It was a cool, clear morning in late spring when Jack took the ship as a prize. He had seen her sails on the horizon at eight bells the previous day and he was more than usually hard up; again his poor choices had left him in debt, and again the Surprise had been sent to sail empty seas beneath empty skies, with nary a prize to be had from here to Gibraltar.
She was a pirate vessel, and larger than his own- a 36-gun Spanish galleon to his 28-gun frigate- but the sight of her had ensnared Jack’s heart. He could think of nothing else. He let her lead him on a merry chase into a bank of mist, and all the while he watched the cut of her sails through his spyglass. She flew Rackham’s black, which was odd, as Rackham had been dead and hanged for more than eighty years.
The mist was a damned unnatural one, all things considered, and it did not seem at all inclined to let up. Jack paced the quarterdeck well into the evening, his mind preoccupied with all the many little responsibilities that weighed upon him as captain, until Preserved Killick came lumbering up from below with his greatcoat freshly-warmed and the promise of toasted cheese.
“It ain’t a natural fog, old Stephen,” said Jack later that night, when he and Stephen were at their music. “Sure as there’s carts to horses.”
Stephen, who cared for the weather only insofar as it confounded his sunbathing, had no helpful opinions on the matter, and morning saw Jack pacing the quarterdeck once again, watching the distant sails as the fog began to lift. The sky cleared, sunlight sparkled merrily upon the water. There was an island coming up on the port side but as they were in no danger of running aground, Jack paid it no mind.
The pirate galleon was quick despite her size, but as Bonden drew the Surprise ever-nearer, Jack spied the crewmen aboard scurrying this way and that like rabbits flushed from their warrens. Slow to their guns, slow to tack, slow to turn. It was a shoddy display of gunnery, yet every man was armed for combat, and each had a wicked look. They expected to be boarded.
It was a quick, bloody, necessary bit of warfare, with no hands lost on the side of King and Country and only a handful of pirates sent off to Fiddler’s Green. Jack had hoped for a clean affair- whatever Stephen might say, he had no taste for killing- but even he could not have anticipated so clean an engagement as this. The colors struck, the surrender made, frigate and galleon bobbing side by side in calm seas. As neat an action as ever you could ask for.
Pirates were not afforded quite the same niceties as the French, yet Jack, being in particularly good humor at this stroke of luck, had insisted that the pirate captain join him in his cabin for dinner. A mistake, as it turned out, for now he bore the burden of making conversation, an activity to which he applied himself with enthusiasm if not with skill.
“Do you know, sir,” he said, as he stood at the head of the table and made a game effort at slicing the roast pork, “it is a fine ship, a very fine ship indeed, and had she not been crewed by such an ill-looking passel of landsmen you should have had the advantage of us, no mistake. My dear, if you please.”
“With all my heart,” said Stephen, rising to assume the duty of carving.
It was the two of them, several officers, and a midshipman, with Killick hovering mulishly behind the door. The pirate sat and took his dinner with the rest of them, speaking only occasionally, and when he did it was with a soft, well-educated voice, suggesting something of a deep old file. He had thick, dark hair tied back in a queue, and eyes that were almost as pale as Stephen’s. Indeed, he reminded Jack of Stephen a great deal, in that he had a great distaste for authority and tyrants. But he cared nothing for animals or children, and he quoted Latin and passages from books that Jack had never heard of. Stephen quoted Latin, and books that Jack had never heard of, but it was different when Stephen did it.
“This has been a very pleasant evening,” said the pirate, after they had finished their pudding and were well into the after-dinner drinking. He wiped his mouth delicately with a handkerchief and set it aside. “I’m afraid, however, that I and my men have spent the better part of the day as your prize. I would ask that you return my sword to me and turn us loose, as I really haven’t the time to continue to indulge you.”
Jack, a little drunk and feeling pleasantly over-full from eating so well, looked at the pirate with great surprise. “Turn you loose, sir?” He looked at Stephen in case he had misheard, for his ear was not what it was, and at Stephen’s answering look of astonishment he turned back to the captain. “Well, it ain’t quite the thing in His Majesty’s navy, I’m afraid. I’ve a mind to have Pullings take the prize crew back up to Portsmouth where I don’t doubt you’ll be hanged. There will certainly be a trial.”
There was a long silence as the pirate studied his empty plate. His right hand tapped his thigh absent-mindedly, and his left lay upon the table, where the midshipman was surreptitiously craning his head to get a better look at it. It was not a hand at all, for the hand had been hacked off crudely at the wrist, and a polished silver hook had been affixed to the stump in its stead.
“I see,” said the pirate. Then he said, “He won’t like that.”
A shadow flashed past the cabin windows. “Jack,” said Stephen, rising from his chair. “Something is outside.”
This was followed by a cry from the lookout, and a shriek from the whistle- Jack all but threw his chair aside in his urgency to reach the quarterdeck. There he found that the sun had set very low, the nearest smear of beeswax gold on the horizon, and the ship- his ship, his fair Surprise- had been overrun by natives.
Jack had never seen the like before, not in the West Indies, or America, or anywhere else. They must surely have been the people of the island, for their skin was very dark, and they were dressed in the most extraordinary array of feathers and animals skins. They had dressed themselves like tropical flowers, or birds of paradise, and every one of them weirded a spear or a hatchet or a wicked-looking blade. They had his crew on their knees, hands tied behind their backs. If there had been a fight, it had been a short and bloodless one.
Jack heard a peal of laughter, high and clear, and a cock crow wailing in the dark. He looked up and saw a pale slip of a boy with hair the color of a roebuck, sitting in the spars without any evident care in the world. He had a perfect little dimple on his right cheek and a wicked expression in his eyes.
As he met Jack’s gaze he laughed again, and stood. Jack saw him walk upon the air, neat as never-you-mind, and stand there with his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Ahoy, avast!” he cried at the deck below, grinning at Jack’s look of astonishment. “Are you having fun down there? It was all my idea, of course- Tiger Lily is not half so clever as to come up with such an attack herself. I, however, am the cleverest boy on the island. Handsome, brave, and true, of course, and I hate all things wicked and odious. I shall be taking that fearsome Captain Hook now, or else I shan’t have anything wicked to hate, and that won’t do. So give him here, or I’ll . . . oh! I know! I shall cut off your head and put it on a stick outside my door.”
Jack would’ve given his right hand for a pistol shot then. Flight or no flight, the boy talked like a drunk midshipman, and Jack would’ve felt a certain grim satisfaction in dropping him to the deck. It was the assault against reason more than anything else. Jack was a sailor at heart and readily believed that there were more things in heaven and earth Horatio, etc. etc., but he was also inclined to believe that nothing in heaven and earth ought to talk to him that way on the deck of his own ship. In a startling moment of coincidence, he saw Stephen on the opposite side of the deck with his own flintlock, aiming it at the boy. Jack allowed himself a smile of fierce triumph; it was an exquisite moment of two minds thinking alike in crisis, and he found himself unconscionably pleased by it.
Stephen was a handy shot, but the boy was fast. He positively pirouetted, soaring with the grace of a dancer, and the shot missed entirely. The child’s face had become a mask of indignant rage. Jack leapt forward, sword in hand, snarling, but it did him no good; in one swift lunge, the boy had shot down the length of the ship, kicking Stephen hard in the chest with both feet and sending him toppling backwards into the sea.
Jack Aubrey, as a rule, was unfailingly buoyant- at sea and in demeanor both. Stephen, at sea and in demeanor, was prone to sinking to great depths. So he found himself sinking now. He had some little skill in paddling about, but at this moment every technique had fled his mind. He kicked and clawed at the water. Bubbles burst from his mouth in a great rush and he sank down, down. It was at times like these that he bitterly regretted his failure to master the waves. He was a landsman, an utterly terrestrial creature. He had no business upon the water. But oh, for Jack, for Jack he would conquer any wave, though at this moment the waves were conquering him.
Something warm and firm gripped his heel, slithering up his leg. Stephen struggled on instinct, his panicked mind filled with thoughts of seaweed, octopi, monstrous eels. The last of his air fled him; he was beginning to grow faint. Whatever had him caught him up about the waist and began to heave him through the water, up towards the dancing, warped impression of moonlight. It dragged him at an angle, not merely towards the air. It was dragging him away from the Surprise.
His head broke the surface. He gasped, trembled, snorted water from his nose. Whatever had him did not let go. It dragged him further still, and Stephen, with his eyes full of seawater, could not clearly make out who it was. At last he was ejected, as it were, out onto the sandy shores of a secluded cove. He coughed water, shivering all over, and hissed at the sudden transition from warm water to burning hot sand. He rubbed his eyes, blinked dimly at the sea and his rescuer. There among the scattered waves, perfectly at ease, sat a woman of astonishing physical beauty. She was bare-breasted and dark-eyed, and her head was tilted quizzically to the right, as though she were studying him.
“Madam,” Stephen croaked, to which the woman let out a monstrous screech, quite inhuman, and dove beneath the waves. Her legs ought to have flashed behind her. They did not. Only a tail, as bright and resplendent with colors as that of any tropical fish. Then she was gone.
In dreams we take the weird and wondrous in our stride. We find ourselves in a curious state of acceptance. It was here that Stephen resided now, though he knew it to be no dream. He sat upon the sand, soaked to the skin, looking at the place where the mer-maid had dipped beneath the waves, and wondered at his extraordinary circumstances. Not once did it occur to him to doubt what he had seen. He had seen it, and his eyes were those of a naturalist and an observer- they could be trusted. As he looked about him, dazed and full of wonder, he found that the mer-maid was only the beginning of the natural wonders this island could provide. Here were flowers that snapped at the air, as though to catch butterflies in their honeypot mouths. Here were birds that soared with no apparent thermals, here were hermit-crabs with shells made of natural geodes. It was at once a shock and a delight. Stephen looked about him with his hand over his mouth, his whole face suffused pink with pleasure. Here was a place where he might live out all his days in happiness, were he only united with Jack.
Jack! Oh, Jack! And the Surprise without her surgeon! Stephen came back to himself and stood, craning his neck to see where her lanterns bobbed up and down in the water. Her prize- the Jolly Roger by name, if you could believe it- floated beside her. He could hear no sounds of steel on steel. Stephen’s pistols were gone from their holsters. A great loss, though at any rate they would not have done him any good soaked in seawater.
For a moment, Stephen considered if he might swim to the Surprise, but here out of Jack’s company he could admit to himself that he was no great swimmer, and at any rate the waters were infested with mer-maids. He was just gazing out at the distant sails, wondering if he should send up a signal, when he heard a crunching of twigs from the jungle behind him. Stephen whirled, his pale eyes gone cold with predatory intent, and his blind swing struck a small boy hard in the ear, sending him tumbling end-over-end into a shrub. There were cries of, “Forward, men!” and, “Unfair! Unfair!” as Stephen was suddenly swarmed with children. The shock briefly overwhelmed him, and all notions of fighting fled him. Two twin boys in hairy ape skins leapt at his arms, wrapping themselves around them and screeching all the while. They were all dressed in skins. A leopard, a bear, a wolf . . . even a tortoise, who was now hiding behind a tree, having retreated into his own shell in fright.
The tallest boy, the one dressed in wolf skins, strolled up to Stephen with his chin jutted out and a very superior look on his face. “I am Nibs,” he said, as though announcing himself the Emperor of India, “and you, sir, is a pirate.”
It was not so very far to the island. Stephen might have swum ashore, mightn’t he? The sea was quite calm. Perhaps the old amphibian could paddle all that way. It would have to be so. If it were not, and if Stephen had, as he was wont do, sunk to the very bottom of the sea . . .
The thought made Jack’s head fill with a kind of white-hot buzzing, drowning out all thought or reason. He set the thought aside, locked it away for further study. He could not be cloudy-minded now. Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action. He had to be present.
“It’s a damned unfortunate business, madam,” he said coldly. “You’d best be grateful none of my men were harmed, and that my surgeon can swim.”
The Jolly Roger was no more than a distant sail, and her lanterns shone like flecks of gold in the darkness. It galled Jack to see her sail away, pretty as you please, with Captain Jas. Hook’s spyglass gleaming from her quarterdeck every few seconds. No doubt looking back at Jack and laughing. Jack felt a fool, and a scrub besides.
The princess of the natives stood beside him at the rail. She was a little thing, plain but pretty, with a magnificent headdress of exotic feathers that towered over her head, almost doubling her diminutive size. Her interpreter stood just behind her left shoulder. He bowed to Jack. “The princess says that the laws of her island must be obeyed. Hook cannot leave. It is not permitted.”
“He is your prisoner, then?” said Jack, as his former prize sailed around the perimeter of the island and disappeared.
“The princess says that it is so,” said the interpreter. The princess- Tiger Lily, by name- nodded solemnly. “He is a willing prisoner, if such things can be. You might chase him round and round the island forever if you so chose. Still he could never leave. He loves being a pirate too much.”
Jack found this thought strangely thrilling. Captain Hook was charismatic, compelling. A worthy enemy, if he could only get his crew in line. The notion of cat-and-mousing him all around the island was a rather good one. Jack could not have said what it was about his place, but it pleased him exceedingly. The wind was fair; he always had the weather gauge. The color of the sea promised a clear, candy-colored blue in the light of day, and the air smelled of something pleasantly sweet and heavy. The island itself was a featureless shadow at this hour of the night, but the rustling of trees and chittering of wild animals promised a densely-jungled paradise full of all manner of troublesome animals for Stephen to dissect.
“It is a very queer island, madam,” said Jack, “and I suppose I cannot fault the man for staying here. I myself could stay here for a very long time indeed, but for the requirements of the service,” He looked down at Tiger Lily and inclined his head. “Unfortunately, I think it’d be a damned sight better if we went our separate ways.”
“The princess says that that would be for the best.”
“But I should like to be reunited with my man before we go. I’m afraid I ain’t leaving otherwise.”
“The princess says she does not know which man you mean. She does not understand you.”
“My surgeon, madam. He took a shot at that lad who flew off into the trees.”
“The princess says she remembers now; the ill-looking man with the very grown-up eyes. She saw him reach the shore, in the arms of a sea-maiden, but she will not allow any more of your men to touch her land. If you must reclaim your surgeon, you must go alone.”
Jack felt somewhat put out at this. It was true that Stephen was very ugly and had nothing in the way of personal charms, but it pained Jack to hear it said so plainly. Stephen was his dearest friend, and it did not matter if his eyes were pale and his teeth were yellow. If his hands were stained with ink it was of no consequence. They were Stephen’s hands, and had knit Jack together countless times, from countless scrapes with the French. What did Jack care if he was whip-thin and sunburnt? So long as he ate enough, and continued to smile, and looked at Jack with such exceedingly great affection that anyone might have thought Jack was one of his exotic specimens.
Jack became aware that he had lost the thread of his thoughts, and abruptly returned his focus to the matter at hand. “Be that as it may,” he said stiffly, “I ain’t leaving without him, grown-up eyes or no. I’ll do it alone- unarmed, if you like. Mind your people don’t give me any more trouble and they won’t have any trouble with mine.”
The feathers atop Tiger Lily’s head swayed and fluttered in the sea breeze. She squinted up at him for a long moment, as though looking at the sun, before nodding.
The interpreter inclined his head. “The princess says that will be well, but she can make no such promise on Pan’s behalf. The boy,” he explained, at Jack’s questioning look. “He plays by his own rules, and is beholden to no one. Not even Tiger Lily and her father.”
“If he makes trouble with me, that’s our affair,” said Jack. He signaled for Bonden to ready the launch and looked back down at Tiger Lily. His expression softened. She could not have been much older than his own girls. “Soon as the good doctor is back on board we’ll make sail and leave you to your . . . what is it called, again? Your name for this island?”
“The princess says it is called Neverland.”
There was a wit in there somewhere, but Jack could not think of it. He was still turning it over in his mind by the time the launch was readied, and as he was slowly lowered over the side, he watched in amazement as one by one Tiger Lily and her natives leapt into the sea in graceful arcs. Their shadows rippled beneath the waves; he watched them swim, very fast, back to the shoreline and presumably their homes.
“Neverland,” he murmured quietly, enchanted by the word.
They called themselves the Lost Boys, and they lived in a hideaway that they had dug for themselves beneath the forest floor. A cluster of trees marked the spot, and each boy was suited to his particular tree; they had been hollowed out, and the only way to gain entrance to the hideout involved a complicated maneuver of wiggling and shimmying. Having established that Stephen was not a pirate, he was invited- quite forcefully- to make use of one of these trees, and, being a small man, he managed it with only minimal loss of breath.
The interior of their hideaway was very close and dirty, and the furniture was all very small. Exotic skins had been spread across the floor, presumably as trophies of their kills, and a fire roared unattended in the grate, filling the whole cavern with a stuffy, smoky miasma. Tangles of roots dripped from the ceiling like low-hanging chandeliers, just brushing the crown of Stephen’s head. His eyes were watering. He looked around him in equal parts bewilderment and amusement.
There were six boys in all. Twin monkeys, who tumbled about the room, always at odds- Nibs, the tall one in the wolf skin and the de facto leader- Curly, who was very small and fat and dressed in leopard spots- Tootles, who sat in the corner, hunched into his twin tortoise shells- and Slightly, a bear, who trudged about in such a dismal manner that Stephen was reminded irresistibly of Jack’s escape from France. All of them were dirty, all of them were loud, and all of them had dimples when they smiled.
“Well, now you know everyone,” said Nibs proudly, with his nose in the air. Curly whispered something in his ear; he frowned. “Oh, yes. This is Tinker Bell. Say hello, Tink.”
Stephen was at a loss until Nibs jerked his head over his shoulder, gesturing to a nearby cubbyhole scraped out of the dirt. To his astonishment he saw a strikingly beautiful woman sitting there, no more than three inches high, sipping from a dewdrop on a leaf. She wore her blond ringlets loose about her shoulders and was dressed in a handsome frock of cowslip petals. Upon hearing her name she glanced about her, then caught sight of Stephen. She folded her arms and gazed down her nose at him with a look of arch distain.
Stephen did not know what to think. He bowed low. “Miss Bell,” he said, “Doctor Stephen Maturin. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The boys shrieked with laughter. Tinker Bell, however, blushed quite pink, and began to speak with the sound of silver bells in summer. Stephen could not understand a word of it, but he took her meaning, and when he held out his arm as though offering to escort her she flew from her perch and settled upon his arm. The light touch of her feet reminded him of holding a spider in his cupped hands; it was the same peculiar, almost ticklish sensation of tiny footfalls.
Now that they had Stephen, there was quite a bit of disagreement among the Lost Boys as to what to do with him. “If you ain’t a pirate,” said Slightly suspiciously, “then what are you?”
It would have been nothing to escape them and go about his day, but some insatiably scientific part of Stephen’s brain had a burning desire to see where this would go. He looked down at Tinker Bell. She jingled pleasantly. “I am a physician,” he said, with great caution. “In His Majesty’s royal navy, under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Surprise.”
This pronouncement resulted in a flurry of activity. A physician, a physician- what was a physician? Well, it was a kind of doctor. A doctor? And at this the boys fell upon him all at once, each delightedly proclaiming some fatal ailment from which they desired to be cured. Stephen, overwhelmed, urged them to form an orderly queue. This proved to be a foreign concept to them.
“Well, you must stay now,” said the twins as one. “You can be our doctor!”
“Oh, oh! In a little house two towns over!” cried Slightly.
Nibs struck the table with his fist. “Yes! With all manner of expensive medicines-”
“-oh, we can never pay!”
“We’s only poor children!”
“And we must walk all that way, and in the rain, with wolves upon the road . . .”
“And cutthroats! Bandits!”
“My dears!” Stephen cried, nearing the end of his patience. “My dears! I am here; if any of you are ill, I can certainly attend . . .”
This was met with a chorus of, “No, no,” and Curly fervently shaking his head, declaring that he was no doctor at all if it did not take at least a week to fetch him, but as it was far less than a day’s ride from one end of the island to the other, perhaps merely a brisk walk would do. So Stephen was led by the hand back up the tree trunk and through the forest from whence he came, up to a rocky promontory that rose high out above the sea, and there he was told to sit and contemplate matters medical.
He had been there scarcely ten minutes, catching his breath and staring with dull confusion out at the Surprise where she bobbed in the bay, when Slightly came staggering up to him, hurling himself at his feet and proclaiming that Stephen was his savior; the turtle boy, Tootles, was terribly ill, and Stephen was the only physician for miles around, and would he please take this money- a handful of pebbles- for it was all dear Tootles’ mother had left in the world, and she a poor widow with the dropsy, and he must come at once with all his finest physicks or else poor Tootles must surely pass on to his reward.
So back they went, over the rivers and between the trees, with the bear-skinned Slightly dragging him along all the way, talking cheerfully of fevers, tremblings, sweats in the night, confusion of the bowels, humors, swellings, sores, boils. Had Stephen seen many dead men? Yes, Stephen had. Not half so many as Slightly had seen, for Slightly had killed four-and-twenty pirates at least, and all of them big, dreadful men with horrible scars. Was it true that Stephen might take the top of a man’s head off, set his brains to rights, and nail a bit of metal on to hold the thoughts back in? No, said Stephen, fearing that the boy might knock someone’s head in to see it done. Slightly looked oddly deflated by the news, but brightened as he realized that such things were beyond a poor country doctor’s means anyway, and he should not have asked it of him.
When at last they returned to the hideout they found Tinker Bell fluttering about in a state of great agitation. Upon seeing Stephen she brightened, quite literally, and came to rest upon his shoulder. Her wings resembled those of a dragonfly, and a faint golden dust shone upon them. She lay down and stretched luxuriously, making herself comfortable as Stephen began the laborious effort of climbing back down into the cave.
Once there, he found Tootles lying as though dead, with the other boys crowded around him in an attitude of solemn contemplation. Stephen’s eyes narrowed. He examined the boy, checked his pulse, his breath. Noted the way one eye opened and followed him about the room when his back was turned.
It occurred to him that this was play. In some sense he had already known that, but now he knew it for sure. Stephen wouldn’t have indulged them for a moment- he was very tired, and would have dearly loved even a few hours sleep before the dawn- but Slightly’s off-handed comments about the pirates had struck him. There were scalps strung up along what passed for a mantle, and bones wherever a weapon needed a handle. They were peculiar boys, and on an island with mer-maids and little sprites like Tinker Bell, Stephen did not think it unlikely that their play took them too far. The thought of them breaking off Tootles’ arm so that Stephen might sew it on again came to mind. Stephen grimaced and began to think of a plan.
“Well,” he said slowly. “I see what ails your poor friend here.”
The boys leaned in as one, eager for the diagnosis. Stephen had treated troublesome midshipman before, and he knew the value of a good placebo. He also knew the value of a wild goose-chase. “Fetch me the beak of a snipe, together with the gizzard,” he said- the boys were already scrambling over each other to be the first to get it, Tootles included- “and I shall whip together a draft that will put your man to rights.”
Tinker Bell laughed and laughed, rolling around on his shoulder until she fell off. It was cruel laughter, but not joyless. She fluttered up to his face after that and patted his nose as a lady might pat a dog. Stephen felt oddly pleased; her affectionately dismissive attitude reminded him rather a lot of Diana Villiers.
“Well, Miss Bell,” he said politely, inclining his head. “It would appear that we have the room to ourselves.”
He seated himself on the furs by the fire, feeling warm and deeply exhausted. Tinker Bell flitted this way and that, jingling all the while. Stephen attempted to make conversation with her through mime, but she seemed to think he was a hopeless case, for she only laughed, and occasionally twirled in the air, producing a great cloud of golden dust. It was a very peculiar dust. Stephen found himself enchanted by it, plying her with questions as he examined it closer. What was it? Was it particular to her, or to her race? Why did it smell of bow rosin and a summer night in Spain?
In time, the fire grew too warm, and the furs too inviting. Stephen lay himself out upon them, nuzzling in among the wolf pelts. It was contentment itself. Only a few hours left until dawn, and he would be a fool not to take advantage of the boys’ absence . . . a moment’s rest, no more . . . Stephen was only dimly aware that his hand lay open beside his head as he drifted off, and Tinker Bell had settled onto his palm, yawning. She fell asleep curled in on herself like a cat. Her wings were still, her chest rose and fell with tiny breaths. Entirely at ease in the hand of a giant.
Stephen watched her with eyes drowsy with sleep. He closed them, just for a moment.
By the time dawn had crept over the horizon Jack was thoroughly exhausted and no closer to finding Stephen. The island was wild, teeming with every kind of life. There were man-eating plants the size of horses, for God’s sake, and Jack was sure he’d seen a mer-maid in the water. He signaled Pullings to circle the island- best to keep that damned Captain Hook in his sights, even he were honor-bound not to hang him- and was back inland by five bells. He felt uncomfortably hot and sticky in his uniform, but there were no bugs, and the air still had a pleasant, sweet scent to it.
Jack did not call out. Even on an unfamiliar island, perhaps especially on an unfamiliar island, it would not do to shout Stephen’s name too loudly. Still, this was not the first time he’d lost Stephen, and he was determined to comb every inch of the jungle himself. In the end he did not find him until late morning, by the banks of a river that cut through the jungle like a vein of silver, terminating in a waterfall that poured down from high above their heads.
There he found Stephen wandering cheerfully amongst the trees, mother-naked but for a fox skin tunic and his empty pistol holsters. “Devil take you, sir,” Jack said, stumbling up to him through the brush. “I thought you had been captured by natives.”
“My dear, how good to see you,” said Stephen warmly. “Not so; I have been captured by English schoolchildren.”
“Good god, Stephen,” Jack cried, looking about him in alarm.
“Handsomely, Jack, handsomely. You will frighten the birds.”
The birds in question were tall, slender things, rather like storks, that picked their way through the undergrowth with great delicacy. They wandered at will, apparently unafraid of humans. Jack could not have cared less about them. “Where have you been?” he said urgently. He felt a strong desire to embrace Stephen, but restrained himself, knowing how Stephen felt about overly-English displays of affection. “What have you been doing?”
Stephen looked at him fondly. “God help me, Jack, I am at my wit’s end with these children. I have spent the better part of the morning curing them of all sorts of imaginary ills, and performing mock surgeries on their teddy-bears. They are like the most gullible sort of midshipmen. Still, they have none of your midshipman’s superstitions about bathing and hygiene, and they do love to talk about the island. It is a place called Never-land, did you know?”
Jack was about to protest that yes, he did know, when he noticed a brilliant point of light flying this way and that around Stephen’s head. He squinted at it, trying to make it out, but did not quite believe what he was seeing.
“They tell me there is a crocodylus porosus here that has swallowed a clock, and did not die, but instead goes about ticking from the belly,” Stephen continued. His face was flushed with pleasure at the thought. “I should like to study its habits. Oh, I beg your pardon,” He gestured between the point of light and Jack. “Miss Bell, this is Captain Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, and my particular friend. Jack, this is Miss Bell. She is but three inches high and every inch of it is vanity.”
This was said in a tone of such utter affection that Jack felt a twinge of something he did not like to name. He drew himself up to his full height- considerably greater than three inches- and bowed low. “Ma’am,” he said. “A pleasure.”
The little lady alighted on Stephen’s shoulder and curtsied. She eyed Jack with thinly veiled distain, but when she jingled at him it sounded polite enough, and her wings were aglow with a peculiar dust that smelled of sea breeze and figgy-dowdy.
“Miss Bell has been my guide upon the island,” said Stephen cheerfully. He raised his hand to her and she stepped daintily onto his wrist. “I’m afraid her beau has banished her for all time- or perhaps a week, it is unclear. I believe she has allowed me to be her companion for the time being. I can almost understand her tongue.”
The sour twinge in Jack’s belly worsened. “I will never understand your proclivity for such women,” he muttered. “I swear, Stephen, there is nothing so calculated to please you as a woman who might step upon you in her day-shoes.”
“I can hardly help it if Miss Bell walks upon me,” said Stephen with great dignity. “Her tread is very light.”
Jack scowled. He sat down upon the riverbank and watched the little fish flurry away. “I’ve promised the princess of the island that I’d come collect you. We’re meant to be on our way.”
“I see,” said Stephen. He sat down beside Jack and let his bare feet dangle in the water. “I’ll almost miss this place.”
Jack smiled. Stephen was often unkempt, even dirty, but there was a certain boyish glow about him now that made Jack feel warm. He looked quite contented. “Yes. I imagine you’ve had the pleasure of examining all sorts of queer animals. It must be happiness itself.”
“Very nearly. Oh, I should have liked to show Sophia this place. We are like brother and sister,” Stephen sighed, and fell onto his back like a daydreaming child. Tinker Bell, seeing this, began to sprinkle a faint misting of dust over him as though watering a plant; he waved her off. “I should have liked to take you both naturalizing. No doubt it would have bored you to tears.”
“I can think of no greater pleasure,” said Jack. He looked up at the sky, where the canopy swayed back and forth in the tropical breeze. “You know, that ship . . . Captain Hook’s ship. It stays here. I might chase him round and round the island, always with fair wind and fair weather . . .”
“And there are no governments,” yawned Stephen. He stretched; the effect, combined with his fox skin tunic, made him look rather like an animal at rest. “No authorities to answer to at all, and I have discovered a sort of lotus that provokes a pleasant spinning sensation when ingested. I might be very happy here.”
Jack looked down at him, alarmed. “You won’t stay, surely?”
Stephen’s eyes had fallen closed. He opened one of them and squinted at Jack. “Would you let me if I did?” He smiled. “No. I am quite happy on the Surprise, with you and our music.”
Tinker Bell was sitting in the bowl of a nearby flower. At this statement, Jack saw her bristle all over; she crossed both arms and legs, and sat in an attitude of great petulance.
Jack pushed himself to his feet, reluctant to leave this place, and was just about to offer Stephen a hand to help him up when he heard a crow of delight from high above them, and a boy crying out, “Surprise!”
Stephen jerked back to his senses, scrambling to his feet. They watched, wary, as the boy with roebuck hair leapt from the highest point of the waterfall and cut a graceful arc through the air, his hands skimming the water. Just before the moment of impact he seemed to catch himself upon the air and soared up, up, until he hung perfectly at ease in the air above them, arms folded, playful eyes shining. “I’ve found you,” he said proudly. “Bilge-rats like you can’t hide from me on my island!”
“Get down here this instant!” Jack snapped, entirely unwilling to hold a conversation with a boy who insisted on flying.
“Say,” said the boy, ignoring him. “You’re the captain of the Surprise, aren’t you?”
“And who are you, sir?” said Stephen sharply.
The boy bristled all over at this, and spun around in the air with a flourish. “I am not a sir! I am a boy. A wonderful boy, a friend to all boys everywhere and everywhen. I am Peter Pan, and you,” this last was spat accusatorially at Stephen, “are only a simple country doctor. I don’t like it and I don’t like you and I especially don’t like your gang of English pirates!”
“Pirates-” Jack said fiercely, stepping forward with his whole face twisted in indignation. “Now you listen here-”
“They’ve been sailing round and round, looking for Hook,” said Peter carelessly, ignoring him entirely; he did seem to love the sound of his own voice. “And Hook’s been sailing round and round looking for you, Captain! He hasn’t had any time to play with me.”
Jack ground his teeth together. “Well, fortunately for you, you snot-drooling little imp, we are going on our way.”
At that, Peter’s face went very grave. “No, not yet,” he said sharply. “You’ve ruined my war. I want to get some use out of you before I go,” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! I cannot play with Hook, so I shall play with you. Here is how it’s going to be: I challenge you to find Captain Hook’s treasure. The great treasure he has hidden from me on this island. That’ll be great fun,” he said, seeing that Jack was about to speak, “and if you don’t find it, then he,” he pointed rudely at Stephen, “shall have to stay, and be a doctor for my men forever and ever and ever. All they want to do is play house-call and get-the-surgeon and fever-in-the-nursery. They don’t even listen to my stories anymore!”
Jack and Stephen exchanged looks of great astonishment. “And if we win?” said Stephen slowly. “If we find it?”
Peter smiled his dimpled smile. He waved a careless hand. “Oh, if you find it, then you may go on your way. I do not really care.”
By this time all his ranting and gesturing had brought him very nearly to the ground. Noticing this, he sprang to attention, sweeping his cap off his head and bowing low. “You shall have until sunset to do it,” he cried, “and I shall be watching you all the while. Good-bye!”
With that, he leapt straight up in the air, spun around thrice and soared up over the trees.
Jack watched him go, his mouth agape. “Keep you!” he spluttered, when he was again capable of speech. “As if he had some claim over you, by God!”
Tinker Bell hovered just before Stephen’s nose, communicating through bell-chimes and vigorous mime. He consoled her gently and let her rest on his palm. “She tells me he is not really wicked,” he said to Jack. “He is a prince to be reckoned with, worse even than Tiger Lily, but he is childish. He considers himself a friend to all boys everywhere and an enemy of men.”
“An enemy of mine, certainly,” Jack scowled, eyes still on the sky lest Peter swoop back down with his knife drawn.
Tinker Bell made a little chiming sound that resembled laughter. Stephen smiled. “How charming . . . she says he reminds her rather a lot of you.”
Jack chose not to dignify that statement with an answer. “Hook’s treasure,” he muttered, arms crossed, fingers tapping a restless tattoo on his forearm. “Hook’s treasure, Hook’s treasure. Where are we supposed to find Hook’s treasure, for all love? And before sunset?”
“We might ask the boys,” Stephen pointed out. “They have made it their business to know everything there is to know about Hook.”
Jack nodded; there was always sense in what Stephen said. There was an enchantment on this isle, that much was sure, and while they were here they would do well to play by its rules. “Yes . . . yes, I see that,” he said. “Where was it you said they lived?”
After the mortifying revelation that Jack could not fit down any of the trees which lead to the Lost Boys’ hideout- a fact which Stephen could have informed him of without looking- it was decided that Stephen should simply thrust his head into the hollow and shout for them to come up. Up they came, one after the other, and when they were sufficiently convinced that Jack’s naval uniform was not, in fact, pirate regalia, they formed themselves into a sort of line and proclaimed that they would help their doctor find Hook’s treasure at any cost. I am only glad I did not tell them I was a spy, thought Stephen, gazing bemusedly at this rabble. Only imagine the games they would have me play then!
“Do you not find it odd, Stephen,” Jack muttered quietly out of the corner of his mouth, “that every one of them, to a man, has the same handsome dimple at his mouth? Same as that Pan fellow.”
“A boyish trait.”
“My mids don’t have it, I’ll tell you that,” Jack squinted at Stephen’s mouth. “You don’t have it either.”
The twins rolled their eyes in unison. “We can hear you,” they said as one.
Tootles probed his own cheek with his fingers. “It’s a thimble,” he said, with great disgust. “From a fairy.”
“Is that so?” said Stephen, looking at each of them in turn.
Nibs nodded proudly. He smiled, showing off the dimple on his cheek. “I thought everyone knew that, Dr. Sawbones! A dimple is a thimble from a fairy, and we’ve all got one! Even Slightly.”
Tinker Bell, who was sitting on Stephen’s shoulder, nodded solemnly. Jack looked at her in confusion. “A thimble? I’m not sure I understand.”
“The treasure,” said Stephen impatiently. “Hook’s treasure- Pan says it’s hidden somewhere on the island. You boys tell me you’ve hunted Hook for God knows how long. Surely you can tell us where it is.”
“Sure we can!” said Curly. “The treasure’s at the spot where the X is marked!”
“That’s right!” said the twins. “Hook’s map is what you need!”
Stephen frowned. A map leading them to the precise location of the treasure seemed far too easy, and he told the boys this. Nibs wiped his nose on his wrist and gave a derisive cough. “Easy!” he said, indignant. “Ain’t easy, is it! Hook ain’t ever inclined to leave it unguarded! Carries it everywhere!”
That was an unexpected obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. Stephen inclined his head at Jack. “In that case, we shall have to board the Jolly Roger and take her as a prize. That will be nothing at all to you, my dear.”
To his surprise, Jack shook his head. “No, no. You heard the lad. We have but a handful of hours- less, now that we’ve walked all the way here,” He glared at Nibs. “Is there anything at all that Captain Hook fears?”
This time it was Slightly that spoke up. “That ticking crocodile,” he said stiffly. “Hook’s afeared of that thing like nothing else.”
“And is he a fine swordsman?”
“Not compared to Peter. No one’s better than Peter.”
“I see . . .” said Jack thoughtfully. “I see . . .” He thumped his fist into his palm. “We shall have to take him by surprise. But not by Surprise, eh?” he added, his whole body vibrating with sudden mirth. “But how to get to him . . .”
“Why don’t you just fly?” said Curly.
This was met with appalled silence.
“Fly?” said Jack, as though he had not understood the word.
Tinker Bell had begun fluttering about in a state of great excitement, but Stephen hardly noticed. He was staring down at Curly, utterly dumbstruck. The word fly had cut him to the heart. That could not be, could it? “Forgive me,” he said slowly, “but I believe the power of flight is beyond us.”
“Aw, it ain’t so hard,” said Slightly, as though this wasn’t the most absurd revelation Stephen had ever heard in his life. It was all well and good for Pan. Surely not for Jack, and most assuredly not for Stephen.
“I- I don’t-” said Stephen, utterly at a loss for words. Tinker Bell flew up to him with her arms waving, jingling excitedly; she grabbed him by the shell of his ear and bent his head down to whisper to him. “What's that?”
“What’s she saying to you, old thing?” said Jack anxiously.
Stephen’s eyes were very wide. A nervous smile tugged at his lips despite himself. “Well, she . . . she is in perfect agreement. She says that it is nothing at all to fly.”
“Nothing at all?”
“One must only be in perfect contentment, and that, combined with a bit of her dust . . .”
“Damned unnatural island, this,” said Jack, but there was a note of excitement in his voice despite it. He leaned forward eagerly. “If flying is as easy as all that then I should like to try it.”
Tinker Bell who had begun tugging fondly at one of Stephen’s forelocks, gave Jack a stern look. Stephen saw Jack wilt under her gaze and felt the need to intervene; he lifted his hand up like a gentleman, and when she had stepped into his palm, he bowed to her. “If you please, honey,” he said sweetly. “For my sake.”
Tinker Bell blushed up in a fine pink glow that covered her whole body, and lifted herself up into the air. The Lost Boys crowded around, half-climbing all over each other, eyes shining with excitement at the chance to see Tinker Bell at work. Jack and Stephen stood side by side, both shifting their feet, unsure, and soon Tinker Bell was spinning about them, casting off dust from her wings. She looped around Stephen perhaps a dozen times, until his eyes were watering with dust; Jack she passed over once, and that quickly.
Stephen sneezed- a little cloud of dust puffed up around him- and removed his spectacles to polish them clean. “Now, we must be careful to think about whatever it is we like best,” he said, putting them back on.
Jack looked down at his meager helping of dust. “See here, how come you’ve got the lion’s share and I’m- oh!”
“Oh, good Christ!” Stephen exclaimed, scrambling backwards several feet.
Jack had indeed lifted, was now bobbing somewhere in the vicinity of the treetops, and appeared to be frantically trying to orient himself into a bird-like position. He got the hang of it quite quickly, and soon he was diving down, rising up again, performing all manner of tricks; he laughed, and did not seem capable of stopping. “Stephen!” Jack cried, catching the slender trunk of a tree and spinning about it. “Oh, Stephen, look! Look! Ha-ha!”
Stephen looked up at him and felt his spirits lift with Jack; he could almost have laughed himself. “Jack, pray, what are you thinking about!” he called up at him.
“I might have known,” Stephen smiled. “Oh, Jack, it is a very fine thing to see you up there.”
“I only wish I knew how to come down,” admitted Jack. He alighted very carefully on the top of one of the hideout trees and looked down at Stephen with a look of great excitement. “Come on then, now you!”
Stephen’s stomach dropped, quite unexpectedly- he had no idea what to do. It was all well and good to say one must be in perfect contentment . . . Stephen had never been in perfect contentment. He was a man accustomed to waiting; he did not reach out and seize happiness with both hands.
“I . . . cannot,” he admitted, ashamed.
Tinker Bell jingled in frustration and spun around him, all but wreathing him in dust; to no avail. His feet remained firmly on the ground. Stephen sighed ruefully. He could not have said he was surprised. He was a land-bound thing. The sky was for men like Jack.
Jack looked down at him with a hopeful, coaxing expression. “No matter,” he said gently. “No matter- you shall go by land, and I shall look out for you by air,” Then he spun in the air, like Pan, and let out a mighty cock-crow that warmed Stephen’s heart at once. “I’ll land on Hook’s deck and confront him man-to-man! He’ll never see me coming. Oh, imagine Killick’s face when he sees me fly in for coffee! Ha-ha!”
Jack was no great scholar of the natural world, but when it came to winds, atmospheres, and the composition of the air, he was very nearly a scientist. This knowledge, which he carried in his very bones, served him even better now than it had at sea. It was miraculous, nothing short of a spiritual moment, when he found that the air bolstered him and carried him aloft at the merest thought. Jack tucked his arms in and plunged downward, as he’d seen birds do, and laughed when he caught himself just before he brushed the trees and soared up, up, up towards the sun. He knew he looked ridiculous. Yet the joy in Jack’s heart was all-encompassing, and he found himself so preoccupied himself with gliding this way and that, and catching little clouds in his hand only to watch them dissipate, that he almost lost Stephen down among the trees.
There he was- Jack caught a glimpse of him from between the branches. Jack whooped in delight, soaring high, and wished that Stephen might join him. He dove beneath the canopy with great speed and landed himself on a branch. It swayed uneasily beneath him. He waved at Stephen, who was still clawing his way through the underbrush. “Not far now, soul!” he cried. “You are almost at the beach. Let me walk with you a while, my arms are tired!” He flapped his arms in a birdlike way, and laughed so hard that he nearly fell out of the tree.
Stephen, not to be fooled by Jack’s offer, shook his head with a small smile. A vine had caught at his feet; he cut it away with a knife, no doubt taken from some Lost Boy for use in imaginary surgeries. “On no account will you walk with me, joy. I am content with my lot on the land. The sea and sky are yours, you must go on ahead. I shall get there when I get there.”
It did not sit well with Jack, leaving Stephen land-bound while Jack enjoyed the bounties of the air, but Stephen was not a man to be quarreled with so he let the point rest. He flew on ahead, keeping close enough to the trees that he might skim their very crowns with his fingertips, until the jungle met the beach and the whole of the great, wide ocean lay before him. The sight nearly brought Jack to tears. There was his Surprise, sailing through the clear blue waters neat as you please. And cutting through the water before them, thirty-six guns and flying the black . . .
But no, what was that in the bay? Out by the rocky arch, where Jack saw slippery stone formations that projected out of the water as though to gore encroaching ships. There, there was a launch . . . and the captain alone? Why, this would be easier than he had thought.
Jack peered down from above the trees, feeling as much of a spy as Stephen. He watched as Hook disembarked from the launch and waded the rest of the way to shore. There he sat, looking regal in a scarlet longcoat, and produced a silver pipe.
Jack was fascinated. Hook, it seemed, was a lover of music. He did not play well- how could he, with but the one hand- but the notes that carried up to Jack’s perch were very sweet and clear. Jack couldn’t help but wonder how it would play with with a violin and ‘cello.
It didn’t sit right with Jack to interrupt, yet interrupt he must. He lowered himself unto dry ground with the utmost difficulty. The urge to fly was very nearly unbearable. Every step was lighter, more carefree. He felt he might be carried off at any moment.
Hook was a reasonable man. Intelligent, if prone to fits of rage. Jack kept his hand on his sword as he crept closer, approaching Hook from behind. He could not kill him, and so upset the balance of Neverland, but perhaps he could duel him to a standstill. Convince him to surrender the map. Yes, that was it. If only he could be taken by surprise.
Hook’s playing had drawn an audience. To Jack’s great astonishment he saw several mer-maids rising from the water, sitting with their heads and shoulders above the surface. Some bared their teeth, others looked at each other and made chittering, chirruping sounds like dolphins. They seemed to be conversing, but not with any tongue that could be called human. Jack was a sailor and not immune to the superstitions of sailors; the sight of the mer-maids caused his skin to prickle all over with goosebumps.
One of them caught sight of him as he drew closer. She screeched with disgust and splashed down into the depths, and the others followed like a school of frightened fish. Hook’s pipe shrieked into silence and he whirled around, already on on his feet with his sword drawn. He looked livid.
“I beg your pardon,” he said scathingly. “That, Captain Aubrey, is bad form.”
Jack drew his sword and bowed. It was almost polite. “I'll admit it ain’t quite the thing, sir, and for that you have my apologies. I am here for your map, not to scare off your audience.”
“The map?” said Hook in confusion. Then his face cleared. “Ah. So Pan can’t be bothered to come after me himself then, eh? Fine,” He brandished his blade wickedly with at Jack. “Have at thee.”
Stephen was a man who could walk a great distance upon any terrain and think nothing of it. He walked whenever he could and for any reason. There was no better curative for one's ills, except perhaps laudanum, and even in the dense jungles of Neverland he found a certain pleasure in trekking his way across the landscape. Tinker Bell accompanied him all the way and they made conversation, sometimes in English and bell-chimes, sometimes in mime. His throat was not suited to her jingling language, but he attempted it all the same, feeling quite ridiculous when she laughed. Once she brought him a large piece of honeycomb, which he ate as he walked.
He did not really start hurrying until he heard the sound of sword striking sword, and then he broke into a brisk sprint. He ducked behind the trunk of a tree at the edge of the jungle, eyes narrowed and wary as he watched Jack and Hook duel it out on the sand. Stephen had known Jack for years now, and he was a wicked duelist; now, too, he had the power of flight, and used it to confound his enemy at every turn. He seemed to leap through the air like a lightning flash.
Still, for all Jack's speed and strength of arm, Hook was no mean opponent. Stephen cursed the loss of his pistols. He was an excellent shot, although even he would not dare take a shot at a man in close combat. It was likely that he would hit Jack.
“They are too evenly matched, acushla,” he whispered to Tinker Bell, who nodded fiercely. “Let's make it easier on old Jack, hmm?”
Stephen crept closer, ducking behind rocks and swells of sand all the while, until he was close enough to see the sweat gleaming on Hook’s forehead and the savage smile on Jack’s face. Jack had been trained at sea, and all he knew of swordplay he knew from practical application. Stephen could see from Hook’s footwork that he had learned at school, and had only ever learned to fight children. A skill that no doubt served him well as Pan’s nemesis, but only hindered him now.
Stephen gave Tinker Bell a conspiratorial nudge with his forehead and gestured to the dueling men. He cupped his hand just over his mouth, the better to make the sound come out right, and began making a low, repetitive ticking noise.
At once Hook’s face went bloodless. He shivered all over, and the point of his sword dropped. He looked about him wildly, his eyes quite mad with fear, and at that moment Jack leapt upon him, hurling him into the sand. Jack put his knee on Hook’s chest and his sword to Hook’s throat. “Now, sir,” he said, tossing his hair back out of his face. “The map, if you please.”
Jack was quiet after that, as he often was when he was thinking deeply about something. He was walking at Stephen’s side, fighting through the jungle undergrowth same as he. Tinker Bell’s dust had faded into a sweet, golden memory, and Stephen could see that Jack was filled with the tired, bittersweet happiness of a man who knows a good thing is behind him.
“I say, Stephen,” he said after a while. “You did know I had that well in hand, didn’t you?”
“Of course, joy,” said Stephen, with perfect sincerity. “It was only that . . . well, with all due candor, I had a mind to see that man squirm,” He was still eating the piece of honeycomb, and now he held it out for Jack’s inspection. “Do you see? Miss Bell has brought me this honeycomb many times her size. She has the strength of ants, dear thing.”
“Or perhaps her touch may make things fly,” Jack grumbled. Tinker Bell stuck out her tongue at him.
She was a jealous creature, make no mistake- another of her qualities that reminded Stephen of Diana. He smiled at her and turned his attention to the map, now spread open in his hands. It was an aged thing, well-weathered, and showed signs of having exchanged hands a great many times. Stephen wondered if this, too, was a matter of balance. If what was Hook’s treasure was sometimes Pan’s treasure, and then Hook’s again, and so on, and on, and on.
Today it would be Jack’s treasure, if Jack had any say in the matter. Stephen knew that look. The gleam in the eye, the flush in the face. The look of Jack Aubrey with sails on the horizon, and the promise of a prize just there beyond his grasp. It was a look that Stephen very much loved; a look that he had devoted himself to, whether by will or by some inexorable pull of the soul.
“Have you made any sense of that thing yet?” asked Jack, craning his neck to look over Stephen’s shoulder. Tinker Bell, thus dislodged from her place, buzzed angrily in his ear like a hornet.
“Here,” said Stephen, showing Jack the tangle of fruit trees on the map, and the corresponding fruit trees that grew not a stone’s throw away from them. “There is a river beyond them, and a bridge. We will not need to swim.”
“Good news, that,” said Jack fondly, nudging Stephen’s shoulder. They were not of a height, and elbowing him in the side would have required Jack to stoop. “I do not trust you to swim as far as I could throw you.”
Stephen scoffed. “Ah, there you have dug a pit into which you must fall, for I do not weigh very much.”
“Do not sell yourself short, Stephen.”
“I take full ownership of it; I am master of myself enough to admit that I am not blessed with height, nor with girth,” Jack snickered at this. Stephen’s face colored and he looked hurriedly back at the map. “Hush now. I am reading the map.”
“And do you need your ears to do so?”
“Your soul to the Devil, Jack, I mean I need to put my mind to it.”
Jack laughed- a bright, brilliant thing- and went on ahead, soldiering a path through the brush to open out Stephen’s way. Stephen watched him with great fondness, his heart full and his gaze hopeful. He almost wished they might have more time on this island, if only for the sake of Jack’s contentment. His childlike soul was in full bloom. Here, the two of them might live happy and unbothered by the rule of law.
Tinker Bell was still buzzing in his ear, this time in protest. She flitted in front of his face, between him and Jack, and did a little twirl.
Stephen’s gaze softened. “Forgive me, Miss Bell,” he said quietly. He gave her a small, very sad smile.
Tinker Bell looked at him a long moment. Her whole body blushed with a rose-tinted glow that soon gave way to a deep, dark red. Suddenly she flew up into his face, scarcely an inch away, and shook her fists at him. Then she was off, disappearing with an angry jingling sound into the trees. Stephen watched her leave with the beginning of misery encroaching on his mind; he pushed it aside, returned his thoughts to the map. It would not do to dwell on impossible dreams, not here, on this enchanted isle where so many dreams came true. Jack was happy here, happy and glowing with life and good humor. It would be the worst kind of self-love to wish for anything more than that.
They walked on and on, sweating in the heat, and Jack found himself feeling perfectly contented. Pity that Tinker Bell was nowhere to be seen- if he had but a little dust, he must surely fly. Jack rarely felt happier than when he was by Stephen’s side, either by land or by sea, and now they they were nearing the end of their quest, he found himself regretting their inevitable departure from Neverland.
By now they had crossed the river, crawled through the tunnel, and followed the pointing finger of the ghoulish skeleton that hung from a vine-noose in the trees. The final spot- the place the X had marked- lay in the bottom of a ravine full of rough, prickly gorse bushes that Stephen remarked as being unusual in this part of the world. They had a devil of a time climbing down there, each offering to help the other and each stubbornly refusing, until at long last they reached the bottom and discovered a smooth dirt path, quite level, leading out into the trees. “Damn it all,” said Stephen, gesturing at it with exasperation. “We might have come that way.”
“That’s hardly in the spirit of things, is it?” said Jack, surveying the land with hands on hips. The spot indicated by the map was an otherwise featureless patch of dirt. They exchanged glances, looked slowly downwards, then as one collapsed to their knees and began to dig with their hands.
“Is this all it was?” Stephen looked up at Jack, his brow furrowed in confusion. “A child’s game?”
“I suppose this whole island is a child’s game, in its way,” said Jack, still digging. He couldn’t stop smiling. Even Stephen, after a moment, smiled himself, and returned to his work. Jack’s heart felt warm at the thought that he too was enjoying their little adventure.
“I suppose this was all put in place for Pan’s benefit,” Stephen mused out loud. “A child could have done it. We had little trouble crossing the river, after all.”
“You fell in.”
“And you were stuck in the tunnel- I very nearly had to dig you out.”
“That don’t signify,” said Jack, coloring. “The fact of the matter is, we’ve found it. Child’s play or not.”
And found it they had: Before long, Jack’s hands touched hot metal. He shoved the dirt aside to reveal the top of an old wooden chest, locked up with steel fastenings and warped by time and tide. “Help me get it out,” he said, and together they lifted the chest up and out of the dirt. Jack’s blood was hot with excitement despite himself; his hands shook as he flipped the latch and upturned the lid.
“Oh, Stephen,” he breathed.
Somewhere along the way he had begun to wonder if it was treasure they were seeking at all- if it might not be a child’s trove of treasures. Rocks and sticks and broken feathers. Yet here, gleaming in the tropic sun, he found rubies by the score. Countless gold coins, precious gems, strings of pearls. The tooth of a lion, dipped in gold. And here, a silver chalice, and here, a knife inscribed in so small a hand that it must have been done by a fairy . . .
“My God,” said Stephen, gazing down at this glory. The gold seemed to give off its own radiant shine, illuminating his face, and he looked at Jack then with a look that Jack had seen on him only once or twice before- that boyish, idiot grin of pure discovery. Jack could not restrain himself and for once he did not attempt to. He laughed out loud, and threw his arms about Stephen’s shoulders, embracing him and kissing his cheek. It was not enough; all at once, it was not enough.
He pressed his mouth to Stephen’s and Stephen’s whole body went rigid in his arms, a sudden tension. He trembled. His eyes were shut tight, and when Jack pulled away from him, he gasped, and clutched at Jack’s arm. For a moment they knelt in the dust, simply staring dumbfounded at one another. Then Stephen shoved Jack back and stood, his chest heaving as though out of breath.
Jack swallowed. He stood up himself, shaking the dust from his coat as he did so. Stephen stood before Jack as a man wounded, his face very pale, his eyes with a hunted, uncertain look. His thin shoulders were hunched. He turned away from Jack, stiff as a schoolmaster, and began to awkwardly adjust his pistol holsters.
Brought by the lee again, Jack, Jack thought. His heart withered in his chest.
“Forgive me, brother,” he croaked. “I’ve . . . oh, damn. Devil take me. I’ve misjudged.”
“Do not belabor me on the subject, sir.”
“Damn me for a scrub, Stephen.”
“It is no matter. This isle is enchanted; surely you must have felt it. You were not altogether aware of yourself. You will come to your senses.”
“I will not,” said Jack, with a sudden hot rush of anger that caught him completely off guard. “I will not come to my senses. And I am entirely aware of myself, more and more aware by the moment, in fact.”
Stephen laughed. It was not the usual ugly, cheerful thing, but a bitter cough. “I won’t take your pity,” he said. He stood up. “Yours is a bottomless well of kindness, quite wasted on me at every opportunity, but I won’t have you take pity on me too.”
“Pity?” Jack said, incredulous. “What on earth is there in you to be pitied?”
Stephen’s face was solemn as stone, immovable; yet Jack had always seen more in his face than Stephen would have wished. Stephen was solitary and proud as Lucifer, but what he loved, he loved with the whole of his being. His eyes were gunmetal-cold yet Jack saw anguish in them. A wish, long repressed, of the kind that makes a man feel very, very small.
I must not stumble now, thought Jack, or I shall lose him. I will not lose him.
Jack reached out a hand, a mute plea. He wanted to comfort- Stephen disdained comfort. He wanted to speak sweetly- Stephen disdained sweetness.
“Is it so strange to think that I am sincere in this?” said Jack desperately. “Am I brought by the lee so far as all that? Affection is no stranger between us. Nor is intimacy. Nor is love.”
Stephen held his gaze. For a long moment, neither spoke; Jack with hand still outstretched, imploring, Stephen with his fists clenched at his sides.
“I have waited,” he said. His voice was very hoarse and very quiet. “I have waited too long to be made sport of now.”
“I will not make sport of you,” said Jack. “Not now and not ever, do you hear me?”
Stephen’s eyes searched his. Jack hoped desperately that that penetrating gaze might find purchase; those eyes had a way of cutting a man to the heart, if Stephen had a mind to do it. When the tide was right, Stephen might read the very soul of a man in his face. Jack did not hide the inner workings of his soul any more than he hid his heart. He loved life too dearly to hide away from it. It was the great difference between them, the one great difference that perhaps Stephen would never fully comprehend.
“Come here, Stephen,” There was a plea in Jack’s voice now, earnest in its misery. “You have waited. I see that now. Please do not make me wait too.”
At that Stephen’s gaze softened only slightly, but more than enough for Jack to perceive it. “My dear,” he murmured. He covered his mouth with his hand and closed his eyes; Jack saw that a great shock of some powerful emotion had threatened to overwhelm him. He opened his eyes once more and Jack saw in them not gunmetal, but the ever-changing heat of liquid mercury.
“I am not ignorant of my own ugliness,” he said, at which point Jack crossed the short distance between them and caught him up in a fierce embrace.
“Now you are being foolish for foolishness’ sake,” said Jack, bowing his head to press it to the smaller man’s shoulder. He felt Stephen’s hand in his hair- how often had he done up Jack’s queue?- and his breath on his neck- how many times had Jack embraced him, on occasion even picking him up bodily and squeezing the breath from him? Yet it had never been thus, with Stephen trembling at Jack’s touch, and the deep, heavy catching of Stephen’s breath that meant he was in ecstasies.
They parted. Jack stared in soft-eyed wonder at Stephen and found the sight of him ravished his heart. He smiled. His face had flushed up pink as a schoolboy, but the way he looked at Jack was not, after all, very different from the way he always had. Nothing had truly changed between them, and yet, all was made new. It was a comfort and a dizzying delight. They stood but an arm’s length from all the gold in Neverland, yet Jack, who loved gold more than any man living, spared it not a glance.
“Stephen,” Jack said softly, reaching out to kiss him once more, but just at that moment Tinker Bell alighted on his queue and tugged it fiercely. Jack let out a yelp of surprise as his head jerked back; he swatted at her, and she careened away, jingling in frustration.
“Miss Bell!” Stephen snarled with outright anger. He jumped up with surprising dexterity and caught her in his hands. “What is the meaning of this?”
Her jingling grew louder. Stephen bent his ear to his hands, and his look of frustration gave way to one of surprise. He looked up. “Pan is here.”
A cock-crow sounded from above the trees and Peter swooped down upon them, alighting neatly atop the treasure trove with his hands on his hips. “Ha-ha!” he laughed, diving down and scooping up handfuls of pearls in both hands. “Wonderful, perfect! Now I needn’t bother myself!” He kicked the chest closed and sat cross-legged upon the lid, looking proud as Lucifer. “It is my treasure now, and I shall have to hide it . . . then Hook can find it again! And round and round, and round and round.”
Peter flashed that wicked smile again, and Jack was almost pleased to see it. It meant his promise to Tiger Lily was finally fulfilled; he might go home. Home to the ship where he had lived with Stephen for so many years. To where all things were made new.
Paradise all but trembled in his hands.
The mist was already gathering. It rolled up from the water and cooled Stephen’s skin, making him feel oddly comforted as he stood at the rail. There before him lay the island, still sweet-smelling and alive with the rustling of wild creatures. An array of brightly-feathered islanders, Tiger Lily among them, stood upon the shore and watched the Surprise weigh anchor; ensuring that they were off, well and truly, and wouldn’t trouble them again. Stephen didn’t begrudge them that.
Around him, his fellow surprises were about their daily duties, shouting, pulling up lines, running this way and that. The menagerie of minutia that filled Stephen’s life day and and day out. Already the men were beginning to forget, and Neverland was not even out of sight yet. Stephen had asked them, curious- what of the mer-maids? What of the Jolly Roger? But even Pullings shook his head, confused and bewildered, but no more so than they were by any of their doctor’s other odd doings.
Jack remembered. Jack remembered all.
Stephen’s heart beat too fast in his breast. He closed his eyes lest they begin to water- an English vice, one he refused to indulge in- and opened them again to see a tiny pinprick of light winding its way through the mist towards him. Neverland was wreathed in shadow now, but the light remained, and soon enough Tinker Bell had landed on the Surprise’s railing, and was looking up at him.
“I suppose this is goodbye, my dear,” said Stephen, with no small amount of regret. He bowed low. “May you have better luck with any future beaus.”
Tinker Bell laughed- a little chiming of bells. She fluttered up to his face and kissed his cheek. He felt the warmth of a blush spread through him and hid his face with a laugh. Tinker Bell curtsied in the air and returned the way she’d come, skimming her feet along the water as she did, until her light was lost in the mist and Neverland was a faded memory on the horizon.
Stephen touched his cheek at the place where she kissed him. He smiled softly and turned away from the railing.
Here in the mist, the world was made vague and beautiful. The sky was water above them, the water was sky beneath their bow. Stephen made his way to Jack’s cabin with his heart in his throat, knowing what he would find there. Friendship, yes. The dearest of friendship, and love.
His fingertips touched the cabin door and at that moment, he heard Jack’s violin singing sweetly from within, high and clear in the night air.
For a moment Stephen simply stood at the door, listening. His eyes fell closed, his forehead lightly touched the panel of the door. He could feel the warmth of the wood, the low groan of her timbers. Jack’s music played well with the harmonies of the ship. His notes sang out and mingled with the caressing waves.
If Stephen’s feet left the deck, he did not notice it, and soon the natural rolling of the ship made the deck rise to meet him, and he stood on firm foundations once more.
He opened the cabin door, and closed it behind him.
Jack stirred awake at leisure the following morning, conscious of only the gentle movements of the ship and the soft sound of Stephen breathing in the cot next to his. Outside the cabin windows the sky was clear and blue, cloudless. They would have fine wind today, perhaps the next. They would make good time. Jack eased himself down out of his cot, stretched, and called for Killick to fetch them both coffee. Stephen, awoken by Jack’s shouting, groaned and threw his arm up over his face.
“I wish you wouldn’t whine so, my dear,” said Jack. “It is an excellent morning.”
He leaned down and kissed Stephen, quite thoughtlessly, with his hand cupping his cheek. They parted in surprise and looked at each other; Jack felt quite sure that they had done such a thing before. He saw in Stephen’s eyes that they had. Yet had it all been a dream? A lovely, enchanted dream?
Killick brought them coffee and they drank it in silence, enjoying the sun and the movement of the ship and the sounds of activity from above. Perhaps it was real, Jack thought as he admired Stephen’s profile. Perhaps not. It really didn’t signify.
If they had been in Neverland, all that remained of it was the warm look in Stephen’s eyes, and a dimple when he smiled.