Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of SyFy and Nick Willing and are only used for fan related purposes.
chapter one: Cup of Tea
It was snowing out, the first time he ever saw Alice Hamilton.
Too cold for him to do any of his work out on the streets, Hatter was sitting in his back office, getting ready to enjoy his midmorning cup of tea when he heard the knock at his door. It was a familiar knock, so he had a pretty good idea who it could be—there weren't too many in Wonderland who knew how to find him, and even less with manners gracious enough to knock—but that didn't stop him from immediately responding with, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
There was a pause, followed by a sigh, and then, "You ask this riddle every time, Hatter. I'm not sure which answer you're looking for today."
He grinned and set his tea cup back on its saucer. Despite the chill outside that was slipping under the exit behind him and sneaking into the admittedly garish office, the tea was still far too hot to taste. He only had one tongue, after all, and in his line of work it didn't serve to burn it. How could he ask questions and talk himself out of trouble if his tongue was too burnt to be put to use? He couldn't, and he welcomed the intruder as a way to kill some time until his tea cooled.
Clearing his throat, he called out, "You can come in."
It was his secretary, just like he thought. A thickset yet undeniably mousy sort of woman with tired eyes, a perpetual yawn and more hair over her lip than most men Hatter had ever seen, she all but skittered into the room, making sure to close the door behind her as she entered.
She was known as Dormouse, partly because of her personality and mainly because of her pointed nose and beady eyes, but Hatter always called her Dormie. In Wonderland, it was much safer to use a nickname; no one knew that better than Hatter himself. It had been years since anyone had called him David and even longer since he actually answered to it.
"Mornin', Dormie," Hatter said congenially, chancing a small sip off of his tea cup as he nodded at her. Still hot, but delicious. "Reports for me to sign?" he asked. "Bills for me to conveniently misplace? Payment, perhaps, for that job I did for the Whites last week? What have you?"
"A client, Hatter," Dormie answered promptly. Stubby fingers with barely any nails were tapping anxiously against her pant leg as she explained, "Ratty says he found her wandering in a back alley and she's looking for help. He thought of you."
Ratty. Not one of his favorite people, not by a long shot, but he had his uses. At the very least, it certainly served Hatter's purposes to have his name be the first thought of whenever Ratty thought there was an opportunity for them both to make some quick money. Then again, this was old Ratty Dormie was talking about—he thought catching rats and selling their germ-ridden carcasses for dinner meat was a brilliant idea.
"What do you think, Dormie? Has Ratty brought me a good case?"
"Couldn't say," she said, her words getting lost midway to a yawn. She gave a small jerk, rubbed her eyes and continued, "Ratty kept her waiting outside. It seems he thinks the girl is special, and he's already asking for more than he usually gets."
"Really?" Now that was interesting. If Ratty thought he was going to make a pretty penny off of Hatter, he must have found something good. "Okay," Hatter nodded, "send him in."
Dormie echoed his nod, yawned once more for good measure and rubbed the end of her nose as she turned to leave the office. She left Hatter to his own thoughts and speculations and a cup of quickly cooling tea that, in the wake of Dormie's quick visit, he had forgotten all about.
See, it wasn't that he was some kind of cop or even a detective (though, for name on the door purposes, that's what Hatter called himself). It was just that he had an uncanny knack to know what was going on and, if he didn't, how to find out. He worked by himself mainly but sometimes he employed countless bums and urchins from the streets of Wonderland… if you could even call it employing when all he offered them was hot tea, a room to sleep in at times and then a favor or two; the only ones on the books—ha, he thought, books—were him and Dormouse. So it wasn't unusual for someone like Ratty to see something new, or maybe see someone strange wondering in the alleyways, and come running to him first.
However, it was a little unusual to hear that Ratty, in particular, was closely guarding such a someone. He left her outside, did he? He wants more than normal, huh? Hatter had to admit that his interest was piqued. Just what—who—had stumbled into Wonderland this time?
Dormie had neglected to close his office door behind her when she left but Ratty knew better than to just barge in. His elongated shadow fell at the foot of Hatter's desk before he announced himself with a phlegm-y cough and a sniffle for good measure.
Hatter glanced up, resting his hands casually on his neat and clean desktop. There were only two things apart from his hands on his desk: his hat and his teacup. Hatter was a firm believer of keeping an organized workplace; that, and it was too easy to give away free information if it was lying around all over the place.
"Ah, Ratty, my friend. Come on in."
Ratty was a very… interesting looking denizen of Wonderland. With a long, lanky frame hidden by a longjacket with decades worth of mud encrusting it, and long, limp hair that was both greasy and dandruff-dry at the same time, he definitely looked the part of a ratcatcher. He wore a leather head covering that, even in Hatter's generous opinion, was no hat. A strange smell, of dirt and grime and cat piss, it clung to his muddy clothes and, from past experience, Hatter was already breathing shallowly through his mouth.
At the sound of Hatter's genial tone, Ratty gulped and removed his hat. Gripping it between grubby fingers, he scuttled in slowly, taking careful steps to tread only where he should tread. This wasn't his first time in Hatter's office; he knew the routine well enough by now.
"Hello, sir," he mumbled, speaking more to his chest and the floor than to the man at the desk. "Thank you for seein' me, Hatter."
"Dormie tells me you've brought someone to see me, Ratty."
"Yes, I did, sir, and she's a strange one. She's got no part of Wonderland in her and, to be frank, sir, I don't think Wonderland would want much to do with her, either. She's lookin' for someone, she says, and she's willin' to pay. She's needin' help, she is, so I thought I should bring her here."
Hatter was quick to notice that Ratty had made no mention of the sort of payment he was expecting. From the way Ratty said it, it was almost like he found the poor thing wandering around and, out of the kindness of his heart, he thought he would try to help her find whoever it was she was looking for. Hatter did notice, however, that he did say the girl would pay and he wondered if she might have already.
Keeping the tone light, he called a simple grin to his face. Dimples went a long way with his look—and with inspiring trust in those with feeble minds that he constantly seemed to be surrounded by. "Then where is she?"
Ratty hadn't expected him to be so blunt. It wasn't like Hatter, seeing as how it was more his style to manipulate words and dance around the subject until you weren't sure if up was down and left was right. Coming right to the heart of the matter was only something Hatter did when he thought there was something really good tucked in there somewhere.
The idea of someone managing to find their way into Wonderland and not being ousted as an oyster before he could catch wind of them was definitely something that caught his attention. Especially since it was Ratty who found her first… Hatter had to admit that, considering the alternative was spending the afternoon going through old files and piles of dreadful paperwork—business had been regrettably slow lately, what with the Hearts family cracking down on the likes of him—it definitely brightened his day to find he might had something more worthwhile to focus his considerable talents on.
After hemming and hawing for a few seconds, either working up the nerve to come out and ask for payment or, perhaps, trying to figure out if he should give up already, Ratty dared a glance into Hatter's carefully composed expression. Trust me, the innocent mask seemed to say, you can believe every word I say.
Even when you shouldn't.
Ratty's head did this strange little bobble—Hatter supposed it was a nod—before he jammed the leather scrap on his head again. "I'll bring her in right now," he promised.
Hatter nodded and watched with interest at the way Ratty skittered back out the office. He dared a quick breath, caught the scent of his cooling tea wafting towards him before Ratty's pungent odor nearly burned the hair off the inside of his nose, and remembered that he'd barely started on his drink before Dormie had interrupted him. Picking his cup and saucer up off of his desk, Hatter tested the tea—it was the perfect temperature—and quickly drained his cup. He was just pouring himself a second one when echoing footsteps against the floor told him that Ratty had returned, and that he wasn't alone.
Keeping his expression friendly, Hatter placed his teacup down again. His eyes were too busy taking in the sight that met him which meant that, when the cup missed the saucer, he ended up sending hot droplets of the liquid splashing out of the cup and onto his hand. It smarted, but he barely noticed. It wasn't the worst of burns he'd suffered in his varied careers and, besides, he was still preoccupied by the oyster that was curiously following Ratty.
He watched as her eyes took in his office and was pleased when she looked impressed. His office was the only place he could be himself, he could be real and he had it decorated it in a way that suited him. It certainly wasn't the sort of office, with its bright white walls with odds and ends and interesting wall ornaments hanging all over, that one would expect someone in Hatter's line of work to have but he liked it.
She walked in slowly, looking at everything, he saw, but the man at the desk. Hatter didn't mind. It made it easier for him to get a good look at her when she was so obviously avoiding his gaze.
His first impression was that Ratty was right: this girl was definitely not from Wonderland.
She was very pretty, but not very bright—that, or she was too stubborn for her own good. It was snowing out, freezing cold, and she was wearing a pale blue dress, sleeveless, one that hugged every curve of her body and showed off every goose bump she had refused to acknowledge in her hurry to make it across town. Her fair cheeks were red and raw from the chill wind, and little ice crystals still clung to her dark hair.
Hatter waited until she had walked all the way into the room before he said anything. "Would you like a cup of tea?" he asked her, pointedly ignoring Ratty. Niceties had to be observed, of course, but only for pretty girls in very short dresses.
"No, thank you."
"A shame." And it was. This oolong mix was so delicious that it would have half the gangs on the street calling him a pansy for drinking it—if they dared. You didn't get used to wearing outlandish—outlandish for Wonderland, even—outfits and a trademark of a hat unless you could back up your sense of style with a good and sturdy right hook. "Ratty tells me you're looking for someone."
"I am," she said shortly before looking down the edge of her nose at him. "I'm sorry but… who are you?" She didn't look sorry in the least, Hatter thought, but curiosity was warring with suspicion on her face. The curiosity won, but barely.
Hatter tried to sound as charming as he possibly could. Charm, he discovered, was very important when dealing with young ladies that looked at you that same way. "A friend," he answered before amending his statement to say, "I hope."
He was surprised to see that his words had little effect on her. She barely blinked except to brush off the few remaining snowflakes that were stuck to her eyelashes. Ratty must've kept her out in the cold. The poor thing looked like she was half-frozen as it was.
Ratty cleared his throat then, a terrible scrit-scratching that sounded like hundreds of little rat feet running across the sewers. "I brought her to you, Hatter. I thought she might be better for you than me, and I brought her."
She looked from Ratty to Hatter and back. Her lips were tinged with blue from the cold but, as she bit down in a noticeable anger, the corners of her mouth went white. She had one hand balled into a fist as she glared something fierce at Ratty. "You said you were going to help me," she snapped, sounding quite angry and not near as nervous as Hatter might've expected from someone who wandered into Wonderland. "I paid you twenty bucks for your help!"
Hatter's ears quirked as Ratty dropped his gaze. Ah, he should've known; in fact, he already did, didn't he? In Wonderland, the only person you could trust was yourself—and even that was iffy at times. And there was Ratty who not only conned the oyster out of twenty dollars, but Dormie said he had the nerve to try and earn a larger than normal finder's fee for bringing the girl to Hatter.
Well, not if Hatter could help it.
Climbing up from his chair, he took slow deliberate steps around the edge of the desk. Ratty seemed to fold up inwardly as Hatter advanced, a small grin splitting his face. He walked like a child bouncing on the edge of his heels, all an act, of course, a way to put the other two at ease. This was work, it was, and Hatter—detective, private eye, professional information gatherer—was, more than anything, a character.
But, nevertheless, he was a Wonderlander and a dangerous one at that. A gentle smile could be as sharp as a knife and kind words doubly as killer. Ratty flinched when Hatter drew up right next to him and Hatter didn't blame him. He didn't blame him one bit.
"Give the lady her money back, Ratty," he said in a friendly tone that suggested, should Ratty not listen, he wasn't going to be friendly much longer.
Ratty reached into his dirty coat at once, pulled out a crumpled bill, dared a sniff—Hatter pretended not to notice—and then offered it out to the girl. She snatched it and tucked it into the small pocket in the front of her thin dress while Ratty, still staring at the floor, mumbled, "I did help. I brought her to Hatter and Hatter's a man who knows."
"That I am," Hatter agreed, feeling only the slightest twinge of sympathy for the dirty old ratcatcher, "and I'm also a man who knows that he owes you a favor for your help, Ratty."
"Not two?" Ratty asked hopefully. The girl made a tutting sound, a click under her tongue and Ratty nodded hurriedly. "One it is, Hatter. Thank you, Hatter. I'll be seeing you, Hatter." His words, quick and oh so very rat-like, were closer to squeaks than anything else. Bowing his head, flopping it about so that his, well, hat would have to do, his hat almost fell to the floor, Ratty refused to look back at her as he left Hatter's office, groveling and feigning gratitude as he scampered out.
As soon as Ratty was gone, Hatter let out the breath he was holding. Some of the men on the street were good for business if not good for the lingering odor they left behind in his office. As it was, he'd stepped too close and there was a good chance the stink might have infiltrated his lovely paisley print shirt. Phew.
He then waited until he was sure Ratty was really gone, going so far as to pass the girl by and check that there weren't any unwanted ears lurking just outside the doorway before turning his attention back to Ratty's find. She hadn't flinched or moved at all really since she arrived—though she might've shivered once or twice from the cold—and, apart from her outburst, she kept silent. Her eyes, nice blue ones that Hatter might've fancied if they weren't watching him so shrewdly, followed his every step.
After he was sure that Ratty had slunk back to the sewers and that Dormie was in the front office where she belonged, Hatter headed back towards his desk. He paused, though, right as he passed her again. Part wanting to put her at ease, part wanting to show her that he could be a friend—if she wanted him to be, that is, and for the right price, of course—he stopped and daringly stood right in front of her.
Hatter looked her up and down once, trying not to appear as if he was leering as he did so, and said, "You're not from around here, are you?" It was almost a question, but one he knew the answer to which, really, made the whole question aspect of the statement pretty unnecessary.
Apparently, she agreed. She snorted in response, a harsh noise that didn't seem to come from such a pretty creature. Almost without realizing it, Hatter cracked a small grin. "Is it that obvious?" she asked.
A million retorts ran through his mind, ranging from: you're kidding, aren't you all the way to if Wonderland's seen the likes of you before, I'll go right ahead and eat my hat. Hatter settled on, "Yes," before he turned away from her and headed back towards his desk. His mind was still running frantic but his keen sense of business was in control—that, and Hatter had a gut instinct when it came to his line of work. There was no if anymore and, for once, it might not just be about personal gain.
No doubt about it, he was taking this case.
Author's Note: Well, here we go. I got the idea to start this from the quarterly challenge on the new_wonderland community on livejournal. The prompty was AU, the theme was Winter Wonderland and, you see, I just couldn't help myself. The way Alice and Hatter get thrown together in the mini-series was very readily adapted to a PI type of relationship -- and I already have quite a few interesting takes on the story that will make it stand apart (while throwing in a couple of lines/characters/ scenes from the series for kicks!). I hope you liked the first chapter, and I should have the next one out pretty soon :)
-- stress, 01.14.09