Their second day off the Fantastick, John got in a brawl.
“He’ll do that, the miserable welp,” Grimm grumbled, his voice deep and rocky, as he unceremoniously tossed John into the nearest water trough. Peter sighed, propping his chin up on one hand.
“Oh, I’m aware,” he said. “It’s just, now we’ll need a new favorite tavern.”
John appeared over the lid of the trough, soaking wet. He leaned forward, and Grimm caught him by the back of his shirt, holding him in place.
“Hello,” Peter said to him, waggling his fingers.
“Did I ever tell you,” John slurred, waggling his eyebrows and dripping water everywhere, “about the time I freed Lord Wingfoot’s lovely bride from a life of serv – self – terr -- bad things?”
Peter smiled indulgently.
“Yes,” he said, “although I believe that tale ends with ‘and then she ran away with none other than William Shakespeare, himself.’”
“Lousy bard,” John grumbled, and then Grimm clamped a giant hand down on him and dunked him until steam curled up from the water in tendrils. John emerged hissing like a wet cat, but sober. Grimm peered at Peter over the top of John’s head, rocky brows raised.
“Yes, I know,” Peter told him, “I can’t explain it, either.”
There was a forgotten island in the middle of the ocean. A group of sailors had dragged themselves back from it and set up court among the drunks, talking of dragons and sabretoothed cats and wild, savage men.
“So we’ll be setting sail in the morning, then,” John said, rolling his eyes skywards.
“Aye,” Grimm said, lifting his tankard. “Richard will never be able to resist.”
“And I was just getting used to the feel of solid ground beneath my feet again,” Susan’s voice said from somewhere nearby, sounding terribly amused with the whole thing. “I suppose I’d better go pack the baby’s things.”
“Poor babe’s spent more time at sea than on land,” Grimm muttered.
“It’s the Storm in him,” John said. “We’re adventurers, the whole lot of us.”
“Are you, now?” Peter asked slyly, leaning forward. “I had no idea. Tell me about all these adventures, oh daring Master Storm.”
“Well,” John said, sliding a familiar arm around Peter’s shoulders. He brought their heads close together and continued, conspiratorially, “There are just so many tales. Wherever shall I begin?”
“Perhaps the one in America,” Peter said. “I seem to remember a daring rescue. Though – you’ll have to remind me. Were you the rescuer, or the rescuee?”
“You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are,” John replied, and Peter laughed as Richard all but flew through the door, arms wrapped around a heap of maps.
The journey wasn’t easy, and the sea wasn’t kind. The Fantastick tossed and tumbled through rocky waves and Peter’s breath hung in the air, misty and white. John, who was warm all the time but hated the damp, came up behind him, pressing his front to Peter’s back.
“I thought you’d gone below deck,” Peter said. “That your ‘delicate constitution’ wasn’t putting up with all of this anymore.”
“My delicate constitution can’t take the baby’s crying, either,” John replied tersely, pressing his nose to Peter’s nape.
“You love your nephew,” Peter said, and John sighed his assent.
“I love my nephew,” he agreed. “It’s the crying I can’t stand.”
They stood there for a long moment before John pulled away, a frown on his face. Peter raised a hand to smooth it away, then thought better of it.
“You don’t like the sea,” he said.
“It’s not that,” John said. He shook his head.
“You can’t look at it,” Peter observed. “A bad trait for a sailor.”
“I’m not a sailor,” John declared and, as if to prove Peter wrong, he crossed the deck and peered down at the stormy waters beneath, arms crossed on the ledge. “We’re adventurers, the lot of us, and adventurers don’t have to like the water. Besides, it goes against my nature.”
“It’s a very fiery nature,” Peter agreed, coming up beside him. He pressed their shoulders together and John sighed, brows knitted together.
“Did I ever tell you,” he began, “about this girl I met, at the kingdom at the edge of the world.”
Peter looked at him closely and asked, in his most serious tone, “You haven’t gotten into the rations, have you? Sir Reed said some of them might’ve gone moldy. Well, he might have caused some of them to become moldy, anyway, it’ s an experiment apparently and anyway if you eat them there might be hallucinogenic side effects.”
John gave him a disparaging look.
“No, I haven’t been eating Richard’s disgusting moldy rations,” he said. “Though I did try to feed some to Benjamin. Just to see what would happen. It’s nothing, by the way, so that takes the fun right out of the whole thing.”
“So,” Peter said, lacing his fingers together. He stared down at the water, watching it churn, endlessly grey and frothy white. “This girl at the edge of the world, then.”
“Her name was Rita,” John continued, “and she wasn’t like anyone else I’ve ever met. I’d only known her a little while, but I think I really did love her.”
Peter swallowed and nodded and kept staring at the water. “And what happened to her?”
“The whole kingdom was swallowed up by the water,” John said, turning his back on the waves, “and Rita went with it. It was terrible. Everything was destroyed. I couldn’t save her – I couldn’t even find her. One girl, all alone on the edge of the world. One girl who might’ve loved me, and I couldn’t do anything to help her.”
Peter was quiet for a long moment. Then he wrapped his arms around John’s shoulder and said, “It’s getting dark, and I, for one, am freezing. We should go down below.”
The Savage Land, as the sailors who'd first drunkenly described the island had taken to calling it, appeared like a mirage. One moment they’d been in the middle of nothing but bleak ocean, no land in sight, and then the baby had started to cry, screwing up his tiny little face in dismay at the endless water. Then the island had been there, real and solid and covered in lush jungle.
“Fascinating,” Richard murmured, twisting himself up and forward to get a better look.
Peter had been watching that exact point on the horizon, and he couldn’t explain it. One moment it was just there, like it had been there all along and they just hadn’t known how to look.
They probably should have expected the trouble, but the Savage Land was so beautiful, almost idyllic, that it came as a surprise.
The first winged lizard dove straight at Grimm. John laughed as he tried to fend it off with one rocky hand, but then another had shown up. And another. And finally there was a whole flock of them, all flapping and shrieking and diving at them.
Susan had handed the baby off to Reed and thrown up her hands, flickering into view as she shielded them with a solid wall of air. She’d been wearing a robe, mostly so the baby could find her easily, but it was loose and mostly open and Peter did his best to avert his eyes. He found focusing on fighting the lizards that Susan’s powers hadn’t put a stop to was the best of distractions.
How he’d ended up riding one, Peter wasn’t sure, but the near perfect balance his strange powers had left him with was certainly coming in handy. John flew alongside him for the most part, aiming fireballs at any low-flying lizards.
“I told you, didn’t I?” he shouted, swooping low and then soaring back up, cutting a bright figure against the impossibly bright sky. “Adventurers, that’s what we are!”
As he lassoed another flying lizard with a rope made out of vines, Peter found he was inclined to agree.
That night, he and John lay out on the Fantastick’s deck out in the open air. It was warm and breezy, and they’d found that the strange animals – the flying lizards and the large sabre-toothed cats and the rest of them – wouldn’t approach the beach, let alone the ship.
“Adventurers,” John repeated, savoring the word as Peter rolled over onto him, kissing him again and again. John’s hands found him, trailing down his sides and settling at his hips. He brought his arms up and around Peter, and he was so warm through the thin material of his clothes. Peter shivered and caught John’s handsome face between his hands, traced the seam of John’s lips with his tongue until John parted them.
“You spent the day fighting creatures on an island seen by maybe a handful of people in the whole world,” Peter said, “and this – this falls under the same category for you?”
“I think,” John said, leaning up and kissing Peter again, openmouthed and lingering, “that you are greatly underestimating me, yourself, and everything that is going on in this moment.”
“Fair enough,” Peter agreed readily, and slid his hands beneath John’s thin shirt.
It was weeks before they steered the Fantastick back in the direction of England, and Richard had filled the ship with all kinds of specimens. Peter could hardly take three steps without tripping over a creeping vine or an array of large, beautiful flowers that smelled like no perfume he’d ever encountered before. Susan had taken to wearing some of the smaller, more manageable ones in her hair, and Peter soon got used to the image of a lone sprig of flowers drifting along, seemingly suspended in the air.
When they returned to England, Reed disappeared into his laboratory with his new collection, and Susan took the baby to become reacquainted with their sprawling country home. Shakespeare had extended an invitation to Grimm, claiming that he “just couldn’t complete this latest production without him”, and John and Peter, well.
John and Peter did what they did best: adventure.
Mostly, Peter found, dodging the left hook thrown at his face, at taverns, or any place where liquor flowed freely and fights could be started with one wrong look. He sprang backwards, bracing one palm against the table, and launched himself into the fray.
“Tell me a story,” John demanded in the dark of their room, waving a magnanimous hand about. Peter hummed low, rolling his shoulders back. The left one ached where the brute with the chair had gotten a lucky hit; his sense for danger was all very well and good in a one-on-one fight, but when it was more like eight-on-one, well, the less said the better.
“Once upon a time,” he began, and John made a face.
“Not one of those,” he said, throwing a pillow in Peter’s direction. He caught it easily and tossed it back, climbing onto the bed.
“How should I start, then?” he asked, leaning in close, until he could see every blond eyelash, every faded freckle that had appeared under the Savage Land’s bright sun. “Shall I start it how you start all of your stories? Did I ever tell you…”
“That’s much better,” John said.
Laughing, Peter pushed him back against the headboard, straddled his lap and twined his arms around John’s shoulders. He stared him in the eye.
“Did I ever tell you,” he said, “about this girl I knew.”
“You’ve never told me about any girls at all,” John said, leaning back and getting comfortable. “Go on.”
“She had hair the color of snow and eyes as blue as the sky, and the most wondrous talent. The most terrifying,” Peter said, his voice catching in his throat. “She could change herself into any beast she wanted. Great white owls and bears and deer.”
“She was a witchbreed?” John asked. His fingers skated up Peter’s sides, just barely touching.
“I suppose she could have been,” Peter allowed. “In the same way some people might think you or I witchbreed. I think she was something different.”
“What happened to her?” John asked in a voice barely above a whisper. Peter found that, for a long moment, he couldn’t say.
“The same thing that happened to your girl at the edge of the world,” he said at last. “After her kingdom was swallowed up by the sea.”
John reached up, tracing Peter’s face with his finger. Along his jaw and up to his brow, down the line of his nose. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Peter caught his hand and held it, turned his face into it and kissed John’s palm.
“I have a story to tell you now,” John said, his eyes very bright in the flickering light from the candles. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Peter’s face, over his cheeks and his brow and his nose, the spot just below his jaw and in his hair, just above his ears. “About a boy whose story was entwined with mine.”
“You can’t tell that story yet,” Peter told him as he slid his hands down the expanse of John’s chest. He tangled a hand in John’s hair and pulled him close and kissed him on the lips, demanding. When they broke apart, he said, in the gap between them, “It isn’t over yet, first of all, and second – it isn’t only yours to tell.”
“You think you get a say in my story, then?” John said, raising an eyebrow. He grabbed Peter around the waist and flipped them both over, pinning Peter to the mattress. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“I think I have some idea,” Peter said, and John snorted. He sat back, staring down at Peter with his haughtiest of expressions.
“Just for that, I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I was going to say that he was handsome and charming and had an adventurer’s spirit and they were very happy together in all the best of ways, but I can see now that it’s nothing but stories getting interrupted and nagging about brawls, day in and day out.”
“That sounds like a terrible story,” Peter agreed, catching John’s hands and pulling him back down. “You should come here so we can write a better one.”