It has been April the 3rd for eighty years and Mad March is not all that mad anymore. He's starting to get used to it.
The Hatter says he's still completely bonkers, tea cosy on the head insane, only now it's the quieter and less homicidal type of insanity. The Hatter is oddly comforting, like a three-legged dog, someone who is worse off than you. This is probably why Mad March keeps trailing him, and by now the Hatter's mostly stopped yelling about that.
If nothing else it's something to do until time starts passing long enough for it to be March again.
The Hatter is selling items other than the colorful dangerous sensations in bottles that he used to before, and they travel a lot. Aboveground and underground and in sideways places under tree bark and plaster, people all over Wonderland want things, and they want them now and they don't care how they get them, and the Hatter is good at providing. Mad March is good at observing, and being quiet, at waiting, at intimidating, and occasionally threatening bodily harm to get the Hatter away from certain situations. All of those skills are used with alarming frequency. He never gets thanked later.
He's learned a lot about the Hatter, even though he never asks questions. Asking questions is not how the game works, and the Hatter wouldn't answer them anyway.
The hand is one mystery. Mad March thinks on it for a decade, little gadgets shifting and clanging and little fans whirring inside his head, and comes to conclusions that he tells no one. He wonders if even the Hatter knows, if he remembers chessmen are made of marble.
The hat is another piece of strangeness. It's tattered and musty-smelling, the leather is cracked and its inside is a criss-cross of stitches. The oldest ones look clumsy, uneven, as if made by a child.
Mad March has seen the hat off the Hatter's head for more than thirty seconds exactly two times. The first time a bird snatched it off and they spend half an hour chasing it through a road, a meadow and finally a lake, where it seemed to want to nest in it. The Hatter had clutched the hat to his body, chest heaving long after he should have stopped being winded. That night he'd taken longer than usual to fall asleep, and Mad March, who never slept since getting his new head, watched his hand go towards it in dreams, again and again, frantic to make sure it was still there.
The second time the man who'd thrown the hat to the ground had made it out alive. Or so Mad March thinks.
Then there are the Thursdays.
Every Thursday the Queen of Hearts comes over for tea. On grassy riverbanks, in the cellars of derelict buildings, in haylofts, in mouse holes, wherever they are, the Queen shows up, tea set in tow, and the three of them have tea.
They sit in a circle as the cutlery arranges itself, the teacups bickering and pushing all the way. Only the Queen talks, she chatters about the King, and her mother, and court, about how the new casino is going, now that the King's refitted it into a luxury getaway for rich people from the other world. She takes a drink from time to time, whenever she remembers to, or whenever she seems to run out of things to say.
Mad March pours the tea into the small feeding hole at the base of his neck, and only listens. The Hatter stirs his cup furiously, spoon clattering against the porcelain almost loud enough to drown the Queen's voice, and drinks it in two large gulps, immediately fills his glass again.
He looks at his hands or the ground, mostly, and never catches the quick glances the Queen throws his way, guilty and hopeful and concerned. She always asks how he is, and he always says, "fine, I'm always fine", and the silence after that is usually the last one before the Queen leaves.
"She fits in. She's a part of Wonderland now," Mad March says after the first tea ritual he's been a witness to is over. It's an unusual thing for an outsider, something worth being remarked upon.
"No, she doesn't. She doesn't at all. She should never have been Queen," The Hatter is spinning a left behind saucer on the tip of one finger, faster and faster. The saucer is shouting and flailing its hands, loudly protesting the treatment. The Hatter's hands are shaking.
The Queen doesn't look like a typical heart, to be sure. She has the blue eyes of a club, the sharp features and black hair of a spade. Mad March knows some say she isn't regal enough, distant enough or beautiful enough to be the Queen of Hearts. And yet there is something about her, something that's made her new role stick like a glove to her skin. Mad March doesn't say so to the Hatter, though; he doesn't think the Hatter's ready to hear that.
"She looks beautiful in red," he offers instead. "Like a ripped open carotid artery."
"Truer words have never left your mouth, my very mad and mechanical rabbity friend," The Hatter says, and chuckles to himself, and Mad March wonders if people can get drunk on hopelessness.
~ ~ ~
"They have a history together, those two," Squirrel offers conspiratorially during one of their brief forays into the city. "From since before she was Queen. Alice, she called herself then, Just Plain Alice. She and the Hatter and that barmy old knight helped put the King on his throne."
"In chess the Queen is the conqueror, while the King is kept safely back," Mad March says. Squirrel pays him no mind. Mad March isn't offended - if he were sane he wouldn't care much for a madman's conversational contributions either.
"She was all set back for her world," Squirrel prattles on. "She was already in the Mirror Room when the King asked for her forgiveness and for her hand and promised to never lie to her again. The Hatter was very broken up about it when she said yes. It was all very sad."
Mad March knows nothing about that; he'd been still considerably madder at the time, or possibly dead. He knows even less about falling in love, except that it seems far more painful and troublesome than getting your head cut off. His mind wanders forward to the next tea gathering, to watching the Hatter and the Queen both pretend that she hadn't broken his heart. Yes, he thinks, he'd take a beheading over that any day.
~ ~ ~
The Queen shows up a day early, crying, and the Hatter puts his hands over her face, as if covering the tears will make them not be there. They talk far away enough that even Mad March's electronic hearing isn't able to pick out much.
"The King's been having some Duchess on the side," the Hatter offers as explanation later, much later, when they are in a mood to notice anyone but each other.
"You could try sounding less happy about it," the Queen says, tear marks still on her cheeks, her lips as red as her dress and raw from kissing.
"No, I really couldn't," the Hatter says quietly, and takes one of her hands, holds it to his chest gently. They look into each other's eyes, the Queen looking charmed through her outrage, and Mad March knows he's been forgotten again.
~ ~ ~
They start traveling faster, hiding more artfully. The Queen wears trousers and short sleeves instead of the long, flowing dresses she favored before, and Mad March sees she has a tattoo on her arm, a curving, oily green pattern. She's left the stone behind and her fingers stay bare of any rings. She has a mean kick. Mad March decides he likes her. He thinks he'll stick around even if the Hatter is not nearly as pathetic as he used to be. Nowadays when the Hatter laughs it sounds genuine, and the Queen moves with a fluid, fast grace, a playful restlessness in her limbs.
"He is such an idiot. Such a massive, colossal idiot," the Hatter says one morning in the woods, the crumbling shapes of chess pieces towering over the trees in the distance. They are on their way to see somebody named Charlie, apparently. "I always knew she was too good for him."
"You should wake the Queen now. We ought to move soon."
"Don't call her the Queen. Her name is Alice," the Hatter answers, annoyed. "His majesty's probably married again and forgotten all about her by now."
Mad March says nothing. The next day, when there are thirty suits waiting for them in an ambush in the White city, he isn't really surprised.
The King obviously hasn't forgotten his wife. Not at all.
~ ~ ~
They go to the city. It's dangerous, even with all the handy hiding places, but they need information. Getting it turns easier than they thought.
On every other building there is a huge screen, the King's face on it, enormous and earnest and contrite. He doesn't say the Queen's been kidnapped, he doesn't talk about a reward, though Mad March is sure there is one. The King speaks to his wife, tells her he's sorry, asks her to come back, comes as close to begging as a King can afford to. He seems very sincere.
The Queen watches the display with wide, distant eyes. The Hatter pulls her away from it as fast as he can, of course, but she goes a little reluctantly.
Mad March hears them that night, whispering.
He doesn't love you, he never has.
He does. You heard what the Caterpillar said, your people don't feel as strongly as us. As oysters. It's not his fault.
I'm not like him, I feel, I feel things for you. Lots and lots of things... You're not thinking of going back. Tell me you aren't, the man lied to-
Of course not. I'm happy right here.
There's silence then, and then indistinct murmuring, and the soft noises of people kissing.
~ ~ ~
The cat is following them constantly, letting them see it every now and again, flash of a tail through the trees, smile flicking on and off, showing off needle-sharp teeth. It comes closer finally, lets the Queen feed it pieces of meat and stroke its soft fur.
"Jack knows where we are," the Queen says casually, long fingers scratching the Cheshire behind one ear. Anyone else would have been missing an eye by now, or several fingers, but she only gets a low, smug purr. "He's giving me space."
"And what happens when he catches on that you're not changing your mind, what then?" The Hatter moves in sharp, nervous bursts of motion, doesn't sit still for more than a few moments. He does that when he's worried, Mad March knows. "We should get rid of the cat."
The Cheshire hisses angrily, hops off the Queen's lap and streaks into the forest. The Queen watches after him for a moment, but she doesn't seem very worried he won't be back.
"I know what you think of him, but he's nothing like his mother. He would never hurt me," she laughs, a little bitterly, and smooths down the front of her dress. "He doesn't care for me enough to do that."
~ ~ ~
Mad March keeps his thoughts to himself, but if he had the inclination to speak, here's what he would have said.
She'll go back to him, sooner or later. The same way I'll be mad again come next March. She's a card and a chess piece both, the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts. That's what Hearts do, they fall in love and then thrive on the jealousy, the little games and betrayals that keep the excitement strong. And she's a Heart, through and through, and she's the Queen. In Wonderland nothing changes, not really, even when it does, and she'll be the Queen as long as she's here. This is not the kind of story that finishes with a happy ending. At least not for you.
That is what he would have said, but he doesn't. It's not his time for cruelty.
He thinks the Hatter knows, all the same. He seems to have decided not to care, to squeeze every last drop of happiness he can. Happiness. There was never a tea for that, Mad March remembers suddenly. He thinks he understands, finally, why someone would want to live for the moment.
~ ~ ~
The day after the cat disappears the Hatter carries the Queen across a stream, the both off them laughing all the while. The Queen catches a hare for dinner and Mad March skins it (he is proficient with knives), while she winds the Hatter gently for the hunting skills he'd so boasted about.
Life is good.
The next morning when he wakes up it's April the 4th. Time is running again.