Warnings: Currently rated T for language, though liable to change in future chapters for dark imagery and mature content.

Disclaimer: I claim no copyright ownership to Rise of the Guardians or any recognizable characters depicted by DreamWorks, William Joyce, or other miscellaneous fairy tale creatures. However, the plot and original characters are my own.


LONG-WINDED APOLOGY AND EXPLANATION AT THE END OF THE CHAPTER BE WARNED OH MY GOD


Chapter Eighteen — Part One


Jack was tense as he stared at the creature in front of him, the silence so silent that it was loud aside from one whispered phrase.

"This has never been about her or the boy."

For a second he didn't want to believe it. Despite the fact that he was a Guardian, despite the faith that North had in him, despite the fact that Manny—glory be, the Man in the Moon himself—hand chose him… despite all of that… he was just Jack. Jack Frost. The guy no one believed in, the guy who created snow storms and invented snow days, the guy who would never grow up… the guy who always screwed everything up. He was just Jack. And yet, somehow, this thing seemed to think he was important. Someone worthy of a wild goose chase at the hands of a creature who wanted everyone he loved dead. So no, he didn't want to believe it. For once, Jack was sick of believing.

A small part of him recognized the vice grip Alice had on his arm but he was having a hard time focusing on anything but the man's—the thing's—words.

"This has never been about her or the boy."

It was about him.

Max had been captured because of him.

It was something he had always suspected but had never been proven to be true. That is, until now.

It took a few seconds before Jack realized he was angry. Really angry. Whether that anger was at himself or the arrogant thing in front of him he didn't know but he used that anger to his advantage, feeling a spark of frost ignite in his palm itching to burn cold through the thing's nervous system. Jack glared daggers at Rumpelstiltskin who had a self-satisfied smirk on his leathery face, his fists clenched at his sides as his eyes narrowed.

"Alice," he said quietly, the tremble in his voice barely contained as he kept his eyes locked on the monster not twenty feet away from them. "I want you to go find the others. Look for Max."

The air vibrated with tension between them and he felt Alice shift uneasily against his back, the anxiety emitting off of her in waves.

"I don't want to leave you alone with him, Jack," she whispered, tone wary and stiff.

"Listen to me, Alice," Jack continued, still crouched defensively as if waiting for a surprise attack. Rumpelstiltskin looked to be planning nothing of the sort, his wiry posture relaxed and composed as he watched their interaction with cool disinterest. "Do as I say. Find Max. He's most important, right?" he echoed her earlier words.

She immediately fired back, "Not at the cost of you."

It was like déjà vu. Jack growled lowly in his throat, momentarily unappreciative of her defiant streak, but before he could say anything else Rumpelstiltskin inserted himself into the conversation with a breezy smile.

"Would you like a little nudge out the door?" he asked, voice light. Jack didn't miss the idle threat hidden there and his lip curled, frost sparking from his fingertips.

"You don't get to talk to her," he snarled.

"No?" Rumpelstiltskin countered, lifting an eyebrow. "I believe I just did," he waved a thin hand in the direction of the doorway behind them. "Run along, pet. It's time for the big boys to have a little chat."

Jack glowered at the use of the word 'pet' but he nudged Alice all the same, risking a glance over his shoulder. She looked terrified, glasses askew and pink-cheeked with her hair matted as she stared wide-eyed up at him. He chanced a smile, one that was tight and lacking emotion, before giving an imperceptible nod.

"I'll be fine, Alice. Go," he jutted his chin towards the door.

Alice was still hesitant, spine stiff and fingers digging claw marks into his arm, but she carefully began backing away. She kept her eyes on Jack's, unwilling to look away as if she were storing his face to memory. He pursed his lips, the angle of his body following her movements to ensure he was always between her and Rumpelstiltskin. Before she disappeared completely into the darkness , Alice's worried expression faded into one more serious. Jack wasn't able to read the emotions there but he sensed that she was trying to convey something important through them. There were many ways to discern that look but Jack took it for something much simpler.

Don't die.

He gave another nod and she seemingly evaporated into thin air, her frame slipping around the corner. The only thing that proved she hadn't disappeared completely was the pitter-patter of her shoes rustling in the dirt as she tried to navigate through the endless rooms. Jack wished he could've given her his staff for light but he had a feeling he was going to need it.

"Oh good," Rumpelstiltskin breathed, forcing Jack's eyes away from the empty doorway. "I thought she'd never leave."

Jack schooled his features, morphing the rage there into one of icy impassiveness. His eyes were sharp and crisp on Rumpelstiltskin who appeared much more relaxed, thriving in his element of grand surprise. Jack remained tense, the muscles in his limbs feeling tight like coils ready to spring the second Rumpelstiltskin instigated a fight. For the moment though he seemed much more keen on talking.

"So," Rumpelstiltskin clapped his hands together once and the sound reverberated in the room, rattling Jack's skull. He motioned theatrically to him. "Jack Frost. I mean. Wow. I must say it is an honor to meet you. The Guardian of Fun in the flesh," he flashed his razor sharp teeth. "You've aged like a… like a fine wine, though only on the inside."

Jack's lip curled as Rumpelstiltskin chuckled at his own joke.

"Right," said Jack. "You've got me right where you want me. So whatever it is you've got planned, just get it over with."

"Now, now," Rumpelstiltskin protested lightly, stepping to the side as if about to circle Jack like a predator. Jack carefully turned with him to keep a safe distance between them. His eyes momentarily flicked downward, noticing that he was inching closer to his staff that still lay abandoned on the ground, the glowing light on its hook a dull beam of white. "You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Well, you can, but I like to savor the moment before the devour, don't you?"

"Not really," Jack clipped. "I prefer cutting to the chase, like ripping off a Band-Aid."

"Interesting," Rumpelstiltskin seemed to swallow Jack's words and taste them like they were the cake. Like what he said really did interest him. Jack was too on edge to try and figure out why. "You know, I've heard stories about you, Jack Frost," he pointed a spindly finger at Jack. "Of course, most of them are just that. Stories. None of them do the real thing justice. You're different than what I expected but I shouldn't be surprised. It's my fault that I believed the stories. I should've anticipated your true nature. That was bad judgment on my part."

Jack frowned despite himself.

"What stories?"

It was strange enough to know that stories about him were being passed down and it bothered him even more to know that things like Rumpelstiltskin were able to get their hands on those stories. Who (or what) else had heard about him, about the Guardians, through legend? And how many of them became curious because of them?

"The Big Five," Rumpelstiltskin gestured dramatically. "The protectors of children. The warriors of imagination, wonder and belief. Most of you are too modest to acknowledge how powerful you really are," Rumpelstiltskin's eyes grew intense, "and some of you are unware of how much power you actually have. It's darling, really, how the other Guardians have you trained so well. Like a puppy learning to obey and follow commands."

Jack's eyes flared at this and Rumpelstiltskin noticed, choking out a quick laugh.

"Don't worry, it's a compliment. Really. That's exactly the way you should be. It's how I want you to be. I just find the concept of training wheels on, say, a motorcycle very endearing. That is what the humans call those motorized contraptions, isn't it?" he checked before exhaling slowly. "Ah, I suppose I don't have the right to judge. I don't know what it's like to have my powers on a short leash."

"Powers you claim to not want?" Jack mocked, mirroring Rumpelstiltskin's movement as he stepped to the side again. Jack's staff was only about a foot away.

Rumpelstiltskin's gaze alighted with sadistic glee.

"So you've heard stories of me as well," he deduced, seemingly enjoying the limelight. "Very good. Fortunately for me they really hit the mark."

"So they're true?" Jack asked skeptically, opening his hand a bit the closer he got to the staff. Rumpelstiltskin was too busy smiling to notice. "You really don't want your powers?"

"Well technically I never asked for them," Rumpelstiltskin inclined his head. "But I'm not exactly going to complain about getting them. While they're useful, anyway."

"And what use do they have for you?"

All Jack needed to do was kneel and he'd have his staff but he didn't want to make any sudden movements in fear of setting Rumpelstiltskin off. Despite his intentions being to keep Rumpelstiltskin occupied while Alice got away, his interest was piqued.

"Just getting me where I need to be," Rumpelstiltskin answered evasively. "Lucky enough for you, you're able to help me get there."

"Lucky me indeed," Jack muttered sarcastically.

"Honestly though, I thought you would be a lot quicker on the uptake. I mean, I basically drew you a map. I couldn't just walk up to you and tell you what was going on, I needed you to catch up to me."

Jack shook his head impatiently. "Why?"

"Because it's no fun if you don't play the game," Rumpelstiltskin answered in exasperation. "That trick with the gold, though. Pretty clever, huh? Learned about it in that nifty little storybook. Which, by the way, spinning straw into gold? Preposterous," Rumpelstiltskin said as if the very idea offended him. "And I care not for children but it was a fun little experiment. Centuries on this planet with no chance of stopping, you tend to get bored. You of all people should understand that."

"Not when you're playing with an innocent kid's life," Jack's eyes narrowed. "Not when you mess with people's heads. That's not my idea of fun."

"They should change your title to the Guardian of Killjoy," Rumpelstiltskin rolled his eyes. He scuffed the toe of his dress shoes on the dirt. "You've got to get creative! Typical. Just as much of a spoilsport as I remember," he shook his head in false remorse. It took a second for his words to click and Jack was thrown off guard.

"Wait," he said, brows furrowed. "I thought this was the first time you've seen me? We've never met," he gestured between the two of them, disgusted with the idea. "I would've remembered."

"Ah," Rumpelstiltskin exhaled again. "I suppose the cat's out of the bag. Of course I haven't met you in particular but I have met someone very… close to you," he said, choosing his words carefully.

"If this is about Max—"

"Oh come now," Rumpelstiltskin waved his hand as if he could physically force Jack's words back into his mouth. "I thought we were past that already. No, I'm not talking about the child, I'm talking about someone in your past. I mean, where do you think your powers come from? You think you just inherited them by choice?"

"I was chosen," Jack told him, brows pulled low above his eyes. "The Man in the Moon chose me. I fell through some thin ice and that's where I got my powers. I remember."

Rumpelstiltskin didn't say anything for a moment. He had a look of expectance on his leathery face like he was waiting for the punchline to a confusing joke. When Jack said nothing, realization struck Rumpelstiltskin like a goldmine, his eyes glimmering with a callous sort of glee that unsettled Jack more than he cared to admit.

"They never told you," he said. He seemed genuinely surprised but no less pleased, like the tables couldn't have been turned more in his favor.

"Told me what?" Jack asked, an ominous feeling settling in the pit of his stomach.

"My, my, they really have kept you in the dark. Naughty Guardians," he shook his head, a slow smile spreading across his abnormally large mouth. "You don't even know what kind of power you come from. Is this going to be an ancestry lesson?" he asked, seemingly to himself, but Jack ignored him.

"You mean to tell me that I'm a descendant of a Guardian?" he asked, incredulously slack-jawed. Rumpelstiltskin opened his mouth to respond but before he could get a syllable out Jack started cracking up in laughter. Clearly this wasn't a response Rumpelstiltskin was expecting as he watched on with an expression Jack couldn't read as he tried getting a hold of himself. Jack grinned mockingly as he shook his head, his laughter fading into an emotionless chuckle. "Man, you couldn't be more off. I don't have any distant relatives in the business, okay? It's been three hundred years," he stressed, his blue eye hardening. "Don't you think I would've met them by now or at least known about them? You've got the wrong guy."

"Oh I'm fairly certain I don't," Rumpelstiltskin countered easily. "But circling back to your first incorrect statement, I believe you and I have two very different definitions of 'distant' relatives," Jack's eyes narrowed and Rumpelstiltskin bestowed him with a sharp smile full of poison. "I'm talking the far distance—long before even your precious Guardians got their gold stars in immortality. The bloodline's been a bit diluted since then but there's no mistaking the resemblance, even after centuries of genetics at play."

Jack glared at Rumpelstiltskin as he ambled casually towards him, stuffing his hands inside the pockets of his pinstriped slacks. Jack's spine straightened at their close proximity and under normal circumstances he would've recoiled but Rumpelstiltskin's all-knowing smirk had him rooted to the ground.

Rumpelstiltskin paused a foot away from Jack and examined him from head to toe as if he were assessing Jack's form. Jack jerked his head back when Rumpelstiltskin leaned in close as if eager to share a delicious secret. His beady eyes pierced Jack's and the gaze felt like it was curdling Jack's insides.

"Have you ever wondered why you were able to best Pitch Black?" he murmured in a conspiratorial voice. Jack's heart raced.

"How did you know about that?"

"C'mon Jack," Rumpelstiltskin grinned lowly. "People talk. Pitch Black is a glass half empty of sour milk on a good day but it's not often someone as… inexperienced as you is able to incapacitate someone of his stature," Rumpelstiltskin shrugged when Jack didn't have a response. "What, did you think you just got lucky? Maybe had some sort of adrenaline rush?" he reached forward to tap Jack's chest with a long bony finger but Jack slapped his hand away before it could graze his hoodie. "You had it in you all along, it's just been dormant."

Jack was at a loss for words. Truth be told he actually hadn't thought about what happened that night with Pitch; the night Sandy was killed. It was a memory he was all too eager to forget and even now the wound was still sore. Was this Rumpelstiltskin's plan? To catch him off guard? There was no way of knowing if he was telling the truth or just yanking Jack's chain as another distraction. And even though Jack was properly shaken, he tried not to let it show as he stared heatedly at the creature in front of him.

"Guess you and I are a lot alike," Jack agreed, feigning casual indifference. Rumpelstiltskin lifted a wrinkled eyebrow at this, missing the way Jack's hand glowed in tune with his staff's tip as if they were in sync. "We were both given power we didn't want and we're going to use that to our advantage."

In the blink of an eye, he reached down to grab his staff and the second his staff came into contact with his skin a burst of blue light emitted from it, knocking Rumpelstiltskin across the room and into the far wall. There was a loud clatter followed by a cloud of dirt obscuring Jack's view of the man trying to right himself and he used that opportunity to dart out through the doorway and into the adjacent room.

He couldn't see very well because the light from his staff was flitting across the walls like a strobe light from his erratic movements as he ran but he didn't let that slow him down, occasionally slamming his shoulder into a splintered wooden doorframe and nearly knocking himself off balance. Aside from messing with his equilibrium it aided in his momentum and he stumbled out into the main hall where he and Alice split from the rest of the Guardians and Unseelie Guards.

Panting loudly, Jack tossed his head from left to right before taking off down the left corridor and further into the heart of the mountain. There was an enraged shout from behind him followed by quick footsteps echoing into the hallway he was running down.

"YOU CAN'T HIDE FROM ME, JACK FROST!"

Jack's breathing was ragged as he followed the hallway at every winding turn, his bare feet sliding on the worn carpet and kicking up dirt in their wake. He had no idea where he was going or what the plan was. He thought maybe once he put some distance between himself and Rumpelstiltskin he could clear his head and figure out what to do next but as he ran, feeling the air grow colder the further he buried himself under layers of stone and rock, he realized his mind was completely blank. He had no idea what to do.

"YOU FORGET," Rumpelstiltskin continued, his voice wavering as he sounded both miles away and like he was directly behind Jack, "I HAVE YOU RIGHT WHERE I WANT YOU!"

Jack's heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest. His lungs felt like they were on fire and for once he didn't feel invincible. He no longer felt like this intangible thing that the Guardians made themselves out to be, like a wisp of smoke always just out of reach. Of all the years he wished his life or existence or whatever it was Manny made him would just end, he now wished it wouldn't. He was reminded of Max; that the boy was still trapped in here somewhere and the rest of the Guardians were vulnerable. Alice was off on her own probably terrified and lost. Now was not the time for Jack to lose.

"KEEP RUNNING," Rumpelstiltskin's echoing voice spat, forcing Jack out of his thoughts. "YOU WON'T FIND A WAY OUT. I LOVE A GOOD GAME OF TAG, BUT MAYBE I SHOULD REFRESH YOUR MEMORY ON THE RULES. FIRST PERSON I FIND IS 'IT'. YOU BETTER HOPE IT'S NOT ONE OF YOUR PRECIOUS GUARDIANS OR THAT INNOCENT CHILD."

Jack made a choked gasp despite the fact that he was already panting. He skidded into one of the dirty walls on his next turn and it took him ramming his shoulder into a sharp stone in the wall to bring himself to a stop. He gripped his shoulder with a pained wince, ears still ringing as Rumpelstiltskin's voice taunted the stifling air.

"I WILL MAKE SURE YOU HEAR EVERYTHING I DO TO THEM," Rumpelstiltskin cackled, a maniacal, inhuman sound that sent shivers down Jack's vertebrae. Now Jack was sure the creature's voice was closer. Maybe a few hallways down. He slumped against the wall, his feet and lungs throbbing as he tried to catch his breath. The light on his staff was flickering as his body heat rose from all the heavy cardio. He needed to cool down before he rendered himself completely useless. "YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY I PICKED YOU, JACK? YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU'RE SO IMPORTANT?" Jack collapsed forward, resting his hands on his knees as he bent over the ground. His head was throbbing. "YOU KNOW MY STORY, JACK. YOU KNOW WHAT I DO. FIGURE IT OUT!"

And it hit Jack instantly. All this time it wasn't Max's soul Rumpelstiltskin wanted. It was his.


North was disoriented.

The more turns he and Tooth took, the more everything started to look the same. Once they rounded their fourth corner, the faded tapestries on the stone walls started to blur and contort the way heat made the road ripple and warp at a great distance. It wasn't common for a Guardian to feel things such as nausea or dizziness because Guardians weren't threatened by disease or other human limitations but North was starting to become unsteady and ill at ease. It must've been the maze of hallways he and Tooth had surpassed and the way everything blended into one—there was no reason for him to think any different.

"Something's not right," Tooth murmured anxiously on his right, not for the first time. She was walking on foot rather than fluttering nervously at his height, which was uncommon for her, but North didn't have the emotional range to concern himself with it now. If only his head would stop hurting.

"Of course not," North lamented. "That is because we have only been going left."

He meant it as a joke but it came out so monotonous that the comment went over Tooth's head. Her wings were ruffling fitfully against her back like they could sense the wrongness in the air and North found the constant movement irritating.

Y—you…

North lurched at the foreign voice inside his head. He felt his brain throb and pulse at the intrusion and he lifted the heel of his palm to his forehead in hopes of easing the pain. North blinked against the thin film that coated his eyes as they turned another corner, this hall about as long and dark and dirty as the last. Had they gone in a circle?

Youu…

North's head twitched and he rocked his head from left to right as if to de-clutter his mind. Tooth stumbled back as North lost his footing and fell into her side. As she was barely half his size there was no hope of her holding him up so it was a miracle he managed to right himself.

Y—you need to…

"Oh," North groaned, cupping his face in his hands. It felt like the voice inside his head was a physical thing trying to dig its way into his frontal lobe. Tooth was already giving North an alarmed look, her tiny feathered hands holding onto his beefy arm, and her grip tightened when she heard him struggle. "What is this?" North asked himself.

In the flurry of his discombobulated thoughts, North recalled the girl—Alice—hearing a voice whisper poisonous things to her, things only she could hear. Idly he wondered if the same thing was happening to him but he didn't have much time to reflect on it before the voice was intruding again.

Sssave him…

"North? North, what is it? What's happening?" Tooth asked, her voice shrill and squeaky. Her gleaming purple eyes reflected the horror she felt as North suppressed another groan. By this point they had both stopped in the middle of the hallway, unaware of the approaching figure that continued to spout threats a few hallways down. "North? I need to find one of the Unseelie's…"

North opened his mouth to respond, maybe to reassure her he was alright or to remind her that they had no idea where the others were, when another wave of discomfort pushed through his skull. His white moustache twitched as he moaned.

Sssave himmm…

Nicholasss…

North's forehead wrinkled, his brows brimming with perspiration. Tooth was shaking his arm, trying to bring him back to reality but it only succeeded in making his head hurt worse. It felt like there was a bomb ticking away inside his brain matter and it was only a matter of time before it exploded. At this point, North didn't care as long as it made the pain stop.

Save him, Nich-o-lasss…

The voice was getting clearer and a ringing began in North's ears, making his eardrums tremble. There was a dull ache in North's kneecaps and in the back of his mind he realized he was much closer to the ground than he was before. Tooth's voice was muffled and faraway in his right ear and the smell of stale dust and earth clogged North's sinuses.

"Stop…"

Save him…

"North?! North, can you hear me?"

"I need a minute…"

You need to… save… him…

"I'm going to go find someone. Just wait here, I won't be long—"

"Just stop… too loud…"

Important… p-protect…

"Just hold on, North, hold on…"

"Don't go… my head…"

Sssave him…

"No…"

You have to.

"No."

"North, what are you—?"

I command…!

"SHUT UP!"

SAVE HIM, NICHOLAS. YOU MUST SAVE HIM.

"WHO?!"

There was silence.

Tooth was crouched on the floor a few feet away, eyes glossy and red as she gazed at North in fear as she pulled at the little feathers on her arm. Her pink lips were trembling and North's breathing was haggard and wheezing as he stared, wide-eyed, right back. Aside from a vague hum in his temples there was no more pain. He didn't feel the presence of the disembodied voice inside his head, his thoughts didn't feel violated, and his heart raced as his blood pressure steadily began to lower. He felt like he ran a marathon as he sat there crumpled in the dirt. As he inhaled he felt the thick, chilly air stick on the walls of his throat and he coughed into his closed fist until the feeling went away.

As North regained his bearings, his mind began to work in overdrive to compensate for the limitations the voice put on his brain power. He thought about Rumpelstiltskin and even though his head felt invaded he didn't feel anything dark left behind. Something about that voice struck a cord inside him, something deep in his core that said he recognized the voice. Not necessarily the way it sounded but the way it spoke. He'd heard it before. Long ago.

"Tooth…" North's mouth hung open, still sucking in air.

"North," Tooth choked. With trembling arms she crawled towards him and lifted a tiny hand to his cheek. "What happened to you? Was it Rumpelstiltskin? Has he affected you?"

North wasn't positive but something told him to say no. He shook his head slowly as if unsure and Tooth's forehead wrinkled in anxious confusion.

"No… no, I do not believe so."

North's thoughts were racing like a marathon and it was a wonder he was able to keep up. Even though the voice was gone it still left traces of its presence behind except not in his head. The feeling was in his gut. He felt something heavy and warm consume his chest and even though it didn't make any sense, it felt like a sense of purpose.

And that's when North understood.

There was a flash of pictures darting across the forefront of his mind and his eyes flicked from left to right quicker than Tooth was able to keep up. North felt like he was being blasted into the past. He felt a rush of cold and then his eyes widened and he was suddenly back on his feet. His strength seemed to have replenished for he yanked Tooth back up to her feet as if she were a cotton-stuffed doll.

"Jack is in danger," North announced. And then they heard it.

"—WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU'RE SO IMPORTANT? YOU KNOW MY STORY JACK. YOU KNOW WHAT I DO," North listened in horror as Tooth shrunk beneath the power of the deep voice. "FIGURE IT OUT!"

"Oh no…"

"North!" Tooth jerked him towards her with surprising force and his head whipped down at her, eyes still wide. There was a fire in the fairy's eyes that said she wasn't going to move an inch until he gave her some answers. "Tell me what just happened," she demanded. "Who were you hearing inside your head?"

North watched her for a moment.

"It was Manny."


Jack had to fight against too many instincts raging inside him.

The first told him to keep running. To keep as much distance between him and Rumpelstiltskin as possible because, yeah, he was scared. He was really scared. He'd been in mortal—immortal?—danger a few times now but it'd never been about his soul. He didn't even know souls were bargaining chips, much less physical things that could be removed from one's body.

How did you go about ripping a soul away? Was it painful? Would he still be alive even if his soul was somewhere else or would he die the second it was stripped away? He spent most of his existence fearing the unknown but this was a different kind of unknown. The unknown he was used to was never an actual threat to his life.

And then there was the vindictive side of him that didn't want Rumpelstiltskin getting his way. If it was Jack's soul he wanted, Jack was going to do everything in his power to make sure that didn't happen.

His second instinct told him to run into this fight headlong. For as long as he could remember, Jack always had that underlying urge to enact vengeance. There was some primal part of him, probably the part that Rumpelstiltskin referred to as "dormant", that wanted to do the exact opposite of what everyone else told him to do. Because he knew what North would say if he were here. He'd tell him this fight was bigger than himself and that it was in his and everyone else's best interests if he got far away from it. He was part of a Guardianship now and Guardians did things together. It'd be reckless for him to try and fight alone. And that's exactly why he wanted to do it.

He liked being a little reckless and a little disobedient. Maybe that was the teenager in him talking, proving that even though he was centuries old he never actually grew up. Whatever the case, he felt he had the right to go after the thing that was already trying to go after him. And Rumpelstiltskin surely deserved a little payback for taking Max.

But what if his impulsiveness got everyone hurt?

What if running away made them get hurt anyway?

That's what Rumpelstiltskin said, wasn't it? Whoever he found first, he was going to hurt. Even if it wasn't Jack.

It was a catch twenty-two. What was he supposed to do?

Ultimately it was Rumpelstiltskin who made his decision for him.

One second Jack was bent over, panting and fighting a headache, the next something hot and electric pierced his side. The force sent him flying down the passageway and he landed in a winded heap on the dirt ground, his staff lying between him and an enraged Rumpelstiltskin, having lost his grip on it midair out of surprise.

Jack groaned, a dull ache pulsing in his right leg and shoulder from the rough landing. The hall was much darker now that a few clumps of dirt covered the hook of his staff but even still he was able to see a hunched black figure prowling towards him with stooped shoulders and a dark orb hovering over its outstretched palm. Jack squinted at it as he tried kicking himself away. It looked like the orb that had returned Pitch's powers to him except instead of red, this orb glowed a faint shade of purple.

"Have you figured it out yet?" Rumpelstiltskin rasped, his beady eyes glinting silvery white in the reflection of Jack's staff on the ground. Jack pulled himself up onto his feet unsteadily, feeling a tingle in his ribs where the bolt of purple energy hit him. "You're my way out, Jack… after years of searching I finally found my ticket to freedom."

"My soul is going to free you?" Jack sputtered, lurching out of the way as another bolt of energy was blasted his way. It didn't look like Rumpelstiltskin was aiming to hit him because Jack knew if that were the case he wouldn't have missed.

"It's going to cleanse me," Rumpelstiltskin hissed, eyes glinting dangerously like a venomous snake ready to strike.

Jack stumbled a bit, walking backward as Rumpelstiltskin slinked forward. Their shadows pranced across the walls as they moved and a pang of fear struck Jack's heart. It made it look like they weren't alone, like visions of the dead were dancing around them in wait. It was ominous and made his insides feel colder than usual, like the icy grip of death was reaching inside him. He knew it was just his paranoia but it didn't make the feeling go away and he nearly tripped over his feet as he tried walking faster.

"Don't you see?" Rumpelstiltskin continued, advancing further on Jack. "You're meant for something much greater than yourself. Haven't you ever wondered what your true purpose was? Becoming a Guardian brought you closer to me," his eyes flashed, empty but maniacal. "You're my way home."

"Home?" Jack asked, hating how his voice wavered. "To the Moon people? The place you were banished from?"

"No," Rumpelstiltskin grinned, his mouth curving up the side of his face. Jack chanced a quick glance over his shoulder and saw they were turning down another hallway, this one much wider than the last. "I have a new destination in mind. I've been stuck in limbo for centuries, trapped between this world and the next. It's time to move on."

"And you think I can help with that?" Jack asked, unable to believe it. What good would his soul do? How was his soul worth any more than anyone else's?

"I know you can," said Rumpelstiltskin. "You're pure, Jack. In all my years I've never seen anything like you—anything so bright. Except for one."

"The person you think I'm related to," Jack hedged warily. Rumpelstiltskin smirked, his silvery teeth gleaming.

"I tried him first," Rumpelstiltskin said, looking somewhere over Jack's shoulder as he hunched forward as if deep in thought.

Their movements had slowed, Rumpelstiltskin walking forward and Jack walking backward at a somewhat leisurely pace. Jack's eyes flashed behind Rumpelstiltskin. He could no longer see his staff as it lay abandoned in the previous hallway but he could still see the dim light from it. He flexed his fingers experimentally and felt a wave of cold there, like he was steadily powering up again. His eyes moved back to Rumpelstiltskin and thankfully the movement had gone unnoticed.

"I tried catching him but it was useless. He was too heavily guarded, the place was too crowded," Rumpelstiltskin shook his head as he relived the memory, disgusted with his own sense of tact. "Seemed ironic that a protector was being protected but I guess it makes sense when that person you're protecting is a Prince. I was captured quickly and cast down but not without putting up a good fight. You're similar to him in many ways and the moment I got word of you, of a bright Guardian who bested Pitch Black with a single strike of electrifying power, who managed to smother his darkness with their light, I knew you were the one. My one-way ticket. Next time you're in Santa Claus's archives, maybe you should take a look at your family tree."

Jack's eyes narrowed and a memory flashed in his mind.

"Maybe after this is over you could educate yourself."

"Educate myself?" Jack's face twisted as if he tasted something sour.

"Yes," North sounded amused. "You can never learn too much. There are many books that speak of powers like yours, of Guardianship, other mystical beings you probably didn't know existed…" he trailed off, smirking a bit at Jack's pursed lips.

Was North really keeping something from him?

Rumpelstiltskin huffed a laugh through the slits in his nose.

"Afterlives are pesky things. When you're a Guardian you've passed on already, this is your afterlife. But me? I'm stuck somewhere in the middle. Not alive but not dead either, trapped here for eternity. It wasn't even my choice."

"We don't get choices," Jack countered shortly, shaking his suspicions off for now. "Do you think I chose to die and be reborn at the age of seventeen?"

"WHAT YOU HAVE ISN'T A CURSE!" Rumpelstiltskin snarled, spit flinging from his lips.

"Yours didn't have to be either!" Jack fired back. He squeezed his hand into a tight fist to hide the frost sparkling in his palm. "It was given to you against your will but you're the one who made it a curse! Instead of doing something good with it, you did the same thing your father did! You let it control you!" Jack yelled, unable to hold back his anger. "That's on you! You can't play the victim anymore. If there's one thing I've learned from being a Guardian, it's that even though we're handed a life we didn't ask for, it's up to us to choose our fate. Maybe it sucks but that's how it's got to be. You've damned yourself."

Rumpelstiltskin's eyes narrowed and his face darkened. The murky purple orb glowed in his palm.

"I'll show you damned. Tag, you're it."

And the fight was on.

Jack was quick enough to dodge the first blast but the second one nailed him in the collarbone and he slammed against the adjacent wall with a yell. He felt a little stunned but he swiftly righted himself and shot a beam of frost at Rumpelstiltskin followed by three more in quick succession. Two managed to hit him and the other two took out a good chunk of the stone wall behind him, sending shrapnel flying in the air. Jack turned and ran while Rumpelstiltskin recovered to put more space between them and then he fired another shot of frost over his shoulder.

A beam of purple-black bolts charged past him and he ducked as another bolt passed over his head. He reached the end of the hallway and skidded to a stop at the entrance of a large cave. Jack suspected this was the center of the mountain and he was surprised to find that most of it had been hollowed out. There were wooden beams supporting the top of the cave in the shape of a triangle to prevent cave-ins, making the ceiling look oddly cathedral-like. This must've been the main room of the refuge.

There were rapid footsteps behind him and Jack made to dash forward but a pair of bony hands gripped the back of his hoodie and tossed him to the side like a ragdoll. Jack winced as his knees scraped against the rough floor but he quickly spun around on his knees and pulled himself up, only just standing straight when Rumpelstiltskin lunged at him with outstretched leathery hands. Jack wasn't too confident with close combat without his staff but he knocked Rumpelstiltskin's arms away and then greeted him with an uppercut to his jaw. There was pain in his knuckles but he ignored it in favor of ducking to the side underneath Rumpelstiltskin's arms. As he righted himself again, he elbowed Rumpelstiltskin in the back of the head.

This only succeeding in making Rumpelstiltskin angrier and with a war cry he threw his arm back and blasted Jack in the side of the head with a bolt of dark energy. Jack saw stars and he fell to the ground, the other side of his head bouncing off the dirt. His eyes were half-lidded as he tried to see straight, the world doubling and tripling around him. Pain exploded behind his optic nerve and he felt something blunt and heavy slam into his nose. He lurched onto his back, cringing at the pain and somewhere in the back of his head he heard a voice whisper,

"Your staff."

For a second he had no idea what it meant but then he remembered where his staff was. If he could just get to it, he might have a better chance.

Before he could even think about sitting up, he felt a jolt of heat and electricity shock his chest cavity and he screamed as Rumpelstiltskin aimed one relentless beam of purple energy at his torso. After a few seconds the creature relented and the pain stopped, leaving Jack gasping and choking for air as his eyes watered. It felt like his heart had been stopped and restarted again, a sharp pang resonating in the muscle with each weak beat.

"I have to admit this is a little disappointing," Rumpelstiltskin said breathlessly. "Was this the kind of fight you put up against Black? He must be weaker than I thought."

Jack couldn't channel his powers so instead he aimed a kick at Rumpelstiltskin's kneecap. The creature screamed and stumbled and Jack blinked his eyes rapidly. He was halfway up before a punch was delivered to his cheekbone and he fell back down with a groan.

"Pathetic," Rumpelstiltskin spat. He walked with a slight limp towards Jack's prone form, his spindly fingers glowing a deep purple. "I was hoping I wouldn't enjoy this so much. I'm giving you my all here, the least you could do is show me the same respect!"

Jack's palm glowed again, this time with sparks of blue frost that cut in and out of focus and Rumpelstiltskin watched with a sick smile.

"That's right," the creature purred. "Your staff's gone missing, hasn't it? Not much of a threat without your walking stick."

Jack groaned again and this time it sounded desperate. He tried focusing his anger on his palms in hopes of powering himself back up but it was like his powers surged into his hands and then, upon realizing his staff wasn't there, they dwindled back down, useless. Rumpelstiltskin displayed some twisted sense of pleasure at watching Jack squirm, his smile still sharp and evil.

"Maybe I'll do one last thing before cleansing myself," the creature murmured. Jack gripped his chest with a pained expression, only half listening as Rumpelstiltskin talked seemingly to himself. "One last act of iniquity. If I've cursed myself, as you say, then might as well live up to the reputation. I wonder how your precious Max's neck will feel," he grinned wickedly, "as it's being crushed in my fist?"

"You leave him the hell alone," Jack gasped.

"Or what about those lovely Guardians, hm? Maybe if I mount their heads on a spike, it'll warn others not to defy me. It'll teach them fear and respect. It'll show them their place."

"No," Jack hissed through clenched teeth. His head was still swimming from the blow and if he were human, a mortal one, he was certain he wouldn't be conscious.

"Yes," Rumpelstiltskin's eyes burned with glee. "And maybe I'll go after that pretty girl last. Mighty innocent, that one, with such a strong will to boot," Jack's eyes flashed and he grinded his teeth. Rumpelstiltskin noticed and his grin widened. "I'll make you watch as I rip her heart from her chest and make you wait until the final beat. I'll make you watch everything from start to finish, watch as every person you care about dies. If only I didn't need you," Rumpelstiltskin tsked. "The greatest punishment of all would be to live on without them, to exist in this world alone knowing all of them died because of you. Shame it won't play out that way. It's rather poetic, don't you think?"

"Why don't you just kill me and get it over with, huh?" Jack grated, trying to hold back another groan. Rumpelstiltskin rolled his eyes.

"What have I told you about being a spoilsport? Because it's no fun," he pouted and even that managed to look frightening. "I like a challenge. Life moves too slowly when you can just take the things you want."

Jack blinked and suddenly his staff was in Rumpelstiltskin's hand. He dropped the staff carelessly onto Jack's chest.

"Here, since you need it. Use it. And get on your feet."

Jack struggled to his feet with a grunt, clutching his staff tightly in his fist. The wood hummed in his grip and he cast a steely glare at Rumpelstiltskin who tossed his head back with a boisterous cackle, spreading his arms wide.

"We're gonna go out with a bang!"


Alice clutched the dusty wall to her left and paused halfway down the corridor, the thrumming of blood pumping behind her eardrums the only sound she was able to hear over her ragged breathing.

Alice's biggest problem was that she had very human eyesight. The halls of this underground passage were the blackest of black and her only way of moving forward was by clutching the wall as she walked. It was her only way of knowing that she was making any sort of actual progress because everything looked the same. The darkness around her was so dark that it looked like a solid black mass constantly inches from her face, so black and absolute that she felt she could reach forward and dip her finger in it like a pool of liquid and ripple the surface. At first she thought she'd gone blind.

She rested her temple against the wall and closed her eyes, though it didn't look like she closed them at all. She'd been walking for what felt like an eternity but in reality was probably only fifteen minutes or so. She never risked taking her hand away from the wall, afraid that if she did she'd be surrounded by nothing but air on each side. This meant that she always went left. Wasn't that the trick to solving a maze? To always go left? Or was it right? She couldn't remember.

A few times it felt like she slipped into another set of rooms, the walls swooping out at odd angles like they were opening up. When she first left Jack, she never actually returned to the main hallway. She hadn't realized where she was going and instead branched off from one of the rooms down a separate corridor. The air was stale down here and even more stifling, reminding her of how far underground she was. It made the walls around her feel like a tomb.

But she kept onward because, well, she didn't have much of a choice.

Giving that her eyes were rendered useless, her other senses had been heightened. Every sound she heard, whether it was her shoes crackling against the dirt on the ground or her fingers caressing the dried out tapestries on the wall, it sounded magnified. And every time she stopped moving and just listened, she could've sworn she heard the pitter-patter of footsteps behind her. She tried convincing herself it was all in her head, that she was just being paranoid, but it didn't make the sounds go away. Alice wondered if Rumpelstiltskin was alone down here or if he had accomplices wandering the halls, herding her and the rest of the Guardian like sheep into a trap.

The one thing that motivated her was the knowledge that Max was here somewhere. For the first time in days the two of them were finally in the same place.

She just needed to find him.

But she found as she progressed that her chances were starting to look bleaker and bleaker on account of several things. One, she had no idea where she was and unless she stumbled upon a flashlight that magically happened to have a full set of fresh batteries, she was never going to see where she was going. Her sense of direction was completely off. Two, she didn't know how big this place was. From the outside it didn't look so much wide as it did tall but looks were clearly deceiving. And three, she was alone. Even if by some miracle she managed to find him, there was no telling what would be guarding him. She was no match for anything bigger than an oversized, sluggish cat and unless Garfield was the only thing standing between her and Max, she was already overpowered.

Those factors didn't stop her from moving forward though. And so she continued walking, hand still gliding along the wall as she stepped carefully. There were a few stray rocks and fallen debris that she'd nearly tripped over several times already. It would be just her luck that she'd trip and break her neck.

It felt like another eternity before there was a break in the monotony.

Alice just turned down another corridor when she heard a faint whistling, like fragile tuffs of air desperately trying to break through a small crack in the wall.

She stopped everything, even breathing, as she listened and tried to discern where the sound was coming from. The hair on the back of her neck began to stand as she stood there and she quickly turned her head, a pang of fear piercing her stomach. As expected she saw nothing but she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched. The nagging feeling started about a hundred feet back but she tried shaking it off. Now it was all she could think about.

Her breath quickened again, the sound echoing down the hall in tune with the whistling. What she wouldn't give for just a speck of light. Turning slowly back around, she pressed her ear close to the wall. The whistling didn't change in volume which meant it was further down the passage. She crept forward slowly, half of her attention still trained on the itchy feeling that sunk down the back of her neck. The further she walked, the louder the whistling got and she picked up her pace until the wall suddenly cut off and she fell forward.

She gasped (the echo of it bounced so loudly off the walls that she felt the ground rattle beneath her) and quickly righted herself, momentarily panicking at the lack of wall to grip onto. She waved her left arm until her fingers slapped against the wall once more. She expected to feel a wooden doorframe beneath her fingertips like usual whenever she entered another set of rooms but this time all she felt was sharp rock, like a hole had been blown in the wall. The whistling was clearly coming from this direction and, ignoring the spike in her heartrate, she turned into the room and scoped it out with her hands and feet.

Her hands danced along the uneven rock as she glided around the edges of the room. The whistling was so loud now that it sounded like it was coming from right in front of her. Her hands rose a couple of inches and that's when she felt it. Cool air. Her fingers prodded the area, feeling a crease in the rock that must've gone all the way up to the surface. Her heart raced at the find but sunk almost as quickly.

That's it? she thought. That's all it was?

She didn't really know what she'd been expecting. Maybe she was hoping to find some sort of door that conveniently had Max sitting on the other side of it. But what would the whistling have been? An air conditioner?

Alice felt angry with herself. She slapped the wall for good measure but it didn't make her feel any better. Her arms fell down to her sides and her shoulders slumped as she steamed silently. And then that prickly feeling returned, lifting the hairs on the base of her neck. Her spine stiffened and she held herself still, though she figured whatever was down there had already seen her clear as day.

There was a quick shuffle, almost too faint for Alice to hear it, but for once her other heightened senses gave her the advantage. Her head twitched to the right, following the sound closely but she still didn't move. Instead she waited, chest heaving quietly, until she heard the shuffle again.

This time it was directly behind her.

A scream rose in Alice's throat but before she could let it out she felt a pair of cold hands yank her backward. She landed hard on the sharp ground, a pained oof escaping her lips as the wind was knocked out of her. She scrambled back, feeling the hem of her shirt tear on a stray rock. There was a snarl followed by something heavy and solid shoving her to the ground. She yelled and lifted her arms, swinging at anything she could reach. She hit the thing's face several times but it only urged the creature on.

She turned in the thing's grip and tried crawling away, only to be pulled back by the collar of her shirt. She kicked out her legs and once she found the thing's leg, she kicked and kicked until the thing let her go with a yelp. It took a while for her shoes to get traction on the ground but once they did she propelled herself off the ground and took off through the hole in the wall and into another passageway. She still couldn't see in front of her and several times she ran hard into a wall, her mind scrambled by the growls and scratches coming from behind her as the thing chased her.

Alice wasn't very athletic but she had at least one thing going for her: she was a fast runner. Her lungs burned and protested as she ran, the muscles in her legs contracting more than they were used to but she didn't stop for anything, even the feeling of fingers trying to tangle themselves in her hair. An involuntary scream spilled from her lips at the thing's closeness.

As she was edging the end of another hallway, she could swear she saw an orange glow at the turning point. Her head was pounding and she tried to not think about anything as she forced her legs to push her as fast as they could. Her momentum caused her to smack into the wall before she could turn the corner but she spun on her feet and continued on down the hallway towards the light as the thing slammed into the wall only a second after she did.

This time she was certain the hall was illuminated by some sort of light and even though the light was weak Alice's eyes still had a hard time adjusting. She could see sharp rocks, debris, and faded carpet strewn about the floor as she darted across it and the walls were only about seven or eight feet apart in width, giving little room for error as Alice stumbled over large boulders and wooden planks.

She didn't dare turn around to see what the thing chasing her looked like because she knew it was close on her heels. Instead she turned another corner, her shoes sliding in the dirt, and that's when she saw an open doorway at the end of the tunnel on her right where the light was coming from. She ran for it despite the way her lungs and head ached and just as she was about to reach it, the thing behind her leapt and struck them both to the ground.

Alice yelped as she was crushed beneath the thing's weight, her head coming dangerously close to slamming into the ground with all the force of a jackhammer. She felt moist breath puff in her ear and she screamed as chills raced down her spine. The fingernails that dug into her shoulders felt distinctly human and she tried wiggling out of its grip by flailing her arms and legs. The thing grabbed a chunk of her hair and yanked her on her side and that's when she saw what it was.

It looked very similar to the Unseelie Guards that accompanied them except this one had blood-red eyes and a wicked snarl on its dark lips. That's when she remembered the rogue faerie that aided Rumpelstiltskin. This must've been it. She wondered if it'd been creeping along behind her in the shadows ever since she separated from Jack.

Alice had no real way of defending herself from its attacks so she reached her hands up and curled her fingers around its neck in hopes of keeping its sharp teeth away from her. It hissed and growled and thrashed in her grip and for a moment Alice forgot this thing was a faerie—a creature she once thought to be gentle and kind. She succeeded in holding the Fae back for a few seconds but its strength was undeniable and as she began to tremble at the elbows, she knew she wasn't going to be able to last much longer. Its long fingers scratched at her cheeks and arms and she tried lifting her knees in hopes of throwing the thing off balance.

After the third attempt it worked and the thing toppled off of her, still lashing out at her in a fit of rage. Her hair was pulled, her sleeve was torn, and there was a distinct scent of iron in her nose from the cuts the Fae left on her face but she pulled herself forward on her elbows the second she was freed. She crawled the rest of the way to the doorway, just barely able to glance into the room and what she saw made her freeze.

There, sitting on an intricate chair that must've once been regal and revered, was a blonde-haired boy slumped over its arm in a distinctive pair of Iron Man pajamas.

Max.

Alice choked on her own tongue, her heart freezing up the way a giant turned to stone from the sun, and that's when she felt something sharp pierce her side.

She screamed and pushed against the Fae that lodged three of its sharp nails into her side. Though the sight of Max had momentarily rendered her immobile, she fought with a renowned vigor this time. She kicked her legs out again and when that didn't work, she lifted one of her arms over her head, feeling along the ground for something—anything—that she could use as a weapon. Her eyes kept flashing back to the motionless boy in the chair as she searched desperately, wincing at the way her skin tore and stretched against the Fae's nails. She used her other hand to swing back and hit the Fae in the jaw. It kind of felt like she fractured the outside of her hand but the adrenaline numbed the pain.

She grappled for all of seven seconds, still trying to kick at the Fae that seemed to be cackling with glee, when her fingers curled around something sharp and solid. It was a piece of rock that had chipped from the walls.

That'll work.

She swung with all the might of a batter from the NBA. The hit was a straight bull's-eye and the Fae shrieked in agony as the rock slammed into its cheekbone. She hit it once, twice more and then used what little energy she had left to stumble to her feet and all but trip over to the chair Max was in.

Until she slammed into an invisible wall.

The collision knocked her off balance and she barely had the bearings to right herself, staring in shocked confusion at the doorway that didn't appear to be blocked at all to the naked eye. And yet, as she tried running forward again, some obscure force stopped her from getting any further.

"No! No! Max!" she pounded her fists on seemingly nothing, staring wide-eyed at the pale boy who didn't stir in his chair. "MAX!"

A strangled sob bubbled up from her throat. The Fae was twitching violently on the floor, still partially clutching its face, and then its deep red eyes glared up at her. Fear swept over her and she quickly looked around the doorway. If the room was blocked off by magic then there was no way Alice was getting in.

The Fae snarled before surging up, grabbing onto Alice's hair and shoving her head back against the invisible wall behind her. Alice cried out and struck the Fae's nose with her fist, hearing the sickening pop of one of her fingers at the force. The only proof of the punch was the pain in Alice's hand because the Fae continued to growl and shove her back until her shoulder blades got sore. Its long dark fingers curled slowly around her neck and then it squeezed.

Alice's hands immediately went to the Fae's wrist to try and pry its fingers off but the grip it had on her throat was relentless. Alice kicked at its legs but the more she wiggled around, the more pressure was put on her throat and she gasped for air.

"Max…" she wheezed, feeling blood pool between her eyes as the oxygen was cut off from her brain.

She felt heat in her face and then her nose and lips began to tingle. She dug her nails into the Fae's arms as a last resort but it was a weak attempt and her eyelids began to droop. The Fae's ugly face grew fuzzy and blurry and there was a blackness at the edge of her vision threatening to blind her. Her lungs contracted as the flow of oxygen stopped and there was a tightness in her chest before her eyes rolled into the back of her head.

'Max,' fell from her blue lips but no sound came out and she slumped against the invisible wall.

"Sheila!"

Alice's eyes fluttered at the unfamiliar voice and the Fae's iron grip loosened on her throat, caught off guard by this new creature's sudden appearance. There was a whoosh on the air and then Alice was released completely and she fell to the ground, coughing and holding her throat as she desperately sucked air back into her lungs. Her head was throbbing and her eyes watered as she hunched over, spotting a pair of shiny, blueish grey paws in front of her as the Fae was attacked by her mystery savior.

Once Alice didn't feel like she was going to pass out, she blinked up at the scene before her with clearer eyes and realized that the voice she heard wasn't unfamiliar at all. Bunny wrestled with the Fae, his boomerangs at the ready as he swiped the Fae's shoulder with one of them. Alice's breathing was still shallow as she shakily rose to her feet, turning her back on the fight in favor of looking Max over.

"Max!" she called, voice hoarse. "Max, can you hear me?"

He didn't move and she reached down to retrieve the rock she smashed the Fae's cheek with earlier, slamming it into the invisible wall over and over again to no avail. She shrieked in anger, knowing her attempts were futile but furious that she had no idea what to do. She heard a yelp behind her and turned to see Bunny stumbling to the ground with the rogue faerie hissing down at him, its blood-red eyes glowing in rage. Without thinking, Alice lunged forward and slammed the rock on the back of the Fae's head.

Bunny looked dazed as the Fae tripped over him. Alice would've tried helping him up but the faerie still wasn't down, its horrifying eyes set on her once more. This time she backed herself up into the wall trying to put some space between them but the Fae closed the distance quick. Alice saw Bunny right himself and he glared at the back of the Fae's head.

"Alice!"

"Bunny, the room!" she ducked as the Fae tried to strike her. "Max is in there, Bunny!"

"What?" Bunny gave her an incredulous look.

Alice, for lack of anything better to do, grabbed one of his boomerangs off the ground and swung it at the Fae's legs. The Fae howled and teetered back, giving Bunny the opportunity to grab the faerie in a headlock. Alice stared at the fading sparks that had emitted from his boomerang at the contact, feeling an idea growing. She couldn't penetrate the wall because she didn't have magic, but maybe a magical weapon could.

"Look out!"

Alice kicked herself away from the wall as Bunny slashed the Fae's cheek with his other boomerang and the faerie collapsed into a flailing heap in the spot she was occupying only seconds prior. Alice staggered to her feet, using the stone wall to pull herself up as Bunny huffed.

"We need to get in there!" she said, pointing to the room. Bunny's eyes widened when he finally noticed Max's slumped form. The faerie was already stirring again and Bunny scowled before crouching defensively.

"This guy just won't quit," Bunny said crossly.

"I have an idea, you just… just distract him, okay? Keep him away from the door," Alice instructed, gripping the boomerang in her hand tightly. Bunny grinned through his barred teeth.

"Not a problem."

Alice kept herself out of the danger zone as the faerie twitched and spasmed, spit flying from its lips as it snapped at Bunny like a wild animal. Alice studied the Fae as it lunged for Bunny, thrown off by the creature's behavior. She'd never seen an Unseelie faerie act so savage before. It was practically foaming at the mouth. Was that what happened to Unseelie's who went AWOL? She didn't have enough time to think on it and instead hunched in the shadows as she waited for Bunny to lead the Fae away from the door.

The two sparred for a moment, their arms flying wildly almost at a speed Alice couldn't keep up with. For a moment she was awestruck by Bunny's dexterity, only just then realizing how much of a warrior he actually was. At first she was afraid he'd be at a disadvantage with only one of his boomerangs but he was holding his own fairly well, either blocking or matching the Fae's strikes. It took a minute but eventually Bunny gained the upper hand and shoved the Fae down the hall. The faerie lost its footing and skidded to the ground, letting out a piercing shriek as Bunny jumped after him.

Alice saw the opportunity and took it, running to the doorway of the room. She re-gripped the boomerang and it hummed in her hand much like Jack's staff had when he let her hold it, and with a cry she lifted her arm high before striking forward with all her might. The boomerang pierced the invisible wall and for a moment the wall became tangible, flickering like a ghost on an astral plane before disappearing completely.

Alice fell through the doorway with a grunt but kept her footing until she got to Max's side, collapsing against the chair as she yanked him into her arms.

"Max," she cried, wrapping her arms tight around his little body. He slumped awkwardly in her embrace and she stuffed her nose in his hair as she squeezed him against her chest. "Max, I found you. I found you. I'm so glad I found you."

A few tears fell into Max's matted blonde hair and she inhaled his warm scent, basking in the fact that she had her son back.

She was so caught up in the moment, too overwhelmed and elated to realize yet that even though Max was here, he wasn't breathing.


A/N: I know what you're thinking. "I thought she was dead?" And trust me, I am, but only on the inside.

But okay. All jokes aside. I can't even begin to tell you all how sorry I am that it took nine months to get this chapter out. I bet hardly any of you even remember this story and if you do you're probably like, "Wow, I have to go re-read this entire thing because I have no idea what's going on." AND I DON'T BLAME YOU. Just recently I read this story all the way through again and realized how much still needed to get done. It wasn't that I lost interest in the story or anything, it's just that life has been so busy the past year and I feel like I haven't had time to think. Honestly, time just got away from me because it doesn't feel like it's been that long since I wrote a chapter to this but at the same time it feels like an absolute eternity. And I just wanted to say I'm genuinely sorry for leaving you all hanging like I did.

Good news is, things have calmed down (for the time being) and since re-reading this story, I've fallen in love with it all over again. Over the past few months I forgot how important this story was to me so it's a relief to get that back and feel like I'm actually capable of writing more. I find it funny that at the end of the last chapter I was talking about how I started writing this story when I was getting ready to turn 22 and that at the time of that chapter, I was getting ready to turn 23. Well now I'm only three months away from turning 24. Like seriously, pull yourself together and just finish the story already, goddamn.

To anyone who's still with me: I hope you enjoyed this long overdue chapter. I'm sorry if my writing is sub-par, it's been a minute since I've written anything worthwhile so I'm a little rusty. I feel like even more of a jerk for making this chapter a 'part one' but honestly, this chapter is already over 11k words as it is. I didn't want to make it unbearably long and exhausting to read. Also, I'm considering changing the title of this story. As much as I love Aimsir, I think there's a more fitting title out there somewhere for it so if you come back to the story and think to yourself 'what the fuck is this?' yeah, that's why. I also may be revising a few of the earlier chapters because, in reading through everything, I've found some errors and things that could be improved upon. I don't want that to take priority over writing new chapters, I'm just saying it could happen on one of my off days where new material just isn't coming to me.

So now that I've written another 500 words onto this monster chapter, I'm going to shut up. Again, I'm sorry for making everyone think I abandoned this story. For a while it kind of felt like I did but I still want to finish Jack and Alice's story. We're over halfway through the story so here's to hoping I'm able to see it through to the end. Thank you guys for all the reviews, favorites and follows you've given this story. I appreciate every last one of them and I love all of you. Until next time~