Hello, dear readers. This is my first ever attempt at writing fanfiction, so any and all advice/critcism/chocolate will be welcomed with open arms. :) If there is enough interest, this is slated to be a long multi-chapter fic, since I adore this pairing. Thoughts?
Hatter did not like Suits. Not one little bit. Especially not when they forced him to use an alternate route on his deliveries. For chaps with such zealous commitment, they had horrible timing. Did they really expect to catch tea runners in the middle of the day? Idiots. But idiots or not, it was because of them that he was taking the long way downcity from the top of the block where his tea shop sat, hundreds of feet above the lake.
Ropes creaked as he cranked the rusty shaft of the old pulley elevator. It wasn't very well known, hidden as it was in the middle of the catacomb hallways of an abandoned hospital. The shaft plummeted down, all the way to the canal levels. It was a long ride, though, and he planned on getting off as soon as he was low enough to be clear of the Suits. The damp air tickled his throat, and he coughed violently, throwing a few curses at the patrols for the sake of the thing. No alternative, though. He had to get down there, and he couldn't afford to get caught with this freight on him. He used his free hand to finger the bottles stuffed in his coat and hat, counting them and checking their lids to pass the time.
His tea shop was reputable, of course, selling only those beverages sanctioned by the House of Cards, paying all the necessary taxes, and so forth. But that was just a small piece of the business. Most of his trading went on in the back rooms of the shop, with those who knew how to ask and what to ask for. He sold contraband teas – those taken from oysters kept by private owners or tea rings. It was illegal to drain an oyster for any purpose. Only teas from the palace were sanctioned. But that made very little difference, as the Suits were notoriously incompetent, and as long as the Cards weren't losing too much money they were willing to look the other way. It was still a dangerous business, though, especially if you let people trample all over you. Hatter never let anybody get away with that.
Which was why he was headed downcity now. He had a few deliveries to make, and then planned on paying a certain tightfisted weasel of a client a visit. Hatter had a reputation and a sledgehammer hand, both remnants from his days in the Queen's employ. That was behind him now, of course, but the talents he had acquired still served him well.
He stopped cranking the pulley at the next doorway, wrapped the rope around the enormous hook next to the door, and hopped off the elevator. The building was dark, but it was a piece of cake to find an exit, since elevators were always near one. He found a door, and stepped out onto the narrow ledge. He was still a respectable distance above the lake, and the city's enormous buildings towered around him. It was very calm. It always was. Thousands of Wonderlanders lived here, and many of them were out and about during the day. But sound did not carry here, and their comings and goings were muted and gray.
He climbed down the nearest fire escape to a canal. It was suspended in the space between the two buildings, like a giant water pipe had been sawn in half. It sloped slowly and ponderously down to the ground level canals. The streets were grimy and littered with broken glass, the buildings rusted. The air was humid, and, at this time of day, far too hot. The canals saw the worst of the weather coming off of the lake. They were always too hot, too windy, or too bloody cold. A bit of a lousy district, really. Hatter conducted a lot of his business down here, but he had his shop up top for a reason. He checked the area for suits, stepped carefully onto the narrow steel walkway that fringed the upper canals, and walked along it with ease. Time to find his boat and make deliveries.
Two hours later, he was at a pawn shop in the center of the city. It was dark and musty along this stretch of the water. It didn't see a lot of traffic, or sunlight, and the canal was clouded with muck. And the smell. Hatter did not care for the smell at all.
The shop itself was brightly lit – not cheerfully or tastefully, but definitely brightly. Hatter stood in the open doorway, and the shop stretched below him down a short flight of stairs. It was circular, and a long counter ran along the wall, with goods displayed on shelves behind in. There were a few racks in the middle of the room with dried food goods and old rusted cans of ointment. Trickles of humidity clung to the ceiling, and the steel floor looked ready to cave in. The whole place was decrepit, an old relic in an old, poor neighborhood. But Hatter knew that the owner, Ricky, was anything but poor. He was ugly as sin, and not very bright, but definitely not poor.
Hatter knew this because Ricky could afford to buy some of his best teas and resell them at a steep price. Hatter didn't mind doing the supplying, of course, but he took pretty serious issue when his customers failed to pay up. And right now he had serious issues with Ricky. He sauntered up to the counter and clanged on the bell. There was a sound of falling boxes and something that sounded vaguely like a curse from the back room. Hatter grinned.
A few seconds later, a slender girl in a blue dress stepped out to the counter. "You need something?" Her voice was low and a little tired, with the accent of an other-sider. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face, which was delicate and a little angular. And her eyes a very bright blue. Hatter double-checked. Definitely blue. And hollow. This one had a broken heart in there somewhere.
He twirled his hat off his head casually. "Yeh. Is Ricky around?"
She shook her head abruptly. "No. He's been gone all day."
Hatter followed her quick glance at a side door. "You sure?"
He shrugged and put his hat back on. "All right, then. Just let me at the cash box and I'll be on me way."
She glared at him, and he could see that she was frightened. "Is this a robbery?"
"Nope. He owes me."
She hesitated, then nodded towards the side door. "He's in there." No sooner had she said this, than the door creaked open and Ricky stepped out. He was lanky and bony, with long hair and a nose that was far too long for one individual. Hatter regarded him with indifference, and just a hint of disdain, and noted with satisfaction that Ricky had been expecting him.
"Hatter!" He said with blatantly forced enthusiasm. "Is something wrong?" He shot a sharp look at the girl.
Hatter also looked at the girl. "Does she know about our business, Ricky?"
The other man shrugged. "She'll keep quiet."
"Right. I believe you owe me about two-thousand."
Ricky's nose twitched. "Fifteen."
"Nope, two-thousand." Weasel. Hatter rested his right arm on the counter pointedly. Ricky glanced towards it, sighed, and walked with deliberate slowness into the back room. He re-emerged with a handful of bills and counted them out on the counter for Hatter to see. The girl stood quietly, arms folded across her chest, observing them. Hatter pocketed the money and looked at her again. "Is she an oyster, Ricky?"
Ricky curled his lip. "Uh-huh. But that's not what she's 'ere for."
"For what, then?"
"Tends the counter and cleans things up. Some bloke brought 'er in a few months ago. Never bought 'er back."
"How much?" The words were out before Hatter realized it. Prompted by pity, he supposed. He hated to leave her in this place when she looked so scared.
Ricky's eyebrow lifted in surprise, but he answered without hesitation, "Five hundred."
"Five hundred? Don't flamingo me, Ricky."
"She can keep the books better'n most. Clean. Cook. The works." Ricky's nose twitched again. "And she's a reader."
"She's an oyster. They all can read."
"That's not what I meant. She can read 'er teas. Knows how much, which ones. Has an instinct for it."
"Is she stuck on any of them?"Hatter asked, stealing a quick glance at her. She was watching them still, clear-eyed and alert.
Stuck, of course, meant addicted. It didn't happen nearly as much to oysters as it did to Wonderlanders, but when it did...well, it was more or less permanent. Once they reached a certain point, they were expensive to keep and useless. Like lamed horses. Many owners threatened to kill their oysters if they became addicted, and some actually did, knowing that there would be no repercussions. This was something Hatter did not like about the oyster tea business.
"Does she look stuck to you?" Ricky grabbed the girl's arm and pulled back her sleeve, revealing green tattoos across her forearm and bicep. Then he pulled a paper card with identical markings from his vest pocket and handed it to Hatter. "She's a six, so she won't be gettin' stuck either, as long as you don't let 'er at anything."
"What's her name?"
"Alice Hamilton." The girl answered before Ricky had the chance to.
Hatter nodded and rubbed the back of his neck, regarding her one final time. She didn't look like a talker, but then, they never did. He needed help in the shop, and maybe somebody to chat with. Her eyes really were very blue. Very very blue. Hatter wondered how old she was. Had she grown up here? Sometimes entire families of oysters were brought through the Looking Glass at once, and the children spent their years with only vague memories of their former lives. It was easier that way. Children didn't have to be drugged into submission the way the adults did. They were usually more expensive, but you could keep them for years, no problem. And this girl…this Alice…well, she wasn't far past childhood. Hatter could tell. Another thing to dislike about the business.
He looked away from her, focusing instead on the wrinkle lines on Ricky's forehead. "All right Ricky. I'll take her for three hundred. No more, got it?"
He was expecting a bit of a fight. This was Ricky, after all. But to his surprise, Ricky shoved her towards him. "All yours."
Hatter gave him a quick nod. "Thanks, mate."
Hatter was not the chatting type. Sure, he liked a nice conversation as much as the next person, but the underbelly of the city was not the place to find it. He produced the three hundred, and then offered his arm to the girl to assist her outside and into the motorboat. The engine spluttered to life, and in seconds the pawn shop and the filthy docks were out of sight.
Hatter watched her face unabashedly as they navigated the city's maze of waterways. She was staring blankly ahead, and didn't even look at him. He was beginning to write off the prospect of having somebody to play Shribble and cards with in the evenings. But she knew her teas, and that was the important bit, now wasn't it? She had that edge to her that oysters tended to get, when Wonderland hit them a little too hard. It was like a callous around those busy little minds of theirs, keeping all the pearls of emotion locked inside. Unless, of course, their masters put them on a machine. Then it didn't matter how much callous they had. Hatter was liking the oyster trade less and less by the minute.
He was also liking the silence less and less. It was stretching out a bit uncomfortably for his tastes. He coughed a little. She glanced up, then looked away, uninterested. Great. Ricky had probably drained her too much, leaving her completely apathetic. At least the chaps at the shop would be none the wiser. They were too stuck on their tea to care. He ventured to break the silence.
"So. Ricky. Did he treat you all right?"
She shrugged without raising her eyes.
"Look, no offense, but I got nothing from that. Zilch. Nill."
She swallowed deliberately. "Yeah, he was all right."
Hatter tried a smile. "You can talk, then. You had me worried."
"For talking, or sorry for worrying me?"
Another shrug. She wasn't taking the bait.
"All right, then…how old are you?"
And yet another shrug. "I don't know. Twenty, maybe. I've lost track."
Hatter was not surprised. He mirrored her shrug and plastered a grin on his face. "Myself, I'm a hundred and nine. Old as they come."
"Old as they come? You're still a baby." She allowed just a hint of a smile to slip, and Hatter's grin turned genuine.
"I wouldn't say baby. I'm in me prime." He winked at her. When she clammed up and didn't respond, he mentally added, Brilliant.