Experience is the worst teacher. It gives you the test first and the instructions afterwards
It was only once he started to get bored during the day that Harry realized he was getting used to living in such a fantastic place like Wonderland. A world so different from his old life on Privet Drive that he'd never even thought it could exist.
Being bored in his new life was something Harry hadn't thought would be possible when he'd first started living with Hatter, or even when he used to day dream about some long lost relative saving him from the Dursleys. Course, when his most secret wish did come true it wasn't in the way Harry had ever pictured it happening either so maybe that should've been his clue that the rest of his dreams wouldn't fall quite into place as well. Not that he really blamed Hatter; his new cousin had already had a busy life before Harry fell into it after all.
He shifted in his seat at the back of the sales floor of the Tea Shop and looked around for his cousin in the crowd of people. When Harry finally spotted him in the sea of hats and suits, Hatter was smiling and persuading a possible customer if the bottle of Tea in his hand was any hint. Hatter had given Harry the task of learning everything he could just by watching people when he'd asked for something to do during lunch, and so far it wasn't as interesting as Hatter had made it sound.
With a bit of a frown, Harry continued to watch his cousin charm his way to a new sale. He really didn't know how to act with his cousin sometimes. Oh, he always did as Hatter asked of course (and was relieved when Hatter never seemed to get mad when Harry occasionally forget things or messed something up), but his cousin didn't really act like the adults back in England did about a lot of things and he often switched between wanting to be his friend and acting like what Harry was pretty sure a proper parent was supposed to. Both friends and parents were things Harry had always wanted for as long as he could remember and while he really enjoyed any attention Hatter gave him, he'd always thought his first friend would be someone his age instead. He'd seen adults be nice to kids before (though never to him, or not after the Dursleys talked to them anyway) but never their friend. Kids were friends with other kids. That was how it had worked back at his old primary school anyway and while he saw lots of adults come to the Tea Shop, he'd yet to see a single kid anywhere in Wonderland to even try and make friends with.
He'd planned on finally asking Hatter if there were kids in Wonderland at all, or at least Tugley City, until he finally saw a lady holding her baby come by the shop last week.
Knowing that they must exist now was one of the reasons Harry took up Hatter's challenge for learning to read people in the shop. The Tea Heads that came by often made him feel uneasy so he chose to spend his afternoons in the Tea Room tending to the plants or trying to make his magic work. Having to watch people though meant he might get a chance to spot other kids like him for once and the hope that brought him was reason enough to sit and observe. Not to mention it really wouldn't be awful if he could read people he didn't know like he'd been able to read the Dursleys. Hatter was right on saying it was a useful skill to have.
Still, three days into his new people watching routine and his patience was just starting to wear thin when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A small group of short people had just come in and had silently moved over to the back corner on his right. The light fell on them just long enough for Harry to realize that the people weren't short, they were kids. Kids like him! Kids that wouldn't know who Dudley was, let alone that he was his cousin and that meant they wouldn't know anything about him; which meant no more lies to keep people away from him anymore.
Letting out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, Harry fretted about how to introduce himself for a few minutes as he watched the group of kids out of the corner of his eye. Not seeing anything from stopping the direct approach, Harry gathered his courage, got up from his seat, and walked directly over towards what might hopefully be his first real friends.
The tall one in the corner noticed his approach first and nudged the blonde boy beside him who'd been watching the sales floor. Harry faltered for a movement as all four kids quickly became aware of him from the small movement done by the tall one and watched his approach. Swallowing his fear, Harry tried not to look nervous as he smiled and rubbed one of his arms as he stood in front of the group. "Erm, Hi," he said, "I'm..uh, I'm Harry."
The only girl of the group snorted and looked him over, "Supposed to mean somein' that?"
Harry felt himself blush in embarrassment but was determined and tried again, "I, erm…it's just…I don't see many kids come by the shop often and, well…"
"Well that would be the point," the blonde one remarked with an edge, "Hatter doesn't sell to kids; kicks them out of the shop if he catches sight of 'em." The blonde gave Harry an apprising look over, "Hadn't heard of anyone else that managed to sneak past him besides us, so bully for you there, but we ain't sharing our in if that's what you've come over here for."
Confused by the new information, Harry frowned. It certainly explained why he didn't see any kids for so long if Hatter didn't sell the Emotion Tea to them. He kinda felt happy to know his cousin was trying to do something good like not making more addicts. The really bad ones scared him and Harry shuddered at the memory of just a few weeks when he'd almost tried some as well. But before he could think too much on the subject, the small brunette boy in the back of the group leaned forward to whisper in the blonde one's ear.
The blonde raised an eyebrow once the brunette was finished and stared at him in a way that made Harry feel uncomfortable. "What'd you say your name was again?" the blonde asked.
"Err, Harry," he gave a small smile and felt hope spread through him again when the blonde boy gave him one back.
"Sorry about the rudeness Harry," the blonde offered his hand, "Name's Cutter."
Pleased at the positive change, Harry smiled wider and returned the grasp, "'S alright. It's, um, nice to meet you."
"These are my mates," Cutter continued, "Raven," the tall one, "Mick," the quite brunette, "and Shelly," the girl who was still glaring at him.
Harry offered the rest of them a greeting as well, but only got mumbles back. Cutter was quick to keep conversation running though, "So Mick was saying how you look a bit like Hatter just now. You know 'em?"
Happy to talk about something he knew with at least one seemingly friendly face, Harry grinned, "Yeah. He's my cousin. He's brilliant."
Cutter gave him a strange looking grin that he shared with a wide eyed Shelly before looking back at Harry, "Course he is. Everyone who's anyone knows Hatter's the man you come to if you need a bit of somethin'. Be it Tea or otherwise yeah? So, you been living with him long then?"
Harry shook his head, "No, about a month or so I think," he rubbed the back of his neck as he remembered some of what Hatter had told him to say if people asked about his past, "Not used to figuring out time in the city yet so it's hard to tell."
"Sure, sure," Cutter smiled with understanding, "He got you workin' for 'em then yeah? Running the floor and fillin' orders? Must be right proud of you to let you do somethin' so important I'd wager."
"Well, it's only sometimes," Harry confessed with a downcast blush, "But he says I'm a quick leaner."
Cutter's grin seemed to widen, "Oh, no doubt! If you're related to Hatter it'd be a slim thing of you not being a sharp one."
Shelly snorted and Mick elbowed her with a frown but she just stuck her tongue out at him before looking at Harry. "Say, Harry," she smiled sweetly, "Since we're not allowed on the shop floor like you, is there some place we could go and play? I'd be awful if we got kicked out before we could all become proper friends."
Some part of Harry felt this situation seemed a bit familiar but he couldn't place it and, eager to make some proper friends his age finally, pushed the feeling aside and smiled happily back at the girl. "Sure! We could go play in my room if you like," he offered and gestured to the opening behind him, "It's with the other back rooms just down the hall here."
Cutter gave him another weird looking smile, "That sounds like a brilliant plan mate. Lead on then yeah?"
Before Harry had a chance to yell, Raven had tied one of his shirts around his mouth as a gag. He tried pulling against the sheets they'd used to tie him to the chair in his room once more to free himself, but it was futile and only tired him out. Confused, hurt, angry, and so many other things he couldn't put a name to, Harry looked questioningly at his could've been friend Cutter.
The blonde was unsympathetic though and just raised an eyebrow at him. "You should be thanking me ya know," Cutter smiled, "Raven wanted to knock you upside your head, but me? I saw the opportunity to teach a valuable lesson instead."
"Yeah," Shelly smirked, closing his wardrobe doors but leaving behind the mess she'd made from her search, "Man like Hatter would be ashamed if you didn't live up to his brilliance after all. We's just doing him the favor of givin' it to you the nice way." She walked over and pursed her lips with her nose wrinkled just like Aunt Petunia often had when she'd looked upon Harry, "Course with how easily you fell into our trap I'm beginning to doubt you're his relation at all."
"There's none here," Mick's rough voice announced as he came back into Harry's view. The quite boy gave Harry a quick look over as well, "He's the cousin though. Story matches all the rumors, like I said."
Cutter shrugged, "Probably just startin' him on the Tea then. Doesn't trust a country fool like him not to gulp it all down more likely then not, so o' course there won't be any in the room. Can't imagine we've got much time to work on 'fore Hatter notice's the kid's gone. Let's go check some of those doors we passed. One's gotta be a storage space yeah?"
And just like that, the only group of kids Harry had ever met in Wonderland walked out of his room without a backwards glance. The feeling of sadness was so much worse than when the kids at Primary had ignored him and taunted him. Harry expected it then, knew it would be coming so he never tried. No one wanted to be friends with him in England because he was Dudley's freak cousin and now? Now it seemed that no one would want to be his friend unless they could score him some Emotion Tea because Hatter was his cousin.
Running what had happened after meeting the group of kids in his head, Harry could see some of the points or 'tells' as Hatter was teaching him. Times when he should have guessed they wanted something from him, or knew too much, and now all he could do was wait. Wait for a rescue since he'd been too weak to fight back against some kids his own age…just like he'd never won against Dudley and his gang.
Not knowing how long Hatter would take to find him and then most likely scold him for what happened (after all, the kids were right, he could see more and more now how stupid he'd been) Harry was left with nothing but time to reflect about what had happened this afternoon and how he might try and apologize to his cousin so Hatter wouldn't chuck him out onto the streets. With a shudder and a sniffle, Harry slumped into his chair and blinked as two lonely tears trailed down his cheek.
Hatter closed the door to his room with a soft click and quietly made his way down the stairs before pulling the ceiling lever and sealing it off. Knowing that his young cousin wouldn't be able to wake from any noise he might create now, Hatter allowed the anger that had been simmering under the surface all evening to come out as he punched the back wall behind him. His overpowered right arm broke through the wood and paint easily enough and only caused him a small amount of pain. It wasn't near enough the distraction he needed though, nor was it calming enough to have made the action worth it.
"You know, I'm not sure what that wall did to make you so angry but I'm sure it's very sorry now."
With a flicker to his left, Hatter saw Pen staring at him cautiously and with none of the humor from his words in his stance.
"'M not in the mood Pen," Hatter stated flatly as he withdrew his right hand from the wall, and cracked the knuckles single handedly as he walked over to his desk, "And I don't have your batch made up yet. 'S been a busy night alright? You know how things can get. I'll bring it tomorrow."
It was a sign of how a friendship was building between the two of them now when Hatter heard Pen follow behind him and sit on the couch. "I don't mind waiting. Trouble with Suits today I suppose?" he inquired.
Hatter clenched his fists and let out a huff as he tried to put a stopper on his anger. He really wasn't in the mood for conversation and told Pen as much, "Look, just sod off would ya? I'll be by first thing. You have me word on that."
There was silence for a moment as neither man moved.
Feeling his rage get under control finally, Hatter sighed and ran one hand down his face as he moved to sit behind his desk. Looking across at the other man as he sat down, he noted that Pen was still the picture of relaxed patience but Hatter could see the under current of tension in the man. He held the doctor's gaze for too long though it seemed as Pen read into his face as well and let out a sigh of his own before finally speaking up. "Something happened to Harry then," Pen stated more than asked.
"Yeah," Hatter breathed as he leaned back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling, "Picked up on a lesson today that I'd been holding off on is all, and 'm not sure if I can fix it…or if I want to if I'm honest."
Pen raised an eyebrow at him, "Which lesson was that?"
"He tried to make friends with that little tosser Cutter and his gang," Hatter stated, leveling Pen with a look, "When I noticed he'd gone off the floor, I found the lot trying to raid me stores and then Harry tied down in his room after I'd dealt with them."
The doctor frowned as well now, "I can imagine it must have been a shock for you but really Hatter, you should've known better than-"
"You think I don't know that?" Hatter interjected. Anger back under the surface once more, he stood up and began to pace behind his desk. "He didn't grow up in the city and I know I need to be teaching him things like that, but you know what it's been like for me Pen! You remember how he was yeah? All timid and the like? I've only just started to get him to trust me not to smack him one if steps outta line! Even if I told him before not to go speaking to other kids without me I doubt he would've listened. And now…"
Hatter sighed and collapsed back in his chair, head in his hands. His anger and frustration giving way to a very rare display of helplessness. An emotion he'd often felt when dealing with his new ward, "Now I've no idea how to get him to bounce back from it."
The room fell silent once again, but only for a few seconds until Pen spoke up, "You know…if you keep up this trend I'll have to start charging you favors for all this advice."
Looking up from his desk, Hatter was relieved to see the teasing look in Pen's face. "Shall I just give you double the usual today then and we call it a trade?" he smiled back and Pen chuckled.
"If you like Hatter but, as for Harry, if he can't make friends his own age in the city – something that I told you might happen when I saw how strangely well-mannered he is - then I'm afraid there is only one answer," Pen paused and Hatter gave him an expectant look, "You have to learn how to not only be his guardian, but a close friend as well."
Hatter leaned back in his chair with a plastered look of faked surprise, "Wow. Really? Well that's new information isn't it? Got any other gems you're willing to share then?" Dropping the act, he stared blankly at Pen, "Really though, 's not like I understand much about kids, much less ones like Harry."
"Yes," Pen smirked, "I remember when you badgered me about what to do with 'em during the recheck on his eyes. I'm doing our society another service within a service it seems."
"Aren't we all," Hatter muttered under his breath and was grateful to see Pen didn't catch it.
Opening his locked desk drawer, Hatter fished out the Real Tea he kept beneath his ledger books and began mixing up the blend Pen liked. "Anyway, got a better suggestion then just be his friend this go round? Think I'm better with that then the hows of the parenting bit anyway."
Pen tilted his head in thought, "You could try acting like an older brother to him. Theoretically, that would combine both roles you're looking to fill for his emotional development. And…" The pause made Hatter glance up from his mixing to look up. Pen held his eyes in a stony gaze, "You'd have to stop pocketing him so much. Just the truth Hatter. Simple and up front. That's the fastest way to a child like your cousin's heart, and trust."
The doctor's face quickly became one of amusement as he grinned at Hatter, "Surely you still remember how to pass that out and not just dance around it?"
Hatter raised an eyebrow in reply, "Think the Resistance would be keepin' me around if I didn't?"
"You're doing important work for the Resistance Hatter," Pen insisted with a pointed finger, "Don't let anyone tell you differently. Keeping the masses we free from the Queen's haze fed and watered is just as important, maybe even more so some days, then our work to bring her down from the inside."
"Do us a favor yeah? Pass on the good word to Dodo next time you see him then," Hatter smiled as he looked back down to finish his task, "Be nice change not to be called a fat cat every time I make the weekly for him."
The conversation lulled into comfortable silence with the ruffling caused by Hatter's hands as the only sounds. With nimble fingers, the conman made quick work of his task and packed away the leftover items back in his drawer with the click of a lock. "There we are," Hatter smiled as he held two drawstring bags out for his somewhat friend and associate, "Double the usual, as requested."
Pen returned the smile as he rose off the couch to retrieve the items, "I was only teasing Hatter. You didn't have to-"
"Don't make a fuss," Hatter stood and placed the bags in Pen's hand as he cut him off, "Harry's started helping with the plants and I get a better harvest now. 'S no loss for me. Keep you from poking around my business a bit longer anyhow way I see it."
Pen shook his head as he placed the items in his inner jacket pocket, "You're a good bloke Hatter."
"Now that tidbit you can be keeping to yourself," Hatter pointed a finger at him with a grin and Pen chuckled.
The pair stared at each other pleasantly for a second until Pen's face became pensive.
Hatter tilted his head at him curiously, "Problem then?"
"What would you do," the doctor started, "if you found out Harry wasn't a relation after all?"
The conman stiffened minutely, worried Pen might have picked up on the ruse he constructed all those weeks ago, "What'd you mean?"
"It's only that, I was thinking about that first night, when I brought Harry to you. Almost immediately you dismissed him, but after you finally got the truth from him we're more than willing to take him on," Pen paused as he pulled up another memory, "Hell I'd say you were eager even to help him out the next morning when you came by."
"And I suppose there's a point to all this then?" Hatter inquired calmly.
Pen stared back at him, "I'm just wondering…with all the changes and challenges you've had to make, and still have ahead of you…If you'd still bother with the lad, still fight for him, if you found that wasn't the case any longer."
Hatter was silent as he mulled over Pen's question and dropped his gaze down to his desk as if it held all his answers. It really was mad, taking on Harry in his like he was. No experience with kids save his own upbringing really (something not so distant and yet completely so from Harry's own so far) and he certainly felt drained of his own emotions from having to pep up Harry almost daily. All done on a hunch - well a feeling really if he was truthful with himself – but would he keep on going? Even if he couldn't help heal Harry in some way and the lad became almost as bad as some Tea Heads? Would he bother to keep helping him? Or would he just kick him out on the ledges? Give the lad the hardship Hatter had grown up on and something he'd finally gotten a taste of himself today. Did it matter if they truly were family by blood? After a minute's thinking, he knew his answer.
And it was the same as it was that fateful morning all those days ago.
"I would," Hatter softly replied before looking up at Pen, "He needs someone, and if I'm honest, I want it to be me."
It was apparently the answer Pen had been looking for as the former Suit turned doctor and Resistance insider placed a comforting hand on Hatter's shoulder, gaving him a soft smile, "Then you'll get through this with him David. That feeling you have? It's a powerful one. One I don't see it often in the Card Kingdom, and even less at the hospital. But when I do? I've seen it bring about wonders even the Queen can't bottle."
Author's Notes: Been meaning to write it for awhile and while it is depressing, I do like the uplifting note it ends on. Really brings home what Hatter and Wonderland lost on the whole by driving Pen to become Mad March. Quite tragic, but that's the way life works. I really like how this turned out though and if I can do it well, I'll be working in into the main 'Tumbling into Madness' story as I do my editing/rewrites. If I can manage, then CaC ch. 9 will be out by the end of the month. :)