Chapter 8 - The Events of the Grand Hall

The grand hall that night was filled with the soft violet glow of the eyeball lichen. It was oddly intimate with just Wendy and Jack there in the vast emptiness. Shadows stretched into strange shapes on the walls, flickering, then gone, then back again.

The floor between the entrance to the hall and the raised dais of the throne began to ripple. Nearly imperceptibly, the mosaic shifted from solid to translucent liquid with a blue-green cast. Small waves lapped the edge of the dais.

A sudden recognition passed through Wendy. "Just like in between the portraits - the same color, the same motion..." she murmured.

"Yes," agreed the Jack. "This is the way mermaids use their magic to travel here." His voice was low, a voice for keeping secrets.

Wendy saw the strong, flexible muscles of the mermaid's tail a moment before the pearlescent eyes flashed beneath the waters. This creature was a hunter, dazzling and fine. Her hands sliced the water as she moved, sharp fingernails gleaming.She spared a look for Wendy as she surfaced; it was a cool look, appraising.

A thrum of recognition passed through Wendy. This was the mermaid from the portrait.

A thought, colder and more precise than the mermaid, edged at Wendy's mind. Tell me what you see, Storyteller.

Wendy considered the mermaid then, assessing her rather dispassionately. The creature was ruthless, yes. But she wants too much, and so she is careless. The penalty will be high, perhaps for more than one player tonight.

Wendy shuddered suddenly, blinking her eyes to dispel the alien chill in her mind.

A smile, slow and languorous, spread across Jack's lips. As my lady wills it.

The mermaid narrowed her eyes, suspicious of Jack's smile. But she could not sense the thoughts, did not know the silent conversation that had passed above her. She inclined her head in a convincing display of respect to address Jack. "Lord Winterkiss."

"Melisande," he returned, the word a blade in the echoing hall. His eyes glittered.

"I have brought with me a most valuable gift, my lord."

"Have you now?" His voice was politely bored, almost mocking.

Melisande's lips compressed into a small smile, and her words were a siren pulse of melody. "I have, my lord.It is a shell of most wondrous powers." The words wound up and around through the hall, stroking gently at Wendy's thoughts, teasing them into rabid curiosity. "It has within it the ancient songs of the merpeople, thought to have been lost to the ages." Haunting traces of notes echoed in Wendy's brain, tantalizingly half-heard. "You have only to tip it to your ear," trilled Melisande, "to hear our earliest melodies and lore." She cast her eyes down demurely, and raised the shell out of the water to display its brilliant turquoise casing. "Knowing my lord's fondness for such history, I have brought it to you."

This Melisande is very, very good, thought Wendy, somewhat irreverently.

And careless, replied Jack smoothly, a hint of hardness edging into the thought.

Out loud, he said, "How very thoughtful of you, Melisande." He made no move to take the shell, however, or to even stand up from his throne.

Melisande was undaunted - and oblivious to the deepening cold in the hall. Careless, indeed.

She fluttered her eyes at Jack, drawing temptation around her like a cloak. "Would my lord like to listen to it?"

Jack let his eyes fill with heat as he stood and went to the edge of the water, reaching down. Condescending satisfaction flickered across Melisande's face.

With a sudden, sharp movement, Jack's right hand circled Melisande's throat. He lifted her, gasping and struggling, from the water. Her nails raked ineffectually at the leather he wore, and she let the seashell slip onto the floor in front of Jack. Jack leaned into her then, seeming intimate, his voice a dagger's caress. "Ah, Melisande - conniving, cunning, treacherous Melisande. But I would expect no less of the Ravisher."

Melisande spit back a strangled reply, her eyes ancient and tired for a moment. "Older times. Forgotten times, for some of us."

Jack nodded, understanding passing between man and mermaid for a moment.

Wendy saw this and, for a moment, understood it herself. She closed her eyes, shaking her head sharply to dislodge the disorienting vision. It was double, triple many dimensions of vision, layers of Story over man and mermaid. And then it was gone, man and mermaid resolving to one vision alone.

Jack lifted his head and called out into the violet shadows. "You're welcome to come down from outside the window, Peter."

Wendy inhaled sharply at Peter's name.

"I believe," continued Jack, "that I have the upper hand tonight, and - my dear Wendy, how was it you so aptly put it? Ah yes...the penalty will be high." His look was predatory, triumphant, merciless.

Echoes of past betrayal thundered through Wendy's mind, as she breathed through gritted teeth. "You promised this wasn't all about Peter."

Jack inclined his head, smiling slyly. "So I did. And it's not - it merely involves him to a large extent."

Tears prickled behind Wendy's eyes as she stared at him, feeling foolish for having trusted him...for believing that she was the one he wanted this time. Why did she always trust him? He was a villain, for pity's sake!

Embarrassment and anger burned in the back of her throat.

Patience, counseled a low, rumbling voice in her mind. You wanted a villain. Let him be villainous. He will still belong to you in the end. Believe, Storyteller.

Thinking this advice almost ridiculously idealistic, Wendy nonetheless breathed in slowly, then out, and waited.

Peter appeared in front of the dais, hovering insolently above the water. Almost ceremoniously, he stuck his tongue out at Jack.

A tolerant smile softened Jack's features for a moment; then, they crystallized into cold implacability as he turned back to Melisande. "I've known of your discontent since your kiss, Melisande. I always know." His words were low, thrumming with satisfaction. "It was only a matter of time before something like this occurred, with the help of Peter." He leaned closer then, nearly whispering. "This execution was very sloppy for you, my dear."

Those words were oddly misplaced somehow, words from another dialogue. Wendy blinked suddenly, sensing a twining of Story. It was like a play with multiple endings, all of them done in many different times and places. And Jack's words were simply an instantiation of an actor's delight at performing his favorite ending. My turn, they said, my turn.

The sense of Story flooded Wendy, her vision flashing and shifting as she looked from Man to Mermaid to Boy. Layers of Story lay on the three figures, the links between Boy and Man, between Man and Mermaid tangled and strong.

And then Wendy blinked, and it was Peter and Jack and Melisande again.

Melisande hissed at Jack's admonition, glaring at him. She appeared...stung that he dare suggest her execution was sub-par, like an actor chided for a poor performance.

Jack covered her mouth with his hand, silencing her. "Now, now, my dear - you know better than to plot in open water. My sentinels have very good hearing."

Several patches of eyeball lichen around the throne room rustled smugly.

"But what," he continued, his voice low, "do you think is a suitable punishment for such flamboyant treachery, hmmm?"

Melisande's eyes narrowed as she awaited the pronouncement.

Jack touched the side of her face gently then, considering. "I think perhaps I shall give you exactly what you desire, Melisande."

Melisande's eyes widened in confusion and the first real hint of fear.

"Yes, that seems fitting." He thrust her back into the water suddenly, with a casual violence. As she gasped for breath, he passed judgment. "I release the power you gave to me back to you alone, Melisande. I can well support portrait travel without your contribution. You will be as you were."

Melisande stared at Jack, disbelieving. Mercy was not a trait Jack was known for - not if he wanted to keep ruling Perhaps. Such a weakness could be quite exploitable if it was known to the right forces...

Jack smiled then, a brutal thing of winter and ice. A ball of faerie light had formed in his palm. "Alone among all the mermaids with all your power. In fact, all alone." He threw the ball of faerie light at her suddenly; it merged with her body as he finished his pronouncement. "I banish you from Perhaps, Melisande. Seek your fortune in other waters."

Melisande's mouth dropped open in shock as her form began to shimmer and fade. "You can't do wouldn't..."

Abject satisfaction flashed in Jack's eyes. "I believe I just did."

She was little more than mermaid-shaped mist now, her eyes brimming with something almost like betrayal, her voice light as a sea breeze. "Curse you...Jack..."

And then she was gone, shunted from Perhaps. The blue-green waters solidified back into the floor of the grand hall, the shining stones of the mosaic gleaming in the dim violet light.

Jack looked at where she had been for a moment, contemplative. "Until we meet again, Mermaid."

Wendy watched him in silence, knowing there was much more going on, so much that had gone on already between Jack and Melisande that she didn't know. So much Story...and then there was Peter-

Peter, who had swooped down to retrieve the turquoise seashell from the floor and was just now launching it at the still form of Jack with deadly accurate aim.

Wendy, bemused, watched Jack neatly sidestep it.

"A little predictable, Peter, don't you think?" Jack's words were airy, taunting.

The seashell's trajectory put it directly in front of Wendy, and so she moved to catch it.

"Wendy - no!" cried Peter sharply.

The seashell landed heavily in her hands. It was dazzling, a thing of beauty and magic. And apparently something Peter didn't want her to touch...but why?

At precisely this moment, however, Melisande's magic began to wear off with the lack of her presence in Perhaps. The illusion cracked and faltered, and Wendy was overwhelmed by the smell of the vile contents of the shell. Gagging, she let it drop from her hands.

"Here," said the Jack, "I know a good place for that." He deftly threw a ball of faerie light at the seashell, and it vanished with a slight pop.

Peter looked at Tink. "Did you know he knew about the seashell?"

Tink shrugged and flickered ambivalently.

"But that's not fair!"

Tink rolled her eyes and pulled on his hair, fluttering impatiently.

Peter shrugged her off, livid. "No, I will not just leave, Tink! He knew we were coming, he knew about our trap, he knew everything! It's not fair!"

Tink sighed. She knew what would come next. All this fuss over that stupid Wendy-girl...

Peter dove after Jack, sword in hand, yelling, "You cannot have Wendy, Jack Winterkiss!" A dark memory surfaced of nearly losing Wendy before, and Peter's face flushed with resolve. "You will not take her from me."

Jack countered Peter's attack and dodged around a pillar. "Is that not for her to decide, Boy? Perhaps you should ask your fair Wendy who she wants."

Jack's words hit their mark, ruthlessly hooking Peter's attention. Peter turned suddenly to Wendy, his face suffused with horrible uncertainty. "You want me, don't you, Wendy?"

The ensuing silence was a heavy thing, suffocating.

Finally, Wendy spoke. "It's complicated, Peter. I-"

"It's not complicated!" His eyes glistened with feverish disbelief. "Would you choose him over me?"

Wendy swallowed hard. "I...I think I might."

He went very still then, frozen with incomprehension. "But...why?"

Wendy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, searching for the way to explain. "I...find you lacking in certain things I think I need now, Peter."

"Lacking?" His eyes narrowed in anger, as memories of the past became clearer. His voice was low, strangled. "You mean deficient." He spat the word out, a vile accusation. "How am I deficient now, Wendy? How?! I can fight. I can fly. I can feel. Isn't that what you wanted?" The incomprehension was draining his force, dropping his voice to a whisper. "We had so much fun together...why...why would you..." he nearly choked on the words, "leave me for the enemy?"

The agony of Peter's pain ripped through Wendy as she replied softly, "This isn't about enemies, Peter. Things are not so black and white as that."

"Yes they are! Of course they are! He," said Peter, gesturing violently at Jack, "is the enemy."

Wendy swallowed hard, trying to keep her tears from spilling. "Not for me. Not anymore."

Peter stared hard at her, his face collapsing into ragged despair. He looked down, wiping hot tears away. Then, he held his sword in from of him, aimed at Wendy. His voice was soft, trembling. "You traitor." A very nasty memory surfaced suddenly. "You pirate."

Stung by Peter's words, Wendy shouted, "The world is not just pirates and boys, Peter!"

"Yes," interjected Jack smoothly as he interceded between Wendy and Peter's sword, "there are mermaids, too."

Wendy glanced at him, her lips pressed together in frustration. "Stop helping," she muttered.

He smiled, bowing his head in apology. "As my lady wills it."

"And you can stop saying that so smugly, too."

Jack's expression was decidedly amused, but he said no more.

Wendy gazed at the golden Boy hovering unevenly before her with his sword defiantly in front, heartbreak driving him to the ground. A last ember of innocent love flared inside her. She had felt so much for him...but he really wasn't what she needed anymore. "Peter, please - don't do this. You don't need me." The truth of those words quenched the romantic idealism inside her. Anger and disappointment she hadn't realized she had buried came to the fore. "You don't even want me anymore! Not really. I'm...I'm too grown up for you."

Harsh accusation flamed in Peter's eyes. "You gave me your thimble!"

"But you don't want me anymore! You never came! Not once, Peter!" Bitterness darkened her words. "And I don't see things the way you do, not anymore. My Let's Pretend has complications, Peter, and contradictions." She took a deep breath. "And I like it that way."

Crippling confusion and disbelief roiled through Peter, tears streaming down his face once more. "I don't understand. How could you choose him, Wendy? Him!"

Wendy closed her eyes and sighed softly, a thing of lost dreams. "I need you to be my boy of sunlight and forest, Peter. But I can no longer be just the sunlight and forest with you."

The loneliness and loss that blazed from Peter's eyes was wrenching. "Then you are not my Wendy." He spoke slowly and quietly, measuring his words, almost fearing them. "My Wendy is dead. And you are the grown up traitor that has killed her." He bared his teeth in a battle grimace. "So you can die, too!"

He burst forward in a dazzling display of speed, his sword aimed for Wendy's heart.

Jack, fortunately for Wendy, was faster than Peter. He grasped Wendy by the shoulders and spun her out of the sword's way. Catching her by the hand, he ran with her away from the dais, down to the mosaic. Peter swept after them with a cry of rage. The mosaic glowed suddenly, and with a slight rushing feeling, Wendy found herself alone with Jack in a spherical, crystalline room.

The floor of the room showed the grand hall, now empty but for a very frightened Tink and a ferocious, howling, weeping Peter. Peter was pounding at the mosaic in the floor, his hands bloody, his screams unearthly. But he could not follow. Entry to the spherical room of the Jack's Perhaps was denied to him, the Boy hero of Neverland.

The eyeball lichen's light was a feral red. They were afraid of him, and for him. The Boy should not feel these things, could not - not and retain his vital innocence.

Wendy was motionless, watching Peter from inside the spherical room. Any moment now, a horribly violent shudder was going to ravage her and leave her sobbing in a heap on the floor. She decided, quite sensibly, to try and delay that as long as possible.

Her voice was very quiet when she spoke, and she did not look at Jack. "So did everything work out as you planned it, then?"

"Nearly so." Jack's voice was velvet against her, wrapping around her, warming her.

"Mmmm," she said, her voice still flat and disconnected. "And what remains, then?"

"There is the small matter of the anything you owe me."

She tore her eyes from Peter in the grand hall. "I see." Her hand began to tremble. "And what might that be, then?" The shudder was brewing now, a torrential storm of loss behind it.

His words were soft, his winter-star eyes glowing with this long-awaited request. "Relegate Peter to his jungles and leave childish simplicity behind you, beneath you. Let him remain in Neverland as its sole anchor and let me roam free with you. Love and be loved in return, Wendy. Make it so because you want it to be so."

The world stopped for Wendy. Heartbeats passed, each a small eternity.

It was true, of course. All of it, all of what Jack had said. His persuasion had been quite complete over the time she'd been in Perhaps. He was a master tactician, a clever manipulator, a villain extraordinaire - and he was right. It was high time to free him from the boundaries of Perhaps...

And this is about me. Not Peter - me! He wants me.

She held that thought, letting it soak through her, letting it draw out the poisonous self-hatred that loomed behind the agonizing shudder inside her.

Slowly, the shudder coalesced, transformed. It was a fiery pulse in her chest, building, cresting, bursting out of her in a jagged golden shimmer.

And it was done.

The grand hall was empty, the lichen's light violet once more.

On the light side, the sun shone on the steamy jungles and clear waters. A Boy and his fairy drifted along, blissfully unaware that anything existed beyond the Black Castle.

Wendy suddenly collapsed onto the shining white floor of the spherical room. Jack moved to sit behind her, close enough to let her touch him for comfort if she wanted. She was quite still for some moments. Then, with a sudden gasp, she turned and buried her head against his chest, her body wracking with violent spasms.

He stroked her hair, murmuring comforting words as she wept, and held her.

At length, her sobs subsided and she shook only slightly. Jack looked down at a particularly odd spasm and saw that she was laughing weakly. He raised an eyebrow.

Her voice was tired as she answered his look. "So you like my stories, too, do you?"

His silver-coin laughter drifted over them both. "That I do, Wendy. Very, very much."

"Good." And with that, she fell asleep in his arms.

When Wendy awoke, far calmer and collected than she had felt since arriving in Perhaps, they re-entered the grand hall through the mosaic.

"I was wondering, Mistress Storyteller," said Jack, as they stood in the center of the mosaic, "if you would do me the honor of a dance?"

The music began to drift through the hall softly, music from the fairy dance that night with Peter and Hook so long ago - all airy pipes and lilting tones of the harp.

Wendy smiled wryly, admiring how cleverly orchestrated the Jack's plan had been. "Perhaps, Master Manipulator, perhaps."

"A pity to waste a lovely viennese waltz such as this. And besides, what choice would you make, if not to dance with me?"

Wendy appeared thoughtful. "I could conceivably toss myself from the nearest parapet in a thoroughly romantic suicide attempt. It could be quite a grisly end."

"It could be, indeed," agreed Jack, mirroring her thoughtful mien. "Such a shame to lose a magnificent Storyteller as yourself, however."

"What would happen then, Jack? After I was gone?"

He blinked slowly, and did not answer.

"What would happen, Jack?"

Silence billowed around them both.

"Would you cease to exist, perhaps?" Her words were soft, pained. "If I am your only source, that might be true. But I highly doubt that is true." She looked at him, considering him. "You were here before me, and you'll surely continue to be here once I'm gone."

His reply was soft. "But not like this." He took her right hand in his left. "Dance with me, Wendy."

She resisted, looking at the leather-clad hands. "Take off your gloves."

He paused, an eyebrow raised. "What will you give me in return?"

Wendy's smile was bittersweet. "A thimble."

Jack's smile shone bright, full of secrets. "So pacted."

He removed his gloves and took her hand in his.

The touch of his skin burned like cold fire - but then it was gone. And what remained was the warm press of palm to palm, the green growing things and moon scent washing over and through her.

Wendy looked into Jack's winter-star eyes, and then, quite solemnly, she gave him his thimble.

Fortunately for the amusement of the eyeball lichen, the thimble didn't remain solemn for very long. Beyond the Enchanted Forest, the Spreyli smiled; in the courtyard, the gwyndilons rumbled their approval.

The foundation of Perhaps was now stable. The Jack had done very well, indeed.

Author's Note: Ran: Norse goddess of the drowned, called the Ravisher.

Also, the story is not quite done. It turned out there was a bit more story to tell after all.