The boogeyman’s lair was the creepiest place Jack had ever been. It had been bad enough on his first visit, with all the moving shadows, non-euclidean architecture, and creepy cages hanging from the ceiling. Now, Jack was walking through rooms that resembled caves so deep in the earth they had moved past chill and back towards warmth, the ruins of ancient throne rooms with toppled pillars and torn tapestries that fluttered in his peripheral vision, abandoned gothic mansions with ivy that tried to strangle his ankles and spikes lining every edge.
Everything was painted ins shades of black and grey, little touches of muted colour here and there only emphasising the monochrome. The flatness of the colour helped to disguise the way the shadows were most definitely alive down here. They moved, shifted and flowed, never quite touching Jack’s bare feet, but writhing around them like they wanted to, two-dimensional claws reaching out whenever he wasn’t looking and just not quite grabbing for him. Sometimes he even could have sworn he saw flashes of golden eyes in the dark, winking into existence and away before he could be sure. They were the brightest things down there, save Jack himself, and he was unfortunately sure that they were too bright to be Pitch.
He probably shouldn’t be here, looking for the boogeyman, but Pitch had been unnervingly quiet in the months since Easter. The other Guardians were all convinced it was because he had been smacked down hard, and was too weak to get up to any mischief. Jack wasn’t convinced. After all, Pitch had wound up back in his lair, with all the nightmares he had left, and what was to say that show of turning on him hadn’t been a trick, an excuse to get him away from the Guardians, and back to his lair, where he was strongest.
But Pitch hadn’t been in the room with the cages and the globe. He hadn’t been in that area that looked like something out of an Escher painting. He wasn’t anywhere that Jack could find, and it was putting him on edge. The lair wasn’t helping with that. It was going out of its way to unnerve him. There was one area like a dark forest where the floor was made of moss, but it was slightly warm underfoot and a little damp, and it made Jack’s skin crawl. There was another cave where every surface was honeycombed with little holes that made his eyes hurt just to look at. There was a place that looked a little like an abandoned hospital, and every now and then, something would screech in the distance, like nails over a chalkboard, and every hair on Jack’s body would stand on end.
Jack wasn’t one to give up, though, so he pressed on. He noticed that there were times that the shadows seemed to thicken around him, writhed more violently, sometimes even brushed against the soles of his feet like they might be able to startle him into bolting. Jack smiled to himself when he realised, and kept going that way. He walked through an orchard of apple trees where all the apples were white, tinged with just a hint of yellow like old bones, and the ones on the ground had dark bruises like human skin. The shadows crawled around the base of every tree, tugging at Jack’s heels, rearing up on the trunks before him.
Impatient, Jack blasted one with a flash of bright frost, leaving pretty patterns of blue frost swirling over the dark tree trunk, and the shadows retreated, hissing. That made Jack pause. When Pitch was hiding in the shadows, of course, he could speak even in that form, but none of his other shadows had been able to make noise, but that sound… He shook the thought off and pressed on, unhindered.
The next room he found himself in looked like a child’s bedroom that a storm had torn through. There were great gouges torn in walls painted with galaxies, and a fancy dresser with the drawers torn out, clothes strewn about the room, the mirror on top shattered into pieces, and what little remained spotted with age. A toy chest spilled mutilated stuffed animals and dolls across a rotted rug, stuffing splattered about like blood. A child-sized desk full of clever little cabinets and secret compartments was leaning haphazardly against the wall, three out of four legs broken, ripped paper covered in pieces of childish drawings sticking in pools of congealed, tacky ink. Fairy lights remained strung up around the walls, but the bulbs buzzed and flickered asynchronously, casting terrifying shadows across the whole scene.
The bed had been up-ended, the ragged remains of a princess canopy splayed about one side and something dark staining the mattress where it lay wonky underneath the over-turned frame. On top of the wooden slats was huddled the diminished form of Pitch Black.
“What the…?” Jack breathed.
Pitch’s head shot up, eyes wild, and he looked right through Jack, gave a hoarse cry of stark terror, and curled right back up again; a foetal ball, rocking back and forth ever so slightly. Jack was about to say something else when that hissing started up again, eerie and gleeful. Something detached itself from the wall, golden eyes gleaming, and swooped down onto Pitch, claws reaching, scoring lines in grey flesh that closed over at once, but Pitch choked on a sound that was too ragged, too raspy to really be called a scream.
Horror curdled in Jack’s stomach, making him feel sick. After the battle, after what had happened to Sandy, and what had nearly happened to Jamie, it had been good to see Pitch frightened. Jack had celebrated with the other Guardians, but… but this wasn’t… He hadn’t thought this would happen. He hadn’t thought the nightmares would turn on Pitch like this, even though he’d seen them turn on him. He’d seen the fear on Pitch’s face and thought he deserved it, that he ought to get a taste of his own medicine for a change, but…
No one deserved this.
Even Pitch Black didn’t deserve this sort of torment. There were more nightmares in the walls, eyes flickering and blinking like the broken fairy lights, only these ones weren’t horses, they were… amorphous, vaguely humanoid but not, in the most horrifying ways. Limbs that were too long and thin, or creatures that had way too many limbs, misshapen attempts at faces, or grins that had too many teeth. Some were insectile, some looked like creatures from the deep, some were skeletal, some spectral. They shifted in and out of a corporeal state, blending in with the shadows on the walls and disappearing, only to emerge elsewhere to loom over Pitch, to try and gouge out another piece of him.
Jack thumped the butt of his staff down onto the ground, guilt turning to determination, and fear turning to rage. He was the Guardian of Fun, and lord help him, he wasn’t going to let this go on. Bright blue-white frost spiralled out from where his staff touched the floor, branching into gleaming fractals that drove the shadows back. The hissing changed from gleeful to alarmed, and Jack strode into the room, walking over frost and ice to avoid having to step in the shadows.
Eyes that gleamed pale like a predator in the dark peered up at him as he reached the bed, and Pitch swallowed several times before he managed to croak out “Frost?” in abject confusion.
Jack crouched down so that he wasn’t looming, holding onto his staff for balance, and offered Pitch a rueful little smile. “Hey. You look like crap.” He remarked flippantly, and then winced at himself. “That sounded worse than I meant it to, I’m not actually trying to gloat. You really do look terrible; wanna get out of here?”
Pitch blinked, uncomprehending. Then he flinched and recoiled when the hissing turned from alarmed to enraged, and the shadows lunged for Jack. He was ready for them, though, and whipped his staff around in a sweeping arc. Glittering frost swept out like a wave, and wherever it touched one of the shadow creatures, they recoiled, hissing turning so shrill it was like a distant and tinny scream. The bright white cold clawed over shadowy skin, driving the creatures back, but more came in to take their place, and Jack swore he could hear words under the hissing now.
Ours, ours, ours…
“Wow, nope.” Jack announced, jabbing one of the monsters right in the eye with his staff, and then blocking the claws of another with the crook. “I’m not letting you use anyone as your personal chew toy, not even him. Back off!” With the yell, Jack let out a blast of power, coating the entire room in frost that gleamed like it was under the light of a full moon, not deep underground. The shadows were driven back for a moment, and Jack turned to get a hand under Pitch’s arm and haul him to his feet.
The boogeyman stared at him like he’d just grown a second head and started singing an operatic duet by himself. Jack rolled his eyes and tugged Pitch towards the door. Pitch flinched. “Come on.” Jack encouraged, but he didn’t pull, because he figured Pitch had already been manhandled against his will enough for one day. “I can’t keep ‘em off forever, so what’s the fastest way out of here?”
“I…” Pitch began, dazed. “I can’t… leave.”
“Sure you can.” Jack retorted, stubbornness rising inside him like the tide. And then, because he just couldn’t help himself; “It’s as easy as one, two, three. Like hopscotch.”
Pitch’s face scrunched up in something that might have been confusion, or might have been agony, Jack really couldn’t tell. Maybe both. But he stumbled forwards, and Jack would take it, because his icy barrier was cracking. They tripped over the threshold just as it shattered completely, and a howling storm of shadow monsters poured after them, claws leading, a myriad of golden eyes gleaming from within the mass.
Jack fired off a blast of ice, dragging Pitch into a run through the ghostly orchard, and it bought them just enough time to get up some speed, to keep them ahead of that roiling, writhing avalanche of terror. Jack tried every trick he had to slow it down, but he didn’t have time for anything fancy, and they didn’t seem to be entirely corporeal, so ice-slicks went unnoticed, and snow-balls were like tossing pebbles at a flood. He tried a happy-flake, and that seemed to do some real damage, but making those took concentration, and he couldn’t afford to concentrate for long enough to make as many as he’d need to make any difference. He didn’t have time for a blizzard or a great big wall of ice, even if either of those would slow them down.
Claws snagged at Jack’s heels, and he yelped and nearly fell. Pitch caught his arm before he could go down, and dragged him on, through a gothic ballroom that oozed blood between the floorboards, and then they were in the globe-room, full of cages, but with pale light reaching its fingers inside, and so close to freedom. Jack’s heart raced, hope turning to dread as he saw that the shadow creatures had somehow gotten ahead of them. They were surrounded.
“Wind!” Jack yelled desperately, and to his shock, she answered him. She curled around him with a shriek, grabbed hold of him and Pitch, and hurled them upwards, out of the reach of the shadows. Pitch was screaming, but Jack couldn’t actually hear him over the wind, as she howled and raged the entire way up the tunnel, until they burst out of a hole in the ground under a dilapidated old bed like a cork popping out of a bottle, and she spilled them onto the ground.
Jack took a moment to just breathe, but his heart wouldn’t stop thundering behind his ribs, and his hands were shaking where they were gripping his staff too tight. Every instinct was screaming at him that they weren’t safe yet, so he got one arm under himself and pushed himself upright. Or, at least, he tried to. He got his shoulders perhaps a foot off the ground, and then it felt like his entire head spun on his shoulders like he was possessed. His arm gave out with a wobble, and he gasped as he hit the ground, frost crackling out across the grass around him.
Something behind him hissed, and Jack grit his teeth, because it felt like his heart was trying to escape that way, and he really didn’t want to throw up any internal organs. “Frost!” Pitch yelled, and then he was being grabbed and yanked upright and shoved. “Run!” He demanded, and Jack dragged up magic and power and joy from his core to lend his limbs strength to do just that.
Right up until he realised Pitch wasn’t with him. He stopped, turned, looked back to see that Pitch was facing the wrong way. Jack went back and grabbed him, towing him along and ignoring his startled yelp. “I did not get you out of that hellhole just for you to throw yourself right back in!” He snapped. A shadow lunged for them as they dithered, and Jack blasted it with ice. Out here, in the weak half-light of false dawn, they didn’t seem to have as much power, and it was a little easier to destroy the thing.
“Why did you?” Pitch asked, so bewildered that it made Jack feel like the worst sort of person.
“Because no one deserves that.” Jack stated firmly, forcing himself to meet Pitch’s eyes to make sure the man knew he meant it. “No one.”
Pitch stumbled in shock, slowed down, stopped. Jack gave an inarticulate snarl of frustration, and turned to defend Pitch’s unprotected, immobile back from the handful of shadow creatures bearing down on them ahead of the masses. “You’re a fool, Frost.” Pitch huffed, and conjured up his scythe, whirling it with deadly grace into the shadow creatures. Despite the fact that the scythe seemed to be made of the same thing as them, the shadow creatures were just as afraid of Pitch as they were of Jack. “You should run while you have the chance.”
“Are you kidding?!” Jack yelped, hopping into the air to avoid one of the shadow creatures. He was foiled when the horrid thing just oozed up into the air with him. Jack whacked it with the crook of his staff, pouring power into the move and watching frost encase the creature until it dropped and shattered. He touched back down on the grass, and wobbled. That had taken far more energy than he’d thought it would, but he couldn’t afford to falter.
Pitch took out one of the monsters that almost grabbed Jack, and fixed Jack with a hard stare for a single heartbeat, before he spun back into the fight. “It’s not as though fearlings need to rest, not like you do. They’re relentless, but at least if I stay, you might be able to get away-”
“You really think I’m going to abandon you after I went to all that trouble of getting you out of there?” Jack demanded indignantly. He sounded far more winded than he meant to, but this fight was drawing on, and his center was feeling further and further away by the minute. They needed to get away from these things, these fearlings, as Pitch called them. And if Pitch was right, and they couldn’t out-run them, then they were just going to have to find a bolthole to hide in until they went away.
An idea came to Jack, and he grasped it with eagerness born of desperation. After all, Bunny had said that Jack could pop by the Warren whenever, even given him a magical key so that he could access it in emergencies. They had managed to build a tentative, cautious friendship over the last few months, and Jack had dropped in on Bunny a couple of times since he’d been recruited into the Guardian’s little club. It had been painfully awkward, both of them alternately trying too hard, or too uncertain of each other, and they each had more than a few issues, but Jack, honestly, liked Bunny more than any of the other Guardians. He was easy to be around, even with all the awkward. He could be quiet for hours on end, which Jack appreciated, because after centuries alone, he got overwhelmed by too much talking, but when they did talk, their conversations were intense and lively, and his sense of humour was enough like Jack’s to catch him off guard in the best ways.
So now, he didn’t hesitate to thump the end of his staff against the ground, three times in rapid succession. There was a pause, a terrifying moment where nothing happened, but then a tunnel opened up in front of him. “Come on, Pitch.” He called, gesturing the other spirit over, only to abort the motion when he had to flip and twist to avoid a fearling.
Pitch looked over his shoulder, and blanched. “No. You go. I’ll-”
“I’m not leaving you behind!” Jack interrupted furiously. The burst of emotion gave him a second wind, and he took it out on the fearlings. “Get in the damned Warren, Pitch!”
“I said no, Frost!” Pitch yelled right back. Then he took a breath, smashed a fearling flat with the broad side of his scythe, and took a moment to compose himself. “Look, just get out of here. I… appreciate your… help, so let me repay the favour.” He said delicately, like the words tasted bad on his tongue. It was an odd counterpoint to the vicious way he was fighting. “At least they can’t hurt me any more than they already have, but-”
“They were torturing you!” Jack yelled, his strength already flagging again. He had to take a moment to catch his breath.
“But they can’t infect me-” Pitch began, and then stopped talking as his eyes landed on Jack. He stopped fighting, too, a look of horror bleeding across his face.
Foreboding trailed chill fingers down Jack’s spine, and he looked down, even though he knew he did not want to see whatever had put that look on Pitch’s face. It was like watching a train-wreck. He knew he ought to look away, but morbid horror and a compulsion to know drove him on, and he looked. There was an ugly black stain creeping up his ankle.
Jack’s extremities went numb. “Oh, god…” He breathed, as Pitch’s words echoed through his mind; they can’t infect me… infect me… infect… infect… infect…
Claws raked his arm, and Jack cried out, flinching away. Hissing laughter echoed around him, and then Pitch was right in front of him, scythe swinging, cleaving the fearling clean in two. It was too late, though, and Jack stared at the new wound, touched black around the edges and spreading. Pale grey fingers grabbed his chin and dragged his gaze away and up. “Get to the rabbit.” Pitch ordered, shaking his chin a little, and then letting go to grab his shoulder and spin him towards the open entrance to the Warren.
“Not without you.” Jack insisted stubbornly.
“Very well, just go.” Pitch capitulated gracelessly, giving Jack a little shove. Jack went, and he was glad that Pitch followed him into the tunnel without any more protests.
A shudder rippled through the magic of the Warren, three consecutive tremors that were the result of anyone other than Aster opening a tunnel. There was only one person who both had and used that privilege, so Aster didn’t bother to tear himself away from his painting to investigate. Jack would swoop in like a miniature hurricane by himself soon enough, and if Aster went to meet him, it would only get horribly awkward. Again.
Sighing to himself, he refocused on the landscape he was painting. He just wasn’t good at this interacting with people thing. He was a recluse, and generally happy that way, but if anyone in the whole wide universe deserved a bit of effort from him, it was Jack. Aster had misjudged him in a pretty big way, and Jack had come through for Aster – for all of them, but it felt personal to Aster – when Aster had been just about ready to give up hope.
Being reduced to the size of a toddler had been more than just embarrassing, it had stirred up all sorts of things Aster spent a lot of time trying very hard not to think about. And then Jack had been there, personally restoring the kids’ faith in Aster, lobbing snowballs at Pitch fucking Black, putting himself between this world and its nightmares. He figured a bloke like that deserved a good few free passes on being a little shit. Hell, nailing Pitch with a snowball in the middle of his villainous grandstanding was worth another Easter blizzard, if Aster was being entirely honest.
The fact that Jack hadn’t located Aster yet was a bit odd. He looked up, wondering if maybe he was about to be snuck up on and get his own snowball to the face, but there was no sign of the frost spirit. Aster was just wondering if maybe he shouldn’t go looking after all, when an ancient alarm rang through his wards.
Fearlings. In the Warren.
For just a moment, Aster wondered if he wasn’t imagining it. If, by thinking of Pitch when Jack was taking a while to show up, he’d tricked himself into feeling the alarm when it hadn’t actually been tripped. After all, there hadn’t been any fearlings on Earth since the so-called dark ages, and they’d managed to mostly keep that disaster contained to half a continent. They’d contained it, and then they’d destroyed every last fearling. Aster himself had personally scoured the entirety of Europe to make sure they hadn’t missed any except Pitch.
Then he saw that the sentinels around the edges of this section of the Warren had lit up with starlight, all of their multiple faces obscured by the glow as they charged towards the source of the alarm. Bunny leapt after them, over-took them, raced ahead with panic singing in his veins. Fearlings appearing in the Warren right after Jack had opened a tunnel and then failed to find Aster in a timely manner? There weren’t a lot of conclusions he could draw from that, and those he could were not good.
There was nothing in the vast universe that could enrage and terrify Aster in equal measure more than fearlings, and the thought of them hunting Jack made his blood boil and lent speed to his dash through the tunnels. Thanks to the magic woven through his tunnels, as old as the planet herself, it took him mere minutes to traverse the entire distance between his main haunt, directly under the Great Australian Fuck All, and the smaller caverns that had developed under Burgess in North America.
There were sentinels there too, and Aster had never been more grateful for his own paranoia, because the scene he happened upon could have been much worse. The sentinels were rolling through a small host of fearlings, bulldozing the shadowy monsters. Wherever the starlit stone touched them, the fearlings began to dissolve. They hissed like hot metal doused in snowmelt as they died, and while a handful were smart enough to escape to the air to avoid the sentinels, there were only three, and they were entirely incapable of reaching Jack without getting too close to that damaging starlight.
Aster’s heart fair stopped when he finally spotted Jack.
Jack was on his feet, at least, which was encouraging, but he was less than three feet from Pitch, and for all that the boogeyman was wincing under the glare of the sentinels, he wasn’t incapacitated by it like the fearlings were. After all, he wasn’t just a fearling, he was a fearling Prince. A fearling General. For all that they couldn’t harm him, however, the sentinels still turned to bear down on him when their mechanical brains registered that they wouldn’t be able to reach the fearlings in the air.
Aster already had his boomerangs in hand when he heard Jack shout “No!” and he faltered and checked his throw in shock when he saw Jack throw himself between Pitch and the sentinels. He wanted to believe that it was just Jack being a bleeding heart and an idiot, trying to protect the mechanical protectors from Pitch, but his rational mind knew that wasn’t right. Jack had his back to Pitch, his arms outstretched towards the sentinels as if to ward them off.
“Jack, you drongo! Get out of the way!” Aster yelled, stowing his boomerangs in favour of dropping to all fours, the better to cross the distance as quickly as possible, and get Jack away from that monster all the faster.
“Bunny!” Jack exclaimed in relief, turning towards him. Still with his back to Pitch, the bloody fruit loop. He must have been able to read some of that thought on Aster’s face, because his expression of relief turned to stubborn annoyance in a heartbeat. He squared his shoulders, even though Aster could see even all this way away that he was more grey than pale. “Oh, no! I didn’t stop those nightmares from mauling him just to let you have a go at it, Kangaroo!” He yelled, voice hoarse but full of righteous determination. Then went to take a step forwards, staff raised like he was going to fight Aster. For Pitch.
His legs buckled under him, and he went down. There were still yards between them, and Aster was fast, but not that fast, and there were enough rocks littering the Warren that Aster’s heart leapt into his throat in fear and he lunged anyway, helpless to do anything else even though he knew he wouldn’t reach Jack in time.
He wasn’t the only one.
Shadow-wrapped grey arms caught Jack before he hit the ground, one hooked awkwardly under Jack’s shoulder, the other wrapped around his chest. Pitch staggered under his weight, even though Jack was skinny as a twig, and dropped to one knee, but he kept Jack from cracking his skull open. Aster skidded to a stop beside them, too bewildered to do anything except watch as Pitch sank down to kneel fully, breathing hard, and adjusted his grip on Jack to be more secure, all but cradling him in his bloody lap rather than laying him on the ground.
And he needed to, because Jack wasn’t just weak, or injured. He was gasping for breath like an asthmatic trying to run a marathon, and his eyes were glazed and unfocused. He wasn’t insensate, because he was moving sluggishly in Pitch’s hold, not quite struggling, it wasn’t coordinated enough to be called struggling, and even if it had been, he wasn’t trying to get away from Pitch. He was moving like he was trying to reach for something above his head, and as his arm flopped, Aster saw a black stain under a torn blue sleeve.
Horror seized Aster about the throat and refused to let him go. Jack – bright, indomitable Jack – was infected. Uncaring of anything else, now, Aster reached for him and snatched him up into his arms. Some distant part of his mind that had been trained to always be aware of his environment and his enemies noticed that Pitch had recoiled from him, given Jack up willingly in order to avoid so much as brushing against Aster in passing.
Jack was his priority, though. Frantic denial and desperate hope squeezed his heart in a vice. There was no reliable cure for a fearling infection. There were stories, anecdotes, of rare individuals who survived a fearling scratch, but they were few and far between, and even if they were true, they were a galaxy away from any of the possible cures. There were no more nightlights to drive the infection away with a kiss. The plants said to cure it only grew on the pookan homeworld, not on Earth. The light of the Lunanoff dynasty was all but extinguished, even if it ever had shone brightly enough to cure an infection.
But maybe there was some Earthen magic that could work. North might know. The plants here might have properties that could work against fearlings. Aster could mix something. There were ancient races of protectors here, too, that might have their own ways to dispel the infection. Tooth was the last. Stars had been around through the Golden Age, and their magicks were strange even for that age. Sandy might be able to do something.
First, he needed to get Jack somewhere safe, somewhere comfortable. He turned and bounded for the tunnel back to the heart of his Warren. He was almost there when a cry behind him broke through his hyper-focus and made him look back. The sentinels had followed him, but Pitch hadn’t, and the remaining fearlings had descended on him.
Aster had no idea what Pitch thought to gain from acting as though the fearlings could do him any harm, as though he wasn’t their commander, their leader, but just the sight of fearlings in his Warren made him rage. Cradling Jack gently in one arm, he hurled first one boomerang, and then the other. They spun through the air, leading edges bursting into a brilliant sunflare as they caught in shadow-flesh and tore clean through. The fearlings dispersed with whispering wails, and the boomerangs returned to Aster’s hand, one after the other.
His gaze met Pitch’s across the cavern, and the old General recoiled, like he expected a boomberang to fly for him next. To be fair, Aster considered it. But Jack had defended him, even against Aster, to the point of disregarding his own well-being and collapsing. Hadn’t Aster just been thinking that Jack had earned a little trust; had earned the benefit of the doubt? Aster probably would still have driven Pitch off, because having Pitch Black in his Warren went so far beyond an Easter blizzard it wasn’t even in the same galaxy, but frankly, Pitch didn’t look like he could have defended himself against a starved kitten, never mind a fully trained pooka warrior with weapons of light at his disposal.
“Come on.” Aster growled at Pitch.
The boogeyman stared at him in blank incomprehension. “What?”
Aster snarled, and realised as he did so that he’d shifted slightly without noticing. His muzzle was now slightly elongated to make space for a predator’s teeth and the vocal chords necessary for snarling and roaring. Pitch flinched, and Aster wasn’t sorry. “I want you where I can see you.” Aster announced, snapping each word out with care to make sure he got his meaning across.
Pitch didn’t argue, didn’t protest or whine. Just blinked twice, and then staggered to his feet and stumbled after Aster. It was torture, forcing himself not to race ahead. He couldn’t have gone at full speed with Jack in his arms anyway, but he still resented Pitch for slowing him down. Jack half-woke when they were almost back to the main section of the Warren, hovering somewhere between conscious and not, fevered and looking through Aster more than he was looking at him. He flinched, curling in on himself. “Hey, easy there, Frostbite.” Aster soothed, expression crumpling.
“Bunny?” Jack asked, voice reedy and weak. “Where… Oh, right. Warren.” He mumbled. He tried to move, jostled his injured arm, and flinched with a hiss of pain. Aster could see the ways his pupils shrank to pinpricks with sudden fear. “Where’s Pitch?” He asked urgently. Aster scowled, but turned so that Jack could see the fucker. “What did you mean?” Jack demanded of Pitch, which was vague enough to confuse Aster, but the boogeyman didn’t seem to need any help to understand.
Pitch looked warily at Jack, eyes flicking to Aster momentarily before he answered. “If you get the fearling taint in your bloodstream, it will eventually take you over, and turn you into one of them.” He explained, a thin little smile pulling at his mouth as he spread his arms in a muted version his usual showy grandstanding. “Since you’re rather powerful, you might even get lucky, and turn into a fearling prince like yours truly.”
Aster snarled, every last cell in his body rebelling against the idea of Jack as something like Pitch, some faded, twisted mockery of his bright and cheerful self. Pitch recoiled, even the dregs of his usual persona dropping away as he remembered where he was. He skittered several paces back, and eyed Aster sideways like he was ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
Jack snorted wearily, like he was too tired to laugh properly, but was still amused by something. It cut right through the sudden tension, drawing both Aster’s and Pitch’s eyes to him. He was smiling, eyes bright even if they were also a little glazed, which let Aster’s hope burn a little brighter. The infection couldn’t have spread too far, if Jack could still look like the whole world was his personal inside joke. “I thought princes were supposed to be respected?” He asked, voice slurring a little.
“Don’t you know what humans do to their princes?” Pitch retorted.
“I’m American.” Jack shot back.
“Oh, of course.” Pitch drawled, rolling his eyes with a sneer. “Immigrant.”
Jack wheezed, curling in on himself, and for a moment Aster panicked, until he realised that Jack was laughing without the energy to spare for it. “Pitch Black, one; Jack Frost, zero.” Jack huffed on a breath that shook. Aster couldn’t decide if he was put out about Pitch, or just pleased that Jack could still laugh at all. In the end, he tried not to think too hard about it, and just started walking again, slower now, because even more of his attention was on Jack. Slowly, the humour drained from Jack’s face as they continued deeper into the Warren, and after a while he reached out with his uninjured arm to grab at Aster’s ruff, fingers tangling in the thick fur and gripping tight enough that in other circumstances, Aster would have protested in fear of loosing chunks of fur.
Now though, he just did his best to conceal exactly how worried he was, and asked; “You doing alright there, Jack?”
“Don’t kick him out.” Jack said, instead of answering Aster’s valid and important question . Aster scowled, because there was no doubt who ‘he’ was, and really, he didn’t give two figs about Pitch fucking Black, he was worried about Jack. “I know you don’t like him, I know, but-” Jack’s expression was turning just a little bit panicked, gaze slipping out of focus as he talked. “You didn’t see- No one deserves that, Bunny.” He shuddered, and his breathing slipped towards too rapid and too shallow. “No one. I didn’t- I hadn’t thought- We left him like that, for months, like-” He shook his head, eyes focused on something that Aster couldn’t see, something that scared him. “I couldn’t just- We can’t just do that to people, Bunny, it’s not- We can’t let that happen, or we’re just- we’re not even-”
“Hey, hey, easy there, Frostbite.” Aster hastily soothed. Jack stopped rambling at least, so he wasn’t entirely lost to whatever was going on inside his head, but he didn’t focus back on Aster, either. Reluctantly, but without any hesitation at all, Aster capitulated. “Alright. Alright, you gumby, I won’t kick the blighter out of the Warren, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Evidently, it did. Tension seeped out of Jack in a rush, and he went limp in Aster’s arms with a shaky sigh. Then he pressed his face into Aster’s shoulder in a way that made his quiet “thank you” almost inaudible.
“Gonna kick your arse for this once you’re better.” Aster grumbled.
Jack went tense again, but Aster didn’t panic this time, because this time he knew exactly what was going on. He could feel the sudden starburst of hope in Jack like he was standing next to a bonfire that had just burst into flame. “You can… there’s a cure?” Jack asked, voice small and fragile with hope.
For a moment, Aster considered lying, because it went against so much of what he was to do anything that might kill a hope that powerful. But it would be worse, if he lied, and it turned out he was wrong. The thought choked him, but he knew that sort of let down, that slip from confident to betrayed, could be the thing that tipped Jack over from infected to fearling. “Maybe.” He sighed. “Most of the ones I know about are… not viable here.” He cast a furious, bitter glare at Pitch, who tried to edge even further away from him even though he was already all but pressed up against the tunnel wall. “But we’re not going to let you go without a fight, Frostbite, you can count on that. We Guardians have got magic enough between us that there’s gotta be something we can do.”
Jack nodded into Aster’s fur, and remained silent the rest of the way into the heart of the Warren. Aster paused at the door to his home, built into the side of a hill covered in wildflowers, and looked behind him at the cowering form of Pitch Black. “You stay here.” He instructed, and then looked to the no longer glowing sentinels that had followed them. “Sentinels, watch him, and don’t let him go anywhere.” The giant stone figures changed their faces to their stern ones and boxed Pitch in. The boogeyman hunched in on himself, and made no move to fight or leave.
Satisfied, Aster ducked into his home and carried Jack through to the bedroom. It was a simple space, because Aster barely used it. It wasn’t as though he needed much sleep as a Guardian, after all. But it was also comfortable, because Aster wasn’t one to deny himself basic comfort. There was a large semi-circular shaped window in the wall above the large curved nest full of blankets in every colour of the rainbow and more than a few other shades that the poor humans on this planet couldn’t distinguish. There were paintings on the walls, but no other furniture, and just a few knick-knacks scattered about on the windowsill.
Aster lay Jack in the nest carefully. “You just rest, okay, Frostbite?” He checked, but Jack ignored him in favour of looking around curiously.
“Is this your bedroom?” Jack asked abruptly, frost blooming across his face and over the shoulders of his hoodie. Aster wondered what that was about as he nodded. “Wow, um…” Jack’s eyes lingered on the paintings, old examples of Aster’s own work, and then on the view out of the window, of great sweeping fields of wild flowers, the edge of a lake, and a scattered handful of trees covered in fresh green leaves. Finally, his gaze dropped to the nest he was sitting in. “Oh my god.” Jack snorted, grinning. “I should have expected it to be egg-shaped, oh my god.”
Aster tried to glower, he really did, but it was just so good to hear Jack laughing that he couldn’t help the grin tugging at the corners of his lips. “There’s nothing wrong with it being egg-shaped. It’s a good, sturdy shape. Structurally sound.” Jack didn’t have a response to that beyond more laughter. Aster rolled his eyes, still smiling, and dropped an armful of blankets over Jack. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, champ. Rest. Get some sleep, if you can.”
Jack’s cackling trailed off with a sigh that still carried a good helping of mirth in it. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m up to much else, right now, but… I really don’t want to sleep.” He admitted with a grimace.
“No kidding.” Aster agreed sympathetically. “But still, if you can.” He paused, and then added. “Try to shore up your power. I don’t know how the infection will interact with your core, never seen a Guardian infected before, but I can’t imagine it’ll hurt, to hold onto the world’s fun.” He pointed out.
Jack closed his eyes for a moment, and slowly, a smile spread across his face. “Yeah, good point.” He agreed. “Do you have any books or something? I’m going to need something to do while I’m on bedrest.” He asked abruptly, wrinkling his nose a little on the last word.
Aster scoffed at him. “Do I have books, he asks.” He grumped playfully. “Do I have books. Mate, I’ve been collecting books since your people started writing ‘em. I’ll fetch you a load, and then-” Aster paused, suddenly frustrated beyond words as the presence of a certain boogeyman derailed all his plans. “Frostbite, are you going to kick up a stink if I take Pitch to the North Pole?” He asked wearily. When Jack shot him a suddenly wary look, he sighed. “I’m not gonna leave him alone in me Warren, Jack.”
“No, fair enough.” Jack murmured.
That was all that was forthcoming. Aster watched with something unidentifiable strangling him as Jack folded in on himself, confusion and fear writ large across his expressive features. “I promise I’ll bring the fucker right back. In the same condition he’s in now, even.” He offered.
Jack blinked, then flashed him a small grin. “Bunny! Such language! Why, my ma’d wash your mouth out with soap if she heard you speaking like that!” He exclaimed with entirely false indignation. Aster glowered at him, but he couldn’t deny he was glad to see Jack a bit more animated again. “Thank you.” Jack added, once the joke had settled. “That’d help, I think. I don’t- I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just-” He shook his head, fisting one hand in his hair, teeth gritted.
“You’re scared.” Aster finished for him, throat tight. Jack huffed without humour and nodded wordlessly. “They don’t call ‘em fearlings for no reason, Jack. That’s the infection talking.”
Jack drew in a deep breath. “I’ll… try to remember that.”
The door to Nick’s office burst open with a bang, making the man inside startle so badly he gouged a long crack into the icy music box he’d been crafting. “How many times have I told you to knock?!” He yelled furiously, an unfortunately common refrain within the Workshop. The yeti framed in the doorway babbled, rapid-fire and panicked enough that Nick had trouble deciphering the Yetish. Something-something Bunny something lost his damned mind, Nick wanted to laugh at that, but the yeti was so panicked that he was starting to worry.
“What is it about Bunny? Is he here?” Nick asked patiently.
The yeti gave an inarticulate cry of frustration, arms flailing. What she said next shocked Nick so badly he didn’t even care when her dramatic gesturing knocked one of his older projects off the shelf beside the door. He leapt to his feet. “Pitch is here?! ” He yelled, horrified, snatching up his swords. “Again?! So soon?!”
Another stream of gibberish followed him as he pushed past the yeti and followed the flow of panicking yeti and elves towards the main Workshop floor, but Nick wasn’t listening. He thundered down the stairs, used the pillar to slingshot himself around and onto the balcony that held his copy of the Globe of Belief. He had to shove his way past a wall of yeti to get there, and then he swept his eyes over the scene.
Bunny was standing beside the Globe, all the fur of his ruff standing on end, making his shoulders look twice as bulky as usual, his ears pinned back and- Yes, he had shifted. Nick had not seen that in centuries, but those were the teeth of a carnivore, not a rabbit. As Nick arrived, he reached out, and twisted the lever to activate the Aurora. The colours spilled out through the workshop, and it wasn’t until the light flowed over him and he flinched that Nick even saw Pitch.
He was standing in the shadow of one of the pillars, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around himself. But if his body language was defensive, his expression was furious. His teeth, like Bunny’s were bared in a snarl, and his eyes flashed like the gleam of a predator’s eyes in the dark as he scanned his surroundings. “Pitch!” Nick cried, half a battle-cry, half a warning for Bunny.
The boogeyman flinched as Nick raised his cutlass, and Bunny turned.
“Don’t hurt him, North.” Bunny warned, almost a snarl. Nick stumbled to a stop, sword still raised, to stare at him in disbelief. Bunny jammed the heel of his palm against one eye and rubbed like he was getting a migraine. “I know, I can’t believe I’m saying that either, but I’m serious.” He looked up then, and Nick hadn’t ever seen that expression on his friend’s face before. There was a depth of fear and ages old trauma that Nick couldn’t begin to comprehend, but it reminded him of the echo he’d sometimes catch on Bunny’s face whenever the dark ages came up.
Nick lowered his sword, dropping his shoulders and girding himself for trouble. “What is happening, old friend?” He asked, in his rarely used serious voice.
“I’d really rather only explain once.” Bunny informed him, and Nick nodded.
“But Pitch…?” Nick asked, not comfortable letting that issue stand without at least some form of explanation. He was unbound and in his Workshop, and that was not acceptable.
“I promised Jack I’d bring him back unharmed.” Bunny answered shortly. “And I don’t break my word, North.” That was a warning, as stunning as it was, that Bunny was going to defend Pitch, if North pressed the issue, or tried to harm him. North had no idea what to do with that, or even where to start with the questions.
Eventually, he settled on asking after the person who’d apparently managed to wrangle such a promise from Bunny, of all people. “Jack?” He echoed in his confusion.
“Strewth, North, can’t you save it ‘til the others get here?!” Bunny snapped.
Nick’s teeth clicked as he shut his mouth, concern rising by the moment. He was not, usually, a patient man, but he could tell that Bunny was right on the edge of cracking open and shattering to pieces if he was pushed, so he restrained his curiosity. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long. This soon after the last emergency, they were all still a bit twitchy, so Sandy and Tooth arrived at the North Pole mere minutes after the Aurora had been activated.
“North?” Tooth called as she zipped in through a window. “What’s going on? I was in Norway when I saw the Aurora, so I came right away. Baby Tooth is getting so good at taking over for me, but she’s still so young, so I can’t- Pitch!” Tooth spotted the boogeyman, and flew right for him. Nick saw Pitch’s eyes widen with alarm, before he threw himself behind the pillar to avoid the enraged fairy.
“Tooth!” Bunny barked, leaping forwards to catch her about the waist before she could dart after the boogeyman again. Tooth yelped in protested, struggling to free herself without actually trying to fight Bunny on it.
Sandy drifted down to settle beside North, eyebrows raised in obvious question. “Perhaps we can let Bunny explain before we start fight, yes?” North called. “Or are we still waiting on Jack?” He added, glancing at Bunny.
He was unprepared for the way Bunny’s expression faltered. He released Tooth, who only used her regained mobility to turn, all her anger packed away to make room for concern. She laid her hand on Bunny’s shoulder, tilting her head to try and get a better look at his face, to let him see her own open, imploring expression of concern. “Jack’s not coming.” Bunny informed them shortly. “Because he’s been infected by a fearling.”
The bottom dropped out of North’s stomach. He had only heard stories of the dark ages, they had been well before his time, and half a continent away at that. He hadn’t cared, until he’d found himself in the company of legends, and he’d found out just what had caused an age of paranoia and destruction in Western Europe. Tooth had been the one to relate the adventure that had dragged Bunny out of his Warren to help her and Sandy face down Pitch, because Bunny didn’t like to talk about it, and Sandy had warned Nick not to push him.
Tooth had always told him that, at Bunny’s urging, they had wiped out every last fearling, leaving Pitch crippled and powerless for centuries. There shouldn’t be any fearlings left to infect anyone, least of all with the power to get the better of a Guardian. Nick recalled stories of rotting, crumbling flesh and tried not to imagine what might be happening to Jack right this very minute.
Across the balcony, Tooth had gasped, hand over her mouth as a horror to match Nick’s own spilled across her face, and Sandy was flashing up symbols faster than even Nick could translate. “I dunno, mate.” Bunny said in response to whatever Sandy had been asking.
“Pitch! Did you do this?!” Tooth demanded abruptly, derailing whatever Sandy had been about to say next as she took off after the bogeyman again.
“No!” Pitch protested, hands up in a defensive posture as he backed away from her.
“For fuck’s sake, Tooth!” Bunny snapped. “Leave him alone unless you want Jack to die faster!”
Tooth almost fell out of the air she stopped so suddenly. “What is meaning?” Nick demanded, striding forwards, while Tooth flitted back over to hover anxiously beside him and Sandy threw up a large golden question mark.
Bunny ran a hand over his face and sighed heavily. “For some dumb reason, Jack’s fixated on Pitch. Near as I can figure, he went looking for him, to check up on him. He was saying a couple of weeks ago that he was worried about what Pitch was up to, so I guess that makes sense.” He explained. Nick nodded, because Jack had come to him, too, about his concerns that Pitch might be up to something. “Well, I haven’t the foggiest how we got from ‘Pitch might be up to something’ to fearlings in my bloody Warren-”
“They got into your Warren?!” Tooth exclaimed, the jewel-bright feathers of her crest perking up in alarm. “Oh, Bunny, are you okay?”
“They didn’t get too deep.” Bunny assured her dismissively. “My sentinels took care of ‘em, but… well, I figure Jack must have been defending Pitch or something, because he’s paranoid about the bastard getting hurt.” He rolled his eyes and shot Pitch a poisonous look. “So, we keep him safe, and the longer we have to find some sort of cure for Jack.” He explained shortly.
Nick drew in a sharp breath. “You think we can find cure?” He asked sharply.
The look Bunny gave him did not inspire hope. It was pained and desperate and halfway to begging with gaze alone. “I heard stories, before.” Bunny explained, gesturing in a strangely helpless manner, as though he wanted something to do with his hands, but couldn’t find anything to fiddle with.
He was interrupted by Sandy. As near as Sandy ever got to interrupting anyone, anyway, but Bunny, when he wasn’t too caught up in an argument, did tend to stop speaking if Sandy wanted to say something, even if he had to cut himself off in the middle of a sentence. Sandy flicked up a- Was that a candle? And… a lipstick print? Nick had no idea how to interpret that, but Bunny seemed to understand, because he nodded. “Like that, yeah. I know there aren’t any left, but it means it’s possible, right?”
Shrugging, Sandy conjured up the symbol of an eye, and then a big X, which Nick figured meant he’d never seen whatever cure they were discussing in action. But then he smiled, and showed a golden storybook opening and his symbols for each of the guardians spilling out; a candy cane, an Easter egg, a pair of dragonfly wings, a five-pointed star, and a snowflake. Then he added a cloud of dreamsand with no form, which after a moment turned into a question mark.
Anything is possible if you believe, Nick translated with a smile of his own. “Sandy is right! We will find cure! For Jack!” He exclaimed, rounding on Bunny. “How long do we have?”
Bunny shrugged helplessly. “I dunno, mate. Days? Months? Sometimes it takes people quick, sometimes it drags out. Jack’s strong, but he’s skipped right over the early stages and gone right into fatigue and fever-dreams.” He stopped talking for a moment, visibly struggling to keep a hold of himself and not panic uselessly. “A week, at least, for certain.” Bunny decided firmly.
North nodded. “Must work fast, then.” He decided, determined to do whatever he could to help save Jack. Then something clicked in his mind, and he stilled, holding his hands up for quiet while he thought, scrabbling through the dusty corners of his mind for the pieces of the idea that was taking shape in his mind. It was much like assembling his toys, all the little cogs and gears and springs all had to go in the right place in the right order, or it would fall apart or explode. But like with his toys, it came together beautifully in his metaphorical hands. “Idea!”
“What? What is it?” Tooth asked, flitting over to hover right in his face in her desperation.
“Guardian magic! We were created to fight fear, no? Jack himself said so! When afraid, have fun instead, fear goes away. When afraid, hope for better, dream of better, remember better, imagine better, and it will make better. If we combine our magic with Jack’s, perhaps will be enough to fight off infection!” He explained in delight. “Will need to work out details, but will not take hour.”
Bunny nodded, ears perking up in his relief that there were at least possibilities to explore. “You do that, mate. I’m going to get that cunt back to the Warren and make sure Jack’s okay.” He jerked a thumb at Pitch, who scowled and twitched away from the digit being pointed in his direction. “Then I’ll take a look at my plants, see if there isn’t anything I can mix up to help him.”
Sandy raised a hand to get their attention again, and then gestured between himself and Bunny, threw up a dreamsand image of a stick figure walking, and then the flower-inside-a-circle symbol he used for the Warren. He conjured a puff of dreamsand above one hand, set it to swirling, brought his hands together as if in prayer, then threw up the snowflake symbol again with a shrug. Nick wasn’t quite sure what the praying was about, but he figured the rest of it meant that Sandy wanted to go with Bunny to the Warren, to see if his dreamsand could do anything for Jack.
“Sure, mate.” Bunny agreed, even more of the tension he’d been carrying leaving him. “I’d appreciate the help with that, too.” He added, pointing at Pitch again. Sandy beamed and nodded, hovering several feet off the floor.
“I’ll start going through North’s library.” Tooth offered. Nick opened his mouth to protest her assumption that she could just come in and do as she pleased, but he barely got a syllable out before she was chattering on, rapid-fire. “I’m not exactly well-versed in human magic, but I can at least narrow it down a little for him, and I can read very fast, so it won’t take me long, especially if some of the yeti can help me with sorting and compiling the information.”
Nick considered protesting her appropriation of his yetis, too, but took one look at her hopeful, eager gaze, and the way Bunny was almost smiling, and relented. He would have offered to let her look at the library anyway, if she hadn’t pre-empted him. “Yes, yes, yetis will help.” He assured her. “Phil! Help Tooth! I will be in office, disturb for emergencies only!”
That said, Nick returned to his office, and pulled a couple of books down from the shelves in there. If it was as simple as just channelling Guardian power, Jack wouldn’t have gotten infected in the first place. Nick needed to find a way to mix them, contain them, empower them, something that would give Jack a magical boost, something to strengthen his will and power and soul against the taint of the fearlings.
Just thinking about it made Nick’s hands shake in a very irritating away. He glowered at his fingers, usually so nimble despite their size, now rattling the pages he was trying to turn with tremors. He hated to think of Jack suffering that particular evil. Jack was such a bright and fearless individual, so brave and bold and resilient. He’d suffered more than he deserved in his time as a spirit, and Nick had been trying, lately, to make up for the neglect he’d suffered. He wanted to protest that he hadn’t known that Jack was so alone. He was a spirit, he must have known other spirits, but… but if everyone had been thinking like that, and it was clear they had…
He shook the thoughts away and went back to his books. It was easy enough to contain magic in an object, but to contain it in such a way that it could be fed into another person afterwards? That was going to be more difficult. Perhaps if he used the basic spellwork of a healing charm, and adapted it to Guardian magic? That was a good start, but that would have the problem of changing the nature of the magic, which wasn’t what they wanted.
Nick had to get this right, because if he failed, if they couldn’t figure out a way to save Jack, he would die of fright, every piece of his personality broken down and destroyed by mind-numbing terror. It was a terrible fate for anyone to suffer, but for Jack it seemed especially cruel. Nick didn’t think he had any right to call Jack a friend, yet, it had only been a few months, and he’d hardly begun to make up for everything, but he’d hoped they’d get there, soon. If he was being entirely honest with himself – something he tried to do, to be a good example to the kids, if nothing else – he felt rather paternal towards Jack. If he had had a son, he would have been insufferably proud to have a son like Jack.
Not that Jack would welcome such a bond, yet, he knew. And not that Jack would have a chance to grow into the idea, if he died now, infected by a fearling. Nick very pointedly turned his mind away from the horror stories Tooth had told him, of people who’d screamed themselves hoarse in terror as their body rotted away while they still loved. He’d never seen a fearling infection, but he’d seen enough people with gangrene and frostbite in his time as a bandit in Russia that his imagination had a wealth of horrific images to draw on and superimpose onto Jack’s laughing face. It was not a helpful train of thought, however, so he banished it with an effort and refocused on the talisman he was piecing together.
It was looking a little like a dream-catcher, and he hoped it would work in a similar manner. They could feed their magic into it, and instead of converting it into healing energy, the talisman would simply channel it through the spellwork and into Jack in exactly the same state it had been when they fed it into the thing. Maybe he’d let it purify the magic a little, siphon out and store the little imperfections that allowed the four of them to be more human than just a pure incarnation of magic. That way Jack would only get the best of what they had to offer, pure and untarnished.
Tooth’s shadow zipped past his office, the sound of her voice yelling instructions drifting through the door, and Nick had to smile. They would all fight hard to save Jack, and they would succeed, because the alternative was unthinkable. He had just bent back over the talisman when his office door burst open. “What did I say-” He began, only to cut himself off when he realised it was Tooth, not one of the yeti, that had burst into his office unannounced. “Tooth?” He asked warily.
“I just thought I should let you know that I told Baby Tooth to bring Jack’s memories here. She can’t get into the Warren by herself, but I thought you could take them with you when you take that-” She waved a distracted hand at the talisman as she flitted about in a frenzy just as rapid as her words. “-to Jack. They might help, after all, and I don’t know what else I can do.”
“That is good idea, Tooth.” Nick assured her. Evidently, her worry was manifesting itself as nervous energy and fretting, because the next thing she did was thrust a plate of cookies at him, and she didn’t even remind him to brush his teeth afterwards as she zipped out again. Shoving a cookie into his mouth gratefully, Nick bent back over his work.
Just a quick warning that there is a (fairly vivid?) description of a panic attack and a traumatic flashback in this chapter, so if you find that triggering, disturbing, or just squicky, please proceed with care, if you proceed at all <3
The books Bunny brought Jack kept him occupied for about fifteen blissful minutes, and then Jack heard something move beyond the confines of Bunny’s hobbit hole, and his head snapped up, heart thundering. A beat later, he snorted at himself. This was the Warren, it was probably even safer than the North Pole. That noise had probably just been one of the sentry-egg things moving about. There was no reason to be so jumpy.
He tried to go back to the books. Emphasis on tried, because now that he was conscious of it, he couldn’t stop himself twitching at any out-of-place noise, and there was a shiver sitting just under his skin, and if he’d been able to feel the cold that way, he would have thought he just had a chill. Frustrated, Jack clambered out of the nest Bunny had deposited him in, ignored the way his legs felt moments away from giving out on him, and staggered back outside.
There was nothing out of place in the Warren. The sentinels were ambling about, keeping watch, and some tension uncoiled from around Jack’s lungs. Only once it was gone did he realise just how bad it had been. He looked down at his arm, and the three shallow gashes that sliced open his outer forearm, surrounded by a strangely mottled bruise-like mark in black and grey. “You’re a piece of shit.” He informed it with a mix of resentment and humour. Then he sat down with his back against a rock all but covered in squishy, spongy moss and tipped his head back, eyes closed, to just breathe the fresh air and soak up the peaceful moment.
He really liked the Warren, even if he did sometimes worry about touching anything, in case he frosted it over. Bunny hadn’t seemed to worry about it when he’d offered Jack the talisman that allowed him to open a tunnel if he wanted to visit. It made Jack smile to remember, the way it had felt to be welcome in someone else’s space, to be invited.
How long had Bunny been gone, anyway? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Jack really wasn’t sure, but he’d probably be gone at least the same amount of time again, and it wasn’t anything to worry over, yet, right? Jack couldn’t help but think of how the other Guardian’s might react to Pitch. It wasn’t as if he was insisting on the spirit’s safety because he liked him, it was just… he couldn’t banish the memory of Pitch in the wreckage of a child’s bedroom, being ripped into like some sort of parody of Prometheus, helpless before the malice of the nightmares.
It was stupid, he knew the other Guardians, they couldn’t have known what had been happening to Pitch in the time since his attempt to kill them all, but… What if he was wrong? He’d only known them for a few months, after all, and they’d never lifted a hand to help him when he’d been hurting. And they’d all been so sure that Pitch wouldn’t be a problem again for a long while. Why was that? Was it possible that they had known what was happening?
Jack didn’t know how anyone could live with themselves, letting that happen to another person. Pitch was horrible, yes, but he was horrible because he willfully caused pain to others, without care, deliberately and with malice aforethought. If it wasn’t okay for Pitch to do it, then it wasn’t okay for anyone else to do it, either. Jack thought that was pretty obvious. But the Guardians did have that slightly oblivious air of people so convinced they were in the right they couldn’t see the lines they were crossing.
What if they’d known? What if now that Bunny had managed to get Pitch away from Jack’s watchful eye, they were going to put him right back? Jack shook the thought away, because it was stupid, he knew Bunny wasn’t like that, even if the others might not think twice…
You thought you weren’t like that, either, a malicious little voice in the back of his mind whispered, and Jack hunched in on himself, burying his face in his knees and clutching his staff so tightly the grain of the wood bit into his skin. The pain was a surprisingly good anchor, and he focused on it as he fought his way out of the guilt spiral.
He wasn’t like that. When he’d found out what was happening, he’d put a stop to it. That was a fact that couldn’t be denied. But he remembered that day, the morning after Easter, when they’d confronted Pitch on Jack’s lake, and the nightmares had ganged up on their faltering master, and… He’d seen how frightened Pitch was, hadn’t he? He’d seen the terror, and that didn’t just come from nowhere. He should have thought, he should have stopped to wonder why Pitch was so afraid of the nightmares.
But he hadn’t wanted to alienate his new friends, had he? Pathetic, needy little Jack hadn’t wanted to upset them when they seemed to have really, truly accepted him. The Guardians had been pleased, excited about Pitch’s defeat, and they hadn’t stopped to think that something might be wrong, so Jack hadn’t either. How far did that go? How much of himself was Jack willing to compromise just to not be alone anymore? Surely, an actually decent person would rather do the right thing and remain alone than ignore something like that just because their friends were ignoring it, too?
Jack’s head snapped up, and he was momentarily dazzled by the bright spring sunlight that suffused the Warren. He could still see the shape of Bunny bounding across the flower fields, and behind him, moving slower, the dark and slender silhouette of Pitch. The relief that swept over Jack was dizzying, and he had to put his head down again to just breathe through it. Suddenly, it became astonishingly clear just how warped his train of thought had become, and he dug his fingers into the skin around the gash on his arm in annoyance.
Then Bunny reached him, and he was being pulled up by surprisingly gentle hands. “What’re you doing out here, ya gumby? How’re you feeling?” Bunny demanded, ears flat back as he stared at Jack’s face as though expecting to find answers there. Jack just smiled helplessly and leaned forwards until he could rest his forehead against Bunny’s shoulder.
“You kept your promise.” Jack breathed. “Thank you.”
Bunny’s hands hovered in the air over his shoulders for a long moment, before they settled on his back gingerly. “Of course I did, Frostbite.” He assured him, patting his shoulder awkwardly. “I never go back on my word, mate.”
“I know, I just…” Jack sighed, too frustrated for words.
“Yeah, I understand.” Bunny soothed. After a moment just wordlessly soaking up the comfort, Jack forced himself not to be too clingy, and straightened. Bunny let him go and stepped back too. “North’s got some ideas, Tooth’s reorganising his library for him, and Sandy thought he might be able to help you wish the infection away, so he came back with me.”
Jack looked behind Bunny, and saw what he’d missed in his relief that his fears hadn’t proven true; Sandy was bobbing along beside an extremely wary Pitch. He smiled and waved at Jack, who smiled and waved back, less amused by Pitch’s obvious fear than he had been at Easter. “What do you mean, wish it away? Believe me, if it was as simple as just wishing it away, it’d be gone already.”
Sandy shook his head, and threw up his symbol for himself. Then gave that star a tail and made it fly over his head like a cartoon of a shooting star. Then he showed a little scene of a child in a window, and brought his own hands together as if in prayer, while the shooting star arced over the scene.
“You’re… saying you’re a wishing star?” Jack asked in surprise, and Sandy nodded. “Okay… so how does this work? Do I just… say I wish I wasn’t infected anymore? Because I really wish I wasn’t infected anymore.”
Sandy gave him a very unimpressed look. A little cloud of dreamsand swirled up above his head, and then collapsed as Sandy puffed out his cheeks in frustration. He turned to Bunny, and gestured as if he wanted Bunny’s input. “Don’t look at me, mate.” Bunny objected, holding his hands up. “I was a warrior, I didn’t learn any spells, let alone any star-spells.”
“There’s a spell?” Jack asked, and Sandy nodded again. Then he made a noise, like wind chimes or the clear tone you could get from playing a wineglass like an instrument. Then he threw his arms up in frustration. “You can’t tell me what it is, and Bunny doesn’t know it.” Jack concluded, matching Sandy’s annoyance and raising him a healthy dose of creeping dread.
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.” Pitch interjected, sounding eternally long-suffering and pointedly not looking at any of them. Sandy lit up, actually floating a foot off the floor as he held both thumbs up in delight.
“Wait, really?” Jack asked, looking between them. “That old thing? It’s an actual spell?” Sandy nodded.
“It’s not going to work.” Pitch added. Both Sandy and Bunny shot him a glare, and he sidled away from them like a skittish colt.
“Guys.” Jack protested weakly.
Bunny grumbled under his breath, while Sandy actually managed to look somewhat contrite. Then he gestured towards Jack, which he took as a sign to get on with it. “Do I need to actually say my wish out loud, or is just… thinking it really hard good enough?” He asked Sandy, who tipped his head thoughtfully. He conjured a particularly bright swirl of dreamsand and held it over his heart, before extending that hand to the side, while with the other hand he made talky motions. Then he see-sawed his hands in the air, and shrugged. “A silent but heartfelt wish is just as powerful as one said aloud, just in different ways?” Jack guessed, and Sandy nodded. “Okay, guess I’ll improvise.”
“Just remember that all magic is more powerful the more you believe in it.” Bunny reminded him, reaching out to grip Jack’s shoulder and ducking his head to look him directly in the eye. “This will work, Jack.” He said firmly, and Jack nodded, doing his best to believe him.
“Star light, star bright.” Jack began to recite, looking back at Sandy. The star closed his eyes and spread his arms, floating up off the floor and clearly gathering his power. “First star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” Jack finished, and then, taking a deep breath and tasting the sharp-sweet light on his tongue, he added, just like he had when he was a child; “I wish, I wish, I wish I wasn’t infected anymore.”
Light spilled out of Sandy in brilliant streamers of gold, twining around him and reaching out. A few coiled in Jack’s direction, and Jack froze in place as they curled around his shoulders and ruffled his hair before being drawn to his arm and his ankle. His heart raced, and in his hand his staff actually creaked with the amount of pressure he was applying. He tried to force his grip to loosen, but all that tension just relocated to his shoulders, winding him so tight he wondered if he might not snap his own spine.
The light brushed against the ugly black wound, and static raced up Jack’s arm, making him cry out and stumble backwards. He fetched up against his tree, clutching his wounded arm to his chest. That had hurt, and when the light tried again to reach into the wound, it was like sticking his entire arm into a pool of lava. He gritted his teeth, because he could put up with a bit of pain to be rid of the infection. His pulse pounded in his ears, and his arm and ankle throbbed in time with the beat.
Spots swam in his vision, and the Warren seemed to go topsy-turvy for a moment. His entire world narrowed down to his pulse thundering in his ears, and the tension and strain of his muscles under his skin. He could feel Sandy’s magic against his suddenly hypersensitive skin, but worse, he could feel the infection just under his skin, seething and roiling against the attempt to pry it out of him. It hurt, and it wouldn’t stop hurting, like the blackness had barbs in his bones, and all the light was doing was tearing his soul out of his flesh.
His lungs seized, and his stomach clenched, and the next thing Jack knew he was throwing up all over Bunny’s flowerbeds. Distantly, he heard Bunny yelling something, but he couldn’t make sense of the words. He knew he was supposed to know what they meant, but actually attaching sound to meaning was entirely beyond him. He staggered backwards, away from the mess he’d just made, and his injured leg gave out under him.
Hitting the ground jarred him, shook his frame and made him feel terribly weak and fragile. He tried to breathe, but the air seemed like soup, thick and congealed as It crawled reluctantly down his throat. He felt like he was drowning, there was water in his lungs and a chill in his bones and ice above his head, and he was dying and someone was screaming and he didn’t even have the strength to pound his fist into the ice to let someone know where he was. He was going to die and there was nothing he could do except marinate in his own terror.
Shadows clawed at his vision, blackness edged with streaks of bloody red. He struggled, but he was so weak, so close to death, and somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered, with aching desperation, if he just gave in, if he let the darkness take him, maybe the pain would stop, maybe he wouldn’t be so afraid. He wanted the fear to stop like nothing else.
But the darkness held a terror all its own, depthless and all-consuming, and Jack was just as scared of falling as he was of everything else. He flailed desperately towards the surface, even though his fingertips met biting ice not cool fresh air, until suddenly there was warm fur against his fingers, soft pads and dull claws, as alien fingers curled around his own.
Jack gripped back with what little strength was left to him, and it anchored him. His breath wheezed alarmingly in his lungs, but it came a little easier with each gasp. His vision was still blurry and clouded, but the blackness wasn’t crowding out the colours of the Warren anymore. He could hear Bunny’s voice over the screaming that still lingered in his ears, though he still couldn’t make out the words. He focused on trying to parse it, picking a word and holding tightly as he grubbed around in his brain for the meaning.
“...there, Jack… …alright, I’ve got… …that again, you…”
Chiming music rang out, and Jack remembered Sandy, and golden magic, and a wish on a wishing star, and shuddered at the upsurge of fear. He curled onto his side in the grass and convulsed weakly, too exhausted to throw up, despite the spasms of his stomach muscles. Bunny’s dextrous fingers carded through his hair, and Jack hadn’t been aware a simple touch could feel so good until the tension flooded out of his shoulders, leaving his arms feeling like jelly.
Distantly, another voice joined the conversation. “I did tell you it wouldn’t work.”
“Shut yer gob, Pitch.” Bunny snarled, voice vicious even as his fingers remained gentle in Jack’s hair. “If you don’t have anything helpful to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
Pitch sighed like over-dramatic twit he was. “There is something I could try that would be more likely to help than anything the lot of you could come up with.” He offered with an air of awkward reluctance.
Bunny snorted, an ugly, rough sound full of derision. “And why should we trust you’d actually be trying to help Jack, and not just speeding up the infection?”
“Fine, don’t accept my help then.” Pitch scoffed dismissively. “Let him die.”
That sent a little frisson of fear through Jack, and he shuddered with it, but while the idea of dying was scary, he would honestly rather die as himself than become one of those monsters. The thought was a clarion call through his scattered mind, and he latched onto it without fully understanding why. Just that when he put it into perspective like that, he could breathe easier, and the world was a little steadier underneath him. “Let’s-”
His throat gave up on him, rasping like sandpaper and killing his voice before he could get more than a word out. He coughed, tried to work up some saliva, and tried again. “Let’s not try that again, yeah?” He requested dryly.
Bunny laughed like it was being wrung out him at great personal cost, and his fingers stuttered for a moment in Jack’s hair, before stilling. “No worries, mate.” He assured him fervently. “Come on, let’s get you back into bed. Why’d you even get up in the first place, anyway?” He groused as he picked Jack up.
“Couldn’t just keep sitting there.” Jack explained, debating between getting embarrassed about being carried around in a bridal carry, or just not giving a shit. Then fur brushed his cheek and he realised he’d instinctively curled into the hold, and he gave up even entertaining the idea of embarrassment. It had been a very long time since anyone had coddled him because he was sick, and honestly, he was just too exhausted to work up any self-consciousness right then. It could keep until later.
Jack did not get better. Pitch did not watch and hover like the Guardians did, but he didn’t need to in order to know that Jack was not getting better. If the increasingly worried and desperate faces of the Guardians as the month faded into the next hadn’t tipped him off, the fact that Jack stopped coming outside, and then started having screaming night-terrors, and then went entirely silent would have been enough. The process was as familiar to him as his own heartbeat.
Not that he had suffered through such a drawn out transformation. His own conversion had been swift, one moment a discarded and forgotten soldier, the next a General of Fear. It had been a relief, to have strength and purpose again, after so long marinating in his uselessness. He should have been delighted with this turn of events, should have been egging the infection on where he could, tugging Jack Frost closer and closer to his side. He’d wanted that since Easter, since he’d realised just what this little seasonal spirit was capable of. So why wasn’t he?
No one deserves that.
Pitch turned away from his contemplation of the silent pooka den with a snarl, and began to pace. He was shadowed, as ever, by those infernal machines, cheap imitations of the long lost pooka sentinels, living stone animated by the belief of an empire to protect those planets already colonised as the warriors went off in search of another planet to explore. Pitch pushed those thoughts aside, too, because there was something uncomfortable about recalling the last time he’d seen a true pookan sentinel right now.
Unfortunately, in trying not to think about darkness and rot spreading across verdant landscapes, Pitch’s mind helpfully threw up the other subject he was trying not to think about. Jack Frost. The instrument of his downfall had taken one look at the state he himself had reduced Pitch to, and… tried to save him. Jack had pulled him out of the consequences of his failure, his punishment, well earned and entirely deserved, and said ‘no’. He’d put himself between Pitch and his own personal hell, and paid the price. And that… did not sit well with Pitch Black.
He did not like owing a debt to anyone, least of all to Jack Frost. It left a bad taste in the back of his throat, and a nasty ache just above his sternum. He glanced back towards the house, rubbing absently at his chest as if that might make the dull pain go away. He could help, he thought. He knew fear intimately, knew how it pulled and twisted at a soul, knew all it’s flavours and taints. He knew the way it’s claws only dug deeper when one attempted to pry it away by force, knew that even gentle coaxing would only encourage it to worm tendrils deeper, even as it gave the illusion of falling away.
He could help, if only the Guardians would let him. It rankled, to be caught like this, prevented from repaying his debt, prevented from forgetting it, thwarted by the ignorance of those useless sentimental Guardians. They were going about it all wrong, and it would be a balm and a triumph, to repay his debt and succeed where even the mighty Guardians had failed. They would not let him, though, and he was too weak to force the issue. He was weaker than he’d ever been, nothing but his own shadow answering his call when he pulled on his magic, everything else blocked by the magic and belief woven into this insipid remnant of a bygone empire.
He conjured his scythe to his hand for the reassuring weight of the weapon, but the moment it was in his hand, the false sentinels lit up with starlight that burned through cloth and skin and flesh. It dug cruel barbs into his soul, and he banished the scythe again, throwing his hands in the air in a sign of both defeat and exasperation. “Fine!” He huffed, and stalked to pace another circuit around the little garden he’d been confined to.
It was so infuriating, to be held captive like this out of some misguided notion of kindness. They might as well let him go, because keeping him there to appease some of the fear in Jack Frost would only prolong his suffering. It wouldn’t be long now, though, not even with him still around. Jack was past the point of caring about him, honestly, almost completely lost to his terror. It was a matter of days, not weeks, before Jack would begin to lash out instead of in, and then he would be lost. The fear would rule him, and he would rule it; a Fearling Prince.
No one deserves that.
A snarl tore its way free of Pitch’s throat, and he fisted a hand in his hair, wishing he could forget that useless phrase. If he could just forget the way Jack Frost had looked at him when he’d first found him, not pride or savage satisfaction, not even horror or pity, but apology, rueful and sincere.
“What?!” Pitch snapped, rounding on the blasted rabbit.
He stood there, greyed and washed out, wearing nothing but a weapons belt, foot-wraps, and bracers, arms folded across his chest and a scowl on his war-face, with the teeth and nose of a predator. The last lingering remnant of the pooka, diminished to little more than an overgrown rabbit bribing children for their belief. Pitch hated him. Even the obvious signs of his suffering, his ears laid back flat against his skull and the thinning fur of his ruff, didn’t elicit any satisfaction in Pitch, only derision and disgust.
And still the blasted creature wasn’t saying anything. He was scowling at the ground, now, instead of Pitch, and even as he stood there, Pitch saw one his hands come up to scratch at his ruff, fingers tugging roughly at the fur and knotting it up where he wasn’t just tearing it out.
“What?” Pitch repeated, less aggressive but with more emphasis.
The pooka’s eyes snapped back to his, and his expression went from a worried scowl to a determined one. “You said there was something you could do.” He stated.
Pitch’s eyebrows flew up and he leaned back a little, as if a distance view might make the picture he was seeing make more sense. He wasn’t sure he dared to hope that the stupid beast was actually going to let him help, but that was what it sounded like. “I did.” He confirmed warily. “Are you suggesting you’re actually willing to let me help?”
The rabbit ran a hand over his face like he was trying to scrub away his anxiety. It bubbled in the air around him like acid, sharp and biting. “I can’t believe I’m saying this.” He muttered to himself, before he dropped his hand and looked at Pitch again. “At this point, the worst you could do is what’s happening already, we’ve got nothing left to try, so…” He gestured helplessly with one hand, the other still curled around himself like he was trying to hold himself together. “Go ahead.”
Disarmed by this sudden capitulation, Pitch edged towards the den, keeping a cautious eye on the pooka the whole way, in case it was a trick or trap or he changed his mind. He didn’t. He just followed Pitch back into the den, ears pinned back and shoulders stooped and tread heavy. It was awful inside the den, all homey and disgustingly comfortable, but Pitch decided that biting his tongue would be better for his health, and forbore to comment. Instead, he followed the heady pull of terror to what was obviously the pooka’s nest, surprisingly bare but still skin-crawling in it’s banality.
Pitch ignored the rest of the room in favour of studying Jack Frost. He was curled into a foetal ball in the mess of blankets that made up a typical pookan nest, staff clutched in one hand, the other curled up over his head. He was insensate, but not quite unconscious, a certain laxness in his posture that was belied by the tight-strung tension in every muscle, pulling his body in closer on itself and his face into a twisted rictus of fear.
There was a silvery-green blanket pulled half over him, frosted over at the edges, but it wasn’t the spirit’s usual brilliant, blinding magic. It was dull and transparent, but it still laced the entire room with a chill that touched even Pitch’s bones. Jack Frost was far more powerful than even he realised, and Pitch made sure not to touch the icy patterns as he flipped the blanket away to see exactly how far the infection had spread.
Most of Jack’s skin was a sickly grey, but his extremities were still flaking blackened tissue, and there was another patch of ugly black stain over one side of his face, spilling over mouth and nose and half of one eye. His hair, too, was stained with black, withering and greying from the roots out, dulling his once white hair to black. None of that was an encouraging sign, but the true marker of whether he was too far gone to save would be his eyes.
Leaning forward, Pitch carefully bracketed Jack’s head with his hands and pried his eyelids up with his thumbs. The eyes underneath were glazed, looking into some nameless terror, but while one was almost entirely clouded over with a milky sheen – not golden but icy, Jack was strong indeed, to retain even that little scrap of himself – save for a narrow ring of dull and darkened midnight blue, the other eye was still crystalline and bright.
Sighing in relief, Pitch seated himself on the edge of the nest, and readjusted his hands on Jack’s face so that his palms covered his cheekbones and part of his ears – as blackened and crumbling as his fingers and toes – while his thumbs rested snugly against his temples. “This may take a while.” He absently warned the pooka hovering in the doorway.
“What are y-?”
Pitch didn’t wait for him to finish his question, he simply pulled on his power and dove into the shadow of Jack Frost’s mind.
He was met by a blizzard, a howling storm of sleet and ice clawing up an endless tundra. Pitch stood in the center of the storm, a single pillar of stillness in the midst of a frenzy. He breathed deeply, even as the cold bit at his lungs like no corporeal chill could. As he sank himself deeper into Jack’s mind, his robes began to whip about his legs, and the wind began to buffet him. He leaned into it, raised a hand to shield his eyes against the sting of the snow, and considered this first defence.
Cruel winds bit and tore at him as he started to walk, pushing with all their might against his progress. “You want me gone, don’t you, Jack?” Pitch murmured, and the wind whipped his voice away before it reached his own ears, but that didn’t matter. Jack would hear him, because this storm was Jack, a little piece of him corrupted by fear into this howling, frenzied thing. “Well, too bad. Do you really think you could stop me?!”
He gathered up the fear fuelling the fury, and manifested it. The storm died, the entire tundra brought to sudden, alarming stillness, and out of the sudden clarity rose a castle, old stone glittering with frost until every battlement and archway appeared to be made of crystal. Diamond dust floated in the air, and swirled around Pitch’s ankles as he passed under a portcullis like crystal fangs, and into a courtyard dotted with cages full of shadows.
On a throne atop a dais lounged Jack, black-haired and grey-skinned and golden-eyed, holding a spear with a crystal tip instead of his staff, and dressed like a prince of an intergalactic empire. “Hello, Jack.” Pitch greeted with a smile.
“Pitch Black.” Jack mused, a wicked grin unfurling across his face. He gestured with a showman’s grace at the courtyard and all the imprisoned monsters made of shadowy teeth and dark claws and pinprick eyes. “What do you think? Do you like what I’ve done to all your little monsters?” He asked, and his eyes gleamed like coins.
“My monsters?” Pitch replied, feigning incredulity as he peered into the nearest cage, then he slanted a patronising look at Jack. “Oh, no, Jack. These aren’t my monsters, they’re yours. You made them, you should take responsibility for them.”
Jack sat up, frowning. “What are you talking about?” He demanded.
“Don’t you see?” Pitch asked, and he tapped the lock on one of the cages. The fearling prince’s eyes flashed with rage as he lurched to his feet, one hand outstretched as if that could stop Pitch. The cage door swung open with a pitiful squeal of icy hinges, and what spilled out wasn’t just a shapeless mass of shadows with eyes, but a little boy shambling on puppet strings. “This is what happens when you try to make friends.”
“No!” Jack shouted, and with a blast of black ice, the boy became a statue.
“Oh, don’t fight it, Jack.” Pitch cooed, surging up the steps to loom over Jack with a beatific smile. The fearling prince drove the crystal-tipped spear into his chest, but Pitch was made of shadows and fear, and you couldn’t fight fear with fear. “That’s how they win.”
Jack’s eyes widened, and he stumbled backwards, tripping over the throne and landing in it awkwardly, still trying to get away from Pitch. “There you are.” Pitch sighed, relaxing. He tucked his hands behind his back and tipped his head in gentle curiosity. “There’s the fear. What are you so afraid of?”
“I-” Jack began, faltered, shook his head in denial.
Pitch raised an eyebrow, and waited.
Jack screwed his face up, the picture of misery. “They’ll leave.” He whispered, clutching at his spear like it was the only stable thing in the universe. He bent forwards until he could press his forehead against the shaft of his spear, just above the point where both his hands were fisted around it. “If I let them go, they’ll leave , and I’ll be alone again. I don’t want to be alone. I can’t-” He looked up at Pitch, pleading with eyes alone for some sort of salvation, some escape from the terror, but Pitch just looked back, impassive, waiting.
Jack’s eyes flickered past Pitch, and widened in horror. Smiling to himself, Pitch turned, and saw that the little ice-statue was thawing, and the boy inside was Jack. Before he could free himself, however, the other cages around the courtyard sprung open, and he was caught up in the tide of shadows. The formless mass resolved itself into the other Guardians, and they manhandled Jack up the stairs and into the castle. The boy, small and brown-haired and wearing an elbow-length cape, fought like a wild thing as the Guardians dragged him through the doors, and Pitch followed curiously.
Inside the castle Pitch found himself walking through a room that greatly resembled the main room of his own lair, bird cages hung from the ceiling and chains were strung over and between them. It was into one of those cages that Jack was thrown, and Santa Claus padlocked the door shut with a clang that echoed through the room. Jack hurled himself at the door anyway, reaching through the gap in the wrought iron mesh to claw at Santa Claus’s hands, leaving bloody furrows in his flesh. Santa Claus backed away with a hiss and a glare at the little boy.
Pitch took the man’s retreat as his own cue, and stepped up to the cage. “Hello, Jack.”
“Fuck off.” Jack spat, and then he hurled himself at the side of the cage, setting it to swinging wildly. The motion threw him off balance, and he went sprawling, only to scramble upright again, and stagger into the other side of the cage. It spun and swung on it’s chain, getting more and more tangled up until it was caught, held still by the web of chains wrapped around it.
“Self-destruction?” Pitch sneered with impressive disdain. “How foolish.”
“As if you’re one to talk.” Jack scoffed, and Pitch was impressed by how the boy managed to sound like he was on the very edge of laughter while still pouring that much venom into his voice.
Pitch circled the cage, studying Jack as he kept turning to keep Pitch in view. “Oh, please, that was pathetic. You’ll have to try harder than that if you want to unnerve me.”
“You want me to try harder?” Jack demanded, suddenly right up against the mesh of the cage, brown eyes glinting golden in the dim light as a grin with far too many teeth for such a young face unfurled across it. “Why a little girl’s room?”
Pitch flinched before he could stop himself, and Jack cackled, head thrown back and tiny hands fisted around the bars of the cage. “Well.” Pitch drawled, lips twisting with annoyance. “You are nasty little boy, aren’t you?”
“I’m nasty?” Jack demanded on a short bark of a derisive laugh. “This coming from you?”
Pitch pressed a hand to his chest, feigning astonishment. “Me? I’m not the one that put you in there.” Jack looked away, cruel mirth dying in the face of that reminder. The figures of the other Guardians drifted around the edges of the room, shooting glares in Jack’s direction. One of them, the rabbit, drifted too close, wearing a scowl Pitch recognised as usually directed at himself, rather than Jack. The little boy lashed out. “You really need to stop fighting it, Jack.” Pitch sighed, and approached the cage, his shadow stretching long over both it and its occupant. “Haven’t you noticed they’re winning?”
Jack cringed, face screwing up with resentful tears. “Shut up!” The little boy shouted. “I hate you! I hate you all!” He folded in on himself, and started to cry. Great howling sobs tore through him and shook his tiny frame.
“There you are.” Pitch murmured, placing a hand against the cage. “What are you more afraid of? That they’ll turn on you, or that you’ll deserve it?” He wondered.
“I don’t wanna-!” Jack sobbed, a tiny ball of wailing child on the floor of the cage. “I don’t wanna be bad, I don’t- I don’t want to hurt people! I swear, I don’t, but I can’t stop! I try, but I can’t-” Pitch watched, and waited, and from behind him came yet another version of the same voice.
“Oh, shut up.”
Pitch turned, and instead of his own lair, he found himself in a cottage, with a fireplace that stood empty, and hand-carved furniture covered in layers upon layers of dust. Jack sat slumped on the windowsill, one foot hanging limply down, arms folded loosely across his stomach, head lolling back against the window frame. This was the Jack Pitch recognised, white hair, pale skin, blue eyes, but instead of looking pale and striking, he just seemed washed out, hair blending in with his skin, dressed only in a white shirt and his usual brown pants, and eyes more grey than blue. “Hello, Jack.” He greeted again.
“Waa, waa, waa.” Jack mocked at the ceiling. “Pathetic.”
“This coming from you?” Pitch retorted, enjoying the irony of using Jack’s words against him.
Jack attempted a laugh, but it was clear he just couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into it, and it was more of a huff of air than anything resembling laughter. “Oh, I’m not pathetic.” He assured Pitch. A woman walked into the room, dark hair cut short and beginning to grey, and reached right through Jack to open the window. A blast of icy air stirred up the dust, and she began to cough. “I’m not anything.”
“Nothing more than a momentary chill on the breeze?” Pitch suggested.
“You don’t need to rub it in.” Jack muttered resentfully.
Pitch smiled and slunk closer, but not so close that his silhouette in the haze the dust had created became anything more substantial. After all, the unknown was a lot more scary than a distinct and identifiable threat. “Don’t fight the truth, Jack.” He whispered, leaning forwards and letting his eyes flash in the light pouring in the window. Even the light seemed to pass right through Jack instead of actually touching him. “It’ll always win.”
Jack lowered his head to his knees, shoulders bowing and a great sigh escaping him, and Pitch stepped out of the dust and laid a hand on his shoulder. He was honestly surprised, although he thought he shouldn’t be, when it passed right through him. “Say it, Jack.” He instructed. “Bring it out where we can see it for what it is.”
“What if I really am… nothing?” The ghost whispered helplessly. “I can’t-” He struggled for words, for an explanation, but none came, so he looked up at Pitch; hopeless, helpless, desperate. Pitch looked back, waiting. The ghost’s expression crumpled, and he turned to look out of the window instead. “He’s down there.” He whispered, pointing.
“Thank you.” Pitch inclined his head, and swept out of the little cottage. He found himself on the banks of a frozen lake. Out in the center of the lake was Jack Frost as Pitch knew him; bare-footed and white-haired and laughing, blue hoodie bright in the midday sun that cast gleaming reflections on the crystalline ice below. The spirit was sliding across the ice like he had blades on his feet, or possibly just wings. The smallest shift of his weight turned into a graceful arcing turn, and every now and then he leapt and twirled, laughing the entire time.
Pitch took a moment to gather his strength. Teasing fears out, finding their shape, giving them a definition, that was far more difficult than evoking something formless out of the seething mass that lined every human psyche. He had already been weak when he started this, and Jack had proved to have far more defences than he’d been expecting. But now he’d finally made it to Jack’s core, the very heart of his identity, and this was where the real work would begin.
The lake beneath his feet was frozen over and perfectly chill. Jack pushed off from the ice on one foot, hopping up to twist in mid-air so that when he landed, his momentum carried him backwards across the ice. A tiny shift of his shoulders, and the change of weight carried him around, swooping past his favourite gnarled old tree. He laughed in greeting and let his feet skid as he twisted sharply and zoomed back towards the center of the lake.
Only, there was already someone standing in the center of the lake; a tall, dark someone, lean as a whipcord in robes as black as – hah! – pitch. “I didn’t know you skated, Pitch.” He teased, digging his heels in to slow himself down just enough that he could slide around Pitch in a fairly tight circle without making himself dizzy.
“I don’t.” Pitch answered sardonically.
Jack snickered at his tone. “Too bad.” He replied, irreverent, and grabbed Pitch’s hand as he skated past, dragging him along. The tall, supposedly graceful man stumbled and flailed, and Jack almost fell over he was laughing so hard. “Come on, it’s easy. You just need to let yourself glide.” He explained, and exaggerated his own movements so that Pitch could see. “Push, glide, step. It’s as easy as one, two, three, I promise.”
Pitch looked down at his feet, which was just asking to run into something, in Jack’s opinion. Now, that was a funny image. Maybe Jack should let go of the ridiculous asshole just to see how quickly and how spectacularly he crashed. Before he could seriously consider the idea, Pitch’s head came back up again, his eyes narrowed as he stared at Jack.
“Don’t be a spoil sport!” Jack chided, snorting at his as sour expression. “Give it a try, okay, I promise it’s fun once you get the hang of it!” He tugged on Pitch’s wrist, and the poor man didn’t see it coming at all. His eyes went comically wide as Jack twirled him like a princess at her first ball, the ice making the spin easy and fluid, even as Pitch flailed like an idiot. “There, see? Fun.” Jack concluded between fits of laughter.
“Jack.” Pitch said, in a very boring, adult tone of voice. The kind of tone that implied he was getting sick of Jack’s larking about and wanted him to be serious, which was boring. “There’s someone you need to meet.”
“Later!” Jack implored. “Come on, I bet I can jump high enough to touch that branch!” He pointed to the branch in question, and let go of Pitch to skate around the edge of the lake to build up his speed. Only, he didn’t get that far, because this time, Pitch was the one who grabbed him. “What?” Jack asked with a grin. “Scared?”
Pitch gave him a look that Jack really didn’t like. The sort of look that went right through him, only this time he was seeing too much, instead of too little. “Are you?” He asked, low and silky and dangerous. The question put an odd little tremor in Jack’s gut.
“Pfft! Of what?” Jack retorted. “Hey, I know, let’s play ice-tag.” He darted a hand out to smack lightly against Pitch’s upper arm, and then skated backwards, grinning tauntingly. “You’re it! Catch me if you can!” With that, he spun on his toes and took off across the ice.
There was nothing like skating, for Jack. It was the best thing ever, with the speeds you could reach and the bracing chill of the ice and all the different tricks you could pull or games you could play. And it was all at least twice as graceful as anything you tried to do on land, if you did it right. He could stay out here all day and not get bored, even though the lake was small and the scenery hardly changed. And it was even better with someone to share it with.
“Running from your fears, Jack?” Pitch called after him. “How noble.”
As long as that someone wasn’t a gigantic stick in the mud, of course, Jack thought to himself sourly. He spun to face Pitch, even as he glided backwards along the broad side of the lake. “I’m not running!” He defended indignantly, and then grinned. “I’m skating!” He corrected.
Pitch glared after him, then tipped his head back like he was praying for patience. Jack spun on his toes again, and decided that if he was going to be boring, Jack was going to ignore him. “I don’t have time for this.” Pitch groused, although Jack was pretty sure he was talking about him, not to him. Jack still skated faster, wishing the lake was bigger so that he could get away from him.
Suddenly, Pitch was standing in front of him, even though Jack had been skating along the outer edges of the lake in order to avoid him. He was going too fast, and it took all his skill to keep his balance while neatly avoiding crashing into Pitch. There was a moment where he thought he was going to fall, when he’d overcompensated for his sudden turn, and his heart leapt into his throat as he threw his arms out instinctively. His balance returned, and he crowed with victorious laughter.
“Oh my god! That was hilarious! Did you see that! I almost toppled right over! Good one, Pitch!” Jack exclaimed, not bothering to slow himself down much as he tipped into a tight turn and skated back towards Pitch. “Let’s do it again!”
Pitch just gaped at him. Jack skated around him, once and then again, watching with badly stifled humour as indignation rose on Pitch’s face and turned to outrage. “You need to stop ignoring me, Jack Frost.” He snarled, looming large in an attempt to intimidate Jack.
Jack snorted his way into giggles. “You know you look like a startled cat when you do that, right? All puffed up and floofy like you think that makes you more scary or something.” He snickered, shaking his head. “Look, I don’t know what’s gotten you all miffed, but it can’t be that important. Let’s play a game, it’ll be fun, and then you’ll feel better.”
“Avoidance is no better than aggression, Jack.” Pitch informed him.
Which made no sense. “Did you hit your head or something?” Jack asked, rolling his eyes and turning to skate backwards away from Pitch. “If you don’t like skating, how about hopscotch or something? That’s fun!”
“You’re going to die.”
“Well, if you’re just going to be all doom and gloom, maybe I don’t want to play with you, anyway.” Jack scoffed, and turned his back on the jerk. Maybe he’d just go away if Jack didn’t answer him for long enough. He could just skate with his eyes closed for a while. He bit back a giddy laugh. That sounded like it could be kind of fun, actually. He closed his eyes, and dared to pick up a bit of speed.
“Mind if I cut in?”
Jack’s eyes flashed open as hands caught his and spun him out of his trajectory and into a series of tight twirls across the center of the lake. He was looking at himself, but not. This other person had all the same features as him, but he was a sickly grey – just like Pitch – instead of pale, and his hair was darker than the night’s sky. His clothes looked like something straight out of a dark fairytale, and he was a couple of inches taller than Jack because he was wearing boots with actual blades on, instead of mimicking the effect of skates with his bare feet. His eyes gleamed gold, and his smile twisted sideways like there was something more behind his mirth.
There was something strange about looking at this warped reflection of himself, but Jack shrugged it off. Maybe this Other Jack would play with him, if Pitch wouldn’t. “Sure, why not?” He said with a grin. The Other Jack laughed like he’d just heard the best joke ever, head tipped back and eyes scrunched shut. It… wasn’t actually a very nice laugh.
“Oh, isn’t that sweet.” Pitch crooned from right behind Jack. Other Jack’s eyes flashed open, all his humour dying in a heartbeat, which made Jack scowl. So maybe it hadn’t been a very nice laugh, even mean laughter was still better than no laughter at all. “Do you really think you can hide from me by seducing yourself?” Pitch snarled, and Other Jack reeled backwards like he’d been struck.
Jack spun around to glare at Pitch. “What’s your problem?!” He demanded. “Why are you trying to ruin my fun?!”
Pitch’s eyes flashed yellow-white, gleaming like mirrors for a heartbeat as he leaned in, and Jack found an entirely inappropriate giggle caught in his throat. “Why haven’t you – ever – looked – down?” Pitch asked, spitting the last three words out like he meant them to wound. They did.
Something sickening and jagged started trying to claw its way up Jack’s throat. “I don’t want to.” He rasped, and it sound so small and weak that he almost hated himself for it. “Can’t we just go sk-” Jack couldn’t get the words out, and he didn’t want to wonder why. “Or- or we could-…” It wasn’t working, he couldn’t say it, but he couldn’t look down either. He just couldn’t.
“You don’t want to?” Pitch echoed, ignoring everything else.
Jack hated him. Why couldn’t he have just left Jack to his games, and then everything would have been just fine. Jack would have been perfectly happy, and- and- “I can’t.” He whispered, throat thick with the tears stinging his eyes. “I can’t.”
“Oh, I think you can.” Pitch murmured, stare unwavering, not even blinking. His gaze pinned Jack in place, helpless and unable to escape. “I think you must, Jack. Look down.” Jack shook his head, desperate. He did not want to do what Pitch was asking him to. He was so damn scared of whatever was down there, and as awful as it was to hold Pitch’s gaze, he did it, because the alternative was so much worse. “What’s in the lake? Tell me, Jack.”
“The ice is thin.” Jack blurted out, and the moment he said it, the ice creaked and groaned like a glacier about to shatter. Terror bolted down Jack’s spine, and he looked around desperately. There were three figures on the shore, but that was wrong, wrong, wrong. He searched again, but there was nothing, and if Jack was up here, then-
“Let go, Jack.” Pitch breathed, unimaginably gentle. “Let it take you, let it face you, let it know you. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Refusing to feel anything won’t kill it. Turning it on the rest of the world won’t make it let you go. Fighting it won’t make it any weaker.” Jack felt sick and shaky, and he wished he could plug his ears and refuse to hear any of this, but his hands remained limp at his sides, no matter how much his brain screamed. “The fear is a part of you, Jack, and that’s not wrong. Fear is not a thing to be frightened of; it’s okay to be afraid. The only way to master it is to embrace it. Look down.”
Against his will, Jack did.
Emma stared back at him, blank-eyed and slack-faced, her skin waxy and tinged with blue. Her hair floated like weeds about her face, brushing against her cheeks and drifting over her empty eyes. Jack’s knees gave out and he crashed to the ice on all fours, tears making his view of his sister’s dead face waver and wobble. He gasped, sobbed, tried to think past the terrible wrenching horror in his chest.
Jack blinked, and tears splashed onto the ice, disappearing amongst the rest of the water and leaving his view of the face below clear. It was Jack, white hair waving in a gentle current, his old cloak and staff patterned with frost, ice blue eyes boring into Jack.
He stared, breath caught by the sudden, inexplicable shift. He was here, kneeling on the ice because he was never smart enough or fast enough or strong enough to save anyone, and he was also there, floating dead in the water so that Emma didn’t have to be. His vision blurred until his eyes ached, a pale face against depthless blue-black water superimposed over a pale face against depthless blue-white sky. Fierce determination against fractured tears.
With an almighty crack, the ice broke, and he was falling, rising, floating, kneeling, up, down, sideways, through. A hand thrust itself into view, and Jack was calm as he took hold of it and let it pull him up. His head broke the surface, and he breathed deeply even as he was hauled up onto thicker, stronger ice. His knees bumped the ice before he managed to get first one and then the other foot under himself to stand. “Thanks.” He said, and he was kind of amazed it came out as clear and steady as it did. He was kind of amazed at how clear and steady he felt.
Pitch smiled, weary and yet insufferably smug. “Feel better?” He asked dryly.
“Actually, yeah.” Jack admitted. “What… happened?”
“You accepted the truth that your fear is real and valid.” Pitch explained simply, tucking his hands behind his back and contemplating the sky. “Terrible things can and do and will happen. You have lived through them before, and you’ll have to again in the future. And you found your reason why it’s worth it. You found the very last part of yourself, the part that cannot be corrupted by fear, and you woke it up.”
“So… I won’t be afraid anymore?” Jack wondered.
Pitch laughed. “Of course you will, Jack. You can’t defeat fear, it’s not some beast you can slay and never have to worry about again. It’s in you, it is you, always. But if you can find it, and face it, and embrace it, then sometimes you can master it.”
That, honestly, made more sense to Jack. It also explained why he could see four figures on the far side of the lake. His fears were still there, still a part of him, but they no longer ruled him. They no longer crowded him out and yelled so loud he couldn’t think. They’d try again another time, no doubt, but now he knew this place in his soul where clarity of purpose made his fears seem insignificant. He looked down at himself, his old cloak about his shoulders and his shepherd’s crook securely in hand, and smiled. He felt good, clear headed and light hearted, and it seemed like a small age since the last time he’d really felt so at peace with himself.
“I’m a Guardian.” He said aloud.
“Of course that would be where you find your purpose.” Pitch scathed.
Jack laughed. “What can I say? I’d face a hundred deaths and three million years alone if it kept my little sister safe. Or Jamie. Or any other kid. I wouldn’t like it, I’d still be scared, but I’d rather that than see them suffer.” He tipped his head back to let his face catch the sunlight directly, and closed his eyes against the glare. “They’re worth it.”
Pitch hummed, and though it seemed like it was trying to be a dismissive noncommittal noise, it caught and hitched half way through. Jack went to open his eyes, and found his eyelids felt inordinately heavy. He peeled them open through force of will, and found himself lying in bed with Pitch leaning over him, hands on either side of his face and looking as though he’d just been on the wrong end of Sandy’s temper, and then stabbed in the back, to boot.
“You look awful. Do you need to sit down?” Jack asked.
Pitch gave him a scathing look that might have had more impact if it hadn’t been so very, very tired. “I’m already sitting down.” He pointed out uselessly.
“Oh.” Jack murmured, as he looked and saw that, yes, Pitch was sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand white-knuckled around the frame underneath him to keep him upright. “Pitch Black, two; Jack Frost, zero.” He said, and Pitch snorted in tired humour.
Jack was distracted from that little laugh, though, when Bunny made a choked noise and shoved his way between them, face right in front of Jack’s, impossibly green eyes searching his face with desperate hope. “Jack?” He asked, or checked, really. Begged, maybe, right on the edge of tears.
“Who else would I-” Jack decided that question was so not funny in light of the circumstances. Instead of finishing it, he tried to sit up, and very nearly passed right out. His head swam at the effort of lifting himself maybe two inches off the bed, and his arm gave out under him. “Oh, wow, I feel terrible.” He muttered in disbelief. Then, because he needed to be sure, he lifted his arm and shoved his tattered sleeve up so that he could see the wound beneath. The scratches were still there, almost entirely healed, as three shiny pink scars banding over his forearm, but the black crumbling skin was gone, as was the alien grey skin it had left in its wake. “It’s gone?” He asked in a voice that wavered.
“The infection is gone, yes.” Pitch confirmed.
Tears stung Jack’s eyes, and he closed them tight as if that might help. “Strewth, Jack, you gave us all a right scare.” Bunny huffed on a watery laugh, and then he was bundling Jack up into a hug. Jack didn’t know what it was about the hug, but it cracked the last defence he had up against emotional vulnerability, and he all but choked as the sobs started forcing their way out of his throat unbidden. “Glad you’re okay, Frostbite.” Bunny murmured, re-jiggling the hug until it was somehow even more comfortable, and Jack could bury his face in his fur – was he imagining it, or was Bunny’s fur thinner? – to hide his tears.
And muffle his cracked and hysterical laughter, too, because that was the worst understatement Jack had ever heard. “Yeah.” He agreed with a sniffle, and another sob. “Me too.” Then the tears were coming too thick for him to talk, so he gave up and just let himself cry.
A hand on her shoulder startled Toothiana out of her daze, and she looked up to see North standing behind the chair she’d chosen in his library. “You are exhausted, Tooth.” North pointed out gently, as if any of them had rested well in the last month. He himself looked haggard and old, bruises under his eyes and wrinkles standing out on his face. She knew her own feathers were dull and matted in places, and Bunny was going to pluck himself bald, and Sandy hadn’t been able to muster up much of a shine for the last week at least.
She’d been neglecting more than her feathers. Her work was being left entirely to her fairies, who were struggling to organise themselves, what with Toothiana entirely absorbed in trying to save Jack, and Baby Tooth entirely overcome by worry and grief. She knew she shouldn’t neglect her duties, belief was suffering because her fairies couldn’t keep up with the workload on their own, but she found it hard to care about that when Jack was dying and there was nothing she could do about it.
“As if you have any room to talk.” She muttered irritably, and the immediately dropped her head into her hands and scrubbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry, North. I’m just…”
“Is alright. I understand.” North assured her, patting her shoulder gently.
Toothiana nodded miserably. She had been the last one to visit the Warren, two days ago, bearing an ancient relic of her people that was said to have some healing powers. It hadn’t worked, of course, she hadn’t really expected it to, it had only made Jack throw up black bile and retreat into a huddled ball in the middle of Bunny’s bed, clutching his staff like it was a child’s soft toy.
She didn’t want to remember how bad he’d looked. She’d had hope, when she realised the blackened and rotting flesh wasn’t just crumbling to nothing, but leaving behind ash-grey skin, that maybe Jack would survive. Bunny had bluntly informed her that whatever was left after the infection was done wouldn’t be Jack anymore. Turned or destroyed, the infection killed either way. And Jack was almost entirely gone, just one eye and a few strands of hair left as they were, and surely it wouldn’t be long before even that was lost, and then…
A sob shook free of her chest against her will, and she gritted her teeth against another one, scrubbing at her eyes with angry fists before going back to the books. Crying wasn’t going to help Jack, and she wasn’t going to stop trying until there was no chance of saving him. She pulled a different book towards her, scanned the page it was open to, and wondered if the ancient Egyptian light magics might work where everything else had failed.
A ringing, urgent jingle from the Workshop floor caught her attention, and both she and North looked around in alarm. Sandy wanted their attention, and given the current situation, Tooth only felt dread rising up in her like bile. She caught North’s eye, and saw her own trepidation mirrored in his eyes. Without a word, they both bolted for the door, Toothiana reaching it first and darting through it without a care for the way the door slammed against the wall in her haste. She darted over the balcony railing and was immediately able to spot Sandy, because he was lit up like, well, like a star, and standing next to him was Jack.
The frost spirit looked entirely himself, and in her shock, Toothiana could do nothing for long seconds but drink in the sight of him, her hands resting uselessly on the balcony railing. His pale skin was pink with health, his white hair gleaming under Sandy’s light, his smile flashing in exactly the same shade of pure white as his hair when something Sandy said made him laugh softly. His hoodie had been replaced by a jacket with a little shoulder-cape that didn’t look like it quite fit him right, but he had his staff in hand, and his trousers were his own, and his feet were entirely bare, as always.
North let out a great shout of triumph. Sandy, Jack, and Bunny – Toothiana had barely noticed him standing next to Jack – all looked up, and Toothiana was knocked out of her momentary shock. “Jack!” She cried, hurling herself over the balcony railing and zooming down towards the entirely healthy boy.
She didn’t bother to check her speed, didn’t have a thought to spare for much beside the miracle standing in North’s workshop. She careened into him, wrapping her arms around him and using her wings to keep them more or less upright as he staggered under the force of her tackle-hug. “You’re alright! You’re okay! Oh, Jack!” She babbled uselessly, clinging to him as he patted her back awkwardly.
“Yeah, I’m better now.” Jack confirmed.
Two massive, tattooed arms scooped them both up and hoisted them into the air and against a massive chest. “Is miracle!” North boomed, squeezing the air out of them. Toothiana didn’t care for the sake of her own lungs, but when Jack wheezed, her worry spiked.
“North! He’s only just getting better, don’t suffocate him!” She chided.
North put them both down gently, and Toothiana reluctantly disentangled herself from Jack, as well. “Oops. Sorry.” He apologised, looking sheepish behind the tears swimming in his eyes. “Relief overcame better judgement. Is just so good to see you well, Jack.” He explained, putting his hands on Jack’s shoulders and holding him at arms length to study him. “You are looking much, much better. Is incredible.” He exclaimed in soft wonderment. “How?” He wondered, and then looked over Jack’s head to Bunny. “Did you-?” He prompted.
“Nah, mate.” Bunny admitted with a grimace. “I near enough lost hope, much as I hate to admit it. I, uh… Well…”
“Pitch fixed it.” Jack explained.
“Pitch?!” Toothiana yelped. Her voice was entirely drowned out, however, by North shouting the exact same thing at a much louder volume. Even Sandy was shocked, with an exclamation mark bobbing up and down above his head.
Jack nodded like it should have been obvious. “He taught me how to master my fear.” He explained, shifting his staff up so that he could lean some of his weight on it and offering them all a rueful smile. “If anyone should know how to do it, it’d be him, right?”
Toothiana glanced at North, and was relieved to see he looked just as puzzled as she felt. “I suppose?” She offered tentatively. “But I would have thought… He’s the fearling’s leader. Why would he teach anyone else how to beat them?”
“He didn’t?” Jack pointed out, again, as though it should be obvious. He offered her a rueful smile as he shifted his staff so that he could lean some of his weight on it. “You can’t beat fear. Not really. But you can master it.” He shook his head, huffing a small laugh. “I can’t explain it very well. Everything he said to me is a little fuzzy now, like a dream.”
“Important question, Jack.” North said, getting everyone’s attention. Jack straightened a little, but it looked like it cost him. He was tired, and understandably so, Toothiana thought, her heart going out to him. “If someone else got infected, could you cure them?”
Jack frowned in thought, slumping against his staff again. Wordlessly, Bunny stepped up beside him and put an arm around his shoulders, and Jack leaned into his side easily as he thought. “If we catch it early enough, then yeah, maybe.” Jack decided finally. “But once it gets to the point where you’re more… out of it, than not? No. Then you’d need Pitch. I don’t think anyone else could do it.”
“Why not?” Bunny asked, frowning.
Jack sighed. “Because you need to be able to find your fears? And when you’re that far gone, you’re kind of deliberately not looking anymore. They hide under other things, you know? You think you’re just angry, or that you don’t feel anything, or it’s funny. It’s only because Pitch is the Nightmare King that he could do it, at that point; dig the fear out and keep it from festering.”
“Huh.” Bunny muttered. “Okay.”
“Is still good news!” North exclaimed. “Jack is better, and if ever infection is happening again, we have way of fixing!” He spread his arms wide and beamed. “We should-”
There was a sudden high-pitched trill, and a small blue-green blur darted past North’s head to attach itself to Jack’s face. Jack made a muffled sound of shock or protest, and Baby Tooth chittered in excitement before trailing off into a distressed wail. She was bigger than her sisters now, not by much, but enough to be noticed, and her crest feather had turned shock white. Jack had named her, after all, and names were powerful things in their world. Toothiana tried not to hope, too much, that Baby Tooth might keep growing and changing, become her own person, another Sister of Flight instead of a fraction of a clone born of Toothiana’s mind and magic.
Jack laughed, knocking Toothiana out of her thoughts. She refocused as he brought his hand up to pluck Baby Tooth off his nose and settle her in his palm. “Hey, there, Baby Tooth.” He greeted, soft and fond. “I’m alright now, I promise.”
Baby Tooth hugged his thumb desperately and chirped miserably at him. Toothiana could understand her, could feel the “I was so scared!” as much as she heard it, but she knew no one else in the room could keep up with her fairies. They were parts of her, compressed and condensed and fractured to pieces, so that she could be everywhere at once. She already thought faster than her own mouth could keep up with, in ten different directions at once, and her fairies were more focused, yes, but that just made them even faster, their words tripping over themselves and into childish bird-like chirps that only another Sister of Flight would be able to understand.
Except, of course, Jack. Because he’d given a part of himself to Baby Tooth, given her another facet, another way to be. “Yeah.” Jack sighed, curling his hand around Baby Tooth in an attempt to hug her, bringing her up to his chest so that she could cuddle close to his heartbeat. “Me too.” He admitted quietly, wryly, with a touch of dark humour.
“Not funny!” Baby Tooth protested on a squeaking wail.
“It’s a little bit funny.” Jack countered, nose wrinkling in a combination of repressed laughter and mild discomfort. When Baby Tooth just shook her head and pressed close to his chest, Jack sighed. “I really am okay, Baby Tooth.” He assured her. “Fit as a fiddle.”
Toothiana smiled indulgently, and beside her, North laughed his booming laugh. “Yes, Jack is better, and this calls for celebration! Yeti! We are having party! Music! Food!” He bellowed, half turning to shout at the yeti. Toothiana bit her lip on a laugh as she looked over their ragged little party, worn thin by stress and worry and illness, and tried to imagine any of them mustering up the energy for more than a bit of gossip and a nap.
Bunny was clearly following the same train of thought. “I’m really not sure that’s a good idea, North.” He pointed out.
“Nonsense! Is perfect!”
“North, bloody hell, mate!” Bunny exploded. Toothiana did notice that he didn’t get up in North’s face, or even gesture wildly like he was prone to, because Jack was still leaning against him. “I’m shattered, and I’d bet none of you have been sleeping well this last month, either!” Bunny pointed out, which did stop North in his tracks, thankfully. Toothiana wondered why Bunny wasn’t making the very reasonable and obvious point that Jack was currently recovering from a terminal illness, and needed rest more than he needed a party.
“This is true…” North hedged. “But still would be nice to relax together after trials and tribulations of last month, yes? Good music. Good food. Good company.” He glanced around at them all with a painfully transparent expression of hope.
Jack huffed a laugh and gently shouldered Bunny in a companionable way, and Bunny looked down at him, ears tilting backwards in his concern. “Sounds good.” Jack said, and Toothiana got the impression he was saying it mostly in Bunny’s direction, even though his eyes were on North.
“Excellent!” North exclaimed, spreading his arms wide in delight, before turning and heading upstairs. “Phil! Take food to lounge! Is going to be sleep-over, not party!”
“Hey, what? Don’t just go deciding things for other people!” Bunny protested as the rest of the Guardians followed in North’s wake. He and Jack fell a little behind Toothiana and Sandy, and she kept an ear on them, in lieu of being able to watch them. She still felt overly twitchy about Jack’s health, and she didn’t think that was going to be going away for a good long while, and she wanted to make sure no one missed it if he started flagging too badly.
“It’s fine, Cottontail, really.” Jack murmured quietly.
“You sure, Frostbite?” Bunny replied in a low voice. “Cause I can tell North where to shove it, if you’d rather some peace and quiet.”
Jack snickered, and Toothiana couldn’t help the way the sound made some of the tension melt out of her spine, leaving her feeling droopy and tired. “Ooh, where’s the popcorn?” Jack asked, and Bunny muttered something rude under his breath. “No, really. I think… I think it’d be good, to spend some time with people, after…”
“Alright.” Bunny agreed easily.
North led them into a familiar, comfortable sitting room, that Toothiana recognised from other, rare occasions when the Guardians had come together for a less urgent meeting than was their norm. North was a conscientious host, although sometimes he didn’t seem that way, and the room had a chair designed specifically for each of them, taking into account their stylistic preferences and their wildly divergent physiology. North’s was a large and gaudy armchair, over-stuffed and close to the fire while remaining within arms reach of the low table that was already being piled with food by the yetis. Toothiana’s own was a backless divan in green and gold brocade, so she could stretch out comfortably without having to hold her wings up the entire time, which she was very grateful for at the moment. Sandy had a squat and comfortable little ottoman, and while most of the time he usually chose to sit cross-legged on it, this time he splayed himself out on his back like a starfish, dripping dreamsand off the edges in an exaggerated display of exhaustion. Bunny had a rattan basket chair, filled with floppy plush cushions and quilt blankets, and while it was normally positioned right by the fire, today the sensible and observant yeti had moved it more towards the middle of the room, so that it could sit next to Jack’s bright blue beanbag chair that was situated under the window, where it was coldest.
“Oh, sweet.” Jack exclaimed once he spotted it, and pulled himself away from Bunny’s side to pounce on the beanbag. He very nearly disappeared into it as it moulded around him and swallowed him whole, laughing the entire time.
“Glad you like.” North rumbled smugly.
Jack’s head popped up as he wriggled and squirmed to make himself comfortable. “Thanks.”
Sandy tossed up a handful of signs, a bean in a bag – because he thought he was funny – and a fancy looking jacket with an equals sign between them. Toothiana glanced at Jack, and saw that Sandy was not quite right. Jack’s new jacket was a couple of shades darker, more of a royal blue than the beanbag, which was, as per North’s design preferences, closer to eye-searing than most people would be comfortable with as a single block of colour.
“Not quite.” Toothiana pointed out. “The jacket does suit you, though, Jack.”
“Right?” Jack agreed cheerfully, although there was something more bashful on his face than his tone would have suggested. Sandy threw up an image of his old hoodie, and then a question mark, and Jack pulled a face in answer. “The sleeve was ruined.” He reminded them. “And I didn’t really want to wear it, after all that, so Bunny offered me something of his.”
“That is why shape of shoulders is off.” North realised, nodding. “And last button won’t do up.” Jack fiddled with the hem of the jacket, where the waist did pull in tighter than a human figure could possibly allow for, and blushed frost across his cheeks. “Well! If you bring hoodie, elves can fix. Take in jacket, too, if you like, or make new one, however you like. Is good to keep them busy and out from under boot.”
Jack glanced over at Bunny, who waved a hand in dismissal. “I said you could have it, ya gumby, and I meant it. It’s not like I’m ever going to wear it.”
“When did you ever wear it?” Toothiana wondered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in clothes before.” She realised, looking over at Bunny, who’s ears went back in distress at the exact same moment that North burst out laughing. Toothiana stared at him, startled, but only got a few mumbles of ‘should have seen’ and ‘so funny!’ that didn’t make any sense to her at all.
Sandy interjected with a strange symbol, two vaguely rectangular shapes colliding and shattering into pieces, followed by a question mark. Toothiana had no idea what he was trying to say, but Bunny obviously did, because he coughed and managed a rueful, vaguely painful looking smile. “Nah, mate. Made that one after I went grey.” Then he snorted. “But you’re right, it would have clashed something awful. Never could wear blue.”
Toothiana blinked at that, turning to stare at Bunny this time, and she wasn’t the only one. Jack sat bolt upright to goggle at Bunny. “Wait, you weren’t always grey? What colour were you before? Oh my god, were you red ? Is it like an old man thing? Are you actually a cranky old man, instead of just acting like one?” Jack demanded, delighted. North, who had been recovering from his last bout of mirth, promptly dissolved into helpless chortles again, hand over his face as if that might fool anyone.
“I was not r- Who’re you calling an old man?!” Bunny yelped in outrage, stuttering over which insult he should respond to first. Toothiana clapped both hands over her mouth to try and keep her own giggles behind her teeth.
Sandy threw up a symbol of the sun, and then a cross-section of… a lemon? Something citrus, anyway. Then he waved those images away to toss up the symbols he used for the Guardians, plus the crescent moon he used for Manny, and the scythe he used for Pitch, and arranged them in a column, with himself at the top, followed by Bunny, then Pitch, then Manny, then Toothiana herself, then North and Jack wobbled about a bit before Jack eventually dropped to the bottom of the list.
“Sanderson Mansnoozie, you bloody traitor.” Bunny groused.
Jack was studying the symbols with a cocked head. “Wait, are you actually saying that Bunny used to be yellow and orange?” Sandy nodded serenely while Bunny buried his face in his hands. Jack swivelled to stare at Bunny incredulously, as though trying to imagine it. Then, abruptly, he turned to look at Sandy again. “And, wait, he’s really older than the Man in the Moon?”
“I was full grown before the Lunar Prince was even born, ta very much.” Bunny pointed out, although he didn’t lift his head from his hands to do so. Jack threw back his head and laughed, clearly delighted by that piece of information. Toothiana watched him laugh, and the gentle swell of relief she felt threatened to bring tears to her eyes. She’d been so convinced she’d never see Jack laugh like that again that to see it now felt strangely unreal.
Sniffing as discretely as she was able, she glanced over at the others, and caught North’s eye. He was grinning behind his beard, but his eyes were swimming, and they shared a moment of perfect empathy. Then North tipped his head just slightly towards Bunny, and lifted his eyebrows in a rather pointed manner. Toothiana followed the motion, confused, and saw, in the moment when Jack’s eyes were scrunched shut as he laughed, the grumpy defensiveness slide right off Bunny’s face to leave his entire soul shining out through his eyes as he watched Jack laugh.
Toothiana shook her head. No, that couldn’t be what North was implying it was. They were all relieved to see Jack back to himself at last. Even with all their banter and bickering, everyone knew that Jack and Bunny had swiftly been becoming fast friends, even before this drama. After all, Bunny was just like that; he hid all his gentler feelings behind grump and sass to protect himself from old hurts. That he was showing it in an unguarded moment didn’t mean anything particular. Surely.
Coming back to the Warren after North’s impromptu party was a relief. Aster wasn’t one for much socialising on a good day, and today wasn’t really a good day. He was worn thin by stress and worry, and shattered to pieces with relief. He’d taken Jack to see the others because he knew it would be cruel to leave them in the dark once he’d recovered, but he hadn’t intended to stay. He’d meant to stop by for five minutes, then bring Jack back to the Warren and make sure they both got some proper sleep.
Well, he could do that now, if Jack would just stop hovering on the edges of the fields, and come back to the den. Aster paused and took another look at Jack, because he was fiddling with his staff and shifting on his feet in a way that suggested imminent flight. He ought to have expected that, really, but he’d been hoping Jack would let him offer at least one more night’s hospitality. As much for Aster’s own comfort as Jack’s, because it still felt too unreal that Jack was better. “You’re welcome to kip here, if you want.” Aster offered, trying to make it sound like an off-hand offer.
Jack perked up in surprise and relief. “Yeah? I don’t want to be a bother, and you’ve already had me here… I don’t even know how long, actually.” He realised with a wince.
“Four weeks, give or take a couple of days.” Aster offered, and then shrugged, carefully not looking at Jack as he added; “And one more night’s no trouble.”
“Alright.” Jack agreed, and he stopped standing like the next stiff breeze might just carry him off. His feet settled firmer against the grass, and his staff was lowered to his side instead of being held up and ready. He ambled over to Aster, and then over-took him, heading not for the den but for the low hill nearby covered in sweet-smelling grasses and dotted with tiny white and yellow wild flowers. It was where Aster would nap in the run up to Easter, when he refused to take the time to get a proper night’s sleep, but still needed to replenish his energy every now and then.
Jack chose a different spot, not high on the crest of the hill where he could bask in the permanent spring sunshine, but in the shade of an apple tree so covered in blossom it looked like it had been dusted with snow. Aster followed, uncertain, and this time he was the one hovering as Jack flopped down with his back against the trunk and his staff over his lap, one knee curled up and the other leg stretched out in front of him. His head tipped back against the trunk, and he smiled as he closed his eyes.
Aster’s fingers itched for a paintbrush as the dappled sunlight played across Jack’s sprawled form. The elves had absconded with the jacket Aster had given him when they realised it needed fixing, and returned it half an hour later looking like it had been tailored specifically for him; fitting elegantly to the streamlined grace of his hips, the twin columns of silver buttons making his torso look leaner and longer, and the little cape accentuating the shape of his shoulders. And that colour really did look good on Jack, highlighting the peach-pink tone to his skin and bringing out the blue of his eyes, and with him bathed in speckling sunlight and a scattering of white apple blossom, he made for a beautiful picture. Aster shook the thought away impatiently. “There’s a perfectly good bed inside, y’know.” He pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I’m not putting you out of your bed again.” Jack protested.
“I barely use the blasted thing.” Aster dismissed with a wave. “You’re welcome to it.”
Frost spilled across Jack’s face again, glinting bright white in the sunlight against his healthy pink skin. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Honestly? I’m not sure I’d be able to sleep in there now.” Jack admitted quietly. “Too many bad memories. Besides, I sleep outside all the time, anyway.”
Aster considered that, thought about going inside himself and crawling into the bed where just this morning, Jack had been inches away from succumbing to a fearling infection, and decided it made perfect sense. “Yeah, okay. Point taken.” He capitulated, and picked a sunny spot just outside of the tree’s shadow to make a temporary nest. Away from the apple tree, the grass was longer and warmed by the sun, and it made a perfect soft cushion when Aster flattened it down and curled up on it.
Jack snickered, and Aster ignored him pointedly. “Good night, Bunny.”
“Sweet dreams, Jack.” Aster replied on instinct, and swallowed back the old memories it called up. It ached as it had always done, to remember the Golden Age, but this ache was at least sweeter than the memories of fear and rot Jack’s infection had called up. Sleep stole up on him in increments, and for the first time in a month, he didn’t dream at all. It was good, it was peaceful, and when he woke he felt more rested than he’d expected, even if the lingering bone-deep weariness wouldn’t be going away for a while.
He stretched as he sat up, and noticed that while Jack was not where he’d fallen asleep, his staff was still propped against the tree, so he couldn’t have gone far. Almost as soon as he’d thought that, Jack’s voice came from behind him. “Oh, hey, you’re up!” Aster couldn’t help the way he twitched with surprise, and he glowered at Jack’s snickering. He was just about to say something pithy in response, when Jack’s next question derailed his train of thought entirely. “Where’s Pitch?”
Aster gaped as he wondered whether he should just answer the question, or tackle the multitude of bizarre assumptions behind it. “I reckon he went back to wherever he usually goes whenever he’s not being a massive pain in our necks.” He groused.
“He left?” Jack asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Of course he bloody did, Jack!” Aster burst out in exasperation. “The only reason he was here at all was because him leaving would have accelerated your infection. You’re better. He’s gone.” He didn’t understand what was so confusing about that, it was obvious.
Jack frowned at him, hand clenching like he was regretting leaving his staff by the tree. “You just let him leave? What about the nightmares? The- the fearlings?!” He demanded incredulously, gesturing vaguely in the air.
“Why are you still worried about him?” Aster wondered in disbelief.
Jack flinched from that question like it had hurt, and then rounded back on Aster with a glare so furious that Aster was hard put not to flinch, too. “Maybe because I don’t actually agree with torture!” He snapped, which… Aster really didn’t know what to make of that. Something in his expression must have conveyed that, because Jack deflated slightly, and took a deep breath. “You really don’t know what the nightmares were doing to him?” He asked, quiet and solemn.
“What the-” Aster began, and then faltered, because Jack wasn’t making any sense at all. “Jack, Pitch is the Nightmare King, a Fearling Prince-” Bitterness swelled up in Aster like bile, and he rose to his feet, because sitting felt too vulnerable in light of the current conversation. It took effort to spit the next words out. “He’s their General. Whatever it looked like they were doing to him, they weren’t hurting him. They couldn’t.”
Jack laughed in disbelief and ran his hands through his hair until they were folded over the back of his neck, a defensive, self-containing posture. Then he went entirely still, staring at Aster with something nebulous rising behind his eyes. “Wait, wait, Pitch said that before, too. He said I might become a Fearling Prince, like him. Does- Does that mean he was… he was like me? He was someone before they got their claws in him and-”
Aster flinched, because he didn’t want to think about that. It was easier, so much easier, to go on fighting Pitch and keeping this world safe like Aster’s own hadn’t been if he didn’t remember the Golden Age’s Golden General. “Of course he was.” He spat out, vicious. “Doesn’t mean there’s anything left of that person now.”
Jack’s hands fell to his sides, and the expression on his face was hard and unreadable. “I was still me.” He said hollowly.
“The- the parts of me that had been taken over by the infection were still me.” Jack informed him, so sure and certain that it made Aster feel sick. “And whoever Pitch was before, he’s still him, too.”
Aster laughed. He felt sick down to his stomach, and the laughter tore through him like brambles, ripping him open inside and letting acid spill over the wounds. He didn’t know what Jack had experienced, didn’t know what Pitch had done to his head while he held onto it and shadows writhed over the walls like grasping tentacles, but there was no possible way that the man who had single-handedly led the Golden Age to salvation could be the same man who had single-handedly destroyed it all. All of it, every last planet, every last speck of light. All save one lost star, one broken warrior, and an infant, orphaned prince. “No, Jack. He’s not.” Aster spat with all the cold, hard certainty in his bones.
“How can you say that?” Jack demanded. “How can you just- just write him off, like- like there’s nothing human left in him- You didn’t see-” He stammered, frustration stealing his words and rendering him speechless. Aster could relate, he wasn’t sure he could find any more words in the face of Jack’s stubborn refusal to see the truth. Jack turned away from him to pace, stalking through the wildflowers and leaving glittering trails of frost in his wake that he didn’t even seem to notice, before he spun back to face Aster, eyes blazing. “He helped. He was all set to gain a new lieutenant, a right-hand, another Fearling Prince, all he had to do was sit back and let the infection take me, but he didn’t. He helped! How can you just ignore that?!”
Aster threw his hands in the air. “I don’t bloody know! Maybe he just didn’t want the competition or something, but whatever his reasons were, I can assure you, there’s not a speck of compassion left in that bastard.”
“That’s bullshit.” Jack snapped back. “He’s already tried to get me onto his side before, at Easter, he wanted me on his side then, and I doubt that’s changed since. Even if you can’t believe he has compassion left, which is fair, I didn’t have much compassion left when the infection had nearly taken me, but saving me wasn’t some selfish act of spite, and you can’t pretend it was just because you’re determined to hate him! Call it honour, call it duty, call it whatever you like, but he’s still capable of finer feelings!”
That struck a little too close to home, and Aster looked away, baring his teeth like he still had his warrior’s face on. He didn’t, it wasn’t going to be nearly as effective a scare tactic now, with buckteeth and no canines at all. “You have no idea what he’s done.” He said, low and harsh. “You think last Easter was bad, Jack? That was nothing to what Pitch has done. I don’t bloody care if he’s got some scrap of honour left in him, it doesn’t change what he did.”
“So he deserves it?” Jack demanded, sneering.
“Yes!” Aster spat back, teeth aching from how hard he was grinding them together in the effort to keep all the billions of years of loneliness and anguish locked away.
“Does that mean you think I deserve it?” Jack asked.
Aster looked at him sharply, startled out of the grip of old wounds. “What the- No! Jack, when have you ever killed anybody, let alone an entire bloody species?! An entire galaxy?! Your friends, your family?! Kids?! You haven’t done anything like the things Pitch has done!”
“I wanted to.” Jack told him in a voice that shook. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, and there was such a horrifying combination of disgust and hatred and pity on his face that it rendered Aster completely speechless, before he looked away like he was ashamed that Aster had seen it. “When I was infected, I wanted to. I would have tortured you for decades before I killed you, and the kids?” Jack’s laugh was bitter, and full of self-loathing. “There’s a part of me that wants to destroy them for not seeing me, for not believing in me.”
“But you wouldn’t. You haven’t.” Aster protested, and his voice came out more desperate and imploring than he meant it to.
Jack met his eyes again with a wretched expression. “I would have.” He assured Aster. “But Pitch saved me. He stopped me from becoming that.”
“Because his fearlings tainted you in the first place!” Aster exploded, because that was better than thinking about all the things that could be extrapolated from Jack’s words, all the depth of meaning behind them that Jack couldn’t possibly know.
Jack let out a wordless shout of frustration. “You’re not listening to me!” He cried. “The fearlings didn’t put anything in me that wasn’t there already! All they did was feed the fears I already had until they were strong enough to overwhelm everything else! All that- that vindictiveness? And the rage? And the apathy and selfishness? Everyone has the capacity for it! You, me, Pitch, even Jamie and Sophie!”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” Aster shot back. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you will!”
“Exactly!” Jack burst out.
“But Pitch did.” Aster reminded him.
“And I’m not saying you should forgive him for that, but- but if it’s not okay to let the fearlings torture me to insanity, why is it okay for them to torture him, just because he’s already insane?” Jack asked, less angry now, and more striving for Aster to understand.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. “He’s on their side, Jack!” He yelled. “He’s their leader, and- Strewth, Jack, if there are fearlings on this planet again? It’s because he made them, out of people. He tortured people! How can you stand up for him after that?”
“And because he did it to them, it’s okay if they do it to him?” Jack demanded.
“I’m not- He brought it on himself, and it’s not our problem.” Aster insisted, and something in Jack’s face closed off. It hurt to see the light – even frustrated, angry light – in those eyes go out, but Aster wasn’t going to take it back.
Wordlessly, Jack walked over to his staff and picked it up. He stood there for a moment, head bowed and rolling the worn old wood between his hands. Then he looked up, and his eyes were blazing again. “No one deserves that, not even Pitch.” He said, quiet and stubborn. “And if you won’t help me, I’ll save him by myself.” With that, he took off, the wind tearing through the Warren in a rage to match the storm howling behind Jack’s eyes.
It nearly buffeted Aster off his feet as it caught Jack up and hurled him towards the tunnel that led back to Burgess. Part of Aster wanted to call him back, part of him wanted to follow Jack, but instead he just watched, torn, as he disappeared, and then he stormed into his den to make himself some breakfast.
He chewed over the argument far more thoroughly than he chewed his toast. He worked through his frustration by coming up with other things he could have said, other ways the argument could have gone, trying to find some way to convince the Jack in his mind that Aster was right. Instead, he kept coming back to something Jack had said that he couldn’t find any real argument against.
I would have. I wanted to.
Jack was not Pitch, Jack was nothing like Pitch, but hadn’t Aster known what Jack would become if the infection took him over completely? He’d known that Jack would become like Pitch, once the infection had killed the last spark of light inside him. If he hadn’t let Pitch do whatever he’d done, then one day, Jack would have opened golden – or maybe icy, Pitch’s eyes had stayed silver, hadn’t they? – eyes and turned on them, just like Pitch had turned on those he’d called friend and ally.
Jack had been so sure, so certain, that it would still have been him. A warped and twisted reflection, maybe, but he’d said again and again that it wasn’t just the fearlings taking over and possessing him, making him do things he wouldn’t even have dreamed of otherwise. They might be things he’d never have done, otherwise, but… he thought them. Some tiny part of him wanted to do them, to lash out against the world because he was afraid. And all the hope and wonder and dreams and memories the Guardians could muster, all the fun of Jack’s own core, hadn’t saved him.
It had taken Pitch, and hours of watching shadows writhe around them as he did something to Jack’s head. Aster had watched with bated breath as the grey had flaked away from Jack’s skin in increments, and white had bled back into his hair, only for blackness to sweep in again. It had been horrible to watch, to be given such hope, to see the infection retreating, only to have it swoop back in again at the last moment, stealing all of Jack’s brilliance all over again.
Except Pitch hadn’t stopped whatever it was he was doing. The shadows had fairly danced over the walls of Aster’s bedroom, a sight that he wouldn’t be forgetting for a long, long time. In fact, he might just have that room turned into something else, because sleeping in there was likely to give him nightmares, now. There had been faces among the shadows, silhouettes Aster had almost recognised, but it was as though the shadows had absorbed the darkness in Jack, sucked it right out of him, leaving him pale and white-haired once more.
Pitch had done that. He had saved Jack.
Aster shook the thoughts away, not wanting to entertain them, and tried to bury himself in gardening, in painting, in reading. Nothing worked. He kept turning over Jack’s words and his own memories again and again, as if it were a puzzle box, and if he could just slide the pieces into the right configuration, he’d have some sort of solution or resolution.
In desperation, he pulled out the schematics for his sentinels and set about tweaking them, but that only brought up memories of when he’d designed them, half mad with grief as the planet raged through it’s birth around him. It made him think of all the people he’d spent five billion years trying to forget, the people he wished he’d been in time to protect, the people he wished he could have saved, instead of only being able to run with the first light, alone. He hadn’t seen the fearlings take his partner and their children, only seen the dead and rotten planet from afar, but he had been right there when a fearling had buried it’s claws deep in his commanding officer. Bluebell had begged him to end it before the taint took them, and Aster had obeyed because better then, when they could die as themselves, instead of later, burnt away by starlight as they tried to savage their own people.
The schematics lay forgotten as Aster hunched over his desk and tried to get a grip on his emotions. Saving Jack didn’t absolve Pitch of all the other lives he’d taken. One life didn’t measure up to billions. But something in Aster recoiled at the idea of trying to assign a value to the lives of his people, reducing them and Jack to simple numbers. One life was not simply interchangeable with another, but no life held less value than any other. It wasn’t something he could measure.
There was no answer, no easy solution. Pitch had taken lives. Pitch had saved a life. Both were true, yet Aster could not reconcile the two. He had taken such comfort in the belief that there was nothing at all of the Golden General left in Pitch Black, but what if he was wrong?
The globe room had been empty when Pitch stumbled back into his lair, exhausted and hollowed out and reeling. He’d taken his blessings where he could find them, because in the state he was in, there was no way he could hold his ground against a nightmare, never mind a fearling. He’d made his way to a small room just off the side of his globe room, which held nothing but a low stone slab and a multitude of candles with sickly green-tinged flames, dripping waxy fingers down the walls from the shelves and niches they were perched on. He’d lain down on the slab and let unconsciousness take him.
He woke days later, feeling hazy but rested, wondering what on earth had yanked him so fully from sleep when he still couldn’t sense any fearlings nearby. “Pitch?” Jack bloody Frost called out, and Pitch sat up, staring at the doorway into the globe room, mouth agape. “Oh, come on, please tell me we don’t have to do this whole song and dance again.” Jack said to himself. “I mean, I know what to do now, if I get infected, but it’s not what I’d call a good time.”
Pitch snorted before he could help himself, and a moment later, Jack appeared in the doorway, eyebrows raised as he examined the room. “Nice place.” He said by way of a greeting. “I definitely approve of the lack of fearlings.”
Not that Pitch disagreed with him, but the words made him all the more conscious of how hollow he felt, how weak, how vulnerable he was in the face of Jack Frost’s remarkable power. “What do you want, Frost?” He demanded peevishly.
Jack looked at him instead of the room, and his expression darkened. He shifted his shepherd’s crook from hand to hand, an odd little nervous gesture that didn’t match the expressions flitting across his features. “I saw what happened the last time no one thought to check on you. I’m not going to let that happen again, if I can help it.” He explained, not quite meeting Pitch’s eyes.
Pitch scoffed. He had to, because it was that or admit that he had no idea what to do in the face of Jack’s honest concern. “I’m hardly some damsel in distress.”
Jack grinned, tension easing out of his shoulders now that he could, apparently, find some amusement in the situation. “I don’t know, I think you could pull off a dress pretty well.” He paused, and looked Pitch over in a way that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. “Although, you kind of already are wearing a dress.”
“Are you quite finished?” Pitch demanded.
Jack held up his hands in surrender, crook propped in his elbow to free his hands, but the gesture was entirely ruined by the fact that he couldn’t stop grinning. “Sorry, sorry.” He apologised with perfect insincerity. “So, hey, since you ran off without saying goodbye, I never actually got a chance to say thank you.” He pointed out.
Pitch didn’t even know where to start with that little bundle of nonsense. He decided on the part that made him the most uncomfortable. “Don’t waste your breath.” He chided harshly, slipping off the stone slab he was sitting on to stand in front of Jack and, perhaps, loom over him a bit. Jack appeared entirely unconcerned, propping himself up with one arm hooked through his crook so that the staff was bearing most of his weight. “And why on earth would I have hung around in that awful little hole in the ground? To exchange more pleasantries with the rabbit?” He mocked.
“You live in a hole in the ground, too, you know.” Jack pointed out, evidently amused. When Pitch only gave him a scathing look for that, because he was not about to enumerate all the different reasons why that sad, lonely attempt at a pooka den made him want to rip every last plant up by the roots, Jack rolled his eyes and pressed on. “Like I said, I wanted to say thank you, and it would’ve been nice to know you were heading out, so I didn’t feel the need to come check on you in case the fearlings somehow got to you again.” He pointed out.
“And as I said, Frost, I hardly need you to protect me from my own powers.” Pitch snarled.
“But they’re not just that, are they?” Jack countered. “They made you, just as much as you command them.” Pitch recoiled, because as far as he knew, no one who remembered that had breathed a word. The Sandman struggled to communicate complex concepts to people who couldn’t hear his song, and the rabbit snapped and snarled at any reminder of those days. But then, Jack’s infection would have stirred up old memories…
“Oh, how sweet. Has the rabbit been telling tales?” He purred viciously.
Frost shrugged easily. “He mentioned something, and you said you were a Fearling Prince. It only made sense that what happened to me had happened to you as well.” He smiled up at Pitch like he couldn’t even see the shadows curling in his peripheral vision. “Everyone needs a helping hand to pull them up every once in a while, I figured I might be able to return the favour.”
The memory of thrusting a hand into ice cold water to grab a hold of that last, true fragment of Jack, drowning in a lake to protect a little girl rose unbidden in Pitch’s mind, and he bared his teeth in a mockery of a laugh. “Don’t you get it, Jack?” He crooned, and Jack took a couple of hasty steps backwards, eyes widening in alarm. Pitch prowled after him, enjoying the taste of his wariness on the air. “There’s nothing left for you to save.”
Frost, of course, held his ground. “Even if that’s true, I’ve been close to where you are, and you’re the only person I know who could possibly understand what I went through. I just thought it might be nice to have someone to talk to.”
“Now you want to be friends?” Pitch wondered, laughing cruelly in the boy’s face. “Now that I’m weak, now that I’m powerless, you think I’ve changed? And what happens, Jack Frost, when I’ve rebuilt my strength, and I set my fearlings on your precious children?”
Rage flashed across Frost’s face, and Pitch felt a sick sort of triumph swelling in his chest. But instead of lashing out, like Pitch expected, Frost smiled. It was a smile that belonged on a grey face, not a pale one, and it knocked Pitch entirely off-balance. “Are you afraid of caring?” He asked, his voice as mild as milk while his eyes were as sharp as needles of ice and twice as cold.
Pitch was going to kill him, and he didn’t even care that not two days ago he’d expended the last of his energy saving the stupid boy. He grabbed for him, but he twisted and leapt and the wind caught him in mid-air, so that he could balance, crouching, on top of his crook, well out of Pitch’s reach. “You are.” Frost decided, that moment of cruelty gone like it had never been there, replaced by something pained. “You’re afraid to care, and you’re afraid to be alone, so you’ve trapped yourself in the middle with nowhere to go, and it’s driving you mad.”
“Don’t talk like you know anything of fear, Jack Frost.” Pitch snarled. “You think a paltry little infection and a brief sojourn into the dark depths of your subconscious gives you the right to lecture me?! I’ve tasted the fear of empires! I’ve felt the terror of an entire planet as it died! The horror of an unwinnable battle that raged across the stars, the creeping certainty of death in the minds of billions, a child’s dawning understanding that there’s no one left to shield them from the dark! I know fear, Frost, like you couldn’t possibly imagine, and you can’t stop me by trying to play the hero.”
“Are you trying to shock me?” Frost shot back, frustration winning out. “Do you think I’m stupid? Do you really think I haven’t put two and two together? You killed Bunny’s people, right? And probably a bunch more, given that you both keep using plurals. You set fearlings on them, and wiped them out except for him, right?” Frost demanded, and Pitch offered him a vicious smile and took a bow like a performer on stage accepting applause at the end of a play. “I bet it horrified you.”
“What?!” Pitch reared back, shaken down to his core.
Frost hopped down off his crook and walked towards Pitch, who was far too confused and alarmed to make another attempt at shutting him up for good. “Okay, so I don’t have a billion years of being a Fearling Prince to compare, but I was damn close when you pulled me back, and I know how horrified I was at some of the things I wanted to do when I was under.”
Pitch moved fast enough that he actually managed to grab Frost by the front of that awful, pooka-style jacket he was wearing now and haul him in to sneer right into his face. “If the rabbit had waited just one more hour, Frost, there would have been no saving you. You’re several billion years too late if you think you can talk the fearlings out of me.”
There was no fear in Frost’s eyes, just determination and a touch of frustration. “No, I’m not.” he stated firmly, putting his cold hand over the top of Pitch’s grey fist, balled into blue fabric. “If I was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because you would have waited that hour.”
“That was the debt I owed you, nothing more!”
“For saving you from the fearlings! If you were really as irredeemable as you say, why were they still tormenting you?”
“Because I failed! I was weak!”
“Because you were scared!”
“Fearling Princes don’t feel fear!” Frost yelled, and Pitch stopped to stare. They were almost nose to nose, snarling and shouting right into each other’s faces. Jack took a deep breath when Pitch didn’t respond right away, and continued in a more level voice. “They don’t, isn’t that what you showed me? They do anything but feel their fear. They throw it around like confetti and give it to anyone, everyone else, because they can’t feel it themselves. That’s how you beat them, that’s how you stop them from taking over. You have to feel it.”
Pitch let him go abruptly, backing away as far as he could as Frost dropped back to the floor and staggered at the sudden shift. Pitch did not want to hear this, he did not want to be told that there was anything left but shadows in his heart. He could not, he would not, face that. “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” He insisted, hands curling around the edge of the stone slab where he’d slept as if that could help ground him. “You can’t possibly understand, you weren’t there, you didn’t see what I did!” He laughed, ragged and edged with rage. “There’s no coming back from that, little Jack Frost.”
“You can’t undo it.” Frost confirmed, snapping the words out in a way that made them sound like the furthest thing from the agreement that they were. “You can’t pretend it never happened. It did, and it was awful, and nothing will change that.”
“Exactly!” Pitch exclaimed on a snarl.
“You gave in, and you let them take you. You let them lock your fear away because you thought you couldn’t bear it any longer, and it turned you into a Nightmare.” Frost pressed, and Pitch tried desperately to think of anything he could do or say to just make the brat shut up. He wanted to call up his shadows, the nightmares, the fearlings, anything, but he was too weak, too drained, and in the face of Frost’s power, even diminished as it was, seeping out of his skin like the glare of sunlight on a tundra, he felt caught, trapped, immobilised. “But that doesn’t mean you have to stay that way.”
“Jack, Jack, Jack…” Pitch sighed, wanting to laugh, but the sound caught in his throat, and he knew if he let it out, it would come out sounding far too much like a sob. Instead, he mocked, and if his voice was a little too hoarse to really manage his usual poisoned-honey tones, well, hopefully the words themselves would distract Frost enough that he wouldn’t notice. “If my fears were so very unbearable then, what on earth makes you think I could possibly survive them now?”
Frost didn’t answer with words. He just flipped his crook into his other hand, and held the right one out towards Pitch, a terrible parody of that moment within Frost’s mind where Pitch had hauled a drowning boy onto the ice. With a snarl of pure fury, Pitch batted the extended limb aside. “There’s nothing left, you persistent fool! There’s no one left to save! I am nothing but the fear and the darkness left behind, when all the light has been snuffed out!”
Why did saying that make him want to cry? It was only the truth, but it tore at him like a mortal wound. He felt like there was a ragged hole in his chest, a mortal wound spearing him through, as if he had any blood left to bleed. It hurt, and he hated Frost for making him say it, for making him feel when he could have been recovering his powers.
Frost gave a wordless shout of frustration. “Why are you being so stupid about this? I know you know better than that! You showed me!”
“It is not the same!” Pitch snarled, curling one fist into the shadowy robes over his chest, in a pathetic attempt to stem the invisible bleeding. “You were still there, buried, but there! There’s nothing left inside me!”
“How do you know if you won’t look?!” Frost snarled right back. Pitch wanted to laugh, remembering his own demands for Frost to look at himself under the ice. To look at the face of a little girl, dead because of him, and past her, to the truth. But it wasn’t the same, there was no buried and hidden truth, and there was no point. “Stop running away from your fears, Pitch. You have to face them. You have to look.”
“Why on earth should I?” Pitch rasped out.
“Because you want to! Because you can!” Frost exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. “Because you’re scared to!” Pitch pressed himself back against the stone slab and wished there was somewhere further away he could retreat to. The shadows responded to his touch, rising up to meet him as he sank backwards, melting and merging into the comforting darkness. They carried him away as fast as they could, but he was so very, very weak, and their fastest wasn’t very fast at all. He was perfectly capable of hearing Frost shouting “Oh my god, you coward!” before the sense of his power finally left Pitch’s lair.
Because even his own shadow was against him, when he slipped out of the not-space between shadows, he found himself standing in the ruins of a little girl’s bedroom. The horror rose up in him like bile, and he staggered backwards with one hand over his mouth. No. No! He didn’t want to acknowledge this, didn’t want to see what his weakness had brought about.
He turned and ran, through a ghostly orchard like there were fearlings on his heels, but this time, there was no pale hand to pull him along, and he tripped and stumbled over one of the fallen, bone-white apples. He choked on something liquid, and it was only as he was coughing and coughing, breath rasping through his throat, that he realised he was crying. He sagged and slumped onto the thin, patchy grass, and cried until there wasn’t any breath left in his lungs.
As he was gasping for more air, each breath leaving him on a ragged sob, he looked up, and flinched. The false sky above was black and parched, save for the narrow sliver of a viciously grinning moon. All the stars had gone out, all the planets had died, all the ships were shattered husks full of corpses. And it was all his fault. His pride, his supposed moral superiority, his staggering arrogance.
Jack had wanted to save him, the stupid, naive boy. Didn’t he realise that it was that exact mistake that had led Pitch to the darkness? And he’d sold every last inch of himself to it, in the hopes that it would make the fear go away. But it hadn’t. It had only buried it so that he couldn’t see it, cloaked his eyes in rage and hate and vindictive glee. Even now he could hear the whispers – so faint and distant, because he was weak weak weak – of fearling voices telling him all those people deserved it, they had it coming, and doesn’t he feel so much better when they’re the ones screaming.
Before, those whispers had been the only comfort in the dark, the only path he knew how to take, but now, there was another voice, louder, more insistent. Jack had pushed and pressed and pulled, tenacious in his pursuit of that last little shard of light in Pitch’s soul. It wasn’t there, but some part of Pitch wished it was, and that part clung to Jack’s words, even though they hurt. Even though the fearlings still whispered promises of no more pain, no more fear, and he knew he could slip back into that comforting darkness and the fear would go away… for a while.
Not forever. Never forever. It would chase at his heels for eternity, for another five billion years. He could destroy another galaxy, and the howling storm would only grow, and he’d have to keep running forever to escape it, and even then, what would he do when the very last star collapsed, and all life in the universe was snuffed out? Then he’d be alone with the terror, and his only option would be to follow suit, and drown in the fear of a billion stars and all the life they supported.
Jack returned to his lake in a flurry of pique, the wind curling around him even after his feet were back on the ground like a concerned puppy. “They’re both impossible.” Jack fumed as he stalked out onto the lake, conjuring ice beneath his feet despite it being summer. “Why won’t either of them just listen to me?!” He demanded, and the wind whined at his heels, whipping up little tongues of water that Jack froze into twisted ice sculptures.
Something in his core trembled, and his rage dripped out of him in increments. He stood in the middle of the lake, a twisted, winding path of ice already melting back into water behind him, letting the frustration bleed away. With a heavy sigh, he sat down on his little platform of ice, and the wind tousled his hair gently, an attempt at comfort. Jack smiled wanly. “Thanks.” He murmured, and the flopped back onto the ice with an over-dramatic groan.
There was a lopsided moon hanging like a ghost in the daytime sky above him, and Jack directed his rambling at it because he could. “What do you think?” He wondered. “Am I just being stupid? It’s not like I know anything about Pitch, or who he was before… And I don’t even know if what he did for me would help him, he’s the expert, after all! But I can’t just… leave it, now that I know what the- the fearlings do to him given half a chance, right?”
Was Jack imagining it, or had the moon gotten a little brighter, a little clearer in the sky? He sat up, eyes locked on the moon, heart in his throat. “Are you-” He began, but he didn’t know what to ask, and before he could work it out, a shout distracted him.
Jack was on his feet in an instant, because that had not been a happy, joyous shout. Relieved, yes, but not happy. He spun towards the source, and saw a dark-haired child pelting down the hill towards his lake. Eyes widening, Jack let the wind give him a boost so that he could hop to the bank of the lake without freezing any more of it over, and put himself squarely between Jamie and the water.
Jamie didn’t slow down at all, and it took all of Jack’s strength and balance and the wind propping him up to keep from toppling over when Jamie slammed into him and wrapped his arms around him. “Jack! You’re here! You’re really here!” He babbled, words tripping over themselves.
“Hey, hey, yeah, I’m here. I’m here, Jamie.” Jack assured him, wrapping his arms around the little boy in turn. Even now, there was still a hint of giddy wonder in him that there was a real live human being in the world that could touch him, see him, hug him, but most of it was overwhelmed by worry right now. His worry turned to alarm when Jamie’s shoulders started to shake. “Hey, what’s wrong?” He asked, dropping down to one knee and forcing Jamie to loosen his hold enough for Jack to get a look at his face, which was blotchy red with the effort of not crying. “What’s wrong, champ?”
“Everything.” Jamie insisted, with all the melodrama of a distressed child.
“That’s a pretty tall order to fix, you know.” Jack mused. “Maybe if you break it down for me, we’ll be able to see what we can do, huh?” He prompted gently, with a teasing smirk.
Jamie’s lower lip wobbled dangerously. “Mom’s sick, and Sophie’s having awful nightmares, and Cupcake won’t talk to us anymore, and Monty’s getting into fights, and there’s a stupid curfew now, and the monsters won’t go away, and this whole summer’s been just awful and you weren’t here, and I don’t know what to do!”
Jack blinked as he took in that list. It did cover just about everything in a kid’s a life, and he felt a pang of guilt at the last point, even if he hadn’t been able to help the fact that he’d been infected and useless for the last month. “Sorry, kid.” He murmured, giving Jamie another hug. “I was… I was pretty sick, too, actually.”
Jamie, who had been hugging him back like a strangling vine, abruptly let go to look at him. “Sick? Can Guardians get sick? Is it the same thing Mom’s got?” He asked in a rush.
“We don’t get sick often, but we can, and-” Jack cut himself off, horror dawning. He’d been about to say no, Jamie’s mom couldn’t possibly have what Jack had, but… but what if he was wrong? He and Pitch hadn’t killed all the fearlings, and he couldn’t be sure that they’d all followed them into the Warren to be smashed by Bunny’s stone eggs. “Maybe.” He hedged, because god, he hoped it wasn’t, but Jamie had mentioned monsters, hadn’t he?
“Can you help?” Jamie asked, voice small and pleading.
There was nothing in Jack that could possibly have said no in that moment. “I’ll do everything I can.” He swore, and he would, just for the way Jamie’s entire face lit up with hope and relief. Jack hopped to his feet again and held a hand out to Jamie. “Come on, You can tell me about these monsters on the way, yeah?” He prompted, as Jamie took his hand and they set off back towards Burgess together.
“They’re… they’re like shadows.” Jamie began, hesitant and almost scared. He glanced up at Jack warily, like he was frightened Jack wouldn’t believe him. “I can’t always see them, and no one else can, except Sophie. But they’re there. And they follow people around and make them nervous and angry. And they make this noise, like angry cats, except it sounds like laughing, and-”
“Oh, great.” Jack sighed, wincing.
“You believe me? You know what they are?” Jamie asked quickly.
Jack nodded, and offered him a grin. “I’ll always believe you, Jamie.” He promised, and Jamie smiled back, pleased. “You remember last Easter?” Jack checked, and Jamie nodded, eyes going wide. “They’re like the nightmares, but… worse.”
“I knew it was Pitch!” Jamie exclaimed.
Jack paused and crouched down so he could look Jamie in the eye. “I don’t think it is, this time, kid.” He said, and Jamie frowned. “The reason I haven’t been around lately is because one of those monsters made me really, really sick, and Pitch is the one who saved me.” He explained. “He was with me the whole time, and those monsters… I don’t think they like him any better than they like anyone else.”
Jamie blinked at him, face scrunching up in confusion. “Pitch… saved you?”
“Yup.” Jack confirmed.
Jamie looked dubious, but his expression was more determined than doubtful. “What about my mom?” He asked. “Can you make him save her, too?”
Jack huffed a small laugh, and ruffled Jamie’s hair. “Well, if she’s got what I had, I reckon I can probably help, but she might just have the flu or something normal.” He pointed out.
“Yeah, that’s what the doctors said, too.” Jamie grouched, scowling at the ground. “But there’s a bunch of people coming down with it, and none of them are getting better, and you said the monsters can make people sick, and- and adults are stupid.”
Jack considered that, thought about the screaming fights he’d just had with Bunny and Pitch, and could only agree wholeheartedly. “They really are.” He said, and Jamie huffed in a way that was too annoyed to quite be a laugh, but there was still something reluctantly amused in it. “Your mom’s not so bad, for an adult, though.” He pointed out.
“Yeah, sometimes.” Jamie agreed, a little shyly.
Jack nudged him conspiratorially. “You get your guts from her, kiddo. I remember when she was your age, she had this massive fear of heights, but when her cat got stuck up in that tree in your granddad’s back yard, did she let that stop her? Not even a little bit.”
Jamie stared at him, mouth agape. “You knew my mom when she was little?” He asked.
“Sure.” Jack confirmed. “I’ve been hanging around here for three hundred years, you know, I knew your granddad when he was a little kid, too, probably.” Jamie wrinkled his nose at the thought of his granddad ever being a little kid, then shook his head in disbelieving awe.
Jack glanced along the path back into town, lined with trees as far as he could see from down here, and decided walking wasn’t fast enough for him. “Come on, kid, hop on.” He said, turning to offer Jamie his back. “Flying’s more fun than walking, right?”
Jamie clambered onto his back with a small affirmative noise, and once he was settled Jack leapt into the air, where the wind caught them and tossed them towards Burgess, more gently than she usually did. Jamie let out a delighted yell, and then laughed, and Jack felt the glow of his enjoyment like soothing balm on a wound.
As they got closer to the town, however, and Jack had to put Jamie down so they didn’t freak any adults out when a kid flew past their window, Jack only got more and more worried. He’d been learning, since Easter, how to sense fun, even how to pick apart different flavours, like exhilaration or triumph or glee. There was a world of difference between the soft sense of a wallflower lost in a good book and the sharp, crisp bite of a trickster executing the perfect prank.
Where Burgess had once been a brilliant glittering canvas to his fledgeling Guardian sense, now it was dull and pockmarked. There were pockets of fun, but there was a slimy edge to almost all of it, an undercurrent Jack knew all too well from his own sickness. Anxiety, worry, dread. People were still trying to have fun in the face of it, but it seeped through from underneath, tainting a good book, turning a harmless prank cruel.
“Like ice-skating over corpses.” Jack muttered to himself wryly, scanning the faces of the people they passed as they made their way into Jamie’s neighbourhood. Only the rare face seemed serene, oblivious to the undercurrent of tension. Most everyone looked hard; determined if they were lucky, angry if they weren’t.
“What was that?” Jamie asked innocently.
Jack shook his head, and made a mental note that now that he was surrounded by people who could see and hear him, he really needed to stop his habit of talking to himself out loud. “Just thinking to myself. Is that Caleb and Claude’s house?” He checked, as if he didn’t know.
“Yeah.” Jamie confirmed, but it wasn’t a very happy confirmation. “They’ve been fighting with each other and it’s making them miserable, but no one else seems to realise that that’s not normal, you know? They’re just acting like- like it’s just a bad month, but it’s not!”
“I know, kiddo.” Jack agreed, letting Jamie’s rant carry them up to the door of the Bennett house. Jamie paused on the porch like he needed a moment to brace himself, and Jack squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. Jamie glanced up at him and smiled, then squared his shoulders and pushed inside.
“Mom! I’m back!” He hollered.
“Jamie, did you go down to that lake again?” Lizzy Bennett’s voice called back, sounding a little hoarse, but mostly just exasperated. Jamie didn’t answer, but his mom didn’t seem to need him to, to know the truth. “You know I don’t like you going out to the woods by yourself!” She chided.
“Only since summer started.” Jamie bitched under his breath.
“You know Jack Frost is a winter spirit, right, Jamie?” Lizzy added tiredly as Jamie finally trooped into the living room, where his mother was bundled up in blankets on the couch, looking pale and clammy, but still fairly bright-eyed behind her glasses. “He’s not going to be hanging out here in the summer.”
“Excuse you, I am a fall spirit, technically.” Jack corrected her, sauntering over and hopping up to perch on the arm of the couch. “My work starts on the autumn equinox, or there about. I suppose I’m technically a winter spirit, too, but honestly, most winter spirits are kind of mean, so I prefer the fall crowd. They throw the best parties.” Not that Jack had ever been invited, but he had gatecrashed, once or twice, and it had been fun before he got kicked out.
“He’s a fall spirit, actually.” Jamie repeated dutifully. Jack adored that kid.
“Jack Frost?” Lizzy questioned, dry as the desert. Jamie just nodded, utterly guileless, and his mother sighed, offering him a tired smile. “Alright. You know best.” She capitulated, and then her humour drained away. “I still don’t want you going out to the lake anymore. It’s not safe.” She glanced out of the window, and pursed her lips. “I don’t know what’s wrong with people lately, but if you have to go, you should at least go with Pippa, and get Ali to take you.”
Jamie wrinkled his nose. “Ali’s mean.”
Lizzy laughed and reached out to tousle Jamie’s hair. “Unless you want your mom dogging your steps all the way there, and all the way back, it’s that or you can’t go, Jamie.” She chided gently.
Jamie shrugged. “That’s okay, he’s back now, so I don’t need to go looking for him.” He explained brightly. Lizzy’s eyebrows went up, and Jack could read the ‘oh, that’s convenient’ on her face. “He’s gonna fix everything, and then it won’t matter if I go down to the lake.”
The look on Lizzy’s face was so pained for a moment that Jack thought she might cry. “He must be a very powerful spirit, if he can fix everything.” Was all she said, though. Putting on a brave face and a smile for her kid who still believed in fairytales and happy endings.
Jack realised he really hadn’t thought this through. There wasn’t actually much he could do for Lizzy unless he used Jamie as a mouthpiece, and what mother would ever burden her child with her greatest fears? With a groan, he smacked his head into the top of his crook. “How is it I can go three hundred years getting used to being invisible, and after a few months, I forget that I’m invisible?”
“You’re not invisible!” Jamie protested.
Jack glanced up to smile at him over his mother’s bewildered expression. “I am to your mom, kid, and she’s the one I need to talk to.”
“You wanna talk to my mom? Why? I mean, I can talk to her for you, if you want.” Jamie offered.
Jack wrinkled his nose as he thought. He supposed he could deliver wisdom through Jamie, even if he couldn’t actually get Lizzy to admit her fears out loud. “Okay.” Jack agreed, and Jamie brightened. Jack hopped down from the couch to crouch in front of Jamie again, balancing his weight with his sheperd’s crook. “The important thing, that you need to tell her, is it’s okay to be scared.”
Jamie looked stunned for a moment, then confused, but slowly, he nodded. He looked over at his mom, who looked back with raised eyebrows. “Jack says to tell you it’s okay to be scared.” He said solemnly, and Lizzy sucked in a sharp breath, just as confused and stunned as Jamie had been, to hear that sort of thing coming from her son’s mouth. Before she had a chance to say anything, though, Jamie was looking at Jack again. “But… last Easter, you said to have fun instead.”
“I know, I know.” Jack assured him. “And that works a lot of the time, but sometimes… sometimes all that does is cover the fear up. And then it grows, and turns into those monsters you keep seeing, that make people sick and mean.”
“So… so people are getting sick, and fighting, and doing horrid things because they’re scared?” Jamie realised, eyes widening.
Jack tipped his head to one side. “People can be scared without any of that happening.” He hedged. “But if they pretend they’re not, it just gets out in other ways, and gives itself to other people instead.” Jamie’s mouth dropped open in understanding. Then he turned and clambered up onto the sofa to attach himself to his mom like a limpet.
Lizzy wrapped him up in a hug, face twisting with distress when Jamie couldn’t see. “I don’t know about the getting sick part, but you’re right that fear can make people do awful things.” She told him. “That’s why I don’t want you going down to the lake by yourself.”
“Because you’re scared I’ll be hurt?” Jamie asked in a small voice.
“Yeah, baby.” Lizzy sighed, pressing her face into his hair.
Jamie opened his mouth, and Jack knew what he was going to say, so he interrupted, quickly. “Don’t promise you won’t.” He warned, and when Jamie swallowed hard and frowned at him, he smiled warmly. “World’s a big place, and there’s a lot of ways to get hurt in it. But you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and you’ve got me, and you’ve got your mom, and together, we’ll do our best to make it as unlikely as possible. It still might happen, but if it does, we’ll help you pick yourself up, and we’ll keep going, even if it’s scary, because that’s what Guardians do, yeah?” Jamie sniffled and nodded, and Jack beamed, reaching out to tweak the boy’s nose. “You tell her that, kid. She’ll get better in no time.”
“I can’t promise I won’t get hurt.” Jamie echoed, and Lizzy stiffened. “But even- even if I do, I’ve got you, right? You’ll protect me, and help me if I get hurt, even if you’re scared.”
“Always.” Lizzy vowed fiercely, tightening her hold on her son. Jack grinned, because he could see the trembling of her hands easing already, and there was a hint of colour back in her cheeks. It’d probably take her a while to get back on her feet, longer than it had taken Jack, with Pitch’s help, but she was going to be just fine.
Jamie released his stranglehold around his mother’s shoulders to slide down and settle into her lap. “Jack says that’s what makes you a Guardian, like him, and Santa, and the Easter Bunny.” He told her, and Lizzy laughed and ruffled Jamie’s hair again.
“I’m honoured to be counted among such heroes.” She told Jamie seriously.
Jack decided to leave them to their moment, and started poking around the house. Lizzy hadn’t gotten sick like that for no reason, and Jack was so in the mood for a fight. Worry for Jamie and the other kids had momentarily eclipsed his frustration with Bunny and Pitch, but it was still sitting in his gut like a lump of ice. Getting to blast a few fearlings would be very cathartic.
It took Aster all of an hour to regret blowing up at Jack. Jack had blown up right back, but Aster still felt guilty that he’d driven Jack away from the Warren with their fight. He wanted to apologise, not for his opinions, exactly, but for fighting over them. He wanted to actually talk about it, and to listen to Jack this time. Jack had been so very sure, so very determined, and Aster wasn’t so proud that he couldn’t admit that he might have been wrong.
There was ice on Jack’s lake, in the middle of summer, so he had at least dropped by here after their blue, but there was no sign of him now. Aster honestly didn’t know where else to look, so he left a little Easter egg by the banks to let Jack know he’d been by, and then glanced around helplessly. The woods were silent and still, but for the wind ruffling the topmost leaves.
That made Aster think of Jack’s little wind sprite, and he repressed a shiver. Most wind sprites chose the form of birds, or sometimes horses, if they chose a corporeal form at all, but he could have sworn that when he looked out of the corner of his eye, Jack’s companion looked a little too canine for comfort. It was a ridiculous fear for a warrior to have. Pooka warriors had often adopted forms that resembled earth’s canines when they went to war, which of course was why they scared Aster so much now. Hard to forget about the worst years of the war when he was face to face with teeth like that.
The average fearling lost all distinguishing characteristics, but by the end, everyone had known where the fearlings came from. Aster had fought shadows given form, and wondered which old friend he was cutting down now, wondered if behind the jagged maws of darkness, there was a pooka’s war face. And in those days, before the only thing left to do was run, he’d wondered if there wasn’t anything behind the grey pallor and predator’s eyes of Pitch Black.
Scrubbing his hands over his face, Aster sighed, and looked around again, suddenly with a very bad feeling about where Jack might be. After all, there was an entrance to Pitch’s lair not too far from here, and Jack had been so very determined…
There was nothing for it. He was going to have to go and check. Aster set off into the woods, all but dragging his feet as he wended between trees until he found the clearing with the rickety, half-rotted bed frame over a gaping chasm that seemed to go on and on forever. There was still frost glittering on the ancient, aged wood. “Bloody hell, Jack.” Aster muttered, then hopped down into the hole.
The first thing he noticed was the complete lack of colour. Everything was in shades of black and white and grey, and it unnerved Aster like nothing else. To a pooka, colour meant life, and to be standing in a completely monochrome world, being fairly monochrome himself, made him feel like a ghost. Still, there was frost down here, too, and Aster followed it, past a globe of belief, a dark mirror to the one in the Workshop, and into a strange little ante-chamber filled with candles.
There was frost in there, too, but no Jack, and not even a hint of Pitch. Aster tipped his head back and sighed dramatically. Then he turned, and set off into the depths of Pitch’s lair, moving on all fours for speed. He’d know when he found Jack, it’d be hard to miss the blue of his jacket down here, and he didn’t want to linger. But there was no sign of Jack at all, no more frost, not until he came to a creepy, colourless orchard, where there was a large splash of half-melted, translucent frost on one of the trees. It had lost all of its pretty blue colour, all of the light that made it so deadly against fearlings, and it looked like the ice Jack had been making in the depths of the infection.
Aster slowed, scouring the orchard with a keener eye, and before long, movement caught his eye. He approached cautiously, because it wasn’t Jack. Slowly, as he neared, the dim light revealed Pitch, sitting huddled at the base of one of the trees, knees curled up to his chest with his face pressed against them, arms curled around his legs with his hands fisted in his hair, shoulders shaking intermittently in silence. The last piece of Aster’s resistance crumbled, and it felt like some vital piece of him was breaking away as he let it go, as he looked at Pitch and saw not a terrifying villain, but a broken man.
His sigh must have been louder than he thought, because Pitch’s head snapped up, eyes wide and wild. His pupils narrowed to pinpricks when he saw Aster, pure terror in his face for a moment, and then the tension broke as he laughed, ragged and shattered, tipping his head back against the tree trunk behind him, throat exposed and eyes closed. A complete and utter surrender.
Aster didn’t know what to do. A thousand-thousand times he’d dreamed of having Pitch at his mercy like this, dreamed of spilling shadow-clogged blood in vengeance for the blood of all his people spilled over once-green worlds. Now, it was the final nail in the coffin of his hatred. He just… couldn’t muster it in the face of the picture Pitch made right then, and when he went digging, he found only a hollow, empty sort of grief.
“Well?” Pitch demanded in a hoarse whisper, eyes sliding open impatiently. Aster frowned at him, and Pitch raised an eyebrows. “I would have thought you’d be eager to take your pound of flesh.” He taunted, a sneer attempting to pull at his upper lip.
And it was a taunt. Pitch was practically begging Aster to kill him. It was a tragedy that clogged Aster’s throat in the same moment that the irony of being able to punish his greatest enemy by refusing to kill him nearly made him crack a smile. Shaking his head, he stepped forwards. Pitch closed his eyes in something almost like relief, and Aster wondered if he’d been hit by one of Jack’s fun-flakes, for the way laughter was threatening to bubble up in his throat as he chose to sit down next to Pitch, leaning his back against the same tree trunk, although at a right-angle to the other spirit.
Pitch’s eyes flew open, and he looked over his shoulder in wary shock. Aster couldn’t help the faint, bittersweet little smile that twisted his lips. “To be honest, I’d have thought so too.” He admitted. “I’ve wanted to kill you for so long, now, I guess I’ve just worn it out.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” Pitch groused, but he didn’t sound convinced.
“Maybe not.” Aster capitulated, shrugging one shoulder and finally letting himself remember what he’d spent five billion years trying to forget. “But you know, there was this bloke I used to look up to, most honourable man I ever saw, steadfast as bedrock and twice as hard-headed.” He laughed a little, even though it ached. “Stars above, I used to think he pissed moonlight and shat stardust. He was my hero, and he used to say that mercy is not true mercy if it does not belong to everyone.”
Pitch made a choked noise, somewhere between grief and horror, and Aster smiled, perversely glad he’d recognised the quote. “I was wrong.” Pitch whispered, ragged and water-clogged, and then he started sobbing like it was being ripped out of him. “Don’t you understand?” He hissed desperately, choking back the tears only to be flooded by them again. “That’s- how they won. I let them live- I thought they could be con-contained- cured, and they-”
“But they can be cured.” Aster reminded him. “You proved that.”
Pitch laughed. “You and Frost.” He muttered disparagingly. “It’s not the same. He wasn’t lost yet. You’re five billion years too late.”
Aster considered that, and promptly decided to ignore it. He was the Guardian of Hope, and he would not accept that anything was hopeless. “I don’t believe that.” He stated simply.
“You cannot possibly have forgiven me for everything I did.” Pitch denied.
Aster barked a laugh that had exactly no humour in it. “No.” He agreed tiredly. “I don’t really think forgiveness could cover that sort of thing. Even- even if I’m the last, I don’t think I have the right to forgive you for all of them. And on the personal level… no, forgiveness is the wrong word. Acceptance, maybe, is more what I’ve managed. It happened. You did it. Hating you doesn’t change that, and I’ve learned to live with my loss. Understanding is gonna take a bit more work, but I think I can try, now. Jack had some things to say on that topic that were a bit too insightful for comfort.”
“He’s very good at that, isn’t he?” Pitch muttered, half resentful, and half… fond. And then the hint of lightness broke, and he plunged back into agonising. “How could you understand? There’s nothing to understand, there’s no perspective that will make it make sense, unless you want to turn fearling yourself.” He spat. “It’s just… malice. You talk like there’s some shard of light, some speck of goodness left in me, but there isn’t.”
“Good isn’t a thing you are.” Aster said evenly. “It’s a thing you do. The only thing we can do is try, every day, to do good. Sometimes we fail. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.”
It took Pitch a long, long time to answer that, and when he did, it was in a hushed, pained whisper. “I don’t understand how you can sit there and- I’m responsible for the deaths of all of your people, and you’re talking like it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters.” Aster countered at once, irritated. “Of course it matters. Everything we do matters.” Realisation dawned, and his annoyance drained away to be replaced with exasperation, mostly directed inwards. He really, really owed Jack an apology. “Everything we choose to do matters. You chose to kill my people. You also chose to cure Jack. It all matters.”
Pitch scoffed, but there wasn’t much energy behind it. “Are you trying to suggest I could somehow atone for what I did? Save enough lives, and I’ll balance the scales?” He mocked bitterly.
“There is nothing you can do that can make up for my kits lying dead in the dust.” Aster informed him, blunt and hard, and he felt Pitch flinch, heard him crumble. Some sort of frustrated energy was filling his limbs, so Aster climbed to his feet and started to pace. “There is no scale, no balance. You can’t replace one life with another and call it even. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Then why are you here?” Pitch demanded, and he sounded so very hopeless.
Aster hurt, and he couldn’t tell if it was his own, or in response to the bleakness in Pitch’s voice. He wanted to curl in on himself and keen the ache away, but he was a full grown pooka, a warrior, and the keeper of the first light, and he would carry this with all the dignity he had left. He knelt down in front of Pitch and waited until the bogeyman met his gaze before he spoke. Silver eyes like starlight looked back at him, exactly the same as he’d heard about from the lucky cadets who’d gotten to meet the legendary General Pitchiner. Nothing left, indeed. There was still something of the man left in the monster, just like there was something of the monster left in the man, for Jack. Perhaps the two could never, really, be separated.
“Because if there’s one thing you taught me, it’s that there’s always hope.” Aster told him, and he put every ounce of his belief, his power, his own hope, into the words. Pitch’s face twisted with agony, and tears spilled onto already wet cheeks. If pooka could cry, then Aster might have, too. Instead, he kept the keen locked away in his throat for later, and offered Pitch a wry smile. “I’d be a pretty shitty Guardian of Hope, if I couldn’t even manage to offer some to you, when you need it.”
Pitch made a strangled sound, and lifted his hands to cover his face so that he didn’t have to keep looking at Aster. “Fine!” He huffed, tear-clogged and almost amused. “You win, pooka.”
“Aster.” Aster corrected.
Lowering his hands again, Pitch stared at him, bewildered. Aster shrugged, and waited. “Aster.” Pitch said the name like he was trying it to see how it tasted, and if the way he wrinkled his nose was anything to go by, it didn’t taste great. It was kind of ridiculous.
“If my younger self could see this moment.” Aster murmured wryly. “General Pitchiner using my name. I’d have made a right twit out of myself.”
“You really… thought that well of me?” Pitch asked, quiet, like he almost hoped Aster wouldn’t hear him, and he could pretend he’d never asked.
Aster gave him the look that deserved. “Who didn’t? You weren’t the Golden General for nothing.”
Pitch flinched, and turned his face away. “I was never as good as they made me out to be. They dressed me up in white and gold and paraded me in front of the civilians like I wasn’t a murderer already.” He snapped bitterly.
“And yet,” Aster snapped back, before he could stop himself, “you were the one who fought tooth and nail against the genocide order the Lunar Tsar wanted to put out!”
There was a moment where they both stared at each other as the words registered and the silence settled, equally stunned. Then Aster clapped a hand to his face, gave in, and laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. Even after everything, he still admired the man Pitch used to be, and to find himself defending the man who killed his people from himself was just a shade too far into the surreal. Pitch managed a soft snort as well, and when Aster looked at him again, he was smiling, even if it was a bitter smile. “I can’t be him.”
“No. I think we’ve already established we can’t rewind time and erase history.” Aster agreed, mirth draining away and leaving him solemn but, still, remarkably, hopeful as he climbed to his feet again. “You’re not General Kozmotis Pitchiner anymore, but you don’t have to be trapped by what you’ve done, either.”
“I don’t know who else to be.” Pitch admitted, uncurling a little at last. He crossed his legs, instead of sitting with them pulled up to his chest, and folded his hands in his lap, twisting his fingers together in a nervous gesture Aster wouldn’t have associated with either the Golden General or Pitch Black. “If I am not the Nightmare King, there is… nothing left.”
Aster didn’t believe that for a moment, but he’d started to figure it didn’t help much to just deny it. If Pitch couldn’t find anything past that particular facet of himself, blindly insisting he was wrong wouldn’t do him any good at all. So he thought about it. “I don’t have all the answers.” He admitted finally. “I don’t know who you could be, or what you want to be. But I’m willing to help you find out, if you’re willing to try.” He offered.
“And will you still, when I’m stronger, and the fearlings will answer to me again?” Pitch wondered, voice edging towards hollow, but Aster was the Guardian of Hope, and he wasn’t fooled. It was a pale, sickly hope, newborn and starved, but he could still feel it, clinging to Pitch’s soul like the most stubborn sort of kudzu.
“I’ll fight you if you set them on the people of this world.” Aster said honestly. “But-” Pitch’s head snapped up, eyes going wide, and Aster couldn’t have stopped himself from slipping into the battle-mindset if he’d tried. “What?” He asked sharply.
“They got out.” Pitch breathed.
Aster held himself very, very still, horror curdling in his gut. “And my sentinels killed them.”
Pitch laughed, and it was every inch a Pitch Black laugh, derisive and strangely melodious. “If you think they escaped one hole, just for every last one of them to dive straight back into another one when they haven’t tasted mortal flesh and fear in a full millennia, you are an idiot.”
Aster closed his eyes, and bit back the instinctive accusation. “Well, then I guess this is your first chance to define the new you.” He said, and he couldn’t quite help the bite to his voice. He opened his eyes when he thought he had clawed himself back from the edge of his spike of temper, and turned a piercing stare on a startled Pitch. “Are you going to chose to do good, or are you going to let the fearlings run loose on this planet and kill these children, too?”
Pitch glanced over his shoulder, and shuddered. Warily, Aster followed his gaze, and saw a doorway in a patch of darkest shadow, leading to what looked like the ruins of a bedroom, from what little Aster could see. There was nothing any more creepy about it than the rest of Pitch’s lair, but when Pitch looked back at him, there was something very small and terrified in his eyes. “I’ll help.” He said, in a voice that shook and wavered.
“Good.” Aster replied. He even managed a grim, hard smile as he held out a hand to help Pitch up.
The bogeyman looked at the extended limb like he was still half expecting Aster to claw his face off, but after several seconds in which Aster’s tension ratcheted higher and higher, thinking of fearlings running loose on his planet again, he took the offered hand. Aster hauled him up, and Pitch regained his feet with his typical smooth grace. Once upright, he took a deep breath, and with an effort, conjured up his huge black war-scythe in his free hand.
Aster eyed it for a moment, remembering a similar blade, a little smaller and a little more ornate, in gold instead of black, that could light up with a brilliance unrivalled except by the Moon Clipper itself when the General willed it. How the hell had he been so blind to all the little pieces of the Golden General left behind in Pitch Black?
Pitch was considering his scythe too, weighing it in his hand like it was unfamiliar. “They’re worth it.” He murmured, and when Aster cocked an eyebrow curiously, he smiled grimly and shook his head. “Nothing, just an apology I owe to Frost.” Then he drew himself up, and his eyes gleamed in the dim light like little moons before the shadows swallowed them both whole. The cloying, clinging, suffocating blackness lasted a fraction of a second that stretched into horrifying eons, before they were deposited in what Aster recognised as a shadowed alley in Burgess.
“A little warning next time, you drongo!” Aster snapped. He didn’t have time to even shake off the lingering sense of unease, because the moment they had appeared, the trio of fearlings creeping over the walls of the alley and peering in the windows had turned on them.
No, Aster realised. They had turned on Pitch. They descended on him with a rising storm of gleeful hissing, and Aster hurled his boomerangs without a second thought. One died with a sound like steam escaping a kettle, but the other ducked. Pitch’s scythe swept through the air, blocking that one, bisecting the other, twirling and sweeping back to slam the butt into the center of the final fearling, pinning it to the ground, all in the time it took Aster’s boomerangs to return to his hands.
“You do not command me.” Pitch informed the fearling, voice implacable. Slowly, a change came over the fearling. It shrank and twisted in on itself, turning insubstantial and withered, even as golden eyes gleamed brighter than ever. “Yield.” Pitch commanded, and the fearling dissolved into wisps of shadow that merged and melded with Pitch’s own shadow. He breathed deeply for a moment, adjusting, and then he flashed a crooked smile at Aster. “To war?” He asked, gesturing towards the mouth of the alley.
There was an adolescent fanboy deep, deep down in Aster’s heart that was having a field day with the idea of fighting side by side with General Pitchiner. The fully-grown, world-weary Aster who was, nominally, in charge was feeling a little too smug with how things had worked out to squash those feelings like he ought to. “To war.” He agreed, and went to hunt down some fearlings, Pitch on his heels.
Nick woke to someone tugging sharply on his beard. He sat bolt upright, and then squinted blearily as he realised what he was looking at was his favourite lounge for when he had company, not his bedroom. He blinked rapidly, then knuckled the dreamsand out of his eyes as it came back to him. They’d been celebrating Jack’s recovery, and Jack had spent the entire time pestering Bunny, and then Sandy when the rabbit proved irascible, for stories about their shared history. Sandy was hard to understand when he started trying to convey more complex stories and concepts, so North and Tooth had eventually jumped in with their own tales of meeting Bunny.
Of course, they couldn’t tell him what he wanted to know, because by the time Tooth, and then North, had met him, he had already been every inch the grey-furred, clothes-shunning, grouchy old recluse they knew and loved today. Except, of course, for that one instance when North had run afoul of one of his mentor’s experiments and wound up in the far distant past, with a ginger Bunny, a child soldier, and Sandy guarding an infant prince. To be fair, from what North had gathered, the pooka had always been a brightly coloured species, and their eyes could differentiate many times more colours than humans could, so perhaps to another pooka, he wouldn’t have looked quite so ridiculous. Still, North got quite a good laugh out of the memory of Bunny all blonde and ginger like a sunrise in his green robe-uniform thing.
Right now, the lounge was empty, save for Sandy, who gave another sharp tug to Nick’s beard in an effort to get his attention. “Ow!” Nick protested, batting the small golden hand away from his beard. That was rude, especially from Sandy. “What? What is it?” He demanded grouchily.
Above Sandy’s head appeared a crescent moon, followed by a dozen or so exclamation points. Then the little spirit pointed, with frustrated exasperation, at the door. “Manny?” North questioned, his sleepy, sluggish brain having trouble catching up. “What about Manny?” Sandy pointed, once again, at the door, with another exclamation point.
Understanding dawned, and Nick leapt to his feet in a storm of Russian swearing. Sandy rolled his eyes dramatically and bobbed along at Nick’s heels as he strode for the room and made for the globe balcony as fast as he could without running. He could see, even from several levels up, that there was a stronger-than-usual moonbeam shining in through the skylight Nick always left open for exactly that purpose. He felt a little guilty for keeping Manny waiting when he knew exactly how hard it was for him to get messages to earth.
Once he and Sandy arrived, the moonlight strengthened in greeting, and Nick smiled up at the gibbous moon hanging in the clear blue sky. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Manny. Has been long month.” He excused himself ruefully. “What is issue?”
The moonbeam shone over the Guardian symbol, now inside a pentagon to make space for a triangular tile bearing Jack’s silhouette within a hexagram. Within the moonbeam formed a more detailed silhouette of said Guardian. “Jack?” Nick breathed in confusion. “Is about Jack? He is okay, da? He is not sick again?”
Manny, of course, couldn’t answer those questions easily, and simply showed another silhouette, this time of a skyline. Nick had flown all over the world for nearly six hundred years, he was familiar with a lot of skylines, but this one wasn’t hard to place. He’d seen it very recently, after all, more recently than any other save Santoff Clausen, which he could see from the window of his office. “Burgess? Oh! Is where Jack lives!” He exclaimed. “Jack has gone home? This is good n-” Nick began, and then he stopped, because there was a final silhouette within the moonbeam, one Nick didn’t recognise, but that made his gut twist uncomfortably. It was a vaguely ghost-like shape with half a dozen spindly arms ending in wicked claws, and a mouth that gaped open, as jagged as any Jack-O'-Lantern.
An exclamation point appeared above Sandy’s head. He turned to Nick and threw up an image of his sleigh. He didn’t need any more prompting than that. “Prepare sleigh! And send word to Tooth!” He hollered to the yeti, and then went to fetch his swords. Sandy met him by the sleigh, bobbing up and down with impatience. Nick clambered into the driver’s seat, and was glad when Sandy came up to sit beside him instead of remaining in the back, because it made it easier to ask his questions as they took off. “What was that thing, Sandy?”
Sandy threw up three symbols; Jack, Pitch, and the Warren. Nick had known it, really, in his gut. His instincts had never led him wrong before. Well, perhaps once, but he didn’t like to think on that very much. That was going to stay between him and Manny forever, hopefully. “Fearling.” Sandy nodded, frowning out ahead of the sleigh and gnawing on his lower lip absently.
Once they were clear of the caves, Nick pulled a snowglobe out of his coat pocket and told it to take them to Burgess before lobbing it into the air before them. The portal swirled to life just as the leading reindeer reached it, and then they were bursting through into the Burgess skyline. Nick could immediately tell something was wrong. The place didn’t look any different, exactly, but his ability to sense the wonder of the children below felt… muted. Not gone, but diminished and indistinct, like he was looking through a fog, instead of the crisp, sparkling brilliance it should have been.
With a keen eye, Nick scanned the town as they circled it, looking for any sign of something like the creature Manny showed him. It didn’t take too long to spot, although it hadn’t been what he was looking for. Not too far from the Bennett house was a square that was conspicuously gloomy, like there was a tiny cloud overhead, casting a shadow, except the sky was clear. Sandy noticed it as well, and pointed, a little golden alarm bell ringing soundlessly above his head. “I see it, Sandy.” Nick assured him, and aimed the sleigh towards the nearest flat roof.
Before they landed, a blue and white figure careened into the side of the sleigh, and resolved itself into Jack clinging to the side with one hand, staff in the other. “What’re you guys doing here?” He asked, looking between them with eyebrows raised.
“Manny said you might be needing help with fearling.” Nick told him.
Jack grimaced. “Try plural. I’ve already got three, and then there’s that.” He gestured at the square. Nick glanced over and thought he saw the shade and shadows writhing, but then he was forced to pay attention to landing.
“Is Pitch?” Nick wondered as he guided the reindeer around and down, because he’d only ever seen shadows move like that around the bogeyman.
Jack shot him a filthy look that he absolutely did not deserve, thank you, and said, in a tone that just dared him to argue; “No.” Nick decided that he was more concerned with landing the sleigh safely. Jack would learn, in time, that a good deed or two did not redeem a man like Pitch Black. The sleigh touched down, and only bumped once or twice as the reindeer slowed to a stop. Before they’d quite come to a halt, Jack had already hopped off and jogged to the edge of the roof. “Holy shit!” He yelped, and Nick almost tripped in his haste to climb out of the sleigh and find out what was wrong.
“Dargomyzhsky!” Nick breathed, stumbling to a halt next to Jack.
The scene in the square below was nothing he ever thought he’d see. The monsters were nothing like the silhouette Manny had shown him, they were a hundred times worse. They looked almost like they were supposed to be human, sometimes, but too stretched or with too many limbs and always, always with claws that looked like they could rend steel. Some of them were more eldritch, would shift and twist and writhe their way through shapes that looked the worse sort of combinations of animals, or things that were supposed to be inside a body, not outside of it, and there were at least two dozen of them, crawling over buildings, swooping through the air, fading into the shadows and flitting about across surfaces in two dimensions. But they weren’t the most astonishing thing about the scene.
In the middle of the square, next to a bronze statue, were Bunny and Pitch, fighting. Not fighting each other, which might have made sense. No, they were fighting together, back to back. Nick didn’t think he’d ever seen Bunny turn his back on Pitch before, and while Pitch had a habit of never quite looking at the Easter Bunny directly, he was more skittish around him than any of them except Sandy. But there they were, Pitch with his great black scythe, and Bunny with his boomerangs lit up like stars and his egg-bombs that flashed as bright as sunlight. Long experience with assessing fighters told Nick that they had fought together before, like men from the same host, familiar with the weapons and moves of their comrades.
Which was impossible, Nick’s knowledge of his friend told him. But he watched as a fearling tried to sneak up on them via the statue, and Bunny launched himself upwards in a leap that only his powerful legs could have managed as it peeled itself away from the bronze man like it was his soul oozing out of his corporeal form. He hooked it with the boomerang in his hand and dragged it down, flailing, to the ground, where he would have landed on Pitch, if the man hadn’t seamlessly swept to the side, scythe batting away a fearling that was too close to Bunny, and then darted back in to slam the butt of the scythe into the disintegrating fearling as Bunny shot past him to guard his back.
Jack let out a delighted laugh, and Nick glanced over at him, an apology for his doubt on the tip of his tongue. It stalled there, though, as he was hit fully by Jack’s wonder. It was a star gone supernova right beside him, as brilliant as the noonday sun on a field of ice. And the look on Jack’s face was one Nick had seen before, on men who had thought they weren’t going to live through the night watching a sunrise over the steppes. It was a look that said ‘this is the most beautiful thing I never thought I’d see’.
Below, both Bunny and Pitch looked up and around at the sound of Jack’s laugh, which was a stupid thing to do in the middle of a battle where you were outnumbered a dozen to one. Nick was going to tell them so just as soon as the last fearling was dead. Like any sensible warrior, the fearlings didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity, and pounced. On Pitch, Nick noticed with surprise, as Jack flung himself off the roof, bounced off an awning, and arrowed straight into the knot of fearlings. He barrelled right into them like he hadn’t just spent the last month dying slowly because of them, utterly fearless, and then actually lit up, moon-bright and brilliant, sending the fearlings scattering like frost-coated leaves in the wind.
“Jack?!” Bunny yelped.
In the exact same moment, Pitch demanded; “Frost?!”
“Quit slacking, you two!” Jack heckled as he darted past the gaping pair to catch one of the dazed fearlings with the hook of his staff and hurl it into a knot of its fellows, sending them all tumbling again. “Strike!” Jack crowed, and he was laughing as the recovering fearlings swarmed him, hissing in outrage.
Nick decided he’d spent long enough staring, and hopped down – with slightly less grace – onto the same awning that Jack had, then down again to the pavement. Then he drew his swords, which were gleaming brilliantly even in the shadow cast by the fearlings, and charged. The fight wasn’t the bloody melee he always half expected, even after all these years as a Guardian fighting threats that rarely actually bled, but it was a fierce test of skill. Even with the potential cure that Jack, or perhaps Pitch, might be able to offer, Nick didn’t want to risk a single scratch.
True to his nature, Nick found wonder even in battle. There was something beautiful in the ebb and flow of it, in the clash of black claws against gleaming steel, the precision and grace in a perfectly executed bit of footwork, the heightened senses in the face of imminent death. It was amazing, watching his friends fight; Jack with his moonlit ice and his graceful acrobatics, Bunny with his ingenious explosives and raw power, Sandy with his dreamsand whips and relentless efficiency, and newly arrived; Tooth with a small army of fairies and a bow in hand.
Nick cut a fearling into pieces and whirled, only to find that there were no more. A moment later, Sandy fell still as well, and Tooth and Bunny and Jack. They all watched as Pitch cornered the very last fearling in the square, and absorbed it into his own shadow. Nick frowned at that, and glanced at Jack, who didn’t seem perturbed at all. But then, Jack had a strange connection with Pitch, so Nick looked to Bunny, who had always, always, been Pitch’s most vociferous detractor. Except, he’d forgotten that they’d been fighting side by side before the other Guardian’s arrived, and Bunny, while he was frowning faintly, didn’t hesitate to head over and clap Pitch on the shoulder.
“Still willing to try?” Bunny asked, low enough that Nick suspected the rest of them weren’t meant to hear. Pitch went still, like a startled predator, and then nodded once, a strangely regal gesture. “Then I’m still willing to help.” Bunny stated staunchly. Pitch smirked, but it was softer than his usual mockery, more wry than cruel.
Then they both staggered as Jack pounced on them, flinging an arm each around their necks and dragging them into a hug. Nick had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the practically identical looks of shock and alarm on Bunny and Pitch’s faces; eyes wide and mouths fractionally agape. Nick cocked his head to one side and considered the sense of wonder coming off the pair of them. It was small and gentle, like autumn sunlight on an upturned face, but it was there, in both of them, when Jack hugged them without reserve.
He couldn’t help it, he turned to catch Tooth’s eye and raised his eyebrows, tipping his head towards the trio. Tooth glanced between them, frowning and shaking her head in disbelief and denial. Nick rolled his eyes and his attention was drawn back to Jack when the boy spoke. “Thank you.” He said, voice muffled but still plenty audible.
Pitch sniffed in disdain, which was ruined by the way he was starting to relax into the hug. “I hardly did it for you.”
Jack laughed and hugged them both tighter. “I thought ‘well done’ was too patronising, but if you don’t like ‘thank you’ I can always…” He trailed off meaningfully, the mocking offer all too clear in his tone, and it was enough to make Pitch blanch.
“You’re welcome!” Pitch snapped desperately, and his hand settled on Jack’s shoulder-blade.
Bunny snorted at Pitch while Jack laughed again, and then he patted Jack’s shoulder awkwardly. “Y’can get off now, Frostbite.” He grumbled, but while his tone suggested he was uncomfortable, his ears were drooping slightly sideways, which was the best way to tell when he was relaxed.
Jack released them both, beaming irrepressibly and favouring them with a long, fond look before he looked around at the square. “Was that all of them?”
“Hardly.” Pitch scoffed, straightening his robes and dusting the front down in a show of discomfort. “Those were only the ones that thought it was a good idea to challenge me.” He sneered, shooting a burning look over his shoulder at his own shadow. It writhed uncomfortably under the scrutiny until Pitch turned his gaze away again. “The rest will be hiding; biding their time, seeding fear into the minds of the susceptible, nudging the world towards self-destruction.”
“But where did they come from?” Tooth demanded, flitting forwards to frown at the little knot of Pitch, Bunny, and Jack. They all turned to her, and Nick took that as his cue to step forwards and join the conversation, Sandy drifting along behind him. “I thought we killed them all after the dark ages!”
“We did.” Bunny confirms, turning a questioning look on Pitch, one eyebrow arched expectantly.
Pitch rolled his eyes. “Humans are perfectly capable of terrorising themselves into a frenzy without my help.” He pointed out. “A scratch is only one way for the infection to start. Humans have their own fears, and they fester like anyone else’s. It’s been a thousand years, give or take. A lot of humans during that time have died full of fear they couldn’t feel.” He bared his teeth in a cruel smile.
“It’ll only get worse now, though, won’t it?” Jack asked, in a rare moment of solemnity. A frown marred his brow, and his lips were pressed into a thin line as he glanced out at the town around them. The square was eerily empty, even the adults sensing something amiss and avoiding the place.
“Is looking like we have cut-out work.” North declared.
“That’s ‘work cut out for us’, North, ya gumby.” Bunny corrected him.
Sandy made a faint noise, then, which he hardly ever did, a soft, clear melody right on the edge of what North could hear, and they all turned to him in surprise, but he was looking at Pitch. Who frowned right back. “I hardly expected anything different.” Pitch snapped out of the blue, and Sandy made another quiet humming sound. “And why not?” Pitch sneered, making Sandy frown and- North suddenly suspected that those noises his dreamsand made when he was shaping it, the sounds he was making now, were speech, of a sort. “Don’t be naive, little man. Your precious Golden General is dead, and I’ll thank you not to expect me to act anything like him.”
Behind Pitch’s back, Bunny rolled his eyes, gave Sandy a look, and pointedly wiggled one hand in the air in an ‘only sort of’ gesture. Sandy blinked, peered curiously at Pitch, and then smiled and shrugged. “Okay!” Jack interjected, looking between the three of them with undisguised curiosity. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and believe me, I am going to ask all the questions later, but right now, I think someone ought to check on the kids. Jamie seemed worried about his friends, and I think they’ve been pretty badly affected by the fearlings.”
“Of course they have.” Pitch sighed wearily. “Unlike their fellows, those six know there are monsters in the world, and yet their knowledge would have made them incautious. The fearlings would have been drawn to them like ants to honey.”
“I wanna check on Jamie’s mom. I had to talk the kid through talking her out of an infection.” Jack added, and North had to swallow a laugh at the dramatic double-take Pitch did. Jack flashed him a smug smile. “I did pay attention, you know.” He reminded the bogeyman. “But I’m not you, and I don’t know if it took, so I want to keep an eye on that. And Jamie said Cupcake’s avoiding them, and the twins are arguing, and Monty’s getting into fights, and Sophie’s having what I think are night-terrors.”
Bunny straightened, ears coming up and forwards in alarm. “The little tyke’s having night-terrors?” He demanded, worried. Jack nodded.
“Well, then, Bunny and Jack can be checking on our favourite believers, and rest of us can be looking into ways to track fearlings.” Nick interjected, clapping his hands together dramatically, delighted that he could indulge a bit of match-making and efficiently distribute the Guardians at the same time. “Tooth, you have large network of fairies and helpers across globe, might be good to send out alert. Sandy, I could use help with making new globe, for tracking fearlings instead of belief. Hard work, but worth it.” He paused, and cast an assessing look at Pitch.
Once, a long, long time ago, he’d met the bogeyman for the first time and thought that he could be a trustworthy and honourable ally. That he was a kindred spirit, of sorts, a leader and a warrior whose first duty was to service and peace. He had been viciously betrayed for his trust, and he had learned to see the truth through his own hopeful wonder. It was the only time his instincts had ever led him astray.
Now, though, he thought he could see some of that again. After five hundred years of convincing himself he’d been very, very wrong, Nick dared to wonder if he might not have been so mistaken after all, just a few centuries too early. “Would be glad of help, if you would be willing.” He said finally, cautious, but he’d said it. Pitch gave him a disbelieving look, and Nick shrugged, not that surprised at the refusal evident in his expression.
“Why don’t you come with us?” Jack suggested, elbowing Bunny, who shoved him back like a child. “If the fearlings are as drawn to the kids as you said, there’s gotta be a few more lurking about the place that you can… absorb, or whatever that was.” He gestured at Pitch’s shadow.
“…Very well.” Pitch agreed warily.
Nick watched the three of them go, then shook his head with a chuckle as he turned back towards the sleigh. “I don’t like this.” Tooth declared, her eyes also lingering on Pitch’s back as he followed Jack and Bunny down the street, keeping to the shadows of walls as much as possible. “I don’t understand what’s going on with Pitch, but I don’t trust him, and I don’t know why Bunny suddenly does!”
She looked so put out that Nick had to laugh. “Is falling in love, yes?” He asked, just for the thoroughly scandalised look she shot him.
“Who?” She demanded, bewildered. “I know you think Bunny is interested in Jack, but that’s got nothing to do with Pitch!”
“It has something to do with Pitch.” Nick asserted.
Sandy bobbed up to hover level with their shoulders and threw up an image of a present, tied with a bow. “You think Bunny’s giving Pitch a chance because of Jack?” Tooth asked, but Sandy just shrugged and showed a silhouette of Bunny’s reduced form from last Easter. “Because he feels he owes Jack?” Tooth paraphrased, and Sandy nodded.
“You are both wrong.” Nick declared staunchly. “Those were not faces of grateful men. Those were faces of men in love. Only time will tell whether hearts triumph over heads, but is definitely battle of hearts.” At the twin sceptical looks he received, he just beamed and patted his stomach smugly. “I can feel it in my belly.”
Being a spirit made time pass strangely, in Pitch’s experience. Sometimes years could pass like days, and sometimes hours drew out into months. The months after Jack’s illness stuttered by, weeks of the monotony of hunting down fearlings that flashed by in an instant interrupted by visits from Jack or- or Aster, which began to make hours feel as exhausting as weeks.
It wasn’t that he didn’t… enjoy their visits, but the process of attempting to recover from what was essentially a five-billion year old infection was draining in a way Pitch probably should have anticipated, but hadn’t. Jack had bounced back within a couple of days, a testament to his strength as much as to the fact that the infection hadn’t taken him completely, but Pitch was finding it a lot harder to scrape together pieces of a personality that weren’t tainted by the fearlings.
When he was hunting them and dragging them back under control, he didn’t need to worry about who he was , he was nothing more than a vessel for a function, and he could put aside his recovery in favour of his duty. When around the Guardians – North and the Sandman had both paid a visit as well, but it had been brief where Jack and Aster refused to be chased off – he was forced to examine his own responses to every little thing, to inspect it for any hidden fear, to wonder if it was a piece of him or of them, and it was exhausting.
It was helping, though, as much as some part of Pitch didn’t want to admit it. He was beginning to find his feet in this strange new role he had, less of a tormentor and more of a… a protector to the children of this world. He wasn’t going to think the blasted word, no matter how apt it was, no matter the knowing sparkle in Jack’s eye when Aster had not-so-very-innocently brought up that remark Pitch had made about owing Jack an apology.
The pair of them had wanted to re-introduce him to those stubborn little brats that had been such a thorn in his side last Easter, in an attempt, he suspected, of cementing his role as a protector, but Pitch had bowed out after ensuring that Jack had, indeed, set the Bennett boy’s mother on the path to recovery, which he had. Pitch wondered if Jack understood just how remarkable he was, to have understood so clearly the nature of fear, and more importantly, to have held on to that knowledge for longer than it took for the infection to fade.
He rather thought he didn’t. The young spirit was oblivious to his own power. All spirits, not just the Guardians, depended on the power of belief for their strength, and yet Jack had been strong enough to face down Pitch even before he had a single one. He couldn’t know just how many centuries it had taken the pooka to figure out how to infuse steel with starlight, and yet Jack was imbuing his ice with moonlight like it wasn’t any trouble at all. Despite how insidious the fearling taint was, Jack had managed to heal a woman of the infection when she couldn’t even see him and the only translator he had was her son. Ridiculous, impossible, incredible man.
Pitch smoothed a palm over the icy wall of the newest little room in his lair, smiling faintly. He could admit to himself, if not to anyone else, that he owed Jack more than he could possibly repay. If not for Jack’s intervention, he would have remained stuck in the cycle of insanity and torture the fearlings subjected him to. If not for Jack’s persistence, he would have sunk back into it anyway, hopelessly lost to the fear of his own guilt. If not for Jack’s defence, he would never have been able to begin… some form of mending bridges with the last survivor of one of the atrocities he committed. If not for Jack’s insights, he would never have found a purpose he could brace himself against to begin rebuilding the shattered fractures of his own soul. If not for Jack, Pitch would have remained entirely lost to himself, a hollow shell for his fears instead of a real person.
This room was his own private dedication to that debt, and perhaps an homage to that first glimpse of Jack’s mind when he’d been overcome by, but not yet beaten by, fear. The vast and lonely tundra with it’s raging, entirely silent blizzard, great looming cliffs of ice twisted into tortured shapes on the edges of one’s vision, like teeth breaking through skin. There were so many things for a mortal to fear in a place like that; isolation, starvation, death, disorientation, exposure. Pitch might have been able to conjure up sound, a howling for the blizzard or the ominous cracking of ice, but he liked the silence. There was something about it that was inordinately creepy, offering the sense that one could scream and scream and scream, and the snow would swallow the sound entirely.
Shaking his head at himself and his ridiculous flight of fancy, Pitch left his lair for one of the duties he had assigned himself as part of his new purpose. For all that he had not been willing to face the children Jack and the other Guardians were so fond of, he had still decided to keep an eye on them from the shadows, out of sight. Not only were they more at risk, their irreverent knowledge painting a target on all of their backs, but he also felt he owed them somewhat more than he owed the rest of the children of this world, if only because they were more aware of the harm he’d tried to do them.
The Bennetts were faring the best, with Jack’s wisdom guiding them, and his frequent visits bolstering them, as well as the fact that the mother was a surprisingly resilient individual. Being a single parent was hard, and it usually left one wide open to all sorts of fears and with too many reasons not to acknowledge them, but she had barely been affected by the fearlings that had latched onto her family, and had bounced back rapidly.
The girl, Pippa, was equally resilient, and recovering from her brief spiral into obsessive perfectionism relatively well, while the twins were bouncing back from their fear-fuelled animosity like only children could. The other boy, Monty, was struggling, but the sudden bursts of uncharacteristic fury had morphed into unpredictable fits of tears, which at least were somewhat more likely to gain him sympathetic help, instead of the chiding and censure that would only enhance his fear. And the other girl, the one the children called Cupcake… well.
Pitch was rather curious about her. She was an angry child, full of twisted rage spawned from a deep-rooted fear of abandonment. And it was old, too, much stronger and older than the last few months, with fearlings running amok, could account for. He remembered tasting it at Easter. Even surrounded by all the toys and books and indulgences that a child could wish for, it had been so easy to coax out the fear in her heart. Just a touch, and the nightmare had taken on a life of its own.
That evening, when he slipped into the shadows of the Collins household, he found himself observing a screaming row between mother and daughter. He remained hidden and watched; there was no need to show himself when her mother was doing a perfectly good job of scaring Cupcake already. Insults were tossed back and forth, ungrateful was countered with bossy, jerk was countered with delinquent, and the whole thing was evidently just an exercise in trying to hurt each other as much as possible, thinly disguised as an argument over what time bedtime was.
“Dad would have let me finish watching my show!” Cupcake screamed, fat tears spilling onto cheeks scrunched up with wounded fury, and that, apparently, was a step too far.
The sound of flesh impacting on flesh echoed through the suddenly, dramatically silent house. Pitch sucked in a sharp breath at the sudden, potent spike of terror from the child, and the well-buried surge of dread from the mother. Cupcake’s face had gone slack with shock, and her eyes were widening with dawning fear as her mother drew herself up and raised her hand again. “I don’t give a damn what your father would or wouldn’t do.” She said, all cold fury and command. “While you’re under my roof, you follow my rules. Now go to your room, or I’ll smack you again!”
“Oh, well done.” Pitch scathed mockingly at the entirely oblivious woman left standing in the living room, materialising a little way behind and to the left of her. “If you were trying to make your worst fears a reality, you’re certainly going about it the right way.” Cupcake’s mother abruptly sat down and buried her face in her hands. Pitch sighed, and considered the stairs that Cupcake had vanished up thoughtfully. “Although I suppose I hardly have room to criticise. But as I’ve recently learned, fear has its place, and that place is certainly not ‘of your parents’.”
“It’s not as though I can get her to listen to me any other way.” Cupcake’s mother huffed, to herself, of course, but Pitch had to wonder if some tiny part of her – the part that was already so deeply in thrall to the fearling plague – couldn’t sense him. She tipped her head back with a groan and knuckled at her forehead like she was getting a headache.
“I wonder how badly it would break you, if you believed in me enough that I could make you face your fears.” Pitch mused, then he shook his head. “Don’t dwell on the ones you can’t save, Pitch, or you won’t be able to save anyone.” He reminded himself, and slipped back into the shadows to ghost upstairs, following the trail of Cupcake’s terror.
He found her sitting underneath the window in the bathroom, the door securely locked against her mother, her knees curled up to her chest and her face buried in her knees as she cried silently. Pitch let himself materialise beside her, since she had quite conveniently left the light off in her mad dash. The only illumination was from the street light outside, which left the shadows under the window – heh – Pitch Black.
“You’re quite right to be scared of her, you know.”
Cupcake’s head snapped up, and she scrambled away and to her feet, using the side of the bathtub to lever herself upright. “You!” She hissed furiously.
“Me.” Pitch confirmed, and grinned, all gleaming teeth in the darkness. “Oh, she’ll never abandon you, she’s far too afraid of what people might think of her if she did, but she will hurt you, and she’ll keep hurting you until she breaks you.”
Cupcake’s breath shuddered audibly, but the spiking terror of before smoothed out into a hollow ache that was almost dread, yet somehow much easier to navigate. “N-no she won’t! You’re just saying that because you want me to be scared.” Cupcake accused.
“If I wanted you scared, I would have left well enough alone.” Pitch pointed out. “Your mother was doing a perfectly good job all by herself.” Cupcake had nothing to say to that, and Pitch watched her hunch in on herself as she accepted the truth of his words. “Was that the first time she laid a hand on you?” He asked conversationally.
Cupcake startled. “Yes?” She hazarded, not sounding very sure of her answer. “It’s the first time she’s hit me.” She added resentfully, and Pitch thought it had the ring of truth. The acidic anxiety that filled her a moment later certainly had the sharp tang of a fresh fear to it. “W-why do you care, anyway?” She demanded, wrapping her arms around herself in a pseudo-hug.
“Because fear has a purpose.” Pitch informed her. “It exists – I exist – to warn you where not to tread. ‘Don’t get out of bed in the middle of the night, or the bogeyman will get you!’ Or you might fall down the stairs in the dark, but that doesn’t sound as frightening unless you’ve experienced it, and that would rather defeat the object, wouldn’t it?”
Cupcake snorted rudely. “Are you saying you’re here to protect me?” She mocked.
“Yes.” Pitch confirmed.
That earned him a long, shocked stare. “But… at Easter…” Cupcake protested.
Pitch eyed her for a moment, and then smirked. “Sometimes, fear can make people very, very angry, as you are well aware.” He reminded her, making her flinch. His smirk softened and then fell away into weariness. “That doesn’t make us bad people.” He was trying to believe that, at least, and with Jack and Aster’s help, it seemed to be working. He could hope.
Cupcake made a strangled, hiccuping noise, and sank back down onto the floor, crying hard. Gingerly, unsure if it was the right thing to do, Pitch put a hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort. Instead of flinching away, like he half expected, Cupcake gave a hard sob, and flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around his chest.
Acute terror seized Pitch, holding him immobile for several long seconds as he wrestled with it, assessed it, and tried to understand it. He was afraid of hurting her, he acknowledged, and the truth was he probably would at some point. That didn’t mean he should stop trying to help. Carefully, he let his arm settle around her shoulders, and knew he’d done the right thing when Cupcake’s fear shifted from acidic to wholesome. She was still scared, of course, but she wasn’t running from it anymore, and that was a good start.
“Fear has a purpose.” Pitch repeated when Cupcake’s tears had calmed to the point where he thought she would actually hear him. She sniffed and curled in on herself a little, hiding her face against his robe, and he sighed. “It’s a warning that something isn’t right. And you should never let it rule you, never just do as it says without question, but you should always listen. Sometimes, I happen to give very good advice.” He pronounced archly.
“Like what?” Cupcake challenged petulantly.
“Well, what does your fear tell you, when you think about what happened tonight?” Pitch prompted idly.
Cupcake sniffed again. “That I want to go home.” Pitch frowned, and looked down at the top of Cupcake’s head in confusion. After a long moment, she peeked up at him, and read his bewilderment in his face. “To my dad’s.” She explained. “My parents are divorced.”
“Ah.” Pitch acknowledged, and then smirked. “Like I said, sometimes I give very good advice.” Rising to his feet, and setting Cupcake gently on hers, Pitch reached out with his shadows, with his tamed fearlings, sending one to Cupcake’s room and the downstairs hall to fetch boots, coat, and the well-worn cuddly toy tucked into her bed, and using the other to flip the latch on the window and shove it open.
Cupcake stared at the window, and then at the objects slipping out of the shadows at her feet. Then she looked back at Pitch with a remarkably good deadpan expression for a ten year old. “My fear is telling me to not be a dumbass and climb out the window in the middle of the night.” She informed him. “It’s right up there with getting out of bed in the middle of the night and falling down the stairs.”
Pitch grinned, honestly delighted by her sass. “And sometimes, I give terrible advice.” He agreed wickedly. “You’ll have to judge for yourself which part you want to listen to.”
For a long moment, Cupcake stood there in the dark bathroom, staring at him with her fear as clear in her eyes as it was to his other sense. Then she set her jaw, scowled in determination, and bent down to shove her boots onto her feet. She jammed her arms into the sleeves of her coat and tucked her toy into the front of it as she zipped it up. Pitch helpfully cleared the windowsill of the bathroom knick-knacks that cluttered it, so that Cupcake’s way was unencumbered as she clambered up onto the sill, squirmed around so that her legs were hanging out, and lowered herself down onto the canopy of the bay window below.
Pitch chose to slide through the wall and perch delicately on a narrow piece of decorative moulding to watch as she lay flat on the canopy to peer down into the room below, the dining room, if Pitch wasn’t mistaken, to make sure it was empty. Then she repeated the manoeuvre that had gotten her out of the bathroom window, and kept sliding until she was holding on by her fingertips. Every inch that she gave, from her waist until she was hanging there from her arms, sent another thrill of nerves through her that Pitch could all but taste on the air. But she got there, and Pitch stepped out of the shadows under the window just in time to catch and steady her when she let go.
“Thanks.” Cupcake huffed, and then darted out of the garden and down the road. Pitch kept pace with her the whole way, even though her fear had dulled somewhat now that the likelihood of her mother catching her had significantly decreased. “What are you doing?” Cupcake asked warily, pausing in her trek when she realised he was still following her.
“Keeping you company.” Pitch informed her smoothly.
“I know where I’m going.” Cupcake stated, as if that was why he might be hanging around.
Pitch smiled indulgently, and ruffled her hair. “And I’ll be with you, every step of the way.” He assured her as she scowled up at him from under his hand.
“That’s not reassuring.” Cupcake informed him, turning on her heel and stomping onwards.
Pitch just laughed, low and menacing, and matched her pace. Her fear crept back, as Pitch had known it would, as she left the streets she was particularly familiar with and started along a route she was no doubt more used to seeing from within the safe confines of a car. It might have been bedtime for young children, but the night was still young enough that there were adults about, and Cupcake was smart enough to be wary, not just of adults that might mean her harm, but also of adults that might mean well, and insist on taking her back to her mother.
Occasionally, Pitch would make an idle observation of a particular feature – a rowdy group of teens, a darkened alley, an old lady frowning in Cupcake’s direction – and Cupcake would change her course to avoid it. And then, all of a sudden, Cupcake pointed down a row of terraced town-houses and said, “That’s my dad’s house.”
Pitch saw her to the door, and gave a gallant – and entirely over-dramatised – courtly bow as she hopped onto the front doorstep and rang the bell. “You’re weird.” Cupcake accused him. Pitch accepted that with a nod and a smile, and he was already starting to fade back into the shadows when the hallway light came on, and Cupcake blurted out a hurried and hushed “Thanks!” before the door opened.
Cupcake, Pitch discovered then, looked rather a lot like her father. “Cupcake?” He asked, bewildered. Not that that stopped him crouching down and enfolding her in a hug. “What are you doing here? Where’s Michelle?”
“I ran away.” Cupcake admitted, which made her father draw back to scowl at her. Cupcake directed an identical scowl at the floor as she scuffed the toe of her boot against the step, so she didn’t see the way her father’s eyes zeroed in on her reddened cheek, and went flinty.
Entirely satisfied that Cupcake was in good hands, Pitch allowed himself to fold into the shadows to return to his lair. Once there, he chuckled to himself, his sense of accomplishment filling him with energy. He felt so damn good. He felt powerful. That thought caught him, and he paused, probing the sensation, because he didn’t think he’d soaked up any fearlings from Cupcake’s mother, and he wasn’t sure what other reason there could be for this strange power-boost. He laughed again when he realised what it was and, since no one was watching, caved to the impulse to dance his way across the dais that held his globe.
He felt believed in.
Autumn had begun, and with it came Jack’s busiest time of year. Once winter arrived and the weather patterns kicked in, he could relax a little, focus on gentle blizzards for the kids, and playing on snow days, but before that he had to help the chill actually pick up and settle in. The wind flung him from one side of the world to the other and back again as he put a touch of frost on everything that held still long enough, and tried to chivvy the clouds into place for maximum effect come winter.
He was giving himself a day off this year, right in the middle of his busiest season. Pitch had been working really damn hard on his recovery, or atonement, or whatever he wanted to call it, and Jack rather thought he deserved a chance to let loose and play, and what better day for that than Halloween? Jack had always loved the holiday, even back when he’d been alive and it had been All Hallow’s Eve. Still, it was more fun now, in his opinion. An entire holiday dedicated to tricks and practical jokes? Sign him right up!
The route to Pitch’s lair was a familiar one now. Three months, more or less, since the day Pitch had decided to try to heal, and Jack had made it a point to visit fairly regularly. After all, he knew how damaging it could be to be isolated and alone, how it could turn anyone into a shadow of their former self. Jack snickered at the pun, and wondered if Pitch would appreciate it. Bunny wouldn’t, but then Bunny didn’t like gallows humour all that much, which was his loss.
Pushing aside his wandering thoughts, Jack followed the familiar path to the rickety old ruin of a bedframe, and the hole beneath. “Knock knock!” He called out, knocking the top of his crook against the inside of the hole. Pitch had told him that he could sense when any foreign power entered his lair, so Jack had taken to knocking – sort of – because he did know what manners were, thank you.
He didn’t wait for Pitch to invite him in though, because there was giving someone fair warning, and then there was dithering about long enough that nothing ever got done. Pitch could always kick him out if he didn’t want Jack there, whether he was inside or dilly-dallying on the doorstep. As always, Pitch was there to meet him in the room with the cages, which now held the fearlings. If Jack had found them creepy before, when they were empty, or when they had the mini tooth fairies in, that was nothing to how unsettling they were now. Some looked empty until he caught flashes of golden eyes, some looked to be full of writhing shadows, some rattled without moving, some swayed gently without a breeze.
“Hello, Jack.” Pitch greeted, a little wry like he was trying to be annoyed but couldn’t quite help being amused. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Jack found it hilarious that under all the drama and flair, Pitch tended to talk – and act – like an honest to god gentleman. Standing there, with his hands tucked neatly behind his back, spine straight and shoulders back and chin high, he looked like one, too, even with the robe. He looked almost noble or something, and Jack could admit that he liked seeing him with a bit of pride and dignity in him, after everything that had happened over the summer. But he thought he’d rather like to see what he looked like when he forgot dignity in favour of some real fun.
“It’s Halloween today.” Jack stated, hopping up to crouch atop a broken pillar, crook laid across his knees and feral grin pulling at his lips. “You got any plans?”
Pitch’s eyebrows rose, and he shrugged carelessly. “Tracking down fearlings. Same as usual.”
Jack blew a raspberry. “Boring. It’s Halloween, you can do better than that! Today’s the day kids want to be scared, so go wild! I mean, come on, imagine what you could do to a bunch of kids telling ghost stories around a campfire, or, oh! Jamie said there’s this event at the museum, a sort of haunted house type exhibit of all their creepiest shit. I’m going to ice the floors down a couple hallways, and the kids are going to freak when the first one slips.” He crowed, snickering to himself.
“I hadn’t considered that.” Pitch mused, warily intrigued. “Halloween isn’t exactly my holiday, though.” He pointed out.
“Meh, it’s a holiday celebrating darkness, fear, and deception. It might not be yours like Easter is Bunny’s or Christmas is North’s, but you’re still a spirit of fear and darkness, so… it kind of is your holiday.” Jack retorted, grin softening. “Come on.” He entreated, bouncing a little on his toes. “Come and have some fun, Pitch.”
“If you insist.” Pitch sighed like he was suffering, but Jack was not fooled. He could sense the man’s anticipation. Pitch put a hand on Jack’s shoulder and the next thing Jack knew, the darkness was peeling away to reveal the Burgess History Museum, and there was nothing under his feet. The wind caught him before he could fall, though, and he lowered his feet to the floor without embarrassing himself. Pitch wrinkled his nose in faux-annoyance. “What is it you say? Pitch Black, two; Jack Frost, one?” He mused, and Jack snorted.
“I’ll catch up, just you wait!” He declared, wagging his crook in Pitch’s face before glancing around. They were tucked into a shadowed corner, of which there were plenty, because the whole museum was only dimly lit, with spotlights on the exhibits, most of which were fairly gruesome. There were little groups of people, or the rare solitary figure or pair, ambling around, talking in hushed voices like they were afraid to disturb the silence, but all it really did was create an unidentifiable susurrus.
Snickering to himself, Jack darted over to one of the hallways that was lined with paintings and murals of bloody battles, and tapped the ground with his staff. It took conscious effort to keep his ice dull and transparent, but it was worth it. In the shadowy museum, the thin layer of it on the floor was practically invisible, and Jack skipped away to hide behind an exhibit just in case one of his few believers happened to be among the group of children approaching.
Pitch melted out of the shadows to join him, and they watched with eager anticipation as the gaggle of kids – a little too old to be any of Jack’s believers – finally abandoned their inspection of various human remains, and bustled towards the hallway. The first one to step onto the ice was a fairly small boy, and as he went down with a yelp, he grabbed one of the girls as if that might help him keep his balance. She staggered, stepped forwards to try and keep her balance, and lost her own footing, toppling over backwards into her friend, who was smaller than her, and went down under her weight. The two at the back looked at their three friends on the floor in bemusement. “You alright down there?” One asked, laughter in his voice, which provoked one of the girls to say a very rude word her parents probably wished she didn’t know.
Jack burst out laughing, and hand to lean against an exhibit to keep his balance as he watched the kids flail and struggle to get back upright again. Just before they were all steady on their feet again, Pitch decided to make his move. The shadows just not quite out of sight began to writhe, causing more than one head to snap around in alarm. “What was that?” One kid asked warily.
Pitch chuckled, and that got even more of a reaction, the kids all twisting and turning to try and find the source. One of the lights over the paintings blew, and the kids jumped and shrieked, clutching at each other. Jack could feel the little sparks of slightly hysterical glee they were feeling, twisted and flickering in between their fear. When one of the boys started getting genuinely scared by the way the shadows seemed to be closing in on them, Jack flicked a happy-flake in his direction, and the terror bled back towards something that wasn’t quite fear, but wasn’t quite fun, either.
With a sideways glance at Jack, Pitch conjured up a nightmare with a gesture, the spectral beast appearing to leap out of one of the paintings. The kids screamed, flailed backwards, and promptly slipped on the ice Jack had summoned up behind them as well. They all went down in a tangle, and by the time any of them looked up, the nightmare had vanished and the shadows were still and nothing at all appeared to be amiss.
“Oh my god.” One of the boys muttered, and that was the last straw. The lot of them collapsed into hysterical laughter, disjointedly accusing each other of screaming the loudest, or the highest, or being the first one to fall.
Jack sidled over to Pitch. “Feel good?”
Pitch slanted a crooked smile in Jack’s direction. “Remarkably.” Then he whisked them off through the shadows to a little kid’s halloween party, which had a little portable campfire set up in their back yard, where they were toasting smores and telling ghost stories. Jack left that one to Pitch, and just sat back and laughed as Pitch displayed his flair for dramatic timing, punctuating every story with creepy noises or twisting shadows at just the right moment to thoroughly creep out the kids.
Then there was another party, this one full of young teenagers playing with a ouija board. Jack and Pitch took turns messing with the pointer. Jack deliberately chose nonsensical answers, answering yes or no questions with words like ‘blue’ or spelling his answer backwards, while Pitch would do things like spell out the names of the kids present.
They visited a street full of trick-or-treating children, and Pitch loomed out of shadows, conjured up nightmares, and shadowy spiders, and little glowing eyes in the dark. Jack conjured up happy-flakes for the more nervous kids, frosted over door-knockers, and blew chill air over the back’s of people’s necks. The laughing shrieks of alarm were music to his ears, and he realised he hadn’t had this much fun since before Easter. Too giddy to stay still, Jack called up the wind and back-flipped into the air, laughing. The wind picked up on his mood, and swirled around him with playful energy, threatening to drop him and catching him right before he hit the pavement in a way she hadn’t in centuries.
Jack finally landed from his impromptu whirl around the small town they were in, tugging on loose pieces of costumes and sending badly protected candy scattering across the pavement, and cast around for Pitch. To his surprise, he found the bogeyman nearby, on a little green in the middle of some houses that was crawling with different groups of trick-or-treaters. Jack paused on top of a fence to just watch as Pitch conducted the shadows with great sweeps of his arms, and- was that a shimmy? That was definitely a shimmy. Followed by a dramatic pivot that was almost a twirl, a twist of his torso, a rippling gesture of his shoulders…
Pitch was dancing. That was the only word for it. He was dancing across the square, shadows flocking to him and writhing on his command. A herd of nightmares roved around the neighbourhood, coming and going like a troupe of well-choreographed back-up dancers, save for one that didn’t seem to want to go too far from Pitch at all. Jack had to press a hand to his mouth to keep back his victorious, delighted laughter as he watched, because this was what he’d been hoping for when he invited Pitch out in the first place. This wild abandon. This joy. It looked ridiculously good on him.
The wind whistled around him, tugging on his clothes and hair, nudging him just enough to unbalance his precarious perch on the fence, so that he was forced to hop down or fall down. “You’re feeling pretty frisky today, aren’t you?” Jack asked as he sauntered towards Pitch. The wind did a twirl around him, almost like she was trying to dance with him. “You know what?” Jack began, glee bubbling up inside him. “Me too.”
With that, he darted forwards and caught one of Pitch’s hands just as he stepped into another spin. Pitch stumbled in shock, and Jack took advantage of his compromised balance to twirl him, the wind boosting him up to give him the height he needed for such a move. “Frost!” Pitch exclaimed.
“Mind if I cut in?” Jack asked, and was promptly smacked in the face by a weird sense of deja vu.
While he was still trying to scrape his thoughts back together, the wind abandoned him to pounce on the nightmare that was hovering by Pitch. For a moment, out of the corner of his eye, Jack could have sworn he saw the twisting eddies of air take the shape of something four-legged. Then the nightmare reared through it, and the wind took off, the nightmare plunging after it. “You remember that, then?” Pitch asked, clearing his throat awkwardly and not quite managing to look Jack in the eye.
“I’m… not sure?” Jack hedged, frowning little. His memory was hazy, but he thought he’d been… ice-skating? The realisation smacked him square in the face, and he groaned a little at his own forgetfulness. “Ice-skating over corpses.” He huffed, shaking his head at himself. When he looked up, he caught Pitch giving him a look that was strangely indulgent, almost amused. Only, he wasn’t laughing at Jack, because he’d be able to feel that. “What?” He asked, defensively, knowing he was blushing by the chill cheeping across his cheeks.
Pitch shook his head, and looked up to consider the sky, and the nearly full moon hanging there. “It should be nearing dusk in Burgess by now.” He pointed out in a complete non-sequitur. Jack considered pressing the issue, but then decided he didn’t want to. Instead, he made an affirmative sound and waited for Pitch to get to the new point. “Don’t you want to visit the Bennett boy?”
“Jamie.” Jack corrected, dry but pointed. “And I thought you didn’t want to face the Burgess Believers yet?” He added bluntly. There was no point dancing around the issue, no matter how much Pitch seemed to want to.
Pitch winced, and shot Jack a disgruntled look. “I don’t, particularly. That shouldn’t keep you from doing as you please.”
Jack couldn’t decide whether to tease or reprimand. On the one hand, Pitch was being kind of sweet, and he really wanted to point that out. The man had a frankly terrible self-image – not entirely undeserved, Jack could admit – and he always got so flustered and snarly whenever Jack pointed out how considerate or kind he could be. On the other hand, today was, as he’d said before, kind of Pitch’s holiday. He could visit Jamie another day, and it wasn’t like the kid was expecting him; he knew Jack was busy this time of year.
It dawned on Jack that Pitch knew that Jack was usually very busy this time of year, too. He had to know that Jamie wasn’t expecting Jack. He wondered, for a moment, if Pitch was subtly trying to tell him to go away, but dismissed the idea almost at once. Pitch didn’t have any trouble driving people away when he wanted to, it was admitting he didn’t want to drive them away that he struggled with, that he had to come at sideways if he wanted to convey the message at all.
“Okay.” He agreed, and stepped forwards to stand at Pitch’s side. “Well, go on, then. Do your shadow thing.” He gestured vaguely in the air. Pitch’s expression did something strange then. For a moment, he looked disgruntled, just like Jack had expected him to, and then it twisted, turned ravaged for a heartbeat, before it vanished behind a dignified mask.
Jack was going to ask what that had been about, but before he could, Pitch swept them up into the shadows and returned them to Burgess, dumping them in the long shadow of an awning in the creeping grey gloom of early dusk. A gaggle of familiar children rounded the corner, shepherded by an amused and long-suffering Lizzy Bennett and another parent Jack didn’t recognise, and he was entirely distracted from Pitch’s strangeness by the sight they made.
“Oh my god!” He exclaimed in a hushed whisper, feeling suddenly more than a little choked up for a good handful of different reasons. The first being that the entire group was dressed up as the Guardians, every single one of them, plus an extra Santa. Only one of the twins had a hat – a Cossack hat, not a traditional Santa Claus hat – while the other was individualised by the great cotton wool beard attached to his face, but they were both wearing great sweeping red coats and carried tinfoil cutlasses.
And then there was little Sophie with her grey bunny onesie and adorably crooked bunny ears. Someone, possibly Caleb, had painted Bunny’s markings onto her forehead quite accurately, and she was trying to hop the entire way, not noticing or caring that candy was spilling out of her basket every time, which her mother and brother were surreptitiously collecting as they went. Jamie, of course – of course, and Jack wasn’t going to cry, he wasn’t – was dressed in a blue hoodie patterned with white frost and brown trousers, and he was carrying a toy crook. It took Jack a good few minutes to stop staring in stunned and flattered awe.
Monty was identifiable by his glasses only, because otherwise Jack wouldn’t have recognised him through the riotously colourful costume, complete with a blue-green-gold coat with tails, blue-gold punjabi trousers, yellow-orange fairy wings, a toy bow, and a brightly coloured feathered hat. Pippa was only identifiable by a process of elimination as the entirely golden figure next to him, in a bright yellow dressing gown that Jack suspected she’d stuffed with pillows
And she was walking with her arm linked through Cupcake’s. Cupcake, who had been equally covered in body-paint in a pale shade of grey, dressed in a long black robe – Jack suspected a repurposed Harry Potter costume, honestly – and carrying a black-painted toy scythe. “Pitch, look!” Jack breathed, glancing over at Pitch to see that his eyes were definitely a bit shinier than normal. Jack didn’t blame him one bit. “Cupcake dressed up as you.”
“I can see that.” Pitch agreed, and he sounded so confused that it almost made Jack laugh. Then he cleared his throat and conspicuously changed the subject.. “The Bennett boy looks a great deal like you, when he’s dressed up like that.”
“Ah, well. Yeah?” Jack grinned. “Turns out we’re related? Distantly. He’s my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew. Apparently. I wanted to find out what happened to my sister, see, so Jamie helped me look it up on the internet.” That had been an interesting couple of weeks. Jack had honestly been getting a little wide-eyed at the number of descendants his sister had eventually produced, and they hadn’t even hit the twentieth century, when Jamie had abruptly recognised one of the names they’d uncovered.
He’d never met his great-grandma, but his grandpa had told him stories about her, enough that he knew her name, and that she’d had one brother. That had been enough to make him go digging, and he’d found out that Jack’s sister’s descendant was, indeed, Jamie’s great-grandma. Jamie had been over the moon about it, and had driven his mother up the wall with his glee over it.
“But seriously, how come Cupcake is dressed like you? If you say you had nothing to do with it, I won’t believe you.” Jack warned him, grinning.
Pitch bit down on his lip in a way that suggested he was trying very hard not to answer, or possibly grin. Then, he did both. “I may have given her some absolutely terrible advice on a couple of occasions.” He admitted, which wasn’t as much of an answer that Jack had been hoping for, but it was good enough.
“You went to see her?” Jack asked, bouncing on his toes.
Pitch’s grin gentled, and his side-ways look was… dare Jack think it? Fond. “I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them.” He explained. “They’re still very much at risk from fearlings, after all. But Cupcake was the only one who… needed a more immediate answer.”
Jack thought back to before Easter, before he’d hit her with a happy-flake on a whim, and helped her make friends with Jamie and the rest. She’d been an angry, sullen, lonely girl. And now that Jack was intimately familiar with what fear could do to a soul, and still had those shards of himself whispering in the back of his mind, he could see her temper for what it was. “Makes sense.” He said quietly, and leaned in to give Pitch a side-ways hug. “You did good, there.”
“Yes.” Pitch agreed, no doubt at all, and Jack was so proud he thought he might burst with it.
So sorry about missing last weeks update. It was a Bad Mental Health Week(TM), and it was Sunday before I even realised I'd missed Wednesday. ^^"
Baby Tooth was different from her sisters. It had taken her a while to notice, but once she had, she kept noticing more and more that was changing. The first thing had been her reflection, on her way out of a child’s bedroom, she’d caught sight of herself in the darkened window, and abruptly realised that instead of the rich blue-tinted green that all of her sisters were, her feathers had lightened and shaded far more drastically towards blue. Her crest was a shock white, and the markings around her eyes were more purple than pink.
Once she began paying attention, it was hard to understand how she’d missed the fact that that she was getting bigger, that the telepathic connection she shared with her sisters and Toothiana was fading. If she paid attention to it, it flared back to life, as strong and constant as ever, but without her focus, it dwindled. Her curiosity started to get her into trouble too. She was forgetting her duty in favour of chasing an interesting sylph, or getting caught up watching the children play.
She was letting them see her more often, too. They were under orders not to be seen, to wait and hide if the child was waiting up to see them. Most of her sisters couldn’t comprehend the idea of going against Toothiana’s wishes. Because they were part of her, and so what she wanted was what they wanted. But Baby Tooth… wasn’t, anymore.
She was more than that, now, more herself, and less a fragment of someone else’s will. And it wasn’t hard to figure out why. After all, Jack had given her a name. It was based on Toothiana’s, yes, but it wasn’t Toothiana’s. It was Baby Tooth’s. It was her, as an individual, as a unique spirit. She wasn’t just one of many, just another tooth fairy anymore, she was Baby Tooth.
Another thing she could do now that she was her own being was skive off work to go visit her first real friend. She had wondered, for a while, if he wasn’t more like a father, but that was wrong. She didn’t have parents like a being of the mortal world, of flesh and blood, did. She was a creature of belief and magic. She didn’t need to be raised so much as she needed to be taught. Mentor, then? That felt more like the right concept, if any mortal concept could encapsulate the spiritual connection Jack had forged by giving her a name.
It was via that bond that Baby Tooth could sense where Jack was, if she focused, and if he wasn’t focused on shutting her out. Even when he was in another spirit’s realm, and one of the best warded ones, she could still tell where he was, which made it much more tempting to skip her shift and go to see him. She had a good giggle to herself on the flight over at the irony of needing to fly into the heart of the Australian outback to visit a frost spirit. That was where the only permanent connection to the Warren was, though, and Jack had been spending a good deal of time there.
He’d been spending just as much time in the bogeyman’s lair, but Baby Tooth wasn’t going back down there unless the world was ending. So, the Warren it was. A wash of green-and-growing magic tingled over her feathers as she zipped down into the tunnel entrance. It didn’t stop her, but she knew her presence had been noted by the wards and their maker. Bunny, and so probably Jack as well, was expecting her. The thought cheered her, and she sped her flight as she came out into the main cavern, always and forever in the full bloom of spring, and followed the trail of cooler magic towards the area where Bunny made his home.
Baby Tooth hesitated once she spotted them. Jack was seated under an apple tree in full bloom, which was a picturesque scene all by itself, but the thing that halted her was the fact that Bunny had his paints out, a sketchpad in hand as his paintbrush swept across the paper. She wasn’t sure if she ought to interrupt, because she knew Jack pretty well for such a short friendship as spirits counted, and sitting still was not something he did with any ease. Sitting still with distractions was nigh on impossible for him.
If Bunny had convinced him to pose for a painting, it was a rare event, and he’d probably be annoyed if the chance was ruined because Baby Tooth happened to want to visit at the same time. Still, she had a full twelve hours before he next shift started, so she could wait. It was against her nature to sit still, too – always had been, but even more so now – but she could manage for a little while.
She had just decided to settle in on a branch to watch and wait, when Jack moved, tipping his head to say something to Bunny that made his ears twitch like they always did when he was trying to hide that he was amused. That was something Baby Tooth only knew because Toothiana knew it, and it was strange to be hit by moments of intuition like that, when it no longer truly felt like her own knowledge.
Regardless of her own identity crisis, if Jack was allowed to move, then Baby Tooth didn’t have to wait. She didn’t bother to slow her approach as she zipped down from the tree she’d chosen as her perch, just dive-bombed Jack and crash-landed on his chest, hugging the hell out of him as best she could. Her limbs were getting a little longer, a little more graceful, but they were still tiny because she was still tiny. Although, she hadn’t quite realised exactly how big she was getting until Jack, laughing, lifted a hand to return the hug, and his palm didn’t entirely cover her. She estimated he could probably cradle her in both hands, but it wouldn’t be a comfortable fit.
“Hey, Baby Tooth.” Jack greeted.
“I haven’t seen you in ages!” Baby Tooth complained, lifting her head to give him a reproving stare. “I’ve missed you!”
“Sorry, sorry. I’ve been pretty busy since the summer.” Jack explained, and Baby Tooth huffed, because she knew that, of course, but she didn’t have to like it. Still, they were both busy, they both had duties they really shouldn’t ditch, even if Baby Tooth had, so she couldn’t really complain. Nodding her acceptance, she let go of his coat to settle down perched on his bent knee. “But look at you!” Jack said, lifting a hand to nudge at her cheek teasingly. “You’ve gotten so big!”
“She’s gonna start knocking you over if she keeps flying right into you like she just did.” Bunny interjected, and he sounded amused rather than annoyed that his painting had been interrupted, which Baby Tooth was glad for. Jack stuck his tongue out in response to Bunny’s teasing, which Bunny ignored like it was below his dignity to respond, and turned his attention to her instead. “Hey there, little sheila.” He greeted, and Baby Tooth offered a friendly chirp in response, since she knew that most people had trouble understanding her when she actually used words.
“I thought all the mini-fairies were full-grown, though?” Jack mused, raising his eyebrows at Baby Tooth in question.
That answered one of Baby Tooth’s questions. She’d wondered, on and off, if Jack had any idea what he’d done for her, the gift he’d given her when he named her so casually after saving her from captivity in a nightmare’s stomach. It turned out he did not. “They are.” She told him, and then shook her head, a rapid little motion of dismissal, because it was true in the sense that her sisters wouldn’t grow any more, but it wasn’t at all accurate. “Well, they don’t actually grow at all, so I don’t think you can call them full-grown.” She explained, and was glad to see that, just like in the summer, and at Easter, he didn’t have that much trouble following her rapid-fire babbling. “They’re little pieces of Toothiana, so they look like she does, and they act like she does, and they feel like she does. They’re echoes, fragments, of her. I’m different.”
“Yeah?” Jack grinned, a proud, pleased little grin, like he agreed with her and was amused by the potential arrogance of the statement all at once. “How come?”
He had no idea at all. It was almost funny, except it was too nerve-wracking. Having to explain it to him, not just what he’d done, but what it meant … There was a reason the humans always warned against naming spirits if one could avoid it. It did create a magical bond that was nigh-on unbreakable, and if Jack didn’t want that, Baby Tooth didn’t know what she would do. “You named me.”
“Is that why you’re turning white and blue?” Jack asked, flicking gently at her pure white crest. Baby Tooth looked up hopefully, because he seemed to be taking it well, only to see his face drain of colour as he suddenly blanched. “Wait, does that make me like your father? Did I accidentally get Tooth spirit-pregnant?!” He yelped, alarmed and panicked in a way that wasn’t reassuring at all. He had misunderstood the bond, though, so Baby Tooth stubbornly held on to her hope.
Bunny, on the other hand, took one look at Jack’s face and snorted his way into chortles he tried to muffle by slapping a hand over his mouth. Baby Tooth chittered a frustrated reprimand at him, in the same moment that Jack cried “Bunny!” but their indignation only made it worse.
“The look on your face, mate!” Bunny snickered.
“It’s not funny!” Jack protested, a bit shrill. Then he cleared his throat, and glanced sideways at Baby Tooth with a small wince and a sheepish attempt at a smile. “Not that you wouldn’t make an awesome daughter, but, for one thing, I am not interested in Tooth like that, and for another, becoming a parent is not something I ever wanted to do accidentally.”
That was a little reassuring, so Baby Tooth found the strength to pat at Jack’s knee in an attempt to pass some of that back to him. “It’s not really like that.” She assured him. “It’s more like teacher and student, I think. A sort of cause-and-effect.”
Jack’s dawning expression of relief and Baby Tooth’s matching feeling, were interrupted by Bunny’s wry snort. “Yeah, surprise kids are a shock an a half, I’ll grant you.” He muttered, pained nostalgia lacing every word. Baby Tooth knew, the way she knew what stifled amusement looked like on him, that Bunny did not like to talk about his past. He had talked some to Toothiana, so Baby Tooth had more insight than most, she suspected, but the fact that he had even said as much spoke volumes to how much he valued and trusted Jack.
“Wait, what?” Jack asked. “You make that sound like…” He trailed off, eyes widening.
“I had kits, before.” Bunny confirmed, ears dropping back even as he offered Jack a smile. “Always wanted kits. Never meant to have ‘em in the middle of a war, though.” He admitted, and there was a wealth of meaning behind that one sentence. Baby Tooth knew, of course, that Bunny had lost his people the same way Toothiana had lost hers. She’d never said so, but Baby Tooth knew that she had agonised over Baby Tooth’s transformation, warring with hope that perhaps, eventually, Baby Tooth might grow into a new Sister of Flight. She also understood why Bunny had never so much as hinted at having been a parent before, because while Toothiana had been able to understand the grief of a lost people, lost parents and friends, she’d never lost children. Sympathy and empathy weren’t the same and the former was a lot easier to mistake for pity.
There was even more meaning in those words than Baby Tooth could grasp, apparently, because Jack didn’t look sympathetic, he looked horrified, and when he said “Oh god, Bunny, I’m sorry!” it didn’t sound like an expression of sorrow, but like an apology.
Bunny reached out to squeeze Jack’s shoulder in reassurance and comfort. “No, mate. You were right.” His hand lingered as he shook his head and shrugged. “I’m glad I listened to you, even if it took me a while to get my head on right.”
Jack sighed heavily, and looked away. “I could have been more tactful about it, though.”
At that, Bunny snorted. “Doubt I would have listened if you had, Frostbite.” He paused, throat working as he chewed over whatever he wanted to say next, and Jack glanced up at him from under his lashes, too tentative to really be coy, but Baby Tooth couldn’t help but look between his expression, and the furred hand still on his shoulder, and the depth of feeling in Bunny’s eyes, and wonder. They’d all but forgotten she was there, too caught up in each other. “And call me Aster.” Bunny eventually said, gruff and a little abrupt.
“S’my name.” Bunny confirmed.
Jack chuckled, grinning fit to split his face open with it. He looked more than just amused, he looked kind of delighted, and Baby Tooth decided Toothiana was entirely wrong about what was going on here. Which meant North had been right. “Figures you’re named after a flower, Cottontail.” Jack teased.
“‘Scuse you, the flower was named after me.” Bunny retorted.
Baby Tooth interrupted the moment by squeaking in despair and covering her face with her hands. She didn’t really want to interrupt, it was just that there was no graceful way to extricate herself from the moment, and the longer she waited the more embarrassed everyone would be when they noticed. Bunny and Jack both looked down at her, startled, and then exchanged sheepish glances.
“Hey, don’t worry. I don’t mind if you call me Aster, either, squirt.” Bunny told her.
Baby Tooth eyed him for a long moment, wondering if he was really that oblivious, or just giving everyone a convenient out. Then she decided that either way, she’d take it, and she beamed at him. “Thank you. I’m honoured!”
Aster flapped his hand at her, embarrassed and trying to hide it. “Just don’t go sharing it about. Now, clear off, the pair of you.”
“But… your painting?” Jack asked.
“I’m almost done, and don’t think I don’t see you vibrating with energy over there. I reckon Baby Tooth’d rather not just sit there watching you sit there for what little time she’s got away from work. Go play, I can finish up without you.”
Jack had jumped to his feet after the first sentence, forcing Baby Tooth to take to the air again. The wind danced around them, greeting Baby Tooth with a little whirl before tugging hopefully at Jack. “If you’re sure!” Jack checked one last time, and when Aster just rolled his eyes and went back to his sketchpad, Jack leapt into the air, and let the wind carry him upwards. “Race you to the South Pole!” He called over his shoulder.
Baby Tooth gave an indignant cry, and darted after him. They competed the entire way, neck-and-neck, because although Baby Tooth was definitely faster, the wind played dirty. She’d tug on Baby Tooth’s tail feathers, nudge her into the path of storm sylphs and strange eddies, and generally be as distracting as she possibly could. So of course it was Jack’s bare toes that touched down at the magnetic south pole first. “You cheated!” Baby Tooth accused, fluttering down and tugging on fistfuls of his hair in reprimand.
“No rules, no cheating!” Jack sing-songed, flapping a hand at her in a paltry attempt to try and get her off. “Ow! Hair-pulling’s fighting dirty, Baby Tooth!”
“There’s no such thing as fighting dirty because there’s no such thing as a fair fight.” Baby Tooth retorted, and Jack laughed as he mimed getting stabbed through the heart, even going so far as to collapse backwards onto the ice. Baby Tooth hovered over him, amused for more than just the obvious reason. “Was that my comeback, or cupid’s arrow?” She asked him wickedly.
Jack’s eyes – closed as part of his performance – snapped open. “What?” He asked.
Baby Tooth gave him her most unimpressed expression. “You were so busy making heart eyes at Aster you forgot I was there, Jack. ” She reminded him, and Jack winced, grimacing sheepishly as he sat up and ran a hand through his hair. He was having trouble looking her in the eye all of a sudden. “I’m not blind.” She added, a little more gently.
“Am I that obvious?” Jack asked nervously.
“Aster didn’t notice.” Baby Tooth offered, much to Jack’s obvious relief. “And Toothiana thinks it’s entirely platonic. North figured you out ages ago, though.”
Jack huffed a wry laugh. “North’s got good instincts.” He acknowledged. Then he flopped back onto the ice again with a groan, one arm draped dramatically over his eyes. “He’s just so- so kind, even though he pretends so hard he’s not, and his sense of humour is so sneaky, and-” He sighed, all wistful longing with a touch of self-mockery. “And have you seen him with Pitch? I mean, god, I didn’t even know how much- how much that meant, but it’s still- He takes absolutely none of Pitch’s bullshit, but he’s so stubborn about helping Pitch since he came around to the idea. You can tell Pitch has no idea what to do with him, but he goes along with it anyway.” Jack abruptly snorted. “But, oh, man, sometimes the two of them are in a bad mood at the same time, and it’s like… an old-man-off. The grouch versus the gentleman. I mean, not that being a gentleman and doing the politely scathing thing makes Pitch seem old, exactly, it’s just… antiquated? Although I suppose they both are pretty damn old, huh?” His arm slid down so that he could cover his face with his hand. “God, I must seem like such a kid to them.”
“Them?!” Baby Tooth yelped.
Jack froze. “Uh…” He began, staring like a deer in the headlights out from between his fingers at her. “I meant him. I said him. What are you talking about? You must be hearing things.”
“Pitch Black, Jack? Really?!” Baby Tooth wailed.
Jack sighed, resigning himself to the fact that she wasn’t about to let him deflect the conversation. “Well, I mean, yeah.” Jack admitted, sitting up again, and wrapping both hands around his crook, holding it like it was a comfort to have it in his hands. Then he looked up at Baby Tooth, and there was something under his nerves that looked a lot like adamant. “Yes.”
Baby Tooth dropped down to sit in his lap, studying his face with a small frown as she tried to wrap her mind around that. When she thought about it, it really shouldn’t have come as such a shock. There had always been a strange electricity to the air between Jack and Pitch, and it could have been put down to animosity, but it could just as easily have been a connection of a different sort. “And you really like them? Both of them?” She asked him seriously.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Jack confessed.
Baby Tooth sighed, and then smirked. “They are very pretty.” She capitulated with faux-reluctance.
“Oh my god, don’t get me started!” Jack bemoaned. “Pitch’s slinking-in-the-shadows routine used to be scary, but now I’m just like ‘I would not mind getting jumped by that monster in a dark alley’! And Bunny! I mean, Aster. He’s- he’s a giant rabbit-kangaroo-thing, I never thought I’d look at someone covered in fur, and really want to get my hands all over that, you know?” Jack looked so agonised that Baby Tooth couldn’t help it. She laughed so hard she toppled off his leg and into the snow, and she didn’t stop even when Jack, all high-dudgeon at her amusement, dumped a whole load more on top of her, burying her completely.
This, Pitch decided, was all Jack’s fault. He’d been perfectly happy spending his winter lurking around in the long nights, keeping the kids out of trouble, but apparently working like Christmas is any other day isn’t acceptable. “You can’t spend Christmas alone!” Jack had said, entirely scandalised by the idea, and Pitch, having seen some of Jack’s worst fears, couldn’t quite bring himself to argue.
Which, somehow, translated to Pitch finding himself back in the Warren on Christmas eve, nearly a full six months since he was last there, face to face with an entirely bewildered Aster. “You two can be all ‘bah, humbug’ together.” Jack informed them. “I promised Jamie and the others I’d stop by so that they’re guaranteed a White Christmas, and we’re going to see if I can make a sledding trail longer than the one last Easter. See you tomorrow!”
And then he was gone. There was a long, awkward silence as Pitch tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound completely vacuous. “You hate Christmas, too, huh?” Aster finally asked.
Pitch blinked, and then nodded. “Of course. It’s a useless, insipid holiday.”
Aster grinned. “Alright, you can stay.” He decided, and then turned to head back towards his den with a vague wave over his shoulder that Pitch supposed was an invitation to join him. Pitch had to swallow hard before he felt composed enough to follow. He’d thought he might have gotten used to it with time, but every instance of casual trust from Aster still floored him, still made him feel simultaneously unworthy and too relieved to care.
The den itself was another kick in the guts. It was like stepping back in time to a long lost Golden Age, and the guilt was like a shard of glass lodged beneath his ribs, tearing into him with every breath. Kozmotis Pitchiner had once had friends among the pooka. Friends, allies, coworkers. And maybe he hadn’t killed all of them himself, but that didn’t keep their blood off his hands.
A hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump and turn sharply to stare at Aster. The pooka looked back, without sympathy but also completely without judgement. “Have a seat. I’ll make tea.” He offered, and Pitch obeyed, sinking into one of the ovoid stools and knotting his fingers together on top of the table. “How do you take it?” Aster asked once the kettle had boiled.
“Honey and lemon.” Pitch replied. Aster added the requested condiments, then brought the mugs over to the table, taking a seat of his own and wrapping his hands around the steaming mug. “Why do you hate Christmas?” He asked, in an effort to take his mind off his surroundings.
Aster huffed. “North can be an oblivious, pushy bastard, and his holiday’s gaudy.” He groused.
Pitch hid a smile behind his mug. “I confess I always preferred Yule, even before I actually met North and decided to hate his holiday on principle.”
“Well, I’m biased.” Aster remarked wryly, before taking a sip of his tea. “Yule was more about hope than wonder, so of course I’d prefer it.”
“And fear.” Pitch agreed. He looked down at his tea, but didn’t drink any, just considered the swirling eddies of steam rising off the surface. “Jack did a rather remarkable thing at Halloween, you know.” He began, and Aster made a small sound to show he was listening. “When he dragged me out of my lair, and we went around scaring the kids, only they weren’t scared.”
“They were enjoying being scared, so it was different?” Aster guessed.
“Mm. Exhilaration, perhaps. I hadn’t realised that our powers could be… combined that way, to create something entirely new. Not fear, not fun, but caught somewhere between.” Pitch mused, trying not to smile too much like thinking of Jack always made him want to. He shook the thought off and looked up, just in time to catch Aster looking down at his own tea. “Yule might have been a perfect time to see what comes of mixing fear and hope.”
“No reason we can’t give it a burl another time.” Aster pointed out.
Pitch nodded, accepting that with grace and trying not to let on just how much it still surprised him, when Aster offered to spend time with him of his own volition. He could understand him doing so at Jack’s behest, but even ages-old hero-worship didn’t seem enough to convince anyone to spend time with the man who murdered their entire species.
“So what do you normally do when you’re not celebrating Christmas?” Aster asked, changing the subject as if he could sense Pitch’s discomfort, and was trying not to push too hard. Or perhaps Pitch was just reading too much into it.
“Work.” Pitch answered, smirking a little because that word really wasn’t the right one to describe his duties as an embodiment of fear. “There’s a lot of familial discord around Christmas, and that always frightens children. It’s better if they learn how to navigate that early, instead of carrying those fearlings with them into adulthood.” He explained, and Aster nodded, always serious when fearlings were mentioned. Pitch honestly appreciated that. People who hadn’t fought them always tended to underestimate them, and that really annoyed Pitch. “And what of you?”
“What do you do to avoid Christmas?” Pitch elaborated.
Aster shook off his sombre mood with a hint of a smile. “Usually, work on new egg designs. Sometimes I’ll test out new techniques or paints. Figured you might like to help out, actually, after a cuppa.” He gestured at the tea they’d been idly sipping.
“I can’t draw or paint to save my life.” Pitch pointed out.
“No?” Aster asked, eyebrows rising. He leaned back in his seat and studied Pitch thoughtfully. Pitch kept his eyes on his tea, because he knew what Aster was thinking right now. To the pooka, a warrior who couldn’t create as well as destroy did not deserve the title. Mastery of the arts was just as crucial to their military as learning how to handle a sword. Pitch’s own people hadn’t been the same, but he’d worked alongside the pooka often enough – and scandalised more than a few of their ranking officers – that he had picked up a creative hobby or two before he’d turned around and slaughtered them all. He hadn’t really kept up with it after that. He buried his face in his mug in an attempt to hide the maudlin thoughts racing through his mind. “Poetry?” Aster guessed.
Pitch snorted his tea across the table. “Stars above, no!” He yelped after he was done coughing.
Aster laughed at him, silent little chuckles that shook his chest and made his eyes dance. “Just pulling your leg, mate.” He assured him. “Nah, my guess’d be embroidery. Maybe a bit of tailoring, but mostly embroidery.”
Pitch stared at him. Aster started smirking.
“Right on the nose, was I?” He asked smugly.
“How could you possibly have known that?” Pitch demanded, setting his mug down before he dropped it out of pure shock. He was maybe a little indignant that he had been so easily read, too. He was supposed to be an embodiment of fear and the dark and the unknown. He was supposed to be enigmatic and cloaked in mystery, damn it, not as transparent as glass.
“You’ve got a practical streak under all your flash and drama, so you’d have picked something you could use, and being able to mend your own clothes is about as useful as it gets. But you are a drama queen, too, so you wouldn’t have been satisfied with hidden seams and clever panelling and whatnot.” Aster shrugged. “Embroidery was the logical conclusion. Baking would’ve been my next guess, though. Cooking’s right up there with clothes in the useful category.”
“Some might even say more so.” Pitch countered pointedly.
Aster looked away, ears tilting backwards. Then he sighed, and met Pitch’s eyes again with a tired little smile. “Clothes were for showing off. Your status, your clan, your looks, your skills, your job. No point in ‘em when there’s no one left to show off for.” Pitch flinched and dropped his gaze, but Aster ploughed on as if nothing was wrong. “I kept up with them for a while, afterwards, but… It’s amazing how much effort just getting dressed in the mornings can take sometimes.” Pitch gave a dry, humourless laugh, and wished bitterly he hadn’t said anything and just let the subject die. “Stop running from the past, Pitch.” Aster said abruptly, sounding almost frustrated.
It was good advice, the right thing to do, but every time Pitch allowed himself to really and truly consider what he’d done, his chest threatened to cave in. He didn’t know how Aster could bear to have him in his den, when Pitch could hardly live with himself some days. He tightened his grip around his mug and closed his eyes tightly. “I’m sorry.” He whispered, before he could catch the words behind his teeth.
The silence that followed made him wince, made his breath catch in his throat. The scrape of chair legs against tile grated in his ears, but he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes. And then a hand landed on his shoulder gently, making him startle and look up. Aster’s ears were flat against his skull, but he was smiling gently. “I know.” He said simply, and then tipped his head towards the door. “Come and paint some eggs with me.”
Dazed, throat tight, Pitch obeyed, trailing in Aster’s wake to a room that was attempting to be a lounge, although it had clearly been set up by an artist who lived alone. There were a couple of chairs haphazardly angled together in a corner, but the main seating area was at an angle to catch the best of the sunlight pouring in through the massive semi-circular window. “This used to be your bedroom.” Pitch realised, looking around at the art on the walls.
“Couldn’t sleep in here after last summer.” Aster confirmed absently, pulling a collection of painting, drawing, and designing tools out of a cupboard. “So I turned it into a study of sorts. Here.” He handed a couple of wooden boxes to Pitch, who took them, sat down at the paint-splattered table, and opened them up. One held a variety of paints in little jars, and the other had a few hollow egg-shells carefully stored in cotton wool and ready to be painted. “Play around a bit, see what happens.” Aster encouraged.
“I don’t think-” Pitch began weakly.
Aster picked out one of the eggs and held up to the light pouring in from the window. It made it glow ever so faintly. “New beginnings.” He said, turning to Pitch. He took his hand and very carefully placed the fragile and empty shell onto his palm. “You’re more than the sum of your mistakes, Pitch, and I won’t let you limit yourself by them. You can do better, so keep trying.” Then he settled down on the seat next to Pitch and stubbornly bent over a sketch book. Smiling hurt, but Pitch found himself doing it anyway as he picked up a paintbrush and considered the paints.
It was a disaster, as he’d predicted. The paint was uneven, glooping thick in some places and too thin in others. The pattern Pitch had been attempting was wonky, and the edges blurred with the base paint, smudging the colours. And Pitch had managed to get more of the paint on his fingers than on the egg shell, even with the clever little stand that had been tucked in with the shells. “It’s terrible.” Pitch concluded, holding the egg up and grimacing.
Aster looked up, eyes a little glazed for a long moment before he pulled himself all the way out of his own practice and actually looked at the egg. To Pitch’s complete shock, after studying it for a long moment, Aster smiled that same sad ears-back smile he had in the kitchen. “For General Alerce, huh?” He asked. Pitch’s breath caught, because he honestly hadn’t expected Aster to recognise the coral-coloured three-pointed star patterns on the teal base, not with his own incompetence in rendering them.
Aster took it from him, set it in a clever little stand that barely touched the egg itself, and placed that on the windowsill, presumably to help it dry. “You’re the only person who really gets it, you know. Sandy sort of does, I suppose, but he didn’t know the pooka the way you did. Everything I do, I do for them. The plants, the eggs, the kids. It’s all…”
“A memorial.” Pitch finished for him, nodding his understanding. Pookan names for every flower and every green and growing thing, pookan eggs in baskets the world over when the humans were celebrating new life, and pookan sentinels to guard the children of this world, like they’d guarded the children of every pookan colony. Drawing in a breath that shook ever so faintly, Pitch dabbed the paint off his fingers and picked up another egg, refusing to look up and see what Aster’s expression was doing.
He’d completed another little memorial, and had been considering what he could do for the next, when a shock rippled through him, almost painful in its intensity. He gasped, doubling over, the egg shell between his fingers shattering as his muscles spasmed. It was like a bright light shining directly into his eyes, and as a creature of darkness, it hurt. “Pitch? Mate, what’s wrong?” Aster asked sharply, half rising out of his seat in alarm.
Pitch bared his teeth. “I believe North has just decided to pay my lair an impromptu visit.” He snarled, irritated.
Aster’s head whipped around to consider the clock on the wall. It was a pookan clock, capable of telling the time for anywhere on the globe, and the date as well, all at once with the position of a handful of symbols. It had been so long since Pitch had had to read one that it took him a moment to decipher them, but if he was reading it correctly, then it would be the witching hour in Burgess right now.
“He wouldn’t…” Aster breathed, turning to stare, wide-eyed and disbelieving, at Pitch.
“Evidently, he would.” Pitch snapped, rising to his feet. “Excuse me.”
“Oh, I’ve gotta see this.” Aster muttered, and stood as well. Pitch considered protesting, but in the end decided that having someone else on his side would probably be a good idea. So instead he just left the pathway through the shadows to his lair open behind him as he went. He stepped out into his globe room, only to find that the gloom there was far deeper than he was used to. All of the little lights on his globe of belief had gone out.
“Nicholas St North! ” Pitch snarled in righteous fury as he strode towards the darkened dais, where he could see the form of a burly man in red kneeling under the globe with his head and one shoulder inside the wire-and-iron orb. There was a clang as the man startled and either dropped something or hit his head. Pitch was rather hoping for the latter.
“Pitch! You are back early!” North exclaimed, sounding somehow both cheerful and nervous all at once. “Give just one more moment, and will be ready!” He added hastily.
“Did you think I wouldn’t be able to tell that you were here, you great blundering buffoon?!” Pitch yelled, itching to summon his scythe, but not quite willing to provoke the tenuous truce he had with the other Guardian over an illicit Christmas present, for the stars’ sake.
North made an indignant, irritated noise. “I had spell to conceal entrance.” He muttered like a petulant child who’d just had an adult point out that their supposed ‘cloak of invisibility’ was really just a grey towel.
“That you made personally?” Pitch scathed.
“Da.” North confirmed, still not extracting himself from the globe to have this conversation.
Pitch really, really wanted his scythe. “You moron, did you really think my lair isn’t also warded against you four specifically?!”
“Bunny and Jack visit with no problem.” North pointed out.
“Jack is a separate case.” Pitch snapped at him. “And Aster is always polite enough to knock.” He wasn’t going to mention that without any special warding, the simple nature of their realms made travel between the Warren and the Lair remarkably easy, nor that he had painstakingly unwoven said warding after the events of the summer. “And all of this is irrelevant, anyway! You broke into my lair uninvited, no doubt to attempt to spread some of your ‘Christmas cheer’-” Pitch sneered the words with every ounce of disdain he could pack into them. “-where it isn’t wanted, and you have the audacity to act-” He was interrupted by a click, and a triumphant shout from North.
The globe lit up. Not just in the golden shade of a fearling’s eyes, but in shades of green and blue as well, speckles of colour covering the great iron plates of the continents. Some even traced along a new lattice-work where the oceans were, presumably as children travelled by plane or ferry. Pitch stepped closer despite himself, frowning as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
“Merry Christmas!” North boomed, and it was only then that Pitch noticed that he had extricated himself from the globe. He was standing beside a small pillar in front of the globe, arms spread and a beaming smile on his face.
“What?” Pitch demanded, unable to quite manage anything more coherent as he stepped up onto the dais and saw that the pillar was a control panel, all wrought iron with decorative spikes, perfectly suited to Pitch’s aesthetics. He lifted a hand and brushed his fingers over the speckling of colours around the Mediterranean.
“Is fearling-tracking globe!” North exclaimed proudly.
Pitch made a strangled sound that wanted to be a laugh, but was also trying to be a protest at the same time. In the end, he decided to save a little bit of dignity, and simply gape at North instead of trying to speak again. “You made Pitch one, too?” Aster asked, stepping out of the shadows to come stand at Pitch’s side, staring up at the globe in open curiosity.
“Bunny! Did not see you there!” North yelped, which made Aster smirk where the winter spirit couldn’t see. “And ‘too’ implies there is more than one. I am good, but takes great effort to build such a spell, and making two at once is bit much.”
“You’re giving me the only one?!” Pitch rasped.
North gave him a look from out of the corner of his eye that might have been termed sly , except Pitch refused to believe such a word could ever apply to Nicholas St North. “You will make best use of it, I think. We can only kill fearlings, after all, you defeat them. In a way, perhaps, you even save them. Is good thing, that. After all, even naughty children deserve gift at Christmas, even if it is not what they think they want.” He declared staunchly.
Pitch couldn’t find his voice again. He just stared at the globe, grappling with his own fear; fear of failure, fear of his own sins, fear of disappointment, fear of being wrong. He breathed through it, and listened with half his attention when Aster asked; “So why’re there three different colours?”
“Ah! Glad you asked! Gold is for- What is term? Full-grown fearlings? Fully realised fearlings?” North waved the question away with a massive hand. “Bah, you understand meaning. Green is for children who are growing fearlings, inside.” Pitch tore his eyes away from the globe to glance over, and saw him tap at his chest, right over his heart. North met his gaze and beamed. “Blue is for children who believe in the bogeyman.”
Pitch’s eyes returned to the globe like they were magnetized. There was far less blue than gold, and far less gold than green, but… there was blue on every continent. Just a handful, scattered like brilliant little stars amongst the mass of green and gold. Pitch sidled around the globe, and found Burgess by the seven little blue lights clustered together, one of them far brighter than the rest. It was the most meaningful gift anyone had given him since… well, since the summer, when Aster had held out a hand to him at Jack’s urging. But… but it had been a very long time, before then.
“Why give this to me?” Pitch asked quietly. “You can’t possibly know I won’t abuse it.”
“Is what trust is, da?” North asked, surprisingly quiet and solemn for the usually exuberant man. “Offering someone chance, even though they might gut you for it.” Pitch winced at that particular memory, because he could still taste the offended rage he’d felt when this man had attempted to be his friend, had spoken to him like an equal. North saw the reaction and beamed at him. “I knew you were good man! My belly is never wrong!” He turned to Pitch and held out his hand, like he had some five centuries ago.
“Really?” Aster muttered “Your belly?”
Warily, tentatively, Pitch accepted the handshake. “I am thinking was only wrong time.” North continued conversationally, as if he hadn’t heard Aster’s interjection. Then he smirked behind his great white beard. “Or perhaps simply wrong person, da?” He murmured, raising his eyebrows. Inexplicably, Pitch felt himself flush, and North laughed, releasing Pitch’s hand to clutch at his shaking belly. “Is pity. Could have been fun.” He chortled, wiggling his eyebrows at Pitch in a massively undignified manner.
“Get out!” Pitch spat.
To his mild shock, North obeyed, laughing all the way. Pitch and Aster both watched him go, and then Aster turned to Pitch, eyebrows furrowed in bafflement. “What was that about?”
“Don’t. Ask.” Pitch growled, glaring down the tunnel North had disappeared down. Aster opened his mouth as if to press the issue, before he thought better of it, and snapped his jaw shut again. Pitch was grateful, the idea of explaining the insinuations North had been making curdled his stomach. They weren’t even true, it wasn’t as if- It wasn’t-
Pitch closed his eyes, and swallowed down a sick laugh. Of course it was.
As if the universe had read his prayers for a distraction from his thoughts, he felt a chill tickle down his spine, and a bare second later, Jack barrelled out of the tunnel, aglow with, well, wonder. “North told me you were here, oh my god, he got me a present, look!” Jack thrust something under Pitch’s nose, and when he leaned back he saw it was a sturdy leather satchel that Jack was wearing slung over one shoulder.
Aster stepped closer to get a look, too, and Jack turned to show it off to him. “What is it? Other than a bag, I mean. This is North we’re talking about, there’s no way that’s just a normal bag.” He pointed out, before Jack could mock him for missing the obvious.
“It’s a hammerspace bag!” Jack enthused.
“A what?” Pitch and Aster asked in unison.
Jack rolled his eyes at them. “It’s bigger on the inside. And look, it attaches to my belt so it won’t swing around when I’m flying! North said it was so I could keep actual stuff even though I’m nomadic. Isn’t it great?” He enthused delightedly.
Pitch caught himself smiling at Jack’s enthusiasm and couldn’t be bothered to try and school the expression into something appropriate. He caught Aster doing the same, and pushed aside the ache in his heart in favour of simply enjoying the moment. Perhaps Christmas wasn’t entirely terrible after all.
The Warren had seen more traffic in the last year than in the last several centuries. Aster put on a show of being annoyed about that, but in all truth, he’d forgotten how good it could be to just spend time with someone. Jack and Pitch were around almost constantly, and Aster was getting used to having company. It almost made Aster regret a few of his centuries of loneliness, and more and more as the new year progressed and preparations for Easter picked up, he considered actually inviting someone into the Warren.
After all, it had turned out so well last year, and after dealing with a fearling infestation on their own for a month that summer, Aster did kind of feel like he owed them. Not that Aster was going to invite all of the Burgess Believers to his Warren at once, not while the googie-plants were blooming. He knew how rowdy kids could get when there was a whole group of them to egg each other on. One or two at a time, or not at all.
Jamie and little Sophie got to visit first, because Jamie had been accepted as the undisputed leader of their little gang, and also everyone knew that the Easter Bunny was now Sophie’s favourite thing ever, and the feeling was pretty much mutual. It wasn’t half so busy in the Warren as it had been last Easter, both because it wasn’t right before Easter Sunday, and also because Aster had started a little earlier this year, at the risk of a few of the googies not being quite at their best, in order to make doubly sure to bolster belief now that fearlings were about again.
There was still plenty to keep the ankle-biters occupied. Sophie adored herding the eggs, especially when she discovered the bilbies Aster kept around to help, and Jamie was fascinated by the plants, which made him very diligent about helping with the weeding and watering. And whenever they got tired of running around and carrying things, there were always eggs to paint. Aster liked to hand-paint as many as possible, and having a couple of helpers, even if they weren’t particularly professional, was actually pretty nice.
Half way through painting an egg, Jamie suddenly leapt to his feet. “What’s he doing here?!” He demanded, pointing with his paintbrush towards the slender streak of shadow now standing frozen on the path between the googie-fields. Sophie looked up, squeaked, and crawled over to hide behind Aster, which only made Jamie more defensive. “What are you doing here?!” Jamie repeated, face set in stubborn lines.
“Hey, Pitch.” Aster called in greeting, which had the desired effect of getting the skittish bastard to keep walking towards them instead of fleeing. “Don’t be a brat, kid.” He added, reaching over to tousle Jamie’s hair. “Or did you forget he saved Jack’s life?”
Jamie clearly had forgotten, because he paused, mouth open and brow furrowed. “From the fearlings?” He checked, and Aster nodded with a pointed look. Jamie was still scowling, though, so Aster went on; “And he’s the only reason Jack could help your mom.” Pitch arrived at their little meadow, and hovered just far enough away that Aster felt the need to speak a little louder when he continued. “And he’s the reason Cupcake’s getting to live with her dad permanently now.”
Pitch looked away, as uncomfortable with anything that might even hint at being praise as ever, while Jamie’s entire face went slack with surprise. “What, really? That was him?” Aster nodded, so Jamie turned to Pitch. “That was you?”
“That was Cupcake.” Pitch corrected. “I just gave her a little nudge in the right direction.”
“Huh.” Jamie said, and at least his frown was less aggressive now, so Aster would count that as a win. He turned his attention to the other ankle-biter, and found her peering around him at Pitch with wide, curious eyes.
“This is a friend of mine, Sophie. His name’s Pitch Black. He’s the bogeyman, but it’s okay, you don’t need to be scared of him, alright?” Aster told her softly. Sophie blinked at him, and then looked back to Pitch. “He’s been helping me and Jack keep the night-terrors away.” Aster added, and that was the winning ticket.
Sophie gasped in delight, and scrambled out from behind him to toddle over to Pitch. When she got there, she paused to peer up at him. “You fight nasty fear-scares?” She asked him.
Even from the top of the hill, Aster could see the way Pitch had to swallow hard before he could answer her. “I do.” He confirmed. “And I keep them all trapped in my lair so they can’t get at you ever again.” He promised. Sophie cheered, and threw her arms around Pitch’s knees.
“Sophie!” Jamie chided, looking mildly horrified.
But Pitch only detached Sophie long enough to crouch down, elbows on knees in a rather bird-like manner that Aster suspected he’d picked up from Jack, to look her in the eye. “You’re a very brave girl, aren’t you?” He asked softly. Sophie giggled, delighted by the compliment. Pitch shook his head, a twisted little smile pulling at his lips. “Are you helping the Easter Bunny?”
“Yes! Painting eggs!” Sophie enthused.
“Don’t you want to get back to that?” Pitch suggested, nodding towards where Aster and Jamie were watching them. Sophie nodded solemnly, then held out her arms in a clear request. Pitch’s eyes went wide, but before Aster could even begin to work out how to step in, he sighed and scooped the little girl up, setting her on his hip as he carried her over. He tried to set her down once he reached their egg-painting station, but the moment Pitch shifted her, Sophie latched onto his neck with a defiant “No!”
Aster was still waiting on tenterhooks for the meltdown – he could see the beginnings of one in Pitch’s eyes – but instead, he simply sighed an over-dramatised long-suffering sigh, and folded down to sit beside Aster, settling Sophie on his lap, which was obviously satisfactory, because she kicked her legs and clapped her hands in delight, and then made grabby-hands towards the googie she’d been painting pea-green before the interruption.
Aster passed the googie and the paints over to her, and raised an eyebrow at Jamie until he sat back down, too, and they all went back to painting. Pitch didn’t make any move to pick up a paintbrush himself, but Aster couldn’t help but notice how engaged he was with Sophie. He asked about her favourite colours, offered ridiculous suggestions with a perfectly straight face, and listened to all her rambling and disjointed stories with abject fascination. He let her drag him off to show him the river of colouring and the pattern vines, even though he’d seen them before, and executed a clever bit of sleight-of-hand to get her to put her half-painted egg down before she scampered off.
“What’s going on?” Jamie asked plaintively.
“You know how the fearlings were making all your friends act kinda mean?” Aster checked, not wanting to go into the details, but… but maybe he should. Maybe the Burgess Believers could help Pitch the way they’d helped Jack. Not that Pitch needed to convince people of his existence – everyone had at least heard of the bogeyman – but maybe they could spread a better a story, maybe they could help kids believe in General Pitchiner as well.
“Yeah…” Jamie said, and then his eyes widened. He was a smart kid, for sure, if a little defensive of his sister. “Wait, are you saying that Pitch was just… infected by the fearlings?” He swallowed hard. “Is… is that what would have happened to Jack, if Pitch hadn’t saved him? He’d have turned into a bogeyman?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Aster confirmed. “Maybe later I’ll tell you about who Pitch was, before he was the bogeyman, yeah?” He offered. “We can have hot chocolate and I’ll tell you the story.” Jamie’s eyes lit up, but his response was drowned out by a shriek from the river. Aster’s ears perked up, but finally realised that it had been a laughing-shriek, not an alarmed-shriek just as Sophie came pelting back towards them, laughing almost too hard to run, being chased by-
Aster clapped a hand over his mouth, because Pitch was dripping in technicolour paint. There was bright red and purple and blue in his hair, and pink and orange splattered all over the side of his face, brown and tawny and gold mottling his neck and chest, with green and teal dripping down his arm, turquoise droplets flying through the air when he made an exaggerated grab for Sophie. “How dare you!” Pitch proclaimed, and Sophie squealed and scrambled away from him.
“Should we… help?” Jamie asked, looking like he wanted to laugh, but wasn’t sure if his little sister was actually as safe as she clearly thought she was.
“Nah, mate.” Aster assured him, because he knew what Pitch in a real snit looked like, and this was not it. Sure enough, when Pitch finally did catch Sophie, he scooped her up in his paint-splattered arm, hugged her close to his drenched chest, and rubbed his pink-and-orange cheek all over her hair. Sophie shrieked and flailed and laughed so hard she cried. Pitch grinned down at her, a little wicked and playfully vengeful as he announced that his revenge was complete, and he’d never looked happier in all the time Aster had known him than he did in that moment, with a giggling little girl in his arms.
It hit Aster like a punch to the chest, and suddenly breathing felt too difficult to contemplate. He felt so stupid for not realising it earlier, for not seeing the signs and putting the pieces together. Only three – or, well, he supposed four, now – survivors had escaped the fall of the Golden Age, and it had never once occurred to Aster that that meant he was not the only one who had lost children.
Everyone had known, it had been common fucking knowledge, that General Pitchiner was a father, but Aster hadn’t thought, hadn’t remembered that the first people Pitch had wiped out had been his own. He didn’t want to think about it, but he couldn’t keep his mind from considering what he might have felt like, trying to live with the knowledge that his own child’s blood was on his hands. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and he desperately needed to think of a good excuse before he threw up or had a meltdown in front of the kids.
Aster hadn’t even noticed Jack’s arrival in the Warren, but right in that moment he didn’t care. He was just glad that Jamie had pelted off to greet the frost spirit, and Pitch had turned to play offence at being laughed at, and Aster could book it back to the den to hide until he’d regained his composure.
After he’d washed his half-digested lunch down the kitchen sink, Aster folded up right where he stood on the tiles, hooked his hands behind his ears, and tried not to keen. By all the stars in the sky, he didn’t know how Pitch had the strength to keep breathing every day. Aster didn’t have to live with that knowledge, but the mere thought of trying to nearly made him want to gouge his own heart out just to make the agony stop. He supposed time must have helped, the same way it had helped dull the sharpest edges of Aster’s own grief, but it was still awful to contemplate.
No wonder Pitch had been so desperate to insist there was nothing of General Kozmotis Pitchiner left in him. Aster wouldn’t want to believe that if there was even a fragment of himself left that he would be capable of that.
“Cottontail? You in he- Oh, fuck. Aster? Aster, are you alright?”
Aster choked on a laugh, scrubbed his hands over his face, and looked up to find Jack kneeling in front of him, alarm in every line of his face. Very suddenly, Aster was intensely glad Jack was here. If there was anyone he wouldn’t mind seeing him in this state, it was Jack. “She’ll be apples, mate.” Aster assured him, voice clogged by the keen he hadn’t wanted to risk letting out. Upset pooka were loud, and he hadn’t wanted to ruin the moment for the kids. Or for Pitch. Aster would have gutted the person who reminded him of his own kids the first time he had managed not to think of them when interacting with the human ankle-biters.
“That was believable.” Jack deadpanned.
“I mean it, Jack.” Aster assured him. “I’ll be right in a mo, just…” He paused, wondered if he ought to say, and then… then realised he needed to. He couldn’t keep it caught up in his throat and go back out there like it wasn’t sitting there. “Just dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one who lost a kid to the fearlings.” He admitted quietly.
“What-” Jack began, and then he realised. His head whipped around to stare at the kitchen door like he could see Pitch through the walls of the den. “That’s why a little girl’s room.” He breathed, and when he looked back at Aster, he looked just as horrified as Aster felt.
“What?” Aster asked.
“When I went looking for Pitch, at the beginning of all this… the fearlings had him trapped in this room, just past the ghost-apple orchard, and it was… it was a kid’s room, with galaxies on the walls and a canopy bed and a tonne of toys, except it had been completely wrecked.” Jack explained, eyes wide in his too-pale face. “That… that was his daughter’s room, wasn’t it?”
Aster remembered standing in the orchard, watching Pitch look back towards that room, right before he set his feet down this new path. “I reckon so.” He breathed hoarsely.
“You know he’d been keeping them trapped down there.” Jack said after a long silence. Aster blinked at him. Jack’s expression was grim and pained as he met Aster’s gaze. “The fearlings. They’ve been around this whole time, but no one saw any since the dark ages because they were trapped in Pitch’s lair, and they only got out after he left. He tried to tell me he couldn’t leave, but I dragged him out anyway, and the fearlings got out for the first time in centuries.”
“You mean even when he was off the deep end, he was still-”
“There was still a little bit of the real him in there, doing everything he could to protect the kids.” Jack confirmed, smiling a rueful little smile.
“Still the Golden General underneath it all, even if he won’t admit it.” Aster murmured to himself, feeling suddenly tired and wrung out in the aftermath of that emotional storm.
“Pitch said something about that, too, the ‘Golden General’ thing.” Jack mused, looking curiously at Aster. “Was that like, his title before, or something? It sounds pretentious, and Pitch is a bit more of a drama llama than a pretentious asshole, you know?”
Aster snorted, and hauled himself to his feet. “Let me just make some cocoa for everyone, and then I’ll tell you and the ankle-biters the story of the most famous General in the Golden Age’s Shining Coalition, how’s that sound?” He offered, watching Jack bounce to his feet before he turned and started rummaging in his cupboards for the supplies for hot chocolate.
“Sounds good. As long as Pitch doesn’t mind.” Jack added with a grimace.
Aster rolled his eyes. “I think Pitch could stand to hear a few more compliments whether he wants to or not.” Honestly, right now, he was kind of fighting the impulse to try force-feeding Pitch compliments until he regrew a shred of self-esteem. Stars knew the man needed it.
“As long as you can get it through to him you’re talking about him, not who he used to be.” Jack pointed out, stepping up to help Aster with the cocoa without bothering to ask. It helped drive out some of the chill his revelation had put in his soul.
“Good point.” Aster acknowledged.
Once the four mugs of hot chocolate were ready, Aster put together a mug of tea for himself, grabbed up some biscuits and carried them outside with Jack on his heels, pestering him. “Why did you make one mug of tea? I know it’s not for me or for the kids. Is Pitch all bah humbug about Easter, too? Wait, does Pitch not like chocolate?”
By that point, they were close enough to the others for Pitch to overhear Jack’s last comment. “I happen to love chocolate.” Pitch informed him archly, although the quirk of his eyebrows suggested he was more baffled by the conversation than he was willing to let on. Then he caught sight of the tray, and his eyes lit up. “Ah.” He said, starting to grin.
“Don’t.” Aster warned, but he didn’t manage to put half the amount of grumpy recalcitrance that he usually managed into it, so he wasn’t surprised when Pitch decided to ignore him.
“The Easter Bunny,” Pitch announced with great flair and drama, “is allergic to chocolate.”
Both of the kids and Jack all gasped in unison, and turned to stare at Aster with mouths agape and faux-horror in their expressions. “For real?” Jack asked, voice strangled as he fought valiantly with laughter. “You’re actually… allergic?”
“Allergic is probably the wrong word.” Aster admitted, putting the tray down on the grass and then sitting down next to it. “I can eat it, it’s just…” He sighed as the others all clustered around and snatched up their mugs with an air of only just realising how very precious it was, except for Pitch, who was just looking at Aster with a smirk on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, and damn, but Aster couldn’t even pretend to be mad when he was looking like that while they talked about things from the Golden Age.
“A substance that causes potentially harmful physiological reactions? I think allergic works well enough.” Pitch pointed out, like he was in a debate and not three seconds from cackling like a maniac.
“You’re just trying to make me say it, aren’t you?” Aster tried to sound grouchy, he really did, but he wasn’t sure he managed. Pitch tried to look guileless, and that didn’t really work either. Aster snorted into his tea. “Alright, alright. It messes with my shapeshifting. You happy now?”
“Ecstatic.” Pitch purred.
“Shapeshifting?!” Jamie and Jack yelled in unison. “Wait, is that like what happened to you last Easter?” Jack wondered.
“No. That was lack of belief turning me into a toddler.” He paused, then reached over to poke Sophie in the tummy to make her giggle. “No offence, ankle-biter. Anyway!” He stressed, when it looked like both Jamie and Jack were bubbling over with questions. “I thought you wanted to hear about the Golden General.” He added, watching Pitch from the corner of his eye.
The bogeyman went still, all the mirth draining from his face. “Must you?” He asked tightly.
Aster sighed. “Not if you really don’t want me to.” He capitulated finally, and he saw some of the tension leave Pitch, before he continued. “But they’ve seen the worst of you, and I think maybe they ought to have the chance to know the best of you, as well.”
“I’m not him.” Pitch insisted through gritted teeth.
“Maybe not, but you can’t deny that he is you.” Aster countered. Pitch opened his mouth, and faltered, then looked away. “I can tell a different story, if you really want me to.” Aster repeated. “But I rather like the story of Pitch Black, the Guardian of the Golden Age and the General of Fear.” He paused, then flashed a grin as the word-play sank in.
Jack toppled over backwards laughing at the utterly flabbergasted look on Pitch’s face. “That’s- I am not- You can’t just-”
“Can. Did.” Aster declared childishly, and sipped smugly at his tea.
“Oh, go on then.” Pitch huffed, crossing his arms sullenly, but he didn’t look as upset as he had a moment ago, so Aster decided to take the capitulation at face value.
“Right then. This story stars during the Golden Age, a time of magic and prosperity, when stars could sing, and ships sailed through the sky, and anything you imagined could become true.” Aster began, and almost immediately, Jamie and Sophie were enthralled. Slowly, glossing over the parts that weren’t really suitable for kids, Aster told them the story of Kozmotis Pitchiner, and his single-minded dedication to protecting the known worlds from the most terrible plague of monsters their woefully naive Golden Age had ever seen.
He knew all the highlights, the battles that had won Kozmotis each medal and promotion, the units he had commanded, that he had been the one to propose a proper alliance instead of simply being two armies who happened to be fighting the same enemy. He told them about the planets he saved, about how he always, always tried to take prisoners instead of mindlessly killing, about the genocide he had stopped, and the soldiers he inspired to courage even when their enemy was a physical manifestation of an entire galaxy’s fears. He told them about a war won, and peace restored.
“So what happened?” Jamie asked, frowning, when it seemed like Aster might stop there. “Why is he… here, like this?”
“Well, I don’t know the details of that, but when the war was won, all the fearling prisoners were put into a special prison-planet, built specially to contain them. And of course, they wanted their best and brightest out there, guarding them.”
Pitch snorted. Everyone turned to look at him, but he refused to meet anyone’s eyes. “It was a punishment. I had insisted on prisoners, I had refused the Lunar Tsar’s orders to massacre the lot of them, so when they were all contained, the Tsar decreed that they were my responsibility, that if I wanted them to live, I had better make sure they stayed locked away. My responsibility. As if they weren’t the product of his rule denying fear any place in his oh-so-glorious utopia.”
Jamie looked suddenly wide-eyed. “Is that…” He looked at Jack. “Because when you cover your fear up…”
“It just grows in all the places where you can’t see it.” Jack confirmed, smiling proudly at the kid.
“So… what happened?” Aster asked, watching Pitch carefully. “If you don’t mind my asking?”
Pitch drew in a shuddering breath, then let it out slowly. “I heard my daughter’s voice, begging me to let her out.” He said in a cracked whisper through a twisted smile. Aster closed his eyes, because he didn’t think anyone could have resisted, and yet it was so very clear that Pitch blamed himself for not doing. “So I did. And that was the end of Kozmotis Pitchiner, your precious Golden General, and the birth of Pitch Black, the Nightmare King.”
Pitch was abruptly buried in children, and one frost spirit, as they all lunged forward to hug him at once. He spluttered, but managed to keep his balance, and gave Aster a desperate, pleading look, begging for a rescue. Instead, Aster decided to finish the story. “Then, some five billion years later, a certain fall spirit called Jack Frost found you, and showed you that Kozmotis Pitchiner and Pitch Black could co-exist in the same person.”
He could see the moment Pitch finally gave in, and accepted the point Aster had been trying to make. It looked like it hurt, but Aster didn’t think he was imagining the spark of gratitude in his eyes, or the way his entire face softened when he glanced down at Jack. “I suppose you’re right.” He mused reluctantly, and Aster was pretty sure he looked like a complete sap, the way he was staring, but in that moment, he didn’t care at all.
Here we are, guys. The final chapter. I've appreciated the fuck out of every comment and kudos you've left while I slogged my way through uploading this monster. Thank you <3
“This is torture.” Jack complained in a whisper. He rested his forehead against his crook where it was braced between his knees as he sat on the windowsill he’d once occupied during Sandy’s funeral, and watched as Aster argued with Tooth and Pitch explained something to North, both of them intense and focused and gesturing wildly.
After last year’s Easter, the Guardians had agreed to have a yearly meeting at midsummer, when they were all at their least busy – well, those of them that were seasonal, anyway – but Jack’s illness last year had disrupted that plan, so this was their first one. Jack had conspired with Aster to bring Pitch along whether he liked the idea or not. They hadn’t had to go quite as far as dumping him in a sack and tossing him through a magic portal, but it had been close.
North had been entirely unsurprised to see Pitch, but Sandy had gaped and pestered them all with floating question marks, and Tooth was still suspicious and distrustful. Which was what she was arguing with Aster about, as far as Jack could tell, whereas Pitch and North seemed to have convened some sort of war-council, and Pitch was making expansive gestures towards the globe as he used the controls to rotate it and point out different features. Sandy was hovering between them, watching with a puzzled little smile on his face like he didn’t really understand what he was seeing, but was enjoying the show all the same.
At Jack’s side, Baby Tooth was laughing at him, completely without sympathy. The brat. She was almost the same size as Sophie, now, and her limbs were turning coltish and gangling as she edged towards more adult proportions already. She had even lost her beak, which had worried Jack a little until Tooth had wistfully explained that Sisters of Flight – which was apparently what she was – only had a beak to break out of their eggs, and losing it was just another sign of growing up. Baby Tooth’s laughter sounded more human, too, instead of bird-like and tinkling. “You should say something.” She informed him cheekily.
“No!” Jack protested in a harsh hiss. “Are you mad?”
“Why not?” Baby Tooth prompted, kicking her feet in the air, hands braced on the sill either side of herself as she watched the various conversations curiously.
Jack sighed and rocked his forehead against his shepherd’s crook in frustration. “Because-! Because it’s only been a year, Baby Tooth. They’re… They’re both dealing with some really tough issues, and I’d feel selfish if I asked to take up some of that attention for myself.” He glanced over at her to see if she understood, only to see her rolling her periwinkle eyes at him. “Besides,” Jack stressed, rolling his eyes right back at her, “it’s hard enough trying to figure out how to… date someone, especially as a spirit, but… What? Am I supposed to pick one? I-” He looked away sharply, shoulders hunching defensively at just the thought.
Baby Tooth blew a raspberry to convey her opinion of that idea. “Don’t be stupid, Jack, if you can help it.” She chided, and Jack was momentarily reminded of his sister so forcefully that he choked on his laugh. “They’ve both been staring at your butt when you wouldn’t notice, so I’m pretty sure you won’t have to pick one.” She added.
Jack bit down on his lip in a futile attempt to hold back a grin. “They have?”
Baby Tooth glanced at him, then laughed. “They have.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d be okay sharing.” Jack pointed out, quite logically, he thought. “That sort of thing doesn’t work for everyone, you know.”
“It’d work for you, though, right?” Baby Tooth checked.
“Yeah.” Jack nodded, smiling wistfully at the thought, rolling his head so that it was his cheek, not his forehead, resting against his crook as he observed the others. Tooth had just pointed towards Pitch, and Aster was looking over his shoulder at the bogeyman. His irritation at Tooth melted off his face, and his mouth quirked into a half-smile and his eyes went soft. Jack’s heart decided to take up acrobatics, and he stared in frozen wonder as Tooth said something else and Aster whipped back around to continue his argument.
“You won’t know what they think until you ask.” Baby Tooth pointed out reasonably.
Jack nodded, only half listening. He was still focused on Aster, on that look he’d worn when he was staring at Pitch, and what it could possibly mean. He looked over at Pitch, wondering if he dared to hope…
North was staring at him, not paying attention to whatever Pitch was trying to explain. When Jack accidentally caught his eye, he beamed. “Excuse me one moment, Pitch. Must speak with Jack. Sandy, make self useful! Pitch wants to discuss dream-sand.” He shouted, striding over towards Jack. Pitch watched him go, looking outraged in his offended confusion, until he caught Jack’s eye over North’s shoulder. Then he just rolled his eyes, and rounded on Sandy, who was singing his quiet little song rather than using his dream-sand symbols.
“I felt that.” North commented smugly, leaning his shoulder against the wall beside the window.
“Felt what?” Jack asked.
“Much wonder in your heart when you look at Bunny and Pitch.” North answered promptly, and Jack felt the frost of his blush crawling agonisingly up his cheeks. There was a long pause as Jack stared at the floor bashfully and North studied him with shrewd eyes. “Why do you hesitate?” He asked, surprisingly gently.
Jack sighed heavily, and glanced up with a rueful smile. “I don’t want to hurt them. There’s… so much history between them, you know? What if asking for more… breaks what they’ve already managed to create?”
To his surprise, North didn’t dismiss his words. “Is sensible to be cautious in matters of heart, but is also important to be bold. Faint heart never wins at love.” Jack snorted at North’s mangling of the phrase, but nodded his head in acceptance of his point, and North reached out to lay a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You deserve to be happy Jack, and to know you are loved.” Jack ducked his head, feeling too grateful for North’s support to express without acute embarrassment. North patted him on the shoulder briskly, and then went to rejoin the conversation between Pitch and Sandy.
Jack decided to go see if Aster needed any back up, with Baby Tooth hot on his heels. “-just saying that he shouldn’t be here, now, at this meeting! He’s not a Guardian!” Tooth was exclaiming, looking about ready to start pulling feathers out in her frustration.
“He damned well is!” Aster shot back irritably.
“The Man in the Moon very clearly didn’t pick him. He refused to light the crystal when we asked him about Pitch.” Tooth explained, in the tone of someone who was repeating something for the umpteenth time.
“What, really?” Jack demanded, feeling deeply offended on Pitch’s behalf.
Aster glanced over and grimaced. “He’s the Lunar Tsar’s son, Jack.” He pointed out quietly, and Jack winced. “He was still just an ankle-biter when he saw Pitch killing his parents, and never got to know what he was like before all that. I understand why he’s reluctant.” He turned back to Tooth. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Pitch has been working tirelessly to protect the kids of this world for the last year, and whether or not Manny likes the damned idea, I’m not going to let you lot tell him he has no right to try and do better!”
“You can’t just go against our leader like that-” Tooth began.
“Leader?” Aster and Jack scoffed in unison. Tooth looked startled. “The Man in the Moon isn’t our leader. He’s… kind of an advisor. But North’s our leader.” Jack pointed out. Aster scowled, but tellingly, didn’t argue. “And North’s happy to have Pitch here.”
“Yes, well, North thinks-” Tooth cut herself off this time, and ran both hands over her face. “Never mind. I just… I just don’t like it.” She admitted.
“You’re still scared.” Baby Tooth interjected, startling everyone. Tooth’s feathers rustled as she fluffed them in her discomfort, looking away from them. “It’s okay. I was too, but he’s caging fearlings now, not us.” Baby Tooth pointed out, flitting forwards on iridescent wings to tentatively reach out and lay a hand on Tooth’s arm. Jack shared a look with Aster as he realised that of course, for all that Aster and even the Man in the Moon had lost the most to Pitch, Tooth’s trauma was more recent. Jack suspected that Tooth was more afraid of being caged than she’d ever admit to, given that Pitch was so good at reading fears, and that was what he’d chosen to do to break her spirit.
Tooth turned her arm under Baby Tooth’s hand, and clasped tiny fingers in her own small ones. Her other arm wrapped around her middle in an attempt at self-comfort. “I suppose you’re right.” She glanced up, and then tried for a smile. “It seems like Manny and I are being out-voted, anyway.”
Jack glanced over his shoulder, and beamed when he realised that Sandy and Pitch had their heads bent close together over a small intricate knot of black and gold dream-sand, and Sandy was eagerly nodding to whatever Pitch was saying now. North was watching them with his arms folded, and a bemused expression on his face. “Even if you don’t like it, logically, we can learn a lot from him.” Baby Tooth pointed out to Tooth. “He knows the fearlings better than we do, and we ought to take whatever information we can get. Know your enemy.”
“Fine.” Tooth sighed. “Fine!” Glaring stubbornly, she drew herself up and flitted over to join the conversation. Jack snickered while Aster grumbled under his breath, and the three of them followed more sedately in her wake.
The rest of the meeting was an intense back-and-forth as they discussed strategy, tactics, methods, and more. Everyone had their own ideas, and they talked for hours, but eventually the conversation wound down, and North declared himself satisfied with the results. They departed with new goals and a better idea of what everyone else was doing, and Jack didn’t even hesitate to follow Aster down into the Warren when he opened up a tunnel. He was kind of delighted to see that Pitch was joining them too.
He was still grinning when he stepped out into the warm spring sunshine of the Warren and Aster let out an alarmed yelp. Jack’s head whipped up, and he saw a translucent canine form bounding out of the air in front of him. She tumbled into invisible gusts as she whipped around Jack, only to reform sitting primly at his heel, the picture of canine obedience. Jack beamed and leaned down to pet her, his hand slipping through her form slightly, but she was solid enough for them both to feel it, which was enough.
“What is that?” Aster demanded, voice comically strangled.
“This is Swift.” Jack answered, beaming proudly. “I realised I’d never actually named her, and she wanted a name, so. Swift.” He crouched down and hooked an arm over her back. She kept him upright like she always had, his first friend even though he hadn’t quite noticed at the time. Then he looked up at Aster, whose ears were stiff with alarm, and twitching with agitation. “Don’t worry, she’s a good girl, and she likes you.” He assured Aster.
“I know.” Aster said tightly.
“That’s a very odd fear for a pooka to have.” Pitch remarked curiously.
Aster cleared his throat. “I don’t get it either, but… well. War. Bad Memories.” He hedged uncomfortably. “Sometimes the weirdest things become the trigger.”
Oh. Jack winced. “She doesn’t have to hang out down here, if it really bothers you.” He offered, although it ached, a little bit, sending Swift away from his side after three hundred years of flying together, only so very rarely apart. “I thought you were supposed to be in the Lair anyway.” He added to Swift, a touch chidingly. “You said you wanted to play with Onyx.”
Swift perked up, tail deteriorating into several crisply chilled breezes with how hard it was wagging, and then she bounded up, losing form entirely to hoist Jack back to his feet, and then sweep across the meadow to pounce, corporeal once more, on the Nightmare that had been contentedly grazing under the blossoming apple tree. “Sorry.” Jack said to Aster.
“I would imagine it was Onyx’s idea.” Pitch added, lips twisted. “She’s very eager to stick her nose in places I’ve told her it shouldn’t be. I should set her on guard duty for a month.” Which was as close to an apology as he was going to get.
Aster sighed and shook his head. “Nah, it’s alright. She can visit whenever she likes.” He assured Pitch, who’s smile became far less twisted and more sincere. He was so obviously fond of Onyx that Jack wasn’t surprised Aster would let her into the Warren. Then Aster glanced at Jack. “Just maybe ask Swift to keep incorporeal when she’s down here. That’d be enough, I think.”
“Can do.” Jack agreed, warmed through by the compromise. He looked between Aster and Pitch, feeling something nebulous and bright-sharp welling up under his breastbone. He didn’t try too hard to untangle it, let it swell until he felt he might burst, and watched as both of them twitched and turned to stare at him. He tried for a smile; maybe a little hopeful, and maybe a little frightened, but mostly just determined. “I guess you can feel that, huh?” He asked.
“I don’t-” Pitch began, looking uncertain.
“That’s… Jack, what are you…?” Aster stammered, eyes wide.
Jack scratched at the back of his neck, and searched for words. They were not easy to come by. “Only if you want. I just thought it might be worth a try. If you don’t want to, though, I’ll shut up about it, obviously-”
“Jack, you haven’t even said anything.” Aster interjected, stepping forwards and reaching out, only to hesitate, like he wasn’t sure he ought to touch. “I didn’t think- I don’t know if I’m reading your hope right.” He admitted. “Are you- Us?”
“I noticed the way you looked at him.” Jack admitted, smiling lopsided and warm. “It gave me hope.”
Aster’s breath caught. “You- You’re really suggesting… You’d be okay with that?”
“Okay?!” Jack echoed with an incredulously. “Aster, I’ve wanted that since last year, watching you two fight fearlings together like you’d been doing it forever, like it was easy to trust each other. It was amazing, and I wanted… I want to be part of that. If that’s cool?”
Aster snorted, and finally reached out to grab Jack’s hand, twining their fingers together. Jack shivered a little at the feel of the fine fur of Aster’s hands tickling at his skin. “It’s ‘cool’ with me.” Aster confirmed, and then they both turned to Pitch. Jack’s heart leapt into his throat when he saw that Pitch’s expression was shuttered.
“Pitch?” Jack asked, gripping Aster’s hand tightly.
“I’m not going to be your charity case.” Pitch snapped, and then flinched and took a step backwards. “You can’t possibly want-”
“We can.” Jack assured him.
“We do.” Aster added, holding his free hand out to Pitch. Jack let his crook fall to the ground as he did the same. “You’re not a charity case. You know you’re not. Do you think I’d ever suggest this if I didn’t mean it?” Aster demanded, looking pained.
Pitch mouthed helplessly without words for a moment, then shook his head, backing away another step. Jack carefully disentangled his fingers from Aster’s to close the distance between himself and Pitch. The man looked terrified and bewildered as Jack approached. “It wouldn’t be right without you.” He said, low and sincere. “Without either of you.”
“I don’t deserve-”
Jack shook his head. “It’s not about deserving. This isn’t something you earn with good behaviour. And it’s not… something you ought to do because it would make us happy, either.” He added, because the idea of Pitch thinking of them as some sort of atonement was worse than the idea of him not wanting them at all. “We’re just… we’re here. If you want us.”
Pitch looked from Jack, to Aster over his shoulder, looking so lost and confused that Jack’s heart hurt for him. “Why?” He pleaded.
“Because I never need to say a word to know you understand.” Aster began, stepping up behind Jack and resting a hand on his shoulder. “Because you hate Christmas. Because you inspire me. Because you like my stupid puns. Because you’re a dramatic bastard. Because you kept the fearlings trapped for an entire millennium before last summer. Because your eyes are silver.”
Jack couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer. “Because you like to dance in secret.” He interjected, and Pitch’s eyes snapped to his, widening. “Because you named a whole bunch of your nightmares. Because you helped me remember who I am. Because you’re good with the kids. Because you fight like it’s an art. Because you’re a monster. Because you’re a Guardian.” Jack grinned. “Do we need to go on? I’m pretty sure we can go on for hours.”
“This is a terrible idea.” Pitch said, resigned and bewildered and starting to smile. There was no force in the entire universe that could have stopped Jack grabbing his collar and yanking him down into a kiss. Pitch stumbled against him, knocking him back into Aster’s chest, his hand landing on Aster’s on Jack’s shoulder, his mouth parting in a gasp against Jack’s lips. Jack wasn’t going to waste an opportunity like that, now, was he?
“Strewth.” Aster muttered breathlessly, his hand sliding up along Pitch’s arm to catch his elbow, while the other came up to wrap around Jack and hold him steady. Jack let Aster take most of his weight, eyes closed as he savoured the kiss, fascinated by the feel of jagged teeth against his tongue. Pitch made an agonised sound, and the hand on Jack’s shoulder migrated up to his neck, thumb caressing his pulse in a way that made Jack shiver.
When Jack pulled back to gasp for air, Aster immediately leaned in to claim Pitch’s mouth for his own. Except, Jack realised, tilting his head to watch in fascination, they weren’t quite kissing. More like eskimo kisses, or nuzzling, but it was clearly affecting Aster like the best sort of kiss. Little tremors ran through him, his breath hitching on aborted sounds. Pitch opened his mouth against the corner of Aster’s, and he closed his lips over Aster’s whiskers.
Aster made a choked noise.
“Oh, of course. Whiskers.” Jack realised. “They must be really sensitive, huh?”
Aster cleared his throat as Pitch leaned back, looking at Aster like he still couldn’t quite believe he’d been allowed to do that. “I like kisses, too.” Aster offered, not answering the question.
“Good.” Jack declared. “Come here, then.” He added, twisting to catch the side of Aster’s face in his hand, carding his fingers through the fur there in fascination. Aster took the cue, and ducked down to press his mouth to Jack’s. It wasn’t the same as kissing Pitch, Aster’s mouth was shaped so differently, but he had lips and teeth and a tongue, and he certainly knew how to use them. “Oh my god.” Jack gasped when Aster finally had mercy on him and let him catch his breath. “You two are going to ruin me.”
Aster grinned, and Pitch gave a low chuckle.
A little thrill ran down Jack’s spine, and he had to take a moment just to appreciate that this was actually happening. He couldn’t believe that it had been that easy, that simple. Just a few words, an honest offer, and these two were his. He was theirs. They were allowed to touch and hold, to share in each other’s lives. Jack couldn’t think of anything better, and if he had anything to say about it, things were going to stay this way for a very long time.