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Waking Up

Chapter Text

Hatter made his living selling stolen emotions to people, like himself, who had a limited range of their own. The Casino provided the so-called “Teas” and Hatter sold them at his Tea Shop, the most prosperous in Wonderland. He tasted all the Teas, just once; a good salesman had to know his product. He didn’t drink them regularly; it was bad for business, and they always left him feeling muzzy-headed. Not to mention the niggling in his conscious because he knew how the Teas were harvested.

Tea Shop proprietors had to have good business sense, salesmanship, and most importantly, showmanship. At this last Hatter excelled. He may not have been able to experience a wide range of emotion, but he could act the part, and that made all the difference in his business.

It all changed the day Ratty came skulking into his office babbling about a rogue Oyster. Hatter’s interest was instantly piqued. He couldn’t recall an Oyster ever getting away from the Suits, and he knew there was profit to be had in it if he found the right buyer. So Hatter had Ratty bring the Oyster back to his office, where he waited in his high-backed white chair for theatrical effect.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked without turning around. He was fond of the regular stuff, hot and sweet. He asked the question as a mere formality; he didn’t expect an answer from the Oyster.

“No. Thank you,” the Oyster replied. “Who are you?”

Hatter was so startled he almost spilt his tea. He’d thought maybe Ratty was telling him a tale, but it was true. The Oyster hadn’t been dosed. He hadn’t expected that, it almost made him lose his cool. Almost. After all, he was a professional.

Hatter spun in his chair in a practiced manner and got his first look at Ratty’s Oyster. She was soaking wet, her dark hair hanging over the shoulders of her soggy blue dress. She wore red tights and completely impractical boots with a high heel. Hatter was captivated by her eyes, which were a lovely clear blue.

“A friend,” he said, answering the Oyster’s question. Then he added, with actual sincerity, “I hope. I run the Tea Shop.”

Hatter wondered if all Oysters wore their emotions so openly; he could practically read this one like a book. He saw wariness and confusion.

Ratty untied a raggedy piece of cloth from the Oyster’s arm, turning it so Hatter could see the Glow. The tattoo curled up her arm like a bit of green vine. He couldn’t believe his luck – he really owed Ratty for this one. Curiosity, the first real curiosity he’d felt in years, started bubbling up and Hatter got out of his chair. He stood in front of his desk, his back to Ratty and the Oyster.

“How’d you break out of the Scarab?” he felt compelled to ask. Oysters never escaped. Never. It was supposed to be a fool-proof system.

“The beetle thing?”

Hatter merely grunted and turned to look at her again.

“I used my hairpin and…” The Oyster gestured to her clearly wet appearance.

“You fell,” Hatter surmised.

“As you can see, I’m drenched.”

Oh, yes, Hatter could see that. The little blue dress was clinging very intriguingly in certain areas. It was amazing, the difference between the blank Oysters and one with full faculties. She was practically humming with nerves.

“This place,” the Oyster said. “Where…what is it?”

“Oh!” Hatter gestured with both hands. “Wonderland.”

“That’s a story in a kid’s book.”

“Does this look like a kid’s story to you?” Hatter asked dryly.

“No,” the Oyster said. Hatter could see a bit of fear in those eyes now. He found himself talking, trying to put her at ease even as he drew closer to get a better look at her. In the aim of good showmanship, he grabbed a magnifying glass from his desk.

“It’s changed a lot since then,” he said.

“So you’re saying that it was real?” The Oyster sounded disbelieving.

“You Oysters don’t know how to find us…excuse me.” Hatter grabbed her arm and examined the Glow. It was the only thing marring her otherwise creamy skin. “You tell yourself that we don’t exist and, quite frankly, we like to keep it that way.”

“Why am I an Oyster? This?” the Oyster lightly slapped the Glow on her arm. Hatter’s quick eye took in a flash of sparkle; there was a ring on the Oyster’s hand, a fancy ring. He filed that information away for future use.

“That’s not gonna come off,” Hatter said, smiling. “Sorry!”

The Oyster looked again at the Glow, then back at Hatter, her confusion obviously growing.

“Only people from your world turn green when burnt by the light,” he obligingly explained. “It’s the Suits’ way of branding their catch. And they call you Oysters because of the shiny little pearls that you all carry inside.”

Hatter returned the magnifying glass to the desk but found he couldn’t stay away from the Oyster. There was just something about her. He reassured himself it was just the novelty of it.

“What do you mean, pearls?” This Oyster was full of questions.

“She’s Alice,” Ratty interrupted. “Tell him who you are.”

And wasn’t that just another interesting piece of information?

“Wow,” said Hatter. “Really?”

He walked round the Oyster, checking her from all sides. “Woooo,” he said, mockingly. The name didn’t hold as much weight as it once did, except to some more superstitious Wonderlanders like good old Ratty. He put his arm around the man in question.

“Ratty, here, thinks you’re Alice. Of Legend.”

“Who?” the Oyster asked. It was clear that none of this meant anything to her.

“The last…um.” Hatter removed his arm, looked down in distaste at some greasy residue left on his fingers. “The last time a girl called Alice came here from your world she brought down the whole House of Cards. Oh, yeah. Made quite an impression. Although it was a hundred and fifty years ago.”

Hatter turned back to glare at Ratty. “It couldn’t be the same girl. Oysters don’t even live that long.”

“I still want a good price,” Ratty insisted.

“Wait a minute,” the Oyster said. “I am not for sale!”

Hatter held a finger up to keep her quiet, never taking his eyes off Ratty. This was business now, and he took his business very seriously. He headed back to his desk, casting one amused glance at the Oyster. He knew Ratty would want to follow him.

“Keep off the grass,” he said. No-one was allowed back there but himself; he liked to keep the carpet of grass nice and green. Hatter bypassed the desk and went to a shelf on the wall behind it. There were several bottles of Tea lined up there, unmarked. His special stash. Normally, a man like Ratty wouldn’t rate one of those bottles, but these were special circumstances. A fresh Oyster was worth one bottle of Tea, and so much more.

Hatter contemplated the colors before him. The blue bottle of Surprise, perhaps? He picked it up, reconsidered. Put it back and grabbed the pink bottle instead. Time for the showman!

“Here we are! Mmmm!” Hatter came back round his desk. “Pink nectar. Filled with the thrill of human excitement. Fifty Oysters were drained of every last drop of hullabaloo so that you, Ratty, can taste what it feels like to win. Just. Once.”

Ratty’s hungry eyes were locked on the bottle. Hatter felt obliged to add the standardized warning as well.

“Warning,” he said, pulling the bottle out of Ratty’s reach. “Don’t drink on an empty stomach, and only one tiny drop at a time or else the experience might burst your shriveled up little heart. Got it?”

“Got it,” Ratty said anxiously.

“Good.” Hatter handed Ratty the bottle. “Go.”

Both Hatter and the Oyster watched Ratty go running back out of the office, his prize in his hand. Still feeling that bit of residue on his fingers, Hatter sniffed them and winced. Eau de Ratty.

“He really stinks,” he said conversationally.

“Oysters were drained?” This Oyster – Alice, Hatter reminded himself – sounded indignant. “What do you mean, drained?”

Hatter didn’t want to agitate her. He decided to change the subject and headed back to his desk where his tea sat cooling. “Ratty tells me you’re looking for someone.”

“His name is Jack Chase. He was taken by a man with a white rabbit on his lapel.”

“I see. Hmm.” Hatter took a sip of his tea. He knew he didn’t have to explain anything but found himself talking anyway. “The White Rabbit is an organization controlled by the Suits. They travel back and forth through the Looking Glass and…vanish people from your world to ours.”

“Why?”

“To use. In the Casino.” As soon as he said it, Hatter knew he’d made a mistake. He’d brought Alice round to the Oysters again.

“Use?”

“Did I say use? Slip of the tongue.” Hatter set down his tea and stood up. He noticed that Alice was standing on his nice green grass, but he didn’t say anything. “They’re fine. You know, they keep them…alive. And…moderately happy.”

“How do I get to this Casino?” Alice asked. Hatter laughed. What did she think she was going to do, just walk in and get her boyfriend back?

“That’s the thing. You don’t. Way too dangerous.”

And was that anger he saw now on the Oyster’s face? Her eyes narrowed, and she glared at him. Hatter’s brain started working on a plan.

“But, I know some people. Who know some…well…other people. If you know what I mean.” Now he was right in front of Alice, clearly intruding on her personal space. “It’s one of the privileges of owning a Tea Shop.”

Hatter popped the ‘p’, making Alice jerk back. Yes, this Oyster was far from a blank slate. He could see a touch of fear in her eyes, and he suddenly felt badly for putting it there.

“Lighten up,” he muttered. Whether he meant the Oyster or himself, he wasn’t completely sure. Hatter had a plan in mind now, but there was something he had to do before he could take the Oyster out of the Tea Shop. He went to his glass wardrobe and opened the doors with a bit of theatrical flair.

“Ta da! You should wear this.” Hatter removed a plum-colored velvet coat from the closet. It flared a bit at the waist and was clearly made for a woman. Hatter, a bit of a clothes horse himself, always kept some items on hand for the ladies…just in case.

“It’ll hide the Glow and stop you from catching a cold.” Hatter held the coat in his hands, but Alice just stood there looking uncomfortable.

“I have a little money,” she said. “But I understand you don’t use that here.”

“Pieces of paper?” Hatter exclaimed. “Pointless.” He knew some people that collected Oyster money, but it had no value at all in Wonderland.

“Then why would you help me?” Alice asked, clearly suspicious of him again. Hatter walked around behind her.

“Do I need a reason to help a pretty girl in a very wet dress?” he asked quietly. He’d meant it to be flippant but found that he actually meant it. He wanted to help her. And if he helped himself as well, was that such a bad thing? Alice turned round and the look she gave him got his ire up.

“Oh. I see. You don’t trust me. Fine!” Hatter slapped the coat down on his white couch. He was just as angry at himself as he was at Alice. Why did he care if she didn’t trust him? She’d be a fool to trust anyone she’d just met, especially in Wonderland. It was time to amp up the theatrics.

“I am genuinely hurt,” Hatter said. “Do you know why they call me Hatter?”

Alice glanced up at his head. “Because you wear a hat?”

It was an innocent answer and took him aback for a moment.

“No. It’s because I’m always there when they pass the hat. So to speak. Philanthropy. Generosity. You can call it what you will, it’s who I am. And right now, looking at you there, there’s nothing I want more than to help you find…” And now he was at a bit of a loss.

“Jack,” Alice supplied.

“Jack! And return you both to your charming world of children’s stories.”

“I don’t believe you,” Alice said. And was she smirking? Hatter had no idea that Oysters were this intelligent. He’d only ever just seen them staring blankly at the gaming tables.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Hatter said. “If I’m the frying pan, then that out there is the fire. I’ll be square with you. I know some people who like to help your kind. And if, every once in a while, I scratch their back…”

“They’ll scratch yours,” Alice finished.

“Precisely. Lot of scratching.”

Hatter waited and was rewarded for all of his fancy talk when Alice retrieved the coat and slipped it on. He had to admit it looked good on her, especially with that little blue dress. With that done, he walked to the door behind his desk.

“Do try to keep up,” he said. He opened the door, revealing a breathtaking view of the city and a narrow ledge. Alice sighed, then joined him.

Hatter indicated a ladder off to the left. “We need to go down a floor. Follow me.”

He ran the plan through again in his mind. It was fairly solid, assuming Dodo was feeling generous today. And if Alice was moving a bit slowly behind him, he really didn’t take much notice.

Chapter Text

Hatter quickly made his way down the metal ladder that was built into the outside wall and hopped down onto the next ledge. The city had been built to extraordinary heights, some levels of it completely hidden in the low-lying clouds. Instead of building out, the high-minded architects had built up. There was limited ability to travel between levels within the buildings, so most travel occurred outside, on the narrow ledges, walkways and ladders.

Alice was slower in descending and he felt a flash of impatience; if he was going to help her, she needed to be able to keep up with him. He didn’t want to be all day at this, he had a business to run. As she neared the bottom, Hatter grabbed her by the waist and swung her the rest of the way down.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

Now that they were both on the ledge Hatter turned and started to walk away. It only took a moment for him to realize that Alice wasn’t following. He looked back to see her clinging to the ladder, her back against it. She was looking at the drop-off.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, impatient again.

“I’ve got a thing about heights,” was Alice’s terse reply. “Why couldn’t you guys build this city on the ground?”

Hatter looked over the ledge. Like all Wonderland denizens, he was accustomed to the dizzying heights of the city. Looking back at Alice he sighed. They weren’t getting anywhere fast, it would seem.

“Look at me.” Hatter moved back to Alice’s side. In response she closed her eyes altogether.

“Alice,” Hatter said, a bit more gently. This time she opened her pretty blue eyes and looked at him. He saw fear in those eyes, and it made something inside him soften. He held out his hand. When Alice grabbed it, a little jolt shot up his arm and he felt suddenly…protective of her.

“Try not to look down,” he instructed. “Okay?”

Hatter began walking backwards, drawing Alice with him. Her slim hand trembled in his own. She didn’t break eye contact with him, and he could see sweat beading up on her forehead. He decided a distraction would be in order.

“Tell me about your world, Alice,” Hatter suggested. He continued walking backwards, pulling her along. He made sure they kept close the wall.

“For one thing, all our streets are on the ground.”

“Have you no tall buildings then?” Hatter couldn’t help being curious. He’d never been able to talk about the Oyster world with someone that actually lived there.

“Oh, we have plenty of tall buildings. But we use indoor stairs and elevators. No ledges.” Alice laughed nervously, casting one quick look down. Hatter squeezed her hand.

“What do you do back in your world? For fun.”

Alice thought about that for a moment, and Hatter was glad to see she’d momentarily forgotten about the heights. “I work at the dojo, teaching martial arts.”

“That’s your job. What do you do for fun?”

“My job is fun!” Alice protested with a weak grin. “I don’t know. Sometimes I go to the movies, or for pizza with my mom.”

“Pizza?” Hatter said, turning the strange word around in his mouth. “What’s pizza?”

“It’s food,” Alice explained. “Dough, and sauce and pepperoni. God, I could eat a whole pie right now!”

It sounded very strange to Hatter, but then again he enjoyed pickled Jub-Jub bird eggs so who was he to judge? He couldn’t help but notice that Alice hadn’t mentioned having any friends. Just work and her mother. For the first time he felt a bit of camaraderie with this Oyster. Was it possible her life was as lonely as his own?

Lonely? Hatter was so surprised that he stopped walking. He had never thought of his life as being lonely. He had his work. He had the occasional dalliance with one of the pretty tea-heads that frequented his shop. He had his…other work. He couldn’t recall ever considering himself lonely.

“Hatter?” Alice asked. “Are you okay?”

“Do you have any friends?” he blurted out. Alice blushed.

“Of course I do. It’s just…I’m very busy, you know.”

Hatter shrugged, trying to shake off the strange feelings he was having. But if he’d wanted to distract Alice, he’d certainly found the right button to push. Now she walked ahead of him, hugging the wall.

“It’s not like all I do is stay home, you know. There’s Jack. And I meet with some girls once a month. For lunch. But I spend so much time searching…”

Hatter waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. “What are you searching for?”

The silence stretched out so long, Hatter thought she wasn’t going to answer at all. But when she did, it came out in a flood.

“My father. I’m searching for my father. He disappeared when I was ten. He wouldn’t have just left, I know he wouldn’t have. Not without a good reason. Or any of his things. I’m going to find him. I don’t care how long it takes, but I’ll find him.”

And there was another new feeling for Hatter now – sympathy. He knew what it was to lose family. At least he knew that his parents were dead, he’d had plenty of years to come to terms with that. He couldn’t imagine how much harder it was for Alice, the not knowing. He realized he’d only seen the tip of the iceberg in regard to Alice’s loyalty, the drive that had sent her through the Glass looking for her boyfriend. She was certainly single-minded, this Oyster.

“I’m sure you will,” Hatter said. Alice looked back at him and gave him a real smile this time.

“Thanks.”

They walked on in silence for a while, and Hatter didn’t mind it. It was almost comfortable. He led Alice around a corner and down two more ladders. He noticed she was feeling more at ease now, though she still kept to the wall. Hatter cast frequent glances over his shoulder at her, watching the way she moved in that little blue dress; the way the wind blew her hair; the way she kept her eyes focused strictly ahead of her, never once glancing over the edge.

“You doing okay?” Hatter asked.

“I’m fine,” Alice said. Hatter had a feeling that she wouldn’t admit being otherwise.

“Shall we take a quick rest, then?” Where before he had been impatient, now Hatter found himself willing to take his time.

“No, I’m good,” Alice insisted. Hatter grinned. There was that unshakable determination again. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“To meet with some people I know in the Resistance. If anyone can help you find Jack, they can.”

“The Resistance?”

“Not everyone in Wonderland is happy with the way things are, Alice. There are those who do what they can to help the Oysters, and to help others who don’t want anything to do with the Teas that the Casino puts out.”

“Are you in the Resistance?” Alice asked.

“Sort of.” Hatter didn’t feel like getting into the particulars with Alice just now. “We’re almost there. One ledge down.”

Alice sighed. “Yeah, it would be.”

Chapter Text

The door that Hatter knocked on was just one of many on the ledge that were all painted in peeling blue paint. A rectangular panel slid open and an old man’s face appeared.

“I’m returning a library book. It’s a work of Edwin and Morcott.” He really didn’t care much for all the stupid passwords and secret phrases, especially when everyone knew perfectly well who he was.

“How does the little crocodile improve his shining tail?” The old man asked. Hatter rolled his eyes. What was it with Duck and the stupid crocodile?

“He pours water from the Nile on every golden scale,” Hatter said. He felt fairly foolish doing all this in front of the Oyster, like he was playing at being a spy or something. It was ridiculous. But Duck was satisfied enough to open the door.

Hatter led Alice into the bus that waited on the other side of the door. Duck immediately pushed a button that had them plummeting downward. Alice gasped and dropped into a seat, holding on with both hands. She looked up at Hatter, a flash of anxiety in her eyes.

“It’s all right,” he told her, trying to put her at ease. In many ways he found himself thinking of her as a skittish animal.

The trip downward ended abruptly, and Hatter motioned for Alice to wait until the bus had jerked to a stop. He let Alice out ahead of him down the steps, only to be met by Owl and her gun. Duck produced his as well, pressing it into Hatter’s shoulder. Hatter sighed.

Alice exited the bus, her hands held up.

“Why don’t we just put these things away,” Hatter said. “Come on, you know me well enough.”

“We have our orders,” Duck grumbled behind him.

“Keep that right hand where we can see it,” Owl ordered. Her eyes were wide and wary behind her big cat’s eye glasses. Hatter turned round, flexing the hand in question.

“It’s just flesh and blood.” Well, mostly.

“We’ve all seen what you can do with that sledgehammer,” Owl persisted. Out of the corner of his eye, Hatter could see Alice looking at him questioningly. He certainly wasn’t about to explain that one. Time to try another tactic.

“Did you like the box of comforts I brought you last week? The cured meats and the cheese?”

“They’re all gone,” Duck whined.

“Well, if you don’t treat me with a little respect, you won’t get another crumb.”

Owl finally put up her weapon. “Sorry, Hatter. Everyone’s a little jumpy.”

“Everyone’s always a little jumpy,” Hatter grumbled.

They finally got moving again. Nothing, it seemed, would keep Alice’s curiosity at bay.

“Where are we?”

“The Great Library,” Hatter explained as they walked down the red-carpeted hall. “There’s 5,000 years of history hidden here. Art, literature, law. Rescued when the Queen of Hearts came to power. She’d like nothing more than to see this burnt to nothing.”

“Who’s the Queen of Hearts?” Alice asked, and Hatter winced. Clearly, he should have done more than discussed pizza with her on the way here.

“She doesn’t know the Queen?” Owl whirled around, swinging her gun out again. “Who the hell is she, Hatter?”

“Could you just relax, Owl? Calm.” Hatter held his hands out even as Owl forced them backwards. “She’s led a sheltered life, that’s all.”

“Back to the elevator, both of you!” Duck said anxiously from behind them. Hatter sighed again and reached into his back pockets. Owl turned her gun on him.

“Watch that right hand!”

Hatter pulled out two wrapped cheese wheels, held one out to Owl and one to Duck. “Have you two not learned to trust me yet?”

“Is that a bribe?” Owl asked, hungrily eyeing the cheese.

“Yes. Two bribes. Two tasty, delicious, yummy ones.” Hatter looked at Alice, saw the uncertainty in her eyes. “So hard to make a sensible decision on an empty stomach, isn’t it?”

Hatter hoped his confidence would keep Alice from bolting. This wasn’t going as smoothly as he’d planned, true, but he knew what buttons to push to get Owl and Duck moving in the right direction.

“You better be on the level, Hatter,” Duck said, snatching the cheese from his hand. “Or you won’t make it out of here alive this time.”

The bribe worked, and they were able to move forward again. Alice stayed close by his side and Hatter didn’t blame her. He got a bit nervous with all that firepower pointed at him as well.

“These are the guys who are going to help me find Jack?” Alice asked. Doubt was clear in her voice.

“Don’t worry,” Hatter said. “Their boss is a little more…savvy.” And dangerous, but he didn’t see any point in bringing that up. He could always hope to catch Dodo on a good day, assuming the man even had them.

Once again, he’d lost Alice’s attention. She was looking over the railing into the gallery below, which was filled with enormous stacks and piles of books. And living in those stacks and piles were hundreds of people, some just milling about and others talking or sitting or reading.

“Who are those poor people?” Alice asked, clutching the railing.

“Refugees,” Hatter explained. “Those that don’t want to be part of the Queen’s world of instant gratification. We give them shelter, try to feed them the best we can. But it is dangerous. If the Queen found out they wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Why does she want to destroy all of this?” Alice asked, watching two men in raggedy coats playing chess atop a great stack of books.

“Wisdom is the biggest threat. She controls people with a quick fix.”

Hatter watched Alice watching the refugees, stunned at the amount of compassion in her eyes. No wonder the Queen used Oysters in the Casino – the strength of emotion in them was staggering. Alice didn’t even know these people and she clearly felt for them. Hatter nudged her with his elbow.

“Come on. Let’s go see Dodo.”

*o*o*o*

“She’s looking for her boyfriend. A Jack Chance.” Hatter and Alice stood in Dodo’s study, surrounded by books, guarded by Owl and Duck. Dodo himself lurked in the shadows behind his desk, not above a few theatrics himself.

“Chase,” Alice corrected. “His name is Jack Chase.”

“She needs help,” Hatter said. “I thought of you, Dodo.”

“Really.” Dodo stepped out of the shadows. Hatter couldn’t help but wonder, for the hundredth time, how someone in hiding and living a presumably hand to mouth existence was able to have such girth. “And why would I want to help your Oyster, when bringing her here puts us all at risk?”

Hatter had known this wasn’t going to be easy. “Oh, please. I’ve spent years smuggling more dangerous things than this down here.”

Your Oyster, Dodo had said. Hatter felt a wave of possessiveness flow through him. Suddenly he just wanted to get her out of there.

“You know what rankles most about blood-sucking carpetbaggers like you, Hatter?” Dodo asked. Hatter caught himself before he rolled his eyes. Dodo was prone to making speeches, especially when he was feeling superior. As he clearly was now.

“Your gall,” Dodo continued. “You think you can play both sides of the court and come away with two trophies. I haven’t seen daylight in three years, and Owl here has forgotten what vegetables taste like.”

“I remember kumquat. Is that a vegetable?” Owl asked. Hatter looked at her, feeling guilty. He’d never brought them vegetables, it was true. But at least he’d done what he could. But Dodo wasn’t done yet.

“While we risk our lives, trying to bring freedom to ungrateful leeches like you, you swirl about, living the good life.”

“Stop your crowing,” Hatter said. He hated that Alice had to hear Dodo talk about him this way. He was…embarrassed. “You know I’m on your side.”

“I’m sure you say that to all your enemies,” Dodo said dismissively.

“I do what’s necessary. I kiss what butts need kissing so your machine stays oiled.”

“Look, if you can’t help me I’m just going to leave.” Alice seemed to sense, as Hatter did, that things were rapidly going downhill.

“Headstrong, isn’t she?” Dodo chuckled. Alice turned to look at him, incredulous.

“Can you help me get Jack out of the Casino?”

“I don’t see how,” Dodo said. Hatter knew he was lying.

“The Resistance has contacts inside the Casino, right?”

“No comment,” Dodo replied.

“Use them to find her guy. She can pay you.” Hatter knew he was treading on slippery ground now. “But I want my usual cut, up front.”

“Pay me? Pay me with what?”

Hatter walked behind Alice, saw the tension in her shoulders. He knew she wasn’t going to like this, but he hoped she’d understand the necessity of it.

“Show him the rock, Alice.”

“What?”

“The ring. On your finger.”

“That is off limits!” Alice hissed at him. He looked at her, trying to make her understand.

“It’s all you have, Alice.”

“No,” Alice said. Hatter couldn’t believe how stubborn this Oyster – his Oyster – was. Couldn’t she see that Dodo wasn’t about to help her out of the goodness of his heart?

Dodo was suddenly grabbing Alice’s hand to get a look at the ring. The blood drained from his face. “It’s not possible. Where did you get it?”

“It’s none of your business,” Alice said. “It’s not for sale.”

“Where did you get it?” Dodo was shouting now. Alice drew back from him, alarmed.

“What is it?” Hatter asked. What could an Oyster possibly have that would make Dodo act this way?

“Your Oyster is wearing the Stone of Wonderland.”

“That’s impossible,” Hatter said. He looked at Alice in amazement. Questions swirled around in his head, too many questions. And he mentally kicked himself for not recognizing what he had before he’d gotten Dodo involved.

“I’m never wrong,” Dodo said.

“Where did you get it, Alice?” Hatter asked, dimly aware that both he and Dodo were now bearing down on the Oyster. Alice somehow managed to look both alarmed and defiant.

“Jack gave it to me.”

“Jack?”

“Jack Chase, the guy we’re looking for.”

“Where did he get it?” Dodo was getting angry now; Hatter knew he had a short fuse.

“I don’t know!”

“Give it to me!”

“No!” Alice stood her ground, her hands clenched into tight fists.

“Take her out,” Dodo commanded, turning back to his desk as Owl trained her gun on Alice.

“Are you crazy?” Alice shrieked. Hatter’s protectiveness reared its head again, and he put himself between Alice and Owl. He was confident that Owl wouldn’t shoot him. Well, fairly confident.

“Stop! Just wait,” Hatter said.

“You’re in way over your head, Hatter,” Dodo said. Understatement of the year, Hatter thought to himself.

“Give me one second to talk to her, okay?” One second to make some kind of plan, more like it. Dodo’s response was to pull out a revolver, which he pointed at Hatter.

“It controls the Looking Glass. You know that.”

“Calm down. Put the gun away. I’m sure we can all get what we want here.” Diplomacy was never Hatter’s strong suit, but he thought if he talked long enough he’d get a chance to do something. He quickly glanced at the door, which seemed ridiculously far away just at the moment.

“No one is getting this ring,” Alice declared. Hatter shot her a look, willing her to stop talking. She wasn’t helping the situation. Couldn’t she see how desperate things had become?

“We’ve been waiting years for a break like this, and now it just falls into our laps.” Dodo moved forward, gun still drawn.

“Stop waving that thing around, you’re scaring everyone!” Hatter tried to keep himself simultaneously between Dodo and Alice, and Owl and Alice. This was not going well.

“If we can return the Oysters to their world, maybe we can save ours,” Dodo said, a righteous fire burning in his eyes now.

“Just put the gun down!” Hatter shouted. If only he could diffuse the situation. His priority now was getting Alice out of this mess in one piece. His Oyster, his responsibility.

“Just think,” Dodo said, impassioned. “The Queen reduced to mopping floors. It’ll be just like the old days. Justice. Reason. And the rule of law.”

Hatter did the only thing he could think of. Dodo was clearly going to fire that gun at someone, and he wanted to be sure it wasn’t Alice. He grabbed Dodo’s gun by the barrel, aimed it at his own chest. Finally, the body armor he’d procured was going to come in handy.

“Stop this!”

The gun fired, and Hatter flew backwards into a stack of books. It hurt more than he thought it would, so much more, like he’d been punched in the chest by his own sledgehammer fist. For a minute he couldn’t move at all.

“No!” Alice screamed.

“You shot Hatter!” Owl cried.

“We don’t need him anymore,” Dodo said. “The ring is our ticket out of here.”

Hatter struggled to come to his senses. He heard the sounds of a struggle, could hear Alice running away. Now he needed to make sure she made good her escape. Fumbling his own gun from the pocket of his leather jacket, Hatter fired it once in the air and struggled to his feet. He kept his left hand pressed to his chest, which was throbbing painfully.

“Leave her alone, or the next one will be aimed at your head!” Hatter kept between Dodo and the door, knowing he was a bigger threat than Duck and Owl.

“Look, Hatter, this is a game changer.” Dodo used a reasonable tone, acting as if he hadn’t just tried to kill Hatter. “I’ll give you three times your price. Five. Ten! You name it.”

Hatter couldn’t keep his focus. Was Alice back to the bus? Was anyone coming behind him to help Dodo? He tried to look everywhere at once. Dodo was getting too close.

“Back off!” he barked, raising the gun so that it was pointed at Dodo’s face.

“If you let her leave with the ring, I’ll have every member of the Resistance hunting you down. You’ll be dead before tea time.” So much for reasonable.

“And that’s the thanks I get, huh? For keeping you bums fed and watered all these years?”

Hatter made the mistake of gesturing with the gun, which gave Dodo an opening to move in and grab it. He twisted Hatter’s arm up behind him, making pain flare in his shoulder and sending the gun flying. He was thrown to the ground and then Dodo was on the run after Alice. Hatter forced himself back to his feet and gave chase. He may not have his gun, but he still had his mean right hand.

Hatter caught up Dodo in the hall, tackling him from behind. He could see Alice on the bus, pushing levers and trying to find a way to get it moving. She had to get out of there, Dodo would kill her.

“Hatter!” Alice called from the bus.

“It’s the blue button!” Hatter grappled with Dodo, trying to land one good punch. Why wasn’t Alice leaving?

“Go, Alice! Press the blue button!”

Hatter got Dodo up against a pillar and finally got his punch in, only Dodo moved at the last second and it was the pillar that was cracked instead of Dodo’s face.

“Lucky,” Hatter breathed. And then he was on the floor, gasping for breath, after Dodo got him with a knee to the gut and another to the face. There was more punching until Hatter’s whole face was throbbing. He couldn’t tell if Alice had left – he hoped she had. Dodo wouldn’t risk leaving the Library, so she had a chance, however slim, if she could just get back outside.

She wasn’t gone. Hatter saw a flash of red leg as she kicked Dodo in the face, knocking him backwards. Hatter grabbed for his hat, pulling it safely to his chest. And then Dodo was lying beside him, thrown somehow on his back by Alice.

“Come on, Hatter!” Alice dragged him to his feet and pulled him down the hall towards the bus.

“How’d you do that?” Hatter wheezed, looking down at Dodo. Alice got him up the steps and dumped him on the floor of the bus. She smacked the blue button and sent them up, Dodo screaming from behind them. Before the bus even started moving, she was on her knees pulling at his shirt.

“How bad is it?” she asked, looking frantic. Hatter tried to catch his breath. His whole body hurt, and here was Alice poking at him besides.

“Body armor?” Alice looked momentarily flustered as she looked at the bullet that protruded from the black armor that Hatter wore under his paisley shirt. “You’re not even wounded!”

Alice smacked him on the chest, which made Hatter wince in pain, and stood up. “You lied to me!”

Hatter couldn’t believe it. He’d just gotten himself shot for her and she was mad at him? “I was trying to help you!”

“By selling my ring?”

“I didn’t know it was the Stone of Wonderland, did I?”

“Well, you could have asked me before bringing me here!”

“You wouldn’t have come,” Hatter pointed out.

“You’re damn right I wouldn’t. He almost killed me!”

“Yeah, well he actually shot me!” Hatter pointed to the evidence on his chest. He couldn’t believe she was arguing with him about this. It’s not like he set out to purposely get her killed.

“No. Tell me the truth. What is the Stone of Wonderland?” Alice stood above him, looking imperious. Hatter wished he could get up off the floor, but he just didn’t have it in him at the moment.

“It’s a big deal. It was mined by the ancient knights to power the Looking Glass, the door that connects our world to yours.”

“Knights?”

“They were all wiped out a long time ago by the Queen. She took the Looking Glass and, of course, the Stone.”

Alice looked at the ring, studying it as if it would give her answers. Hatter rubbed his chest, willing the aches and pains away.

“How did Jack get hold of it?” Hatter asked. But of course, Alice had no answer for that.

The bus finally reached the end, and Alice stormed off and back out on the ledge without waiting for Hatter. He pulled himself up off the floor and stumbled after her. She was going the wrong way. Finding herself on the edge of a drop-off, Alice backed away against a tree that was growing in the middle of the ledge.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Hatter asked.

“Anywhere but here.”

“There are no-go areas in this town.”

“I don’t believe this is happening! I mean, this place…you people…it’s all too weird!”

“Listen, calm down. I’m going to try and get you home.”

“Really?” The doubt was clear in her voice.

Alice circled the tree, away from Hatter.

“Yes, really.” Hatter tried to catch up with her and she circled around the other way. “Look, could you just…keep still?”

“And what’s in it for you?” Alice challenged. “Let me guess. You want your usual cut up front?”

“I don’t blame you for being angry,” Hatter replied. He tried to smooth things over. “I acted…impetuously.”

“No. Selfishly. You acted selfishly.”

“Whatever word you want to use, let me make it up to you.” And Hatter found that he really, truly wanted to make it all better. He’d dragged her into a dangerous situation without having all of the facts first. If Dodo had made the deal for the ring, Hatter wondered if he’d have taken it and left Alice to fend for herself.

“Alice, this is a dangerous place. Trust me. You’re going to need my help.” Dodo was right. She was his Oyster now, and he wanted to make sure she got safely home.

Alice looked at him, and though doubt still shone on her face, she must have realized that he was her best chance. She may not trust him, but she had no better option at the moment.

“Okay,” she said softly. Hatter breathed a sigh of relief.

“Look, let’s go back to the Tea Shop and we’ll figure something out. Yeah?”

Alice only nodded. Hatter blew out a breath and led the way back to his shop.

Chapter Text

They moved quickly along the ledge, Alice keeping a hand on the wall. Hatter tried to work out a plan as they made their way back to his place.

“The Looking Glass is the only way to get you home. And it’s here in the city, but it’s the most heavily guarded piece of kit in Wonderland.”

“I’ve got to find Jack first,” Alice reminded him. Hatter grimaced. He was beginning to hate that name.

“Have you not heard a word I said?” He stopped and turned to face Alice.

“Look, I don’t know how he got mixed up in this, but I know he’s not a thief. He was trying to surprise me, or sweep me off my feet, so somehow he got hold of this ring and it’s landed him in a pile of trouble. If it wasn’t for me he would be home safe.”

Hatter processed that, but he found it still made no sense. He could understand that Alice had gotten the Stone from Jack, but there was no way he could reason that Jack could have got his hands on it. It was either in the possession of the Queen, or with the Suits. There was no way a mere Oyster could have stumbled upon it and taken it out of Wonderland.

“How did he get hold of it?” Hatter asked Alice. He studied her face for a lie and found none.

“Well, I don’t know,” Alice said. She moved carefully around Hatter and took the lead. “The point is, I’m the only one who can get him out of this mess.”

“How’d you figure that out?” Hatter asked.

“Well, I’ve got the ring. I can use it to negotiate his release.”

Hatter rolled his eyes. He kept forgetting that his Oyster knew nothing of Wonderland politics. “Ah, No. No.”

“No?” Alice asked, stopping again. She had that defiant look on her face again, the one Hatter was coming to dread.

“No. You can’t negotiate with the Queen. She’s crazy. You have to cut your losses, get out of here while you still can.” How could he make her understand? It was like talking to a cold kettle.

“I can’t just abandon Jack. He’s innocent.” Alice paused. “Besides, I like him.”

“Oh, you like him,” Hatter repeated. He’d never despised someone he’d never met as much as he did this mysterious Jack. Couldn’t she be logical, at least about her own safety?

“Yes. A lot!”

Hatter walked past Alice, hesitated, and turned back round. “Trust me, I know a thing or two about liking people. And in time, after much chocolate and cream cake, like turns into ‘what was his name again’.”

“No. Not in my world,” Alice insisted. “Look, I have a bad record with liking guys...”

“There’s a shock,” Hatter interrupted with no small amount of sarcasm.

“…and this is the first one who’s meant anything,” Alice continued. “There’s no way I’m going to give him up now.”

Hatter stopped paying attention to Alice. His Tea Shop was just ahead and there were Suits crawling all over it. He motioned Alice to be quiet. “Stay close.”

They stood partially concealed by a red call box, watching as some men on the porch were questioned by a Club and a man with a porcelain rabbit head. Hatter’s jaw clenched as one of his clients was carelessly tossed over the ledge, screaming. Ratty was amongst the group being questioned, and Hatter heard him tell the Club about Alice.

“You work with rats long enough and you turn into one, eh?” Hatter was angry. He couldn’t believe they’d tracked Alice back to him so quickly. More, he hated that his home was no longer safe. What were they going to do now?

“What is that?” Alice asked quietly. Hatter could only assume she meant Rabbit Head.

“Nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he admitted. Still, there was something oddly familiar about the way he moved. “Wait. It can’t be.”

Or could it? There had been a man, one of the Queen’s men, that Hatter’d had a few…unpleasant…run-ins with in the past. But he was supposed to be dead. Surely he was mistaken. No, he better be mistaken, or they were in even more trouble than he thought.

They had bigger problems, though, because Rabbit Head had somehow spotted them. Alice ran, and Hatter followed her, through the rangy weeds that grew on the ledge. He turned back to look once, still feeling like he knew that creature. The sight of Rabbit Head moving steadily towards him, Suits and Club following closely behind, finally spurred him back into movement.

“What?” Alice asked.

“We should run,” Hatter suggested. “Run!”

Hatter suited action to words, quickly running past Alice. “Come on!” He led the way into one of the buildings. They ran down one hall, into another, and shot out the other side of the building. Hatter stopped, looked back to see if he could see them following. He didn’t see anyone, but he could hear them coming.

“That way!” He pointed, set Alice running again. They came to a makeshift dock that led down to a boat. An intricate network of canals and aqueducts brought water from the lake up through the city, and all you had to do was follow them back out again.

“My smuggling boat,” Hatter panted. “Quickly!”

Alice followed him onto the boat, and he moved directly to the outboard motor. He gave the cord a tug, with no response.

“Hang on, there’s a knack to this.” Hatter tugged the rope again. “Which apparently I’ve never learned.”

Alice, meanwhile, was struggling to untie the rope that moored the boat to the dock. Hatter jumped behind the wheel, turning the key. Still nothing.

“Come on!” he begged the boat, pounding on it for good measure. Finally, the motor turned over. Not a moment too soon, as the Suits arrived at the dock seconds after they pulled away. Hatter’s heart was pounding from their narrow escape. He aimed the boat towards open water and opened the throttle.

“Where’s the Casino?” Alice asked.

“I already told you, you can’t negotiate with the Queen. But…the White Rabbit is a different kettle of onions. Perhaps they’ll do a deal. It’s a long shot, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” Another plan started churning in his brain.

“We?” Alice asked, looking at him with those shining blue eyes. Hatter thought about that for a minute. He’d never thought he would align himself with an Oyster. Albeit an exceptional Oyster. Most of his business partnerships were fairly one sided, but with Alice he felt they were almost on equal footing. That was a scary thought!

“I don’t know if you noticed, Alice, but my shop was ransacked. I’m homeless. I’m a target not only for the Suits but the Resistance as well, and there’s only so many places in Wonderland I can hide.” Once again Hatter thought about friends. If he had some, they might have hidden him. Helped him.

“The way I see it, I’ve only got one option.”

“Which is?”

“Go back with you. To your world.” A world he knew nothing about. Surrounded by Oysters. It was a bleak prospect, to be sure. The only bright spot in the whole equation was Alice.

Alice looked at him, sympathy written on her face. She looked like she was about to say something, and then they both heard a familiar hum coming from behind them. Hatter and Alice turned to look at the Scarab that was quickly closing the gap between them.

“Before we do anything,” Hatter said. “We have to shake that royal flush.”

He pushed the little boat as fast as it could go, which thankfully was faster than the Scarab. Hatter aimed for the far shore, where he could hopefully hide the boat and lose the Suits in the forest.

Chapter Text

Hatter finished camouflaging the boat with branches, then headed up the path to where Alice waited for him. He didn’t like this – he was much more at home in the city than out here in nature.

“I don’t know who that weirdo is that’s leading the posse, but he’s got one hell of a nose for blood.” He came to stand beside Alice, who was looking into the trees with some trepidation. “And this is the place to find it.”

As if on cue, a roar sounded from within the Forest of Wabe.

“What was that?” Alice asked, eyes wide. Hatter knew only too well what it was, and another plan quickly formed in his frantically working brain. Still, he couldn’t resist being a bit dramatic.

“There’s things in these woods that defy imagination.” He paused for effect. “Come on, we haven’t got much time.”

Hatter headed up the path, looked back to see Alice still standing there. He felt a twinge of guilt for scaring her, when she must already be plenty scared enough.

“Look. We can’t shake the posse. We can’t fight them either. There’s only one thing left to try.”

“What’s that?”

“Lead them into a trap,” Hatter said with a grin. He turned and started walking away, this time hearing the crunch of leaves as Alice followed. The forest was mostly quiet, save for a few bird calls. Hatter went over his plan, trying to see if there was anything else left to try. He had to admit that he was getting fairly desperate. It’d be a whole lot easier to think if he had a nice, hot cup of tea in his hands.

There was another roar, closer now, and Alice ran over to grab Hatter’s arm. “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah, you should find a tree you can climb.” Hatter scanned the area in front of them, looking for a sign of the beast. Once Alice was safely out of the way, he’d try to get its attention.

“What? Why?” Alice kept a strong grip on Hatter’s arm, trying to look everywhere at once.

“The trap we talked about? This is it. I’m the bait.” When he said it out loud, Hatter had to admit that it didn’t sound like the best plan. “Go.”

“Wait!” Alice called after him. “What is it? Tell me!”

Alice ran up and grabbed Hatter’s other arm, holding on with both hands. Hatter looked down at those hands, so small and delicate looking wrapped around the leather of his jacket, yet he knew there was power enough in them to flip a grown man flat on his back. His Oyster really was a study in contradictions.

“It’s a Jabberwock,” Hatter said. Alice dropped her hands and stared at him.

“What?”

“Alice, less of the questions. Just get going!” Hatter gave her a push in the right direction, trying to get a bead on the creature. But there was Alice, pulling on his arm again. Did she have to question everything?

“You’re going to lead this thing back to the posse?”

“Yes! After it gets a good look at me. Now could you just please go?” Hatter was getting frustrated. This plan, flimsy enough as it was, wouldn’t work at all if Alice didn’t get somewhere safe.

“That’s your plan?” There was the sarcasm again.

“If you don’t…” Hatter started to say, and the Jabberwock roared again. It was close, too close. He looked for it, then heard the creature’s heavy footsteps coming from the wrong direction. He and Alice turned at the same time, looking at each other for a moment with equal expressions of dismay on their faces. They turned completely round and there it was, huge and grey and looking right at them.

There was only one thing for Hatter to say. “Run.”

He took off running and could feel the ground shake from the heavy tread of the Jabberwock. It roared again, only this time it didn’t sound so close. Hatter shot a look over his shoulder, saw the tail end of the Jabberwock as it chased Alice deeper into the forest instead of in the direction of the posse. Hatter was exasperated. What else could go wrong?

“Not that way! Alice!” Hatter took off after his Oyster. So much for the plan. He hoped Alice could run fast enough in those boots of hers. Now he had to worry about her getting eaten by a Jabberwock. Hatter ran, as quickly as he could. He heard Alice cry out, and suddenly his heart was in his throat. Please don’t eat her!

Hatter saw the Jabberwock ahead. It seemed to be stuck between two trees. He ran around it, careful of the tail, and saw Alice on the ground, trying to dodge the biting head of the creature.

“Hey!” he called, trying to get its attention. The Jabberwock roared, and Hatter slammed his right hand into its eye. While it was distracted and honking in pain, Hatter pulled Alice up and dragged her behind him further into the forest.

“Come on!” He yelled. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Alice said breathlessly. Hatter ran, frequently looking over his shoulder to make sure Alice was following; he didn’t want to lose her again. It was working well, too, until the ground dropped out from under them and they fell. Hatter landed with a painful thud.

“Ow,” he groaned. He looked around, saw sharpened spikes sticking up out of the dirt. They were in some kind of pit. Hatter looked over at Alice, who was similarly sprawled on her back.

“You okay?” he asked her.

“Just about,” Alice gasped. Hatter saw how close she was to one of the spikes and felt his breath catch. Was this a day for almost-dying? Because that was already getting pretty old.

He started to get up, groaning. And then the Jabberwock was back; Hatter could hear its heavy footsteps approaching the pit. He lay back down.

“Stay still,” he whispered to Alice. He watched the Jabberwock’s head come over the pit, swinging around to try and get a look at them. It roared, incredibly loudly, and Hatter twitched in Alice’s direction as it made a move towards her. Finally, luck was on their side. The creature brought its mouth down on one of the spikes, impaling itself. It wailed, then pulled itself free and trundled away. Hatter breathed a sigh of relief and put his hand on his chest, willing his heart to stop beating so rapidly. It was the first time he’d ever seen a Jabberwock, and he hoped it was his last.

Hatter pulled himself up into a semi-seated position as Alice did the same. He was already trying to think of another plan – unless the Jabberwock decided to attack the posse on its own – when an angry voice called down to them from the edge of the pit.

“Vermin!”

Hatter and Alice looked up, startled. A man in white armor and chain mail stood there, fairly quivering with rage as he looked at them.

“Saboteurs! Anarchists! I was this close to catching him!” The man held his hands apart, adjusted the space between them. “This close! Degenerate bagheads.”

Hatter sighed. What else was going to go wrong today? Not for the first time, he wished he’d just sent Ratty away before he’d brought Alice back to his office. His life would have been a whole lot less complicated that way.

He got to his feet, helped Alice get to hers. They both climbed out of the pit, and the man in the white armor continued his verbal assault; the white, curling beard on his chin fairly quivered with the force of his anger.

“Subverters! Pig pussyflecks! Bug bashers!”

Hatter could only stare, trying to assess what kind of danger this crazy man posed. Alice, naturally, got right to the point.

“Who the hell are you?”

The man pulled himself up and strode towards them with a clank of metal. “I am a knight. The White Knight, to be precise. Sir Charles Eustace Forthringay le Malvois the Third.”

Whatever kind of reception he was expecting, the knight received only incredulous stares from Hatter and Alice. With a regal look, he said, “And who…are you?”

Hatter wasn’t feeling particularly forthcoming with his own identity; not everyone who knew him thought highly of him, as Dodo had demonstrated. His Oyster was a little friendlier.

“I’m…” and here she paused. “Alice.”

“Alice?” the knight asked. He moved forward. “The Alice? The Alice?”

“No,” Alice replied. “Just…Alice.”

“Just Alice,” the knight repeated. He seemed to ponder that for a moment. Hatter stepped forward.

“I thought all you guys were wiped out years ago.” Okay, that probably could’ve been put more tactfully, but honestly…a Knight? After all these years?

The knight looked offended. “Well, you thought wrong. As you can see, I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog.”

“Are there any others like you?” Alice asked. Hatter had been wondering the same thing. Only the Knights would stand a chance against the Suits. He felt a flash of hope.

“Certainly not!” The knight walked back towards the pit. “I’m a one off. My Nan used to say, that if I was the only eligible bachelor left in the world there wasn’t a warthog or wallflower who’d polish my escutcheon.” He laughed at his own joke.

“No, I meant are there any other knights in these woods. Um…your comrades in arms.”

“Heavens, no! Are you mad? We were all wiped out years ago.” The knight chuckled, his shovel over his shoulder. Hatter just stared at him.

“You dug that pit on your own?” Incredible. The knight threw down his shovel, angry once again.

“You think I’m too old? Well, let me tell you something nug face!” The knight forced them backwards as he strode purposefully forward, waving his finger at them. “Youth is vastly overrated. I may have put on a few years but I’m crafty. I’ve a very inventive and calculating mind, stacked high with ground breaking, state of the art ideas. I invent all sorts of things. The beehive mousetrap, for instance.”

The knight smirked at them, then gestured back to the pit. “This here pit, as you so rudely call it, is in fact my third attempt at the Gravity Assisted Snare Mark IV.” He abruptly turned away, as if hearing something no-one else could.

“He’s mad as a box of frogs,” Hatter said. “How the hell have you survived?”

The knight turned in a circle, stopped, and looked at Hatter. “Hmm? Oh, yes. I’m a knight.” As if that explained everything. “And I’m an inventor, as I said, though if I’m honest it’s strictly on a part time basis.”

“You don’t say,” Hatter replied. He looked the knight over, taking in his dented, patched up armor.

“And I dabble in the Black Arts, now and then. Soothsaying. Toenail readings. That sort of thing.” He proved to be a bit of a showman himself, throwing in hand gestures and lowering his voice dramatically. “Here, let me show you. Give me your palm.”

He grabbed Alice’s ring hand.

“Get off,” Alice said, pulling her hand back.

“What’s that on your finger?” the knight asked, his eyes shining. Hatter moved to put himself between the knight and Alice, just in case.

“Nothing,” Alice said. As Hatter suspected, it wasn’t that easy to put off the old man.

“It’s the sacred ring,” the knight said. He looked starstruck. “The Stone of Wonderland. Our ring.”

“Don’t get too excited granddad,” Hatter said, putting a hand on the knight’s shoulder. “The ring stays on the lady’s finger. Okay?”

Hatter expected an argument, but the knight turned and sank to his knees, moaning.

“It’s meant to be!” the knight said, clasping his hands as if in prayer. “This time. This place. This meeting in the woods…”

“Okay,” Hatter said. “We need to get away from him before he gets us killed.” He pulled Alice away, but she stopped him.

“Look, maybe he can help us,” she said.

“Have you forgotten about the weirdo that’s tailing us?” Hatter asked her. “This…freakshow is going to draw his attention for sure!”

“This knight has survived out here for this long, maybe he knows a thing or two.” Alice walked back over the kneeling knight. This was going to end badly, Hatter could feel it.

“Listen, Charlie, we have some very bad men following us who want to kill us and steal the ring. Do you know anywhere we can lay low for awhile?”

Hatter listened to her, rolling his eyes. This was never going to work. To prove his point the knight responded with, “The stars are aligned in a cosmic ray of hope!”

“And you want to put your faith in him?” Hatter felt hurt. Hadn’t he already proven he had Alice’s best interests in mind? Why would she trust a perfect – and perfectly daft – stranger to help them? He was doing the best he could.

“Yes!” Alice went back to Hatter. “He might be nuts, and a hundred and fifty years old and dressed like a car crash, but he’s a survivor.”

“And I’m not deaf!” The knight, seemingly returned to lucidity, got to his feet. “Just Alice. I, Sir Charles Eustace Forthringay le Malvois the Third, White Knight and Guardian of the Curtsey…”

“Ooh, there it is,” Hatter said as the knight bent his knees.

“…will be honored to escort you, your goods…and…vassal…to my sacred kingdom.”

Hatter turned to Alice. “Did he just call me a vessel?”

The knight grunted, and Hatter turned to see that he was stuck halfway through the bow he’d been making to Alice. He gestured Hatter over with a hand.

“Quickly, quickly. Sacroiliac.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.” Hatter sighed. They were doomed. He walked over to knight.

“Straighten. Straighten. Straighten. Hard. Hard.”

Hatter pulled the knight upright and watched him walk away, back to being regal. He just stared, incredulous. This was turning out to be one of the longest days in his life. Alice just grinned and followed the knight to where he kept his horses.

Chapter Text

Hatter and Alice shared a horse, riding behind Charlie and pulling some sort of contraption that the inventor knight had created. As if by magic – and who’s to say it wasn’t – their tracks were wiped clean away and fresh grass sprouted. Hatter felt a begrudging respect for Charlie. He may be crazy, but he was brilliant too.

“It even works over mud,” he said to Alice. “It’s wiped the tracks clean away. Maybe Senile Sam does have a trick or two up his…escutcheon.”

Hatter and Alice shared a grin, and again he had that feeling of companionship with her. They’d been on the run quite a bit today, and Hatter felt they were bonding over their common experience of being afraid for their lives. Not the best way to begin a friendship, perhaps, but Hatter felt the smile still on his face as he turned back around.

“You comfy?” he asked Alice. She clearly was not, sitting up behind him and holding on the rope that held Charlie’s contraption.

“No,” she said, shifting behind him. “Of course not.”

“Why don’t you just lean forward, put your arms around my waist, and let my body take the weight.”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Alice hastened to say. Hatter’s grin grew wider. Was he making his Oyster a wee bit nervous? They rode on in silence for a bit, Charlie singing some inane song as they went along.

“Can I ask you a question?” Alice asked abruptly.

Hatter grunted in reply.

“Why was that woman afraid of your hand? Back at the Library?”

Hatter chuckled. “Owl’s afraid of just about everything.”

“But I saw you,” Alice insisted. “You punched that post. It was made out of marble or something, but you cracked it. And you hit the Jabberwocky in the eye. You hurt it.”

“Jabberwock,” Hatter corrected.

“Hatter…”

“It’s nothing, really.” Hatter didn’t want to talk about this, but his Oyster was too stubborn to let it go.

“Tell me,” Alice said. And whether by accident or as an inducement to talking, she leaned forward a bit and put her hands lightly on his hips.

“It was a gift from the Queen,” Hatter said with a sigh. “Not to brag, but my Tea Shop is the most prosperous in Wonderland. And that’s with me skimming off for the Resistance.”

Alice leaned closer, pressing herself against Hatter’s back, and he relished the feel of her there, warm and solid. “I don’t understand. How could the Queen give you that…what is it…power in your hand?”

“There’s a man called Carpenter, he works at the Casino. Kind of a research and development guy, yeah? He perfected the system that drains the Oysters and distills the Teas. He gave me an injection in my right arm; it burned like fire for days. And when the burning stopped, my hand had so much power to it I could smash rock.”

“What kind of gift is that?” Alice asked. Hatter shrugged.

“The Queen thought it might be useful, for protecting the Shop. I only had to demonstrate it once or twice, and word got round as it always does. People are scared of it, so they mostly leave me alone.”

“Is that why you can’t fight?”

“Oi! I can fight!” Hatter stiffened up at this blow to his manhood. Alice only laughed.

“I’ve seen you in action, Hatter. You rely too much on that hand. A few martial arts classes would do you good.”

Hatter couldn’t help remembering that it was Alice that saved him being beaten to death by Dodo. “Well, it’s worked for me up till now,” he grumbled.

Alice sat back, holding on once more to the rope instead of Hatter. He sent up another sigh at the loss of her warmth on his back. He was glad that Alice wasn’t afraid of his so-called sledgehammer, like so many others in Wonderland were. His “demonstrations” had really been entirely accidental, because it took him quite a while to get used to how the new hand worked. A smashed table here, a busted jaw there, and the story had spread like wildfire. Some of the tea-head girls were too afraid to come near him after that, but there were another lot of them that were fascinated. All-in-all, it had served him pretty well through the years.

Hatter came out of his reverie to see that Charlie had stopped ahead. As Hatter and Alice drew up to him, he pulled back a screen of hanging moss and revealed their destination.

“Welcome. To the Kingdom of the Knights.”

Hatter and Alice stared. In the distance they could see what looked like giant white chess pieces amongst draping greenery and crumbled buildings made of white stone.

“Well, well,” Hatter said to himself. “What do you know?”

He’d heard stories of the Kingdom of the Knights since he was a boy. It was also called the Lost Kingdom, destroyed by the Queen. It had been the last bastion of goodness, once upon a time.

None of them spoke as Charlie led them closer to the deserted city. Hatter couldn’t help but feel dismayed at the destruction he saw. From the stories, he knew this Kingdom had once been a shining example for all of Wonderland. Becoming a Knight had been a much sought-after occupation, and only the best were accepted into the ranks. Now it was nothing but tumbled stone. It made him feel strange; he’d seen how bad things were in Wonderland City, but it took coming out here to the middle of nowhere to fully appreciate all that the Queen had wrought. So much death and destruction in one place, it was horrible to contemplate. And suddenly, for the first time in his life, he wanted to be really and truly involved in changing things. It was a big, scary feeling.

At Charlie’s signal, they dismounted the horses, and set them out to graze after removing their tack. Charlie led them down a path right into the heart of the Kingdom, explaining for Alice.

“Before the war with the Queen of Hearts, this was once the greatest city in the realm. The Red King and his elected council ruled Wonderland with the wisdom of the ages.”

“And the Hearts destroyed everything?” Alice asked, taking it all in.

“We lived in harmony for a thousand years,” Charlie continued. “But when the Queen came to power, she just wanted to feel the good. Not the bad.”

Hatter shared a look with Alice. That was an enigmatic statement, to be sure. But Charlie kept walking and talking, and they followed.

“Believe it or not, this was once the Throne Room.” The area had been taken over by the forest, some remnants of the stone walls all that remained. “Sadly, all that’s left now…is the throne.”

Hatter stared. The skeleton of the Red King still sat upon the throne, wearing his crown and clutching his sword in his bony fingers. There was something immeasurably creepy about that, particularly since all evidence pointed to the throne room being Charlie’s base camp.

Suddenly Charlie was full of energy. “Dusk is falling, lots to do!” He scurried off with a clank of metal. Alice and Hatter looked at each other, suddenly at a loss for what to do. Hatter hoped they were safe here; he didn’t have the energy for any more cutting and running today. Alice, who had been through even more, was starting to look particularly weary.

“Here.” Hatter cleared off a barrel. “Take a rest. I’ll go help.”

Alice stood there, looking like she was ready to argue. Hatter put up his hands to stop her.

“You won’t be good to anyone without some rest. Please.”

Hatter watched Alice’s mouth twitch up into a partial grin. “I suppose you’re right.”

Finally! Hatter almost cheered when Alice did what he asked her to do. He left her sitting on the barrel while he went off to find Charlie and, with any luck, some food. He would’ve sold his soul for a nice, hot cup of tea. And maybe a biscuit or two.

Chapter Text

Hatter and Alice sat by Charlie’s campfire. Alice was finishing up her dinner, while Hatter pushed his around his plate. There was so much to think about, lots of planning to do. The morning would come soon enough, and Hatter was trying to work out the best way for him and Alice to proceed. He was also trying to process some of the new feelings that had been coursing through him all day.

Charlie had chattered away for most of the evening, telling Alice a little more about the Knights and explaining some of his inventions – like the complex set-up he had that kept a bellows blowing on the campfire. Hatter had found himself watching Alice; the way she smiled at Charlie when he was going on and on; the thoughtful look she’d get when she was considering something new. She was really quite lovely, for an Oyster.

Once Charlie had run out of things to talk about, there was only the crackle of the fire to break the silence. Hatter didn’t mind it; it was easier to think with less distractions. Not that Alice had to say anything to be distracting, he though ruefully.

“This is good Charlie,” Alice said. She held a long rib in her hands. “What was it?”

“Barbequed borogove. They’re the devil to catch, but well worth the trouble. Don’t you think?”

Hatter grinned at Alice. She’d been so hungry she didn’t care what she ate. Alice was absolutely fearless, except about heights, and Hatter continued to marvel at his Oyster. She was truly one of a kind.

Alice looked down at the rib and shrugged. “When in Rome…” She threw it near the fire and licked her fingers clean.

“Shan’t be long,” Charlie said, and he scooted off leaving Hatter and Alice alone by the fire. Alice was the first to break the silence.

“What I want to know is how we’re going to cut a deal with the White Rabbit. Is it really possible?”

Hatter grinned, feeling theatrical again. “I know a girl. Carlotta St. Delaware.” He smiled wider, picturing the lovely Carlotta in his mind, but Alice just stared at him. “Who dates this guy, who used to play cards with a rich kid, who once studied law with an electrician, who works part time with one of the technical staff.”

Alice did not look amused. Hatter couldn’t blame her. It was another pretty flimsy plan. He stabbed his knife into his plate and stood.

“I did say it was a long shot.” He walked to the other side of the fire. “But as long as you’ve got that ring, you’ve got a chance.”

Once again Alice picked up on the nuances of the conversation. Hatter sometimes felt she missed nothing, and yet at other times she seemed to miss everything.

“You. What happened to we?” She stood as well, so that they faced each other over the campfire. Hatter briefly wished for Charlie to come and distract Alice, but of course the knight was never where he was wanted. Hatter took a deep breath, hoping she would understand.

“I can’t leave, Alice. Wonderland’s my home. I can’t just abandon it, despite what I said. I have to stay and fight.”

“What?” Alice looked at him incredulously. Hatter didn’t blame her for that, he felt the same way to be honest. But he’d had a change of heart out here in the woods, for better or worse. He knew he had to be imagining the brief flash of disappointment that crossed Alice’s face.

“Seeing all this. Look. This great kingdom, and what’s become of it. It’s a wake-up call to be honest.” He came back around the fire. “My people, I mean the hundreds of refugees that are all hiding, underground, they’re all counting on me.”

“Didn’t that Dodo guy say he was going to have you hunted down and killed?” And was that concern? Concern for his well-being?

“Yup,” Hatter said, aiming for nonchalance. “But I’m thinking if I turn up with the ring he might forgive me.”

There was no mistaking the emotion on Alice’s face now. Disappointment. Hatter knew she felt proprietary about the ring, but surely she could understand how he needed it. Once again, he was wrong.

“So that’s what this was about,” she said. Like he’d been planning this all along.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get you home safe and sound first.” Which had only ever been what he’d been trying to do. It hurt, really hurt, that Alice thought he was pulling some kind of con on her. Not after all they’d been through today. His Oyster was incredibly untrusting.

“And Jack?” Alice asked. Hatter turned away. Jack. Bloody Jack. She hadn’t mentioned him in hours and now here he was again. Hatter turned back round.

“You have to forget about Jack.” What had he done to deserve this level of loyalty? Hatter wondered. “We’ll never get him out of the Casino alive and trying is only going to set off alarm bells. It will make your escape impossible!”

“Okay, so you were just leading me on back there.” Alice cleared off a seat and sat down in front of the fire.

“Just believe me! It’ll be suicide.”

Alice ignored him. She sat down and fixed her angry gaze at the fire. Hatter watched her for a moment, the way the light flickered across her skin and made her eyes shine. With a heavy feeling in his chest, he wondered why she couldn’t put her faith in him like she did Jack and Charlie.

“Jack’s a lucky guy,” he murmured to himself. Alice looked up at him sharply.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Hatter sighed. “Look, it’s late. And we all need our…rest. We can…argue about this tomorrow. Yeah?”

Alice steadfastly refused to look at him. Hatter sighed again and walked away from the fire, pulling his hat off as he went. Charlie had set Alice up with an actual bed, but Hatter had to make do on his own. He found a spot next to the gate where he could prop himself up and watched Alice. She sat in front of the fire for another half hour, occasionally picking up pebbles to toss into it.

Hatter could only imagine what must be running through Alice’s mind. She’d seen so many strange things today, things that just didn’t exist in the Oyster world. She’d been held at gunpoint, chased by a Jabberwock, pursued by Suits – all so she could rescue her boyfriend. Hatter had to fight the urge to go to her, put his arm around her and tell her everything was going to be okay. They’d both know it was a lie.

Finally, Alice went to bed and Hatter was able to close his eyes. He was tired – so very tired. Physically, mentally…even emotionally. He’d felt more emotions in one day than he had in years. He tried to think of what he could tell his Oyster in the morning to get her to see reason. She needed to go home. Jack was a loss, as far as he was concerned. By now he’d be on the Game Room floor, having his emotions drained out of him until he was a hollow shell. He couldn’t bear the thought of Alice suffering the same fate.

*o*o*o*

Hatter was rudely awakened the following morning by a squawking crow, one that Charlie kept in a cage. He stood and winced at the stiffness in his joints from sleeping sitting up all night.

“What was that?” he asked Charlie.

“That’s the early warning system. Someone has broken through the perimeter!”

Hatter looked over at Alice’s bed, saw it was empty.

“Where’s Alice?” he asked, panicking. Charlie merely babbled and ran around wielding a ladle.

“Battle stations! Sound the order of the seraphim!”

A flash of plum velvet caught his eye and he looked over to see Alice’s coat hung up on a ladder. Hatter understood instantly what that meant. She’d left, on her own, with the Glow out for anyone to see. She was trying to get caught! Panic was replaced by cold fear, and for a moment he thought he’d choke on it.

“No,” he said. “No!”

Stupid, stubborn Oyster! Did she have a death wish? Hatter cursed Jack, and hoped he was rotting in hell. Whatever kind of man he was, and Hatter wasn’t thinking of him too highly at the moment, he was completely undeserving of Alice.

“I need a horse,” Hatter said to Charlie. He had no choice. He had to go after her.

Charlie trailed along behind, pestering him while he saddled Guinevere.

“Which way should we go?” Charlie asked, still dressed in his skivvies.

“You don’t have to come, Charlie,” Hatter said. “This isn’t your fight.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong! You led the Alice of Legend to me for a reason. Call it what you will. Divinity. Fate. An alignment of forces beyond mortal understanding. In time you’ll see that I’m the true paladin here, and you are merely a harbinger.”

Hatter listened with half an ear. He was considering and discarding several plans as he made ready to leave. There were too many variables to consider, and his unrelenting sense of panic wasn’t helping at all.

“Besides,” Charlie continued. “You’ll never find her without my help. Remember, I’m also well versed in the…Black Arts.”

As always, Charlie used a low, growly voice for that last bit. “We shall be guided by my psychic connection to the mysterious sinews that bind mankind to the outer realm.”

Charlie made a choking, gasping noise and put his fingers to his temples. “Galadoon…tapoosh.”

Hatter mounted up and started to ride away, ignoring Charlie’s theatrics.

“You’re going the wrong way, Harbinger.”

Hatter turned to look at him.

“We should go West,” Charlie said, his voice clear and certain.

“You go West. I’m going East.”

“Wh…why?” Charlie asked, his certainty gone.

“She’s gone to the Heart’s Casino,” Hatter said. He spurred the horse on and rode away.

“But that’s certain death,” he heard Charlie say. His heart clenched at the thought. Charlie was right, of course. Alice had no idea what she was walking into. As bad as the posse was, the Queen was infinitely worse. Alice having the Stone of Wonderland meant the Looking Glass was inoperable, which had surely already set the Queen in a foul mood. To have it stolen by an Oyster? It would be instant execution.

Hatter snapped out of his reverie when he heard the sound of hooves behind him. He openly gaped at the sight of Charlie, in full battle armor, riding up beside him.

“How did you get dressed so fast?”

“I’m a knight,” Charlie replied. He moved into the lead position. “Follow me, Harbinger. I know a short cut.”

Chapter Text

Hatter and Charlie arrived at the Casino after a very long ride, and no sign of Alice along the way. Hatter had been there once or twice over the years, so he at least had a passing knowledge of the layout. They dismounted and left the horses. Charlie assured him that if anything happened, the horses knew their way back to the camp.

They headed for one of the utility entrances, used by the lower-level staff. Hatter knocked on the door, working on a new plan off the cuff. He motioned Charlie to stay behind him and be quiet. The door opened on a clean-cut Spade wearing a shoulder holster.

“Hi,” Hatter said, smiling what he hoped was an innocuous smile.

“Who the hell are you?”

“We’re the new act. Robinson and…Duckworth. He’s Robinson,” Hatter gestured at Charlie. “I’m Duckworth. We’re guardians to the mesmeric portals of the cosmos.”

“Huh?” The Spade looked baffled.

“Stage hypnotists,” Hatter explained.

“This is good fun!” Charlie mumbled happily behind him. Hatter willed him to be quiet, even as he laughed for the Spade’s benefit.

“He means the act. It’s good fun…when we do it.” For effect, Hatter flipped his hat up in the air and waited, never taking his eyes off the Spade. Several seconds later the hat plopped back on his head.

The Spade turned to talk to someone inside the door. “Got clearance for stage hypnotists?”

The jig was up. Hatter flexed his right hand, whistled to get the Spade’s attention back, and let his fist fly. The Spade went down like a sack of onions, and Hatter moved inside to similarly dispatch his co-worker before he could raise the alarm. Once he and Charlie got through that, they were inside the Casino and if anyone thought that they didn’t belong, no-one said any different. Hatter thought they relied too much on door security here, though he was in no position to complain.

They went up a flight of stairs and found themselves in a long, white hallway. Hatter took a quick look around, politely greeting the wandering Diamonds in their little dresses. The only dress he wanted to see was blue. Charlie, who had never been inside the Casino, was agog. Hatter ducked his head as a group of Suits walked by.

“Well, we’re in. But we don’t have much time. We should split up and search intermediate floors.”

“Why?” Charlie asked. Hatter sighed. It was like talking to a small child sometimes.

“Why? Because we don’t know where she is.”

“I shall reach into the mist to lift the heavy veil that shrouds the oracle.” Charlie put his fingers to his temples and began making that groaning noise again. Hatter just stared at him. Was he seriously doing this now?

“Galadoon...tapoosh…”

“What are you doing?” Besides drawing unwanted attention.

Charlie gasped, then pointed down the hall. “Down here. Take the second left at the stairs that lead up to the third floor then after the double doors take the third walkway on the right over the Fitness Center to Reception B and ask Sheila!”

“Sheila?”

“Maybe it’s…Shakina. Come on!” Charlie walked purposefully down the hall, Hatter staring dumbly after him. After a moment he followed. What could it hurt?

They followed Charlie’s directions from the oracle, and quickly found their way to Reception B and Sheila. She was a pert little Diamond who didn’t bat an eye when Hatter and Charlie appeared in front of her desk.

“How may I direct you?”

And now Hatter was at a loss. What was he supposed to ask? Where’s the Queen keeping Alice? Where are all the Oysters? Luckily, Charlie’s link to the otherworld seemed to still be in place.

“We are looking for the Truth Room,” Charlie said, making it sound like they had every right to do so. Hatter held his breath.

“Certainly. Just follow this corridor to the end, make a left, and the Truth Room will be the fourth door on the right. The Doctors are with someone now, but they should be freed up in the next hour or so.”

“Thank you, Lady Sheila.” Charlie bowed over her hand, making her giggle. Hatter hurried him along. He didn’t like the sound of this Truth Room, and he was sickeningly afraid that he’d heard of the Doctors that Sheila had mentioned. Demented twins, some said, who could crawl right inside your head and find your deepest fears. He hoped he wasn’t too late to help Alice.

“Here, Harbinger.” Charlie pointed out the fourth door on the right, which looked like every other door in the hall. Except that when he opened it and stepped through, there was a brief bit of resistance, like an invisible wall. When he crossed the threshold, he found himself in a room that looked far from an office; it looked more like someone’s home. Hatter poked around until he came to a set of sliding wood doors. He slid them open and stopped himself at the last minute from stepping through, which was a good thing because the floor there was completely gone – there was just a deep hole that seemed to be bottomless.

“Hatter!”

And there, across the gaping void in the floor, was his Oyster. She was standing on the tiniest ledge, with a desk somehow floating in front of her, and terror was written large across her face. Two enormous faces looked in at them from the windows.

“Who’s that?” one face growled.

“Go away!” shouted the other. “This is a private session!”

“Jump!” Hatter said, holding out his hand. For a moment, he was worried that Alice’s fear of heights would keep her from coming to him. If she didn’t jump, he wasn’t sure he’d have time to go across himself and get her before reinforcements arrived. His panic instantly amped up.

“Get rid of him!” one of the faces yelled.

Alice got up on the desk, took a deep breath, and dove for the light fixture that hung over the endless hole in the floor. She swung on that over to the door where Hatter waited to catch her in his arms. He couldn’t believe she did it! From the look of astonishment on her face, she couldn’t either. Some fears were bigger than others, apparently.

“How did you get in here?” Alice asked. Hatter held his hands up.

“I don’t know. Ask Charlie.”

The knight was right now poking along a wall, which was hung with photographs.

“Believe it or not,” Charlie muttered. “We’re in your head.”

“What?”

“Don’t ask,” Hatter said.

“Sound the alarm!” one face shouted.

“Call the guard!” shouted the other.

Charlie reached out his arms and gently pushed on the wall. A door sprung open there, leading back to the hallway. He stood aside, letting Hatter and Alice run through before following them. They ran down the hall, back past Sheila in Reception B, and down the stairs, trying to retrace their way out of the Casino. When they reached the main level there were Suits everywhere, all of which seemed to know they weren’t supposed to be there and started to chase them.

A bell dinged, and an elevator car fortuitously opened up right in front of them. They all three ran in, Hatter keeping the Suits out until they could get the door closed. While they all tried to catch their breath, Hatter pushed the button that would take them all the way up to the top of the Casino.

“Up? Why up?” Alice demanded.

“Do we have a choice?” Hatter asked. Had she not seen all the Suits they just left behind? Going up would take them by surprise, and they needed every ounce of that they could get.

“Alice of Legend,” Charlie said. “Your presence in this world is no accident. You are here for a reason.”

“Please, Charlie, it’s just plain Alice.”

“Just Plain Alice, I will stand at your side. Shoulder to shoulder. Knee to…”

Hatter couldn’t listen to another word of this. “Charlie, now’s not such a good time.”

“You guys shouldn’t have come. You could get yourselves killed.”

“Did you give the ring up, Alice?” Hatter needed to know. Without it, Alice could never get home, assuming they could actually locate the Looking Glass.

“Look, I have things under control,” Alice insisted.

“You tried to cut a deal with the Queen, didn’t you?”

“I was getting close.” Close? Ha! His Oyster was clearly delusional.

“Getting close? Maybe I’m wrong but negotiations didn’t appear to be going so well.”

“I need more time.”

“For what? Do you really think the Queen is just going to send you and your boyfriend home?” Hatter was at the end of his rope. There was no way to get through to her.

“No.”

“No, of course not!” Hatter said, glad they were agreed about that at least.

“Because he’s her son.” Alice’s bombshell was met with a moment of silence. Hatter shared a look of disbelief with Charlie.

“The Prince? Jack Heart? Jack Heart is your boyfriend!”

Well, that explains how he got the ring. It was the only thought Hatter had on the subject before the bell dinged and the elevator doors slid open to the roof of the Casino. There were two Suits up there, Aces, and Hatter made a beeline for them. He really felt like punching someone. The first one ducked his wild swing, and the other dodged back out of the way. Hatter faced off against the second Ace, hoping that Alice and Charlie could hold off the other.

As usual, his fighting style lacked in some areas. The Ace got off a few lucky punches, and Hatter could taste blood at the corner of his mouth. The Ace got him by the throat and tried to push him off the ledge. Hatter finally got a punch in and used his right hand to wrench the Ace’s head. After that it was merely a matter of retrieving his hat and waiting for the Ace to turn round so that he could knock him out.

Hatter flipped his hat back on and turned to face the other Ace, but he was too late. “Bow to the hand of Diocles.” Charlie dispatched him with a fist to the top of the head, though Hatter was sure that most of the damage had been done by Alice. His Oyster was tough; he’d seen it with his own eyes.

“What now?” Alice asked him. Never at a loss, Hatter cast about for a second or two and spotted the motorized Flamingoes perched on the edge of roof.

“We get on one of those,” he said, pointing. “Get on.”

Charlie was beside himself with joy. “Articulated birds of the Imperion! What genius!”

Charlie had already climbed aboard one before Hatter did the same.

“These things fly?”

“We don’t have time to think, Alice. Just get on.” Ignoring him, Alice went to the edge of the roof and looked down.

“I am not getting on that,” she said.

“You don’t have another choice.” Now was not the time for her fear of heights. Didn’t she just leap a chasm moments ago?

“You don’t understand. I’m not getting on that,” Alice repeated. Hatter could see the fear in her eyes.

“It’s perfectly safe,” he said. Alice glared at him.

“Safe-ish,” he amended. He could feel their window of opportunity closing and it made him panicky.

“I have a thing about flying,” Alice said desperately. Just then two Suits appeared at the far end of the roof, guns out and firing.

“Oh, yeah? Well, I have a thing about bullets!”

Alice looked between the Suits and the edge of the roof, clearly not swayed.

“Look, I’ll do the flying. All you have to do is hold on.”

Alice looked back at the Suits, who were starting to get close enough to hit one of them with their gunfire.

“Look at me,” Hatter said. Alice’s wild eyes swung back to him. “I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t think you’d be okay.”

It was the truth and he willed her to believe it. To believe him. Especially when their lives were on the line. Alice took several deep breaths, then nodded and climbed on behind him. Hatter let out the breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding.

“How do you get it to fly?” Charlie pondered aloud. With a tentative finger, he pushed a red button. The Flamingo instantly took off, Charlie yelling and holding on to the neck for dear life.

“Like that, I suppose,” Hatter said. He watched Charlie zoom away.

“That’s fast,” Alice said. Hatter could hear the fear in her voice.

“Oh, yeah. Hold on.”

Hatter pushed the button and they practically leapt off the building, following Charlie as gunfire sounded behind them.

Chapter Text

Alice gasped and pressed herself against Hatter’s back, her arms gripping him tightly around the waist. Even as he felt his stomach drop at how high up they were, Hatter also felt a little blossom of happiness at Alice’s touch. Sure, it was only because she was afraid of falling, but for a moment he let himself just enjoy it. Until he remembered Jack Heart.

The bloody Prince. How was he supposed to compete with that? Well, he couldn’t, obviously. Whatever connections he had as a Tea seller and a periphery member of the Resistance were nothing compared to what Jack Heart had. Still…Alice hadn’t known who he was, or she’d have asked for the prince straight off. So for whatever reason, Jack was lying to her. And he, Hatter, was not. That had to count for something. Still, what did an intelligent Oyster like Alice see in that pompous, arrogant ass?

“I suppose it’s his lofty airs and graces,” he said sarcastically. How could Alice have been attracted to that git?

“He doesn’t have airs and graces,” Alice replied.

“Really? Well what then?”

“Look, just shut up and drive.”

Hatter looked back at her, but all he saw was blowing hair and one baleful blue eye. He knew the better question was why Jack had given Alice the Stone of Wonderland in the first place. He was certain, as soon as he had the thought, that he didn’t want to know the answer after all.

“We are angels!” Charlie called over the noise of the engines and the wind. “The wind and clouds at our command! Oh, heavenly joy!”

Hatter almost had to smile watching the knight, but the moment was broken by the sound of gunfire. He looked back over his shoulder and saw they were being pursued by two Suits with very large guns.

“Aces!”

Hatter tried to urge the Flamingo to go faster. He had visions of Alice, shot in the back and falling into the lake below. He had a very bad feeling about this, and he was right – the Aces shot something vital on Charlie’s Flamingo and it began a steep dive.

“I’m going down!” Charlie yelled, his Flamingo belching black smoke.

“No!” Alice screamed.

“Charlie!” Hatter watched as the Flamingo entered the water with a great splash. Not good, so not good. The Aces kept firing.

“Alice, hold on!” Hatter yelled back to her. It was inevitable that they would be joining Charlie. Alice tightened her grip, and Hatter felt her press her face against his back. She’d never get over her fear of heights if this kept up, he thought, then there was one more shot and their Flamingo started to fall.

Alice screamed, and Hatter couldn’t stop himself from yelling right along with her. They were going too fast! He threw his arm out, trying to get some drag to slow them up, even just a little, before they hit the water. It was a hard hit, and Hatter felt Alice being wrenched away from him by the force of it. He kicked up to the surface, looked around frantically for Alice. No sign of her. Taking a deep breath, Hatter ducked down under the water again, looking through the murky water for her.

A bit of blue flashed off to his left. He turned and saw her sinking slowly below him, her arms outstretched. No! Hatter swam and grabbed on to one booted foot. He pulled until he had her leg, then her arm, and swam for the surface. Hatter gasped for air and pulled Alice up against him with one arm while he treaded water. She started to choke and cough, and he briefly closed his eyes in relief.

“Hatter…” she spluttered.

“It’s okay. We’re okay.” Hatter saw the Aces heading back for the Casino. It was lucky they hadn’t been spotted. He quickly looked round, but he saw no sign of Charlie. He thought about all the armor the old man wore and imagined it had pulled him right under. Poor, daft old Charlie.

“Charlie, where’s Charlie?” Alice asked, echoing his thoughts.

“I don’t know. We have to swim for shore. Can you make it?” Hatter looked in Alice’s eyes, saw the fear that was still lurking there. But the determination was stronger and for once he applauded it. He let her go, watched until her strokes got stronger, then followed along behind. He wasn’t a very strong swimmer, but he’d taught himself years ago because a man in his occupation needed every advantage.

When Alice and Hatter finally reached the rocky shore, they pulled themselves up and lay there for a moment, gasping like landed fish. Would he never have a nice, quiet day with his Oyster? Hatter chuckled, then coughed.

“Hatter…” Alice flung out her hand, and Hatter was surprised to see her clutching his hat. He took it from her, shaking the water out of it.

“Well, now, that’s a relief.”

“We have to find Charlie,” Alice said. She dragged herself to her feet, her little blue dress once again drenched. Hatter decided he liked the look of her all sodden and dripping. He didn’t want to dash her hopes, but he knew they’d never find Charlie.

They started walking, Hatter holding his wet hat in his hand.

“Charlie?” Alice called.

“If he’d made it there should be some tracks,” Hatter pointed out.

“Charlie!”

“We’re sitting ducks on this beach.” Hatter kept an eye to the skies, looking for Flamingoes. “Where’s the ring?”

“Safe.”

“Where?” Hatter asked, but Alice didn’t answer. He was astounded. “You still don’t trust me, after I just…I risked my neck getting you out of there!”

“Why did you risk your neck?” Alice asked. Did she have the actual nerve to sound suspicious of him? Hatter was angry. Angry and disappointed.

“Unbelievable! Why are you being so ungrateful?”

“Look, I don’t blame you. Your people need you and the ring may make all the difference.”

“Is that why you think I did this? So I could get my hands on the ring.” It hurt him, more than he thought possible, to know how little she regarded him. He was an emotional wreck thanks to her, and where was her heartfelt gratitude? Would it have killed her to simply say thanks?

“Look, I respect that. It shows that you’re a man of integrity after all, but first I need to use it to get my father out.”

That was the last thing he was expecting her to say. “Your father?”

“He’s here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Jack slipped me his watch.” Alice pulled it out of her pocket and turned it over to read the inscription on the back. “RH. Robert Hamilton. I remember this watch. I mean, it’s his for sure. Look, it’s stuck on the exact date and time that he disappeared. Look. March 23rd. He’s in the Casino somewhere.”

Hatter saw the light in her eyes, the happiness on her face, and it just made him angrier. Why couldn’t Alice see that Jack couldn’t be trusted? Why couldn’t she just trust him instead? He lashed out at her.

“He’s lying,” Hatter said, his voice venomous. He felt no victory when the smile slipped off of Alice’s face. She turned away from him, started walking again.

“You know, Jack took a big risk slipping this to me.”

“And you believe him,” Hatter said flatly.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because he’s lied to you about everything!”

“He had his reasons.”

“I’m stunned. Why are you even defending him?” Why him? Why not me?

“Because he’s trying to help me!”

“Really? Well let’s just think about that.” Hatter grabbed her arm, stopped her. Tried again to make her listen to reason when he knew it was futile. “He took the ring from his mother. He gave it to you. Why? It made you a target, Alice!”

“Well he wasn’t expecting me to follow him,” Alice argued. “I screwed up bringing the ring here.”

“And he blames you for that.”

“No!” Alice turned away again. “Not exactly.”

“Why is he even going around pretending to be someone else anyway?” Hatter gestured broadly with his hands, agitated and willing Alice to see Jack for what he was.

“Well, he’s hiding from them,” Alice said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know!” Alice screamed at him. Hatter stopped, taken aback by the anger in her voice. He hated this, hated fighting with her, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. All he’d done for the last two days was try to help her, try to keep her safe, and still she didn’t trust him. She could believe in the biggest liar in Wonderland, but not in him.

Hatter looked at her, ready to launch another volley, but something in her expression stopped him. There it was, finally. The hurt in her eyes.

“He’s engaged,” she murmured. “To a duchess.”

Despite everything, sympathy welled up in Hatter. The last few hours must have been horrible for her. Finding out that her boyfriend was not only someone else entirely, but also engaged. Then to dangle her father in front of her like a carrot…it was cruel. He’d love to get a minute alone with Jack Heart.

“So he’s two-timing you.” I would never do that. Never.

“I don’t think it’s like that.”

Hatter just shook his head. She was in so much denial. “And now, all of a sudden, he tells you that your father has been in the Casino all this time. Does that not seem a bit fishy?”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked. She looked at him defiantly.

“It’s not a coincidence.” Hatter said.

Anything else he was about to say was lost as a familiar refrain caught their ears.

“Hey, nonny nonny…the wind and the rain…”

“You hear that?” Alice asked, argument seemingly forgotten.

Hatter couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t believe it.”

They ran further up the beach, through some scrubby bushes, and there he was. Charlie, the White Knight, sitting in front of a little fire in his skivvies, his armor propped up on sticks.

“Charlie!” Alice cried.

“Thank goodness!” Charlie got up and hugged Alice. “I was just about to go back in the water to look for you.”

“Okay. All right.” Alice pushed at Charlie, trying to get him to release her from the lengthy hug. A spike of pure jealousy shot through Hatter. He wanted a hug like that. Why couldn’t Alice ever be that happy to see him? It wasn’t fair.

“How did you get ashore with all that armor on?” Hatter asked Charlie, stamping down his bitter feelings.

“I’m a knight,” Charlie said. “Besides, I invented a very useful little whirley majingamathing, which I can’t tell you about. It’s classified, patent pending. Very hush-hush, and that sort of thing.”

“We should get off this beach before we get spotted.” Hatter tried again to come up with a plan, one that Alice would go for. He figured that was going to be tricky. He was right.

“No.” One word, in a tone that brooked no arguments.

“No?” Hatter echoed, his mouth set in a grim line.

“Listen, guys, I’m really grateful for what you did, getting me out of the Casino, but I have to go back.”

This time even Charlie groaned.

“Why are you still hooked on Jack?” Hatter was so frustrated, he felt like a kettle on the boil; any minute steam would come out his ears.

“I told you, he was trying to help me.”

“Really? Cause it sounds to me like he was using you.”

“And you’re not?”

That was low. Hatter hated her in that moment. Hadn’t they been through enough together for her to know that wasn’t true? He tried to turn the focus off himself, tried to work on Alice’s sympathies.

“Don’t you care what’s happening here? All the people whose lives are getting ripped apart by the Queen.”

“Of course I do, I’m one of them.”

“Then give the Resistance a chance.”

“I met those guys already,” Alice said, backing up a step.

“One arm of the organization that was,” Hatter said. “If we get to the top man he’ll help us.”

“You know him?”

“Yes. No. Not exactly. Nobody knows his true identity, but he goes by a code name. Caterpillar.” Hatter looked at her imploringly. “Give me a few hours. I’ll slip back into the city and I’ll make contact. You can…you can stay with Charlie in the fortress. You’ll be safe there.”

Alice looked uncertain, even with Charlie agreeing to the plan.

“If I’m not back by nightfall do it your way.”

Hatter and Alice stared at each other for a long moment. She looked like she desperately wanted to believe him, but even she must’ve known he was grasping at straws.

“Okay,” Alice said finally. She helped Charlie gather up his armor, and they all made their way back to the place Hatter had stashed the boat, hoping that the Suits hadn’t scuttled it. Charlie led the way and Alice followed Hatter, all of her former fire seeming to have gone out of her.

“I knew it would happen,” Alice said softly, breaking the silence. Hatter stopped and looked back at her.

“You knew what would happen?”

“Jack.” Hatter could see her eyes shining with unshed tears. “I knew it was too good to be true. Just like always.”

“Alice…” Hatter couldn’t bear to see the pain in her eyes, but he didn’t know what to do.

“I thought, maybe this time…maybe it would last. But none of them ever do.” Alice shook herself, took a deep breath, and started up walking again. Hatter watched her go. He wished he could tell her that he knew just what she meant, that they had more in common then she knew. Of course, he was never looking for a lasting relationship; it just wasn’t practical for him. But he knew what it was to be disappointed in people. He knew what it was to want more.

In the end, he said nothing. Just caught her up and walked beside her. And that was fine. They shared a not completely uncomfortable silence while Charlie sang his never-ending song ahead of them. All too soon they reached Hatter’s boat – still in one piece and wasn’t that lucky? – and he could read the worry in Alice’s eyes, the fear and sadness. There was nothing he could do to allay those fears, but he could try and take some of the sadness away.

Hatter grabbed Alice’s hand in his own, as always being careful not to crush her delicate bones.

“Listen to me, Alice,” he said softly. “What Jack did…you have to remember who his mother is. Blood’s thicker than water, yeah? In the end he’ll side with her. You’re too good for him.”

“Be careful,” Alice said, and she gave Hatter a wavery half-smile.

“I’ll be back in few hours. I promise.”

Hatter ignored the doubt in Alice’s eyes, got into the boat, and headed back across the lake to the city.

Chapter Text

Hatter had never felt so uneasy in the city. It looked different to him now, darker somehow. He expected to find a Suit round every corner, the Rabbit Head lurking down every alleyway. It was disconcerting in the extreme. And as if he weren’t already jumping at shadows, he found himself thinking about his Oyster and wondering if she’d keep her promise to wait for him. Were all Oysters that hard-headed?

Still, he had to admit that Alice knew her own mind. Even if it ran contrary to what the reasonable, logical thing was to do. She was loyal to a fault, brave and beautiful and so very determined. And incredibly blind, if she couldn’t see everything he was trying to do for her.

A noise snapped Hatter out of his reverie and he cursed to realize that he’d gone further then he needed and had to turn back round. He forced himself to focus on the task at hand, and that was to waylay good old Dormie. His business partner might have had narcoleptic tendencies, but he also had a way of talking up the new Teas that urged people to buy. It didn’t hurt that he had ties to the Resistance, as well.

Dormie was a creature of habit. Hatter only had to wait three quarters of an hour for his business partner to come down a particular stretch of ledge, twitching and mumbling to himself. Hatter waited in an alley, grabbed Dormie by his coat and pulled him around and up against the wall.

“Not the face!” Dormie screamed, cowering. “Not the…Hatter! What do you want?”

“Just keep your voice down, Dormie. I need you to get a message to Caterpillar.”

“What makes you think I can do that?” Dormie asked coyly.

“Don’t get cute,” Hatter warned. “I haven’t got the time.”

“Dodo’s the only one I know in the Resistance. I’m not sure Caterpillar actually exists! He’s probably some mythical figure made up to keep us all treading the mill.”

Hatter frowned. “You tell Dodo to get a message to him then. We still have what they want. We’re ready to make a deal.”

With that, Hatter turned out of the alley. “You know where to find me. I want to hear from you in an hour.” He heard Dormie scurry away and hoped – again – that Dodo would help. The lure of the ring would hopefully be too strong for him to say no.

All his usual haunts were unsafe now, so Hatter headed for an unusual one, one that hopefully only he and Dormie knew of. It required a bit of climbing and ducking through abandoned buildings, but Hatter eventually reached it: his childhood home. His backup-backup escape hatch.

The building was run down, all the windows broken. No-one had lived there for years, and Hatter made sure that he was never seen coming or going from it. The flat he’d shared with his parents had been small, but it suited him just fine on a temporary basis. Everything was covered in dust now, the only pieces of furniture left standing were a tatty old chair and a small table, but Hatter was able to let his guard down here.

He flopped in the chair, ignoring the plumes of dust that sent up, and drummed his fingers nervously on his knees. This plan had to work. Caterpillar was the only one with power enough to get Alice out of Wonderland, and once he had the ring it would give the Resistance the boost it needed to finally get something done. Hatter felt like the whole world was riding on his shoulders. Sneaking food and supplies to the refugees had never carried this amount of responsibility. He was in the kettle now, for sure.

The longer he sat, the calmer he grew. There was nothing around him but quiet, and it was a nice change from his last two days. If nothing else, his Oyster certainly kept things from being boring. Hatter reflected that he’d never felt quite so alive until Alice came into his life, never felt so much depth of emotion without the help of a Tea. If only she could be reasoned with…

He went round and round in his head, frustration with Alice warring with longing. What he wanted from her she would likely never be able to give, but that didn’t stop the wanting of it. He sat like that for the next hour, trying to work out things in his head and desperately wishing he had a nice, hot cup of tea.

It was ten minutes past time when Dormie came scuttling in with a reply from the Resistance. “Dodo contacted Caterpillar.”

“You’re late,” Hatter noted. Like all Wonderlanders, he had a kind of built-in clock in his brain.

“Dodo’s hot to get his hands on whatever it is you have, Hatter.” Dormie looked around nervously. “He said to tell you that Caterpillar will send an operative to you to make the deal.”

“Where?”

“He said Caterpillar will find you.”

Hatter wasn’t certain he liked that, but it certainly did move Caterpillar up in his estimation of mysterious all-powerfulness.

“Thanks, Dormie. I won’t forget this.” Hatter stood, dusted himself off, and headed out the door.

“You better come through, Hatter, or it’s my neck too!” Dormie shouted after him. Hatter flapped a dismissive hand at him and made the cautious trek back to his boat. So far his plan was working. Now he had to hope that Alice had stayed put while he was gone.

*o*o*o*

Hatter was exhausted by the time he got back to Charlie’s fortress. Sneaking out of the city had proven harder than sneaking in, and he’d had to dodge several groups of patrolling Suits. Then it was hiding the boat again and making the hike to the fortress, all while keeping out of sight of the Jabberwock. And on an empty stomach to boot. He’d had easier days.

When he returned to the camp he found Charlie snoring away in his hammock, his burlap bear hugged to his chest, and Alice no-where to be seen. Fighting back a stab of annoyance, Hatter walked over to the sleeping knight and got right next to his ear.

“Charlie!”

The White Knight tumbled out of the hammock.

“You’re supposed to be looking after Alice.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Charlie said. “But I wasn’t really asleep. I simply let my soul lift out of its mortal shell to stand sentry on a higher plain.”

“Where’s Alice?” Hatter asked, trying not to lose his temper. Charlie pointed to a path on the far side of the camp. More walking. Great.

Hatter followed the path through the trees to a clearing, dominated by a large, rocky hill. And there was his Oyster, standing at the top of the hill like a beautiful statue, that plum-colored coat swirling around her in the wind. Hatter’s breath caught in his throat for a moment at the sight of her, so still as she looked off into the distance. In the sunlight she fairly glowed.

Shaking himself back to reality, he made the climb to where she was standing and wondered how she had done it in those ridiculous boots. Alice heard him coming and turned toward him, and once again Hatter was stopped in his tracks. There was such a look on her face, he had difficulty pinning down what she must be feeling. The overall feel he got was sadness, though, especially the way she stood with her hands clasped to her chest. He had to literally force himself to get to the business at hand, when all he felt was an overwhelming need to fold his Oyster into his arms.

“It’s good news,” he said, closing the distance between them. “The Resistance wants to help. They’re sending a special agent who will take us to see Caterpillar.”

Alice dropped her arms and stared at him, saying nothing. It made him feel a bit self-conscious. He realized he was panting a bit and gestured back to the path.

“It’s quite a steep hill,” he said.

Still Alice said nothing, just looked at him with those wide blue eyes.

“You okay?” he asked her, starting to feel a bit concerned.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back,” she said softly.

There she was, doubting him again. Hatter wondered why he kept putting himself out there for her.

“You still don’t trust me?”

“How soon till he gets here?” Alice asked, changing the subject.

“Those guys can move pretty fast when they need to,” he replied. He turned and caught sight of what Alice had been looking at. The Kingdom of the Knights was spread out before them, grand even in its decline. Once again Hatter felt the urge to help his people, to help Wonderland before the Queen could do any more damage.

“You’re going to join them, aren’t you?” Alice asked. She was still talking softly, like she was afraid of spooking him. “Fight alongside them?”

“I have to try. As Dodo said, I’ve lived my life playing both sides of the court.” Hatter wanted Alice to understand. “It was the only way I could stay alive. I made the Hearts think that I was working for them while I fed their enemies. Those days are over.”

Alice held his gaze, and Hatter could see himself reflected there. He sighed, wishing he could tell what she was thinking. They stood in silence for a few moments, looking at the crumbling chess pieces in the distance. The wind blew Alice’s hair, and Hatter had to stop himself from touching it. He wanted to touch her too badly to let himself actually do it.

“We should head back to camp,” Alice said finally. She shot Hatter a half smile, then headed back down the path. Hatter followed her in silence, content to walk behind her for a while. But then Alice came to a stop, absently rubbing the Glow on her arm.

“What’s the matter?” Hatter asked. Alice looked up at him and the vulnerability in her eyes rocked him. She looked so lost, like all of her strength had left her.

“What will I do?” she asked him plaintively. “If I get stuck here?”

Hatter answered with complete honesty, not needing to think about it at all. “Then I’ll make sure you’re okay.”

More than ever he wanted to wrap his arms around her and promise her that he’d keep her safe, keep her happy. Alice kept looking at him with those eyes that said so much more than she could with words.

Hatter carefully put his hands on her arms, moved slowly closer and closer to her. He watched those eyes, waiting to see if she would be afraid of what he was doing, but he saw no fear.

“I think your luck is finally changing,” he said softly. He was filled with a sudden rush of desire and possessiveness. He continued moving slowly, his gaze now falling to her lips. Hatter’s eyes flickered back to Alice’s for just a second and saw wonderingly that she was moving towards him as well. Their lips were almost touching, he could feel her breath on his face, and then the moment was broken by the smooth voice of an intruder.

“That’s right, it is.”

Hatter and Alice both turned, startled. And there, like Hatter’s nightmare come alive, stood the Prince of Hearts. He was dressed in a dark purple suit and had a sword in one hand. Behind him, Hatter could see Charlie trussed up on the ground.

“Hello Alice,” Jack said. “I’m not interrupting anything am I?”

Hatter automatically positioned himself in front of Alice, and wished he had a weapon. Or a nice clear shot with his powerful right hand. Or a pet Jabberwock that would rip the Prince’s head off.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Charlie said. He seemed perfectly at ease, despite the bindings on his hands and feet. “How could anyone sneak up on me, of all people! And in my own manor, too.”

Casting around for a weapon, Hatter spied a good length of tree limb on the ground and snatched it up, running to face the Prince of Hearts. He wouldn’t let that git take his Alice.

“You think you can take me on with that?” Jack asked. He didn’t look at all concerned.

“I’m not an old man,” Hatter countered.

“Oi!” Charlie sounded a bit put out, but no-one was paying him any attention.

“Look, nobody is fighting unless it is me and I’m a black belt, remember?” Alice positioned herself between Hatter and Jack.

“Who’s your friend?” Jack asked.

“He’s just a friend,” Alice replied. Hatter tried not to let that bother him. He knew he should be glad that she even considered him a friend at all.

“Yes,” Jack agreed. “You two looked pretty friendly.”

Hatter almost grinned. It seemed there was a way under that calm, cool exterior after all.

“You jealous Jack?” Alice asked.

“A little.”

“Did I hear that right? The guy who’s engaged to a duchess is worried about me.”

Hatter mentally cheered Alice on. She was clearly still upset with Jack, and that could only work out in his favor.

“You know that was just an act,” Jack said.

“No. I don’t.”

“Come. I’ve brought you a horse, let’s get out of here.” And just like that Jack turned to leave, obviously accustomed to his orders being obeyed. Hatter wasn’t going to let that go.

“She’s not going anywhere with you.” He put himself in front of Alice again.

“You know she can’t stay here,” Jack said without bothering to turn round.

“Look, stop it both of you!” Alice said. She put a hand on Hatter’s shoulder. “I need to know about my dad.”

Alice walked closer to Jack. “Is he here?”

“Yes. He’s alive and well, and if you let me I’ll take you to him.”

Hatter shook his head. Lies. It was all lies. Clearly Alice could see that!

“Really?” she asked. Her voice sounded small, and hopeful, and Hatter got a sinking feeling in his gut. Jack clearly had the leverage here.

“But we’d better get going,” Jack said. “You don’t have much time.”

“Where is he?” Alice was now face to face with Jack, and Hatter was certain she’d forgotten he was even there.

“We’re moving him into the city and if we hurry you can see him by nightfall.”

“What do you mean, moving him?”

“I have people helping me.”

That was a red flag for Hatter, who decided it was time to jump back into the conversation. “What people?”

“Do you want to see him or not?”

Hatter was so completely ignored by both of them that he wondered for a moment if he hadn’t gone invisible.

“Yes, of course.” Alice nodded, and Hatter could see she was starting to get nervy. “Right. Wow. Um…okay.”

“Don’t tell me you trust this guy,” Hatter said. How can you trust him?

“He knows where my dad is,” Alice said. She turned to look at him, finally.

“He’ll say anything to get his hands on the ring!”

“No, he hasn’t asked for the ring. He doesn’t want the ring! Do you Jack?”

“Yes, I do,” Jack said.

Hatter looked at Alice, willing her to turn round so she’d get the full effect of the I-told-you-so face he was giving her.

“You do?” Alice finally seemed uncertain.

“It’s just all an act!” Hatter insisted.

“We need the ring to get you home,” Jack said. “The Looking Glass won’t work without it.”

Hatter turned away. Jack was a good liar, he’d give him that. He was telling Alice the same things Hatter himself had been trying to tell her, only apparently Jack was better at the telling. Alice seemed to believe everything that fell out of the Prince’s royal mouth.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“Don’t be fooled by this Alice.” Hatter tried again. “He’s working for his mother. Blood and water, you remember?”

“Then why am I alone?” Jack asked. He held Alice’s gaze with his own, and once again Hatter was pushed out. “Why aren’t there five hundred Suits at my back? And how did I find you here in the middle of the forest? You think I just followed my nose?”

Now that was a sensible question! “How did you find us?” Hatter demanded.

“You sent for me,” Jack replied sharply. He didn’t look away from Alice.

“Come again?” Hatter asked, momentarily confounded.

“I’m the agent who’s supposed to escort you to Caterpillar.”

For once, Hatter was at a loss for words. The Prince of Hearts was working for the Resistance? This had to be a joke.

“You know Caterpillar?” Alice asked.

“Very well. Caterpillar recruited me into the Resistance. That’s why I stole the ring.” Jack finally looked away, moved away, and Hatter was glad to see the space between the Prince and Alice. “And escaped to your world. It was supposed to trigger a coup. Unfortunately…well…you saw what happened.”

Jack finally seemed to be feeling something, Hatter noted. The man wasn’t an automaton after all.

“But if you give us back the ring we can give it another try.”

“You want to overthrow your mother?” Alice asked. Hatter was gratified to hear a little doubt in her voice.

“I’ve seen what she’s done in close up. And I know perhaps better than anyone if I don’t stop her she’ll destroy Wonderland.”

Pretty words, Hatter thought. He still wasn’t convinced Jack was on the level. The Prince moved back to face Alice, his eyes only for her.

“So who are you going to trust to get you and your father back home? A Resistance insider and future king, who’s already scheduled your return trip through the Looking Glass. Who cares for you more than anyone else in the world.” Jack looked away from Alice and sneered at Hatter. “Or this man?”

Alice turned to look at Hatter, but he couldn’t meet her gaze. He knew nothing he said would make any difference to her, wouldn’t shake her blind trust in Jack. He wanted to scream at her to stop, to not give everything she had to Jack, before she ended up like his…

Mother.

Hatter hadn’t thought about her in some time, was surprised to feel the pain still there. The bitterness, too. Nothing seemed to have changed for him at all in that moment. She’d given everything she had to one man, too – his father. And when the Queen had him executed, his mother had nothing left to give her only son. She’d just stepped off a ledge a week later, leaving Hatter on his own.

Now Alice was doing the same thing, in his estimation. Giving herself to Jack and leaving nothing for Hatter. The swirl of emotions in him left him sick and sad and scared.

Hatter dropped the stick and stepped away, knowing he was beaten. He fought against the unexpected wetness of tears in his eyes. Jack had everything Alice needed or wanted. Whatever Hatter had, it wasn’t enough for her. It hurt him, unbelievably so, that Alice said nothing.

“Where’s the ring, Alice?” Jack asked softly.

Alice hesitated for a moment, then gave in. “It’s where it belongs.” She looked over her shoulder at the Red King on his throne.

“Well, well,” Jack breathed, hurrying over to slip the ring off the King’s bony finger.

“Huh,” said Charlie. Hatter had forgotten all about him. “Under my very nose.”

“I wish you all the luck in the world, Alice,” Hatter said. He knew this was goodbye, and he felt an ache in his chest.

Alice turned to look at him in surprise. “You’re coming with us, Hatter.”

“I don’t think I figure in the future king’s plans,” Hatter replied. He gave Alice a quick smile, trying not to let on how much this was costing him.

“He’s coming with us,” Alice said to Jack. Determination was writ large on her face, but Hatter knew this time she wouldn’t get her way.

“Caterpillar was very clear.” Jack tucked the ring into his coat pocket. “The Resistance will only help you on their terms. You must come alone.”

“But Hatter stood by me,” Alice argued.

Hatter swallowed past the lump that had grown in his throat. At least she’d seen that much, he thought. It was something he’d be able to hold on to.

“It’s for your own safety,” Jack said. “And for your father’s.”

And once again, the Prince pulled out his trump card. Alice would do anything for her father.

“Hey,” Hatter said softly, catching Alice’s attention. “I wouldn’t want to go with this guy anyway.”

Hatter and Alice looked at each other, and there was so much he wished he could say to her. He wished he could give her a proper goodbye, at the very least. Instead, he turned and started to walk away.

“What will you do?” Alice called after him, stopping him in his tracks. She sounded worried.

“Me? You kidding?” Hatter forced himself to laugh, and he smiled at Alice. “I’ll be fine. Believe me. You’re better off with this guy.”

The irony wasn’t lost on Hatter. He’d been wanting nothing but to have Alice believe him, and the one time she finally would he’d be lying through his teeth. He couldn’t stand another minute of this.

“Go,” he told her. He told her with a look that she’d be okay. And then he turned away and didn’t look back as Jack led Alice away. Hatter released Charlie from his bonds, barely hearing the knight spluttering and following him as he walked back up to the hill.

Hatter, Charlie by his side, watched Alice and Jack ride away. His Alice was leaving. He’d done what he could for her, kept her safe and gotten her an audience with Caterpillar. He should feel relieved to have her off his hands. Maybe now his life could resume some sense of normalcy. Surely Jack would have no trouble getting Alice back to her world.

“I’m going after her,” Charlie said. He made a motion to leave.

“No,” Hatter said.

“I am sworn to protect her!”

“You work here is done. Brave Knight.” Hatter sighed. “But you should be proud. You’ve done one hell of a job. But she’s in safe hands now.”

Hatter left Charlie standing on the hill and he made his way back to camp. He was sorry now he’d come this way, because the memory of that almost kiss was entirely too fresh in his mind. Curse Jack! Why had he chosen that moment to interrupt?

Pacing around the camp, feeling at loose ends, Hatter wished there’d been some way he could’ve gone along. He’d seen Alice so far, he should be able to see her all the way home. It wasn’t as if Jack couldn’t use the help, he argued with himself. As far as he knew, the Suits were all still loyal to the Queen, and if she found out Jack had betrayed her there was no telling what she’d do.

The more Hatter thought about it, the more he knew that he couldn’t just let his Alice ride out of his life this way. Charlie may have sworn to protect her, but he had made his own promises. Maybe, if he stayed close by and offered his assistance, the hollow feeling in his chest would go away.

She almost kissed me, he reminded himself. Clearly she had to feel something for him. And however small that feeling may be, Hatter didn’t want her to forget it.

“She’s gone,” Charlie said morosely as he walked back into camp. “What do we do know?”

Hatter finally had a new plan, and he was ready to act on it. “Well, seeing as how I’m wanted by both the Suits and the Resistance, I think it might be prudent to hide out in the hills for a bit. See how things fall out with Jack before I go back to the city.”

Charlie looked flustered. “What? You’re leaving too?”

“Just for a little while,” Hatter assured him. “I don’t suppose…could I borrow one of your horses?”

Chapter Text

Hatter trailed Alice and Jack from a distance, watching their progress back towards the city. It was a longer route overland, but apparently Jack wasn’t in as big a hurry as he’d said. Hatter begrudged Jack every moment of Alice’s time that he was stealing. He also knew that he should turn his horse and head back to the forest, but he couldn’t make himself do it. Hatter had told Alice he’d make sure she was okay, and he meant it.

He wondered if they were talking, and if so what about. He was too far away to tell, though perhaps they were riding too hard for conversation. Hatter watched them get farther away and knew it was time to get moving himself. But then his attention was caught by something on the far hill glinting in the sun. Some of the Queen’s men, perhaps, in pursuit of Jack and the ring? Hatter spurred his mare and went to investigate.

He should have known, even before the heard the familiar refrain of “hey, nonny, nonny.”

“Charlie!” he said, startling the knight.

“Phaeton’s Ghost, you nearly scared me half to death!” the White Knight complained.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m out taking…a little…jaunt,” Charlie said. He tried for nonchalance and failed miserably.

“You’re following them,” Hatter accused.

“So are you!”

Hatter shook his head. What was he going to do now? Charlie wasn’t exactly known for his subtlety.

“Don’t you shake your head at me!” Charlie admonished. “When I gave you Guinevere you said you were going to hide out in the hills. Well, these are not the hills!”

Hatter sighed. He didn’t have time to argue and he knew there was likely no way to stop the old fool from going anyway. There was nothing for it, except to try and keep their distance.

“Come on then,” Hatter said. “Try to keep up!”

“No, Harbinger! I am the Knight. I will lead.”

In the end, they rode side-by-side. And if Charlie became a bit chatty, Hatter was almost glad of it because it meant he wasn’t singing that infernal song.

“Where do you think he’s taking her?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere in the city.”

“It’ll be easy to lose them there,” the knight said thoughtfully. Hatter couldn’t help but agree. Out here it was easy; there was really only one way they could go. But they’d be more conspicuous in the city; it would be harder not to be seen. Still, he resolved to get it done. He knew Alice was expecting him to let her down, as Jack had, but he was going to prove her wrong.

“If need be, I will use my skills in the…Black Arts…to find them,” Charlie decided. Hatter stopped himself from rolling his eyes. After that show he’d put on in the Casino, who was Hatter to doubt his connection with the supernatural? They’d need every advantage they could get.

Charlie continued to chatter all the way to the city, though Hatter mostly turned a deaf ear to his tales of dragon slaying and inventing. When the city finally came in sight, he began to feel apprehensive. So much could go wrong now, there were too many variables.

From a distance, Hatter saw Jack and Alice leave the horses, and then they went inside one of the buildings and disappeared from view. Hatter tapped his fingers on his knees, trying to formulate a plan.

“Shall we also dismount?” Charlie asked.

“No,” Hatter said. “We might need the horses. Do you think you can find out where they’re going?”

“Ah!” Charlie breathed. “I shall lift the veil and…”

“Yeah, yeah, just get on with it.”

Charlie shot Hatter a narrow-eyed look, then put his fingers to his head. “Galadoon…tapoosh…”

Hatter waited impatiently, hoping Charlie’s otherworldly forces were still with them. And they were. Charlie jerked, and his eyes snapped open.

“Hospital of Dreams,” he said.

Hatter breathed a sigh of relief. He knew where that was, knew how to get there without being seen. Getting the horses up there might be a bit tricky, but he figured he could do that too. He needed to be on hand, just in case Caterpillar couldn’t help. Just in case Jack wasn’t on the level. Just…in case.

“Follow me, Charlie. And keep quiet.”

Charlie nodded, and for once managed to keep from even humming. Hatter guided them ever upward, across grassy ledges and through abandoned buildings. There weren’t many people about, and those that were barely spared them a second glance. People in Wonderland had a general rule about non-involvement.

When they finally reached their destination, Hatter set the horses to graze nearby and went in for a closer look with Charlie. They stayed around the corner from the entrance so as not to be seen, and he was working out a plan for getting inside when he saw them – Suits, a Club and Rabbit Head. They strode right in the front door, the ground fairly shaking from their steps. Hatter looked at Charlie, and they decided to wait.

And then there was a single gunshot. Hatter swore his heart froze in his chest. When none others followed, he hoped it was just a warning shot. He yearned to run in, to save Alice, but there were a lot of Suits and he needed to be smart now. So, though each second dragged on agonizingly slowly, he waited.

After an interminable period of waiting, the Suits came marching back out the front door of the Hospital. There were at least ten of them, plus the Club and Rabbit Head. Where was…Alice! She was led out with her hands tied behind her back, followed by Jack in a similar state of capture.

“What’s Carpenter doing here?” Hatter murmured aloud. He clearly wasn’t a prisoner, but he’d also not come in with the Suits. Had he already been at the Hospital on some kind of Oyster business?

“Oh, black day,” moaned Charlie over Hatter’s shoulder.

“Okay,” Hatter said, his mind racing. “Okay. I know there are a lot of Suits out there, but if we let them get to the Casino there’ll be a whole lot more. We have to take them now.”

Charlie nodded, then paused. “Are you serious?”

Hatter turned back round to look at him, eyes narrowed. “Yes.”

Charlie looked confused.

“We’ve got surprise on our side,” Hatter explained. “And we’ve got horses. You see the bottleneck over there?”

The White Knight merely muttered.

“If I go in swinging and keep the Suits busy for a few seconds, that might give you just enough time to get in there, grab Alice and gallop away.”

Hatter knew it wasn’t his best plan. He was essentially handing over Alice’s protection to Charlie, because he knew he’d be captured. He’d merely be acting as the diversion. But he didn’t care, not as long as Alice got away. Charlie could hide her in the forest and she’d be safe there.

“Bottleneck?” Charlie muttered. “Swinging?”

“I’m going to need a sword,” Hatter said.

Charlie looked down at the one strapped to his side. “No…I…”

“Okay. Show me what knights are made of.” With that, Hatter strode away to get the horses and take up his position. This time Charlie didn’t complain when Hatter took the lead, Guinevere in front as they waited for the Suits to come through the narrow alleyway and around the corner. Hatter swung the sword, trying to get a feel for it. Clutched in his right hand, he hoped it would make a formidable weapon.

“This is it,” he said. He was nervous; worried he’d screw it up somehow. “You ready? One, two…hyaaa!”

Hatter kicked Guinevere in the sides, urging her forward into the Suits. He swung the sword, taking down two of the Queen’s men.

“Hatter!” Alice cried.

And then the sword was useless; the Suits were pulling on his arm and he couldn’t get another swing in. They were trying to pull him off the horse and he knew there were only a few seconds left to do anything useful.

“Charlie!” he shouted, looking back for the knight. Where the hell was he? And then Hatter saw him…riding hard and fast in the opposite direction.

“What the…?” Hatter couldn’t believe it. Charlie was running away and had very likely just killed him and Alice both. The Suits pulled him off the horse and he landed with a painful thud on the ground, several pairs of arms restraining him.

“Get off him!” Alice screamed. Hatter wanted to tell her he was sorry, that he’d tried, but there was a knee pressing into his stomach and he couldn’t catch his breath. Rabbit Head walked over, looking down at him while he lay there gasping.

“Hatter!” Alice cried again.

“What a nice surprise,” the porcelain head said. And while the voice was electronic, Hatter finally knew who this creature was. He’d been right after all. He redoubled his efforts to get away even though he knew it was useless.

Mad March was alive. Well, as alive as someone can be with a porcelain rabbit for a head. The Queen’s assassin. Hatter had no question what would happen to him now. There would be no leniency for the Queen’s favorite Tea seller. She probably wouldn’t learn of his death until long after it had occurred.

“Take her to the Casino,” Mad March ordered the Club. “I’ll bring this one along…directly.”

Hatter noticed that not even the Club wanted to argue with Mad March, though he looked like he had a lot to say. He gave Hatter a pitying look, then nodded at the Suits.

“No! Hatter!” Alice screamed as she was led away.

“Don’t hurt her!” Hatter begged. “Just let her go home!”

Mad March responded by kicking Hatter in the ribs, not hard enough to break anything but so very painful all the same. Hatter grunted and grit his teeth. If Mad March was going to kill him, he wished he’d get on with it. He couldn’t stand hearing Alice screaming his name, knowing that he failed her when it really counted. He should’ve known better than to put his faith in Charlie. He should’ve made a better plan.

“Tell me where the Library is and maybe we can work a deal,” Mad March said. He squatted down, and Hatter felt quite disconcerted looking at that eyeless head. He struggled but the Suits held him tightly.

“Go to hell.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Mad March said, his electronic voice sounding just a touch gleeful. “I have some friends who will be happy to meet you. But first…”

Hatter closed his eyes as the fist headed towards his face.

Chapter Text

Mad March had primed him with his fists before the good doctors Dum and Dee got their hands on him; he could feel the start of a nasty shiner, and blood trickling out his ear. Hatter was too resistant for their swirly bit of hypnotism, so they had to resort to an injection of some kind. Hatter didn’t know what they gave him, but it hurt like hell.

With a jolt, he found himself back on a Flamingo, Alice clutching him tightly from behind. With a sick sense of déjà vu, he felt them falling toward the lake. As before, he put his arm out for drag but they still hit too hard and he felt Alice pull away from him.

Hatter struggled to the surface and looked for her, growing ever more frantic. He took a deep breath and dived back under the surface, panicking until he caught a flash of red and grabbed hold of her leg. Only this time, when he brought them back to the surface, Alice didn’t splutter and cough; she hung limp and cold in his arms.

“No! Alice!” Hatter caught her up around her arms and swam for shore, his whole body aching with the effort. He laid her on the rocks, pallid and limp, and listened for a heart beat, or the merest breath. There was none.

“Please, Alice!” he begged. He turned her on her side, thumped her on the back, but nothing happened. Hatter pulled her into his arms, her wet hair tangling in his hands.

“Please, please,” he said over and over. He could feel his heart breaking. He’d failed her. He hadn’t kept her safe, hadn’t gotten her home. Hadn’t told her how much he cared for her.

And then Charlie was suddenly there on the beach, his armor gleaming. “Quick, Harbinger! We must bring her to the Library! They’ll know what to do!”

Hatter looked up at him, grief stricken and confused. His Alice was dead. There was nothing to be done for her.

“Tell me how to get to the Library and I’ll bring help back,” Charlie insisted.

Hatter stopped rocking, not sure when he’d even started. He looked down at Alice, cold and wet in his arms.

“This isn’t right,” he whispered to himself.

“Tell me where the Library is!” Charlie shouted, only now his voice seemed to have changed. Hatter looked up at him, and suddenly remembered the Doctors and the Truth Room.

“This isn’t real,” he said. And just like that the beach and Charlie and Alice disappeared. Hatter was sitting in a chair, his hands strapped to the arms with leather bindings, while all around him the Truth Room glowed a sickly green. He tried to banish the image of Alice, lifeless in his arms, but he wasn’t strong enough to purge that vision from his mind.

“Ooh, this one’s a tough nut to crack,” one of the Doctors said, dancing into Hatter’s line of sight.

“We know how to deal with that!” the other Doctor chortled.

They started in with the electro-stick. The pain was enormous, almost more than Hatter could bear. But bear it he did, because underneath the hot agony flickering through his skin was one thing – Alice. Was she hurt or scared? Being tortured like he was now? Had the Queen passed a death sentence on her?

Hatter rocked himself back and forth, tried blocking out the pain and thinking up a plan, some way to help Alice, but then there would be an electric pop and sizzle and he’d be on fire. His mind started skittering.

He saw Alice standing on the hill, her sad eyes looking at him.

“I’m counting on you,” she said.

Hatter tried to get to the top of the hill himself, but his feet wouldn’t move. It was like he was stuck in place. When he looked up again, he saw that Mad March was standing behind Alice.

“Look out! Alice!” he cried.

Alice merely leaned back and put her head on March’s shoulder. He ran his hand from her cheek down her creamy white neck, then took her head in both hands and twisted it savagely to the side. The resulting crack echoed, and Hatter screamed as Alice slowly crumpled to the ground. He did likewise, curling himself into a ball.

He’d failed. She was dead again because he’d failed. What good was the strength in his arm if he couldn’t keep Alice alive?

Abruptly, Hatter was back in the chair and an electro-stick was being shoved into his ribs again. He cried out, he couldn’t help it. His mind skittered again, and he was dimly aware that he was speaking nonsense.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk? The clockwork’s not ticking properly. Maybe crumbs in the butter.”

“Tell me where the Great Library is.” Mad March’s question was like a slap in the face. Hatter left off his ramblings and looked up at the Queen’s assassin. Let Dodo question his loyalties now, he thought to himself as he resolved to say nothing.

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d crack.”

Hatter almost laughed. Crack? He’d never felt so broken.

“Then there’s no reason to keep you alive.” Mad March slid a wicked-looking knife from the sleeve of his coat. Hatter panicked. If he died – and a small part of him would have welcomed it just then – there would be no-one to help Alice. Hatter couldn’t abandon her; he couldn’t leave her to die for real. There was no room for failure, not this time. And then Mad March started spouting a child’s rhyme.

“Twinkle twinkle little bat. How I wonder where you’re at. Goodbye, Hatter.”

Mad March darted forward with the knife in his hand. Instinct took over and Hatter pushed himself backward, landing jarringly on his back. He used his unbound legs to kick Mad March in the chest, and his aching ribs screamed at the jolt. While the assassin stumbled, Hatter swung out of the chair and used it as a shield. When Mad March came in again with the knife, Hatter turned at the last minute so that the blade cut through the bindings on his powerful right hand.

One brief flex of fingers and he brought that fist home in the center of Mad March’s white porcelain face. The cookie jar shattered, and Hatter grabbed a handful of electronic wires and gizmos, pulling them out and sending sparks flying.

Mad March lay on the floor, headless and twitching. Hatter used his free hand to rip the bindings off the other, dropping the chair with a loud clang. He stood there a moment, trembling, aching and gasping for breath. How many Suits would he have to fight before he could get out, get to Alice? Where were the Doctors? If it were only himself, he’d cut and run, going through the nearest exit and finding a place to hide. But it wasn’t just him anymore.

“Alice,” he whispered. He had to help her; there was no other decision to be made. He would face the entire House of Cards if he had to. Thus resolved, Hatter took a deep, painful breath, and set about finding his way out of the Truth Room, and hopefully finding his hat as well.

Chapter Text

Hatter moved through the casino with relative ease. He didn’t know where all the Suits were – and Doctors Dum and Dee were presumably off inflicting pain on some hapless someone – but was happy to have luck on his side for once. Whenever he came to a door he carefully opened it and looked in, trying to find Alice. Most of the rooms were empty, though some staff areas were full of Diamonds. His ribs were aching and there was a ringing in his ear, but he ignored it. Only Alice mattered now, and he kept his focus on her.

Hatter slipped into another door and found himself in the Game Room, surrounded by Oysters. There were two Suits in there as well, and he almost slipped back out. But suddenly, like a beacon of light, his Alice was there. And she was alive! She was up on the stage, scanning the room. The Suits noticed her immediately and drew their guns.

With a whistle, Hatter pulled the attention of the Suits from Alice, knocking one cold while Alice disarmed the other. Another deadly punch, and Hatter bent down to collect the guns. When he stood up Alice was just standing there, staring at him.

“Hatter! You’re okay!”

“Yeah.” He looked her over, relieved to see that she appeared to be unharmed.

“Oh my God!” Alice breathed.

Hatter laughed self-consciously. He could only imagine what he must look like. “Oh, it’s just a few cuts and bruises. I’m fine,” he said.

And then, impossibly, Alice was hugging him tightly enough to make his ribs ache. It should have made his injuries flare, but instead acted as a soothing balm. He hugged her back, loving the feel of her in his arms. She smelled of warm honey and sunshine, sweetness and light.

“I thought you were dead,” Alice whispered against his shoulder. Hatter wanted to feel angry that someone had lied to his Alice about that, but all he could feel was…comforted. Had anyone ever held him like this in his whole miserable life?

“Oh, that feels good,” he sighed, knowing the words were insufficient. Nothing, not even a fresh cup of tea, could match the feeling of his Alice in his arms. Maybe now he could get those awful images from the Truth Room out of his head. Then the rational part of his brain kicked in, and he reluctantly pushed Alice away. “We should save that until we’re safe.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t trust you,” Alice said. Hatter could see an overwhelming sadness in her eyes and he desperately wished he could wipe it all away for her. But he couldn’t stop himself from asking the question, because the answer now was so very important to him.

“You trust me now?”

“Completely.”

With that one word, Hatter felt himself grow somehow lighter. He had finally earned her trust, finally made her believe in him. He felt he could do anything now. He forgot about his cuts and bruises and burns and tried to kick-start his brain into coming up with a new plan.

“Good. Follow me. I’m getting us out of here.” He headed for the door, but Alice stopped him.

“No.”

“No?” Hatter was confused. What else was there to do but escape?

“I have an idea. Do you see any more Suits in here?” she asked him. He did a quick scan of the room, though he knew any remaining Suits would have been on them long ago.

“I don’t think so, no.”

“Let’s seal the other exit.” That look of solid determination was back on Alice’s face. Hatter resigned himself to whatever plan she had in mind, knowing that at least now they’d face what was coming together.

“Find something to brace the doors,” Alice commanded, and Hatter found himself doing it. His Alice was fairly quivering with purpose.

“Something Caterpillar said,” Alice murmured, more like she was talking to herself than to Hatter. “Mix the wrong feelings together and you wind up with a complete break down.”

Hatter used a broom to brace the doors, then waited to see what his Alice wanted to do next. But she was still talking.

“And Charlie. Charlie said the Queen only wanted to feel the good, not the bad, remember?”

“So?” asked Hatter, failing to see where Alice was leading with all this. He hoped like hell she had a plan, because his addled brain was fresh out of them.

“We’re going to stir up some emotions.”

As the freshly blocked door vibrated with the sounds of the Suits pounding on the other side, Alice raced back across the Game Room floor and ran up on the stage, shooting her gun in the air. Seeing what she was trying to do, Hatter jumped up on one of the smaller stages and loosed a few rounds himself.

“Oi!” he shouted, just in case the gunfire had failed to get anyone’s attention. The Diamonds all raised their hands in surrender.

Alice held her gun out. “Deal another hand, spin another roulette wheel, and it will be your last!”

For his part, Hatter kept all of the Diamonds in view, moving his gun from one to the next so they’d know he meant business. This was Alice’s show now.

“Hey! Everyone! Wake up!” She spoke to the Oysters, but Hatter knew that she’d done that for him as well. Since the moment she’d stepped into his Tea Shop she’d woken him up. It was because of her that he was feeling so many emotions. It was because of her that he’d decided to stop mucking about and join the Resistance properly. She’d woken him up to the man he could be. The man he wanted to be, for her.

“This isn’t a dream. This is really happening.” Alice lowered her gun. “Look at me. Think. Where are your families?”

Hatter cast his eye over the Oysters, but they all just kept standing there, staring at the gaming tables in front of them. He couldn’t believe Alice was trying to get through to them, trying to free them when she’d been so close to freedom herself. Would she sacrifice herself for a room full of strangers? Hatter cast a look at his Alice, saw the righteousness burning in her eyes, and knew the answer was yes.

“Your kids. Your husbands and your wives. And your mothers and your fathers.”

And now the Oysters were starting to stir, looking around in confusion.

“You were taken from them and brought here. Try to think. Your name. What’s your name?”

“Taylor,” one of the Oysters replied, looking dazed. “No, that’s my son.”

Hatter could hardly believe his eyes. She was doing it. She was actually doing it! His warrior Oyster, determined to set her people free. A new emotion bubbled up inside Hatter – pride. He was so proud of her he couldn’t help but grin.

“Look down at your feet. Try to walk away from the tables.”

“I can’t move my feet!” one of the Oysters cried. They were starting to get agitated, all of them trying to move and being unable to do so. Finally, Hatter understood what Alice was doing. The Oysters were still hooked up, only now bad feelings would be pouring through. The Teas would be getting contaminated. Brilliant!

“Look! They’re trying to break down the door. You know why? Because they don’t want you to wake up.”

The pounding continued, and then the Suits were through the door. Gunfire was immediately exchanged. Hatter got off a few rounds, then jumped down to the floor. He saw Alice duck behind one of the gaming tables, firing her own gun. He didn’t know how a woman with so many fears could be simultaneously so incredibly fearless.

The Oysters and Diamonds were huddled on the floor around the tables, hands over their ears. Hatter could only imagine what kind of emotions they were getting in the distillery now.

“Stop!” Carpenter strode into the room and the Suits immediately stopped firing. “You’re frightening the Oysters.”

Hatter and Alice put up their weapons as well. He wondered what was next – there was no clear way out of the Game Room, and if they tried to run for it they’d be shot full of holes. To his horror, he saw his Alice stand up and move back from the cover of the table, holding her gun with both hands. She was pointing it at Carpenter.

“I’ll deal with this,” Carpenter said to the Suits behind him.

“What do you want?” Alice asked. Hatter could hear a waver in her voice, which had been so strong only moments ago. Had Carpenter done something to her? He burned with anger on her behalf.

“Put the gun down,” Carpenter said. He walked towards Alice, and Hatter waited to see if he would draw a weapon. He kept his gun trained on the man who had given him the Queen’s gift. The man who harvested Oyster emotions.

“You stay right there,” Alice said.

“It’s me, Alice. It’s your father.”

Carpenter was Alice’s father? Hatter felt his mouth drop open. That was why he was at the Hospital of Dreams! And then he was filled with dismay. Alice wouldn’t be able to hurt her father, and so he couldn’t either, even if it meant they never got out of the Casino alive. Things had gone from worse to buggered in a very short amount of time.

“You don’t remember me,” Alice said. Hatter hated the way her lips started to quiver, like she was trying not to cry. He longed to go to her, soothe her, but he didn’t want to move and not be able to cover her. “You don’t remember anything.”

“No, I do. Thanks to you, I remember everything.”

Hatter saw that Carpenter was wearing the watch, holding that wrist with his other hand. Was that why Jack had needed Alice? Had she woken her father up as well?

“I don’t believe you. This is just another trick.”

Hatter knew what it cost her to keep the gun trained on her own father, even if it was shaking badly in her unsteady hands.

“Do you see this guy?” she called out to the Oysters. Hatter winced at the tone of despair in her voice. “He’s the one who brought you here. He hooked you up, and when he’s done with you…when he’s done with you he’ll get rid of you. Isn’t that right? Daddy, isn’t that right?!”

She was practically screaming now, her eyes wet with tears. Hatter could see that Alice was starting to lose control, so he began making his way over to her using the gaming tables as cover. Her pain cut through him like a knife.

“It was a Sunday,” Carpenter said. “And…we’d just come back from the movies. And you were wearing your yellow dress and those black shoes that always hurt your feet. And…Carol…met us in the driveway and told us Dinah had been hit by a car.”

This seemed a fairly nonsensical rambling to Hatter until he understood that Carpenter was telling Alice a memory. He could see in her face how much she wanted to believe; he could see the hope there.

“And you ran into the yard and hid, and I came and found you, and held you for hours while you wept. I should have known you the moment I saw you. I’ve been a fool, Alice. I’ve missed so much…wasted so much time. Please forgive me.”

That last bit undid Alice completely. Sobbing, she went to her father and was embraced by him. Hatter stood there watching them. Oh, how he wished he was the one in Alice’s arms! He wanted to feel that again, feel her holding him close.

“I’m so sorry,” Carpenter said. He held Alice, turning slowly with her in his arms, and Hatter couldn’t look away.

He should have been watching the door, because when the big man with the bleeding stomach and the gun came in and fired, no-one was prepared.

“No!” yelled Carpenter. Hatter cast one quick, horrified look in Alice’s direction, saw her father fall. He turned his attention back to the shooter, saw him take aim at Alice. Without a second’s hesitation Hatter emptied his gun into this man. But it was too late for Carpenter.

Chaos reigned in the Game Room. The Oysters, suddenly freed, ran screaming for the door. Alice was on the floor, kneeling over her father and looking frantic. Hatter watched as everyone – Oysters, Suits and Clubs – quickly abandoned the Game Room.

Hatter turned a deaf ear to Alice and her father. He knew there was nothing to be done for Carpenter, and he didn’t want to intrude on their last moments together. His heart broke for Alice, even while it was still full of fear as the building began to shake under his feet. They weren’t out of the soup yet.

“I’m sorry, Jellybean. You’re on your own,” Carpenter said before he died. There was a deep, menacing rumble as everything began to shake harder than before, but nothing could hide the sound of Alice’s wail of grief. Hatter wished he could give her the time she needed, but it would kill them both if he did. So he had to drag her away while the world started coming down around them, because despite what Carpenter said she wasn’t alone. Not anymore.

“Alice. Quickly. We’ve got to get out of here. Please. I’m sorry.”

Hatter pulled Alice with him as they joined the screaming throng that was pouring out of the Casino. They gathered in a clearing – Suits, Oysters, Royal Court – and watched the Casino collapse in a shower of dust and smoke and fire. And there was pride again; his Alice had done that, succeeded where years of resistance fighting had not. It felt completely unreal.

“I don’t suppose I could get that hug now?” Hatter asked Alice, knowing that it wasn’t the best time but wanting it so desperately. Before she could do more than look at him, the Queen of Hearts herself strode into the clearing surrounded by Suits.

“There! She’s there! Get her!”

Would this madness never end? Hatter moved in front of Alice and was surprised when the Oysters moved to form a circle around her as well. They seemed to recognize that she was the one responsible for their freedom.

“Touch the lady and I’ll shuffle your deck,” said an Oyster wearing some sort of uniform. Hatter felt a burst of hope. Surely there were enough of them to keep back the Queen.

“Don’t just stand there, you idiots. Arrest her!” the Queen of Hearts commanded. Once again, his Alice surprised him as she stepped out from behind the safety of the Oysters. Where only moments before had been crushing grief, he now saw anger.

“Take a good look at your Queen first. Make sure she’s really worth fighting for.”

Hatter was momentarily dazed. What kind of power was contained in that little blue dress? When the Suits turned away from the Queen, Hatter was amazed. His Alice was single-handedly changing Wonderland. She’d already freed the Oysters and destroyed the Casino, and now it seemed she wanted to bring down the House of Cards as well.

“How dare you look at me!” The Queen, her hair a mess and her face streaked with soot, looked outraged. “She’s the one you should be looking at!”

“I am not the problem. You are.” Alice strode forward, going practically toe to toe with the Queen.

“Off with her head!”

Hatter poised himself, ready to spring into action, but none of the Queen’s men made a move. Not even the Club at her side.

“It looks like everyone is waking up to that.”

“Don’t listen to her,” the Queen insisted. “She’s just an insolent girl!”

“No-one is frightened of you anymore! You’re just one of us now.”

Hatter couldn’t believe his Alice was standing up to the Queen this way. Where the hell did she get all that strength from?

“This is my kingdom, and I am still Queen!”

“Look around,” Alice said. “No-one is listening. Your power is gone.”

Jack suddenly appeared on the scene, pulling a tall blonde woman behind him, and that snapped Hatter out of his thoughts. He made his way to Alice, uncertain if Jack Heart posed a threat to her or not. Not, as it turned out.

“Jack, thank heavens you’re here,” the Queen said. “Get everyone to fall in line.”

“Me?” Jack laughed. “Didn’t you sentence me to death?”

“Oh, don’t be so sensitive. I was just doing my job.”

For the briefest instant, Hatter felt a tiny bit of sympathy for Jack Heart. He couldn’t imagine growing up having the Queen of Hearts for a mother.

“Come on now and rally the troops.”

“No,” Jack said. “Mother, it’s over.”

Alice held out her hand to the Queen, palm up. “The ring.”

“Are you mad? I’d sooner have you cut of my finger,” was the Queen’s angry retort. Alice stood her ground.

“That can be arranged.”

Hatter took his cue, turning to the nearest Club. “Do you have a knife?”

The Club handed Hatter a switchblade, which he took with him as he moved around Alice’s other side to where Jack was standing. As he moved past, the Prince put a hand on his shoulder. Hatter stiffened, expecting Jack to stop him.

“Make sure it’s a clean cut,” Jack said. “We don’t want any blood on the ring.”

Hatter merely nodded and stood before the Queen – the Queen! – flicking open the blade and raising his eyebrows in silent challenge. Never in all his life would he have thought he’d be here, threatening the most powerful woman in all of Wonderland.

Second most powerful, he amended, as the Queen relinquished the ring to Alice. His Alice held the ring aloft, prompting cheers from the Oysters even though they didn’t understand the significance of it. And just like that the reign of the Queen of Hearts was at an end.

Chapter Text

Jack Heart took up the mantle of leadership with ease. He ordered a contingency of Suits to take his Mother back to the Palace, where she was to be put under house arrest. Then he sorted the groups in the clearing, pulling aside those with injuries that needed to be tended. Suits and Clubs hurried to obey his barked orders, handling the Oysters with great care.

Hatter and Alice watched all of this activity from their spot on a fallen log. Hatter didn’t know about Alice, but he was immeasurably weary. The injuries he’d incurred at the hands of Mad March and the Doctors were throbbing ceaselessly, and he could feel blisters on the skin over his ribs. All in all, he was in pretty sorry shape.

“I can’t believe it’s all over,” Alice said. She was hunched over, elbows on her knees and head in her hands. Hatter could hear the exhaustion in her voice. All of the steel she’d had when facing the Queen had gone.

“Long day,” Hatter agreed. He took his hat off and ran his hand through his hair. “I could sleep for a week.”

Alice started to laugh, but somehow it turned into a sob. She rested her head on her knees, her shoulders shaking as she wept. Hatter wrapped his arm around Alice’s shoulders, pulling her tightly against him. He had no words of comfort to offer her; it was clear she was mourning her father. Alice turned into him, burying her face in his shoulder and gripping his shirt with her fisted hands.

“It’s my fault,” she sobbed. “All my fault.”

Hatter ran his other hand down Alice’s hair in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. Her body shook against his with the force of her grief.

“Shhh. None of that now,” he murmured in her ear. “There was nothing to be done. And you helped him. Helped him remember.”

“He knew me,” Alice whispered, her voice tremulous.

“You helped him, yeah? And all the Oysters as well. You did good, Alice.”

Alice burrowed closer to him, but the tears seemed to be waning. Hatter kept stroking her hair, waiting out the storm. He felt himself drifting just a bit, his eyes growing heavy as he struggled against sleep.

“I’m sorry,” Alice said after a while. She unclenched her hands, smoothed out his fairly battered paisley shirt. Hatter just grinned at her sleepily.

“No need to apologize.”

“What happens now?” Alice asked him. Hatter looked down into her red-rimmed, watery eyes. There was that vulnerability again, from the same woman who single-handedly dethroned the Queen of Hearts.

“Now you go home,” he said softly. “You get back to your life.”

“What’ll you do?”

“See to my Shop. Figure out a plan for what to do now the Tea is all gone.”

Alice moved out of Hatter’s steadying arm and ran her hands over her face, as if to scrub all evidence of the tears away. He was almost too tired to care, too tired to feel the hollow space in his heart that would only grow when his Alice left for her own world. As crazy and dangerous as the last few days had been, Hatter couldn’t help wishing they weren’t over. He didn’t want this to be the end for them.

“Can I have your attention, please!” Jack stood in the center of the clearing, holding up his hands. All conversations ceased as everyone turned their attention to the new King of Hearts.

“I have made arrangements for Scarabs to come and bring all of you back to the city. You will be my guests tonight, and tomorrow we will restart the Looking Glass and send you back to your homes.”

The Oysters cheered and hugged each other. Alice smiled wearily. Hatter found it increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open. He could feel himself slipping off the log but lacked the energy even to stop himself.

“Hatter!” Alice cried, alarmed.

“Fine…” he muttered. Alice’s face was a worried blur, her words sounding fuzzily in his ears.

“Jack!” Alice screamed. Hatter flinched. What was wrong with her? He found one last reserve of strength and forced his eyes open.

“Alice?”

“Oh, Hatter…”

He could hear tears in her voice, even if he couldn’t focus on her face. He felt her pulling at his shirt, and a lance of pain shot through him. He flinched back from it. Hatter understood that Alice was trying to get at his injuries, the ones he’d insisted were just cuts and bruises.

“No…Alice…” He feebly pushed her hand away.

“Stop it, Hatter!” Alice cried. Even through his haze he could hear the fear in her voice. “Let me take care of you!”

Hatter felt a cool breeze on his skin as his shirt was removed, pulling painfully at the burns as it went. And he was so tired. If he could just get some sleep…

“Stay with me, Hatter!” Alice demanded.

“My Alice,” Hatter murmured.

“Let the medic in, Alice.” Hatter could hear the smooth authority of Jack’s voice. He felt some jostling, and then his head was resting on something soft and warm, something that smelled of Alice. He could feel her running her fingers through his hair, gently touching his cheek, and he sighed. If he was dying, it didn’t seem so bad. At least his Alice was with him.

“This is going to hurt,” a strange voice said. And then there was a bright flare of pain in Hatter’s side, and the world slipped away.

*o*o*o*

Hatter drifted. He felt there was something important he had to do, but he couldn’t focus on it. He remembered feeling happy, remembered feeling someone touching his face. If he tried a little harder, he could remember beautiful blue eyes. Blue eyes that became, at turns, defiant, angry, frightened. Hatter drifted a bit more, and then a name came to him. Alice. Beautiful Alice. Alice…was leaving!

With a gasp, Hatter woke up. He was lying in a strange bed, in a room decorated with geometric circles of black and white. He had bandages wrapped round his chest and was wearing only a pair of drawstring trousers. He sat up carefully, but the pain had been reduced to a dull ache. There were two chairs beside the bed, and Alice was curled up asleep in one of them.

So beautiful. Hatter couldn’t stop looking at her. The lights had been dimmed, giving a soft glow to Alice’s face. She was still wearing the blue dress but had folded up the coat to use as a pillow. Her face was relaxed in sleep, her breathing soft. Hatter didn’t know how long he’d been out of it, but it touched him to find her there when he woke up. He reached out one tentative hand and stroked her dark hair.

“Hatter,” Alice whispered, instantly awake. She smiled at him. “If you were feeling better I’d smack you.”

“Um…”

Alice stretched, and wasn’t that something intriguing to watch. Hatter couldn’t help but notice that she seemed a bit angry with him. What had he done now?

“You should have told me you were hurting,” Alice said. “Just cuts and bruises, you said.”

“Alice…”

“What they did to you…” Alice’s voice broke, but she visibly brought herself under control. “I was scared for you.”

Hatter thought about that. He couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face. His Alice had been worried about him. He had a vague memory of her holding his head in her lap, stroking his hair.

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t ever do that again,” Alice said sternly. But she gave him another smile.

“Where are we?” Hatter asked.

“The Palace. You slept through the Scarab ride.” Alice stood up, ran a hand through her long hair. “Tomorrow we’re starting up the Looking Glass.”

Hatter didn’t know what to say. He was angry with himself for missing precious time with his Alice, the last few hours they’d have together before she left. And now there was pain, but nothing that could be helped by a medic.

“Hatter?” Concern filled Alice’s eyes, and Hatter held out his hand to her. After a moment’s hesitation, she put her own hand in his and allowed herself to be pulled over to the bed. She sat down carefully on the edge and didn’t say anything when Hatter failed to relinquish her hand.

“You must be looking forward to going home.”

Alice smiled, but it was tentative now. “I miss my mother.”

“Are you going to tell her? About this.”

“I don’t think she’d believe me.” Alice chuckled. “I’m not sure I even believe any of this happened, and I lived through it.”

They sat in silence for a while, and Hatter could feel himself growing sleepy again. He fought it this time…he didn’t want to lose one more second with Alice. He looked down at their hands, fingers intertwined, and wondered what would happen if he asked her to stay.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you!” Alice exclaimed. “Charlie’s alive! They found him wandering out in…”

“Wait till I get my hands on that stupid, senile…” He was instantly enraged.

“Hatter!” Alice admonished. “He helped us. He set up an army of knights, kept the Suits distracted long enough for us to do what we had to do. If it wasn’t for him, the Casino never would have fallen.”

Hatter processed this bit of information and found it didn’t matter. He was still angry with Charlie, angry that he hadn’t been able to count on him when things got hard.

“He’s so sorry, Hatter. Look, if he had come in and rescued me, like you wanted, the Queen would still be sitting up in the Casino right now.”

“I suppose,” he said, grudgingly.

“That was a stupid plan, by the way.” Alice smiled at him. “I’d just have had to rescue you, and you know how much trouble I can get into!”

Hatter laughed. He closed his eyes, just for a minute, but found himself quickly drifting back to sleep. The last thing he felt were Alice’s lips as she kissed his forehead.

*o*o*o*

The next time Hatter woke, he was alone. It was dark, the only light coming from under the door. He stretched and groaned and stumbled out of bed. After taking care of some urgent business in the loo, he found his clothes neatly folded on a small table near the bed. They looked to have been washed and mended, and he put them back on.

Carefully approaching the door, Hatter cracked it and looked down the hall. There was no-one about, and he thought everyone must be sleeping. His stomach rumbled, so he decided to see if he could find the kitchen. It felt like days since he’d eaten anything.

Hatter never would have found his way if he hadn’t been assisted by a Suit that was making security rounds. It felt odd that they were now on the same side, and Hatter still kept his distance. But he was rewarded with an empty kitchen and full larders. Most heavenly of all…tea!

Sitting on a metal stool at the counter, Hatter sipped his hot, sweet tea and ate some bread stacked high with cheese and meats. Nothing had ever tasted so good, not even Charlie’s barbequed Borogove.

“Feeling better I see.”

Hatter immediately tensed when he heard Jack come in behind him. He forced himself to relax and took another sip of his tea. Jack went round to the other side of the counter and leaned on his elbows. He was wearing only a white dress shirt, no tie or jacket.

“She was worried about you.”

“She said as much.” Hatter took another bite.

“She’s leaving tomorrow, through the Glass.”

“Yeah.”

“Will you try and make her stay?” Jack asked. Hatter looked at him, but as always the Prince’s…scratch that, King’s…expression was inscrutable.

“No. She doesn’t belong in Wonderland.”

Now that he’d said it out loud, Hatter found he’d lost his appetite. It was true, though. Alice needed to go back to the Oyster world, where she would be safer. Wonderland wasn’t her home.

“That’s very…unselfish of you.”

Hatter shrugged, striving for nonchalance that he wasn’t really feeling. “She wouldn’t be happy here.”

“Perhaps.” Jack studied him for a minute. “We’ll be sending the Oysters to Looking Glass Hall first thing in the morning. The technicians will be working on getting their home coordinates out of the computer.”

Hatter waited. He had no idea why Jack was telling him all this.

“Looking Glass Hall is part of the Palace, three levels up. You’ll want to say goodbye.”

“Yeah.”

Jack stood and brushed at his shirt. “I am indebted to you, Hatter, for all you’ve done for Alice.” Without waiting for a response, Jack left the kitchen.

Hatter sat there a while longer, his tea growing cold. He didn’t want his Alice to leave, but he knew she couldn’t stay. Suddenly feeling agitated and unsettled, Hatter cleaned up after himself and sought out the nearest exit. He needed to get out of the Palace and clear his head.

He needed to find a way to say goodbye.

*o*o*o*

Hatter made it outside to the ledge and took a deep breath of the cool night air. He knew he should probably get more sleep, let his wounds heal, but he couldn’t stop his brain from working. So much had happened, it was almost overwhelming to try and think of it all.

With no particular destination in mind – he wasn’t ready to go back to the Tea Shop just yet – Hatter just started walking. His mind conjured up images of his Alice, the way she’d been so scared being up so high. How she’d held his hand and trusted that he wouldn’t let her fall. And it hit him, hit him hard. All that time he’d spent trying to win her trust, practically begging for it, and he’d had it all along. Maybe she hadn’t known it either, but it was there.

“Bloody hell,” he murmured to himself. Had he really been that blind? Had he really missed it every time she looked to him for reassurance? Maybe…maybe he’d just expected Alice not to trust him. Did anyone really ever trust Hatter? He himself knew better than to put his trust in anyone. But it was there all the same.

Hatter sighed, his head hurting from trying to think his way through this. He rounded a corner and stopped in his tracks. Ahead of him on the ledge was a small fire ringed in rocks. Sitting beside it, back against the wall, was none other than the White Knight himself. Hatter tried to remember what Alice had told him, how Charlie had saved the day, but he couldn’t help feeling angry. He’d trusted the old man, against his own better judgment, and he’d been let down.

“Harbinger!” Charlie had spotted him and quickly got to his feet, though he didn’t come any closer. Crazy, not stupid. “I was hoping to see you. I know you’re angry with me…”

“You ran away,” Hatter said. He practically growled it, and Charlie winced. “Alice needed you and you ran away.”

“Yes, you’re quite right,” Charlie said softly. “I ran. Just like I ran all those years ago when the Knights needed my help. I’m a coward. I have always been a coward.”

Hatter felt some of his anger slip away when he realized Charlie wasn’t going to make excuses or fall over himself apologizing. He tried to remember all the times that Charlie had helped. He’d given them a safe place to hide; he’d found Alice inside the Casino; he’d doggedly followed her with the intention of protecting her.

“Alice says you raised an army. Kept the Suits busy.”

Charlie’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. “The Army of the Knights! Brave lads, all of them. I couldn’t let the Alice of Legend be harmed, not this time.”

“How’d you do it? How’d you put them together so quickly?” And even as Hatter asked the question, he knew what the answer was going to be.

“I’m a knight!” Charlie said with his cheerful old grin.

Hatter couldn’t help grinning back at him. “I couldn’t have got to Alice if you hadn’t distracted the Suits. Thank you, Brave Knight.”

Charlie’s smile faltered a bit, and Hatter thought he heard him sniffle.

“I am forever in your service, Harbinger.”

“Thanks, Charlie.”

“Whatever are you doing at this hour? You should be in bed.”

“I’ve got some thinking to do,” Hatter said. Charlie nodded like he understood, and maybe he did.

“Good luck, Harbinger.”

Chapter Text

Hatter sat on the ledge above Looking Glass Hall. Below, he knew the Oysters were anxiously waiting to return home. His Alice was down there as well, and he so desperately wanted to see her.

He’d been sitting up there all night, trying to decide what to do. Did he just say goodbye and let her go without knowing that he cared for her? If he did tell her how he felt, would she feel obligated to stay? Or would she laugh him out of Looking Glass Hall?

The chances for rejection and humiliation were so high. His Alice had worried over him, cried over him. But that didn’t mean she felt anything for him. Gratitude, maybe. Friendship, perhaps. Not the right emotions, not for what he wanted. He was going to have to let her go and try to forget how she made him feel.

“Bloody hell,” he said aloud. He made himself get up off the ledge and head to the ladder that would take him down to the Hall. He saw Jack go in ahead of him, a sign he didn’t have much time left. He passed through the revolving door, and the smile he had plastered on his face froze.

Jack had Alice in a tight embrace, the one Hatter himself had been waiting for. She belonged with Jack, he told himself. Jack had so much more to offer. He watched, the pain in his heart sharpening as Alice restarted the Looking Glass. He had to let her go, whether it meant home or with Jack. He had to do right by her. With a shake of his head, Hatter turned to leave.

“Hatter!”

Alice had spotted him; there would be no easy escape now. He took a deep breath, told himself that he couldn’t be selfish.

“Alice! Hey!” He met her in the middle of the Hall, nervous and not certain what to say. What had been so easy yesterday was nearly impossible today. For once, the showman was without the right words.

“I was…um…I was afraid I might’ve missed you.”

“Yeah, you cut it a little close,” Alice said. She smiled at him expectantly.

“Yeah, I was…um… guess I was trying not to think about it – anyways, I wanted to say…goodbye.”

“Goodbye?” Alice echoed, and her smile began to falter.

“And if you…you know…ever fancy coming back…”

“You want me to stay?” she asked. His Alice, she always got to the heart of the matter.

Yes. Please stay. Be with me.

“Hell no!” Hatter said, hating the wavering note in his voice. “No, I think you should go home.”

Alice looked at him, and he could see the uncertainty in her eyes. He hated that he put it there. She smiled again, but it was strained.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve had enough of Wonderland for a lifetime.”

“Yes. I am sure you have. Right?” Hatter smiled and laughed, but it was forced and fake.

“Still,” he said. “We had…had a laugh. You know? Had some good times. Obviously…amid all the bad times.” He was babbling. Why was he babbling?

Alice looked down, her smile wavering on the edges. “Yeah. Yeah, we did.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence between them. They looked at each other, and Hatter wished the words he wanted to say would come out of his constricted throat. He knew Alice needed to leave, needed to go and be with her mother in her own world. It would have been selfish of him to say anything to try and make her stay. But he should have been able to say something.

“Oh. Um…yeah. Right.” And more heartache, as Alice shrugged out of the coat he’d given her. He protested, but she soon put the plum-colored velvet in his hands, and all he could say was, “Brilliant. Thank you! That’s good.”

Alice had given him so much, why couldn’t he give her a few words that didn’t sound like the ravings of an idiot?

Please don’t leave me.

“So, we should…” Hatter held his arms out awkwardly. Maybe, if he could just hold her one more time, he’d have the strength to say goodbye. But it wasn’t a proper hug at all. Alice just looped her arms up around his and gave him a feeble pat on the back, as though she was afraid of hurting him. Hatter’s hollow feeling grew. If he could only tell her how much he cared for her. Still, the fear of being rejected was overwhelming. He couldn’t stand going through that again, not when it meant so much.

“You know, you could always visit my world,” Alice said. “You might like it.”

It was sweet of her to say, but Hatter knew she’d want to forget all about Wonderland when she went home. Nothing but bad memories for her here.

“Yeah. We could…we could do pizza.” Pizza? What was he even talking about?

“And lots of other things,” Alice said softly. Hatter only stared. What did that mean? But there was no time to ask, because a plastic-suited technician came to take her away.

“Really? I was just…”

Just what, he wondered. Just about to make a bigger fool of himself? He watched Alice, his Alice, stand before the mirror and willed her not to go.

“Just force yourself to breathe,” the technician said. He might have been addressing Hatter as well, since he was holding his breath. The technician pushed Alice through the glass and then she was gone.

Hatter stood there, Alice’s coat crushed under his clenched fingers. He wanted to scream, to beg the mirror to send his Alice back to him. But all he could do was stand there, mute in his grief. His Alice was gone. And she’d taken a part of him with her.

A hand clapped his shoulder and Hatter started. He knew without looking that it was Charlie. The White Knight sniffled.

“I shall miss Just Alice.” Charlie sighed. “Why did you not profess your feelings?”

Hatter couldn’t take his eyes off the Glass, half hoping that Alice would step back through in another moment. “She doesn’t belong here.”

“Love conquers all,” Charlie said airily, clasping his hands to his chest with a flourish.

“I don’t want to be conquered,” Hatter replied crossly. He finally turned away from the Looking Glass, shutting his eyes briefly against the flood of regret.

“Foolish Harbinger,” Charlie called to his retreating back. “You’re already conquered; you just haven’t sense enough to surrender.”

Chapter Text

Hatter sat amid the wreckage that was his flat. His floor was littered with books – his usual cut from Dodo, who really had little else to offer in exchange for services – as well as clothes yanked from his wardrobe. Mad March and the Suits had made a right mess of things, particularly down in the office, but he was beyond caring. Alice’s jacket lay across his lap and his fingers idly stroked the soft velvet.

He didn’t know what to do with himself. Jack Heart – King of Hearts now – had called a meeting for all Tea Shop proprietors in three day’s time, probably to work out a plan for switching them over to a different form of commerce. Hatter didn’t care. He would sit there until the end of time, wallowing in his loss.

And lots of other things. He couldn’t get Alice’s last words out of his head. What had she meant by that? She’d never had trouble saying what was on her mind, except when Hatter desperately needed to know.

He kept telling himself that you couldn’t build a meaningful relationship on several day of dodging Suits, fleeing Jabberwocks, and being scared out of your wits. Hatter sighed and lifted the coat, picturing in his mind how Alice had looked wearing it. There was still a faint scent clinging to the velvet, an Alice scent. Hatter buried his face in the coat and, for the first time since he was a child, he wept.

*o*o*o*

The next two days passed in a blur for Hatter. He was only dimly aware that Dormie had gathered a little crew of people to help clean up the Tea Shop. Jack had sent over some Spades to keep back the increasingly restless clientele that wanted whatever Tea was left, which wasn’t very much truth be told. Hatter still had some of his private stash, but the front room had been completely cleaned out.

Hatter couldn’t get Alice out of his mind. He’d try to focus on something, like putting his files to rights, and then a memory would pop up, unbidden. Like having her pressed snugly against him on the horse, or the way she’d looked by firelight. He kept the coat near him all the time and would sometimes just sit for an hour or more, running his hand over it.

Mostly he worried about how Alice was doing back in the Oyster world. Had she made it back alright? Did she miss him, even a little? Worse, he worried that maybe she’d forgotten about him. About Wonderland. He knew the other Oysters had been dosed, so they’d think everything that had happened to them was a dream. Is that what Alice thought too? He couldn’t bear it.

On the third day, Hatter made a decision. He wrote a note for Dormie, leaving him the Tea Shop…or whatever Jack would turn it into. He didn’t want to be there anymore, and even if Jack denied the request he was going to make of him, he’d find something else to do. Somewhere else in Wonderland. There were too many memories here, too much of Alice.

Hatter showed up at the Palace early and was able to get an audience with the new King. He was shown right into Jack’s office, a large room tastefully appointed with beige walls and carpeting. The only spot of color was the large heart on the wall behind Jack’s desk.

“I’m surprised to see you,” Jack said. He gestured Hatter into a chair. “The meeting won’t be until later today.”

“I’m not here to discuss my Shop,” Hatter said. Nerves danced under his skin. “I want to go through the Glass.”

Jack sat back, his face betraying nothing. In contrast to his stillness, Hatter took off his hat and fidgeted with it.

“You want to go to Alice.”

“Yeah.” Hatter hated this. Hated having to ask this man for what he wanted.

“Why?” Jack asked, sounding genuinely interested.

“I…I need to be with her,” was all that Hatter could say. He looked Jack in the eye, beseeching.

Jack was thoughtful for several long minutes, and then he nodded. “Be in the Hall tomorrow morning. We’re keeping the Glass open for several weeks while we contact our agents who have been living in the Oyster world. After that, it will only be open once a month.”

Hatter nodded, relief flooding through him.

“Take care of your affairs,” Jack ordered. “And clean yourself up.”

Hatter took no notice of Jack’s parting shot. He flipped his hat back up on his head and left. There were no affairs he needed to settle. Anything he owed, or that was owed to him, was no longer part of the new regime. There was nothing at his flat he needed. Who would he miss here, besides Charlie?

It was the old man he went to see, the only one he felt the need to say goodbye to. And if that wasn’t a commentary on the sad state of his life, he wasn’t sure what was. Hatter was a man with hundreds of contacts and acquaintances, but no real friends. Just Charlie…and his Alice.

“Ah, you are going on a quest!” Charlie said when Hatter walked into the knight’s new flat. Jack was keeping him in the city for now, until they could restart the knight training program and make the necessary repairs to the Lost Kingdom. Still, Hatter smirked when he saw that Charlie had set up his hammock in the corner instead of using the bed.

“Yeah. Sort of. I wanted to say goodbye. And thanks.”

“I’m sorry…” Charlie started to say, but Hatter waved him off. They’d been over this already. They all had their demons to face, he knew, and Charlie had done right by them in the end.

“You are a good man, Harbinger,” Charlie said. He clasped Hatter on the shoulder. “Alice of Legend is lucky to have you for a protector.”

“I’m not sure she needs protecting, Charlie,” Hatter said. He sat down in one of parlor chairs. “I’m not even sure she’ll want to see me.”

Charlie merely huffed out a chuckle. “I don’t need to use the Black Arts to see what’s between the two of you. My Nan used to say, where there’s sparks there’s fire, and you have plenty of sparks with Just Alice.”

“Well, I guess I’ll find out either way,” Hatter said. He looked at his hands. “If she doesn’t…want me, I’ll be back.”

“I wish you Godspeed on your Journey, Harbinger,” Charlie said. And just like that, Hatter had gotten his affairs in order.

*o*o*o*

Hatter arrived at the Hall a full half hour before the King. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and his favorite brown porkpie hat. A thrill of excitement coursed through him, made it impossible for him to be still. He could only think of seeing Alice, his Alice.

By the time Jack arrived, Hatter was half out of his skin. “About time!”

“Take this.” Hatter was handed a parcel.

“Parting gift?” Hatter snorted. “And here I am with nothing for you.”

“New ID, Oyster money, cell phone, and the key to my old flat.”

Hatter turned the package over in his hands. The King had given him a new life. Curious, he asked what his new name was.

“David Hatter.”

Hatter tried it out. “David. David. That’ll do. Yeah.”

“Take care of her,” Jack said.

“If she wants me,” Hatter mumbled. That niggle of doubt refused to leave him alone. Jack just smiled and led the way to the mirror.

“Remember to breathe, and just let it carry you.” Jack pressed a piece of paper into Hatter’s palm. “Your new address and Alice’s.”

“Thank you,” Hatter said, finding he actually meant it.

“The Looking Glass will take you to Alice’s world, shortly after she was sent back herself. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding her.” Jack grasped Hatter’s shoulder. “Take care of her.”

Hatter nodded. Taking a deep breath, he stepped through the Looking Glass and found himself sliding through a swirling vortex that made him dizzy and disoriented. A painful burning in his chest reminded him that he needed to breathe, and he started gasping. Hatter had no idea how long he traveled through the shimmering tunnel between his world and Alice’s, but eventually he landed on a hard surface and rolled.

It was night in the Oyster world, and Hatter couldn’t make out much of the building he’d landed in, except it appeared to be under construction. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw something on the ground in front of him. Moving cautiously forward, he saw it was a person, a person in a blue dress…

“Alice!” Icy fear flowed through him. She was still, so still. Afraid to move her, he put one trembling hand to her neck. Yes! She was alive! She must’ve hit her head, he reasoned. The panic calmed but still buzzed a bit through his skin.

“I’ll get some help,” he whispered in Alice’s ear. He brushed a kiss on her forehead, then ran out of the building calling for help. As soon as someone arrived, Hatter stayed by Alice’s side and let everyone assume he was a construction worker who’d forgotten something on the site and had stumbled over her. He insisted on riding with her in the ambulance, his worry increasing the longer she remained unconscious.

At the hospital, a place much smaller than the Hospital of Dreams, Hatter was forced to stay in the Waiting Room. He found it equaled the Truth Room in terms of torture, as he had to sit there helplessly, wondering what was happening with Alice. He turned his hat over and over in his hands, eyes blankly focused on the far wall.

When the woman came, Hatter didn’t pay her any mind until his brain registered the fact that she was saying his name.

“David? Are you David Hatter?”

Hatter was on his feet instantly. “How is she? Is she all right?” Even in his anxiety he remembered not to say her name – he wasn’t supposed to know her.

“I’m Carol Hamilton. My daughter, Alice, is the girl you saved.” Carol held out her hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, Hatter shook it. It was such a strange Oyster custom.

“Is she okay?” Hatter asked again.

“She hit her head, but the doctor says she’ll be fine. I’ll be able to take her home tomorrow.”

“Brilliant!” Hatter couldn’t help his grin. He flipped his hat back on his head with an extra touch of theatrics.

“I just wanted to thank you. If you hadn’t found her…well…I don’t even want to think of what might have happened.”

“I’m just glad she’s okay,” Hatter said. “Do you think…could I…could I see her?”

Carol studied him for a moment. “Yes, of course. I’m sure Alice would like to thank you herself.”

Alice’s mother gave him the address – which he already had – and told him what time to stop by. Hatter thanked her profusely and left the hospital to find Jack Heart’s flat.

*o*o*o*

Hatter was so nervous, he couldn’t keep still. He was dressed more conservatively than usual, had even tried combing his hair into submission. He stood outside the door of Alice’s flat, working up the nerve to press the buzzer.

He told himself he was here to make certain Alice was okay. He told himself whatever reception he received, it didn’t matter. And in his mind he could hear Alice saying, I don’t believe you.

Summoning his nerve, Hatter pushed the buzzer. Another anxious moment while he fretted over who would answer the door. It was with both relief and disappointment that he found himself facing Carol.

“David. Come in.” Carol showed him into the open living area, and he quickly pulled off his new black fedora.

“Alice is much better today,” Carol said. Hatter could only nod dumbly. He could smell Alice here; her scent pervaded the air of the flat.

“Alice!” Carol called. “Come meet David!”

Hatter turned towards the hall and his breath caught in his throat. Alice, his Alice, was coming towards him. Her hair looked different, and she was wearing trousers instead of the blue dress. Her eyes were downcast, and Hatter thought she looked sad. And then she looked up and saw him standing there, and her entire face brightened.

“Hatter!” she cried, closing the space between them at a run. She threw herself into his arms and Hatter hugged her tightly, all of his fears and doubts melting away. He had made the right choice. This is where he belonged.

“Finally,” Hatter said softly, letting himself sink into the hug. A new feeling was blooming inside him, impossibly big. He felt so good he feared he might burst.

“You have no idea how happy I am to see you,” Alice whispered. Hatter grinned.

Alice pulled away to look up at him. Hatter returned her gaze, the tenderness in her eyes momentarily making him catch his breath, and then he dipped his head for a kiss. Her lips were so soft, and she tasted as sweet as she smelled. He couldn’t believe he’d been without this for so long.

This time it was Hatter who pulled away, a bare inch this time. He kept his eyes closed, breathing in the delicious scent of his Alice. “I missed you.”

Then they were kissing again, and Hatter knew that Charlie was right. He didn’t know what the next day, or even the next five minutes, would bring but for once he didn’t feel the need to formulate a plan. All that mattered was that his Alice was in his arms, and he didn’t intend to ever let her go. He could finally name that feeling, that powerful, painfully wonderful feeling that was flowing through his veins. The most sought-after Tea in Wonderland, the most elusive Emotion of all – Love.