Chapter 1: By Moonlight
She was older now, but she remembered. All of it, as if the days and weeks and months and years had never passed.
She chose not to dwell on what had happened, though. Her life was here and she didn't regret that. The only thing she truly missed was flying.
Once in a while, she thought of Peter, and those memories were as sharp and as bittersweet as only the memories of that first and truest love can be. It stood to reason that she should've dreamed about him, too. In her youth she had, more often than not, that bright smile and that dear face returning to haunt her, by day and by night.
But Wendy was no longer a child, no longer as innocent, and in her dreams, she stood alone on the deck of the Jolly Roger. Moonlight flooded the ship, turning the water to liquid silver. The wind didn't touch her, but she felt the wooden planks beneath her feet as if they were real.
Ghostlike, she drifted through the door to the cabin and she found him there. Nothing had changed, except for this: she wasn't afraid.
He slept on his side, metal hook discarded, and he clutched his right arm to his chest, the way, Wendy imagined, he must have done when the wound was still fresh.
Because it was a dream, she leaned over him, so very, very close, as if she had the right. His lips parted, but his eyelids remained closed, lashes resting against his cheeks. Dark hair trailed across the pillows, as long as it had ever been. She could hear no other sound than that of him breathing and it was soft, it was gentle, like so little else about him was, or could hope to be.
He exposed his throat to her, unconsciously, if not in surrender, and he had pushed the covers down, at some point, baring the curve of his shoulders and the pale skin that the sun could not reach.
"It's Wendy," she whispered. "I've grown up."
But the words, when they left her mouth, broke like waves against a seawall. He paid them no heed. She wished he would, every time, almost as much as she dreaded it.
She wanted to see his eyes.
When she woke, she always woke in her own bed, in her own room, far away from that place. She got up, whether it was light or dark outside and she sat at the small table in the kitchen, drinking tea, waiting for her heart to settle back to a normal beat.
It was a well-established routine.
Just like checking her feet for splinters.
Chapter 2: The Darkened Night
James Hook doesn't dream, but sometimes, he cannot sleep.
He lived, but it was only a semblance of life. He had died, but he was not dead. Sometimes, when the stump ached and his mind was all of darkness, he wished that he had met his end in the bowels of the crocodile.
But it was called Neverland for a reason. And he would never be free.
They searched, as ever, for Peter Pan. The days were long and stretched out before him, like sails catching the wind, wide and white, for as far as the eye could see. He lost himself, time and again, in that blinding brightness, in the spaces between words, where despair might take root.
He did not dream, or if he did, he did not remember it.
But lately, he kept waking at odd hours of the night. Not often, by any means, but often enough that he marked it. That kind of behaviour had no precedent, here, where all things had.
He heard a voice, that was the beginning, but it was distant, as distant as hope, as distant as joy. It tapped on the window, that voice, it knocked on the door, like an old friend coming to visit, and he would have bid it enter, but he could not speak. So, he reached for it, instead, with an eagerness that peeled age from him, as if it was sunburn.
And he opened his eyes, to an empty cabin.
The wood groaned and creaked and the waves lapped against the hull, but no familiar sound, no motion of the ship, could rock him back to sleep. He drew the covers up to his chin, trying to suppress the shivers running down his spine and he resolved to wear nightclothes, from this moment on. He always forgot, in the light of the sun.
There was a scent in the air, not of perfume, but of plain soap and the promise of spring. There was a name, on the tip of his tongue. A girl's name. A woman's name. He knew the whole of it and he hoarded the syllables, like treasure, but he could not have said why.
In the shadows, he tossed and he turned, until he could not stand the weight of his thoughts and rose, put his breeches on and went outside, bare feet upon the planks, bare skin beneath the moon, the hook left lying on the table beside his bed.
"I'm here," he said. "I'm waiting."
And it sounded strange, even in his own ears, because it was almost a plea.
Chapter 3: All in Splinters
A dream is but a dream, but when the moon is high, it might be something more.
Second to the right, and straight on till morning. She couldn't fly to save her life, she had no stars to follow and all the paths she could see were crooked, they curved upon themselves, like space. But sleep found her; dream claimed her, swallowed her up and spit her out.
It was dark. Night ruled, again, night, as always, the thin blade of the moon keeping watch. All the sails were hoisted, on the Jolly Roger, and the deck was empty. No feet treaded the weathered planks, but hers. None watched the captain sleep, but Wendy Darling.
She had her nightgown on and knitted socks, to ward off the winter cold that had settled over London. Her braid fell, heavily, between her shoulders, like an anchor.
"It's Wendy," she said. "I'm here."
He opened his eyes.
Shock deprived her of the ability to move, at first, but he reached out, blindly and it made her pull back, as if she expected the slash of the hook and not the scars and the stump. She stumbled, her ankle gave way and she landed, with precious little grace, upon the floor, a sharp, needling pain shooting through her foot.
Half-stunned and scrambling for both her breath and her wits, she heard him curse, loud and harsh. It brought a rush of heat to her cheeks and she struggled to get up, seeing only the blurred and shadowed shape of him, until he struck a light.
"What is this?" He turned, lantern brandished high, the way a rapier might be, on the eve of a battle. "Some devil's trick?"
She wanted armour, then, helmet and gorget, thicker skin and proper clothes. Shoes that added to her height. Because he was aware of her, he was speaking, and these were the deepest of waters and she had forgotten, or else had never known it at all.
"Not a devil's trick, I think." She hesitated, not certain if he saw the girl in her, now, or if nothing seemed familiar, in the woman she had become. "I'm Wendy. Peter's Wendy."
And he was not like Peter, in any way that mattered or had consequence. But he was angry. It lit him from the inside. It coloured his voice and his movements, even unto the tightening of his jaw. "Pan's Wendy, indeed. I could not mistake you," he said. "Where is he? Hiding somewhere on the ship?"
She shook her head. "Of course not! Why would he do such a thing?"
"Say rather, why would he leave you here? With me." He didn't snap or snarl at her. She had met mermaids, iridescent with death, who had warmer expressions. "I have killed men for lying, and others, for less."
Had he been wearing the hook, she would have run, dream or not. But he was stripped, tonight, of claws, as well as the rich fall of brocade and all of his crew. And he had not sought to free his one good hand, in spite of what he said.
"I'm not lying, Captain. Peter didn't bring me. It's been years since I talked to him last." She bit her lip. "Unless you're intending to kill me right away, I'd like to sit. My foot hurts."
He raised his right arm to his chest and the muscles tensed, as if he clenched his fist. The fist the crocodile ate. A moment went by and after that, another. Then he shrugged, suddenly, weariness obscuring all else, and breath escaped her when she noticed.
"Bad form, Hook," he muttered or, at least, she thought he did, she had to strain to make it out. He gestured at one of the chairs. "Sit, if you will."
It was a concession, of sorts, and Wendy made do with it, as best she could. She took a seat, bending to remove her sock. A few drops of blood had welled forth from where the splinter had pierced her skin, and they had stained the wool a deep, dark red. She wondered what pledge, what promise she had sealed, by the shedding of them. And she wondered if she would wake, if he gutted her.
"Let me see that."
She looked up. His eyebrows had dipped, not in annoyance, but nor was it, quite, in concern. He set the lantern down and crouched by her side.
"I can manage."
"Even so-" He lifted her leg, in a practised, one-handed motion, placing her foot in his lap. Wendy stilled, all clear and conscious thoughts arrested.
"Black-hearted villain," she said.
And he smiled, all teeth, in the flickering light. "Pure-hearted girl."
As if it was an insult that carried the same weight as hers had. She met his gaze. She should have been far more careful what she wished for.
His smile widened, slightly, then faded and he bent his neck. His fingers brushed across the heel and the arch and he made short work of removing the splinter. It was over in a heartbeat. "There. It's done."
Her hand stretched out, almost of its own accord. "Could I have it?"
He cast her an odd look, but offered no comment, merely gave the splinter into her keeping. It was about the size of a thimble and jagged, at the end. Wendy put her foot down on the floor, awkwardly, setting him free, but she held on to the splinter, clutching it hard.
The captain remained where he was. The moon was in his face, bright and brittle, though the moon had no dominion between these walls. "Are you real, Wendy Darling, or am I dreaming you?"
It startled her. "I don't know," she answered, wholly honest. "I can't tell the difference anymore."
There were marks on his right shoulder and upper arm, patches of skin that had been repeatedly chafed. She could guess what had caused it. The leather harness lay next to the hook, both within easy reach of his bed. It would, she realised, be the first thing he saw, in the morning. The last thing he saw, at night.
She frowned, assessing him. The pirate captain. Captain James Hook. Tried to judge the worth of him, and failed. In her youth, she wouldn't have, but she was wiser, at this age, and infinitely more foolish.
He noticed her regard and his shoulders hunched. He rose, a slow unfolding of pale, tattooed limbs. "Old," he quoted. "Alone. Done for. You were perfectly right."
"Perfectly right and perfectly wrong," Wendy said. "We were children."
He struggled with the words, as if they were unwieldy, as if they were barbed and cut his mouth and his lips, when he uttered them. "And no children love me."
"No," she replied, almost gentle. "I don't imagine they do. Or could. You wouldn't allow it."
He laughed. He broke, like so much bone fine china.
And that was when the ticking started, a muted but unmistakable sound. Not the crocodile. No clock that Hook had ever possessed. It was the wall clock, hanging in her kitchen.
Relief, this time, was a double-edged sword. "I can't stay."
"I know." He showed no surprise. "I had not thought you would."
And she might be Wendy Moira Angela Darling, but deep inside, there was Red-Handed Jill, though the days and weeks and months and years had long since passed. She wasn't a child. "If I can, I'll come back."
His eyes flicked to her and they were all steel, but not the steel taken newly finished from the forge, rather the steel about to be shaped, red hot beneath the hammer.
And she woke.
It was winter. It was England. It was dawn. All things were as they should be. All things, now, in their proper, proper place.
But when she opened her hand, the splinter rested there, upon her palm.
Chapter 4: Time Without End
Hook does not hope, but he thinks, now, of Wendy Darling.
He thought it might have been a dream, even though he remembered the moment of waking, with the same sharp pain that he remembered opening his eyes, on that beach, covered in blood, the crocodile's carcass beside him.
There had been other times when he had confused the two, dream and reality, as if they were, somehow, interchangeable. As if they could not be separated, here, in this place, not by death and certainly not by force of will.
Pan was aware, of course, that he was back, but things had been different, of late. A minute might pass, during the course of the day, when the flying, flitting boy did not absorb the whole of his attention. A girl did, instead. A woman. A Wendy. Captain Jas. Hook's very own Red-Handed Jill, who had chosen not to be a pirate.
He had known her face, as soon as the lantern revealed it. Had recognised the eyes and the mouth and the sound of her voice, if not the shape of her body. She had grown up. He could not tower over her, now, but he found, much to his surprise, that he had no wish to. Her fear did not call to him, did not stir him in that familiar fashion. He was far too tired, and he felt older, more alone and about as done for as any man could, and still have a beating heart.
She had danced, once, in the air above a canopy of trees. On the island. In the jungle. It was a stolen memory, frozen inside of him, like an insect caught in amber, wings forever unfurled. He could picture them together, her and that wretched Pan, high on the wind, so pure and so perfect it choked him. Because no such purity, no such utter perfection, could survive in his care. His hand would sully it, and either one of his hooks would cause it to shrivel and rot.
But she had come to him and not, it seemed, to her precious Peter Pan. Wendy Darling had come to Hook, and she had permitted him to touch her, while no part of him was metal and steel. She had not flinched, at the sight of the stump. A brave Wendy, in truth. In that respect, at least, she had not changed. And he was glad.
He did not hope; hope was not within his grasp. He spent his nights sitting in the chair, fully dressed, trying to pretend he did not want.
No amount of rum could make him believe it.
Chapter 5: The Heart of the Matter
Wendy is standing on the edge of a cliff, about to fall.
Peter, she had loved, and she deemed it possible that some small, hidden part of her always would. It was not nearly so easy to determine, or put a name to, what she thought of Hook. Captain James Hook, who had not died in the belly of the beast.
She had been entranced, at first, one dark and most unexpected night, with the stones of the Black Castle beneath her, and the black-hearted villain in front of her, turning his face into the wind. And that fascination, her sudden awareness of him, had informed all of their later meetings, but it had not lasted, unscathed, through her adventure. The spell had cracked, like glass in a mirror. Dwindled and cracked, the moment she saw the boys' death, as well as her own, in those clear, cold forget-me-not eyes.
She had, she admitted, watched him fall prey to the crocodile with a grim satisfaction. It was the fate he had planned for them, and thus perfectly fitting he should suffer it himself. She had chanted just as loudly as the rest of the children and she had not wept, when he was gone.
But what had cracked, it seemed, had not completely broken, and it was painfully obvious to her, now, that the feeling had returned, stealing up on her in a different guise, as changed in texture, shape and essence as she was, yet still as strong.
Had it truly been a dream and nothing more, she might have been far less concerned about that fact. But she couldn't explain what had happened, could not begin to unravel the why, the wherefore and the how. And the splinter, the tiny, red-tipped piece of wood, could not give her an answer.
Sometimes, she was afraid. It was a peculiar fear, that scraped her skin, sending a flush of goose bumps over her body, but didn't cut through to the bone. And because it did not, it left room for other things, other emotions could surface, and foremost of these, as so often in her life, was curiosity. She wished to speak with him again, fully as much as she dreaded it.
There was, in some sense, a cliff and she was standing on its very edge, balancing there, while the ground gave way under her feet. Stone by stone, and she could hear them fall, clattering against the far off rocks. Grain of earth by grain of earth. She didn't step forward and she did not retreat. She was Wendy, betwixt and between.
And she knew she could not stay forever like that.
Chapter 6: Skies Turning Red
The sky turns red, before a storm arises, and in Neverland, a person might sometimes turn pink.
Consciousness returned to her in a terrible rush. Wendy fell into it as if from a great height and she gasped, sitting up straight in a bed that was, most decidedly, not her own.
She didn't panic. The cabin was well lit tonight and she could clearly see that Hook himself was not beside her, nor had the covers been disturbed, except where she had ruffled them. Her fingers curled, nails digging into the soft material beneath her, and she heaved a long, slow sigh, counted to three, then slid off the edge of the bed.
She spotted him at once, lying slumped across the desk at the opposite end of the room. Beclawed, he was, and bedecked in sumptuous velvet, his hair spread out like an ebony fan. He would, she thought, have a crick in his neck when he woke and judging by the glass and bottle in front of him, most likely a headache as well.
The flimsy weight of her shadow did not rouse him and she hesitated, worrying her lower lip. "Captain?"
He struck with such force that, before she could protest, she had her back to the wall and that dreaded hook grazed the skin below her jaw. She winced, glaring daggers at him, since she could not safely lash out in any manner she would have preferred.
"You." Recognition sparked and he withdrew the hook, but did not otherwise give her room for escape. The last vestiges of sleep still clung to him in rags and tatters and his gaze was oddly fevered, if not dimmed by red. "Dost thou know what I dreamt, Wendy Darling?"
"No," she replied in wary surprise, expecting him to recount some battle with Pan, where the outcome had been in his favour at last.
He leaned forward, so that their foreheads almost touched, maintaining a mere inch of empty space between them. "The days are all the same," he said and his breath, heavy with liquor, ghosted over her, "and I am tired of this cage." He inhaled, nostrils flaring. "I dreamt there was a door, Wendy, but with my eyes open, I cannot find it."
She raised her hand, her stomach, suddenly, a haven for butterflies of every shape and hue. Up until the moment she felt his heart thud, quite like clock beneath her palm, she would have sworn she meant to push him away.
Hook flinched at the contact, recoiling so quickly it left her bereft. What she had been about to say, what she knew of cages, gilded or plain, he never learned. With a snap, he straightened, gaining both height and hauteur in one fell swoop and he turned from her, towards the desk.
Wendy swallowed, watching the line of his shoulders shift as he reached for the glass. As he drained it and proceeded to refill it. "You didn't think I would be back."
He rolled his head, neck creaking in complaint. "I did not think you had been here."
"But you remember it? You have seen me—like this?"
He twisted to face her, light glinting off the gold metal thread that decorated his cuffs, and he looked her over, taking her in. "You had socks," he remarked. "Ghastly things."
She flushed, startled, and wriggled her bare toes self-consciously. "I knitted those myself."
His brows arched. "Then you'd best keep to your storytelling, Miss Darling. It, at least, was an art in which you excelled."
"I still do," Wendy responded, detaching herself from the wall.
"Is that so?" He twirled the glass around. "Yet you should know by now that there is no such thing as 'happily ever after'."
"Why? Because I'm a woman?"
Hook bared his teeth; she would not have called it a smile. "Because you're not a child."
She pondered that for a bit, then gave a rueful grin. "No. The feelings came. And the pimples."
He snorted, not derisively, rather in frustrated agreement. "The feelings," he declared, "are the worst. A burden you cannot hope to put down."
"Have you attempted it, Captain?"
He did smile at her question. It was a high winter smile, in a land where only Peter could cause the summer to wane. "I—am—human, Miss Darling."
She didn't refute his claim. Something troubled her though, an incongruity that had not been explained. "But you are alive, as if the crocodile had not devoured you."
"I made good use of my hook, I believe," he said. "It was a reflex, perhaps, the final spasms of a dying person. I recall—very little of it and even that is too much."
Wendy couldn't read his expression, but there was a nuance to his voice like a streak of colour in a leaden sky. "You would have preferred to have died, would you not?"
He started to shrug, but his right shoulder stiffened in obvious pain and he grimaced, slamming the glass on the desk so hard the liquid sloshed over the sides and the stem seemed in danger of shattering. "Brimstone and gall!" he spat. "Damn that boy!"
The hook sliced through the air like the paw of some wild thing. Some feral creature. Wendy tensed, but she didn't back away from him. It had not been death she had glimpsed in his eyes when last they parted. And it wasn't now. "It's hurting you."
"That," he said, in a precise, clipped tone, "is nothing new."
"Then take it off," she reasoned. "Let me—"
It was a command, not a request and Wendy, about to step forth, froze to the spot. "You didn't wear it before," she reminded him. "I won't be shocked, if that's what you think."
Something flared in the midst of forget-me-not blue, a brief will o' the wisp of emotion, too elusive to catch. "Are you so certain of that?" he questioned, softly, lightly. Making a challenge out of his words.
And he began to undress.
Wendy dared not offer her help again, though he struggled with the coat, the vest and finally the shirt, tossing each piece of clothing to the floor as he rid himself of it. It took some time and fabric was torn and ripped in the process, but she gritted her teeth and endured the sight.
He didn't remove the hook; he flaunted the iron blade and the leather harness instead, as if he took some pride in that clever, that grotesque construction. "This is Hook," he said and he was breathing heavily, his skin like bleached linen. "This is what I am."
He would brook no pity, she was sure, and it was not pity that moved her to speak. "What you are, or what you want to be?"
He hissed like a cornered snake. "You don't know what I want."
"To kill Peter Pan," she countered, nonplussed. "Isn't that all you've ever wanted?"
Hook paled even further, inasmuch as that was possible, and his anger receded or was somehow forced inwards. "Not ever. And not all." He gripped his upper arm tightly and he shuddered, in spite of the fact that the room was quite warm. "Pan," he added, almost as an afterthought, "turned pink."
It stunned her, momentarily, and her mouth went dry. A thimble was a young girl's gift, not a woman's. And it was not a boy, standing there before her. "I loved him," she replied. "I do not love you, Captain."
His chin dipped minutely and then lifted, but the hook hung quiescent at his side. "So, you hate me, Wendy Darling?"
She had no wish to lie to him, but there were layers to the truth and shades of grey upon grey. And oh, how she yearned for the simpler days, so long in the past. How glad she was, that they were gone. "I haven't forgotten what happened and I can't pretend that I have," she finally said. "But hate you—you would have noticed it, if I did."
He did not seem to have listened past the very first sentence, for he gestured carelessly at the door and beyond that, the whole of Neverland. "The ship's anchored close to the island, this eve. Pan would not be far, should you venture to search for him."
Wendy shook her head, annoyed by both his assumption and that stubborn deafness. "I chose," she stated, resolutely. "And so did he. I've grown up and, in time, I will grow old, but Peter will always be a child."
"And what of Hook?"
"You and I," she said and, when he looked at her, trapped his gaze to hold his attention. "James Hook and Wendy Darling—it's the one story I don't know how it will end."
He made a small scoffing noise in his throat and shifted position. Ink black locks that would never be silvered, or guttered, slipped across his collarbone. "Foolish girl."
The corners of her mouth twitched and some of her tension dissipated. "Mule-headed man."
Hook scowled, but he did not argue. Whether exhaustion prevented him or if he thought she was correct, was a matter of guess and conjecture. He pinched the bridge of his nose, eyelids fluttering shut. "Tell me, then, how it will continue. If I rest a while, will you vanish from this world?"
"I can't promise you I won't," she answered. "If there are rules that govern this, I've yet to determine them."
"Like shooting in the dark, is it?" he mused. "I admit my right-handed aim was better, but this will have to do." He walked over to the bed and lay down as he was, draping his wrist over his face.
Wendy, for her part, ensconced herself in the divan and drew her legs up under her. She neatly tucked the folds of the nightdress around her knees and leaned back.
"What became of the Lost Boys?"
"Didn't Peter—" She cut off. Of course he would not have. "We took them home with us, to London. They are as brothers to me, just as much as Michael and John."
"I see," Hook said and he did not elaborate.
Though it puzzled her, she decided to let it pass. A curious calm swept over her, not like the calm before, but that which comes after a storm—the stillness and clarity that follows the thunder.
In the silence, broken only by the quiet murmur of the waves, the inevitable occurred. Wendy fell asleep and, through that innocuous deed, was lost to Neverland and to the captain of the Jolly Roger. Or they were lost to her.
Chapter 7: Dreams Made Into Flesh
Wendy should, perhaps, have been more careful what she wished for.
Wendy never did dream of Hook again, in that strangely vivid fashion, but she dreamt once more of the Jolly Roger. And in that dream she was running, searching through every nook and cranny of the ship, her heart in her mouth and her nightdress hitched up in haste.
She didn't encounter as much as a bilge rat.
Fear caught up with her somewhere between the galley and the main deck, a dull, sickening dread that rushed over her skin like the bitter northern wind. It was a ghost ship she was on, nothing more than an empty husk at the whim of the currents, its skeletal masts scraping against the black hollow of the sky.
"Captain!" she shouted, as loudly as she could, and when only silence answered her: "James!"
She woke drenched in a cold sweat, the early dawning light altogether too pale to reassure her. Wendy got up, shivering so violently her teeth chattered. She slipped into her dressing gown, pulling it tight around her body, then padded across the floor to fetch her jewellery box, not opening the lid until she had climbed back onto the bed.
The splinter, unlike the captain of the Jolly Roger, was right where she had expected it to be. It lay nestled inside the box, next to the acorn on its silver chain. They were companions and counterparts, those two, both mementoes of another place—the former serving to remind her of the things the latter could not.
Wendy picked up the splinter, cradling it in her hand as if it was precious. Such a man, a man made careless by desperation, might meet his end in a thousand ways, even though no giant crocodiles remained. A thousand different ways. And she knew then that something had indeed been irrevocably changed, because it disturbed her to think of him dead.
She met John for tea one afternoon, near the office where he worked, and during the whole of their conversation she ached to tell him, to ask his advice and show him the splinter that burned a hole in her pocket. But for him, this tall bearded gentleman, Neverland was but a childhood fancy—a well-loved toy that had been misplaced at some point and therefore forgotten. And she could not bring herself to speak of it.
Day followed day, after that, and all her dreams were nonsensical. The snows had melted and the ground was dotted with new green shoots, narrow, grassy leaves that had struggled to emerge from the soil.
At the first bloom of spring, a telegram arrived. It took several minutes before Wendy could begin to make sense of what it said and the moment she did, she doubled over where she sat, squeezing her eyes shut until she saw bright bursts of colour and the dizziness passed.
There was a hospital, in a town up the coast. There was a patient in that hospital who professed he had no ties in England but those that bound him to her. And his name had been spelled out in unmistakable letters on a fairly ordinary piece of paper. He called himself James Hook.
Wendy kept the telegram a secret from her father, her mother and her whole host of brothers. She could get there by train and, provided she did not stay long, be back home in time for supper. Anything beyond that she could not plan, or even imagine.
She put on her hat and gloves and high-heeled shoes. The dress she chose to wear was her favourite, not the finest she had but rather the most comfortable. If her hands shook, as she approached the wrought iron gates, she did her best to ignore it.
A nurse in the entrance hall directed Wendy to the matron's office down the corridor to the right. She went there, stopping to compose herself before she knocked on the half-open door.
"Come in," a woman's voice answered.
Wendy pushed the door ajar and stepped across the threshold, catching sight of an elderly nurse who stood near the window holding a notebook of some kind. "Nurse Layton?"
"I'm here to visit a patient," Wendy said and her body tensed in anxious preparation. "James Hook."
"Then you must be Wendy Darling," the nurse concluded with a warm smile. "Please, take a seat."
Wendy sat down, arranging her skirts as she did so. Tried to concentrate on that simple, everyday act instead of other matters. "The telegram didn't mention—" She broke off, breathing deeply. "Is he badly hurt?"
"He's much improved," Nurse Layton emphasised. She settled on the chair behind the desk, put the notebook in one of the drawers and closed it. When she looked up at Wendy again, her face was more serious. "He was terribly weak when they brought him in, though, and I don't think he would have survived, had he stayed in the water much longer."
"Water?" Wendy repeated, taken aback.
"A local fishing boat discovered him floating in the sea a little over a week ago," the nurse explained. "Oddly enough they weren't near any of the major shipping routes at the time, so it's something of a mystery—to be honest, I had hoped you might shed light on what happened."
Wendy's heart flipped over and she averted her eyes, so the older woman wouldn't be able to read them. "I'm as much at a loss as you are, Nurse Layton. He hasn't told you himself?"
The nurse hesitated. "I'm afraid he can't, Miss Darling," she finally said, in a soft tone. "He seems to have lost some of his memory, because of the accident. However," she was quick to add, "Dr. MacTavish has treated patients with this affliction in the past and there's a good chance that, given time, he'll fully recover."
Wendy frowned. Under any other circumstances she would have been distraught by such news, but if it was Hook—and the doubts she had nursed were fast fading—then it was surely less a question of what he had lost than of what he had chosen to divulge. "But—he remembered me?"
Nurse Layton nodded. "Quite clearly, Miss Darling, both you and your brothers. I understand he's an old friend of the family?"
Wendy choked down a sudden sputter of disbelief. "Yes, he is," she confirmed, if somewhat roughly. "What else has he said?"
"He's not a talkative man, but he did say you're a master storyteller," the nurse replied and Wendy snapped to attention. "It's how we knew where to send the telegram," Nurse Layton continued. "One of the nurses in the ward has a young son who loves your writing and Mr. Hadfield at the publishing company was very helpful."
"Oh." Wendy fell silent. Certitude had filled her to the brim and she had, absurdly, half a mind to flee but the other half, the reckless, fearless Wendy who had sought to be a pirate, prompted her to charge ahead and proved stronger, in the end. She rose, wobbly knees and legs be damned. "I'd like to go to him now."
"Of course!" Nurse Layton got to her feet, keys rattling at her hasty movement. "I should think he's on the terrace. It's such a fine day today and he prefers to be outside, watching the sea."
They headed out of the room, the nurse locking it behind them, then past the entrance hall and down another echoing corridor, flanked on either side by small and nearly identical rooms, most of which were occupied. At the end of that corridor, there was a pair of glass doors and Nurse Layton slowed her strides.
"Wait here, Miss Darling."
Wendy made halt while the nurse walked out on the terrace and glanced around. She lit up, suddenly, and beckoned Wendy forward.
"The younger girls have been all agog with excitement," Nurse Layton remarked, when Wendy was close enough to hear her, "and no wonder. He does look quite the pirate, doesn't he? Even without that dreadful hook."
The ability to breathe, Wendy decided, wasn't something she would ever take for granted again. His chair was placed facing the blue-tinted sea, but he had turned towards them and she could see his eyes. She was wide awake and she could see his eyes.
"I'll leave you then," the nurse said, jarringly cheerful. "If there's anything else, just come and speak to me." And with that, she was off, disappearing into the building.
Wendy remained perfectly still, staring unabashed at the man in front of her. Daylight did him no kindness in this place. It bled him dry, carving lines and shadows that had not existed before. And together with the fact that those sable locks, though not shorn, were gathered with a cord at the nape, it lent him an air of stark, painful severity.
A gull cried in the distance, bringing her out of her stunned daze. She started to advance one step at a time, as if she was treading on a path fraught with peril and danger. "Captain?"
She sank heavily onto the empty chair next to him, feeling a ripple of shock at the familiar sound of his voice. "Are you real, James Hook, or am I dreaming you?"
He lifted his good hand from the armrest, the loose sleeve of the hospital robe falling back, and he twisted the hand this way and that, observing it from all angles. "I don't know," he answered, like she had once answered him, in the richly furnished cabin on the Jolly Roger, "but there is flesh beneath this sorry skin."
Wendy reached for him, compelled by an overwhelming urge, as if sight alone could not convince her. Realising she still wore the gloves, she impatiently removed them, then slid her fingers along his forearm, wavering between curiosity and embarrassment. Though he stiffened, he didn't try to hinder her and she was acutely aware of each detail: the quiver of muscles, the texture of the short, dark hairs, the slight ridge of a vein. His gaze was fixed upon her and Wendy fought a growing blush. It should not be possible for something so cool, so crystalline, to burn so much. "You are," she managed, "or I've gone mad."
It earned her a brief, sharp grin and she pulled away from him. Looked away from him—the view of the sea being safer by far than that of the captain. A solitary boat was silhouetted against the horizon and she wondered momentarily if it was the same fishing boat that had plucked him from the waves. "You lied to them, didn't you, about losing your memory?"
Hook chuckled harshly, but not without humour. "It was a convenient excuse, Miss Darling."
"And a risky one." She shot a glance at him. "How?"
"Happy thoughts and fairy dust," he said, not bothering to pretend he didn't know what she was referring to. "I've used it all up."
"But you don't—" Wendy gasped, aghast. "Fairy dust? You abducted some poor, defenceless fairy?"
"You need not look so cross, Miss Darling," Hook replied, plainly amused by her reaction. "I can assure you it was a mutual agreement. Pan had dismissed her in the cruellest of manners, as he so often does, and she was—favourable to my suggestions."
"Tinkerbell?" She almost believed him, if only because it was so easy to picture it: the pirate and the quick-tempered fairy, in the depths of the seething jungle, the sombre and the bright, plotting to thwart that wretched boy. "Peter's Tinkerbell? And you trusted her not to betray you?"
"No, but it was nevertheless a gamble I was willing to take."
Wendy bit her lip, struck by a realisation. "It's the reason you asked me about the Lost Boys, isn't it?" She searched his face for an answer and finding it, was not entirely pleased. "Since when have you been planning this, Captain?"
He drew the faded woollen blanket higher, patting it smooth as if it was velvet or gold-shot silk. "If a ragged band of children could do it, then so might Hook, might he not?" he mused more to himself than to her, then said, "It wasn't a fully-fledged plan, Miss Darling. Not until the night I stumbled across Pan's tiny companion, weeping like her heart had been shattered and, I dare say, stomped upon."
"This plan of yours," she questioned, amazed in equal measure by the bravery and the complete and utter folly of his scheme. "Did it include nearly getting yourself drowned?"
His mouth formed a thin line below the moustache and she spotted the barest hint of red on his cheekbones. "It did not. But fairies are fickle creatures, as you must know, Miss Darling. She forgave the boy and remembered, most untimely, her resentment of me."
A chill coursed through her. Peter had played such a game on their first journey to Neverland, pointing and laughing in glee when she, Michael or John tumbled downwards, but he had always saved them before it was too late. "Oh, dear."
"Not the phrase I would choose, but yes," the captain agreed. "Had the fall been longer, the sea would have had its fill of me."
Wendy fiddled with a glove, tangled images of an abandoned ship creeping to the front of her consciousness. "I dreamt that you were gone," she admitted. "I thought you had died. I never even considered the notion that you might have left." She shook her head, bewildered. "Why on earth would you attempt such a thing?"
His expression grew shuttered and she almost didn't expect him to give her a proper reply, but he did. "To be free of him," he said tersely and touched the stump, prodding the edge of the bone and the puckered scar tissue. "The wound festered before it healed. It put a fever in me that no medicine could quench and no doctor, white or Indian, could cure." He leaned his elbows on his thighs, would perhaps have clasped his hands, had he been able to. "I sailed to the ends of Neverland, Miss Darling, but the boy drew me back. Hauled me in like a fish, as if the hook was lodged in my palate and not strapped to my arm."
"And now?" she quietly asked.
"Now? I am here and he is not," Hook said. "It is better—it will be better, I think." He looked at her and added wryly, "I found the door."
With his neck craned like that, Wendy could see something she had failed to notice earlier. Among the coils of hair fastened by the cord, there was a single strand that was ashy grey. Her breath caught in her throat, it was becoming a habit, and her fingertips tingled. The spells of Neverland were truly loosening their hold on him. "Then I'm glad," she said, and meant it. "But—what will you do, Captain? How will you live?"
"You have no cause for concern, Miss Darling," he responded with a curving of lips that was practically a smirk and the crow's feet at his temples crinkled. "The items I had hid on my person will suffice to make me a man of some considerable wealth."
It struck her speechless at first, then she laughed. "Is that so, James Hook? You should count yourself lucky the fishermen didn't rob you."
"They were honest to a fault, all three of them," he informed her, "and they thought me an honest man."
"And you let them keep the delusion?" Wendy snorted. "Black-hearted villain."
He did not retaliate by claiming she was a foolish girl, or worse, pure-hearted, what he said was, "Red-Handed Jill."
Wendy lifted her brows in surprise, a peculiar sensation in the pit of her stomach. She had been entranced by him, had feared and hated him by turns. Liking him, had not been an option. But it occurred to her now that it might be. "You read my book."
"Twice," he answered, slowly stretching his back. "Pirate tales and happily ever afters, Miss Darling?"
"It's for children," she retorted. "Besides, I had not intended you to see it. My—"
It was not a ticking that interrupted her. It was the church bells that were tolling and Wendy counted the strokes, then jumped from the chair, swiftly bending to retrieve the glove that had dropped from her lap.
"I have to go, or I'll miss the train," she rushed to say as she straightened, regarding him pensively. She had wished she would break through the wall of his sleep, on so many occasions, and she had wanted those dark lashes to sweep up and reveal what lay beneath. Forget-me-not eyes. Seafarer eyes. And she knew not if she had willed it to happen, somehow, but she did not regret that it had. "I will come back. I can promise you that, this time."
Hook acknowledged it with a nod and a none too gentle smile that stayed with her as she hurried to the station, navigating through the busy streets and in between houses that the sun had painted in a ruddy gold.
She still couldn't imagine how the story would continue, or guess at how it would end, but she felt light, almost weightless. As if she could fly.
Finding out, she thought, would be an awfully big adventure.