Chapter Nine - The Ties That Bind

After leaving the grand hall, Jack and Wendy retired to Jack's receiving room with goblets of pomegranate juice in hand. A decidedly cheery fire flickered in the hearth, and they reclined next to each other on the black velvet couch.

Wendy sipped at her pomegranate juice, and then set it aside as she leaned her head against Jack's shoulder. "I suppose," she said, with something of a sigh, "that I really ought to go back to Reddon House at some point."

Jack smiled with a hint of mischief, idly running his hand through her hair. "Ought you? Such a pity to turn you into a proper young lady."

Wendy smiled wryly in response. "True - but they'll miss me eventually. As will my family, of course."

"Not if you don't want them to."

Wendy glanced up at him. "What do you mean?"

His breath was a caressing warmth against the top of her head. "Memories fade, Wendy. Unless upheld with particular care."

"Granted," she conceded, "but I've only been away for a day or so." She nestled further against him, looking back into the fire. "Surely it takes longer than that for the memory of one's schoolmate, sister, or daughter to fade. Or to even become a memory."

Jack was silent, and Wendy felt the secret hiding beneath it.

She looked up at him, tension beginning to whisper through her. "What is it, Jack?"

His voice was silky smooth as he continued to stroke her hair. "Time does not pass the same way here as there, darling."

The muscles of Wendy's shoulders tightened at the implications of his words. "How long have I been away from there, Jack?"

Jack remained silent, his hands moving gently to her shoulders. Though he began to massage her shoulders, Wendy couldn't help but think that this put him at a distinct advantage for a fight. Coldness rippled through her.

"How long has it been over there, Jack?"

His words were as slippery and impenetrable as glass. "A day here could be but a moment there...or a century."

"You're dodging." Her voice was far sharper than she had intended it to be. She took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. "How long has it been, Jack?"

Jack's voice was a floating thing, rolling over the edges of her thoughts. "About a year or so."

Wendy froze. And then blinked. And then thought very, very hard for a few moments.

"How long," she asked finally, "was it here from when I left Neverland to when I returned to Perhaps?"

Jack was silent again, but she could feel the satisfaction radiating from him. He was pleased - and almost anticipatory.

An unfamiliar icy rage began to move in Wendy's blood. She strained forward to get away from him, to stop touching him - but his hands held her too firmly. She would remain against him until he decided to release her.

The thought of it enraged her further, and a clenching need arose in her to soundly throttle something. "How long," she said far too calmly, "was it here?"

He still did not answer.

She struggled to move forward, again to no avail - his grip was strong. The need to soundly throttle something was easily sharpening to a need to soundly throttle Jack. "How long," she said, eyes blazing, "was it for Peter?"

"Mmmm..." he replied with mock thoughtfulness, "I should say five days, give or take."

Wendy closed her eyes, quivering with anger and a dark shame. "Five days. Years for me, but to him...five days." Her voice dropped low, almost hissing. "I exiled Peter, shunted him from me for not coming to see me for five days?"

"Well, that," replied Jack with cavalier diplomacy, "and you seem to be quite convinced at the time that his innocence and simplicity no longer suited you."

Bitter tears filled Wendy's eyes.

"Besides," continued Jack airily, "it's not as if Peter would have remembered, anyway, after a time. The Boy is of a peculiarly forgetful nature." He leaned close to her ear, his soft words ripping deep. "That you survived in his memory for five days is a testament to the feelings he must have had for you."

Wendy stared at him, motionless. ""

"Villain?" suggested Jack amiably. "Yes, I believe I am." He smiled coolly. "As requested."

Wendy's fists clenched so tight that her fingernails drew blood. The sting of it didn't faze her in the least, or crack the black anger that surged within her. If anything, it seemed to feed it.

In the courtyard, the gwyndilons waited, biding their time. Ermenth had cautioned patience with this girl, and patience they would have.

Wendy closed her eyes, body rigid, fingernails digging further into the flesh of her palms. She was awash in a storm of truly extraordinary feeling, lost in the rage and the shame and the loathing. She didn't even notice Jack had moved until he was looking down on her, his face close enough to kiss. He held her arms behind her head, pushing against the black velvet. The blood of her palms dripped lazily down her wrists and along his fingers. She began to writhe against his grip, and a thoroughly inhuman snarl escaped her. It shocked her for a moment, and allowed her to think.

"Let go of me, Jack Winterkiss." Her words were clipped, smoldering, ferocious.

His smile was a brutal thing, his eyes sparking, his voice purring. "But don't you want your vengeance, darling? Don't you want," he breathed against her, "to hurt me as I've hurt you?" His lips brushed across her forehead. "Don't you?"

His words were a thudding rhythm behind her eyes.

The Spreyli of the forest listened, and waited, green eyes flashing.

Give in to it.

For one shimmering moment, Wendy wavered, hesitated. And in that moment, the darkness crested and flowed within her, sharp as dagger points.

In the forest, the Spreyli smiled knowingly.

Wendy's eyes snapped open as she viciously jammed her knee against the side of Jack's thigh, forcing him to stumble. It was a skilled motion, executed with inhuman grace, and Wendy used her advantage to wrench an arm loose and aim an elbow at his throat.

He recovered too quickly for the elbow to reach its intended target, and it landed instead in his stomach. Letting out a grunt of air, he grasped her right leg, immobilizing it.

She grabbed his other wrist, leaving blood trails across his skin, and twisted it into a wretchedly awkward position, forcing his body to twist with it or break the wrist bones. His left side was now exposed, and she gave it a wicked kick with her free leg.

His hands spasmed open, freeing her, and he fell to the ground.

She was on top of him with a deep growl, her forearm jammed beneath his chin, restricting his air flow. Do you yield?

He coughed, struggling to inhale.

My, my, but someone knows how to fight dirty. This explains much about the attraction to a pirate.

Her eyes flared as she slapped him hard across the side of the face with the hand that had been against his throat.

He took advantage of this to topple her from him, tangle her legs in his, and thoroughly pin her. With both her hands clamped in one of his, he delicately explored the red stinging mark she had left on his face. He lifted an eyebrow in approval. "A good mark - well done."

She seethed beneath him, her eyes flashing. "I'll be happy to provide more."

A feral grin played across his lips as he leaned close to her. "Of course you will, my beauty." His voice was low, caressing. "But I think it's my turn first."

A thrill of fear spasmed in Wendy's chest, alongside a rather chilling anticipation. Jack's breath was hot against the side of her neck, as if scenting her. With a sudden movement, he sank his teeth into the flesh of her neck. The pain was a concentrated explosion, a physical mirror of the mental agony of her realization about Peter. She screamed beneath him, her hands tracing blood across him, losing herself in the stultifying feeling of release.

And then, with an extraordinarily delicate kiss like breeze against her skin, he withdrew.

She lay quiet against the ground, feeling (quite absurdly and rather embarrassingly) better. But not all the way better. Not quite. There was something unfinished inside her, something that still needed...release.

She watched as he brought her bloody palms to his lips and kissed them. Something about the gesture fired her further, left her edgy with the echoes of her rage. Something was... incomplete.

Jack looked down at her, waiting, observing. Almost passive.

The gwyndilons decided this was their moment. They offered what they had to give.

And, unconsciously, Wendy accepted it.

She let a sudden unfamiliar burning cold sear her thoughts, let its darkness guide her. With a strength she didn't remember possessing, she threw him off of her and against the wall. Almost instantly, she was pressed against him, forcing him down.

He looked up at her with quiet expectation, still waiting, still watching.

One hand tore open his shirt, exposing the long expanse of chest. With a single graceful motion, she raked nails down the skin. Blood blossomed instantly in the wounds as he arched his back into her hand, his eyes closed. She pressed a finger to one slash, catching some of the blood, and then raised it to her lips.

The shock of the coppery taste startled her from her trance. She stared at the blood on her finger, then at the red gashes down his pale chest.

Her pulse began to race, horror crawling through her.

She backed away from him, almost falling in her haste to distance herself from what she had just done. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean..."

His smile had a lazy, satisfied look to it. "Yes, you did. You most certainly did."

"" she stammered, "I wanted something, but this is...this is..."

"Not wrong," finished the Jack with a comforting ease.

She stared at him.

"Don't you feel better?"

She thought about this, trying to push past the throb that was beginning behind her left eye. "But...your blood...I don't even know why I did that..."

He shifted against the ground, righting himself with very slow, very careful movements. "Well, it's a little more violent than a standard blood pact requires, but it will do all the same."

"What?!" The word escaped Wendy in an exhalation.

"You've just bound me a little closer to you." He touched one of the slashes, and winced slightly. "In payment for a wrong I have done you."

She blinked, and sat down somewhat heavily on the couch. "What does that mean exactly?"

"What do you think it means?" His voice was carefully casual.

"Oh, stop it," snapped Wendy, the memory of her rage surfacing for a moment. "It's not like I need to create this for you - it's already done, for pity's sake."

He continued to look at her with an unnerving intensity. "But it's not sharpened, not filled in all the way." A wolfish smile appeared. "It's...incomplete."

Mortification reddened Wendy's cheeks for a moment. So much for the vague hope that she hadn't been broadcasting her thoughts during that little episode. "Well, I haven't the faintest idea what to do with it."

Jack adopted a chiding, teasing tone. "Come, come...surely there's something inside of you that tells you what this blood pact means."

Wendy blinked at him, feeling quite obstinate. "I'm open to suggestions."

Jack smiled, a sudden flash of brilliance, as if she had just said her lines flawlessly. "Are you really? Then perhaps you should listen a little more carefully."


He cut her off. "Shhh," he murmured, putting a finger to his lips, "can't you hear them?"

And then she did. The gwyndilons and the Spreyli, whispers in the back of her mind. It was a curious mixture of savageness and cunning, brute strength and agile maneuvering. But they were definitely the gwyndilons and the Spreyli, and they were also quite definitely speaking to her.

You have taken from him some of his essence - and you gain an affinity for his magic until this binding between you is broken.

Wendy took a deep breath, and let it out. And what does he get from me?

A little of your imagination. A very precious commodity here, as you know.

Wendy snorted. Sounds to me like he got what he wanted, as usual. What does he need me for then?

Their laughter was an odd blending of the deep grating of the gwyndilons and the ringing hiss of the Spreyli. There's more to this Story than you think, girl. Why don't you ask him yourself?

Wendy rolled her eyes at the suggestion. Of course. Because he's so very likely to just tell me.

Ask the right way, came the reply, and he'll tell you. His affinity is for manipulation has become yours as well. Think on it, Storyteller.

Wendy raised a contemplative eyebrow, and turned her attention back to Jack. "I probably don't want to know how it is that I'm hearing them, do I?"

Jack's smile was a secretive thing. "It's up to you."

"Could you hear them just now?"

A flash of something cold flashed across Jack's face for a moment.

Wendy nodded, abstractly amused at his irritation. "So you couldn't, then. But you knew they would be speaking to me, then. How?"

Jack gave an elegant shrug. "You accepted their gift. It's a binding as well."

"One that you don't have." A small smile played on Wendy's lips at the thought.

"One that I don't share with you," corrected Jack with a small smile of his own. "Which is not to say that I don't have my own binding with them."

"Mmm," said Wendy, with some disappointment. Then, she rested her chin on her hand as she began to think, wincing at the sting of her palm. "But what gift of theirs did I accept?" And then, in a lower voice, "And what did I give to them?"

The dark, rolling taste of their presence billowed in the back of her mind for a moment. It was familiar somehow, and then Wendy suddenly remembered the alien feel of the rage that had run through her such a short time ago, and with it, the strength and agility. "Ah," she said, with some resignation. "That would likely be their gift. But what did I give to them?"

"Why don't you ask them?"

Not a bad plan, that. She attempted to direct a stream of thought at the sinuous presence in the back of her mind. Do you hear me? What did you gain from me?

Wendy was suddenly flooded with an image of Neverland and Perhaps aglow with lines and webs. There were clusters of accentuated brilliance at various points. Her chest tightened as she saw Peter anchoring the main web of Neverland. With a surge of will, she turned the viewpoint to Perhaps. The Spreyli and gwyndilons were each a pocket of brilliance amidst the gentle glow of the threads criss-crossing Perhaps. A surprisingly bright point in the web was the accursed crocodile, a fact she tucked away for later reference. The brightest point of all was comprised of the line between Jack and Wendy, and the gwyndilons and Spreyli had direct connections to the center of this line.

You know, you could have just said I'm your anchor.

But you're not, Storyteller.

Fine, retorted Wendy somewhat bitterly, Jack and I are your anchors now.

Still wrong, Storyteller.

Wendy had a silent moment of exasperation. Then what was it that you just showed me?

That you fuel us. Not anchor us.

Wendy closed her eyes briefly. And the difference between fuel and anchor?


Dicing it a bit finely, aren't we? You still depend on me. On us.

But we will survive without you, if necessary. You make it easier on us by far, but we do not depend on you alone. Nor the Jack. Not anymore.

Wendy considered this, somewhat grumpily. Well, bully for you, then.

Gentle chuckling followed her out of her musings.

"So then," she said, looking at Jack, "it looks as if I've been cleverly woven into the fabric of Perhaps without destroying your precious freedom. And conveniently tied to you to do it." She pressed her palms against her eyes, and then winced again at the sting. "Just perfect. Just bloody perfect."

He laughed gently as he stood, inhaling sharply when the cloth of his shirt ran across one of the chest wounds.

Wendy looked up suddenly, and blushed again, silently cursing the tell-tale shame that flooded her when she thought of her actions with Jack.

"There is no need for shame, Wendy. A blood pact made in this way is a powerful pact, indeed." The words were oddly comforting, drops of coolness on her burning skin. She could have sworn there was a flash for a moment, as if the world had tinged ice blue. And then the shame left her, swirling away into oblivion as if it had never been.

She made a wry face as realization hit. "Using your borrowed abilities already, are you?"

His smile had a certain puckish cast to it. "Perhaps. But certainly for your betterment. Unless you'd prefer to be mauled by an appalled sense of conscience every time you look at me?"

His words teased a smile from Wendy at last. "No, I think I'd rather pass on the particular opportunity, thanks all the same." A rather troubling thought pierced her suddenly. "How much more influence over me do you have because of this blood pact?"

He cast his eyes down for a moment, then looked back up at her. "It depends."

Wendy gave a little mental snort. "Of course it does. But on what?"

"And why exactly should I tell you?"

She stared at him levelly, considering how best to woo the information from him. At last, an idea struck. Keeping her voice low and conversational, she said, "Because otherwise I'll concoct a thoroughly vile story that involves the unfortunate and spontaneous appearance of snake goblin droppings on whatever chair you should chance to sit on for the next seven years."

His surprised burst of laughter was exactly what she had hoped for. "Ah," he managed finally, "I see. A most unfortunate state of affairs."

"Exactly," she replied, smiling a bit. "So you had best tell me what you know."

He raised an eyebrow, still laughing softly. "Mmm. Well then, let's just say that I have as much as influence as you let me have."

Wendy's immediate exasperation was infiltrated by a spectacular thread of mischief, and she gave it free rein. Affecting a mockery of a deep, penetrating voice, she slowly held up her hand next to her as if it were a puppet, opening and closing it as she spoke. "I can only do as much as you let me do, Storyteller. Except I'm a conniving and thoroughly effective manipulator, so I can convince you to let me do quite a lot of things. Also, I like your stories. Other favorite pastimes include teasing you by withholding information, allying with the Spreyli and gwyndilons to bind you here further, and drinking tea with the dragons in the Enchanted Forest. Except when they hog the sugar, the scaly cretins. I really hate that."

Jack struggled valiantly to keep a straight face throughout the mimicry. Irritated amusement at her antics transformed to a vague pique of interest when the dragons were mentioned. The "scaly cretins" epithet, however, undid him. Another burst of silvery laughter came from him as he staggered to the velvet couch and sat down next to her. Though each laugh obviously pained him, he shook silently for quite a few more moments.

At last, he lifted his head and an irrepressible mirth glowed through him. "I fear, Wendy, that you are the one who may have more influence over me now."

"Mmm," replied Wendy, smiling with a touch of triumph. "Good to know. I'd hate to be on unequal footing just because of a little blood pact." She raised a hand to gingerly explore the side of her neck. "How long does this blood pact last, anyway?"

"Until you're satisfied I've repaid you, I imagine."

She glanced sharply at him. "You imagine? You don't know?"

"No," he replied, with an enigmatic look. "I merely imagine."

"That's just...unsettling." She looked quite disgruntled, and her mood was not improved by the growing ache of her neck.

He laughed softly. "Perhaps. But I am not unsettled. Blood magic is an old thing, a wild thing. It is not easily demarcated." His eyes followed her hands as they traced along the line of her neck, exploring. "But it gives great power."

"So we're bound by an unpredictable, immensely potent force?"


"Lovely," she sighed, closing her eyes and leaning back against the couch. "Just lovely. Good planning all around." She winced again as her neck touched the couch.

"That could use a good rub, I'm sure."

"Yes," she replied ruefully, "it could." She turned her head to survey him. "I have no idea what to offer for your chest, I'm afraid."

He slid a finger along one of the slashes, watching her eyes follow it. "That will heal in due time. In the meanwhile, I shall bear your marks as part of my payment to you."

"That is..." she closed her eyes again, trying to feel the correct word for her current reaction, "...quite satisfactory." She opened her eyes, and looked at Jack, her gaze again drawn shamelessly to the bloody marks on him. "Though I haven't the faintest idea why."

A wicked smile curved his lips. "Blood magic is a wild thing."

"Hrmph," she replied succinctly, beginning to knead the muscles of her neck with her right hand.

"Here," he said, turning to her, "let me help you."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm not entirely sure I want you touching me at this moment."

He was closer now, his voice a velvet caress along her spine. "Then let me help change your mind."

A resigned expression crossed Wendy's face as she allowed him to do so. "So much for subtle innuendo."

"Indeed," he replied smoothly, as his fingers began a deft exploration of the muscles of her neck. She sighed suddenly as he worked over a very rigid spot, fingertips dancing near the bite marks. But he let them be, focusing instead on the surrounding muscles of shoulders and neck with a graceful precision. As he touched her, she felt the tension drift from her, sliding away as the shame had done earlier.

After several moments, she opened her eyes to look at him. "How is it that you're so skilled at this?"

He smiled down at her.

"Wait - don't tell me," she said, as she closed her eyes again, "because I believe you should be. Most convenient."

His amusement was a sparkling warmth in his words. "No credit for my innate abilities?"

Wendy didn't even bother to open her eyes this time. "I'd make a nicely witty remark, but I'm far too relaxed to bother. So just imagine that I did."

Soft laughter answered her. "So imagined."

After several more thoroughly relaxed moments, Wendy raised a hand to touch Jack's and still his movements. "Thank you, Jack, I think that's enough. Any more, and I shall surely become a puddle."

"A most unfortunate state, I'm sure."

She smiled lazily, her eyes still closed. "Have you ever tried to get a puddle to tell you stories? A very trying business."

"Ah," replied Jack with mock-seriousness, "then it is a state best avoided."

"Quite." She opened her eyes then, and surveyed his chest wounds once more. "Now, what can I do for you?"

Jack's smile was more than a little wicked. "So much for subtle innuendo."

"Oh, hush." A very faint blush touched the sides of Wendy's face. "We need to clean the blood off, at least."

A smile tugged at his lips. "Do we really?"

"Well," said Wendy diplomatically, "we could always let the blood drip everywhere and get our various wounds infected, of course. Brilliant planning, really."

He laughed at her dry tone. "Are you still dripping blood, then?"

Wendy blinked, and looked down at her hands. "Apparently not. Actually," she continued, examining her palms with some bemusement, "I seem to be healing at a remarkable rate." The bloody half-moons in her palms were nearly closed now. She glanced back up at the slashes down Jack's chest and saw that they, too, were smaller than they had been, though still quite ostentatious. She turned her attention back to her palms and saw that the skin had knit together completely. "Your doing?"

His eyes sparkled. "A side effect of the blood pact."

Her eyes remained fixed on her palms as she held them up to the light. "You have healing abilities that I'm borrowing?"

"How do you think your wounds from Pintzer were healed when you first arrived?"

She looked up sharply at him. "But we didn't have a blood pact, then."

An inscrutable look passed across his face as he leaned backwards, gracefully resting his arms behind his head. "True."

Wendy sighed mentally as she leaned back next to him. "So why was I able to heal then?"

He looked at her, his face carefully blank. "What would you like me to say, Wendy?"

"Well," she replied blithely, "the entire story might be nice."

"Ah, but I can't tell you that, my dear," he said, with a teasing smile, " for I don't know the entire story yet."

Wendy resisted the urge to thwack him across the ribs. "I'll settle for the entire story involving your link to me before our little blood pact."

He blinked with an air of innocence. "And what link would that be?"

A curl of irritation flared inside Wendy. This line of inquiry obviously wasn't getting anywhere.

Be more clever. Use what you have gained.

Wendy conceded that this was fairly good advice. And, after a few moments of thought, she converged on a more clever plan. In tones of most ominous sincerity, she addressed Jack. "You realize what this means, of course."

He was on guard effortlessly, ready to spar. "Do tell, Mistress Storyteller."

With a swift, sinuous motion, she had both hands across his shoulders and had twisted him around so his back was to her. It was the very same position he had placed her in before the blood pact, and she felt the sudden tightening through his muscles with an acute satisfaction. She leaned in, her lips moving just above his neck. "I must entice it from you, Jack Winterkiss." And with that, she began to gently press the muscles of his shoulders.

A surprised burst of silvery laughter accompanied her pronouncement as Jack relaxed beneath her touch. "Ah, merciful heaven, whatever shall I do?"

She flashed a mischievous grin. "Just submit...and tell me what you know."

"Mmmm," replied Jack, stretching into her touch, "and what exactly would you like to hear?"

"You could start with the details of my original link to you."

"Of course," replied Jack dryly, as he slipped lower on the couch, "something quite simple and easy to explain. And once that's out of the way?"

A small smile spread across Wendy's lips as she rubbed his neck. "Then we'll move on to my current situation."

"I see," said Jack. "Could I trouble you to rub a little to the left? - ah, yes. There." His eyes closed as he smiled. "That's delightful."

Several moments passed, as Wendy's fingers worked against Jack's skin. She wondered briefly how exactly she had become so adept at massaging and why she wasn't embarrassed about it in the slightest. In the back of her mind, whispers of Blood Pact coalesced.

Of course - it seems to be the answer to everything right now. Why am I surprised?

Yes, came Jack's softly teasing echo, why are you surprised, Wendy?

She ran her fingers delicately through the soft hair at the nape of his neck. "So?"

"Mmm?" replied Jack, sounding rather drowsy.

"Start talking, Jack Winterkiss." She stroked his hair, with the barest hint of nails. "Let's hear a story."

One winter star eye cracked open to survey her. "Well," he began with a smile, "once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl with a marvelous gift of storytelling. She was quite a dazzling creature, I must say, with a definitive sparkle in her eyes and a hidden kiss at the corner of her mouth."

With a sudden, darting movement, Wendy pressed a finger to Jack's lips. "You may skip," she said simply, "the prologue."

He looked at her then, measuring her for a moment.

She returned his gaze calmly, removing her finger but keeping her other hand entangled in his hair.

A wicked smile appeared on his face. "You're the storyteller - why don't you tell me what happens next?"

Her fingers tightened their grip around his hair. "Now, now," she chided, "none of that. We had an agreement."

"Did we?" he replied smoothly. "I remember no pact."

"I see," she said, casting her eyes down. Then, with casual precision, she pulled her hand back, causing his head to bend towards her at what would soon be a very awkward angle indeed.

He felt her pulse begin to race at her bold maneuver. Little Wendy - who knew you had it in you, hmmm? He pulled against her hand, letting a sigh of pleasure of escape him as his head bent further.

Wendy froze.

His eyes flashed, his voice a suggestive taunt. "Don't start something you don't want to finish, darling."

She snatched her hand away from him, crossing her arms in a sudden fit of discomfiture, and refused to look at him. "You, sir, are thoroughly exasperating."

"And you, madame, are entirely too trusting. Besides," he said, smiling as he turned to face her, "I need to keep some secrets of my own."

She closed her eyes briefly and took a nice, deep breath. "So what exactly will you tell me?"

He gave an elegant shrug. "It all depends on what you'll give me in return."

Resignation crawled through her again as she looked pointedly at her hands. "What do you want?"

He reached across to lift her chin up, forcing her eyes to look into his. "That, my dear, is for you to discover."

She jerked away, frustrated by his lack of answers and grudgingly appreciative of the artful way in which he wasn't giving them.

"I think," she said at last, "that it may be time for another hand puppet parody."

His eyes sparkled jovially. "I see. Do your worst."

"Alas," she threw up her hands in comic exaggeration as she reclined into the couch, "for you'll be expecting it now. The effect is quite negated already."

"Such a pity," replied Jack, reclining next to her.

And so they remained for several long moments.

When Wendy spoke again, her voice was serious, tired, almost pleading. "Jack?"

Winter star eyes focused on her, appraising. "Yes?"

"What do I do now?"

She felt his hand close over hers gently before he spoke. "Stay here with me. Tell your stories and continue to create this world - make it lush beyond imagination."

She sighed softly. "Tempting words."

"That's the general idea."

She placed her hand to her forehead, covering her eyes. "Just tell me one thing, Jack Winterkiss - why do you need me to create this world for you?"

"Your imag-"

"No," she cut him off. "Spare me the standard answer. You have my imaginative powers through our terribly convenient blood pact. So tell me again: why do you need me, Jack Winterkiss?"

"What would you have me sa-"

"No," she silenced him. "try once more for me. Why do need me, Jack Winterkiss?"

"Suppose, Wendy Moira Angela Darling," he answered, drawing out each of her names with a punctuated finality, "that I said I didn't need you. Would that satisfy you?"

She snorted softly. "It would certainly feel more truthful."

"Suppose then," he continued in a velvety whisper, "that I said instead that I wanted you."

Wendy felt her mouth go very, very dry, and swallowed hard. The press of his fingers against hers was suddenly very much in the forefront of her mind. "Well," she replied a touch breathlessly, "it's a very nice hypothetical. I suppose in such a case that I might be quite thoroughly charmed."

"Then I suppose," replied Jack smoothly, "that I would feel quite satisfied with that sequence of events."

Wendy felt a small smile tugging at her lips as an idea occurred to her. "Suppose that I, though still in my charmed state, began to fret about returning home nonetheless. What would you do?"

"I suppose I would remind you that much time has passed there already and your presence would cause a decided stir among those you care most about."

"Suppose I argued that my parents and brothers would be far more pleased to see me than upset by my extended absence."

"Suppose I countered that they would be far more heart-broken when you left them again. Unless you would stay with them and not return here."

Wendy mulled this for a moment. "I suppose that particular plan would wreak convenient havoc with our blood pact."

His smile was small and approving. "I suppose it would."

"So I suppose," she said with a very light sigh, "that I would then conclude that the best plan was to stay here with you."

"I would hope that the line of argument would lead you there, yes."

"Suppose I was still dissatisfied. What then?"

The look in his eyes was quite approving, indeed. "Then I suppose I would encourage you to craft a scenario that would please you and which would still obey the constraints already laid down. Do you suppose you would accept?"

Wendy's thoughts were already whirling and skipping through the possibilities this created. She grinned as a very sensible option materialized in her mind. "Why, yes - I suppose I would."

"Good then, Mistress Storyteller," replied Jack, mirroring her grin as he turned to face her, "make it so."

"Well, you see, Lord Winterkiss," began Wendy in a very good storytelling voice, "it goes something like this..."

And so she told him, with the world flashing golden every now and again. Occasionally, as he added his own thoughts, the world tinged icy blue.

In the end, both were reasonably satisfied with the arrangement and the flashes ceased. The eyeball lichen on the walls gave a hearty, rustling thanks as the various flashes had been giving them something of a headache.

Thus it came about that a legend blossomed among the girls in Reddon Hall of Wendy Darling, the rebellious student hero who would not be a lady. The lead promoter of the tale was, of course, Elizabeth Gwendolyn Leigh Perrigrew, and she would tell it after days of interminably boring lessons or after the bite of Pintzer's words or, really, whenever the littler girls requested it. Many conjectured that it was far more autobiographical than Beth let on, but Beth steadfastly maintained that Wendy Darling was a purely imaginative character quite separate from Beth's own person.

"But how do you know so many Wendy stories, Beth?" asked Sarah one day.

"Dear Sarah, it's terribly easy!" laughed Beth. "I just imagine all the things we wish we actually could do and have Wendy do them. Honestly, don't you wish we could say those terribly cheeky things to Pintzer?"

"But we do get to have some fun like Wendy does," chimed in Rachel. "I think she would heartily approve of the itching powder in the knickers incident. And the tar-manure shoe shine we gave to Pintzer's boots that one time."

"Absolutely!" assured Beth. "In fact, I have a splendid idea - from now on, whenever we accomplish a particularly clever piece of mischief, we shall dedicate it to Wendy Darling!"

Peals of delighted laughter chorused from the surrounding girls. "It's perfect!" "Brilliant idea, Beth!" "Yes, do let's!"

After a few moments, the laughter subsided into more contained giggles.

"Wherever did you come up with the name, anyway?" asked Lexie. " 'Wendy Darling' - it's a bit odd, isn't it?"

"Well," said Beth amiably, "Wendy's a bit odd herself, isn't she? It's fitting."

"I know where the name comes from," teased Rachel. "We all know how fond you are of Nibs Darling, Beth."

Beth, to her credit, colored only slightly. "Well, he's an excellent boy - just imagine if he really did have a sister! Of course she'd do everything Wendy does. She wouldn't be afraid of Pintzer in the least."

And the girls all agreed to that.

That night, Beth dreamed of Wendy Darling again. And, as she lay sleeping, she smiled at the very brave things Wendy once again did and the spectacular adventures she had.

Wendy, after whispering to Beth's mind, withdrew with a feeling of satisfaction. The spherical room really was a fantastic conduit for dream conversations. It had certainly been a good invention.

Jack appeared behind her, placing his arms around her. "Another visit ended well, then?"

She leaned into him, smiling at the image of Beth. "Quite."

"I was wondering if I might trouble you for a story."

"Mmm," replied Wendy, with a mock-serious air. "On what subject?"

"I'm afraid the mermaids are being rather troublesome again."

"Tsk," said Wendy, "pesky creatures. Almost as silly as the fairies about some things."

Jack laughed softly at her blunt assessment. "I believe this might be one of those very things, actually. Perhaps you could include the fairies in your storytelling endeavors tonight."

Wendy raised a contemplative eyebrow. "Perhaps. So tell me, then - what have they done and what shall we have them do?"

"Let's walk in the courtyard as we decide."

Wendy laughed. "The gwyndilons have an opinion then, do they?"

"You might say that."

Wendy looked pointedly at Jack. "And what else might I say?"

"That I would enjoy the pleasure of your company as we walk under the stars."

"Oh, very suave. How can I refuse? Besides, if they gwyndilons care enough about this, it must be fairly interesting." She laughed again as she took his hand. "Let us go walk in the courtyard, Lord Winterkiss."

Jack smiled behind her, and a very lazy, satisfied smile it was. His eyes positively twinkled as he answered, "As you wish, Mistress Storyteller."