Pitch froze, his heart making a strange flutter in his chest. There was no sense of pain, but he was all too aware of the sensation of being shot straight through. This isn't happening, he thought numbly. The arrow, of course, had vanished as soon as it struck him, dissolving into magic that had already begun to course through his veins. He could feel it, an unfamiliar warmth that threatened to overtake his entire soul. Sound ebbed swiftly from the great hall, an incredible feat considering the amount of spirits crammed into it. Pitch felt all eyes turn to him. That...IDIOT. He clenched his fists, turning slowly to face the spirit who had just single-handedly ruined his entire existence.
“Uh...” Cupid held his absurdly patterned bow in one hand, eyes wide. “That little guy, he sort of fell on me as I was showing off my form.” An unmistakeably drunk elf was in a heap by his sandals. Oblivious to the world, the little creature dragged itself to its feet, waved cheerfully in Cupid's general direction, and promptly tottered off into the crowd, bell-topped hat jingling erratically.
“You...” Pitch struggled to maintain his composure. Where was Jack? He needed to find the Winter sprite now and tell him -NO. No, Pitch couldn't allow himself to think of Jack right now, even if it made him feel warm inside. Thank the sane gods, the Guardian of Fun had flown off somewhere. Hadn't he? Where had he gone,and why? No, forget the frost sprite. Cupid. Pitch was furious at Cupid right now. That's what he should be thinking about. The Nightmare King took a deep breath, forcing his expression into something he hoped was neutral.
“Heeeey, chill out Shadow Man. It's not like you're in love with anyone here, right?” Cupid shrugged his broad shoulders, then had the nerve to laugh. “So, no hard feelings, right?”
Pitch grit his teeth. The idiot wasn't wrong. Cupid knew, of course. He was saving his own skin by playing dumb, but he was telling the truth at this particular moment in time. “Of course,” he managed. “Lucky you.” There was no reason for Pitch to pick a fight with the Spirit of Love. If he did, here and now, then it might get people wondering why.
With another nervous laugh, the burly spirit drifted away into the crowd. After a few moments, the noise began again, chatter rising in waves through the cavernous hall. Pitch groaned, rubbing his eyes. He should just leave now. But Jack...but Jack nothing. No, he had to stick around a bit longer, act normal. If only Jack were here, he could spill everything...NO. Pitch tried to turn his attention elsewhere. The hall's Wintery decor made him think of his little frost sprite. Which made him feel fuzzy. No, no good. Jack was not “his little frost sprite”. The tables were full of cakes and candy. The candy made him think of Halloween, which made him think of Jack. No. He groaned, raising his eyes heavenward. The windows looked out into the darkening Arctic air, and he could imagine Jack soaring through it. Orion's belt, this had to stop. He drifted aimlessly through the crowds, trying to keep his head down. The Guardians' insignia inlaid into the floor at the base of the Globe replica caught his eye, an ornate “G” surrounded by the six Guardians. Including Jack. He nearly screamed in frustration.
“Father?” His daughter's voice made him jump, a completely undignified response that he never would have done if it wasn't for this bloody magic.
“Yes?” he responded, trying to keep his voice level as he turned to her.
“Are you alright?” She gazed at him with eyes of silver-edged emerald. He'd never told her. He'd never told anyone. How could he? Because there was nothing to tell. Right?
“I am fine, love.” He sighed. “But I grow tired of this silly little gathering. We should leave soon.” They should wait for Jack. No, they should leave before he got back. He'd be fine. Or think that Pitch had abandoned him...Blast Cupid, blast his stupid arrows, and blast magic in general. There had to be a way to get through this.
Seraphina stared at him for a few moments, but her expression gave Pitch no hint of what she was thinking. For a terrible second, Pitch thought she was going to ask about the other Guardian. He didn't know if he'd be able to stop himself from saying something utterly ridiculous if forced to talk about...that person. “I see,” she murmured instead, then her voice took on its usual clipped tone. “Let me say my farewells and then we can be off. It is rather late.”
Pitch forced a grin. “I shall go and get some fresh air then, at least. If I see one more elf I'm going to strangle something.”
She gave him a little kiss. “I won't be long. I'll tell JD, too.” She melted into the sea of spirits. Pitch nodded vaguely after her, and then picked his way toward one of the exits. The crowds still parted for him, but at the moment Pitch found he couldn't even be grateful for that. If people insisted on surrounding him like they did everyone else then maybe some other spirit could have taken that cursed arrow. He prowled out into the chill Winter night. Darkness had fallen at last, and above him the auroras wove through the heavens, bright stars twinkling between them. Away from the stifling crowds, his thoughts felt just a bit clearer. One slender hand traveled to his chest. There was nothing, no mark or hole to show that the arrow had ever existed. Just that foreign sense of warmth that expanded whenever he thought of...But it wasn't really foreign, was it? He'd felt it that day when they'd raced out of the holiday meeting, and whenever they'd met in Venice. And Halloween. Foolish. The whole thing was foolish. He was Pitch Black, the Nightmare King. He'd done terrible things. He shouldn't even be capable of love anymore. Oh, he enjoyed Jack's presence well enough, but, love? The word wasn't in his vocabulary, there was no reason for it to be.
No, that's not true.
He loved his daughter.
No, that was Cupid's magic talking. He tolerated Jack. The snow sprite's presence wasn't as unbearable as the other Guardians'. Oh sure, Pitch had toyed with the idea that what he felt for the other spirit was love. Perhaps he'd even planned to try and say something about it. At some vague, distant point in time. But really, it was an absurd notion. Pitch let out a sharp, incredulous laugh. Him? Jack? Love?
He loved Jack.
He loved Jack.
There. He'd said it. Well, thought it. Of course, the thought did nothing to satiate the amorous magic coursing through him. The only thing that would end that would be to tell Jack himself. Pitch shook his head. How could he do such a thing? Jack was a wild spirit, he belonged to the winds and the sky. What would he ever see in a creature of darkness and earth like Pitch? Foolish, he thought again, trying to banish the image of Jack's pale form from his mind.
Really though, these weren't his thoughts, Pitch reminded himself. These weren't his emotions. They were foreign magic, invasive, just as the Fearlings had been. He hated that. His mind had been under the control of others for far too long. It didn't matter if this magic was good intentioned or not. Pitch Black was no one's puppet. He was the Nightmare King. That thought ignited a little spark of anger inside him. Now, there was an emotion he knew well, one that was much more familiar than any of these other pointless feelings. He clung desperately to that little flame of rage, fanning it, letting it burn though his magic-addled thoughts. Just who did Cupid think he was?
He never should have come to this ridiculous party. The Guardians didn't want him here, they'd just invited him out of principle. Pitch's lip curled. He'd only accepted for Jack's sake, and now Jack had left him behind. Good riddance. It didn't matter why he'd come, it was a mistake. Doing things for the sake of another? He should have only been looking out for himself. That's the only reason he'd survived this long. No one else but Seraphina cared about him, really. Why should he care in return? Even the frost sprite only spent time with him because he was lonely. That was it, wasn't it? Of course. Why should Jack care one whit about his former enemy?
Pitch was so busy trying to find more dark thoughts to kindle his anger that he didn't notice the soft whisper of a breeze that picked up a few stray snowflakes and caused them to dance around his head. Then, suddenly...
“Hey Pitch, heads up!”
Oh gods, no, not now-
A snowball struck him in the face.
There was that strange warmth again, spreading despite the freezing snow. And mixed in with it, the floating, giddy feeling that was just so...Jack. Pitch's head spun, his mind suddenly and terribly jumbled. He wanted to laugh, wanted to grab Jack and tell him...No, no, no, this was all wrong. He struggled to hold onto his fleeting thoughts. This wasn't him. He was Fear, and anger. “Frost. You...” He might have had this under control. He might have been able to fight Cupid's magic himself, if it hadn't been for that bloody snowball. Damn Cupid, damn Jack, and damn those snowballs. He reached past the sunny warmth of the invading magic, back into the burning flames of anger, channeling them into a vicious howl. “You. Ruin. EVERYTHING.” Even as the words left his lips, Pitch's fury turned inward. He was the one who ruined everything. This was all his own fault, and no one else's. He was a fool for ever coming here. For showing weakness “Curse you!” he hissed, unsure of whether the words were directed at the little Guardian, or himself. He called upon the shadows, commanding them to take him away. Away from Jack, from the North Pole, from the world.
Pitch stormed into the Globe Room, scattering Nightmares, Premonitions, and the newest addition to his odd menagerie, Shucks. The Black Dog gazed at him, smoldering red eyes wide. “Master, what is wrong? I thought you were at the party!”
is wrong,” Pitch snarled, shoving his way past the oversized canine. “Leave me be.”
Shucks whimpered and melted back into the darkness beyond the shimmering Globe. Pitch ignored him, continuing past the little golden lights without sparing them a single glance. Even Seraphina's Premonitions made way for him tonight. He paid no heed to them, or to Sprinkles' curious glance. He just wanted to be alone. The light of the Globe faded behind him as he darted into one of the myriad side passages. The magic swirling inside him had formed a knot in his stomach, having been denied its purpose, and he hissed out a wordless curse. The darkened corridor narrowed, snaking though the damp stone before finally opening to his personal chamber. It was the one place that no one would bother him, Nightmare or otherwise. Pitch collapsed bonelessly onto the bed, gilded silver eyes staring into the gloom above.
He tried to clear his mind of all thoughts, but failed. The image of Jack's wide, frightened blue eyes burned in his mind. That fear brought him no joy at all. If anything, it hurt. Why? It shouldn't. He should be savoring it, shouldn't he? Pitch ran a hand over his face. It hurt because Jack was different. Because Jack was special. He was one of only two people in this entire blasted world that Pitch wanted to hold on to, Love God's magic or no. And now...
“Gods, what have I done?”
Pitch didn't remember falling asleep. It wasn't like him at all to do such a thing. He uncurled with a groan, stretching his lean back in a distinctly feline motion. That cursed magic, he could still feel it, knotted and painful. Jack... The memory of the previous night's fiasco hit him like an oncoming train, and he grabbed the carved wood of the bed frame to steady himself, knuckles white against the polished ebony. If he never saw Cupid again, it would be too soon. Jack, though... The magic thrummed inside him every time he so much as thought the brat's name. He had to do something, even if he didn't know precisely what. Shutting himself in here wasn't going to accomplish anything. He slunk off toward the Globe Room.
Seraphina was waiting for him, Sprinkles and Shucks at her side. “Ah, angel...” Pitch couldn't meet her eyes.
“You made quite the scene last night, Father.” She crossed her arms.
“I...yes.” He couldn't exactly deny that. “That could have gone better-”
“He left, you know.” She glared at him. “After you disappeared. Everyone tried crowding him, and he just took off again.” Pitch opened his mouth to protest, but she rolled right over him. “And don't go thinking you've been hiding anything. You were never happier than when he was around. You should have just told him.” Sprinkles huffed out an agreement.
“I thought he was part of the pack now.” Shucks flicked his ears. “Even if we never were properly introduced. You always smelled so happy when he was around.”
Pitch sputtered. “I don't...it was that bloody arrow...I don't know what you're talking about.”
“If Cupid's 'bloody arrows' really made you fall in love with the nearest person, then you would have been making out with Sasquatch. Much to everyone's horror, I'm sure.” She cupped his face in her hands. “Father. You care deeply for Jack. Why do you hide it?”
The sound of the snow spirit's name made Pitch's heart flutter like a bird in a cage. He tried to ignore it, his hand curling around his daughter's. “You know what I've done. To the Guardians, to him. What do my feelings matter? I don't deserve-”
“Yes! You helped that ice Guardian to defeat Mistress Mab. You are a Guardian now, part of their pack!” Shucks added.
He scowled, pulling away suddenly. “Have I? Am I?” He gave a bitter laugh. “You saw what happened last night. Have I really changed at all?”
“Yes. I know you have. And I believe he knows as well. But he was hurt. Father, just talk to him.”
Pitch was silent, staring at nothing in particular.
“Fine.” Seraphina crossed her arms. “Be difficult. I for one have better things to do than chide you. If you'll excuse me.” She glided past him, and though her voice had been hard, she brushed a hand over his before vanishing into a swirl of leaves. Shucks trotted off, leaving Sprinkles and a few mildly curious Premonitions.
“What?” Pitch turned to the Nightmare, his oldest and most trusted. The dreamsand horses normally couldn't speak to him, not in words. They communicated through feelings and images, but Sprinkles was different. Not only was she now obviously larger and more powerful than the others, but lately she had developed a voice of her own. She could only speak to Pitch, but it was something novel. Perhaps it was because she spent so much time with him, and hadn't been dissolved since the time she'd been attacked by North. Still, her vocabulary was quite limited.
Supposed to be stallion. Instead donkey. Nightmare Donkey. She flattened her ears.
“Are you calling me stubborn?” Pitch glared at her. “Also, I don't remember asking for your opinion.” He shook his head, then grabbed her reigns and hoisted himself up, ignoring the pain in his chest. “This whole fiasco is absurd. We have bad dreams to spread. That's the only thing that matters. Let us be off.” He was the Nightmare King, and he had a job to do. A job that was more important that thinking about frost spirits. He'd just keep telling himself that.
The sky above was heavily clouded, obscuring the shining, ever-watchful eye of the Moon, and for that Pitch was grateful. Even though he was now the Guardian of Courage, he still despised wandering beneath that brilliant gaze. He'd spent far too many centuries hiding from it to ever feel truly comfortable, but at least he was allowed to do his job in peace. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the deep sound rolling across the rows of darkened houses like a wave. It was a perfect evening for his Nightmares to roam. There were so many fears to explore, and yet he couldn't focus on any of them. His mind kept traveling back to Jack. Where was he? It had been a few days now, with no sign of the brat. The Nightmares had searched, but found nothing. Cupid's magic remained a firm little knot in his chest, throbbing whenever he allowed himself to even think Jack's name.
Something distant yet familiar stirred in the back of the Nightmare King's mind suddenly, and he raised his head. It felt cool and stormy, just like the Winter night surrounding him. Like...Jack?
Pitch. You said you understood me.
The words were faint and slurred, but the snow spirit's voice was unmistakeable, and made that little ball of warmth inside him surge. Pitch closed his eyes, trying to ignore it, to blot out everything but Jack's distant words.
Was that a lie?
You were only saying that 'cause you needed an ally, weren't you?
Pitch's long fingers curled into fists. Where was he? How was he calling to Pitch? His silver eyes widened. The Nightmare sand, it had to be. But none of his Nightmares had reported seeing the boy. He would know if Jack was speaking to one right now, but there was nothing. This didn't feel quite like his magic.
You just wanted someone who wasn't like the Guardians.
The words died out in a drunken little hiss. “Jack...” Pitch stared around wildly, before it suddenly clicked. The old dreamsand, stolen from Sandy so many centuries ago. That was why it felt strange. The powers he wielded now had been given to him by Jamie and the other children, they were uniquely his now. But the old sand, that had all disappeared when Queen Mab had taken his powers. Except perhaps...
Antarctica. The dark spire of black sand and white ice, frozen for eternity at the bottom of the world. With a curse, Pitch dove into the shadows, not even bothering to call upon the Nightmares.
Even as he raced through the darkness, Jack's voice continued to speak to him, feeling closer with each passing second.
We're on the same team now. We work together. So you don't haveta lie. Do you still think cold and dark go together?
I do. By the Moon and stars, I do.
I wanted to believe you back then. You know that? I really wanted to believe you. But you hurt my friends. How could I have trusted you back then?
You couldn't. I didn't deserve your trust.
I don't want to be alone. You tried to hurt me.
I was going to come back for you. I was always going to come back for you.
But I know why. You had no other choice. But it's different now. You saved Jamie and the others. You stopped Mab. Now you're a Guardian like me.
Some Guardian I am.
I don't want to be alone. Do you? Mab. That stupid Holiday meeting. Istanbul. Venice. Halloween. I liked those times. Because...I liked you.
I don't know what I did wrong. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Just, don't leave me alone. Pitch. You're...important...to me.
The shadow corridor opened into sudden, blinding white. Pitch stumbled out of the darkness, his sensitive eyes burning from the abrupt change. He paused unwillingly, blinking, trying to adjust to the unforgiving landscape of light. Where was Jack? The world around him began to slowly resolve into icy ridges and windswept emptiness, broken only by a single jagged spire of black. Pitch lurched forward, eyes still narrowed against the glare.
Jack was lying in a heap at the monolith's base, staff abandoned at his side. The knot of magic and emotions inside Pitch's chest constricted into something both warm and painful. “Jack...” Pitch knelt by him. The little Guardian was unconscious, and smelled heavily of alcohol. His silver hair was a mess, the dark circles around his long-lashed eyes even more noticeable. Jack looked absolutely ragged, and Pitch muttered a curse under his breath. It was all his fault. Not Cupid's magic, not Jack's snowballs.
He forced himself to move, gently scooping up the snow sprite's limp form along with the abandoned staff. He was so light. Pitch had never been this close to him before. The least he could do was bring Jack back to Venice to recover. From there... well. Pitch sighed. They would have to speak. One way or another. He would have to tell Jack the truth, and the rest would be up to the Winter spirit.
Shucks was sprawled out beneath the Globe, stubby legs stretched as far in front of him as they would go. He raised his head as Pitch materialized with his burden. “Master Pitch! You are back.” Shucks stood, his nose suddenly wrinkling. “And you found the snowball boy. But, he smells awful.”
“Yes, I rather think I'm getting drunk just standing here.” Pitch tried to keep his voice level. He turned, prowling down the side passage that led to Jack's room. Or rather, to the room that he'd set aside for Jack's use. Pitch set the staff by the doorway and lay Jack down on the creaky mattress. The boy mumbled something incomprehensible, but did not awaken. Pitch gazed down at him silently for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists. He was afraid that he'd lose Jack for good after this. Those words Jack had spoken to him in Antarctica, had he really meant them? He was drunk as a sailor, did he even know what he'd said? “I love you, Frost,” Pitch said softly. Jack gave no response, and the magic coursing through his veins gave no sign of vanishing. He hadn't really expected it to. Jack had to hear the words himself before it would wear off. With a final glance at the sleeping spirit, Pitch turned back to the Globe Room, seeking out the Black Dog.
“Come, Shucks. I would like you to look after him. I feel that in the shape he's in, the Nightmares will be drawn to him like moths to a flame.”
“I don't like moths. They taste like dust.”
“There won't be any moths. It's an expression.” Pitch rubbed his temples. Shucks wasn't always the easiest creature to hold a conversation with. “Just keep an eye on him. I don't need him wandering around my lair drunk. Who knows what trouble he'll get into. Don't let him leave until he stops reeking.”
Shucks stared at the ground. “But what if he wakes up and sees me? He was mad at me in Ireland because I tried to eat his friends.”
“He will not be. Not at you, a least. Not now.” Pitch stared back down the corridor. “It's me he will be angry with. And he has every right to be...”
“Is it because of that ballparty thing? You've smelled strange ever since then.” Shucks tilted his head.
“It doesn't matter,” Pitch snapped, then sighed. “Just look after him. You're my guard dog now, after all. That is your job, and it's all you need concern yourself with. I will deal with Jack when he wakes up.” Somehow.
“Yes, Master.” Shucks whined softly, but obediently shuffled to his stubby feet and ambled off down the hallway. “I will guard the smelly boy for you.” Once the Black Dog had disappeared into the shadows, Pitch let out a groan, broad shoulders slumping. The only thing he could do now was wait.