Thus Beaten Out of Season – Part 1
"Why is a Raven like writing desk?"
Hatter had begun the question in his dream, but completed it as he bolted upright in bed. He swallowed thickly and took a deep breath, glancing over at the sleeping form beside him.
Alice stirred, but did not wake. His nightmares had grown increasingly frequent – and disturbing – in the past month or so, to the point that her sleep was no longer disturbed by his crying out in the middle of the night. It bothered her, that her brain willingly blocked out the noise, preventing her from providing comfort to a man she cared about so deeply. And, though he denied it, it bothered him too.
Convinced that she was still asleep, and too considerate to wake her, Hatter eased himself out of bed. He padded along the carpet towards the hall, but hesitated in the doorway. Turning around, he tried to *will* her awake, but it was no use. Her breaths remained slow and even, the sheets rising and falling ever so slightly with each one. The narrow shafts of light that crept in from the street cast unfamiliar shadows across the room, making his typically whimsical headboard a frightening creature looming over his Alice, ready to pounce.
Pushing that image out of his head, he closed the door softly behind him and headed for the kitchen. He was surprised to discover that he was not, in fact, in the mood for tea. He wanted something…different.
He was in the process of making hot chocolate when a switch clicked behind him and glaring white light replaced the soft dimness of the room. "Couldn't sleep?"
Her arrival was unexpected – he was sure she had been down pretty deep a few minutes ago – but though she was now able to sleep through his nocturnal outbursts, he knew she was not immune to most sounds. Actually, she was quite the light sleeper otherwise. Which is why he had closed the door to the bedroom, so he wouldn't inadvertently wake her.
"I'm sorry, I hope I didn't…" his voice trailed off when he turned around and was welcomed by a startling sight.
Sitting at the table, in a short, red, lacy negligee and heeled fuzzy red slippers, was Duchess. She wore a matching red satin robe over her "nightgown," untied and slipping off her shoulders, her makeup without a smear, her blonde hair perfectly arranged. She spoke with Alice's voice. "No…you didn't wake me. I don't think anything did…I just…woke up."
Hatter stood in the middle of the kitchen, wearing only the boxers Alice had given him – black with the phrase "Tea or me?" written in glow-in-the-dark paint scattered all over them – and an expression of pure confusion. "What the hell…?"
"What's the matter, honey?"
Hatter shot up in bed, drenched in sweat. Beside him, Alice rolled over and put her hand on his arm. "What?" she mumbled sleepily. "What is it…?"
He froze at the sound of her voice, unable to answer. He reached for the lamp on his bedside table, fearing the worst. Light flooded the room with a vengeance, revealing what he had already guessed – Duchess was lying in bed next to him. And this time, she had her own voice.
Prying her well-manicured claw off his arm, he tried to stand. "I don't know what the hell you're doing here…"
But he had somehow misjudged Duchess' strength – she grabbed his arm once again and held him down. "I'm here because you brought me back with you," she cooed, her gentle tone in direct contrast to the vise-like grip she had on his arm. "Because you love me…"
"No! I love…"
"You love me," she interrupted, maneuvering herself so she was straddling his chest. "You always have." She leaned forward to kiss him, but he turned his face away. Undaunted by his attempted rejection, she kissed his cheek, then grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. "And I'm about to show you why…"
It took all his might, but Hatter managed to throw her off him; in the process, he too fell out of bed. The instant he hit the floor, she disappeared the room went dark. A shadowy figure sat up on the other side of the bed and turned to him. "Wait…wha…?"
Hatter remained on the ground and slowly but surely began backing up.
A few seconds later, he found himself squinting up at the woman in his bed, now surrounded by light. It was Alice, wearing her typical nighttime fare – a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. Or, at least, it looked like Alice.
"Hatter…?" She moved to get up, but he wasn't about to have that.
"No! Stay where you are!"
"What's going on?"
He was against the wall now, as far away from her as he could get. The beads of sweat that covered his skin were beginning to cool in the night air, making him feel clammy and uncomfortable. "Just. Stay. Away."
"Hatter, I…" she tried again, putting both feet on the floor.
"Don't," he warned, holding out his hand. "I don't want to hurt you. But I will if I have to."
Her beautiful face was lined with concern. "I don't understand…"
"I don't know that you're Alice," he clarified.
Realization struck her then. "Another nightmare?"
"Several, in fact."
She nodded with comprehension. Although he previously mentioned that his dreams had grown darker recently, he refused to discuss them with her. It looked like they were much worse than she imagined. "All right…let me prove it to you."
Hatter eyed at her suspiciously. "How?"
"That's up to you."
He mulled over her proposition for a minute, then decided to take her up on it. "Do you know why they call me 'Hatter'?"
"Because you wear a hat?" she asked, grinning. When it was clear he didn't share her amusement, she once again became serious. "Because you're always there when they pass the hat."
"What did I give Ratty in exchange for you?"
"Pink nectar…? I honestly don't remember what emotion it was…"
"How does the little crocodile improve his shining tail?"
His questions were getting more difficult…she was afraid she might not recall the answers. "Something about golden scales….and water from the Nile…"
"Charlie was mad as a box of…?"
"Frogs," she answered quickly. That one she was sure of.
"And what did Charlie refer to me as?"
"Um…a vassal? But you thought he said, 'vessel.' "
Hatter had gradually become more and more relaxed with each correct response, but he still had one last question for her. "What did I suggest we do right before you went back through the Looking Glass?"
She smiled at the memory. "Pizza. 'We could do pizza,' you said. It was really cute…adorable actually."
He let out a loud sigh and sagged against the wall. "It was?"
She approached him slowly, careful not to startle her suddenly fragile boyfriend. "Oh yeah," she replied, kneeling next to him and putting her hand on his knee. "You were so completely clueless…you had no idea what you were saying, did you?"
He looked up at her, emotionally drained. "Alice?"
"Yes…it's really me."
He reached up to stroke her cheek, just to make sure she was real. "It's so good to see you." He began to shiver violently then, as the combination of exhaustion, reality, and temperature finally caught up with him.
Alice took him in her arms for a moment, her face pressed down on the top of his head. She had never seen him like this before…it was like he was falling apart before her eyes. And she didn't know what to do. "Let's get you a blanket or something," she suggested, jumping up and retrieving a fleece throw from the closet and wrapping it around his shoulders. "I'll make us some tea, and you can tell me about your dream…dreams."
He shook his head, "I don't want to…"
"I'm not asking you…I'm telling you."
Hatter didn't have the energy to argue with her, and she knew it. He let her help him up, and followed her into the kitchen. Once the teakettle was full of water and on the stove, she sat across from him and took his hand. "Well…?"
He shrugged. "I had a bunch of dreams in a row…a dream within a dream within a dream. They weren't so bad, it was just…disorienting."
"Like Russian nesting dolls? I didn't think that was even possible…"
"Oh, I don't know, a Wonderland brain in an Oyster's world is prone to have some issues adjusting…"
"Jack didn't seem to have any problems sleeping," she countered.
Hatter silently cursed her ex. "What do you want from me, Alice?"
"What were the dreams about?"
He sighed. There was no getting around it. "In the first one I was being tortured." When it was clear he didn't intend on elaborating, she started to ask him something, but he held his hand up. "That's all you need to know."
She granted him that one out. "And the next?"
"I thought I had woken up…I came into the kitchen so I wouldn't disturb you…but you followed me. Except…you weren't you."
"What does that even mean?"
"It was someone else, but she had your voice," he explained.
"Anyone I know?"
On one hand, Hatter didn't want to lie to her…on the other, he didn't want to hurt her. If it had been anyone else, he would have no problem telling her…but the simple fact that this woman, in particular, was involved…that she had actually taken Alice's place in his dream…he was sure it would upset her. "In the third, it was the same girl, but this time she had her own voice."
"Who was it?"
"It doesn't matter who it was, the point is that it wasn't you…and that's why I was in such a state when I finally woke up for real."
Alice's eyes changed – he saw a flash of jealousy in them, just for an instant. "Who?"
He looked away. "Duchess."
She got up and went to the cabinet, feigning preparation for tea. "See, that wasn't so difficult, was it?"
He came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. At first, she stiffened a little at his touch, but she relaxed into him soon after. "I'm sorry."
She held his arms against her. "For what? Having a nightmare? You have nothing to be sorry for. It's just…of all the women…"
"I know. Would it help if I told you that I was completely creeped out by her?"
Alice spun around to face him and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "Yes. Yes it would."
He held her for a moment, happy to finally have her in his arms again, then broke the embrace. "I'm going to grab a sweatshirt or something," he said as he headed for the bedroom. "I'll be right back."
Hatter was halfway down the hallway when he stopped in his tracks. Wait. He heard something. He listened for a full minute, but the only sounds were those of Alice getting ready for some late night tea. He shook his head at his own silliness, but as soon as he took another step, he heard it a second time. Scratching. He froze, really concentrating on what he thought he heard. There it was once more. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Allowing the fleece that was still wrapped around his shoulders to fall to the floor, he tiptoed towards the noise until he found himself at the door to his apartment. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. He looked out the peephole. Nothing. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Slowly, he undid the chain and deadbolt, then unlocked the doorknob itself and turned it, pulling the door open a sliver. There was a cat sitting in the hall. It was a beautiful animal, most likely a Norwegian forest cat (how he knew that, he didn't have a clue), a calico with a combination of gold, black, and white fur. The large jingle bell that dangled in front of its white bib remained silent as the cat gazed up at him and tilted its head slightly to the right. He looked down at the creature curiously, opening the door a little wider in the process. Something wasn't right…this cat seemed…familiar somehow. As he stuck his head out into the hall, he glanced at the door – not a scratch. Hatter's eyes returned to the cat, and its mouth spread unnaturally across its face, twisting into an impossibly weird smile.
He quickly but quietly closed the door and re-locked it. This was wrong…this was all wrong. He hurried to the bedroom and began scanning the picture frames Alice had distributed amongst various pieces of furniture. He stopped when the one in question caught his eye – it contained a photo of little-girl-Alice and her beloved Dinah. Dinah, who was hit by a car before her father had been kidnapped. Dinah, who was long dead and buried. Dinah, who was apparently scratching his door and smiling at him mere seconds ago.
He turned back to his closet, intent on getting dressed, when he noticed yet another object that didn't belong – a small glass flask filled with pink liquid on his night table. Upon closer inspection, he saw a label hanging from its neck.
Hatter didn't bother to examine it further – he went to his closet and threw open the door. He needed to act, and he needed to act NOW. After a moment's deliberation, he walked across the room to his armoire, opened the bottom drawer, and felt his way down stacks of shirts to reach the object he never thought he'd need again. He pulled out his old body armor and held it up, eying the bullet that was still lodged in the upper left shoulder area, from when Dodo had shot him. "Well…at least I know it works…"
He was just about done getting dressed when Alice's voice drifted in from the kitchen. "Hatter? The kettle went off 10 minutes ago…what are you doing in there…?"
What was he gonna tell her? How would she understand? He glanced back at his night table – the flask was gone. Great. Just great. While he attempted to come up with some kind of rational explanation for what he was about to do, he heard her footsteps approaching. "Hatter…?"
Duchess walked into the room wearing Alice's PJs. "No, no, no…" he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut. "This is not happening…"
He jumped at her touch, opening his eyes to find Alice before him. "Thank God."
"What are you doing?" she asked, looking him up and down. He was wearing a plain white dress shirt, a black suit, black socks, and a black tie. It wasn't his cup of tea, really, but he wanted to be able to blend in, if necessary.
"I'm…I have to go." He grabbed a black fedora from his hat tree and placed it on his head, then bent down to put on black dress shoes.
She paused. "Go? Go where?"
"I have to go back." He stood back up and tried to move past her, but she blocked his way.
"Honey," she began, forcing a smile, "It's the middle of the night and you're dressed like one of the Blues Brothers…"
"I have to go," he repeated.
"Where?" she asked, knowing full well what his intended destination was. He simply looked at her, waiting for her to move. "You're going to Wonderland, aren't you?" she went on, but didn't wait for an answer. "That's it, isn't it…you're going home…"
"No." He spoke with a quiet intensity that made her hold her tongue. He heard what she couldn't bring herself to say – it was as she had always feared. He was leaving her, never to return. Just like all the others. Hatter placed both hands on her shoulders and held her firmly. "This is my home now…wherever you are, that's my home."
Alice nodded in response to his assertion, and was stunned when he forcibly moved her to one side and walked past her. "But you just said…"
"I know what I said," he replied, pausing mid-step. "And I meant every word. But that doesn't change the fact that I have to go."
"Wait! I don't understand…" she followed him into the hall and grabbed his arm.
He stopped again, but refused to face her. "You can't understand. There's something very wrong here…and I have to make it right."
Hatter pulled his arm gently out of her grasp and turned around. "Somehow, someway, Wonderland is leaking into your world."
He took a deep breath and made another attempt. "I think something is allowing bits and pieces of Wonderland to enter this world…and that can't be good. I need to go back and find out what's going on, try to fix it."
"I'll come with you."
The words had barely escaped her lips before he made a decision about that. "Nope."
"But maybe I can…"
"I said no."
She crossed her arms. "You know, it's not like I'm some helpless little female who can't defend herself."
"I'm well aware of that…but I haven't the slightest clue what's causing this; I can't even begin to imagine what kind of catastrophe I'm going to find myself in the middle of when I arrive…"
"I could help."
Hatter closed his eyes and tried to imagine what he would do if their roles were reversed…of course he would insist on accompanying her. He just…he couldn't let her do the same for him. Not this time. He opened his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry…I…I can't let you come with me." He approached her and pulled her close, kissing her like he might not ever see her again.
She felt the combination of urgency and fear in his touch, and responded with a passion that matched his. When he finally tore himself away and started towards the door, she knew that further argument was useless. No longer worried that he wouldn't choose to come back – it was a silly, fleeting thought, really…she trusted him…completely – she was now afraid that something beyond his control would prevent his safe return. "I love you," she said softly after him.
He lingered at the door, turning his head ever so slightly back. "I know."
And then he was gone.