"Isn't he a little old for you?"
Her mother's words were still hovering at the back of her mind hours later, as Alice sat at the dining table and watched Hatter moving around the kitchen of his flat with the grace of a dancer. (He had promised her the greatest dinner of her life, and by the smells she reckoned he might be right.) Still as she watched him she couldn't help but notice the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and in his brow when he concentrated.
The truth was, she hadn't had a good answer to give her mother. The birth certificate Jack had procured for him had him ticked at twenty-nine years old, but somehow she felt that was just a number. It was hard to pin down something like age when it came to Hatter. Most of the time he was as lively and youthful as a child, but then there were moments when she saw more in his eyes, years and wisdom and memories beyond what she thought he should have.
"Jus' ask your question, love," Hatter chimed suddenly from the stove, shooting her a quick glance over his shoulder. At her confused look he grinned. "I can actually taste your Curiosity in the air."
Well there was nothing for it now. "How old are you, really?"
Hatter went back to stirring the sauce with a pensive look. "In Oyster years or Wonde'land?"
Alice paused thoughtfully. "There's a difference?"
"Course," he answered. "Time moves different, don' it? A day there's an hour here, or somm'it like that. Depends on the weather too, and then there's the cats, o' course. Neva' was good at doin' the math."
Alice opened her mouth to ask just what on earth cats had to do with the passage of time, but then changed her mind. It was Wonderland, so odds were the answer wouldn't make sense anyhow. So she settled for answering his first question. "Both, I guess."
"Twen'y-nine, in Oyster," he said. He paused to take the sauce off hot stove and then turned around to face her, propping his back against the countertop. "Or as close as can get to it, anywhich, give or take a thunderstorm or two. An' in Wonderland, I'll be - " He counted off on his fingers, mouthing numbers as he did the math in his head, "Seven'y-four just about."
"Seventy-four!" Alice gasped in shock.
Hatter shrugged. "Yeah, I look older 'an I am," he said off-handedly. He seemed to take in the look of surprise on Alice's face and grinned. "Told ya, time's different there. An' we can control 'ow we age, if we wanna. I kept meself young, helped the business to have a pretty face in charge."
Alice laughed and shook her head. "My mom was right," she said. Hatter lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. "You are a little old for me."
"Oi, now tha's not fair," Hatter said, sticking his lower lip out slightly the way he did when he was upset. "If I'd'a known what I was keeping meself young for, I'd 'ave stopped aging at fifty. Then we'd be right close to the same."
Standing up, Alice crossed to him and brushed a thumb along the laugh lines around his dark eyes. "That's the most romantic thing someone's ever said that I didn't understand," she teased.
Despite the joke in her tone, Hatter beamed at the compliment. "Aye, well you set you'self down," he said, gesturing at the table. "This ol' man's got 'imself a dinner to serve."