May had arrived hard and fast; little shoots of grass and flowers beginning to spring up. Jack had space for maybe one more cold snap to remind the kids he was there before he was going to have to switch hemispheres or flee to Canada for the season.
Sophie was more interested in the package of sparkling gel pens that had appeared in her Easter basket, and the first cycle of butterflies beginning to flutter through the slushy streets.
“Doesn’t she care about snow?” Jack whined.
Jamie shrugged. He was locked in a war against the rest of the neighborhood. He got Jack Frost, so everyone else had teamed up against him, which, Jack admitted to himself, still probably wasn’t fair to them.
Even Cupcake was beginning to stand down, because being beaten for three rounds of snowball fights wasn’t very fun. Break time, Jack decided.
“Be right back,” Jack said, dashing to Sophie’s coloring spot in the shade of the fence, which was the only safe zone. “Hey, Soph, you wanna be on mine and Jamie’s team?”
Sophie shook her head. She stuck out her tongue in concentration.
“What are you drawing?”
“Budderflies.” Sophie scribbled another golden blob over the black mass in the center of the page. She was adding golden blobs like they were stars, fitting as many on the page as she could cram.
“What’s that?” Jack pointed at the black mass.
“Boogeyman,” Jamie translated from several feet away. He tossed another snowball before glancing back. “Wait, she’s drawing the Boogeyman?”
Jack’s heartbeat began to pound in his ears. With all of the new Guardian stuff, he hadn’t thought it wise to follow Pitch after the Nightmares chased him down, but it had been weeks since anyone in Burgess had had a nightmare or felt afraid, and Jack had begun to worry. Apparently he didn’t need to; Sophie was too young not to believe in everything, and somehow she had latched onto believing in Pitch.
“Hey, Jamie, I gotta bail,” Jack said.
“But why?” Jamie ignored his friends, who were still pelting snowballs at his fort wall, trying to knock it down.
“Well, as much as I love this place, Burgess isn’t the only place I have to keep an eye on.” Jack winked. “Keep fighting the good fight, I’ll be back soon!” He pressed a freezing finger to Jamie’s nose and then called the wind.
“Does that mean we win?” Pippa called.
“Never!” Jamie replied. He popped up from his fort to toss a snowball at her. He connected, but got three snowballs in return.
It was one thing to restore balance so that Pitch wasn’t crushing all of the hope in the world until nothing was left but fear. It was another thing to cheer up every child in the world until they didn’t fear anything. It made them a little too reckless, which was fine with Jack, as long as he was there to protect them, but he was one Jack Frost against a hemisphere of winter, and fear had never been his specialty.
It had been easy enough to dismiss Pitch as a danger first and foremost, a threat to be stamped out, when the other Guardians were around, but now that the woods had been quiet for too long, the guilt was beginning to settle in. Jack had thought to himself once, no one deserved the loneliness he had experienced. Maybe the guilt was addling his brain, Jack thought, as he flew over the forest, searching for the clearing where he’d found Pitch Black’s lair. Pitch had broken his staff and left him in Antarctica, presumed defenseless.
The first problem with checking on Pitch was that Pitch’s hole in the ground was not where it used to be.
Even the rickety bed had disappeared. Jack frosted the ground over, made it a little crunchier so that when he tapped with his staff, the sound would reverberate louder. Pitch’s lair hadn’t moved, he confirmed as his staff smacked hollow ground. It had just closed. Jack smacked his shepherd’s crook down over the area, causing a little to give way. He stomped and pushed and slammed until the ground caved beneath him. Jack was so surprised he didn’t have time to call the wind. He landed with an oof, sending cloud of dirt up around himself.
“Pitch?” he called, brushing dirt off himself as he stood. Fearlings skittered at the edges of Jack’s vision, causing his heart to thump a little harder. The globe still stood central to the lair, straight ahead, with the brightest twinkling lights shining out of in Burgess, but the cavern of ruins looked hollowed out and even more imposing without the piles of golden tooth boxes and the ornate cages full of twittering fairies. Jack felt a stab of loneliness at how small he seemed in comparison.
Jack didn’t like to remember the way that Pitch had patted himself down after Jamie had run through him. Jack had experienced a flash of empathy, remembering that when he reached down, it took an extra second for his substance to return after someone walked through him. Jack wondered if Pitch ever had that same nanosecond of whatifIdontcomeback.
Even if he was mostly supposed to guard children, Jack didn’t like the idea of leaving someone else to live centuries in isolation and fear. He had responsibility now, and power from the little sparks of belief in Burgess. A title. A weird little pseudo-family that looked after him.
Pitch had Nightmares, or what was left of them.
“Pitch?” he called again, loud enough to echo. Jack’s shadow twisted until it had long, skeletal fingers which curled up, beckoning him. This could easily be a trap, he’d known that coming in. Jack took a breath. He hesitated as his shadow detached from himself, opening its mouth around a terrifying silhouette of a grin and then reformed into a spindly parody of Jack’s outline, carrying a spear where Jack held his shepherd’s crook.
A real Guardian wouldn’t care if there was danger, Jack reminded himself. A real Guardian went where he was needed, regardless of consequences. Jack pulled the wind to himself, fluttering after his shadow. It was disconcerting to walk around and not see it under his feet, but like this, he could pretend the disconnect was from flying.
Jack’s shadow led him on a merry chase, down winding hallways and over chasms in the ground he could not have crossed without the wind. Each dark turn was just lit enough by scattered candles and shafts of light, so as to cause every shade along the walls to flicker and dance as Jack moved. All the while, his shadow kept its mouth open in a silent cackle. When Jack finally caught up with it, his shadow stood in place, pointing to the right. There wasn’t even a door, just a wall. Jack tapped his staff against it, receiving a hollow sound in response. Jack’s shadow dissolved back into a puddle of shade underneath him, harder to make out now that it was behaving.
Jack felt along the wall until he found a small crack, and then he poured frost magic into it, expanding the ice until there was an audible crunch of stone crumbling. Chunks began to fall to the floor, at first just dust and pebbles, and then Jack was lifting his feet toward his body so that he wouldn’t smash a toe. Jack retracted the ice when there was enough space for him to slide sideways through the hole in the wall.
Pitch laid on a massive pile of pillows over a blanket pile, more a pallet than a bed. He didn’t look away from what must have been a riveting ceiling, even to glance at Jack. The wind danced around the room, collecting distant sounds and scents for Jack; he smelled blood. Jack rushed forward, halting when a Nightmare appeared in front of him. He had to use the wind to keep himself from overbalancing in his flailing haste to keep from running into it.
“Come to gloat?” Pitch said.
“What? No.” Jack clenched his hands around his staff. “Are you dying?”
Pitch laughed, but the sound caught on a pained wheeze. “Hardly. You cannot kill fear.”
“I know how to freeze a wound shut. Would that help?”
Pitch turned his head slowly. “Onyx,” he said, and the Nightmare dissolved, reappearing at the other end of the bed.
Jack slowly took a step. And then another. When Onyx didn’t rush back to stop him, he dashed forward and kneeled at Pitch’s side.
Pitch frowned as Jack lowered the crook of his staff to the first gash in Pitch’s arm he saw. Jack suddenly wished he had at least a little command over water; the wound really needed to be washed first. “Your fear…” Pitch said, finally glancing down to stare at Jack. His eyes were nearly crossing with how hard he tried to focus.
Jack snorted. “I’d think you have a better handle on controlling it than I do.”
“The proximity helps,” Pitch said. Several of his lighter wounds evaporated into wisps of shadow, blood dissipating. “And your fear runs so deep.”
Jack felt a tug at his terror, passing from fear for Pitch, to fear of Pitch, to fear of being alone, and he began to wonder if he caused that on his own with just the thought of being here, at risking his place in the Guardians to look after an enemy, or if Pitch had somehow reached in and tugged .
Jack found that as he reached for wounds, most of them were closing up. His apprehension ratcheted again. Pitch could turn on him, had taken advantage of how afraid he felt already. Jack came here alone and he was so, so, so deep in these tunnels.
“Why are you here, Jack?” Pitch sounded suddenly very tired.
Pitch didn’t attack him, didn’t even move toward him, and Jack began to relax. The words tumbled out: “I’m sorr—”
“I don’t need your pity,” Pitch snarled.
“That’s not why I’m here. I just thought—,” Jack cut himself off with a growl. “Everyone deserves to be believed in.”
Pitch stared at him, expression unreadable for several long moments. Shadows began to whirl around Jack’s knees, trapping his ankles against the floor and climbing his body to swallow him. He experienced a single second of explosive, crushing terror while he struggled against them as they creeped up his body, covering his torso—his neck—his head—before the shadows dissipated, leaving his body suddenly too-light in contrast. Jack fluttered upward on the wind, through the trees until he was under direct, harsh sunlight, far away from the ground, taking in deep, clear breaths over a town he didn’t recognize.
Well , he thought. That was terrifying .
Jack poked his head into Jamie’s window for a last goodbye before he took off for the season, but instead of panicking about a several month separation, Jamie tumbled out of bed to say “Pitch is back!” Jamie tripped over his boots by the bed as he rushed to Jack. “He was in Tammy’s house two nights ago!”
Jack put a finger to his lips. “You’re going to wake up your mom.”
“Jack, this is a big deal!” Jamie hissed. “Why aren’t you panicking?”
Jack was a little worried, to be honest, but that didn’t usually stop him. “Did he do anything?
Jamie flailed. “He showed up! Tammy described him exactly. Big, spooky eyes that kind of glow in the dark, and a big, huge nose.”
“All the better to smell you with,” Jack teased. Jamie crossed his arms. “Okay, but did he do anything or just spook Tammy and slink away?”
Jamie kicked a sock on his floor. “Just spooked her, I guess.”
Jack rocks on the windowsill for a few seconds, only stopping when he realizes the breeze is causing Jamie to shiver. “I’m keeping an eye on him.”
“Well, I’m watching him, too.”
Jack grinned. “Good. You watch the town over the summer, okay? Yell if you ever get in trouble.” Jack conjured a snowflake and made it dance and weave over to Jamie’s nose.
“You promise you’ll be back?”
“You promise you’ll still believe in me?”
Jack fell backward out of the window, catching the wind before Jamie could reply. Maybe he could drop by and ask Sandy to keep an eye on Burgess while he was away.
Pitch had lost interest in living near Burgess, but he was reluctant to give up proximity to children who believed so strongly in him. Jack’s favorite did not fear him, and Pitch very much wanted to change that. He began leaving little haunting reminders of himself all over the town: doors ajar that had previously been locked, hiding favorite treasures in improbable places, dropping off Goosebumps books that no one had bought or seen before, already worn and well-read. He became, to many children in Burgess, a poltergeist over the course of June, weaving through the network of golden sand that blanketed the town every night. They didn’t have to be asleep to be afraid.
He avoided Jamie, because Pitch would not be strong enough to quell that boy’s belief for a very long time, but he stopped in Sophie’s room. Pitch saved her for last because she would be easy to terrify, she was so young, and Pitch so wanted to tear apart whatever she held dear, ruin her favorite things with the stench of dread, and perhaps scare Jamie by proxy, remind him that though Pitch couldn’t reach him, there were still things that went bump in the night.
But she had a pastel room papered with butterflies, even a little plaque that read “Sophie” on her door, with a butterfly over the I, and Pitch could imagine a lot of horrible things certain insects descended upon blood and sweat, just one push, just one dream of a scrape she had, covered in writhing, monstrous winged insects, just one, but he hesitated. Pitch had scattered dreams of butterflies. They reminded him of… something . A feeling of contentment. The fearlings craved her dreams, wanted to consume them and leave her scarring nightmares because Sophie’s horror would be so fresh, so crystalline. He pushed them down. He would scare her another way.
Sophie began to stir; some children had a sensitivity to spirits. Pitch made his teeth pointier as she woke, elongating every silhouette in the room until they seemed monstrous, but when she sat up, she giggled at his face. “Booger!” she cooed. She tumbled off her bed, mumbling, “ouch,” and hobbled to the coloring supplies by her window. Sophie grabbed one of the drawings, done in sparkling pen, featured an angry face in all black (Pitch?) surrounded by golden blobs. “Budderflies,” she said as she held it up.
Pitch snarled at the reminder of the Sandman, waving a hand at the shadow she cast to make it move without her direction. Sophie giggled and chased her shade as it tried to stomp around her, waving talons and fangs. Pitch made it spin around, made the cheap fairy wings detach from her shadow and flit along the walls by themselves, so that she chased those, too. When he was finished, he fluttered the butterfly silhouette across her bed to hide under the covers and he let all of the shade in the room return to normal. Sophie dove under the covers, and by the time she flailed her way out of the darkness to the other end, empty-handed, Pitch was gone.
As Pitch returned to his rounds, delivering nightmares to Burgess while dodging the thin strands of golden sand overhead, he left the shadow gate behind himself open just long enough for a nearby lunar moth to flutter through and pretended not to notice.
Jack poked at the settings on North’s globe and tried to figure out how many people still believed in the Boogeyman in September. It was a record low for what was approaching Pitch’s peak season. Pitch didn’t rely entirely on belief like the Guardians did, but it had certainly affected his strength.
It wasn’t the worst when kids walked through Jack in summer. That split second where his heart didn’t beat and he couldn’t inhale was still awful, but comparatively different from when, in mid-January, he gave everyone a snow day and started a snowball fight and created inexplicably awesome snow-related adventures all around them, and the kids stole the air out of his lungs as they walked right through him. Remembering that, Jack thought it was probably pretty important to make sure that at least in the fall, creeping toward Halloween and then winter, Pitch got a second chance.
There was also the matter of Pitch being the first person to believe that children would see Jack. The words had very nearly taken Jack out at the knees; he knew a child would see him one day, the same way he knew good would prevail and the man in the moon would always look after them. It was different hearing the words out loud. Jack didn’t like to think of it as a kindness, because Pitch had been manipulating him, but he’d seemed genuinely hurt when Jack turned him down. Even though Pitch’s words were a controlled release of emotion meant to lure Jack toward something darker, Pitch had admitted to some level of humanity still lurking at his core, a need to be remembered, a fear of being forgotten mirroring Jack’s own.
Pitch had been the first to notice Jack’s loneliness. He had been the first to tell Jack he didn’t have to be alone. Jack only wanted to return the gesture.
Already it was unseasonably cold for the first day of fall, and Jack had only added to it. He crouched in the bushes as three children rounded the bend. This late in the evening, they were easy targets. As soon as they were next to him, he jumped. They didn’t see him, of course, but they shrieked as the bushes moved. Clumps of snow fell from nearby tree branches in a coordinated pattern. Jack just had to point and bam, snow fell from branches closer and closer to the children, making it seem like something was jumping through the trees at them, snow falling in its wake. He iced a tree branch hanging over the path far ahead, until it cracked and fell to block the way forward. The trio shrieked again, two little boys clinging to their big sister.
“Is that the Boogeyman?” one of them whispered.
Jack made a quick fist pump. Three new lights on the globe. He had been getting better at scaring children with practice.
“What is this?” a voice said from the shadows. The children started to run at the sight of Pitch stepping out of the shadows, not waiting to see what else he had to say. The shadows around them lengthened anyway, chasing the trio and making them shriek and run faster.
Pitch watched them flee before turning to cock his head at Jack. “Are you scaring children?”
Jack shrugged. He hadn’t actually planned for Pitch to notice. He had just wanted it to seem like maybe Pitch was better liked and remembered than he thought. So that at least someone saw him now and then. Like Jack. Jack had Jamie, and Pitch could at least have Halloween to cheer him up. Keep the urge to do evil down, maybe. Keep him from that awful second of non-existence, leading to another eventual outburst of megalomania.
Pitch stepped forward, out of the shadows and into the moonlight. He was still taller than Jack, even when his belief was low like this, but only by about a few inches. He wasn’t Nightmare King tall. He was more like a Duke of Spook.
Jack took back that thought as Pitch creeped closer. Pitch glided on the shadows, absolutely on purpose because he loved looking dramatic; it was the one really solid thing that Jack had learned about him. Pitch was one hundred percent Nightmare King as he backed Jack into a tree. “Why?”
Jack tried to shrug, but his movement was constricted by bark catching on his hoodie and holding it in place. “It’s almost October, spookiest time of the year.”
Pitch stopped pressing forward as soon as Jack could feel body heat all along his front, still not quite touching Jack. “Everyone deserves to be believed in?” Pitch bared his teeth. It wasn’t quite a grin.
Jack wasn’t used to this much warmth and he was getting a seriously embarrassing fear boner about the whole ordeal, so he knew his smile was a little strained, but he tried to look totally chill and relaxed and not at all terrified. “Yeah.”
Pitch’s expression dropped just before he drew back and disappeared into the shadows, which Jack figured was probably the closest to a blessing he would get. Jack exhaled.
Spooking kids had become more fun the closer it got to Halloween. A lot of them liked being afraid at this time of year. It was good for them.
“Come on, asshole, I just want a snow day,” Tabitha said.
“No, you know what, I have seen some shit, I want no part of your weird summoning ritual.” Joey stood up. Everything had been fine when they were talking theory. He hadn’t expected Tabitha to pull a box of candles out of her bag and written instructions from Katherine on how to summon spirits.
“Joey, sit down, this shit won’t even work,” Courtney insisted. She had already carved a pentagram in the ground with a stick. “You can’t just summon a snow day in October. That’s not how weather works.”
“My costume is going to look so fucking rad in the snow,” Tabitha mumbled, ignoring them both. She placed a candle at each point. “Katherine said the spell would work better if we all said it.”
“I’m not chanting any Latin. I will go home before I even read any out loud,” Joey replied.
“There’s no Latin; the spell is just ‘I believe’ over and over,” Courtney scoffed.
“…Oh.” Joey sat back down. Katherine had probably scammed Tabitha, then, so Courtney was right and none of this would work. Katherine’s dad had a whole workshop of weird gadgets and crystals. He kept owls. He looked like a wizard, and if this was the spell Katherine had given them, she had probably made it up for Tabitha.
“Okay, think of snow spirits and say, ‘I believe.’”
“I believe,” Joey repeated.
“All at once, you dork, we’ve got to chant it.”
They stuttered the first few tries, but soon, all three of them were successfully intoning in unison, “I believe, I believe, I believe.”
Joey broke the circle when a boy with white hair appeared between them. “Holy shit, holy shit.” The boy didn’t look much older than them, but he had dark circles under his eyes and skin pale like—the kid obviously wasn’t alive. Hadn’t been alive for probably a while. Frost dusted his clothing, which wasn’t exactly weather-appropriate, and when he exhaled, there was no cloud of warm condensation.
The next spirit followed from out of the forest, and Tabitha and Courtney didn’t see him right away, but Joey remembered him. Mister Tall, Dark, and Terrifying had haunted Joey’s nightmares as a child. “I’m out, guys, I did not sign up for this Boogeyman shit,” Joey cried out as he fled. Tabitha and Courtney gasped at where he pointed, but Joey was already disappearing into the forest. Shadows chased him (he knew they would, he remembered them), but he kept going until he crashed through underbrush into his own back yard.
Back in the clearing, Pitch surveyed the teens. He loathed to let one go, but the dismay of the other two kept him in place.
“C-can I have a snow day?” Tabitha stammered at Jack. She gulped, glancing between Pitch and Jack.
Pitch accepted that as his cue. “My liege,” he said, stepping into the clearing in order to place a gnarled, spiky crown of nightmare sand on Jack’s hair. “Have you responded to the children’s call to finally deliver your eternal winter?” Pitch took a moment to admire the contrast of the crown against Jack’s hair, before holding out a hand to Jack.
Jack glanced between Pitch and the two teenage girls. He took Pitch’s hand to stand up. “Did you drag me here?”
“W-we did.” Pitch did not need to see the way that Courtney clenched Tabitha’s hand tighter to know that she was terrified of them, but he did so love a visual reminder. Jack’s expression shifted from confusion to regal confidence as he studied Pitch’s grin. Pitch could taste the flicker from confused-out-of-place-where-am-I to why-is-Pitch-here-oh-no to a gradual release of his anxieties as he caught the joke.
“We just wanted it to snow on Halloween.”
“I have been looking for an opportunity to bring an eternal winter,” Jack replied. He seemed to mull this over as he leaned on his shepherd’s crook.
Pitch stepped close enough to whisper in Jack’s ear, placing an arm around his shoulders. What he said was not important; he only needed to make it seem as though they were conspiring. Being closer to a central taste of Jack’s fear thumping out his heartbeat in his neck was only a bonus. “Lucky Jack Frost. You don’t get called to these often, do you?”
“I don’t even know how I got here. How did you get here? Why are you here?” Jack whispered.
“You were summoned by their belief; I followed your fear,” Pitch admitted. “You moved halfway across the country in just a few seconds, to your great distress.”
“Were you… watching me?”
“I tracked your fear. How else would I repay my debt?”
Jack broke character to pout for a few seconds. Afraid of being alone again. Pitch pushed back the scent of that fear before the shadows got agitated. “You don’t owe me anything,” Jack murmured.
He turned back to the girls with a blinding grin. “My… Nightmare King and I have decided: eternal winter!” Snowflakes began to fall.
“I fucked up, I fucked up,” Tabitha muttered.
“No shit.” Courtney hit her in the arm.
Pitch spun away from them. My Nightmare King. It was a slip of the tongue, but. But, Pitch had tasted fear of being alone in the tempo of Jack’s heartbeat. Fear of losing Pitch. The arousal in the forest had likely been a fluke of proximity, a game to turn against Jack, but this. My Nightmare King. Pitch had not been wanted in a very long time.
The Fearlings began to hiss, He wants to turn you, wants to change you. He does not want you. He wants something he can keep, something he can tame. Someone indebted to him.
Pitch watched the two girls stand and flee, still holding onto one another. Pitch would not need to visit them again to keep their belief, not for a long time.
“Hey!” Jack called after them. “Next time maybe think before you perform weird rituals in the woods!”
They were long gone, and before Jack turned around, so was Pitch.
Jack dropped a pile of snow on top of a backyard campfire right at the scariest part of the oldest brother’s story. All five of the children shrieked as total darkness fell. The oldest stopped panicking as his eyes adjusted, but his little sister’s best friend was still breathing really fast. “It’s the Boogeyman,” she said. “I know it is, I saw him once.”
“It’s true,” the middle sister said with great authority. “He hides in the shadows and steals away baby sisters. He’ll probably be under your bed tonight.”
“Boo,” Pitch said, grabbing Jack’s shoulders from behind.
“WAAAAUGH—is that necessary?” Jack clutched his staff to his chest over his pounding heart.
“When your fear tastes so delicious? Absolutely.” The last word was whispered into Jack’s ear, which just made Jack shiver. He absolutely did not need to be in this situation at all. Pitch pulled Jack flush against him (so, so warm, Jack was not prepared for touching or body heat or Pitch Black being anywhere near him), pausing to make the shadows dance below all five children in a distinctly uncoordinated and unnatural manner. All of them shrieked again, running toward the house.
“What was that?”
“Out of my way.”
Darkness swirled around Jack, blocking out even the moon, and the fading cries of the campfire kids. When it cleared only seconds later, the air smelled old and too still, earth-cool and not winter-cold. The wind was distant. Underground, he realized. Pitch had brought him back to his lair. Nervous frost spiraled down Jack’s staff, causing it to briefly glow.
In the distance, down a hallway, he could see Pitch’s globe still wedged into the earth. It was brighter than the last time Jack had checked Pitch’s believers in North’s workshop. Jack figured a lot of the new lights were from Pitch making his usual rounds and the natural increase that came at Halloween, but he liked to think that five of those little lights were because of him.
Jack tried to focus on how accomplished he felt for bringing belief to those kids instead of how Pitch’s heat felt along his back. He tried to remember that Pitch was super dangerous and had broken his staff and threatened Jamie and all of the Guardians, but he kept picturing instead the children walking right through Pitch, and the hesitant grab at himself Pitch had made to check if he were still all there. Jack tried to plan an escape route, but the entire lair looked different from the last time he’d been through. Rearranged again.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to think of Pitch as truly dangerous when he felt soft and warm and had a sense of humor, even if most of the humor seemed to center around throwing Jack off-balance.
“Not even trying to escape?” Pitch noted. He released Jack, stepping away from him.
Jack spun around to face him, staff at the ready. He really hadn’t planned much farther than to just hope Pitch wouldn’t feel down for vengeance on Halloween. If Pitch’s sudden sense of humor were just a ploy, Jack could have caused everyone a real problem.
Pitch slipped through shadows to reappear behind him. “Why are you scaring children?”
“I know what it’s like not to be believed in.” Jack twisted his hands around his staff. He didn’t try to turn around again. His shoulders slumped as he said, “I hated being alone.”
Pitch stepped close again, letting out a breath along the shell of Jack’s ear as he whispered, “Is that all?”
Jack shivered. “Being spooky is a little fun.” He was glad that he didn’t need to breathe because he was having trouble taking in oxygen.
Pitch ran his fingertips over Jack’s shoulders as he purred, “Have you reconsidered my offer?”
The little puff of Pitch’s breath and the feel of his hands on Jack’s shoulders were more than he could block out. Jack tried to spin around, but when he turned, Pitch was gone again, his silhouette mirrored in shadow along the walls.
“Another time, perhaps,” Pitch said from everywhere at once. Jack hadn’t wanted to say it, not after how Pitch had reacted last time, but no, obviously not, why would he—Jack had just gone through the trouble of fighting Pitch a few months ago, why would he turn around and try to take over the world now?
“What’s to stop me from collecting all this extra power you’re giving me and turning it against you?” Pitch’s voice ricocheted as he moved, acoustics exaggerating the illusion he gave that he was everywhere and nowhere.
“We stopped you once already,” Jack reminded him. Pitch scoffed. Jack really hoped Pitch wouldn’t try. He hesitated before continuing. “What you said in Antarctica… how much was true? Or did you just want me to—”
“Oh, Jack Frost, of course I want you,” Pitch interrupted, his breath warming Jack’s neck again. Jack could hear the smirk as darkness closed around them once again. The sunlight became immediately blinding, coming at him from all directions. Pitch had deposited him in front of the sculpture made of ice and shadow, still standing where they left it in the Antarctic, and then he disappeared, leaving Jack alone on the tundra, Pitch’s voice echoing in his head.
Jack didn’t tell the other Guardians about Pitch getting more tactile with him, or even about Pitch at all. He hadn’t told them about checking on Pitch in his lair several months ago, and he didn’t want to admit to a fear of loneliness to them, or that he really was a little touch-starved, and he definitely didn’t want to admit that he had been scaring children out of—what? Empathy? Pity? Because, secretly, it was kind of fun to spook children back into their warm, safe homes?
Articulating his feelings would mean he would have to sort through them, and none of that sounded fun.
Instead, Jack found a secluded forest in Siberia and perched in a tree, because all of this thinking about Pitch’s hands was reminding him how long it had been since he last jacked off (two days, and what a long two days it had been).
By the time he was comfortable enough to start untying his pants, Jack was half hard with anticipation. He thought about taking off the hoodie, making it easier to clean up, but the bark dug into the fabric, catching him in place and making it difficult to shift or to shrug, which just made him think of Pitch again.
He’d had a lot to jerk off about lately, with all the adrenaline when Pitch had appeared from the shadows to pin Jack to a tree, and Pitch’s voice in his ear, along his neck. He was aching to be touched by the time he finally got a hand in his pants.
The “Of course I want you,” had probably been meant as a taunt, but Jack was one hundred percent okay imagining it on every upstroke, whispered into his ear. Jack drew on memory for the feeling of Pitch’s breath along his neck, of Pitch’s body heat along his front as he imagined being pressed further against the tree, Pitch’s hand reaching down Jack’s pants to tug at his erection. Pitch would lean in close like he had been doing lately, whisper in Jack’s ear. Jack tried a different grip, tighter as his hand moved. Pitch wouldn’t know exactly how Jack got himself off. His hand would be so warm, just like his breath. Jack began to pump his hand faster, biting his lip as his orgasm began to build.
“Oh, Jack Frost,” Pitch said. That wasn’t Jack’s imagination. That was a real thing that Pitch had said out loud from a nearby shadow, but it fit so well with the image of Pitch murmuring into Jack’s ear, and Jack had been so close. Jack’s orgasm shuddered through him and he came hard enough to leave a stripe of come across his own chin. Jack had really meant to aim away from his hoodie. He yanked his pants closed as his entire face began to tingle with embarrassment.
“No need to stop on my account,” Pitch said. His voice came from Jack’s left, but when Jack turned, there was nothing. “Oh,” Pitch’s hand swiped along Jack’s chin, “if this was on my account, by all means…”
Jack clambered to his feet, but he was already backed against the tree, so when Pitch leaned in, he had nowhere to go.
“What are you doing here?” Jack said. His breathing was still a little heavy, his entire body trying to push through the sluggishness of post-orgasm to remember to be concerned about what Pitch might have planned. This close, he noticed, Pitch’s eyes seemed more gold than he remembered.
“I could hear your fear of being caught by a Guardian from my home. I thought, ‘what could Jack Frost do that he would be so afraid of getting caught?’” Pitch’s grin widened as he stepped closer. Jack tried to back up, but Pitch had pressed him against the tree trunk. “I really expected a prank. Were you thinking of me?”
Jack reflexively licked his lips before answering, which only made Pitch’s eyes darken. Jack could feel his dick making an attempt to stand back up.
Pitch pressed him harder into the tree with the hand resting on his chest. “I can smell how afraid you are that I will know,” Pitch murmured. “What could I do with that kind of information, I wonder?”
“Make a move instead of creeping?” Jack suggested. His heart began to pound. Oh god, oh god, why would he say that out loud, that was not a brain suggestion, that was a dick suggestion.
“Perhaps I will, next time.” Pitch smirked. “Is this all you wanted? Some attention? Your Guardians, they believe in you, but do they care that you are always alone, even now?” The shine began to leave Pitch’s eyes like a trick of the light, until they were closer to a heavy silver.
Jack’s fear fled him immediately. “They care enough.”
Pitch’s face contorted, and he faded back into shadow.
Jack dropped to the snowy ground, scanning the trees for strange silhouettes, but Pitch’s laughter didn’t follow him.
Pitch spent more time in the field during October, created fewer nightmares. He spent an entire night on a rooftop in Chicago, conjuring shadows attached to nothing. Pitch pulled laughter from air and let it echo out of in empty alleys. Teeth and yellow eyes gleamed in the dark corners of streets, too far from the nearest lamppost to be catching a reflection.
Pitch mulled over the memory of Jack’s fear as he took in the ragged heartbeats of strangers below him. Terrified of being alone, nervous about being touched, frightened of losing physical contact, even with Pitch. Jack was full of fear, and none of it was of Pitch hurting him.
Apprehension alone can’t sustain us, the Fearlings murmured.
And sugar can’t sustain humans, Pitch thought back, but that didn’t seem to stop Halloween.
Out of spite, he returned to Sophie’s room, where there wasn’t a drop of anxiety.
“Spook!” she cried when Pitch arrived. She seemed to have a gift for waking up as he stepped out of the shadows. A supernatural sensitivity, perhaps. Or bouts of insomnia.
“Shhh,” he reminded her.
“I wanna budderfly,” she whispered.
Pitch shooed her back into the bed before he stood back to make the shade on the ceiling contort into fluttering shapes. He left a small, hand-crafted chocolate butterfly which he had stolen on her nightstand, and then exited via the densest darkness in her closet after she had fallen asleep.
Jack caused a power outage with snow in northern Maine, which ratcheted up the whole town’s fear overnight. There were pumpkins and straw on every porch already, just a few days before Halloween, so most of the fear came from the fun kind: the making blanket fort haunted houses kind, or the sneaking up behind your little sister to make her scream kind.
The grief hit Jack old and fresh at the same time; he had spent a lot of time tricking and spooking his sister as a child. Jack couldn’t decide if he had come to terms with all of these memories already or if he hadn’t even had the chance to try. She lived a long happy life. Jack had looked her up.
Scary stories and spooky books became incredibly popular while the snow was cleaned up. Jack saw more than one older sibling doing the old flashlight under the chin trick while telling stories about monsters under beds.
Jack made sure to hide under a few beds and thump in the middle of the night, because it seemed like the kind of ridiculous classical, dramatic spooking that Pitch would have done.
By Halloween night, Jack stopped expecting to see Pitch again when he scared children too hard. He liked to walk between kids trick or treating on the town square in Burgess. A few of them recognized him and waved, but even when they didn’t it was nice to blend in on a crowded street, to pretend he fit in while he snatched peppermint patties out of the bowls of candy the adults were passing out. Jack grabbed a few Reese’s to drop in Jamie’s bucket, too, whenever he saw the kid next.
Jack didn’t see the woman coming, then, and of course she didn’t see him. When Jack finally noticed her, she was too close to dodge, and his whole body froze in blinding terror-laced anticipation of her walking right through him, but when he opened his eyes, the darkness took an extra second to clear and he found himself standing in an alley in an entirely different city. Shadows danced at the edges of his vision. Pitch melted out of the darkness in front of him, golden eyes first, to lift his chin, swiping away an imaginary streak with his thumb. Jack licked his lips. In the dim light, he could see the faint shine of Pitch’s eyes following the movement.
Pitch stepped forward, and in response, Jack stepped back, but Pitch had pulled him through the shadows very close to a wall, so Jack slammed to a stop when he felt brick against his shoulders. He held his staff out between them, but Pitch waved it aside. “Really, Jack?”
“Were you creeping again?”
“I don’t like being indebted.” Pitch kept inching closer. Jack could feel his breath along his jawline.
“This isn’t a favor! It’s called not being a jerk all the time,” Jack hissed.
Pitch’s hands landed on his waist. “And this isn’t recompense. I believe you made a suggestion...?”
“I might have said—” Jack began to sputter, but Pitch pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the base of his neck and his brain fizzled. Jack hadn’t been close to anyone in a while—his right hand never complained about how cold he was—which made the way Pitch suddenly bit down all the more startling. Jack cried out. Pitch began to soothe the area with his tongue. Jack let out a whimper and pressed forward, attempting to grind their hips together. Pitch’s hands kept an unbearable inch of space between them, though, as his fingers began to creep at the hem of Jack’s hoodie, clutching lower and lower until he finally—finally! palmed Jack through his pants. Pitch’s mouth left Jack’s neck, leaving an immediate cold absence. “Do you ever wear underwear?” He wondered aloud. Pitch sounded almost dazed.
Feeling bold, Jack admitted, “No.” Why wear soft pants if he couldn’t feel them?
Pitch swallowed visibly. “Would you like to continue this elsewhere?”
Jack began nodding before Pitch had finished the question.
Darkness whirled around them again, hiding the sliver of sky above them, until the wall gave way and Jack tumbled backward out of the air and onto a pile of pillows. Jack lost his grip on his staff as he landed. Pitch landed after him, hips between Jack’s legs, pinning him in place with a heat so intense Jack marveled that it didn’t burn.
“Wait, wait,” Jack muttered, putting a hand between them. He couldn’t see his shepherd’s crook.
“What?” Pitch withdrew. His lips were swollen, which was an image Jack tried to hastily memorize.
“Just a second.” Jack sat up, scanning the room. His staff was still within reach. Jack dragged it a little closer before turning back to Pitch. “Okay, okay, come back.” Jack reached for the front of Pitch’s robes with his free hand. He had no idea where the clasps even began, and half the fabric seemed to slip through his fingers like a silky, heavy fog. Jack dragged him back down so that Pitch rested between his legs again, which was another mental image that Jack was never ever letting go.
Pitch hesitated over Jack, staring at a spot on his neck. The skin still felt tight there, like a bruise forming. Jack turned his head, exposing his neck more. “Yeah?” he said.
“Yes,” Pitch hissed, grinding their hips together.
Jack groaned. “O-okay, then.”
Pitch pulled down Jack’s pants and his own pants so quickly he could not have possibly done it with only two hands, and not while one reached up to press a thumb into what Jack was now positive had to be a forming hickey. Jack watched as Pitch pulled out of reach just long enough for shadows to snatch Jack’s trousers from between them, before returning to the vee of his legs like he needed the chill of Jack’s thighs as much as Jack missed the warmth of Pitch’s hips. Jack gasped when their cocks touched.
“Sensitive?” Pitch whispered into Jack’s ear.
Jack nodded furiously, afraid of what kind of sound might fall out if he opened his mouth.
Pitch snatched a bottle of lube from a nearby shadow and drizzled it over Jack’s cock. It felt cool, but it didn’t tamp the heat pressing into him at all, just made a stronger contrast. Jack wanted to move, wanted to be touched, but he wanted it to last.
Pitch reached for Jack’s member first, smearing the lubricant across his length, and then Pitch moved his hand to himself, causing Jack to let out a small string of frustrated whimpers. The backs of Pitch’s knuckles brushed against Jack’s cock in a rush of brief, teasing strokes. Jack tried to thrust into them, but Pitch held his hips down with his other hand.
“Come on, just let me,” Jack grumbled.
When Pitch stopped stroking himself, he let his hand hover before including Jack again. He smirked at Jack, waiting.
“Please,” Jack moaned. Pitch’s hand immediately closed around them, pressing a molten line of hardness against Jack’s cock. He thought he had been embarrassingly close before, but the heat alone was nearly unbearable. Pitch had no sense of being able to pace himself, either, moving from barely touching Jack to thrusting against him and pumping his fist at the same time.
Pitch had a tighter grip than Jack used, and he had a tendency to move all at once in a hard thrust over Jack’s cock.
The tightness of Pitch’s fist around Jack, the slick slide of his cock against Pitch’s became too much very quickly. He moaned, “pleasepleaseplease” while rocking into Pitch’s touch.
A few more strokes, and Jack was done, striping his hoodie again. Pitch didn’t let him go immediately.
Jack had the presence of mind to try to reach down, get his hands on Pitch before Pitch finished, but Pitch knocked his hands away, which okay, yeah, he probably didn’t want Jack’s cold hands, that seemed fair. Jack tried to push down the fear he’d been holding back that Pitch was just lonely, didn’t want Jack, would have taken anyone.
Pitch scowled at him before grabbing Jack’s right hand and placing it on his dick. He hissed in a breath at the contact, but allowed Jack to set the pace, and Jack was much slower, more teasing. He swiped his thumb over the head of Pitch’s cock as he pulled Pitch down to crash their lips together. The kiss wasn’t as careful as he would have liked; Pitch was trying to thrust his hips into Jack’s hand, which kept jarring their lips out of sync. Jack sucked down Pitch’s groan as he finally began to move his hand faster. Pitch tensed in his climax, spilling hot seed across Jack’s stomach.
After he regained his breath, Pitch leaned back a little, crooking a finger under Jack’s chin, tilting it up. Jack always felt like he had to look up to see Pitch anyway, but it seemed worse now that he’d helped to steer a few believers toward him.
When Pitch’s fingers, covered in come, approached Jack’s mouth, he didn’t hesitate. His tongue wrapped around Pitch’s fingers, sucked them in. When Pitch pulled them away he replaced them with his mouth, so Jack sucked his tongue instead, groaned a little into Pitch’s mouth when the other nipped at his lower lip. The kiss didn’t last long. Jack began to come back to himself after Pitch pulled back. “Happy Halloween,” he whispered. He could feel his own breath bounce off of Pitch’s lips.
“Happy Halloween,” Pitch agreed. His eyes seemed a pure sunlight-gold, suddenly, darting between Jack’s eyes and his lips. Slowly, he sat back on his heels, freeing Jack.
Jack finally looked down at himself. “Ugh, I need a new hoodie.” This one had been pretty new, actually. What a disaster. Jack tugged his hoodie off, careful not to make more of a mess than he already had as he turned it inside out, and then tossed his hoodie across the floor.
“I have an entire wardrobe,” Pitch said. Jack didn’t miss the way that Pitch’s eyes raked over his now-bare chest. He almost didn’t want to leave, but Jack didn’t want to overstay his welcome by frosting Pitch’s blankets in his sleep, so he pushed himself to his feet.
“Thanks,” Jack replied. This one had been really soft. It almost wasn’t worth the embarrassment of cleaning, though, trying to pick up spare quarters and hoping no one in a laundromat noticed a lonely come-stained hoodie being collected by a ghost. He clamored around for several loud, terrified heartbeats to find his staff, which had bounced off the bed. A shadow held it out to him. “Thank you.” His pants had been tossed across the room to land on a lonely candelabra.
Jack made his way to the closet, which was larger than a number of master bedrooms that he had seen. The clothing was mostly short-sleeved robes, and tight, black pants. Jack had wondered how much of Pitch’s robe was just shadow, and now he knew.
In the back, Jack found a large, faded, gray hoodie. Still a little dark for his tastes, but soft, and loose enough to be comfortable. He tugged it over his head and bailed. Pitch wasn’t in the room when he came back out, but the hallway was shorter than he remembered. He followed a much easier path from Pitch’s room back to the exit.
North’s workshop was already aflutter with activity when Jack arrived. Elves jingled under foot and the yetis were twice as intense about security. “I took an oath,” Jack yelled. “I was here last week!”
Finally, Phil, who still wasn’t exactly warm toward Jack, more like exasperated, wandered by and grumbled something at the security yetis, who reluctantly let Jack pass. One of them hit a fist into an empty palm. The other gestured at its own eyes and then pointed at Jack.
Jack snatched a cookie off a wandering yeti’s plate, still warm, and safely too high for elves to reach. Jack finally made his way to the globe room to find North supervising the lights and checking a stack of Dear Santa letters. North barely glanced at Jack between his lists.
“Already busy?” Jack said.
North waved at him, but didn’t look up. “Preparations are beginning earlier every year.”
Jack could really be delivering joy to children right now, but he felt almost calm enough to just nap. The hoodie he’d grabbed from Pitch’s closet smelled like earth, and something distantly smoky, like a softer version of the scent of the shadows themselves. He couldn’t imagine a reason that Pitch would even have a hoodie, and it was really breaking his brain to think about it. Pitch’s wardrobe had contained several centuries of fashion, all in grayscale. A hoodie had to fit in somewhere, Jack guessed.
Jack took another look at North and figured he could just check Pitch’s believers later, when the workshop was a little less busy in the globe room. He called the wind to him, pushing himself out through the hole in the roof which let in moonlight. North glanced up to wave goodbye at him, but instead of a farewell, yelled, “Is that being hickey on your neck?”
Jack kept flying, pretending like he hadn’t heard the question.
Pitch tried very hard not to think of Jack. It did not do well to dwell on memories in the presence of shadows.
He is only lonely, he does not want you. Frost is weak. He does not understand fear. He does not understand you. Once, Pitch recalled, the voices of the Fearlings had been largely indistinguishable from his own thoughts.
Instead, Pitch threw himself into crafting nightmares in the coming weeks. He had fallen somewhat behind when he spent part of his summer haunting the children of Burgess to remind them he was still out there. The summer had been enjoyable, but it had not brought Pitch new fear.
Pitch crafted nightmares in complete darkness, in pocket caves; the only way into many of these little door-less hollows was via darkness. Some were so old, he’d nearly forgotten what was in them. Pitch sat down on the lonely couch and began to weave together a truly terrible dream, something to make a heart pound, something to wake a dreamer up, wired and exhausted. He appreciated the way that adrenaline crystalized memories, preserved them over-sharp and visceral.
On a whim, he added crisp, fresh snow to slow the dreamer down.
Jack spent the next week starting snowball fights to remind everyone he was still the Guardian of fun. He made time to toss a few at Jamie, before flying back to the North Pole to check on the globe.
Jack tapped a few keys to narrow down the belief-o-meter to check only Pitch’s believers. Numbers were down after everyone had begun to put away Halloween decorations, but not by much. Jack checked his own. A handful of lights in Burgess (of course), and a few scattered in the midwest, which was new, but not improbable. Jack was vaguely aware that Jamie had a few friends online he talked with regularly, but not where they lived. He wished for a moment he’d known about the globe before Pitch scared everyone’s believers into forgetting about their Guardians. Probably would have saved himself some grief meeting a believer before the Nightmares chased out everything but terror of the Boogeyman. Jack wondered how many he’d had before, when his peak year might have been, if he had even had a believer before Jamie.
Jack put a hand up to his neck, absently tracing the place where Pitch had left a mark. It had healed already (slower than expected, and Jack wondered if that was in part because he hadn’t wanted it to heal), but he had gotten in the habit of reaching up to press his fingers into the bruise during the week. The earthy smell had begun to fade from the hoodie, but the shadowy smell of Pitch clung in places around Jack’s neck and wrists where his body caused the edges to frost.
“Your clothes are darker this week. Changing your look?” North asked.
Jack started. “Nah, it’s just comfortable. I was in a hurry when I picked it out.” All of that was technically true, so it shouldn’t have shown up as a lie on the naughty list notations next to his name. Not that North usually even checked the notations for him; Jack had been on the list so long North had stopped giving him leeway for “a few pranks here and there, come on it’s not that bad” like two centuries ago.
North folded his arms. “How are you? Have you been visiting other Guardians? Bunny misses you. He would not say, but it is so.”
“Aww, does he really?” Jack cooed. “I’ve been great. Halloween was fun.” He tried very hard to keep the blush down but his cheeks began to warm anyway.
“I am betting it was.” North gestured to the spot on Jack’s neck where his hand still rested.
Jack dropped his hand. He was positive his face was glowing as he cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, anyway, I’ve got snowball fights to start, naughty lists to get onto. I worry that saving the world and all might break my record.” Privately, he hoped it would, but he also felt a spark of pride for holding a three hundred year streak.
Jack rode the wind until he realized it was leading him to Pitch’s lair. The broken down bed had finally been replaced. It seemed rude to break the center slat again, now that Pitch had gone through the trouble of restoring it, so Jack pushed the bed to the side a bit instead and dropped down. He clutched his staff close to his front, hoping that Pitch’s good mood from Halloween hadn’t faded as the season and his believers ebbed.
Pitch stood in front of his globe, watching the believers twinkle. Jack hadn’t had much time to contribute to the numbers, given that his own season had begun. He had taken the time to arrange a few scary story tellings whenever he knocked out the power. Mostly, this consisted of writing notes in libraries or movie theaters, which appeared to be from one employee to another about plans to set up a gathering to keep children in one place during bad weather. A surprising number of people were willing to go along with plans they hadn’t remembered making.
Jack touched down as gently as he could, but Pitch turned to face him as soon as his feet came in contact with the stone floor.
“Do you think that somehow gifting me all of this power will bind me to you?” He said. “Do you think that I can be tamed with kindness?”
Jack flinched. “No, but I spent a long time thinking that no one else knew what it was like to be alone, and I thought no one deserved that. Especially not again.” He had hoped that an act of kindness would make a difference, but the precedent set didn’t bode well.
Pitch flickered into shadow, becoming an echoing voice. Jack hated this trick. “You think you know loneliness after a few hundred years?” The voice moved as soon as Jack tried to face it. “Try millennia. I have been on this wretched planet feeding off the dregs of fear from humans since before they were capable of speech.” All of the shadows along the wall looked like impossibly tall versions of Pitch.
“That’s why I wanted to help.” Jack called. He hadn’t known that—who had? Did North? Did Bunny or Tooth or Sandy have any idea how old Pitch was? “I don’t know what I might have done if I had been left alone as long as you.”
Pitch appeared in front of Jack, fisted his hoodie, and pushed him backward into the wall. Somewhat hysterically, Jack wondered if Pitch kept such tight tunnels because he liked pressing people against walls. It seemed to be a running theme with him.
Pitch lowered his voice, pressing his face into Jack’s neck, inhaling fear. “We might still take back those years of loneliness.”
Jack scrambled to get a grip on Pitch, but his robes were layered in shadow and slipped through his fingers. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Pitch’s lips dragged along Jack’s cheek. “Don’t you still feel wronged? How often do the other Guardians speak to you? Do you come here because you have so many other friends to be with that you’d still choose me?”
Jack gasped, deepening his struggle. Pitch’s hands, the warmth of him was familiar, but this wasn’t the Pitch that Jack had wanted to see, with his silver eyes and harsh words. Jack wanted the golden curiosity back.
“Does it still sting how little they notice you when they’re busy?”
“I’m busy, too,” Jack retorted. “I was busy all October.”
“I know.” Jack could feel Pitch’s grin at the juncture of his neck and jaw, right before Pitch opened his mouth over the spot and began to suck.
Jack stopped trying to get away, wrapping his feet around Pitch’s back to pull him closer. Pitch felt like sitting next to a campfire but without the awful melting in his chest Jack got when he was too hot. He finally slipped a hand under Pitch’s robe, tried to hold onto Pitch’s hips.
Pitch slipped a hand under the hem of Jack’s hoodie, and began to press forward. A central line of heat pressed into Jack’s hip, nearly burning. He needed that like yesterday. He wanted it inside him.
“What are we doing?” Jack tried. This wasn’t smart. It was different when Pitch had been playful, had been curious and grateful. Jack shouldn’t be just taking warmth and comfort wherever it appeared, he knew that, but he really didn’t like to give up an opportunity to be physically close with anyone. This was why he didn’t do one night stands anymore; he couldn’t maintain an appropriate level of distance.
“Well, Jack, I believe your Guardians may owe you something often referred to as The Talk,” Pitch taunted. Jack exhaled the beginning of a laugh, but cut himself off in a whimper when Pitch’s other hand reached down the back of Jack’s trousers, slipping between the crack of his cheeks to tease at his entrance.
Jack dropped his staff. That’s some real resolve, there, Jack, he told himself as he reached down to tug his pants down farther. He swore under his breath.
“Yeah, yeah, please,” he agreed.
“Yes?” Pitch pushed Jack through shadows, causing a brief sensation of vertigo when he deposited Jack on the cushions again.
“Please please please,” Jack replied. He stopped berating himself. He was used to hand jobs, the occasional blow job, not this. A spirit had once complained, “My dick’s numb. Like fucking a block of ice,” and pulled out after just a few minutes.
Jack never saw the bottle of lube, just felt Pitch’s hand leave him for a moment and come back slick and pressing a finger into him.
Jack groaned. It was a lot of contact all of a sudden, Pitch trying to tear Jack’s pants off with one hand while keeping the other, practically burning with warmth, embedded in Jack as deeply as possible, pressing raw heat against his prostate.
Pitch’s sleeves melted away, dragging his robe down, leaving him in just pants, which shadows quickly removed, one leg at a time. Jack huffed out a laugh as Pitch’s hand stuttered with his balance.
Jack reached for the hem of his hoodie, but Pitch grabbed his wrist. He twisted his finger inside of Jack, setting off sparks behind Jack’s eyes. Jack’s hands went limp as he groaned.
“It’s a good color on you,” Pitch said. He slipped a second finger into Jack just before Jack could recover from that comment. The third finger came soon after, stretching Jack more tightly than he expected. He tried to relax, rock back against Pitch’s fingers, but it had the unintended side effect of bringing him too close to the edge. Pitch leaned forward, sensing Jack’s fear of coming too soon, probably, Jack thought, and bit the soft meat of Jack’s inner thigh--it was startling enough to pull him back from the edge of orgasm, but only until the pain faded. Pitch was going to leave a mark. Pitch was leaving a mark and Jack was going to see it every time he tried to get off for the next week, at least. Jack groaned.
Pitch began to pump his fingers in and out of Jack even faster.
“Hang on,” Jack protested between labored breathing. “I want—“
He glanced down between his legs to see Pitch already slicking his cock with his other hand. Jack’s fingers clawed at the blanket. He nodded. “Ye-yeah, that’s, yeah.”
Pitch’s fingers slipped out with a wet noise. Jack still felt warm at his core where Pitch’s fingers had been.
Pitch bent over him as he pressed forward, lined them up. His lips covered Jack’s as he pressed in, the heat and burning stretch causing Jack to groan into Pitch’s mouth. He tasted an echo as Pitch’s tongue danced over his lips. Jack scrabbled to hold onto Pitch, keeping them pinned together while Pitch’s hips snapped forward. Pitch’s hands held Jack’s hips, tugging them to pull Jack harder against him with every stroke, to bury himself deeper.
Jack whimpered every time Pitch hit his prostate. He was full to the brim with heat and sensation, and he couldn’t even rock into Pitch’s thrusts, Pitch was holding his hips so tightly. He felt raw, all he could focus on was the drag of Pitch’s cock inside of him.
Pitch used shadows to shove Jack’s hoodie up to his armpits, high enough to trap Jack, keeping him from being able to lower his arms as Pitch attacked his collarbone. He came when Pitch bit down, splattering Pitch’s chest more than his own. Pitch’s furious rutting ended in a bolt of groaning incandescence as he filled Jack. Slowly, Pitch relaxed half on top of him. Neither of them moved. Jack felt Pitch’s thumb leaving little whorls and patterns along his hip.
“I do still feel a little alone sometimes,” Jack admitted to Pitch’s hair.
Pitch snorted, pulling out, and leaving an absence in Jack’s center that had contributed to why he didn’t really do one night stands anymore. “Really?”
Pitch laid back down beside Jack, staring at the ceiling. Jack rolled over onto his side to see him better.
“There was nothing worse, though, than knowing that no one could see me. No one believed in me.”
“You know what they say about sharing feelings after sex, with hormones running high.”
Jack flailed his way to a sitting position, finally pulling down the hoodie and growling at the air in front of him. “You say that, but you were serious in Antarctica. Maybe not about everything, but I’m not stupid. I know it’s not fun—it’s not okay to be alone like that for so long. It hurts to have children just walk through you, and… it meant something to hear that you felt that way, too. It meant something to me to hear that I wasn’t the only one.”
“And you thought a few acts of distant kindness could fix everything,” Pitch drawled.
“No, that’s not—I just wanted to help. I thought it was fun, scaring kids. You know. What goes together better than fear and fun?” Jack clambered out of bed, glancing around the room for his pants, which had landed across the room. He looked down at his stomach and sighed. “I’m taking another hoodie because you’re a problem.”
Jack snatched the pants and ducked into the wardrobe room. His old hoodie hung in the section of modern clothing in the very back, slightly more faded than he thought, but definitely the same blue. Jack used the one he was wearing to wipe down his chest before dropping it on the floor. There was a light gray hoodie hanging beside his old blue one, faded all over except the seams, which had a heavy black, decorative thread lining the cuffs and neck line. Jack felt the material, and found it to be off-the-rack soft. He hesitated, then grabbed both, slipping the gray one on before ambling back out toward the exit where he’d dropped his staff. Pitch was gone again.
Jack made time for a bath in a nearby river before visiting Bunny. He didn’t want to smell like Pitch around someone who probably had an enhanced sense of smell, and he didn’t want to ruin his clean clothes by wearing them while he still reeked of sex. Jack decided on the blue hoodie, too, because he didn’t want to wash the smell of shadow out of the gray one before he headed over. (Jack tried very hard not to think about not wanting to wash the gray hoodie.) Jack looked at the reflection of his neck in the water. He considered looking for some makeup to cover up the hickey, but his level of deathly pale didn’t tend to be on shelves except at Halloween, which was long gone, and Jack wasn’t 100% sure how to use modern cosmetics anyway. His demographic of kids tended to skew younger. Anyway, the hickey would be conspicuous no matter what. He suspected that was the point.
Jack had to pilfer one of North’s snow globes to get to the Warren. North wouldn’t notice at this time of year, probably.
As soon as the portal closed, Jack heard Bunny call, “I can smell you freezing my flowers from here, Frostbite.”
“Oh, you can?” Jack taunted. “Are you sure? Because I could really be putting out a lot more frost.” He tapped the crook of his staff on a smiling stone egg guardian and watched it ice over so hard it couldn’t turn into a frowning egg guardian.
“Hey, mate, you can just stop right there.” Bunny bounded over a nearby hill, popping up between a cluster of flowers. He had a half-painted egg in hand.
Jack held his hands up, laughing. “I’m just checking in. How are you doing? Easter is still pretty far off, isn’t it?”
“Don’t give me that look, mate. I saw you icing up the place during October. You’d best get that out of your system early. If I see a single flake of snow anywhere on Easter—“
“Sounds like you’re pretty good. I’m fine, thanks for asking, Bunny!” Jack rolled his eyes when Bunny still hadn’t stopped giving him the you’ve-ruined-my-holiday-twice-I’ll-be-damned-if-it’s-a-third-time look. “I don’t make all of the snow in the world, you know. That would be an awful lot of work.”
“Don’t you play the all work no fun rubbish on me,” Bunny countered. “I know you.”
Jack grinned. The blizzard of ’68 had been worth every glare from Bunny. Easter had been ruined, but it was followed by an entire week of snow days. Bunny should be referring to it as The Totally Amazing Epic Snowball Fight of ’68.
“Is that another hickey? Crikey, North said the first one was bad.” Bunny added a few swirls of blue to his egg, tilted it this way and that, then added a few more.
“Nosy,” Jack countered. “I know other spirits than you guys, you know. The Guardians aren’t the only ones in the world.”
“Uh-huh. That why you’re not saying who left it?”
“It’s not a relationship if that’s what you’re asking,” Jack huffed. That, at least, was true. “Isn’t it a little early to be painting eggs?”
“It’s never too early to be painting eggs. I like to practice my designs before the season hits so I can paint faster. Useful on a year when you have to do a lot in a short amount of time.”
Jack felt a twinge of guilt a that. Instead of letting it get to him, he tapped a flower with his staff. It let out a burst of green pigment, which he froze into a solid green cloud. The flower drooped with the weight of it, but didn’t break.
“Stop that,” Bunny said without looking up.
“Stop what?” Jack replied. He tapped several more bell flowers, freezing the pigment in clouds which caused the flowers to droop until the frost touched the ground. “Hey, I’ve got a real question.”
“Shoot,” Bunny replied, still focusing on the egg in his hand.
“Back before I was a Guardian, why didn’t any of you just tell Jamie I existed? Or, y’know, leave hints for kids?” Some of Jack’s pranks around Halloween had been obvious and some hadn’t, but he had found that it was incredibly easy to get children to believe in something during the right season.
Bunny paused, waving his paintbrush in the air for a few seconds while he tried to find the words. “You never asked,” he said at last. Jack froze a whole row of pigment flowers without thinking about it. “Hey, now,” Bunny snapped. “It’s a big deal to gift another spirit belief. Not all spirits want to be remembered. I thought you were trying to go it alone.”
“Is that what the other Guardians thought, too?” Jack leaned on his staff.
Bunny shrugged. “To be honest, mate, I think they may have just taken their cues from me. Crikey, of the four of us, I think I knew you best.”
Jack grimaced. “You’re terrible with people. Why would they take any cues from you?” He realized after the words were out, that he really could have been nicer about that--but no, maybe he couldn’t have. Really. He was alone for three hundred years because someone looked at Bunny and thought, yes, this socially awkward oversized rabbit is a fellow who really understands humans. Bunny thought eggs were fun.
Bunny snorted, but didn’t protest. He went back to adding swirls to his egg. “You should have seen me a few hundred years ago.”
“No,” Jack gasped. “There’s no way you could have been worse.”
“I didn’t understand sarcasm when I met North.”
Jack laughed. “I can’t imagine.” He stood in place, but with the talk over, Jack was already getting bored. He tapped a few flowers with the hook of his staff. “Hey can you send me to Burgess? I only stole one snow globe.”
“Stole—? Get over here!” Bunny threw a frozen cloud of pigment at Jack. Not wanting it to crack and hurt him, Jack unfroze it right before it made contact. His hoodie was now half-green.
“Now that is pretty rude,” Jack said. “I just need a ride, come on.”
Bunny tapped the ground, causing a hole to open right beneath where Jack was standing.
“Thank yooooooou,” Jack said on his way down.
“Bloody rotten, little…” He smiled as the hole closed up.
Jack had to dig the gray hoodie out of a tree hollow outside of Burgess he used for storing stuff. It was pretty deep in the woods, so he didn’t worry anyone would find it. He tried to use some snow to scrub the green out of his blue hoodie, but it wasn’t very effective. “Rude,” he muttered, tossing it into the tree hollow. He might just have to get a new one. Again.
Jamie was in class, so Jack waited for recess before starting a school wide snowball fight. Cupcake nailed Jack in the back of the head with a snowball because they all knew who had started it. Jack laughed in surprise and gave her extra ammo before riding the wind back to Jamie’s side. Jack helped created a little wall of snow to act as a fort.
He felt a little stronger when he threw a snowball at a kid’s face and Jamie hollered, “That’s Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” because when the kid blinked back snow, he gasped in recognition.
Jack grinned, readying another snowball, but the kid already had one in hand. Jack dodged and the boy accidentally hit a teacher. “Oh, man,” he muttered. Before she could go off, Jack blew a little fun into his snowball and tossed it at her from the side. She blinked back snow and glanced around before gathering up some snow for snowballs. He winked back at his new believer, who was clutching his chest in quickly receding terror.
“That was close, wasn’t it?” Jack asked him.
The kid nodded, grabbing another snowball to toss at Jack.
“Hey, I helped you!” Jack protested, even as the snowball crashed into his chest. “I thought we were friends!” He lined up more ammo for Jamie as he ducked behind their fort. “I may have underestimated some people,” he admitted.
Jamie laughed. “We can take them.”
Jack had made seriously a lot of snowballs today, he’d brought snow to a town in North Carolina, and he’d helped a family sled down a bumpy hill in Georgia, even though all they’d seen were flurries. Late November was a solid time of the year for him, but he tended to wear out if he over-exerted his abilities. Not this year, apparently. Jack wondered how much the children of Burgess helped that. Maybe they had told a few friends, spread the belief. It felt nice to imagine.
He dropped by North’s workshop to check the globe again. It was a pretty solid habit now. Pitch’s believers first: scattered starlights littered North’s globe. The numbers weren’t at peak, but the believers had stopped declining. Jack changed the settings again to show his own and fell out of the wind, landing on his rear. There was Burgess, yes, a well-lit hub, but there were believers in Canada he hadn’t visited. Out in the midwest, where he hadn’t yet made it this year, there was a smattering of lights. He had believers in Southern Texas, which he avoided at all costs, year-round.
Jack forgot to breathe as he stood up, calling the wind to him, flailing as he tried to orient himself, rushing southward.
He arrived in Texas just after nightfall. A few strands of black sand wove through the streams of gold that Sandy had left behind; not enough to overtake the gold or corrupt it, just enough to leave a scattered few nightmares among the collection of dreams. Enough, maybe, to sustain Pitch, but not enough to warrant Guardian intervention. Jack dragged his fingers through the sand; like Sandy’s, it coalesced into images in front of him, little black flurries of snowflakes and a deep sense of loneliness. Jack staggered mid-air, had to rely on the wind to hold onto him. A few flickers of the nightmare had flashed in his head. Being all alone in the snow, having people walk right through him. The dreamer’s perspective called to him, but Jack couldn’t see or hear the child. He kept wandering, alone, and so did the dreamer.
Jack had the wind deposit him on a rooftop while he gasped in lungfuls of the clear night air. He hadn’t told Pitch anything about— anything specific, but the nightmare had been like a flashback. For just a moment, Jack was positive he might have stood in those woods, spun around looking for those children to notice him. When he was ready to stand again, he called a snow cloud. He couldn’t muster a big one because he could only do so much for the weather, but he did manage to drag the temperature down enough to make the flurries begin to stick to rooftops and porch railings. It drained him a bit, but he had the energy to burn these days.
When he was ready to move on, he headed two counties over before he found more nightmares. In the first one he touched, he could see visions of a world shrouded in ice and darkness, an image of a regal ice king, distant and beautiful and cold —himself? was that how Pitch saw him?—sitting on a frozen throne beside Pitch, smiling as the dreamer begged to be allowed to grow cabbages just one season, please (which was almost the real nightmare, who grew up to be a cabbage farmer? Was the absurdity Sandy’s influence, or the dreamer’s?) and that nightmare didn’t hurt nearly as much. Jack was a little offended that any believers he picked up in this town would expect him to be evil, but that was buried underneath the overwhelming feeling that children were believing in him.
Pitch’s hole in the ground was right where he left it. He had to push the bed out of the way again before dropping down. “Pitch?”
Pitch melted out of the darkness. “Have you considered knocking?” When he opened his eyes they were gold.
“You don’t have a door!” Jack waved above himself toward the entrance. He supposed he could have knocked on the bed, but it looked really fragile and it hadn’t taken much to destroy the first time. “It’s a hole in the ground.”
Pitch raised an eyebrow. “Better than nothing, I suppose.”
“Ow,” Jack replied, clutching his chest. “I have places.”
“There’s no reason to be ashamed of having a nomadic nature.” Pitch put his hand up to Jack’s cheek. Jack didn’t lean into it, but only barely.
“Are you—“ Jack paused. This was a dumb question, he could feel it. “Are you scaring children into believing in me?”
Pitch’s eyes widened in mock innocence. “I owe you a debt, don’t I?”
Jack sputtered. “You don’t have to—I’ve said repeatedly that’s not—“
“A thank you will suffice,” Pitch spun on his heel.
“Thank you,” Jack said.
Pitch paused, as if he hadn’t actually expected Jack to say it.
“I mean it, that’s really—thanks.” He ran his hoodie sleeve over his face. He’d thought the first time he landed in Jamie’s room and Jamie shined a flashlight over each Guardian, skipping over Jack, maybe there was a reason no one believed in him. Maybe he was hard to describe or there was something inherently ridiculous or impossible about himself that made children not want to believe in him.
Pitch kept moving. Jack trailed after him.
“I saw a few nightmares with me in them. And you.” Jack tried to push down the embarrassment. Each image of himself had been carefully crafted, more distinct than anything in the nightmares he had visited. More distinct than Pitch.
“Is that what you came to hear? That I crave companionship?” Pitch asked.
“I came here to say thanks. I didn’t think you would admit to even… anything,” Jack was a little afraid of the depth of emotion the gesture had caused him to feel, and he tried to tamp it down before Pitch caught wind, but he looked up and saw the expression on Pitch’s face and realized it hadn’t worked.
Pitch looked almost terrified for a moment, gold eyes wide with wonder and confusion.
Jack raised a hand self-consciously to the place where Pitch left a hickey last time. It was gone now, healed, but the feeling of it had been vivid enough all week that Jack could still imagine it.
Pitch’s gaze dropped to Jack’s hand, pupils blown wide. Jack exposed his neck further, digging his thumb into the place where Pitch had marked him.
“Yeah,” Jack agreed.
Pitch closed the gap between them, sliding a hand into Jack’s hair. He licked his way into Jack’s mouth, tugging Jack’s head to the side. His lips trailed across Jack’s jawline until he made his way back to the same spot that the hickey had been in last time and he bit down. Jack whimpered.
Like the first time, Pitch laved the spot, creating a focal point of molten heat, sucking at it until Jack could feel it redden. Pitch released Jack’s hair, leaving his scalp pleasantly stinging, and stepped back.
“I want to suck you off,” Jack said.
Pitch raised his thumb to trace Jack’s lips, already somewhat swollen from kissing. As soon as Jack took the thumb into his mouth, darkness whirled around them and deposited them gently in front of an armchair. Pitch stepped back and sat down, legs splayed as his shadows deserted him. “By all means.”
Jack already missed the salt of his thumb. He dropped to his knees in front of Pitch and reached for the hem of Pitch’s trousers. Pitch lifted his hips so that Jack could pull them down.
“I chose that hoodie for you,” Pitch said. Jack tried not to breathe too heavily over Pitch’s cock; he knew his breath was cold. He couldn’t believe he was allowed to do this. He skimmed his lips along the length from root to tip, causing Pitch to make a sharp inhale.
“Yeah?” Jack said.
Pitch groaned when Jack wrapped his lips around his cock. Jack wanted that heat in his mouth all the time.
Pitch put a hand over Jack’s wrist, over the specific spot where Jack tended to leak frost onto the hem. “I had thought,” Jack sucked harder. If Pitch could think, he wasn’t doing enough. “-- the black thread would--hn--look rather nice under--your rime,” Pitch leaned back, stretching his straining cock slowly deeper into Jack’s mouth, “like our creation in Antarctica.” Jack moaned around the weight in his mouth, pulling back to lick the head while his hand stroked Pitch’s length. Pitch’s hips made small, aborted movements.
Pitch stretch a hand out to touch Jack’s face—no, not his face, to reach down and press against the hickey he’d left on Jack’s neck. Jack’s breathing hitched. He swallowed as much of Pitch as he could, reveling in the way that Pitch’s body heat seared an impression in his throat.
Pitch stroked a thumb across Jack’s cheek hard enough to feel the outline of himself moving inside of Jack’s mouth. Jack rocked back on his heels, stroking with his hand again for a few seconds before diving back down to swallow Pitch to the root. Pitch threw his head back, hissing out his pleasure. He seemed nearly as surprised as Jack when he finished. Hot liquid filled Jack’s mouth, and he couldn’t quite swallow it all before Pitch was pulling out.
Pitch swiped a dribble of come off of Jack’s chin and fed it to him, before pulling Jack off the floor and into his lap. Pitch’s thighs were soft under Jack’s sore knees. Pitch pulled him forward to kiss him, to lick the taste of himself off of Jack’s lips, he realized. Jack groaned again.
When they separated, he felt bold enough to ask, “Can I fuck you?” Jack’s voice was hoarse.
Pitch looked up at him through his lashes. He pushed Jack’s hoodie up to his armpits, not quite insistent enough to make Jack want to take it off, and then dropped his mouth to the space below Jack’s collarbone and begun to suck another mark into the spot.
Pitch grinned. “So well-trained,” he murmured against Jack’s heartbeat. A hand reached down to untie Jack’s pants, pausing to drag fingers through the coarse hair as he tugged at the hem.
Behind him, Jack could feel Pitch’s legs moving, lifting. When he turned, he saw out of the corner of his eye, what appeared to be Pitch’s trousers disappearing into a portal of shadow. He couldn’t turn far without Pitch yanking him back so that he could leave another mark on Jack’s chest.
Pitch held out a bottle of lubricant when Jack turned back to face him. Shadows must have brought it, too.
“Do you want to—in the chair?” Jack asked. “I mean, how do you want to do this?” He dangled the lube between thumb and forefinger, trying not to hold it too much. He didn’t want to cool it down. A whole host of possibilities flashed in his head: Pitch on his knees, Pitch against a wall, Pitch riding his cock. He could drag Pitch to bed and take his time.
Pitch finally pulled back, momentarily satisfied with his handiwork. “I want you to fuck me right here.” Jack couldn’t help it, he had to press the heel of his palm against his erection. He had thought he was ready to hear the reply.
As soon as Jack stood, Pitch’s legs fell open again. He scooted down the armchair to slouch enough to allow Jack between his legs. Jack barely had to push his own pants to make them pool around his ankles.
Jack almost wanted to rush through prep, worried that Pitch wouldn’t want to be cold from the inside out, worried that it would be somehow less enjoyable to be fucked by Jack than to fuck him, but Pitch scowled at him, nudging him closer with a leg, which felt like a challenge. Jack kneeled again in front of the armchair, pulling one of Pitch’s knees over his shoulder.
The first finger slid right in, like Pitch did this all the time. He was certainly relaxed enough. Jack pushed down the brief rush of apprehension. If Pitch had been with someone else recently, well, it wasn’t like Jack had even mentioned exclusivity. Or coming back. (He really hoped it hadn’t been someone else.) If Pitch hadn’t been with someone else—Jack was going to think about that possibility a lot, and at length.
Jack slipped in the second finger and began to scissor them. Pitch licked his lips, staring down at him. He looked like he might devour Jack if he got close enough. Jack thought he might let him if it meant being buried to the balls in that heat. He slipped in a third finger, thrusting a little with his hand. Pitch wasn’t hard again yet, but he also didn’t look like the oversensitivity was going to make him sob in a wreck of pleasure-bordering-on-pain like it did for Jack. Pitch watched Jack’s movements through his lashes.
Jack tried to take his time, he really did, but he could only hold out so long. There weren’t words for the tight heat that enveloped him. Jack pushed in slowly, savoring every inch. By the time he was pressed all the way inside of Pitch, he had no oxygen with which to moan. Jack leaned forward to rest his head on Pitch’s chest and inhale. He set an agonizing pace for himself. Slow and teasing. From the way that Pitch tried to use his legs to pull Jack in, he worried it might have been too slow to be enjoyable until he pressed close enough to feel Pitch’s erection against his stomach. Jack reached down and tugged.
“Faster,” Pitch grunted.
Jack grinned. “You could ask nicely.”
Pitch’s glare had probably featured in more than a few nightmares. He clenched around Jack, and in response Jack thrust a little harder because he couldn’t help it. He exhaled the start of a laugh at Pitch’s expression, which hastily melted into a softer frown.
“Faster,” Pitch repeated. His composure was beginning to crack. Jack rocked in at a new angle just to watch the way his mouth fell open.
Jack snapped his hips forward, speeding up the pace at which he stroked Pitch’s cock. He crashed his lips into Pitch’s and let Pitch’s tongue fuck into his mouth. He made a high, keening sound against Pitch’s lips when he finished, orgasm crashing over his senses, causing even his hair to tingle with it.
Jack only slowed his hand on Pitch’s cock for a few seconds. He pressed his hips in closer, trying to keep his softening cock inside of Pitch for as long as possible. Jack moved his mouth to Pitch’s neck when Pitch’s tongue became less coordinated. The high gasp Pitch made, alone, made it worth the effort. Jack thought, Jack Frost was here, as he sucked a mark into the hollow of Pitch’s throat.
Pitch rocked into his hand, smearing precome against Jack’s stomach and then suddenly stilling as he spilled over Jack’s abdomen.
Jack had all of two minutes to catch his breath before Pitch was pulling his hoodie off over his head and tossing it to the floor.
“I’d like to introduce you to showers. As I understand it, you have some difficulty with the concept, judging by your often hasty retreat, but I assure you—“
Jack laughed. Everything was already so warm. Pitch was just so warm all around him, and he never lost body heat, didn’t seem to care that Jack’s standard body temperature was below freezing. “Who does the plumbing in your creepy underground lair?”
“I have other amenities.” Pitch waved a hand at him. Jack really didn’t want to move yet, but he also really didn’t want to have come frozen to his chest in five minutes when Pitch’s body heat would begin to recede. It wasn’t good form to give his partners frostbite. Though, Pitch actually seemed to maintain a more consistent temperature than Jack was used to. Jack stood up, dragging Pitch to his feet after him.
Pitch unclasped his robe, letting it fall to the floor before he wrapped his arms around Jack’s shoulders. Shadows circled them, depositing them inside of an empty shower. Jack’s legs had become jell-o, he realized when Pitch tried to step away to turn on the shower head. He wobbled, flailing out to grab Pitch’s shoulder. That was when he actually saw the darkening bruise on Pitch’s neck in the light. Jack Frost was there, he thought again. That was his, he put that there, he left a mark on Pitch Black . Jack seriously considered instigating round three. His knees were probably a little bruised from the stone floor, and they had clearly stopped working, but he was beyond caring.
Jack squawked as lukewarm water sprayed on the side of his face, some of it in his ear.
When he blinked the water out of his eyes, some already turning to frost on his lashes as he huffed to blow water off of his face, Pitch was smiling at him. Not a feral grin, like he was considering eating Jack whole, but like a genuine smile. Jack was pretty sure he was going to melt from the inside out. The smile only lasted a few seconds.
Jack let Pitch manhandle him back under the spray, and he took the bar of soap without protest. “Usually I just bathe in a creek,” Jack admitted. This soap was nice, smelled like Pitch, a little, actually. Kind of like the subtle musk usually underlying the blackened smell of shadows.
“I can tell.” Pitch frowned, but Jack knew he wasn’t, like, disgusting or anything. He just liked to smell like a forest. It wasn’t like he ever sweated. Pitch stole the soap back as soon as Jack lathered his hands. Rude.
“Do you eat food?” Jack asked.
“Well, I don’t usually eat children.”
Jack snickered. “That’s reassuring.”
Pitch ran soapy hands down Jack’s back, still warm even under lukewarm water.
“Do you have a favorite color?”
“Take a guess.” Pitch dragged Jack backwards, under the spray to rinse him off and moved around him—just casually brushed against Jack, which Jack pretended was no big deal, casual full-body contact was a thing he was totally used to—and then leaned down to kiss Jack. The way that Pitch swiped his tongue across Jack’s upper lip was less harsh than before, less demanding. They weren’t trying to get out of clothing or into each other now.
When they pulled back, Jack had forgotten he had to breathe in order to speak, so when he tried, nothing came out. Then he remembered to inhale. “You want to crash for a bit? I could use a nap.” He also didn’t like not knowing where they were, or being separated from his staff, but he figured Pitch could probably smell that, or whatever he did.
Pitch smirked as he turned off the water. “Of course.” A shadow dropped a towel in Pitch’s hand and a towel on Jack’s head. “It’s polite to dry off first.”
Jack snorted, but scrubbed the towel through his hair. His body temperature began to drop again and all the water on him to froze to his skin. Ugh, this was why he never had any body hair, he thought as he tried to brush frozen droplets away and each one tried to take ten fine hairs with it. The misting of condensation-turned-frostflakes came right off; it was the fat, iced droplets he had troubles removing. Jack frowned when Pitch huffed out an exhale that might have been a laugh.
“Ready to go?” Pitch asked. Jack took a few seconds to drink in the sight of him before they were dropped back into the dim lighting of Pitch’s lair.
Gravity abandoned him as soon as the word was out of his mouth. Jack landed--he crashed, oh, Pitch thought he was hilarious--onto the pile of pillows Pitch kept around in lieu of a bed. His staff tumbled out of the shadows above him immediately after, landing with a thunk on his head. “Nice aim. Funny.”
Pitch smirked. “I could tell you missed it.”
Pitch had arrived at the same time, of course, safely on the ground the entire time, and still incredibly naked. Jack clutched his staff close and rolled over. Pitch curled up behind him a moment later, thawing a number of remaining ice droplets stuck to Jack’s backside. “Do you even feel cold?” Jack wondered aloud.
“It’s not unpleasant. Space is much colder,” Pitch murmured against his shoulder.
Space, Jack thought. He just assumed that all of the spirits were from Earth. He wanted to ask who else, what was your home like, but Pitch’s breathing was too even and his voice had been too low, and he likely slept very little, anyway.
It was midnight when Jack woke up, which explained why Pitch was gone. A note beside the blanket pallet read, “Your pants have not been washed since the 18th century. Please do not look for them.” When Jack glanced around, though, he saw that the hoodie with the black embroidery was still laid out on the chair, despite reeking of sex, next to a pair of fresh, black trousers. His hygiene, he suspected, was not at fault here.
Tooth’s palace was, to be honest, a little too hot to be fun year-round. A little too close to the equator for Jack to visit more than he had to, but he really hadn’t had much of a chance to look around, and anyway, he’d never given his teeth back to her for safekeeping. He had to dig them out of his hollow tree near Burgess before making the trip.
Jack kept to the atmosphere, high enough to be freezing. He landed around sunset, as planned.
“Jack! How are you doing?” Tooth charged him out of the air, causing them both to tumble as the wind changed direction to stay under him.
“Great! How are you?”
“Oh, you know, busy. I’ve tried to get out in the field a little more lately, I forgot what a rush it was!” She fluttered back, letting him go. “How are your teeth?”
“Oh, my, what kind of teeth caused that?” She pointed at his neck.
Jack’s hand immediately flew up to cover it. He could feel his cheeks actually thaw a little. “No teeth, not teeth at all!”
“That was definitely left by teeth,” she argued, pointing at his collarbone this time. Now that he thought about it, Pitch might have actually left some evidence there, too. Oh, moon.
“Not important teeth, it’s no one you’d want to hear about, it’s fine!”
“How horrible! All teeth are important teeth.” Baby Tooth appeared at her shoulder to titter in agreement.
“Baby Tooth!” Jack was incredibly relieved to dodge the rest of that line of questioning. Baby Tooth flew forward to nuzzle at Jack’s cheek. “How have you been?” Jack focused entirely on her thrilled peeps.
“North was saying we might do something maybe in his workshop since it has the most space for guests, and, well, a kitchen, for the Guardians soon, so maybe you should drop by and let him know when you won’t be too busy, and we’ll try to work around everyone’s schedules after Christmas and set up a little get together, what do you think?”
“That would be fantastic!” Jack grinned as Baby Tooth fluttered back in front of him, nodding as if to say she’d be there, too.
Jack put his hand in his pocket, and remembered he was there for more than just hello. He pulled the golden cylinder with his baby teeth out. “So, where do you keep all of these, anyway?”
“Oh, you found them!” Tooth cried. “Right this way…”
Her fear could be so fresh, so crisp, so pure. She could be a princess of fearlings. You could keep her at your side always.
Pitch ignored the shadows, which had seemed easier lately. He didn’t need fear, like they did. He could sustain himself on belief. Lately, even when his believers were frightened of him, it seemed a thrill rather than the terror he was used to instilling.
Sophie had never feared him, which was—not new. He had known that affection once. Memories filtered in like sunlight through trees. A green dress, a familiar laugh. Pitch’s breath caught in his throat as he tried to weave a shadow that could leave the walls between his palms. Jack could create dancing frost sculptures, and Pitch was much older and much more familiar with shade.
He couldn’t remember a name there was no name, there was nothing, you are projecting a want that you cannot have, there is nothing here for you, this girl will die like all the rest, she is mortal—all the rest. Had someone died? There was never anyone, humans die, they all die, this one will vanish unless you turn her into one of us.
Pitch stood. “Time for bed,” he admonished.
Sophie frowned. “Budderflies?”
Pitch released the sculpted shade in his hand. The fluttering was somewhat off-kilter, but he led it back to her bed to dart under her blankets. Sophie followed the butterfly shade, popping out the bottom of her blanket to wave. “Night, night, Boogerman,” she said.
“Sleep,” Pitch replied. He made sure to check for every shadow in his possession before stepping out of the room.
“Is that a hickey?” Jamie whispered when Jack fell into his room. “ Gross.”
“How old are you?” Jack marveled.
“Jack, I’m nine, I’m not a baby.” Jamie folded his arms. Oh, you sweet, precious snowflake, Jack thought.
“Of course you’re not. I’m not talking about it.” When Jamie opened his mouth, he added, “With anyone. Not even North.”
Jamie grinned. “Santa knows everything, how are you going to hide it from him? He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. Come on, Jack, even babies know that.”
Jack frowned. “Then I’ve got until Christmas Eve to not tell anyone. You want a secret middle of the night snowball fight, or not? Where are your boots?” As far as Jack knew, the notations on the Naughty List and the Nice List were entirely good and bad deeds, not general stuff, and North really wouldn’t check Jack’s until the very end of Christmas Eve; he saved spirits for last. Jack blanched. He didn’t know if scaring up believers for Pitch counted as naughty or nice, but it was definitely going to be on the list. Jack had priorities, though: first, clandestine snowball fights. He leaped out of Jamie’s window while Jamie was still checking under his bed for his mittens, creating an ice slide that led from Jamie’s window to the ground.
He made matching ones for each of the neighborhood kids, even Tammy, one of Jamie’s neighbors who still didn’t believe in him. What was it going to take? Ice slides didn’t mysteriously create themselves in the night.
An hour later, Jack made sure to run all of the kids who hadn’t left yet back inside. He flew Jamie back to his bedroom window last, which was when he heard the thump from Sophie’s room. Probably just a baby tooth tripping over one of the mobiles in her room, but just in case, he thought. Jack dumped Jamie on the bed and tossed a blanket over him before floating down the hallway.
“I assure you, the word is not difficult, try again: Boogeyman,” someone said.
“Boogerman!” Sophie giggled. “Peek-a-boo!”
Jack glanced around to see Pitch hiding in the closet, peering out with glowing eyes and pointy teeth. “Boogeyman,” he corrected. Jack saw, out of the corner of his eye, a flurry of shadows stop moving along the walls as Pitch noticed him. At least a few had been butterfly-shaped.
“Booger!” Sophie agreed.
“Boogeyman,” Pitch tried again.
Jack snickered, and the snicker devolved into a full cackle. He shoved Pitch into the closet. “Back to your place, Booger.”
When they arrived, Pitch straightened his robe. “I was much more popular after the release of Monsters, Inc., you know.”
“Is that the one with the green eyeball?”
“Jack, please. You spend more time with children than anyone, and you cannot keep track of their interests?”
Jack crossed his arms, floating upward and away, toward Pitch’s impossibly high ceilings (literally, he was pretty sure, Pitch must have had some shadow magic letting him bend space to make room for all the drama he stored in here). “I play with kids outside, where it’s fun.”
Pitch raised his eyebrows. “Hm.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jack fell back to stand in front of Pitch. “I’m fun.”
“And you know all about children, I’m sure.” Pitch agreed in the same mocking tone.
“That is pretty rude. I know lots of things about what kids like.”
“Name three things children enjoy that aren’t of an ice- or snow-based nature.”
Jack hesitated. "Disney, um, being outside—hang on, I've got one more—"
“You see, Jack?”
“Whatever, I know stuff.” Jack tapped his staff against Pitch’s chest just to watch the frost spiral over his robes. Pitch inhaled sharply. “See? I can get your attention fine.” He fisted his hands in the front of Pitch’s robes (he was learning where the shadow ended and where the cloth began) and pulled himself close enough to brush their lips together. As soon as first contact was made, Pitch reached forward, pulled Jack flush against him.
When they pulled back, Jack could still feel a stripe of saliva on his upper lip. He licked his lips. “What do you say to abandoning your nightmare campaign tonight and getting some field experience?”
Pitch frowned at him. “I worry that’s not a euphemism.”
“We could do that, too,” Jack agreed. “Later. First, I have some kids in Minnesota who think I’m some kind of consort to the Boogeyman who need to know I’m fun.”
“Who would have started such an obviously ridiculous and unfounded rumor,” Pitch deadpanned. He leaned in before Jack could have the last word.
Jack landed in Minnesota trailing snow flurries. He found some kids in the park playing hide and seek who would make good clandestine snowball fight candidates. He wasn't used to being spotted early.
"Jack Frost!" one girl shrieked. She had been found already, but immediately went back into hiding.
Jack crossed his arms, but that just made the remaining girl shake as she held her ground.
"You can't take my friends, we're not giving you an eternal winter," she said.
Jack tried very hard to hold a neutral face as he replied, "Oh, yeah?" And packed a snowball. He breathed fun into it.
"W-what are you doing?" The girl said.
"If you want to keep your park, you're going to have to fight me for it!" Jack threw the snowball at the girl, and had to cheat to make it land; the wind curved it toward her as she dodged.
Finally, she began to giggle. "Get him!"
Children began to peek from behind slides and mounds of snow to pelt Jack with snowballs. He laughed them off, careful to blow fun into every snowball he tossed back.
The shadows were already long from the early sunset, but when a few of them began to move out of sync with the rest, the children began to huddle closer, glancing into the forest at the edge of the park.
"If Jack Frost is real," one boy said, "what about the Boogeyman?"
"Oh, yeah? Did you have nightmares about him, too?" Jack whispered from behind the kid.
The boy jumped, stumbling through snow.
"Sometimes, just saying his name makes him appear." Jack didn't know if that was true, but he had seen a pair of golden eyes peeking between the shade of the trees in the darkest part of the forest, on cue. "Boogeyman!" Jack howled into the darkness.
"It's a trick! Jack Frost is gonna let the Boogeyman eat us," a young boy shouted.
Pitch slunk out of the shadows, which was when Jack let loose a massive snowball, glittering with fun. Jack's hand hung in the air for an excruciating second after, while he waited for Pitch's reaction. The children watched in stunned horror as Pitch began to smile under his faceful of snow. His teeth weren't really as pointy as they looked, but the kids didn't know that.
Jack began to laugh nervously. "Everyone save yourselves!"
As soon as Jack turned to run, he was pelted him from all directions, shadows snatching fresh snow from a number of untouched tree branches.
"Jack!" The littlest girl squealed. The brave girl stood up, packing snow with shaking hands.
"It's too late for me," Jack groaned. "Run home and get under the covers before he catches you!"
A few of the children scattered on command.
Jack nailed her in the back of the head with a snowball. "Oh, no! He must have gotten to me with his shadows!"
"Nuh-uh, you don’t even have a shadow," the brave girl argued.
Jack looked down, and at first he didn't. Then, all of the shade around him converged as if the trees were just realizing there was sun behind them. He felt the ground give out from under him, but the wind had gotten better at catching him lately, and he was able to sink slowly into the darkness.
"Jack, fight back!" The littlest girl squealed. The other children were beginning to filter out, running home between delighted shrieks before the Boogeyman caught them.
"Oh, no, he's pulling me into the shadows!" Jack flailed a little for dramatic effect.
The ground finally swallowed Jack, depositing him in Pitch's lair beside the globe. Jack smiled at the cluster of twinkling lights in Minnesota.
Pitch stepped out of a dark corner a moment later, almost smiling.
"Enjoy yourself?" Jack asked.
The shadows scattered away from Pitch as he sat on the floor, taking away from the imposing figure Pitch always tried to project. Jack could actually see the outline of his legs under his robe, wrapped in clingy, silky fabric.
"You're pretty good at dealing with kids," Jack said. They had been spooked, but not traumatized.
"I had one, once."
Jack forgot to breathe. Pitch didn't offer any more information. Jack reached out until his pinky finger brushed against Pitch’s, and was surprised when Pitch didn’t move away.
Sandy made a snowflake over his head and then pointed at his neck.
“No one knows yet,” North replied.
Sandy made an image of a little scroll over his head, gesturing at North’s arms with exasperation.
North’s eyes twinkled. “Would be cheating to check list so soon.”
“He smells earthy, lately,” Bunny said.
“Like he’s been underground a lot,” Tooth agreed. She murmured a command at a few of her fairies.
Jack had been much more tactile lately, hugging them both often enough that they could tell he smelled… almost warmer. Toothiana was sure she missed some of the finer details of the shift, as Bunny surely had the better nose of the two of them, but it was not a small change.
Neither of them said that Jack also smelled like sex, but everyone was thinking it. Anyway, he was eternally a teen, so it wasn’t exactly surprising, and at least he smelled earthy more than anything most of the time. Commenting on certain scents would be rude, not to mention redundant. North didn’t have an enhanced nose but the hickeys were enough to give that away.
Jack had taken zero measures to cover his neck and the marks kept coming. One on his jaw this week, along the edge of his collarbone just visible between the drawstrings of his hoodie. Ever present, like a taunt.
“Jack has someone in his life that he isn’t sharing with his closest friends.” Tooth fluttered. “What if he’s ashamed of us?”
“Ashamed of Santa?” North rumbles. “Impossible. Easter Bunny?” He shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“Speak for yourself,” Bunny snaps back.
Sandy created a small bust of Jack with large, exaggerated circles on his cheeks.
“What, you think he’s embarrassed of who he’s dating? We’re not going to disown him,” Bunny threw his hands in the air.
Sandy raised an eyebrow, waved at Bunny.
“This is a completely appropriate reaction.”
“Bunny might be right. What if Jack doesn’t trust us? We’ll love him no matter what.” Tooth shrugged.
Sandy created an entire Jack Frost of golden sand to stand in the empty space in their circle.
“Well, we wouldn’t talk about him if he appeared at our meetings,” Tooth replied. She swiped a tiny glass of eggnog from a passing yeti. “Any guesses?”
Bunny accepted a cookie from one of the elves. “The Big, Bad Wolf,” he suggested.
“No,” Tooth gasped. “His teeth are all wrong.”
“He’s a werewolf, it could happen. What’s your suggestion?”
“Yuki Onna, obviously.” Tooth rolled her eyes.
“How would a snow maiden be embarrassing for Jack Frost ?”
“She is pretty dangerous.”
Sandy made several fast symbols beginning with flame and ending with a question mark. Bunny and Tooth turned to North.
“An Ifrit would be unexpected.” North stroked his beard. “I am liking this game. what about... Bunny?”
Bunny recoiled. “With that blighter? Not likely. And if the Wolf’s choppers are all wrong, what makes you think mine would look right?” Bunny waved a hand at his two massive front teeth for emphasis.
“He’s got you there, North,” Tooth agreed.
Pitch wasn’t out in the open when Jack dropped by this time. Jack stopped at the globe to check the lights, which were twinkling all over the world, climbing slowly back near the number of believers Pitch had mustered at Halloween. Jack had made time to spook a town in Canada, between frosting windowsills and power lines.
Jack was fiddling with settings, trying to see how they worked, and what the differences were between North’s globe and Pitch’s, when he saw a long, approaching shadow. He glanced up, tongue between his teeth. Pitch’s eyes were still a heavy amber, but his eyebrows were already carving a vee in his forehead. “Get down before you ruin the calibration,” Pitch called.
Jack immediately called the wind to him, floating down to hover just high enough to be at eye level with Pitch. The wind carried the scent of blood back to him as he approached. “What’s,” Jack started. “Is that yours? Are you hurt?”
“That’s not your concern.” Pitch’s arms were bare of shadow today, revealing pale biceps. Uninjured. “I’m not in the mood to entertain visitors.”
“You so are,” Jack argued. “Your eyes are gold today.”
“What did you say?” Pitch whispered.
“Gold, your eyes. Who cares, where are you hurt? What happened?” Jack reached forward, running his fingers down Pitch’s chest until he hit a wet patch in the fabric over his abdomen. The wound was fresh, open. Pitch bared his teeth as Jack found the place. Jack tried very hard to forget the ragged edge of flesh he’d brushed by accident. “That’s not a small wound.”
“Really,” Pitch snarled. His fury crackled over the pain, but the shadows didn’t gather, he didn’t flee or melt into the walls for his favorite parlor trick. His eyes didn’t change color.
“You need to be laying down. How did you heal last time I found you?” Jack began to peel back Pitch’s robes, removing one clasp at a time, which was much easier when he only had to deal with fabric and not the layer of liquid shadow that typically covered Pitch’s clothing.
“Shadows,” Pitch said. “They took in your fear and made me whole.”
“I’m terrified, Pitch, it’s not helping.” Under Jack’s palm, Pitch’s heartbeat stuttered.
“There aren’t any shadows,” Pitch replied.
Jack finally managed to find the last clasp, revealing the gash in Pitch’s side. Jack barely had the presence of mind to seal Pitch’s stomach with ice before he was overcome with a wave of nausea. He held it in. “Oh, my moon, who did this?”
“I did.” Pitch pushed Jack through darkness, Jack’s hands still on him, so that he could land in the bedroom. The shadows didn’t wrap around them so much as fall over them.
Pitch collapsed in front of him with a grunt, which meant that Jack fell after him, barely catching himself before he landed on top of Pitch.
“Self-harm isn’t really your thing, Pitch, more like delusions of grandeur, I’m going to need more details. Why would you do this to yourself? How do I fix it?”
“You’re afraid for me,” Pitch muttered. “What a marvel.”
“What? Pitch, how do I help?”
He took a slow, shallow breath, as if he wanted to breathe deeper, but knew better. “There is nothing you can do. I need to rest.” He closed his eyes like a dismissal. It didn’t occur to Jack how still the room was until Pitch began to slip out of consciousness and the shade in the room continued to fall in a pattern consistent with the dim lighting, even when Jack’s staff flashed with frost light as he pulled it close.
Jack wanted to wake him up, wanted to insist that he could find Jamie, have him google how to treat a wound, but the wind ruffled his hair with a message. The Guardians were having an emergency meeting. One of them would know what to do.
Jack arrived only after Bunny. He opened his mouth, “I need—”
“Wait for meeting,” North insisted. “Everyone is being here soon, then I tell you what you need to know.”
Tooth fluttered in. “Who are we missing?”
“Sandy,” Bunny replied.
Jack growled. “No, this is urgent—”
“Yes, is why you are here,” North said.
Jack’s knuckles would have been white around his staff if they weren’t already naturally pallid.
Sandy had just arrived on a cloud of dream sand when Jack snapped, “Pitch is hurt.”
“You saw him, too, mate?”
“Badly,” Jack added. “He’s not healing.”
“It’s been, what, a bloody hour? Let’s hope he doesn’t.”
“I think his shadows are gone. He wasn’t using them, and when I saw him, I was—” Jack hesitated. “Terrified. He draws on fear, and if fear isn’t healing him…”
“Wait, are you worried for Pitch?” Bunny took a step forward.
Jack paused. He hadn’t thought that Pitch’s eye color was news until Pitch had reacted to it, but maybe someone here knew? “His eyes were different. Kind of a clear, honey-gold instead of silver. They’ve been different for a while. He’s different.”
“What in bloody hell are you doing close enough to see his eyes, mate?”
Bunny rounded. “Oh, no, just because he’s learned a new parlor trick doesn’t mean—”
Sandy stepped in the middle of them so he would be noticed and began flashing symbols faster than Jack could follow.
“If Sandy says, it must be true.” North said. “Cannot be parlor trick.”
“What did he say?” Jack said.
“Pitch used to be… different before he was possessed by shadows.” Tooth rubbed the back of her neck.
“And that person is gone, devoured by shadows. He’s tried this before.” Bunny crossed his arms.
“Did he stab himself last time?” Jack stepped forward.
“How do you know so much about this anyway?” Bunny’s nose twitched as he took another step toward Jack. His entire face contorted in horror. “You can’t be serious, mate.”
“What?” Tooth glanced at Sandy, who shrugged.
“He’s shagging Pitch.” Bunny hopped back across the room. “I can smell him all over you.”
Sandy mock-fainted, immediately flailing back to alertness. Tooth actually fell to her feet and had to stand, too stunned to flutter. North gaped.
Jack flushed. This had not been how he was going to tell them. He put a hand to his neck, covering Pitch’s most recent mark, but that just drew attention to the area. Bunny scowled harder.
Jack stepped forward, there was more than pride at stake. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. We’re Guardians and he’s injured, badly—”
“Don’t see how that’s—?! Mate, we protect children , not—”
“—lost a lot of blood already, and he’s not healing , his shadows are gone—”
“—the Boogeyman , who, let me remind you, was going to—”
“—I don’t care what you think , I don’t have TIME, he’s bleeding—”
“—plunge the world in fear and darkness and kill us all—”
“ENOUGH,” North interrupted. Jack and Bunny paused, breath heaving. North tossed a pair of snow globes to Jack. “Jack, you may borrow Chuck. Bunny, we have work.”
“You can’t be serious, mate.”
“North, is that really—” Tooth began.
“Thank you,” Jack said. He darted off, riding the wind down the center of the workshop below the globe toward the medical wing where Chuck the yeti worked.
“Jack is good Guardian. He has good instinct.”
Sandy flashed silhouettes over his head. North nodded. “That is more important question. If shadows are not with Pitch, where are they now?”
As soon as Jack landed in Pitch’s room, he floated back to Pitch’s side, close enough to feel the reassuringly high temperature of his body. Chuck ambled through after, eyeing Onyx warily. Onyx only had eyes for Jack. “She’s fine, ignore her,” Jack said. Pitch usually had his Nightmare delivering bad dreams when Jack was around; he had probably attracted her back to the lair with the fright pouring off him. Jack hadn’t seen her for more than five minutes at a time since the last time Pitch had been wounded.
Jack waited until Chuck had laid out his tools, a whole kit of bandages, anesthetic, and some kind of glue, before he slowly drew back the frost he’d used to keep Pitch’s wound shut, desperately hoping he hadn’t done any kind of permanent damage to the tissue.
Jack waved off Onyx when she got too close. Pitch would get better. He had been injured much worse after the fight in Burgess, and he’d said before as long as there was fear--
But that was with shadows in his life. Jack tried very hard not to look too closely at what Chuck was doing with the bandages and tape. He didn’t know enough about medicine to know if Chuck was doing it right, and he didn’t want to see blood or viscera on Pitch’s skin, which was less ashen, despite the blood loss. How many shadows had he been carrying, exactly?
“Is he supposed to hibernate until he’s better? He will get better, right?”
Chuck grumbled a reply, which took Jack a moment to translate. “[Very difficult to kill a spirit,]” he said. “[Especially one so old and experienced. He is very famous, and has many believers.]”
Jack didn’t exactly relax, but the words helped. “When will he wake up?”
Chuck shrugged. “[Soon. It is not as bad as it seems.]” He had cleaned the wound and began to brush a salve over it. Jack averted his gaze again. What had Pitch used to cause such a large, jagged cut? Jack couldn’t unsee the raw sinew, and the visual was making his stomach roll. He dropped the other snow globe beside Chuck’s work station and scrubbed his palms over his face until spots flashed behind his eyelids, washing out the mental image.
Onyx licked his face, which—great, awesome, glad his feelings of helplessness were helping someone. Jack huffed. He probably shouldn’t leave Chuck alone in case Pitch woke up. He definitely didn’t want to think about Pitch waking up alone and still injured, but Onyx seemed to enjoy that thought just fine.
“Aren’t you a little worried?” he snapped.
Onyx snorted, lifted her nose. Jack didn’t understand her like Pitch seemed to.
Suddenly, she stood at attention, her gaze darting from a dark corner, then across the floor, to her feet. She stepped back. Jack stood, tried to follow her line of sight. Light flickered from his staff like a lamp with a short in the cable. In the strobe, he spotted a shadow that didn’t fade with the rest, creeping toward Pitch.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Onyx stomped it, and Jack smashed his staff against the floor, flashing his spark of light. The shadow recoiled, and so did Onyx. Jack hurled frost lightning as it moved farther from her, managing to leave an icy smear coiled with shadow.
“Could you be any louder,” Pitch groaned.
Jack scrambled back to his side. “You’re awake!”
“Unfortunately. Why is there a yeti in my home?”
“Chuck has medical degrees in veterinary, human, and lunar physiologies,” Jack recited. He had met Chuck formally after the fight against Pitch in Burgess, when they all stopped in for post-battle check-ups. “How are you feeling?”
Pitch threw an arm over his face. “Terrible.”
Jack smiled. Theatrics were a good sign. “Sorry about the noise. There was a shadow. How many are still loose?”
Pitch grimaced. “I don’t know.”
Chuck stood, finally, snow globe in hand. Jack glanced down to see that Pitch’s wound was covered in a smaller area of gauze and tape than he expected. Chuck rumbled a goodbye before opening the portal.
“Thank you,” Jack called after him.
Pitch sat up slowly, one hand over the patch of gauze. “Did you kidnap that yeti?”
“No.” Jack had troubles summoning the frost light on purpose, but he managed to drag a flicker out. No shadows. “North sent him with me.”
Pitch snorted. “Did he know who he was helping?”
“I made a convincing argument.”
“You shouted like a petulant child,” Pitch translated.
Onyx clopped her feet against the stone floor to get their attention. Several shadows leaked in from the hallway at once, scattering inside the room. Jack couldn’t hit them all, and there weren’t many places to go in an already dim room. “Onyx.” Jack waved her over while trying to help Pitch to his feet. “Can you stand?” Onyx knelt beside them as shadows circled.
The wind wasn’t overly fond of Pitch, but she helped to lift him as long as Jack had an arm around his waist. Onyx trotted upward as soon as Pitch was safely on her back. Jack followed on the wind a moment after.
“So, any secret passages around here?”
“Not from the air.”
Jack watched shadows circle them from below. They were beginning to congregate, deepening in one area until it seemed to be negative space; light could not land in the center of the room.
Jack began to charge his frostlight, focusing on the little flicker of protective goodness at his center which allowed him to conjure it. The shadows stacked, swirling into the air in a coiling vine toward Onyx. Jack let loose at the same time a golden whip crashed into them from the side. The outermost shadows dissipated, but the rest were knocked to the ground to regroup.
North stepped forward and one of his sabers was already glowing. Toothiana, Sandy, and Bunny followed him into the room, chasing down shadows until none were left. Pitch waved a hand to shift all the shade in the room, giving the place an eerie false brightness. The floors were clear.
“So,” Tooth said as they landed. “Who wants to finally explain what’s going on?”
“Pitch attacked me,” Bunny started.
Jack glanced between them. A few months ago, maybe. Today? Not likely.
“I lost control of my shadows,” Pitch replied.
“A likely story,” Bunny huffed. “I was passing through Burgess and I see a shadow in Sophie’s room.”
“He makes shadow butterflies for her. It helps her sleep,” Jack interrupted. Pitch wasn’t going to admit to it, but someone should.
“What.” All the rage deserted Bunny for a few seconds in favor of confusion. “Pull the other one.”
“She’s got a lot of energy. Even I can’t keep up with her all the time,” Jack insisted. Implying his own involvement wasn’t technically a lie, and it kept questions off of Pitch.
Bunny shook his head. “That doesn’t explain why he was in there alone and—”
“The fearlings moved on Sophie,” Pitch said. “I destroyed the ones that I could.”
Sophie had already fallen asleep when Pitch stepped out of her closet. He paused to pull the blanket higher over her shoulders when one of the shadows moved. He hadn’t touched any shade in the room. Suddenly, there was silence in the space of his head where there was usually hissing resistance.
Before they left, the last one muttered, We will remind you why you need us.
Pitch could not wrangle them the same way that he sculpted the dead shade in the world, which was a skill he cultivated by living amongst Nightmare Men and fearlings, but he could snatch them, catch them off-guard for just a few seconds and pull them close.
“Oi, what’re you doing?” Bunny hollered from the window. Sophie snorted in her sleep.
Pitch hadn’t wanted to give her any nightmares, but she could not wake up for this. He grabbed some of the black sand he kept in the shadowy ether and tossed it on her head. She would wake up in desperate need of a hug, of being seen by anyone—that had been a Jack Frost nightmare—but alive and safe.
The distraction released a number of shadows. Pitch gathered what he had left and shifted his hand until the bones were hardened and rigid, his nails like knives. He had little hope of destroying all of the shadows, but there was still something of the stars in him, surely, he thought, before he plunged his hand through the shadows and into his own flesh.
Bunny recoiled. “What the—” A few remaining shadows scattered along the walls, into cracks and crevices. They required something to make them solid, and Pitch had not the energy to do that at the moment. He had not the energy to fight them off, either, but they would not be back for a while. Seeing their ranks culled again, worse, even, than the last time Pitch lost a fight in this town, would give them pause.
“Call your Guardians,” Pitch gasped. “These children will be the first targets.” And then he staggered back into the darkest corner of the room. The darkness did not part for him.
“If that’s a threat, you’d best start running,” Bunny warned.
Pitch fought the rising panic. He could do this, he could escape without shadows. He knew their passages, knew their methods. Pitch shuddered in a long, wet breath, and pushed at the darkness until it gave way. It slammed shut behind him, and when he looked up, Jack was smearing frost on his globe.
“Why are all of you here?” Pitch asked. He and Bunny had argued every detail of the story, but Jack had a pretty good idea of what had happened. Jack didn’t fault Bunny for his cautiousness, but Jack trusted Pitch with Sophie.
“To… rescue you?” Tooth replied. She glanced at Jack, who gave her a discreet thumbs up. She gave an uncertain half-smile in response.
“Who did you leave with the Bennett children?”
A large, golden exclamation point appeared over Sandy’s head.
“Do you mean to say,” Pitch rounded on Bunny, which was twice as intimidating from atop Onyx, “you left them unguarded?”
“Of course not,” Tooth replied, and then, to Sandy, “I felt it, too. The shadows are back.”
Pitch tore at the shadows until they opened once more. Jack leapt onto Onyx behind him, but Bunny stood at the front of the other Guardians. “No way we’re going in there, mate.” He thumped the ground.
Tooth glanced between them before darting down the rabbit hole. “See you there!” she called.
Pitch didn’t wait. He and Jack arrived first, stumbling out of Sophie’s closet. Pitch nearly slammed his head into the door frame. Jack pushed him down at the last second. Two yetis stood by Sophie’s bed, stabbing the floor with glowing spears. Pitch waved his hand to call the shade in the room to himself again. Jack aimed a bolt of frost lightning at the ground, coating Sophie’s entire floor in ice. Over her head, tiny golden butterflies fluttered, swooping wide to knock back shadows approaching from her headboard.
One of the yetis tried to spin to fight the shadows still peppering the walls and the ceiling, but slipped on the frost. Jack flailed forward, as if he could do anything. Pitch hissed when the movement jarred him. “Sorry,” Jack whispered.
The shadows began to cluster on the ceiling in groups when the rest of the Guardians popped through Sophie’s window.
“Oh, my,” Tooth began. Several clusters began to reform into standing shadow figures.
“Oh, no,” Jack agreed.
Jamie appeared in the doorway, smiling at first, and then when he saw where everyone was looking, staring in slack-jawed horror.
“Sanderson,” Pitch barked.
Sandy sent bubbles of golden sand to swallow both children, creating a barrier of good dreams between them and the shadow men. Before the bubble closed, Jack saw Jamie begin to fold, head ringed by golden snowflakes.
Jack glanced at Pitch and remembered; the best way to knock him down had been to remove the fear from the equation. Jack conjured a snowball, blowing on it for good luck, and then tossed it at the nearest shadow man, who blinked back at him. The snow outlined the contours of the shadow’s face, highlighting how little the shadows remembered about human physiology.
“They look like cartoons!” Jack cackled.
Pitch smirked, his gaze flickering to Jack’s smile for a moment. When he turned back, it was to see shadows hesitating, blind in the absence of fear, unable to reach the happy dreams of the only children in the room. He made eye contact with the nearest yeti, and hissed, “Now.”
The yeti speared a shadow, causing it to evaporate.
Bunny chucked his boomerang at another, and North reared back to toss his saber at the third. The shadow made to dodge, but Pitch reached out and used what he knew of shadows to keep it from escaping. It exploded into a burst of dark smoke which faded around North’s saber, wobbling as it stuck in the ceiling.
The stomping that followed had them all on guard. Jamie’s mother appeared in the doorway. She snarled, “Jamie Oliver Bennett, you go back to bed right now. I have had it with you treating your curfew like a suggestion.”
Sandy dropped the protective bubble of sand around Jamie, who sat up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
Jamie’s eyes widened as he glanced across Sophie’s room to all of the Guardians, who were trying very hard not to move.
“If you wake up your sister, so help me,” she muttered, casting a glance back at Sophie.
“Sorry?” Jamie replied, finally retreating from the room. “I thought I heard something.”
“Thought you heard,” she muttered. “You just wanted to make a mess in the middle of the night.”
Jack waved sheepishly from behind Pitch. Jamie waved back. Whoops. Jack would make sure to bring some snow by soon to get Jamie out of class for a few days.
“He will get extra present for getting into trouble,” North said.
“Where will you be going after this?” Pitch asked Jack.
Pitch hadn’t raised his voice, but the question rang out in the silence. Pick a side.
“Home,” Bunny said before he could hear Jack’s reply. He hopped out the window again.
Sandy sent out a small line of golden sand to ring Sophie, and another followed down the hallway toward Jamie’s room. He yawned and then waved before floating outside, too.
“Same for me,” North added. “Do you need shortcut, Tooth?” He held out a snow globe.
Tooth waved him off. “There’s a molar next door I should get. Good night, Jack.” She fluttered through the window.
North shrugged, whispered, “Home,” and tossed the globe into the air. The yetis followed him out.
“Like I’d leave you alone after tonight,” Jack scoffed.
“Home, it is,” Pitch said. He led Onyx into the deepest corners of Sophie’s closet, past the rack of tiny winter coats to step through to his own lair.
Jack leapt off Onyx as soon as the ground became visible. “Are there more shadows out there?” He spun around at the sound of Pitch’s grunt, calling the wind to help Pitch lower himself to the ground.
“Perhaps. There were not many left. I believe that was likely a desperate move. They are weak and uncoordinated without a host. Hungry.” Pitch ambled back toward his bed. Jack trailed after him.
“You still need to rest,” Jack said. “I’ll keep watch in case we missed something.”
Pitch had managed to relearn how to open passages in the darkness like it was easy again. The passages were not as short as they once were, not as alive, but they opened and took him where he needed to go. He stepped onto a rooftop in India when he heard the voice.
He hadn’t heard that voice in millennia, and even then, it had only been a cry. Lunar folk had distinctive voices, though.
Pitch gazed at the moon. Onyx appeared at his side, sensing Pitch’s discomfort. “I don’t need your blessing,” he replied.
When he turned away, though, he could feel a difference. Belief flowed toward him—not as strongly as it did for Jack or the others; he was no Guardian, after all, but the Earth and her believers pulled at him in a way that they never had before, some of the energy coalescing around his abdomen and stitching together his flesh. He could sense, suddenly, children who had been misbehaving, children who were not yet afraid of the night.