluster. "Of course not. You threatened me last time... but you still could be one of those mad people that is about to strike before I can stop you. I'm just preparing myself for the inevitable."

Hatter looked so murderously annoyed that Alice stepped forward. Though she and Dormie had never had the greatest rapport, she thought it was better that she interfere rather than Hatter lose his temper. "Dormie, he's okay, I swear. He's not mad."

Chesh snorted rudely and she glared at him to shut up.

The Dormouse gaped at her. "Alice? You're here too? I knew you were alive but I thought you were in the South..." He broke off as he looked over his shoulder and saw Pidge and the others. It was when he noticed Abigail that he actually turned white as a sheet. "Oh Wonderland, I am dead!"

The older woman sighed. She hadn't thought that she'd be so easily recognized by her husband's junior shop partner. It had been almost thirty years after all. "You aren't dead, Dormie."

"Old boss said you were dead! And you were! At least I think you were. I even went to your Lakeside cremation, out of respect for him and old Hatter." The Dormouse looked frantically between Hatter, Alice and Abigail. "I didn't want to die! I must be dead and have done something wrong to be seeing all you again rather than a room of Flowers."

Hatter sighed as Dormie's voice reached a near hysterical pitch and reached out with his right hand. Before the Dormouse could stop him, he pinched him hard on his nose and twisted it to the left. The loud screech that followed made everyone wince but Hatter waited for it to stop before leaning close to Dormie.

"Look here, Dormie. If I was mad, I'd tear you nose off, right?" he asked curtly as he let go. Dormie nodded, rubbing his nose. "And if you were dead, you probably wouldn't feel a pain like that, yeah?"

"I guess."

"So you ain't dead, I ain't mad and I'm really not dead. Can we move on? I don't have all day." After several long moments, Dormie nodded and continued to rub at his nose. "Good. You know Alice."

"And me, I bet. We ran into each other at the Hospital... quite literally," Pidge said. He gestured behind him to the older man leaning against the wall. "This is Abel. You heard of the Drawling Master?"

Abel didn't look up, merely contented himself with wringing out his scarf and coat. Dormie slowly looked away from Hatter, as if afraid he might suddenly be attacked, and glanced at Abel. Instead of being filled with any awe, he sniffed self-importantly.

"I know stories about him," Dormie snapped, his eyes narrowing at Chesh again. "I could have killed you, you know..."

Chesh grinned slyly. "Well, if thinking that makes you happy, by all means think that."

Dormie hesitantly looked at Hatter again. "So you ain't dead?"

Hatter shook his head and then sputtered as Dormie launched forward and hugged him at waist level. For such a little man, his grip was surprisingly strong.

"Oh boss! You're alive!"

The show of emotion from the normally half-asleep Dormouse was so startling that Hatter looked at Alice; he hoped she'd tell him what to do. She smirked and he glared at her when it was clear she wasn't going to help him. With an awkward pat on Dormie's heavy shoulders, he untangled himself. Dormie looked so happy that Hatter found that he was oddly touched; their relationship had always been a matter of co-dependence and general business, never any deep friendship.

"I'm just so happy. It's one of my best Un-birthday presents ever," Dormie blubbered and grabbed a handkerchief from his coat pocket. He dabbed at his nose and sniffed hard. "Come on, come on. I've put the place on interior lock-down so no one who tried to get in would get far."

He led them all into the Tea Shop's serving room, pressing a few buttons on the security panel to bring up the lights. It looked like it had been ransacked thoroughly: tables and chairs were overturned, glass was shattered in the windows and several of the lights had been shot out. When Hatter looked at him, Dormie shrugged. "Had to make it look rough. Once they inspected it, when they were lookin' for you, boss, they never came back. No one has bothered me all month."

"Bugged?" Abel asked as he came into the low-lit area. Dormie shook his head.

"Already swept. Not a thing. The Suits probably thought no one would be stupid enough to come in. They took a few things, but besides roughin' me up, not much was done. They could only get so far anyway."

"What did they take?" Alice asked as they came to Dormie's desk. The little man went around it and took his seat, pumping the chair up so he was level with her.

"Couple cases of our remaining Emotion Teas. Nothing really usable by our standards. Said they were looking for any signs of where you might go."

"What about the apartment?" Hatter asked as he went over to the window and looked out at the storm. Pidge flipped a table back over and Dormie cleared his throat, gesturing where he could put it.

"That... well, it was locked up tight and secure. Without your codes to bypass the security feed, I haven't been there in a month. Don't think they even noticed it. They ain't thorough sometimes and that doorway is well hidden, you know."

He looked up at Hatter. "When the rumour got around that you were dead, people started to say this place was haunted. I let them believe it. Kept me alive I think."

Abel was eyeing their surroundings curiously. "This would be perfect."

Hatter turned. "Perfect? What for?"

"Housing some of my men for a meeting. It would be safe. There is only one direct way in and it is monitored," he explained and they all looked around. Alice made a face but nodded when she realized it would be a good place to hide.

"He's right. During a holiday last year, this place held over four hundred people." She looked at Hatter. "Do we have the stores?"

"Fourth level down, sure. What I used to give the Resistance should still be there, unless it was pilfered." Reaching up, he ran his fingers over his damp hat brim and sighed. "It'd be better to look everything over though. We need to make sure no bugs or surveillance has been set up."

He looked at Alice and their eyes met. She blinked curiously, reading his expression, and then hid a grin.

"Right. We should definitely make sure everything is okay and in order," she agreed, nodding vigourously. Behind Pidge, Abel and Abigail looked at each other curiously and then shrugged. Whatever was being privately spoken between the two wasn't clear but it was, as Abel decided privately, not likely to be a problem.

"Go around," Hatter ordered Dormie and Chesh, "and check the parameter."

"Which one?" Dormie asked and Hatter glared at him. "Oh right... that one." He looked at Chesh and gave him a thump. "Come on. Remember, I got my eye on you."

He scuttled ahead and Chesh glanced at Alice, rolling his eyes. "Oh I'm shaking already," he mumbled and he followed the Dormouse towards the foyer doors. Hatter looked at the others and grabbed a set of keys from Dormie's desk. He tossed them at Pidge.

"Those go to the storage rooms. Shouldn't be too much missing. They were locked up." He looked over at Alice. "We'll make sure our apartment is safe."

"Right..." Alice muttered and Pidge sighed.

"Hopefully it isn't too many rooms. Might be inappropriate but I could use a cuppa."

"You're in the right place then," Hatter answered. Going to the windows, Abigail swung one open and winced at the cold rain.

"I'll try to see if I can get a message to our men somehow. Won't be easy with this storm." She looked at Hatter.

He shrugged and Abel cleared his throat. "We can do that in a bit, when the lightning stops."

Hatter gave them an odd smile and then started off for the hallway doors behind Dormie's desk, holding them open for Alice to go through. She paused midway and looked up at him, causing him to give her a puzzled glance back. "What?"

"Nothing," she answered. She reached up and brushed her fingers over the lapels of his drenched coat. "Just like seeing you in charge, you know."

His lips parted a little and then he grinned. "Get through the door, Oyster, before you cause trouble," he muttered. He adopted an innocent expression as he faced Abel and Abigail, backing through the door. "Pidge will need help most likely. Alice and I just need to check our home."

His mother looked at him suspiciously. "Right."

With an almost eager spring in her step, Alice preceded Hatter down the grass hallway that led into their apartment and heard him muttering to himself. She tapped the walls, listening for the tell-tale echo of a hollow room, and grinned with almost nostalgic happiness at the familiar scents of tea and grass. When she found the hidden door, she swung it open and Hatter stepped beside her, breathing in as deeply as she did. Even in the muted light, they could see that they had had a bit of luck.

It hadn't been ransacked nor even found, by the looks of things, and she sighed in some relief. Hatter quickly went to the electrical panel and flicked lights on, punching in several security codes as well when the alarm began to beep. The lights came on slowly, long disuse making them sluggish and muted, and the sight of the dust and cobwebs was a little dismal. But it was home, more so than any other place Alice had been to in Wonderland, and she smiled to herself.

When she turned her head to look at Hatter, she saw his own eyes were fixed on her. Uneasily, she gave him a curious smile and shrugged.


"Nothin'," he answered as he leaned back against the closed door but she knew that throaty way he had uttered the word well. Just that tone of voice put butterflies in her stomach.

"Oh, I doubt that." She flicked her hair back over her shoulder and smiled coquettishly, watching as he slung his hip satchel onto the coat rack. "I know that look. It's not 'nothin.'"

With a swagger in her step that copied his own usual walk, Alice crossed towards him. She arched a brow and slowly ran her hands up his arms and then down his chest teasingly. He didn't move away from the door but simply shrugged back at her and eyed her from under the brim of his hat.

"You, Mr. Hatter, are thinking something," Alice stated.

He gave her a crooked grin and tilted his head a bit. It let her see the faint scarring on his neck and she reached up to trace it with her fingers. His skin felt cool and damp to the touch but his gaze felt hot and searing. Biting into her lower lip, she looked at him from under her eyelashes and almost chuckled when she saw the tension in him.

"What do you think I'm thinkin'?" Hatter challenged and her smile broadened. Leaning up towards him, she let her fingers go from his neck to the back of his head. His damp hair curled around her fingers and she tugged gently. He didn't move to touch her but the grin he gave her was so self-assured that it made it clear he didn't think he needed to do so.

She would have clocked him one if he wasn't right about that.

"Probably exactly what I'm thinking," Alice tilted her head and brushed her lips against his. "Or am I wrong?"

"Oh, you are so right," Hatter agreed and he pushed his mouth against hers. Alice chuckled into the kiss before he deepened it to stop her laughter. The way he kissed her took her breath away and she groaned, standing on her toes to try to dominate the kiss. Hatter grabbed her hands and twisted her around with a thump against the door, causing her to giggle. He had her hands over her head and the way he pressed into her was so familiar that she almost shook because of it.

When Hatter moved his lips across her cheek to her ear, she arched into him. "We've done this before, you know. We were mid-way into trouble back then too," she pointed out as he nibbled her earlobe.

He pulled back slightly and looked at her.

"Me... door... Jack having just left... when we were supposed to be inspecting rooms," she explained and he grinned finally, leaning in closer to her. His legs parted hers and she groaned deeply as he pushed up against her in a slow grind. Even the material between them didn't hamper the pleasure the movement gave her.

"Are you complaining?" he asked curiously though his voice was as hoarse as hers.

Alice caught her breath as he let go of her hands and grasped the collar of her coat. "Not at all."

"Good. I'd say it's worthwhile to be a bit nostalgic sometimes," Hatter said as he slipped her coat over her shoulders. Alice shrugged it off and he tossed it over onto his tea table with a wet plop. Alice was pushing his own coat off when something pushed against her back.

The door was trying to open and she squeaked, Hatter's hand covering her mouth quickly to muffle the sound. With a hard push, he closed the door and gestured for her to keep quiet. He pulled her out of the way and gently motioned for her to go towards the tea table where she would be out of sight before he opened the door. Abel and Pidge were both standing outside, looking around the hall and then at him.

"Ah, so this was a door," Abel said with obvious satisfaction. "I thought so. It's an old Wonderland trick, you know, to hide doors in walls like this."

"Something wrong?" Hatter asked politely, managing to keep his voice steady enough though his breathing was still fast. Pidge gave him a curious look but Abel was too busy casing the area. He looked over Hatter's apartment and then nodded.

"This might be perfect. We can set up extra cots right now, set up some stores. Be a good hide-out and you've got an exit back there, so we'll be fine to get out fast," he explained.


The blunt and harsh way Hatter spoke made both men turn to look at him and then the room once more. Pidge glimpsed Alice sitting on the nearby tea table and frowned before looking at Hatter again.

"No?" Abel asked. "No about the exit?"

"No to it all right now."

Pidge shook his head. "Now's not the time to get territorial, Hatter," he pointed out and Hatter physically pushed them back, spreading his arms across the door-frame to keep them out.

"That's not my reason," he answered. He glanced back at Alice, which only reaffirmed his decision and then looked back at Abel and Pidge. "But I've got a pregnant girl there. She's lookin' tired and needs some rest. Not to mention that she's likely got...oh, four, five months left, if that, and like only 2 of those are "togetherly" times. I'd prefer to use the storm to my advantage right now."

"For what?" Pidge asked, pretending to be confused. Abel gave him a hard nudge while Hatter glared at him.

"If I have to go several months without making love to my girl, I am not going to waste a minute not doing so right now. So if you two can make yourself scarce and busy setting up stores and other things elsewhere, I'd be very happy and less likely to toss you both out on your ears." He leaned out as if to make good on that threat and felt a little smug when they both stepped back.

"You're... kicking us out for sex?" Pidge tried.

"Ye-p," Hatter popped the 'p' out and eyed him. Behind him Alice made an embarrassed groan. "Wouldn't you do the same thing?"

Abel and Pidge looked at each other and the old man shrugged. "Fair enough," Abel allowed. "Matter of fact, it's possible I did do that with my wife several times whenever it was inconvenient."

"I just don't see why I couldn't come back in... twenty minutes and we can try to set up here," Pidge started and Abel grabbed his arm.

"Come on, lad, before you lose any teeth over that stupid statement. No one will go out in this storm yet so they can do whatever it is Hatter thinks they should do without our interference. We'll get some tea in you and I can explain to you, once again, all about the jabberwocks and the singing flowers," Abel soothed as they walked down the grass hall.

Pidge made an insulted grunt. "I'm a grown man. I don't need that 'talk' from you when I've practised the subject more times than I can remember."

"Then you aren't doing it right if you don't remember," Abel answered, his voice fading as he led them away down the hall. Hatter watched them until they went through a storeroom door and then turned around, clicking the door shut. Alice was still sitting on the tea table but her face was flushed red with her embarrassment.

"You just blatantly told them that we were here for sex," she said stonily though her eyes were flashing dangerously. Hatter arched his eyebrows meaningfully.

"One never earns anythin' by beatin' around the bush," he countered. "Plus, you were always wanting me to tell the truth."

"I'd say that you'd become bolder, but that's pretty much impossible," Alice grumbled and Hatter leaned against the door again, twisting the lock into place. He flipped his hat off and flung it over onto the coat rack, followed by his heavy coat. Alice watched him unbutton his shirt cuffs and toe off his shoes and wondered if he had noticed that she was still not moving. When he stood in bare feet and with his shirt unbuttoned, he looked at her and quirked an eyebrow.

"Well?" he demanded and she shrugged. "Knowing Pidge and guessing about Abel, we're not going to be alone for that long. And opportunities will be scarce."

"I thought you were getting started without me," she answered as she unsnapped the belt on her skirt slowly. At his look, she shrugged again as she shimmied out of the skirt and let it pool at her feet. Hatter's eyes drifted down the pale length of her legs, framed neatly by her boots and bodice, and he cleared his throat loudly.

"Well, audience participation is encouraged when you're the audience," he drawled lewdly. Alice rolled her eyes and hopped back on the table. With a coy smile, she leaned back on her elbows and crossed her legs so slowly that she could swear that she saw Hatter's mouth gape a bit in reaction to the pose. The bodice pushed her breasts up high and, knowing how it looked, she let her hair fall back as she tapped her one foot in the air. Looking up at the ceiling chandelier, she managed to look both sensual and yet utterly bored.

"Tick tock, Hatter. I thought you were in a rush," she said lowly before closing her eyes and sighing. The soft fall of rain on the windows made it oddly peaceful in their large loft and she shivered as a faint breeze came through and ghosted over her damp skin.

A cool finger suddenly traced up her leg from boot toe to the cap of her knee and she felt her heart jump a bit in reaction. Hatter's palm flattened against the curve of her calf and he let it drift just under her legs, parting them slowly so that her boot heels were flat on the table. Alice resisted the urge to giggle when his touch became so light that it was ticklish. His body moved closer and without opening her eyes she knew he was standing just between her feet.

When he pressed his lips against her knee, Alice gasped and lifted her head a bit, staring at him. Hatter eyed her and grinned so that his teeth showed just around the skin of her knee. She bit into her lower lip as his fingers slid up and then down the length of her thigh.

"You're cold," he said, nipping at her knee affectionately.

"Oh, I'm really not," Alice whispered as she lifted her leg a little and brushed it over his hip. Hatter's other hand grasped that leg under the knee and he pulled her down the table closer against him. He watched her face intently while the fingers on her thigh moved over the crease between her thigh and hip to the bottom hem of her bodice. Alice stared at his fingers as they traced the hem, plucking gently at the velvet and lace that decorated it. The devilish digits changed direction and he flipped his hand over to skim the centre strip of her bodice. Hatter's eyes followed the movement of his hand and Alice arched her back a bit when the back of his hand brushed over the tops of her raised breasts. Goose-bumps sprang up at the contact and she moaned faintly, still surprised at the pleasure just a touch could bring.

Hatter moved his other hand to the curve of her waist and she tightened her leg against his hip. The sudden squeeze made him look into her eyes and she licked her lips.

"Kiss me," she whispered and he smiled softly, leaning down over her. Alice closed her eyes and lifted her head a little. His one hand moved to brace beside her shoulder but he kept himself just out of reach, his lips brushing over hers before he pulled back a bit. Alice groaned and opened her eyes again. "Hatter."

The faint whine in her voice made him grin evilly. "Just want to make sure you're in the moment, luv."

Alice resisted the urge to whine more. It would only make him toy with her more. "Oh I am." She slid her one leg between his and stroked it down his groin. Arching a brow, she grinned at him. "Are you?"

Hatter tried to glare at her but failed when she lifted one hand and caressed his cheek, her thumb moving over his lower lip. "Sometimes I wonder just who is seducing who, Oyster," he growled and the sound vibrated through his chest. Lowering his head, he kissed her finally, deepening it quickly so that he took her breath. Alice moaned and lifted her head up to the kiss, wrapping her fingers in his hair and holding him steady. His tongue slid into her mouth and brushed against her own before retreating and leaving her feeling strangely empty. Hatter broke the kiss but didn't move away, his forehead resting against hers as his hand moved around under her back.

"You can take it off, you know," Alice said as his hands brushed the decorative beading and skimmed her shoulders. Hatter shook his head.

"And ruin my visual stimulation? You have to be joking, Alice," he chided and he tugged on the tight hem again. "You do look good lying on my tea table but then, you always have."

Alice squirmed under him and felt his heart pounding hard through her chest, matching her own erratic heartbeat. Hatter teased her by keeping his mouth just out of reach and she finally gave up trying to pull him back to her, settling for removing his shirt over his shoulders. Tossing it to the side, she looked down between their tightly spaced bodies and swallowed as she took in his scarred torso.

Hatter sensed her hesitation and leaned down again, nudging her cheek with his nose so she turned her attention to his face. When their eyes met, he smiled.

"It doesn't hurt that much anymore and everything feels more in control in my head," he said and then grinned lasciviously. "But it depends on what area we're talking about right now. Some feel a bit more... tense than others."

Alice laughed and raised her arms around his shoulders. "Clearly you're happy to be home," she commented.

"Can't complain. Everything I wanted is right here." She smiled at him broadly and Hatter gestured around them. "You know, tea and my best hats. I really needed a new hat."

Alice took the bait and, giving an offended gasp, she tried to wriggle from under him. Hatter laughed and grabbed her arms, trapping them over her head and pinning her down. Alice, still trying to keep a straight face herself, looked impatiently at him.

"You know I can break free," she threatened and Hatter pursed his lips thoughtfully.

"Fair enough," he agreed before leaning down and moving his mouth over hers. "But do you want to?"

He kissed her hard, pushing her lips apart aggressively and almost forcing her to respond to him. Alice felt like her body went to liquid at the kiss and she moaned, lifting her head and slanting her lips against his to deepen the kiss further with her tongue. Hatter let her wrists go and proved his point when her hands stayed where they were, her body arching against his hands when he slid them over her body.

Alice gasped hungrily into his mouth and bit his lower lip, feeling his own bite when she let his lip go. Her entire body felt like it was throbbing at rapid pace and beneath her own cry she heard him groan when he yanked her hips up hard against his. He ground down against her, and she broke the kiss to get air, her body moving impatiently up against his. The slow pace he had set for this seduction was suddenly too slow and her back bowed as she pushed up against him. The metal of his belt was cold against her inner thighs and she rotated her hips against the hardness she could feel through his wet trouser. Hatter's lips trailed over her collarbone and she felt his hands grip her waist and lift her hips again and again in a steady motion that made her whimper.

"Stop teasing me, you were the one in a rush," she muttered brokenly. Hatter moaned against her neck as she rocked against him and took a shaky breath.

"Good point," he answered and he shifted a little on top of her. The sound of his belt and trousers being released was loud in the quiet of the room and he muttered something under his breath. The quiet room was filled by their bodies moving against each other. When he pulled her leg up higher on his waist, she almost immediately shoved her hips up and he swore loudly at the same time she cried out when he thrust deeply into her. The action was so sudden that he grabbed her waist to keep her still, his head dropping so his forehead rested against hers again. She felt his breath on her mouth and groaned, pushing her hips up again.

"Don't move yet," he whispered against her lips and Alice trembled at the lack of control in his voice. His fingers slid under the hem of her bodice and he squeezed her almost in warning.

Alice almost sobbed in relief at the feel of him, her body so on edge that the mere brushing of his hands on her skin made her feel ready to explode. Hatter's head lifted and he cleared his throat. The sudden thought that this might be going to fast made him instantly want to slow down, to make it last, and his fingers slipped between them to feel how hot she was.

"You sure you don't need me to..."

"If you keep talking, I will take care of matters myself," Alice warned without opening her eyes and when he didn't answer her she peeked from under her lashes at him. He was staring down between them at where she was pushed up tightly against him, her hips cradling his, and his expression was thoughtful. "What are you doing?"

"Debating. It is something I wouldn't mind seeing, to be honest." He looked back up into her eyes and Alice gave him a glare. He caught her meaning quickly and quickly stammered out, "But, of course, that might be best left for another time. You know, when speed and time isn't a problem and I can really watch without..."

Alice reached up and grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling his head down to hers. She kissed him, muting his rambling words with her own lips and shifted her hips up at him. Hatter slid his hands down to her legs and pulled her even further over the edge of the table, never breaking away from her kiss. Alice scratched her nails down his shoulders and moaned against his mouth as he began to move in a slow, steady rhythm inside her. His arms soon bracketed her head and Alice raised her own hands up to clasp them around his wrists. The table's surface was still so polished that she slid easily along it, her body being pulled and pushed by his movements and she sighed against his mouth as he broke the kiss. Alice tightened her legs around his hips and planted her feet more firmly against the table's edge.

She wasn't sure when it was that his patience snapped or what she had done to provoke it, but his hands suddenly grabbed her by the waist and yanked her hard against him before she could react. Alice hissed out sharply, her hands quickly grasping him by his shoulders and Hatter put his mouth back on hers, impatiently parting her lips as he began to move faster inside her. Alice lifted her legs free from the table and hooked them around the small of his back, cradling his body as she opened her eyes and looked at his face as he kissed her. His mouth almost sealed hers, his hands guiding her hips as they moved together.

The antique table made an odd, skittering sound repeatedly and beneath them the multiple wooden legs groaned in protest at their weight. Unable to take the pressure building inside of her, Alice slapped her hand down against the surface and cried out against his mouth. Hatter groaned an unintelligible answer and she felt his fingers dig into the delicate skin of her hips. Her hand lifted and grasped his shoulder again. The table, luckily, didn't move much more and Alice struggled to gain some leverage. Each hard thrust was setting her body more and more on fire and she cried out repeatedly at the painful pleasure of it. Hatter's scarred back flexed beneath her fingers and she dug her nails into his skin and he bit her lip again in reaction to the sharp pain.

Hatter lifted her hips up to his so sharply that she had to break the kiss again, and Alice cried out, fingers still tight on his shoulders. His mouth dropped to her ear and she felt his lips encircle her earlobe before he bit into the tender skin. When a sudden rush of tension throbbed through her, Alice found her strength buckling within her as her body became overwhelmed at the intensity of her own throbbing nerves.

Her inner muscles clenched and released just as she cried out and turned her head to the side, feeling his mouth move down her neck. She pushed her hips up against him as he continued to move strong and sure inside of her, his lips sucking and marking her neck. His one arm wrapped about her hips and kept her hips pressed tightly to him. Alice arched her body but she couldn't find the strength to lift her head. She cried out again as the tension continued to throb inside of her and felt his shoulders bunch under her fingers. With a soft groan, Hatter's harsh movements suddenly softened but his hands didn't release their tight grip on her.

Alice whimpered as he slowly sank down into her welcoming embrace, her legs spreading wider to take him deeper inside of her. The movement caused a fresh burst of pleasure and she tingled all over at the sensations. Hatter buried his face in her hair and stroked his hands down her sides. She could feel his heart galloping through his chest and she managed to gulp in some precious air.

"That... might have been longer than twenty minutes but I forgot to count," Hatter said suddenly, his words coming out in broken gasps as he tried to catch his breath. Alice chuckled and turned her head so she could look at him. Her legs felt weak and her arms felt oddly heavy when she tried to push his damp hair out of his eyes.

"I'm not complaining."

"Good thing because I don't think I can provide a repeat performance right now," Hatter said. He didn't move away from her, merely caressed her sides and legs where they were still wrapped around his waist. Alice closed her eyes, enjoying the fading rush of adrenaline going through her body, but before she could stop herself she yawned. Hatter heard the sound and stared at her. Alice opened her eyes again and tried to keep herself from yawning again.

"I'm okay." She didn't realize how pale and worn she suddenly looked and Hatter pushed himself off of her. The fact that she protested a little made him grin smugly. Re-buckling his pants, he reached down and pulled her to her feet. Alice stood shakily and he sighed, swinging her up into his arms with surprising ease. Startled by the easy way he picked her up, she looked at him oddly and he shrugged.

"I don't like how tired you look," Hatter explained as he crossed to the bed that was set in the corner of the room. She complained that she was fine as he walked but Hatter ignored her. The sheets were dusty but the bed would be better than nothing at all. He set her down in the middle of it and began to remove her boots, still paying no attention to her protests. Once she was out of her boots and her remaining bodice, he flung the sheets back and settled her under them. It took a considerable amount of self-control on his part to ignore the sight of her naked body and he kept his hands to himself except to gently pat her slightly rounded stomach.

"You are going to get some sleep," he ordered as he pulled the top sheet over her, trying her in. "I bet we only have a few hours before Abel puts us on the move again."

Alice wrapped the sheet around her body and stared as he pulled a comforter up from the end of the bed. The familiarity of their old bed felt homey and her eyes were already growing heavy. "What about you?" she asked fuzzily as she sat up. "You've had less sleep than any of us."

"I'll try to get some," he said to soothe her, watching as her eyes started to droop. He pushed her down again and she eyed him. Hatter could see she was still thinking about arguing and he sighed. "I'll ask Pidge to keep an eye on you. I just have something I need to take care of before I can think about resting."

"What?" Alice asked and he sighed. "Hatter, you're not going to try to leave me here while you go off on your own, are you?"

He shook his head. "Nothing like that. It's... more personal I suppose."

"Hatter," she muttered. "Just tell me that you'll be back in less than an hour."

He thought it over and she snapped her fingers when he took too long. "Please!"

"It is something that needs to get down before I never have the chance again. It'll be all right, Alice, just get some sleep and I'll wake you up in an hour," Hatter explained and he smoothed his hand down her cheek. She looked ready to get up and he sighed again. "It's between me and Abigail, Alice. I need to do this on my own, before we lose more time and go into war. I have to know about what happened all those years ago. If she dies and I don't know what really caused her to leave, then..."

Hatter broke off, sounding a little concerned of what was to come, and Alice reached out to squeeze his hand. The action comforted him and he gave her a smile. He touched her face one more time and watched her lie down. He smiled at the sight of her huddling down in the covered and then stood, going to the door to find Pidge. Hatter wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with her and have her chase his nightmares away but this needed to be done.

He had to know if what he had lived his life believing was the truth or not.

Chapter Text

The games of Solitaire and Hearts had become so monotonous that Amelia no longer looked at her old cards anymore out of pure disgust with the games. There was little else to do in her own company between trial seatings though. Her jail was icy cold now and the few allowances to her comfort had been an old wood-furnace that spewed out black smoke occasionally and one of her heavy fur-lined capes. It was better than nothing. Snuggling as deeply as she could into its dense warmth, Amelia exhaled sharply and put her feet as close as she dared to the furnace. The guards hadn't explained why it had been so cold but she could guess by their own huddled forms that they didn't like the change either.

"Winter Wonderland," Amelia muttered to herself as she tucked the edges of her cape beneath her knees. Leo Pardenlace had snuck her in a few ancient poetry books and one of them was sprawled on her lap, its crackly pages almost breaking apart in her hands whenever she turned a page. The words were nothing but empty black scrawl to her eyes and she didn't absorb any of it. Her mind was trying to rebuild its schemes and plans but she felt too tired to do anything but sit and stare at the tiny fire.

The trial had been exhausting this morning and her brief testimony had fallen on deaf ears. With a jury of Noble Cards, 'guinea pigs' as Pardenlance called them, there would be no room for any truth. They were, from Amelia's knowledge of the Court, all members of the Diamond and Club families, desperate to keep their status but there were even worse reasons why they would declare her guilt. It wasn't just for the sake of Royal favour. Their children would have been taken hostage, a sort of insurance that the Queen's request be followed, and if she was found innocent, the children would be executed as well.

Amelia could not blame some of them for wanting to protect the families but it did not make it any easier to accept.

Closing her eyes, Amelia thought of her own son and tried to resist the urge to cry. It had been months since she had seen him and the Queen had said he was in her custody.

But Amelia still held out hope that, in some way, her son had been kept away from the City and the insane hold of his grandmother.

Reaching over, she grabbed a spare log of wood and tossed it into the small furnace. The flames crackled and gave just enough additional warmth to bring her some comfort. Amelia swung the tiny grate closed as hard as she could and propped her feet up on the furnace to try to warm them against the iron casing. The last time that winter had struck Wonderland City it hadn't really been the best experience for her and she'd spent most of it drugged. Not that thinking about the Red King's torture helped her at all but something made her wish the past few months had been nothing more than a terrible dream.

The fact that she had to keep her grief for Jack buried so deeply that it couldn't be used against her was still a fresh pain. One that she only showed when she was alone in her cell and able to cry into her hands without much notice. She wept for him when she could but the constant fear of execution had kept her from truly letting it absorb her. Few seemed to notice though and that went to her benefit. None of the guards spoke to her still, and ever since her brief confrontation with the Diamond Executioner, he'd not been close to her. It had disrupted her plans and she was forced to bide her time.

Though if things became any worse, she'd have to improvise for her escape.

The doors hissed open behind her but Amelia stayed in her place, her eyes on the tiny flames that were still sparking in the furnace. She knew who was behind her by the way the room was so silent and tense. The only visitor she tended to have these days was Pardenlace and he had left her only a few hours ago for an appeal that likely wouldn't go well. The Judge whom the Queen had chosen was so old and nearly deaf that it could take well over an hour just to get him to hear just a small fraction of conversation. Her lawyer would not be back for hours.

In a futile sign of rebellion, Amelia drew her knees up close to her chin and tucked herself down deeper into the comfort of her fur collar. Wriggling her toes together, she finally closed the book on her lap and then discreetly tucked it under her chair. Her eyes never left the tiny flickering flames she could see through the iron grating even when her cell door was unlocked and opened loudly.

"The very least you could do is turn to face your betters." Mary Elizabeth's voice was its usual refined and ice cold tone, and Amelia saw out of the corner of her eye that the current shift of guards had come inside her cell. She was surrounded by them and by the way their hands were on their gun holsters they were there to protect the Queen.

But from what, Amelia wasn't sure; she had no weapons, no real way of attacking the older woman. The only weapon she might have was her silence. Pardenlace had insisted she not talk to the Queen without his presence but what good he would do against Mary Elizabeth, she wasn't sure. The entire legal procedure was just a sham, an attempt to distract Wonderland City from the real mystery, and she knew now that any chance of her going free was long dismissed. No one would eventually care if she did die; the Royal Hearts had always been very good in distorting the facts.

No one had ever questioned Jack's death or the destruction that was wreaking havoc across Wonderland. In an odd twist, her trial was now the highlight of Wonderland City's miserable society.

The Queen of Hearts brought a chair close to Amelia's and sat down with a disgusted expression at the cold seat.

"I have decided that you and I are at cross-purposes," she declared when Amelia made no attempt to respond to her first insult.

The young woman looked at he with her eyes like ice and her mouth set in a grim line.

Ignoring the look, the Queen pushed her red chiffon sleeves back to expose her blood-red nails and ruby studded bracelet. With the air of a practised courtier, Amelia looked her up and down and gave a tiny smirk that suggest maybe, just maybe, the Queen was wearing far too much red. But the Queen was too well versed in courtly etiquette and didn't react to that insulting look.

"There is no real reason for this trial to continue," she said instead and Amelia looked at her with wary eyes.

"Bizarre for you to come to that decision after we are so many weeks into it. I didn't want it in the first place," she pointed out and the Queen shrugged.

"You would have made it much easier if you would just admit your hand in dear Jack's death." When she leaned forward, she brought with her a smell of roses and Amelia knew she might never smell them again without thinking of pain and death. "Wasn't it because you failed as a mother to properly protect your son that Jack had to go to try to save him in the first place?"

The Queen had expected Amelia's usual verbal response or a tightening of her hands into fists, as she would often do when she was irritated by an insult. She did not expect her to laugh as if she'd just been told a hilarious joke.

"That's the best you can do?" Amelia asked, breathless from the strength of her laugh. It hid her real feelings to just laugh off the Queen's words. She'd done it to mask the rage and guilt that the words had brought to her. More than once had Amelia thought the same thing but she knew better than to reveal it to the woman trying to get her executed legally.

"Your admission would be helpful," Mary Elizabeth murmured and Amelia stifled another chuckle.

"Over my cold dead body would I admit to such a thing."

The Queen snapped her fingers and one of the guards handed her a tiny holo-orb. "I am prepared to make you an offer," she said as if making some great sacrifice, "in return for your admission of guilt."

"I want my lawyer here," Amelia snapped and the Queen shrugged.

"My offer will not available if he is here. This is a one-time offer, dear girl. Don't be stupid before you hear what it is." She ran her red nails over the orb's brass cover and it snapped back at her touch. There was a faint whirring of gears and springs and from the hollow centre of the orb lights began to flicker in a rainbow effect.

Out of sheer curiosity, Amelia stared at it and wondered what the Queen was trying now.

"You see, the more you resist and try my patience, the more people begin to doubt the truth they have been told and I can't have that," the Queen said in a conversational tone. "After all, my son was well loved. To kill you outright would look suspicious to the populace, you know, and I can't have that. So I wracked my mind as to what to do for hours and hours, until I realized that I had the answer before me all this time. Right from the very start. My, how silly I felt!"

The holo lights finally settled and a video feed began. Once she realized what it was showing her, it took every ounce of self-control she had for Amelia not to launch herself at the older woman who sat so close. Instead, she looked at her with accusing eyes and wished her dead. When the Queen gave her a smug look, she had to drop her eyes away and instead stared with a desperately hungry expression.

The video feed was of her son, a child she'd not held for what felt like years, and tears came to her eyes at the sight of him. Amelia reached out and took the orb from the Queen's hands, who surprisingly let her, and held it close to her. William had grown, even to Amelia's eyes, and even now his infant face reminded her of Jack. He was a few months older now, she realized, and she'd not seen anything as beautiful as his little face as he sat on the floor. It was clear to her as she watched a nurse help him play with blocks, that he was very clever for his age, not to mention very aware that something was wrong. William seemed unharmed by his kidnapping but he looked fussy and would fight with the nurse when she tried to take his blocks from him. His crying was so quick to come that she wanted nothing more than to reach through the video feed and grab him to her to protect him.

These were months that she should have spent with him, that both she and Jack should have had, and instead he was nothing more than an image in a holo-orb. Amelia wanted to weep at the sight of her son but buried it deep inside her close to her grief for Jack. She couldn't afford the weakness she felt at the sight of her only child.

But some instinct told Amelia that no matter how well she hid it, the Queen would know she had struck a very deep chord in her.

Taking in a deep breath, she ran her hand over the orb and it closed slowly, the video feed stopping once the cover was replaced. Amelia lifted her head and stared at the Queen. Mary's eyes were fixed on her face, each thin brow raised in inquiry.

"Why did you show me him now?" Amelia asked in a low voice and the Queen smiled.

"Why indeed? It is so nice to see you a bit curious, Amelia." She gestured to the Executioners nearby. "You will never ever admit to your crimes in court, I know that. But your use is about to come to an end. The people are already growing needy for another distraction to keep them complacent, which I am going to give to them."

It sounded like a promise of exile and without thinking Amelia felt some hope. The Queen saw it and shook her head.

"No. You are far too dangerous to be allowed into exile." She snapped her fingers again and one of the guards handed over a rolled parchment. "You are going to sign a confession."

"Why would I do that?" Amelia demanded. "You and I both know that I can make these court procedures last years and years. I know our legalities as well as you. I was a Queen after all."

"You will do it." The parchment was slapped into her hand painfully hard. "Because if you don't, I am more than willing to have the Nurse signalled to execute my grandson."

Amelia jerked and stared at her, her face drained of all colour. The Queen's red-stained lips parted in a vicious smile.

"Do not think that I won't. It would be very easy, my girl. She carries a very specific drug, used by some Serpent farmers, as I recall. It would take a small injection, as he is not a large child, and then he would slip into oblivion." The Queen patted her own chest. "I do not care what happens to Jack's little whelp, grandson or no. He is just part of a wretched son that I should have drowned at birth. So consider this very carefully that you hold your son's life in your hand."

Leaning forward, she glared at Amelia. "An infantile attack, we would call it. Days of national mourning may follow if I allow the news to be released. The people would be desperate for some hope and of course, I would be there to give it to them. Either way, I will win this the way I want to. Imagine what his death would bring to your miserable conscience."

Reaching out, she unrolled the parchment and laid it across Amelia's lap.

"Unless, of course, you sign this paper."

"Sometimes I wonder if it's even worth fixing this place back up. It'll only get ruined again," Hatter muttered to himself as he slowly moved down the hallways of the Tea Shop. After making sure Alice was sound asleep and comfortable with a rather disgruntled Pidge playing guard outside the door, Hatter had decided to take a very cautious tour of his home. He couldn't help but feel a bit anxious about it. The Queen's men wouldn't be stupid and would likely have left something, anything, behind to cause trouble.

The overturned tables and toppled shelves were sprawled around the halls and were the signs of their interference but it could have been worse. Much worse, as Hatter recalled from when he'd first taken over the shop. Back then, the place had been scorched to the ground and had been nothing more than a skeleton of a building. But underneath the wrecked books and tables, his home was more than easily repairable this time around. Once again, the Tea Shop had survived yet another dynasty change, another violent coup.

Hatter paused at the main room's entrance and took a moment to inhale the atmosphere of the Tea Shop. The combined smell of tea leaves, grass and rain water was so familiar to him that in the first time in a long time, he felt like he was really home. Odd what the smell of tea could do to him and he had the sudden urge to brew a fresh pot of North Breakfast tea.

He could almost taste it, smell, he realized, he did smell it. Walking slowly in the main room, Hatter looked around and followed the scent of tea.

Sitting in the corner near the balcony doors was Abigail, with several tea cups set up on the table at her elbow. She was curled up in one of the scoop chairs usually used when a junkie had an overdose and her one hand was braced against her chin as she watched the storm outside. Hatter leaned against one of the ceiling struts close to the windows and looked at his mother from the distance. With her hair hanging around her face and her innocent pose, she looked very young and it was like seeing someone step out of his memories.

When the dim light struck the long silver streaks in her dark hair and highlighted the weariness in her profile, Hatter knew it wasn't just some memory his mind was tricking him with.

Abigail raised her tea cup to her lips and turned her head a bit. When she caught sight of Hatter standing in the shadows, she dropped the cup back onto its saucer with a clatter and shakily set it down on the low table. Slowly stretching his arms out to the sides to show he wasn't there to harm, Hatter pushed away from the strut and walked towards the balcony windows. He didn't look at her as he approached but he felt the tension around his mother escalate till it was almost tangible in the air between them.

When he didn't look at her, she reached out and picked up her cup once more, sipping the bitter tea slowly. Hatter pushed the blinds apart and watched the rain track down the glass.

"Have you been able to send out a message bird?" he asked. He gestured to the storm. "Because the electrical units won't be able to send anything else."

Startled by his relatively easy question, Abigail eyed the young man as if she still expected him to leap across and strangle her. "Chesh volunteered to go but I... I didn't send him. Your shop had few holo-orbs left so I gave them to the crows that have been following us all. They'll get the message out faster than any of those dumb pigeons would."

"Means this place will fill up shortly," Hatter said, looking over his shoulder at the empty loft.


"You don't like Chesh?" Hatter couldn't hide the odd amusement that gave him, and he turned to her. She fidgeted a little and made an expression that was full of uncertainty.

"He has a way of looking at me, at all of us, that reminds me of a cat and a mouse," she admitted. "There is something untrustworthy within him. But I don't know what else it is that bothers me."

"Hardly a surprise," Hatter muttered to himself and he watched as she reached out and poured another cup of tea. She slid the cup over to him and then settled back in her chair.

"You've barely spoken to me before," she said, getting to the point. "Why now?"

Hatter picked up the cup and watched her extreme tension go to her hands. "Because of Alice."

"Something's wrong with Alice? With the baby?" she asked, immediately on alert. Hatter shook his head and took a long drink of tea. His eyes fluttered close at the warm sensation it gave him and he let the taste of it settle on his tongue before he looked at his mother again.

"No." He wasn't about to admit outloud that he found her protective concern over Alice and her unborn child oddly reassuring. "She's healthy, but tired. She's had to use so much of her power lately and I think her pregnancy is starting to... come back to normal. I figured she could use some sleep without being bothered."

Abigail crossed one leg over the other and stared at him. Her fingers clenched on her knee. "Then why would you want to speak to me now? Why not weeks ago, days ago even?"

"Because until several days ago, I wasn't sure that I might lose it and kill you if we spoke," he said bluntly and watched her guilty reaction fly across her face. It was obvious she'd been thinking it herself.

"I still don't understand why," she began and he raised a hand.

"I have questions, Abigail, and you are going to answer them, one way or another," he said, his voice so low and deadly that she did flinch, at the way he spat out her name and at the subtle undertone of a threat. It was strange that she'd hoped he might not use her name but she knew it would be asking too much for him to call her his mother openly.

"I'll try."

"You will have to do better than that," Hatter reiterated.

"I will try," Abigail retorted with bite in her words. She reached down her blouse and pulled out her old necklace. Nervously, she began to run the charms through the chain and they made a faint hissing sound as metal rubbed on metal.

"Tell me why I had to live for a very long twenty-five years believing you were dead. To what purpose was so great that you would put me through that?" Hatter demanded, cutting quickly to what he needed to know the most.

"I did not mean to hurt you. I had hoped that you might understand," Abigail protested and he slammed the tea cup onto the table.

"I was five years old and terrified! All I know was that my Da came home, drunk and ragin', and told me you'd died tryin' to find him. That'd you'd come because I told you to and got yourself killed in crossfire. The way it was all done... I felt as if I'd done it myself!" Hatter shouted at her. His lower lip quivered in his anger and he seemed to be barely restraining himself from leaping across and slapping her. "I had asked you if you could bring him home and you'd left, without leaving more than a note with Old Hatter. Without... even saying a word to me. No goodbye, nothing."

He put his head in his hands and pulled on his hair hard. "Do you even know what it is like, to be a scared little boy believing he'd killed his own mother?"

His shoulders shuddered as if a weight had been put on them and he didn't continue. Wisely, Abigail kept still; the memory of her own leaving was still painful to her. Her deepest regret for all this time had been leaving him but no words, no matter how eloquent or meaningful, would do it justice or heal what had been done to him. Hatter had suffered for the sins of his family and she knew that it was not fair or right that he had felt so much pain at such a young age.

No child deserved that and it was why she was trying so hard to make sure Hatter and Alice kept together in any way she could.

When Hatter didn't look up or seem on the verge of speaking after a long silence, she slid from her chair with the easy grace she was used to. Tentatively, she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. She felt him flinch physically but when he relaxed she smoothed her hand down his arm and took his right hand in hers.

"Hatter...Noble," she whispered and at his first name Hatter's head lifted. It took all her control not to recoil at the green-eyed gaze that met hers and she wove her fingers through his. "I can only ask your forgiveness, because no words could ever repair the hurt we caused you."

"Why? Why would you do it?" he asked and she felt his fingers tighten around hers. It nearly broke her fingers but she hid the pain as best as she could, realizing that he was doing it because he wanted to be sure she was real. Taking in a deep breath, she used her other hand to pull her necklace over her head and handed it to him.

Smiling with a faint humour, she rolled the locket over in her fingers. "When you were growing up, I recorded things by altering my mother's charm necklace so they would pick up emotional moments and preserve the memories for me. After your brother..., after Albrecht was lost to his madness, I struggled to think of ways to make you understand why everything was done the way it was. Why you had to have so many lessons when you complained that they should wait. I remember that even at five year old, you managed to win quite a few arguments with your father about them. I wanted you to remember that we all loved you, despite the strictness of your upbringing."

Hatter met her eyes and frowned. It gave her some relief that his eyes were once again dark brown though the pain in them was still strong.

"It wasn't easy to remember to record things but sometimes memories become distorted by what we want to believe or what we're led to believe. I tried hard to keep history recorded for you," Abigail explained. "But the last thing I recorded was the day I left the North. I had been intending to send you it but these charms have other uses, deeper uses, than just recording holo-images. I couldn't risk it falling into the wrong hands."

She smiled and flicked the locket over. "Did you know that the day before I left, when I woke you, you told me that you dreamed about an Alice?"

Hatter's eyes narrowed. "I could have sworn I dreamt that."

"No," she said with a shake of her head. "That was one odd thing about you, Hatter. No matter how scattered or odd your dreams were, there was always so much truth in them. It was as if you knew you'd meet an Alice someday."

Hatter didn't answer but his thoughts turned, for a flash of a second, to the terrible nightmares he still suffered from and hoped that she wasn't totally right.

Abigail pressed her necklace into his hand and let go quickly. Hatter palmed it and rolled the locket around in his palm. The locket itself had a small impression on its one side, as if the brass had been pressed by a thumb just as it was being moulded. He ran his thumb over the impression and the locket clicked open. Inside it was empty except for a tiny blinking light. Hatter flicked the light with his finger and felt the locket grow hot. It began to hum just before a soft beam of light shone from the centre and struck a nearby window. The light unfolded itself into a large square over the window and Hatter turned his hand to properly play the video. The darkened surface allowed the images to play out clearly and he turned to watch it, unaware that as he did so that Abigail watched his face intently.

The images that reflected off the window were silent but vivid, distorted in the way that holo-images frequently became and it was a bit worse because of the age of the feed. After watching it for several dizzying minutes, Hatter realized that it was playing from Abigail's perspective. The locket would swing as she moved, turn as she turned, but there was no sound yet.

He wasn't sure if that was a blessing or not.

The video was of the Taiga, long before it had become the dark twisted place it was now, and the perspective was on the front gate of the White Manor. A Frog Coachman was granting her access and the video showed the expansive gardens she entered just inside the gate. The grainy feed flickered to the giant crow statue and as she looked around, Hatter saw a wisp of movement. Apparently, she had too and the video spun in a circle before settling once more. A young girl dressed in blue was running by; her thick auburn hair swung in two plaits and she seemed so innocent as small cat raced after her to play.

When the girl turned mid-step, Hatter felt a cold knot of dread build in his stomach. Now that he truly looked at Thyme, he could see his own resemblance to her and where they differed. Despite the grainy image, her grey eyes were like cold slate and narrowed in a type of triumph. The images distorted for a moment as she came close and in the distance, Hatter could see her own guards nearby.

The sound came on suddenly, crackling and broken like an old record, and Hatter winced at the loud whine it made before settling.

"...glad you are here," Thyme was saying. Hatter didn't hear his mother's reply but the tiny girl-child stepped close. Even though it was a holo-image, there was no mistaking the viciousness in her eyes. "You must have known all along."

"Known what?" Abigail's voice was shaky and very young sounding.

Thyme shrugged a slim shoulder and pointed down to the gardens. "Mother is out there with Mr. Hatta. Urgent business, you know. But if you were to ask me, Mrs. Hatta, they only said that to get me out of the way for other things. It happens whenever he visits and Mother said there was something very secret that they had to share with me soon."

Behind Hatter, Abigail shut her eyes and tried to drown out the voice of that child. The sound had cut out what Thyme had told her just after that, that her father was there to visit her as well, just not yet. But she kept her mouth shut, because Hatter seemed to completely focussed on the memories that she didn't dare disturb him.

The images moved quickly, showing Abigail's desperate run through the hedges before they came to another blinding halt. The garden path she'd run down had transformed into an almost endless maze but around the last corner, the hedges opened up to a clearing.

Under a huge tree with raised roots and drooping branches was his father and the White Queen.

The sight made Hatter's blood feel ice cold in his veins.

His father was sitting at a tea table, his hat set carelessly aside, but the woman sitting on his lap was not being ignored. She had her hands tight in his hair and her body pressed against his intimately though his hands were at his sides. Hatter felt strangely perverted for just seeing his father in such a way but forced himself to watch. The White Queen's voluminous white gown could not hide the way she moved her body against Grey Hatta's, and she was kissing him with so much passion that it almost seemed starved.

Hatter couldn't tell if it was desire or resigned obedience that made his father return her kiss.

The images drifted around, blurring a little as Abigail's coat fluttered in the wind, and there was a soft sound like a beaten kitten crying out. The blurring lifted and Hatter had to refocus his eyes a little. It looked as if Abigail retreated several steps and then fallen to her knees and the sound was gut-wrenching as she sobbed aloud.

"Abigail?" Grey's voice was desperate and he ran towards her. The White Queen was picking herself up from the ground and Grey's disarranged clothing only damned him further. Abigail seemed to stumble back, and the image dropped to her hand clenched on her stomach.

"How could you?"

Hatter heard no shock in her voice, only pain and fury. She lashed out and slapped his father hard on his cheek and he staggered back. The sound that cracked through the air was loud and painful when Abigail slapped him again.

"It's not what it seems, Abby," Grey begged, trying to grab her to keep her still. "Please, let me explain."

"How long? How..." Abigail demanded and the White Queen appeared at Grey's shoulder.

"Twelve years," she interjected like a helpful student and Grey turned.

"Leave this to me!" he shouted and she put her hands in the air. There was no hiding the smug satisfaction on her face, so similar to her daughters, and Hatter felt his own hatred for that woman swell in his chest.

"You told me that this was over, that you were true to me finally," Abigail whispered.

"I was, am," he answered. "But there are some things I cannot help, Abby. Cannot stop."

The image flickered and jumped around and Hatter leaned forward, desperate to learn more.

"You... you lied to me, Grey. You told me that it was over. But it's not. It never was and you married me, made me think that I could trust you again! But I saw that little girl and she resembles Albrecht at that age! Gods, even she knew that you were her father! You've played me for a fool! Everything we've built our marriage on has been a lie," Abigail shouted and she struck him again and Grey took the blow willingly. Then she was off running through the paths she'd taken before and from the loud shouts, Grey was running after her. The image suddenly snapped up, as if the necklace had been caught and pulled on, and then the ground suddenly appeared so abruptly that the window went black.

The video feed turned itself off, the locket's hum fading slowly and Hatter ran his thumb over the brass again. All at once, his headache flared up and his throat went dry, his hands shaky and he heard what felt like a wave of voices in his mind screech their rage.

But what they raged at, what he raged at, Hatter wasn't certain.

Shaking his head to stop the pain, Hatter slowly turned on his heel and stared at his mother. She'd gone bone white at the replay of her own bitter memories and her hand was clenched on her stomach protectively. Unsure what to do, Hatter handed her the necklace and watched her roll the chain through her fingers again.

"I lost more than just my belief in your father that day," she said lowly. "I'd gone to him, not just because I knew you missed him, but because it was time he learned that he was going to be a father again. He'd been gone for quite a while, you know, and I needed his reassurance that he would be there for the new baby in time. When I ran, he caught my hand to try to stop me and I pulled back just as he let me go. I lost your sister and I fell down the maze hillside. It had been so hard to become pregnant again and I knew I lost the baby the moment I woke in the White Manor with him at my side."

"I suspected but..." Hatter shook his head. "Why would he do such a thing?" He looked at her strangely. "You said you knew of it before, why would you marry such a man?"

Abigail took some comfort in that his anger right now was directed at his father and not solely focussed on her.

"When I met your father, Hatter, he was already a man of substantial myth, bound for more and more legends as the Wars continued. He wasn't a warrior, you know, but someone who's actions could affect the entire course of the Wars." She smiled, a bitter yet fond expression in her eyes. "I had read stories about him, about his father, and I suppose they made me love him before we were ever introduced."

Hatter frowned when she paused, lost in a memory of years past. She jerked, as if remembering she was supposed to be telling a story, and straightened in her seat.

"I had suspected he had been scorned in love, you know, and like a fool thought my love could be substitute. I seduced him, even at my own young age, and I suppose it made him curious and rather pleased to have some young girl love him so deeply to risk it all by bearing his first son. When we married finally, my father tried to disown me as he knew of Grey's past history. I stood by your father, even when he was tortured into madness by the Queens, healed him through it, and then I happily had you. I had thought we were happy, but he always seemed..., distracted and somewhat out of sorts. He'd leave for days on end sometimes. I had dismissed it as being from his constant time in the Wars but that day, I knew it was deeper."

"I had asked you to bring him home," Hatter said and shook his head.

"You loved your father and needed him at a time when all the secrets they were putting in your head needed to be trained. I have never blamed you for that and you never should," she snapped vehemently and then her eyes softened. "I could never deny you your father."

She stood up and walked to the window beside him.

"When I came to, it was several days later and your father was at my side, begging forgiveness, for me to understand why it had to be done but I... I couldn't. I'd turned a blind eye to it all for so long that I didn't have it in me to do so again. I'd lost so much for a love that wasn't real."

Hatter shook his head and she realized he didn't understand.

"It was the difference between your love for Alice, Hatter, and his for me. Your father wanted me to make concessions for his deeper love for the White Queen and I couldn't. He wanted his cake and bread all at once. I doubt you'd make such demands from Alice," she pointed out and he rested his head back against the window. Abigail had a point; if Alice had fallen for someone else or had not returned, he would have sacrificed his happiness for her willingly, even if it killed him.

"When I threatened to take you from him, he... snapped. The White Queen was already threatening him, the Queen of Hearts was just starting her newest War, and it only added fuel to the fire. He told me in great detail what would happen to you if I didn't leave you with him. How you would become like March. And it hurt so much to realize that if I took you with me, I would ultimately lose you to something even worse."

"So instead you made the choice to make my childhood memories far more bitter. To make me an orphan once Granddad and Da died." Hatter ran his hand through his hair and shivered.

"There was no way to choose anything else. It was see you dead in madness or see you survive despite it all." Cautiously, she reached out and brushed her fingers over his before taking his hand. "I wanted to come back to you, after your father's execution and the Wars but I'd been told you were dead. It took so long..."

Hatter pulled his hand free and straightened, pacing a small circle. "It is hard to believe any of this, after how many lies and deceptions." He spun a little on his heel. "After he loved you."

"He loved the idea of me," she argued and he shook his head.

"If he had, he would have recovered but he never did. He descended into madness after you left, though it wasn't a deep as it could have been. He mourned your loss and every time I saw him it seemed like something else had gone missing. He was a shell," Hatter countered. "You would base all his love of you off one moment? You would dismiss what I saw between you because of it?"

She folded her arms across her chest and they lapsed into an awkward silence. Hatter sighed, knowing that his mother had believed that her marriage had been a lie as long as he had believed he had caused her death. It was not likely she'd believe what he knew, even if the ghost of his father were to crop up suddenly. He couldn't blame her; he didn't trust everything he'd seen and he knew that there had to have been something deeper going on for her to leave his father and him.

Hatter stopped his pacing and stood before her. Swallowing down the lump in her throat, Abigail looked up at him. "As I said, I can't ask for any forgiveness. In a terrible way, I cost you a childhood that should have been far more simple and less grievous."

Their eyes met and he tipped his head on the side.

"And perhaps none of this would have happened," she finished. "You'd have been the happy child you deserved to have been."

"At the risk of your own happiness."

Abigail almost bristled. "I am your mother. I would have died for you back then and I had to, in a way, to keep you from destruction. I'd seen what madness did to your brother and I was helpless to save him then. Your father knew that and I knew I couldn't help you if you went that way."

"You could have just left."

"Divorce is not something that happens in Wonderland, Hatter, you know that. I was as good as dead to your father the moment I threw his ring back at him. I didn't expect him to tell you what he did."

She exhaled sharply. "None of this should have happened."

"I would not have met Alice then," Hatter whispered to himself but she didn't hear him. She was continuing on, and was gesturing around. She seemed so scattered and flustered that Hatter felt a little dizzy just watching her turn this way and that. Without hesitating, he reached out and grabbed her arm.

She steadied herself and looked up at him, not trying to pull away but obviously worried about the grip he had on her. Hatter relaxed his fingers one by one.

"I can't shove aside twenty-five years and neither can you," he said, his voice so cold and his eyes distant that Abigail's pulse jumped. But he shook his head. "But for the sake of it all, I'll try."

Pushing her hair out of her eyes, his mother suddenly looked more vulnerable than she had just moments earlier. She looked down and away from him and Hatter released her arm.

"I once asked Alice to give me time and I regretted that with her. I've lost so much time with her because I was terrified of what might happen. She's had to teach me that there is a time to hold on and a time to let go of past pain," Hatter admitted and he leaned back against the window frame. His eyes went over her face and wondered what it would take to really trust her again. "I can forgive for what you thought you had to do. Maybe when there is more time and we're not likely to worry about being killed in the next twenty-four hours, we can try to... be as we were."

Slowly he extended his hand out, palm up. "But for now, we can be friends."

Abigail looked at his hand and then up at him again. Reaching out, she put her hand in his and felt him squeeze gently. "I'd like that," she answered and Hatter smiled warmly, the first real smile he had ever given her. He nodded and rested his other hand over hers.

"Good. Will be less... tense if we are and maybe you won't side with Alice as much against me," he said with a wink and Abigail gave a wry smile.

"You are just like your father sometimes, Noble," she scolded affectionately. Reaching out carefully, she laid her hand on his cheek and smoothed it down, aware that he no longer flinched at her touch. The truce they'd come to had released the tension inside them both. When he looked at her curiously, her smile became a bit sad but proud all the same. "And I am glad you are like him. For all our sakes. Despite all that happened, he was a very good man who meant well."

A faint shadow went over Hatter's eyes, as if thinking about his father pained him, but he smiled back and patted her hand gently. "I-I need to get back to Alice. Call us when the others start to file in. We're going to all need to be around for that."

Abigail nodded and he gave her hand another gentle squeeze before leaving her. She watched him go and smiled, aware that she had never been as proud her son as she was in that moment. She knew that it was because she could see what Alice had meant about him being a good man and yet she believed it was even deeper than that. Hatter had it in him to be a great man who could change everything and with maternal resolve, she knew she'd help him realize that.

The door to Hatter's apartment clicked shut and Abigail tensed, suddenly very aware that she was being watched. She didn't whip around to shout accusations but simply stood still until she saw his reflection in the window. The sight of him made her tense once again but for a different reason than Hatter's presence.

Chesh looked almost out of place in the Tea Shop and Abigail wasn't sure why that was as she looked at him. He was looking around the main room curiously and slowly he approached her, moving like a stalking cat. He leaned against the table and clicked his tongue noisily.

"A family reunion. How adorable," he said dryly and she looked at him with an arched brow.

"What do you want?" she snapped and crossed her arms. "My son and I were having a private discussion."

"No doubt." Chesh shifted and pulled his frayed sleeves with a slow, deliberate movement. "And the end result?"

"Isn't any of your business!" Abigail went to breeze past him.

"It might be if his life hangs in the balance," Chesh commented just as she passed him and she stopped with a jerk and stared at him over her shoulder. Chesh took a moment before looking back her with a faint superiority.

"Are you threatening him?" she whispered and Chesh rolled his eyes.

"Me? No. I still have enough broken bones from your son's... anger over a year ago. I wouldn't dream of trying anything like that again," he said as he leaned toward her. His odd cat-eyes flicked over her face. "I disturb you."

"Immensely. I was all for Cheshires not being released." She didn't break her gaze and his grin appeared, spreading across his face.

"Your sense of self-preservation is both admirable and yet a bit stupid. You know that Hatter's father was only a part of the reason why you left." His white teeth showed and she stepped back a bit. Abigail didn't want to know how he knew that; she'd left Grey for his deception and because her marriage was crumbling, but the deeper reason was because she knew, in an oddly prophetic way, that Hatter would need to be raised the way he was to be ready for the dangers that lay ahead.

But she doubted he'd believe that if she told him.

Chesh shrugged one shoulder. "At a bit of stalemate though for you, isn't it? You are so eager to protect your son but have no idea how to begin." He leaned a bit further to disturb her.

A sudden poke in his belly made him freeze in his place and he looked down between them. She had a small dagger pointed against his coat, pressing just hard enough that he could feel its threatening pressure and her hand was remarkably steady.

Chesh relaxed and shifted back. His grin faded into a smirk but her hand didn't move.

"Or maybe you do. You remind me of your son, Ms. Abigail: hidden wells and more than a few masks." The look he gave her made her pull her hand back a bit but she kept the dagger pointed at him in warning. His eyes flicked over her. "It's rather unique to your family, I'd say."

"You have no interest in helping us, really," she said. "Even if you did, there is nothing in it for you."

"So you'd think," Chesh agreed and shrugged. "But there might be something about this all that keeps me entertained."

"If you betray my son or Alice, I will kill you myself," Abigail whispered and he chuckled. She stepped close once again and lifted the dagger to press the edge against his throat. Chesh tilted his neck and actually leaned into it, expecting her to back away but her own grip on it didn't weaken. "And don't think I won't, Cheshire."

With a graceful twirl on her heel, she left him at the window, staring after her with his usual grin.

"Interesting," he said to himself.

Chapter Text

She woke slowly to a faint pressure on her stomach and a warm breath skating gently across her ribcage. Groaning, Alice lifted her hand and let it drift over her stomach, her skin nearly prickling from the mixture of warm and cool air touching her. In their trip over her stomach, her fingers brushed silky hair and a scruffy cheek and, still thinking she was asleep, Alice let her hand fall to her side. Soft words were being spoken against her body, too quiet for her to clearly hear what was being said but she could feel every brush of breath against her skin. The odd comfort it gave her almost lulled her back to sleep but she felt lips touch her stomach and she shivered before she could stop herself.

Alice sighed and cracked open one eye. Sneaking a quick look, she smiled before closing it again.

"I'm not sure it works that way," Alice whispered. "There's a few layers between you, you know. Muscle and skin and all that..."

"Mm, you're probably right," Hatter answered absentmindedly from his position on her legs. He was just heavy enough that she couldn't move them if she tried, but Alice didn't mind his weight at the moment. His head was bent and his lips were brushing her skin and after a few languid moments she opened her eyes. Alice slid her arm back beneath her head and yawned while eyeing him affectionately. Even though it was chilly in their apartment, she was willing to ignore it for the sight of him. Hatter was braced up on her thighs with his chin resting on her stomach, and he gave her a grin when he noticed her looking.

"Having a nice chat?" Alice asked and he shrugged, lifting one hand and stroking it down her belly. She wriggled a bit to push herself up to his hand.

"You'd be surprised what you can tell someone sometimes, Alice, even when you don't think that they're listening," he muttered and looked back down. His hair brushed her stomach and she trembled at the feel of it.

"So I take it this is a lesson that I don't need to know about?"

"Not really. It's just a conversation." He didn't lift his eyes to hers but she heard him give a soft chuckle. "It's rather surreal, is all. The thought of us being parents. I'm not sure it will ever sink in for me."

She put her hand in his hair and his head lifted again so that he could press his mouth to her palm. Alice ran her thumb over his lower lip and felt his tongue flick and she stared at him. Between them, her stomach twitched several times under his hand and the odd sensation made her suck in a startled breath. His touch lightened a little but Hatter was still looking at her. Alice knew he was seeing the growing changes in her body that she had been trying so hard to hide lately.

Without the confines of her corset-bodice, her rounded belly definitely seemed more pronounced again.

"I could feel the baby kicking," Hatter said, his voice casual. He rested his chin on her stomach and smoothed his hand down her skin before tracing the crease where her hip met her thigh. "After I came back, you were so sound asleep that I didn't want to wake you. When I touched you though, I think it woke someone up."

"The baby is moving a lot," she admitted and grimaced when she was kicked particularly hard. Hatter chuckled and she shook her head. "Your mother mentioned that when she was pregnant that it happened a lot."

"Boys in my family likely move around a bit then," he started and she gasped in mock anger before giving him a playful pinch.

"Oh no you don't," she warned and he arched his eyebrow at her deviously, his grin infectiously cheerful. "You're not going to know whether the baby is a boy or girl. I'm not about to tell you."

"It's not like you know anyhow," Hatter teased and she arched a brow.

"You had better be careful and thank your lucky stars that I'm not carrying more than one. I think you'd completely panic and I'm sure that would ruin your reputation," Alice grumbled.

"Oysters," he uttered in a condescending voice without any real bite. "Think you know everything."

"We do, and don't you ever forget that," Alice finally smiled at him. "But I already feel like I'm getting bigger every minute."

"You're still lovely to me." He smiled and kissed her stomach once more. He felt her fingers smooth out over his shoulders and he flicked his eyes up at her.

Something hidden in his expression made Alice stare back curiously. "You okay?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Was just nice to take a moment to make sure everything is safe and sound."

Hatter pushed himself up and rolled over to sit on the end of the bed. He picked up his discarded shirt and smoothed out its wrinkles in an effort to distract himself. He did it so meticulously that Alice recognized what he was trying to do and quickly pushed herself up. She pulled the bed-sheet over her torso and sat beside him, pulling her knees up to her chest and leaning into him. Hatter looked rumpled yet somehow less exhausted though he must not have slept at all. But he looked troubled despite it.

"You spoke to Abigail?" she asked when he folded the shirt for the tenth time. "Hatter?" Finally, she reached out and pried the shirt out of his grip, tossing it back behind her. No longer distracted, he nodded and Alice bit into her lower lip. When he still stayed silent, she whispered, "And?"

"We... truced." Hatter slipped his hand through his hair and lowered his head a little. "For now."

"Did you learn anything?" Alice put her hand on his shoulder when Hatter nodded. He was staring at the floor and she rubbed her hand down his back. "What's wrong? What did you learn?"

"That sometimes too much truth can hurt," he said dryly.

Almost abruptly, he straightened and slapped his hands on his trousers. "Right then, I was going to tell you it was time to do a bit of reconnaissance."

Alice blinked, thrown by the change in subject. "What do you mean?" she asked.

Hatter ruffled his hair. "Abel's likely got something up his sleeve, might as well see what it is."

Yawning, she nodded and scooted forward. "I'm not going to lie, it will be nice to get some clean, dry clothes for a change."

"I suggest something dark," Hatter answered as he pushed up and walked to one of their clear glass wardrobes. He rummaged through the clothes hung on his side and didn't notice that she didn't follow him. Alice tipped her head on the side and raked her eyes over his lean build. Hatter stripped with his usual casual air and was completely unaware of the fact that she couldn't take her eyes off him. Even with the scars decorating his back and chest and the world-weary way he carried himself, there was something compelling about just looking at him and she smiled, bringing her knees tighter against her chest and resting her chin on them.

Hatter slid his grey shirt up over his shoulders and looked over at her. He smiled and flipped the collar up. "What?"

Alice smiled back and shook her head as she tucked the sheet more tightly around her. "It's nothing."

He gave her a confused shrug and started to button his shirt. Suddenly, Alice's fingers curved around his shoulders and he stopped at the fourth button, closing his eyes when she pressed against him. Her arms slid around to embrace him and he let himself almost melt into her hold. He could feel her breath just gently brushing over his ear and her heart beating a gentle rhythm against his back, both coaxing him to relax.

"Are you feeling any better, since we've come back?" Alice asked seriously, as if she was unaware what her proximity was doing to him.

"A bit," he admitted, cocking his head in her direction. "Things feel quiet in here, less crowded you know?"

He tapped his temple meaningfully and Alice reached up to touch his hair. The strands were still long enough to spring into untamed whirls under her fingers.

"I worry about you, Hatter. Sometimes I think that you're pushing yourself too hard and not resting," she whispered and he sighed before turning around to her.

"We don't have a choice," he pointed out and wrapped his arms around her waist. The sheet was thin enough that he could feel her swelling stomach between them. "Besides, I'm far more worried about you two."

"We'll be fine," Alice said and she pressed her face against his neck as he held her. Hatter could sense a strange tension throbbing through her and it almost felt like Alice was ready to run. He gently kneaded her lower back to ease the stiffness.

"Have you been dreaming again?" he asked carefully and she nodded. "About her?"

"She still threatens me, us... but never tells me why. I hate playing guessing games, especially with something this bizarre."

"Well, try to look at it from this perspective. It's not everyone who gets to see Wonderland appear to them," he said and Alice sighed.

"I'd rather not see her again."

"Mm." His fingers slid up to where the sheet was knotted at her breasts. "Come on, we need to get you dressed before Pidge comes looking for you and I have to knock him out for gaping at your charms."

Alice laughed and moved around him, fishing out a pair of pants and shirt. Hatter finished buttoning his shirt and watched as she struggled to button a pair of her old pants from her world. They were fitted high around her waist and he bit back a grin when she sucked in deeply to try to button them. When it didn't work, she growled under her breath and tossed the pants back on the floor, fishing out another baggier pair that pulled on far easier. Noticing his skilled poker face, Alice glared at him anyway and quickly pulled on a loose sweater.

"Do you really not mind about Pidge?" she asked unexpectantly while shoving her feet into a pair of flat boots.

"Well, I never said that. I'd like to think that he is smart enough to know boundary lines." Hatter grabbed one of his dark green fedoras out of the closet and flipped it onto his head in a casually done trick of the wrist. "But it is good to keep him on his toes nonetheless."

"Fair enough," Alice muttered, throwing the sheet back onto the bed and following him to the door. Hatter hesitated and grabbed two coats from the rack, ones with made with bulky material and heavy hoods. They looked more suitable for a blizzard than a rain storm. When he saw Alice's frown, he nodded at her.

"We've got to hide that glow of yours somehow and in the streets, it'll be hard to." He handed her one and then pushed open the door, going first. Alice kept close behind him and made sure the door was locked behind her to be sure no one snuck in without them.

There was a hum of activity from the main room and Hatter frowned, balling his hand into a fist in readiness. He'd thought that the Shop would be well hidden and protected by his intricate security systems but anything was possible. He slowly turned the corner and nudged the sliding door open. Glancing at Alice, he waved his hand to keep her back before quickly bursting into the room.

Hatter screeched to a halt just inside the main door and Alice grunted as she banged into his back. He was staring into the room with wide eyes and not moving a step further. Alice pushed at his shoulder but when he still didn't move she squeezed past him. Almost immediately she took a step back and gaped with the same expression that Hatter wore.

The entire floor was packed with people of all stations in life, from rich to poor judging by their clothing, and everyone had made themselves comfortable in the Tea Shop. Alice lost count of how many there were but it seemed like there wasn't one tiny bit of space left. The noise was rather incredible compared to the silence only hours before. People were packed around tea tables and couches, sipping on fresh cups of steaming tea, and when Alice looked at one of the tables she saw an array of weaponry that went far beyond her beginner's knowledge of guns and swords. Looking over her shoulder at Hatter, Alice pointed and he shrugged. Unlike her, he found the sight of such weapons somewhat less impressive.

"Abel's been busy it seems." He gestured around the room. "'Cause this room was almost empty when I left."

"Who are all these people?" she asked.

"I recognize a few from a few Resistance meetings and some from Abel's soldiers in the forest. I'm wagering most of them are loyal to him or to Jack at some point. If we're lucky, it's only a portion of the people he has to fight against the Queen."

The hum of the crowd became louder and louder, the languages being used so varied that they overlapped into unintelligible conversation. Hearing Hatter take a breath, Alice reached over and took his hand in hers before he started into the middle of the crowd. The more that people pressed against them in an unconscious crowd swell made Alice wish she had worn her old South outfit instead. The heavy boned corset shirt and thick riding skirts had felt far protective than her thin velvet pants and shapeless black sweater. Even just an illusion of more protection would have felt better than being so exposed around these people she barely knew.

It was odd the way the noise of the crowd seemed to lessen the further they walked into the room as Hatter led Alice towards one of the brightly lit tables near the opposite wall. Not all of these people had been in the Forest when they had arrived from the South, and seeing Hatter alive and beside the Oyster clearly shocked a few. They parted around them like waves and it made Alice uncomfortable to have all of this attention partially focussed on her. She pressed into Hatter's side as close as she could.

He smiled without looking at her and threw his arm over her shoulders to keep her close. Alice's sudden need for comfort in this intense crowd only increased his own protective instincts about her and he wasn't about to ignore her.

"If I start yellin' out gibberish really loud and run around like a maniac, do you want to bet ounces of tea that everyone here would scatter?" he asked close to her ear and she elbowed his side, resisting the urge to smile. It would only encourage him.

"With our luck, they'd lynch you just for trying it and then where would we be?" She reached up and patted his chest. "So let's leave some mystique to the gossip that'll be circulating about you, hmm?"

Hatter's grin widened. "Love how you think, Alice."

She smiled and tried to ignore some of the more accusatory looks they were being sent. Hatter kept walking as if he didn't see any of it and led her through easily. Slowly the conversations resumed around them and Alice would have bet that most of it was now revolving around Hatter's sudden return from the 'dead'. It could only be hoped that most of them knew better than to pass that information on. Hatter being alive could be the best wild card against the Queen if she didn't know about it.

She knew that Abel had likely planned to keep that slice of knowledge secret for as long as possible.

Abel and several of his men were standing at the glass lit table. Normally used to illuminate card games and display tea betting scores, an expansive holo-map had been brought up instead over its surface. The Cityscape was presented in vivid detail and it was going from Quadrant to Quadrant quickly in the map. Hatter nodded to his grandfather as he took his place beside Pidge and Alice squeezed between them to get a good look. Across the table, Abigail was running her charm necklace between her fingers anxiously, her eyes on the table. Beside her, Chesh glanced up and when he saw Alice he grinned. She stared back and resisted the urge to make a face at him. Instead, she simply held up the bracelet on her wrist and wiggled it meaningfully.

If anything, his grin only became more amused.

"So glad you could join us, Hatter," Abel said dryly, not lifting his head from where he was manipulating the map settings. Hatter shrugged.

"I had some very pressing business with a tea table." He grunted in pain as Alice ground her heel down onto his instep and regained his composure quickly. "You filled the place up."

"Yes, well, I said I would," Abel agreed absentmindedly as he finally found the settings and the map zoomed in on the Heart Quadrant. Alice stared at the place and shivered in memory. Despite Jack's best attempts to make her feel welcome there, she could still remember the White Queen's torture and their battle with her clearly. The palace still held memories she would prefer to live without.

"Oysters do not change in Wonderland. Oysters change Wonderland."

Hatter brushed his fingers over hers and brought her back to reality. When she looked at him and quirked a smile, he turned his attention back to the Drawling Master.

Clearing his throat, Hatter gestured to the map. "So, what's the scenario?"

"Not particularly good." Pidge pointed out the tiny entrances to the tunnels. "It was as you figured. Somehow, word got out that the South Resistance was moving and the Queen had her engineers flood the Tunnels."

Alice swayed on her feet and Hatter steadied her with his hand. "How many were down there?" he asked.

"It's not that important to the conversation," Alicorn began nervously.

"How many?" Hatter barked out, his eyes darkening as he sensed that they were going to gloss it over. His mother glanced up, a little stunned by the direct way he was demanding answers. It was more common for Hatter to wheedle answers out. When she flicked her eyes to Alice, she saw that the younger woman looked just as bewildered.

"Several thousand," Alicorn admitted. "Can't be sure precisely because so many were fleeing the City into the Tunnels."

"It was done very precisely. She knew every exit and had her guards ready to snatch any who tried to escape. All except for yours apparently." Abigail slid her charms through her fingers. "You were lucky."

"It was a trader exit," Hatter said. "Only someone who operated in the Underground would know it. There's some things that the traders don't share, even with the Resistance."

"So we lost that many who could have helped." Abel sighed and tilted his head on the side. "The problem is, we are going into this blind. Without a formal Resistance or even a figurehead to put on the Heart Throne, even if we take the palace, where to go to from there?"

Abigail touched his shoulder. "Let's just get through a war first, father."

He cleared his throat. "Right. Here's what I think."

The Drawling Master outlined his plan quickly and so clearly that it was easy for Alice to see why he was so important. His ragtag army would have to get in and out in a type of guerilla warfare, using a mixture of nature and magic to get through, while firepower would help distract them. Alice figured out from his inference that the magic would be coming partially from Chesh and herself. The thin man across from her didn't say a word but her guess was that he was a bit eager to use his magic.

Reaching down, Alice pressed her fingers against her belly and quieted down her uneasy feeling about that.

Getting past the Queen's forces would be tricky, she could tell as Abel ran a series of simulations. Using some details from Pidge and Hatter both, he manipulated the situations several times. They didn't have the masses of Scarabs and flamingos that the Queen did, or endless weaponry, and the streets were so twisted and narrow that they couldn't just fight right out. Abel pointed out every possible way of getting into the palace to force a coup and then just as quickly, Hatter or Pidge would point out a way that it wouldn't work. On the last simulation that involved blowing the palace sky-high, Hatter shook his head.

"That'd be silly," he muttered and he reached over to flick the controls. The map zoomed in on the centre of the palace. "Because something tells me that if the Queen is rebuilding conduits, then they are right there. Wonderland is already trying to pull itself apart and who knows what might happen if we do something that drastic."

He glanced at Alice. "And Jack's wife is still there."

"The widow? We are required to save her?" Alicorn looked at the Drawling Master curiously. The old man nodded.

"Hatter has a point. We could use her as a figurehead for government to control the Royal Cards, if necessary."

"And she's innocent. God forbid we forget that," Alice snapped sarcastically and Abel nodded, ignoring the bite in her words.

"Precisely." Abel folded his arms over his chest. "But who is to know if the Conduits are there?"

"If I know the Heart Queen...and I somewhat do through past experiences," Hatter explained, "she wouldn't dare let something that important be far from her. It was what messed up her rule in the first place, having the Looking Glass where Oysters could fall through unnoticed. We all know how much trouble they can be."

He nudged Alice. "Right, Oyster?"

She rolled her eyes.

Chesh stirred suddenly, his cat-eyes flickering over the table. "So we need a blind then." They all looked at him and he cleared his throat to rid his voice of the odd purr-rumble he had. "One force to lead against in a full scale, while others go in a different way. It's very old school but from Taiga Wars."

He flicked his eyes up at Abel. "Why do you think the Wars lasted for so long? The Queen won't expect someone to dare to sneak in another way."

Abel stared at the map and considered. "It's a good plan but dangerous. This Queen always was the most devious of them, even compared to the younger White Queen."

Hatter looked at his mother and saw that she had clenched her fists tightly. When he looked at Alice, he noticed she had similar posture.

"Much as I hate to agree with the Cat," Pidge admitted. "It might be a way in. The main battle can be fought in the open but if we can get a group in a different way, we'd have better changes of forcing her hand into the open."

He nudged Hatter. "What do you say?"

Hatter took a long time to answer and finally Alice whispered his name to jar him from his thoughts. He shook his head.

"Something that Gil said, about people going into the Great Library and coming out like zombies... it's bothering me." He pointed out a tiny escarpment. "If you follow that, then you can find the Great Library's one entrance. What if the Dodo decides to play in this? What if he's doing something that creates people who would willingly throw themselves onto weapons? Or even if he still has a mini-army of Resistance fighters? He's already proven that he doesn't want any part of helping us and who knows what ends he's working towards really."

"Suicide runners?" Chesh whistled. "Good point. We haven't had those in a long time. Now that would be classic warfare."

"If we have the people, we can try to combat them while others sneak in," Abigail said. She pointed out the side entrances, the one that Hatter and Alice had used before. "There and around the back. If we can just get by the main line, we've got an opportunity. We can try to bluff the Queen out."

"Mm, but there is a problem," Abel said. He looked over at the crowd. "Not many of these people have seen any actual battle."

They all looked and one of Abel's other advisors sighed. "They might run the first opportunity they get."

"Exactly." Abel ran his fingers through the map so that it widened back to the full City. "This has always been the largest City in Wonderland. People here have also never been the ones to go to War."

Alice frowned. "But they might this time."

"The people here, Alice, need something to motivate them to fight. Why do you think the Resistance took so long to work?" Pidge said. "It isn't that they are cowards but..."

"They are," Chesh finished. They all looked at him and he put his hands in the air. "I have centuries of experience. To them, one Queen is the same as another but this City has always followed the Suit Rule. North followed the Taigan, the South always independent yet under Suit Rule as well in some provinces. The Heart Family is the eldest and has always been the strongest, and partially because the people have always accepted them as the status quo for life."

"But Abel," Alice started and he put his hands in the air.

"No offence, Alice, but who would follow a man ready to go to his grave? I'm two steps out of it and sooner rather than later I'm going to go face first into it," he admitted. "To these people, I'm nothing more than a relic and not much of a heroic figure. If it wasn't for a bit of magic and a promotion that I always regretted, I'd be nothing more than one of them."

"They might follow Alice," Pidge debated. She scoffed out loud.

"Oh there's a good idea. Half these people probably want to drain me for an emotional high."

"They might... or they might debate that sacrificing her to stabilize the conduits is the better route to go." Abigail put up her hand to ward off Hatter's protest. "I'm just saying, Hatter. Do you all remember what happened in the South Metropolis? If it wasn't for some very well placed magic, they'd have succeeded. People do respect some of the old magic but how far that respect would go, I'm not sure. If Alice fights alongside them, they will respect her but, and I mean no offence, Alice, she is not one of us to the core. Not yet anyway."

She said the last sentence in a vague way but Alice felt a shiver go down her spine all the same.

"Well, someone has to get through to them that this is their City," Alicorn muttered. "Typical of the populace. Wanting something legendary to fight for and to entertain them." He gave a disgusted grunt. "It's a lost cause, let's face it."

They all stood in silence for a long moment, debating it. Several times it seemed like Abel had an answer but he would stop himself. Alice watched him and saw how troubled he was... and how frail. Until he had mentioned it, she hadn't noticed that he had weakened a bit since the South. Now, without his old magic and influence, they could be as good as lost. The thought of living the rest of her life in hiding didn't sit well with Alice and she pressed her hand to her stomach again, feeling the faint flutter of her baby moving.

Without thinking, she looked at Hatter and gave a sad smile before turning away. She couldn't imagine him not having some sort of mad plan to deal with this.

A sudden flash of memory came, from over a year ago when she had watched the White Queen try to choke the life from Hatter. "What is it with you Hatters?" the Queen asked Hatter lowly. He met her eyes bravely even when her fingers tightened around his throat, choking him. "Lost causes and mad escapades. Can you never do anything sensible?"

With an audible crack of her neck, Alice whipped her head around and stared at Hatter. Her eyes almost gleamed with an intense light. He noticed her staring after a few moments, gave her a cautious smile, and then looked away as Abel and Alicorn began to mutter between themselves. When he could still feel her eyes on him, he glanced over and fidgeted a bit nervously.

"What?" he asked.

"Just had a thought, that's all." She licked her lower lip and turned a little more towards him.

"Oh?" He shifted from foot to foot and actually went a bit pale when she didn't stop staring at him. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Across the table, Abigail rolled her eyes in a comical similarity to her son. "You might as well share, Alice, before you make Hatter even more neurotic."

Alice cleared her throat as her foggy thoughts began to crystallize.

"Just... Hatter's the Drawling Master's grandson from his eldest daughter, which is you, Abigail."

"So? I'm his grandson as well, lot of good that does me," Pidge said, wiping his hand across his forehead. Abel glared at him and he put his hands in the air. "Just sayin'. People tried to kill me less frequently back before I found my way to you."

"Anyway!" Not to be deterred, Alice started to draw her conclusions in her head, her moment of inspiration so clear that she was excited. "You said we need a rallying point, something to bring people back together to stand up to the Queen. I think we do have one."

"Oh Wonderland, you're suggesting a madder-than-a-bag-of-cats fool as rallying point? Not one of your brightest moments, luv," Hatter drawled gruffly and she whacked him on the arm.

"I'm serious." She began to gesture at them all. "Think about it. The Drawling Master was cousin to Jack's father, which gives him a way to the Heart family tree, and Abigail is a daughter of an original Oyster who likely helped create Wonderland to the become the world that it is." She pointed up at Hatter and he looked a bit confused. "Then we come to Abigail's husband. Hatter's father was from one of the oldest families of Wonderland, and one of the most respected from the Taiga and the City. Hatter is the only surviving member of that family. We all saw the respect that that gets him. Not to mention a bit of fear. Who was your grandmother, Hatter?"

He looked like he might be sick, already knowing where she was going with this but Abigail spoke for him,

"Old Hatter had married one of the minor Red noblewomen, back in the day. It was common for that time period for trader families to marry nobles so they were wed for sometime..." She winced. "Before he quite accidentally killed her. At least he told me it was an accident."

Ignoring that unpleasant side note and focussing on her own success in thinking this through, Alice felt a bit of excited just thinking about it. The family trees of Wonderland were more intertwined than she had thought.

She tapped Hatter's shoulder meaningfully. "Add it all up in your heads. It means that Hatter is related to Royal Families on both sides and several magic lines, if his father's history is to be believed. He's perfect."

Across from Alice, Chesh grinned secretively; if he'd been in cat form, his tail would have twitched happily. Hatter's brow furrowed and he gave his mother a confused look. She shrugged. "She has a point. Of all of us, the people would remember you far more. You've got enough bloodlines there to absolve the Royalists, the Colours, the Loyalists, the Resistance, the City Dwellers and the old Taigan. You have to admit, she's come up with a pretty good idea. We could start to let some stories leak out about you to the people here."

"Bloodlines are nothing more than an accident of birth. Doesn't mean we should build a Resistance around me though," Hatter snapped testily and Alice sighed, knowing he would resist this.

"We have to. People won't fight unless we have another option, and until we can get Amelia and hopefully William free, we're doomed to have people not want to help." She touched his arm. "It's possible, with the right amount of myth and truth, that if they see you fighting, they will fight too."

"Look, you want me to run close to the ground and find people, fine. I'm good at that," Hatter jabbed her side with his finger. "But I am not prancing around like some Royal Pouf spouting out that I'm the son of the son of whoever and grandson of whats-his-name who existed hundred of years ago."

The imagery Hatter's words conjured of him prancing made Pidge snicker and Hatter made an obscene gesture at him.

"Now, boys," Abigail said dryly and she sighed in exasperation. "I suppose that some bloodlines doesn't really add up to much..."

"It might, with all things considered," Abel suddenly piped up, his silence broken. Alice's quick conclusions had made a dozen ideas spring to mind and he sorted them out. They all stared at him and he shrugged. "The people want something...someone, they can all accept. Hatter's entire family, on both sides, has been well respected and there is more mystery about it than any of you realize."

"How so?" Abigail asked curiously.

"Do you really think that my wife and the White Queen were the only ones of Oyster origin to come here and have children?"

Hatter and Pidge both glanced at each other and Pidge sighed. "I'll bite. What other bloodlines do we go back to? It is like some drama playing out. Next thing you know, we're about to be closely related to Alice. Which, in all honesty, will get very awkward for those two."

He pointed at Hatter and Alice.

Alice and Hatter both looked at one another. They both glanced at her swollen belly, back up again and each did a visible shudder as they imagined being related.

"One would hope that would have come up sooner before Hatter made her pregnant," Abigail said. "But no. It happens in some cases. Often the families that have Oyster blood in them are invariably drawn back to Oysters in some odd way. In the same way, the families with a bit of old magic seek each other out."

"Especially in magic or old lines. It explains how the magic in Wonderland came into existence. Wonderland always affects Wonderlanders but when it comes to the unusual, they get drawn together like magnets." Abel grimaced and flicked his eyes over Hatter and Alice. "Which could be why Wonderland is so interested in that bundle you're carrying now, Alice. With Hatter's family behind it and your glow, something has to be different and strong about it."

Alice curled her arms across her stomach defensively and Hatter put his hand on her shoulder. Abel frowned.

"Not sure why you don't know any of this, Hatter." He arched a brow. "Or did you just prefer not to think about it?"

"I think the "learn your pedigree" class was full when I attended the Resistance school...and likely my Da had no interest in it, seeing as how he went mad when I was about five and all," the younger man snapped back sarcastically. Across the table, Abigail cringed and glanced at her son. He simply stared back, knowing his words had cut.

"Well, we'll have to debate on that soon enough," Abel said, looking at Hatter. "But whether you like it or not, lad, you are more important to all of this than you realize. You are the reason why the Snake nearly destroyed the South and in your head you have a million reasons why you are what we need."

Hatter opened his mouth to argue, to deny what he was feeling threatened with, and Alice touched his hand. "Hatter.." He looked at her and she smiled. "Let it go for now."

Wisely, Hatter retreated and lowered his head though the tension was obvious in his shoulders.

A thin slip of a boy suddenly appeared at Pidge's side and tapped him on the shoulder. He bent over, listened to the message the boy whispered, and made a face. "Really?" he asked and the boy nodded. "All right. Get going."

When the boy was gone, Pidge found that everyone was staring at him and he clicked his tongue. "He was a runner set up on the East side. There's been a notice put out about a Heart declaration about to be made in the Heart Square. Something's going on, half the City is coming out."

"I doubt some of them had a choice in the matter," Abigail said and Abel nodded. He glanced at Alicorn.

"Set up men in the two buildings at the two corners of the Square. If the Queen is going to try something on the people they bring in, I want them up there," he ordered and Alicorn gave a short bow before slipping through the crowd to find his own guard. Abel braced his hands on the table and looked at Alice and Hatter. Alice stared back and he eventually smiled.

"I doubt you two would want to miss this spectacle the Queen has planned out. But neither one of you is to do anything risky, am I understood?"

Alice and Hatter looked at each other.

"I won't if she won't," Hatter responded and Alice glared at him.

"I don't go looking for trouble."

"Curiosity killed the cat," Hatter countered and across from them, Chesh groaned lowly. Abigail looked at him and he quickly schooled his expression into one of bland annoyance. She carefully looked away and looked at her son.

"It must be something of importance for her to be insisting the citizens attend." She pointed at the Heart Square on the holo-map. "But it is fairly enclosed. What if it's a trap?"

"We all need to see what this is about," Abel continued with a wry look at his daughter. "I'm tired of walking about in the dark, guessing the Queen's motives."

He looked at Hatter and Pidge. "You two can take care of the security in the crowd. If we get in trouble, you get Alice and Abigail out. Understand?"

"I can take care of myself," Alice ground out between her clenched teeth. It irritated her to have to be told what to do like this and Hatter, looking at her, guessed what she was thinking. He bent over to her ear.

"Just humour the old codger, 'kay?" he whispered. She glared at him as well and nodded, rebellion nearly shining from her eyes. Hatter almost smiled and looked at Abel. "How do you know this isn't a trap?"

Abel shrugged. "I don't. Doesn't make it any less entertaining, I'd say."

Beside him, Abigail and Chesh both rolled their eyes in such perfect unison that Alice snorted with laughter before stopping herself. Pidge looked at Hatter, who simply shrugged.

"You can't choose your relatives," he commented and Pidge nodded.

"There are moments of lucidity but they seem further and further between the moments of insanity," he agreed with a pointed look at Abel. Abel almost bristled.

"You're both out of my will."

"I was in it in the first place?" Hatter asked and Abel sighed.

"Just get going, all of you. Chesh, you're with me, in cat form so that you don't cause any more trouble," he told the Cheshire.

The man arched a brow. "Me? Trouble? Whom would I cause it to?"

"That's for me to know, for you to insinuate and for the others to guess. Let's go, cat, before I really think this family is headed for the madness ward of the Hospital," Abel snapped and started off for where Alicorn was ordering his men around. Chesh gave them all a grin and quickly transformed into his tabby cat form, his tail straight up in the air as he leapt after Abel.

"Never thought I'd see the day he preferred a cat's company over mine," Abigail grumbled. She brushed her hair back over her shoulder and quickly plaited it into an intricate knot. "You have proper clothing?"

Hatter held up his one arm with his coat and Alice's draped over it and she nodded, slipping around the table to the front door. Pidge raised his own hood up and fixed the coat more tightly around his body. He grinned at Alice when she looked at him.

"I think I look rather dashingly mysterious, don't you?" he asked.

"Not bad," Alice admitted as Hatter helped her into her coat. He slung his arm around her waist and tugged her hard back into his chest.

"Stop encouraging him," he muttered in her ear, making her shiver a bit. She looked at him and he grinned cheekily before declaring, "It's about time he learns he's as ugly as sin."

She giggled when the other man actually choked at the insult.

"I'll have you know that if I am ugly, it's likely genetic. Which means you are likely very ugly and Alice is just being kind to you. Poor girl, she felt such pity that she decided it was best to just let you follow her around," Pidge countered. Hatter grinned and affectionately tickled Alice's side.

"That might be so," he agreed and he leaned forward a bit and lowered his voice. "But look who's got the girl, eh?"

"I thought I showed you that earlier," Alice commented. To prove her point, she thumped his chest but could barely stop her laughter. Pidge huffed and fixed his sleeves.

"It's terrible how you two flirt when disaster is so close," he grumbled good-naturedly.

"It is, it really is." Alice looked at Hatter. "You ready?"

He nodded. "I'm sure whatever the Queen has planned, it is bound to be something that won't be very pleasant for us."

"What are you going to do?" she asked. Hatter looked at her, knowing what she was really asking, and made a face.

"Not now, Alice. Let's just see what this is, okay?" he pleaded, not wanting to admit that the idea of leading anyone into war frightened him. But she could see it bothering him and as he turned from her to follow his mother, Alice touched her stomach.

"I guess we'll have to help your father understand how important he really is," she whispered and felt a tiny kick. Smiling, Alice moved into the crowd of people as she followed Hatter. She didn't notice that even without Hatter they parted around her, most of them looking covertly over their shoulder. None missed the way she appeared to glow or the way the glow intensified the moment she reached Hatter's side.

The moment the door shut behind the group Alicorn had selected and the others, the conversations instantly turned back to the Hatter and the Oyster. It didn't matter what language it was spoken in but the general subject was the same by those who had known or known of the pair before they had disappeared to the South. Everyone had stories about the strange happenings in the South and the odd type of legendary status that had followed them everywhere Hatter or Alice went.

As the hundreds of people crowded around one another, the stories about Hatter and Alice quickly began to take on a more legendary tone.

Chapter Text

The crowd in the Heart Square had been packed in from corner to corner and were separated only by the large gallows in the centre of the square. Here there were several tiny sales carts being pushed around selling Heart paraphernalia. Even in the unhappiest of circumstances, the vendors tried to peddle their goods and after weeks of Heart police state, they saw an opportunity to do some business. The people forced around the carts pressed close to avoid the misty rain and cold winds that blew through the city as a result from last night's storm. Even though they were being closely watching by the various guards surrounding them, there were mutters about what this could be about. All they had was gossip and guesses but it was more than enough to keep the people occupied and not noticing the odd strangers who were scattered through the crowd.

Pressed against one side of the fountain, Alice and Abigail watched their surroundings and listened to the impatient mutterings. Yet to anyone else, they appeared to be no more than two of the many sheltered women who had been forced here by the Heart police and White Rabbit. With their hoods up and heavy bulky coats held close to ward off the chill, they fit in perfectly with the people they were crowded between.

Under Abigail's careful coaching, Alice had sucked up her pride and done her best to appear like a harmless rich Wonderlander. It burned her insides to act like a helpless snob but Hatter's mother had been insistent that it was for the best. Alice had copied her actions as best as she could and pretended not to notice the battered people who begged for any sort of coin or food. It was against her to be that way and Abigail had kept a careful eye on Alice.

Now, standing in the middle of such a crowd and aware that only several yards away stood several mercenary guards, Alice was glad she'd followed Abigail's advice.

Being caught out in the open like this would have definitely ruined their chances of ending this.

Abigail exhaled slowly. "I remember when crowds like this used to form, a long time ago during the Wars, because the Royals would call for them to meet in the town squares of whatever city they were in at the time. Didn't matter which Colour or Card called, they were required to come to the centre."

"Oh?" Alice looked at the older woman. "What happened to the crowds then?"

"They all died," was the simplistic answer and Abigail turned her amber gaze to Alice.

Alice swallowed and looked away again. Out in the crowd, she picked out where Pidge was standing. He was slouched over, his tall figure marred by the makeshift hump he'd created out of a sack, and he was leaning on his mallet stick heavily. But staring at him, Alice could see that he was incredibly alert and aware of the guards standing just a few yards over to his left. His head was bowed down and if she hadn't remembered what he'd been wearing, she might have missed him.

A tiny boy slipped by him and discreetly slipped his hand under Pidge's coat lapel. Alice blinked, stunned by the audacity of the pickpocket, and looked worriedly at the guards before looking at Pidge again. In a quick movement, Pidge had hold of the boy's hand before he could even brush the gun Pidge had managed to slip through the minimal security check.

The boy squirmed but was let go and shoved away so quickly that the guards never noticed the tiny struggle.

Without thinking, Alice put her hand on her own side, where just under the folded lapel of her shirt was a small dagger tucked against her waistband. She'd balked at carrying a weapon but Hatter had strapped it on her anyway, ignoring her protests. It would make him feel better, he'd explained, thinking she had some form of protection.

"I don't like being in a crowd this size normally," Abel suddenly whispered as he came up behind them. His voice was muffled by the scarf he had pulled up over his chin. He put his arm around Abigail's shoulders and looked casually around. "But it is quite a crowd."

"Have you seen anything yet?" his daughter demanded and he shook his head, holding out an apple to her. When she glared at him, he polished it on his sleeve and bit into it himself.

"Nothing yet. No news either. This is all very odd. Must be big news for them to be hiding like this."

"One would think the Queen would see how risky this is," Alice muttered and they both looked at her. She subtly gestured. "I mean, the Heart Memorial balcony is in plain sight. It would just take a good marksman, wouldn't it?"

As she spoke, a sudden weight settled on her shoulders and under her hood, Chesh's furry face appeared just beneath her chin.

"A fabulous idea. How devious but unfortunately it would never work."

"If it was just a balcony, then yes, it may work," Abel agreed, ignoring Chesh. "But the Hearts were always rather paranoid about assassination, rightfully so. You can't see it but the balcony is surrounded by bullet and shatter proof glass. Any gunfire would be bounced off and by the time the assassin tried to run, the guards would have signalled for the spikes to be raised."

He pointed to the four sides of the square and Alice followed his finger. Very small dark holes had been carved into the buildings and she could imagine metal spikes leaping out to trap or impale.

The thought made her shudder and Chesh's throaty purr betrayed his amusement.

"Exactly, Alice, exactly."

The murmur of the crowd was growing and Alice cast a covert eye over them.

"Where's Hatter?" she whispered. He'd left her with his mother and had disappeared with no word as to where he might go or what he was going to do.

Abel eyed several of the Suits wading through the crowds, shoving people this way and that. "He's around."

"Around? Doing what?" Abigail demanded. "We can't risk..."

"I'm sure your son," Abel snapped though his voice didn't raise at all, and he watched her turn red, "is well aware of the danger we're in. My guess is that he's planning out an escape route. He's relatively good at that."

Alice felt the tension go up through Abigail's body and she hesitantly took her hand.

"He'll be fine."

Abigail squeezed her hand back fiercely and Alice looked up. The balcony was suddenly filling up with people and the massive screens on either side were flickering alive like two cinema screens. Once the images began to feed through onto the screens and showed a real-time video of the balcony, Alice struggled to recognize any of the people who stood staring down at them all. They were Suits and Noble Cards, judging by the general grandeur of their clothing, but none that she had met from the Noble Card families.

"When things don't go your way," Chesh muttered beside her ear, "just replace your loyalists with new loyalists. Instant gratification."

Alice remembered Hatter saying something similar. "Those who don't want to be a part of the Queen's world of instant gratification..."

"I don't know any of them either," Abel said, leaning close to Alice as a White Rabbit suddenly walked directly behind him. He coughed in a loud, hacking way, and she thumped his back for him. It wasn't clear if he was acting or not, because Abigail also turned to give him a worried look.

"Get moving to the front before the gallows. Those with children first," a megaphone up on one of the poles blasted out and Abel straightened. Though he looked a bit grey, his eyes seemed harder and more fierce than before.

"We're going with them." He didn't explain, simply began to push his way through the crowd. Alice and Abigail followed as well, trailed casually by Pidge, and when they came to the gallows Alice found herself now surrounded by a mixture of children and adults. The children had been hushed to silence and the murmur of the crowd had actually calmed down as well to a faint hum.

"Why are they all up here?" Alice asked.

Abigail shook her head. "Either for propaganda or open fire."

Alice felt Chesh's nails sink very slightly into her shoulders. "Must you be so utterly morbid?" he asked the older woman and Abigail looked at the Cheshire.

"Must you be so irritating?" she countered and oddly Alice felt Chesh's tail twitch against her hair. She was about to ask what he seemed so pleased about when someone brushed her shoulder.

"It's me," Pidge warned before she could think to whirl around. His taller frame stood out in their small group and Alice looked at him.

"What is all this?" she asked, pointing at the screens. The projector screens were playing over the events of the past months, from a purely Heart perspective of course and in a strangely cinematic way.

"You don't have propaganda in your world?" Pidge whispered. "Here, the victors get to make up history."

Alice had seen similar movies and commercials before, usually when a politician started to use a smear campaign or when a movie was politically motivated. The images were of Jack's death and supposed funeral in the City, the hunting down of those responsible, and the kidnapping of the Heart Heir. Some featured actors in re-enactment but others showed the actual destruction. It even showed when a chunk of land in the East Wonderland suddenly disappeared into darkness, leaving only a gaping hole in the earth. Alice watched and, unable to stop herself, gave a faint chuckle.

"I don't know whether to keep watching or wait for the actual movie to come out," Alice mumbled to herself, aware that Pidge gave her a confused look.

When the images flickered to Amelia, sitting alone and haggard in a jail cell, Alice felt her heart go out to the disposed Queen. The narrator spoke with vicious intensity about how she had planned Jack's murder for her own gains. This almost fervent attempt to make Amelia a sociopath, a killer guilty of a thousand crimes and deaths, was sickening to Alice. She knew Amelia, had seen the love she had had for her son and husband, and Alice almost wanted to scream out at the injustice of it all.

But instead she tore her eyes away and tried to block out the sounds and images of accusations.

When the images and propaganda movie finally stopped, the murmur of the crowd began once more. Only this time, it was filled with confusion and possible wonder that maybe they had been a bit misled. The people closest to Alice sounded almost ready to believe what they had been shown.

"Sheep," Chesh growled in her ear. "Utter sheep."

"People are willing to believe anything," Pidge agreed. "They don't know any other way. They've never been shown that they have to fight back sometimes."

A sentence that made Alice instinctively look for Hatter but through the crowd she could see nothing but a sea of unfamiliar faces. The only people she might know were Abel's own men, staggered throughout and ready to create chaos if needed. She had to be content to wait for Hatter it seemed and with that thought, she pulled her hood close to her face and exhaled slowly to calm the pit of nerves building in her stomach.

Alice turned her head to the left and saw a small child being cuddled by her father as the guards pushed them near the front of the crowd. Beside her, Abigail was equally as aghast as to what was being done when the child was almost thrown in the air by an overzealous guard. Abel restrained Pidge with a hand and shook his head, but they all looked away with equal guilt and fury when the guard gave the child a hard kick that sent the girl to her back and she howled in agony. Her father protested loudly at the treatment and the guard shoved the lighted end of an electric prod up into his ribs. The sizzling sound was loud and he collapsed to the ground screaming.

Alice watched and only Abigail and Chesh kept her from racing over to help. The guards were moving on from the poor man and his daughter and through the crowd someone slipped through. Alice figured that it was one of Abel's men, as he was dressed similarly to them, and he pulled the pair to safety before more damage could be done.

It was slow moving as more Nobles appeared on the balcony, filtering out, and soon there was a mixture of high-level guards and Nobles looking out over the crowd. A Club tapped the large microphone and the accompanying whine made everyone wince.

"Just bring the Queen out so we can go home!" one man shouted from behind Alice.

"We can pay our respects!" another woman shouted. "We're all loyal servants!"

"Fools," the Drawling Master whispered from within the depths of his scarf. He caught Alice's eye. "Sometimes, people in Wonderland forget that freedom has to come at a cost... and they don't like the idea of paying that cost."

Abigail leaned close to Alice. "Which is why it took so long for the plans of the original City Resistance to work."

"Shh," Pidge said, noticing the guards coming closer. Together, they all pressed deeper into the crowd, surrounding themselves with people to avoid being singled out. Alice felt someone jostle her but her attention was caught by the flash of red up in the City Hall balcony. With all the hauteur of a Queen, Mary Elizabeth Heart strode through to a fanfare of trumpets and keyboard drumming. Alice noticed that some of the guards nearby were prodding the people close by to cheer and call out in support for the Queen. She wondered if the Queen of Hearts even cared that her people did not love her as she thought and had to be forced to react to her appearance.

Alice felt a sudden wash of hatred then and she rocked on her heels, realizing that it hadn't come from her but from the very air it seemed. It settled around the square like an aura and for a moment seemed to pulse through the air before slowly ebbing. She glanced around as covertly as possible and saw only the tired faces of the citizens. The Heart Queen gestured for silence, her rounded face pulled into a stony mask like that of an indulgent parent and her red lips parted in a fake smile.

"My people," she began. "We have exciting news. The true heir, the son of my beloved son..."

Alice heard the Drawling Master snort in amusement and elbowed him in warning.

"Has been recovered!"

The words stunned everyone and the crowd went silent for a moment. With a braying of traditional trumpets and a flourish of red Heart banners, a woman dressed in dark garish orange appeared just behind the Queen. In her arms she held a squirming little boy in a tiny infant suit of red and white. The collective breath of the crowd was released and Alice stared in shock at the sight of the tiny Prince. It had been so long since she had seen her godson that she couldn't believe how much he'd seemed to have grown already.

But there was an unhappy and angry scowl on his face; a face so similar to his father's already. Alice wasn't sure she'd ever seen such a miserable child. At his very young age, he should have been laughing and giggling. But the scowl and the set to his chubby chin was almost too mature.

"I can just imagine his curiously terrible family life now," Chesh rumbled in her ear and she shushed him as the whispers in the crowd began to grow louder. Flicking her eyes up to the balcony, Alice watched the way the Queen gave the child's head an indulgent pat and the way that little William flinched from her touch. Ignoring her grandson's reaction, the Queen grinned down at them all in an eerily Cheshire way. Then the crowd began to cheer in loud succession without being goaded and it was deafening to hear. The eruption of "Long live the Prince, Wonderland save the Royals" was done in a wave of sound.

Alice pulled her hood apart to look incredulously around her and Abigail caught her eye.

"It's easy to control them by telling them want they want to hear," she whispered, before looking back up at the balcony. The Queen was speaking unhurriedly about how she had let her own Suits track down the kidnappers, and it quickly spun into a long story that set Alice's teeth on edge when the Queen made it sound as if Jack and Amelia were failures for not finding their son.

"...And it is to our great horror and pity that the very person who kidnapped our precious grandson was his own mother and our son's wife. Who was supposed to be true and loyal but with the devastating evidence that has been brought forward, she has admitted to her betrayal. She has revealed many secret details to us now, about the plans of the Southern Resistance and the attempted coup by the Drawling Master himself!"

The once supportive cheers quickly turned to confused shouts, with one man yelling out "Lies!"

He was quickly apprehended by a guard and dragged from the square, though only Pidge noticed.

The Queen held up an unrolled parchment and the cameras focussed on it so that it filled the screen.

"We have here a signed confession of Amelia Heart, one time Duchess of Spades and widow of our son Jack Heart, admitting her guilt in the acts that have created chaos in Wonderland. With this declaration, our jury has concluded that she is to be executed in three days time."

With the parchment and its flourishing signature at the bottom in plain sight, the crowd below became silent, shocked by what they had now been told. The Queen continued to list the crimes that Amelia was guilty of and as she did, more and more titters of acceptance through the crowd were voiced. Alice ground her teeth together as the wave of emotions changed from anger and hatred to resigned support.

The blindness of Wonderland City had never been more apparent.

"She can't do this," Alice muttered aloud.

"You'd be surprised what you can get away with so long as you distract the populace with what they want to know," Chesh said in her ear, his rumbling voice letting her know that he hadn't moved from her shoulder yet. Inwardly, Alice seethed and thought of all the lives that this Queen had destroyed. Suddenly, she felt Chesh's nails dig into her skin. "Careful. Your glow is starting to show even under your coat."

Taking his warning, Alice sucked in a few deep breaths to calm herself before she began to back away from the centre gallows. Abigail and Abel were both so focussed on the Queen that neither noticed her leave and Pidge's insistent whisper that she stay was ignored. It was hard for her to suppress the urge to use her glow to force these people to change their minds and she almost panicked at that thought.

She'd never once thought to use her glow to force people to do anything.

Panic swelled inside of her and she blindly pushed her way through several lines of people, ignoring their annoyed grunts and murmurs. The panic became a strange pain in her chest, like someone had hit her hard, and she staggered on her way towards one of the fountains. Her toe stubbed against the concrete ledge and she pulled herself up short to keep from falling. The sudden weakness in her legs made Alice stumble backwards and she came up against a hard chest. She turned, one hand going to the knife at her hip, and felt a hand grasp her wrist. It twisted lightly, and forced her to keep the knife hidden.

"Shh," Hatter whispered, pulling back his own hood enough that she could see his face clearly. The rainy sky made it hard to see his eyes but the grip of his hand was warm and comforting. It helped keep her calm. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just...angry. I was expecting this to be different somehow. I can't stay, Hatter, I feel so ready to panic and lash out," Alice said, looking over her shoulder. Hatter glanced and saw a guard staring at them. He turned her around and stepped closer so he could keep his voice low.

"We need to stay till this is over. We leave now, we'll draw some attention we don't want. Lean into me and act ready to faint."

She didn't need to act this one out and she pressed herself into his side for comfort. Hatter hummed low in his throat, his eyes on the people around them, and Alice reached her arm around to touch his hip.

"Where did you go?"

Hatter looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Just making sure of something."


"That we weren't about to be killed by gas or gunfire," he said. Alice rolled her eyes.

"You are just like your mother sometimes," she whispered. Hatter shrugged and tightened his grip on her, but his attention was back on the Heart balcony once more.

As the Queen continued to talk to the occasional cheer of her people, raindrops began to fall and Alice stepped closer to Hatter to keep warm. His cool hand wrapped around hers tightly and suddenly he squeezed hard as if something had caught his attention. Wincing at the tight grip, she looked to see him staring at the Queen and Nobles intently. His eyes seemed to pick something out and as she watched she noticed he was muttering something to himself.

"I was wondering why this was going on without opposition. Now I know," Hatter muttered, grinning as if he had discovered something particularly interesting.

"What..." Alice started but the Queen's voice had risen.

"It is time for a new type of peace, the sort that can help establish the order of the old ways. From a time when we were all unified, not separated by jealousy and chaos. A time to end Resistance from within and have true unity," she declared and as the crowd watched, a heavy set man limped out to her side. He was dressed more vagrantly, out of place with the Nobles, but they all moved out of the way as a show of respect.

"No," Alice whispered and beside her the tension in Hatter suddenly escalated. His lips lifted in a slight snarl at the sight of Dodo standing so easily with his one-time enemy.

"Damn him."

He had expected something like this, in the more dreaded areas of his conscious planning, but had held out a private hope that Dodo might be operating on his own agenda. That the old Resistance leader had been just working another angle. Hatter's small slice of respect for Dodo had depended on that idea; perhaps even his hope that things were not this bad had been kept alive just a little because of that respect.

But now, seeing Dodo standing the way a second-in-command or general might at the Queen's side, Hatter knew that the last bit of hope he'd have at avoiding a true war was gone. Something in him flared like an ember allowed to grow to a flame and his head suddenly felt filled with white noise

Alice squeezed his hand. "Breathe, Hatter."

Chesh growled lightly in her ear. "You might want to stop him now before it is too late."

"Those are the things that upset me," Hatter breathed out. Something in his strange bland voice caught Alice's attention and she pressed as close as she could to hear his whispers. Hatter was still looking up at the screens like everyone else but his jaw was tense, his eyes oddly unfocussed. His voice was still low but changed inflections and nuances so quickly that Alice had to strain to hear if it was actually him talking. "He won't stand beating..."

"Hatter," Alice whispered, tugging on his hand.

"Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock," Hatter continued and his head dropped a little, his eyes focussed on the fountain in front of him, "'d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!"

Alarmed and desperate not to show it, Alice looked around as carefully as she could and made sure they weren't being watched. But everyone seemed so focussed on the balcony that she might get lucky...

Moving from her shoulders before she could think to stop him, an invisible Chesh pounced on Hatter's shoulder and promptly sank his nails through the thick coat. The sting of pain pierced the apparent fog in Hatter's head and he jumped in his place. The Cheshire immediately leapt back to his place on Alice's shoulders. Hatter didn't even turn to look at her and instead reached up through his hood to press his fingers against his temples. His hand shook and Alice clenched the remaining one tightly.

"Just crowded, that's all," he whispered, more to himself than to Alice, and she watched an almost caged look appear on his half-hidden face.

"We're almost done."

"You both need to pay attention, something is happening," Chesh warned in her ear. Hatter heard him this time and he loosened his hold on Alice's hand.

The Queen's speech was winding down, longwinded as most government speeches were, and Dodo looked as if he'd gone back to the shadows. The camera focus wasn't on him anyway; it appeared that they wanted him to look like nothing more than a background figure.

Which, to Hatter's mind, definitely didn't fit with Dodo's comparable ego.

"...It is only fitting that we show that our rule will not be one of such vile treachery. With this new alliance, we were given a prisoner of war. One who is responsible for killing Jack Heart and orchestrating the kidnapping of our grandson the Prince. And it is our wish to make an example of this murderer."

Alice jumped, because suddenly Pidge was beside her.

"She wouldn't," he whispered in denial but the crowd around them was already parting. Abigail and Abel also appeared beside Hatter, rejoining their tiny group and effectively bracketing Alice and Hatter. Abel made a few gestures to the left and right, so miniscule they might have passed for just obscure twitches. Hatter and Alice both followed his gestures to see that there were more of his own men now staggered around the square.

But if it was supposed to make her feel more protected, Alice wasn't sure that it worked at all.

But the crowd still continued to be pushed back away from the centre gallows and suddenly, in the middle, a low steam wagon was chugging through. Hatter instinctively pulled Alice closer to him, recognizing it for what it was. Driven by two solemn men in all black, it more resembled a funeral wagon than any sort of automobile from her world. The crowd swelled in almost frenzied, terrified excitement and the noise became deafening as the rear ramp of the wagon was let down.

When the lone occupant came out, accompanied by one of the Executioner guards who had been on the balcony, the crowd quieted a bit. It almost seemed somehow less impressive, considering how plainly she was dressed, and yet the crowd stayed well away from her. One of the men on the balcony took over for the Queen, who had retreated to the comfort of her chair, and tapped the microphone for attention.

"Selena Serpena, one-time assassin and accused killer." The announcement rang out over the square as Selena slowly mounted the steps up the gallows. Her red hair was pulled into a neat knot at the back of her neck and she was dressed in a plain black one-piece; she looked a mere fraction of the deadly opponent she had once been. Both Hatter and Pidge went rigid, startled that Dodo even now stood at the balcony railing, staring down as if he was blameless in what both he and his pet assassin had done.

"I'll kill him," Hatter whispered and Pidge looked at him. Hatter shook his head. "If he hadn't let her loose in the first place, this wouldn't have happened. He could have controlled her actions if he had tried but he didn't care. This hangs on his shoulders as much as hers."

Watching the changing expression on Hatter's face, Pidge knew that no matter how much he might try to block Hatter from tapping into that darker side of himself, where Dodo was concerned it may be not be preventable. The thought made his insides go cold. Instead of lingering on it, he looked back up at Selena and felt something tear inside of his conscience.

Somehow, even with her insistence that she would not regret her actions, Pidge had hoped to see some sort of guilt. Even a hint of it might have pushed him to save her for a different sort of justice than this propaganda-fuelled execution for all the wrong reasons.

But there was nothing.

Selena stood on the gallows centrepiece, her charred eye-sockets half-hidden by the blindfold. It was not for her benefit, but for the benefit of those watching that they would not have to look at the horrific lack of eyes. Her fingers flexed constantly at her side and picked at the frayed edges of her sleeves. The crowd was hushed around her as they all watched with a sort of horrified amazement that the Queen would execute so publicly. The silence only made her breathing heavier.

Standing beside Hatter, Alice felt her stomach knot with different emotions. Anger, vengeance, all knotted inside of her. Unsure what would be the right thing to do, she glanced up at Hatter and saw that he looked just as confused.

"Can we let her die like this?" Alice ventured and both Pidge and Hatter looked at her.

"Do you have an alternative?" Chesh asked instead. His furry face appeared very close to her own. "Can you grant her a truce?"

Hatter shifted and spoke with a voice unlike his own, "I'm with Alice. This has not been done fairly. Even though she may deserve death, to die as a spectacle has no justice."

Alice and Pidge both looked at him. His voice had seemed almost foreign, older and deeper, and Pidge put his hand on his shoulder. It steadied Hatter and he shook his head quickly.

"I know that what she did to Hatter, how she destroyed the South Manor and parts of the she has helped destroy Wonderland," Alice said. "But there is something about this that is not right."

Pidge listened to them both and knew then that that was why Abel often considered them two good people. Even despite the pain and strife Selena caused Alice, she was willing to give her more justice than she would find in this moment. Hatter, who had suffered the most of them all, was willing to give her that chance for the sake of his love for Alice. It was more than Selena deserved to have their pity. But Pidge also knew the high cost of that way of thinking and he tightened his grip a little on Hatter's shoulder.

"This is something that is unavoidable," he whispered and they both looked at him. "Let it be."

The list of charges read out were almost more numerous than those that had been read out against the King's widow, but Selena had stopped paying attention at the very first one. She shifted her hands in front of her and tried to ease the tightness of the chains on her wrists. She could still feel tiny rivers of blood seeping from the cuts the chains created on her wrists. The blindfold itched at the corner of her eye-sockets and she wiggled her nose a bit to try to keep it off. It helped distract her from her surroundings and from the loud pounding of her own heart.

Selena had never thought that she might be afraid of dying.

It took her some effort to keep her breathing steady and she focussed on slowing it even further. She kept her attention on other things than the people she could sense before her; the breeze over her shoulders where the shirt had been lowered just enough to leave her neck bare, the soft fall of rain on her head and the sound of the man who had accompanied her. Behind her, the Executioner was eerily quiet but she heard the shift of his leather belt as he drew his blade. He had spoken to her earlier, in a voice almost too kind to be that of an Executioner, and explained how he would proceed. Rather than the more informal way of beheading, with her head on a block, it would proceed with her upright and he would use a tempered sword to make it fast. There would be no last words to a public or to the Queen; that was something that was not required from her. Her death would be example enough.

"It'll be over soon," she whispered and heard the Executioner take a step forward.

"Ma'am?" he asked lowly, so he wouldn't be overheard.


The charges were finished and the steady underlying music suddenly stopped, leaving the entire Heart Square silent and tense. Selena turned her head a bit, feeling a pair of eyes on her. Instinctively, she knew who it was and she gave a grim smile.

"I hope you make this count, Alastair," Selena murmured. "I'd hate for more things to be on your conscience if this goes wrong."

The Executioner gently moved her hair up into a simple knot above her neck, baring her pale skin and he traced a line over the back of her neck. His touch was gentle but firm and it felt like he was outlining the path of his blade. Selena couldn't help but feel the tension go straight down her body, almost freezing her in her place. With a gentle push against the back of her knees, he forced her to kneel down but he helped her keep her back straight.

She felt the brush of his mask against her cheek when he bent close to her ear. "Do not move. If you do... I may miss."

Swallowing down the sudden lump in her throat, Selena nodded and kept herself as straight as possible. The idea of incredible pain if he missed was enough to have her keep straight, though she wasn't sure she could hold the pose. The Executioner stepped back away from her and she heard the light drag of the blade on the wood. Although Selena couldn't see, she turned her head in the direction of the sound and just as quickly turned it back around. Even with her own control, she started to shake from pure fear.

This is a terrible time, she thought in macabre, hysterical way, to wish for some forgiveness from the very world she'd brought destruction upon.

Not a religious woman by any means, the sudden inevitability of her own death made Selena begin to repeatedly whisper, "Wonderland, take my spirit."

The Executioner behind her watched and waited, as she continued to turn her head at every slight creak of the wooden boards. Her lips kept moving and the people who stood at the foot of the gallows wondered what she was whispering. But still the Executioner stayed still, his sword held easily and ready, but he wouldn't strike. Not when she swayed and shivered.

Selena flinched when a breeze brushed over the back of her neck. Her anticipation made her heart begin to pound harder and harder and her breathing was so hard that she could barely suck in a lungful before she had to do it again. Despite the Executioner's warning, she couldn't keep still as she continued to whisper her prayer to Wonderland aloud. It was too much for her nerves to stay still and wait for the blow, and she dreaded each passing second.


The voice shouting her name caught her attention, distracting her, and she whipped her head around. It strained her neck to do so and she focussed on the shout.


"Pidge?" she whispered incredulously. She was so focussed on his voice that she didn't notice the new breeze that brushed over her skin.

It made the slice of the Executioner's blade through her neck quick and painless.

Alice waited until they were well out of sight from the Heart Square, when the lights had been turned down and the crowds dissipated, before she stopped Pidge with a hand on his arm. They were paused within one of the alleys close to the Tea Shop, travelling apart from Alicorn's men to avoid being seen. Alice made sure they were alone and looked back up at Pidge. He looked ready to bolt with his expression haunted and yet relieved. Pidge's dark hair swept before his eyes but even then Alice could see he was trying to hide. While she wanted nothing more than to comfort him, she knew he might not take it.

"You did a good thing by her," Alice whispered. She still had Hatter's arm over her shoulder because, like Pidge, she'd been badly shaken by what she had watched. She had hidden her face for most of it and Hatter still knew that she was feeling upset. He'd watched and had felt more than a little relief when it was over. But though Pidge had watched as well, when he had shouted out her name Hatter knew that Pidge was risking himself for the sake of giving her a decent death.

He watched Pidge's face himself and wished there was a way he could see what was going on behind Pidge's casual facade.

Pidge saw Hatter's expression and gave him a lopsided grin. "I'll be fine."

"Alice is right," Hatter said with a shake of his head. "You did the right thing."

Pidge nodded glumly. "It was all I could do. But why do I feel so... incomplete having done it?"

Alice opened her mouth to answer but at a warning look from Hatter she knew it was better to keep quiet. She thought she knew the reason but something in both men's expressions told her that it would not help Pidge's apparent guilt. Instead, she backed down and squeezed his hand.

"Let's make sure then that the spectacle they used her death for doesn't last."

Hatter led the way back to the Tea Shop and they followed him silently. Though the threat Selena once had posed was gone, now it felt like a spectre of her, of what she could have been before her corruption, hung heavily in Pidge's mind. It was only the presence of Hatter and Alice that kept him from immediately returning back to the Heart Square to attempt any revenge on Dodo for his incredible betrayal. Having them to steady his emotions made Pidge return back to the old assassin he'd once been.

Anything was better than the turmoil of emotions he'd felt when he had watched the blade slice through Selena's neck.

Chapter Text

Settling her weight on her elbows, Abigail leaned on Dormie's desk and watched Pidge and Abel from a distance as they went over, for the thousandth time, the holomap of Wonderland City. It was late enough that there wasn't much else for her to do and she wasn't so exhausted that she needed to sleep just yet. The main floor was littered with people who had made the Tea Shop their temporary home; from wall to wall there were sleeping bags and exhausted people curled up together. The room felt overly warm from the amount of people but had been kept dim to keep from attracting any attention. Guards had been posted at the windows to keep an eye out for the first sign of trouble. Despite her insistence, Abel had overridden her attempts to be one of those guards and had told her to get some sleep.

That had been several hours ago and she still felt wide awake and alert. So she'd stayed near Dormie, ignoring his snoring and sleepy mumbles from where he reclined in his chair, and kept herself nearby in case she was needed.

Since they'd come back, Hatter had disappeared into his rooms after taking one of the holomaps with him, and there hadn't been any explanation about what he was going to do. That he invited no one else but Alice to go with him had made everyone unsettled. Alice had followed behind him but before disappearing she had seemed subdued compared to her earlier feistiness. Both Alice and Pidge hadn't said much since the execution of the Snake.

Abigail had not known Selena beyond gossip but had thought that she might have deserved her fate. Especially since the details of her role in Hatter's torture had come out, and the devastation she had helped cause to the South. Abigail had never considered herself bloodthirsty, in spite of the intrigue she'd been involved in for so long, but when it came to the fate of the Snake, she wasn't sure she was so objective. Her protective, maternal instinct had reared its head and demanded retribution. But something had kept her from speaking those thoughts aloud. There hadn't been much time to dwell on it anyway.

"And it might be for the best," she murmured to herself, watching as Abel drew an imaginary line down the middle of the holomap to show Pidge something. In the glow of the map, Pidge was looking even more thin and severe than ever. With the execution of the Snake, his very demeanour seemed to have hardened further. He had helped Hatter as best as he could and had stayed out of everyone's way.

It was almost as if he was grieving for the loss of the Snake now, though weeks ago he'd been wanting her death. Even Hatter, who had more reason than anyone to want Selena dead, had not wanted to discuss it.

Her son had been intense the moment he stepped back into his Shop and had spent a good thirty minutes, to everyone's astonishment, ordering for things to be done the moment he demanded they be done. In the same amount of time it would have taken her or Abel to organize people to move to one side of the room, Hatter had been able to have people relocated to one side of the shop and its lower levels. He had divided them into the able-bodied versus the too young or infirm, staggered them around every corner of the rooms to defend the shop if needed and left everyone with orders to follow. Yet it was fairly done; she doubted that anyone thought that the workloads was too heavy. Even her father had been impressed by his grandson's actions and Abigail had felt a bit of pride for Hatter as well.

But he'd not spoken much to anyone beyond giving them orders which was not like the usual sarcastic, joking facade he presented to strangers. Hatter had simply left them all to do as he asked and retreated back to his rooms the moment his last order was given. Abigail had sensed something different in him. Something had forced him to take charge and he was doing so with a resigned but assured air.

Though she was proud of Hatter for realizing he might need to be more of a leader to this ragtag group, she worried that it would change him too much. It was like seeing more and more of his father in him and it made her nervous.

"Oh Grey, what could this end up doing to him... What if it costs us too much?" she whispered. It was strange to even think of speaking to her husband when he had been dead and buried in the Taiga for so long. What made it stranger was that she had spent years pushing his memory down so that she wouldn't remember the pain it brought her. But she'd found herself tearing down a little of that shell she'd built up to forget Grey Hatta. Hatter's words had caught a chord inside of her.

Was it possible she'd been loved more than she had thought?

She shook her head, worrying that she was getting overly sentimental. It was likely because they were back in this place. The Tea Shop might have changed in its interior but it still carried memories in it. Abigail had visited the Shop occasionally in her marriage and only because Grey had come with her. She was too much a child of the forests in the South to enjoy the confines of the City, and Grey had never insisted that they live there. The running of the Shop had been left to Grey's father for the most part until his madness had become too unruly for him to be left uncontrolled. By then they'd established a home in the Checkerboard Taiga, a home which mirrored her Southern home perfectly, and they'd been happy. But still, they'd find time to travel to the City as a sort of vacation to check up on the Shop. Somehow this place brought back memories of happier times with her Grey and her children over the years.

Before madness and secrets had ruptured it all and torn their family apart one by one.

"So, was it worth it?" a silky voice asked, intruding on her thoughts like a sharp knife.

Abigail stiffened but didn't move from her leaning posture. It was better, she thought, to stay still and pretend she had known he was there all the time. Even when two thin, long hands slid out beside her and elbows were propped up to rest in a comfortable pose that copied hers, she didn't look around. She didn't need to bother; Chesh relaxed beside her. His own cat-eyes were directed forward while he drummed his fingers on the desk.

"Was what worth it?" Abigail asked after a few minutes of silence, determined to keep any tension in her voice from betraying her. The Cheshire made her uncomfortable and edgy and to let him know it might give him too much power.

"Sacrificing your child for the greater good. I imagine you have lived with it for years now." Chesh leaned on one elbow and turned his head to look at her, his smirk clear even in the dimmed light.

"Even if I had an answer, why would I tell you of all people?" she countered.

"You don't trust me?" he asked, still smirking.

Abigail snorted rudely. "Can you think of a reason why I should?

"Because, unlike your family or Alice, I have no real interest in the ends of your actions. I just merely like to see the means of why you did it," Chesh admitted.

Abigail ground her teeth together so tightly it hurt but didn't speak. Chesh watched her face, waiting for an answer but it was clear she wasn't going to be baited that easily. He looked down at his hands and rubbed them together.

"Your son has a curious effect on those around us."

"From my feelings to Hatter's effect," Abigail thought aloud. "What, precisely, are you trying to confuse me into admitting, Chesh? You rarely spoke to me as a cat. Why would you bother now?"

The smirk grew to a grin. "I'm not sure myself. It just seemed like fun."

"That I hardly believe." Abigail turned to him and gave him a once-over. "You want something, Chesh, or you wouldn't be bothering me. You save your irritating sarcasm for either Pidge or Hatter."

He shrugged but the grin didn't fade so she continued, "It can't be magic, because I had the low end of that stick compared to my family. You have your form back and your power, so that can't be it. Your freedom is out of the question since you aren't mine to deal with. You also know that you can't complain to me about your treatment as Alice has been keeping you as an advisor of sorts. So what do you want?"

"I don't think you'd believe me if I told you." He looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "I believe I admire your sense of self-preservation, Abigail. For that was why you let your son be raised by your mad husband, wasn't it? For yourself?"

She saw red at the underlying insinuation she could hear in his voice and glared at him. "It wasn't for me! He needed to be in this place having learned what he learned, so he could survive!"

Chesh turned his head back to her and that awful grin was there. "And so he is."

Abigail sucked in a breath she hadn't realized she needed. He'd baited her into exposing her own hidden fear of why she'd ended up giving up her son and her family. "You already knew that."

"This... all of this?" He waved his hand around and clicked his tongue. "This was for a reason and I'm not surprised you knew what you needed to do. After all, you were involved in a family that has always been very important to Wonderland itself. Perhaps it makes Hatter's abandonment issues even clearer than before and maybe it will prove fruitful. Then again, maybe it won't."

She turned her head away, struggling to control her angry shaking. Abigail wished vehemently for peace and quiet once again and straightened her back, ready to leave. Silent and quick as a cat, Chesh shifted and put his arms on either side of hers without touching her, effectively trapping her against the counter and causing her to stiffen. The move was subtle but also calculating, as if he was trying to frighten her. Suddenly Abigail knew what it felt like to be a mouse trapped by a cat.

Chesh tsked in her ear as if scolding a hapless child. "Do you know what it is you carried?"

"He can help save Wonderland," she insisted, not daring to move. They both knew that if he dared to touch her, it was likely he'd end up with a blade in the belly. It was why he stayed just far enough away but the easy closeness made her back rigid and her tension clear.

"That's very true. It would be like Wonderland to have its protector born from the Hatter family... and of an Oyster family," he said. His breath moved her hair to the side. "But at what cost?"

She whirled but he was already backing away from her. With no other choice, she grabbed hold of his coat collar and he stopped to stare at her curiously.

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm being a bit tricky, I apologize," he said and he tilted his head on the side, "but this is going to be very interesting."

Abigail rolled her eyes and released him. "That is exactly what you would say to avoid answering me."

"So you can tell." Chesh straightened his coat collar in short, jerky movements. "The truth of the matter is, Lady Drawling, that this has all been executed in such a way that the conclusion is inevitable."

She frowned and tilted her head on the side. "What do you mean?"

"I would think it is rather obvious," he said and at her look he put up a hand to ward off her coming frustration. "But you know that someone has to die, don't you?"

Her face lost its colour, making her dark amber eyes seem huge in her face, and Chesh gave her a curious look.

"Or didn't you?"

"Are you..."

"I'm as in the dark as you are. Think what you like but remember, there is no way out for any of us. We're all too deep into this, and the only way to bring peace back to Wonderland is through sacrifice." Chesh tapped his finger against his chin. "Life can't go on as it was. Too much has changed."

"How do you know this?" Abigail whispered, staring at him with a mixture of incredulity and fear. Chesh leaned closer.

"The same way you knew that letting your son be raised in your husband's world would keep him strong, prepare him for the worst. I just... knew," he spoke slowly, to let each word penetrate, and then he stepped away, slinking back into the shadows to where the windows were.

Watching him, Abigail quickly let her fingers wrap around her necklace so that she could nervously slide the charms back and forth. Chesh's voice floated through the shadows to her, "We're going to need more than just a little bit of luck to make it out of this alive."

"I need you, Hatter. Some way or another, I need you to help me."

The soft, feminine voice didn't startle Hatter as he stood before his expansive chalkboard, a rag in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other. He had heard so many voices, both imaginary and real, in the past weeks that one more meant nothing to him in the grand scheme of things. But the voice was different enough that it caught his attention all the same.

He'd heard those low, motherly tones before.

A pair of slim arms went around his waist, embracing him from behind but he didn't turn. Ignoring the embrace, he stared at the chalkboard and kept his thoughts to himself. He had unfolded it so that it ran from one corner of the room to the other along the wall. Patterns and formulas were written out in an abstract form that only he knew, written so fast from his own mind that he wasn't sure how he'd been able to keep up. They were thoughts, ideas, plans... everything that his mind had unleashed when he'd put the problem of the Resistance to it. Even to him, the mass of writing was overwhelming.

A soft breath exhaled in his ear to distract him and he turned his head a bit, seeing Alice standing behind him. Dressed in white gossamer and blue silk, she was a sight for sore eyes.

And it was why he smiled coldly.

"Nice try," he murmured lowly, watching a frown cross her face. Her arms loosened a little around him but she didn't let him go. "But wearing her face doesn't make you Alice. I know the difference."

The Alice-vision glared at him. "How do you know the difference?"

"Well, for one thing, she is sleeping just over there," Hatter answered sarcastically, jutting his chin over to his bed where Alice was curled up under a heavy comforter. She'd collapsed there, exhausted from their planning session, and hadn't moved for several hours.

"Drat. I'd hoped to surprise you," said the Alice-vision. Hatter looked back around and out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of white and blue lights. The soft hold on his body didn't relinquish and as he stared at the chalkboard, Unda's head leaned over his shoulder. She leaned her face against his so that he felt her cheek touch his. She was so close he could feel the phantom-cold of her form, and she still had an odd earthy smell to her skin.

"I find I'm getting less surprised as the days pass," Hatter said as he reached out and made an X through one of the formulas. Her hands stroked down his sides and over his chest. She exhaled slowly against him and he felt her smile.

"That's my boy."

"Is there a particular reason why you've shown up now? Or did you just like to watch me struggle with random words and formulas?" he asked and looked at her sidelong. Unda chuckled and he saw that her eyes were now black instead of green.

"This is why I have always enjoyed you, Hatter. Unlike the others I've shown myself to, you never simper or act shocked. You, like your grandfather and father before you, simply take me as I am." Her hand lifted and she stroked the side of his head, her fingers weaving through his hair. "Even as a child, even when you were lost, you never questioned me."

Suddenly, Hatter found her hold too much and stepped forward to break it before turning on his heel to her. She'd snuck upon him and he felt like wearing just trousers around her was too revealing. Especially when she looked at him so oddly.

He stole a look at where Alice slept. He was worried that if she woke, she'd see him talking to himself and think he was insane once again. Even if he explained it, there was a likelihood that it would make her even more worried than she currently was. Unda followed his gaze and then giggled girlishly at his expression.

"Oh, she won't wake up just yet. You see, I wanted to talk to you and I think you wanted to talk to me." Unda swirled her skirts around her legs and looked up at him. "Didn't you?"

"I had I feeling I'd known you." Hesitantly, he reached out and touched her face. It now resembled a harlequin's painted mask with black diamonds painted over her eyes and down her chin. Her blood-red lips parted in a smirk eerily similar to Chesh's. "So that's why you took my grandmother's face. From what Abigail told me, she did look similar to her. I'd know family but I think I knew you as Wonderland first."

"I took nothing," she countered and flashed a brilliant smile at him. "She and I are one and yet she is not the only one."

"I figured as much." Hatter let his hand fall to his side as a way of dropping the subject. Instead, he looked at Alice once more. "Have you given up on threatening Alice?"

Unda's eyes danced merrily when he turned his attention back to her. "She is such a worrier."

"You've threatened our child." Hatter glared at Unda. "I can't say I blame her."

"I've threatened nothing." She took a slow, seductive step toward him and he steeled himself against taking a step back. "I have given you everything, Hatter."

"Oh, have you?" He tapped his temple meaningfully. " Because that is somethin' I'm not sure of."

"I have given you everything, Hatter, and I would give you so much more." She stepped around him, her skirts brushing his legs and he felt an icy chill go up his leg. "I exist to serve, you know."

"And I'm clearly going mad once again... or rather, madder," Hatter corrected with a wry grin. He felt her pause as she circled him and she leaned close to his shoulder.

"I have been in growing pain for years now, Hatter, though it started as just a twinge. It began long before your birth. But the reason never changed; the damned curse of being so tied to the fate of you all." Her fingers traced the scars on his back and sent a flush of warmth through his skin. "The curse of needing to become something more."

"You're not going to get it from Alice," he answered. She dug her nails into his skin and stepped to his front, dragging them across his chest. Her nails left twin scratches on his arm and he struggled to hide the pain it caused him. It felt like she'd scalded his skin with hot water.

"Oh? I wasn't aware that you had any say in what I do, Noble Hatter." Their eyes met and Hatter saw the hidden fury in her eyes as they flashed from black to green. It gave him a nauseous sensation to look into her tumultuous eyes as they swirled with different colours. She blinked once and the storm in them subsided. "All of this is how I've planned it."

Her face suddenly became rather disgruntled. "Well, most of it. You, Hatter, were rather unexpected. So were the divisions of this Alice."

"I get that a lot."

"Alice was supposed to be Queen, not Amelia, and failing that she was to never have returned. At least that's how it seemed to be planned. Until she met you." She waved a hand in the air and Hatter froze as their surroundings melted and reformed as the old Looking Glass Hall. Like a memory gone wrong, he watched a vision of Alice and Jack embracing. Only this time the ring shone on her finger and there was no sign of himself anywhere. Then, just as quickly, the images melted back into his loft.

Unda's smile was like ice. "But I adapt."

"Thankfully," Hatter muttered under his breath but she didn't appear to hear him.

"Imagine my delight when Alice turned out to be one of the strong Oysters to ever venture into our world. My ecstasy when you proved to be the strongest Hatter there ever was in your bloodline." Unda spun in a circle, seeming like an exuberant child playing a game. "It went so well."

Hatter decided it was best not counter her opinion of him right now. He had the personification of Wonderland testing him and he knew better than to push her buttons.

"Until?" he prompted.

Her spin slowed abruptly and she stared at him, her arms lowering to her sides. "I started to break apart. Oh, it all begun long before; the Queens began it by destroying the different sources of life in the conduits. But still I survived due to many other sources. I am very clever, you know. Now, however, with what has happened to the Looking Glass, Kingdom of Knights, the South, the trains, the Manor, the Soul-trees... Everything destroyed that mattered so much. I am dying."

Her face twisted into an expression of despair and rage.

"And I do not like it, Hatter."

"What does this have to do with me?" he asked reluctantly. Hatter had the sudden sensation of treading on thin ice. Her smile returned and she approached him so quickly that her arms were around his shoulders before he could push her away. Her arms locked behind his head.

"This war, this battle, is yours. I can have you win it like that." She snapped her fingers and an answering rumble of thunder shook the building. "I would destroy Wonderland City for you, Hatter. All for you."

"At what cost?" he asked and her eyelids fluttered closed, like a flirtatious girl propositioning a suitor.

"I need life. A way of returning to my strength." Unda suddenly disappeared in the blink of an eye and Hatter turned a quick circle, not trusting her. She reappeared on his bed, lying beside Alice with her arms wrapped around the girl. Alice murmured in her sleep and Unda held her closer. "There is so much potential in Alice, you know."

He wasn't sure what exactly she was trying to tell him and he took a few steps toward her. "No."

Instantly, she disappeared and then she stood before him, glowing a faint blue.

"You don't know what I'm offering, Hatter."

"It doesn't matter. If you hurt Alice, if you hurt our baby, the cost is too great."

"I could give you everything you ever wanted... dreamed of..." Unda reached out and stroked his face. Her fingers lingered on his temple. "I could take your madness from you. All in exchange for a chance to bring a new soul to Wonderland."

Hatter felt the temptation of it, the seduction of being free from living in fear that his life was ruled by madness. When he didn't answer her, she circled him and let her fingers caress his shoulders from behind once more. "All of this destruction, this madness. Gone."

"Why won't you do that for the love of your own inhabitants?" Hatter asked over his shoulder. Her forehead pressed against his back and he felt her exhale.

"Because they no longer believe. Their lack of emotion has been so ingrained within them that they have no power within them." Her fingers curled around his hipbone. "But you, Hatter. You have always believed. Even in your moments of doubt. It is why I let Alice bring you back."

The presumption that he'd been manipulated only made Hatter's decision for him. "You didn't do that. Alice did. I did."

He was whirled around and pinned against the chalkboard before he could think to move against her. Unda's hand wrapped around his throat and she lifted him inches from the floor. With a growl, she shoved hard upwards so that he choked on his words. His head was forced against the board and he tasted blood in his mouth. But he managed to see past the bright lights spotting his vision and stared at her. Before his eyes, she began to change and the form he'd known her in became corrupted and hideous. Her skin blackened to an oily sheen and tinted with shades of blue. Like oil moving over water, her silver hair changed to black grease soaked locks and her nails elongated into black talons though her eyes stayed like brilliant green emeralds in her face. When she spoke, her teeth were dark and flashed dangerously sharp.

"You do not want me for an enemy, Hatter. I have not even begun to act in ways you cannot control." Her nails cut into his neck, reopening his old wound. "Would you risk your Alice in a battle you can't win?"

The threat was unspoken but Hatter knew she was making one against them all. If she did not get her way, she'd destroy them all out of pure spite and fury. Which meant his choices would affect not only Alice but all of Wonderland.

Something pushed at his mind, a memory of his grandfather's almost insistent teachings. "I can win this one. If we establish a conduit, somehow, that is free of the Queen's restraints, you can exist how you used to. How you need to."

A faint admiring look passed over her blackened features. Her hold loosened a little but she didn't release him. "If you win... Perhaps. But this, Hatter, will never fully heal. We need so much more to exist than staleness. A new world needs to be created and unleashed. It will be created and you can do nothing to stop the measures I will take to be sure it does."

Hatter felt something warm trickle from the corners of his eyes as her pressure increased once more. The taste of blood filled his mouth and he gasped for breath until, satisfied he was taking her seriously, Unda eased her grip. Her eyes never wavered from his and he forced himself to stare back.

"But perhaps we can negotiate. I will not act against you, Hatter, not just yet. Not until you win this war. Call it an act of faith, call it my decision to force you to become something far more than what you are for my own personal gain. Call it anything you want but consider yourself warned." She let him down to his feet and pressed close. Her lips brushed over his firmly, a mixture of caress and threat. "If you do not win, you do not want to imagine what I will do to this world. I would rather destroy this world than be ruled in stagnation for another millennia."

Her face swam in his vision and Hatter swallowed to control the urge to cry out when she kissed him. It sent flashes of memory, not his own and too terrible for him to want, coursing through his head like a tidal wave and he felt his old touches of madness rise to protect him. Her threats, showing him what was and what would happen if he failed, made something inside panic and try to fight. Like the snap of an elastic band, something in his mind lashed out against Unda and, startled, she let him go. Staring at him, she took several steps back. Her blackened skin glistened now in a mixture of sweat and blood, and she raised a hand to her black lips curiously, as if they tingled from her kiss. When she pulled her fingers away, the tips of them were bloodied.

Unda's eyes snapped to his and she chuckled viciously.

"So I suggest you win, Hatter. Or I will be forced to truly take control of this future. Not that you might live to see that as it is," she warned. She smiled once more at him, the cold, imperial smile of a deity knowing that her servant had no choice but to serve. In a cloud of vapour and mist, she faded from his sight.

Though he wanted nothing more than to scream, Hatter simply slid to his knees and buried his head in his hands.

He stayed that way until dawn's light crept through the drapes, his body cramped and cold from the long hours spent sitting on the floor. When Alice woke up, alone once again in their bed, it took her several moments before she saw him. At first she thought he was finally asleep, albeit uncomfortably. But when she stepped from the bed and pulled on a night-shirt to ward off the chill in the air, she heard his faint mutterings. They were spoken too softly for her to hear clearly since his head was pressed so tightly in his hands. Hatter shook his head several times and Alice could see his fingers tightening now and then in his hair.

She looked up at the chalkboard, saw the masses of writing and formula, and gulped loudly. Childishly, she had the sudden urge to go back to bed. Shoving that idea down, she crossed the floor and knelt before him.

"Hatter?" she whispered, reaching out and touching his shoulder. His skin was like ice under her fingers and he didn't react to her gentle shaking. Clearing her throat, Alice stood and quickly retrieved the comforter off their bed to wrap around his shoulders. The sudden warmth and her closeness finally caught his attention and Hatter's head lifted a little. The scar on his neck was angry and red, but not bleeding when she gently checked it. He looked so shaken that Alice tucked the comforter tighter around his shoulders and then rubbed at them gently.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"You were right," he whispered, his voice sounding hoarse as if he'd spent the last hours screaming at the top of his lungs. He took her hand and wrapped his fingers around hers tightly.

When he didn't continued, Alice whispered his name and his eyes lifted to hers. There was an odd mixture of emotions there, and yet she felt like there were even more being hidden inside of him.

"It was a trap. But not one set by the Queen." She frowned, puzzled, and he shook his head. "And it's time to cross the bridge I said we'd come to."

Alice blinked. "You're not making much sense. What are you trying to say?"

"That I don't have much choice anymore. There can be no more hiding from what this has all become," Hatter said and his face lost the confusion and fear it had once held. All that was there was a strange resolve and Alice felt an odd fear of it. Not that he was meaning to hurt her but it was so different from his usual expression that she wondered if he was going back to his mad state.

But then he smiled and she dismissed that thought because she knew that smile. Hatter stood slowly, his fingers catching hers so that he pulled her up with him. His arm looped around her shoulders and he quickly pulled her into a hug. Startled, she put her arms around his waist and felt his heartbeat drum through his chest and against her ear. Hatter pressed his lips against the top of her head and sighed. Between them, he could feel the swell to her belly and he wondered if the potential Unda had spoken of being in Alice was not just her but perhaps their child. What would she want with an unborn baby?

A thought of the impossible made him hold Alice tighter against him.

"Why now, Hatter?" Alice whispered against his skin. She knew he was accepting what they wanted him to do.

"Because there is too much at stake now and we don't have as much time as we thought." He looked up at the chalkboard and tipped his head as he read the formulas again. Something finally clicked and he smiled. "Besides, I think I have a plan."

Chapter Text

Grouped together on the upper terrace of an abandoned canning factory, the Resistance band in the East looked like they were quickly getting organized for their first attack. There were only ten people visible and yet Hatter knew that there were more staggered all around the Quadrant they'd been assigned to. A quick check of two other main points in the City Quadrants let him know that more fighters were in place as well and apparently ready for action. But how ready depended on how the next few hours went, and it was the only sticky point in his plan.

Not that he could have done much better in organizing them all. It was, by his guess, only an hour until sunrise. There had been less than a day to plan this out with Abel's advisors and even less time to get everyone to their places suitably armed to battle. But even with the rushed orders and planning, the Resistance fighters had been amazingly willing and ready to follow through. Which Hatter figured was a gift; there were enough people in this rag tag army that any tiny bit of mutiny could result in disaster.

Snapping his telescope back into a shorter size, Hatter s