Author's Note:

If anyone would like an explanation for why I haven't posted anything in about (sweet Jesus) two years, I'd like to direct your attention to a quote by the brilliant Neil Gaiman: "Writing your first draft is like driving at night, through the fog, with one headlight out…the process of writing your second draft is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along."

Suffice to say I didn't have the foresight to give myself that luxury back in 2016…

I know this chapter is quite brief. There will be more to come.

REVIEWS:

As much as I would like to reply to everyone who left a review individually, I think its much too long after the fact for my replies to be relevant. Just know I have been thinking of them as I wrote this and the next chapter.

ALSO!

I need to give a massave thank you to shutupbeaver for supplying the lovely cover art you should now be able to see. They have been very generous sending their designs and sketches based on the story when I least expected them. If there was a way to post them in conjunction with these chapters, I would. I think they should be seen by everyone, they're wonderful.


She froze. Deathly still. Inanimate. And watched as Pitch repeated her name, forming the syllables with his lips. Va-len-ti-na. He tried to grasp her by the arms as he stared up at her with imploring eyes.

Once, in her old life as Renée, Valentina had fainted. A street urchin had made a spectacle of himself for the local villagers by sticking pins in his nerve-damaged shin in exchange for a few tossed coins. The blood had rushed from her head at the grim sight. Black spots appeared in her vision. Her next memory was lying in bed with an ache in her hip and shoulder from where she had struck the ground. Waking from a fainting spell was not like waking from sleep, she realised some hours later. Her body felt heavy. As though the pressure of gravity was crushing her into the Earth. Then there was the way she came to; a slow realisation that her eyes were open, that she was seeing things without registering what they were. The strange, muted sounds she heard were people speaking around her. The taste of copper was blood from where she had cut her lip open. As her senses returned, her one goal was to not heave the contents of her stomach out onto the floor.

That nauseating awakening almost described what Valentina felt when she realised that it was she who lay beneath a gravely concerned Pitch, and not the other way round.

"What…thinking…"

Valentina squinted. "What…?" Her voice sounded distant and waterlogged.

"What were you thinking?!" Pitch's voice suddenly boomed in her ear.

Valentina flinched.

"Why did you come here?!"

"I'm sorry!" she cried and screwed her face up in a wince to brace herself.

She felt no blow befall her.

Through a crack in her eyelid, she peered up at Pitch—who had not moved a finger. Valentina lifted a weak hand to her cheek and was only mildly surprised not to feel the skin there stinging and furiously raw. Her eyes began to well with tears. What was she apologising for? One minute she had been on the brink of murdering a man, the next she was sprawled on the ground. Relief, terror, and heartache escaped Valentina in a sob. Tears spilled down her cheeks. Trickled into the hair at the nape of her neck. The hard lines of fury on Pitch's face softened to an expression between anguish and pity. Gently, gently, he lifted her till they were both seated intertwined on the ground and cradled her in his arms as her chest shuddered with the effort of crying.

"Valentina, why?" Pitch murmured. He took her hand and wrapped it in his own. "How could you do something so dangerous?"

There was a murkiness where dreams muddled with reality. It clouded Valentina's mind. "I don't…" She shook her head and sniffed. Her eyes could not focus on any one thing. "I did something terrible. I thought—I was only supposed to save her. But I did it without realising and then it was you and…" her breath hitched.

"You don't have to try and explain them to me," said Pitch.

"Them?" Valentina queried with a crack in her voice.

"The visions. Thanks to the sheer terror you exuded, I have a pretty clear idea."

There was a steeliness to Pitch's tone. A low lying wrath Valentina sensed. It made her hesitate. "What happened to me?" she asked.

Pitch let out a tense, measured sigh. "I suppose when you decided to follow me, the hate that has been festering down here in the sand must have, I don't know, sought you out. Made you hallucinate. Tempted you into succumbing to your baser instincts."

Valentina glanced around, looking for signs of the toxic dust.

"It's gone," said Pitch, reading her fears. "At least, for now it is. I'm holding it at bay."

"You can't destroy it?"

"No. If the sand truly was mine, I could. But I'm afraid when you steal someone else's magic it doesn't work like that."

Valentina blinked, remembering her hasty departure from the North Pole, her descent into a place she might have called home under different circumstances. And then nothing but half-forgotten faces that looked alien to her now-lucid mind.

"You placed yourself in danger," Pitch continued tersely. "You were impulsive. Reckless. As far as I'm concerned, you are lucky to be alive."

"Please," Valentina whispered amid fresh tears, "don't be angry."

"Could you blame me if I was? You pulled the hateful energy in the nightmare sand to you like a magnet. It nearly consumed you. If you hadn't been rendered unconscious by its somnific properties, I don't want to think what else might have happened. Imagine my horror when I came down here to find you suffering through a torture of my own invention, drowning in nightmares. The fear that rolled off you…" Pitch breathed out a long, tense sigh though his nose. "This is all to say nothing of your 'alter ego'. I may not have even made it in time if your little willo-wisp had not found me first."

Valentina looked up. "She found you?"

Pitch either did not hear her, or chose not to. To himself, he muttered, "All of this was so needless."

"No." Valentina wiped her cheeks, smearing them. Beneath her fingers she felt a crack that carved its way down the side of her face, a gully for her tears. "It wasn't needless. Misguided maybe, but not needless."

"I fail to see how."

"Pitch, you left," Valentina rejoined and levelled her eyes with his. The look he gave, had she not known better, might have been mistaken for one of derision.

"Not forever."

"Really? Look me in the eye and tell me you were going to go back."

Pitch opened his mouth to answer. He closed it again. The uncertainty in his face made Valentina's heart sink.

"You left," Valentina repeated quietly. "You just disappeared."

Pitch made an unintelligible sound of exasperation. "I had to. I needed time and space to think. Sorry if I alarmed you, but I thought you being on friendly terms with most of those buffoons meant you were capable enough to take care of yourself."

"I was. I am," Valentina retorted. "That wasn't the problem."

"Then what was?"

"I was worried. All I could think about was you and what Manny intended for you."

Pitch regarded her impassively. "Is that all?"

Valentina bit her lip. "Look, I admit when I first made up my mind I was being self-indulgent. I wanted to be wherever you were. I didn't care about the danger. I was angry, confused…I thought perhaps you felt the same way so I came to find you. I wanted you to know you weren't alone because—because I guess I just wanted to know that I wasn't either. It wasn't until I was on my way down here that I realised you were more than just angry; you were insulted. That to me was alarming."

Pitch scoffed. "Why? You thought that might prompt Pitch Black the nefarious Boogeyman into returning for a surprise encore?"

Valentina cast her eyes away to the dark corners of whatever cavern she had somehow found herself in. None of the filtered light from the main hall found its way to them. The only light was cast in the form of a dusty oil lamp suspended in a small cage. Where it was anchored she could not tell. She picked at the cuticle of her thumb and said, "Honestly? Maybe. I like to think I know you better than anyone but the truth is you will always surprise me. I would be a fool to think otherwise. So my concern wasn't just that you left. It was for what you were planning to do next. Let's be realistic, you don't exactly have a reputation for keeping a level head."

Pitch inclined his head and regarded her with callous irony. "Well, I suppose like calls to like for a reason, doesn't it, Valentina—if that is who I'm talking to. These days you seem to change with the flick of a switch."

Valentina's stomach dropped like a stone. Under his cold gaze her throat tightened. "That was uncalled for," she said thickly.

"No, uncalled for was you racing in here assuming I needed you to save me from whatever angst you projected onto me! You overreacted and let your emotions get the better of you. Like always."

If Pitch looked remorseful the moment the accusation had left his lips, Valentina was too hurt to care. Brushing off Pitch's embrace, she stood and ignored the head-rush she received for her efforts.

"Oh, I see," she hissed. "I overreacted. Let's think why that might have been, hm? After finding out your daughter made an attempt on your life with mine as collateral, you had a sudden, profound realisation that my soul is actually that of your late wife. Then, since none of that was inane enough, instead of calmly discussing the prospects that the Man in the Moon had in mind for you like the time-wizened immortal you were supposed to be, you vanished without a word and left me with the task of smoothing things over with the Guardians, who already struggle to trust me."

Valentina's chest rose and fell laboriously. She had not seen fault in Pitch or his desperate escape before but suddenly it was hard not feel the keen sting of having been left to fend for herself.

"You're right, Pitch. I overreacted. I was scared you would do something reckless, but more importantly, I didn't want you to feel as alone as you left me. Crucify me."

Pitch held Valentina's steely gaze. He pressed his lips together, then parted them in a humourless smile as he rose to his feet and brushed down his cloak. "Valentina, I have done everything in my power to not leave you alone. Let's not forget who was confining themselves behind enemy lines for whom this past month, shall we?"

Valentina made a noise of indignation but Pitch held up a finger.

"No, no, you've already said your piece, darling. It's my turn. Now I know, it's unorthodox; me lecturing a Guardian on the importance of self-sacrifice. However, after everything I've had to re-learn about good for the sake of good, in this moment I am reminded that even the best of us, even those who make us want to choose good, can be self-serving enough to forget the deeds that have been done for their sake." Pitch pressed his fingers into his eyes and rubbed them. "Valentina, I have been patient. I have been steadfast. Even when I should have given myself every reason to escape the situations I was placed in. Every other time, I stayed for you. Give me just this one opportunity to be selfish."

She may have imagined it, but Valentina thought she felt her body reel and sway on the spot as she realised what Pitch was trying to tell her. It made her sicken with shame.

"What, you're not going to argue back?" Pitch asked flatly.

"No…" Valentina pressed a fist over the queasiness knotting her stomach. "You were right. I have been selfish. As you've become kinder and more tolerant, I've forgotten that that's all quite new to you. I realise now that I've been taking for granted that you can keep it up perfectly and indefinitely. It's not fair of me to expect that from you. Or anyone, for that matter."

Valentina approached Pitch and gingerly brushed a wayward strand of hair up out of his face. Her fingers skimmed slowly, savoringly down his temple, his cheek bone, the ridge of his jaw. There was indeed something different in his eyes. More kindness. More patience. But not an unlimited supply.

"And you should know. You should be told every day for the rest of your life how grateful I am. None of what I am trying to do would be possible without you."

Pitch nodded, but his eyes drifted to the ceiling. "It's just the strain, Valentina."

"I know, I know."

"And of course you're under pressure too. I just wanted you to understand…"

"I do. I just might have been distracted for a second. I got carried away. Can you forgive me?"

Pitch sighed as as he tilted his face into the open palm of her hand. He closed his eyes for a moment. "Of course," he said.

Valentina smiled.

His eyes flickered open. Seeming to have remembered himself, Pitch gathered himself back to his usual measured state of composure. "I mean, I think I can find it in myself." He rolled his eyes. "Somewhere."

"Mhmm."

"Deep down."

"Okay."

"In the forgotten pits of my soul perhaps."

"Are you done?"

"—At great personal expense."

"Yes, yes, I get it, you're a saint."

Pitch gave her a devilish smile. "Took you long enough."

Valentina shook her head at him in mock exasperation. "You were right though, I'm not exactly one to be level headed either. I suppose that's what happens when you, ahem, project your emotions on others."

Pitch cringed at her rueful smile. "No, that was unfair of me. In the heat of the moment I spoke without thinking and I'm sorry I did."

"You made a valid point. Just promise you'll tell me where you're going so I don't come looking next time."

"I promise. Anyway, perhaps you were right in thinking I didn't want to be…entirely on my own."

With caressing fingers Pitch bushed his way up her arm and trailed along the line of her collarbone. There was a look in his eye that made her quiver with—what? Fear? Excitement? Both? And that was to say nothing of the heat he made rise to the surface of her skin with his feathery touch alone.

"And I suppose when the danger is gone," he murmured into her ear, "this is as good a place as any to be alone together."

Heart pounding, Valentina pulled away. "And perhaps you were wrong."

Pitch lifted his brow. "Excuse me?"

"In thinking that my coming here was completely 'needless,' I mean." She wrung her hands together, willing herself to think of the most pressing matter at hand—rather than the pressing matter that could be in her hands.

Bemused, Pitch asked, "Why is that?"

"For the reason the others agreed to my finding you: the Man in the Moon doesn't want you to be one of his Guardians after all."

Pitch stared at her. Silent. Unreadable.

"Come again?" he asked calmly.

"North explained it to me after you left. Manny was not trying to recruit you. What he was trying to tell all of us in his…" Valentina pulled a face, "…infinite wisdom…was a prophecy. In it, he sees you standing united with the Guardians against your mutated nightmares. But I don't believe he was saying that he wants you to become one yourself."

The space between them fell deathly quiet.

"Pitch? Do you understand?"

"No, I think I heard you the first time, actually." Pitch gazed deep into the dark. No single definitive emotion crossed his face. Was he be enraged? Humiliated? Relieved?

Valentina approached him again, slowly. "Honestly, I thought you would be happy to hear that. Unless…?"

"No." Pitch shook his head. "I'm—I am…happy. I'm certainly not disappointed by any means." He laughed. It sounded forced. "It's not like I had any expectations. And really it would have been nothing but a burden because it's like I said."

Valentina's brows knitted together.

"I'm not supposed to be loved like them."

Valentina crossed the last remaining steps between them, slid her arms around his neck, and pulled him to her to grace his lips with a kiss, soft and sweet. Before he could melt into her mouth, she broke away and said, "You're right. You're not supposed to be loved. Not by them. You're unpleasant and harsh…"

"Is this supposed to make me feel better—?"

Valentina placed a finger over his lips. "Yes. Because you're more important than any of us. When the magic of childhood ends—and it must eventually—you guide them to the threshold of adulthood. All the values the Guardians embody are necessary and its that spirit that holds all children in good stead as they grow up. But you can make sure they have the tools they need to survive. You've already proved it."

Pitch said nothing, not even when Valentina removed her finger.

"You're disappointed. I don't have to read your mind to know that. To have Manny appoint you as a Guardian would have been validating. Vindicating, even. But no matter who you are or what you are I will always love you. Guardian or no. Pitch, look at me. You are inimitable. You are more than what the Man in the Moon makes of you. I can see that. I think deep down you do too. So, don't you wait for someone else's permission to realise how remarkable you can be."

In a sudden surge of passion Pitch wrapped his arms around Valentina's waist and pressed her body to his as he kissed her. She could feel everything beneath her; the tautness of his abdomen, the thrumming of his pulse. The way he was itching to pull her even closer. And she wanted to give in to that need, too. She wanted him with a craving that had lain dormant since before her Earthly body was conceived. But something was stopping her.

Pitch must have felt her resist ever so slightly. Despite the intensity in his eyes, he saw beyond want and need, and found her unease.

"No?" he breathed.

"No." Valentina cast her gaze down, embarrassed by his quizzical look. "I mean I want to. But I can't. Not yet. I'm sorry."

Pitch considered her, almost curiously. He could have protested. Tried to make her see his reason. Instead, he nodded slowly and said, "There's always time." Despite his unvoiced confusion, Pitch asked no further questions except for one as he settled a hand at the small of her back with the other holding her to his chest. "Why do you love me?" he murmured in her ear. "How could you?"

"You know why. Apparently I've loved you before." Jokingly, Valentina began to hum and sing her way through a tune with the voice of a lilting mezzo soprano. "I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream / I know you, the look in your eyes is so familiar a gleam."

"Very funny."

"Oh, I think it's hysterical. For I know it's true that visions are seldom all they seem." Valentina chuckled and flashed him a wink. "But if I know you, I know what you'll do / you'll love me at once / the way you did once…upon…" She trailed off and stiffened in Pitch's hold. She craned her neck to look at him with wide eyes. "Cupid," she said.

"What about Cupid?" Pitch asked.

"She was the one who found you here."

"More like she fired herself at me like a bullet. Bloody hurt surprisingly enough." Pitch rubbed his hand over the left side of his chest as if remembering the collision. Valentina's eyes landed there, to the place where the opening of his cloak settled over his breast. Where his heart drummed beneath, growing steadier and stronger everyday.

"In fact," Pitch continued, "she was rather preoccupied with that spot. Just like you are. What on Earth is going on with the two of you?"

Valentina's lips spread in a smile she could not contain. "I knew it."

Pitch narrowed his eyes. "Knew what? What did you know?"

Valentina conjured the soul fragment with a flourish of her hand. Cupid appeared with a spark that bust into an elegant flame-like apparition. She immediately gravitated towards Pitch—towards his heart.

"I had my own epiphany which lead me to a hypothesis. If what you were saying was true, that you really saw something of your wife in me, or that we somehow share the same spirit, then who would know that better than Cupid? She's a part of my soul. And my soul would have seen and felt things before I, Valentina, came into being."

Pitch's eyes widened as he grasped the thread of an idea she was dangling in front of him.

"Your soul and mine; they know each other. It was a long, long time ago but Cupid remembers—even if I don't. They have been calling out to each other ever since we met. Maybe even before that. They're like twin stars caught in each other's orbit. And I'm sure that pull has strengthened since our memories of the past have returned. There's only one reason why she could have lead me to you like this.

Dumbfounded, Pitch asked, almost on a whisper, "Does that mean…?"

Valentina nodded.

Without warning, Pitch swept Valentina up in a twirl that snatched a gasp right out of her lungs. His laughter filled the air, as did hers in-between shrieks of joyful terror. The room fell away in a dizzying, black blur. The lone light drew a circling comet above them as they spun. When her feet touched ground again, Valentina wobbled with giddy imbalance. Pitch pulled her to him in the dearest hug, an embrace she had come to know so intimately. He could do nothing else but hold her.

Until Valentina felt something seize her by the ankle.

They lurched apart with Valentina screeching. The sudden spike in her fear left Pitch visibly affected. It made him lose focus. Valentina could do nothing but watch on helplessly as rivers of tainted nightmare sand surged towards them. The ten seconds Pitch took to clear his head of the sudden high almost cost them their swift escape.