Pass the Hat
Here in these deep city lights
A girl could get lost tonight
I'm finding every reason to be gone
There's nothing here to hold onto
- City, Sara Bareilles
Reach Into Foreign Lands
Not the Wonderland she remembered, of course. No, not her Wonderland. But Wonderland all the same.
The Wonderland of her youth had long since been replaced, by the looks of it. She had known that the moment she read those horrible books. But to see it for herself was something quite different all together. The quaint cobblestone roads and brick-faced shops had been replaced by stark and characterless cement. The whole city had become darker and more sinister, a doppelganger of its former self. Her own shadow seemed more threatening here. It stretched across the pavement, beckoning her further into the gloom. She had taken a good number of steps before she even realized that half of the sidewalks were missing. Nothing separated the city's levels any longer, except the thick, gray air.
Katherine wondered briefly if the heights were enough give her vertigo but didn't dare look over the edge of the path too long. She pocketed the golden watch and her keys (she didn't know why) and pondered which direction to head in. The buildings and alleys here didn't look familiar, not a single marker for her to recognize where she was going. This wasn't the city she remembered, after all. Honestly, she hadn't thought long or hard enough on what she was going to do once she got here. The answer to her conundrum appeared quickly enough, though.
A mouse of a man stumbled past her, squeaking to no one in particular from underneath his mustache. Instinctively, she followed. Katherine nearly had to run to keep up with him. His short legs were faster than one would have thought. A feeling of déjà vu passed over her while she followed hot on the tail of his fur coat, hoping he would stop talking to himself long enough to speak to her. The buildings began to look more familiar the further she followed him, brick facades emerging from the misting rain, complete with their homey, beamed porches and poorly-kept pane glass windows.
And then they were inside an old shop, heading for a back room when he abruptly stopped. She assumed, at first, that he had noticed her chasing him. A loud snore erupted from the small man as she snuck in front of him, however – he was asleep now, standing up and all. (Asleep!) He still spoke in his sleep, but it was jumbled and far too quiet for Katherine to hear properly. (She was quite certain she made out the word 'jam', nonetheless.)
She looked around the room. Perhaps someone else was in here; she wasn't certain if waking him was a good idea. She wasn't sure that she'd had any good ideas yet. Not today, for sure.
No one was in the room, and for good reason it appeared. Everything was topsy-turvy. Tables on their sides. Dining wares smashed into the tile and grass floor. Lights coming and going, swinging in the unfelt breeze. It looked like someone had rampaged the place. Looking closer, she noticed a teapot on the floor at the drowsing man's feet. It was round and without a spout, and broken now. It looked like an egg, in all honesty. The comprehension crashed upon her like spilling hot tea into one's lap. Goodness knew she had done that often enough as a child.
The mustached man, the shop, the teapot – they were all the last things she had seen in this world. She turned around the room again, frantically searching every corner. Still, no one. There was a door in the back where her pursuit had seemed to head… Maybe it would hold more promise. She tiptoed to the room and opened the door, surprised when she saw that the lights were many and bright in this room. It had been rifled through as well, but not nearly to the same extreme. There was a large, very mod chair upturned in the middle of the room, and a desk and some cabinets behind that. Strange clumps of wildflowers were scattered at her feet.
Not a single soul stirred in this room either. Well, until she was halfway across the room and a voice pitched at her, "Don't go on the grass. He doesn't like people on the grass."
At first she wasn't sure if he addressed her or if he spoke to himself once again. She avoided the grass, all the same.
"He?" She asked, frowning. It wasn't like someone who wasn't here could be upset by her setting foot on a patch of grass.
"You shouldn't be here. You're not supposed to be here. Who are you?" The last sentence didn't sound like a real question, so she didn't answer.
"What happened? Here, I mean?" She stepped closer to the shorter man.
"He helped the girl. Mad March came, with a new head. Ratty told. I ran. They've broken all the teas!" The only part of the explanation that made sense was the final mounting distress in his voice. He had hardly answered the question at all. Who was Ratty? Who was Mad March?
"And the city? What happened to the city? It didn't used to be like this…" she hoped his answer would be a little more coherent this time.
"Not an oyster… no, no mark. No oyster. How don't you know?"
Katherine grew more confused. What mark? What difference did it make if she was an oyster? It made her no less human. Well, maybe a little, but still…
"I've been away. A… um, a… a sabbatical." She spit the first word that came to mind. In hindsight, a Christmas vacation would have been more believable.
"The Queen. The Queen's done it. It's the tea!" he shrilled and ran, disappearing back through the door they had come from.
The Queen. Of Hearts, no doubt.
That was enough for Katherine; she knew what she had to do. She needed to find her sister. The sister who was responsible for this destruction, this abhorrence. This festering slum of a city and who knew what all else… But how? Surely all of her old hideaways and paths had been destroyed or lost by now. No telling how long had passed in Wonderland while she was gone. First off, she needed a plan. From what she knew of her sister, from her memories, books, and what she saw now before her, she would definitely need a predetermined plan of attack.
The man with the mustache was long gone when she re-emerged into the shop. She half-wondered if it had lain in ruins since she left, but the lack of sense the mouse-man made it seem unlikely. She had found a staircase to the lower levels, but had to alternate the last two levels for ladders. The ladders had been so rusty she thought perhaps she would plummet to her death right then, metal rung in hand.
The wind was colder here, off the river, and she shivered under her clothes. She wished now she had taken more than the scarf and scrappy pair of gloves from the back room of the tea shop. There had been plenty there, but she didn't imagined she would need more than she had taken. Well, maybe a hat. But she hadn't dared to take one for fear that its owner (did she dare to dream it?) would miss it. She had almost traded her shoes for one in the glass wardrobe but the only women's shoes in it had looked far more uncomfortable than her own.
She thought about going back to the tea shop especially after the first few puddles dampened her socks, and very nearly turned around when a fourth puddle drenched her from the knee down. Only in Wonderland, she had thought as her leg sunk into what appeared to be a very small but very deep pond, surprised by the rueful smile that crept across her face. So with a damp foot and aching heels (the way her shoes held them was hardly conducive to traipsing through the rugged streets), she kept going, further and further into the strange excuse of a Wonderland that she had found.
If there were people left in the city, none of them came out to greet her. Not one single person crossed her path. She vaguely knew her way to Castle from memory, but she would have considered directions from any living soul a blessing. Unfortunately, it was simply Katherine and the bad weather as she made her way to the edge of the city. The only (miniscule as it was) blessing in this was that she had time to flesh out her course of action.
She could hardly greet Mary by saying that the throne was rightfully hers. No, that would most likely backfire. Or decapitate…
So she decided to improvise best she could, taking a hint from the stories of the Looking Glass World in which she had previously resided. Perhaps, if she could convince Mary that she was too far gone in the head to be a threat, it would give her long enough to find out how best to undermine her sister-monarch.
She had just begun to list the behaviors of madness when she heard voices again. They weren't inside her head, thank goodness (she had worried, with the things she had begun to think of late), but came from a large and tall building, full of windows that didn't appear to look either in or out. The voices varied; some loud, some quiet – angry and desperate, hopeless and frantic. Enough to make her shudder harder in the wind than before. She didn't want to go in, she knew, but felt she must.
Katherine was relieved to see that no throngs of people crowded the entrance. She had once seen a movie about things called 'zombies' on the other side and this setting reminded her a terrible lot of the worst parts of that film. After a few seconds her eyes adjusted to the poor lighting, and she saw that there were lots of doors along the corridor of the building, some large and some small. Each door seemed as different as the voice that echoed from behind it. It didn't seem like a good idea to open any of them, but she couldn't help herself. She had to know. She opened the smallest door she could find, and peered through the glass behind it. The smallest man she had ever seen glared up at her, shrieking in an indignant voice that she could make neither head nor tail of.
She kept gazing into the doors as she made her way along the main hall, disturbed more and more by the scene behind each. She had just begun to think that perhaps she would not make a very convincing crazy person. Looking at these poor people, she felt like a very incompetent actress. Not that they were acting.
From the end of the hall she could hear extremely clear and conscious voices. They troubled her a little, but she still kept on towards them. From around the corner, she could tell that the room beyond was larger, its ceilings wider and the patrons of the room were definitely not locked up. She steeled her nerves and peeked into the room. A small crowd gathered, the nearest of the group with their back to her. One head stood out above the crowd.
Red curls piled on top of her head, making her impossible to miss, had she not been speaking as well. Katherine tugged at the scarf on her head, pulling it further into her face. She wished desperately that she had aged more than a few years now. Mary certainly had. She looked a good thirty years older, and there was no telling how long that was in Wonderland time. She might not have known this Mary, save for the hearts embellished on her dress and the royal entourage lurking just beyond the Queen of Hearts.
Katherine on the other hand, felt as though she looked exactly the same as when she had left. Time had been kinder to her. It wasn't going to be much longer, she decided, when a very tall Club stared harshly at her half-visible face, leaning toward the Queen ever so slightly. It was now or never. There was no time for a new plan. So the new queen of Diamonds stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder with her past and face to face with her future.
The Club stopped, either distracted by her movement, or the Queen's outburst.
"I'll hardly tolerate this! That ring is my birthright! I am the Queen, the one and the only!" she squawked, not noticing Katherine.
"Quite right, I should say so!" Katherine applauded jovially. Every eye in the room turned to her now, as though she would spontaneously combust. It occurred to her that the whole ordeal might turn out to be more difficult than she thought.
The Queen's reaction was the worst, her eyes bulging and nostrils flared. She took Katherine's enthusiasm for mockery, and was not the least bit happy about the interruption, either.
"And just who are you?" she asked, eyeing Katherine under the scarf as though she were some kind of sugary tart.
Katherine stepped forward, careful to wipe away any apprehension on her face as she pulled the scarf back and let it fall to her neck, her ears chilling in the open air. "Hello, Mary."
The Queen of Hearts stared back in blatant confusion. "It's impossible…" she whispered loudly enough for half the room to hear. Her hawk-like gaze still made Katherine shiver, even though she was a half a head taller than her older sister now (probably just the shoes).
Katherine picked up her eyebrows and put on her best impression of their old tutor's voice: "Improbable, actually. It's such a lovely word, don't you think?"
The Queen most certainly did not seem to think so. She only stared, looking for some broken seam on this supposed imposter's costume.
Katherine went on, " Besides, nothing is impossible. Well, except for treacle. Treacle is quite impossible. Impassible, even." She smiled a little at her own rambling. Hadn't she heard the cooks say that once? Surely here and now it sounded quite bizarre. She hoped so.
"You can't be-" There was a trace of indignity in the Queen's voice.
"But I am. And you've found me." She did her best to sound like she had been playing hide and seek but thought it probably didn't come across.
"I have not found you!" It sounded a lot like her sister would be happy to put Katherine back in the lost-and-found, were it available.
"Oh, but you have. I had just been saying to myself: where would Mary come looking for me, I said, where do you think?" Half of the suits to Katherine's left flinched as the young queen used the Queen's Christian name so casually. The Queen didn't seem pleased by it herself either, for that matter.
"And I absolutely knew you would come here. And, so, here I am, turtledove." Katherine had been meaning to log away the nickname to use later, but it slipped here instead. Too late…
"Impertinence!" Mary screamed, pointing her finger in a strange way at her sister. A way that resembled an order, apparently. A good number of the suits moved toward Katherine before she lifted her hand, in a way that made it apparent she intended to press her thumb and middle finger together. Every one of them stopped cold. Katherine turned her hand a little, and waggled her forefinger at the men.
"I should think not." Her voice slowly picked up a sing-song quality she imagined worked quite well for the charade. She looked at her sister, head tilted, as innocently as she could. "There's no need to grant me special treatment. I was simply going to join the precession, anyway. I imagine we're all headed in the same direction? Lovely." She threw a dark look at the suits, and glanced to her right.
"I assume that that is the end of the line." She thumbed at the strangers her sister had been addressing upon her arrival. No one said anything. Katherine thought that perhaps this was a good sign and skipped to the new company. She dipped her head to the only one she recognized (a very disturbed looking ally, with his frown and ill-fitting hat, who only nodded imperceptibly at her acknowledgement) and then curtsied with true pleasure for the gloriously-dressed knight.
Immediately, the knight dipped to his knee. Katherine started a bit, trying to coax him back to his feet, but to no avail. Instead, he grabbed one of her hands and gave a lavish dedication. Whether the dedication was to her or her hand she couldn't have been sure. All the same, when he was finished she turned her palm over and touched his chin gently.
"Thank you, but it's hardly necessary." She glanced out of the corner of her eye towards Mary, who was engaged in a very distressed conversation with a tall Ace. "But thank you," she whispered more sincerely.
She straightened and faced the crowd, throwing a half-honest smile at the cleverly dressed man now on her left. He didn't return it, looking only wary instead. It took her a second longer to notice the girl on his left (Hullo, who's this…).
She moved around to stand in front of the girl. She was pretty, and looking very cynical at the moment. She didn't seem too happy about Katherine's interest in her.
"Who are you?" Katherine asked the question without the insulting air it had possessed in her sister's mouth.
"Alice," the girl answered at length. An unexpected response, Katherine felt, considering that there was hardly an obvious difference between their ages.
"Alice? You seem far too old to be Alice…" A bit of exaggeration, but still what she had been wondering.
"Justalice," the knight corrected, his voice octaves higher than she thought it should have been.
"Oh, I see," Katherine said, still not comprehending. She held her right hand out a moment, before switching it for the left one. "Sorry about that; I forgot how to." The explanation was meant to be stupid, but fell short of delivering any impression.
Alice shook her left hand all the same, her eyebrow raising in an amused concern. No time was allotted for this concern or amusement, as the Hearts clan was on the move, a good half of the suits leading the queen of Diamonds and her new acquaintances away.
If this chapter was confusing, I'm sorry. I promise it will all make sense. Also sorry about how little of a part Hatter played in this chapter. He's damn tricky to find, that one. Also, I'm trying to keep the chapters at similar lengths and this one was already 3,000 words…so I may have shortened it a bit. :/ Not to mention that my body is trying to die.