Disclaimer: I own nothing anyone recognises, just the plot.
Let Sleeping Children Lie
She peered inside the room her three children were sharing for the time being, holding the door only slightly ajar and making sure it didn't creak and wake them. They were finally sleeping, exhaustion wearing them down and pulling them into unconsciousness, where they were for the most part untroubled by the urge to scratch. Of course, it was only chickenpox, or some other mild variant – she was hardly a doctor – but that didn't stop the uncontrollable itching. But the three children were now asleep, and the house was at last calm, meaning that she, too, could get some rest.
The growing swelling of life in her belly wasn't helping matters any, either, with the ever-present need to relieve the pressure on her bowels, and morning sickness, and her own growing tiredness. Oh, she would never regret her – perhaps near-unconscious – decision to have so many children; but it didn't always help.
Charity Carpenter eased the door to her children's room closed, and went to the kitchen to double-check she had turned the stove off, and the iron, and the lights, and that she had locked the doors. She wasn't expecting her husband home tonight; at any rate, he wouldn't be back early, and it wasn't as though he hadn't a key. With her checks completed – surely she was becoming more paranoid as the years passed, her paranoia growing just as her children did, in both years and number – she walked slowly, tiredly back to her bedroom, all too ready for a long – and hopefully uninterrupted – night's sleep.
But as Charity once more passed the bedroom occupied by the three sleeping, sick children, she felt a twinge of...something. She might have ignored it, except...no, she wouldn't ignore it. If she was wrong, there would be no harm done, and if she was right...well, then she would know. She edged the door open, and glanced over the room, eyes swiftly scanning the neat (for a given value, considering that it was a room inhabited by children with seemingly no concept of tidying up; that would change, Charity decided), tastefully-decorated (and yet as practically safe, by any-and-every definition, as she and Michael could contrive) room for something out of place. Her children were all still abed, peacefully sleeping...
And then she saw a shadow where a shadow didn't belong.
Her heart stopped, just for a moment. In the space of mere seconds, several thoughts streamed fast as quicksilver through her mind, and time slowed. She watched the shadow as it bent over Molly, its – was that a hand, there? – touching the sleeping girl's shoulder gently, before moving to her brothers.
And just because Charity had sworn off magic, didn't mean that she had lost all knowledge of the things that lurked in the dark, hidden in the metaphorical space beneath the bed, or in the metaphorical closet. Knowledge of the things that could – and would, without so much as a second thought – steal her children away from her, for no more reason than a cruel joke, a trick, some meaningless prank. She didn't want her children taken; not today, not now, not ever.
The wards around the house should still be doing their work of keeping out anyone meaning her family harm – but then what if they had failed? Or if the shadow had managed to find some unforeseen loophole? What if, what if, what if...
And Michael wasn't here, so she'd just have to deal with this herself.
But, for some reason, some niggling sense at the back of her mind, Charity stayed her hand. Remaining standing quietly outside the room, she held the door as it was, open only by inches. She watched the shadow walk back to Molly, and then, as it walked through a patch of moonlight streaming through the window, she saw the shadow as a young boy.
But Charity knew well that not everything – not everyone – is what they appear to be, and a boy isn't necessarily just a boy. This boy, however, was even at first glance definitely not normal, even discounting the fact that he had managed to enter the children's bedroom without alerting Charity, or the various accumulated safeguards, or the children themselves. She couldn't quite define his age, even with the light shining on him, illuminating him clearly as he stood by Molly's bed. At one point Charity could have sworn he looked as young as ten, but at others nearly as old as sixteen, and everywhere in between. His clothes...green, Charity thought, although maybe they were brown, though they consistently possessed a decidedly leafy quality. He had boots on his feet, a dagger – maybe – sticking out the top of the right one. Other than that...she just couldn't tell.
Charity opened the door, and crossed the threshold. The door creaked, and the boy's head turned; he didn't look surprised, but almost as though he had known she was there all along. For all she knew of him (and just who he was and why he was here, of all places), maybe he had known. Barely inches inside the room, she stopped, taken aback anew by the sheer colour of the boy's eyes.
They were green, a bright, clear green, but they weren't...natural, by any definition of the word. Pure, deep, untainted, wild green, not a single hint of any other colour; inhuman, unearthly. And his pupils were the long, feline slits of faeries.
Logically, Charity thought, going by his eyes if nothing else, even if she ignored the tell-tale pupils, the boy couldn't be human; it was an instinctive conclusion that, had she been her grandmother, she would have said she felt in her bones. Or, if she had been her grandfather, that she had felt it in her water. Of course, Charity was neither, so she went with the slightly more scientific hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck theory.
Not to mention that her elbows were tingling in a direct response to the boy's gaze – that was never a good sign. Charity hardly trusted her elbows as an accurate measuring instrument in matters of magic, but then they hadn't led her wrong before. She'd really prefer not to question why, though.
Leaving the troubling case of Charity's elbows aside, as she forcibly pushed the matter to the back of her mind, the mother fixed her eyes once more on the boy – who, on his part, had merely turned back to Charity's daughter, hand resting on the girl's forehead – and she couldn't stop herself from speaking up.
'What are you doing?'
On the one hand, she really didn't want strange faery boys doing anything that could hurt her children; on the other, she didn't want to spook him into doing something that could hurt them. She was highly aware that, while he had turned around to look at her, his hand was still making direct contact with Molly. Linking the two of them, and God only knew if he was doing anything through that link. And then, passing over the threshold of her home uninvited should have done something to limit his power, Charity knew...but the question was, she thought, how much power did he have to start with?
She forged ahead regardless of her myriad concerns, saying 'And how did you get in here?'
They were possibly not the best questions she could be asking, but they were the first that came to mind – and she just needed anything to get him to talk, to draw his attention away from the three sick, sleeping children.
Please let my children be alright.
The boy just stared at her for a few seconds that stretched, in Charity's mind, into minutes, hours. He might not look threatening, but he felt it, in some indefinable, intangible way that nevertheless impressed itself upon Charity's thoughts. He just felt wrong, and she couldn't even begin to define it any more clearly. And Charity wouldn't be nearly so wrong-footed (scared) if her children weren't here (in danger, in trouble, in jeopardy).She didn't think he was going to answer her (brief, abrupt, bold – too bold?) questions, for those few short (incredibly long)seconds (hours), and felt herself tensing, not entirely sure what she would do, but sure that she would do something.
And then he replied to her questions, even if his answer – to her second question, and not the first, she noticed uneasily – seemed...out-of-place, at first.
'Through the window.'
Then again, when Charity thought about it (seriously, properly), how else could he have gained access – physically, at least – to the children's room? Certainly not through the door, and – she checked, glancing swiftly past the boy's shoulder – the window was, sure enough, slightly ajar, the faded curtains moving faintly in the soft breeze that was beginning to pick up.
'What are you doing here?' she repeated, tensing, wishing suddenly (too late) that she had thought to bring a weapon of some sort in here. There wasn't any iron within grabbing range. She immediately resolved (in some corner of her mind, the part not focusing on the here-and-now, the part trying to distract her from visions of horror, fear, panic, fright) to fix that problem in the near future.
'Sometimes I can help the mortal children. And if I can, I usually do.'
'Why?' Charity asked, suspicious.
She was sure she shouldn't trust someone immediately, not with her children, but something else was telling her otherwise, and she didn't like it. Being told what to do had always made Charity feel defensive, so she stubbornly held onto her suspicion, whether it was justified or not, refusing to be bullied by her own sixth sense (and not by the fae, either).
'I don't like seeing children sick,' he said, and then stopped, breaking off his words, looking down at the three children.
In that instant, he looked old, Charity thought; or, not old maybe, only that he had lived an awfully long time, and seen an awful lot in that time. The next second, whatever it was that had made him seem that way, that had made her see him that way, was gone, and he looked as young and carefree as his appearance suggested, grinning with all the cocky arrogance of youth.
'And anyway, why shouldn't I?' he asked her defiantly, almost daring her to tell him he that shouldn't try and help sick children, that he shouldn't try and make things better.
She wasn't sure what to say to that; and she had the definite feeling that no matter what she said, he would end up going his own stubborn way anyway. Her own children had given her ample experience in such matters. So she ignored his question, neatly sidestepping it, well-practised also at this age-old tactic.
'I don't like seeing children sick, either,' she said quietly, wondering to herself if she was trying to win his trust, or lull him into thinking she trusted him. She didn't let herself wonder if she was actually beginning to trust him. 'But why are you here? Why my children?'
She hoped the instant she said it that she hadn't said the wrong thing, and that he wouldn't take it as an insult, but apparently not. Instead, he frowned, as if he wasn't quite sure of the answer himself. Oh, don't let him be insane, she thought wryly, my life can't cope with an insane, psychotic faery-child trying to heal my children of chickenpox, of all things, in the middle of the night.
She didn't know it, but Charity had been far closer to the truth than she may have thought in her estimations of probable faeryhood. After all, where else should Neverland be but the Nevernever? The "insane, psychotic" parts of the description were...probably very nearly accurate also.
His face cleared, apparently as the memory came to him, and he said slowly 'Someone helped me, once, a long time ago, and I owe them.'
Charity tipped her head to one side, puzzling through his words, and came up with 'So why not help them back? Pay their favour back, if you want to help?'
'Because sometimes you can't give your thanks back, so you have to pay it forwards instead,' the boy said quietly, lost in memories of another time. 'It was a long time ago.'
Charity couldn't have realised, couldn't have seen his expression and known what it meant, but the memories rapidly faded and hid themselves again behind walls of forgetfulness, as his memories so often did, leaving only a dim recollection in their wake as they went.
And then the youth grinned, suddenly, and said brightly 'Besides, there's no fun in being predictable all the time, is there?'
Well, he was certainly more than unpredictable enough to suit Charity, whose exhaustion-addled brain was having a little trouble keeping up with the turns in the conversation. She caught herself thinking that maybe it was only other children that would be able to understand properly, continuously, what the faery-child-creature was saying. And then Charity wondered why she had thought that, beyond the obvious fact that he looked and acted like a child. For all she knew, he seemed this weird to everyone, children included. And maybe he wasn't able to tell a direct lie, but then if she couldn't understand...
Maybe she was just overanalysing everything, courtesy of her growing fatigue. Yeah, that seemed to be about right.
Charity tried to focus on the situation at hand. And then she decided that, in the circumstances, it was forgivable if she forwent subtleties. Although possibly not forgoing them to the point of introducing blunt threats, or instruments for that matter, into the conversation. Her mind wasn't up to subtleties.
'What's the catch? Faeries never do anything for free.'
He frowned at her, looking confused, and a little impatient with her lack of understanding. Or maybe it was impatience at her constant interruptions.
'I told you. It's not free. I'm paying the debt forwards. Nothing extra is needed as payment.'
Well then. Maybe she'd believe that, given the sincerity in his voice, and the faeries-can't-tell-a-direct-lie thing. Charity didn't want to become too paranoid, after all. Although, when it came to her children, she wasn't sure it was possible to be too paranoid.
'So you're not here to steal my children away?'
Okay, so she was being a little rude. So sue her. And besides, the boy didn't seem to care much, judging by the amused smile on his face.
'I think your children will have adventure aplenty by staying right where they are.'
Adventure? And that was a good thing, was it? Charity wasn't so sure that it was.
At a loss as to what she should say next, Charity just stood where she was for a moment, before silently moving to her children, checking them over for injury without a noise. The boy moved aside to let her do so, making no more sound than was she. She didn't find anything the matter with them, though the marks of their chickenpox still remained. So much for healing her children. Maybe the threshold had done something, after all. She turned to face the boy, feeling far more secure now her brief examination was over, now she could see nothing that had been done to her children. The boy faced her, too.
Charity still didn't say anything, still couldn't find anything to say. It didn't seem to matter. The boy looked like he was done for the night anyway, backing away towards the window. Not as though he was retreating, just...as though he had done all he had meant to do.
'The debt is paid,' he said softly, turning and walking towards the window. 'I owe the Carpenters no more.'
Charity thought about that statement, keeping in mind that he hadn't appeared to have done anything to her children, beneficial or otherwise, and wondered about how the fae worked out what they considered to be a debt. Who decided, exactly? The fae themselves? Not the time, she reminded herself. She blinked, trying to concentrate. Effective as adrenaline was, exhaustion nearly always won through in the end.
As some sort of parting gesture, the faery-child (was he a child, though, really? How old was he?) turned briefly back to her, and spoke what seemed to be his own interpretation of the ancient Chinese curse – though Charity thought it to be doubtful as to whether the boy viewed it as a curse himself.
'May you always find a new adventure to live. Have interesting times, Charity Carpenter.'
He grinned brightly, and then disappeared into the darkness of the night sky, one shadow among many.
Charity Carpenter shivered a little in the cool night air, and then closed the window tightly. A thought struck her – she'd never asked his name, had she? Ah well. She had an idea of his identity, anyway, and she had a feeling that her guess was probably accurate. Charity knew that most stories had grounding in truth, so maybe so did this one. And then, he'd never asked her name, either, and she hadn't told him. But he'd known anyway.
She left the room, finally going to bed, and to the dreamless sleep of exhaustion. Behind her, the three sleeping children remained oblivious to the events that had been surrounding them, the past few...how long had it been, exactly? It doesn't matter. Molly rolled over slightly in her sleep, and Daniel shifted, his arm dropping, seemingly boneless, to hang off the edge of his bed. Matthew curled up a little tighter under his sheets.
And, on each of the Carpenter children, as they lay asleep, dreaming of faraway lands where children never aged, and never grew up, the marks of their chickenpox faded slowly, healing over until there was nothing left of the itches that had tormented them.
And the unnatural, unearthly disease lingering in the background, hiding and waiting for the chickenpox to do its work, for the children to be at their weakest, when it could strike at their health and destroy them, fulfilling its purpose? It faded and vanished also, as though it had never been.