There is a magic shore where children used to beach their coracles every night.
The children have stopped coming now, and their little boats are tipped over on the sides, like the abandoned shells of nuts eaten long ago. The dark sea rushes up to the pale beach and just touches the crafts, making them rattle together with a sound like bones.
You and I cannot reach that shore again. We’ve forgotten everything. Even the sound of the waves and the mermaids singing.
But the men in her Majesty’s Secret Service can go anywhere.
The submarine drifted to a stop not far from the island, the periscope breaking the surface of the water like the lifted nose of an inquisitive pointer dog. After a few minutes, a man emerged from the submarine and got into a boat, one not at all like the children’s boats arrayed on the shore.
When the boat sliced through water to white sand, the man stepped out of it.
They had given him a number, and taken away his name. Unfortunately for him, his number was 69.
This was a subject of many tasteless jokes in the Service, but nobody would have known that from 69’s serious face and his extremely dapper black suit.
He took a few purposeful steps along the shore to the forest, then looked down. Under his feet, and under a layer of the black grease of age and filth were pebbles like jewels, and children’s toys, and human bones.
There was a barely perceptible shift in the air before his face, but the men and women in Her Majesty’s Secret Service are extremely highly trained. 69 looked up.
The boy before him was beautiful in a slightly terrible way, like a kiss with no innocence in it.
More to the point, he was holding a sword as if he knew how to use it, and floating about a yard above the ground.
“Dark and sinister suit,” said the boy. “Have at thee.”
“I am afraid I do not have time to indulge you,” 69 said. “I am here on a mission from her Majesty.”
“Ah,” said the boy, tilting his chin. “I know it well.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Majesty,” the boy said, waving his sword vaguely. “Belonging to… her. I know all about it.”
“Her Majesty the Queen,” 69 said with a trifle more emphasis than was necessary.
“I knew that,” the boy informed him.
“She feels that the Service has a need for a man—”
The boy hissed like a vampire exposed to the sunlight, lifting his free arm as if to protect himself from the word. Man.
“Excuse me. A boy of your special talents,” 69 said smoothly. He had been raised in diplomatic circles.
The boy spun around in a circle, like a ballerina with a sword in zero gravity.
“My talents are special! So awfully special!”
“Indeed,” said 69. His countenance remained unchanged. 69 was very highly trained, and also a gifted amateur poker player. “And the Queen needs—someone of such talents for a job.”
The boy started to laugh, a high lovely laugh that wavered between a baby’s gurgle and the peal of bells. It did not sound quite sane.
“A job?” he asked. “Make a man of me, will you? Oh no, oh no. You sailed your boat to the wrong shore.” He made a quick, deadly gesture with his small sword to the island around them, the dark stones and trees with branches like bared claws. “This is no place for men.”
“So I see,” said 69. “And I see there is nobody here who would be brave enough to risk all for her Her Majesty’s sake: nobody who is enough of a patriot to die for their country.”
Peter was not entirely sure what a patriot was, but he would have scorned to betray this fact. He did not even acknowledge it to himself, really: Peter’s thoughts always moved like a stone on water, skipping and skimming along the surface until they hit a certain spot.
69 had turned towards the sea, but he was not entirely surprised when a sword landed, light as a very sharp butterfly’s wing, on his shoulder.
He turned back to meet the sight of the lovely, terrible smile.
“To die for your country,” said Peter. “Would that be an awfully big adventure?”
The party was a very glamorous affair, with chandeliers like elaborate ice sculptures and ice sculptures like elaborate chandeliers. This created an effect of very tasteful strobe lights playing on the discreet black clothing of the guests.
A suspiciously nondescript man paused on his voyage over the glowing floor to speak to a lady. She was wearing a dress more daring than any of the party dresses around her, and very striking lipstick.
They were, of course, both spies.
“Who are you hunting today?”
“Oh, the English, of course,” said the lady. She did not turn her Ts into Zs except when playing certain roles, but her faint accent was nevertheless very Russian. “Look at their latest golden boy.”
She laid a certain emphasis on the word boy.
Let us play eye spy, and follow the spies’ line of vision to the bar where a boy was leaning. He wore a black suit like every other suit in the room, tailored to discreet perfection.
The look was rather spoiled by the knotted dead leaf he was wearing as a bowtie.
The Russian spy detached from her companion and came over to the bar, slinking like a panther in an evening gown. Which is to say, with some suggestion that the evening gown might be torn off at any moment.
She offered the boy her hand. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
The lady noted his wary look, and told herself that no matter how young he seemed, he was obviously a true professional. She was not to know this was how Peter regarded all grown–ups.
“Ivana,” she murmured, which I must tell you was a fib.
“The name’s Pan,” said Peter, who I must admit was showing off. “Peter Pan.”
Neither of them was really on their best behavior. Spies rarely are.
“What will you have?” asked the bartender.
“Martini,” said Ivana. “Shaken, not stirred.”
“Milk,” said Peter. “Warm, not hot.”
The bartender and Ivana both gave Peter rather doubtful looks. Peter has been receiving such looks for more years than he could ever count, and he looked disdainfully back.
“Come now,” Ivana said, and reached for Peter’s arm. “I think we can do better than that. After all, you’re almost a man.”
Peter’s eyes narrowed. “No. I am not.”
She was very clever, that Russian spy who was not really called Ivana. She instantly saw she had made a mistake.
“I meant to suggest that this affair must be boring you. After all, it really isn’t up to the excitement that a boy of your… many talents must be used to.”
Peter looked more favorably upon her. “I do have many talents. Thousands really. Millions of talents. Nobody has ever had as many talents as I!”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I keep them in a box,” said Peter, and looked briefly puzzled when Ivana laughed and then triumphant as he decided he had meant all the time to make a splendid joke.
He beamed at her and Ivana reared back.
She quickly collected herself, however. Remember, she was very well trained.
“I imagine you have done many things,” Ivana murmured. “Such as the affair of Lady Carlisle’s necklace in the embassy?”
“Oh that! Yes, I took it! I flew in under cover of darkness and stole it.”
Ivana blinked. “You did?”
“I am a master thief,” Peter said with some satisfaction.
“It was my understanding that the English were the ones who got the necklace back,” Ivana said slowly.
“Oh yes,” Peter told her. “I fought the dastardly thieves singlehanded and restored the jewels to their rightful owner! I remember now.”
“I see,” said Ivana.
The spies in her Majesty’s Secret Service have long been renowned for their discretion. To protect their country, some have been known to spin a deft tale. Some have died rather than speak. Some, even under torture, have preserved a perfect British silence.
No spy but Pan has ever confessed to everything.
Ivana the Russian was getting a bit of a migraine. She rather wished Peter would take a breath between highly incriminating confessions.
“The Taj Mahal,” she began.
“I killed him,” Peter said. “He was a tyrant.”
“It is a building,” Ivana informed him with a certain amount of hauteur.
Peter, occupied with relating the details of the epic battle he had fought, chose to ignore her. They were sitting at a small table in a low light, some little way from the bar. Ivana had quite a row of martini glasses lined up before her. Peter was working on his seventeenth glass of warm milk.
“And what about the documents regarding that invention the Americans were making such a fuss about last week?” said Ivana, who had abandoned diplomacy and cunning around the time of martini number nine.
“I have those,” Peter told her complacently, and Ivana was heaving another irritated sigh when Peter added: “Upstairs in my room. I have them hidden in the nightstand. I’m meant to hand them over to the Queen tonight, but my helpers needed to rest, so here I am at this boring party.”
Ivana hesitated. “I should very much like to see them.” She paused and then smiled a coaxing smile. “It would be so thrilling to see proof of how clever you are, Peter!”
“It would be very thrilling for you,” Peter agreed.
“And I would be terribly grateful.”
“How grateful?” Peter asked.
Ivana looked slightly startled. “Very grateful indeed.”
Peter’s eyes brightened. “Do you know any bedtime stories?”
“My dear boy,” said Ivana, not missing a beat. “Hundreds.”
Since Ivana really was very clever and Peter could be extremely heedless, she might very well have got her hands on the American documents that night. Except that Peter, careless as always, had forgotten to mention one small detail.
His helpers were indeed resting. Pan’s elite team of killer fairies was having a little nap in the nightstand, right on top of the documents.
“Troops, troops!” Peter bawled over all the yelling. “Attention! Attention! That means you, Ninja Star. Stop kicking her in the earlobe right now!”
Ninja Star was his best fairy and was the captain whenever Peter was on a solo mission or had got bored and wandered off. There was no denying zie had a temper.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Peter severely, because he knew that discipline was vital. Then he became bored with his role as stern commander, spun and levitated three feet in the air.
It was probably for the best. It hadn’t seemed to him like Ivana knew any bedtime stories at all.
Ivana made the discreet decision not to try and get up. She watched with wide eyes as the boy rocketed out of the window, a silhouette in the moonlight with the fairies following him like a host of tiny stars.
Given the new evidence, Ivana was going to have to re–evaluate some of Peter’s claims. With his ability to fly and his tiny helpers, a good many more of the missions he boasted about might be true.
And many of his stories were true, especially the wildest ones, because Peter often had strange and terrible adventures.
Which ones, we will never know. Peter does not know himself.
Still I think we—and Ivana—may be reasonably sure that Peter never fought a duel to the death with the Taj Mahal.
Her Majesty, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, was quite vexed.
She had been forced by abject pleading, several resignations and (in one unfortunate case) an incarceration in a secure mental institution, to receive Pan’s reports herself.
It was, however, growing extremely late. She had been up all day meeting with tedious ministers and an enormously dreary duchess, and she found her eyes traveling too often to the sack that lay at her butler’s feet.
I hesitate to tell a lady’s secrets, but she was wearing a dressing gown. It was sky blue and patterned with tiny silver crowns.
She was also wearing fluffy bunny slippers. The bunnies had crowns too.
“If I might be so bold, your Majesty,” said her butler, who was called both Dawson and Night Shadow. He was a judo master and weapons expert, and his butlering was exceptional. “The boy is late.”
“The boy is always late. I gave him a watch once.”
“How did he lose it?” asked Dawson.
“He claimed,” the Queen said in the magnificently noncommittal voice that made statesmen blush and prime ministers recall other engagements, “to have choked a mutant shark to death with it.”
Dawson bowed his head.
Hurtling across the purple sky of London, streamers of light thrown across it by the city, through the wide windows of Buckingham Palace, came a boy. Fairies danced around him, wreathing his wild hair like a crown made of lightning.
Peter touched down lightly on the carpet, presented a roll of documents to her Majesty, and swept her a superb bow.
The Queen graciously inclined her head and unrolled the documents on her tea tray.
“The device illustrated in these documents actually expands mass,” she said absently to Dawson. “Which would be most useful in the right hands—curing world hunger and the like—but since it seems to have been invented by the wrong hands—”
Since this was boring adult stuff, Peter wandered about the room and danced up and down the velvet curtains, from the floor to the curtain rungs and back again.
“Exemplary work as always, Mr Pan.” The Queen glanced up from the documents Peter had brought her.
“Yes, I am exemplary,” Peter crowed.
He went pinwheeling across the solemn crenellated dome of the Queen’s bedroom ceiling. The Queen cleared her throat to indicate that aerodynamic acrobatics in the presence of royalty were frowned on.
Peter plummeted neatly onto the hearthrug and bowed again, as if he took the royal throat–clearing to be applause.
“You must know,” said the Queen, “I would be happier with a more traditional means of payment for your services.”
Peter tilted his head to one side. There was a cold watchful light in his eyes now, like the glint children imagine they see after bedtime, when the nightlight has been turned off and shadows and shivers start creeping into bed with them.
Peter has been watching outside windows for a very long time.
“Do you mean ‘money’?” he asked, pronouncing the word as if it was in a foreign language. “What use do I have for money, grown–up? If I want something on Neverland, I kill for it. If I want something here, I steal it. There is only one thing I want that you can give me. I want my mother!”
The Queen inclined her head again, this time less graciously. She had made many terrible decisions in her time. Her Majesty always, always pays her debts.
“There she is.”
The eyes of the Queen, Peter Pan and Night Shadow aka Dawson the butler all turned to the sack at Dawson’s feet. We can see now that there is a slight shifting of the rough material, as if something is breathing beneath.
Peter looked uncertain. “They never used to come in sacks,” he said. “They used to be happy to see me.”
The Queen, who had had a lot of ruling to do that day and for the last sixty years, lost patience. She turned away from the boy and the moving sack, back to her own plans.
“As I am certain you’ve noticed, Mr Pan,” she said. “Times have changed.”
Second to the right, and straight on til morning, are not real directions, though Peter thought they were. The truth was that by now the path to Neverland knew Peter by heart, and was always drawing him home, like a compass point to true north or a ghost to the place he was murdered.
Peter flew with an easy grace, even with the sack in his hand. Sometimes he tossed it about with the fairies, just for sport, but Peter thought he was being most responsible. He made clear that any fairy who dropped the sack would have to answer to Ninja Star.
It was a piece of great good luck that the bag only started squirming and making loud, distressed sounds as they were flying over Neverland. The sack had been quiet so long, Peter had forgotten what was in it, and was startled enough that he dropped it.
Ninja Star and zir team flew very quickly to catch it, but only succeeded in slowing it down, so the sack fairly tumbled to the stones and bones below.
Ashley Horowitz, daughter of Karen, daughter of Tracy, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Jane, daughter of Wendy, came out of the sack rolling and pepper–sprayed Peter Pan in the face.
For a moment she thought she must have made a terrible mistake. There she was on the island of nightmares—even worse than Grandma had described it—but the boy before her could not possibly be Pan the destroyer, Pan the thief in the night. He was sitting on the blackened shore and weeping in bewildered pain, as if he was terribly young and crying for the very first time.
“Boy,” began Ashley. “Why are you—”
Then she remembered that was how he got you. She took a step back, and lifted her pepper spray in steady hands.
“Stay back,” she said. “Or I’ll make you cry harder.”
When he rose to his feet, she knew it was him. Pan. He was not exactly as her grandmother had described him either: he was worse as well. He was as beautiful as her grandmother had said—as fascinating as a snake’s golden eyes to a bird, but he was that thing he never was, never could be. He was… older.
She was older, too. She was past the age when he was meant to be exactly her size, and now here he was looking down at her. The bones of his wild, lovely face had stronger, sterner angles than in the pictures: his body had more muscle, more easily weighted to the earth. He was not a little boy anymore.
It was horrible to see those curling, crowing lips part, to show he still had all his baby teeth.
“Pan,” said Ashley.
Peter smiled more widely, his tiny teeth like little pearls gleaming in his changing face. “Mother.”
He advanced and Ashley backed up, wielding her pepper spray like a weapon.
“My name is Ashley. And I’m not your mother!”
“There was a bargain made,” said Peter Pan.
Quick as a flash he drew and thrust. At the touch of his blade the pepper spray flew out of Ashley’s grasp and into the dark seas beyond.
“My great–grandmother,” said Ashley, starting a little uncertainly and then gaining strength as she spoke. Margaret had been nothing but old family history to her, a story in a book. But so had he. “Margaret. She went mad.”
Peter tilted his head, his eyes blank. “Margaret?”
“She used to scream your name,” said Ashley. “My grandma used to hear her through the walls screaming for you. And you don’t remember her?”
“Well, if you’re going to get all sniffy about it, I’ll say that I’m sorry,” said Peter, with the air of one making a great concession.
“Tracy,” said Ashley. “Margaret. Jane. Wendy!”
Peter drew in his lip a little, startled and hurt, as if it was the very first time he had ever been hurt although the tears from his last bout were still wet on his cheeks.
It made sense that he would remember her. She had been the first.
Ashley drew in a deep breath.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said flatly. “I demand to go home.”
She turned and walked away into the forests of the Neverland.
Neverland was both like and unlike her grandmother’s stories, and the pictures in the book. It was unmistakably the same place, but it was changed like Peter himself: the trees naked as skeletons, no ships on the horizon. There was a quality about the silent darkness that Ashley recognized from being a little girl, too scared even to get out of bed and reach the light switch. The whole island was like a huge bedroom for a scared child, in which morning would not come again.
The silence was broken by some terrible rustles and slithers. Ashley turned fast at the sound and found Peter gliding beside her, a few feet off the ground.
“Those are the wild beasts,” he said. “Don’t go too far away from me. They’ll kill you if they can. They’re starving.”
“Where are the—the Native Americans?” Ashley asked.
Peter gave her a blank look.
“Tiger Lily, I mean, and the others,” Ashley said, summoning up the name from the book.
“Most of them died,” Peter replied. “The others went away.”
Her grandmother had made sure she always had pepper spray under her pillow. Ashley wished now that Grandma Tracy had told her to always dress for an abduction. Bare feet and glittery pink pajamas were not exactly ideal for a trek through Neverland.
She kept walking, though, until they came to Marooners’ Rock. The rock was just the same. The lagoon stretched around it, black and viscous, like tar with ghosts moving in it.
It took Ashley a moment to realize that the grey shapes, their ragged fins dragging the surface, their hair like clogged seaweed, were the mermaids who used to toss bubbles to each other and sing. Peter flew over to hover above the lagoon like a huge dragonfly.
“What—” Ashley said, and stood rubbing the gooseflesh out of her own arms. “What happened here?”
“There was a Lost Boy who came back,” Peter said distantly. “He had—he was a—”
Peter choked trying to say the words ‘grown up’ with the same trouble other people had talking about death.
“He thought there was a profit to be made of the Neverland,” Peter said. “He learned too late that he was wrong.”
Peter twisted in midair until he was floating on his back, kicking at a breeze. A mermaid reached up out of the waters to touch his heel: her fingers were withered and grey.
“But the island changed before that,” Peter admitted. “Children’s dreams were changing.”
That was what Grandma Tracy had seen, the spring Peter had come for her. That was what had scared her so badly. The beginning of this.
“I knew that I wasn’t wanted,” said Peter. “Windows have been barred against me before. I didn’t try to come for the next girl, did I?”
“Yep, thanks for not kidnapping my mom,” said Ashley. “Big of you.”
Peter came to settle on Marooners’ Rock, sitting near where Ashley stood. The mermaids swarmed in the waters about his feet like goldfish wanting to be fed.
“I knew I wasn’t wanted,” he said. “But I still need a mother.”
He leaned trustingly against Ashley’s legs. Ashley, who was a kind–hearted girl, resisted the impulse to push him into the lagoon.
“Times have changed, Peter. A lot fewer girls dream of being mothers. Some of them want adventures of their own.”
You will have to forgive Ashley. She did not know Peter very well yet.
She began to know him better when he tilted his head back to grin up at her. His curly hair was against her knee, and his smile was a devil’s.
If Satan had all his first teeth, that is.
“You want an adventure?”
“Peter,” said Ashley, with commendable but much belated caution. “Peter, noooooo!”
I would not have you think Ashley screamed out of fear. In fact, she screamed because Peter had seized her up and was flying with her through the trees.
Hang gliding is a bit alarming at the best of times. When your hang glider is a flying boy criminal, it is most unnerving indeed.
They zoomed over the trees of Neverland, wind rushing in their ears. Ashley soon ran out of breath to scream.
“Fly!” Peter yelled encouragingly. “Fly, fly! All you have to do is think happy thoughts!”
He began to let her go when a furious tinkle from Ninja Star, like a dinner bell in a panic, gave him pause.
“What’s the fairy saying?”
“Oh,” Peter said airily, “zie says that if I don’t blow fairy dust on you, you will plummet to your death.”
“Plummet to my death!”
“I think you’re being most unfair,” Peter said to Ashley sternly. “I cannot be expected to remember every little thing.”
He detached an arm from around her – I confess she screamed again – and reached out for Ninja Star, who he shook expertly over Ashley’s head like a top chef with a salt shaker.
“Suspended in midair with a boy pouring glitter on me,” Ashley muttered. “I was really looking forward to being old enough to get into nightclubs. Now? Not so much.”
“Nonsense, being old isn’t any fun, everyone knows that,” said Peter briskly. “Quick, happy thoughts!”
“Peter Pan in jail for kidnap and assault!” Ashley yelled. “Peter Pan gets a twenty year sentence! No, ever so much more than twenty!”
Peter dropped her.
He managed to catch her before she dashed out her brains and broke every bone in her body on the rocks below, but it was a very near thing.
“You idiot!” Ashley screamed, grabbing hold of his shoulders and shaking him. “I nearly died!”
Peter made play with his eyebrows. “Well, yes,” he said. “That happens with adventures.”
The treehouse was very cold at night, and Ashley could hear the mermaids howling like wolves in the moonlight. Peter seemed to drop off instantly to sleep, but Ashley had no plans to escape her captor. For one thing, she had no idea how to get back from Neverland, and for another, she had no desire to have her head bitten off by a wild beast. She huddled under a blanket of flowers and leaves, and tried to sleep.
In the morning Ninja Star woke her by tinkling about her head like a glittery mobile alarm clock. Ashley thought longingly of home, and flyswatters.
Upon further study of Ninja Star, who was a violent blue color and covered in scars, Ashley decided she probably wouldn’t dare.
“Zie wants to know if if you would like to train with zir team,” Peter translated in gentlemanly fashion.
Ashley’s brow furrowed. “She—”
“Zie,” Peter said. “Ninja Star is intersex. That’s what zie prefers.”
A line from the book floated through Ashley’s head: the mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls, and the blue ones are just little sillies who are not sure what they are.
Ashley kind of wondered why she’d never noticed that line before. She also noted that Ninja Star looked pretty sure of what zie was.
She was right. Fairies, as you and I both know, only ever feel one feeling at a time. Ninja Star spent ninety–nine per cent of zir time feeling fierce.
“Why is—um, zie—called Ninja Star?”
Peter looked rather shocked at Ashley’s ignorance. “Because zie is the best ninja, of course.”
Ashley chose her next words with care. “Are… all your fairies ninjas, Peter?”
“Naturally,” said Peter with a lofty air.
Ashley was left with rather a dilemma. On one hand, these were the survivors of Neverland, the battle–scarred companions of Peter Pan, fierce and deadly warriors. On the other hand, they were about three inches high and glittery.
“I’d be very honored to train with you,” she told the blue blur that was Ninja Star.
From then on Ashley trained most mornings with the ninja fairies on the shore. She tried her best, but I confess sometimes Ninja Star despaired: she was so big and clumsy, it was hard to teach her to be stealthy like the ninja. And, of course, not being able to fly, Ashley could not perform the ninjas’ very best trick—aggressive skydiving at the enemy’s eyeballs.
Nevertheless, it cheered Ashley up. She was a girl who liked to keep busy.
She was also growing more used to Peter. He had a way about him, it must be admitted. If Peter awake fails to charm, Peter asleep is a heartbreaker. On the third night in the treehouse he woke Ashley crying and shaking in his sleep. Ashley remembered his dreams—the sore shaking dreams of a boy who had lived through a hundred childhoods and a thousand lost, dark memories—not from her grandmother’s stories who had hated him but from Wendy’s book. Wendy had loved him.
He had more dark memories now than in Wendy’s day, and he was older, at last. Ashley could not hold him, but she did her best. She stroked his wild curling hair until he was quiet.
“What did you dream last night?” she asked the next day.
“Dream?” said Peter, and laughed a blithe sweet laugh. “I have so many adventures when I’m awake, I never have to dream!”
“You dreamed something last night,” Ashley persisted, following him. He was playing a game of leapfrog from one toadstool to the other. You would think they might break under Peter’s weight, but they never did.
Peter spun on his toadstool and Ashley found herself staring down the length of his blade.
“No, Ashley lady,” he said. “I never dream.”
Ashley stepped back. Peter sheathed his sword and performed a cartwheel in midair.
“What adventure shall we have today? Do you want to—”
“No, I don’t,” said Ashley. “I’ve told you. I don’t want to be your mother, and I don’t care for Neverland!”
She turned on her heel, and then found Peter hovering before her. He was very irritating that way.
“Oh well,” he said. “Why didn’t you say so? Would you like to go on one of my missions for the Queen?”
I am afraid to tell you that Ashley was not what you might call a trusting soul. She did not believe a word of Peter’s tale about being a spy for her Majesty’s government.
In her defense, Peter did tell the Taj Mahal story.
Of course she did not believe him, but she did see an opportunity.
“If I go with you on this adventure,” she said, with great cunning. “Shall we play a game? Shall we have a bet, between us?”
Peter’s eyes lit. “Yes!”
“Great,” said Ashley. “If I don’t like this adventure, and if, after it, I still want to go home—you have to take me.”
Meeting the Queen of England is an important event in a girl’s life. The social niceties should be observed. Little things like using the correct fork, dropping a deep enough curtsy, and not breaking into the royal boudoir while wearing pink pajamas.
Ashley found herself rather embarrassed before she realized that the Queen was responsible for her kidnap.
“Doesn’t that strike you as a bit of a terrible thing to do?” she demanded, cutting her off as the Queen briefed Peter about a new mission.
The Queen had taken the break–in with great aplomb, sitting up in bed and reaching for her spectacles with one hand while waving away her killer butler with the other. A little thing like being accused of a criminal act was hardly going to faze her.
“My dear child, I do a hundred terrible things before breakfast, that is the role of the monarchy.” She directed her spectacles towards Peter again. “Do you understand the situation, Mr. Pan? I would like you to apprehend the person who has invented this device to multiply the mass of objects by ten.”
“You can rely on me with absolute confidence!” said Peter, who was perched on the edge of a priceless Ming vase.
The Queen rubbed her royal brow. “May I stress that ‘apprehend’ means ‘bring to me’, Mr. Pan? We need this person’s brain in her head, rather than—I pick this example purely at random—impaled on one of the clock hands of Big Ben.”
Peter rolled his eyes in protest at this senseless rule.
“I am forced to trust in your discretion, Mr. Pan,” the Queen said. “Remember that the fate of the free world rests in your hands.”
It was very unfortunate that at that precise moment Peter aimed an idle kick and shattered the Ming vase into a thousand pieces.
“Oh my God, you—you—Your Majesty,” exclaimed Ashley, not quite outraged enough to insult royalty. “I beg your pardon. But are you insane? The fate of a boiled egg shouldn’t rest in his hands! Isn’t there some other agent you can send?”
“Another agent with the power of flight and little helper ninjas?” the Queen asked, her brows lifting above the frames of her spectacles. “I regret to say, no. Please close the window on your way out, Mr. Pan: last time there was a shocking draught.”
“So will we have to stake out the town?” asked Ashley, who was beginning to get enthusiastic about being a spy. Being personally given a mission by the Queen of England is very motivating. “To see which house the crazed inventor—oh.”
Do not be alarmed. Peter has not dropped Ashley out of the sky in order to save her at the last minute. Ashley had made it clear she did not think that was a hilarious game.
She had merely spotted the small picturesque village of Litford by the Sea, which had thatched cottages and rambling manors, cobbled byways and streams under wood bridges. And on top of a hill near the town was a gaunt black structure with fiery windows. It looked like a castle of nightmares, a place an old pirate went to retire and gnaw on booty and bones.
It looked like something out of Neverland.
“Seems to me we’ve tracked the varlet to his lair!” Peter crowed.
“Peter, doesn’t this seem a little weird to you?”
Peter stared at her, all guileless eyes and crazy smile curling around those little pearly teeth, his dead leaf bowtie fluttering in the wind.
“Ah,” said Ashley. “Never mind.”
It struck Ashley that this was something Peter and the ninjas just accepted: the macabre and fantastical, all the trappings of Neverland. Ashley was the only one who could see the difference between what should be real and what should not be. She had some power here.
It pains me to confess Ashley had little poetry in her soul. She would have preferred titanium body armor.
The castle floors were largely made of big flagstones. Ashley’s bare feet ached for the carpets of home, or even the forest floors of Neverland.
The castle echoed with the creak of machinery, the pop and sizzle of flames, and the sound of screams. This place reeked of pure, storybook evil.
Ashley kept thinking of a particular name in the story.
“The villain never really dies,” she murmured as she crept after Peter. Her ninja training made her light on her feet, so it was really a shame that Peter and the fairies showed her up by gliding silently a few inches off the ground.
She was distracted from these dark musings by three mad scientists. Ashley could tell they were scientists by the lab coats, and that they were mad by the maniacal laughter.
Peter drew his sword and killed two of them. Ashley gave the other a kick in the kneecap, and he went down. The fairies finished him off.
“Now we put on these evil lab coats and make our way into the heart of the evil fortress,” Peter commanded.
Ashley put on her lab coat doubtfully. It was really quite evil looking. The name tag read “Dr. Strange Feelings of Confusion and Rage.”
She was also extremely uncertain about two barefoot kids trying to pass themselves off as scientists, no matter how mad said scientists happened to be. It would never work.
When she heard steps barging down from an appropriately echoing stairwell, she thought frantically of how the spies on TV would act to distract attention from what they were doing.
So as the next set of mad scientists approached, she whirled, pushed Peter Pan up against the wall, and kissed him on the mouth.
She had her eyes shut but she could feel his mouth open in amazement. For a moment the world was still and peaceful, the hard changing angle of his jaw against her fingers, her senses flooded with the taste of berries and the smell of leaves.
When the scientists had passed, Ashley leaned back. The world remained peaceful for a moment, the wild lights in Peter’s eyes gone golden and a little hazy.
“Peter,” Ashley asked softly, “Do you know what that was?”
“Of course,” Peter said, much affronted. “A thimble.”
“No,” said Ashley, staring. “That was a kiss.”
“It was a thimble!”
“Didn’t it strike you as a little different from other thimbles you’ve had in the past?”
Peter looked shifty.
“It was my first thimble with tongue,” Peter told her with dignity.
Ashley fixed him with a look of unutterable despair, and then stalked down the stairs towards the grim creaking of dread machines, her evil lab coat trailing in her wake.
The fairies and Peter followed her, Ninja Star making a belligerent ringing sound as they went.
“Ninja Star please, how can you be so inappropriate!” said Peter, deeply shocked.
“What’d she say?”
“I refuse to tell you!”
“Heh,” said Ashley, making the wise decision that being amused was better than being driven to madness. “You’re a bit old–fashioned, aren’t you?”
“I am not old anything,” Peter snapped.
And so bickering at the top of their lungs, our spies stumbled into the evil at the heart of the fortress.
There was a large chair, of course, looming almost like a throne. It stood on a dais, shrouded in shadow.
There was someone sitting in it.
Ashley’s voice died in her throat, and her heart beat like a child’s fists on a door, begging to get out. All the fears of her nursery got together and whispered: Hook.
Then the figure in the chair leaned forward and said, “Peter?”
It was a golden–haired girl, plump and beautifully dressed.
Even taking into account the natural distortion of legends over time, Ashley felt this could not possibly be Captain Hook.
She looked to Peter for help, but Peter was looking perfectly blank.
“It’s me, Peter,” said the girl. “Only—I’m bigger now.”
Ashley’s world tilted a little, the story changing beyond all recognition. The Queen’s documents showed a machine that increased an object’s size ten times.
Not just an object. Anything.
And the machine had not been created for an evil purpose, not at first, except who knew what terrible mixture of science and magic had worked together to enlarge a creature who could only feel one thing at a time – and fix her like that forever, full of rage and hate.
Creating a villain out of a fairy.
Ashley whispered, “Tinker Bell.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” said Peter. “Sorry.”
Tinker Bell went purple with rage. Under the circumstances, Ashley felt she could hardly blame her.
“Perhaps you’re thinking of a different Peter,” Peter continued helpfully. “Though it would be hard to mistake me for another boy. There is nobody quite like me!”
“This is no time for crowing,” Ashley said out of the corner of her mouth.
“He’d have to be really amazingly wonderful,” Peter went on, and then Ashley kicked him in the ankle.
Peter looked surprised and annoyed.
“Peter,” Ashley said firmly. “We’re on a mission. Now I don’t think she’ll attack you—” though looking at Tinker Bell’s enraged face she was not altogether certain about that, “so I’ll get her to attack me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Peter said. “I am the spy here. I’ll run her through.”
“The Queen said she was to be brought back for questioning! And if we can change her back, make her less inclined to be well, you know, evil—”
Peter looked around at the high Gothic windows, and the white cat in Tinker Bell’s lap.
“I do see your point.”
He looked around further and espied a machine that looked a little bit like the offspring of a telescope and a giant spider. “I say, Ashley. I think I’ve come up with a brilliant plan!”
“Have you indeed,” said Ashley, very dry.
“You’ll never guess.”
“I’m not so sure of that, Peter.”
Peter began to sidle with rather obvious stealth towards the contraption.
“What are you doing?” Tinker Bell asked sharply.
Ashley took a hasty step forward. “Why did you want to be big, Tinker Bell?”
Tinker Bell blushed under the fading purple of her rage. “I forget.”
Ashley took another step. Tinker Bell’s gaze followed her. “I don’t think you do.”
“Well,” said Tinker Bell, and shrugged. “It just didn’t seem important afterwards, you know. I mean—I realized, Peter is quite ridiculous.”
“I quite agree,” said Ashley. “Of course, so is world domination.”
The white cat was rather abruptly tipped out of Tinker Bell’s lap as she stood up. “You take that back!” she exclaimed, and in her fury her voice was like the ringing of bells.
“I will not,” said Ashley. “Jealous other woman, doing it all for love, evil overlord bent on world domination? Don’t you ever get tired of being a cliché, Tinker Bell? Don’t you ever just—Now, Peter, now!”
For Ashley had broken off in the middle of her sentence and delivered a roundhouse kick to Tinker Bell’s stomach. Tinker Bell fell directly into the path of the machine Peter had just turned on.
In some ways it was a pity. It had been shaping up to be rather a good speech.
Ninja Star approved very much, however. Ashley even received some compliments from the other fairies about her style.
Tinker Bell the evil genius, Tinker Bell the fairy transformed, was captured in a ray of light and diminished once more, her stolen inches glowing and falling away. It was terrible at first, Tinker Bell’s face locked in a snarl. But then it was different suddenly: like a snake shedding a skin, or a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
When the light of the machine faded, Tinker Bell was small and shining once again.
Ashley stood staring, fascinated. Ninja Star took the initiative and imprisoned Tinker Bell in an empty crisp packet.
“I did it!” Peter crowed, and very nearly hit his head on the ceiling of the evil lair, soaring in triumph.
The Queen took being presented with the tiniest evil genius in the world very well. She commended both Peter and Ashley, which left Ashley rather dazed for a while until Peter’s crowing annoyed her again.
“Oh Peter, do be quiet,” she said crossly, as they flew over Big Ben, badly startling a family of pigeons. “I think it’s rather sad. She did it for love, after all.”
“Did she?” asked Peter, rather bored. “Who did she love then?”
Ashley gave him a withering glance.
“Well it’s no use looking at me like that,” Peter told her, injured. “How am I supposed to know? I’ve never seen the fairy before in my life!”
And no matter how she argued, he stuck to that.
Ashley finally sighed in exasperation and gave up. “You know, considering her, and Tiger Lily, and Wendy… for someone determined never to grow up, you’re a bit of a playboy.”
Peter frowned, and then his brow smoothed. “It’s true that I am a boy,” he said. “And I love to play!”
Ashley forbore from slapping him upside the head. He might have dropped her.
“What game shall we play next?” Peter inquired eagerly. “I’m sure that with a bit of perseverance, we can get you flying.”
“A little bit of falling hundreds of feet onto bare rock never hurt anybody.”
“You just need to think some absolutely scrumptious thoughts.”
“Peter,” Ashley said. “I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.”
She looked at the city of London, sprawled huge and glittering far beyond her dangling toes.
“And,” she continued. “I know you haven’t forgotten our bargain. I want to go home.”
Peter is many things: one of them, when reminded, is a boy of his word. He is too proud not to be.
He flew Ashley back to her window. It was lucky that Ashley, as a rather spoiled only child, had a balcony where he could deposit her. Had he flown her into her bedroom, he would have woken her parents—who were, of course, in there waiting for her.
They had also alerted the police for miles around, but the Queen dealt with that later.
Peter stood on empty air about a foot away from the balcony, his head tilted insouciantly back, arms crossed over his chest.
“You’ll grow up,” he threw out at Ashley, as if it was the direst threat imaginable.
“You bet,” Ashley said. “You might, too.”
There was a moment of stillness, then. Ashley remembered that instant of quiet at the evil fortress, and remembered him dreaming and weeping in Neverland.
“Not yet, Ashley lady,” said Peter. “Not yet.”
“You can’t stay on that island forever.”
“Maybe not,” Peter told her. “I used to live in Kensington Gardens with the fairies. Dreams change. But there’s always another game.”
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “The spy thing?”
Peter beamed at her, beautiful and terrible, young and sweet. The monster her grandmother had feared, with all his first teeth.
“You must admit, Ashley,” he said. “I am perfectly splendid at it.”
“You’re all right,” Ashley said grudgingly.
“You assisted me quite creditably,” Peter told her grandly.
I do not think it will surprise you when I mention that Ashley was not overwhelmed by this tribute.
“I don’t suppose…” said Peter.
Peter smiled his most fascinating smile. “You might want to come on another mission with me?”
Ashley studied the horizon. She shouldn’t. He was a creature of nightmares as well as dreams, and he had kidnapped her, scared her grandmother, driven her great–grandmother mad.
Her great–great–great–grandmother had loved him, left him, and lived.
“I’ll think about it,” Ashley said.
Peter crowed and launched himself into the sky, perfectly and blissfully happy, the bright triumphant sound trailing after him back to the balcony where Ashley stood.
She squared her shoulders and opened the doors that would lead to her parents.
Knowing Peter, the next time he came might be many years later. He might be coming for her daughter. In which case, Ashley was not going to bother with the pepper spray. She was going to make her child sleep with a taser.
Of course, Peter had no sense of time, and he might get bored and decide to arrive next week.
Ashley went into the house smiling slightly. She would have to look into acquiring that taser as soon as possible.
Across a sky painted with the neon lights of a changing city, headed towards a island being destroyed as dreams grew dark, flew Peter Pan, a boy who never grows up, except now and again—from the fairies’ baby in Kensington Gardens, to the boy who ruled Neverland, to the greatest spy in the Queen’s Secret Service.
There is always another game.
You don’t have to grow up yet.
© 2010 by Sarah Rees Brennan. Originally published in Kiss me Deadly: 13 Tales of Paranormal Love