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Three Dinners and a Dance

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"Did you wash your face and hands, Peter?"

The curly-haired boy nodded with all the solemnity due the question and Wendy smiled, satisfied and proud. He took his place at the head of the table and everyone looked at him, then at her, waiting to begin.

"Before we begin, we must say grace. John, will you lead us?"

John pulled himself up as tall and as dignified as his youth and his animal skins and war paint would allow, although Wendy acknowledged as the war paint might be very dignified to an Indian or an Aboriginal. "For what we are about to receive, may..." he coughed, looked around the table quickly. "We be truly thankful, Amen."

"Amen," everyone chorused, even those who Wendy suspected didn't know the word's meaning. Peter looked satisfied that John hadn't brought the Lord into it.

Of course, once grace was said and the formalities dispensed with, all decorum fled out the door as well. The boys shoveled their dinner into their mouths with spoons or hands equally, until Wendy cleared her throat. And then again, louder. Peter looked up first, and gave a shout.

"Thank you, dear." Wendy smiled at him and received a hearty soup-stained grin in return. Well, one day she would remind him about the existence and usefulness of napkins.

The boys, ever obedient to the will of their leader and master, listened to him far more readily than they did to her. Wendy thought she might have to resign herself that this might always be the case; they would listen to him but come to her when they had scraped knees or knocked heads. And that was all right, wasn't it.

"Isn't it so much nicer when we all eat in a calm and orderly fashion, and we can hear ourselves think?" Her mother said that, when John and Michael misbehaved at the supper table. Only she used the word 'adult,' which Wendy still understood was taboo in these parts.

But if Peter didn't want to grow up, why would he try to place himself and her at the head and foot of the table, like her parents?

They had several more dinners, each more eventful and more customary than the last. By the end of their time together Wendy had quite forgotten her confusion over Peter's contradictory and mercurial demands, the way they played at being mother and father to the boys, who did need a mother and father, while never allowing themselves to grow up. She forgot the one time she thought that perhaps growing up was different from growing old, and the other time she felt uncomfortable new feelings regarding Peter and the boys bubbling up to the surface. She had made a note to ask her mother, and then it slipped her mind as she realized she had quite forgotten who her mother was. That was not a thing she could bear, not when her mother was not only her guideline for how a proper young lady should behave, but also her model for kindness and a kind of yielding strength and unconditional, uncompromising love.

And if she could not remember her mother, how was she to know what such things were or how they should be expressed? Sitting at the foot of the table was all very well, but she must know why she was there, and why she tucked the boys in at night, and why she kissed their scrapes and bruises better. Peter, for all that he was a dashing and wonderful boy, couldn't give her that.

"Smee, would you please and for the last time," Wendy added, because she had had quite enough, "Sit down at the table and stop fussing about with the dishes? I assure you, they are quite... fine."

Actually the dishes were in an atrocious state for company. Cracked and chipped in places, they were lucky enough to find dishes for the whole crew, but then, Wendy supposed, she wasn't to be seen as company. Pirates needed a mother too, after all, even if Captain Hook intimidated her with his overbearing ferocity.

At least the pirates listened to her. "Yes, mum," Smee mumbled, and meekly made his way back to his chair.

One by one, she stared down the table at each pirate in turn with her chin high and her mouth pressed into a thin line of polite disapproval. Aunt Margaret had such a line on her mouth when the children did something not quite enough to be scolded for but still not what she considered correct for polite society. Wendy herself had no idea what passed for polite society among pirates, whom she had always understood to be some of the most ruthless and uncouth men imaginable, but she would endeavor to construct a template for their behavior nonetheless.

"Shall we..." Wendy started, when they had all sat down to the table and pulled their feet off of it, or stopped picking at their scabs or their teeth with the point of their knives. "Put away the fighting knives and take out our eating knives."

She had never seen her mother lose her temper or be disconcerted. Even when Father seemed to fly apart in places, her mother was always composed. As two long rows of pirates turned their heads to her one by one, putting away their daggers and grasping knife and fork in their somewhat less grimy fists, she tried to summon her own composure. Very soon after being dragged on board the ship, she'd learned that if she kept her chin up and showed no fear or panic, the pirates would listen to her. Hook, in particular, listened to her like a strange but beautiful foreigner who spoke only half in English.

And maybe it was only because she was a young lady on a ship full of misbehaving men, or maybe it was because she was the first prisoner who hadn't been afraid of them or spat at them and taunted them on sight, but she would take advantage of that reaction as long as she could.

"Very good," Wendy told them, serene and approving. "Now, let's eat. Slowly!" she added, because all of them down to the end of the table had hunched over their plates like starving puppies. "Slowly, so we don't choke on our food."

A couple of them, Smee included, darted sheepish looks in her direction. They poked and prodded at their meals, managing to get most of it into their mouths - although they did have some difficulty working out all the flatware.

After a piece of broccoli flew directly across the table width-wise Hook cleared his throat and rolled his eyes, which latter Wendy thought rather unnecessary, drawing the attention of several of the pirates to how he used his own tableware. One by one, peeking at him or at Wendy herself or at each other, they learned. Progress, if she dared think of it as such.

"And how was your day, Smee?" she asked, since he was nearest to her and she didn't want to shout down the table at the Captain, who raised his head to look at her nonetheless. "Chew your food first," she added hastily.

"Weren't bad," Smee said, with his mouth only half full this time. "That fish slapped me in the face only hurt a little, like a rough shave."

Wendy stuck a smile on her face. "Well, I'm glad to hear that." And she was. But she didn't want to try and work out how someone had slapped Smee in the face with a fish.

"I said I was sorry," Noodler called from down the table with his mouth full, spraying broth everywhere.

"Don't make my face any less fishy, do it?" Smee called back. Someone else suggested his face always looked that way and Smee pushed to his feet, ready for battle.

"Gentlemen!" Wendy rapped out, surprising herself. "The dinner table is not the place for the settling of arguments. If you must fight, do it outside. But," she added, in a move that felt really inspired. "You will have no dessert if you do."

Every man down to the end gasped. "No dessert?"

"No pie?" Noodler whimpered, sinking down into his seat.

"No dessert of any kind," she told them. And they were much better behaved after that.

Across the table Hook saluted her with his glass, smiling in a way she didn't quite understand and wasn't sure she liked. What she did like about that smile was that it made her feel as though they shared a secret. More than where John hid his marbles or that it was Michael who had spilled the medicine bottle, a deep-down warm secret that tingled to the roots of her hair and made her sit up straighter still. She did like that smile, and smiled back, even though she suspected it was a terrible idea.

The first night after she and her brothers returned was early to bed, bread and milk and other small things making up their evening meal, and she couldn't say it wasn't a good idea with everyone being as exhausted as they were.

The second night, though, they had a grand feast. Which, when it was a grand family feast, meant all the children's favorites and a certain amount of manners was let go, only the truly uncouth and unclean things prohibited. John got to brandish his books at the table and point out where all the adventures had taken place, Michael got to wave his arms about as he described it.

Wendy felt a little strange about the whole thing. On the one hand, being released from the restrictions of polite society would have felt good only days ago, and she would have welcomed the chance to flail about and be dramatic and fence with her fork the way Michael was doing. And on the other hand, somehow, the need had left her. Between one place and the other, her desire to play at having fantastical adventures had dimmed somewhat.

"Is this what it's like?" she asked her mother. "When you put your dreams and things in a drawer?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, and Wendy realized of course her mother didn't know what she was thinking, it wasn't at all obvious.

"Well... there were pirates. And there were fairies, and mermaids, and now it doesn't feel the same, playing at pirates and fairies."

Her mother smiled. "Daydreams are quite another thing when they come to life. They're never quite what we expect. And I think what you're feeling now is the absence of those daydreams, now that they have left your head and made themselves real."

Wendy couldn't quite tell if her mother believed her or not. She didn't even know if she wanted her mother to believe her or not, she liked the idea of having secret adventures. But then, she also liked the idea of knowing at least that her mother had her own secret adventures, which left her with a kiss for someone in a far away land.

If she could come to be like that, Wendy realized, with her adult sensibilities and her memories and daydreams of adventures both together, it would be a much more splendid thing than either one of them alone.

"I think..." she said, slowly and picking among her words for the right ones. "I think that ... I suppose I'll have to find new daydreams, now?" It wasn't at all adequate to what she was feeling, thoughts and ideas shifting around in her head like moving the furniture in her bedroom, but it seemed as close as she would get to an explanation.

"There will always be new dreams," her mother assured her. "It may take a little while, but there will be new dreams, and new adventures. You'll meet them in good time."

Wendy beamed, and for the rest of the evening she listened to the animated commentary of John and Michael and contributed where she remembered one detail or another. And she found, to her surprise, that she remembered more than she thought. Not just the details and who said what to whom, or when Peter fell and when he flew, but the little moments of excitement that spurred her imagination onto other things, even onto wondering what would have happened if. She went to bed that night dreaming of the ifs, and of the boy who had been the answer to all those questions she didn't have the words to ask.

Even among the newcomers at her first ladies' ball, Wendy Darling stood out. Not for the style of her dress or the jewels in her hair, or her complexion or great beauty or quick wit, but for the quality of her smiles and looks and bearing. She passed through the hall and between the girls waiting to dance as though she had already been there and tasted everything the experience had to offer her, without satisfying herself beyond a need for more. An experienced newcomer was a paradox no one could quite explain, and several people came up to talk to her.

One in particular caught her attention by hovering rather than approaching, until she made her way through two clusters of girls and a trio of boys to ask him. It reminded her of the nursery floor, years ago.

"Boy," she addressed him with a smile that must have shown off her own hidden kiss. "What are you waiting for?"