Author's Notes: It occurred to me that I wanted to write about Jack's Worst Thing happening. ...so I did. And will. Still in progress; I'm expecting this to be maybe three parts. The title is taken from Robert Frost's "Birches," which always makes me cry.
Broken Glass to Sweep Away
"Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust -
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen."
-Robert Frost, "Birches"
Jack awoke in darkness, and that was not unusual. On the nights with no moon, when only the stars stretched out overhead, distant and shining, he often woke this way, blanketed beneath the velvet black of the sky.
There were no stars above him, though, and for an instant the boy wondered if he had dreamed unsettling dreams, had conjured the dark clouds that portended a blizzard while he slept. It had happened before; it would, he suspected, happen again.
But the ground beneath him was empty of snow; nothing drifted down from above; no snowflakes heralded an impending storm.
Jack paused – frowned – squinted upward. Far, far above, he could just make out the faint lines of a high ceiling. Closer, as his eyes began to adjust, he saw that there were stripes, regular and even, through which the world appeared in swaths.
It was not until the boy reached out to touch them, hard metal slick with ice, that he realized they were bars. And it was not until he gave a shout of alarm and bolted upright that he was able to make out all the rest: the other cages swinging, empty, in the largest chamber of the Nightmare King's domain.
"Ah," came the voice, frighteningly near at hand. "Awake now? How good of you to join me."
"Pitch!" Jack scrabbled, half-blind, at the ground beneath him, searching frantically for the familiar presence of his staff. He touched only ice and metal; he touched the bars, pressing in on all sides of him.
"Looking for this?" In the gloom, he could just make out the crook of it clasped in an elegant, grey-skinned hand. "Come, now. Did you really think I'd leave it with you?"
He left off feeling his way by touch, gathered his legs beneath him to face the man head-on, instead. As he moved to stand, he felt the ground sway beneath him, a gentle rocking as the cage shifted on its chain. "What do you want?"
"Isn't it obvious?" There was a threat behind the words, but also amusement, rich and deep. "I have already taken it, after all."
"Some plan." The boy ignored the way his heart hammered in his chest - told himself that it was anger and not fear. "You can't even use it."
"Not this trifle that you play with." Pitch turned the staff over in his hands, let it dangle as though it was of no consequence. As though the winter spirit was not eyeing it like a cornered animal eyes the exit. "I was referring to you, my dear boy."
"Me?" There was a moment of genuine surprise as Jack peered at his captor, attempting to make out enough of the man's expression to gauge it. His thoughts turned and tumbled, came together and pulled apart with nothing to show for it. After years of exclusion, of being ignored, his mind was not fast to provide a reason why someone might require him. "But I don't have anything else."
"Nonsense." The form of the man blurred, dissolved – and when the voice came again, it was much nearer his ear, so close that he could feel the warmth of breath. "You have the most important thing of all." The touch came without warning, uncomfortably hot fingers skirting the back of his neck. Jack jerked – gasped – spun around, hands up before him, to find nothing there. "Fear," said the voice, low and insinuating, and the chuckle that pealed from it was like a funeral bell.
"In case you didn't notice, I've got nothing to be afraid of." Jack lifted his chin and took a step back so that he could feel the icy bars of the cage behind him – so that there was no space remaining for anything else. "I wasn't scared of you before, and you're a lot less threatening hiding out in a hole in the ground."
"Do recall," said Pitch, voice echoing from some unidentifiable point above, "that you had your new-found friends with you at the time." The man pronounced the word "friends" as though it was the punch line to a witty joke, cruel humor at someone else's expense.
"Go on," Jack told him. "Laugh it up." The boy's eyes scanned the air, back and forth, wary and watchful – but already he could begin to feel the chill of dread replaced with the rush of anger. Already he could begin to feel himself believing what he had said: there was nothing to be afraid of here. "It won't be so funny when they show up looking for me."
"Such faith." The words were a purr drifting in the darkness. "Such earnestness. Do you truly think they'll come?"
"Of course they will." The answer was a reflex response, more fire than ice.
A quiet chuckle came again, disconcertingly hard to place. "Let's tally accounts, shall we?" Before the bars of the cage, a shape coalesced like oil beading on water, formed the outline of a man. "They hardly know you." In the face there were eyes, a menacing yellow. "For three hundred years, they did not so much as look on you. Did not speak to you. Scarcely acknowledged you existed." There were teeth in that face, as well, sharp and white. "And when at last they did glance your way, was repentance the cause? Did they pity the outcast?"
Jack was speaking already, was beginning a protest, but the man ignored it. His silhouette, black on black, shook its head. "Hardly. They needed you."
"You're wrong," the spirit of winter was saying, voice sharper perhaps than he had intended. If a thread of anxiety crept in beneath the indignation – if the words stirred something primally unsettled within the boy – it was only because three hundred years was such a very, very long time to be lonely.
"And now?" The man paused here, let the words gather weight. Let them grow heavy as a broken heart. "Oh, now, child… they don't need you any longer."
"You're wrong," Jack said again, louder this time – as though he could block out what he did not want to hear. "They wouldn't – they're not like that! They'll come!"
"Because they cherish your company so?" The smile closed over the teeth, but it was still a shark's expression, narrow and dangerous. "I think not." One elegant hand swept from side to side, as though brushing the words away. "But reasoned debate is unlikely, I think, to sway your mind. Only time can manage that."
When the figure faded from view, it was a gradual dispersion, like smoke drifting too high in the sky or like shadows cast by the moonlight. "How convenient for the both of us that we have plenty to spare."