I can only hope you all forgive me for the long update delay. This fic somehow got lost in the shuffle and I'm only now just coming back to it. The next chapter shouldn't take nearly as long so until next time, I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 2 – The Loss of a Tea Cozy
If anyone were to ask what it was like to be tortured – not that anyone would since it was astoundingly rude to just ask something like that– Hatter would have explained it like this: being tortured was a bit like losing your favorite tea cozy, your best pair of shoes, and the newest addition to your hat collection all on the same day. It was distracting and distressing; unsettling in all the ways that losing something ever was or could be, only this time with the added downside of being as physically distressing as it was emotionally draining. Which it was, no matter how much you tried to prepare yourself or how hard you tried to believe you were "ready" for it.
Hatter liked to think that he was 'ready', mostly due to his old association with his not quite friend but sometimes partner, March. The man had been a dab hand at torture, even before he'd gone Mad, and had done his best to try and teach Hatter all the ways of distancing himself from the horror and the pain that being tormented caused. It hadn't always worked – how could it when Hatter's were such emotional creatures to begin with? – but at least he had learned a few things. Like how to be patient and silly and satisfyingly silent. Which was the whole point, really.
'Why is a raven like a writing desk?' March had used to ask before slapping Hatter across the face hard enough to make him see stars. It had hurt at first and the sting of it had always brought tears to his eyes, bright shining tears that had leaked from the corners, because every time his not-friend had slapped him, he had also slapped the hat from Hatter's head. It had been enough to make him feel tiny, vulnerable, and stripped naked by a set of long fingers and a Cheshire cat's grin.
'My dear friend,' March would say then, low and too soothing, before commencing in earnest the terrible torture with only a short break for tea time because, back then, what was most important to Hatter was most important to March. That was before he went mad, though. After the madness, any torture to be had went straight on through tea and ruined a few of his very best hats. Reasonably enough, Hatter had ended the not-friendship not long after that and March had fallen with ill grace into the clutches of the Queen, who was very likely the reason March had gone mad in the first place.
"The clockworks not ticking properly," Hatter uttered through gritted teeth, fingers clutching the arms of the chair the twins had strapped him to just before the torture had begun. One of them prodded at his side with an electrode, sending fits of biting pain through him and making his heart jump in his chest, skipping a beat. Not that he was worried about it. He was a Hatter, after all, and they were frightfully long-lived. Even the tortured ones. "It's off by a tick. Just a tick. Just a tick, tick, tick-tock goes the clock."
A teapot sized fist slammed against the side of his face, splitting his lip and not-quite unhinging his jaw. It made him jerk in his chair, blood welling from the cut and gliding down his chin. The taste of it slid into his mouth like salt and butter. "Tick-tock. Tick-tock."
"Oh, that was a good one," Dr. Dee – or was it Dum? – exclaimed happily. "Nearly perfect."
"Never nearly," said the other, examining his brother's work with an air of loose appraisal. "Just merely almost. Better to improve from almost merely to nearly almost. Maybe next time."
"Crumbs in the butter," Hatter garbled, staring forward absently. Green drops and purple swirls dripped upwards in the space around him. "One little, two little, three little crumbs. Not nearly enough for company."
"Next time, maybe," Dr. Dum – or was it Dee? – nodded before backhanding Hatter across the face. "Time for tea."
"Twinkle, twinkle," Hatter intoned solemnly before pressing his lips together, blood trickling down his neck and soiling the collar of his shirt. It was another non-favorite of his – red paisley with deep purple accents – but still unique and interesting. One could have even said distinctive, if it wasn't for the fact that this was how he always tended to dress. Licking his busted lip, the taste of blood and torn flesh aching inside his mouth, he closed his eyes.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat," he continued, concentrating on an old, old poem his mother had recited to him any time he'd been tired or unhappy; stretched thin from too much of one thing and not enough of another. It had soothed him then, just as it soothed him now, blurring out the edges of the pain until they were just half-remembered aches. "How I wonder what you're at, up above the world so high, like a tea tray in the sky."
There was another vicious prod into his side – a fiery shock of pain, pain, pain zapping through his nerves – and then the feel of fingers, too large to be careful, grasping his chin and forcing his mouth open. Bitter liquid, the flavor of cold tea in a metal bowl, slithered over his taste buds and down his throat, burning and biting all the way down until it roiled in his stomach like a tea kettle gone mad. Oyster-anguish tore through him, familiar but not quite right, choking him far better than any hand at his throat ever could.
"Tea for time," one of the twins chortled, close enough by his side that warm breath, pungent as rotted tea leaves, fanned over his battered face. Shuddering faintly, Hatter opened his eyes, the green and purple swirls dripping up past Dee's – or was it Dum's? – shoulder. The man – twin – thing in front of him smiled at him slowly, teeth so white they gleamed in the semi-darkness, before slamming a fist into his stomach hard enough to make him gag, his chair rocking beneath him.
For a moment, he teetered on the chair's back two legs, wobbly suspended in a strange tableau with the Tweedles, the Queen's favorite interrogators, before his mind seemed to catch-up and his body fell backwards – upwards? Downwards? Sideways? – and he landed in an unceremonious heap in the middle of one of the Casino's waiting room floors, chair and restraints gone. Groaning, Hatter laid there for a moment or two, disoriented and bloodied, hollowed out by grief that wasn't his, before pushing himself up onto hands and knees. It was painful to do, almost mind numbingly so, but he forced his way through it just as March had taught him to do all those years ago.
Pushing himself back onto his knees, he looked around slowly, mind still tripping and fizzing over itself. The waiting room around him looked like any other waiting room in Wonderland: plain and decorated in glorification of the Queen. Blinking watery eyes, he stared up at a long-suffering Four of Spades who stood only a few feet away, the man's expression painfully purposefully blank.
Frowning, Hatter pushed himself all the way to his feet, a rush of vertigo and nausea nearly sending him straight back down again. By the cards, he felt like he was going to lose his crumpets all over the place. Best not to, though; he didn't think he could handle another session with the twins just yet.
Swallowing thickly, the stale slippery taste of fake emotion still heavy on his tongue, he steadied himself against a nearby wall, eyes trained on the Four of Spades. The man looked – familiar, somehow. Not in a way Hatter could easily define – he saw many faces in the tea shop, some far more handsome than this one – but still, he knew that face, had seen it somewhere before.
Forcing himself to let go of the wall, he watched wearily as the Four of Spades moved closer, hands outstretched and offering him back his hat and jacket. Both were a bit crumpled, his jacket especially wrinkled, but he accepted them both gratefully, fingers smoothing over their familiar edges. He'd been half resigned to the hench-suits of the Queen uncaringly throwing them out on him but it looked like this card had saved them for him.
Nodding his thanks, he once again eyed the Spade in front of him. The man seemed all the more familiar to him up close, his auburn hair shining in the dull lights in the waiting room. Something about his face, maybe, or his eyes. They almost reminded him of – but no, that was impossible. Entirely improbable.
"I'm afraid the Queen is too busy to see you today, sir." The Four said eventually, his tone even. His eyes flicked over Hatter critically, a muscle in his jaw seeming to tighten when they landed on the blood. "Thank you for visiting the Hearts Casino. The exit is that way. Have a good day."
Shrugging on his jacket much more carefully than he normally would, Hatter watched as the Four retreated silently out the room and back to wherever good little cards made their deck. Sighing, he shook his head. He couldn't say he was entirely surprised by the Queen. Audiences with her rarely ever actually ended in audiences with her. It just wasn't the way of things in Wonderland.
Slipping his hat back onto his head, Hatter grimaced, carefully wiping a hand across his mouth. Blood stained his fingers, ruby red like the Queen's favorite roses. He snorted softly, hand falling back to his side and curling into a loose fist, battered eyes flicking almost absently to the door the Spade had disappeared into.
He hadn't even gotten to ask for a spot of tea.
What a waste of Time.