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Practices at Night

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He practices at night.

Mally knows that he chooses this particular time because he believes they are asleep. That they won’t Know.

It’s entirely plausible Thackery doesn’t. For all the nights the Dormouse has watched Tarrant do this (and yes, in these vulnerable moments at night, he is Tarrant, not Hatter) the March Hare has never given any indication that he sees what she does. He has twitched and sighed, mumbled and groaned, but never exclaimed at the spectacle on the other side of the clearing.

Aaaarrgh!

Mally watches, tucked away in her teapot, the lid balanced carefully on her head, as the claymore drops. The tip lodges itself into the hard packed dirt, Tarrant’s arms too weak to properly perform the swinging arch he’d been attempting. Claymores are heavy, brutal weapons, designed for powerfully built warriors to use with two hands firmly wrapped around the hilt. Because of this, the claymore is a difficult weapon to master, even for a warrior-born.

He is not a warrior-born, Tarrant Hightopp. He is becoming one, slowly, painfully, here at the side of ramshackle tea-tables in a clearing that Time has allowed itself to forget. (The three of them like to claim they have killed Time, but they know the truth of it.)

No, Tarrant is a rarer breed; he is a warrior Chosen. Fate or Necessity or one of those other unforgiving Powers had drifted through the Clan Hightopp, had studied each member of that once-sprawling people, and selected him to carry out their work here in Underland.

Wrenching the sword free from its awkward angle in the earth, Tarrant replants the point and leans against the crossbar. A thick line of perspiration snakes down the center of his back and across his shoulders. Those same shoulders heave as he takes in first one deep breath, and then a second, before he rights the sword, fixes his two-handed grasp higher upon the hilt, and begins his forms again.

He never allows himself more than two breaths to recover from a mistake.

Large feet in battered shoes scuffle across the grass and dirt as he rolls, parries, and occasionally wrestles with invisible opponents. Sometimes they are specters of the past--his father, his brothers, others of his clan that had been bitterly disappointed when he’d refused their entreaties to walk the warrior’s path--and sometimes they are people that Mally has never heard of, unusual names that hint at unusual enemies.

Tarrant had always wanted to create, never destroy, and that’s what warriors really are, isn’t it? Harbingers of Destruction. Mally had made peace with that part of herself long ago. She is lucky enough to be able to do what she is inclined to do.

Not like Tarrant, who has been Chosen for a path separate from that which would give him pleasure.

Yes, there are times that Tarrant fights with those who had tried to tell him that haberdashery, while a joy to him and a true talent, was not his true Calling in this life, but…

Most often, Mally fears that he fights himself.

Move your feet, lad! Stang !

He misses his intended target, roars in rage and throws the sword aside. It thumps harmlessly onto the ground not far away. Tarrant fists his hair in his hands, bends at the waist, and screams.

Mally flinches and reflexively ducks, but catches herself before the lid can clatter against the body of the teapot. She aches to go to him, but knows she would not be welcome. No, there is only one that he would accept soothing from, and it is not she. Not at night, not while he is Tarrant instead of the Hatter.

The sound of his own cry wakes him from the Badness that had been threatening to eat him. He straightens, looks over to the tea table, eyes draining of the terrifying red and back into their natural green. Mally does not move, dares to hardly breathe. She is low enough that even Tarrant’s sharp vision will not be able to spot her, as long as she is still. He must never know that she watches him, because if he knows that she knows, then she will insist on talking to him of it, and only one result could come of such a conversation between them: Her heart ripped in half as Tarrant insists that he can not stop partaking of this nightly ritual, despite what even touching the handle of a claymore does to him.

Even though each swing of the sword kills a piece of whom Tarrant is, Mally knows that he would argue that it was Necessary for Underland and his Resistance that he do this. Needful. Perhaps even Noble. All those words would come, and then, as she continued to protest, he would shake his head again, and say:

I must not stop.

The very words Mally imagines Tarrant saying to her in that hypothetical, hopefully-will-never-occur conversation split the air, and she has a brief moment of vertigo as she wonders if they have been talking this entire time, and she wasn’t aware of it. But no. Tarrant is speaking to himself once again, his back now to the table as he shakes his head in self-recrimination.

She raises herself slowly, even though there is no need to muffle her movements; his back is still to her. Tarrant talks quietly, but Mally can still hear him clearly.

Must, he lisps. Alice is counting on me. Alice needs me.

Mally closes her eyes, takes a deep, careful breath as pain sighs through her soul.

This is the truth, the truth she has long suspected but never heard him speak aloud before tonight. Tarrant fights for Underland, yes, but she gives him a focus. Underland itself is too big, too abstract of an idea for someone who has tumbled into madness to fix upon.

Alice, though…

Yes, yes! The laddie needs me, he continues as he stumbles over to the sword. It’s lifted in a shaky grasp, and Tarrant steadies himself for a bare second before he lunges once more.

This madness, this slow killing of whom Tarrant really is--that shy, creative soul who wants nothing to do with his father’s passion for violence--won’t stop, can’t stop, until the Alice returns to Underland.

Mally only hopes that the Alice-child can appreciate all that Tarrant has sacrificed for her when she arrives.