Pitch was far too familiar with the feeling of struggling out of the depths of unconsciousness lately. He came to slowly, disoriented, pinned face-down against something cold and implacable. Quite possibly the floor of his labyrinth, besieged by nightmares again. His first instinct was well-trained: to fight his way up, all bony knees and elbows.
It was only after he'd heaved the hefty weight of a body off him and shoved his way to his feet that Pitch realized things were quite out of the norm. He was half-blind, but from the sun sparkling off every visible surface. Evidently he'd been making a glacier his bed; that was a new low, and usually required Frost's assistance.
Not that Frost was in sight, but he could still be blamed in principle.
Pitch's gaze fixed on the guardian that was present, and he sighed in disgust. "Wonderful."
Sprawled on the snow, grumbling sleepily to himself, was the jolly St. North himself. He, Pitch noted, had probably been spared the worst of the snow and ice by virtue of an insulating layer of Nightmare King. How, exactly, had they managed this one?
No matter. Best to make a swift retreat before North came to, and no doubt the guardians would throw the full story in his face next time they met, if it was suitably mortifying. (He was dreadfully certain that anything that ended with him being compressed face-first into the ice by the bloody Santa Claus had to be.) Pitch scanned the area swiftly with a practiced eye; nothing but snowfields in all directions. Sparkling, pristine, well-lit snowfields.
Some of the curses that Pitch spat then hadn't seen the light of day in centuries.
"I am not surprised you are not morning person."
Pitch whirled in time to see North sitting up, stroking his beard straight. He skipped a few steps back out of habit, scowling. "North."
"Pitch." North inclined his head. "Dobroye utro."
"And how are you so sure it's morning, North?" Pitch folded his arms, in no mood for extended niceties.
"Because in Arctic summer, when you wake up is morning." North looked around the snowfield as he stood up, nodding to himself. "Beautiful day."
Arctic . . . Well, that opened up a few possibilities, and Pitch liked none of them. "This is your fault, isn't it. Where are we?"
"My fault?" North laughed. "Not my fault you broke my snow globe. Now, we are here." North shrugged prosaically, massive shoulders resettling his fur-lined coat. "I do not know exactly where here is, but arctic, yes."
As much as he hated relying on an enemy, much less relying on a guardian to do the smart thing, Pitch pointed out the obvious. "Then use another one."
"Ah." North smiled disarmingly, patting his pockets down one by one. "That might be problem."
Being the king of nightmares, Pitch knew exactly where this was going. He had to ask anyways. "Which would be. . .?"
"What you broke? Was the last one."
"Of course." Pitch Black was never one blessed with luck. He folded his arms against a shiver as a breeze picked up, swirling the skirts of his robe. "So now what?"
North breathed deeply, a twinkling smile peeking out from behind his beard. "The air is very clean. It's a good day to walk."
"You must be joking."
"I do joke!" North winked in a positively terrifying conspiratorial fashion. "I am very merry."
Pitch resisted the urge to rub his temples and gestured expansively, "And you can't just . . . whistle up a reindeer to ride?"
"You do not ride a reindeer. The antlers, very dangerous. You must drive."
"I stand corrected, whistle up your sleigh." Pitch heaved a deep sigh. "I cannot believe I am having this conversation."
"No, the reindeer are very strong-minded." North gave him a knowing look, "You may appreciate, Pitch, after herding nightmares."
"I do not herd nightmares."
"Exactly! Like cats! You see my point."
Pitch buried his face in his hands and felt the uncharacteristic urge to tear at his hair. "Walking. Of all the spirits, why you?"
"You should be glad I am your host! We are in the arctic, so the Kristoff Claussen must be near. Come, I will lead you home."
Looking at the vast expanse of brilliant ice and snow made his eyes water and his abused head throb. Nowhere in sight was the line of mountains or cliffs that surrounded the Kristoff Claussen. "Near must be a relative term."
"Of course, always is." North shadowed his eyes to stare up at the sky, then nodded decisively in one direction that looked not at all different from the rest. "This way."
"Oh, by all means, after you." Pitch gestured ahead, "Lead on."
One foot after another. Pitch stiffly, gamely, trudged on behind the intrepid adventurer, both hands tightly clasping his cloak closed against the gusts of icy wind down his neck. Shadows, it seemed, were not the most insulating of things against wind and never-ending sunlight. North was seemingly oblivious to the climate in his thick coat, and was cheerfully humming snippets of carols to himself. Pitch would rather have happily undergone a thrashing by any of the guardians than admit that he was beginning to be able to tell when North was mangling the tune.
He could have handled the newest member of their little club, Jack Frost. The brat would have been perfectly at home in the cold, and it would have been child's play to ride his shadow when he whistled up the winds. Not to mention the amusement factor of toying with his insecurities. Jack was a big red button labeled "Don't push." The results were obvious.
Pitch kept his eyes half-lidded and down, barely open enough to place his feet reliably in North's shadow, and let his mind wander.
The Sandman. A proficient source of transportation, not nearly as harsh on the ears, but regrettably proven both unshaken by his brief period of conversion and to hold quite the grudge (not to mention a mean whip hand). The Tooth Fairy. Also a flier, annoyingly naive and bubbly, but with a surprisingly satisfying vicious streak and a host of unpleasant memories she can never forget to prey on. The pookha. Guardian of hope, yet so easily riled. He certainly hated Pitch, and sharing his company would have been nearly as grating as North's, but the instant the overgrown rabbit stamped his foot, Pitch would have been off through the tunnels faster than their originator. A momentary inconvenience, nothing more.
No, he had to be stuck with North. Bluff, optimistic, fearless North, who couldn't fly or teleport without his gadgets. And him without a shadow or a single nightmare to his name.
At least the musing must have passed the time, because the next thing he noticed was plowing directly into North's shoulders, bouncing off the larger spirit who had stopped in his tracks. Pitch flinched back from the contact, finding his balance quickly. "What now, North?" He'd meant to sound scathing, but it came out rather lackluster instead.
North turned back to face him; Pitch didn't bother raising his eyes to make out his expression. "Perhaps we stop for a rest, da?"
There was the slightest swell of a hill, making a meager windbreak and wan shadow for them to rest in. Pitch didn't know how North even noticed it. He arched a brow. "If we must."
Pitch dropped unceremoniously into the deepest part of the shadow, not minding the cold so much in favor of the slightest hint of dark. His eyes closed, enjoying the moment of silence and stillness, until he realized something was . . . off. He opened his eyes to find North frowning down at him with an expression of . . . concern?
"I was afraid of that."
The nightmare king smirked archly, "You, afraid? Do tell."
"Afraid that you are not well." North folded his arms, grave. "You did not fight me."
"About stopping?" Pitch shifted to a more dignified position, sitting straighter and pulling his feet in so he could stand swiftly. He threw in an appropriate note of mocking, "Perhaps I merely bowed to your wisdom."
North shook his head. "Now, and when we woke. You did not remember what had happened or where we were."
Pitch waved dismissively. "The trauma of our travel and your flattening me must have jarred the finer details from my memory. That's hardly worth noting, North."
The guardian did not look convinced, but he continued. "Now- I did not choose to stop. You were moving very slowly. You did not want to leave shadow." North frowned. "And that is very troubling. The midnight sun is no good for you."
"I am made of fear and darkness; what part of this little adventure in constant light thousands of miles away from humanity did you expect would go well for me?" Pitch rubbed his eyes. "You don't even have the decency to have a single proper phobia."
"Hmm." North rumbled thoughtfully, then sat down uphill from Pitch where his shadow would fall upon him. Pitch wanted badly not to notice the small kindness. "Rest, and we will continue in morning."
Something cutting about days and dubious time-telling techniques struggled to find voice on Pitch's tongue, but died in silence as exhaustion overtook him. It wasn't sleep, but it was deep, abiding black, and that was what counted.