Wonderland's clothing shops were a bit like the soup you would get from a dodgy restaurant in the lower canal district: stuffed with odd bits and pieces, and best not to think about where it all came from. The clothing was everything from antique to modern, and there were even a few ancient pieces dating back to the Industrial Chessboard Era. Some things were just bizarre, and a period where they might have been fashionable didn't bear contemplating. There was no guarantee that you would find what you wanted, though you might find everything but.
The controlled chaos of shopping usually did good things for Hatter's sanity, and shopping with Alice was just as enjoyable as he'd hoped it would be — for about ten minutes. By minute eleven, things were going down the hill, so to speak. It wasn't that she was trying to be difficult, although he couldn't entirely rule out that possibility. Despite their earlier truce, the girl had yet to lighten up. She didn't quite seem to grasp the concept
Maybe he should have started at a different shop. This one, located on an isolated city block accessible only by bridge, catered almost solely to tea-heads with small purses. It wasn't the most comfortable environment for an oyster, and her relatively pleasant mood had melted away, leaving in its place an unpredictability that he really did not want to deal with at the moment. It might have been refreshing under different circumstances, but her timing was atrocious.
By minute fifteen, his oyster was standing with clenched fists while Twenty, the proprietor, threw dresses and scarves in her general direction. Twenty, who had obviously started her day with a drop or six of tea, eventually stopped throwing clothes and sidled over to tug on her paralyzed customer's jacket, slurring something about taking it off. Alice let out an indignant little yelp and jumped back, one hand holding the jacket sleeve over her Glow.
Oblivious, Twenty tugged on the jacket again. Alarmed, Alice screamed at the shopkeeper and slapped her face before Hatter had time to react.
Right. Not good. He grabbed Alice's arm and pulled her towards the door.
"Sorry about this," he said to Twenty. "She's stuck on a cheap Anticipation cocktail right now. Way too much Irritability in the mix."
"I am not!" Alice snapped, yanking her arm away.
Hatter shrugged helplessly back at the proprietor. "See what I mean?"
Twenty winced and bobbed her head sympathetically. She knew plenty about the downsides of poorly-blended tea, that one did. "I'll just wrap a few of these up for you, sweetheart. They'll be right out."
Hatter was not listening by then, since it was taking most of his concentration not to say some rather scathing things to his little oyster. Alice, he mentally corrected, as she stormed out the door and across the bridge. He jogged after her. "Alice, where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know," she snapped back. "Away from you."
He passed her and turned to block her way with upheld hands. "Look, you can't just traipse off through the city, right?" He took a tentative step towards her. "Calm down."
Alice narrowed her eyes, folded her arms over her chest, and sat on the bridge railing without saying a word.
The shop door opened behind them, and Twenty waddled out, two packages balanced on one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Hatter gave Alice a warning look and murmured, "Be nice."
He caught a whiff of Twenty's tea as she dumped the packages into his arms. She reeked of Lust, low-quality if he had to guess, and for perhaps the fifth time since he'd stepped into her shop, her glassy eyes raked appreciatively over his form. Hatter decided that it was high time to move on, though he made a mental note to include her in his tea deliveries. Money was money, after all. "Put it on my credit. I'll send Dormie down later to pay up."
He steered Alice forward with a hand on her shoulder, ignoring her attempt to pull away. On the far side of the bridge, he released her and waited for her reaction.
She gave him a look that made his hair stand on end. "Stuck on Anticipation?"
Hatter rubbed the back of his neck. "Look," he said in as placating a tone as he could muster, "let me try the next shop, all right? You can...I don't know...wait outside and enjoy the view. I won't force you to go in."
Fortunately, he'd had a lot of practice when it came to placating people. Her anger deflated a little. "But you don't know my size."
"I'm an old hand at this sort of thing," he said confidently.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Hatter wanted to take them back. What kind of impression did that give, telling her that he was experienced at picking out clothes for women? Either it didn't sound as dirty to Alice as it did in his own mind, or she was so accustomed to dealing with lowlifes that she just didn't care.
"Fine." She was already staring back across the bridge, all but completely ignoring him. Hatter ground his teeth and went off in search of another shop. What, precisely, did he do to set her off this time? One minute they had a truce, the next she was being erratic. But then it wasn't him she was upset with, was it? Not really. He should have chosen a different shop. Blasted oysters.
With a smile plastered on his face, Hatter stepped into the next shop he spotted. The shopkeeper had a taste for older styles, apparently, and he wrinkled his nose at the selection of balloon suits displayed just inside the door.
He tried imagining Alice in one, and failed. Something a bit more tasteful, then. He stepped further back into the cramped aisles and hunted for something decent. It took him half an hour to find a few nice dresses and a pair of trousers trendy enough for her to work in. He added a light jacket to hide her Glow, paid for everything, and stepped outside.
He went back to the bridge, intending to leave the purchases with Alice while he hunted for more.
Somehow, he wasn't all that surprised to find that she was nowhere in sight.
He frowned. "Alice?"
No answer, naturally. He glanced around for a passerby who might have seen her, but the street was empty. Brilliant.
He left the bags with Twenty (who was too preoccupied with leering at him to object) and jogged through the block of streets. Within five minutes, he was reasonably sure that she wasn't on this level, which meant that she had either gone further up, down to the lower levels, or back across the bridge.
Hatter muttered curses under his breath as he created a mental checklist of all the possibilities. She wouldn't know how to get back to his shop, and she definitely wouldn't know the way to Ricky's from here. Even if she'd known her way around, there was no reason to think she would go to someone she knew — she was an oyster, not a stray dog.
That left...well, pretty much everywhere else. There were literally hundreds of places she could have reached in half an hour, and that was assuming she hadn't been taken against her will. Surely she wouldn't have been stupid enough to talk to somebody.
He muttered a quick curse and forced himself to make a decision.
He would search this block first, to rule out the most obvious places. If she wasn't here, he would head straight back to the shop in case she had somehow found her way there.
That left the question of whether to go downcity or up.
That was a fear of heights he'd seen earlier, right? Most likely, which made down the logical way to go. But this was Alice, so on an impulse he decided to do the opposite of what made logical sense. Up it was, then.
He worked his way up ten more levels, stopping to search every other one. It took nearly an hour to reach the top. He groaned in frustration. He would never find her at this pace.
The clay roof was littered with building materials and an incomplete brick house. He grabbed his hat to keep the wind from taking it and looked around. Nothing.
He was starting the climb back down when a faint, breathy whistling reached his ears, coming from the other side of the building. Curious in spite of his sour mood, he stepped around to investigate.
And there she was.
She stood near the edge, her slender fingers clutching tightly at her coat to keep it closed against the wind. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, and she was trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to whistle. Hatter ignored the sudden lump in his throat. He supposed he ought to be furious at her right now, but the sight of her there, shivering and whistling on the edge of the roof, was so strange and pitiful that he couldn't seem to hold onto his anger.
At least his anger had the decency to leave a little irritation behind.
He approached her quietly, being mindful to stay out of range in case she should try to slap him. He tapped her on the shoulder, and she whirled around so quickly that he barely had time to dodge her hand flying at his face. The action nearly caused her to fall off the roof. Hatter lunged forward just in time to catch her by the wrist and pull her to safety.
She tried to steady herself, nearly crushing his hand as she did so. Considering that her entire arm was rigid and shaking, he was surprised at the strength of her grip. Maybe he shouldn't have done that. Startled her, that is…not saved her from falling.
He released her hand and stepped back.
She followed, putting a considerable distance between herself and the edge. He expected her to shout at him, and she did not disappoint. "What the hell was that for?"
"You should be telling me," he shot back, unable to resist a little snapping of his own. He took his hat off and ran a finger along the rim so he would not have to make contact with those ridiculous blue eyes.
"You're out of breath."
She gave a small jerk of her head. "You're pale and sweaty. Did Twenty sell you any of the stuff she was drinking?"
That was unexpected. Twenty selling to him? Miffed, he slipped a little more scorn into his retort. "How did you think I would be, tramping after you?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but apparently thought better of it, instead stepping into the incomplete building to pick up her packages.
He was right behind her. "What does tea have to do with this? You ran off and didn't tell me where. Does that not seem a bit stupid to you?"
She didn't answer, but focused on the ground, waiting for him to finish.
He sighed. "What were you doing up here?"
She chewed her lip and shook her head.
"Alice? Are you going to answer me or not?"
She still didn't answer. After a long moment of silence, she pointed at a stack of building materials near the corner of the roof. "Is that blood on those bricks?"
What? He followed her finger. "Yeah, things get violent on the rooftops sometimes." He indicated a line several blocks over that ran from rooftop to rooftop. "The syndicate that owns the cable system tends to be a little...territorial, you might say. Bad idea to cross them. I don't work the upper levels in this part of the city."
She was looking at him now, her interest piqued. "Are we in danger right now?"
He frowned and shook his head. "It's late. Let's get back to the shop."
He tugged the heaviest package out of her hand before she could protest and began the climb down. To his relief, Alice followed close behind him.
Neither of them spoke until they had descended seven levels, crossed two bridges, and squeezed down a narrow alley. Hatter was keeping track.
Alice decided to break the silence at bridge number three.
"I went up there because I could," she said suddenly, in a voice that was much more subdued than before.
He stopped walking and turned to face her, waiting for her to continue.
"I went because I have never been up there."
"I thought you didn't like heights?"
If she was surprised that he'd noticed that, she didn't show it. "I don't. They give me the heebies."
"It's from my world, I think."
Hatter continued on, looking back often to make sure that Alice was still with him and occasionally stopping to help her down from ladders that stopped short of the ground – there were quite a few of those. He deliberately prolonged their route, choosing paths that would let her see more of the city. Better to take a little time to show her the sights, he told himself, than to have her running off on her own to see them. Curiosity was a dangerous emotion, especially for an oyster, but it was the most positive feeling he'd seen from her — far better than fear and anger, if a bit less easy to manage.
Besides that, he also wanted to reward her for telling him why she went up to the roof. He wanted her to get it through her thick skull that she was safe with him, that he would be decent to her even when she did something foolish.
As Hatter waited for her to ascend a ladder after him, an idea suddenly hit him. She wouldn't have seen this before — Ricky and his ilk were always too focused on their next fix to notice the city's hidden wonders, much less point them out to a captive oyster.
"Are you tired yet?"
"Me? I'm all right," she said noncommittally.
"All right enough to see a bit more of the city before we go back to work?"
Alice looked up at him, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Why?"
Wary of inadvertently sparking another temper tantrum, he let out a forced chuckle. "I've not been out and about for a bit. Work and all that."
She reached the top of the ladder and swung herself up. "Where did you want to go?"
He smiled, and this time it was genuine. "Have you ever had the pleasure of talking with a Cheshire Cat?"
Alice walked beside Hatter, listening to him explain in some detail about Cheshire Cats. Whenever they were complimented, Cheshire Cats had no choice but to grin. They couldn't help it, the ridiculous creatures, and the more extravagant the compliment, the better. According to Hatter, most Cheshires were intelligent and would attack anyone who didn't know the ropes of interacting with them. Alice already knew all of this, but she didn't mention that to him.
She was relieved that he was being cheerful again. She didn't understand why he talked as much as he did with such a risky line of work. Didn't he worry about letting too much slip?
That odd face of his was even more animated than usual, but not in a frightening way. She kept stealing glances at him, inexplicably fascinated by the way his eyebrows moved.
It was a long climb down to the lake, though Hatter seemed to know all the shortcuts there were to know, and that saved them some time. He guided her through a maze of docks and platforms built over the lake. An awning supported by pillars covered most of the paths, filtering out much of the light that wasn't already blocked by the towering buildings. The water wasn't exactly pristine here, but it was cleaner by far than the canals. Crows hemmed and hawed above them, arguing over food scraps. Most of the mooring posts were unoccupied, but here and there an engine hummed, and Alice even spotted a rowboat. A damp breeze tugged at her hair, and she found herself thinking that she might be able to like this place.
They threaded their way through the rotting paths and broken steps to an obscure corner. A small glass motorboat nested snugly between a brick wall and the platform, secured there by a line that looked like it could snap at any moment. A burlap sack was pulled tightly across half of it, creating a sort of cave. Alice could have sworn that she heard purring.
Ever the showman, Hatter adjusted his hat and hopped jauntily into the boat. "Hey, Chez, get out here. There's somebody you should meet."
Abruptly, the purring ceased, and a muffled tenor voice came from the cave. "I do not care to meet anybody today. Please depart the way you came."
Hatter looked back at Alice with a knowing look. "He's a bit anti-social."
"I can tell." She folded her arms and waited.
"Come on, gorgeous, don't be shy," Hatter said to the voice.
There was a grumbling sigh, and a kitten emerged from the makeshift shelter. Once it was fully in view, Alice saw that it was not a kitten, but in fact a very small tomcat. It sat gingerly on the bow, wearing a polite smile that may as well have been a sneer, and licked its paw. "Who's your lady, Hatter?" it asked in a cultured voice.
"She's me employee."
It spared her a glance. "She's pretty, I suppose, but only just," it pronounced, and went back to grooming.
Alice scowled. "I have a name." She narrowed her eyes and added, "you're pretty too."
The cat's smile widened into a grin, displaying a row of milk-white teeth. "Believe me, I am quite aware of that. What is her name, Hatter?" Its eyes were glittering rather unpleasantly.
"My name is Alice. You could just ask me."
Hatter gave her a quick approving look. "Chezerin, this is Alice. Alice, this is Chezerin, the most handsome, intelligent, magnanimous Cheshire Cat on this dock."
The cat's grin widened further, stretching past the width of its ears. Alice almost felt sorry for it.
"Oh, and it also has great fashion sense," Hatter added for good measure.
"You should know, Hatter," Chezerin said through its now gargantuan grin, "that I absolutely despise you."
The sight was so incongruous that Alice could not stop a small giggle from escaping. Her eyes widened in surprise when she realized the source of the sound. Hatter hid his surprise in a smirk, and, tweaking her hair, said, "Good news, you have a sense of humor, Alice."
"I guess so."
The cat hissed through its teeth, the grin still firmly in place