I'm back...and I have nothing to say for myself. Don't hate me, just enjoy this hella long update!
Also don't forget that if you haven't caught up in a while, I did go back and rearrange the sequence of the first three chapters, which you are welcome but not obliged to re-read.
CrossoverJunkie: You know, I like their dynamic too. Hope this sates your curiosity, at least for now.
It goes without saying that Sumi-Sprite does more for these chapters than any of you will ever know; but it shouldn't. Sumi, thank you for being a wonderful beta who always knows where my head is at.
If you are enjoying this story, please don't forget to leave a review! You'll make a stressed-out author very happy.
Summary: In which, Tooth learns a cold, hard truth.
The Art of the Compromise
After crossing entire countries, time-zones, and continents in a mere blink of an eye, Tooth and Pitch arrived at the palace at daybreak.
The mountainous landscape of Punjam HyLoo was a picture of majestic tranquillity. An early morning mist curled in the jungle valley below spires of volcanic rock formations, promising a bright, clear afternoon to come. However, what greeted Tooth and her new protégé within the mosaicked caverns of Tooth Palace was anything but serene.
Attempting to organise a behemoth filing system of collected lost teeth, iridescent specs zipped through the air with no discernable rhyme or reason as to their course. Tooth's hopes of a swift recovery would have been dashed that instant, had she not spied Baby Tooth attempting to restore some semblance of order. The little fairy with heterochromatic eyes and a whole lot of spunk hovered in the middle of the Nest—the central platform where Tooth usually gave out her orders—and directed her sisters when they seemed unable to do so themselves. Baby Tooth maintained a steely front but was clearly frazzled after such a long and unexpected shift. She kept shouting corrections to orders already spoken or pulling at tufts of her own feathers as she darted this way and that. Though wracked with guilt, the sight of Baby Tooth's diligence was cause for a swell of pride in Tooth's chest. She lifted her thumb and forefinger to her lips and blew a whistle so shrill, Pitch clamped his hands to his ears and winced. Every single one of her workers stopped as though time itself had frozen.
"Girls…" Tooth's voice was carried by a hollow echo that swept through the open palace. "…I'm so sorry."
The was a moment of stunned silence. Then the air exploded in pandemonium. The mini-fairies, all several thousand of them, rushed upon Tooth where she stood, paying little mind to Pitch at her side. Sunlight disappeared behind a turquoise cloud of feathers and wings as the fairies converged to hurl their chatter at her. Baby Tooth shoved her way to the front of the throng, twittering a barrage of distressed questions. And Tooth would have answered them—gladly. If only she could understand a word any of them were saying.
"Wait, slow down, all of you. One at a time," Tooth implored. It was no use. The fairies were frenzied. Their high-pitched chatter rose to unbearable heights, a thousand voices chirping and chittering at once, but none of them voices Tooth recognised. "Enough!" she yelled above the clamour. The wall of noise died away, leaving only the fluttering of wings. "I—I'm sorry for disappearing. Believe me, it was not by choice. I'll explain everything as best I can, but for now…I don't know what any of you are saying, and talking all at once is not going to help."
Several fairies drew away in surprise, others exchanged worried glances and whispers. Baby Tooth, being their de facto leader, flew over and landed in the cup of Tooth's waiting hands. She began to babble in earnest. To Tooth's dismay, she was still incomprehensible.
"Baby Tooth, I don't understand anymore," Tooth interrupted, her voice thickened by the lump in her throat. "I need a translator or someone-" She broke off with a squeak of realisation and turned to Pitch. "You can hear them now, can't you?"
"I could always hear them," Pitch grumbled, "they're no less irritating now than they were before."
"What I mean, you sack of…" Tooth screwed her mouth shut before she could unleash the string of insults on her tongue.
"Do go on," Pitch baited.
"What I mean is: you can understand what they're saying."
Pitch did nothing to confirm or deny her suspicions. Not intentionally. He stood rigid with a look of dismay darkening his face that diverted the attention of every set of eyes to him. The word of the fairies spread like a contagion. Those that did not scream bloody murder might as well have been applying their war paint.
"Stop!" Tooth cried. "You cannot hurt him. That's an order. Don't even lay a finger on him, no matter how much you want to. Gods, do I know how much you want to…"
"Tick tock, Toothiana," Pitch growled.
"I know," she continued to her fairies, "you're frightened, you're confused, you're furious about what he did to you—to the children—to all of us…" Tooth's hands squeezed into fists as she gathered her own resentment within them. "…However, we have to put that anger aside. Without Pitch, we're doomed. There is a counter curse, but until North and Jack find it to restore things back to the way they were, we have no choice but to work together." Tooth looked over to Pitch and pressed her lips together. "None of us do."
Tooth spent the following hour attempting to field questions—a difficult feat when her middleman made a point of snapping at every interruption made by her frightened fairies. Ironically, their fear was the one thing Tooth didn't need Pitch to translate. She saw it in their collective flinch whenever he moved; the catching of their breath whenever he lowered or raised his voice, however benign his tone. Tooth understood. Every twitch, every flickering of Pitch's eyes was something to question. A sinister plot. A 'what if' she didn't want to know the answer to. And Pitch knew he had her attention. Like somehow, despite him being the one who was woefully entrapped, it was she who was staring into the jaws of a jackal. But just because Pitch could taunt and torture her with the mild threat of villainy, it didn't mean he had the palace and its residents trapped under his thumb.
For all Pitch's bravado and bluster, this misadventure behind enemy lines was already taking its toll. His slender shoulders buckled beneath consternation. The worrisome lines in his face deepened with each passing hour. And on ticked the tedious minutes dense with new information. Though an intelligent, cunning specimen, trying to keep up with Tooth's rapid-fire explanations of the palace's complex mechanics was proving too much even for him to wrap his head around.
And Tooth, while she was loath to admit to her own pettiness, would not deny her immense satisfaction in seeing his resolve slowly crumble.
Before long the fairies were caught up. Just as they reluctantly began to disperse, Sandy stumbled into the palace with a technicolour flash of light announcing his arrival. Not that Tooth had noticed. Unaware of her new guest, she supervised her workers, the cavern, and its continental pillars in a daze beneath heavy eyelids. Sandy strolled over to her and tugged on the grainy fabric of her clothes, startling her awake and Pitch into a defensive stance.
"Sandy! What are you doing here?" Tooth exclaimed. As she blinked away the fatigue that kept trying to creep up on her, the gnomish-looking Sandy reached into his pocket, pulled out a note, and passed it to her. "What's this?"
Sandy gestured for her to open and read it, which she did aloud.
As we have no time to lose, Sandy will be taking you to the Isle of Dreams for an induction immediately. I hope Tooth Palace will not fall to ruin in your absence. Do not forget the snowglobes.
"Wait, as in right now?" asked Tooth.
"But I'm not done here! We've barely gone over the location and filing systems, then there are the sector squads, not to mention what to do if he needs to put together a strike team."
"For what?!" Pitch exclaimed.
Tooth gave a vague, frustrated grunt and hand gesture in his direction. "Sandy, he doesn't know what to do. And after everything he did to my fairies, Moon help us if you think it would be a good idea to trust him alone with them."
Sandy looked around Tooth's shoulder to see the horde still had their eyes fixed on Pitch, and snickered at their barely-restrained bloodlust. No; it most certainly was not a good idea—but not for the reasons that concerned her. With a shrug, Sandy opened a different snowglobe-portal, this time to his realm, and gestured for Tooth to step inside. At a loss for words, Tooth wrung her hands and muttered a reassurance to herself.
"Okay, okay, fine. It's not like they haven't worked without you before. They can still collect the teeth and you have Pitch to hold the fort…oh, Gods. No, no, it's okay. Baby Tooth is still here, she knows what to do. This doesn't have to be the end of the world… All right." With her mind made up, she turned to Pitch. "All that information you've been collecting in that big head of yours for the past day; use it. As it comes to you, tell the squads where to go. Baby Tooth will know what to do if you have any questions. I'll be back again before tomorrow. Hopefully." To Baby Tooth, she added, "Don't let him out of your sight."
Pitch stared at Tooth, blank and unresponsive. There was no biting remark. No insincere farewell. His lips remained sealed—and rather pale. It gave Tooth pause for the briefest moment. Should she, perhaps, have spared him some sympathy?
"One more thing," she added with a sigh. Pitch regarded her with a wary gaze as her expression shifted from gentle to unforgivingly stern. "Don't screw it up."
— O —
As their tour came to an end on the foreshore of the Isle of Dreams, Sandy stretched out his little arms and gestured to their surrounds in a question of approval. Tooth didn't know how to respond.
The island had much to admire; crystal cyan waters, tropic breezes and dazzling sunsets. Grains of sand blown loose by the wind drifted from the dunes, flying in coils of spun gold that gave the air a mysterious ambience. The result was a postcard paradise fused with the potential of unrealized fantasies.
However, mystical auras aside, there was no denying that what Tooth stood upon was a glorified mountain of sand with little else to boast. It drifted in a shallow reef beneath the dome of a clear, endless sky. A strong gust of wind might have blown it away. Let alone a tropical storm. Of the numerous small coves and inlets that shaped the island, there were one or two docked schooners between them. These were Tooth's only way to and from her new post, unless she felt confident in conjuring something with a little more torque, which she did not. Then there was Sandy's 'workspace'. While lavish and well furnished with a bed, kitchenette and writing desk, his quarters were modest and compact. Cramped even. Given that the island had formed from the star Sandy once captained after it fell to earth, this was not surprising. There was no need for grandeur when most of one's time was spent sleeping and creating the essence of dreams. But what was a Sister of Flight, a creature of pure freedom, supposed to say to such confinement?
"It's lovely, Sandy. I'm sure I'll be…I'll be just fine here," she answered at last.
Sandy beamed, pride colouring his cheeks with a rosy glow.
"So, is it really just you here all the time? All by yourself?"
Sandy expression took on a look of surprise, and his hand shot to his head; he had forgotten something. Beckoning Tooth over to the edge of the shore, where the waves rushed around her ankles in a sparkling foam, Sandy looked out across the water and squinted.
"Sandy, what are you…?"
Ignoring Tooth, Sandy turned and jogged a little way down the beach, to where a sandstone rock formation cropped out against the arc of the cove. He disappeared within one of its crevices. A few seconds later, he reemerged holding a creamy-white conch shell half the size of his own head and hurried back. It was riveted by spines, with streaks of fawn and golden brown that spiralled into a cone. Once at Tooth's side, Sandy drew a breath, lifted the cone of the shell to his lips, and blew. The sound swelled in a dual-toned herald that drifted out to sea. Beyond the rise and fall of the waves, several figures soon broke the water's surface. With each ebb and flow of the tide, they swam closer to shore, until the sheen of their scales was unmistakable. From the shallows, they stared up at Tooth and Sandy in eerie silence.
"They're…mermaids," Tooth whispered.
Sandy nodded, impervious to Tooth's disbelief, and greeted his visitors by taking each of their pale, blue-tinged hands in his own. Beneath seaweed, starfish and pearl wreathed crowns, the mermaids returned his greeting with congenial smiles. Their teeth were pointed.
"These are friends of yours?" Tooth asked slowly. Sandy nodded once again, oblivious to her wariness.
There was something hypnotic about these creatures that made them fascinating to behold. Beautiful, strong tails glistened in the ripples of liquid glass, lazily swaying and flicking with the pull of the current. Aquamarine scales adorned their bodies, like jewels that refracted sunbeams so they danced across the surface of the water. In their eyes, oceans surged. Tooth could have drowned in their teal and turquoise. But she wouldn't have minded, so long as they kept singing. They had to keep singing or she felt she would die. Their sweet, lilting songs would draw her further out to sea, the call of fathoms below irresistible like the pull of gravity. And as her panic slipped to the surface in the silver bubbles of her last breath, she might have even felt happy for it.
Tooth's heart jumped in her chest and she blinked, breaking the spell. The expression on the pale face of the mermaid closest fell to a sour pout. She appeared regal with her crown forged from mother of pearl, and yet seemed childishly petty upon having her little game be brought to an abrupt end. As dawning horror sent a chill down Tooth's spine, a sinister sense of foreboding settled in the pit of her stomach.
She was about to be trapped on an island with creatures of immense, unfathomable power.
Creatures who wanted to drag her down to a watery death.
Suddenly, Sandy stood up. Facing Tooth, he dusted off his hands in a gesture that seemed oddly final. With a last wave to the mermaids, he turned and strolled up the beach to retrieve the snowglobes he had brought with him.
"Wait, you're leaving?" Tooth squeaked. She chanced a nervous glance over her shoulder, to where the mermaids' eyes watched her with an unwavering, collective stare. Her stiff legs propelled into motion and she raced up to the dunes to catch him. "Sandy, I don't think this is a good idea. Are you sure they can be trusted?"
Sandy frowned, deeply perplexed by her insinuation and nodded. Before he retrieved the bag containing his snowglobes, he picked up a piece of driftwood smooth as a bone and bleached by the sun. With it, he drew an image in the sand. A map of the island spiralled in curlicue tendrils with a crevice at its center—his quarters. From that centre, he wrote a trail of Zs drifting into the air and pointed to Tooth. He then dropped the stick and took a handful of the beach's glittering sand, running it between his fingers from hand to hand, over and over. To Tooth's abject dismay, she understood. She was to stay. Alone. To fulfil Sandy's duties in his absence, just as they had planned.
Well, she wouldn't quite be alone. There were always the mermaids to keep her company.
"You'll be back soon, right?" Tooth queried as Sandy took up his bag. He gave her a warm, reassuring smile, still radiant despite his rather dull robes and lack of magical dreamsand. He picked up the stick again and drew two lines, the hands of a clock striking ten. He would be back in the morning. In the meantime, Tooth's job was simple. She needed to give in to her fatigue and untether herself from worry and strife long enough to drift away.
To sleep, perchance to dream.
With that, Sandy reached into his robes and opened yet another portal, his third in as many hours. He must have pilfered more than his allotted two from North's stocks, Tooth mused. How very convenient for him.
They bid their farewells. Once Sandy was gone, Tooth sighed and looked back out to the water. The sun had sunk below the horizon and the island was only visible by the light of a dying sunset. Narrowing her eyes through the gloom, she spied luminous, green specks hovering where the tide met the beach. Fireflies, perhaps.
No. Not fireflies. They couldn't be. Those were eyes. And below each pair, deadly crescent moon smiles.
Stifling a cry, Tooth turned tail and bolted for Sandy's quarters, the furthest point away from water—and therefore mermaids—in any direction. Once inside, she threw herself down onto the velvety red cushions that scattered his bed and squeezed her eyes shut. If she pretended hard enough, maybe she could convince herself she was home, with nothing outside but the sprawling, green, mountains of Punjam HyLoo. The whistle of the wind could be the sound of her fairies' wings as they took flight. The seabirds, her comrades of the skies.
As Tooth drifted off, she comforted herself by imagining the familiar chatter of nocturnal animals in a midnight jungle. But gradually, a haunting melody permeated the soundscape she created. A song sweet and strange seeped into the drowsy visions that flashed behind her eyelids. She was helpless to resist it.
Dreams, such dreams be in the sand you hold
They summon all the darkling fears
And make the night grow cold…
What felt like a little while later, Tooth's eyes snapped open with her heart drumming a frantic tattoo. Something had disturbed her. A noise? Movement? Or did even the most benign shift in the air feel menacing when sleeping in a place that wasn't your own?
Tooth let out a discontented sigh, the sound of her own breath in the silence much too harsh for her liking. Laying in the dark of Sandy's quarters as her panic subsided, she wondered if she had succumbed to sleep after all. She didn't feel rested but even so, there was one way to find out. Veiled by a thick curtain that covered the wall behind Sandy's bed, a system of tubes, pipes, and chambers converted new dreams into dreamsand, which was then released out into the world. Tooth pulled back the curtain to reveal newly collected and softly glowing, albeit slightly amber tinged, particles. Despite the sudden, glaring light exposure, she couldn't refrain from grinning. She had slept. Maybe not much, but at least her report back to the others would evidence some progress. And at that point, any progress was welcome news. The only question was: how long had she been dead to the world? Peering into the night through Sandy's window gave her no clues. It was black as pitch out there.
Just like that, Tooth's glimmer of relief evaporated. It had to have been at least several hours since she had been dragged away from the palace. Enough time for her substitute to crack. And if Pitch had cracked, Tooth's stomach churned thinking that she might have left him in such a state—because her life was in his hands. Her life and the rest of the Guardians'. This worry she felt for him was not pity. Not in the slightest.
Even if it is, it's not like he deserves it.
But strangely, the appeal of tormenting the (former) Boogeyman had since lost its shine. There was nothing Tooth found gratifying about picturing Pitch buckling under stress and tearing his feathers out. Not anymore. Perhaps deep down—very deep down—she was inclined to feel sympathetic towards his plight. After all, it was horrible to be in an unfamiliar place while faced with a daunting task. And even worse to be lonely but never quite alone…
With a jolt of realisation, Tooth sat bolt upright.
That was what had woken her. Not something, but someone, and more than just one person at that—if they could even be called people. Sure enough, if she listened, she could still hear the high notes of their song floating on the breeze.
Dreams, such dreams… sand… hold…
Tooth swallowed a moan. They were still out there. Worse still, when she let her vigilance slip, she could feel the charm of their voices work its way into her bloodstream to sedate her. If she wasn't careful, she would be too vulnerable to resist whatever sinister deeds they had planned.
So what are you going to do about it, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies? the little voice of reason in her head snarked. Board up the doors and bury your head in sand?
Tooth bit her lip. Her ancestors would have been ashamed of her cowardice, no doubt rolling in their mass grave. There was once a time before the Dark Ages where she had been a warrior. A queen among men! Though granted, those days were long gone. She had faced far worse than a few creepy fish and lived to tell the tale. To do so again would only take a little courage. And if courage was scarce, by that point Tooth had enough vexation and spite to carry out the utterly reckless decision she had made.
With no wings, no backup, and nothing with which to defend herself but her bag clutched in a tense fist, Tooth marched down the beach. She assured herself if worse came to worst, she always had her last remaining snowglobe to help her make a quick escape, plus the ones technically reserved for 'Mr. Flight-Risk'. Not to mention, she had a wicked right hook in her arsenal. Pitch could attest to that. But though the harmonies of the mermaids' voices still lingered in the air, when Tooth reached the shore there was no one to greet her.
"I know you're out there!" she called and cursed the quiver that seized her by the throat. "I'm warning you—you have no idea who you're messing with. So…quit stalking me and go back to wherever you came from!"
A head broke the surface of the water in a ring of bubbles. Tooth stifled a scream. The creature, only an arm's length away, pushed back the wet curtain of her hair to reveal angular features and gill-like slits for nostrils. As Tooth schooled her expression of fearful surprise, the mermaid spoke. She had a curious accent that rolled her words around her tongue with great effort before spitting them out.
"And who is it we are supposed to be 'messing with", as you so eloquently say?"
Tooth drew herself up and straightened her spine. "Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies and Guardian of Memories."
The mermaid was silent for a beat, her expression impassive. "We are not used to hearing voices where there should be none."
"That makes two of us," Tooth retorted. "Who are you?" The mermaid ignored her question.
"What happened to the Star Captain? He told us he was going away."
"He is going away for a while, yes," Tooth replied carefully with her brow creased. "I'm filling in for him. It's…complicated."
Conversation ceased as Tooth and the mermaid studied each other by starlight; Tooth with caution, the mermaid with cunning. There was no moon to lend its light. Manny's inconvenient orbit had taken him far out of sight somewhere beyond the horizon, which meant Tooth was very much on her own.
"Moray," the mermaid said at last.
Tooth blinked in confusion. "I'm sorry?"
"My name." She rolled her eyes. "You asked what it was, did you not? My name is Moray."
"Oh. Pleased to meet—"
"I think my sisters would also enjoy a formal introduction," Moray interrupted and disappeared below the water's surface, leaving Tooth stunned and without a chance to protest.
"Wait, what? Seriously?! There's nothing formal about being rude," she yelled, but no one else heard besides her own rippling reflection; and a curious reflection it was. Tooth forgot her indignation for a spell as she took a closer look at the changes her transformation had wrought. For a start, she had hair. She hadn't had hair since she was twelve—and a mortal at that. Though to her dismay it's yellow hue had some rather brassy, amber tones. It was soft to the touch and sat atop her head in a twisting, tapering up-do, not unlike the silhouette of her feathered crown. Then there was her sari-like wrap, merely an illusion of sculpted, viscous sand. It was hard to tell where her supposed clothes ended and she began.
The effect of this vision was bizarre. Tooth felt like a stranger in her own body. Her one solace, she supposed, was that at least she got to keep her amethyst eyes.
A minute soon passed. Tooth's heart was pounding in anticipation. Another minute. Tooth was close to breaking her own fingers with how hard they were clenched. That was when Moray reemerged with her kin. Six heads broke the surface, immediately catching Tooth in their sights.
"Sisters, meet Toothiana. She is a queen," Moray announced to the newcomers, "…or so she says."
"Excuse me?" Tooth spluttered.
"Is she a fallen star as well?" a mermaid with a severely pointed chin asked.
"I bet she's a comet," another supplied. Her greyish lips puckered by a long, thin, diagonal scar curled in blatant disdain. "They never can stay with a single constellation for long. They just go from one to the next, picking up all sorts of space junk." Though she didn't quite catch it, Tooth could have sworn this one hissed something shameful under her breath.
"No!" Tooth refuted in a mixture of shock and confusion. "I'm not a comet, or—or anything like that. I'm from Earth. I was born here as a descendant of the Sisters of Flight."
"Sisters of Flight have wings but you do not," Moray observed blandly.
"How do you know that?"
"We live under water, not a rock."
"I…" Tooth's mouth gaped open. With every twist their increasingly pointless conversation took, she could feel herself losing ground as it turned to quicksand beneath her feet.
"Fine. They do. I mean, they did. That's another matter. I also had wings right up until a day ago, but now someone else has them—hence why I'm here as a Dreamweaver, stranded on what should be a deserted island." Tooth looked pointedly at them and scraped her fingernails through her hair. "Look, I'm trying to help Sandy for his sake as well as my own, but I have no idea what I'm doing, let alone if I'm doing any of it right. I'm scared. I'm exhausted. And all of you with your singing and stalking are making this much harder than it needs to be!"
The mermaids contemplated Tooth's outburst in silence. They made no effort to speak or even acknowledge one and other, but who was to say they weren't somehow communicating all the same?
"Our sincerest apologies. We were only trying to help," Moray said eventually, and offered Tooth her hand in a token gesture of remorse. Was this a Mermish custom, to shake the hand of the one who was asking for your forgiveness? Tooth couldn't say for sure but she wasn't exactly in a position to refuse. Better to appease the creatures she suspected were more powerful than herself rather than risk offending them. She reached out to grasp the mermaid leader's ice-cold hand in her own.
The next thing she knew, she was drowning.
Tooth's arm was nearly ripped out of its socket by Moray, who gripped it and pulled her into the surf with a cackle. She tripped and plunged headlong with a spectacular splash. Seawater rushed up her nose and trickled into her lugs. Earth and sky rolled into one as she lost track of which way was up. Thrashing and kicking herself free of Moray's clutches, Tooth resurfaced to find herself surrounded.
"You really are trying to kill me," she coughed, attempting to ward the horde away.
"Kill you? Oh no. We were only trying to see if you really are a Dreamweaver like you said," the littlest mermaid with a crown of sea glass replied sweetly.
"Or a comet…" added the scar-lipped mermaid.
"But it would appear you are what you say," said Moray.
"What do you mean?" asked Tooth.
"The waters claim you, just as they do the Star Captain."
Tooth looked down at her hands to see the subtle luminescence of her particle skin had disappeared. Instead, it resembled the glutinous, tawny sludge where sea met sand. She wasn't just drenched in water; she was submerged. And to her horror, as she absorbed it little by little the water, in turn, was beginning to cloud. She was being washed away. Erased from existence.
With her heart in her mouth, Tooth dragged herself ashore to the mocking protests of the mermaids behind her. Her hand clumsily scraped against the ground. Half of it crumbled away bringing a terrified cry to her lips. It was painless, but nevertheless, the sight of losing a part of herself did not fail to send a wave nausea to her stomach. She couldn't disappear today. Not like this. She had sworn she would only leave when the very last child stopped believing. She had made an oath. It was non-negotiable.
Just like her need for a home where she wasn't adrift in the expanse of her own loneliness.
There was nothing more to be said. Not only was the Isle of Dreams a lawless wasteland of treacherous waters and terrifying sea hags, but it was also so isolated that Tooth struggled to see how anyone could stay and not feel like a prisoner in their own mind. The jeers of the mermaids had weevilled into her brain, and her own thoughts rose above them just to be heard. Their dissonant harmonies clashed and clattered until there was no room for anything else. It was too loud to bear. She was in danger.
Snatching a snowglobe from out of the folds of her drenched bag, Tooth set a course for the palace. A shattering of glass and a flash of light reduced her tribulations to almost nothing but the distant call of a bad memory.
Tooth collapsed on the mosaic-tiled floors of the palace, wet, shivering and exhausted. The surface of her skin crumbled away as cold salt water seeped into the sand caking her body—or apparently, what was her body. She could have stayed there, crumpled on the ground for an eternity, never moving, never facing her abysmal failure as The Sandwoman.
But the furious drone of wings in flight was a little too disconcerting to ignore. As was the panicked scream that rang out from the Nest above.
Dragging herself to her feet and gazing up at the distant platform, Tooth wished upon the Moon that she could have somehow kept her wings. When she did at last clamber by precarious footholds to the landing, she saw what had become of her faithful army.
In her absence, the mini-fairies had decided to take matters into their own hands—despite her explicit instructions. They circled in the flawless formation of military fighter jets. Below them, Pitch's arms were drawn over his head to cower from them and their relentless dive-bomb attacks. Tooth picked her jaw up off the ground just in time to stop a rogue fairy from skewering him in the side of the neck.
"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!" she screeched. The fairies froze and stared at her, shocked by her sudden return and, Tooth would later realise, disturbed by her half-drowned appearance. "Explain yourselves—NOW!"
Aggrieved and self-righteous, the fairies came forth to plead their case. Though Tooth's fury subsided as they rambled away, her heart sank. She had forgotten just how far removed she had become from her own flesh and blood. It was a crack of disconnect, grown to a crevice. Before long, her fairies would be calling to her across a canyon and she would be unable to hear. She needed assistance. But somehow, she didn't think Pitch was feeling charitable enough to translate.
"Alright, enough. Quiet, all of you." The fairies' chatter died down, much to her relief. "You'll have to tell me what happened later. I forgot about the language barrier. That was my mistake." Tooth looked around and shook her head to herself. "This whole thing has been a mistake."
The palace was an organizational disaster. Unprocessed collections were starting to gather in a pile on the ground, squads were falling into disarray, and here were her supposedly trustworthy workers, who could not set aside their thirst for revenge long enough to maintain the bare-minimum of childhood belief.
"That's it, everyone, go. Back to your duties, and make sure these teeth go away properly. Have you forgotten why we collect them? Why we are diligent? There are memories here. Precious, irreplaceable memories and it is our responsibility to guard them—not to go on a crusade when my back is turned! If I see anyone disobeying my orders again you'll be counting coins for a week, understood?"
The fairies nodded their solemn understanding and dispersed to sulk or seethe. Meanwhile, Tooth braced herself for an assault of livid insults from Pitch as he climbed back to his feet.
But Pitch did not move.
He refused to even raise his head from his curled position on the floor.
"They're gone. You can get up," Tooth grumbled. Still, Pitch didn't respond. Looking closer, she realised that it wasn't just his wings that were twitching. His whole body was quivering, uncontrollably it seemed. "Pitch?" Without thinking, Tooth reached out a hand to prod him, but just as her fingers brushed his shoulder, he flinched and violently recoiled.
"Get away from me!" Pitch screamed, assuming a position of defence. Tooth gasped and snatched her hand away, deafened in the now cathedral silence of the palace. In the low light of dusk, Pitch's black feathers rippled like raised hackles. His razor wings flared out behind him. With his face contorted in a vicious snarl, his piercing, golden eyes locked with hers. "Get away," he growled again.
From what Tooth knew of Pitch, he rarely lashed out. Even when he did, there was still a calculated cause and effect to his every move. Nothing was done without purpose or impeccable control. But now he had no control. Not over his situation. Barely over himself. There had emerged a terror in his eyes, a wild sort that Tooth had only ever seen in him one time before.
"Just leave me alone. The show's over," Pitch said, his shoulders sagging in exhaustion when she made no move to do…whatever it was he thought she was doing. Tooth stood rooted to the spot in silence, long enough for Pitch's fear to pass and give way to suspicion. "What are you waiting for? You came to check on your precious mosquitos. You've seen that I am utterly powerless against them. What more is there for you here? Your vacation island awaits."
Tooth's mouth dropped open and all at once her frustration at the sheer ludicrousness of her misadventure boiled over.
"Vacation? Are you serious?" she hissed.
"Why yes. Sleeping, making sandcastles, socializing with the locals…" Pitch bore his teeth in a sneer at her half-dried hair. "Isn't that what a vacation is all about? Honestly, I don't know why you'd ever want to leave."
"For your information, I was nearly drowned by a group of sociopathic mermaids!" Tooth snarled. "This has been far from a holiday, in fact, I don't think I've ever been more stressed out in my life. You think those water demons rolled out the welcome wagon? Guess what: they like to sing creepy lullabies full of thinly veiled threats to pass their time!" She threw her hands around, gesticulating to the sky as her voice cracked from exasperation. "I tried. Moon knows I tried to make it work but I just couldn't do it, okay?!"
Breathing heavily, it was a few seconds before Tooth realised there were no snide remarks trying to bring her down a further peg. She looked over, expecting to find Pitch revelling in the smug triumph of watching her suffer. Instead, he was staring at her in mild shock.
"Toothiana, what happened to your hand?"
"My…" Tooth glanced down and was greeted by the sight of her mangled appendage. It looked far more gruesome in half-decent lighting. "Oh, that." Hastily, she shoved the two remaining digits still attached to her behind her back, out of sight. "It's nothing, don't worry about it."
"I think your definition of 'nothing' may be a little skewed," said Pitch as he tried to get a better look at her deformity.
"I think you need to mind your own business," she snapped and edged away.
Pitch stopped. A peculiar expression crossed his face, one Tooth had trouble deciphering. If he was concerned, he seemed conflicted about it, and if she hadn't known any better, she might have even thought he looked offended.
"Very well," he said, his voice reverting to its usual cold, clipped tones. "You clearly have other things to attend to, so why don't you run along and leave me in peace?"
"That's the thing," said Tooth. There was a beat of stony silence between them. "I'm not going back."
"What?" Pitch asked lowly.
"I told you. I can't do it." Unshed tears brimmed at Tooth's eyes, long overdue for release. But to let them fall in front of Pitch would be worse than any humiliation she had suffered since the nightmare began. "I mean, this is a joke. I'm not a Dreamweaver! I wasn't made to do this and it shows because I failed. Besides, even if I did go back, you know those things would be waiting for me right where I left them. I'm not about to put myself through that kind of peril again."
Pitch let out a bark of laughter, a cackle so harsh it sounded manic. It died away until he had but a small breath to hiss, "Oh, this is rich."
"What did you say?"
"You really don't get it, do you?" Pitch looked up to the cavern's ceiling and shook his head. Tooth couldn't help but notice he was grinding the enamel on his molars to dust. "What was it you said before you left me here to fend off your bloodthirsty little harpies? Ah, I remember now… Don't screw it up. Interesting how you never gave me the option to fail, but as soon as everything became too hard for you, you allowed yourself to run back home with your tail between your legs."
Tooth froze as colour rushed to her cheeks. She burned with shame upon realising what she had done. "That's not what I meant," she mumbled.
"No, that's exactly what you meant." Pitch stalked towards her, his eyes fixed and unshifting. "'Don't screw it up because if you do, children will stop believing. Don't screw it up because if you do, the Guardians will surely perish. Don't screw it up because I never thought about anything other than my own selfish needs.' Only, now you know. You know how it feels to face the wrath of a realm that would much prefer you dead."
"They don't want you dead," Tooth argued feebly as she backed away. It was all she could refute when everything else he had said was so painfully true. "They're just…not thrilled about you being here of all places."
"Funnily enough, neither am I! However, I have a long history of making do with what I have. I adapt, therefore I overcome. But you, Toothiana," he said as he inched uncomfortably closer, "you with all your order and obsessive need for organization, have never had to improvise a day in your life. Now the time has come and instead of rising to the challenge, you crumble. The Guardians will be disappointed, naturally, but unlike me at least you won't be drawn and quartered for abandoning your post!"
Tooth should have been more insulted, perhaps chastised by the verbal dressing down. She should have felt some semblance of outrage mixed with her own shame. She should be trying to defend herself. But the moment Pitch punctuated his final words with a snake-like lunge towards her, she found her concerns turning elsewhere.
Namely, to the lack of a platform under the foot she used to step away from the furious Dark Fairy.
She tilted backwards, back bowing in the instinctive urge to beat her wings into gear. But she had no wings, and no control over her hastily inherited levitation abilities. There was nothing but the air separating her and the ground a few hundred feet below; provided she didn't hit a few scattered towers and bridges on her way down.
I should have stayed with the homicidal goldfish. Maybe they would have made things quick at least.
Tooth was on the verge of screaming in terror when an almost painfully tight vice clamped over her good hand's wrist. A jerk of her shoulder alerted her of her sudden cease in descent, followed by a choked gasp as she was yanked forward and virtually swung onto the platform's centre. She blinked dumbly, disoriented by the sudden whirlwind.
Still, somehow Tooth's eyes found the source of her rescue, grip still clasped around her wrist, feverish and white-knuckled. She and Pitch stared at one another, eyes wide and expressions twisted in differing forms of shock. Tooth was reeling from narrowly escaping death's clutches. Pitch, however, suddenly appeared to hold her former position; as if faced with a wild and unpredictable animal. His feathers ruffled, raised like obsidian spikes, and his crest twitched into a less-than-pleased flair. A strangled yelp left his lips as he suddenly yanked his hand away from Tooth, cradling the appendage with its twin, as if burned or stung. Tooth flinched at the sudden movement, taking in the various twitches and ruffles of his plumage; under the control of someone who did not know how to conceal the betrayal of his emotions through them.
She blinked again, her vision broadening. The mini-fairies surrounding them, were all apparently torn on how to react, but leaning towards defending their queen from a possible attack. Baby Tooth seemed particularly cautious, if not outright concerned for Tooth, and perhaps for the mental state of their recently acquired substitute.
With the adrenaline drained out of her, Tooth could feel every single emotion, word, and action she had performed in the past few hours come back in full black and white context. 'Petty' was a good way to describe what she felt for herself then. 'Spoiled Princess' seemed even more fitting. She had made the decision to leave Pitch to his own devices, knowing full-well he was ill-prepared at best, and entirely at the mercy of the palace and his unasked-for abilities at worst. She was the one who had condoned her fairies' animosity towards him, and as tiny parts of herself, had aided and abetted their vendetta against him. She had left knowing that it wouldn't be her fairies facing danger in her absence, but Pitch himself.
A single fire-ant, while mildly concerning, is easily thwarted; but throw a bird to a nest of millions, then the bird stands no chance. Like that proverbial swarmed bird, Pitch had hardly been able to cry for help. Not when Tooth had been decidedly unsympathetic toward him and his plight. Worse yet, putting him in danger had put not just her job at risk, but the memories she was supposed to guard. This wasn't just a grudge anymore; it had devolved into a childish need for vindication.
At the end of the day, Pitch was just as trapped as she was, and just as terrified for his place in the world. So alongside being a short-tempered brat, she was also a hypocrite. As much as it killed her a little to admit it…
"You're right," she said.
Pitch stiffened, the hand cradling his other wrist tightening to what appeared an almost painful grip; far tighter than he'd had on her own wrist.
"I beg your pardon?"
Tooth sighed. Every ounce of fight, energy and will left her in one shaky breath.
"You're right," she repeated through a tight jaw. "This isn't…I'm not being fair. To you. And by association, I'm not being fair to my fairies, the teeth, or the children." She swallowed thickly, a touch unnerved by the way Pitch was staring at her.
"Did you drink the sea water out there?" he suddenly asked.
And for some lunatic unknown reason, Tooth sharply inhaled and laughed.
Now Pitch was looking at her as if she were the madwoman and he, the scandalized peacock that so inspired him. The thought only made her laugh harder. By that point, her fairies were growing increasingly concerned, chirping quietly to one another.
Eventually, Tooth's hysterics subsided. She winded herself as her cackles reduced to wheezes, and then to eye-watering hiccups while she tried to pull herself together. Perhaps on another day, one less fraught with devious mermaids, fairy coups and several near-death experiences, Tooth might have felt more embarrassed for appearing, for all intents and purposes, as though her last three remaining brain cells had snapped. However, she was willing to forgive herself for what she felt was a rather justified lapse in self-control.
On the other hand, it was time she sobered and rectified her wrongs.
"Given my, um, sudden mental break just now," Tooth gasped, brushing residual tears from her eyes, "this is going to sound a little odd."
"I'm not sure there's much more you could do to surprise me," Pitch replied. "Not that you should take that as a challenge," he added warily.
"In light of our, well, obligatory partnership," she continued, pacing slowly, "not to mention the fact that you actually saved my life just now—thank you, by the way." Pitch looked askance but this, Tooth ignored. "I was thinking maybe we could call a truce? At least while you're here."
Did attempting to be the bigger person wound what little was left of Tooth's pride? Like a knife to her chest. Did it shock the crowd of mini-fairies into a silence of morbid fascination? Nothing had ever worked better. However, whether the sentiment was returned, her integrity told her she owed Pitch some semblance of an apology.
"A truce," Pitch repeated carefully, barely trusting the taste of the word on his own tongue.
"Yes. If you extend the same courtesy to me, I will try to be patient and understanding to better help you learn what it takes to be the Guardian of Memories. It'll be a hard slog, but we can take breaks when things getting too much for you or I to handle safely and practically. Then, and only then, do we stop working. Otherwise, it's full-steam ahead. In the meantime, I'll have to figure out what I'm going to do about Sandy and my responsibilities." Tooth tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, finding in times of anxiety this new feature of herself served as something of a crutch. "Also Pitch, under no circumstances do I intend for myself, my fairies or this job to harm you."
Pitch appeared taken aback, his hand still cradled in front of his abdomen. The feathers framing his face twitched in silent contemplation, as did his wings; reflexes Tooth realised she should consider teaching him how to control. Despite his obvious hesitation—for how could either of them be expected to trust the other—Tooth sensed a small glimmer of relief from Pitch. Not much, admittedly, but it was a start. Or so she thought.
"You'll be hard pressed to convince me, Toothiana, no matter how virtuous your intentions, just as I'm sure you will continue to harbour reservations about me…"
Tooth's hopes plummeted in one fell swoop. Obviously, Pitch would never agree to a truce, no matter how lenient the terms of peace. Anyone could have guessed that.
"…But we have to try and make this work, don't we? If I ever want to roam free in my own realm again, I have no choice."
Then again, perhaps Pitch still had the ability to surprise her. It wasn't forgiveness, of course. Neither of them were ready for quite that level of reconciliation. But the seed that planted itself in Tooth's chest, which she felt would bloom over the coming days or weeks, whispered at the end of that statement, not yet.
"Fine," said Pitch, "but I have a few conditions of my own." He flashed her a cold smile "If you have no objections, that is."
"Go ahead," Tooth replied, wondering just how much she was about to regret holding out an olive branch.
"One: I need enough time to train Frost. Don't forget, you're not the only one with a clueless protégé. Two: if those glorified hair accessories attack me as they did this evening even one more time, I reserve the right to either dole out a…reasonable…punishment, or leave. And three: you, Toothiana, are not allowed to touch me."
Tooth couldn't help the brow that rose at his latter, unprecedented request. She had no desire to do anything of the sort. Granted it had been out of necessity, but technically it was Pitch who had touched her first.
None of his other conditions were terribly unreasonable, and as long as it meant they could co-exist in relative harmony, Tooth willing to set aside her reluctance and accept.
"As long you don't punish my fairies unfairly, or without my express permission. They're still under my protection, remember that," said Tooth.
"Well, you can't blame me for trying," Pitch snipped.
There followed a tense silence as Tooth massaged her temples to fend off an oncoming headache. Pitch appeared in no better shape, his feathers ruffled and his own temple pulsing. Not to mention, the way he was grinding his jaw was going to send Tooth into a conniption from all the dental damage he was bringing upon himself.
"For the record," Pitch added, "I would rather this wasn't happening at all."
"Well, I guess we're just going to have to get along anyway," Tooth gritted out, "because for better or worse we're stuck with each other."
"So it would seem."
As the sun set on another bright, clear day in Punjam HyLoo, Tooth felt the dregs of her energy drain with the last of the twilight. It would only be for a few days at the most. Then Jack and North would find their counter curse, and all would be as it was. Nothing but a sour memory. Or so help her, Tooth would be out for their blood. Until then, they would attempt to survive each other. But there was stilll one question on the minds of the workers, their Queen, and their honorary Fairy King.
"Truce?" asked Tooth.
"Truce," said Pitch.