Alice, in his head, was color. Red and Blue and Plum and richest Green, like a shallow sea. Dark hair, like space itself, spread over scarlet sheets. Eyes like an autumn sky. She seared herself into his vision like a technicolor sun. That's how he knew, with every bit of certainty, that Alice was not here.
This place was colorless. You couldn't call this shade of concrete "gray," really. This steel and brass and cinder block had all hung around each other for so long, in such damp and in such secret, that they'd all shared amongst themselves each hue and hint of color that they might once have held individually. Until it was depleted. Dissolved. Dissipated.
It was all now a noncolor, basically. A smeared and nothing color that spoke only of neglect. In this place, even the skin of his wrist between his jacket sleeve and the cuff that held him to this pipe was colorless.
Perhaps, he thought, letting his head rest against the metal rung of the maintenance ladder, if she came here, the color would spread out around her, like dipping a paintbrush into a pool of water.
Perhaps, he thought, she'd bring his hat.
* * *
Hatter told her once that you could find pieces of Wonderland in any city, in any world. So long as you knew, not where to look, but how.
He'd been balancing his spoon on the rim of his tea cup, a look of great concentration on his face. He'd taken off his hat when they'd sat down, in one of those oddly formal shows of manners, and he'd had the most fascinating case of hat hair she'd ever seen. She'd been half-listening to him, idly imagining running her hands through his hair until it curled up and out in all directions, until he might put his hat back on in self-defense. She thought he didn't look quite like himself, without it.
"Sometimes," she heard, "it's easy. You find a mirror that no one's looked at in a dozen years – some bit of fogged glass in the men's room in a derelict subway station, a dusty vanity in a vacant storage unit – and you can see shadows moving on the other side. Not your shadow. Other shadows. That's the Looking Glass, or part of it. Well, all of it, since the mirror can't be broken or it won't work. But it's only part of the whole, if you know what I mean. Only a piece of the Looking Glass. Anyways, you find that, and you can find Wonderland, easy. So long as the Master Glass is powered, obviously."
He'd looked up at her, up and sideways through his lashes, and she'd leaned her chin on her hands and widened her eyes in a great show of listening. She'd felt half asleep in the warmth of the sun coming through the window. His voice, she thought, not for the first time, sounded like that of a very friendly duck. Oddly, it was soothing.
"But there are other ways to find it. Harder ways. A world's like a bolt hole, really – there's never only one entrance. One exit. There's always a way in, or out. Take a library, for instance."
She blinked. "A library?"
"Any library. An older one's best, not one of those new ones with all the big glass windows and the coffee shop with the wifi in. Though those would work too, in a pinch. But an old one, with books in the stacks that haven't been checked out in years, that smells like paper and mildew and dust and words . . . "
"Words have a smell." He looked straight at her now, eyebrows raised like this should be the most obvious thing in the world.
"You mean like ink."
"Well. Sure. But more like raspberries."
"Raspberr . . . you know what, never mind."
"Anyway. Those libraries are the best. Because words, which smell like raspberries, can slip through the tiniest cracks, where one world's edges meet the edges of another. And sometimes you can get through those cracks too. But you have to be careful. Be prepared for a trip. They can all travel for miles, you know. Fairy tales. Songs."
He'd leaned back in the diner's cracked vinyl booth, smiling just a little, so his eyes crinkled at the corners. "Sure. Children's stories. They can travel farthest of all."
* * *
It was getting cold down here. He felt like he should be shivering, but couldn't be bothered. Which should have him bothered in and of itself, now he thought of it. But no, he seemed quite content to sit here on the cold floor, with his back to a cold concrete wall, and his right wrist held by a cold metal cuff to a cold metal pipe. In an old, cold, sewage tunnel. Which should also bother him, for the smell, but didn't.
He supposed it was all the Apathy they'd had him drink.
He wondered, in a distant, not-at-all-curious way, where they'd found it.
* * *
Alice knew that children's stories were not all sunshine and smiles and happy endings. Some children's stories were very dark indeed. Not every hero came home. Sometimes, she knew, the Jabberwock was followed by the Bandersnatch, and the vorpal sword was useless.
She was quite determined that this would not be one of those stories.
Though it was not off to an encouraging start, she'd admit.
Libraries were generally not open at this time of night, for one thing. And night guardsmen took a dim view of people breaking in, even after they explained quite plainly that they were not here for the traveling collection of original Whitman manuscripts.
She hoped the man would not be too uncomfortable, tied up with extension cords in the utility closet.
For another thing, Hatter had never told her just exactly how she might go about getting into Wonderland once she found it. She had to piece it together from a conversation she'd only half been paying attention to, on the fly, in the dark.
Here in the back of the library the shelves were tall, and the aisles between them were narrow. She'd gotten thoroughly lost somewhere between the Old English literature and the Middle English parables but finally, finally, she'd heard it again. That burst of nonsensical rhyme – He said 'I hunt for haddocks' eyes Among the heather bright, And work them into waistcoat-buttons In the silent night. – in the same rhythm as she'd heard at the abduction site.
And that, that was the least encouraging thing. After the House of Cards came down, and Jack was King and the oysters all came home, it wasn't over. The loose ends had come for Hatter, and taken him from her. She'd looked around and he was gone, as if he'd never been. As if she'd dreamed him up. Except for the words, seeping through the edges of the world.
She stopped to catch her breath, leaning on the rail that spiraled up and down the staircase. There were more words etched along the lip of each marble stair, fragments of verse. She was standing, currently, on a line which read:
But the snail replied "Too far, too far!" and gave a look askance – "
She straightened, glaring at the impossibly endless flight of impossible stairs. "Oh shut up," she muttered, and kept on.
The faint trace of raspberry in the air grew just a little stronger as she went.
* * *
He could hear them scurrying, little rats in the dark. The Apathy was wearing off – tricky stuff, that. Too much and you ceased to care if you kept breathing; too little and it left an aftertaste of Anger. He shook his fist, just a bit. The cuff rattled, and the rats squeaked.
"Are you sure he drank enough?" He thought he might recognize the voice – he'd heard it before, part of a jumble, a cacophony, and din. The trading floor. Ah. A customer. One of the more desperate ones.
"I poured the last of it down his throat." This one – no. This one he didn't know. He marked it, for later. He could feel bruises from the grip on his jaw.
"If it wasn't enough we'll just think of something else."
"But his right hand . . . "
"Is bound. Stop sniveling."
Hatter tested the cuff again.
* * *
Alice thought the stairs were getting shallower – wider, less sharply curved. The verses etched in the marble here were so worn she couldn't read them, as if many feet had followed the stairs this far, and then turned around and retreated. Which was just as well, as the nonsense the verses spelled out was starting to make her head ache.
And then, quite suddenly, she stepped off of a clean, worn marble stair onto a gritty concrete slab – so suddenly she stumbled, and threw a hand out for the rail.
But the rail wasn't there. Her arm flew out through empty space, and she spun half around, keeping her balance only through long practice.
The stairs were gone. She was in a long, straight passage, lit by bare electric bulbs swinging on loops of cord from a ceiling so low she could reach up and touch it.
The raspberry scent was gone as well, replaced by a nose-wrinkling hint of sewage.
"Hatter," she said, "you take me to the nicest places."
The passage looked the same in either direction. She turned in a circle, considering. "One way is as good as the other, for now."
She took three steps left-wards, ducking to avoid the lights. She almost didn't hear the voices, rising to the right.
"Where is it?" she heard, as she paused with one foot lifted from the floor. There was the sound of an impact, and a muffled grunt. Another voice, high and indistinct, caught her ear.
She spun silently on the ball of her foot and put her back to the concrete wall, easing her way back towards the sounds. She couldn't hear Hatter's voice, but he had to be there. He had to be.
As she got closer, the second voice came clear – " . . . the right hand, watch the right hand, don't let him loose," it said. She found herself smiling, a fierce, wicked grin. Oh yes. He was there.
* * *
The thing about his hand – and he didn't advertise this, but most everybody knew – the thing about his hand was that it guaranteed that he was never unarmed.
And no, little rats, no flimsy set of second-hand handcuffs was going to keep his right hand bound. Especially after that punch to the gut drove the last of the Apathy out of his system.
He couldn't get much leverage, sitting here, and his whole arm was tingling with a loss of circulation, from being held up by that cuff for so long. But he bunched his hand into a fist and threw himself forward, and the pipe came off the wall with a screech of tearing metal.
He had to scramble a bit to get the cuff off the free end of the pipe though, which gave the rats an unfortunate head start on the pummeling.
* * *
Alice turned the corner with a rush. A hand on the sniveler's wrist, arm twisted to the breaking point, and she had a human shield. She saw the louder one, the angry one, as he paused wide eyed with his fist pulled back, staring at her. And Hatter, her Hatter, with another black eye, and blue smudges like fingerprints on his jaw.
He met her eyes over the sniveler's shoulder. "Alice!" he said, ducked-voiced, startled. "How did you . . ."
"I took the stairs," she said.
Hatter grinned. "Those old things," he said, and a pipe fell to the floor with a clang, and Hatter's fist hit the big guy's face with a crack. He actually bounced when he hit the floor. A set of handcuffs swung wildly from Hatter's wrist as he shook his fingers out.
"We didn't mean no harm!" the sniveler started squeaking, tugging futilely at her hold. "We just wanted the Tea! You weren't using it anymore!"
"Tea?" Even as she asked, she remembered. "Oh, that Tea. I thought the resistance would have destroyed it all after the Casino fell."
Hatter brushed at his jacket sleeves, fingering a stain with a sour set to his lips. "I have a stash they won't have found in a thousand years," he said. Then paused, looking over at her with wide, innocent eyes. "I would have showed them to it, but I . . . forgot. What with the traveling to another world. After you."
Alice raised both eyebrows. "Oh? So we'll let Jack know now, before we go home."
Hatter raised a hand as if to adjust his hat, but had to settle for running it through his hair instead. He pursed his lips.
"Won't we. Now." The Tea creeped her out. A lot. The sniveler whimpered as her grip tightened.
Hatter sighed, and straightened his shoulders. "Of course", he said, and she knew he meant it by the warmth in his eyes.
She dropped the sniveler's arm and gave him a shove. "Go away," she said simply. He scrambled.
When she looked back, Hatter was there, in arm's reach. She reached for him, and he was real. Bruised and stained, but solid. He rested his chin on her shoulder and swayed, tired. Spent. Trusting, to let her see him so.
"You found a way in," he said. She could feel the rumble of his voice in his chest.
"It smelled like words," she murmured.
He wrapped himself around her just a little closer. "I don't suppose," he asked, "you could have brought my hat along?"