Title: The Price of Tea (1/1)
Characters/Pairing: Hatter/Alice, Young!Hatter, Other!Hatter, Charlie, Ratty
Disclaimer: I'm running out of clever ways to say "Not mine."
Summary: Alice is a legend, a story, a history book, a puzzle. Hatter's trying to put the pieces together.
Feedback: is so loved.
A/N: Takes place pre- and during series. Other!Hatter is, in my head, a guest appearance by Tom Petty!Hatter. Check out the music video for Don't Come Around Here No More.
The Price of Tea
He's getting more than a little tired of hearing his grandfather's stories. All those run-on sentences. A startling amount of supperated diphthongs; Grandpa has an accent that just won't quit. Never mind speaking the Queen's English, half of his words seem to be shooting straight past his mouth and out his nose. He also has this habit of tapping his fingers together and looming over the table at his grandson and leering a bit, as though he knows things. Things he cannot possibly know, things that will happen, things that young Hatter himself will do.
And then there's the issue of the old family name, but Hatter's been warned many times to just let that go.
No doubt about it, Saturdays with Grandpa are quite possibly the least enjoyable things in Hatter's life, though schools, his mum's boyfriend, and those God-awful boxing lessons are most definitely in the running.
The story today is about the time Grandpa got arrested. Hatter has no trouble believing this, actually, though the old gentleman's white hair— carefully tucked under the outsized topper, as though his age can be concealed— and lined face aren't too conducive to the image of an outlaw. Well, it wasn't so much being an outlaw, Grandpa will say— any minute now, Hatter is sure of it— as it is being a sidelaw. Here's the line, and there's me, leaping over it.
"Here's the line," says Grandpa, stacking his fingers up one on top of the other in a neat line on the table, "and here's me," an aerial hand ballet, arch and triumphant, "leaping over it."
Hatter's heard this story before.
"You might as well just skip to the punishment," he says, sullenly, chin sunk on chest, arms folded. "We're going to get there eventually anyway."
"Let me tell you," declares Grandpa, "the Queen claimed to be shocked. 'He's murdering the time!' she yelled. 'Off with his head!'" Grandpa clutches with both hands at the brim of his topper, to reassure himself that the hat, and therefore his head, is still there. "But in fact," he goes on, the hat sinking down over his head gradually and encroaching on his impressive nose, "she was quite taken with me."
There wasn't anything like old people, Hatter had discovered long ago, for romanticizing their past.
"So that's why she had you imprisoned in the six o'clock hour," he prompts.
"By George!" says Grandpa, sitting up straight in his chair. "Were you there?"
"No," says Hatter, rolling his eyes first, then pressing the heels of both hands to them to stop the oncoming headache. "You've just told me this story. A million times."
"You can't even count that high," says Grandpa dismissively. "Now, listen, young man. Time is a wild beast— not to say a wildebeast, for there is considerably less hair involved— and must be tamed gently. If you don't treat him nicely he won't do a thing you ask. There I was, trapped in the six o'clock hour—"
Hatter knows what's coming next. The usual blather about his Grandpa's supposed audience with the Alice-of-Legend, the girl who started a war. It was all in his history book; he'd aced that particular exam, purely through his grandpa's reiteration of the classic stories every week. Hatter can't quite believe that his grandfather's claims are true— taking tea with Alice-of-Legend? Being downright rude to a creature from another world, a revolutionary to boot? Well, perhaps the rudeness he can credit.
"And then that girl walked right in on my tea, sat herself down, and started saying the most ridiculous things," says Grandpa, steepling his fingers together and staring fixedly at the table as though it were an oracle and could give him the answers to the meaning of life. "It's no wonder she ended badly; I told her to get a haircut."
It isn't that Grandpa is a sympathizer, exactly; when it came to the Queen of Hearts fighting against the Knights, he has no sympathies one way or another. Perhaps it's that he has no sympathy at all, Hatter thinks, for anyone or anything. He obviously has none for Alice-of-Legend, for all her revolutionary ways. Taking down the then-Queen singlehanded. The palace in ruins. Hatter runs over the circumstances of the revolution in his mind; the exam is still quite fresh.
Alice-of-Legend sought support for her campaign from all corners of Wonderland. In an essay of not less than five paragraphs, explain: A., the reasons she chose those particular citizens; B., the reasons behind their refusal; C., how their acceptance would have changed the way we perceive Alice-of-Legend and her actions.
Grandpa would have it of course, that she asked for help from no one. Not help for a revolutionary coup, anyhow.
"Directions," Grandpa is saying now. "The girl wanted directions."
Hatter lifts his derby and scratches at the thick dark curls beneath. It's going on for the afternoon; soon he'll be able to make his excuses and go away. Away from these pointless stories, away from these hellbent tales. Grandpa's in his dodderment anyway; he's got to be at least two hundred and sixty by now. One could assume that his mental faculties are beginning to fade.
Second childhood, Hatter thinks, has got nothing on Grandpa.
"Directions," he's saying still, ruminatively, mulling it over in his mind, stroking at his chin with one long finger. Hatter regards him squarely, wondering— not for the first time— how much of the family resemblance is going to become apparent as he gets older.
A frightening thought.
He leans forward. "That's nice, Gramps. But— not to be rude or anythin'— what's that got to do with the price of tea? It's all covered in the history books, thank you very much. This is my weekend. I'd like a little less week, a little more end."
The old man focuses blue eyes on him; blue with a bright, mad little flame dancing in each one.
"She wasn't a revolutionary, you know," he says. "She was just a little girl. Lost."
Hatter stares at him for a moment, till he's no longer able to meet the old man's gaze. Then his dark eyes drop to the table.
"I've got to go," he says. "I'm late."
His grandpa brings a pocket watch out, regards it seriously, then raps it sharply on the table. From within the clockwork bowels is a sound like Sproing!
"Two days wrong," says Grandpa, sighing, shaking his heavy-hatted head. His neck is terribly thin, and he wobbles and dodders and looks as though he might collapse but for the bright, mad little flame. Holding him together. Keeping him alive.
Haberdashers, Hatter has heard more than once, used to be exposed to so much mercury in the making of hats that they would go quite mad. Run amuck in the streets. He can well believe it.
"Got to get to my boxing lesson," he mutters, sliding out of his chair. Boxing, though he hates it with a passion, only makes sense for a boy as small for his age as he is. He reaches in his pocket for the tape, begins to wrap up his right hand as he makes for the door. "Goodbye, Gramps," he says over his shoulder.
"Don't forget the stories," Grandpa says. "They're not all fairytales, you know, my boy."
Not a revolutionary, Hatter thinks, considering the possibilities. The maybes, the perhapses, the thoughtful hmmms. Alice-of-Legend, nothing but a lost little girl.
Nah, he thinks, heading for his bicycle. It's just a story.
Mary Anne springs the bad news on him in the worst possible way.
"Turns out I hate you after all," she says. She twitches her nose to one side, like a rabbit, and blinks her white-lashed eyes. "Sorry. Thought I didn't. Was wrong."
Hatter puts his hands, spread-fingered, on the desk, and rises slowly. His knees wobble and, just as slowly, he sinks back down into the chair.
He tries lifting a hand instead, and finds this easier.
"Are you kidding me?" he demands, one hand in the air, the other seeking upwards to scrub furiously at his hair underneath the straw hat. His head itches; it's a sign of an oncoming headache. A harbinger he knows well. His head will feel as though it's swelling, as though the hat has suddenly grown too tight, as though the air has gotten too oxygen-rich and he's going to explode or something. Not a pleasant thought, exploding. He tries to gather his scattered thoughts.
He tries wheedling.
"Come on, baby," he says, outstretching both arms. "We've had a good time, haven't we? Thought you enjoyed going out on the town last night."
"You stealing that flamingo, you mean?" says Mary Anne. She looks, if possible, even more forbidding, straightening her shoulders and looking down her nose at him. When he's standing he's only a scant half-inch taller than she; sitting, he feels like a recalcitrant student with a disappointed teacher. And that was only a turn-on for the first week or so. "I'm taking it with me, by the way."
"The flamingo?" says Hatter, startled. "But I stole— you said you didn't even like flying!"
Mary Anne shrugs. "I'll adjust."
He gives standing another go, and makes it all the way to his feet this time.
"Don't," she says definitely, stabbing at him with a long fingernail, "call me baby."
"Babe," amends Hatter.
"Sweetheart. Darling." He tries an ingratiating grin, the kind that stretches his mouth so wide his teeth start to hurt. "Dog catcher. Throw me a bone, here."
"This is the point," says Mary Anne decidedly, "where I tell you off before storming out of the back door." The door where she had entered moments before, brushing off his attempts at a welcome kiss and telling him in no uncertain terms to sit down on the other side of the desk. "The facts, Hatter, I'm only giving you the facts." She advances on him, plants her hands on the surface of the desk and meets his eyes. "This isn't working. It never really worked at all. And unless I leave, it will continue not working."
"But if you're gone," ventures Hatter, "there's no chance of it working ever."
"Exactly," says Mary Anne. She stands up again. "I'd like to say it was fun while it lasted—"
He waits for her to do just that.
"—but I'm not that good a liar," she finishes, and stomps off through the back door.
Hatter leaps back to his feet, throwing his arms in the air, possessed of a certain insane energy now that she's gone. "Well fine then!" he shouts. "Go on with you! Good riddance! You only wanted me for the tea, anyway!"
This, he realizes, is probably more true than he had suspected. Five women in as many months— there was something wrong with Wonderland females.
Not that he has a lot of options, he thinks gloomily. He takes his hat by the brim and adjusts it to allow for the oncoming headache. Stupid, he thinks savagely, without being quite sure who he's thinking it at.
Mary Anne bangs back inside, a whirlwind in black leather, and takes two bottles from the rack of teas against one wall.
"Thanks for nothing!" she hollers, and bangs back out again, leaving Hatter bouncing on the balls of his feet, swinging both arms, and feeling rather useless.
"Yeah, well—" he sneers to the closed door, then trails off. Shrugs his shoulders. "Pointless. Completely pointless."
Because he is feeling frustrated, because he is feeling angry, because this is the worst possible timing for Joanne-the-secretary to let anyone into his office— anyone, but especially Ratty, the black-market dealer with a heart of sewage and an odor to match— Joanne-the-secretary lets Ratty in.
Ratty often introduces himself as just that, apparently believing that 'Rat' is too much of a turn-off for new acquaintances.
He rushes forward, reaching for Hatter's hands to pump them in greeting; Hatter withholds them deftly, wrinkling his nose in anticipation.
"What do you want?"
Ratty looks injured. "You could say hello first, couldn't ya, to an old friend like me."
"If it's an old friend like you, I'd rather just skip to 'goodbye,'" says Hatter, with impressive veracity. "You've got something for me, I suppose?"
Ratty's nearly toothless mouth works in an ecstasy of excitement.
"The best!" he says, spraying Hatter with saliva. "The best thing I've ever had, and it can all be yours. She can all be yours," he amends, waggling his eyebrows.
Hatter turns away.
"News gets around fast," he says, mentally cursing Mary Anne's name. "What makes you think I'm in the market for—"
"A girl," says Ratty. "A woman. From—" He gestures wildly, expansively, and very vaguely. Hatter quirks an eyebrow.
"From where? The Hinterlands? Black Square Five?"
"From the Otherworld," says Ratty, whispering hoarsely.
"Sorry?" says Hatter.
"You know." Ratty jabs upward with one finger. "From back up the Rabbit Hole." The way he says the time-honored phrase makes it sound like a euphemism; though for what doesn't bear contemplation.
Hatter settles his weight against the desk, folds his arms. He frowns thoughtfully into midair for a moment. "Oh," he says.
"And that's not even the best part," says Ratty, still hoarsely, tossing his greasy grey hair out of his eyes. "Not even. Not even half of it."
"Spit it out," says Hatter, and then, "I didn't mean that literally," about a half-second too late.
Ratty wipes his mouth and chin and scrapes it off on his borogrove-leather jacket. "It's Alice," he says. "Alice-of-Legend. You know, like the stories. Like the legends. Like the history books. Like the revolution."
"Like the play, like the film, like the lunchbox. I get it, I get it." Hatter waves at him, to calm him down. "What on earth would make you think that? Did she say she was Alice-of-Legend?"
"Absolutely!" declares Ratty. Hatter eyes him askance. Ratty never commits to anything unless he's lying about it; this Hatter knows well, especially after that claim to have the Queen's illegitimate twins trapped in a small wooden box. Unless they were sired by a peacock, those chicks were completely lacking in the royal-blood department. Not to mention, what with the lack of air-holes—
'Completely lacking' was a phrase that sprung easily to mind when Ratty was involved in anything, really.
But there was always the possibility, however remote, that he was onto something. Or on something, though Ratty's sole supplier of tea is Hatter; and Hatter certainly hasn't given him any Madness or Delusion. Not recently, anyway.
Hatter hides a grin at the memory. That had been fun while it lasted.
"Right," he says, making the decision swiftly, rubbing his hands together. "Bring her in. We'll see what there is to see. If, indeed, there is anything to see, which I highly doubt. But bring her in anyway."
Ratty's gratification is embarrassing and pitiful to see; the man scurries off, leaving only a dank smell behind to mark his presence. Hatter stays in the same attitude for a while, weight on the desk, arms folded, staring into space. He remembers the stories his grandfather told. The Alice-of-Legend, the beginnings of the revolution. The artfully artless way she dealt the Deck.
And the old man's insistence that she'd been nothing but a lost little girl.
Hatter shakes himself out of it. Ratty will take a while to get himself together, he always does. Hatter's got just enough time for a soothing cup of tea.
She doesn't look much like a legend.
She looks like a bedraggled, frustrated, upset, saddened, lost little Oyster.
Hatter willingly pays the price.
The White Knight believes it.
He believes everything, the story, the legend, the whole enchilada. And he looks Alice in the eye when she speaks, and he scarcely breathes when she smiles, and Hatter is seized by an unreasoning sort of jealousy. Belief is such a powerful thing. You don't know the importance of it until its lacking. He wonders how the Knight held on to such an emotion, when all around him Wonderland was being slowly drained of everything good, everything sustaining, becoming dependent on the Oysters for their happiness. The Knight must have hoarded it carefully, kept it hidden, been selfish with his belief; though he's certainly spreading it around now.
Of course, spending most of your life in the Tulgey Wood with only stray jabberwocks for company probably played a part in it.
Hatter can't help it; the way Charlie looks at Alice— of legend or not, the point is she's here— colors his own view of her. She's not a girl at a tea table, the way she was in his grandfather's stories, that's for sure. But is it deception? Is it a continuation of the legend or the beginning of a new one? Is she starting a revolution, or is she finishing it?
Little girl. Lost.
Grandpa was mad, Hatter thinks, but maybe he wasn't crazy after all.
He orders Charlie to keep an eye on her, just in case.
It's a whirlwind little kind of smile, the one she gives him at last. Soaking wet. Crawling out of the lake. Kissing the ground. Alive. He can't breathe, but it's not for the drowning.
And then she fights with him, and that makes the knot of desire harder still to swallow.
He thinks he's dreaming, when she slides the hat off his knee and settles herself down beside him.
"You wanted to tell me something?" she asks softly. His eyes are open but he feels blindfolded in the dark. Left alone in an empty room with only her heartbeat for company. That's fine, he feels fine, this is fine.
He says, "Fishnet tights."
Alice blinks. "What?"
"Every one of my last ten girlfriends wore fishnet tights," he clarifies. "And I just now got the connection."
Alice thinks of this. "Oh," she says. "Does that mean you want me to wear fishnets?"
"N—" says Hatter, but the second part of the very brief word comes out in a softly breathed, "Oh," when she unzips her boots. She has to shimmy a little to get the dark-red tights off, but he's totally fine with the shimmying. No complaints from this department.
"They're going to torture you, you know," she says. "Just warning you."
Hatter clenches his jaw. A dull ache has settled in the pit of his stomach, as though he's eaten something he oughtn't. No, not like that at all. But pain, certainly. A good pain, maybe, though he's not familiar with the concept.
Alice's knees fit neatly on either side of him. He wants very badly to slide his hands around her waist, but they appear to be strapped to the arms of the chair. When he looks up, she is looking down and her long dark hair falls on his face, tangling slowly.
"They're going," she says, moving gradually upward against him, "to torture," and moving, even more slowly, down again, "you."
Hatter can't bring himself to care about it at this point, and says as much.
"That's nice," he says, not in reference to the torture but rather to what she has just done.
"But this is all in your head," she points out.
"Getting rather crowded in here," Hatter says, eyes closed. "Not to mention hot."
"You're always dreaming," says Alice, amused. "Always, always dreaming."
Dreaming is okay, for some people, Hatter wants to say; dreaming is just swell. But she's kissing him now, and the ache has grown, a full-sized ache with a passel of little aches on the way. She wraps her hands around him, one on the back of his neck, the other finding interesting places to go, and if she presses against him much harder they'll both go over backwards and spill upon the floor.
He just has to keep his eyes closed, just a little longer. And everything will be alright.
But the warmth running down his face isn't her fingers, it isn't her lips; it's blood, and it is his own.
He escapes, he saves the day.
Plays a pretty important part in it, anyhow.
Once again, those boxing classes come in handy. Amazing what you retain from your childhood.
"Can I have that hug now?" he asks, aware of how plaintive he sounds, and Alice— everything-Alice, Alice-of-her-own-bloody-legend, thank-you-very-much— smiles widely and moves toward him.
The price of tea goes through the roof for a short time after Alice goes back through the looking glass. Just till everyone gets weaned off it; or rather, till Hatter and the other tea shops run out. There's no longer any supply to meet the demand. His once-ransacked shop is ransacked again, this time by junkies in search of their next fix. He abandons the whole thing, lets them have it. For what it's worth, which isn't much.
He wanders around for a while.
He wonders around for a while, too; wondering, in an off-and-on sort of way, what she's doing now. How she feels about being back in her own world. If she misses Wonderland. If she misses him. No, she can't, he can't, he should just put this all out of his mind and start over again.
Hatter's never been a drinker, but a cup or two of Forgetfulness would be welcome just now.
He goes to see Dodo, who never had much to do with the revolution after all; but the Library is silent and empty. Not a Library anymore, either, because a Library is only as good as the books held within; and the King of Hearts has liberated them the way he liberated his people. Hatter stands on the upper floor, hands on the railing, and contemplates the dust that settles in, after everyone is gone.
He goes to see Charlie, who has given up his once-kingdom and found a nice apartment in the City. Weird, to see the Knight hanging pictures and offering tea. Weirder still to see him decide that the pictures should be on the floor and the furniture is better placed for viewing stuck to the ceiling.
"Of course, you'll have to wait till the carpenters come to get the full effect," Charlie says, swimming his hands around him to demonstrate how impressive 'the full effect' will be. "Can you say Pre-Revolutionary-Era holes in the floor? Think of the colors!"
Hatter leaves as soon as he is politely able.
He goes to see Jack, but can't quite bring himself to knock on that massive palace door.
He goes to see his grandfather, who is held together by an avid interest in the personal lives of others and, apparently, a liberal winding of string.
Grandpa is tangled in a ball of twine, which he had been striving to knit in a shape that knew no logical connection with reality. Hatter sits across the table from him, feeling like a boy again. He hunches his shoulders, draws his knees together under the table.
"Can I get you some tea?" he offers.
He is rewarded by a very long, slow stare from his grandfather.
"No point in being funny," says the old man. "It's rude."
"No, I meant it," says Hatter. "I can boil water, you know." But he only gets another cold stare, which is how he eventually discovers that his grandfather has run out of tea. It's a bit of a shock; Grandpa has always had tea— proper tea, not the Emotional kind, but the kind that's dull and brown and takes a bit of getting used to. His clothes and teeth are stained with it, his fingers twitch and tap irritably on the table. He abandons the twine and takes up a piece of black felt; with it, his fingers settle into a rhythm that speaks of long practice. His actions seem to take up no mental power whatever. His eyes remain fixed on the middle distance.
Hatter is driven by an achy kind of sadness; he says the words he never thought he'd say.
"Tell me a story," he says.
His grandfather's eyes focus on him, just as hot and bright as ever.
"What do you want?" he asks, with a solicitous politeness that is completely foreign to him. "A fairy tale?"
Then Hatter understands that he is being sneered at; that his grandfather's stories have been boxed up and put away. That he has lost his chances. This is sad; but after all, he's heard them all before.
He tells him a new one, instead.
Hatter puts his hands on the table, palms upward, open.
"I fell in love with a fairy tale," he says quietly. "And I didn't even know it till she was gone. That's what insanity is, isn't it, Grandpa? Not realizing a good thing while you've got it. Having to chase after it all the time." He huffs a quiet little laugh. "Shooting yourself in the foot."
"I never shot myself in the foot," says his grandfather. "And people say I'm mad."
Hatter looks up at him, and starts to smile.
"You know what?" he says. "I could bring you some tea, if you like. It might take a while."
His grandfather will not allow himself to cling to hope; he's drowning in the influx of reality. But the little man does straighten himself up a bit, nudging at his hat brim with one busy hand so he can see his grandson. His grown grandson, the image of his blood. Not a hatter, but Hatter.
"Some tea," he said, "would be lovely."
Hatter is suddenly full of purpose. He plants his hands firmly on the table, levers himself out of his chair. "No tea left in Wonderland," he says. "I'm going to have to take a little trip. You don't mind waiting, do you, Grandpa?"
"Time," says his grandfather graciously, "is, once again, on my side. But wait, you impetuous young thing—" He appears to be addressing the black felt, snarling at it a little, and banging it on the table. Hatter pauses on his way out the door, and looks back. "Aha!" says his grandfather, with more triumph than strictly necessary, as though he's just won a particularly difficult battle. He spins the black felt through the air to his waiting grandson; once in Hatter's hands it reveals itself to be a shape somewhere between a bowler and a topper, flat, simple, unadorned, expertly-made.
"You're going to need that," says his grandfather, nodding seriously, in the tones of one who knows.
It is a perfect fit.
Hatter eyes his reflection in the looking glass. He feels as though he has to sneak up on it, take himself by surprise. This decision was a difficult one to make; in fact he has not really made it. There's destiny involved somewhere, he feels the presence haunting like a ghost. An excess of fate, a surfeit of ectoplasmic karma. He feels driven, or perhaps led around by the nose. He isn't sure what he's doing.
So, no difference there, really.
He strolls up, with great nonchalance, to the silver surface.
"I wonder," he says, "where this leads."