A/N: Hey everybody. Long time no see.
As those of you who follow my Tumblr (soleminisanction . tumblr . com) know, I had to take a few months off from writing to recover from a minor surgery. Hence why this chapter took so long. But, even with schoolwork looming (hello thesis) we are on the downward slide here with only a few chapters do go, so please don't worry. I will definitely be finishing this story.
Now, on to the chapter:
Chapter Twenty-Three: Lights
'Getting out' proved easier said than done.
Jack started with the door, yanking and pulling with al his strength, but of course it was locked. He pounded on it and shout Pitch's name until his throat hurt, only for the sounds to echo around his frozen chambers, as trapped as him.
Babytooth clung to his shoulder the whole time, cooing worriedly into his ear. She told him, in the quiet moments, that it wouldn't work. The Pitch Black man was gone and he hadn't been back for days. It was nearly Christmas now. Nearly Christmas Eve.
"So he locked us in." Jack ran a frustrated hand through his hair, then softly amended, "Locked me in." He supposed that Pitch would have done worse to Baby if he'd known she was there.
He'd expected this, after everything that happened, but it still stung. He scooped Babytooth off his shoulder and held her up to the door. "Can you do anything?"
Babytooth pushed against the door with both hands, trying to pass through. Nothing. Fear prickled Jack's nerves like a harp. "You don't have enough magic?"
Babytooth shook her head. She balanced on the tip of Jack's fingers, stretching to reach the place where doorframe met wall. She knocked. Her hand should have easily passed through the crack, but it didn't. The crack did not exist.
Jack traced the seam with his fingers, finding only solid stone. "You can't go through because it's not a door anymore. It's a wall."
Babytooth nodded again.
"Pitch walled me up in here."
Another nod, this one more angry than sad.
Jack tightened the grip on his staff. He dropped Babytooth onto the safety of the bed and, with a shout of frustration, struck the not-door with his crook. It cracked, silver light bursting like a snowball against the stone.
Jack stumbled back and fell onto the bed. His room shook and the Realm gave an aching, metallic groan.
Stunned, Jack sprawled across the snow bank, his body crackling with static power. He'd never done anything like that before.
The static lingered as the Realm settled back into its normal, placid state. Jack watched the last flickers of silver light fade from his fingers, feeling it all trickle back through his body to a bright spot in his chest, right over his heart. The gears of his mind turned, a plan clicking into place.
"Babytooth? How'd you get out the first time? When you found the teeth?"
She showed him the arrow-slit in his wall. Jack had nearly forgotten about these odds gaps in the walls – a number of them appeared throughout the Realm and he'd never figured out what they were for. Whatever their purpose, it would suit him well now.
He sent Babytooth through again, trusting her to be his eyes on the other side. Once she'd made it to the floor, he slotted his staff through the hole crook-first, like a key into a lock. Once the entire hook jutted out the opposite wall, he turned it ninety degrees and pulled back until it lodged tight.
Taking a deep breath, Jack called up his magic. Ice crackled along his staff. It turned the aged wood completely blue before spreading across both sides of the wall. The temperature went down and down until the air in Jack's room clouded with ice fog. Still he forced it lower, his ice digging into the stone wall.
The Realm shuddered, a distant moan echoing up through the corridors. Jack pressed further, bracing his feet against the wall and reaching deep inside himself, past the doubt and fear to that spark of soft, beautiful light.
It responded instantly, like it'd been waiting for his call. Frost flowers blossomed from his staff, glistening with silver light as their tendrils dug into the stone. They spread in bursts, devouring half the wall in an instant, then the other half before spreading beyond its boundaries to the other walls, ceiling, and floor.
A pained howled echoed up from the Realm, shaking every corridor and rattling every wall. Jack's shelf of ice statues collapsed, followed by the loose rubble in the central tower, each crash echoing like thunder as they struck the ground. The cages swung dangerously on their chains, prompting cries of alarm from Babytooth's sisters, who crowded the bars to see what was going on.
All the while, Jack's ice spread. He laughed, his body and voice crackling with cold power. He'd never felt so alive. He gave a final massive jolt and the ice exploded, tearing through the wall to its foundation.
With a great crash like a calving glacier, the wall gave way. Frozen brick spilled into the central tower, taking Jack along for the ride. The Realm echoed with a great, voiceless cry that shattered every window and sent a half-sunk bridge to the bottom of an underground lake. Then it still, giving a final, weak groan.
Jack rolled from the frozen rubble and lay flat on his back, panting on the equally-frozen floor. His legs hurt. His joints hurt. Stars danced before his eyes, even as the ice lost his magic and the flickering silver faded away.
He felt amazing.
He then passed out for all of ten seconds, brought back from oblivion by Babytooth's worried voice. Jack blinked the darkness from his eyes, but as he lifted one hand to shield them he felt that something had changed.
Unnoticed in all the chaos, the spider-web cracks hidden in his iron bonds had ruptured. Deep fissures splintered through the shackles, exposing a few thin strips of pale skin that hadn't seen light in a century.
Jack stared them, turning his arms in the weak light to see the damage from every angle, lost in a confusing mix of disappointment and relief. Babytooth chirped again, worried for his safety. He forgot about the bonds and reached instead to stroke her head with his finger.
"It's okay, Baby, don't worry. I'm okay."
Once he got his breath back, he rolled onto his feet and scooped Babytooth back to her perch on his shoulder. The sandbag around his neck reminded him that none of this would have been possible without his little friend. He owed her one, so he snatched up his staff and leapt up the walls to the nearest cage, breaking the locks with his staff and opening the door wide.
"C'mon," he called to the fairies, leaping from cage to cage and opening each one. They didn't move. Jack dangled from the last cage, bewildered until it hit him. "None of you can fly?"
The fairies nearest to him sadly shook their heads. Babytooth echoed their coos of distress, hopping down to join her sisters.
Panic gripped Jack's heart. His eyes darted to the globe, twisted and dark on the floor below. He dropped and raced to it, searching for lights. Only five left now. Four. Three…
"Oh no," Jack breathed. Was he already too late?
The last light flickered, right on the edge of the northern US. It sputtered and dimmed, but did not go out.
Jack leapt onto the globe, hope flickering in time with the light. No…lights. When he looked close, he found two lights, almost on top of each other. One was tiny and new, barely old enough to know the difference belief could make. The other was older, bright, and he knew it.
A desperate smile spread over Jack's face. Jamie and Sophie Bennett of Burgess. They were still okay. They still believed. They still had a chance!
He bolted, summoning the wind with a whistle to carry him up and away. The Realm shuddered but – apparently still aching from its frozen wound – did not try to stop him. Its defenses broken, Jack burst from under the bed in the mountains and flew up, up into the cold night sky.
There were clouds, but for the first time in his three hundred years they didn't cover the entire sky. The wind carried Jack up and up until he'd passed through them and emerged in a beam of soft, glimmering silver. Moonlight.
Jack shivered, though the cool touch was not unpleasant. It felt almost but not quite like the same light that came from him when he was underground.
The wind carried him in a high arch before dipping again, coming close to the earth and setting him down in a tall tree. Jack crouched on its highest piney branch and peered up at the glowing white orb, which peaked through the clouds to watch him.
"Hey," he called up. "You…Tsar Lunar. You can hear me?"
The moon didn't respond. Of course it didn't. Hadn't North told him that even the Guardians lost the ability to communicate directly with the Man in the Moon? Still, with the way its light shimmered, Jack got the feeling that his words could be heard even if they couldn't be answered.
"I remember now." He shifted to the branch's tip, hovering as close to the moon as he dared. "You made me. You brought me back. You were there, that night on the lake, before Pitch…"
Jack swallowed the words. His hands shook. He gripped his staff more tightly to hide it and shook his head to get him out of that space.
"Why? Why me? What did I ever do?"
No answer. The moon shimmered, silent in its light.
Jack straightened and began to pace, the branch bending ever so slightly under his none-existent weight. A cloud passed over the moon, giving him a moment to think. When it reappeared, he whirled to face it. "What do you expect me to do now, huh? Become a Guardian?"
The moon flickered. Was it his imagination, or did the illusion of its face seem to be winking?
"I can't do that! Maybe I could have back then, but now…" Jack spread his arms, indicating the whole mess that was his continued existence. "Look at me. I'm a menace. I ruin everything."
He sighed, raking fingers through his hair. He lowered his arms and sank down onto the branch, putting his head in his hands.
He was about to give up entirely when a moonbeam flickered in the corner of his eye. He didn't notice at first, but it lingered even after another cloud covered the Tsar's bright face. It darted once around Jack's head, making sure that it had his attention before shooting off into the night.
Jack gave chase, following it past the lake that had been his re-birthplace and out into the city of Burgess. It darted between buildings and flickered in street lamps before finally settling in a certain second-story window. It glimmered until Jack found it, then faded away.
Jack knew this window. He settled on the sill and peered inside, careful not to touch the glass. By the glow of a robot night light, he saw Sophie curled up in Jamie's bed. She looked like a kitten, wrapped up in blankets to make a tiny ball, fast asleep. The pillow under her eyes was slightly wet.
At the other end of the bed sat her brother, cross-legged, staring intently at the piece of paper clutched in his hands. Jamie wore Christmas pajamas, but the color seemed to have leached out of them, the way it had leached out of everything else. Glimpsing the calendar, Jack realized with a jolt that tomorrow would be Christmas Eve.
Or at least it would have been, if there were still a Christmas.
Biting his lip, Jack nudged the window. It opened, allowing him to slip silently into the room. Jamie didn't notice. He continued to stare at the paper. His lips moved in silent words, over and over like a mantra or a prayer: "Come back, come back, come back…"
Jack craned his neck to see what Jamie had. The paper bore a picture, drawn in crayon with a style that matched the dozen others covering Jamie's wall. It showed snow and a road and a sled with two children on the back – Jamie and Sophie. On their tail was an indistinct black cloud, dark tendrils reaching out as though it would snatch them both and gobble them whole. Only it couldn't, because between them and it was…
Jack slipped off the sill and crashed to the floor. His hand struck the pane on the way down, sending blue frost crackling across the glass. It covered the whole window, saved for a smudged handprint in the very center.
Jamie jumped at the noise, his head snapping to the window. The picture slid from his grasp and onto the floor. Crumpled against the wall, Jack froze, remembering the little girl from his village so long ago.
Jamie's eyes widened. He crawled to the very end of his bed and softly called, "Hello?"
Jack cringed, expecting a scream. It never came. Jamie gripped the bedpost and leaned towards the window, his face alight with something that, strangely, reminded Jack of Bunnymund. Was that…hope?
"I know you're there. You're the one that Sophie saw. The one who saved us."
Jack's eyes darted to the picture again, which had come to rest beside his foot. Hovering between the children and their pursuer was a vaguely-human shape of white, gray, and blue.
"Listen," said Jamie, now nearly off the bed as he addressed the handprint in the frost. "I've been looking everywhere for you. We both have. We need your help."
His voice cracked a bit on the last word. He worried his bottom lip, desperate but not quite on the verge of tears. Though he couldn't taste fear, Jack felt it pouring off the child in waves.
"Sophie thinks you're our guardian angel. If that's true, then you can fix what's been happening." Jaime stared down at his feet, struggling for a place to start. "I've been having these dreams…no. Nightmares. I have them every night. I think everyone else is getting them too. My friends, the kids at school. They're all different now. They're mean and sad. The whole world feels like that. It's like it's not even Christmas.
"So…So if you really are a guardian angel, then you have to do something. You have to help my friends. Please."
Jack felt his heart break, even though it hadn't beaten in centuries. He rolled onto the balls of his feet and reached for the drawing, but couldn't bring himself to touch it. He'd just ruin it, the way he ruined everything else.
He lowered his head. "I'm no angel, Jamie."
The wind blew through the open window, bringing the room an extra chill. Jamie gasped at the cold. Jack kept talking, the words spilling out of his control.
"I'm not an angel, I'm not a guardian. I'm nothing. I can't help anybody. All I ever do is screw up and cause trouble. I'm just…"
The words died on his tongue as he looked up, right into a pair of wide brown eyes.
Jamie stared down at Jack, blinking as though he couldn't believe his eyes. Jack looked over his shoulders, but there was nothing there except for floor and wall. Jamie kept staring, brow wrinkled with confusion, until it finally dawned on Jack that there was nothing he could be seeing except…him.
Throat tight, Jack shifted the slightest bit closer, staying crouched out of fear that he'd somehow gotten it wrong. "Jamie. Can you hear me?"
The boy nodded. Jack rose to his full height and brought the staff with him, taking a silent step to the left first, then to the right. Jamie's eyes followed his every move, though they didn't quite focus on his face. Holding his breath, Jack closed the space between, afraid that a stray gust would break the delicate spell. He leaned close until their noses almost brushed.
"Can you…Can you see me?"
Jamie screwed up his face and squinted. "Sort've," he said finally. "You're all fuzzy. And your voice sounds really far away."
He lifted his hands, hesitating a second before reaching out. His fingers went through Jack's cheek, but not all the way. Jack shivered. It felt different than all the times he'd been walked through on the streets. Better, but still not entirely present.
The boy frowned in concentration, tracing the shape of Jack's jaw down to his chin and up to his temples. "If you're not an angel, then what are you?"
"My name's Jack. Jack Frost."
"Jack Frost – oh!" Jamie snapped his hands back, eyes so wide they might've popped out of his head. "Oh, oh you're clearer now. Jack, I can see you!"
"You can see me," Jack echoed. His voice trembled. He tapped Jamie's nose with one finger, and this time skin met skin. Cold nipped the child's nose, drawing a giggle. A wide grin split across Jack's face. "You can see me. You can see me!"
He crowed, somersaulting backwards onto Jamie's nightstand. His excitement burst like a firework, summoning fat, soft snowflakes that would've been perfect for snowballs if they didn't melt when they hit the bedroom floor.
Jamie gaped in wonder, matching Jack's excitement as snow covered his bedroom floor. "You just made it snow."
"In my room."
"I know!" Jack jumped with excitement, rattling the robot nightlight and dumping Jamie's lamp onto the floor.
Jamie bounded to his feet, standing on the mattress and practically bouncing. "You really are the one from the woods, aren't you? You saved us!"
"I did. I am. And." Jack held up one finger, absolutely beaming. "I'm the one who brought you all the snow that day."
"Oh yeah! And you remember that snowball fight, the one that hit Cupcake?"
"That was you?"
"That was me!"
Jamie threw up his hands, slipped, and fell back onto his bed, scattering the half-melted snow. Sophie woke with a cry, shoving Jamie's foot off her stomach. She sniffled and sat up, blinking around at the mess that now dominated her brother's room.
Jack winced back, but Jamie kept going, eager to share the excitement with his sister. "Sophie! Look who it is – it's Jack Frost!"
Sophie finally spotted Jack and gasped in delight. She reached for him with two grabby little hands. "An-gee!"
"Nooo, Soph," Jamie rolled his eyes. "Not 'An-gee.' Jack Frost."
Sophie ignored him, scrambling over their pile of quilts, pillows, and snow to reach Jack. He caught her before she could fall off the bed and marveled at the way her little hands clung to his fingers. "She can call me whatever she wants."
Now that he remembered dreaming, he could say that this whole night felt like a dream, like the Sandman's last beautiful gift. His head and heart both floated, light with overwhelming joy. They knew him. They saw him. He already loved them, so much.
Sophie tried to climb onto the nightstand with him, only to slip and nearly fall. Jamie hoisted her back by her waistband and held her in his lap. As she squirmed, he craned around her messy hair and grinned at Jack. "You make snow all the time, right Jack? Does that mean you work with Santa Claus?"
And just like that, reality came crashing back down.
Jack clutched his staff, his chest aching at the thought of North, lying dead in the snow, and of the remaining Guardians, who must be wasting away even now with only two believers left. The room's temperature dropped until Sophie began to shiver. Jamie's smile wavered. "…Jack?"
Jack lowered his head. "I'm sorry."
"For everything. This whole mess with your friends and the nightmares and Christmas. It's all my fault."
Jack slipped off the nightstand and onto the floor, wet hardwood freezing under his bare feet. Sophie didn't understand any of this, but Jamie's eyes asked for answers that Jack didn't know if he could give. How could he explain to Santa's last believer that he'd murdered the man in cold blood?
"I didn't mean to. I swear. Everything got out of control and it just…happened." Jack sighed, shoulders slumped and arms wrapped loosely around his waist. "Like I told you. I'm not a Guardian. I can't be. I ruin everything."
He crossed the room, determined to put some distance between himself and these kids who deserved so much better. With his gaze aimed at the floor, he didn't see Jamie crane his neck, nor the understanding that passed over the child when he spotted the fading bruises on Jack's neck.
Jamie got up, leaving Sophie on the bed. He motioned to her to keep quiet before making his way to Jack. One warm hand came to rest on a cold, frost-coated elbow.
"I used to think I ruined everything too. That's what Tony always said."
Jack blinked. He'd watched the Bennetts for years, but he didn't remember a 'Tony.' "Who?"
"He used to be 'Dad.'" Jamie scowled, like the word tasted sour. "He used to hurt my mom real bad. He hurt me once, too. That's why we moved back to Burgess without him." He kept his voice soft, glancing over his shoulder at the little blonde girl who continued to stare at them both. "Sophie doesn't remember. She's never going to have to."
Jack stared at him, his mouth opening and closing in search of lost words. "Your dad hurt you?"
"Yeah. Like that." Jaime pointed to Jack's neck. Automatically, Jack's hand moved to cover the fading bruise. "He said it was my fault. Because I was bad."
"You, bad? Never." Jack clenched his free hand into a fist, possessed by the sudden urge to hunt this 'Tony' person down and make sure he never hurt Jamie or any other child ever again. It'd been the same in his memory, with his little cousins. Their father hurt them too, and Jack would have sooner died than let him get another chance.
"What he did, Jamie…there's no way that's your fault."
Jamie smiled. It looked exactly like Jack's sister. "It isn't yours either."
Something clicked in Jack's head. In an instant, he knew the words were true.
But of course, life wouldn't give him enough time to process this revelation. He'd barely taken another breath before the streetlamp outside the window popped, the glass shards of its light bulb raining to the street. Sophie shrieked.
"What is that?" Jamie asked, retreating towards the bed as the wind howled a warning.
Jack's skin prickled. It had to be Pitch. He was coming for the last lights.
Jack darted to the window, slamming it closed and pulling the blinds. If he'd still had a pulse, it would have been racing. "Trouble. Where's your mom?"
"A-Asleep, I think."
And she's going to stay that way. Jack swallowed as the nightlight flickered, its glow fading in and out in time with the light in the hall. Pitch would never risk the parents interrupting him, not now. They were on their own.
"Sophie, come here." He held his arms out to the little girl, who immediately leapt off the bed and allowed him to scoop her into his arms. Jack handed his staff to her brother for a moment so he could get her settled. "Jamie, get your coat. You need to follow me and stay close, okay?"
"Okay, but…Jack, what's going on?"
Jack eyed the nightlight, straining his ears for the sounds of footsteps or hoof beats. He wrapped Sophie up in the quilt from the bed and knelt to meet Jamie's eye as he took back his staff. "I don't know if I can fix any of this. It might be too late. But whatever happens next, I'll promise you one thing: I'm going to keep you and your sister safe. Okay? I need you to trust me."
Without hesitation, Jamie nodded. "I believe in you."
The nightlight went out.