A/N: The final chapter of the first book.
"A Beautiful Lie"
Having followed Anna down into the safe house's basement for a quick inventory of the supplies left there, Jack spent an hour enduring what was possibly the worst part of being in command.
The boring, dragging, mind-numbing administration duties. Number of firearms; whether they were in decent condition or not; number of bullets. Everything Jack would love to push onto Hiccup so as to not fall asleep on his feet from the sheer tedium.
Evidently it was too late. Snapped out of his peaceful dozing, Jack pushed away from the wall with a start and hurriedly unfolded his hands. He blinked at Anna, who stood on the other side of a small square wooden collapsible table, her arms crossed whilst giving him an unimpressed look.
"What?" he said, blankly.
Anna rolled her eyes with a dramatic huff, and rested her hands on canted hips. "Pay attention, Double-Oh-Snoozy."
"I am, I am—I was just checking my eyelids for holes," said Jack, blinking far too often whilst stifling a yawn.
"Uh-huh," Anna drawled, and then began gesturing to each dark green, steel framed crate. "Like I was saying: we've got fifteen assault rifles, sixteen pistols, a sniper rifle and two shotguns - problem is, only half of the rifles and pistols look like they'll work. Two full clips for each weapon, plus a few combat knives. We're looking pretty good on the gratuitous violence front."
"Okay, so we're not short on that. Cool." Jack gestured to the small black wooden box sat proudly on the table in front of Anna. "At the risk of quoting that movie we found in Zone Thirty-Two… what's in the box?"
Jack wasn't sure he liked the wry curl of the left side of Anna's lips that went with the resultant expression of coy innocence like synthesised peanut butter and jelly, nor the way her eyes slowly went down to the box as she lifted off the lid.
"Well, I found some interesting things in this here box."
Her hands dove inside the box and proceeded to pull out some items that instantly woke Jack the heck up - four pairs of goggles, and four Ghost masks. They were spares, as could be discerned from the lack of personal insignias like a fireball or damaged snowflake, but each set looked in fairly impeccable condition. She laid them in a row in front of the box.
Jack looked up at Anna with narrowed eyes just as she held her hands behind her back, returning his suspicious gaze with a blank look.
"Anna, what are you implying?"
She blinked, giving him textbook innocence. "What are you inferring?"
"I'm inferring you're implying something."
"You're inferring I'm implying something, but you haven't said what you're inferring I'm implying."
Jack folded his arms, staring at her. "I'm inferring exactly what you're implying."
Anna shrugged lightly, though Jack could detect the traces of a smirk on her lips.
"You're still inferring I'm implying something, but I still don't know what it is I'm implying, other than that you're inferring I'm implying something."
Jack's brain stalled to a halt, gears grinding and sparks flying, reaching a complete shutdown. If it had a white flag, it would have been flown high. His blank mind must have registered loud and clear, as Anna's half-smirk turned into one as mischievous as any he'd given in his life.
"I hate everything about that sentence," he said amid a light groan as his exasperation was massaged away by the application of his left forefinger and thumb to both temples.
Anna snorted, and began piling the goggles and masks back into the box. "You're telling me. I haven't had to use my tongue so much since—"
Jack's loud blurt in the desperate hope to avoid the obvious ensuing mental image caused nothing but a low set of the dirtiest chuckles Anna had ever given - especially as his hands had shot up in surrender.
"What?" She forced out amid her mirth, "I was just gonna say—"
"—that Kristoff and I—"
"Ah-ah!" Jack said, holding up a finger.
"If you two are finished—"
In the pursuit of staving off the mental image of his best friend and former C.O. getting it on, Jack whirled around and barked another "Ah!" at the owner of the voice before he could stop himself. Kozmotis regarded him with an arched brow, halfway down the old wooden steps into the basement, his hand resting on the worn banister.
Jack's cheeks turned a mild pink in embarrassment, and suppressed the urge to snowball the snickering Anna in the face. "Sorry. We were just..." He waved it off. "What's up?"
Kozmotis responded in his usual eloquent smoothness, though looked annoyed at Jack's less than polite greeting. "I was going to say that Hiccup and Viking have returned, and apparently, they brought something we need to witness."
"Alright, we'll be there in a second," Jack said, and Kozmotis promptly turned back up the steps - with so much creaking, Jack could easily see the planks snapping in the future - and left the basement. He turned to look at Anna, who stood with her back to him on her tippy-toes to put the box on the highest shelf, her strawberry braid-tails happily sat on her black T-shirt covered shoulder blades.
She'd been distracted since they arrived, ever since Snow Queen appropriated one of the further rooms in the suburban house and, to his knowledge, remained there ever since. When Jack had suggested Anna do the inventory, she'd jumped at the chance - though she was baffled as to why Jack didn't know what supplies were stashed away in the basement, until he explained that a Reaper swarm on its merry way to Perdition had prevented him and Eugene from taking a look.
"How's your sister?"
The box slipped from Anna's right hand, though her reflexes were sharp enough to prevent its tumble to the floor. "She's okay, I think. Not sure, though."
Jack moved to half-sit on the table with his arms crossed, but the pained creak under his weight caused him to dart up almost instantly. "Not sure?"
Anna turned and pocketed her hands, her shoulders forward and drooping. Her face wore a story of concern and disquiet. "I knocked on her door earlier, and she actually opened it - but she looked as pale as you. Tired, too. I think she caught something."
"Did you check her out?"
Anna shook her head. "I offered, but she asked for Rapunzel." She sniffed, and shrugged. "I don't know… I guess…"
"You wanted to help, but you're a little hurt she wanted Blondie instead?"
There was a tiny nod.
Jack smiled, and circled the table. Anna rested her head on his chest as he hugged her, rubbing her back in support. Strange, their friendship; fire and ice, rebirth and immortality. "Maybe she's doing what you asked her to do - she's giving you space," he murmured.
Two dainty, yet impeccably toned arms squeezed his midsection. She was adorably short - but the smaller ones were always the most dangerous. "Yeah… you're probably right."
Remaining like that for a few more moments, Jack then felt two short taps on his back. "Come on," Anna said, pulling away, "we should go see what the fuss is about."
Jack followed her up the stairs, taking care to avoid putting his feet in the middle of each wooden step, and closed the basement door behind him before passing through the empty, disreputable living room and out of the front door via the hallway, where Kozmotis, Merida and Rapunzel waited in the front yard.
The street looked like any other suburban street, at least, from what Jack could compare to the dirty, barely intact paper leaflets he came across on his travels. There were stark differences, of course; lawns once well-tended grew out of control, with grass tips as high as the knee. Debris and trash littered the street between forgotten cars, some of which were little more than burnt-out husks of their former glory. Streetlights undoubtedly once bright and active decades ago remained dark and inert, with the moon's breath the only source of illumination. The air smelt clean, but a thin hint of damp and mildew rode every breeze through the empty street - and, like Des Moines, it was the lifelessness that clawed at Jack's soul. Children's bicycles, utilising the old bipedal propulsion, lay forsaken here and there, and various balls poked out from the wild grass. Life existed in the street once upon a time, and now the only living things were a bunch of fugitives and four abnormals.
As he stepped down the small veranda onto the cracked paving and was greeted with the sight of Toothless enjoying a good scratch behind his left ear nub, he checked himself. Four fugitives, four abnormals, and a dragon. Can't forget the dragon.
"Welcome back," Jack said, pocketing his hands in his black pants. He threw a few glances up and down the street. "Where's the Fairy?"
Hiccup gave Toothless one last rub before answering. "She's parked in one of those truck distribution warehouses a few miles east. Figured she'd stick out in a street like this if Unity ever did a flyover."
Jack stuck out his lower lip and tilted his head back and forth to the left, acknowledging the point. "Nice. So, what's the big surprise?"
It was either the way Hiccup hunched in a little as the fiery orbs Anna had summoned hovered around her illuminated his anxious cringe, or how his hands went up as though to assuage something Jack wasn't feeling yet, but an ominous sensation settled in his stomach nonetheless. "Don't freak out…" he said, his voice coming across a little too forced for it to hide the nervousness.
"You saying that pretty much means I'm gonna freak out."
The cringe became a wince. "I know…" Hiccup took a breath, and his eyes rested upon Jack, and Anna and Kozmotis behind him in turn. Jack glanced at Rapunzel and Merida - odd how their eyes rested on him rather than Hiccup.
"Just… try not to freak out."
Jack frowned, and was about to remind Hiccup on the finer points of reverse psychology when the brunette nodded to Toothless, who promptly rose his head to the sky and let off a faint blue torpedo, not unlike the one at the funeral. Jack followed the small light as it flew on to the heavens, and then back down to Hiccup, whose gaze was wary but expectant.
"What are you—"
The words stalled in his throat. Alerted by the sound of huge wings slowly beating the air, Jack's eyes went to his two o'clock high where, as though given birth by the veil of night time darkness and shadow into the pleasant fires of Anna's gifts, a majestic and vicious-looking creature reminded him of the same awestruck feeling he had when he first saw Toothless.
"Sweet mother of chocolate-coated fudge cubes!"
Jack deeply shared Anna's sentiment. Batlike teal-coloured wings flecked with yellow supported a huge body and thick legs, and a round head sported a beak-like mouth and a tiara of deadly-looking spines. It touched down seven feet to Hiccup's left, and its wary eyes darted between the six-strong welcoming committee.
Topping it off… Astrid clambered down from its back, and muttered a strained hello.
They brought back another fucking dragon.
Face slack with disbelief, Jack's eyes bounced between Hiccup and Astrid, before his brain finally kicked into gear and attempted a sentence. "You know when you asked me not to freak out? This kind of qualifies."
He took the time to shoot a glance at Merida and Rapunzel, who wore equal expressions of wide-eyed, gaping shock as they stared at Astrid - who seemed to be trying her best not to catch their eyes. A quick look behind him, and the same surprise adorned the faces of Kozmotis as Anna - though, the former's seemed tinged with disappointment.
"Everyone," Astrid began after a deep breath of preparation, "meet Stormfly. She's my best friend. Stormfly," she gestured to each of them in turn, "these are my friends."
"Don't be angry, Cap—"
Jack blurted out a mirthless bark of laughter, derived from how freaking tense his entire body had become. "Angry? Hah! That's hilarious, Fury. Goddamn hilarious. Astrid… what the fuck?"
"I have ta concur with Cap here," Merida chimed in, with a voice that sounded to Jack like she was almost hurt. "We're yer friends, why didnae ye—"
"It's not exactly something you can drop in light conversation, okay?!" Astrid snapped. "Hi, I'm Astrid, and I have a dragon. Besides, it's not like the Ghosts trust us!"
"We were starting to, as a matter of fact!" Jack retorted, his volume growing by the syllable. "But then you had to pull this shit!"
Hiccup stepped forward, his hands up in peacemaker mode and he spoke with as calm a voice as possible. "I know it's a lot to take in, Cap—but you know what Toothless can do. Imagine what two dragons are capable of."
What was it with the 'Cap' thing?
"Oh, don't you worry. I can imagine what two can do." Jack folded his arms. "Point is, we should have been told about this at the beginning."
Astrid took a step forward, and her face morphed into a defensive glare. One hand loosely gestured in Jack's direction. "We're not the only ones who needed to earn trust, you know. Bringing Stormfly here-" the hand moved to rest on her heart, "-was a huge thing for me. I had a chance to have my best friend with me, around people I'm sure she will be safe - so don't flip out because I did exactly what you did."
Jack opened his mouth to retort, but a voice at the back of his mind pointed out she had him there. He couldn't exactly call her out on her reluctance without showing off a big case of the ol' double standards.
Letting loose a deep sigh, he massaged his temples to calm the frustration buzzing in his chest like an angry hornet. "Fine," he said amid a long breath, "but in the interests of full disclosure: if anyone else has any shocking or fantastic secrets they'd like to share… now would be the time."
Jack's entire upper body slumped in more than a little resigned exasperation. The kind of feeling one endured where the only words one could articulate would be, "Oh, for fuck's sake," accompanying the decision to give up and find a dark room in which to lay down and contemplate the pointlessness of it all. Slowly, his eyes found Rapunzel, whose face wore a tale of meek cringing, and whose hand was halfway up in the air like it was high school.
"That was rhetorical," Jack groaned, roughly wiping his palm down his face. He was getting too old for this. "But now you've gone and made me curious. Spit it out."
Rapunzel's hand gently lowered, and she cast two tell-tale glances at Merida and Astrid before continuing, "It's better if I show you," she said with a voice tinged with wariness and uncertainty.
Unable to deny the growing curiosity, Jack nodded his permission and folded his arms. He watched as Rapunzel asked Hiccup to remove his hearing aids, and kneel, something that caused a frown of confusion to be tossed Jack's way. It wasn't until Astrid reassured him, along with a nod of encouragement from his C.O. that he eventually acquiesced, and plucked the two white earpieces from his ears.
"You do know I won't be able to hear Jack say mocking things about me?"
Smirking, Jack couldn't resist. "What, like 'you suck'?"
Hiccup glanced at him. "What?"
"I said, 'you look lovely tonight, sweetheart'," Jack practically yelled.
"Bullshit," Hiccup said with a snort as he got down on one knee so the comparatively dinky Rapunzel could stand behind him. Whilst casting a glance behind him at Kozmotis and Anna, whose expressions radiated wary yet rapt frowns, Jack's right hand automatically unhooked itself and hovered over the sidearm at his right thigh. Silence grew among the collective, with eyes dancing between each other and nary a breath heard.
Rapunzel carefully held her open hands over Hiccup's ears. "You might feel a slight itch," she said, before something happened that took Jack's breath away.
Whilst Rapunzel hummed a pleasant, melodic tune, golden light as vibrant as the metal itself blossomed in a small cloud from the palm of her hands, and tiny tendrils snaked their way into Hiccup's ears. His breath hanging his throat, Jack watched Hiccup's brow dance in and out of a discomforted frown, as though irritated by something… like an itch. No-one dared speak a word, take a breath or even move, so entranced were they by the display.
The golden light began to fade, and dainty fingers enclosed around the last vestiges of the shimmering energy as the hands moved away, the only sounds for miles around being a long exhalation of breath through Rapunzel's nose, followed by a question.
"How do you feel, Night Fury?" the brunette asked quietly.
Hiccup shrugged lightly. "I've got the urge to stick my fingers in my ears, but-"
Had there been a penny to drop, it would have rivalled an overloading fuel cell for sheer explosive impact. Hiccup's face slackened into a gape, and his head slowly turned to gaze up at the shyly-smiling Rapunzel in stunned shock.
Jack wondered if he'd been too hasty in promoting Hiccup to be his X.O, if the brunette was too blinded by his euphoria and excitement at being able to hear again to see the truth staring him in the face.
"... Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Omigod!" he babbled. He touched his ears over and over. "I can hear! I can hear again! Ohmygod! Thank you!"
He shot up so abruptly that Rapunzel nearly fell back in surprise, before throwing his arms around her, stammering his gratitude. "Thank you! How did you—what did you... "
Jack wondered if he was the only one simmering with fury, though his face must have told the whole story in neon lettering and roaring musical numbers - Hiccup, his face alight with glee and joy, turned and fixed him with a brilliant beam. "Jack, do you know what this means?"
Jack's voice came out in far louder and more menacing a growl than he anticipated, and not as a result of Hiccup giving away his true name. Well, that was a small part of why he was pissed off. "I know exactly what this means, Fury."
Astrid took a step forward and moved to stand just in front of Rapunzel, who stared at Jack with worried, wide eyes. Her right hand went up in a calming gesture. "Jack," she said, earning her a glare, "I know you're angry-"
"Oh, we're beyond that, Astrid." The word anger didn't quite do justice the cold fury rolling through his being, clenching his fists and fusing his jaw. "I don't know what pisses me off most: the fact that while we were struggling to survive, we were being hunted down like animals by our own damn kind-"
No abnormal had ever killed another. It was an unspoken rule amongst them - how could an abnormal feel safe if they were under just as much threat from their own kind as from the humans running them to the ground?
It left a bitter taste in Jack's mouth that the very people they were supposed to save were systematically picking them off one by one.
"-or that you had all this time to tell us but waited until now!"
Hiccup interjected in a voice faint and shocked, void of the joyful cheer that once held sway. Part of Jack regretted taking apart his happiness - to be able to hear again without mechanical aid truly was a special gift. "You mean-"
"Yes, Fury," Jack said, barely stopping himself from a harsh snap as the glare was tossed his way, "they're abnormals."
Hiccup slowly turned his head toward Astrid. His eyes seemed to radiate deep confusion, matched perfectly by the hurt etched on his face. "Is this true?"
Astrid, to her credit, met his gaze - but her face wore a maelstrom frown of pride and guilt. It seemed to be all she could do to nod.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Rapunzel quickly darted to Astrid's side. Even amongst his deep ire, Jack felt a surge of respect; comparatively diminutive, yet protective of the person he knew was the physically strongest member of the group. "We didn't tell you, 'cause Elsa thought you'd flip out!" She angrily waved a hand in the vague direction of the Ghosts. "Surprise, she was right!"
"Can you blame us?" Anna retorted, the proximity of her outburst a telling sign she had moved to Jack's side. "It's not supposed to happen—it's a struggle for us to survive as it is! We abnormals are supposed to protect each other, not kill each other!"
"If it pleases tha court," Merida piped up in an exasperated drawl, her hand held up as though she was uttering some kind of oath, "I said from tha start we shoulda told ye."
"You should have listened to her." Kozmotis' voice rang out from behind and to Jack's right, still stood on the veranda. Shooting him a glance, Jack felt a small sense of puzzlement that of all the Ghosts, his expression was a far cry from shock. It was like he saw it coming a mile off. So, why had he not said a word about it?
"Yeah, well, it's not like we wanted to keep it a secret!" Astrid gestured to Merida and Rapunzel respectively. "Hell, we only found out Larsen knew what we were just before you guys rescued us! We didn't even know about Elsa until we told her-"
Something in Jack snapped. Maybe it was the building frustration in his tightening chest, like a horde of enraged wasps, or the circumstantially weird and automatic sense of duty and obligation to protect his kind - and by extension, Merida, Astrid and Rapunzel - that fought with the frustration, but he reached the point where enough was enough. He turned on his heel and stormed off toward the house. "Streak, on me."
Anna quickly caught up with him and matched his admittedly punishing speed. "Where are we going?"
"To get some goddamn answers," he growled, fighting the urge to pull his staff from his bracer. "I'm getting a little fucking sick of being the last to know."
He threw open the front door, his irked state thoroughly intensified by the revelation that fucking Unity knew they were abnormals before he did.
What did that say about his leadership, reluctant though it was?
"Jack, wait," Anna called, breathless - a clear clue of her emotional state as there was no way in hell superhumans like them would be out of breath from a brisk walk, "this means my sister might be just like me!"
"I kinda put that together," Jack said in a low voice as they reached the hall.
"Do you think… do you think that's why she shut me out?"
There was no denying it; there was a high possibility. It made sense. Anna had no idea why Elsa put up a door between them, and it wasn't like she received answers from their parents. Left to her own imagination, there was no telling how many reasons there were in her mind, and Jack could only guess. If Elsa was an abnormal and their parents reacted badly - as the creators of the suppression serum, that wasn't a stretch to assume - then it was only a short hop to presume Elsa was locked away for being one of them.
What if that was what she was trying to tell him two nights ago?
What if that was why, inexplicably, they seemed to be emotionally linked?
Of course, it was all a wild theory.
"I don't know," he said amid a long sigh as they closed in on Elsa's door. "Only one way to find out."
He slowed his pace just enough as a silent prompt for Anna to do the honours; as though she read his mind, Anna darted in front and twisted the door knob.
Tried to twist - the lack of movement was a neon sign the door was locked.
"W-what?" Anna muttered in disbelief, shaking her head. "No—no, not again…"
She attempted to twisted it four more times, calling through the door as she banged her knuckles against it. "Elsa? Are you there? It's me… open the door, please? I need to talk to you!"
Silence greeted her like an unwelcome companion, a telling quiet that threw a measure of disquiet in with the frustration. Stranger still, the faint fear and concern he'd been feeling since he woke up at six that morning, was no longer inhabiting his bones.
Jack watched as Anna banged on Elsa's door a few more times, each thump radiating more and more worry, before she looked at him with uncomprehending, wide eyes. "It's happening again, Jack. She locked me out again."
Jack's jaw tightened. "Not this time," he growled. Gesturing for Anna to stand aside - he'd learned a thing or two about chivalry over his years - he took position in front of the door. Drawing his right foot back, he fixed his gaze on a spot next to the door knob and yelled, "If you're there, heads up!"
With half his strength - any more and his foot would have gone through - he applied a brutal kick to the door. A pained crack echoed through the hall, followed immediately by a hollow slam as it swung open, smacked against the adjacent wall and bounced off, shaking with the impact.
The room was void of light and life, even when Anna summoned another small orb of flame to guide them. The bed in the middle of the room was neatly made, and the floor was impeccably clear. His initial desire to give Elsa a piece of his mind rapidly fading, Jack's eyes traced over the still room, confusion taking its place.
He looked at Anna, whose free hand was extended into a point in front of her. He followed it, his gaze coming to rest on the reason for the worry in her eyes.
The window on the other side of the bed was wide open. Like a bullet, Anna dashed toward and vaulted the bed, before screeching to halt at the window, where her hands grasped the bottom pane whilst she stuck her head out. Her head moved this way and that with agitated, quick jerks as she ostensibly and pointlessly scanned the darkened back yard.
"I can't see her," she said, her voice taut and succinct.
Jack moved beside her and tried to peer out. Between the night time absence of light and the surrounding houses, it was a near impossibility to see anything.
"This is bad," Anna babbled, her words spilling out like a machine gun. "This is really bad. She ran away—why would she run away? She doesn't know where we are, she'll be lost and scared and—"
Before Jack could process what was happening, foreboding and anxiety-inducing as it was, he felt a pair of hands grab him by the T-shirt, and came face to face with a decidedly panicked Anna.
"You have to find her!"
Jack's eyes widened, his brain having to reboot in surprise so all he could manage was a bewildered, "Buh?"
"Please, you have to find her and bring her home!"
The hell was she asking of him? "Anna, it's night time! How the heck do you think I'll find her?"
The hands tightened around his shirt, and the heat radiating through the material felt like it was burning his cold skin underneath. Not to mention the light shaking.
"You've got that Frosty Sense, just like on the Star! You can feel her—use that!
Jack was about to point out that his so-called Frosty Sense - whoever came up with that name needed a good whap upside their head - had been silent over the past two weeks, save for the occasional faint sensations. There was no guarantee he'd even be able to find her with it.
"Please, Jack. She's out there, alone, and we're close to Reaper country. Find her."
Something in Anna's face tore aside all the what-ifs and wherefores - she looked scared. Eyes wide and face taut, she seemed desperate… and had he any reluctance to begin with, it would have crumbled away.
"Alright," he said. "Let me get my mask and goggles - at least the thermal imaging might help."
Anna threw her arms around him with a squeak of gratitude, and in less than a minute, he was soaring through the air with nothing but his wits, thermal vision and an unreliable Frosty Sense to guide him.
It had taken roughly half an hour of circular flight, with an ever increasing search radius, but the prodigal Elsa Snowfield was located several miles away to the east.
In a dose of irony not lost on him, it wasn't the thermal imaging he'd been using to scour the landscape below him - that was just to pinpoint her yellowy-orange figure quickly moving through the park he'd scouted earlier in the day.
No, it was his sensing of her. As his radius of flight grew and grew, he'd begun to feel sensations alien to his current emotional state - deep fear and resolute love. Those feelings had intensified the further he flew, and in a strange twist that bewildered him to no end, if he could describe the rogue emotions as a cloud within his gut, the cloud seemed to migrate inside his body depending on where he was flying. If he travelled south, the emotions coalesced in his left side.
Following the pseudo-compass, he picked up her body heat a quarter mile at his low twelve o'clock, her pace quick and purposeful. His brow knitted together over his goggles, and his jaw tensed behind his mask - with a silent command to the wind, he swooped down like a falcon and touched down on the wet grass less than ten feet behind her.
She yelled at him without turning around before he even had a chance to open his mouth.
Jack froze in step, taken aback. How the hell did she know? It wasn't like the wind gave him away - wind was a force of nature, not a greeting. Could it be that she possessed the same sensations, that they shared a connection? Could she feel what he felt?
He banished the thought from his mind; it wasn't the time for guesswork. No time for anything but getting the fuck back home.
"Can't do that, Snow Queen." He started off toward her, sliding his goggles onto his forehead. "What the hell are you doing?"
She didn't answer him, at least, not with words. Rather, he could hear her faint moans and whimpers, and a closer inspection indicated her posture was hunched with her arms wrapped around her chest like she was cold. Was she in pain?
"Why are you running, Snow Queen?"
"You… you wouldn't understand!" she called back. He was within six feet of her, and closing in.
More moans and sharp intakes of breath came hot on the heels of her response. "Look, if this is about keeping your gifts secret… we can talk about it, okay? Anna's worried about you, just come back to the house!"
She didn't respond, aside from more moans and groans of greater intensity. Whatever was going on was gaining strength, and her utterances of pain were clawing at his empathy like a beast begging for help. He jogged a couple of steps, and reached for her right shoulder.
She yanked herself away like his very touch was burning her, scrambling backwards with her hands held before her. "Stay away, Frost! I… I don't want to hurt you! Any of you! Just stay away, and you'll be safe from me!"
"Elsa, you're not making any sense, I—"
She suddenly cried out, her face contorted with pain, and Jack's words died in his throat as his heart skipped a beat in shock. Her legs trembled a split second before they gave way, and as though protective instinct took absolute control of his reflexes, Jack dropped his staff as he surged forward and grasped her forearms - the abrupt shift in position causing him to drop to his knees along with her. She quickly withdrew her hands, with Jack at a complete loss for words, and wrapped one of them around her chest while the other clawed at her braided hair, messy and flyaway, shimmering in the moonlight as the ethereal spectre burst through a gap in the clouds.
"It's happening again, it's happening again, fuck, it hurts, it hurts—why does it hurt so bad?" she said in an onslaught of agonised babbling that spilled out like a waterfall, rocking backwards and forwards. She looked almost delirious.
It was when he looked up at her hand, just as she shrieked when a sharp jerk tore through her body, that he finally understood - for her hair was not the only thing glittering in the moonlight, but her hand too.
It didn't take him long to recognise his signature element, the one he was named after. Frost adorned her entire hand in unruly, jagged patterns far removed from the leafy, curved shapes it usually painted. As though for confirmation, he looked down at the grassy ground, eyes wide, and saw the very same icy substance spreading around them. The grass blades were freezing solid before his very eyes, and ice spread around her like a slow, pernicious, creeping wave, as though consuming all in its path.
"You're going through a Bloom…" he whispered.
As if their situation wasn't dire enough, Elsa's agonised cries and wails had attracted attention. The night air burst into life with a distant, bone chilling shriek, sending a bolt of barely controlled fear down Jack's spine.
Elsa had called, and Reapers had answered.
"We've gotta get you out of here," he hissed. Touching his right ear, he said,"Frost to Streak, you read me? Your ass better be—"
"I'm here, did you find her?"
Another shriek rang through the air like a hot knife through butter. They were closing in. His heart thundering in his mouth, flooding his body and mind with sharpening adrenaline, he snatched his staff up from the ground.
"I did - but there's a catch."
"What? Oh, please tell me she's—"
"No time!" Jack pulled Elsa to the side, and supported her upper body with his left arm whilst he manoeuvred his staff-hand under the crook of her knees. "Do exactly what I say: have everyone clear out the basement. I want nothing in it except for one bed and some blankets, okay?"
"What the—why do you—"
"Just do it!" Supporting the screaming Elsa as best he could, he summoned a burst of wind to propel them with stomach-lurching speed into the air, a few seconds before the sound of anguished screeches below reminded him how lucky he was. "I'll explain when we get home!"
Elsa clawed at his right shoulder with her left hand, groaning and mewling into the crook of his neck and left collar bone. He could feel ice creeping from her touch, and his hands felt her body temperature falling fast.
She was running out of time.
"It's gonna be okay," he found himself muttering to her. "Just hold on. It's gonna be okay."
Anna was already there to greet them, rushing down from the veranda with a speed born of deep concern before Jack had even landed, her braid tails bobbing with each step. Her wide eyes fixed themselves on the beleaguered Elsa, still wracked with pain and clinging to Jack like he was life itself.
"What happened out there? Is she gonna be okay? Did Reapers—"
"She's starting her Bloom Event, Anna," Jack cut her off, barely losing any momentum from the flight with how fast he strode to the door.
Anna, her head over her shoulder as she dashed to the door and opened it for him, flattening herself against the wall of the hallway. Elsa was getting colder by the second. "She's blooming? But I thought she was…"
"Already an abnormal?" Jack finished gruffly as he strode through the open door. "Yeah, so did I. Chalk it up to the long list of things we were wrong about."
"Oh, God. This is bad." Anna darted to his right, and leaned in with her left hand on his right shoulder. "Elsa, can you hear me? It's going to be okay. We're gonna take care of you."
"Anna…" Jack heard Elsa weakly murmur from under his chin. He glanced down just for a second, and saw her hand pull away from his shoulder and reach for her sister.
"Hey, you! I'm here," Anna whispered, a smile fighting the clear-as-day expression of worry as she grasped Elsa's hand and held it tighter than anything Jack had ever seen. "Whoa," she whispered. "She's so cold…"
"Anna… I'm so sorry…"
They closed in on the worn door leading to the basement at the end of the hall, where Hiccup, Kozmotis, Astrid, Rapunzel and Merida were waiting with tangible anxiety hanging over them like a cloud.
"Don't worry about that, just keep it together, okay?"
Kozmotis held open the door with his left hand and pressed himself into a right angle against the wall to the side. Still grasping Elsa's hand, Anna darted in front of Jack to descend the stairs into the basement before them, leading them into the newly empty basement where, as expected, only a bed existed.
Jack arched a brow as soon as he laid his eyes on the sole piece of furniture nestled in the far left corner of the room parallel to the opposite wall - it was his bed. Anna had a funny sense of humour.
With great care and purposeful movements, Jack made his way onto the left side of the bed and gently laid Elsa down upon it. As soon as her body touched the old, decrepit mattress, she instantly curled into the foetal position, sounds of anguished moaning and crying escaping her mouth, her hand still clinging to Anna's like it was the only thing keeping her alive.
Jack shot Anna a look, a silent command for them to leave. Anna's brow furrowed in a small frown as her breath audibly caught in her throat, and she threw a telling glance in her sister's direction.
"Do I have to?" she whispered.
Jack gave her a grave look - he wasn't ignorant to her position, but her safety was paramount… even if she didn't know it yet. "Yeah. The others need to know the sitch, and you can explain the sciency stuff better than I can."
Anna's hand must have loosened the slightest inch, as Elsa practically yanked her hand closer toward her and pleaded, "Please don't leave me…"
"It'll only be for a few minutes," Jack said - even though, in his heart, he chastised himself for such a blatant lie.
"There, see? I'll be right back," Anna soothed.
Elsa, seemingly satisfied in amongst the paralysing, terrible ordeal she was undergoing, allowed the release of Anna's hand, and after a long, lingering look, the two Ghosts made their way upstairs.
Almost as soon as Jack closed the door behind them - leaving it ajar for Anna's benefit - and removed his mask and goggles, they were subjected to a barrage of questions from the rest of the group.
"What's going on?"
"What happened out there?"
"Did you hurt her, Frost?"
"Is Elsa gonna be okay?"
It was on the tip of Jack's tongue to issue a vicious barb in Astrid's direction for assuming his responsibility for Elsa's state, but he checked himself, settling instead for a scathing glare as he handed his protective face gear to Hiccup.
"What happened out there, Rapunzel," he said, giving a few more seconds of the stink-eye to Astrid before looking at the brunette, "was that Elsa started her Bloom Event."
Something in the way the three former Valkyries shot each other a set of tell-tale glances threatened to cause a resurgence of his earlier irked mood, so he pinched hard at the bridge of his nose and groaned, "Y'know, kids, when this is over we're going to have a nice, long talk about not pissing your C.O. off."
"But that's good, right?" Hiccup, though looking completely stunned by the new revelation had, to his credit, brought back his usual optimistic demeanour. "So why do you two look like the world's about to end?"
Jack shook his head and rested his hands on his hips. "Because this is not how it's supposed to go."
Astrid looked baffled by the development, shrugging with her palms up. "Um… pain, discomfort, thinking you're gonna die? That sounds like a normal Bloom to me."
Negating that with a light wave of his hand, Jack shook his head once again. "Yeah, except the age is wrong. There's a reason Bloom Events happen only in adolescence."
He looked to Anna, a silent prompt for her to take the floor. She nodded once, and folded her arms as she took a breath. "We all know what happens during adolescence, right? Boobs, body hair, broken voice—"
"Bigger di—" Jack began, but a stern look from Anna silenced him a treat. He closed his mouth, and scratched at the back of his head.
"Point is, all of that's caused by one thing."
"Hormones," Rapunzel chimed in.
Anna clicked a finger and pointed to her. "Ten points to Gryffindor. Testosterone, oestrogen, all of that's raging through the body. My theory is that the Toxin-augmented DNA switches on at some point, and hacks into our glands to release Toxin-infected hormones that flow through our system and switch on the abnormal DNA in the rest of our cells. That's what happens during a Bloom - your adolescent body is in such a state of flux, the Toxin DNA takes advantage of that by killing off and replacing human cells with abnormal cells, and replicating them at an exponential rate. The pain we experience is 'cause our nervous system gets converted too - and just like puberty, we abbies bloom at different ages."
"Kinda like building a tower with blue blocks, only for someone to come along before you finished, and tell you to build it with red blocks instead?" Hiccup said.
"You're oversimplifying it, Hiccup… but, yes, essentially," Kozmotis said. "And because of all that, a Bloom Event can be relatively rapid."
Merida looked bemused by the whole situation and how dire it was. "So… why'd ye look so worried, if ye know what's gonna happen ta her?"
"Because Elsa is twenty five, same age as Frost. She's about as physically mature as she's going to get - blooms happen between the ages of thirteen to eighteen… maybe as early as eleven or as late as nineteen years old, but…"
Anna trailed off, her gaze finding a small spot on the opposite wall while her crossed arms looped themselves around her chest in a protective embrace.
"It means," Jack continued for her, "Elsa is a fully grown adult, so there's no hormonal rush or growth imperative for the Toxin to hijack - therefore it's killing off her human cells to remake them way more slowly than it usually would. To use Hiccup's analogy, Elsa's tower has already been finished, so the Toxin is taking the tower apart to rebuild it. Elsa's body is literally being remade from scratch." He rubbed at the nape of his neck, reluctant to finish the grave news, but obligated to do so. "Bloom Events put the body under enormous stress when they happen anyway… but for a fully grown adult, and one who has probably been holding her Bloom Event back for so long?"
"My sister might not survive the night," Anna whispered in a hoarse voice, and a single glance revealed the tell tale glimmer of tears sliding down her cheeks. "The stress of a slow Bloom could kill her."
The statement was met with a gasp of horror from all concerned, including a sharp intake through Kozmotis' nose and a whispered, "Oh, God," from Rapunzel. Grave expressions met grave expressions, and pregnant silence was the order of the night.
Anna sniffed, and then unlaced her hands to palm away the tears from her cheeks. "I should be in there - she needs someone with her."
She turned, and made to push open the door - which was when Jack darted in her way. It was time to reveal the lie and break her heart. She looked up at him with uncomprehending, confused eyes.
"Jack, what are you doing?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Anna. I can't let you go in there."
Her face tightened into a deep frown and a hearty glare, and she moved to the side in an attempt to pass. "What are you talking about? Let me—"
"No, Anna. I can't do that."
"Jack, stop this!" she shouted. "Get out of the—"
Jack grasped her by the upper arms, his own temper and anxiety rising.
"I can't, Anna because you'll die!"
She froze, and stared at him in complete disbelief. "W-what?" she blurted, taking a step back, pulling herself from his grasp.
Biology and the mechanics of blooming was Anna's domain, but powers? As the de facto powers trainer on the Star, they were in Jack's neck of the woods.
There were two types of abnormal manifestation: Internal, and External. People like Hiccup and Hiro qualified as Internal, in that their gifts manifested inside them via their gifts in engineering and pseudo-technopathy, respectively. To a degree, Kristoff was an Internal, and Eugene definitely qualified.
Externals, however, were people whose powers manifested outside of their body, people like Anna, Kozmotis, Rapunzel, and Jack himself. Externals usually had a harder time controlling their powers unless properly trained, and their Blooms were usually… explosive.
Elsa was definitely an External.
"Anna, think back to when you bloomed. Do you remember?"
Jack held her arms once again, however with far less of a tight grip than before. "Okay - so what do you think'll happen with someone who has powers like mine?"
"What happens?" Rapunzel asked. Someone had to, even if the falling of Anna's face into a look of defeat told him she understood.
"It's like being born, or taking that first breath after coming out of the water. If your powers are external, then there's this massive spike in strength. When Anna bloomed, the fire took down an entire warehouse… but Elsa is someone on the opposite end of the spectrum. I'm talking a massive drop in temperature. I'm talking sub zero cold."
"I can buy that," Astrid said. "I nearly brought my room down around my head when I bloomed."
"Me dad had ta have tha entire house's power system repaired after mine," Merida added.
"I brought someone back from the dead," Rapunzel chimed in. As soon as six pairs of eyes rested themselves upon her in disbelief, she cringed and tried to distract them. "Was it the same for you, Jack?"
"Wouldn't know," Jack responded a little more deadpan than he anticipated. "I was technically dead for mine."
He turned his gaze away from the collected looks of bewilderment sent his way, and looked back down to Anna, whose expression danced betwixt resignation and stubborn confidence. "But my powers will protect me," she protested.
"No, they won't." Jack shook his head. He hated breaking Anna's heart like that, but it was for her own good. "Your body temperature is higher than any of ours, so you'll feel the cold more. You'll catch hypothermia, or shut down from shock. Trust me - I know. Besides-" he nodded to her abdomen, "I'm thinking of my godson, too."
Stubborn as Anna could be - he expected her immediate priority would be to protect and care for her sister, and he wouldn't have it any other way - the way her entire body seemed to slump told him she had no other choice. Her face wracked itself with guilt and regret, and as her hands went to hold her abdomen, she whispered, "You're being such a pain in the ass, and you haven't even been born yet."
"So what are we going to do about Elsa?" Astrid asked. "We can't just leave her alone in there. It's not right."
"She won't be." Jack kept his hands on Anna's arms, even as he looked up at Astrid. He'd seen it all coming as soon as he realised Elsa was blooming and what her powers would be, seen the end of the path they'd walked. There was no other way. "I'll be there for her."
"Jack, that's crazy," Rapunzel hissed. "Who knows what you could be walking into?"
"I'm the only one who can tolerate the sub zero cold. Besides-" he released Anna, and crossed his arms across his chest. "Most of us, when we bloomed? We were scared, in terrible pain, and alone. Elsa is terrified out of her mind, she's in agony…" he looked down into Anna's eyes, "but she won't be alone."
Anna emitted a small squeak, and rushed forward to bury her head into his chest, squeezing his torso with her arms. Half-smiling, Jack curled his arms around her shoulders. "You sure you're gonna be okay?"
Jack snorted, his best attempt at lightening a situation as tense and heavy as any he'd ever witnessed. Elsa was undergoing a bloom six years late, with uncontrollable power spikes and temperature falls, and he was about to walk into a room full of them. "I'll be fine - it's not like a little arctic temperature bothered me, anyway. Iceweaver, remember?"
There was a small, adorable titter from the area of his chest squished by a pint-sized Fireweaver going through hell, followed by a small sniff. "Okay. What should the rest of us do?"
"This is gonna be tough for you, so you gotta be strong, okay?"
She nodded into his chest. "I promise."
"Okay." He unlaced his arms, and gently pushed her away. She stared up at him with shimmering, scared, pained eyes. "As soon as I go through the door, you need to lock it behind me, and then block all of the gaps with blankets, clothes, anything. There's a vent in there, so air won't be a problem."
Anna looked severely discomforted at the prospect, not that he could blame her. She was about to lock her best friend and her sister away for an indeterminate amount of time. "Okay."
"Then, you take the others, find some more blankets and clothes and hole up in the furthest room in the house. I'm gonna do what I can to control it, but this house is gonna get real cold, so you need to keep them warm. Go aflame if you have to - but no matter what, you do not open this door, unless you want sub-arctic air to flood the house. If everything goes right, I'll bang on the door when it's all over."
"And if it goes wrong?"
Jack looked up at Kozmotis, and stuck out his tongue. "It's not going to go wrong, Mr. Glass Half Empty, because everything's gonna work out. I'll look after Elsa, Anna will take care of the rest of you, and tomorrow Elsa will be a brand spanking new abnormal." He tapped his right temple with two fingers, and threw in an impish smirk. "Positive thinking. Works great."
He gave Anna a reassuring smile. "Relax." he made a gesture of two fingers walking a line, "I'll be quick as a bunny."
"Good luck," she said, beaming at him, "and thank you."
Jack nodded once, and clapped her on the shoulder before turning to the door. He rested a hand on the door knob, and took a long breath of preparation. "Once more into the breach, dear friends," he murmured, and pushed open the door before closing it behind him and descending the steps, not allowing himself a second thought.
It was every bit as dire as he thought it would be.
Ice had grown over every conceivable inch of the room, hard ice that looked to be at least two inches thick, covered in sporadic dustings of snow. The empty space was filled with snowflakes, some smooth, some jagged, and they floated around in speeds ranging from a sedate hover to a frenetic zip. Long icicles grew like stalactites from the walls, floor and ceiling, tapering into points sharp enough to cut skin to shreds - and some were forming or shrinking before his very eyes - and on the bed in the corner, hunched in a foetal position, shivering violently was Elsa.
Jack couldn't help but feel an immense surge of pity and empathy for the suffering woman, still moaning and whimpering in pain; undergoing a Bloom was tough enough, with some considering it worse than childbirth, but one that had been building for years?
"Anna?" she forced out in a weak voice. Her eyes were clamped shut.
Jack weaved to the side, avoiding a horizontal icicle he was certain wasn't that long five seconds ago. "Nah," he said, "I can't carry the twin braid look like she can."
For a brief moment, he pictured his snow white hair in a pair of braids. It wasn't pretty.
Her eyes opened a little, and she managed to whisper a faint, "Frost?" before crying out in such turmoil, Jack's heart jolted.
"Call me Jack," he said, making his way to the bed. "Anna couldn't be here, so I'm looking after you instead."
"Why?" she croaked. "I deserve… this…"
"How'd you figure that?" Even if she was going through hell, she was still the recipient of a funny look he gave her as he sat down on the edge of the mattress.
"The things I've… done. The… people I've… hurt. I let someone… trick me… control… Oh, God, I feel like I'm being torn apart… am I going to die?"
There was a spine-chilling shriek of agony, and her hand lashed out with blinding speed and grasped his left fingers with such a vice-like grip, it felt like she was crushing them.
"Kill me!" she pleaded. "I'm too dangerous… make it safe for everyone else! Just… end it!"
Jack's eyes widened - that was a first. He figured at some stage in a Bloom Event everyone wondered if they were going to die, but to actually ask for death?
Maybe she was still delirious with pain.
He inhaled a breath, and tried his damndest to force away his emotions. She needed a rock, a safe harbour in the storm of her Bloom. "Can't do that. There's a young woman upstairs who loves and misses her sister, even if she's still confused."
For a few precious seconds, the glazed look in her eyes seemed to sharpen, and she looked at him with an undefinable expression. Whether she was being granted a reprieve from the physical agony or not, he didn't know, but it was well-needed.
"Can… can you… hold me?"
Jack's lips curled into a half-smile that narrowed his eyes, and his right hand covered her hand that was squeezing his left. It was strange; there was a woman who had caused him and his kind so much grief, who had indirectly caused the likely deaths of over thirty of his comrades-in-arms; who he would freely admit he wanted to kill not long ago, and yet in that moment he felt like he would do anything for her. Freeze the world - she had but only to ask.
Perhaps it was that he was feeling everything she felt.
"Sure. Scootch over."
She did as requested, gingerly shuffling further into the bed space on weak limbs, wincing with every inch of movement. Jack turned and swung his legs up onto the bed, and bum-shuffled up so he could lay with his head on the pillow. Almost immediately, Elsa curled her right arm around his chest and brought her right leg around his as she rested her head on his right breast, while Jack looped his right arm around her torso and stroked her upper right arm with his left hand.
The frantic pace of the snowflakes seemed to soften, and though it was likely down to his mental control, the icicles grew with far less speed than before - and though she still jerked, whimpered and groaned into his chest, there were nowhere near as many screams of agony.
They laid there, entwined, for what felt like an eternity, with the sensations of nails digging through his shirt into his skin, and her arm squeezing his chest hard enough to break an ordinary human's ribs… until after a long moment of quiet, shuddering breaths… she faintly giggled.
"What's so funny?"
"All this time… you called me Snow Queen," she said, her voice hoarse and broken thanks to her screams and cries. "It's funny that… it took you until now… while I'm in this state… to call me Elsa."
Any reply Jack had lined up, be it a sarcastic retort or humble concession, was immediately chased away by one of the most chilling, protracted shrieks she had uttered thus far. His cognitive thought and ability to form complex sentences rendered useless, he summoned up the best thing he could think of.
"It's gonna be okay," he murmured. "It's gonna be okay."
It was a lie…
...but a beautiful lie nonetheless.
End of Act II
End of Book I
So there we have it, the culmination of the events of the first book. It's been a helluva ride, and I'm, quite frankly, a little exhausted.
The Ghosts know the ex-Valkyries are abnormals, and [Stormfly has joined the party! Press A to view skills]. Elsa is enduring the most painful experience of her life - will she survive the night? What will happen to Astrid and Hiccup?
And what will tomorrow bring?
I realise a few people have been thinking, "When is the reveal?" but this was it. I sincerely hope it was worth waiting for, because this was how it was going to go down from the start. I'm also blown away by the positive reception of the Pitch and Merida interactions; I know a lot of people are adamant that Merida should remain single, and Pitch is... Pitch, but quite a few people both on here and Ao3 have been incredibly receptive of it and actively encourage it. I just hope I can do it justice - essentially having launched a new, tiny ship. Probably a rowboat... more than likely one of those duck-shaped paddleboats.
Okay, as for what's happening next: I'm taking a month off, and will be writing again come the end of March. Kinda need to regenerate, so you'll probably see NH updates every now and then, and maybe some on my Widow76 fic on Ao3 if I can muster the energy, but I'll largely be resting. Big things are happening in the next book - plot developments, relationship blossoms, rocky roads and a parachute-less freefall scene that hopefully will be awesome.
However, in the next week or two, I'll update this particular book with three post-credit scenes, two of which will hopefully be a massive twist in the story.
I'd like to thank everyone, from the bottom of my heart, who has been reading, reviewing, favouriting and following this fic. Your positive comments have been amazing and heartwarming to read, and your criticisms have been constructive. Thanks to zulka for helping to no end with the conception, refinement and editing of this fic, thanks to OniNoKo for their help with this chapter, and thanks to my wife for generally being the most amazing woman on the planet.
Fyrearth: Thank you! There are people out there far more adept at characterisation than I, but your compliment is very much appreciated.
Guest: Published? Something tells me an editor would laugh at me - though that's probably self-esteem talking. In any case, your positive review is lovely, and thank you very much.
Okay, so, all that's left is to say: see you in the next book!
For the Ghosts,