Chapter Two: The Story

"The old bull dog certainly did leave in a hurry," observed Beth as she wandered over from her own desk to join Wendy. She grinned as she rested her elbows on Wendy's desk, savoring the image of Pintzer's somewhat hasty and rather comic retreat. "Probably felt ashamed of battering a young girl, I should think. Though," she amended, "that's assuming human decency is a trait approved by Madame Reddon. Might not be proper, you know."

Wendy didn't give any notice that she had even heard Beth. Beth waved a hand in front of Wendy's eyes and, when she got no response, became rather worried for her. Laying her hand against one reddened cheek, Beth tried to get Wendy's gaze to focus on her. "Wendy, love - are you all right? Pintzer didn't knock your brains about too much, did she? We'll never forgive her if we don't find out what happens to that rogue princess of yours and her handsome young thief."

Wendy remained unaccountably silent, her gaze fixed unwaveringly ahead. Shivers were marching with chilled efficiency down her spine and a vision of forget-me-not blue eyes drifted languidly through her frenetic thoughts, smoothing the jagged edges. For a moment, Wendy knew them, recognized them - eyes as fierce and cold as winter stars. They offered a silent invitation - and then they were gone.

Wendy closed her eyes, her breaths quick and shallow.

Looking down at Wendy, Beth decided that Wendy required a good rousing to free her from this solemn mood. She gathered Wendy in her arms and rested her chin on Wendy's rigid shoulder, speaking matter-of-factly. "Honestly, I can't think what Pintzer will do when she finds her best knickers dusted with itching powder and has to blame someone besides you, darling. I don't think she can conceive of anyone else with the proper overdose of insane adventure." Beth gave a wicked little laugh and waggled her eyebrows forebodingly. "Little does she know you've been grooming us all in secret."

Wendy was startled into laughter. She grabbed a conveniently located ruler and swatted at the back of Beth's pony tail, smiling gloriously despite her aching jaw. "I detest you, you know - can't even let a girl enjoy a good sulk."

Beth grinned mischievously and scrabbled for another ruler to defend herself with. "I thought you detested sulking. No moping for you, my pet, that was the philosophy - en guarde!" She swatted at Wendy's fingers.

Wendy blocked easily and poked Beth deftly in the stomach. "Yes, well, I thought perhaps that run-in with Pintzer might have been worthy of a good sulk." Another poke. "Or ten." A sudden jab to the ribs. "The lizard-tongued, cross-eyed harpy." A sharp slash to the arm. "She wouldn't recognize beauty if it danced a waltz on top of her nose!" A wicked slap on the wrist. "She wouldn't know grace if it sang an aria announcing its presence to her!" A ruthless stab at the shoulder. "She wouldn't see wit if it slammed into the ground in front of her and bloody glowed!"

Beth laughed as she attempted to dodge another jab to her solar plexus. "Oof. Now that's the Wendy I know and love." She slapped away the attack to her midsection and gave a hearty thump to an unprotected wrist. "Though, Wendy dear, you must admit that sulking is a bit different from fainting, which is about where you were headed."

A sliver of a memory pricked Wendy for a moment. Winter stars, it whispered.

Wendy gave it a very firm mental glare and then even more firmly ignored it.

She then proceeded to launch herself at Beth, her hand a blazing flash of wood. "How dare you insult me so, impudent girl! As if egregious amounts of pain would cause me to faint!"

Dashing to a sturdier line of defense behind a wooden desk, Beth fended off a flurry of slashes. Seeing her opening, she smiled. "Well then, as you're quite impervious to such things, you shan't mind when I run you through!" She lunged, ruler aiming for the vulnerable heart.

Lightning quick, Wendy arced her torso to the side so that Beth's ruler hit air. "Ah, but my dear Beth, that's only if you can get to me!" A few more nimble blows and Beth's ruler careened across the room in a rather picturesque curve.

Wendy's ruler pressed into the tender flesh of Beth's neck. With a feral smile, Wendy forced Beth back a step. "Now, was someone saying something about running someone through?"

Raising her hands in the air, Beth used her most diplomatic tones. "Now, now - remember, if you please, that I am not that detestable inflictor of the aforementioned egregious pain. Therefore, please keep your deadly jabs to a minimum and save your true vengeance for the deft placement of itching powder in certain unprotected knickers." An amused smile tweaked her lips as Wendy lowered the ruler. "You're really quite clever with that ruler-sword of yours, darling. Where did you learn your tricks?"

Wendy's eyes gleamed. "In a place called Neverland. There were pirates at the time - very nasty ones. And one in particular, their captain, was the slyest and cruelest of all. Elegant and canny, mind you. Dashing, even. But a colder fiend you would not find."

Beth, pleased with this new surge of Let's Pretend, flopped down on the nearest bed."I see. Very kind of him to teach you, especially with him being so wickedly cruel and such."

Wendy grinned and flopped down on the bed next to Beth. "No, silly girl - it was a boy who taught me. We fought together against the pirates and most particularly against their captain."

Sarah flopped down on the bed as well, keenly interested. "A boy? What sort of boy? Was he handsome?"

Wendy winked at her. "Devilishly gorgeous. He was a lovely boy, and his name was Peter Pan. He was made of equal parts forest and sunlight and secrets." She gazed up at the ceiling for a moment, then leapt up suddenly. "And he could fly!" She swooped down on the unprotected Beth with ruler in hand, which resulted in a squelched yelp from the bed. "It makes sword tactics much more interesting, believe you me. You have to think in three dimensions." A few slashes hummed through the air near Beth's head, which resulted in a somewhat more exasperated yip. This was then followed by a jaunty tackle on Beth's part, which resulted with Wendy disarmed and pinned on the bed. Much giggling accompanied the onslaught.

"Ah, Wendy - I do adore you! Tell us about your Neverland." Beth rubbed her sore ribs with a rueful expression. "We can get to sword tactics later."

"But what about the rogue princess?" asked Lexie plaintively.

"She'll keep," said Beth authoritatively. "Now tell us about Neverland."

"And more on this Peter Pan," demanded Sarah. "I'd like to hear of a boy made of forest and sunlight and secrets." She giggled, teasing. "Especially those secrets, Miss Wendy Darling."

Unbaited, Wendy smiled, her eyes twinkling. "Ah, but it's changed since I was there last, I'm sure."

Beth raised an eyebrow, undeterred. "I'll not be put off by that gambit, madame - surely you must know what it's like now. And at the very least, you can tell us what it was like then."

"If you wish it," acquiesced Wendy, laughing softly.

"We do," said Beth, as she curled into a comfortable position on the bed. "Now, on with your story, Madame Storyteller."

Wendy settled back onto the bed, legs crossed, eyes decidedly bright. "Gather round, my dears," she said, "and let me tell you of adventures in Neverland." Much rustling and shuffling was heard. When it quieted, Wendy continued. "It all began with Peter Pan. Specifically, it began with Peter coming to the nursery window to hear my stories-"

"See?" said Sarah gleefully as she wriggled closer to Wendy. "Everyone likes them, really. Even wonderful boys made of forest."

Wendy's smile was wry. "Yes, I suppose everyone in Neverland rather liked them. It's a prized skill there, storytelling. It can make you quite...in demand."

Rachel quirked an eyebrow at this. "Can it, now? Quite convenient, really, what with you being so good at storytelling and all."

Chagrin colored Wendy's answer. "No, not always so convenient. Particularly when it results in being held at sword point by cruelly devious pirate captains."

This produced a collective gasp from the around the room.

"Really," continued Wendy, ignoring the gasp, "when you come right down to it, it's a decided penalty." She paused, contemplative for a moment. "But storytelling, whatever its consequences might be, nevertheless begins this story..."

And so Wendy told them of her previous adventures in Neverland - complete with boys made of mischief, pirates made of malice, a thimble, a hook, and the exact timbre of triumphant crowing. Several hours passed, and the clock struck a lazy, sonorous one in the morning. Not an eye, however, was closed.

"...and so we would always remember returning home in grand style, fairy dust blazing a trail behind. Well," Wendy amended, "at least sometimes just before falling asleep."

Sighs of satisfaction arose from various spots around the bed.

"Ah, Wendy," whispered Sarah dreamily, "but you haven't seen Peter since then? Your boy of sunlight and forest?"

"And such lovely secrets," Lexie added.

Wendy gazed at the ceiling, pretending for a moment that it was a Neverland night sky. "Indeed, no. Not since that night, despite his promise." A subtle sadness curled into her words, causing more sighs from the girls.

"Tsk," said Beth, "wretched promise-breaker." And then, with a wicked smile, she continued, "Pity that captain of yours had to be eaten by the crocodile - he sounded quite dashing."

Wendy snorted in a thoroughly un-Reddon-approved fashion. "Dashingly wicked and dashingly cruel and a dashing silver-tongued liar. Me as his obsession instead of Peter? Honestly!- I can't think why I believed it for even a moment."

"Perhaps," said Beth, eyes wide in mock innocence, "because a certain storyteller secretly wanted more of a certain dashingly wicked captain's attention?"

Wendy bolted upright, grabbed the nearest pillow, and buried Beth's head under it.

"Just perhaps?" came the poignant, if somewhat muffled, inquiry. This was followed by heartier efforts on Wendy's part with the pillow, though a rather rueful smile played on her lips.

After a few moments, a rather fainter inquiry emerged from beneath the pillow. "Erm, mighm I hamm smmm air, Wmmdy?"

Wendy laughed and released Beth. "And that, my dear, will teach you when to tease those of us gifted with a tactical pillow advantage."

"Yes," replied Beth, a bit weakly, "I really must remember to remove all available objects from your vicinity the next time." She perched on the edge of the bed, surveying the material in range. Satisfied that everything was reasonably innocuous, she grinned and pressed on. "Now, about that dashing, yet dastardly, captain..."

Wendy laughed again, bouncing delightedly back onto the bed. "You're relentless, Bethie. Fine, then, about the captain-"

"The dashing captain," reminded Sarah, who had thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of his curled black hair and eyes blue as forget-me-nots.

"The dashing captain," amended Wendy. "And he certainly was dashing - manipulative, arrogant schemer that he was." A wistful coldness shimmered through her eyes. "Made of daggers and twilight and artful lies. A creature of black waters and devious practicality. An exemplary villain. My villain." She fell silent, contemplative as she looked out across the room at precisely nothing at all. After a few heartbeats, she closed her eyes, and the wistful coldness permeated her voice. "But no - he is gone. Gone." The harshness of her tone made some of the littler girls jump. "The crocodile took her tribute," said Wendy with finality, "and there is nothing more of Captain James Hook."

The room went very, very quiet. Several of the girls felt the awkwardness of the silence, and fidgeted.

After some moments, Wendy spoke again in a very low, very soft voice. "There is, however, something new in Neverland since last I was there. Or rather, some place new. A place truly magnificent. It is just beyond the Black Castle, with its looming, dripping towers and glittering ill-gotten treasure. Just on the other side of the castle, where the mist begins. It swirls with moonlight and whispers and midnight imaginings, running and shifting and changing with the passing of every breath. It watches and it sees and, above all, it waits." Wendy looked up suddenly at the rest of the girls, her eyes strange, almost haunted. "Oh yes, it waits. For the ones with the right words and the right dreams to give it their imaginings, to have their wishes become caught in its dance and melded into its core. It is the realm," she whispered, her eyes very wide, "of Perhaps."

A reverential quiet trailed after her words.

"Perhaps in Neverland," said Beth at last, rather drolly, "It has a certain ring to it."

"I'm quite glad you approve," said Wendy dryly, returning more to her usual mood. "I stay up nights absolutely pining for your approval."

"It's a good thing I'm so generous, then," countered Beth innocently.

This caused a pillow to be thrown rather near Beth's head, coming conspicuously from Rachel's side of the room.

"Oh do hush, Beth!" said Rachel, grinning unrepentantly at Beth's offended look. "Let Wendy tell us about Perhaps."

A chorus of agreement resounded around the room.

"Very well then," said Beth, bowing her head, "I capitulate to the demands of the rabble. Tell on, O Storyteller."

Wendy smiled wryly. "Why thank you, Beth. Ever so kind of you." Her eyes glittered as the story mood coalesced. "Now, the realm of Perhaps is ruled by a man, a man who is just like his realm. Like... dragonfly wings and the lyric hooting of the owl. Dark - but very beautiful. And this man has many, many secrets."

"With a description like that, he surely ought to," observed Beth.

"Indeed," agreed Wendy, smiling again. "First, however, I shall describe his appearance - for we must have a clear picture of him in mind. He is tall in stature, possessing elegant, sharp features and long hair black as shadows. His eyes can be cruel, and cold. They sparkle with the chilling brightness of winter stars." Wendy's breath caught for a moment, as a particularly persevering memory blazed into focus.

She regarded this memory intently, and it, somewhat predatorily, regarded her in turn. After a small trial of wills, a mutual agreement was reached. The memory glided into a convenient mental corner, nestling. It would wait.

"Now this man," continued Wendy, "moves with a feral sort of grace, a fierce beauty. He is a master manipulator, and words are his particular skill."

"I admit," said Beth, "to seeing some resemblance between this man and a certain late pirate captain."

This time, the pillow from across the room didn't miss Beth's head.

"Fine, fine," she said, waving her hands at Wendy after she sat up again, "go on."

Wendy smiled, her eyes still glittering. "I do admit there might indeed be some resemblance between this particular man and the dread captain Hook. But then, it is my Story after all. I am allowed to have consistent taste."

"True enough," said Beth. "Back to your master manipulator, then. Does he have a name?"

"That he does. He is the Jack-"

"The Jack?" interrupted Rachel.

"Yes," replied Wendy smoothly, "the Jack. The title of the ruler of Perhaps is Jack, for Jacks are tricksters and magicians - and to rule Perhaps properly, one must be both. And this Jack (for that is his first name as well) rules Perhaps quite well, indeed - he is the clever, crafty Jack of Stories. Terribly, terribly clever. That is what won him the rule of Perhaps, you know - his cleverness. For any one of his fey subjects could match him in illusions of glamour, any one of his goblins in cruelty, and any one of his mermaids in ruthlessness - but cleverness, that is where he can best them all. He full name is Jack Winterkiss, the surname given to him by his subjects after proving himself their master in the sly art of words."

"Winter Kiss, eh?" said Beth, raising an eyebrow. "Is he cold in more ways than one?"

Wendy's smile was small and sharp. "It is a name descriptive of his manner - silky, smooth, beguiling in speech. But the glittering, liquid words can hide a core of ice, all the more sharp for being cloaked beneath. Hence, it is the 'kiss of winter' - subtle, deft, and very, very deadly."

"Deadly!?" echoed Lexie, with some incredulity. "Words?! Surely words can't do any real harm. Well, unless they're magic, I suppose. Are they?"

Wendy fixed a heavy-lidded look on Lexie, who subsequently felt a small chill run through her. Wendy's smile was cold. "Quite magic. Oh, yes." Her voice became soft, rhythmic, gliding on hidden music just out of memory-shot. "Every word in Perhaps has the potential to summon the half-dreams which make up its substance, gives it form. Perhaps is a place of the imagination, a place longing for strong will to give it shape. Since every word is an act of will, every word uttered with strong will can be very, very potent. A word could become a caress, a haven, a weapon in this place which is perpetually shifting, constantly inconstant. Thus does the Jack rule the realm, with his lithe words, his canny manipulations, and his fierce will."

Silence hung for a moment, as the listeners considered this.

"Well," said Beth at last, "so much for swords. Who needs razor-sharp metal when you can have razor-sharp repartee?"

Shy giggles crept out from the corners of the room. Beth inclined her head slightly, graciously accepting the sanction of the previously censuring rabble. "Speaking of razor-sharp repartee, I gather the Jack and Peter don't get on very well. Subtle nuances of conversation don't quite seem Peter's cup of tea."

"If I didn't know better, Beth," said Rachel, "I'd say you approved of Jack far more than you approved of Peter."

Beth smiled. "I confess to also having...ah, what was it you said, Wendy? Consistent taste. I do so love a villain."

"But you don't know that Jack's a villain!" protested Sarah.

Beth rolled her eyes. "Let us take stock for a moment. Jack Winterkiss is the lord and master of a dark kingdom that practically oozes with the less-than-pristine denizens of Neverland. Peter Pan is the boy of sunlight and forest. Et voila! - fated adversaries. And since Peter must be the hero of the tale, where exactly does that leave our dear Jack?"

"He couldn't be, er, neutral?" inquired Lexie.

Beth snorted. "With Peter around? I shall hazard a guess and say no."

Wendy's laughter broke through the discussion. "True enough. He is most certainly not neutral when it comes to Peter. To call his sentiments passionate dislike is perhaps an understatement. But the ire doesn't stem from what you might think, my dears. Jack is not envious of Peter's youth nor is he aggrieved at the loss of a limb. No, Jack's...dislike...has to do with the way the sides have polarized in Neverland. Peter has become the pulsing core of the light side; Jack, over time, has become the nexus of its darker parts."

Beth's face twitched in a desperate attempt not to guffaw. "I shall," she choked out, "make no comment."

A resigned "too late" wafted over from Rachel.

"Lascivious point taken," said Wendy, grinning. "However, the analogy remains - there is a dichotomy in Neverland, and both Jack and Peter are necessary to anchor their respective parts. There is, however, an imbalance. Peter rules the golden, steamy jungles and the shimmering lagoons - and he can travel freely to the midnight realm. Jack, however, cannot leave Perhaps - he is not free to travel the light side."

"Well," sniffed Sarah, "that seems a bit unfair. Why not?"

"Because," said Wendy, "Perhaps is, in fact, exactly as Jack wills it to be. Amorphous without his will, it has become woven into the flesh of his dreams and his consciousness, taking what form it can from him. It needs him to be within its shifting borders in order to exist, for none of Jack's subjects have the strength to hold the root of it within them. Only Jack. And because of this, if he leaves it - even for a moment - it and all the creatures who live within it will fade into mist and oblivion. That is the power of the Jack - that is why they must choose one. And while our Jack may be ruthless, he is not heartless. He would not doom all his subjects for a mere glimpse of the afternoon sun on the sea." Wendy seemed to reflect on this for a long moment, before a conspicuously large yawn overtook her. "But I think it's time for us to be getting to bed. I shall have to tell you more of the Jack of Perhaps another night."

A chorus of disapproval followed this pronouncement.

"Now, now, my dears," cooed Beth, "Perhaps will be there again. Or if it's not, we shall throttle our Storyteller until it makes an appearance. Never fear!"

"How comforting," remarked Wendy dryly.

"Yes, well, that just gives you incentive not to keep us in the dark, doesn't it?" replied Beth smartly. "Now, off with you all!" She began shooing the other girls to their beds with mock severity. Several of them stuck their tongues out at her, causing her to grin. She scurried over to Wendy to give her a kiss on the cheek and then darted off to her own bed. Within moments, the room was quiet.

Conveniently enough, this left Wendy ample time to examine the very persistent memory which had been patiently biding its time in the back corner of her mind. Unfortunately, being quite sleepy, she dropped off before she could do much of anything about it.

Which suited the memory just fine. If memories could laugh with the languid satisfaction of a hunter, that is exactly what this one would have done.

However, as it couldn't, it contented itself with flashing a vision of winter star eyes and the shadow of a smile through Wendy's subconscious musings. On the sighing breath of a childhood dreams came its message, in tones of midnight and secrets:

I thank you for this most generous form.

And then it did laugh, after all.