Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
-W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
The Center, Held
by K. Stonham
first released 19th March 2013
Jamie was twenty-three when it happened. An adult by any measure of the word, he had a car, a full-time job, and bills to pay. However, that didn't mean he had ever let go of that which was most precious to him - his childish belief. Which was why he was there that night, fighting under the darkness of the new moon, when the Guardians finally lost.
Sandman fell first. Pitch had learned from his last attempt, and didn't even bother with turning dreams into nightmares. Why bother, when any pure-hearted child could turn them back? No, instead he unleashed the heat of an inferno upon the Sandman.
Sand, anyone knew, melted into glass.
The night fell dark, golden streams dissipating against harsh cries of denial.
North and Bunny were next. In order to fight, they had to be able to move. But between the trees, black tar like spiderwebs trapped them. First one, then the other, they were overwhelmed by fearlings.
Jamie would never forget the sound of their necks snapping.
"Three down," Pitch gloated. "Two to go."
Tooth and Jack could fly. They flew now, faster than Jamie had ever seen either of them move. He could only track them by the destruction left in their wake. Fearling after fearling shattered against razor wings, or froze and fell, breaking into icy shards.
But Jamie, from below, could see something dark and monstrous rise in the sky, blotting out the stars. He didn't know if it was a dragon, or a giant raptor; he only knew that his cries of warning were buried under its shriek as it stooped.
He could suddenly see Tooth again. Her bright body was pierced through by one enormous dark talon.
The other foot held its own prize: a limp, bloody, white-haired form.
Jamie didn't know if he screamed. He didn't know if he breathed. His blood pounded in his ears as he watched the unfathomable shadow lay the two Guardians down, almost gently, beside the pond.
The sound rushing through his ears almost drowned out the Boogeyman's triumphant laughter.
Silver-gold eyes found him in the darkness. "Well, boy who believed, where are your Guardians now?" asked Pitch Black.
Jamie could only clutch his shadow-stained halberd. "Dead," he whispered.
"That's right. Tell me, will you join them?" Pitch stood close, well within the range of Jamie's weapon. But he'd seen Pitch fight before, knew how fast he was.
Jamie was only mortal. Making any move now would just be throwing his life away. And that was not what Ja- what the Guardians would have wanted him to do.
And something, deep in his hindbrain, sparked. In a voice that sounded very like Bunnymund's, it whispered that the only hope there was, was to live to fight another day.
Bunny had survived the extermination of his people; Jamie would survive the murder of the Guardians.
"No," Jamie said, and let his weapon fall. "I won't die today."
The Boogeyman smiled, and there was a cruel, dark pleasure in it. Jamie hated him. He hated Pitch Black like he'd never hated before, like he'd never known he could hate.
I will die before I fear you, he thought, and swiped tears from his eyes. "Let me bury them."
That caught Pitch aback. But after a moment, the Nightmare King threw his head back and laughed again. "Of course! Let the whole world come to their graves. Let them see the burial mounds of Dreams, of Hope, of Wonder and Memory and Fun!" His eyes glittered in the darkness as he looked one last time at Jamie. "Bury them wherever you wish. Their corpses are of no use to me." And then he was gone, derisive laughter carried on the wind.
Jamie was left by the pond, alone, with his dead.
The pond had a cliff on one side, perfect in summer for dives into the deep water that had changed Jackson Overland into Jack Frost one winter's day, three hundred and some odd years before. Two of the other sides were heavily wooded. The last side gave way into a meadow, held the path that led directly to Jamie's mother's home.
Jamie buried the Guardians in that meadow, in the depths of the darkest night he'd ever known.
He started alone, scratching in the dirt with his hands and his halberd. The soil darkened with his tears as he dug on for what seemed like forever, until he heard a sob that wasn't his.
Jamie looked up.
Sophie stood there, sweet sixteen and clad in pajamas. Behind her was her boyfriend, Daniel. They each held a shovel.
"I had a dream," Sophie said. Her eyes were on the bodies behind Jamie. In the night, the blood looked black.
"A nightmare," someone else said, and it was Cupcake, her feet in sensible hiking boots that matched her pink dress as well as ever.
"I knew it was real," said Claude.
Caleb shook his head. "Even when we hoped it wasn't."
Jamie's girlfriend pushed to the front of the small crowd. "Here." Marian handed him a spade of his own. "We'll bury them together."
Tears blurring his eyes, Jamie nodded, and they all started digging the graves.
Sandy was buried first, half-melted glass form lowered into the earth by careful hands. Bunny was next. Sophie and Pippa had gone back to the house and cut every single flower from its stem. The blossoms cascaded down over his still body.
It took all nine of them to shift North.
Tooth, on the other hand, Monty carried alone.
When it came time to bury Jack, everyone else stood back.
Jamie walked slowly to his best friend's, his brother's, still body. Jack lay where the shadow-bird had left him, on the grassy shore. Though he'd flash-frozen half the forest this night, it was summer and the silver frost that had always adorned his clothing was melting now. He looked unexpectedly small, vulnerable, young.
Jamie wished he could pretend Jack was only sleeping.
But as he lowered himself to his knees, he knew he couldn't. Swallowing back his pain, Jamie closed the blue eyes that would never again sparkle with laughter. And he gasped, as the white hair suddenly turned dark.
"Jack..." he whispered.
Jackson Overland, he realized, had been brown-haired.
He waited a minute, but there was no breath of life, no sudden heartbeat.
Jack was dead.
Jamie bowed his head, fingernails digging crescents into his palms.
Then he looked up at the darkened moon, and made a spell.
Against blood, and tears, and a moonless night, even reality must give way when it is reshaped by IbelieveIbelieveIbelieve.
Jamie Bennett was bleeding from his hands, and from his heart, and watering the universe with pure salt tears when he lifted his best friend's body into his arms. Jack Frost might have been as light as a snowflake, but Jackson Overland wasn't much heavier; a life lived on the colonial edge had left him small and undernourished.
His staff fell from Jack's hands as Jamie stood; Jamie didn't stop to pick it up.
With every step he took toward the open grave, he wove the spell anew. He keyed it into his blood, into his heartbeat, into every thing he was.
In the days and weeks that followed, Monty, a lapidary hobbyist, planed smooth the faces of five river-worn chunks of granite. Into these flat faces, he carved headstones that were, one by one, placed on the graves.
DREAMS, read one. HOPE, read the next. Then, MEMORY, and WONDER, and, finally, FUN.
In the dark days and years that came after the Guardians' deaths, no one ever disturbed the five graves. But children, and a surprising number of adults, made pilgrimages to the meadow, standing silently before the mounds, laying flowers or feathers or tokens on the bare earth.
Nothing grew on them that summer or fall.
When winter, dreary as never before, and bitingly cruel, gave way the next year to spring, however, plants took root. One of the graves was covered with golden flowers and cacti that should never have bloomed from Burgess' rich soil. Another was covered in a riot of wildflowers, including tulips that held on far longer than any others in town. The next held a riot of crimsons and scarlets, and a small pine tree stubbornly rooted itself just beyond the headstone. The next along grew tropical plants as improbable as the cacti. The final grave was mounded with tiny blue and white blossoms that, come November, bloomed into frost flowers.
On Sophie's eighteenth birthday, two weeks after her high school graduation, she married Daniel. It was a small, quiet affair, as most tended to be these days. The world was a darker, scarier place than it had been even a few years before. Joy, these days, was hard to come by. But the bride was sun-soaked and golden, and her and the groom's love for each other was enough to push away the dark things.
A year and two weeks later, she gave birth to a son, as golden-haired as herself. She named him Alexander, and if her eyes were speculative, knowing, when she looked at her brother holding his new nephew, she said nothing.
A few months after that, Marian finally tired of waiting, and asked Jamie to marry her. If his blink was surprised, his answer did not hesitate. They married not much later, and on the night of their wedding, the first frost came to Burgess.
When Alexander was two, he got a younger brother, one with unruly brown hair he'd inherited from his father, but Sophie's clear green eyes. Daniel wanted to call the baby after his grandfather, Ernest. Sophie didn't object. And neither did Daniel when Sophie wanted little Ernest's middle name to be for a flower.
Jamie was twenty-nine when Marian whispered a surprise into his ear, and thirty when their son was born. She didn't even bother with pretense as she rocked the black-haired newborn and commented, "Nicholas is a good name for a boy." Her eyes, like Sophie's, knew things she never said.
By the time, two years later, that they had a daughter, a tiny child, born premature but strong, none of their friends were surprised. Though they named her Mariana, she was called something else from the day she started teething.
But something had gone wrong with Marian's second pregnancy, and she wasn't able to conceive again. When two more years turned into three, then five, Jamie started staying awake full moon nights, staring up at the sky, whispering questions like "Is the spell not strong enough? What am I doing wrong? Please, just tell me."
But like someone else before him, someone he feared he'd never see again, he got no answers from the moon.
Alexander, though quiet, was quite the storyteller. His little brother, his near opposite, was an avid martial artist who tried to hide that he liked painting and gardening, though Daniel thought that would change once Ernest discovered girls.
Neither was allowed out at night.
And neither yet knew about the golden whips, or the boomerangs, hidden in the bottom of their mother's hope chest.
"What am I doing wrong?" his brother-in-law asked Daniel late one night, over a couple bottles of home-brewed beer. "It won't work without Jack."
Daniel took a long pull on his drink, thinking. The commercial stuff was getting hard to come by. Sophie, fortunately, was a fantastic gardener, and had possessed the foresight to guess a lot of what would become rare or expensive as the country's oil-based infrastructure finally gave out. Burgess was a fairly quiet place, but there were reasons their television was seldom turned on. Murders were up, corruption was up, and every day there was a new scandal. The news from overseas was even worse. Their little close-knit group didn't know exactly how Pitch was behind the world's slow journey in a handbasket, but none of them doubted it was his doing.
All they could do, though, was circle the wagons and protect the children. All of them.
After a moment, Daniel finally asked, "Jack was a lot younger than the others, wasn't he?" Ernest hadn't started doing it yet, but sometimes when Alexander looked at him, Daniel saw him struggling, almost remembering things from another lifetime. They were his sons, he loved them both, but he knew they'd been someone else before, and would, if they were all lucky and the moon allowed, eventually remember that other lifetime again.
It wouldn't be easy for the children, but hopefully their family would be enough to see them through it.
He'd been part of the spell Jamie had woven that night. Everyone in the meadow, all their children's aunties and uncles, had been.
"Yeah," Jamie said, contemplatively. "Jack was hundreds of years younger than the rest of them."
"Give it time," Daniel advised. "If it's meant to happen, it'll happen."
Jamie was forty-two before Marian whispered another surprise into his ear.
Absolutely no one was surprised when the brown-haired brown-eyed boy was named Jackson.
When Jamie was sixty, the spell he'd made on a moonless night over half a lifetime ago finally came to fruition when his youngest son picked up an old shepherd's crook.
"Dad?" Jackson asked, blinking even as his eyes blued and his hair turned white. He stumbled, hand pressed to his head. "...Jamie?"
"Jack!" Nearly a dozen people started toward him, hands out in support. But none made it further than a step, except Jamie, who caught his son in his arms.
"Both," Jamie said quietly. Then, "Are you all right, Jack?"
"I... think so." Jack blinked a few times. "Things are settling." He looked up at his father, as though seeing him for the first time. Then he looked beyond Jamie, at people he'd known all his life. It was almost visible how he now looked deeper, saw them for who they'd been to him before. "Aunt Cupcake?" he murmured. Then, "Bunny?"
"Took you long enough," his tall, rangy cousin chided. Ernest smirked. "Been waiting for you, Jackie." Beside him, Sandy, short and golden and smiling, nodded.
Blinking, Jack looked back at Jamie. "What did you do?" he whispered.
Jamie smiled, one hand resting in the cold hair of the boy who had been his brother and his son both. "What I needed to do. Are you mad at me?"
"I could never be mad at you," Jack said.
Tooth laughed, one hand clutching Jamie's old halberd. She no longer had wings, or at least didn't yet, but she moved like silk and lightning, and Jamie had given her the weapon when she turned sixteen. "I seem to remember plenty of temper tantrums about being grounded."
Jack flushed even as Nick snorted. "And who was furious about early curfew, Toothy?" Jamie's eldest asked his sister. Nick also didn't look quite as he had a lifetime ago; his build was broad and imposing, but the thirty-year-old's accent was distinctly American. But he'd trekked north eight years before, through the wintery wasteland, and reclaimed his kingdom. Since then, he had spent more than one evening strategizing plans with Jamie and the moon. "Are you ready, Jack? We will only have one shot at Pitch."
Jack, though, didn't look away from Jamie. "You gave all that up, for us?" he asked. "You won't... you won't have grandkids," he said, with an apologetic look at Marian, and at Sophie and Daniel.
"Some things are more important," Marian told him. "And I don't want any more kids being born into the world according to Pitch."
"If you look at it rightly," Daniel said, "this kind of makes all the kids in the world our grandkids."
Sophie smiled. "Unless you're not going to take care of them and help bring them up right," she teased.
Looking lost, Jack glanced around at the remnants of his birthday party. At the extended family who'd loved him through two lifetimes. He turned back to Jamie. "You're coming with us, right?"
Jamie shook his head. "I'm old, Jack. Ever so much more than twenty. I'm not a fighter anymore." His hands slipped to Jack's shoulders. "You'll have to take care of Pitch on your own this time."
"But what if we lose again?" Jack whispered.
Jamie shook his head again. "You won't. You have the element of surprise. And," he added, looking up at the full moon that hung bright in the sky, "I think someone else's got your back covered this time."
Jack glanced at the moon.
Jamie didn't think Jack even noticed when he started hovering, his feet rising a few inches off the ground.
"Go, Jack," he said softly. In a way, he'd been waiting thirty-seven years for this minute. "Kick Pitch's ass the way he deserves. And come back and tell us about it."
Jack looked back at him, a sharp head jerk. Then Jamie suddenly found himself wrapped in a tight grasp. He froze for just a second, a nebulous thought about role reversal bubbling up in his head. Then he hugged back, with all his heart.
"Thank you," Jack whispered.
"Group hug!" Nick said, and they became the center of a many-bodied, many-armed tangle of friends and family.
Neither Jamie nor Jack tried to wipe their shining eyes when the knot of people loosened up after a few minutes. "I've got to go," Jack said, with another glance up at the moon.
"Come back and tell us about it," Jamie repeated himself.
"Sandy, if you will?" Nick asked his cousin.
Alexander nodded, and from between his hands a golden glowing whirlwind grew. Out of it galloped a tundra reindeer, a great golden bird, a giant hare - ("Ha. Ha. Very bloody funny," said Ernest Aster.) - and a manta ray for Sandy himself. Jack simply called the wind, and it picked him up like a long-missed friend.
Away the five rode into the sky, following the glimmering moonbeams.
"They'll be all right, won't they?" Marian asked, stepping up to Jamie's side.
He wrapped his arm around her. "They will." He had no doubt.
"Was that in your spell too?" asked Monty.
Jamie shook his head. "No. I just feel it. In my belly," he said mischievously. Laughter broke out among the group of old friends. They had all, to a one, heard North swear by his gut feelings, back in the old days.
"Pitch," said Cupcake, "isn't going to know what hit him."
"But what do we do now?" Sophie asked. She looked at Jamie, then at Daniel. "I feel too young to be an empty-nester."
Jamie smiled, and turned to his friends and family. "Now," he said, with one last glance at their disappearing children, "we go make another adventure."
Author's Note: I'm not entirely sure where this story came from. But the title refers to William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," which is pretty much my mental score of where a world with an ascendant, unopposed Pitch would be going. Except for one thing: Jamie dug in his heels, and is like an anchor. He will not let go, he will not let this thing happen. He is the center, holding, an axis which pivots fate.
In any case, the next chapter of Sanctuary is resisting; I need the what it is about-ness to settle so I can finish it. Meanwhile, I remembered this, which I mostly wrote during one lunch break a few weeks ago. I dug it up, dusted it off, and finished the last scene. If it amuses anyone, the file on my PC is titled sobbyfic. Which gives you an idea of what I was doing while writing the first half. :)