Author's Notes: Thank you for all of the kind comments. I decided to go ahead and do one final chapter, after all - but this is officially the end. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. By which I mean I am a horrible person.
Broken Glass to Sweep Away- Chapter 4
"So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be."
-Robert Frost, "Birches"
Time. Time was like the foundation of the earth, fixed and immobile. Time was not a thing that came in increments; it was not a thing marked by the passing of days.
It was a relic of the world above, with all its little pleasures. It was a remnant of the life he had left behind. He did not need it any longer – did not count it as it slipped away - but if he had learned that he'd spent decades here, far from light and joy and freedom, he would not have been surprised.
Time was nothing. It was darkness – and silence – and the measured rasp of his own breathing.
Sometimes, far below, someone walked. Jack recalled distantly that he had wanted those footsteps to stop, that he had begged for them to stop, that he had screamed into the cavern until it rang with his voice.
The thought that he could affect such a change– that he might actually be listened to – seemed wishful and extravagant now, a child's dream of grandeur.
"I did warn you." The words hung frozen in his ears, bright as the first bird song after a long, desolate winter. They traveled through his body like a physical sensation, left shockwaves in his chest and up his spine. Hope had not visited this place in years – and the rush as it tried to flood back in, all at once, was so sudden that it hurt. He felt like a fish hook was lodged in his heart, trying to draw it forth.
Jack's throat worked as he swallowed. From the place where he lay curled upon the cage's icy bottom, he told himself that this, too, was a creation of his mind. Like the dreams in which he sometimes still imagined better things, this too would pass.
Don't, he told himself, as firmly as he was able. Just don't.
Jack felt his lips form the words soundlessly, willed obedience from his traitor thoughts. If he could grasp hold of his own expectations – if he could quash any presumptions before they were formed – then when hope was gone its loss would not be quite so great.
He might even have succeeded, had the touch not come - a pinpoint of blinding warmth upon his cheek.
The unexpected delight of contact drew a noise from him: choked and startled, as though in pain. Jack's hand scrabbled blindly toward it, and his fingers closed hard on what they found, spurred on by convulsive yearning. For the first time in far too long, there was a possibility that the mindless sameness had been replaced by something new.
Jack opened his eyes to discover a level yellow gaze regarding him from just beyond the bars. The thing clasped in his hand, solid and real, was the Nightmare King's wrist – and the touch he had felt was the brush of the man's fingertips, soft and inquisitive against his cheek.
The world swayed, as though it were an unsteady thing. For an instant, the corners of Jack's vision swam and threatened to slip away, the sudden shock near overwhelming.
"Pitch?" the boy asked, voice strange and soft, barely audible. The fingers were still on him, throbbing in time with his heartbeat – warm, warm, warm – and he was not ashamed that he leaned into it, hoarding the sensation in the way that a man too long starved will ever after hoarde food.
He did not notice the cut beneath the Nightmare King's left eye. He did not mark the man's ragged appearance, as though a fight recently waged had been lost. There was a time when Jack would have made note of such details. There was a time when the spirit of winter would have leaped upon them as proof that the Guardians still searched for him - but that time had long passed.
"Were you expecting someone else?" Pitch asked by way of reply, tone smooth and dark, pointedly smug. "How touching. Even after all this time."
Jack could not meet that searching stare. What had once been the razor-sharp burn of betrayal had lessened – had faded to something that ached in the way of a bone broken long ago rather than the agony of a fresh wound. It had not left him, though, not entirely, and the reminder rekindled something very like regret. "No," the boy managed. "I wasn't expecting…"
"Anyone?" The hand on Jack's face shifted slightly, traced the skin along his jaw. It drew a quiet gasp from the winter spirit, whose hands instinctively reached to keep it there, tightened their hold, struggled to prevent this unexpected pleasure from vanishing. "Oh, I know. It's been a long time since you feared they wouldn't come." The thumb found the ridge of a pale cheekbone, dusted across the freckles spattered there. "Now you know for sure."
Jack searched the man's face, questioning at first – and then, gradually, almost pleading. "But you left me here anyway." To be kept here, suspended in darkness and solitude, had been torture. To be kept without reason threatened a new horror. Jack had not known that there was a further depth to which he might sink, but he felt his stomach plummet as though in free-fall, dizzied by the notion that he was not needed even by the one who had taken him.
"I did," Pitch agreed, tone incongruously soft. He stroked Jack's face absently, off-handedly, as though his words and touch were not tearing apart what little remained intact.
"Are you-" said Jack, and when he swallowed, his throat made a strange clicking sound. "Are you going to stay? For very long?" His fingers, curled around the Nightmare King's wrist, were white-knuckled for the sudden, driving terror that the man would pull away.
"No," Pitch told him, and his smile widened when the boy whined softly in panic. "But don't worry. If you're very lucky, I might come back." The man's long fingers drifted upward, carded through hair that was matted with long confinement. "Would you like that?"
"Please," Jack whispered. "Please, please – don't go." He took in a sobbing breath. It had been a long time since last he'd cried, but the tears came now, sudden and stinging, sharp as broken glass. "Don't go. I'll do anything."
"Hmm. Tempting." The hand was pulling away. The hand was pulling away, and Jack clenched his grip down tighter, screamed a denial, clung and clung – and found himself holding empty air. The Nightmare King stood beyond the cage, well out of reach.
"But not quite tempting enough." Pitch smiled, a condescending, pitying sort of smile.
He left as Jack still struggled to speak, unable to form words for the wretched, hitching sobs that shook him.
He had forgotten.
He had forgotten what the crush of hope could do, that momentous feeling that could not be suppressed or controlled or denied. He had forgotten how it left gouges in him, stole the breath from his lungs. He had forgotten the way it felt when it began to slip away, as though paring off pieces of his heart.
But most of all, he had forgotten the simple joy of another's touch. And now that he remembered, how he wanted.
"Do try not to get too excited," said the Nightmare King, voice swimming up out of the darkness, velvet and rot. "I can't stay long."
Before Jack's mind could begin to process, his body was reacting – was dragging him awkwardly to his knees – was reaching through the bars, seeking the source of the words. Instead of a wrist, however, his fingers closed upon a thick, grey mug, pressed carelessly into his hands. Pitch was smiling again, that same almost-kind smile that held much darker promises beneath. "I thought you might like a little something," the man said, as though it was a thought that had only just occurred to him. "Are you hungry?"
Jack stared blankly at the object clasped between his palms – faintly warm, still, though the heat was being quickly leeched away, drained by contact with his skin. It was filled to the brim with liquid, color indistinguishable in the dim lighting, but he could smell it, a rich, meaty aroma that made his stomach clench in response. The scent was demanding, was hypnotically good, and Jack cradled the cup like an infant, so very carefully, as he maneuvered the mug through the bars to bring it to his lips.
It was some sort of broth, but his mind refused to process more than that. Coherent thought had gotten somewhat lost in the fact that it exploded across his tongue – that it was savory and visceral and good – and that he needed it, all of it, right now.
"Calm down, child," Pith advised, when half of it had gone in two long swallows. "It's not as though I intend to take it back."
The idea had not even occurred to the boy. It had not crossed his mind. But it did now, and with it came the sudden fear that Pitch would do exactly that. The spirit of winter drew away, shoulders hunched and eyes watchful. He curled around the mug like it was something to keep safe, and the Nightmare King laughed softly at the sight.
"No trust at all. You wound me." The man reached between the bars, ignored the flinch as Jack prepared for his gift to be stolen away, and instead set a hand upon the boy's back to rub soothingly. "Go on," he said. "Finish it."
It was almost too much. Too much all at once, the glorious warmth of fingertips on his back and the flood of simple pleasure that came with each sip. He was shaking, and he found that he couldn't stop. It was as though a wedge had been driven through him and was breaking him slowly apart, forcing wide parts he'd struggled to keep closed.
But it did not last; sooner than he had hoped, Jack tipped the mug back and discovered that nothing was left inside. The boy did not hesitate, slipping his fingers in to trace the corners, licking at them to savor the last of what remained.
This, too, the boogeyman watched with a knowing smile, with that expression that might almost pass for sympathetic. He extended a hand to collect the mug. "Was it good?" he asked, fondly.
Jack ignored the outstretched hand - dipped his fingers again, licked at them. "Yeah." He was reluctant to give up the cup. "Really good."
Pitch flexed his fingers. They remained open, waiting. "Would you like some more?"
The boy's head jerked up; he felt his mouth fall open; within him, hope laid waste to his heart like a winter storm. "I – can I?"
"You can." Long fingers closed around the mug's handle, worked it free from Jack's grip with surprising tenderness. The Nightmare King flicked his wrist and let the cup fall, but before it hit the floor, it was swallowed in shadows, vanishing into the gloom. "And maybe you will. That depends on you."
It was a staggering concept, that something might depend upon him. That something might involve him at all. "On me?"
"That's right." Pitch cupped the boy's face in both hands, as though sheltering something fragile. "On whether you meant what you said." Jack shuddered, marveling in the sensation. It was bliss. It was wonder. It was all he'd ever wanted, and he soaked it in, already dreading that it would soon be gone. "After all, 'anything' is such a strong word."
The world was too bright for his eyes, glaring sun on blinding snow, and the wind whipped about him, caught in his hair and stung his cheeks and sent flurries of snowflakes twirling past. Before him, the mountain met the sky, white on pale blue, and the sight was beautiful. He could not stop staring – could not stop the way his eyes welled up, tears freezing at the corners. In Jack's hands, the staff was an unaccustomed weight, familiar and strange both at once.
"Now, remember," said the boogeyman's voice beside him. "There might be another little excursion in the future." A touch ghosted against his shoulder, fleeting and faint, enough to remind the boy of what he stood to lose. "But only if you do a very good job."
Above the pale outline of the mountain, a tiny black dot appeared; as it grew nearer, it shifted slowly to red.
"And Jack," said the Nightmare King. "If you're thinking about anything stupid… do recall how much assistance they'll be when I take you back." This time, there was nothing kind about the smile that graced Pitch's lips. It was a show of teeth, hard and unforgiving. "And I will take you back."
Jack could just make out the reindeer now, legs kicking. He could see the figures in the sleigh, too far away for expressions to be visible. Too far away for him to search their faces for some hint as to what he had done so terribly wrong.
His throat ached, and his eyes stung, and all around him the day was impossibly bright, impossibly inviting. He had loved them once, a long time ago. He had craved their affection blindly, with the awkward desperation of a child bereft of family.
And it was not their fault, in the end. Not truly. They had done nothing but ignore him for centuries; it had not been fair to expect them to care in the first place, after he'd offered so little assistance with which to buy their loyalty.
It was not their fault, in the end – not when the expectation had only ever been his. His mistake. His unrealistic dream.
Jack wanted to believe that they would understand. He wanted to tell himself that, had they known the darkened chamber with the hanging cages, they would forgive him.
But the boy had misjudged the Guardians once before. And since then, Jack had learned a few lessons about holding out for hope.