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Flip It on Its Head

Chapter Text

Boys, David Hatter firmly believed, were a notoriously dense lot. She had come to that conclusion after watching her father become more and more enmeshed in politics before the rise of the Red Queen, losing his life in the process, and causing her and her mother to become part of the scorned “tainted” few for which there was no pity. She had cemented it after watching her best mate sell himself to the Red Queen for power and fame and glory, losing himself in the process. It had become her anthem for every desperate addict shuffling into her Teashoppe for the latest fix of emotions. It had become her shield for every handsy Suit that would need to “inspect” the premises—which they all seemed to believe included her. And it finally became her exasperated sigh when she began to help the resistance and ran into Dodo and his patronizing, smarmy scorn, judging her for every delivery, every word, every thought.

She told her father’s portrait as she got older that he had been a fool for siding with the White King. History had shown that he had not been willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the kingdom peaceful, to keep it safe. That he would not act when the Red Queen became a real threat. She railed about the expediency of picking the best side so that you could come out okay, could survive. She gritted through tears, relating the horrors that had befallen her and her mother because of his lack of foresight. Her mother, once a lady at court, now having to clean rushes and run laundry for a few pennies. She finally had become hooked onto Joy when it had hit the market, and the Hospital of Dreams hadn’t been willing to take her because of her status in the White King’s court. Hatter still remembered finding her strung out on bed, dead from an overdose, a bright grin stretching across her face.

Hatter had begun running with the local poor gangs at that point. She was fast, nimble, and smart. She quickly went from lookout to architect of their schemes. She became fast friends with Alfred March, another of the remnants of the White King’s reign. March, as he was called, had lost both his parents in the war, but was a ringer for his father, a rather famous dignitary of some sort—Hatter didn’t much care. He was the only one she had given the privilege of using her given name. March had one flaw: Pride. He was always angry at being brought low by the Queen’s war. His rage often got them in trouble with local prefects, much to Hatter’s consternation.

When the Suits began their raids on the slums, looking for troublemakers, rebels, and worst of all, Intellectuals, Hatter began to plan her escape to another part of Wonderland. Surely there was room for one street rat in another city away from the capital. She had even set aside enough to smuggle March out when their “nest” was raided. The Suits were quick and decisive of who was “worthy” of mercy and who wasn’t. Anyone who fought back too much was quickly sent off to Chesire-knows-where, and never seen again. The rest were told on no uncertain terms that they now were to be employed by Her Majesty, and their loyalty was to be unquestioned. The silent “or you can join your friends” had been a nice touch. Then they asked for volunteers for the military, promising emptily of fame and fortune. They hastened to add that this was separate from their “employment”—“An addition, if you will,” one of them had added with a saccharine smile. March, seeing a chance to reclaim "his due," quickly jumped on the chance, despite all protests from Hatter.

“I’ll be safe as houses, David,” he had said winningly, ruffling her hair. “C’mon, you’ll get some nice swag for this, too. Just come with me. Us two against the world, remember?” Against her better judgment, she provisionally volunteered.

Hatter, after extensive testing, was deemed far too intelligent to be given any kind of formal education beyond what she already had been given at home. It was far too dangerous. March was also considered too risky. They were, instead, handed over to R&D to be experimented on for more…covert methods. Hatter’s right arm was replaced with an augment that needed charging from her temper. They sent her off to the Doctors to make sure that she was always Angry. The doctors programmed her control to be a simple one: a Hat. She could have laughed at the irony. March was given enhanced senses and a clear education in poisons, hand-to-hand combat, weapons—anything to make sure that he was nothing but a weapon. After his sessions with the Doctors, his grip on reality began to blur, careening sharply to mania. She tried again and again to get him to leave with her. To run far. One day, in a more lucid moment, he agreed. It was the last time she ever saw Alfred March again. She waited for him at the back door of the complex, having managed to pick her way across by bribing, intimidating, or killing anyone in her way. He arrived right on time—with twenty suits behind him. His grin was bright and completely insane. She managed to negotiate a provisional release. 5 years of service for life probation, working for the Queen. Seeing no alternative, she agreed. Then sucker-punched March for better measure. He never called her “David” again.

When she heard about his beheading, she poured a glass of bandersnatch and toasted a portrait she kept locked in a trunk along of one of her parents.

She had stumbled across the Resistance completely by accident. She knew, of course, that Dorie (or Doormouse as he went by) was a member. She had eyes, and wasn’t keen on ever being caught unawares again. But she wasn’t about to confront him over it, so long as it didn’t draw any undue attention to her ‘Shoppe. She had managed to sell a high number of Teas that day, earning a “bonus” in pay: some frothy confections that turned Hatter’s stomach to even begin to process eating. She ducked out that night, heading to the slums for the local “rat-den,” hoping to trade some shadier-market goods from them for the confects. Instead, she ran straight into Duck—though she hadn’t know him then—scurrying his way anxiously toward a small, rundown building two streets over from the gang’s headquarters. Duck had grabbed his pistol, pointing it straight at Hatter’s head, eyes bright with the same fear she’d seen on a cornered, abused cat once. She had tried smooth-talking her way out, but Duck had merely bullied her into the Great Library (and hadn’t that been a trip). She gave him the confects as a sort of goodwill gesture/bribe. He had merely stared at them blankly, before gesturing to her to get out of his bus.

Dodo was waiting for them on the walkway, furious with Duck for bringing Hatter down. He had said, on no uncertain terms, that if Duck had been that worried, he should have shot Hatter right there, and then run for it. Dodo made to finish the effort, but Hatter, frightened and, frankly, furious just then, threw her hat into the air and let her right arm roll. Dodo ended up at the other end of the hall, unconscious. Duck pistol whipped her, and then checked on Dodo. The leader had grumbled about the injury, but surprisingly decided to spare Hatter. Most likely it was the fact that Hatter framed a business deal for him: food and information on the Queen’s movements in exchange for a small “discretionary sum.” When asked why, she shrugged and said that she had no loyalty to either side. Dodo had sneered at that, calling her a cockroach, before telling Duck to escort her out. Duck gave her the password, along with shyly asking for more confects.

She glowered at the innocent-looking box of goods for the Resistance, along with the reports she’d “appropriated” from some of the more…enthusiastic Suits to peruse her ‘Shoppe. Dodo had been more than hostile lately, his paranoia bordering on the same homicidal Madness she had watched develop in March. The Queen’s Suits had been getting a bit more suspicious of the “known criminal” that ran the Teashoppe, especially since the Resistance knew more than they should about their movements. So “inspections” were happening with greater frequency. And there had been rumours that the Queen’s new alchemist had been assigned the process of resurrecting Mad March. The icing on the rather horrid cake had been when Ratty had walked in and asked her on a date, hoping she’d provide Tea for the occasion.

Yes, she marked darkly, boys were a very dense lot.

Chapter Text

Her day had started out as it usually did (overcast with a side of dreary), with the normal amount of variables expected (how many people yelling over Calm vs. Passion), and a few somewhat expected curveballs thrown in (Clear Conscience hitting the market). Hatter was used to these variables in her life. She had her current batch of information set to be gathered in the coming week, she had new Teas to inventory, and she had dodged the latest overture from Ratty. Everything was nice, normal, and controlled. She liked having her life mostly under control. It also had the added impact of keeping the Anger down.

Then Ratty waltzed in with this fantastical story about an Oyster who climbed out of the banks on the pier and offered to pay him to help her find her friend (also brought here). Hatter felt the controlled world around her crumble.

“What do you mean, you found an Oyster on the piers?” she asked sharply, staring at Ratty from her perch on her chair. He began to stutter and stammer, all while looking transfixed behind her at the selection of Teas. She kept her hands firmly spread on her desk, remembering that letting her right arm loose on Ratty was not an effective method of getting more information. “Ratty!” she barked. He jumped at that, whined a little, before stammering out that this Oyster of his had randomly appeared, like Cheshire itself, before him, asked for his help, and would Hatter please take her off his hands. Hatter was more than a bit stymied at the information. Oysters didn’t just…appear. They were taken via Scarab over to the Casino, where they were drained of every drop of emotion, at which point they became empty, withered husks that the Queen would execute and otherwise dispose of. Hatter never questioned too much about the fate of Oysters.

Every so often the serum to keep them pliant would wear off, and a canny Oyster would escape. It was rare, but known to happen. The Resistance would help those few Oysters either escape back to their world (high risk and uncommon), or they would be provided shelter for the remainder of their days in Wonderland (more common). Dodo, she knew, was waiting for an opportunity to storm the Looking Glass with the ten Oysters under his care to send them home. They were a drain on resources at the Library.

But to have one escape before even arriving at the Casino… It was an opportunity too grand to pass up. Though it was also easily one the biggest risks of her life. If she met with the Oyster and didn’t immediately turn her in, she could easily be caught out of her parole, and imprisoned and/or executed. She mulled over the decision some more, weighing her options.

“Bring her in,” she finally ordered, intrigued. She was less intrigued when she had to repeat herself to Ratty, as his attention was on the Teas in the back. Again. She crossed over to her chair to think, resisting the urge to put on her headphones and calm down with some music. This was her game changer. She could either keep hiding in the shadows, helping on the sidelines, or take a more proactive approach. Granted, this Oyster wasn’t going to turn any tides in the game, but she might be a good bargaining chip.

She breathed in a steadying breath as she heard footsteps on the grass in her back room. Bracing herself, she asked warily “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you,” an exasperated voice responded, edges of fear darting in and out. “Who are you?” Hatter inhaled once more before turning in her chair slowly, taking in the Oyster that would hopefully be her ticket to something better.

“A friend! I hope…” she replied, a small smile crossing her lips. She watched as Ratty removed the rag covering the Glow, and noticed how the Oyster cringed slightly away from him. She could empathize. “I run the Teashoppe.”

“See?” Ratty said eagerly, turning the Oyster’s arm slightly to show off the Glow. The Oyster quickly yanked her arm back, glaring at the rat-catcher. Now or never, Hatter thought to herself, taking a breath for courage as she jumped up from her chair. She paced to the side a bit, asking how the Oyster had managed to get out of the Scarab.

“The beetle thing?”

“Un,” Hatter intoned, looking back at the Oyster. If nothing else, that question argued that this was an Oyster. Everyone here knew that a Scarab was a Scarab.

“I used my hairpin, and…” The Oyster fidgeted for a bit, looking acutely uncomfortable, tugging slightly at the wet hem of her dress.

“Fell,” Hatter observed dryly, impressed by the story. A resourceful Oyster. This could bode well or ill for her depending on how things played out once she was able to get rid of Ratty.

“As you can see, I’m drenched,” the Oyster shot back, gesturing with her hands down her body. Hatter felt no guilt about surveying the territory at such a blatant invitation. None. (Well, maybe a little.) She smiled lopsidedly as the Oyster became more flustered. “But…this place. Where…what is it?”

“Oh!” Hatter grinned, beginning to enjoy herself. “Wonderland!” She hadn’t met an Oyster like this before. Most were only concerned with the Hows and Whys of their abduction, along with the most important question of all: “how do I get home?” To find an Oyster who was more interested in Wheres and Whos was very new and refreshing. Her amusement quickly faded however, when the Oyster scornfully proclaimed Wonderland a youngling’s story. “Does this look like a ‘kid’s story’ to you?” she bit out, glancing around. Hatter had to breathe deeply to resettle the Anger under her breast bone. “Kid’s story” indeed.

“No,” the Oyster replied, looking a little lost, but still every inch as defiant as when she first walked into Hatter’s back room. Hatter felt a small amount of kinship with this woman, this Oyster. Here was someone who was thrown into impossible circumstances, yet still fought to stay on level ground, and get results. Hatter could respect that.

“It’s changed a lot since then,” she finally said, walking towards the pair, mulling over possibilities of where to put the Oyster in her head. She wasn’t going to turn this one in. Something inside her curdled at the thought of this one becoming a husk in the Queen’s garden.

“So you’re saying that it was real?”

“You Oysters,” Hatter began, pulling a magnifying glass from her pocket. She was willing to assume that this woman was an Oyster on appearance and questions alone. But Hatter had been burned before, and it wouldn’t hurt to check the Glow, “don’t know how to find us, so—excuse me,” she continued, nudging Ratty aside. She tried not to wrinkle her nose at his stench. Up close, she noticed that she still had a few inches on the Oyster, though Hatter had always been considered tall, “you tell yourselves that we don’t exist.” She looked through the magnifying glass at the Glow, which was indeed genuine. “And quite frankly,” she began again, looking up at the Oyster, watching, measuring, “we’d like to keep it that way.”

“Why am I an Oyster?” the woman asked, ripping her arm out of Hatter’s grip, exasperation back in force. Oh, she would be a coup for the Queen’s Casino, Hatter thought gleefully. So many Emotions to drain. So much Passion. “What…this?” The Oyster gestured with her arm to emphasize the point.

“That’s not gonna come off,” Hatter told her plainly, amusement beginning to return at the Oyster’s frustrated huff. The Oyster looked down at her arm, then back up to meet Hatter’s eyes. “Sorry!” Hatter grinned, studying the Oyster before her. Her hair, now that it was beginning to dry, stayed the same dark shade as before, but it started to fall in waves around the Oyster’s head. Her chin was entirely stubborn, but her eyes were large and expressive. Beautiful even. She felt those eyes on her again and sobered. “Only people from your world turn green when burned by the light.” A slightly shell-shocked expression crossed the Oyster’s face as reality began to set in that this? This was not a dream. Hatter’s stomach knotted a bit, and hurried on. “It’s the Suits way of branding their catch. And they call you Oysters,” she continued, turning and walking back to her desk, needing to burn off the nervous energy she felt. She put the magnifying glass down, breathed a second, turned, and began to walk back, “because of the shiny, little pearls that you all carry inside,” she finished, stopping at the boundary of grass.

“What do you mean ‘pearls?’” the Oyster asked hoarsely, unease in every line of her body.

“Hey, she’s Alice!” Ratty broke in, startling Hatter for a moment. She had forgotten about him entirely, which was dangerous in her line of work. She watched as Ratty desperately gestured to the Oyster, eyes wide, expression hopeful. And now the reason for Ratty’s sudden burst of altruism appears, she reflected darkly, watching both the Oyster’s confusion and annoyance at being manhandled. She inwardly rolled her eyes at Ratty’s gullibility in thinking that one random Oyster named Alice would be the Girl of Legend. From what she could remember from her grandfather’s tales, Alice was a very common name Otherside. At least, according to the Alice of Legend, whom her grandfather had met. Ratty nudged the Oyster again, urging her to tell her name to Hatter, apparently getting impatient.

“Wow!” Hatter exclaimed sarcastically. “Really?” She circled behind the Oyster—Alice apparently—to reach Ratty. She noticed that the woman seemed to tense at her approach, as well as begin to hold herself in a defensive stance. Finding the whole situation ludicrous, Hatter made a few motions over the Oyster’s right shoulder, emulating a poorly done Jabberwock call. The Oyster, predictably, startled, and turned sharply, bringing a hand up in defense. Hatter danced away grinning before swinging around to Ratty. She turned her head, still smiling, before realizing that she was smiling at Ratty. She grimaced before pasting her smile back on, and grabbing Ratty by the shoulder. “Ratty, here, thinks you’re Alice…of Legend,” she began, sarcasm dripping from her voice. She could see the Oyster didn’t get it.

“Who?” Hatter quickly let go of Ratty, inwardly praying that the smell and grease and other…things that usually coated Ratty would wash from her coat.

“The last, um…” she paused feeling the grime on her hand. Flexing it, she continued on. “The last time a girl called Alice,” she said, starting to circle behind the Oyster again. Anything to get away from Ratty, “came here from your world, she brought down the whole House of Cards. Oh yeah,” she murmured, face close to the Oyster’s now, “made quite an impression. Although it was a hundred and fifty years ago; it can’t be the same Girl!” she declared, turning back to Ratty. “Oyster’s don’t even live that long.”

“I still want a good price,” Ratty returned, clearly uninterested in history or truth—something that wasn’t exactly news to Hatter. She knew that Ratty wanted Tea, and that would be the only currency the man would take to get him out of her ‘shoppe. She heard a sharp intake of breath behind her and braced for the inevitable.

“Wait a minute! I am not for sale!” the Oyster protested, stepping closer to the two. Hatter held up her index finger, pointing it at the Oyster, in a gesture to hold. Silence reigned while tensions mounted as Hatter stared down Ratty. The rat-catcher knew he had her over a barrel. She dropped her hand, sighing in defeat. She turned towards the Oyster, rolling her eyes back at Ratty and jerked her head, before walking over to her selection of Teas. She could hear Ratty follow her, and barked “not on the grass!” when he came too close.

“Right,” she sighed, surveying the Teas before her. First she grabbed Joy, its blue colour mocking her from inside the bottle. She had never partaken of Teas, but knew them all by smell and colour. Joy would be enough to keep Ratty off her back for a good long while (she hoped). She turned, then paused, studying Ratty again, considering. His sullen expression, his desperation, his greed. No, Joy would be wasted on Ratty. Reaching over, she grabbed a bottle of pink Excitement instead, putting Joy back on the shelf. “Here we are!” she said brightly, walking back over to Ratty. She paused halfway, preparing for her selling pitch.

“Mmmm,” she began, doing a spin. She held up her bottle, displaying it proudly. “Pink nectar, filled with the thrill of human Excitement.” She walked closer and closer now, knowing her hook was being swallowed up by this fish. “Fifty Oysters were drained of every last drop of hullabaloo, so that you, Ratty, can taste what it feels like to win, just once.” She offered the bottle to Ratty, who’s nervous, wringing hands were twitching in anticipation, his whole expression longing for the bottle in her hand. Her conscience kicked in before he could grab the bottle however, and she drew it back, his hands grasping only air. “Warning,” she said sternly, “don’t take it on an empty stomach, and only one, tiny little drop at a time, otherwise the experience might burst your shriveled up, little heart. Got it?”

“Got it,” Ratty responded eagerly. Hatter scoffed inwardly that he had listened at all. But she had warned him, so it was out of her hands.

“Good. Go,” she ordered, handing him the bottle. Ratty grabbed it quickly and scurried out the door, leaving Hatter alone with the Oyster at last. She watched the Oyster turn and follow Ratty with her eyes out the door. Watched as she turned back towards Hatter with an expression of utter apprehension that she was trying to hide, and decided to lighten the moment. Bringing the hand up that had grasped Ratty’s shoulder, she gave a slight sniff, before her nose rebelled. Drawing her hand away, she gave the Oyster a very disgusted look, informing her about Ratty’s stench.

“‘Oysters were drained?’” said Oyster asked, a sarcastic smile appearing on her face. “What do you mean ‘drained?’” Hatter winced in response. Curse her lack of attention to all variables in a room. It had always been her biggest flaw. Well, she reflected grimly, her biggest strength had always been obfuscation.

“Ratty tells me you’re looking for someone,” she says, turning away, hoping the set of her shoulders still appeared at ease. You could never tell what Oysters would notice.

“His name is Jack Chase,” the Oyster ventured, tone bright with Hope. It pierced Hatter’s heart to hear that kind of Emotion again. It reminded her so strongly of her father, and later March. It was, in her opinion, the cruelest of all feelings. The deadliest. “He was taken by a man with a white rabbit on his lapel.” Hatter could hear the Oyster following her onto the grass, and quickly sat down on another chair, reaching for her cup of tea. It was the one luxury left over from before the Queen’s Revolution. Her father had always drunk tea, and it always was a scent associated with happy times and home. It was a David scent.

“I see,” she replied, after a breath. She took a sip of now-cold tea. She hummed a moment, taking another sip, steeling herself, before setting her cup back down. She knew the Oyster was not about to react well to her bit of news. “The White Rabbit,” she explained, resolutely staring at her desk, “is an organization controlled by the Suits. They travel back and forth through the look glass, and…vanish people from your world to ours.”

“Why?” the Oyster asked, voice soft with confusion. Hatter took another sip before replying.

“To use, in the Casino,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t belie her feelings on the Casino. She was willing to help this Oyster, but not at the risk of letting the woman get anything over her. Hatter had lived under the shadow of someone else’s control for too long to allow another to pick up whatever slack she had managed to get. She was so focused on her thoughts of control, that she almost missed the Oyster’s question of terminology.

“‘Use?’” the Oyster asked dryly, as though she knew Hatter had misstepped. Hatter quickly spat the next bit of tea back into her cup in her haste to respond.

“Did I say ‘use?’” she asked innocently, putting her teacup back on her desk. “I—slip of the tongue. They’re fine,” she said brightly, trying to reassure the Oyster. She needed this Oyster’s Passion and Hope to see them through to the Resistance. Otherwise, no deal, no way out, and a colossal waste of Tea, time, and Oyster. So, more damage control. “They keep them…alive…and moderately happy…” She could tell that her sales pitch wasn’t selling.

“How do I get to this ‘Casino?’” the Oyster asked, as though it were a possible thing to do. Hatter envied the Oyster’s naiveté. If it had been so simple of a task to get to the Casino, she might have been able to save March. Or at least get him out of there and try to deprogram him.

“That’s the thing,” she replied, voice artificially cheerful, “you don’t.” All cheer had dropped from her face at that statement. “Way too dangerous.” It was simple fact. The sky was blue, water was wet, Cheshire was a capricious asshat, and you didn’t go to the Casino if you could help it. She watched the Oyster’s face harden, chin sticking out slightly. Once more for damage control.

“But…I know some people, who… know some, well, other people…” she slowly walked forward, turning the charm on as she approached, big smile at the finish. She lowered her voice to a murmur again. “If you know what I mean.” She drew even closer, visibly in the Oyster’s space. She watched the woman’s eyes dilate, even as she drew back slightly, and smirked. “It’s one of the privileges of…running a Teashoppe,” she continued in her most inviting tone, though she couldn’t help popping the “p” sound. It was the pop that startled the Oyster into movement. She stared at Hatter, anger marring her features. Hatter smirked again, telling the Oyster to lighten up. Looking up and down the length of the Oyster’s body again, she realized that she’d need to grab something to cover the Glow from view. Something less noticeable than a scarf. Remembering all the things that patrons had left behind in the ‘shoppe, she dashed back over to her “lost and found,” as it were, and opened the doors, throwing a little showmanship into effect with a happy “ta-da!” She was feeling positively giddy. It was almost enough to drown out the Anger entirely, something that never happened. If she kept this up, she might even be able to run about without the hat!

“You,” she began, rifling through the coats, “should wear this.” She had selected one that was a deep burgundy. It would not only do the job effectively, but it would match those becoming tights as well. “It will cover the Glow,” she continued, advancing on the Oyster again, “and stop you from catching a cold.” She knew she sounded like a mother-hen, and Cheshire knows why. She never was the mother-hen type. Bah! she thought angrily. No reason to dwell on it now. She stood before the Oyster now, coat ready to put on, but the Oyster made no move to take it, or allow Hatter to place it on her.

“I have a little money,” she said finally, voice sounding defeated, “but I understand you don’t use that here.” Hatter decided to needle her out of her mood. She knew the currency of the Otherside. Her grandfather had explained it to her when she was younger, as part of the tale of the Girl of Legend.

“Pieces of paper!” she exclaimed, face lighting up in recognition. The Oyster’s face appeared to light up as well. “Pointless,” she said lightly, moving behind the Oyster to put the coat on.

“Then why would you help me?” Hatter froze. It was, she supposed, a reasonable question—though the implication was one she could have lived without. The true motives weren’t on the table, and trying to thread through the knot of respect and slight admiration wasn’t going to happen at the moment, so Hatter settled on plan C: obfuscate. She leaned in close.

“Do I need a reason to help a pretty girl in a very wet dress?” she asked, once more teasing the Oyster out of her mood. The Oyster whirled around like Hatter was planning to flip the skirt up and have her way with her there and then. The accusation in her eyes scalded Hatter, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. “Oh, I see,” she bit out defensively. “You don’t trust me. Fine!” she snapped, throwing the coat on the couch, Anger rising in her belly. “I am genuinely hurt.” She wasn’t, but she was frustrated and tired of being caught off-guard. “Do you know why they call me ‘Hatter?’”

“Because you wear a hat?” the Oyster asked, after glancing up, which yes, but…

“No,” Hatter lied, teeth grinding for a moment. “Because I’m always there when they ‘pass the hat.’ So to speak.” This Oyster could see so many things she tried to hide. Saw right through her smoke and mirrors. Right through to her core. And Hatter knew she had a rotten core. And damn if she didn’t want some Oyster to bluster her way in and see into it! “Philanthropy, generosity, I mean you,” she continued on doggedly, determined to at least sell this point, “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…” she trailed off, forgetting the name of the Oyster’s friend stuck here.

“Jack,” the Oyster broke in, skepticism in every note of her voice.

“Jack!” Hatter acknowledges. She had made it behind her chair and desk at this point, putting as much distance as she could from this annoyingly perceptive Oyster. “And return you both to your charming world of children’s stories.” They both knew she was lying. She knew that there was no way to rescue Jack, if Jack was indeed here. He was at the Casino, in the Gaming Room more likely than not, and was being drained right now of Emotion. A full-scale assault on the Casino would take an army greater than anything Hatter had seen since the Revolution. An army she didn’t have, and didn’t particular want to raise. But she did have this Oyster that she could help right now. One with Spirit.

“I don’t believe you,” the Oyster responded, looking knowingly at Hatter. Hatter mentally threw up her hands in defeat.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said finally, dropping all pretence for the moment. “If I’m the frying pan, then that out there? Is the fire.” She watched the Oyster’s face for any sign of belief or even resignation. “I’ll be square with you, I know people who like to help your kind. And if, every once in a while I’ll scratch their back…” she trailed off, looking at the Oyster expectantly.

“They’ll scratch yours,” the Oyster finished, grim understanding dawning. Hatter knew she wasn’t the best choice that this Oyster could get, but she was the only choice that would result in anything other than the Casino.

“Precisely!” she confirmed, smile growing. “Lot of scratching.” She waited, hoping the Oyster would just trust her this far. Far enough to get her to Dodo, collect her cut, and get a bit more out of the Queen’s terrible shadow. She stayed still and stoic as the Oyster stared at her, gaze assessing, before walking to the couch to pick up the coat. Hatter nodded once, turning to go out the back door. No reason to advertise to the masses in the ‘shoppe that she was about to commit treason. “Do try to keep up!” she called, opening the door, and gesturing the Oyster through.

Chapter Text

Getting out of her ‘shoppe the back way was something Hatter hated to do. She was on a split-level Sector in one of the poorer neighbourhoods, which meant that from the back door, one had to climb down a ladder to reach the ground below. And especially since she was in a poorer Sector, she only had a small portion of sidewalk to use to get back to wider portions of the city. Hatter would admit, the rezoning and redesign of Heartland (what the Queen had changed the city’s name to) had been extremely effective in population control. If you were too clumsy or too young or too drunk or otherwise insensate and fell? Well, one less person to worry about. Until the extreme poverty hit the lower Sectors, along with the rodents, the farther down you lived, the more well-off you were.

Hatter remembered living in a nice townhouse off the canal when her father was still alive, before the Red King fell. The Queen of Hearts was the main ruler of the area, and had already started rezoning and redesigning the city—mostly for her amusement. The poorest of the poor had lived at the top, in the thinnest air, the nastiest falls, the furthest away from clean water, and the furthest away from any food shipments. Going down levels soon became a brisk business for the local gangs as a way to make income, though they only charged to Descend.

But once the Revolution hit, the Queen of Hearts quickly put forth extra taxes and tariffs in place to fund her Casino. Hatter’s father had been executed at that point, and her mother couldn’t make enough to get by in their more fashionable Sector. Then the food riots started in their old Sector. Most of the old inhabitants died. Disease, from the higher Sectors trickled down and played havoc on the remaining population. Unrest grew, and there was talk of another Revolution.

Whether by happenstance or design, the Queen released her Teas one month before the new Revolution was to take place. The Casino opened its doors, providing an income for scores of desperate citizens. Teas were handed out freely to all as a way to help “ease the burden” as it were. People quickly became hooked, and suddenly, there was no more talk of Revolution.

Then the Queen stated that Teas were no longer to be distributed freely. The kingdom was falling into debt, and the income from selling Teas would go a long way. The citizens quietly paid for their Tea and life went on. Soon, it didn’t matter which level you lived on. No one cared about maintaining anything or anyone—just about the latest fix, and their next meal.

That wasn’t to say that some neighbourhoods weren’t worse than others or that the hold-overs from a more strict class system weren’t a hassle. Hatter was still waiting for the Oyster to climb down her hold-over hassle. The woman moved at a snail’s pace down the ladder, seeming to get slower than crystallized mimsy in winter. Finally, finally she reached the bottom of the ladder, and Hatter quickly moved to brace her and help her down. Something her right arm seemed to be good for, at least. The Oyster thanked her before turning around and…suddenly pressed back up against the ladder. Hatter rolled her eyes heavenwards while wondering what now. She noticed then that the Oyster’s breathing is rapid and shallow, and that she seemed to have gotten several shades paler. She also was riveted by the view on the back side of the building.

“What’s the matter?” Hatter asked, walking back towards the Oyster.

“I’ve got a thing about heights,” she replied, still starring down. Very Oysterish thing to be afraid of. Heights, Hatter mused before looking down Below for the first time in ages. “Why couldn’t you guys build the city on the ground?” Hatter decided that silence was the better part of valour here, nodding her head in agreement. She positioned herself closer at the Oyster’s right, and tried to convince the Oyster to look at her.

“Alice,” she finally said in exasperation when the Oyster—Alice—merely closed her eyes and tried to breathe. Alice finally looked at her, fear overwhelmingly plain in her eyes, and Hatter holds out her hand, bracing for a death grip. A few more moments pass before the Oyster let go of the ladder to place her hand in Hatter’s. The grip was gentle, much to her surprise. Huh, Hatter noted, would appear the Oyster’s got herself a special someone, if Granther’s tales are true. A ring sat on the fourth finger of Alice’s left hand. It looked old, and fairly valuable—even on this side of the Looking Glass. The beginnings of an actual plan began to form in the back of Hatter’s mind. Before, she had been hoping to appeal to Dodo’s sense of right (what little there was left of it), but now…now she had leverage. And a possible profit. But first to get the Oyster to the Great Library.

“Try not to look down, okay?” she said, not unkindly, and proceeded to lead the Oyster away from the edge. The Oyster, once away from the ledge over the lower levels, calmed considerably. She drew her hand back from Hatter, no longer needing the reassurance, and rather embarrassed at having needed it earlier.

“Where are we going?” she asked, looking around with curiosity. Cheshire help them all if she starts wandering to satisfy true Curiosity, Hatter grumbled. She continued on, speeding up a little in an effort to distract the Oyster from getting too Curious. The Oyster instead, stood stock still next to what used to be a bakery, arms folded across her chest, chin set in her most mulish expression yet. Hatter sighed in vexation. There wasn’t time for this!

“I told you that I know some people, right? Well, I have to go talk to them to ask any favours,” she replied brusquely, walking over and tugging on the Oyster’s coat. She didn’t budge. Hatter did roll her eyes this time. “Look, I know you don’t like it, but the less you know right now, the safer we all are.” She watched the Oyster’s face close, walls coming back up sky high. “I’d also not advise hanging around here once the sun goes down,” she continued dryly, looking about. “The local rat-den here isn’t very keen on strangers, and you look like a nice target.” They’ll also sell you out to the White Rabbit faster than you can say “bandersnatch,” she silently added.

“I didn’t understand any of that, other than you don’t want to tell me where we’re going,” the Oyster replied, one eyebrow raised.

“You’re right, I don’t,” Hatter said firmly, picking up her pace again. The Oyster would either come or not, but it was too risky to stay outside for much longer without looking like they were headed to a set destination. She heard a muffled sound, most likely a curse, followed by quickening footsteps, as the Oyster picked up her pace. Smirking in satisfaction, Hatter began to point out the local hotspots—

(“And that’s where you can get the best rates from the Spade gang’s money-dealer!”

“Charming…”)

—taking a perverse delight in peripherally watching the Oyster’s nose wrinkle in distaste, her mouth setting into a moue of displeasure. After the run-around she had put Hatter through earlier, the ‘shoppe owner was more than happy to indulge in a bit of petty revenge.

“Oh hey, there’s the corner where I was stabbed on my way home because some new initiate for the Borogoves thought I was a runner for the Jabberwock’s!” she said cheerfully, making sure her face was settled into a fond expression. She turned slightly, winking at the Oyster. “It was my clothes, you understand,” she continued, gesturing to her current outfit. “I wasn’t as successful then, so I tended to dress rougher than now.” No silk shirts, much less Jabberwock-hide jackets unless she had managed to steal them at the time. Now she could afford a modicum of better clothing, though mainly because the Queen made sure that all her ‘shoppe owners could come to the Casino on a moment’s notice without offending the delicate sensibilities of her courtiers (or herself). The look on the Oyster’s face was priceless. Hatter felt any residual Anger in her system drain away entirely, drowned out by her overwhelming Amusement. She felt like the description one of her clients had told her about Giddiness. She would almost miss this when she turned the Oyster over to Dodo. Almost.

They had to Ascend two Sectors, Hatter sharply watching for any gangs guarding the stairs. The Oyster had given a few protests at the idea of going higher, but had quickly quieted down when Hatter grabbed her arm and walked up, as close to the edge as she could manage, forcing the Oyster to focus on the possible fall, rather than what direction they were going. It wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but Hatter needed the Oyster to move. Cheshire, she was stubborn, Hatter groaned inwardly. She ignored the response in March’s voice talking about pots and kettles.

She absently noted the condition of the buildings getting shabbier and more rundown with every step away from the stairs. She saw the Edge she needed to turn onto, and decided to make one last stop in an abandoned sweet shoppe’s porch. The signage proudly proclaimed that the store had once specialized in mimsy-floss and taffy. She pushed it to the side and motioned the Oyster over, mulling over whether or not to cover the other woman’s eyes. She settled on just warning her about keeping to the plan, and letting Hatter do the talking.

“‘Tense’ doesn’t quite cover how things are down there,” she said sternly. “I can’t help you if we’re thrown out on our ear.” The Oyster raised an ironic eyebrow.

“This is your plan, remember? I only asked for directions to the Casino to free Jack.” Hatter scowled at her before turning away and striding to the hidden entrance of the Library, muttering under her breath. It was something she always found poetic. The entrance to the Great Library was actually an old tenement run by the Queen for the construction workers on the higher Sectors. After the work was complete, the Queen had made sure to give all the workers a bonus of the new Teas that were due on the market. Except that the Teas hadn’t been formally tested for the populace as yet. Only four workers of the original 80 survived, and all four were permanent residents of the Hospital of Dreams. The Queen cleverly sent her Suits in to destroy an evidence of anyone official living in the complex, as well as make sure no one else tried to live there.

And a lovely job of gutting it they did, too. After the embers had died down, the Resistance realized that the floors below had also burned away, and that the building was considered worthless—in a Sector that the Suits would only go to under direct order from the Queen. They began to board up and fill in all the space down from them, building elevators and terraces, making sure that every last spot of light and air could not escape. There the resistance set up the Great Library, moving every scrap of knowledge possible from their other satellites. Hatter had even managed to smuggle in an old manuscript or two, though those were the rarest finds of all. They had built it in the image of the original Great Library, which the Queen had burnt to the ground less than a month into her reign.

She reached the door in quick succession, motioning the Oyster to hide to the left of the door. She rapped sharply on the faded blue door, feeling some paint give under her hand. A slot opened, Duck’s suspicious eyes peering out. She knew she was early for delivery. She had at least three days before her next shipment. She was hoping the bribes she always carried on her person would help smooth the way.

“I’m returning a library book,” she said quickly, her code-phrase garnering a strange look from the Oyster next to her. “It’s a work of Edwin and Morcar.”

“How does the little crocodile improve his shining tail?” came Duck’s knowing counter-code. She was seized suddenly by a rush of Impatience. She was so close.

“He pours water of the Nile on every golden scale,” she replied, the Impatience colouring her voice. She straightened up, looking over at the Oyster guardedly while Duck held the slot open. Most likely deciding whether or not to trust her. Again. After what seemed like an eternity, Duck closed the slot and pressed the button to open the door. Hatter’s shoulders slumped slightly in relief at the sound of the pressurized locks releasing.

“Go on, be quick,” Duck mumbled, turning and walking to his spot on the elevator. Hatter pushed the Oyster in front of her, knowing that Duck wouldn’t outright shoot them before they had descended. She wanted to make sure that the Oyster wasn’t about to get any funny ideas of changing her mind.

“Hello, Duck,” she said cautiously from behind the Oyster. She watched the Oyster out of the corner of her eye, looking around the bus with the queerest of expressions. She spared herself a brief moment of amusement at that, but her main focus was on Duck. The guard didn’t respond, but merely pulled the lever to close the door, pushing the button that allowed them to Descend. Hatter, expecting this, had braced her weight on the two seats in front. She had hoped that Duck was feeling more communicative, but knew that her early arrival had thrown things off. She watched as the Oyster fell back slightly, scrambling to find her balance on the bar of the right-side second seat. She finally lost her footing, falling squarely into the seat, eyes wide, breathing fast and frightened. Hatter inwardly sighed.

“It’s all right,” she said softly, all the while wondering why she was bothering. The Oyster (justifiably) didn’t trust her, and had made it perfectly clear that she would rather have gone off on her own, please and thank you. March would have accused her of having a soft spot. The bus wobbled some more, gears groaning slightly, lights still flickering. The Oyster kept trying to vainly look behind her through the window to see what was happening. There was nothing to see of course, except concrete and wood of the floors they were passing. Hatter watched with a certain detachment, having made this Descent more than once, counting the lines of floors before the ceiling of the Library could be seen behind the Oyster’s head—the first stopping point.

“Wait,” she cautioned, motioning the Oyster to stay seated. They never seemed to have worked that glitch out. Hatter personally thought it was Dodo’s warped amusement that kept it there. They dropped a little more, as expected, before coming to a stop. The Oyster stared up at Hatter, silently asking if it was safe to move. Hatter chuckled softly under her breath, motioning the Oyster up. Duck hadn’t prepared for the drop (shocker there), and was still regaining his footing.

Hatter turned to the door as Duck opened it, the Oyster slipping in at her side, only to meet the business end of Owl’s shotgun, her hands nervously stroking the barrel and trigger. Hatter sighed and studied the Oyster for a moment, deciding how to proceed. She let out a small noise of disgust at once again having to prove herself to the pair of them at the door. She was somewhat certain that Duck only did it for the confects or other small goodies she could smuggle in. She refused to dwell on the fact that she more than likely would give them to him even if he let her in with no issue. (She couldn’t help it! His blue eyes always lit up like a child on Jubilee night when the presents were opened.) She could feel Owl’s eyes on her, mouth pinched in suspicion. Hatter was early and Hatter had a guest. One would have been bad enough, but both? She knew she had to talk her way out of this one quickly.

The Oyster broke the stand-off by walking off the bus, hands raised to her head, palms outward. Hatter assumed that meant something Otherside. Most likely that she was unarmed. It seemed to calm Owl slightly, so Hatter followed down the stairs, forcing a nervous smile to her face. She felt Duck close at her back.

“Why don’t we just put these things away?” she asked brightly, pretending that there wasn’t a shotgun in front of her. “Come on,” she continued, coaxingly, “you know me well enough.” Surprisingly, it was Duck that replied.

“We have our orders,” he said firmly at her shoulder. Hatter kept walking, trying to catch up to the Oyster. Owl made a noise of agreement, before stammering for Hatter to keep her right hand where they could see it. Hatter decided to echo the trick the Oyster was using, and raised her hands, turning so that her back was to the railing of the overlook for the Library. The Oyster shot her a look of confusion. Hatter sighed again, inwardly rolling her eyes. She looked pointedly at her hand, then back to Owl, noticing that the Oyster was still staring at her hand. She wiggled fingers, moving forward slightly.

“It’s just flesh and blood,” she said evenly, staring at the floor. She had too many thoughts now to try to lie to the Oyster about something that didn’t even matter in the grand scheme of things. She could feel the Anger rising, and she battened it back down, knowing that it would only ruin negotiations. She looked back up at Owl’s scoff of disdain.

“Right,” she said scornfully, shotgun still aimed at them both. “We’ve all seen what you can do with that sledgehammer.” She gestured with the gun, disdain and fear coming through. Hatter felt that comment was entirely uncalled for. In the early days, Dodo had asked her to deal with some of the more aggressive gangs in the area to help protect the refugees. And Hatter had done, using the tools at her disposal. One of which was her augmented fist. It had been a hot day during a bad drought, and the thug had decided to try to shiv her for her Hat. It hadn’t even been her fist that killed him! The 200-foot drop had taken care of that. But Owl had seen it, since those were the days before Dodo insisted on everyone staying inside, and below-ground—except the guards, of which Duck was one.

“Did you like the box of confects I brought you guys last week?” Hatter asked, stung. Owl looked back over at Duck, who began to look hurt of all things. “The cured meats and the cheese?” she continued ruthlessly.

“They’re all gone,” Duck said forlornly, Owl’s gaze swinging back towards her, gaze softer, shotgun pointed more upwards than outwards.

Yes, Hatter thought viciously, I’ve done my part to take care of you both, you idiots! The Anger surged higher at her frustration.

“Well, if you don’t treat me with a little respect,” she said icily, letting the Anger bleed into her tone. She gave a small, sharp smile, “you won’t get another crumb.” She watched Owl and Duck mull it over between them. Owl finally lowered her shotgun, bringing up towards her chest.

“Sorry, Hatter,” she said. “Everyone’s a little jumpy.” She turned and began to move further into the Library. Hatter finally lowered her hands, feeling the air move as the Oyster did the same.

“Everyone’s always a little jumpy,” she muttered, putting a hand behind the Oyster’s shoulder to guide her along. She knew Duck would bring up the rear. She felt the Oyster stiffen at the familiarity of the touch, but there was no time to stand on ceremony.

One disaster down, one more to go, she thought grimly.

They passed the stairs to Descend to the main part of the Library. The Oyster looked over curiously, though kept walking to Hatter’s relief.

“Where are we?” she asked quietly. Hatter drew a deep breath, hoping that the Oyster would leave well enough alone after this answer.

“The Great Library,” she replied simply, glancing out over the dais. “There’s 5000 years of history hidden here,” she continued, to her own surprise. “Art, literature, law.” She glanced back the Oyster, noting the interest in her eyes at the answers. She also saw Duck’s confused stare as she continued. “Rescued when the Queen of Hearts seized power.” She didn’t know why she was explaining this. But something in that gaze compelled her to tell the truth. That Cheshire-be-damned piercing gaze. “She’d like nothing more to see this burned to nothing,” she finished bleakly staring blindly at the opposite wall.

“Who’s the Queen of Hearts?” the Oyster asked, her tone back to the skepticism she’d shown when Hatter had first told her that they were in Wonderland. Hatter’s stomach dropped at the question.

Here it comes…she thought, wincing.

Sure enough, Owl spun around, face a mess of distrust. “She doesn’t know the Queen?!” The shotgun was back out and steady. “Who the hell is she, Hatter?” Owl walked them back several steps, gun pointed out at them. Hatter held out her arms, striving for damage control.

“Could you just relax, Owl?” she asked tensely. She saw the Oyster’s hands go up again out of the corner of her eye. Her own hands were up, making soothing gestures towards the woman with the gun. “Calm,” she said firmly. Owl’s gaze shifted to the Oyster, mouth twisting a moment. Hatter quickly looked over at the Oyster, then back at Owl, trying to get the other’s gaze. “She’s led a sheltered life, that’s all,” she said finally. She waggled her eyebrows and tried to look friendly, but she could tell Owl wasn’t buying it. Owl was well and truly spooked, something that was rare to see. Jumpy, yes, spooked no. She had watched Owl face down the one raid that had ever happened on Hatter’s visits. She had coolly told Suits that it was her nest and they were trespassing, and could they kindly shove off. When they tried to grab her, she had pulled up the shotgun (hidden Cheshire-only-knows-where), and fired three shots—one for each suit. All three died.

“Back to the elevator, both of you,” Duck ordered from behind, most likely cueing off of Owl’s expression. Hatter sighed, and thrust up her coat, putting both hands behind her back. She groped for a second for the treats she had hidden for them. She had hoped to just give them as a present, rather than a bribe, as both of them had been kinder than most in this organization. Ah well.

“Watch that right hand!” she heard Owl yelp, heard the shotgun cocked.

“Have you two not learned to trust me yet?” she asked, hurt bleeding into her voice a little. She showed them both the wrapped packages she had brought with her. Some cheese Dorie had been willing to part with. She turned her gaze to Owl, who clutched the shotgun in both hands at her chest and asked warily if it was a bribe. “Yes,” Hatter replied. “Two bribes. Tasty, delicious, yummy ones,” she continued, ever pushing the sale. She looked first at Duck, then back at Owl, before setting her gaze on the Oyster, whose eyes dilated briefly. Interesting. “So hard to make a sensible decision on an empty stomach, don’t you think?” she asked the Oyster, mouth curving in an ironic smirk. The Oyster merely stared back, dark eyes unfathomable.

“You better be on the level, Hatter,” Duck broke in, “or you won’t make it out of here alive, this time.” She felt another pang of hurt at that, though she quickly buried it. Duck and Owl both quickly grabbed the cheese, squirreling it away. Hatter sighed, dropping her arms and straitening her jacket. She turned and began to follow Owl down the hall once more.

“These are the guys who are gonna help me find Jack?” she heard the Oyster ask dubiously.

“Don’t worry,” she replied with a certain amount of dark humour, “their boss is a little more savvy.” “Savvy” was a very diplomatic word to describe Dodo. The man did a good job running the Library, excellent even, but was easily one of the biggest fanatics that Hatter had ever seen. He was consumed with his need to topple the Queen and seek his revenge—even if it cost the Resistance everything. Hatter couldn’t understand that kind of fervour. It wasn’t good business sense.

“Who are those poor people?” Hatter frowned a moment. That had sounded farther off…she turned, and saw that the Oyster had stopped and was staring over the balcony at the floor below, Duck at her side. Hatter knew what she was seeing: books piled on top of books, with people sitting on them in all states of dress. Old and young alike sick or wounded by small torches scattered throughout the hodgepodge. Despairing cries and fearful tears echoing off the walls. She walked back over to the Oyster, taking another look out.

“Refugees,” she said on a sigh. “Those who don’t want to be a part of the Queen’s world of instant gratification,” she continued bitterly, thinking of herself and March. Her mother’s face, strung out on Joy made a brief appearance in the forefront of her head. She could hear one of the refugees plead with their charge to take another drop of medicine or soup. “We give them shelter and try to feed them the best we can, but it is dangerous. If the Queen found out, they wouldn’t stand a chance.” She continued to stare into the space below, letting memories take over.

“Why does she want to destroy all this?” the Oyster asked, pulling Hatter from her thoughts. She turned her gaze to the Oyster in quiet disbelief. Wasn’t it obvious?

“Wisdom’s her biggest threat.” A pause, her mother’s delirious smile again. “She controls people with a quick fix.” Oh, Anger, her closest companion. She watched the Oyster’s expression turn to one of horrified understanding. “Come on,” she said finally, nudging the other woman’s side. “We need to keep going.” The Oyster nodded, subdued as they followed Owl the rest of the hall to Dodo’s office.

Chapter Text

Dodo’s office, as always, was a very beautiful, peaceful place—so long as Dodo wasn’t in it or near it. On the walls were paintings of pre-Heart days, even pre-Red days. There were tapestries scattered about too, along with many potted plants that Hatter knew had to be fake. Nothing could survive the amount of bile Dodo spewed. Not to mention the clear lack of sunlight. Hatter knew that her grass was engineered to withstand little light, but she was pretty sure that Dodo wouldn’t waste his connections on a plant. Then again, who knew really with Dodo.

Making deals with Dodo was always an exercise in patience and tact, with some fire thrown in for effect. Sometimes some gunpowder if Dodo was being particularly irritating. It usually took a mix of threats and bribes to accomplish anything. If she was simply dropping supplies and didn’t want to negotiate a higher price, it was fairly simple. The money would be left with Owl (or on very rare occasions Duck), and she would be in and out in a trice. Anything more required a verbal protracted siege with Dodo.

Dodo hadn’t been quite so bad in the early days of Hatter’s involvement with the Library. He had been horrified by her lack of education, and sent for some books to fill in the large gaps. Through him she had learned about politics, history, religion, magi-science...the list went on and on. He treated her like a gruff sort of relation. A daughter or younger sister or niece. Or some kind of cousin. Then the raids stepped up, followed by a round of bad supplies brought in by what turned out to be a mole for the Queen. Dodo became more and more paranoid. He began to get snappish at the smallest things, convinced that everyone was out to betray them. His gruff lessons gave way to scornful mockery of her “common-class upbringing.” A bit of a snob, was Dodo. As far as she knew, he had held a high-up position for the Red King in the original Great Library. Possibly even Head Librarian. She was a little surprised that he hadn’t sussed out her family’s history, but if he was going to be that dense, she wasn’t about to help him along.

Eventually, Dodo had decided that Hatter wasn’t to be trusted after she flatly refused to smuggle poison for him to the Casino. She was willing to help the Resistance in her own way, and was willing to even risk her neck at it, but not for a thoughtless plan to a place where she was already under red alert. And probably blacklisted. Dodo hadn’t taken the refusal well, which led to the rather tense affairs they found themselves in at present.
She watched Dodo regard them stonily, face revealing nothing but his usual disdain and suspicion. He clearly wasn’t going to make the first move, so it would be up to her.

“Dodo,” she said quietly, making sure to put herself a bit in front of the Oyster. With Owl as spooky as she was, Cheshire only knew how Dodo’s nerves were. She knew he also carried a gun. A pistol. And while she may be wearing body armour, the Oyster, she knew, wasn’t. Why would she? Otherside wasn’t a constant warzone to Ascend and Descend levels in pursuit of basic necessities.

“Hatter,” he replied neutrally, inclining his head slightly. “You’re early.” She snorted.

“I had an unexpected delivery,” she drawled, studiously not looking at the Oyster. She watched Dodo’s eyes flick to the Oyster and back to her. The Oyster, to her annoyance, moved around her to stand at her side.

“So it would seem,” he said, a bit more scorn entering his tone. “And what, pray tell, is it you expect me to do about it?”

“She’s looking for her boyfriend,” she replied, getting down to business, “a Jack Chance.”

“Chase!” the Oyster corrected, voice stuttering slightly. She cleared her throat before elaborating “His name is Jack Chase.” Hatter glanced over at her, trying to communicate that silence really was the best option in this case, before nodding sharply.

“She needs help. I thought of you, Dodo,” she said, hoping the small stroke to Dodo’s ego might smooth some of his ruffled feathers.

“Really?” he replied mockingly, arching an eyebrow. Hatter’s neck pricked with the sensation it always did when she sensed danger on the horizon. She watched warily as he moved out of the shadows towards Owl. “And why would I want to help your Oyster, when you know that bringing her here puts us all at risk?” He glared at her then, making Hatter bristle.

“Oh, please,” she spat. “I’ve spent years smuggling more dangerous stuff than this down here,” she drawled, using her chin to gesture to the Oyster. She watched Dodo’s eyes darken for a moment, before a sour smile crossed his face. The smile widened, showing his teeth, looking almost jovial, if one didn’t look at his eyes. Hatter’s stomach clenched. He began walking to his desk, ambling really.

“You know what rankles most about blood-sucking carpetbaggers like you, Hatter?” he asked jovially, balancing one hand on his desk, by a stack of books he hadn’t catalogued yet. Or she assumed he hadn’t catalogued, as that was where he usually put new books. “Your gall.”

This again, Hatter thought sourly, recognizing the familiar refrain.

“You think you can play both sides of the court and come away with two trophies,” Dodo continued, tone darkening with every word. She felt the Oyster’s eyes on her, but refused to take her gaze off Dodo. The end of this diatribe varied depending on his mood, and his moods were more erratic than not lately. “I haven’t seen daylight for three years.” That was a new one. “And Owl here has forgotten what a vegetable tastes like.” He turned in Owl’s direction, his face softening briefly.

“I remember 'kumquat.' Is that a vegetable?” Owl asked, leaning into Dodo’s space briefly. Hatter tried not to wince. Dodo was always a bit more protective of Owl than most. She had her suspicions that Owl was possibly a relative of some kind. Dodo looked at her and was silent a moment, her question clearly throwing him. Hatter shot her a brief sympathetic look as Dodo began again.

“While we risk our lives trying to bring freedom to ungrateful leeches like you,” he began, Anger rising in his tone. Hatter felt her’s rise along with a healthy dose of Fear, “you swan about, living the good life.” Hatter’s eyes narrowed at the dig. Good life? Really? Oh, if only he knew…

“Stop your crowing,” she spat. “You know I’m on your side.”

“I’m sure you say that to all your enemies,” Dodo replied dismissively, walking back behind his desk, as the though the matter was closed.

“I do what’s necessary,” she insisted, Fear dropping away, leaving only Anger in its place. She could feel her voice strain under the sheer fury balled in her chest. “I kiss what butts need kissing so that your machine stays oiled.” She saw the Oyster tense out of the corner of her eye. She also knew that Dodo hadn’t missed it either.

“Look, if you can’t help me, I’ll just leave,” the Oyster said, pivoting to do just that. Dodo let out a bitter chuckle.

“Headstrong, isn’t she?” he asked Hatter, eyebrows raised. Hatter had made no secret of her preferences when she was younger, and Dodo had seemed to enjoy listening to her talk about her occasional dalliances with some of the braver lasses in the street gangs. Back when he was still a mentor. She felt the air move next to her and knew that the Oyster had turned back around again—most likely to give a scathing retort, since she appeared to be lacking any form of sense.

“Can you help me get Jack out of the Casino?” the Oyster asked directly, appearing to try to stare Dodo down. Hatter wished her luck in that. She hadn’t met anyone yet who could.

“I don’t see how,” Dodo replied, still with that bitter joviality. Hatter tried to stifle her frustration.

“The Resistance has contacts inside the Casino, right?” she asked finally, trying to diffuse the situation. Dodo’s face shut down completely, as he stated his decline in commenting. “Use them to find her guy.” She could tell that Dodo wasn’t going for it. Well, if appealing to his better nature wouldn’t work, time for plan B. “She can pay you,” she offered temptingly. She saw Dodo’s attention snap back to them. “But,” she warned, “I want my usual cut, upfront.” She felt the Oyster’s gaze on her again.

“Pay me?” Dodo asked quietly, moving back around the desk. “Pay me with what?” he said scornfully. Hatter turned and walked behind the Oyster so that she was standing at the Oyster’s left side. She took a deep breath.

“Show him the rock, Alice,” she commanded quietly, studiously not meeting the Oyster’s eyes. She knew when the implication hit home, even as the Oyster let slip a dazed “what.” She kept her gaze trained on Dodo, not wanting to see the Oyster’s piercing gaze just then. “The ring on your finger.”

“Look, that is off-limits,” she protested in a heated whisper. Hatter finally turned her gaze to meet the Oyster’s, trying to bury as much turmoil as possible in her eyes.

“It’s all you have, Alice.” She willed the Oyster to understand that Dodo wouldn’t help without some sort of incentive at this point. There were always more rings to be had. Especially if this one came from her friend, and Dodo was willing to help reunite them. Things were always replaceable.

“No,” the Oyster insisted, voice pained. They both jumped when Dodo grabbed the Oyster’s hand. Hatter cursed herself for losing focus. He raised it gently, almost delicately, into view. Hatter took a moment to get a better study of the ring. She had only gotten a cursory look at it before, but now after closer study, it appeared to be much older than she had first assessed. A family heirloom perhaps? It was the stone that pinged her memory, though she couldn’t place it for the life of her.

“It’s not possible,” Dodo whispered, almost to himself. He raised his eyes to meet the Oyster’s, and Hatter felt that prickle on the back of her neck again. The Oyster jerked her hand out of Dodo’s grasp, startled. Dodo didn’t even flinch. He began to advance on the Oyster slowly. “Where did you get it?” Hatter really didn’t like the look in his eyes.

“It’s none of your business,” the Oyster shot back defiantly. “It’s not for sale.” Hatter watched Dodo’s eyes become almost crazed.

“Where did you get it?!” he barked, startling them both. Hatter knew she had to distract Dodo somehow. She heard his voice telling her to always start with the basics.

“What is it?” she stuttered out desperately, hoping to buy time. Dodo glanced her way briefly, reaching for the Oyster’s arm again.

“Your Oyster is wearing the Stone of Wonderland.” Hatter felt the ground drop from beneath her feet. The sacred Stone! For a moment, she couldn’t think beyond that fact. The Stone had been in the Queen’s possession for ages, ever since she took control of Wonderland. She had ordered her army to cut off the slain Red Queen’s finger, where the Ring had originally resided—though that was only after the White Queen had ceded it upon her death bed. It had always been passed down from Queen to Queen—usually peacefully. The Queen of Hearts was the first to break that tradition in over 200 years.

“That’s impossible,” she said, unconsciously echoing Dodo’s previous statement.

“I’m never wrong,” Dodo replied emphatically, eyes not leaving the Oyster’s.

“Where did you get it, Alice?” Hatter asked, mind still not able to get ahead of this borogove-trail.

“Jack gave it to me,” the Oyster replied quickly, backing up slowly.

“Jack?” Dodo echoed, moving closer. Hatter followed dazedly. The Stone…

“Jack Chase, they guy we’re looking for,” the Oyster stammered out.

“Well where did he get it?” Dodo asked, advancing further, causing the Oyster to jump back.

“I don’t know!” she snapped back, clearly unnerved. Hatter’s brain finally shook off the fog in time to see Dodo snarl at the Oyster, demanding the ring. “No!” the Oyster yelled back, fire burning behind her eyes. Hatter moved slightly, trying to evade notice, while Dodo stared at the Oyster for a long moment. He spun sharply, gesturing to Owl.

“Take her out!” Owl’s shotgun snapped back out, pointing directly at Alice. Hatter realized that things were spiraling way too fast to control, though she was still going to give it her all. Getting shot was not a fun experience.

“Are you crazy?” she heard Alice yell behind her, as she quickly strode between her and Owl’s gun.

“Stop,” she said shakily, holding one hand in a defensive motion to somehow block Owl’s gun, looking pleadingly at Dodo. “Just wait.”

“You’re in way over your head, Hatter,” Dodo responded, a strange glint in his eye. Hatter turned the rest of her attention to Dodo.

“Just give me one second to talk to her, okay?” she asked quickly. “Damage control” became her mantra, mind flying through possibilities to diffuse the situation, stall for time, or how to escape without getting shot. Especially when Dodo pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her.

“It controls the Looking Glass,” Dodo ground out. “You know that.” Hatter glanced around, desperately seeking some form of inspiration. It was all falling apart at the seams. Dodo and Owl’s guns were both trained on her and the Oyster.

“Calm down,” she said carefully, trying again. “Put the gun away. I’m sure we can all get what we want here.”

“Look, no one is getting this ring,” Alice declared behind her. Hatter’s Anger spiked briefly. The Oyster was going to get them both killed. Hatter quickly turned and glared at her, willing her to just. Shut. Up.

“We’ve been waiting for years for a break like this,” Dodo said softly. Hatter turned back around, eyes on the gun. There was a tone building in Dodo’s voice. A cadence in his words that set her teeth on edge. She wordlessly tried to think of something else to say to divert it, drawing blanks. “And now it falls into our laps.” He began to advance on them once more, forcing Hatter and the Oyster to back up.

“Stop waving that thing around,” Hatter demanded desperately. “You’re scaring everyone.” Nothing seemed to be working. Dodo still pressed his advantage, his eyes taking on a manic gleam, a fanatical light working inside them.

“If we can return the Oysters back to their world,” he continued, heedless of anything around him, “maybe we can save ours.”

“Just put the gun down!” Hatter would agree to just about anything at that point if it meant that Dodo would just put down his weapon.

“Think about it!” Dodo crowed, still gaining momentum. “The Queen reduced to mobbing floors.” He seemed to savour the thought. “It’ll be just like the old days. Justice, reason, and the rule of law!” He’d snapped, Hatter realized suddenly. That’s all there was to it. The Madness had finally claimed another victim.

“Stop this!” she exclaimed, one last time, hoping to wake him up, grabbing his gun. But, just like with March, Madness never releases its hold on those it claims. Betrayal stung, knocking the air right out of her lungs. She felt herself fall backward in shock, knocking back into a stack of books. Heard Alice scream, before the fire started to burn in her chest. She dimly heard Owl yell at Dodo, something about shooting her. She struggled to regain her breath beneath the pain. The bullet may not have pierced the armour, but it made a significant dent.

“We don’t need her. The Ring is our ticket out of here.” Her eyes flew up to Dodo in shock. When had he become that mercenary? He may not have liked her much, but he still always felt that life was something worth preserving. Her eyes narrowed on the gun still pointed at her. Her breath was coming back, and the initial shock of being shot was wearing off. She turned over scenarios in her mind, one after the next in rapid succession, trying to find one that would get the gun from Dodo, prevent either her or Alice from getting shot, and escape the Library.

Before she could find a solution however, Alice just…ran, almost towards Dodo, legs flying up in a wicked kick that knocked the gun right out of his hand. Hatter watched in amazement as the Oyster then just flipped Dodo to the ground, stared at the rest of the room (though not in her direction), and then fled to the hall. Seeing her chance, she quickly stirred, pulling her pea-shooter from the center of her back. She kept it onhand for emergencies only, a tiny sting to help her escape. She saw Dodo get up, so shot off two warning shots into the air to gain his attention again. He froze, face a mass of confusion, rage, and a small touch of fear. She awkwardly swung to her feat, gun trained on Dodo, making sure to put her left hand over the bullet hole in her shirt. The Anger had all but boiled over.

“Leave her alone,” she bit out, “or believe me, the next one will be aimed at your head.” She could still hear Alice’s footsteps, and suddenly stopped hoping for a way to get them out and started hoping that Alice got out.

“Look, Hatter, this is a game changer,” Dodo began, tone taking on an air of desperate cajoling. Hatter swung her gun briefly over to Owl as Dodo advanced, halting him a second, and causing Owl to flinch behind her gun. She heard Duck’s sharp intake of breath behind her, though Duck never used a gun. She snapped her attention back onto Dodo. “I’ll give you three times your price,” he offered, advancing once more. Hatter glanced again at Owl, who was moving too, along the wall. “Five, ten, you name your price,” Dodo barked.

“Back off!” she snarled back, emphasizing her point with the pistol in-hand. Dodo stopped abruptly, face changing again to one of dark fanatical fury.

“If you let her leave with the ring,” he warned softly. Hatter swallowed against the knot in her throat, and the burning sensation in her chest, “I’ll have every member of the Resistance hunting you down.” He began to advance again, voice raising. “You’ll be dead before teatime!”

“And that’s the thanks I get,” she shot back, fighting back tears of frustration and pain. She walked forward to meet Dodo head-on, dropping her gun briefly. The Anger was gnawing at the back of her mind, clamouring for her to use it, “for keeping you bums fed and watered all these years?” She looked over at Owl, who had the grace to look ashamed, then to Duck, who just looked horrified at everything happening before him. She spared a moment of pity for that. Duck had always been the gentle soul among them all. She yelped as Dodo grabbed her wrist with both hands, twisting it harshly. The gun fell to the ground as her arm was twisted behind her back. Dodo leaned forward with the momentum, forcing her to her knees before Dodo threw her to the ground to run after the Oyster. Alice.

Hatter took a moment to catch her breath, arm and chest in a mass of pain. At least he went after the right wrist, she acknowledged grimly. The alchemists had greatly strengthened it when they had Augmented it, citing that something so powerful shouldn’t be able to destroy itself in one use. She glared up at Owl, who had dropped her aim, clutching the shotgun to her chest once more. Owl’s gaze was full of apologies, none of which were things Hatter wanted or needed. Her glare turned to Duck, who visibly flinched, expression shattered. Her gaze softened a touch as he gingerly picked his way to her to help her up. He did kick her pistol towards Owl, but that was forgivable given the circumstances. Duck gestured with his chin to the door after placing her on her feet, holding up a hand to stop Owl from approaching her. Hatter nodded once, curtly, before running out the room herself after Dodo.

Dodo, she observed after rushing through the door, had only made it a little ways down the hall, while the Oyster had made it to the bus. She put on some extra speed, running full tilt at Dodo, tackling him from behind. They both fell solidly to the floor, the impact jarring her hopefully-just-a-bruise.

“Hatter!” she heard Alice yelp. She struggled to pin Dodo down, finally gaining enough advantage to look up at the Oyster and yell to press the blue button to activate the elevator. She took another punch in her side at that and grunted, grappling again with Dodo. Dodo finally got the advantage enough to throw her off, causing her to slide backwards, hitting the corner of the alcove behind her. She opened her mouth in a silent scream of agony. Dodo then charged at her, pinning her to that corner.

“Go, Alice,” she called breathlessly. “Hurry up and push the blue button.” Hurry up and get out of here! she thought frantically at the Oyster. She let the Anger out in desperation, letting it shove Dodo across the hall to the balcony, allowing the momentum to pull her with. She drew up her right hand and swung. Dodo’s eyes grew very large, and he managed to avert his head at the last second. Her fist impacted the column, leaving a two-inch dent. “Lucky,” she muttered, staring at it a moment. Dodo took that moment of shock to grab her arm and bring his knee up, catching her in the stomach, then again in the nose. She fell to the ground, her Hat flying off. The Anger, its final release valve opened, poured out into her with lethal fury. She frantically tried to curb it, not wanting to kill Dodo. Beat the stuffing out of him, yes, but not kill. She felt him draw her up by the same arm to punch her solidly in the face again and again and again. The Anger kept raging, demanding that she kill him—when suddenly Dodo wasn’t on her any more. He heard Dodo yelp in pain, saw the Oyster’s brown boots, and took the moment to roll over and grab her Hat. She heard Dodo and Alice grapping—mostly the sounds of solid hits followed by Dodo grunting in pain before he was finally tossed to the ground. She felt herself being propelled up by the Oyster, being urged on. She slapped the Hat back on her head and staggered to the Bus.

“How did you do that?” she found herself asking along the way.

They made it to the bus, Hatter sliding to the floor in front of the seat catty-corner to the steering, as the Oyster made her way to the controls. She quickly pushed the blue button, and doors slammed shut, cutting off Dodo’s anguished yell of denial. The Anger was receding finally, especially with the return of the Hat, and the adrenaline was starting to filter out of her system. She felt the Oyster pawing at her coat and shirt, and cringed, hoping that her wound wasn’t as bad as all that.

“How bad is it?” the Oyster fretted, finally undoing the first few buttons of Hatter’s shirt. The Oyster froze, expression closing off as she murmured about Hatter’s body armour. “You’re not even wounded. You lied to me!” she accused, shoving Hatter back, causing the bruise under the armour to remind her of its presence. Insistently.

“I was trying to help you,” Hatter protested weakly.

“By selling my ring,” the Oyster shot back, a sarcastic smile crossing her face. Hatter winced at the sight. She knew she had screwed up, but the accusations weren’t helping.

“I didn’t know it was the Stone Wonderland, did I?” she pointed out defensively. All her plans, her friends in the Library, her hopes for something better…all gone. She winced again in both emotional and physical pain, scrubbing a hand over her face.

“Well, you should have asked me before bringing me here,” Alice argued, indignation and righteous anger still high on her cheeks. Oh yes, that would have gone over well, since the Oyster had been so willing to trust her before.

“You wouldn’t have come,” Hatter argued, finding herself annoyed once more at the Oyster’s naiveté. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment to try to think.

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

“Yeah, well, he actually shot me, so—” Hatter fired back, hackles rising. She pulled her shirt aside once more, gesturing to the dent in her armour. If Dodo had aimed but an inch higher…Dodo, who had taught Hatter how to do her sums and how to fold paper cranes. Damn them all, Hatter would not mourn them. Not now.

“—Tell me the truth,” Alice ordered interrupting her. There was an unspoken “if you can” tacked on at the end of the order. “What is the Stone of Wonderland?” Hatter bit back her indignation. She reminded herself that the Oyster had no idea what was going on, who she was, and why Dodo had apparently succumbed to Madness and shot Hatter. She took a deep breath, causing her chest to protest again. She cried out a moment before answering.

“It’s a big deal.” Another few breaths. “It was mined by the ancient Knights to power the Looking Glass—the door that connects our world to yours,” she explained, seeing the Oyster’s confused expression. She needed that body armour off and soon, she observed, so as to see just how bad this bruise was. She hoped she didn’t have anything cracked.

“Knights?” the Oyster asked, head tilting. Hatter goggled at her a moment. All that information and the Oyster asks about the Knights?

“They were wiped out a long time ago by the Queen,” she replied, gesturing quickly. “She took the Looking Glass and, of course, the Stone,” she continued, gesturing to the ring. Her chest gave another wave of agony, making her squeeze her eyes closed again. She breathed in and out a few more times before the thought that had dominated most of her mind popped up. “How did Jack get hold of it?” It really was the sticking point. How could her boyfriend, an Oyster, get the Stone of Wonderland, one of the most heavily guarded items in Cheshiredom? To her eternal frustration, the Oyster failed to reply, opting instead to stare at the ring for the remainder of the trip up to the entrance.

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.

Chapter Text

The Knight escorted them to a small clearing, where he had two horses—one clearly meant for transport of the Jabberwock. Hatter had known how to ride bareback since she was a young girl. Her parents had insisted on lessons once she turned three, and continued on steadily since. She had taken enough to it to master the art, though not enough to ever aspire to call herself a “master horsewoman” or other similar rot. Her mother had been a bit disappointed, as she was considered something of a prodigy at horseback, and had dearly hoped that Hatter would continue the trend. Her father had been contented that she was able to ride without breaking her neck. The fact that it was considered a status symbol in Court was only a bonus.

It was with all this in mind that Hatter sized up the packhorse with its blanket and reigns, nodding once, decisively, before motioning Alice over.

“You ever ridden a horse?” she asked briskly, glancing back when she noticed that the Oyster was standing back, staring in trepidation at both the horse and Hatter.

“Do,” she began, coughing to clear her throat, “do pony rides at the zoo count?” Hatter sighed inwardly. Who would lead and who would sit tandem had just been neatly solved. She just hoped she wasn’t as rusty as she felt.

“I’m going to take that as a ‘no’ then,” she replied. “Come over here and I’ll give you a help up.” She held out her hand again, head cocked at the packhorse. The Oyster continued to stare.

“Just Alice,” the Knight broke in, startling Hatter. She squashed her first impulse of letting loose with her right arm, and quickly sat on the second that quickly followed—tripping him as he made his way past her. “Would you care to ride pillion with me on Lancelot, rather than ride with your…accoutrements?”

“Now wait just a moment—” Hatter yelped, stung. She was beyond tired of being referred to as an object. She had already been used as an object more than once, thank you, and had no inclination to encourage the Oyster to continue the trend.

“Thanks, Charlie,” Alice replied loudly, over Hatter’s continued protestations. “But I’d hate to overburden such a fine…steed.” Hatter huffed a few moments more, wind quickly leaving her sails. She watched the Oyster spin and walk quickly to their horse, place both hands on the animal’s back, and jump slightly, trying to kick one leg around in the process. Hatter blinked a few times in amused, second-hand embarrassment, before placing her hands on the Oyster’s narrower waist, stilling her.

“Let me help you,” she said quietly, leaning slightly to murmur in the Oyster’s ear. While it was too late to spare Alice’s dignity completely, she wanted to try to preserve the remnants. She felt the Oyster shiver slightly in response. She placed one hand over Alice’s wrist, drawing it up, and placed it on the makeshift pommel of the blanket. She took the other hand, and placed it close to where Alice had placed her hands before. The gestures felt…personal somehow. Intimate. It made Hatter’s heart speed up, something which she was determined to ignore.

“Now,” she continued in Alice’s ear, “I’m going to give you a boost up. Do you think you can figure the rest out from here?” She saw and felt the Oyster nod. Humming slightly under her breath, she bent down to give the Oyster a leg up. The Oyster quickly mounted, much more smoothly than Hatter was expecting honestly. Hatter looked back over to the Knight, an eyebrow raised in query. While she could manage her way onto the horse without assistance, a small boost would make it a much quicker experience. She saw the Knight puff up with some kind of injured pride or outrage, she was sure. He helped her into the saddle, before striding behind them to unroll something.

“What’s that?” Alice asked nervously, seeing the net shape spread across the ground.

“That would be my horse-assisted track removal system,” the Knight responded brightly. “I discovered it months ago when I wanted a stealthy get away from a Jabberwock that didn’t fall into my previous gravity-assisted snares.” Hatter snorted, though refrained from pointing out that Jabberwock’s track by scent. The Knight was still alive, Cheshire knows.

“So that net’s going to keep us from being tailed?” she asked finally, voice practically dripping disbelief. “How’s it supposed to smooth over tracks in dirt, much less the mud that’s around here.” The Knight glared at her, lips curling in disdain.

“I’m not surprised at your lack of education, vassal,” he said stiffly. “I also know that you are currently being pursued, and do not have the time to waste on explaining this to philistines such as yourself.” He turned and strode back to his horse, head held high. Hatter rolled her eyes.

“Maybe he’ll learn how to remove the stick from his—ow!” she yelped, muttering interrupted by the sharp pinch to her ribs.

“Be nice,” the Oyster warned from behind. “He didn’t have to help us.” Hatter was saved from replying by the Knight motioning them forward, singing as they began.

Cheshire, she grumbled. If the tracks don’t get us caught, the singing definitely will.

They continued on, coming to a small clearing containing one of the last Giant Toadstools that Hatter had ever seen. The White Queen had planted them when the Alice of Legend had returned to Otherside, hoping that if Alice ever did return, the Toadstools would give her an easier time to find the court. Aided by the few Green Magicians at court, the Toadstools sprouted upwards, reaching a height as to be seen for miles—if you were above the tree tops in the forest. This one had apparently not grown as tall as its fellows, only reaching mid-height to the trees around the clearing, by Hatter’s estimate. The others had been destroyed as a sign that the Chess Kingdoms were no more.

And this one will be no more, too, Hatter thought sourly, remembering their tail. They’ll find it and us, mark my words. Of all the foolish, ridiculous things she had ever heard, a net to cover tracks over ground and mud. She found herself eating her words after they had crossed back into the woods however, when upon a glance behind, followed by a double take, she noticed that not only were the tracks being brushed away, but new moss and grass was sprouting up in its place.

“Even works over mud,” she murmured quietly. “It’s wiping the tracks clean away.” She saw Alice out of the corner of her eye, watched as the Oyster gingerly turned to look before abruptly swinging back around after one particularly low dip from the horse beneath them, leaning more towards Hatter as she did. Hatter tried to ignore the small thrill in her stomach at the feeling of the Oyster pressed against her back for a moment. She turned her focus back to the Knight as a matter of distraction. “I guess Senile Sam does have a trick or two up his, er…” she paused, turning her head to flash a small grin at Alice, “escutcheon.” She watched with a small sense of wonder at the tiny smile the Oyster gave in response before turning her slightly dazed gaze back ahead. She felt Alice shifting again behind her a few moments later. Then again a beat after that.

“You comfy?” she asked finally, remembering her first few rides when she was starting out. Her thighs and knees had ached for days after, and she had found it hard to sit for a while longer than that.

“No, of course not,” the Oyster returned after a small snort of derision, causing Hatter to stifle a chuckle. She nodded a moment, a devilish smile beginning to form on her lips.

“Why don’t you just lean forward and put your arms around my waist,” she began, turning her head slightly so as to see the Oyster from her peripheral vision, “and let my body take the weight?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” the Oyster yelped in response. Hatter cocked an eyebrow in reply, turning her head back again, a wide, gleeful smile breaking across her face. Cheshire, but the Oyster was fun to tease. She felt Alice’s hands creep a little more towards her hips however, and that smile softened slightly, taking on a more fond edge. She watched the Knight continue to pick his way through underbrush before stopping abruptly. Glancing around, she tried to see if anything was familiar, but concluded that her family must have left the City another way. On guard, she gingerly led their horse over to him as he walked over to a particularly mossy set of branches.

“Welcome,” he called quietly as they rounded a small sapling, “to the Kingdom of the Knights.” He pulled back the branches, and Hatter had to stifle a gasp at the sight of it.

“Well, well,” she murmured, feeling as though in a dream, “what do you know.” She had thought she was braced for it, but oh, how wrong she had been. The Bishop Span connecting Rook Quarter with Knight District market. The rise of Chess Mountain in the background. She had come home. She quickly dashed a hand over her eyes, trying to hide her reaction from the other two. She saw a small frown cross the Knight’s face, as though something was niggling the back of his mind. She quickly firmed up her features, coughing a moment.

“Big city,” she said finally, deciding to continue the route of ignorance. The Knight snorted at that, giving her a disdainful look, all trace of concern gone. She hissed again, as Alice jabbed her in her ribs again, her warning to “be nice” quite clear without the words.

“The legendary Kingdom, and all you can say is ‘big city?’” the Knight bit out, clearly wanting to toss Hatter down the ravine into the River of Chess below. He looked positively wounded at her blasé dismissal, which pricked at Hatter’s oft-ignored Conscience. It prodded her a moment, somehow loudly telling her that it wasn’t just her home they were looking at. That he had been there too. That these ruins, crumbling and overgrown, were also the only home that this Knight had known. She looked away, eyes stinging again. Apparently that had been the right move to make, as the Knight quickly lost interest in the conversation with her, and instead was regaling Alice with tales from the Court before the Sundering.

“—then the Red Queen took the entire pastry and smashed it against the King’s face in retaliation. It was most entertaining, berry jam everywhere, bits of tart falling off the King’s ear. No one dared laugh until he did. Shocked into silence, they were.”

Hatter had been told this story growing up. Her mother had been seated four chairs away from the Queen when it happened. The King had, apparently, stolen all of her tarts earlier in the day. They had been the product of her and her ladies-in-waiting going berry picking around the garden on the first days of Verntus. The Queen had been quite cross, and had been interrogating every page, squire, or other member of the younger set, convinced one of them had been the culprit. The King had finally confessed his crime at dinner, seeing the particularly sour mood she had been in. She had then picked up the tart he had ordered made and smashed it into his crown—not his face, like the Knight seemed to believe. Though she wasn’t about to correct him. Explaining that choice bit of knowledge would be a complication that she didn’t need.

She nudged their horse forward, following the Knight as he led them through the underbrush to…the Great Road. Which was completely overgrown. She knew that the Green Magicians had warded the City and Roads to be self-maintaining, but she had never realized the sheer scope of what that had actually entailed until now. It also hammered home once again that everyone she knew of from court was long gone. If she thought hard about it, there may only be a handful of them left. Not including her and the Knight. Possibly less. It was a rather grim thought. It didn’t surprise her that the Queen had wiped out the Green Magicians. They were a very White Court thing to have. The Red Court later decided to rely instead on employing a small army of gardeners, though they would still use the Green Magics to strengthen the protections against the forest’s trespasses into the city. She was unsure what they had relied on before the White Court’s practices, as the History of Topiary as it pertains to the Kingdom of the Knights was not a subject she much cared about. She thought briefly of Dodo suddenly, back in his friendlier days, the obscure knowledge he possessed about so much of the Kingdom. Blinking a few times to distract herself from the stinging in her eyes (and she wasn’t aware that she had developed an allergy to toadstool spores—never mind that the nearest one was a good distance away), she focused again on the Knight leading them onward. He had begun singing—the same song of course. Hatter had this strange feeling she would be dreaming that song soon.

The Knight pulled them to the side once again when they reached the Pawn Gate, muttering under his breath about “the perimeter.” She watched as he wove…something…together, seeming to speak to it. She wondered if he was a rudimentary Green Magician. It would help explain the anti-track net. And the fact that he could dig a pit for a Jabberwock so easily. It might even have aided in masking their presence to everything else in the forest.

Having finished with his work on whatever it was, the Knight quickly ushered their horse through, mounting up behind them after a few more muttered words at what appeared to be a rope.

“What was that?” Alice asked from behind her, almost spooking her. The Oyster had been fairly quiet after the Knight had gotten them to the Road.

“My guess would be that our Sir Loon has a touch of Green Magic about him,” Hatter replied softly, waiting for the Knight’s infernal refrain to pick back up. Whether he was aware of it or not, he had made enough of an effort to hide what he was doing from their eyes. Hatter was loath to draw any further attention to it. The Knight’s quicksilver moods set her teeth on edge. She’d dealt with far too many sliding scales in her life. It made her constantly on guard for the next swing, for the thing that would set off the wrong kind of good with the right kind of bad.

“I wish you wouldn’t call him that,” Alice grumbled behind her. “He’s doing us a favour bringing us here, and I really don’t want him to decide that he’d be doing himself a bigger favour leading us to someplace unpleasant—”

“Yes, because an overgrown castle is easily the nicest of places. Dandy even,” Hatter interrupted, sarcasm fair dripping from her words. “Particularly one that was destroyed by the same person we’re on the run from.” Hatter paused her words a moment, snorting. “Oh! And she also slaughtered everyone inside,” she continued brightly. “Aren’t we just ever-so-lucky.”

“Have you ever heard of being grateful for the little things in life?” the Oyster shot back, temper flaring in her words. “We’re not being pursued right now, we have a guide to a reasonably secure location, and I haven’t killed you for being a serious pain in my ass yet.”

“When you say things like that, it’s like a small burst of Joy bubbles within me,” Hatter retorted, the Knight and the road they were on forgotten. “Or it could just be indigestion. I haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast,” she mused.

“If you through making enough racket to scare off any chance of dinner for miles, vassal,” the Knight interjected waspishly, wheeling his horse around. “I would like to make it to my quarters before full dark. There are sections that are particularly perilous without clear vision, and I would hate for Just Alice or fair Guinevere to get hurt.” She blinked a moment, startled at the Knight’s particular name for the horse they were riding. Guinevere had been her mother’s horse’s name. It was an unusual name in Wonderland, one with a very Otherside-ish name. But her mother’s Guinevere had been dark black, not pale white. She supposed that perhaps the name had gained appeal with the Knights after his mother had told the story. It was disgustingly “romantic” enough to appeal to several of their sensibilities. Though Hatter was fair certain that the story had been warped through the ages with Wonderlandian flights of fancy.

She was lost in thought long enough to have apparently appeased the Knight, as he deftly pick up the pace through the main gate (colloquially called “Rook’s Gate” by the inhabitants, from the two large pieces that anchored the portcullis in place). She warily looked ahead, the late afternoon sun giving the broken edges of the city a copper gilt. The hair on her neck rose as they rode on, the absolute absence of anything other than the occasional birdsong completely alien to her. Even in the last days after the bedlam and mass desertion of the populace there was still a market in Knight Square. The fountain was still running in Pawn Terrace.

Instead, the market was almost obliterated, all the shops broken in or destroyed, their display stalls conspicuously absent. The fountain was so choked with the ivy that had taken over the north of the city, she could only tell by the green shape that it even still stood. The Bishop Span was indeed treacherous to cross, Hatter watching the horse’s footing closely. (She flatly refused to think of the horse as “Guinevere.” Not now.) She saw that the Knight was leading them up Queen’s Rise, the main road that led to the inner castle. She saw the King’s Gate in the distance, and had to stop herself from making the L-motion most returning Ladies-in-Waiting made to alert the guards that they were returning to the castle. There was an innate magic involved in the motion that only those given the Sigil by the Queen could work. The Queen had taught it to her as the heir to her mother’s position. That had been scant weeks before the fall of the Red Kingdom.

“You, dear David Hatter, are the daughter of the greatest of my Ladies,” the Queen had said gravely. “You will learn this. It may never come to pass that you’ll use it, but you will learn it all the same. You will be my Keeper in this new world the Queen of Hearts is building.” As she had watched the gates shatter as her parents had pulled her away from the window to flee, Hatter had known that the Sigil wouldn’t matter a whit in the future, no matter if she ever returned. Then, when her father had died for treason, she swore she’d never use it, no matter the cause. She’d never give any reason for the new Queen to suspect that she knew anything about the old Court. The Age of the Chess was well and truly over as far as she was concerned. It was time to move on into the Age of Cards. Survival was the only thing that mattered.

“What really happened here?” she heard the Oyster ask behind her, as they passed the remnants of the King’s Gate.

“War and time, I suppose,” Hatter replied, keeping her tone conversational. “Yon Knight might have a better idea.”

“You said something about killing everything inside,” Alice persisted. “I can’t imagine any ruler with any sort of sense would kill innocent people. They would risk uprisings and reprisals if they did that.”

“Look, I don’t know all the details, all right?” Hatter snapped, the lie easily flying between them, her shield amongst the turmoil of the persistent memories surrounding her. “Like I said, ask the Knight if you want to know more.”

“It’s your country too, Hatter!” the Oyster protested. “How can you not know more of what happened? How can you not care?” Hatter gritted her teeth, glaring at the Knight’s back.

“Not all of us had the opportunities to focus on much more than surviving in the chaos, Alice,” she bit back, turning her head slightly. “Also in Heartland, knowing too much was a good way to end up dead. Don’t ask too many questions, don’t appear to have many answers, survive for another day. It’s not glamourous, but it’s effective.” She heard the Oyster make a noise of disgust behind her, and she rolled her eyes in response.

“I think I’d have rather died,” Alice retorted sharply. “I can’t imagine living in ignorance as a means to survival. Seems rather cowardly.” Hatter stiffened, stung. She reigned their horse in, pivoting her upper body back to face the Oyster better.

“Well since my ‘cowardice’ as you so aptly put it is what has led us to surviving thus far,” she said with honeyed sweetness, “you’ll forgive me for putting much stock in the opinions of someone who almost got us shot, followed by almost being rounded up by the Suits.” She stared at the Oyster a few moments more, daring her to respond. Apparently something in her eyes warned the Oyster off, as Alice remained silent once more, only glaring furiously at her. Hatter snorted indelicately, turning back around, clicking her tongue to get the horse moving again. They had only fallen a few feet behind the Knight, and Hatter could see ahead of him that they were making their way to the stables. She was curious to see where they were to bed down for the night, praying that it wasn’t in the castle itself. She wasn’t certain about much in this situation, but she knew without a trace of doubt that she would go utterly Mad if she had to sleep in anywhere near her family’s suite. Or the Royal Suite. Her stomach began to knot with Anxiety.

They made it to the remnants of the stables, Hatter noting absently that they appeared to only be slightly dilapidated from neglect, rather than ripped apart by the Queen of Hearts’ army. She began to unburden their horse out of habit, finding a comb and brush on a stool outside the stall.

“I appreciate your kindness to Guinevere, vassal,” the Knight began, putting his hand over hers, stilling her movements. She tensed at the contact, uneasy at the Knight’s softer tone. “However, I cannot have another care for my horses. It is my duty, and such responsibilities are things that must be upheld at all times.” He inclined his head to the side, mouth quirking slightly as he pulled the brush from her hands. “Also, the lady Alice will need your particular assistance, I am certain,” he continued, expression somewhat bashful as he turned his head to stare off where the Oyster had walked outside the stable. Hatter rolled her eyes. Men. Mooncalves, the lot of them. She ceded the brush to him, quickly exiting the stables. She began her search for the wayward Oyster, only to find her looking at severely damaged Cheshire statue. Alice looked in her direction, noticeably tensing upon seeing her, swiftly turning her head back to face the statue.

“The Queen of Hearts never did have any patience for any devotion to anything other than her,” Hatter said, attempting to break the ice. Why did they always seem to end up at cross purposes? They’d no sooner begin to mend a bridge then one of them was ripping a new hole in it. She respected the Oyster’s courage, her fire and spirit. She found her “sheer gall” (to borrow Dodo’s phrasing) endearing. But they could never seem to find common ground.

“So she destroyed your statues?” the Oyster asked finally. Hatter huffed a small laugh.

“Not just any statues,” she replied, walking over to join Alice by the base of the Cheshire sculpture. “This one has particular meaning to anyone in Wonderland that lived before the Queen of Hearts seized power. You see, even though we’re just a book of stories to your world,” she said, flashing a teasing, nervous grin, “we in Wonderland value anything of Cheshire, Creator of Wonderland.” She gestured at the statue. “The Queen of Hearts couldn’t abide seeing anything that we valued more than her. I’m sure she destroyed anything relating to Cheshire or the Chess Courts so that people would forget.”

“But you didn’t,” Alice said slowly, after a pregnant pause. “You remember about…your deity, your previous royalty, don’t you?”

“I told you before that I was sentimental,” Hatter replied quietly, aiming for jovial, and missing her mark entirely.

“I believe you said you were a philanthropist actually,” Alice teased, a small smile lighting her face. Hatter smiled in response, another soft laugh bubbling from her. She tore her eyes away from the sight of Alice smiling, turning her gaze back to the statue. A hand made its way to her arm, causing her to startle slightly. She looked down at her arm, following the hand to the wrist, then up to the shoulder, to the long hair framing a face that quickly becoming too dear to her.

“Alice—” she began, voice roughened with emotion.

“I’m sorry,” Alice broke in, squeezing her arm once before letting go once more. “I’m sorry I called you a coward back there.” She sighed once, drawing her arms around her middle a moment, as though to hug herself. “You’re right. I don’t know what it was like here for you. I shouldn’t make that kind of judgment call.” She swallowed, Hatter following the movement of her throat. “I just…am out of my depth. Things are so different from what I expected and…I took it out on you. That doesn’t make it right. So. I’m sorry.”

“I understand,” Hatter replied, smiling crookedly. “Cheshire only knows what I’d do if the situations were reversed.” She heard the Oyster huff a small laugh at that. Hatter felt herself move closer once more, drawn as an addict to Tea.

“Lady Alice, loyal vassal,” the Knight’s voice called, quickly shattering the moment, and doused Hatter in an emotional bucket of cold water. She felt her walls rise back up, and chastised herself for being soft. She was getting sloppy. She had a plan to stick to! “As it is nearing nightfall, I would feel much better about securing us a better location to eat and rest in.” He glanced up at the sky nervously. Hatter realized that Scarabs might patrol the area on occasion to make sure no one was setting up shop here. Small wonder he was a bit paranoid. Alice quickly agreed, Hatter merely nodding her assent, also suspiciously watching the skies. She could easily believe that March would order the Suits into a Scarab to get a better view of the terrain. She could also see March merely hoof it to them. She only hoped that whatever Green Magic the Knight possessed was enough to keep them thrown off.

The Knight led them through the kitchen entrance of the main castle space, maneuvering the twists and turns with an ease long born of experience. Hatter barely kept up her mental map along the way, determined to not get lost or be dependent on the Knight for anything beyond dinner. She realized, after a few more turns and stairs later, that he was leading them to the gardens that led to the Throne Room. She froze for a moment, seeing for the first time that the spindly trees that formed a small grove they were walking through was, in fact, the Gallery. The portraits were long since lost or destroyed, but the room’s overall shape still remained. She shook her head sharply, ignoring the burning of her eyes as she hurried after the others.

The Knight had paused upon the entrance to the Lower Gardens, a slightly concerned expression in his eyes that Hatter ignored as she hurried past—and almost ran straight into a tree. She looked a moment, observing that the trees had grown tall here. She saw the Queen’s Bishop tower before them, the King’s Bishop a bit further along.

“Before the war with the Queen of Hearts,” she heard the Knight say behind them, tone wistful as they continued on, “this was the greatest city in the realm. The Red King and his elected Council ruled Wonderland with the wisdom of the ages.” Hatter internally scoffed at the overly optimistic view of the Court. Though she did agree that the Red Court was a much better one than the Suit of Hearts Court.

“And the Hearts just destroyed everything?” Alice asked at the base of the King’s Bishop. The tower still stood, though ivy had begun to reclaim it. The Oyster had slowed in what appeared to be disbelief.

“We lived in harmony for 1,000 years,” the Knight said sadly as they slowed. He stopped a moment, turning staring off into the distance. “But when the Queen came to power,” he continued, turning back, expression utterly desolate, “she just wanted to feel the Good, not the Bad.” His voice stuttered, and for one horrible moment, Hatter was convinced he was about to cry. He turned them around, and Hatter realized with a start that they had reached the lower dais of the Throne Room.

“Believe it or not,” the Knight said, as though echoing her thoughts, “this was once the Throne Room. Sadly, all that remains now is the Throne.” Hatter took in the lean-to and clothesline the Knight had put into place. She observed the fire pit. Then she reluctantly drew her eyes to where the King and Queen would sit, and had to stomp her gorge into submission. There, upon the throne, sat the Red King—or at least what was left of him. Still in his mail, still wearing his crown. Hatter fervently wished she had never come. She suddenly felt the weight of all those who had died at the castle bear down on her, drowning her in her ghosts.

The Knight urged them forward, but Hatter couldn’t move. She was fighting to breathe. She knew that she was going to give her secrets away at the rate they were going, but her Heart wouldn’t listen to her Mind. She tore her gaze from the skeleton of the Red King, and stared at the forest floor in front of her, trying to get her storming emotions back under control. She had known that he had died, of course. The Queen of Hearts wouldn’t have let him live, but she had assumed that he had been executed at the Casino. Or at least laid to rest somewhere. Not left to rot on his throne.

“Hatter?” Alice called from below having started to assist the Knight with setting out some kind of bedroll for them both for the night. Hatter blinked a few times, trying to focus on her.

“In a tic,” she said finally, dashing her head to and fro to shake off her thoughts. She still needed to focus, no matter what was thrown in front of her. If nothing else, she needed to keep her head in the game to make sure the Oyster wouldn’t join the Red King upon the Throne.