It's done! To those who have been following this story, I hope this is the ending you've been anticipating. This is the first multi-chapter fic I've ever actually finished. It's nice to be done if a little strange to think that I'll probably leave the story here, untouched for the rest of eternity (or until the archives are destroyed, whichever comes first). That being said, if there are any typos please let me know. Also, a friend of mine did some gorgeous artwork for this story. I'll be posting a link on my profile, so check it out!
This is the end of the story but hardly the end of me. If you liked In the Eye of the Beholder, keep in mind I have a few other WIPs that might take your fancy.
For the last time, ENJOY!
At Long Last
Three days passed before Jack emerged. Bleary-eyed, groggy and in desperate need of something to rid the taste in his mouth, he opened the door of one of North's guest rooms, expecting a slow and uninterrupted walk down to the kitchens. Instead, he was met by his four very anxious guardians.
"Sviridov! He wakes!"
"Oof!" The wind was knocked out of Jack by a rainbow tornado of feathers and wings.
"Don't you ever do that again," Tooth scolded him, hugging him with all the ferocity her pint-sized arms could muster. "Don't you ever—"
"Oi, back off, you're gonna strangle him."
"Oh no." Tooth snatched herself away, leaving Jack dazed and more than a little confused. He remained stock still as Tooth continued to fuss. "I'm so sorry—did I hurt you—are you okay?!"
"It's fine," Jack wheezed, "totally fine. Just let me…" He drew a long breath, wincing as his stiffened ribcage expanded. He exhaled. "I'm fine. What are you guys doing here?"
"We were so worried," said Tooth.
"Yeah, you really know how to give us a turn there, mate." Several medicinal-looking bottles clinked in Bunny's paws as he adjusted his hold. With one paw free, he ruffled Jack's hair.
"Are those for me?" Jack asked.
"Yeah, we can't have you going septic on us, can we? Come on; back inside. I've got to change those bandages over again."
Jack blinked in confusion and, upon examining himself, did a double-take when he saw the gauze wrapped around his torso. A job done by hands far more experienced than his own. The unpleasant implications suddenly dawned on him. "Again? Wait a second have you been…?"
"Yeah, you were. Bloody hell…finding you in the nick of time was a real Bradbury moment, I tell you."
A lump caught in Jack's throat as he looked at each of them properly for the first time. North was standing with a tray of hearty beef stew and a plate of sugar cookies in hand, a merry smile twinkling in his eyes. Tooth retrieved her pile of blankets and pillows. Bunny seemed to have transformed into a full-time nurse. And Sandy bore nothing. However, Jack suspected he may have had something to do with his long, much-needed rest.
"You guys have been taking care of me this whole time?" he asked.
North's booming chuckle died as soon as he saw the seriousness and bewilderment on Jack's face. "…Of course, we have," he said. "Why wouldn't we?"
Jack wrapped his arms around his middle and glanced at the floor. "I don't know. I never really thought about it like that. I don't even know what to say."
"Well, a 'thank you' should about do it. Now get back inside, you're due for a checkup."
Jack was ushered back into his room, where Bunny had no qualms over issuing orders like, "Sit still," and "hold that there," and "don't scratch, ya drongo." For the most part, the others stayed out of his way, though they were still eager to discuss the second coming of Pitch—and Jack was just as eager to debrief.
"I didn't realise it was him at first. At first, it just felt like one of those bad days. Only, it kept happening every day. You know that feeling? And there were these intrusive thoughts which could be really morbid. I think that was what gave him away. It was like having a voice in my head that sounded like me, but it wasn't—ow!"
"What'd I say about squirming?" Bunny interjected, throwing an antiseptic swab in the trash.
"Sorry. Anyway. When I worked it out, I went to confront him. He was waiting in the same place you found me, and I don't know why, but for some reason, I knew he would be there. He said I couldn't tell any of you he was back because if I did, he would do to all of you what he did to Sandy before. I didn't know what to think. I couldn't stand the thought of losing any of you again, especially if it was because of something I did, so for the last several weeks I've been trying to figure out how to get rid of him and that's why I haven't been around and—"
"Breathe," Bunny ordered.
Jack inhaled and exhaled. And then he began to weep. "He—he came after me two weeks ago. I was sleeping in this cave in the Swiss Alps, and I had a dream…more like a nightmare. I don't remember what happened. All I knew was that I was in pain. I was s—scared. When I woke up, that pain and fear d—didn't go away. My lip was cut. A few hours later I had a black eye." He paused, swallowing thickly. "The worst part was, I knew Pitch had done it, but I never saw any sign of him. He was a ghost. That's why I sent the Leaf Riders to meet Dan that week. I thought you might try and do something if you thought I was in trouble."
"Fuck oath we would have," Bunny muttered, waving a pestle in his direction as he threw herbs and dashes of liquid into a mortar.
Jack sniffed and drew a shuddering breath. "Whenever I fell asleep after that, I would wake up worse than before. I don't know how he did it, but it kept escalating. So I snapped. I went back to meet him to try and end this thing. He took one look at me and…" he gestured to the re-dressed gash in his side. "That's why I came back to the North Pole. I needed to try and patch myself up before I went back again. That's why you saw blood on my hands."
Bunny was the only one of the Guardians who wasn't petrified out of sheer horror. He ground the pestle and mortar together, hacking at the ingredients till they were mush. That repetitive act of catharsis seemed to be all that was holding him together.
"I'm really sorry," Jack croaked, his tears falling freely now. "I—I should have told you straight away, but part of me thought I could do it. I wanted to do it. To make up for the last time I screwed up. But..."
"Oh, Jack." Tooth placed her folded blanket aside and flew over to where he was seated on the edge of his bed. She hugged him again. Gently this time.
"Hey, I'm not done here," Bunny protested, gesturing with the mortar now full of a pungent-smelling ointment.
"Give it a break for a second, you'll live," Tooth snapped.
"Me? What about him?!"
"Jack, we are sorry too," said North. "We are sorry you did not feel like you could reach out to us." Sandy nodded in agreement from his place at the window seat.
"It's not your fault," Jack sniffed. "I'm just used to being on my own I guess."
"And you were scared that now you finally had us, you would lose us again," Tooth murmured. With his cheek against her shoulder, Jack's trembling lips formed a sad smile.
"Yeah. I was scared."
The armchair North occupied creaked as he sat back, a thoughtful frown etched on his face. He scratched his bearded chin, humming in a low drone that caused Bunny to set the mortar down on the bedside table with a bang.
"You wanna knock it off?"
"Stravinsky. You said you saw Pitch when we couldn't," said North, ignoring the incensed Bunny and turning to Sandy. "Show us what you saw."
Without rising, Sandy conjured a mass of billowing sand clouds that rolled and writhed. Though the Guardians expected something more substantial to form from the dreamsand, it remained shapeless and foreboding. The only hint of something more tangible lay in the eye of the storm—the nucleus.
"Wait, that's all?" Jack asked.
Sandy then formed a series of ears and speech bubbles, and a barrage of aggressive, frenzied sound waves.
"But you could hear him," Tooth inferred, still comforting Jack as he dried his eyes with the back of his hand. Sandy nodded.
"And Jack, when you saw Pitch, you saw him as you knew him, da?" North asked.
Jack thought back to his encounter and recalled Pitch's every unsettling detail; his lithe, gaunt figure; spectral grey skin; hair blacker than the souls of the damned; and gleaming eyes that hypnotized and chilled all at once… "Yes. He looked exactly the same."
"Shostakovich…" North rose from his chair and paced around the room.
"What's wrong?" asked Jack.
"He must have been weakened by defeat. Beyond repair. He cannot take his true form. That is why Sandy could only see the black cloud—that is why we could not see him at all."
Jack retracted himself from Tooth's comforting arms, left their softness, their warmth to lean forward and rest his elbows on his knees with a wince. "Pitch said he didn't want you to see him though."
Bunny gave a bark of humourless laughter. He folded his arms and leaned against one of the bedhead posts. "Yeah, a show-pony like him would be absolutely spewing if any of us got a squiz of him in a state like that. He must have taken a hit after the nightmares got him—bad enough to almost to kill him."
"Almost," said Tooth, "but not quite. Our immortality, as you have probably already figured out, has its perks. But it's conditional. When spirits are injured beyond recovery, they can die, just like mortals, but we differ in that we can't leave unfinished work behind. There must be a replacement because Pitch said it himself; there will always be fear. Just as there will always be memories and dreams. And fun. He could be hanging on to this world by a thread, but if there's no one to take his place as its facilitator, he can't truly die. What Sandy saw is closest to how he exists now, and he'll be doomed to stay that way until another is fit enough to succeed him. And that might not be for hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. Until then he's on borrowed time. He's just…"
"Dust in the wind," Jack finished. The knot in his stomach tightened as his memories looped over themselves in tangles, remembering the time before the Guardians had made him one of their own. He knew all too well the curse of invisibility, of not being believed in. But this was different. For Pitch, it wouldn't just be the human world where he existed as a ghost, but the spiriting world as well. Jack could never wish such a lonely existence upon anyone. Not even his worst enemy. "But that doesn't really explain why I could see him as he used to be."
"It was what he wanted," said North. "It was like smoke in the mirror. Like a…a…"
"A glamour," Tooth supplied.
"Da, a glamour! One that would have taken much energy to maintain. He maybe only had enough power to convince you alone."
"Pump the breaks for a second." Bunny ceased leaning against the bedpost and gestured to Sandy. "You also said that Pitch was targeting you at first, not Frostbite." Sandy made air quotations in reply, which were taken to mean allegedly. "Okay. What if the reason you saw different incarnations was because of how long Pitch spent trying to make you see him?"
"You think the longer they were exposed, the more complex a form he assumed?" queried Tooth.
"Maybe." Bunny shrugged. "I dunno. That's just my two cents."
"I don't think so."
Bunny rose a bow at her and raised his palms. "Alrighty then, don't mind me. I'll just shut my gob."
"No, I'm not saying you're wrong," Tooth amended, "I just mean that that can't be all. There has to be…" she drew a soft gasp. "Oh, I get it now. Jack, you said you knew you were going to find Pitch, didn't you?"
Jack shot her a side-long glance of trepidation. "I mean, I didn't know. I just had this gut feeling. I don't know how to explain it."
"That's what I mean. Everything that Pitch has done to you—the lying, the violence, the turning up just when you think he will—you predicted all of it based on what you know of him. The way he lured you away from us, even the attack on Sandy; it's all too familiar. Pitch was a soldier—a general. He knows how to strategize warfare, and he would never try the same tactics twice."
Jack felt a cold bead of sweat run down his neck. What Tooth said was right; Pitch was cunning. If he'd had a plan, it would not have taken such an obvious path.
"What are you saying, Toothie?" asked North.
"Pitch was playing off your fears, Jack. Feeding into them and exacerbating them until they no longer existed inside your head alone. Would I be right in assuming you're more than a little haunted by what happened last Easter?"
"Oh, gods," Jack rasped, "it really was my fault, wasn't it? It wasn't Pitch who nearly killed Sandy this time, it was me."
Sandy looked up, eyes widened, and he shook his head while frantically waving his hands at Jack.
"No! Jack—Jack listen to me," Tooth said, taking his face in both her hands so his eyes were fixed on her. "This was not your fault. Pitch manipulated you into bringing these fears to fruition because it was the only way he knew how to hurt you. He has no power like he used to. He has no true body. All he can do is manifest as your worst fears and make them a reality. By feeding into your fears, you made him stronger. Strong enough that you believed all his illusions and lies. Your worst fear was having to relive the events of last Easter. So that's what he made you do."
The air was too thin. Though he tried, Jack felt he couldn't draw enough of it into his lungs. Not while the terror this revelation instilled in him thrilled through his veins. For, if what Tooth said was true, how could he trust himself ever again? How could he be sure the world itself wasn't a mirage designed to trick him into falling through the looking glass?
"It happened though—right?" he asked. "Everything still happened. It wasn't just all inside my head."
From across the room, North shook his head. "There is no way your trials were imaginary."
"You've been to hell and back, Frostbite. And in a month from now, you'll have the scars to prove it," Bunny agreed.
"Most of all, your suffering was—and still is—real," said Tooth. "And we will do whatever we can to make it bearable."
"We're with you, mate," said Bunny, holding his gaze. "Now and always."
Jack looked around the room, to each warm face that regarded him with the most kindness and compassion he had known for the longest time. Their gazes melted away the cold and bitter loneliness of the past. And to his surprise, his chest bloomed with a welcoming warmth he hadn't felt in over 300 years. It was different this time, as it should have been. But despite the dysfunction, and uncertainty, and distrust that he would work without tire to overcome, the essence of that warmth remained.
Here was his family.
Here, Jack was home.
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