I've been informed that tomorrow is the 1 year anniversary of ROTG. Happy anniversary everyone, have new fic! For everyone wondering why Hope and Ruin and What Doesn't Kill You are so long overdue for updates, this would be why. Dunno, let me know if you think it's worth it.
Recommended listening for this chapter:
1) Theme for 'Walk the Long Road'
X-Ray Dog - Cyberworld
2) Theme for Jack and Bunny
Skylar Blue - Till Death Do Us Part
(See my profile for links)
"End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Jack knelt on the muddy ground, holding Bunny's paw so tightly he thinks it must hurt, but the other only smiles, thinly, weakly. A trickle of blood slides from the corner of his lips, staining gray fur red as it makes its way to the wet earth where it splashes, lurid crimson on dark brown. The others are coming, still finishing off the last of the creatures; some unknown enemy that had slunk their way to Earth looking for an easy meal. They hadn't found one, the Guardians had seen to that, but it appeared that this time, they would not escape unscathed. Jack holds Bunny's hand tighter, wishing, praying, but knows deep within that even if the rest were there, none of them had the ability to forestall the inevitable.
Bunny squeezes Jack's hand in the last moment before his heart stops. Jack thinks the feeling of his friend's hand going limp in his own is the worst thing he's ever felt in his life. Then, he raises his head to meet the eyes of his fellow surviving Guardians, and discovers he was wrong, the look of grief engraved in their features takes first place, by far.
Bunny's grip on Jack's upper arms is so tight it hurts, his blunt claws digging in like little pinpricks even through the heavy fabric of his hoodie.
"Are you trying ta off yourself, mate? Got a death wish do ya?" Bunny's words are punctuated by a non-so-gentle shake that makes Jack's teeth chatter together. He scowls, grabbing at Bunny's hands to dislodge them, but the other is unmoved even when Jack pinches the backs with his pointy fingertips.
"Bunny, you're hurting me, you need to let go."
"I'll not let go, Jack, not until you understand!" Bunny's face is dead serious, and there's a tone in his voice that Jack has never heard before, something so solemn beneath the panicked anger that it brings Jack up short and robs his throat of all moisture.
"Understand what, Bunny?" Jack tries to let his seriousness show on his face, and something must, because the grip relaxes, and Bunny runs his hands soothingly up and down Jack's biceps a couple times, as if to apologize for the definite bruising.
"You are immortal Jack, but not invulnerable." Jack opened his mouth to argue, but Bunny kept going, talking over him to forestall his interruption. "I know, you might think it, you're a tough little bugger, and we take damage and bounce back like nobody's business, it's all part of the Guardian package. But you are not Eternal, Jack. Nothing is this world is. Everything fades or crumbles eventually. You can die, Jack. We all can. In your haste to experience anything, in the zeal of your youth, do not forget that." With one more rub, Bunny steps back, releasing Jack but holding his gaze. Jack is struck by the look in Bunny's eyes; he had know intellectually that Bunny was ancient, that he perhaps even pre-dated the entire planet, but he'd never felt a fraction of that before until this moment, the weight in his gaze intense enough to make the winterchild shiver. Heavily, Jack swallowed, forcing the lump in his throat down to speak.
"I promise Bunny, I'll be around for a long time yet to annoy you." Jack offered the other a brittle smile to accompany his frail attempt at humour. The effort was paltry, but Bunny seemed to appreciate the gesture anyway, snorting a bit in laughter and reaching out to scrub his fingers though Jack's thick hair, making the frozen strands stand on end.
"Look forward to it, brat." This time, both their smiles were genuine.
The funeral is somber, and Jack remembers a funeral a long time ago, before he'd taken his vows, when they had all believed that Sandy had fallen. This is worse however, because Jack had cleaned and dressed the body himself. He'd felt the lifelessness in Bunny's limbs, the hollowness of his slack face, the emptiness that lay behind his eyes before Jack had gently closed them. Jack had felt the life leave his friend, how could there be any doubt he was gone? He watches North light the candles, Bunny's body laid out and wrapped in a burial shroud. They each stand, the four remaining, on the points of the compass North had inlaid in the floor of his globe room. The mosaic had long since been updated to include Jack, so now they gather, facing the point that had represented Spring and Hope. When North completes the ritual he steps back into his spot, and together they hold vigil for the fallen. The silence stretches, uncomfortable and full of pain and sorrow, and eventually, Jack breaks.
"There must be something," Jack says, staring at Bunny's candlelit memorial, his eyes hot and damp, but without tears. North cries openly, silently, and Tooth's shoulders hitch a little with sobs that are muffled by her tiny hands. Sandy does not cry because he cannot, is simply not made for it, but his very glow is dimmed with grief and Jack does not doubt his mourning, as no one doubts Jack despite his voice being steady, even, if a little thickened with his unshed tears. "There must be some way. Sandy came back, there has to be a way..." Jack trails off, unable to even fully articulate what he means, but his companions understand.
"There is no way, Jack. Sandy was special case; he could not be destroyed by his own element, even corrupted as it was. Bunny was different. He... is lost." North rubs at his eyes for a moment, and Jack wished he could do the same, wishes he could wear his pain so openly, but that is not who Jack is, that is not who Bunny had known him as and he refuses to disappoint the other by being somebody else, even for only a moment. Sandy is looking at him, however, a spark is his eyes, and slowly, more sluggishly than usual, his sand begins to moved, spinning through pictographs that Jack has never seen. Tooth catches on before Jack does; gasping in a way that tells Jack that whatever Sandy has suggested is shocking.
"What? What is it?" Jack asks, stepping forward eagerly, hoping Tooth is willing to explain.
"It's..." Her voice trails off and she shoots a look at North across the way, Jack looks too and see's the way North's expression has shuttered, and for a moment fears that Tooth will not tell him. "It's the Road, Jack."
Jack's brow wrinkles in confusion. "The road? Never heard of it."
"It's old, half-myth and mostly forgotten," Tooth continues, ignoring North's resigned sigh, the man's head slumping forward in defeat as she speaks. "The Long Road, or The Questing Path, is the walkway between worlds."
Jack blinks, somewhat confused. "You mean between planets, like the places were Sandy and Bunny and Pitch came from?" Tooth nods a little, confirming, red-rimmed eyes intense.
"Somewhat yes, but more than just that. Different universes, different planes of existence, different realities. Everything that has ever existed in any place is all connected through various back doors, to put it in layman's terms. The Road leads between them all, is the only straight path from here to the edge of everything, and it leads to what some call the nexus, or the place where all things meet. There, in that place, is the Oracle. Some call it God, others call it Truth, still others have names for it in languages never spoken on Earth. It is said though, that the Oracle see's all, knows all, and is all-powerful, and that those who can walk the Road, survive its trials, can ask one boon of it." Jack's brain has been whirring away since Tooth began to speak, but it stops dead on that last little bit of information.
"I could ask for Bunny back."
Tooth offers a hesitant nod, but North's loud harrumph draws all attention to him.
"Is dangerous, Jack. The Road is incredibly long, with many obstacles and enemies on its path, perhaps even more of the things that did this to us. Few Earthborn have ever attempted the journey, and none who have ever returned. Even if you survive, there is no proof of any Oracle waiting." North's weighty gaze lands on Jack, pinning him beneath the force of his sincerity. "I fear Jack, a mission such as this, is suicide."
Jack feels suddenly lightheaded at the prospect, fear of his own death warring with the grief for his dearest friend. Beside him, Sandy begins to sign again, and even Jack recognizes the image of a road when he sees it. He has Sandy's support, and out of the corner of his eye, he can see Tooth nodding. Jack raises his head, looks North in the eye, lets him see the determination burning there. North sighs and slumps a bit further, looking suddenly a thousand years older. Jack feels guilty, knowing his friend will never forgive himself if Jack doesn't return, but he's Jack Frost, he cannot give up now, it's not in his nature.
Besides, somewhere out there is a force that can bring Bunny back to him, and his life is a small sacrifice compared to the promise of that payoff. Squaring his shoulders, Jack nods once, with finality.
He will walk the Road, and MIM help him if he fails.
"I just don't understand, Bunny. If MIM sees everything, why didn't he see me? When I was alone, I mean. Three hundred years... Did he just ignore me?" Jack's voice wobbles a little, despite his best efforts, and Jack can see the moment the sympathy beings to bleed onto Bunny's face. Always sympathy, never pity, that's what Jack likes most about the other Guardian. That and the fact that he knew something like every martial art, ever. Bunny's face was serious as he reached over and put a steady, warm hand on Jack's thin shoulder.
'Listen here kiddo, first off, MIM is good, but he can't see and hear everything. He's got a bird's eye view of us, but that doesn't make him omniscient. He misses a lot more than you think up there and sometimes I think that half the stuff he sees, he's been stuck up there alone for so long that he has no context for. It's not an excuse, you shouldn't have been left like you were, and I don't know the reasons why. You already know that I'm sorry for my bit in all that, but I want you to know that I'm mad too Jack, on your behalf. No one should go it alone, least of all you." Jack grins at Bunny, slightly teary, ignoring that Bunny is too. "You got us now, kid. Don't ever forget. Whatever happens, we will always be with you."
Sandy knows how to find the Road, which doesn't surprise Jack. Sandy is older even then Bunny is...was. Sandy has seen corners of the galaxy that perhaps no other had ever travelled before; it makes sense that he would know such things. The preparations take three days, during which Jack visits his believers, spends time spreading Joy as only he can, in the hopes that he will leave indelible memories, should he fail to return. When they all gather again, possibly for the last time, Jack finds his friends all hardened, resolved. There will be no tears today, only well-wishes and thorough goodbyes. The ritual to open their Doorway is all drawn out in chalk, which makes it easily scrubbed out as soon as Jack is through. This will help stop what lies on the other side from bleeding through; Jack had been informed by North. The three other Guardians were waiting for him, lined up informally as if leading the way to the waiting Door. North stands closest, while Sandy waits to active the runes, so it is North that Jack greets first.
"You must be wary, Jack. The things that like beyond the door come from all worlds, and yet none. They are things lost, things forgotten, things trapped, and their rage and pain know no bounds. They are the most fearsome of foes, do not let your guard down for an instant. Show no mercy, for you will be shown none. And when the darkness draws near, remember to keep you light close to you." North hands Jack a small crystal then; a palm-sized lump that was somewhat egg-shaped, if eggs tended to be slightly lumpy. The crystal glowed brightly for a moment as his fingers clenched around it, and Jack smiled at North, a silent thank you for the magical item. Doubtless it would prove useful in the days ahead. Jack allows the other man to pull him into an overly-tight embrace, knowing it could be the last bear hug he ever receives. When he is finally released, he pats North on his large shoulder, and moves over to Tooth.
The Queen of the Tooth Fairies looks like she's been crying again, or perhaps not sleeping, so reddened are her eyes, but she stands strong before Jack, a sad smile on her lips. In her hands is a colourful ball of fabric, and when he draws even with her, she shakes it out and settles is about Jack's shoulders. It's then he realizes it's a cloak; a proper winter one, lined with feathers that are so familiar he has no trouble recognizing them as hers.
"This is probably brighter than you're used to Jack, but it will offer you some protection from the creatures you're likely to find. Keep it close to you, and always remember the people who love you." She smoothes down the fabric over his shoulders and offers the same small smile as before. Jack embraces her gently, mindful of her fragile wings.
"Follow your heart Jack, and trust your instincts," She murmurs into his ear while she holds him close. As he lets her go to step back, Baby Tooth rockets her tiny body into Jack's shoulder so hard he actually thinks he might bruise, and for a moment he even fears she's hurt herself. She appears unharmed, however she will not be dissuaded from joining him, despite both Jack and Tooth's coaxing.
"It's going to be dangerous, Baby. I don't want you to get hurt, I'd feel bad forever, honestly." Baby Tooth looks up at him from the spot crouched on his palm, hugging his thumb in a death-grip. Her tiny voice is confident, unwavering. She will go with Jack, because Jack is not, and will not be alone. Jack fights back tears as he allows her to settle onto his shoulder, tucked into the folds of his new cloak for protection. He looks to Tooth, but she just pats Jack on the cheek and Baby Tooth on the head, and lets them go.
Sandy gives Jack a warm, if subdued grin. In his hands is a knife, a crude one, made of obsidian and so sharp it could part a strand of hair lengthwise. Jack accepts the gift, knowing that as useful as the other gifts were, Sandy is the only one pragmatic enough to give him a weapon. Jack carefully tucks the blade into his belt, knowing that this weapon will likely be needed, and feeling slightly sick at the thought. It was one thing to wield his frost; it was what he was made for. It was another thing entirely to take a knife to another living creature, even in self-defense. Jack would not falter though, and though he might fail, it will not be because he was not brave enough, or did not have enough conviction to follow through. He nods his thanks to Sandy, taking the other mans' hand briefly in solidarity, before the other drifts back and proceeds to open the portal.
The Doorway opens like its being ripped straight into the fabric of reality, which Jack supposes it probably is. He feels the pull of the emptiness beyond like a mysterious vacuum, and chooses not to fight it, instead stepping forward into its embrace. Jack casts one long, slow glance over his shoulder at his family, cherishing the sight of them and burning it into his memories for the lonely days to come. Then, without hesitation, he walks through the Door, feeling the temporal hole slam shut behind him with a finality that told him there was no going back.
"They say there are only two stories in the world: man goes on a journey, and stranger comes to town."
Jack looked up at Bunny as the Pooka spoke, noting that the other was still hunched over the colour river, carefully weeding along the shoreline. Jack sat up from where he'd been lying reclined against one of Bunny's stone golems, lazily taking in the unending spring of the Warren, along with enjoying a companionable silence. Jack had realized a while back that Bunny did this; would start a conversation with a random fact or bit of trivia. He'd do it casually, without looking at Jack, like maybe he was expecting Jack to have snuck out and was prepared to be disappointed when there was no response. Jack delighted in these long, meandering talks. He felt that these were the times he was closest to Bunny, when they're camaraderie was the strongest.
In the aftermath of Pitch's last bid for power, Jack had struggled to settle into a comfortable rhythm with the other Guardians. It had taken him a while to figure out the actual give-and-take of true friendship, and for trust and understanding to be built. Jack had expected that Bunny would be the hardest to reach out to, considering their history, but once they'd found their stride they'd become nearly inseparable. Nowadays most people looking for Jack checked the Warren first, especially in his off-season. If Jack wasn't found there, then Bunny likely knew where he'd be. The others had thought it odd at first, but they'd soon grown used to the new status quo. Besides, it wasn't like Jack hadn't found plenty of excuses to visit them of his own accord, too.
"Thoughts?" The Pooka prompted again, obviously awaiting Jack's input. Shaking himself from his inner monologue, Jack replied.
"I think... to me, it means that there is only one story, just told differently. Another side might tell a different story, but it's all the same, in the end. In truth, the only difference is perspective; the story itself remains the same." Bunny grinned widely, Jack only just able to pick up the edge of it from his angle, seated slightly behind and to the Pooka's right.
"Yeah mate, I thought so, too."
"We all began as something else- a restless soul standing at the trail head."
― Shannon L. Alder, Never or Forever