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Embrace the storm; For peace to come

Chapter Text

Jack shivered from the cold, the young boy hunched in on himself, hugging himself tighter, teeth clattering in his mouth, as he fought to starve off the relentless cold. Alas, the shitty, thin blanket, which he had snatched for himself provided little to no comfort and so, a full-body shiver was forced on him. Glaring, despite his best efforts to ignore it, his gaze glided to the corpse in the corner. Too young, Jack thought, as he took in their blue, frozen, too still and haven been so for hours, features. Way too fucking young.

There had been five of them in the small, crammed cage, the four remaining soon to be sold servants – or whatever it was that their holder had called them – huddled closely together for warmth.

He did not dare to fall asleep. None of them did.

To his left, Jack felt another of the unfortunate souls trapped within the cage let out a low, defeated sigh, the breath cold and stuttering, as it ghosted over his ear.

Soon, the sun would rise. Soon, they would watch its bright, warm rays crawl out over the frozen grounds around them, the warmth quick, as it would seep into the fixed soil below and hopefully their tired bones as well.

Still, that moment was yet hours away and as the still fifth in the corner clearly showed, it could not come quickly enough.

--

 

The hand in his hair was rough, the fingers tight, as the announcer roughly yanked his head up for the meager crowd to get a look at his snarling face.

‘’Get off me you prick!’’ Jack hissed lowly, just as a swift jab to the back of his knees made them buckle. They were bruised already, the rope cutting into his wrists rough as well, but the harsh texture of the wooden stage below, certainly did not help one bit.

Idly, he registered as the iron grip in his hair turned his head this way and that.

‘’As you can see, this one has spirit.’’ The finely clad announcer boomed loud enough that Jack heard a few of the buttons of his strained vest groan in protest, to which a few, sparse grunts of acknowledgements rang out. This was far from Jacks first time up here though, and he had quickly outgrown his fear of the piercing stares.

‘’I will bite your fucking elbows out you son of a whore!’’

As long as he picked up a fuzz and kept shouting profanities, then he would not be sold. He knew that and he very well intended to keep it that way. The entrapment was bad, yes, but the possibility of a future in a masters or mistress house around these lands? No, that would be a far worse fate than the coldness of the cage.

Softly, just low enough that only Jack heard it, the announcer sighed and cursed under his breath. ‘’And with the proper training, we do believe that he can become a quite fine addiction to your household, field, garden, or wherever you might be in need of services.’’

‘’So help me, I will-‘’

Jacks words were abruptly cut off, the air caught and trapped in his throat, as the end of the announcers cane connected with his teeth. Fuck that hurt. At least, his teeth still felt intact. Oh boy.

Above him, the announcer took a deep, steadying breath, as he seemingly fought to center himself. He was known for having a temper, but rarely did he truly let that show.

Not while on stage at least.

‘’It is no secret that this one has been with us for a while, and those of you who frequent, will have well grown used to his antics by this point. It has been a long while now; long enough in fact, that we have decided to lower his price to the quarter of what was originally offered. Please, this is a good deal indeed.’’

Oh. Oh no.

‘’By the grace of god I swear it; this is not a purchase that you will regret.’’ The announcer said and around the crowd, a few heads nodded in what seemed to be peeked interest. ‘’Take him off our hands and make yourselves a great-‘’ whatever the announcer continued to say, Jack did not know. He had stopped listening.

A quarter of the price was a good deal. Too good really.

He should probably do something right around now. Perhaps he could attempt to jerk forwards, fling the announcer off the front of the stage, and send him and his babbling mouth sprawling. It would hurt like hell, but it would be well worth it, if it meant that he got to keep the skin of his back whip-free.

Too late, he realized, as he was jerked up and brought to stagger towards the raggedy stairs at the end of the platform.

He had already been sold.

--

 

The blessed morning had seemed endless, the day that proceeded just as so, until the evening came and filled the chilled air with loud, booming voices, laughter and crude, angry yelling. Now, it was a quiet night, the soft, dull clopping of the horses’ hooves the only sound mingling in with the howling of the wind, as they travelled over a large patch of old, dusty land.

While Jack did indeed feel it for the moment being and haven done so for the past one and a half week, the cold had never really bothered him to begin with. No, the freezing wind was one thing, but the hearts of men had proven colder. Much colder.

Still, he thought, as he shivered lightly, just as the wagons wheel caught on a protruding rock and made the whole thing rustle – Jacks foot quick, as it shot out and halted what appeared to be a stack of apples from tumbling over, this was downright ridiculous. Therefore, while it did fill him to the brim with a nervous, restless energy, whatever horrors awaited him ahead; at least it would be warm.

Hopefully.

Ahead, the first peek of a slick, black roof came into view between the withered trees lining the path that they were on, its presence tall, foreboding, as its dark exterior contrasted starkly against the backdrop of the increasingly rising sun. Then, a hint of cobblestone spread out beneath them, the dull thuds of the horses’ hooves taking on a clear note, as they trailed closer still.

A few more meters and they would be at the gate. A few more beats, and he would forever remain trapped within this great mansions halls.

The moment came, the tall gates creaking open for them and letting them pass to then close again with a loud, solid clang.

This is it, Jack thought, as he stared up at his new, slightly upgraded cage filled with flickering light and unknown terrors.

This was his life now.

Chapter Text

Even the perfectly polished tiles felt warm compared to his cold feet, Jack not overly caring for the general interior around him however, as he was lead in through the mansions great double doors and into the embrace of the grand entrance beyond. He was after all, stuck here for life and would have lots of time to glare at it later.

If your new holder wants you that long, his mind whispered sheepishly and idly, he snorted in response. He could only hope that whoever it was that was to be his wishfully polite overseer was not as cruel of a person, as the ones in the stories that he had heard whispered of, in between blue, quivering lips.

Still, Jack felt like he was walking towards his own execution and damn well, he would face it with a straight - albeit shivering from the bitter, lingering coldness in his bones - back.

Another set of double doors closed behind him, the offered and used blanket slipping from his shoulders in one smooth motion, as the ghoulish servant that had bought and taken him away reached out to gingerly snatch it back. It did not matter though; it was warm enough in here anyway.

‘’I would advise you to kneel.’’ The other said, as he glanced expectantly towards a single, wooden door at the end. Clearly unimpressed and with more than a little defiance caught in his eyes, Jack simply stared back, his still tied hands twitching behind his back, as he attempted to hiss low in warning, though all that came out was a soft squeak of a wheeze, which eased into a cough that made his lungs and chest constrict painfully.

Fun. Amazing. The best.

Softly, the ghoulish servant sighed. ‘’It is only this once, I assure you.’’ He said, as he reached out to help the glaring Jack down, to which the boy jerked away and, regardless of his dismissive behavior a mere second ago, rather violently let his knees hit the floor. Confused, Jack stared down at the soft, smooth carpet, which had blocked most of the impending impact and pain that he had expected from the act.

Ah. Right. Carpets. That was a thing apparently.

Despite himself, as the ghoulish servant went over to the door that he had glanced at a brief moment ago and softly knocked thrice on it, before going back and taking his place to Jacks left, the boy found himself glancing around anxiously.

Beside him, a beautiful, heavily ornamental fireplace was lit, its warmth slightly suffocating, but not yet unpleasant and on his other, a huge bookcase stood, shielding what must have been at least a hundred books within its softly bended shelves. As for the rest, there was not a whole lot to look at, except for a big couch for at least seven people, the blanket that the ghoul had taken back and discarded, now resting over the broad back of it.

The place itself was perversely clean, the air holding a rich but faint scent, which Jack could not quite place and already at the entrance, it had hit him. Cinnamon maybe. Cinnamon and ash, with a hint of something sharp and clear. Whatever it was, it was not pleasant but not downright a bother either. A few days down the line and he would have tuned it out. If, he got to live that long that was.

As the seconds ticked by, Jack felt himself start to get tired, all fight slowly dragging out of him, as he listened to the soft crackling of the fire guttering increasingly lower beside him. He had not slept in at least a day, used to being awake during the bright hours, awake through the night instead, and truly, snatched away, and out of the repeated circle that he had been in, his body just wanted to rest.

Idly, he felt the soft carpet dig further into his bended knees, his stinging eyes shifting to glance up at the ghoul beside him, as they waited. He had just been about to open his mouth and ask how long it would be yet, when the door at the end finally opened, and at once, Jack felt his body flood with renewed adrenaline.

The moment of truth was here and hopefully, whatever shape or form his death took, it would be swift and merciful.

His master, it would seem, was dressed entirely in black, the tall, imposing figure gliding closer still in long, elegant strides. Black embroidery with hints of a single, gleaming, golden threat woven in, decorated the fronts of his dark, heavy, flowing robe and snaked up over his collarbones and finally, around his craned neck as well. It was elegant and simple; not at all what Jack himself would have chosen to wear – not that he ever could afford such expensive fabrics regardless, especially not now that his freedom had been him stolen, but still. A boy could dream, could he not? As for the others features…

Now that was a strange sight to behold.

Thin, pale skin that bordered on grey stretched itself smoothly out over a slim face, the high cheekbones seeming impossibly defined and shallow, in the dimmed light of the room that he had been lead into. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, perhaps it was from the exhaustion still raging through Jack, but the boy would almost say that the black-haired other looked inhuman.

Of course, that was a ridiculous thought and lightly, he scolded himself for giving in and even entertaining such childish and minimizing thoughts. Of course, this frightening image of a tall, stoic man was human. The strangeness of what he was seeing most likely just had to do with his own paranoia over the event as a whole, the lack of windows and most importantly, the tricks of the dancing shadows, that, quite honestly, and again, he was tired that just had to be it, seemed alive and with a mind of their own.

Of course they could not be, Jack mused, as he watched them pool and lick almost lovingly up against his new holders boots.

Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

One thing was for certain though, the other looked quite… How could he put it politely…?

Snobbish, Jacks mind helpfully provided, as the boy sneered in a tired defiance and glared up into the others narrowed eyes; the boy noting the hints of gold and cold silver crammed tightly around the others pupils, as his new master tilted his head in a confused and slightly irked manner.

A silver and golden gaze. What was next, would he find the other to sport a tail or perhaps a few sharp claws on the tips of his slim fingers?

Absurd. That was what this entire affair was.

As though reading his train of thought, the master of the house turned his head towards the ghoulish servant and hummed a low, thoughtful, but clearly angered tone. ‘’I send you out to fetch a barrel of apples and fresh meats.’’ He said on a voice smooth and cold, which left no room for excuses - the edges dripping with something sharp and lethal, as his gaze likewise took on a cool notion. ‘’And, instead you drag a half-dead boy home with you?’’

Yep, he was so dead. Hopefully, they would just grind him into stew and eat him whole, before any of the beatings could start.

‘’He was cheaper than the apples sir, and the market was fresh out of meat.’’ The ghoul replied and truly, if anything, Jack would say that the arch of the masters hairless brow seemed surprised.

‘’And so, you would go against my orders because of what exactly?’’

A small, stiff jerk of the ghoulish servant’s shoulders followed in response and Jack thought that it might have been an attempt at a shrug. Alas, the gesture came off weird and unnatural on such a disciplined man. ‘’A temporary lapse in judgement sir. It will not happen again.’’

In front of him, Jacks new holder let out a low sigh, before he unclasped his hands from behind his back and slowly started to pace on the thick rug. As had been the case when he had first stalked into the lowly lit room, the shadows seemed to follow in his wake and idly, Jack squeezed his eyes shut, the boy blinking several times upon opening, in an attempt to clear the strange vision from them.

It did not work.

’Cheaper than apples.’’ The master of the house grumbled on a sour, disapproving tone. ‘’What are you good for then boy?’’ He asked, the last word spat out as though it was a cuss, and once more, Jack felt the full weight of the others heavy, indifferent stare settle onto him.

‘’I-‘’ Jack started, his voice scratchy and weak, before it was abruptly cut off by the rude, insistent presence of a dry cough. ‘’I-‘’ He tried again on a rasp, though he had no better luck this time.

Way to go Jack, the small voice in the back of his head clipped in an irked fashion, as he preceded to cough and heave down shallow, ragged breaths in between the painful spaces of them. Not even two minutes in and we are already showing weakness.

In all fairness, he was quite amazed that it had taken the cage and the bitter cold this long to break his health, but alas, throughout the last three nights before his untimely departure, it had started to go downhill quite fast. It was as inconvenient as it was annoying.

‘’Sir, if I may.’’ The ghoulish servant softly spoke up again, when it became clear that Jack quite obviously could do nothing more but continue to dryly cough. ‘’It seems that the young one is too exhausted for this conversation.’’ He pointed out, to which the master of the house grumbled something incoherent under his breath. ‘’At least for this current, present time being.’’

‘’And whose fault is that?’’ The other snapped harshly on a near grit out bark.

The announcer, Jack thought bitterly in response as he coughed into the rich fibers of the carpet, though he knew better than to voice the thought aloud. The fucking handlers that had wrestled him out of bed, separated him from his sister and burned down his family’s house in the beginning of this cruel, late winter.

‘’Mine sir.’’ The ghoul said instead, to which the master of the house hummed in a mock of a gentle acknowledgement.

‘’How much did you spend on this?’’ He asked, as he gestured a single, pale, delicate hand out towards Jacks kneeling, trembling form.

Holy shit, he actually did have claws, he had meant that as a joke.

The servant was about to answer, mouth already forming around the words, when Jack managed to regain a bit of breath and beat him to it.

‘’I am good with horses.’’ Jack quickly said, as his mind frantically scrambled about to find something to offer up. While he was not about to let someone beat and jerk him around as some cheap, lifeless ragdoll, he was not about to give them a reason to behead him on the spot for being useless either, and at once, that golden and silvery gaze once more settled onto him. ‘’Like really good if I have to say so myself. And I know how to,’’ he said, before having to stop for a single, inconvenient cough ‘’make a bed pretty decently. Don’t put me in the kitchen though, I would probably burn your house down by accident, but I can wash the floors if you are…’’ The boy rambled, the words dying out on his tongue, as before him, the corners of his holders’ lips jerked in what was unmistakably a thoroughly entertained, but indignant grin.

Yep, dead, he was dead – Dead jack walking!

‘’In need.’’ He finished regardless, just as the others grin cracked up into a wide, cold, too sharp wolfs grin that made the hairs on the back of the boys neck stand on end. He did not feel as though such an angry grimace should be enough to cause such deep, primal fear in him, but regardless, it did.

‘’Have you been addressed?’’ The master of the house clipped on a dry note, to which Jack grit his teeth and clenched his jaw, his gulp loud in the tense, too stiff air, as he swallowed thickly. Still, he refused to be intimidated. Whatever fear still lingered just under his skin, weirded out as that fact made him, he somehow understood that it was not his own, and as he spoke on an even and barely subdued voice, the notion gave him a small resemblance of pride back.

‘’Pretty fucking sure you asked me a question yeah.’’

Beside him, the ghoulish servant went rigid, eyes widening for a beat, as they snapped to his masters own in shock. Still, those golden and silvery orbs kept directed onto Jacks, the shadows seemingly flickering in response to the silent anger still present within their sharp gleam.

A beat passed in tense silence. Then another, and finally, the master of the house sighed lowly to himself.

‘’Do you have a name?’’ He asked, to which Jack stayed silent, the boy putting as much of his fleeting courage into his glare, as he refused to back down. He swiftly realized that it was a losing battle however. Clearly, his holder possessed a far greater patience than the announcer ever had.

‘’Jack Overland.’’ He finally said, to which his holder curtly nodded.

‘’You seem to be missing a word there boy.’’ The master of the house said, one hairless brow once more arching, as he stared down at him expectantly.

‘’Jack Overland. Sir.’’ Jack repeated, as he let the last word drag out on a drawl. In front of him, the master of the house nodded again.

’Good.’’ He rasped on a voice that somehow sounded both sarcastic and yet sincere. ‘’We are making progress already.’’

As his holder smirked down at him in a knowing manner, Jack let his gaze drop and bit the tip of his tongue.

‘’You understand your predicament yes?’’ The master of the house asked, to which Jack gave a jerky little nod in response.

He did. He fully understood that he would either die right here on this shitty, expensive rug or be worked to death in or around the mansion instead. Preferably, he would choose the former, but neither were options that he wanted to chase.

Another little beat passed in silence then, the skin of his knees starting to itch uncomfortably, before finally, and still much to his surprise, his master nodded in what Jack could only deem to be satisfaction.

‘’Cut him free then.’’

Jack felt his brow furrow in a short beat of confusion, before he understood the notion of what that meant. But, of course, a servant needed his hands to work, right? And so, Jack felt both relief and a deep sense of grief pass through him, as he understood that his death would come in the form of the latter, much slower way.

‘’Do I at least get your name as well?’’ Jack asked as idly, he rubbed at his sore wrists, the boy willing the blood back in them, after his binds had fallen away. In front of him, the master did nothing but stare expectantly, head tilting ever so slightly, as he narrowed his eyes. ‘’Sir.’’ The boy added, as though on an indifferent afterthought.

To his surprise, the first signs of a genuine smile slipped onto the others thin features, as he placed a clawed hand to the spot above his heart, eyes gleaming, as he chuckled low.

‘’You are going to be quite the challenge, are you not?’’ He laughed, before shaking his head in what could almost be seen as fond bewilderment. Then, as swiftly as the shift in mood had crept in, it vanished, and once more, Jack was left to stare up into a cold and indifferent golden gaze. Slowly, the master of the house lowered his clawed hand and gestured out at the dimly lit walls around them. ‘’We have few rules here, but I expect you to follow them tightly. If not-‘’ his holder said on a small sing-song note, before letting his slim, delicate fingers, one by one, curl slowly into a loose fist at shoulder height. ‘’Who knows what might happen.’’

’Sounds fun.’’ Jack huffed a tad breathlessly, the boy fighting to subdue another coughing fit, before he managed to get back on his feet without tumbling over. When no one ordered him back down, he braved himself a small step forwards, the boy daring another, when he was not halted. ‘’And I still want to know your name sir.’’ He said, as he held out his right hand for the other to shake.

The master of the house blinked twice, brow furrowed, as he stared down at the offered limb, before his golden eyes snapped up to search Jacks face for the explanation to whatever the meaning behind the obvious joke was. A beat passed, and then Jack shook his outstretched hand a bit for emphasis.

‘’Is this not how you properly introduce yourself around here?’’ Jack asked. ‘’Sir.’’ He swiftly added. Beside him, the ghoulish servant looked as though he might just about faint, if Jack did not hold his tongue within the minute.

Again, the small cracks of a smile seemed to attempt to tug at his masters’ lip, though this time, the gleeful gesture was swiftly smothered by a scoff.

‘’There is such a thing as differences between classes.’’ He started, as he nevertheless trailed the small step closer and was brought within distance to shake Jacks hand, if he so desired to deem the gesture worthy. ‘’And you would do well to remember that you are in no position to lecture me on such.’’

‘’Maybe not.’’ Jack said on a shrug, as he willed himself to keep his hand up and firmly at the ready in between them. ‘’But I would still like to know it. Sir.’’

A tense staring match followed, the ghoul looking from one tense master to Jack and back again, his shoulders squared, as though he expected the former to lash out and take the boys eyes out in the process, for stepping far out of line.

‘’I suppose you are in your right to know it then.’’ The master of the house hummed, as this time, he did nothing to stiff the smile that spread over his features. It was not a happy smile however, nor was it welcoming in any sense, shape or form.

Jack had expected the others grip to be cold and slack, but as the clawed hand closed around his, he found the grip to be surprisingly strong and firm – the touch near burning, as he felt the sharp pinpoints carefully press close but not enough to break or scratch his own, chilled skin.

‘’You may call me Pitch.’’

Chapter Text

Jack startled when a soft but insistent knocking sounded at the door, the boy flinging the thick blanket that he had been given off of himself, before sitting up in a rush. Confused, he rubbed a bit of the crust from his eye, his bones and muscles feeling cold, stiff and weary, before he coughed rather vigorously and stared up and over at the still closed door before him.

’What?’’ Jack asked on a gruff voice still heavy from the sleep he had just been ripped from, as he fought to subdue the yawn that tried to press itself out between his coughs, his fingers tense and still cold, as he raked them through his disheveled hair.

Open, the door glided, with the subtlest of hints towards rust in the hinges, before the familiar face of the ghoulish servant that Jack had come to know as Monty, poked his head into the room. If he was surprised to see that Jack had chosen to curl up on the floor next to the bed, instead of on top of it, he made no comment about it.

‘’Breakfast is in half an hour.’’ Monty, clearly not a morning person, said with an air of finality coating the edges, as he fully entered and lowered the stack of folded clothes that he had been carrying onto said unused bed. ‘’I believe these should fit you, but if anything is too tight or too loose, do not hesitate to say so.’’ He said, as he placed his right palm on top of the pile and pressed down slightly for emphasis. ‘’You have ten minutes to get dressed.’’

‘’M’kay.’’ Jack grumbled, as he stretched out his sore frame, the last cough that now stubbornly refused to press out, making its presence known in his chest regardless, as he, while using the wall for support, slowly started to rise. ‘’What do we prepare for him exactly?’’ The boy asked, as he fished the first item up from the pile and held it up in front of himself. A single, light grey undershirt, it showed out to be, and next up, underneath it, lay a pristinely white shirt with long, puffy, slightly wider at the bottom, sleeves.

‘’The master already ate.’’ The ghoul replied on a light snap, just as Jack ignored the undershirt and instead tugged on the sleeved shirt alone. He burned easily, and this place was far from cold as it already was. ‘’It is your breakfast I am escorting you to. Not his.’’

Jacks hand paused where it had come to rest on the dark grey vest with simple, but still intricate, silvery embroidery that he had just been about to pick up and pull on. This was ridiculously rich garments for a servant. That Monty, albeit the embroidery on his vest being golden and not silvery like the one that Jack had been given, would be wearing any of the like, he could understand, but why him?

It seemed off. It seemed fake. A cruel joke just waiting to be revealed and as per usual, whatever the punchline would be, Jack would most likely be the butt of it.

The ghouls soft click of the tongue brought the boy out of his musings, said ghoul tapping the vest that Jack had hesitated to pick up thrice for emphasis.

‘’Seven minutes ‘till we leave.’’

--

 

‘’Claude is already out in the fields and working, but it’s no bother to interrupt him.’’ The butch servant that Jack had just been introduced to said around her mouthful of honeyed bread, as she extended the remains of the loaf towards Monty who took it with a slight nod. ‘’He rises before the sun does.’’ She hummed on a slight shrug, just as the ghoul broke the bread and offered half of it to Jack, the boy still highly skeptical of the whole affair, as he nevertheless reluctantly accepted it. ‘’Never misses a beat really; First rays shines over the horizon and boom,’’ she said, her free hand flicking towards the ceiling for emphasis, as she shook her head in slight bewilderment. ‘’he is up. It’s like freaking clockwork.’’

Beside Jack, Monty lightly scoffed. ‘’Language Cupcake.’’ He said, to which the other barked a crude, short laugh.

‘’Why though, master is far outta hearing shot anyway and it’s not as if this ice cycle here,’’ here, Cupcake gestured at all of Jacks general form and especially his stark white hair ‘’is not going to figure out how things work around here eventually.’’

‘’And still, it would be preferred for him to ease into this with a bit of exampled respect firsthand.’’

‘’If you say so.’’

‘’I do.’’

The two fell silent for a few beats, their shared gaze holding far more emotion and history than Jack could currently understand, or even bother to attempt to decipher. Then, after the quiet had just started to stretch into a tense, awkward territory, Cupcake relented and looked away with a low huff, before once more raising her bread to her mouth to take a huge chunk out of it.

‘’Yeah whatever.’’ She grumbled under her breath, as she munched on it. ‘’Regardless, how are we doing on our supplies of white teas? Tooth should be coming around at some point and I guess we kinda need to be prepared and all, considering… You know. Last time.’’ She said vaguely, to which the ghoul laughed a low, gritting, highly unnatural laugh, before he answered with a number that was seemingly far lower than the now pouting Cupcake was comfortable with. From there, the conversation descended into a heated debate about the higher luxuries of fine wines and whether or not serving cheap tea to a spoiled guest could be considered treason or a cause for punishment or not.

Cupcake seemed to believe that it should be overlooked, while Monty seemed to disagree on the prospect as a whole rather fiercely. Either way, whatever further arguments were raised on the formers behalf, Jack had stopped paying attention. Not that it was not an entertaining conversation, but the boy had enough on his palette already to indulge in the more casual aspects of whatever weird - and or seemingly mundane by their standards - events, which had taken place under the mansions roof, over the past decade or two.

With a slight shake of the head, Jack turned his head to stare out of the open window beside him and out into what appeared to be a grand garden, which stretched out quite far behind it. So far, it seemed to him a near impossibility that he would ever be able to find his way around - the layouts of the grounds seeming eternal, as he, even within the short time that he had been here, kept finding new, stupidly expensive assets to the place. Later however, after their breakfast had ended, he had been promised a tour and hopefully, he would be able to get a general feel for the place.

Until then, he would probably get himself lost time and time again.

Out in the garden, a flickering of dark-brown feathers caught his eye, the rapid beat of a birds’ wing setting in motion, as it left a withered branch behind. Upwards the small critter soared, up and away, and quickly, it was out of view and so, with another little shake of the head, Jack willed himself to focus back onto what was currently happening around him.

‘’-I mean, it’s not like we got any pearls lying around here to just use on it and besides, it looks better with simple threat, don’t you think?’’ Cupcake asked, as she gestured at Montys vest. A tad stiffly, the ghoul attempted to shrug.

‘’I suppose so, but it would save us quite a lot of time to make use of different materials.’’ Monty countered, to which Cupcake scoffed in an indignant fashion.

‘’They’d get stuck on just about anything and everything Mon. It would be hell.’’

‘’But it would look good.’’

’And it’s a stupid idea you buffoon!’’ Cupcake clipped and truly, Jack had no actual clue as to what they were talking about and so, it was with a bit of relief caught in his chest that he obediently went after the ghoul, as said ghoul shook his head at Cupcake and waved for Jack to follow with.

--

 

‘’So, how do you guys do around here?’’ Jack asked, after Cupcake, much to the disapproval of the stern ghoul, had seemingly decided to join and take over the tour, as the two still, loudly bickering servants guided the boy along. Softly, she wagged a finger at him.

‘’How do we do it around here.’’ She gently corrected him. ‘’For better or worse, you're a part of this household now.’’ Cupcake said, as she held a small side-door open for him. Swiftly, Jack ducked out through it, the boy delighted to feel actual wind against his neck and face again, as they walked out over the wide courtyard, further down a beaten, dirt path and then finally out towards what Cupcake had unmistakably referred to as ‘the fields’.

As for the mansion that they had just left behind… The place truly was massive, bigger than he had thought possible and already, he had forgotten more than half of its layout.

Soon, the sound of an axe meeting wood caught his ear, the source obvious, as they got close enough for Jack to spot the huge man swinging said steel down with expert ease. Beside the boy, Cupcake raised a hand to wave at the other and, as the man noticed the small trio approaching ever closer, he stopped mid-swing to instead put the axe down and excitedly wave back in greeting.

‘’Jack, this is Claude, our early bird.’’ Cupcake said, as they got close enough for her to gesture towards the broad guy, who had completely paused his work to instead lean his elbow against the handle of the now resting axe. ‘’Claude, this is Jack, our new stable boy.’’

Beside Claude, pilling ever higher still as the man bend to pick up and then place another cleaved log onto it, a rather large pile of stacked wood stood.

‘’A new groom huh?’’ Claude said on a gruff, barely out of breath voice, as he threw Jack a reassuring smile, his hand slightly damp from his hard labor, as he wiped once at his forehead. ‘’Gods knows we need it.’’ He said on a slight laugh, as he stepped around the chopping log, the man wiping his hand off in the thick jacket that he had wrapped around his waist, before he held his palm out for Jack to take. The boy paused for a beat, the fact that the other was missing two fingers obvious, before he shook himself out of his stupor and stepped forwards as well to shake the waiting hand in proper greeting.

Behind Jack, Cupcake snorted.

‘’Don’t be so formal, a stable boy is a stable boy no matter what fancy name you put on it.’’ She said, to which Claude threw up his hands in reconciliation.

‘’It is literally the same thing.’’ He countered, just as Monty sighed low and pinched the bridge of his nose in obvious frustration. Seemingly, this was not the first nor probably the last time that he had seen the two act like this.

‘’No it’s not!’’ Cupcake continued on regardless of Claude’s soft chuckles or the ghouls withering glare. Clearly, the latter was running low on patience and had seemingly been so since the first minute that he had woken up Jack.

‘’Is too!’’ Claude laughed, just as the first signs of an exhausted sneer started to bloom over Montys features.

‘’Is not!’’

‘’It is!’’

‘’No it’s not you soggy-‘’

‘’Both of you.’’ Monty started, his voice low and gritty, though loud enough to get the attention of both bickering servants, who stopped and turned their heads to stare at him. ‘’Are insufferable.’’ He said, to which Cupcake, seemingly completely nonplussed, huffed an elated breath of air.

‘’And you love it, don’t you Mon?’’ She joked, the servant shaking her head fondly, as she made to shove past the frowning ghoul, her hand raising slightly in the process, as she waved at Jack in order to get the boy to follow.

‘’Uhm.’’ Jack said a tad confused, the boy getting even more so, as Cupcake turned slightly to crack a delighted smile back at him.

’It’s not the same.’’ She said as she pointed a crude finger in the general direction of Claudes chest, to which the other once more threw his hands up in a mock show of surrender, before bending sideways, to pick up his axe again. ‘’And we,’’ here, Cupcake turned fully to Jack again and gestured for both the ghoul and him to follow, which the former had already started to do, the second before she had done so. ‘’are gonna go to the stables next.’’

--

 

The walk to the stables had been short, but it had provided him with quite a lot of information. As it was, since the harsh, cold grip of winter was fast approaching, he would be put to work within the warmer halls of the mansion itself. Then, come spring and the warmth of summer, he would join two others that would arrive and work in and around the mansions plains through those warmer season as well.

Honestly? That sounded great – A tad boring perhaps, but it beat the horrifying tales that he had been told any day. And that was just it, was it not? So far, this was not what he had expected, not even close.

He had been sheltered in a room of his own, he had been clothed and fed, and, imagine that; he would actually have days off every now and then. It was strange. Let alone the fact that anyone had yet to get physically violent with him, it was all just so weird.

It still felt fake, but maybe, just maybe, under the rule of the strange, golden eyed and pale-skinned master of the house, this really was something that he would at least get to live through.

--

 

‘’What am I expected to do exactly?’’ Jack asked, as he lightly stabbed the heel of his too-big shoe against the smooth marble of the floors that spread out ridiculously far before him. He had been told that he would be given shoes, but it would be a little while until a proper pair could be fetched for him and until then, as he had quickly argued, the two-sizes-too-large-for-him ones, were more than enough.

‘’Have fun.’’ Cupcake said with a genuine smile, as she raised her hands slightly out by her sides in a small jerk of a shrug. ‘’Best way to find your way around is to keep exploring until you’ve got it memorized.’’ She said, as she gestured at the rag clutched tightly in Jacks hand that she had just handed him. ‘’And besides, you’re new. No one expects you to do much more for the first week than just run around and find your own pace by yourself.’’

Really now, that sounded fake.

‘’And what,’’ Jack started on a voice that held a tad more suspicion than he had wanted it to. ‘’I won’t get whipped for that?’’ He asked, to which the other seemed to give pause, her eyes narrowing, as she tilted her head slightly.

‘’Look, don’t get me wrong, we are all expected to do our parts, but no one is gonna beat you for being slow.’’ Cupcake said, as she placed her hands on her hips, lips perched, as she hummed a small, contemplating tune. ‘’Our master can be rough, especially when he’s running late on some ordeal or stuck up business of his, but he’s not violent.’’

For a few beats, the two merely stared at each other, Jacks shoulders tense, as he fought to subdue another set of coughs that threatened to wreak havoc on his chest again, before finally, Cupcake sighed in what was clearly a mix of both frustration and heavy understanding.

‘’Look, I get it, I really do. I was the exact same when I came here, but it’s not as bad as you think.’’ She started, her voice lowering slightly, as though she was about to indulge him in a great secret. ‘’I’m running on my twelfth year here and I haven’t received as much as a slap for snapping back at him, or any of the others for that matter. It’s just that one earl that’s-’’ she tried, the servants shoulders and upper back stiffening sharply, before she cut herself short with a sharp intake of breath, eyes widening for all of a beat, before whatever unpleasant memory that had passed through the forefronts of her mind, fled. A beat passed and then once more, she had managed to school her features back into what appeared to be her usually cheeky appearance.

Whatever that had been about, Jack was not about to pry. Not yet at least.

‘’No but really,’’ Cupcake continued on, as she shrugged. ‘’It’s not something that you need to be afraid of, this place is not all bad.’’ She concluded and though she sounded sincere enough, Jack had not forgotten the look in his holders eye, as he had first been introduced – the others tone stark and crystal clear, as he had received what was probably going to be his first instruction out of countless others.

‘’We have few rules here, but I expect you to follow them tightly. If not - who knows what might happen.’’

It did not add up.

‘’You don’t always have to lay hand on someone to be violent.’’ Jack countered on a dry note, to which Cupcake rubbed the meat of her palm against the bridge of her nose, her other hand waving dismissively at him, as she gruffed something too low for him to hear.

‘’If you’re not back by dinner, I’ll send out a rescue party.’’ She said in what was clearly an attempt to redirect the subject, to which Jack, rather rudely, snorted. ‘’Scream if you get lost.’’ She clipped, as she let her hand fall down by her side again.

‘’Sure whatever.’’ The boy said on a grin, which did not quite manage to reach his eye. ‘’See you around and all that.’’

‘’Yep.’’ Cupcake said, as she handed over the bucket of soaped up lukewarm water, the servant rolling her eyes lightly, before she turned on her heel and started down the hall from which they had come.

’Yep.’’ Jack lamely parroted under his breath, as he watched her go. ‘’Great.’’ He grumbled on, as he then glared down at the gently moving water within the metal bucket, his scowl deepening, as though it had somehow personally offended him.

Bucket, rag, dusty edges that needed to not be dusty.

Fun times indeed, but it could be a lot worse right?

Right.

‘’Oh and Jack.’’ Cupcake said loudly after she had just managed to cross a bit more than half of the distance to an open arch at the end of the hallway, and with a questioning hum, the boy lifted his head back up to look at her as well. Softly, Jack more saw than heard, as Cupcake sighed. ‘’Look, we’ve got one more servant here, but she mostly does her own thing.’’ She called back, as she gestured out around them. ‘’I’m not sure if you’ll meet her today at all, but you will eventually and just… Be kind to her if you run into her okay? She’s kinda her own thing.’’

A tad stiffly, Jack nodded.

‘’I will!’’ He called back with a nod for emphasis, after he had cleared his throat enough to do so.

--

 

Fun, she had said, yet this was anything but.

Jacks fingers had long since swelled up from the now cold water, the tips of his fingers all wrinkly and weird, the skin of his knuckles itchy, as whatever soap he used to clean over the marble and wood edges with, dried it out.

As for the edges themselves that he had been put to clean, he had quickly spotted a theme.

Everything, from the sturdy wood to the hard, cold marble and the thick, rich carpets that gently hugged his bare feet – the boy haven discarded his shoes a couple of hallways ago and then very deliberately lost sight of them as he had - seemed perfectly sculpted, polished and in perfect condition already.

The closer that he got to what he had been told was the masters personal quarters, the more it felt as if he entered into a dark, heavy dawn - the colour-scheme dull and muted and that of a dark brown and pale gold. As for the rest, the surfaces reminded him of the early rays of morning - everything sporting instead a lighter brown and a rich, dark, near molten gold as they did.

With a thoughtful hum, Jack shook his head as he walked along the hallway that he had stumbled into, the boy stopping dead in his tracks, as he came about a painted portrait and instantly, he recognized the piercing stare of his holder. It was spot on really, the colours chosen with obvious care, as whatever artist had seemed able to breathe life into the very strokes of the paint itself.

It was as beautiful as it was… Vain. That was the word that could be used when someone used thousands upon thousands to get themselves immortalized like this right?

Whatever the price of this had been, Jack thought, as he let a finger glide over the golden frame of it, the rag soon to follow in its wake, as he cleaned off the light coating of dust, it could probably had kept his scattered family fed for at least a month or more.

Probably more.

Next to the painting however, another hung that he did not recognize and before he could think better of it, Jack had raised a hand up, his fingers wrinkled but dry, as he reached out to trace over the rough texture of the neatly framed portrait. Of course, it was not so, but the boy felt as though he could almost feel warmth coming from it, as he traced down over the delicate details of the presented image of the little lady’s lace-gloved hands. Whoever this little girl was, her painting had been well preserved - cherished even, but then why, Jack thought as he sucked on his teeth, had it been tucked away like this? Wherever this spot in the mansion was, even though he was horribly lost, again, he still realized that this was a less frequented part.

As for the depicted individual herself, it showed that of a young girl that, if he had to guess, he would estimate to be around the age of eight. She had the same pale skin that bordered on grey, her eyes golden and silvery, hair black as the deepest night and really, she looked so similar to-

‘’You realize that you do not have to be that thorough in your cleaning, yes?’’

Jack flinched and stood back from the painting as though burned, as an unfamiliar voice spoke up slightly beside and behind him and, as his gaze snapped towards the voice of origin, he found a young girl to be casually leaning against the wall.

Christ, he had not even heard her approach.

‘’Calm down love,’’ the other said, her short brown hair dancing against her thin shoulders, as she gently laughed at his stricken expression and following set of tense, surprised coughs. ‘’you’re not in trouble.’’ She said, as she tapped her index finger to her lips. ‘’I won’t tell.’’

A tad reluctantly, Jack willed the short burst of fright down, the boy clearing his throat a tad awkwardly, before bending to let the rag come to rest against the edge of the bucket and then taking a few steps in her direction.

‘’Who are you?’’ She asked, as he came close enough to shake her hand, which she did.

‘’Jack.’’ The boy said, to which the servant nodded once in acknowledgement.

‘’I’m Pippa.’’ She said with a smile that was radiant enough to nearly chase out the lingering cold in his veins, though really, annoyingly, it stubbornly persisted. ‘’Maybe this is a bit up front all things considered, but would you mind if I call you Frost instead?’’ Pippa said, as she nodded at his stark white hair for emphasis. ‘’Long story and all that, but I kinda knew someone else by that name and I’m not really over it yet.’’

‘’Sure.’’ Jack said on a shrug, as the fingers of his left hand absently started to fiddle with the edge of his long, now slightly stained by his light labor, sleeve. It was not the first time that he had gotten that specific nickname anyway and all things considered, it suited him.

In front of him, Pippa once more nodded in what was obvious relief, her thin shoulders relaxing a tad and immediately, though he did not know the deeper details, he felt glad that she had asked the small favor.

‘’Who's this?’’ Jack asked, as he turned to the painting again, the boy gesturing up at it, to which Pippa softly sighed.

‘’It's nothing you need to worry about love. Do yourself a favor and don't talk about it.’’ She said, to which Jack frowned.

‘’But why?’’ He asked, to which he was rewarded with a slight roll of the others eyes.

‘’Because some things are better left alone Frost.’’ Pippa said, as she crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head at him in a thoughtful fashion. ‘’And besides, that’s not why I’m here.’’ She said, as she started to turn, her head inclining in the other direction, as she gestured for him to follow. ‘’Dinner’s in half an hour and we were kinda hoping that you would join.’’

Jack bit at his lip in thought, the boy nodding once, as he allowed the other to lead him away from the strange painting.

He had a feeling that there were quite a lot of secrets yet to be discovered in this strange place. No one had mentioned that Pitch had a daughter, but, if his eyes were not deceiving him, it was obvious that he did.

Perhaps, the little lady had succumbed to the harshness of the winter and burned through a lethal fever. Perhaps it had been from something else entirely, or, hopefully, she was still alive out there somewhere.

Regardless of the method however, he knew better than to ask.

For now at least.

--

 

‘’You got any aces?’’ Claude asked, after they had all finished eating – the used plates and silvery still strewn about the table, just as Cupcake leaned forward with a scoff and handed him the requested cards in question. ‘’Any queens?’’ He asked, and once more, Cupcakes frown deepened further yet. ''Knights?’’

‘’Oh for fucks-‘’

‘’Language.’’ Monty clipped, as he rearranged his own remaining cards. With a scoff and a sour grimace, Cupcake handed over her knights.

‘’Tens?’’ Claude asked.

With a grit out cuss, Cupcake threw two cards down onto the table in front of him. ‘’I swear you are cheating.’’ She grumbled, to which Claude just softly chuckled and wiggled his brows for effect.

‘’Twos?’’ The man said, to which Cupcake yapped a triumphant ‘hah!’, the servant doing a little happy dance in her chair, as she grinned gleefully to herself.

‘’Go fish you asshole.’’ She yapped, to which Monty pinged the bridge of his nose. Beside the ghoul, a small, silvery bell run, its chime ringing clear once and then fading, just as Monty handed his remaining cards over into Pippa’s waiting hand and got up.

Seemingly, considering how smoothly the transition went, they had done that countless of times before.

‘’Saved by the bell.’’ Cupcake hummed softly, before she turned to Pippa and gestured at the now quite increased bundle of cards carefully wedged in her grip. ‘’Pippa, your queens.’’

‘’Go fish.’’

‘’Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, for real?’’ Cupcake gruffed, as she nevertheless picked up a new card from the stack, out on the cluttered table between them.

‘’Jack.’’ Pippa said and at once, the boy, while feeling clammy and off-center, jolted awake. ‘’Your Fives.’’ She said and with a small, discontent huff, he handed her his last five. Now, with a fresh pair of four fives in hand, Pippa laughed low, her smirk wide and proud, as she gathered them all up and placed them down to join her other already collected pairs.

The game was still going, but clearly - even without the added cards from the ghouls donated stack - she had already won.

Outside, the first signs of snow started to show in the thickness of the grey, heavy clouds and as Jack dutifully shrugged and handed over the last of his threes, he felt the chill against his exposed neck - The open window in front of him necessary, since their kitchen had been filled with smoke.

As he had said, he should not have been put on kitchen duty and now, regardless of the fact that it was a small task that he had been put on to help with – the oil in the large pan catching on fire under his hands as it had and him trying to quench it with water - he was mercifully put off it for good.

‘’Go fish.’’ Jack said, after he had been asked for any aces and with a soft ‘oh’, Pippa realized that she had indeed been holding all four aces on her hand already. The cards made a small clack, as they were put down with perhaps a bit more force than was strictly needed.

‘’Any sevens?’’ The boy asked in the general direction of Cupcakes shielding hand, just as his head came to heavily rest against his free own. A huff rang out and a beat later, a single seven was thrown at him. ‘’Nines?’’ He asked, to which Cupcake blew a raspberry.

‘’Nope.’’

A brief set of coughs wrecked through Jack then, the boy bending over the table to try to ease the worst of it, as he likewise made sure to keep the tips of his cards pointing inwards towards his own hurting form.

These people might be sweet in general, but they were vicious in the pursuit of victory.

‘’Are you sure you are okay?’’ Pippa asked softly beside him, her voice kept low enough that only Jack heard, as the two other remaining servants in the smoky kitchen started to bicker about whether or not Claude was in fact cheating.

‘’It’s fine.’’ Jack rasped, as he waved her off, his free hand coming up to shield his mouth, as he felt something slightly unpleasant be shaken loose in the back of his throat.

He knew that he was not though, but what was he supposed to do about it?

‘’It’s just…’’ Pippa said on a still hushed voice, just as Cupcake yelled something crude, a few cards taking flight in the process, as she flicked her fingers to the ceiling. ‘’You do look a little pale is all.’’

Jack paused, as she looked him over, her gaze briefly lingering on the sweat of his brow, as she offhandedly handed Claude her three sevens.

‘’There’s no shame in being sick, you know that right?’’ Pippa pressed, just as Jack shrugged a tad tensely and handed his last eight into the waiting hand of Claude. Softly, Jack shook his head, as he handed the man his last card as well, before throwing Pippa a small, reassuring smile, as he willed the last of his depleted energy into making it genuine.

‘’It’s fine.’’ He repeated, as he got up and started to collect the still dirty plates lingering around them.

‘’Leave em.’’ Cupcake clipped, after she too had lost her last card to Pippa instead. ‘’Runner-up gets to do the plates today.’’ She said and abruptly, Claude’s head jerked up, his triumphant smile turning slightly sour as he did so.

‘’Wait no, that’s not fair.’’

‘’It fucking is, you’re cheating!’’ Cupcake barked, as she got up and nevertheless helped Jack stack the last of the plates into the waiting sink behind her. Claude scoffed, his eyes narrowed in slight annoyance, as he handed Pippa two cards.

‘’Look, it’s not my fault that the window is angled how it is today.’’ The man grumbled, as he handed her three more, to which Pippa chuckled low in a knowing fashion. Clearly, she had caught onto that fact pretty much immediately.

‘’You-’’ Cupcake started, her upper back and shoulders tensing, as she spun to glare at the laughing man, who had just handed over the last of his cards to the widely grinning Pippa. ‘’Bastard.’’

‘’Now now, all is fair in love and war right?’’ Claude laughed, as he swiftly got up and fled the kitchen – a loudly roaring Cupcake hot on his heels, as he took off through the door and into the waiting hallway beyond. A delighted yell was heard, just as Claude rounded the corner at the end of the it, Cupcakes indignant cries mingling out as well, just as the fading echoes of their chase moved further and further away from the kitchen itself.

‘’Are they always like this?’’ Jack asked on a low rasp, the boy swaying softly on his feet as he cleared his throat and set to work on getting the first plate clean.

‘’Pretty much.’’ Pippa shrugged in response, as she picked up a clean rag and helped dry the dripping plate that Jack had just handed her. ‘’You get used to it though.’’ She added on a slightly lower tone. ‘’Just…’’ She tried, as she put the now second dry plate onto the waiting counter beside her. ‘’Bear with them if it gets too much. A lot has happened in their lives before they got here and not a whole lot of it has been a pleasant ordeal.’’

A tad stiffly, Jack nodded. While he did not completely understand why he had ended up how he did, he doubted that any of the other people here had had a more gentle ease into the whole affair either.

Most likely, none of them had chosen to become what they now were.

‘’How long have you been here?’’ Jack asked, the boy shivering slightly in the chill from the window that he was now closer to, as he handed her a fork, which she nimbly dried off, before shrugging slightly.

‘’All my life pretty much. Master found me beside the gate when I was about the age of two and took me in. Before that I…’’ Pippa said before trailing off. ‘’I don’t remember. I don’t know why I am here. Why I was left like that, but it’s okay. It has to be.’’ She shrugged, her hand pausing briefly, as a shadow of some distant memory temporarily took over.

Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.

‘’Take each day as they come Frost.’’ Pippa said on a voice rich with emotion. ‘’And whatever happens, don’t give up.’’

There was not a whole lot of words that he could offer in the face of that, and so, while cleaning up the last plate, he nodded once in what he hoped looked to be understanding.

--

 

In hindsight, it was quite eerie how quickly the symptoms of whatever the angry coughing had been all about, showed themselves. In hindsight, he should have taken it more seriously. He should have told someone about just how bad whatever it was that was festering in his chest had gotten, but alas, he had not.

Pippa and he - after a good twenty minutes had passed with still no sign of any of the other three servants coming to help them out - had just managed to clean up the remaining items in the kitchen, the boy now saying his goodnights and waving over his shoulder, as he turned to the door and made to leave.

His gaze had been blurry, in fact, it had been for most of the evening, but as he entered out into the hallway and the slight shift in light hit him, the following confusion, for some reason that he did not completely understand, had made it worse.

He had registered that Pippa had been speaking to him, the boy feeling a gentle touch on his shoulder, as he turned as though underwater and tried to focus on her features.

The boy watched as the others lips moved, though he had had a hard time making out the words, his brow creasing in frustration, as he tried to concentrate on it.

It did not feel as if it should be as hard as it was, but gods be damned, it was.

Jack noted the moment that the others grip became hard and insistent, the boys jaw going slack, as he said something incoherent, his knees buckling, the second before his vision blackened out.

He would have tumbled into a heap of his own, limp limbs if not for the stern grip, that Pippa had kept on him, and while the inevitable collapse did come as a surprise to him, it really should not have.

Chapter Text

Coming back into the waking world was an uncomfortable experience to say the least, the pressure in his head near unbearable, as a sharp cough made the coldness snap anew through his lungs.

‘’He's burning up.’’ The voice of the ghoul said, and as a cool palm pressed against Jacks forehead, the boy tried to chase its cold relief. He then attempted to open his eyes, yet, abruptly, as double vision set in and left him nauseous, he tightly closed them again, a small groan escaping him, as he felt the chilly hand move down to rest against his clammy neck instead.

A beat later, Jack felt yet another hand settle onto the spot between his shoulder blades - the palm of it pressing firmly against it to try to help him sit up a bit, and, as the back of his own hand hit cool tile, the boy registered that he was in fact still lying on the floor. A tad irked by that fact, annoyed and slightly confused by it, he realized that another voice had added something, though, quite distracted by what was happening to him physically, he only managed to catch half of the sentence.

‘’-Soaked through. I’ll get Pitch and finish up here after - Claude, you take him to bed and we take it from there?’’

Cupcake. That was Cupcake’s voice.

Jack wanted to argue that he was fine, but for some reason, he could not quite get his tongue to work properly, and as he pressed for the words to come regardless, all he managed to produce was a weak, scratchy whimper of distress.

‘’We already finished up.’’ Pippa said somewhere beside him. ‘’Just go get it done.’’

As gravity shifted and Jack was lifted up from the floor, he supposed that they had agreed on it.

--

 

How long had it even been since he had slept in a bed of his own? A week? A month?

He had no idea.

Still, Jack thought, as he tossed and turned in the too-warm blankets of the bed that he had been put on, while it did beat the shitty rag of a sad excuse for a blanket, which had been put into the bottom of the steel cage, he doubted that he would get used to it again anytime soon. It was too soft, too exposed, as he once more turned on the bed and coughed weakly.

Beside him, the summoned doctor, that really looked as though he would rather be anywhere than where he currently was, gruffed a low contemplating tune, his hairy hands working swiftly, as they grinded up a thick, herbal paste that would help settle whatever infection lingered in the boy before him. With a tired breath that sounded as overworked as it was annoyed, the doctor, after one of his two long, grey and blue coloured braids had slipped down over the expanse of his broad, tattooed shoulder and thus gotten in the way, flicked a hand up to right it.

Else for the scrapping sound of the working pestle and mortar and the occasional cough coming from the writhing patient on the bed, the small room was depressingly silent.

Finally, just as the pestle stopped its repeated pattern and the doctor had eased a hand, which seemed to hold enough strength to crush Jacks head in half if the doctor so desired it, under the back of said boys head and lifted it enough to get the needed medicine in him, Pitch sighed slow.

‘’Will he live?’’ The stern voice of Jacks holder asked, to which the corner of the summoned doctors mouth drew up into a humorless smirk, his nose twitching twice in an irked manner, as he turned to glare up into the others golden and silvery gaze.

‘’Can you pay?’’ The doctor countered, his knuckles rough and the skin of them dried out from obvious hard labor, as they bumped up his green-tinged, oval glasses a tad. His eyes narrowed and, as he tilted his head at Pitch, one of his braids once more fell down from its desired place.

Beside the doctor, the master of the house scoffed, before shaking his head in clear distaste, his gaze shifting, as it instead came to rest onto the deep crease between the boys furrowed brows. A dry hiss of complaint rang out from Jack then, as the bitter taste of the healing herbs assaulted his senses – the boy’s throat protesting against the sting and burn of it, as he was forced to swallow it down.

Instantly, as its effects set in and eased the worst of the immediate ill that had wreaked havoc on the youngest individual in the room, Jack seemed to relax into the bed with a soft, content sigh.

‘’I asked you a question Koz.’’ The doctor yapped a tad more aggressively than the situation called for, and, regardless of the fact that none of the occupants in the room moved, the shadows jerked and swayed across the walls and floor in response – the flickering shapes much like crude hands and reaching fingers, as the master of the house chuckled low.

Finally, Pitch clasped his clawed hands behind his back, his shoulders squared yet still seeming relaxed, as he moved in a smooth glide towards the window. As he gazed up at the clear crescent shape of the moon peeking out behind a layer of heavy, grey clouds, its pale light reflected and caught on his molten gold.

‘’There is no need for violence Aster.’’ Pitch reassured with a slight mock coating the edges of his voice, as he rolled his shoulders once, before turning to meet the doctors heavy glare head on. ‘’Not all of us are as poor as the common peasant. You know that I can.’’ The master of the house said, as he stalked the small distance to the door and made to leave through it. Then, before he strode under its frame, he threw a single, wide-eyed grin over his shoulder at the now truly scowling doctor – his voice low and gritting, as he laughed at the others angered expression.

‘’Unlike you, I always pay my debts.’’

The bottom of the mortar was rough, the impact of it sending a few of the other needed medical items on the small table next to the doctor bouncing, as it was banged against its wooden surface.

On the bed in front of him, Jack flinched and spluttered a weak noise in surprise.

‘’Perhaps so Koz.’’ Bunnymund yapped low on a grit out huff of a voice, as he willed his hands not to turn into fists. Then, with a twitching nose and a slight tension in his shoulders and upper back, he turned back to his client at hand. ‘’But don’t go forgetting who you gotta answer to as well. You’re as trapped in this as the rest of us you miserable nut.’’ He practically spat, as he started preparing another mixture that would be stored away for later use. Now behind him, still paused in the door and sporting a likewise unpleasant expression, Pitch shook his head, before sending one last withering glare at the doctors bent, broad back.

‘’I do not recall asking for your gentle criticism.’’ The master of the house said, to which Bunnymund barked a short, crude laugh.

‘’There’s nothing gentle about this mate, it’s a bloody godsdamned mess.’’ The doctor said, as he with one hand tilted the boys head back to ease his slightly labored breathing a tad and with the other, rubbed a salve of lavender and other calming herbs into the side of his swollen, reddened neck.

‘’Indeed it is.’’ Pitch agreed on a thoughtful note, as finally, he turned to take his leave – the master of the house stopping short, as Bunnymund called after him.

‘’You know,’’ the doctor started on a voice that sounded both reluctant and yet direct. ‘’we could join forces.’’ He offered, to which the other hummed low in annoyed acknowledgement.

‘’And, I am to believe that this would benefit me in any way, shape or form?’’ Pitch clipped coldly. ‘’Last I checked, you could not use your charms around him and besides, if it comes to it, you would sell me out to save yourself in a heartbeat.’’

‘’Neither can you.'' Bunnymund countered. ''And so would you.’’ He said, to which the other grinned a wide, humorless smirk in return, his teeth showing, as he turned his head to glare at the still turned away and working other.

‘’Oh yes, by the gods I would.’’ Pitch laughed, his shoulders jerking from the mirthless glee that he was emanating. ‘’Still, you must be truly desperate to even propose such a ludicrous idea.’’ He chuckled darkly, before shaking his head in slight disbelief. ‘’What?’’ He yapped. ‘’Has the little earl tired of your sad excuses already? Has he come to collect what you cannot give? Has he realized that what you hold is in fact worthless?’’

’Christ you’re sour today.’’ Bunnymund rasped under his breath, as he helped the boys back and shoulders to relax, his hands working almost as if on their own, as they eased the tension out of his stiff, tired muscles. ‘’It’s an offer mate, nothing more, nothing less and it sure ain’t personal.’’

‘’Is it now?’’ Pitch hummed, as he once more turned to face the darkened corridor before him. ‘’Because from how I see it, you are looking for a way to escape the situation, which, I am not sorry to say, you won’t.’’

Whatever comment the huffing, exhausted doctor wanted to offer back in return, Pitch never heard it - the door having slammed shut by itself in a great show of flickering dark shapes and restless tendrils, before Bunnymund got the chance to even voice it aloud.

--

 

While he did not quite understand what the ulterior red thread of the hushed conversation taking place outside of his slightly creaked open door was, the boy unable to hear the words as he was, he still understood that they were discussing his general well-being.

Lungs,’ was one word that he had caught, ‘severe’ and negative on the ‘contagious’ were two others. As for what the too-fancy-sounding name that they had called his condition was, he did not quite understand it.

It was bad. It was bad but he would live.

Yay.

Outside of his room, Monty shuffled his stance slightly, the ghouls head bending once in understanding, before he circled a hand and, by the looks and tone of it, asked their holder a question. All was silent for a beat, as Pitch mused on the answer - the only noise being that of the subtle claws of a mouse in the wall, as the small critter gnawed and pawed its way through the insulation of it.

He could not blame them for moving in from the fields and into the warmer halls of the mansion itself; after all, they too just wanted to escape the cold of the coming winter.

Still, Jack had realized, as he shivered and borrowed himself deeper into the richness of the warm blankets that he had been given, the boy peeking a blurry, reddened eye open again to stare out at the two debating individuals just outside of the room - he was afraid to be sold again. Or discarded entirely for that sake. He had been cheap after all and unlike the mice in the wall, hunkering up in the same fashion that they did was not an option for him.

Outside of the room, the light flickered and for the briefest of seconds, the cold, stern, molten gaze of his holder caught his icy blue own.

Strange, Jack thought, as he felt the same insistent sensation that had sent spikes of feral fear through him only the day before invade his mind once more. A chill ran down his spine then, the boy shivering slightly, before he squeezed his eyes shut and bend his head into the blankets to hide from it. He was sick. He could allow himself to be a coward and besides, nothing that he could do would change the outcome of whatever fate decided his forwarded path to be.

Then, finally, Pitch gave the answer to whatever Monty’s question had been, and, as his holder spoke, Jack swore that he heard the hushed words echo within his own head as well.

For now, let him rest.

The boy strained his ears to hear the rest of the conversation, yet, as the low tones moved and then disappeared further down the hallway, he realized that it was futile.

Rest, Jack thought, the word sending a spark of hope through him, as he turned on the bed and borrowed his cold form down deeper into it. He would not need rest if he were to be sold right away again, right?

Or, perhaps that logic was flawed. Maybe he needed rest to appear more appealing to a potential buyer. Maybe-

Rest, as in sleep and heal.

That… Christ, was he really hearing voices too as well now? Just how sick was he? In return, the voice in his head chuckled a low, dark tune.

Sleep, the voice urged and truly, Jack did not need to be told twice. Already, outside of his window, the horizon was starting to show hints of colours, as the sun slowly rose above and brought upon the new day and, even if he had wanted to stay awake, which he did not, he would not have been able to do so in the first place.

‘’Don’t sell me.’’ Jack mumbled a tad incoherently into his blankets, the mob of his white hair damp and unruly, as he let out a slightly less labored cough than the countless others that had come before it.

I do not plan to, the voice answered and with a tired, still cough-riddled yawn, Jack felt himself smile at the notion of his own slightly crazed state of mind.

‘’Great.’’ The boy grumbled, as he allowed the alluring sleep to start to drag him under. A beat passed in silence, Jack nearing the brink of slumber steadily, when the voice spoke up one final time.

You are missing a word, it insisted and though Jack knew that really, he had already offered it up before and so, this time it would be no different - he could not care less for the nonsense formalities of it and so, with a slight huff, which eased into a dry cough, the boy laughed the grit out answer back.

‘’Nah.’’

Chapter Text

The boy woke with a gasp caught in his throat, his palm shaky and clammy, as he smacked a weak hand to his chest and clawed at it, as though he could somehow still the insistent discomfort, which stubbornly lingered there. The floor was cold, a sweet relief really against the fever still burning in him, as he managed to haul himself over the side of the bed and crawled to the fetcher placed just beside it.

Greedily, he chugged down the clear water within, his mouth still feeling dry, as he whimpered slightly.

He knew that the dreamlike image still chasing him close into the waking world was false, but it had sure felt the deal.

A tad shakenly, he breathed deeply, as he removed the fetchers’ cold metal from his cracked lip, said fetcher falling from his grip and then tumbling to the floor with a clang, before its contents spilled out over it, chilling his thighs and knees in the process, as he once more clutched at his hurting chest.

‘’Not real.’’ Jack rasped to himself on a voice that barely held together. ‘’You’re here.’’ The boy insisted to himself, as he bend his back and coughed rather harshly. ‘’You’re here,’’ he repeated ‘’this is real – that-‘’ he said, before having to cut himself short as yet another cough wrecked through him ‘’is not. Not anymore.’’

--

 

The thick, wool blanket kept slipping off his thin shoulders, his whole frame shaking, as he purposefully strode through the darkened halls of the quiet mansion. Everyone else must have been asleep, the boy reckoned, as he caught sight of the moon just barely peeking out over the line of the withered trees outside of one of the windows that he passed. Vaguely, he recalled being woken twice to drink and eat some of the bitter, stinging medicine that the strange doctor with the funny hair and hairy hands had forced into him, but else for that, he mused that he had slept through the entirety of the day just passed.

Still, Jack thought, as he strode over the soft, rich carpets, which seemed to line the halls endlessly - he had some questions and by the gods, he would get them answered.

The wood was hard under his knuckles, as the boy knocked thrice on the door that he, upon arrival, had originally been showed to. Jack sniffed and suppressed a cough, his hand raising again in a show of clear impatience, as he waited all of five seconds, before knocking again. Then, as he had just made to knock for the third time, it opened.

Above, two orbs of molten gold gazed down at him under a hairless, furrowed brow, a beat of silence passing, in which Jack coughed into his fist-covered blanket, before the master of the house sighed slowly, his clawed hand raising, as he gingerly placed its palm against the side of his own neck and jaw.

‘’You should be sleeping.’’ Pitch said, as he leaned a shoulder against the frame of the door, his free hand moving up as well and settling against the opposite side of it.

A tad stiffly, Jack shrugged, as he coughed.

’Can’t,’’ the boy started on a low rasp that seemed to at least gain a bit of strength towards the end of the sentence ‘’kinda keep coughing and it’s distracting and all.’’

Both were silent for a beat, the ticking of dark claws loud against the doorframe, as Pitch narrowed his eyes and looked the other over.

‘’Are you feeling any better?’’ He asked, to which Jack nodded, the boy shuffling a bit on the soft carpet, before stabbing his toe into the rich fibers of it.

‘’I-‘’ Jack said, the boy cutting himself short, as he paused for thought and bit at his lip.

Wanted to talk to you, rang clearly through his head, yet, it felt stale in the light of what he wanted to discuss and besides, he supposed that a more direct and immediate approach would get him a far better result than any stalling sentences could.

‘’Why am I here?’’ Jack asked instead, to which the other raised a hairless brow. Pitch had just opened his mouth to speak, when the boy beat him to it. ‘’Not just here at the mansion – my overall situation. Why am I here?’’

‘’Are you asking why you were sold in the first place?’’ Pitch asked, to which Jack nodded on a slight cough. In front of him, his holder blinked twice, before he narrowed his eyes briefly, Pitch nodding once in acknowledgement then, before stepping a bit to the side - his clawed hand lowering, after he had waved for Jack to follow him in.

‘’I thought that they would have enough tact as to at least explain the basics, but truly, you do not know?’’ The master of the house asked, as he gestured at a chair, which Jack gratefully sunk down into, the boy huddling further into his blanket, as he shook his head in response.

’Nope.’’ Jack said, as he drew his knees up to his chest and leaned an arm over the top of them. ‘’I got snatched and thrown in a cage. No one actually told me why it happened or what… you know, what was going to happen after that. They just said that I’d be sold off as soon as possible.’’ He said, throat convulsing in the middle of it, as he attempted to hold back a cough, which sneaked its way out on a strained, jolting hiss regardless.

Pitch hummed, eyes distant for a moment, as he seemed to take the information in, before he too sat down at the wooden desk in front of the chair that Jack had been shown to. Several books and neatly written documents littered its broad surface, and, placed just beside a rather impressive stack of them, a golden ink quill, with a sharp black feather resting comfortably on its stained edge, stood. A few candles had been lit inside the small office, and beside Jack, carved in stone, gleaming steel and embedded into the wall itself, a larger fire in the fireplace guttered merely lower still.

‘’Do you understand the debt system?’’ Pitch asked, as he shuffled a few documents around, before glancing up at the boy before him.

‘’Debt?’’ Jack repeated.

‘’So you do not.’’ The master of the house deadpanned, to which the boy softly shook his head.

Truly, he had never heard of such a thing.

Pale, delicate fingers reached out then and tugged twice on a small, silvery cord, the one of five in total, which were all lined up neatly on the wall next to the wooden desk itself.

‘’These,’’ Pitch started, as he tapped a claw to the wrinkled surface of one of the three, slightly browned around the edges, papers that he had just fetched forth from the large stack beside him ‘’are your papers. From what I am reading, your father took a loan and could not pay up and so, his flesh and blood,’’ here, he gestured at all of Jacks forlorn, coughing form ‘’was sold as compensation. It is the general way for the ones in power to reclaim their debts.’’

’Loan.’’ Jack repeated slowly, the boy tasting the word, as though he did not completely understand its definition. ‘’I don’t. I don’t understand. Why would he need a loan.’’ He mumbled lowly to himself.

It was not a question and so, Pitch answered it none.

‘’I own you.’’ His holder said instead, just as a sleepy-looking Monty knocked on the door and was swiftly called in. ‘’Your contract is permanent, but your rights still stand.’’ Pitch added, as he gestured something to the ghoul, who nodded once in understanding, before abruptly turning on his heel to take his leave again.

‘’Rights?’’ Jack, feeling much like a confused parrot, asked, before the boy once more, rather rudely, interrupted the others attempt to answer. ‘’Wait, how the fuck is any of that fair?’’ He cried, chest and throat hurting, as he attempted to clear it from its insistent coughs.

‘’If it is fair or not, that matters not, it is simply how the law describes the way of dealing with-‘’

‘’No wait, hold the fuck up, that’s-‘

’Jack.’’ Pitch said, the tone calm and collected, though clearly indicating that the boy was testing his patience. ‘’If you let me speak, I can explain.’’ He concluded. A beat passed, the following quiet heavy in the small office, as Jack glared daggers up into the others molten gaze. Then, just as the master of the house sighed slow, Jack shrugged, the boy nodding once, as he gestured for the other to continue.

‘’Your family had debt.’’ Pitch informed him for the second time, as he tabbed the papers in front of him again for emphasis. ‘’And so, it became legal for the holders to collect what is seen as a fitting compensation.’’

‘’That doesn’t make sense to me.’’ Jack grumbled, as he moved his arm down to rest his chin on top of his knees instead. ‘’And it seems like a shit system.’’

‘’Maybe so.’’ Pitch agreed on a low hum, as he swiftly read over a paragraph or some hastily scribbled note on one of the papers. ‘’But such is our ways.’’

The boy grumbled something incoherent, his hand slightly shaky, as it reached up to once more right his blanket from where it had slipped down from his cold shoulder. Then, behind him, the familiar shape of the ghoul reappeared through the door to the office, Monty swift, as he strode in and placed the ordered mug of tea down in front of the heavily pouting boy.

‘’I hate your ways.’’ Jack grumbled, as he watched the gentle tendrils of white, translucent steam rise from it.

‘’And you are perfectly in your right to do so.’’ The master of the house informed him, as he leaned back in his chair and rested one long leg over the other. ‘’But this is the reality of your situation and you best accept it quick.’’

With a scoff, Jacks gaze once more snapped up to lock with the others golden and silvery own.

‘’Or else what?’’ The boy challenged - the calm of chamomile, ginger and sweet honey grazing over his tongue a stark contrast to the fear that flooded his mind, as he took the first sip of his tea. With little care, he closed his eyes and willed his mind to block it out, but alas, the small bursts of fright had already settled in, the roots deep, as they seemed to crawl through further.

’Who knows.’’ Pitch said in a knowing, singsong voice and by the gods if it did not irk Jack in all the wrong ways. The boy rubbed his free palm against his stinging eyelids, his mood somehow souring further, as he clutched the comfort of the warm ceramic close in both hands.

‘’You’re mean.’’ He said, to which the other all-out barked a low laugh.

‘’Am I now?’’ Pitch hummed on a clearly amused tune, as he, by the sound of it, fiddled with some of the numerous papers filling out over the surface of the table. Jack did not answer and, as the boy finally opened his eyes to glare back, he found that Pitch had cleared a large portion of them away.

Jack sipped at his tea in silence, as he watched the other pick up the black feather, the tip of it dipping and disappearing into the ink, before the hand that wielded it moved it out to scratch a few quick scrawls down onto the fresh paper waiting below.

‘’Have you run out of questions?’’ The master of the house asked on an absent voice, the tone bordering on dismissive, as he kept his gaze directed onto the now drying portion of neat writing in front of him and really, Jack did not need much more of a hint than that. The rug was cool and rough against the bare soles of his feet, the still half-full mug left on the desk before him, as the boy uncurled himself, tugged the blanket a bit up and turned to leave.

Somewhere in the mansion, a clock struck twice, the clear chime of it echoing down the hall and into the office itself. At least, Pitch was right on one thing – he really should be asleep.

‘’Jack.’’ His holder said behind him, causing the boy to pause in the doorway with a small groan of annoyance. As he turned, the molten gold of the others gaze stayed directed onto the papers below, Pitch’s hand quick, as it signed something, before finally letting the feather come to rest against the quill again.

‘’I have no desire to hurt you.’’ The master of the house said, before he once more looked up at the other.

‘’Sure seems like it though.’’ The boy countered, as he shrugged a trembling shoulder. In front of him, Pitchs head came to rest in his hand, before he exhaled slowly.

‘’And in time, I hope you will come to realize that that is not my intension.’’

Jack turned his head to cough into his blanket, the frame of the door rough, as he briefly leaned on it for support. ‘’Sure.’’ He huffed with a small shake of the head. ‘’Sounds believable.’’

While he still had a few questions in store, he reckoned that they could wait. For now, he really just wanted to rest and take the time to let the newfound information sink in.

’Whatever.’’ Jack grumbled lowly to himself after Pitch had bid his goodnights, the door clicking shut on its own behind him with a soft click, before he started back down the way that he had practically just come.

--

 

The rest of the night progressed peacefully and, as the coming morning crept in and brought blessed warmth with it, Jack awoke to find that while he did indeed still feel heavy and off-center, at least his fever had fled.

--

 

‘’I can-‘’ the boy started, as he had to use the wall for support and tried to hobble his way past a stern-faced Claude.

‘’Don't make me lock you in.’’ The man threatened, as he pushed the other back with a broad hand – his grip quick to shoot out and tighten around Jacks arm, as the latter nearly fell over from the force of it. ‘’Or tie you down for that matter.’’

‘’But I-‘’

‘’You are just going to be in the way.’’ Claude said with an air of finality, as he stepped closer and unceremoniously swept the smaller off his feet. ‘’Look, don’t get it wrong, but we want you safe and sound and right now.’’ Claude said, as he stalked the short distance back to Jacks room and nudged the door to it open with the tip of his foot, the man careful, as he made sure not to bump the boy against the frame of it. ‘’You are just deadweight.’’

Jack pouted, a deep red creeping up his neck and face, as he was physically put back in bed.

‘’I’m not deadweight.’’ The boy huffed in defiance, as he attempted to swat away the insistent hand that pressed him back down into the mattress. ‘’I can work just fine.’’

‘’I don’t doubt that you can.’’ Claude agreed, as the hand not busy holding the smaller in place managed to get the wool blanket back over the boys coughing form. ‘’But you are sick and the rest of us got a lot of work to get done around here, since we have an important guest coming by soon.’’

‘’Oh?’’ Jack asked, as he finally gave up and allowed the other to tug him in proper.

‘’Yep.’’ Claude affirmed, as he checked on the now re-filled fetcher, a small hum of satisfaction escaping him, as he deemed it full enough. ‘’So rest up and come help out when you aren’t ready to keel over and die.’’ The man said, before he went over and drew the curtains further closed. Then, he strode to the door, his pointing finger stern, as he directed it directly at Jacks still hurting chest.

‘’Until then, stay down.’’ The man said, as he flashed the boy a lopsided grin. ‘’Pippa will bring you breakfast, but if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to holler for her.’’

‘’Isn’t the mansion a bit too big for just yelling at random though?’’ Jack asked, as he obediently borrowed further under the blankets and did his best to get comfortable.

’Oh, she’ll hear.’’ Claude said with an air of slight secrecy to it. ‘’She always does.’’

Before the boy could ask how exactly, Claude had said his goodbyes and waved a hand in farewell – the man letting the door stay slightly open, before taking off to get his work for the day done.

‘’Great.’’ Jack grumbled lowly to himself, as he blinked his eyes up at the ceiling and stared at it until they stung – the boy feeling both restless and sleepy, as he mused over what the night before had given him of information.

His family had had debt.

His father had taken a loan and both his sister and he had been sold in what he could really only deem to be an unfair kind of compensation.

He had rights.

He had no idea what they were, but they had been mentioned and later, once he could actually manage to stay up and take more than three steps without getting sick to his stomach, he would ask for them.

‘’Just great.’’ Jack grumbled on, as he lifted a palm to rake it down over his slightly clammy face. Still, he mused, as he turned and faced the wall instead of the slight light creeping in from under the curtains – it would be all right.

It damn well had to.

--

 

An entire week, in which Pippa faithfully delivered him food three times a day, came and went, before Jack started to feel as if he was getting back on track. During that time, the boy, as Claude had suggested, had tried to call for her once and to his surprise, she had shown up and peeked her head into his room about ten minutes later. Jack wondered just how far she had been and how she could have possibly heard his call, but as he had opened his mouth to ask about it, something in her slight shake of the head and the finger pressed tightly to her lip had stopped him.

‘’We aren’t supposed to talk about our core.’’ Pippa had said vaguely, as she then pointed her finger at her own chest instead and again, the boy felt as if he had been left with more questions than actual answers.

--

 

‘’Wait, how old are you?’’ Cupcake asked around her bite of dried cake, as she gestured her crumb-covered fork at Jack in slight accusation. ‘’That storm was like fourteen years ago, so how do you remember it?’’

‘’I was nine at the time.’’ Jack offered in reply, as he did his best to turn the ball of yarn in his hands so that Pippa could continue her knitting undisturbed. Beside him, Cupcake started counting on her fingers, before Claude beat her to it.

‘’Wait you’re twenty-three?’’ The man exclaimed in slight surprise, just as he marked down another tally to whatever knitting-related overview it was that Pippa was keeping track of.

‘’Yep.’’

A small beat of silence passed, before Pippa gestured for Claude to add another tally.

‘’Fancy that.’’ Cupcake hummed, as she looked Jack over. ‘’You don’t look that old though. Kinda took you for a sixteen year old or something.’’ She said, to which Jack shrugged a shoulder and once more turned the yarn in his hands.

‘’Malnourishment will do that to you I guess.’’ He said and at once, the inhabitants in the small kitchen seemed to collectively decide to leave it be.

‘’How old is Pitch though?’’ Jack asked, as the thought struck him, to which Claude hummed in thought.

‘’Not sure really,’’ the man started, as he, once again, added yet another tally ‘’but probably around thirty-something considering Serap-‘’ he tried, before a harsh palm smacked down over the back of his head. ‘’Hey now that was-‘’

‘’Don’t.’’ Pippa cut Claude short before the man could raise any further complaints. ‘’Just don’t.’’ She said, and this time, the silence that settled over the place was far from comfortable. Then, as Pippa picked back up her knitting and gestured for Monty to hand over a fresh ball of yarn for her to use, Cupcake softly cleared her throat.

‘’Monty, did you get the white tea that we talked about?’’ She asked, to which the ghoul nodded once in acknowledgement. ‘’Great. We should be all set for tomorrow then.’’

‘’Tomorrow?’’ Jack asked, as he turned the fresh ball of yarn in his hands, after Pippa had sewn the ends together and finally cut the excess yarn off.

‘’Our guest is arriving a bit before we expected her to.’’ Claude helpfully added in, as he tapped the butt of his pen into the wood of the table below. ‘’She was going to stay for only three days, but since it seems there’s a storm coming, she’ll might have to stay for longer.’’ He shrugged.

‘’We’ll see.’’ Cupcake nodded along in an agreeing fashion, just as she failed to suppress a rather generous yawn. ‘’Well,’’ she said behind her shielding hand, as she got up, moved her hand to the side of her neck and gently cracked it ‘’we should probably all hit the hay early then.’’

‘’Since when were you ever the voice of reasonable bedtimes?’’ Claude huffed with no real malice in his voice, as he added one last tally and slid the paper over to Pippa, who accepted it with a slight hum.

’Since your salty behind had to ask.’’ Cupcake grumbled right back, as she flicked her fingers to the ceiling and started to turn to take her leave, her hand staying up, as it waved for the other to follow.

‘’Sure.’’ Claude smirked, as he trailed after her – the man’s arm wrapping over her broad shoulders, as they stalked off down the darkened hallway together.

Back in the now slightly more empty kitchen, the last three servants fussed about for a good ten minutes extra, before they too departed for the night being.

Chapter Text

Feathers, Jack thought, as he looked their newly arrived guest over - So many feathers.

Behind her lithe frame, the double doors to the mansion closed slowly to block out the chill of the oncoming winter - her very stride oozing elegance and charm, as she was offered further into the much welcoming warmth.

Gorgeous, the small voice in the back of his head chimed in, as he watched her turn her thin head and flash Pippa a familiar, genuine and warm knowing smile. Otherworldly.

Gatherings of pearls and pristine feathers in radiant shades of green and blue were sown into the fabric of her thick cloak - the lot of them cascading down her back in an elegant flow, the shining gems moving, with her slightest wave of hand, shoulder or neck. Truly, Jack mused, as he shook his head and tried to appear anything but, he was completely smitten by her appearance and if the other servants’ reactions were anything to go by, so were they.

‘’Toothiana.’’ Pitch said in polite greeting, as he glided over the rich carpets of the mansions entrance to meet her halfway. ‘’I hope your travels have been peaceful at best?’’ He said and though it sounded as formal as could be, Jack could not help but note the underlying sense of dismissive annoyance in the others voice.

‘’Almost yes.’’ Toothiana replied on a voice as clear and gentle as her entire, colourful demeanor showed. ‘’We had a bit of trouble with passing the gates back at the chasm, but it is nothing of notice.’’ She said with a slight laugh, as she allowed Claude to step forward and unburden her of her heavy, feathery cloak.

Underneath, yet more feathers and precious, gleaming gems showed themselves – Their lively display a stark contrast to Pitchs dark and foreboding demeanor, as the latter nodded once and bid her to follow him in.

--

 

‘’What?’’ Jack said on a near hiss of a whisper, as Cupcake poked her head and hand around the edge of the corner and waved him over. Behind him in the room that he had just left, heads bend together and invested in deep conversation; his holder and the colourful guest were busy discussing something in a language that Jack could not understand.

‘’Just come on you nit, I gotta show you something.’’ Cupcake hissed right back, as she insistently waved for him to move already.

Jack bit at his lip, clearly unsure if he should humor her or not, as he looked back to the door that he had practically just closed behind him. No more than five minutes would pass and his absence would clearly be noted…

‘’Come on!’’ Cupcake hissed insistently, as she seemed to lose her patience and started off down the hall without him and, with a small shake of the head, Jack finally decided to follow after.

-

 

‘’What in the world is this?’’

Jack felt his eyes grow large in wonder, his confused smile widening on its own despite himself, as he curiously gazed down at one of the tiny, sleepy birds inside the box that Cupcake had shown him to. The entire affair was risky, he knew that – the two haven sneaked into their guests private room and gone through her belongings as they had, but, as one of the small creatures turned and bumped its little, feathered head against Cupcakes meaty hand, he found that he did not overly care.

‘’A little spy.’’ Cupcake said, as she gently scooped it up into her palm and lifted it up from its silken cushion.

‘’What?’’ Jack asked, as he gingerly reached out a hand and let the tip of a finger glide down over its soft head. ‘’How is this a spy?’’ He asked on a voice clearly awed.

‘’They are sentient.’’ Cupcake explained, as she nodded her head down at one that was slowly starting to wake up as well. ‘’Whatever they see or hear, they relay back to her. Tooth doesn’t mind that we play with them, but Pitch does.’’ She said, just as the bird in her hands fluttered its feathers and opened its beak to yawn out a clear, slightly high-pitched tune.

‘’Adorable.’’ Jack chuckled at it, as he kneeled down and folded his arms on the stand that the opened box itself was perched on. Then, just as he reached out and let another of the little sleepy birds crawl onto the back of his hand, his other shooting out to aid as it attempted to stumble awkwardly up over the expanse of his thin arm, he turned his head to gaze back up at Cupcake. ‘’But why does Pitch mind if the owner doesn’t though?’’ He asked, to which Cupcake seemed to suck on her teeth for a moment, her brow set in concentration, as she thought it over.

‘’Because they bite.’’ She finally said and truly, Jack had no doubt that there was more to it than that. Still, he decided to let it be for the moment being. After all, more than seven minutes had already passed since he had been sent out to fetch some of the white tea, which Cupcake had so insisted that they stuck up on and so really, he should be going.

--

 

Most of the preceding day progressed fluently, the following evening calm as well, before the inhabitants of the dark mansion, one by one, retired for the oncoming night. The next day progressed just as smoothly, though, except for the small colourful birds, which fleeted about at random through the hallways of the mansion, Jack did not see either hint or hide of his holder nor the colorful guest herself.

As the third rolled around however and all were gathered for a late, shared dinner with servants and holders all joining as equals alike, things quickly soured.

Tooth and Pitch had been conversing in a language that Jack did not understand, but, regardless of that fact, he easily noted the obvious tension that transcended over the room like a cold, insistent tidal wave of dread, as the conversation between the two trod onto clearly unwanted territory.

Jack turned his head towards Pippa who had just lowered her fork in shock, her knuckles white from how hard she clutched it, mouth set in a tight, thin line, as she looked to see whatever effect the offered comment would have on Pitch.

‘’What was that?’’ Jack whispered, as he too looked to where his holder had likewise put his cutlery down, Pitchs hands curled into loose fists on the table, his glare deadly tense, as he narrowed his eyes at Tooth in what was unmistakably anger. On Jacks left, Pippa had opted to ignore him and on his right, Monty had frozen up as well - the slight widening of the ghouls eyes the only indication that something either was about to, or already had happened.

Then, at the end of the long table, Pitch drew a shaky breath, his voice a low growl, as he kept his cold gaze directed onto the colourful guest at the other end of the table.

‘’Leave.’’

Immediately, the ghoul put a hand on Jacks shoulder and pushed him up and along with him – the remaining three quick to follow in his wake, as Monty ushered them out. ‘’What is going on?’’ Jack hissed, just as Pippa gently shushed him. Behind them, the door to the dining hall had barely closed, before it clearly descended into a barely muffled chaos – the following shouting loud, as it echoed out.

‘’What did she say?’’ Cupcake likewise peeped up as well, as she quickly caught up with Monty’s long, purposeful strides, to which the other shook his head a tad sternly and waved for her to be quiet.

‘’Not here.’’ The ghoul clipped back, as he sent a withering glare at one of the small birds, which had seemed summoned by the loud debacle, just as the unmistakable crash of something breaking sounded behind the closed doors.

Glass, by the sounds of it, but jack could not be sure. Whatever it was, it had been thrown rather harshly.

‘’Just go.’’ Pippa lowly agreed, as they all fled towards the safety of the kitchen.

--

 

‘’What did he...’’ Claude trailed off unsure of himself, as he cradled Pippa close, the smaller haven crawled into his lap and cuddled up close, as she had. None mentioned the faint tremors in her shoulders and clearly, she was glad for it. ‘’What did she say to him?’’

‘’Nothing good.’’ Monty replied, as he flitted around the kitchen and by the looks of it, prepared what would serve as a far sparser, continuous dinner for the five servants all gathered there.

‘’But what exactly?’’ Claude pressed, as he settled a hand onto the back of Pippas head and attempted to calm her just a tad. Behind him, though the man could not see it from his seated position, Monty had paused, the ghouls’ shoulders falling in defeat and clear exhaustion, as he seemed to mule it over.

In the end, it was Pippa that gave up the answer.

‘’She told him not to give up.’’ She said, her voice slightly muffled and so soft that both Cupcake and Jack had to lean in closer in order to catch it all, as she hid her face into Claudes’ chest. ‘’ She reminded him of those we have lost because of- Because. Because of… specifically what he has lost because of-’’ she tried, before letting the end of her cut-off sentence fade into nothingness.

‘’Because of what?’’ Cupcake, clearly running out of patience from the continuous avoidance of the subject, practically hissed out the last word. Beside her, Claude seemed to have realized what was going on.

‘’Because of the earl.’’ The man said on a slow, contemplating tune and behind him, Monty softly hummed in an agreeing fashion.

‘’Indeed.’’ The ghoul agreed and at once, both Claude and Cupcake seemed to regret that they had pressed.

‘’Oh.’’ Cupcake said softly, as she briefly glanced to where Pippa had seemed to somehow curl further in on herself. ‘’Oh no.’’

For several beats, a heavy silence that all except for Jack seemed to understand descended over the kitchen, the quiet stretching on seemingly endlessly, before Pippa drew a heavy sigh.

‘’Word of advice.’’ Her slight clip of a voice spoke up, as she sniffled softly and scratched at her closed eyelids. ‘’Whatever you do, you leave Pitch alone tonight.’’

--

 

An endless expanse of stars stretched out over what he could see of the sky outside of the stables glassless window. The wind was cold, the wood of the platform that he had claimed for his own a solid and likewise chilly presence against his back, as Jack onehandedly flicked a bit of hay out of his face. Directly below him, the soft, heavy breaths of the black mare sounded.

If anything, Jack mused, as he fiddled restlessly with another string of hay, she did not seem to mind that he was quite literally hiding out in the stables with her and the rest of her brethren - Quite the opposite really, she seemed amused by his presence. Then, just as the sound of quick footfalls stalked closer to the stables in question, Jack jolted and turned so that he was able to view the entrance of it.

He was not sure as to why he would even be one edge in the first place though – Pitch might be annoyed, but he had done nothing wrong and so, Jack willed himself to relax back against the beam of the small protruding platform that he was perched on. The shadows seemed to thicken - the dark pressing in on him close, as the sneering form of his holder entered in and brought a wave of pure, inky black with him.

Below, as the shadows seemed to sweep further in and out over the place, the mare tossed her head in greeting, as the master of the house trod in and approached her purposefully - the tension in his shoulders obvious, as he cussed something under his breath, in that strange language that he had been conversing with Tooth in earlier.

Then, with movements a tad stiffly, Pitch started to prepare her saddle. Jack watched for a good minute more, his own movements causing a rather generous portion of hay to fall over the edge of it, as he sat up further and swung his legs out over the edge of the platform itself.

‘’You need help with that?’’ He asked and at once, the familiar flood of fear swept through the forefront of his mind, as the other spun and finally noticed his now previously quiet presence. The silence was tense for a beat, the shadows jerking about in a vicious response, before Pitch squeezed his eyes shut and seemed to get them back under control.

Well that settles that, Jack thought, as he heard the other grumble something in that strange, foreign language of his under his breath. He did not know how, neither did he understand how such a thing could even be possible to begin with, but the other was indeed controlling the flickering dark around them.

‘’Get down here.’’

Dutifully, Jack climbed the steps of the raggedy ladder down, the two working in silence for the better half of a minute, before a subtle fluttering of wings sounded behind them.

‘’I know it’s none of my business-‘’ Jack started, before Pitch cut him short with a slight, thoroughly angered growl.

‘’Then do not ask.’’

‘’-but where are you going?’’

Pitch stopped short, his pale hand paused in the mares black as night mane, as he seemed to have to mentally count to ten.

‘’Monty will give you directions as to what will happen in the next couple of days.’’ Pitch said, as he loudly ignored Jacks question and instead stalked over to fetch close one of the three bags that he had brought with him.

‘’Gotcha.’’ Jack said, as he watched the other tie the first bag securely down. ‘’You going to be away for a while then?’’ He asked, as he handed the next one over to the other. Beside him, Pitchs’ shoulders rose from obvious tension, his golden eyes narrowing, as he fought to keep his cool.

‘’I have no way of saying exactly how long it will be.’’ He said, as he tied the last of the three bags down. Behind them, the small, colourful bird shuffled sideways down the sturdy rafter that it was perched on, its feathers fluttering once, as it turned its dark eye towards the tall imposing image of the mansions grimacing master.

‘’But like, are we talking a day or two, or maybe mo-‘’

The widening of the others golden and silvery eyes were the only warning that Jack got before he found himself backing away in fright, as the other spun on him – claws flexed and curved, as though he was ready to take Jacks eyes out, should the latter continue to pressure him. As the master of the house took a step forwards, Jack took two back, his gaze wild and wide, as he felt a pair of strong hands reach out and settle heavily onto each of his thin shoulders.

A deep, rattling breath sounded, just as Pitch tightened his hold of the smaller and forcefully held him in place.

’Stop.’’ The master of the house hissed, as he moved a hand to pinge the bridge of his nose, as though trying to stall the insistent headache that was coming on quick. ‘’Please just stop this.’’

A few beats passed, in which Jack felt the others grip tighten beyond comfortable, but except for that, Pitch made no further indication that he would truly harm him, should the other continue to press on regardless of the warning.

‘’It’s not that I don’t want to.’’ Jack said on a slightly clipped tune after he had recovered out of his brief shock. ‘’But I have no fucking clue as to what’s going on around here and it’s just… Shouldn’t I know?’’ He pressed, as he gestured out a tad vaguely in the general direction of the mansion. ‘’You all talk in secrets and old stuff that’s happened that I got no clue of. You’re pissed. I get that.’’ He said, just as, one by one, Pitch uncurled the fingers still holding the other in place and stepped back slightly. ‘’But how do you want me to avoid all the touchy subjects when you haven’t given me a general overview of what not to touch on?’’

A few beats of silence passed, the standoff loaded with tension, before finally, Pitch seemed to deflate, his own shoulders hunched in obvious defeat, as he exhaled a tad shakenly. As he stared at the silvery embroidery of Jacks dark vest, he did not quite seem to actually see him – his voice low and gritty, heavy with emotion, as he spoke.

‘’What do you need to know?’’

‘’Well fuck, I dunno.’’ Jack started, as he raised his arms out slightly by his sides. ‘’For starters, who’s the earl you all keep referring to?’’ He pressed. ‘’And what did he do since the rest of the lot back in there seems so scared of him? Who is he? What did he take?’’

In front of him, the corners of Pitchs mouth drew up into a humorless smirk, his golden eyes once more narrowed, as he clasped his hands behind his back and straightened to his full, impressive height. Around, the shadows seemed to cling tighter to him, licking up his back and coating his shoulders in their dark presence, as he shook his head slightly.

‘’That might not be something that I am able to answer on a night like this.’’

‘’And why not?’’

‘’I assure you that I will answer.’’ Pitch said – his eyes straying away from Jack, just as a subtle fluttering of wings sounded behind the other. ‘’But not here and not on this night in particular.’’

‘’But why?’’ Jack pressed, to which the other seemed to will himself a steadying breath.

‘’I can keep rephrasing the same sentence till the sun dances over my plains, but it would seem futile at best.’’

‘’But-‘’

‘’No Jack.’’ Pitch said, as he without offering up any further explanations or any kind of an actual answer on the matter, grabbed hold of the saddles front and swung himself up onto it. ‘’Make no mistake, I do not owe you an answer to any of this, but perhaps you are right. Maybe it is better that you know.’’

‘’So tell me now and I can-‘’

‘’Seven hells, why are you this difficult?’’ Pitch clipped dryly, his gaze straying out onto the darkened horizon ahead, as he grabbed hold of the reigns. ‘’Should you ever encounter him, which I pray to the gods that none of my staff ever has the unfortunate pleasure of doing so again.’’ He started, as he shook his head, the mare beneath him huffing, as she started to restlessly toss her head in excitement for the promise of the late-night ride that she was about to embark on. ‘’Then you best change your ways quick. If it comes to it, then you will address him correctly and politely, and, if you can, you best stay out of his immediate path all together.’’ Pitch said, as he briefly glanced over at the small bird that somehow, while Jack had kept his attention elsewhere, had moved close enough that should he reach a hand out, he could touch the soft, colourful feathers.

‘’Approach him with the same disrespect that you have shown me thus far and he will have your head for it.’’

‘’I’m not that bad.’’ Jack argued, to which the other regarded him with a withering glare, his hairless brow raised, as he scoffed low.

‘’If all goes well, then I will return in five days’ time.’’ Pitch said, as he, once more, clearly opted to ignore Jacks comments. ‘’Come to me then and we shall speak further on the matter. Until then, let it rest.’’

‘’I just-‘’ Jack started, the words dying on his tongue, as he watched the other, very elegantly, roll his eyes in annoyance, before the master of the house ordered the mare to move. ‘’Are you seriously just going to-‘’

’Yes, Jack, I am.’’ Pitch clipped back dryly, as he continued out, the hooves of the mare clopping softly over the cobblestones, before he spun her once and glanced back at the other. ‘’Now get in before you freeze.’’

‘’It’s not that cold.’’

‘’Yes it is.’’

And just like that, Jack watched as his holder took off into the night. A soft cooing sounded at his ear then, as the small, colourful bird settled onto his shoulder and turned its head to watch the other gallop away as well. A spy, Jack heard Cupcakes voice ring softly in his head, as he absently raised a hand to scratch at its small head, before he sighed deep and likewise walked out into the courtyard in front of him. Tooth would know that Pitch had left and while he did not know if that fact would matter or not, it sure seemed to have irked Pitch a whole great deal.

For a few beats, he simply stood there, enjoying the fresh chill of the wind and the dark, open night sky above him, before the cold pinpoint that bloomed out over the top of his left cheek made him flinch in a startled surprise. Then, as he looked up and stared at said gently moving sky, he felt another settle onto his blinking eyelid.

Jack paused, as his brain finally connected the dots and registered the snowflakes that drifted down around him. Then, his eyes fell shut, the bird on his shoulder shuffling about in order not to fall off, as he spread his arms out wide and embraced it.

Winter had truly come.

Chapter Text

A light layer of snow covered the grounds of the mansions grand garden. In its middle, propped up by a, likewise coated by the cold fluffy white, table, Toothiana sat and sipped on the white tea that Cupcake had brought out for her. A delighted smile played on her lip, her gentle frame drenched in rich furs and coats, as she chuckled low at something that one of her little birds had cooed at her.

For the first few days that she had stayed at the mansion, Jack had liked her, adored her even, but now, he was not so sure on how to feel.

It had been subtle at first, but little by little, he had started to note the sharp edge to her. It was something just barely there under the surface, a blink and you would miss it kind of thing he supposed and one thing was for certain - she was not as sweet and easygoing, as she pretended to be.

She was fierce. She meant business and damn well, if she had set her mind to something, she would do anything in her power to get it done, regardless if the people around her was in on it or not. She moved with grace, but there was strength in her stride, her back straight and hands delicate, but Jack had no doubt that she could crush him, if she so desired.

Around her small shoulders, her small birds flitted about, the tiny creatures taking off and then landing, as they would take turns to sit on them and coo softly at her listening ear. Indeed, Jack wondered, as he crossed his arms and glared at her from the frame of the open door that he was leaning against, he wondered if they were sharing what they had seen and heard on their trips around the mansions and the surrounding farms grounds.

Almost as if reading his train of thought, Toothianas lithe frame shook from a deep, delighted laughter, before she shook her head and glanced over at him. Her long lashes winked at him once then, one delicate hand straying up, as she beckoned one of her birds to climb onto the back of it. Whatever it was that she whispered to it, he was too far away to hear, and, as the black eye of the bird turned and stared at Jack, he felt even more secure in his rapidly slipping dislike towards her.

The rest of the servants all lingering under the mansions roof were clearly traumatized by whatever the earl had done during his visit. Or visits, perhaps it was a plural thing, but yet, he had no way of knowing and just the mere mention of him seemed to send the others on edge. Therefore, if it was because of what she had done towards the mansions master himself - or rather, what she had said to him and thus ripped up old, seemingly barely healed wounds in the others, Jack was not sure, but one thing was for certain:

She really was not as sweet as he had first thought her to be.

--

 

‘’A little higher!’’ Pippa ordered, as Claude fought to get the giant, ridiculously long scarf that she had knitted around the neck of the statue of the dark stallion located outside in the gardens as well. ‘’Just a bit to your left and you should be able to hold onto the tree branch just above you.’’ She said, as she tried to gesture for him to move a bit to the left. ‘’No love, your left, you’re moving right, not… No Claude, the other way… Oh gods never mind, just get down before you hurt yourself.’’

Still safely on the ground, Pippa sighed slowly, as she watched Claude shrug a tad stiffly, before the man once more attempted to fling the scarf out over its neck, yet, as he threw it out, once more, it merely slipped down its side and ended up on the ground.

‘’Maybe… Try and ball it up before you throw it?’’ Pippa suggested, and this time, after Claude had hauled it back up and gotten his hands onto the end of it, the man succeeded in getting it to land on the right side of the statue.

--

 

‘’I spy?’’ Cupcake asked, to which Pippa shrugged slightly.

‘’Snow.’’ She offered, to which the other hummed low.

‘’Yep. I spy?’’

‘’More snow.’’ Pippa said again, as she tried to stifle a yawn behind her hand, yet, it slipped out regardless.

‘’Indeed more fucking snow.’’ Cupcake agreed, as she flicked her fingers to the high ceiling above.

‘’Language.’’

‘’Oh shut up Monty, don’t act like you’re not going insane right alongside the rest of us.’’

Outside of one of the cozy reading-rooms that the five of them, now all safely inside the mansions warmer halls, had huddled together for warmth in, the wind howled and roared, as the insistent storm drew in and swept through the lands. Frost ghosted over the windows and as Cupcake and Claude had teamed up and tried to wedge the front doors open, they found them to be blocked and frozen shut by snow and ice.

As such, Toothiana still stayed with them - the colourful guest equally trapped as the rest of them were.

‘’Is Pitch going to be able to find his way home when the weather is like this?’’ Jack asked, before he could think better of it. Already, it had been six days since their holder had left abruptly in the early hours of the night.

‘’What, you worried for him?’’ Claude asked, as he wiggled his brows at the other, to which Jack loudly rolled his eyes.

‘’How are we going to get food if he dies like a common idiot out there?’’ Jack countered, though the jab sounded stale even to his own ears. It was not worry though, he reckoned. He did not necessary like Pitch, but he did not outright dislike or want him to die either.

‘’He’ll be fine.’’ Pippa said, as she wedged a foot out of her blanket to lightly tap the side of Claudes naked own. ‘’He knows better than to be caught out in something like that.’’

But what if he has? Rang through Jacks mind before he could stop himself.

’Sure.’’ He grumbled instead of voicing it aloud. Beside him, Cupcake shrugged.

‘’Hopefully it lifts up tomorrow.’’

--

 

The storm however, did in fact not lift up the day after. If anything, it seemed to intensify in strength by each passing hour and more than once, unable to find anything to put his mind and energy on as he were, Jack had found himself pacing restlessly through the halls of the dark mansion. Somehow, he had ended up in the very entrance of it - Jack wrapped up in a blanket, head in hand, as he stared at the great double doors that stubbornly stayed closed.

Idly, he used his free hand to scratch at the back of his head, as he looked to the window where outside, the storm were still currently busy wreaking havoc on the lands.

It was not like him to worry like this. Perhaps the conflicted feeling was born out of gratitude for being liberated out of the slow death sentence that was the waiting in the steel cage. Perhaps it stemmed from something else entirely.

Still, Pitch would be fine, Jack mused, as he tapped the tip of a finger against his bottom lip. Behind him, the subtle fluttering of wings sounded, as one of the colourful birds landed on one of the steps a tad higher up from where he sat – the small thing cooing softly in greeting, before it bowed its little head to prune the feathers of its left, outstretched wing.

He had to be.

--

 

This was getting ridiculous.

Two more days had come and gone and by now, Jack truly was worried. Curse his heart for even caring in the first place, but he cared about people in general and at the end of the day, Pitch had not exactly been cruel, had he?

Beside him, the rag made a splash, as he dipped it a tad harder into the bucket than was strictly necessary.

No. No he had not, not yet at least - even when clearly angry, his holder, unlike the announcer that Jack had now so happily gotten away from, had still shown great restraint in not taking it out where it was not due. Jack knew that he had been pressing to see what would happen, knew, that his permanent stay would be a whole lot easier to deal with, if he knew the others triggers, but it seemed there was none. None, which would lead to mindless violence anyway.

Jack, currently on his knees in one of the hallways leading into the entrance, groaned low to himself, as he straitened up slightly from where he had been scrubbing the floors of it. As he moved a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow, he found that the wound, from when he had cut himself on a dropped vase, had reopened - the piece of cloth that he had hastily bound it with pink with blood and drenched from the water that he had been using.

Sure, the soap from the water stung, as he had to dip the rag in it, but it was a dull and manageable pain.

And speak of the devil, the small voice in the back of his head whispered, as a wave of gentle dark swept in and coated over the tips of his fingers, from where he kept his hand firmly planted against the chill of the tiles below. Awkwardly, his bound other stayed up by his head, the fingers of it cold and wrinkled from water, as he stared in shock at the murky boots and the trail that the master of the house had carelessly left behind.

Pitch was drenched from the snow, his frown tight, black hair slicked back and dripping around his head, as he continued in and made further, muddy boot-prints on the marble floor that Jack had literally just cleaned.

‘’Did you see anyone for that?’’ The master of the house asked on a worn-sounding voice, just as Jack had to crane his neck, as the foreboding presence came to a halt just beside him – the molten gold narrowed and zoned in on his poorly bandaged hand as it was.

‘’What?’’

Jack hissed in pain, as Pitch unceremoniously reached a clawed hand down and, a tad roughly, tugged the shorter back on his feet – said claws careful, as they tore away the fabric and examined the slightly puffy and irritated cut close.

‘’Did you see Bunny?’’ Pitch clarified, to which Jack shook his head. No, sending word for the doctor was expensive after all, so of course, he had not.

A few seconds ticked by in which the master of the house seemed to mule something over. Then, he took Jacks hand in both of his own – the latter yelping from the sharp sensation of it and trying to jerk back, only to have the grip tighten further.

’Stay still.’’ Was the only warning that he got and at once, Jack felt himself freeze up from the lethal edge that the tone held to it.

Around them, a warm golden light spilled forth from the hands holding his smaller own in place and little by little, the pain started to evaporate. It left him with a tingling sensation running down his arm and around his elbow, and, as Jack stared at his now released palm, he found the wound to be gone. In its place, only a faint scar remained.

Jack stared at it, momentarily lost for words, as he looked up to find that Pitch had already started to turn away – the latter’s stride quick, as he strode past the other.

‘’I-‘’ Jack tried to call after him, only to have the master of the house flick his fingers to the high ceiling above in a dismissive fashion, before he all out left without a word.

--

 

Three more days passed before the snow and the ice let up enough for them to bid their colourful guest a pleasant and safe trip ahead. Now, out in the courtyard, standing on top of the fluffy whites of the shielded cobblestones, Toothiana waved her delicate hand, as she said her belated goodbyes – the small birds looking like lines of blurry movements, as they flitted around her laughing form.

Pippa seemed genuinely sad as she waved back, Claude just as so, but, if Jack completely understood why the openly frowning Pitch seemed happy to see her go, he was not going to comment on it.

--

 

‘’You said I had rights?’’ Jack asked, after he had knocked thrice on the office door and been led in. Once again, much like the last time that he had come on a spontaneous quest for answers, it was late at night.

‘’A few, yes.’’ Pitch started, as he leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other – his fingers folding, before coming to rest in his lap. ‘’You get to have a say in the routines around this place. If something causes you physical pain, or is taxing beyond what seems reasonable, it will be changed.’’

That… Seemed like a bit of a luxury.

‘’Is that a common thing?’’ Jack asked, to which Pitch shook his head.

‘’Just here.’’ The master of the house answered curtly. In front of him, Jack clutched his tea close, as he mused on it. He knew that he had to make a choice in whether or not he wanted to truly play along in the whole affair, and by the gods, when he eventually had to, he hoped that it would be the right one.

Still, calling Pitch by his rightful title? No. That was not going to happen again anytime soon.

‘’If I may?’’ Jack tried, as he worried his lip between his teeth. The next part seemed to require just a tad tact and at once, it seemed that the other understood what Jack was about to ask. This time, the former knew that he was not mistaking it, as the room around them seemed to grow dark. Softly, he continued, when Pitch gestured for him to go on. ‘’Who is the earl that everyone keeps talking about?’’

Jack felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, as shadows licked up the expanse of his back – the thin tendrils trailing high and then dipping back down over his spine, pressing in close, as though they wished to smother him in their soft caress.

If the other was even aware that he was doing it, Jack had no clue.

‘’Who is he?’’ Jack asked again, when it became clear to him that Pitch was far more than just merely reluctant to do so. When finally he spoke, it sounded worn, stretched out and tired beyond his unknown years.

‘’I hope that you will not have the unfortunate pleasure of meeting him.’’ Pitch said, as he repeated his words from days past. ‘’He,’’ he said, before pausing, his eyes narrowing, as he seemed to look for the right words ‘’he controls the lands and all those who live or merely trespass through. If he disagrees with my ways, then he gets the final say in whether or not they will be changed to better fit his… taste.’’

‘’Is it…’’ Jack tried, before he trailed off. ‘’Is it normal for an earl to have that much power?’’

‘’No.’’ Pitch said simply, though he did not elaborate further on it. ‘’To put it as plainly as I can, whether you like it or not, if he tells you to dance, then you must dance.’’

‘’And if you don’t?’’ Jack asked, to which the other slowly shook his head once in a clear dismissal of the mere thought of such.

‘’Then you would lose both of your feet for showing such disrespect.’’ Pitch said, and as he briefly glanced off to the side, the bright light from the dancing flames in the fireplace reflected in his golden eyes. A few beats passed in a tense silence, before the master of the house seemed to compose himself enough to once more meet the others curious gaze head on.

‘’I have lost countless of hours and precious items in order to keep his greed satisfied. Young as he is, he is quite insatiable already.’’ Pitch said, to which Jack hummed softly in what he hoped sounded like understanding.

Jack knew that he was already treading on dangerously thin ice, but, he had no intention of stopping now.

‘’And your daughter is one of those items?’’ He asked, and judging by the narrowing of the others eyes and the way that the shadows jerked in a silent, restless response, he knew that he had hit the nail on its head. ‘’You said it was best for me to know.’’ Jack argued, before the other could berate him for it.

’And,’’ Pitch started on a slight growl, as he, clearly irked, sneered at the other ‘’this particular field is not one within the line of possible things that I wish to discuss with you.’’

The narrowed gold in front of him seemed to glow in the low, smothered light, but, Jack refused to be intimidated.

‘’Maybe so, but you know I’ll keep asking until I get an answer.’’ He pressed. He did not actually think that he would get an answer on the matter however and, as expected, he did not get one.

‘’For your own sake, let it lie then.’’ Pitch clipped coldly, before he turned his attention to a stack of newly arrived papers in front of him – his fingers experienced, as they spread them out, eyes swift, as they scanned down over their written contents. ‘’Things are busy enough as they are and I do not need you meddling further in my affairs than you already have.’’

Then why did you even let me in to begin with? Jack wondered, as he felt a slight pout take to his lip.

‘’If it ever comes to it and the earl decides to haunt us with a visit, then you will all be warned beforehand.’’ Pitch said, as he absently flicked a hand out to snatch his dark feather close. Angrily, he let it fly over the bottom of one of the papers in what appeared to be his signature, before placing the feather back to its quill. ‘’The best you can do is stick to the bare minimum of communication if he is near, and as for the rest, I will personally see to that. You will not engage unless you absolutely have to.’’

‘’And why not?’’ Jack asked regardless and in front of him, Pitch sighed, as he pinged the bridge of his nose in a clear show of frustration.

‘’Considering what I have already told you, you would seriously ask that question?’’

‘’I mean, unless you actually think he'd ask for me to tap dance, then you haven’t exactly given me a completely specific example of what would happen.’’

‘’You would call my words unclear?’’

‘’Nah, just unnecessarily vague.’’

For a few beats, Pitch just stared at him a tad dumbfounded, papers once more abandoned for the moment being, as he huffed low and leaned back in his chair again.

‘’I do believe that I have given a specific example already, but you are quite the literal person, are you not?’’ The master of the house asked, to which Jack nodded.

‘’Yep.’’ He agreed. ‘’But give me another example then. If I talk back to him, what’ll happen?’’

‘’He would have your tongue.’’

‘’And if I made a crude gesture to wordlessly tell him to fuck right off.’’

‘’Then he would have your hand chopped off for it.’’ Pitch said, with a slight strain in his tone. ‘’And possibly your head too.’’

‘’And if I-‘’

‘’I do believe you quite understand how this entire thing works by now.’’

‘’Yeah but-‘’

’No, Jack. Enough already. You are not that daft.’’

A small chuckle escaped Jack then, his pleased smirk poorly hidden behind his mug of nearly forgotten tea, as he raised it up enough to do so.

‘’I’ll take that as a compliment.’’ He said, to which the other seemed to have to suppress a groan of dismay.

‘’It was not meant to be one.’’ Pitch said with a small shake of the head, before he gestured at the still closed door behind Jack. ‘’Now if you will excuse me, I do have work to do and you are quite the annoying distraction.’’

--

 

Jacks lungs burned, his heart feeling as though it would leap out of his chest from both panic and joy, as he jumped off the wagon and ran ahead – the horses now behind him slowed and tired from haven to drag the heavy load along, as they were.

A good week had passed before the weather had turned enough in their favor for them to safely travel into town again and this time, Pitch, after Jack had asked for it, had allowed for him to tag along for the journey. Technically, they already had all that they needed for when the winter would truly hit, but, as previous experiences had shown, it would be better for them to stock up a little extra than was strictly needed.

Loudly, he ignored the startled look and the questioning shout of his name, as he sprinted past Pippa and headed straight for his holders office. This time, as he reached it, Jack did not bother to knock.

With his chest heaving, shoulders tense and breath barely caught, he kept a knuckle-white grip of the door handle, as he stared wide eyed over at Pitch who stood up from his desk at once – his molten gold narrowed, as he looked the other over for any possible and immediate injuries.

‘’What has happened?’’ The master of the house asked, the tone serious, just as Jack stumbled the first step into the office and nearly collapsed from how hard he had run to get there.

‘’I found her,’’ Jack panted in a way of explanation ‘’my sister. My sister has been sold.’’

Chapter Text

‘’And what do you expect me to do about that?’’

Jack felt his heart skip a beat. The world froze, as he felt his full focus settle onto the others lifted, unimpressed brow.

‘’Please.’’ He blurted out. ‘’I'll do anything, I'll stay, I'll be good, just please.’’

‘’I already own you.’’ Pitch deadpanned, most of the immediate tension fleeing from his tall frame, as the tip of his claws started to tap a quick tattoo over the tables’ hard surface. ‘’You have nothing to give.’’

‘’Please,’’ Jack begged bitterly, as he squared his shoulders and openly glared at the other. ‘’She's only nine. You know what happens to someone that young.’’

‘’There is nothing that I can do.’’

‘’Bullshit.’’

In front of him, Pitchs’ mouth drew up into a sneer. ‘’Watch your tone with me boy.’’ The master of the house warned low.

‘’I'm not a boy.’’

‘’Well you act like one.’’ Pitch clipped right back, claws bend, as they scrapped over and slightly into the rough wood of the table.

‘’Godsdammit you fucking piece of-’’

‘’No.’’ The room seemed to shake with Pitchs’ slight anger – the one word reverberating through Jacks frantic mind, as he, unwillingly, felt himself take a step back in fright, just as Pitch once more drew up into his full, impressive height. ‘’There is nothing that I can do and that is final. You will accept it and leave it be.’’

Jack knew that he had been dismissed, knew, that there was nothing that could be done on the matter, but damn well if that was going to stop him. Without a word, he nodded once in what he hoped to be as much of a mock as he intended it to be, before he turned on his heel and stalked right back the way he had come.

He would have to wait until sundown, but, come hell and high water, if it was the last thing that he did, he would get her out of there.

--

 

The weather was as chilly as ever, as Jack helped unload the wagon – the following, shared, late dinner warm and tasting ashen in his mouth from restless energy, as he tried and failed in his attempts to not count the hours until the sun would dip below the horizon.

Eventually, the light did flee from over the plains and finally, he had the perfect cover to set about into the early hours of the night.

--

 

Jack glanced back and forth, as he crossed the quiet, main center of the marketplace and made it to the small bakery just ahead. Already, from the ghouls’ and his trip, he had spotted a backdoor leading into the facility and damn well, he intended to use it.

He knew that he had to act fast, knew, that if he lingered too long, then somebody would either notice that their holders fastest mare was missing or that Jack, for that sake, had gone as well.

That he had even managed to get out undetected in the first place was a miracle in and of itself, but he was not going to question it. He had made it out and now, he had work to do.

The door creaked on its hinges, as he managed to get it open, Jack mindful of any misplaced items that would give him away, as he crept in as quietly as he could. At least, that was one of the benefits to having such a small frame - while he was slowly gaining a bit of healthy weight again, the protrusion of his ribs less obvious as they were, he was still light and quick on his feet.

Idly, he kept a hand to the wall beside him, as he went further into where he hoped the backroom of the store would be located; the paint of it cracked, dry under his palm, as he felt alongside it.

Eventually, after he had nearly sent an empty bucket tumbling over when he had blindly stumbled into it – his free hand quick to shoot down and right it as it was – he found the room that he sought.

Jack pressed a finger to his lips, as the small bundle of subdued joy that was his sibling sat up and sleepily wiped her little hands at her rapidly blinking eyes and, as Jack extended his own towards her, a beam of pale moonlight fell on the back of one.

He could not help but grin, as she realized who he was – her relief and glee obvious, as she giddily smiled back.

‘’Come.’’ He said on a hushed whisper.

He knew that he would be punished heavily for it, but as her lesser hand grabbed his, he found that he did not care one bit.

--

 

The next day at the dark mansion went about as per usual. Still, there were no signs of anyone haven noted that an extra portion of their breakfast and later, shared lunch had disappeared.

Evening came and eventually gave way to night, before finally, just at the crack of the following dawn, a harsh, insistent pounding sounded at their door.

--

 

‘’What is the meaning of this?’’

Never in his life had Jack thought that he would be outright delighted to hear the ghouls stern voice, but alas, here he was. As though fighting for his life, which, he might well be, Jack clawed at the hand that had twined into his hair and made a fist of it – his screams of bloody murder and attempted kicking loud and echoing out, as he was dragged towards the entrance.

He had not recognized any of the three men that had barged into the mansion uninvited, but it seemed Monty did.

‘’Why are you here?’’ The ghoul clipped, as he swiftly looked each of them over.

‘’We have reason to suspect that you harboring someone else’s property.’’ The one holding onto Jack rasped back on a voice that sounded wrecked by past decades of heavy smoking and drinking. Smells the deal too, Jack thought, as the hand in his hair hauled him upwards towards the others chest and shook him about a bit for emphasis.

Fucking hell did that hurt.

Jack tried to dig his nails into the others clutching fingers, just as Monty slowed his pace significantly.

‘’And who would that be?’’ He asked, as the accusation caught up with him.

‘’A little brunette.’’ Another with a hunter’s rifle casually slung over his shoulder gruffed back. ‘’Butchers’ boys missed her a great deal this morning.’’

At least Monty had the decency to look disgusted for all of a second, before the other barked a laugh right back.

’Relax.’’ The one with the rifle said, as he raised his free hand to pick at his teeth. ‘’She just used for cleaning. Nothing of the sort you lot been thinking.’’ Warily, the ghoul eyed the mouth of the rifle, as it was bounced a bit on its wielders broad shoulder. ‘’We gonna have to take this one with us though.’’ He said, as he gestured at Jack with a slight nod of the head.

‘’And why would that be?’’ Monty asked, to which the other shrugged a shoulder and looked to the third individual of their little trio, who had yet to speak up.

‘’Orders from our boss.’’ The third answered on a low rasp of a voice. ‘’Young skinny figure with your embroidery was spotted running around in the marketplace yesterday night. One of the others said they heard a male voice, so unless you’re the one we looking for, then we taking this one in for questioning.’’

’Questioning.’’ Monty repeated with clear distaste in his voice, as his gaze kept straying to the rifles imposing presence. ‘’Yes indeed,’’ he said lowly under his breath, as he stood up straight ‘’and I suppose there is a reason as to why that cannot be done here?’’ He asked, to which the one with the rifle once more shrugged a tad stiffly – the corner of his lip drawing up into a half-smirk, as he had clearly noticed the ghouls’ discomfort of the, for now, resting weapon.

‘’We’d rather not make a mess.’’

Monty looked grim and if he seemed anything but hopeful, then Jack would rather not linger on it for too long. The ghouls gaze stayed locked with the armed others - his mouth just opened to speak, before Pitch himself interrupted on a slight clip of a voice.

‘’I am afraid that will not be possible.’’

‘’And why the fuck not?’’ The one still holding Jack in place grumbled with a tad strain in his voice, as he looked the newly arrived over. Clearly, though Jack could not exactly see his features, he did recognize the clear disgust in his tone. ‘’Even you stuck up folks gotta answer to the law.’’

’And the law,’’ Pitch started, as he clasped his hands behind his back and strode forwards ‘’states that one cannot remove another’s properties from his or her lands unless the individual is found guilty first.’’ He clipped. ‘’Do not come to me with half-truths or false claims unless you are willing and able to back them up.’’

For a few beats, all seemed to freeze in place, as the armed intruder and the master of the house glared each other down in a tense stand-off.

‘’Well shit, give us the permission to go through your land then.’’

‘’And you shall have it.’’ Pitch said, as he nodded his head towards the still wildly struggling Jack. ‘’After you unhand my property.’’

Jack stumbled a few steps forwards, as the one holding him roughly showed him forwards less than a beat after he had allowed him back on his feet. Pitch did not spare him a glance, the molten gold now staying firmly locked onto the one carrying the rifle and while neither spoke, Jack heard the question in his head all the same.

Where is she?

The tone did not sound accusing, just matter of factly. If these brutes were truly going to go through, then Jack would have to trust that Pitch would not rat her out and if he did, then he would do all in his power to buy her enough time to flee.

Cellar. Jack thought back as loudly as he could. Backroom where the root fruits are stored.

Pitchs gaze briefly seemed far away, and, as the master of the house hummed low in a contemplating manner, Jack wondered if he was in fact conversing with someone else as well.

A tad curtly, Pitch nodded once to the one with the rifle.

‘’Do what you must.’’

--

 

‘’You can't send her back!’’ Jack, hours later, all out howled, as he kept his clenched fists by his sides and followed after the stern-looking Pitch. He did not exactly understand how the uninvited trio had not found her, but he supposed that the sneering other had had a finger in it.

As they had scouted through and eventually gone down the steep stairs to the cellars, said cellars had been empty and, except for the door where one of the three had kept a careful watch over, there were no other way out.

‘’You can’t.’’

Right in front of him, Pitch kept going, his strides long and fast enough that Jack had to halfheartedly jog in order to keep up.

‘’Of course not, they would hang you if I did.’’ The master of the house clipped, as he shook his head slightly. ‘’You could at least have changed your clothes.’’ He said, though it did not sound as if he was still speaking to Jack. ‘’Seven hells, what a mess.’’

The door at the end of the hallway that they had made it through made a harsh clap as Pitch shoved it open with enough force to make it collide and bounce against the wall – the thick shadows dancing around him, as he strode through and continued ahead.

As to where exactly he was headed, Jack had no clue.

‘’And what would you have done?’’ He pressed. ‘’If this was you and you found your daughter in a place like that, what would you have done?’’

Jack felt something semi-solid snake up both of his arms and legs then, the dark tendrils closing in around him moments before it squeezed him tight. At once, and just as Pitch clasped his hands behind his back and spun to further pin him in place with a scorching glare, Jack found that he could not move.

‘’You are permanently banned from leaving the property.’’ Pitch clipped, as he seemed to will himself a deep, grounding breath – his shoulders shaking with obvious tension, as his sneer grew wider.

‘’Wait no, that’s-‘’

‘’-Since obviously, the responsibility of freedom is too much for you to handle.’’ The master of the house continued regardless of the others complaints.

‘’But-‘’ Jack tried before cutting himself short. He knew that he was not going to win this one and so, while gritting his teeth, he decided to focus on what was important for the time being. ‘’What are you going to do with her?’’ He asked instead, as he strained against his dark binds.

‘’It is not safe for her here. If they find her or you with her, then again, you hang, and quite frankly, I do not want that on my conscience.’’

‘’Oh please, it’s not like you had much of a conscience to begin with.’’ Jack scoffed back, to which the other narrowed his eyes to slits and somehow managed to glare even harder.

‘’Such a rude little thing you are.’’ Pitch practically growled, before he started to turn and continued down the hallway that they had been going through. ‘’I truly must be cursed to have to bear with such an impolite presence.’’

‘’My sister.’’ Jack pressed again, just as he felt the pressure around him grow slack enough for him to follow in the others wake again. ‘’What are you going to do?’’

Whatever the answer was, Jack never got it – the terrified wailing ahead now quite obvious to him, as they neared a door that led into one of the small reading rooms. Swiftly, he sprinted past the other and pressed the creaked door open. Emma was crying hysterically in Pippas’ arms, her eyes red and puffy as she, clearly startled by the noise from Jacks sudden entrance, looked up in fright. He had less than a moment to get down on one knee and spread his arms out, before she bolted out of Pippas grip and threw herself at him.

‘’It’s alright.’’ Jack gently shushed her, holding her tight as she continued to cry and let out sporadic, choked sobs. ‘’It’s quite alright now, you’re safe.’’

In front of him, Pippa gazed up and while he could not see it, Jack reckoned that Pitch had gestured for her to take her leave. Calmly, she stood, her hands a tad shaky, as she brushed them down over her vest and then strode around the two still on the ground.

Whatever words she shared with Pitch, Jack did not hear them.

‘’I would advise you to use this time wisely.’’ The master of the house said, as he strode to the tall window in the room and stood in front of it. ‘’She will be sent to live with an acquaintance of mine, so do make sure to say your goodbyes.’’

‘’No.’’ Jack practically hissed, as he clutched Emma closer, to which the other hummed low in a contemplating manner.

‘’You really do seem to possess the idea that you have any say in these matters.’’ Pitch said, right as Jack felt his sister stem her little hands against his chest and shove away. Barely, he managed to catch her around the middle and draw her back, before she could pounce on Pitch.

‘’Get away from him you meanie!’’ Emma, looking quite the very picture of defiance, cried, as she kept her fists clenched tightly at her sides, cheeks red and chest puffed out, as she glared up at the other.

‘’Em no.’’ Jack tried as softly as he could, as he hugged her tighter and did his best to keep her at bay. ‘’Please don’t.’’

‘’I see it runs in the family.’’ Pitch said on a voice that sounded as unimpressed as he looked, before he shook his head and redirected his attention out towards what was visible of the snowy courtyard from the window that he was standing at. ‘’I will give you an hour. No more, no less. Make with it as you will, but mark my words, if you try to run off with her, then I will send her right back. You understand the consequences of such an action, yes?’’

For a tense beat, Jack simply stared up at the back of Pitchs head. Slowly, Emma calmed in his arms, but it was hardly much.

‘’I do.’’

‘’Good.’’

--

 

It was childish to spite Pitch for what had occurred, Jack knew that and still, he could not seem to stop himself.

A week, in which he did not quite register what he was doing, passed by in a haze. Each day seemed to blend into the next, his tasks fair but hardly anything worth remembering, as he just willed himself to get the work for each day done.

--

 

It was late at night, so late in fact, that only Claude and Jack himself were awake after a prolonged game of cards taking place in a small tearoom close to the entrance, when they got an uninspected knock at the mansions great doors. Swiftly, after the insistent pounding had commenced for long enough for them to be certain that it was not just the wind kicking up a racket again, the pair had abruptly put their activity down and all but sprinted to let whoever it was, in.

‘’Are we-‘’ Claude started, just as Pitch, no doubt haven hastily made his way straight from his office, joined them at the doors.

‘’We are not expecting anyone at the time no.’’ The master of the house said, as he gestured for the two others to take their places beside and in front of them. Pitch lowered his head slightly as he glanced over at Claude, his hairless brow lifting in an unvoiced question, to which the other, no doubt haven understood what was being asked, briefly let his concealed steel flicker in his broad hand.

Armed. Claude was armed with a crude and clearly worn hunter’s knife.

But of course, Jack thought as he eyed the blade, before it was put away again with expert ease - whoever the uninspected, late night visitor was, they had no direct way of telling if they were friendly or not.

Pitch, back straight, shoulders squared, nodded once in Jacks direction then, and Jack, obediently, while very pointently refusing to meet the others gaze, strode forwards to open up one of the doors. This way, he quickly realized, Claude, while not yet visible for their newcomer, would be the closest if the need for interception arose, while Jack himself, since he was the weakest of the three, was now well protected behind a perfect, wooden barrier.

Immediately, a great flurry of snow drifted in through the opened crack, the chill of it obvious, as the master of the house had to narrow his eyes a tad against the harsh breeze of it.

‘’Would you welcome a weary traveler in?’’ A soft, unfamiliar voice asked and beside Jack, Claude seemed to stand up just a little straighter. ‘’It is quite an unpleasant weather to be out in.’’

Pitch seemed strained as he offered their newcomer a small, quite obviously fake smile, but fuck it - when did he not look so?

‘’Of course.’’

’Thank you.’’ The other laughed in delight, as he, it showed out to be, strode far enough in so that Jack could quietly close the door behind him and the two others accompanying him. ‘’So, I heard that you had a bit of trouble with the collectors?’’ The newcomer, with cheeks and nose red from cold, asked, as he rubbed at his arms in order to get the blood flowing. Judging from the tone, the two already knew each other. ‘’I hope it was nothing too serious?’’

‘’A simple misunderstanding.’’ Pitch replied with a shake of the head. ‘’It is taken care of.’’

’Lovely.’’ The other beamed on a gleeful tone, as he stepped a bit further into the warmth of the mansions entrance. ‘’Now would one of you two take my coat? It is quite heavy from all the dreadful snow that we have been going through.’’ He asked and immediately, Jack stepped forwards.

‘’Right away sir.’’ Jack said with a cheeky grin, as he accepted the soaked garment. ‘’I’m kinda new to this though, so I hope it’s not too much to ask for your name?’’

‘’oh!’’ The newcomer laughed, as he gave him a quick onceover and waved a dismissive hand at him. ‘’At ease kid, it is no offense at all.’’ He said, as briefly, he let his eyes travel out to gaze at the artful pieces littering the entrances’ walls and ceiling. ‘’It is a pleasure to meet you.’’ He said, as he looked back down at Jack with a fond smile. ‘’The name is Jamie.’’

‘’Jack, sir.’’ Jack offered back, as he gave a slight bow and beside him, Pitch downright glowered.

Perfect, Jack thought, as he briefly locked eyes with the others burning gold and silver. All he knew was that this new guest seemed nice and if the fact that Jack was already getting along with him pissed Pitch off, then that suited him just fine.

‘’Now, I hate to keep you all up at such a late hour, but if I may ask for a bit of bread for my companions?’’

‘’Of course.’’ Pitch replied, as he held out a hand and gestured for Jamie to follow him in. ‘’I believe Claude will be more than willing to fetch a bit to my office and in the meantime, I can show you to your rooms?’’

‘’If you please.’’ Jamie said back, just as Claude lowered his head in a nod and abruptly left to do as he was told. ‘’Quite the impressive display you put on around here.’’ Jamie continued, as he followed after the thin-lipped Pitch. ‘’Always been really, but tell, is that one knew?’’ He asked, as he gestured to a statue, to which Pitch nodded curtly.

Whatever his following reply was however, the two had already made it too far down the hallway for Jack to hear. A tad idly, he glanced down at the garment in his hands, before finding that a small, genuine smile, the first in a week really, kept trying to tug at his lip.

Swiftly, Jack gave in and let it split over his features, before he too stalked off to finish his small task for the night being.

Chapter Text

 

With a gleam in his eye and sleep still heavy in his bones, Jack got up far earlier than everyone else and set about to prepare himself an early breakfast. Now, with the sun way past the line of the brightening horizon, he, while wandering the still empty halls of the dark mansion, found himself wondering as to why no one else, expect for their late night arrivals’ own, seemed awake as well. Broody, they were. Thick headed and clearly not the type for light conversation and so, Jack trod on quick, as he passed them by.

Two hours later however, the first signs of life finally dared to show itself.

--

 

‘’Rough sleep?’’ Jack asked, as he gave Claude a quick once-over, to which the other gruffed a low hum of acknowledgement.

‘’The worst.’’ The man answered back on a voice rich with annoyance, as he scratched rather vigorously at his eye. ‘’Barely got any at all, but here we are.’’ He grumbled, as he moved his hand up to rake it through his unruly hair. ‘’Just gotta get through with this day. Get through and get this nit of a shit-show over with before it can get any worse than it already is.’’

‘’That bad huh?’’ Jack grinned back, as they made their way out towards the stables in order to care for Jamie’s horses and, in Claude’s case, further out into the fields. ‘’Good luck with it I guess?’’

‘’Yeah whatever. Just remember to be on your best, godsdamned behavior around that little bastard.’’ Claude, not seeming to have the energy nor the mood for casual chatting, grumbled under his breath, before they both fell into a slightly tense silence.

Throughout the entire proceeding day, Jack did not see a single soul around or within the mansion itself.

It was eerie to say the least.

--

 

Preparing dinner, though Jack was only allowed to assist with cutting and slicing potatoes and other veggies, was usually a quite delightful experience. Preparing it when they had one of Jamies servants staring them down and observing their every move however, now that was a bit of an awkward experience all together. Quietly, the servant sat in one of their kitchen chairs and stared them down as they worked.

It was weird to say the least. Unfamiliar and uncomfortably, and quite honestly, it oozed of paranoia and a need for control, though for what purpose, Jack did not fully understand. Either that, or the man had simply grown bored of whatever conversation his brethren had been engaged in and decided to put his terrifying scowl to good use instead.

Still, if anything, it was effective in its own passive way and not a single word was spoken between the dark mansions own staff throughout the entire process of it.

--

 

‘’So,’’ Jamie started on a delighted tune, as he clasped his hands in front of his chest and looked over each of the prepared items laid out for him ‘’I hope this is as good as your last serving?’’

‘’Be my judge.’’ A sour-looking Pitch offered back on a voice just polite enough that it could not quite count as a mock, as he gestured for the other to help himself to the presented food. Beside the master of the house, with their backs to the wall and heads slightly bowed, all five of the mansions servants were lined up neatly and on the other end, Jamies own were as well.

‘’Are we seriously just going to watch them eat?’’ Jack hissed, as low as he could, to which Cupcake leaned down slightly, the motion barely there, as she turned her head enough to whisper back.

‘’It is common custom yes, so yeah, we fucking gotta.’’

‘’That’s bullshit.’’

‘’I know.’’

Toothiana had not insisted on such a thing, when she had visited, but what was it that Pitch had said when they had first met? There was such a thing as differences between classes?

Lame.

Jack leaned his head back against the wall, his posture still straight and attentive, as he willed himself not to scoff aloud at the absurdity of it all. Perhaps, this was the reason as to why the gloomy servant had been watching them closely throughout the evening. Perhaps, it really was as such and though Jack knew that his train of thought would get him nowhere, he could not help but wonder what would have happened if any of them had tried to eat, before the two holders themselves had gotten their share.

‘’Is this why Monty smacked my hand away from the grapes back in the kitchen?’’ Jack whispered, just as Pitchs molten gold sent him a withering glare.

Okay, so perhaps his whispering was a tad less discrete than he had thought, but come on, none of them had eaten since noon and judging from the slight dark of the outside that was at least seven hours ago.

’Yep. Claude lost a finger last time he did that, so… You know.’’ Cupcake rasped back. Jack felt his brow furrow, as he found himself glancing over at Jamies gentle features. Perhaps the others methods were old school at best, but he had been quite kind so far. Strict, yes, but such a punishment seemed beneath him. Surely, what had happened to Claude had been another guests’ doing?

‘’What happened?’’ Jack asked, as he ignored Pitchs insistent stares, to which he got a subtle shake of the head back.

‘’I’ll explain later.’’ Cupcake said, before she glanced over at Claude. ‘’If the one it happened to is cool with it of course.’’

That seemed reasonable and Jack voiced as much.

‘’Fair enough.’’

The two fell silent for a good while, before this time, Pippa turned her head slightly to whisper to Jack.

‘’You might wanna go straight to bed after this.’’ She stressed.

‘’But what about dinner?’’ Jack asked, to which the other shook her head slow.

‘’The halls aren’t safe at night love.’’ Pippa pressed. ‘’Not right now.’’

With a sinking feeling in his gut, Jack felt the already visible crease between his brows deepen further, as his gaze once more traveled onto the gruff servant that had watched them work.

‘’He’s unpredictable at best. Just don’t take the chance.’’

Somehow, Jack did not doubt that, but damn well if that was going to stop him.

‘’Frost, I’m being serious.’’

‘’I won’t do anything stupid.’’

Pippa coughed low, and if it sounded as though she had to cover up for a low huff, none of the other gathered commented on it.

‘’Just promise me to be careful. Go straight to bed and we can all get together for pie and almonds in the morning.’’

He had no idea as to what an almond was, but the rest sounded great.

‘’I will.’’

He did not.

--

 

Little over an hour later, with a stomach full of lead and a head full of pain, Jack stumbled through the halls of the mansion at random. Despite it being night, somehow, the place altogether seemed lighter than he remembered it. Around and below him, the shadows clung less thickly around his feet and as he looked up, he noticed small, now previously undetected details in the golden edges of the carved woodwork.

It was strange to say the least. Not bad as per say, but it did make him feel slightly off-center.

At the end of the hallway that he was going through, footsteps sounded, and at once, Jacks gaze snapped down to see who it was. Immediately, he felt his shoulders relax, as he locked eyes with a sleepy-looking Jamie. Apparently, the other had been about to continue further into the hallway in front of himself, but, as he had noticed Jack standing where he was, he turned and stalked down the one Jack was in instead.

‘’Evening sir.’’ Jack greeted with a small bow, to which the other laughed low in delight.

‘’As to you as well.’’ Jamie smiled back, as he came close enough to give him a quick once-over. ‘’Say, you were the new kid, yes?’’ He asked, behind a stifled yawn, to which Jack nodded once. ‘’Fancy that. Now I hate to intrude, but I am not quite tired enough to sleep as of yet. Would you care for a midnight stroll around the plains?’’

Awfully polite chatter for his taste, but sure, that sounded fine by him.

‘’Great!’’ Jamie chimed, as Jack voiced as much. ‘’Now, pray tell, where do you go if you wish to have a little privacy?’’ He asked with a slight raise of his brow. ‘’As is it, it seems the polite master of this place is not overly fond of me mingling with you common folk.’’ He said, to which Jack barely managed to suppress an irked scoff.

‘’Nah I guess he’s not.’’ Jack grumbled under his breath, before he gestured out at the hallway in front of them and then a tad to the right. ‘’Most of this wing is usually vacant sir, so you’ve pretty much got the place to yourself.’’

‘’Fantastic.’’ Jamie hummed, before they both started down the way that Jack had originally been headed.

‘’So, what do you do all day sir?’’ Jack asked, as he let the other set the general pace and direction.

‘’Mostly paperwork really. There is a lot to take care of when you own as much land as I do.’’ Jamie said, before letting out a slow sigh. ‘’It is mostly all work and little play. It is quite a bore if I must be completely honest with you.’’

‘’So you don’t get to go out often? Like this, I mean. Visiting others and doing… whatever it is that you are doing right now.’’ Jack asked, before he swiftly added another, slightly belated ‘sir’, to which the other chuckled low.

‘’I am not a complete shut-in if that is what you are asking but I suppose I do feel a bit like a hermit at times.’’ He admitted. ‘’If a hermit can be surrounded by people all the time that is.’’

‘’So like,’’ Jack started on a thoughtful note, just as Jamie glanced back over his shoulder ‘’you can be completely surrounded by people but you still feel alone sir?’’ He tried, to which the other nodded a tad stiffly.

‘’Exactly.’’ Jamie replied. ‘’Do not get me wrong, I adore the people I have with me, but they are… how do I put this politely.’’ He hummed. ‘’Not the most entertaining crowd.’’

Strange, Jack thought, as Jamie once more glanced over his shoulder and seemed to listen intensely for something. For someone who claimed to not know his way around, it sure did feel as if he was being led somewhere.

‘’Nah I get that sir.’’ Jack replied, just as he felt a strange nervousness start to creep through his bones. Swiftly, he blamed it on the slight hunger that was still far more present in him than he cared to admit to. ‘’It’s like people look at you, but they aren’t really seeing you, you know?’’ If he remembered correctly, then they would come upon a small winter garden soon. The place was gorgeous, full of lilies and other delicate flowers that really should not have been able to survive so far into the winter, but for now, they still bloomed.

Indeed, the place was a marvel, but it was also located in one of the much less frequented areas – far away from the main halls of the mansion itself.

‘’I suppose I understand your point yes.’’ Jamie said, just as they rounded the corner and ahead, the first hint of the lilies in question started to show. ‘’Though for our instances, we are not quite made from the same material.’’

‘’Social norms don’t really change that much just because you’re a higher up though.’’ Jack stressed, as he willed the insistent dread to calm within him. ‘’Loneliness doesn’t skip you just because you’re rich sir.’’ He said, to which the other hummed softly.

‘’Well look at you being poetic.’’ Jamie grumbled in a voice than sounded anything but amused.

‘’I… Meant no offense sir.’’ Jack tried, to which the other threw him a half-smirk. Beside them, as the pale light from the moon shone in and lighted up the hallway, it made the others features seem almost inhuman, and, as the others smirk widened up into a full on wolfs grin, Jack could not help but freeze dead in his tracks.

‘’None taken.’’ Jamie said, as he too stopped and once more gave Jack an once-over.

Oh, he had taken offense to that all right. None of the gentle traces seemed left and while Jamie might value his privacy, something about the entire aspect of what had transpired throughout the last eight minutes of their short walk seemed off.

‘’Perhaps,’’ Jack started, as he absently took a small step back, his front now half turned away from the other, as he braced himself for whatever would come ‘’it is better if I head to bed now sir. We have a long day ahead and… all that…’’ He said before trailing off.

Something was wrong. Totally and utterly wrong and sure enough, as Jack took another small step back, Jamie followed with his larger own.

‘’I am not quite tired.’’

‘’But I am sir.’’

‘’And so what, I am supposed to retire because you tell me so?’’

‘’That is-‘’

What the hell was happening?

‘’That is what exactly?’’ Jamie hummed on a voice that sounded rich with mock, as he followed Jack step for step and by now, the latter had finally realized that he had been cornered. The door behind him, which led out into the farthest parts of the courtyard, was locked and so, instead, he swiftly eyed the chilled glass of the slide door beside them.

He doubted that he could outrun the other, but he could damn well try.

‘’I am asking you a question here.’’ Jamie spat out on a near hiss, just as Jack forced himself to stop in his retreat before he found himself with his back pressed up against the door now a mere meter behind. With as much of his fleeting courage put behind his words, he squared his shoulders and willed himself to sound far calmer than he truly felt.

‘’I’m leaving.’’

‘’No, you are not.’’

‘’Yes, I am.’’

Just exactly how far away from the main areas were they? Would he be heard if he screamed? Would anyone even be awake to hear?

‘’Strip.’’

’What?’’ Jack could not help but splutter, as the absurd command caught up with him.

‘’Do I truly need to repeat myself boy?’’ Jamie hummed, eyes narrowing, as he tilted his head slightly at the other. ‘’An order is an order. Get on with it.’’

It was almost a relief when the deep-seated anger that had been a constant from his days in the cage settled back in and idly, Jack welcomed it in like an old, long-lost friend. With his hands clenching into fists at his sides and his jaw grit, he lowered his head to glare at the other. He knew that he had no real strength to his name or no authority for that matter, but within these walls, he still had rights and this, he knew, hardly seemed legal.

‘’No.’’

‘’I beg your pardon?’’

‘’I said no.’’

Jack flinched, as the other barked a short, glee-filled laugh. Barely, he had managed to duck low in order to try to make a run for it, when a crude arm caught around his throat and squeezed hard.

‘’You are in no position to say no to me.’’ Jamie huffed and practically, Jack could taste the constant ash and cinnamon still so heavy in the air, as his front was pressed further into the wall that he had just been shoved up against. A hand ran through his white hair, the fingers reaching and digging in, before it fisted and drew his head back.

‘’So young.’’ Jamie purred, as he pressed his nose to the side of Jacks neck and gently nipped at it. ‘’So feisty.’’

‘’What are you-‘’ Jack started, before the harsh scrape of teeth raking down over his delicate skin made him stop short. In a mix of surprise and pain, he yelped, as the other bit down.

‘’Stop struggling.’’ Jamie near growled, his voice laced with annoyance, as Jack tried to stomp on his foot in defiance.

‘’Fuck no, this is- stop it godsdammit!’’ Jack, slightly happy when his voice did not come out weak, cried, just as he was shoved harder into the wall. ‘’Get off me!’’

Despite his gentle appearance, Jamie was deceivingly strong, and Jack, much to his obvious dismay, could feel it, as the other pressed and moved against him. Roughly, after he had tried to reach back and scratch at the others face, his wrist was caught in a stern grip and moments later, he found his right hand to be wrenched behind his back.

He doubted that he would be heard, but he had to try regardless. Jack felt his throat burn, chest constricting, just as his roar was cut short, as the rough hand still in his hair drew his head back and then smacked it hard into the wall. Momentarily, as Jamie kissed at his neck, he found himself stunned by the impact of it.

‘’Scream like that again and I will make sure that you lose the ability for good.’’ Jamie hissed, as finally, he untangled his hand from the others white locks and nudged a knee in between Jacks thighs to spread them. The sound, as the buttons of his vest came undone one by one, was subtle and yet it sounded deafening to his own ringing ears. ‘’Just stay still boy.’’

‘’I’m not a boy you dimwitted pleb.’’ Jack hissed with as much spite as he could possibly muster. Increasingly, and just as Jamie wedged his free hand in under his shirt and pulled it up to expose his pale skin, he had a sinking feeling that he knew exactly who had him pinned. If anything, it would explain why the others had been avoiding the halls all day and why Pitch had allowed it.

‘’Stop it.’’ Jack wheezed breathlessly, as the others hand continued its exploration, the unwanted touch insistent and quickly traveling downwards, dipping into his navel, before a tongue flicked out and licked up the side of his neck.

‘’Stop it.’’ Jack tried again, his tone bordering on begging, as he squeezed his eyes shut. ‘’Please just stop this.’’ Cold sweat broke out – the others chuckle wet and warm, the breath of it ghosting over the shell of his reddened ear, as the offending hand continued further down and started working on getting his pants open.

‘’No.’’ Jamie hummed, just as Jack let out a small whine of despair and started trashing in order to get away. ‘’I want this.’’

This is happening, this is real, this is actually-

‘’Jamie.’’ A dry voice spoke up behind them and Jack could cry from relief. Actually, he was fairly sure that he already was. ‘’I believe that you can find other ways to entertain yourself.’’ The master of the house said, just as Jack managed to twist himself enough to glance over Jamies shoulder to see an unimpressed Pitch standing with his hands clasped behind his slightly hunched back. ‘’One-‘’ he continued while pinning Jamie in place with the coldest gaze that Jack had seen to date. ‘’-That does not include defiling my staff against a wall.’’

Jack felt a welcome chill wrap around him, as finally, Jamie stepped back and let him go.

‘’Oh if I must.’’ He said casually, laughing heartedly, as he straightened out his clothes and offered up a bright smile, as though he had not just been about to fuck Jack against a wall.

‘’Yes.’’ Pitch replied dryly, just as Jack, while feeling his entire frame shake, managed to stumble a step away from his offender and back towards what he knew was safety. ‘’You must.’’

‘’Well then, I shall see you in the morning Pitchnier?’’ Jamie said, as he stepped further back and adjusted the collar of his shirt, to which the master of the house huffed.

‘’Indeed.’’ Pitch spat and quickly strode forward, grabbing Jacks arm, before he started to lead him down the hallway, back towards the main area and most importantly, away from the other.

‘’Sweet dreams.’’ Jamie called after them.

‘’As to you.’’ Pitch offered, though it hardly sounded sincere.

--

 

It seemed as if an eternity passed, before his holder shoved Jack into his office and closed the door behind them. Highly, he felt lost, as Pitch all but jerked his chair out and sat down in it, picked up his feather and fiercely scrawled away at the paper below. Jack felt frozen in place, as he kept smoothing the front of his shirt down, fingers shaking, as he watched Pitch’ own move as though in a trance.

Slowly but surely, the reality of what had just occurred, or almost occurred, hit him with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

He could not breathe. It felt as if his heart had been replaced by a stone, the organ deadweight, heavy as lead, as it beat a quick tattoo against his hurting ribcage. He directed his blurred gaze at the floor instead then, as he felt a wave of icy regret creep in through his shoulders and settle deep into the pit of his empty stomach.

Why had this happened? Jack thought, as he bit the inside of his cheek hard. All of it seemed so absurd; this had not happened, it could not have-

As he felt the inside of his cheek start to bleed from how hard he was biting down on it, Jack squeezed his eyes shut, the first fresh tear trailing down his reddened cheek, as he willed himself to cut his own frantic musings short.

It had happened. It was real and he had done this to himself. Idly, he registered the sound of the scrape of the chair, as it was pushed back - his holders’ boots heavy, as Pitch got up and stalked close again.

This was his own fault. He had been warned, had he not?

‘’Jack.’’

The sound of his own name was loud in the room, as he felt a pair of hands settle lightly onto each of his trembling shoulders, the pressure barely there, but just enough to give a hint of a comforting touch.

‘’I need you to take a deep breath.’’

It burned all the way, as he gulped down air greedily in small, quick bursts of rapid succession and in response, he felt the points of pressure on his shoulders increase, as Pitch gently squeezed in order to get him to focus. Then, Jack felt it rattle in his throat, as he finally managed a single, shallow breath. He knew that it was far from enough, but the little hum of praise from above told him otherwise.

‘’Hold it.’’

Obediently, he did so, and as he was told to release it, his shoulders finally collapsed from the extended tension. As his holder patiently guided him through the exercise thrice, Jack snaked his arms around to hug himself close, just as the first sob tore itself free and startled him with how wrecked it sounded. In front, the texture of Pitchs’ embroidered coat was rough against his forehead, as he leaned forwards and hid his face in it. The tension was still there, as he freely cried and fought to get his breath under control, but it was getting manageable.

‘’Good.’’ Pitch praised regardless of the obvious hicks in the others rhythm.

Fuck, he could not stop trembling. Jacks voice was small and scared, slightly muffled, as he hunched his shoulders.

‘’I didn't want this.’’

‘’I know.’’

Barely, he could get the words to come, the lump in his throat making it hard to speak, but regardless, he pressed through. Still, he realized the irony that he had resorted to frantically fisting his hands into the rich coat of the very individual that he had tried to spite only hours before.

‘’I'm sorry.’’ Jack said, just as he felt one of the hands still shielding him move up and settle in his hair, the claws careful, mindful of their sharp edges, as they traced soothing patterns into it.

‘’It is not your fault.’’

The hand released him a beat before Jack stemmed his own hard against the others chest and shoved away from him. Vigorously, he rubbed his shaky palms over his face and eyes to clear them, Jack swallowing thickly, as he shook his head and stepped back further.

What the hell am I doing?

The meat of said palms pressed against his closed eyelids, as he stood stock-still and idly, he registered the retreating footfalls, as Pitch moved away from him again. The scrape of the chair sounded and just like that, with the small, moist spots still lingering in the dark fabric on Pitchs chest being the only proof that it had even happened, they were back to their regular show of imbalance. Angrily, the master of the house resumed his swift writing, just as Jack let his hands drop and fisted them in an attempt to stop the insistent shaking.

It did not work.

‘’I am not fond of having him here either.’’ Pitch clipped, just as he finished whatever sentence he had been working on. ‘’Believe me, I would rather have him gone.’’ He said and in response, Jack felt a wave of fresh anger sweep in and cloud his senses and dearly, he welcomed it in.

Truly, he would rather feel anything but that horrible guilt that kept nagging at him.

‘’With all due respect, then why the fuck would you keep him here?’’ Jack rasped, as he used the end of his sleeve to wipe at his eye again. ‘’Why even let him in in the first place?’’

‘’It is complicated.’’ Pitch replied, as he put his feather down again and leaned back in his chair. ‘’It keeps certain... affairs in balance that are too fragile to disrupt.’’

‘’And why the fuck is it so?’’

Pitch looked about ready to murder the papers in front of him if that was indeed possible and seemingly, as he growled low and rubbed at his temples, it was taking his all to stay calm as well.

That… Honestly made him feel better.

‘’Because we cannot say no to the earl.’’

Jack felt the world come to a screeching halt, his voice loud and cracking in the middle, as he pointed a crude, trembling finger at the door behind him.

‘’That, is the fucker you all been talking about?’’ He half shouted, as the implications of what the ludicrous notion meant hit him. ‘’That sad, sorry excuse for a human being?’’ He spat, to which Pitchs lip twitched in equal anger.

‘’Keep your voice down.’’

‘’And why the fuck would I do that?’’

‘’Because you have no idea what he is capable off.’’

‘’He nearly just-‘’ Jack cried, before he cut himself off abruptly. He did not want to say it – no, that would make it real. ‘’Give me a dagger.’’ He growled low instead. ‘’Give me a fucking dagger and I’ll put an end to this.’’ He knew that he was crying anew but cared for it none.

‘’It is not that simple.’’

‘’Bullshit, of course it is.’’ Jack hissed. ‘’He bleeds. He can die just like anyone else.’’

A tense silence settled then, before the master of the house sighed slow, his eyes falling closed for a beat, before he seemed to will himself a deep, grounding breath.

‘’This should not have happened, I should have warned you proper.’’ Pitch said on a tune that sounded genuinely apologetic, to which Jack shook his head.

‘’Don’t try and redirect the subject Pitch.’’ He pressed, just as he met the others glare head-on. Finally, it dawned on him that he felt no fear from the act and briefly, he could not help but wonder if their unwanted guests’ influence had chased away the shadows too. ‘’What is he?’’ Jack asked. ‘’What is he since you won’t let me go and do what should be done?’’

In front, the dark claws drummed over the tables’ rough surface, as Pitch seemed to mule on whether or not to answer honestly.

‘’A monster.’’ He finally offered back, to which Jack scoffed rather harshly.

‘’No shit.’’ He clipped back, to which Pitch shook his head once.

‘’You do not understand.’’

‘’Oh I understand just fine-‘’

The molten gold might not cause him any fright for the moment being, but the others sudden rise and approaching presence sure did. Swiftly, Jack lowered his gaze with another grit back scoff and in front, Pitch slowed when he realized that he had spooked the other.

Jack jolted, when the others firm palms once more settled onto his shoulders. Idly, his blurry eyes narrowed and glared the denied daggers into the rich embroidery of Pitchs chest instead, as he worried his quivering bottom lip between his teeth.

‘’Would you look at me?’’ The master of the house asked and a tad reluctantly, Jack did so after a beat. ‘’Do not attempt to end him.’’ Pitch said as he once more pressed down lightly on each of his thin shoulders. ‘’You might not believe my wish for your safety, but please, try to understand this - if you make an attempt on his life, then…’’ He said before trailing off and momentarily, he seemed lost in an old, terrible memory of his. ‘’I will have to bear witness to whatever method he sees fit to… correct you with.’’

‘’Not if he’s dead you won’t.’’

‘’Jack.’’ Pitch said on a sigh that sounded tired beyond his years, his shoulders hunching slightly, as he once more straightened up and let the other go. ‘’Do you truly believe that I have not tried to see to it so?’’

‘’I-‘’ Jack, genuinely surprised, tried, before cutting himself short as the words died in his mouth. No. No, he had not thought of such at all. Still lost for words, he gave a shaky nod back instead, though as to what he was agreeing to, he was not all too certain.

‘’Just know that we need to stay on his good side. We must.’’ Pitch pressed, as he turned and strode to a finely crafted cabinet in the corner of the small office. ‘’That man is lethal when he gets in a mood.’’

Oh, he did not doubt that.

The cabinets’ door swung open on perfectly silent hinges, before the master of the house reached in and retrieved two pristinely white rags and a small, green flask with red eggs painted onto it, out of it. The latter seemed an awfully colourful item in the else dark office and in between the claws that Pitch carefully held it in, it seemed like such a tiny thing. Swiftly, and as he stalked back to the puzzled-looking other, Pitch managed to get hold of the small lid of it and opened it up. As the cool rag was unceremoniously pressed to his neck, Jack flinched and jerked away from the sting of it.

‘’Pardon.’’ Pitch hummed, before Jack, still puzzled, nodded and once more stepped back within the others reach.

‘’But why is… why?’’ He tried, as his holder worked on getting the bitter-scenting salve into the aching side of Jacks neck.

‘’You were bitten.’’

‘’Oh.’’

Right. That. Quietly, Jack nodded and left it at such.

‘’Now of course, this is not something that I will force on you, but if you wish, you may stay the night in here.’’

It seemed childish, but the mere thought of leaving the small office, Jack swiftly realized, sent him on edge and so no, he would much rather stay right where he was. A moment later, Pitch hummed low to himself, as he wiped his hand on the second rag and put both of the now used ones and the bottle itself away, before he gestured at the chair that Jack had been shown to quite a few times before already.

‘’Stay put for the moment then.’’

Jack nodded, just as Pitch shoved past him, the click of the door subtle, but still sending a jolt of unwanted fright through him, as the master of the house left. Indeed, the panic was still there just beneath his anger, but he did not want to approach it just yet.

He felt restless, jittery and on edge and with heat taking to his cheeks, as he laced his pants back up, before going around to curl up into the chair that he had been gestured to. Like this, left alone for the moment being and with nothing else to focus on, he happened to glance at the papers that Pitch had been working on and while he could not read the words themselves, the others anger was still clearly visible regardless.

How hard did one need to press in order to cut through both the fibers of the papers and then permanently into the hard wood of the table itself? He had no clue, but he was a tad impressed by it.

Jack really was not the only one angry then. He had known that, but the physical embodiment of it seemed to cement the notion further. Still, he wondered, as he dug the sharp edges of his nails into his upper arms - just how much did it hurt for Pitch to have to house the one who had taken his own daughter away from him?

Perhaps… perhaps he really was as trapped as the rest of them in this.

With a jolt, Jack sat up in his seat, heart in his throat, as he spun to glance over at the door that had just opened again, before swiftly, he got up and helped Pitch get the small couch that he had been dragging with him into the already packed space of the office.

Christ that thing was heavy though, but with their joined efforts, they managed to get it firmly squeezed up against the wall on the opposite side of the fireplace. It barely left any room for Pitch to get around to his own side of the desk, but if anything, the other did not seem overly bothered by it.

Without a word and lost in thought as he seemed, the master of the house handed Jack a blanket from the ornamental chest beneath his desk and a ridiculously soft pillow that he had snatched from gods knew where. With a sigh, Pitch too seemed to realize the state of his table, as he sat down - the dry slide of paper loud, as he got a fresh sheet out and started writing anew.

‘’Pitch?’’ Jack asked after he had curled up on his bed for the night, to which he got a hum of acknowledgement. ‘’Does Jamie ever come in here?’’

Behind and slightly in front, the feather stopped its fierce dance over the paper for all of a beat, before it started up again.

‘’Hardly ever.’’

Jack worried at his lip again, as he stared at the intricate, woven patterns of the couch’ muted fabrics.

‘’Hardly ever as in never or as in sometimes?’’

A dry click sounded, as the feather was put down and intensely, Jack listened, as he waited for the answer. It seemed another small eternity passed, before the reply finally came and when it did, the underlying rage and coldness of it sent a small shiver down his spine.

‘’He will not touch you again.’’

‘’You can’t promise such a thing.’’ Jack pressed, as he fiddled with the edge of his blanket.

‘’Perhaps not.’’ Pitch agreed on a voice that sounded anything but calm and collected and yet, it seemed to ease the worst of Jacks immediate fears. ‘’Perhaps not, but I will do all in my power to stop him.’’

That was good enough for him and pressing the other further on the matter would get them nowhere. He knew that. He knew that and so, while it did take the better half of an hour to find any rest, Jack eventually did drift off to the sound of the others harsh scribbles.

Chapter Text

Fuck this day and all that it was going to bring.

Jack did not want to get up. What was the point of it anyway? He knew that Jamie had planned to spend at least two more days at the mansion and quite honestly, with all of the newfound information that he now had on him, he was not sure if he could face him again.

With a groan, he borrowed deeper down into his blanket, just as the dry flick of the page of a book being turned sounded beside him. As he finally braved himself enough to open his eyes and look over, he found Pitch, who was sporting a pair of black-rimmed reading glasses, to be quietly invested in a book.

It was peculiar really, but Jack found himself almost missing the familiar fear that the others golden gaze brought with it. If anything, it would have been a much-welcomed distraction from whatever it was that his frightened heart was busy doing in the wake of the nights passed events. The moment was broken, as his holder turned his attention back onto the fresh page before him, his eyes rapidly moving over it, as he absently reached out a hand to tug twice on one of the five silvery cords.

Slowly, Jack stretched out on the couch. He was fully dressed. He should have no reason not to rise and while it did not actually seem as if the other would comment on it, he could not help but wonder if Pitch would even care if he did indeed stay in all day.

A few minutes later, Monty came in, a tray balanced on one hand and what appeared to be a letter in the other. Swiftly, the tray was placed on the table, their holder silent, as he put his book down and instead extended a clawed hand to accept what was indeed a letter - the click of the door near silent, as the ghoul stalked out and closed it behind him.

Jack drew a deep breath, as he made up his mind and hoisted himself up with his elbow. Silently, he watched as Pitch opened and read the letter, face set in a frown, as he then grumbled something in that language that Jack could not understand and then, very elegantly, discarded the letter over his shoulder.

‘’Bad news?’’ Jack asked before he could think better of it and immediately, as the other turned his clearly annoyed attention back onto him, he felt himself tense up. Fairly quick though, Pitchs’ gaze softened, the quiet heavy for a beat, before the other circled a hand up beside his head and curled his clawed fingers into a loose fist.

‘’I am afraid so yes.’’ The master of the house said, as he seemed to decide to humor the other. ‘’Three of our associates have had their supplies eaten away by rats or found their stored crops to be infected by fungi.’’ Pitch said, as he reached out a hand to snatch a small, brown, wood-like oval close from the presented tray in front of him. As he bit into it, it made a dull crunch.

Jack could not help but look him over then. He wore what he had yesterday, hair still perfectly in place and while he did not seem tired, and so, it could not be, Jack felt his brow furrow regardless, as the thought struck him.

Had he even slept?

‘’They are asking for a share of ours.’’

The carpet was slightly cool against his feet, as Jack finally sat up and, before he could lose his courage, clutched the blanket close and stalked over.

‘’And is that something we can help with?’’ He asked, as he sat down and reached out to snatch one of the wood-like pieces from Pitchs personal breakfast close. The texture was slightly dry against his tongue, as he bit it in half and in front, he noted the rise of the others hairless brow, before the master of the house slowly shook his head in what was unmistakably fond amusement. Even if Pitch had seemed to decide to let it slide, Jack would not have cared if he had not - he was simply starving too much as it was already.

‘’No.’’ The master of the house said. ‘’Our own are low as it is. We cannot aid in their needs this time.’’ He said, to which Jack hummed.

He had no clue as to how a shortage of rations usually worked out between neighboring mansions and farms and so, he shrugged, as he stole another of the small ovals. Still, the texture was as dry as the last, but he reckoned that they were not all bad.

‘’I thought that we bought extra in order to have enough though?’’

‘’And if I tell you that the earl has claimed half of our share, will you leave it at that?’’

Jack paused briefly on his fifth of the strange wood-like pieces, before he continued to munch on it at a much slower pace.

‘’Do you actually ever sleep?’’ He asked instead, to which Pitch softly sighed. If anything, it seemed that the other was glad for the change in subject.

‘’Rarely. I do not need rest for quite extended periods of time.’’

Honestly, that explained a few things.

‘’And what do you do in the meantime then?’’ Jack asked, to which Pitch shrugged slightly.

‘’Usually, I read.’’

’Fair.’’ Jack grumbled, and, as he mustered up the courage to help himself to the hardboiled eggs, bread and fruits, Pitch allowed it. Minutes passed like that, before the master of the house spoke up again.

‘’Your responsibilities will solely be in the stables today. Adriane needs a proper grooming.’’ He said, to which the other nodded. ‘’And, considering the slightly unique touch to the situation, the occasion and all that has passed-’’ Pitch continued, as he flicked out a hand and lightly smacked Jacks away from the blueberries that he had been about to snatch. Instead, he nudged the grapes closer to the other. ‘’Should I find both her and you to be missing for the time being, then I could quite highly be likely to let it slip.’’

Jack blinked up in surprise, mouth open and paused around the grape that he had been about to bite into.

‘’He stays for two more days yeah?’’ He yapped, before he took a healthy bite out of it, to which Pitch nodded.

‘’Indeed.’’

‘’How far am I allowed to go?’’ Jack asked, to which the other glanced at him over the rim of his glasses.

‘’Officially, to the fence and no further.’’ Pitch said, before he popped a slightly overripe blueberry in his mouth. ‘’But, if I hear from North that you have arrived at his workshop, then so be it.’’

‘’And who is North?’’

‘’It is the one acquaintance of mine that I send your sister to li-‘’

Already, Jack had sprung up and headed for the door, before Pitch had had time to finish his sentence.

’Jack!’’

Idly, with his heart hammering anew in his chest, Jack froze and spun just in time to see Pitch bend and place a clawed hand on the lid of the ornamental chest beneath his desk. A small creak sounded as he opened it - the black, handed over coat with a rich fur trim far too big for the younger, but necessary against the cold, as the master of the house held it out for him to take.

‘’No more than four days absence. There will be consequences if you stray for longer.’’ Pitch clipped, just as Jack went back and accepted the garment. It was heavy in his grip - at least half an arms-length too long for him and he just knew that it would look ridiculous on him but honestly? He could not wait.

‘’Tell Adriane the destination and she will take you there. She knows the way well on her own.’’

Jack could not help the bright grin that flashed over his face, as he beamed his appreciation up at the other, before he nodded once in obvious glee. He felt giddy by the prospect, as he turned and took off down the hall and then further out towards the stables themselves.

He was going to see his sister!

Chapter Text

The wind blew in his hair, making it unruly and blinding him at random, as he rode on, but, with Adriane steady on her hooves and leading the way, Jack knew that they would be fine. Only twice did she stop along the way to drink from the cold of a wild, running river and now, little over thirteen hours later, Jack, amazed and with little more than a subtle sting of awe in his heart, found his excitement to once more spike, as they approached the broad gold and red gate of the workshop ahead. Already, it was far into the evening, but at least, it seemed most of its occupants were still awake.

‘’Good girl.’’ Jack praised, as the great metal creaked open by itself and allowed them passage. ‘’You did amazing.’’ Below, Adriane panted softly in response, but if she had actually understood the spoken words or not, he had no idea.

Ahead, a young man who introduced himself as Caleb approached and helped Jack get down and once the latter had explained who he was and who he had come to see, he was allowed in through the double doors of the workshop itself. Caleb, as seemed to be the same for the rest of the servants all busily buzzing around inside the entrance of the place, was dressed in black plants and a simple red shirt, where, in Calebs case at least, the top three buttons were undone. Caleb seemed to walk with a slight limp, but easily, he kept a steady pace regardless.

Behind them, sweeping over the sand-coloured tiles like a wave of pure, dark shadow, the end of the coat that Jack had been given dragged after him, and, as he kept glancing up at his current companion, he could not help but notice the striking resemblance that Caleb shared to Claude.

Softly, he voiced as much.

‘’Yeah he’s my twin actually.’’ Caleb said with a fond smile, as he showed Jack through the entrance. The place was massive - far grander than the dark mansion that he had left behind. ‘’It’s a long story but let’s just say that we… well your lill sis and I kinda share the same details as to how we ended up here.’’

‘’So what, Claude stole you away from another holder as well?’’ Jack asked, to which Caleb barked a short, heartedly laugh.

‘’Nah man, not like that. Pitch bought us both outta a shitty situation, but he only had need for one of us and besides, it wasn’t safe for me to stay there, so I had to go.’’ Caleb explained with a slight shrug. ‘’He said we could both come here if we didn’t wanna split, but my bro wanted to stay with that lady-friend of his and so I went on my own.’’

Clearly, there was more to the story, but judging from the tone, Jack found it better not to ask.

‘’Cupcake?’’ He asked instead, as he decided that to be a safe topic to land on.

‘’Yea that sounds about right. How’s she holding up anyway?’’ Caleb asked, and from there, the conversation quickly escalated into a thorough report on each of the dark mansions servants’ general health and likelihood.

Very pointedly, he avoided sharing what had occurred over the past three days.

‘’Good to hear.’’ Caleb said with a small grin, as Jack finished up the chatter. ‘’Real good.’’

Above and up ahead, as they approached the red, gold and sand-coloured staircase, a man appeared onto its landing. Despite the others broad, tattoo-littered arms and shoulders, the hawk-like gleam in his twinkling eyes and the sharp sables strapped to his sides, the impressive white beard and the fat belly gave him away as far more than just a mindless brute. Instantly, Jack knew that he had been right, as the other spread his arms out wide and boomed a deep laugh in delighted greeting.

‘’Mini Koz!’’ The man cheered merrily, just as Jack leaned towards Caleb in order to whisper low.

‘’That’s North, right?’’ He asked, just as the giant of a man came pounding down the stairs at a speed far faster than seemed reasonable.

‘’That is indeed North yeah.’’ Caleb answered a few beats before the man in question reached them.

All at once, quite a few things happened.

‘’Tiny Koz, what brings you here?’’ North asked with a warm smile, as he bend a tad forward in order to get on Jacks eyelevel. ‘’Or who is you exactly?’’ He continued with a tilt of the head, just as a blur of movement rounded the corner of the hallway beside them and bolted straight for Jack – the impact nearly sending the latter tumbling over, as Jacks little sister crashed into his side.

’Jack!’’ Emma cried, as she hugged him tightly around the middle and immediately, he hugged her back with a wide smile of his own.

‘’I’m-‘’ Jack started to answer North, before a loud, unfamiliar voice interrupted him.

‘’Emma!’’ The voice called from the same hallway that Emma had just come from and, just out of the corner of his slightly obscured by brown hair vision, Jack spotted yet another figure striding towards them quick. A blond, petite female it turned out to be, in a red shirt and a long, flowery skirt, which moved elegantly behind her with each fast, passing step that she took.

Well this is a bit hectic all of a sudden, Jack thought, as he extended a hand out over his sisters’ shoulder, which North shook a tad harder than he had probably meant to.

‘’North.’’ North said in proper greeting, as he let the others hand go, and straightened back up again.

‘’Jack.’’ Jack answered, just as the blond female caught up to their spontaneous group meeting.

‘’You know its bedtime little bunny.’’ The newly arrived said, as she squatted down beside Emma and wagged an insistent finger at her. ‘’No running off like that without warning.’’

‘’But-‘’

‘’It is well past eight dearest. No excuses.’’

Really, Jack could not help but feel slightly dizzy from the amount of new people suddenly crowding around him, but alas, he could barely be bothered, when one of those individuals was his darling sister.

‘’I think we can make an exception Soph. He’s family.’’ Caleb said, as he gestured at Jack.

‘’I do not care if he is the king himself, this little beansprout needs to sleep.’’

’Aw come on, don’t be like that.’’

‘’Young brains need rest Kale, it is just how it is.’’ Sophie said, as she made a show out of examining her painted nail close. ‘’I do not make the rules.’’

‘’You literally do.’’

‘’Well yes, but that is beside the point.’’

In Jacks arms, Emma twisted enough in order to look up at the quietly chuckling North.

‘’Pappi, can I please stay up a bit longer?’’

‘’Course!’’ North agreed with a small shake of the head, to which Sophie loudly rolled her eyes.

‘’Sure, pay no mind to the over glorified nanny’s schedule, it is not as if she has other important matters to attend to.’’ She huffed, before tossing her blond hair over one shoulder. ‘’You,’’ Sophie said, as she pointed a crude finger directly at Caleb, who instantly raised his hands in mock surrender ‘’are seeing her to bed. I will check on her personally at ten, so you had better do it proper this time.’’

‘’No prob Soph, I gotcha.’’ Caleb said, just as the other stood up in a great heap of waving skirts and dancing flowers. ‘’We still on at nine for that dance practice though, right?’’ He asked, to which the other nodded once.

‘’Indeed. Do not be late. I will put you on cookie duty all week if you are.’’ She said with a small wave, before leaning back down to ruffle up Emma’s hair. ‘’Sweet dreams little bird.’’

’Night!’’ Emma called back with a wave of her own, as the other straightened back up and strode off.

-

 

Considering the soft snores, which sounded in Jacks ear, as Emma, even in her sleeping state, hugged him tight; it really had been well past her bedtime. Somewhere along the way, after little over half an hour had passed, a servant had brought over and discarded a still decreasing tray of cookies, which now rested beside North and in front of the man, his legs were spread out comfortably, palms flat on the floor, as they chatted away about all and nothing.

‘’Is child.’’ North had said on a shrug, as he had gestured at the girls sleeping form, right as Caleb had gingerly scooped her up and carried her off to bed, after Jack had voiced his relief at not seeing his little sister put to any hard work in the workshop itself. ‘’Let be so.’’

If anything, the tone sounded sincere, final and firm and it was all that Jack could do not to feel the heavy stone around his heart lift fully.

North was a good man.

Emma would be fine.

As for Caleb, the man had had yet to return and so, Jack mused that he had run off to attend to other matters than rescuing the latter’s shoulder from any further sleep-induced drooling. Idly, he grabbed one of the remaining cookies from the tray, as a lull in the conversation urged them both to get up and for North to show him around.

Endless shelves stretched out around them – each lined with what seemed like an increasing amount of toys and fairly quick, Jack deducted that that was indeed what the workshop itself mainly produced. For what purpose exactly, he had no clue, but considering the size of the place, it seemed there was indeed a flourishing market for it. He felt strangely at ease here. The air was clean, the pace quick but somehow still relaxed.

It seemed peacefully busy at best.

Pausing around his mouthful of cookie, Jack felt himself rapidly blink, as he found the other to be watching him intensely.

‘’Pardon?’’ He asked, just in case he had been asked a question. A few crumbs fell from his grip and beside him, North tilted his head at him.

‘’What happen?’’ The man asked and abruptly, the underlying tone gave Jack a sense of acute reluctance.

‘’…What?’’

‘’You are sad?’’ North elaborated. ‘’Is this Pitch doing?’’ He asked, to which Jack, perhaps a bit too quickly if the others narrowed gaze was anything to judge by, shook his head in a stern dismissal.

No. No it really was not, but if he could speak freely or not on the matter, he still had no clue.

‘’He’s only been good to me so far.’’ Jack added on a low tone and knew in his heart that it was true. A few seconds ticked by, the gears clearly turning in the others thick skull, before North let out a small ‘ah’ of sudden understanding. The man seemed genuinely sympathetic, as he grumbled something under his breath and leaned forward to gently settle his broad hand onto Jacks bony shoulder.

‘’What happen then?’’ North asked, as he tightened his grip slightly and just beneath his skin, Jack felt a strange, unfamiliar thrum of something run through him. It felt powerful and far more ancient than his tired brain could quite understand. As for the mans next words, Jack had not realized that he had stepped backwards in response, before his back collided with the shelf behind him. He felt it bounce from how hard he had crashed into it, a few objects wobbling from the impact but luckily, nothing fell.

‘’What did little earl do?’’

‘’I-‘’ Jack tried before cutting himself short. Cannot approach this yet rang through his head, but how was North supposed to understand what that meant? ‘’I don’t. I don’t really... It’s just. It’s just that he-‘’ Still, it seemed that the other did indeed understand even if Jack did not voice the atrocious thoughts aloud.

The cage, the ice, the damned dead with their judging, glazed over eyes and rotting skin slowly peeling away from the skull underneath. The pale sun that never quite provided enough warmth. The stale breaths and scent of the equally trapped still lingering so closely around him in his every waking and unconscious step. Then, shelter, peace, safety and something that came dangerously close to compassion from the golden eyed other and now what exactly? It had felt safe and for a while, Jack had been almost close to content within the dark halls of his upgraded prison that, somewhere along the lines, had started to feel more like a home than anything. But then, just as he had let it sink in and calm him some, then the reality of the situation had come back to smack him over the back of the head and once more remind him that nothing in his shit-show of a situation would ever truly be stable again.

But, he had started the turn-point, had he not? He had started it once he had found Emma scrubbing away at the floors of the rundown bakery – her hair falling in her face, head bowed so low that she did not even notice who was in her presence and really, if she had, then Jack, for the both of them, would not have been able to leave without her. He would have taken her with him right then and there and he would have been hanged for it. Pitch had stopped that from happening as well. Forced as he was, he had stopped it and the following wrongs from being carried out as well.

He did not quite register the moment that his knees buckled under him, but slowly, Jack realized that he had indeed slid down and ended up on the floor. Idly, he shifted a leg under him, his shin digging into sand-coloured tiles, as he shook his head as if to clear it from the burst of unwanted emotions.

How was he supposed to feel about that? How was he supposed to feel about any of it?

Still, he had come to realize just this morning past - still, he trusted Pitch to keep his word and keep him out of harm’s way, but how could he if he did not have any true authority over the perverse image of… whatever the fuck it was that Jamie was?

‘’He didn’t actually, you know- he didn’t actually. He didn’t actually get to-’’

Pitch had been there. Pitch had gotten there in time to stop it but even so, the whole aspect of the act itself made Jack sick to his stomach.

It had not happened. That had not happened, so why was he reacting this way?

Norths grip was gentle as it ghosted over the back of his clutching fingers and got the other to let go of his hair less he rip it all out in a fit of unease and lingering fright. Damn the cage. Damn the dead and their dead eyes and dead mouths. Damn Jamie. Damn it all!

‘’Why can’t he use his shadows around him?’’ Jack asked vaguely instead in a way of distraction, but in front, it seemed North understood. He well remembered the tight sensation, as those dark tendrils had kept him dormant. There had been actual strength in their grip and damn well if Pitch could not have crushed Jamie if he so wanted, which clearly, he did. In front of him, North cracked his knuckles.

‘’Core is suffocated in presence of earl.’’ The man said, as he pointed a fat finger at himself. ‘’But mine,’’ he continued, as he offered up a soft and yet sharp-edged smile ‘’No. Mine work just perfect and I will use eventually to take out tiny earl.’’

We are not supposed to talk about our core. Clearly, North had not gotten that memo.

‘’You’re gonna fight him?’’ Jack asked as he balled his trembling hands into fists and pressed them against his chest, to which the other nodded.

‘’Once other get faith back? Yes. At moment though,’’ North shrugged ‘’only Tooth seem certain in success. Considering who foe is, is gonna be difficult with only two ready to fight back.’’

Faith, cores and monsters in sheep’s clothing. This entire thing ran deeper than he had thought.

‘’How can I help?’’ Jack asked, before he could help himself and in front, North beamed a grand, warm smile at him.

‘’Believe.’’ The man said simply. ‘’Core is not everything. No faith,’’ he said on a shrug ‘’and we have no chance. Believe and get other to believe as well. Power will come in time. Until then, we must bide time and just believe.’’

Jack felt his blinking somehow intensify, as he found a meaty finger poking gently at his chest.

‘’And you,’’ North started on a low tone, his bushy eyebrows wiggling, as though it was a great secret that he was about to share ‘’have strong core. Find source and use it.’’

‘’I don't... think I quite follow?’’ Jack said, to which the other laughed a deep, merry laughter.

‘’You will.’’ North shrugged, and, as he once more clasped him on the shoulder, Jack did not comment that the force of it was nearly enough to truly send him sprawling out onto the floor below. ‘’Give time and source will come to you.’’ He said as he got up and held a hand down for Jack to take, North quick to help him stand, once Jack did. ‘’Now,’’ North continued and while Jack still felt slightly on edge from the others all too knowing gaze, the beat of the tone did a great deal at soothing the worst of his fright. ‘’Perhaps I should show you rest of shop?’’ he asked and swiftly, Jack nodded his consent.

That sounded just fine by him - Anything that could take his mind off all the shit that had gone down in the past two months, or however long it had been, and he would be quite grateful for it.

--

 

The first three days passed by far quicker than he liked and soon, much too soon, the sun rose and marked his final day of his spontaneous gift of freedom, as it bathed the red roof of the workshop in its rays of pale, golden light.

Come noon, he knew that he should go and take his leave, but technically, if he managed it, it would only count as four days if he arrived before the sunset of the fifth, right?

Right. Only one way to find out, and as the early hours of the evening came and then went, Jack finally sighed, waved his goodbyes and headed out to fetch Adriane for the long trek home.

Chapter Text

The first thing that hit him was the smell, thick, metallic and heavy in the air, as Adriane slowly clip clopped over the white of the snow-covered cobblestones. The second thing that struck him, as he got close enough to see it, pale and barely visible under the dim light of the moon, was the red streaks that had sunk into it.

Blood. There was blood on the snow.

Why was there blood on the snow?

Jack did not think as he slid off Adriane and slowly started to approach the double doors of the mansion and behind, he more heard than saw, as the mare retreated towards the stables on her own. Swiftly, he got up and pressed his back to the wall, Jack swallowing thickly, as he spun, leaned up on the tip of his toes and peeked his head over the windowsill.

Nothing. There was nothing to be seen, and as he made his way inside, the halls seemed deserted and silent. Something was horribly wrong. Someone had gotten hurt; he could feel it, as he crept through the darkened halls. It made him feel like an intruder. Out of place and stepping in places that he should not.

The kitchen was deserted. Pitchs office and the common reading rooms just as so and tightly, Jack clenched his fists and ignored the small bursts of panic that sparked through him at that. Still, it was in the early hours of the morning, technically still night, so perhaps everyone else was just merely asleep? Perhaps he was just overthinking it?

His own breathing felt too loud, skin too tight until he tore off and abandoned his borrowed coat over the back of a random chair that he passed. Soon, as he made his way in deeper, the light brown and the rich, dark gold gave way to the more pale and muted ones that surrounded the masters personal quarters. Swiftly, he found the door that he sought and pushed it open. He had not actually been in here before, but it was the last place that he could think to check and he wanted to know. Needed to know.

The room that stretched out before him was nearly completely dark, rendering him momentarily blind, as he went in. Jack paused where he had been feeling along the wall, his fingers digging into the tapestry, as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness.

Bed. There beside him was the bed and on it, a figure lay. Barely, as Jack felt his right thigh connect with the edge of it, he could make out the others features, but as to what he could see, he very much did not like it. A deep crease seemed to remain between his hairless brows - the soft breaths that Pitch drew the only indication that he was indeed still alive. He seemed to be in so much pain and Jack, perhaps out of relief that the other still breathed or for some other reason entirely, without thinking much of it, raised his hand out towards him. The cheek that he cupped was warm under his touch, Pitchs jaw and cheekbone defined and sharp, as he traced the tip of a finger down over it.

Fine. He was fine. Despite the amount of blood spilt, he was fine.

Still, this was insane . What was he even doing in here; he should probably leave before-

Jack froze in his tracks, veins frozen over in fright and body going rigid, as the others molten gold snapped open wide and focused onto him. Pitch did not seem to register his surroundings though; just that someone else was near him and less than a beat later, Jack felt something collide with his chest, the breath knocked out of him, as his back slammed into the wall that he had been feeling along a mere minute ago.

The bands that snaked around his torso felt solid, the hands and fingers that clutched and clamped down on his arms, lower legs, in his hair and on his neck just as so. He could not move, could not even cry out, as he felt the pressure on his throat increase to the point of suffocation. Panicked, he found himself completely immobilized and unable to do much more than widen his eyes further and thrash against the binds that held him, his mouth hanging open, as he fought to draw the breath that he could not.

He needed to get free. He needed to get free and he could not.

A small eternity passed, the bones in his arms protesting loudly against the crushing pressure, before finally, two enraged orbs of glowing gold and pure hatred opened up in front of him and stared down. Narrowed, they stayed for all of a terrifying moment, before they widened in regretful recognition and immediately, Jack felt his knees buckle beneath him and had it not been for the hasty grip that shot out and held him up, then he would have tumbled to the ground in a heap of his own, unresponsive limbs.

Gently, and with obvious care and concern, Pitch helped him down, as Jack coughed and gasped raggedly - the hand on the latter’s throat warm and physical this time, as the former clutched him close and drew his back up against his own chest.

Fuck that hurt.

Jack shut his eyes against the golden light that spilled forth from Pitchs shielding fingers and as they raked over the area in a soft whisper of apology, they eased out and chased away the ache. Long after the pain had faded, they lingered and rubbed soothing circles into the skin of his neck and throat, before moving down to embrace him close.

Barely, Jacks arms and the rest of him for that matter, held any strength, as Pitch just held him.

It should not feel peaceful. He had just been attacked, but alas, it did.

‘’What happened?’’ Jack asked on a thin voice that broke in the middle, after the pressing quiet had stretched on for far longer than he was comfortable with. Softly, he elaborated when the other hummed in question. ‘’The blood. There's blood on the snow. Who's is it?’’ A tired breath ghosted over the side of his neck, the others voice sounding exhausted and raspy from unuse, as he spoke.

‘’Mine.’’

‘’What happened?’’ Jack asked, to which he felt the arms around him tighten further.

‘’Do not worry about it.’’

‘’Pitch, what happened?’’ Jack pressed and had to stop for a brief cough, as it aggravated his numbed and tingling throat. ‘’What did he do?’’

‘’A punishment was due for what I did.’’

‘’And what did you do?’’

A wave of black ghosted over his legs and up his front in what could almost be considered a gentle caress. It felt as if he was being shielded and Pitch, seeming reluctant to let him go as he was, had not stopped touching him either. Finally, he sighed in defeat.

‘’I sent you away.’’

Jack squeezed his eyes shut in response to that. He did not want to know. He did not want to know and yet, he had to ask.

‘’And why would he punish you for that?’’

‘’Because he wanted to take you to bed, but you were not here for him to do so.’’

‘’Did you...’’ He should not ask these things, he really should not. ‘’Did you know he was gonna ask for it? Or demand it?’’

Around, the shadows seemed to thicken further, true black crowding close, as it crawled over the floor and the lowest parts of the walls.

‘’Yes.’’

Jack did nothing to try to stop the tears that welled up from that. Neither did he quite registered that he was clutching onto one of Pitchs wrists, before the other covered his lesser hand with his clawed own. Idly, he bit his bottom lip till it bleed.

‘’Will he be back?’’

‘’I cannot say.’’

‘’Will he be back?’’

‘’It is possible yes.’’

The breath rattled in his throat, as Jack tried to breathe deep and as Pitch spoke again, he seemed to have gained a bit of strength back – the firmness there, creeping in slow and coating the edges, as he seemed to will himself secure on the matter.

‘’He will not touch you again. He will not get to touch any of you ever again.’’ The master of the house repeated his words from days past, to which the other barked a humorless laugh.

‘’You can't promise such a thing.’’ Jack hissed and if his breath had not been lodged in his throat, then he would have shouted it. ‘’You can't even use your core around him!’’ Immediately, he felt the change in the atmosphere, as flickers of the others silent rage crept in and swept around them in bursts of pure, dancing black.

‘’I will die before I let it happen.’’ Pitch solemnly vowed on a low grit out growl. ‘’Mark my words, I will not let it come to pass.’’

‘’And what are you?’’ Jack cried, as he clutched at the others arm. ‘’What are you since you believe you can make such promises?’’

‘’A king.’’ Pitch said with absolutely no jest in his voice and Jack felt the others hold tighten beyond comfortable, as he crushed him close as well. ‘’Or perhaps I was. I was and I will be again and when it happens, there will be no rock, no castle or stronghold, which can shield that wrecked rat from my anger. He will die for what he has done to me and mine. He will die and it will be a glorious day for triumph when I crush his skull beneath my heel.’’

As sweet as that sounded, it was a complete opposite from last they had spoken on the matter and still, Jack remembered the dismissal, as he had asked for a dagger to put an end to it all.

‘’Why did you fail the last time then?’’

‘’I underestimated his wit.’’ Pitch said on a clearly bitter tone. ‘’It will not happen again.’’

‘’He got the upper hand on you?’’ Jack asked and in return, the other laughed a low, mirthless tune.

‘’He took my daughter. Used her as a shield and put a dagger to her throat.’’

‘’And your shadows?’’ Jack asked.

‘’He ate them.’’

’Ate them?’’

A low hum that came close to a growl sounded directly in his ear, as Pitch lowered his head and rested his chin on Jacks thin shoulder.

‘’As he does now as well. He is an empty void that takes and takes and takes. He swallows them whole and renders me powerless. It is the same with the others. Whatever we bring, he consumes, takes and uses to his own advantage. If we were to fight then we must bring a feast too big for him to digest.’’

‘’And can we do that?’’

Pitch fell quiet for a beat, before the hand not placed firmly over Jacks raised and settled into his hair instead, the claws careful, as they raked through the white locks and really, it was all that Jack could do not to melt into the others touch. He was quite exhausted after the long ride and this? This felt nice.

‘’Perhaps.’’ Came the eventual answer. ‘’I cannot say for certain.’’

Believe. North had said something about believing, right?

‘’North can use his core around him though.’’ Jack tried, as he felt himself fully relax into the others hold. ‘’Why can’t you?’’

‘’Of course he would brag about that little detail.’’ Pitch grumbled, his careful tending’s of the others hair stopping for all of a beat, before he started up again. ‘’Nicholas has managed to shield himself and find a source that is not finite. The rest of us must recharge while he,’’ he said, before removing his hand briefly to flick his fingers to the ceiling ‘’gets to go as hard as he wishes. He never tires in the same way that the rest of us do.’’

Find your source and use it.

‘’What is your source then?’’

‘’Hush, that is not for you to know.’’

‘’But-‘’

‘’No, Jack. Be quiet about it.’’

’But-‘’ Jack started before cutting himself short. It would be no use - he knew that tone well enough already. ‘’You told me not to attempt to end him.’’ Jack pointed out instead. ‘’But it sounds like you're planning on it anyway? What changed?’’

‘’Perhaps I have found a new set of priorities.’’

‘’And what would those be?’’

‘’That enough is enough.’’ Pitch said simply, to which Jack raised a brow.

‘’That isn't exactly an answer.’’

‘’And perhaps I do not wish to share them with a mere servant.’’

‘’Rude.’’

‘’It is not.’’

‘’Is too.’’ Jack grumbled, before they both fell quiet. Several minutes passed like that, before Jack spoke up again. ‘’Are the rest alright though? He didn’t...?’’

‘’He did not get to physically harm any of the others no.’’

That, if anything, was a relief.

Carefully, Pitch helped him stand, checking him over for any injuries before he stalked past and headed for a silver fetcher by the window, and immediately, Jack was glad for the dark still pressing in on him. Considering what his main occupation was, the master of the house was rather sculpted, but, Jack thought as he eyed the others bare, toned arms and shoulders, at least he was wearing pants.

He had been about to ask another question, lips already forming around the words when he caught sight of the state of the others back. Soft and fragile, the pale moonlight reflected over the carnage, the details getting clearer still, as Pitch came to a hold in front of the window.

Whipped. He had been whipped. Badly.

Clawed fingers closed around the fetchers handle and edge, before Pitch raised it to his lip and drank deep from it.

‘’H-how long had…’’ Jack tried, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, as he stared at the absolute horror so carelessly presented in front of him. ‘’How long had you… How long had you been asleep?’’ Jack finally managed with a slight stutter in his voice, to which the other hummed low in thought - a claw ticking against the edge of the fetchers’ metal, before Pitch lowered it down to chest height.

‘’How long have you been away?’’ The master of the house asked instead.

‘’It's close to the dawn of the fifth day.’’ Jack said, to which he got another little hum in return.

‘’Two days straight then.’’

Jack felt himself blink, fingers shaky, as he willed them into fists.

‘’Is that... is that normal for you?’’

‘’No.’’ Came the answer, as Pitch put the fetcher down with slightly more force than was necessary. ‘’But seeing as the little earl eats away at my core whenever he is near, it is quite common for me to get drained far quicker than I else regularly would.’’

‘’Even if you don’t use your shadows?’’

‘’Yes.’’

That was valuable information. Still, how the hell where they going to defeat that?

Curtly, Jack nodded, his gaze lowering, as he opted to glare at the floor at his holders moving feet instead.

‘’Go to bed.’’ Pitch said, as he stalked past him and opened up a drawer opposite his own. Swiftly, he got out and then tugged a clean shirt on, fingers moving with expert ease, as he buttoned it up. ‘’You can take the day off as well.’’

Again, Jack nodded.

‘’I-‘’ He started, lip hurting, as he flicked the tip of his tongue out over it. It was trivial. Jack did not care about such silly, formal things, but Pitch clearly did. ‘’Thank you sir.’’ His holders fingers paused on the last button for the briefest of beats, golden eyes twinkling with startled amusement, the small grin that spread out over his features smug, as he huffed at him. He seemed genuinely delighted by the small defeat and promptly, Jack thought it worth it.

‘’You are dismissed.’’ Pitch said and again, the other nodded, as he turned to leave, only to stop dead in his tracks, as the other called out again. ‘’Oh, and Jack,’’ the master of the house continued ‘’do not hesitate to come to me if you need it.’’ He pressed, his head lowering slightly, eyes narrowed, to get his point across. ‘’Whatever the reason may be or however small the matter may seem, do not hold your tongue.’’

For the fourth and final time, Jack nodded.

‘’Gotcha.’’

And really, while a slight coldness still lingered in its edge from their previous talk, Jack thought it might have been the first genuine smile that he had seen from the other.

‘’Good. Now go.’’ Pitch implored as he waved a hand at him, before he fetched his dark, embroidered coat close and tugged it on. ‘’I do have other things to do than to entertain your chatty whims.’’