Peter Darling – Austin Chant

James Hook was bored. The woods had grown rather tame, he thought. Time was, he and his pirates would have been fending off tigers, wolves, and little boys with swords; they would have been snarled in thorns and clinging vines, beset by swarming fae, ambushed by roving crocodiles. Nowadays, though Neverland was still overgrown, it was no more threatening than an unkempt lawn. It was the morning after a powerful rain, but the sun was shining, and dew gathered like jewels on the leaves. From where Hook was reclining, in the velvet cushions of a sedan chair carried by four straining men, the forest had a fresh polish and smelled like the coming of autumn. There were even sweet little birds singing. It was repulsively saccharine. “Which way at Eagle Pass, Captain?” called Samuel, Hook’s bosun since the retirement of old Smee. Samuel was walking ahead, where Hook could admire his arse. Hook glanced listlessly at the treasure map on his knee, lifting his lacy cuff so he could see the twist of the path. “East,” he said, and the party veered east. They had liberated the treasure map from One-Eyed Jack, captain of the Devil’s Pride, after a brief and unsatisfying battle. The Devil’s Pride was currently sinking to the bottom of the sea, and Hook had sent all of One-Eyed Jack’s loyalists off the plank, but it hadn’t sated him. He was bloodthirsty, and he had nothing to vent his bloodlust on.

The pirates followed his directions into a tight thicket, where the trees grew close to the narrow path. The sedan chair was almost too wide to fit through, but the men knew better than to suggest that Hook get down and walk. They struggled gamely on until the trail emerged into a wide gulch shaded by birch trees. An enormous log had fallen across this ravine, leaving a shallow space just tall enough for a man to crouch under. And there, beneath the log, was a boulder carved with a particular sign— the sigil with which One-Eyed Jack had signed his letters. Hook sighed, unable to muster much enthusiasm. “Down,” he commanded, and his pallbearers set the sedan chair down to rest on its base. “Roll that boulder aside and start digging.” It would be dirty, sweaty work to squat beneath the log and dig up the fortune of gold and jewels rumored to be buried there. Hook was looking forward to it; the sight of other men toiling usually made him feel better. Samuel, especially, had a way of making sweat and grime look appealing. It would at least soothe Hook’s soul, if not solve his boredom, to watch Samuel roll up his sleeves and grasp his shovel with those bulging forearms. Therefore hopeful, Hook settled in for the show. Half an hour or so later, he began to think that a book would have made for better entertainment. He could only watch the shovel go up and down so many times, Samuel and the others disappearing behind a growing mound of dirt.

The temperature increased as the sun climbed higher; the lesser insects of Neverland grew hungry and agitated as they hovered over the ravine, attracted perhaps by all the sweat. Hook swatted the bugs away with the treasure map, glaring at his men as they dug. “How much longer?” he demanded. Samuel stuck his head out of the hole, his brown hair slicked down with sweat. “Hard to say, Captain,” he said apologetically. “There’s no sign of gold yet.” “Hurry up,” Hook said. “If that treasure isn’t unearthed within the hour, I’ll flog every one of you till I can show you your own spines.” Samuel blanched and ducked back into the hole. Hook sighed, fanning himself. From behind him someone said: “What’s the rush, Captain?” Hook twisted around in his chair, startled. He hadn’t heard the stranger approach, yet there he was, sitting on a rock at the edge of the ravine. The young man wore baggy clothes and carried no obvious weapons, which was unusual for Neverland. “Well, hello,” Hook said. The stranger was quite handsome, in a lanky sort of way—his face was bony and angular, his limbs narrow and long.

His hair was curly, and as raggedy as if it had been hacked off with a knife. “What have we here?” The stranger leaned forward. “You don’t remember me?” There was something familiar about this young man’s coloring and his clear, arrogant voice. “Now that you mention it, I do believe we’ve met. Where?” “Here,” the stranger said. “In Neverland.” He rose, swaying slightly. Hook watched as he picked his way down the ravine. He carried himself like he was half air, as though a mere breeze could lift him off his feet. At the same time, something about his movements raised the hair on the back of Hook’s neck. They were not just familiar—they were the footsteps of a cat slinking casually toward a wounded bird. “Who are you?” Hook asked, curling his fingers around the hilt of his sword. The stranger paused and gave a slow, cold smile. “I’m the prince of runaways,” he said. “The rightful king of Neverland.

” “What the hell does that mean?” Samuel shouted. “Tell the captain who you are!” “Be quiet,” Hook snapped without turning his head. He stepped down from the sedan chair, walking to meet the stranger as he descended into the ravine. The nearer he went, the more handsome the stranger became. His eyes were clever, green, and restless, constantly darting about to take in his surroundings; his mouth was a whimsical line. Recognition tugged again at the back of Hook’s mind, but he couldn’t place this man anywhere in his memories, and he thought he would’ve kept a record of that smile. “Samuel is right. I didn’t ask for a riddle.” Hook paused at a safe distance. “I certainly didn’t ask for arrogant claims. I asked who you are.” “You first,” the stranger said. His entitlement pricked at Hook’s nerves, but it also intrigued him. “As you wish.” He gave a slight, elegant bow.

“I am James Hook, captain of the Jolly Roger, leader of Neverland’s dread pirates and terror of the seven seas.” Hook was frustrated, and a little fascinated, when the stranger failed to looked impressed. Hook tried again, taking a step closer, pressing the advantage of his height over the slighter man. “My friend,” he said, allowing a touch of venom to creep into the words, “you’ve stumbled upon the excavation of some extraordinarily valuable treasure. It belonged to the last man who challenged me, and you can guess what became of him. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t allow a bystander to live if he crept up on me amid such a dig. But if you tell me your name, I’ll consider sparing your life.” “You know me,” the stranger said, calm like the bare edge of a knife. Hook’s patience was rapidly expiring. “Your name, stranger,” he growled, “or else—” He caught a flicker of movement under the stranger’s collar. A silver gleam, and then the rustle of wings unfolding as a fairy crawled out onto the man’s shoulder. Hook knew her at once. “Tinker Bell?” he asked, uncomprehending. Then his eyes traipsed back to the stranger’s face, to his callous, boyish grin, and Hook’s stomach dropped with sudden revelation. “You.

” Peter Pan grinned at him. “Me.” They were only inches apart. Pan shot out his hand and tore a knife from Hook’s belt. Hook recoiled, drawing his sword barely quick enough to divert a stab at his heart. Before he could counter, Pan leapt backward—leapt impossibly high, all the way to the top of the ravine, and stayed floating above the ground with the knife in his grip. Tinker Bell glittered on his shoulder. Hook squeezed the hilt of his sword, fingers trembling with disbelief. “Pan.” No wonder he hadn’t recognized the man; he had been a boy when last Hook had seen him. It had been a decade at least. All that remained of the child now was the cruelty in Pan’s smile. “I remember you being faster,” Pan called down to him. “You must be getting old.” “I remember you being smaller,” Hook called back.

“Where have you been these many years?” “Having adventures,” Pan said airily. “Traveling the whole sea and sky. And now I’ve come to win the war with you once and for all.” “Liar.” Hook gestured to his men. Without looking, he knew they were arming themselves; he saw Pan watching them. “The last I heard, you were a strange little runaway,” Hook continued. “Gone back to be with your family.” A sudden cloud passed over Pan’s face. “You heard wrong,” he said. “I don’t even know what a family is.” Hook sneered. “Then correct me. Where have you been?” “Killing pirates,” Pan said. “And I think I’ll add one more to my tally.

” Hook recognized the flash of vicious intent in Pan’s eyes that always gave away his attacks before he struck. That gave him the instant he needed to parry as Pan flew at him, quick as a dart. Pan’s knife rang hard off the edge of Hook’s sword, and Hook swiped up at Pan with his claw, only managing to catch the hem of one of his trouser legs. Pan kicked him in the chest and knocked Hook’s sword aside with a blow to the wrist, sweeping forward and plunging his knife into Hook’s ribs. The short blade didn’t make it far past Hook’s coat, but it broke skin and scraped across bone before Pan tore it out again. Hook howled in surprise as much as pain, staggering back with a hand clapped over the wound. “Captain!” Samuel bellowed, and fired his pistol. The bullet went wide, but even so Pan recoiled, flying above them with a wild laugh. The pirates aimed their weapons after him, and he disappeared over the treetops, pursued by gunshots. “I’ll be back for you, Captain!” Hook heard him shout. Hook sank to the ground, staring at the blood on his fingers. The wound throbbed between his ribs, a slow crimson stain spreading on his shirt. He hardly recognized the sensation. It had been so long since someone had hurt him. He smiled.

One “What do you remember?” Tinker Bell asked. Peter folded his arms behind his head, grinning at her. “What do you mean?” He was floating above the island, weightless on the wind. Tink perched on his chest, clinging to his shirt buttons. She glared her many eyes at him. “Do you remember flying here?” “Of course,” Peter said easily. He had swum through the ocean of stars, following Tink’s directions to the second star on the right. They had burst out into a storm above the island and danced along the clouds together, lightning turning the world black and white in flashes. “And before that?” Peter had a vague memory that he had been somewhere unpleasant, but in the long dark passage between worlds, that memory had grown far away and unimportant. “No,” he said. “I expect I was doing something interesting.” Tink hummed in agreement, and said no more of it. Peter turned over so he could survey his kingdom, spreading his arms out like a sail. The island was covered in forest, except for the snowy peaks of distant mountains; blue rivers raced through the woods, patrolled by wild beasts. The surrounding sea was a pale and pearlescent green, like absinthe, sunlight glinting on the waves.

There was still blood on the knife Peter had stuck in Hook, droplets of it sliding off the point and flying away into the wind. Peter threw the knife into the air, laughing, and caught it by the blade. Naturally, the first thing he had wanted to do was let Hook know that he wasn’t in charge anymore; Tinker Bell had warned him that Hook had been ruling Neverland in his absence. Probably Hook had gotten lazy and comfortable while Peter was gone. That would explain why Peter had gotten the best of him so easily. Well, Peter would have to wake him up. He had no intention of coming back to Neverland without a good war. *~*~* A portly tree with wide branches had served as the Lost Boys’ hideout since Peter had first assembled their company. The tree’s roots grew down into a substantial cavern below the earth, which the Lost Boys had further hollowed out and made into their home. The hideout tree flowered in summer, putting out papery pink blossoms that gave way to autumn fruit. It was the only one of its kind in Neverland, and visible from a distance when one flew above the forest. Peter spotted it almost at once, along with the plume of black smoke rising beside it. “They’re always making a mess,” Tink said. “Are they all still alive?” Peter asked, coasting down toward the tree. “You couldn’t get rid of them if you tried,” Tink said.

“There’s hardly any bloodshed when you aren’t around.” “Then it’s a good thing I’m back,” Peter said. He landed on a branch above the hideout tree. In the clearing around it, a bonfire was blazing, several wild pigs roasting on spits above the flames. All around the fire, young men clustered, talking as they sharpened knives and arrowheads. One was poring over a map. Peter crowed. As one, the Lost Boys looked up. There was no doubt in Peter’s mind that the Lost Boys would remember him, and one by one they paled with shock and recognition. All except for the young man who had been studying the map, who stood slowly, making his way to the front of the gang. The other Lost Boys parted for him. Peter had never seen this boy before. He wore a wolf pelt around his waist, but otherwise could have been a farmer’s son; he had that honest, hardworking look, with broad shoulders and a stern jaw. He stared up at Peter with measured distrust. “Who are you?” he called.

Peter expected the Lost Boys to inform him, but either his asking had cast doubt in their minds or they wanted to let Peter take the stage himself. “You don’t know me?” Peter called back. He jumped out to the end of the branch, which failed to dip beneath his weight. “I’m your captain. I should skewer you for your insolence.” “Peter?” That was Slightly; Peter recognized him at once, a reedy young man with inquisitive eyes and round spectacles. “Is that really you?” The farmer boy glanced sharply at Slightly, as if he were stepping out of line by addressing Peter. “Yes, it’s me,” Peter said. He met each curious gaze in turn with a smirk. “Who was it who led you all to stow aboard the Jolly Roger in barrels and surprise the pirates in their sleep? Who first talked to a mermaid? Who brought you to meet the fairy queen?” “Who cares?” the farmer boy said. Peter frowned. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Ernest.” “Are you a Lost Boy, Ernest?” Ernest glared up at him. “I’m their leader.

” Several of the boys winced and looked askance at Peter, but no one contradicted Ernest. Peter laughed and swung down from the tree. He was a little annoyed to find that Ernest stood almost a head taller than him; in olden days, he would have cut Ernest short rather than allow another boy to loom over him. “If you’re a Lost Boy, then you should know me.” “I do,” Ernest said. “You’re Peter Pan. But you’ve been gone ten years, and I’m their leader now.” “Prove it,” Peter said, tossing his knife into the air and catching it. The clearing grew deathly quiet. Ernest glanced at the knife, then back at Peter’s face, his eyes narrowing. “We’re in the middle of something important,” he said. “I’m about to leave on an expedition. If you want to fight over who’s the leader when I get back, you’re welcome to wait here.” “As if I’d let you run away.” “Run away?” That cracked Ernest’s composure.

“I’m not scared of you. You’re just a story to me.” “Just a story?” Peter grinned. “Tell me if this feels real.” He lunged. Ernest barely evaded the first swipe of Peter’s knife, stumbling back and nearly tripping over his feet. Peter was pleased to see that his reflexes were quick, at least. There wouldn’t be any fun in having a rival if he couldn’t fight. The other Lost Boys scattered left and right as he drove forward again. Tinker Bell flew from Peter’s shoulder with a squawk of amusement, and then settled in a branch above to watch as Ernest ducked and wove, Peter’s blade catching only the air. “Wait,” Ernest shouted. “Wait!” He seized Peter’s wrist in a grip of iron, fingers squeezing so Peter couldn’t wriggle free, and yanked it and the knife high above both their heads. Doing so dragged Peter closer to him, and Ernest glared straight into his eyes. “You care about the Lost Boys, don’t you?” “Of course,” Peter said, although in that moment he didn’t care about much beyond fighting Ernest. “Come with me,” Ernest said.

“I want to show you something.”


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Updated: 29 June 2021 — 01:48

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