Title: Into the Woods (1/1)
Genre: Drama
Characters/Pairing: Hatter/Alice, Dee and Dum, Mad March
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: Not all torture is physical. Hatter's got more crannies in his cranium than Dee and Dum gave him credit for.
A/N: I have, at last, managed to write something for this fandom that is not fluff. VICTORY IS MINE.

Into The Woods

They go after the long-term memories first, the sort he's built his present life on. The things he ran away from, the things he ran towards. They search right down to the bedrock, and what they come up with (buried deep) is his mother.

She lies flat on the floor, on her back, stiff as a board; Doctor Dee bends over her, hands clasped behind his back, his stance awkward, difficult. The three of them— the brothers and Hatter, tied securely into his chair— look down on the woman. She is as dead.

Dee looks up, keenly, into Hatter's face.

"Anything?" he offers.

Hatter's right eye twitches violently for a moment, but he takes a deep breath and calms down. Holds still. He wishes he could close his eyes, not see this anymore, but they're in his head and there's no way he can shut any of this out.

Doctor Dum tilts his head to one side, nudges with the toe of his orthopedic boot at the inert form on the floor. "You found her like this often? The memories repeat."

Dee goes on his knees, grunting a little at the effort this requires, and shifts his blade-keen gaze to his brother. "Maybe we should use a mirror. See if she can cloud the glass."

Hatter knows his mother isn't dead. No matter how often they hint around it, no matter even if they tell him true; his mother is probably off playing bingo somewhere with that guy who wore a vermum-feather headdress. Tony. They never hit the jackpot, but that doesn't keep them from playing the game.

Dee leans closer over the remembered figure, sniffs deeply. "Bliss. Where'd she get it? She's not all that well-heeled."

Dum taps on Hatter's head— Hatter jerks his chin away from him— and listens keenly to the result, reverberating around the air. "She gets the tea from a man she knows," the doctor says, grinning a crack-toothed smile. "No name. But she calls herself the Lady."

"Wishful thinking," says Dee. "No dice. We'll have to dig deeper."

There is no deeper, for Hatter; they can't swim any further in his psyche than where they're already treading water. Doggy paddling. His mouth is so dry he can't even spit at them; but they're arranging themselves on either side of him now, reaching with clammy fingers to his ears.

"The amygdala," says Doctor Dee, ever the clever one. "From the Latin for almond. Stores and classifies the more emotionally charged memories." He pauses and looks over Hatter's hatless head, his mussed hair, his bloody scalp, to his brother. "We don't have any of those, do we?"

"I can't remember a thing," says Doctor Dum, blithely.

"Fine," grunts Dee, "fine, fine. This young man, on the other hand—"

A clever little twist of his fat fingers, a jerk, a tug, a yank on Hatter's heartstrings. "What a breakheart of a boy," Dum is saying, tunefully, as though complimenting an obedient dog. "What a sweet little nothing."

This happens.

March was a head taller than Hatter when they were young. He has an enthusiastic bucktoothed grin, which he is now displaying in Hatter's face, now, now. Hatter is the breakheart, a freckled scroungy dusty muffin of a breakheart boy, and March wears waistcoats and steals pocket watches. He is the sweet little nothing.

"It's kind of dumb," Hatter's playmate of years gone by says to the grown man bound to the chair. He says it exactly as he would have said; exactly as he did say it, because this memory is culled directly from Hatter's mind. Tugged gently like a flower petal from the blossom, detached and set adrift in reality.

Hatter says, "What's kind of dumb?"

March tilts his head to one side, much as both Doctors Dee and Dum are doing.

"You let yourself get into this," he says. "It's your own fault, you earwig. You complete and total walking stick." March was always imaginative when it came to insults. Most of them, he gets from his maiden aunt in Harrowgate. She also gifted them horehound drops and tea with lemon, on sunny afternoons.

"I didn't do anything," says Hatter, blindly defending himself. It's a cinch that he's done something, he's always done something. What he's done is impossible to say, but it will undoubtedly be brought to light shortly. He always gets caught. He feels like crying.
"It's not a difficult question," says March, rolling his protuberant brown eyes. "If you had studied there wouldn't be a problem at all."

"Studied," says Hatter, wrists itching because the ropes are tightening themselves, starting to cut in.

"You're going to fail schools," says March, with a certain amount of triumph. Friends they are, yes, or were, or are— were?— or closer. More like brothers. Companions to aid in distress, or cause distress, or both. "You complete teacup. And all for one question."

"The question," says Hatter, sweating. Blood is getting in his eyes and everything is smeared and unreal. A painted palette, a notable nothing.

"Why is a raven," says March, dogmatically, right in his playmate's face, "like a writing desk?"

"I don't know," says Hatter. "I don't know."

"Ass," says March, with a horrible snaggle-toothed grin.

"Insults," says Dum to Dee. "Remember those? The bully in second year?"

"His brains leaked out his ears," says Dee to Dum. "I remember that."

"It isn't working," says Dum. "Do something else."

"Hmph," says Dee, and pokes around a little, squinting his eyes. "Too many good memories. He's a less than ideal candidate, this one."

Dum rolls his eyes and plants his hands on his hips. "Surely we can think of something."

"Oh, there's always something," says Dee, looking up at his brother. "Even if there isn't, we'll make there be something. It is one thing to create something from something," he tells Hatter in a conspiratorial whisper, "and it's another to create nothing from something. But to create something from nothing takes the greatest skill of all, and, friend—" A hand clasps Hatter's sweat-soaked shoulder. "You are nothing if not nothing," whispers Dee further, and then Hatter's in the woods.

The Tulgey woods, he can tell by the smell. Not pine, not fir, nothing so clean. A faint and dusty campfire smell, too many unmentionable things bubbling in a nameless stew. Tin plates and soft wooden sticks for utensils. There's a contingent of soldiers lost somewhere to the left, possibly miles away, possibly only feet. His eyes are dark and it's difficult to see in the gathering dusk. He can smell fear, probably his own.

What's worst of all is that Alice is here with him.

She's bound, like he is, though her chair is carved with a curious old-fashioned crown. Her hair hangs limp and her eyes are wide, peerless, flawless, a glassy blue. She looks, he thinks, as though she's been given a dose of Fear or Horror or some such uncalled-for tea, but then he realizes that, being an Oyster herself, she needs no such stimulant.

"Hatter," she says, and just hearing his name from her releases a little bit of the knot in his throat. He half-grins at her, unable to catch his breath. Horror and pleasure at her presence are mixed into a fine emotional cocktail, bubbling just beneath the surface.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," he says.

"What are we doing here?" Alice asks.

"Remember earlier we were in your head?" She nods. He nods back, as much to convince himself as her. "Right. Now we're in mine."

She glances around, breath coming fast. "I hate to say it, but mine had better decor."

Hatter says, still nodding, "Welcome to my humble brain," and Alice thinks about things for a moment. She gives him the tiniest of smiles, the most secretive, a wrapped little present of a smile.

"What, no cobwebs?" she says.

He grows serious though, unable to echo what she is feeling. He can't keep from staring at her, twisting his wrists against the ropes binding him to the chair. "I hope to heaven you're not really here. Do you feel like you're really here?"

Alice frowns a bit. "I— it's tough to say. I haven't felt real since I got to Wonderland. How am I supposed to know?"

He shakes his head. "Where were you a moment ago?"

"In the woods," she says. "Like—" She twists her head to look around. "No, not like here. But sort of— I don't know. You were with me. You told me something—"

"What was it? Can you remember?"

"You said," Alice mumbles, and thinks. "You said my luck, my luck was changing." A blush steals over her pale skin, and he knows what she's thinking now. He knows what came afterwards. He feels the same, feels the pull down and forward, feels her elbow under his hand and her breath just there, and a pulse in her throat as her heart jumps. Or is that his? His heart leaping in his chest. He goes to close his eyes, and stops.

"A memory," he says. "You're just a memory. You walked out of my mind and they put you in a chair and set you here with me."
"Is that what it is?" says Alice. Her skin is still red. "Is that all it is?"

"That's all it is," says Hatter, and he can't even tell her how relieved he feels. "If that's all you remember. That's all you are."

Alice nods, drops her head forward so her hair falls over her eyes. "There was something else, though," she says. "Wasn't there?"

There was, of course, but this is hardly the time.

"I think I'll save that for when we're safe," he says, and half-grins, half-cries. The woods are cold and growing colder, dark and growing darker, overpowering and overtaking and turning Wonderland into a once-upon-a-time, a kid's story better forgotten. Everything will become like the Kingdom of the Knights, forgotten and falling apart. Not even tales will be told. Hatter shivers in the breeze that comes hunting through the woods, curling around them, tugging at their legs, trying to take them away.

"Why don't you tell me now?" says Alice.

"Because they're listening," Hatter says, voice hushed. "Then they would know. And whatever we do. Alice. Whatever we do." She's looking at him, he makes sure of it, catching her eyes and holding them with his, giving her all the gravity he could manage stuck here in the chair, willing her to stay with him, imaginary or not. "Whatever we do, Alice, we can't let them know. You're out there somewhere, the real you, not the one in my head. We can't let them know."

The question is poised on her lips— let them know what?— But she is in his head, after all, and she gets it. He can see the very moment, the precise instant, that it makes sense, and her face closes up a little to hold the knowledge to herself. They can't let anyone know what she means to him. They can't let anyone know what kind of torture will actually work.

Because this kind, this kind is terrifying but not particularly effective. The wind is growing and howling and skirling around them, licking beastlike and snuffling at their shoes. There's a faint hot scent to it now, getting stronger. The monsters are coming.

This is the Tulgey Wood. It's really only known for one thing.

They're sitting ducks, the two of them, unable to run or even to crawl to freedom, strapped into their chairs as nicely as though they had sat for a tea party. Hatter is just able, by dint of strenuous effort and rubbed-raw heels, to scooch his chair towards Alice. Their bound hands match up, mark for mark, strand for strand, straining against the rope to meet each other.

She bends her elbow awkwardly and manages to wrap her fingers halfway round his wrist. He sighs.

"I'll tell you later," he says. A promise to both of them. "It'll be a regular story. I'll make up some of it, and you'll make up the rest. We'll have some tea. It'll be lovely."
A yowl as from a wildcat just behind them, where they can't see, and heavy breathing. Alice jumps and looks nervous.

"What will you tell me about?" she says. She's working hard at staying calm, he can tell. It warms his heart.

"All about the orphaned children walking in the woods," he says. "They held hands and went deeper and deeper. Got lost. They fell asleep alone in the woods and the trees shook their leaves down over them like a blanket."

Snapping jaws, catching claws. Just there. Hatter jumps, and kept himself from quivering by shaking instead. He says, quickly, "And then they woke up and went home."

"What, no breadcrumbs?" says Alice.

"And lived happily ever after," says Hatter. "Contrary to all expectation."

Nearly pitch black now, and he can barely make out the shine of her luminous skin in the darkness of the trees. There's a patter as of rain on the leaves above them, but it isn't raining. Things are on the move in the darkness. Somewhere, his mother is crying, his schoolmates are taunting. The voices inside are whispering that he is worse than useless and incapable of saving anyone, least of all himself.

He refuses to believe it.

"Alice," he says, loudly, above the rising of the wind.

She says nothing, only looks at him.

He grins. Weakly. But still. "Get your hair cut," he says.

If he'd had a hat, he'd have lost it by now. The wind blows his hair every which way, the monsters are no longer afraid of them and are lunging. He can feel teeth, chewing and biting and grasping, everything but breaking the skin, drawing blood only imaginary. He is beset on all sides, and though Alice is close he knows that she is getting farther and father away with every breath.

"Hold on," he's saying, over and over. "Hold on, hold on. Hold on." And what he means, of course, is don't let me go, keep me with you and stay with me. What he means, of course of course, is I can't do this without you. And I don't want to.

Her fingers are warm on his arm, and from the depths of her bedraggled soul she drags forth a smile for him.

"You're stronger than this," she says, with an easy sort of faith. "I won't leave you."
And she doesn't. They huddle together in the wood while all around them the monsters rage. They roar and flail at the sky, they foam at the mouth and slaver around their feet. But Hatter is safe. Alice is with him. He catches his breath.

"Well, that is disappointing," says Doctor Dum, mouth turned down like a baby that's had its new rattle taken away.

The wind is gone, of a sudden, leaving a kind of deathly stillness in the air that makes his ears pop, as though he's been hurled into a vacuum. Hatter blinks slowly, and rights himself, sitting up straight in the chair.

"He's just got more crannies in his cranium than we gave him credit for, that's all," says Doctor Dee. "We'll just have to try something else." The smile he gives is, unsurprisingly, so gleeful as to turn Hatter's stomach. "Mother always said I have an electric personality."

There's a light at the end of the tunnel, Hatter thinks, but it's probably a train. He's suddenly, unaccountably, cheerful. It's because he still feels the ghost grip of Alice on his wrist. She's still sitting beside him, waiting it out, riding out the storm. Bound and gagged and still fighting. Imaginary and imagined and imagining, and still fighting.

He grits his teeth. He clenches his fingers. He holds on.

When it's over— when he's bruised and bloodied and beaten but not beaten, not a failure after all— he has nothing but the torn shirt on his back and a negligible amount of self-composure. Oh, and scraped knuckles. Mad March's new head left a mark.

The sickly green light of the room makes the blood shine blackly. He doesn't even recognize it as his own, for a while.

He's here, in his head, and though a tortured soul, at least he has one. He hasn't lost it. Not yet.

He looks around the room, which is perfectly spherical, and gives him no help whatsoever. He steps forward, crunching on the shards of ceramic on the floor, stepping over the body.

"Now," says Hatter to himself, "should I go this way? Or that way?"

Either way, he supposes, he's going to end up among mad people.