Hello again, Dear Readers. Here is the sixth chapter at last! As always, much thanks to vanilla212 for generously donating her mad beta skills.
One more thing...perhaps it doesn't mean much to dedicate a fanfic chapter, but I would like to dedicate this one to the victims and families caught in the Newtown, CT massacre that took place earlier today. Please keep them in your thoughts, and in your prayers if you are the praying sort.
Hatter jabbed a finger at something behind Alice's shoulder. "Are you letting that evaporate on purpose?"
She cursed and spun around. A vial of blue tea was suspended over a burner on a wire support frame, and she grabbed it just as it started to boil over. The flame subsided as soon as it was gone, leaving tiny crystals of tea on the wires and an acrid odor in the air.
The contraption was something Hatter had devised. He said it was because he wanted to develop solid teas for business purposes, but a small part of Alice thought it was because of their conversation on chemicals and liquids last week. Alice was a very hands-on girl, and working in the tea shop had opened new horizons of curiosity for her. Fortunately for her, Hatter was more than happy to answer those questions.
He had presented this to her this yesterday night. Almost shyly, he showed her how the burner was triggered, and how its little heating system worked. Touched by his generosity, she hesitated, unsure of what to do. Then she gave him a quick hug, and he hugged her back and smiled. And it was a very sincere smile, with none of his usual bravado. The really astounding part came when he gave her a box of old teas to use. True, they weren't really worth anything anymore, but she couldn't believe that he would do this for her. What were his motives?
She thought of the smile.
They had moved the contraption out to the tea shop counter so she could play with it when business was slow. So far, she'd only had the chance to use it twice. It had not gone very well. In fact, she was so frustrated she almost smashed it after the second time. Almost. What little crystals she'd produced crumbled into dust — a frustrating waste of effort.
Now, when she was making a third attempt, Hatter had the gall to come in and distract her. Damn him and his smiling. She smirked as she scraped the few surviving crystals from the rim of the vial into another empty one, unsurprised when they disintegrated.
She turned back to face him, self-consciously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "What does evaporate mean?"
"Oh, evaporate? Means you turn it from liquid to a vapor. Melt it into the air. Poof." He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
He laughed. "If Dormie's ever too sick to cook, we're eating out, all right?"
She scowled at him. "Just what are you saying?"
He sniffed the air and flashed her a winsome grin. "I am saying…that it's quite an accomplishment to make Dormie's burned borogove smell tasty."
She held the vial up threateningly. "Funny, because it'll also be quite an accomplishment for you to dodge this."
He tipped his hat and backed away. "Right, I know when I've overstayed me welcome. I'll be making deliveries. If I'm not back before closing tell Dormie."
She smiled a little as he left. How did he do that? Why did she end up grinning like a Cheshire whenever he was around? Alice mentally chastised herself. How was she supposed to stay safe if she kept letting her guard down around him? He had been kind so far, but kindness was never freely given.
She snapped out of her reverie at the sound of the shop door opening. The sky outside the windows was fading from clouded gray to black as night fell, and a few tenacious rays of sunlight hit the empty shop floor. It would not stay empty for long now. All of the more reputable businesses were closing for the day, which meant that a small horde of shopkeepers and employees would be stopping by to indulge their tea habit. She touched the burner, and finding it cool, wrapped it carefully in a cloth and placed it under the counter. Then she opened the hinged doors of the counter window and waited.
A group of tea-heads shuffled in and seated themselves at a table. One of the women came over to the counter, and soon others were forming a line behind her. Alice nodded an acknowledgment to them, indicating that she would be ready in a minute. Bidding was only open on days when Hatter had a new shipment – usually every other day. Tonight, since there was no shipment, there would be more bartering than usual as customers tried to drive the rates down.
Bartering was quite the experience, especially when one party was pretending to be a mute and the other was desperate. Hatter had been right, though — the customers were usually too impatient for their tea to quibble over price for very long. If they were being stubborn, she stretched out the process until their craving overwhelmed their stinginess. This made the others in line even more desperate, of course, but she felt very little pity for them.
There had been no more incidents since her first night on the floor, much to her relief and Hatter's surprise. He had taken her to the basement of the building the next day and shown her how to use the gun. She couldn't say she liked it very much, but she wasn't willing to face a second run-in without some kind of defense. Hatter had been worried at first, but by the end of that week he was leaving her and Dormie to run the floor while he worked in his office and checked on them only occasionally. It was already the start of her third week. She could do this.
Alice gave her sleeve a perfunctory glance to make sure her Glow was well hidden, then gestured for the first customer.
The lady was tall and well-dressed, with dramatic makeup that didn't quite conceal the dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression was hollow as she asked for a cold cup of Desire in a monotone voice. Alice help up a few fingers to indicate the price (she was getting very good with numbers) and prepared the tea. She handed the cup to the lady and watched as she made her way back to one of the tables, sitting down opposite a rich-looking gentleman who reached across and squeezed her hand.
Alice found herself wondering about them. Not pitying or anything, she reminded herself, just curious. Vulcans.
A hand waving in front of her face brought her attention back the next person in line, a sweaty dock worker. Alice bit back a sharp retort to his unspoken complaints. She refused to barter with him, and, not the least plagued by conscious, charged him more than the tea was worth. Finally, he relented and stalked to a corner table with his drink, cursing under his breath.
They continued, one after another. Most of them she had seen before, but there were a few new faces in the noisy crowd. There were housewives, alone and out of their element, and a wiry man that Alice immediately pegged as a professional thief. Hatter had told her what to look for, so she knew the bracelet he was wearing meant that he worked for one of the gangs. She was cautious when she bartered with the man, and counted the money twice when he paid her. Next up was a group of street children, who had obviously pooled the little money they had to buy a vial of Joy. She felt a slight pang of guilt as they scurried out with it.
Next in line was young man, who politely cleared his throat. He was tall and well-groomed, dressed in a neatly-pressed dark suit. He smiled at her, and as Alice met his eyes she felt her stomach curl in a peculiar way that was not entirely unpleasant.
"Could I have a bit of Peace, please?" His voice was cultured and pleasant.
She looked away and found a jar of Peace. She picked up the smallest cup size and gestured to it. He shook his head. "Just a bit more than that."
She used the next size up. She could feel him watching her, and her hands trembled a little as she poured the tea. Suddenly feeling shy, she wrote down the price and slid the paper across the counter to him. He paid her, and she gave him his tea before retreating to record the sale.
When she looked up, he had moved to an unoccupied corner table.
As soon as the line emptied he was back, still sipping the tea. He smiled again, warmly. "Can you speak at all?"
She shrugged helplessly. She wanted to speak. Oh yes, she did. But Hatter's warning stayed clear in her mind. None of the tea-heads could know that she was from the other side, not even – she swallowed – not even extremely attractive ones.
"What's your name?" The man asked.
She hesitated, then grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote, Alice. He read it and met her eyes again. "That's a beautiful name. It suits you perfectly."
She blushed and snatched the paper back from him.
Just then, another customer approached the counter for more tea. Alice poured it to his specifications and finished the transaction. Jack stayed nearby, taking in the room.
As soon as she was free he handed her his empty glass, his face lit with the tea-induced serenity. She avoided his gaze again as his fingers brushed hers. "This is really excellent tea," he murmured. "I'll see you soon. Take care, Alice."
He made his way through the shop, which by now was filled to capacity. Alice released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. Damn. Who was that?
He was back again the next evening, only later.
Alice hadn't said a word to Hatter about him. The idea of being a mystery to someone that mysterious was something she wanted to keep to herself. She thought about him the entire day, and even set aside a special cup from the mismatched collection for him. It was made from dark green crystal that caught the light and reflected it back on her hands. She thought it fit him well.
She was so preoccupied when the evening crowd came in that she nearly served a customer Elation instead of the Joy he'd ordered. The differences between the two were subtle, but important all the same. Chiding herself for woolgathering on the job, she realized she was glad that Hatter was not on the floor tonight. What would he think of her being this flustered? Of the stranger? Much to her chagrin, she found herself mentally comparing them.
Hatter was a showman, while this man seemed honest. Hatter's face was scruffy when he forgot to shave, and he wore makeup to make himself seem more eccentric. And his hat, which she had been a little fond of, suddenly seemed very childish. The stranger's face was clean and strong, and his eyes were clear. He was obviously not stuck on tea, even if he drank it. Why did he drink Peace, she wondered, and was there a chance that he would tell her about it sometime?
She swallowed and chided herself again. How was she supposed to know whether he was honest or just another variety of showman? She was hardly aware enough to read her own emotions and motivations, much less those of a total stranger. And then there was the nagging fact that if he knew she was an oyster, everything would change. But was it really that dangerous?
She decided that there was no harm in a little conversation, especially one as one-sided at theirs happened to be. She would offer a friendly smile and let him talk to her if he came again, nothing more.
Alice sighed with relief as the last tea-head in line left. Her breath blew several loose strands of hair away from her face, and she leisurely loosened the rest of it and retied her pony tail.
"Hello." The quiet accented voice made her heart jump into her throat. The stranger was back. She almost said "hello" back, but caught herself just in time, biting her lip. It was just as well, since she didn't think she could find her voice past the roaring in her ears.
Glancing around for something to do, she grabbed the green cup and held it out to him. He looked at it and raised an eyebrow. "And what is this for, Alice?"
She grabbed a scrap of paper to scribble on. It's for you to use.
She felt a sudden stab of embarrassment. Undoubtedly, half the words were spelled wrong. She made a mental note to get Hatter to teach her better spelling.
He read it and smiled. "For me?" He took the cup from her and looked it over. "Why did you choose this one?"
Alice shrugged, and wrote, It reminds me of you. Then she added, What's your name?
He chuckled. "You're comparing me to a cup? I'm not sure if I should take that as a compliment or not." Alice felt a little embarrassed, and the stranger must have seen that. He looked at the cup again and said, "I understand what you're saying." His eyes twinkled a little. "Are you upset with me?"
She folded her arms in mock anger and nodded.
The stranger put a hand to his heart. "Ah, I am so sorry to have offended you, Lady Alice. Tell me, is there a way for me to earn your forgiveness?"
She smirked and tapped the paper.
"My name? Very well. My name is Jack."
Feeling triumphant, she scribbled, Jack who?
He raised an eyebrow. "Alice who?"
Alice considered this. She wanted to tell him, but did not know if it was safe. She had never heard of anyone with the name Hamilton in Wonderland. It was possible that he would know just from that that she was an other-sider. She wondered what he would do if he knew, and whether he would still be as kind as he was now.
A scuttling sound near her arm brought her attention to the counter top. A large cockroach was making its way across. Cocky thing, she thought, and, not at all intimidated by it, she looked around for something she could use to kill it.
"What is it, Alice?" Jack put his face to the bars to see what she was looking at. She pointed the invader out to him, and was surprised to see his face turn gray. He looked at her and smiled weakly. "I'm afraid that you are braver than I am. I am not very fond of bugs."
Well, that did it. Giving in to a sudden surge of impudence, Alice used a piece of paper to redirect the cockroach's scurrying course towards Jack. He yelped and jumped back so quickly that he bumped his head on the upper counter.
Alice could not help laughing at the dazed look on his face. He rubbed the top of his head and stared at her, then he began chuckling too. His laugh was rich and deep, and Alice felt her knees go weak.
He met her eyes, and they both stopped laughing quite suddenly. Jack leaned in close to the bars that separated them. "You realize, Alice, that if you can laugh aloud, you should also be able to speak?" he observed quietly.
Alice had no idea how to answer that.
Instead, she scanned the room, looking anywhere but at him.
She did a double-take. Hatter was standing a mere few paces away, arms akimbo, watching expressionlessly. Alice smiled at him, and for the second time that night almost forgot her no speaking rule. He quirked a tiny smile back at her, and she felt…was that guilt? Why?
Jack turned to see what she looking at. His eyes narrowed slightly, but he stepped forward with his hand extended. "You must be the Mad Hatter."
Hatter took the proffered hand and gave it a single, abrupt shake. "What are you doing in my shop?" His tone was icy, icier than Alice had ever heard it. She watched with concern. What was wrong with Hatter? And what was this about madness?
Jack did not back down. "I came to sample your product." Was he talking about the tea, Alice wondered? Because he had not had any this evening.
Hatter stepped around him and went to stand by the counter, briefly meeting Alice's eyes as he did. "And what do you think?"
Jack smiled slightly. "I find it to my liking."
He nodded to Hatter and gave Alice a parting smile — a very pleasant smile, as she could not help but notice. Then he retrieved a derby hat and a long peacoat from the rack and left. Alice watched him go, her curiosity burning stronger than ever as the door slammed behind him.
Hatter turned to face Alice and studied her face. "You're blushing."
She blushed harder and began furiously polishing an empty tea cup – Jack's tea cup. "Am not."
"Yes, you are." He looked around the room, and she could see him taking a mental tally of the customers. "Right, I think I'll take the night shift from here on out."
"What?" She sputtered, nearly dropping the cup.
He nodded at the counter door. "Go on out, Alice. I'll take over."
She set the cup down so forcibly it nearly broke. "You're scared, aren't you? You're scared that I'll sell out on you."
He glanced around the room again. "Cut it out. They'll see you talking. We can go over this later, yeah?"
"No. You keep whining about me trusting you, but what about you?" She had a good mind to reach through the window and slap him.
"Alice, would you just …" He sighed and threw up his hands. "All right. Fine. I'll get Dormie to take the counter tonight."
He yanked his hat off his head and crushed the brim between his fingertips as he crossed the room. He looked relaxed, and Alice wasn't sure if he was really upset or if she was just imagining it.
He came back a minute later and unlocked the counter door, allowing Dormie inside. He held the door open until Alice reluctantly exited, then threw a warning glance at a tea-head that tried to sneak a look inside.
They went back to his office.
"Have you eaten yet?" He asked.
He put his favorite tea kettle on and flopped down into his desk chair, spinning it a few times like he always did. Alice reached into the Sensibility cabinet and plunged about for some tea. She came out with some that smelled like vanilla, which at the moment sounded like just the thing. She tossed two tea bags on his desk (being tea bags, they didn't sound nearly as adamant as she wanted them to). Then she stood with her arms crossed and stared at him. He brought the chair to a stop and waited for her to speak.
"Is there a good reason for you to take me off the night shift? Because I think you're being unfair and stupid."
His eyebrows shot up at that. "Stupid? Is it stupid to make sure you're safe?" He leaned forward. "You have no idea who you were talking to, do you?"
"Jack. My new friend. A nice guy." She was blushing just saying it. Watch it, Alice.
"Right, a nice guy. And the prince of Wonderland.
Alice was positive she felt her jaw dropping. "What?"
Hatter smirked. "Yeah, I didn't think he'd mention that."
"What is he doing in your tea shop?"
Hatter shrugged. "No idea. Maybe he's up to something, or maybe he's just looking for better tea." Not likely, since it all comes from the casino anyway.
Alice was having the same thought. "But he has access to the best tea!"
"Yeah. It smells fishy to me, which is why I'm taking you off the night shift."
Her indignation returned at that. Once again, and in spite of his own irritation, Hatter couldn't believe how appealing she looked when she was angry — not that he was ever, ever going to tell her that. It was something about the combination of flashing eyes and flushed cheeks, he decided. Maybe it was because Wonderlanders so rarely acted out like she did. He idly wondered if all oysters were this charming when they got uffish, or if it was just her.
"Look," she said through clenched teeth. "If you think you have a right to be suspicious just because he's talking to me…if you think I'm just gonna let you order me around…you're wrong. Maybe he's trying to be somebody else for a while, have you thought of that? Maybe he just needed a normal conversation."
Hatter's eyes narrowed ever-so-slightly. "Did you talk to him?"
"No, I never spoke. But that doesn't mean you aren't being ridiculous."
The tea kettle whistled, and Hatter took a deep breath as he got to his feet. Alice followed him around the desk, and he had a feeling that she wanted to hit him. Well, she wasn't the only one who felt like hitting something.
"Just because you're my employer doesn't mean you get to decide everything I do and everyone I talk to," she challenged.
That did it. He spun on his heel to face her. "Look, Alice, think it through. What's a guy like Jack Heart doing to talking to you? He's making you a target, that's what!"
She started to storm away, but he grabbed her shoulder and turned her around to face him, holding her in place. "I didn't get you away from Ricky and give you a job so you could get swindled by the first smooth-talker that comes along. I know a rat when I see one, all right?" Seeing her flinch at his raised voice, he took another breath and pulled his hand back. "I've been in the business a while. I know."
She was staring at him, and he could not read the expression in those distractingly blue eyes of hers. "What are you doing, Hatter?"
"I just told you, didn't I?"
"I mean your hand."
He looked down.
The polished steel of his desk was crumpled like a piece of paper where his right hand gripped it. He slowly released his grip, revealing even more damage. He watched her warily, unsure of what was going through that head of hers. Alice took in the damaged desk with a kind of fascination. Seeing her tense as if to run, he held both hands up where she could see them. "It's all right Alice. It's just me exceptionally strong grip, that's all."
She was still staring at him.
"Which tea cup d'you fancy tonight Alice?" He injected a little more cheerfulness into his tone.
"You're lying to me." She stammered a little.
"I'm not lying, Alice."He prepared the tea bags and added hot water to the cups.
She folded her arms and clenched her fingers around her elbows. "Your accent…it gets thicker when you're trying to fool someone."
It did? Hatter filed that information away for future reference. "Lying isn't quite the right word for it," he hedged.
"Then what is?"
"Erhm, right. Look, I'm not lying, per se, it's just a bit of a long story. I'll tell you another time, yeah?" He sipped from one of the tea cups and offered the other one to her.
Alice pushed it away. "Not until you tell me. I've heard you called Sledgehammer in the shop. Why? And why did Jack call you the Mad Hatter?" She demanded. He voice was shaking a little, and Hatter had to give her credit for her determination, especially considering how much his accidental desk sabotage had frightened her.
He took a long sip of his tea, giving himself time to craft an answer. Finally, he set the cup down and said, "Let's be fair about this. You don't want me dictating everything you do just because you're me employee, right? Well then, as an employee, you'll not get to know everything about me."
He saw her angry scowl clear as day, and with it something akin to horror. Alice did not meet his eyes again. Instead, she kept her gaze on the floor as she silently took her cup of tea and let. There was no g'night, no smile, no planning for the next day. She looked like a beaten dog. Hatter sighed and opened his ledger, letting the rest of his tea get cold.
She was talking to Jack Heart, and she'd not even stay in the room with him. It wasn't that surprising, now that he gave it some thought. Sure, he had saved her, but that was no reason for her to feel obligated to him more than she already was, did it? That was no reason for her to like him. He felt a little stab of envy at Jack's smooth manners and pleasant voice. Of course Alice would be drawn to that!
He ended that train of thought abruptly. He was not jealous, he was just looking out for her welfare because she wasn't doing a very good job of it on her own.
He was justified, he knew, regardless of whether or not she liked it. She made all the noise about trust, but he had no intention of trusting her until he knew what she was made of. He didn't think she would intentionally sell him out, but it was common knowledge that oysters were gullible. And his oyster — his Alice — was talking to Jack Heart.