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How Bright the Lights

Chapter Text

Alice Kingsleigh, for all her beauty, was terribly ill suited to fashion modeling.

If Alice didn’t have the perfect blue-blood-British with a dash of Eastern European flavor of beauty so desired at the moment, her agent, Yelena Kingsleigh, (who was also her mother) would have given up and tried to figure some other way out of their family’s insolvency. Yelena took her seat in the back row of chairs in the dimly lit room, holding the program passed out at the door by two excited girls who were trying desperately to seem nonchalant—no doubt aspiring design apprentices. The walls were covered in black fabric screen-printed with images of exotic birds. This was Alice’s first show with a major house in over a year, and Yelena took several deep breaths and tried to assure herself that Alice would do nothing tonight to jeopardize her future career.

Alice wasn’t so bad at photo shoots, but live events were a gamble. She seemed quite as likely to step off the runway and ask a question of a photographer in the front row as complete her walk without incident. Not that she had exactly done such an unheard-of thing, but rather than spending her time backstage dutifully primping and mentally preparing herself before her mirror, Alice managed to get in everyone’s way. And whenever she wasn’t dreamily staring off into space in the path of a rack of clothes and a harried dresser, she was asking questions. Alice wanted to know how the makeup artists got just the right shade and coverage, and how the hairstylists managed to defy gravity, especially with her thick unruly locks. She hounded the stage manager about the reasoning behind the timing of runs, and bothered designers about everything from placement of zippers to the reasons for the order of presentation.

Yelena did her best to control the damage, steering Alice away from those most likely to lose patience with her. At photo shoots this was rarely a problem, but there was no place for mothers or agents backstage at fashion shows, so Yelena was forced to trust her daughter to stay out of trouble. It shouldn’t have been too much to ask from a young woman soon to turn twenty, but Alice remained stubbornly childish even in the face of the ruthless world of fashion. Her naïveté was not really that unusual amongst very young models. Many of them, especially those still in their teens, were similarly sheltered by parents and agents who were all too aware that growing up meant growing old, and that the sex, drugs, and eating disorders that were so popular in their profession were most often the beginning of the end of a modelling career.

Of course there were always mature and clever girls who managed to apply these vices judiciously, partying with just the right crowd or sleeping with the right journalist or designer to launch themselves into international stardom. For every one who managed this feat, however, there were dozens of hopefuls who crashed and burned, their fire quickly doused by a stifling blanket of obscurity. It was much better to stay a safe distance from the glitz and glamour and remain one of the ranks of the young, dependable, hard-working girls who did not stand out too much to make them unsuitable for catalog work, but had just enough edge to their innocence to sell as sexy.

Yelena had no hopes of superstardom for her dreamy daughter. All she needed was to keep her in the game for a couple more years, keeping a roof over their heads and supporting the elder Kingsleigh sister, Margaret, through medical school and into a residency. Once Margaret was safely ensconced in a job and bringing home enough to meet their expenses, then Alice could have her turn. She could go to Uni full-time and decide what to do with herself in the long run, though Yelena did of course have some further plans for her younger daughter. She was a mother, after all.

The show started. The lights dimmed all the way and the designer took the stage to introduce the new summer line. Thankfully this was a well-established individual, so the remarks were relatively brief and there was no unsightly sniffling as was so common with those just starting out. Alice’s first walk was toward the beginning. She came out on the runway, tall and sophisticated in heels, a minimal ruffled brown top and a patterned full-length skirt. Atop her head was the most exciting feature of the show, a hat by the scion of the Bembury haberdashery house. Though Bembury was synonymous with quality and had been known for years as the exclusive hatters to Queen Elizabeth II, it had also been years since anything particularly interesting had come out of their studios. Apparently, however, they had been hiding a new designer away in the wings, a nephew of the late August Bembury. No one could accuse these hats of being made for octogenarians. The diversity of designs included in the headwear was amazing, yet they held together through the use of common elements such as prints and the feathers of exotic birds. Alice was wearing a small pillbox affair with a single long brown feather which bobbed after her as she walked. Yelena had worried this would only draw attention to the flaws in Alice’s walk, but the effect of the bobbing was to bring out a playfulness that was strangely appropriate to the show. Even Alice’s carefully controlled runway expression was augmented by a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Yelena was instantly suspicious. Any deviations from their carefully-rehearsed choreography usually spelled trouble—but Alice reached the platform, paused, and turned smartly (and a touch sassily—not once in all her coaching had Yelena seen Alice properly execute sassy), making it back to the curtain without incident. What in the world could have happened to coax so inspired a walk from the dreamy and waifish Alice?

-o-o-o-

The blonde girl stuck her lip out petulantly in a manner that could be in no way construed as sexy, and then proceeded to make the most violently silly faces she could think of in the mirror at her dressing station. The young women around her just rolled their eyes and ignored her, having long since given up trying to get either fun or sensible conversation out of their contrary coworker. She was dressed and ready, with her hair flowing just so over her shoulders and her makeup done. Now Alice just had to avoid spilling something on her clothes, or tripping and ripping the excessively long feather-print skirt she was wearing. This was always the hardest part for her.

“There you are! I had almost given up on you, number four.”

Before Alice could see who was speaking, he was upon her. She ducked down as the top of her head was assaulted with a flurry of fabric, feather, and hatpins. Practiced motions secured the small hat to her head efficiently. It seemed she’d been found at last.

“I’m right at my station,” she grumbled, pointing at the large numeral four in the corner.

“For the first time in the last hour, I’d wager,” said the pleasant and precise voice of her assailant. “The dressers had seen you at some point, but couldn’t tell me or my assistant where you might be. It seems you have something of a reputation for exploration.”

The sure hands released her head, and Alice looked up into the mirror to see bright green eyes twinkling over her shoulder. Bright ginger hair curled around a pale face and the hat-dresser gave her a kind smile that belied his exasperated tone.

Alice snorted, “I bet that’s not how they put it.”

“Not exactly, no,” he admitted. “But there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of curiosity. I’d imagine these things get dreadfully boring for you, just sitting around until the right moment.”

“You don’t find these things dull?” Alice asked in surprise. It was rare to find a dresser who, while often harried and rushed, did not hold onto their air of supreme boredom like a talisman against primadonna models and totalitarian designers.

“Well, this is my first real show” he admitted, “and I’ve been kept so busy running this way and that I haven’t had a moment to reflect on it ‘til now.”

He still stood behind her, their eyes meeting in the mirror. His traveled up to the top of her blonde curls and he straightened the long feather with his fingers. Alice followed his motion with her eyes and for some reason felt her cheeks heat with a blush. Uncomfortable, she turned away, squirming at the unfamiliar feeling of hatpins in her long unrestrained hair.

“Something the matter with the hat?” he asked, and Alice could detect just the hint of an accent underlying his carefully cultured tone. Scottish, perhaps?

“Oh, it’s fine I suppose.” She looked around, surveying the other models in this show, who she only just now realized were already wearing their own hats of widely varying shapes and sizes. “They’re amazing in fact. So many colors and feathers. I wonder where they got all the birds?” Alice realized she was in danger of wandering off-topic, something she was frequently scolded for doing, both by herself and her family. With a struggle, she returned herself to his question. “I don’t feel comfortable in hats. I never have.”

The face in the mirror, which had taken on a pleased aspect at her compliment to the hats, shifted. The eyes narrowed speculatively.

“I shall consider that a challenge then, number four. After all, we still have two more rounds to go, don’t we? I’m sure I can find something to suit you.”

Her eyes widened.

“You mean, give me different hats than on the list? But you’d mess up the lineup! They’d be in fits if anything changed now.”

He grinned at her shock. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d balk at a little. . .rearrangement in the name of exploration.”

She arched a brow at him. His enthusiasm was infectious though, and she found herself grinning in return. The idea was interesting. Alice found herself curious as to what the green-eyed hat man would come up with. She turned to take him in better. Now that she faced him she could see that while still young, he was older than her, maybe in his mid twenties. She didn’t recognize him from fittings, though that wasn’t terribly surprising as Alice rarely paid attention to the instructors or noticed anything aside from what directly affected her. He was wearing two pieces of a red-brown three piece suit. The trousers looked neatly pressed but the vest was unbuttoned and the sleeves of his pale green shirt were rolled up to the elbows. Not the conventional black on black of a dresser. Alice liked it.

“You want to flout the designers’ wishes just to find a hat that I like?” she asked, curiosity brimming in her voice.

He grinned again, “I like a challenge. And it’s a sad thing when a person has never found a hat to suit them. Let’s consider it public service.”

Alice found herself drawn to his enthusiasm and playfulness, but she still had one hesitation.

“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” she blurted. “I mean, I’m always doing something that annoys the planner or the stage manager, but I don’t want to drag you into it.”

He giggled a bit and said, “There really won’t be much they can do about it.”

Just then a wild-eyed stage tech in black rushed up to them.

“Kingsleigh!” he hissed dangerously, “If you don’t get out there now, so help me I will not be responsible for the wrath of the designer.”

This was when Alice and her companion realized that most of the other girls stationed by Alice had disappeared to the curtain side of the spacious backstage and that only the dressers continued to scurry about readying the next round of outfits. Her mother would be furious if she ruined the timing or was pushed back in the show! Alice quickly moved to follow the irate stage tech, but the green-eyed man caught her hand.

“I’ll be thinking about what to try next,” he said, grinning widely.

Alice smiled back conspiratorially and made her way to the curtain where she walked past the designer who was standing tersely at the monitors without a word and was just in time to step out for the fourth run.

Upon returning backstage, Alice was surprised when the designer, one of the old guard of the fashion world and an old acquaintance of her mother’s, stopped her with a hand to the shoulder.

“Nicely done, Alice,” said Absolem, “Now if you could only do that every time, you stupid girl.”

Alice was much more shocked at the praise than at the fact that he had afterwards insulted her, but she was quickly rushed out of the way and into her next change of clothes. The next segment was somewhat more formal, so Alice donned a purple knee-length princess cut dress and waited uncharacteristically patiently at her station for the hat dresser to return. As someone came by to retouch her makeup she caught several glimpses of ginger hair as he doubtlessly flitted back and forth dressing other models with hats.

It was almost time for her next walk when he came running up to her with what seemed like a tuft of blue tulle and lace in his hand. Without saying a word, he began pinning and fanning out the headpiece until all the layers were arranged to his liking. He stepped back just enough so that Alice could see in the mirror that it was a fascinator style hat in powder blue with quite intricate lace veils layered over one another.

“But the dress is purple,” she blurted.

“But you look so much better in blue,” he returned. “The dress will just have to make allowances.”

Alice looked a bit more and saw that there were some paler blue shimmers hidden in the deep purple material that she hadn’t noticed before. Clearly the dresser knew clothes as well as hats. The hat was extremely well conceived and well made. It partially hid one eye from view while artfully flattering the shape of her face, which her mother often complained was too round to be truly interesting. Well, it was interesting now.

“Off you go,” said the hat dresser, ushering her toward the curtain with a strong hand to the small of her back.

“Don’t you want to know what I think of the hat?” asked Alice a little breathlessly, as he was rushing her and the dress was quite tight.

“Why don’t you tell me when you return?” he said. She looked up at him, and he winked at her. She noticed that there was a tiny gap between his front teeth. She thought it was endearing and refreshing that he’d never had it straightened. After years surrounded by people desperately trying to look perfect a touch of imperfection seemed all the sweeter to Alice. She could not help but feel flattered by the attention he was showing her. Perhaps it was just the hat, but Alice stepped onto the runway feeling more confident and interesting than ever before.

-o-o-o-

Yelena watched her daughter emerge from the wings this time looking mysterious and alluring. What had gotten into the girl? Usually Alice could do bored, haughty, dreamy and something that they often passed off as sexy that was close to how Alice regularly looked when cross. Where was this new confidence and verve coming from? If she wasn’t certain there was something troublesome brewing, Yelena might have given herself a chance to hope that this could mean good things for Alice’s modelling career. For two thrilling years in the 80s Yelena Parikova had been a major swimsuit model, and though Alice would never be able to follow that path, she did still have some contacts in high fashion that she hadn’t tried tapping yet, knowing that her daughter’s skills were not quite up to snuff. If she continued in this vein, however. . .but no, Yelena wouldn’t get ahead of herself. There was definitely something going on, but what?

-o-o-o-

Alice all but ran back to her station after changing into her third and final look of the show, missing the speculative glance the designer had given her in lieu of praise. This outfit was supposed to be the most casual of the summer line, but Alice could hardly imagine wearing the high-necked black blouse of heavy satin and lace out to dinner, let alone to the beach as was implied, no matter that it was sleeveless or that the beige skirt was well above her knees. She was just wondering whether or not the hat dresser ever went to the beach—with such pale skin it seemed he didn’t spend much time out of doors—when a sunhat was unceremoniously tossed onto her head. Alice looked up to find the hat dresser looking at her intently.

“What do you think?” he asked, after a moment.

The hat was a straw sunhat, yes, but it was not quite right to call it simple. It had been woven in complex patterns with varying natural shades of straw. The brim was fashioned to look like a seven-pointed star and the pattern was echoed less obviously in the crown. It was a beautiful hat. Unassuming at first glance, but with plenty of depth and interest. Though Alice’s blonde hair might not have provided enough contrast with a standard straw hat, the darker edging made an attractive border that would separate hat from hair on the runway.

“It’s lovely. I may not like wearing hats, but when I have to, I’d want one just like this.”

He looked disappointed that she was still professing not to like wearing hats, but mollified that she agreed this was wearable under some circumstances.

“Well, it may not suit you, but you certainly suit it,” he muttered. He continued in a louder tone, “If only the same could be said for that outfit.”

The hat man looked at it askance, and Alice took the chance to take in his delightfully different appearance. He had located his suit jacket somewhere, and though it hung open still, he had done up the buttons on his waistcoat. Alice was again charmed to notice a gold pocket-watch chain hanging from the pocket. His hair was still defiantly disheveled, but he looked a bit more together than when she’d seen him last.

“Don’t you want to know about the last hat?” she asked.

“It clearly wasn’t right, though you did a nice job showing it off,” he replied distractedly.

Alice felt her cheeks warm a bit at the thought of this busy hat dresser stealing a moment to watch her on the monitors. She was very surprised by the strength of her own reactions toward him. It wasn’t often that someone caught her attention, and it was almost unheard of for her to speak to anyone who did. Yet here she was, being at least somewhat sociable. She’d never fit in with the other girls, drinking champagne and teasing the reporters who tried to catch them undressed, but finally there was someone backstage at a fashion show that she could talk to. Amazing.

He sighed loudly. “I think I’m going to have to do something drastic.”

He grinned manically, and Alice was suddenly very worried. But overriding that concern that he would do something to get them both in trouble was intense curiosity as to what he wanted to do. It seemed she wasn’t to be given either a choice in the matter or a chance to find out beforehand.

“Hold still, Miss Kingsleigh,” he said, and whipped a pair of scissors from somewhere on his person and began cutting out the high lace neck of the shirt Alice was wearing. If she’d had a chance to realize what was happening she might have yelped or backed away, but as it was there was nothing she could do to stop him, so Alice held still, closed her eyes, and waited for this charming but regrettably mad dresser to do his worst.

It was over before she knew it.

“You can open your eyes,” he said softly, close to her ear.

They both stared into the mirror for a moment, the green eyes looking critically over her shoulder.

“I like it,” he announced.

He had drastically altered the shape of the neck, taking all the lace and cutting into the thick fabric. He’d woven a thin orange ribbon through slits in the neckline of the shirt, and had added the same ribbon as a hatband that held two short brown feathers. The edges of the altered fabric were of course frayed, but he’d taken care to make them artfully so. It actually looked lovely, but Alice could hardly let that thought have voice amidst all the other clamour in her head. She was deathly afraid to approach the curtain for fear of the designer’s wrath. He would probably pull her from the show and her mother would know it and be furious.

“Absolem will kill me,” she whispered.

The green eyes looked at her with some disappointment. She felt a pang of annoyance that he expected her to jump for joy at the thought of pissing off the man who could advance or end her career. Alice knew she was not such a good model that she could afford to make such bold moves. Not with her mother and sister still depending on her to bring home whatever contracts she could.

“I would have thought your spirit of adventure would take you a little further than that, number four.”

Her brown eyes widened. The anger burned brighter and she practically spit, “Be as disappointed as you want. If I get cut for this it will be more than a disappointment to my mother and sister when I tell them why we can’t make rent. Not all of us do this out of boredom or dreams of fame and fortune you know.”

He looked taken aback, then abashed. He grabbed her arm when she moved to turn away from him.

“Hold on there,” his accent was definitely melting toward Scottish now. “Jus’ wait. ‘Twon’t be a problem at all. You’ll see. Here, I’ll go with you.”

Instead of removing his hand from her arm, he repositioned it to tug her along to where the designer stood watching the monitors behind the curtain. Alice reluctantly followed, unsure as to what this man could do to salvage the situation.

“Absolem,” he said.

“Hatter,” said Absolem. He did not even turn to face them, but continued to watch the row of monitors closely.

“I’ve made one of those changes we’d discussed.”

“Ah.” Absolem finally turned to look at them, not showing any sign of surprise that it was Alice brought up to him in a drastically altered version of one of his creations. He sniffed a little, looked back to the screens and said, “Wear it well, you stupid girl.”

“Yes sir,” she said, more than a little confused by the exchange.

“Well, that’s it then,” said the Hatter with a cheerful grin as he ushered her to the side to wait her turn to walk. Alice was now beginning to understand that though he had rushed around all night like a regular lackey, this was someone rather more important than she’d first believed.

Who could he possibly be? she wondered. Alice knew that this show was to feature Bembury hats, but all she’d ever heard about that house of haberdashery was that they hatted rich old aristocrats. Though these were not hats for fussy old ladies playing bridge. He must be a new designer. Probably everyone was talking about it and, as usual, she had avoided learning anything about the new developments in the fashion world. So much as she would like to blame him for being mysterious about his role, it was most likely her own fault for remaining in willful ignorance. Alice decided to scold herself more thoroughly later in hopes of changing her deplorable behavior.

“You made the hats then?” she queried.

A beaming smile was her confirmation.

“And now you will model my first er, offering, in the world of women’s casual wear,” he joked. “Though be sure to give Absolem all the credit. He could use some shaking up,” the Hatter winked at her and despite her recent upset, Alice felt herself smiling back. The outfit really was lovely, and with the altered neckline the top was much more comfortable than previously. If she had looked strange or wrong, Absolem would have had no qualms about pulling her from the show, so Alice began to relax.

“My mother told me he was just as stodgy in the eighties, though since he used to be allowed cigarettes backstage you could hardly see him for all the smoke. People thought it gave him an air of mystery,” she whispered.

“You can still hardly breathe in his studio,” the Hatter whispered back. He nudged her shoulder playfully with his own. “It’s a good thing his assistants actually make all the clothes or you’d all smell like the back of an after-hours club.”

Alice wrinkled her nose at the thought, but most of her brain was dedicated to thrilling at his casual touch. She scrambled for something witty to say, but her brain was frustratingly blank. She wasn’t good at making chit chat.

“So, what should my forfeit be?” asked the Hatter.

“Sorry?” said Alice, quite unsure as to how to take this question.

“You challenged me to find you a hat that suits you, and I have sadly failed in my task. What can I do to make it up to you? Climb some mythical mountain in search of the coldest rose, or recover some long-lost family heirloom? What will it be?”

Alice laughed happily. The stage manager motioned her forward.

“Let me think about it,” she said, smiling.

-o-o-o-

Alice breezed onto the runway in six inch heels, looking as carefree as possible without actually smiling. Satisfaction and confidence pervaded her every step, giving her an allure not often seen on the runway. Too much expression would make it hard for a model to keep her eyes open the entire time on the runway, but Alice seemed to be managing very well. A happy woman was a desirable woman, Yelena had been told in her youth in Yugoslavia, and she’d found that to be mostly true. So why was Alice practically radiating joy at an event that she saw as a necessary chore at best? There had to be an answer, and Yelena was getting a very bad feeling about what it might be. She decided to hope Alice had finally accepted some champagne and made friends with another girl.

The casual section had concluded with Alice, and after the requisite two-to-four formalwear pieces, the show was over and the designers came onstage to receive applause. Absolem first wandered out to polite applause, but the crowd grew more enthusiastic when a tall figure in a red-brown suit and a matching top hat bounded onto the stage. Yelena was surprised by the brightness of both his hair and his attire. She noticed that his shirt was neither white nor blue and was a little confused at how such a man could make such elegant hats. The young man beamed and fidgeted with his pocket watch chain while Absolem briefly thanked the crowd of journalists, photographers, and other guests. Then he spoke. Thankfully, Absolem’s brevity seemed to have rubbed off on him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he cried, as if he were some sort of ringmaster, “Thank you for coming to witness the debut show of Bembury with Vetvier. I am delighted to be here tonight and I’d like to thank everyone willing to take a chance on my hats. Especially those who still haven’t found the right hat, as you are who I craft for.”

It was an odd little speech, not at all the normal thanking of senior designers and crew and fashion icon influences. Yelena didn’t think much of it, but the reporters in the front row were buzzing like he’d said something profound, all scrambling to write that down like it was very important. Unimportant, more like it. Yelena had little patience for anyone in the fashion industry pretending they were in it for the people. True, some designers started out dedicated to their art, but profit margins quickly eclipsed artistic integrity for most. She gathered her things, carefully listening to the journalists and photographers as they filed out.

“. . .That blonde who actually looked happy, what’s her name?” inquired a woman who Yelena knew to be a writer for Paris Vogue.

“Alice,” replied the photographer standing with her. “Alice Kingsleigh. Seemed to be something of a pariah with the other girls, but that may just be professional jealousy. She looked stunning in the blue veil, and that beach outfit looked like it had been made for her. Definitely one of Absolem’s more interesting pieces.”

“Hmm, Alice. That makes a bit of a change from always fussing about the Brazilians. Is this her first major?”

“I believe she did some work for Incando a few seasons ago, but I could be mistaken,” he replied.

“Yes she did,” Yelena replied, feeling the moment had come to break into the conversation, “though she took the winter and spring to concentrate on some contract work.

“Yelena Parikova, Alice’s agent.” She shook hands with the journalist, then the photographer. It was best not to use her married name in these instances, as being Alice’s mother added an undesirable element to the interaction with the press. Also, if anyone were to remember her own career and forget her late husband’s it would only be to the good for Alice’s reputation. Yelena knew she shouldn’t build Alice up too much, as the performance tonight was most likely a fluke, but a little positive media attention couldn’t hurt, could it?

“How lucky to run into you Ms. Parikova,” smiled the journalist.

-o-o-o-

Alice stood half-dressed in front of the monitors, the only model backstage to still be concerned with what was happening in front of the curtain. All the other girls were drinking champagne and talking to each other and the press who’d managed to get to them. There would be an afterparty, of course, and Alice was expected to make an appearance. Most often she was dragged reluctantly through the door by her mother, who would then abandon her with instructions to mingle. Much as Alice usually detested these parties and did her best to leave early, tonight she thought she wouldn’t mind so much. However, the idea of being shepherded into the room by her mother was a little more than Alice could bear. What if she asked the Hatter for a ride to the party as his forfeit? Could she be so bold? Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair, as the party was for him and his collection as much or more than anybody else. Still, she wouldn’t expect him to pay attention to her once they were there necessarily.

Could she do it? Alice stood pondering this barefoot by the monitors, in a bra and the beige mini she’d yet to return to the racks. The Hatter bounded happily round the curtain, eyes scanning for something, even as he fielded congratulations on a successful first show from the crew.. When he caught sight of her he smiled widely and rushed right over.

“Well, all things considered that seems to have gone rather well!” He seemed so pleased that Alice decided to risk vexing him with her request.

“Indeed. You’ve had a wonderful showing. And now there’s only the party. About that—” Alice trailed off as she noticed a scarlet blush staining the Hatter’s cheeks. Apparently he had just noticed her state of undress and it was making him uncomfortable. Alice could think of no other explanation, yet this one was so unlikely as to make her doubt herself. Why, all night they’d been surrounded by girls in much less clothing than she was wearing now. Alice was sure she’d seen him affixing a hat to the head of a girl in nothing but a thong just twenty minutes ago. Still, his discomfort was tangible.

“Perhaps we should, er, discuss this once you are more substantially, subtly, suitably, ah—” he seemed to finally catch himself, “. . .once you’re dressed,” he said in a rush.

He started to lead Alice off by her elbow but quickly thought better of it, releasing her skin and forcing his eyes to remain on her face. Alice was amused, but quickly dismayed as a new wave of models, dressers, and apprentices noticed the Hatter and came up to congratulate him. He looked apologetically at Alice, but the crowd around him pushed him toward the stage door and the brisk air outside.

“I’ll do that then,” she said, disappointed, to the empty air where the Hatter had been moments before.

Alice found her way back to her station and more carefully than usual dressed herself in the outfit that her mother had tucked into her bag for her to wear to the party. It was thankfully not too awful. Instead of the sort of little black dress her mother generally favored for these parties she’d packed a floaty dress of periwinkle blue. It was still quite short and would need to be worn with the horrid black spike heels her mother had added, as the trainers she’d worn to the show were out of the question, but all in all it could have been worse. By the time she had dressed and found her coat, Alice was sure she’d missed her chance to speak with the Hatter. She chastised herself for not immediately asking him if she could accompany him and instead letting him be swept away without a word on it. He’d probably already left to go have drinks with some more forward girl before the party.

She decided she might as well go outside and find her mother, so she grabbed her bag and walked out the door. She pulled her coat on over her shoulders but didn’t fasten it, instead relishing the chill air on her too-hot skin. Just when Alice was about to succumb to the waves of self-pity washing over her, a throat was cleared beside her. She turned, surprised, though it was not very difficult to sneak up on Alice. She was always dreaming. The Hatter smiled.

“That dress is more Alice than the others,” he said. “Not quite, of course, but almost an Alice dress.”

“What are you still doing here?” she asked

“Well, I was wondering. . .I mean, that is to say, hoping, that you might ride with me to the party. You had indicated that you were going. At least, I thought that’s what you were saying,” the Hatter trailed off, evidently perplexed to find himself so tongue-tied.

“Yes,” she agreed. “I have to go. That is to say, I’m supposed to show up.” She tried again. “It’s expected of me.” Still not good. “But I’d be happy to go, with you.”

She looked up at him (only slightly up due to the extra height granted by her footwear) and saw that she was understood and accepted. Alice and the Hatter beamed at each other in the cold October air until he finally extended his arm to her, seized her bag, and led her to the waiting car. Their mutual enthralment was dimmed, however, when he helped her into the back of the limousine and she was greeted by the sight of an irritated Absolem. Though come to think of it, irritation was his default expression, so who knew what the eccentric man was thinking.

“Hello Alice.”

“Absolem,” she said, still not sure if that was how she ought to address the venerable Vetvier designer.

The Hatter scrambled through the door after her and Alice was struck by his confusing mishmash of grace and awkwardness of movement. He grinned cheekily at Absolem, who rolled his eyes and tapped the glass behind him with his cane. The car started moving, and Alice settled in for a silent, tense, but still stomach-flutteringly exciting ride next to the Hatter.