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A Heart's A Heavy Burden

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What would the Lukas hat shop be without its most faithful employee?

"Martin, are you sure you don't want to join us?" Tim wheedled, "It's May Day! A cute guy like you should be out enjoying the festivities!"

"He's right you know," Sasha said, poking her head into the workroom, "It's not good for you staying all cooped up in here making hats all the time."

"Really guys I'm fine, you go ahead and have fun," Martin said, forcing a smile because truth be told he didn't like big parties like what was going on in the streets outside. He had always considered himself a bit too mature for all that anyway. 'An old soul' people had called him even as a child.

"Fine, Marto, whatever you say," Tim shrugged and pushed himself off the door frame he'd been leaning in and he and Sasha started to leave.

Then suddenly Sasha gave an excited cry, "Holy shit look its Jon's castle!" She ran to the window to gaze out at the strange, shambling form of the massive machine. Martin looked out the window too, laughing as fog overtook the castle, blocking it again. It never seemed to appear for more than a second or two.

"Oh catch me before I swoon the evil wizard has made an appearance," Tim said dramatically, "I don't know why everyone's into him anyway, doesn't he literally steal hearts or something?"

"Not a concern for you then, you haven't got one," Sasha teased as they moved toward the door. The bell jingled at the opening of the door.

"That is only because you already stole mine," Tim's retreating voice said and their departure was marked by the next jingle of the bell.

Martin sighed with relief setting down the hat he'd been working on. It seemed to nearly glare at him from its half-finished state.

"Oh don't give me that look, not everyone needs to party to have fun, despite what you might think!" He told it tersely.

It sat unmoving and unimpressed.

"I have fun being alone," he crossed his arms and glared at it, "Just because you'll surely go off to dozens of parties every month once you're bought doesn't mean I can't have my own fun away from all that. In fact, I'll go to Jared's pie shop and get lunch right now. So there!"

He stood up and snatched his coat off the hook it'd been hanging on. And stormed out, locking the shop door behind him.

He turned toward the street and saw the pulsing living mass of revelry filling the street and sighed, this time in disappointment. He pushed his way gently through crowds apologizing and excusing himself despite no one acknowledging him.

He finally managed to make it to an empty back street that he could follow to the pie shop.

He started walking quietly down the path feeling hyper-conscious of the sound of his shoes clicking on the pavement. It always sounded louder to him when he was alone.

Soon he came upon two of the palace guards in one of the doorways, laughing and drinking what looked to be not their first or even their fifth bottle of wine.

He tried to hurry past them but one stepped out of the doorway and blocked his way with a grin that was probably supposed to be charming, "Well well well, look what we have here."

There was no polite way to go on without acknowledging him now, Martin smiled tightly, "Hello."

"Told you we'd find some cute little mouse to show a good time to if we were just patient," the other said as he came and stood at his friend's shoulder, further blocking the path.

"I- excuse me, I have to be going," He made a move to sidestep them.

"Now wait little mouse won't you stay with us? We could have fun…" the first raised a hand to brush against his cheek.

"Hey don't touch me!" Martin snapped.

"Look at him, he's even cuter when he's upset," The second one cooed. Martin's stomach twisted uncomfortably

Martin started to stumble backward when his back hit something solid.

"Ah there you are, I've been looking all of for you," a clipped voice said and Martin turned to find a slight but Imposing man gazing at him in stern disapproval, "Your lunch break ended over eight minutes ago, I ought to fire you for making me look for you so long."

Martin felt his heart leap as he realized this man was giving him an escape.

"Let's head back to…" the man hesitated slightly, asking his destination.

"The pie shop! Right, Jared will be looking for us by now."

"Exactly," The man said with a half-smile, seeming pleased that Martin had caught on.

"Oh come on it's a holiday, stay a while~" one attempted.

The newer man's lip curled in disgust, "Weren't you two just leaving?" He flicked his hand and the two guards stiffened, turned on their heels, and marched down the alley back to the main street with startled cries.

Magic?

But that meant this man was a wizard...he was saved by a wizard!

"Thank you, " Martin offered the man a tentative smile, unsure of what the etiquette was for this situation.

"Of course, now I'll have to ask you to stick close by me. I'm being followed, but let's see if we can't get you to that pie shop anyway."

Martin's face fell, "You're what?"

"No time, come on," the man placed a hand lightly on Martin's shoulder and began guiding him down the alley, "Act natural."

Martin did his best to match the man's pace in a manner that seemed casual but they were all but speed-walking down the alley now. He began seeing a few small silvery worms litter the path in front of them. The man stepped on as many as he could as they walked, crushing them under the heel of his boot.

"I'm sorry, I got you involved," He said. The worms increased in number with every step.

Martin's eyes widened as he saw a terrible tidal wave of them in the next alley.

"This way, hurry," He said and pulled Martin in the opposite direction and they began running. Martin could hear the squirming legion of worms surge after them as they turned. At the other end of the alley, impossibly, more worms began to pour in as well, trapping them between two oncoming masses of the sickly twisting things.

"Oh good lord. Hang on," The man said with a sigh and he suddenly kicked off the ground, grabbing Martin's left hand in his left and sliding his right hand down from Martin's shoulder to his waist.

And then they were hurtling upward as if propelled by some great wind.

Martin let out a startled cry as they reached the top of their arc, expecting their downward descent to begin any moment now, but instead, they simply hung there. He flailed slightly trying to grab for something but find nothing but air and the man behind him.

He spoke lowly, "It's alright, I've got you, just straighten your legs and start walking. Alright?"

Martin paused his frantic movements and found himself being held steady. He exhaled and tentatively did as he was told and felt the air itself hold him like a cushioned floor.

"Oh," Martin breathed.

He looked over his shoulder at the man, his dark hair tumbled down around his shoulders in waves. Eyes green as grass crinkled in a small yet cocky smile. but then didn't he have the right to be? He had just lifted himself and Martin into the air as if it was nothing.

Martin looked down at the celebrations taking place below them and felt more removed from them than ever.

"Thank you," he said, "For saving me I mean." He glanced back at the wizard.

Martin was surprised to see his face was slightly pink now and the smug expression was gone, "Ah- yes well I couldn't simply leave you could I?"

He looked away and cleared his throat, "There's the pie shop, I'll drop you off on the upstairs balcony. I trust you can take it from there?"

Martin nodded.

The man set him gently onto the wood platform of the balcony, "You should probably stay here for a bit while I draw off the worms, they should ignore you if you give it a little time."

"Okay."

***

"What's wrong with you?" Gerry said, lounging in the fireplace as Jon practically collapsed into the doorway of the castle, pressing it shut behind him.

"Dealt with the worms," He groaned, heaving himself up the stairs and into the chair in front of the hearth.

"Yeah and? Your heart was fluttering like mad for a while there," Gerry said gingerly running his fingers over his own chest.

"I ah- accidentally got someone else involved. I suppose I was just nervous about that. Wouldn't want an innocent getting hurt."

"Right," Came Basira's voice from halfway up the staircase where she was leaning over the rail, "Was he cute though?"

"Oh shut up," Jon groaned.

***

"So you met Jon," Jared said and he slammed a meat cleaver down into the counter through a block of meat that Martin couldn't quite identify.

"I don't think so, there are plenty of wizards out there you know," Martin told him as he took a bit of crust and popped it into his mouth.

"Be careful, they say he eats hearts," Jared said with a shrug.

Jared was a large man that Martin knew used to work in the King's army before the magic overwhelmed him and nearly drove him mad. But now he simply ran the pie store beneath a barbershop. Martin knew Jared was friends with the hairdresser upstairs, her name was Annabelle. It was Annabelle's balcony that Martin had been left on earlier that day.

"Thank you for worrying, but I'll be just fine."

"Whatever," Jared grumbled in his low rumbling tone.

"Anyway I should be getting back to the hat shop," Martin said standing up and brushing crumbs off his lap, "See you tomorrow, Jared."

"See ya."

***

Martin had closed up shop for the evening and was just finished sweeping when he heard the bell jingle. He turned and looked, expecting it to be Tim or Sasha returning to get something they had forgotten instead it was an older woman in a red dress. She was beautiful but something about her appearance seemed sickly.

"I'm sorry ma'am but we're closed for today. Funny, I could have sworn I locked that door."

"So you're the one his heart has chosen, I can see why. Peter certainly has made you interesting, lonely little Hatter. 'An old soul.'"

"Heart? Peter?" Martin repeated confused, "I'm- I'm sorry but you're really going to have to leave."

He approached and opened the door for her, "You could come back in the morning to see Peter if you like."

"Hmmm brave too… trying to throw a witch out of your shop," She grabbed Martin's hand in a harsh grip and he felt a sharp squirming sensation where they touched, he tried to pull away but she was weirdly strong.

"Here's hoping you can finally get me what I want," And with that, she disappeared out the door and into the night. And Martin threw the door shut, locking it firmly behind her. He ran to the pool of light from the lamp and gazed at his palm there was no blood or any sign of where the pain had come from but his hands… they were wrinkled.

What was going on?