Alice was a thief. A good for nothing, sneaky little thief. Jefferson returned home to the Enchanted Forest and managed a quick pickpocket job in the market that got him a mediocre meal. Even though he wasn’t starving, his pride was hurt. The teacup was supposed to be an easy job that gave him a place to stay and warm food for at least a week. Instead, he rested against a tree in the woods, twirling his hat in his hands, unable to sleep.
His employer refused to give him another job until he got his hands on that teacup. He didn’t know what was so special about it. The hare had plenty of cups, but that one was somehow different from the rest. The hare said it had magic. And if Alice had been looking for it too, then it meant someone else knew about that magic. Someone from a different realm. He had to find out who was looking for it, though he hadn’t told his employer that Alice had taken it. He wasn’t sure why.
He returned to Wonderland the very next day anyway. He stepped out of his portal and right onto the road. The scent of pine, wildflowers, and buttery cookies hit him like a brick wall of nostalgia. He pushed the memories away and marched down the road in search of the hare and his decrepit burrow. He was going to get information out of the hare if he had to shake it out of him. He wanted to know everything about Alice, her employer, where she was from, and why she wanted that silly little teacup.
Alice found him first. He pushed through the tall blades of grass, uncertain of where the hare’s burrow was. Sometimes Wonderland’s landscape changed without warning. Something would be there one day, and then in another place the next day. The residents of the realm never seemed to notice the change, but it was always significant enough to startle and confuse outsiders. After he passed the whispering pansies, he knew he was at least headed in the right direction.
“Hello,” a voice said when the burrow appeared through the tall blades of grass in the distance. Jefferson startled before turning around to face her.
It took him a long moment to respond. She was leaning against a mushroom in a dress that was a slightly more vibrant shade of blue than the one the day before. She had no cloak this time, and she’d pulled the ribbons out of her hair, so that the golden strands hung wavy and soft around her face.
He was briefly stunned. It was easy to overlook the fact that she had tricked him so dishonorably. That was why beautiful women always made the best thieves, he’d been told. He tried not to let her win him over with her sly smile and delicately pink lips. She held her arms behind her back in a posture of playfulness and mock innocence.
“You robbed me,” he stated, pointing a finger at her. He stepped forward as the momentary shock wore off. Her grin grew wider, and he couldn’t help but think about the cat that used to sit in the trees and taunt him on his earlier visits to Wonderland.
“I did no such thing,” she said. “The cup was never yours.”
“Who do you work for?”
“I work for me.”
“Who wants the cup?”
“Maybe I wanted the cup. It’s pretty. Maybe I have a whole collection of pretty things I steal just because I want them.”
“I went hungry last night because of that pretty thing.” Her playful smile fell and her eyes pinched in concern.
“Did you really?” she asked, and her worry seemed genuine.
He almost believed she actually did care. But her clothes, her shoes, everything about her screamed wealth. Even in another realm she must have lived comfortably. She didn’t steal for food. She took for fun. And he knew that people who came from wealth often cared very little for those who didn’t. Wealth wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to Jefferson. But only because he’d lied, cheated, and stole just to taste it. It was easy to tell when someone had been born into wealth. And Alice's posture and proper speech indicated that she had.
“You think I do this because it’s fun?” he asked her. “I slept beneath a tree last night. Starving. There were ogres.” It had actually been a rather peaceful night, but he didn’t want her to know that. There could have been ogres. Though he wasn’t sure if she knew what that was.
“I’m so sorry,” she told him anyway. “I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have toyed with you if I had known you would go hungry.”
“Yes, you would have. I know plenty of women like you. You take from the poor without any care for where they sleep and what they eat. What if I had a child to feed? Would you care then? Or is it one of those cases where you want the poor to starve to death so the rich can thrive?” She pushed away from the mushroom and looked offended and pink in the cheeks.
“I would never steal from a child. I don’t care what kind of person you think I am. I know who you are and I know don’t have a child. Don’t try to play on my sympathy. You think I enjoy this life? You think I do this for fun?”
“I think if you have enough money to buy clothes like that then you have enough money to eat. As far as I’m concerned, you might as well be royalty. And therefore you had no reason to take that cup from me.”
“I didn’t take anything from you. We had the same objective and I’m simply better than you. You have plenty of silver on your knuckles. If you went hungry last night it was your own stupid fault.” He gripped his hand tightly, feeling the rings dig into his skin.
“These are all that’s left of my family. I don’t wear them for fashion.” That was another lie, but she didn’t need to know that. Making her feel guilty was tending to his wounded pride.
“I never intended for you to go hungry over a trade,” she decided. “If you want the bloody cup back, I can give it to you.”
He’d actually forgotten about the cup. In his anger and his bruised ego, he’d forgotten the whole reason he was there. To get the stupid cup so he could have a nice bed to sleep in and warm delicious food. He wanted the luxury the cup was going to give him, and he didn’t want to settle for anything less.
“You mean you haven’t traded it off yet?” he asked. She shook her head and took a step forward. Even her steps were playful. Almost like a little dance as she kept her hands behind her back. She was shorter than him, and so when she reached him she was forced to look up into his blue eyes. The smile returned and the scent of apple blossoms washed over him. Wonderland was playing tricks on his mind.
“I haven’t even started looking for a buyer,” she admitted. “I figured if a man was willing to chase me for it, it might be worth more to keep around.”
“Of course,” he growled. “Because you already have everything you could want.”
Her expression darkened. Her nostrils flared and she pinched her pink lips. She was so close that the scent of apple blossoms was enough to make his heart beat faster. He wanted to bury his face in her golden waves and feel her warmth against his chest. But he was also angry. Angry that he was allowing Wonderland to make him feel so weak.
She shifted on her feet and procured the cup from behind her back. He’d been staring so deeply into her night dark eyes that he didn’t notice she had it until it was occupying the very little space between them. It was the right cup, with the fine porcelain, painted red roses, and gold lip. He took it from her hands and examined it in the bright sunlight.
“You’ve had this all along?” he asked as he read the etched markings on the bottom just to be certain.
“You said so yourself,” she replied. “I have everything I could want.” The words sounded bitter on her lips. She spoke with a condescending tone and sneered as she turned her back on him and trotted back through the grass toward the road.
He got what he wanted, but instead of relief, he felt disappointment. It had been too easy. He liked playing this game with her. His pride had been injured, but the chase was over too quickly. All he had to do was tell her he’d gone hungry and she’d rolled over and showed her belly. Perhaps she wasn’t as heartless as he thought.
He hurried to follow after her, but she was quick on her feet. She had already reached the road by the time he caught up with her.
“I still have your cloak,” he said as she turned on the road and headed to wherever she must have left her portal. She seemed to have no trouble navigating Wonderland’s tricky landscape.
“You can keep it. Might be able to fetch a bit of gold for it,” she responded, keeping her head high as she marched forward. “Might get something to eat out of it.”
He could sense her irritation. He’d bruised her pride too. She had her lips pinched tight and her spine straight as she walked. Her hair bounced golden and free as it swung behind her back. The bodice of her dress seemed to be made of hundreds of buttons. He couldn’t imagine how frustratingly long it must have been for her to dress. Then he wondered how frustratingly long it would be to get her out of the dress. A thrill ran through his body as he imagined unbuttoning each and every one of them. Slowly.
He rushed to pass her and turned ahead of her so he could walk backwards and face her.
“What do you steal for, if you don’t do it for food and shelter?” he asked, tossing the delicate cup in his hands as if it wasn’t worth much of anything. She stopped in the road and put her hands on her hips.
“And what exactly makes you think my business is your business?” she quipped. “I don’t interfere with your work and you don’t interfere with mine.”
“Ah, but you have interfered with my work. You did so yesterday, when you stole this cup right out from under me.”
“I traded for that cup just as fairly as you would have. It just so happens that we had the same objective. I got it first because I’m better and faster. And now I’ll have to count it among my losses. Just make sure you give that hare the tea you promised or I will hunt you down and smash the bloody stupid cup against the side of your head.” She was infuriating. He wanted to kiss her.
“And your employer won’t be angry with you for not bringing the cup back?”
“I have no employer. Only buyers. I won’t go hungry.”
She moved passed him and continued on her way. He followed her around a bend in the road. Her looking-glass portal appeared just out of the way between two long blades of grass.
“And you won’t tell me what you needed this cup for?” he questioned.
“I won’t,” she agreed.
“I told you what I needed it for.”
“And that was your business to tell as you pleased.” She reached the frame of the looking-glass but turned around to face him. She held her head high, though she was still forced to look up at him. She had a look of arrogance and superiority on her face. Until it wavered and her eyes narrowed and a smile played at her lips. She looked him up and down. “I hope the cup serves you well, Mr. Hatter.”
“Jefferson,” he supplied for her.
“Just Jefferson. Actually.” She looked him up and down again.
“Alright, Just Jefferson. I hope you fall asleep in a nice warm bed tonight with a full stomach. Perhaps we will see each other again.”
Wonderland had a remarkable way of making things insatiably enticing. He’d barely just met the woman, officially, and the words “warm” and “bed” were enough to make him lick his lips in anticipation. She smelled like apple blossoms and sweet things and he couldn’t get the image of all those buttons out of his head. Wonderland was remarkable indeed.
“Oh, I do look forward to it, Miss. Alice,” he said as he reached out to lift her hand. He pressed his lips against her knuckles, taking in the warm feel of her skin beneath his mouth. She caught the coy implications of his tone and smiled.
“Just Alice,” she told him. “And as a parting word of warning, Just Jefferson.” She slipped her hand from his, though he could detect the same coy implication of her voice and the emphasis of his name. “The next time we meet, and I am certain we will again,” she moved closer to him. So close that he could almost reach right out and kiss her, “Run faster,” she said. Then she slipped through the portal and vanished.
He rested under a tree again that night. But instead of a bruised pride and anger, he smiled as he twisted the teacup around in his hands.