Book: Forever Neverland



Forever Neverland


FOREVER NEVERLAND

BY

HEATHER KILLOUGH-WALDEN




Story, photography, and cover art

by Heather Killough-Walden.

With thanks to Mary Moritz

for everything she does.

Table of Contents

FOREVER NEVERLAND

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Epilogue

Always Angel, by Heather Killough-Walden

Avenger’s Angel, by Heather Killough-Walden






Epigraph 

I once heard it told that you could forget a pirate.

An eye patch here, a missing tooth, a peg leg,

and soon – all too soon – a pirate is nothing more

than a fuzzy, barely remembered dream.

It’s easy to forget a pirate.

But one never, ever, forgets a Hook.




For Sarah Lucia

Prologue

Peter looked up toward the dark horizon, noting the ribbon of black that disappeared in the distance, black-on-black. With gritted teeth, he kicked up the stand on the Night Train and gave the throttle a quick, testing twist with his right hand.

The building roar drowned out the drone of crickets and the buzz-splat of bugs committing suicide on the street lamps high above. He lifted his right boot onto the foot peg and took a deep breath.

Come on. . . . . Let it work this time. . . .

With a look of determination on his young, handsome face, Peter sat back in the saddle and let out the clutch. The bike rocketed into the distance and Peter looked up.

Second star to the right. . . .

“And straight on till morning,” he muttered, the sound nearly lost beneath the thunder of his motorcycle.

At one hundred yards, the bike began to shimmer. At one fifty, the front wheel came away from the ground, lifting the bike; the second wheel was a heartbeat behind.

Yes, he thought. Yes, please!

Gently, he leaned to one side, aiming the front tire toward that distant, beckoning shimmer in space. It was a beacon for home. A guiding light.

And just as Peter straightened out the bike and allowed himself to dare to hope – the light winked out.


 

 

Chapter One

Nothing moved in Neverland. Nothing had moved in Neverland for a very, very long time.

Beyond the dense forest, in the clearing where the natives live, no campfires lit the circle of teepees, and no children chased each other with tomahawks and painted faces.

All was quiet.

In Pixie Forest, the fairies’ houses were dark and utterly devoid of the buzzing of tiny, flapping wings or the tinkling sound of sprinkling fairy dust.

At the center of the island of Neverland stands a giant tree once claimed by a rambunctious bunch of young boys and used as a secret hideout. But no boys hid there now. The lonely tree stood empty, and its silence was equally hollow.

The vast sea that surrounded Neverland was infamous for its storms, choppy waves, and for the not-so-friendly mermaids and crocodiles that swam beneath its surface. But there were no storm-brought waves on that surface now. Not a single ripple disturbed the perfectly smooth plane of inky black that stretched to the horizon. And the unnatural, ultimate darkness of the water promised a variety of monstrous inhabitants almost assuredly more deadly than mere mermaids or crocodiles.

Upon this black sea rested a ship. There was a time, long ago in Neverland, when this particular ship would have been seen flying the notorious skull and crossbones of piracy. Its vast decks were once swabbed clean by men with peg legs, eye patches and missing teeth. The inhabitants of the island knew the pirate ship as the Jolly Roger. And its captain was more feared than any other citizen of Neverland.

But. . . .

No flag flew from the ship’s mast now. No flag of any kind. And no pirates roamed its decks. The ship lay quiet and seemingly forgotten, tilted ever so slightly to one side by the weight of the rusted anchor it had dropped so long, long ago. There was nothing remaining of its once terrifying splendor. . . .

Well, not a thing, that is, save one.

On a pillow, on a bed within the Captain’s cabin and beside a mass of long, jet-black curls, rested – a hook. In all of the once magnificent, but now drab and dreary Neverland, the hook, alone, shone silver in the ray of moonlight that cast through the windows. The hook – and only the hook – remained magnificent.

*****

Many millions of miles and exactly eleven impossibilities away, a girl with long brown hair and gray eyes sat at her desk, her head bent over her notebook in concentration. The girl’s name was Wendy Darling, and at this moment, Wendy was writing.

Unfortunately for her, what she was writing had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition, or even history, in general, and had quite a lot to do with a young boy named Peter Pan and a pirate by the name of Captain-

“Wendy, may I please have a word with you in the hall?”

Wendy grimaced and put down her pencil. She’d been caught again.

Without a word, she stood up, leaving all of her belongings on the desk, and followed Mrs. Pence to the classroom door. Once there, they briefly paused as Mrs. Pence turned the knob and then led Wendy out into the hall.

As her history teacher closed the door behind them, Wendy caught the familiar sound of her classmates fidgeting in their seats and snickering to one another.

She could just imagine what they were saying. . . .

Her thoughts were interrupted once more by the sound of her teacher’s voice. “Wendy,” Mrs. Pence said. The expression on the teacher’s face was one Wendy had grown to know well. Over the past few years, the expression had gone from one of shock and deep concern to one of the same deep concern, pinched with tired exasperation.

“Wendy,” she began again. “I spoke with your mother this morning.” Her tone had softened and she paused as if carefully considering her next words. “She confided in me about Dr. Coffer and, well. . . .”

Wendy could feel her heart sinking like a cannon-holed pirate ship already.

“I need you to hand over what you wrote in class today.” Mrs. Pence straightened a little and finished with, “The story, Wendy. I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.”

No! Thought Wendy. Not that!

“Mrs. Pence, please-”

Mrs. Pence held up her hands and cut Wendy off before the girl could continue. “Wendy, it’s not just me. All of your teachers have been asked to discourage any behavior in you that may slow your recovery and, frankly,” she sighed again. “I’m afraid this qualifies. You have to stop writing those stories, Wendy. No one can help you if you won’t help yourself.”

Wendy stood stunned and silent. The past five years had been hard enough on her. She’d been moved across the Atlantic, subjected to therapist after therapist, and alienated by most of her family. But this? This was the worst. Without her writing – without her stories – she had nothing. She was nothing.

But Mrs. Pence didn’t give her any further time to object. Instead, the history teacher turned and opened the classroom door, leading the way back inside. Wendy followed grudgingly. As she moved slowly toward her desk, she was painfully aware of the silence of her classmates. They were all watching her. It was as if they couldn’t wait to see what she would be forced to do next.

Wendy paused beside her desk and looked down at her notebook. The words on the page blurred through her building tears. But she obediently picked up the notebook, tore out the inked pages, and held them out to her teacher. She couldn’t bear to look at them, so she steadfastly looked at the floor instead.

There were a few snickers at the back of the class. Wendy choked on a sob, forcing it back down her throat. She refused to add to her own humiliation by breaking down and crying right there, right then, in front of the cruel stares of her peers.

Mrs. Pence took the pages gently and gave Wendy a stiff nod. Wendy saw the nod through her peripheral vision and sat down.

Then, thankfully – blessedly – the bell rang. And history class was over.

It so happened that history class was the last class Wendy had to attend before she was able to leave the school, fully excused, so that she could cross the street and visit her psychiatrist.

The shrink.

It was a double-edged sword. She got to get away from her classmates. But she had to sit on that horrible, extra poofy couch across from Dr. Coffer that made her feel like she was drowning in leather. She had to sit there – and listen to him tell her that she was crazy ….

Dr. Coffer sat back in his shining patent leather recliner and lightly tapped the end of his pencil on the legal pad over his crossed legs. Wendy’s gaze skirted, distractedly, to the black socks he wore. She could see the top of one and the scraggly hair that stuck out around the band.

“Wendy, how are you feeling these days?” Dr. Coffer asked. She knew he was watching her; always watching with those black eyes behind those tiny glasses. She swallowed hard. It didn’t matter how she answered. The conversation would still go the same way. The way it always went.

“Fine.”

For a moment, just as she’d suspected, he said nothing. And then he sighed.

Here it comes . . . .

“Wendy, I want you to take a look at this,” he said, softly. Wendy looked up in time to see him pulling a small stack of folded papers from the inside pocket of his sports coat. She recognized them at once. And she was befuddled as to how they had come to be in his possession so quickly.

“Your teachers gave them to me,” he told her, his tone just as quiet, just as calm as it always was. “They’re really quite fantastic, to be honest,” he went on as he unfolded them and smoothed them out over his leg. “You’ve built quite a world here, Wendy. I must admit that even I’ve been drawn into it.”

Wendy blinked. She wasn’t sure what to think of that. It sounded a little like a compliment. But nothing was ever as it seemed with Dr. Coffer. If it was a compliment, then it also must be a trick.

So, Wendy kept quiet.

Dr. Coffer smiled, as if he knew what she was thinking.

“You have quite a gift, Wendy.” The doctor placed the pages of Wendy’s handwritten story on the coffee table between them and folded his hands over his lap. “Your imagination is wonderful, truly wonderful.” He paused then, and cocked his head to one side. “But it is also dangerous.”

Ah. There it is, thought Wendy.

“You have a gift as a writer, Wendy. You can bring people happiness. You can help them enter another place and leave this one behind. What you give to people is a chance to escape the troubles of their everyday lives. It’s called ‘escapism,’” he told her, nodding once, as if she was supposed to memorize the term. “And we all need a little of it from time to time.”

He uncrossed his legs, and then re-crossed them in the other direction, sighing heavily as he did so. Wendy automatically tensed, sensing the change in him. The worst was about to come.

“However, too much escapism is a problem. A very big problem, in fact. If a person cannot see the world around them as it truly is, then that person can’t respond correctly to it.” He paused, pinning her with one of his more painful, meaningful stares. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Wendy?”

She nodded. It was what she always did when she didn’t really understand at all.

He went on. “Your older brother has realized how powerful your stories are and has wisely decided to step away from the escapism in them, so that he can deal with what truly happened to the three of you the night you disappeared.”

Wendy felt her heartbeat in her eardrums. It was growing louder, a swoosh-swoosh of dizziness. It made her feel sick. But, it wasn’t loud enough to block out Dr. Coffer’s next words.

“Your little brother Michael, however, adores your writings, Wendy. He has attached himself to you in a most dangerous way. He believes, fully, that what you write is not the fiction that it truly is. But that it is real.”

Again, he waited, and Wendy felt her entire head heat up. It was a strange sensation. It was as if all of the blood in her body decided to ride an elevator to its highest point and then hang out there. It made her brain feel full and made her vision red. It also hurt.

“As for you, Wendy, I believe that your writing is hurting you as well. You won’t admit it to me. You’re a smart girl,” he told her. “But I think that you believe what you write to be true, just as Michael does.”

The rush and roar of blood was nearly deafening in her ears now. She barely heard Dr. Coffer’s next words.

“You have to stop, Wendy. Whatever it was that happened to you that night, five years ago – it will never present itself to you and you will never be able to work through it if you continue to hide in your stories. If you continue to escape into Neverland.”

“Stop,” Wendy said. But she said it too softly. She must have only whispered it, for Dr. Coffer went on, regardless.

“You can’t be selfish in this, Wendy. Allowing yourself to indulge in the fantasies you write is one thing. But you’re hurting Michael, too.”

“Stop,” she said again. She was sure she’d gotten some volume behind it this time, but she had to admit that it wasn’t nearly as loud as the storm brewing in her head.

“Please consider giving your writing a rest. For the sake of –”

“I said stop!” Wendy bellowed, coming out of her chair as if the act of standing would lend some amount of strength to her words. She desperately needed that strength right now. She desperately needed him to hear her.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” she went on, the storm that had been building finally breaking inside of her. She was unable to stop herself. It was like watching a movie; she saw Wendy Darling standing there, her fists clenched at her sides, her face red, her teeth bared as she screamed at her doctor.

And she could do nothing to prevent it.

“Wendy, calm down –”

“Shut up!” Wendy went on, relentlessly. “How can you possibly know? How can you be so sure that Neverland is any less real than this world?” She gestured wildly to the office around them. As she did, she caught sight of his various degrees and certificates in frames lining the walls.

“You think you’re so smart because someone said so – on a piece of paper!” She hissed. “You believe them well enough, don’t you, Dr. Coffer!” She reached down and grabbed her once-folded pages of story and waved them in front of his face. As she did, there was a very large part of her that could not believe what she was doing.

This wasn’t like her. This wasn’t like Wendy Darling at all.

“But you can’t bring yourself to believe me!” She concluded. Then, in a show of utter defiance, she hastily refolded the pages and crammed them into the front pocket of her jeans. “I guess we each believe what we want to believe, Dr. Coffer,” she barked at him, her teeth still gritted tight.

“I’ll take this,” she said, patting her pocket, “over that,” she pointed at the frames on the walls, “any day!”

After a few tense moments of silence, the psychiatrist steepled his fingers before his face and peered at her long and hard.

Wendy stood there, a quietly raging statue of a teenage girl, and wondered what she should do next. Should she sit back down? Storm out of the office?

Her parents were going to hear about this, for sure.

I’m done for, she thought.

Dr. Coffer closed his legal pad and pocketed his pen. Then he slowly stood up and gestured to the door. “Wendy, why don’t we save the remainder of the time in today’s session and add it to next week’s slot? You’re under a lot of stress and I think you need sometime to calm down.” He seemed to study her face, then, as if searching for something. All she could do was glare at him.

“And I think you need more sleep, perhaps. I imagine you’re dreaming of him again.”

At that, Wendy blinked. Him? She thought. And then … Captain Hook.

“Yes. I believe his name was Hook?” Dr. Coffer clarified. “A captain, if I’m not mistaken.” He sighed heavily once more. He did that a lot. To Wendy, every time he did, it sounded as if he were saying the word, “helpless.”

“Wendy, go home and get some rest. I will follow up with your parents.”

Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality? Wendy thought, bitterly, as she made her way to the office door. But she knew it didn’t count in her case. She was special.

It had been five years since Wendy and her brothers had gone to Neverland. The night that they’d returned, suddenly home and covered in dirt and sea salt from head to toe, everything had begun to go wrong.

Her parents didn’t believe a word they had said. They were convinced that their children had been abducted. And worse – abused.

Since then, things for Wendy and her brothers had only gotten worse. Much worse.

Wendy stepped out into the parking lot of the doctor’s office and ran a hand through her long caramel-brown hair. “Oh Peter,” she whispered. “Where are you?”

Five years was such a long time. Why had Peter Pan never come back?

*****

If Wendy Darling felt that five years was a long time, to a very young man not very far way, it was an eternity.

“I can’t do it, Tink.” Peter Pan gazed out the window for the ten thousandth time and still saw nothing he really liked.

Tinkerbell looked up from the book she was reading and cocked her head to one side. “You can’t do what?”

Peter sighed. “I can’t live in this world any more. It’s so boring. Nothing ever happens here.” He shook his head forlornly. “Nothing good, anyway.”

Tinkerbell, who was no longer in the form of a tiny, flittering fairy, bookmarked her place and put her book down. Then she stood up and walked across the room to stand by Peter’s side. To anyone who laid eyes on her in this world, she would appear to be nothing more than a pretty, blonde human girl, the same age as Peter. But looks could be deceiving.

Tinkerbell thought about what Peter had just said. It was patently false, as far as she was concerned. Peter had done tons of stuff. He had traveled around the entire world, in fact.

Though it was a rather adult kind of thing to do, Peter had even worked various jobs. Tinkerbell had stood beside him as his “assistant” when he’d taught children to ski in the Alps. She had hovered, nervously and invisibly, over his shoulder and protected him from being burned as he’d fought fires in a city called San Francisco. Tinkerbell had even watched him zap a shark on the nose with a strange electric stick once – when he’d been diving off the coast of another place called Australia.

That place, with its endless beaches, native villages, and thick forests, had reminded her a lot of home.

But anyway – this world was honestly far from boring.

Still, it was no use arguing with Peter when he was in one of his moods. And his mood was growing darker by the second.

“I agree,” Tinkerbell said, her bottom lip turning out in her patented pout. “It’s awful here. Let’s go back.”

Peter was silent for a long while. And then he sighed again and turned to face her. “I can’t. I keep trying, I swear. I tried again last night. But I’m stuck here.” He shook his head and ran a hand through his shaggy blonde hair. “I can feel that my promise still binds me.”

“But the Lost Boys are all fine, Pete,” Tink said, shaking her head. “They all have homes now.” Her brow was furrowed and her hands found her hips. “So, why are you still bound by this promise of yours?”

Peter blinked. And then he shrugged. “To tell the truth, I don’t know, Tink. I don’t know what’s holding me here. I vowed to make certain that Neverland’s children were okay before I went back. And they seem to be okay…” His expression became one of stark frustration. “So, why can’t I leave?” His hand was balled in a fist and in a sudden fit of fury that was very like Peter Pan, he turned and swung his fist toward the window in front of him.

Luckily for him – and for the window – Tink had grown used to Peter’s temper tantrums, and she easily caught his arm before his hand was able to connect with the glass. She was inhumanly strong, being a pixie. Otherwise, she would not have been able to stop him. He was now nineteen, after all, and no longer as small as he once was. He’d grown quite strong, himself.

“Calm down. We need to figure this out.” Tinkerbell released his arm and turned to pace across the room. She chewed on her lip. “We just need to think…” She was quiet for a minute and then she stopped in her tracks and looked up. “Are you absolutely sure all of the Lost Boys are okay?”

Peter nodded. “Loving parents, warm beds, school rooms and healthy food and all that nonsense.” He made a face as if disgusted by the thought. “Yes,” he finished. “They’re all fine. Happy, anyway.”

Tinkerbell shook her head, her hands on her hips once more. “Then this just makes no sense.” She blew out a sigh and walked over to a purse that was hanging on a hook on the wall. As she pulled the purse off of the hook, the hook gleamed, reflecting some distant light streaming through the window. It gave her pause. She studied it for a moment and shuddered. Then, with a determined set of her jaw, she shook off the strange feeling that had overcome her and looked away.

Tinkerbell turned back toward Peter and put the purse strap over her shoulder. “This world is a curse. I can’t think anymore without this horrible human caffeine stuff they have,” she huffed. “I’m going to Starbucks,” the fairy said. “Wanna come?”

Peter rolled his eyes, but he was already moving for his leather jacket, which also hung on a hook on the wall. Tinkerbell had made the jacket for him. Using fairy magic, she made everything they needed to survive in the human world, including the house they currently lived in.

Peter Pan shrugged on his coat and then followed Tinkerbell out the door. “Tink, why don’t you just magic up some coffee? It’s cold outside.”

“You never used to mind the cold, Peter,” Tinkerbell said over her shoulder. “Besides, this is more fun.” She skillfully jumped over a fallen log on their private, woodland path and then stepped out of the forest and onto a sidewalk.

Peter’s gaze narrowed at the back of Tinkerbell’s head. “You just like it when the boys flirt with you.” He followed her onto the sidewalk, leaving their secret path behind.

“Why Peter,” Tink smiled. “Are you jealous?”

“I never get jealous,” Peter insisted. “That’s a grownup emotion.”

At that, Tinkerbell blinked. “You look older, you know.” She took in his broad shoulders and the stubble of hair that shadowed his chin. “You’ve aged in this world.” And that’s an understatement, she thought.

Peter said nothing, but his green eyes flashed and his glare became a scowl.

“Maybe you can feel a grownup emotion after all, Pete.” Tinkerbell laughed and it sounded like pixie dust. And then she whirled around and skipped briskly down the street. Peter grudgingly followed.

Chapter Two

Wendy had long since managed to dry her tears by the time she’d walked all the way to Michael’s school. It was one of her many jobs, as an older sister, to pick Michael up every afternoon and walk him home.

Today, despite its horridness and humiliation, was unfortunately no exception. So, Wendy put on her best face for her little brother and smiled when he came running through the front door.

“Wendy! Did you finish it?”

Wendy blanched. “Umm. . . “.she stammered. “No, Michael. I didn’t have a chance to write today, after all. My teachers gave me boatloads of homework.”

Michael’s face fell, but it was obvious that he tried to hide his disappointment. “That’s okay,” he shrugged. “Want some Sour Patch candies?” He held out a clear plastic bag filled with sugarcoated, gummy people.

Wendy shook her head. “No thanks. They sting my tongue. But I’ll buy you a cocoa if you want.”

Michael shrugged again. He was still trying to hide his disappointment. “Anything’s better than going home and putting up with Dr. John.”

At this, Wendy smiled, somewhat bitterly, and hooked her arm in her brother’s. As they began walking away, the school doors opened once more behind them. A hand full of boys filed out into the play yard. “Hey, Darling boy!” one called out.

Wendy froze, bringing them both to halt.

“Gotta get big sis to walk you home ‘cuz you’re such a darling little baby!”

Wendy’s jaw tightened. Slowly, she turned around, letting go of Michael’s arm. Darling is such an unfortunate last name for a boy, she thought to herself. It was fine for her – but for her brothers. . . . Not so much. The only reason John didn’t get teased the way Michael did was because John was in an extra special school for extra smart kids – and because he had grown up big, like his father.

Michael, on the other hand, was still a rather small child. And utterly unlike any other ten-year-old boy Wendy had ever known. Where most boys that age were filled with a wrestling rage and foul language, Michael was calm and gentle. Inquisitive and quiet. The only thing he ever asked Wendy for was her stories.

She couldn’t bear that he was the brunt of other boys’ cruelty. “I’m sorry,” she said, softly so that the boys on the other end of the playground would have to be very quiet to hear her. “I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch that. Can you come closer and repeat it?”

Michael tugged gently on her sleeve, but she ignored him. Her gray eyes held storm clouds and a hurricane was coming.

The boys fidgeted for a moment, unsure of exactly what to do. Then the one who considered himself to be their leader rolled his shoulders back and strode closer to Wendy and Michael.

“Your brother is a retard,” he hissed at her, showing incredible and stupid bravery by speaking this way to someone seven years his senior. “Tell your parents to put him in the remedial program before he stupids-up everyone around him.”

Wendy’s lip twitched and her lovely face became an impassive mask, utterly belying the tempest raging behind her thunder-gray eyes. “But, little boy, if I did that, then the two of you would be together all the time. Is that really what you want?”

The boy’s features went slack for a moment as he tried to figure out what that meant. And then they twisted with fury, his cheeks turning an embarrassing, bright red. At once, as if no longer able to control his actions, the boy lurched forward, his right arm drawn back in a readied punch.

To Wendy’s astonishment, just as she had been preparing to pummel the boy with her own fists and teach him a lesson, it was Michael, and not her, who met the foul child in hand-to-hand combat. With a cry of rage, Michael lunged forward, blocked the boy’s punch, and threw one of his own. His knuckles connected solidly with the boy’s jaw and before Wendy really knew what was happening, they were both on the ground, and Michael was sitting on the boy’s waist, hitting him again and again.

“Don’t you ever touch my sister!” Michael screamed, as his fists rained down on his enemy’s face.

“Michael, stop!” Wendy hurriedly bent and tried to grab his flailing arms. It was difficult work, as for a ten-year-old, he was quite strong. But, eventually she managed to pull her brother off of the other boy, who was now sobbing and spitting blood.

As luck, or the absence of luck, would have it, it was at that moment that the school’s front doors once more opened and two teachers came running out onto the playground, several ten-year-old boys following closely behind. The boys were grinning maliciously and it was clear, now, that as soon as the fight had begun, they had gone back inside for help.

For the second time that afternoon, Wendy’s pirate ship heart sank. For, she knew that the arrival of the teachers could really mean only one thing. Her parents would be notified of this fight. And she highly doubted that Michael, who technically threw the first punch, would be found innocent of guilt.

Wendy grimaced as the teachers approached – one woman and one man.

“Well! Miss Darling! Of all the things!” The woman huffed as her companion helped the bleeding boy off of the ground.

“What is the meaning of this?” the male teacher asked then, his expression grim.

“I didn’t do anyshing!” the boy wailed, his speech slightly slurred. “He punthed me firsh!” The boy pointed a scraped finger at Michael and glared through his tears.

“Really!” the female teacher exclaimed again, apparently unable to speak beneath a certain volume. “Is this true, Michael?” She turned a scrutinous eye on Wendy’s brother.

Michael glared back at the teacher. She blinked. He nodded. Once.

“Well, we’ll just see what your father has to say about this, Mr. Darling!”

The male teacher said nothing, but threw an exasperated look at Michael, and then at Wendy, before he helped the boy walk back across the playground to the school doors. The other teacher followed them, walking briskly and with purpose. Wendy watched them go as a numbness climbed up her limbs and into her heart.

“I’m not sorry.” Michael said softly. Wendy looked down at her little brother. He was rubbing his hands gingerly. She gently took his right hand and peered at it more closely. The knuckles were scraped and reddened. She sighed and looked him in the eyes.

“I’m not sorry, Wendy,” he repeated.



Wendy nodded. “Let’s go home.” The two walked the remainder of the way home wrapped in a synchronized silence that was filled to the brim with words left unspoken.


That night, while Peter Pan slept a fitful sleep, Tinkerbell left their little house in the woods and regained her tiny winged form so that she could fly. The fairy missed flying. In Neverland, she had flown everywhere. It was the way of the pixies. To become human-like was to lose a bit of magic, and so her people never took human form in Neverland. Instead, they remained small and used their wings and their dust.

But here. . . . Well, in this world, flitting about as a fairy was dangerous. She could get swatted flat like a fly or batted about like a bee. Or worse. She could end up squished on the windshield of a human locomotive.

She shuddered at the thought.

Still, Tinkerbell missed the freedom that being a fairy was all about. And so, every once in a while, she turned back into a pixie and soared through the night. She had learned, over the years, to keep a watchful eye out for owls and to stay away from the ground, where cats and other predators would eat her like an insect. She had also learned to stay out of human sight, for a bright, twinkling light streaking through the sky was a very strange thing for them to see. And humans did not treat strange things very well.

Now, Tink sighed a satisfied sigh and raced beneath branches and over boughs. Eventually, she reached the edge of the small copse of woods that she and Peter lived in, and she chanced a peek out into the adjoining street. There was no one coming. It was late; all of the humans were in their homes, asleep or close to it.

She smiled and flew out into the street. She hovered for a moment as she decided where to go next and then she made her way down the sidewalks and neighborhood alleys, appearing, for all the world, like a tiny piece of fallen star.

Tinkerbell flew in this manner for several hours, basking in the cool night air that chilled her smiling face and danced around her wings.

And then, quite suddenly, she stopped.

She froze in midair, looking from side-to-side, wondering what had made her so unexpectedly want to pause. Something felt not quite right. It was like a tingle at the back of her tiny neck and the faint hint of music that she couldn’t quite make out.

Tink turned slowly in place, taking in her surroundings. She was in an alleyway between two tall houses. One house was dark, its windows shuttered, its people asleep.

But light streamed from the windows of the other.

On a whim, Tink chanced a closer peek. She flew to the first level and landed daintily on the sill of what appeared to be the largest window. There was a crack in the curtains on the other side. Tink leaned over and peered inside.

Chapter Three

The numbness that had crept over Wendy earlier that day had, by now, enveloped her completely. She sat still as a statue on the couch in their family room while her father raged and John paced and Michael stared at the floor. Her mother, too, sat still, but her eyes were on her husband and her expression was a mixture of weary concern and plain old weariness.

“This has gone too far. It’s gone beyond too far. I am at my wit’s end with you two. It was bad enough before, but now you’re fighting with your classmates? What will you do tomorrow? Skip school? Rob a convenience store?”

“George!” Wendy’s mother interjected, but George Darling shook his head stubbornly.

“You know I’m right, Mary. One evil deed always leads to another, does it not?”

“George, I should hardly call this evil-”

“Call it what you like, it’s wrong.” Wendy’s father insisted. “Fighting in the school yard is for ruffians who grow up to spend most of their lives in prison. Not for children like you!” George whirled on Michael, who still stared at the floor.

The room was silent for a moment.

And then Wendy’s other brother, John, cleared his throat. “If you want my opinion-”

“We don’t,” Wendy and Michael both replied. They gazed at their brother. John Darling stood stock still where he’d ceased pacing. He was the same height as his tall father and had the same blue eyes and black hair. But where as his father’s expression held more than intelligence, John’s seem to contain only intelligence. Wisdom and experience, it lacked. This made his face somewhat uncomfortable to behold. At least, Wendy and Michael thought so.

“Michael,” Mary Darling spoke again, her calm voice like a balm on the raw nerves of everyone in the room.

Michael looked up to meet her gaze. She smiled at him. It was an ever gentle smile, the kind that only mothers can produce. And Mary Darling was a very good mother.

“Michael, you haven’t told us what happened yet. Would you care to explain your side?”

Mrs. Darling’s suggestion was so logical and patient that George Darling could only blink in the wake of it. Why hadn’t he allowed his son to explain? That made so much sense, didn’t it? Perhaps he had a good reason for pummeling another boy bloody. . . .

And that, Mr. Darling reasoned, was why he hadn’t bothered asking for an explanation. There were only so many times you could hit someone before it simply became too much. And Michael had crossed that line today with a hurdle.

“He tried to hit Wendy.”

Again, the room was quiet. Only this time, both John and George Darling stood with their jaws dropped open, their eyes wide as golf balls.

Mary Darling’s brow furrowed. “What?” she asked, in disbelief.

“He was teasing and Wendy gave him a taste of his own medicine,” Michael continued, his voice very quiet. “So, he tried to hit her.”

John stuttered, “S-s-o - you hit him instead?”

Michael looked up and met his brother’s gaze head-on. “Yes,” he said, simply.

John blinked, as did Mary and George. The living room lapsed into a stunned silence once more. And then, delicately, Mary Darling cleared her throat. “John,” she began, nodding at her older son. “Wendy,” she continued, nodding at her daughter in turn. “Could you two please give us a moment alone with Michael?”

Wendy stood slowly and placed a reassuring hand on Michael’s shoulder. He didn’t move and he didn’t look up, but she knew it had comforted him, nonetheless. Then she turned and walked out of the room. John hesitated momentarily and then followed her out. Behind them, Michael and his parents began to converse in hushed tones.

John closed in behind Wendy, securely shutting the kitchen door behind them. “This is all your fault,” he hissed at her once they were out of ear shot.

Wendy turned on him, her eyes a steely gray. At first, she said nothing. Then her gaze narrowed and she stood straighter, coming to face him fully. “What, John? Exactly what is my fault?”

Neither of them noticed the brief flash of a tiny speck of light in the corner of the kitchen window.

“This mess you’ve gotten Michael into. You’ve turned him into a mindless toy with your foolish stories. You’ve pulled him into your make-believe world so that he can’t face the truth and get over it like I have. Why must you insist on hurting him in this way?” His voice had lowered into an angry hiss.

Wendy’s eyes went from narrowed and furious to wide and shocked. “I- I can’t believe you just said that, John,” she whispered. Wendy shook her head, looked at her hands in desperation, and then shot her gaze back up at him. “I’ve seen you try to throw away your experience and ‘agree’ with the doctors, but I don’t understand it. I don’t!” Her tone took on desperation, as did her expression, her eyes once more reflecting a building storm. How - how – can you honestly think that Neverland never happened? You. . . .” She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You, who used to fly higher than the rest of us with your thoughts of quantum physics and – and – macro biology! John, you actually kissed Princess Tiger Lily, even though her father threatened to-”

John closed the distance between them in two quick strides and his hand was over her mouth, his face red, his blue eyes flashing angrily. “Don’t you dare drag me back into your pretend abyss again, Wendy!” He spat the words at her, his hand forcing her head to jerk with every syllable. “I had to claw my way out of it, fighting tooth and nail to regain reality and face what really happened to us! I will not play puppet to your string pulling again! Not now – not ever! Never!”

Never is a terribly long time, Wendy’s thoughts whispered.

But the stinging wasp-nest-like numbness that had encased her forbade her from further speech, even after John removed his hand from her mouth. He towered over her, a year younger than her, but half a foot taller. Wendy looked away, refusing to meet his gaze. She knew that if she did, she would either hit him or cry. And she had the strength for neither one just then. The sound of his words had attacked her like a million supernatural mosquitoes, leaving her drained of much more than blood.

“I’ll leave you with your thoughts, Wendy,” John straightened, his tone lower now and his demeanor one of a man who believes he has just won a very smart argument. “Maybe they can talk some sense into you.” He adjusted his V-neck vest sweater over the long-sleeved shirt beneath it, then spun on the squeaky heel of his new black loafers and strode out of the kitchen.

Wendy gently, distractedly, touched her face with shaking hands, and turned toward the sink.

*****

Outside the window, Tinkerbell stood straight and blinked. No, she thought. No, no, no, no, no, no! Not her! Not now! Oh! In frustration, she lifted off of the window sill and spun around wildly, thrashing her arms and legs out at nothing but thin air. This was horrible! But, of course, it made so much sense. Why hadn’t it occurred to her before? Because. That’s why. Because she didn’t want it to because she hated Wendy Darling and because Peter Pan was hers – Tinkerbell’s – not Wendy’s, and because there was no way in Neverland that Tink was going to let that Wendy bird interfere in their lives again!

Tinkerbell flew in mad circles, her tiny body containing so much anger that if she didn’t get it out, she knew she might explode. Her path through the night sky looked like a miniscule shooting star, streaking from here to there and back again with wild abandon.

Finally, many minutes later, Tinkerbell had spent a good deal of her fury and the fairy blew out a sigh and landed, in a puff of ash and dust, on the edge of a warm chimney. Autumn smoke lifted in weak fumes from the chimney’s recesses. The weather had turned colder these last few nights. Halloween was just around the corner. Winter was on its way.

Tinkerbell sank down to her bottom and folded her elbows on her knees. She couldn’t believe what she’d just witnessed. She wouldn’t even know where to begin with which part was worse.

It was all too obvious to the fairy, now, that Wendy and her brothers were most likely the other “children” of Neverland – the ones who hadn’t yet been taken care of. It was the Darling children who were not okay and it was this fact which was holding Peter to his promise and trapping him in the human, mortal world. Tinkerbell was smart enough to have figured that little bit out on her own.

The Darling children had been to Neverland and any child who visited Neverland became a part of it forever. In fact, Tinkerbell was so certain that it was the Darling children that Peter needed to tend to now, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before.

And that was bad enough. But that John Darling was forgetting – or disbelieving – in Neverland was… Well, it was… It was unspeakable.

Tinkerbell shook her head, once more, in absolute horror and wondered what she should do. She didn’t want to tell Peter. Of course, she didn’t want to tell Peter. Having Wendy Darling back in their lives was the last thing Tinkerbell wanted. But. . . Peter was aging. He wasn’t a little boy anymore, which was strange, in and of itself. If they remained in the human world, would he become an actual - adult?

Tinkerbell shuddered. And then she shuddered again, just for good measure. She had to get Peter back to Neverland. And Peter’s promise wouldn’t allow him to return until all of Neverland’s children were okay. And, as much as Tink hated to admit it, that meant Wendy too.

So, with a heart that was especially heavy in such a tiny body, Tinkerbell accepted the fact that she had to tell Peter what she had just seen. And the sooner, the better. She lifted off of the chimney with a flourish of pixie dust and fluttering wings and then dove down in between the two houses below, once more flying through the alley way. She would return to their home in the hidden woods and fill Peter in on the news. But first, she wanted to take one last peak at the Darlings. A little more information never hurt. Maybe it would help her figure out exactly what she and Peter needed to do for Wendy and her brothers in order to make things right again. Besides, pixies were naturally a curious lot. And the truth was, Tink really couldn’t help herself.

She flew from window to window of the Darling house, looking for one that was still lit, but every window was dark save one. It was the same living room window that she had watched from earlier. Tink gracefully landed once more and peeked through the curtains.

*****

“Wendy, I asked you to stay up because I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

Wendy Darling sat across from her mother, her hands folded in her lap, her fingers fiddling nervously with the long ties from her gray zip-up hoodie jacket. “Okay,” she said. Silently, she asked herself what else she was going to get into trouble for that evening. But because it was her mother speaking to her – her calm, logical and supportive mother – and not her father, she was a little less nervous than she would otherwise have been.

“Wendy,” her mother began again, slowly, as if searching for just the right words. “Mrs. Price called me today. She told me about the pages you wrote in class.”

Wendy stopped breathing. Somehow, she knew, as an animal can feel an earthquake coming, that whatever was coming next would not at all be good. Inexplicably, she knew, even before her mother went on, that whatever was coming next would be the worst thing to happen that night. It would be the worst thing to happen in a very long time. Perhaps, five whole years. And it would hurt.

“I also spoke with your doctor,” Mary Darling continued. “He told me about your session today.” She paused, took a deep breath, and went on. “He believes that it may be time to take your therapy to a new level, Wendy.” Mary pulled open the small drawer in the side table next to the sofa. “He prescribed these.” She reached in and pulled a brown bottle of pills from the drawer and then closed it. The white contents of the plastic prescription case jiggled.

The sound echoed in Wendy’s ears. She stared at the bottle as her mother held it out. She found no words on her numb tongue worth speaking. Medicine, she thought. And not the sweet pink kind that I’d always thought was the worst.

“They’ll help you, Wendy. They’ll help stop your dreams. You’ll sleep again. You’ll be able to concentrate on your studies and forget the past. . . .” Mary’s lovely face wore a desperate expression. “Take them, Wendy. Help yourself forget, dear. You’ve earned the right to let go.” She whispered to her daughter, stretching her arm and holding the bottle aloft before Wendy’s impassive face.

Wendy found herself moving without even knowing how she had done so. Mechanically, like a windup doll, she took the bottle of pills from her mother’s hand and unscrewed the top.

“That’s it, sweetheart. I have water here.”

Wendy tipped the prescription bottle until a single white cylinder appeared in her hand. She stared down at the capsule. It sat still, waiting and insipid, in her palm and, at that moment, Wendy could almost imagine that it stared back at her.

Mary Darling took a tall glass of clear, cool water from atop the side table and held it out toward her daughter. Wendy glanced up. She kept the single pill that she had dispensed and handed the bottle back to her mother as she, in turn, took the glass of water.

Then, without a single hopeful thought left in her tired mind, Wendy popped the white pill into her mouth and swallowed it down.

*****

At the window, a tiny pixie straightened, her green eyes wide with shock. “Bad,” she whispered, unaware that she’d even spoken aloud. “Bad. Very bad.” She took to the skies, streaking pixie dust behind her. “Bad, bad, bad, bad . . . .” Tinkerbell dashed back toward her secret place in the woods just as lightning fast as a fast fairy could fly.

*****

In Neverland, Hook dreamed. Except, because no one in Neverland had ever dreamed before, he didn’t know it for what it was. As far as Hook was concerned, he had suddenly become a piece of paper. Two-dimensional and covered with scrolling, cursive-written words.

He was facing a young girl, who was also constructed of two-dimensional, written-on paper. “Come away with me, Wendy,” he found himself saying. “Sail the high seas.” He motioned to the blue ocean around them with a flourish of his paper hand. “There is no place on this world that a wave, and a ship to ride it, cannot take you.” He smiled a charming smile.

The paper girl across from him smiled a gentle smile in return and curtsied. And then she straightened suddenly, and her lovely smile was gone.

Hook found his paper self moving forward. “No,” he muttered. But in the next instant, he was frozen in space and time and could only watch as the paper Wendy began to smolder, to smoke and curl in at the edges.

As the paper girl suddenly went up in flame, Captain James Hook lay in his bed in his dark, quiet ship, on the dark and quiet sea of Neverland and whispered the first word spoken in Neverland in one thousand, eight hundred, and twenty-five years. . . .

Wendy.

Chapter Four

Tinkerbell soared in through the open shutters and then took her human form. Peter was curled at the edge of his bed, nearly falling off, his fist clenching and unclenching in his sleep. He had kicked off all of his covers and Tink could see that he still wore all of his clothes. Which meant that he’d fallen asleep drunk. Again.

She pursed her lips and put her hands on her hips, sauntering to the bed with dark purpose. “Oh, Pe-ter,” she called quietly, her tone low and dangerous in the manner that only a fairy’s tone can be.

Peter twitched in his sleep, his brow furrowing and then smoothing again. He did not wake. Tinkerbell leaned over and, with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, she covered Peter’s nostrils, cutting off his air supply. It took a moment for this to have real effect, but when it did, Peter’s mouth opened in a hoarse gasp for breath and he jolted awake, coughing and moaning.

“Wakey, wakey, Peter Pan,” Tink said, her tone still low and unpleasant. “We’ve got trouble. And you need to be half-way conscious to deal with it.”

Peter Pan was not fond of the human world. While it was true that, since his arrival, five years ago, he had done many things and even, inadvertently had fun doing them – he had also been bombarded by the bad news that humans seemed to thrive on. He was not used to these things, having spent so much time in Neverland.

War, murder, disease. . . . It had all very quickly become too grown up for the boy who would never grow up, and since he could not return to Neverland, Peter Pan had hurriedly and desperately taken to the things in the human world that could make a person forget that he was in the human world, all together.

His favorite was wine. Sweet and chilled through fairy magic.

Unfortunately, it had become his favorite nearly every day of late, and so now, Peter Pan gazed up at Tinkerbell through what was most likely a haze of hang-over pain and very blurred vision. His green eyes were bloodshot and the stubble of hair that Tink had noticed on his chin and cheeks ever more regularly these days was back again.

“I suppose you want me to heal you, don’t you.” Tink cocked her head to one side and flipped a lock of blonde hair over her shoulder. “What would you do if you didn’t have me around to clean up your messes, Peter?”

“Get some sleep, for one,” Peter grumbled, running a hand through his dirty blonde locks and slowly sitting up. He looked around absently and then blinked. “Speaking of which - why did you wake me?”

“We have a problem.” Tinkerbell blew out a sigh and then sat down on Peter’s bed beside him. “A big one.” With that, she gently touched his forehead, and in a shower of pixie dust and wind chime breeze, Peter’s bloodshot eyes cleared, becoming sea green once more.

The shadows on Peter’s face receded and he sat up a little straighter. “Thanks Tink,” he said softly. She nodded and gave him a small smile.

“Now, what’s the problem?” he asked.

Tinkerbell hesitated for a relatively short but heavy moment before she finally said, “It’s Wendy, Peter.” She sighed and seemed to slump beside him on the bed. “She’s the Neverland child.”

Peter stopped moving. He stopped breathing.

Tink continued. “And she’s definitely not okay.”


John Darling closed his locker, turned the dial on his combination lock, and swung his book bag over his shoulder.

“Johnny, check this out.”

John turned to face his school friend, Adam, a much shorter blonde boy with glasses and clothes that always seemed to have come directly from a mannequin; not a wrinkle to be found from head to toe.

“It’s an article about dream interpretation using fMRI techniques,” Adam continued, his rather high pitched voice tinged with excitement.

“Let me see.” John took the magazine from him and started to look it over when a third boy approached.

“Johnny, is your sister coming to the game tomorrow night?”

John looked up. “Oh, hi Nick. Yeah, probably.” John blinked, recalling the fight he and his sister had had the night before and the medication bottle that he’d spied in the side table with Dr. Coffer’s name on the label. “Actually. . . I’m not sure,” he added, uncertainly.

“Oh? Is she okay?” Nick cocked his head to one side, studying John. Nick’s eyes were a hazel color so light that they contrasted starkly with the tanned complexion of his handsome face. He was at the Morrison School for the Gifted through a soccer scholarship and, because he practiced every day, before and after school, he rarely wore anything but his soccer jersey. Lately, due to the changing weather, he had begun wearing jeans during class and had gotten into the habit of pulling a denim jacket on over his jersey. The easily tossed-on wardrobe managed to flatter Nickolas enough that he had the yearning, if quiet, attentions of most of the genius girls in the school. And for some reason that utterly befuddled him, this truly irritated John Darling.

Still, although Nickolas Noble wasn’t as bright, by John’s standards, as he considered himself and his closer friends to be, he had to admit that Nick was a nice enough guy once you got to know him. All soccer aside, that is. Soccer, after all, was simply the Americanization of foot ball, which John had always considered a huge waste of time anyway, and-

“John?” Nick prompted again, his eyes searching his friend’s face.

“Oh. Sorry. Yes, she’s fine. Just busy is all,” John replied.

Nick nodded and the three boys walked out together, speaking in this manner for several minutes. But, once outside, John glanced up to peer past the student cars and busses. Something had caught his attention. Nick was speaking with Adam about something having to do with there being different kinds of genius, but John was no longer listening to the discussion.

Their voices droned out and seemed to fade away, as if he were in a bubble, and his vision honed in, tunneling toward an alley across the street. There, the dark outline of a figure, perhaps two, on what appeared to be a motorcycle, piqued his curiosity. He gazed at the outline for a long moment. He squinted against the late day setting sun, trying to make it out more clearly.

And then blinked.

Was that a spark of light he’d seen?

A flash of something like glitter?

He closed his eyes and shook his head as if to clear it.

“You okay, man?” Nick asked suddenly.

“Umm. . . . ” John opened his eyes again and refocused them on the alley. Whatever he had seen before was gone. No dark figures. No motorcycle. No pixie dust.

His breath caught and his mind reeled.

What had he just thought?

“D-man, you don’t look so good,” Adam said, looking up at his friend from behind huge, bug-eyed spectacles. His expression was one of genuine concern.

John ran his hand over his face and then felt his forehead. He wasn’t particularly warm. Though, it was rather chilly outside, so that could legitimately affect his skin’s temperature-

“John, take a seat,” Nick’s voice was a command. As tall as John was, Nick was the same height, and he possessed enough of an athletic build to support whatever authority he wished to claim. He placed a gentle, but firm hand on John’s shoulder and forced him to sit down on the low wall that ran along the bus drive in front of the Morrison School. “You look like you’re about to lose your lunch.”

“I didn’t eat lunch,” John replied absently.

“Well, that’s your problem then,” Adam said, pushing his glasses back up from where they’d slid down his nose. “You’ve got low blood sugar again. You know how you get when you don’t eat. Why didn’t you eat? I told you that you should buy those bars I showed you and start carrying them around-”

“I’m fine, Adam. I’m just…” He knocked Nick’s hand away and pushed himself back onto his feet. “I’m fine. I have to get home. I’ve got too much to do, that’s all. And I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Nick studied him carefully for a moment, his expression unreadable. “Okay,” he said, slowly, his intense gaze still analyzing John’s face in the same manner that he peered at the soccer field before a game.

John could tell Nick didn’t really believe that nothing was wrong. As much of a jock as he was, Nick was smarter than that. But what was John supposed to tell him? What was he supposed to say? You know how we moved here from England a few years ago? Well, it was because we were all kidnapped back in England but Wendy made up this story about a boy named Peter Pan and our parents had to bring us to better therapists here in the United States to help us forget about Peter and realize he wasn’t real. Only, now I’m not so sure he wasn’t real, after all, because I could swear I just saw something in that alley…

It was pointless. Anything he could say would sound insane.

So, he said nothing further, and stared Nickolas Noble down.

Nick seemed to come to a decision. “Okay,” he said again. “But eat something when you get there.” Nick picked up John’s bag, which had fallen to the ground. He held it out for John, who took it with a slight nod of thanks. “And tell your sister I said ‘hi’.”

John nodded once more and then pushed past Nick to leave. He gave Adam a little wave as he walked away.

He could feel the gazes of both boys on him as he made his way down the side walk and eventually turned the corner. The strange thing was, however, that even after he was out of their sights, he still felt that he was being watched.

John shrugged off the strange sensation as nothing more than what his small friend had suggested – low blood sugar. And, feeling a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge on the night before Christmas, he hastened his stride, made it down two more blocks, and turned another corner.

And for the second time that afternoon, he came to an unexpected and abrupt halt. There, in an alley across the street, were the figures again. Only, this time, he could tell it was a boy, slightly older than himself, accompanied by a very pretty blonde girl of the same age. The boy sat astride a motorcycle, of what make, John would never know. That was more Wendy’s arena of interests.

The blonde girl leaned against the boy, her elbow curled on his shoulder. Both of the teenagers were watching him steadily. And both were smiling strange, mirthless smiles that did not quite reach their eyes, which were so green that John could see the emerald in them even at this rather lengthy distance.

Now, as human nature goes, there are only a few reasons in existence for adolescent children to be found loitering in alleyways. And John Darling was just smart enough to know that none of those reasons were good.

He remained motionless, staring back at the two strangers for a long moment, wondering whether they were the same figures he had seen in the alley beside the school. If they were, how had they moved so quickly? He had heard no motorbike engines. And who were they? And why was this happening?

He frowned. They were so familiar. So unnervingly familiar…

Pixie dust . . . .

The thought came, unbidden, into his mind once again.

The girl in the alleyway winked.

John blinked.

And just as his book bag once more hit the ground as he turned to run, he heard the engine of the motorcycle rev to life. The world became a slow motion blur for him then, as he spun in place and made his legs move. The only coherent thought that raced through his mind was one that told him to run. Run now, run fast, run far. It didn’t matter where to. Just run. Run so that he’ll never find you. Never, ever. . . .



Yet, even as he ran, he knew it was hopeless. The boy on the bike had bested pirates in a roiling sea. He was a swordsman with only one equal. He could mimic any voice, and see and hear for as far as he wanted to, whenever he wanted to. Why, Peter Pan could even fly.

At last, after John had run the length of but a single block in what felt like two eternities, Peter’s motorcycle cut him off at the next intersection and John came to a wobbly halt.

“Get on, Johnny boy. We need to talk.”

Though the motorcycle rumbled like thunder, Peter’s voice rang out loud and clear in John Darling’s head.

Peter Pan.

John stared at him through vision that was blurred by disbelief. It really was him. Older and a little rougher around the edges. But it was him, none the less. The boy who would never grow up seemed to have grown up, after all. Same blonde hair, same green eyes, but the blonde hair was darker now, and the eyes…

Well, John thought. They’re darker too.

“This is a dream,” he said aloud, finally finding the will to speak.

“No it isn’t, Johnny.”

John whirled on the female voice and found the blonde girl standing behind him. Yellow gold-spun hair, moss-green eyes, skin that seemed to shimmer in the overhead lamp light. It couldn’t be. She was supposed to be a few inches tall!

“T-Tinkerbell?” John stuttered.

“Hello, John,” Tink smiled gently then, the mischief in her wild green gaze taking a back seat to one of the more tender of the pixie’s emotions. “Missed me?”

“Nah, Tink. He didn’t miss you. In fact,” Peter spoke slowly, his words laced with deceptive nonchalance. “If I’m not mistaken…” He paused and fiddled with the black gloves he wore over his hands. John stared at him with wide eyes, struck by all of the darkness. The dark clothes and the dark gloves and the black mood.

Peter glanced up and smiled. “If I’m not mistaken,” he continued. “You’d stopped believing in Tink altogether.”

Tinkerbell reeled back from John as if struck. John blinked at her as she seemed to shimmer, fading to gray and white and back into full color over and over again.

“I-I’m sorry, Tink!”

“Really, Johnny?” Peter asked from where he still rested, disturbingly still, in the seat of his bike.

Tinkerbell shot Peter a dirty look. “Lay off, Pete. No need to sling the damage so wide. I don’t like being caught in it, you know.”

Peter shrugged and glanced at John again.

John, for his part, was torn. He looked from Peter and then to Tink and back again. There was a portion of his brain – a very large portion – that was assuring him, over and over again, and in a very loud voice, that this wasn’t happening. It promised him that none of this was real and that, despite the fact that he was not the one in his family known for possessing any imagination whatsoever, this was all most likely some very strange and cruel dream, brought on by his fight with his sister.

But the other part of his brain – the smaller, more meek part that was used to being ignored by John’s consciousness – was disagreeing.

And this time, John listened.

For, he was afraid that it was right.

With some effort, he swallowed past the dry lump that had formed in his throat and squeezed his eyes shut tight. When he opened them and everything was the same, he turned to Tinkerbell in apologetic acceptance.

“Tinkerbell, I’m very, very sorry,” he sighed. “I do believe in you.”

There was the roar of a revving engine behind John. It was loud enough that he chanced a glance over his shoulder.

Tinkerbell brushed by him and walked into the alley. He watched as she was quickly lost in the shadows and he could no longer make out her form.

“I said get on, Johnny.” Peter repeated, flashing white teeth. “We’ve got an appointment to keep.”

Chapter Five

Wendy Darling did not stir where she lay in her bed. Her hands did not clench her covers. Her eye lids did not flutter. In fact, if it weren’t for the barely perceptible movement of her chest, it would appear for all the world that the teenage girl was not even breathing.

Michael Darling stood in her doorway, watching his sister in silence. Normally, at this time in the late afternoon, the two of them would be in Carrypin park, hiding just off of the trail, Wendy telling Michael stories. Or they would be at the mall, sitting on a bench, watching everyone else go by as Wendy again told Michael stories. Or they would be sharing hot cocoa at the book store as Wendy read from the latest pages of one of her stories… His sister. The storyteller.

Not speaking. Not writing. Not telling him any stories.

Just sleeping.

And a dreamless sleep, at that.

*****

“I don’t know, Peter… I don’t really – I mean – I’ve never had this kind of thing before, and –”

Peter sighed, barely containing some amount of exasperation. “Just drink it, Johnny. It’s the only thing worth a bugger in your world. Especially after Tink’s done working her magic on it.” Peter Pan winked at Tinkerbell from where he sat on the ledge of the overlook, his booted feet dangling over the edge of the precipice. Tinkerbell smiled back and blushed slightly.

John sat beside Peter, a little further back from the ledge. At the moment, Peter had a bottle of red wine in his hands and it shimmered enticingly, having been enhanced with fairy dust. He held it out for John, who eyed it suspiciously.

At last, though, John’s will power dwindled and he clasped the bottle with one cold hand and brought it to his lips. It smelled like strawberries and sunshine and freedom.

He frowned. Did freedom have a smell?

Mmmm…. He closed his eyes and took another whiff. Yes. Freedom and ocean waves and honey and magic. It smelled like child hood. It smelled like Neverland.

He took a drink.

With the iridescent liquid’s first sweet contact on his tongue, John was instantly warmer. The chill of the autumn night slipped out of his fingers and toes and they tingled as if he was holding them near a hearth fire. He swallowed again, slowly, languidly. The liquid burned down his throat, filling him with a feeling of lightness. Weightlessness.

Now, as everyone knows, people cannot fly. They are made, sadly, without wings and as everyone also knows, wings are the only thing that can make an animal fly.

But, thankfully for the children of Neverland, what everyone knows is usually wrong. For wings are not the only thing that can make a person fly.

There is also that other thing.

John Darling opened his eyes and cried out in surprise. For what he had expected to see was Peter Pan sitting beside him and Tinkerbell standing off to one side and the outline of the lit-up city, at night, in the distance beyond the cliff’s ledge. But what he saw, instead, was the night sky and, below him, the wispy tendrils of a cloud that licked with gentle wetness at his exposed skin.

The sound of laughter drew his panicked attention up and away from the ground, which was suddenly quite a long way down.

He glanced over to find Peter Pan, in his black clothes, sitting on the edge of the very same cloud that now caressed John. “Do you remember now, Johnny Boy?” Peter asked, again flashing perfect white teeth.

John couldn’t answer. He found that he had, in fact, stopped breathing once more. And as he contemplated the very fact that he was flying and that such a thing was impossible, he realized, also, that he was sinking.

Peter Pan seemed to walk calmly across the top of the cloud, his arms crossed over his chest. Tinkerbell, once more in the form of a tiny fairy, flitted about Peter’s head.

“Happy thoughts, Johnny! Better think of some soon!” Peter called.

John began to thrash out at the sky around him as he sank right through the cloud beneath him and Peter’s form rose out of sight. Lower and lower, he went. He wasn’t quite falling, but he wasn’t not falling either. It was like being in a glass elevator that had lost most of its power.

He began to sink faster.

“Bloody hell,” John whispered, squeezing his eyes shut tight against a building queasiness.

“That was the wrong thought!” Peter called after him.

Frantically, John attempted to call to mind the things that made him happy… “Einstein,” he said quickly, “Darwin! Copernicus!” In desperation, he lifted the bottle again and took another swig, this time pulling long and deep.

At once, the queasy sensation eased and John could feel that the wind was no longer whipping at his face. All traces of cold were gone. All traces of fear were gone. As the last of the liquid slid down his throat, John Darling realized that he felt better than any other human being would probably ever feel. At once, he understood how an individual might become addicted to a drug. He opened his eyes.

“Atta boy, Johnny.” Peter Pan sat in front of him, his legs crossed Indian-style, floating on nothing but thin air and night. Tinkerbell landed on John’s shoulder with a tinkling spray of pixie dust and leaned to whisper in his ear.

“Welcome back!”

Her voice was so tiny that it reminded John Darling of what a chipmunk or a mouse might sound like, if it could speak. But it was also beautiful. It felt like being kissed by an angel when she placed her tiny hands on his ear lobe and he couldn’t help but blush furiously.

He laughed, not even knowing why.

And Peter laughed as well.

“Now that you’ve got your wings back, John, it’s time to go.” Peter turned and dove through the air, looking for all the world like a vampire on the prowl over the city.

John blinked after him until Tinkerbell pushed off from his shoulder and spun around his head in circles, motioning for him to follow. John smiled, downed the remainder of the magic wine in the bottle, and tossed the bottle at the cliff rocks with all of his might. As it shattered into a thousand shards of glass, John laughed again, dove after Peter, and let loose a howl of sheer delight.

Wherever they were going, it didn’t matter. He was warm and he was flying and the world had never – ever – been so beautiful.

“Where are we going, Peter?” John called across the wind.

From just ahead and to the right, Peter shot him a mischievous glance and smiled. “You’ll see!”

Then Peter dove once more, cutting through the night sky like a knife through butter. John tried his best to keep up, but it wasn’t until Peter had already landed once more and was waiting patiently that John managed to re-join him, landing somewhat awkwardly beside Pan on yet another overlook.

He looked at Peter questioningly, but Peter simply pointed toward a house down below. John looked at the house. It was dark, but smoke curled lazily from the chimney.

It seemed familiar somehow, though he’d never seen it from this view before. And then it struck him. “That’s Dr. Coffer’s house – Wendy’s psychiatrist.”

“So I’m told,” Peter replied darkly. His gaze was steady on the house, his eyes narrowed. “Did you bring it, Tink?” he then asked, calling to the fairy over his shoulder, even as his eyes remained on the house below.

Tinkerbell didn’t reply, but John turned to look upward and could just make out the shimmer of a dull light drawing nearer. Beside the tiny shimmering light was a dark, hulking form. The two of them slowly dropped toward an empty space close by. John unconsciously took a step back as the huge dark form hit the ground with a thump and a whoosh of dust. Tinkerbell flew through the dust to land on Peter’s shoulder, smiling proudly.

When the dust settled a few seconds later, John could see that it was Peter’s motorcycle that had landed a few feet away.

“Your motorbike? Whatever for?” John asked, more than a little confused.

“It’s time to make things right,” Peter told him as he turned and brushed past him, pulling on his gloves once more. “You turned your back on Neverland, John.” His tone lowered. “And on your sister.” He got on the bike. “And that man down there made it all possible.” Peter leaned forward and turned the bike on. The engine roared to life.

John frowned. “What are you going to do?” He called over the raucous.

“Like I said, Johnny Boy,” Peter called back. “I’m gonna make things right.”

At that, Tinkerbell swirled madly around the bike, dropping pixie dust over every inch of its black surface. The motorcycle began to glow with the same sparkling light that had been in the bottle of wine.

Peter flashed a grin and then twisted the throttle and let off the clutch. The bike rocketed forward. John leapt out of the way as the motorcycle sped past him in a shimmering blur and then sailed off of the cliff.

*****

Michael Darling sighed in the darkness of his sister’s room. Then he pushed away from the wall where he had been leaning and approached Wendy’s bed. The stillness about her was unnerving. He didn’t like it. She’d been lying like this, on her back, above the covers, since just after his parents had left earlier that afternoon.

She had told him that she was just tired.

Michael noticed that she had been tired ever since Dr. Coffer had prescribed those little white pills.

She had told Michael that she was going to lay down; that when she was rested in a little while, she would play a game with him. He’d been hoping for a story, of course. But she hadn’t mentioned the stories – or Neverland – in some time now. Not since those pills. So, he’d gotten the Scrabble box out instead. She was terribly good at words and he knew she would win in no time at all. Still, he had chosen the game on purpose because he was hoping that playing with words would cheer Wendy up.

But that had been more than an hour ago. And now. . . . Well, now he wasn’t so sure she was going to wake up in time to play with him. Now things didn’t feel right. In fact, they felt very wrong, indeed.

“Wendy?” Michael called softly in the darkness. He slowly moved closer to the bed. Wendy didn’t stir. The sound of her gentle breathing was barely perceptible.

“Wendy, will you wake up?” he whispered. When she still did not move, he quietly added, “Please?”

He looked down at her more closely now, from where he stood beside the bed. She was still fully dressed in the clothes she’d worn to school that day, including her Union Jack sneakers and gray zip-up hoodie. Her thick brown hair spilled all around her like a warm russet waterfall. And her face was as pale as the moon.

“Wendy?” His voice choked this time as he called her name once more. Though he could see that she was still breathing, her breaths were so slow and shallow that Michael’s fingers trembled when he raised them to touch Wendy’s cheek.

Her skin was soft, but cold.

Michael leaned over her and grasped her shoulders, giving her a gentle shake. “Wendy, wake up!” He found himself pleading fervently. “Please, wake up!”


In Neverland, where there had been nothing but still and calm and quiet above the dark sea for so very many years, something was stirring. As if the sky was drawing the slightest breath and releasing it, a tiny ripple disturbed the surface of the black water. And then another.

The ripples grew in size and number until they smacked against the hull of the Jolly Roger in small, but audible waves. Then those waves grew as well.

On the deck, the rigging began to sway ever so slightly in its encasements, clanking at first softly and growing steadily in volume. The white sails that had been dropped long ago began to fill.

The Jolly Roger slowly tilted in the water, straightening itself as if awakening from a long nap. The rope holding the anchor, forgotten so far below, in the depths of Neverland’s haunted sea, pulled taut against the strain.

In the luxurious cabin below the aft deck, on a bed surrounded by windows that looked out to sea, Captain James Hook turned his head in his sleep. And in that sleep, he listened.

Wind whispered to him through the window latches. It grew to a low moan – a call from out there, on the sea. He turned again, frowning, the silver hook on the end of his right hand glinting in the moonlight. And when the wind finally became a howl and the latches on the windows broke open in a gust of roaring sea spray, scattering the ancient maps upon his desk. . . .

Captain James Hook opened his eyes.


“Peter!” John raced to the edge of the precipice, certain that he would find Peter plummeting to his death so far below, atop a motorcycle that could not fly.

However, what he saw instead was Peter, and his motorcycle, rising in a golden spray of pixie dust, streaking in a thunderous roar, across the chasm that separated the cliff from the houses below.

Stunned speechless, John could only reel back and watch as Peter rode the flying motorbike up and out of the gorge and then toward the house that John knew belonged to Wendy’s therapist, Dr. Alexander Coffer.

He had absolutely no idea what Peter was up to as the flying boy circled around the house again and again, revving the engine noisily. In fact, he had no idea what was going on right up until the very moment when Peter pulled something small and dark from an inside pocket of his leather jacket and tossed it with practiced precision down the chimney of Dr. Coffer’s living room.

“What was that, Tink?” John asked, absently.

“Oh, you’ll see,” came the pixie’s reply. She had once more regained her human form and stood beside John, her arms crossed over her chest, her hip out to one side. She was smiling, and it was not a very pleasant smile.

John didn’t like it.

“This doctor of hers wants Wendy to stop writing. And if she stops writing, John, she’ll forget about Neverland,” Tinkerbell said, softly, and then shot John a dirty look. “Like you did.” She turned back to the figure on the motorcycle in the distance. “Peter won’t let that happen.”

John digested her words, and their heaviness caused his stomach to sink.

She hadn’t exactly answered his question. But he got that answer, nevertheless, as Peter rocketed back across the chasm just in time to escape the gigantic explosion that erupted from Coffer’s fire place.

John cried out in surprise and reared back, his arms pin wheeling as he lost his balance and fell. On the ground, he feverishly scrambled backwards, scuttling on his hands and feet like a crab.

“What the bloody-”

His voice was drowned out in the roiling roar of rising fire and motorcycle engine. Peter flew the bike right over John’s head and looked down at the teenager as he passed. “Time to go, Johnny!”

Tinkerbell took the cue and rose gracefully from the ground, arcing through the air after Peter. John looked back at the Coffer house, now billowing smoke from every window. Disbelieving numbness was setting in too quickly. He couldn’t make himself stand up, much less think happy thoughts so that he could fly.

He laid there in the dust, breathing hard, his eyes as wide as golf balls, and barely noticed when Peter’s motorcycle came to hover noisily above him once more.

John looked from the motorcycle to the burning house below. A figure came running out the front door of the home and John’s gaze narrowed.

It was Dr. Coffer.

And Coffer was looking right back at him. He was looking at Peter. And the motorcycle. And the human-sized flying pixie beside them.

“Bugger,” John muttered, wide-eyed.

“Shit,” Peter agreed, his gaze locked on the doctor’s form below. “Not good, Johnny. Get up now.” Peter lowered the bike until it pulled up on the ground alongside John.

“John,” Peter repeated, “get up and get on.” His voice, though relatively calm, still managed to convey an extreme sense of urgency. It cut through the chaos around John as if he’d used a megaphone. John made his legs move so that they were under him. He forced himself to stand.

“That’s it. Hurry now.” Peter chanced a glance across the darkness toward the burning house, with its single figure in the front yard, and its licking flames and rising black cloud of billowing ash in the background.

In the distance, sirens wailed. A few more people had left the comfort of their homes in order to gather in the cold street and peer, in awe, at the fire.

John turned and got on the back of the bike, grabbing Peter around the waist, though his grip was weak in his numb state. He waited for Peter to take off, but when he looked up at Pan, it was to find his green gaze pinned on Alexander Coffer, who was running madly toward his car, which was parked on the curb in front of his house.

“He’s going after Wendy,” John muttered under his breath.

“Not before I get to her,” Peter replied.

Peter took off at a slower pace this time, as if he could sense that if he didn’t, John would fall off. Soon, the glowing motorcycle was in the air and soaring across the night sky once more, the roar of its motor drowning out the crackling thunder of the conflagration behind them.


 

Chapter Six

Captain Hook slowly sat up in his bed, amidst the wailing song of wind and the mad flutter of papers that were free and sailing about his cabin. Absently, he reached up and, like lightning, snatched one of the sheets of paper from the air. He cocked his head to one side and listened. There were doors opening below decks. Footsteps.

The crew was awakening.

He stood and looked down. He was fully dressed, but for his red brocade coat, which hung over the back of his desk chair a few feet away. The last thing that he could recall was the lethargy. It had fallen over all of Neverland like a shroud. It hit the land first, but within sheer heartbeats, an evil plague of fatigue had overcome his crew. They’d had no time to draw anchor and escape.

As his men had dropped off, one by one, some before they were able to make it to their beds, Hook had barely managed to close the door of his cabin, shrug off his coat and lie down before the sleep had claimed him.

And now they were awake again.

“But why?” he asked the wind softly.

It answered with another loud howl. He looked down as the wind attempted, futilely, to tear the page of paper out of his hands. He idly studied it and recognized it as a small map. Have I tried to follow this one yet? He thought, distractedly.

Then Hook shook himself, straightened, and calmly donned his coat, placing the small map in an inner pocket. He then shut and barred the windows once more against the building gale outside.

There came a knock at his cabin door.

“Enter, Smee.”

Behind him, a shorter, rotund man with glasses and a sagging sleeping cap entered the cabin, shutting the door behind him. “Good evenin’ Cap’n” said Smee.

Hook turned to him, now fully composed. “What is the situation, Smee?”

“There’s an evil wind about us, Cap’n,” said Smee, who very respectfully made it a point never to slouch in front of his captain.

“Indeed?” Hook replied as he strode across the room toward Smee and the door. “I hadn’t noticed. And the men?”

“Comin’ around, Sir, that they are.” Smee followed Captain Hook out of the luxuriously appointed cabin and onto the aft deck. The wind attacked them immediately, ripping at their hair and clothes. Smee leapt up off of his feet and caught his cap just as it was torn from his head by a hard gust. He thought better of replacing it on his head and, instead, stuffed it into the front pocket of his trousers.

“Smee, wake the others. Douse them, if you have to. We need all hands on deck.” Hook gave Smee his orders and then turned to the few men who were already scrambling up onto the main deck of the giant ship.

With a quick, practiced glance, he took in the state of the ship. The sails were unfurled and at full mast, the wind rippling the white material with a dangerous snapping sound. The rigging swayed about wildly in the shrouds, its brass knocking against the wood forcefully. An agitated sea splashed up against the ship’s hull with reckless fury.

In the distance, Hook could see the darker outline of Neverland’s shore against a dark sky. His gaze narrowed as he took in the stillness on the land. There were no camp fires dotting the landscape. No pixies dancing about on the shore like fire flies.

In all of Neverland, it would seem, only he and his ship mates had come to life. Again, he wondered why. It was the wind, he supposed. The wholly unnatural wind. It had awoken them all from their dreams.

Dreams? This thought gave Hook pause. But another blast of wind yanked at his red coat and he pushed the thought away and concentrated on the storm.

Amidst the howling and the clamor, Hook noticed something else in the wind. He had been a pirate for a very long time. One who lives on the sea grows to know the water and the air very well, because that is all that there is. And so, when James Hook felt a bizarre warmth to the wind that should have been ice cold coming off the sea, he cocked his head to one side and sniffed. A new scent was carried on the next harsh draft. It smelled of fire and ash. He sniffed again. It smelled of wine and leather. Once more. It smelled of things he did not recognize – beguiling in their novelty. And there was something else…

At once, Hook came to a decision. “Avast ye, ya bilge rats!” he roared into the wind. His voice carried masterfully, grasping the attention of every man on deck. They halted in their panicked floundering and stared up at their captain. As always, they were at once daunted by his impressive and commanding figure. Hook wasted no time. “Pull the anchor!” he shouted. “or, we’ll lose it!” Two men immediately broke away from the group and ran to do his bidding.

The others waited.

“Leave ‘er all standing, boys! We’ll cut and run and let ‘er ride it out where the wind takes us! Get to yer stations and keep alert!”

There was a brief pause as the men sorted this out in their heads and then a unanimous shout of “Aye! Aye!” Once more, the men were all running in separate directions.

Hook turned and bounded up the stairs to the quarter deck and took the wheel. At the moment, it merely spun slowly from side to side, the rudder beneath the ship floating back and forth in the troubled waters.

In a few seconds, Smee informed him that the anchor was up. Just after he received the news, the ship began to list to one side. Expertly, Hook spun the wheel in the other direction, leveling the ship once more.

The wind beckoned in the sails, pulling the giant frigate so that it cut through the water like the fin of a shark.

“Well, blow me down, Cap’n. Under this wind and these sails, I’d swear we must be doin’ fifteen knots,” Smee said, from where he stood behind Hook’s right shoulder.

“Be ready to take down the main and the fore, Smee. If the wind grows much more, I’ll not have the Jolly Roger stripped to pieces.”

“Aye, Cap’n.” Smee left to speak with the men, who assumed stations beside the fore mast and the main mast. When he returned to Hook’s side, the captain had more orders for him.

“Have a dozen men readied on the gun deck. I’ve a feeling, Smee…”

“I agree Cap’n.. Will do.” Again, Smee left, and Hook was once more alone with the wheel and the wind.

The ship began to list to one side again, and again, he straightened it. Something poked at his chest through the white ruffles of his shirt. He frowned and reached into his pocket, pulling out the folded map he had placed there earlier.

With his hook holding the wheel steady, the captain expertly unfolded the map with one hand. He gazed down at it. It was unfamiliar to him. There were cliffs on one side and houses in a valley. But the roads were so plentiful and houses so tall. . . .It didn’t look like any port city he’d ever seen before. In fact, there wasn’t even a port.

“Smee, what do you make of this?”

The quartermaster was back at the captain’s side and Hook handed him the map. Smee looked down at it for a moment with a puzzled expression – and then turned it around so that it was right side up. “Er… Can’t say as I’m familiar with the locale, Cap’n.. Looks like there’d be a load of booty to be found, though. Is this where we’re headin’?”

“Just a hunch, Smee.” Hook spun the wheel. “Just a hunch.”

“Where be the port?” Smee asked.

Before Hook could answer, there came a flurry of shouts and cries from the men below. Hook’s gaze raked over them and zeroed in on the pirates who stood at the forecastle. Those men were leaning over the wooden railing, yelling something inaudible, their fingers pointing to the sea below.

Hook felt it then. And when he did, he needed no further explanation for his men’s behavior. As the front end of the ship slowly lifted up and out of the water, and the pirates aboard began to hug whatever secure hold they could grab onto, Hook smiled.

“No port necessary, Smee,” he called out to his first mate. The Jolly Roger’s hull rose like a breaching whale, water cascading down its sides like waterfalls. Within a few short moments, the massive pirate ship was riding high above the waves and climbing the night sky. As the first wisps of clouds began to fog the ship’s deck, Captain James Hook threw back his head and laughed long and loud.

*****

When Peter and John pulled up on Peter’s motorcycle in front of the Darling house, it was to find all of the windows dark.

“Is anyone home?” Peter asked as they dismounted.

It took John a moment to answer as he was still stunned at Peter’s actions concerning Dr. Coffer’s house. He said, “Wendy and Michael. My parents are gone for the evening.”

Peter glanced at John and saw that he was still very pale.

Peter brushed past him to stand on the front steps of the Darling home. He glanced up. Though there was a second and even a third floor to this home, as there had been in the old Darling house, it was not painted white as the other one had been. And there was no nursery.

At that thought, memories flooded Peter. Story time. Shadows run amuck. A little girl with storm-gray eyes in a billowing white nightgown…

The thing is, for a boy who had never planned on growing up, having memories at all was a very strange thing. It meant that there were things that had once been – and were no more. It meant that time had passed and he’d caught the tail end of it like a kite and ridden it into tomorrow. Which meant that there was a yesterday. . . . And yesterdays were older days. If you got enough of them behind you, it meant you were old too.

Peter blinked and turned to John, who was walking up the steps to the front door. “Which window belongs to Wendy’s room?” he asked.

John shot him a weary look. “Let’s just use the door, Peter. I’ve had enough of flying for the night.” He turned back to the door and produced a key on a string around his neck. He slid the key into the lock and turned it. The door opened.

“Come in,” he told Peter. But he didn’t have to, for Peter was already pushing past him and striding into the home as if he owned it. “After you,” John muttered under his breath. Tinkerbell, in her tiny pixie form, flitted in behind Peter and John shut and bolted the door.

The house was dark and quiet.

Well, almost quiet. John cocked his head to one side and listened. Where there should have been the sound of two voices and, perhaps, a noisy video game involving drums or a sportsman-like banter about a board game, there was, instead - a sobbing.

John darted up the stairs at precisely the same time that Peter arced through the air and literally flew to the second floor. They reached the door to Wendy’s bedroom as one, John slightly out of breath, Peter simply wide-eyed. Tinkerbell landed on his shoulder.

Michael sat beside the bed on which a still Wendy laid, her eyes closed, her long lashes laying against the pale flesh of her cheek. Michael looked up from where he’d had his face in his hands. His own cheeks were wet and his eyes were red and puffy. He shook his head at the group in the doorway.

His voice shook as he spoke. “You’re too late, Peter.” He hiccupped and turned to the girl on the bed. He took her cold hand and held it fiercely in his own. “You’re too late. She won’t wake up. Wendy won’t wake up.” His voice cracked. “I think she’s dead.”

Chapter Seven

It took a moment for Michael’s words to register. But, when they did, both boys rushed toward the bed. Michael didn’t want to leave Wendy’s side, but instinctively, as children can, he sensed that he needed to move out of the way – that if anyone in any world could save Wendy, it would be Peter Pan.

Peter stared down at the still figure before him. As he had expected, she was breathtakingly beautiful. But she was not the very young girl of his imagination. She had grown, as he had. There was a beguiling shimmer to her hair and a certain alluring curve of her chin and mouth that only women possessed.

He bent very close and listened. Nothing.

He waited.

Still, nothing.

Then, ever so faintly, he felt her breath upon his cheek.

“She’s not dead.” He rose and quickly turned to Tinkerbell, who was so stricken that she had gone from her normal pinkish color to a nearly translucent white. “Tink, she needs your dust.”

Tink nodded and immediately left the room in a shower of shimmering glitter.

“Where is she going?” John asked. He had Wendy’s hand in his own and was squeezing tight.

“To get something to drink.”

Tinkerbell returned in virtually no time, carrying an un-opened bottle of soda by its lid. Peter quickly took it from her and popped off the cap. Tinkerbell hovered over the rim of the bottle, throwing fists full of pixie dust into the liquid.

The soda began to glow, at first slightly, and then as brightly as a torch.

“That’s good.” Peter took the soda bottle and leaned over Wendy. “Prop her up, John. Help me get this down her throat.”

John moved beside him, holding Wendy up under the arms as Peter placed one hand behind her head, tilting it back. Her lips parted and Peter placed the soda bottle to her mouth, tilting it slightly.

At first, nothing happened and Michael and John wondered, silently, whether Peter was getting any of the magic potion into her mouth. But then Wendy’s eyelids fluttered and she coughed.

Michael rushed forward as Peter gently withdrew the bottle.

“Wendy, sis, Wendy!” He pushed past Peter, for the moment, not thinking of nor caring for anything but his sister.

There are many different degrees of fear. There is the general anxiety one experiences before, say, an exam or a visit to the dentist. Then, next on the ladder of fear is the uneasiness one feels before a storm or when a friend is late arriving for a date or doesn’t call on time. And then there is the fear that Michael was suffering, the third, the last and the greatest degree of fear one can ever know.

It is the fear that you will never again look into the eyes of someone you love and see them looking back at you.

Michael was overtaken with that fear right now as he shoved his way in between the two boys and looked into his sister’s gray eyes. “Wendy?” he questioned softly.

She blinked and sat up a little straighter of her own volition.

“Michael?” she replied.

He smiled at her and stole her hand away from John. “You’re okay,” he said, his voice filled with relief.

“Well. . . yes,” she said slowly. “Why wouldn’t I be?” Her gaze traveled from him to her brother John. “John, what are you doing here? What’s-”

She looked to Peter then, and fell silent.

During the quiet that followed, what Wendy’s brothers assumed was Wendy very slowly coming to recognize the boy who was Peter Pan, was actually Wendy recognizing Peter right away and trying, with all her might, not to leap up off of the bed and kill him on the spot.

Her gaze narrowed, the gray in her eyes turning stormy.

It was Peter’s turn to blink now.

You,” Wendy hissed. It sounded like nothing so much as an accusation – which is what it was.

Peter backed up, his green eyes wide.

“W-Wendy?” he asked, looking more uncertain than John or Michael or even Tinkerbell had ever seen him look.

You,” Wendy repeated, as she slowly righted herself and then swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “Of all the people – of all the times. . . . ” Her tone was a menacing indictment, her gray eyes fairly shooting sparks at the young man.

Wendy stood and John and Michael, being the brothers that they were and, hence, knowing their sister all too well, backed up instinctively, giving her plenty of room.

“Uh, Wendy, you okay?” Peter asked as he, too, backed up.

Wendy advanced on him. “Five years, Peter Pan. Five years go by and you’re nowhere to be found. No one would believe us, did you know that?” She took another step forward and he mirrored her movement with another step back. “No one, Peter. Not even our mother. And you wouldn’t come when we called. So, why would they believe us?” Wendy threw up her arms as if to motion to the world around them.

Peter held up his hands placatingly, his eyes wide, as he backed up another step. “Take it easy, Wendy. We don’t have time for this right now.”

Wendy stopped. “Why are you here? Why now? After all we’ve been through!” Wendy spun, picked up the pillow from the bed, and threw it at him. He dodged it artfully.

“I hate you, Peter Pan!” Wendy yelled at him. “Have you any idea what I’ve been through?” She cast around, peering at the room through storm-filled eyes. Her gaze landed on her youngest brother. “What Michael has been through?”

“Wendy, I’m so sorry!” Peter’s expression was desperate. “I didn’t come because I - I didn’t know you needed me! I promise, I didn’t know!” He peered at her beseechingly. For some reason, it was imperative to him that Wendy believe him. “I wasn’t in Neverland, I swear it! I’ve been stuck here, just like you – ”

“Stuck here?” Wendy interrupted, her tone somewhere between fury and confusion.

Peter saw the confusion and glimpsed his opportunity. He lowered his hands, nodding slowly. Then he chanced a step toward her and, for once in his compulsive, instinctual life, he thought about what he was going to say before he said it. It might have had something to do with the beguiling, if dangerous tempest brewing in Wendy’s beautiful eyes. Or maybe it was the slight trembling in her full, pink lips. Whatever it was, Peter simply needed to make certain that she understood – and that she forgave him. Suddenly, even more than he’d ever wanted to defeat Captain James Hook, Peter Pan wanted to make Wendy Darling forgive him.

“Wendy, when you and the Lost Boys came back from Neverland, I made a promise to make sure that Neverland’s children were okay before I went back.” He took another step forward and Wendy did not retreat. She narrowed her gaze at him, listening.

“If I’d been in Neverland, I would have heard you and I swear I would have come, but I haven’t been able to return and I didn’t know why until Tinkerbell found you,” Peter explained hurriedly. “And them,” he added, gesturing toward Wendy’s brothers.

Wendy looked from Peter to Tinkerbell, who nodded emphatically, then to Michael and John, who nodded once each. She frowned and looked back at Peter.

“It’s you, Wendy. You’re the reason I’m still bound by my promise. You’re not okay. And you’re Neverland’s child too.”

“And so are we,” Michael and John added simultaneously.

“But. . . you mean -” She slowly sat back down on the edge of her bed and blinked a few times. “You mean that we’ve been in the same world all along and you were just.so close? All this time?” She looked stunned, then, in that moment. As if everything had suddenly hit her all at once. Which it had.

Peter chewed on the inside of his cheek and took a shaky breath. “I’m sorry, Wendy. Believe me, I really am.”

Still staring at the floor, Wendy softly murmured, “Why are you all in my room?”

“You were dead, Wendy,” Michael told her.

“No she wasn’t, Michael. Don’t tell her something like that. She was just unconscious,” said John.

“Sleeping,” Peter corrected. “Deeply sleeping.”

“Sleeping is different, Peter,” Michael insisted, his eyes narrowed. “You know she wasn’t sleeping. You know this was worse.”

Peter nodded and held up his hands as if to stave off an oncoming argument. “Okay, okay. She wasn’t just sleeping.” He turned to Wendy and sighed. “I think you were dying, Wendy. And the man responsible is on his way here right now.”

She blinked. “What?” She looked at John and then at Michael again. “What?” She asked again. “What do you mean? Why? How?” Her expression became desperate – scared. She stood up. “What do you mean?” She repeated, her tone demanding.

“I think it was that.” Peter pointed at the bottle that sat on Wendy’s night stand, beside the bed. “The medicine.”

Wendy turned to gaze at the bottle. “Dr. Coffer’s medicine? But it’s just. . . .” Her voice trailed off.

“Ever since you took it, Wendy,” Michael said, “you haven’t told me any stories. You haven’t written anything. It took away your words.”

“Take away the words of a story teller,” Peter said solemnly, “and the story teller dies.” He nodded once. “That’s what was happening to you.”

Chapter Eight

Some people never dream. Or, they dream, but don’t recall their dreams upon awakening. But there are some who dream every night. And some of those dreamers remember their dreams. Some even know when they’re dreaming. These are the special few, the lucid, the magicians of the imagination.

If any of those people had been looking up at the city’s skyline that night, they would have known right away that they were dreaming. For, climbing over the sea of smoke stacks, church steeples, and radio antennae that made up the horizon like so much metal and steel was none other than a massive ship, its white sails billowing and luminescent against the glow of the full moon, its giant hull ploughing the low-lying clouds like a wooden whale.

At the wheel of the ship stood a man with long black hair, a red brocade coat, and a shining silver hook for a right hand. This, alone, would have been enough to promise the dream would be remembered. For no one ever forgets something as beautifully wicked as a hook.

They would have glimpsed the ship and its perfectly nefarious captain for an instant before it once more disappeared from sight, rising above the mist and fog to vanish into the night.

What the dreamers would not recall, however, because the dreamers would not know it, is that the ship’s captain was called James Hook and, at that moment, a very real, very not-dreamed-up Hook, was navigating the skies over their city in search of someone he could now smell upon the wind and feel, as a vibration, in the metal on the end of his arm.

“Smee!” He called, distractedly, his ocean-blue eyes searching the horizon for any sign of his query.

“Yes, Cap’n!” Smee was at his side in a heartbeat.

“What does the map tell us?”

Smee unfolded the small piece of paper his captain had given him and gave it the once-over. “We’re above a canyon, Cap’n,” Smee said as he studied the design carefully. “Now - over a row of houses, it looks like. . . . What in – Cap’n!” Smee suddenly exclaimed, his eyes wide as golf balls. He pointed emphatically at a blood-red spot on the map that literally hadn’t been there a moment ago. “An ‘X’, Cap’n! An ‘X’!” He smiled broadly. “It would be markin’ the spot now, wouldn’t it, Cap’n ? This means there be treasure here, aye?”

Hook glanced at the map and then gestured for Smee to take the wheel. His first mate grabbed hold with both hands and Hook took the map, stepping back. His gaze narrowed as his blue eyes raked the page, expertly scanning its details for hidden clues.

As he watched, the dim outline of words began to appear on the worn, brown sheet of paper, fancy scrolling letters in the faintest of inks. Hook squinted and looked closer, trying to make out what they were. The world around him melted away into slow motion and nothingness as he concentrated on the map.

In a soft whisper, he read, “Who speaks the breath that fills the sails. . . . ” He paused as more words appeared on another line. “Of words like men of seas, their tales. . . . ” Once more, he waited and another phrase became clear. “The pearl, the prize, the precious stone. . . . ” He watched , and then straightened as the last words solidified upon the page. “Bleeds like tears in storms unknown.”

For a few moments more, he gazed at the map in his hands. And then he took a deep breath, in and out through his nose, and looked up. “Smee, head West twenty degrees.”

“Aye, Cap’n.” Smee adjusted their course and the ship sliced through the clouds as it banked right.

In a few seconds, a faint curl of black smoke could be made, rising on the horizon.

“A fire, Cap’n.”

Hook gazed at the curling black. It rose through the sea of clouds like a camp fire in the snow. It grew larger as the ship drew closer and Hook could see that it originated from some point below, on that unfamiliar land beneath the blanket of clouds. He sniffed the air. Now, he could scent the ash on the wind and recognized it as the smell of fire he’d detected in Neverland.

“Smee, bring us below the clouds, but keep us out of sight.”

“Aye, Cap’n.” Smee banked further right and called out a series of orders to the rest of the crew. The men scrambled on deck, dousing lanterns that hung from ropes and hooks in the masts.

When he was done yelling his orders, he turned to his captain. “'Tis the bottom of the ship we’ll have to worry about, Cap’n. It’ll be black against the clouds. So, I’ll take ‘er down there -” He gestured to a break in the clouds, a hole that stretched half a mile in the distance. “An’ it’ll give us ‘nuff time to take a gander.”

Hook nodded and returned his gaze to the billowing smoke. His heartbeat quickened. He could sense something approaching. Something significant. Something, perhaps, more important than anything that had ever happened to him in his very long life. He glanced at the red X, his sea blue eyes flashing, nearly glowing in the twilight.

The Jolly Roger floated across the foggy ocean of sky and then, smoothly, sank through the hole in the clouds.

*****

“Come away with me, Wendy,” Peter said suddenly, whirling around from where he’d been standing by the window, gazing out into the darkness toward the end of the road, where he kept a lookout for a certain pair of headlights.

When Peter had told her that Dr. Coffer was most likely on his way to the Darling mansion, everyone had rushed downstairs to check through all of the front windows in the living room. Now John sat nervously on the piano bench, his hands on his bouncing knees. Michael sat on the couch, his hands thrust tightly into his pockets. Wendy stood alone in front of the fire place, gazing into it distractedly. She held the prescription bottle of pills in her right hand. She was trying to figure out what to do.

But when Peter spoke, she spun around to face him. He rushed forward to take her by her upper arms. She was too shocked by the sudden movement to pull away.

“Come back with me to Neverland,” Peter insisted. “You’ll never be happy here; they’ll never believe you. Even this doctor will try to explain this all away; you know he will, Wendy.”

Wendy gazed into Peter’s emerald eyes. They were the color of Neverland’s trees and grass. They were the color of boyhood and freedom. In that instant, somewhat uncomfortably, Wendy realized that Peter had become a singularly attractive young man.

She swallowed and told herself not to follow through with the furious blush that she could feel rising to her cheeks. “No, Peter,” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Not again. How can you do this to me again?” With strength she didn’t know she possessed, Wendy jerked away from him.

She began pacing back and forth in front of the fire place, her hands gesturing wildly, the bottle of pills rattling like a snake. “Five years go by and I hear not a word from you and now you’re back and you want to whisk me off to Neverland like nothing happened?” She whirled to point a finger at him, her gaze narrowing dangerously. “You’re the reason they all think I’m crazy!”

She looked down at the pills in her hand and then back up at him. “You’re the reason they gave me these in the first place!” In an act that was the culmination and release of all of the pent-up fury that had been building within her over the past five years, Wendy threw the bottle of pills at Peter Pan.

Though it would have been easy for him to do so, Peter did not dodge the bottle. Instead, he looked down and simply watched as it neared. He had to admit that Wendy had excellent aim. It was going to hit him square in the chest, between the zippers of his leather jacket, and with quite a bit of force.

To everyone’s surprise, however, including Peter’s, the bottle began to shimmer as it arced through the air. Suddenly, it slowed, tipping end over end like a leisurely floating football. It flashed in and out of existence a few times, and then, inches from impacting with Peter’s chest, the bottle completely disappeared with a strange suction-like popping sound.

“Wow. . . ” whispered Michael.

“What happened?” asked John, eyes wide.

“I don’t know,” Peter answered, honestly.

Wendy threw up her hands in frustration. “Well, you really didn’t like those pills, did you, Peter?”

Peter looked back up at Wendy and shrugged.

Wendy blew out a sigh and ran a hand through her long brown hair. It shimmered enticingly around her face and Peter watched the firelight play against the long, silken strands.

“I wonder which one of you is real,” she muttered then, glancing from where the pills had disappeared to Peter’s handsome face.

Then Peter’s jaw set with determination. “Wendy, please,” he moved toward her again. “Think about it, will you? You don’t belong here.” He shook his head and gestured to the house around them, but Wendy knew that he was really gesturing at the entire world beyond. “They won’t even let you write, for crying out loud! You’re the story teller! How can you possibly stay here where they won’t let you tell your stories?”

Wendy was silent for a moment. She regarded Peter with an unreadable expression. He waited for her to answer. But when she didn’t, he swallowed audibly and straightened. Wendy cocked her head to one side as if contemplating something.

Then she walked over to the coat rack beside the door. “Stories, Peter,” she began softly as she pulled down her wool overcoat, “are dangerous sometimes. One can get lost in them.” She turned to face him as she slid her arms into each sleeve. “And never find their way out again.”

“Where are you going?” Asked John.

“Out.”

“Where?” Asked Peter.

“None of your business,” Wendy answered, grasping the knob of the front door.

Something dangerous flashed in Peter’s green eyes and he rushed forward. “It is too my business,” he said as he grabbed Wendy’s arm by the wrist and opened the door himself. “And I told you, we don’t have time for this!” He pulled her after him onto the front porch and then whirled to face her, pulling her close and lowering his head so that his words hissed across her lips. “You’re coming to Neverland,” he told her through clenched teeth, “because you belong there, with me, and I want to go home!”

With that, Peter Pan pushed off of the front porch and took to the dark skies. Wendy screamed as she was lifted from the ground along with him. Her shoulder wrenched painfully. Fear clouded her vision, turning it a grayish red. She tried to call his name, but her voice was hoarse with terror. “Peter,” she croaked. “Peter, please!”

The world rushed by them, Peter taking them up further and further just as fast as he could fly. Lights blurred and then dulled, ducking out of sight behind the cold fingers of rain clouds that whipped at Wendy’s face like ropes of ice. Tears froze on her cheeks and her heart sank into her stomach, her only solace the solid grip that Peter Pan had on her wrist. He wouldn’t let her go…

She was about to try to call out to him once more when, suddenly, and a little painfully, Peter stopped.

The world grew abruptly quiet and still.

“It can’t be. . . .” He was gazing at something across a sea of white mist. His eyes were wide in disbelief.

Wendy blinked hard and swung her other arm up so that she could get a grip on his jacket. It was wet with water vapor and slippery, but she dug her fingernails in as hard as she could and hung like a rag doll off of Peter’s forearm. And then she followed his gaze to see what it was that had given him pause.

There, slowly sinking through the fog like the fin of a shark, was a ship’s flag – a skull and cross bones against a background of black.

“The Jolly Roger,” she whispered, because that was all she could do.

“Wendy!”

Peter jumped at the sudden sound of John’s voice cutting through the haze below them. And in that moment, his grip on Wendy’s wrist slackened. Her arm, as slick with water vapor as his jacket, slipped through Peter’s fingers.

It took but a heartbeat for Wendy Darling to disappear beneath the clouds. But, at least, as she fell, she found her voice once more, and her scream followed her down.

Chapter Nine

Hook heard the scream and looked up.

“What in bloody – ” He murmured, frowning at the blanket of white that covered them. The scream grew louder and closer. Not knowing why he was doing so, Hook walked slowly across the deck until he felt that whatever was screaming would fall right on top of him.

In the instant that she broke through the white mist, long hair flying all around her, Hook held out his arms. And Wendy fell into them.

The impact knocked the wind out of her lungs, leaving her dazed. Her eyes were still shut tight. She didn’t open them. Distractedly, she threw her arms around her savior and held on tight, not knowing whether she was alive or dead – only that she’d stopped falling and was eternally grateful for it.

Captain Hook stared at the young woman in his arms. He closed his eyes and then opened them again. She was still there. He closed his eyes once more and opened them once more. She was very much there – and she was holding him as if her life depended upon it. Hook could smell something vaguely sweet on her hair, and though he didn’t fully trust his senses just then, the scent reminded him of caramel apples and hot chocolate…

A stony silence had fallen upon his crew. And then, within a few moments, a disbelieving murmur began to rise all around him. Pirates were crossing themselves and clutching tiny leather bags that hung on leather cords around their necks. Some were looking up at the clouds, wondering what else would fall through.

Hook turned to face Smee, who was now coming down from the quarter deck, his eyes wide behind the spectacles he almost always wore. The look on Smee’s face was all Hook needed to confirm that what was happening truly was happening.

A young woman had fallen out of the sky and into his arms. He tried to pull back and get a better look at her face, but she held on fiercely, burying her face in the white ruffle and laces of his under shirt.

At this, a few of the men snickered. Normally, he would have none of that kind of thing, but at the moment, he really couldn’t blame them.

And then he sensed it. That vibration that had been driving him on. That worrisome tickle at the base of his spine that caused his blue eyes to darken and his teeth to grind.

With strong and fluid grace, Hook spun around, yanked the girl’s grip loose from his neck, and unceremoniously handed her to Smee. Smee took her easily, and in that instant, Hook caught a glimpse of her face, her eyes wide, her cheeks wet with tears, her lips red where she had bitten them.

Wendy?” He whispered.

She blinked at him, her expression a combination of wonder and horror. “H-Hook?”

And then he shoved his astonishment away, spun back around, drew his sword from its scabbard, and raised it above his head.

Right on cue, the crew of the Jolly Roger heard a call come from the heavens above them. “Wendy!” A male voice, as familiar as it was different.

Hook smiled, white teeth flashing. It was not a friendly smile.

Like a cannonball in speed and fury, a young man dove out of the clouds, his dark garb a stark contrast for the blonde of his hair. In the space of an instant, he was above the Jolly Roger and backpedaling from the blade that was so suddenly there, directly in his path.

Peter Pan barely managed to come to a stop, hovering in the air a mere hair’s breadth from the tip of Hook’s sword, which now rested ever so threateningly at the hollow of his young throat.

A second later, Tinkerbell, still in her pixie form, also came skidding to a sparkling halt, hovering somewhere near Peter Pan’s shoulder and blinking rapidly in shock.

“Peter Pan,” Hook greeted menacingly. “Lose something?” he taunted. His piercing blue eyes sparkled in the moonlight.

Peter took a moment to register the situation, his eyes scanning the scene from Hook and his sword to Wendy, in Smee’s arms, to the other pirates, all lined up beside the rigging and shrouds, their hands readied on their weapons.

Then he looked back at Hook.

“Let her go, Hook,” he demanded, though his expression gave away the fact that he was confused and surprised by the state of affairs.

Behind Hook, Wendy wriggled her way out of Smee’s grasp and stood, shoving the first mate away from her. Smee took it in good stride and simply shrugged.

“Why Pan,” Hook purred, “It’s a long way down. Only a fool would let someone go from up here.”

The words stung as Hook had intended them to. Peter flinched and then reared back in the air and drew a knife from a small black scabbard that hung from a black belt at his waist. The knife’s blade shimmered and then grew until it, too, was a sword. He held it in front of him in challenge.

As if on cue, Hook’s men mobilized, several coming to stand between Wendy and Peter, effectively separating them. Another man, who had been behind Peter when he’d appeared through the clouds, closed in on Tinkerbell in one fluid movement, trapping her within a glass jar and slamming the lid on tight.

The pixie shoved against the sides of the glass, but to no avail. And, trapped within a confined space, she dared not take human form, for the growing process – and the inevitable passing through the glass – would hurt, to say the least, and might even be fatal. As she had been five years ago, Tinkerbell was once more ensnared and useless on the deck of the Jolly Roger.

“I don’t know how you got here, Hook, but you don’t belong in this world and I’m going to send you back out of it,” Peter hissed at Hook, leveling his own blade so that it crossed his opponent’s.

From the jar where she was being held prisoner, Tinkerbell nodded her agreement, angry pixie dust chinking against the glass.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Hook nodded agreeably. “Why wait for Neverland when we can kill each other right here and now?”

There was a simultaneous blur of movement, and the ship was suddenly filled with the sound of clanging swords.

Wendy found herself mesmerized by the sparring figures, trapped in a memory that refused to let her look away. Whereas she had indeed seen Peter Pan and Captain Hook fight once before, it seemed that it had been an eternity ago. And, Peter had been but a boy.

Now, two men faced off on the deck of the Jolly Roger, draped in colors of blood and night, and whatever skills they’d possessed five years ago had only been amplified.

However, this night, there was something strange flashing in Peter’s eyes, and he moved as if driven on by a demon. Five years ago, he fought with the pirate captain while wearing a smile on his face. Tonight, his teeth were clenched. His expression was dark.

It worried Wendy.

Five years ago, she, too, had been but a child, and had known nothing of fighting, save what she could create in the safety of her imagination. Hence, even though she had tried her best, swinging her sword with all of the strength a twelve-year-old girl could muster, she had, inevitably, been rather useless against the powerful muscle and expertise of grown pirates.

However, now, Wendy was a young woman, and an athletic one at that. One of the first things she had done upon returning to her world was sign up for fencing. Her parents, desperate for her to take part in any social activity that might steer her mind clear of stories and make-believe, had been more than happy to oblige.

So, she had also joined a martial arts class.

And, unbeknownst to her brother John, as she was certain he would claim that she was wasting her time and that he was far more suited to such endeavors, Wendy had signed up for her school’s chess club. She’d done so with the faint, flickering feeling that, at some point in her future, it might be helpful to know how to strategize.

And hence, as Wendy now watched Peter Pan square off against the notorious captain of the Jolly Roger, her instincts and training kicked in. With single-minded purpose, she sprang forward and pulled the sword from the sheath that was tied to the waist of one of the pirates in front of her.

Surprised, the man spun around to stop her, but she quickly snapped the flat end of the blade against the side of his arm, sending him reeling back and gripping his arm in sudden pain.

Then she whirled on Smee, forcing him to take several quick steps back.

“Now, now, miss, take it easy,” Smee suggested, holding his hands up in the sign for parley. “Aint none of us‘ve got grief with the likes of you, an’ you don’t want to be goin’ and changin’ that, do you?”

Wendy bit her lip and waved the sword slowly back and forth, nervously. She hadn’t planned to get as far as she had and wasn’t certain how, exactly, she had hoped to help Peter Pan.

“The fairy,” she said, her strategizing brain kicking in before her conscious one could. “Release the fairy, you freebooting coxswain, and I won’t slice you open from your gullet to your gut!”

Smee stared at Wendy, stunned into blinking silence.

In a few seconds, Wendy noticed that everyone else on the ship had grown quiet as well, all of them staring at her in shocked wonder.

Hook and Peter, who had both frozen at Wendy’s bellowed order, watched Wendy with a curious fascination. Hook’s ocean blue eyes sparkled, and a faint, mysterious smile played about his lips.

“Wendy!”

Everyone turned at the sound of the new male voice.

John and Michael hovered over the far end of the Jolly Roger’s deck. John seemed out of breath and pale as the moon. Michael, on the other hand, with cheeks of pink and eyes that glittered gleefully, was obviously invigorated by his return to flight after five years of down time.

At once, Wendy realized that John must have carried Michael up through the skies and that it must have taken an awful lot of effort – and mental control on the happy thoughts front – for him to make it so far.

“Will the surprises never cease…” Captain Hook muttered under his breath. And then, using Peter’s distraction to his advantage, he struck. Hook’s wicked blade flashed like lightning and slashed a clean line into the leather of Peter’s jacket, slicing through the shirt beneath and cutting a red stripe across Peter’s chest.

The attack surprised Peter, catching him off guard. He leapt back, clutching his free hand to his chest, and glanced anxiously at Wendy.

She gazed, wide-eyed, utterly unsure of what to do next.

“Capture those two, bind them and seal them in the brig!” Captain Hook bellowed, pointing the long of his sword at John and Michael. The crew of the Jolly Roger swelled to life, rushing the two boys nearly as one.

John gasped and instantly tried to rise above the flood of pirates, but he only managed to clear their heads and the taller men were easily able to reach up and grasp him by the ankles. Michael, too, was taken, as his grip on his brother’s arm was wrenched loose and he was thrown to the deck of the ship.

And that was the undoing of the Darling brothers, who were then roughly and efficiently bound and tossed below deck within the space of a few rapid heartbeats.

“You’ve changed, Pan,” said Hook, in the midst of another upswing that once more forced Peter’s defenses.

Peter grimaced, blocked the attack, and countered with one of his own. “And you haven’t,” he retorted, swinging his sword with renewed vigor. “Your heart’s as black as it’s always been!”

“Said the young man dressed in garb of pitch,” Hook taunted, with a meaningful glance up and down Peter’s tall form. Peter chanced a quick peek down at himself and barely managed to bring his sword up as Hook’s sharp blade snuck in at another angle, nicking another piece of leather from his jacket.

At the same time, a few pirates moved toward Wendy, and she whirled on them, slicing through the rope holding one man’s breeches in place, and knocking off another man’s hat with the flat of her blade. Her heart raced dangerously fast. “Stay back!” she screamed. They backpedaled, the man who’d lost his trousers doing so somewhat clumsily.

“The fairy, I said! Set her free!” Wendy demanded, once more rounding on Smee until the tip of her stolen sword threatened the area just over his heart. Her brothers were captured now and Hook seemed to be gaining the upper hand with Peter, and Wendy knew that only Tinkerbell possessed the kind of magic that could turn things around for everyone.

Peter fervently glanced toward Wendy, attempting to watch the goings-on, even as he fought off Hook.

“You seem distracted, young man,” Hook continued, using a term that he knew most likely disturbed Peter to his core.

“Shut up,” Peter hissed.

Hook smiled. “I can’t help but suspect that you might have something on your mind other than beating me in battle.” He stole a look in Wendy’s direction.

Peter’s green eyes flashed fire. “You leave her out of this, Hook.” His tone was low and held a note of very grown up warning.

Hook’s grin was victorious.

Peter swung his sword again and Hook easily crossed it, rushing forward to hold their positions as he turned to peer at Wendy. “Mr. Smee, stop playing around and take Wendy Darling to my quarters; it’s bad luck to have a woman on deck in the midst of a battle,” he ordered calmly.

Wendy’s eyes went wide with surprise as Smee suddenly batted Wendy’s sword away as if it were a pesky fly. Before she could recover, another pirate came in from the side like lightning and wrenched the sword from her hand. They moved so easily and so quickly, it was as if they had purposely been holding back before. Perhaps they’d been unsure of their captain’s intentions for her. But they knew now, and they acted upon his orders with swift efficiency.

Before she truly knew what had happened, her wrists were being held tightly behind her back as she was simultaneously shoved toward the stairs that led to Hook’s cabin.

Peter’s rage grew tenfold then, and the strangest thing happened to his eyes. Where he’d been gazing, heatedly, through eyes the color of forests only a moment before, he now stared at a blood-colored world through eyes that began to glow eerily red.

Hook straightened and the smile on his face disappeared.

“Well, well. . . ” he muttered under his breath. Slowly, he stepped back and lowered his sword.

He studied Peter carefully as the teenager flexed and unflexed the fist holding his sword. Sweat trickled down the sides of Peter’s face to the collar of his jacket. “Fight me, Hook.” Peter gritted out through clenched teeth.

Hook slowly shook his head.

Wendy gave a small cry of surprise as she temporarily slipped on the mist-slick stairs leading to the captain’s quarters. Peter looked over in time to see a burly pirate grab her by both arms and lift her up the remaining steps.

And then something in Peter snapped.

Hook could almost hear it.

The boy lunged forward, roaring with rage as he did so, and Hook was more than ready for him. With ease that came only from an eternity of practice, Hook blocked Peter’s attack, and then twisted his sword in a circular fashion, wrenching the slippery grip from Peter’s grasp. Peter’s sword went sailing across the deck to clank into the nearest mast and clatter to a stop.

Peter gazed at it through his blood colored eyes, confusion and anger playing tag across his young, handsome face.

But the tip of Hook’s blade once more at his throat drew Peter’s attention back to his opponent.

Hook gazed at him steadily. “Get off of my ship, Pan,” he said, his voice so soft that only Peter could hear him.

“Why don’t you just kill me?” Peter spat.

“It would hardly be sporting to kill you in your current condition, young man.” Hook looked him up and down once more, his sea blue eyes at once telling and filled with secrets. “Get off of my ship before I throw you off.”

At that, Peter, took a tentative step back. He looked around, seemingly lost as to where he was and what he would do next. “What will you do with Wendy?”

“Now, now, Pan,” Hook replied. “A pirate never tells.”

Peter swallowed audibly, and once more, his fists clenched at his side. “My pixie. Let her go.” He bartered.

“That, I can do.” Hook nodded at the man who was holding the glass jar with Tinkerbell inside. “If I have your word that you will then leave.”

The man held the jar aloft, his hand ready on the lid.

Peter nodded his assent.

The jar opened and Tinkerbell flew out at a furious speed. The first thing she did was head straight for Hook, her tiny form as red as the glow in Peter’s eyes.

“Tink, no!” Peter yelled. Tinkerbell skidded to a stop and blinked at him questioningly.

“I gave him my word,” Peter said.

Tinkerbell looked from him to Hook and back again.

But before Peter’s words truly had a chance to settle in, Hook’s good hand shot out like lightning, snatching the pixie from the air in front of him. Just as quickly, he spun around and hurled the tiny fairy off of the ship and out into the darkness. While Peter stared, wide-eyed, after the waning trail of shimmering dust, Hook whirled back around and nodded at Smee, who now stood waiting by the ship’s wheel.

With that, Smee spun the wheel sharply to the left, causing the ship to bank hard and list violently to one side. The sudden change knocked Peter off of his feet. As he fell back and slid on his side part way across the deck, Hook, who had been expecting the ship’s tilt, strode on confident legs to where Peter lay.

With a smirk only befitting of the captain of the Jolly Roger, Hook set one black boot on Peter’s chest and gave a hard shove. Peter went sliding the rest of the way across the deck and then, just like that, he dropped off of the other side and fell into the clouds and the darkness below.

Chapter Ten

The wind whipped at Hook’s hair and coat as he stood tall on the deck of his ship and watched Peter Pan disappear far below. When the boy was gone, Hook straightened and sheathed his sword. Then he moved across the deck to the stairs that led to his cabin. His men stepped aside to let him pass.

One pirate, a man nearly as tall as Hook and dressed in clothing much cleaner and more well cared for than that of the other members of Hook’s crew, came forward and addressed his captain. “The girl’s been locked in your quarters, Captain, as you ordered.”

His accent was somewhat refined, and where as the other pirates seemed to enjoy decorating their bodies with a multitude of tattoos and piercings, this man had but one silver hoop in his ear, and kept his hair short. He also appeared to be relatively clean-shaven.

Hook turned to nod at the pirate. “Thank you, Mr. Starkey.” Then he leaned in and whispered in the man’s ear. “Remain nearby; I’m sure the lady will require articles of the sort which I do not trust the others to obtain for her. I’ll send out Mr. Smee with orders.”

“Aye, Captain,” Starkey nodded.

Hook continued across the deck and then climbed the stairs two at a time. Smee nodded at him in greeting as the captain passed by his first mate. When Hook reached the door to his cabin, he pulled on the chain around his neck, drawing forth a small gold key from beneath his white shirt. There were two such keys in existence; he had one and Smee had the other, which is how the first mate had managed to lock Wendy in Hook’s cabin.

Hook inserted the key into the handle of his cabin door. There, however, he paused, suddenly uncertain.

“Ah, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, Cap’n, I do believe the lady will be wantin’ a drink,” Smee suggested quietly, as he was only a few feet away. Hook glanced at him and the first mate continued, “Crossin’ swords with a pirate must make for thirsty work, wouldn’t you agree, Cap’n?” Smee winked behind his spectacles and Hook considered his words.

“Yes, indeed, Mr. Smee.” Hook’s lips curved up in a slight smile. He turned the knob and entered his cabin, closing the door behind him.

Wendy stood by the far windows, her arms crossed over her chest. She was pacing nervously and when Hook entered, she spun around to face him. Her storm gray eyes fairly shot sparks of electric anger in his direction.

Hook had to give her instant credit for not attempting to attack him, as she most likely wanted to do. It would not have been wise, and he was pleased to see that she must have known as much. It was an unexpectedly agreeable reminder of how intelligent Wendy Darling was.

He regarded her for a moment before he moved to the tall rack in the nearest corner and shrugged off his scarlet coat to hang it elegantly on one of the wooden hooks.

“May I take your coat?” he asked her softly.

She glared at him. “What will you do with my brothers?” she asked, her voice tight with rage and frustration.

“They will not be harmed; I give you my word.” Hook assured her, his voice still soft, his tone gentle. Wendy frowned and blinked, clearly taken aback by his mild manner.

“And what is it worth – the word of a pirate?” she asked then.

“A good deal, actually,” Hook replied, leaving the coat rack and crossing to his desk, a few paces away. There, he calmly unstopped a crystalline bottle of what must be wine or ale and poured some of the red liquid into a nearby goblet. Wendy watched him warily. He replaced the cork in the bottle and then lifted the glass, delicately scenting its contents before placing the goblet to his lips and taking a drink.

Wendy licked her lips.

Hook glanced up to gaze at her over the top of his glass. His blue eyes glittered with amusement.

Wendy looked away, her fingers self-consciously twisting in the fabric of her coat.

“I apologize. You must be thirsty as well,” Hook said as he lowered his glass and set it back down on his desk. “Would you like me to pour you a drink?”

Wendy didn’t answer. She wouldn’t even meet his gaze.

“I see,” Hook nodded. He re-claimed his wine goblet and strode calmly to the giant velvet-covered armchair a few feet away. There, he gestured to the gold silk chaise lounge across from him. “Please at least be seated. I can see that you are trembling, even from this distance.”

Wendy looked from him to the fainting couch. It was true that she was shaking. She could feel the weakness in her knees, but she had a horrible feeling that it had more to do with her proximity to the notorious pirate captain than with any need of rest or refreshment.

She remained standing, her eyes flitting anxiously to the cruel sharp hook on the end of his right arm.

If he noticed, he didn’t show it.

“Allow me to guess.” Hook said, as he gracefully sat down, holding his wine glass aloft in his good hand. “You refuse to care for your own needs until the needs of your brothers are met.”

Wendy cocked her head to one side, glaring at him steadily.

“Or, perhaps you would rather I throw myself off of the port side of my own ship,” he teased, his white teeth flashing in a wicked grin.

“For starters,” Wendy said, through clenched teeth.

At that, Hook threw back his head and laughed. The rich baritone sound of it caught Wendy off guard. With genuine surprise, she grasped, in that instant, that Hook wasn’t holding back. At that moment, Hook had dropped his proverbial defenses.

His laughter quieted and he sighed, still smiling broadly. “I will make you a deal, Wendy Darling,” he said, placing his goblet on the small table beside the large chair. He then leaned forward, leveling her with an intense and steady blue gaze.

She swallowed audibly, growing at once uncomfortable beneath his concentrated scrutiny.

“Give me your word that you shall not attempt to leave this ship or harm anyone on it,” he began, speaking each word slowly and carefully. “And I shall make your brothers into honorary pirates.” He stood then, his towering form making the cabin once more seem much smaller than it was. He took a slow, calculated step toward her. His silver hook flashed in a momentary beam of moonlight.

Wendy stepped back and found herself against the wall.

“At least, John shall be a pirate,” Hook seemed to reconsider, his expression introspective as he looked down at the floor and at nothing, in particular. “He’s grown and could prove quite useful on deck. Michael, however, reminds me too much of. . . . ” His eyes took on a distant expression.

“Of Peter Pan?” Wendy ventured, her voice shaking only a little.

Hook blinked and looked back at her. His eyes hardened. “Yes. Of Pan. And, therefore, he shall remain below decks as a cabin boy and under the close supervision of one or more of my men.”

“And why would I agree to such a thing?” Wendy asked, raising her chin defiantly.

“Because it would get them out of the brig,” Hook replied simply.

Wendy blinked. She had to admit that what he was offering was a better situation for her brothers than the one they were in now. But it would require that she promise not to try to escape. And she wasn’t at all certain she could agree to such a thing, for at that moment, escape was high on her list of things to do.

“Have we a deal?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Wendy gazed up into his deep blue eyes and began to feel very strange. Her knees were weak before, but now they felt positively like jelly.

As she began to drown in that bottomless sea, a fleeting thought occurred to her. She couldn’t believe that it hadn’t before. “Where’s Peter?” she asked tremulously.

Hook waited a good long time before replying. His eyes bored into hers, as if searching their depths for answers to riddles only he would know. Then, finally, without moving a muscle, and without looking away, he answered, “He is no longer on this ship.”

“Is he…”

“Alive?” He raised a brow. “If you can call him that.”

Wendy certainly wondered what Hook meant by such a statement, but she felt it would be better not to ask. Something in his eyes had hardened at the mention of Peter Pan, and she didn’t want to push things.

He took another step forward, closing the distance between them. A strange pink flush began to rise through Wendy’s neck and spread across her cheeks. Her belly felt warm and her breathing shallow.

This was not lost on Hook, who studied her in silence.

Best to end this now, Wendy thought. Before. . . Before I don’t know what will happen.

“You have a deal, Hook,” she said, summoning up the courage to stand a little taller. “I give my word that I will not attempt to escape from the ship, nor harm anyone on it, if you promise to release my brothers from the brig and care for them as you would the members of your own crew.”

Hook flashed a winning grin. “A wise choice, Miss Darling.”

He spun around and strode to the door of his cabin, flinging it open and calling for his first mate. “Smee!”

Smee appeared in the doorway. “Yes, Cap’n?”

“Tell Jukes to bring the older boy out of the brig and put him to work on deck. The younger boy can clean out the gun deck, but have Billy keep an eye on him.” Hook glanced back at Wendy and then added, “and make certain they have food and drink.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” Smee nodded, however he did not turn to leave. “Um, if you don’t mind me askin’ Cap’n -” He looked across the cabin at Wendy, who was still standing and still wearing her coat. “Is there anything you’d like me to get for the lady?”

Hook was still watching Wendy. Finally, he turned back to Smee and leaned in to speak covertly to his first mate. “Have Mr. Starkey retrieve anything she might need to bed down for the night; tell him that Miss Darling’s comfort is his top priority.”

Smee smiled a genuinely happy smile and bobbed up on his toes. “Aye, aye, Cap’n. Will do.” He nodded once at Wendy and then left.

Hook closed the door after him.

When he turned to face Wendy again, he held out his good hand palm up. “I must insist you shed that horrifically heavy coat, my dear. You’ll find that you will not need such a thing aboard my ship.”

Wendy wanted to ask why, but even as he mentioned it, she noticed that she was uncomfortably warm inside of the coat, which made no sense. On an October night and as high up as the Jolly Roger was, it should have been near freezing. Yet, she was anything but.

With a shrug of serenity, she slid the coat off of her shoulders and then held it out for Hook. He strode forward, gently took the coat, and hung it next to his own on the coat rack. When he turned back around, his gaze locked on the front of Wendy’s clothes. He gazed, unblinking, and self-consciously, Wendy looked down. She realized that he was staring at the shirt that was peeking out from beneath her gray zip-up hoodie.

It was an old X-Men t-shirt that she’d had since the first movie had come out years ago. A giant red X on a yellow background dominated most of the design and the rest of it was fading rapidly.

She glanced back up at Hook to find the strangest expression on his handsome face.

She blinked. Handsome? Oh no, she thought. He really is handsome. How did I not notice that before?

And then, just like that, the captain was again expertly composed and Wendy once more had no idea what was going on behind his fathomless blue eyes.

“Your accent is different,” Hook moved past her and sat down on the edge of his bed, gesturing for her to take the large chair he had previously occupied. “You must have spent some time in another land. Tell me,” he looked thoughtful. “What was that place?” With his hook, he gestured to the world that must have been below them.

Still standing, Wendy blinked. “You mean. . . ..”

“I mean, what was that world? It wasn’t London, was it. No. From the map alone, I could tell as much. But I’d never have expected those lights,” He seemed genuinely impressed and Wendy was struck by the curiosity in his eyes. She’d be damned if it didn’t almost seem – innocent. And she had certainly never noticed it there before.

He looked back up at her. “Tell me about it.”

“About the United States?” she asked, moving to sit in the oversized chair.

Hook’s eyebrows arched. “United States, indeed! Well, that would be something.” He paused, his gaze one of a man lost in thought. “I can’t imagine any of the pirate states joining with each other.” He shook his head, and then, as if speaking to himself, he added, “No, that would take a bloody miracle.”

“Pirate states?” Wendy asked.

Hook’s brow arched. “Of course. The thirteen pirate factions of the thirteen seas.”

It was Wendy’s turn to look surprised. “You don’t say,” she uttered. “There were thirteen original states in the U.S. as well.”

There was a knock on Hook’s door. The pirate captain rolled his eyes. “Enter!”

It was Smee. “I apologize for the intrusion, Cap’n,” he said with a slight bow. “It’s only that the men want to know where we be headin’ next.”

Hook’s jaw clenched. “Well, Smee, where does the Jolly Roger want to go?”

Smee looked sheepish. “Er. . . .Well, she only seems to want to go back the way we came,, Cap’n.”

“Then we’ll head back the way we came, Mr. Smee.”

Smee nodded quickly. “Aye, aye, Cap’n.” He backed out and closed the door behind him.

Hook glanced at Wendy. Her eyes were wide.

“Are we going to. . . .”

“Neverland? I’m afraid so.”

Chapter Eleven

. . . .The taste of metal in your mouth. Crossing blades with a pirate . . . .

Peter . . . .

Know what it means to die . . . .

Peter, wake up.

Metal. Metal in your mouth . . . .Means to die . . .

“Peter!”

Peter opened his eyes. It took a good deal more effort than he was used to; even worse than those mornings after drinking too much pixie dust wine.

“Peter! Oh, thank goodness. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to help you this time. . . .” Peter felt small hands under his arms, trying to pull him into a sitting position. He realized that he was lying on the ground and that it was snowing. The cold of the concrete was seeping in through his clothes. He shivered.

“Sit up, Peter. Drink this, okay?”

Tinkerbell was desperately trying to get him into an upright position. She managed to slide him up against a brick wall and then moved around him. He focused on her and saw that she was in her human form and that she was now kneeling in front of him. She held a bottle out toward him. He didn’t recognize the brand or the beverage, but the pixie dust that sparkled all along the rim of the mouth of the bottle was familiar enough.

“What happened?” he asked. His voice seemed hoarse and quiet. He cleared his throat and reached for the bottle. His arm wouldn’t move.

He looked down at it. It lay limp at his side. He tried to reach for the bottle again. Again, it wouldn’t move.

“I can’t move my arm, Tink.”

“It’s broken. Here, drink.” Tinkerbell held the bottle to his lips, but he just stared at her. Shock and disbelief warred with each other for possession of his features.

“It’s broken?” He had never been broken before. He’d never been hurt. Not really.

“Yes, Peter. You tried to catch yourself, but you weren’t able to fly right,” Tink explained as she gestured for him to drink. He took a sip as she continued. “I was able to slow you down, but not enough. You slammed into the top of a chimney and then into a roof and rolled off into this alley.” Her expression was stricken. “I think there are a lot of broken bones, Peter. More than just your arm.”

Peter stopped drinking and pulled back. He looked down at his legs. He tried to move them. They wouldn’t move. He realized, then, that that was why he hadn’t been able to help Tinkerbell get him into a sitting position. He’d unconsciously wanted to – but his body wouldn’t obey.

“My legs . . . .” he croaked.

“Drink!” Tinkerbell shoved the bottle up against his mouth, smashing his bottom lip in between his teeth and the rim of the glass. He flinched. “Sorry!” she said, desperately. Her emerald eyes were watering. “Please, just drink. It’ll heal you. But it’ll take some time. A lot longer than normal and you’ll need to rest.”

Peter tried to move his other arm and, thankfully, it, at least, did as he wanted it to. He grabbed the bottle and held it for himself. Tinkerbell stood and looked around, the wheels in her head obviously spinning at a thousand miles a minute.

“We have to get you back to the cottage. But you can’t fly and I can’t carry you.” She glanced at him. “No offense. You’re just bigger than you used to be.” She bit her bottom lip and gazed down the alley, lost in thought.

“The Lost Boys!” she suddenly exclaimed.

“What?” Peter asked, after he’d finished off the entire bottle of - . He looked down at it. Welch’s Grape soda. It wasn’t half bad.

Tinkerbell spun around to face him. “The Lost Boys. They can help!”

“A bunch of little boys? How can they?” Peter blinked. Of course, they wouldn’t be little boys any more, would they? He’d grown so used to them in Neverland, never aging, never growing up, that he’d forgotten: Everyone grows up in the real world.

“I think that Tootles is actually nearby, in fact,” Tinkerbell said, her green eyes glittering with possibility. She knelt down beside him again and, with a snap of her fingers, a thick soft blanket appeared, draped over her arms. She tucked the blanket around Peter. “I’m going to get him and have him help us, okay?”

Peter nodded, once, grimacing when it hurt.

She then stood again and moved to a trash can nearby. She pulled off the top and, out of sheer curiosity, took a whiff.

“Ugh! Oh my god, what in the name of -” She shook her head in disgust. “These humans really make a lot of foul-smelling stuff.” She stepped back and concentrated. She squeezed her eyes shut tight and drew a deep, deep breath. Then, seemingly with all of her might, she waved her arms at the trash can and shoved as much pixie dust at it as she could muster.

The trash can flickered in and out of existence for a moment. Then it re-solidified, only this time, as a stone fire place. A warm blaze crackled in its depths. Smoke billowed out of its small carved chimney.

Peter couldn’t help but smile. “Impressive, Tink.”

Tinkerbell wiped her brow and bent over as if to catch her breath. “Yeah, but I think I’m just about tapped out. It took a lot just to slow down your fall,” she muttered. Then she straightened again and nodded at him. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t go anywhere.”

“Couldn’t,” Peter replied. “Even if I wanted to.”

Tink studied his face for a moment, noting the brief flicker of brevity in his once-more green eyes. And then she was gone.

*****

The sixteen-year-old boy who once went by the name Tootles was now tucked safely away between two very tall stacks of books, in his favorite part of this rather dusty level of the library. It was quiet here, but for the occasional hum-buzz of the overhead lights and the clatter of far-away footsteps or book bags being dropped.

There was one small, very old table at the far end of the aisle, near the wall. That table had only one chair, and he sat in it now, listening to the solitude.

Every time that he turned a page in his book, the sand-paper sound of his fingers against the sheet echoed in the hushed atmosphere. It felt as though the books all around him were listening. He liked that about them; they seemed more than two-dimensional. They had lives of their own.

On one side were the medical journals on osteopathy from the early twentieth century. On the other side were books on neurology and macroangiopathy. He’d gazed at their titles a hundred times, but had never cracked their spines. He wasn’t here to read those particular books, though he was certain they were interesting enough, in their own ways.

No, he was here to read something of a far, far different nature. And, because not many people actually came to the library to read about macroangiopathy, he knew that this was the one place where no one would find him and give him grief about what it was he did love to read.

Romance. Love stories. His favorite author was Judith Ivory. But he’d read many others. He loved how they all had happy endings. They all got married and, usually, they had kids and made happy families. Love, happiness, family. Those were the things he liked best.

Those things seemed to be either rare, or so overshadowed by other, bad, things in this world that they were as hard to find as a needle in a hay stack. So, Tootles came often to the library – and hid between these two stacks of books – and disappeared in a world where violence was short and justified and the good guys always won.

Even in Neverland, where it was infrequent compared to the real world, Tootles had disliked violence. He’d always made it a point to attempt to be away – gathering berries or visiting the Piccadilly tribe – when his fellow Lost Boys and Peter Pan decided they needed to go to battle. He was certain that they believed it to be strange luck that he always missed the fighting. He knew the truth, however. The truth was, fighting made him sad. He never wanted to be sad around his Lost Boy brothers and, especially, around Peter Pan. So, he kept himself out of the aggression whenever possible.

Just as he did now, tucked away from the rest of the world in his private space. No one could find him here. No one-

“Tootles!”

Tootles leapt out of his chair, knocking it over behind him and losing his balance in the process so that he landed on the floor in front of it. “Wha-what –” He stammered, trying to right himself.

“Tootles, it’s me! I need your help!”

Tootles scrambled onto his feet and peeked over the table. A teenage girl, perhaps a tad bit older than him, was making her way hurriedly toward him. She wore blue jeans and a green t-shirt and had shoulder-length blonde hair. Her eyes matched her t-shirt almost exactly.

Tootles blinked.

“Who-who are you?” he asked, his eyes wide. “No one calls me by that name – my name is Jason now,” he insisted, shaking his head. “Jason Carmichael!” The girl drew nearer and he noticed that she appeared vaguely familiar.

When she reached the other end of the table, she stopped, her hands on her hips. She shook her head. “Tootles, don’t you recognize me? It’s me! Tink!”

Tootles stood up so fast that he caused the chair behind him to skid back a few feet and it crashed into the wall noisily. From somewhere several aisles down came an irritated “Shhh!!”

“T-Tink?” He stammered. His whole body began to tremble.

Tink smiled broadly, but her expression was also slightly admonishing, and there was something troubled in her green eyes. “Yes, it’s me. Tootles, I need your help. Peter needs your help.”

“Peter?” Tootles looked around, standing on his tip-toes to peer over Tink’s shoulder. “Is he here too?” he asked in an excited whisper.

“No,” Tink shook her head. Her troubled expression deepened. “He’s hurt, Tootles. Pretty bad. I can’t move him and he can’t fly. I need your help to get him back to the cottage, and the sooner the better.”

Tootles frowned. “Peter’s hurt?” He looked utterly confused. “That’s impossible. This has got to be some strange dream.” He glanced surreptitiously at the book he’d dropped on the table. The cover portrayed a wounded man standing victorious over his enemy. A beautiful woman clung to the hero’s arm. “I must have fallen asleep reading-”

Tink swatted him on the arm and he flinched and jumped back. “Ouch!”

“Feel real enough for you?” She asked, her patience clearly running low. “We don’t have time for this, Tootles. This is real. Peter is hurt. Now are you gonna help or not?”

Tootles gritted his teeth, looking stubborn. “Tinkerbell is a tiny little fairy covered in sparkles and you’re a teenage girl!” He leaned forward, pointing at her. “And the Peter Pan that I know never – ever – gets hurt. None of this makes any sense at all!”

Tinkerbell’s gaze narrowed dangerously. She took a slow, deep breath to calm herself and then said, “Tootles, Hook took Wendy and her brothers and managed to injure Peter because we’re not in Neverland.” She took a threatening step forward, batting Tootles’ finger out of the way and pointing one of her own. “You can act like a Lost Boy and help your leader right now or you can continue to pretend that I don’t exist.”

She lowered her voice and her green eyes began to glow red.

“But I should warn you that if you choose the latter, I will prove my existence to you in a most unpleasant manner.”

Tootles swallowed audibly, his eyes growing wide. “Okay, okay. I believe you. Where is he?” he finally asked, holding his hands up in surrender.

“Follow me.” Tinkerbell’s eyes returned to normal and she spun around, leading the way down the aisle. Tootles followed behind her.

“How did you get so big, anyway?” he asked sulkily.

“This is my human form,” she told him over her shoulder. “You know how it is here. People are freaks. I don’t want to get sprayed with Raid or something.”

Chapter Twelve

Some places take a life time to reach.

Carnegie Hall. The White House. Mars.

But, compared to Neverland, these places are as close as your own back yard. Because it doesn’t take a lifetime to get to Neverland. It takes forever.

Or, so Michael Darling would tell you. At the moment, he sat on an empty ale barrel, looking out over an ocean of black and stars, a slight night breeze playing with the tendrils of hair around his face. He had been allowed up on to the deck, under the close supervision of a pirate by the name of Billy Jukes, for the last few nights. Michael couldn’t be certain why it was, as Wendy wasn’t forthcoming about it, but according to Smee, who was a very amiable pirate, despite himself, and loved to converse with the boys when Hook wasn’t around, Wendy had been sad to have Michael kept below decks. And Hook didn’t want Wendy sad. So – he had ordered that the young boy be allowed on the main deck when the sun went down.

Michael couldn’t deny being grateful. The gun deck stank of vinegar and gun powder and alcohol and there was no fresh air. It wasn’t a laugh being under “Officer Billy’s” watch, either, since he was only called “Officer Billy” because, before he’d become a pirate on the Jolly Roger, he’d been a truant officer in some place by the name of Black Mountain Alley.

Michael took a deep breath and closed his eyes, enjoying another fresh breeze as it washed in from some unknown place. To the left of him, a good ten paces away, Billy Jukes lit a pipe and took a few puffs, his gaze, too, locked on the nothingness of space. The ill-fated pirate sported a peg leg and only one good eye. He squinted it as he blew out a ring of smoke.

Behind them, back on the main deck, came the sound of clashing swords.

Michael turned to find Hook and Wendy at it again.

Lately, the captain of the Jolly Roger had been giving Wendy fencing lessons. He had seemed openly impressed with her talent from the moment she’d first stolen and brandished one of his sailor’s swords. And now, each night on the deck of his ship, he honed her skills. And Michael, for the life of him, could not understand why.

He could not understand why their sworn enemy would want to make a better fighter out of one of his prisoners. He simply could not comprehend the idea of their captor trying to help any one of them in any way. He was almost positive that Hook had some ulterior motive in mind. He was probably going to use Wendy against Peter. That had to be it.

There could be no other reason for Hook’s strangely cordial behavior.

Michael heard John come up beside him on his left, as he had every night that Michael had been let up top. “I think she has Stockholm Syndrome,” John said.

Michael turned to find his brother’s gaze locked on his sister as she expertly swatted away Hook’s sword.

“What’s Stockholm Syndrome?” Michael asked.

“It’s when captives start to identify with their captors.” John explained. His expression was grim.

“Identify?” Michael asked.

“I mean that she’s empathizing with him. I don’t know why. He must have told her something that made her trust him. Probably some sob story or something.”

“Hook told Wendy a sad story so that she would agree to meet him every night on deck for sword lessons?”

“Well. . . . ” John stammered, “I mean. . . .” He seemed a bit befuddled for a moment and then he blew out a frustrated sigh. “Never mind.” He shook his head. “Besides,” he started over. “I think Wendy’s just doing it to get good enough that she can beat Hook if she has to. She doesn’t talk to him at any other time. She stays in the barracks with us and she works on deck with us all day, even though Hook doesn’t seem too pleased about it.”

Hook suddenly advanced and Wendy expertly counter-attacked, managing to knock his sword to the side. Even from their distance, they could hear Hook commend her emphatically. And even from their distance they, too, could see Wendy’s smile.

Without looking up at his older brother, Michael changed the subject. “When will we get to Neverland?”

“Soon, I think. The pirates are beginning to get restless. I overheard Starkey saying that Neverland was ‘a breath away.’”

“Feels like it’s been years. How do you know we’re not there already and we’re just flying over the ocean below us?”

“The night and day are coming at regular intervals,” John told him. “In Neverland, it would take a literal year before night would fall.” He shook his head. “We aren’t there yet.”

Michael sighed. He tore his eyes off of the sister he loved and the pirate he hated and turned to look out over the black vastness of space once more. “I saw a shooting star earlier.”

“That’s impossible,” John said. “Shooting stars are really meteors that burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. We aren’t on Earth any longer, and so there’s no atmosphere for meteors to burn up in.” Of course, right after he said it, he realized the error of his statement. After all, by that reasoning, day and night shouldn’t have existed either.

Michael said softly, “I made a wish.”

John was silent for a long time before, quietly, he asked, “What did you wish for?”

“Can’t tell you. Then it won’t come true.”

“Captain!” came a call behind them. The two boys spun around to find Smee climbing down the futtock shrouds from the Crow’s Nest. He leapt onto the deck, one hand holding his glasses on his face, the other hand pulling his red hat straight on his head. “Captain!” he repeated.

Hook straightened and sheathed his sword. Wendy stepped back away from him and did the same as Smee came running up to salute his captain. “What is it, Smee?”

“Land below, Captain.” His smile was miles wide. “We’ve reached Neverland.” He was breathless as he relayed this. Wendy’s eyes grew wide.

“Neverland. . . .” she whispered. Then she ran to the side of the ship and bent over the railing, peering into the darkness below. It was very dark and she could see nothing.

“You’ll need this, Wendy.” Hook was beside her, having moved as quietly as a cat across the ship’s deck. He held out his telescope, long and lean. He was smiling, and for once, the smile seemed to reach the blue of his eyes.

She took the looking glass from his hand, hesitantly at first, and then excitedly. In a moment, John and Michael were both beside Wendy, each wanting to look through the glass as well. But she held them back as she adjusted the lenses, concentrating on the darkness below her.

“I… don’t… see…” and then, suddenly, there it was. A black outline of mountain and shore against a deep, dark, troubled sea. “Wait – there it is!”

At this point, John literally ripped the telescope from her hands and scrambled to peer through it himself. Wendy scowled at him. He didn’t seem to notice.

“You’re right. There it is.” He frowned and removed the lens, handing it in turn to Michael, who took it greedily. “But it certainly is dark.”

Michael stood on his tip toes, leaned carefully over the railing, and put the glass to his eyes.

“Where are the Piccadilly tribe’s camp fires?” John asked. “And the lights from the pixies’ trees? And the blue glow from the underwater lamps at Mermaid Lagoon?”

To this, Hook took a very deep breath. His expression was contemplative. “Neverland, it would seem,” he began carefully, “is… different these days.” He turned around and paced a few steps away, his gaze locking on something far across the distance of night – something that no one else could see.

Wendy cocked her head to one side, studying him carefully.

“What does he mean – different?” John whispered from beside her.

“I don’t see anything,” Michael mumbled, still attempting to peer through the telescope.

“I’m not sure,” Wendy replied. She motioned for John to stay where he was. Then she squared her shoulders, which she always did when she was summoning up a certain amount of courage, and she slowly approached Hook.

The captain must have sensed her coming near, because he turned to smile gently down at her.

John’s brows raised inquisitively at the cordial expression.

Wendy bit her lip. “Hook,” she began. “What do you mean when you say that Neverland is different?”

Hook’s smile turned grim. He raised his left arm and pointed to the place that he had been staring at moments before. “The sun should have risen over that horizon more than a thousand years ago,” he said, softly. “It has yet to do so.” He lowered his arm. “Neverland sleeps below us in that perpetual night.” He sighed. “I have, however, at last come to comprehend what has made it so.”

Wendy, eyes wide, face troubled, asked, “What? What’s made it so?”

“Haven’t you noticed, Wendy?” he asked softly. “Neverland is straight out of a story book.” He gestured to the world beyond his ship. “It possesses a back drop of fantastical proportions. And, most especially,” he smiled a sad smile, “it has a hero.” Hook shrugged then. It was a hopeless gesture. “Neverland cannot exist without Peter Pan.”

Wendy truly did not know what to say to that. It seemed that Hook’s words begged a following of silence; of digestion and contemplation. And, so, as her voice remained quiet, her mind became a chatterbox: Neverland is a story world. . . .Its hero is Peter Pan. . . . Her storyteller’s brain ran circles around the implications. Every good adventure tale had a hero. But a hero was worthless without an anti-hero. That was where the bad guy came in. The antagonist. The villain. He was the single most important aspect of every adventure story. A good bad guy made a good story into a great story.

If Neverland is a story and Peter is its hero, then its antagonist must be. . . . Wendy looked up at the captain of the Jolly Roger, who had once more turned to peer out over the vastness of space, toward that one place where he claimed that the sun was supposed to have risen so long ago. Her mind finished its damning thought. The bad guy is

Hook.

“What the bloody. . . .” Hook suddenly muttered under his breath, his blue eyes growing wide.

Wendy turned to look. A faint glow was beginning to outline the farthest horizon. Below it was an endless sea. Above it was a slowly brightening sky.

It was sunrise.

“The sun is rising,” Wendy whispered. “That must mean – ”

“Pan,” Hook hissed. “Neverland’s indolent son has come home at last.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Holy fruitcakes…” Tootles looked over Peter’s unconscious form, taking in the cuts and scrapes and forming bruises over his face and what was visible of his arms. “He doesn’t look so good.” He wisely chose not to comment, at the moment, on his general surprise that Peter Pan had grown up, and focused, instead, on the damage the boy had taken.

“He fell,” Tinkerbell said, simply. “Peter?” She knelt beside the teenage boy, gently brushing a lock of blonde hair from his closed eyes. “Peter, wake up.”

Peter stirred and rolled over onto his back. The empty bottle of pixie soda rolled out of his open hand.

Tinkerbell picked it up. “Well, at least he finished this off. It’ll help.” She stood up. “Come on, we need to get him home and warm him up.”

“Okay. . . .” Tootles considered Peter and his relative weight. “I’ll get his upper half if you can carry his legs.”

“Fine,” Tinkerbell nodded and switched places with Tootles. Luckily for them both, Tootles, or Jason Carmichael, as he was called these days, was a big boy. He always had been. He’d been, by far, the largest of the Lost Boys in Neverland and he’d grown accordingly. So, it wasn’t too difficult for him to lift Peter up off of the ground – especially with Tinkerbell’s help.

“Lead the way, Tink.”

It took the two of them several hours to navigate all of the alleys and darkened city streets that they had to walk through in order to get home without being seen by other people or, worst of all, the police. When Tinkerbell finally led Tootles behind the green brush and overhanging branches that hid the opening of their forest trail from view, Tootles could have cried with relief.

“Not much further now,” Tink told him.

“Good, because I think I just gave myself a hernia.”

“There it is,” Tinkerbell nodded past Tootles’ shoulder. Tootles glanced at the small cottage and smiled, despite the throbbing in every single one of his tired muscles. The “cottage” was actually a giant hollowed-out tree; a replica of the one they had lived in Neverland. Except, this one was larger and had a second story. Tootles looked up and could see warm fire light streaming through windows that were the shapes of flowers and acorns. It was an architect’s impossible dream.

“You made this place, didn’t you, Tink?” Tootles asked as the door magically opened for them and they hauled Peter’s unconscious body inside.

“Lay him there,” Tink nodded toward a sofa-like structure a few feet away. It rested in front of a beautifully lit fire place.

Tootles set Peter down and then straightened. He closed his eyes and sniffed the air. Immediately upon entering the cottage, he’d caught the scent of caramel and vanilla. Pine and sap and honey. It was the scent that had filled the tree house in Neverland.

He opened his eyes again and turned to Tinkerbell.

“Now what?”

“Now we cover him up and wait.” Tinkerbell was busy unfolding blankets that had been piled in the window seat along one side of the room.

“I don’t get it,” Tootles said, trying to keep his tone respectful enough that he didn’t set off the pixie’s notorious temper. “Why couldn’t you at least use your magic to make him a little smaller or even use it now to cover him with blankets?” He helped her unfold the remaining blankets and draped them over the sleeping Peter.

“I’m kinda running low right now,” Tink told him. When she’d finished tucking Peter in, she turned to Tootles. “The thing is,” she said, “he fell really far.”

Tootles considered this for a moment and then sighed. “All right, you’d better tell me about it.” He gestured to the chairs around a table by the fire place. They sat down. “Start from the beginning,” he said.

So, she did.

*****

One thing you can say about pirates is that they each have a story. Wendy had learned this over the last few days. There were many men in Hook’s crew, as he needed a large crew to man the more than forty guns his ship sported. She hadn’t had a chance, yet, to personally meet them all, though they had all been surprisingly genial to her, thus far.

However, she’d managed to make the acquaintance of a few, and, in her writer’s opinion, their stories begged pen and paper…

There was a pirate that they all called Cecco. Though he was not dressed as well as Starkey and didn’t possess Starkey’s gentlemanly air, Cecco was still quite a handsome man with sandy brown hair and hazel eyes and a strong jaw. However, there seemed to be a shroud forever hanging about him – an invisible warning, of sorts, to keep your distance. Once, while she was secretly watching the attractive pirate adjust one of the sails, Smee had come up beside her.

“’E’s one to watch, miss, that Cecco.”

Wendy had jumped a little, startled by Smee’s sudden appearance. Smee was holding a long, heavy coil of rope in both hands and rocking back and forth on his the balls of his feet. He did this often, she’d noticed. It was a nervous habit that made him seem constantly and somewhat inappropriately giddy.

“What do you mean?” She asked.

Smee busied himself with setting down the rope and then straightened as if he had a crick in his back. He then leaned forward conspiratorially. “The handsome Cecco,” he whispered, as if reading a line from a storybook, “escaped from his cell, though no living soul knows how, and left his name carved on the back of the warden at Gao.” Smee looked Wendy in the eyes, nodded once, smiled, and then picked up his rope again.

Wendy watched him walk away, a spring in his step.

Cecco was the first of the pirates she’d learned about, so to speak.

There was also Skylights, who looked, for all the world, utterly and completely different from Cecco. Where Cecco’s hair was sandy brown, Skylight’s was as white as the froth on the sea. Where Cecco had all of his teeth, Skylights was missing most of his. To call Skylights old would be a horrific understatement. When Wendy looked at him, she imagined parchment paper so ancient that, if it were to be unrolled, it would crack and crumble.

Then there was Arnold. The other men called him Arnold the Black. True to his name, he sported short-cropped black hair and a long, ragged black beard, which he braided sea shells and beads into so that it looked a little like a fish net stuck on his face. His eyes, too, were black. But blackest of all was his tongue, which the men claimed he had tattooed long ago so that if he ever had to play dead, he could let his tongue loll out of his mouth and the black of it would convince any other pirate that he had gone to Davy Jones’s locker.

There was Murphy, the ship’s doctor. He was a middle-aged balding man who wore spectacles much like Smee’s and was the only other pirate on board, besides Hook, who would play Chess with the first mate. Seeing as how this was Smee’s favorite pass time, he and Murphy had become fast friends long ago. Smee especially enjoyed the fact that when he played with Murphy, he was sometimes able to win. It was a different story when he played against the captain.

There was also Cookson, who, was not a cook, but the son of a cook and, in fact, was, himself, a tailor. He was a tiny man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, with very blonde, straight hair and a clean-shaven face. His story was that he’d been shanghaied by another pirate faction many years ago and set to work as their captain’s private tailor. Since that time, however, Hook had defeated the other captain and now Cookson sewed Hook’s clothes, and the clothes of his crew.

Cookson seemed to be a polite enough man, but he possessed an unfortunate stutter which made conversation with him somewhat painful. However, he was such an excellent tailor that Hook strictly forbade any of his men from teasing him. So, none of them did.

There were so many different pirates, Wendy thought. So many different stories. However, right now, there was one story, in particular, that she wanted to hear most. It was the story of the striking and powerful man who now restlessly paced back and forth across the deck, his telescope in his good hand.

“Still no sign of ‘im, Cap’n!” Smee yelled down from the crow’s nest, where he, too, peered through a telescope.

Hook cursed under his breath. He glanced at Wendy, holding her gaze for a fraction of a second. And then, without a word to his first mate or any other member of his crew, he turned on his heel and headed toward his cabin, shutting the door behind him.

Five years ago, once more on Hook’s ship, Wendy had asked the captain, “Why do you hate Peter Pan so much?”

Hook had not answered her. Not really. Instead, he had pretended that the question was absurd and told her that he did not, in fact, hate Peter Pan.

It had all been part of an elaborate plan of Hook’s, at the time. A plan to capture the boy who he did, in fact, despise more than anything in the world.

But that was then. And now that Wendy stood again on the deck of the Jolly Roger and once more had a chance to watch the notorious pirate captain as he waited for the boy he loathed, Wendy noticed things that she would not have noticed as a child.

There had been more than hatred in Hook’s expression as he and his men prepared for Pan’s inevitable return. There had been something else – something more subtle, but somehow more troubling.

Pssst.”

Wendy turned to find John trying to get her attention from where he stood several yards away, a mop handle grasped firmly in both hands.

Wendy shoved her hands in the pockets of her gray zip-up hoodie and walked in his direction as if she were simply taking a leisurely stroll on the deck of the Jolly Roger. The pirate they called Gentleman Starkey watched her closely but stayed where he was, leaning casually against the banister.

As Wendy neared her brother, he whispered, “Do you think Peter’s out there somewhere?”

Wendy bent to untie and re-tie her shoe. As she did, she whispered, “I don’t know…. It’s strange, but I don’t think so.”

“Then why’d the sun come up?” John asked as he redipped the mop and noisily wrung it out to cover the sound of his whisper.

Wendy untied her other shoe, pretended to inspect the somewhat frayed string, and answered, “Not sure about that either –”

“All right, boy. That’s enough of that. To the quarterdeck with you.”

Wendy stood to find the “handsome” Cecco taking John’s mop away. Cecco gave John a slight shove in the direction of the quarterdeck and Arnold the Black shot Wendy a warning look as they passed her by.

Wendy gritted her teeth. The moment the sun had begun to rise, Hook had gone into combat mode. He had sent Michael back below decks and doubled the guard on John, assigning to him the most dangerous pirates in his service. Wendy, for the most part, had been left alone with only Starkey keeping an eye on her, as he always did. She assumed this was because she had given Hook her word that she would not attempt to escape. And a promise, to a pirate, was a powerful thing.

Wendy blew out a frustrated sigh and peered across the clear blue water toward the shore of Neverland. The sun was high in the sky now and Neverland was once more green. In the far distance, the smoke of campfires signaled that the Piccadilly tribe had awoken and was preparing a hunting party. Random spots of light from deep within Neverland’s forest gave away the locations of flitting fairies. And every once in a while, a brief white crest of sea foam appeared on the surface of Mermaid’s lagoon, as the beautiful but treacherous water-dwelling creatures surfaced and then disappeared again in the blink of an eye.

“Pardon me, miss,” Smee addressed Wendy from behind.

She turned to find him smiling, as usual, his hat in his hands. “If you don’t mind, miss, the Cap’n would be most honored if you’d join him for a cup o’ tea.”

Wendy’s eyebrow shot up. “Oh?”

Smee’s smile broadened. “It’s quite good tea, if you don’t mind me saying so meself,” he assured her. He leaned in and added, “Liberated it from a group o’ pixies that was picnicking on the shore of Kidd’s Creek last Spring.”

Wendy blinked at this, wondering how Smee had managed such a feat, and then she shook her head as if to clear it. “Fine, Smee.” She sighed again. “I’m thirsty anyway.” Though, the truth was, she wasn’t thirsty at all, and, in fact, had not been hungry or thirsty or cold or hot since she’d been on Hook’s ship. But maybe taking tea with the captain would give her a chance to find out what was going on.

At this, Smee bounced up on his toes and turned to nod at Starkey, who nodded back. “Splendid, miss!” He offered her his hand, and since Smee, unlike so many of the pirates, always had clean hands, she took it. He lead her to the door of Hook’s cabin and knocked.

“Enter.”

Smee opened the door and gestured for Wendy to head inside. Wendy took a deep breath and stepped foot into Hook’s cabin. This would be the third time in her life that she had been inside of the notorious pirate captain’s private quarters. As she always did, she looked around as she entered, taking in the opulence and vastness of his living space. It seemed almost impossibly large; as if it shouldn’t really fit on the Jolly Roger.

“Ah, the fair Wendy.”

Wendy found Hook immediately. He stood from his side of his dining table and moved around to the other side, pulling her chair out for her. “I’m honored that you’ve decided to join me.”

Smee stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Wendy noticed that Hook was no longer dressed in the red brocade coat and vestments that he wore whenever he fought with Peter Pan on the Jolly Roger. Instead, he had donned the black clothing that he’d worn in the massive keep built into the maw of Skull Rock five years ago. These clothes, as all of Hook’s garments, were richly sewn and embellished with the finest fabrics. Cookson, the tailor, truly was excellent at his craft. The sable material of Hook’s black coat blended with the darkness of his long, curly hair and made his eyes appear impossibly blue.

“No longer expecting Peter Pan?” Wendy asked as she made her way to the chair he held out for her.

Hook cocked his head to one side, studying her with great interest. “You’re quite observant, Wendy,” he told her, no hint of mockery in his tone. She sat down and he gently pushed in her chair. Then he returned to his own chair and took it gracefully.

“To be honest, my dear,” he said as he began to pour tea into two delicate china cups, holding the pot with his left hand. “No.” He set the pot down and picked up the bowl of sugar. “I am not expecting Peter Pan.”

Wendy had a second to digest this.

“Sugar?” Hook offered.

“Yes, please,.” she answered automatically.

He scooped a few small spoons-full of the powder into her cup and deftly stirred it.

“Why do you think he’s not coming?” Wendy ventured.

Hook glanced up at her then. His intense blue gaze drifted from her lovely face to the X-Men logo on her t-shirt. She subconsciously glanced down and then back up again, meeting his eyes.

“Frankly, my beauty, I no longer believe that Pan is the reason behind the sunrise in Neverland.” He set down the sugar bowl. “Cream?”

“No, thank you.”

He stood then and brought the tea cup and saucer to her side of the table, setting it gently in front of her.

“He’s not?” Wendy asked.

“No.” Hook replied, remaining beside her so that she was forced to look up at him as he towered over her.

“Then. . . who is?” she asked, becoming lost in the oceans of his eyes.

“My dear Wendy,” Hook replied, leaning in so that his breath caressed the side of her face as he whispered in her ear, “you are.”

Chapter Fourteen

“I tell you, Princess Tiger Lily. If the Great Peter Pan were in trouble, the spirit of the Never Bird would tell us.”

Tiger Lily turned to Great Big Little Panther and her gaze narrowed. “Why does he not visit, then?”

Panther, as he was called for short, was a hunter in the Picadilly tribe, and one of Tiger Lily’s two best friends. He was a giant of a boy, nearly popping out of the extra-large leathers that had been sewn for him. But he was good with a bow and arrow and, despite his size, his step was as light as that of a cat’s. And the thing that Tiger Lily valued in him the most was his honesty.

Her other best friend was Lean Wolf, an opposite to Panther in every way except for his honesty. Lean Wolf was true to his name, tall and thin as a reed. He was no good with a bow, as Panther was, but luckily for him, he was very good at hand-to-hand combat and was very sneaky. What Panther and Tiger Lily could not take care of from a distance, Lean Wolf could finish off up close.

Now, Lean Wolf knelt to join Tiger Lily, who had been sitting at the center of her Teepee, gathering arrows into her quiver. When they were eye to eye, he addressed her softly.

“Princess, the Great Peter Pan made a promise to see to the welfare of the Lost Boys. We know this. That is why he does not come.”

“And yet the sun rises. It would not rise if Peter had not returned.” Tiger Lily told him. She stood then, grasping her bow in one hand as she did. Lean Wolf rose with her and respectfully took a step back.

“My father has given us permission to hunt,” Tiger Lily told them both. “We will also find Peter Pan,” she added. “And we will leave at once.”

*****

“Tink!” Peter sat up in bed, his eyes flying open, his arms flailing out at either side.

Tinkerbell was beside him at once. “It’s okay, Peter! I’m here! Calm down; you were dreaming.”

“Tink, he has her! He has Wendy and her brothers! We have to go after him!” Peter looked around himself, his expression wild. Then he looked down and noticed the bandage around his wrist. He shoved his covers aside. There was another around his knee… And around his ribs. All he wore was a pair of black shorts and those bandages.

“What happened, Tink?” he asked softly.

“Well, Peter…” Tinkerbell fidgeted, biting her lip. “You sort of… fell.”

Peter’s brow furrowed as it began to come back to him. Everything. From his first meeting with John and then Wendy – to Wendy falling onto Hook’s ship and then Hook kicking Peter off of it.

“I fell,” Peter whispered. “I couldn’t fly, Tink.”

“He took your happy thoughts, Peter,” Tinkerbell explained.

From behind Tinkerbell, another voice said, “But you’ll get them back, Peter.”

Peter looked over Tinkerbell’s shoulder to find a very large teenage boy standing against the wall, his hands nervously shoved into the front pockets of his jeans. He looked familiar. Peter squinted and sat up a little straighter to get a better look. And then his eyes widened.

“Tootles?” he asked, blinking to make certain he was seeing things clearly.

“Yeah, it’s me, Peter. Tink found me when you got hurt.” Tootles moved away from the wall to walk towards Peter’s bed.

“Wow…” Peter whispered, “you’ve changed.”

“Said the pot to the kettle,” Tootles laughed. It was contagious because Peter laughed then too. And Tinkerbell grinned, relief flooding her pixie features.

“It’s good to hear you laugh, Peter,” she said softly.

Peter turned to her and their green gazes locked. Then Peter did something he had never done before. He raised his hand and gently placed it to Tinkerbell’s cheek. His thumb brushed her skin as he smiled a tender smile.

“I’m sorry, Tink,” he said. “You saved me. I owe you my life.”

Tinkerbell blinked furiously, her pale flesh blushing a bright pink. She pulled away from him and turned to face the other direction. Peter’s hand dropped to the covers on the bed. He looked questioningly at Tootles.

Tootles shrugged.

In a few moments, Tinkerbell seemed to compose herself and she turned back around to face him once more. Her blush was gone, but there was a twinkle in her green eyes that had not been there before.

“Well, boys, I guess I’ll go and get us something to eat. Peter, stay in bed. You’re not completely healed yet.”

Peter’s expression turned to one of frustration. “How long ‘till I can fight again?”

Tinkerbell pulled her jacket down from the hook against the wall and shrugged it on. “A few more days, maybe. I made you some tea. Drink it and rest.” She nodded toward a tea set on a nearby table and then opened the front door. “Tootles, make sure he stays put.”

“Okay, Tink,” Tootles replied dutifully. Tink left and closed the door behind her.

“Traitor,” Peter accused as he tried to sit up a little more.

Tootles shrugged again. “She’s a pixie, man. What do you want me to do? She could turn me into a tree if I don’t do what she says.” He came forward and helped Peter lean up against the wall behind his bed. He adjusted the pillows around him and then stepped back again. “Is what you said true? Did Hook really take Wendy and her brothers?”

Peter’s eyes darkened dangerously. “Yes. And the sooner we go after them, the better.”

“Then you’d better heal fast.” Tootles retrieved the tea from the table and gave it to Peter. “It’s got pixie dust in it. Drink up.”

*****

“Cap’n?”

Hook straightened, just a little, at the sound of Smee’s voice. He felt the familiar tension ride through his arms and up to his broad shoulders. In a few moments, he would have a headache. It always worked that way.

He sighed, knowing what was coming and not at all certain what to do about it.

“Yes, Mr. Smee?” he asked, softly, without turning to look at his first mate.

Smee stood to the side, his hands behind his back, his pose nervous. “Forgive me, Cap’n, but I was just wonderin’. . . . What would you have me do with the Miss Wendy?”

Hook eyed him for a moment, taking in the uncertainty in his first mate’s gray eyes and the nervous twitch to the man’s whiskered mouth.

Hook sighed. “I assume you’re curious as to how I reached my conclusion concerning Wendy Darling.”

He waited and, when Smee’s gaze dropped to the planks of the ship and he didn’t answer, Hook took it as an affirmative.

“Tell me, Smee. Did you by any chance notice the garment that Miss Darling is wearing – the one with the red ‘X’ marked upon it?”

Smee seemed to consider something for a moment, his whole roundish body going abnormally still as he searched his recollection. And then he looked up, sharply, and nodded. “Aye Sir, that I did. Strange and peculiar mode of dress, if I may say so myself.”

“Indeed, Smee. However, it is the ‘X’, itself, which I find most interesting.”

Again, Smee went still, however because he was looking at Hook as he again considered his captain’s words, Hook could see the thoughts chase each other, like clouds, through his storm-gray eyes.

Then Smee blinked. And his eyes widened. “Oh, Cap’n.  You don’t suppose Miss Wendy has something to do with the treasure marked on that map, do you?”

Hook’s lips curled into a slow, knowing smile. “No, Smee. I don’t think she has something to do with it. I believe she is it.” He leaned forward. “The treasure, that is.” His response was calm, his tone low, his voice a mere whisper. He wasn’t certain, at that moment, that he wanted the rest of the crew to hear what he had to say about Wendy Darling.

Smee, he trusted. The others – not so much.

He grabbed a surprised Smee’s upper arm and dragged him further along the prow of the ship, away from the others, who didn’t seem to notice his actions. Then he leaned in close and continued. “Consider this, Smee. Darkness lies like a shroud across Neverland and then, suddenly, the Jolly Roger takes to the skies. A map of unknown origin falls into my hands with a red X marking some equally unknown treasure. And then the fair Wendy falls into my arms as well. And we return – home – ” He said the word with the distaste for Neverland that he had always felt, but paused only momentarily before he continued. “To see the sun rise after more than a thousand years. What has changed, Mr. Smee?” he asked.

Smee blinked rapidly, his expression becoming more excited as Hook went on. But he didn’t answer. The first mate knew that the question was rhetorical.

Wendy, Smee. It is Wendy that has changed.” He straightened then, his blue gaze searching the deck of the ship and stopping on the door to his cabin, where he knew the young Miss Darling waited beyond. “And it is Wendy who has changed everything around her.”

The first mate was quiet for several long moments. And then he pushed his glasses further up on his chubby nose and squinted behind them as he, too, glanced toward the door to Hook’s cabin. “Well, Sir, if you are correct – and I’m certain that you are, Cap’n – then what type of treasure do you suppose Miss Wendy represents?”

Hook shook his head. Once. Again, his tone was but a whisper when he answered. “I do not know, Smee.” He looked down at the silver hook on his right arm, turning it ever so slightly so that it flashed and gleamed. “I do not know.”

*****

Wendy paced nervously in the giant cabin. Her thoughts were a jumbled mess. Nothing made any sense. She hugged herself and blew out a sigh, sinking onto the edge of Hook’s large four-poster bed.

There was a knock on the door.

Wendy’s head snapped up. She didn’t know whether she could face Hook again right now. When he’d told her that she was the reason for Neverland’s sunrise, she’d been well beyond shocked. She’d simply stayed in her seat, staring up at the man above her, unable to speak or reason or even object.

All she’d done was drown in that blue gaze. Until, at last, Captain James Hook had slowly reached down, his tall, strong body bending over hers, as he gently lifted her tiny tea cup from its saucer and held it up for her.

She’d taken it, almost automatically, unsure of what else to do. And in a continued silence, she’d sipped the sweet tea as Hook had straightened, turned away, and left the cabin, bidding her a good afternoon as he’d shut the door behind him.

It had surely been hours.

She’d spent them wandering around the cabin, shamelessly going through Hook’s belongings. She didn’t know what else to do. Her thoughts were spinning end over end and it was all she could do to distract herself.

She had the terrible urge to write – to purge herself of the chaos that was whirling within her, to bleed her confusion onto paper through her fingertips and if she didn’t occupy her fevered brain with something else, she was bound to give in to her yearnings and steal Hook’s ink well and feather and start scrolling poems and prose all over those ancient parchment maps he had laying on his captain’s table.

The knock came again and Wendy realized that she’d just been staring at the door, not answering.

“Yes?” She finally ventured, her voice a little softer than she’d have preferred.

“Miss Wendy?”

It was Smee.

“Yes, Smee.” Wendy took a deep breath. At least the first mate wasn’t his captain. And she could use the company. “Come in.”

The door opened and Mr. Smee poked his head in. “Er, sorry for the intrusion, Miss Wendy, only the Captain has declared that we’ll be going ashore soon an’ ‘e wanted me to check on you – see if there’s anything you’ll be needin’.”

“We’re going ashore? What for?” she asked as Smee came fully into the enormous cabin and closed the door softly behind him.

“Well, miss, we’ve been frozen here on the Jolly Roger for quite some time, an’ the crew is well due for a bit of shore leave, if you want the truth of it. Why, Cookson is certain ‘e can make a right nice bit of cloth from the Geramine flower, if ‘e can find any; they bloom in the Spring in Neverland, you know. And I do think that Arnold be gripin’ so much these days ‘cuz ‘e misses the rum ‘e buried somewhere along the banks of Crocodile Creek. And poor Skylights needs a good piece o’ dry wood to fashion a new set of teeth out of-” Smee cut off, as if realizing that he’d probably given Wendy more information than she strictly needed.

And then he smiled a reassuring smile and came to sit down beside her on the bed. “Well, you get the idea, anyway.”

That was one of the peculiar things about Mr. Smee, Wendy realized. He possessed that strange kind of easiness about him that was automatically trustworthy. If any other pirate had attempted to come and sit down beside her on the bed, she would have quickly scuttled to the other end of the mattress or jumped up and moved to the opposite side of the room, all together. But, as it was, she simply stayed where she was seated and waited for Smee to say what he was obviously preparing to say next.

“I’m willin’ to bet that you’re a might bit confused about all this sunrise business now, aren’t you, miss?”

Wendy chewed on her lip. That was putting it mildly. She nodded, and then asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Oh, don’t you worry, now.” He gently patted her on her jean-covered thigh and then folded his hands in his lap. “The Cap’n won’t allow no harm to come to you. He just needs some time to figure some things out, is all.”

In other words, thought Wendy, Hook has no idea what to do with me.

And I’m stuck with these pirates – and so are my brothers.

“Are my brothers okay?”

“Indeed, miss. They’re in the galley eatin’ a fine cooked meal right now. You can join ‘em if you like.”

“I’m… not really hungry,” she answered, honestly. She looked away to glance at the array of belongings Hook had lying about the large cabin. “What are all of these instruments for?” There was a grand black piano in one corner of the room, complete with melted wax candles sitting atop it and sheets of un-played music, waiting on the shelf. At least a dozen stringed instruments of various make and size sat resting on cushions and leaned against the book shelves. And wind instruments of different lengths and origin hung on clasps along the walls.

But Hook had only one hand.

At this question, Smee’s expression darkened. His head dropped ever so slightly and his gaze found some unseen, distant spot on the floor. “The captain was a very talented man, ‘e was.” His tone had lowered, becoming more subdued. His entire round body, in fact, seemed to have deflated. Like a balloon leaking helium.

“Captain Hook could play anything,” he continued. “Natural talent, ‘e ‘ad. 'Til the day. . . .” His voice trailed off and he looked up, locking eyes with Wendy once more. He sighed and his sad smile spoke volumes. “Well, I’m sure you know. It’s the one thing ‘e don’t talk about.”

Smee shook his head and looked away again. He shrugged. “Still has a wonderful singing voice, though.” He nodded and patted his hands on his lap, indicating finality. Then he stood and absently felt his pockets.

Wendy snatched the opportunity, her heartrate kicking up a notch as she asked the one question, in all the thousands of existing questions, that she knew Hook, himself, would never – ever – entertain.

“What happened that day, Smee?” She asked, hurriedly. At once, he turned to pin her with a surprised expression and she glanced around, nervously wondering whether anyone else could have heard.

In a quieter voice, she leaned forward on the bed. “What. . . .” She chewed on her lip, cleared her throat, and tried again. He waited. “What happened with. . . you know. With his hand?” She had always assumed that Peter Pan had cut it off during a sword fight. But it was such a traumatic event. . . . The writer in her had always wondered about the details.

That was where the devil lived. That was where she always wanted to go.

Smee stared down at her for some time before he so much as moved.

And then, as if remembering himself, he straightened, looked over his shoulder toward the door, and nodded. He took a shaky breath and sat himself back down on the bed. He’d come to a decision.

Wendy stilled her breathing. It had quickened. Her heart was hammering. She didn’t know why, but for some reason, she felt this was monumental. A secret, perhaps. Untold to anyone.

“Captain James Hook,” Smee began, his accent seemingly diminished, “has always been Captain James Hook,” he said. “Even when he had a hand.” He raised his right hand and wiggled his fingers. Then he lowered it again and went on. “Long ago, Neverland drew us into its world. This place. . . .” He looked overhead as if he could see through the wooden beams of the captain’s cabin, to the sky and the clouds and the stars beyond.

“It picks and chooses, see? A fairy here. A native there. A boy next. And a pirate.”

He paused, blinking as he lowered his gaze once more to stare at the nothingness straight ahead and the memories that lay beyond. “An’ Captain Hook – ‘e was the best of them. The leader of the pirate council of the thirteen states. A man of intellect, ‘e was. And accomplishment.” He nodded, to himself, and Wendy watched as he reached beneath the lenses of his spectacles and rubbed his eyes.

Once he’d re-adjusted his glasses, he lowered his hand again and sighed another heavy, heart-felt sigh. “Boys care nothing of the hardships of man, Miss Darling. To Peter Pan, the Captain’s name was no more than a game.” He spoke slowly, and with feeling. “One day, after we had been here for weeks, Pan came to the Jolly Roger and shouted down at the captain.”

“He told him that, with a name like ‘Hook,’ he should have one. In the fight that ensued, Pan took the captain’s right hand.” His voice was now a mere hair’s breadth above a whisper. “It was a bloody battle, indeed. The wound healed unnaturally quickly, however. And it left the captain. . . .” He paused here, searching for the right words.

Wendy’s body was strung as tightly as the instruments in Hook’s cabin. She could not believe what she was hearing. Smee’s tale had her on pins and needles, held captive to the horror of what it revealed.

“Well, it left him less of the man ‘e was, that it did.” Smee finally concluded, speaking so softly now that Wendy could scarcely hear him over her own ragged breathing. “The next day – as days go in Neverland – Pan threw a hook onto the deck of the ship. Bright and shiny, it was. Silver. An’ ‘e told the captain it suited ‘im.”

Smee straightened again, then, realizing that he’d progressively slouched during the telling of his story. His accent was back and heavy, as if living in the past had taken him temporarily from his role as the ship’s first mate and turned him into something else. But he was back now. And in full costume.

He patted his lap and stood. “And, well, I guess it did suit ‘im right nice enough.”


Chapter Fifteen

The star didn’t disappear this time. And that bewildered Peter.

It was remarkable enough for him to be in the air again, heading back home after five years in his birth world. But deep down inside, he had an itch of an inkling that if it weren’t for Tinkerbell’s extra pixie dust this time around, his thoughts wouldn’t be happy enough to get him to where he was going.

The truth was, his thoughts were anything but happy. He was troubled.

Hook had bested him in battle. How? Why? How? It ripped at the very fabric of what he knew to be true. It just wasn’t the way things worked. Not in his world.

But this isn’t my world, Peter thought. A cloud loomed closer up ahead. He brought his arms down to his sides and ploughed right into it.

“Peter!” he faintly heard Tootles hollering after him from behind. But he wasn’t around long enough to see that Tinkerbell shimmered, hesitantly, at the edge of the cloud and then shot into the white unknown after Peter. Tootles followed them both as quickly as he could.

And I fell, Peter thought. I never fall.

But the worst thoughts that had taken up residence in his troubled mind of late were all about Wendy.

Wendy.

She had certainly grown, hadn’t she. He would have had to be an utter idiot not to notice. She’d become tall and strong and her hair had highlights in it that he’d never noticed before. Her eyes were darker. They seemed full of mysteries now. . . and something else.

She was. . . . Well, she’s beautiful, he thought, his fists tightening at his sides. Duh. She’s beautiful. You knew she would be, didn’t you, Peter?

He had seen something special in her five years ago, as he’d perched on her windowsill and watched her play with her brothers. He’d noticed something singular and exceptional and an unknown part of him had recognized it and latched on tooth and nail. She was the first and only girl he had ever taken to Neverland.

Wendy. A girl who was most certainly a girl – but one who loved life the way a boy did. There could be nothing more unique and special than that.

And she hates me, Peter thought. Wendy hates me.

With a frustrated growl, Peter ran his hand through his hair, grabbed a fist full of it, and then let it go. His head was beginning to ache. And the clouds had left a film of water over his face that was getting into his eyes.

He’d been doing okay for a while. Once he’d had enough of Tinkerbell’s tea to chase the lingering pain from his body. But then those damn thoughts had settled in.

He was grateful to Tink, of course, for healing him and taking such great care of him. She’d been so concerned that he might fall again that she had sprinkled enough pixie dust over his head and body for twenty men, and grouchy ones at that.

She was a good friend. He knew that.

And that troubled him, too. Because he knew he was treating her like dirt. And he couldn’t help himself. He was well and truly angry. And more than a touch scared.

What had he ever done to make Wendy hate him? Again, his thoughts turned back. He showed her his world! He made her a Lost Boy! He saved her from Hook!

Hook. She was with Hook at this very moment. And yet, Peter was able to return home. He’d promised he would not return home until all of Neverland’s children were okay.

If the star hadn’t winked out this time – did that mean that Wendy was okay?

“How?” he asked out loud. He shot through the other end of the cloud, water vapor clinging to his jacket and the ends of his blonde hair. He hastily rubbed his leather sleeve across his eyes to clear them. He could feel the scowl on his face. “How can she be all right with….” He gritted his teeth and picked up his pace, feeling the same need for speed in the air that he’d often felt on the ground. “How can she possibly be okay with him!”

“What, Peter?” Tinkerbell hovered frenetically by his ear, her wings flapping so fast that they were invisible. She’d caught up with him somehow and had to raise her tiny voice in order to be heard over the wind they raised as they sped through the night sky.

Peter was vaguely impressed with her flying ability. But then, she was a pixie. Fairies were amazing creatures, in general.

He shook his head, waving her inquiry away. Tinkerbell frowned. “I don’t think he’s going to hurt her!” she yelled back at him.

Peter turned toward her and blinked. “What?”

“Hook!” Tink replied. “He isn’t going to hurt Wendy!”

Peter’s scowl was back. “How the hell do you know?”

Tinkerbell flinched at the tone of his voice. She backed up a few inches, turned away from him, and took several deep breaths.

Peter was instantly sorry for swearing at her. He’d never done that before. Not even when he’d had too much wine.

Then Tinkerbell raised her chin and squared her shoulders. She turned to face him once more. “He’s not that kind of captain, Peter!”

Peter came to a dead stop, then, all thought of apology gone from his mind.

Tootles, who had been progressively picking up speed in order to catch up with the two of them, proceeded to plough directly into Peter’s back.

Peter lurched forward a few feet, tumbled a bit in the air, and then caught himself. He straightened and whirled on Tinkerbell, ignoring Tootles.

The moon shone over Peter’s left shoulder, outlining his tall, strong form in blue-white light. “Captain James Hook is a scoundrel! A villain!” he yelled, his hands gesturing angrily as he spoke. “Hook is a pirate lord, Tink! He doesn’t care about anyone but himself! He’s evil – always has been and always will be!” He shook his head adamantly and pointed a nearly accusatory finger at the tiny pixie. “He will never change, Tinkerbell!” He backed up in the air, shaking his head once more for emphasis. “Never.”

Tinkerbell gazed open-mouthed at Peter.

He had never spoken to her like this before. What was wrong with him? What had gotten into him? He had never cursed at her. Not even when he’d banished her from Neverland for a week because she’d tricked the Lost Boys into shooting down the “Wendy Bird” had he been so angry.

This wasn’t the Peter she knew.

The night air had grown quiet around them. Tootles hovered several feet away, obviously unsure of what to do or say.

And Tinkerbell couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

There was red in Peter’s eyes. It wasn’t the too-much-pixie-dust-wine kind of red that sometimes lined and marred his emerald gaze. It was a flash of ruby and scarlet, lit by some internal fire, and she’d be damned if it didn’t look exactly like the blood-colored glow that was known to befall Hook’s own blue gaze right before he struck with the silver weapon on the end of his right arm.

As Peter hovered there in the air, safe in the abundance of pixie dust she’d sprinkled upon him on the ground, Tinkerbell took in Peter’s broad form. The black clothing. The shadow of stubble on his cheeks and chin.

Finally, she looked back into his red, glowing eyes. And as Peter turned and shot once more through the air toward that waiting, second star, Tinkerbell worriedly shook her head.

“People change, Peter,” she whispered. She hugged herself against a sudden, hard chill. And then she and Tootles flew quietly after Pan.

*****

Tiger Lily crouched silent and low behind the butter-bee bushes lining the shore of Pirate’s Cove. Out on the horizon, trapped in the pink and purple glow of a dawning sea, sat the Jolly Roger, anchored, as always, several hundred yards away in the salty water.

There was little movement on deck. Tiger Lily could tell, even from this distance, that the crew of the massive pirate ship was subdued. Every now and then, a shout rang out across the distance, but it was only a higher ranking crew member giving orders to another. Daily chores. Swabbing decks and all of that nonsense that pirates busied themselves with.

The captain had made only one appearance. He’d emerged from his quarters, given some form of instruction to his first mate, and then disappeared below decks. There’d been no further sign of him for the last ten minutes.

And there was no sign of Peter. Tiger Lily scanned the skies once more, her eagle eye searching for any indication of movement in the puffy pink-white clouds. Nothing.

“It looks like they’re preparing to come to shore.”

Tiger Lily looked up and over at Lean Wolf. He was shielding his gaze from the sun with his right hand, his eyes squinted so that he could make things out clearly across the distance between them and the pirate ship.

“They’re lowering the boats into the water.”

He was right. Tiger Lily watched as the men on board began to navigate the pulley system so that two small row boats were settled gently atop the sea. This was a development.

She straightened and moved away from the bush so that she could stand once more in the shadows. She turned to her two companions. “We’ll need to take word back to camp. Lean Wolf, you’re the fastest. Go and warn the others.”

Lean Wolf nodded. Once.

“Panther, you stay with me. We’ll keep an eye on Hook’s men and see if they know anything about where to find Peter.”

*****

Michael knocked softly on the big oak door that barred the way into the captain’s enormous cabin. He was shaking – just a little – and couldn’t believe he was actually about to step foot into the very room in which his arch nemesis slept and ate and dressed.

“Who is it?” Wendy’s voice came quietly from beyond.

“It’s me, sis.” He cleared his throat to speak a little louder. “It’s Michael.”

He expected her to say, “come in,” but instead, he heard her footsteps race quickly across the wooden planks beyond and then he moved back as she turned the knob on the door and it swung open.

“Michael,” she leaned down and hugged him as if she hadn’t seen him in ages. He blinked and hugged her back, wondering at the sudden show of emotion. And then he felt the wetness on his cheek where hers had pressed against it.

He pulled away. “You’ve been crying.”

Wendy looked up and stiffened. She stood, straightening, her eyes on something behind Michael. She hurriedly wiped at her cheeks and eyes and motioned for her brother to come into the room.

Michael glanced once over his shoulder. Billy Jukes was leaning against a wooden banister, his one good eye locked on Michael and Wendy. It glittered in the noon-day light, his expression making it clear that he’d noticed the exchange.

Suddenly self-conscious, and feeling inexplicably protective of his big sister, Michael stepped into the captain’s quarters and Wendy closed the door after him.

“What’s going on? Why were you-” Michael had meant to ask her, once more, why she had been crying, but when Wendy moved away and he was able to get a good look at his surroundings, he could do no more than stand there, in awe, and gaze at the luxuriousness of Captain James Hook’s living quarters.

“Wow. . . .”

Wendy sighed heavily. “Yes. He does seem to have a lot of things, doesn’t he.”

“Holy smokes. . . .” Michael deftly ran his hand over a gold engraved harp that rested against the nearest wall. Beside it was a violin, polished and perfect in its intricate scroll work. Michael moved down the row of instruments, his shaking fingers running over the smooth wood and carved ivory. The occasional ruby or emerald inlay winked at him in the light streaming through the cut glass windows.

“We’re going to shore, you know,” he told her as he eyed the precious belongings of the notorious pirate captain.

“Yes, Smee told me,” Wendy replied.

“They said it would take them a while to get everything ready. I asked if I could come see you since we were leaving anyway, and Captain Hook gave Jukes the order to escort me here.”

Wendy was quiet. Michael was too absorbed in what he was seeing to notice that she was too quiet.

And then, as if jolted out of his admiration by his own words, Michael shook his head, dug his fingers into the front pocket of his jeans, and pulled out a folded scrap of paper. “I saved this when mom and dad were taking all of your stories and giving them to Dr. Coffer.”

Wendy took the paper from him and unfolded it. Her own handwriting covered every inch of the sheet, from edge to edge. It was one of his favorite bits from one of her best stories. He’d managed to swipe it just before their father had ripped through her room, a tornado of unfantasy, seizing and destroying the realms that Wendy had so carefully built up over the years.

He watched her reading the words now, a tiny smile playing about her pink lips. And he didn’t fail to notice when her eyes became shiny once more.

“Oh Michael,” she whispered. “Will we ever be able to go home again?”

Michael was not an ordinary ten year old. And so, when she asked if they would ever be able to go home again, he knew she didn’t mean it literally. He knew that what she actually meant was, “How will we ever face that again? How will we ever be able to live in that world when it refuses to believe in this one?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.” And he didn’t know if he even wanted to, anyway. It was better here. He was tired of cleaning out the gun deck, but at least here, no one beat him up. Hook wouldn’t let his men lay a finger on him, in fact. It was strange, but even amidst his worst enemies in Neverland, he was safer than he was among his peers in the “real” world.

Wendy finished reading the paper and refolded it. “That was one of my favorites, you know.”

“Mine too,” he told her.

She handed the sheet back to him and he repocketed it. “I have a few as well,” she told him as she dug into her own jeans pocket and pulled out the papers she’d swiped from Dr. Coffer’s table during their last session. “It was the story I wrote for you the day he gave me those pills.”

“You said you didn’t have time to write,” Michael frowned.

“I know I did.” She shook her head and ran a hand through her long hair. “I’m sorry, Michael. I fibbed to you because – ” She sighed heavily. “Because Mrs. Pence took the story from me and turned it over to Dr. Coffer before I went to meet him for our appointment that afternoon.” She pinched the bridge of her nose with a slim thumb and forefinger. “It didn’t go well. At all.” She shook her head again and lowered her hand. “And I was afraid that after the way that appointment went, if I so much as read you another word of my stories, you would get into as much trouble as I was in.” She turned from him and made her way to Hook’s bed, where she sank down onto it and stared at the floor.

“Again, I’m sorry Michael.”

Michael watched her carefully. He was hurt that she had lied to him. But, as he was, once again, not like other boys his age, instead of becoming angry, he began to try to see things through her eyes. It was something he did when things didn’t go the way he expected them to. It helped him understand the situation – and that ultimately made him feel better.

So he stood there and started to hear things through Wendy’s ears, the way she would have heard them that day. Then he felt them through her skin. And what he saw and heard and felt scared him. Teachers taking things from him, doctors shooting him dark-eyed looks, classmates snickering behind their books at their desks and in the halls. She had been terrified for Michael – and for herself.

And seeing and hearing and feeling all of this, Michael couldn’t really blame her for what she did.

Which meant he couldn’t really be angry.

Instead, he shoved his hands into his pockets and chewed on his cheek. Then he asked, “Can you read some of it to me now?”

Wendy’s head snapped up. Her gray eyes were wide with surprise and confusion. She stared at him for several long moments and he shrugged. Then she straightened and unfolded the sheets of paper in her hand.

When she cleared her throat and patted the space beside her on the bed, he couldn’t help but smile. He ran to the bed and jumped onto it without any further provocation.

Wendy’s smile was back. She slid her arm around his shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Just a little bit, okay? We’ll probably have to go soon.” Then she turned her attention to the papers and began to read….

In all of Neverland, there were only three rules one had to live by. The first was that you must never swim with the mermaids in Mermaid Lagoon. They were not to be trusted, as beautiful as they were. This was easy for the Lost Boys to remember, for Peter never failed to remind them.

The second rule was that Skull Rock was strictly off limits. For there, upon the highest peaks above its empty sockets, rested the weathered bones of the Never Bird. And some things were sacred.

The third rule, and the only rule which the boys really paid any true attention to day in and day out, was that a Lost Boy must always – always – have fun. 

This was normally quite easy for Tootles, who was the sort of boy who could find something to admire in nearly everything. Even the pirates, with their cold, calculating Captain, could be a good thing. After all, if they were not there, then who would Peter Pan, the fearless leader of the Lost Boys, cross swords with and best in battle?

However. Tootles, despite his size, was, in truth, rather slight of heart when it came to a few specific things.

Thunder storms, with their flashes of hot white and their roaring and rumbling and shaking, were something that had always frightened Tootles. He did not understand them. Even here, in Neverland, where there was no orphanage to rattle around him, and no cold to make him shiver, there were still storms. And he still didn’t like them.

Peter liked them. The other Lost Boys liked them as well, if only because Peter did. They made a game of chasing the lightning and following the thunder and trying to find the monster that bellowed such sounds and breathed such white fire.

After all, a Lost Boy was to have fun, even in the rain.

But Tootles did not enjoy playing in the storm. He was usually successful in making up some excuse to refrain from joining the others in this wet and terrifying revelry. Playing in a storm, he knew, deep down in his heart, was dangerous.

And flying in a storm was even worse. . . .

Chapter Sixteen

Tootles cringed when he saw the massive anvil cloud looming up ahead. He knew they were nearing Neverland. It was a sensation in his bones that he figured would never go away, and it signaled the presence of the magic that made up the land. It hummed through his body and sang through his bloodstream.

And in between him and that place where he had been a Lost Boy for so long was – the storm.

He’d never liked them. They had been rare in Neverland, though, only arising, really, when Peter was in some sort of dark mood. Hook was the only one who could put him in such a dark mood. A storm usually meant that there would be a battle before long. . . .

And here was another one, just as they were coming up on Neverland.

Was it Peter causing those clouds to gather and darken? Tootles wouldn’t be surprised.

And, as stubborn as ever, Peter had shot straight into the thunder head, as if he was not at all afraid and maybe even wanted to face a foe as invincible and terrifying as lightning. As nature.

Tootles shook his head and clenched his teeth. Of course, Tinkerbell was headed straight for it as well. She would follow Peter Pan anywhere.

“Well, not me,” he hissed into the wind. “Not this time.” He would follow Peter and he would help save Wendy and her brothers from Hook. But he wasn’t going through the eye of the storm. He would damn well go over it.


Thunder rolled in the distance and Wendy stopped reading. She and Michael looked up at the ceiling of the captain’s quarters. The sound rolled overhead and in the other direction until it was gone.

“A storm is coming,” Michael whispered. A sudden gentle but telling list of the ship to one side had Wendy agreeing.

“You’re right. That means the trip ashore will have to wait.”

They fell silent for a moment and then Michael stood. “They’re probably. . . battening down hatches and whatever else it is they do on ships before a storm.”

Wendy smiled at that. She watched her younger brother as he moved around the cabin, once more entranced by the plethora of priceless odds and ends that decorated Hook’s lavish quarters.

He stopped beside a row of instruments and gently fingered the steel strings of a violin. “Can he play all of these? I mean -” He stopped and turned toward her, wiggling the fingers of his right hand. “Without the, you know. . . .”

Wendy shrugged. “I don’t know. But he used to be able to. Smee suggested he could still play a few.” With that, she lowered her head and refolded her papers, stuffing them back into her pocket. Then she stared at the floor, remembering everything Smee had told her about Hook and his lost hand.

That was why she had been crying. She couldn’t believe what Peter had done. She couldn’t come to grips with that side of him. With a side of Peter that she never would have imagined existed. And she’d been writing about him all this time. Had she ever really known him at all?

Hook was the character in her stories that was bent on revenge. Full of hate. All this time, she’d been writing him that way – and she hadn’t really even known why.

Until now.

She knew a thing or two about human nature. It was impossible to be a teenager in the real world and not be a study to those lessons, willing or not. And the thing about hate is that it can’t survive on evil, which provides no calories, no energy, and nutritionally speaking, is an empty substance.

Hence, when one is consumed by hate, everything within them is eaten except for the evil that resides at the back, crouched down and hidden beneath the unused and dusty psyches in a dark corner of their being. It’s all that’s left, and without competition, it becomes a monopoly; finally unharassed and right at home, alone, in the sloughing shroud of skin that once housed a kaleidoscope of humanity.

Wendy knew now that when Peter had taken Hook’s hand, he’d unwittingly given Hook a very real reason to hate him.

Could the captain really be blamed if there was nothing left in him now but the evil that spangled his ocean-colored eyes and made that sterling hook flash the way it did in the light? After all, everything else within him had been cannibalized by the wanton recklessness of a little boy named Peter Pan – along with the calloused palm and nimble fingers that once graced the end of Hook’s right arm.

“Wendy?” Wendy jumped and looked up. She’d been lost in her dark thoughts. Now Michael was moving toward her, concern etching his young features. But as he stepped away from the wall, his leg brushed the silver carved handle of one of the cabinets that lined Hook’s cabin. The door rattled and then popped open, its contents spilling noisily onto the floor.

Wendy jumped up from the bed and Michael crouched low, both of them gazing in wonder at what appeared to be a virtual treasure trove of expensive but destroyed articles. They seemed new, but were torn and tattered, broken and bent; remnants of items that had been viciously and, apparently, violently dismantled.

“What in the world. . . ” Michael whispered. Wendy quickly crossed the room to join him.

A collection of calligraphy pens had been snapped in half. A glass jar filled with buttons had tipped and spilled over. Michael could see that their threads were still wrapped in the button holes, as if they’d been ripped completely off of the fabric they were sewn onto.

What appeared to be a set of steak knives had been bent horribly and thrown into the cabinet. Beside them where they now lay on the floor, were a similarly bent shaving razor, a dismantled pistol and it’s metal and splintered wooden parts, several amulets and leather-corded medallions, and a leather-bound journal.

Wendy lifted the journal with trembling fingers. She turned it over gingerly in her hands. A few pages had come loose inside and now rested between their sister pages at odd angles, held in place by the leather tie that bound the journal, and nothing more.

“What is all of this stuff?” Michael asked as he lifted a medallion and turned it in a shaft of sunlight. It sparkled and gleamed, reflecting blue and green light through the emeralds and sapphires embedded within.

It was a moment before Wendy replied. But when she did, it was with a tone so soft and so poignant that Michael found himself replacing the medallion and turning toward his sister.

“It’s all of the stuff that Hook couldn’t use when Peter cut off his hand.”

Wendy gestured to the buttons. “When was the last time you were able to button a shirt with one hand?” Then she pointed to the pens and the journal in her hand. “And he was probably right handed. It’s nearly impossible to write in a journal like this with your left hand. The seam of the book fights with you.” She set the journal back down and began gingerly replacing the fallen items in the cabinet. “I should know. I tried once.”

“Well, he has pens on his desk now.” Michael ventured. “And he carries a pistol.”

Wendy nodded, slowly. “It’s been years since it happened, Michael. He’s had time to adjust.” She paused. When she spoke again, her tone had lowered a tad. “He probably did all of this right after it happened.”

There was a knock on the door.

Both Michael and Wendy jumped at the sound – then glanced at one another with stark fear. Somehow, they didn’t think that Captain James Hook would appreciate their snooping.

“Wendy, are you all right?” It was Hook.

Wendy’s eyes widened and she and Michael hurried to put the remaining broken items back into the cabinet. She struggled to get it shut as she replied, “I’m fine! Thank you!”

“I heard a noise,” came Hook’s slight inquisition.

“I dropped something, that’s all,” Wendy lied. Michael knew that Wendy hated lying. She was horrible at it and it made her feel terrible. So she didn’t generally do it.

Which was probably why Hook didn’t believe her.

The gold handle turned on the door. It opened just as Wendy was managing to shut the cabinet tight. She and Michael straightened to standing positions as Hook appeared in the doorway.

Captain Hook stepped over the threshold and turned his piercing blue gaze on Wendy and her brother. Michael could feel himself grow smaller in the pirate captain’s presence.

Still – he did his best to prepare himself for a fight. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt his sister. And, if he could handle the boys at school, he could handle Hook.

Right?

However, the captain did not appear to be looking for a fight. Michael noticed that his blue eyes lingered on his sister’s face – and then dropped to the cabinet she stood in front of. A single red and gold button had gone unnoticed and glinted, guiltily, beside Wendy’s right shoe.

Michael’s eyes widened. His sister saw it too; she began biting her lip.

Hook took a deep breath and seemed to contemplate something for a moment. Michael swallowed hard. Surely Hook knew what they’d been up to now.

“Mr. Darling, return to the deck, please. My men need help preparing for the storm. Your brother is already there; you can assist him.”

Michael didn’t want to leave Wendy. He could sense the tension in the air. He may be a young boy, but he was no stranger to antagonism; his classmates at school had given him many lessons on the subject.

But as he looked from Wendy to Hook and was caught in a stormy sea gaze so intense, it caused his heartrate to double, his decision was made for him.

“Aye, Sir,” he told the captain. For, he’d been made an honorary pirate, of sorts, hadn’t he? And rules were rules. Especially on the sea.

Michael turned toward the open door and brushed past Hook on his way out. As he did, he prayed Wendy would forgive him for deserting her.

*****

When Michael was gone, James Hook closed the door behind him. He knew that Wendy had seen the cupboard with the. . . discarded items. They were remnants of a moment in time he would have given anything to forget. He wasn’t certain how to feel about Wendy witnessing any part of that moment. It was useless to hope that she wouldn’t put two and two together and realize that, when Pan had taken his hand, he had taken so much more of him than flesh and bone. Wendy was a very bright young woman.

Hook peered into her gray eyes and considered his next words very carefully. In the end, he decided to let the matter drop. He possessed, at the moment, neither the courage nor the frame of mind to breach that particular subject with Wendy Darling.

“I was informed, moments ago,” he said, slowly, as he turned and made his way to the table at the opposite end of his cabin. “That you were. . . .” He glanced at her over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “That you were in some distress.” He turned back, pulled a decanter of liquid from a shelf above the table, and popped the cork out with his left thumb. It was in a voice barely above a whisper that he then asked, “Are you all right, Wendy?”

He hadn’t turned to look at her yet, but he could fairly feel her sudden alarm as he poured himself a glass of very fine rum. Billy Jukes had informed Smee that she was crying in his cabin. And Smee, of course, had dutifully come to his captain with the news.

Most likely, she hadn’t wanted him to know about whatever it was that had her upset. But James Hook very much did want to know what had upset her. And he intended to find out.

It took her a good while to reply, but he waited patiently, his back to her, and sipped at the rum in his crystal goblet. It helped a little when it came to dealing with Wendy. She had an uncanny and increasingly alarming tendency to set his nerves on edge when he was around her. It was the way she bit her lip. Or, perhaps, the way the sun caught the highlights in her hair. Or the new depth to her gaze that had not been there five years

ago. . . .

“It was nothing,” she finally replied. Hook almost laughed, but managed to hold it in. He did however allow himself a small smile. He’d expected her to say those exact three words.

“I’m fine now,” she added.

Hook turned slowly and pinned her with a searching gaze. “Are you?” He noticed, with some amusement, that she had picked up the button from the floor beside her. He wondered where it was – in her pocket?

He remembered that particular button.

It had been ripped from his red brocade coat. The one he’d worn as he’d fought Peter Pan on that fateful night. . . . In fact, it was the first thing Hook had destroyed after the battle. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be the last.

Wendy nodded and clasped her hands in front of her. Her knuckles were turning white where she intertwined her fingers. She was very nervous. At that moment, James would have given anything for a glimpse at the thoughts most likely spinning in her head.

“I really am fine,” she insisted, adding a quick nod for emphasis. “Any sign of Peter?”

Hook watched her for a moment, not certain that he was willing to let the subject drop just yet. He had always been a curious individual. And when it came to Wendy Darling, whom he would bet his good hand was somehow connected to Neverland, just as Peter Pan was, his curiosity was much more than piqued.

She stood there stubbornly, however, and waited for him to address the new issue.

“No,” he replied, simply.

“I gather that our trip ashore has been postponed?”

He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “The leave would take most of the day, hence there is not enough time to make the trip and return before the storm sets in.” He paused and glanced toward the windows, where lightning flashed, followed by a quick peal of thunder that boomed at first and then faded into the distance.

“Storms in Neverland are sporadic. And unpredictable. There’s no telling how bad this one will be or how long it will last.” There had also been no warning as to its arrival. Hook was frustrated; in his world, the world he’d been torn from centuries ago, he’d been able to read the skies with apt proficiency. It was a skill lost on Neverland.

Neverland was erratic, capricious, and arbitrary. Somewhat like its favorite little

boy.

“Hook,” Wendy’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. A small part of him flinched at the sound of his last name on her lips. It was strange and unexpected to think it – but he would have paid dearly to hear her speak his first name instead.

“Yes, Wendy?” he asked softly as he brought the goblet to his lips once more. He watched her over the rim of his glass as she struggled with her next words.

Finally, she seemed to square her shoulders and she looked him dead in the eye. “What are you going to do with me?”

The directness of the question took him by surprise. A voice in his head whispered, keep you forever. . . .

But he ignored it, set down his goblet, and pinned her with a gaze that he knew through experience was difficult to argue with. “I haven’t decided as of yet,” he told her, firmly. “However, I’ve little doubt that the answer will make itself known soon.”

Lightning flashed at every window and thunder followed immediately on its heels, thrumming through the room like a shockwave. Wendy jumped and hugged herself. Hook straightened and watched the windows warily.

Normally a storm meant that Peter Pan was in a foul mood.

However, Peter was not in Neverland at the moment. If he was, surely he would have attempted to rescue Wendy and her brothers by now.

He wondered, therefore, what was causing the storm. And what it meant.

At that, he glanced back at Wendy and narrowed his gaze thoughtfully. “Do you still tell stories, Miss Darling?” How easy it was for him to slip back into the roll created for him. He would have marveled at it if it hadn’t been for the way Wendy’s sparkling eyes captivated him so.

She swallowed hard and then nodded. “Yes. When I can.”

“When you can?” he questioned, raising a brow.

“In my world. . . .” She paused, looking at the floor. Then she shook her head and shrugged. “They want me to stop. They don’t believe in you –” she waved her arms around them, “in any of this, and they say my stories are dangerous.”

Lightning flashed again, thunder rocking the cabin. Wendy gasped at the sound and Hook frowned. Above them, they could hear the men yelling to one another.

“I must go above. Remain here.”

“My brothers!” Wendy shouted, bringing him to a quick stop as he reached the door of his cabin. He turned to face her.

“Please, I need to know they’ll be okay during the storm. May I join them?”

Hook’s grip tightened on the door. There was no way he would allow Wendy to go below securely battened hatches with his men. She would remain here with him.

“The storm has little wind, Wendy. If it were going to be worse than I believe it will be, I would either insist that we brave the waves and go ashore to leave the ship or raise the anchor and attempt to sail away from it,” he explained. So far, it was the truth. The storm was loud with thunder, but the ship was not listing or pitching as it would in hurricane winds. “Your brothers will be fine below deck with my crew. You will remain here in my cabin.” He tried to urge some gentleness into his tone. “It’s where you’re safest.”

With that, he opened the door and left the room, shutting it once more behind him.

Chapter Seventeen

Outside, the gathering wind played with his hair, sending it flying about him in wild locks of raven black. He stood there, on the threshold of his quarters, and fingered the small gold key around his neck.

Then, before he could change his mind, he lifted the key off and locked the door. When he was finished, he lowered the gold chain over his shoulders once more and tucked it beneath his black undershirt. Then he lifted his face to the darkening skies.

He might be wrong about the storm. The clouds were roiling overhead, deepening and growing taller. There was a chill in the air around him. Someone called to him from the shrouds on the foredeck. He glanced in their direction. Then he stepped away from the door, wondering if he’d made the right choice.

*****

Wendy stared, wide-eyed, at the door that Hook had just locked.

He locked it! He locked me in! Her mind screamed the accusation. She could die in that cabin! She was no fool! In storms, ships were unstable – anything not locked down and securely fastened in place could fly around the quarters and knock people unconscious or kill them outright. The ship could go down, in fact, and she would be there, locked in the cabin, to go down with it!

On impulse, she rushed forward and tried the handle. It was latched tight and wouldn’t budge. She made a frustrated sound that was drowned out by the next flash of electric light and peal of thunder. The ship rocked slowly to one side and real fear began to set in. She thought of her brothers – little Michael. Would Hook make certain the child was somewhere safe?

The noises above were beginning to wane. The footfalls became fewer and far between. A few pirates shouted to one another and she could easily discern Hook’s booming voice above them all as he bellowed orders to his crew. She listened and made out a few terms. . . mizzen. . . brail. . . cables. . . .

She could hear the hatches slamming shut and wooden bars being slid into place. The wind knocked grappling hooks and other metal things into the wood of the ship. It sounded like drums before a funeral.

And then one series of knocking sounded louder than the others. More persistent and urgent. Wendy frowned and turned in the cabin, facing the windows.

There at the glass was Peter, dressed in black, framed by a darkening, antagonized sky. His green eyes flashed in the next strike of lightning. He caught her gaze and pressed one hand to the glass, motioning for her to come over.

Wendy rushed to the window and fought with the latch. After a few tries, the thick steel bolt slid open and Peter ripped the window open.

“Hurry!” he hissed, glancing nervously toward the door to the cabin behind her. “We don’t have much time!”

Wendy was more than surprised to see him and there were a thousand questions she wanted to ask him, but first from her lips was, “Peter! Are you okay? What happened to you?” She tried to keep her voice low, but excitement crept in around the edges and she could barely contain it.

“I’m fine!” he whispered loudly, a frustrated note to his tone. “Please, Wendy! Come through the window!”

She moved forward, but then hesitated. “No!” she told him, with a shake of her head. “Peter, I can’t! My brothers are down below; I can’t leave them!”

“Forget them, Wendy! Hook won’t hurt them! Now come on!” He reached his hand through the open window and grabbed her by her upper arm, pulling her toward him. Wendy caught herself just as she would have run into the stained glass that lined the window on either side. Then she pulled back, jerking her arm out of his grasp.

“No, Peter!” She’d given Hook her word. I promised I wouldn’t escape, she thought frantically. And, thus far, Hook had kept his part of the bargain. Shouldn’t she keep hers? If she left, what would the pirate captain do to Michael and John? “I can’t leave!”

“The storm, Wendy!” He growled at her, motioning to the turmoil around them. “You can’t stay here; it’s too dangerous!”

As she stepped back from the window, something red flared in the emerald depths of Peter’s eyes. Wendy gasped and blinked.

And then Peter was sailing through the window to land on the wooden planks in front of her. Lightning flashed – and then flashed again. Thunder rocked the cabin. Something on Hook’s writing desk rattled ominously. Peter glanced in that direction and then settled his strange green gaze on Wendy once more.

“I’m not going to argue with you, Wendy,” he told her, his tone low. “I’ve spent time on a ship in a storm; believe me it isn’t fun.” He shook his head, once. “I’m not leaving you here.” He took several steps toward her, but she hurriedly stepped back.

“And I’m not going with you, Peter,” Wendy asserted in a tone just as low and determined. “I made a promise and I intend to keep it.”

It was probably one of the most idiotic things she had ever done. If she’d had a lick of sense, surely she would have taken his hand and left the ship then and there. But she’d given Hook her word, and as the captain had said – a promise meant something. Especially to a pirate.

She also couldn’t leave her brothers behind. Not now.

Peter stood before her, a tall figure in mist-drenched black, his blonde hair dampened and darkened by the gathering storm. And Wendy suddenly felt a little shorter. That strange redness flashed in his eyes again. She wondered if she were imagining it. It reminded her of someone else. . . .

Peter said nothing for what seemed like an eternity. He just stood there, his jaw set, his eyes sparking green and, sometimes, red. Wendy felt her resolve melting ever so slowly away. What would Peter do next?

And then there was a noise at the door.

Wendy whirled around to face it. When she did, she felt Peter’s arms wrap around her, quick and strong. Her own arms were trapped at her sides. His hand slid over her mouth to prevent the sounding of the scream that was already bubbling up inside of her.

Before she could think to react in any intelligent or useful manner, Peter was lifting her off of her feet and sailing with her toward the open window. There was a hard shattering of glass as Peter used his leather-encased elbow to knock out the side panels, giving the two of them enough room to glide through.

And then they were in the air and the wind was whipping around them, chaotic and cold. Wendy let loose with the scream that had been building, but it was effectively muffled by Peter’s hand. She had no pixie dust. There was nothing to catch her if she fell this time. The ship that sailed further and further below sported an empty deck. The sea around it churned angrily. The clouds whirled and rolled and spun overhead and the world was dizzying as it both sped away beneath her and loomed ever closer above.

Wendy shut her eyes tight and, with every conscious fiber of her being, she willed Peter not to drop her.

*****

Hook slid the key into the door of his cabin just as the sound of shattering glass greeted him from beyond. He shoved the door open and stormed into the room.

Wendy was gone.

Wind whipped at his hair and scattered the papers and maps on his desk on the other side of the room. The lanterns swung hectically on their chains, their flames extinguished long ago. The cabin loomed around him, empty and foreboding.

Anger flooded his system as it never had.

He felt betrayed in that moment. And the pain it caused in his heart was worse than any he had ever known. It was worse, in fact, than the pain that Pan had dealt to him on that cursed night so many hundreds of years ago.

Hook stood at the center of his whirlwind of a cabin, unmoving and uncaring of the cold and the rain that battered his tall form. He gazed at the open, ruined window and thought of Wendy’s promise.

She lied.

It was the worst thing a pirate could do to another pirate. Break a promise – go back on her word.

But Wendy wasn’t a pirate, was she? He didn’t know why he’d thought of her in that way. How could he have expected her to remain here, with him, on this dangerously listing ship when she could flee to safety with –

Peter Pan.

So be it, he thought, his blue gaze hardening into ice. He knew where they would go. The only truly safe harbor in a storm.

And he would meet them there.

*****

“Tiger Lily, look!” Great Big Little Panther stood and pointed to the two figures moving away from the pirate ship out on the storm-wrought cove. “It’s Peter! He’s carrying someone!”

Tiger Lily frowned and shook her head. The wind blew sheets of rain into her eyes and she wiped them away, thanking her luck that she’d braided her hair before heading out earlier, or it would be whipping into her eyes as well.

“No!” She shook her head. “That’s not Peter!” The boy they watched was too big. And he wasn’t dressed as Peter dressed.

But he was flying. And only Peter and the Lost Boys flew. She narrowed her gaze and tried harder to make them out.

“They’re headed toward Never Bird Mountain!” she yelled, as the flying figures shrank until they were swallowed by the dark, looming form of blue and black that marked the spire-like mountain that shadowed what the Lost Boys called Skull Rock and the ancient bones of the Never Bird that rested upon it.

“It’s safe ground!” Panther shouted, trying to be heard over a sudden gust of wind that whipped rain water into his face and mouth. He gave up on saying anything further and, instead, used hand signals to speak to his princess.

Tiger Lily read the signals and signaled back with her own hands.

Panther nodded. They would head to Skull Rock. But, first, they would make a stop in Pixie Forest. It never hurt to have fairies backing you up from behind.

Chapter Eighteen

When Peter finally let her go, it was to set her down, none too gently, on a rocky outcropping within the dark cavernous ruins inside of Skull Rock. She caught her balance on the slippery surface and then straightened and took the opportunity to catch her breath. She looked around the haunting cavern as Peter landed, graceful as ever, on a rock a few yards away.

She watched him cross his arms over his chest as he waited for her to become accustomed to her surroundings. He, on the other hand, seemed to fit right in here, in this place as pitch as night. It was as if he had never left. Except that now, he was not the sprightly youth he once was, wrapped in clothes of leaves and vines, his hair mussed with salt spray, his face tan from playing in the sun.

Now, his handsome face was pale as cold stone. It seemed drawn in the coming storm and the wake of his emotions, making him appear nearly ethereal in this otherworldly darkness.

She tore her eyes from his and looked around, if for no other reason than to break herself free from his powerful gaze.

She remembered this cave quite well. It was forever lit by torches that lined the walls and never seemed to burn out – even if doused. Their fire light reflected on the black water below, casting an eerie, dream-like pall over everything in the cavern.

Peter and Hook had fought here five years ago. Hook had lost – after a battle of what seemed like epic proportions – and had fallen into the bottomless waters at the cavern’s center. While most sailors never bothered to learn to swim because they felt it would only prolong a death at sea, the captain of the Jolly Roger, by way of the exception that made the rule, was an excellent swimmer.

He’d survived and they’d all met on the deck of the Jolly Roger for yet another battle the very next day.

And now. . . . Now the cave seemed a hollow ghost of the battleground it once was. The fires still burned. But, even so, the vast stone cavern seemed constructed of echoes, the way memories are – and shadows of things that once were.

Peter stood still on the stone opposite her and peered at her through flashing, piercing green eyes. “So what was it, then?” he asked her, his voice echoing in the cave exactly the way she remembered that it did.

Wendy cocked her head to one side and glared at him through narrowed eyes. “What was what?” she asked him. She wished that he was closer so that she could use some of the martial arts training she had learned over the last five years and deck him for taking her on an unwilling flying trip once more.

“What was it Hook offered in exchange for your promise not to leave the Jolly Roger?” He smiled a wry, mean smile and shook his head. “I suppose he made you an honorary pirate?” There was a hard edge to his tone, which was one of frank disgust.

“As a matter of fact, that was the promise he made to my brothers. That,” she clarified, with a sharp lifting of her chin, “and sanctuary. He gave us food and drink and shelter and promised that no harm would come to any of us.”

At that, Peter threw back his head and laughed. The sound echoed harshly off of the walls, ricocheting through the shadows like the laugh of a demon.

“And you believed him.” He lowered his head and gazed at her through the tops of his now green-orange glowing eyes. “A pirate.” He spat the word. “What is that worth, exactly? The word of a pirate.”

“Quite a lot actually,” Wendy found herself answering. They were the same words that Hook had spoken to her several days ago, when she’d first fallen onto the deck of the Jolly Roger.

And now she found that she really did believe those words. For no harm had come to her or her brothers. In fact. . . . Hook had been nothing but a gentleman to her.

“He’s treated me better than you have, Peter,” she whispered, lowering her gaze to look away from him and into the dark, reflective water. Outside, lightning split the sky and thunder rolled in to hammer against the walls of the cavern.

At the entrance of the cave, a particularly high wave crashed with more force than the others had. The tide was rising and the wind was becoming dangerous. It whipped through the cavern, causing the flames to dance maniacally on the ends of their torches.

But Peter’s thoughts must not have been on the storm. Because he flew off of the rock he’d been standing on and once more picked Wendy up, carrying her up to the very same landing that they’d stood on five years ago, when he’d first rescued Tiger Lily from Hook’s men and Wendy had judiciously untied her.

It was higher than the other rock and safer from the rising tide.

Again, Peter dropped her, and this time, she fell to the ground with a painful thump, landing on her back. Peter followed her down until he was kneeling over her, his hands braced on the ground at either side of her head.

“So, the good Captain turned on the charm for you, did he?” he hissed, his face hovering just inches above her own. “I seem to recall that you’re rather good at falling for that act of his, aren’t you, Wendy?” He pushed himself up and away from her and stood. Then he put his hand under his chin and pretended to be thinking. “Now let me see if I can remember what happened the last time he convinced you he was more than a blood-thirsty bandit. . . .” He dropped his hand in mock surprise. “Oh yes! I know now! He tricked you into leading him straight to our hideout, where he ambushed us and nearly killed us all!”

Wendy’s vision turned slightly red. “That’s it!” She brought her legs underneath her and shoved herself up. Peter backpedaled as she quickly rose and turned to face him head-on. “You spoiled, narrow-minded, immature, obnoxious, little boy!” She felt her hands curling into fists at her sides and wondered how much longer she could hold off before using them.

*****

A hundred feet away, in the sheltering shadow of a few large, black boulders, Princess Tiger Lily and her large companion watched the goings-on with mounting concern.

“You’re right,” Tiger Lily whispered with a shake of her head. “It is Peter.” She frowned. “But he’s changed so much. . . ..”

“He’s grown,” whispered Great Big Little Panther. His eyes were as large as his name; he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “He promised he would never grow up.”

“What do you think they’re saying?” Tiger Lily asked. She didn’t understand English – had never learned it. She hadn’t needed to because Peter always spoke her tribe’s language when they needed to communicate.

“I don’t know, but that’s Wendy,” Panther replied, his eyes widening even further as he realized that the young woman Peter was arguing with was none other than a grown-up version of the twelve-year-old girl that had visited Neverland five years ago.

“By the spirit of the Never Bird!” Tiger Lily quietly exclaimed. “You’re right again!” It was the Wendy Bird, the one who had been shot down by the Lost Boys five years ago. Wendy was the first and only girl Lost Boy Peter had ever brought to Neverland.

And she too had grown.

A tiny chiming sound distracted Tiger Lily and she pulled away from the rock to look behind her. The pixie lookout was waiting down below, hiding out of sight so that his shimmering light could not be detected by anyone. Three more pixies waited outside, ready for the signal that their help was needed.

The look-out fairy was waving at Tiger Lily now. She squinted at him, trying to make out his hand signals.

Then her eyes widened, just like Panther’s. “It’s Hook,” she said. “He’s here.”

*****

Tinkerbell hovered, unseen, in the eye socket of the ancient, massive boulder known as Skull Rock. Down below, in the orange glow cast by the two-dozen torches that lined the interior of massive stone, Peter and Wendy were fighting. She could hear the entire exchange, despite the mounting gale, and dearly wished to stay out of that particular fray. But, beside her, Tootles looked more than a touch troubled.

“Wow, they’re really going at it,” he said, trying not to holler, but obviously feeling it was necessary in order to be heard over the wind and splattering rain. Lightning crashed somewhere nearby and Tootles jumped and then crouched lower behind his rocks. He’d always been terrified of storms. He didn’t think Tink knew that, of course, but she was a fairy. Not an idiot.

He’d always made up excuses in order to stay behind when the Lost Boys went to play in the rain. And sometimes, when she felt like it, she even helped him along a little.

Today, however, she didn’t feel like helping him at all.

“Buck up, Tootles!” she hissed at him. “It’s just a little rain!”

Thunder slammed into Skull Rock like a tangible force, shaking the rocks and crumbling walls around them.

Long, long ago, in a time that none of them remembered, Skull Rock had been used by someone as a castle keep. However, for as long as there had been so much as fairies to flit about the island, the rock had been deserted, and its internal castle walls were as old and crumbling as its long-dead cause.

Now those walls shook with brute force and pieces of the black rock broke off to crumble to the ground and water below.

Tootles shot Tinkerbell a starkly dirty look and Tink had the decency to look slightly guilty. But then she covered it up, shrugged, and pointed to something beyond Peter and Wendy – something hiding behind the rocky outcroppings on the other side of the cavern below.

“Who is that?” Tootles squinted and shielded his eyes from the rain, attempting to make out the two forms that were crouched and partially hidden in the shadows of the Skull’s mouth.

“It’s Princess Tiger Lily and Great Big Little Panther,” Tinkerbell told him, matter-of-factly. “I think they’re here to help Peter, but they don’t recognize him.”

Tootles blinked rapidly and shook his head in wonder. “Well, no doubt! Tiger Lily hasn’t aged a day! I’m sure they expected Peter to do the same!”

“And Wendy, too,” Tink added. “Now, look –” She motioned for Tootles to raise his line of vision to something just behind Tiger Lily. There was an opening in the wall of rock there; a sliver no more than a few feet wide. But it was large enough for a child to crawl through. And certainly large enough for a fairy.

Tootles caught the very slight shimmer of such a fairy hovering at the bottom of the small crevice. “What is it doing?”

Tinkerbell turned to scowl at him. “It?”

Tootles blinked. Then he gave her an exasperated look. “Well, it’s not like I can see whether it’s a boy or girl from here, Tink!”

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t say that about a human, would you? What is it doing?” She glared at him. “No! You’d say, ‘what are they doing’!”

Tootles ran a hand over his wet head and puffed out his cheeks. “Fine!” he cried, holding up his other hand in a placating manner. “Fine, okay? What do you think the fairy is doing?”

Tink huffed and whirled back around to look. But when she didn’t answer after a few moments, it was obvious that she couldn’t tell. “I can’t see – I’m going in for a closer look.”

“Wha- wait!” Tootles reached up to stop her, but her tiny, shimmering form whizzed past him with inhuman speed and within a mere half a second, all he could make out of her was the waning sprinkle of her pixie dust trail as she soared toward the Natives and their fairy contact down below.

*****

John Darling couldn’t believe how rapidly a bad situation had gone from dire to positively hopeless. Being stuck with pirates was bad enough. And the storm was worse; it had come up out of nowhere and without warning and he didn’t much like the idea of being trapped on the water during a gale.

But then Wendy had escaped, despite her promise, leaving him and Michael behind to fend for themselves! Not that he could really blame her from wanting to be rid of Captain Hook and his band of miscreants. But did she fear and loathe them so greatly that she would sacrifice her own kin to the monsters in order to get away?

Apparently so.

And now they were out in a storm in a tiny row boat, one of three such boats in their water-logged caravan at that moment. He and Michael both had ropes around their ankles and their hands were free only because Captain Hook had given the strict order to leave them unbound in case the boat capsized.

Wonderful notion, thought John. A capsizing row boat in an angry sea, with ropes knotted around your ankles and only a vague recollection of how to swim.

“This is all Wendy’s fault,” John muttered under his breath. He truly didn’t think Michael would hear him, what with the wind howling the way it was and the waves crashing so steadily against the hull of the small boat.

But Michael was a strange little boy. And he had good hearing.

“No it isn’t.”

John turned to face his little brother. “What do you mean it isn’t? She escaped, didn’t she? And now Hook’s off on a mad rampage to kill both her and Peter in one fell swoop!”

At that, Billy Jukes, who was rowing the boat behind them, threw back his head and roared laughter into the angry sky.

Both brothers turned in their seats to look at the one-eyed pirate, Michael’s gaze narrowing angrily, John’s face blanching even more pale than it had already been.

“It isn’t her fault,” Michael insisted, then, turning back to face John once more. “Well, actually,” he seemed to reconsider, “this storm might be her fault. . . . I don’t really know –”

“What?” John cried, his expression bewildered. “What in the world are you talking about? How can she possibly be responsible for the bloody storm? It’s the one stupid thing she’s not responsible for!”

“All right you two, quit yer belly-aching back there!” Arnold the Black shot them a warning glance over his shoulder and the handsome Cecco looked up from where he sat at the prow of the small ship. He allowed a small smile to curve his lips and his eyes glittered darkly in the stormy light.

John swallowed hard. “We’re gonna die,” he whispered.

“No we’re not,” Michael whispered back, leaning in slightly so that his brother could hear him over the gaining roar of the wind. Both boys were drenched now, as were the other pirates. The wind carried the water from the sea as readily as it did the rain, and salt stung the boys’ eyes. The pirates, however, seemed to be used to it and kept their attention trained on the task at hand. Namely, rowing several small boats out to Skull Rock, where, apparently, Peter Pan and Wendy had run off together.

“You’re insane, Michael, you know that?” John said.

“Hook doesn’t want us dead! He’s gonna use us to get to Wendy. Think about it! That’s why he doesn’t want us falling overboard and drowning!”

“I said cut it, you two!” Arnold roared at them.

Jukes gave John a kick in the back to drive the point home and John lurched forward with the impact. Slowly, he straightened, his gaze shooting daggers at Michael. “Right,” he hissed lowly. “They don’t want us dead.”

Chapter Nineteen

Wendy turned her back on Peter and hugged herself tight. She needed to not see him for a few moments. Just a few precious seconds. Long enough to get her temper back under control and figure out what to do next.

Her brothers were still back on that ship and the storm was getting worse. She’d left them to an evil fate, whether the pirates killed them or not.

And it was Peter’s fault.

She gritted her teeth as Peter tried to grab her upper arm and turn her back around to face him. She yanked out of his grip. “Don’t touch me!” She didn’t want his touch. She didn’t want him near her right now.

It wasn’t just his recent act of defiance that was burning her blood to boiling. It was more than that. More than the fact that he’d brought her to Neverland in the first place. More than the fact that he’d filled her head with magic and then abandoned her for five years to parents and teachers and doctors who didn’t believe her. It was more than the strange, surreal nightmare that he’d once more kidnapped her and made things positively worse for them all.

It was that Wendy knew something about him now that she had never known before – and never would have imagined. Something awful.

“I know what you did to him,” she told him then, her back still to him, her voice miraculously carrying across the space between them due to a lull in the thunder and a brief drop in the wind.

Peter was quiet behind her. She wondered what he must be thinking, what must have been going through his mind and flashing in his weird, unfamiliar eyes.

Finally, he asked, “What are you talking about?” His tone was confused, and more than a touch accusatory.

Now she did turn to face him, and the lightning flashed as she screamed, “You cut off his hand because of his last name, Peter!” In a sudden surge of very real fury, she lunged forward and shoved him hard in the chest. Peter was knocked off balance and only caught himself from falling off of the precipice over the water because of the copious amounts of pixie dust he’d absorbed earlier that day.

“How could you be so heartless? How could you?”

Peter steadied himself on the rock and then glared at Wendy. She glared back.

“I assume you’re talking about Hook,” he spat.

“Well, who the hell else would I be talking about, Peter? Exactly how many hands have you cut off?”

“You don’t know anything!” he yelled, taking a threatening step forward. “He was trying to kill me!”

“Oh, of course he was!” Wendy yelled back. “He’s a pirate, after all! That’s his one purpose in life, right? Kill Peter Pan!”

YES!” roared Peter, his eyes beginning to glow red once more. Wendy stepped back, suddenly a little less angry and a little more afraid. “It is his one purpose in life, Wendy!” He smiled a nasty smile, the ruby fire in his eyes darkening to blood. “Unfortunately for Hook, he’s a failure and always will be!” He closed the distance between them and Wendy gasped, feeling the ledge of the precipice under the heel of her shoe. “Hook will never beat me! Never!

Never is an exceedingly long time, Pan.”

Wendy gasped again and Peter looked up and over her shoulder. She spun around to see Captain Hook and four members of his pirate crew stepping off of a row boat that had just pulled up alongside an old stone plank. The wind and rain had drenched the pirates and turned their faces cold. Hook looked like a phantom, pale and blue eyed, in the sable finery of a man bent on revenge in the dead of night.

Hook’s stark, cobalt gaze sparked with untold emotion as he came to stand on the platform and slowly lowered his left hand over the hilt of his sword.

Peter needed no further urging. Wendy tried to stop him. She felt disaster edging ever closer and wanted, desperately, to prevent it. “No! Peter!”

But Peter was too far gone, too angry, too torn by something inside of him. She recognized that anger, saw it in the fire that flashed in his green eyes, knew all too well the kind of pain that brought it on.

And so he leapt off of the stony outcropping and rushed the infamous pirate captain with a speed and fury that the younger Peter Pan had never known.

The two men in black met once more in battle, the first angry touch of their swords ringing out in the cavern like the lightning that crashed all around them and the thunder that caused the walls to shake and the waves that battered the ancient stones to rubble.

The other pirates were mobile immediately. Gentleman Starkey headed up the rocky crag toward Wendy, as did Smee, one pirate on either side of her. Wendy had no where to go and no dust to help her fly away. And she wasn’t at all certain of their intentions now that she’d unwittingly gone against her word and escaped the Jolly Roger.

So, she backed up against the wall and frantically searched for any sign of hope. Beyond the battling duo, two more boats navigated into the cavern from the choppy waters of the sea. Michael and John were in the middle boat, and both were bound at the ankles.

But several sudden streams of yellow, shimmering light brooked through the cavern, reflecting off of the dark water below, and Wendy looked up.

Pixies!

One of them broke off from the others, reminding Wendy of a Blue Angel, pulling away from formation to fly elsewhere. That fairy winged straight for Wendy and her eyes widened with new optimism.

“Tink!” she cried when the pixie was close enough to recognize. Tinkerbell waved hurriedly and drew closer, gathering her own pixie dust in her hands as if to share it with Wendy.

“Get the pixie!” Starkey yelled at Smee, who happened to have chosen the easier route up the rock face and was closer to Wendy. Smee clumsily reached out as Tinkerbell rushed by him, but was unsuccessful in doing anything but knocking himself off balance. Down below, the doctor of the Jolly Roger, Murphy, cringed as Smee slid a good foot or two down the slippery cliff, dislodging a dozen black pebbles that skitted to the water.

Tinkerbell swooped down toward Wendy and threw two handfulls of pixie dust in her general direction.

Tink managed to get a tiny amount in Wendy’s face before Starkey was suddenly there, his hands much faster than Smee’s, and his grip devilishly tight.

He quickly grabbed the flitting fairy from the air, turned, and hurled her across the cavern. Wendy shrieked at the treatment, hoping Tinkerbell would be all right, but had no further time to react to it, as Starkey was then turning to face her.

“You’ll be coming with me, Miss Wendy,” he told her, lowering his head to gaze at her through the tops of his dark eyes. “The Captain wishes to have a word with you.” He spoke the words in a scolding tone, as would a butler who has caught his mistress sneaking out in the middle of the night, or a headmaster who had just learned his star pupil was, in fact, cheating.

It was also a warning.

Wendy stepped back, acting before she could think. Something inside of her slid into place and locked down with a click. She closed her eyes and began thinking of anything and everything that made her happy.

“Hot chocolate, fuzzy sweaters, burnt marshmallows, Ray Bradbury, cinnamon candles, motorcycles. . . .” She felt her feet disconnect from the ground and gasped. Her eyes flew open and she glanced down.

Starkey looked down as well, and his dark eyes widened.

“Um,” she continued quickly, licking her lips, “honey crisp apples, snow globes, jack-o-lanterns, Labyrinth!”

He reached for her, managing to grasp the sleeve of her hooded jacket before she raised both of her legs and shoved them against his chest, kicking off from him to sail backward, end-over-end in a back flip that rid her of her jacket – and of the pirate.

“No!” Starkey bellowed, spinning to motion to the pirates who were still below. He held her gray sweater in one hand and waved it angrily as he shouted a warning that pixies were in the cavern.

The second boat landed and Cecco yanked John out by the elbow, handing him over to another pirate by the name of William Slank.

Wendy landed on an outcropping on the opposite side of the cave and looked up to see Billy Jukes pulling Michael out of the boat after him. “Michael!” she called, unable to help herself.

Michael turned to peer up at her. “Wendy, get out of here! Go and save yours—” His words of warning were cut off as Jukes slid one grimy hand over his mouth and yanked him around so that he was no longer facing his sister.

Several yards away, Hook knocked Peter’s sword to the side with his hook arm. Peter attempted to pull the sword away as he turned, but the hand-guard was ensnared on the end of the captain’s hook, forcing his arm to jerk taut as he refused to let the sword go.

Hook expertly took the opportunity to knock him in the head with the pommel of his own blade. The blow sent Peter immediately to his knees – which, in turn, ripped a scream of fear from Wendy’s throat.

Hook’s head snapped up, his blue gaze searching for hers. He found her and Wendy froze, caught in the snare of those piercing eyes. For the shortest of moments, she thought she saw something flicker in the depths of those icy orbs. It was slight, but poignantly familiar.

And then it was gone, and his expression was starkly unreadable.

Wendy desperately wanted to talk to them both then. More than she’d ever wanted anything in her life, she wanted to tell Hook that she understood his pain. She wanted to explain that she hadn’t broken her promise at all. She wanted to tell Peter that she forgave him – for everything. He’d been but a child when he’d taken Hook’s hand. She wanted them all to stop fighting, stop hurting each other.

But, of course, such magical moments of resolution didn’t really happen. They existed only in fairy tales. And so, Wendy was disappointed but not surprised when, after a few seconds, Hook’s gaze hardened and the corners of his lips curled into a cruel smile.

A shadow loomed above Wendy from behind. Thinking quickly, she ducked and spun, using her leg to trip the pirate who had crept up at her back.

Mullins, a middle-aged crewman with messy brown hair and amber colored eyes went down hard, landing on his back. The air left his lungs with a whooshing sound that trailed off into a low, pain-filled whine.

Wendy quickly bent and yanked the long sword from the pirate’s scabbard.

“Wendy, behind you!” John warned.

She spun in time to raise her sword and ward off a flying Cecco, who was holding a trapped fairy above him in one tight-fisted grip. In his other hand, he held a length of rope.

The pixie was turning blue from suffocation, but Cecco squeezed him tight, shaking the tiny creature hard, so that he was virtually covered in gold-green pixie dust.

Wendy’s grip around the hilt of the sword was slippery; the rain was beating her body and slickening her grasp. But she clutched it tighter in stubborn desperation and brought her sword arm back to swing it in an arc toward the oncoming pirate. Cecco dodged the blade as easily as if he’d known how to fly for as long as Peter had.

Wendy sliced clean air. Cecco released the fairy to send it toppling end over end off of the precipice below. And then the man smiled a hard, wicked smile. The handsome Cecco, thought Wendy. The pirate who carved his name in the murdered body of his warden. . . .

She swallowed hard, trying to get past the dry lump that was forming in her throat. She couldn’t fly away from him. He was bigger than her, and he’d already proven himself a good flyer. He would catch her and bind her and they would probably take her back to the Jolly Roger and make her walk the stupid plank.

Because she broke a promise to a pirate. And not just any pirate – the Captain. Such a thing was surely punishable by death.

Cecco dove for her again, forcing Wendy’s arm back up and around so that the point of her sword was once more aimed at his chest. She could no longer see the fight between Hook and Peter. She had no idea if Peter was okay.

Or if Hook was.

She frowned at that thought, wondering why she cared. But she had no further time to dwell on it, as Cecco then dropped the rope and pulled his own sword from his belt to swing it toward hers. She braced herself for the impact and was not disappointed when their blades crashed noisily against each other, sending shockwaves of pain down her sword and up into her arms.

A new ache settled in around her shoulders and a big part of her wanted to let the sword go. But Hook had taught her how to put that pain from her mind. He’d taught her how to ignore it so that she could keep the sword firmly in her grip.

Hook – the very pirate she was now trying to escape – had taken her aboard his ship and given her food and drink and shelter and even lessons in sword fighting. No other member of his crew had ever received such treatment.

Why had she?

Another bolt of lightning split the sky outside of Skull Rock and thunder vibrated the stone beneath her. The hilt of the sword quaked in her slippery grip; Wendy fought to hold on.

“Give in, girl,” Cecco told her. It was the first time she’d ever heard him speak. His voice was low and heavily accented. “You’ve committed the crime, now you’ll do your time.”

Wendy slowly shook her head. She didn’t want to walk the plank. She didn’t want to die at sea or be flogged or lose a body part or any of those other horrible punishments that she’d read pirates dealt upon one another.

She would rather die fighting.

Of course, escape would be a better option. But, again, she couldn’t take to the air with the pirate in front of her. He would easily block her path.

Cecco roughly pulled his sword away, shoving her back a few steps as he did so. Wendy caught herself and kept her sword arm up, watching him with wary gray eyes.

But the pirate waved his sword gracefully to the side and then darted over Wendy, performing a perfect aerial flip as he cleared her head and the tip of her sword.

Wendy was forced to turn around to keep him in front of her. And when she did, it was to find both Cecco and Mullins standing before her now, the firelight from the torches overhead dancing wickedly in their eyes.

*****

Hook turned away from Wendy and his men and focused on Peter, who was holding his head with both hands and trying to stand once more. His magical sword lay on the ground beside his boots.

Hook lowered his own sword and leveled it beneath Peter’s chin. “It appears as if never is not quite so long, after all.”

Peter looked up and Hook noted that his eyes were no longer glowing red. They were green and clear and there was a stillness to them, as if they were the surface of a pond that no stone had disturbed for centuries.

Hook frowned, trying to find the fourteen-year-old boy in them. But Pan was elusive as ever, and so Hook’s gaze narrowed. “It’s over, Pan.” He raised his sword, ready to make the killing blow, when Smee’s voice cut through his consciousness and brought him up short.

“Cap’n, look out!”

Most people, at hearing those words, would have turned to look – as the warning so foolishly suggested. However, Hook was no fool. He knew good and well what “look out” really meant. With practiced speed, he lowered his sword and crouched down, managing to duck out of the way just as an arrow went whizzing over his head to smack into the bouldered wall across the chamber. Hook glanced at the arrow as it toppled to the water below, and then he straightened and whirled to face the direction from which it had come.

Pixie dust trails lined the interior of the cavern, marking the presence of four fairies, at the least. Hook followed these trails to the entrance of the cavern. The Native known as Lean Wolf stood with several other members of his tribe at the storm-wrought mouth of Skull Rock. He was being braced by his companions against the wind and rain and rising tide. And he was notching another arrow.

The situation was going from bad to worse.

Hook had had enough. He’d come to Skull Rock for two reasons and two reasons, alone. He wanted to kill Peter Pan. That was a given.

But, as James Hook stood there, in the wake of the storm and the arrows and formulated a brutal and heartless plan, it wasn’t Pan he was thinking of.

The second arrow shot toward him and Hook once more easily sidestepped the flying weapon. Behind him, he heard a scuttling, shuffling sound. He turned; Peter was going for his sword.

Hook strode forward and kicked the blade out of the way just as Peter’s hand would have closed over the hilt. They watched it skitter across the wet black rocks until it was stopped by a second pair of boots, brown instead of black.

Mr. Smee bent and lifted Pan’s sword, holding it aloft in his hand. For once, the bespectacled man was smiling a smile that was a touch less genial and a bit more nasty than the one he normally wore.

But Smee’s tiny victory was short lived because it was then that the fairies chose to unite, and it was Smee they chose to attack.

The first mate ducked, covering his head with his free hand as three flying pixies dove for his head. They sported coconut-sized rocks in each hand, like ants with giant bread crumbs, and they chucked these rocks at Smee as they soared past.

Smee managed to catch the first two attacks on the knuckles of the hand he was using to protect his head, but then the pain obviously got the better of him and he lowered his hand to take the third rock in the head. He fell to one knee, releasing Peter’s sword so that it clambered noisily to the stone beneath him.

Peter immediately dove for it, grabbing the hilt in fingers that had become slick with rain and sweat and the blood from his head. He stood once more, the weapon now firmly in his grasp.

But as he turned to face Hook, a hush fell over the cavern. The lightning ceased to flash. The thunder stopped rolling, and the wind died down.

All was quiet.

All eyes were on Hook.

Chapter Twenty

Wendy stepped back from the two pirates, clenching her fist around the grip as she tried to think of something to do next. One pirate was bad enough. One flying pirate with a sword was worse. But one flying pirate with a sword and another on the ground was impossible.

And then Mullins and Cecco looked over Wendy’s shoulder and the massive cavern fell suddenly, eerily, quiet.

Wendy frowned. Cecco lowered his sword, his gaze still focused on something behind her. Neither pirate moved. It felt as if all of Neverland had come to a stand still.

Very slowly, and against every natural instinct she possessed, Wendy turned around.

Down below and across the rippling black water, Captain James Hook stood on a slick, dark platform of stone with Michael Darling held tightly in his right arm, his left hand pressing the barrel of his pistol against the boy’s temple.

Wendy went very still. The world felt as if it was dropping out from under her. She dared not breathe. She even willed her heart to stop beating so fast, lest Hook hear it and pull the trigger.

He peered up at her with those Cerulean blue eyes and, even from this distance, she felt as if she would drown in them. The seconds stretched, threatening minutes, and then Hook cocked the gun.

“Please, no!” Wendy wanted to fly to him, but she feared that if she did, he would finish it. Thus, she was frozen in that spot, her shoes glued to the stone by the fear in her heart.

“Oh, I wouldn’t hurt him, my dear Wendy,” Hook said. In the unnatural silence, his voice rang out clearly and echoed off of the walls. “After all, I gave my word that he would not be harmed, didn’t I?” He shook Michael then, eliciting a grunt of pain from the child. “And a promise is a promise.”

Lightning slammed into Skull Rock, an electric force like a bomb, stronger times ten than any other blast had been. The accompanying thunder clash was deafening. Pirates, pixies, and Natives who were not carrying weapons instantly crouched low and tried to cover their ears. But the ground shook beneath their feet, knocking them off balance and forcing them to use their hands to catch themselves.

The wind picked up again, gaining at an absurdly abnormal speed, until within a few short seconds, it was howling through the cavern. Firelight danced and flickered, casting crazy shadows on everything and everyone in the cave.

Wendy shut her eyes against the sting of airborne salt water and her own whipping hair. When she opened them again, it was to watch one of the ancient, magical torches against the wall being knocked from its sconce by the gale.

As far as she knew, that had never happened before. The torches of Skull Rock forever burned. They had never been moved and they were never extinguished.

Yet, it fell, all the same. The torch made a strange sound as it hit the ground. It was hollow and empty and final.

The flame went out.

Wendy’s sneakers slipped against the overhang on which she’d been standing. The rock had split and cracked under the force of the awesome thunder clap, and she screamed as it now crumbled beneath her, dropping her toward the darkness and the water below.

She heard someone shout, but the sound was drowned out by another mighty boom of thunder. Wendy’s arm was wrenched painfully in her socket as Cecco’s hand slammed around her wrist and pulled tight. She dangled from his grip, saved from the icy waters beneath her by the very pirate she’d been trying to kill.

Another torch fell from its port and tumbled ominously to the ground. Wendy couldn’t see her brother; she couldn’t see Hook. But as Cecco yanked her back up and over the lip of the overhang, the cavern’s light began to wane.

One by one, the torches fell, the wind furious and deadly, the thunder causing the rock to splinter and fall all around them.

As Wendy hit the ground and Cecco released her to her hands and knees, the last of the torches extinguished itself, casting Skull Rock into utter and impenetrable darkness.

Wendy pushed herself up to her feet once more and turned toward the place where Hook had been holding her brother. At least, she thought it was the same place. It was impossible to tell.

Only the fairies – four of them in all – were visible in the cold, black interior of the cavern. Two were near the entrance, taking shelter behind two giant boulders that protected them from the majority of the wind and rain.

Another hovered several yards away from Wendy. It wasn’t Tinkerbell; Wendy would have been able to tell if it was. The fairy spun in place, obviously trying to cast some sort of fairy magic that would give them all light – but nothing was working, and the wind was buffeting the tiny pixie’s wings with a mad vengeance.

The fourth and final fairy floated in the center of the room. But, despite the blustering gale, it was unmoving. Wendy could see dark bands around its body, as if –

Someone was holding it!

The fairy suddenly shook, sprinkling its pixie dust into the darkness. And then it was released to be carried further into the cave by a gust of wind. Wendy’s heart sank. She had no idea who had just used the fairy in that manner, but she was positive that it wasn’t Peter. He could already fly.

The pixies were doing more harm than good in this battle.

A grunting sound and the clash of steel on steel took Wendy’s attention from the darkness below to the darkness only a few feet away and in the air in front of her. There was a clang, and then another one, and then a kind of thunk. Once more, there was nothing but the storm to break the silence.

It seemed to be calming down a bit again, but Wendy didn’t trust it. It was a wholly  unnatural storm, tied to the whim of something angry and unseen. It was like the breath of some massive water dragon. Or the will of Poseidon.

Someone ran into Wendy then, sliding a strong arm around her waist to lift her once more from the rocky ledge. She gasped as her feet left the ground, and tried to think of something happy so that she could catch herself if she fell.

But she doubted the pixie dust was any good any more, anyway. It only lasted so long and she’d only received a tiny amount from Tinkerbell. So, as a second resort, Wendy clung to her captor, turning toward him to wrap her arms around his neck.

She recognized Hook instantly. He was bigger than Peter. And his clothes were different. There was the black lace beneath her cheek, and Hook didn’t smell of leather as Peter did, but of expensive cologne, stolen spices, and soap. His long sable hair was damp where it brushed Wendy’s cheek.

She wondered if he was going to fly her to the top of the cavern and then drop her. At least she hadn’t heard a gun go off. Michael was safe.

But he didn’t drop her, and in fact, his grip on her was secure and felt as if it had no plans to lessen any time soon. She couldn’t tell where they were going and wondered how the hell Hook could. Maybe he’d spent more time in Skull Rock than she had. Maybe he and his pirates were very familiar with it. . . . Perhaps his treasure was buried here.

Hadn’t she written something like that once?

Her thoughts were as scattered as the rain and sea on the wind. She closed her eyes and waited for things to change. For something to give.

And then it did. The tips of her shoes scraped against stone once more and Wendy opened her eyes. They were outside. The sky was lighter here and the storm had indeed let up. The clouds swirled slowly overhead, deep charcoal in color. The wind whipped through her hair, but not as violently as it had in the cave.

Hook waited until she had her footing firmly beneath her, and then he let her go and turned away from her. Wendy stared warily at his back, unsure of what to even think, much less do in this situation.

He walked a few paces away, the wind rippling through his thick black overcoat and the lace cuff that framed the silver hook on the end of his arm. Wendy’s gaze fell on that hook and she thought of all that it represented.

On impulse, she took a step forward. “Hook, it wasn’t my fault, I swear it. I – ”

But Hook spun around, blue eyes flashing, and strode forward with determined speed. “Do – not – speak!” he hissed at her, closing the distance between them and raising his left hand so that his knuckles threatened her cheek. Wendy flinched and turned her face away, falling quiet.

When he did not strike her, she looked back up at him. A stillness had come over him. His blue eyes searched hers, the expression on his face at once unreadable. “I had hoped that you would be the answer,” he whispered then, with a slight shake of his head. “A way out of. . . .” he faltered, swallowing hard. Then he waved his hook at the swirling eye of the storm and the troubled, dark sea and all of Neverland beyond. “All of this.”

Wendy didn’t understand. She shook her head, frowning. “What. . . what do you mean?” she asked.

“You’re the reason the sun rose in Neverland, Wendy. You were the ‘X’ that marked the spot.” Hook gently raised his hand again, this time to caress her cheek with the backs of his fingers. Wendy didn’t flinch at the contact. In fact, he felt warm. He felt. . . good. She almost closed her eyes.

She wanted to grasp his hand and hold him closer. Despite everything – despite the gun he’d held to her brother’s head – she wanted to embrace him. How could that be?

She felt her pulse speed up. Her fingers and toes tingled. Her breathing quickened.

“The treasure,” Hook whispered then. Wendy’s world came to a standstill as she drowned in his blue gaze. She knew he was drawing nearer, and could do nothing to stop him. She didn’t want to stop him.

My God, she thought. I don’t want to stop him.

I want. . . . Her lips parted as his left hand gently cupped her chin, and Wendy’s heart fluttered, heat flooding her body. She no longer noticed the storm. She could no longer form any coherent thought at all. All she knew, all she was aware of, was the pirate captain James Hook, and his indomitable closeness.

But just before his lips would have brushed hers, he stopped. And his grip on her chin tightened the slightest bit. “You ran from me,” he whispered. Something dark flickered in his eyes, hardening them like ice. “Why?” he asked, a desperation lacing his voice. “Why must I always play this role?” He looked away from her then, though he did not move. His expression became troubled and distant, despite his retained closeness to her. “Always the villain.”

“I didn’t leave you, Hook,” Wendy told him. She raised her hand to cup the side of his face. He flinched at the touch, but his eyes instantly softened once more. She could see that he was holding his breath. “I didn’t run from you,” she repeated, shaking her head. “It was Peter. I was –”

Hook’s gaze instantly narrowed, freezing at once into a cold, cruel visage. He pulled away from her, leaving her feeling strangely bereft.

Pan,” he hissed.

Lightning crashed somewhere near by. Wendy glanced up. The storm was returning.

“Of course it was him. It’s always about him,” Hook growled. “This entire bloody world is for Peter Pan.” He spat Peter’s name as if it left a bad taste on his tongue.

“No!” Wendy yelled. “You don’t understand!” She stepped toward him, determined to make him listen to her. “I know what Peter did to you!” She peered up at him through the tears that were suddenly gathering in her eyes. She willed him to listen, to believe. “I know the truth! I know the truth about this!” With a rush, she lunged forward, grabbing the hook on his right hand with both of her slippery, wet fists. “I know what he did!” she cried, screaming now in order to be heard, not only above the returning, building roar of the wind and the rain and the crashing waves below, but by him and his stubborn hatred.

Hook gazed at her through wide eyes and tried to pull away. But she held him fast.

“I know what happened that night!” she continued. “He took your hand out of nothing more than – than – ” She searched for the right words. “Childish, vindictive spite!” she screamed. “And if I were you, Captain James Hook,” she cried, desperation wracking the words from her mouth through sobs of anguished pain. “I would probably hate him too!”

Hook froze in Wendy’s grip, his tall form going solid and still. But his breaths were quick and his brow was furrowed with emotion as he hissed, through clenched teeth. “I can’t be in love with you, Wendy Darling.” He half-whispered, half-screamed. “I can’t love you and be who I am!”

Wendy’s breath hitched in her throat. Her vision tunneled slightly. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

And, at the same time, it was the only thing she was sure of in that moment. In the maelstrom that Neverland had become, Hook was a port in a storm. And he’d just told her that he loved her.

“Then don’t,” Wendy whispered, no longer in control of the words she uttered.

“Just. . . . “ Her gaze skirted to his lips and back again. She felt suddenly at a loss.

Hook, for his part, needed no further hint, no more urging. Time had been champion for too long. A thousand years of misery and hopelessness backed him from behind as he used his hook and the leverage of her grip to yank her forward, into his embrace.

His kiss seared the cold from her body – or, at least, she expected it would have.

If he had ever kissed her.

Instead, Wendy’s hair was yanked hard, jerking her head back and pulling her harshly from Hook’s grasp. She cried out at the pain and turned to see Tinkerbell making horribly rude gestures at the pirate captain.

Hook had no time to respond to the fairy’s untimely interruption, for Pan was there, his sword arm raised, his blade descending with deadly speed and efficiency.

Hook spun and unsheathed his own weapon, once more meeting the young man in hand to hand combat.

“Wendy!”

Wendy turned to see Michael and John climbing out of a crevice in the rock fifty feet away. She glanced at Hook and Pan, both engrossed in a battle more fierce than any they had ever had. There would be no hope in stopping them.

Instead, she raced to her brothers, helping them up and over the lip of the sharp, craggy stone.

“Are you all right?” she asked Michael. He nodded hurriedly and then grasped hold of her arm.

“Wendy! You can stop this! You can stop all of this!”

“What?” Wendy glanced at Hook and Peter. Her heart was beating so hard and so fast, it was painful in her chest. Could a seventeen-year-old have a heart attack?

“He thinks you can get us out of here with a story!” John told her as he bent to peer through the crevice.

“Is anyone coming after you?” Wendy asked, her first concern the other pirates, natives, and fairies.

“No! They’re all fighting down below!” John said. He rose again and turned to face his sister. “Tink untied us so we could come help you.”

“Wendy!” Michael insisted, yanking on her arm so that she would pay attention to him. Wendy turned to face her little brother. “Remember the story you read about Tootles and the storm?” he asked.

She nodded, her brow furrowed.

“The storm came right after you read that!”

Wendy’s first impulse was to shrug. So what? But something at the edge of his reasoning, and the truth it hinted at, brought her up short. She blinked.

“And down on the gun deck, I pulled out the paper of story you wrote for me a long time ago and I read a line of it out loud!” Michael continued, raising his voice to be heard over the once more encroaching wind and thunder. Lightning slid into the ocean not far from Skull Rock, bringing a sizzling electric buzz to the air that caused Wendy’s fear to ratchet up a few notches.

Michael went on. “I read the part about the Jolly Roger floating over Neverland at night! Remember?”

She remembered. It was her favorite part of any story she’d ever written about Neverland. Because it was James Hook on the deck of his ship, the stars piercingly bright above and around him, the sea dark and calm below. And because, in the story, he was there on the deck with Wendy. Because he was in love with her.

Wendy closed her eyes, finally shedding the tears that had gathered there. “I remember,” she said.

“And then we found Neverland!” Michael hollered. “The pirate in the crow’s nest shouted down that we were above land,” he insisted, giving her arm a shake as if it could help her recall, “and Hook said it was Neverland!”

Wendy didn’t need his help remembering that moment. She’d been sparring with James – with Hook, she mentally corrected herself – and finding that her thoughts kept drifting toward. . . things. And then Smee had raced up to inform Hook that Neverland had been spotted below.

“It doesn’t mean anything!” Wendy shook her head. “It’s coincidence!”

“You don’t believe that!” Michael shot back. “You know it’s true! If you want more proof, then try it! Tell a story!”

She blinked, her eyes wide. “What? Now?

“Yes! Right now!”

Lightning slammed into the opposite side of Skull Rock, sending shards of black stone sailing through the air. One came dangerously close to hitting Wendy and she found that her chest felt too tight, her throat too constricted.

“Wendy, get us out of here!”

Wendy thought about what Michael said. She turned and watched the figures of her story, locked in eternal battle. She thought about Hook and his hand and the role he was forced to play in this world. She pictured him as he once was, in that place where he used to live, free from the whims of a boy and his fantasy realm.

And she thought of Peter – and the role he was forced to play. As Neverland’s protagonist, forever keeping up the good side of the fight, leading a band of little boys against full-grown pirates.

When he had been no more than a little boy, himself.

And, in that instant, Wendy Darling realized that Peter Pan had not escaped to Neverland in order to keep from growing up. He had “escaped” to Neverland to become a man. Before his time, perhaps. He’d been a father to many children and a warrior against men. Peter wasn’t the boy who never grew up, but the one who grew up much too quickly. And he didn’t even know it.

No wonder he’s so angry, Wendy thought. He had to fight against something he didn’t understand. He did his best, as a child would, caught in the role of a man.

I have to end this, was her next thought.

I have to end Neverland and all that it stands for. It’s brought us all nothing but pain.

The ground beneath Wendy’s shoes bucked violently, knocking her off of her feet. She fell to her side and propped herself up as John shot forward to help her up. But before he reached her, a fissure opened up in the rock, splitting the stone between them. Wendy cried out as Michael toppled to his bottom and nearly fell into the crack, but the boy rolled away from the opening and then scrambled to his hands and knees.

“What’s happening?” John screamed. Before anyone could answer him, a terrible roar bellowed up from within the crack, growing in volume until it drowned out the sound of the howling wind and the crashing of the waves against the rocks.

“What the hell is that?” John asked next, yelling the question at the tops of his lungs.

No one answered him. No one could. But Wendy had a horrible sinking feeling. She’d done something wrong. Someone once said that thinking a sin was as bad as doing it. She’d never believed such utter nonsense. People have bad thoughts all the time and never act on them. It was the not going through with them that made those people good instead of bad.

But in this case, Wendy wasn’t so sure the same rules applied.

For something significant had occurred on the day, six years ago, that she’d begun telling stories of Neverland. The idea for Neverland had just come to her one night, when their parents were at a banquet for her father’s bank employees and her brothers couldn’t sleep. . . .

They’d asked her for a story. And as easy as a breeze through an open window, something had been born. Something big.

And now it knew that she wanted to kill it. Neverland could sense it.

This is it, she thought.

“Once upon a time,” she began.

Chapter Twenty-One

Wendy watched the ground warily as the crack grew wider and the rock beneath her trembled. “Once upon a time, there was a place called Neverland that existed only to serve the needs of a boy named Peter Pan. . . .”

The roar grew in volume, until it began to vibrate Wendy’s eardrums and felt as if it would drive her mad. She watched, in abject horror, as something white and primordial pressed up through the massive fracture in the black stone. It was long and thin and weathered and as it rose higher and higher, Wendy realized what it was.

The Never Bird.

Long-dead and buried, the giant bird had been but a landmark in her stories – a forbidden, sacred burial place where no one was allowed to go. The spirit of the Never Bird, she had told, watched over the Natives on the mainland and guided their hunts. The Never Bird, which had once been a monster greater than any dinosaur and more fearsome than any dragon, was the guardian of Neverland. Its spirit and soul.

It’s here to defend itself, she thought.

“Get back, Wendy!” Peter was beside her, shoving her out of the way, his right hand brandishing his sword as if it would do any good against a monster of fossilized bone. Wendy felt a presence at her back and knew that Hook was behind her. But everyone’s gaze was on the Never Bird as it rose from its sacrosanct grave of skull-shaped boulders and long abandoned castle keeps.

A wing, first. Fifteen feet of boney, bat-like fingers that were once draped in scales or feathers or leather. Wendy wondered what color it had been.

“Once upon a time,” she started over, too rattled to remember what she’d already said. Her voice shook horribly and was barely audible over the cacophony around her. “There was a place called Neverland and it loved its little boy very much – so much that it desperately wanted to hold on to him and never let him go.” She spoke rapidly, barely discernible, but she knew she had to make it a story, complete and whole, or it wouldn’t work.

Suddenly, Hook was reaching his left arm over her shoulder and pressing his palm to her chest. Wendy stilled as a sort of pressure vibrated the rock under her shoes. And then Hook was shoving her roughly back out of the way as the stone in front of Peter exploded outward, shattering into a spray of pebbles and salty rain as the Never Bird yanked its second wing free from its grave.

John and Michael managed to run back far enough not to get caught by the eruption, but Peter was knocked violently backwards and soared through the air to land a good distance behind Hook and Wendy.

Wendy wondered why he hadn’t simply caught himself with happy thoughts and his ability to fly. But then Hook was shoving at her again, this time yanking her behind him as the Never Bird’s massive wing arced down toward her with what could only have been direct intent to smash her beneath it.

Hurry, Wendy! she told herself. Tell the bloody story before we’re all killed!

“But Peter Pan managed to escape one day,” she said. “Through the power of a promise, because everyone knows that promises are very powerful things!”

Hook slashed at the wing, slicing cleany through the hardened bone so that the entire tip end of it came away and crashed to the ground beside them. The impact shook their footing, as everything else did.

The Never Bird roared from beneath the stone and, in a display of volatile wrath, the top of the immense black skull-shaped rock beneath them erupted in a colossal spray of boulders, pebbles and sand, forcing everyone above to dive for cover.

Wendy hit the ground on her stomach and pressed her hands over her head to protect it. Then she felt Hook’s body shielding her own. Fear welled up inside of her, but not for herself. For him.

It was a new sensation for her and it was puzzling.

Concentrate! From beneath Hook’s strong form, Wendy continued her story. “And when he escaped,” she gasped out, inhaling sand when she took her next breath, “Peter Pan grew up. He discovered what life could be like as a man. And though some of the world made him sad, he realized that there was much in it to be admired. Friendship, wisdom, love –”

Hook grunted from some impact and was shoved roughly off of her and Wendy turned over and looked up.

There are a few moments in a person’s life that, no matter how much time has passed, will never, ever be forgotten. Likewise, there are some images that will forever remain imprinted on a person’s brain. Nothing will ever wipe them away or weather their clarity.

Some are good, like the elusive wave of a whale’s tail as it slaps the surface of the water in an unexpected glance across the Pacific ocean. And some are not so good.

This was one of the latter. For above Wendy, standing as tall as a mansion and as broad as one, too, was the petrified, yellowed skeleton of the mythical, magical Never Bird. Its bony, demonesque wings spanned the entire length of Skull Rock, its tail was winding and jagged like a dragon’s, and its beak was reminiscent of a pterodactyl’s, long and sharp and weathered by thousands of years of salt water and stone.

The hollow eye sockets of its skull seemed to pin Wendy to the spot, trapping her there on her back beneath it.

It was going to kill her.

She would die there on that rock in Neverland, never to return home, never to grow up, never to write a book and get published and marry a man with cornflower blue eyes and long black hair. Never….

It reared its immense head and then drove it downward, seemingly in slow motion.

“Noooo!”

“Wendy, get out of there!”

“Wendy!”

Everyone was screaming at her. Hook, Peter, both of her brothers – they all wanted her to move. But she was frozen in terror. She understood what it meant to be petrified in that moment. Well and truly petrified. She literally could not budge; her toes and fingers were numb, her limbs heavy as lead. She found herself wondering how much it would hurt to die by the Never Bird’s beak, even as her lips parted and her voice issued forth more words of a story she was no longer making up, but that was now telling itself.

“Neverland became frightened that it would forever lose its boy,” she whispered. “It formed a plan to kidnap the one thing that it knew could bring Peter back to it. The girl Peter trusted. The one he had brought into his world – Wendy Darling.”

Two streaks of black rushed past her on either side and Wendy closed her eyes to the sounds of men shouting and swords slashing and a demon-dead bird screaming in pain that it should not have been able to feel.

“The captain of the Jolly Roger was Neverland’s tool,” she continued, quickly, stubbornly. “He captured the Wendy Bird, the Story Teller, and brought her back to Neverland, and in recognition of its creator, Neverland’s sun rose on a new day – a day of hope. For, soon, Peter Pan would follow.”

“Wendy, get up!”

Wendy opened her eyes to see Peter leaning over her and grabbing her arm in a fierce, fast grip. He wrenched her to her feet and pulled her behind him as the Never Bird, half of its beak now missing, turned once more to gaze at her through dead, but angry eyes.

Wendy felt her own gaze narrow as a sudden streak of hard defiance burned through her veins, chasing away a bit of the fear that had been icing them over moments before. “But Neverland hadn’t expected the Story Teller to discover the truth about it. It hadn’t expected her to learn of her own power and what she could do with that power.”

The Never Bird roared in fury, belting out a sound so loud and horrible that everyone below it covered their ears. The reverberation of the terrible wail felt like needles in Wendy’s eardrums and, this time, she cried out against the pain.

But she didn’t give up. She wouldn’t give up!

“One day, Wendy’s brother realized that his sister had the power to make things happen with her words!” She hissed through clenched teeth. Her stomach churned angrily as the roar became a high-pitched whine that seared her insides and made her want to vomit.

But she curled her hands into fists and went on, ignoring the pain. “Neverland was using Peter and all of the other inhabitants in its world as characters in its own story! Wendy knew it had to be stopped – and now she knew how to stop it!”

The Never Bird couldn’t let her go on. This was where Wendy had to be silenced and she knew it just as well as Neverland did. So, she braced herself as the massive, undead creature raised its giant stone-bone leg and brought it down toward Wendy.

She watched it descend, knowing that there was no way she could move out of its path in time to keep from being squashed like a bug.

Something hard slammed into Wendy from the side, lifting her off of her feet and carrying her swiftly out of the way as the Never Bird’s foot crashed into the rock where she’d been standing a heart beat before.

The stone splintered beneath its weight, creating yet another fissure in the already ruptured and ruined crown of Skull Rock.

Wendy turned in Peter’s arms and tried to catch her breath. She found herself looking up into emerald green eyes that were once more clear and clean and free of the sparking red hatred that had tainted them earlier.

Fresh pixie dust coated his body; Tinkerbell must have given him a new dose.

“Finish the story,” he told her, his expression earnest.

Wendy nodded. They keep saving me.

“Neverland was already angry, so the storm came easy,” Wendy continued, knowing now exactly what she had to say. “For Neverland was as any being – born of conception, fleshed out with thought and deed, filled up with family and friends, and given purpose in existence,” she said as Peter set her down and held her gaze. He smiled the smallest of smiles, nodding once in reassurance before he turned away to fight the beast once more.

Wendy watched as he and Hook stood side by side, a wall of man and muscle between herself and the soul of Neverland.

“It didn’t want to die,” she said. And, as she always did when she told a story, she empathized with her characters. She felt Neverland’s fear. It was desperate and all-encompassing. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “But it had to.”

She took a deep breath and began: “In the north part of the island, in the clearing where the Natives lived, the tribe’s camp fires flickered and went out as each member of the clan lifted its face and recalled where they had come from, in that other place, so very long ago. . . ..”

*****

Not far away, on the mainland of Neverland, Tiger Lily’s tribe sat with their families in their teepees, every father telling tales of spirits and of the sky and the earth and of fire. And, one by one, the family members blinked and looked up from their fires as images of different forests and different teepees flashed before their eyes.

The Native camp began to grow dim as its fires extinguished one after another.

Until it went dark, altogether.

*****

Wendy dropped and rolled as the Never Bird’s massive bony tail swished past her in an attempt to knock her out and stop her words. She rolled to a stop, got her hands beneath her, and looked up. “Beyond Crocodile Creek and the Magic Dust Falls, in the Pixie Forest, every fairy in Neverland but one paused in its flight and suddenly pondered. Where had they come from? How had they gotten there?”

*****

The fairy king bowed gracefully before his queen and offered her his hand. She smiled a demure smile, befitting of pixie royalty, and returned the gesture with a curtsy. She accepted his hand and the two floated on wings of glittering starlight to the center of the hollowed-out maple that had been transformed, long ago, into the dazzling, shimmering ballroom it was now. They were safe there, from the storm, as magic guarded their sanctuary from the nature beyond.

Fairy music was unrivaled in its beauty, and as it began to sound from the very air inside of the Great Maple, the birds perched in the tree’s branches, stopped what they were doing and turned to listen.

The king smiled and began the dance. The queen followed.

But then, as one, the pair slowed to a stop, coming to hover, motionless and unsure above the dancing platform.

The fairy queen blinked and frowned. Nothing looked familiar. This wasn’t right. It felt like a dream. She remembered now. This place, that they’d thought was their home was but a dream. . . .

*****

Wendy winced as John pulled the make-shift tourniquet tight around her left arm. The Never Bird’s talon had dug deep, slicing clean to the bone, but Hook’s long, sharp blade had taken the beast’s claw in one clean swipe before it could do any further damage. Wendy tried to concentrate through the pain, but it was so very difficult. The salt on the wind plastered her shirt to her cut and sizzled in the open wound. It burned like fire.

“I can’t,” she whispered, shaking her head. Her body was so bruised and so sore and her arm felt as if it were being dipped to the shoulder in acid. She barely noticed the disarrayed, blurry pandemonium of Peter and Hook where they continued to fight off the determined, desperate advances of the skeletal monster who wanted Wendy dead.

“Yes you can,” John told her. “Nothing can keep a storyteller from telling a story, Wendy.” He gently cupped her face and peered into her stormy eyes. “I know that now, sis. And I’m so sorry for ever asking you to stop.” His expression was so pained that it drew Wendy out of her own agony and into his.

“I forgive you,” she told him.

John smiled a sad smile and nodded. “Then finish the story,” he whispered.

Wendy closed her eyes once more. “At the center of Neverland, where the giant tree that once housed the Lost Boys still stood, a single green leaf on a lone branch began to turn from green to gold.”

*****

The leaf curled on its stem, its emerald hue fading to one of yellow and then gold. Then red. Then brown. It fell from the tree on a new, cold wind, and in the emptiness that memory leaves behind when it stops being remembered, the other leaves followed suit.

*****

The mermaids were next, and though Wendy’s head throbbed where she had struck it against a boulder while dodging yet another of the Never Bird’s attacking appendages, one by one, she sent the inhabitants of Neverland’s island home – back to where they had been taken from so long ago.

In the end, all that remained of the pixies, the pirates, the Natives and the others were Wendy and her brothers, Tinkerbell, Captain James Hook, and Peter Pan.

The ending had to be done right. It was the most important part. She wanted to send Hook back to his time and place, but she also needed to give back to him everything that he’d lost when he’d been drawn into Neverland’s eternal fairy story.

She wanted Peter to return to his home and live the life he’d discovered in their world. But she wanted him to remain young at heart. For that was a man’s greatest defense against the adult world. And because he’d been forced to grow so quickly in Neverland, it was something he hadn’t possessed his first time around.

Wendy braced herself against the sheltering boulder she’d finally come to rest beside. John and Michael stood beside her, partially blocking her from the sight of the strangely wounded Never Bird, which had been hacked and chipped at by both Hook and Peter, alike.

Wendy closed her eyes and prepared to tell the final part of her story.

Her lips moved and her words whispered out across space and time as if they echoed off of the stars and the sea and were sung by the wind. And then the rock beside her gave way –

– and Wendy fell.

It was unexpected, to say the least. Everyone had been so focused on the Never Bird and the storm, a simple fall from a great height hadn’t taken precedence. They’d forgotten that the rocks had been knocked loose when the Never Bird had drawn itself, in a bedlam of unruliness, from the depths of its briny tomb.

She didn’t scream as she went over. Instead, she gazed up at the gray sky over Neverland and never stopped telling her story.

By the time she hit the sharp, craggy rocks far below and the first of the tidal waves washed some of her blood out to sea, Wendy had a mere few, short sentences remaining in the finishing of her tale.

As the world faded around her and her body grew cold, she whispered the final words to bring about the perfect ending.

And then she took one last breath and closed her eyes.

Epilogue

Wendy wasn’t normally a fan of mornings. They simply came too early for her tastes. But right now, the sun glinted off of the stainless steel hooks that held the curtains in place, and the shining metal objects entranced her.

Mornings aren’t so bad, she thought, distractedly.

“Wendy?”

Wendy blinked. Then she rolled over in her bed and smiled at Michael, who was standing in the doorway of her bedroom. “Good morning,” she said, softly.

Michael stepped hesitantly into the room and came to stand beside the bed. He looked from her face to her shoulders and then the rest of her blanket-covered body. “You’re okay? We saw you fall.”

Wendy nodded. “I’m okay.”

“Mom and dad don’t know, do they?” It wasn’t exactly a question. He’d noticed the same thing that she had.

When Wendy had finished telling her story, the world had simply blinked out. Her pain was gone, the cold was gone – everything was gone.

And then she was opening her eyes to find that she was back in her bed, where she’d been before Peter and Tinkerbell’s pixie dust had awoken her from that dark, deep sleep.

“I don’t think so,” Wendy replied. She turned to look toward the windows again. She could hear her parents mulling around downstairs. Her mother was making breakfast. Her father was commenting on something in the paper.

They’d returned last night believing that their children were asleep; never knowing that they had gone. And now. . . . Life went on as usual.

“But,” Michael frowned, his fingers fiddling with the small strings that had frayed from Wendy’s quilt. “But it was real, wasn’t it? I mean – we went to Neverland. We were on the Jolly Roger and we fought the Never Bird?” His voice was so quiet, so hopeful and so lost all at once.

Wendy sat up and pulled her brother into her arms. As she did, she felt something dig into her hip bone. She pulled slightly away from her brother and glanced down at the small bump in the pocket of her jeans. With slim fingers, she dug into the pocket and pulled out a single intricately carved button. It was the button off of a red brocade coat.

“Yes, Michael,” she said, fiercely. “Yes. It was real. It was very, very real.” She looked up over his head and caught the glint of the sunlight against the curtain hooks once more. “Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”

*****


One year later….


Peter tugged hard at the thick line and was backed by his shipmates.

“Heave!” the captain bellowed. The men did as he said, hauling with all of their might. Soon, the seven hundred pound steel traps appeared at the ledge of the vessel and the deck hands scrambled to grasp them and pull them onboard.

The pots were full. It had been a very cold, very windy day, but a lucrative one. Peter shot a smile toward the captain, who nodded approvingly and gave a small salute, as he always did when his boys had done well.

Then Peter’s gaze was caught by something that flashed on the upper deck. A stream of sunlight shot through the dense, gray cold above and shafted to the rigging overhead.

A single, large cargo hook gleamed in the beam of light.

Down below, in the ship’s galley, Belle, the cook, tossed a hand full of special spices into the steaming, slowly roiling chowder on the stove. The spices shimmered before they hit the soup and disappeared. She smiled and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.

Satisfied with the scent, she turned and reached for a sauce pan hanging from the ceiling. And then she froze as a shaft of light streamed through the high window and gleamed off of the perfect metal hook that held the pot.

*****

Wendy Darling checked the window of her dorm room before sliding her key into the knob. If her room mate’s teddy bear had been staring out at her, she would have known to stay away. Her room mate had a boyfriend.

But there was no teddy bear, so Wendy opened the door and slipped inside, shutting and locking it once more behind her. Then she removed the back pack from her shoulder and dumped it on her bed. It bounced once and toppled to the ground, where it came unzipped and spilled its contents all over the floor. Wendy sighed, bent, and began putting the books back into the bag.

One of the books had slipped part way underneath her bed. She lifted the cover to get a better look and reached to grab the book. When she did, her fingers brushed something else.

Wendy leaned over until her cheek was inches from the wooden planks, and she gazed under the bed. A small leather-bound journal rested in the slight dust that had collected since last week’s room check.

Wendy frowned and reached for it.

When she pulled it out to look at it under the light, she froze. The book was old and weathered and familiar. And on the cover were the gold-gilded initials, J.H.

*****

Many millions of miles and exactly eleven impossibilities away, a young pirate captain stood at the prow of his ship, a telescope in his left hand. In his right, he held a small gray hooded jacket.

The ocean breeze played with his long black hair, brushing it against his cheek as he gazed out over the watery expanse and into the curved horizon. His stark blue eyes were like the very sea that his ship rode upon. As they searched the distance, the captain raised the jacket to his lips and inhaled.

With a helping breeze, he caught the faint hint of caramel and cocoa. His right hand, whole and perfect, gripped the material more tightly.

With the scent came an image of her face, and James Hook closed his eyes.




The End.

(Forever Neverland’s sequel, Beyond Neverland, will be out December, 2012)


Check out Heather’s upcoming paranormal romance series, The Lost Angels, beginning with Always Angel in October, 2011 and Avenger’s Angel in November, 2011….


Excerpt from Always Angel, the exclusive eBook introductory novella for the Lost Angels series by New York Times bestselling paranormal author, Heather Killough-Walden….


Always Angel, by Heather Killough-Walden

“Hesperos,” she whispered, nearly out of breath with the shock of him. Memory was a strange thing. Most people couldn’t recall what they’d had for lunch the day before, but they could remember events and people from decades past. It was that way for Angel now.

The man on her window ledge looked the same as he always had, just like she remembered. His clothing had changed. Instead of the armor of a soldier of ancient Athens, he now wore black jeans, black boots, and a black leather vest over a bare chest. But his appearance was as it had always been: Tall, strong, chiseled. Perfect.

Hesperos may not have been quite as otherworldly as Samuel Lambent. No one was, and for good reason. But Hesperos was a king.

And it showed.

Maybe he won’t recognize me, she thought desperately. Her mind was spinning end over end, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. Angel was far from defenseless, even when it came to battling things not quite human. However, Hesperos was special. If it came down to a struggle, she would lose.

The last time he had seen her, she’d been sporting long red hair and hazel eyes. She’d been wearing the robes of a Celt. On the outside, she had looked nothing like she did now. Maybe, if she was lucky, he wouldn’t see past her outer shell any more than a human male would.

But even as she hoped it, she knew she was fooling herself. Hesperos was an incubus. The incubi, or “Nightmares,” as other supernatural creatures referred to them, were notorious for hunting beauty in its purest form. Outward appearance often meant little to them. They appreciated it, to be sure. But if a woman was not as lovely on the inside as she was on the outside, they quickly lost interest and went elsewhere.

Nightmares could easily tell what rested in a woman’s heart. Despite the fact that Angel had become very good at hiding her true nature over the decades, Hesperos was their Nightmare king. Two thousand years ago, he had managed the tiniest peek at her real form. And now? If anyone could see her, or at least glimpse her, as she truly was, it would be him. Well… him and Samuel Lambent, anyway.

Very slowly, Angel turned from the mirror, her fingers clasping the thin spaghetti strap of her slip where she’d been about to let it fall off her shoulder. It was her last remaining vestige of clothing. It was all that remained between herself and the literal lord and master of the sexiest men on the planet.

Hesperos watched her from where he stood on the ledge, framed by the light of the moon and her slowly swaying curtains. His raven black hair was shot through with streaks of blue beneath the illumination. He bore an intriguing black tattoo on the left side of his neck, and another across the swell of his right bicep. A third peeked from beneath the leather edge of his vest. To most people, they simply appeared to be tattoos, “manly” perhaps, intricate and well drawn. However, to Angel, they were symbols of his power, his status, and a reminder of the fact that he was king.

After a few moments, he stepped down from the ledge and the moonlight struck the steel of his eyes. It had always been his eyes that turned Angel’s head the most and weakened her to the point of danger. They were a mixture of green and gray that she had never seen before. They looked like jade shot through with metal, and their powers of perception were incredible.

Nothing escaped Hesperos.

That was perhaps what scared her the most.

She swallowed hard now and watched with a wariness she hadn’t felt in centuries as the incubus king moved from the window, his boots sounding loud in the hollow silence between them. It wasn’t that Hesperos was a bad man. He never hurt women – not that he would ever need to – and he never let his seed impregnate anyone as did the majority of the incubi. Compared to his minions, the Nightmare King was a teddy bear in those regards.

But he hadn’t gotten to be king by accident.

Hesperos possessed a great deal of power. In fact, Angel was a little surprised that he hadn’t yet attempted to subjugate her mind in order to make this easier for himself. It wasn’t that he necessarily needed to be able to control the minds of his victims to get what he wanted. Most women melted at a single glance from him. But he wasn’t stupid. He never left anything to chance. Another reason he was king.

The fact that he hadn’t tried to infiltrate her thoughts only fortified Angel’s fear that he knew damn well she was something more than human. He wouldn’t bother to try taking her over until he knew what he was dealing with. He was sizing up his prey. A good hunter did whatever was necessary to keep the claw and bite wounds to a minimum.

Hesperos continued to watch her as he moved through her room, a shark making slow circles around his dinner. His expression was a wickedly handsome mixture of curiosity, caution and determination. “Oh, little beauty,” he said, his voice raising goose bumps of anticipation across her skin. “What are you, I wonder?”

Angel said nothing, but her heart’s quick pace was surely giving her away. He doesn’t know, she told herself firmly. He doesn’t remember, so don’t tip him off. Be strong.

“You seem familiar to me,” he said.

Angel’s breath caught. She felt her eyes widen just a little. Stupid, she scolded herself. She was out of practice, it would seem. Hesperos was sure to notice slip ups like that.

The king stopped at the center of her room and cocked his head to one side, narrowing his gaze on her thoughtfully. In that moment, he reminded her of the calculating Greek soldier he’d once been as he’d gone slumming among the mortals out of sheer boredom. He’d been a veritable god of war, pulling back from the role only when he’d realized that if he’d wanted to, he could have slaughtered the entire human population. That wasn’t him. Hesperos wasn’t a killer.

But he looked like one now. Machiavellian. Cunning…. Bad.

Without speaking, the Nightmare King took a step toward her. Angel thought fast, steeling her nerves. She raised her chin, and with a slight twist of her wrist, she finally let the slip that she had been holding slide through her fingers. Hesperos’s metal green eyes watched the thin sheen of material drift to the floor and pool at her bare feet. For the slightest of moments, he paused, a small smile playing across his lips.

Then his gaze slid back up her long body, taking everything in. He took another step. “My, my,” he said, shaking his head as if at the wonder of her. “But you are a rare bird.” Several more boot-echoing steps and he had closed the distance between them. Despite her tall frame, the king stood half a foot taller than she did and towered over her as he crowded her with his imposing presence.

“You’re rather impressive, yourself,” she admitted softly, unable to help herself. He was getting to her. She may have been inhuman, but she was still a woman and Hesperos was very much a man.

“You know me,” he said. “You’ve spoken my name.” He smiled then, revealing straight, white teeth with canines that were ever so slightly longer than the norm. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” As he spoke, he locked her gaze in his, capturing her attention in a nearly literal sense.

She found it impossible to look away as he raised his right hand and delicately brushed his fingers across the top of her collarbone. A hard shiver raced through her. “I hardly believe that’s possible,” she told him.

His smile broadened and a chuckle of real amusement rumbled up from his broad chest. “I wouldn’t have thought so either,” he admitted easily. “And yet, here we are. You know who I am….” He lifted a curly lock of her black hair and wound it around his fingers. “And it isn’t mutual.”

To this, Angel said nothing. She was afraid that if she dared to speak, she would inadvertently say something – anything – that would give her away.

Hesperos watched her eyes as if he were reading the play of thoughts that ran through her mind. And then he narrowed his gaze and she felt it. The swell of his power. He’d obviously realized that she wasn’t going to reveal herself to him willingly because he had decided he was no longer playing nice. She sensed the arms of his magic reach out and grab her, holding her fast as his mind scraped hers, scouring it for the secrets she was hiding.

Stop, Hesperos,” she said, her own gaze narrowing in turn. “Stay out of my head.” Anger clenched her jaw and gritted her teeth. She had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but his curiosity was piqued. He’d always been like that. Relentless.

Again – he was king for a reason.

“Who are you, little one?” he asked, his steel green eyes sparkling with almost cruel amusement and curiosity. “The walls you’ve put up are ancient,” he said, shaking his head as he brushed his knuckles across her cheekbone and then gently cupped her chin. “As ancient as I.”

And then, suddenly, he stilled – and she knew her battle was lost. The recognition flashed before his beautiful face like lightning and his grip on her chin tightened. “Angel,” he whispered. His gaze darkened, his pupils expanding. For a moment, he seemed thrown. Off his game.

Angel felt her muscles tighten, preparing for a literal fight or flight.

But he was faster. His hands came down around her upper arms, gripping them with vice-like strength. It didn’t hurt – not yet. But it was clear she wasn’t meant to go anywhere.

Two thousand years ago, Angel had spent a single night with Hesperos. A single, hot, wanton, intense, burning and delicious night. And then she’d fled – and though he’d looked for her, sending out his Nightmares to search high and low for decades, she had successfully eluded him.

Eventually, he and his kind had taken to the shadows along with the rest of the paranormal creatures on Earth. They’d disappeared from the sight of humans as readily and easily as she had vanished from Hesperos’s sights.

Only now, he was back. And he’d found her after all.

Angel felt her hopes sink and her need rise as Hesperos bent over her and leaned in, his grip tight, his eyes unflinchingly resolute. “Long time no see, precious one.”


Look for Always Angel, available exclusively as an eBook at Amazon and other eBook retailers beginning October, 2011.






Excerpt from “Avenger’s Angel,” the first book in the exciting upcoming series The Lost Angels, by New York Times bestselling paranormal romance author, Heather Killough-Walden….


Avenger’s Angel, by Heather Killough-Walden

They were there for a signing. The movie Comeuppance had been such a hit with vampire fans around the world, it had been turned into a book – and then a series of books – and cast members from the movie were signing autographs in bookstores across the globe. It was late in the afternoon and Uriel’s signing as “Christopher Daniels,” the actor who had played Jonathan Brakes, the gorgeous vampire in Comeuppance, was about to begin.

They’d pulled up to the back of the bookstore in order to prepare. Across from him in the back of the limousine sat Max, Uriel’s manager. He was also Uriel’s guardian – and guardian to his three brothers, Michael, Gabriel and Azrael. Max was good at the job; he was an ace at donning the multitude of different hats it took to deal with four very strong male spirits in an ever changing world.

Just as Max was reaching his hand through the break in the separation glass to signal to the driver that they were ready to go to the front of the store and meet Daniels’s fans, a harsh shrieking sound drew Uriel’s attention to the limousine windows.

His vivid green eyes grew very wide. “Is that what I think it is?”

“I’m afraid so,” Gillihan replied.

“They’re blocking the exit,” Uriel said, his tone laced with shock. A throng of teenage girls had amassed on the Tarmac that ran around the side of the bookstore and were racing toward the limousine at break-neck speed.

There was no time to formulate a plan. He could either stay inside the car indefinitely and wait for the cops, or he could escape from the car and run. Fast.

Uriel threw open the door of the limousine and bolted out of the backseat. Behind him, he heard Max calling, but he ignored the guardian and headed directly for the bookstore.

Later, and in retrospect, he would realize that heading toward the bookstore instead of away from it was, at the very least, a bizarre decision. Especially considering that the slew of fans now racing toward him like a medieval village mob was coming from said store.

However, there was little thought involved. The girls were coming around the corner from the front of the store, which gave him a clear shot at the back door. It was mostly instinct that propelled Uriel across the lot to the locked back exit of the establishment. And it was superhuman strength that then allowed him to wrench the door open against the lock and rush inside.

He sensed that the alarm wanted to go off. He used his powers to silence it and pulled the door shut behind him, making sure to yank it in tight enough that it warped a little and held.

The girls outside reached it just as it shut and their fists pounded furiously on the metal of the barred exit. They were getting soaked out there. He was more than a little damp himself.

He wondered if they were also hurting one another as they shoved toward the door. He sincerely hoped not. But whatever was happening, the sheer number of them suggested that the door wouldn’t hold for long. All they had to do was work together and it would come open.

Uriel passed the restrooms on his left and strode toward the science fiction section of the store just beyond the exit foyer. There, he stopped and grimaced. Another mass of girls, nearly as large as the first, was grouped around the front of the store. There must have been a hundred of them. . . . Maybe more.

The door behind him creaked and then scraped.

Uriel thought fast and ducked into the women’s restroom. Once inside, he closed his eyes, pressed his back to the wall beside the door, and listened. The exit door of the bookstore gave way beyond and he could hear the group of girls rush into the hallway. They raced by, their Converses squeaking with rain water on the linoleum tile.

“You have to memorize a script to act, and the movie you starred in was also turned into a book, so I assumed that you could read.”

Uriel’s eyes flew open to find a woman and a little girl standing a few feet away, beside the door of the first stall.

“I was obviously wrong,” she continued. “Because you’ve mistaken the women’s restroom for the ridiculously famous sex symbol restroom—which is next door.”

Uriel’s heart stopped beating. His jaw dropped open.

He couldn’t be seeing what he was seeing in that moment. He couldn’t be feeling what he was feeling. Not now. Not here, in a bathroom—after two thousand years. Maybe he’d slipped in the rain outside and hit his head.

No, that was impossible. He was relatively invincible. Being hit on the head would do nothing to him but make him a little cranky.

She was really standing there before him. She was real; he could see her, hear her—he could even smell her. She smelled like shampoo and soap and lavender.

Jesus, he thought, unable to refrain from letting his gaze drop down her body and back up again. She was everything that he had ever imagined she would be, from her tall, slim body to her long jet-black hair, and those indigo blue eyes the color of a Milky Way night. Her skin was like porcelain. Her lips were plump and pink and framed perfect, white teeth. She was an angel.

She was his archess. And she was . . . scowling at him?

He frowned.

*****

The door to the bathroom had shut firmly behind Christopher Daniels, and he clearly had heard what she’d said, but he still just stood there like he was frozen and Eleanore could not figure out why. “Mr. Daniels, is there something I can help you with?” Eleanore asked.

She had to admit to herself that when Daniels had first entered the women’s restroom, she’d been taken completely and utterly by surprise. First of all, he was even more handsome in real life than he was in his plethora of press photos. And that wasn’t supposed to be the case at all. Wasn’t there supposed to be loads and loads of makeup involved? Tricks of the light? In real life, didn’t actors have acne and scars and wrinkles and un-dyed roots for miles?

In real life, an actor’s eyes didn’t seem to glow the way they did in the movies. But Christopher Daniels’s eyes did. It was nearly eerie, they were so intense. They instantly called to mind the dreams she’d had of him. It was always his eyes she saw just before she woke up. All of the pictures he had plastered across the nation didn’t do them justice. His eyes were the color of arctic icebergs, so very, very light green that they seemed . . . more than human. They were incredibly beautiful.

She was standing in a restroom, face-to-face with a famous actor who was, quite literally, the most attractive man she had ever seen. And yet he was looking at her as if she were the gorgeous movie star instead.

And so she was more than a little surprised at herself when, instead of feeling faint and falling all over him like all of the other girls in the world seemed to do, her first instinct had been to stand up to him. For what, exactly, she had no idea. For coming into the girls’ restroom, she guessed. Of all things! What kind of crime was that, exactly?

Eleanore’s subconscious mind knew the truth. She wasn’t mad at him for coming into the wrong restroom, of course. She was mad at him for being who and what he was. Gorgeous—and famous. It was an old brain kind of thing.

He was obviously hiding. That was clear. And from the sound of the giggling schoolgirls beyond the door, she would wager a guess that it was his fans he was hiding from. The nerve! First, these guys fight tooth and nail to climb their way into fandom and then they balk at being loved by the masses.

What was up with that?

Meanwhile she’d forgotten Jennifer, the little girl she’d come into the bathroom to help in the first place. But Jennifer had clearly noticed Daniels as well. Her hand slipped out of Eleanore’s own as she spoke up. “Miss Ellie made my stomach feel better!” she chimed in, completely out of the blue. “I was throwing up, but she touched my tummy and made it stop.”

Eleanore paled. Oh no, she thought. Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet—don’t say any more!

“Which is a good thing,” Jennifer went on, nodding emphatically, “because the throw up made me want to throw up some more.” Jennifer was only about five, but she wasn’t shy. She grimaced and seemed to want to push the memory away with her little hands. “It was so gross.”

Eleanore felt herself blanching further. She pulled her gaze off the famous actor and looked at the wall. She needed to compose herself. She needed to get a handle on the situation—take control.

Finally, she rolled her shoulders and looked back up at him.

She blinked. He was still staring at her in abject fascination. That was fascination, wasn’t it? Not amusement? Maybe he just thought she was mental. . . .

“Mr. Daniels, I’m going to find Jennifer’s parents and then I would be happy to announce your arrival over the intercom, if you’d like—”

Daniels pushed himself off the wall and stepped toward her. His motorcycle boots made a heavy thud on the linoleum floor. It sounded dangerous. A warm, erotic warning thrummed through Eleanore’s body.

“You’re the reason it’s storming,” he said. “Now it makes perfect sense.”

Eleanore’s world tipped on its axis, and fear gripped her. Her vision began to tunnel. “P-pardon me?” she asked. Her voice sounded hollow to her own ears.

What is he talking about? He can’t know.

She almost shook her head against the possibility. She thought about taking a step back, suddenly needing space. But there was a tiny hand in hers, squeezing tight, and she couldn’t escape.

“You’re a man and this is a girls’ bathroom,” little Jennifer said.

Christopher Daniels glanced down at the child. Jennifer’s nose was scrunched up and her gaze was reprimanding. The actor seemed to be considering the girl for a moment and then he looked back up at Eleanore.

“Ellie,” he said softly.

Eleanore swallowed hard. Her mouth and throat had gone dry. “It’s—it’s Eleanore,” she stammered. And then, realizing that she’d just given out her name and that perhaps she shouldn’t have, she looked away from him and shook her head. “Mr. Daniels,” she tried again. “Excuse me. I really do need to find Jennifer’s parents. She’s just been pretty sick.”

She brushed past him to push open the door and as she did, the air seemed to thicken around her; it suddenly felt cloying and confusing. It took forever to get by the actor; she could feel him watching her as she came near and he made virtually no move to get out of the way. His nearness was electrifying and disarming, his body tall and hard and very real. Time seemed to slow down as she opened the door and stepped out into the store.

But once she was past him, she walked as quickly as she could with a five-year-old tethered to her arm, which wasn’t very fast at all. She heard footsteps behind her and glanced back to see that Daniels was following her. He kept pace easily, a small, determined smile playing about his lips.

Christopher Daniels is behind me, Eleanore thought. The famous actor, Christopher Daniels, is behind me! He’s probably looking at my ass. She tried not to groan out loud at that thought. As if it mattered!

She wasn’t sure what her bottom looked like from his vantage point; she never bothered with the mirror that much in the morning. And she was nearly as horrified by the fact that she cared what she looked like to him as she was by the fact that he seemed to be looking at her. Was he looking at her butt?

Of course he’s looking at my butt, she thought. He’s a guy! That’s what they do!

She berated herself for the internal monologue of Clueless-worthy concerns and once more wondered what he’d meant by his storm comment. Did he know that she’d caused the storm? If he did—how?

There’s no way, she thought. He must have meant something else.

Eleanore stopped beside the customer service desk and bent to whisper into Jennifer’s little ear.

“This is our secret, okay?” she said, hoping against hope that the child would catch the urgency with which she made the request.

Jennifer looked up at her and then glanced over at Daniels, who was leaning against a bookshelf a few feet away, his arms crossed over his chest, his expression both bewildered and amused. Then she nodded and smiled up at Eleanore, and Ellie’s fear dropped down a notch.

Eleanore straightened and picked up the phone at the customer service desk. She saw Daniels peek over the racks at the crowd by the front doors. A woman dressed in a suit with a name tag glanced nervously at her watch and then stood on her toes as if to look for someone. They were wondering where their star was.

There was a tall man in a suit with them. He was pushing his way through the women—and a few men—to the front of the store. Eleanore wondered vaguely who he was, but let it go as she made a “lost child” announcement over the intercom to get the attention of Jennifer’s parents.

When she’d finished, she put the phone back in its cradle and turned to face a harried-looking couple who instantly knelt before Jennifer to console her. Jennifer’s mother scooped her up into her arms and with a quick thank-you to Ellie, they were on their way out of the store.

Now Ellie turned to face Daniels, who was still leaning against the bookshelf, watching her. In the next split second, he straightened from the shelf, closed the distance between them with two purposeful strides, and pinned her to the customer service desk, one strong arm braced against the counter on either side of her.

Eleanore inhaled sharply and her heart did a somersault in her chest.

“I have to go to a big party Thursday night. Come with me,” he said. He was so close, his breath whispered across her lips—it smelled of licorice and mint.

“W-wha  . . .” she stammered. Then she dry swallowed and tried again. “What?”

She heard a faint cracking sound and glanced down to see that his grip on the desk behind her had tightened. She turned back to face him and watched as his gaze flicked to her mouth and back.

“Ellie,” he said, as if testing her name out on his tongue. “Here’s the thing,” he continued softly. “I need a date to a big promotional party in Dallas. A gala. I don’t know anyone in Texas. You were kind enough to let me hide in the women’s restroom.” He smiled an incredibly charming smile. “And I appreciate it,” he added. “So I would be honored if you would consider being my date next week on Thursday.”

Eleanore took a few seconds to digest this. There was a part of her that simply couldn’t believe her position at that moment. She was being cornered by Christopher Daniels, against her own customer service desk, and asked out on a date. But despite the impossibility of it all, she knew she wasn’t dreaming. This felt too real.

He was so big. So tall and . . . he looked hard—everywhere. And his nearness was doing strange things to her. He smelled good. The leather of his jacket and whatever aftershave or shower gel he’d used were a heady, highly tantalizing combination. There wasn’t an ounce of him that wasn’t pure masculinity, from the set of his jaw to the smooth, determined sound of his voice.

“You’re not answering,” he said, once more glancing at her lips as he’d done before. He seemed to be leaning in closer now, and Eleanore was finding it more difficult to breathe. “Does this mean you’re considering it?”

Christ, I’m falling for this jerk. I’ve barely met him and I’ve already got it bad.

She tried to swallow past a spot in her throat that had gone dry. She wondered then, as she gazed up into those impossibly colored eyes, how many women he’d done this to lately. He was good at it.

He’s an actor, she told herself. Of course he’s good at it.

That was a sobering thought. She blinked and felt her own gaze harden. He seemed to notice, because something flashed in his eyes and his gaze narrowed in response.

“You’re serious,” she said in a low voice. “You don’t know anything about me and you want me to just agree to go out on a date—in another city—with you.”

“I know enough,” he told her plainly. “And yes. I want you to go out on a date with me.” He paused and then added meaningfully, “Very much so.”

She stared back at him for several more hard beats, and then, before she realized what she was doing, she had the customer service desk phone to her ear and was pressing a button behind her on the carriage.

Daniels seemed as surprised as she was and only watched as she put the speaker to her mouth.

“Attention guests! It is my pleasure to announce to you all that the star of the evening, Mr. Christopher Daniels, is here with us now and is making his way to the front of the store to begin signing autographs for all of his much-appreciated fans.”

The sound of cheering rose from the front of the store and spread through the aisles. Daniels glanced up, not moving from where he had her ensnared between his arms.

Eleanore glanced behind her to catch frantic movement at the front of the store.

When she turned back to face him, it was to find Christopher’s jaw tensed and his teeth clenched in obvious irritation. But his ice-green eyes returned to Eleanore’s face and once more trapped her gaze in his. He took a deep, calming breath and seemed to ponder the situation.

Then he smiled and straightened, stepping away from the desk. Eleanore stayed where she was and watched him warily. For a moment, his eyes flicked to her neck, her shoulders, and back up again. She could have sworn she saw a troubling indecision cross his handsome features. He looked as if he were tempted to grab her, throw her over his shoulder, and abscond with her.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ellie,” he said instead, locking gazes with her a final time. “I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

With that, he turned and strode down the aisle toward the front of the store.

Eleanore was too stunned to move. She watched him go, and as he disappeared, she listened. The ecstatic greetings started up almost immediately. They were crazy about him.

And now she could see why.

He asked me on a date, she thought. The gorgeous, famous movie star from Comeuppance asked me on a date.

A part of her wanted to be thrilled at the thought. But there was another part of her that knew better. It was that other part that had forced her to cut their exchange short by announcing his arrival. Because that part of her had a feeling that Christopher Daniels was not who he pretended to be. Not just on the screen—but in real life.

He knows something, she thought.

She didn’t know how it was possible; even the very idea was unfathomably weird. But somehow, Christopher Daniels seemed to know that Eleanore had caused the storm. He’d told her as much. You’re the reason it’s storming, he’d said. She was willing to bet a dollar that he even suspected her healing powers after Jennifer’s untimely exclamation in the bathroom.

And now he also knew her name and where she worked.

Several more long, tense seconds passed and Eleanore’s body finally relaxed a little and she slumped against the desk. She closed her eyes and ran a somewhat shaky hand through her long hair.

Life had just gotten a little too interesting for her taste. Maybe it was time to move again.


Look for Avenger’s Angel, available at book retailers everywhere November, 2011.



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