By: Lena (Airelle Vilka)
Rating: It's rated arrrrrr, mateys.
(Author's Note: I've only read the Hatter M graphic novels, which is where the character of Magda comes from. Forgive any inconsistencies with the "Looking Glass Wars." I really should read those books someday.)
The Millinery Code of Honor exists for times of peril, its solid, unyielding statutes providing a brick road to follow in times of uncertainty. It prevents the Hatter from giving in to the temptations of power, lust, ego. The easy path. The way that leads into the dark.
Madigan has always followed the Code to the letter, even to the effect of sacrificing his Queen's life.
But there was a time, before the Code, when he had something else to guide him. A heart. It is now shriveled and unrecognizable, beaten down by years of harsh discipline, its unholy urges driven from his mind. Or so he thinks.
Because every once in a while, his heart feels like it wants to scream. And when it does, it is ragged and hollow, the scream of a restless spirit wandering a graveyard. It is fraught with the pain of loss, leaving a hole in his chest so large and ugly that he seeks out something, anything, to fill it. That's when the treachery reveals itself. That's when the Code isn't enough.
On nights like this, he rages.
He wonders if Queen Genevieve would still be alive if he'd listened to his heart. It would have been easy enough to grab both her and Alyss, to pull them into the Pool of Tears and out of Redd's reach. But she had given him a direct order, one the Code would not allow him to disobey. He had never hated himself more in his life. And now that Alyss is lost, the loathing has magnified into a black worm, devouring him from the inside.
He must find the Princess. Must achieve redemption. Maybe, her presence will soothe him, will quiet the screaming of his heart until it is once again, perfectly, under his control. Someday, soon. But tonight, the hole still looms large, and he gives the Code a respite, or else he will surely go mad. And a mad Hatter is of no use to anyone, especially in this strange world.
One Hat One Hatter: the first Tenet is the first to go. He leaves the Hat in the hotel room intentionally, afraid of looking at its single red eye as if it would report him to the Millinery. He almost laughs then; most likely, the other Hatters are dead by Redd's bloody hand, so whom would it report to? His head feels naked; distastefully, he shoves a black cap on, the wool itchy against his scalp. He goes out into the cold, breath fogging in the dark, rainy street.
The second Tenet: Absolute Allegiance to White Imagination and its ruling Queen. His only allegiance tonight is to his shrieking heart. The thought wrings him with disgust, but he knows it must be so, knows what will happen if he doesn't listen. He has killed people before, to silence the screaming, and he does not want to do it again.
The third Tenet: To Serve and Sustain White Imagination. Not tonight. Not like this. All his thoughts are draped in darkness, pouring off him in shadowy waves that he is certain he can see if he stands still long enough. He has much more darkness in him than he thought, and most of it wasn't picked up from this world. No; it has always been with him, before the Millinery, ever since he first laid eyes on Queen Genevieve. Her hair, black as midnight, fair skin softer than silk—
Not that he ever dared to touch her. Gods help him, never. But the thoughts had stormed in his head, until he used the Code to bash them out of his skull. Tonight, they flow freely, fueling pain and rage, making him want to kill.
The fourth Tenet: To Master the Forging of Immaculate Blades. He has not made any more since his last battle. He is afraid that he may unleash the hell inside him onto the people next to him. His iron restraint is the only thing that keeps him from lashing out and spilling blood on the streets with his remaining blades. These people don't deserve a visit from the monster he is becoming.
The fifth Tenet: To Excel in Personal Combat. He feels Redd's power, seeping into this world like poison into an open vein. Soon, he will again pick up his weapons to fight, to push the Not-Queen back to Wonderland. But tonight, his only combat is with himself. And as he stares up at the dark windows of the Hotel du Camps, he knows he is losing.
The sixth Tenet: To Contain and Control All Emotion. He could just enter via the balcony, use his blades on the screen. But the person inside is not a danger to him, and he is still a Milliner, with some semblance of propriety. He walks up to the third floor and knocks on the door of the last room in the hall. There is no peephole, and he realizes that's probably a good thing.
"What do you want?" comes a woman's voice from the other side.
He doesn't reply.
"I know you're still there," says the voice. He can feel the glow of her imagination from behind the door.
"Go away, then, whoever you are," she says. "Or I'll call the police."
He stands in the hallway, dripping water on the dirty floorboards. Silence reigns for several minutes.
Then the voice comes again.
"Miss Pushkin," he says quietly.
He hears a gasp from behind the door. She must have recognized his voice.
The door opens a crack, and he raises his eyes to her. She almost drops the towel wrapped around her body in shock. He realizes how he must look—stark and hollow, sunken eyes staring from beneath the soaked wool cap. He raises his hands quickly.
"Please." The desperate plea in his words disgusts him. "Don't-"
The door slams on him.
It takes another few minutes, and a bigger puddle under his boots, for the door to open again. She is on the other side, staring at him from under her plastered, wet hair.
He feels scrutinized by her gaze, wants to recoil and skulk back into the dark where he belongs. But the torrent of feelings pulls him inexorably forward, into impropriety.
"Please," he repeats. "I won't hurt you. I won't touch you."
"What the hell are you doing here?" she demands, her initial fear morphing into righteous anger.
He sighs, defeated. "I… I need to stay near someone. Just for the night."
Her blue eyes blaze. "And you come to me? After you left me to my fate on a rooftop?"
At least I didn't throw you off the roof, he thinks, and cringes because he doesn't know where that thought came from.
She stares at him, one hand on the door handle, but does not flee. The reporter in her is curious, he imagines. Finally, fidgety, like a mouse eyeing a cheesetrap, she tiptoes out into the hall, craning her neck upward to see his face. Her expression changes into something resembling pity.
"Gospodi bozhe," she says. He looks at her dully. Russian, he knows. Translation: "Dear God."
She doesn't say anything else. Instead, she steps back. He follows her inside, closing the door as she walks away, toward a small dresser next to the bed. She rummages in it for a while, eventually producing a small flask. Silently, she hands it to him, her lips pursed.
"No," he says automatically.
"Oh no," she says, her voice a whip-crack. "You look like you've been to hell. The only good fix for that is alcohol."
He eyes her carefully. He hasn't pegged her for one who indulged in such things. But looking closer, he sees the wrinkles in her young face, and the little touch of gray in her blood-red crown of hair. Maybe she has glimpsed a bit of hell, too.
She unscrews the flask and shoves it into his gloved hand. "Turn around."
A quizzical look from him, and she motions to her partial nakedness. "I need to change clothes. You mind?"
He turns immediately, flask in hand, cheeks burning for some reason. He hears the creak of a drawer opening, and some shuffling of fabric. When she tells him it is safe, he turns again, finding her in a frayed bathrobe, her wet hair sticking to the cloth, small stains spreading where it touches.
"Come here." She motions him into a chair opposite the bed. It is small, and barely accommodates his huge frame. He wonders if he is too unwieldy for this tiny world.
She watches him from the bed's edge, her long pale fingers fiddling with a corner of the sheet. He stares at the floor, fully intent on staying put this way for the rest of the night. She doesn't let him, though. As if she could, with the inquisitive glow about her.
"You, uh… couldn't get anyone else?"
He is quiet, hoping she'll take the hint.
"I see," she says with a little smirk that he cannot see, but knows is there. "The strong and silent type. Booooring."
He continues to look down.
"So what good is company if you don't take advantage of it?" There is a bit of challenge in her voice, but he doesn't rise to the bait. "You want to be near another person, but not in any meaningful way. I get that. Hell, I do that. But you don't have to pretend you're a statue or something."
She's very perceptive, he acknowledges.
"Hm. Alright then, I won't pry," she continues. "It would be nice to at least know your name, though. I mean, you left me on a roof after threatening me, and now you're in my hotel room, and still possibly threatening me. And you have my vodka."
"Madigan," he murmurs suddenly, surprised at himself.
"My name is Hatter Madigan of the Wonderland Millinery, personal guard to the—" (a moment's pause) "—late Queen Genevieve."
She sniffs. "Bozhe. You sure you're not a drinker? 'Cause if you're not, you should think of starting."
He considers the unassuming-looking flask in his hand.
He's not sure when or how it happens. But before he knows it, the bitter liquid flows past his teeth, burning all the way down, burning away thoughts of Wonderland and leaving the harsh, insistent voice of his emotion, drowning him. He drinks and drinks and drinks until his brain is in a fog, until he has lapped up every drop in the little flask. When he is done, he is almost afraid to look at the woman next to him, but something tells him that he should.
He raises his eyes. She meets his gaze calmly, more so than any of his Millinery sparring partners.
"Oh," she says quietly. "I understand now."
He opens his mouth to explain.
"No. I don't need to know the details," she says, raising a small hand. "Whatever is missing, no one can replace, trust me. But at least you have tonight, a little break from it. You look like you can use it."
He stares at her. Her face is soft and open, but her eyes are flint-hard.
"Just for tonight, though," she says. "I'm kind of scared of you, you know."
"So am I," he says.
They sit in silence for minutes, possibly hours. The flask is refilled a few times from an opaque bottle Magda has in her drawer. Madigan isn't used to the horrific aftertaste of Russian samogonka, and coughs violently, sucking in air. She laughs, and it sounds like a hundred crystal wineglasses.
"You really don't drink?"
He glares at her, wiping saliva off his chin. That gray steel glare could send his Millinery subordinates scurrying to the furthest corners of Wonderland in fear. This human woman only laughs some more.
"I found the one man left in Europe who doesn't drink. You're not a priest either, although that doesn't mean anything. In Russia, the priests drink like—"
"I should go," he says, getting up.
She catches him just as he keels over like an uprooted oak. They topple onto the bed, arms and legs akimbo. She is still laughing, and it's beginning to annoy Madigan. He doesn't think laughter is appropriate in most situations, least of all this.
"You idiot, you can't go anywhere like this," she giggles, vodka on her breath. "You're drunk."
"I'm-" He pauses, searching for an appropriate word as she rolls to the other side of the bed. "…Not."
"Seriously, Mr. Hatter Madigan of Wonderland, or whatever you are," she states, gesticulating with each word of his new title, "you can't walk properly. You can't even lie on a bed properly." She nudges him with her foot to make the point. Her bare toes poke him in the chin, and she giggles again.
"What?" he asks, irritated.
"Your beard. It tickles."
He touches his face, absently, feeling the harsh stubble that he's let run wild. He has become something alien to himself, angry and hatless and bitter and unshaven. He raises his eyes to hers, expecting to find the same revulsion he has directed inward.
Instead, he finds her face much closer to him than before. She is looking at him with curiosity, the way Alyss would look when he'd tell a story. Her glow is strong, too, washing over him like a white tide. His heart reaches for her with a desperate moan.
"Someday," she says mildly, "you'll have to tell me all about her. She must have been pretty, to break your heart like this."
He stares at her for a few heartbeats. Then, he nods.
"She was beautiful." Once the words leave his mouth, it's easier to breathe, as if he's unloaded a great sin.
Magda purses her lips, then smiles. "Yeah, I thought so."
He fights himself, loses, smiles back. Stares into her face for a bit too long.
"What?" she says, pink lips pouting.
His head is lopsided from the drink. He barely registers his own words, only the truth in them. "You have a lovely imagination, Miss Pushkin."
Blush stains her face. She looks embarrassed by it, shakes her head, red hair flying everywhere. A whisper: "You're strange."
He can't stop himself. He lowers his head. She glances up from behind her veil of hair.
Madigan kisses her.
Things follow very quickly. He dwarfs her with his height and build, mitigating his grip on her arms so he doesn't crush her little bones. He can taste the samogonka on her, knows she can taste it on him. He isn't sure why she has decided to humor his need, but doesn't ask, and she doesn't tell. Anyway, he's too busy now, his mouth sucking up little water drops that have lingered in the wake of her bath. His hands twist in her tangled hair, his mind fighting not to be reminded of Redd. Her hands, in turn, are everywhere and nowhere, tugging at his clothes but failing to remove anything. She finally settles on his coat lapels, pulling him to her like a drowning victim.
His mind is numb now, his heart in control, fueling his hands and his mouth, setting them to devour her. He shoves her backwards, looms over her, breathing in her lust, watching her flushed face, the want plain in the look she gives him. Almost too late, he realizes that her rage, her pain, her need to feel someone nearby, is just as great as his. He stops in shock.
"Don't you dare pity me," she hisses, blue eyes flashing. "You have no right."
He knows that; he's not stupid. With alarming speed, he whips off several layers of clothing, metal gauntlets hitting the floor. Before the clang fades, he is inside her, and the sixth Tenet is shattered.
The seventh Tenet: If you Promise, you must Fulfill. They collapse into the sheets. She regards him thoughtfully, small fingers tracing the outline of his hard, sweat-soaked muscles.
"Promise me something," she says.
Slowly, Madigan blinks. His heart has stopped screaming. What's left is a dull pain, a wound that is mollified but not healed. His mind is able to focus on her, barely, her glow a hazy outline in his vision.
"What is it?"
Her voice seems far away as exhaustion begins to claim him.
"Promise you'll stop running from the guilt. Someday."
"Mm," he nods, his breath warming the pillow. A part of his brain knows he is lying.
"I will if you will," he murmurs.
She begins to laugh as Madigan sleeps.
The eighth Tenet: If at any time you Sense Yourself in Danger of Breaking any of the Tenets of the Millinery Code you must Immediately Remove your Hat from Active Service. Madigan turns his face up to the rain, letting the cool water wash over him, as if it could cleanse away his violations of the Code. Above him, the windows of the hotel glow dully in the pre-dawn light.
He has left her sleeping, tangled in the covers. She has tossed and turned fitfully for hours, dreaming of something similar to his own dreams. She, too, has silent screams, deep within.
He shouldn't be a Hatter anymore, he knows. But he still has a duty, one duty. Find Alyss, and bring her home. And then, only then, can he follow the eighth Tenet. Until then, he remains outside the Code, subject to it and yet not. Until then, he is like Magda Pushkin, driven relentlessly forward, reaching out for someone like himself when the aloneness becomes too much.
He owes her now. Maybe a drink of samogonka, someday. When they have both stopped running.
Madigan looks at the windows for a long time. Then, he turns and walks into the mist, his shadow elongating in the rising light.
The rain grows stronger.