Wendy never did dream of Hook again, in that strangely vivid fashion, but she dreamt once more of the Jolly Roger. And in that dream she was running, searching through every nook and cranny of the ship, her heart in her mouth and her nightdress hitched up in haste.
She didn't encounter as much as a bilge rat.
Fear caught up with her somewhere between the galley and the main deck, a dull, sickening dread that rushed over her skin like the bitter northern wind. It was a ghost ship she was on, nothing more than an empty husk at the whim of the currents, its skeletal masts scraping against the black hollow of the sky.
"Captain!" she shouted, as loudly as she could, and when only silence answered her: "James!"
She woke drenched in a cold sweat, the early dawning light altogether too pale to reassure her. Wendy got up, shivering so violently her teeth chattered. She slipped into her dressing gown, pulling it tight around her body, then padded across the floor to fetch her jewellery box, not opening the lid until she had climbed back onto the bed.
The splinter, unlike the captain of the Jolly Roger, was right where she had expected it to be. It lay nestled inside the box, next to the acorn on its silver chain. They were companions and counterparts, those two, both mementoes of another place—the former serving to remind her of the things the latter could not.
Wendy picked up the splinter, cradling it in her hand as if it was precious. Such a man, a man made careless by desperation, might meet his end in a thousand ways, even though no giant crocodiles remained. A thousand different ways. And she knew then that something had indeed been irrevocably changed, because it disturbed her to think of him dead.
She met John for tea one afternoon, near the office where he worked, and during the whole of their conversation she ached to tell him, to ask his advice and show him the splinter that burned a hole in her pocket. But for him, this tall bearded gentleman, Neverland was but a childhood fancy—a well-loved toy that had been misplaced at some point and therefore forgotten. And she could not bring herself to speak of it.
Day followed day, after that, and all her dreams were nonsensical. The snows had melted and the ground was dotted with new green shoots, narrow, grassy leaves that had struggled to emerge from the soil.
At the first bloom of spring, a telegram arrived. It took several minutes before Wendy could begin to make sense of what it said and the moment she did, she doubled over where she sat, squeezing her eyes shut until she saw bright bursts of colour and the dizziness passed.
There was a hospital, in a town up the coast. There was a patient in that hospital who professed he had no ties in England but those that bound him to her. And his name had been spelled out in unmistakable letters on a fairly ordinary piece of paper. He called himself James Hook.
Wendy kept the telegram a secret from her father, her mother and her whole host of brothers. She could get there by train and, provided she did not stay long, be back home in time for supper. Anything beyond that she could not plan, or even imagine.
She put on her hat and gloves and high-heeled shoes. The dress she chose to wear was her favourite, not the finest she had but rather the most comfortable. If her hands shook, as she approached the wrought iron gates, she did her best to ignore it.
A nurse in the entrance hall directed Wendy to the matron's office down the corridor to the right. She went there, stopping to compose herself before she knocked on the half-open door.
"Come in," a woman's voice answered.
Wendy pushed the door ajar and stepped across the threshold, catching sight of an elderly nurse who stood near the window holding a notebook of some kind. "Nurse Layton?"
"I'm here to visit a patient," Wendy said and her body tensed in anxious preparation. "James Hook."
"Then you must be Wendy Darling," the nurse concluded with a warm smile. "Please, take a seat."
Wendy sat down, arranging her skirts as she did so. Tried to concentrate on that simple, everyday act instead of other matters. "The telegram didn't mention—" She broke off, breathing deeply. "Is he badly hurt?"
"He's much improved," Nurse Layton emphasised. She settled on the chair behind the desk, put the notebook in one of the drawers and closed it. When she looked up at Wendy again, her face was more serious. "He was terribly weak when they brought him in, though, and I don't think he would have survived, had he stayed in the water much longer."
"Water?" Wendy repeated, taken aback.
"A local fishing boat discovered him floating in the sea a little over a week ago," the nurse explained. "Oddly enough they weren't near any of the major shipping routes at the time, so it's something of a mystery—to be honest, I had hoped you might shed light on what happened."
Wendy's heart flipped over and she averted her eyes, so the older woman wouldn't be able to read them. "I'm as much at a loss as you are, Nurse Layton. He hasn't told you himself?"
The nurse hesitated. "I'm afraid he can't, Miss Darling," she finally said, in a soft tone. "He seems to have lost some of his memory, because of the accident. However," she was quick to add, "Dr. MacTavish has treated patients with this affliction in the past and there's a good chance that, given time, he'll fully recover."
Wendy frowned. Under any other circumstances she would have been distraught by such news, but if it was Hook—and the doubts she had nursed were fast fading—then it was surely less a question of what he had lost than of what he had chosen to divulge. "But—he remembered me?"
Nurse Layton nodded. "Quite clearly, Miss Darling, both you and your brothers. I understand he's an old friend of the family?"
Wendy choked down a sudden sputter of disbelief. "Yes, he is," she confirmed, if somewhat roughly. "What else has he said?"
"He's not a talkative man, but he did say you're a master storyteller," the nurse replied and Wendy snapped to attention. "It's how we knew where to send the telegram," Nurse Layton continued. "One of the nurses in the ward has a young son who loves your writing and Mr. Hadfield at the publishing company was very helpful."
"Oh." Wendy fell silent. Certitude had filled her to the brim and she had, absurdly, half a mind to flee but the other half, the reckless, fearless Wendy who had sought to be a pirate, prompted her to charge ahead and proved stronger, in the end. She rose, wobbly knees and legs be damned. "I'd like to go to him now."
"Of course!" Nurse Layton got to her feet, keys rattling at her hasty movement. "I should think he's on the terrace. It's such a fine day today and he prefers to be outside, watching the sea."
They headed out of the room, the nurse locking it behind them, then past the entrance hall and down another echoing corridor, flanked on either side by small and nearly identical rooms, most of which were occupied. At the end of that corridor, there was a pair of glass doors and Nurse Layton slowed her strides.
"Wait here, Miss Darling."
Wendy made halt while the nurse walked out on the terrace and glanced around. She lit up, suddenly, and beckoned Wendy forward.
"The younger girls have been all agog with excitement," Nurse Layton remarked, when Wendy was close enough to hear her, "and no wonder. He does look quite the pirate, doesn't he? Even without that dreadful hook."
The ability to breathe, Wendy decided, wasn't something she would ever take for granted again. His chair was placed facing the blue-tinted sea, but he had turned towards them and she could see his eyes. She was wide awake and she could see his eyes.
"I'll leave you then," the nurse said, jarringly cheerful. "If there's anything else, just come and speak to me." And with that, she was off, disappearing into the building.
Wendy remained perfectly still, staring unabashed at the man in front of her. Daylight did him no kindness in this place. It bled him dry, carving lines and shadows that had not existed before. And together with the fact that those sable locks, though not shorn, were gathered with a cord at the nape, it lent him an air of stark, painful severity.
A gull cried in the distance, bringing her out of her stunned daze. She started to advance one step at a time, as if she was treading on a path fraught with peril and danger. "Captain?"
She sank heavily onto the empty chair next to him, feeling a ripple of shock at the familiar sound of his voice. "Are you real, James Hook, or am I dreaming you?"
He lifted his good hand from the armrest, the loose sleeve of the hospital robe falling back, and he twisted the hand this way and that, observing it from all angles. "I don't know," he answered, like she had once answered him, in the richly furnished cabin on the Jolly Roger, "but there is flesh beneath this sorry skin."
Wendy reached for him, compelled by an overwhelming urge, as if sight alone could not convince her. Realising she still wore the gloves, she impatiently removed them, then slid her fingers along his forearm, wavering between curiosity and embarrassment. Though he stiffened, he didn't try to hinder her and she was acutely aware of each detail: the quiver of muscles, the texture of the short, dark hairs, the slight ridge of a vein. His gaze was fixed upon her and Wendy fought a growing blush. It should not be possible for something so cool, so crystalline, to burn so much. "You are," she managed, "or I've gone mad."
It earned her a brief, sharp grin and she pulled away from him. Looked away from him—the view of the sea being safer by far than that of the captain. A solitary boat was silhouetted against the horizon and she wondered momentarily if it was the same fishing boat that had plucked him from the waves. "You lied to them, didn't you, about losing your memory?"
Hook chuckled harshly, but not without humour. "It was a convenient excuse, Miss Darling."
"And a risky one." She shot a glance at him. "How?"
"Happy thoughts and fairy dust," he said, not bothering to pretend he didn't know what she was referring to. "I've used it all up."
"But you don't—" Wendy gasped, aghast. "Fairy dust? You abducted some poor, defenceless fairy?"
"You need not look so cross, Miss Darling," Hook replied, plainly amused by her reaction. "I can assure you it was a mutual agreement. Pan had dismissed her in the cruellest of manners, as he so often does, and she was—favourable to my suggestions."
"Tinkerbell?" She almost believed him, if only because it was so easy to picture it: the pirate and the quick-tempered fairy, in the depths of the seething jungle, the sombre and the bright, plotting to thwart that wretched boy. "Peter's Tinkerbell? And you trusted her not to betray you?"
"No, but it was nevertheless a gamble I was willing to take."
Wendy bit her lip, struck by a realisation. "It's the reason you asked me about the Lost Boys, isn't it?" She searched his face for an answer and finding it, was not entirely pleased. "Since when have you been planning this, Captain?"
He drew the faded woollen blanket higher, patting it smooth as if it was velvet or gold-shot silk. "If a ragged band of children could do it, then so might Hook, might he not?" he mused more to himself than to her, then said, "It wasn't a fully-fledged plan, Miss Darling. Not until the night I stumbled across Pan's tiny companion, weeping like her heart had been shattered and, I dare say, stomped upon."
"This plan of yours," she questioned, amazed in equal measure by the bravery and the complete and utter folly of his scheme. "Did it include nearly getting yourself drowned?"
His mouth formed a thin line below the moustache and she spotted the barest hint of red on his cheekbones. "It did not. But fairies are fickle creatures, as you must know, Miss Darling. She forgave the boy and remembered, most untimely, her resentment of me."
A chill coursed through her. Peter had played such a game on their first journey to Neverland, pointing and laughing in glee when she, Michael or John tumbled downwards, but he had always saved them before it was too late. "Oh, dear."
"Not the phrase I would choose, but yes," the captain agreed. "Had the fall been longer, the sea would have had its fill of me."
Wendy fiddled with a glove, tangled images of an abandoned ship creeping to the front of her consciousness. "I dreamt that you were gone," she admitted. "I thought you had died. I never even considered the notion that you might have left." She shook her head, bewildered. "Why on earth would you attempt such a thing?"
His expression grew shuttered and she almost didn't expect him to give her a proper reply, but he did. "To be free of him," he said tersely and touched the stump, prodding the edge of the bone and the puckered scar tissue. "The wound festered before it healed. It put a fever in me that no medicine could quench and no doctor, white or Indian, could cure." He leaned his elbows on his thighs, would perhaps have clasped his hands, had he been able to. "I sailed to the ends of Neverland, Miss Darling, but the boy drew me back. Hauled me in like a fish, as if the hook was lodged in my palate and not strapped to my arm."
"And now?" she quietly asked.
"Now? I am here and he is not," Hook said. "It is better—it will be better, I think." He looked at her and added wryly, "I found the door."
With his neck craned like that, Wendy could see something she had failed to notice earlier. Among the coils of hair fastened by the cord, there was a single strand that was ashy grey. Her breath caught in her throat, it was becoming a habit, and her fingertips tingled. The spells of Neverland were truly loosening their hold on him. "Then I'm glad," she said, and meant it. "But—what will you do, Captain? How will you live?"
"You have no cause for concern, Miss Darling," he responded with a curving of lips that was practically a smirk and the crow's feet at his temples crinkled. "The items I had hid on my person will suffice to make me a man of some considerable wealth."
It struck her speechless at first, then she laughed. "Is that so, James Hook? You should count yourself lucky the fishermen didn't rob you."
"They were honest to a fault, all three of them," he informed her, "and they thought me an honest man."
"And you let them keep the delusion?" Wendy snorted. "Black-hearted villain."
He did not retaliate by claiming she was a foolish girl, or worse, pure-hearted, what he said was, "Red-Handed Jill."
Wendy lifted her brows in surprise, a peculiar sensation in the pit of her stomach. She had been entranced by him, had feared and hated him by turns. Liking him, had not been an option. But it occurred to her now that it might be. "You read my book."
"Twice," he answered, slowly stretching his back. "Pirate tales and happily ever afters, Miss Darling?"
"It's for children," she retorted. "Besides, I had not intended you to see it. My—"
It was not a ticking that interrupted her. It was the church bells that were tolling and Wendy counted the strokes, then jumped from the chair, swiftly bending to retrieve the glove that had dropped from her lap.
"I have to go, or I'll miss the train," she rushed to say as she straightened, regarding him pensively. She had wished she would break through the wall of his sleep, on so many occasions, and she had wanted those dark lashes to sweep up and reveal what lay beneath. Forget-me-not eyes. Seafarer eyes. And she knew not if she had willed it to happen, somehow, but she did not regret that it had. "I will come back. I can promise you that, this time."
Hook acknowledged it with a nod and a none too gentle smile that stayed with her as she hurried to the station, navigating through the busy streets and in between houses that the sun had painted in a ruddy gold.
She still couldn't imagine how the story would continue, or guess at how it would end, but she felt light, almost weightless. As if she could fly.
Finding out, she thought, would be an awfully big adventure.