Daniel Green leaned back in the rigid desk chair, folding his feet onto the table-top and stretching out his knees so that the chair pivoted on the back two legs, the front two no longer touching the carpeted floor. A book rested in his lap. Age-stiffened paper crinkled in his fingers, leaving them dusty and dirt-ingrained as he turned the page. The copy was over forty-five years old, it struck him suddenly – a lifetime ago though the 1962 of the edition date somehow didn't seem so distant. He breathed in, relishing the balance point his senses were forced into. Old books smelt choking, musty, and the texture of the paper made his skin crawl, yet at the same time, he had a secret love for them. Classics, even Modern Classics like this one, only ever felt right to him when read from a copy with yellowed, brittle paper and the smell of libraries. Peter and Wendy was no exception – one of those things he always felt he should have read, but never had until now, having chanced upon a copy downstairs.
He rocked gently, controlling the motion with the bend of his knees, careful not to tip over the point of equilibrium, wary of the pain he would be in should he slip. Past experience had taught him the bounds of the very slender space that his favourite reading position allowed him to move within.
His desk was mainly bare because though he'd lived in the room for nearly a year now, it wasn't his room at all and in a place like this, possessions were limited. They let him have books of his own rather than the battered, sometimes half-eaten copies that lined the bookshelves of the communal spaces, but only because he'd made a special request, and then only because his parents had agreed. Blank paper had been given more freely, but pens were dubious territory. If he'd been on suicide-watch he wouldn't have been allowed them, but Daniel was a stable patient.
He propped the book at an angle between his stomach and the tilt of his legs, folding his hands behind his head in a weary stretch before smothering a yawn. It was late. As he looked out across the quad, he could see only one other light burning aside from those windows to the right in a vertical line, which he assumed belonged to the staircase rather than to rooms of fellow patients.
He slipped a bookmark into the creased spine and deposited the book on his desk, letting the chair thud down more gracelessly than he intended.
"Bedtime, Daniel," his cat suggested. Dan stared at the animal a moment, watching it stretch and flex its claws. A bitter sigh escaped and he automatically grabbed for one of the pill bottles sitting in a line under the window, popping the lid open and shaking a capsule into his open palm. Part of the deal here was that he was supposed to learn to regulate his own medication, taking it as and when he needed it and learning to spot the signs that the dosage he was on was not enough. This was one of those signs. He knocked the pill back on a dry-swallow, standing up to pop open the top button of his jeans, unzipping them and shaking them down his legs.
"Where shall I sleep?" his cat asked. "On the end of the bed or next to your pillow?"
The boy's knuckles whitened and he looked away from the black and white animal sharply, jaw muscles rippling as he tugged his t-shirt off, still not saying a word.
As Daniel pulled back the duvet to get into bed, the cat jumped up, settling itself in the middle of the smooth sheet and staring up at him with large yellow-green eyes.
"Really, now, there's no need for this. I'm being perfectly polite."
Daniel shook his head in exasperation. "You're a cat Ziggy. I'm not having a conversation with a cat. Don't get me started on the fact that you're not even here."
The longhair looked offended, swishing his tail as he picked his way over the folded back duvet. "That's a little rude, don't you think?"
Daniel tugged his socks off. "No. You know what is rude? Talking to me when I specifically asked you not to. In fact, coming here in the first place is pretty rude, especially after last time when you promised me you'd stay away."
Ziggy's tail twitched again and he turned his back on Dan. "Don't blame me. I'm not the one who started skipping my pills again." He turned his head, fixing yellow-green eyes on Daniel's muddy blue ones. "Honestly, Daniel, this is all a lot of fuss over nothing. What on earth is wrong with me saying hello to an old friend?"
The boy sighed. "Fine. Stay. Just move. I want to go to sleep."
Ziggy shot him a dirty look and jumped off the bed. "I think you should know that your indifference wounds me deeply."
Daniel lay down in the space the cat had vacated, pulling the covers up around him and moving to get comfortable, facing the wall so that he didn't have to look at the cat that shouldn't have been there at all. Silence descended and he tried in vain to make his breathing deep and regular in the hope that the cat would give up and disappear, though he didn't close his eyes and he hadn't turned off the light. At length, he rolled onto his back, folding his hands behind his head and he shot a glance over to where Ziggy was sitting primly on the carpet.
"I'm not even supposed to talk to you," he breathed, the words coming out all at once.
His cat scoffed. "They would tell you that."
Eyebrows hitched in slight annoyance and Daniel carried on. "It gives you more credence in my head. I'm supposed to ignore you and accept that you are an extension of my thoughts that should be perfectly controllable, and then you'll go away."
Ziggy gave a short laugh and nimbly jumped up onto the bed, stepping onto Daniel's chest, feet kneading the duvet as thick, contended purrs rumbled out. "Oh that's ridiculous. You wouldn't get rid of me that easily. I've known you for years and trust me, dear boy, you couldn't possibly have made me up. That pile of rubbish, my friend, would only work with a complete newbie, and only then because you're so bad at making new people up. We both know they never stick."
Daniel reached out to switch the light off with a sudden snap. "Says the jealous product of my brain," he murmered, easing Ziggy off his chest so that he could roll over and the cat could nestle into his side.
"I have no reason to be jealous, dear boy."
Daniel breathed out, content despite himself. "I'm getting rid of you, you know?"
Ziggy stretched luxuriously, ears flattening briefly to his head as he yawned, displaying curving teeth. "Of course you are Daniel, dear. Go to sleep. You'll be tired in the morning."
The alarm trilled annoyingly and Daniel reached a hand out to swat it into oblivion, barely raising his head from the pillows. He groaned slightly, groggy from the pill he shouldn't have taken without food or water the night before.
Daniel propped himself up, leaning on his elbows and staring along the length of the bed, frowning at the voice he didn't recognize. Hazel eyes met his. He blinked and tried to re-focus. There was a boy crouched on the floor at the foot of his bed, arms folded on top of the bed-frame, pointed chin lightly resting on top of neatly layered grubby hands.
He blinked again, mouth open, and then he sank back into his pillow with a grumbling groan.
"I said, hello," the boy announced and prodded at Daniel's foot. Irritably, he kicked out, hoping to make contact and then pulled both feet closer to his body to prevent further attack, blocking his sightline of the boy with his sloping knees.
"Aren't you going to say anything?"
Daniel sighed. Letting his knees slump to the side, he levered his head up fractionally to look at the boy, who was by now standing up, feet apart, both hands on his hips and eyebrows knitting. He seemed all elbows and annoyances.
The thought took a moment to be registered, but when it did Daniel's frown deepened. Eyes flickered over to his desk where his copy of Peter and Wendy sat, bookmark protruding.
The jeans hanging low on his hips and knitted green jumper didn't hide the unusual nature of his up-turned nose and impish features, mess of freckles or unruly auburn hair, nor did they disguise his signature 'crowing' pose. This had happened once before, when he'd read The Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Oh God," Dan groaned, as his stomach jumped and skittered.
"Oh God, what?" The boy asked, eyes sparkling as though he were five rather than sixteen or so he looked. "He doesn't exist, you know?"
Open mouthed, Daniel answered though he didn't mean to. "Oh God, not again."
The boy smiled and Daniel frowned deeply, feeling flustered - quickly realising his mistake. He sat up sharply. "Stop it. Stop trying to get me to talk to you. You don't exist and I'm ignoring you."
The Peter-like boy scratched his head and folded his arms. "I think you're confused," He angled his head like a little terrier and a smile beamed out. "I'm not God, see?" Eyes gleamed and he looked himself over in mock-inspection, hopping lightly onto the end of the bed and staring down at Daniel. "Easy mistake to make, I know, but the way to tell is that I exist. In fact, I'm standing right here talking to you, existing. I exist, therefore I'm not God. See? It's like Descartes, only different."
Daniel blinked, thoroughly un-amused by the workings of his own brain. Throwing back the duvet he stalked out of bed and over to his collection of pills by the window, eyes not leaving the boy half out of nervousness and half out of something he didn't want to put a name to.
"Oh, the cleverness of you," he grumbled, dry swallowing three pills. "You still don't exist."
The boy hadn't moved from his pose on the bed, but his eyes had kept up with Daniel's. "You're very hostile."
"I'm allowed to be."
A frown rippled across the impostor's face and his smile disappeared. For a moment it looked as if he was going to argue the point, but his lips pursed and he dropped his eyes, jumping down from the bed lightly. If Daniel had looked a little harder he might have seen the boy's fist ball in frustration briefly before he pulled words together with a care-free laugh.
"Oh," he frowned but the look melted away as he shoved his hand out to Daniel. "I'm Pan, what's your name?"
The other boy felt his eyes narrow in disbelief. A creation of his mind would know that. "Daniel," he muttered, though even as he said it he wondered at the wisdom of humouring his hallucination. If he acted as if this boy was real then he was only buying into the lie and impeding his progress. Talking to him was a downwards spiral leading right back to the beginning of the whole process, which always started with an obscene amount of drugs and his reduction to little more than a vegetable with no emotional response of any kind. That was something Daniel didn't want, not again.
"I think you should go," he said firmly. Sometimes if he took the right tone before they were too deeply embedded then these delusions of his would just float off back to whatever part of his brain they came from.
Pan walked around him, looking him over from all angles as he stood there with his arms folded defensively across his bare chest. He stopped directly in front of Daniel and took a small step closer, infringing his personal space.
"Why? What have I done?"
The step back Daniel took was entirely involuntary. It wasn't his fault that he felt uncomfortable with this lithe, boyish creature standing so close when he was only in his boxers. At least when Ziggy tried it on, Daniel could ignore him. The trouble, as Daniel saw it, was that Pan was clearly not a cat.
"It doesn't matter what you've done!" he spluttered, grabbing for his jeans.
Pan's chin tilted up at a self-important angle. "I should hope not, and given that it doesn't, I think I'll stay."
This was not an expected move and it made Daniel panic. Workable sanity was slipping away after coming so nearly into reach. "For Godsake! Just leave me alone!" his voice had more of a beg to it than he'd intended, but the volume and the overall tone was enough to provoke a wounded look in Pan's eyes, making them burn into him.
"You know, I thought you'd be fun. I saw you reading my book and I thought you'd be fun, but I think you've been here so long you've forgotten how to be."
The sting of the words was unexpected. They shouldn't have stung because they were substance-less – a cheap-shot from a boy who didn't even exist, but yet there was a nasty hollow feeling that hadn't been there a moment before stemming from somewhere in Daniel's chest.
I thought you'd be fun.
Pan turned away, climbing deftly up onto the desk just as a knock echoed from the room door. Daniel strode across to answer it, glad of the distraction, pulling on a discarded t-shirt as he went. With his hand on the doorknob he turned back into the room, a warning onto his lips for Pan to behave, but his eyes met with empty space and his skin tingled with the faintest memory of a breeze, for you see, Pan had slipped out of the window and disappeared.