Jack flew forwards as quickly as he could. He slammed into Pitch just as he started to fade into shadow. Jack’s heart was a hammer of fear so loud that it felt like thunder bursting overhead. He dug his fingers into Pitch’s robe and dragged him down to the ground with the force of his impact.
Pitch turned, staring at Jack wide-eyed.
‘You can’t,’ Jack gasped. ‘You can’t, he wanted this! He just wanted to hurt you!’
Jack backed off hurriedly when Pitch pushed himself upright, giving Jack an incredulous look, face wiped of all fury.
‘Hurt me,’ Pitch said, disbelieving.
‘He compelled me to tell you. Either as the Nightmare King, or...as you. He- Pitch, whatever you want to do to him, that’s what he wants.’
Pitch breathed raggedly. As silence stretched between them, their coarse, uneven breaths competed with each other. Jack pressed his hands over his sternum again. Pitch had gone to touch his hair and Jack had wanted it and then...
‘I can’t let this go,’ Pitch rasped. ‘What he did to you. I- He-’
‘It was stupid. It was stupid and almost nothing happened,’ Jack said in a rush, and Pitch’s brows fell, his face slackened when he heard those words. Pitch turned so pale that Jack’s blood spattered across his cheeks shone in stark contrast.
‘Almost nothing,’ Pitch said, sounding sick. He took a step forwards and his eyes narrowed, a strange light entered them. ‘Then describe it to me. If it was nothing, it should be easy to talk about, should it not?’
Jack’s mind went blank with dread, words wouldn’t come to his mouth. He couldn’t talk about it, hadn’t been able to talk about it with anyone, but that was because it was his fault, it was because he’d done the wrong thing, because-
His thoughts were cut off at the dismayed expression on Pitch’s face.
‘What?’ Jack said.
Pitch shook his head, wordless. It was rare that Jack saw him without a sentence at his disposal. It made Jack uneasy. It was different to the sympathy that the other Guardians had been offering him. It was as though Pitch had seen something horrifying.
Pitch raised a shaking, bloodied hand and dragged it through his hair, disturbing it. He turned away from Jack and took several deep breaths, shoulders shuddering with the motions. Jack was bewildered at Pitch’s level of distress, wondered if the removal of the scarf had made Jack’s fears seem larger than they were, somehow.
‘I’m not broken,’ Jack said. Pitch turned to him. He looked wrecked.
‘He didn’t break me like he thought he would,’ Jack continued, stubbornly. ‘He didn’t have time. I got away.’
Pitch hissed and walked forwards, approaching Jack slowly.
‘Did you get away, Jack? Do you feel free? Unhaunted? Unbroken?’
Jack’s mouth dropped open. No, this wasn’t the way this conversation was supposed to go. Pitch wasn’t supposed to turn it around like that. He was supposed to understand that Jack was over-reacting. He was supposed to know the right words to say to remind Jack that he hadn’t really been through anything at all.
‘Stop it,’ Jack said, and Pitch shook his head at Jack in despair, a glimmer of anger visible in the sparks in his eyes.
‘You blame yourself for this thing that you tell me was almost nothing, that you tell me didn’t break you. What are the flashbacks like?’
No, they’re not- I’m not having...
‘Stop it!’ Jack shouted, digging his fingernails into his palms. ‘I can’t have this conversation with you! You’re only being like this because it hurts you too. You’re only hurting me because you don’t know how to deal with it either!’
Pitch froze, realisation dawning across his features. He made a sound of frustration. At first Jack thought it was meant for him, then realised Pitch meant it for himself.
‘You can’t just go after him,’ Jack stressed, blinking hard as his vision blurred again. He took a deep breath, summoned his concentration. ‘You can’t. You said you wouldn’t survive being possessed again.’
‘I said I likely wouldn’t survive it.’
‘This isn’t worth risking that,’ Jack said, his voice breaking. ‘Why won’t you listen to me?’
‘I can’t stop listening to you! All I hear, all the fears I see are from you!’ Pitch shouted, closing his eyes. ‘I used to think that you were saturated with fear, but oh, I clearly had no idea that you were some sort of savant when it came to the depth and breadth of terror and horror and fear you can actually contain. Forgive me, I can’t actually think straight, right now. I’m not perfect, Jack. I’m...’ Pitch laughed. ‘I’m about the furthest from perfect a man – or whatever I am – can be. My mind is a junkyard. I find I need painkillers for the headache your fears are giving me. A pity then, you can’t take them as well; numb your own fears.’
Jack looked down guiltily, thinking of the times he’d thrown himself into sleep, into emptiness, the times he’d wrapped ice around his heart.
‘Oh? You can?’ Pitch said, hoarse. ‘Let me be the first to assure you that you’re not doing a very good job of it.’
Jack wanted to disappear. Pitch was angry at him. Jack thought it was probably deserved, except the weight of that anger was crushing. He focused on his breathing. He didn’t want to be in the Workshop anymore.
‘Jack,’ Pitch said, voice smaller, less certain. ‘Jack, I can’t see past the fears in your head.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said, looking up. He wondered if this was what Augus wanted. This mess. He started to realise that if he found his own fears invasive, intrusive, what must it be like for Pitch?
‘I can’t think...’ Pitch said, pressing the heel of his palm to his forehead. ‘I thought my ability to read fears had been damaged, but I think – now – it was all that scarf. And you expect me to stay here and not hunt down that creature? Not tear him apart?’
‘I don’t know what I expect,’ Jack said. ‘I don’t want you to go and put yourself in danger. I put myself out on the line for you, I just want you to not...throw that away. And I think if you do what Augus expects you to do, that’s, I mean- Can’t I just have you back for a little while before you disappear again? Is that too much to ask? I-’
Jack laughed. He sounded pathetic. He sounded like everything he was and didn’t want to be.
‘Gwyn has a plan, anyway,’ Jack said, and Pitch huffed out a breath of tired laughter.
‘Oh, the plan. The one that involved putting you in a tent with Augus’ brother? I knew something was wrong. You have kept me under a handicap since I’ve been recovered from the shadows! I- and Gwyn knows better.’
‘He didn’t realise how badly I’ve been...’ Jack trailed off. He didn’t want to acknowledge how bad things had been. He’d just tried to convince Pitch it was almost nothing.
‘I know how his mind works,’ Pitch said softly. ‘I daresay he knew exactly what he was doing, he just didn’t tell you about the part of the plan where he wanted to use what had happened to you. He was trying to convince Ash how far off the rails Augus had gone. Why not have one of Augus’ victims right there, over-reacting to Augus’ younger brother?’
‘What?’ Jack said, breath deserting him.
‘What reason did he give you for the meeting?’ Pitch said, straightening, eyes clearing to anger.
‘He...told me he wanted me there to observe.’
‘He made an error. He didn’t understand that you’d react so poorly. But he wanted you to react. He wanted you to show signs that things were not okay. You don’t understand how Gwyn’s mind works, as I do.’
‘But...’ Jack closed his eyes. ‘I thought that...I thought- Afterwards he was so angry.’
‘You didn’t give him what he wanted.’
‘He didn’t tell me what he wanted!’ Jack said, voice rising. He shook his head rapidly, trying to clear his mind. It wasn’t working. ‘I don’t want to argue about this.’
‘No? How about we argue about something else then, since it seems to be the night for it? If Gulvi hadn’t ripped your ribs apart, when exactly were you planning on removing that scarf?’
‘Well?’ Pitch said, dangerously soft. ‘I’m waiting.’
Pitch growled and brought his hands up to his head again. He sounded dangerously off-kilter. Jack was reminded of the Nightmare King, but then – he realised – this was far more like the time when Jack had been terrified that the Man in the Moon had betrayed him, and he’d fled to Jamie’s house. Pitch had followed, but he’d been aggravated, short-tempered, in pain. He didn’t handle being overwhelmed by the fears of others very well at all.
‘The scarf is off now,’ Jack said quietly.
‘Yes,’ Pitch said into his hands. ‘It is.’
‘You shouldn’t have to deal with this on top of everything else,’ Jack said. ‘I can see it’s hurting you. It would’ve been better if the scarf had stayed on. You’re – on top of everything else, I-’
Jack broke off when Pitch lifted his head from his hands and glared at him.
North opened the door and walked into the room, light highlighting his silhouette. He looked between the two of them and then turned the overhead light on. Jack blinked at its glare. He was so used to Pitch’s room only being lit by lamps, candles or natural light, he forgot that there was an overhead source.
‘What is going on?’ North said, serious. ‘I am growing tired of all these conversations happening in my Workshop without me. I would like some answers.’
Pitch laughed brokenly.
‘You want answers?’
Dread rushed through him even as he tried to find the breath to change the subject.
‘Jack was sexually assaulted by the Each Uisge. He was traumatised so badly that he’s been dealing with – among other things – flashbacks ever since. And he’s been hiding it from everyone except Gwyn, I assume. That’s the only big secret that I know of. Did I miss anything? Jack?’
Jack couldn’t believe how callously Pitch had delivered the news. He took several steps sideways and curled his hand over his staff, looked out of the window, then looked at North to see how he was taking the news. When he saw how sad North looked, the fallen expression on his face, he realised he wasn’t ready to deal with this. Bad enough how they had reacted when Mora had dissolved into the dreamsand. Bad enough all of them tiptoeing around Jack when Pitch had been taken and made into the Nightmare King. This would change everything.
Jack hopped up onto the air and looked out the window again. He would be chased. Augus had a messenger network.
Jack thought he’d rather take his chances with the fae, at this point.
‘Wait,’ Pitch whispered, and Jack looked over at him, breathing coming faster. ‘I know I have no right to ask you to stay, after what I just said...after what you just said...’
‘What?’ North said, abruptly, realising that Pitch was picking up something from Jack that he couldn’t feel.
‘I pushed too hard,’ Pitch said, unable to look away from Jack’s face, eyes wide and brow creased in concern.
But Jack couldn’t stay. If he stayed another hour in the Workshop, he’d lose his mind.
‘Make sure he doesn’t go after Augus,’ Jack said to North, and then turned around and blasted frost lightning through Pitch’s window, shattering the glass. The breeze that pushed into the room was fervent and smelled of the Arctic Circle. The winds already knew where Jack wanted to go, and snow whirled around him, lifted his hair, reminded him of the days when he wasn’t fettered to anyone or anything; free to do as he wanted.
He wanted to say he would come back, that he wouldn’t be long, that he was sorry, but none of the words would come to his tongue. He wanted to be angry at Pitch for saying what he’d said to North, the way he’d said it. He wanted to be angry at Gwyn. He wanted to feel more than the hollow emptiness that crawled inside of him.
He ducked out through the window to the protests of Pitch and North, and shot up high into the air, calling cloud and snow to him with a single sweep of his staff.
‘Get me out of here,’ Jack said to the winds, and the winds obliged, picking him up and carrying him forwards, clouds and snow chasing after him as he went.
Jack was so fast the clouds formed behind him, unable to keep up, a long line of snow-laden weather trailing in his wake. He let the wind turn him regularly, so he could keep an eye on his environment. The one problem about being high up in the atmosphere was that enemies could approach from any angle, but then he was better at being observant than he used to be.
Jack picked up speed, ice-crystals forming along his forearms and hands, filaments of ice growing along his staff and breaking off, before growing again. His temperature was dropping.
Time passed and he alternated between feeling hollow and as empty as the sky, then replaying all the foolish things he’d said to Pitch. It had never been easy between them, but now he didn’t even know what he wanted anymore. It was obvious that at least some forms of physical affection had been ruined. They couldn’t communicate well. And Jack could tell that his fears hurt Pitch, and he didn’t know how to stop that.
Pitch had been about to draw him close, to offer comfort, and all Jack wanted was Pitch’s warm arms around him, fingers in his hair, that measured voice rumbling through him.
Jack snarled. Pitch had offered it freely, and Jack had been the one to reject it. To reject Pitch.
After everything, Jack had flinched away, treated Pitch like he was the enemy.
Beneath the numbness curdled a violent, hungry hate. Jack clenched his hand harder on his staff and in the distance, a brontide sounded deep within the snow clouds he’d summoned. He wanted to be angry at Pitch for spilling his secret like that, so callously, but he was angrier at himself. It was a thick pressure behind his eyes, sat heavy in his chest.
Jack was gliding over frozen seas when he felt the presence behind him. He turned around and saw a winged fae, similar to the one that had given him chase before. One of Augus’ messenger network no doubt.
The winged fae was heading towards him rapidly; giant falcon’s wings slicing easily through the air, a sharp, long sabre held in his hand. He was lithe and rangy, cutting through the wind with confidence, raising his sabre. Jack wondered if he meant to capture or kill him.
It didn’t matter, Jack was far from the Workshop, and he couldn’t simply race back this time, the fae was in the way.
He raised his staff threateningly and frost lightning blasted from it, cutting brightly through the night sky, showering them with pale blue light. The winged fae hesitated, then drove forwards, low and desperate.
Jack opened his mouth to warn the fae that he would attack, and then he remembered Gulvi laughing at him. It wasn’t about warnings. This wasn’t sparring. The other Guardians weren’t around. Pitch wasn’t going to save him.
He had to save himself.
He hovered in the air, waited. There was nowhere to run. He couldn’t outpace the fae, and he was sick of being chased.
The winged fae slowed when he realised that Jack was no longer running. He curved sideways and Jack turned in the air, watching as he came closer. He couldn’t read the expression on the fae’s face. He watched the sword as the fae adjusted it, making sure the flat of the blade was never facing directly into the wind.
Jack banked sideways when the winged fae rushed him, then dropped through the air. He realised, too late, the mistake he’d made. The fae was a falcon shifter, pulling in his wings and stooping after Jack, gaining speed. His sabre was out and he gained speed too fast. Jack brought up his staff with both hands just in time. The sabre clashed against it, ringing out against the thin veneer of metal. Jack was grateful for the metal of Pitch’s sword.
Jack somersaulted out of the way and the winged fae was after him. Jack shot frost lightning out through his staff, forcing the winged fae to shoot sideways, but even as Jack curved away, wind whistling past his ears, the fae followed. This was a creature as used to travelling the winds as Jack, if not moreso.
The hate that Jack had been feeling split into a tangle of rage, and he turned on the fae as icicles began to grow from his fingers. He was tired of being hunted. He just wanted space. Just an hour by himself, to breathe, and instead he was dealing with this. Would it never end?
‘Leave me alone!’ Jack shouted, and the winged fae said nothing, only drew back his sabre as he closed in on Jack. There was a firm, determined set to his face, in his tightened jaw, his narrowed bird eyes, his pursed mouth.
Why can’t you all just leave me alone?
Jack dove down towards the ground. Blasts of frost lightning left his staff, but the winged fae was able to dodge each and every one. He closed in. The gap between them was shrinking and the sabre was getting so close that Jack could make out ornate, golden details on the hilt. The winged fae had clawed hands. Wore scraps of ragged material. Jack had never done anything to him, and yet here he was, trying to kill him or harm him or take him to Augus.
Jack screamed in fury and sent of blast of ice so strong that it radiated from the entire length of his staff. He turned his will towards icicles, shards of ice, slivers and fractures of the stuff. He imagined broken panes of it, wedges with edges that gleamed sharp, points tipped with wicked brightness. It filled him with a feral, desperate need to survive, to win.
He heard a short, cut-off grunt. The ice died down just enough that Jack saw the damage he’d done and cried out in horror.
The winged fae had been bombarded with sharp pieces of ice; shards sticking out of his wings, his limbs. But the giant icicle had done the most damage, piercing him through the sternum. The fae stared at him in shock, wings outspread but unbalanced, akimbo. The winged fae’s eyes rolled back in his head and then he was tumbling down, spiralling clumsily, the sabre falling out of his limp hand.
Jack shot down after him. The winged fae landed hard, unable to brace his fall. All around him, on the ground, sharp pieces of ice had fallen; some clear, some mottled, some opaque. Some were no larger than toothpicks. Others were like the giant icicle jutting out of the winged fae’s chest.
Jack crept closer, wincing when one of the small ice splinters stabbed into his foot, before breaking off. It was only water, it would melt, but it hurt.
The winged fae followed Jack’s movements with his eyes, mouth opening spasmodically, blood oozing from his mouth and pooling beneath him in the snow. His hands opened and closed, his face twisted in pain. Jack didn’t get close enough to be grabbed, wished he could offer something like mercy. He worried – even now – that it could be a trap.
It wasn’t a trap. The winged fae gasped his last breath, a hideous rattle emptying the last of his air out of his lungs. He stared fixedly through Jack, eyes damning, fingers and toes clenched in pain. Jack noticed that the creature had gone bare foot like he had. He couldn’t help but notice the poor state of his clothing. He was bleeding from at least twenty places.
Jack gasped weakly, then repeated the sound, clutching at his chest.
He looked up to the sky to see if anyone else was following, but no one was.
Jack crept forwards and touched tentative fingertips to the brow of the fae. His forehead was still hot. His hair was not quite hair, but sharp feather filaments.
He’d killed a fae. Not some human bent on murdering a child, but a fae who seemed bent on murdering him. He wanted to exit the vicious cycle of hunter and hunted he’d found himself in. This wasn’t the answer. He didn’t feel unfettered, boundless, free.
Jack leapt into the air with a cry and let the wind take him deeper into the Arctic Circle, until finally there was nothing but howling, excoriating winds, hard-packed snow and the salt-cold scent of sea ice.
He flew straight into the snow, forcing it to part for him as he entered. He flew through the outer layers and hit the inside hard. He waved his staff behind him, causing more of it to creep over the gap he’d made, until finally he was ensconced in a cold darkness that muffled the wind. He heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing, his clothing shifting against the ice. Jack made more room for himself with his staff, and then mentally willed a storm to form overhead. Something that would bring more snow, bury him deep, leave him as nothing more than a part of a snow drift.
He didn’t want to go back to the Workshop.
He didn’t want to go anywhere.
He’d murdered someone. And worse, he hadn’t even known exactly what he was doing when he was doing it. His powers were out of control. Sure, he’d wanted the winged fae to stop, he knew that he’d have to harm the guy, but...kill him? Like that? Jack closed his eyes and buried his head in his arms when he realised how easily it came to him. How quickly the darkness flashed up inside of him.
He wondered if the shadows that had touched him – both at the gymnasium and when they’d rescued Pitch – had changed him somehow. But a small part of him knew it wasn’t true. He’d felt glimpses of the darkness ever since the Nain Rouge had sucked out part of his power. Ever since he’d had to live with a terrible rift in his spirit that he thought would never be filled or healed again.
The rift in his powers had healed, the darkness was still there.
Jack clenched his fist and heard the crunch of ice particles on his skin. He rubbed them off and shook his head, wanting – strangely – warmth. A gentle, soothing warmth.
He closed his eyes, shuddered out a huge breath, pressing his back to the snow and sensing it falling above him, burying him deeper and deeper. It gave him the illusion of being alone. He thought he wanted that, but the more he felt it, the more he realised that he didn’t know what he wanted. He couldn’t turn back the clock, couldn’t unsay the things he’d said to Pitch.
‘I just can’t win,’ he said, quietly. But hearing himself say the words, muffled by the snow and ice around him, made him laugh.
He’d just technically won, after all.
But that wasn’t a fight he wanted to be a part of in the first place.
Time passed. He let his thoughts drift into nothingness. He was empty winter winds and the promise of hypothermia with no shelter in sight. It didn’t feel bad, because it didn’t feel like anything at all. He surrendered to it. Ice swirled over his skin in random patterns, fell away, swirled again. His hair stiffened with ice and then became pliant again. The ice rose and fell in him, a cyclical promise. Had this always been inside of him?
Probably, Jack realised foggily, blinking himself out of his trance. Some of this isn’t new. Just...the strength of it. The strength of it all, that’s what’s new.
He had to go back. He’d been travelling for some time through the air, and it clearly wasn’t safe anywhere. He missed aspects of the Workshop. The smell of spices and paints and enamels in the air. The strange mix of pine and other cool, pungent scents. The taste of cinnamon and nutmeg in the back of his mouth when he entered the kitchens. How Pitch’s old room always felt warm even though that couldn’t possibly be true.
He had to go back.
He had to tell them what he’d done.
He’d killed someone.
How would he ever be safe around children again with powers like that?
Jack winced and used his staff to command the snow to release him from its grip. He was tired as he jumped onto the winds again. Tired as he raced back to the Workshop, letting the wind do most of the work for him. He zoomed through the clouds he’d left behind him. No one bothered him. The cloud provided good, dense cover.
The final scenes of his encounter with the winged fae played through his mind. He knew he’d had no choice, but remorse flowed through him. Who had he been? What had his name been? How did he have a sabre that looked like a precious antique, while wearing clothing that looked unkempt and uncared for?
Jack shook his head to clear it, and surprisingly it worked. So much had happened over the past few hours that his mind couldn’t contain it anymore. He had spilled his thoughts out until he was as vast and timeless as the night sky and the stars above him.
His bed was soft but the mattress and fabric felt alien as he crawled onto it. He leaned his staff against the wall and then held his hands out to Mora. She had waited for him; agitated and uneasy.
She laid her warm, velvety head in his hands, then stepped closer so she could hook her chin over Jack’s shoulder and breathe down his back. Fear rose within him, but it was almost negligible. He remembered when Mora’s ability to cause fear within him was a problem, but not anymore. He’d desensitised. He felt too much now for the fear Mora inspired to bother him.
She was warmth against him, eyes glowing benevolently, ears forward, attentive. Jack leaned into her, she leaned into him, until his weight was against hers and he would fall if she disappeared.
‘I missed you,’ Jack said softly. Mora huffed out through her nostrils. Jack wished he could understand her, but sometimes he was pretty sure he got the gist of what she was saying. The huff sounded a lot like, ‘Of course.’
He stroked his fingers down both sides of her neck, occasionally grasping wisps of her shadowy mane and letting them curl around his wrists. Mora didn’t remind him as much of Augus in his waterhorse form anymore, and Jack was grateful for that. She was just so different.
He let frost gently curl down Mora’s body, until even her hooves were frosted with pale, gleaming ice. She didn’t mind, she had never been bothered by the patterns he made upon her.
After a while, she stepped back, nudged him gently in the chest. Jack winced, his ribs still didn’t feel quite right, though they were definitely whole. He supposed Pitch was still figuring out the golden light. That had been his first healing he’d performed since having the living shadows removed.
‘You sticking around tonight? Or heading out?’
In response to that, Mora walked into the corner of his room and whickered softly. She exhaled sleepily and then lowered her head, lipping playfully at the small coffee table that Jack didn’t use. Clearly she was staying in.
He missed sleeping with her in trees. He didn’t dare daydream about a day when they could do that again, but it was in the back of his mind; something he’d like to do.
Jack sat down on his bed, his back to the wall, knees up to his chest and an arm resting on top of his bent legs.
He’d killed someone.
Not more than a few hours after being filled with a desire to destroy Ash or Gulvi, he’d actually killed someone.
He knew it was self-defence, but the spill of his powers disturbed him. How was he supposed to get them under control? Jack shifted until he was lying down on his side, hugging his knees to his chest.
He wanted to sleep, but it eluded him. Instead, he worried that even now, after everything, Pitch would think that he was weak, that he hadn’t fought back hard enough against Augus. He’d tried so hard, so hard, but those compulsions were impossible to resist. How did the others do it? Why was he so susceptible to that sort of magic?
Jack worried that he could have tried harder. Should have been more aware in the first place. Pitch’s words about how he never feared Augus as much as he should came back to haunt him, played over and over again in his mind.
Jack blinked when he heard a quiet knock on the door. He pushed himself upright and realised that he was once again sitting in the dark.
The door opened a crack and Pitch peered in. Jack’s heart picked up, just to see him.
‘May I come in?’ Pitch asked, and Jack nodded, knowing that Pitch could see him easily with his night vision.
Pitch walked in, holding a plate piled with what looked like cookies. Jack smelled the cinnamon and felt a small ping of warmth. Pitch walked over and set the plate down on the bed, then sat on the corner of it, close to Jack, but far enough away that Jack didn’t feel crowded. The light from outside picked out more signs of the lunar alphabet embroidery on Pitch’s robes. In fact – Jack realised – there was more now than there had been earlier in the day. A great deal more. It was silvery and well-wrought, a robust but beautiful language, replete with symbols and patterns.
‘Your embroidery is coming back,’ Jack said, and Pitch nodded. He picked up a small candy cane from the edge of the plate and pushed it towards Jack, before picking up a cinnamon cookie and taking a small, conservative bite.
‘I should not have so flippantly betrayed your secret to North like that,’ Pitch said, setting down the cookie and folding his arms. Jack turned the candy cane over in his fingers and then placed it on the windowsill for later. He wasn’t hungry.
‘Yeah, well,’ Jack said.
‘I am sorry,’ Pitch added, and Jack laughed darkly.
‘Yeah, you have an excuse though. ‘Formerly possessed by the root of all evil up until pretty recently, still adjusting to everyday life.’ And then there’s me, reminding you of your daughter, no excuses at all.’
Pitch stilled, then sighed.
‘You were trying to save my life the first time. Yours, the second.’
‘Look at me and tell me it doesn’t make you angry,’ Jack said, and Pitch shook his head.
‘I can’t. It makes me furious. However, I am also able to accept that you had valid reasons – not excuses – reasons. I am trying to find a place for those actions in my mind. It will take time.’
Jack’s heart ached. He had wanted to protect Seraphina’s memory. He knew how special that locket was. And instead – twice now – he’d forced her into Pitch’s thoughts as a way of manipulating a desired outcome. He hadn’t known he was capable of that.
Pitch picked up the rest of his cookie and finished it in thoughtful silence. Jack watched him, hungry for the small details. It was such a novelty to see Pitch doing these things; brushing crumbs off his robe, turning the cookie as though looking for the best angle to take his next bite, chewing fastidiously and brushing at his lips after he was done.
Jack blinked hard when he realised that he wanted to be able to do that, wanted to be able to brush at his lips, touch his face. Something.
He felt so much distance between them both, even now.
‘I said some really embarrassing things earlier,’ Jack said, laughing nervously.
‘They sounded very honest to me. Perhaps the most authentic words you’ve spoken to me since I’ve returned. And you were right.’
‘What?’ Jack said.
Pitch pushed the plate to the side and moved closer, pausing as though checking it was okay. After a while, Pitch reached out with his hand and placed it on the outer curve of Jack’s ankle. His warmth was a sear of heat across his skin, and Jack closed his eyes briefly, feeling each of Pitch’s fingers resting delicately against him.
‘How long I spent, telling you that I wouldn’t go anywhere. What a cruel thing that must have been for you when I was taken.’
Jack opened his eyes and stared into the shadows in the corner of the room, heart beating quickly. He felt exposed, a raw nerve. He waited, didn’t know what to say.
‘You saved me, Jack,’ Pitch said, a note of awe and wonder creeping into his voice. ‘When I- I barely remember turning to you, but when I begged it of you, I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Not as myself. You saved me. And,’ Pitch laughed incredulously, ‘not only that, you managed to decipher a way to destroy the Nightmare Men permanently, based on a single shaft of golden light. Oh, how we could have used you, back during the Golden Age.’
Jack turned and stared at Pitch, hungry to hear more. To hear him talking in that measured, wistful way.
‘I didn’t think I’d see you again,’ Pitch said, and Jack pushed himself further upright on the bed.
‘Way to show some faith, Pitch. You asked me after all,’ Jack said, a teasing note in his words.
‘But I didn’t save you,’ Pitch said, and Jack swallowed. ‘And I didn’t save you from a great deal, it seems.’
‘Please don’t make a big deal out of it,’ Jack whispered, and Pitch squeezed his ankle, gently.
‘I am making no more of it than it actually is,’ Pitch said, and Jack shook his head.
‘My fears have always been way out of proportion to what is-’
‘No, they have not,’ Pitch said, turning so that he faced Jack fully. ‘Some, perhaps. But overall? No. But I did not come in here to argue about these things, tonight. That is ground we shall tread over soon enough. I actually came to ask you something, if I may?’
‘You’re all polite, tonight,’ Jack said, and Pitch nodded.
‘Between North’s lecture on the importance of keeping secrets that he had almost completely figured out for himself anyway, your flood of fears that has given me the most unrelenting headache, and the fact that I think I shall still be scrubbing your blood out from under my fingernails tomorrow morning and for the rest of the week; perhaps a polite mood has just taken my fancy.’
‘Ah. Okay,’ Jack said, and then he exhaled slowly when Pitch squeezed reassuringly at his ankle. Small flutters of fear moved through him at the touch, the gentleness of it, but he was able to hold back the clotted mass of terror that lurked deep within. His ankle seemed to be a safe zone. He wondered if Pitch knew that. Wondered if – even now – Pitch was keeping a close monitor of his fears.
‘My point, Jack: I’m confident in your ability to save yourself, given enough time. But if you would like someone along for the ride, so to speak...’
Jack sat up properly when he realised what Pitch was asking. He kept his legs outstretched, so that Pitch didn’t have to remove his hand. Pitch lifted both of his own legs up onto the mattress and maintained steady eye contact.
‘I’m a mess,’ Jack said, and Pitch nodded.
‘You’ve always been a mess. I’m not sure if you recall, but that is something we share in common. Our club of two, remember?’
Jack’s heart pounded painfully.
‘I’m kind of more of a mess than I was before.’
‘Again, you are preaching to the choir,’ Pitch said, with a warmth in his voice that wrapped around Jack like a visceral touch.
Jack shivered and moved his legs away from Pitch, crossed them and frowned.
‘How much do you know?’ Jack said, and Pitch breathed in on a sharp inhale, knowing exactly what Jack was asking.
‘Enough,’ Pitch said. ‘I don’t think we should talk about this right now.’
‘Why?’ Jack said, and Pitch sighed.
‘Because it’s a fine line between sitting here and talking with you, and hunting someone down to show them exactly what sort of training I received as a golden warrior, and how much of the Nightmare King is left over inside of me.’
Jack’s mouth went dry. A coil of fear spread through him. Pitch couldn’t go. It was too dangerous.
‘There, that is why,’ Pitch said quietly. ‘You don’t want me to leave. I would prefer to stay until I know of the plan to deal with him.’
Jack looked down at his hands, and then folded his arms as well.
‘Jack, though I doubt you will believe me – it wasn’t your fault.’
Jack laughed and shook his head. He had thought that – upon hearing it – a weight would be lifted off his shoulders. Instead he just wanted to argue about how Pitch hadn’t been there, and couldn’t possibly know.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘No, time does a much better job of eroding these things than words can; I believe I’ve said that to you before. But it bears saying.’
Things had become uncomfortable between them again. Jack picked up the candy cane and turned it in his fingers. He realised, then, that Pitch must have made a note when he’d seen Jack eating one the other day. It was the first time Pitch had ever brought him something to eat. Pitch picked up another cookie and ate it, apparently lost deep in thought.
Jack had thought, briefly, that they were talking like they used to talk. But a lot of subjects were out of bounds. Things were still uncomfortable. And Jack wondered just how much anger Pitch had lurking inside of him. At Augus, at himself, at Jack for using Seraphina like that. Still, Jack could feel the outline of Pitch’s hand on his ankle. He wanted to be closer, he didn’t know how to go about it. What if he initiated something and then was flooded with fear? It would be wrong to get Pitch’s hopes up like that.
‘Jack,’ Pitch said, brushing more crumbs off his robe and then dusting off his fingers. ‘I’m going to be blunt. You know me well enough by now to know that I prefer to be forthright. Did you want us to be intimate again?’
Jack shifted on the bed.
‘I want it to be like it was,’ Jack said. ‘So...yeah?’
‘Oh, Jack. You weren’t even thinking that far ahead, were you?’ Pitch said, almost to himself. Jack narrowed his eyes in confusion, and Pitch scooted closer, until Jack could feel the warmth radiating through his robe.
‘Intimacy would have meant I’d find the scarf. Did you even consider that?’
Pitch reached out and ran a cautious palm down Jack’s arm, and Jack flinched before he could stop himself. Pitch paused, and then continued the motion, before letting his hand rest by the bed, close to Jack’s arm.
‘I killed someone,’ Jack blurted out, hands tightening around himself.
‘I know,’ Pitch said, and Jack stared at him.
‘You’re afraid of how we’ll react,’ Pitch said. ‘I knew before I came in.’
Jack realised he probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Some time ago, Pitch had gotten to the point where he could read the nuances of Jack’s fears from some distance. With the scarf gone, Pitch seemed to be on the ball with Jack’s fears again. Jack realised that the scarf had really muddled up Pitch’s fear-reading abilities, that it had held him back from using one of his primary senses. He didn’t know it would have so much impact.
‘It was self-defence. It’s not the first time someone’s come after me once I’ve left the protective ward,’ Jack said, and then rubbed a hand over his face. ‘It was- He was going to kill me. But, I mean, he didn’t look like he had good clothing. Maybe he didn’t have a choice. And then I just, I mean- If I hadn’t left in the first place, he’d still be alive.’
‘Yes. And if Augus hadn’t recruited him, he’d still be alive,’ Pitch said evenly. ‘You needed to leave. Your fears become rather loud and specific when you feel so trapped. You wouldn’t have been able to stay without hurting yourself.’
Jack sighed. There was so much familiar acceptance in that one sentence. Jack rested his head in his hands and looked sideway up into those pale, golden eyes.
‘I’m not made for this kind of thing. I wasn’t chosen to be a golden warrior, or born for it, or whatever. But that’s not actually my main problem with the whole thing. I just lost control. The power is right there, at the moment, underneath the surface. I just think about it, and it’s crazy. It’s-
‘You don’t have your fun to temper it anymore,’ Pitch said, and Jack laughed.
‘And I got hit with a giant beam of focused golden light, which apparently twisted it out of all recognition. Look, it’s not about the fun-’
‘It is, partly,’ Pitch insisted. ‘You were always exceedingly powerful. Anyone who met you before the Nain Rouge attacked you, who had the slightest knowledge of supernatural powers, would have known that you had an excess of ice and – to steal North’s lazy term – ‘magic’ at your disposal. But you directed it playfully, constantly. Now you don’t exercise it often at all, and when you do, it is in bursts designed to further your aims, whatever they may be at the time. Instead of being spread over snow days across the world, it’s focused. Yes, of course your powers are stronger now, but the way you use them has changed.’
Pitch paused and then huffed out a small breath of laughter.
‘I saw what you did at the meeting, what you were like up in the sky. You are dangerous.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Jack said. ‘There’s a body in the Arctic Circle proving it.’
Jack lowered his head onto his hands and groaned in frustration.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ Jack said. ‘I used to kinda know. I’d make snow days. I’d sail on the winds. I’d annoy people. I was a shit. I’d help kids have fun. I just- Even when Mora came along, I still knew what I was doing. I was just strangely doing it with a Nightmare who seemed to enjoy all the things that I did.’
‘Jamie’s death affected you profoundly. The first time you visited me, I could- It was very present.’
‘Yeah,’ Jack said, scowling. ‘You used it against me.’
‘I was not in a particularly pleasant mood,’ Pitch said, and Jack’s mouth curved on a half-smile.
His smile disappeared again when he realised how close he was to Pitch, yet he couldn’t do anything about it. His arms wouldn’t unlock, he didn’t know how to reach out. And Pitch wasn’t reaching back.
‘Will you take my hand?’ Pitch said, turning his hand so that it rested, palm up, on the bed. ‘You were able to do that earlier.’
Jack realised Pitch was talking about the time he’d woken up from the nightmare. He looked down and then swallowed. There was nothing organic about this. It was stilted, required permissions. But if it was the only way, then...
Jack licked at his dry lips and then nervously lowered his hand until it was over Pitch’s palm. He curled his fingers around Pitch’s hand, felt a buzz of sensation when Pitch’s hand shifted minutely between his, fingers pressing back.
Pitch made a pained, thick sound in the back of his throat, and Jack’s eyes shot up, stared at him. But Pitch was looking down at their hands. Jack couldn’t see his face.
‘You were already so afraid of these things,’ Pitch said, breathing audibly. After a minute, his breathing was under control once more, and Jack petted at Pitch’s hand anxiously, uncertain what was going on, what Pitch was feeling. Jack wanted to make everything okay again, but he didn’t know how.
‘He knew exactly what he was doing,’ Pitch said darkly, and Jack startled, his hand shot off Pitch’s hand.
‘How much do you know?’ Jack said, voice high and shaky. ‘How much?’
‘Some of your fears are vague, but some are...specific,’ Pitch said. ‘And flashbacks come through differently to regular fears. They were so easy for me – the Nightmare King – to exploit in others, because they reveal more. I don’t think we should be talking about this right now. You’re tired. You’ve had a very, very long evening.’
Jack trembled, helpless.
‘Will you lower your hand again?’ Pitch said, his voice soothing. ‘It’s a short distance back to my hand. I’m not going to hurt you.’
Jack forced himself to concentrate. He lowered his hand and then settled it, as lightly as possible, on Pitch’s skin. He felt over-sensitive, like any extra stimulus would send him running, but Pitch didn’t do anything. His hand didn’t move, he didn’t say anything, didn’t apply pressure. A minute passed, another, and Jack shuddered out an exhale and Pitch sighed with him, as though he’d also been holding his breath.
‘I’m sorry about...this,’ Jack said, and Pitch shook his head. They exchanged eye contact until Jack had to look away, embarrassed.
‘It’s okay, Jack. You’re doing well.’
‘Don’t patronise me,’ Jack snapped, and Pitch’s hand did shift under his then. Fingers curled up and around the back of his hand, stroking twice.
‘Perhaps you haven’t met me before,’ Pitch drawled, ‘I’m the former Nightmare King, I don’t give a damn about condescending to you. At least, not right now. I do, however, want to be close to you. If this is all I can have, then this is all I shall have. I know how hard you’re trying.’
‘Is it giving you a headache?’ Jack said.
‘Your fears? No, not at this moment. And you? How are you feeling? How are your ribs?’
‘Weird. Bendy. Is that normal?’
Pitch nodded. Jack stroked his fingers across Pitch’s palm, and Pitch inhaled slowly. Jack repeated the gesture. He couldn’t believe what was happening. He was almost afraid he’d wake up in an hour and this would all be a dream. Maybe he’d still be in the Arctic, holed up in the snow, wishing for everything – including himself – to disappear.
‘Reconstructing bone is not a perfect art. The ribs are whole, but they need to properly ossify. Until then, they will be unusually flexible to prevent further breaking. And, for future reference, I don’t ever want to have to do that again. I’m afraid I strongly object to you chasing swan-maidens. You could have died.’
‘Tell me about it. The dying part felt really familiar,’ Jack said, and Pitch’s hand clenched hard around his. Jack froze, blinked. Immediately Pitch relaxed his grip.
‘Familiar,’ Pitch said faintly. ‘If you had died...’
‘But I didn’t,’ Jack said quickly.
‘If you had,’ Pitch said, and Jack shook his head.
‘But I didn’t.’
‘Will you stop putting your life in danger?’ Pitch hissed suddenly. ‘North says I shouldn’t put myself under undue stress. I told him we’d need to put you in a lead-lined box and sink you deep under the ground for that to happen.’
‘Geez, calm down,’ Jack said, but he felt like laughing.
Jack squeezed at Pitch’s hand and then wanted, more than anything, to close the distance between them. To press his lips to Pitch’s. Just once, just gently. A reminder that what they had wasn’t gone, that it could recover.
Helplessly, he leaned forwards, and then stopped about a foot away from Pitch’s face, a strange coil of fear stretching through him.
‘I want to,’ Jack whispered, and Pitch closed his eyes.
‘Yes,’ Pitch said. ‘Just not now.’
‘If you still want to, then yes,’ Pitch said, and he opened his eyes again. ‘When I told you that I wasn’t going anywhere, I made the cardinal mistake of assuming that my feelings for you were strong enough to withstand anything. I was – perhaps – telling you how I felt more than I was stating logical fact; not that it makes it okay. Nothing stays the same. But sometimes Jack, that is a comfort too. This – what you’re experiencing – will not be static. It may get worse before it gets better, but it will not stay the same. We’ll deal with it as it comes.’
‘Together?’ Jack said, stroking at Pitch’s palm nervously.