Trigger Warnings: This fic is undoubtedly the darkest in the series and this is one of the the chapters that makes it that way. It will contain quite a few dark themes, involving physical/psychological abuse, gaslighting, Stockholm's syndrome, isolation/loneliness, mental illness, and psychological mind-borkery. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, so if you find those things to be triggering, you may not want to read this chapter. The portrayal of all this will be very realistic and accurate as one of the co-authors grew up in a home with domestic violence and child abuse, so it'll be pretty intense. If you'd like a summary of what happens so you can continue reading without having to read this chapter, just skip to the bottom and leave a review asking for itand we can give a less intense barebones summary.
Also, there are spiders.
The Boy Who Found Fear At Last
by Kira, Kate, and Kaylin
"Off the furniture."
Pitch's tone was enough to send Jack scuttling away from the chair.
"I wasn't sitting. I was just -"
"Leaning?" Pitch guessed, with a dangerous hint of acid.
"Sorry." Jack hung his head, bowed so low it was almost touching the ground in front of him. "I'm sorry."
Pitch let out a long sigh. "Jack, we've talked about this. I would love for you to be comfortable - you know all I want is your happiness - but you've been so badly behaved lately. Self-discipline is very important. If being uncomfortable is what it takes to teach you control - then it's your choice, whether you want to be comfortable, or badly behaved."
Pitch's realm in the maze had been sectioned off and warped by his power into a shadowy paradise. He had a massive throne room, with a globe just like his usual lair, and a big, black chair that was almost like a throne.
That was where he sat down now.
That was where Jack wasn't allowed to sit. He had his own chair but right now he wasn't allowed to sit there either, just like he wasn't allowed to lie or sleep in his massive, gloomy bed, because he had been Bad. Capital B. When he was Bad, he wasn't allowed to have nice things because he was making it so Pitch couldn't have nice things - like him behaving.
What he'd done that was Bad was ask questions. Pitch didn't like certain questions. They made him annoyed and sometimes even very angry.
The tricky bit was figuring out which ones would set him off before Jack asked them and he hadn't mastered that yet.
There was the option of not asking any questions at all but being shut in for so long had made him desperate for even the smallest whiff of news that he'd be let out - or that Pitch would at least take him to somewhere in the maze that he could see the sky again. The last time he'd been very good, he'd gotten a whole ten minutes of sunlight beaming down through a small crack. Jack still wasn't sure if it'd been real sunlight, but it was close enough.
He had to be Good. If he was Good, he got to see the sky.
As Jack sat on the floor, head hanging, Pitch's expression softened, changing from irritation to that of a loving and indulgent parent.
"Come here, Jack."
Jack scrambled over next to Pitch's chair, sitting down on the cold stone next to him. The light touch of Pitch's thin fingers in his hair grounded him - the rhythm of the contact reassuring him that he was not alone, not in the maze, hadn't been thrown back in there. He clung to the hope that if he managed to behave well enough, Pitch never would throw him back in.
"What are you thinking about, Jack?"
Jack ran through viable answers - if he spoke the truth, then he'd have to talk about the maze. If he mentioned Jamie, dead in the maze, he'd have to talk about Jamie and the maze.
He settled for "Just - I like -" he bit his words off. "Being here. When you - when we can just...sit. Like this."
Pitch's sharp-toothed smile oozed. "I find that hard to believe, sometimes, when you are so contrary."
"I do," Jack insisted.
"Tell me why you don't want to leave."
Jack paused again, hissing slightly when Pitch's fingers tightened around his hair, tugging. "Jack, I asked you a question."
"Because I don't want to go back to the maze," Jack blurted, his voice soft, but fast. The tension on his hair lessened.
"Because -" he sucked in a breath, trembling. "Because no one out there's looking for me."
"That's right. The Guardians didn't think you were worth the effort. They gave up so easily. But I would never give up on trying to have you at my side. They didn't think you were worth their lives. But I think you're worth all the lives in the world."
Tears welled in Jack's eyes. He blinked them away and leaned into Pitch's touch, huddled in on himself.
"Tell me why you don't want to go back to the maze," Pitch broke in.
Jack hesitated. He never knew what the right answer was. "Because then I wouldn't be here?" he suggested.
Pitch chuckled darkly. "My boy, I know that. Tell me why you didn't enjoy being in the maze in the first place. Tell me why, so I know why I should try to keep you out of it. What scared you most?"
There was a hunger in his smile, his voice, his eyes, though his fingers still swept calmly through Jack's hair.
Jack desperately cast about for something to say, something that Pitch would be happy with, but also didn't want to dig too deep. It hurt.
"The hands. There were...hands. Stitched together. With eyes. They tried to strangle me. One morning I just woke up and...and I couldn't breathe."
Pitch's grip tightened in Jack's hair, and it let Jack know it wasn't enough. "What else?"
"The ground wasn't always...ground," Jack said slowly, and trailed off into silence.
"You have to tell me them all. The maze might get you again, without my help, if these little fears still hold sway over you. There are much worse ones you should be worrying about."
It was almost like he was admiring another master's work. He was very, very old, if the visions Jack had seen of him fighting Sandy in a very quiet world were any indication. It was almost as if he was using Jack to see the world with new eyes, but rather than seeing the joy in it, what he wanted to marvel over were the terrors still in it.
He was living vicariously through Jack in a way that felt to Jack like dying.
"You haven't even gotten to the worst of it. What was the worst of it, Jack?"
"Jamie," Jack finally said, his voice momentarily breathless because of the sob that didn't come.. "When he was in there. When I thought I'd have to protect him - find some way to feed him, keep him safe, and I didn't know how -"
"Ah yes, the child - ah, but that fear was so short-lived," Pitch said, almost as if he was lamenting how quick Jamie's death had come. "And it wasn't even the maze that brought it on." He was almost gleeful. "How beautifully ironic, isn't it, Jack? That the Guardians who claim to protect children lead one to a death more horrifying than any I would have wasted on a nobody of a boy -" His mirth built into a chuckle. "Remember, I did tell you once, I'd let you still have your fun with the children if you took to my side. Things certainly would have turned out better for little Jamie if you'd listened to me then, wouldn't they?"
He laughed, a light, small laugh, as if Jack had made a mildly amusing flub.
"Yes," Jack said in a tremulous voice, starting to shake. "That's - that was my fault."
"But it will be better in the future. You can occasionally let them have their fun, Jack. They'll need the occasional reprieve from the fear we bring them."
"Fear - the fear we bring them," Jack said slowly, wide eyes staring at the floor.
"You and I, we're going to remake this world into one where we get the respect we deserve. Where we get the belief we deserve. Cold and dark, cast over the world forever - and you'll always get to be there by my side. Won't that be nice? We-"
Pitch stopped himself, self-correcting.
"You'll never be alone again."
"Cold and dark," said Jack, still slowly, still staring at the floor. "That's - that's what the kids will have to live with. Cold and dark."
"And you can be the one that gives them occasional relief, Jack. You'll be the only one. They'll adore you for it."
"I can be the one -" Jack said breathlessly. "That's all they'll get. Just me." He briefly looked up at Pitch, expression questioning. "Just me?"
Pitch smiled at his expression, at the wonder he was finally happy to see there.
"Just you, Jack."
Jack's face twitched just slightly and then his eyes were a little clearer. "I'll get to see the kids again?"
"When you're ready," Pitch confirmed, with a noncommittal shrug.
"I'm ready now," Jack said.
Pitch cut him off. "When I say you're ready."
"I'll be good," Jack said. He added slowly, staring up at Pitch with with a fixed gaze, "I'll be ready."
"Of course you will," said Pitch with a shark-like smile, "and the Guardians will never see it coming."
Jack was sometimes left alone in Pitch's lair. He hated those times, hated not knowing if he was coming back or if he'd be trapped alone there forever. He never really knew where he went. Maybe he was out antagonizing the Guardians, maybe he was spreading his nightmares in the empty spaces where Jack's fun used to be.
Sometimes, though, Pitch disappeared and Jack found him somewhere else in the lair. One day Jack woke up from a catnap - jarred awake by nightmares, naturally - to find Pitch gone. For a good while, he stayed in his little throne room, waiting for him to come back, and then curiosity overtook him. It was during the times he was alone that he was able to prod and pry to find the boundaries of the place. There were small interesting things that he almost wanted to touch, trinkets and such, but he'd long since learned his lesson from the maze. So he looked and didn't touch.
It was as he cautiously crept through the halls that he heard the whispering.
It was the voice again, the one from the maze. The one that he was fairly sure wasn't the fearlings. The one that told him it would all end but said it in a way that he wasn't sure was supposed to be ominous.
this must end. there is no justification.
"I don't care about justification. The is my realm. He will be my Prince of Nightmares."
It wasn't talking to him this time, apparently. Jack peered around the corner and saw the open door to Pitch's room. He was so flustered he hadn't thought to close it and right now he was taking something out of the nebulous dark space inside his robes and shoving it in a little box. Jack caught a flash of gold.
"There. I'd like to see you try talking to me now."
Silence. All that was left was silence and Pitch grinned a smug grin, tucked the little box away in a cabinet next to his bed, and sauntered out of the room. Jack pressed himself against the wall, hoping desperately that Pitch wouldn't come his way while leaving and realize he was prying but fortunately he chose to go down the other hall.
He should walk away. He knew he should just walk away. This wasn't his business and sticking his nose in it would only lead to trouble and yet more pain.
Yet Jack still found himself drawn in the direction of Pitch's room.
The door wasn't locked but then Pitch had seemed somewhat flustered as he'd left so maybe he just forgot to. Jack looked around in every direction to make sure Pitch was nowhere nearby, then open the door quietly and carefully, tiptoeing into the room.
He was going to get in trouble. He was going to get in so much trouble if he was caught, maybe even enough to get thrown in the maze again.
But he had to know if that flash of gold was what he thought it was.
The room was about as strange as could be expected for one belonging to someone like Pitch. It was clear that he rarely spent time there and that made sense given myths rarely needed to sleep. That was why, if Pitch was trying to avoid something, it was a good place to put whatever he wanted to avoid. The bed was a massive four poster bed with a canopy that looked like it was made of black cobwebs, and the the sheets were black, the blanket was black, the pillows were black...
I'm sensing a recurring theme here, Jack thought to himself, though he'd never dare to voice the words aloud.
A few pictures rested crookedly on the walls and they made Jack's eyebrows raise nearly all the way to his hairline. Apparently Pitch had a penchant for portraits of sad clowns. Now Jack couldn't help but speak aloud.
He didn't have time to admire Pitch's sad skills in interior decorating though, so he went for the little cabinet and carefully opened it up, half expecting something horrible to pop out as he did it. Fortunately, it wasn't booby-trapped in any way. The little black box rested inside and Jack took it out.
It was intricate and made of metal. It stymied his attempts at opening it by force and that was when Jack realized it was a puzzle box.
Jack's relationship with puzzles had changed after entering the maze. First, there'd been the moon puzzlebox that had gotten him stuck here in the first place, and then in the maze itself, there'd been the odd puzzle just to inspire terror.
One of the most horrifying things to come across while running from something trying to shred you with its teeth was a door that only opened if you hit the floor panels in front of it in the right order, as instructed by a half completed mural on the wall.
It was a trick the maze had pulled more than once, in multiple variations.
Between that experience and the fact that he was fairly clever to begin with, Jack fiddled with the box until he twisted just the right little spires to make it snap open. Inside, glinting gold despite the dim light, was a locket. Rashena's locket. Eyes wide, Jack reached inside the box and lifted it out with gentle fingers, treating it as a precious thing.
How had it survived all this time? Even made of gold as it was, to stay intact across universes, across centuries - possibly millennia? Maybe the gold could have lasted that long but for it to stay intact, pristine, exactly the way it had been in the visions of the past he saw? That seemed impossible. Impossible wasn't always a bad thing, though. It was when something you needed was impossible, like leaving the maze, but it wasn't always. This was one impossible thing Jack was glad to see.
He sat down heavily on the floor and started trying to pry it open with his fingers.
It was impossible to get it open, making it an impossible thing Jack didn't want to see.
"C'mon, c'mooon," Jack whispered to himself as he tried to dig in his nails in the crack in the locket.
Was it charmed somehow, so that only its owner could open it?
Jack grunted as he exerted himself, prying at the locket - whether it was charmed or not, he didn't get to find out. He'd made too much noise.
The blow as Pitch hit him sent Jack flying across the room. When Jack landed, the back of his head burning, his body burning when he'd struck the wall, he saw Pitch towering in the doorway, his scythe held out. He had to have hit Jack with the flat of the blade. The Nightmare King's eyes burned with the fury of a dying sun.
"If you want to go into the maze again," Pitch said, his voice oily, dripping with anger. "All you had to do was ask, you stupid child."
"I wasn't - I wasn't trying to -" Jack gasped, terrified, crawling closer to the wall, pressing himself against it, but Pitch didn't give him a chance to talk. He swept forward, wrapped his long fingers around Jack's throat, and slammed him up against the wall again, choking him. Jack's head was ringing now, a high-pitched noise in his ears drowning out all other sound.
"How dare you intrude on my private effects?" Pitch hissed, as he squeezed Jack's neck, halting his blood and dampening his voice. "What made you think you had even the slightest right?"
Jack hung, unable to talk, unable to respond. If he could have talked, he might have pointed out how much Pitch intruded on his own life as a defense. Of course, the only reason he would have dared to say something that stupid was the lack of blood flow to his brain.
Pitch only held him against the wall, staring into Jack's eyes as the ringing filled his ears. Pitch watched impassively as Jack writhed, only dropping him when pain had blocked Jack's senses entirely.
"Well?" he pushed, as Jack coughed and wheezed. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I -" For a moment could say nothing because he was too busy coughing and trying to get air back into his lungs.
Apparently, Pitch didn't really intend for Jack to have a say for himself.
"You're lucky I know you've hardly had a father before," he hissed, kneeling down to grab Jack's head, his fingers tight in Jack's hair. He held Jack's head against the floor, slamming it back down as Jack tried to rise.
"If you'd had one, you would have known better, and I would have known you knew better. I ought to have used the blade on you, in that case," he hissed, holding the scythe in front of Jack's eyes, so that Jack could see the razor edge of the oily-patterned weapon. "So let me make this perfectly clear to you, my boy. I said I would be like a father to you. Sons obey their fathers."
"I'll be good," Jack gasped, tears streaming down his face. "I'll be good. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, please don't send me back. I just wanted to see something new. Everything's dark here and it was bright and I just - I just wanted to see something new, but I'll be good. I'll be patient. You said you'd let me out someday and I believe you, I - I trust you."
Jack sucked in a deep, shaking breath amidst his sobs. "I know you're the only one I can trust."
A voice rang out under Jack's, still even and composed, but tense with a certainty that did not bear argument.
this is unjust.
Jack froze but opted to not react to the voice, continuing to stare up at Pitch instead. What might Pitch think if he knew he could also hear the voice? It seemed like something intimate, something he might decide was "intrusive," too, despite Jack not having control over it.
"Please," he croaked, trying to make it seem as if he hadn't heard it, as Pitch also froze in reaction to the voice. "I don't want to go to the maze. I want to be good. I will be so good. You won't even notice I'm here, not unless you want to."
Pitch didn't move, or speak, but Jack could feel a slight tremor in his hand, as if the Nightmare King desperately wanted to react to the voice - but didn't want to admit it was there.
Jack's gamble paid off. Pitch stood up, holding his scythe, leaving Jack lying on the ground.
"Very well. I accept your apology. You may stand up now."
So gracious, Jack thought, as sarcastically as he could think. He stood, his neck still aching, head still ringing.
"But if I find you in here again..." Pitch said, in a warning tone.
Jack nodded so hard it made his head ache even more.
"It's your own fault, you know," said Pitch. "For making me this angry. This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't invaded my privacy."
"I won't do it again," Jack promised.
"Good," Pitch snapped. "Because I don't like punishing you any more than I like having my privacy disrupted."
"I don't like it either," Jack insisted, rubbing his neck.
"But I said it myself," Pitch sighed. "You make a mess wherever you go. Even to the one person willing to overturn the Earth for you."
"I know," Jack said, staring straight ahead, not meeting Pitch's eyes. "It's my fault for making you mad. You're so good to me."
Pitch softened a little, relaxing the arm that held the scythe. "I'm glad we agree," he said. He seemed appeased. "There may be hope for you after all, Jack.
Jack paused. "Thank you."
"Now get out."
Jack didn't have to be asked twice. He ran out of the room as if the monsters in the maze were at his tail, meek and terrified, moving through the winding hallways of Pitch's lair as quickly as he could until he reached one of the spaces he knew he was allowed in, the throne room. Pitch didn't follow him. Still wide-eyed, his lip trembling, he looked down the hallway to be absolutely sure, then sat up against Pitch's chair, rubbing his neck.
If Pitch had been there, he would've seen the terrified expression on his face melt away. Jack's eyes narrowed and he clenched his hands as if around the staff he no longer had.
"So, I bet there's not a kid alive that ever thought 'You know what I think the Nightmare King does in his spare time? Needlework.' No kid has ever thought that."
"Then they should stretch their imaginations a little," said Pitch, stretching the black thread that he was pulling through black silk as if it were a child's imagination. The stitch tugged properly into place. It was not a hobby Jack expected of the Nightmare King either. But Pitch,in his quiet hours, seemed to enjoy it. Why not? Technically it did involve stabbing.
Pitch also enjoyed having Jack keep him company as he worked.
Which was usually pretty dull for Jack, sitting by the throne, on the floor, listening to Pitch monologue as he sewed, or -
"I want to ask you something, Jack."
Or having to tell stories. Jack gulped.
"What do you want to ask?" Jack asked.
"I want you to tell me something personal." Pitch's smile bared the sharp edges of his broken teeth, as he set his needlework aside. "I want you to tell me how you became Jack Frost."
Something in Jack's cold, sad heart melted at the memory of his sister's face, as if under a warm rain.
"I had a sister," he said, dreamlike for a moment, before his mind caught up with his tongue. His love for his sister wouldn't have interested Pitch. Pitch's interests would lie in other facets of his mortal life. "We lived by the pond. We were poor, and we were hungry a lot -"
"And did that poverty and that hunger ever make you afraid?" Pitch pushed.
Jack thought, and answered honestly, "No."
Pitch's narrow, sideways glance said he didn't believe Jack.
"No," Jack repeated, "Not - not much. I mean sometimes, yes, I was afraid for her - or for mom - but we had each other and that was -"
He paused, digging deep. Once upon a time, he'd played with his sister. Once upon a time, his mother had sung him to sleep by a fire. Once, countless ages before this. When there was no Pitch to run his fingers through Jack's hair.
"That was stronger than the fear," he murmured, before he could rephrase his thoughts.
The fingers in his hair tightened, nails scratching his scalp and tearing hairs free as Pitch jerked his head back.
"Get to the good parts."
His voice was as calm as a frozen lake as Jack reached instinctively for the pain in his scalp. Pitch revoked his hand, sitting in his chair and watching as Jack let out a shuddering sigh. The good parts.
"When I became Jack Frost," he said, "It was winter, but - but it was a warm winter. The ice on the pond wasn't as thick as it usually was that time of year, but we didn't know - we wanted to go ice skating."
Understanding dawned on Pitch's face - his smile grew like an unsheathed claw. "Go on."
"The ice cracked under her," Jack continued. "She was too afraid to move, but if she stayed, she was going to fall in -"
"Caught between terror and death," Pitch murmured, as if he were dissecting a fine wine. "If a shiver could go up my spine, Jack, it surely would. Tell me more."
His fanged smile was the only thing that gleamed in the dark chamber of the maze.
Jack had to pause, caught in the memory of his sister's expression, looking at him as she had with such desperation. "She - I knew I had to keep her happy," he said, "Keep her laughing so I told her - I told her we were going to have a little fun."
"Fun?" Pitch scoffed. "In the face of death? And did she believe that lie, Jack?"
"It wasn't a lie." Jack didn't snap. He knew better than to snap at Pitch, who'd only snap back, harder. "We did have fun - I told her we were going to play hopscotch, I made her laugh, and I - I grabbed a branch, and pushed her off the thin ice. I saved her." He looked at his hands, as if lost suddenly in the blue veins spider-webbing his palms. "I saved her."
"How sweet," Pitch oozed, rolling his eyes. "I know there's more. Isn't there, my boy? One does not become as powerful as you and I with sweetness."
"I fell through the ice," Jack said. "I pushed her off the thin ice, but pushed myself on, and I fell through." He shrugged. "And I...I died. The Moon saved me."
"Saved you?" Pitch almost barked with laughter. "Saved what, your life? Jack, the blood in your veins is as cold as a corpse. What exactly did the Moon save?"
"Me," Jack insisted, faltering suddenly. His blood was cold, but his heart pumped it through his veins. "My - my self, the part of me that saved my sister -"
"Tell me how it felt," Pitch interrupted, twisting in his chair to touch Jack's chin. The touch was gentle, until Jack didn't move - then Pitch forced his face upwards, until Jack was looking into the eclipses of Pitch's yellowed grey eyes. "Tell me, Jack, every moment from the first crack of the ice under your feet, till the moment the Moon preserved you. Tell me how the fear grew." There was a hunger in Pitch's eyes, one Jack had seen before, growing as he clenched Jack's jaw in his hands. "How the cold of the water shocked you. Tell me if her screams followed you into death. This is what I want, Jack. Give it to me."
All Jack could remember, for the moment, was the happiness that had welled up inside him when his little sister smiled, safe and sound.
He closed his eyes, struggled to remember the parts that hadn't brought him joy. Pitch squeezed his chin until Jack opened his eyes, looking at the Nightmare King again.
"I felt the ice shift - I heard it cracking and my stomach clenched like...like it was on fire," he said. A shadow of the same stomach-clenching fear swept over him as he struggled to remember. "The water was so cold it - so cold it burned, like it was eating my skin away." He stopped, his voice breaking. Cold had not burned him in 300 years. Cold had not made his skin feel cracked and fractured in his waking memory - cold had been his companion, his comfort, the colder the better, without the memory of how it had once extinguished the life in him, but now - remembering it -
He shuddered, broke into a little sob. When he closed his eyes, squeezing the tears free, Pitch grabbed his face with both hands. "Look at me, Jack. Look at me as you remember that," the Nightmare King hissed. "Don't you dare deny me this."
Tears rolled down Jack's face as Pitch's fingers dug into his neck and face. "I - I was afraid," he said. "I don't know - what else do you want? I - I was afraid because I knew I was dying, I was afraid because there was - there was nothing solid beneath me, and I was falling, and it was so cold, and her scream - "
"What?" Pitch's voice was suddenly soft, soft as a cold breath on a winter's morning. "What about her screams, Jack?"
"She screamed," Jack said, the tears pouring now steadily, "Like she'd never be happy again -"
Pitch sighed with delight.
"She must have never dared to walk on ice again," he murmured, savoring her imagined fear. "She must have felt sick when she so much as took a bath."
He released Jack's face, sitting back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the armrests slowly. "I had no idea your background was so - artful, Jack," he said, pleasure in his voice, as if he had just consumed a satisfying meal, or taken in a particularly elegant art film. "The death of a younger sibling, the sacrifice of an elder - I tormented many a set with that very same story, but I never thought I'd have the pleasure of hearing it from one who lived it and died it -" he chuckled. "If only your dear sister were not dust in a box right now," he lamented. "The only thing more moving than your side of the story would be to hear just how little pleasure she found in the life you died to give her."
Jack's silent tears rolled, and, softly, he began to sob. As Pitch sat back, the small smile playing on his face, Jack's sobs intensified, and Pitch sat back, indulging in the moment.
He let Jack cry. Images floated through Jack's mind, of every sad person he'd ever seen over the years, mired down with sorrow or loneliness, all wearing his sister's face. Maybe Manny had taken his memories because his sister had never been happy afterwards. Maybe Manny had been sparing him the awful realization that his sister had never been able to live because he'd died for her.
Pitch stretched in his chair. "Thank you, Jack, that was an exquisite tale."
He stood, still stretching, and held his hand out to the boy on the ground. "A gift deserves a reward, don't you think? You wanted to see something new. Come with me, my boy."
Jack knew better than to ask if he had to.
As he followed Pitch through the part of the maze the Nightmare King had tamed, wondering where they were going. Pitch lead him through an archway and into a space wider, more open, than any Jack had seen before - he looked up to see if the roof of the maze was open, and saw stars peeking through a lattice overgrown with dead vines. The vines were lifeless, but the rest of the room was not. Flowers grew in rows, pale lilies lifting their faces to the stars, and broad-leaved bushes hedged the walls, deep purple spear like blooms just opening at the tips to show pale blue petals.
The garden was quiet, but charged with a sense of the living, as no other room in the maze had been. Jack forgot his tears for a moment, seeing only the flowers, smelling the scent of rich earth and growing things. It had been so long since he'd smelled it, he had to remind himself that was what it was.
He started to take a step into the garden, then remembered to look at Pitch for permission. The Nightmare King nodded once, and Jack trotted into the garden, filling his eyes with the color and the soft shapes of petals, leaves, dirt on the ground. The soil was soft beneath his toes. Each flower he visited was more fragrant than the last. He willed himself to be lost in the sensation, forgetting for a moment the possibility that his sister had died on the ice after all.
He dropped to his knees by a bush of blooms that were pale yellow, patterned with a lurid purple. The flowers had an organic look to them that was not entirely pleasant, like the look of veins on the inner surface of skin, but to Jack, the colors at all were overwhelming in that they were there. They were bright, they existed - he hadn't imagined them, added them to his memories to make the world before the maze seem better than it had been.
As he lost himself in the petals, a pale shape skittered over the surface of the bloom. For a moment, the eight-legged silhouette ignited a burst of recognition and longing in Jack's brain that was nearly painful. He suppressed a cry at the sight of the spider.
But it was not a spider he knew. It was pale, a translucent white, with a red mark on its back like a bloodstain. The red faded into pink, giving the spider an infected look. Its red eyes sat atop its pale head like drops of blood.
It seemed to stare at Jack, and as he stared back, suddenly another spider was beside it, and another, and another, their pale bodies weighing down the flowers.
An itch on his hand drew his eye downward. More of the pale spiders skittered across the dirt, two of them already climbing up his arm. More massed in the dirt around him, like little moving wounds. Jack yelled and jumped, running and flinging spiders back into the foliage.
He ran towards Pitch, and the Nightmare King opened his arms to catch Jack. "What's the matter now?"
Jack kept brushing his hands, his arms, knowing that nothing was on him, but unable to shake the creepy, crawling feel of their legs. "Spiders - in the bushes - some got on me -"
Pitch folded his arms around Jack. "There there, Jack." He chuckled as Jack trembled. It wasn't a moment before Pitch had taken Jack's chin again, and tilted his face up for Pitch to see.
"A little thing like spiders? When they can't even kill you anymore?" The same hungry look was back in Pitch's eyes. "Oh my dear boy, you are simply too precious."
Jack stopped trembling, and his breath hitched in his throat.
A little thing like spiders? When Pitch had already taken his most personal moment of fear and happiness and had stripped the joy from it, the love, leaving only the horror?
There could be no fear more decadent than that. But still, Pitch gripped his chin, staring into his eyes with a greedy hunger. "I'd forgotten what the fear of a little insect was like..."
Jack understood. It wasn't about the quality of his fear. It was the quantity. There was not a point at which Pitch would ever have enough.
His breath came in a sob, and his fears flowed. Pitch's smile deepened.
"What do you fear now, Jack?"
The eternity before him, with the only person who spoke to him, who ever touched him gently, twisting his every memory into fear that never stopped gnawing.
An eternity with a companion who loved nothing more than to watch him suffer.
What didn't Jack fear anymore?
"Jack. What. Is. This?"
Jack shrugged his shoulders, twisting a little in the corner where he'd curled up. Curling up in a corner was something he did a lot, lately - it was one of the few things he never got in trouble for doing. "What is what?"
"Look at me when I talk to you, boy."
Jack rolled over and, slowly, rose to his knees. He looked up at Pitch through his lank, dirty hair. Dust had settled on him where he lay on the ground. He must have been there for a while - Pitch must have been out, then, for a while, terrorizing some part of the outside world.
When Jack looked at Pitch, the Nightmare King was holding something out to him, something bright blue and small enough to fit in the palm of Jack's hand.
Jack barely reacted, a hand going to his pocket where the nesting doll had sat ever since North gave it to him. But the movement was casual, as if he was checking to see if he had a hole there.
Jack shrugged. "Forgot I had that. Must've fallen out a while ago. I haven't even...hadn't thought to check."
Pitch clenched his long fingers around the nesting doll, narrowing his eyes at Jack's lukewarm response. "Well then I suppose you won't mind that I dispose of it."
Jack shrugged. "Nah." His eyes were unfocused, half-lidded. He leaned against the wall, as though he were tired. "Am I in trouble for having that?"
There were so many things for him to be in trouble for, lately he'd begun to ask if he was in trouble, just so that he'd know when Pitch's anger was coming.
But Pitch lowered the doll, his angry expression clearing as Jack made no objection to the loss of the toy. He looked at it, reconsidering. "Then again - I suppose it's really yours to dispose of, isn't it, Jack?"
He threw North's nesting doll back to Jack, who cringed at the sudden movement and shrank away. But the underhand toss was not intended to strike Jack, and the toy bounced off the wall and landed on the floor.
"Carrying it around, all that time - really, Jack, if I were you, I wouldn't want to be reminded of those people that left you here."
Jack was relaxing slowly, sprawling back out, but he didn't pick up the toy. "I really didn't remember I had it," he said, eyes still on Pitch. "I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Does it?" Pitch repeated, lifting one long, bent finger to his chin. His expression was suddenly thoughtful - and as quickly as he'd had time to think, it became cruel. Jack watched him, as a diver might watch a shark. "Tell me the truth, Jack - doesn't the thought of the Guardians make you angry? How can you be neutral about those who gave up on you so easily, and so soon?"
"I dunno," Jack said, wishing he could curl up in the corner again. "I - I try not to think about them. It gets me too angry."
"But my boy," said Pitch, kneeling in front of him, excitement growing in his eyes. "It is your right to be angry for what they did to you. All those lies they told you about being one of them - all that "now and forevermore" nonsense - are you really so forgiving that you can lie here, day after day, and not wish that they might know the same loneliness, the same sense of betrayal, that they made you feel, when they left you to the maze?"
Jack sat still, but his lower lip had begun to quiver, his eyes narrowing as Pitch's words struck nerve after nerve.
"No," he said, with sudden strength. Tears glimmered in his eyes, but he ground his jaw hard between his words. He lifted his eyes to Pitch's. "I'm not that forgiving."
Pitch had never smiled so widely. "Nor should you be," he said, in a low, eager whisper.
He picked up the nesting doll and stood, holding his hand out to Jack. "Come, my boy. I've been waiting for this day for a long, long time."
The air grew thick with a burning, acrid smell, reminding Jack suddenly of the New Jersey Turnpike. It surprised him for a moment that he could still remember New Jersey, let alone its turnpike, but the smell had been...distinct. Pitch led him into a section of the maze where a puddle of silvery liquid bubbled in the center of the floor, slowly eating it away. The floor sloped downward just enough to be uncomfortable to stand on, with that silver liquid bubbling away, giving off no light, but hot as a room on fire.
Pitch put his hand on Jack's shoulder, and though the touch was gentle, Jack felt very keenly the slope of the floor beneath him, leading down to that molten pool, and the pressure of Pitch's hand behind him.
"Look at this one more time, Jack," said Pitch, holding out the nesting doll. "What did it mean to you, when they gave it?"
"That I...that I was one of them. It was my center. My…the thing that made me one of them."
"We know that's a lie now, don't we. You never were one of them, were you."
"No," Jack said distantly.
"If you had been one of them," Pitch went on, "they would have never stopped looking for you." He paused. "Or - even if they thought you were one of them - would you want to be one of them, when they give up so easily on their own?"
"No." The word left Jack in a hiss. "I'd never tell someone they were -" he paused, biting back tears. "Never tell someone they were my family and then leave them here. I would never do that."
"But you don't need that to tell you who and what you are anymore, Jack. You don't need them to give you a family. You have me."
Jack nodded slowly. "You're right. I don't need this to tell me who I am. I know. All of this has shown me that." He reached up to his temple with his free hand and his gaze when directed at Pitch was something dangerous. "I have it right here." His hand went to his heart. "And right here."
He held his hand out for the nesting doll, boldly looking Pitch in the eye. His eyes were clearer than they had been in ages, piercing past the lank curtain of his dusty hair. Pitch placed the nesting doll in Jack's hand with a darkly approving smile. The smile widened into a grin as Jack, without a second glance, tossed the toy into the pit of molten lead.
It took fire and burned with a searing blue-green flame.
"That's my boy," Pitch murmured, pride in every word as they watched the toy dissipate. "How strong you are, even after such dire betrayal. Such strength deserves a reward."
When Jack looked back to Pitch, his smile was almost benevolent - certainly closer to benevolence than Jack had ever seen on his face. With the hand not on Jack's shoulder, Pitch produced a small square of what looked like - what was definitely candy. Powdered sugar dusted his fingertips where it had brushed off the lokum. He'd given some to Jack before, as a reward, and Jack opened his mouth eagerly for Pitch to pop the treat in.
As Jack chewed on the candy, Pitch ran his powdered-sugared fingertips through Jack's hair. "Soon enough, the Guardians will learn just how strong you are. I've been goading them pushing and prodding in just the right ways to bring them to you. They didn't think you were worth saving but hatred of me is something they've always been willing to fight for. Then you'll have your true reward, my Nightmare Prince."
The candy melted in his mouth, running sickly sweet down the back of his throat. He swallowed and looked over at Pitch with the gratitude Pitch was used to seeing there.
"Revenge," said Jack and his mouth quirked up into an uneven grin. "It's about time. I've waited long enough."
The long-undisturbed dust in Camelot stirred as Nicholas St. North, the Tooth Fairy, and Anansi the Spider thundered down the halls, bursting into the room where a round table still stood, waiting for knights to sit it.
North spotted an elaborate, scorched chair, and touched one of the scorchmarks. Soot lifted on his fingers. "These marks are fresh." He pointed to the inscription. "Toothy, you can read this?
The Tooth Fairy zipped over, mumbling as she read. "- worthy to seek the holy grail -"
"A scorched chair, a round table, and a mention of the holy grail," said Anansi, adjusting his glasses to look over them at the round table and the empty, unscorched chairs. "It seems we've found Camelot."
"If this is Camelot, that's the Siege Perilous," Tooth said, drawing back from the burnt chair. "Who sat in it?"
"And since they were clearly unworthy," North stroked his beard, in thought. "-What became of them?"
A tunnel opened in the hall by the door, and Bunnymund leaped out to join the other three Guardians. "Found anything?"
"We might have," said Tooth. "Any sign of Sandy?"
"Not yet." Bunny loped over to the chair, sniffing. "These scorch marks are fresh."
"So we noticed!" said North, holding up his sooty fingers with a flash of a smirk.
Bunny gave a short, sardonic laugh. "Did you also notice Jack sat here?"
"He did?" Tooth's crest of feathers shook with agitation. "You can smell him?"
"It wasn't recently, but I can," Bunny said, backing away from the chair. "Nobody's tried sitting in that?"
"You want the first try?" North asked.
"You know what else I smell," said Bunny, turning towards a corner. "Anise."
The Guardians eyes fell on an intricate box, sitting in a corner of the room. The elaborate silver star on the elegant object gleamed, even in the dull light.
"Uh," Tooth said, lifting a finger. "Why isn't that covered in dust?"
That was when the box opened, and the bang and the flash of light hit the Guardians before any of them had a chance to react, taking their sight and hearing with it.
Immediately they reached for each other - Bunny, Tooth, and North did, anyway. Anansi flung spiderwebs about him, screaming curses no one could hear until Tooth found one of his legs and pulled him into the Guardian barricade. With their ears ringing and their eyes blinded, the four Guardians huddled back-to-back in defense of each other, waiting tense and pained as sight and vision slowly returned - but by the time they had vision enough to recognize Pitch, he had already filled the dim room with yet more shadows.
"Can you hear me yet? This really is no fun if you can't see and hear a little. Although the dizziness - well, that will thankfully hold up for quite a while. Very fortunate for me, not so fortunate for you."
"Pitch!" North and Tooth shouted.
"Hmm, previously undemonstrated patience," Anansi mused, moving his glasses in front of his face and blinking his eyes. "So this is a long story!"
"What?" Bunny yelled, still huddled, clutching at his ears even as North and Tooth made their first attempts at rising.
Pitch rolled his eyes. "As glorious as it is to watch you all writhing in helpless discomfort, I've waited more than long enough. Even the rabbit should be able to hear me by now."
"Is that Pitch?" Bunny yelled, still over-loud, forcing his eyes open. "Think I need my ears to show you the door?"
The shadowy shape looming in their dimmed vision was clear enough now to focus on. They all turned, half-risen, but still unable to stand entirely under their own power.
"How kind of you all to come to my little party." If Pitch was, perhaps, enunciating more clearly than his usual wont, well, he had to make himself clear to his audience. "I know that you have been...eager to come do more violence upon my person. Unjust violence, when I've only ever wanted what you have - belief! Adulation! The service of any being to crawl this little planet, if you should so desire it!" His lips peeled back from his uneven teeth. "Company."
"Too long," Anansi moaned, all eight of his spider legs planted firmly on the ground as he wove upwards. "Didn't listen." he poked a finger in his ear. "Your lies are old and boring, and my ears are sore."
Pitch's gleefully malicious grin dropped but the malice in his eyes only burned brighter.
"Fine. Then if you don't have the patience to listen to me, perhaps you'll spare the time to listen to him." He turned to the shadows. "You have quite a bit to say, don't you...Jack?"
The boy emerged on a breath of wind, tumbling through the air to land at Pitch's side, and for a moment, all they saw was the grin - the grin, and the tear tracks.
A thin layer of ice on his skin had given him the illusion of cracking. Grey dust was frozen on every inch of his exposed skin, though his shadowy, black clothing was unmarred by even a loose hair. Snow dusted his shoulders, bare of the silk that cowled his head and draped down in a long cloak behind him. Snow and dust froze in his hair, mottled his skin, clumped his eyelashes like a disease.
His smile was so wide, it seemed his face might break open and bleed. The ice cracking on his face made him look old, old, old - and the black shadows under his eyes did as well. The only part of his face not mottled with frozen dust were the two tear tracks cutting through the ice, glistening with still-flowing tears that had cut a path from his wide, staring eyes, all the way down to his off-kilter smile. His hands clenched his staff as if he was already wringing someone's neck.
"Hi guys," he said, his voice ringing too high with tense excitement. "It's been a while."
A silent second fell as the Guardians stared at Jack, and Jack at them, and Pitch at everyone with all the anticipation of a child at Christmas.
Bunny broke the silence.
"I'm gonna kill ya," he swore, eyes locked on Pitch, forcing himself to stand, but falling back to his knees. He threw a boomerang anyway. "You filthy, shadow-sneaking - I'm gonna kill -"
Jack knocked the weapon out of the way, the ice blast freezing the boomerang to the far wall. The Nightmare Prince's smile had vanished. Now he stood, trembling with eager tension, staff motionless in his white-knuckled grip as he pointed it at the Guardians.
"Jack -" Tooth spoke, her voice soft and gentle. "Jack, please - it's going to be -"
Pitch cut in, "It's going to be alright, just like I promised. It's time for your revenge, Jack." He turned back to the Guardians, savoring their horror. "Now you can finally hurt the ones who left you alone in the dark."
"Yeah," Jack said slowly, a wild look to his eyes. "Yeah, I guess I can."
He pointed his staff at the Guardians. They crouched there, still unbalanced on the ground, eyes wide with horror.
Jack struck -
He slammed his staff into Pitch, hitting him soundly in a place that still hurt even on myths. The Nightmare King doubled over with a loud "Whooft" as Jack brought the staff up for another swing. The staff cracked loudly as it connected with Pitch's face, followed by a sudden icy blast that bowled Pitch end over end, slamming him into a wall, freezing him solidly in place.
Nightmare sand funneled into the fissures in the ice, shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces. But as Pitch broke free, he looked completely shaken. He bled from his nose, his hair was askew, and his eyes were wide with disbelief as he stalked towards Jack.
"Stop this at once," he spat, hissing every word. "You know what happens, Jack, you know what happens when -"
"- when I make you mad?" Jack finished, hefting his staff as Pitch drew close. Pitch paused, eyes wide with indignation at the defiance, but halted by the threat of Jack's power - and halted again as behind Jack, the Guardians struggled closer. They were all still too unbalanced to walk, but even so, they crawled towards Jack. Jack, unaware of this, trembled, his voice cracking with fear and something else, something deeper and far more broken than fear. "Yeah, I do. That's the only reason I did what you wanted. Even the things I hated. Like putting on this outfit."
He ripped off the much-hated cloak and pulled the shoulder-baring tunic over his head, tearing them in the process.
"This outfit," Jack yelled shrilly, "is stupid!"
Pitch's mouth dropped open with petulant indignation. "I hand-stitched those!"
"This cloak is stupid and - and you're stupid!" Jack responded, just as petulantly.
"They abandoned you!" Pitch shouted. The Guardians, still crawling towards Jack, all objected to this at once, their angry counterpoints spilling over each other. "They left you alone to rot in the dark, got that little brat you were fond of killed, and you still think you belong anywhere but with me?"
"It doesn't! Matter!" Jack's shriek was shrill and suddenly manic, cutting the Guardians' objections short. "Even if -" he faltered. "I don't know if that's - I don't think that's true - even if it was, though, it doesn't matter. I'm not joining you when your life's mission is hurting kids! I'm not joining you when you like hurting me!"
Pitch's mouth was open in sheer, furious, impotent rage. "It was never about hurting you, it was about teaching you -"
"To do whatever you said," Jack cut in, his every word weighted with bitterness. "So I'd help you terrorize kids -"
"It wasn't about the fear," Pitch said, but every fiber of Jack knew now what a lie that was. "It's about them believing in us, it's about them respecting us -"
"It's about you getting to control them! To control me! Don't lie!" Jack cried out, his voice cracking and changing pitch with nearly every other word, as if each and every one was being wrung out of him painfully. "It's always been about making them afraid of us!"
He gripped his staff tightly, hands twisting fitfully, his words echoing with the pain he'd felt during all the suffering inflicted on him.
"They don't deserve to be afraid and hurt. They deserve to be protected and - and happy." Jack jabbed his staff threateningly in Pitch's direction. "No one - no one should have to live their lives in fear. No one deserves to live the way you made me live."
"Jack, be reasonable," Pitch chuckled, suddenly amused. "You aren't even alive."
Jack hefted the staff higher, closer to Pitch's face. Behind him, the Guardians were finding their feet. Pitch stopped laughing, his amusement returning to dark, furious anger.
"You lied to me," he hissed. "You swore obedience. I gave you everything, and you lied to me, you ungrateful -"
"You hurt me!" Jack shot back. "You hurt me so much I - I actually meant it for a while, but -" Jack held a hand to his head, as if he wanted to physically rip what he was feeling out of it "But after that first month, when my head got a little clearer, I said whatever I had to to get my staff and get out. All that time, I pretended to be your little - your little bootlicker, just like I pretended I didn't hate it every time you touched me," Jack snapped furiously, spittle flying from the corners of his mouth.
The other Guardians shared a sharp look of behind Jack with varying levels of concern and growing fury.
"I gave you a home," Pitch insisted. "Taught you, protected you, and this is how you repay me? With betrayal, and disobedience? I pulled you from the maze! You should lick my boots for that alone!"
"You put me in there in the first place!" Jack screeched, his words growing wilder, the tear tracks on his cheeks suddenly glistening with a fast flow.
"So what?" Pitch snapped. "I was training you. I showed you all the fear the world had to give you, so that you could make it your own. Some lessons are hard, Jack! I thought you were strong enough to learn it. All I wanted was for you to have strength, to have your precious children all to yourself, and you spat in my face at every turn. Well -" he held his hands out, and the shadows massed behind him - "you think you lived in fear with me, Jack? Get ready to know what it is to truly live in fear. Because I won't forget this. And I'll make sure you never stop regretting it."
"It doesn't matter," Jack said, trembling as the shadows massed. The Guardians were standing behind him, leaning on each other, or their weapons, as the shadows filled the room. "You don't understand me. You don't get that it - it doesn't matter what you do to me, it doesn't matter if the Guardians care about me, it doesn't matter whether I'm a Guardian or not. I will always protect the kids! I will never hurt them! And there is nothing and no one that can change that - not the Guardians, not the Man in the Moon, and definitely not you! I'm never going to be what you want me to be, Pitch! I told you before - I'll die before I ever turn into that."
He had spent so many years trying to figure out who he was and what place he had in the world…
How strange it was that in this time of pain and weakness, he finally knew himself. He'd known himself enough to cast reminders of his old life into the fire, knowing he no longer needed them to hold onto who he was.
The last shred of betrayal faded from Pitch's expression, as it twisted into one of pure hatred.
"Die?" Pitch repeated. "Oh, you'll wish I'd let you."
He flung whips of nightmare sand at Jack. The nightmares rushed the Guardians in a wave. The whips lashed too fast for Jack to counter, knocking his staff aside and dragging him to the floor. Pitch drew his hand back, a massive knife coalescing in his grip as he lifted it above Jack.
He brought it down - but it glanced off a saber as North reached them, attacking Pitch so ferociously the Nightmare King fell back from Jack.
"PITCH!" the old saint roared. A trail of pulverized nightmares twitched and stilled in his wake. "YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR!"
The room was full of loose nightmare sand, of Tooth flying in and out of Bunny's boomerangs, exploding nightmares in three places at once. Jack lay on the floor, suddenly weeping like the children he'd sworn to protect as North pushed Pitch farther and farther back into the shadows. The Nightmares not engaged with Bunny and Tooth and not dissolving behind North descended on Jack.
Anansi swung suddenly to Jack's side, and his spider form ripped his human form apart. Hairy black legs thick enough to break trees landed on the ground in a cage around Jack, thundering as they fell. He grabbed the nearest nightmare in his fangs and ripped it apart, black sand and drops of venom flinging at the other nightmares. The venom ate them through where it landed, as other nightmares exploded against Anansi's armored legs. The rest of the nightmares fell back from Jack as the Spider clacked his dripping fangs at them, lunging when they came close enough to threaten Jack.
Pitch was still trying to get to Jack, knocking North's saber aside with his scythe and trying to rush over to where he lay on the floor surrounded by his protective barrier of spider legs.
"I will teach you respect the hard way, you ungrateful -"
North's roar thundered and echoed within the confines of the cave, startling some of the closer nightmares into missteps and collisions. He tossed a saber into the air, leaving his hand free to grab Pitch by the back of his shadowy man-dress. The Cossack whipped the Nightmare King back, slamming him into the wall, then caught his sword on the down-swing, slashing Pitch across the face.
"You will teach him nothing!" North insisted. Pitch drove the butt of his scythe into North's feet, escaping the danger of being trapped there when North was forced to retreat; but no sooner had he reached for Jack again than North had kicked him in the back and was upon him again, stabbing the ground where Pitch rolled just in time to dodge his blows. "You can teach him nothing! Not when he already so unselfish, not when he is already so brave!"
He punctuated each word with lighting stabs of his sabers, leaving punctures in the very stone of the floor. It was only the fluid way that Pitch moved that saved him from being pinned to the floor like a butterfly to corkboard, wiggling like an eel away from each of North's blows, missing them by a thread each time. His expression was almost puzzled as he dodged.
"Do you actually expect me to believe that you're going to kill me?" he scoffed between strikes.
North's eyes flashed and plunged his sword toward the center of Pitch's chest. His eyes going wide, Pitch cotorted his body just enough that the blade came down next to his torso, pinning his robes, instead of skewering him.
"You have caused," North said, almost conversational but for the bared and gritted teeth, "far more trouble than to be worth not killing."
Pitch ripped his shadowy robes trying to escape from him, and narrowly ducked another swing of North's sabers.
"Tell me, Pitch, do you know anything of Jack's life? Did you even think to ask of his wishes?"
"I - "
"I know you did not!" North clearly had no interest in whatever Pitch had to say at this point. "If you had, if you'd taken an interest in him as more than something to just control you would have known he would never have joined your side."
Pitch tried to summon his scythe of nightmare sand again, but North slashed at his hands before it could coalesce, sending the Nightmare King once more into a hissing, stumbling retreat.
"He has always been kind, even when he could expect no kindness in return! He has brought the children joy during times they were joyless - during times even we could not help them."
When they'd been fighting the larger battles, and gathering their teeth, delivering their toys and eggs, sending them dreams, Jack had done what none of them had done by playing with the children directly. Sometimes that meant much more to them than a gift or a quarter or a good dream that would evaporate to a cold reality upon waking. The world hadn't always been as kind as the Guardians were and during those times that it had been particularly unkind, Jack had been the one to be right there with them, instead of giving them his kindness from afar.
"He has a love of humanity in his heart, something you could never hope to understand!"
"Love? As if he could expect any back from those - those fleeting, mundane things?" Pitch spat, finally managing to put enough space between himself and the Cossack to breathe, and to summon his weapon. "I gave him truer love than those limited creatures could muster up in the span of their entire lives! I loved him as a father loves his son! And your good, kind Jack-"
Again, whatever Pitch had been about to say was lost as North howled in wordless rage and lunged, harder, swords flying, a sudden intensity in his voice that hadn't been there before.
"A father's love?!" he roared, his swords ringing on Pitch's scythe as if they would break it into nightmare sand. "You know nothing of a father's love! You are not capable of such love! A good father would be proud of the young man Jack is without wanting to change him! A good father would never hurt him as you have! A good father knows when to let his children go."
It seemed Pitch ought to burst out with a scathing retort; but as North drew back to swing, suddenly, Pitch's hands went slack on the handle of his scythe. He stood, breath shallow and quick, staring, as if in a trance. It lasted only an instant - sadly, not long enough for North to land a killing blow - before his vision snapped back and he swung his weapon at his enemy with a screech of pure, hateful rage.
The swing caught on North's sword, but the second fell quickly on Pitch's open shoulder. With a howl of rage and pain, the Nightmare King stumbled, his yell joining the whinnies of dying nightmares as Tooth and Bunny culled the herd now too wary to approach the enormous hissing spider and his hoarded prize. Pitch barely blocked North's next blow, and barely dodged the next.
Wide-eyed, shocked, and injured, the Nightmare King backed away, as North advanced on him with a steely glint in his eye that was as far removed from the usual twinkle as Pitch had ever seen.
The nightmare sand floating in the room suddenly shone, turning the brilliant gold of dreamsand, as the Sandman bounced into battle. The nightmare sand floating around him transformed in a wave, until the room was luminous, as if full of the sun.
Behind the little man floated a miniature golden sailing ship, with two little figures safely on board. The ship sailed into the room and dissolved, and the two little figures leaped to the ground, one wielding an iron poker, bent almost at a right angle; the other a gleaming sword too big for a child to carry.
Cupcake. And, and, holding aloft the improbable sword - Jamie.
Jack, having been so still and silent since his rebellion from Pitch, flew from beneath Anansi's protection to catch Jamie up in his arms. Jamie dropped the sword, but his questions fell quiet as Jack sobbed, too loudly to hear them, into the boy's hair.
Anansi scuttled over to crouch protectively over all three. "Nice sword," he said, to Jamie, in a tone of sudden, surprised interest. "Wherever did you get it?"
"Oh, uh." Jamie looked at the sword. "I pulled it from some rock. I think I'm the rightful King of England?"
"How did I miss that?" Anansi wondered aloud.
It was right then, in Anansi's moment of distraction, that a night-mare swept by, trying to swarm around Jack and drag him off, but before Jack could cry out, before Anansi or even Sandy could react, the night-mare found itself bashed in the head with Cupcake's already-bent iron poker.
"Did you really just try that?" Cupcake said with extreme incredulousness to what was now a cloud of nightmare sand. "In front of me?"
Jack only started crying harder at the close call. The Sandman took one look at Jack, ragged and sobbing, at the battle raging around him - and then at Pitch.
Pitch caught Sandy's eye just as the little man cracked his dreamsand whips into being, and the last shred of hope drained from his face.
Sandy lashed his whip clear across the room, coiling it around Pitch and whipping him away from North, and into the scorch-marked chair.
What remained of the nightmares shrieked and fled as the ground cracked open and the burning dragon emerged, towering over Pitch as he sat, fixed in place by the chair's magic.
"YOU. ARE. NOT. WORTHY."
But Pitch didn't scream. Instead, he looked across the room, where Jack was burying his face in Jamie's hair. Something pulled Jack's eyes up, to meet the Nightmare King's.
"This won't hold me forever," Pitch hissed, before the darkness sucked him down.
"Sandy! Give us some cover!" Bunny shouted, plucking an egg from his holster and throwing it at the roof. The egg exploded in a rainbow cloud that broke the stone. Sunlight, dust, and falling stones bounced off a shield of dreamsand as Sandy covered them all in golden protection, and when the rumbling subsided, he whipped the cover away. North whistled sharply, the sound piercing and far-reaching, and the jingle of the approaching reindeer and sleigh seemed to answer.
"Jack?" Jamie said, his words finally reaching through, as Jack had fallen silent. Jack looked at Jamie again, his ashen face blank, his tears still flowing. The little boy touched Jack's face, looking closer to tears with every moment. "Are you okay?"
Jack breathed out suddenly, and shook his head. His eyes seemed clearer when he opened them again, and the smile he gave the boy was more natural, yet still, something about it didn't comfort Jamie.
"Yeah, I'm great," Jack said, with a little too much brightness. "You're fine. I'm fine. Everything's fine."
He clutched Jamie to him again in a desperate hug as the sleigh flew overhead. Jack suddenly felt strong arms around him, and North lifted both boys off the ground together.
"Time to go," he said, his lion's roar softened, and all the bright cheer absent from his usually jovial tone.
They rose on a cloud of dreamsand, landing gently in the sleigh. North placed Jack and Jamie beside Tooth and Cupcake before taking the reins. Bunny jumped up on the edge of the sleigh and sat next to Jack, looking over him at Tooth, their worried expressions mirroring each other.
Sandy had just landed next to them when the sleigh lurched as a spider half as large as the vehicle itself jumped on the back.
"Dial down the size, mate!" Bunny shouted, as the lurch threw him into the back of the sleigh, and Tooth threw her arms around Jack to hold him in place. "We're making a quick getaway here!"
Anansi, every hair on his body bristling, clutched the sleigh with all eight legs. His voice bristled as harsh as his body, every word strained with tension. "It will take me a moment."
"Wait!" Jamie shouted, hefting the sword in his grip. "Um, can we put this back? I don't have time to be the rightful king of England. I have math homework and there's a dance next week - and I don't really know anything about international politics."
Bunny plucked the sword from Jamie's hand and threw it back through the hole in the roof of the castle.
"There's a dance next week," Jack said distantly, and then he laughed. "There's a dance. Next week. A dance. You said…"
Jamie looked to Jack with a worried expression on his face and squished closer to him in the sleigh.
Realizing that he was worrying Jamie, Jack said, "It's okay. You're okay. Everything's okay now."
As the sleigh rose into the air and eventually passed through an entrance to the surface world of London above, away from the magical bubble around Camelot, Jack looked out at a world that was now far too bright and overwhelming.
"Everything's okay now."