Title: Feeding the Ghost
Characters/Pairing: Alice/Hatter, Charlie
Spoilers: various references to the series; takes place far to the post
Disclaimer: Not mine, though I've started a fund.
Summary: They gather together to tell stories, to remind themselves of the way it really was; to remind themselves that they are all, now, "of legend."
A/N: This is so totally not what I set out to write, when I started it.
Feeding the Ghost
Hatter starts it, the way he starts most things, with permission or without it.
"Once upon a time," he says, to give it a classical feel, "a long long time ago— we're talking ages, we're talking eras, we're talking a long long long long long long long long time ago here—"
"Shut up," says Alice, laughing, pushing at his shoulder.
"Don't blame me for it! I failed language at schools. Nobody ever taught me how to tell a story."
"Remember your classics," advises Charlie. "'Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop.' Duckworth and Strong's, chapter six, page 543. About half-way down the text, just under the little picture of King Heart III." He smiles, eyes glinting. "I got an E in languages," he says in a stage-whisper, proudly.
Hatter regards him, eyebrows lifting. "E for excellence or E for effort?"
The knight chuffs a little, blowing hot air into his wildly out-of-place beard, shrugging his shoulders in quick little jerks, doddering his head from side to side. "Excellence, of course. I'm assuming. What difference does it make, harbinger? That was a long time ago."
"Then why are you bringing it up?" says Hatter, but Alice shushes him.
"It's his first time through the looking glass," she says, leaning into him. Her warmth is something blessed, something blissful, something wonderful, and he wants to fold her into his jacket with him so they can be closer than ever. "Be nice."
"I'm always nice," he mutters. Maybe he resents Charlie a little; it wouldn't be the first time. Alice has such a way of loving him, regardless of the old knight's craziness, of reaching out and taking him to her heart. She'd done it from the beginning, when he helped to haul them out of the trap he'd set and almost fell into it himself, overbalancing from the weight of his armor. Perhaps he's jealous— he's self aware enough to admit this to himself, if not to her— because she didn't react to him the same way. She had looked at him cautiously, warily, wearily, at his scruffy chin and his reaching, rambling hair and his slightly greasy pork-pie topper, and she had suspected him from the first. Just because she let him sleep beside her in the big bed in the small room, just because she laughed at his jokes and showed him how to work the TV remote, just because she was teaching him little by little why oysters were so good at emotions— he still wishes she had loved him from the first, the way he is convinced he loved her.
"Now," says Alice, hands wandering up to stroke his head, to play with his hair, twisting a cowlick around her finger, "start again."
Hatter sighs, purses his lips, considers his options.
"It was a dark and stormy night," he says. Alice laughs again, and tilts her body to nudge him with her shoulder. "Well, it was," he defends himself.
"It wasn't even cold here. And by the time I saw the light in Wonderland, it was probably the middle of the afternoon."
"Doesn't have the same feel, though, does it? 'Once upon a time in the middle of the afternoon when it wasn't even cold, Alice took a little jaunt through the looking glass and crashed into our world, where she promptly assaulted several citizens, took on the reigning Queen of Hearts, and fell in love with the owner of a tea shop.' That's you in a nutshell, isn't it? Taking a little jaunt."
"That wasn't exactly how it happened," she says, looking at him a bit skeptically. He shrugs.
"No one's ever going to know the truth," he says.
"Unless we tell it to them," says Alice. "Are you done? I think it's my turn."
"Hold on a tick," says Charlie, garbledly because his tongue is between his teeth. He scribbles away at the parchment, the quill tickling his nose and flirting with the beard. He puts down the last few words, dots a period with a flourish. "'—owner of a tea shop.'" He looks up expectantly at Hatter. "Is that really how you want to end it? Myself I'd add a few dragons, maybe a jabberwock or two. You certainly don't come off as very heroic."
"End with us snogging," instructs Hatter. "That's how I like to win my arguments." Alice shoves him again.
Charlie looks at the paper as though he sees visions within the hand-pressed lines. His eyes grow distant and misty, and his chin quivers as he speaks. "It was the kiss of a lifetime," he says, voice shaking a little, tremulous, jumping registers at random. "He had searched long and hard for the damsel he loved, and when at last they met, he fell to his knee there on the hard ground and offered her one pure, pure rose— the last of the white roses, for the season, just beginning to be stained red by the frost. She accepted it graciously, one lily-white hand circling the thornless stem, the other lifting his chin so their eyes could meet. He kissed her tenderly, chastely—"
"Not exactly," says Hatter.
"—on the hand," says Charlie.
"That wasn't exactly how it happened, either," offers Alice, smiling despite herself.
"There was a rug on the floor, for one thing," says Hatter.
Charlie, meanwhile, has closed his eyes, the better to concentrate on his internal vision of the epic love story that had not really happened. "A story," he says, "to end all stories. We must tell your children."
"'Mum and Dad fought a war, and then shagged,'" eulogizes Hatter, for which he receives yet another elbow in the ribs from Alice. Charlie gives Hatter a dark look— or what would be a dark look, from someone with a less-humorous set of facial hair— and raises one declarative eyebrow.
"The end," he says.
Alice slaps her hands on her knees. "Okay. Is it my turn now?"
Hatter is still snickering; he rubs at her shoulders with both hands. She's been complaining about having an aching back, and thinks maybe she twisted it at work. One of these days, he thinks, he's going to make enough of a success with the tea shop that she won't have to work. Unless she really wants to, of course; which, he figures, she probably will. Still, it will be nice for her to have the option, and since he's finally paid off all those debts— really, someone should have warned him that petty thievery was frowned upon here— they won't have much weight on their shoulders, financially speaking. He rubs harder at the thought, curls the fingers of one hand around her shoulder. She is pondering, working out exactly what she wants to say.
"Alice was cold and alone and worried," she says. "Things were not going well. She was by herself in a strange place and had already fought for her life more than once."
"Way to begin on a downer,"points out Hatter, but she's too wrapped up in her own thoughts to even elbow him for the interruption.
"It has a happy ending," she assures him, as though it is possible he could have forgotten. "She starts her journey unwillingly, but she does her best. Gives her all." Her eyes slide sideways to seek his out, and she finds the reassurance there that she always finds. She puts one hand on his knee, to feel the steadiness, the reality of him. "She is surrounded by impossible creatures," she says softly.
They have talked about this quite a bit, in the year since he followed her through the looking glass. He goes back occasionally, to check on things and because he gets embarrassingly homesick, but she has so far refused to go with him. She still has trouble reconciling the differences in the worlds, the differences in the people and in their attitudes. She doesn't like that they can come so close to the world she knows in some areas, and then diverge wildly in others. They have myriad conversations on myriad subjects, and though she understands, she can't keep both worlds in her head. Hatter has long ago accepted the fact that he would be required to give up his homeland in order to be with her; Alice can never, never stay in Wonderland. He has good memories, and she only bad.
She especially dislikes the time difference; hates that though he only seems to be gone a few hours, in reality he's living weeks of his life without her. She never demands details, but it weighs her down, he can see; and so he offers updates on Wonderland, quips, anecdotes, gossipy little items with imitations that he is especially good at. He took a camera through once and came back with pictures of the royal wedding— Jack, now the King, and the Duchess, now the Queen— but she has trouble keeping her eyes focused on their faces, and he knows it was a mistake.
But that was the point of this story telling, wasn't it? Her way of communicating with the people of Wonderland. Her way of letting them know that they weren't forgotten by the New Alice, the Alice of Recent Legend, their Alice, his Alice.
Charlie is still scribbling, and humming almost tunelessly under his breath. The same song, no doubt, that he marched into the house singing at the top of his voice: We'll sit around the camp fire, and answer with a word; we'll tell the curse and sing the verse, we'll let our voice be heard. Followed quickly afterwards by a half-muttered sing-song as he hugged Alice and bowed deeply to Alice's harbinger: We'll have tea, and we'll have toast; and by and by we'll feed the ghost. That's what story-telling was, in Wonderland. Feeding the ghost, so they'll haunt you no longer.
Begin at the beginning, the old advice went, go on to the end—
Alice is pouring the story out now as though she were the tea pot and the parchment, the quill, the scribbling ink-stained fingers the cup receiving. Her body is tensing, relaxing, tensing, relaxing, with every new turn, every new spin. Surrounded, she says, lost and alone and then the light so bright. I'm fighting for my life without even knowing for sure why I want to keep it. This man, he smiles at me and tells me he can help me but I don't trust him; can't trust him, because every time I trust a man everything comes crashing down on me like a house of cards.
In and out, out and in.
Round and round we go, and round and round again. No one ever loses and yet no one ever wins. Alice is breathing hard as though running a race with no finish line.
Followed the cat, she says, and it makes no sense to Hatter whatsoever. My father was waiting; only he was really waiting, and then I woke up.
Dreams, he supposes. Dreams aren't supposed to make sense, even if you're the one that is having them.
I felt love, Alice says, and immediately afterwards I felt pain when I thought I felt loss. But there he was—
"There you were," she says, and he realizes suddenly she's back in the present and smiling at him through tear-filled blue eyes. He smiles back, at a loss, and resumes rubbing her shoulders. "There you were," says Alice, "and I knew that I was going to be okay. Everyone else—" A little shrug bumps his hands for a moment. "I wasn't so sure about. But we were going to fight it as long as we could."
They look at each other for a long moment, and then she blinks, and dashes the tears out of her eyes, and turns to Charlie.
"That's really where it should end," she says. "I know I said it's a happy ending— but everybody knows that already. And life doesn't have things like that, happy endings. It's happy in places, and it's sad in places, but the point is that it goes on. We keep moving. And that's all they really need to know; I kept moving."
Charlie nods a little at this, though it is evident from his face that he doesn't agree. He's probably going to put in the part about the pure, pure kiss, Hatter thinks; and so he hunches forward, tucks Alice's hair behind her ear, and says, to forestall the story-writer:
"I think I died once."
This gets their attention most effectively.
"I could feel my guts fall out of my shoes," he goes on, candidly. "My heart still beating, sliding across the floor and bumping into the opposite wall. I couldn't breathe. No one could see me, no one could help me. I had stopped mattering to anyone, if indeed I mattered at all to begin with. I was lost. I was gone. I was nothing."
Alice is staring at him, eyes wide; she's never heard the story told this way before, though it is a story he has told her, many times before. Charlie seems to have a morbid interest in the visceral details; he stops writing and leans forward.
"And then," says Hatter, softly, "I rang the doorbell."
He can tell by the pleased grunt that Charlie gives that this is going to be the ending that gets written down; which is what he had intended, after all. What he hadn't intended was the kiss Alice gives him; pressed against him, her tears making his face wet, her fingers at the back of his head holding him close, weeping and laughing and living and loving and breathing life back into him. It was a pleasant side-effect. Yes, thinks Hatter, I could get used to this story-telling thing.
Charlie has written "The End" and a gigantic flourish. He puts the tip of the quill to his lower lip thoughtfully, completely unaware that he has inked his face thoroughly until he tastes the ink on his tongue.
"Do you think I should use some sort of pen name?" he wonders.
Alice has tucked her head into Hatter's shoulder. She's done with this feeding of ghosts, exhausted from it.
Hatter waves a hand in the air. "Whatever you like, Charlie," he says magnanimously. He feels as though he can offer the world, regardless of whether or not he can deliver it.
"De Witt," says Charlie, thoughtfully, trying it out, getting the taste of possible pseudonyms. "Decree. Declarie. Dippery. Do-si-do."
"Bedtime," whispers Hatter in Alice's ear, and she nods. He can feel her smile on his skin, in his bones, written on his heart.
"Dodgeson," says Charlie, and then says, "Huh," and shrugs. It's as good as any; it will do. He signs the paper with yet another flourish, and commences to roll the parchment up. "It's a lovely story," he carries on, ignorant of the fact that neither of the two in the room are paying him any more attention. Charlie has been his own best audience for decades. "The King and Queen are going to be thrilled. Just what they wanted: a new addition to the Library." He stands up and bows to them both. "We really must do this again some time," he says, as though they've just had a picnic and a spot of kite-flying. "Perhaps a, er, what do they call it—" He scratches at his bald head for moment, then points one finger in their direction. "A sequel! That's it, a sequel!"
"Good idea, Charlie," lies Hatter easily. "We'll get right on that." He stands, bringing Alice with him, and lifts her in his arms.
"A whole series," Charlie goes on rapturously. "Spin-offs. The Ongoing Adventures of Alice in Wonderland." He's become addicted to television in the short time he's been visiting. Hatter's really going to have to do something about that.
"Good night, Charlie," he says over his shoulder as he carries Alice from the room into the cool, dim hallway.
"An alternate reality show," Charlie carries on muttering to himself, now in the empty room. His voice bounces off the walls. "Survivor: Wonderland. Dancing With the Knights." He eyes the rolled-up parchment, waiting to be delivered to the King; waiting to be read, and savored, and believed. "—and then stop," he whispers, reminding himself of the old adage.
Perhaps it was a story meant to be told only once, and remembered.
"Goodnight," he says to no one in particular. "Sleep well, my loves."
He means full well to go to the spare room where he's been put up, but he's an old man and his eyes are heavy. He falls asleep there on the recliner, the firelight flickering and words swirling round in his head.
He has the most wonderful dream.