Chapter 5 - The Heart of the Night Side
Wendy awoke in a very comfortable bed that was not her own. The Jack sat picturesquely across from her in a dark purple velvet armchair, midnight hair clasped behind him, elegant ballroom regalia gleaming in the candlelight.
She was fully aware that she was focused on his clothing so that she didn't have to meet the winter star gaze that was leveled at her.
He smiled suddenly, with just a touch of fire.
A jolt tore through Wendy, as half-remembered feelings and sensations fluttered through her. Snide mental commentary accompanied the memories.
The Jack's smile widened and his eyes flashed with merriment, as if he, too, could hear those biting remarks. "So, my dear Storyteller, I really must tell you how fond the mermaids are of their new jewelry."
"Ah," said Wendy, her mouth very dry. After a few more breathless moments, she licked her lips and added, "Good."
"You should see it," he continued conversationally. "Each one has found a way to adorn that tear until it's as unique as the mermaid who wears it."
Wendy made a noise perilously close to a snort, her nerves forgotten temporarily. "Not surprising - I don't think they could bear wearing the same thing, no matter how precious."
The Jack laughed at her blunt assessment. "Indeed, no - no matter how...precious."
A blush burst through Wendy. "I've heard it's a rare commodity."
His eyebrows quirked with amusement. "That it is." He leaned back, stretching luxuriously against the purple velvet. "But you should come see the mermaids for yourself - it's quite a sight. They're at the ball now, in fact."
Wendy's eyes widened. "Ball?"
"Yes," he replied, voice silky smooth, "ball."
Her eyes remained quite wide.
He continued, unperturbed. "With musicians and dancing."
Her expression remained unchanged, except for a very controlled blink.
"And guests making sniping remarks as they try to vie for favor with me."
Her eyebrows lifted noticeably.
"Intrigues and courtly plots and viperous words."
Wendy blinked again.
"Perhaps even a good fight to the death." He whispered conspiratorially, "And that's just the mermaids."
Wendy blinked once more, then spoke. "You should have stopped at the dancing part."
His smile was warmer now as he cushioned his hands behind his head. "Yes, well - I wanted to make sure you wouldn't be bored. The part after the dancing was really just wishful thinking."
Wendy let a giggle escape before she could stop herself. She was suddenly very aware who she was giggling at. "Why are you being so..." she trailed off, thoughtful.
He leaned towards her, winter star eyes intent. "How am I being?"
She pondered this with the ever-dwindling part of her mind that wasn't being distracted by his proximity. "Congenial. Friendly. Amusing."
His smile warmed further, and his voice filled with that laughter like silver coins. "It's a skill, like any other." He moved closer to her until his mouth was a breath away from hers, and she saw eyes that were filled with something besides ice. "I can play whatever role you like."
Wendy's breath caught, and she looked very hard at her hands on the bedclothes. "How talented of you."
His words danced across her skin, rolling like velvet. "I do try."
She was very still as his gloved hand caressed the line of her cheek, remembering the scent of that supple leather. She trembled suddenly, and closed her eyes. "What do you want?" she asked quietly.
He lifted her chin gently until she was looking at him. "The anything you pacted to me."
Panic sang through her in a violent shudder, and she tensed beneath his touch. Virtue still alive and well, after all, is it? chirped the back part of her mind.
The Jack's eyes widened slightly at her assumption. "Not that, Storyteller." His voice was silken as he let her chin tilt back down. "What I want is what you would freely give to me. That is the way things must work here."
"Must?" Her voice was tentative, grasping.
His hand rested gently on her shoulder now. "Yes. Must."
She let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, muttering, "Well, that's a relief."
She felt his amusement around her like a warm current, but when she looked up, he was merely bowing his head courteously to her.
Irritated, she allowed suspicion born of old humiliations to seize hold of her thoughts. "Why is it that you care enough to soothe me, Jack Winterkiss? What do you want from me? What do you gain from this?"
He drew back, hands spread wide. His face was a blank and congenial mask. "Can't a man simply want a lady in his care to be comfortable?"
She looked at him, unappeased. "A man could, if he were only a man. And if I were, in fact, a lady in his care. But the fact remains that you are no mere man and I am not a lady in your care."
"Aren't you? Surely you don't want to go back to your Reddon House just yet."
She continued to look at him, undistracted. "What do you gain from this?"
He dodged her question gracefully. "Or do you really want to go back to where that brutal Pintzer woman reigns?"
Wendy closed her eyes, remembering all too well her last encounter with Pintzer. At Reddon House, they wanted to form a proper lady out of her - by sharp words, by pretty bland lies, by beatings. Whatever it took to empty the fancifulness from her, to bleed her dry of her stories. Reddon House's end was crystal clear.
The Jack's, however, was most certainly not. Her voice was measured and precise as she asked her question a third time. "What do you gain from this, Jack Winterkiss?"
He blinked slowly, then spoke with a small quirk of a smile. "My happiness, Storyteller."
A simple answer, and one which could conveniently mean any number of things. She appreciated that it was a perfectly fine, useless answer to her query and then let loose a string of choice phrases involving certain anatomical impossibilities.
His lips twitched noticeably at a particularly inventive one involving a rat and a brick. When she had finally exhausted her sputtering ire, he continued cordially, "There's a fine array of attire in the wardrobe for you to choose from. I shall leave the portrait in the hallway ready for you."
He stood gracefully, and turned towards the door.
"I'm in no condition to go to a ball." It sounded grumpy, even to Wendy.
He tilted his head to the side, inquisitive. "Really?"
His insinuation gave her pause, and she stopped concentrating on her irritation long enough to consider if he was right. After a careful sensory inspection, she discovered, quite to her surprise, that he was.
His silver-coin laughter traced along her skin, and she shuddered at the sensations that called up. She managed, nonetheless, to toss him a very thorough glare.
"I shall look forward to your arrival, Storyteller." His eyes were absolutely merry as he glided through the doorway, and was gone.
She stared crossly at the door, before rising out of the bed and walking to the wardrobe. Everything in it, of course, was exactly her size - dresses, corsets, hats, breeches, frock coats, sword belts, vests, boots, scarves...every last piece. Enchanted castles have their good points, after all. Wendy laughed softly to herself as she fingered the fabrics, her irritation with the Jack forgotten. Half the clothing was certainly meant to be male, and yet still it was here. Ah, and look over there! There were weapons stacked neatly against the wall in the back, shining and sharp. Proud enough for even a fierce pirate captain.
The last thought lodged in her mind like a thorn.
I suppose we don't really need those anymore. Not now.
A wry smile touched her lips. Perhaps proud enough weapons for the fierce rulers of mysterious shifting realms instead.
Ah yes - that felt much better. But she wasn't going to be needing weapons tonight (she fervently hoped the Jack's tales of fights to the death had merely been wishful thinking, anyway). She was going to need to dance...
Her hands fell against a very simple ivory dress, of rich material and elegant cut. A thrill of chilling anticipation ran through her, as she considered that startling fact that in a very short while, she was going to go to a ball in an enchanted castle to dance with the villain of her very own Story.
She paused, fingering the velvet and satin of the dress thoughtfully. It probably didn't bode well for her virtue to admit quite how much she was enjoying the little thread of fear that accompanied the chilling anticipation. Reddon House would most definitely not approve of this little adventure.
That thought curved her lips into a rather wicked smile that would have done the Jack proud.
Wendy stepped into the dress, and surveyed herself in the mirror of the wardrobe door. She looked decidedly regal in the long swaths of ivory - and as cold as the Jack himself.
She wondered briefly if this was a good thing, and then decided it was better than looking grumpy, which was where her rumpled night gown had left her.
"When heading into unknown parties attended by the denizens of Perhaps," counseled Wendy gravely to her reflection, "untouchable is a much better attitude to assume than disheveled confusion."
Threads of hidden knowledge that she recognized from her last visit to Perhaps thrummed in agreement with this assessment. They had the Jack's stamp on them, of course (though strangely some other half-familiar flavor to them as well). But all that had ceased to bother her some time between her last visit and this one - though the fact that it had ceased to bother her was now, unfortunately, bothering her in an abstract way. But that would pass. She had more pressing concerns.
Such as, unfortunately, the state of her hair. She cursed softly - she had never been any good with hair. Too much of it falling every which way.
If only this enchanted castle came with invisible servants that would act as a lady's maid. But no, that wouldn't do - not for this castle. Not for any place in Perhaps. Far better would be a good strong wish...
For a moment, she felt a curious pressure behind her eyes, and then a golden light seemed to color her surroundings for an instant. But it was gone as soon as it had come.
Wendy held her breath for a moment, blinking furiously. After some moments of this, she exhaled and slipped back into her fanciful mindset. Sticking her tongue out at her reflection in the mirror, she declared, "And this is what I wish: I wish by will power alone to have comely locks without effort!"
Something shimmered in the reflection. Wendy's breath caught again. Her immediate (embarrassing) thoughts were of some clever trick of the Jack's.
It would really be cheating for him to have kept watching all this time. Wouldn't it? And oh, how embarrassing...
She considered various stages of mortification for a moment, and then saw the shimmer again. And again.
She relaxed slightly and closed her eyes - it wasn't the amused smile of the Jack. (She hadn't put it past him after that business with the castle door.) It was more like a rapid series of photographs. Some quirk of the mirrors in an enchanted castle, perhaps, or -
She looked back at her reflection and suddenly blinked very hard. She looked again. She blinked again. And looked again.
"My," she said finally, thoroughly impressed.
With every flash, her hair was altering slightly, being shaped and molded into something entirely fetching that involved copious strands of pearls. She moved her hand to touch a strand that was curled becomingly down the side of her face, staring at it in bemusement.
The flashing stopped, and her hair was complete.
So that's how the shifting reality of Perhaps worked.
Only for some, whispered the back of her mind. Only for those with the imagination and the will.
Conveniently enough, thought Wendy smartly, I have that in abundance. And it looks to be more useful in Perhaps than it was in Neverland.
She continued mulling over the implications of this as she hunted for a suitable pair of shoes. Finally, having found an ivory pair that didn't seem intent upon breaking her ankles, she stood up and looked herself over one last time in the mirror. A smile slipped across her lips as she turned towards the door.
And away we go.
The eyeball lichen fluttered and waved in sincere approval of her appearance as she passed. She nodded graciously to the nearest patch, which glowed turquoise briefly with pleasure, and then moved near the only portrait in the hallway. It looked rather like the hallway she was in, actually, though there was a soft light emanating from somewhere off to the right.
"That's probably the direction of the ball, then," she murmured out loud.
The eyeball lichen waggled its agreement.
Wendy continued to look at the portrait, hesitating. She remembered her last trip through the portraits quite well. This time, there would be no arms to catch her if she fell into the empty darkness.
It's really much easier if you trust me.
The Jack's previous words came unbidden. It had a sort of logic to it, of course - if she trusted him, then portrait travel worked just as she had told it would. He had pacted her to create it, and she had done so. And so it was.
Or so he had said.
Well, how else did you get here, hmmm?
That aggravatingly observant part of her mind did actually have a point. If the Jack had managed to bring her here merely by using what she had told about the portrait travel, surely the portrait travel would work as she had told it. No flat and waiting dark - just "swimming through the currents of geographical reality".
That is, if she believed that her storytelling had enabled him to bring her here and he hadn't been able to just do that already.
But then, wouldn't he have done that the first time, rather than waiting inside a dream?
Perhaps. But never underestimate the cleverness of a Jack.
She closed her eyes and took a breath. At some point, choices had to be made. She either trusted him to not let her sink into oblivion, or she was going to be standing at this portrait for a very, very long time. With him most likely having a very good (and thoroughly patronizing) chuckle at her expense.
The last thought was what spurred her through. In the end, vexation was really such a wonderful motivator.
A most curious sensation of floating and being pulled by phantom currents overtook her as she stepped through, and everything seemed to have a blue-green cast for a moment. Then, she was on the other side, and stepping into a hallway that looked much like the one she had left. Except, of course, for the haunting music and chiming laughter drifting from the door to the ballroom off to the right.
She paused for a moment, gathering herself together. The patches of eyeball lichen gave her encouraging rustles. She nodded her thanks to them graciously, and then squared her shoulders, trying desperately to remember what the dance master at Reddon had said about posture. After a few moments of fidgeting and tensing her muscles, she gave up and went for a confident demeanor. With a small stretch of imagination, the mood would translate into a balanced, pleasing state of body.
The room shimmered gold for a moment, and then she was in complete balance. Grace flowed through every muscle, from her neck to her toes. She grinned with pleasure - this manipulation of reality in Perhaps was quite a useful thing.
She wondered suddenly who besides the Jack and herself had such power over the precise nature of Perhaps. Surely the other creatures of Perhaps had it to some extent. He was merely the best of them to be able to do it, not the only one. Wasn't that true?
She paused a little way from the entrance the ballroom, trying to remember. The Jack had come to power through cleverness, but she had never specified the exact nature of his power. Cleverness she had given him in abundance...but cleverness to do what? How clever did one have to be to have imagination of this kind and the strength of will to impose it on Perhaps?
But perhaps that's why he wants you, mused the back corner of her mind. You can do this without thought, as easily as breathing. And storytelling is a prized commodity in this world.
Outside the world, certainly, she mused back, but what effect can my words have once I'm inside the world?
Your desires seem to work quite well enough. You obviously have some non-trivial effect.
She conceded this point, given the state of her hair and her balance, and continued to ponder its implications as she strode into the ballroom. Then, however, she stopped completely.
The hall streamed with harlequin color, gold and black and white. Vast gold veined columns stretched to the distant ceiling that arched above. Ribbons and lace and filigree sconces swam through the room, ice sculptures of strange creatures on pedestals lining the dance floor. The violet glow of eyeball lichen mingled with fountains sparkling in corners, roses climbing the surrounding walls like they were part of some secret garden.
Figures decked in something dark and shining that fit like a second skin flew through the air above on silken ropes, languorous and circling, faces hidden behind masks feathered and molded in shimmering perfection. Their eyes flashed an incandescent green in the light, uncannily familiar. Fire spinners stood on pedestals away from the ice sculptures spinning purple and blue flame, carefully timed to lick the sides of the silk fliers, but never collide.
A statuesque female presence in deep crimson stood at the head of the dance floor, on a raised stage, letting notes of delicate sweetness drift from her dark lips, while the orchestra, with supernatural precision and grace, played a lilting, languorous melody. In the middle of all this splendor, the people danced. Sweeping across the floor with great strolling, sumptuous movements, delighted laughter trailing behind their flying skirts and jackets and half-capes.
The effect was breath-taking.
Wendy, in fact, began to feel a bit weak, until she remembered to inhale.
The music glided seamlessly into a thrumming, more rhythmic tune, with the percussion letting loose a pulsing beat. The dancers broke and reformed, the fire of the dance rippling through their bodies, pulling them along in ecstatic undulation. The great sweeping motions of circling arms alternated with mad, perfectly synchronized rotations of the hips.
Then, amidst the throng, she saw the Jack. Sensual and predatory, he led a woman in purple and green feathers around the ballroom, the mask of some exotically colored bird hiding her face as they swept past the other dancers, near glowing. They sliced through the gyrating throng with movements that, though they never actually touched each other, managed to make Wendy's face feel quite hot. She felt the rumbling beat of the music move through her as she watched them, spellbound.
She was, admittedly, more than a little envious of the woman in purple and green.
But the music changed again, slipping into a waltz of delicate notes and the soaring, ethereal voice of the singer, fast and tripping. The silk fliers, faces hidden behind masks of black feathers and eyes still flashing, settled into a pattern of spiraling circles that matched the three-quarters time to perfection.
No one moved to take the floor, however, as all eyes were now on the Jack.
The Jack's eyes were fixed on his partner as he gave her a courtly bow. Wendy noticed suddenly that the woman had a mermaid's tail beneath her shimmering purple-green dress, and began, absurdly, to puzzle out the mechanics of the mermaid's dancing skills since the Jack obviously had two legs.
The Jack also had two eyes (very striking ice-blue ones, as a certain traitorous part of her mind was so fond of pointing out) and they were hidden artfully behind a white velvet mask with two horns arcing out from the top. The aforementioned blue eyes had, in fact, turned to fix on Wendy.
The steely press of the entire room's gaze helped bring her back out of her thoughts of mermaid dance technique. A leather-clad hand appeared before her. "Would you care to dance?"
She felt the tension in the room rise, as the ballroom waited and watched.
Don't panic. Play this game. Don't let them see your uncertainty in anything.
Guided by these silent words, Wendy felt her mind slide into the cool, deep stillness where her Let's Pretend had let her go before.
A jaunty smile traced across her lips. "If you don't mind having your feet trodden upon, I gladly accept your offer, sir."
"I accept your terms, as well, my lady," he replied as he moved her into a very close (and properly balanced!, she heard the Reddon dance master gleefully chanting) dance position.
As they touched, the ballroom seemed to breathe out. Other dancers began to pair off and take a starting position on the dance floor.
As he swayed her firmly into his arm, he whispered, "It's illusion."
"What?" said Wendy, thoroughly thrown by his sudden comment.
He smiled. "The mermaid. She's split her tail into legs for the evening, but she keeps the image of the tail to remind others of what she is."
Wendy raised her eyebrows. "Clever girl."
His smile grew strangely soft as he slid his fingers down the side of her face for a moment. "Not so clever as some."
Wendy felt herself blush nearly immediately, but strangely bitter words slipped out, a whispered sing-song memory of Peter. "Oh, the cleverness of me."
The Jack's smile stilled as he looked down at her, his hand gliding down to settle behind her back. His eyes were glittering bright, searching and almost...pulling. For a moment, Wendy felt the building of the sensation she recalled from her previous visit - that spiraling rush beneath her skin. It was an electric thing, crackling, causing the world to narrow to two brilliant ice-blue points. She swallowed thickly, her fingers tightening around him.
But then, it receded, and she exhaled softly enough to hear his reply.
"Yes," he said, his voice sliding sinuously around her. "Yes, you are."
She blinked suddenly, her bitterness having slipped away. But as she looked up at him, she again felt the pull beginning. She blinked again, hard, and looked pointedly at his mouth, struggling for some other pattern of thoughts to sink into. After a breath, she found one. "How did you know I was wondering about the mermaid's tail?"
She saw the corner of his mouth quirk up in a smile. "Your furrowed brow and directed gaze were something of a hint."
"Ah," she murmured as she now directed her gaze over his right shoulder, "fair enough. I must remember to be more discrete about my unabashed staring."
He laughed softly, a touch smugly. "A lesson never too soon to learn, my dear."
She glanced at him, irritation mingling with a bold merriment. "Oh, do stop condescending to me and let's dance this waltz before I'm forced to strike you for being insolent."
His eyes widened in surprise, and his smile was wicked, sensuous. "Bold words, my lady. And a tempting offer."
Wendy felt a truly furious blush of mingled shock and confusion sweep through her. She turned her eyes away from him suddenly, muttering, "Dancing. Dancing would be lovely right about now."
Silver coin laughter slid across her skin, his amusement a warm, touchable thing. "And here I thought we already were."
Before she could compose herself enough to reply, they had begun to move.
Wendy tried very, very hard not to think about what her feet were doing, which was a pleasant distraction from trying very, very hard not to think about her previous exchange with the Jack. In truth, not thinking about her feet was actually a novel experience since the Reddon dance master was always rapping her on the back of her knees with his gold-handled cane when she didn't cross her feet at the appropriate time or when she didn't have her knees facing the same direction and properly bent at the right angle or...well, mostly whenever she was dancing. This had the unfortunate effect of making her exquisitely aware of exactly what her body was doing whenever she had tried to dance previously. The furiously-paced viennese waltz was a particular nightmare - always, she would stumble and trip up whatever poor, beleaguered partner she had.
But strangely, pleasantly, she was not stumbling. And the Jack was most certainly not tripping. In fact, they appeared to be dancing together as easily and as gracefully as if they'd been doing it for years and years. The Reddon dance master would have stood up and applauded at the joy with which they executed the intricate footing. It was like flying, like swooping through the air in three-quarters time.
Lost in the exuberant thrill of the movement, Wendy's thoughts fell silent but for one: There really are more ways to fly than fairy dust.
They finished several minutes later as the music drifted into an easy, strolling riff. Her arm through the Jack's, Wendy exited the dance floor in a state of unadulterated delight.
"Your dance master would be quite impressed, I take it," said the Jack congenially.
Wendy blinked, her thoughts drawn regretfully back to her verbal sparring with him. Sighing softly, she glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me my blissful countenance gave that away."
His smile was mischievous as he looked back at her. "I won't."
She waited for a moment for him to continue. When he became apparent he wasn't going to, she closed her eyes, took a nice calming breath, and pressed him. "So you were able to divine this riveting piece of information how exactly?"
His expression remained amused as he toyed with a button on his glove. "Through other means."
Another calm breath. "Mmm. Some of which might be?"
His eyes glistened with mirth as he turned his gaze back to her. "Ones I'm very skilled at."
Taking yet another calm breath, Wendy resisted the urge to stomp on his in-step. Her inclination towards violence was being awakened with astonishing rapidity in his presence. "These means wouldn't happen to have anything to do with that particular connection to my thoughts you so enjoy tweaking, would they?"
The Jack ran a gloved hand gracefully through his hair, still smiling with far too much mischief. "They very well might."
She looked at him steadily for a moment, her mind working furiously to figure out a way through his defenses. After another moment, she spoke with a mock-solemn air. "You realize, of course, that it's terribly unfair for you to read my thoughts when I can't voluntarily read yours."
Though his smile remained, his eyes became very carefully blank. "Who told you that you couldn't?"
Wendy stared at him, her mind suddenly whirling. She hadn't really tried, of course - thought-reading just wasn't a standard skill in the normal scheme of the world.
But of course, this wasn't the same world at all, now was it?
And think what sorts of things one could learn if one had such a power...It couldn't be very deep thoughts, since those would be too complex and unstructured to fathom outside the mind that created them. But a sort of surface layer of thought would be comprehensible, a communication easily picked up if it was projected. Richer than simple telepathic communication, a sense of emotional presence-
She gave a mental snort. For instance, if one was having a strong emotional response of, say, vindication regarding one's barb-tongued dance master, that might well be picked up without too much trouble. Strong emotions, precise targets - these things would be easily communicated and understood. Yes, that would work quite well in Perhaps... especially if the one sending the thoughts had a connection to the receiver already, or an extraordinary focus of will...
She felt a warmth pulse through her, and a shot of gold colored her surroundings for an instant in a brilliant shimmer. At the same moment, she had a startling vision of woody tendrils and flashing emerald eyes watching her, approving of her actions.
She realized suddenly what she had just done. (It was quite convenient, really, that the manipulations of reality in Perhaps seemed to be marked by this gold shimmering.) She smiled with a touch of triumph, despite the nervous fluttering of her pulse.
Well, that was easy enough.
The Jack's eyebrow arched in amusement at her unspoken assessment and the startled satisfaction accompanying it. But then his face became serious, and his thoughts crystal clear.
I have given you a weapon, Storyteller, a means of information and power. Consider it well - because nothing comes without price here.
Wendy gave a mental snort, her irritation apparent. Surprise, surprise... but the real question is why you gave me the suggestion about mind-reading in the first place...
"I'm really not the controlling force here at all, am I?" she murmured out loud.
"No?" A smile tugged at his lips.
"No," she replied firmly, getting lost in the implications. "You obviously have enormous control here. But then why do you need me?"
"I need you?" The smile was definitely broader than before, but his eyes were blank as he watched her.
"Of course," she replied shortly, still engrossed in her thought trail. "Otherwise, there would be no point in expending all this energy on me. So, what is it that I do that you cannot?" She put her finger to her lower lip, idly tapping it while she thought. "I can create things, imagine things," she waved her hand lazily through the air, "but so can you. The mind-reading, the link between our worlds, the knowledge of my desires with the gwyndilons." She stopped tapping her lip and began on her chin. "All these things you have done are linked to me, however. You couldn't create the portrait travel by yourself - that you needed me for. That you had to pact me to do."
His tone was gently teasing. "You weren't particularly adverse to the idea at the time, if I recall."
She purposefully ignored him, and the ensuing blush that memory brought. "So you push and you prod and you manipulate, but it is always me that you have this connection to. But through me, you can manipulate this world." She looked up then, satisfied.
"So you have it all figured out, then?" His voice was very carefully neutral.
She finally turned to look at him, contemplative and drawing on a somewhat new reserve of distant calm. "I have motivation for you, which will satisfy me for the time being. As long as I'm not expendable to you, I will be at ease to enjoy the remainder of our time tonight."
He did not move for a moment, and the ice of his eyes melted some. "Then by all means, Madame Storyteller, let us enjoy ourselves." He extended his hand courteously.
She did not put hers in it. "There's one thing more."
He inclined his head indulgently, waiting.
"What's the price this time? For tipping me your hand with the mind-reading. Advantages like that don't come for free, as you so kindly reminded me. And I already owe you 'anything' for that trickery at Reddon House." She sighed, annoyed with herself for that indiscretion. "What do you want now, two anythings?"
His eyes glittered with a sharp intensity. "Is that an offer, Storyteller?"
"That, sir," she said coolly, "was spoken in jest."
He grasped her hand suddenly, drawing her close as he said softly, "You should be careful about such things."
She felt the electric nearness of him, that rich, crisp vibrancy that had engulfed her during the viennese waltz. Her words tumbled out, flustered and breathless, before she had time to edit them. "Must we always be careful?"
His breath whispered across her skin. "That depends largely on what is at stake."
She reached a hand around the back of his neck, drawing him closer. He smelled of the moon and, somewhat strangely, of green growing things. She locked eyes with him, her voice gone low. "So what's at stake now, Jack? What's the price?"
Silver coin laughter flowed down from him, thrumming through her. "You do always want to know such things."
She sighed with an unfamiliar sort of impatience that made her want to keep touching him, despite their verbal sparring. "That's because they tend to be important."
His gloved fingers drifted down her back, stroking. "Only because you make them so."
"Don't play that word game with me, sir." Her words were soft, a touch breathless, as her pulse quickened. "You don't give something without getting something in return. That's no other way it 's done. Especially not by you."
He leaned down closer to her, his lips brushing along the side of her face. "And why, my dear, are you so very sure it was me that your bargain was made with?"
She inhaled suddenly, wickedly distracted by his touch. "Well, at this juncture, who else would it be with?"
Though she couldn't see it, a flash of something predatory touched his smile. "Who, indeed?" He drew away, though his arms encircled her more closely, an exciting warmth against her back. "Perhaps, then, you have already given me something I want."
She stared at him for some moments, her instincts sensing a trap she had just been caught in. But the sensation of him against her, the sharp beauty of him quelled the warning prickles in her mind. "And what might this something be?"
"Some of your trust, my darling girl," he replied lightly, his fingers massaging the small of her back.
The sensation of his fingers moving against her skin was both startling and wonderful. A delicate heat began to course through her. "And what makes you so sure you have that?"
His voice was a low, rippling thing. "First, you're letting me touch you." His hands moved gracefully up her back further, dancing over her spine, drawing that delicate heat through her. "And, second, you're letting yourself enjoy it."
A furious blush colored her cheeks and her back became rigid beneath his skillful fingers.
"Shhhh, my darling girl," he murmured to her, his fingers continuing to massage and caress. "There's nothing wrong with enjoying such things."
"And I suppose you would know all about that, would you?" Her words were defensive, meant to be biting. Unfortunately, they came out rather more like a sigh, since she had relaxed beneath his touch again and found (much to her chagrine) that she had, in fact, closed her eyes to savor the sensation more fully.
She felt the sultry burn of his pleasure very, very clearly. "I know many things. Some I believe you would like very much."
Her mouth became very dry. "Oh." It was little more than a whisper, and she felt that delicate fire move through her veins harder, faster.
A sudden surge of flashing green eyes snaked through her thoughts and yanked her back into some control of herself. Her eyes snapped open and she stiffened against him.
"Of course," he said, still far too close for sensible thought, "I believe all of them require that trust of yours."
Her pulse skittered, and she took a slow, deep breath and did not look up at him. "A valuable commodity, is it, my trust?"
His smile was the sun bursting across snow, felt rather than seen. He kissed her gently on the forehead. "Extraordinarily difficult to come by, I assure you."
She was warmed, the sharp-edged thoughts lulled by his velvety touch. She wanted very much to close the distance between their lips right then, to let the scent of moon and green-growing things roll over her as she tasted the winter brightness of his smile. Her fingers reached up to him again as she lifted her eyes.
Something in his eyes shifted, became colder. She felt herself drawn in again, falling, skin threatening to split with the sudden wash of intoxicating sensation that flooded her. The delicate fire of before was an uncontained rampage beneath her skin.
His eyes flashed with a very masculine certainty. This battle, I will win, my darling.
Though she knew she was being effortlessly manipulated, she wondered lazily if that would really be such a bad thing. To let him win, to simply let him control this one small thing...what could it hurt?
A violent hissing in her thoughts thrust her back into herself again, followed by a deep, grounding sense of power. Thick and rich as earth or wood, calming and unbreakable, flowing through her with the force of an ocean.
She felt the fire leave her limbs as she broke from him, regret causing her fingers to linger for a moment. Disappointment and embarrassment colored her words, both overshadowed by a strange alien detachment. "So everything is always a battle for you, something to turn to your advantage. What happened to your pretty words of enjoying things?"
Bitterness twisted his smile. "I never said I took such advice myself."
She continued to look at him, words slithering up from cool recesses inside her mind. "A poor sort of game then, isn't it? When only one of us is willing to let go."
Her words struck him, and his smile tightened with dark emotion before his mask of casual boredom slipped firmly back on.
He bowed mockingly. "I am as you would have me."
The power that grounded her drained away suddenly, and frustration rode hard to the surface of her thoughts. Though she knew it was pretense, she was still offended by his sudden shift to insouciance and courtly disdain. Impossible, impossible man.
She flashed suddenly on an image of Peter Pan then, so comfortable and easy in his simplicity of emotion and desire. Memories flushed suddenly through her, and a deep longing.
The Jack's eyes chilled further, though he dropped his mocking demeanor for a carefully neutral mask.
A fine shudder moved along her spine. She waited for him to speak.
His words came finally, whispered bursts of cold. "Never uncomplicated, never distilled into startling bursts of black and white. Yes, you're right. I live in shades of grey. As you would have me."
Wendy opened her mouth, realized she had nothing to reply to this, and closed it again. She turned away from him and sat down abruptly in a nearby chair, gazing out at the dancers swooping around the floor in their enchanted rapture. Her own previously unadulterated joy of the dance teased at her thoughts. The great soothing force that had grounded her before was quite gone, leaving her mind fluttering with unease.
After a few moments, he sat down next to her, and watched her watching the merriment of the others, and remembering. Silence curled and twisted around them both.
"Do you still want your sunlight boy, then?" His voice was soft, courteous even. She felt the dagger beneath it.
The silence persisted, oppressive as she rapidly considered the question. She reminisced briefly over the happy simplicity of her time with Peter - thimbles and fairies and promises. Promises which he had neglected to keep, chided the back corner of her mind. After a few moments, she came to an answer that was both reasonably safe and true.
"I don't think such a boy would want me now. I'm too old."
He touched her shoulder, turning her to face him. The touch was gentle, but the accompanying smile was not. "That's not what I asked, Storyteller."
A sudden wicked perversity seized her, and she replied, "You're right. That isn't what you asked."
A gleam of amusement flashed through his eyes. "Will you answer, Storyteller?"
She arched an eyebrow. "If I don't, will you put it to me thrice anyway?"
Amusement traced a smile across his lips. "I could be tempted to."
She pretended to consider this momentarily, lifting her hand to move lightly along his arm. "And what would tempt you not to?"
He noted her touch of him, and his smile widened. "What are you offering?"
"What if I don't wish to tell you?"
"Then that," he said softly, "I may put to you three times." He raised his other hand to capture hers. "Well," he amended, "two more times."
"May," she replied, keeping her hand in his, "or will?"
His eyes glittered with a sharp merriment. "Will."
She was playfully defiant in return. "Go ahead, then. Ask."
His words were laced with subtle laughter. "What are you offering, Storyteller?"
Her eyes sparkled. "How do you know I'm bound by the same rules as you with regards the questioning?"
He was undeterred, though pleased by her verbal parry. "Your own rules, my dear. Very fair of you. Now, what are you offering me?"
She graced him with a small, wry smile. "My trust. For the evening."
A grin touched his lips. "I already had that, I believe, Mistress Storyteller. A rather poor offering, don't you think?"
She was unruffled. "Had, past tense, Lord Winterkiss. But I believe you lost it shortly thereafter. I'm willing to give it to you again."
"Quite tempting, then." He trailed gloved fingers down the side of her face, and she felt the draw of subtle fire where they touched. "I believe I shall accept," he said, his voice dropping low. "So pacted, darling girl."
Her composure began to waver, and she inhaled sharply beneath his touch. "Good, then. So pacted."
At the saying of those last words, something inside her shifted. Remembered heartache crystallized and shattered beneath the memories of thimbles and promises that did not keep through time. She breathed in the scent of the Jack, of the distant silver moon and things growing thick and wild in the darkness of a forest, and felt it wrap around her with sinuous gentility. The scent was enticing, invigorating - and oddly comforting. A flash of green eyes was there in her mind, then gone, and she was again left with an alien sense of approval.
Beneath everything, a certain edge of practicality hardened in her mind, overwhelming the pristine idealism she had kept safe for so long.
Far away from the Black Castle, the passage way from the light side to the night side shimmered and shifted. A deep, satisfied rumbling passed through the gwyndilons. In the hidden boughs of the forests, emerald eyes blinked, waiting and watching.
A gypsy spattering of violins pierced Wendy's thoughts. The music was tantalizing, a hint of ferocity beneath the rippling notes.
The Jack stood up, and offered a courteous leather-gloved hand to her. "Would you care to tango, Wendy?"
It did not escape her that this was his first use of her name.
"Yes, Jack, I would." She took his hand, and they strode onto the dance floor.
Soon, Wendy was thoroughly engaged with the fierce passion and sharp quickness of the tango, which came with the same unconscious ease as the viennese waltz earlier. So engaged was she, in fact, that she did not see the watcher in the window. It was a boy, his skin kissed by the jungle sun, his garb made of leaves and vines. He perched on the stone and his eyes were very wide in a pale face.
Far away on the light side, it began to storm.
Peter curled into a crook in the expansive window and pulled out his pan pipe.
The first notes of the pan pipe glided gently into the ballroom, causing Wendy's head to snap towards the source.
Cold amusement and something more ruthless flashed through the Jack's eyes as he felt Wendy stiffen. "Perhaps you were not correct in your assessment of your sunlight boy, Mistress Storyteller."
She broke from him and ran to the side of the room where those airy, mournful notes had come from. But the melody had stopped, for Peter had already flown away.
She stopped at the window and looked out into the night, cool practicality warring with heartache and soaring hope. Moment after moment slid by in the sudden hush of the ballroom, as she stared into the waiting dark.
In the end, practicality conquered.
"Perhaps," she murmured finally, "it doesn't really matter now."
A vicious triumph stole across the Jack's features as the violins began to play again.