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Flip It on Its Head

Chapter Text

Hatter staggered to her feet when the elevator finally lurched to a stop at the entrance to the Library. The Oyster glared at her once more, before thrusting the doors open and storming out. Hatter tried to run after her, only to stop cold at the flare up of pain from her chest.

“No time,” she muttered, pressing on. The pain gnawed at her, but there really was no time to waste in stopping the Oyster from retracing their steps. It was Hatter’s known route for the Resistance. The Oyster would be quickly caught, followed by Hatter, and then they’d have to do this whole sortie over again—with varying degrees of awful results.

“Not that way!” she finally bleated, realizing that she wasn’t gaining any ground. “If we go back that way, we’ll only end up back down there.” The Oyster froze and turned sharply, hair whipping around as though to show her agitation. Her eyes sparkled in anger, something that Hatter could appreciate, though now wasn’t exactly the time to do so.

“Why should I trust you?” the Oyster bit out, eyes still glaring daggers at Hatter. Which Hatter could understand, really, but let’s face it, what other choice had she had? And honestly, at this point Hatter was the Oyster’s best chance of getting back to Otherside. Her boyfriend was a lost cause, though Hatter knew that her work was cut out for her to convince the Oyster of that.

“Because I don’t want to get nicked any more than you do,” Hatter responded shortly. “And the Resistance knows that I use that route. Dodo will have regrouped by now and have sent sentries up to keep watch for us along it.” She watched the Oyster mull over that bit of information, could see her mentally weighing her odds. Hatter tried not to let it bother her—especially since she had been the one to abuse that trust in the Library. Though to be fair, it was the best plan for getting the Oyster home, whether the Oyster had the good sense to see it or not.

The Oyster still wasn’t answering, which was making Hatter twitchy. She didn’t like waiting for things to fall in place or fall through. She’d rather have the reactions and be done with it. It allowed her more knowledge to plan by. The waiting game was hell for planning as you never knew what side someone was going to come down in during it. You couldn’t interrupt it or speed it along. It made for horrible planning purposes.

Finally, finally, the Oyster inclined her head in agreement, motioning for Hatter to take point. Hatter scurried over, chest no longer stinging quite so badly after those moments of rest on the elevator, leading the Oyster in the opposite direction of where they had come. She wasted no time this go-around on silly anecdotes or points of interest, choosing instead to move swiftly and as silently as possible to the nearest Descend point. It was an emergency Descend; only a ladder, and a rickety, rusty one at that. It was unguarded by any gangs or streetrunners, a small mercy, and Hatter wasted no time in motioning the Oyster down. After a few false starts (which sorely tried Hatter’s limited patience), the Oyster finally climbed down the ladder, cringing all the while. Hatter quickly followed her down, before leading off in another series of directions to the next Descend point—also another ladder. She watched the Oyster grit her teeth in determination before climbing down once more. Hatter spared a moment to thank Cheshire for their luck in finding two unguarded Descend points. That would have been the icing on this particular disaster cake.

Upon hitting the bottom, Hatter strode off towards her ‘Shoppe, trying to figure out the logistics of getting the Oyster to the Looking Glass on her own. She couldn’t count on the Resistance at the moment, at least, not that arm of it. And while the option was there to just turn the Oyster in, Hatter had immediately put that thought in the pile of Not An Option. She walked to the outer edge of the Sector, turning sharply to hug the wall of an old house, still mulling over possibilities.

“The Looking Glass is the only way to get you back home,” she said finally, deciding to think out loud. Maybe the Oyster would have some insights. “And it is here in the city, but it’s the most heavily guarded piece of kit in Wonderland.” She heard the Oysters steps quicken slightly.

“I’ve got to find Jack first,” she replied stubbornly. It was that thinking that got them into this mess in the first place—and would get them both killed at this rate. Hatter stopped abruptly, swinging to face the Oyster.

“Have you not heard a word I’ve said?” she snapped, tired of the same refrain. She understood that the woman wanted to save her loved one. It was admirable even. But saving that person is a moot point when you were lying in the Queen’s dungeon or her labs, or worse beheaded. Why wouldn’t the Oyster see sense?!

“I don’t know how he got mixed up in this,” the Oyster replied, “but I know that he’s not a thief.” Her eyes were begging Hatter to understand, to listen. To sodding throw away everything for some bump on a log that Hatter didn’t even know. And the saddest part of it all was that it was working slightly. Hatter felt for her. She saw the same things that she had felt when March was first taken, though for March it was a case of siblinghood, rather than True Love. “He was trying to surprise me,” she continued, shrugging helplessly, “or sweep me off my feet, and so, somehow, he got a hold of this ring, and it has landed him in a pile of trouble,” she concluded, staring once more at the ring, a regretful expression crossing her face. Hatter stared at it too, still trying to puzzle out that particular connection. She turned her gaze back at the Oyster, who seemed to shrink in on herself slightly. “If it wasn’t for me, he would be home safe.”

Fat chance if he had the Stone, Hatter reflected grimly. She shifted on her feet for a moment, wondering what to ask first.

“How did he get hold of it?” she asked finally, figuring that was the best place to start. The Oyster had calmed down enough to answer now, and the more Hatter knew, the better she could plan.

“Well, I don’t know,” the Oyster said briskly, averting her gaze from Hatter’s. She braced her hands on either side of Hatter to keep walking. Hatter followed her with her gaze before following after. “The point is,” the Oyster continued, all trace of vulnerability gone, “I’m the only one who can get him out of this mess.” Hatter was dumbfounded for a moment at the sheer absurdity of that statement.

“How’d you figure that out?” she managed finally.

“Well, I’ve got the Ring,” the Oyster replied, like it was the most obvious answer in Cheshiredom. “I can use it to negotiate his release.”

“Oh no,” Hatter snapped finally. Cheshire preserve her from self-sacrificing idiots. “No,” she reiterated when the Oyster still hadn’t stopped. “You—”

“No?” the Oyster queried, at last seeming to see the validity of Hatter’s statement. She turned around again, only to notice how close to the edge they were. She plastered herself to the building behind her, eyes warily looking down.

“No, you can’t negotiate with the Queen,” Hatter said firmly. “She’s Crazy,” she added when the Oyster looked particularly unconvinced. The Oyster looked at her, still breathing heavily. “You have to cut your losses,” Hatter tried again, willing the Oyster to understand. She had been there too, and knew that it wasn’t worth it. “You have to get the hell out of here while you still can.”

“No, I can’t just abandon Jack,” the Oyster shot back, head shaking swiftly in denial. Hatter wanted to scream. “I mean, he’s innocent.” Hatter wanted to yell that that didn’t matter to the Queen. That the Queen could care less about Innocence. “And besides,” the Oyster continued quietly, “I like him.” Hatter goggled at her a moment, willing herself to find a way to explain to this woman in front of her that “liking” wasn’t important right now.

“Oh, you like him?” she asked acidly.

“Yes.” There was that stubborn chin tilt again. Hatter was done. She was just done with this conversation. There was no reasoning with stubborn, martyring idiots. She moved past the Oyster to continue on her way. “A lot!” she heard the Oyster yell from behind her, causing her to freeze and turn once more. She felt the Anger stir again.

“Trust me, I—I know a thing or two about liking people,” she replied bitterly, several of the girls she had been with flitting through her mind. Each one had been special in her own way, and each one had left once they no longer had use for Hatter. And there was always March to think about. Siblings were supposed to be there for each other, support each other. “Safe as houses” indeed. “And, in time,” she continued along the same vein, “after much chocolate and cream cake, like turns into ‘what was his name again?’”

“No,” retorted the Oyster, glaring at Hatter. “Not in my world. Look, I have a bad record with liking guys—”

“There’s a shock,” Hatter snorted, turning back around. The Oyster’s sheer stubbornness would drive most any man in Wonderland to Tea. It was almost ready to drive her to it.

“And this is the first one that has meant anything,” the Oyster continued hurriedly, jogging a little to catch up. “There’s no way I’m going to give him up now.” The Anger surges a moment before Hatter manages to persuade it to subside into simple Frustration. She forced herself to ignore that issue and the old wounds it poked at, once more moving forward. A small movement caught her gaze suddenly, and she slowed, telling the Oyster to stay close. She ducked behind a telephone stall (now very much unused) that sat in front of her ‘Shoppe. Moving to the side, she noted with no small amount of dismay that her ‘Shoppe had been raided. Again.

She watched several Suits milling about on the front steps of her ‘Shoppe, stomach clenching when she saw that a few of the Suits were Clubs. Clubs were closest to the Queen, and rarely left the Casino for anything other than Queen’s business—which almost always resulted in a beheading. Among the Suits was also one that didn’t have the normal “Suit” appearance. He also seemed to have a white, rabbit head—almost ceramic in appearance.

The Queen must have a new cyborg to test out, Hatter reflected grimly, watching as said cyborg began to throw things (and people) about. Her heart sank further when she saw Ratty on the steps talking to one of the Clubs. She couldn’t make out the words, but given the fact that he had the Club’s rapt attention, she was pretty sure that Ratty had just sold her out. She turned away from the chaos before her, Anger rising sharply again. She thumped her fists on the wall behind her to vent some of the Anger out.

“You work with rats long enough and you turn into one, eh?” she asked rhetorically, looking back over at Ratty and the Club.

“What is that?” she heard the Oyster ask from behind her.

“Nothing I’ve seen before,” she replied grimly, attention switching back to the cyborg. It had turned to “face” them, and Hatter got the distinct impression that it was scanning the area. Worse, now that she had gotten a look at it straight on, it had the same body type as… “Wait…” she murmured, scarcely believing herself for the thought. “It can’t be.” March was dead. The Queen herself had ordered his beheading. He couldn’t have been—the head snapped back to them with laser-like focus. It—he—it began walking down the stairs, straight at them, past the Club and the rest of the Suits, which told Hatter that even if it wasn’t March, it was still something to be afraid of. Otherwise its programming would have ordered it to wait for the Club’s command. Instead, the Club motioned all the Suits to follow him and possibly-March down the stairs. Right at them. Hatter, already backing up (and forcing the Oyster to do the same) began to panic. She turned and began to walk very quickly, the Oyster following suit. She could hear the pursuit after them. She ducked through an abandoned lot with a field, hoping to muffle their trail. Stopping to look back, she saw that the cyborg was still advancing.

“What?” asked the Oyster.

“We should run,” Hatter responded shakily. “Run!” she yelled again, when the Oyster hadn’t moved. They ran along the edge of the Sector, Hatter yelling for the Oyster to hurry before running ahead. She wasn’t sure where she was leading them, though she hoped it wasn’t into a dead end. All she was doing at that moment was trying to lose their tail. They managed to Descend a few times before reaching the canal, which is where Hatter realized her subconscious had been leading them. Her boat. Well, not hers exactly, as it had been a loaner from the Resistance, but she knew how to use it. She paused on the last Descent, grabbing the Oyster, checking to see if they were still being followed. Which of course they were. Her luck.

“That way,” she called, pushing the Oyster to run ahead of her. She ran ahead again, heading for the gangplank. “Down here! My smuggling boat. Quickly!” She immediately set to running the motor while the Oyster got in. She could hear the footsteps of the Suits in close pursuit. “Hang on. There’s a knack to this,” she said, mostly to calm herself down as she pulled at the starter. Which refused to start. “Which, apparently, I’ve never learned,” she continued, Panic welling up once more. She slammed the opening over the motor closed, heading for the stern of the boat. Turning over the ignition, the boat only gave a gurgle before dying. “Come on!” she yelped, rapping at the dash a few times with her right hand. It reluctantly sputtered to life, and she sighed in relief as they were off away from the dock and across the river.

“Where is the Casino?” the Oyster asked after a while of sailing. Hatter glanced over at her in weary frustration.

“I’ve already told you,” she replied with a generous amount of exasperation, “you can’t negotiate with the Queen. But…” she trailed off, another idea blooming into her brain. “The White Rabbit is different kettle of onions.” She could envision it now. The Oyster—Alice—could take the Stone to the White Rabbit in return for her safe passage back to Otherside. If she let Hatter do the negotiations, Hatter might be able to swing passage for herself as well. It would be the perfect escape. “Perhaps they’ll do a deal. It’s a long shot, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”

“We?” Hatter swallowed a moment. This was the hard part for her. She had to be honest about what she wanted now if they were going to make it. Be honest about what they were doing. She was going to have to trust Alice not to leave her high and dry. Trust this woman who had (unintentionally) caused the complete collapse of Hatter’s life.

“I don’t know if you noticed, Alice, but my shop was ransacked,” she said finally, eyes firmly staring straight ahead. “I’m homeless.” She didn’t want pity. Cheshire, she didn’t want pity. “I’m a target not only for the Suits, but for the Resistance as well, and there are only so many places in Wonderland I can hide.” And most of them are lost to me now, she added silently. Especially if that cyborg was, in fact, March. “The way I see it, I’ve only got one option.” She swallowed around the lump in her throat at the thought of leaving Wonderland.

“Which is?” Alice prompted.

“Go back with you,” she replied quickly, before she could talk herself out of it, “to your world.” She chanced a look over at Alice, only to see the woman’s sympathetic gaze already on her. She quickly turned her attention back to steering the boat across to the other side of the lake that the River of Cards drained into. She could feel the Oyster’s eyes on her for a long while before a noise behind them caught both of their attention. She slowed the boat and turned, only to see a Scarab making good time behind them.

“Before we do anything, we have to shake that Royal Flush,” she said grimly, throwing the boat back into high gear, making her way to the shore. She pulled up carefully, trying to hide any wake that would point directly to their landing. She motioned for Alice to get out of the boat, quickly following. She looked around for some loose foliage that she could grab to disguise the boat from the air, picking up branches and large fern fronds. Alice, she was pleased to note, was doing the same. They layered them on top of each other, making what Hatter hoped was an effective screen. She motioned behind them to the dense forest, wondering if they could make it inland enough to set up a camp area, following Alice deeper in.

“I don’t know who that weirdo is leading the posse,” she panted, making her way up an embankment to Alice. She ignored the little flare of guilt at omitting her suspicions to the Oyster about the cyborg. She didn’t have time to rehash who March was or what he possibly was now, “but he’s got one hell of a nose for blood.” Which March did, scarily enough. March had been given so many more augments than Hatter. More than Hatter could even fathom, really. For the first month of life in the labs, all she saw of March was swathed with bandages upon bandages. When they gave his senses an upgrade, he had tested it out by telling her when her cycle was due. She’d slapped him for it, if memory served.

“And this is the place to find it,” she continued, refocusing on the present. She knew these woods a little. Her father had, on occasion, taken her to the river from the Capital, but that had been years and years ago, when she was just a little girl. She knew the dangers of the woods though. Everyone in the Red Court did. Jabberwocks, borogoves, and other nasty beasties lived in the woods surrounding the Capital. A loud honking groan sounded through the trees. A Jabberwock’s call. Which gave Hatter an idea…

“What was that?”

“There’s things in these woods that defy imagination,” Hatter said looking at Alice speculatively. She knew the Oyster could run. Knew that she could follow directions—when motivated. All she needed the other woman to do was run in the correct direction, then shimmy up a tree. Hatter would only need to lead the Jabberwock to the Suits, and then duck out of the way. Jabberwocks had horrible eyesight, and only mediocre hearing. Smell was how they tracked prey. “Come on, we haven’t got much time.” She strode off in the direction of the call, listening for Alice to follow. She paused at the top of a hill, turning back to coax Alice the rest of the way. She saw the fear in the Oyster’s eyes, and softened slightly. “Look, we can’t shake the posse,” she said gently. “We can’t fight them, either. There’s only one thing left to try.”

“What’s that?”

“Leading them into a trap.” She smiled slightly, before her mind reminded her of just who was the bait for this trap. Swallowing nervously, she continued into the forest, hearing Alice run to catch up behind. They walked a good ways in. Enough that the lake was both out of sight and out of hearing. Hatter usually enjoyed the forest sounds around her, but today she was listening for a particular one. The smell was what cued her in first.

“Keep your breathing shallow,” she cautioned, hearing the call again, much closer. She heard the Oyster squeak, though was a bit surprised at the feel of Alice clutching her arm, asking if she heard the Jabberwock’s call. “Yep,” she replied before ordering Alice to find a tree to climb.

“What? Why?”

“The trap we talked about?” Hatter said, adrenaline surging. “This is it. I’m the bait. Go.” She ran off in the direction of the Jabberwock, stopping when Alice started to ask more questions. Not now, she moaned. Why did the Oyster have to come with Curiosity? It was going to get them both killed. She heard Alice run, felt her arm being gripped again, but her eyes were only on the Jabberwock. She stared down at the hands on her arm briefly before meeting Alice’s gaze once more.

“It’s a Jabberwock,” she replied shortly.

“What?”

“Alice,” she said desperately, “less of the questions. Just get going.” She put both hands on Alice’s shoulders, spinning her, and hoped that this time the Oyster would listen. She heard running noises, though they sounded closer again.

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

Cheshire preserve us, Hatter prayed. She was about ready to strangle the Oyster. She was trying to do a good deed. Trying to save them both. But at this rate, they were going to both be eaten by the time the Oyster’s Curiosity was satisfied!

“Yes, after he gets a good look at me. Now could you just please go?”

“That’s your plan?” Hatter didn’t need that amount of sarcasm right now. She needed obedience and self-preservation. She needed the Oyster to not have ever come. Or to never leave. Except for right now. Right now the Oyster needed to leave.

“If you don’t—” she began, ready to throw the Oyster up a tree personally, when a loud thud caught her attention. Of course the Jabberwock chose now to come, she thought sourly. And of course it’s behind us. She watched as the Jabberwock first studied Alice, then her. She hoped she looked like a tastier morsel. “Run,” she said firmly, taking off to the left. She assumed Alice would follow her, but of course the Oyster was as contrary as Cheshire on his best days, with the Jabberwock following closely behind. “Not that way! Alice!” she yelped, turning around, running back towards the disaster in the making. They were going the opposite direction of the posse. She heard Alice cry out and she put on more speed, trying to catch up.

She finally managed to run a small circle to the side, coming at them from the right. She saw Alice on the ground on her back in front of the Jabberwock—who was stuck between two trees. Not the biggest tart in the shop, were Jabberwocks. It hadn’t figured out that it could go around yet, something Hatter was very grateful for as she slid down to Alice’s height to help her up, catching a large dose of Jabberwock breath in the process. It really was reflex to snap out with her fist and punch the thing in the nose. Really.

I’ll never be able to smell anything again, she thought mournfully, as she pulled the Oyster up, the Jabberwock still bleating in pain. And still stuck behind the two trees.

“Come on!” she yelled over the noise. “You ok?”

“Yeah!”

“Good.” They ran once more, the Jabberwock finally freeing itself from the trees and again in hot pursuit. Hatter led them down a small hill, over to what looked like a clearing—when they suddenly weren’t running anymore. There was no ground beneath them, and they were both falling.

“Ow,” she said flatly, making sure her lungs still worked. Hatter looked at the spikes around her that she had somehow missed when falling. Miracle, that was. She started, looking over at Alice, sighing in relief when she was unharmed as well. “You okay?” Alice shakily assured her that she was. Hatter groped around a moment for her Hat, before the sound of the Jabberwock made her pause and look up. “Stay still,” she whispered, hoping that the Jabberwock would miss them and get bored. Instead it honed in on Alice and dove for the kill—only to impale itself on one of the stakes. It bellowed in outrage before stomping off, most likely in search of an easier meal.

Hatter began coughing, trying to clear the smell out of her nose. She looked once more for her Hat. She heard Alice getting up next to her, and wondered how they were going to get out of the pit they were in. And wondered how that pit had gotten there in the first place.

“Vermin!” a voice yelled from on high. Hatter supposed she had her answer, and looked up to see…a White Knight? They were gone, weren’t they? “Saboteurs! Anarchists!” the man continued to yell at them, face turning red in Anger. “I was this close to catching him,” he said, holding his hands apart a good measure. “This close,” he amended, moving the hands farther apart. He continued yelling insults down at them. Hatter, at this point, had lost what little grasp on Patience she had left.

“That’s all well and good,” she yelled from the base of the pit. “But can you at least help us out of this mess before yelling at us some more?” She heard the man huff a bit more before a rope was thrown down—toward Alice naturally. She hoped the Oyster could convince him to throw down a rope for her, too. Alice motioned for her to take the rope once she had reached the surface, which Hatter did gratefully. They quickly moved to the other side of the pit, the man in armour following around. It was White Knight armour. Maybe a hermit? Hatter mused.

“Subverters! Pig-pushing…bug-bashers!” he continued to curse at them, consternation crossing his face as he ran out of things to call them.

“Who the hell are you?” Alice demanded from Hatter’s left. The man drew himself up, armour clanking ominously.

“I,” he said regally, “am a Knight.” He paused, then marched a few more steps so as to stand before Alice. “The White Knight, to be precise. Sir Charles Eustace Fotheringhay le Malvoy the Third.” That name pinged a bell in Hatter’s recollection. Which meant that the man was at least knowledgeable of White Knights. She watched his face narrow in suspicion, eyebrows plunging low, only to sweep up again in some sort of graceful dance. “Who…are you?”

“I’m…Alice,” the Oyster said finally, realizing that Hatter wasn’t about to say anything. Hatter watched in bemusement as the Knight quickly stood.

“Alice?” he asked eagerly. “The Alice?” He walked closer, pushing his face into the Oyster’s. “The Alice?”

“No,” the Oyster replied warily. “Just…Alice.”

“Just Alice,” the Knight echoed softly, turning away for a moment.

“I thought all you guys were wiped out years ago,” Hatter finally said, finding her voice. The Knight obviously didn’t recognize her, or see her parents in her, so that was one fear abated. Granted, the Knight was a lot more interested in who he perceived to be the Alice of Legend rather than someone who may or may not have been at the Red King’s Capital some time ago.

“Well you thought wrong,” the Knight retorted, shooting her an arch look. “As you can see, I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog.” He thumped once on his armour for emphasis.

He’s lost it, Hatter thought dimly. We’re stuck in this forest with a posse at our backs and a madman at our front. I think I’d rather go find that Jabberwock again.

“Are there any others like you?” Alice asked slowly, appearing to also be a bit put-off by the Knight.

“Certainly not!” he replied cheerfully. “I’m a one-off.” He walked back over to where his shovel had been placed. “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.” Hatter heard him grunt under the weight of picking up the shovel, wheezing in laughter after he finished quoting his “nan.” She looked over at Alice, utterly non-plussed. On the one hand, the Knight was not likely going to hurt them. On the other, he wasn’t going to really be of any help either.

“No, I meant, are there any other Knights in these woods?” Alice persisted. “Um…your comrades in arms?”

“Heavens, no. Are you Mad?” the Knight returned glibly. “We were all wiped out years ago.” Hatter tried not to scream in frustration. She watched him idly scratch at the chain mail beneath the breastplate, still hoisting his shovel over one shoulder. A thought occurred to her. One that seemed very implausible, but the question still needed to be asked.

“You dug that pit on your own?” Charles' face lost its cheer, closing off and darkening rapidly. He dropped his shovel in indignation.

“You think I’m too old?” he accused, advancing on the pair quickly. He soon was in Hatter’s space, finger right under her nose. They both backed away quickly, as the Knight continued his rant, and advancement. “Well let me tell you something, nugface. Youth is vastly overrated.” Hatter soon tried to slot herself in front of Alice, putting some extra distance between her and a Mad Knight.

“I may have put on a few years, but I’m crafty,” the Knight continued, still advancing, though less angry. “I have a very inventive and calculating mind, stacked high with groundbreaking, state of the art ideas.” He gestured emphatically at them, finally halting his charge. “I invent all sorts of things.” Hatter stared at Alice, eyes pleading with her to just…go, and run and get away from this new brand of insanity. Alice kept her gaze on the Knight, who began to rattle off his inventions. “The beehive mousetrap, for instance.” He turned abruptly, striding back, before declaring that the pit they had fallen in was dubbed the “gravity-assisted snare, Mark 4” (third attempt). He stopped then, attention caught by something that Hatter couldn’t make out. He appeared to just be staring into space. She watched as he turned around and wandered away.

“He’s Mad as a box of frogs,” she said finally. “How the hell have you survived?” He didn’t respond, and Hatter watched as he kept wandering about, looking for all the world like someone who was chasing a bread-and-butter-fly—except there was no bread-and-butter-fly. There wasn’t even a mosquito. She blinked as he suddenly straightened and fixed his gaze back on her.

“Hm? Oh, yes! I’m a Knight,” he said simply, as though that explained everything. Hatter remembered that the White Court’s Knights were a bit odd, but touched in the head wasn’t quite what she was expecting. “And I’m an inventor, as I said,” he continued, walking back towards Alice. Hatter watched him warily, “although, if I’m honest, it’s strictly on a part-time basis.”

“You don’t say,” Hatter murmured, calculating the odds of escape without this lune following them.

“And I dabble in the black arts, now and then,” the Knight said, voice dropping to a more intimate octave as he leaned into Alice’s space again. “Soothsaying, toenail readings, that sort of thing.” Hatter shot him a look of disgust, turning back to Alice to figure out a plan. “Here, let me show you!” he said, all cheer back in his voice. “Give me your palm—” He grabbed the hand with the Stone. Hatter braced herself to use her right fist.

“Get off,” Alice yelped, pulling her hand back, but the damage had been done. Hatter watched the Knight’s facial colour pale enough to match the colour of his armour.

“What’s that on your finger?” he asked quietly, staring at her. He gestured with his hand at the Ring. Alice shifted in place, moving the Ring out of immediate view.

“Nothing,” she responded quickly, tone practically screaming “I’m lying!” to all and sundry, much to Hatter’s chagrin. She kept her gaze firmly on the Knight, watching to see what he was going to do next.

“It’s the sacred Ring,” the Knight said reverently. He approached shakily, almost as though his knees were weakening. “The Stone of Wonderland. Our Ring.” His voice had taken on an element of tears, and Hatter grew nervous at the sight of the same light that had lit Dodo’s eyes appearing. That light of fanaticism. She quickly stepped forward, placing on hand on the center of the Knight’s breastplate, halting his forward momentum.

“Don’t get too excited, Granddad,” she warned, pushing back gently. “The Ring stays on the lady’s finger, okay?” To her surprise, the Knight merely let out a small moan, turning completely from them, and dropped on his knees to the ground.

“It is meant to be!” he exclaimed, his eyes slamming shut, palms clasped together as if in prayer. “The time, this place, this meeting in the woods…” Hatter felt her skin crawl and the hairs stood up on her neck once more. He was clearly unhinged, and furthermore was making enough of a racket to draw the attention of the posse they were trying to get rid of.

“Oh…kay, we need to get away from him before he gets us killed,” she said firmly, reaching for Alice’s arm. She started to lead them away, only to have Alice try to pull out of her grasp after a few steps, turning back to face the Knight.

“But maybe he can help us,” the Oyster said. Hatter was back to wanting to strangle the woman before her. They’d no time.

“Have you forgotten about the weirdo that’s tailing us?” she asked acerbically. “This…” and dear Cheshire, the man had started muttering again. Some sort of sing-song chant, “freak show,” she continued, gesturing at the clearly Mad Knight, “is going to draw his attention for sure.” She watched Alice’s gaze fall back to the Knight, watched the thoughts turning behind her dark eyes, and once more bit down the urge to scream.

“If this Knight has survived out here for this long,” the Oyster argued, eyes never leaving the Knight, “maybe he knows a thing or two,” she finished, eyes swinging back to meet Hatter’s. Without waiting for a response, the Oyster turned quickly, striding back over to the Knight. Hatter raised her eyes upwards, throwing her hands up in despair. She finally perched her hands on her hips and waited to see what this fool girl was about to do now.

“Listen, Charlie,” the Oyster began, “we have some very bad men following us who want to kill us and steal the Ring.” The chanting had not yet begun to stop. Hatter turned her head slightly, surveying the area. Those “bad men” would be on them in moments if they didn’t get a move on. “Do you know anywhere we can lay low for a while?” Hatter stared at her feet in frustration. Of all the Stubborn, Pig-headed things to do…

“The stars are aligned in a cosmic ray of hope,” the Knight’s voice rang out, muttering gaining strength. Once more, the hair on the back of Hatter’s neck stood up. Cheshire, but did she hate fanatics. Bad for business and now bad for her continued survival.

“And you want to put your faith in him?” she argued, unable to keep quiet any more. Really now, there were long shots and then there were impossibilities.

“Yes,” the Oyster replied, glancing back at Hatter before fixing her gaze back on the Knight. She turned fully back around, nimbly picking her way across the underbrush back to Hatter, who spared a brief moment to admire her grace. “He might be nuts and…” she trailed off, looking back at the Mad Knight, “150 years old and dressed like a car crash, but he’s a survivor.” Hatter looked over at the man kneeling before them, trying for a moment to see whatever it was that Alice saw. Nope. She looked at the Oyster again in disbelief.

“And I’m not deaf!” the Knight called suddenly, voice very much in the here and now. It jarred Hatter into silence. She watched the Knight get to his feet (surprisingly well, considering his age), and turn, chin pointing into the air, white goatee fluttering in the wind. “Just Alice,” he declared, voice somber and full of Intent.

Oh Cheshire preserve us, Hatter realized with a dawning sense of horror. He’s about to make a Gesture. Gestures, in her experience, were rarely things you wanted to witness. It meant that the Knight in question was going to Pledge something—usually fealty or aid. It also meant that they wouldn’t be rid of him until their “quest” (or whatever), was completed. It was overwrought, overdone, trite, and so very Knight-ish.

“I, Sir Charles Eustace Fotheringhay le Malvoy the Third, White Knight and Guardian of the Curtsey…” he paused, demonstrating the aforementioned Curtsey.

“Oh, very nice,” Hatter said, only half mocking. For this Knight to have been made the Guardian of something meant that he was indeed ranked highly at Court. How he had managed to escape the initial Purge was becoming an even greater mystery. Glancing over, she noticed Alice’s face had taken on a bit of a vague expression, as though she couldn’t process what was in front of her. Her eyes had grown quite round, face clearly frozen in a state of confusion mixed with disbelief.

“…Will be honoured to escort you, your goods…and vassal,” he continued on, face twisting in disgust as he gestured at Hatter on the word “vassal.” She felt herself bristling at the snub, “to my sacred Kingdom.” He Curtseyed at them both, though Hatter knew his eyes were only on Alice and the Ring.

“Did he just call me a ‘vessel?’” Hatter asked finally, turning to Alice. She knew what the Knight had been saying. That particular speech was a Gesture of Loyalty. She had seen one at Court when she was still very young. She just didn’t want the Oyster to know her particular conflicted feelings on the subject. She knew that they were near the Kingdom’s Heart. She also knew that if she let any of that on, she would lose her chance of escape, lose her bargaining chip, and—what she was quickly seeing as worst of all—lose Alice herself. The Knight grunted, in what Hatter originally assumed was disdain, and turned, sharp retort on her tongue, only to see the Knight motioning to her, slightly hunched over.

“Quickly, quickly,” he whisper-pleaded, fingers beckoning, “sacroiliac.” He brought his hand back to gesture at the area.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Hatter said, looking briefly back at Alice, who looked amused of all things, before turning her attention back to the Knight. Our saviour, she thought sourly, rolling her eyes. She crossed the distance between them, ignoring the Knight’s moans and wordless pleas, studying the situation before her.

“Straighten, straighten, straighten. Hard, hard,” the Knight chanted, tone still pleading. Hatter deftly placed her left hand on his chest, her right on the base of his spine, and quickly snapped him back upright. She slowly brought her hands away, as the Knight gave a slight gasp of air, then strode off towards Alice on shaky legs, a small “good-o” left in his wake.

We’re doomed, Hatter thought distantly. Absolutely, completely doomed.