Fear was grey, and never in high demand. The adrenaline junkies would buy it, in tiny doses but, like all the negative emotions, the Queen didn't like to deal in it. So the supply was as scarce as the demand. That kept the price high, but it sold. Hatter kept it on the market for that reason alone.
He'd never tasted it himself, never had to. Fear was an every day event. Not in the twisting, tearing intensity that came from the tea, but it was sharp enough to keep him on his toes. Fear clouded things. It clogged up your thinking and your reactions and brought the danger closer instead of pushing it further away.
Fear was something you learned early. Everyone did. If you didn't learn that most important of emotions, you didn't survive. Fear was easy, though you had to be careful or it would overwhelm you, and you'd end hiding deep in the ruins, certain the world was about to end.
That's if you were lucky.
"Not going to raise the price of Passion again," Hatter said. He kept his gaze set on the Suit standing at the other side of his desk, calm and even. "It's already high enough that most won't bother to trade in it at all, and the smarter ones have already figured out that it won't ever drop to something they can afford, so they avoid it."
"The Queen wants it back on the market." Suits tended to come in groups of three to five. This group only had three, but that still left Hatter outnumbered. It made his flesh creep, a little. Arguing with the Suits often led to disappearances and, presumably, worse.
"Then the price needs to go down, not up. I can only offer the stuff, I can't force people to buy it." However dangerous it was to argue, sometimes there was no option. The truth couldn't set you free – quite the opposite, when it came to the Queen. "Even at the lowest price she'll allow me to set, it's still too high. The ones most desperate for it have already spent all they have, and the rest can't see the need to spend so much for something that will leave them bankrupt when they can have Lust at a tenth of the price."
The Suit frowned at him, and Hatter clenched the fist held carefully beneath his desk. Defiance was dangerous, generally deadly, but when caught between a rock and a hard place, all he could do was stand his ground.
"Passion's addictive. They love it, but they spend all their money right away. You can't get new customers when the price is so high." Hatter strove to keep his voice even, feeling the prickle of fear as sweat gathering at the small of his back and beading on his forehead. "Price has got to come down."
"The Queen –"
"The Queen isn't the one flogging the stuff. I am. I've done everything I can, but if she wants the price kept at a height no one can reach, there's nothing I can do. I can't force people to spend their money. I run a tea shop. I offer tea. That's it. It's the queen who sets the market. All I do is try to convince people it's a good idea."
Hatter stopped, feeling a knot tightening in his gut. 'Too much, too much.'
The Suit across from him was silent, staring at him from behind the dark glasses they all wore. It was probably supposed to be intimidating, but it just made Hatter wonder how they managed to see anything when not standing in broad daylight. Despite the ridiculousness of the thought, he could feel the cold sweat trickling along his spine as the silence stretched.
"Keep it on the market." The Suit rose to his feet, his companions falling into place behind him. "The Queen will consider the price."
His heart raced as he watched them leave, the knot in his stomach refusing to unclench even as he heard the sound of the flamingos starting up from outside.
Fear was grey and numbing. He sold the stuff, he should know.
Anger never sold well. It wasn't like Lust or Envy or Victory. It gave a punch of feeling that was directionless, however strong. The price was low and it was readily available – a nice hit for those who couldn't afford the more expensive teas.
It was a dull yellow, almost oily, and it smelled like old sweat.
"Oysters have emotions so much stronger than ours," Dodo sneered, tossing the pamphlet to his desk. "It's doing them a favor to bring them here and relieve them their stronger feelings. It's only natural to want to help them with their over-wrought state and, in turn, make yourself feel so much better. What a load of complete and utter shit."
Hatter glanced at Duck, who just shrugged, giving him a blank look in return. Dodo's wrath didn't exactly make the highly stacked books shake, but it held an intensity that made his audience assume that it would.. He was very focused when he was upset and neither man wanted to turn that focus upon themselves. Angry does not mean unobservant, however, and Dodo glanced from one to the other, catching the look on Hatter's face.
"Don't give me that, Hatter. You know exactly what you deal in that shiny shop of yours." Dodo rose to his feet, turning to pace back and forth behind his desk. "Their emotions may be stronger, but if they were so much stronger, the White Rabbit wouldn't need so many to make such a small amount of the stuff. If they were rationing it, I could understand – keeping demand high, but they bring in too many for that to hold up. There are always shortages, you know that, and the Scarabs are always in the air."
"Maybe they just can't extract too much at a time?" Hatter shrugged, frowning. "I mean, they've always said the emotions are stronger because they're Oysters. Their world is just… more alive, more intense. That makes sense, doesn't it?"
"And you'd just take their word for it, or is it that justification which allows you to sleep at night?" Dodo scoffed, rolling his eyes. "How would you know? How would any of us know? No one's been through the Looking Glass save the Suits, and they hardly share their observations with the rest of us."
"I don't get the feeling they do much sight-seeing," Hatter retorted.
"Holiday pictures," volunteered Duck unexpectedly.
Dodo and Hatter both turned to stare at him. The elderly man stared back. "You can learn a lot from someone's … holiday… never mind."
"Holiday." Dodo sighed and put his hands over his face. "The only natural thing about that entire bit of propaganda is their desire to convince those few not yet in their thrall that they're doing something noble by becoming unstable addicts."
"Look, I just bring the mail," Hatter said. "That's what's being handed around and I thought you'd like to know. My duties thus discharged," with a tip of his hat, "I'll be on my way."
Dodo lowered his hands, and his expression was severe. "You're too young to remember our world as it used to be. The emotions of the Oysters are stronger… but that is because we've been made weaker. You don't remember what life was like or what emotions really are. You don't know what beauty is, or what it means to feel alive."
Hatter raised both eyebrows and took a long, theatrical look around the crowded office, linger on the shelves crammed with books. He reached up to touch one of the branches of the tree that grew through the floor and spread across the ceiling. "Alive, you say? I can sense the endless thrills and excitement, crammed into every nook and cranny. And the view," gesturing to painting which served as a window, "The view is superb."
Teeth set, Dodo jabbed a finger first at Hatter, then at the door. "Get out. Go back to your world of ruins and oppression and numbness. You don't know what feelings are, not the real, honest feelings that come from within. You've no idea what passion is, or what it means to truly believe in something."
"Well, I obviously believe in something – or I wouldn't keep coming back to bask in your delightful company." Hatter said. "Come along, Duck. I'll need a ride back to my world of endless misery, oppression and numbness."
"The day will come," Dodo snapped, "that your numbness will fade, Hatter, and you'll call yourself a fool."
"I've no need to, when you'll do it for me." Hatter tipped his hat again, suppressing his own anger. "Good day, Dodo. So pleasant to do business with you."
He was ignored, soundly, as Dodo turned to his desk, taking his wrath with him. Making a juvenile face at Dodo's back, Hatter followed the elderly Duck from the room.
"He's right, you know." Duck's walk combined a military bearing with an arthritic hitch. It made keeping stride with him an exercise in concentration, and the remark caught Hatter by surprise.
"Right? About what?"
"Numbness. It's a creeping disease 'mongst those of us who remember. You young people, you've nothing to compare it to, so you don't notice." Duck was frowning, the expression making him seem even older. "You've never had the chance to really feel, only to play with the concentrated emotions of the Oysters. You don't even know what you're missing."
"What am I missing, then?" Hatter asked.
"Truth. Beauty. The light and colors that once were everywhere." Duck's frown was becoming sad nostalgia. "You can drink them, but you can't know them."
"That doesn't make any sense. You feel what you drink. That's how it works."
"Does it." Duck stopped, reaching to open the door of the lift. "Do you really feel compassion, Hatter? Or trust? Or do you just remember, dimly, what it felt like when you drank it? It's not yours, after all. You're just borrowing it."
"Stealing," Hatter corrected him. "Wait, why am I taking your side?"
"Because you know we're right." Duck took hold of the pole, waiting until Hatter entered the lift before closing the door. "Why do you think they keep us all up so high, above the world that used to be? We might trip over something from before the casino, something that will allow us to feel on our own."
"What sort of something?"
Duck pushed the button, releasing the brake on the apparatus that began dragging them swiftly upward. Over the grinding of the gears and the squeal of metal, he shouted, "Something real."
Anger was quick to take hold and just as fast to fade away. Hatter didn't think about it much. It was just another tea, and not a very popular one.
The idea of his own emotions slowly ebbing away, however, took hold with a vengeance.
Frustration was a dull puce, smelled terrible and tasted worse. It wasn't even on the market, at the moment. Hatter liked to imagine that there were great vats under the casino filled with ugly colors and ugly emotions, locked away so that the Queen did not even have acknowledge their existence.
That thought led him to another, and then to a third.
"Something real." Hatter scowled at the walls of his own office. Feet kicked up on the desk, he turned one of the small bottles between his hands.
One of the scraggly clumps of wild flowers that persisted in springing up even here, so far from the actual ground, caught his attention. Its very existence seemed to belie Dodo and Duck's claims. They grew here and there, but they'd been brought into the tea shop and deliberately planted, arranged to show… and there he lost his thought. The orange in the nearest flower was almost the same shade as the tea in the bottle between his hands.
He knew what the tea brought wasn't real, knew it better than most people. He might be too young to remember the Wonderland of splendor and color, but he knew how to read. He knew how history worked, how it attempted to cover its own failures while exposing the weaknesses of others. He didn't drink the tea himself, not often anyway and even then only to taste. The highs it brought were connected to lows, bringing forth an echoing emptiness that was the opposite of the emotions set alight by the tea.
Hatter had seen the Hospital of Dreams and had no desire to ever approach it – or find himself within. If he'd any qualms about the path he'd chosen, they resided there, the broken and twisted wreckage of people so desperate for feeling that they'd lost themselves completely.
"What is reality?"
"Dodo got to you, did he? Heh." Dormouse had been snoozing on Hatter's couch, and blinked awake at the sudden words. "He does that. Gets to people."
"You don't say?" Hatter scowled. "Went on about feelings and how they've all been sucked away. I feel. I'm a nice guy."
Dormouse snorted, wiggling to get more comfortable in the chair. "You're young. These things –"
Hatter watched as Dormouse nodded off again, sighing. "Everyone keeps saying that. What is this, a conspiracy to make me feel like a child? Because," raising his voice, "it's not working."
The only response was a hearty snore.
"Lovely. Just lovely." Hatter went back to staring at the tea in his hands. "Feeling. I feel. Everyone feels. He's just trying to get to me."
Paranoia. He was used to that. Still….
He picked up a pen and flung it at Dormouse. "Oi! Time to open the tea shop. Wake up, you."
Dormouse blinked furiously. "Tea shop! Right. Time to open." Short legs trotted somewhat unsteadily to the door as Dormouse yawned.
"If you weren't so good at your job –" The door closed with a decisive 'snap', leaving Hatter alone with his thoughts.
They weren't particularly happy. Hatter wasn't prone to a lot of self-reflection. Balanced precariously between two equally bitter and determined adversaries, he spent most of his time and attention on the tightrope stretched between them and how best to keep his footing there.
Some sort of appreciation from either side for the battles he fought would've been nice, but he knew better than to expect it. It didn't keep him from hoping, and he settled behind his desk with a scowl. It was difficult to devote yourself to a double-game and the risks that came with it when the only reward was that both sides despised you equally.
"I am a nice guy," he mumbled, sinking low in his chair. "You bastards."
No matter the resentment and frustration, he couldn't summon up any real fury, instead staring sullenly across the room toward the entrance to the tea shop. Maybe Dodo was right, maybe he was numb.
"What a perfectly depressing thought."
Almost as expensive as Passion, Exhilaration sparked and died fairly quickly, like the flash of fireworks over the casino. It was a deep green and smelled of clear, cutting mint. Hatter tried it once, and regretted it. The momentary flash of excitement and drive simply illuminated the accusation he was still trying to forget.
He'd found himself attempting to explain what he was looking for to one of the tea shop regulars, an exercise in frustration if ever there was one, and a very clear sign that he'd drunk more than the mere drop he'd meant to sample.
"Clarity," he finally decided, "something that'll let me –" He broke off, rolling his eyes as the young woman he was talking to pulled a bottle with the tiniest bit of pale blue in the bottom from within her purse. "That is not what I meant. Not tea, clarity of – you know what, that's exactly what I meant. Enjoy your tea, buy some more!"
Hatter rose abruptly to his feet and fled back to his office, leaning his back against the door and staring at the short row of bottles behind his own desk. "I'm not going to drink any more of that stuff," he declared flatly. "Not even to taste. The day I rely on something out of a bottle to do my feeling for me is the day I become one of them."
It was the first time he'd drawn a line so sharply between himself and his customers. He'd pitied them for their addiction, more than anything, but now he found himself regarding them as dangerous; like wild animals held back only with a very dodgy leash.
"The Queen's got no idea."
He could taste the lie the moment he spoke it, and made a face. "Bleaugh." Of course she knew. That's why she spent so much time and energy on the Oysters and on the tea shops; why she only wanted to deal in the positive emotions. That leash only held together through constant reinforcement. When it broke, and it someday would, the animals would be free. Some of them would wander aimlessly, some wouldn't even notice for a bit but the third group – they'd turn and savage the one who'd held that leash in the first place, and Hatter shuddered.
Maybe it's what they needed.
It wouldn't happen in his lifetime. He was sure of that.
For a moment, he rested his back against the door and allowed himself to wonder what things would be like if the Resistance managed to get itself out of basements and hideaways and actually achieve something.
The daydream faded away with the last of the Exhilaration, leaving him feeling tired and old. That was the danger of the 'good' emotions. They always left you wanting more, eventually desperate to keep that feeling at all costs. He stared at the pretty green carpet of living grass around and beneath his desk and then at the scraggly, dark patches with their tall, wild flowers and felt the pull to try just one more taste. It would set him free to imagine what it would be like to have green grass everywhere, let him see the looming, dead towers of the city as proper ruins instead of a warren of long-defunct life and industry where people hid and scuttled instead of properly living.
Dangerous stuff, that. It made you want things that couldn't be, long for things that never were. So much safer to be –
Hatter cut the thought off, not wanting that word, 'numb' to come back to haunt him. Dodo wasn't allowed to be right about this. That sanctimonious bastard, hiding from the world, what did he know about how other people felt? Hatter sank down low enough in his chair that he was in danger of sliding off and tried to forget what he'd just been feeling.
Passion was red. Red and prohibitively expensive and the source of most of Hatter's problems when you came right down to it. The Queen wanted it at the forefront, the customers craved it and would go to insane lengths to get it, dragging themselves further into addiction and the inevitable room at the Hospital of Dreams.
Hatter didn't understand it. He couldn't afford a drop of the stuff himself and wouldn't take it if he could. Even curiosity would only take him so far, and he wasn't curious enough to walk in the footsteps of those customers who drove themselves mad in search of a feeling that faded almost as quickly as it made itself felt.
Passion was elusive and fleeting. He knew this. He'd seen the effects. He knew more about tea and about the impulses and drives and emotions it brought than anyone – anyone outside the casino itself, that is.
Which was why the reality of an Oyster, standing in his office, soaking wet and nearly radiating intensity, took him so by surprise that he didn't actually believe it. Her determination, her insistence… it couldn't last. It never did.
He watched her with wary surprise, waiting for her to waver, waiting for it to fade away….
'It's because she's an Oyster.' It might even be true. Their emotions were stronger, and must last longer, right?
She stared right through him, unimpressed by the patter, unhappy yet refusing to bend. She needed help, needed him but she didn't trust and refused to bend. "I don't believe you."
Passion wasn't red. It was blue, like the ridiculous dress she wore.
She fascinated him, this 'Alice', even if it was mostly in the same way that he'd regard a red-hot poker being waved about in his immediate vicinity. Far better to be rid of her as quickly as possible – preferably before the Suits came looking for their lost Oyster. He'd take her to Dodo and let him sort it out. It'd serve him right, with his sanctimonious, judgmental pronouncements.
It wasn't Hatter's fault that somewhere between the tea shop and the library he suddenly found himself deeply and personally invested in the success of Alice's venture to retrieve her boyfriend. Or at least invested in Dodo taking her off Hatter's hands.
Which is, of course, when Dodo shot him and Hatter learned his second lesson of the day.
Fear wasn't grey. It was white hot and painful, like – like being shot in the chest and knocked off your feet, left gasping and struggling to force your heart to beat again.
When he really came back to himself, bruised, battered and in several kinds of pain, it was to see that same intense face glaring down at him, showing an anger that almost seared.
"A bullet-proof vest?" As if he'd betrayed her by being suspicious and cautious and untrusting. Maybe he had.
He almost said what he was thinking. Almost.
'Oysters do feel more strongly.' He managed to deflect the rest of the thought, concentrating instead on keeping her from treating him the way she'd just treated Dodo, and where had she learned so much about violence, anyway?
It wasn't two hours later that he'd learned further new and exciting things about Fear that he'd've much rather avoided and found himself face to face with the new and exciting concept of throwing himself into danger for someone else.
"And without a damn second thought or promise of reward and what is is wrong with m – hey!"
There she went, without a second thought, and he'd had to hare after her and what was it that was so wrong in her head that this was somehow a good idea and why didn't she listen?
'Oysters do feel more strongly, and they make us feel more strongly as well.' With her around, you didn't need tea to find your way through the numbness, to see the strong, vibrant colors that used to bring life to Wonderland.
He wanted to stay with her, make the feeling last, and if this wasn't addiction, what was?
Passion was blue, like her eyes, and he was drowning in the intensity of it.
Resignation was a dull brown – or would be if it existed as a tea. There'd never been a market for it, and Hatter could see why.
Alice had come to Wonderland with her blue eyes and her desperation, her passion and her anger, seeking the man she loved. And here he was, tall, handsome, a prince, and a leader in the resistance against the tyranny of the Queen.
Hatter was short, scruffy, and ran a tea shop. He played both sides against the middle, kept his eye on his own interests and if he'd done a few minor, heroic things here and there, what could he hold up against that?
In the end, he didn't even stay to watch her go, feeling the slow return of the creeping numbness that he'd been striving so hard to deny just a few short days before. He knew when he'd been beaten, and if Alice wouldn't stay to be Jack's Queen, she certainly wouldn't do it to be the girlfriend of a ratty tea shop owner who was suddenly and permanently out of a job.
The tea shop was just visible when he suddenly halted. The shop was being dismantled by laughing revolutionaries, enjoying their sudden freedom and the bright, unaccustomed sun.
"Where am I going?" He demanded, snatching his hat from his head and trying to tie it into a knot. "What am I doing?"
"A very good question."
Hatter spun, nearly putting himself over the edge, and he had to struggle not to slap away the hand that caught his elbow and kept him on the ledge instead of plummeting to his death. "Your Majesty."
"Through clenched teeth, yet," with the small, edged smile that Hatter had grown to really, really hate. "You can't fool me, Hatter. What you really meant was 'You bastard'."
"Does it matter?" Hatter shrugged off the grip on his elbow and theatrically straightened his coat. "I hear lèse majesté is suddenly in fashion, with you the prime example."
"It does matter." Jack withdrew his hand, making it look deliberate, and Hatter found himself hating the man even more. "Because you can still feel it, can't you?"
"Feel it? Feel what?"
"What are you doing, Hatter?" The look on the new King's face was intent. "Why are you here?"
"Where else would I be?" Hatter gestured at the group slowly dismantling his tea shop. "I mean, watching your livelihood be destroyed is a grand way to end the day, don't you think?"
"No, I mean why are you here."
He didn't pretend to misunderstand, scowling at Jack and folding his arms. "What, you think I'm the sort to just… run after a pretty girl?"
"Yes, I think you're exactly the sort," and the smile on Jack's face was fading into something tired. "You chased her all the way into the Casino, didn't you? Right into certain death. What's stopping you from chasing her now?"
"Because –" Hatter stopped, attempting to summon up any of the many reasons that had seemed so very sound just an hour or so before.
"Because she tends to short-circuit the part of your brain responsible for logical thought." Jack sighed. "She'll never forgive me, and I knew it when I asked her, but perhaps - ?"
"I hate you for many reasons," Hatter decided, counting them off on his fingers. "You're rich, powerful, good-looking, heroic, noble – do you have to be perfect?"
"She doesn't want perfect," Jack said, lips twisting into a regretful smile. "I think she wants you."
It took self-restraint, but Hatter did not swing at him.
The flow of time was just different enough that she was still there, lying in an alley, suffering from the shock of returning to her own time and place. Jack had warned him, told him what to do and what to say, but his own mental shock was enough to leave him slightly unsteady on his feet.
He remembered what to say, got her to the hospital… and ran out of words. He hovered outside the emergency room, wanting to see her and be sure she actually opened her eyes. If he were honest with himself, most of what Hatter wanted was to be certain he hadn't made a terrible mistake.
When Alice's mother arrived at the hospital, he managed to mumble a few appropriate words before taking to his heels, Jack's carefully written instructions still folded up inside a pocket.
'We still have people there. They'll take care of you, Hatter. You just… look after her.'
'I really doubt she actually needs anyone to look after her. This is Alice we're talking about.'
'A poor choice of words, perhaps. She needs someone to love her. You can do that, can't you?'
Hatter had refused to answer, but he'd still found himself here, with instructions, letters of introduction, a wallet full of money and Alice's address. It took him some time to work up the nerve to ring the bell, and even more to follow Alice's mother into the apartment.
Joy was seeing Alice's face light up and feeling her in his arms and realizing that this, this was something he could give her.
This wasn't something to be drunk, or to let slip through your consciousness like a pale shadow. No, this was something beautiful and rare and no color at all. The grey numbness of Wonderland's nightmare was no longer fading, it had exploded into a riot of color and feeling. She was the center of it, the center of everything.
Joy was to have her in his arms, to almost stumble from the impact, to feel the racing of her heart and the incredulous laughter in her voice. Joy was realizing that he loved her, and that, just maybe, she loved him.
'Never bottled, never sold, because in those grey ruins there was nothing that could ever have contained this, even for a drop, even for a second.'
"I love you."
"You're crazy!" But she was laughing, still laughing as if she couldn't believe it.
"I can't be both?" Daring, he kissed her. "I've missed you, Alice."
"Mm. Me too, I –" Alice recovered herself somewhat. "You – you are crazy. What are you doing here? What – why?"
"Because he's a healthy young man and you're an attractive young woman?" Alice's mother had recovered herself enough to comment and was watching them with a fine mix of incredulity and delight.
"Close enough." Hatter pulled her close.
Contentment. That was a new one, but he had no trouble recognizing it as she wound her arms more closely around him and leaned in. Contentment was a pale pink, like the color in her cheeks as she whispered, "I think I love you, too."
The whole world was open before him, and he couldn't wait to see what new colors it held for them both.