Pairing: Alice/Mad Hatter
Word Count: 4,010
Notes: Spoilers for the movie, obviously.
Summary: It's said that seek and you shall find.
The wind was in her hair, a salt wind - it tangled it delightfully. She wore blue, as usual, and she found Absolem complimented it, as he came to flutter on her shoulder. Which was a somewhat girlish thought to have, but Alice decided that since she was standing on the prow of her very own ship, about to leave England bound for China, that she could afford one girlish thought, or maybe even two.
"It's not as if it's six impossible things," she told Absolem, quietly, "Before breakfast, or otherwise."
She fancied she saw agreement in his gently fanning wings.
In another moment, having breathed deeply once more of the bracing air, and having waved goodbye to her family, she turned away to go below. She was not a trained sailor, but she knew that she should not be in the way at such a crucial time. The running of a ship was like the intricate mechanism of a pocket watch, everything tightly organised, so that all may run smoothly. She had vowed she would learn the way of such things in the weeks to come. She would splice a mainbrace, she would climb a yard arm, she would scamper like a monkey through the ratlines. She was off to further her father's legacy, to open a trading route with China once more. But there was no reason why she should not have fun along the way.
As she turned to go, she felt a kind of ache, just under her breastbone. The voyage was her idea, her planning, her decisions, with Lord Ascot's help, but it did nevertheless feel like an awfully long way to go on her own. It might be lonely. Such doubts had crossed her mind before, although she had dismissed them as unimportant in the scheme of things. She took in a big breath and let it out slowly again, allowing the loneliness breathe out with it. Then she looked up.
He was standing on the quarter deck with the sun behind him, but she'd know him anywhere. His hat was a different shape, the bright colours that he wore were different, and his coat had a strange cut, with more shiny buttons. It didn't matter.
She made her way up to the deck, swaying her way in between busy working sailors, seemingly knowing by instinct how and where to step, as though it had been imprinted upon her mind, in an instant of connection. He was an officer. Of course he was. He'd once captained an army in Underland, hadn't he? He tipped his hat to her as she arrived, and she nodded back. She missed the ribbons on it.
Then she stepped closer because although she knew it was him, she wanted to be sure - she didn't doubt, not really, but still… His dear familiar features swam out of the sun like a rocking-horse fly from the heart of a flower. She blinked, how strange it was - his eyes were brown, not orange, not green. But then he smiled. She knew she wouldn't be lonely after all. There was someone who would climb the ratlines at her side.
"All the tea in China, not for all the tea in China…" chanted Alice, as the sea rose in towering waves around her, higher than the ship's mast.
She would not go below. She wouldn't go down into that stinking, vomitous bilge not for all the tea in China, no matter how much the Captain had begged her. She had been to Peking, the second greatest city of the Orient. She had negotiated a favourable contract with the Head Official himself, she had taught herself Mandarin, and could even calligraph the characters that made up her name. She could almost feel the solidity of the brush in her hand, the stiffness of its bristles, the heavy mineral smell of the ink. Her ability with new experiences, and adventures, and people, was a small certainty to cling to, in amongst the chaos of the storm.
She was tied to the smaller of the two masts, lashed to it with her own scarf. The silk of the kimono she had taken to wearing was cold and heavy against her skin, it slid against her as she imagined the sea might, if once it got her in its grasp. It reminded her, in a funny kind of way, of when she'd worn her armour, as the White Queen's Champion, just as cold and heavy as that. The ocean was certainly a foe as implacable as the Jabberwocky, although less easily defeated, Alice assumed.
Then, with a crack, the smaller mast parted, and with the full weight of the storm suddenly thrown against it, the greater mast cracked too, with a hideous groaning and squealing noise like a beaten man. Like a pig footstool being kicked in the stomach even. Alice would have screamed, but she had no time. She sucked in a great big breath, and then everything was gone. Ship, sailors, mast, the lot. Alice did what she always did. She held on.
An endless time later, there was something more under her feet than infinitely churning water. She coughed and stumbled her way out of the sea, although not without thanking politely the broken bit of mast that had kept her afloat. Politeness had kept her alive before, and she wasn't about to abandon it now. She collapsed then onto the golden yellow sands, and allowed herself, just for one second, to feel the fear and terror of the last few hours. She shook gently, before wiping her eyes and lifting her face to the sun.
The glare was blocked by a face, brown and tender and smiling. He wore a grass skirt. That was different.
"Well, there you are," said Alice, "It took you long enough."
It was a funny thing. Her family had worried about her - a delicately brought up young lady sailing far away, they thought that she would be overcome, that it would be too much for her sensibilities. Alice smiled when she remembered, because she loved her mother and her sister, she really did, but it had only ever been her father who truly understood her. No-one else seemed to knew that she had never been a delicate young lady, and as for her sensibilities? Well, she had some, she was sure, but they were curiously shaped, rather like the whorls inside the large white shell Papa had brought her back once from the South Seas.
Then Alice would drop her head in shame, because her mother and her sister had at least let her come, in the end, hadn't they? To China no less. Who were not savages, it was true, so there was no need to worry about cannibals, at least. But Mother had still made her pack, not one, but three red flannel petticoats. Just in case, she'd said. In case of what, Alice had wanted to know. Never you mind, Mother had replied.
But Alice did mind, that was the trouble. She minded very much. She minded as she argued - politely – with the latest in a series of diplomats and civil servants. This one had nails that were as long as his hands, and painted a delicate pink. It looked strange, but that was good, her interpreter had whispered, that meant he was important. She was moving up the chain. She hadn’t been dismissed.
Alice minded about the petticoats because they were heavy and they weighed her down, much as all the strictures on her old life had done, much as the intricate, stultifying administrative procedures here in Shanghai were doing. She had thought a new culture would be exciting, full of incident and interest, crowded with new people and creatures to meet. More like Underland, really. She had not anticipated an antiquated society even more mired by the weight of its own expectations than her own.
At the next break in the negotiations, Alice walked outside, told her little Chinese maid to get her a cooling drink, and then left the compound. It was strictly not allowed, but she found she could breathe again. She did not regret it. As she wandered along the road, she observed the green, gently swaying fields of rice, sitting lower than the beaten dirt of the path. They needed a lot of water, she’d been told, and was slightly surprised to see such agriculture so close to walls of the diplomatic compound and the foreign settlements. It was peaceful though, and relaxing. She began to smile.
There were various people working in the fields, and as Alice idly glanced at them she quickly looked away, her cheeks flushing. She must write a letter to her mother – apparently she was not quite so without sensibility after all – Mother would be so proud. All the workers in the fields were doing so virtually naked, except for a hat. Alice smiled some more.
Eventually she came to the great Huangpu river, and stood staring. It was just water but somehow it seemed grander in China. She became aware that the silence and the peace were being punctuated by a rhythmic slow creaking noise, followed by a splash, and she looked aside to see its cause. There was a windmill, of rather a strange design, with sails somewhat reminiscent of the junks that floated up and down the Huangpu, and it's action was lifting water from the river up and into the fields.
Her smile was blinding now. She turned aside and ventured into the windmill’s shade. Of course, she did. It was inevitable that there should be a table set up there, and a man sitting at it. And it went without saying that she would sit down, and that once sitting there, she would be served tea.
His dear familiar hands turned the cups, and placed the tea within the pot, and she drank in every little turn of his thumb, the flash of his wrist. His skin was tanned rather than being the rather sallow colour of the civil servants. His sleeves were long, and he kept shaking them back. She longed to touch. Instead, Alice accepted the cup he handed to her with a delicate motion, and she didn't even check for stray rodents in the bottom. The tea was smoky and rich, almost dry on her tongue; it tasted of home. And if she thought she heard Ches distantly purring, she didn’t turn around.
It had been a good life, Alice considered, all in all. She would be satisfied with it. She wasn't quite up to the intrepid Mary Kingsley, whom she'd always admired, not least considering the shared name, but it was still a good, full and productive life. She'd been around the world, after all! It had been a little lonely, to be true, but she couldn't help that. She had made a promise.
Alice reached into her reticule and drew out what looked like a little ribbon. Only she knew that it was really a tiny dress, made for a doll, or a very small person. Made from her underwear in actual fact, which was a shocking thing, no doubt, if she had ever been shocked by such things (which she had never been). She pressed it to her cheek, as she found she was doing more and more as she got older. Here she was, a grown woman of nine and twenty, one who had travelled round the world. And if she had never fallen into a lion trap and survived, like Mary Kingsley, well, she too had at least learnt the value of a good thick skirt. Or even trousers occasionally, where practical, and where the natives spoke no English to exclaim upon it. Alice had at least gained some discretion, even if she did still day-dream.
But now, she could admit it. She had been waiting for a certain person. She hadn't forgotten him. She would never forget him. But it seemed as though he had forgotten her. Ten years she had been looking, with not a glimpse of a tall green-bronze hat, or the flash of an amber eye, anywhere. There had been other gentlemen who had paid court over the years, but Alice found she compared them all to Him - and that they had all come up wanting. The lure of the horizon was greater than that.
But now it was time to go back to England. There were nieces and nephews who knew her only from the exotic presents she sent home. Alice grinned. She wondered what kind of image they had of her. All true, she hoped.
And so she went back.
The architecture of the Thames hadn't changed, she thought, as the ship sailed up its reaches and into London. There was still mist on the water, but there were no strange animal calls the way there would be on an African river, for example. Unless you counted the distant blowing of horns from a passing hunt, which Alice didn't really. But it was strange, for those distant brassy notes did cause her a pang, like she was being gently stabbed, just under the breastbone. Could it be homesickness? How curious. (Or even curiouser.)
The wharf came into view through the mist, looming like the towering trees in a mangrove swamp, although altogether more regular. But life among their roots was teeming just as much, she thought, with amusement, as she watched all the scurrying activity. It was a relief to get ashore, but only briefly. Her half-formed hopes of familiarity and peace were shattered, for she had quite forgotten how busy London was.
In the end Alice ducked into the British Museum. Its stately columns and solemn exhibitions were an antidote to the bustle, and she could breathe again. It was a welcoming place, the best of other cultures and lands, laid out splendidly. It reminded of her own journeys in a drier, dustier sort of way.
She was just contemplating a large brass head from Nigeria, when she heard a gentleman clear his throat, and touch her elbow. She turned in surprise and nearly raised her voice in exclamation, which would not have done. A green-gold top hat was being swept off a terribly carroty head. Alice clasped her hands at her breast, becoming unaccountably overcome. Doubtless Mary Kingsley would not approve.
His eyes sparkled at her, smiling more than his mouth. He wore a badge that proclaimed him Curator of the African Gallery.
"Ah, there you are," he said, "At last. How long has it been?"
"Ten years," said Alice, faintly.
"It's all right," he said, as he kissed her hand, "I've been waiting for you."
China was all very well, said Alice to herself, Africa was surely dramatic and full of adventure. South America was doubtless full of gold. And none of it, not one bit of it, matched up to Underland. She would forget him, the Hatter had said, although she'd not believed it at all. Why on earth should she do that? To be fair, Alice had forgotten her 'Wonderland' once before, but she had been a child then, and there were many things that seemed somehow strange and fuzzy when you looked back upon them from an adult perspective. It was a shame, but it seemed to be the way the world worked. But she had been an adult, a young lady, when she had visited them the second time. Why was he so determined that she should forget him once more?
It preyed upon her mind on board the ship, all the way to China. She managed to make herself forget about it for a while, once they got there, because she threw herself into her work. She helped to arrange a most advantageous trading contract for Lord Ascot and the Company. But as she began the journey home again, she found herself returning to the problem again and again, turning it over in her mind as though she was polishing a gemstone. Why did Tarrant Hightopp think she would just forget about him? She hadn't forgotten Absolem, had she? Or Ches? Or dear Mirana? So why did he think she would forget about him? It was so vexing.
It was vexing enough, in actual fact, that while at a stop in the Seychelles for supplies, Alice decided that she couldn't waste a minute longer. She changed vessels, boarding the fastest clipper ship she could find, and sped to England as though on wings. She decided it was fate when she arrived home only to discover that the original ship she had been travelling upon had been wrecked off the Horn of Africa, with no survivors reported. She bowed her head at that, full of sadness, but also filled with resolve - for there would be no better chance. Her family would presume her dead. They would mourn, but they wouldn't be shocked by her behaviour, or tormented by her… disappearance.
Then started a most peculiar period in Alice's life. She started by finding a deep dark hole in the ground and attempting to climb down. She merely discovered mud and a few worms. There was no Underland. She thought that she had not gone deep enough.
Then she tried learning to pothole. And while it was a sport that was both interesting and beautiful, and not a little bit dangerous, it didn't really get her anywhere. She gained some local notoriety however, for being the first female potholer to climb through Victoria Cave. Luckily, her family was unlikely to notice any news that came from the Dales (Yorkshire had some extremely superior cave systems).
Then she attempted to find that gentleman and scholar, Nivens McTwisp, the White Rabbit, to no avail. She did become a fine breeder of more ordinary white rabbits however, and won several rosettes at the West Riding County Show. It didn't help, no amount of whispering in their soft ears appeared to elicit the slightest response.
She tried a more direct approach and advertised in the Times newspaper, desiring news of Underland. There were no responses. She tried the Personals and asked after all her old friends. She advertised that they would learn something that would be of interest to them. It didn't help. She did aid the Constables in foiling a confidence ring however, as Daring Criminals answered the advertisements in her friend's places, and Alice was able to assist in trapping them and in giving evidence. She was nervous about that, because the reports might be read by her family, and so she prevailed upon the Presiding Judge to keep her name out of the records.
Alice was at her wit's end. She had a house full of rabbits and rope and rewards but she was no closer to finding her way back to Underland, and she was running out of ideas. She lay down wearily and let her troubles relax themselves into dreams. She had thought it all a dream when she had first returned to Underland, had she not? Perhaps while dreaming she could deliver the message she was unable to while she was awake.
The world twisted and turned as Alice dreamed. Her rabbits grew and shrunk and hopped about before her. They whispered back to her, in little policeman voices. "Eat me. Drink me." And Alice knew what she had to do.
Upon awakening, Alice pawed quickly through all of her belongings, most particularly those she had brought back with her from China. She had thought that one of her leaving presents might have been… Ah yes, there it was. A small package carefully wrapped in silk - merely medicine, she had been told. But the distinctive smell, drifting on the breeze both on the Yangstee shore and aboard her clipper, had made her wise. She knew it was opium that she unwrapped and held in her hands.
'Eat me' had said the rabbits, and 'Drink me' too, and hadn't that always been the way to Underland? Alice took a lump of the waxy brownish substance and steeped it in the finest brandy. Then she took the tincture, in a crystal glass, and put it by her hand, as she cut up the rest of her small block, dusted it in icing sugar and placed it on a silver platter. It looked rather like Turkish delight. Then sitting in her most comfortable chair, her legs wrapped up in the folds of her Chinese rug, she sipped and nibbled until it had all gone
What a lovely way to say good-bye, thought Alice, her head swimming, her mouth smiling, as she slipped away to Underland.
The rocking-horse flies were buzzing through the flowers as she hurried along the path, and she was so happy, so glad she'd made it back to her true home at last. There was the sound of sawing, and the drifting fresh smell of cut wood. She burst through the forest upon a scene of such industry she stopped short in shock. The village was being repaired, with houses in a half-built state, their timbers bare and blond in the sunshine. Mice and rabbits scurried to and fro with measuring tapes rather than pocket-watches, hedgehogs trotted past with extra nails tucked into their prickles. Alice clapped her hands at the sight.
Then Alice looked up, and further up, to where white sails were sweeping the sky, and her breath caught in her throat. She had never thought that the windmill once repaired would be such a splendid sight, it made her heart beat faster. Then, in glimpses through the great sails, she saw him at last. She broke into a run, dashing between the scything blades with no thought to her own safety, and threw herself into his arms.
"Good heavens, dearie me, what's this?" he said, lifting her chin with one hand, his other arm snug and strong around her waist. Alice blinked furiously until his dear face came into focus, his magnificent eyebrows raised high, a half-smile teasing his lips.
"You said I'd forget you,"she accused, "How could you? You had no faith in me at all."
"In you, boundless trust," he said, gently, his embrace tightening. "In my own significance? None whatsoever."
"I'm here now," said Alice, defiantly, wonderingly. "If you still want me."
"If… My dear, darling girl - you doubt yourself. And that was the problem all along. How is a raven like writing desk?"
"You don't know," said Alice, trying not be accusatory, but suspecting that she failed.
"Well, no - but we could find out. Together? If you liked. But you have to be sure." He smiled at her properly and she blinked. She realised she wanted to lick at the gap between his teeth. It was a peculiarly adult thought.
Unwilling for the moment to examine it too closely, Alice put her head down onto his waistcoat and heaved a great sigh. "I've missed you."
He patted at her shoulders, urgently, it seemed to her. That seemed peculiarly adult as well. "I suspect you won' t be able to go back, you see. It's all or nothing, do or dare, live and die."
"Live or die," said Alice, feeling safe and warm for the first time in simply ages. The Hatter shook his head.
"I don't think so. Not in this case."
She lifted her head to his, and stared into his eyes. "I've fought monsters for you. I've climbed underneath mountains, and crossed oceans for you. I've been taught to make tea by Masters of the Ceremony. I'm sure."
"Oh, well then." He let out the breath he had been holding, and the relieved sound curled up sweetly inside Alice, just like the Dormouse in his pot. Alice laughed with him at that, and then cried with him too, just a little. Then he kissed her lips, finally and at last, and neither of them minded the ever so distant taste of brine.