Wordcount: 1,131 words
Rating/Warnings/Genre: PG, Gen, Urban/High Fantasy
‘Verse: Too Old for Neverland
Summary: Children who dreamed of going Away sometimes had their wishes answered.
They were too old for Neverland, those lost scarred souls that balanced on the edge of growing up. Cast-offs and runaways, all desperate to be someplace else, anywhere else, with a burning need that echoed down the path between worlds. They were his Lost children, and he gathered them home.
The moment they leave the path for the mortal realms of man, names swarm him, clinging in off-kilter chains. He’s far too old to wear them properly, too deep and broad a thing to bind with something as simple as a name, but the children always try, oblivious to their failures.
The thickest and heaviest of the names is Peter and he shifts uncomfortably in the driver’s seat as it settles around his collarbones.
He envies Campana, who wears her name like shoes, slipping a tiny part of herself into being his mode of transportation, in whatever shape is needed. Feral and fae, she was his fair Campana just so long as it pleased her.
A soft crescendo of chimes from her dashboard brings his attention back to their search and away from the itch of ill-fitting names. The path they’re driving leads everywhere and everywhen, but always brings them to the moment the children are ready to choose.
They find the boy on the crumbling steps of a corner townhouse, watching the traffic and dreaming of the impossible.
As they slow, Campana shivers and in a heartbeat, she’s a dusty blue station wagon and always has been. Wood-paneled and slightly battered, filled to the brim with moving boxes, she’s the right sort of harmless to temper childhood fears.
Safe, she sings in the purr of her engine and the way the sunlight runs down her sides as they stop. Comfort. Peace. She’s a soft mimicry of whatever children need to see, slightly wrong in ways that soothe instead of startle.
A dogeared map lies in the empty passenger’s seat. Half-folded and lined with highlighter, it calls out for the navigator the boy wishes he could be.
“Looking for a ride?” Peter calls from the car, because that’s how the boy’s story wants to go. There’s an ancient contract to the magic Peter wields that shapes him into what the children need him to be. Everyone sees someone who feels familiar, comforting in a canny echo of someone they had trusted once. Even if that someone was only in their dreams.
The boy looks over warily, weighing them both against the possible threat. “To where?”
“Away,” Peter says, but that’s never what they hear. It becomes whatever the children longed for when they dreamed of escape, somewhere better, somewhere safe. Peter lets the story lead him through the boy’s daydream. “I had a friend who was helping me move, but he broke his leg and I’m short a navigator.”
“And you’re asking me.“
“You looked like you could use a ride.” Peter didn’t take them all, only the ones who’d stepped past hope and were already on that long descent. Couldn’t take them, unless they meant it when they stepped into the car or the cart or the boat and said ‘Take me Away’.
For a long moment, the boy doesn’t answer. Children knew –even if they didn’t know— what the bargain Peter was offering meant. Few took it immediately, those that did were so far down their own paths that sometimes even Away couldn’t save them.
Peter waited patiently as Campana sang promises at the edge of comprehension.
“Yeah… Yeah, get me out of here.”
Peter could almost see the last bits of Home flake off and fade away as the boy stands. The child was his now, as soon as they stepped into the car.
A teenage girl jogs over from across the street, in faded jeans and a battered band t-shirt that echoes Peter’s own ancient magic. But unlike Peter and Campana, she was dancing on the edge of familiar in a normal, grounded way they never could.
Young enough for names, she’d sold hers for the chance to win the children back.
“Don’t go,” she says as the boy moves towards the car. “Please.” If Peter was everything that children dreamed of as Away then she was all the things they’d wanted Home to be.
Peter could feel the boy waver and he snarled deep below the breadth of human hearing. She couldn’t make them stay, no more that he could make them go, but the boy was his. Campana’s engine revved softly in sympathetic fury.
“Why?” The boy’s question holds a depth it wouldn’t normally if they weren’t there to amplify.
She leans against a parked car, head bowed to catch her breath, and Peter can see the weight of the question settle around her shoulders. He always says what the children need to hear, but she’s still learning how.
“You won’t come back.” She looks up, mortal eyes tinged with something ancient. She’s suppressing her chameleon magics, forcing the boy to admit to himself what they are. “They never come back.”
“Who says I want to?” he snaps. It’s a reflexive response, too quick and sharp to be true, even with the short lifetime of pain built up behind it. But children who truly fear the dark never call out loud enough for Peter to hear. There’s still a choice to be made.
Away, away, sings Campana, to calm the boy.
“There’s still a place for you here, somewhere and somewhen,” the girl says, offering the chance to step back across the line Peter had drawn, “and I can help you find it.”
That was her bargain, as Away was Peter’s, and the truth of it was etched into each word. For a moment the hope of Home shone bright and searing and the car and driver dimmed before it.
But the boy was his.
“I’ve got nothing here,” the boy says, flat and angry, but no longer scared. A declaration against the world, against what was, instead of what could have been.
She steps away as the boy opens the door and takes his seat, picking up the map and not looking back.
Peter grins as the new bargain settles into place and the path begins to reopen.
“I’ll never stop trying,” she says, frustrated and grieving for the could-have-beens. “Never.”
Peter knows, even if she doesn’t yet, that she couldn’t stop even if she wanted to. Home and Away have been and always will be. There’s no room in the magic of their twinned bargains for contradictions.
With a whirr of windchime gears, he left her there, the man who wasn’t Pan, and the girl who wasn’t Wendy watched him go. They’d met a thousand times before and they’d always meet again, as sure as starlight.
They had bargains to keep.