Disclaimer: Not mine. Don't own. Not making any sort of profit. Alice belongs to SyFy, et al. I just play with them.
Summery: Poor Alice. The girl doesn't even get a chance to sit still until she and Hatter are in the Kingdom of the Knights. So here she is, sitting -finally -on a seat that's not perched atop a movinghorse or in a boat speeding away from assassins. Now she has a chance to get a few more quesitons answered. Also, some Hatter back-story and the possible origin of Mad March.
Tell the Truth
She was in the White Knight's camp in—if Alice remembered her Lewis Carroll correctly—what used to be the giant chess board, seated on a stump that looked fairly worn from many years of serving as Charlie's chair. The sun was starting to set comfortingly in the west (at least some things were still the same here), but she could feel her body aching to give in to exhaustion. It had been after nine PM when she'd chased the White Rabbit guy through the mirror, and when she'd arrived in Wonderland it had still been daylight. Not to mention, her day had been pretty dang full ever since she got to this side of the Looking Glass.
Charlie was busy skewering some kind of animal of roughly pig-like proportions and setting it to rotisserie over his camp fire, and Hatter wandered around the campsite with the look of a man going through an open house trying to decide if he was going to buy it. Somehow, Alice didn't believe the look. She'd seen his face when Charlie had first pulled back the vines to show them the Kingdome of the Knights, as he called it. (Alice was already calling it Chessboard City in her head. It just sounded right, considering all of the other crazy things this world had to offer—the Hearts Casino, a tea shop that looked more like the stock market trading floor, a rabbit-headed stalker… a Jabberwock, for cripes sake!) She knew that Hatter had been affected by the over-grown city in the forest, the once-mighty kingdom that had fallen when the Queen of Hearts took power. She saw his eyes constantly find the figure of the White Queen on her thrown, and something like determination flickered into his dark eyes.
Alice was a simple girl at heart. Like Dodo, she couldn't help but wonder how Hatter could have sold the teas, or Teas, or emotion sodas or whatever they were since they were admittedly the method the Queen used to drug and control her population and still be the man who asserted with utter conviction that knowledge was the greatest weapon against the Queen's thrall. The man who helped to feed the dozens… scores… who knew, maybe hundreds of refugees who came to the Library for aide. She just didn't get it. Then there was the whole Tea thing in itself…
"So, there's something I don't quite understand," Alice admitted, facing Hatter as he made his way back around the camp to stand on the other side of the fire.
His eyes flickered up to meet hers, brows rising in interest, and he gave that little "Uhn" to confirm he was paying attention.
"About the Teas," she continued. "What you said, back in your shop…."
"Oh, those!" he laughed a little, but she caught a flare of panic on his expressive face. "Yeah, don't worry abou—"
"You said 'Oysters were drained' to make them."
"Or you could keep going with that line of thought, then," he muttered, resigning himself. "Brilliant."
"What-what?" Charlie interrupted. "What's this about tea? I've always enjoyed a good cuppa myself. Not sure about oyster tea, though. Seems like it would taste awfully fishy…."
Neither Hatter nor Alice really paid the old Knight much mind as she pinned Hatter in place with her curious, demanding eyes. Hatter found himself wanting to tell her the truth, though she certainly wasn't going to like it. Curiouser and curiouser, this desire to live up to her expectations.
"Fine." He sighed and rubbed his hands together while he tried to think of a way to explain this. "You remember how I said that you Oysters have shiny pearls inside?"
"Yes," she said, nodding while Charlie ping-ponged his slightly bug-eyed gaze from one to the other.
"Well, by that I mean…" he dropped off again, unable to think how to make an Oyster understand the fundamental difference between her kind and his. He dropped down onto a wooden stool opposite Alice, the campfire between them as the shadows of the surrounding forest got thicker around them and the first stars playfully winked down at them in the east.
Alice watched him pick up a long stick from the wood pile and poke at the fire while he thought. She watched the warm light make his face glow, his eyes reflecting the flames from under his black eyebrows. A long minute later, he pointed the stick straight up as if at the cartoon lightbulb Alice imagined turning on over his head.
"Right! I've got it." He twirled the stick in his hand as he spoke. "You've probably noticed that Wonderlander are all a bit... let's say 'odd,' shall we?"
"Uh, yeah, I did," she admitted, glancing back and forth between him and Charlie.
"The reason for that is that we Wonderlanders think more than you Oysters do."
Alice choked on nothing and sat back, a glare starting to rise up on her face. "Did you just call people from my world stupid?"
"No!" Hatter hastily backpedaled. "No no no. Not what I meant. At all. Clearly should have said the reverse, then, huh? Let's try it this way: Oysters feel more than Wonderlanders do."
He watched her frown into the flames and finally shake her head. "I still don't understand. People in my world think a lot, too. There is the phrase 'over-thinking things.' I mean, sure sometimes our emotions influence our thoughts, b—"
"That's it exactly!" Hatter interrupted. "Only, completely the opposite."
"Your emotions influence your thoughts," he repeated as he stood again and made his way around the fire, closer to her, wanting her to understand. Now that he'd started, he wanted to see her face when she finally got it. He was becoming positively addicted to watching the emotions play across her face in completely organic, unforced waves. "For Wonderlanders, our thoughts influence our emotions."
When she still looked completely lost, he hunkered down in front of her. His head was slightly lower than hers now, and he had to look up into her illuminated face.
"Try this," he murmured. "Did you ever have, say, a pet growing up? Or a favorite auntie or something?"
"I had a cat. Dinah," she said, her voice dipping slightly in sorrow. "She died when I was little."
"Think about Dinah," he instructed his voice soft and eyes dark in the firelight. "Think of what she looked like, and how warm she was when you held her. Think of the sound of her purring, and how soft her fur was, and remember the weight of her in your lap. Think about how much you loved her and how much you miss her."
Alice's eyes closed, and he watched her find those memories of her pet. Her face softened and her dark lashes trembled on the swell of her cheek. Her lips pressed together in a sad smile as thoughts of Dinah filled her head and the surge of emotion carried her away. Hatter could almost feel the love and the ache of loss radiating off of her even now, years later.
"Got it?" he asked softly.
"Good. Now: do cats think in tuna-shaped words? Does she know the squeaky mouse thing is just a toy? Do cats have a heaven? Does it hurt to die? Do angels have smelly feet? Can you get a decent foot rub beyond the pearly gates? When was the last time you had a food rub? Rub-a-dub-dub, why would three men bathe together in same tub, anyway? Are you low on shampoo? Do you need a hair cut? Have you ever thought of dying your hair black? Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
He shot the questions like a machine gun rapport, one right after the other without even a pause for breath between. Halfway though the tirade, Alice had cracked open her right eye, and now she was looking at him as if he were mad, and he had to smile.
"There now, you see?"
She raised her eyebrow, silently communicating that clearly she did not see.
"You can still feel your love for Dinah, right?"
"But it's muted now, right? Buried under all those pesky thoughts and questions, one leading into the next one with never a break to just… feel."
"Yeah," she said, nodding, and Hatter could see comprehension finally start to flutter in.
"That's what it's like for Wonderlanders all the time."
Alice looked over at Charlie who was still watching them with interest.
"Is that true," she asked. "Is that what it feels like for you, too?"
"Wellll," Charlie dithered, shrugging, "in so many words… yes. Precisely."
"You see?" Hatter asked, drawing her attention back. "To us, the ability you Oysters have to feel—to feel so strongly, in fact, that you said it even influences your thoughts—to us, that's foreign and precious. And people are willing to part with huge amounts of wealth to have just a moment of pure, undiluted emotion."
Alice watched him, her eyes flickering back and forth across his face as she tried to read his truthfulness. In the quiet momentary quite, the crickets started to play.
"So when you said that Oysters were drained, you meant of their emotions? To make the Teas?"
"Yep," he said, popping the P a bit just to see if this time she'd smile. (She did. A little. He counted it as a win.) And, watching her mouth quirk up at the most attractive angle, Hatter realized just how close he was, still squatted in front of her, staring up into these blue-blue eyes. He hurried to stand up and move away, keeping his movements fluid and slightly bouncy, as if he hadn't a care in the world. Like he hadn't suddenly felt like he'd had a shot of Awe with a chaser of Lust.
"Don't know how the Queen does it," he blathered on, hoping to distract her (himself) from the odd moment just a minute before. "Frankly, don't want to know. Doubt it's very pleasant. But somehow, she does, and it's very lucrative. Lucrative enough to keep me living posh and still have enough to smuggle in supplies to the refugees in the Library. Only down side is, a lot of emotions—Joy, Euphoria, Ecstacy, Lust," he paused to turn and wink at her, unable to help himself—"they're very addicting."
"I imagine Love is pretty high up there, too," she said, and yes, that was scorn in her voice.
"Strangely enough, no one's managed to bottle Love yet. Gotten close. Close-ish. Sorta. There's Lust, as previously mentioned. Affection. Camaraderie. But never the real stuff."
Alice nodded, taking it all in and trying to understand it. In a way, she did. If she could have made her self feel something, feel better after her father disappeared, she would have. If she could have turned her liking of Jack—which she did! Really! A lot!—into love in just a few short months, a love strong enough that she could act impetuously and accept his proposal or whatever it was, then she would have done that too. She wouldn't still be single at twenty-seven, after all of her friends had gotten married and started having kids if she could have downed some potion to keep her fear of abandonment from driving her boyfriends away. Sure, she could understand it. Not the logistics of it, but the desire behind it.
She sighed as they all retreated into their own thoughts as the sky turned a bluey-black revealing its own pearls of light above the clearing the three of them nestled in. Alice hadn't always been a big city girl. But even in the suburbs there was too much light pollution to see many stars, so she couldn't tell if they looked different here. There were simply more of them, and they were very far away.
Eventually Charlie started humming some medieval ditty and turning the animal on the spit. The aroma was actually delicious, like her mom's pork roast with rosemary and garlic, even though Charlie hadn't seasoned it with anything. In the surrounding trees, night birds sang to accompany the Knight, and the crickets among the grass and leaves kept up a soothingly familiar background symphony.
Hatter had settled down across the fire from her again and was thinking….well, not too much so that he didn't think about things he didn't want to think about. All those questions about the Tea had stirred up a few memories of his own. He was finally starting to get comfortable again when Alice returned her attention to him. He could tell another question was coming. He could practically see it hovering above her head like a jub-jub bird. He really wished he could get her to stop being so curious. It was very uncomfortable.
"Did you ever take any?" she asked without any sort of preamble whatsoever.
"Any what?" Hatter asked, flashing her a hopefully distracting smirk. "I take a lot of things. Take breaks, take time, take meals, take naps—"
"The Tea, Hatter," she deadpanned. "And yes, I mean the multi-colored emotion Teas, not Earl Gray."
"Just answer the question, Hatter," she insisted. "Did you?"
He got to his feet and pulled the hat off of his head, spinning it up brim-wise and catching it one-handed before tossing it around his back. Anything to kill time, hoping she would get bored or get the message and drop it.
She didn't, of course. She waited, watching, unflinching.
Until he broke under his growing need to never lie to her again.
"Yeah, I used the Teas some. When I was younger. My crazy youth, you could say." He chuckled but there wasn't much humor in the sound.
"Do you still?" she asked softly.
Hatter turned to look her in the eye and said, "No." He cleared his throat, glancing at Charlie, who was once again riveted. The old bloke probably hadn't had this much entertainment in centuries.
Fine, Hatter decided. Let him watch.
"See, a friend of mine—good friend, best friend, smarter than me, taught me everything I know—he got addicted. Drug of choice: Euphoria. He, uh… he was getting pretty bad. Needed a fix every day or so, just to function. One of his... well, one of our dealers, really, did something really stupid. He gave my friend a taste of a new batch of Euphoria just come from the Casino and completely un-tempered with Regret or Sorrow or water—anything that I make sure is put into the Teas I sell in my shop. Completely undiluted Euphoria. Can you imagine what that must be like?"
Alice had to shake her head. She really couldn't imagine. She hadn't been unconditionally happy since her dad went missing.
Hatter nodded, knowing she didn't really understand but hoping she'd keep an open mind. Unfortunately, this was the part where the story got harder. He started his hat tricks again as he flittered about the camp site to work out some of his nerves.
"My friend got his fix, and then the blighter made a huge mistake. He upped ol' Eddies's price way, way more than the other stuff cost. Neither of us had near what even a tiny bottle of the uncut Euphoria cost, even if we pooled out pots, so to speak." He stopped pacing to look at Alice, wanting her to see, to understand, to not judge him too harshly. "We, Eddie and I, we were barely more than kids. The Queen had the whole city in her pocket already. We lived mostly in old warehouses or abandoned homes with a bunch of other refugees and homeless and Tea-heads. We just…we were morbidly stupid all things told," he finished with another dry laugh and a toss of his hat to let it come down to rest on his head.
"Where were your parents?" Alice asked.
"Long gone by then," he said, shrugging, before he continued.
"So there's Eddie, completely floating—" Hatter stopped and looked at Alice— "I mean that literally. Floating. Feet off of the ground, hanging in the air. And there's the dealer asking for loads more than we got and refusing to give Eddie another drop of Euphoria if we don't meet his price. And Eddie kills him."
Hatter took a deep breath and turned his back on the two people huddled around the fire in the dark and stared out at the ruined city. "I won't go into details, but the lout was dead by the end of it, and Eddie's still high as a kite, and I'd already pissed myself I was so scared (figuratively, this time). When Eddie finally came down enough to talk, he said it was the best high he'd ever felt. To watch the life go out of someone's eyes and feel nothing but absolute joy and excitement, like ten orgasms all at once.
"He kept the dealer's goods, of course, and kept on using it. And he started hunting people while he was under the influence. No one that mattered. The other homeless we were squatting with, the rat catchers, the runaways. No one anyone would miss. At first. As with all addictions, he started needing more and more of a challenge to get the same rush. He got very good at killing.
"We parted ways after that day, though, my friend Edward March and I. I stopped using the Teas altogether. The withdrawal was a nightmare. Worst fucking six weeks of my life. Luckily someone found me and took me to the Library. By the time I had my feet under me again, March had enlisted as the Queen's assassin. Last I heard, he'd pissed the Queen off royally and got axed. Not sure how he got the bunny head, to be honest."
"Bunny hea— that thing chasing us?" Alice shouted. "That's your friend?"
"Was my friend," Hatter corrected, turning back around to face her. "Hasn't been for a long time."
Alice looked like she'd swallowed a very nasty bug that was trying to fly back out. Hatter looked away to give her a few minutes. He'd unloaded a lot on her all at once. The only other person who knew his whole story was the Dodo, and he'd always held him in contempt for it. First for falling into the snare of using Teas in the first place, and then for turning around and selling them to use to finance a life of relative comfort for himself (he wasn't going to live in the street every again if he could help it, thank you very much) and supplying the resistance with the funding and supplies it needed badly enough that they couldn't afford Hatter's loss.
He wondered what he would do if Alice held the same opinion of him Dodo did.
Oh, now that thought hurt. Something caught in his chest making his next breath impossible.
He was quickly coming to learn that, while his emotions might not influence his thoughts, his thoughts could produce some very strong emotions. Especially where Alice was concerned.
"So," she said at last, "do you know any way to stop this March guy?"
Hatter shrugged. "Run."
"And be prepared when he arrives," Charlie added, making both of them jump a little. Hatter and Alice had apparently both forgotten the Knight was still there.
"Right," Alice agreed as soon as she got her heart out of her throat.
As Charlie continued to turn the spit, the gentle quiet of before came back to envelop them. But this time, Hatter couldn't get comfortable, no matter where he stood or sat or lay. Finally, he went to Alice's side and dropped down next to her into a cross-legged position, elbows on his knees, and chin on his curled fists. He looked up. She looked down.
"Well?" he prompted. "Aren't you going to say something about my misspent youth?"
She smiled a little. "Nope."
"And why is that?" he asked, a knot in his stomach he hadn't noticed until now uncoiling.
"We all do stupid things, especially if we're dealing with abandonment and all our friends tell us it's a good idea." She chuckled to herself. "If we live through this, remind me to tell you about the time in the cemetery with Jell-O shots."
He pondered this the briefly. (Alice wanted to tell him about herself. Alice didn't mind that he'd used Tea before. Alice didn't mind that, until this afternoon, he'd still sold Tea to people who were clearly dependant on the stuff— that he had in fact "bought" her with Tea from Ratty. Alice didn't hate him. Alice smelled nicely of twigs and grass and wood smoke and Girl with only the faintest trace of canal water still lingering. Alice had some interesting stories. Alice was beautiful by firelight, as if she wasn't all the time.) Until finally his thoughts settled on two questions.
"What are Jell-O Shots, and why are they in cemeteries?"
Charlie jumped when Alice threw her head back and laughed for the first time since she'd landed in Wonderland.