A/N: Fair warning: this fic came out of a rant I read about how PTSD was treated in fandom. I did a little research, and just when I was thinking that I might be able to write something for it, I was attacked by a plot bunny a la Monty Python's Killer Rabbit. As a result, you should know that this is a bit different from how I normally write the characters, and this story includes a sort of roundabout depiction of life with PTSD and yet another Hatter torture scene.
He'll admit it, when Alice first confessed that she was afraid of heights, his first reaction was that of disbelief. Afraid of heights? How did she even manage to get out the door, let alone to his doorstep? His second reaction was to kick himself for that particular lack of imagination: it didn't take long to realize that it wasn't the heights so much as the idea of a fall from them, and that was certainly something to be avoided. Even later when her irrational fear had become inconvenient, he made of point of not telling her it was silly. He understood. He had an irrational, inconvenient and wholly terrifying fear of his own. His third instinct had been to try and ground her a bit so that they could get moving again, an action which more or less lead directly to where he was now: namely, huddled in a shaking mess on the floor of Carol's bathroom and ignoring Alice's calls from the other side of the door.
So, Alice had a heights thing. And Hatter… Hatter had a chair thing.
Not all chairs, because that would push inconvenient straight out into crippling, the same way it would be if Alice got vertigo every time she was more than six inches off the ground. Spindly sort of chairs with low backs and armrests were the worst of it, but even those weren't so bad as long as he wasn't feeling trapped. Restrained. Because, really, it wasn't about the chairs anymore than it was about the heights. Alice had a fear of falls and splats and pink mist, all of which could be caused by losing your footing while up high. Hatter had a fear of being trapped and completely at someone else's mercy without a chance to escape, all of which could be caused by being tied to a chair.
It all sounded very logical and sensible when put like that. It seemed a simple matter of cause and effect, which in no way captured how he'd reacted to it tonight by essentially punching a cake into Alice's Nana's face. It sounded a lot funnier in his head that he suspected the act had been in real life. He couldn't remember actually doing it: one moment he was trying to fend off the evil eye from Alice's Grandfather, the next he was standing up and being stared at by everyone whose eyes weren't being obscured by chocolate fudge Bundt. He'd stammered out something vaguely approaching an apology, locked himself in the loo, and well. Here he was.
He hadn't panicked like that in years- not since just after Mad March died the first time. Looking back, though, he can sort of see what set him off. The chairs were certainly spindly enough, although after he survived Carol's initial grilling while seated in them he rather felt like they were old friends, or at least on the same side. Alice's grandparents never failed to make him twitchy in all the three times he'd met them previously: her Nana had a habit of lapsing into French a language everyone at the table but him would understand, and her Grandfather wasn't insane so much as super-sane. He knew, somehow, that Hatter wasn't from Yorkshire, and was determined to prove it, and knowing that there was no way he couldn't didn't stop Hatter from feeling decidedly off-footed around him. He hadn't even wanted to come in the first place, but it was a family dinner. He liked the idea of being part of the family, even if they did drive him insane to the point of punching perfectly innocent, delicious-looking cakes.
The final straw had probably been when Carol had been bustling behind them, and the Grandfather had reached out unexpectedly and snagged his wrist. Cue blackout, cake, and that brought him right back to huddling against the tub, listening to the sound of the lock being rather badly picked.
He hated this. He absolutely hated how completely useless this made him. It wasn't rational, it wasn't controllable, and it made him painfully, frighteningly vulnerable. It wasn't just a weakness, it telegraphed his weakness and when it got this bad it made him literally weak as well. And, of course, now that he'd gotten to the nadir of the matter, what with the shaking and the sweating and the urge to just stay in the fetal position for the rest of his life, Alice finished butchering the locking mechanism and the door swung open into his feet.
He tucked his head in a bit father so that his forehead was resting on his knees in a slightly childish bid to not have to interact with Alice. Oddly enough it seemed to work: Alice closed the door behind her and sat just barely touching him, but didn't actually say anything.
He probably should have warned her about this little problem of his, but as time marched on and things went along well, he couldn't quite bring himself to talk about his little chair problem. Nor had there been any need to. People here had a taboo about hovering over another person's shoulders, it wasn't common to be seated with your back to an aisle, and when you got right down to it, the risk of being tied to your chair was minimal at the very worst of times. He simply wasn't being tripped up as much as he would be in Wonderland, and the stuff that didn't quite go away was easily concealable or explainable. His nightmares, for example, tended towards the rigid silent type, rather than the screaming, flailing type. He doubted if Alice was even aware that he had as many as he did.
Not that he'd be able to hide them for much longer. He'd be lucky if screaming and flailing was all he did.
"Just so you know," Alice said suddenly. "Nana is perfectly fine, and Grandpa is busy telling my Mom how he figured out that you were actually a spy."
The way she said it implied that Hatter was under no obligation to reply. Taking that as an invitation, he said nothing.
"Mom, on the other hand, is slipping into psychiatrist mode without realizing it again," Alice continued, after a moment. That did warrant a reply, so Hatter groaned and looked up.
"I don't suppose we can just sneak out while they're all occupied?" he asked, only half-serious.
Which naturally was the half Alice heard. "If I leave Mom a note we can take the fire escape."
"Really?" Hatter asked straightening himself a bit.
"Really," Alice replied.
Hatter thought about it. "What are the chances we could grab my hat on the way out?"
He felt better with his hat on, and his jacket too. He felt even better when they made it from Alice's childhood bedroom window to the brightly lit main street. By the time they were back at the apartment, however, he was beginning to feel a bit nervous again. Alice hadn't asked, yet, but she would, and he wasn't entirely sure he was up for telling her. Actually, no, he was entirely sure he didn't want to tell her, and equally sure that he would have to, one way or another.
He should start, he supposed, at the beginning, but he liked talking about his formative years even less than he liked thinking about them, so scrapped that in favor of talking about what was liable to be the most immediate problem.
"I'm going to have nightmares tonight, most likely," Hatter said as Alice locked the door behind them. "Assuming I can calm down enough to fall asleep."
"Is that likely?" Alice asked.
"Not really," Hatter admitted. All things considered, he didn't even want to try to sleep tonight. Leave the dreams he was liable to have where they were, by all means, but he wasn't too keen on the idea of waking up to find he'd punched Alice instead of the cake. "I'm a little on edge tonight."
"Really? I hadn't noticed," Alice remarked, getting annoyed and plainly trying not to be. "What's got you so on edge anyway?"
Hatter grimaced, but didn't answer.
"I've already told you, nobody is going to take anything Grandpa says with anything less than a whole mountain of salt," Alice continued. "Yeah, he's pretty determined that you're not from Yorkshire. But he if he found signs of it, he'd probably also be saying that you're from the moon."
"Except he hasn't been calling me a moon-man, he's been calling me a spy, which is a hell of a lot more plausible," Hatter pointed out. "Mostly because it's fairly close to the sort of work I did in Wonderland."
"He didn't start with that until you freaked out," Alice argued. "So what was that?"
"Me freaking out," Hatter echoed, hunching a bit deeper into his jacket.
Alice made an impatient noise, but was cut off by the ringing of her cell phone.
"It's Mom," she said, walking into the kitchen where there was better reception.
"Tell her I'm sorry about the cake," Hatter called. He stood in what was nominally a front hall area, leaning against the couch, staring at the door. He had an exit. He could just leave. Or he could tell Alice he needed a walk to clear his head and then leave. He didn't even have to wait for her to finish reassuring her mother that she was with Hatter and she was fine and the two weren't mutually exclusive concepts. He could just call out, one quick sentence and then out the door before she could argue against it.
Oh, wait. No he couldn't. Alice had just hung up.
She tucked the phone back into her jacket pocket and turned back to him. "You looked terrified," she said. "You screamed. I've seen you face down all sorts of scary, horrible things, but I've never seen you look so afraid."
One look at her face, and he could tell that it scared her too.
"It's going to sound silly," he told her.
"So does Wonderland, when you first hear about it," she replied.
It really had been just cuts and bruises. He'd gotten them being wrestled to the ground off his horse, and while being dragged along to, then through, the Casino.
Everything else was all in his head. It was where Doctor Dee and Doctor Dum did their best work after all; in other people's heads.
His hat had dissolved when he went under the doctors' spell, along with his jacket and body armor. His sleeves had crept up his arms, and just when he went to stand up he found he was sitting down. He was tied to a chair, though where else he was he couldn't say. He couldn't even tell if he was spinning or the room was. When things more or less solidified he found himself in the center of a room of indeterminable size and shape, with no signs of door or windows or any exits at all, and yeah, he was still tied to a chair.
He looked around wildly for something he might have missed, tugging at the ropes on his wrist as he did so. Panic bloomed in his chest as they didn't give at all, not even the ones on his right arm.
"I think he wants to leave, brother mine," said one of the freaky twins from behind him.
"So soon? 'Tis such a shame," the other replied, also from behind.
"He'll have to move if he wants to go," the first one remarked.
"Perhaps we should give him some incentive," the other suggested.
They dug something into his back and that was all the warning he got before pain exploded in his chest. He screamed, the sound strangling itself as his chest tightened. Then whatever they had stuck him with was withdrawn, and he gasped in air, sagging against the chair. One of the two doctors moved around into his line of sight, and he saw what they were using: a cattle prod.
"You aren't moving," he said, grinning. He twirled the prod expertly, and held it against Hatter's ribs. Hatter screamed again, and when he stopped he could hear giggling in the background.
He'd been here before. He was The Man Who Knows, after all; people were always trying to get information out of him without paying. He didn't talk, though: when you needed people to tell you their secrets you couldn't get a reputation for talking to every assassin with a knife and a bad attitude. People tried it less, since he'd gotten the Tea Shop, and they were even less successful in getting to the point where they could ask him questions, but he remembered how it went. Don't try to respond to anything they say. Keep as focused and alert as you can. Wait for them to screw up, then make your escape.
It became almost a game, really. He'd try to keep from screaming again, and if they'd manage to get three screams in a row out of him anyway, then they could have some nonsense as well. And so it went, for a longer amount of time than he could keep track of.
Then they screwed up. They left him alone with March, and a very short while later he found himself standing over the assassin's body, fully clothed and in a lot less pain than he'd been in a moment ago. It was disorienting. It was still disorienting; it had hurt so much, and yet there was nothing to show for it. Not so much as a single scar.
He ended up giving Alice the short version while making himself some tea: boy learns how to get people to confide in him, boy learns to sell their secrets, boy gets in over his head, boy has a sense of fucking professionalism and doesn't tell the pricks valuable information for free, boy escapes, boy continues to collect secrets, is still occasionally accosted by people with a deficient sense of business acumen, but also grows up, gains a mean right hook and the apparent backing of the government, and thus the ability to explain to said pricks where to shove it without consequence, yet still gets all twitchy at the merest hint of the possibility that he might be tied to a chair.
"Like I said," he finished, settling himself on the couch next to Alice. "It sounds silly."
"No it doesn't," Alice protested, looking horrified.
"Chairs, Alice," Hatter reminded her. "I just had a panic attack from sitting in the wrong type of chair."
"It sounds like it might be a bit more complicated than that," Alice protested.
"Yeah, okay, it was the chair and the family-related stress and your mother sort of being behind me when your grandfather grabbed my wrist," Hatter admitted, rolling his eyes. "That doesn't change the fact that I still sometimes get twitchy because of chairs."
Alice shook her head, looking a bit lost. "Have you been getting twitchy because of chairs? Recently?"
"A bit?" Hatter replied. Alice's face fell. "It's mostly to do with the fact that I'm in unfamiliar territory surrounded by unfamiliar people. I'm fine in places I know. Mostly. Depends on the place and the company, really."
"So it didn't really come up in Wonderland," Alice stated.
"Yeah it did," Hatter protested. "It came up when I was negotiating on a delicate deal and the other guy had people pacing around the table, or whenever anyone got a bit too pushy about the information I was feeding them, or they ignored my warnings about the grass to try and loom over me in my seat."
So he'd gotten up and paced in step with the Bellman's cronies, reminded Dodo that he wasn't being paid nearly enough for what the old bird had wanted from him before cutting out, and acquired a throne-like swivel chair in addition to his quirk about other people not being allowed on the grass under his desk. But he couldn't do that here, exactly; it was all well and good for him to act strange and a bit mad in Wonderland (it was Wonderland, and after all he was strange and a bit mad) but that was hardly the impression he wanted to give Alice's family. He wanted to be someone they'd accept, as opposed to someone to pay.
"It's actually come up a lot less here," Hatter continued. "Your lot generally gives out a lot less threatening vibes. And I haven't been shot at once since moving here, which has done wonders for my mental health, I'm sure."
Alice's mouth tugged up at the corner briefly. "So, when you get twitchy…"
"It's not like I'm about to run screaming, or anything," Hatter explained badly. "It's just twitchiness. I don't generally panic unless I feel like I don't have an exit and the situation's leaning towards unpleasant."
So he kept an eye on his exits. Understanding that there were two or three doors within easy sprinting distance and that the windows slid open was enough to stop him from overreacting.
Alice nodded slowly, absorbing. "Will you tell me?"
Hatter frowned. "Tell you what?"
"Tell me if you start feeling twitchy, or trapped," Alice elaborated. "I can run interference, give you time to collect yourself."
"Alice," Hatter protested. "You don't have to-"
"Would it help?"
"I've dealt with this for years on my own-"
"And now you don't have to," Alice said firmly.
"It's not that big a deal, really!"
"Then you'll have no problem letting me know!"
He swiped his hat off his head and ran a hand through his hair. She didn't get it: he didn't want her help with this, he didn't want it to become a part of their lives, he wanted to shove it in a box and pretend it had never existed, let alone had been apparent to anyone else.
"Hatter, you're afraid to go to sleep!" Alice protested.
"I never said that!"
Alice cocked an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. Hatter jammed his hat back on his head, searching for the words that would convince her to let him carry on as usual.
"I don't like- if I don't think- this isn't something you should have to deal with," he said finally. If nothing else, he was entirely sure of that last one.
"It's not something you should have to deal with either," Alice argued. "But you do. And I'm here, so I will too."
"You don't have to," Hatter protested.
"Yes I do," Alice replied. "I want to."
"No, you don't," Hatter told her. She laughed bitterly. "You have no idea what this is. You don't want to be involved."
"I am involved!"
"Hatter, I'm- I'm your girlfriend," Alice pressed, only tripping very slightly over the possessive term. "You can talk to me. And I should notice when you're getting anxious before you panic and destroy the dessert with Nana's face."
"No you shouldn't. I cover it up especially so people don't notice."
Alice sighed, her frustration mounting. "This whole conversation is going in circles."
"So why don't we call it a day and lay it to rest?"
"What are you planning on doing?"
Hatter frowned at the question. "Nothing."
"So, you're just going to, what? Repress until things explode again like they did tonight?" Alice asked.
"It was hardly an explosion, and yeah. I don't like- I don't even like acknowledging this exists. It's- it's not- I feel-"
If there were words to articulate this, he'd never found them before and they weren't coming now. He needed something smooth, something convincing, and all he could come up with was some useless spluttering. Alice walked over to him, carefully, like she was afraid he might bolt.
"Hatter," Alice said, grasping his hands in her own. "I know you wouldn't leave me alone with something that scared me."
"Of course not," Hatter interrupted.
"Then let me help you." Alice squeezed his hands, then let them go, but didn't move away. "Please?"
Hatter took a deep breath, and answered.