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After the Ball

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There was a hush over the starry London night that was echoed throughout the Darling household. It was the first peace that house had known for many, many days. Yet George Darling could not rest. He was infinitely grateful to be rid of the night terrors -- visiting him punctually, on every night in recent memory -- in which each of his children in turn accused him of neglecting them, wanting to be rid of them, treating them like dirt under his feet, always ending in Wendy's tearful pleas to bring them back, to come and save them. Nor had the days passed easily. He had worked mechanically, morning to night, hardly knowing what he did or to whom he spoke, coming home long after dark to find his wife sleeping fitfully in the same chair in the nursery. They had been like strangers, hardly greeting each other when he did find her awake, turning away from each other when they occasionally shared a bed.

He could never begin to describe everything that had rushed through him at the sight of the three smudged, smiling faces suddenly, inexplicably returned to him, his little ones sprawled right there on the nursery floor. At first he had frozen, unwilling to believe his eyes lest they were cruelly deceiving him once again, for like his wife, he, too, had often seen them there in his mind's eye.

But oh! this time it was so blessedly real, and everything holding him together had broken, and he'd seen the delight in their eyes as he'd finally shown them everything he had never been able to say.

He was simply too happy to sleep. Which was unfortunate, because he finally held his beautiful wife in his arms once again; she, too, had been set alight, completely restored to life. He gently shifted her to her pillow and carefully slid out of the bed, some instinct pulling him toward the nursery. He just needed to see them sleeping there, to keep proving to himself that they truly had returned to him.

He soundlessly eased open the door, stopping first at Michael's bed. The cherubic face was so perfectly innocent in sleep, and he smiled as he gently stroked the little boy's head. He did the same at John's bedside, puzzling over the soft frown that lined his eldest son's brow, wondering why he had ever wished his children to grow up. It suddenly seemed to him that his boy was doing so far too quickly as it was.

And Wendy... The third bed was empty! Agonizing fear flooded back into him, spreading instantly throughout his body, chilling his veins, turning his blood to ice. And then he caught sight of her, kneeling at the window, staring out into the night, and he breathed again. He hesitated before joining her, waiting for his heartbeat to calm, for his hands to stop trembling. Eventually, he was able to kneel beside her, and as her face turned up to his, bathed in tears, he said nothing but merely took her hands in his and waited for her to speak.

"Father, he's gone," she whispered bleakly. "Peter's gone, and I don't believe what he said. I don't believe he's ever coming back. I wish I did, but I just don't."

He watched her in silence for a few moments, the ache in her eyes, the absolute knowledge that her beloved playmate, her first love, would never return to her, and a mournful awe overtook him. She was a child no longer.

"My dear, I'll tell you a true thing, and I think you'll understand what I mean. Sometimes, even when...even when people...care about each other, their lives simply cannot take the same course. In Neverland, you were adventuring, and gadding about, and apparently going into some dangers of which I...I frankly don't wish to know the half. But that is...that is a holiday, Wendy, my dear; that isn't living. And you knew that, or you wouldn't have come back. And Peter cannot belong here; he cannot grow up. He is the spirit of youth in all of us; so...so when you are grown, and when you are old, he will still be with you, in a way, because he will be the memory in you of the little girl you once were. We all need him, Wendy; he must stay as he is, he must never grow up. And I...I found him inside myself, and it's a mercy I did, before...before it was too late, and I... Oh, Wendy, I know I've been a poor sort of father, but I mean to mend all that now, before you grow so far away from me that I never can reach you."

Wendy bowed her head as several more tears trickled down. Carefully, and a little warily, she leaned forward into her father's shoulder, softly weaving her arms about his neck. Her breath hitched as she was encased instantly in his embrace.

"We came back because we were beginning to forget," she murmured. "We couldn't remember the sounds of your voices, or the scent of Mother's perfume... Father, it just wasn't there anymore, in my head. I thought I was frightened of Captain Hook and the pirates, of losing Peter, but none of that frightened me so much as that moment when I realized I could forget everything, that I could get lost in Neverland..."

For a little while, he could make no answer; this revelation, and what it might have meant for their family, had taken hold of him and shaken him apart. "I suppose it has to be that way, for...for those who don't return," he finally stammered. "It would be too cruel never to grow up, never truly to live, and know what you were missing."

Wendy pulled back a little, meeting his faltering gaze squarely and surely. "Captain Hook said that we ran away from home. We didn't mean to, but I'm afraid we did, and in spite of things turning out well in the end, we shouldn't have done it. We were unhappy, and we wanted an adventure. Peter said that to live would be an awfully big adventure, and that's what I want now, Father. I want us all to have that adventure here, together." Her expression turned very solemn, her eyes slightly brimming over once again, and she added: "I'm sorry, too, Father. I'm sorry I hurt you so much."

He pulled her close once again, painfully mindful of the past rarity of moments like these, winding her soft hair around his fingers, unwilling ever to let her go. "It's only that we've been working at cross-purposes, my dear. It takes solid effort to understand another person's feelings, and for some reason we've got to try harder at it than most. And I haven't been doing my share, but things will be different now, I promise."

Wendy was silent for so long that he thought she'd fallen asleep, and he was just about to lift her to carry her back to bed when she spoke again, whispering in his ear: "I love you, Father."

Try as he might, he couldn't answer her; his throat had closed, choking off the flow of words from his heart to his mouth. Instead, he laid a kiss in the center of her forehead, in the same spot as he had done some hours before, and bore her carefully back to her bed, gently smoothing the covers over her. He hesitated at her bedside, stroking away the remnants of her tears. "Have patience with me, Wendy," he pleaded. "I've spent a long time locking things away. It might take time to tell you everything you need to hear. But it will happen...you'll see."

She gave him a brilliant smile, the one that seemed to him to flare up within her until it blazed out like a star exploding. "I don't mind waiting, Father, not anymore. I just wanted you to know."