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Sabre

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There had come a time when he had run out of places to wash the blood from his hands, and it was long ago.

The waves were cool as they rose up to caress large hands, as if in reverent offering, drawing out the crimson stains to reveal their natural alabaster hue. They remained submerged, fingers working unhurriedly until no trace was left, before he stood tall on the rock where he perched with a hunter’s grace. It was nigh impossible to not take in the sea with every breath, not that he minded, though he had always preferred the aromas of the dark forests; moss and mud, rain and blood.

No stars were out that night but, behind the veil of dark clouds, he could spy the faintest whispers of moonlight that dared defy him. His dripping fists clenched.

A low rumble of thunder, like the growl of some great monster, like him, rippled low across the sky and when he next looked up, his eyes were only met with darkness. The quirk of his lips was a crack in the icy exterior of his features.

They would be hiding away, all of them – just as they should – curled up in their huts and cots and treehouses, quivering for fear that he may descend to quell his fury on their breakable bodies. It had happened too many times.

Time, his greatest adversary, was moving against him.

Drying his hands with a fleeting thought, he reached into the pocket of his tunic for one of the two rolls of parchment that had sat against his heart for longer than he could recall. One was far older. His fingers were careful as he unravelled it, staring down with rising irascibility. It looked like her, under the right gaze, though she had carried the wrong name, and the wrong blood, which now drifted out into nowhere. He’d been a fool to ignore that, hoping for the chance that the name had become lost to history, while he remained untouched. However, since her arrival, an ever growing part of him had wished for her failure, the relief upon which was undeniable. He’d been all too happy for what came next.

So many screams for one without a tongue.

Nonetheless, the board would be set again in wait for a new pawn – one worthy of the mantle that had fooled everyone but him; one worthy of a place among his possessions – to present themselves, and he would be ready and waiting.

For, after all, Peter Pan never failed.


 The docks were always busy in the early mornings, waking and working before much of the rest of the town.

Ships passed in and out of the harbour, setting out on trade missions, voyages and fishing trips, or bringing in supplies for merchants to get their hands on to sell for a fat profit, sailors roused before the dawn. Sometimes the lanterns had barely burned out after a night’s vigil when the docks became lined with people, swimming and scattering like the fish that swam, oblivious to the bustle, in the harbour. That was where she could be found.

A beggar girl, small and underfed, would sit mutely and pitifully offer her tattered little bowl to passers-by, when she had the strength to. She’d lost count of how many days she’d huddled in the same spot during the days, the information irrelevant to her, dark eyes pleading by nature and searching for a kind-looking face. There were better places to beg, she knew in her absent mind, and it were not as though she had any possessions, save the bowl and clothes on her back, to carry, yet she found she did not wish to leave the harbour. More often than not, she blamed it on the exhaustion that was dragged in on the back of hunger.

It was particular chilly that morning so she wrapped her thin, worn shawl around her shoulders, still shivering in spite of her attempts. It rose in her memory that the bakery or the local forge had always emitted a little warmth. Still, she didn’t move. Besides, the baker or the blacksmith would have probably chased her away. Not that she would blame them.  

Having so often forgotten, she wondered, again, if it was worth trying to clean herself up as best she could and offer her labour to the local manor, or an inn or a farm, earn some coin, protected by an informal contract that put a roof over her head and food in her belly. Something always stopped her.

The pit in her gut would open up wider, bleeding out a sickening dread, a searing…guilt, embarrassment? She was not sure. There was always a piece of the puzzle missing, as though her deeper mind was keeping something back from her, locked away beyond reach. But what use was it? It didn’t put money in her hand.

Her disjointed mind then led her down a path she’d also wandered down many a time; the world was clearly not going to care for her, why should she care for it? There were plenty of people whom she doubted would miss a small purse, a trinket or two. Again, something stopped her. Made it impossible.

Someone dropped a penny into her empty bowl; she didn’t see their face as they scurried away. “Thank you,” she whispered dryly but earnestly. The clatter of a coin made her dormant heart stir.

Food might have to wait, she thought, and tried to ignore the response of her empty belly.

A new shawl or coat would be of more use to her now that summer was over. Doing her best to block out the gnawing hunger, the girl began to look out for boats sailing in that may have been carrying cargo for trade, perhaps she could barter a deal, take the scraps, and hope someone might take pity on a peculiar street rat. Usually, the girl kept her bowl fairly close to her knees when it had money in already with a pointless paranoia, but now she held it a little further up like an offering. Hopefully the strain in her arms would be worth it. Trepidation kept her noiseless. She learned to speak in other ways.

It was some time later, dragged out by the chill and hunger, and a small boy scampered through the crowds and put a couple of coins in her bowl, perhaps sent by a charitable elder. Finding a rare smile that made her mouth feel strange, the girl brought the bowl back towards her chest protectively. “Thank you.”

The boy smiled innocently back at her and dashed away, moving effortlessly through the currents of sailors and merchants. The air was a little warmer yet her hands were still reddened and trembling, and the bowl felt like ice against her grimy skin. When did I last wash? She couldn’t remember, but couldn’t think too far back. Where would I find warm water, anyway?  

A ship sailing in then caught her eye; her gaze fixed on it as it docked and the sailors began to unload large crates and sacks. Placing her bowl on the floor, knowing it would never be worth stealing and not really caring for it anyway, she collected the coins into her little hand and got to her feet. Her joints were stiff and aching, gait shaky as she stumbled through the slightly thinning crowds. So fixed on the ship ahead of her, she forgot to step aside for the figure approaching, having also just docked, ebony-haired and clad darkly from head to toe.

His shoulder barged into her, knocking that frail body down to the ground like a stack of cards with a grunt that was the air being knocked out of her chest. “Watch your step, lass,” he barked at her before properly regarding her, pivoting on his soles.

Guilt and heat washed over her as she peeped up at him, grateful for the filthy sweep of hair covering nearly half her features. “Sorry,” she muttered, avoiding his eye as quickly as possible, diverging her gaze to his attire. A long coat, crafted in black leather, hung from his strong shoulders to his mid-calf, met by black boots that concealed the lower part of his trousers, black leather also, a little scuffed with more than frequent use but still clung to a hint of shine. Perhaps they’d been polished not long ago. The waistcoat beneath was easy to catch the eye, a bold bloody red, intricately detailed, lined with silver, here and there.

“What you got in your hand there?” he asked sharply, voice jolting her, pale lapis eyes scouring over her feeble form, settling on her hand that was clenched like a vice. She couldn’t remember when someone had last spoken to her properly.

Impatient, the dark sailor extended his left hand, except it wasn’t a hand. Secured to his wrist like a piece of machinery was a silver hook that could slice flesh better than the finest blades. The sight of it alone proved sufficient. Her eyes flickered uneasily between the gleaming instrument and her tightly curled fist once or twice before slowly opening it to reveal the few measly coins.

“Steal those, did you, lass?”

The girl shook her head vigorously, making no move to get up, like she’d forgotten she’d fallen in the first place. Her fingers re-closed around the coins defensively, hand withdrawn to her chest, knuckles whitening against the cold red flush of her skin. The dark man examined her carefully; she could have easily been a thief, using her harmless appearance to get away with little crimes. He’d never seen startled rabbit eyes so convincing. Almost too convincing. But no thief would be so poorly kept. Seldom had he seen a sight more pitiful than the one before him then.

“N-No, sir,” the beggar finally squeaked.

Smirking, he folded his arms. “Sir? How quaint,” He flashed his teeth in a chuckle. “Do you know how I am?”

Her answer was another shake of the head, lips unmoving. Except for a small chilly tremble.

He reached down and hauled her up, bones brittle and bird-like under his one handed grip. A thief would have been better fed as well, he remarked to himself. With the way she moved he could tell she was little more than skin and bones under those baggy rags she passed off as clothes.

“That won’t buy you anything,” he told her, and watched as her dull eyes fell.

“I want a shawl. I’m cold,” the girl said unevenly, as if unaccustomed to saying more than two words at a time.

He looked over her again, unable to supress the pang of warmth that plucked at his frayed heartstrings, and unable to sense anything malign in the sorry soul before him. With winter coming, she probably wouldn’t last long. Swiftly, he cast his eyes over to his ship; they would be ready to set sail again in a little time.

“Do you have a name, scavenger?” he asked after a moment’s deliberation.

She shook her head. “Call me what you like,” she shrugged indifferently.

In all honestly, the girl often had no memory of the names she’d once been called by, only that there had been more than one. No one used them, no one had in a long time. She was a nameless, faceless beggar, who had no need of a name. When she could recall them, she realised they were her only true possession and she wouldn’t give it away to just anyone. Couldn’t. Not that they would save her.

Few knew the names she’d gone by in earlier years, fewer were still alive, even fewer – mayhaps no one – knew the true name from which they came.

The dark sailor unfolded his arms, the metal instrument at the end of his wrist glinting in the morning sun, glancing over at his treasured vessel again. “I could use an extra pair of hands aboard my ship. You’d be given food, shelter, clothes. And a bath. What do you say, scavenger?”

Lips parted in shock, she simply stared at him, dumbfounded.

“Well?” he prompted irritably after a few moments of silence. “You can come with me or stay here and freeze to death.”

“Is this a trick…? You mean it?”

“Aye, better to put a life to work than to waste. I doubt you have anything to stay for.”

Not anymore, a voice in her mind said solemnly, coming from somewhere deeper, dark. “No,” she answered. “I-I won’t be any trouble.”

“I would hope not. Come along then, scavenger,” he turned and set off with a brisk stride towards his ship, coat flapping around his lower legs.

It took a moment to sink in; she shook her head sharply to make sure it wasn’t some wishful illusion, a hallucination brought on by hunger or exhaustion. It wouldn’t be the first time. But then, realising it was all very much real, she took off on coltish legs after her unlikely saviour.

She immediately felt far too dirty as she stepped on board, knowing she didn’t belong. The crew were rough looking, not formal and tidy like the regular sailors and captains she’d seen in her time yet they carried themselves with experience, a discipline. Her heart quickened, pounding her chest like a begging plea, or a warning, when a number of the crew cast their eyes on her; she lowered her head, feeling her palms grow sweaty.

“Change of plan. This is Venger, our new cabin boy. I’m told he’s rather a diamond in the rough,” her rescuer announced to the crew on the deck. “Smee, find some clothes, and the shears.” The girl felt a lift in her features in spite of herself, liking the new name. Venger, she could see that suiting her quite well. He turned to her, a wily grin across his face. “Welcome aboard the Jolly Roger.”


 “So, they think I’m a boy?” Venger ventured with a meek tone, clarifying.

“It’s impossible to tell under those clothes and I’ve seen enough boys with faces like yours. Besides, tongues tend not to wag on my ship. A scavenger can hardly afford a barber anyway,” her new captain told her, gathering all the hair around her back. His pirate title had hardly surprised her – Captain Hook. She should have guessed.

Her excuse for hair was knotted and matted beyond measure, filled with dirt and dust, and blood, crawling down her shoulder blades to her mid back. She couldn’t help but flinch as he began hacking it off with the shears Smee, his first mate, had brought him. It fell to the floor in clumps, leaving her whole skull feeling much lighter. The captain stopped cutting when the remains of her rats-nest was at level with her little elfin ears, noting the tenseness in her shoulders but saying nothing; he suspected she had been without companionship for some time. He then eased the girl backwards until the back of her head was submerged in the large washing bowl. Warm water rippled against her ears, teasing the edges of her hairline. A little contented hum passed over her lips as she closed her eyes. He worked through her shortened locks with an oiled hand, the sharp point of his hook proving rather useful, pulling through the remaining knots and then coated it with a sweet-smelling ointment until he could pull his fingers through with neither effort nor strain.

“Thank you, sir,” Venger whispered, sitting up.

“Just call me Captain, or Hook, whichever you rather,” he ruffled her hair with a towel before taking a strip of dark blue silk that had once been his and put her hair into a ponytail, tying it rather adeptly into a bow, leaving the shortest locks loose around her face. He left the towel hanging over her shoulders. “You’re a boy now, I don’t want any slip ups; you’ll be safer as a lad. And you are to refer to me as ‘Captain’ at all times on duty. Now run yourself a bath – those pots are warming over there – and then put those on,” he gestured to a set of clothes slung over the back of another chair, again left dutifully by Smee.

Venger nodded obediently, waiting until the captain left the cabin to get up and lock the door behind him. There were enough pots to fill the small tub adequately deep. It was such a relief to shed the rags that hung off her body. The water was a little hot to start with but blissful all the same as she sunk into the tub. She couldn’t believe that she’d forgotten what warmth felt like, of all things.

She scrubbed herself clean, turning the water murky within minutes, greatly to her shame. It had been easy to forget how truly pale her skin was without all those layers of grime on top, yet that was likely what had kept it so.

The clothes left for her were befitting of any cabin boy. The tunic was white, loose with ruffled sleeves and concealed her mild feminine shape, while the trousers were black as night and came with a belt which she tied at the hips to keep the dips of her waist hidden. The boots left for her were a little big but their height on her calves prevented them from slipping, and finally she pulled on the dark brown waist-coat, leaving it undone. Satisfied and in better comfort than she been in over a year, Venger climbed up to the deck, and quickly caught sight of her new captain.

“I suppose that’ll do,” Hook said dismissively, looking her up and down as she approached with a demure gait.

They stood side by side, looking out over the prow of the Jolly Roger, with the whistling air in their faces, carrying in the scent of salt. Venger couldn’t help that same lightness taking hold in her face. The water glittered like a thousand sapphires under the sun, reaching out as far as the eye could see. This was the sight of freedom, she knew it to the bone.

Venger only wished to ask of her new life, all too keen to set sail and never look back, caring not if it meant rising early, scrubbing floors, washing clothes and seeing the same faces day after day. Anything was better than what she had; a wretched existence, and she knew with certainty she would never regret the choice to leave it behind.

There wasn’t anything left for her, nothing to hold onto, no ties to cut. A new life on a pirate ship would keep her busy, make her tired for the night, and maybe she would no longer be trapped to a constant circle of knowing there was something she couldn’t remember, trying to work her way back, and her thoughts collapsing in on themselves, the deeper parts of her being locked away, forbidden. 

“How old are you then, boy?” Hook asked, knowing some of his crew would be able to overhear.

“Nineteen, I think,” Venger replied. “I don’t really remember.”

“I had you for younger. Why don’t you remember?”

Light azure was met with a sorrowful, depthless gaze of dark hazel-brown. “I don’t remember a lot of things.”

The girl wondered if he was thinking of asking her about the story that came along with her, for there must have been one, but could understand how one’s sorrows were their own. In little slips, or in the dead of night, she would remember something, and for a second become someone fuller, with more pieces put together.

A silent weight bore down on his shoulders as it did on hers, she could sense that kind of burden. Perhaps that was why he chose to save me.

Her shortened hair was almost dry now and pleasantly light and feathery, tickling her cheeks and back of her neck. Its true colour, a light auburn, hued with gold and copper, revealed itself proudly and was pretty against the rich blue of the ribbon.

Every now and then, sparkling sea water would be sprinkled over her face by the ship bowing and gliding through the navy waves that stretched out all the way to the bright horizon. Taking a deep breath, she sought out the courage to speak again. “Where is it we’re going?”

The Captain scoured the ship, providing a moment before answering, and looking to her.

“Neverland.”

Chapter Text

Venger was quick to adjust to her place aboard the Jolly Roger, much to the satisfaction of both captain and crew, all the while they sailed under the second star to the right. It wasn’t as difficult as she’d feared to become eased with the unchanging faces of the crew, far better suited to that than a place constantly changing in such an unchanging way and full of strangers. None of Hook’s men minded her; she was quiet, uncomplaining and knew how to take orders in an almost soldierly fashion.

The girl’s keen sense of obedience and discipline struck the dark captain as odd – what use were those assets to a beggar? When she attended him after dark, bringing his food, cleaning his clothes, polishing his boots, and once, even his hook, her presence, a benign thing, never bothered him. She didn’t pester him with questions or ever make a fuss, always grateful for what she had been given. He’d made a few careful attempts to broach the subject of her past dealings with her, finding always that she couldn’t remember or couldn’t bring herself to speak of it. All that she did say, and did not say, led him to believe with a near complete certainty that there was far more than her life as a beggar that she wished to leave behind, things she so desperately wanted to forget, and so she had.

“Where are you from?” the captain had asked when they were alone.

“Nowhere,” the girl had replied, an answer both honest and untrue.

A few nights later, he had tried again. “You must have family out there; everyone comes from somewhere.”

She had glanced up from her task, eyes far away. “I suppose I must have.”

“Do you know why you cannot remember?” Hook had asked after a pause. “Did something happen? Did someone?”

She had been blowing out one of the last candles in the cabin, cupping the flame with a small hand and replied with the delicate scent of smoke in her mouth. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Somewhere she knew. The puzzle pieces were all there. Only, her mind was preventing itself from putting them all together.

Away from the dreary limbo that had been her life for nearly a year, Venger felt as though a suffocating weight of needing to run and hide had been shrugged from her shoulders; who she had been before did not matter to those sailors, nor would it have any reason to. She didn’t have to be shackled to the beggar girl anymore. She could be anything, anyone, she wanted. Live rather than merely survive.

When first introduced to the prospect of having full meals every day and a warm, dry place to sleep every night she’d been rendered speechless. The first impulse had been to think of something she could give back; she felt dishonest somehow for not having earned or worked for the simple luxuries. Hook had been taken aback, to say the least, and done his best to assure her that, while she worked for him, she’d never have to pay for food and a place to sleep while on his ship.

It had taken a few weeks that were drawn out on the confines of a ship, following that one single star that was bright enough to outshine the sun’s efforts, before the Jolly Roger finally breached the distant waters of Neverland. The air had grown colder.

As one dusk was slowly descending, Venger was tidying Hook’s cabin when she heard the call from above, “Land ho!”

With glittering eyes she dropped everything and hurried out onto the deck, scouting ahead while fastening her coat as tight as it would go. For the first time in weeks she could see her breath on the air. Hook was once again standing at the prow of the ship, as she had quickly discovered he was fond of, and through the ghosting mist lingering over the waves, Venger could make out the island of Neverland itself. She’d kept her questions about this strange place to herself, constantly wondering to herself, daydreaming as she performed her new duties as a cabin boy. It intrigued her uniquely; after her time spent begging at the docks, names and whispers of exotic and foreign lands had reached her ears, but never once had anyone spoken of the Neverland.

A sickly assortment of dread and trepidation simmered under Venger’s skin and she tried not to let it poison her ardent curiosity. A tight knot had formed in her chest, twisting and tugging like it was trying to undo itself but only succeeded in constricting further, or to pull her away.

Dense forest appeared to blanket Neverland’s landscape, no buildings, no port, no signs of civilisation. What had they come here for?

“I wouldn’t look so damn pleased if I were you,” Hook remarked shortly when she came to stand by his side and he noted that light in her features that wasn’t yet a smile.

I didn’t think I was, Venger narrowed with her eyes a fraction, sobering.

“We’re here on business with Pan. We do as he says and, in return, we get away with what we need. Not to mention our lives,” he warned her, voice grave and heavy.

“Pan?” Venger repeated. The word burned on her tongue however left only a deeper coldness in her bones, and a weight in the pit of her belly.

“He might as well be king of this infernal place. His word is law; no one has ever gotten away with defying him, you should learn that sooner much rather than later. With any luck he should be on the far side of the island, he rarely does much business in person. Word of advice, though, should you ever see him, don’t ever underestimate him – he may look like a boy but he’s a bloody demon,” Hook cautioned before sighing, his next words not directed to her. “I long for the day when we don’t have to come back here.”

Any excitement in her vanished entirely at his words, and the dread was left unbridled to leave her in its consuming grip. Looking out towards the island again, it appeared, as if suddenly uncovered by a veil, sinister and desolate. The air became ever colder the closer they drew, icy, burning the inside of Venger’s throat, and under her tousled sleeves the fair hairs of her arm spiked. Hook allowed her to remain there, out of the way, while the rest of the crew prepared to anchor the Jolly Roger and ready the little row-boat. Venger looked to the shore and saw a few figures emerging from the dark trees, only discernible by the torches they carried.

“There’s room for one more. If you want to see for yourself?” Hook called to her from the row-boat, already occupied by himself, Starkey, Mullins and Jukes.

Stomach dropping, Venger’s dark eyes darted over to him, one trail of thought struggling over another. Instinct commanded that she stay away from danger, for surely only a fool would walk into what only felt like a trap. But I didn’t leave everything behind and start a new life to stay hidden on the ship, she argued with herself. Before her mind could run off she pushed herself forward and leapt into the boat, earning a look from her captain.

“You’re either very brave or a complete fool.”

Fool it is.

The row-boat was lowered down onto the water, almost full with another three members of the crew, one of whom took to rowing towards the shore. Usually the rocking waves were fun and exciting – perpetually on the brink of taking flight – yet the waves off of Neverland’s coast only made her stomach churn and head spin. Maybe she should have stayed on board after all…

Closer now, her narrowed eyes could discern the individual figures, all hooded, save one. Every moment spent looking upon him tugged apart the seams of her skin, allowing the chill to crawl deeper until Venger was left with no reservation as to who the dark figure was.

“Gods,” whispered the voice of Mullins. “Is it him?” Along with him, Starkey and Jukes broke into fitful murmurs amongst themselves, widened eyes flickering from one another to the figure at the fore of the hooded pack, far beyond the bounds of caution.

Venger pulled the blue ribbon a little tighter in her hair for the sake of occupying her restless hands. She should not have come.

“Aye,” Hook spoke, grave and deep, silencing his crew, but Venger could see the awakened tremble in Jukes’ hands as he rowed the boat on.

A sudden breeze whistled along the waves.

Turn back…Leave this place…Venger could have sworn that a voice spoke, carried upon that wind; her brow furrowed and she looked sharply to, first, Hook and then all the fellow sailors. None had noticed a thing. By a fraction, her lips parted to speak though it was all too easy to remain silent. The little boat rowed on and soon she was looking almost over her shoulder to the direction the breeze had come from.

“What is it?” the captain’s low voice startled her.

Venger shook her head. “Nothing. Just thought I heard something.”

“Pay it no mind,” he cautioned, and the girl could tell that memories were dancing hauntingly before the eye in his mind. She did not pry. “Neverland is full of illusions and traps. Just remember to keep your mouth shut and your head down.”

Venger said nothing, only nodded and steeled against looking back. The chill had crawled deeper, the air in her throat nearly as thick as smoke. She breathed in thin breaths to keep from choking.

Please…the voice called again over the water, overpowering her resistance in an instant, her fear causing both Jukes and Mullins to startle.

“What is it?” one of them asked, their words rammed together, but Venger did not hear them.

Turn back…before it’s too late…

“It’s nothing,” Hook intervened, subduing them all into silence once more. He knew better than to hope that he had quelled their fear, his own seeping into the blood like the vile poison it was. He was grateful for his position at the bow.

The boat breached the sand with a gritted crunch, waves lapping all around. The captain was the first out, extending an arm for Venger to anchor on, and, for a moment, the tremble in those knees was unmissable as she climbed forward, biting back the sharp hiss that made it just to the threshold of her lips as she landed in the shallow water. Giving one last look to her, one that repeated all that he’d warned her of, Hook straightened and turned towards those awaiting them. Venger followed with a fleeting glance to Starkey, while Mullins and Jukes hauled the rowboat further up on the shore, like a young dog who feared to stray from their master.

The swallow was thick in her throat in the attempts to soothe her nerves, or, at the very least, conceal them.

Although not the grandest in stature among his pack, Pan stood taller than them all, with a grace and supremacy unsurpassed. Caught between boy and man, his frame was broad yet retained a lithe quality; richly coloured hair, darkened in the dusk, swept over the left side of his forehead, stark against the ivory of his flesh. He was a handsome creature, in Venger’s entranced eyes, unmarred by the pooling fear felt at the command of the most primal of instincts. Mouth shut, head down. Mouth shut, head down.

Those orbs of virid, bright with ascendency and a fierce intelligence, scoured the approaching pirates, the rest of his angular features bathed in the low swaying light of the torches, those behind him – dark, unmoving sentinels – awaiting command.

“I would have thought you’d have known better than to be late by now,” Pan spoke, imperious and unimpressed as Hook approached, “Captain.”

The pirate’s shoulders were taut under the long coat adorning them, drawn back and widened as if trying to protect his sailors. “Apologies,” Hook answered, only just succeeding in keeping the grasp on his tact. “The winds are not always kind.”

The corner of Pan’s mouth lifted, the movement solitary. “Indeed,” he commented with no effort to conceal his derision. His head then tipped, stare drifting past the captain to the small, scrawny figure standing – a little too closely, like a child – at the man’s side; “I don’t recognise this one.”

Venger knew it was too much to pray that the dark was enough of a shroud. The weight of his attention tied her to the spot, no better than a rabbit caught in the gaze of a wolf, knowing that the second her will broke her doom would be sealed, and knowing that she could not hold out for long.

“My new cabin boy,” Hook answered on her behalf, able to sense her blind terror. Not that he could blame her. “Picked him up on the docks.”

Giving a sigh that was half a chuckle, Pan neared with a sauntering gait, halting a few short strides away. The other three of their party shuffled back like rats but he paid them no mind. Those eyes, blazing and somehow too old – ancient even – for the youthful face they adorned, did not leave the near-quaking girl as he answered the captain. “I see.”

He doesn’t believe him, she feared, unable to help herself from looking to her captain. Anything to be rid of those terrible eyes. However, Hook remained still, and silent, as Pan drew closer still, his long legs carrying him with a quiet elegance, matched by a small sway of his hips in the unhurried movements. The muscles of Venger’s calves seared from the effort of holding down the trembles, the tendons of her delicate throat stark as her jaw clenched, and her hands ached to cling on to the captain’s coat.

“And what’s your name,” Pan all but cooed down to her, bowing at the waist, “little boy?”

Even lowered, Venger still had to tip her chin to look him in the face, dark orbs darting skittishly. Wetting her dried lips, she swallowed. “Venger.” To her relief, the residual huskiness in her voice left it a little deeper, however small and weak.

Straightening, Pan gave a smirk, baring a flash of sharp teeth that harkened an image of knives. He doesn’t believe me either. He knows I am false. What is there to stop him?

“Killian, a word,” he diverted in a heartbeat, seemingly oblivious to the little soul before him, and led the captain away before he could give a reply, a large hand splayed across the man’s upper back.

Venger stepped back, shoulder to shoulder with Starkey, his evident apprehension – although he tried to hide it – only worsening her own. All the while, the hooded figures had neither moved nor uttered a sound, their stares hard and wild beneath the garments.

Something had gone wrong. It hadn’t meant to happen that way. Two knots, one in her chest and one in the pit of her stomach, had tightened to the point of pain; if she didn’t fight to keep her strength, her body would keel. There was nothing to say, or do, only to wait.

Venger could not hear a word spoken between the pair, as she believed was intended, but watched as Pan, every now and then, touched or stroked the captain’s arm in a way almost amatory.

Suddenly the thin hiss of metal cut through the air.

With a shrill gasp, Venger’s focus darted to the dark vigils, finding one had drawn a dagger from their belt, and wore a grin than was somehow sharper. Besides her, Starkey slowly drew his pistol, keeping it lowered but in an iron grip, and moved a little closer to her. Yet despite her fright, Venger stood her ground.

Intimidation, that’s all it was. An assertion of dominance upon the intruders who were daring enough to set foot on their land. Or so she hoped.

Many wonderings of the Neverland had come to the girl over those weeks, never voiced, leaving her clueless in her expectations. But it was far from what she saw before her. Should a skirmish break loose, she doubted their chances, least of all hers. She trailed the short length of the dagger, weak shimmers of the day’s last light made visible by the subtle movements of its wielder’s wrist, all too aware of the thinness of her attire. The blade would pierce right through, right into her. Hook was right about this place. I shouldn’t have come here.

I shan’t make this mistake again, if we get out of here.

Her brief attempt to imagine travelling to far off lands with beautiful landscapes and fascinating people was shattered at the approach of Pan and Hook’s footfalls crunching softly in the gritted sand. The dagger was sheathed, the pistol lowered and tucked back into its belt.

“Playing nicely, I hope,” Pan remarked, sparing the most fleeting of smirks to his sentinels as he re-joined them. “Don’t be too long, Killian.”

The captain’s face had become shrouded, weighed down with a greyed graveness that was enough for Venger’s blood to run cold all over again. Fear made her eyes shine as they darted across every inch of the man’s face, searching.

“Captain?” Starkey spoke quietly, warily, head inclined. His eyes narrowed under his heavy brow.

Looking to each of his men, but not to her, Hook rested a hand on the pommel of his sword, chin bowed in a way it never usually was. He looked as though he might be sick. “Ready the boat.”

“But, captain, what about –” Starkey began.

“Ready,” Hook cut across, “the boat.”

The words should have brought relief; instead, Venger only felt a sickening shudder that enveloped every inch of her flesh. She began to turn back with the rest of the crew when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. For a moment, she shut her eyes, growing still, knowing, deep down, what was coming, and praying with all her heart and soul that it didn’t.

“Venger,” the captain murmured when those dark eyes lifted, accusing and clouded with barely bridled terror. “I’m so sorry.”

“What did you agree to?” Venger demanded without thinking. “What did you say?” It wasn’t in her to care that the pitch of her voice was rising too high, even for that of a young lad, or to know – somewhere far down – that he bore the look of a man who intended to pass a sentence that would haunt his conscience for the rest of his days.

Cupping the back of her head, Hook tried to steady her. “I must,” his eyes fell, fingers curling into the girl’s hair, “I have to leave you here, or all our lives are forfeit. All of them.”

“Why?” Venger implored, growing wild.

The rowboat had been turned around, ready to be pushed off from the shore.

“Because there is no other way. I’m sorry, Venger. I truly am,” the pad of Hook’s calloused thumb stroked over her cheekbone.

Venger opened her mouth to protest but the words caught in her ash-dry throat. I’m not a bargaining piece, she wanted to screech. How could he have offered her freedom, offered her the chance to begin anew, only to hand her over the Boy-King of some godforsaken realm? And for what?

What power did Pan wield to hold those fierce, hardened pirates in the palm of his hand?

“I trusted you,” she finally snarled out, face marred by an animalistic fear. “You promised me.”

“I know,” Hook faltered. “I had no idea –”

“Say goodbye, Killian,” Pan called reproachfully, drowning the other man’s voice. Without looking back, he muttered to his sentinels, “Take her.”

Terror consumed her.

The shortened locks, bound by the blue ribbon, whipped about her face as she tossed her head from the captain to the two approaching swiftly approaching.

No,” everything about her trembled, eyes glistening with one last plea.

Just before she was ripped away, Hook clutched tighter, firming his hold on the back of the girl’s skull. He had not considered himself a good man for a long time, but he had never considered himself a truly wretched one until then, repeating his sins, abandoning his honour and a young lass who had put her faith in him, fleeing with his tail between his legs.

“I will come back for you,” he whispered, vowing in his shame.

“Don’t you think it’s a little cruel to make another promise you can’t keep?” Pan taunted above the girl’s rising struggles as she was hauled away from her captain, having somehow heard every hushed word. “Pleasure doing business with you, captain. Do be on time next voyage.”

The two turned to go their separate ways.

“Hook!” Venger screamed out, a rip in her voice, as she struggled against the hands binding her.

Teeth bared in a snarl, she twisted her body and kicked out, striking one of the others not holding her, who was apparently enjoying watching the sight of the struggle, in the gut. With a winded groan, the hooded boy doubled over. Riled and raging, he lunged at her and delivered an equally hard swing to her stomach, and she might have collapsed if the other two of Pan’s thralls weren’t holding her. Instead of subduing her, the strike only enflamed her more. This time she kicked back at the boy on the left, heel connecting with his shin while her right arm tugged.

With all her waning strength she thrashed to look back, near to the threshold of the dark forest. The captain had stepped into the rowboat; Jukes and Mullins were pushing off.

None of them were looking back.

She couldn’t help herself. “Hook! Don’t leave me!” her screeching cries began to echo against the trees. “Captain, please!”

The oars of the boat had taken wing.

“Hook!”

Nothing but fire, pain and choking air surrounded her. She knew all too well it was over.

KILLIAN!

Chapter Text

The captive had given up most of her struggles, feet hurrying, stumbling and dragging along earthy ground, a dug in heel or wrenching arm fighting back before she gave up again. Even quiet and with not enough will to put up a real fight, the grips on her arms refused to relent. Her glazed eyes tried to follow the torch light and when it only succeeded in churning the sickness in her stomach, she closed them, allowing herself to be strung along like a puppet.

Abandoned and betrayed, she had nothing left once more, no possessions except the clothes on her back. The name Hook had given her, which she had cherished so much, now felt like a filthy swear word. That girl, short-lived as she had been, had been the adventurous, hardworking and curious cabin boy of the Jolly Roger, free as the birds that flew above them and the fish that swam beside them.

Forget living, just survive. Just like the old days…

She dug her heels stubbornly into the dirt, gathering up her energy for another fight. She begin to fathom what Pan and his wildling boys wanted from her, and she was in no hurry to find out. Adrenaline woken by what might await her fuelled the strength of her renewed struggles. The boys gripping her arms grunted against her persistence. She tried to ground her feet so that she could kick out at her captors, and with any luck get an arm free and go for their necks. Actually harming them never reached her intentions, just incapacitating them for long enough for her to get away. She didn’t care how far she had to swim to reach the Jolly Roger, or how soon she’d drown from exhaustion.

Her efforts proved again to be in vain; she barely managed to slow the boys down as they hauled her along through the darkened jungle, where not even a slither of natural light could crawl down. There was no order around them, chaotic and maddening. It made her nauseous every time she opened her eyes. Fatigue had nearly overcome her when they finally broke into a clearing, lit by a large campfire, and full of more boys. Huts and other little structures were dotted around the edge. And somehow, Pan stood there waiting for them, flanked by two others, as though he’d never been on the shore. A taller boy stood at his left, a club slung over his shoulder, blond of hair and nearly as skeletal as her. The other, on his right, was an inch or two shorter, a mop of black hair streaked with red sweeping down to his eyes. The boys at the camp all halted and stared, almost transfixed at the new face among them. Their ages ranged from older teenagers to only a few years out of infancy. It appeared to make no difference as they muttered eagerly to each other in small packs.

The boys holding her threw her roughly to the ground before their leader. She refused to dignify her fall with a noise of pain. Her fingers curled in the dirt, eyes on Pan’s large feet, fixing on the pointed toes of his boots.

“Pity you couldn’t be a boy,” the Boy-King drawled lazily.

Venger cast her dark eyes up at him, and he read her face within a second. “What? You think I’m as dim-witted as the fools Killian calls his crew? You,” he breathed, leaning down, “are a girl.”

An outbreak of whispers and mutters circled through the group of boys. Venger wondered when they last saw a girl, and supposed it had been some time.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“Oh, did I forget to introduce myself? How uncivilised of me. I’m Peter, Peter Pan,” he gave another mock bow before looking to the boys who’d thrown her to the ground, “Is this how we treat guests?” He made a ‘tsk’ sound and offered a hand to the girl.

Venger eyed him distrustfully for a moment before slipping her own dainty hand into his, and he pulled her up effortlessly, more easily than Hook had done. In the brighter flames, she could observe his features properly. She knew she forgot much, but she knew she would have remembered seeing beauty like his before, and hadn’t.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for you,” he murmured, looking her lazily up and down. “A very long time.”

“That’s not possible. H-How could you ever know that? Why me?” Venger’s eyes fluttered in nervous confusion.

“I know a thing or two about you,” Pan smiled but it was everything a smile shouldn’t have been, “Sabre.”

The girl backed up instantly, eyes blown wide. Her chest locked and she couldn’t breathe.

Shoulders rigid like marble, she nearly spluttered in trying to regain her composure. No. That’s not possible. He can’t know that. No, no. Not even Hook knew that. Does he know my other names too? My real name? No. How can he know that?

She looked directly at him with horror, what are you?

“How could you know that? There’s no one left,” she rasped, almost feeling faint. How could he know something that, half the time, she didn’t?

“Would you rather I called you Venger? Makes no difference to me.”

Lowering her head, she accepted the name and mumbled, “No.”

“Well, Sabre it is then,” Pan nodded evenly.

“How do you know of me?” her voice snapped in a hurry, tight in the chest and throat. That land… she began to remember a few frayed strings, I went there to run. Because no one would ever know me.

No one can know me. No one. And until that moment, her efforts, whatever spurred them, had been successful.

The impossible boy’s eyebrow and mouth tilted in a mirroring curve, a small slant in his neck, “Oh, dear. Have I hit a sore spot already? All in good time. After all, you must be rather tired.” His arm extended to offer his hand, and her hesitation came as no surprise. Taking hold of a flame would have carried fewer consequences. “You can come with me nicely, or we can have you dragged, and bound. Your choice.”

It took several pulses of hot blood in Sabre’s ears for her reluctance to cave, barely stretching over a moment, and she lifted her hand, hating how it visibly trembled, to slip into his. The fingers that curled over were long and cold, locking her hand up tight. It left Sabre wishing she weren’t so slight and weak, along with the rest of her. A few weeks had hardly been enough to repair a year’s damage to her body. Most of her muscles, once strong and lean, had wasted away in a most desperate need to keep the rest of her going. The bones beneath, once supple and healthy, always felt brittle and stiff.

The rest of the boys looked on, striking her as like hungry wolves, as Pan led her away from the camp and into darkness. It didn’t hinder him in the least, and Sabre found herself quickly having to catch up to keep close to him so as not to stumble or run into anything, though it didn’t save her from stubbing her toes several times or being scratched up her arms through her ruffled sleeves.

“Where are we going?” Sabre hissed as a particularly rough branch scrapped against her cheek, fingers clenching on his palm.

Pan gave her no answer; she didn’t ask again. They at last came to a large, lonesome rock formation that was tucked away in the foliage, bathed in a clean silvery shimmer from where the canopy of the trees parted. A small makeshift door guarded the entrance. Releasing her hand, Pan crouched to open it, tugging the vine-made rope to until the way was clear and wound the rope around two little hooks to keep it open. He gestured for her to go in, wearing that knife-like smile, “After you.”

The look Sabre gave him was of sceptical nervousness. It reminded him of a small animal, one that was afraid of everything. Every instinct warned of a trap, and stepping into a dark, confined space hardly appeared like the wisest choice. Pan then gave her a nod intended as reassurance. Readying herself, Sabre ducked under the low-hanging rock, stepping into the cave within, knowing that any real choice was beyond her grasp. The darkness froze her blood. She waited for something horrible to happen.

Firelight erupted around the cave as candles and lanterns sprung to life seemingly of their own volition, stealing a violently startled gasp from her lips.

It shouldn’t have been possible.

“You don’t have magic where you come from?” Pan quipped, arms folded over his chest when Sabre spun back to face him.

She looked to the large torch that hung from the wall to her right. The flame danced brightly, licking the stone but leaving no mark. “I don’t remember,” she returned quietly.

As she looked around, the cave was actually rather cosy – there were no shackles, no dried blood, no instruments of torture. She felt foolish for spooking so readily. It contained crude furniture, which was probably considered luxury compared to what she’d seen briefly at the clearing, tools and utensils, and even a mattress with blankets that didn’t look filthy at all. Her eyes fell on the walls around the reaches of the flame light. Carvings and paintings, and long lines of tally marks, had been added long over the years, it seemed.

“Well, try to remember to be decent in the morning,” Pan drew back to the crude door. His eyes were hard as he smiled, “Night, night. Sleep tight.” With that he was gone. The door battered the earth with a rickety sound and, as Sabre sprung forward, she realised that there was no way to open it from the inside but there two were dents in the stone where a corresponding pair of hooks had once been.

Her palm hit the wood, crouched down, expecting it to wobble and creak with frail old age so when it didn’t budge an inch, the dam holding back her panic fractured and broke. Scrambling to her feet, Sabre threw herself from one length of the cluttered cave to the other, a bird trying to escape a glass cage, her hands feeling, eyes searching, for any other way out. Her logical mind knew she was hopelessly trapped before her heart would let it sink in, but when it did, she sunk down in a heap onto the mattress that was harder and colder than it looked.

What in the world had happened to her? That morning she’d woken up in her little cabin, had her breakfast and started her day by bringing the captain’s morning meal to him and making up his bed as she’d fallen into the quick habit of doing. Now, she was in some godforsaken corner of existence that defied all sense and order, run by a pack of wild boys who could intimidate a hardy pirate crew simply with their presence. Every plausible question ricocheted through her head, which ached with the frustration of silence.

No one has called me Sabre, not for years…I don’t think. But I think it’s years. How could he, of all people, have known it? Was that magic too? Everything reachable in her memory told her that she’d never encountered magic before, and even the notion of attempting to try and claw deeper brought her mind to collapse. Many fears drew from ignorance, although Sabre supposed that enlightenment on magic and its uses may well replace old fears with new ones. Pan had ignited flames as easily as breathing – what else was there that he could do?

Where had he learned it? Or is it a gift? Surely if simply anyone could learn magic it would be everywhere. Sabre hadn’t seen it; then again, Pan had teased around the absence of magic in her world. But how could it be in one land and not another? There was nothing left that made sense.

Except for the fact that she’d been trapped in a cave with no way out. But as to why – that was beyond her.

Too worn to care about the mattress, Sabre’s weight slumped over and down, a lumpy pillow under head. She didn’t mind. Any pillow was better than none. And at least the cave wasn’t cold.

Being able to sleep fully through a night was something she still couldn’t do, so unrealistic a hope that she’d given up on it. She’d become so used to being woken by noise or the night chill. It hadn’t happened often, but more than once people had nudged her, some less gently than others, to make sure she wasn’t dead; the harder ones, closer to kicks – that hurt – told her that she must have looked closer to a corpse, huddled and unmoving in the dark. The scurrying of rats and alley cats, the barking of dogs and heavy hooves of late riders had become no strangers to her nights. She never turned her back on the road she slept on, wherever it was. Sometimes drunkards would slur at her, point her out and send her running. Because somewhere along the way it had become easier to laugh at a person than to help them.

The safety of the Jolly Roger had given her a gift of easier sleep. Her slumbers were still light and easily broken, but deeper and longer than they’d been for as long as she could remember. How easily is Killian sleeping tonight? she wondered. He’d told her his name in a peace offering to coax her trust. It had only left her miserable with guilt, and she’d had to tell him that, more often than not, she couldn’t remember her own name; it was a truth she could find if she searched hard enough, and not one she could bring herself to part with. The sealing of trust between them had been her confession that there were many things she didn’t want to remember and that if she did, something dreadful would happen. Most of the time her mind was complacent with its emptiness, but sometimes it forgot to forget.

Sabre was unsure when she finally fell to sleep but when her eyes next opened all the lights had burned out and there was no magical boy to relight them. Her form curled in, pulling the blankets by her feet over herself. She still couldn’t sleep on her back. Twice more, she woke to complete darkness; the third time she could make out the early whispers of light lurking in around the hatch-door. The fourth time, Sabre was roused by its opening, eyes squinting at the morning.

“Sleep well?” Pan chirped brightly as he ducked inside. “Not a morning person?”

“I’m fine,” Sabre grumbled dryly, arm unsteady as she braced to sit up. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she left the blankets by the pillow and followed Pan out into the morning.

A flood of vibrant green jungle awaited her, long vines curled around trees like ivy as if choking them; thick leaves bowed low, hanging themselves heavily in sorrow, or reverence. There were no roads or paths in sight, still nothing that pointed to any signs of civilisation. It was nature who reigned, yet the image of kind nurturing Mother Nature couldn’t be further from the mind. Sabre swallowed the saliva in her mouth to try easing the burning at the back of her throat. It didn’t.

Pan neither offered his hand nor waited for her. His long strides were hard to keep up with, with her natural gait. Embarrassingly soon there was a tensed burn working its way up her calves and thighs. It didn’t occur to ask him to slow down. Now in his presence, it didn’t occur to ask anything.

The same clearing didn’t look quite as threatening in the balm of daylight. It was alive with bustle as Pan’s boys busied themselves. Some were playing a variety of little games in their small packs, some were sharpening arrowheads and other weapons, repairing tools, three appeared to be tending a cooking cauldron over a fire-pit and the rest were consumed with other tasks of their own, talking quietly among themselves.

They’re just children.

The scenes playing before Sabre’s eyes abruptly halted, awareness of her arrival sweeping around the camp in a matter of seconds.

A few of the younger of the boys, the smallest of whom barely reached her waist, scampered over and tried to crowd around her like she was a new shiny toy, reaching and grabbing for her. She stood stock still, little hands prodding, poking and pinching curiously, noting how Pan didn’t intervene. There wasn’t aggression in their touches, just clumsy roughness and greed. They felt the fabric of her clothes, trailing over the buttons of her waistcoat. The taller ones made a reach for her tied up hair, and if they couldn’t reach prodded the softness of her cheeks, which burned at the sniggers of the older, more beastly looking boys.

“Have you never seen a girl before?” Sabre stumbled out awkwardly.

One little boy, who was fiddling with the buckle of the belt on her hips, peeped up at her with big grey eyes. His face was dirty and his hair riddled with mud and fragments of leaves and twigs. “Not for years and years and years,” he chimed, an eerie sing-song rhythm attached to the flow of his words.

Sabre let out a breathless laugh, shaking her head, akin to disbelief, a little more relaxed as the boys grew gentler. “How old are you?” He couldn’t be older than six.

“Doesn’t matter,” said another boy, physically a few years older, who was flicking the ends of her ponytail. “We never grow up here. We’ve been this old since we can remember. And we have seen girls,” he went on to state proudly to the first little boy; “You’re just too stupid to remember.”

“I am not!

Starting to lift her arms to gently back the boys away, Sabre looked around for Pan, not wanting to be in the middle of a growing argument between the two boys. “Is-Is that true? That they don’t grow older?” her skittish eyes found him leaning against a thick tree trunk close by, one ankle crossed loosely over the other, bearing most of his weight, arms again folded.

The boys around her scattered like ants as Pan moved to straighten himself; they were far gone by the time he’d taken his first step towards her, returned to their previous activities. He circled her closely to take her in properly. She grew more stiff, like a pillar of glass, when he slunk behind her; he noted the way her fingers curled in, but not in an effort to subdue herself.

“You’re a quiet one. Where’s all that fight gone, hm?” his voice was low, deep at her ear, a bow in his spine to bring his lips down. Shudders crawled up Sabre’s back like spiders. She forced herself steady and Pan completed his circle. “The others were always so full of questions, just one after the other. Nothing but noise. One talked so much I had to cut her tongue out,” he smiled as though having shared an amusing anecdote. “She gave me such a headache. Couldn’t tell you how pleased I was when she failed my little test. You can ask some questions,” he all but interrupted himself, supressing the chuckle in his throat. She was white and gaunt, tight lipped. “I’m sure you must have some. You all do.”

“What is this place?” the voice that left her was more timid than a mouse’s, but she cleared her throat as subtly as could be done and tried again. “Why are there only boys here?”

They were questions that Pan didn’t seem to mind; they were reasonable, to the point. With a soft incline of his head, he beckoned her to follow him to somewhere they could sit and speak. It piqued his interest when, instead of perching on the boulder, one regularly used as a seat, Sabre slid all the way down to the floor and used it to slump her back against, drawing her knees up close to her chest. As if nothing were amiss, the scrawny girl looked up at him patiently.

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of Neverland, have you?” Pan paused briefly to let her shake her head as he knew she would; “Some lands have stories of it, some don’t. But none of those stories even scratch the surface. This place is home to some of the oldest, most powerful magic in creation. It used to belong to the Old Fae folk, now it belongs to me. But the power I took over was finite. It’s the same power that allows us never to grow up or grow old, but it’s dying,” he checked to see that she was following. Her eyes were a little too puppy-like for his taste but they held a certain intelligence that sharpened them, suggesting to him that it wasn’t foolery that led to the seemingly often lapses in her memory that left her looking so…helplessly lost. If she was going to be interesting then he could probably forgive the puppy eyes. He could practically read the question like ink on parchment behind her eyes – what was her place in it?

“But we can come back to that,” he deflected coolly like she had actually asked. “In answer to your other question, when I first came here, Neverland was filled with Fae and mermaids and other natives, but I had no real friends of my own to play with. So I made some, and here they are. I call them the Lost Boys.”

“Why the Lost Boys?” Sabre inquired, keeping her tone unassuming.

Against her worries, Pan’s chuckle was soft and for the first time his teeth didn’t make her think of lethal blades. “Because that’s what they were. I travelled from land to land, called for them and they came. Now, Neverland is their home,” her momentary relief was dashed by the darkening of his features, his canines appearing sharper than the tip of Killian’s hook, “forever.” 

She could feel the pull of his dare, and refused to take the bait.

She cleared her throat dryly.

Pan’s eyebrow arched a fraction. “Thirsty?”

Mutely, Sabre nodded as if admitting something she was guilty of. It became easy for him to guess that she hadn’t been accustomed to having much. That and her lack of shock or revulsion to the conditions in which they lived informed him that she would adjust better than many of those who had come before, who were used to fine clothes, feather beds, sugar and spice and all-things-nice. And Killian’s crew were hardly a soft lot.

Pan looked for the nearest boy. “Slightly,” he beckoned, tone befitting a lord fetching a servant. “Bring some water.”

Sabre watched a boy with a face a little younger than hers, most features obscured by his hood, put down the short knife and arrow in his hands and scamper over to a very large water pail that had several wooden cups scattered around it. He filled one to the brim and brought it over, spilling, crouching down to give it to her. The water drizzling down the rim was cool to the skin. It looked to be clear, clean.

“Thanks,” Sabre uttered quietly, already bringing the cup to her lips. The water ran down her throat like a tiny waterfall, soothing the raw burning, and she swallowed it all down, gulp after gulp.

“Want more?” Slightly asked. This time the girl shook her head.

“Do the honours, would you?” Pan framed the order in a request, adding before Slightly could put together an answer while he rose to his feet, “There’s a good boy.”

A little part of Sabre wanted to call after the Boy-King as he moseyed over to the two boys who had stood at his flanks the night before, right across the camp. He had only left her with more curiosities. An implication had been clear enough – she, like apparent others before, had been brought because power of the island was dying. How can power die? And what am I meant to do about it? There didn’t seem to be a comprehensible explanation of how it was all linked together.

What made her grow cold was the question she next asked herself; where are those others? Pan had referred to one specifically as a girl, a noisy yet very unfortunate girl.

The only girl there was herself. Naively, Sabre wanted to believe something other than what was staring her in the face.

The toe of Slightly’s boot connected lightly with her calf. “You gonna sit there all day? Come on.”

Still holding the wooden cup, Sabre got to her feet and dusted her backside. There was an edge of annoyance in his sigh as he plucked the cup from her hand and tossed it back over by the pail, knocking over a few other cups but no one took notice. The Lost Boy proceeded to take Sabre around the camp, which bled out beyond the next confines of the clearing. There was one small shack for food supplies; Nibs, Hayes and the twins were the best hunters, so she was told, and Tootles and Farley were the best cooks, but Slightly warned her not to depend wholly on them. If she wanted food, she could get it herself, or take it. He added that most of the water on the island was safe to drink but there was usually some water in the pail if she got desperate.

A second hut, larger, cruder and not really much of a hut at all, was a storage for weapons. Slightly explained that all weapons on the left were ownerless and used at random but those stored, far more neatly, on the right were not to be touched, unless she wanted to lose a hand, or worse. He added that if a weapon was just laying around on the floor it was fair game. With a few exceptions. Felix’s club or Rufio’s knives, for example, though Slightly remarked that they’d seldom be careless enough to leave them lying around for anyone to take. Unless they were daring you to.

He gave her a belt from the third hut, which had clearly been two shacks framed together, used for general storage and bedding, to exchange for the one she had on. The new belt was hardly as aesthetic as the one Killian had given her, but she had to admit it was far more practical. Just behind the right hip a water-skin was secured, on the hip was a little pouch that a small ration of food could be stored, and further around the back was a slightly larger one. On the left hip was space for a one-handed weapon, and a third pouch behind that. He took her back to the weapons hut, asking if she’d done much fighting before. She shrugged rather gloomily, saying she hadn’t needed to for a while and couldn’t remember properly, and he looked at her oddly.

Sabre chose a slender dagger, the handle carved in ivory bone, the blade itself about five inches long. She strapped it to her belt with more adeptness than someone who’d just claimed they couldn’t remember using weapons. I’m sure I’ve handled weapons before, she muttered in her head, her certainty just out of her reach. I must have done…

Slightly then showed her where the Lost Boys slept. There wasn’t much cohesion in that either – pick a cot and fall in it when tired, and try not to get walloped. Sabre suddenly became grateful for the cave, although she couldn’t recall the way back. The boy’s last advice to her was not to go wandering off on her own, not until she knew the island well enough to know exactly where to stay away from, and even then it wasn’t the cleverest thing to do. It had been known for boys with years of experience to venture off and get mauled to death by some unholy creature. He finished by asking if there was anything she didn’t understand, and when she shook her head in silence, he took to pointing out the different boys with a casual remark that she would likely be with them for some time.

Sabre didn’t ask.

She was grateful that Slightly let her sit next to him in the alcove of one of the many large trees surrounding them and took to showing her how to sharpen her dagger. She surprised them both when, after watching for only a few seconds, she was able to mimic him perfectly. “You must have done this before,” he said to her, impressed and relieved at her evident competence, before they fell into silence.

Whetting her new dagger became a secondary task, hands tapping into something locked away, and her focus transitioned into attempting to recall all the boys Slightly had pointed out to her.

There are so many of them, Sabre sighed inwardly, so, there’s Felix and Rufio – the ones with Pan – Nibs, Curly, Tootles, the twins, Devin, James, Prentiss, Ted, Hayes, Farley, Lukas, Spencer, Austen, Archer, Tobias, Sketch, Hawken, Vasha, Julien, Lance, Pips… She mentally pointed each of them out with no real idea of which ones she was guessing correctly.

She noticed how their packs evolved throughout the day, as fascinated by them as they were by her. Likely more so. If she was correct, Hayes and Nibs had been the ones to drag her off kicking and screaming and returned her panicked violence with a malice she could never possess. Yet when she looked down at the likes of Curly or Tally, the boy who had played with the buckle of her belt and, admittedly, rather frightened her, she saw whispers of innocence. They were just children who had to look after themselves, it was no wonder they had developed into harsh wild creatures.

For a good while, Sabre’s empty stomach growled. Not brave enough to go searching through the food shack, she bore it without complaining. Slightly had briefly left her to fetch a jerkin that needed repair. He worked quietly next to her, no stranger to a grumbling stomach. Sabre was at the point at contemplating when her hunger would overpower her nerves when one of the younger boys on the cusp of entering adolescence – Curly, if she was correct – approached her carrying a plate molded from clay. Upon it was a torn chunk of bread, a handful of red berries and a slice of salted meat. Sabre wished her mouth hadn’t watered so quickly.

“Here,” Curly gave the plate to her, seeming caught unaware by the thanks he got. He stood expectantly waiting.

Belly tightening uncomfortably, Sabre looked to her somewhat indifferent guide. He gave her that same odd look. “You’re new. You don’t get something for nothing,” he stated irritably. “Doesn’t have to be much.”

“Oh,” Sabre put the plate down, hurrying to think of something – anything – that she could give back to the boy.

Then, reaching behind her head, she pulled at the rich cobalt ribbon tying up her hair. It unravelled smoothly and her short coppery hair fluttered around the shells of her ears. She ironed it out with the pads of her thumbs and held it up to Curly.

“What is it?” he asked her with big eyes, eager to take it so he could investigate.

“It’s silk,” Sabre told him, running a hand through her loosened locks. Curly mouthed the foreign word to himself and continued fiddling with the ribbon, features lightening.

It would seem I’ve made a friend.

Chapter Text

Sabre filled the proceeding hour with watching Curly play with Killian’s ribbon while pacing her eating slowly, with neither wounded anger nor cold objectivity able to hold back the pangs of guilt. Perhaps if she returned a small favour the boy would give it back, unless the exchange didn’t work both ways because she was new. Still, the child looked happy enough.

Slightly had left again for a while to go on a short patrol, and Sabre’s nerves couldn’t find ease until he returned. There was the smallest flush of warmth to his cheeks when he slid down in the alcove next to her. The scent around him was woody and boyish but, to both her abundant surprise and relief, not unpleasant. Far from it.  

He caught the girl giving him enquiring looks, catching on to the question she didn’t yet have the comfort to ask aloud. “We go on patrols to make sure that everything’s all in order, and to let the rest of the island know we’re here. Pan likes to keep everyone reminded of who’s in charge. Most of the natives leave us alone, usually, but it’s good for morale to keep doing them,” he explained to her with a calmed manner, no trace of earlier irritability scratching in. “It’s all about power, really.”

Everything is, Sabre agreed profoundly, rubbing the back of her head near the base of her skull and feeling a dent, mind already wandering away to ponder the clandestine natives of Neverland. Pan had spoken of mermaids and the Fae folk, yet neither sounded particular sinister by nature, unless her presumed connotations were incorrect. But musing about the nonsensical island was soon put aside in favour of that which couldn’t be kept at bay for long.

I still haven’t any idea of what I’m here for. I’m not even sure I want to know, or that I want any part of it. Again her wounded anger was no blockade to the truth – Killian hadn’t wanted to leave me here. They were all scared stiff, she recalled the paled faces of the usually hardy Jukes, Mullins and Starkey.

And that horrible story of that girl having her tongue cut out for simply talking a little too much. A shudder escaped her, vile and bloody images surfacing, the face of a wailing girl with liquid garnet gushing down her lip and chin. Pan, remorseless, found it amusing and it was that which struck most deeply.

He said she’d failed. Failed how? Failed at what?

What happens to me if I fail too? And what if I don’t?

Sabre skimmed the clearing; in catching the mixed looks of a few Lost Boys, it became quickly apparent that several of the faces she’d counted before were no longer there, replaced with a new variety of features, some curious, others hard, distrustful. Pan, and his two closest, were among the absent as well. Along with any hopes for further enlightenment.

Accidently, Sabre eyes caught those of a particularly unpleasant looking boy; not in a sense of ugliness but the way his eyes glared like simmering coals under heavy brows, lip curled in a sneer, made her skin crawl. She dropped her gaze immediately, silent at the mouth, chaotic in the mind.

Footfalls thudded closer. Sabre’s spine rounded in as her fingers squeezed in hard enough to hurt, powerless to fight the natural response against what might end poorly for her with the wrong move. Suddenly a sword landed at her feet with a heavy clatter. Air caught in her throat, Sabre jerked, looking up to find the nasty boy looming over far too closely, deliberately.

“Sharpen that,” his demand was laden with disgust, a look she was more than familiar with. It stung no less for that reason.

“Leave her alone, Lukas,” a boy passing behind her aggressor sighed; Sabre would later recall his name as Nibs, one of the best hunters and longest surviving Lost Boys.

“Fuck off,” Lukas snapped over his shoulder as Nibs carried on with whatever he was doing, not bothered enough to answer back. In the brief moment of Lukas’ distraction Sabre hurled a pleading look to Slightly. The boy hadn’t even looked up from what he was doing. “Oi,” a harsh kick came to her calf, several shades into painful, “I’m talking to you. I said, sharpen that. Or I’ll melt your eyes out.” Lukas turned with a heavy-browed glare and stalked away.

Not knowing if it was a bluff, but not wishing to find out either way, Sabre reached out for the blade and picked up the same whetstone Slightly had provided for the dagger, detesting the shake of her fingers as she adjusted her position to work it along the much longer blade. Across the camp she could hear what must have been Lukas and other Lost Boys sniggering nastily. Sharp teeth sunk into her lower lip until the pain drowned out enough of the noise.

“Don’t worry,” came Slightly’s voice, tone lowered, “He’s a prick to every new kid. That lot usually are.” Sabre missed the gesture of his head but knew exactly who he was pointing out. She could still hear them, so bit down all the harder. “He thinks it’ll get him Pan’s attention,” there was a notable scoff accompanying the statement.

The boy was slightly startled to hear the girl’s voice, however quiet, “I’m guessing that’s rather important.”

“What is Neverland except the worship of Pan?” A little saying, passed down from one lot of Lost Boys to the next. A little saying that spoke the only truth one need to truly heed in Neverland.

“What’s your approach for getting Pan’s attention, then?” Sabre kept her voice small, unsure of how to make it otherwise, and not wanting to.

“I don’t have one,” Slightly said bluntly.

Liar, Sabre nearly smirked to herself, but said nothing to refute him. His denial was part of it; she suspected that he’d seen the lack of success of boys like Lukas and so, logically, opted for an opposing attitude, allowing himself to go along quietly and relying on actions rather than bullying bravado. After all, he’d been the one Pan had called over and instructed to do the honours.

The sniggering boys got bored with a little time, especially as Sabre carried out her task with deft ease, handling the weapon almost lovingly. It was no bother that tending the blade would take some time; she was eager to remain occupied for as long as possible.

As dusky colours began to bleed across the sky like running paint, the central fire was stoked until it roared up like a voiceless beast, the flames grasping to claw up at the sky. Finished with the day, the evening began with three boys filling the air with a tribal percussive rhythm, mild in tempo and volume. Having been consumed in her chore, the sudden drums caused a slip of hand and the tips of Sabre’s three middle fingers caught the edge of the newly sharp blade, sharing a third each of a fine red line. The pain vocalised itself in an acute hiss and she put the three digits to her lips, quickly sucking the wounds and spitting out the blood. Clutching her fist, she realised both Curly and Slightly were nowhere to be seen, and then decided she’d long had enough of sharpening Lukas’ sword – that she had dubbed as ugly – but hesitated. She was unexpectedly keen to watch, as the tempo of the drums altered, how several of the Lost Boys formed a circle around the fire. They pounded the ground with their booted feet, flowing like whirling water, adding a second hammering beat with the hollowed out sticks in their hands. Simply watching them, dancing round and round, half hidden behind a fiery veil, was enough to dull the pain, and curb the edge of her nerves.

Lukas was not among the dancing troop – unsurprisingly, the image of him didn’t really fit – and, after quickly scouting the rest of the camp, peering through never-stopping bodies, spotted him, alone. She took her chance and, giving a wide berth to the dancing boys, brought his sword to him. So she never saw a tiny white flower rise up from the soil where blood had mingled with earth.

Feeling intimidated despite exceeding his sitting height did next to nothing for her already stunted pride. The blade balanced carefully in her palms as she extended it out. “Here,” she managed not to spit out.

“You sharpened it?” he drawled, unmoving.

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” she scoffed, the agitation seeping into her demeanour.

Lukas looked at the small girl with a face that intended balefulness but couldn’t quite wear it properly. “You should watch how you talk to me.”

“I doubt that anyone finds third rate intimidation ploys that appealing. You might want to try something a little less pathetic next time,” Sabre tossed the blade at his feet and turned her back. Oh shit, what did I just do? I’ve fucked myself now…

Barely three steps forward, a filthy hand clawed at her hair, fisting it. The flesh of her scalp screamed, a real, raw scream erupting as the hand yanked, hard. The drums declined messily, boys exclaiming as Lukas forced the slight girl towards the fire. The primal rush did little to enhance her strength as she fought blindly to force the grip to relent, and through her own grunts and whimpers she distinguished sounds of jeering and excitement, eagerness to see a show.

A lucky swing struck Lukas’ eye with curled nails. The onlookers laughed and whooped. Now so close to the fire, Sabre became lost to hysterical struggles, a whispering fragment of memory breaking free – she’d been burned before – not in little accidents, but because someone had wanted to hurt her.

She’d been burned and it wouldn’t ever heal.

The whisper unveiled a splinter of memory that would be snuffed out before it could be comprehended – that the worst sin of her existence had been caused by fire.

Lukas forced her to the knees and pushed her face towards the fire, strong enough to catch the wild struggles when she fought to push back. The heat spiralled into searing, scorching and furious. Beneath her squeezed eyelids, Sabre could feel the fragile matter stutter towards the brink of succumbing to the blaze, the rest of her body freezing in white-hot ice. She waited to feel the flames’ touch.

Then silence.

Human voices subsided in a mute stroke. Even the fire held its breath, not uttering one crackle.

“Let her up, Lukas,” Pan’s voice cut through the dark like a death sentence, clear, lethally calm.

The pressure on the back of Sabre’s scalp eased as she was pulled away from the flames’ deadly kiss, choking in the back of her throat, body still in shock.

“Now, let go.”

No gentleness or roughness, Lukas simply opened his hand and let the girl fall from it. Already down on her knees it wasn’t far to fall, and Sabre just about caught herself on her forearms. Heat lingered like a sting, rolling up and down her cheeks. Gathering breath, Sabre sat up, perched on her shins, and wiped the slickness on her forehead. Slowly, she looked, with swimming eyes, to her unlikely saviour. Pan had a way of looming taller than the trees, features menacingly shadowed, with Felix and Rufio standing like deathly vigils at his flanks. It wasn’t her pinned under their gazes.

Well, he’s got Pan’s attention now…

“Felix, would you be so kind as to escort our guest back to the cave?” Pan turned to the pale thin boy, voice flowing and coldly cordial, yet Felix returned an effortless grin.

“But of course.”

Sabre kept her head low, blood still thinned and simmering, as she was helped up with a calloused hand and shadowed the boy to her dwellings. He was kind enough to light the torches circling the cave before leaving her for the night without a word. Where some boys had taken a rather benign attitude to her presence, and others quite malign, Felix had regarded her with cool indifference, if, really, at all.

It was no bother. A silence shared wasn’t something she minded or feared.

But now alone, Sabre was quick to descend into melancholy. Even as a beggar on the streets, there had been people about everywhere. There’d always been noise of some sort. It was a lonely silence that frightened her. Too rattled to find rest, her feet led her all around the cave, fingers tracing over the some of the carvings, realising then that names were among them; some she recognised, more she didn’t.

Towards the back corner, sat a little inlet that had gone previously unnoticed, shrouded in darkness the torchlight couldn’t penetrate; reaching for the lowest hanging torch, Sabre went to look. It wasn’t until she’d brought the light closer that a thin hanging cloth became visible and, as she pulled it back, realised its purpose was one of privacy. A small privy had been built into the inlet, at the floor was a shabby box of moss and soft leaves and a bucket that still had some water in it, however old. Sabre physically shrugged, Silver linings.

Once relieved and slowly cooling, she collapsed onto the mattress after re-hanging the torch and taking off her new belt, curling into a ball, blankets unneeded.  Closing her eyes, she began the patient wait for sleep. Thoughts could be such devious, uncontrollable things.

With no recollection of sleep finally descending, Sabre was startles to be roused again, consciousness summoned by the sound of weeping. Knowing that, surely, it could not have been a dream, Sabre propped herself up, listening out. Sobs and snivels, barely stifled, echoed poisonously in the air, unhindered by the stone surrounding her, and the warmth of the torches had gone away.

It was haunting, horrible.

Paled, Sabre pulled the blankets to her chest, legs drawn up tightly. Was she losing her sanity so soon? Whether or not she could have escaped the cave on her own, there wouldn’t be enough bravery in the world for to move an inch and brave the night. She couldn’t understand.

It was an awful sound that left an ache in the chest.

Please make it stop, make it stop.

The noise was unnatural, a part of the air, and the land. Sabre’s hands clasped over her ears.

I was right before, I knew from the moment I saw. I knew something was wrong. Her instincts had cried of a realm cold and dark, a terrible realm lurking just beneath an illusion. Sabre sank down onto her back, internally screaming for the silence she usually reviled, knowing neither what to do or think. She then rolled over and curled up again, protectively bowing her head low, eyes tightly closed. There was a sudden longing for Killian’s cabin and its warmth, for the gentle and lulling rocking of the waves that cradled the ship in its arms, and the freedom to climb out into the air and stare up at the starry expanse of the night sky.

Anywhere…Take me anywhere but here.

When she next woke, light was creeping in around the edges of the door, a little brighter than the earliest rays of dawn, so she’d slept an ounce later. Silence had been restored. The cave was still cold, though a couple of torches had endured the night, and the prospect of getting up was unappealing when under the shelter of the blankets, even if she was thirsty and hungry. The thought of returning to the camp – worse, of running into Lukas again – left the idea of never coming out again somewhat preferable. And the spinning of thoughts never stopped.

Not until the noise of hauling vines and of smoothed wood sliding over stone – that made her bolt upright – echoed from outside. Ducking through the door, silhouette stark, came no one Sabre had been expecting. Instead it was Pan’s crimson-streaked right hand, Rufio. Objectively, he was, by all means, a beautiful boy. He moved with a deadly silence and poise, graceful enough to out-strike a viper. The smile he gave her was no less frightful, yet a certain malice was lacking in his dark eyes.

“Pan sent me for you. He wanted me to give you these, as well,” he said, tossing some clothes by the bed. “Thought you might want to change out of those. I’ll be outside; don’t take too long.”

Alone again but with the daylight now pouring in, Sabre forced herself out of bed, the cold biting like a nasty little animal. She changed quickly, not giving her new attire any proper inspection until fully clothed again. To her surprise she found it quite to her liking; the deep reddish-brown tunic had a slanted hem and shoulder. Her left was bare, the fabric of the opposing, solitary sleeve reaching the curve of her tricep. The length of the jagged hem on the left hung just below the hips but, on the right, it fell almost to her knee. It was well-fitted, latching onto her scrawny figure, with a slim cord tied at the waist rather than the hips, for there was no need for her to hide her sex anymore. The brown trousers also hugged her limbs, the fabric flexible and warm.

She laced up the cord a little tighter and tied on boots of a darker hue that reached her low calf. She finished with strapping the much thicker belt around her hips, threading her fingers through coppery tresses to pull apart a few knots, and threw the short cloak around her shoulders, securing the collar fastening. It was impossible to pin down why the weight of a weapon on her hip, even a small one, simply felt so right.

When was the last time I carried a weapon? Sabre wondered as she slipped out into the forest, but she couldn’t remember.

“Much better,” Rufio approved, attention fading as he lifted a hand to dust a delicate tendon of the girl’s neck with two fingertips, eyes momentarily entranced before he righted himself, “I can’t stand the look of pirates.”

They looked just fine to me, she countered as he moved off, glancing occasionally over his shoulder to make sure she was keeping up. Every time he would linger, just for a moment, on the feminine column of her throat.

By that point, Sabre hoped that she would, probably, be able to find her own way back to the cave, with more and more features of the route becoming familiar. She certainly couldn’t say she was fond of being escorted everywhere, taken to and from a cave that was essentially a prison.

“Did Hook ever have you?” Rufio inquired with no prerequisite, stride reduced to fall into line with the flushed and stuttering girl.

“Have me? Have me what?” she parroted, neither voice nor eyes able to remain still. But then his meaning dawned before he could think her totally naïve. “Er, n-no. No, he didn’t. He didn’t do anything to me – with me. W-Why?”

The laugh he gave was unsettling. “A few of us have had a bet going – can a pirate be seduced? But what would be the point if the prize isn’t worth winning? Just wondered if you would know.” The red cheeks and averted eyes quietly placated the envious and covetous murmurs in the deep streaks of his nature. Saved him a threat.

It was a very similar scene as the prior day that they came upon – Lost Boys in packs going about tasks, errands or games, some leaving to patrol or gather food, or to play games elsewhere. No tears, no sorrow.

Only one clear difference blared out, and the colour flooded into Sabre’s cheeks drained like water from a skin sliced open.

“Oh,” Rufio murmured, standing close, “and Lukas won’t be bothering you anymore.”

Sat in a miserable heap, a stick functioning as a crude crutch lay down but still in hand, Lukas’ shoulders hitched in dry sobs, for he had no eyes to cry from.

A flimsy cloth had been tied around his head. Blood was still drying on his face. No attempt had been made to wipe it away.

“What happened?” Sabre spun to Rufio, imploring.

The boy, whose red streaks looked more than ever like blood, gave a simple shrug. “There are consequences for trying to harm what belongs to another.”

I do not belong to Pan, she was wise enough to keep to herself. But gods! If I hadn’t pissed him off he wouldn’t have tried to burn me, and he’d still have his eyes. Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut? Why didn’t I walk away? How is a cripple supposed to survive out here?

“Hm, I would have chosen a different rag. Grey was never his colour,” Pan mused with crooked sincerity, having appeared beside Rufio out of nowhere as he seemed to quite fond of doing. Between long fingers he twirled a little white flower.

Rufio gave a chuckle, while Sabre gaped in disbelieving horror. “You’re in a good mood,” the boy observed, grinning at his king.

Pan sighed contently, eye on the flower still, “Why shouldn’t I be?” He sent a sharp grin back Rufio’s way.

A tart scoff expelled itself before Sabre could hold her tongue, “He’s miserable.” Her voice was neither as loud nor strong as intended. Speaking out, so soon, perhaps at all, was not wise choice, she knew that even as she’d done so. But it was sometimes easy for caution to be overpowered by the impassioned heart.

The smirk on Pan’s face was broad, revealing a flicker of pearly teeth. He looked past the shorter boy, “You’re defending the one who attacked you and tried to burn out your eyes?”

“His life will be utterly wretched now,” Sabre took a steadying breath, hands fiddling at her sides. He would need constant care, and she had rather high doubts that any Lost Boy would commit themselves to a cripple, especially one who’d fallen out of grace with their leader.

“Yes, that was rather the point.”

“But he’ll die without his eyes.”

“Again, rather the point.” Sabre quietened after that and the Boy-King continued to roll the delicate flower stalk between his thumb and forefinger. “Have you had your breakfast yet, pup?”

The barely warmed blood in her veins re-froze as the unsteadied thudding of her heart skidded nauseatingly to a halt. Recurrence was no deterrence to its brutality. Except that time, another tiny bridge was revived in her memory, stirring deep at the core.

“I’m sorry?” Sabre gasped, almost apologetically as if she’d misheard him. She swallowed to clear the ashen sensation.

Pan fought back the fullness of his grin. Oh, it was a good day. “I asked you if you’d had your breakfast yet.”

“No, no,” the girl stuttered, tongue darting out to wet her lips, “I mean, what did you call me?” She remained carefully courteous for fear of him mistaking the abundance of words as disrespect or a challenge.

Pan had angled his body towards her, standing adjacently with a tilt in his hips. “I believe you heard me. Why, don’t you like it? I thought it rather suited you.” There was a dare in those virid orbs again. She refused the bait. No more was said, and Sabre found herself standing awkwardly alone a few moments later.

Lukas had just about stopped crying when she looked his way but was no less miserable a sight to behold. No one was going near him. Sabre hastened across the camp to the food shack and got her hands on a basket of bread. Taking two pieces, the bread somehow still soft and fresh, she lightened her step and approached the blinded boy, mute and rigid. She slipped one piece of bread into the pouch at her hip before grasping the boy’s dirt-shaded wrist and tugging it out, palm faced up. He made a startled noise, and Sabre realised just how pitiful he’d become. He tried to pull back, body curled inward but she thrust the bread into his hand and pushed it back to him before he could snatch away from the grip.

“Who’s there?” he whimpered but the girl had already risen and turned away to fetch a drink from the water pail and eat her ration.

Perched on a thick, surfaced root, Sabre practised savouring her food but wasted not a single crumb. Fewer boys remained in the camp than the day before. Fewer boys, fewer eyes to see me. But any hopes of remaining unnoticed for as long as possible crumbled only a few meagre minutes later. Approaching in a pack with Curly, Tootles, Prentiss and James, which alone was enough to set her nerves rife, Slightly, carrying two short spears in his hands, offered the weapon to her.

“Get up. We’re going to start showing you the island. You’re gonna need to know where’s safe, where isn’t, if you’re going to survive out here long,” he said, while Sabre’s fingers tentatively curled around the shaft of the spear.

Returning a brief, compliant nod, she tagged along to the pack, a half-rhetorical wonder of why it took five armed Lost Boys to acquaint her with Neverland rearing its head. Their party set off from the west, the sun at their backs, on a footpath carved with age and repetition, where nearly all the plants had been trodden away into the mud and suffocated. Slightly took to describing the kinds of animals that might be run into while the other four conversed amongst themselves; he spoke of tigers, bears, lions, wolves and crocodiles that would succeed in dragging off a careless or unlucky Lost Boy, or a stray native, every now and then. It was little reassurance to her when he added, upon seeing the rather unsettled pallor of the girl keeping stride to stay close to him, that deer, boar, elk and rabbits also dwelled on Neverland, and that somehow a perfect and abundant balance was always kept within the animal kingdom.

“Where are we going?” Sabre asked in hope of distraction.

“Mermaid Lagoon. Figured we should show you that first in case we move sometime soon,” Slightly explained, and looked over his shoulder to his companions, “When’s the next drop off due?”

“In a few days, I think,” Prentiss was the one to answer helpfully.

“It’d better be a bigger one than last time,” Tootles interjected shortly.

“They claim their crops have been failing,” Slightly reasoned with an ambivalent shrug.

Tootles uttered an incredulous ‘hmph’, “So they say.”

“You know full well Pan wouldn’t let them get away with that.” A mutual agreement concluded the topic.

Their path was now slanting downwards. Which means a climb on the way back, Sabre thought with mild disinclination. But at least they’d run into no bears or tigers or lions, or any other unpleasant inhabitants. There was a tiny part of her that nearly wanted to, just to have it proved that they were not alone in the chaos. What she truly wished to see were the Fae folk and the mermaids, the chances of which she was sceptical about, but she’d settle for any earthbound beast.

“Who-Who’s they,” she ventured to Slightly.

“The Piccaninny tribe. Pan’s had a trade deal going with them for centuries,” her guide explained, the corners of his mouth tilting up, “We’re hardly farmers.”

There’s no reason why you couldn’t be. With all this land and all this time. Though I suppose I still know all but nothing about this place.  What’s more, the image of wild beastly boys tilling fields, nurturing crops or livestock, were two puzzle pieces that would never fit together.

It was close to midday by the time Mermaid Lagoon was within reach. Hot and tired, Sabre was relieved at the sight of water and the cool breeze carried in by the sea. She couldn’t see any mermaids, not that she expected them to be merrily waiting for them and waving. Killian had spoken once or twice with distaste regarding the seafaring creatures, mentioning their talent for sinking ships and luring sailors to their demise much like mythical sirens, though not the same. Nonetheless, she was curious to see one – from a safe distance.

“We’ll see if we can find the mermaids,” Curly sang, scampering off with Tootles up the rocks to get a scouting view of the lagoon.

The three older boys ambled towards the deep curved shoreline, looking for stones to throw out into the water, while Sabre crouched to untie her boots, laying the spear down. Her feet were unpleasantly sweaty as she slipped them off and rolled up her trousers. She waited for the inevitable stench, but it never came.

“You ever seen a mermaid before?” James asked her, hurling a smooth stone into the water.

Sabre tiptoed forwards until she was ankle deep in the blissfully cool shallows. “No. Heard about them though. Have you?”

“Aye, they look pretty but they’re vile. Don’t give us too much trouble though because they get dea-” James suddenly stopped himself, redness flooding his cheeks.

By accident, Sabre saw a thunderous expression on Prentiss’ face. “Because they get what?” she asked in a small voice.

“Nothing,” Prentiss snapped, making her flinch in a startle more than anything. “Let’s go see if they’ve found anything,” he strode off after Curly and Tootles, and James quickly followed with a lowered head and hunched shoulders, voice unabashedly deprived of excitement.

Grabbing her boots, Sabre hastily retied them and jogged after her companions. What was he about to say? He was about to let something slip. Something I’m not supposed to know. She watched both their faces carefully while climbing up the rocks with ease – aboard the Jolly Roger she’d been allowed to climb all the way up to the Crow’s Nest a number of times, and rock was much sturdier than rope. She’d absolutely loved it, even though it had exhausted her weak body. James and Prentiss had taken off at an impressive pace but Slightly was good enough to wait for Sabre to dust the sand from her feet, tie her boots and fetch the spear from the sand.

“Don’t worry,” he said, a softer edge to his voice. “We leave them alone, they leave us alone. Probably doesn’t need to be said, but don’t ever go swimming here.”

“There!” she heard Curly call from not far away in place of her answer.

The pair caught up with the other boys, who were peering or pointing down into the fiercely lapping waves. In that side of the lagoon the waves grew choppy, darkening in the shadows to a dismal grey. “Can you see?” Tootles said. Sabre followed the line of his pointing finger.

Beneath the waves she caught sight of a flicker of lovat scales that momentarily shimmered in the light and then a swell of dark and flowing hair. Oh my…

She crouched low to get a better look, glimpsing another set of scales with an aqua hue. Tootles and Curly began to edge forward, slipping down the rocks where the water met with land while the others remained on the higher ground. As they drew nearer to the lowest rocks, the mermaids began to splash with their tails, bursting the surface of the water. Sabre found a place to sit, making herself comfortable and continued watching the beautiful, yet deceptively lethal creatures, while Slightly spoke more about the nearby landscape. And the rest of the afternoon passed quietly by.

It was early dusk when the six of them drew near to the eastern camp. The slope on the way back had proved difficult, more so than Sabre wanted to admit. She had found herself mourning a time when her form had been fit and healthy, before malnourishment had chipped it away over the past year, a time in which her body had always suffered. With any luck she’d live long enough to repair the damage.

They had all been quiet on the journey, so there was nothing to hinder an unearthly melody that whispered among the trees and vines, an intoxicating blend of drums, and pipes.

“What is that?” Sabre asked, voice unanticipatedly dreamily, the dark brown- hazel of her eyes suddenly glazed over.

Nobody answered her, for the others appeared as drawn in as she was, if not more so. Their paces quickened; she nearly had to break into a jog to keep up with them, no longer caring about the hastening fatigue in her legs or the breathlessness. Breaking into the clearing, the great fire blazed furiously. A horde of boys danced around the formidable flames, banging pieces of wood together as they whooped and sang wordlessly, some pounding the ground as if their legs were the very roots of the earth, completely enthralled in the music. Her companions were suddenly no longer by her side, slipping in between the other Lost Boys, spinning and yelling like possession had taken hold. The rhythm pulsed through her very bones, urging to join the dance.

Through the fire, Sabre’s hazed eyes fell on the Boy-King himself. The pipes she’d heard were at his lips, a jovial bounce in his step, enthralling the Lost Boys like little puppets. Following the pull of instinct, Sabre drifted towards him. The fear was there, no doubt, but for the first time it was no hindrance. For a moment she was struck dumb by his dark beauty, the grace with which he moved, so assured of himself, close to intimidating, and she almost stopped out of timidity. She was about to retreat to the outskirts of the clearing when Pan caught sight of her. Lowering his pipes, he flashed his teeth at her. “Have a fun trip, pup?”

“It’s beautiful,” Sabre bypassed, staring at the pipes like the most beautiful creation in all life, a slight slur on her words.

Immediately Pan’s eyebrows furrowed, followed by his knife-smile that went right over the girl’s head, “You can hear it?”

Sabre laughed like he’d said something incredibly silly, “Of course, I can! Why wouldn’t I be able to?”

Pan approached her, ivory-hued skin reflecting the golden firelight, “These pipes are enchanted. Only certain people can hear them. Interesting,” he mused with a creased brow.

“Why interesting?”

“Don’t you worry, pup, don’t you worry.”

Chapter Text

Neverland was a place of secrets. That much Sabre knew.

A place of unspoken words and half-truths, of games and jagged knives, lusts and lost lives. It would tantalize the soul, allowing it to know something was out of place but never what it was. Paranoia would make prey, and prey would be hunted and claimed.

The following day, Sabre had been led further around the island, stretching further to the south-west, at one point having a close encounter with a hulking mother-bear, and returned to the camp shattered beyond measure. Exhaustion had never been enough to capture a whole night of peaceful sleep, especially not when the crying came. It had not been discussed at any length; simply that night Sabre took a cot next to Slightly’s – even though it was quick to become clear that they provided little barrier from bodies huddling together for warmth – after slipping away to relieve herself away from the eyes of any male. It wasn’t something she needed to do nearly half as much as before, an odd but highly welcomed convenience, despite it making as much sense as the lack of foul stenches from the clearly filthy bodies, including her own.

Falling asleep had been easier with the soft crackles of the dwindling, yet still warm, fire and the faint whispers of boys talking to each other in the dark, and the absence of Pan, Rufio and Felix had come as no surprise. But, when the crying stirred, Sabre knew doubtlessly it had been no frightful illusion, no haunting call from the other side of the abyss in her mind. It had begun quietly, enough to wake her slowly, sniffles trying desperately to be suppressed against dirt stained pillows and pelts.  She looked first to Slightly’s cot, only to find him gone, then, as she wondered where he might have disappeared, to James, who lay on the other side, tucked into the bodies of Curly and Farley.

His eyes were still closed, hair tousled under the pulled up hood. Perhaps he’d not been roused, or was so accustomed to the bitter sound that he simply took no notice anymore; Sabre couldn’t imagine that – taking no notice of such distress. The darkness, and the way so many of the boys slept together in bunches for warmth, made it impossible to tell who was crying. It remained quiet that night, unlike the clogged sobs and blubbering heard before. Infants, children, adolescents, all had reasons to cry. Because they were hurt or afraid or bereaved; there was nothing out of place perhaps to cry over a cut arm or loss of a friend or because they were hungry and had nothing to eat.

But for so many to cry in the dead of night when supposed to be peacefully asleep. What is it that children cry for in the night? Sabre asked rhetorically, reasoning slowly to have it sink in bone deep, for the answer had already presented itself – their parents; guardians, carers, ones they loved in their darkest hours. Children cried for their parents, for someone to come to them. Except no one’s ever coming. She knew that better than many. No one ever came. That’s why it was so difficult to ignore. If she were braver, and had her place within the ranks of the Lost Boys, she would have. Only, she was still a complete stranger, still in utter ignorance.

It must have been at least half an hour later – even the minutes were wily and near impossible to pin down – and Slightly still had not come back, all the while Sabre’s mind clawed around her skull, ever restless. She relayed the night on the beach, over and over. What had been said, what hadn’t, what had been done. Killian would not have abandoned her after taking her in and saving her life; she’d been quiet and efficient on his ship, and they’d spoken in the late hours of the evening. Well, he’d talked, mostly, and she’d listened contently. And then he gave me over without so much as a protest. What does that tell?

And what is Pan’s side of it? She thought of what little he’d told her. His knowledge of names he had no place in knowing, his appropriation – or usurpation – of power from the Old Fae, the finiteness of that power, and how it was dying, leading her to think, for the dozenth time, of how she could possibly be connected to any of it.

Filling her lungs with breath, Sabre flexed the length of her spine before rolling back onto her side and curling in, yet another torrent of thoughts breaking through flimsy defences.

Did he mean it when he said he’d come back for me? And it was then that she realised that, amidst it all, she very much wanted him to come back. It was no point of consequence that she bore no ill will to the Lost Boys; it had been the life on the Jolly Roger with the dashing Captain Hook that she’d chosen. The choice between life and death hadn’t come into it, she’d wanted to run away more than anything. She’d had enough of going to sleep and not caring whether or not she woke again. Everything had been new, limitless.

She knew somewhere deep inside that the war within her dual mind would have lay down its weapons and retired peacefully, in the end. It would turn away forever from the chasm it could never cross, in an endless paradox by the fact that it would never allow itself to. She’d known the pursuit for the lost memories would have stopped at last, and left her free.

Just as she knew, deep down, even then, that she would never be free again.

When morning breached the horizon, James and Tootles noticed an unsettled demeanour in their female companion, and asked if she had fallen ill. Touched that they’d noticed at all and asked after her, Sabre was struck with a wave of guilt for what she’d been thinking but assured them nonetheless all was well.

Devoid of appetite, she rolled up the bedding of her cot, concurrently dreading and hoping to find Pan sometime between dawn and dusk. It was clear that the Boy-King’s frequent disappearances were nothing amiss, and he would never be found if he didn’t want to be. As she’d more or less expected, the Boy-King was absent that morning as the Lost Boys woke to the day, and she knew there was no use in asking any of them where he was or when he’d be back. She’d just have to wait. In the meantime, Sabre got herself some breakfast purely to pass the time and keep her strength up, picking at it slowly. In what would be the first of many surveys of the camp, dark eyes fell on Lukas, sat huddled and all alone.

Dusting off the mostly clean clay plate, Sabre returned it with the others and, having spied a free clean cooking pot and space at the cooking fire, went to rummaging around the food hut. In one of the many sacks she found a good supply of ground oats left. The assuring knowledge that a drop off was soon due pushed aside her timidity, and she doled out a few handfuls into the bowl, picking up a small spoon on the way before taking a jug of milk in the other hand. Somehow it had not curdled and had not the slightest odour, fresh as the animal that had given it.

Sabre knelt before the cooking fire, laying the bowl and spoon at her side, the pot’s cleanliness double checked for a little of milk to be poured in. As it warmed, she dashed back to the hut in search of any salt. In luck, she took a pinch and scattered it among the crushed oats. Once the milk was warmed, it was poured gradually over the oats and stirred in.

Taking the pot from the fire, always cool at the wooden handles, and with the full intention of cleaning it, Sabre stepped light on her toes towards Lukas, but his hearing had only grown keener. “Is someone there?” there was a tremor in his voice, distrustful, desolately afraid.

Sabre knelt down, and whispered, “It’s me.”

The way his leg kicked out startled her back. “Get the fuck away from me. Just stay away.” A hoarse anger ripped from his throat, tearing at the end of the voice that barked her away through a clenched jaw.

No one had gone near, neither spoken, to the blinded boy, rejecting him as Pan had rejected him. The only fate for a cripple in a place where physical robustness was necessary was a doomed one. “You’ll starve,” Sabre spoke softly, not yet moving closer. She spooned a little of the gruel and held it close enough to his mouth and nose that he could smell it, feel its warmth. He swallowed but hesitated. “I should have walked away,” she offered in a whisper.

Lukas’ dry, cracking lips wobbled apart. Inching forward on her toes, Sabre put the flat of the spoon to his lower lip as gently as possible, patient as he opened a little further until she could feed the spoon in. The taste clearly didn’t matter, it was food.

Still, her spirits were lifted when he muttered after swallowing, “Not half bad.” And she continued to feed him.

When the gruel was gone, Sabre slipped away with a quick promise of returning and put the bowl and spoon with the cooking pot she’d used, then slipped back to the food hut, that time taking a round, ripe fruit from one of the baskets. She brought it back to Lukas and put his in hand. “Save this for later.” Straightening, Sabre witnessed Slightly’s return to the clearing.

A certain arduousness accompanied his step, though he didn’t look visibly injured or unhappy. The opposite, if anything, though especially unkempt. Focusing her gaze, Sabre made out an array of bruises and bites on his throat, a redness to his lips, and the way he rolled his head from side to side told of a stiff neck.

Prentiss passed her. “Don’t stare. And don’t waste food.”

His words left her feeling like a scolded child, who’d done something stupid. Had it been a waste? And whose sake had she done it for?

Which was better, the kind act or the pragmatic act?

Someone had to do something, she thought as he continued with whatever it was he was doing, she didn’t care. James was significantly more amiable when she asked if there was somewhere she might wash the pot and bowl; he directed her to a small stream less than a minute north of the camp and slipped in that she could find a cleaning brush in the hut, then asked if she’d be willing to come on a patrol. Despite wanting to ask, simply, why, Sabre tentatively admitted there was another matter she had to see to first.

As with so many of her interactions, she walked away feeling an utter fool. At least finding the stream was no trouble. She cupped her hands and took a drink, cool fresh droplets running down her chin. It occurred then that she was still dirty even if she somehow didn’t smell foul. After a quick face wash, it only took a minute or two to scrub the bowl, pot and spoon.

A sudden chill dropped in the air. She lifted her head.

“Something on your mind, pup?” Pan’s smooth voice sounded from behind her.

Spooking with a gasp, Sabre dropped the spoon and turned her upper body sharply, legs gone rigid. Her heart was reluctant to settle. There’s always something on my mind. Hastily she picked up the spoon to put it back in the clean bowl, as if sure he’d be displeased with the mess she’d made.

Yet he simply continued to watch with eyes that did not suit a human face, hips and head tilted. Like she were some curious little creature. Deciphering her.  

“I–I was wondering if I could ask you something?” Sabre’s voice grew quiet, the utterance hurried out of apprehension, a soft blaze of red splashing over her cheeks, gaze unsettled. Something, singular, that was a falsehood. In the pause between his answer, the girl unfurled her legs and got to her feet, still small and shadowed.

A few steps forward closed their distance to one more appropriate of conversation. “So long as you’re done coddling the crippled. Ask away,” a threat of warning cast a looming presence over the seemingly cordial answer. A subject, not truly free to speak in front of their king, despite its insistence. A honey trap for the unfaithful or wavering.

And Sabre did waver. She gripped one hand with the other, speaking softly, carefully, “Why is it I’m here?” I know no more than the night I first arrived. What is it I’m wanted for? Or am I forbidden to know? “I-I can’t help,” she furthered to the way a slight but discernible sharpness came to Pan’s features, and she knew she’d dipped her foot into poisoned waters, “if I don’t know what it is to do.”

Pan took a long step closer, nearly backing Sabre into the stream, “You weren’t ready to know. I’ve had to make sure of…certain things.”

All she wanted to do was ask what, why, when and why again. Except she keenly remembered his distaste for excessive questioning, and the vile fate that could await. Therefore, her tongue was still. But it did not stop Pan from reading everything behind her eyes; he smirked – a remotely intelligent one, at last. The big puppy eyes were forgivable, he decided.

His eyebrow quirked as she willed herself, with visible internal struggle, to speak again. “I’m not sure I’m the one you need.” There was no hiding of the apology in that meek voice, whether genuine or intentionally placating, or both, it made no difference to the Boy-King. Unlike unfortunate others before, Sabre had learned much instantaneously, but if she thought it would secure everything for her, she couldn’t have been more wrong. Coupled with her doubt, it was her veiled way of saying what she actually wanted to – I don’t want to be here.

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” Pan asked in derision, pretending no different.

“I’m sorry…I-I didn’t-”  

“Oh, do shut up.”

And he’d been in such a jovial mood.

Rendered mute, looking now like a smacked puppy, Sabre pressed her lips together forcefully to keep the tremble out of her chin. Gods, why couldn’t she know when to drop a matter and walk away? The bones of her skeleton shivered beneath skin, blood and muscle as Pan began to pace in long, languid strides.

“Ever since Killian so graciously handed you over to me,” he spared a quick glance to witness her reaction to the mention of that name; it made him fight a smirk, before proceeding, “you’ve been under careful watch. For signs that you might survive the trial. What signs? - I hear you ask. Well, where would be the fun in telling? And what matters is that there have been signs, more than I’d been hoping for. You following?”

Sabre nodded.

“Good,” Pan’s chirp was cold. “The power of Neverland is dying, and until a more permanent solution is found I need the blood of a Fairest Soul to restore it. When you surrender your blood to me – and you will – I’ll know if you’re the little piece that fits into this grand puzzle. And if not…well, you’ll become the latest in a long line. That’d be rather disappointing, given all these good omens. Understand now?”

Wetness stung the girl’s eyes. “I want to go home,” she whispered, bowed at the head.

Barely a flinch left her as he stepped close, towering above even as he leaned down, not a single touch required to immobilise the girl. For a split second Sabre thought he was about to kiss her, but he bypassed her lips to growl into her ear, “You don’t have a home. You haven’t seemed to grasp this yet, but no one comes to this island without my permission; no one breathes on this island without my permission,” he heard her stop breathing, “and no one gets off this island without my permission. So you…are going nowhere, understand?” Pulling back, he took notice of how colourless her cheeks had become.

I should have stayed on the ship.

In return, the whites of her eyes had lost their paleness to a hue of weak, irritated red, eyelashes clumped together and inky; still she refused to acknowledge the tears by wiping them away, simply looking down and away. Pan supposed he should admire her effort to maintain her dignity, and be grateful that he hadn’t got his hands on yet another bawler.

Still the knife went deeper.

“Do you think Killian picked you up off the docks purely out of the goodness,” he sneered the word with nearly as much distaste as he had for tears, “of his heart? No, it was all part of fate that he would bring you to me. Do you think it was purely by chance that his first voyage brought you here?”

“I don’t believe in fate,” Sabre whispered, her voice bottled and betraying the ever silent battle beneath. She didn’t want to believe it was possible; it was a coincidence, an accident, a terrible accident.

“Well, it certainly believes in you,” he retorted coolly.

At a loss, all hope in her was crumbling, yet numbness descended like a choking fog. A long line of others, he’d said. No names, no faces. She nearly laughed, devoid of mirth, at the irony. How many others had stood in her place, and how had they discovered Pan’s intentions for them? Had they been as dumbfounded? As afraid?

Mayhaps it was insanity. That was why all those before had failed. Because it was mad, nonsensical. How fairness could be decided or judged and overcome subjectivity, Sabre had no clue.

But what was one to do in a world of barbaric madness when there was no way out?

“What’s stopping you then?” she asked monotonously, no longer connected with her thoughts.

“It doesn’t quite work that way, silly pup,” Pan shook his head mockingly. “You must give your blood willingly, either out of genuine wish or broken submission; either is fine by me.” There was little doubt as to where his preference lay though. “Oh, but then you will become connected to the island, and to me. For eternity. If you are the one I’m looking for. Didn’t want to leave that bit out,” his mouth spread in a grin, smaragdine eyes glinting as if really made of cold, hard emerald. He saw pain and hurt, and he laughed.

“How?”

“Where would be the fun in telling you everything? You hardly have the right to be greedy. Now,” that boyish mischief dissolved into the true face of the demon beneath, “let’s play a game. Do you like to play hide and seek?”


 

Sabre’s lungs heaved, choking, her throat so raw she could almost taste blood in her gullet. The air was untouchable ice once more, the forest and jungle disturbingly sinister, branches twisting and clawing in to snatch at her, the place of nightmares, the way she’d first seen it. A nightmare that she would never wake from, not until she never woke again.

The island played around Pan’s wishes, just another one of his enthralled minions locked within his being, and appeared how he wanted it to be seen. Arms pumping furiously at her sides, Sabre forced herself on, relying only on her adrenaline for the feeble strength of her body had long abandoned her.

The Lost Boys, formerly companions and guides, now closed in like a pack of wolves, howling and yelling wordlessly. Wolves killed on the run. They’d sprung her hiding place and sent her into flight, heading west. Now they were on her tail; she dreaded to think what Pan would have them do if they caught up to her. Her bloodshot eyes searched for any tree she could scramble up before the Lost Boys got to her and rest there before taking off again. I can hardly win this game unless I manage to hide forever. And the Lost Boys would hunt her down until they exhausted themselves to death, if Pan ordered it.

Knowing her vitality was rapidly failing, Sabre sprung up into the nearest tree that appeared possible to climb at a fleeting glance. Her hands were clammy as she gripped the branches with strength could be clung onto, hauling herself up. Keep going. Keep going. The rest of her mind descended into numbness for there was no time for any other thoughts. A terrible burning sensation coursed through her quivering muscles, the strands of hair around her face clinging to her skin.

“Getting tired yet?”

A sound between a gasp and a whimper tore from Sabre’s lips as she jerked her head up, finding Pan leering down at her from higher branches, poised effortlessly in a predatory crouch. Suddenly his arms shot out, viciously colliding with her collar, and the next thing she knew her back hit the ground with a sickening thud. Winded and head spinning, Sabre went limp, helpless to supress the swirling hot nausea that took hold. There was no way she could spring back to her feet and keep running, she knew that.

With the agility of a cat, Pan leapt down from the tree, landing perfectly. He rose to his full height and came to stand over that breaking form, prowling around her motionless body. Sabre dully registered the band of Lost Boys bursting through the foliage to surround them. She blinked stony eyes back to the demon-divine.

Pan showed his blade-like teeth in a monstrous grin, “Let’s play, boys.”

Two pairs of hands – belonging to Hayes and Nibs – hauled Sabre up onto her feet and she was pulled along by the pack, their leader at the head. She would have tripped over the many roots if there hadn’t been rough hands around her arms, and at times her legs almost went completely limp. It didn’t take long to realise where they were headed, as the ground sloped down. Her chest tightened but she didn’t bother putting up a fight. The first night had more than proved the futility.

“Who is it? What’s going on? Where are you taking me?” Sabre recognised Lukas’ frightened cries from behind her, and when she got the chance of a clear line of view, she saw that Prentice and James were dragging along the blind boy. They’d turn on each other, too, like beasts, if Pan ordered it.

With the jungle suddenly behind them, Sabre squinted her glassy eyes against the brighter light, too used to the dappled shade and shadows of the verdure. As she was pulled over the rocks she’d climbed over only a day ago, her floppy limbs banged and grazed against the jagged rock, splitting open tender skin under the fabric of her trousers. The pain struck the nerve that ignited the anger. Her top lip curled in a slight snarl at the pinching grip of the two boys, and it was then that she offered some resistance, attempting to tug with her arms or successfully land an elbow on soft skin and vulnerable organ. Hearing Lukas’ pained groans and whimpers reared a ferociously protective instinct, one that had not stirred for a long time.

Pan halted at the edge of the rocks, eyes lingering on the calm waters below. “James,” the summons cut through the silence like a crack in ice.

Sabre was brought a few strides from the Boy-King; she watched as the timid-faced boy gingerly stepped towards his master, head lowered. Pan drew the bone dagger he kept on his belt and turned on the beckoned boy. He was only a couple of inches taller than the Lost Boy but now appeared to tower over him. Wrenching James’ hand forwards, Pan lined the sharp blade under his fingers and sliced upwards.

That is for the slip up about the mermaids,” he growled amidst James’ stifled groans and hurled the bloody digits into the sea. A strong hand wrapped around the boy’s neck to pull him close. “I would have cut out your tongue but,” Pan’s lips curled into a sneer, “I like it too much.”

James hadn’t cried out, but forced his jaw to lock to muffle the agonised sounds. On the brink of throwing up the contents of her stomach, Sabre’s widened eyes fixed on the gushing stump of James’ hand. She remembered – James hadn’t revealed anything to her; Prentiss had stopped him in time. Just how Lukas never got to hurting me. It was clear now that the extent wasn’t what mattered. Any slip, any mistake, any diversion was met with cruelty and agony.

Pan twirled the dripping blade between his fingers with the adeptness of a lifelong knife thrower, coating them in the red liquid, not bothered at the time he took licking up the blood, almost sensually, from the long digits. Why would he be? Grinding the dirt under his feet as he turned, his molten virid gaze settled on the unknowing and trembling Lukas. “Now for the main course.”

Prentiss and Rufio, taking James’ place, hauled the now screaming boy to the edge of the cliff. In the same senseless struggle that had engulfed Sabre, he dug in his heels and thrashed wildly, hands clenching in to claws and heart beating so rapidly as though it weren’t beating at all. Taken beyond the conscious mind, surged with clawing desperation, Sabre spun on the ball of her right foot, the strength of her tautened core used to angle her upper body as her right hand gripped Hayes’ neck with the nails dug in, and using her anchored foot for balance she brought up her left knee into the boy’s crotch, hard. One moment.

Next moment, Hayes doubled over, his hold instantly slackened, and Sabre lifted her left forearm so that she could twist out of Nibs’ hold, at the same time altering her left leg to become weight-bearing. Closed in a fist her right hand swung for his face, only to be caught but her left hand, pulled back and powered, flattened and delivered a strike with the heel to Nibs’ nose. Another moment.

Then as strikingly as it had come, it retreated and became locked away.

“No!” Sabre grabbed onto Rufio’s arm and tugged, nails clenching. The four of them were right at the edge. One loss of balance could take them all over. “He doesn’t have to die!” she barked, voice taken deeper with its roughened edge.

The waters had grown tempestuous, waves riled by the powerful tails of ravenous mermaids, drawn in by the scent of blood and the taste of flesh. Dead Lost Boys. That was what James was going to say. Pan feeds the mermaids with the dead.

Pan gave a chuckle that sounded like he was holding a lot more mirth in, and Sabre didn’t see him give a nod. Shoving Lukas fully into Prentiss’ grip, Rufio delivered a concise blow to the girl’s jaw. It would have sent her over the cliff if he hadn’t caught her, gripping her under the shoulders so that her arms were rendered helpless. He growled into her slender neck.

“You told him yourself, pup,” Pan said, and Rufio tugged them both around to face him. “He’d die if someone wasn’t there to care for his every need. He’s of no use to me anymore; he doesn’t even particularly amuse me, not that he did much before. You know as well as we do that a cripple cannot survive on Neverland. Isn’t death a kindness?” False pity, undisguised, smothered his tone, topped off by him putting his hand over his heart. 

You know nothing of kindness, an enraged viper’s hiss bit out.

There were quick ways, kinder ways, of ending suffering, giving a person a little dignity in their death rather than prolong their suffering that couldn’t be alleviated. A quick, painless departure. Lukas’ would be neither.

It dawned on the girl that she would rather have been the one to deal the fatal strike than to leave him to that. Because it was kinder.

She thought of reasonings, pleas, demands and petty threats to hurl at the Boy-King. None of which would rescue the blind boy. Maybe the mermaids would kill him quickly… But it would not be painless. The boy would die in agony, friendless and screaming as water filled his lungs and teeth and talons tore at his flesh.

“Why like this?” Sabre confronted, tendons stark in her neck, tensed in Rufio’s grip.

It was he who answered, the heat of his breath raising the nerves along her spine as a gaze of mirth and longing reached for his leader and lord, “It’s fun to watch.” He remembered the time he’d thrown a rival from that exact spot, despite it having happened centuries ago, and assumed the position he’d possessed covetously to the present day. So much blood tainting the blue. It would never leave it his memory; how he’d told Pan what’d happened to his previous favourite, and what Pan had done to him after that, but he was far too disciplined and proud to let the sigh leave him or the heat crawl any lower.

“If I told you that I would not only spare our mutual friend, but also restore his sight,” Pan stepped closer, watching the girl grow all the more rigid at his oncoming, “would you jump? Right down there.” Another brief nod prompted Rufio to release her, the boy’s strength – although it was nothing to his own – enough to have stiffened the girl’s shoulder joints. The girl’s mouth started to open, the beginnings of an incredulous protest on her lips. “Ah,” Pan lifted a finger, silencing her. Incongruously, she was far more interesting when she was mute.

There was no hiding her clenching and unclenching hands, apprehension making stillness impossible, and the near constant flickering glances to Lukas, who had also long become silent. He didn’t look quite so pitiful.

“Every boy here would jump without a thought, right into the arms of the mermaids, if it pleased me,” the Boy-King growled with a dark satisfaction. Not that he actually would; they all had their uses, and, more importantly, he possessed their absolute loyalty. But he was keen for her reaction, so added, “Would you like me to show you?”

Those puppy eyes flitted over each Lost Boy. She said nothing and calmly stepped to the very edge of the cliff. Pan needs me alive. He needs me alive. He wouldn’t let me die. He needs me alive. Holding onto those thoughts so rigorously so that nothing else could get in, Sabre took a breath.

And then she jumped.

Chapter Text

The air whistled, screeching, past Sabre’s pulsing ears, stomach in her chest, heart in her throat. Not a sound had left her beyond the whisper of air over her lips. The waves reared up as if to catch that falling body, and Sabre’s lungs held fast to the last gulped in deep breath. It had always been part of the girl’s physical disposition to be able to keep her eyes open underwater, no matter the kind, without strain or sting though initially there was little to see beyond the swarm of tiny bubbles that were rising all about her.

Thrashing about would only waste energy; Sabre only made slight turns of her head, mostly to waft the hair away so she could see, trying to make out the swarm of mermaids. Then suddenly a large tail fin smacked her across the cheek, knocking her head to the side. She attempted to pull back, unable to move quickly enough under the weight of clothing, only to have an inhuman hand wrapped around her ankle and tug her further down, and was unable to stifle the panicked sound that ripped from the back of her throat. Abandoning stillness, she flailed frantically and tried to swim up, however the mermaid wasn’t ready to let go. Far from. Sabre tried to aim her legs to kick at the creature, to no avail.

Her eyes fixed on the water’s kyanite surface, which was only drifting further and further away. A second mermaid, with silver locks and a tail of every shade between cerulean and jade, grasped a fistful of her hair and pulled, hard. Scalp burning, Sabre could sense her levelheadedness rapidly leaving her, overcome by petrified instinct. She couldn’t keep back the scream that tore through closed lips, signalling to the mermaids that she couldn’t last much longer; if she’d been right then they were under Pan’s shackles as well, and letting her drown would be less than child’s play compared to whatever punishment he might conceive of for them.

The mermaid’s grip loosened and she thrashed free, feet kicking to propel upwards. She burst the surface with a graceful arch in her back, much like a mermaid herself, taking a deep gasp of air that filled her chest and fed her blood with an effort, or lack thereof, that might have been disconcerting if not for the hellish creatures circling like sharks.

A gargantuan wave had reared up, ready to engulf anything in its path. Air gathered in, Sabre dived forward into the safety of the sea before the wave could hit her, thinking, falsely, that she’d be safe from its onslaught. The force of the wave swept her up and hurled her around like a terrier with a rat in its mouth, battering the pent up air in her lungs. The mermaids took advantage of the disarray and closed in. Several swam around the disoriented girl, creating a sickening illusion; others took hold of her limbs or her hair, tugging the mortal this way and that.

The muscles of Sabre’s chest were beginning to clench in the desperation, and her skull ached. She didn’t have the energy this time to call out to the mermaids, to ward them off before they defied Pan’s wishes, if Pan’s wishes were as she thought. Useless as a ragdoll, the girl was tossed around by both the pounding waves and mermaids alike. A blackness was creeping in around the edges of her vision. The pressure on her lungs was crushing. There was little time left.

Her body’s involuntary movements had brought her closer to the cliff-face, which stretched down into the dark depths of the water – Sabre hadn’t had a moment to fully perceive how deep it was. All of a sudden free of clawing hands, she weakly paddled towards the deep grey rock, hoping it could anchor her. Angling her body was harder than expected but, once righted, she swam towards the surface, but she was no longer sure if she’d actually make it that far. Her blood screamed pleadingly in its panic, begging for air, and it made her whole body hurt.

Another great wave, large enough to shower the on-looking Lost Boys with fine mist, crashed down but this time Sabre had no chance to prepare; she was hurled forward, her body spiralling with the brutal force. The last of the breath was taken from her as her head hit against the underwater cliff-face, the last thought passing through, wondering why it’d taken that long to drain her. A thin trickle of blood drifted from a fresh gash on her forehead as her numb, airless body began to sink. As with James’ blood, the rapacious mermaids were drawn in, their eyes cold and dead, intoxicated by the sweet and fresh scent. With the last of her sight, Sabre could see their tails rhythmically curving as they drew closer, and closer…


 

Sabre’s eyes flickered open, meeting the blinding colours of late day. Blinking slowly several times, the girl grounded to her surroundings, etching into her blank mind. Sand was beneath her back and as she tried to furrow her brows the dried blood on her forehead cracked with a sting. Water was sealed in the fabric of her clothes and the locks of her hair, clogged with salt and sandy grains. A wave washed in, stretching up to her calves. Mayhaps I wasn’t rescued, her thoughts were lethargic; Perhaps I was washed ashore. She doubted the answer would ever come to light.  

Pulled by its weight, Sabre’s head rolled to one side. The sand was wet beneath her cheek, cold too. The haze in her vision cleared as she blinked it away, then wished she hadn’t. A rag, a grey rag, drenched equally in blood and seawater, had washed up barely three feet away. No, sickness churned in her belly. No, no.

The air was coarse in her throat, so much so that she raised a hand to touch it as she willed herself to sit up, then, with the same hand, reached out and picked up the rag. It was so cold. Little fingers curled. “Sorry.” A sigh, shamed and sorrowed, bowed her head.

Maybe if the tide was coming in, it would the sea would take her back into its arms. She wouldn’t have minded that. She liked the sea – all water, really – though couldn’t remember why.

Though fate, not that she held it in much esteem, seemed to have other intentions for her, and the sea drew out further and further until it came nowhere near to touching her. No one had come for her. Good. She slumped back down, not having the strength to keep upright any longer.

The sound of the waves acted as only a thin veil against the silence. It was enough for her to hate it.

There’d been no time before, but now Sabre was able to deliberate the happenings at the cliff top. The things her body had suddenly known to do. Nothing in the shallows of her mind – all she could swim in, at least – could recall the aptitude that had woken in a time of desperate need. In those tiny moments, the body that housed her had become swift and capable. Not knowing terror.

Like so much, it didn’t seem possible. The toll was heavy.

If no one was coming for her, then perhaps she could stay unmoving until the next high tide. What’s left for me to wait for? A pack of boys who will happily kill each other and a sadistic demon who would happily give the order just to walk over the dead bodies, on an island I can’t ever leave. Sabre had a choice, – there was always a choice – one between a life of submission and enslavement, or a death of her own making, before it was too late. For her soul, if not her dignity. I could make it look like an accident. Be careless. But no memories, or loss of them, could keep her from knowing the finality, the true finality that pierced the soul deep and left it shaken, of death. Life could always change, and she’d have to live in order to see it. That didn’t mean she’d be getting up any time soon, though.

She’d grown warm on the underside, still drenched, while the sea breeze had begun to dry her front and the wisps of coppery hair around her face. I’ll need some spare clothes, that’s for sure. Clothing stiff with sea salt was not the most appealing of prospects.

Sabre watched sun come down from above until she no longer had to strain her neck to see it, and the seas had grown deceptively peaceful in the declining afternoon. Accepting the inevitable eventually, the girl heaved herself up, jaw set against the wet, cold and grit of sand. Her clothes were already stiffening. Heat had gathered in her boots as they squelched with dragged out steps, strength a stranger to those ragdoll limbs, so forgotten that she near collapsed into the rocks not far from the jungle threshold, ones that would gradually lead up to the cliff face. Faint in the head, she closed her eyes and breathed slowly, waiting for it to pass.

As fresh air filled up and steadied her bit by bit, a flutter whisked past her ear. At first, Sabre dismissed it as an insect or an odd flicker of wind, but a voice, soft and light, yet still distinctly male, reached her ears.

“It’s not usual for newcomers to learn the darker truths of Neverland so swiftly.”

Sabre’s movements were jerky, footing unsteady as she looked around for the voice’s owner, for it was not one that she recognised, and it was not a boy’s voice but carried a weight gained only with age. A tiny sound left her, matched to the weak pallor of her cheeks, unsteady fingers gripping the rocks as her eyes settled – a gasp lifted her entire ribcage – on a fairy.

Clad in golden and green, made from nature’s gifts, he hovered before her, around four to five inches in height. Slow, beautifully elegant ripples of his silky, translucent wings kept him aloft without strain, or even apparent effort. Every contour emitted a warm golden glow.

“Wh-Who are you?” Sabre whispered.

“Do not be alarmed,” the fairy raised a tiny little hand. “I am known here as Oberon, King of the Old Fae. I mean you no harm.”

Blinking, Sabre wanted to make her vision as clear as could be, wanted to see the little magnificent creature before her. A rare smile, heart-deep, pulled her lips wide. “You’re wonderful,” she lifted her own hand out towards the fairy, keeping back her gentle strength for fear of ever causing harm, though did not quite touch him.

“And you are the most tender creature that Neverland has known in a very long time. I do not usually come to those Peter Pan has brought here – we rarely intervene with matters at all, for Neverland is no longer ours – but I found I could not stay away. Not this time,” Oberon’s voice ever remained smooth and soft, like warm honey, even as almost indiscernible lines of worry furrowed his brow. He watched the smile on the girl’s lips decline. “Only a whisper of our former power remains but we can still see from the shadows, and keep our secrets. You cut your hand on a blade you were sharpening, and you spilt blood onto the earth.”

The recollection was easy. The drums that had made her spook, the sting of the freshly sharpened blade, how she’d sucked the blood and spat it out. Sabre nodded in affirmation when Oberon paused briefly for her benefit.

“And from that blood, a white flower grew in its place.”

The flower in Pan’s hand…the one he kept twirling in his fingers, she thought as the memory re-enacted itself in her mind’s eye. It’d seemed to make him happy. And it had come from her blood – the very thing Pan coveted. Two days ago she would have deemed it impossible. “Why, though?”

Oberon’s sigh was small, as though an admittance of defeat. “When Pan first came here, he already possessed great power; ours was greater still – older, refined – but he was patient and clever, and was able to conceal the darkness of his heart, for a time. He imagined and believed in a way we’d never seen in a mortal boy before; we began to wonder if he was even mortal at all. We believed that we could temper him, control him but over time, our power and magic bled into his, became darker, and darker. The very soul of Neverland altered as he grew to possess it. It became twisted, perverted. It became ill – everything it should never have been. When Pan became joined with the Neverland, and its entire nature changed, its power – and therefore his – became finite, in payment. He’s been searching ever since to find a way to restore it. This is why he searches first for a Fairest Soul.”

Sabre turned so that she could lean back against the rocks and let them take her weight. It was her turn to sigh, “But what makes a Fairest Soul? Why is that what he needs?”

“Many things can make a Fairest Soul, and Pan has his ways of narrowing the search,” Oberon said, drifting through the air so that Sabre didn’t need to angle her head to look at him.

“I remember little, but I know I am anything other than fair.” Why else would I have forgotten? Why else would there be this chasm that I can never cross?

Because there is something, many things, I’ve had to keep from myself. Why else would my mind collapse whenever I begin to remember? If there was only fairness, I would not have had to forget.

“Pan’s gift to peer through the looking-glass of time was one that drew from us, nor is it one that we have lost entirely,” Oberon cajoled, ever soft, wishing he could stroke the girl’s cheek and take the burden from her. “I know it is not something you can easily see within yourself. You have forgotten the terrible things you were put through, the terrible things you were made to do. For that reason, Pan has only been able to glimpse the smallest fragments.”

A cold knot writhed in her belly, crawling up to her ribs to crush them inwards. The column of her throat tightened, breath hitched. “What terrible things? What did I do?”

“Peace, dear maiden, peace,” the Fae King reached out again, a calming warmth caressing the girl’s face, travelling down her neck and into her heart. “I wish only to be honest with you, not to shroud you with lies. But I shan’t take authority where it is not mine. Your mind will show you the way when the time comes. Your purity lies in the resilience of your mercy and compassion, regardless of the darkness you have faced. Even, if at times, your light becomes lost to you, you have always found your way back to it, and it has always refused to let itself become tainted with cruelty, no matter how hard it tries to break through. It is that which Pan needs because you, and those like you, embody the Neverland of old. The missing piece. I wish you could have seen it,” he sighed, torn between the fondness of his memories, and the mournful loss of the land that had been his own.

A delicate smile, offering of sympathies, came naturally to the girl’s features, as she tried to conjure the most beautiful and wonderful images in her mind, adding and tweaking as Oberon yearningly described the Neverland as it had been under the reign of the Old Fae. It had always been summer, he said, always warm and the days had been long and golden, but that even the night was heavenly. The stars would shine like twinkling gems, auroras of blue, green and purple painted across the midnight canvas. The water was sweet and sapphire, the trees and grass like strokes of the purest emerald. The animals were nourished without needing to hunt one another and birds would sing their sweet melodies from sunrise to sunset. Even the mermaids were once sweet and gentle. The Fae would also sing, and they would dance to their flutes and harps and drums, all the way into the night.

Joyous, serene, merciful, compassionate, what Neverland had once been.

Sabre turned her gaze to the looming dark jungle. Ill, it was a fitting word. “I wish I could have seen it,” she murmured, looking back to Oberon, and finding that she no longer felt light headed or quite as weak.

“Not dwelling on the past is far more easily said than done. The truth is that, if you were to forfeit your blood to Pan, there would be a greater hope of seeing Neverland a little more as it should be,” he told her.

“There have been others before me, though, yes?”

“Yes, and I regret that all have failed the trial. Certainly, many showed signs that they would fulfil Pan’s desires, but alas, t’was not enough,” Oberon’s head bowed, a mournful respect for the innocents whose lives had been taken so cruelly by the Boy-King, his rage, his greed.

“Why did you come to me, then? If I might ask,” Sabre inquired humbly, by nature.

“You heard the music of his pipes,” Oberon’s voice, although soft and warm, altered into a tone far more regretful, a deliverance of the worst news a person might hear. “In other lands, the only ones who can hear the music are boys who are lonely, unloved. Lost. It calls to them, brings them to him so he can enthral them eternally here. But none of those who walked your footsteps before ever heard the music.”

“What’s the importance of it?”

“I believe it may be in your favour. Those pipes have a story of their own to tell, one I rather think you deserve to know,” he paused as Sabre slunk down the rocks until she was seated on the ground, sand mixing with earth, back supported and legs up, but he saw her gentle smile that coaxed him to tell as much as he liked.

His was a voice Sabre could happily listen to for weeks, and the relief of his honesty, dare she say companionship, was a most welcome relief.

The Fae King fluttered down to be level with the girl’s face. “You…You aren’t tired, are you?” Sabre asked, having watched those radiant wings flow like a second heartbeat. She turned her palms upwards, gesturing. “I can always, y’know… if you need to?”

The tiniest glimpse of his teeth was caught as he smiled warmly. “You are most kind, and I daresay I might take you up on your offer.”

Resting both elbows on her knees, Sabre lifted her hands and cupped them together. It was perhaps the first time she appreciated the petite delicacy of her hands as the Fae King settled down into them, warm, like velvet against her skin. Perfectly nimble, he sat crossed legged with his wings neatly folded at his back. She very much felt an unforeseen want to put her lightest, most chaste kiss to his tiny cheek, but restrained herself.

“The pipes, which Pan covets so jealously, were,” Oberon paused quickly, and Sabre marked a slight dimming of the glow the embraced him, “once a living, breathing, beautiful creature – one of the last nymphs to live on Neverland. She was named Syrinx, and, for her rarity, Pan craved to have her. Break her, possess her. Perhaps it was a grave error, or perhaps it was a bravery that all the rest of us failed to summon, but she resisted him, refused to yield to his will. It could never have saved her. When she realised she could flee no further, Syrinx transformed herself into water reeds that could sing in the wind – she always loved the water, it was where she would sing most serenely – and in his wrath, Pan cut the reeds with a knife still dripping with the blood of the last nymphs and fashioned them into an instrument that only he could play. Her soul became trapped, her gifts and freedom stolen, forever.”

Any marvelling joy, however brief, that had lifted the human’s spirits crumbled away, leaving behind hopeless, lonely sorrow. The weight of holding her features up was one she couldn’t bear. Only guilt, white hot, pierced her when she remembered the exquisite melody that had enthralled her, inside and out, how she’d smiled like a fool, tossing her hair and laughing with bared teeth at Pan’s surprise. It was a person all along. A tortured and trapped soul with her voice stolen and twisted.

“Why do you think I heard them – her – and the others didn’t?” Sabre asked. If she’d had a glow like Oberon’s, it would have almost gone out.

“It is possible that, given it was something Pan had neither planned nor foreseen, remnants of her spirit still remain, and that she was conveying a warning; a warning not to take the same path,” the Fae King spoke gravely. “But, it is the belief of some of us who remain that you heard her music because you are alike. Kindred spirits, even.”

A slight tilt angled Sabre’s head to the right, her brow furrowing, voice tentative, “You don’t believe that, though?”

“They do not have the same abilities as I, and they have not seen what I have seen,” Oberon rose from her cupped palms, and the chill returned to them thereafter. “There is none better than Peter Pan who can prey on the lonely and the lost. I fear no prophecy will protect you from being devoured as well. Your hearing of the pipes has proven to him that you belong here.”

But if I ’embody’ the old Neverland – and that alone – then surely I cannot belong in what it has become. Knots coiled in her stomach, the dizziness returning behind her eyes. She was grateful to be sitting down.

Except, he’s right. I am lonely, and I am lost. It’s everything I’ve tried not to be, but it’s exactly what I am.

“It is my belief,” he fluttered an inch closer, and watched her make out every tiny feature of his face, while he, in turn, examined the rare colour of those large eyes, “that you shall be the one to fulfil the prophecy because you are not only a Fairest Soul, but a Lost Soul as well. That is to say, you could represent a bridge to the Neverland of old and what is has become.”

“I often feel as if I’m behind glass,” Sabre confessed, for the first time tearing her gaze away from the Fae King. “I can see things but sometimes barely feel them. And I fear to move in case it all shatters around me. My mind never rests.”

Oberon became sombre; he no longer glowed warmly and a droop came to his silky wings. However tiny, Sabre could sense a haze clouding his eyes. A hardness came to his voice even as it seemed further away, disconnected, “You cannot know peace, because peace cannot know you. You are not a creature of peace. You are a hound of war.” Their eyes locked. It was only then Sabre saw how golden they were. “And your soul shall forever burn with what you have done.”


 

It was Felix who found her, hours later when the colours of twilight painted the sky, sitting against the flat of a rock with her shoulders hunched and knees hugged in tightly, eyes lingering on nothing. He had to kick her just shy of bruisingly, standing right over the small, shivering body, to get his presence noticed, and when he did, a pair of emptied eyes peered up, wide and dark. The movements she made were slow despite the flinch she’d given.

The bantering remark died on Felix’s lips. He inclined his head, “Come on.” Not waiting, he set off back toward the forest-jungle, though eased the pace of his strides and looked over his shoulder.

The fluidity of the girl’s movements were interrupted by the exhaustion of her limbs and the stiffness of her clothes, and skin beneath. She looked utterly miserable.

Yet Felix didn’t find it pathetic; there was a different quality behind it, a deepness – a quiet, resigned dignity, even – that spoke of long sufferings and marked it apart. He’d never been one to weep. Not once had he cried in the night, it was one of his merits that had made him stimulating to Pan. His King had taken pride in eliciting those tears from him, a prize of submission, not hated him for it. He could count the times he’d cried beyond the control of another, and himself, on a single hand, and they remained his most shameful moments. Misery was irritating and tedious to the Boy-King, unless he could do something with it. Make art from it. It was never what he’d wanted from Felix.

The tall boy didn’t mind when a little hand pinched the fabric of his sleeve as they began the ascent of the slope; he could see she was debilitated and lending her an arm was simpler than having to carry her on his back if she keeled over. The laboured breaths were refined to a minimum and she let go when they reached level ground.

“Get some rest,” Felix said when the light of the camp was clearly in sight. “You’re going along to the drop off tomorrow.” He looked over his shoulder to be sure she’d heard him.

“Can I change my clothes?” the girl muttered monotonously. Parts of her still hadn’t dried, what had was prickling and aching. When she’d brushed some hair from her face it had felt like straw.

“In the main hut, there’s a chest in the far left corner,” Felix said, not turning. 

The fires were lit but the camp was quiet, no drums or dances, the way it had been on her first night. Four days. She’d barely been there four days. A boy had been blinded and executed, another had lost their fingers and seen them fed to mermaids; she’d leapt from a cliff in a vain attempt at saving a wretched life and reached the verge of drowning; an ancient Fae king had visited her in secret; and she had transformed from a scavenger to a cabin boy to a possessor of a Fairest Soul with a grandly designed destiny laid out for her. In four days. It feels like longer, Sabre thought as she slipped to the hut, head bowed, eyes lowered.

The chest was where Felix has said it was and fortunately several lanterns had been lit within each of the huts. The clothes she rummaged through were all cold, probably not touched in months, if not longer. With a good bit of searching, Sabre found a pair of black breeches that would fit her legs and hips, a sage green vest that would cover the curve of her rear and a supple jerkin that appeared to have a dark brown hue in the light. It would do. She retreated a little deeper into the forest to undress in privacy, quickly relieving herself – thank the heavens she’d picked a spot next to a moss covered root – and re-clad herself, not bothering to put the thick belt back on. The breeches were a little rough if they happened to brush against the sensitive flesh between her legs; she’d have to go about finding which of the Lost Boys, if any, knew how to make clothes and seeing if they could teach her so she might fashion some undergarments. Or perhaps the Piccaninny tribe had some young women who could spare something.

Sabre bore the discomfort of wearing her damp boots back to the main camp, knowing it was better than battered up feet. Picking a cot on the far outskirts to spend the night in, she put the bundle of her other outfit down next to her and slipped off the boots, standing them upright to dry through the night. Before succumbing to exhaustion and numbness, Sabre fetched a cup of water, downing it in one go, and a hunk of bread, which she ate once she was curled up in the cot, back to the fire. The lack of noise failed in subduing her mind.

Your soul shall forever burn with what you have done.

Burn forever with what you have done.

Burn forever…

With what you have done.

Burn forever.

Sabre would never forget the Fae King’s face. It was only then, now that she could no longer gaze upon his fantastical countenance, that indignation could be roused. He’d known. He’d known what she’d done, gone as far as to all but damn her for it, and did not tell her, when he had come in the spirit of honesty and dispelling secrets. She pondered back to how her deeper mind had stirred when she’d been brought so close to the fire by Lukas’ hands, the same way it had when Pan had named her Sabre and pup.

The same way as when a second voice answered in her head as she began to spiral.

Bloodied but unbroken. The words were familiar; the voice – not her own – familiar, said not by her, but to her. It was an inevitable defeat. She would never be allowed to cross that great chasm. Not until she was ready. Just like Oberon said. Sabre could have ripped the air apart with a screech for all that was pent up inside. Hands fisted in the blanket, she tried to speak quietly to herself. Trying to penetrate her deeper mind always left her drained and dismal. It had been locked up for a reason. And still, she could barely grasp the present, always looking behind her. A year had passed and she’d remained a stranger to whomever had inhabited the same body before. That was how she wanted it, most of the time, even though her mind often wandered and searched itself, slipping beyond the grasp of her better judgement.

Now, cracks were showing.

Whispers and fragments were bleeding through. If the right word, or words, were said, the right sensations undergone, something would stir and slip to the surface. And it didn’t seem as though the cracks were sealing up again afterwards.

Her reverie was shattered as a body flopped down behind her, intentionally throwing their weight down to get her attention. Rotating in the upper body, Sabre’s dreary eyes fell on Rufio. He grinned at her.

Against her disposition, Sabre rolled back without a word, an excuse. Maybe he’d leave her alone.

“Quite a show you gave earlier.”

Or maybe not.

Sabre gave a hum, the briefest of sounds, unmoving aside from the shallow breaths passing in and out. She grimaced internally when the adolescent propped up on an elbow to lean over her.

“Why did you jump?” he sounded genuinely quizzical.

Too tired to scoff, or really to feel irritated at either his stupidity or mockery, Sabre supposed it would be simpler to put a few words in her mouth. “To save him. You killed him anyway.”

“Technically, it was the mermaids who killed him. You should have seen it,” she could hear the grin lacing his words. “Poor kid nearly shat himself when Pan threw him off.”

“He said he wouldn’t,” was all Sabre could growl out, body curled in further.

Rufio shuffled his body so that he could bring his lips closer to the exposed shell of her ear as he leaned over, and so his chest framed her upper back. “Actually he didn’t,” the lowered timbre drew out a shudder along her spine. “Pan said if. He never made the promise – you didn’t hang around to see it through. So, really, you jumped for nothing. Take your jerkin off.”

“Why?” Sabre grumbled stiffly, straining in the throat, wanting to sound bored and irritated.

Rufio’s movements were too quick to be seen in the dark; she only felt his hand encircle her neck from the front, fingers finding the perfect spots to exact pressure and sever her air. The feminine column fit beautifully in his calloused hand. A single choked sound, what would have been a gasp, trickled from the back of her throat. “I think because I said so,” the Lost Boy growled, only loud enough for her to hear.

Neither having the energy for a battle of wills nor the wish to cause more trouble, Sabre slumped and nodded, after which the hand around her neck loosened until the touch was nearly tender, and Rufio glided the pads of his fingers down the reddened skin as if to stroke it better and apologise. Uncurling, Sabre sat up and worked the fastenings of the jerkin loose and slipped it off, placing it with the bundle of clothes. Rufio’s hand was on her again, this time guiding her back to her former position, firm but not forceful.

“That’s better,” his approval touched at the submissive, acquiescent streak of her nature. It was easy to let him readjust her so that he could lie comfortably behind her without the barrier of the jerkin. Clutching both arms to her chest, Sabre decided it was a better choice not to resist – soon, she decided she didn’t want to. Warming and protected at the back, simple instincts were soothed.

She supposed it was nothing out of the ordinary; she’d already witnessed boys sleeping together in packs, sometimes wrapped up in each other, and Slightly and Curly had slept very close by the night before. And it was more than reasonable. Huddling together kept them warm, and comforted a need for closeness.

Having slid one arm under her neck so that her head could cradle in the crook of his shoulder, Rufio’s other hand lay in the dip of her waist, leisurely tracing the contours from ribs to hip. The body curled into him was pliant and docile, the lines of its shape sweeping – elegant, if he was being generous – with delicate curves. He hoped she would fill out, for she would need to be stronger to survive in the wilds, but doubted she would never be much more than petite. He liked the thought. Like his, her body had entered into young adulthood, and most of the boys around her size hadn’t, or hadn’t by much. Consorting with the boys who were younger, in body, had never enticed him.

“’ts been so long since we had a girl here,” Rufio murmured sleepily into her salty hair, as his thumb circled the protrusion of her hip. “I know Pan always hopes for boys but I think a girl, every now and then, can make a nice change. And if it’s the right girl, I don’t think Pan minds too much. There were actually a couple he quite liked.” Then his hand slipped beneath the long shirt Sabre had donned and, finding defiantly soft flesh beneath, hummed low in his chest. Everywhere his roughened fingers grazed left a trail of shuddering tingles, not an unpleasant sensation, but one that rather hindered the descent into sleep.

The touch wasn’t groping, the contact not invasive. It identified best as inquisitiveness, harmless, Sabre was mostly certain, and it was like he was making an earnest to be careful, close to gentle, as he committed the planes of her body to memory. A little of his strength pushed through to inch her elbow aside so his fingers could trace the swell of her breast, and the little pant escaped before Sabre could stop it. No one had touched her there before. If they had, she couldn’t remember it.

Yet the nature of his touching remained more or less the same. Like he was deciding if he liked what he found. Rufio didn’t strike her as a tentative soul, nothing he’d done in the, albeit brief, time she’d known him had indicated such. Desensitized, he found suffering and death amusing, able to shift from mild to deadly in the space of a moment.

Sabre’s upper body flexed as Rufio’s thumb brushed over the soft peak of her nipple, tingling sparks scattering down her sides and further into her chest. He circled it until it hardened through sensory stimulation alone to gain some idea of how, and if, a female body responded differently, listening to the way her breathing had shallowed a touch. Opting to let the girl get her rest at last, he settled his hand comfortably over her other breast, the flesh fitting nicely in his palm, so that he could feel her heartbeat, which was quick to decline to its softest state, a peaceful drumbeat in his grasp.

Chapter Text

Only twice that night did the cycle of sleep break; there were a handful of sniffles and pillow-muffled whimpers dotted around the great shadowed clearing, nothing disturbing, and it didn’t take as long for Sabre to fall back asleep. The first time she’d woken, she’d rolled out of Rufio’s arms but he was still close by, the heat from his body still embracing her, and the second time, they’d manoeuvred to lay back to back. She’d also noticed that Curly and Tootles had settled down close to them, and Farley and Hayes were also not far away.

The third time she woke, when morning had come, her back was colder than it had been all night, and she assumed it was what had roused her. Rolling onto her back, Rufio was nowhere to be found and she spotted Farley and Prentiss at the cooking pots.

She found herself looking around for Lukas.

Fool. Sabre sat up, running a hand through her hair, knotted and dry with salt. Her longest finger dipped into the small convex at the back of her skull. It no longer made her very curious anymore.

She was glad to be rounded up quickly for the patrol that would meet members of the Piccaninny tribe for the drop-off, just wanting to get on with everything. After donning the jerkin and belt, she and the others going on the errand were given a minute to gather water and food to bring for the journey’s duration. One of the twins, Sabre wasn’t sure which – although apparently no one ever was – casually mentioned, while they were both filling their waterskins, how they were meeting the natives half way between their two camps and then going straight to another camp, and that the others would later meet them there. Just before leaving, Slightly gave her a short spear, the standard weapon for a patrol or errand, one that could both be thrown or jabbed; whether it was the same one he’d given her before she had no idea, not that she really cared.

The party was larger than the group that had taken her around the south-eastern corner of the island, consisting of Slightly, both twins, Tobias, Hayes, Nibs and Devin. Her initial apprehension at being in close proximity with Nibs and Hayes was put aside when they acted as if they didn’t even remember what she’d managed to do to them the day before. Well, Nibs at least – Hayes’ indifference remained fittingly, well, indifferent. Somewhere along the way, she half expected at least one of them to mention Lukas’ name. They didn’t.

Journeying westward, with the sun again rising at their backs, still far from peeking above the trees, they trekked into denser forest, the features of a jungle steadily winding away. A small herd of deer were startled and sent into flight by their approach. Sabre watched them with softly brightening eyes, longing to look at the gentle creatures for as long as possible.

Sometime later, when an ache had had enough time to build in her feet and legs, a pack of wolves observed them going by, not attacking for sheer numbers and rivalling predatory nature. However Sabre still intentionally stayed close to Slightly while the deadly canines were nearby, despite finding them absolutely beautiful and actually wishing she could get closer. She’d always liked wolves, and dogs, and anything close to either. Not that she could remember why, though.

Titters of talk were exchanged through the journey, passing the time and keeping boredom at bay. Sabre remained silent, no one talked to her. On one hand she didn’t want the attention, but on the other she couldn’t have felt more like an outsider. The runt of the litter.

It wasn’t until they crossed a river, the sun now right above them, that Nibs said, as he offered a helping hand to her as they crossed, “No hard feelings, eh?”

Sabre’s lips pulled back in a half smile that was anxious to reach her eyes. Really, it was all that needed to be said.

If it turned out the river was close to the next camp then Sabre guessed she could wash herself and her clothes there, however, as they hiked further and further onward, she deemed it increasingly unlikely. Oh well, I’m sure there’ll be somewhere else.

“I didn’t think you’d be able to pull of something like that,” Nibs continued as if only moments had passed since his last utterance to her. It was hardly difficult to guess what he was referring to.

Giving a small shrug, Sabre pushed sound to her tongue, “Neither did I.” She was quiet and didn’t make direct eye contact.

“Where did you learn to fight?” Nibs asked, taking her response for humility or timidity. He joined her side, their bodies merely inches apart. He carried his spear on the right, she on the left, despite being right-handed.

They lagged a little behind the rest of the errand party. He had rich golden blond hair, and Sabre liked that about him so she used it to focus, to keep her nerve as she admitted to yet another: “I don’t remember.”

Nibs straightened with a small scoff, “How can you not remember?”

There’s a lot of things I don’t remember. Plenty I don’t think I want to. Hazel eyes fixed on the trail of earth, a few feet ahead at a time. “I don’t know,” was all she could muster. She didn’t have to look properly to see the way Nibs then regarded her. Dimwit, useless, dull dunderhead.

“Well, you’d better remember what you’re here for. We’re not wasting this time showing you the ropes for nothing,” the light haired boy remarked.

Sabre’s head kept low. “I know.” If she did turn out to be the one Pan needed, she’d be there for the long-haul. She’d have to become one of them.

Exactly how though, was anyone’s guess. She wasn’t much like these Lost Ones, in many ways not at all like them. That’s rather the point, though, she shrugged mentally. If I was I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t have to be like them, I just have to be competent enough to survive.

There was no further need for her to speak beyond that brief exchange. In passing the time for the remainder of the journey, Sabre returned to the Fae King’s words, then to the wonder that was simply him; the shimmering golden glow, how his wings fluttered, looking like the purest and most delicate silk ever made, the softness of his voice, a honey-soft tenor that she could have listened to for weeks. For a tiny while, flickers of light had come back to her, allowing her to smile and to step around the glass casing she so often was trapped behind. Wonder, awe, guileless happiness standing boldly in the face of the sufferings she’d witnessed; the truth of her reality had been put aside in favour of something she could now only long for, no matter what he’d said to her in the end.

By the time they met with the Piccaninny tribe’s party, Sabre was about ready to collapse. No amount of deep steady breaths, kept quiet so as not to draw attention, were enough to keep the trembles out of her legs. She’d been taking a gulp of water when another pack, of a similar size, entered the small clearing where they had stopped to wait. It was far too small to ever be considered for the use of a camp but it was a good enough drop-off point. Trees had been carved dozens of times over hundreds of years.

The natives, two girls and four boys with feathers in their hair and paint on their limbs, all in the grips of bloomed youth, tall and strong-looking, carried sacks over their shoulders or in their hands. What struck Sabre first was that they carried weapons as well, spears and bows with full quivers of arrows. Her eyes were then drawn to the patterns and tattoos etched into their deep tan skin, each one created with immaculate care and precision.

“Long time no see, Tiger Lily,” Hayes spoke up, the words made unappealing by the sleazy undertones they carried.

The girl whom he’d addressed, Tiger Lily, hissed a few words in a tongue Sabre could not understand, and from the looks on the faces around her, it fairly easy to deduce that she wasn’t alone.

“New boy?” one of the Piccaninny boys gestured to Sabre with the butt of his spear, accent thick and lovely to the ears.

Well, I’m not sure quite how to take that, Sabre barely had time to think before Tiger Lily huffed impatiently. “That’s a girl, idiot,” then her eyes, darker than Sabre’s and far colder, landed on the scrawny pale girl, leaving a chill in their wake. “When did you get this one?” she addressed the wider circle, and Sabre was torn between relief at being spared those scrutinizing orbs and discontent at the coldness with which she was being regarded. Just another one – that was what she was.

“A few days ago,” Slightly intervened, tapping the shaft of his spear with impatience of his own. “You have what we wanted?”

Giving a nod, intending to make the Lost Ones wait, Tiger Lily joined her kin in putting down everything they’d brought with them. “More or less,” she straightened, jaw set. “If Pan wants us to keep up then we need more time. Our animals do not bear young often. Crops and plants are dying. Every new moon another will fall with sickness, and they do not always get up again.” As she spoke, her piercing gaze fell upon Sabre, accusing. Blaming.

“We’re working on that,” Nibs slipped in, stealing a quick glance at the ever-paling girl beside him.

“You’ll have to take that up with Pan,” Slightly spoke over him like he’d not spoken at all, keeping to business as diplomatically as a Lost Boy could.

Tiger Lily lifted her chin defiantly. “I will.”

Hayes followed with a chortle, “Be sure to let us how that turns out. If you can.” The glares and scowls of the natives apparently passed right over his head.

The scowl Tiger Lily wore was by far the coldest. She folded her arms. “You have what you want. Now leave us in peace. Useless boys.” Pivoting on her feet, the girl stalked away with the agile grace and silence of a cat, and her kin followed after her.

Barely as they’d turned their backs, the Lost Boys moved forward to pick up the supplies that were now theirs. Do the natives get nothing back? Sabre wondered as she picked up a pack to sling over her shoulders. It was a little heavy but she found enough strength to manage.

It was again golden-haired Nibs who took the place by her side as they set off in a different direction from where they’d come. Again the pair lingered behind a little. “Don’t let Tiger Lily get to you,” he quirked his eyebrows in response to the look of silent denial that appeared on the girl’s face. “She’s never been fond of the ones Pan’s brought to restore the island, especially the girls. Though, come to think of it, she’s not all that fond of anyone except her own tribe.”

“Why girls?” Sabre said disjointedly, eyes down.

She only heard Nibs’ small laugh. “It’s been a point of pride for her to be the only female that has managed to keep a slither of Pan’s interest, so I think there’s a bit of resentment if he puts her aside for a bit for another girl. Though, I could be wrong; she’s so bloody grumpy most of the time. But I think it’s because the natives have taken the brunt of everything. The magic here has always affected them differently – apparently it’s been quicker to desert them than others.” Magic, he used the word so ordinarily.

If they’re telling the truth,” Hayes said over his shoulder.

“Feel free to go and look for yourself,” Nibs retorted sharply, voice raised a notch. “Mind you don’t come back with an arrow up your arse. Or worse. Would give us a good laugh, though.” All the boys shared a snigger.

It was only a short walk to the new camp. A lone tiger prowled nearby, but, again, numbers protected them. Sabre dreaded to think what might have entailed if one of them had been alone, herself included. The beast seemed long gone by the time they reached the already filled clearing. It was certainly larger, much larger, than the other camp in the east. There were five huts instead of three, each greater in size, and that was even with a mass of pelts and pillows and blankets tucked up in the spacious hollow of a large tree. Ropes were hung between trees for wet clothes to be slung over. Aside from the central fire pit, three smaller fires were dotted around with a clutter of pots, plates and crude utensils by them. A number of cots and sleeping mats lay at the edges of the clearing but Sabre saw, firstly, that a dozen hammocks had been strung up between the trunks of slender trees and then that a good few treehouses sat aloft in the far sturdier trees, ladders and ropes reaching higher than three grown people standing on each other’s shoulders. She wondered who slept in those, and if she would ever get to go up to one. And built against a tree nearly as wide as she was tall, was an intricately crafted stone chair – nay, throne – draped in thick furs and pelts.

No prizes for guessing who sat there.

The supplies were deposited – well, rather, dumped – in the largest of the huts. Slightly muttered that they would get unpacked at some point or other, telling the girl not to fret despite not having said a word on the matter, or at all. Gathering the courage, Sabre asked if she might find a comb somewhere. Slightly shrugged back, answering that there were probably a few around the place. She took the chance of his attention while she had it and ventured if there were any rivers or ponds to wash in; his answer that time was rather more helpful.

Just as all the fresh water in Neverland was safe to drink – a perk that went unnoticed in a surprising amount of time – there were hot springs and cool ponds scattered around the island and one was within a safe distance to walk alone from the new camp, where chances of being attacked and mauled to death by some wild creature were as low as could be. Sabre pondered if they were not any closer to where the Old Fae lived. If there was any chance of seeing Oberon again.

It turned out Curly had brought her other set of clothes along with him and set it down on a cot that was closely surrounded by others. Before she’d been able to think and stop herself, Sabre had tousled his hair with affectionate appreciation. She waited for the protest of annoyance that would surely draw embarrassing attention to her, or the cold indifference, but the boy grinned, wide and bright, eyes all the brighter. A warmth stoked in her chest.

It didn’t burn.

A remark was passed one evening that one of the boys, Hedges, used to keep track of how many moons had passed by making a mark on a tree or rock with every full moon that shone. The moon was full that night and Sabre decided, as she looked up at the starry sky with Curly’s head resting comfortably on her relaxed arm, she would begin to count. Hedges hadn’t been around to do so for a long time.


 

Two weeks.

A new moon meant two weeks. I’ve been here an entire fortnight.

A fortnight of being shown more of the island through patrols and treks, and being gradually integrated with her wild companions. Her reputation as one of the ‘quiet ones’ was quick to take hold but she’d also demonstrated that she was far from witless. She’d never wandered off on her own to a place she wasn’t familiar with or without a means of defending herself. In fact, the farthest she’d gone by herself was to the hot springs Slightly had mentioned to bathe herself and clean the clothes now considered her own.

A fortnight of doing favours and running errands; sharpening weapons, repairing clothes – another skill she was remarkably quick to learn – and other small tasks, of passing comments that she stood, moved, a little like a solider. Not that she was the only one, the newer Lost Ones were commonly tasked with dirty work until they earned the respect of their peers, bit by bit or by some bold or outrageous act that often involved blood and a discarded body; or until newer Lost Boys arrived and they took a step up the jagged hierarchy. Sabre was by no means near the top, but her status was somewhat unregulated, for she was no Lost Boy. She was quick to find that the fact Rufio, and most of the upper tier, had taken a relative liking to her, thus saving her from the most unsavoury of errands.

Learning by observation suited her well. She could keep her mouth shut most of the time, just as she liked. With a few small questions here and there, but mostly with shrewd scrutiny, she discovered that the upper tier was comprised of those among the very first Lost Ones who had managed to survive to the present. Curly, Slightly, Tootles, Nibs, the Twins and Rufio. Not Felix, Sabre found that surprising. Somehow, the tall pale boy had surpassed them where no other survivor had managed. Those among the next lot included Hayes, James and Farley, the only three to have survived the long run. Apparently another of that second pack, Shades, had been killed just before Sabre arrived, though the tale was disputed in a quarrel that nearly ended in a fist fight.

Two weeks also meant her moon-blood was delayed. While never regular, her last had been aboard the Jolly Roger, discreetly taken care of. After spending a few anxious days waiting, checking as subtly as she could every couple of hours. Always nothing. Her tensions were gradually eroded with each bloodless day, confirming the suspicions that, while on Neverland’s timeless plane, the moon-blood would never arrive.

 Meanwhile, Pan had not spoken a word to her, barely even regarded her presence as worth a single glance. She felt quite the fool for how often, and closely, she watched him when the shadows loomed higher and the earth seemed to tremble that were his heralding if he decided to grace the camp with his presence. On nights when he’d played his pipes along with the drums, the spiralling urge to join the dance was shunned only by what Oberon had imparted to her. The remorse worsened every time.

It had begun to frighten her at how easily the purpose of her being there could slip away. At times, she actually had to remind herself of her female sex for it was, simply, inconsequential. But it gave light to something else – the ease with which things could be lost, as if stolen. So far she’d had no trouble with pulling back, and it came as a great relief when she could recall her time as a beggar, however unhappy, and as a cabin ‘boy’ with fluidity. Yet that existence had been the result of having let everything that had come before slip away. It couldn’t happen again.

Already too much was locked up, bursting at the seams.

And on the first night after the new moon, a great tear ripped – in the dark of night, as she slept on her side with Curly tucked up against her warm, soft chest...

The smoke had been what roused her.

She’d been sleeping on her side with her favourite toy, a dog sewn of soft fabric and stuffed with the fur of real dogs that had been moulting, tucked against her chest, her tiny body curled around it. The usually crisp clean air of her cosy room, drifting in from the Silver Sea, was now thick, suffocating. Waking disoriented, and naïve in infancy, she clutched her toy – Ruff, his name was – and looked first to her window which offered the most spectacular of views of the wild ocean and the sky where the dry storms would roll in from, where the moon would shine in. There was no smoke there, and she then worked out that it was seeping up through the floorboards, from the chambers below. Her room was above the hall, so was kept warm by the great hearth, where she loved to play and practice reading on colder days. Rubbing her eyes, she became aware of the shouting of soldiers and the clanging of metal in the distance.

Calling out never occurred to her – she had not spoken a word in her life. Not that she was mute, for she often sung wordlessly, or hummed, and her laughter was like the ringing of the softest bells. She walked, ran, cried, climbed, could eat and dress by herself and could clearly understand words, read and write as well as any child who’d seen three summers, but she simply did not speak. Her grandfather had been the same.

She climbed down from her featherbed, put on her slippers, and tiptoed to the door. The noises frightened her. She wanted her parents and her brother. The air was hot and the floor nearly scorching, even through her little slippers. Clutching Ruff to her chest, she broke into a clumsy run, desperate to find someone, anyone that she knew. The halls of the castle had never frightened her before. Fearful tears had sprung to her round hazel eyes, a whimper stuck in the back of her throat.

She hurried towards her brother’s room on little feet but before she could reach it, three armed warriors crossed her path, more soldiers moving along past them, deeper into the heart of the citadel. Their shields did not hold the familiar colours of dark blue and deep grey, nor the beast of her house. Her little heart seized as she skidded to a halt. However, it was too late. She had been both heard and seen. One of the soldiers lunged for her. With a piercing scream, she tried to turn and run but was hoisted over his shoulder in seconds. She kicked with her little legs, practically howling. Soon her slippers fell off.

She was carried out into the courtyard and held onto Ruff with all her might. The air was bitterly cold despite the fires that were steadily engulfing parts of the courtyard, the smell of salt reaching her nostrils, tainted with smoke and a bitter tang that she would come to recognise better than any other scent. Her nightgown offered hardly any protection against the harsh western elements, and she noticed she’d lost her slippers. Familiar faces went past her in a blur, so many of them screaming and shouting as they fled. The stench of smoke and death nearly choked her. Through all the chaos and cries of a hundred different names, she could have sworn she heard the voices of her mother and father, calling out her name, and her brother’s; she tossed and turned in the grip of the soldier who still held her over his hard armoured shoulder.

At last she managed to look back over her own shoulder, still wriggling uselessly. Her captor probably couldn’t even feel it and that was why he’d made no effort to subdue her. There was no need. With horror, she watched as the portcullis descended with a resonating thud, with her mother and father trapped inside, along with those who hadn’t been able to escape, or had refused to. They cried out for her, unarmed and bloodied, bound in enemy hands. Still wordless, the girl screamed back, wailing and sobbing. More of her kin and household clawed through the portcullis, her brother among them, even as dozens were hacked down like weeds around them, the dark sky glinting with the red glow of a hundred fires.

The soldier dumped her on the hard cobbled floor, opening several cuts and birthing many bruises. There were others around her, and she recognised one of her cousins; they played together all the time, he’d been helping her to start reading. She saw soldiers of her clan, better at recognising familiar faces of those who worked in the citadel, the unlucky and condemned. By a horrible chance, she looked left to see people still running and fighting against the odds, and saw a mother, a woman whom she’d seen in the stables once or twice before, slit her own child’s throat, wailing to the burning sky and clutching the warm, bloody body to her heart.

The child drew her knees up to her chest and bowed her head down until it ached, crushing Ruff in her grip as she squeezed her eyes shut. Someone wrapped their arms around her. Their smell was familiar; the old Master-at-Arms. His arms were still strong as he held her tightly, a hand cupping that tiny head, not wanting her to see.

She only opened her eyes when suddenly the chaos had descended into a terrible quiet. There were wounded groans and petrified whimpers and sobs.

A great tall man, who wore many of the features as some of her male kinsmen, descended the stairs that came from the great hall to cast cruel eyes and an even crueller smile over the poor souls who were left, their numbers dwindled by their own hands.

The soldier who’d kidnapped her whispered something in his ear, and those black, soulless eyes fell on her. The arms around her constricted protectively.

He stalked towards her, made to look larger than his natural frame by the thick fur cloak that hung from his shoulders. “This is her?”

“Aye, lord,” the soldier answered.

The lord rumbled with laughter. “This is the one Adaranth Drakkar was warned of? This snivelling pup? We’ll set a pretty ransom for this pretty face,” the lord grinned nastily, his victorious soldiers jeering. He took her jaw between his grubby thumb and forefinger, wrenching Ruff from her arms, tearing the toy in the process. “And what about the rest, eh? What shall I do with them? What should they get now?”

The girl sniffed back her tears, looked him straight in the eye, and spoke her first word.

“Mercy.”

When Sabre woke the pillow was cold and damp.

Curly was still fast asleep; wrapped in her arms – although she couldn’t remember doing so – he hadn’t stirred for the whole night and seemed to have no intention of waking, even as she rolled onto her back, one arm remaining trapped under his head and neck. She pulled the blankets over his body further to compensate for the lack of her embrace.

Crushed under a suffocating weight, Sabre felt all too strongly yet nothing at all, shocked into a near stupor while knowing a thousand different emotions were waiting to drown her.

No dream had ever been so vivid, so clearly played out, nor struck her in the heart so deeply. Because it wasn’t just a dream. The sigh made her lungs shudder under the constriction of all her ribs, unable to bend far enough.

It was a thought she would find herself thinking over and over – How could I have ever forgotten that? And the answer would often be the same. Because I wanted to forget. I needed to forget.

I do. I forgot for a reason… My first ever word was a plea for mercy. All the blood and the smoke… A mother slaughtered her own child.

What does that say? It was unfurling, the truth becoming clearer.

She could recall nothing before or after, only one piece of the puzzle had been laid down. It was enough. What good would it do for her to remember now? Everything that happened that night was long, long gone.

However, knowing herself too well, Sabre moved to shake Curly awake. “Hey, wake up,” she said as he groaned at the pressure of her hand on his arm. “Come on, get up.”

Sluggishly rolling onto his back, Curly rubbed his eyes with the back of his forearm. “Why?”

“Because I want to get on. There’s still a lot I don’t know about this place,” Sabre said with a casual shrug, propped half upright but the string of words took an instant toll and she had to resist collapsing back into the cot.

The light haired boy instantly brightened with a zeal Sabre could barely comprehend; with a great big smile he scrambled up, stepping on her arm in the process, and scampered off to gather same of the boys who were already up and about, yelling back over his shoulder that he had a great idea about where they could go. Sabre took the brief interval before he came to fetch her to slip into a private nook to relieve herself – luckily none of her tasks or chores had ever involved anything in that area, something for which she would be eternally grateful. She just had time to snatch a hand-sized piece of salted meat and chunk of doughy bread before Curly called her along. He’d managed to muster a small handful of boys; Pips, Prentiss, Ted and Tootles. Sabre caught herself missing Slightly as they set off without him, all the while Curly prattled on about his plan, proudly as if he were the first one to have had it.

There was vague recognition of the woodland jungle surrounding her, a way they’d come before once or twice on other trips. No one had put a short spear in her hand, and only Tootles and Prentiss had brought weapons besides daggers on belts, a short sword and a bow. They looked personal, loved, on the backs of their owners. Long walks still taxed Sabre quite heavily but she could sense an old strength beginning to reawaken, more quickly than she imagined. As with not needing to take in nourishment as frequently, lacking certain bodily functions and not suffering at the hands of the wild and its absence of cleanliness, Sabre supposed that the slightly excelled revitalisation of her body to health would sink into the background and become another advantage that was taken completely for granted.

The other four Lost Boys had become a little infected with Curly’s joyous manner when they got to the constellation of great oak trees that had been their destination all along; Sabre remembered going by them and thinking that she’d like to climb them. They stood proudly above the rest of the virid canopy.

Tootles lay his bow down, carefully, Sabre noticed, rather than tossing it away. “Let’s do teams,” he grinned, straightening. “Each team should have a little’un, so Curly, you on one team and, Pips, you on the other. Ted, Prentiss, you go with Pips. And Sabre,” the grin, a little toothier now, aimed itself at her, sparkling, challenging, “you’re with me.”

Shaking off all her natural responses, Sabre met his eyes, a bold advance for her, and said what he wanted to hear, “All right.” Climb. You just have to climb. You don’t have to think. Just climb. The branches are low, see? You can get up fine by yourself. There’ll be no reason to get laughed at. You just have to climb.

His face confirmed his approval and it helped a bit. Standing back a bit, Tootles examined the first two oaks in front of them. “Okay, whoever gets to the top first, wins for their team. Go!”

Ted, Prentiss and Pips sprung at the left of the two trees; Pips struggled a little at first with his shorter stature, feet scrambling to find a foothold to spring up from, and neither of his teammates helped him. Meanwhile Curly moved back a little to take a running jump, as Tootles was already doing. Sabre was just about tall enough to leap up from the ground and anchor her hands, her dark haired companion springing up right beside her, and she quickly observed the tensed mass of his arms beneath the fabric of his shirt, lithe but defined.

A quick hand helped Curly up onto the lowest branches and, when Sabre took a peek over, Pips had also made it up but Ted and Prentiss were already ahead.

“Ted’s a good climber but an even smugger winner,” Tootles said down to Sabre. Another challenge.

Challenge accepted, the tiniest of quirks pricked at the corner of her mouth and she hauled herself up one branch after the other. In the circumstance her light weight and petite frame was advantageous; there wasn’t a whole lot of her to be pulled up and she could slip through smaller gaps that the larger boys would have to navigate around. It was the strength of her legs that served her best, pillaring her core as it engaged, drawing in and up to pull energy from the base of her spine as she overtook Tootles and his long, strong limbs.

The two trees started to arc inwards as they stretched ever higher and about two thirds of the way up they became indiscernible from one another. It was only then that Sabre realised that she had overtaken everyone, everyone but Ted. Hugging close to the branch that carried her upper weight, she looked down to see how far behind the others were.

“Don’t stop! Keep going!” Tootles called up.

Ted was only a few feet above her, his own lithe body serving him in a similar way, but Sabre found herself all but completely determined to beat him, or come as close as possible. However, her opponent was as adamant in keeping the girl, closing in, at bay. The pace of his movements initially quickened. She replied in turn. He muttered unhappy grumbles as Sabre manoeuvred around the thinning trunk to overtake him without being obscured, but once they were more or less level, their combined weights made quick movements perilous. The point at which the fall would kill them had long been passed.  

Then Ted kicked out, the point of his boot connecting, a little sloppily, with her shin. He’d expected – more so hoped – the girl to cry out, a taunt of cry baby ready to the thrown at her, so when she only grunted wordlessly, rough in the back of her throat his brief moment of hesitation worked to be all she needed to hoist herself higher, past him. She didn’t kick back.

“Pips, back off!” she heard Ted bark, not repeating her hesitance but guessed that the little boy had managed to scale the tree with the aptitude of a squirrel.

The tree was beginning to sway now. Don’t look down. Keep steady now, keep going. It had grown brighter, airier, as the oak trees stretched above their fellows. Breaking the surface of the tree canopy was like coming up from underwater, the air rich and fresh. The sky called down. Using the tightened strength of all her body, Sabre ascended higher still, rocking her weight back and forward to counter the trunk as it swayed, more and more.

If I fell, how long would it take to die?

“Sabre!” Ted’s voice, reedy with its raising, summoned her attention. “You win! You win, okay? You can come back down now!”

I won. I actually won. Breathing and holding steady, Sabre’s features were picked up by a rare lightness.

Chapter Text

Sabre supposed it would have been too good to be true if her triumphant happiness had lasted. Only when back on the ground had she realised just how high she’d been, nearly tall enough to kiss the heavens, and only then when Ted told her how much further up she’d been than him. Curly chimed in something about breaking a record, and the swell of pride had been enough to protect her for a while.

Back at the camp, in the early afternoon, in the quiet and idleness, another seam tore.

It had been her own fault, she knew full well. Her weakness for curiosity, the same that had brought her to the edge of the chasm a thousand times and dared to look across. A thousand times, nothing could be seen. Until now. The memory-dream surfaced embarrassingly quickly. So much for my restraint and ‘getting on with things’. Once it had started, Sabre was unable to stop. Eyes closed, sat alone, the girl was helpless to herself as one memory leapt forward over murky waters to another mirror-clear pond.

A little older now, her baby features had gone, replaced with the delicate face of a child. She didn’t have Ruff anymore. But she knew she was safe, safe as she would ever be.

The citadel was gone. Her family, people and allies had withdrawn to what she’d heard called the Refuge, in the north. It was still home, she knew but it wasn’t her birthplace, not the silver fortress she’d been born in. The Refuge was greener, and she liked that but could feel the weight in her chest of missing the sea. Sat under a shelter of beams that opened up into a stable behind her, between crates and hay, a book in her lap, opened but ignored, her attention was captivated by what was in front of her.

Her older brother was training with a new master-at-arms, an experienced captain who had assumed the role four years prior, but she always saw them as new. Their name was Lartia Harasia and she had skin like caramel and hair like chocolate, and spoke her words in a different way. Sabre liked it a lot.

Her brother had started growing, the earliest signs of manhood making themselves known. He liked to tie his golden-copper hair half back now.

Sabre had lost count of the times he’d looked over at her, the creasing lines of his face adding false years to him, and that time it caused Lartia to disarm him in one move. “Darien, concentrate,” she scolded, genuine but the severity was lacking in her heart. “Loss of focus, loss of life.”

Darien picked up his sword, sparing another glance to his sister on the way, and stepped closer to his tutor, thinking, falsely, that he was beyond the child’s keen hearing. “She…She hasn’t looked the same. Since it happened.”

Lartia laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We cannot undo the past. It,” the woman sighed, “it is a burden no one, let alone a child, should have to carry. But we are not in the world that should be, we are in the world that is. And she may not know it, but she saved your dear mother’s life, and much more. She did what she needed to, and that is all we can do in these times.”

Sabre pretended to be enveloped in her book.

“But every time I look at her,” the strain choked Darien’s deepening voice, “I see all that blood, on her skin and clothes. I see her crying until she chokes. She’s still just a pup.”

“My dear one,” Lartia went on to recite to him something that was becoming rather common to hear, in times of doubt; their family name, their clan name, and their motto of words paraphrased for the purpose of providing reassurance, a reminder of some great sense of purpose. Sabre knew, because people had started to say it to her, especially since they’d found her wailing by the bloodied, but unbroken, body of her mother.

The rickety bridge across the chasm collapsed again.

Reality flooded back, knocking aside the shields that had separated the girl from all that surrounded her. Dusk had come. The drums and dances had begun, and she’d not noticed at all. The rolling warmth of the towering fire dissipated entirely before it reached her, snuffed out at the cold barrier of her flesh. A thick droplet of sweat crawled icily down the valley of her spine.

That was it. Sabre didn’t want to remember anything more, wanted to drown her deeper mind until it lay dormant, wanted her efforts to be as hopelessly futile as they had been for the last year.

She had forgotten her home, her brother, her name in its entirety, her very lineage. They had been the price to pay. Somewhere along the way, it had become the price worth paying.

Before pretending to be captivated by that book, the name of which was keen to escape her, she had remembered the way fear had taken hold of her brother’s face when he spoke of her. Blood, on her skin and on her clothes. Blood and tears. Several guesses had strung along; of what might have happened, what she might have done, what she might have been found in. She dreaded finding out.

Lifting her head to a neutral stance, in a weak attempt to divert the chaos, Sabre looked into the fire, and soon the boys dancing around it, momentarily and periodically blocking its view, became little more than noise. That was, regrettably, until the flames licked apart and her eyes focused on a silhouette behind the fire, lounging in that great rock-carved throne. The distortion of the burning matter didn’t hide the glow of smaragdine eyes, almost luminescent, or the lifted hand that summoned her, specifically her, with a slow, curling finger.

The weight of all Sabre’s insides plummeted to the pit of her belly. What could he want with me now? she wondered with tired dread as more strength than she cared to admit was needed to stand. The girl gave a wide berth of the boys, who probably wouldn’t have noticed if she’d caved the backs of their skulls in with a rock. It made as good an excuse as any to take her time. The new ones didn’t simply get summoned, at least never so boldly, if hearsay was to be believed; they weren’t important enough.

An apprehensive stiffness poisoned her gait when the Boy-King’s figure became unhindered by licking flames and galloping bodies. His back was cushioned, at a diagonal angle between the back and arm of the chair, by one of the pelts, one long leg slung over the other arm. Elegant fingers were loosely linked, resting on a naturally taut abdomen.

“I heard you beat Ted earlier. At climbing, no less. I’m impressed,” Pan’s unperturbed gaze moved over her like lazy strokes of a brush, and the small tilt of his mouth indicated a possibility that his words were, of some degree, sincere. Really, he was trying not to snigger at her rigidness. “How did it feel?”

The flat tip of Sabre’s tongue pressed against her right canine, steeling at the suffocation of his undivided attention, and she shrugged unassumingly. “Good, I suppose.”

Pan visibly, most likely intentionally, stifled a laugh. “Have you always been so gloomy?”

Sabre shrugged again, neck slouching. “Only when appropriate.” 

The extensive length of Pan’s spine flexed, inadvertently reminding her of how he would tower over her if he stood, and he propped himself a little more upright, fingers still intertwined but his thumbs raised in a calm gesture, equivalent to a shrug. “And what makes it appropriate now?”

Each deflective reply that spun itself wouldn’t have gotten her anywhere. Fire amounted to nothing when it was him looking upon her.

Was her undisturbed doleful existence worth more than his interest?

Sabre looked away to the right, “I remembered something.” Standing above him left an infuriating tenseness on her shoulders that she couldn’t shrug off. Her spine wanted to slump to bring her lower to the ground. “Should – should I sit?” You couldn’t have sounded more like a twat, you idiot.

Sitting upright, then forwards, Pan reached out and took the girl in his hands, handling her as though she were made from the most delicate porcelain. The initial touch was all it took to render an utter helplessness, the prints of those fingers a dose of lulling poison. Her body twisted with complete ease, its weight nothing of a concern to the hands guiding it. There was no chance for her feet to stumble over themselves as she was physically lifted at the hips, just by a fraction, and brought to his right knee. The girl may as well have been made of glass but Pan was alerted to no signs of resistance as he pulled her legs up by the crook of the knees.

Sabre could have sworn that he did not blink once.

Everywhere he touched burned, a power far beyond human ensnaring her senses. The strength in his hands surpassed Rufio’s, by long and far, and what it roused made the sensations elicited by Rufio’s touch little beyond faint whispers.

Pan noted, a little anticlimactically, the helpless wideness of those puppy eyes but she didn’t make a sound, nor a move to fight him as he settled her small form as he wanted. He could spare a bit of effort to put a streak of elegance into her submission, or to uncover it if it was already present, just buried. Mindless dolls were quick to bore him, the ones who only did everything he wanted because nothing else could be conceived of – well, the ones who started like that, who crumbled like pinching sand. His toys had to have character, a soul for him to dominate and make his own. The challenges were deliciously addictive when he’d learned to win a thousand different ways.

From what he’d seen and suspected, therefore, he placed her dumbness down to sheer bewilderment at an unfamiliar act. He could forgive that. Especially since her large, dark eyes were shaped by the sharpness that could only come with a dynamic mind.

It was only when untouchable, imperceptible chains began to tether the girl – binding everything in her eyes to everything in his – that she drew back, motions skittish as she blinked rapidly, trying to cut the ties he’d been weaving.

“Ah, ah, no,” still Pan didn’t blink, and a hand at the back of Sabre’s neck prevented her from being able to even turn her head from side to side. The lack of light made no difference to how well Pan could see; the usually clear gemlike irises had become tainted with murkiness that eliminated the lighter hues of brown and amber. Whatever it was that haunted her so, it had spread to her eyes, become a part of her. “What did you remember?”

Sabre blinked to look away and he let her – because he let her – and answered with what came to her, “Nothing important.” Please, don’t ask any more. I don’t want it. I want it to go.

“I’ll decide that once you’ve told me, pup,” his sight was drawn to the prominent tendons in her neck, so fragile he could snap them like strings, then to the protruding convex bones of her collar. He was about to pin her in a frightened stillness when he caught sight of something that changed his mind. “What’s this?” long fingers ghosted the collar of the pale brown shirt she had on and inched it down over her chest, all without touching the flesh.

A natural aversion came with looking down at her chest, so she tended not to. Yet another matter to never be questioned. It was different though; it was physical, this one.

Pan removed the fabric barrier until he could see it all, and understood what it was.

Left from a cruel, delectable, burn, it was no ordinary scar, and nothing like those so many of his Lost Boys carried. It held the shape of a symbol of protection; three ovals merging together in the centre with a perfectly round circle binding them in. The Triquetra.

Her skin had healed as well as it could have done, the flesh left a daisy white – like the little flower – almost too perfectly precise against the natural hue.

“I don’t remember.” The Boy-King knew the words were truthful. She might have tried tactics of deflection but she didn’t strike him as foolish enough to attempt an outright lie. Pan wondered vaguely if she ever would.

He resettled his arm, binding her close by the shoulders and the midriff. If she thought she was getting away with an air of imperviousness, her performance was both adorable and laughable. All the ticks and signs were right there for him to see. A fool might have been convinced of her stoic attempts, but not him.

“Why don’t we play a game?” the proposal was positively glazed with sin. He smirked at her widened eyes. “Just a little one; you have you tell me little secrets, things you can remember. If I find them interesting, you’ll earn yourself some prizes. How does that sound?”

A number of silent responses all stumbled over each other. She didn’t have the daring to voice a single one. If there was one lesson that had begun to work its way into her bones, it was to never challenge or, worse, refuse the wild boy who was king, demon and god in the land they could never set foot from.

The wise decision was acquiescence. But, even as she nodded, Sabre wondered over and over if he knew what he was doing. What he was demanding of her.

How could he not? He wouldn’t have chosen it otherwise.

“So, go on,” Pan’s arms constricted, curling her in further so she had to peer up helplessly to see his face. “Tell me a secret. Doesn’t have to be a big one. Just anything.”

A great clamour shattered the apprehensive sheen of quiet in her head, only hazel eyes quivering, the rest of her features stilled. It first occurred to her that none of what had awoken was particularly interesting, at least not to her, followed by the reminder that she very likely had a very different sense of what interesting was. He was only interested by what he could use and what would give him greater power, in any form. Secrets, slips of knowledge; they would put her in his hands, string by string.

She could tell him she’d had a brother, maybe still did. She could tell him her family name. She could tell him the colours of her family’s banners, or their old motto. He won’t like any of those. At least not to start with. Perhaps she could add them as little tangents, to show her compliance to the game. She pondered if he knew why the name she’d readopted, and the nickname pup, struck raw nerves.

The right secret then rose easily to the surface.

“I remember my first word,” Sabre whispered, eyes lowered on the V-cut collar of Pan’s tunic. “Not being told what it was. Actually saying it.”

Pan carefully allowed her silence, to breathe and collect herself, and was already piqued in his attention. The girl was a cautious thinker, it was one of the first attributes anyone with a lick of sense would decipher. He could see she was trying oh so hard to put the next words to her mouth, and responded accordingly, “I’ll let you stay here a bit longer, if you tell me.”

It was more difficult than she thought it would be. The word couldn’t stop itself from stringing along images of blood and flames, painting them messily across her mind’s eye. If Sabre let herself go by a fraction, she could envision a different pair of arms around her, a different fire heating her skin.

“It was mercy. My first word was mercy.”

One weight lifted and another one came down in its place.

Having bowed her head low, the girl couldn’t see the smirking grin that nearly split Pan’s perfectly sloping lips. “Isn’t that just adorable?”

Sabre could have sworn she was about to growl. Words so malicious, dripping with venom, seethed internally with a cold fire that made her hands ache with energy, to hurt. Gods, she wanted to.

Pan sensed everything and his laugh was effortless. “Easy, now. Easy.” He adjusted that rigid body frame to rest more comfortably, the strength in his hands, the attention devoted to settling her, kindling that docile streak within, and it came to the fore with so little effort that it was troubling. Cupping the back of her head, Pan tucked her face into the crook of his neck, her legs hitched up further against his side.

Sabre breathed in his scent, the wispy ends of his tawny bronze hair so close to her nose, instantly addicted to the masculine, woody aroma, while her fingers ached to hook over the collar of his shirt and hold on like an infant as the burning in her palms shuddered away, departing along with the will to hold up the resistance.

“There, now,” Pan all but cooed when she let out a sigh that relaxed the contours of her shape into the firm planes of his chest and arms. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it, pup? Not a bad start. Not bad at all. We’ll definitely need to play again.” It came as no surprise whatsoever when the girl didn’t answer and instead pressed her cheek a little harder into his shoulder, fearful that he might pry further.

Even in her worn state, she felt sick and wanted to flee. Each moment she began to give in to the warm cage of the Boy-King’s empty embrace, a spiral of choking panic would erupt from the core of her chest. So often, she looked docile at the exterior; that was where it stopped.

Jolting herself for the dozenth time, Sabre’s eyes flickered up to reaffirm her surroundings. The drums were still playing, the fire still dancing, the Lost Boys still singing and howling to the sky, as though nothing were amiss. Though their vigour had somewhat declined. It’d all been worth silence to her ears.

Habitually, she spared a glance to Pan, expecting to find him drinking in the sight of all his enthralled disciples, basking in it. There’d never been a chance to look closely at him while his attention was elsewhere, so Sabre took it while she could.

Her eyes couldn’t find fault in his beauteous features – the sweeping, angular planes of his face; a strong jaw and neck, and high cheekbones, layered with alabaster, silk skin; lips that carried a sensuous blush hue and brought on the wonder of what it might be like to be kissed by that mouth. She went on picking out even finer details. There was nothing she didn’t like.

It was wrong.

Appearance stayed mostly the same, but its appeal could alter, soured by hatred, enhanced by love, or longing.

His beauty was cruel. Everything physical about him was captivating, drawing in an uncountable number of hearts and minds, all of which he’d snatch up for his pleasure, however heatless or consuming.

“You’ll learn soon enough that struggling is pointless.” The trance was shattered when Pan turned to face her, having felt those captivated eyes lingering on him. He kept a moment of silence, allowing deep hazel and emerald to pour into each other. Sabre could see, feel, his dark strength, knowing with increasing horror, that he was looking straight into her soul. “It’ll be so much easier when you give in.”

He’s so certain, like he knows exactly what will happen… But he does know, doesn’t he? He’s done this all before. Gods know how many times.

They were so close already but it wasn’t enough. As though detached from her body, locked out of her mind, Sabre’s hand reached up to the side of his neck, her touch so tender and innocently curious. The advance was briefly interrupted when Pan glided a hand under her clothes, touching her when he had before, only now relishing in the soft warmth of her bare flesh. The delicate bones of her hip rolled under his palm as he squeezed her closer, and he found himself slightly taken aback at how she had not broken yet in the harshness of Neverland. Not that he was criticising.

Just a little harder, and she’d shatter; the idea exhilarated him. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t loved the sensation of hot blood leaking through his fingers.

He could both hear and feel the rapid beats of her heart, coaxing him to slowly curl his lips in a smirk. How easy it would have been to make it skitter and tremble, to make it stop altogether. To tear it from her chest and crush it in his hand…

Blissfully unaware of her captor’s musings, Sabre followed the easy route of the submissive side of her instincts, reaching up to eliminate the final distance between them. She pressed her forehead ever so slowly to Pan’s neck, closing her eyes to cherish the feel of his cool skin. Quickly pulling back, she was suddenly timorous and ashamed all over again, biting her bottom lip as Pan caught her eyes. She’d just handed over a vital puzzle piece to him, and didn’t gauge its gravity.

“I know what you need,” he whispered, deceptively gentle, “and I know you see it in me. Do you think that was a mere coincidence as well?” he sighed and rested his forehead upon hers, made the softness seep into his voice. “You only bring this on yourself. Enough fighting, little one; nothing else matters anymore, stay here with me, and give me everything I want.”

Not yet, she whispered back in her mind, not yet…

Tonight though, just for that tonight, she would let herself submit to the Boy-King’s embrace.


 

“C’mon, you two!” Tootles called over his shoulder, while pushing back a long hanging leafy vine with the butt of his spear.

Having fallen behind, Sabre and Nibs broke into a gentle jog to catch up with the rest of the search-cum-hunting patrol. There’d been news of a mauled mother bear about two miles north of the camp, a feat not easily accomplished, even on Neverland. Nibs had been talking to Sabre, or rather at her, about having her trained in military arts, a set of skills necessary for survival. He’d praised the soldierly characteristics that seemed to come naturally to her persona and asked, half-heartedly, if she’d had any training before. There were no prizes for guessing her tight lipped answer. In his own roughened way, Nibs reassured the girl that plenty of the boys came to Neverland with no such experience.

“I tell ya,” Nibs said as the pair of them caught up, “Sabre has been talking my ears off!” He sent her a sly grin.

“She makes less noise than Felix,” Rufio added with a flash of teeth, “and that’s saying something.” Only he, or Pan, could have made a remark about the boy and gotten away with it. He checked the crude map that Sketch was carrying. “Should be just up ahead.”

Sabre got the sense that far more was going unsaid. Takes one to know one, she sighed and followed on. She’d been lucky enough to escape the hauntings in her own head. So far, no more cracks had bled, and she could only hope none would. If her thoughts did begin to wander, she’d halt herself with a well-rehearsed mantra – If I forgot, I forgot for a reason. And none of it matters now that I’m here.

Rufio trekked ahead over the high mound that obscured the view of what was beyond. Lance and Tootles followed.

“Oh, fucking hell,” the others heard Rufio’s curse and clambered up and over the mound.

In the downward sloping clearing, dead and mangled, was the bear carcass. Little to no meat was left on the bones, which themselves were splintered and broken, and the hide looked as though it’d been torn by scythes; anything useful they could have scavenged from the beast had been taken or ruined. Rufio and Tootles crouched around the carcass to examine it further, handling it in a way that made Sabre’s tummy feel odd.

“This can’t be happening,” Nibs muttered under his breath to no one as he slunk past her and skidded down the slope. Sabre pursued.

Rufio stood, wiping his hands together, but that only made the blood smear. “Looks like we were right. The Neverbirds are heading back.”

“But they shouldn’t be this far south,” Sketch protested feebly. “We chased them north.”

“Well, evidently, they’re back again. Only a Neverbird could manage this,” Nibs snapped.

The boys took turns in probing the remains of the bear, all coming to the same reasoning. Despite keeping a distance, Sabre could see no signs of rotting or parasites. Apparently things didn’t decay as quickly in Neverland, alive or dead.

“What’s a Neverbird?” Sabre tentatively asked, eyes pulled to the boy she trusted most, which, of the lot, turned out to be Nibs.

Already regarding the skies with a newfound caution, Nibs replied, “You know what a Roc is? Think that but more…gnarly. We’ve been very lucky for a while and they’ve not bothered us, but now it looks like they’re getting brave again.”

“It might have only been one; they don’t always hunt in fleets. We can take on one,” Tootles spun his spear with finesse to accent his point.

Nibs swatted him round the back of the head. “Save the macho display for Pan. Might even work this time.” It was an easy snarky remark to make with the proud bruise on his neck still visible.

A sprinkle of laughs were just beginning when a piercing screech cleaved the calm air, like long nails down a surface of flint.

There was no time to look up as a darkness descended on them. Larger than a horse, all bright feathers and talons, the Neverbird lashed out. The Lost Ones were only quick enough to duck, and even than wasn’t enough to save the flesh on Tootles’ back. Nibs grabbed for him, practically throwing his weight at the boy to send them hurtling to the ground.

The Neverbird ploughed through a scatter of branches on its way up and the forest matter clattered to the ground all around them. Sabre’s forearm took the brunt of what would have done far more damage to her face.

Rufio wrenched Sabre’s spear from her clenched hand and hurled it at the Neverbird as it turned to swoop in for another attack. “Run!” his barking order collided with the pained and enraged shriek of the winged beast. She’d never seen anything akin to fear in his dark eyes before. “We’ll find you!”

The boy’s attack had singled him out as the Neverbird’s prime target, allowing Sabre to scramble to her feet and bolt, fighting the pained groans that wanted to leave her, while the rest of the patrol readied themselves for a bloody fight. There’d been a flicker of desperate hope for her unexplained combat ability to awaken, so she could have stayed and at least offered battle before fleeing, defenceless. Useless.

The roaring howls of wild boys and chilling screeches drove her on, lashing like a metal-tipped whip at her back. Her feet became nimble in the erratic speed, dancing over stones and roots, but it didn’t stop her from startling a small herd of deer into flight.

It was only so long before even the fight-or-flight instinct, that rescuing reserve of stamina, ran dry as well. She could still hear the battle behind her.

Then up ahead, peering through the overlaps of trees and jungle, Sabre spied a shelter. The weight of her lungs made her heave as she continued to run on. There was another screech, but that time it was followed by a boy’s cry, then by more roars, human and beast. Sweat, already beading on her hairline and column of her spine, turned cold.

The shelter took the form of a great tree with a trunk more than seven feet from end to end, a swarm of thick roots stretching out like a tangled woody moat. Also like beams for a dwelling beneath. Moss and leaves had grown over in parts but also rugs and clothes had been slung over the roots, and the state of them implied a long standing neglect. She didn’t have time to notice the numerous carvings on the trunk itself as she slipped down and concealed herself from sight.

The closer to the trunk she edged, the easier it became to stand a little higher. It was then that she realised that the earth under the roots had been deliberately dug away, any collateral roots in the way removed to make way for a tiny camp that was now long abandoned. Tucked away in the darkness, Sabre curled into a small ball, weight not yet eased into the natural cushion of her rear. Nibs was right, she would need to be trained, and quickly.

She was unsure of how long she waited, but when she next heard a scream, it was not that of a Lost Boy.

It had come from somewhere behind her, round the other side of the monumental tree.

The sound carried a softness, a smooth quality. Like warm honey.

Crawling on hands and knees, Sabre took every precaution to stay quiet as she manoeuvred under the shelter of roots, even as the restriction of breath crushed her lungs. The earth was cold and damp under her palms.

Whimpers of the same voice followed, and a laugh, a cold, manic, gleeful laugh.

Oh no…

All the ethereal golden splendour that the Fae King had dazzled her with had been carved away, leaving him bare, glow-less. Broken. Each of his tiny limbs were strung up by spider threads between two willowy trees that could be effortlessly grasped in the hand of a human, spreading his bruising body, with not a shred of dignity left to him. Not a thread left to clothe him. His wings hung limply at his back.

Or, what was left of them.

So torturously close, one slip would have given her away.

Pan pinched Oberon’s right leg, just above the knee, and rolled the cracked limb between the pads of his thumb and forefinger. The same way he’d twirled the little white flower, just more unhurriedly. The fallen Fae King groaned helplessly, hands fumbling to grip the spider threads. “Did you truly think I wouldn’t find out?” Pan’s voice was low, deepened to a rumbling baritone. “Did you think you could hide your treachery? From me?

Oberon coughed weakly, chest still aching from where the demon had pushed down. “The child deserves to know the truth. If she cannot be saved, then she should at least know the terms of her imprisonment. And when did honesty become a crime? To a usurper, of all.”

Those terrible knife-like fangs bared in a smile. Pan placed a hand over his heart, feigning hurt. “Usurper? I always preferred the term ‘conqueror’. And after all our happy times together.” The Fae King looked away, nearly crushed under the weight of his own shame. “Oh,” Pan purred with malicious delight, “so you told her nothing of the truth about yourself,” he paused to laugh at a thought; “Can you imagine her face if she discovered the truth? What a perverted little creature you really are?” His grip tightened by a fraction, but it was enough to make the fairy whimper.

“None of it has anything to do with her purpose here,” Oberon gasped out, taut in bone and muscle.

“Really? So you didn’t sing the praises of the old Neverland? Hmm? Thought so. You coveted the time when you had me all to yourselves, and you know it. I’m assuming you didn’t reveal any of those finer details.” Pan plucked at the spider thread tied to Oberon’s leg, sparing a moment just to listen to his pain before he continued, “It’s been centuries since you’ve revealed yourself to an outsider; you’re always careful, in that regard. I suppose you knew you wouldn’t be able to hide it forever, so why take the risk?”

The little being panted in a few breaths, without fight, voice weak and straining, “You have great power, but you have never been able to take our Sight from us. You have not – cannot – see what I have. But – but we have both read the signs. She deserved to know.”

Pan’s chuckle was scornful. Slowly, his long fingers curled around the two trees and leaned in, the wood groaning under his hands. “No,” he growled out, low, baring his teeth mere inches from the fairy, and knowing that all Oberon could see was him. “No, no. You’ve long dreamt that whoever was revealed as the Fairest Soul would give you means to challenge me. You’ve fooled yourself into thinking that her future link with Neverland might weaken my own, and that maybe, just maybe, you might get a piece of your power back.”

Oberon’s head hung low, shaking pitifully from side to side. Even at the height of his power, there’d always been something about the boy’s eyes that reached deep. Too deep. He’d known for so very long that every passing day and night with the angelic demon was just another link in the unbreakable chain.

“Now, that wasn’t ever going to happen but if you’d stayed hidden away you might have gotten the chance to live through some rather exciting times. Although, I can’t say much for the life you’ve been living for the last… how many years?” his tone lifted with the question but his eyes didn’t follow, instead remaining stone cold even as they burned. “Does Titania still have her moods? I remember she could keep a grudge for quite some time. I lost count of how many times I told her that drowning incident was an accident.”

The grin on his face didn’t chill Oberon’s bones nearly as much as the twisted glee that ignited those virid orbs. His queen had wept for days and days over her treasured kin. Meanwhile Pan had laughed into the night, intoxicated in his monstrous capabilities.

“And it’s not like it stopped any of you coming back to me. Hmm, perhaps I should tell that story to our newcomer sometime, I’m sure I can recall the details.” Pan then ran his tongue up the tiny king’s other leg, from ankle to hip, taking his time, the once-glowing flesh still permeated with a sweet taste that he wanted to savour. The tip probed a little further, and the Fae struggled against his bonds, whimpering. The other’s chuckle was rich and taunting, “Just like the old days.”

Oberon kicked out with both legs despite the searing pain, struggling beyond all reason and the binding threads began to fray. The flesh of Pan’s tongue was warm and wet, unyielding as it cruelly toyed with the fairy’s thrashing limbs, still denied freedom by the bonds. “If it must end then end it now!” the Fae King pleaded, eyes squeezed shut, head tossed to the side. “Please.

The noise sent a wave down the muscles of Pan’s back, wrapping round to tighten in his lower belly. After so many centuries he thought the satisfaction of hearing pleas and implorations for mercy he’d never give might have wilted.

Apparently not. Good.

“Oh, come now. I’ve always been the type to play with my food, you know that,” he crooned, and paused to snap the threads holding Oberon’s feet with nothing but a thought so he could flick his tongue over those tiny broken limbs. Blinking slowly, Pan’s eyes levelled with the Fae’s bruising hips. “I’m sure you just hate yourself right now,” he whispered, a rumble that made the tiny creature quake.

The answering sob, strained and hitched, told him exactly what he already knew. Oberon could only try to breathe through the agony that crippled his limbs, struggling against something even more harrowing as lips closed around his ankles and sucked very gently, before advancing up his calves, pinning them together at one moment, spreading them apart the next. The tip of Pan’s nose ghosted his abdomen and, daring to open his eyes, Oberon found the demon contently occupied with his ministrations, practiced and adept. The disgraced king was grateful for the pain that kept him sane.

Higher now, Pan’s lips drew in those little legs up to the thighs, and hollowed his mouth to suck with more strength, while the willowy trunks in his hands groaned and bowed a little further inwards.

Skin pulled, muscles crippled, vessels bursts, bones trembled, cries intensified.

“Pity,” Pan drew back by an inch, after letting the glistening boneless limbs slide out, just far enough to meet the other’s watery, red eyes. “You always took me so well, for one of your kind. I don’t even have to be hard to be bigger than you, but that never scared you off. Quite the opposite,” if he’d blinked he would have missed the tiny twitch that made him grin sneeringly, “You remember. I suppose I could offer you some agency in your own death, for old times’ sake. What d’you say?”

No longer able to hold his head upright, shoulders twisted excruciatingly. Even if the threads were cut he was unsure if his arms would be able to come down.

The air was chilling on his legs, and the bursts of energy had fallen away. “Let it be quick. Let it,” he gasped hoarsely, “be quick.”

The other tutted lazily, “Is that the best you can do? How dull of you, Oberon. When there’s so much to choose from.” He watched the petrified dances of the Fae’s dimming, once-golden irises, and his smirk pulled even wider.

It was rather like the first time.

So many of the Fae folk had held the same countenance in his presence.

Lifting a hand, so huge against Oberon’s form, Pan cupped the body with a gentleness that only prepared the Fae for something terrible, and with the pad of his thumb, the Boy-King traced the left side of his cheek, eyes gleaming at a wave of quivers reverberated into his palm. Pan leaned in close, letting the heat of his breath burn against flesh, “Let’s see…what could we do?” Drawing back his lips, he bared his teeth, just by a fraction and growled near silently in the back of his throat. “I’ve always loved the taste of Fae blood. Shame there’s so little of it. But you’d make for a decent morsel.” Pan snapped his jaw shut with a distinct bite of teeth coming together. Just a whisper away from Oberon’s chest.

A bite strong enough to break through flesh, muscle and bone in one clean, effortless slice.

Oberon’s whimper was like a dead, hollow bell. He turned away, accepting the futility of struggle. If he’d done nothing else, he had departed vital words to the child who would, he hoped against hope, would be one of Neverland’s last victims. He may not have been the holiest of creatures, but some murmurs of consolation were able to reach in, for he had never been a creature of cruelty or evil, and if he died for taking a stand against the tyrannical demon, then so be it.

“I could just close my fingers,” Pan deliberated as he ensured that Oberon could feel each of those long digits encircling the whole of him. It hurt more in some parts than others. “And just keep on getting tighter, and tighter. Listen to you scream, then lick up what’s left. Or, I could drown you, but then it might be the humiliation that ended you, and it would take a bit of time. You’re not exactly as appealing as you once were.” He imagined the glare or remark the fairy might have thrown back, knowing where his words were true and where they were little more than provocative teasing; knowing how the unearthly boy could control his body like no other mortal. In reality, the body hung limply in his hand, barely moving, so cold and quiet, barely alive.

To fill the gap, Pan glided the tip of his tongue from Oberon’s thigh, the broken one – although the little being made no noise other than a shaky breath – all the way up to the frail elongation of his neck, ending at the jaw’s contour in one fluid, unhurried motion. Under different circumstances, the gesture had been received with a very different response.

“And you don’t deserve that,” the Boy-King spoke when it became clear Oberon wasn’t going to satisfy him with a response. “It’d be too good for a traitor.”

W-Wait,” Oberon coughed weakly in his throat, wincing against his bonds. “Pan…Peter, please. Enough. I,” he coughed again, “I know that I have defied you. But never have I acted in a way that would prevent you getting your wishes, one way or another. I know that the girl shall be yours, there’s no doubt in that. If I may have one last request?”

Exhaling through his nose, Pan drew back a fraction, eyes hard and lips a thin line. “Go on.”

Oberon drew a deep breath, knowing almost beyond certainty that the next words on his lips would likely have been his last. “The blood of the Fairest Soul has already been drawn many a time, an even greater number of wounds left in its wake. If you are capable of mercy, let her be the one you give it to, for no one needs it more.”

In a moment, the fingers around him tightened and yanked, snapping the threads binding his arms, along with a couple of ribs and his collar bone. Wounds opened on the inside.

“Duly noted,” Pan hissed and tossed the fairy to the earth like an old bone. He didn’t bounce once.

Heel firmly planted on the ground, Pan pivoted to bring his booted toes over the body that was still clinging to the fibres of life, immense and unforgiving. The wild god’s judgement had been passed.

“Long live the King.”

 

Commission for @palemoonpersephone :)
I was excited to draw something from OUAT again ^3^
Please support @palemoonpersephone and check out their fanfiction!
https://archiveofourown.org/works/13432953

Chapter Text

A greater darkness filled the sky, that night. Dim were the stars, as if in mourning, and the moon stayed hidden behind a screen of smoky clouds, only the weakest flickers able to claw out.

They’d lost Sketch to the Neverbird and there wasn’t enough left of him to bring back. Tootles and Nibs had taken carvings of meat from the bled out beast as recompense for their wounds, while Rufio had tracked Sabre down with little difficulty. She’d not exactly done much to cover her tracks.

He’d found her huddled and shivering, long alone, and she’d tried to shake off that everything about her was even more subdued. The boy might have poked fun at her if it were not the harrowed murk that poisoned her entire face. Very little held any measure of sanctity to him, but leaving one’s ghost to their hosts was one. Both of them had their skin prickled by a newfound cold, but neither acknowledged it. Rufio noticed how her footfalls were heavier, much heavier, like she was doing nothing apart from dragging along her own deadweight, and how she hardly blinked those glassed eyes.

The Neverbird meat tasted of nothing in her mouth when they sat down for their evening meal, wounds bathed and bandaged. Sabre barely felt a thing when Curly came to sit on the floor by the long log she perched on and used her thigh as a rest for his head. The muscles were sore from running and stiff from curling. She hardly felt that either.

Everything physical in her ached for water. Not to drink but to fall back into, to be caught by nothing and everything; to hang in a limbo, hearing nothing, seeing nothing except shimmering blue, where the world could crumble and she would never know.

“Get lost for a bit, Curly,” said a voice from above and beside her, and it was the first Sabre had noticed of Nibs’ presence although, rarely, she didn’t flinch. With a pout, the smaller boy did as he was told and Nibs swung his lean legs over the log to sit in the space beside her. “You got off easy out there. If you were just another Lost Boy you would have been killed or disgraced a coward, if you’d run and lived. Tomorrow, you’re gonna start your training.”

Taking her gaze from the fire, Sabre nodded mutely.

“Slightly will start with the basics of swords, spears and hand to hand, then Rufio, and probably Felix, will take over when you’ve improved enough, and then you’ll start joining the sparring sessions. I’m going to teach you how to use a bow and how to use stealth; you can use an old bow from the storage, meanwhile Archer and James are going to teach you how to make your own bow and arrows. Also Vasha can give you training in strengthening your body so you’ll be more competent in all the combat arts,” Nibs went on to explain, noting how her next nod had a little more vigour in it.

Training, working, crafting, it would keep her busy. Stop the thinking, stop the remembering.

“So…you should probably get some sleep,” the boy added with a shrug to thinly disguise the command.

Not tired, Sabre would have mumbled if her lips hadn’t been clamped down and sealed together, and once it became obvious she had no intention of moving, Nibs released a small breath as he stood and slipped away to join some of the other boys – who they were, Sabre had no interest in.

It would be yet another night where she would have to remain awake until it become impossible.

Come morning, Sabre was roused sooner than she would have liked. The faintest whispers of dawn bleeding through into the sky was the last thing she’d remembered before having a hand on her shoulder shake her awake. Of course, it was Nibs, and she’d had to dismantle herself from the nest around her made up of Curly, Lance and Slightly. Then, after letting her have a bit of bread and meat and a gulp of water, Nibs brought her to the weapons hut.

“Put your arms out,” he instructed, and Sabre did so. She stayed perfectly still, under orders to stay as relaxed as possible without slumping, as he examined the length of the tip of one hand to the other, his mind working swiftly but easily after so many years of practice. “Okay,” he said when he was done and was rummaging through the supply of weapons. “I think you’ll do best with a recurve bow, between fifty four and sixty two inches – keep that in mind when you’re making a bow for yourself. And we’ll definitely start with a relatively low draw weight and work our way up,” as he spoke, Nibs’ hands found a bow used for training boys who were a little on the smaller side, quiver of arrows, finger tab and armguard that would serve adequately enough for training purposes. She got away with not having to wear a chest guard – her jerkin was sturdy enough to do the job.

He led Sabre away from the camp, after stringing the bow, towards the south-east, while many of the boys were yet to wake. He didn’t bother asking if she had any experience in the field of archery, theoretical or practical. A little clearing near their camp had long ago been designated to archery practice; the one nearby, which was bigger, served for sparring practice. Giving her the bow to hold in her right hand, Nibs secured the armguard around her left wrist and the tab on her right fingers, having checked she was right-handed.

It was remarkably easy to hold the weapon in her hand.

There were four targets at the opposite length of the clearing, their colours faded with age. Two had clear rings to distinguish accuracy, and the other two were simply blank, faded and worn, so as not to discourage new learners, Sabre supposed. Morale is important.

Nibs was about to direct her hand to the correct position to holding the grip of the bow to find it already in the prime position, not clenching it like an axe or spear, so he moved on to retracing a shooting line that was closer to the targets than others. “Okay, one foot on either side of the line, shoulder width apart and parallel, weight equal in each foot. With practice you’ll figure out any adjustments you want to make to your stance but the square stance is the best to start from.”

The instructions were easy enough. Sabre stood facing the blank target side-on, felt the pull of instinct and let it take over. Relaxed strength framed her legs, neither locking nor slumping, feet planted firmly; her spine stacked to bring her hips in line with her shoulders, which drew downwards, while her tailbone tucked, power drawing up from the core. If her back became hollow and body misaligned, she would lose balance and power, and therefore the shot.

Nibs eyed her, head to toe. “You sure you haven’t done this before?”

Perhaps I must have, Sabre thought in the same distant voice she would have spoken with. She didn’t want to make another attempt at rummaging through her subconscious, never knowing what might be uncovered, if anything at all. But if her body could stir with old talents without her mind waking, she’d take that as it came. It might just save my life.

She took a breath, wetted her mouth. “What next?” But her voice was still husked.

Nibs helped her mount the quiver on her back so it angled towards her right shoulder, disrupting her stance as she briefly had to swap the bow between hands, and he pulled out an arrow as she reset herself. “When you take an arrow from the quiver, you want to hold it between the nock and the fletching, see here,” he ran his finger along the tiny length of the nock, then along the curve of the fletching. It had been made from a Neverbird feather, a long time ago. “See how this one is darker? That’s the index vane and should be the one face upward,” he prompted her to lift her arm just so he could hold the arrow in a mock firing position, where the other two lighter fletches faced down and away, mimicking the shape of a triangle.

He directed her through nocking the arrow – beginning with the bow pointed down and placing the shaft of the arrow on the arrow rest, tip also angling down. The arrow was then rotated until it lay between her and the riser of the bow, while Nibs assured her that there would be no rushing in the early stages and that she’d develop her own way of doing things. When a Lost One learned to fight, Nibs made it his duty to make sure they did so properly. Sabre repeated the stages of nocking several times, at the same time practising to keep her square stance through the motions.

Mayhaps when she became good enough she could put an arrow between Pan’s eyes.

The next step was setting the bow before drawing. Sabre held the bow grip between the soft webbing between her thumb and forefinger, which curled around the wood, while the remaining three of her knuckles gently slopped down and away. She opted for a one over-two under grip on the bowstring, fitting it in the joint of the first knuckle and drawing her thumb down and in towards her palm. It came naturally. Sabre could practically hear a repeat of Nibs’ remark, even as she gripped the bow a little tighter than she somehow knew she should. That would have to be worked on.

“When you lift your bow arm, you want it straight but not locked. Keep your elbow like that, so that if you bent it, it would go to the side and not down to the floor. Make sure your shoulders don’t tense up – it’ll throw off your balance,” Nibs traced the line of her bow arm with deft fingers before reaching round to bring her drawing arm closer into the centre line, “Your forearm should be as close to parallel to the arrow as possible. Remember the set is just as important as the draw. You don’t get the set right, you’re not gonna get the draw right either. Now raise your bow arm just a little bit above your aim, roughly in line with your nose, and move your drawing arm behind – like this – so it’s in line with the arrow.”

Already, Sabre was eager for the day when the weight of a bow, her bow, would be a natural extension of her arms, when she finally shed her bodily weakness. Early training would bring aches and soreness as her strength regrew; there would be tiredness and frustration along the way, but one day, she wouldn’t even think about it. And it made the moment a little more bearable.

“Now, pivot your upper body so it’s facing towards the target. Make sure your feet are firm,” placing his hands around her narrow ribs, Nibs rotated her torso back and forth a few times to acquaint her with the movement. His touch was nothing like the ones Rufio and Pan had laid on her.

Something she appreciated greatly.

“You’re doing pretty well. There’s a lot to remember. So, now, I want you to undo the steps – lower the bow, remove the arrow and put it back in the quiver, come out of your stance. Then repeat everything we’ve done so far. Take your time,” Nibs gave a nod and took a step back.

Set, nock, stance.

Set, nock, stance, Sabre repeated as she undid her progression, a bristle of energy on the surface of her skin under Nibs’ avid watch. She looked to him a couple of times, once as the nock disjoined from the bowstring, and when she came out of her stance, careful not to smudge the shooting line. He gave her an assuring nod.

Stance, nock, set.

Stance, nock, set.

Work from bottom up. Feet, legs, hips, chest, shoulders, neck. Nock, set. Easy, easy.

Feel behind for the fletches. Keep the bow down. Rotate the arrow. Place it on the rest. Listen for the snap. Set. Deep breath.

One over, two under. Lift arm. Elbow rotation. Keep the bowstring in the first knuckle joints. Shoulders down. Keep forearm in. Bow arm a little higher. Rotate upper body. Just breathe.

“Not bad,” Nibs spoke when Sabre had worked back up to the set-up stage. “Really not bad, at all. Are you sure you never did archery before?”

Going rigid, her grip grew far too tight, her joints locked, muscles coiled. “Quite sure.”

“Okay, well, let’s do it again.”


 

For about the sixth time, Sabre rolled her shoulders and neck. It would be one of the first of many, and she feared it’d get worse come morning. She’d clenched her jaw when she’d taken her turn with Slightly and Curly to get a bowl of stew and chunk of bread. With a sprinkle of salt it had tasted just fine. At least her stomach was content.

There’d been no sign of the Boy-King all day, nor all evening. Sabre didn’t trust herself with the prospect of seeing him. Visions of fleeing in barely contained tears rose to the forefront of her mind’s eye. No, stop. Don’t think of it. Don’t think of it.

But I can still see his face.

Stop. Just stop!

“Sore by any chance?”

Spooked, Sabre raised her eyes, already knowing it was Rufio. It was easy to fixate on the toothy grin, even easier to envisage a shark showing off its jagged rows of jaws. He waited only a moment before sliding down next to her; she hadn’t noticed that she’d been sitting alone until then.

“Somewhat,” Sabre breathed stiffly, looking to the ground. She heard his soft chuckle.

“It’ll get easier,” he said shrewdly. “That and you’ll just learn to carry it better. Jerkin off.”

Knowing better than before, Sabre did as she was told, grimacing as the aches flared up with the movements yet the deep voice of praise that immediately ensued soothed a part of her that could never be touched by any hand. There was no reason to gather strength for a protest as Rufio handled her slight frame until she was perched on the edge of the log between his thighs, several inches between their bodies as she slumped forward and dumped some weight into her own thighs through the thick of her forearms. She didn’t like that she flinched as a pair of heavy hands settled on her skin; long rough fingers curled over the slope of her shoulders and thumbs pressed into the muscles framing the insides of her shoulder blades that drew upwards to cradle her neck.

Revolving the pads of his thumbs, Rufio sought out the knots in her upper back, smirking to himself as the girl slumped a little more. “If you get in Felix’s good books, he’ll give you the best rubdown of a lifetime. He’s bloody good with his hands.”

“You’re not half bad,” Sabre muttered.

“Well, aren’t you sweet? Maybe I’ll put in a good word for you – tell him how soft you are.”

Sabre had little doubt that such a situation would ever present itself in reality. Still, the flattery was easy enough to take. I must be tired.

She rolled her neck as Rufio continued to knead the strained muscles, pushing words to her tongue as she righted her head; “What am I doing tomorrow? Nibs made it out like I’d be having a pretty busy schedule.”

Rufio snickered. “Yeah, he can be a bit like that. Although you’d be surprised at how organised we can be when training a new recruit. Good training makes the difference between life and death. It can be somewhat demoralizing when Pan has to go and fetch more and more boys to bolster our numbers because their predecessors were too idiotic to learn how to survive out here.”

Attempting to put aside the crawling shiver that manifested at the base of her spine, Sabre tilted her head to one side to feel the stretch, just shy of painful, of muscles on the opposite side. “When was the last time he brought more boys back?”

“Look who’s suddenly become a chatterbox?” he swept a few stray wisps of hair from her neck, knowing he could paralyse that little body with less effort than massaging it.

So two fuller utterances make me a ‘chatterbox’?

Noted.

“You’ll probably spend some of the day with Vasha,” Rufio continued easily, hands now lowering to the growing concave of her spine. “You’re not the first kid to get brick stiff after the first day of training, and I doubt you’ll be the last. But bear in mind, you can tell him to fuck off at any given moment. If you don’t want to learn, he won’t want to teach.”

Sabre nodded slowly, quietly wondering why the question had been dodged, if it meant anything. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

True to her dread, the girl was aching horribly the next morning, even if sleep had been a little easier than the night before. Brick stiff, she thought begrudgingly, perfect description. She tried to ignore that the sensation was peculiarly familiar.

A good amount of effort went into untangling herself from the mess of boys she’d slept in the midst of and not disturbing them with her winces and grumbles. As usual, she snuck away to relieve herself with a tightly held breath before nabbing a good amount of food and water that would keep her going until afternoon or evening with ease. Something would have snuffed her out already if her body still required as much nourishment as it had on the mainland. Several times, she’d heard it called The Enchanted Forest and each time had turned sceptical. Rather bitterly. With what she’d been able to scrape by on it’d not merely been the cuts of lean muscles that had wasted away. Skin, once and presently soft, had been rough and cracked, always covered in grime; hair had grown unkemptly long, greased and dull. It’d been easy enough to bite her fingernails when they grew too long, even if the taste was never particularly pleasant but trimming the ones on her toes had required rather more time and difficultly. More often than not there’d been a tickle at the back of her throat or ache in her chest that would last for days at a time. She’d never once had enough money for medicine.

Neverland was restoring far more than her physical strength.

It was becoming fairly common place for Sabre to stir before many of the Lost Boys. She accounted it to the many mornings she was roused barely after sunrise on the docks and harbours she’d preferred to hang around. It allowed her a prime pick of food so there was little to complain about, locationally speaking. A helping of bread, meat and fruit was a good enough way to start the morning.

Don’t think of it.

Don’t think of it.

She rummaged through the many faces of Lost Boys, assigning names to faces through her mind’s eye in a feeble distraction, and once mostly sure of Vasha’s face, Sabre ran her gaze over the handful of boys who were already up and about as well. He was among the several Lost Boys she’d never had much interaction with – any, at all, actually. So when she saw him, patching up a tear in his cloak, she wasn’t sure of how to approach the stranger. A reasonable degree of familiarity, Sabre had found, could be found through simple companionship during patrols or explorations, or words passed around the fire. Not even a glance had been shared with Vasha.

If it had been a usual day of her life, Sabre would have waited, rather passively, for him to come to her – give her instructions to follow, put a little purpose in her. But I’m alone, I know what will happen. After scrapping the crumbs off her relatively clean clay plate, Sabre laid it back with the others and approached the boy.

“You’re Vasha, right?” she probed cautiously, shoulders hunched as if to lower her whole height.

Straightening his posture, Vasha’s almond eyes rose the girl’s awkward face, and lowered his cloak, thread and needle down. “I am,” even from such a short utterance, the accent shaping his words was effortless to pick up on, lovely to hear.

Already fidgeting on her feet and inwardly grimacing at the clammy heat in her palms, Sabre threw a last attempt to keep her next words framed by a steady voice, “Nibs and Rufio said you’d be training me?” It could have come out worse.

The swiftness with which he rose caused her to move back by a step, left foot slightly behind as if resuming a defensive stance. Vasha appeared as though he’d not noticed, and instead eyed the lengths of her shoulders and arms, then her legs. “You move rather stiffly,” he observed.

Sabre let out a breath. “Yeah, it was my first time training with a bow in…quite some time.” It seemed like the safest option to take. She’d hardly mastered the bow in her session but little things had come quite naturally to her, not needing conscious effort; and that made it most reasonable to assume that somewhere in the sleeping oceans lurked an archer.

“You are weak, as well,” Vasha commented, arms folded.

Fighting a persistent sputter, taken aback by his overtness more so than the utterance, Sabre comprised her reaction into a small shrug. “I’m just small.”

The boy shook his head. “No, weak. There is nothing wrong with being small – small is good. Swift, agile, but not weak.”

Now Sabre folded her arms. “Happens when you’re severely underfed for about a year.”

There was a brief but thick silence as Vasha examined her frame with a little more depth. “I can help you – I can make you strong, unite your mind and body. A person cannot fight another if they are at war with themselves.” He then fetched two rolled up animal pelts, gave one to her, and bid her to follow him.

They travelled out into the wilderness, further out than she’d gone the day before, and did not stop until nothing but the sounds of the wild were around them, and their human presence felt utterly lonesome in existence. Vasha unrolled his pelt and laid it on the ground; Sabre watched him keenly before imitating the action herself, placing her pelt to mirror his, lengthways, a couple of paces between them.

“Take off your shoes,” Vasha said, reaching for the lacing of his own boots. “Then sit, cross legged, facing me.”

Following her orders, Sabre watched the fluid grace of his movements in enacting such simple tasks, leaving her feeling rather awkward and clumsy.

“This is a practice from my homeland, and it is the only thing I brought and kept with me,” Vasha began once seated. “In my language, it simply means union – that is, the union of the body, mind and spirit, and serves to make all three stronger. I understand that it is strength of the body which allows us to thrive most here but, as I said before, a body cannot be at war with the mind, or the soul. I will teach you how to relax and restore your body so you may train in other arts without pain, and I will teach you how to cultivate strength and power, which will allow you to excel. It might just save your life. A prime position to begin with is this one: sukhasana, the pose of ease.

“I want you to sit tall, lifting up from the ground that cradles you but also drawing down to meet it. This balance may seem difficult to begin with but it will come with time. Try to align your head over your heart, and your heart over your pelvis, and to ground your thighs down. Rest your hands wherever they feel natural, and as you breathe deeply, allow yourself to create space between your shoulders and ears. All your mind needs to be aware of is your body and breath.”

It came naturally to close her eyes as she adjusted her body as closely in line to his guidance. With a little experimentation, it felt best to bring her hands peacefully together and rest them on the slopes of her calves, allowing the muscles to sigh with ease as they relaxed inwards. It was harder than anticipated to ensure the heaviness in her thighbones or to keep her shoulders and jaw from tensing whenever her thoughts wandered to another part of her anatomy.

Simply sitting, there was a slight pull in the length of her back, skirting on the border with pain that felt so good. The breath, deepening in her lungs, merged with the tickling whispers of leaves far above and distant birdsong.

“You might turn your head from side to side, or draw some circles with your nose,” peeking, Sabre saw how Vasha was doing the exact movements he was describing, and followed suit.

Turning her head first to the right, the stretch not only tugged at her side but reached down the back of her left shoulder, the sensation deep and rich. It was the same on the other side. After one full circle of her nose one way then the other, Sabre found it much nicer to roll her neck in the shape of a crescent moon, gliding her chin from one shoulder to the other, absolutely loving the pull in the back of her neck when she bowed her chin down low.

“Allow your breath to become deeper. And be sure that your spine and core are supporting you. You don’t want to be slumping into your bones like deadweight, so allow your belly to draw in and up, pulling in your strength. We call this uddiyana bandha. Think of a lift, not an uncomfortable clench, as your muscles lock in their strength. However you move, you begin with your core and move from there.”

Sabre thought back to how she had rotated her torso, tightening her abdominals, to come into the stance for setting her bow. She’d known, somehow, to move from her core, regardless of whether she’d enacted it effectively. Once power was drawn into the core, it could be sent upwards and downwards into the rest of the body without diffusing its own power.

Vasha breathed slowly, batting his own molten hickory orbs open. “Good, well done. Your body will tell you what it needs, be sure to listen to it. I have always believed the sensation to be of more importance than the shape itself. Now, interlock your fingers and bring your palms to face outward. Make sure to keep your shoulders from gripping up; think of your shoulder blades being pulled down your back,” Sabre followed Vasha’s actions more than his words.

There was a little pain in her shoulders as she extended both arms to full length, fingers weaved together and the heels of her palms pushing out and away.

“Inhale, and reach up and over your head.”

Initially, the muscles pillaring her torso winced in complaint, and Sabre inhaled an additional breath, which helped a little.

“Think of yourself lifting through the front of your body and drawing down through the back. You don’t have to reach as far if it causes pain, listen to your body. That’s it, and with an exhale release and lower your arms to your sides. We’ll do that twice more,” Vasha said, voice gentle and low, seeing the tenseness in the girl’s arms as she lifted them, reaching a little higher than her body’s comfort to test the boundaries before lowering them a fraction to gain from the movement.

It was tricky, surrendering her thinking mind. Counterproductively, whenever her body slipped into peaceful, restorative dominance, her mind would marvel at its ability to do so, drawing her back to the starting point. Once Vasha had guided her through a few gentle stretches, mainly for her upper and side body, from a seated position, he directed her onto a position on all fours. Cakravakasana, he’d called it before clarifying that it was more easily known as the box or table-top position. Sabre preferred the original. He guided her to bring her wrists underneath the shoulders and her knees underneath the hip points with the tops of her feet connecting with the ground as well, spine and neck neutral. He warned against collapsing into her shoulders, however strong they were, and instead advised that she should press up and away from the earth, recreating that same space between the shoulders and ears and the drawing in of her belly as she’d started to practice.

“Now, inhale and drop your belly, while your chest and hips tilt upwards. You might feel a good stretch in your back and maybe your lower belly. Be careful not to collapse into your shoulders,” Vasha reminded while rolling his supple neck from side to side. “This is Bitilasana. Then, as you exhale, round through the spine, starting at the tailbone. Focus on drawing your front body to meet your back body, that uddiyana bandha. Really focus on your spine flexing and the skin of your back stretching. This is Marjaryasana; it goes hand in hand with Bitilasana. Repeat it a few more times, remembering to inhale as your spine curves inwards and to exhale as it draws upwards. You are perfectly allowed to merge free movements if it serves your body, see as I do. Good, feel no need to rush yourself.”

His praise went a long way, as did his open patience. It wasn’t difficult to see a trustful bond forming with him as her guide. Repeating the line of thought as the day before, Sabre imagined the day when her body would flourish in its quiet strength and it would no longer feel like a cornered beast she had to tame with subordinance to wield, painless and calmly powerful.

“I want you to now curl your toes under, like this, move your palms a little further in front, and imagine someone is lifting you by your hips, raising into this inverted V shape - Adho Mukha Svanasana,” no extent of his calmness could keep the vile image painting itself in her mind’s eye.

When trying to envisage an invisible force drawing her hips up from the ground, all Sabre could perceive was Oberon’s tiny little body in Pan’s monstrous grip. It was all too easy to think of a giant thumb and forefinger pinching her by the hips and lifting them against her will, as helpless as the piteous Fae King.

“It doesn’t matter if your heels don’t come to the ground, they will in time,” Vasha’s soft toned voice wiped away some of the choking vapour like a gentle hand.

Sabre fought to pull her attention to how her heels most certainly did not come to the earth and the deep pull in the backs of her calves. She looked over every now and then at Vasha’s form, trying her best to mimic it without causing further injury. Their gentle routine continued for almost an hour, and Sabre was positively certain that Vasha showered her with more comfort and praise in that time than she’d received in the entirety of her memory’s duration. It was coveted more than the physical relief.

Sabre was about ready to go back to sleep when she came down into the last position of the practice, Savasana, while Vasha explained its benefits. By lying flat on her back, supported by the earth, with her legs stretched out long and arms resting at her sides, palms opened, her body would be brought to rest. Any heat and fatigue built up would dissipate, the rhythm of her heart would slow but not weaken; both her body and mind ideally restful and satisfied.

With their boots retied and padded pelts rolled back up, and tucked under their arms as they returned to the camp, Vasha slipped in that the hot springs nearby would help to ease her discomforts in between training sessions and pointed her in their direction. Choosing to take up the suggestion, Sabre laid her pelt down with careful hands. She didn’t have it in her to call after her guide to ask when they’d meet again, not with plenty of ears around to hear her speak. Not a head turned when she withdrew again. Good.

And only solitude accompanied and met her at the springs. Even better.

Encircled by smooth stones of many grey and brown hues, the water itself was a pale blue, with the faintest murk, shared across three different pools, all large enough to swim in. Wisps of vapour, barely visible, twirled upwards out of one the pools in the most delicate of spirals before vanishing. Sabre decided on the coolest looking pool. Coming nearer, the dirt thickened with the grit of ground up rock.

Crunching under her feet.

Like bones.

Lurching, as if an iron-gloved fist had barrelled her in the abdomen, a hot sickness wrenched in her belly. In the flitting moment of panic, the blood from her face drained in a need to rescue her heart. “Oh,” she nearly choked, stumbling back until the ground was mercifully silent beneath the soles of her boots.

The breath was all too shallow in her lungs as she fumbled to undo the bindings of her shoes so she could rip them off. Leaving them where they’d fallen, Sabre extended her left toes, both limbs quaking as she channelled the tiniest fragment of weight down into the appendage and brushed against the rough gritty soil.

Barely a sound.

Finding a quality of breath that flowed a little deeper, she inched forward with rigid yet feather-light baby steps, unable to stop herself flinching, nearly whimpering, as the gravelly earth rolled under her bare toes. Don’t think of it. Just get to the water. Water can wash away more than dirt, more than blood.

The crippling of her lungs gave way at the radiating warmth of flat stone and she continued to tread as lightly as possible to the water’s edge. Through the thin murky veil, Sabre could gauge the depth. Deep enough to swim and dive. To go down and down. To the best of her awareness, she was alone. Piece by piece, she removed her attire and laid it all out on the rocks before folding her legs gracefully under. The stone was a little rougher than it looked against the backs of her thighs as she swung her calves over and into the water. She anchored through the arms, grit against their soreness, and pushed herself all the way in.

The warmth of the water was a caress, immediate and consuming. Around her ears the splash echoed and dozens of beading bubbles rolled up her limbs. It never occurred to close her eyes; they were numb, unaffected. The short waves of her coppery hair danced about as she sank gradually to the bottom, drifting among the tendrils of jade. Rocking her form through the blue, Sabre stretched out, gliding her arms to continue the descent all the way until the length of her back was cradled by the pond floor. Sunlight shattered on the threshold in a thousand glittering diamonds.

Movement might never have come again. She wouldn’t have minded that, she liked the water.

In the calm and peace, Sabre waited for the constriction in her chest, to be reminded all too strongly of snatching hands and scaled fins, but it did not come. It should have started to hurt. There was only numbness. Whether she was as close to life or as close to death as she’d ever been, she didn’t know. Didn’t care.

Deep brown hazel orbs gazed as far as could be allowed without turning her head, all the while waiting for the pain that would compel her body back to life, and wondering what by the stars could be keeping it at bay. Sabre blinked once, flexing her ribs as though taking a breath.

As her eyes widened, the shining light dimmed, poisoned by a shadow, and she suddenly shuddered, getting a dreadful sense that she was no longer quite alone.

Chapter Text

Pan’s treehouse, spacious and positively grand by relative standards, always looked cosy under the watch of a dozen lamps and candles, disingenuously so. The Boy-King himself reclined on the double bed, plush pillows embracing his neck and shoulders, one arm relaxed behind his head, the other absentmindedly petting the closest part of Rufio’s form. He only shared his treehouse with his favourites. The dark haired boy was a somewhat precarious position, with his head at Pan’s feet and one of Pan’s long legs slung over his waist, placing his upper body between the other’s heels, his own stretching up towards the head of the bed. His tan flesh was marred with purpling bruises and bite-marks. The blood had mostly dried.

Pan’s fingers ran over a fine gash, marked by his own talon nails, on Rufio’s backside without meaning to and the boy tensed in the effort of catching the hiss before it escaped. But, of course, the boy never, ever complained. Pan didn’t really notice. Or rather, he couldn’t have cared less. The lapping strokes of Rufio’s tongue between his toes was far more attention-worthy. He should have brought Felix up as well, then sighed out slowly. Oh well, next time.

It was when Rufio became distracted that he shook off his content daze, and bent his knee, applying a pressure that squeezed the other between the muscles of his calf and thigh. “Something on your mind?” Pan inquired, half a threat. The colour of his eyes flickered as though someone had struck a flint beneath the surface.

Having known better than to attempt a dodge, or worse a falsehood, for longer than most alive, Rufio lifted and craned his head. “The girl, is all,” he admitted. “Just that she seems quite promising.”

Pan’s smirk was sharp. “You want her.”

Rufio gave a shrug that was uncertain and honest. “It all depends really, if she’s who you need. I’d prefer it if she was, compared to others,” he paused to ease a little more onto his side. “Don’t you want her?”

A flash of warning darted across luminescent orbs. The privilege of prying was not a reciprocal one with Pan. But Rufio didn’t think he’d be surprised or particularly enlightened by any answer that his leader might have given him, as many reasons for him to assent as to dissent.

“Why is it you want her?”

At first Rufio hesitated as the sole of Pan’s large foot bumped against his cheek and he nuzzled back. “She’s got assets, and potential, I think. Looks like she’s got some warrior in her. Such a pretty neck too… Hm, I’d like to see her kill something. See what she becomes.”

It made Pan grin to think that he’d as easily slaughter her as worship her if either were upon his orders. Still, he could see Rufio’s point. Gods, the boy always looked more delectable when images of blood and death painted themselves across his mind’s eye. It had been much of what had drawn Pan to him in the first place.

“And if she’s going to be here for some time, then why not have some fun with her?” Rufio added with a shrug that pulled the muscles in his shoulders, still sore from the echoes of Pan’s hand grip and too shattered to grin or smirk at the same time, resting his chin lightly on Pan’s shin.

“You really believe it’s her, don’t you?”

“Who else would Oberon have betrayed you for? Surely, it’s just a matter of how long before she gives in.”

The tips of Pan’s dexterous fingers glided up the crevice of Rufio’s hind just for the pleasure of seeing him shudder. Large red marks, some in the form discernible handprints, had grown bolder against the natural hue of skin.

“Why do you think she can’t remember things? Is it some spell or curse? Could it be reversed?” another thing Rufio had learned was when he could probe a little further, and Pan was much calmer than some nights; nights when he’d really have to clench his jaw and grip whatever he could as the wild god claimed him while burning tears bled mindlessly, when not even he could hide the pain he was in the following sunrise.

Mercifully, Pan saw no harm in indulging his curiosity. “No, this is all by her own design. The cleverest part is that not even she fully knows it. For whatever reason, she’s put her mind to sleep, but it’s waking up again. Ideally, I’d like her in my possession by the time she does. I’ll pay her a little visit tomorrow. Don’t you worry,” the flat of his palm connected lightly with the swell of Rufio’s backside, a gesture that could even be considered affectionate, “I’ve laid a little trap or two.”


The shudder was what made Sabre’s body fully and obediently human again. The weight she’d been expecting now plunged into her chest and, once her body had frantically righted itself, she kicked off from the ground towards the shattering diamond light.

Air caused her lungs sing as she broke the surface, instinct knowing the very instant it was safe to part her lips and gasp. Starting at eye level, her hand raked back, wiping out water and loose dripping hair from her face. There was no immediate sign of another presence. Still, she kicked and pulled herself through the water to the safety of the pond’s edge, finding a large rock to plant her feet on. Curling a secure grip in the moss and rock that rimmed each pool, Sabre scanned the pond over each shoulder, all the fine hairs prickling along the length of her spine, all the way to the base of her skull.

Someone should be here.

Someone is here. Three guesses who, fool.

She stilled like a doe or rabbit that had caught the scent of a predator on a drifting wind. Two conflicting instincts locked horns. The trees stilled and no birds sang. The water barely rippled against the rocks. She could only hear the heavy air on her tongue.

“I see you found my springs, then.”

Sabre embarrassed herself with the cry that fright stole from her. Taut like a drawn bow, the girl’s watch shot straight up. Sickness churned in her lower belly as she was met with the exact same sight that she had imagined the Fae King witnessing in his final moments. She was left as small as he’d been, gawping up, petrified, at the tyrannical iron-fisted demon.

Her legs had clamped together, elbows clenched at the chest. I’m sorry, oh gods, I’m sorry. “I-I – I’ll go.” Bringing her gaze down low, lower than the toe of his boot, Sabre bit on her lip against the shameful quaking of her limbs. She wanted to tell herself it was the physical exhaustion.

Stay.”

Pan stepped along the water’s edge with heavy footfalls, having frozen the girl in place like a well-trained dog, amused at how she drew in on her own form, hiding in his presence. Ashamed, even. He didn’t have to be looking to know that those dark eyes had been trained on every move. After all, what could she do?

An absent thought pulled the clothes from his body, leaving them nowhere.

Hazel eyes were caught by the lightness of alabaster flesh, wandering first over his torso, taking in the lean but strong packs of muscle on his chest and abdomen, and the delicate curve of his waist. She looked a little lower, past his bellybutton, to the V of his hips before turning away quicker than a blink. She heard Pan’s mirthful chuckle sharply in her ears, followed by the sound of bare flesh touching stone. “Oh, am I really that scary?” he taunted with an edge of scorn.

Proud as ever, Pan stopped to let her just look, standing tall, a young god, ever-strong and powerful, knowing that nothing could ever touch him. Swallowing, Sabre prayed for the water to extinguish the rosy blush, which was creeping down to her chest. It was utterly horrible.

Was this the kind of shame Oberon felt?

He stepped right to the edge, perfectly maintaining balance with his toes curling over as if to crush the very stone beneath. Naturally his feet were large, but then Sabre could hardly imagine the Boy-King having little dainty features as she did.

As though having forgotten her presence, entirely at his own leisure, he dived into the pond.

She recoiled from the splashing water as if it were burning oil, and took the moment to draw closer to the edge, pressing her side up against the slick wall, not cowardly enough to turn her back completely, nor brave enough to face him head on. The water lapped around her collar, a degree of her bodily modesty preserved by that thin murk. The bareness of her body stirred a repellent notion, not something to be recognised as shy insecurity alone.

Naked means vulnerable. Vulnerable means you can get hurt; that means you will get hurt…

…Who taught me that?

No chance was left for a contemplation as Pan rose the surface with ease and grace, eyes alight with unholy mirth, hair darkened and dripping, and his strokes through the water were effortless with such long limbs. Right towards her.  

“Turn around. Away from me,” he breathed, not quite near enough to have found footing on the rocks.

Infuriatingly obedient, Sabre did exactly as told.

She felt his warm breath shower over her neck and shoulder blades. He was so close. Fright pushed her body flush with the edge of the pond. Under the water, Pan’s foot brushed against her ankle as he grounded himself, eliciting a flinch and a small gasp. What do you want? What do you want, even the voice in her head was tightened with apprehension.

Pan’s hands settled on her bare hips, firm but not rough. Imperceptible stokes of lightning roused, igniting a fire that choked her, and a single thought whirled around and around. A few inches of small distance was left between their bodies, thank the stars, however Sabre had a dreaded sense that it wouldn’t stay like that for much longer. Making a sound almost close to purring, the Boy-King rubbed circles in the dimples of her lower back, perhaps to avoid spooking her as he brought his lips to the shell of her ear. “Are you ready to give your blood to me? I’m getting rather tired of waiting,” the rumble of his voice sent a tremor down her neck, spreading out around the bones of her ribs. “I think you’ve learned that it’s unwise to bore me, pup.”

But you might need me, Sabre thought with a quiet voice.

“What’s holding you back?” now there was a dangerous question, and Pan knew so. Of course he did. He inched a little closer, caging the small body in, and took one hand to mirror the grip she had on the pond’s rim.

“I don’t know,” initially it was true, but with further scrutiny Sabre realised two different reasons, one of which was easier to admit. “I didn’t ever think this’d be my place in the world.” I don’t know what to do with it all.

I would still escape if I could.

“Then I suggest you accept that it is. The sooner the better,” the voice at her ear was deep and growling, dripping poison, and before it had silenced the hands gripping her hips locked and twisted her around so that she could see the last movements in his lips.

But how would I even do it? What would have to happen? Sabre thought as she struggled to find an appropriate place to rest her fluttering eyes and to swallow her heart and stomach back down. She could have sworn her ribs were still rattling. However, Pan wasn’t waiting for an answer.

Instead his attention was drawn to studying the shape of the body he had trapped; he turned her head from side to side, getting a taste of the contours by touch, before running fingers along a prominent collar bone to an equally distinct shoulder. The girl flinched at nearly every minute, silent, inspection, burned by the contact.

“Are you afraid of being touched?” the sudden mildness of his tone caused her to look up sharply, startled by the flicker of what sounded like genuine inquisition.

Evidently, the slightly sharper retort went, naturally, unsaid. “I’m not used to it,” Sabre awkwardly replied, an uneasy shrug momentarily lifting her shoulders.

“I assume that you’ve never lain with anyone. That you can remember? Or ever.”

The girl shook her head, not completely sure of what he was searching for, or of how to take the comment. “Why?” she piped up, asking in the broader sense, gaze levelled with the strong column of his neck.

Not unlike Rufio had done nights ago, Pan’s hand slipped below the water to trace the curving swell of her breast in a ghosting connexion. The grin wasn’t missed when Sabre pressed her lips, and legs, together to seal in any sound. She could no longer tell which of them elicited greater infuriation.

His hand halted its search and tipped her head up by the chin, as if allowing permission to look him in the eye. “Well, I was talking with Rufio last night and it got me thinking that,” the bronze haired boy took a quick pause, for purely theatrical purposes, “a female presence might make a nice addition to my,” he trailed off again, making his face look contemplative.

“Harem,” Sabre said before she could give any thought, surprising herself. Not knowing where such a response had come from, it had come with frightful ease.

It made Pan chuckle lightly. “Yes, I suppose you could put it that way. My harem. Quite a creative word for you. That is, if you were to stay on a more permanent basis.” He dragged the back of a finger along the hard line of her jaw, knowing too much pressure would crack the bone. Her dark eyes were puppy-like again.

“Do you do this with all of us?” an edge of melancholy lined her voice.

“Some, though not all,” Pan replied with a dismissive nonchalance. “I even took a few to my bed before they proved to fail me. They’ve all thought they were so complex, so special, unique, in some way but you’re all so easy to work out. Along you come, one after the other, believing you’re such complicated puzzles but I put you together, and then I can take you apart. Though I can’t deny you’re the biggest challenge I’ve had for a long time. I’ll be quite disappointed, I must admit, if you fail me as well. Do you know anything of pleasing a man?”

As if beyond the reaches of any control, Sabre found an answer rolling off her lips, “Nothing of pleasing a boy.”

In spite of herself, the slap didn’t surprise her. But it did hurt.

She was left gasping as the burn marked itself on the flesh of her cheek, redness already trickling to the surface in protest to the assault, a strain tugging at the side of her neck. A primal rush coursed through the map of veins – life, alertness. Even if it was pain, it was not desolate or dull. 

Do it again.

“I had more faith in your intelligence, pup. I’d advise against disappointing me even further. A simple no would have sufficed,” he clenched her chin with bruising strength and saw how she bit back the whimper, just how she had seen the edges of a grin even if her cheek wasn’t going to be tolerated. Good, he couldn’t stand excessive noise, unless directly by his design. “Next time, don’t expect so much lenience.”

Sabre’s head hung naturally low as she nodded once, adequately tamed and released. There was still a deep burning sting in her cheek but she didn’t dare move to lift a hand to soothe it. What on earth had she been thinking? She didn’t want to be hit again.

Tentatively, the girl returned her neck to a neutral stance, finding that Pan was eyeing her features musingly and the only reasonable thing to do was mimic him. Looking at her face then, the Boy-King wondered how she would appear in bliss, in torment, and the delicious combination of both. Preferably favoured towards the latter. If she didn’t already, he had decided he would teach her to love, and crave, the hurt he inflicted upon her body. It was easy enough for his imagination to conjure images of how she’d come alive under his attentions. He found her pretty enough; too tender and sweet, but equally capable, and malleable. The right qualities were in her, raw and prime, he just had to draw them out, make them his own. That was, if she proved pleasing enough to be worth it. He was hardly going to put in the time and effort if he wasn’t going to be paid back in full. With interest.

Dragging the pad of his thumb along the girl’s lower lip, the claret hued flesh warm to the touch, Pan deliberated if she would have a tendency to bite down on it or how it would feel to sink his own teeth in, and how far her jaw would stretch, if she might choke on him. A picture of eyes squeezed shut, a hand fisted in her hair to keep her still as she cried in the back of her throat, body trying to wrench itself away from the invasion rose to the fore of his mind, so vivid that the struggles nearly felt real on the surface of his skin, even as the girl was achingly still.

Stirred by the creations of his mind, Pan wound both arms around Sabre’s torso, the palm of one hand splayed between the protrusions of her shoulder blades, the other at her lower back. The strength of his body was sinfully inviting; her body trembled with the effort of remaining as detached as possible. With the lowest of hums in his chest, Pan pressed closer, close enough for her to feel every single pulse, not caring if his hold was too tight on that delicate frame. There was the tiniest gap between Sabre’s lips, barely enough to let the gasp out, and her spine ached to bow forward by that fraction to bury her face in his neck, close her eyes, breathe him in. But still, she steeled herself against temptation, clenching the hands that were braced against his collar.  

Tiny water droplets dripped from the inky ends of their hair onto their shoulders, and Sabre wished she had longer hair so that she might shield herself, however fleetingly, behind its veil. Another pulse and her lower abdomen locked in. The body of Neverland’s master was not of the bulkiest form yet his strength was apparent enough to make up another piece in the puzzle of what made him so disturbingly fearsome, and he did not have to be to leave her feeling as little and brittle as a child’s porcelain doll.

Another pulse and the moan nearly got free of her.

And it chilled her to the core. Reasoning that it was all down to the simple fact that she couldn’t have gotten away no matter how hard she tried did not come to her as honest. Where hatred and revulsion should have pierced every membrane, her body was filled with aching heat, and all she could think of was having his mouth put to hers.

“Are,” she whispered, intending to get his attention first, “are you going to-?”

“Careful you don’t get ahead of yourself, pup,” Pan answered with a glinting grin. “You’re going to have to work harder than that. Don’t think that I don’t know what you want me to do.”

Kiss me. I want you to kiss me. Gods damn you. It was pride that kept her silent, though it couldn’t prevent the blooming redness over her cheeks that she could no longer blame on the bite of his slap.

She was going to crumble, she just knew it. An attempt to lift her lips to his would end with a bitter failure, perhaps another strike on her face, though it wouldn’t amount to half as much as the scornful humiliation. A distraction, she needed a distraction.

Something. Just anything.

“How do you know who to look for?” she asked with a voice that wavered, much to her disgruntlement. It didn’t matter if Pan saw through her tactic, he just needed to indulge her.

And indulge her, he did. Reaching his hand behind her, Pan plucked something from thin air, and when he brought it towards him Sabre saw that it was a tiny roll of parchment, unaffected with the wetness of the fingers that touched it. He held it out in his palm to her.

Sabre picked it up, with care not to fumble as she unrolled it. She beheld an androgynous face with shortened hair of a medium hue that could have been any number of colours, and dark eyes frozen in mourning. It was easy enough see herself in that face when she looked in the right way but no more difficult to find a multitude of other faces in there as well. Others who had been captured and tried, who had failed.

“And they’re all dead,” she thought aloud, whispering mournfully. You killed all of them. Like you had Lukas killed and Oberon butchered, and all the rest I wasn’t here to see slaughtered. Yet it wasn’t towards him that the disdain grew.

Pan pinched the drawing from her hands, after which she folded her arms delicately at her chest, and whisked it away to its usual resting place. “All except you.” Encircling her thin wrist with his thumb and forefinger, Pan gave a little tug at the forearm that was concealing the flat plane of her chest and paused for the briefest moment to dare for a challenge, feeling for the pull of resistance. The movement was slow enough that her rigidity couldn’t be blamed on having been spooked; but there was only the littlest strain before Sabre allowed him to expose her chest. Or rather, expose the Triquetra scar. At least she was learning the futility of even the smallest defiance. “Have you happened to remember how you got this yet?”

No, I don’t want to remember anything else. “No, not yet,” she answered, close to guiltily. “I’ll tell you when I do.” It occurred that she should offer up another, less impressive, revelation in lieu of the one sought, gnawing at her even as divulging secrets was the last thing she wanted to do.

“Tell me something else, then.”

Damn.

A spiteful, reckless voice suggested that she could spit out that she knew what he’d done to Oberon or any of what the Fae king had imparted to her. It was a voice there purely to be ignored, and Sabre had to choose another well to draw from. Something true. Something that will interest him.

She thought of the name given to her at birth and of the titles she inherited through simply living; in essence, they would likely reveal a lot. Perhaps it’d be interesting that somewhere along the road of her life those names and titles had needed to be abandoned – though for what reasons she had no idea – so she had been left with a childhood nickname, one that would mean nothing to no one. It’d be giving a name that belonged to someone that was no longer her. Imparting someone else’s secret.

That was why she’d kept her nickname, simple and unattached. Until it had started to slip away now and again, like a brisk tide coming in and out. It wouldn’t do, though.

“I did something,” her voice was weak and she paused to wet her mouth and swallow, eyes refusing to lift to meet his, “something terrible, when I was a lot younger. I don’t know what it was that I did for sure, but I think it was to protect my mother from something. I’d just seen my seventh summer and I remember sitting outside, pretending to read, and listening to my brother talking to our Master-at-Arms; he was saying how he couldn’t get the picture of seeing me crying and,” Sabre drew in a deep breath, her heart galloping erratically and bringing a dizzying hotness to the threshold of her skin, “and covered in blood out of his mind.”

She made a tiny sound in the back of her mouth at the throb of heat against her hip. Raising her gaze, Sabre came face to face with the most avid of expressions, urging her to continue without uttering a word.

Licking her lips, she did so. “Apparently I’d done what was necessary but my brother was so afraid that I wasn’t the same anymore. But I can’t remember what it was; I just know it was something terrible that I did.”

The hum Pan gave, near inaudible, rooted from the very back of his throat. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”

I hope I don’t anymore. “Suppose I must have done,” Sabre said, voice subdued. The skin under her curled in hands and the water between their chests had grown warm, and the aches stroked every surface, starving on the arms and body that kept her bound. Any fragmentation, however tiny, in her will would have her reaching to kiss him, biting those lips, tugging wet hair, legs clinging to slender masculine hips. Pressing her thighs together was quickly becoming a futile effort in placating the heat canting her hips in the very bones.

She’d been so lonely – it was enough to overpower almost anything.

That’s why he’s come so close. Of the few theories already birthing, it struck as the most plausible. The reward, however unassuming it appeared, had been given in advance, and only received with realisation.

“Then it’s probably still inside you,” Pan commented surely, while a droplet ran down the side of his face. He drew back and the rippling water was starkly cold on Sabre’s bare skin. Someone with a heart and humanity might have felt sorry for the look on her face, but then, humanity was only prized when it was attached to strings or reduced to blood and dust. “I trust you’ll do what’s necessary this time as well.”


Sabre counted three sunrises since Pan’s unprecedented visit. Three shameful nights of the tyrannical Boy-King conquering her mind, loathing herself for each moment of it, as the island dwindled into sleep and her body ached after the long days of training with Nibs and now Slightly too. If she closed her eyes and longed hard enough, she’d feel the hands on her back, the warmed water between them, and the heated pulse against her hip.

Hope was becoming quick to abandon her and the necessity becoming harder to deny, when something remarkable happened.

Sabre had withdrawn to the edges of the camp, tucked away within the trees, sitting quietly and keeping to herself, since she didn’t dare go back to the springs again. It didn’t matter how brutally sword and bow had assaulted the map of muscles, a long hot soak was off limits. Then she heard running footsteps approaching; she straightened her spine, narrowing her eyes to scout the woods. Hawk-like, she spotted Rufio bolting towards the camp, and he had one word on his lips.

Pirates.

He called out to the Lost Boys, summoning, rallying. Manic with ecstatic bloodlust.

Soldiers were not rallied for a trading agreement.

Sabre didn’t need to think. Her rigid muscles flooded with adrenaline to break their iron encasement as she waited for the camp to descend into noise and chaos as the boys scrambled for their weapons, before taking off like a hound on the hunt amidst the calamity. Instinct hooded her mind. She moved faster now, mastering agility and swiftness, bounding and leaping through the jungle. Her strength refused to wane as she bounded on and on, lungs defying the restraints of human nature.

He’s here. He came back for me.

Killian’s come back for me. Like he promised.

Repeating those thoughts like a mantra brought tears of wrenching relief to her eyes and filled her with rare elated joy.

Branches swept against her but she was too ecstatic to feel the stings of pain that would haunt her later on. If anything, each only gave her another surge of vigour. Nothing would keep her from reaching her captain and his crew. Her mind had already painted the picture of seeing Hook and a few of his crew on the shore, with the little row boat grounded in the sand, and the Jolly Roger anchored just off the shore. He’d be in his long leather coat, the metal hook at the end of his left arm reflecting the light.

Leaping the threshold of jungle, Sabre bolted down the beach. It was empty, but it didn’t yet deter her. She refused the warnings. Rufio had only likely seen the Jolly Roger approaching – not enough time to anchor and send out the row boat. With that in mind, the girl sprinted to get a full view of the cove.

Any second, she’d catch sight of the Jolly Roger…

She’d swim to it from the shore if she had to, mermaids be damned.

Any second…

And then the world fell away.

The cove was empty. No Jolly Roger, no pirates, no rescue.

Sabre felt the life leave her. Her legs buckled and she was left on her knees, lacking the will to catch her head in her hands as it drooped. Reality collapsed on her back like a tumble of rocks. It had been a trap, she now understood – a trial to see where her loyalties lay, and her allegiance was as clear as dark blood spattered on a blanket of new snow.

Sabre might have wept if there’d been anything left in her.

Chapter Text

Bloodied hands clawed at the nearest root, ragged breath heaving from lips that had cracked with desiccation. Time, duration, neither had little meaning anymore. There was only the single most terrifying truth – that there’d only be so many more times that Sabre could fall and be able to get up again.

Near crippled with weakness and fatigue and still a relative stranger to the island, there was not a shred of hope that the hunt of the Lost Boys could be evaded for much longer. Even if she’d been as strong as she longed to be, or truly known the scape of Neverland, it would have still been only a matter of time before she collapsed like an exhausted doe on the run from relentless wolves.

A worse mistake could not have been made. All she’d cultivated in her time there, she’d managed to wither to ash in a sweeping, unthinking decision that belonged to fool’s wishful, and poor, excuse for a mind. Boys she’d ate with, trained with, slept alongside were now running her down. And so they should. A traitor deserves no less. The thoughts came disjointedly as Sabre bolted again, fighting against all the aches and pains tearing up and down her body, but stopping couldn’t be an option, not least until she’d found a hiding place. Maybe she could take refuge with the Piccaninny tribe or, by some miracle, be rescued by Oberon’s kindred. But they’ll be able to track me, wherever I go. No one can help me.  

But it’d take them a bit of time to catch up. Enough to at least breathe again.

It might have been wiser to seek the cliffs, and keep going.

Did any of Pan’s victims ensure their own destruction? Did any of them manage to beat him to it?

Agency in their own deaths…

Knowing what she did – things she wasn’t meant to – the strongest standing conclusion was that she was still needed alive; she’d have to be captured alive.

Only the living can feel pain. Only the living can be tortured…can endure fates worse than death.

Attempts at escape would have been useless and attempts at supplication would have been even worse. Knowing then, like she’d really known all along, that no one was heroically coming to rescue her, the contemplation that life may have been a payable price permeated her outlook dangerously quickly. And if it was by the hand of water, well, she wouldn’t mind that.

A prickly vine slashed at her thigh, snatching out a high and hoarse cry. Her balance toppled over at the barrelling bite and, as she stumbled, the palm of Sabre’s hand, already thickly coated with blood, sweat and dirt, scrapped against the callous bark of the tree she fell upright against, opening a new set of tiny cuts embedded with filthy splinters. Gulping and panting down air did nothing to relieve the crushing weight starving her lungs.

Water. I have to return to the water.

An arrow struck the tree trunk, inches away from her head, the wood giving a faint creak of protest. She could have sworn there was greater distance between her and her hunters, and didn’t waste even a moment to look at the full length of the arrow. If she had, she would have discovered it did not belong to a Lost Boy.  

With no time to thank whatever divinities that be, Sabre sprung off, groaning low, head ducked and teeth ground against the hurt of every motion.

The fire can’t burn there.

Neverland was an island – she’d have to come to water sooner or later. But that implied she’d have enough strength to reach the coast. And she knew, deep down, that she didn’t, and she made sure of her last request.

Still she needed to try.

The agony was drawn on to find anger, or something akin to it, in opposition and Sabre used whatever reserves that could be dug up to keep her legs moving and her mind awake. One mistake, that’s all it’s taken. One mistake. One that I could have stopped from ever happening. She knew, with an ever suffocating defeat, that the pain was becoming a far greater drain than supply of primordial energy to her limbs. If she couldn’t reach the water, then maybe it would be the exhaustion that finished her off.

Barely a hundred yards from the arrow-struck tree, as Sabre’s calves were passing each other in mid-motion, a weighted rope, hurled from a short distance, coiled around her lower limbs and she was tossed to the ground with the force of her own momentum. The rope cut into her flesh but the collision was enough to knock the air from her already wheezing lungs. It was the last fall she had left.

Nevertheless, Sabre clawed at the ground, kicking against the bonds, torn between thrashing with animalistic instinct and terror, and halting everything to think rationally and carefully. Her legs were bound – how were they bound? What could get her legs free in the smallest amount of time? Although it was hard to hear such comprehension over the wrangle of petrified nature that was built into her with roots that were far more innate.  Through the internal outcry, Sabre heard a rough shout – a barking order. Spoken with a female’s tongue.

Halting in her struggle, which turned out to be a mistake as Sabre’s starved lungs came to realise themselves, the girl searched frantically for the voice she was sure that she recognised. A moment later, Tiger Lily leapt down from her perch in the trees, pink in the cheeks and wild in the eyes.

Did Pan send you? Sabre could have asked but remained silent, asides from her rasping as she drag in any scrap of air possible to salvage.

The Piccaninny warrior was as beautiful and amorously cold as the day Sabre had first seen her, with her long, supple limbs, wild hair and fiery eyes.

There was plenty Sabre might have said, but nothing that sat behind the tongue would have been any use to her. Groaning through the gritted jaw, she let her own deadweight roll sideways. The muscles of her legs crippled achingly. Her ribs quaked with the need for air, clenching down on her lungs. The splinters buried in her hand bit down like the stings of wasps, as if they somehow, impossibly, intended to hurt her. Just like every other cut and slash and bruise, waiting to stain, did.

“More of our crops dead,” Tiger Lily spoke, bold and loud, as if declaring a proclamation, “more of our animals – dead,” she kept moving in those long, naturally elegant strides.

The leaves rustled behind the collapsed girl, and when Sabre craned her head in a waste of energy, she caught a glimpse of one of the boys that had been present at the drop-off, one who shared many features with Tiger Lily.

“More of our kin,” she moved closer, hands empty but a dagger in clear sight, resting in a sheath on her belt, until she stood over the fallen body, “dead.”

Two soundless voices answered concurrently.

Not my fucking problem.

I’m so sorry.

Sabre’s lips remained tight, clenching as Tiger Lily rolled her flat on her back with a harsh kick of the foot.

“What are you running from?” the catlike female demanded.

“Hardly matters now, does it?” Sabre croaked out, sparing a moment’s glance to the other’s kin. Perhaps a brother or cousin. “And unless I murdered your family, I had nothing to do with it.”

“You did murder them,” a strong hand wrapped around her throat, squeezing. “With every day that passes and you thoughtlessly refuse to share your blood with the land, more death will come.”

No amount of fury and antipathy could put the bristle in Sabre’s bones. Her eyes and tone were left cold by it. “Why should I give a shit about what happens to you when I’m nothing but a vessel of blood in your eyes? People die. Get over it.”

There was no remorse in the kick that went straight in the face, breaking her nose instantly. A flow of blood was released, trickling down the back of her throat more than through the gaps of her nostrils. Tiger Lily snapped something in her native tongue to her companion, who muttered something back to her before turning on his heels. Though not before glowering at Sabre and spitting on the ground. Sabre barely noticed, coughing on the blood that was going down her. She already regretted the crassness that had come to her, objectively.

Rolling onto her belly, Sabre curled her hands into the earth, hissing against the stings that clung on like leeches. “I’m not the one who made Neverland sick,” she bit out, wheezing, “which means I’m not the one who brought death. None of this…is by my hand.”

In a single movement, Tiger Lily drew the dagger from her belt and sliced the flesh of Sabre’s dirt stained forearm, avoiding the veins but by no means withholding the pain. She waited for the girl’s cries to desist into low groans and gasps. “But you can stop it. And you won’t. Which means the lives lost are on your hands. The lives of my own blood.” 

The blade sunk into the soft part of Sabre’s shoulder, and the scream went higher, lasted longer. The metal was only part of her for a moment and the air bit coldly, stealing the warmth from her blood as it pulsed from the wound, or feeling like it. She lashed out with her bleeding forearm, nails curled to claw, and latched to Tiger Lily’s throat and clamped down. Hard. The other’s move was quick to catch by the eye, but the next thing Sabre knew her head had been knocked down with a backhanded smack.

Shocked rebounded through her skull. And something woke up.

It wasn’t much, and completely enough to leave her boneless and stunned.

She was again flat on her back, stone under her instead of earth, motionless from a blow to the back of the head. A marionette with all its strings cut. There were aches and pains in her body but they were situated differently, their origins elsewhere, and the clothes on her body were heavier, sturdier. Armour that was of no use to her then.

It was night, rather than day. Or at least, that was what she was sure of. Light was hard to find within vast rocky walls, only touched by light born from fire and moon that glimmered through the prism of a waterfall. It must have been night.

In the corner of her eye, a silhouette of a body laid out, very much like her own, but on an altar. She couldn’t move, not even to turn her head and fathom the figure. But there was another, standing, rather than kneeling, over her. Tall and mighty, unmistakably masculine, the figure was clad in dark heavy armour, the weight of which would have crushed her into a cripple.

Helpless in whatever past moment that was, and helpless in the living moment.

Sabre was shocked back into her body by a further assault, this time a blow to the face that landed in the cheekbone. The next went to the soft part of her belly, unshielded by her ribs that – given a moment’s thought – wouldn’t have done much by way of protection anyway. Around her, the landscape spun, her eyes blurring and hot with thin tears. She couldn’t feel a place that didn’t hurt.

It needed to stop. She had to make the pain stop. I always have to make the pain stop. Do anything.

Anything to make it stop.

Suddenly on her feet, Tiger Lily’s attacks turned to brutal kicks, hammering on soft flesh and hard bone alike, strategy lost to heartfelt inflamed grief. One look in those brown-black eyes and Sabre could almost take it from the warrior and into her own heart. A pain she knew, she couldn’t blame it, and she couldn’t find any movement to fight against it.

Bits of the girl were broken when the Piccaninny princess had exhausted her wrath; blood and sweat made her hands sticky, heat rolling down the toned contours of her shape, and she was unashamedly panting as she straightened and stepped away. It was hard to know if more blood had been unleashed beneath the barrier of skin and muscle. It was impossible to stop shaking. She knew now, Neverland was inescapable. Even if Hook did ever return, Pan would not allow either of them to leave, let alone let the pirate or his crew escape alive. Death might unlock the door to her freedom, but that would be it. The only way she could ever go forward was surrendering her blood, fulfilling her position as Fairest Soul and taking a place at Pan’s side. And she wasn’t going to pretend to deny what awakened each time she saw him, with mind or eye.

If that too was unbearable then death would catch her as she tipped into its arms, at peace.

You cannot know peace, because peace cannot know you. You are not a creature of peace.

Dignity and poise restored, Tiger Lily spat a curse, rough, but cold, in the back of her throat, and Sabre didn’t see her walk away. The realisation that she was alone followed dully sometime after.

Slipping away, the pain was no longer acute, throbbing through her bones. A whimper of vain protest crawled out of her mouth, cracked as it reached through the blood stagnating in the back of her throat. She didn’t even have the energy to swallow it down.

Red was turning black, and ivory to purple. How long before some creature caught her scent and decided it was high time for an easy meal? Was there any chance that the Lost Boys had been given orders that would mean they’d finished what Tiger Lily started?

Are you sure dying wouldn’t be better? she wondered to herself. How much pain will you take for the sake of hope for something better?

A presence entered her scope of sense, the footfalls too weighted, all too human to be whom she feared.

Perhaps a little more.

“My, my,” drawled Felix as he lazily swung his club behind his head to rest on the broadness of his thin shoulders, “what have we here?”

If she could have, Sabre would’ve beckoned him over, but was resigned to waiting for him to come to her. Even if it required the endurance of a smug soliloquy. Felix’s long strides made the distance short; Sabre didn’t like how tall he was standing over her.

“Hm, something got you good,” he spoke, crouching down and reaching out to pull back Sabre’s clothes where they were loose enough to peek at her injuries; he muttered a brief, half-hearted apology when she whined out at one particularly sore touch. Having looked at the clean slashes marked into her forearms and shoulder, he changed his verdict; “Or someone. You can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you?”

Sabre struggled to breathe deeply, in control, like Vasha had shown her to do, in a last grasp to bridge the distance between body and mind. She groaned, tight lipped, trying to clear the path down to her lungs, muscles contracting in forcing the blood to dislodge and go down another way.

The way Felix brushed away the rogue strands of hair, some stuck down with drying blood, was almost gentle. It counted for naught against the steely coldness of his flint eyes. “Pan very much wants to see you.”

Sabre came close to choking, voice straining against the remnants of blood and the rigidity of her bruised, possibly cracked, jaw, and all that she could initially muster were little pitiful sounds.

Enough to get Felix’s attention – he leaned down, setting the cumbersome club aside. “Hm? Speak up. Can’t hear you.” His head bowed low, the warmth of her flesh and blood brushing against his cold cheek. He had to listen hard to piece together her sounds into coherent words. “I see,” he breathed, once everything fit together; “well, Pan will be pleased.” With a mumbled, half honest apology, the tall boy closed his hands around her in order to lift the small body over his shoulder.

The sharp contorted whimpers of protest were to be expected, so highly pitched in comparison to what Felix was accustomed to hearing that he ground his jaw. Sabre was left hanging limply down the length of his back, and could only bear the vertigo for a moment before she whined out so loudly that she could feel the vibration on her lips, doubting Felix would like the contents of her stomach down his back, or that she would be able to suffer even a minute of the journey back in such distress. Although he didn’t seem at all bothered by the sopping blood stains quickly forming in his clothes.

Tiny struggles pressed into Felix’s frame. What she wanted wasn’t difficult to work out. With an audible under-breath sigh, Felix hoisted her off his shoulder, still walking, and swept his other arm under the girl’s knees, settling her in the cradle of his arms, so that she could lean her head into his collar. Gathering all her weight into the arm curled around her back, stretching it out to support the backs of her thighs, Felix reached to collect his club and slipped the smoothened handle between her legs, the globular head resting on her chest. He could feel the heat of fresh blood under the grip of his hands, and understood why a stream of small noises continuously slipped from the girl’s lips, even as he quietly hoped she’d shut up. Usually such breakable ones wouldn’t make it very far.

Sabre kept her eyes closed throughout the journey back, cheek pressed into the firmness of Felix’s collar to keep as much of the spiralling at bay as possible. The club was heavier than expected and she didn’t like it at all. It pressed on wounds, pushing the pain back down as it tried to radiate outwards.

The persistence of her weight in his arms didn’t do much to deter his endurance, saved by centuries of hard survival. She was still a very slight thing, after all. With each glanced Felix spared her now and then, more dark colours had festered – drying blood, ripening bruises, all against the paleness of flesh that been spared. He lengthened his stride. 

There was only a short distance left between the camp when Felix made a sudden diversion; Sabre felt it in the movements and it sent her head reeling. With a discontented groan, the girl cracked her eyes open, not fully recognising the surroundings. If they were not returning to the camp, then it could have been anywhere Felix was taking her. Several attempts concluded to Sabre that her eyes could only be opened for a few moments before having to retreat into darkness and keep her insides from wrenching.

Felix knew his way to the tiny hut – one of many tucked away in the island – like the back of his hand. He had to duck to get inside, and held the half conscious girl a little tighter. The hut, like its counterparts, contained little more than a bed, which was all that was truly needed. Some kept a chest – that were not to be looked in by unwitting eyes – and wash basin inside but that tended to be as far as the décor went.

His ears were sensitive to the high whimper as he put the girl down on the bed, and he fought the edge of the smirk at the thought of telling her what the bed was usually in use for.

Taking the club from its resting hold, he swung it back over his shoulder, already backing out of the hut, “Don’t go anywhere.”

A little whimper, calling out for him and the arms that’d held her, escaped Sabre’s lips. The flimsy grasp of coherency she clung onto left her unable to move, or think beyond base instincts of fright. Her body pulled to have itself rolled over so she could curl up in a tiny ball and not come out of it, but the dead weight of her limbs left her stretched out. The drying and welling of more blood was an ugly sensation, hot and sticky, tugging at the skin as it coagulated and hardened, diluting with the sweat and grime. All the aches still throbbed without relief.

Like Lukas, Sabre was doomed as a cripple, and no one would spare a fragment of kindness to a fickle traitor. No one would pour water into her mouth or feed her while under the shackles of immobility. No one would dress her wounds or change her clothes. Depravity would finish her off before she revived the capability to have a chance of saving herself.

Faintly through the gateway of primordial subconscious that shuddered against the rawness of energy in alteration, Sabre became aware of a presence making itself known. Peeking timorously through hooded eyelids, a scrap of will allowed her to rotate her head a fraction, gaze falling in line with the thick umber belt clipped in the middle fastening.

“I didn’t know red would suit you so well,” the wild boy’s voice was too sinister to be musing. “Perhaps I should dress you in it myself. Now,” he crouched down, crushing her under a fierce gaze, “who did this to you?”

In spite of everything, Pan watched the girl make a valiant effort to answer him but she barely got past splitting the thick layers of blood sealing her mouth, even as it trapped her jaw in a vice of agony. There was the potential he’d been so sure of…

Bringing his palm above her mouth, Pan sent a soft, rarely soothing, thrum of magic down, knitting the breaks together far enough to give her the ability to speak. Whether he healed her anything further depended on the quality of her next few answers. “There you go, pup,” the rumbling timbre of his tone roused a shudder at the base of Sabre’s spine, like vibrations reverberating along a plucked string. His cold eyes hardly blinked, demanding her answer.

Sabre’s mouth opened by a fraction, anticipating the grinding of cracked bones, but it didn’t come. “T-Tiger Lily,” she breathed weakly, then wet her lips. “More of her people are dying.”

“I see. And this brought you to an epiphany, did it? After all this time of refusing?” a slight tilt angled Pan’s head, the golden-russet mop of his fringe swept across his forehead.

“Everyone refuses until they don’t.”

Pan tapped her broken nose with a ghosting grin, waited for the hoarse gasp to pass and her shoulders to ease back down. “There’s a line between wit and impertinence, make sure you stay on the right side. But why should I believe your surrender is genuine? Just know that if you’re lying and I don’t kill you first, the ritual will.”

Letting her head fall to neutral, eyes to the hut’s rickety roof, Sabre swallowed, coughing once to displace a little more blood. “I want to survive,” she confessed, feeling a thin veil of wetness as she blinked, “and if this is how then so be it.”

This feels familiar, like I’ve done this before. Somewhere before I confessed. She prayed for nothing to wake. She didn’t want to know what in her past had broken her far enough to make an exchange for her very survival. But one thing was certain.

She had.

And would again.

“I don’t want people dying because of me.”

Long fingers pinched her delicate chin, turning her head back to the side. “How very noble of you,” the Boy-King muttered with a curled lip. “I think you might mean it, but humour me anyway. I say we continue our little game of secrets; tell me,” his pause was genuine, the form of his features surprisingly pleasant in contemplation, however brief, “tell me your name. The name you were born with. Now that’s something you’ve never quite forgotten, isn’t it?”

It took more digging than Sabre would have liked but she told herself half-heartedly that it was the unexpectedness and the daze of exhausted pain. My name, the name my parents gave me…

“It’s Sabryna,” she found the word heavy on her tongue, yet inexplicably light in her chest. “I was born Sabryna Aurorae Sura, one of the families in Clan Stormblood.” Except, I can’t remember what any of it really means.

New warmth emanated from Pan’s hand, caressing her face until all the filth and blood was cleansed, the wounds invisibly kissed away. “Good girl. I knew Killian had fetched me more than a sorry stray,” he didn’t hide his interest as he watched her, wondering. What she’d seen, what she’d done, or had done to her. It’d be such a shame if his hopes had been misplaced. “But that wasn’t too difficult, though. How about we try something harder? Tell me something you really don’t want to admit. Something you’d never like me to find out. Then I’ll believe you.” He grinned at the ripple of distress morphing on the girl’s features. 

He already believes me, she thought through a voice with a clenched jaw, he just wants to know what he can get out of me. It was apparent the value he placed on her was founded on three aspects.

How skilled she was.

How loyal she was.

And how interesting she was. That would be what made her useful to him, and that meant they were the three aspects she would have to master.

But what would satisfy him? There was no confession that she gave happily. Her name, her first word, the first terrible thing she might have done, she had given them and they were all his.

Then it struck her – the greatest secrets she had at her disposal were not her own. Four words; it would take four words, which spoke far beyond themselves, to prove her honesty, and thus, save her life.

“Her name was Syrinx.”


 What put Sabre nearly to the point of fear with bewilderment was how mild the Lost Boys were when she was returned to their camp and put to rest to sleep off the remainder of her injuries with ground up poppy seeds mixed with her water. All as though she’d never sprung off at the word ‘pirate’. A few curses were even thrown to Tiger Lily’s name when Pan passed the remark upon their return. Sabre supposed it was simple enough – she’d returned with their leader, lord and master, alive and, mostly, well. That was enough to purify her sins.

Sabre next woke to daylight, and to find Curly picking out the last few splinters in her palm. It stung nastily but he’d brought a bucket of cold water with him and dipped her hand down when the flinches and hisses became harder to contain, allowing the snips of pain to drown in a thin layer of numbness. She imagined it would have hurt considerably more if not shielded by the dozy effects of the poppy seeds. Having chosen to stay with her after binding her hand, Curly was chased off like a mouse when Rufio came close. The dark boy, propped her up more comfortably against the tree she rested on, making sure her legs were snuggly covered by the thick pelt that covered her to the lap. She found she took greater notice of the coldness in his touch.

He inspected her with a tilted head. “You’re looking better. You’ll need all the strength you can find for tonight.”

“What happens tonight?”

“The ceremony, of course,” Rufio grinned cuttingly, “and, depending on how that goes, the celebration.”

“And if I fail?” Sabre could feel the very quiver in her throat, warping her words into small frightened sounds. “I know I die, but that doesn’t tell me much. What happens to me?”

Flicking a short strand of hair away from Sabre’s pale forehead, the boy’s brow knitted together. “You’re surprisingly keen. Most people prefer not knowing. But, then again, you’re not most people.”

You didn’t answer my question, Sabre thought but wasn’t confident enough to say, as her hands folded in her lap, fingers wringing together, and could feel the weight of irritation on her face.

Rufio noticed. “I can’t speak for Pan but,” he leaned his head to the side, “given that he’s already begun preparations for having you stick around, I’m thinking he’d take it a bit harder than usual if things don’t go well tonight. And that probably means he’d draw it out a bit; maybe over a few days. Get creative.”

Exhaling shakily and looking anywhere that wasn’t Rufio’s baleful face and eyes that – usually were a hue shy of onyx – lit up like venomous bronzite, Sabre awkwardly scratched her face, purely to occupy her restless hands. If worst comes to worst, I’ll have to destroy myself before they can. “Understood,” her voice and lips thinned.

Rufio was ready to tell her that she didn’t, couldn’t, as she braved another look his way. Usually they never understood. They knew little or nothing. Yet suddenly he realised, not her. He’d seen it a hundred times on a hundred faces. Now on hers as well.

He rose to his feet. “I look forward to sharing a place at Pan’s side with you. And I don’t extend that kindness to just anyone.”

Sabre’s back straightened. “Is it even yours to extend?”

The initial response was a laugh, small and smooth, and he swung lazily on the points of his feet, shoulders slouched. “Pan enjoys seeing us quarrel, struggle to prove ourselves worthy of his favour. And while none of us would be here if he didn’t want us, he is…let’s say selective about who he wants the most. And that depends on us. Many have tried to usurp my place in the past, but I wouldn’t be unhappy to see a third pedestal. Just for you,” he winked with a grin to fit, voice lowered to a near whisper.

He has faith in me, she thought as he strolled away, real faith. It’s as if, in his heart, he’s already chosen to believe that it’ll be me.

With all these signs, though, what sense would it make if it wasn’t? It’s gone too far.

She’d meant to ask him about what would happen to her in the ceremony. She had no idea what to expect of it.

It came down to her blood – more precisely, surrendering it – and it was too optimistic of her to hope its importance was purely metaphorical or symbolic.

Blood would have to be spilled.

Slumping back against the hard trunk, Sabre sighed out through the nose, relieving the pressure in her chest. Perhaps it might have been worth seeking out Vasha for a session. The weight of her limbs protested otherwise. Decision quickly made, she eased down and curled inwards, shuffling under the pelt that stretched from shoulder to knee.

Despite her tiredness, she couldn’t find sleep again. Instead her head filled with ideas, questions, scenarios, all playing out into uncountable possibilities. The person of her history was a tragic stranger, still. Would everything she’d come to be in that short life of consciousness fade into nothingness, uncaptured by memory, as well? She feared the void that might be left to remain, or worse the dreadful things that might fill it in the savagery of Neverland. Would she begin to cry in the night for someone she would never know again, or would she be left too cold, a bloodless shell, to let anything through the cracks in the pane of glass she so often felt trapped behind?

Once Neverland claimed her, sealing herself away – although it was the very last thing she wanted – could offer the only path of survival.

The rest of the daylight hours were wiled away with dozing and wonderings.

At some point, she’d climbed out of her makeshift cot to slip into the woods to make water, all the time worrying that her shaky legs would collapse from under her. She’d flopped back down like a ragdoll, head spinning.

Sabre rolled over to face the rest of the camp once her senses had settled, and got to watch the Lost Boys as though she were not really there at all. Tootles and Hayes laid the fire-pit, laying down more logs, more kindling – more of everything. When it was finished it stood close to the height of their shoulders, ready to cradle flames that would engulf a far greater span. She watched the boys eat and whisper among themselves. There was no playing, she noted. Not tonight.

She wasn’t fond of the rising count of glances, usually followed by little mutters, directed at her with so much secrecy that she couldn’t make out the words accompanying on their lips. Traitor or salvation.

When the first sketches of dusk etched into the corners of the sky, Slightly came near while Sabre had slipped back into a light doze, putting down the food and water to gently rouse her. Alertness struck her like a slap in the face and she flinched with a slight grunt, but calmed just as quickly.

“You spoil me,” she looked over what Slightly had brought for her. The plate held more than the typical portion; a slab of meat, another of fish, a red fruit the size of her fist, and two bits of bread lathered in honey. “I’m not hungry.”

It was obvious the boy couldn’t care less. He shrugged, “You’ll regret it if you don’t. And I’d hurry up or you’ll be fighting half the company for that bread.”

Sabre sat up fully as he spoke, running a hand through her hair and scratching the back of her head, felt the dent again. “Why are you all being like this?” she asked point-blank.

“Like what?”

A scoff came out. “Like nothing happened.” The guilt coursed through her deeply, not because she had run, but because if someone could offer her a way out she’d still take it. It wasn’t in her to believe that she truly belonged in Neverland. To Neverland, or its master. But it was the only way forward – that was enough. Wishing and dreaming were all well and good but, under Pan’s iron fist, they were worth nothing to reality.

“Because, if you are the one Pan needs, then nothing will have happened,” Slightly said evenly, meaning it. “Want me to keep you company?”

Sabre offered a half smile, one too brief to reach her eyes, and mild shrug. “If you like.” The acceptance was quickly regretted as she was unable to salvage the energy to fill any of the silence. Even though her tongue was often idle, there felt a greater pressure to open her mouth and just say anything. She hoped Slightly wouldn’t try and coax her into conversation.

To occupy her restless hands, more than anything else, Sabre picked at the food on plate, starting with the honey soaked bread, holding it by the edges to keep her fingers from getting sticky. It tasted good, she’d give it that. Far better than good.

Dusky colours continued to crawl across the sky, the first shades of dark on the horizon. Sabre hadn’t been able to sit completely still. The great fire had been lit, requiring a long time to be nurtured and was still far from its full majesty, meanwhile the air was heavy and full of mutterings. Rufio was at the far end of the clearing, and Sabre watched Pips and Lance bringing brown tatty sacks, rimmed with dark soil, to him. The dark Lost One had assembled something of a low table – a collapsible surface that fit together like puzzle pieces to be put away neatly. It looked roughed up, well worn. Used again and again.

Sabre watched him pull out a mushroom from one of the sacks, big as his fist. “Get me water,” he barked with a line of irritation, and Pips brought him the main water pail, perhaps for fear of keeping Pan’s right hand waiting, before picking up another bucket to fill at the nearest river.

What Rufio could have done to culminate such fear over the years, Sabre could barely begin to imagine. She found distraction in watching him wash the mushrooms with surprisingly careful hands, like it was just as meditative for him to complete the task as it was for her to watch it. More and more items were fetched for him: cauldrons, tripods, clothes, mugs that were shaped more like tankards; Lance even assembled and lit a small fire-pit for him.

At some point Nibs stopped by, a bundle of kindling over his shoulder. “You’re starting early,” he commented to his long-held companion.

Rufio grinned, wild, as he looked up. “It’s gonna be a good night tonight.”

Perhaps Nibs murmured something back, or maybe he just grinned back, before depositing the kindling into the rising fire, leaving Rufio to his work, and Sabre cursing worriedly in her head. Her hand probed for more food but found the plate regrettably empty. Never mind, then, she lowered the plate down, dropping it the last few inches. Could they just hurry up with it already? I don’t think I can stand this much longer. Cold and clammy, her hands fidgeted, twisting and wringing together, pinching the fabric of her skin-fitting trousers.

Calm down, you can do this. You can do this. You must.

I have to survive. I must.

Chapter Text

From the corner of her eye, Sabre noticed the quirk in Slightly’s mouth. It did nothing for her mood.

“Nervous much?” the buoyancy of his tone made it difficult to discern his intent for one of indirect reassurance or teasing.

A breath huffed its way through a tightened throat; it was as far as her verbal answer went, along with her scowl. Go fuck yourself.

When your life is in the balance and you’re about to undergo some tribal blood ritual, we can talk.

“He knows what he’s doing,” he added, voice more levelled, pensive. “You’ll never be in any danger.”

Sabre looked to him then, her face cracking into something vulnerable. How can you know? You could only know because you’ve seen it happen. This – this whole build up – it’s all happened so many times before.

I wonder if he sat with any of the other ones. I wonder who sat with the last one before she died.

She ran a hand through her hair again, ruffling the tresses at the back of her head, gulping. “Will it be much longer?” she took a sip of water to ease the roughness in her throat. The coolness of twilight had kept from it growing tepid.  

At the very moment, several Lost Boys seemed to slot into place, circling the fire breathing in life while they sought out a rhythm riding deep in their blood to bring to life. Wildness igniting like shadows growing against the dying light of day.

“Not by much, I’m guessing,” Slightly tipped his head to the side, one eye on the trio of boys tapping out a shallow beat on their animal skin drums.  

Sabre exhaled like blowing out a candle, wiping her clammy hands on her trousers, foot pattering on the ground. Her gaze swept over the camp for the hundredth time; the stone, pelt covered throne that had always been empty, was now occupied. Shit.

An ache was quick to form as she was torn between staring like a disciple at a divine, and looking at anything else. The Boy-King’s icy eyes fixed on the fire, seeing it but seeing through it, beyond it. Sabre deliberated if it was even possible to know his mind. Undoubtedly, it was intriguing, the unfathomable. Intriguing and petrifying.

Slightly nudged her, startling her to attention. “Hey,” he hissed. “Get up.”

Following the line of the boy’s gaze, Sabre found Pan was fast approaching, and was momentarily frozen before shocking herself to jump up, even though it made her head whirl and stomach lurch. She breathed uneasily as he came closer in long strides, moving as if the ground was blessed by the very imprints of his feet, shoulders back and broad, making him appear even taller. Her mouth and throat ran dry even as heat crawled up and down her back. The top of her head made it just to Pan’s chin if she stood at her tallest so she had to tip her chin up rather than petulantly keep her eyes on his chest, fighting against the weight that wanted to draw her back down. She barely noticed the drums dying away.

His eyes were hard when she risked meeting them, flickering there and back, fear prickling on her skin every time, hardly an inch between their bodies. Her jaw dropped a fraction, lips so plump that Pan wanted to sink his teeth in until they bled. He caught her chin the next time she braved another glimpse, holding her there. “Are you scared, little one?” he leaned down, the fingers on her jaw gliding to circle her neck in a delicate noose, and Sabre longed to clasp his bare arm. At her hesitance, he snarled dangerously, “Show some respect, pup. Answer me.

Sabre nodded shakily, blinking to find her eyes wet at the edges. “Yes,” her breath hitched, “I am.”

Squeezing a little tighter, Pan pressed so close that his lips ghosted over hers with his next words, smooth and cold. “Perfect. You’re ready.”

Kiss me, kiss me, please kiss me.

The next thing she knew, Sabre was being guided towards the great fire, Pan at her side with a large hand splayed on her upper back, pushing her on, her puppeteer. With nothing to clutch on to, Sabre’s hands curled inwards and her knuckles were white within seconds.

“My brothers, it’s time,” Pan called out, his words strong and clear like the ringing of a tower bell.

A handful of boys bolted towards the main hut, while another couple stoked the fire until it roared like it had a life of its own, and the rest forming a cultic circle around it, leaving a wide berth. The Boy-King steered his victim and had her kneel close the flames so that its heat bathed her, illuminating her ivory skin with a burnt kiss, and she tried not to think of Lukas. The boys returned from the hut with a few of stone vessels, smooth and intricately carved centuries ago.

It’s all part of the ritual. A grotesque ritual that had been performed maybe hundreds of times before, and, all those times, death had been part of it.

The muscles all over Sabre’s body shuddered, infuriatingly out of control. She fixed her eyes on Pan’s boots, somehow completely sure that he was watching her every move, scouring every inch of that lowered form. The stone bowls were laid around Pan’s feet. Sabre’s insides twisted, the heat souring

“Look at me, child,” the Boy-King all but purred.

Stranded in his unfathomable web, she could feel her neck muscles straining without putting a thought into it. He towered over her like a divine, awesome and terrifying. Images of sacrifice played in her mind, with her as the poor lamb, and the lamb had seen the altar. All her instincts screamed and implored their host to run, flee as far as her legs would take her. Pan pulled out a dagger, alabaster in colour, hilt, blade and pommel, clean of all the blood it had spilled. Certainly not the same knife he kept on the back of his hip. He ran a finger up the glinting blade that only promised the most intimate pain.

“Pan,” she spoke his name like a prayer, even as she knew it would never be answered.

His eyes had lifted as he held the knife aloft, examining the blade with a hawk-like gaze. “Hush. I’ve had this knife almost all my life; I made it from the bones of my first kill,” he sounded like he was in a kind of trance, without failing to inspire complete obedience. He cast his eyes down at her a few moments later; “Is there anywhere you’d rather be cut?”

Sabre shook her head dumbly because her mind had all but ground to a halt. Not ready. I’m not ready. Tearless sobs were ready to wrack her frail body, weakened by the squeamish sickness that choked her with the thoughts of blood flowing, skin being sliced deep enough to fill the stone vessels. She tried to push them away, softly whimpering in the effort.

“I think the neck for you,” Pan decided, musing, before moving into his place.

Resting on one knee, he laid the slight form over his folded leg and held her head steady, perfectly at the angle so the blood would drip straight into the waiting vessel. Feeling the blade pressing against her tender flesh, Sabre squeezed her eyes shut and whimpered loudly, barely acknowledging that all the Lost Boys were surrounding them, and so failed to see the wild light in Pan’s eyes as he readied himself.

“Shh, shh, keep still. Hold on,” with the arm cradling her body, he put his hand to her chest so she could cling on with those little warm hands.

As he predicted, the girl cried out when he cut through skin and muscle like soft butter, initially still before she collapsed into fragile sobs and gushing breaths in trying to garner control over the pain, squeezing his hand with everything she had. Even behind closed eyes everything seemed to be spinning out of control. Numb to her distress, Pan laid the knife with great care to the ground and readied his now free hand to move aside each of the carved bowls as they filled with the girl’s life essence. The Lost Boys looked on, silent and captivated, and waiting. Some before had struggled so much against Pan’s hold that their blood was sprayed everywhere, revealing their failure all the more quickly. Sabre remained pleasingly still other than the choking cries that were retched up from her mouth but Pan was easily able to keep her head still.

Pan,” she begged again, though was not sure what she was begging for. Relief? Him? Anything?

He shushed her again with the air of brushing away an annoying insect, never taking his eyes from the trickling red waterfall and the gradually paling throat it flowed from. When the first bowl was about three quarters full, Pan gently moved it aside and put the second in its place, careful to waste as little as possible but still a tiny stream fell to the earth, and he adjusted her ever so slightly so he could see what would transpire. The second stone bowl began to fill and while it did, a vibrant green shoot burst the surface of the soil, coiling and dancing until it was a couple of inches tall.

The Lost Boys began to mutter excitedly to each other, unable to believe their eyes. Some thought it was their eyes playing tricks on them – for surely it must have been a trick – after so many years and so many failed attempts they had feared to allow themselves hope.

Every last shred of uncertainty was erased. As they’d longed and prayed in their hearts, their Fairest Soul had been found.

But Sabre barely registered the growing commotion, fighting to stay conscious as she whimpered and pulled in one laboured breath after the other, the prospect of actually fainting panicking her greatly. Her insides squirmed and wriggled uncomfortably, fuelling the cold sweat that bled though her pores and turned to ice on her skin, and her feet wanted to kick out to expel the energy. “Pan, please,” she whispered the moment her restraint crumbled, and by this time the third bowl was being filled; a few more drops of blood had split and now a small pale flower had bloomed surrounded by little shoots. Some of the Lost Ones still believed they might have been hallucinating.

“Shh, quiet, little one,” Pan rumbled, finding her eyes and allowed her to become drowned in the emerald pools. For the first time Sabre could have sworn she saw something real and true, as if for the first time in so many years his cold heart had stirred. “You’re doing so well, I’m so proud of you,” he cooed to her and stroked the side of her face with his knuckles and it was everything she could have hoped for. “Not long now. We’ll be dancing until the morning, all for you, Sabryna.”

Whimpering at the sound of her name, she tried to lean further into him, her hands now too heavy and limp to hold onto him. Her weak nudges were quickly overpowered by Pan’s firm hand to keep her in the prime position to let the blood flow but he made sure to keep her head from drooping or lolling about. He’d cut so deep that, if left untended, she would inevitably have bled out to death, yet at the same time the cut had been so clean and precise that she bled out at the right pace and so that blood hadn’t clumsily gushed out and ended her life in moments; Slightly had been completely honest, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Sabre was barely moving by the time the last bowl was being filled, having adopted a very sickly pallor while the smallest of whines and whimpers were sighed from the back of her throat, an animal keeled over and waiting to die. She continued to whisper for Pan, breathless and weak, and he would whisper back to her, cradling her close.

Pan’s arm was blurred as he brought his palm to linger just above the gaping wound. Energy travelled down his arm, leaving his hand lightly tingling as he emitted his fathomless magic. The torn flesh was knitted back together, left scar-less. The girl was weeping tearlessly as Pan laid her down on her side with the utmost care in a smooth motion. A dutiful silence still hung in the clearing. The Lost Boys had been prepared for the final part of the ceremony and remembered the instructions that had been laid before them all those years ago. Her betrayal was now the furthest thing from their hearts, and watched as their leader stroke the hair away from the frail girl’s forehead with a temperament that could only be called tender.

“You know what to do,” Pan nodded to his thralls.

It was Rufio who took the first vessel, cupping it in his worn hands as if it were the most sacred object he’d ever laid eyes upon. With a grin bearing glittering teeth, he held up the vessel for all his brothers to see, allowing a moment of indulgence before pouring the blood into the heart of the fire.

It blazed so ferociously, a flaming beast lashing out to bite at the hand that fed it, that Rufio startled back to avoid being scorched.

The next two ewers were taken into the hands of Felix and Nibs, who faced each other through the fire, perfectly opposite. With no cue or command, they opened a sun-following circle and tipped the bowls at the prime angle to allow the finest stream of liquid red to spill, bleeding anew into the earth to wrap around the very roots of Neverland.

Through her hooded vision, Sabre saw that one bowl had been left behind and dazedly wondered if it was a mistake. Pan doesn’t make mistakes, she found herself correcting, even the voice of her mind was weak, barely recognised. At that moment, the Boy-King picked up the bowl, surrounding it in his hands, and dwarfing it at the same time. His behaviour was so atypically pious as he knelt before the fire, seeming to acknowledge something greater than himself.

Nothing is greater than him, Sabre found her thoughts uttering dotingly.

Pan held the blood-filled bowl aloft for a moment, a gesture of sorts, before he brought it to his lips, and drank.

Never breaking away, he consumed every last drop, and before his next breath could be drawn, a power – so raw that it nearly seared onto his imprint – erupted within him, singing as the new blood was taken straight to his veins to flow throughout his body, the renewed force of his life. The viridescent shade of his eyes became luminous against the dark of night and the onyx of his widened pupils. His inhale turned to a manic laugh as he rose to his full height, invigorated by the sight of all his Lost Boys falling to their knees in the purest form of worship. Their lives flickered like tiny candles in the dark, so frail, all his. His connection had been more than strong enough to snuff them out, walking the immortal plane of magic and enchantment but he realised now he’d been behind a veil that had been stealing away everything that was his for the taking.

Now he took it. All his.

Pan let go of the bowl, and it shattered upon striking the ground. He brought his enrapturing gaze to the girl, unmoved from where she’d been placed, paled and broken. He could feel her; where before the link to her had been weakest, nothing struggled against his consciousness more strongly. If he reached out far enough, Pan could sense the rawness of her desperation to cling on, and the chill of uncaught demons in her heart and mind. A delicate thread had been spun between them.

With barely a thought needed, he revived her and watched the return to life like an animated doll. “Well, boys,” Neverland’s king grinned, power brushing through the souls of all his devoted thralls, “let’s have some fun.”

Still low on the ground, Sabre winced against the whooping and hollering and howling that ripped into the air. It’s over…I did it. I actually did it, she looked around sharply in search of the thundering drums that had flared from nothing.

Suddenly two pairs of hands grabbed her and hoisted her up. The sickness she feared did not come. Sabre looked with refined vision to see it was Rufio and Slightly who had picked her up, and her balance was barely restored when Rufio picked her up with frightful ease, spinning her high with a laugh so joyous that she forgot her fear of him for a few idyllic moments. “You did it,” he kissed her forehead about three times. “I knew you would.”

A soft laugh, breathless and bashful, escaped her in being passed from the embrace of one Lost Boy to another and quickly she lost count of how many arms had pulled her in, while it seemed as though every boy that wasn’t embracing her was captured in the snare of the wild tribal dance. More so than ever, Sabre’s limbs ached but far from painfully, longing to join in.

Just as she was looking for Pan, who had all but disappeared from the throng, she heard Rufio call out, “It’s ready, boys!”

The unified circle, brief as it may have been, broke apart incomprehensibly with all the boys scampering towards Rufio and his makeshift table-top. Sabre found herself being pulled along by Curly tugging on her wrist. So this was what he was making, she thought as Rufio ladled out tankard after tankard of warm golden-brown liquid from one of the three large cauldrons formed in a neat semi-circle. Before Sabre knew it, she was having a mug shoved into her hands by Tootles.

“Go on,” he prompted keenly.

Sabre sniffed it curiously, catching a somewhat musky scent. “What does it do?”

Slightly’s eyes shone, lifting his tankard to his lips. “You’ll find out.”

Glancing around, she saw the Lost Boys taking slow yet greedy gulps of the strange drink, knowing from experience not to drink it down too fast, and when she looked back Slightly was doing the same, as were Curly and Tootles. Well, I suppose I have nothing left to lose at this point, Sabre mentally shrugged, and followed suit.

The effect was instantaneous.

A thick haze dropped over hazel eyes. Her muscles loosened like a puppet that had been given slack, but not cut loose, and her lips pulled into a smile, sewn on her features. The wooden tankard fell from her hand, crashing to the ground like many of the others, although she barely noticed. Slightly found her eyes and grinned, making her bare more teeth in glee. Suddenly, it was only the existent moment that mattered.

The drums began to play again, though Sabre couldn’t remember when they began; as far as she cared they’d always been there, somewhere in the back of her mind where the chasm usually was. Her limbs were already moving from beneath her seat of consciousness. Curly’s hand had found hers, pulling her along, weightless and not all there, while her eyes burned brighter than the fire. She danced and leapt, only a step away from flying, a marionette without need of a master to pull her strings. The voices of wild boys called out to the sky, summoning the stars and moon. Sabre found her voice joining them, higher pitched and clear as glass as she howled up to the sky.

She lost count of how many times she merrily circled the fire, having found Slightly’s hand somewhere along the way. They were leaping higher than ever before, as if they meant to catch the stars with their own joint hands, shouting and yelling in the chaos, calling for something with no idea of what they were calling for. Hazy images danced before her mind’s eye, blurring the lines of reality; there was nothing left within to care. With no fight, she welcomed everything as it came. The contact of their hands broke, found each other, broke again, and found each other again. One second Sabre was joined between two of her brothers, the next she was leaping into the air, throwing her hands up to the stars while she howled ever louder.

She looked at her Lost Boy brothers and loved them. When they looked back at her, she knew it in her very bones that they loved her too.

The fire was dancing with them now. Every pair of glazed eyes would have accounted that the fire was alive, a whole being, grounding them together, for as long as there was fire, there would be dance and joy and union.

How could I have wanted to leave this? What was I so afraid of? She’d never belong anywhere like she belonged there.

The rest of the world blurred and spun around her but it didn’t make her sick or even vaguely uncomfortable as it normally would have. It just made her happy.

Then, out of the mindless howling and intoxicated wailing, came music. Not just the pounding of the drums, though they remained unwaveringly, beating on as their hearts did, but now it was the sound of the pipes touched their ears. Enchanting, eerie and bewitching – more than it had been in a long, long time – Pan’s music reached deep, deep within them, spreading to every corner and seam in the fabric of their beings. The melody was continuous, yet they’d never find themselves growing bored or too familiar to it, constantly fuelling the madness. It wasn’t just around her, it was in her mind. In her soul. The chasm, the lost, was spirited away on Syrinx’s captured voice.

And all that madness, the chaos, the untapped joy had not waned in the slightest by the earliest hours morning, and the pipes had stopped long ago. Not that it meant the lost ones could no longer hear it.

The boys knew that they’d be collapsed by the morning light and would, mostly, sleep until the following morning dawned. The exhaustion would hit them all at once, allowing them to pass blissfully in the most wonderful, dream-filled sleep. Sabre, however, had no idea what would yet happen. All the boys remembered their first experiences with Rufio’s elixir, perhaps his best kept secret. It was something that could never be forgotten, no matter the effort.

It became harder and harder to push away the thoughts that came knocking; she feared the cracks of her deeper mind would split open after all her efforts, conscious and subconscious, to sew them shut.

But, safely dormant, nothing of old stirred awake, and the girl found herself overtaken by one thought alone, one single desire.

Pan.

Her time as an outsider was over. Now one of many pawns, she would have to struggle and yearn for his attentions, so hard that he’d be able to feel it ripping her apart from the inside. It terrified her beyond words that it already was. It has to be the intoxication, surely it has to be, her last shred of reason tried to plead against the ebbing of everything from her blood to her soul. Sabre was sure she’d have known if such need had tugged on her sanity before, even if it was hurled across her locked memory, compelled across the chasm that was further away than had ever before.

Was that how every Lost Boy felt? Is that what she would feel every waking moment? Would Pan’s musings of bringing her into his harem – as she had put it – become manifest?

She broke the circle, pulling back.

Even with all the faces going past in a haze, she knew none of them were him. There was effort in physically turning her back on the tribal celebration, and her eyes were unpredictably quick to seek out smaller groups of Lost Boys enjoying a mellower high, mind trailing behind to pick up the pieces. James and Spencer were laying back, stargazing and laughing to themselves; Nibs and both twins practically spun around her in search of a second helping of the intoxicant; and Sabre became aware that the dancing circle was constantly evolving, with boys flowing in and out at their whims. She always seemed to be moving between heated bodies.

It meant it took longer for her to discern an idle trio, a little further out but still well within the firelight’s reach.

Sabre couldn’t place the reason behind her surprise in seeing Pan downing the last of a tankard. Although she knew the exact reason for the unpleasant twist in her chest as the Boy-King absentmindedly thread his fingers through Rufio’s onyx and garnet locks, standing unabashedly close to the smaller boy.

Felix caught a glimpse of her crestfallen expression as she turned away with an abrupt slouch in her posture, reminding him uncannily of a kicked puppy, and didn’t see him make the small gesture to get his king’s attention. By the time Pan had sought the girl out, only a moment or two gone by, she’d been engulfed back into the circle, between Devin and Slightly. With a hand continuing to pet Rufio’s hair, he observed the lightness and flow of her motions in contrast to the intentionally solid pounding of feet, matching the heavy rhythm that animated her. It made no difference to him as to what made him grin – he had good reason to be in high spirits. And, therefore, so did everyone else.

Pan let her dance a few more times around the great fire, laughing and howling. Then, reaching deep, he caught hold of a thin thread floating in the intangible cosmos of magic, unbarred by the inebriation, and tugged. The perfect marionette, or collared dog, Sabre became rigid as a too deep shiver took hold, making her break the circle again. Compared to him, her perceptions were in their infancy and she fought to displace the invading immaterial presence, to decipher it. But invisible strings moved her, as though following the most natural instinct.

Giving Rufio one last moment of attention, Pan tossed his empty tankard aside and, rousing the tiniest slither of power, moved through reality’s fabric to stand right before his chosen, just as she directed herself naively, but obediently, to his pull. The startle that expectantly followed was gone in a flicker, and for the first time Sabre smiled at him, even as inner muscles tightened and skin grew hot. Pan noted then that her mouth was slightly crooked, especially when she smiled without showing teeth. With most of the hazel erased, her eyes, round and meek in his presence, glittered like the stars and night above their very heads. It was all easy enough to pick apart – tiny signals of compliance, supplicating.

Loyalty, obedience, reverence; it was all Pan needed from his Lost Ones. All the reasons he chose them.

The girl didn’t match his usual taste in the lovers he claimed and conquered in his bed, yet he found himself ready to reconsider. Devotion could only go so far if it wasn’t kindled. All his favourite toys had required polishing before he could get the most fun from playing with them, the ones he could be bothered to make the effort for, knowing he’d get out far more than he put in. The first, patient step was gauging with how they all ticked.

Letting his hands find a grip on her back, Pan could sense the ache in Sabre’s lips; she would get that indulgence if she earned it. He stepped in, rather than pulling that little body closer, and, just to be cruel, lowered his mouth – at the same time coaxing her to reach onto the tips of her toes to keep the pull from the back of his neck – until he felt her lips ready for a kiss, before sinking teeth in the plump flesh of her lower lip. The sound she made was small, fragile, so sweetly hurt, as she grew tense in his arms, hopes dashed.  Dragging both rows of teeth across the warm flesh until it became released, Pan blinked slowly, thin rims of iridescent emerald blazing, and watched the flood of redness come to Sabre’s mouth. Indulgent, with a smirk sharp as a knife, the Boy-King brought a hand to cradle the column of her neck, softly as first, before constricting his fingers, thumb lightly pressing into the vulnerable jugular.

Where she would have undoubtedly stopped herself, Sabre then laid a far smaller hand over his, fingers so slight and delicate pressing down, encouraging – pleading – a harsher grip, even as it began to hurt.

Because it hurts.

“Careful, pup,” the words were a low growl, “that you don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Sabre licked her lips, accenting the tilt in her neck to find the breath to speak back, unhindered by characteristic reserve. “Would it matter either way?”

Pan gave the softest of laughs and allowed his thumb to stroke the pillar of her unsteady jugular, while entertaining the thought of how hard he could squeeze until she passed out. Or until her bones cracked. “I’m hardly going to break you beyond repair; I’ve only just got you. And I intend to enjoy you, every bit of you.”

Barely giving her time to absorb his words, Pan glided through Neverland to the privacy of his treehouse, the girl clutched tight at his chest. The moment their feet settled in stillness, Pan slid long fingers up the back of her scalp, beginning right at the base of her skull, to close around a generous fistful of golden-copper hair. Along the way, the pad of his middle finger was drawn down the smallest of gradients, and he took the briefest moment to feel for the haphazard shape. Something, something powerful, had left an irreparable indentation in the back of her skull. He’d keep that in mind for another time.

Aggravated colour still ripened the hue of her lips, just begging to be bitten again. He liked the way they trembled as their owner fought to ground herself, breaths shuddering over the rosy cusp. The rims of hazel had embellished but remained inferior to the dilated pools of obsidian.

Flexing the fingers buried in knotting tresses, to relish in the straining gasp and flutter of eyes close to rolling back, he fought the instinct to bring the girl crashing to her knees and shed his clothes. What would typically come as natural was strangely misaligned with a sensation he could vaguely recognise as gratitude, of sorts. His power had been restored, perhaps not to its entirety but it was more than he’d held in his grasp for years. Because of her, his pup.

And, like all dogs, she would need to be trained with a few tempering rewards here and there. Not that he minded – if she proved pleasing enough for his tastes then there’d be plenty of chances to get creative.

The acquiescent streak in her nature was a prominent one but, as he’d observed from afar, only revealed itself in rare, intimate moments, so truly submissive in that it wouldn’t rouse itself, but would wait for a dominant hand to lead it to the fore. True subservience came from deep within, only yielded to the worthy, one who could command complete supremacy, who could take rather than receive alone. True subservience had to be conquered.

Sabre was eager in her willingness to allow her head to be tilted sharply to the side, simmering pain crawling under Pan’s hold, and she found it impossible to care what it was he would do. As long as it was him that did it. The hand at her back formed a curvature, arching in towards the larger body, while he bit at the juncture between jaw and throat. Such feminine, light and soft, sounds weren’t familiar to the Boy-King; although not unpleasant in his ears. It came as no great surprise that she was quiet, even in the elevation of bliss and torment – perhaps it’d be a fun game to find all the ways to lift those little sweet sounds into screams.

With an iron grip, Pan kissed her neck with his teeth, rolling muscle, skin and tendon in his practiced jaws. Sabre’s little hands had clutched onto his tunic, withheld from smooth taut flesh, the fear of rejection strong enough to overpower the intoxication. But she still tilted back, her cheek nuzzling against the softness of his tawny mane.

Surely any minute she’d shake herself into reality, with an ache to fool herself that dreams were true.

The sudden harsh pull of Pan’s mouth on her neck summoned her full attention, as if in punishment for allowing it to drift in the first place, calling blood to the surface, unable to break and breathe the air, leaving a mark like those Sabre had seen on several necks before. Against his touch, heat bloomed across the map of her body, finding acute points to bleed beyond the skin.

Licking the sealed wound, it took only a thought to unclad them both, and Pan caught Sabre’s instinctive recoil with a strength that couldn’t be matched, keeping her locked in. The night was clemently warm, faultless in causing the goosebumps that rose over Sabre’s exposed flesh. Abandoning their now empty grip, her hands shot to the centre of her chest, fists balling over the scar, forearms subsequently concealing her nipples as they pressed down on ample flesh. Pan then allowed his hand to slip free, leaning back on his heels to leave distance between them, and his eyes lowered, disapprovingly, to her tightly crossed arms. A growl arched his top lip and he seized hold of her wrists to pull them aside, the ease only made sweeter by the instinctive resistance that tried, pathetically, to stand in his way. Using his hold, Pan forced the girl back to the bed until she inevitably tumbled onto her back, and nudged her knees apart.

Sabre readied to fight an urge to retreat that never came to her. Even as her chest rose and collapsed in anticipation, not one part of her wanted to keep the wild god from taking what he desired. Every muscle grew taut as he leaned over, bracing one hand by her head, and laid the other to glide his thumb over the pert peak of her breast, teasing the rosy bud’s hardness. The arch came before she could even dismiss the notion of steeling against it. Rising like a wave in its ebb and flow, her breast filled the cup of Pan’s hand, pulsing with the hot blood racing beneath. He gave a testing squeeze and caught the little noise it elicited, before pinching her nipple between his thumb and forefinger and watched Sabre’s spine flex, canting into his touch, skin and muscle stretching over bone as she sighed out needily, eyes fluttered shut.

Inching forward, so that his knees and shins were flush with the bed, Pan lifted his hand to her mouth, and lightly slapped her jaw at the greedy whine that followed the abandonment of attention, causing Sabre’s eyes to reopen apprehensively. Gaze fierce, Pan pressed the tip of his middle finger to the opening line of her lips; pleasingly quick, she drew them apart so he could slide the digit in without resistance. Saliva removed the initial tint of woody musk, and it came as only natural for Sabre to push the flat of her tongue up to meet his finger before sweeping it up both sides until nothing in her mouth was dry. Brave enough to act alone, Sabre opened her mouth a fraction wider and leaned up to swallow Pan’s finger to the knuckle. Her throat tightened in response and she quickly gulped back the small gag, the muscles of her mouth tensing a little.

Pan drew his finger out, inch by inch – and pleased that she pulled her teeth back without command – until only the tip lingered between her lips. He much preferred the idea that such behaviour was stemming from a keen need to please over someone having taught her from an ignorance lacking initiative. The sound of her breath had elevated, he could feel the tautness of her bare body underneath his, lonely without his complete closeness. Not that it swayed him – she would wait. Hours, days, years, if he decided.

The darkness in the girl’s eyes was so different, even in desire and craving, Pan noted as he sank his finger back into the hot depths of her mouth. With his abundance of lovers and toys, it was rare for something to be new to him. But this was. Rare, he smirked, more to himself at the thoughts, now moving his finger in and out at an eased pace. It was so little but Sabre was fervent to relish in all that was given. She began to hollow her cheeks as the long digit filled her mouth, aching to hold on as her tongue would flick up to lap at the tip and then glide back and forth along the length. She would have been clumsier had all been left to her; the simple rhythm was easy to adapt to.

At some point, Sabre had shut her eyes to bring all focus to the sensations in her mouth and only realised she had done so when they opened again as Pan’s finger, now warm and glistening, had pulled out entirely. She swallowed on the emptiness. The way she blinked reminded him of a moth’s wing, or a fairy’s. The redness of her lips looked to be nearly burning.

He trailed the hot flush down her neck and chest, letting the very apexes of his fingers dust along the flesh, and her body and breath shuddered a little more as his touch reached her navel, then a little lower, then brushed over the dark hair at the peak between her thighs. Even with the stolen heat from the girl’s mouth, his touch was still cold against the slick flesh, sheltered between thin veils of downy hair.

Like a cracked whip, Sabre’s insides lurched, all contained in the delicate curve in her spine and the gasp on her lips. Pan’s smirk only broadened as he ran his touch along her womanhood, the flat of his finger pressing inwards. He circled the tip, agonisingly slowly, in the flood of wetness that pooled at its origin. The body beneath fidgeted, more restless by the second.

Her legs had spread apart further of their own accord, baring and revealing, readying herself for what the primal part of her mind warned was coming. Pan’s finger sunk into her quim, not rushed but swift enough to invade the space before the inner muscles could protest out of having never felt touch before, already flowering and watering. A strangled cry wrung itself out in the pit of Sabre’s throat, breaths forced out in violent heaves. She could feel her body struggling at the unfamiliarity, of literally having something within her and the last frontier crossed out.

As with her mouth, Pan worked dexterously, gliding in and out, and reaching the sweet spot that had lurked below her lower belly, calling but never able to be reached. Now she could understand why. He began to curl, teasing the soft inner walls, and dropped his teeth back to her neck as that little body began to dance. The amusement was tampered with something darker – a craving stirred, a need to possess her vulnerability and purity, shape it, command it, but never destroy it. For it was his. And she would know it, in her mind and beyond.

He sucked another violent bruise into her throat, hand angled so that his thumb could attend the swollen bud. A small growl peaked in the back of his throat when little hands touched him, one looping under his arm to grip lightly at his taut shoulder, the other slipping under the ends of hair to the back of his neck, and for a second Sabre pulled away tentatively, still touching but only just. But as a second finger joined the first, she clung to him, panting out over his shoulder. A searing edge denied her the full extent of pleasure, the kind of hurt that putrefied it rather than thrillingly enhancing it.

Still she felt no need to pull back and shut away. One word poised itself on the tip of her tongue.

More.

Mouth at her collar, Pan licked sinfully along the frail bone, satisfied at the tremor that echoed back to him. The way Sabre’s hips were beginning to roll up on his fingers told him it wouldn’t be long; still he worked in a third finger and even with the abundance of wetness, he had to pry her body open, and the sharp hiss and contortion of muscles said everything.

Sabre instinctively recoiled, thighs only able to close as far as the body between them would let her, giving into the strained whines even as she feared the consequences. Yet there were none. Since the resistance hadn’t been out of insolence or disobedience, Pan withheld his discipline. Instead, his eyes glowered in a warning, one that advised her to consider her next action carefully.

Breathing deep, Sabre settled her body to the way it’d been a moment ago, aware that the fingers buried inside had all but stilled. She was too drunk to notice the faint tug at the end of her consciousness as energy stirred faintly to life, pouring from the hand between her legs. It wrapped around the lower part of her body, unwinding the muscles, curbing the hurt that Pan couldn’t make art out of. He had no desire to hurt her in a way born from poor skill and haste, but neither did he have the patience to wait and woo her body like a virgin bride.

He probed his fingers a little deeper. Still hot, still delectably tight, but Sabre no longer contorted in discomfort, unravelling like a knot pulled loose in one smooth tug. The warmth writhed in her belly, flexing through muscle and bone, transforming into soft hums and sighs at the girl’s enflamed lips.

“That’s better,” Pan growled quietly in his approval, gliding his hand away. Still braced above her, and still un-touching, he licked up the essence with long, careful strokes. She tasted different to his boys, but not unfamiliar.

The look on the girl’s face could only be called innocent. Pan breathed around his fingers in what would have been a slight laugh.

“Lie still, now,” reaching between them, he took hold of himself by the base. A few dexterous strokes got him to full hardness; there was enough attraction and intoxication between them but he would never call Sabre a temptress, and the night wasn’t prime for patience but it didn’t bother him. Sabre raised her head, too keenly curious to witness what was happening, yet ran bashful in catching a glimpse. “Don’t look away,” Pan reprimanded, keeping his tone unflinching as the girl gasped delectably, the head of his cock nudging her flushed outer lips. “You don’t look away from me.”

He wanted to see the look in those dark eyes as he took her.

As if feeling his demand, Sabre was unable to close them, mouth rounding into a horizontal oval to match. In that single instant, the air was driven from her lungs, bones reduced to little more than spider threads at the overwhelming might of the being above her, barely able to begin conceiving the reality of the wild, terrible god.

Pan shuddered, a harsh guttural sound rising from the pit of his chest. Locking the hand on her hip, he rolled to the hilt, crushing any last embers of physical resistance with strength alone, and barely noticed the clenching of trembling fingers and dull pinch of nails. A coil constricted in his abdomen – tightness, he was used to, but the wet heat

In the moment he allowed for stillness, the Boy-King swept aside the few wisps of stringy hair that had clung themselves to Sabre’s forehead, while she remembered how to breathe again. He could see the pleas for gentleness clashing with the inebriation and passion, even if she had no conscious agency in them. But the way she gripped him needily irritated him. Embracing, before, during or after, was uncommon, for it signified an intimacy he had no need of, usually. He had little – mostly no – time for it, and then was not a time where he could gain anything from it. One at a time, Pan pinned Sabre’s wrists above her head, hips beginning to rear back, his hold tight enough to make the bird-bones creak and the girl whimper, breaking away from his eyes for the first time since his command. Not that he cared anymore.

With the body beneath secured by the wrists and hip, Pan bucked forward, teeth bared but clenched to keep the growls at bay. Feet grounded firmly, he found a pounding rhythm between steady and swift, only physically touching the other in those three places, despite knowing she would want more. She was the sort. All of it could wait.

While never unleashing even half of his full strength, the wild boy let up his restraint little by little, crushing the small girl into the bed under each thrust, the noises leaving her steadily evolving.

Pain and bliss laid out on scales. Sabre hadn’t believed she could have both so untampered and burning at the same time, entwining through every fibre. Scooping her tailbone as Pan reared back, she flattened her back and hiked her thighs up, taut through the column of her belly; the next powerful invasion struck deeper, more sweetly torturous. The excitement and ardour were momentarily polluted when his large hand moved from her hip, which was red with imprints, and she feared he would force her legs away as with her hands but instead Pan slipped his arm under her knee to draw the limb up even higher, gripping it covetously.

Sabre’s hands had long grown numb – along the way she’d given up straining and curling her fingers – and imperceptible pressure bore down on the protrusion of her now bare hip, yet all of it flitted by carelessly. Locked out of her thinking mind, so that she couldn’t even string together of how she had managed to do so in a niggling paradox, Sabre was left with carnal need that pointed to the crave of release, animated by the most primal instincts. She bucked back to Pan’s thrusts, even as the force rattled her sturdy hipbones, the muscles in her thigh beginning to shake under his hand. None of it mattered, not in the face of a rising tide that would grow capable of shattering the dam.

The build was maddening, always closer but never yet there. She battled between squeezing her eyes in tight darkness to devote everything to it and desperately searching for the wild boy above her, for she’d wrongly believed it impossible for him to look any more magnificent. A mere glimpse at the Boy-King in his lust – lust directed upon her, maybe even for her – made the most holy and most unholy parts of her scream within.

Before long, the breathless moans were far beyond control, rooted more deeply but still of a lighter resonance than the boys Pan was used to. They didn’t bother him. If they’d been shrill or shrieking he would have had her tongue out there and then. But no, as far as sounds of pleasure went, Sabre was…quite enjoyable.

She was now clinging with all her might, so strained and taut that muscles ran in danger of snapping, and was able to feel the licks of sweat, scorched by her own heat. Each time Pan pulled out, Sabre felt the wetness begin to seep, only serving his next advance. Faint, tingling, struggles reawakened in her hands, empty but yearning to clasp something.

She gave an utterly feeble tug of the wrists. “Please.”

Lifting his chin, Pan comprehended the unexpected plea, only then caring enough to notice the whispers of resistance to his grip, and that he’d nearly separated the entire blood flow to her hands. With a grunt he relented and instead tugged the girl’s head to the side by the hair, forcing the side of her throat that had been left untarnished to be opened up for him, with no heed paid for a sharp cry that interrupted the chorus of sweetness – yet paid a little to the fact that he sensed no diminish in her climb to pleasure’s summit because of it. He’d let her have it without hindrance, that time. She’d paid upfront already in blood.

So close, she was so close.

Not brave enough to risk reaching for him again, Sabre’s limp hands gripped what they could of the bed’s blankets. Eyes closed, core clenching, jaw set, she sent energy to drawing her thighs just that little bit wider, tilting her pelvis just that little bit further, growing more drunk on Pan’s rough breaths and grunts, masculine and powerful, than on Rufio’s intoxicant.

Ah,” suddenly, as if paralysed, Sabre froze in the tightest holds, her quim constricting wetly around Pan’s length, which had become utterly still inside so the Boy-King could witness her first climax at his doing with avid molten orbs.

He growled in the back of his throat, the corners of his mouth lifting to reveal hints of knife-edge teeth. So enraptured, so helpless. Perfect.

The strength of her innermost muscles was quick in its descent out of sheer exhaustion after so many rhythmic vice-like clenches, and, like a stringless marionette, Sabre collapsed fully into the cradle of the mattress, panting, skin glistening.

Pan did nothing to stifle the low laugh. He pulled out a little too roughly for the sensitized body lightly quivering from crown to toe under him, before delivering a light slap to the flat of her cheek, more to rouse than hurt. Sabre opened her eyes woozily, a little stray whimper leaving her.

Oh, did you think we were done?” Pan straightened, flexing the muscles in his long back. He paused to watch the girl’s eyes wander down the length of his body; she visibly gulped when the journey reached his hips. “Silly, silly dog, you are.”

In meagre recompense, Sabre propped up onto her hands, with a discernible shake crawling up and down both limbs, a pathetic mimic of standing to attention. But her eyes were genuine. If not still fogged from inebriation.

“On all fours. Facing the head of the bed,” Pan spelled out. “Now.”

The girl crawled to where he wanted, allowing her hair to fall down because she didn’t trust the strength of only one arm at a time to clear it away. A weight cultivated at the bottom of her chest, mirrored with the tightening coil in the belly that she’d quickly become used to. The bed creaked under Pan’s added weight but she didn’t dare look around, only bowing her head a little lower, her body, although tired and pushed to soreness, begging to be used again. Nothing more than a bitch to be rutted, she hardly recognised her own voice as the bitter thought crept in.

A harsh slap was delivered to the swell of her rear – the squeak was already gone as she was rocked forward, hands clawing down. There was no time to dwell on the rising burn as the wild boy settled on his knees, framing her lower body. One hand already secured on the crease of Sabre’s hip, Pan encircled himself at the base once more to guide his cock back into her, a heavy sigh letting up at the sensation of such wet warmth enveloping him. Sabre’s hands fisted in the blankets, mouth rounded, silent as he bore down on both hips to slowly drag her back, only able to release the pent up strangled gasp out once he was buried deep, hot and pulsing. Hardly moving himself, Pan pushed Sabre forward, allowing his length to glide slickly out, so that he could haul her back mercilessly, with only the flesh of her hind to soften his force.

Sabre was taken by something akin to shame when the will of her body shattered and she collapsed onto her forearms, coming to loosely resemble the heart-to-earth pose taught to her by Vasha. Not that it made a difference to Pan. He too was taut throughout the length of his body, lithe but robust muscles rippling, their contours reflecting on altering angles of light, and wasn’t ashamed to conceal the rough breaths and growl-lined groans that rose one after the other.

It was effortless to be completely apathetic to the transformation of noises from the girl beneath. His body now loosed like a bow, strung and drawn before unleased with a speed and stamina barely mortal. Titillating images and memories danced inside his head, driving him nearer to release…there might have been a sharp cry from somewhere below but not even a thought was needed to discard it.

Hauling his captive back one more time and keeping her still under a crushing hold, Pan bucked into her quim as he came, jaw drawn down to pave way for deep guttural moans that filled the golden-hued room. With the last drop spent, he pushed Sabre away and her body collapsed, boneless, into the bed. She didn’t even have enough energy to cry out.

Pan observed, for a brief moment, the near-instantaneous trickle of his seed from Sabre’s raw quim, her body so little and beaten. Immaculately collected by the time he was standing straight, the Boy-King had a blanket materialise in his hand and threw it over the girl’s lifeless form, and leaving it as her only companion for the night.

Chapter Text

The last rays of the fully-fledged day were setting over Neverland’s landscape when Sabre’s consciousness finally crawled back. A dreary heaviness hung on her form, eyes flickering open, an aching hurt lingering at her hips and throat, and a sharp pain between her legs that made her wince in the stomach before she’d even attempted to move. At some point in the night she’d rolled onto the side and curled up under the blanket left tossed over her body.

The interior of the treehouse was cold and bleak-looking with no new firelight to shun the natural darkness of the outside world. A forlorn weight only waited for the initial traces of consciousness to sink down, the euphoria nothing more than a bitter aftertaste. The muscles cradling the back of her head and neck protested when she made to drag her gaze through the dim room in a half-hearted search for her clothes. She couldn’t remember taking them off.

Hell, what have I done? What have I done? A groaning sigh sifted through Sabre’s clenched jaw as she rolled onto her back, the sticky flesh of her inner thighs tearing apart from one another. She could have sworn fingers were still bearing down on her hips.

The natural rush of defence was to place all blame on the intoxication – yes, that was it, she’d been utterly inebriated, and so had Pan. Yes, that was why she’d done what she had, wanted what she had. It barely worked for even a moment.

Because it wasn’t, Sabre compelled herself to admit. I wanted it, I never stopped wanting it. Rufio’s mushroom concoction hadn’t driven her wild and beyond sentient control; it had liberated her, unfastened the human-made shackles that she’d never been able to free herself of. What would have taken months, likely years, of effort was achieved with a single sip. But Sabre couldn’t help but wonder if what had bloomed was, in fact, her true persona. Because if that were true, she was herself a stranger.

None of it changes what you wanted, though, she grumbled inwardly, sluggishly rubbing her face. And you got it. Not once had she held the delusion that Pan might have been a gentle lover. Although she’d thinly hoped he might have been gentler. Despite knowing, even in her intoxication, what she was getting into, the jabs and aches didn’t relent. It struck very deeply – far more than she believed it would – that he had left the moment he was satisfied. Come on, why would he had stayed with you?

The sting between her legs was sharp and elicited a hiss as she unsteadily propped up, blinking hard and sweeping the room again. She nearly thanked a deity when she spied her clothes laid next to a large jug and bowl atop a worn old dresser, rough as the hands that likely crafted it. The air was too cold for her liking as she limped to the dresser, bracing her hands on the dresser to steady her light head.

A small washcloth was in the bowl and when she tested the weight of the jug a reassuring heaviness filled her hands. Tipping a little water into the bowl, Sabre begrudgingly washed away the remains of the former night from between her legs; it didn’t change that her first intention was to head straight to the springs. She used the blanket she’d slept under to pat her legs dry before, with a good deal of wincing, recladding herself. She’d not been wearing her belt, she realised, the lightness on her waist feeling out of place, so if she encountered anything unpleasant on the journey she would likely be a goner. She could barely walk properly let alone outrun anything. The irony nearly pulled a smirk.  

With at least a couple of hours of decent light left, Sabre decided to risk trekking to the springs, nabbing the blanket on the way to use as a makeshift towel and hoping in earnest that she could remember what Slightly had said in passing one night regarding the location of Pan’s treehouse. An instinct, one new and unfamiliar to her, tugged her in a specific direction, altering like a compass needle, but she was reluctant to trust it blindly. Gauging the direction of the sun, Sabre found that the strange sense had angled her path correctly, and set off as slowly and rigidly as she’d ever known herself to move. Even when she’d been faint from hunger or brick stiff from training, it hadn’t hurt quite like that.

Every sound between the trees triggered paranoia, and she supposed there were no favours in tainting the air with a fearful scent. Spotting the fire of the main camp in the near distance was enough reassurance, knowing for sure she was on the right track to the springs. The density of the foliage made the aura surrounding the springs a little darker than she would have liked but she found that, after quickly relieving and undressing herself, sinking down into the caressing warmth made her stop caring. As if by magic – another almost smirk – the spring water permeated every inch and contour of her being, hot massaging hands cradling and massaging her battered body. Leaning back, weight relinquished, Sabre audibly sighed out, eyes closing.

What have I done? The recurring thought carried itself in a whisper.

Against her body’s adamant wishes, Sabre was compelled by the setting sun to wash and dry quickly in order to return to the safety of the camp before the light was suffocated out of the woodland entirely. She’d be happy to burn the blanket on the fire as soon as she got there. Which she did.

It wasn’t until the greedy flames had all but swallowed the thin fabric that Sabre settled to the wider surrounding. It stood in stark opposition the previous night; the Lost Boys were sleepy and sluggish, barely moving and speaking only in low murmurs, basking in the tail-end afterglow. It was then Sabre noticed that she was the only one standing. Glancing around in search for someone who looked sentient enough to be vaguely useful, Sabre saw that Nibs was fully sitting up – which was more than most – in a small pack of boys in the alcove of one of the larger trees, and she did her utmost to disguise the pain in her step as she approached.

“Have you seen my belt anywhere?” she asked in a low resonance.

Eyes swimming, Nibs swept his lethargic gaze up the length of the girl’s tense body, narrowing in on her neck, which could only be partially hidden by the veil of copper hair. He leaned back and smiled distantly as if still a little intoxicated. “So Pan had’ya, then?” a languid laugh came as Sabre made another attempt to conceal the dark marks on her throat. “No point tryin’ to hide it. No point in feelin’ ashamed, either. And yer belt’s over there,” he pointed lethargically to the storage hut.

Answering with only a curt nod, Sabre pivoted on the toes and tried even harder to walk with a smooth gait. What Nibs had said stirred up little memories of seeing dark bruises, mercilessly sucked into the skin, on the necks of other Lost Boys; more importantly, how they had made no effort to hide them, and if they were proud or boasting, they did so quietly. They weren’t ashamed. Their wild god had finally answered their prayers.

And now yours too, Sabre said to herself as she fastened the belt. Straightening, she looked around the camp and sighed, so this is it – the rest of my life.


 She woke the following dawn with her head propped on the soft part of Slightly’s belly and her left leg half numb from having Curly almost wrapped around it. There’d been no crying in the night, not a tear or a sniffle. Just quiet.

Her senses were all too keen to note the dearth of pain as she wakened fully. If she looked at the right angle, Sabre could spy her belt, boots and jerkin through the many-limbed sleeping mass. James was doling out breakfast at the firepit to Devin and Hayes and Lance, while the twins were already at work crafting and sharpening weapons. It reminded her that she had a neglected bow of her own to finish crafting.

A strip of yew had been cut, soaked and bent into the recurve form to match her height and strength and the bowstring had been fashioned from hemp. She’d need to wait for Archer to wake so he could show her how to fashion the string nocks and riser. Anything to fill the hands and silence the mind.

With careful hands, Sabre removed the cosy pelt and untangled Curly from her leg without waking the boy before tiptoeing over the several others. Interlocking her fingers, she raised them above her head to stretch the length of her body, and her eyes cleared with a clarity more notably refined. The colours around were more vivid, fuller and richer, and already she could spy new leaves and blossoms and shoots while she eased from side to side, as if spring itself had breathed life anew.

It came to her then, as she checked them one at a time, that all her other senses had too gained vibrancy, if only by a fraction. The air was fresh in her lungs as she lowered her arms and a pleasing pull rippled along the muscles.

“Sabre,” James called softly. “Want some breakfast?”

“Go on, then,” she answered for the sake of replying, folding her legs to sit beside Lance as James ladled out a bowl of porridge that smelled good enough to make her mouth water. “Thanks. So what happens now?” she said after swallowing her first mouthful, refusing to convey the cold coils of dread.

Up until two days ago, there’d been a journey, a fight to be lost and won hand in hand. But with the ritual done and the exchange complete, what was left but a stagnant, barbaric colosseum? A place without progression or change – it frightened her.  

“What do you mean, what happens now?” Hayes spoke with the edge of contempt while picking at a scab on the back of his hand, and Sabre was beginning to wonder if it was a natural feature of his voice. She scowled and thought him a dimwit but held her tongue.

“Now we live; we hunt, we train, we fight and we play,” James reaffirmed with a wholehearted grin.

And descend into madness, Sabre added, both derisive and melancholic.

“Have you always had such a stick up your arse?” Hayes noted the heaviness dragging on the girl’s face.

Looking straight at him, Sabre’s usually round eyes grew sharp, a mild curl forming at the corner of her mouth, “Well, I still don’t remember that much, so I wouldn’t know. But I’ll be sure to let you know if it comes back to me.” Then shove one up yours, a prickly one. “And have you always been so haplessly underwhelming or did something happen to you? Childhood accident or something?”

Hayes’ response was barred by Lance and James’ snickers and, to mask the anxious twisting of her gut, Sabre put on a small smirk and carried on eating. “Just because Pan fucked you once doesn’t make you untouchable,” the boy grumbled.

Sabre looked up, swallowing her mouthful, strikingly pensive. “I’ve never met anyone who was.”

After an interval of verbal silence, and more Lost Boys begrudgingly admitted it was time to face the day, Lance asked James what grand game they might play again and then went on to recite exciting stories to Sabre of previous memorable adventures. The cooking pot was quickly emptied as Curly, Nibs, Prentiss and Farley joined them at the firepit.

“Could we play Catch-Tag again soon?” Lance chirped, the small boy nearly bouncing with eagerness. “I promise I won’t break my leg again!”

The resounding laughs put Sabre at ill-ease. “What is Catch-Tag?” she asked.

Farley and James both went to answer but James, with as much politeness as a Lost Boy could likely possess, allowed Farley to be the one to explain. “All the Lost Boys split into two teams and everyone has a tag tucked into their belt. On the biggest scale we once played across the whole island,” he shared nostalgic glances and grins with his brothers. “You have to try and get all the tags from the opposing side without getting your own caught, otherwise you’re out so you have to go back to the camp and wait there. And you can’t tuck the tag in really far or tie it in a knot, that’s cheating.”

“And then all the members left of the winning side have to then fight it out until there’s just one person with their tag,” Curly jumped in to finish.

Admittedly, Sabre couldn’t deny that, as games went, it did sound quite fun, even as she considered the multitude of natural dangers lurking through Neverland. She supposed it was an integral part of winning the game.

James laid his empty bowl down. “Why don’t we play it, then? Across the whole island. What better game to start our new era with?”

“Yeah, c’mon let’s!” Curly nearly squealed.

Lance was right on his heels. “Oh please, can we?”

Sabre watched the boys with older faces light up and grow excitedly restless, all looking to Nibs as their senior for the deciding verdict. It was unexpectedly infectious.

Nibs laughed good-naturedly at all their faces. “All right, then.” He got to his feet, put two pairs of fingers in his mouth and whistled piercingly.

Like a pack of trained dogs, heads rose and ears pricked. Only the elite trinity were absent.

With a voice well suited for loud clear speaking, Nibs announced the plan for the game and, after a brief pause of eager whoops and shouts of enthusiasm, gave the Lost Ones a few minutes to prepare. Sabre was told by James that the game on full scale could last days at a time but that after a maximum of five days they were to return to the camp whether they still had their tags or not, and whichever side returned with more tags won the game. In preparation, after fastening on her sturdiest boots and jerkin, she filled her waterskin to the brim – as many of the boys were doing, and soon the pail was empty so they darted off the nearby river – and stashed away a few scraps of food. A few boys took to taking their spears or bows and quivers lest they had to catch something to stay fed. Sabre didn’t bother, however, she knew her aim wasn’t yet good enough to be put to the wilds, and her dagger never left her side anyway.

She found herself entirely unsurprised that they actually had a little sack in the storage hut containing dozens and dozens of tags made of torn up cloth or pelt, half dark, half light. With the sack brought out of the hut, the Lost Ones gathered in a pack around the glowing firepit, chattering around.

“Pack leaders, we have to pick pack leaders!” she heard one boy shout.

“Okay, okay,” Nibs called over the rabble. “For pack leaders I pick…hmm, Tootles and,” he looked over all the eager faces until he found the right one; “Sabre.”

With several encouraging pats on her shoulders and back, Sabre came forward to stand by Tootles, watching as Nibs picked a pale beige and rich umber tag; he gave Tootles the dark one and Sabre the light one.

“All right, umm,” Tootles scanned the pack, looking past all the small boys with their hands eagerly raised in the air and the chorus of ‘pick me, pick me!’ that had them nearly jumping off the ground. “Prentiss.”

Weaving through, Prentiss made it out of the excited mass, swooping down to pick a dark hued tag from the sack before joining Tootles’ side. Unavoidably tight in the chest and belly, Sabre paced a couple of steps away from Tootles but couldn’t help but smile as her favour was suddenly furiously vied for. If she could have she would have picked all the smaller boys to make them happy, but if she wanted to win – and undeniably she did – she’d have to vary her choices. Silently promising the innocent-looking faces that she’d pick some of them, Sabre looked to the larger, ‘older’ boys.

“Okay, er, Slightly,” was her first verdict. Just as Prentiss had done, Slightly picked a tag of the corresponding shade and came to stand with her.

The fervour swung back to Tootles as he picked again. “The twins. Sabre, you pick two.”

Then, like a pendulum, the direction of shouts and hands came to her. “Um, Vasha and… Nibs. Can I pick you, Nibs?”

“Sure can,” the pale haired boy sauntered over to her growing clan, picking his tag on the way.

Tootles’ turn again. “Hayes.”

Then Sabre’s. “Curly.”

“Archer.” Damn.

“Um, Devin.”

Tootles clicked his tongue, eyes falling on Lance. “Go on, then.” The small boy exclaimed happily and sprung forward.

In the spirit of picking the smaller boys, Sabre made her next choice. “Pips.” The thought of leaving the little ones until last put a potent pang in her chest.

“Ted.” Good.

“James.”

“Julien.”

“Farley.”

“Tobias.”

“Hawkin.”

“Spencer.”

“Austen,” Sabre was quick to speak as Spencer and Austen had been the last two standing, and she smiled at him warmly, relieved beyond no end when it was returned in full. “What now?” she turned to Nibs.

“We run that way, they run that way for a while,” he informed, gesturing with his head while tucking in his tag. “Then the game starts.”

Tootles’ pack was already filtering into the woods and the boy raised his spear to his rivals. “May the best side win.”

“We will!” Nibs called out as the tawny haired boy had already taken flight, bounding after his fellows. He turned to Sabre. “C’mon.”

Their pack sprung in the countering direction and a moment later the camp was desolately empty.

Movement came with pleasing fluidity. Sabre’s cautious bounds, which allowed about half the company to overtake her, morphed into powerful leaps, her excitement spiralling at the prospect of being able to play without dull residual pain weighing down. A grin had bloomed fully as she reassumed her place at the head of the pack and they hurtled through the woodland jungle like wolves.

“So, how do we play this?” Sabre panted out to Nibs, sparing only the briefest second to look at him.

“However we like,” he answered, pausing to leap like a stag over a fallen trunk. “We can all stick together or split up in smaller groups. We can do every Lost Boy for themselves. We can go for stealth tactics, hit and run, or plain charges.”

“And do we hunt or have a base?”

“Have done before. Especially for the big games. But, usually, we never get around the whole island, though.”

The pack drew south, closer to the first camp Sabre had been brought to, running parallel to the east shoreline of Minaty Bay, also called Cannibal Cove but the former was the more common of the two. There was a unanimous unspoken decision to keep moving – alternating between walks, jogs and runs – until they could make use of the natural protection of the south-eastern cliffs of the cove, making it more difficult for the other pack to sneak behind them without locking themselves in entirely. A spot was picked to rest that overlooked the whole, empty bay. Sabre perched on a rock and took a sip of water.

“What now, then?” Farley crouched down nearby, looking between her and Nibs.

Devin looked up from refastening his faded boot. “Which side won last time? When we played across the whole island.”

“It was the…dark tags. Yeah, the dark tags,” James recalled. “But I thought this time we were going to aim for a few less casualties. And it depends on whether we’re going on the defensive or offensive.”

Nibs budged Sabre over on the rock, a precursor to coax her; “I think we should hear from our pack leader.”

In a way, Sabre guessed that would be coming sooner or later. The bones spanning her torso knitted in. “Um,” she paused to think swiftly, “well, we can do both.”
There were a couple of nods but the lack of reply prompted her to elucidate.

“Well, if we go straight on the offensive there’s a good chance the other side won’t have had much time to put many defences in place, but, at this point, if their defence is weak, our attack would also be weak. But if we do nothing but consolidate defences here then we’re only allowing them more time to do the exact same thing,” her dark eyes flitted hesitantly around her pack, waiting for something to happen that would mute her for probably the rest of the passing moon.

“So how would we do both, in your mind?” Vasha queried.

Sabre rose to the challenge, a deep breath calming the shakes that threatened to poison her muscles. “Firstly, none of us should be alone if we can avoid it, ‘cos hell knows you could run into anything out there.”

“She’s right,” Hawkin interjected, the tenor of his voice still unfamiliar to her ears. “Pairs, at least.”

Sabre nodded to him. “A few of us should stay here and find places nearby to hide in case the other pack comes looking. That way if we get to five days then we’ll have a few in the bag by default. Then a few more should keep a defensive parameter to ambush any who come close and keep watch. Then the rest of us, in smaller packs, can scout out, track them, and hit them again and again.” The air drifting in on the sea was calmingly cool, an alleviating balm on the back of her neck.

“Bear in mind they may enact a similar plan,” Vasha added, looking cautiously over his shoulder as he’d done several times since they settled. “And they might come for us all at once, take out each of our scouting parties at a time. We’d be outnumbered and even if we did get some of their tags they’d get all of ours.”

“So we gauge their tactics before we finalise ours,” Sabre replied. “And they can’t take out our scouting parties unless they know where we are and what we’re doing.”

The heel of her foot had begun to tap continually against where rock merged with dirt, and the most guarded of her nerves were plucked to the point of fraying in expecting dozens of hooded figures to pounce on them – game or not – like bloodhounds straining against their restraints with a scent tainting the air.

“What if, we decide who’s going to stay here then the rest of us scout to try and find out what the other pack is doing, if we manage to find them,” Slightly suggested prudently, still up on his feet. “Then we back track here to adjust our tactics as we need and split into smaller parties. And if we’re not back by tomorrow morning, assume we’ve been caught out,” he finished with a light shrug.  

Nibs picked out a bit of dirt from under his nail. “Yep, that’ll do. Is there anyone who’s dying to either? I’m getting restless.”

There was a bit of a squabble in deciding who would go on the scouting mission and who would set up the defences. Sabre managed to secure her place on the former almost immediately and thereafter let the rest of the boys bicker it out. Pips, still small, yet with probably more years to his name than her, was desperate to do the same, always having a gnawing need to prove himself. Vasha offered to stay behind to organise the defence and ambushes should the other pack come near, his calm temperament and widespread adeptness perfect for keeping heads in the game.

It was decided, not a moment too soon, that Sabre and Nibs would lead the scouting party with James, Hawkin, and Pips, while Vasha would head the rest of the pack with Slightly, Curly, Farley, Austen and Devin. The scouts checked their lightly hued tags were securely tucked enough to move quickly without losing them and set out the way they had come, keeping Minaty bay in distant sight to their left. Adopting a slightly wider formation, they moved swiftly on light feet and, wherever they could, blotted out their earlier tracks. Every sound, every movement not their own, primed them for an attack. The fact that it was still a game made no difference, Sabre’s nerves were nearly frayed within an hour of false starts and no real action to burn the pent energy. Then again, Neverland games were rarely simply just games.

She’d drawn a little behind, accustomed and at ease when closely following another – in that case, Nibs – without falling to the heel of the pack, but when she saw something and froze, her companions responded as though they were one single creature.

“What is it?” James whispered, not taking the risk of turning his head.

“I saw something move over there,” Sabre pointed with the line of her sight. “I think it was one of them.”

“You sure?”

“Yes!” Hawkin, with his hawk eyes, hissed. “I just saw something as well. Definitely them.”

“Do you know if they saw us?” Pips piped up in a cautiously small voice.

Hawkin gave a minute shake of his head. “Don’t think so.”

“Let’s ambush them, then!” the small boy encouraged.

“No. Decoy,” the same word overlapped on two tongues.

Sabre and Nibs looked to each other and shared a grin. He gave a gesture to beckon the others in closer, tiptoeing on practiced feet.

“Two of us head over there, making enough noise to alert them but not so much that we give it away. Then the two turn and bolt back this way, where we’ll be waiting to ambush them. Any volunteers?” Nibs looked between them,

“Me! Me! I want to,” Pips whispered on springy feet.

“I’ll go,” James offered with a complimenting smile, eyes glinting in a way no one had seen since he’d lost his fingers.

Nibs gave another grin and a nod, and the pair moved off towards the dark tags, making a believable amount of noise to spring the trap. The remaining scouts scattered to thickets, undergrowth and thick-trunked trees. Sabre pressed her back to the smooth coarse bark, palms pressing flatly down, and didn’t dare to peek round. Her heart leapt as an eruption of noise ricocheted through the trees; the oncoming footfalls, near and further, resounded in her ears. An elusive pull coiled around the girl’s limbs; she closed her eyes, breathed, and time’s clock began to slow.

The first two figures came past. A veil in her eyes left them as blurred shadows. Thin sweat was weeping all over, on her palms, forehead, chest, the crevice of muscles down the length of her back. Sabre’s vision remained black as she counted the next drawn out seconds with steps that collided with the ground like bellows of thunder. Then, without pulling back to cation herself, the girl flung from her hiding place with an incredible upsurge of power, ramming with a body larger than her own. She only opened her eyes as they struck the ground, the primed pounce leaving the other body as a cushion for the blow, and she’d already snatched up the dark tag by the time it struck her that it was Hayes flailing underneath. Angrily, he shoved her off and hauled himself up while the girl rolled on her back, laughing.

Tilting her head up, seeing the world upsidedown, she saw that Nibs had successfully gotten the tag off Tobias, who was holding his hands up good naturedly in surrender, and that James and Hawkin were sniggering at Hayes.

“Did you see that?” James goaded, wiping away a genuine tear of amusement at seeing his haughty brother being taken down a peg. “She proper got you.”

The redness blooming on Hayes’ face got even a chortle from Nibs, who was leaning over to help up the still giggling girl. She didn’t even find it that funny but the laughs kept coming, infectious.

“You haven’t broken anything, have you?” Hawkin put in, eyes wide and mouth pouting with mock sympathy.

“All right, all right. Leave him alone,” Sabre brushed herself down, Hayes’ tag pinched between her fingers. Her next smile came with force; “It’s just a game.” There was still a bit of a stomp in Hayes’ step as he withdrew with Tobias to the camp but Sabre knew she would likely have been just as frustrated in his position.

The air had cooled the sweat and taken the flush of crimson away, and the laugh she shared with her pack felt like choking.

“So, what now?” Pips asked, gleeful in the face. “Do we keep going or head back to the others?”

“Well that depends on whether any of us brought any torches or lanterns,” Nibs remarked, looking between the scouting pack. “Which, I see, we have not.”

“But surely if we have lights then they’d see us from a mile away,” Hawkin responded. “If we keep going we might catch their camp. Do a night raid. Everyone good with that?” Unanimously agreed, Pips was sent back to their camp with orders to run as fast as he could to inform the others of what had happened and then set out with another pack member the following morning. The others would press on, hunting for the tell-tale light of a fire.

In Neverland, fires were useful for deterring most animals because, practically always, fires equated to the presence of Lost Boys; more Lost Boys than the majority of Never-beasts were prepared to take on – it simply wasn’t worth it.

“I say we find somewhere to rest for a couple of hours, then head off a while before dusk,” Nibs said, looking around for signs of assent. His gaze landed on Sabre. “You got something else in mind?”

The girl shrugged awkwardly. “I could keep going, easily. I don’t think I could just sit and wait for two hours. And none of us are tired enough to sleep.”

She worried that she might have cut open a conflict with someone who could easily still pull rank on her, but Nibs nodded instead. “No, that’s fair enough.”

“And this is still just a scouting mission,” Sabre added, still hoping to justify her position a little further, but regardless she got her way and they continued on, giving a wide berth to the main camp and treading the provisional threshold into enemy territory.

They remained light on their feet, caught between a walk and run, with their backs slightly hunched, primed for either fight or flight at any given moment. The caw of a bird – mercifully not a Neverbird – made them all nearly shit themselves, though none would admit it beyond a flustered chuckle. At the time when the sun bled through the trees as its gradient steadily declined, the pack shrouded themselves away as Archer and Prentiss stalked past, heading directly towards their own camp. They allowed them to pass unhindered, stone still in their hiding places; the pair would get caught in their defensive web with any luck.

“Okay,” Hawkin whispered once the distance was great enough, “so we still have Tootles, Ted, Lance, Spencer, Julien and the twins to find. My bets are that the twins will be lookouts so keep an eye out for them.”

In the end they found no sign of the enemy pack that night but mutually assured one another that it was likely simply a matter of not physically being able to cover enough ground. They took shelter for the night in a semi-circle of alcoves, not lighting a fire lest they fall into the same trap, and took turns keeping guard until first light. Then before resuming their hunt, they foraged what food they could find, mostly berries and nuts and little fruits, to make the hard food in their pouches last longer and refilled their waterskins in a pond that was still yet completely crystalline, even sweeter on the tongue.

Sabre hadn’t been expectant of a pristine night’s sleep but the hard cold ground, with only the other bodies to warm her and cushion her head, awakened some of the aches and soreness birthed at the king’s hands. And even when it’d been her allotted time to sleep, it took much longer for the heat to spread between the bodies and placate the shivering. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have been too much to fasten a pelt or sleeping roll to her back.

Having doubled back to the tracks left behind by the enemy scouts, that was where they resumed the hunt. While Hawkin and Nibs devoted their focus to mapping the earth, discerning all the marks and scuffs that might betray a human presence, Sabre and James kept close watch over them as they crept further into dangerous land. It brought great frustration when they tracked a faint set of footprints to a fire, one that was still warm when Hawkin pressed his palm out towards the embers.

“They were definitely here,” he ascertained, standing straight.

“There are two sets of tracks going off,” James said, circling the perimeter of the small clearing. “Looks like they’re moving in a single line. Common tactic. Could be two, could be four for all we know. Should we split up or go after one at a time?”

“If we split up, wouldn’t they likely outnumber us?” Sabre tentatively spoke up. “If there are only two lines of tracks then they’re probably in a three and four.”

The pack chose one set of tracks to follow, taking them towards the western bays, and wondered if Prentiss and Archer had been caught in their defensive snare, or whether any of their pack had lost their tags and traipsed back to the main camp near the river that fed into Minaty Bay.

The sun had risen, high and proud, and glared unforgivingly down on the island. Sabre found herself a little disheartened at the increasingly light weight of her waterskin as they journeyed on, taking several stops or detours when it appeared as though there may have been a trap in place, and knowing that the nearest lake of water was too far a deviation to make. She wasn’t sure about the others but her feet were starting to ache. Thoughts of practising with Vasha or spending time with her bow-crafting or training with either bow or sword crept into her mind with less and less resistance. The ambivalence gnawed away at her nerves precariously. She knew the strings of her temper were fraying when the casual whispers of chitchat crawled on her skin like insects, but she didn’t dare speak her mind on that matter.

Coming across a little brook was enough to quell her darkening mood, for a while. The island had a much greater land mass than one might originally believe but it wasn’t that large. Neverland was one of those places where if someone got lost they could pick any feasible direction and they would end up at the coast sooner or later, and then could trace the coastline until they found where they needed to be. Sabre was tired of tracking and trailing – she wanted a skirmish, action.

“Stop.” Hawkin dug his heels into the ground, hand raised, soft skin and muscle made hard.

The other three ground to a halt, looking round in varying degrees of alarm.

“What?” Sabre hissed, voice tight and demeanour skittish. The boy, silent, didn’t look at any of them, so she followed his line of sight, which trailed up and up…to the hooded figure crouched in the trees.

They’d walked into a trap. Suddenly, it didn’t feel much like a game anymore.

It was one of the twins, Sabre realised. Lookouts, just as they’d predicted.

Nothing moved. A new game had come to the fore – which side would have their wills snap first. Sabre bit down on her lip to bear the coiling of muscles, which soon would no longer care what they would burst with.

Suddenly a figure dropped down. James spun, and within that drawn out moment Julien also dropped down to snatch the other boy’s tag while his back was turned in distraction. Sabre moved without thinking, as done before. She lunged for Julien, all the while knowing her movement triggered the grand chase. With James’ tag barely in his hand, Julien was knocked to the ground – in what was Sabre’s need to expel energy – and felt his own tag slip from his belt. Unlike with Hayes, the girl didn’t hang about and bolted as the enemy pack closed in and a number of brawls broke out. They hadn’t seen the two sets of tracks meet up.

As often in chaos, the rules altered to every Lost One for themselves. Sabre didn’t see Nibs snatch up Ted’s tag then flee in another direction, nor did she see Hawkin fight off Tootles with an incapacitating punch and beat one of the twins enough in hand to hand combat to take their tag before having his own pickpocketed by Lance.

The quickest look over her shoulder warned of Spencer’s rapid pursuit and flooded her body with desperate power. What had come to her when anticipating Hayes’ attack, what had come to her in the skirmish not minutes ago, now dawned on her again. Only that time, Sabre didn’t fight it.

She ran towards one of the many fallen trees that littered Neverland’s landscape, the harmony of instinct and physical body allowing Spencer to get just as close as she needed. With all the power stored up to leap over the tree, Sabre instead planted her hands on the bark and bucked with her entire body, kicking out like an incensed mare. Small feet, fuelled with power, connected with Spencer’s collar, heels colliding with his jugular, and the boy was toppled, winded, to the ground, shattering. A wave of panic crashed down on her the moment she connected with the earth again. She grabbed his tag from his trousers, hating herself as she did so while he was wheezing and crumpled on the ground.

“I’m sorry, are you okay?” she crouched down, restrained by apprehension to reach out and touch the boy, who was nursing his half caved in throat. “Fuck. Ah shit, I’m so sorry.”

“No,” Spencer croaked, stopping to cough violently, “that was good. Who,” he coughed again, “who taught you that?”

Sabre looked so very guilty as she shrugged blandly. “Just came to me.”

“Shouldn’t have,” Spencer’s weak voice cracked and he stopped to cough again, rubbing his throat, “been surprised. But I’d suggest you start running. Because when the others see you got me they’ll come straight for you.”

Sabre looked to the direction from which they’d come. “How will they know that?”

A wily grin crept onto his face. “Because I’m going to tell them.” Sabre wasn’t sure if the humour was still well intended or if it’d been besmirched by something nastier, the horridness of a ghastly little boy.

Saying nothing more, Sabre turned her back on him, breaking into a run that took her further southwest, and eventually to the coast. Tired and sweating, but more or less unscathed, Sabre came to a halt at a break in the forest that opened out directly to the ocean. The ground remained hidden under earth and leaves right up to the precipice that gave way to a clean thirty foot drop to the water. Standing on shaking legs, Sabre looked out to the point where sea and sky met, wondering what might be beyond, if anything.

The shortness of breath and burning in her legs faded far from the fore the longer hazel eyes watched the hypnotic dance of navy, azure and cobalt, and when both disappeared, Sabre didn’t notice at all. The sea was all she saw, all she heard. Trancelike, the girl took a languid step to the very edge, the tips of her toes able to curl fearlessly over the cliff. Her balanced never wavered. Eventually, the line of those dark eyes descended to stare down to the waves below. If allowed, she would see down into the ocean, even if only for a moment before the next wave tumbled in.

The voices of her mind drowned. Until one was left.

Wave after wave.

Reasoned and calm but, most importantly, solitary, Sabre contemplated that which had come over her with both Hayes and Spencer. It had been the same skills, committed to her body’s memory, that had come to her aid atop the cliffs at Mermaid’s Lagoon.

Wave after wave.

It couldn’t be called, only unwittingly summoned in certain times of desperation – only, surely, it hadn’t been a time of desperation. It was only game, yet it rang hollow to every feeling part of her, and for whatever reason, she’d been spurred into unlocking her untapped capabilities.

Wave after wave.

Yet she was no closer to remembering when and how she’d acquired such knowledge.

Suddenly there was a tug at her trousers, and the chaos rebirthed. Impulsively pivoting on one foot to move away from the cliff edge, Sabre whipped around to face whatever had crept up on her.

“You really should pay more attention,” Tootles remarked, Sabre’s pale hued tag in his hand.

Sabre let out a breath, still a little absent. “Probably.”

“More than probably. I got right behind you and you didn’t sense a thing.”

“I was thinking,” the reply seemed feeble out loud.

The look on Tootles’ face indicated rather clearly that he was aware he’d intruded on something – not guilty, as such, but apologetic in a way. “You know the way back to camp?” he asked to break the gap of silence.

Looking to the south-east, Sabre replied with a little hesitation, “I think so. It’s that way, right?”

Tootles shrugged. “More or less. Want me to walk you back?”

“No, it’s fine, thanks,” she declined, admittedly disgruntled at being caught out so easily.

The Lost Boy was already moving as he replied, “Suit yourself,” before taking off, directly east, to recover his pack.

Sabre cast a final, longing glance at the sea, surrounded by only the whispers of the forest. It had always been soothing, but had never caused her to lose touch with the immediate world before. Oh well, the girl sighed and set off on tired feet to return in defeat to the camp, a thought that was unsettling.

Having to take a generous detour to avoid crossing paths with a young wolf pack, Sabre was lucky to find her weary way back before dusk painted to deep woods with dark. Keeping her head ducked fairly low, she avoided the gazes of all the Lost Boys who had already been caught out. Except for Hayes – she caught his eye and waved his tag to curb the nasty sneers lighting up his face, gravitating naturally towards those of her pack who’d lost their tags.

There were more boys from Tootles’ pack, Sabre noted with a glint of pride. On her side, only Farley, Hawkin and Pips had returned.

“Who got you?” Hawkin asked as she sat down with them, a sack laid beside him, distorted with whatever objects filled it to almost complete capacity.

“Tootles,” she admitted.

“That’s not so bad,” Farley added, looking up from sewing a tear in his cloak. “Whose tags have you got there?”

“Oh,” Sabre looked down at her belt, “Hayes’, Julien’s and Spencer’s.”

Hawkin laughed, looking to his brother. “You should have seen her get Hayes,” he cast a glance to the scowling boy who’d undoubtedly heard his name in the mockery. “Oh, before I forget…Tiger Lily brought this by,” the sack laid at his side was dropped on Sabre’s lap, large but not as heavy as she’d expected. “Said to give it specifically to you.”

Curious and bewildered, if not considerably cautious, Sabre loosened the fastening and opened the sack up as wide as it would go. It was the sight of folded fabrics that dominated her initial view. She rummaged through with naturally careful hands and it quickly became clear that much of the content was clothes, handmade and designed for a female body – her body. Reaching in to the long sack, she felt for the object that was creating a rather curious protrusion and knew exactly what it was as she gripped it and drew it out.

About a foot and half long, the short sword revealed itself still safely tucked away in its scabbard of handwoven leather and craft. It lacked a quilion that extended beyond the span of the blade as it merged with the grip. The blade itself was narrower at the forte and curved outwards in sweeping gradients at the terso before narrowing into the fatally sharp point, and the grip and pommel had been crafted with intricate patterns and words of a language Sabre doubted she would ever know. She was absolutely smitten. 

When she’d at last been able to put the sword down, Sabre also discovered that Tiger Lily had left her a hairbrush, several bottles with crude labels scratched into the bottles to direct their use, ties to use in her hair, a pair of leather boots that would last moons and moons, and a letter.

Brow furrowed, Sabre took it out and unfolded the crinkled parchment, unsure where the Piccaninny tribe would have acquired parchment and ink from.

But as she pulled back the first fold, she realised it wasn’t from Tiger Lily at all.

Scrawled in black ink, a hand usually elegant but tempered by apprehension, was one word that choked her in the very lungs.

Venger.


Link to my tumblr  for the artwork and song mixes (and lots of Peter Pan goodness!)

Chapter Text

It first occurred to burn the letter.

Only able to hear the low chatter in the camp from her abrupt seclusion, Sabre read it again, and again.

What she might have given to write back, and contemplated going to the tribe herself although she wasn’t all that fond of returning to the person who’d beaten her to the brink of death, no matter their gifts, however appreciated. And if I could write back I don’t even know what I’d say. What could I even say?

She wished it hadn’t come and allowed the hope to die, clenched her hands and cursed him a fool. The first warnings of her new sovereign had come from him – had he simply chosen to stare them in the face? Again her eyes climbed over the words, hollowing and brimming in paradox. He’d written with an unsteady hand, that she was sure of.

I miss you.

Sabre traced the pad of her thumb over the scrawl of his name, the letters retaining a certain elegance in their loops and flicks. “You’re too late,” her mournful voice whispered, and a chill was quick to crawl up her back.

The letter was snatched then away.

“Indeed he is.”

Flinching sharply, her body made to chase the parchment before the identity of the thief became fully realised. She tried to reel back but had already made a lunge for the letter, now in the Boy-King’s hand; he caught her by the neck, arm extended to full length, ignoring the sputters as he half crushed her throat, his glinting eyes skimming over the pirate’s hand.

“Oh dear, dear, dear,” Pan rolled his head to leer at the blanched girl, who squirmed under his touch and gaze. He took a moment to enjoy the helpless shortness of breath before relenting the strength in his fingers, and drew the other a little closer. “Adorable, isn’t it?”

Sabre assumed her primal state, silent at the mouth, chaotic in the mind. Arms stiff and thrumming, she steeled against the urge to pull at the large hand encircling her throat, suddenly comprehending she’d been brought to stand on the very tips of her toes. And still he towered over.

He squinted with an inquisitiveness that may or may not have been genuine. “What’s the look for, pup? It’s not like you had anything to do with this. You’re not the one it seems I’ll have to punish,” he looked her up and down, “How cruel of him.”

The words behind her eyes were clear to see, the pulse under his fingers galloping at an unsettling rate. He reached and caught a whisper. It singed at the frays of his consciousness – guilt. Already she was pleading with him, mouth unmoving.

But, knowing the girl was stalwart in restraining herself entirely, Pan opted for a change of subject; his thumb pushed at the side of her jaw to reveal the still dark bruises. “These have come up nicely,” he remarked, murmuring the words in a deepened purr. “They rather suit you, don’t you think?”

Sabre didn’t look at him. “How would I know?”

“Oh, don’t be dull, pup. You’re too clever to be dull.” He’d counted numerous reactions of his little Lost Ones after their first night in his bed, but never denial. The dusky shadows became starved of any light remnants over his features and he squeezed her jaw until she couldn’t fight the wince. “Are you ashamed of them?”

Her sorrel orbs flickered and she adjusted the position of her feet, grounding a little more firmly. The contours of her face were tense beneath his fingers. “No,” she answered, hesitant, “just not used to them.” The struggle in articulation hardly struck him as surprising but at least he didn’t sniff a lie.

Although he sensed there was more than was required to be said. Releasing his hold, Pan took a moment to fold the letter and slip it away. “And?” he coaxed while doing so.

He’d not seen anyone appear quite so pained in having to speak – well, her tongue had spent months simply taking up space in her mouth, but still. Sabre’s gaze fell to the ground several times before she seemed physically able to put words together. Pan supposed he had to appreciate the obvious effort, and enjoyed the even more obvious struggle. She had the words, he could tell, had already spoken them silently over and over again but feared their perception.

She couldn’t even meet his eyes once when the silence was broken. “It was…rougher than I thought.” The wicked snarling grin cut in like a sting.

Aw, did I hurt you?” Pan hinged at the hips, dipping his height low enough to mockingly bring them face to face and laughed at the splash of red unfurling on her cheeks. So he pushed a little further; “Did you like it hurting?”

Having gripped her own wrists, Sabre’s fingers tightened as she tipped her chin, eyes doe-like under long lashes, and barely able to comprehend what she was about to say. The vein in her neck visibly pulsed. “Only because it was you. Is – Is it always that rough?”

Straightening up, Pan laughed heartily. “That wasn’t rough. Trust me, you’d know if I was being rough with you.”

She bit her lip as the shudder encompassed the whole column of vertebrae. “So that was gentle?”

“No, not gentle.” As a rule, he didn’t do gentle. “Just not rough.” The succeeding query was evident and he caught it before it could waste his time; “And, no. Only unless there’s a very good reason. And I’ve yet to find one.” He watched the girl’s face fall, the streak of mistruth undetected. Naïve fool.

“Oh,” as little as it would serve her on Neverland, she craved what Pan would apparently never provide, needed it like a bird needed flight. And as much as she craved him, there’d be a toll to pay every time. One she’d be too poor to every time. She righted herself. “Can I have the letter back?”

The Boy-King gave a scoff, feigning puzzlement. “And, why would you want it?”

A flare of rawness sparked behind Sabre’s eyes. “Because I have a shred of humanity,” she folded her arms tightly.

“Ouch, that almost hurt,” Pan said, sensing the ripple of fear as he advanced. “And I thought we were getting along so well.” He wondered, looking down, how long ago the girl peaked at her petite full height, little enough to fit under his chin.  

Sabre’s shoulders slumped. “Please.”

Mouth tilted, Pan leaned in a little closer, incandescent streaks brightening in the verdant. “You look pretty when you say that.”

I’m supposing that’s a no, then. Heat tingled on Sabre’s cheeks as she worked not to fidget under those wicked eyes, a nasty clash to the knots of dread wrapping around her organs at the thoughts of what might be done with the letter. “What’s going to happen to him?”

Pan moved so swiftly that she spooked and took a step back to catch her balance, a little gap between her lips that completed the lost puppy ensemble. It didn’t grate his nerves quite so much anymore. There was somehow more opportunity in that face. She had the look of a Lost One about her. “Oh, nothing,” he told her, menacing in his full height. “Not for a while, at least.”

Their mutual friend would play for time – the more, the better.

If and when he abided to his word, the pirate would be in for the most satisfying of surprises. Pan would have his pawns in waiting, his weapons readied.

It wouldn’t be his pup who was in need of rescuing.


 “Five more seconds. You have it. Five, four, three, two, and to Adho Mukha Śvānāsana.”

Sabre exhaled thickly, lifting at the hips and finally relieving the pressure in her arms, hair flopping down. Her heels didn’t quite reach the earth but it was encouraging that they were considerably closer than when she’d started the lessons. Melting back, she brought them to the ground, the strings of muscle in the backs of her legs tugging just shy of painfully so she worked in little pulses, hoping that someday soon she’d get them all the way down in the natural asana.

“You are getting stronger,” Vasha noted approvingly. “Breathe it out. Now look forward, and exhale as you step or jump to the front – Uttānāsana.” There was less of a bend needed in her knees to find a comfortable stillness. He could barely see the girl’s face any more. “You’ll have to begin tying your hair soon. It’s getting too long.”

“Probably,” he heard from under the golden coppery veil. Sabre rocked gently side to side, allowing her head to hang loosely while testing the stretch in the backs of her legs.

She didn’t see the growingly affectionate smile on Vasha’s mouth. “Inhale, Ardha Uttānāsana. Exhale, bow. Then back to Phalakāsana – claw through your fingers to ease pressure in your wrists. Now Chaturaṅga to Ūrdhva Mukha Śvānāsana.”

Working to pull her shoulders down and away, Sabre evenly distributed weight between her arms and feet-tops, gaze forward, knees hovering about an inch from the soft pelt. She’d become accustomed to the routines Vasha had devised, so knew that next she would return to Cakravākāsana, and followed the familiar instructions to adopt the preparation asana for Eka Pāda Rājakapotāsana, which had quickly become a favourite. She could still feel the strong pull of muscles as one knee was lifted to centre and bent at an angle with the foot close to her groin and the other leg extended long to the back of the pelt. Still strong in the arms, Sabre lifted tall, chest and shoulders opened wide.

Thoughts came, as they always did. Worrying thoughts that demanded attention; recognition she would give, but attention she would try not to. For all the time spent dwelling on the letter and the unfathomable mind of her king, Sabre had made the earnest promise that the time spent training with Vasha would be dedicated to the self.

She was trying to keep the promise, really, she was.

After a couple of extended minutes, Vasha guided her back to Cakravākāsana to take the asana to the other side, noting how she was a little less flexible on that side but lacked any tell-tale signs of discomfort. There was a growing muscle to the girl’s limbs that would develop to be lithe and defined, with good eating filling her out. She stood with her posture notably improved to his trained eye; shoulders down and back, strength learning to draw in and up through a habit akin to nature, and not collapsing into the bones. In its peak the girl was given a quiet dignity that Vasha believed carried her well. Rather like a solider, steadfast and humble.

Returning to Cakravākāsana and easing through to Sukhāsana, the two sat mirroring one another. Sabre rolled through the neck, eyes opening because the quiet was too weak a barrier to hold back the thrum of thoughts. “Is Tiger Lily all right?”

Vasha’s eyes opened into slits and knew the calm aura of focus had shattered. He sighed softly, “She’s walking again. Still insisted accompanying the drop-off. Looked terrible, in honesty.”

Sabre looked down and away, shaking her head. “She didn’t deserve that,” she caught Vasha’s expression clear as day in her peripheral vision – as if she’d spoken treason, or blasphemy – and looked straight through him. “She didn’t.”

It was evident that Vasha didn’t agree and likewise she refused to fold. “It happened nonetheless,” the boy stated flatly. He didn’t speak with her on the way back, not even to fleetingly arrange their next lesson, leaving behind a deep-seated pit of discomfort.

With a deflated sigh, Sabre laid her rolled up pelt back in its usual place and, having already spotted Rufio, careened to him, a small dash of red on her cheeks. As usual, Hayes didn’t look particularly happy at the girl’s approach so she sat on Rufio’s far side, threading her fingers through some of the looser knots in her hair.

With a careful eye, Sabre detected a minute stiffness to Rufio’s clothes; the sort that came with exposure to the sea air, and noted the rim of his boots was darkened with water, still drying. Killian and his crew didn’t come to the shore anymore; instead, the Lost Boys would row out a boat to the Jolly Roger. Apparently the last time had been the night of her arrival, according to Curly, and Sabre had no reason to not believe him. With what had happened to Tiger Lily, after centuries upon centuries of living alongside Neverland’s Master, Sabre became sick with fearful dread in thinking what might have happened to a rogue pirate whose coerced loyalty was dubious at best.

There were no spatters of blood, at least. Sabre took that as good enough reason to hope. Until she reminded herself that Pan usually preferred to handle traitors and wrongdoers personally.

Perhaps it was too dangerous to go on caring for what she couldn’t alter and for those she couldn’t protect. There was no bigger picture, no grander design to play a role in. A weak voice tried fighting back – she could, if she tried hard enough, but it was an imbecile’s voice. Neverland was clenched in Pan’s iron fist, a once beautiful realm transformed into Hell’s Colosseum where life and death, favour and anguish, were dealt with an appearance of careless throws of the die. That terrible amalgamation of god and demon wove and tugged their strings, deluding them from time to time into believing their wills were still in their own possession when, in truth, any decision would lead to an end that would satisfy or amuse him.

He will break a wound, and then kiss it better with poisoned lips.

Suddenly Rufio clicked his fingers in front of her face. “Anyone in there?”

Sabre focused, blinking sharply, but her mind continued its workings. She was a little envious of the rich darkness of his eyes as she caught them. “Is there anything on the island that can dye someone’s hair?”

Rufio pursed his lips, giving a quizzical look. “What colour?”

Sabre shrugged. “Dark. Black.”

Rufio didn’t ask why. It was a common choice among new Lost Boys. “You could try believing.”

Sabre looked at him as though he’d suggesting drinking Dreamshade as a remedy. “I’m sorry?” she scoffed incredulously.

“Nah, you didn’t strike me as much of a believer,” he commented, like it was a vice on her part.

Because I’m not a delusional ignoramus. “There’s never been anything worth believing in. Not in the real world.”

Rufio flashed his teeth. “But this is Neverland. And I think you know by now that Neverland isn’t like other worlds.”

“You’re telling me that I can just believe that my hair is a different colour and it will be?” she still wasn’t convinced. Belief was worthless without a will and means to execute it. In the physical world, the cold reason of reality, it meant nothing. She could believe she was more than a pawn to the tyrannical Boy-King or that she’d be able to someday overthrow him; it wouldn’t make a difference to how agonisingly wrong both beliefs were. It would just change how delusional she was. She could believe that she’d get stronger and adapt to Neverland’s harshness since she possessed both the will and means to carry it out, but belief wouldn’t unshackle her from the demon’s clutches.

“Yes,” Rufio answered, jogging her, “it’s nothing in extreme and, with Pan’s power restored, belief is far more tangible than it’s been for a long time. The magic will work for something small like changing hair colour,” he concluded, his points presented with a reasoned clarity that shook Sabre’s scepticism for a moment. “But you can actually make a dye from Dreamshade.”

Of course. “I’ll go with belief for now,” Sabre nodded awkwardly, steeling against the shudder creeping up over her shoulders. “But could I talk to you about something else? In private.”

The edge of Rufio’s mouth quirked. “Colour me intrigued. Come on.”

Sabre followed him to the outskirts of the camp and up a rickety ladder to one of the small treehouses perched in the lower branches – apparently collapses had been known to happen. It was undoubtedly Rufio’s with his knives and clothes scattered around the small space that just about a fit a table with a wash bowl and jug and an elevated cot that could fit two people at a squeeze. Rufio had to duck his head while standing.

“What is it?” he asked, sitting down on the cot, the structure creaking with his weight.

Wringing her hands together, Sabre bit down and looked to the floor. “Can you – Can you teach me how to – how to please him?”

The responding laugh cut thickly through the air like the swing of a blunt weapon. She’d place good bets on her skin being as red as the streaks in his hair, and might have swatted him if it were not for the fact of his far superior status and that he could kill her in the blink of an eye. Gods, she shouldn’t have asked.

“Did you know that it took me quite some time to gain Pan’s highest favour? It used to be Nibs for quite some time. And then the two others that I – well, took care of. That was all while we were the first Lost Boys of Neverland,” Rufio told her, picking up a slender knife from under the cot and twirling it in dexterous fingers.

Fascinating, I’m sure, Sabre crossed her arms, swapping weight between her legs.

The knife twirled through the air, caught in Rufio’s other hand. “And you want to learn a couple of tricks off of me?”

“I’ve not been with anyone else,” Sabre blurted. At least as far as I can reckon. “I just, I don’t want to disappoint him if it ever happens again.”

The knife stilled. “He doesn’t mind inexperience, you know. It’s just more opportunity to create you himself. If I can see clearly that you want to please him then he’ll have no trouble in sensing it as well.” It was faint, but it was there. Envy. Tinted with an insecure fear.

He can’t kill me. That left him at a potential impasse. There was no way of removing her permanently. And if he stood in the way of what or who Pan wanted…no one had witnessed more consequences of that error than Rufio.

“Okay,” the expression worn by the girl conjured the image of a kicked puppy.

Rufio sighed thickly, “All right, I’ll show you a couple of things,” he swung his leg up onto the cot and lay flat on his back. “Get on top of me.”

What?” Sabre blanched, belly churning.

“Do you want to learn or not? Now get on top as though you were…mounting a horse or something.”

Gulping, Sabre placed one knee on the spot by Rufio’s hip, taut through the torso so she didn’t collapse as she swung her other leg over, most weight locked in the thighs, where she timorously laid her hands. Rufio immediately reprimanded her for holding back so much weight in her hips, and with a bitten lip Sabre sank down through the pelvis, warmth meeting warmth. There was no doubt that Rufio was handsome in his way, but he wasn’t Pan.

“Did he let you on top before?” Rufio asked, not at all surprised by the answer she gave; “Didn’t think so. But if he does, you want your weight in your hips like this. You can have your hands here, or here,” taking hold of Sabre’s wrists, he guided them to lay flat on his strong belly and then his chest, over the boyish swells of his pectorals, “but not higher. Unless he tells you to.”

Those roughened hands released her wrists to resettle on the feminine swell of her hips, thumbs pressed right over the bone, drawing more weight down. Rufio withheld the groan, knowing it would probably distract and spook the girl but pressed more and more strength down through his hands, only pausing when she winced sharply with a small noise of complaint. For a moment he said nothing and, tightening the grip just a little more, began rolling Sabre’s hips over his half hard length in the way he remembered Pan handling him, smirking a tad when she pressed her lips together, the way he’d done a thousand times.

If he looked back far enough, Rufio could remember the very first time his king had allowed him to ride atop. He’d fought the shaking with everything. Blood had drenched his hands, and darkness his soul, to gain a place at Pan’s side, yet Pan had only shown sharp teeth and wild eyes, savouring the boy’s trepidation because he knew, even then, that he was the only one Rufio would bare such beautiful vulnerability for. The demon loved to kiss fear and life into his puppets and watch them dance for him, even then.

Rufio tested her, moving with a little more vigour. “Good girl.” His words didn’t form the same way Pan’s did, lifted by a different accent of voice, yet that submissive streak hummed to life and Sabre’s hips rocked with a bit of their own agency. “Now put your hands on my thighs. Lean back.”

A little short of breath, Sabre nodded and did so, creating a smooth diagonal line from shoulders to hips with the strength Vasha had taught her how to use. Although only a mockery, she could already relish in the difference.

Any connections to restraint certainly weren’t helped by Rufio’s following utterance, deepened and husked, “Imagine it’s him. That he’s pulsing and burning inside you.” But she still picked up the underlying message – if you want to please him then damn well please him.

Sabre tipped back and her hair tumbled down, neck slender and deliciously exposed, recalled flashes of that flame-lit night piercing the frame of her mind.

“Now on your own,” the pressure in Rufio’s hands dwindled by more than half and she was left moving on her own, the subsequent pressure on his thighs rising. “That’s good – angle your hips a bit further. Just think of him filling you. Every time you rock forward you can feel it deep in your belly,” his words trailed off into a low groan, aching against the confines of his breeches. He’d need a body that night. Despite such clear recollections of so many encounters with his king, Rufio was unsure if he’d ever shared flesh with a female. If he had, it clearly hadn’t meant a whole lot to him.

“Come forward,” he was already reaching for the girl’s body to flip the angle of her torso so that she braced right over him, hands flat on his chest. He held her still. “If he wants to slow things down,” swallowing, Rufio gave an excuse to catch his breath, “you might find this works in your favour. Lift up, slowly.”

With a guiding hold on her hips, Sabre rose from the hands and knees, retaining the alignment, nothing within to tighten around. Eyes closed, she greedily gathered every sensory memory available but with none of them accurate, the intensity of craving what may never come to pass dragged her to the brink of frustrated madness. Even in the visual darkness, Pan’s picture could never quite be completed. The farce satisfied neither imagination nor reality.

Rufio trembled with want to haul the smaller body down and buck up with his hips. “Until only the tip is left inside you.” Sabre had never known his voice so torn. She could almost see him counting the moments. “Then sink back down. Again. Remember – slowly.

It was Sabre’s turn to swallow. Beyond hiding the subtle tremble, she bound all focus into repeating the motion under the support of the boy’s hold, biting her lip in attempting to create the image that yearned to find life. She counting sinking down for the fourth time. “Has Pan,” breathing deep, she stilled and refused to acknowledge the heated throbbing between their hips, “ever been gentle with you? In all the time you’ve been with him?”

Gripping on a little firmer, Rufio resisted bucking up in what might have led to an animalistic claiming of the girl with the beautiful neck altogether. But he would never take pleasure from his king’s possession without explicit permission. “He’s been more gentle some times than others. Gentle with him isn’t probably what you’d see as gentle.”

“How do you know what I see as gentle?” Sabre answered, absentmindedly shifting so that the bundle of nerves resting between her thighs was ground against that hard heat.

“It’s something I read from you,” Rufio shrugged from his position. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

The haze dissipated. Sabre sighed, “I’ve wondered that the reason I can’t remember anything is because I didn’t want to. I might have had an accident of sort but everything I’ve remembered, I’ve not liked – I’m not sure whether I would rather forget it again. Nothing I can recall has ever been gentle, in any way. I want what I’ve never had. I,” she paused, gathering the will to finish, “I deserve it.”

“Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I can’t speak for Pan,” Rufio said, angling his hips to shift the majority of the girl’s weight from such a distracting position. “But he might not go to you for a quick release – he has every Lost Boy at his disposal for that. You weren’t brought into his possession through the usual means; you didn’t come to him, he didn’t choose you. And now that he’s got to keep you, he might approach in a different way. But don’t take anything I say as promise.”

“He’s not particularly fond of girls, is he?”

“Not overly, no.”

“Do you know why?”

“You’d have to ask him yourself.”

She probably wouldn’t, Sabre knew that already. It wouldn’t make much of a difference. As Rufio had said – he had to keep her. Whether he was particularly fond of the idea or not. I suppose that’s where we’re alike. Despite our misgivings, we need each other.  

I chose one of the worst people to crave tenderness from.

Of course you did, you’re a fool.

“Do you remember what you were like? When Pan first found you?”

“Does it matter?” Rufio countered, fidgeting so that Sabre climbed off and perched on the edge of the cot. “None of us as we are now mattered before him. You’ll soon see that.”


A small smile tugged at Sabre’s lips. She was getting better.

The arrow pierced in the red rim of the target spoke as much. Just a little refinement and soon her shots would pierce black. It was recently difficult to think of a day when at least a couple of hours hadn’t been dedicated to bow practice, and with her bow finally completed, Sabre had a full set of weapons to now call her own. She still not had the chance to thank Tiger Lily for the sword that she trained with most days, however briefly or distantly, since she typically didn’t accompany the drop-offs much anymore. Apparently the princess could walk more smoothly.

“Again,” Nibs said, waiting for Sabre to reset, stance, nock, set. She drew the bowstring back, bringing her forefinger near the corner of her mouth, and grounded through the shoulder to let the weight flow into her back muscles. “Careful not to start collapsing in your body when you draw. Keep your thumb tucked in and try not to strain your grip.” He noted the tick in her jaw because she knew he would make her restart the entire process if he wasn’t happy with the draw and anchor. The method was sound, if not irritating.

Flexing through the shoulders, Sabre assessed the overall form of her stance, the muscles in her back rippling with the draw weight. Filling with a breath, she released the arrow, opening her fingers with a crisp, smooth motion and resisted the urge to adjust the bow to see the shot go through.

At the sound of the stone-tipped arrow striking the target, Sabre braved a look. She grinned.

“Don’t get cocky,” there was half a laugh in Nibs’ words. “Go get the arrows.”

Compliant, the girl moved with a perk in her step, even as she knew the uplifting fulfilment would falter the moment a poor shot was fired or the practice came to an end. Picking off two or three arrows at a time, Sabre filled the quiver. She’d wondered for some time whether Neverland had deposits of coal and metals to be mined. If stone could be quarried, a furnace and forge could be made. Bronze, iron and steel would make for better weapons than flint, wood and stone, and would end their dependence on what the pirates brought for them as part of the long standing deal. The difference could better their chances against the Never-beasts and Neverbirds and the unlucky souls Pan brought to the island for his army to test their mettle against; could prolong their numbers.

Nibs was swinging his bow and quiver over his shoulders when Sabre turned around. As promising as the girl had proven, he had grown bored with their session and she would likely have to wait another couple of days before asking him to supervise her training, still at an experience that required guidance to thrive.

She was happy to keep the silence as they made their way back to the camp before the sun set, only getting around half way there before Nibs announced he was going to hunt and Sabre didn’t have time to get out a word before the nimble boy sprung like a wolf in flight. Oh well, the voice in her head sighed and her thoughts slipped back into wondering.   

If Neverland was deprived of natural resources, they could always be believed into the earth. Sabre laughed at herself.

She pinched a lock of hair between her fingers. Still…

It turned out dark hair suited her.

Chapter Text

From the distance Sabre could make out the camp’s fire but the accompanying noise was absent, as was the movement of darkly clothed figures. The grip she had on the young bow stiffened, the weight of her steps apprehensively lightened. Usually something was amiss when she was the only breaker of silence.

Closer still, and no movement or human sound. Did something chase them away? What if something had attacked and forced the boys to scatter? Yet it hardly seemed very likely.

No bodies, no limbs or blood – that was a slight sign of reassurance. Then where the bloody hell are they? And how am I meant to find them? Palms cold and dank, Sabre swept her gaze across the clearing. She seized up before exhaling cuttingly, shoulders slumping. “I’ve missed something, haven’t I?”

“I sent the rest of them on to the next camp.” Pan reclined in the stone carved, pelt covered throne, his long fingers woven together. He tapped his knuckle almost boredly and Sabre was left without the weight of her bow and quiver. “It’s just us.”

With nothing to hold, Sabre’s hands curled in until the nails dug in to soft flesh, the air thinning in her lungs. There’d been nothing, nothing at all, since the ritual night; the most intimate moment had been when he’d half crushed her jaw the day he’d taken Killian’s letter from her. She’d roughly tracked the moons but knew with certainty that enough days had gone by for any trace of his teeth on her neck to have long faded. It didn’t stop their ghosts from suddenly singeing at the mere sight of him.

She hadn’t been struck quite so dumbly in all her night-time imaginings. Apparently some things never changed.

“Oh,” the Boy-King drew the vowel out, “did you think I’d forgotten all about you? Like the hair, by the way.”

Her gaze flitted, mostly downwards. “Thanks,” she paused. “Why now?”

“Why not now?” that virid watch rippled from head to toe. She felt it like a shiver. “Seems like you’re fitting in nicely.”

What else is there to do? Sabre might have said she’d always been good at adapting, but then how in the world would she know? I must adapt to him too. More than anything else. With nothing worth saying she offered a shrug instead.

Thank the heavens she’d washed that very morning. It was rare for her to wonder what she looked like – in, essentially, every other situation nothing could have been of less importance. The length of her hair was longer, only now a soft black with lingering embers of brown-red; her eyes were still hazel and there were no new scars or blemishes on either her face or body, and the shape of her form had continued to fill out healthily, but other than that, Sabre frankly had no inkling of what Pan saw. Clearly not hideous enough to deter him.

It was probably thanks to the treasures left to her by Tiger Lily in every other drop-off.

“Come to me,” Pan drew out, resting an ankle over his knee. He lifted a long finger as Sabre took the first resigned step; “Ah. Crawl.” The harsh angles of that masculine face ignited a glinting smirk that dripped with sin.

It was pleasant to know that the girl clutched to no feeble fibres of resistance as she slowly, anxiously, but surely lowered down. The length of muscles shuddered with the stubborn fight of repressing that quiet dignity and Sabre almost winced as the flats of her palms connected with the cold earth. Although it hadn’t been as difficult as she’d thought, nor as difficult as she wanted it to be.

The ball joints of her feet pressed in to the ground, knees held aloft a couple of inches the way they were in the hovering Marjaryasana. Sabre thought nothing of it.

Tilting his head to one side, Pan watched the girl move in that peculiar way, refusing to allow her knees to kiss the ground as she crawled forward, head bowed, neck neutral. “On your knees,” he sneeringly reprimanded when she was more than half way to the carved throne, cast in slight shadow by the overlooking tree.

More sharply than anticipated, even by herself, Sabre drew back, face scrunching up as if in pain. The fabric of the island trembled. The air shuddered with a chill, and the sky darkened to a flinty grey in the space of a single heartbeat.

The island responded to nothing and no one, except him.

The girl groaned out through a fiercely clenched jaw, small, eyes clenched shut. Her fingers clawed at the dirt. Even from his throne, Pan could witness her entire legs quaking in trying to force her knees down. Wild waves churned and roared against the impenetrable bulwark of his consciousness, carrying in hoarse and broken screams, teetering on the edge of inhuman, from a voice he knew well enough to identify by then. The threads between the forces of their lives burned white-hot.

It was the nearest Pan had come to pain in a long time.

Naturally, Sabre flinched to feel two hands take hold of her upper arms, the cool air of Pan’s breath dusting her forehead. “Open your eyes,” he demanded, voice low. There was a thin noise of pain as she obeyed; the whites had been singed to a stinging red, glassy and unreachable. Nothing of her was his – he couldn’t have that. “Let me see?” Pan rumbled against Sabre’s ear, already prepared to breach the walls of her mind. He could simply knock them aside, dissolve them, but there was just so much screeching to escape. His pup would break into complete ruin if he ripped down the barriers, become a creature too incoherent to rule. She whimpered out as he pressed his forehead to hers, probing as far as limit would allow. “Let me in.”

Somewhere unbeknownst, the girl, in her subconscious will, opened the gates for him to witness the bitter struggle of piecing fragments together, shard by shard, in one long terrible, grotesque sequence…

Bitter air on shivering, aching skin, heavy with grime and muck. The world around twisted by a crescendo of fraught cries and odious jeers like nails on flint. A jagged-edged stone scraped the bare skin of an exposed shoulder.

Because she’d told them nothing.

Beneath her bare hands and feet the earth was cold and wet, mud oozing and making her slip. Metal encircled her little body. It was rusting, and left no mercy for movement beyond its restraints, a second skeleton for her torso.

Find the Aedilognis.

Sight was hard. Through the disorientation, the remainder of her surroundings were hindered by a set of thin bars as she crawled on through the filth. Unlike the skeleton cage, it was cleaned. Obviously cherished by the one who had placed it on her.

Because she’d told them nothing.

Yet she was not the one manipulating the direction of movement – a harsh tug, rooted between her shoulder blades, hauled the skeleton cage back against her chest to still the body. A voice, one that made her break the cycle of raw sounds for a crushed whimper, repeated their utterance.

Find the Aedilognis.

Head swaying deliriously from side to side, she skimmed their faces, saw how they recoiled. From her, the nightmare child. Dare she sign their warrant with a gaze that lingered too long.

Accidently, her weary knees came too close to the ground, and she yowled. The cage was yanked again, the voice repeated. Find the Aedilognis.

Find the fire-maker.

As if somehow she knew. As if it had been her to complete the consummation. It hadn’t. She’d done something far worse, hadn’t meant for it to happen. No one told her. Because no one had known.

She lost her balance and the lethal points, like sword tips or arrowheads, bit into the small shells of her kneecaps, leaving her to thrash and wail. The cage was one of a kind. His special idea, just for the dog under his charge, the howls of the pack growing quieter every few days. 

Rocks buried in the mud jabbed into bare feet and hands, only spurring the speed. She saw hardly any faces, did not need to see them to keep on screaming, and wasn’t sure what it was that came to her as they parted, still fleeing, as though the fires had never been put out…

The ability to see through her eyes brought Sabre to heave in as much air as could be occupied by her lungs as she was returned to her physical form. Knots tied more viciously than ever, present but not in power of her own body. The passage of breath was too tightly constricted, leaving muscles and blood fearfully clutching for the wisps of air that could be taken down. Sabre’s limbs made to lash out, but were caught by the body still encasing each sense, by arms just as unyielding as the metal confines that now had to be accepted as her own.

Pan caught the girl’s flailing hands, crossing them at the wrists over her stomach, kneeling behind. “Stop. Stop,” he drew Sabre back to his chest, allowing the rough timbre of his voice to hover at her ear.

Everything Sabre needed to say got stuck and she was left with only a thin whimper to expel. She struggled again, desperate to move. To shake the cage off from her bones. Even if it was in defiance of that voice.

The more strength he restrained her with, the more she would fight to struggle, a pitiful reflection of an even more pitiful creature with its humanity clawed apart. For the sake of necessity, Pan breathed deep to soften the contours of his form, drew warmth to his skin, so that she could collapse into the intimate comfort, and brushed his lips against her temple, where he placed a slow kiss. “Shhh,” another kiss, just under his pup’s ear, and already the living tempest in his arms acquiesced to relent. “They can’t hurt you. I won’t let them. They’re gone but I’m here. And you’re mine, aren’t you? Aren’t you, little one?”

Eyes closed and slumping back, Sabre nodded as she pushed away at the pooling tears, head turned to bury in the Boy-King’s neck.

“That’s right,” a third kiss placed itself on the softest bit of her cheek. “It doesn’t matter anymore, they’re long gone now. They can’t have you. I’ve got you now.”

“Make it,” Sabre sniffled, hands still bound and unable to wipe away the cutting tears, “make it go away. Please. I’m no good like this. No good to you.” Her throat locked too far to allow any more words out, so Pan grasped the end of their thread, and made sure to kiss her again on the jaw.

To forget again wasn’t what the girl sought. Rather she pleaded so frantically to perceive the wakening horrors through a sheet of glass just thick enough to bear it. She was sure now – sure that she’d forgotten because it had simply been too painful to remember. She could never have carried that burden and gone forward.

Pan had forced away the initial rise but it snarled in the pit of his cold heart. Anger. Someone – someone other than him – had done this to his pup. The only marks his Lost Ones bore were the ones given to them by him, their divine and demon both. A piece had been claimed, one that he would have to take back.

It would take patience, effort, but that was fine. With every fragment that reattached itself, she would be pulled away from his dominion, another link of the chain he could never wield. So he would smooth the edges, wipe her eyes, break the chain and bring the shards to the fold. He would numb her little bleeding heart just enough to keep her in one piece.

She’d been right. She was no good to him like that. The fact that she knew and accepted it, wanted to change it, boded in her favour.

When Pan released his hold, rising to full height, Sabre was ready to burst into tears all over again, and ached to reach out for him like a little child. It was how she struck him as he looked down with those large, saturated puppy eyes, reddened cheeks and trembling chin. Quickly, she sniffed again and wiped the hot water away with the heels of her hands.

Pan ground his jaw, still curbing his wrath against the vermin who had committed such sins against the only possession of his still pure, and compelled a degree of mildness into his next words, “I’ll take you to the next camp.” Sabre blinked and shook her head rapidly. He cocked an eyebrow. “No?”

She repeated the gesture, using it as a pause to dislodge the lump in her throat. “I want to keep going. I don’t want to be left alone with…not with this. I need to keep going.”

Tilting into one hip, Pan rested his hands in the gentle curve of his waist, forearm tendons taut against the barrier of pale golden tinted skin. “You really want to? Stop crying for a start, then.” The way she furiously wiped her eyes again assured her sincerity. It was there in the whispering pathway. “Can you kneel? You don’t have to crawl.”

“Okay,” Sabre spoke in a whisper. The world whirled for the briefest of moments as Pan pulled them to the pelt covered throne. She checked her vision, now perched on the flats of her shins between the Boy-King’s knees.

He lifted one foot, now suddenly bare, to the edge of the throne to rest, leaning back in a way that accented the width of his shoulders. Clean and well kept, like all the rest of him, his foot flexed almost teasingly. “Kiss,” Pan drew out the sound with dancing eyes.

Curling dark strands behind her ear, Sabre slipped little hands to brace on the stone, framing his foot as she leant over to kiss it, timidly at first. It came easily, blissfully so. Rufio hadn’t prepared her for this – he hadn’t needed to. She dragged her mouth over his foot, leaving kiss after kiss, before nuzzling the inner arch and following the path with her tongue. The thoughts that came were not exactly peaceful but they were held fast to the present, and that was all she needed.

“Hmm, you’re not bad at this,” Pan glided long fingers through her hair, petting as she licked along the bone to his largest toe, as though it were covered in honey. The response given was a stifled moan, the girl not even looking up and he grinned wide. How easy.

The tip of her tongue delved to slip between each of his toes, the taste of him cool and mild. All too soon, Sabre was nudged from one foot to the other, hands reaching to clasp the heel and ankle, and unable to sense his well-masked distraction.

Neverland had been pulled away from him, no longer one and the same upon that moment. The pitiless forces of nature could be roused both by will and sheer uncontained power, but it had always come from him, because Neverland had become his long, long ago. Become him.

There was no magic in the girl to be harnessed, not by her at least, but with the blood in those veins, where power undoubtedly lurked, now shared with his realm there was a second soul to feed on. It hadn’t been much trouble to supress and crush; Pan hadn’t yet decided whether remedying or preventing the little thorns in his dominion was the best way forward. Either could work so it wasn’t that much of a bother to him. It was simply finding out which required less work, since the girl had already proved far more challenging than his boys, not that he was deterred. Every gut feeling told that she’d be a rare prize worth waiting for.

The tongue lapping between his toes was warm and wet enough to be tantalising, and the undeniably pleasant sensations returned him to the moment. He’d been petting her hair all the while, soothing, goading, and she would have kept going until her mouth ran dry. It wasn’t all on his account, but still. There was too much to uncover to have it all wasted.

Bracing the unattended foot on Sabre’s shoulder, Pan pushed down, dislodging the other so that she had to catch herself to keep from collapsing right over under the weight. The look in those eyes…he almost felt guilty. Almost. “Stay down,” he spoke softly, smirking. “Undress.”

Sabre sat back to pull off the dark hued boots, kneeling up to loosen the belt that kept her trousers tied on firmly – the belt for carrying supplies left behind before bow practice – before settling back down to ease them over tense limbs that fought to fidget under the emerald watch. She pressed her thighs flush together, biting down as the top half of attire was removed as well. The brief hindrance of vision was enough time for the Boy-King to strip himself and Sabre was left with a violent flinch with the sight that she was greeted with, dark hair tousled. The same foot that had pushed her down now settled in the dead centre of her chest; again she only just caught herself as strength crashed down on bones that might have been made from stained glass. Sabre waited to hate it. She was disappointed, yet not bitterly.

The flat of Pan’s sole pressed right into the Triquetra scar, the lubdub of the heart beneath partially quietened by the softness of the girl’s warm breast. Pan swallowed the laugh as he wrapped a hand around himself, palming the heat with the low hiss that replaced it. Mouth dried up, Sabre hastily licked her lips, unable to stop the path of her gaze wandering all over the sculpture of his body – the tight tendons, the broad shoulders, the sweeping gradients of torso and arm muscles, the line of darkening hair that descended to…

She gulped. No matter how youthful, he had a man’s body. Just as she possessed a woman’s, and a child was still housed somewhere inside. Something they shared, perhaps the only thing. 

And she strained against his foot, arms beginning to judder, loving and loathing how easily it crushed her down, wanting to push against him and to be ground right into the earth. Aches permeated every surface. She wanted to kiss his neck, take his dusky nipples into her mouth, let her tongue glide over every compressed pack of muscle in his belly, wanted to fill every perception, every thought, with him.

Pan refused to rush, even as his member swelled under the self-inflicted ministrations. He dragged his thumb over the tip, catching the pearly bead forming there, and relinquished the weight grinding the girl down. “Come play,” he growled out, jaw tight, but not in a way that betrayed a loss of control.

As he sat straight, Sabre inched forward on her knees, the trepidation culminating in the features of her face. The insides of bare knees brushed naked shoulders. A hand slipped into newly darkened hair, felt the dent, and fastened to hold her head still.

Pan watched her gulp and grinned something wicked. “Good girl,” it struck as a taunt, practically cooing, while he brought himself a mere inch away from those rosy lips. “Open wide,” the coax left Sabre in the shoes of a child who’d petulantly refused their medicine.

There wasn’t enough strength to spare into keeping the tremble away as she parted her mouth, hurrying to evoke their first night together, how she’d licked and suckled his finger. It was all she had to govern the next move. She was obedient, of course she was, and, shuddering as the velvety head skimmed her lips, opened even further to meet his generous girth, teeth drawing back. The small moan came almost instantly, stifled in the back of her throat, an unplaceable emotion driving it – a consolidation of too many to carry one name.

Hot, musky, faintly tasting of sea salt, Pan’s member pulsed into Sabre’s mouth, and he used the hand in her hair to push in a couple more inches. He remembered the prominence of her gag reflex, meaning he probably couldn’t go as deep in as was possible with others of his – how had she put it – harem, but that was all right. There were plenty other acts to perform. Rare pleasures of a female body.

He didn’t mind when the girl’s small hands shot out to brace against his inner thighs where the hair on his legs began to grow coarser. Releasing himself, Pan’s hands cradled the fragility of Sabre’s skull, easing from her mouth and hovering with only the very tip within. In the pause, a fragment of masculine essence bled onto Sabre’s tongue and she couldn’t keep from swallowing it down, only just quick enough to recover as Pan pulled her forward, rolling his hips to fill that mouth to its limits.

Tongue flattened and cheeks hollowed, Sabre made another little noise but displayed no signs of noncompliance, and flexed her fingers against the pale skin beneath their prints, the corners of her mouth tugging. Closing eyes to darkness, the girl fought beyond the confines of the hands manoeuvring her like a marionette, moving a fraction more quickly to make it her own, but naturally Pan caught on immediately.

The strength slackened and the strings became frayed. Sabre swallowed again in the back of her throat. Well, you did get yourself dug into that one. Don’t disappoint him. Remember that night. Don’t disappoint him…

She fought to take him as deep as possible before the reflex twisted and ruined every effort, fought as hard as possible to keep it cornered so that she might not fail him utterly. It was still an enigma as to what was seen as adventurous – more importantly, allowed – and what would incur the wild god’s irritation. There was a greater chance of touching the stars than of him handing over the tricks of the trade. So, she’d simply have to take some risks every now and then, and learn from the consequences, whatever they may have been.

That at the fore, Sabre repositioned her right hand, tentatively wrapping it around the untouched base of Pan’s length, slow enough to be stopped if unwelcome. Nothing. Sparked with something just a little bold, she adapted a rhythm, moving hand to mouth, forward and away, and listened keenly to the heaviness in Pan’s chest. She groaned around him, halfway to choking with the Boy-King rising to match every descent of her lips along his length. The sighing breath passed over his tongue easily – yes, with a little training she’d be a fine companion for him, potential nurtured with a little refinement. The ability to adapt to any of his moods.

Numbness was taking root in Sabre’s wetted lips, tenseness creeping into her shoulders as Pan bucked with an increased vigour and she braced against his thigh a little tighter to keep the slither of control he’d dangled in front of her, gulping down the gags. There was something pretty in the girl, in her quiet struggles and adamant willingness, that made him want her deep in his belly.

A sudden choked whine jogged his attention and he knew instantly there’d been too much force in where his hands had returned to gripping the girl’s skull. Sliding his cock from her mouth and watching her work the hinges of her jaw, Pan’s mouth split into the cat-like grin. “Was I too rough again?”

Sabre wiped away the wetness, not providing him with a direct look, hands folding inwards in resistance to the want to rub where she was mildly sure Pan had left new indents in her skull. Too rough for her comfort, yes, but not too rough for her capability – she shook her head once, swallowing on nothing.

“You might regret admitting that,” he warned, more to stoke fear than anything else; neither answer would have altered much of what he planned to do next. “On your feet, pup.”

Watching the small girl get up conjured an image of a foal learning to rise on its little legs for the first time – coltish being an apt word for the configuration of her limbs – and Pan leaned back to inspect her form. Nothing was clearer than Sabre’s ill ease. She kept her thighs sealed together and arms taut at her side, probably in holding back the need to cross them over her chest or brush her hair forwards, toes curling into the dirt. The outline of ribs were visible with every inhale but there was no doubt that she’d bred more substance onto the bones. Naked and bare, Pan noted the greater fullness to her thighs and breasts, and he’d filled the surrounding air with enough warmth to know the pertness of the girl’s rosy peaks could not have been at the fault of a chill.

He rose up slowly, taking the time to enjoy – rather thoroughly – the journey of towering over the girl. Her belly drew in tight when the tip of his length grazed the skin of her lower abdomen, leaving a tiny smear. Sabre’s locked arms were dislodged by large hands, effortlessly overpowering so they could encircle the outward curve that joined waist and hip in a sweeping contour.

“There’s a good girl,” Pan murmured as he pulled her in. A knot pulled loose as Sabre sank into his body and arms, head tucked down. There was only a moment to savour the blissful stillness of having him so, so close before Pan put his jaw to her temple and pushed her whole head to one side, exposing the pale neck that just begged to be ravished.

There was no hesitation in the bite, teeth sinking into tender, vulnerable flesh. Sabre sighed out a thin whimper, growing slack in surrender. The foal in the jaws of the wolf. Harsh fingers dipped the knead the swell of her backside, hungry and possessive, a low growl rising alongside in Pan’s chest as he toyed with the skin and muscle between lethal teeth. He rocked her pelvis forwards, grinding her lower body into his pulsing length. For a moment it had been something close to gentle. For a moment the arms had been a comfort without being a cage, also.

Their bodies formed an inverted crescent arch, one grip furious, the other fraught. Sabre’s gasps, edged with fear and pain, brushed Pan’s ear like a little breeze. He sucked sweet blood to the surface, not minding that she’d wound her arms around his neck to anchor herself and clenched down to steel against the onslaught. The hand not dragging her hips forward slid to the base of her neck only to drag claw-like nails down the long muscles cradling her spine, eliciting angry red lashes, and the only retreat was to press even closer in.

Drawing blood by fastening the power of his jaw would far exceed the girl’s limit to artful pain, and Pan did not want that; angling his mouth, he nicked the darkened skin with the point of his canine tooth, slicing a thin fine line. A pleasing flow of garnet bled through straight into his mouth. Sabre wrenched but she would never be a match for his physical prowess and was forced into stillness as he licked and sucked the delicious wound. He was used to tasting blood but not blood with any real power in it, and remembered how, with great restraint, he’d stopped himself from cutting open another vein the night of the ritual, just to claim more. The hum he sent into her neck woke a shiver that spread to every corner of her form. Her thighs were burning as she clamped them together.

Aching jolts shot through Sabre’s spine as Pan straightened them both. He dragged crimson stained lips up her cheek, still having to bow his head to snarl against her forehead, “Tell me, do you want me to take you?”

Clinging for dear sanity, Sabre screwed her eyes shut, nodding into Pan’s neck while a small bead of blood carved a path down her collar, moaning needily through a clenched jaw.

He compelled her to look up by pulling a fistful of hair down. Teeth were bared but the mirth was absent, replaced with a dark hunger that threatened to overwhelm and conquer. “How badly,” verdite fire blazed, searing into the girl’s soul through glassy hazel windows, and already he was turning them around, “do you need me to fuck you?” the dropping of her lower lip and blink betrayed that innocent modesty, cheeks flaming at the brazen choice of words. “Go on, say you need it. Say it.”

Sabre twisted against the fist in her hair, shuddering as she cried out, “Yes! Please, I…I need it,” she choked on her own need, and on her own shame, “Please. Please,” the pleas faded into tiny whispers.

Pan spun the body in his arms, already pushing her towards the throne, almost downright onto it. “Kneel up. And spread. Your. Legs.”

Lost for breath, Sabre knelt up against the back of the throne, tall enough to fold her forearms across, knees opened as wide as the stone arm rests would permit. The furs provided decent enough padding. Behind her, Pan, lifting one knee to the seat, dragged the weeping head of his cock up the crevice of her hind before angling himself to teasingly rub the glistening, reddened entrance as he mounted fully. His growl indicated something akin to approval as a fleeting slap was delivered to the girl’s left buttock, the provoked squeak making him smirk. The cage was completed with his hands bracing either side of her arms, and Sabre shut her eyes, fighting to reign in some semblance of steady breathing.

Pan’s teeth sunk into the flesh of her earlobe, body flexing behind. “Scared?”

Wetting her lips, Sabre exhaled sharply. There was nothing to gain from mistruth or exaggeration. “A little,” she confessed quietly, turning to one side for the chance to have his face brush against her own.

He wasn’t bothered by her answer – if he’d so desired he could put enough fear in to have her in a cowering and crying mess. Although that wasn’t really how he wanted her. He didn’t want anything to render her utterly incapable unless he had the time and patience to undo the damage. But there was also no desire to have the girl slip back into a state of trauma.

“Good enough,” he whispered into the nape of her neck, not needing to hold himself to breach the near dripping quim and sunk to the hilt with a long, low groan, drowning out whatever noise came from the smaller form.

It hurt a little, not as much as the first time and was the kind of hurt Sabre knew would burn out into nothing. Pan allowed a few moments for her inner muscles to stretch and ease. She was positively tiny as he reared up, a rough edge in every breath, and when she tried to arch back just to be nearer to him…how adorable. He pulled out, mouth widening at how much arousal had soaked him in a single roll of his hips. Satisfied beyond doubt that nothing more would be needed to shield the girl’s mind from its brutal reawakening, Pan tossed the concerns away, securing his hold on the throne’s back and cared only for fucking his toy into exhaustion.

Sabre carried his roughness even as it was a constant battle, and she’d quickly bowed her head low, biting her lip and stringing out a melody of gasps and grunts and whimpers. Yet Pan felt her thrive.

It dawned upon him then, a confirmation of what he’d long suspected, that his pup needed a fight, a struggle, a battle of sorts, first and foremost with herself. Whether fighting against the workings of her own mind or for the very breath in her chest, she had to keep on struggling. Hers was not a soul of peace. Surrender was close to impossible – she didn’t know how to be when she was not fighting for or against something – and that would make the victory all the sweeter when he claimed it.

A faint red bloomed on the surface of Sabre’s rear where Pan bucked forward, gliding his hands from the throne, to her neck or shoulders, to her hips, never gripping the same place for long. The gasps were delightful when he wrapped around her throat, especially when he pried at the dark wound to make her cry out, smearing blood on skin. Beneath him, she was aflame, swept in torrents of bliss and torment. She bucked back when possible, unable to keep with the fierce pace Pan upheld with neither strain nor difficulty.

All the strength was pounded from her body, and Sabre had little to no agency in holding herself upright as Pan’s arms, like snakes, wound around her lithe torso and drew her up and back to his chest. Her head lolled back against the broadness of a shoulder, neck shining up to the sky through the canopy of the great tree. Even on the brink of collapse, she pushed against the slowing thrusts, still set on pleasing the boy, trapped with one foot into manhood, she could now, in her heart, call king. Large hands ghosted upwards to cup the flushed swells of her breasts, thumbs and forefingers rolling her nipples to the threshold of pain, sharp fangs grazing the tendon that reached up just behind her ear. Sabre clenched her jaw to stifle the fullness of the moan that built from the depths of her lungs. The heat of his breath singed raw on her neck.

Sabre rolled her hips where he was buried deep within, gasped soundlessly at the sheer wetness inside, teasing a low hum from the Boy-King that morphed into a wicked laugh. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? You can’t stop yourself from needing it.” The words strung out a needy whine poisoned with the self-loathing that lingered at the core of her being. The more she realised the truth of his utterance, the greater that loathing reared its foul head. Damn you, demon.

A lurch was startled was from her as Pan took hold of her neck to push that shattered body down. Sabre grit her teeth, breathing hard, as she was near crushed against the throne’s back, the pelts covering it far too hot for her liking. The hand kept its place, the other seizing the soft flesh just below her hip. Her only task was to hold there and take it. She wasn’t ready for the first invasion of her already shuddering walls, making a noise that would have been a quiet grunt if the air hadn’t been knocked out.

She despised how torturously good he still felt inside, riding her on the brink of something animalistic.

Pan leaned forward when the girl under his touch had all the life a ragdoll, hand moved to settle on the untouched hip, growling into the back of her neck through the tangled veil of dark hair that clung in strands to heated skin. Soreness was creeping into the sensations and the whimpers became harder to supress, but she never contemplated asking him to slow or stop. She remained bowed and tame.

And she trembled fiercely as he spilled himself inside her, riding through the ecstasy with a snarl that sounded as though it was being ripped from his chest. There was pain when he pulled out and Pan watched the girl for a moment as she panted, skin glistening, against the furs and stone. Without effort, he gathered Sabre against his chest, not minding how she collapsed, boneless, into him, or that his essence already bled from her quim.

Head bowed over, his lips brushed against her damp hairline. “They’re never coming back. They’ll never hurt you again,” he whispered to her. “I’ll never chain you or put you in a cage. Oh, my dear, loyal hound,” he stroked her neck with the backs of his fingers, chin lifting to rest atop her head.

Tears blinked themselves into her eyes and Sabre sealed them shut, leaning as far back into him as their bodies would allow, curled into the shelter of his arms. The breath on her lips trembled. She nuzzled the strong pillar of his neck, mouthing what had become true somewhere in her heart, and knew it would add to a long list of regrets. Her mouth barely moved, ghosting against Pan’s skin, silent, “I love you.Damn you, demon.

Chapter Text

“Sabre, wake up. Sabre, you’re crying again.” Tootles nudged the curled up girl again and that time her streaming eyes opened sorely in the dark.

She grumbled, realising why she’d been woken. I’m making a habit of this. “Sorry.” The night before it had been rousing memories of the skeleton cage and she’d only goaded herself back to sleep, once woken, with repeating the words Pan had murmured to her. Other nights, dreams had pieced together tiny fragments of a much wider tapestry and she was condemned to spending her waking hours in constant combat with the draining urge to weave them together. Whatever it was came after the skeleton cage but the chasm was too wide to understand how one could have possibly fed into the other, the destinations known but not the journey.

At least, somehow, she’d escaped the skeleton cage. Perhaps she found the fire-maker, perhaps not.

She was beginning to consider finding a treehouse on the edge of the camp to sleep in, one that was unclaimed or that could be bartered for.

“Why does this keep happening?” Tootles asked in a whisper. “It’s been days.”

Sabre’s head thudded on the pillow that was subsequently James’ leg – the boy grunted quietly in his sleep but didn’t wake – and muttered, eyes stinging as they closed, “Search me. Call it fitting in.”

“What’s making you cry, though?” Sabre placed Tootles’ voice to somewhere above and beside her. He was still sitting up, then.

She huffed in the back of her throat. “Are we really doing this?” His inquisitiveness made sense and she didn’t like it. When the Lost Boys cried, it was for their homes, the ones they’d left behind, no matter how lonely and lost they were in their hearts. She’d arrived to Neverland with a year’s worth of memory. No one, no home, to miss. She exhaled, eyes still closed. “I’ll find somewhere else to sleep tomorrow.”

“Fine by me,” came Hayes’ voice from somewhere amidst the bundle of bodies.

“Hmm, I’ll take your treehouse.”

“Like fuck you will.”

Another voice grumbled, Nibs that time, “Just shut up and go to sleep.”

It was sufficient to get Tootles to relent and he laid down, once again providing warmth for Sabre’s back. Only in circumstances of extreme exhaustion could she fall asleep quickly; there was always a delay of invariable length between laying her head on the pillow and beginning the untraceable path to sleep. With a little time to wait through, Sabre thought back to what had struck the first spark of her dream sequences, playing out like detached scenes in a long piece of tragic theatre. She’d been thinking, with the talons of shame in her back, of the encounter with Pan in the former camp, with her thighs pressed together and coils running through her belly. She’d not expected to like all the things he’d done, but she had. It had been the reimagining of Pan’s large foot grinding down on her chest, right over the Triquetra, that had fed into the preliminary sequence that visited her that night.

It had been reasonable to pass it along as a mere dream, even though there was an infallible instinct that could identify what was and what wasn’t, but all that hope, naïve as it was, shattered when night after night, the dreams – the memories – strung together and she would wake each morning with more to her name than the night before, but the complete structure was still intangible. It was true that Sabre wanted to keep the chasm from her deep mind as wide as possible, but she knew herself well enough. She was her own greatest enemy; her mind would work against her. Sooner or later, the tears would heal and the long winding tapestry would complete itself.

It was nearly a welcoming distraction when Tootles grew too uncomfortable to resist fidgeting and eventually wound up slipping an arm under her body before he could settle down. She liked his smell and he was warm around her, and was kind enough to drape some of his blanket over her; she had no misgivings about sleeping so close. Although it only led her to wonder if she’d ever sleep so close to the Boy-King. She wanted to almost as much as she wanted him to kiss her.

The aims of doing anything even remotely productive the following day were trampled before Sabre had fully woken to the morning light. Restraint had relented its losing battle. After filling her pouches with scraps of food and filling her waterskin, Sabre wordlessly slipped away from the camp. The weight of the sword given by Tiger Lily was now familiar on her hip, and she often felt a little lopsided when removing it after training or a patrol. Where, before, her mind had fought against joining the dots with all its power, it could no longer cope with having so much within its grasp; the deep and shallow now gravitated to one another. Sabre had come to realise, over the days, that it was not a mere piece played out within the space of a day or few irrevocable moments – it reached back and across four years. And when those years had come to a close…that was when she’d cut her mind away like a gangrenous limb to be buried in the dark pit.

I’m going to find out what made that happen, she whispered to herself. What meant that I couldn’t endure any longer that I had to do that just to keep on living. Thinking back to the skeleton cage hurt, made her lonely and afraid and sent her on a poisonous spiral, asking questions to which the answers would remain forbidden. But Pan had done what she’d begged for – made it bearable. Would it be too bold to have him do so again?

Sabre slowed, having already lost track of direction. It was harder to care. Shrugging inwardly, she resumed the natural pace with the intent to walk until she reached the sea, and had yet to understand its call all completely.

A living voice broke through the tangled web of silent screaming thoughts. “You shouldn’t go that way.” A feminine voice, softer and higher than Tiger Lily’s, not lifted by the same verbal inflections. The way Sabre startled reminded the stranger of a spooked dog – a blaze in the eyes, a shred of teeth, a rising of muscles. But when she said nothing, the other spoke again, “You’ll end up in Dark Hollow if you go that way.”

“What’s that?” Sabre’s voice was tight, and struck the woman next of something more soldierly as she straightened, recomposed.

The woman was small, around her own height, if not a whisper taller, everything about her petite and delicate looking. Pale hair sat fittingly with pale eyes and paler skin. She hunched a little under green and brown clothes that hung a little loosely, a dexterity apparent in those limbs, drawn from moving with a near constant crouch, always ready to duck and hide or flee. Sabre had carried herself in a similar way during months of dark alleys and wretched gutters. “It’s where the Shadows reside. I’ve never known anyone to go in and come back out alive. Except Pan,” the pale woman gave a small shrug.

Sabre glanced in the direction she would have followed. “No one’s ever mentioned it before. I – I’ve been all over the island, how would I have missed it?”

“It can be a little tricky to find, sometimes,” the other said. “Sometimes you can see, or feel, it from a mile away; sometimes you can’t. Usually, Dark Hollow doesn’t want to be found.” She noted how the girl regarded her with consistent unease.

“And why does it want to be found now?”

“Because your guard is down. I could have come right up behind you and slit your throat,” she stopped herself, looking sheepish. “Sorry, bad example. But I think you get the point. I’m, er, I’m Tink, by the way.”

Sabre leaned into one leg, quietly urging the rigidity from her shoulders. “Sabre.”

There was half a smile on Tink’s coral lips, her hands clasping the opposite elbow. She slowly turned her body to begin walking away from the path that would lead to Dark Hollow; Sabre followed but kept a notable distance. “Everyone on Neverland knows your name.”

“You know that’s not how it’s meant to be said?” Sabre’s head tipped, chin tilted, a rare flicker of amusement flitting across her features. “Everyone pronounces it ‘Say-ber’, even me, but it’s meant to be ‘Sab-ruh’.” Tink liked the way the r rolled over her tongue, reining in an elegance to the uh that tail-ended.

“Why do you say it the other way, then?” she inquired, mouth still angled up.

Sabre rolled her shoulders to indicate ignorance as they walked with a rare leisurely pace. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you,” she paused momentarily; “I – I don’t mean to be rude, but I thought the only women on the island were the Piccaninny tribe and, well, me. Not counting the mermaids, cos Slightly said they could move between different lands.”

Tink cast a glance at her feet, which were clad in tattered old boots that were in much need of repairs. “I’m a fairy. Or, at least, I was.”

An apology for Oberon’s fate nearly sprang forward, only just caught and traded. The recollection still festered cold shudders. “Um, what happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Tink stepped over a log, arms still held together. “I was preparing to join an order of fairies in the Enchanted Forest but I had a bit of a falling out with its leader. I lost my wings and my magic, ended up here. The Fae on Neverland are the oldest of their kind. They took pity on me, and Pan doesn’t mind my staying so long as I don’t get in his way.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that,” Sabre spoke quietly, the corners of her mouth flinching downwards. “Do the other Lost Boys know you live here?”

The fairy nodded. “They all know me. I just tend to keep my distance. Our paths don’t cross very often. Hence why it’s taken us this long to meet.”

A brief interval of silence, of not stringing memories into that darned tapestry, was enough to awkwardly jog Sabre into continuing their conversation; “So, you said Shadows live in Dark Hollow?”

“Yes,” Tink said, “living shadows. Some magical beings can rip,” the word came as if it were horribly sour on her tongue, “shadows from people’s bodies to kill them. The shadows sort of become creatures of their own but are forced to hide away in Dark Hollow.”

“And Pan’s one of them,” Sabre exhaled at length. “Doesn’t surprise me even a little bit.”

“I should warn you,” the other woman interjected, “Pan found a way to sever his own Shadow a long time ago and now it’s little more than a pawn for his endeavours. It can be anywhere.” Where others might have missed the warning, dismissed it, it sunk in first and foremost to the girl at her side. Tink wasn’t sure the keen perception was down to a sharp mind, or a guilty one. “You’ve brought Neverland back from the brink,” she added lightly in a keen change of subject.

But, if anything, Sabre only buckled further, keenly aware of the exceptionally rare ease in her chest that allowed the words to come forth without self-inflicted obstruction. “Does it make me cruel for wishing things hadn’t happened this way?”

Sympathy brought a mild tilt to Tink’s head. “I think it makes you honest. What would you be doing if you had your way?”

Sabre sighed, heavy in the chest, pushing a leafy branch out of the way and holding it back for the fairy to come through unhindered. “Travelling. Doing whatever I felt called to do. Helping where I could. Just having a life worth living.”

“But you have helped,” Tink insisted. “I’m not sure you understand how dire things were becoming. If you hadn’t come along, who knows what would have come of us. The sacrifice you made saved us.”

“But now I’m stuck here forever, and I can’t leave,” Sabre returned, disliking her own petulant edge and was swift to continue with hopes of justifying herself; “I can’t live serving someone under duress, it’d mean I’d have to put on this utter façade and I’m just not dishonest by nature.”

The disclosure came as unsurprising to the rugged fairy. Neverland had a way of being a paradise for some, a place to forge fresh-faced monsters and cold killers. Had a way at creeping in as the faintest of whispers at the back of the mind, rising to bloodthirsty roar with such patience that, by the time it could be heard, it was craved; passed on through the human scream of its host.

While for others, it was a realm worse than all hells.

“You don’t want to be here at all?” Tink surmised, voice soft in a way that reminded the girl of the Fae King.

Sabre slowed to a halt. “I’m afraid every moment that I am. Nothing has ever made me more frightened than –”

“Him,” Tink finished as the other’s voice wavered, lips pulling together in helpless sympathy as Sabre nodded meekly.

“I want to be loyal,” Sabre contended, quickly growing too restless to remain still and Tink nearly had to jog to catch up with her again. “In some ways I think I already am, but I don’t know how to give myself over entirely. I think what scares me the most is that part of me wants to more than anything. But I’ve seen the end result and I constantly ask myself how I could become so devoted to a being like him, when we stand in such opposition in, I think, almost every way. I don’t know how I could stay me and be wholeheartedly loyal but I know I can’t lose myself like that, but I also know I can’t keep up fighting forever. I think both might just send me mad either way. Sorry, I’m rambling.”

“No. You should get this out. Or it’ll just chip at you more and more. Why do you think I stay in isolation?” the look on the mortal’s face showed she understood, and Tink could already tell she was considering the same fate. “But you’re not like the Lost Boys,” she continued. “I think Neverland would have to work extremely hard to crack you down; something tells me that you could hold it back just enough to stay you.”

Sabre’s laugh was mirthless, yet well intended. “And how could you know that?”

Tink offered a shrug and a smile that brought a starlight twinkle to mossy eyes. “That’s just how you strike me. I hope that I could – that I could see you again.”

“I do too.”


 

The rainstorm had at last subsided. An iron grey still smear the sky, streaked with scars of charcoal and sable that breathed down a chill into the air. Neverland’s inhabitants, human, beast and Fae had retreated to what shelter they could find. One of the flimsiest huts had collapsed under the weight of gathered rainwater. Others weren’t far behind. Thunder had rumbled on the very edges of the horizon but remained there and the winds had been no more than enough to elicit chattering teeth from shivering, soaked boys.

It was horrible how the earth, saturated to mud, squelched under Sabre’s boots, barely held at bay from her soaked feet. Having dressed for neither wet nor cold, now she was paying the price. Miserable, she held back tears and trudged on. But she wasn’t stupid enough to not grasp the truth.

Lit torches pulled her in like a moth, an overt tell-tale, and she climbed the sturdy ladder to Pan’s treehouse, unsure if he’d be awake at the hour, or even alone. The main body was sequestered behind a draped curtain that separated the gap through which mere mortals had to climb. Dim light peered around the edges, torches and candles left alight to dwindle through the night. Tentative fingers extended to inch the curtain aside; all too soon Sabre had to stop herself, startled yet not frightened by what she deciphered in the towering shadows, dripping water onto the floor. Until that moment, a tiny part hadn’t fully grasped that the demon-god actually slept at night. She imagined that he could burn out the fatigue, when it came, with a little magic and not a care.

Under thin white sheets, Pan lay on his back, naked as far as could be told, upper body angled slightly over to his right, adjoining arm crooked to use as a partial arm rest. Still behind the curtain, ready to drop it down at any moment, Sabre allowed her head to tip slightly to the side. It was unfamiliar to see the Boy-King without a sneer or smirk or grin; the few times when she had seen his unmarred expression it had been amongst his most beautiful.

“Pan?” she croaked thinly, still holding back the curtain. The silence was thick and heavy, waiting for a response that didn’t come. Sabre may as well have been approaching a sleeping bear for all the trepid fear igniting coldly from her bones, packing strength into her muscles to erupt into life, waiting.

Weight pooled into the tips of her feet as she inched forward, a chill shaking through as the curtain slipped from her fingers, and all voices of reason warned she shouldn’t have been there. Rain pattered down from the trees to the roof that had held fast against the elementary assault.  

“Pan?” she tried again, half way to the bed and a fraction louder. In that moment nothing unnerved her more than the thought of having to touch him. A step closer and the run down floor creaked.

An eye cracked open. Sabre froze on the spot.

Pan’s head rolled on the pillow, blinking awake instantaneously, irises close to glowing. He let out a long breath, “You look like you want something,” his fingers interlocked across his chest, watching the girl sputter on empty breath and drip like a dog. “Come on, spit it out.”

Sabre swallowed, grounding. She pinched her fingers anxiously before lifting a hand to pull down the neckline of her tunic; “I, uh, I remember how I got this.”

The laugh Pan gave lacked any real humour. “And you couldn’t wait until morning?”

“Apparently not,” she shrugged feebly, feeling stupid and folded a little under that gaze.

He studied her, the low light no hindrance to his vision, and smirked – she was positively brimming. As he knew full well, the…disruption of the elements had had a very clear, precise cause. That one he’d let slide as Neverland hadn’t had a good watering for some time. And as much as he didn’t particularly like being woken, the gnawing of curiosity was hard to kick down for it had been a story he’d been rather keen to hear for some time.

“All right then,” he pretended to concede defeat, regardless of knowing the girl didn’t buy it. “Take off your clothes – I’m not having those in my bed – and get in. Don’t worry, I’m not interested in having you tonight. You can give me my bedtime story.” The devilish grin brought a quality close to monstrous to his features in the weak light.

Not grimacing turned out to be impossible as Sabre peeled off layer after layer of wet clothing while trying to retain some semblance of grace and managed to keep her balance. A mild dampness clung to naked skin and hair but it was more than good enough, and she left her belt, sword and clothes in one cluttered pile on the floor to bleed water into wood. Thankful for the abundance of shadows, Sabre tiptoed to the other side of the bed, teeth sunk into her lower lip. She pulled back the thin covers and slipped into the bed, timidly unsure of how great a distance to leave, and, as seemed to often be the wisest choice, left it for Pan to dictate.

Despite not knowing what to expect, Sabre was all but dumbfounded as he shuffled over, putting both pillows under her head, and adjusted himself so that he could slip an arm under her torso, much the same way Tootles had done the night before, and laid his head on her breast, specifically over her heart.

“As good as your impression of a stiff plank is,” Pan drawled from his new head rest, “it’s not exactly fitting for the occasion.”

Sabre breathed out in what could have been an attempted chuckle, compelling the tension to drain from the muscles. It’d been easier to do with Tink. Pan laid his other arm over her belly, loose and heavy, and under the sheets, an act of claiming that didn’t need to be overtly possessive to get its meaning across.

She placed timid hands lightly to his shoulders. “C-Can I?”

The large body expanded with a sigh. “If you must,” the enunciation was half lost against the warm softness of her breast, which pulsed lightly, but swiftly, from the heart beneath. Carefully, as though half expecting to get her fingers bitten off, Sabre wound her arms around his neck. The left hand reached to cup the strong muscle of his shoulder, the right threaded into silken russet locks that caressed her jaw and cheek. She breathed in, inhaling his scent, and felt her muscles slacken. “So, go on,” Pan muttered, “how did you get it?”

Sabre’s fingers flexed nervously. “It’s, um, it’s sort of a long story.”

“I do hope it’s not a boring one. Just start at the beginning,” he adjusted his head to rest his ear right over the girl’s heart, and his fingers absentmindedly began tapping its rhythm, which fluttered a little more erratically when she quickly realised what he was doing. She felt his mouth pull in a small grin.

She drew another deep breath. “It happened when I was eighteen, in a realm called Aieria.”

“You ended up in the Enchanted Forest from Aieria?” Pan interjected, angling to glance up at her. 

Sabre offered the biggest shrug she could, a tightness already taking hold in her jaw. “Yeah. I wandered for a long time after it,” she swallowed the pebbly lump, “it happened. I followed a mountain pass that joins the two lands – was so small you couldn’t even ride a horse through it. Barely anyone uses it.” Took me two and a half weeks to get through.

When Pan made no reply, his head resettled on her chest, she ventured on. “I couldn’t remember anything by the time I’d made it to the Enchanted Forest. But, before that, I was serving in the Emperor’s Household as a legionnaire of his Guard. Started training at fifteen, took my oath at seventeen.”

“Isn’t that a little young to have reached a military elite?” the tapping of his hand was a little slower but she couldn’t help the trace of pride at his tone, even amidst her quiet bewilderment.

Sabre’s fingers wound a little deeper into Pan’s hair. He didn’t seem to mind. “I don’t think I started from scratch when I began training, so in fairness I think I had a bit of an advantage. And I had a lot of motive.”

“And what was that?”

“The Emperor, his name was Rielus. He was only a boy but had to take the throne because there was no one else left who could. His aunt had been Empress before him, but she’d been assassinated along with all four of her children and the position Rielus’ mother had was too important to give up, so, it fell to him,” Sabre paused to breathe, and thought back to the memory that sat as clearly as if right on the other side of a looking glass.

A boy of twelve – close to thirteen, as he’d reminded her several times with star-like eyes and impish grins – donned with the regalia that had delayed the coronation by a month, swearing his oaths to the realm and people. He’d been so brave.

Months of emptiness, ashen anger and hate, had begun to give way, and Sabre remembered feeling what she had forgotten could exist within her altogether. Belonging. Hope.

I was nothing but a ghost, and he gave me life again. He showed me how to love in my heart again.

He taught me how to smile again.

The skies parted like forlorn lovers, their tears tumbling to the drowning world below.

Clearing her throat, Sabre realised how tightly she’d been clinging to the Boy-King, and that he’d done nothing by way of reprimand. “The empire was already weakened when he took the throne. Our allies to the north and south were weak as well. They weren’t able to help us when our allies to the east turned on us. We’d all done the best we could for three and a half years but when the Miradi attacked the Capital…we lost it in a night. Half the Emperor’s Guard were slaughtered and even more of the Province Guard went down.”

Thunder rumbled on the edges of the sky, far away and oncoming. Like the war drums that had animated every solider.

“A few dozen of us managed to escape the fortress over the next few days using old tunnels that the Miradi didn’t know about.”

“And how did you know about them?” Pan probed, letting the hand that had been tapping rest in the dip of her waist.

The way Sabre paused tugged on his attention, and his interest. “From my days as a thief. How other people knew, I didn’t really have time to ask them while we were on the run for our lives.”

Pan now lifted his head fully, equalising their heights. “And I had you for a self-righteous do-gooder. How easily illusions shatter,” he teased.

Somewhere she found a tiny smile, although it didn’t relent the rain. “Don’t worry, I was a self-righteous thief. And I wasn’t one for very long but I kept some ties and they just about saved my skin,” she waited for him to settle again, tucking his head right under her chin. If she hadn’t been propped up under both pillows his ankles would have spilled off the end of the bed. “We made the plan to have the councillors flee south to our allies in Eshath via the island Aierevone on the west coast with a few of the soldiers we’d escaped with; while the rest of the Guard would take Rielus and rescue who we could, and find a place to fight back from. We didn’t know that Valdemarr had already infiltrated Uthanr and Char Skana –the other two provinces bordering the west. He moved fast, should have seen it coming.”

“You speak of him like you knew him.”

“I did,” Sabre’s voice came out thickly, burdened with a weight akin to shame. “He was shrewd when he wanted be and could be a more than decent diplomat but his strongest asset were his armies. He’d gone rogue, taken the armies from Mirad with him. In every province our forces were either captured or killed. There were only three of us left when we got the message that we’d been infiltrated again and many of the other party had been also been caught or killed. Those who’d survived managed to find us in Uthanr. Of the forty in the Guard, there were eight of us left, and a handful of surviving councillors. They all begged us to surrender to the Miradir but one of them,” Varro Falx, “had already arranged to have us ambushed and executed and the Emperor delivered to Valdemarr himself. I don’t know what happened to the councillors but two more of us were murdered. The six of us left – seven including Gallus – knew-”

Gallus being?” Pan interrupted.

“Gallus Septimus, Rielus’ tutor, and an old friend. He was the one who worked out where Valdemarr would have taken Rielus. Our only choice was to rescue him and flee north into Maddaine. We tracked them to a ritual cave of a dead religion in a bay known as the Sanctum Sacrificium, or Sanctuary of Sacrifice. It didn’t leave us with much suspicion about what Valdemarr was intending to do. Our orders were to wait until before dawn to attack but everything in my gut told me we’d be too late, and I’d promised his mother that I would keep her son safe. I knew that, if I waited, I’d end up breaking every oath I’d taken.”

Cold wind clawed its way through Neverland’s forests. The treehouse nearly groaned. In the back of his mind, Pan crushed the rogue power even as it lashed out against his control. The winds and thunder bowed their heads, and he let the rain continue. It had an odd way of soothing the girl, despite its origins.

Regardless of their stark differences in moral alignment, her proven capacity for such depths of loyalty left him positively tingling. He knew he’d seen a soldier lurking in her. A generous moment had him nuzzling her warm breast. 

“So, I took a horse while I was supposed to be on watch, and found my way into the cave. It opened up to this waterfall that fed into a river than ran on the other side of the cliff. Most of the things used by the old cult had been taken or destroyed but there was an altar and a furnace built into the stone, and this contraption called the Hand of God – I didn’t know how it worked but the idea was to strap the sacrifice to the altar and cut a cord that held up the dagger that would kill them. Gallus said it was symbolic of divine will, that no hand would actually wield the dagger. I call it delusion and cowardice.” Pan felt the thrum in her chest.

He stretched his long legs. “Quite agree, pup. Quite agree.”

“Hm, and Valdemarr had quite the obsession with old, lost religions. I remember him telling Rielus that he didn’t truly want him to die but that it was a necessity – something about the disease having spread too far to save the host. Perhaps the Hand of God was his way of protecting his conscience,” Sabre steeled against the coils crawling at her throat and chest, knowing already what she would say next; “I’d never seen so much relief and hope on a person’s face than when Rielus saw me, but I knew even then there was every chance of both of us ending up dead. I was good, Valdemarr was better. I’m not sure of what made me think I had a chance of winning.

“I knew that I fought with everything I had but now, thinking back, I think Rielus was beginning to understand that it was all over. I didn’t even see the blow coming but suddenly I was on the floor and couldn’t move anything. That’s how I got this,” she reached around and felt out the dent in less than a moment, waiting until Pan had looked up to see. The seam that had torn amidst Tiger Lily’s assault now fit perfectly in its place. “I was so close to the altar and all I could do was look at him. Even then, he was still brave. It didn’t take me long to realise that Rielus’ amulet was missing.”

A roll of thunder echoed from Neverland’s edge, the black skies weeping. Sabre couldn’t help but cling a little tighter, grateful that the wild god couldn’t see her face. She was bearing herself and she hated it.

“He wore it all the time. I don’t think I ever saw him take it off,” she bit her lip, looking blankly to nowhere. “Valdemarr had put it in the furnace – the furnace that had allegedly burned for five hundred years. My armour had been ripped during the fight, I’m sure you can guess where. When Valdemarr took the amulet out it was burning white in the middle. He told me that I’d saved my own life but not my Emperor’s, or my oath. He said, ‘carry this to your grave’ and stamped the amulet on my chest. I screamed so much that I didn’t hear the cord being cut.”

The arms slid out from under her. The small body was all but paralysed as Pan transitioned onto his front, hands planted either side of Sabre’s shoulders, and she shrank back into the pillows, eyes wet and chin trembling. The scar burning anew.

“Does he still live?” his deep voice startled her.

It took her a moment to gather herself. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Pan felt the thrum as the dark thunderclouds became his own and his hands ached to crush, to kill. “What did you do?” he asked to curb the urges so that he didn’t end up hurting the girl irreparably.

A blankness overtook the girl; her head tipped to the side, eyes again fixating on nothing, not seeing what they looked upon. “Screamed, howled, threw myself over the waterfall. Came out in the river. I was too much of a coward to even stay so I ran. Kept running. Until I forgot it all.”

Long hard fingers forced her to look at him, waking bruises with a strength barely contained. “And where in your mind,” Pan began, while tapping that frantic heartbeat, “do you believe that I have any place for cowards in my ranks?”

Hazel eyes lowered. “Nowhere. But I’m still human. And I broke. There’s nothing that I care enough about here.”

A hand seized her throat, toying with the strength of its grip. Pan feigned a pout, feigned hurt. “Not even me? I have little use for a dog that’s loyal to its previous master. With whom does your allegiance lie?” the answer he knew she would return only just made it to the tip of her tongue before he crushed the air right out of her windpipe. “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t believe you can lie to me; don’t ever think you’re capable of that.”

For everything Pan kept at bay – and it was such a lot – he was a cruel boy and a jealous god. His worshipers were his alone. He carved them, refining and ripping, until satisfied. He didn’t share them. This young, limping hound had never been so not his. But he was nothing if not patient.

Releasing his hand, allowing her to breathe, Pan lifted his long body to loom above the girl, settling alongside the small body, an arm locked around her shoulders. “I’ve no doubt you were fiercely loyal to this boy while he lived, but loyalty is wasted on the dead.”

“He loved me,” Sabre croaked out, unable to nurse her crippled throat. You never will. You cannot. “He made me better. But I belong here now, I do know that.  And I know I forsook everything when I ran.” Is this what my soul will burn for? “I should have gone back,” she whispered.

“And what would that have achieved?” he stipulated boredly.

“I could have kept my oath. I should have stayed.” The mounting panic in her provoked struggling pushes against Pan’s chest in trying to sit upright, head tossing like a cornered animal.

He didn’t budge an inch. “Your oath was already broken. The only oath that matters is the one you swore to me the night our bond was born.”

“If I cannot protect you, let me avenge you, or lose my life in the process; and heed your wishes as far as I am able, until your death and beyond,” Sabre paraphrased, able to hear herself speaking the words for the first time in her ears. She and her brother-in-arms, Lucien, had sworn the oath together, the youngest initiates to the Emperor’s Guard for nearly three hundred years, and become blood-siblings from that day forwards. She spared a fleeting thought for where he might have been, and the others.

“Keep still, unless you want both your legs broken,” Pan growled at her. It was enough to frighten her to stillness. “You may be released from your oath under three circumstances – if you are released by your emperor; if you are released by their successor or whoever you next serve; and if your emperor commits crimes that conflict with your oath to the people and the realm.”

Sabre felt the shock wrenching at her features. “How could you possibly know that?”

The chuckle came easily, thrumming with a low timbre. “Really, pup, are you honestly surprised that I do? And tell me I’m wrong – didn’t think so. And that means, you are no longer bound to that oath. I can only hope you’ve learned from your former mistakes.”

A tremble fought vehemently to permeate her bottom lip. She swallowed the straining lump, almost able to hear his hard and taunting eyes speak the fours words that made her wish to scream – you know I’m right. The heaviness of breath betrayed her and she rolled onto the side, facing away, legs curling tightly in. Even as the sight of him, or the weight of his words, was too much to bear, Sabre pleaded quietly that those arms would remain her bindings.

The arm under her shoulders stayed put and was used to pull her against Pan’s side as he resettled on his back, forearm draped diagonally over the girl’s bare torso, content with his winnings. Fraction by fraction, Sabre sealed her back to the length of the larger body under the guise of getting comfortable, head tucked down onto a relaxed bicep, yet she’d never felt quite so far from him.

She trembled now, tears stinging like an acid behind her eyes as she squeezed them shut, a thousand apologies on the tip of her tongue for a lost boy who had believed in her with all his heart, for whom she couldn’t save.

Chapter Text

The cave lay on the far side of the ancient, moonlit bay, small in the distance but so achingly close. Uthanr had never been a province known well to Rielus’ young solider, for she had hurried through it a handful of years ago, hair ashen white and eyes hollow, wretched with mutilations and scars that were now only ghosts on her skin, never once stopping to look back.

Sabariina stood on the rocks of the crumbling cliff that hugged the edges of the shoreline. The tide was in, cutting off the quickest way to reach their emperor; at that time of year, the waters never retreated far, no more than a few feet, meaning they’d have to go through the forests and across the highland ground. The young legionnaire’s chest ached as she stared out over the blackened sea, the short cloak fastened around her shoulders flapping loosely in the wind.

“That won’t make time go any faster,” came the weathered voice of Antonius, and she rounded slowly, the muscles of her face giving nothing but her restlessness away, and waited for her commander to make his way down the rocks to the ledge where she stood. “The rituals take place at dawn, you remember what Gallus said.”

Sabariina regarded him stiffly, only softening on the inside as she took in the gauntness of the man’s face. Those last weeks had taken a greater toll on him than the last war, two and a half decades ago. “Gallus isn’t always right,” she muttered under her breath, lest the old man might hear her. “And you always told me to trust my instincts.”

“I also told you to trust in what you know, and what you don’t,” Antonius reprimanded lightly, yet the weary forlorn weight had made its lasting home, poisoning every utterance. “What we don’t know is how many soldiers will be inside that cave or if all of us will even survive the night. What we do know is that every man and woman here is on the brink of collapse. If we advanced now we’d likely be cut down like lambs to the slaughter. If there’s one matter we can all agree on it’s that there’s been enough death already.”

Looking past him, Sabariina counted their party’s number, for her own sake if nothing else; including her, there were seven of them.

Forty of the finest soldiers in the realm, now dwindled to six sorry survivors. Meanwhile the old man, Gallus, who made the seventh, attributed his survival to a little knowledge and a lot of luck. Sabariina wanted to believe there were more of their soldiers out there, more allies that might be rallied. If it was possible for even seven to survive the sack of the Capital and all things in-between, then others must have also escaped the Miradi onslaught. Councillors, officials, the people, Province Guards, the reserves – they couldn’t be all that was left, with the crumbling empire on their cracking shoulders.

All a pinch away from becoming dust.

Antonius Helvius, Gallus Septimus, Lucien Dimitri, Ysabel Savarna, Mariah and Kelvyn Ghiradar, and her. The words to be written in the tomes of history depended now on their actions alone.

Antonius had led the Emperor’s Guard for nearly two of his finest decades, after several years of half-retirement following his discharge from the war, trusted by one empress and emperor after the other. He’d always refuted that leadership came easily. It was learned and always learned the hard way, and he had.

He’d bore the passing of the last three empresses – Desta, the Restorer; Orsina, the Builder; and Aristide ‘Goldmane’, Rielus’ maternal grandmother. He’d kept his oath, he would keep it again.

Everyone had had a go at trying to fathom Gallus’ indeterminable age. His life had been dedicated to the book and the mind. He could recall events and people’s lives and deeds with such clarity that it would be effortless to believe he’d lived through them himself, and had served Desta’s long reigning rival and predecessor, Mercurius, even then dubbed ‘the Usurper’ in whispers, trapped by the oath he’d sworn in faith. Serving Desta and her legacy was his repentance, and his heart’s calling. But he knew things – had a way of finding things – hidden knowledge and truths that he preserved in silence. He would never say why the girl with no family to her name kept such a vigilant guard.

Lucien still looked a little odd without the streaking scars carving through his face and neck, obtained from an assassin’s blade in defending his emperor, a testament as fine as any to why Aieria was commonly known as the Land of Erasing. Though, finer was Sabariina. He lay with his head on Kelvyn’s tree-trunk thigh, so pale by comparison, sleeping lightly for little relief could be offered for the wounds that had been the price for escaping with his life. He still cried silently for the family destined to rest in a shallow grave, piled with the other bodies like bricks, thinly separated by cement. A quarter of the citizenry massacred in a single night.

Ysabel, too, was weak, sleeping away the remnants of a fever after taking a bolt through the shoulder that had gone too long uncleaned. Passing quietly through villages had allowed them to scrape just enough medical supplies to survive their last skirmish and make the pursuit through Uthanr. Eleven years in the Capital had proved insufficient to cool her warm blood that flowed from the sun-drenched island of Aierevone; she lay mere inches from the fire as her fever had once more turned cold in its last efforts, appearing so small under her cloak. There’d been no other path for her to follow since the news came of her mother’s death. The place left absent was filled by the daughter. She’d been the last Guard to take the oath under Aristide’s reign.

Sabariina saw how attentively Kelvyn watched over Lucien’s frail form; it was almost enough to smile. They were sure he’d bruised or broken several ribs but he never complained, too resolute to turn his back on those in greater need than himself. He’d been the one to break down the door of the room where she and others had been held captive with his bare hands, mightier than a lion, and secured their rescue of the emperor and other fortunate survivors. No one else had been able or brave enough to remain behind and risk everything to salvage every last soul still true to the empire.

Mariah had stayed with him through that endeavour, just as they always stood together. Born barely minutes apart, neither could be soothed until they lay beside one another, two beauties from the heart of Eshath. She’d always sworn on the tiniest difference between them that only twins could perceive of one another. All them all she’d kept the most strength, tending the weaker with the doting of a parent, ready to protect them with the hands of iron shared with her brother. But all the strength in the world hadn’t been able to protect her from Maddaine’s sickness – ironically people in Maddaine called it Aieria’s sickness. The vomiting had only ceased the prior day but still described the world as often spinning while a sickly heat clung to her skin and the knots in her belly always found a way to tighten further.

They were all old soldiers in their way, with their callings, with demons to hide and wounds to lick. 

Sabariina’s sigh was heavy as she reluctantly abandoned her post. Kelvyn patted the spot next to him and let the girl sit with her back to his side, one of his huge arms draped across her. “Got to keep warm,” his deep voice could be so soothing when it was quiet, which it often was, and Sabariina hugged his arm close, taking the small comfort while she could get it.

She traced the faint scars lining his ebony skin, recalling the times of Rielus coming to sit next to her around the fire, sometimes to confide, other times to simply lean his head on her shoulder and hold her arm or take a look at her sword – though more commonly her dagger, being smaller therefore easier for his hands to handle. And since they’d been forced to flee, it had become a quick custom for her to walk him to his tent or wherever he spent his nights, like how she’d walked him to his chambers on many nights. Sitting without him by her side was wrong.

Again her hazel eyes crept across the bay and fear stirred in her belly; the cave was barely visible against the darkening canvas of the sky.

“You should get some sleep. Those aches won’t leave you without rest,” Mariah suggested in her similarly deep, accented voice, no matter how dry or cracked. She hadn’t moved from the spot she’d picked earlier because it was shaded by the nearby trees.

“I don’t think I can,” Sabariina replied, not lying in the slightest, just not revealing the ulterior motive fashioning itself in her head. She could bear her physical wounds, they were only minor. “I’ll keep watch. You need rest more than me.”

One by one, the seven retreated into their shared tents. Gallus hadn’t spoken a word for hours; they barely heard him move. Ysabel found the strength to move herself into shelter but Lucien and Mariah needed to be helped in by Antonius. Kelvyn was the last to remain with her, only conceding to rest once she’d promised she’d wake him to take the next watch.

Before long Sabariina was alone around the dwindling fire, the only sounds to comfort her being its quiet crackling, the waves washing up against the rocks and the gentle sounds of the resting horses.

The fraying strings finally snapped and she suddenly couldn’t take it anymore.

Gallus was wrong, this time. Holding off was no option – she had to find her emperor, before it was too late.


The dragging of the whetstone had come to have a somewhat comforting sound.

Small hands, belonging to Curly, kneaded at Sabre’s tense shoulders to ease the coils as she tended the treasured weapon. She’d laid down her cloak on the dirt to pad his knees. It was nearly a relief to have bruises littering the canvas of her skin that had birthed from grappling hands, powered kicks, sword pommels and blunt weapons. They’d heal in a few days, she didn’t mind much.

In the old days, the Lost Ones trained with blunted or wooden weapons, fists and sticks, until their faith and belief had grown strong enough to turn wood and hide to metal, and the grunts had turned to wails. It’d never gone back, the rules had changed.

Awakened memories, with their uncannily restored cohesion, had saved her already from several scars that only Aierian medicine would have been able to heal, or magic. Even belief had been harnessed to erase sparring wounds – Sabre could no longer see a trace of the slash she’d not been able to prevent giving Slightly in their last round. She’d quickly remembered the ease with which damage could be done with a bare hide and sharpened blade, how she could do harm but never mean it. In the training grounds of the Capital, she could deliver a killing blow and leave a bruise and rattled opponent at best. The constant restraint gnawed incessantly; the alternative was worse.

Although accomplished enough to have reached the elite of Aieria, Sabre was more or less average in the ranks of Neverland, only a handful of certain years to her name – her new brothers had decades, if not centuries, of honing their craft; learning how to strike without restraint, draw blood with a smile and shimmer of dark in the heart.

It was hard to think of when Curly’s hands, a child’s, small and well-meaning, drove out another knot in her back, while asking if she wanted her hair brushed. The agreement had barely left her lips when the boy scampered to fetch the hairbrush left for her by Tiger Lily from the hut where she kept the bag of gifts.

“Let’s go to the sea,” Sabre spoke quietly as Curly returned, now that her blade was sharpened to the point of wearing. The boy followed her without complaint, filling the journey with talking at her, happy as always to be the more vocal. If she was honest, she didn’t listen to every word.

The long walks did little to hinder the girl anymore, enough to tire her so that she’d sleep a little more easily at night, but no longer sufficient to leave aches and strains. It was easier to appreciate the world around when she wasn’t trying to keep the panting to a minimum around her companions.

The sea air had a way of being sweet on her tongue, breathed down to clear the way and leave nothing but a crisp, clean lightness that, for a moment, made everything all right. Avoiding the sand, Sabre climbed up onto the rocks and picked a perch to gaze out over the azure, looking back to make sure the boy was still on her tail.

“Why is it,” Curly began, starting to part Sabre’s dark tresses down the middle so didn’t see her roll her eyes with the whisper of a smile, “that you’ve gotten better at fighting all of a sudden?”

She paused momentarily to grit teeth against a knot being pulled loose. “It’s just practice.”

“No,” the child denied in a sing-song. “There’s more.” He parted her hair again.

So used to withholding, for fear of how the revelations might be used and from simple nature, Sabre had to cajole herself into remembering that Curly was not the king, that she knew those moments of joy and innocence were as real as the ground beneath their feet. “I remembered some things from my days as a soldier. Just slipped into place,” she shrugged, relaxing a little under the gentle strokes of the brush through her hair.

“How long were you a soldier?”

“Some years,” Sabre breathed, eyes fixing on the point at which the waves broke into white horses.

Curly pulled loose another knot, brushing through the locks of hair just to feel their softness. “Then why don’t you have scars?”

“I do,” she replied. “I had more, but they were healed,” her voice descended into quiet; “I looked very different a few years ago.” Aierian medicine is unparalleled, she continued wordlessly. It took away every scar and deformity that I carried over its borders.

How different?” Curly pried.

Grey tinged the horizon, sweeping away the blue.

The hairs rose on her arms. “Probably unrecognisable. But what do you say – you think I’ll ever get good enough to beat Felix or Rufio?” she diverted, taking a long breath with closed eyes, and slowly the grey dwindled to nothing.

She could practically hear the shrug in Curly’s answer. “It’ll take a long time. But while you get better, they get better too.”

“Well, maybe I’m still rediscovering my potential. And I’ve got all the time in the world,” she looked over her shoulder, expecting and hoping to find a grin to out-do her own. Instead she caught the flicker, grew cold. Sabre’s torso angled. “Don’t I?”

The boy dithered, looking far too consumed by the next handful of hair to brush through. He’d not been ready for it – he’d meant to avoid it. There were all manner of things he could say, but the sharpness of those hazel eyes confirmed his fears that none would work. Curly had never been the greatest deceiver. It’d never been required of him.

So he spoke truthfully. “We can all live as long as Pan wants or needs us.”

The words repeated themselves, over and over, in Sabre’s mind. She turned back around, allowing Curly to resume his task, and ticked.

Wants or needs. Wants or needs…

Pan had only ever wanted her because she was needed. Fate, destiny, damn its name, had wound her path to end in Neverland because Pan required the blood of a Fairest Soul. She still wanted to scoff and spit at the title.

He’d not let the mermaids slaughter her because he needed her life; he allowed her to be broken far enough because he needed her submission; he’d made the suffering bearable because he needed her his.

It was all too ironic as she remembered perfectly; Pan’s imperious voice in her mind - the power of Neverland is dying, and until a more permanent solution is found I need the blood of a Fairest Soul to restore it… I’ll know if you’re the little piece that fits into this grand puzzle.

I’m only the temporary solution, the voice became her own, I’m only one small piece of the puzzle. And Pan is still searching for the permanent solution…

So what happens when he finds it?

“But, Pan won’t need me forever,” she whispered in a final reply to Curly. “He’s still looking for something, isn’t he?” She waited for the brush to leave her smoothened hair to turn around. “Isn’t he?”

Curly laid down the hair brush, shuffling to sit beside her. It was no secret among the Lost Boys what their leader sought. It was for that he believed in the harmlessness of sharing with her what all Lost Ones knew, what all of Neverland knew. “Pan’s been looking for the Truest Believer, ever since he knew his power would start to fade. All of Neverland knows that. But he knew he wouldn’t find them in time. He knew the Fairest Soul would have to come first.”

“And when he finds them? What happens then?” Sabre demanded, eyes diluted with panic. “Curly, what happens to me?”

It was all there, she knew. She just needed to hear someone say it. To know, for once, beyond any and all doubt.

“Sabre, none of it matters,” the boy suddenly sounded older in how he spoke. The childlike twinkle fell absent in his eyes, which Sabre now saw were too ancient for the face that held them. Like hers would become. Like Pan’s. She’d never dared ask about what happened to the minds housed within frozen bodies. “I can’t say what he’ll do. It’s not my place, and it’s not yours, either.”

Next second, Sabre had sprung to her feet and snatched the front of the boy’s clothes, swinging him around. So that he stood on the precipice’s crumbling edge. “Tell me!” wildfire blazed within, irate and petrified. She shook him ferociously. “Tell me what happens to me!”

The boy’s fear made her rage crumble into ash, leaving behind a quaking, unhinged creature. Curly’s lips trembled as they opened, “He means t-to…to kill you, o-once he has the Heart of the,” he gulped thickly, “Truest Believer. I-I’m sorry.”


Mustering all lasting skills of discretion from the darker days in the Capital, Sabariina saddled the fastest horse in their company, mounted and walked the beast away slowly and quietly until she’d covered a safe enough distance from the camp to remain unheard. She gave the dappled grey horse a quick pat and urged him into the fastest gallop he was capable of, charging through the forest on the lantern-lit path, mimicking the gentle curve of the bay.

When the ground started to slope, descending towards the cave’s dimly lit entrance, she hauled her mount to a stop less than gracefully in her urgency, and dismounted, continuing the rest of the way on lightest foot. Sword on the left hip, dagger on the right, Sabariina crouched on the balls of her feet and crept through the night air, managing to find the way in to the old ceremonial cave easily enough. Although disused for a long time, no one had come near except to raid abandoned treasures.

The air was dank and thick. She could hear the faint gush of a waterfall as she trod carefully down the uneven steps, reaching into the belly of the cliff. A small number of torches had been lit here and there like scattered stars, proving for certain that she was not alone, or rather, they weren’t. The passage of the stairway was narrow and claustrophobic and Sabariina was undoubtedly relieved when the space opened up into a great cavern, easily the size of a grand dining hall. She first spotted the waterfall at the far end of the cavern – always drawn to water in a way that others just weren’t – then the large, and simmering furnace mounted and carved into the left-hand face of the cave, the side that took the brunt of the sea, but her eyes were captivated by the altar that was centred within the whole space. An opening had been carved out of the roof, designed so the moon and sun would shine directly through at the pristine times.

The moon was nearly risen, Sabariina remembered. If her instincts were correct, the emperor would have been long slain by morning. Even dawn would have been too late.

Her eyes locked on the altar, heart missing a beat. Tied down upon it, like a sacrificial lamb, was Rielus. Above him was the contraption Gallus had named the Hand of God, the only one of its kind and abandoned by its long dead religion. Held aloft by an intricately entwined rope that split into several individual cords, only one of which would spring the trap, the dagger was suspended aloft, perfectly primed to strike the heart. No hand would touch the blade, nor would it be known which of the cords brought it down. She could have snarled at the cowardice.

But against her fears, Valdemarr had undertaken the endeavour alone. He whispered to the boy, only buying time for the solider to creep further into the depths of the cavern. If even one other survivor had come with her nothing could have stopped them, but returning was a risk she neither could nor would take.

As she edged nearer, still shielded by the shadows, Sabariina managed to make out that only one cord had been tied up. The sacrificial blade could be nameless, could implicate anyone and no one. The books would have written very differently if the child emperor had been cleaved in two by Valdemarr’s battleaxe. Her top lip shuddered as she watch the warlord prowl around the helpless emperor, who really, was little more than a boy, a few small years her younger. There seemed little other choice than ending the night in a killing. Antonius was right, there’d been enough death. There only needed to be one more.

Time for diplomacy and craft and patience had long passed. It needed to end there.  


“You look rather fetching like this, I must say,” Pan admired, reclining across the featherbed, while the girl by his side panted and trembled with the echoes of the phantom passion he’d built in both of them but stolen all for himself.

The bones of her forearm burned dully with physical exertion, the limb limply by her side to catch the sliding pearly trails of his spent lust, still warm. The journey to the climax that’d never reached her had spurred the efforts she now paid for. A throbbing pulse still beat, unsatisfied, between her legs. At least she wouldn’t be sent away; true to her intentions, Sabre had taken a treehouse for herself – not Hayes’, unfortunately – though doubted she’d be able to hang onto it for long, and Pan had come to her there.

She’d fought against every cry and buck, unable to look at the wild boy with quite the same eyes. He was still ignorant of her discovery, but each time the girl would begin to slip, let go, Curly’s confession would come ringing in her ears. A day she’d never known was coming was now her greatest dread.

When not drawn back by her awakened years, Sabre’s every waking moment was consumed by fear, all too reminiscent of days that could have been yesterday. The contract of her life ended upon Pan’s possession of the Truest Believer’s heart, whomever they were. There was no way to ask, or fathom, how soon that day would dawn. Only to conceive if and how it might be prevented. 

The question had nearly slipped more than once – how did he mean to kill her?

A harsh flick was delivered to the bud between her legs, jolting the body violently with a weak cry. “I do hope you’re not ignoring me,” Pan warned dangerously, an eyebrow lifted. “Unless, of course, I’m boring you.”

Sabre nearly choked on her words. “No, no. I’m sorry. It’s just-”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of that boy again,” the tone was jaded, whether out of theatrics or as a prism for frustration was unclear.

The girl shook her head. “No. Just getting…used to remembering things.”

Adequately satisfied, Pan relaxed back into the furs, staring at the ceiling and no longer interested in playing cruelly with her unresolved passion. “Give it time.”

Another pearly bead slid down Sabre’s side, causing a shudder that stayed, mercifully, below the skin. She pressed her thighs together in an attempt to smother the ache. It would have been easier to clench the muscles together on her side and she would have turned over if it didn’t mean a disturbance of Pan’s handiwork – he liked her still, glistening, tamed, marked.

She turned her head on the pillow, to find the Boy-King watching her astutely. “Tell me,” he murmured, “now that you can, am I no longer your first lover?”

“Does it really matter?” Sabre’s gaze flickered away.

“Pillow talk,” Pan said with a low chuckle, easing onto his side, resting up on his elbow, and not a thread or fur to cover him. “Humour me.”

The glimmer in the virid enchanted her for a second. The deep breath stretched the skin over bird-bone ribs. “No,” she spoke with the softness of a spring breeze. “It’s still you.” It’ll always be you. And I don’t even regret it.

“Why, pup?”

Sabre frowned. “Why what?

Pan caught the next bead to crawl down the girl’s pale skin with the pad of his finger, its trail beginning to dry and flake, and dragged it between the valley of her breasts, which were finally regaining their ivory hue. “You’re pretty enough, in your way. There must have been some lads or lasses who found you pleasing and sought your companionship.”

“Here and there,” her mutter was tinged with a tone akin to sorrow.

“But you wanted none of them?” Pan surmised.

“It wasn’t a question of wanting,” Sabre corrected in the gentlest way she could, still carrying the weight.

And still too weak to brush away the wisps of hair that Pan swept aside for her, his touch lingering. “What then?”

She knew, deep and on the surface, that she shouldn’t have told him – knew that only another arrow would be added to the quiver, another string attached – but all in between couldn’t find the will to dodge or the idiocy to attempt a lie. The sigh was resigned; “I couldn’t ever let anyone that close. I didn’t know how. It was always the distance I couldn’t cross.”

“Until me?” the small grin made his eyes come alight.

“Until you.”

“Well, isn’t that flattering? I’m rather touched, pup,” he leaned over to hitch the girl’s knees up then open them wide, angling her lower body towards him and settling his own form just how he wanted, cradling the girl’s face to his chest.

A hand hovered over the apex of her thighs, struck by wave after wave of heat. His skin was cool, nearly cold, in contrast.

“W-What are you doing?” Sabre whispered, dark eyes peering up.

“You revealed something. I’m just keeping up my end of the deal,” Pan’s eyes glimmered with a boy-ish mischief that quickly morphed into something older, darker, as his fingers swept along the slippery wetness before sinking into girl’s core, while her little mouth latched onto his nipple, suckling and licking. He groaned out low, a beast in his satisfaction, and left a rare bejewelled kiss to her forehead, magic already piercing under the girl’s abdomen to lift her on the ascent that, this time, he would allow her to revel in.


The shadows hid her well. Valdemarr was well distracted in circling around Rielus on the altar, saying everything he must have dreamt of saying for a long time about how the Empire was weak, had taken from him, that Aieria was diseased and had to be cleansed and could only be done by setting the Red Sun. Sabariina took a breath, hoping she would forgive herself one day, knowing she did the right thing.

Moving silently, still remarkably light and agile on her feet, Sabariina swept in like a storm cloud, drawing her sword, the zinging of the metal announcing her presence, ringing through the chamber. One chance. She would offer the man who had once saved her one last chance.  

Rielus’ starry eyes lit up with a hope that couldn’t be wielded by words, and she knew that he saw more than his dearest soldier, he saw his saviour. Clad in the Empire’s armour, standing tall and proud in the dark, weapon bared, he saw a young warrior goddess coming to rescue him.

“You’ve come alone, I see,” Valdemarr spoke as if greeting an old friend. She despised it. “Fool of a girl. You were always so careful. Still, I suspected that if anyone discovered us, it would be you.”

“Valdemarr, this ends now,” Sabariina answered just as strongly. Fear had yet to grip her, held at bay by the fire Rielus had kindled her. She stood for him, her fellow soldiers, the Empire and the people she’d sworn to protect. She’d given Rielus her solemn oath, and was determined never to break it.

The laugh Valdemarr let out was as hearty as it was taunting. “The death of your emperor will only mark the beginning. The wheel must turn again. I didn’t take you as short-sighted.”

“I didn’t take you for a coward. I’m disappointed,” Sabariina retorted, edging forwards, eyes flickering between the two males. “I’ve taken you for much these past few months, but not a coward. I only wonder where the man who rescued me is. What is it you have to fear from a child?” She carefully analysed his face. Miradi were passionate, impulsive, and Valdemarr was an epitome; she knew well enough how to pluck the strings of a person like that.

Valdemarr reached tauntingly for the cord. “It is not only your life that you threaten. This must be done, Sabre.”

Locked out of her mind for a split second, Sabariina drew and hurled her dagger. The blade sliced through the back of Valdemarr’s gloved hand, leather and flesh, and he instantly recoiled with a bellowing cry, the dagger clattering to the stone floor. Sabariina took her chance to stride forward, coming much closer, until Valdemarr straightened, hand clenching over the grip of her sword.

“You underestimate the forces that move against you. Kill this boy, retribution will follow, no matter how long it takes,” still her tone was low, the rage just about contained, as though she were offering her council. “I will give you one chance to release the emperor and abandon this venture. Five more of his Guard are awaiting. If the emperor is unharmed they will give you quarter. Pass unseen if you must. Withdraw your legions and never return to this realm. One chance.”

Valdemarr put his hands to his heart in a dramatic gesture of sincerity, displaying a change of heart. “Well,” he began, a tone easily recognised as feigned diplomacy, “I would be a fool to not consider your generous offer. You are indeed merciful.” Sabariina steeled her body. There was no chance she would be drawn in by crocodile tears or peacock feathers. Buying time, like her, and she readied herself, fingers curling around her sword’s hilt. She did not have the leverage to enforce the terms. They both knew so.

Aieria could be held with sheer force if nothing else.

Rielus could only watch helplessly, quaking when he looked at the blade poised over his heart.

“Your loyalty is commendable, I always thought so,” Valdemarr became sincere. He examined his hand. “As is your arm. You would have done well in my ranks. You still could. The disease had spread too far and too deep. It is too late to save the host.”

Sabariina was teetering on the edge, waiting for the first movement that would betray an attack. She prowled forwards, her sole aim of coming between him and the rope. His hands were empty but the metal beast lay in wait upon his back. Valdemarr’s axe was a bloody and brutal thing, ‘Heart-crusher’ in the common tongue. She knew there was every chance of being the one cleaved in two. The look in Rielus’ eyes betrayed that he knew just as well.

“One chance,” Sabariina growled out. The tell-tale signs were there. The first battle to be lost and won was always the battle of wills. She’d made it to where she needed to be, knew it was wrong. If he didn’t want her right there, she wouldn’t have been. The trembles took hold. “One. Chance. Leave.”

Valdemarr’s sigh was resigned; “I wished more than anything that I couldn’t come to this. I hope that one day you will forgive me.”


Sabre couldn’t tell whether Pan was asleep, or whether he was simply still, at peace for the night. She’d have liked to believe he stayed by her side because a bond had taken hold between them, while the scepticism that reign ever prevailing in her nature surmised that it was no more than a simple act of power, one that silently proved that nothing was truly hers, and all was his.

She’d be able to turn over, finally. Even in his rest, Pan’s arms clutched her close, the pillow under their heads slanted down at Sabre’s side. Knowing that come morning all between them would be as good as erased, Sabre had come to cherish those quiet moments between them more than she ever conceived possible. It unsettled her that Curly’s confession had done little, if nothing, to alter that fact.

All but helpless to prevent herself, Sabre dislodged the arm furthest from the mattress, untucked it from Pan’s chest, and, when the boy didn’t move or even flicker, let the very pads of her fingers graze his cheek. Bit by bit, her palm flattened tenderly over the side of his face, skin so unexpectedly soft as she stroked once, then twice.

Pan’s eyes didn’t open. “Do that again,” the little hand froze on his face, its owner with it, “and I’ll tear out your fingernails. One by one.”

Sabre withdrew quickly, ashamed and cold, and afraid in the arms that encircled the fragile housing of her body. Fool, idiot fool, she berated, learn your lesson. None of it meant anything. His attentions, rewards, affections. Temporary, conditional.

It was one of the first lessons she’d learned on Neverland – something isn’t gained for nothing. She provided him with knowledge, tricks, the means to puppet her; every secret was her pulling back her hide to allow him to sink in a claw, kiss poison and pull a bloodied thread through. But there must have been a way to keep the strings loose enough to still dance of her own volition.

Saying nothing more, Pan relinquished his hold on the girl to turn over, away from her. Sabre rolled onto her back. She watched the flickering candlelight making the shadows dance, wondering if one day it’d stop hurting.

After that sleep eluded her. Listening to Pan’s breathing, which had always soothed her, now kept her awake. Will he be so cold when he kills me? But, maybe, better him than starvation, or Dreamshade, or a Never-beast carrying her to hell. Unless she destroyed herself, as she’d intended to do before. The circle of thoughts tumbled round and round, until something struck.

Sitting up, Sabre spied Pan’s clothes slung over the rickety chair, her own scattered on the floor, and leaned over to be sure the wild boy had drifted into sleep. He only breathes like that when he’s in deep sleep. The air nipped at her skin as she slipped from the bed and pattered across the wooden floor. With careful hands, she straightened out his tunic over the chair and reached in, feeling for a pocket. Feeling nothing, she delved deeper, pausing every few seconds to listen for Pan’s breathing.

The crinkle of parchment startled her, eyes sharpening. First she pulled out the folded letter, and succumbed to the temptation of reading it again. Her thumb dragged across the signature of Killian’s name. Before the lump could rise too far, Sabre folded the letter back up. As much as she wished to keep it, it wasn’t what she sought. Keeping it clutched in one hand, she reached back in with the other and her fingers enclosed over not one tiny scroll, but two. She slipped the letter back into tunic’s pocket to unfurl the first scroll, letting out a silent sigh when it turned out to be the drawn picture of her and a hundred other faces.

But if I’m right…Sabre unrolled the second. And beheld the face of a boy.

Hair dark, swept over his forehead, and skin pale, he appeared young, considerably younger than her. As young as my Rielus, perhaps. So, you’re the Truest Believer. Whoever you are, good luck, boy. I suspect both our days are numbered. I’m sorry.

The floor creaked. Sabre turned, came face to face with the Boy-King, crouched low. She lurched back into the chair leg, too petrified to feel the dull thud of pain.

“Did no one tell you that was rude?” Pan’s head tilted, his top lip curling. “Now, what exactly are you doing? And think carefully before you attempt to lie to me.”

Unable to find an answer, Sabre found it a little useless as she swallowed to wet her mouth while she sat frozen like a mouse, the two scrolls clutched in her hands. Say something. Say something. No explanation was good enough.

Just say something!

“I’m waiting,” Pan snarled, clicking his fingers boredly to spirit both scrolls into nothing.

“Why?”

Pan sighed, “Why what?

“You don’t need me to tell you,” Sabre barely finished before the slap had knocked her to the floor like a ragdoll.

She didn’t manage to see Pan’s movements, only felt the flat of his foot grinding down on the soft part of her belly where rib bones couldn’t protect her. But couldn’t be bent, or snapped, in the process. “You continue to disappoint me, pup,” he paused to listen to the girl’s straining groans, feel her weak struggles. Red bloomed fresh on her cheek. “We can do this the simple way, or the excruciating way. But I think we both know I’ll get what I want one way or another, so you can be brave or you can be clever.” Removing his foot, Pan crouched over her, close enough to feel warmth.

Sabre fought against touching her cheek, an adamant resolution refusing to topple and bear the pain as blankly as possible. She gathered up onto her hands, still leaning away and steeling against the trembles, unable to bear those searing eyes. “I’m only one piece of the puzzle; I needed to see the next,” she stopped to wet her lips. “That boy…y-you need him the same way you needed me. You need his heart.”

A tic pulsed in Pan’s jaw as it clenched for a moment. “And how did you come by this knowledge?”

“Everyone on Neverland knows.”

Sharp teeth flashed in the dark. “No. Everyone loyal to me knows,” the Boy-King corrected. “And one traitor – and this time it isn’t you.”

“Why couldn’t you tell me?” Sabre implored. Loyalty be damned. What could I even do with this information? Who could I ever betray you to?

“I intended to once I was sure of your heart’s allegiance, and will tell you why when I am,” he said.

Sabre interrupted before he could continue, earning a fierce glare that was another blow to that prominent streak of submission. “Would that have included your plans to kill me once you have that boy’s heart?”

Pouncing forward, the weight of Pan’s body battered the air from Sabre’s chest as he knelt down, pinning both her arms to the chilled floor. “See, now you really need to tell me who’s been spilling secrets or I think I might just get a little angry.” Sabre spied the tiniest tremble in his lips, teasing fractional glimpses of teeth, and swallowed the whimper.

She stuttered her next words; “I-I worked most of it out. And I made them tell me.”

The responding laugh was mirthless and dry. “Well that changes things,” a little of his weight eased, and Sabre took the chance to gasp in while she could, believing for a heartbeat that she’d succeeded. Again she didn’t see him move – long fingers seized the hair at the fore of her scalp, the heel of Pan’s hand grinding into her forehead; they lifted her head only to pound it back down. The first cry was lost but Sabre ground her teeth together, breathing furiously, eyes screwed shut. “Because if you, with all your persuasive ways, can force a confession…well,” he dragged the word, reverberating against the shell of her ear, and a smirk still found its way forward as he felt the shudder, “there’s no coming back from that. Give me a name; prove yourself.”


Lithe and young, Sabariina would never be physically built to receive the blows of a battle-axe. That one initial block had been exceptional, and saved her life. Even her shield arm wouldn’t have been strong enough. Warriors like Valdemarr sacrificed speed and agility with their strength. He could stomp, she could dance.

To retain any hope of victory, keeping a distance was paramount, but she had to get close for one well-aimed blow.

They circled slowly, carefully eyeing their opponent’s style, how they moved, where they might be open or vulnerable. Both regretted not taking the time to spar together. Sabariina made sure that she stopped when Rielus was behind her; Valdemarr would have to get through her if he wanted the boy, and she had no intention of giving up that position. Yet he remembered her confession from many moons ago – and it meant she would have to be removed first. He understood what the emperor’s death would, uniquely, make her capable of.

She imagined Kelvyn or Mariah could handle a weapon like Heart-crusher with ease but it still astonished her to see Valdemarr wielding it. He swung at her, over and over, and each time Sabariina dodged on those little dancer’s feet. If she could have, she would retaliate with slashing her light, equally unique blade, unaware of just how unique it was – of how it would spare her life. However she was careful with her rationed energy. Valdemarr was relentless, he would tire.

He swung the colossal weapon again, and Sabariina wasn’t quite quick enough.

The very tip slashed across her neck, splitting the delicate skin so finely one could call it artwork. Panic spread its wings, her hand flew to her throat and then pulled it away, unable to straightaway notice that her chest plate had been partially ripped away on the down-swing in sacrifice for all the blood that might have spilt.

Not enough blood. The cut was too fine; it probably wouldn’t even scar. She’d be all right.

Taking advantage, Valdemarr feigned a fierce lunge, knocking the small soldier right off balance as her body instinctively fought to protect itself by lurching back. Somewhere through the blood pounding in her ears, Sabariina was sure she heard Rielus whimper for her. Valdemarr lunged again, but that time was no feign. She wasn’t ready.

Having only a moment ago put her at risk of death, it was her instincts that this time saved her. She propelled her body to the side, finding her feet just as the head of the axe collided with the stone, cracking it at the very heart. No longer in her mind, Sabariina’s arms raised themselves as they had before, sword high above her head, driven by something both internal and external. The blade came down at the neck of Heart-crusher, beheading the weapon.

That cannot be possible, the voice of her mind found space to gasp.

But distractions could be fatal…

Still with the shaft of the weapon, the enraged Valdemarr swung at her. Swiftness failed her, still in shock. Struck first in the side of the face, then in the convex of her skull , Sabariina was sent tumbling down like a ragdoll, losing the grip of the sword, landing somewhere between the altar and the furnace.

Nausea nearly choked her, vision swimming and black around the edges. She let out a strangled whimper, trying to push herself back up to her feet. I’m so close… I will not go down…

But movement would not come.

Slipping his boot under her belly, the Miradi warlord flipped the slight body over, seeing her still conscious, but paralyzed.

“A valiant battle. I am sorry, you know,” Valdemarr said, letting the broken remains of the axe he’d possessed since he was barely out of boyhood clatter to the floor. He stepped past her lifeless form, towards the furnace. She could only move her eyes, every muscle, bone and tendon molded to the stone, following his movements with foreboding. He picked up something from the furnace, hand protected by the glove’s fabric from the glowing embers. “It’s odd the things we can become so sentimental about. A weapon,” he pausing, turning so she could see him properly, “or an amulet.”

Dangling from his thick gloved hand was the amulet Rielus had been given by his mother, through her proxy, carved into the symbol of protection. The chain, obviously cool enough to still be held at the end, darkened in colour from bronze to black, then lit up into glowing red and orange, and then white, at the symbol itself.

“You’ve saved your life, dear warrior, but neither your oath nor your emperor,” the warlord stood over her, now between her and the altar. He swooped down and pulled at her armour until the flesh over her heart was bared, pale and unblemished. Straightening, he reached for the cord while aligning the glowing metal to his target.

Sabariina barely understood what was happening around her, right until her heart caught fire.

“Carry this to your grave.”

The cord was cut, the blade struck.

Her skin melted and sizzled like a spit-roast. Valdemarr’s silence was akin to mournful as the two voices united in their screams for just a moment before one continued with a dying sigh at its side, and then alone, echoing through the cave, ringing in his ears amidst tortured screeches, his boot crashing down to irrevocably brand her flesh with the stamp, the signature of her failure. It would never heal enough to disappear, marking her broken oath for the rest of her days.

Myths and legends would later say that the wanderer could hear the screams right across the bay on dark and chilling nights, and that a tormented soul, left behind by its body, would roam in mourning and anguish beyond knowing, a curse befalling on any who dared ventured near the phantom soldier who still guarded the ghost of her Emperor.

Chapter Text

“I can’t do this. I won’t.”

The words didn’t fit the voice. Rufio finished fastening the leather armguard over Sabre’s wrist before shoving the sword into her cold hand, smirking to himself for the way the girl practically squirmed under the demon’s darkened eyes.

The clearing was thrumming with whispers that drifted into the thickening air, which already held the density of smoke.

Pan shrugged with apathy. “No one’s forcing you. Say the word and this all stops.”

A tear of sweat was inching its way down the column of her back. Hazel eyes flickered past the towering form that stood in the hut’s entranceway, leaving it dark inside. Countless forms hugged the trees, a crude, wide ring left as the outcome.

Surely the Boy-King wouldn’t abandon his perfect punishment, as he himself described.

“But, be warned,” he continued, while Rufio moved behind her to pull her hair back and fasten it with a strip of leather, “should you do that, there’ll be rather severe consequences. I’ll hand him over to Felix and Rufio, then in a few days they’ll hand him back to me and you will get to watch as I deliver a delectably slow and agonising death, while you’re reminded over and over of how you failed another innocent boy and will have to carry another death to your grave because of your weakness.”

Sabre’s lips parted but she remained silent, the colour drained from her cheeks. Only an ugly shade of purple was left stark against the ivory.

She drew back when Pan tugged down her collar, brusquely showing the scar. Rufio repaired the distance. Pan dragged a nail down the centre of the burn, birthing an irritated red line. “You think it hurt when you got this, you think you screamed. This is mere child’s play to what will happen to him, and to you. I may not be able to kill you yet, but there are many fates far worse than death. Say the word and you return to being nothing more than a traitor.”

“I’m not a traitor,” Sabre insisted, pleading, still able to feel the ghosting prints of Rufio’s fingers in her arms.

Pan slashed another line, marring the perfection of the scar by, this time, drawing miniscule droplets of blood. He lowered his height to bring them nose to nose. “I don’t believe you.”

Her silence and the firm grip on the sword was her answer.

With a self-satisfied smirk and dark glimmer, Pan moved out into the clearing in long languid steps, while Rufio all but shoved Sabre forward.

Just about catching herself, she hurried after him. “Let me talk to him.”

“Bring him out,” Pan called to Felix, as if not hearing her at all, and the murmuring whispers of the Lost Ones ascended.

They closed in like hungry wolves with gnashing teeth and yellowed eyes as Pan’s lionheart hauled in the damned. Next to him, Curly appeared so little, so young. Fear lingered on his aura but he held it well, carrying a rare dignity of one who’d accepted their fate in their heart, even as he was bombarded with growls and hisses, bonds of centuries slain to dust. A crude brittle sword, not his own, was shoved into his hand. Rufio’s hand prodded Sabre further into the ring of boys baying for blood.

Her insides crawled as Pan turned on her. “One minute,” he hissed, jaw set, before stepping aside.

Sabre was nearly grateful for the noise the boys were making as she hastened to the doomed child, hands trembling, skin cold. She expected hatred. Curly’s eyes were only unhappy as he looked up, gaze climbing to the bruise on her cheek. Clear as day, he didn’t even resent her.

It made it impossible to muster the apology that hadn’t ceased its silent repetition since their fates were decided. “Try to kill me,” Sabre spoke in a hushed whisper.

Curly’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“Fight me like you want to kill me,” she reiterated, already short of breath.

“But why?” Curly shook his head, matching her low volume.

Sabre breathed deep. “Because I won’t be capable of doing it, otherwise. You know I need to be. And because I deserve it.” It had always been that way, and as far back as she could remember she’d learned how far many soldiers would go to avoid death unless the alternative was so much worse. She had to be pushed to the precipice and hurled over the edge, or else it wasn’t possible.

The boy’s eyes dropped low for a moment, his voice lower; “You should have pushed me off.”

Maybe I should have, Sabre was about to forlornly answer when rough hands tore them apart. A low growl rippled in the girl’s throat as she shook off Rufio’s hands, the fearful softness restored only when looking at Curly. The way she’d looked at Rielus, at fellow soldiers and friends.

She grimaced at Rufio’s fingers gliding up her exposed neck before he stepped back to become another link in the ring. What she couldn’t fully see before, she saw then. In every corner of civilisation, traitors were punished one way or another. In every corner of civilisation, traitor meant something just a little different. Betrayal to an individual, even a leader or ruler – a personal, intimate betrayal – was a far cry to betrayal to a wider or higher power.

In Neverland, to Pan, they were one and the same. The laws, the morals and principles, which held together other lands did not exist in Hell’s Colosseum. Never would.

Curly was a traitor. That meant he had to die. Unlike before, in her heart, Sabre could begin to understand. But it was unable to change what she could or couldn’t yet do, unable to change at the core.

That was how she could hope to keep herself.

“Any last words, Curly?” Pan stepped between them, the boys hushing into a reverential silence.

The smaller boy bowed his head in respect, or fear. “I know I did wrong. I know this is just. May no one ever share in my mistakes.” He saw what most couldn’t. The flicker of sorrow. The trace of humanity. Now that centuries upon centuries of companionship were at a final, grim end.

There were many fates Pan would have chosen – wanted – to inflict upon the boy if a greater game were not at play. Without a word he drew back and the raucous noise began its rapid ascent. Sabre only wanted to drop the sword, put her hands over her ears and run. I never felt like this before a battle. I was scared but it was never… this.

It’s not a battle. It’s an execution.

Get angry. Get angry, she silently willed the boy as both their bodies, schooled by hard years, readied. Try to hurt me. He had to hit first, or she never could.

Curly didn’t disappoint. The lunge was basic, easy to parry. Sabre advanced quickly with gathered steps to deliver a wrath blow, swinging the sword from above in a diagonal slash, trusting Curly would meet in time. He did.

The ringing clang of metal colliding were no better than screeches in Sabre’s ears. Their blades locked mid-air. He was stronger than he looked. Sabre caught the boy’s preparation to strike out with a kick in the belly; quicker than conscious thought, she kicked off and lifted the opposing leg to ram into his inner thigh before his manoeuvre could be executed.

The Lost Ones cheered and jeered as Curly stumbled just long enough for Sabre to pull back. Blood was coursing through veins like dark fire, skin barely able to contain the raw energy. The bodies all around were the only ones Sabre wished to drive a blade into.

Images of battlefields conjured themselves, times when fear and instincts were the greatest animators yet hardly noticed. Times when the surface mind could be submerged just far enough to eradicate hesitation and indecision. It wasn’t blind rashness – it walked between the dichotomies, beyond. A form of elevated state, only in the presence of the fleeting moment.

Make it into a dance, Antonius had once suggested; a dance you can do without even thinking. Find the music. Learn the steps, then allow them to learn you.

When it was Curly’s turn to deliver a wrath blow, crashing down like a lashing of lightning, the surge of blind fear – the key to awakening the earliest echoes of her abilities – allowed Sabre to counter with swinging her sword from the ground up, stepping to her right. The blade met the blow with its flat edge, another terrible clang.

He was doing exactly what she needed and soon the pealing of sword on sword just about matched the humming bird beats of two out of time hearts. She’d found her music.

It thundered over the growing roars of the circle of gnashing wolves. She danced as if the fire showered every inch of skin. Forging children into warriors.

Each hit, slash or strike that found its mark was a blow of icy wind, and Sabre could sense the harsh pull of reluctance that had ended many a good soldier’s life. But each time the gap was a little easier to cross.

Curly was her enemy. He would kill her. He had to die.

Sabre willed more power to her form, more strength to her blade. Believed it could be done. Because she knew it must.

The blades met between chests, false edge against true. Teeth bared in snarls, Sabre and Curly pushed and panted against each other. Sabre squinted against the stinging trail of blood creeping into her right eye. Before the strength could wane too far, she summoned hope and belief and will that her left leg would hold strong as she struck the boy in the soft part of his belly with her knee.

The force left him doubling over. As his body folded, Sabre glided back into the deceptively vulnerable wrath ward. Left foot forward, sword lifted, tip of the blade directed down over right shoulder, much of the weight stored into the right leg, ready. Power building to ignite.

The tip of the blade carved half a circle behind her head. Curly began to lift.

Belief born of need poured unearthly strength into the length of metal and the hands that wielded it. Body shifting forward, power carried with it, the blade diverged down onto a horizontal trajectory.

Her eyes squeezed shut. Curly rose a fraction more.

Took a breath.

Hot blood spattered Sabre’s face, strength holding fast as the swing continued its unstoppable path. She didn’t see the head land, only heard its dull thud that struck silence.

At last she breathed, eyes opening in time to witness the body crumple, twitching, to the chilled earth.

And everything went cold as Sabre returned fully to the confines of her quietly quivering frame. Blood was keen to water the soil, gushing from severed arteries with the last fading flickers of echoing life. It oozed from the blade, thick and dark.

The silence was far more deafening than any of the battle noises.

The girl turned slowly, air breathing mist, to face her king, who breathed heavily, the virid of his eyes nearly lost to onyx. He hadn’t known it was in her – none of them had.

She tossed the sword to his feet as though in defeat. “Do you believe me now?”


 The marks of blood burned like spitting oil, even after splashing her face with cold water, over and over. There could not have been a trace of guilty crimson left upon bare flesh. It didn’t mean she couldn’t feel it. Her lungs still heaved from bolting nearly the whole way to the former camp, the one housing the stone throne, and retreated into a treehouse on the outskirts. It was the adrenaline, the horror, the need to escape herself that had kept the girl running, fleeing what she could never outrun.

The first thing she’d done was unsheathe the dagger and slam it down on the dresser next to the jug and bowl that tremored with the force, unable to tolerate feeling a blade at her side. The jug was still wobbling from nearly being knocked over by a jerking elbow. The bones in her hands quivered as if hollow. She tore away the guards on her wrists without untying them, shed the tough jerkin, anything covered in the proof of her crime, and finally ripped out the leather tying her tresses, tearing several strands of hair out in the process.

It hurt. It hurt so much. More. More. Uneven nails dug into bare arms, clawing down. Thick rouge lines arose, blood scratching against the confines of skin.

She’d done what she’d had to. And what she’d had to was terrible. Irreparable. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…

My soul will burn.

My soul will burn.

The wooden floor creaked. Quicker than a viper, the slender dagger was in her hands, body hurling around to strike the attacker.

At the sight of his face, Sabre froze, the tip of the blade mere whispers from his throat; her grip slackened and the weapon fell, clattering to the floor. He didn’t flinch, or even blink. Frame rattling head to toe, eyes clouded with a sheet of glass, Sabre gasped out. “Sorry,” she whispered unsteadily, earnest, and bowed her head.

Holding back the whimper, Sabre slipped past him, and he let her. Unsteady as a newborn fawn, Sabre gripped the crude railing of the bed that was tucked up against the wall, gaze reaching emptily out of the window that was no more than a carved square in the wooden wall.

“Something gnawing at you, pup?” Pan turned slowly. He couldn’t deny his pulse was still elevated. “You seemed a little…unhinged.”

“Don’t,” Sabre ground out, clenching every muscle.

“You should be happy.” She winced at his weight treading across the room, approaching her. “You bravely and nobly slew a traitor to Neverland.”

And when did honesty become a crime? a soft honey voice surfaced. “Don’t!” Sabre spun round, still gripping the railing with white knuckles, hands swapped. “Just stop. You got what you wanted.”

It frightened her more than it should have to feel the absence of support as she retreated back against the pane-less window, the demon coming closer until breathing became akin to choking.   

“Yes, I did,” Pan’s voice was calm, soft even. “Which is why I’m here.”

Leave me be. I don’t want you here. I can’t face you now. “I’d rather you weren’t.”

Pan’s eyebrow quirked. “Not even for your reward?”

Heat flared through the girl’s blood, cracks splintering. “I deserve nothing.” She believed it, clear as crystalline waters.

He couldn’t have that. “Now, that’s where you’re wrong. You did more than rid me of a traitor.”

No Lost One could have achieved her feat by mere mortal means. A blade too slender, arms too weak – the blow would still have killed the boy, but it shouldn’t have been enough to cleave head from body, to slice through like cutting a thin taut vine. There’d be no darkening of her heart, he was sure of it – there were no immediate plans to send her down that route – but that was fine. He believed her.

“I can tell you what you wanted to know,” Pan offered, pulse spiking by just a fraction when Sabre’s eyes sharpened at the fault of temptation. He went further; “And I can give you what you want.”

There are many things I want. To lose myself is not one of them. With that Sabre pulled back, spine straightening to cut the whispering strings drawing her to him. “I-I can’t,” she stumbled, chin tucked. I’m not ready. Please go.

Unable to utter the words to send him away, she moved to slip past that larger body and retreat far away. For however long it took. All it took was a single hand to wrench her against the wall and knock the breath out. Pan remembered what Rufio had mused – wondering hungrily about what the girl would become when she killed. It had been tempting to seize the boy, drag him to some hut at random and have him right there. But in that moment, he wanted the breaking girl so much more.

Such was the cruel twist that as he nearly ached, actually wished to provide that wayward soul with nourishment, she could only flee, throwing up one wall after another by means of punishing herself.

Pan could smell the fire on her. It hardly surprised him when struggles were offered, however tired and futile. Hardly any strength was needed to keep the small girl trapped between himself and the wall. “Please, stop,” he rumbled in her ear, tone glazed with honey, and felt the swift rush of air against his cheek as she gasped out. Keeping her arms folded and trapped by sheer proximity, Pan’s hands settled on the contour of her hips, slipping under the flimsy undershirt still cladding her torso. “Don’t ruin this. Not now you’ve made me so proud. You’re afraid of what you might become if you accept this, but don’t you see how easy it can be? We can both have all we want.”

Sabre fought against every base pull. She couldn’t battle against the both of them. “Pan,” even saying his name, rare on her tongue, felt good. Like a lapping wave of warm water at her tense back. She fought again. “Let go.”

“You’re only hurting yourself, can’t you see that? I’ll still get what I want. It’s only a matter of whether you do, too.” Those large cool hands met on her back. He knew she was trying not to collapse into his arms, knew she was breathing in his scent. “Just let me reward you, little hound.”

Sabre whined, “No. I-,” I can’t. It’s wrong. The wound is open and this is the poison. Heart and reason locked antlers, ramming so furiously that they become sealed, unable to untangle.

The next sound barely had time to reach her throat, lips parting only to receive Pan’s kiss.

There was more warmth to his lips than she’d anticipated in her many imaginings, yet the reality had no trouble overtaking. The initial stillness was overwhelming, bursting at the seams. Two sighing breaths melted into one another. Moving his lips languidly over hers, Pan eased to his full height so that Sabre had to tip her chin up, mimicking the motions, their eyes closed. Against every expectation for brutality, pain and teeth, the demon bound himself with iron control, reining out passion link by link.

Encircling one of Sabre’s wrists with a thumb and forefinger, Pan brought the girl’s little hand to his neck, allowing her to touch and caress with the tenderness that came to her so innately, even after those same hands had wielded death.

After all the guilty daydreams and night-time musings, all the taunts and maybes, Pan was, at last, kissing her.

Every second with his mouth on hers took away the bitterness she knew the poison should have, leaving it with the essence of the sweetest nectar. Her moan was light, quiet, softly thrumming between them. Pan didn’t seem able to wait any longer; strength seeped into his grip, his passion more adamant and avid. Starved for air, Sabre clawed against every reckless impulse and shook her head out of their kiss. It was clear Pan only released her for the sake of sating her lungs.

“I can’t,” Sabre whispered weakly behind closed eyes. She’d never not wanted and wanted something so deeply. Was it better to regret what she did do, or what she didn’t do? A shudder woke at Pan’s low growl. “Not yet,” she pleaded in a hurried attempt at placation.

“This is beginning to get boring,” the words were spoken against her dark hairline. He couldn’t have her comply so beautifully only to lash back and destroy the progress. “We both know it’s not really me you’re trying to fight. You will not punish yourself for loyalty to me, understand?” Opting on a change of tactic, a flicker of magic repositioned them on the bed, sat adjacent, with his hands wrapped around her wrists. “Do you know why Curly had to die?” Pan asked as though aiming to explain something to a child.

Sabre breathed, arms slack in his hands. “He was a traitor,” she answered tamely.

“More specifically,” Pan goaded, eyes like the clearest glass.

They held her in place, leaving her stripped bare. “He told me about the Truest Believer, and what would happen to me when you found him.”

He tapped her on the nose. “Good girl. See, the thing with you is that it’s not so much whether you go down or not; it’s how far you fight on the way. It’s much easier for you to live with something if you were forced, if you struggled before you gave in,” his sigh was long. “You found out about the Truest Believer too soon, so I must make amends. As much as I wish it weren’t true, the revived magic of Neverland is somewhat dependent on you. For it to reap the benefits, you have to stay – for lack of a better word – tame. Stable. I’d intended for your loyalties to be more absolute before I shared this with you. And that’s why I’ve chosen to offer you a deal, and some satisfaction, if only you’d let me.”

But if I let you then I’m…accepting what happened, what I did. That I murdered someone who, to me, was innocent. If I truly let you then I’m giving up a piece of myself. And that’s how it starts.

But I’ve already given things up. No, this is different. Entirely different.

Opportunity enhanced the glint in the boy’s gaze when Sabre’s lips pressed together, still tingling in fighting the instantaneous addiction. Under Pan’s palms, warmth bloomed distractingly to the surface. She didn’t like being wrong, but hated him being right. And that was, regrettably, more than often.

Sabre’s eyes were avoidant. “Fine.” Hearing his deal didn’t mean she had to take it.

The smirk was as deviant as anticipated. He moved a little closer, sure that all her attention was within his grasp. “In exchange for your loyalty, obedience and compliance, the assurance that you will not ever try to prevent me getting what I want – whatever, whoever, it is – and restraint of that noble little heart, I, in return,” he leaned in close, with the briefest pause to nuzzle her cheek, and whispered in her ear.

The blood drained for her face, fight and fire extinguished like a taper in the wind. Her flesh became heavier than rusted iron armour yet the bones beneath reduced themselves to spider threads, and she near keeled over, bracing on her hands. For a moment her eyes were so, so far away, but then she looked to back to him. “Will loyalty include more murder?”

“Can’t know for sure what the future holds, can we?” Pan said, recovering the distance between them. “You don’t need more convincing, do you, pup?”

Sabre began to shrug. “W-Well, I-” How can I be sure? What if it’s only a trap? It could take centuries for the Truest Believer to get here. Who knows what I’ll have become by then…what if I no longer want my end by the time it comes?

“Because I’m still in rather a generous mood,” the Boy-King murmured, ghosting the defined lines of the other’s jaw between his thumb and forefinger, watching as hazel eyes fluttered timorously. “You know your time here can be so much sweeter if you let yourself lose these fights, and maybe one day stop fighting altogether.”

Sabre let out a hitched breath when he eased her closer by the forearms. She knew what was coming that time and tilted to meet his lips, drunk on the taste of him the second they joined. Resisting the artful grin that sprung from the girl’s impulsive eagerness, followed by an attempt to catch and rein herself in, Pan curled his fingers around her neck with only a whisper of his power, the way he’d found she liked. He’d not meant his articulated hope that she’d eventually learn to stop fighting, not fully. Simple things, perhaps. But their moments, tucked away, intimate – even if in the most brutal, cold ways – and essential, never.

She would just keep on breaking. And he was finding more and more ways to pick up the pieces without losing a single shard and put them together so the girl could find new ways to continue falling without hitting the ground, all the while she was snatching up what she could before he could get to it. Though maybe, in time, he might find perfect ways to take all the fight from her only to be the one to ignite it once more. It was the one of the few satisfactions that never faded.

That small body was warm and pliant as he nudged it back into the bed. Her legs knew just how far to part so that he could settle snuggly between them, the masculine shape of his form committed to memory. The fight was still there as Pan sunk his teeth into Sabre’s lower lip and she whimpered into his mouth, muscles not quite relaxed as he pressed her into the bedding. Already her lungs winced under his weight, back arching to ease him off enough to expand her ribs in a full unhindered breath.

“You did the right thing,” Pan whispered between kisses.

I did the necessary thing, she countered weakly while her voice was strung with whimpers and gasps as the other’s mouth latched itself to her neck. Burning so brightly, it took several moments for Sabre to comprehend the absence of clothes. A spike of pain as the Boy-King bit down was the last sensation to dominate her sense before the heat of bare skin sunk to the bones.

He’s giving me this because I murdered someone.Mm,” she couldn’t help but moan through closed lips as her peaked nipple was taken inside a hot, wet mouth.

Trickles of lightning coated Sabre’s skin. When she braced against Pan’s shoulders, she caught sight of the rich blue ribbon still about her wrist. It might have been easier to forget if it hadn’t been. Pulling back, pushing away, occurred again and again.

Until Pan flipped them in the blink of an eye.

Shaken from being moved as though truly having bones made of spider threads, Sabre was shocked to stillness in body and mind. Underneath, he throbbed hard and hot. Devouring with verdite orbs, unblinking, Pan allowed the girl to catch her breath, taking the moment to drink in the rosy flushes flowering on her skin. Barely any weight came down through her hands as they perched on his upper abdominals, the bedding dipping under the narrow pressure of her knees. Kneeling over Rufio had been nerve-wracking, unfamiliar but paled against sitting astride the Boy-King; it wasn’t right, she was overstepping too many boundaries. The protest of every fibre made her fidget with the demeanour of a mouse.

The corner of his mouth fit the shape of a talon, abdominals coiling as he sat up slowly. Heights more or less equalised, even if she still had an inch or two on him, Sabre could breathe in more than tiny silent gasps. He kissed her again, arms sealing their torsos as one, more like she imagined he might. Any warmth and care was suffocated by bites and a punishing strength. His arms constricted to the point of leaving her bones groaning and seconds later a hand was running up through her hair, fingers gripping. The rocking of her hips found its way naturally to her while their tongues began their first dance together, their heats bleeding through into one another.

A bite to her lip broke the waves of moaning breaths and rocking bodies. “Ah,” Sabre flinched back, lifting a hand to touch her scorched lower lip. Both mouths grazed her little fingers.

Pan caught her wrist, jaw tensed. None of that, his eyes seemed to say. She could practically hear the growling tone.

Pulling the small wrist aside, he ran his tongue along the reddened flesh, and held off from kissing again as he brought her captured hand between them. Her body nudged back to accommodate. The skin was hot and smooth against her palm and fingers as they curled around his length. Despite the mildly strained position, Sabre stroked up and down while breathing in the scent of woodland and masculine musk. To her shame, her mouth watered a little.

And the guilt wrapped so tightly she thought she might crack. She half wished he’d leave her, but knew she would have crumbled apart without him.

Pan groaned softly against her mouth, foreheads pressed together. There was some consolation in his approval, if only a little.

Sabre grew taut in the shudder, the other’s hand wandering over her thigh to touch from behind. Dexterous fingers toyed with her folds, spreading the wetness to the outer lips, a chorus of sounds strung out in a quiet melody, proving guilt a useless shield against the carnal. Pan didn’t mind when she initiated the next kiss. Keen to taste him again, she was all too willing to allow his tongue to roam her mouth, goaded into immediate submission. Both their hands worked profusely, though Sabre doubted the wild boy had the same burns winding themselves up his forearm.

It’s wrong. This is wrong. I shouldn’t be doing this.

Two digits probed her entrance, spreading the folds wide. “Take it in you.” Pan was sensitive to the tiny tremors in the girl’s hand as she knelt up to obey his command. Gripping his length at the base as he had done when taking her, and feeling somehow inappropriate and intrusive, Sabre moved fractionally until the weeping head was perfectly poised to invade her taut body.

A throaty whimper escaped as she lowered down, taking the first few inches before letting go, eyes squeezed shut. The innermost muscles forced themselves to bloom. Sabre recognised the dull pain, as she sat flush in Pan’s lap, which would drift away with a little time and deepened breaths. She prayed he would allow it to her.

His chuckle expelled hot air into her ear. “Poor soul.”

Humiliation hung in the girl’s responding moan as her head dropped onto his shoulder and his hands settled at the tops of her thighs. There shouldn’t have been an ache to grind forward and put Rufio’s lessons to good use, nor to allow the surrender to purge all resistance, and let the world fall away. She was sure Pan could sense the tension in the invisible threads between them.

“Pan, I –” Sabre began to whisper.

Shh. Claim your reward,” the boy tantalised. Claim, a dangerous word.

Sabre’s head rose, a moan fighting to escape as a pulse – undoubtedly deliberate – caressed her deepest point, absent of any discomfort. Eyes remaining low, she put her forehead against his, noses bumping lightly. He’d hardly duped the girl into believing the tables had turned; only a fool would think they were no longer moved by strings because they could no longer feel their pulls.

But no puppet was quite sure how to dance at first without them.

First, Sabre anchored herself by securing the embrace around Pan’s neck, more to let him know that enough resistance had been put to rest, and he kissed her lips before she could bite into them. The addictive distraction made it easier to ground her strength and begin rolling her hips forward, the sudden whimper spilling effortlessly. Guilt really was no shield. Pleasure and need cared for naught.

Holding but not guiding, Pan allowed her to test the waters. She kissed more slowly to match her rhythm, the laps of her tongue still passionate if not a little timorous. It hadn’t truly occurred that such unhinging pleasure could be found moving the way she did, his shaft so deeply sheathed, grinding the sensitized doorway to her womb. She tugged the ends of his tawny hair, moaning into his mouth. He tugged a little harder.

It was all too soon when Pan left her gasping for air. The girl’s hands trailed over his chest as he rolled down, muscles like iron; the further he lengthened out, the further he seemed to fill her, to the point where it felt as though she could choke. Air struggled from her throat in pant after pant. Untested muscles were forced to flex in her lower body, a bulge so easily felt bruising her inside walls in the most delectable way.

Uh,” Sabre’s empty fingers curled in with the need to clench something, head tipped back, chest heaving. “Pan.”

Long fingers toyed with her nipple, the accompanying voice just as agile; “Keep going,” his voice trailed into a humming growl as Sabre braced her palms on his chest – no higher than Rufio had warned – and lifted to allow inch after inch of his cock to leave the silken vice of her core.

Only the soaked tip remained in the grip of that clenching sheath; Sabre watched with a meek curiosity as Pan’s features contorted in a way he must have seen hers mould into a dozen times. Encouraged, she sank back down, taking him to the hilt once again, that time earning a low, gratified sigh and curled claws on her thighs. She nearly didn’t care how it hurt. She was dancing alone.

“The things I’m going to do to you,” sin bled from the husky murmur, the words rolling over his tongue like a melody as his little lover rose up for about the fourth time.

I have no doubt of that, Sabre answered silently, sighing out as she rocked forward to massage the bundle of nerves between her legs against his pubic bone, stretched again to the limit.

She could have taken the chance to be selfish, snatched the opportunity with greed; could have sought and claimed pleasure, made use of the power while it was hers. However, in honesty, Sabre felt nothing of the sort. Still, she ached to please, because maybe, just maybe, it might draw out the few whispers of softness left in the wild boy – and then, at least, she could despise herself, and everything, with a strong body at her side and the cradle of his arms.

Staying down, Sabre rolled forward in minute circles, still predominantly rocking back and forth, and unable to stop the spiking inhale as Pan gripped at her with greater ferocity. With all her strength gathered, and spurred by what she’d succeeded in provoking so far, she rode harder and faster, only blocking out her hedonistic sounds so that she could listen to his. She hoped that tightly closed eyes was a good indication. Short breaths, low growls, throaty groans, she yearned for them all.

And it meant she didn’t have to see Curly’s last moments against a bleak, black canvas.

There didn’t seem too great a chance of climaxing in that position, the inner nerves pounded too near to exhaustion to be receptive enough, and that was what made it nearly too much to bear. The attempts of mutism didn’t last long. Strands of hair clung to the contours of her back, skin hot and growing damper by the minute. Red scratches and young bruises marred the flesh of her thighs and buttocks.

Panting hard, Pan braced on his elbow and used the other hand to haul Sabre down, swallowing her whimper in a punishing kiss while continuing to buck upwards. “Make me come,” he snarled at her, godlike in all he was.

He stayed propped up, muscles straining despite the ease, and Sabre’s fingers hooked over his shoulders, forearms pressing down into his chest, knowing that her weight meant nothing to him. With her hips tilted, every grind sent further ripples of pleasure that rallied every last ounce of energy, the angle of her core gripping Pan’s shaft fervently. They panted into each other’s mouths, attention too diverted to devour one another or even join gazes.

Upon the alteration of the sounds bleeding from Pan’s mouth, Sabre straightened through her arms, desperate to see. The deepness in pitch brought on shiver after shiver. She dragged her lust-glazed eyes over every coiling muscle, taut tendon and inch after inch of glistening skin, intoxicated by every sense.

With a raw cry, Pan’s chest arched as if being pulled by invisible hands, head thrown back. Sabre stilled to take it all, every pulse echoing through her inner walls. She held her breath, enraptured with what she’d elicited. I made him this.

Little fingers stroked across his chest as the wild boy descended from his high. There was such beauty in the way Pan breathed out and opened his eyes unblinkingly. His restored composure – as if he’d not been undone at all – would have been infuriating if Sabre had had the willpower. The way he watched her was almost pensive, with a prominent edge of self-satisfaction etched on his features. He returned a light touch to Sabre’s forearm before sitting upright to roll them in a tangle of lax limbs without letting himself slip from her. A hand guided her leg over his hip, fingers staying to trace nonsensical patterns over the girl’s thigh, while quiet pleasure ebbed where they remained joined together.

That small body folded effortlessly into him; Sabre prayed that he’d stay close. She wasn’t yet prepared to face, well, anything. But Pan’s regard of her was praising, and that made the burden that bit lighter to bear.

“You can really promise me that?” the girl’s voice was small, fragile. She was too weak to jolt as Pan cupped the side of her face, earnest, truthful.

All the fog was swept aside, the path into her soul made clear. “I will personally ensure it. Have no doubt about that.”

Chapter Text

All lies in the eye of the beholder.

Beauty, good, evil, justice, mercy, belief; many gazes were shared, and now, a pair of forlorn, cynical hazel eyes slowly aligned. Why was it so that the good and the innocent perished; why were they not protected by the laws they adhered to? The best could die and the worst survive.

Because survival was not about goodness, much of the time. That word, that concept, was so often a luxury.

The whispers at the back of the mind had found their ways back to the tongues to speak them. Deeds to the hands that had wielded them. And with the shadowless demon’s absence, as he harvested soul after soul in far off lands, none had been able to protect against the tempest to near rip the lost realm at its seams. Bodies were still being discovered and recovered days later. A drowned Lost One who had slipped into the river as it burst its banks, another grotesquely crushed under the weight of one of several collapsed huts.

Austen and Julien were buried before their king could return to say farewell. When a soul was taken, its master intended to claim everything, even its death.

A small Piccaninny hunting party was found under the trunk of a tree, flesh torn and forms disfigured by the beasts that had come to salvage the wreckage. An uncounted tally of mermaids washed up on every shore. The smearing of blood had yet to be cleansed from one cliff-side, mere yards from the precipice. 

No one had meant it to happen, not having known it could happen. Not even the one who unwittingly caused it.

Too great a burden had been yielded, too soon. The shoulders hadn’t been ready to catch it. Still trembling with the unhinging weight of four years, their dozen predecessors, and all they brought with them, like overflowing ships to the harbour, made the banks burst.

The only one who could have curbed the destruction only heard its dying call in the distance of his mind. No matter the cruelty and dark that had long suffocated all but the last flickers of humanity, he could have snuffed it out like a candle, taken enough away. Even when he did, the nameless blameless wrath was already spent. But at least it was one ghost, made up of the fragments of a thousand others, that would never scream again.

No one razed kingdoms, especially his own, and shattered lives, except him.

The enticement of wonder and excitement was swiftly purged for the newly reaped souls; not when they were met with bodies of creatures only known through stories on the sand like beached whales and the tiny, trembling form of a deranged girl with a blue ribbon tied around her bird bone wrist and fresh, bloody scars torn down her face like the slices of falcons’ talons, and with the deadly vexation of the angel-faced boy who’d danced them away with promises and a melody. Not enough of his sweet poison lingered in their hearts, though – later – he would find enjoyment in bringing them under his wing a little differently and becoming the key to their hot blood boiling as they sung with clawed hands around the fire, into battle, or in his bed.

A thick green smoke had brought the new arrivals to camp, left them in the charge of the faithful, while the king whisked away his solider to a quiet corner the island to caress the rust from the armour she still didn’t know how to remove herself, only how to pull on and tighten until it welded to her hide. A punishment was laid to rest.

The guilt she’d rip into herself with was penalty enough. He knew she was done with running. No matter how often she looked back.

With a kiss to tear stained skin and murmured words – whispering that he should have been there; should have protected her – he slipped a little deeper into the cracks, another string fastened, another dose fed. Even if it was true.

The fear the new ones held for her, strong as it was, was quick to dissipate, much to the soothing of her heart. And no one blamed her; she didn’t dwell on the reasons why.

It would still take some adjusting to the reverence that came with a place right by Pan’s side, the trinity now those closest to the king, and he far above. But she was keen, and quick, to prove herself to those on the lowest tiers, where she had lingered all too recently. No differently than those early days, Sabre devoted herself to knowing the names they would carry, and knowing them. Tally, Alfonso, Riley, Soto, Viper, Marcus, Lambert. Not his finest harvest but a greater number gained than lost. Four of the five because of her.

A shred of solace was found in honing the body to its knife edge. There were enough burdens without fear for injury or the sicknesses that would make their slow return in long years to come. Her methods, disciplined and dedicated, of training were quick to prick the ears of her companions, the newer ones more so. They witnessed her train with blade and bow, crafted to be heavier than those used in real skirmishes; trek miles with a pack weighted with rocks; run along the longest bays, swim back then run again.

Enough wisdom had been passed on from Vasha that she had the quiet strength to teach others in his craft, only taking one study at a time, never quite brave enough to shoulder more than one person in that art. Meanwhile the older Lost Ones were intelligent enough to make use of having a maven soldier in their ranks despite their decades and centuries of hard experience. If any of them had been trained by elites they had long, long left it behind.

It was a half decent distraction while her king found distractions elsewhere. While not expecting all attention or to be his only desired, it was the lengths of time that left her unnerved and unhappy. In a single stretch from dusk ‘til dawn, he could strip her of all armour, crush every defence, leaving her closer to life and death, both, than she’d ever conceived possible. Even when he might hold her quivering shattered body close, leaving her tiny and powerless, kiss and pet her while they whispered by firelight, she would often be little more than a stranger come sunrise.

The board reset to be played again, and again.

In the very bones of Neverland, a new instinct had birthed, warning for the girl to be left unharmed. On a patrol, march, or wander, the great beasts would be bound by command to leave her be. She would allow herself to often be taken to the coast, not caring if it meant a night or two of sleeping rough in a hollowed alcove or uninhabited camp, afraid and missing the warmth of blankets and lightly breathing bodies, even if they did occasionally hitch with muffled sobs. The sounds had never bothered her much by way of irritation, mostly eliciting pity, but complaining, as some of the elder boys did, would be beneath her. Not when she still wept in the depths of sleep.

Although now there was a vacant treehouse. Spoils of conquest, Rufio had said when tying the ribbon that had once bound her hair around her wrist in a knot too small to ever pick apart once having caressed her delicate neck. It still carried the sea in its seams.

A lot of what the dark boy had imparted to her was right; Felix did give sensational rubdowns – the day after she delivered Curly his execution, he’d offered to work the knots from her shoulders, his own way of showing appreciation for the loyalty shown to Pan – and it was getting easier, if only a little, to endure the Boy-King’s affections, to name a couple.

Sabre didn’t care where she walked, knowing where she’d end up eventually.

Burns and sores lingered from sparring that morning, not allowed to rest as she marched on. Weapons were comfortable weights that she would have been amiss without while in the open. The lines on her face had lost their anger at last, three on either side, from brow to cheek.

It wouldn’t have been a bother if she’d encountered either Tink or Tiger Lily on her trek, though with a slight bias towards the latter. Tink was the kind of soul whom she might impart secrets to for all the right reasons.

When she’d come to Neverland, Killian had been the only person she’d considered a friend, but before him, aside from him, there’d been no one. How pitiful and wretched she’d been as a beggar; others of the kind had kept away from her. Deep down, they’d been frightened, able to know something was terribly wrong, so wrong that they’d shied away without quite knowing why. Not that she’d been keen to interact. It had frightened her just as much.

Now restored, Sabre knew it was not the first time she’d inspired a deep, perturbing fear. She’d caught the jittering glances, the hushed words, after the terrible act she’d committed as a child.

The dark child, they’d called her. The nightmare child.

It got to her too soon, they’d said in hushed whispers.

She didn’t disagree. Dark hadn’t meant quite what it did to others as it did in her homeland. Nothing she’d done, even as far back at then, had been cruel or remorseless. But war had come. And a night full of stars was better than a blank canvas of pitch, waiting to be lit. She’d learned too young the meaning of the common saying of her family. Its eight words encompassed a magnitude.

She wondered if any of her brothers, even Pan, would eventually piece together why some nights silent tears might wet her cheeks, and others she’d be woken to her own screams, for themselves; wondered if they’d ever realise that it was one chapter of her life, confined within a single night.

Her first battle, and the last of the war.

Still only fourteen, armoured and armed, she’d stood before the long mirror as her uncle had tied her hair at the back and not recognised the person staring back.

She knew now why her soul would burn.

Everything told was true. A desire, root deep, to heal the wounds was some consolation. People were quick to trust her, always had been when the hauntings had not lurked on the surface, with good reason. The other side of the coin to the puppet master, she walked the path destiny had set for her. Or rather, destiny had laid down the stones to catch her steps where they fell.

The battle for the Heart of the Truest Believer would come one day. Until then, Sabre would reside in her little corner of forever with the wild, lost, broken boys who had become brothers. In her heart, she knew that one day she’d look upon the face of the pirate who’d saved a wretched life, and only hoped she might be able to greet him once more with the same face he’d known her by, all that time ago.

She knew why the sea and its cousins comforted her, why they could not hurt her, and why a fear stirred at their adversary. A lineage now grounded underfoot, she knew who she was. It would do her little good and Neverland, but it was a comfort to remember amidst the suffocation of demons and monsters that lurked every corner of her jagged, chipped mind. The names and titles she’d clung to now had their meaning, and stirred more to wake. So much left behind.

She had restored Neverland; now Neverland was restoring her, piece by piece. Its magic had delved deep, like hauling up a buried chest of treasure from depths too far to be swum, the spoils polished to be left more vivid than should have been possible. If she’d still been aboard the Jolly Roger perhaps only chipped shards would have been gathered. There was no way to know.

The skeleton cage could be placed, as could the night of smoke and first words, and time of pretending to read books while listening to words not meant to be heard. She knew why her hair had turned white after only fifteen winters. And where every old scar echoed. 

She’d been born into spring, waking from a dark and long winter, into a world where stars spoke true. The war had come too soon, though, and she’d never been able to carve even the first step of fulfilling the destiny bestowed on her. Perhaps that was cruel. And maybe fate was having another turn with her. 

It would take years. She would count the moons, and refuse to let anything slip away again. Hides could be changed, armour hammered anew but the heart beneath would remain unchanged if they were strong enough.

Knowing everything she was, Sabre knew everything she wished and needed to be; to keep on being.

A soldier, a vigil of mercy, a keeper of purity.

She knew now.

There were no queens in Neverland, just her.