Author's Notes: Chapter 1 of a 4 part series. I'm just going to put this out there – I like my men bloody and slightly to moderately beaten. Very tasty. But more importantly, it makes for an interesting after story. I find it hard to believe that given what the Doctors put Hatter through, he was fine to get up and walk around. Mentally and physically, I think somewhere along the way something had to give.
Chapter 1 - Lions in the Library
"Patience brother. We mustn't kill him just yet." He tsks; a vile whistling sound between his teeth. He bends down, so close to Hatter's ear that he pulls away. "So much to see in this gallery of yours."
Hatter raises his head, teeth clenched and stares at the man next to him.
"It seems brother," He pauses as he wraps a cold hand around the back of Hatters neck, "that he himself is falling down the rabbit hole. Best help him along."
And just like that, there's a combination of pain so bright that he does lose it, blacks out for endless minutes, hiding in the crevices in his head, standing outside of his limp body, staring with the blood draining from his ears, the swelling on his face. And although he can't see it, he feels the blisters forming under his torn shirt.
A bloody mess you've gotten yourself into, yeah?
Even speaking to himself, the sarcasm drips from every word. He nods his head in agreement; there isn't much else to do when you're talking to yourself outside of yourself in the middle of a torture session. Nothing else much to do.
Now don't take this the wrong way, but it seems to me this wasn't your best plan. He nods to that too. He knows this.
I'm sure you've got some fancy plan to get of this, yeah? Something so dastardly that not even you know what it is? Because I can't say that this is looking to fall in your favor. And if you do have such a brilliant plan, now would be the time to enact it, don't you think? Would be a shame to go completely mad before you've even accomplished the very thing you've come to do. And then you'd leave that damned prince to rescue the lady Alice and then where would that leave you? Being tortured for nothing, that's where.
My Gods did he talk too much. The rambling continued, more annoying than Charlie's repetition of "Hey Nonny" and Hatter really hopes that he isn't like this in real life, not such a prick.
"Shove it, would you?" He blurts it out, real and true and vocal and he cracks open his eyes and wishes he hadn't when he sees the Doctor's smiling at him, their yellowing teeth hidden in the stretch of their mottled gray lips.
"Strong words for a broken boy, aren't they Doctor?"
"Indeed, Doctor. Indeed they are. Mustn't be right in the head, this one. Perhaps we can find the solution..."
It seems hours later that Mad March appears, putting an end to his meeting with the Doctors, one way or another. Hatter is mumbling to himself, watching the riddles float behind his eyes. A raven perches on March's mile high shoulder and he wants to warn it, let the poor bird know that he's sitting on poison, but March doesn't seem to notice and Hatter doesn't bring it to his attention. Hatter has more important things to do like trying to catalogue all the things running free in his head, because he has only a few moments before they're free forever. Free to drive him mad, free to confuse even him and he'll not have it, not go crazy because of those two dimwits, not when he's got so much to lose.
They're ciphers, keys to locks. Warnings and code words to let him know that there's someone or something in there, in his head, that's messing where it ought not be.
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
Probably something to do with how useless they both were in situations like these. Hatter strains for it, is tempted to whistle, but can't without drawing March's attention. The bird is perched stoically on the hare's shoulder, apparently unaware of the worst resting spot he could have possibly chosen. He stares at it hard, reprimands it silently for being so stubborn and the bird bows its head in sorrow. He doesn't like it, doesn't like the defeat in that one gesture.
Come on now, he thinks to it. The bird, its dark eyes staring back at him, squawks. It flaps its wings impatiently and nods its tiny head. I'll get us both out of here if you'll let me. The raven stays for a moment more, trying to determine if it really is safe to be in there, to give him back that control. Hatter eyes never leave his and the bird nods once more, flying forward to land in his lap.
One, he counts.
The clock's not ticking properly.
And why would it, he thinks, if debris rests inside its framework. Why would it, if the cogs were stuck, jammed with nonsense and fear? Why would it, if time is the only thing keeping him sane?
"Past your bedtime, isn't?" He hears someone whisper. "Or is it time for breakfast?" Another voice chimes in.
He knows them. He remembers the rasp of their worn voices and the ever present tinkle of laughter in that sound.
"I think," he whispers back, "that it's high time to get out of here, don't you?"
"Here you say? Out of where? Just on the other side of your eyelids, we are. How do you suppose we leave? And with us, bound so tightly."
He sees them then, bound to an iron pillar, hands tied firmly at their waists. Men, much older than anyone he knew in Wonderland, with spectacles sitting on the bridge of their noses. White hair cropped close to their head and wild mustaches flowing past their shoulders. Their skin was thin but fresh, rosy in the cheeks and nothing like the grey pallor of the Doctors'. One wore a blue plaid shirt, one wore red, both wore tan slacks with brown suspenders, both wore brown leather shoes.
Hatter looks at them carefully and crosses his arms across his chest.
"Much trouble you've gotten yourself into." He nods at the ropes wrapped around them.
"I'm afraid, my boy, that it is you who are in far much more trouble than we."
"Yes, well," he begins as he walks towards them. "It's what I'm known for." He tugs at the knots with his right hand but they hold fast.
"Of course." The one in the blue says.
"Of course." The one in the red agrees. "You are, after all, a Hatter."
"Yes, yes. Bloody well that does me now." Hatter tugs again and the knot budges just a little. "When we get out of here," he mumbles this to himself, though the men stare at him intently. "I intend to take one of those self defense classes Alice was telling me about. What good is it, to get captured by a bunch of goons? I'll learn that flip move she's always doing. Toss them right over my head as I go. I've no love for this capture and torture business." The men smile slowly.
"Good to see your determination's still there boy." The red one begins.
"Thought we were losing you for just a moment. Shame to lose another Hatter, you know." The blue one pulls against his restraints and they fall away easily. The red one follows suit.
"No, no. No good there. Besides," The red one stretches leisurely. "You're much too stubborn to fall for these old tricks, aren't you my boy?"
Hatter openly glares at them, though he feels just a bit foolish chastising the Hands of Time.
"Brilliant. I'm busy wasting my time with you two while some maniac is trying to kill me and my brain's gone off the track. Bloody brilliant."
"Almost there, Hatter, my boy." They both rest a warm hand on his back. "Almost there." And just like that, they're gone.
In the distance, he can hear the rhythmic tick of a clock.
Two, he counts.
There may be crumbs in the butter
This was the last one, the last safety before he fell forever into the void. One last stretch to prove that he was still Hatter, that they hadn't contaminated him. One last chance to prove that he was him, in him. That he knew himself as he was and not how they made him. One chance to prove that he was him and not the ones before him.
He sees the fluffy white tail disappear around the corner and Hatter curses profusely as he takes off after it. He hates this damned rabbit. Hated it the first time he met him, oh so many years ago when the traps and the locks and the riddles had first been set. Hated the damned thing with a passion beyond belief. Because this one creature, this one riddle, was the one that could destroy him. Hatter made no mistake, while the Raven and the Hands of Time were stubborn but friendly creatures, the rabbit, the damned white rabbit, was a sinister little thing with love for no master in his heart. Hatter pauses when he feels the tug of words on his eardrums.
Mad March interrupts him, something about the Great Library and Hatter looks at him angrily. Clenches his jaw and wishes he would just shut the hell up and let him think. It doesn't matter what he asks; Hatter has no intention of answering either way.
Just one more, just that one damned rabbit and he'd be fine. If he could just catch him, keep him, put him away in his gilded cage, Hatter should be fine. Should be, being the operative word. He, of course, wasn't sure what they'd let loose in there, what magics were still slithering around in his brain, that would continue to do so until all danger had passed and they could go back to sleep, waiting for the next inevitable threat.
Hatter tries to steady his breathing as he retreats back behind his eyes, leaving one ear open in the space between time. He could be quick - he could be the quickest thing on two legs if it meant it could get him out of here, if it meant that his job as protector of the libraries was assured. If it meant that he could get to Alice and get out of this horrible place.
He's running so fast and so hard that he trips headlong over something. Sprawled out on his back, Hatter coughs, the wind knocked out of him. He props himself on his elbows to see what in Gods name could have been there.
The rabbit stares at him, twitches his pink nose and blinks its deep brown eyes and just stares at him.
Huffily, he rights himself, stands tall over the mere 2 feet of creature in front of him. And Hatter stares back.
"That easy, then?" He takes a step forward and the little furry nightmare takes a hop back. Hatter sighs. "Never that easy."
"Do you know," A little squeaky voice begins, "why it is I torment you so?"
"You can talk? Of course you can talk. Of course." It looks at him expectantly.
"No. No, I don't. I really, really don't. Would you care to enlighten me? Not like I've much to do but save a few thousand people."
"Or just one." Hatter clears his throat and tugs at his tattered shirt.
"Well, I need to save my own life first. Nothing selfish in that." The rabbit, with his deep blank eyes and fuzzy face and floppy ears, seems to be smirking at him. Head titled to the side and lips, if that was what they could be called, drawn up at the corners.
"Ah. Well," The young man stutters. "Alice of course. Though she doesn't need much saving. I'm sure she can take care of herself. In fact, I've seen her take down men twice her size More of just the back up, I am." He rolls his shoulders to stand up straighter. Truth is, he isn't sure she's safe at all. When he'd rescued her before, from that room where she held on for dear life, his heart all but dropped. She was strong, that much was certain, but her, an Oyster from a world where things were was no match for the world of Wonderland, where things could be. "She'll be fine, I'm sure."
"When we first met, you were but a scared child. And so very angry, Hatter. Oh, you had a smile to melt even the iciest of hearts, and the charm to steal the sun itself from the sky, but your heart? Black as the deepest pits of Wonderland. You hated your father and loved him so. Afraid of what he had given you, what you would become should you fail. Should you follow his path. When you first met me, dear Hatter, it was not me who harbored no love for my master, but you. After all, we are but a reflection of you."
Hatter scratched nervously at the back of his head. "This is all very...revealing, really, fascinating, but I haven't got much time for exposition. Maybe later?"
"What is time, really? Two sly old men in silly outfits? Or perhaps a faint ticking in the back of your head?"
Frustrated, he glares at the rabbit. "Again with the riddles? I'm..."
"Who are you?"
"I'm me! Gods you're infuriating." His voice raises an octave and his nerves are trying to steal the confidence he'd felt just moments before.
"Who is me?"
"Me. I'm me. Me is a person. A rather striking young man named Hatter. Is that what you're asking?"
"Who is Hatter?" And this time, the voice sounds weaker, as if it's floating away and blind panic wells up in the pit of his stomach. He takes a step forward and tries to think. Tries to figure out what he wants him to say.
"Owner of the Tea Shoppe. Son of the Hatter, son of the Hatter before him. Guardian of the Phantom Library and the Great Library. Am I missing something?" A small twitch of the nose says he is. Missing something intricate to him escaping this place, this palace, this life he's fallen under. "I am my father's son. A trickster. A conman by some standards. Honest, I am, though. Never a liar among the Hatters. Not something we pride ourselves on, lying, I mean and that's something to be proud of at least." His eyes grow cloudy at the last statement, thinking back on the madness that consumed his father. What else was there to be proud of? What else was there to hold on to when that was what awaited him?
"Are you? Honest?"
He looks up quickly, doesn't hesitate when he answers. "Yes."
"To whom?" And the implication is clear. The bastard was sitting here and accusing him of being a liar, and that did not sit well at all. He feels his anger rising. He clenches his right hand.
"Go on, then! Ask me a question. Ask me anything."
"Haven't I? And you don't seem to know the answers." The voice fades a little more, barely above a whisper now and the hare in front of him begins to shimmer. Hatter feels the darkness crowding his vision. He hears Mad March say something, a riddle of some kind but nothing nearly as complicated as this infuriating creature in front of him. He hears the electronic voice clear now.
"Twinkle twinkle, little bat, I wonder what you're at." He feels the malice and flinches when March raises his hand.
What was the damn question?
"Time! Time is...minutes, days, hours. Ticking! Clocks! The noise in my bloody head at night, counting down, trying to drive me insane. Time is an enemy when you've got things to do. People to see! And me, why, I'm just a man, aren't I?" He spits it out, remembering the way Jack looked down on him, remembering the choice Alice made. "Not a prince, nor a Knight. No one special. Nothing special but a walking library with an enchanted hand. Nothing but a bomb waiting to go off, madness in a box, my Dad used to say." The smile he offers is self deprecating and nothing like the charming ones he's been giving out left and right the last few days. He shakes his head, thinking to his fight with Alice when he tried to trade her to Dodo. The guilt he felt when he realized what he'd done and how angry it made her. "And I'm bloody honest! You'll say what you will, but lies aren't my thing."
"Why are you here?"
"If the Queen get's the ring, she'll destroy Wonderland!" He knows he's shouting - it echoes through the caverns and rooms and crevices in his head but he doesn't care.
"Then why are you here?" The inflection makes him pause. Not why was he in the palace. Not why was he in his head. No. Far simpler. Why was here, in this chair, in this room, in this time. And the answer is as clear as day.
"To save Alice." He can't see it, but Hatter can hear the rabbit smile.
"Then what is time? What is time really?" And Hatter takes a deep, deep breath. Time is enough. Enough to fall in love. Time was enough to tie his black heart to that of a silly Oyster girl and drag him head first into a gaggle of Suits. Time was the only thing to fight for. Because if he failed, died right here, there would be no time to save her, no time to think about all the foolish things he's done on her behalf. No time to apologize, or to punch that bastard of a prince in his smug face. No time to help Alice find her father or get her home. No time to rewrite who he is and who he's made to be and who he wants to be.
"And I am a stupid, stupid man." He doesn't need the rabbit's coercion. He answers the question on his own. "I'm the fool who fell in love with an Oyster girl in a very wet dress." He whispers it to himself, but the voice is back, giggling slyly in front of him and the darkness is fading and here he is standing in front of this furry creature.
"Well done! Well done indeed! You mustn't linger here much longer. People to save and such. I must tell you," and the rabbit is already hopping away from him, a slight chuckle in his voice, "I do like this Hatter fellow. Honest man, he is." He can hear the squawk of the raven and the rumbling laughter of The Hands of Time.
He doesn't worry about where they're going; he feels the locks clicking, feels his brain settling down and falling back into its natural place.
Then he's back, relief drifting into his stomach, blanketing him in warmth even as his body is covered in cold sweat and sticky blood.
The relief, however, is short lived.
He watches as Mad March pulls a blade from his sleeve. Hatter isn't scared, just angry. So very ,very angry that after all he's accomplished, someone was still trying to take it away from him. It's in this moment, when the Queen's assassin lunges at him, that Hatter makes up his mind. He won't fail this time.
This time, he'd be the one to rescue Alice.