A.N: And lo, the final chapter. I thank you for your kind words and support throughout this process. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
". . . reports are coming in that the freak storm is abating, I repeat, is abating. As you can see, the massive fronts are dissipating and returning to their normal patterns. I think kids everywhere—and adults, too—are seeing the first day of June as a very welcome sign. I don't know about you, Tim, but I'm certainly relieved."
Jamie listened with half an ear to the weatherman as he and Sophie plastered their faces to the windows. It was one thing to hear it on the news, but seeing the robin's egg blue of the sky was another. He pinched himself twice before believing. Without wasting another moment he threw on whatever he could find—coonskin cap, bubble vest, boots—and rushed out the door. His friends were doing the same as he was, and in no time at all they gathered in Cupcake's yard, each dressed in slapdash fashion. A keen-eyed passerby would've noticed six kids huddled in a rough circle, had there been one. Adults were too busy staring out the windows or celebrating to notice the kids.
None of the friends spoke: the moment was still too fresh, the recent second-winter still too raw. Each had lost weight, sporting a gauntness to their cheeks where none had been before. But all that was in the past, for as each looked up into the shining sun, they knew warm days were ahead. In the privacy of his own mind, Jamie thought about Jack. He replayed the last conversation they had, remembering how shaken and lost Jack seemed. All of that was gone. Whatever the Guardian did, it worked. Winter was over.
But as hard as Jamie looked, Jack was nowhere to be found.
He was so cold his skin was on fire. He tried to move, to find relief, but someone had switched his limbs with blocks of cement. Moving hurt. Breathing hurt. Even thinking—if that molasses crawl of thoughts constituted as thinking—hurt. After awhile he gave up on all three, but the steady rise and fall of his chest continued long after he surrendered to the burning cold. After a time he became aware of shapes, which surprised him. He'd been sure he'd gone blind, as if he had peered straight into an incandescent light. Something hot dripped down his chin, but he was too numb to brush it off; even if he wanted to, he doubted his fingers could cooperate. He suffered quietly, unable to do anything else, listening to the slow drag of his lungs.
He was fading away when he noticed a column of blackness somewhere in front of him. It was semi-transparent, like watered down ink. When he became aware of it he tried to get its attention, but moving his mouth was like chewing frozen caramel. His arms were dead. His soul had all the eagerness of a slaughtered horse because somewhere, deep in his chest, lay a terrible, aching pain. It prickled like a burr no matter how much he tried to call for aid, traveling from his throat to his hips to his ankles and back again, prickling at his insides with a thousand tiny claws. It made no difference if he remained still or tried to escape it. Help, he thought, mouth disconnected to his brain, but by then he was already exhausted. Not that it mattered. The watered ink didn't move for so long he forgot about it, forgot to breathe, forgot even his name.
He drifted off, tired beyond all belief.
There was no transition between unconsciousness and wakefulness. He became aware of himself in increments, the first and most obvious thing to do was stretch. He extended and flexed his feet, his anklebones giving tiny clicks. His legs became tangled in the sheets as they rustled all around wait one minute.
He was in a bed.
Sitting up was struggling with deadweight. By the time he'd slumped his back against the headboard, sweat beaded his—
Jack Frost recoiled, slamming his head against the headboard. He weathered the flare of pain with a hiss, toes curling as he waited it out. When it died down, he touched his hairline with trembling fingertips. They came back wet. He stared at them, mouth gaping. He carded a hand through his hair and pulled a strand out with a tiny pinch. It was as brown as autumn acorns, shimmering with the natural incandescence of a rainbow.
Jack's throat worked convulsively.
He didn't know how long he stayed in the bed, his thoughts slow and ponderous like the passage of clouds on a summers day, without direction or focus. It was no mystery where he was. The room screamed the Pole: every inch not a window was covered with tapestries, do-hickies, and gadgets collected over lifetimes. Daylight streamed in from giant stainglass windows in hazy rainbow beams. The bed itself was rich without being pretentious, roomy and plush. It was like sitting on a bed of fluff, and Jack fell asleep again without being aware of it.
When he re-awoke, the room was ablaze with colour, the glass panes picking up the sunset. This time there was an uncomfortable pressure in his lower abdomen. His body remembered what to do what his mind clearly forgot as he got up, found what was clearly a washroom and, for the first time in over three hundred years, relieved himself. He did so as if in a dream, both faintly repulsed and fascinated. When he was finished he washed his hands in warm water, marveling at the joy the warmth gave him. As he did a strangle prickling chill crawled up his arms, as if hundreds of ants were tickling his skin. He pushed back his hoodie's sleeve and saw each hair standing as if electrified.
He was still staring at the goosebumps when a hesitant knock broke through his daze.
"Jack? You in there?" It was Tooth's voice, heavenly sweet to his ears. He couldn't believe how much he missed hearing it.
"Uh, yeah. I'm coming out."
Their faces didn't exactly drop, but there was no joy in them, either. Tooth touched her mouth. Sandy drifted to the ground, as if he forgot how to hover. North's eyes were wide, but they were glistening from an emotion besides disbelief. Bunnymund's ears were pinned low as he pushed his way to the front and stood in the front of Jack. Jack allowed the massive paws to give him a once-over, as if searching for hidden wounds.
"How ya feelin?" Bunnymund asked, sounding as if he'd been chewing gravel. It matched his grim, unappeasable expression.
"Not exactly myself," Jack said lightly, still feeling like he was in one of his dreams. It felt weird to clear his throat. "Do you mind if I sit down? Kinda tired here."
"Oh, sure, sure."
The pillows welcomed him as he leaned into their comforting embrace, still warm from his body heat. The Guardians stood around his bed without crowding, quiet. None of them knew quite how to start; only North seemed to take Jack's transformation in stride, but he made no move to speak. Jack took over. It was clear now what he had to do, and in slow, faltering tones he told them everything, starting with going to Pitch's lair, his conversation with his magic, seeing Jamie in the snowstorm, his flight to British Columbia, the fight with Pitch then with winter, everything. By the time he was done a heavy exhaustion pressed on his chest, but it was a clean one, a kind of sweet ache. His mouth was parched and gummy from talking, and it felt good to shut up. He accepted the goblet of water from Sandy with a small murmur of thanks. The following silence rang in Jack's ears, but he ignored it. The water was a cool balm on his tongue, silky smooth; he could almost feel it descend his esophagus, and shivered a little at that.
"So, Man in Moon made you human," North finally said, a strange crinkle in his eyes.
"Maybe," Jack allowed, shifting under the covers. "Didn't know how much of him was left; he was pretty far gone by the time winter crowed his victory song. Is the crystal. . .?"
"All normal," North said, chest puffing. "Bluer than my own eyes, ha!"
"We'll figure something out," Tooth said, voice huskier than normal. Though his tale had removed some of the horror from her face, most of it still remained in the hollows beneath her eyes. "We'll fix this."
It took Jack all of two seconds to say, "I don't want this fixed."
The silence was more thunderous this time. It also didn't last twice as long.
"What? Ya'off your rocker?" It was Bunnymund, ears flattening. Hundreds of question marks cropped up above Sandy's head.
Tooth hovered closer. "What do you mean?"
"Exactly as it sounds."
"No," Jack said, shaking his head. The movement cost him more energy than he'd thought; he slumped against the pillows again, drained. "I mean, I'm done. Done with everything. Winter. The Moon. This."
"Jack. You can't really mean that," Tooth said, drawing back.
Jack was already wincing before the hurt, astonished look stole upon on Tooth's face. "No, no, no, wait, I didn't mean, I—argh. Don't you see? I have a second chance," he said. "A second chance." At life. At a future. At living and growing old and dying with Jamie, at seeing what I can do with my life. Something close to a smile flitted across Jack's features, gone before it could really form. He didn't think he could handle Jamie fading from existence. Between a short, mortal life with Jamie—or any of his human friends, for that matter—or a long, existential one without him, there was no question which he'd choose. He sacrificed enough. Now it was his turn to be selfish.
"But, but you wouldn't be a Guardian anymore, mate. You'd just be . . . well, human."
Before Jack could dwell on Bunnymund's words, North's chuckle broke through. "Jack will always be Guardian. In here," he said, patting at the space where his heart lay. And looking into North's quiet, beaming face, Jack knew words weren't needed. Warmth, hazy and indistinct, flooded his chest. North, forever the leader of the Guardians, saw what the others failed to see, just as he'd done when he cornered Jack in his office all those years ago: There is something special inside you, Jack. Jack never felt more grateful as he did now.
As if on cue, Bunnymund rounded on North. "How you can possibly be okay with this. I mean, look at'm!"
"I am," North said calmly. He tapped an eyelid. "Guardian of Wonder, remember? All you see is his shape, Bunny, not his heart. That, my friends, is unchanged; and for that, we have much to thank." North directed a piercing gaze at Jack. Jack returned it easily. If what his magic said was true, then he hadn't supposed to be a Guardian, not really. But he was now, and would always be. Bunnymund backed down, subdued, still looking like he swallowed the wrong end of a lemon. The winter spirit-turned-teenager sensed they still had things to iron out between them, but if history was any indicator, Jack trusted time to heal their tumultuous friendship.
"It'll be fine, Cottontail," Jack said, to lighten the mood, "I'll be doing what I've always done. Er, without all the snowballs this time. Or flying. Man, I'm gonna miss the flying. Look on the bright side! Now you'll clearly win when we race."
"What? But I've always beaten you!" Bunnymund squawked.
"Psh, sure. In your dreams, maybe."
"But . . ." Tooth said, unwilling to let go just yet, "that'll mean you'll—"
"Die?" Jack snorted. It was a little ridiculous, if he thought about it. Shouldn't there be a rule about this somewhere? "I've died twice already. What's one more time? Speaking of which, thank you. For finding me. It's a little hazy, but I thought I was a goner for sure. Where did you find me, anyway?"
Here North broke his gaze to stroke his beard. The others glanced at each other. Sandy started to volunteer, but nobody could follow the spit-fire pace of his glyphs. Eventually North said in a slightly bemused tone, "We were above Canada when we receive call from Yetis—they found you on doorstep, half frozen to death. Any longer and you could've died."
"Huh." Jack reclined against the pillows. "Imagine that."
Jack woke sometime after midnight and knew he wasn't alone. The dependency on sleep and the following grogginess was still disorienting, but he was slowly getting used to it. It'd been exactly a week since he first woke up at the Pole, and Tooth was at last softening to the idea Jack was human, yes, he was going to remain that way and no, there was nothing he wanted done about that. Bunnymund had taken to parking his furry butt outside Jack's door as some sort of 'protector'—You're an ankle-biter now, snowflake, the big grump had said. You're on my watch now. Jack didn't have the heart to push him away. Actually, he was kind of touched. He would need their help—all of their help—in relearning how to be human. Apparently there were a lot of things he didn't know about: social security numbers, citizenship, addresses, money . . . the list was staggering. It hurt his head, but if he was going to live as a human, he was going to do it right. And with help. Lots, and lots, of help. He was sure Jamie would help too down the road, once he learned what had happened to Jack. Jack suspected they would have a lot of catching up to do.
Beams of moonlight striated the room in silver bands, casting half the room in shadows. A pool of light coalesced on the bed's rumpled sheets, giving the impression of a desert coated in ice. Jack shivered a little at that. In the strange half-awake moments like this one, he could sometimes recall his old dreams. He pushed himself in a sitting position, rubbing an eye.
"Hello? Anyone—oh." Jack blinked. "It's you."
Pitch oozed out of the darkness with a predatory, velvety ease. Something in Jack's chest locked up. How he managed to slip past the Yetis and Bunnymund was beyond—oh, oh. Beds. Jack was a human now, and Pitch traveled beneath their beds. Great. He'd provided the Boogeyman a convenient pass into the Pole. Jack felt his face heat up.
"Come to finish what you started?" Jack asked. Should I call for Bunny? He forced himself to relax. He lifted his chin. "You'll find I'm easy pickings these days."
The Boogeyman came to a stop at the foot of the bed, half in the moonlight, half in the dark. His eyes gleamed with liquid catchlights, shifting every time his pupils tracked Jack's form. He still had yet to say anything, the singular focus unnerving. Jack couldn't help but remember the first time Pitch had came to him alone in Antarctica. That's where I learned how to defeat my magic, he thought.
"Come to admire my good looks all night, Pitch? Or are you going to tell me why you're here."
Pitch's upper lip curled a little. "Even stripped of your powers you're as cocky as ever, Frost."
Jack tried to shrug. The movement came across more of a wriggle. "Eh, my powers weren't working for me. Going for the au naturel look."
The Boogeyman ignored him, looking through Jack as if trying to peer into his soul, or discern an answer. "The Moon truly chose him for a special reason, then," he said, voice dangerously soft, as if speaking to himself. Lines marred his forehead as the Nightmare King scowled. "How did you know? How?"
"How did who know what? What are you talking about?" Jack said. He instantly regretted speaking at all as Pitch's weapons-grade focus snapped to him.
"Why did you do it?" Pitch asked with an interrogator's articulation, neglecting Jack's question. There was something off about the Boogeyman, something too tightly coiled. Though his hands were clasped behind, the dark spirit looked ready to leap across the bed and strangle Jack.
Jack shrugged again, and this time the motion was smooth. He knew the answer to this one. "Between saving the world or letting it freeze, it wasn't much of a tossup."
Instead of looking grateful, as Jack would've thought, Pitch's face grew darker. "You chose to be human instead."
"Actually, I didn't know this would happen. I thought I would die, or something like that."
A little silence followed as the Nightmare King mulled on that. "Trust," he muttered, almost too soft to catch. He shook his head once, snorting. He didn't explain himself, or appear like he would. Before Jack could ask what the hell he was rambling on about, Pitch said with little fanfare, "You will not see me again."
Jack blinked. "What?"
"This is my goodbye to you, Frost. You are a human now, a brief flicker of nothing. Just another speck of dust."
"At least this speck of dust can see your ugly mug," Jack said, more calmly than he felt. "That should count for something."
"Yes," Pitch said, drawing out the s with a sibilant caress, inclining his head in a mocking bow, "that you can. But that doesn't change the fact you will be dead by the time I consider your existence again. Do you understand? You're finite now. You must learn there are consequences to your actions, Jack. This is one of them."
"Now wait just one minute," Jack said, shoving a finger in the other's direction. "You owe me. All of you do. I could've let winter destroy the world; instead, I chose to sacrifice myself. I say that deserves some gratitude. Or at least, some favors."
Pitch peered at him, tall and imperious, leaning far enough forward to make Jack shrink against the headboard.
"Oh, is that so?" he said, soft and mocking and genuinely curious. "Haven't I already done enough for you?"
In that moment, Jack's suspicions were confirmed. "You. You're the one who brought me to the Pole."
"Should've left you in the snow," Pitch drawled, straightening.
"Why didn't you?" Jack said hotly.
Pitch held himself very still. Then, to the teenager's surprise, the other's mouth pulled in a smile. It wasn't cutting or dismissive like his other ones, but there was still an unhappy, razor quality to it. Jack wasn't surprised. A knife, no matter how dull, was still designed to cut. It was gone before it could really form, and Jack wondered if he'd imagined it.
"Call it a curiosity," Pitch said, a final note to his voice. It was the I'm leaving now tone that suddenly filled Jack with dread.
"What, no more late-time visits?" Jack tried to say lightly, a little surprised at the tightness in his throat.
The razor, slightly bitter smile came back and remained for a heartbeat. Jack was sure he saw it that time.
"Goodbye, Frost." The face was retreating, the body turning away.
"Wait!" Jack's heart was very loud in his ears. Pitch teetered on the cusp of disappearing, indulgent, fixing the teenager with one of his blank, heavy-lidded looks. "Wait. You're right—you don't owe me anything. Actually, I owe you." Jack took a steadying breath. "You want to know how I did it? I defeated my magic the same way you defeated me in Antarctica: I broke its staff. Snapped its power straight in half. You can tell that to the next sorry sap when they need to stop the apocalypse." He scratched the back of his head. "So, so yeah. Thanks."
In that moment the Boogeyman could've said and done many cutting things—in fact, Jack was expecting it. The Nightmare King hesitated, almost entirely in the shadows now, nothing but a sliver of him remaining in the moonlight. Jack's eyes had adjusted well enough to see the rest of him, lithe and deadly.
"I won't forget," Pitch said quietly, and before Jack could ask what exactly he would remember, Pitch was gone. The manner of his departure went something like this: it was tiny, no more than a flicker on the edge of Jack's consciousness, like remembering something important he'd forgotten. It couldn't have lasted more than a second, but the second came and went, leaving Jack in an empty room, listening to the weight of his all too human heart.