Migrated this one over from Tumblr, seeing as the site might very well be going the way of the Hindenburg. This is a version of the Nutcracker story put together by ShinyZango on Tumblr and Twitter, the versions of Hans and Clara here are her own. I just made this story last year as a gift and partial thank you for the inspiration.
Into The Empty White
Everything around him was quiet, heavy darkness, the faint sounds he could hear muffled and indistinct. For a few moments it was peaceful, the gentle rushing lull in the background gently easing Hans from semi-consciousness. But something still nagged at him, given that serene as this was, he couldn't remember exactly how he'd gotten here. Not to mention that whatever this pressure was, it covered him from head to toe, making movement a little awkward. Though regretfully Hans could say that he wasn't really a stranger to that sensation anymore, given what had happened over the past few…days, a week? Waking up as a nutcracker in a toy cabinet was definitely going to be hard to top in terms of strange things, he was just lucky Clara was-.
The thought of his traveling companion made the previously absent memories flare up with a vengeance, Hans feeling something in him seize as he recalled…they'd been walking, a sudden cold spell came followed by what seemed like a raging blizzard. He and Clara had tried to stay together though the whirling snowflakes quickly made them lose sight of each other. Hans had been trying to call for Clara when it felt like a howling gale suddenly took hold, pushing him down into the snow. And then…nothing. Despite the fact that the memory had orientated him somewhat, it didn't keep the anxiety at bay, the idea that Clara could very likely be in trouble urging Hans to move. At first, he fought the weight pressing down against his back and limbs, before realizing that would just exhaust him and opted to make smaller movements, loosening up the space around him. Minutes seemed to crawl by like years in the stifled dark, though eventually Hans managed to get his arms under himself enough that he pushed up, breaking free from the dark cocoon into what was at first a blindingly white mire. Grimacing against the brilliant shine Hans blinked, letting his eyes adjust. He was on…maybe a hillside judging from how the ground was slanting, what looked like pine trees just barely visible through the snow mutely falling in white curtains to the already buried ground. It was silent, almost eerily so, though he could barely see two feet in front of him. On a whim, he reached down and grabbed at the red spot in the snow, easily unearthing his hat and trying to use that as a barrier to keep the flakes from building on his head and against his eyes. Still, even with a few more minutes to take stock nothing stood out to him, no sign of movement, not a flicker of purple that would hint at what had become of his companion.
"Clara!" Hans called, cupping his hands around his mouth to project his voice. Though he could hear his echo rattle back through the trees, there was nothing, no reply, barely even a sound. Stiffly Hans turned, trying to find some hint of tracks, maybe some disturbance in the snow somewhere, but the heavy snowfall had hidden any sign of something walking around. Including his own tracks, for that matter. It made trying to figure out where he'd come from a nightmare in and of itself, the nutcracker trying to remember if he'd been going up or coming down the small hillside when he'd been knocked over. He had no idea where to go, which was even worse given that he had no idea where Clara was in relation to him; any move he might make could just as easily take him further away.
"Clara! Are you there?! Answer me, please!" But the growing-desperate cry went unheard, the snowy forest as quiet and still as before. Well, not quite as still. Hans blinked at an odd, small blue light that danced through the whirling snowflakes in the distance, darting between the trees. It seemed to race up the hillside, joined by others that moved in an almost separate shower from the white curtain billowing around him, and it wasn't long before they were spinning in circles around his frame. The realization of what they were came like the cold snap Hans could no longer feel from the elements, and he smiled despite the tension still racing through his thoughts.
"Hello, old friends." He could remember the fairies, from when he'd been very small and wandered during the winter. Even though they were as silent as the snowfall he had been charmed by their icy patterns and their dance on the whirling winds, and found himself speaking with them. They had listened to him, adding more to their patterns, making them grander and more intricate for the few moments they existed before the winds wiped them away. He'd always been able to find them, or perhaps they'd always been able to find him, since then. How long it must have been…
The faeries themselves seemed to echo the sentiment, one swirling about Hans's head in a burst of energy and one coming to float in front of the nutcracker's nose for a beat before lowering to join others that had gathered on Hans's palms, his hands coming up to give them an ample perch to rest on. In the whispers of fallen snow, a faint murmur of words drifted to Hans's ears, though he was already well-versed in knowing how to listen.
"Hans, friend Hans, wonderful friend." The wintry winds whispered around him, the sounds almost soft enough to miss Hans's hearing if it wasn't some second nature of his to keep a careful ear out when it came to the little sprites. The familiar tones were a strange balm to the nutcracker's human soul, almost helping him to forget the earlier panic if only for a few moments. At the very least, it made him a little calmer, calm enough for a plan to form in his mind.
"I have missed you all, very much." Hans started, the smile on his face growing a little pained at the thought of what he was about to do, practically on the heels of this long-withheld reunion. "And, I am sorry to trouble you, but I need your help to find a friend of mine. She's lost in this forest somewhere, we weren't prepared for the weather. Her name is Clara, and she's wearing a long, purple dress and dark coat, has red hair, and is a bit shorter than me."
Even though really that was all that needed to be known regarding the situation, Hans couldn't help but continue to speak.
"She's…she's very special, she's helping me be…normal again. I was cursed, by the Mouse King, that's why I didn't come back for so long. That's…that's why I look the way I do now. Please, if you can help me find her, I would be very grateful." The fairies listened patiently throughout the halting, worried speech, one quietly hopping up to be level with Hans's eyes once he was done speaking. Though it made him go a little cross-eyed, the nutcracker could just make out the small, faintly glowing blue form as it gave him a peck on the nose that he knew he should feel a slight twitch of cold from. He masked the deadened, worn exhaustion with a smile, which bloomed into something truly grateful as the winds whispered again.
"Friend of Hans is friend of faeries. We will help."
He'd barely gotten a chance to say thank you when two of the fairies leapt from his hands, whistling off into the distant trees. Hans quickly lost sight of the small blue lights, though judging from the sudden picking up of the wind around him the smaller being certainly hadn't gone. His eyes could just pick out flickers of blue light zipping about between the trees, but nothing else. With no other hints as to what was happening, Hans looked back to the fairy still sitting on his palm, watching the manner in which the small, glowing-blue wings flicked and shifted. He didn't want to risk trying to lean in, more for politeness's sake and the fact that he was starting to feel a stiffness to his joints, but the nutcracker thought perhaps he could make out that the small head had turned in the direction the other fairies had gone. Maybe she could hear something he couldn't…?
Though no matter how much Hans strained his ears, he couldn't hear anything more than the wind and the cold hush of the snow over the wintery forest around him. There were no sounds of a familiar human voice, no whispers of the edge of a dress or the crunch of shoes against the white landscape. The near-complete silence stirred a familiar thought, one that would have turned his insides to ice had he still been human; what if the fairies couldn't find Clara?
Almost unbidden the thought stirred up image after image in Hans's mind, of Clara partially buried in the snow, skin pale and eyes sightlessly boring into his, why didn't you help me, Hans, where were you when I needed you…?
No-! No…he couldn't think like that, couldn't let a possibility overwhelm him when he had no idea as to whether or not it was true. Clara very likely still needed him, and Hans certainly wasn't about to let anything, not his thoughts, not this bizarre, awkward body, stop him.
A sudden flicker of faint blue light in the woods off to his left broke through Hans's thinking, his head turning just in time to see a trio of fairies come hurtling out of the tree line. The glow from them almost blurred into streaks of light with how fast they were going, but in no time at all, they had reached the nutcracker. Though they hardly stopped, whirling about Hans's frame in a downright frenzy, the fairy still in his hands following their movements as best she could before some message seemed to pass between them. Immediately, she leapt to the air from the nutcracker's fingers, grabbing Hans's attention and gesturing in the direction that the trio had come from. It didn't take the nutcracker long to pick up on the message, and he headed off towards the indicated trees as quick as he could. His knees and feet gave him a little trouble, the joints sticking in the cold, but Hans powered through the faint hitches to his movement, somewhat relieved when the walking made them loosen up. Even still, the snow and the slanted hillside made for slightly treacherous footing, and he nearly had his feet slide out from under him a couple of times before he managed to reach level ground.
Though, slippery snow aside Hans hardly broke stride, quickly following the small flickers of fairy light into the trees. The rigid shapes passed by one after the other, though when the fairies seemed to drift to a halt a few paces away, Hans was at first confused. There didn't seem to be anything there.
At least, he didn't think there was, until he realized that the snowbank nestled round a tree was the right size for a person to be buried in.
New fear seized whatever internals he still had, Hans hurrying forward and practically threw himself to his knees. The rushed motions aside, his fingers only stalled for a few moments before trying to brush the snow away, mindful of what might be underneath. And, almost as a reward for his gentleness, a purple bit of cloth started to unearth itself from the snow. A few more seconds of pushing snow away revealed that Clara had tried to curl up into a ball to avoid the worst of the gale, and her face was pressed down into her knees. Thanking the fact that they had been able to get the girl a coat at the last town they'd passed through, Hans couldn't help a small tremble of fear as he tried to see if Clara was even conscious.
"C-Clara?" Hans asked as he gently eased his friend from her huddle against the tree to rest against him, her head lolling to the side enough that the nutcracker could see that her eyes were closed. "Clara, are you alright? Please, say something!"
"Fritz…?" He heard Clara murmur, her voice barely audible as her shorter frame shivered against the cold. That, coupled with the blueish tinge to her lips and the blanched coloring to her skin, made that welling, helpless sense of panic grow as he quickly spoke up.
"N-No, Clara, it's Hans!" And her eyes were still closed, which was bad because-. "Clara, y-you need to stay awake! Please, I know you're cold but don't-!"
Sleep. Not that it made much difference. Hans felt he might as well have been pleading with the air given that Clara seemed to have lapsed into quiet, dangerous unconsciousness right there. And he hadn't been able to do anything.
No, no, he wouldn't let Clara down, he could still do something. The realization hit home upon seeing their pack half-buried in the snow next to where he'd picked up Clara, Hans remembering what was in it and a plan clattering into being in his mind.
He wouldn't let anything bring her to harm, not the mice, not the elements, not anything. Clara had, for no other reason than out of the goodness of her heart, given everything for him. Hans would, as much as he was able, give her the same consideration. She deserved nothing less.
Gritting his teeth with new determination, Hans turned his gaze to the clearing that they were in, sizing it up for what he would need to do.
She was warm, which didn't make sense at first because from what she last remembered, she had been someplace very, very cold. When Clara opened her eyes she was also a little confused by the presence of something green, looking like a curtain draped to her left. At least, she was really only confused until she recognized the cloth as one of the blankets that they'd packed, the large fabric square arranged in a makeshift tent around her.
But…the last she'd remembered was that she and Hans had been walking through the woods together, when had they had time to set up camp?
And then it came back to her. The sudden snowstorm, becoming separated from Hans, and finally, trying to take refuge in what shelter a tree offered as the winds whipped mercilessly at her frame. However, at least to Clara's ears, the abrupt storm had passed, the quiet surrounding her interrupted by a fire crackling from somewhere beyond her feet. Sitting up, Clara kept the blanket wrapped around her frame as she tried to take stock of what was outside the makeshift tent. The fire was the first thing she noticed, the flames sitting in a spot cleared of snow and casting a cherry red light over the rest of the landscape.
A very white landscape, she realized, as every direction seemed to yield nothing but more and more snow and tall trees ringing the campsite. But, even with reds, oranges, and yellows whipping and flickering about, Clara saw no sign of a familiar red-adorned nutcracker.
"Hans?" She called, a little softly at first as the quiet, wintry scene around her seemed to demand some sort of silence. Clara crawled out a little more, doing her best to avoid touching the snow directly with her bare skin; she'd had enough cold for a while. Luckily though, she was still wearing her shoes. Pushing herself up to stand in front of the tent and keeping the blanket still wrapped around her shoulders, Clara tried again, a little louder this time.
"Clara!" The shout caused the girl to jump before turning just in time to see Hans stumble his way over from the edge of the clearing they were in. Relieved as she was to see her friend, Clara couldn't help but notice the stiffness to the nutcracker's step as he hurried over.
"A-Are you alright-you shouldn't be out in the cold-!"
"I'm alright, I'm fine, Hans." Clara quickly replied, giving an equal parts relieved and calming grin as Hans ambled closer. The worried frown on the nutcracker's face did not disappear, but it did ease a little at the smile Clara offered, and the more normal coloring to her face and hands.
"Are you alright? The snow…"
"I'm alright, Clara, it's okay." Hans quickly answered, completely ignoring the little, insidious voice at the back of his mind that whispered that she very nearly hadn't been. Though Clara did seem to accept his answer, she still couldn't shake the quiet unease the gap in her memory gave her, choosing to press ahead with questions.
"Wh-Where are we? Is this still the forest?"
Hans couldn't help but reason with an internal chuckle that a good dusting of snow did make a lot of places look very different. Leaning creakily over to start putting a couple logs and bits of kindling into the fire, he replied.
"Yes, just a little bit off the path we were on." The brighter mood drained from the moment as Hans remembered the events of the past few hours.
"I think it would be good for us to stop here for the night. I…I don't think we can go any further."
"…Alright." Clara's tone wasn't exactly heavy, but she'd definitely picked up on the downturn in her companion's mood. Though, for the life of her, she wasn't sure how to go about broaching it. Was he upset about the entire incident, them being separated in the snow storm? Or was this a larger sort of upset, regarding the curse? She wasn't completely sure, which left her more than a little off-kilter when it came to knowing how to proceed.
Her indecision was noticed by Hans, who briefly paused in his attempts to put the remaining wood aside for the night before he spoke.
"It'll be fine, Clara. I'll stay awake to watch, that way you can get some sleep before morning. There should actually be another village once we get through this…"
"…Hans, is something wrong?" Clara asked, noting her friend's sudden quiet. Hans didn't look at her, his eyes riveted towards his left arm.
"I…I can't move it." The strained admittance almost seemed a little too nonchalant, but Clara had been around Hans long enough to pick up a timbre or two of strain in his tone. However, she could hardly blame him. Turning to look to the nutcracker, Clara let her eyes travel from Hans's face to his arm, still held at his side with a ninety-degree bend at the elbow.
"Your arm is stuck?" She asked, immediately walking over to see what she could do. Nary a moment after her fingers had touched the joint Clara drew back, the freezing temperature of the metal along with a thin sheet of ice nearly giving her fingers frostbite.
"Your arm is frozen." Clara stated, incredulousness soaking into her voice as the observation sunk in. Hans himself stared at the joint with stunned shock, thoughts whirling through his mind like the wintry winds. How had it gotten that bad? How had he not noticed? Was this body going to throw something new at him every chance it got?!
However, even as Hans floundered, Clara glanced between the frost-locked limb and the fire roaring back up with the new wood thrown on.
"Here, Hans, sit down here." The nutcracker settling down on a rock was heralded by an alarming creak in Hans's knees. When Clara checked, those joints too were freezing to the touch.
"Are there any other parts that are having trouble?" She asked, rushing to and from their pack just in time to hear Hans's somewhat halting, hushed response as he twitched about in an effort to test every joint.
"I…can move my hands, my other arm feels fine, my shoulders feel fine…" Another squeaking gasp of joints rang out before Hans spoke up again. "B-Both of my ankles are having trouble… My neck is fine though…"
At the tail end of Hans's statement, Clara had returned with a jar from their pack, quickly digging out a cloth to apply the stuff. It came especially in handy when she found that it was a little runnier than she'd thought. Hans stayed still long enough for the oil to be applied to his knees, trying to work the stiffness out of them with the fire warming up the air while Clara moved onto his arm. However, while his knees limbered up easily enough, Hans still found himself unable to independently move his arm, giving the limb a look that edged closer and closer to complete, helpless internal panic. However, Clara was no so easily deterred. Once she noticed the fact that Hans's arm was still stuck, and his worsening expression, she tried to push the arm down herself, even standing up to get some leverage. For a few tense seconds the pair wrestled with the frozen appendage, Hans even reaching over to try pushing it down with his other hand, but for a beat it seemed to be in vain.
Until, with a grinding squeal of giving metal, Hans's upper arm swung down, the sudden lack of resistance sending Clara to the ground with a yelped exclamation of her own.
"Clara! I-I'm so sorry, are you alright?!" However, for all of his apologetic franticness, Hans needn't have worried very much, as Clara somewhat dazedly sat up, shaking a bit of snow from her hair and unable to keep a somewhat giddy smile from her face.
"I'm fine! Did it work?"
The question quelled the contrite fear for a moment as Hans looked from the grin on Clara's face to his arm, gingerly moving his left forearm up and down. The metallic joint did stick a little, but ultimately moved fine, the oil doing its job nicely.
"…It's working great. Thanks, Clara." A smaller, but no less relieved smile began to take root on the nutcracker's face, echoed as Clara's grin widened at the affirmation.
"Wonderful!" She replied, though her smile fell a little as a thought occurred to her. "I'd just keep moving it, just to make sure it doesn't get stuck again."
"Oh, right." The next few minutes for Hans were spent bending his arm at the elbow after pulling Clara back up to sit next to him on the rock. It did catch a few times, though Hans only had to use his other hand to force it through the motion once. However, the more he did it the easier it became, until it moved as fluidly as it had before they'd gotten into this mess. Glancing over at Clara though Hans realized that the girl's eyes had turned from his progress to the flickering flames, quietly watching them with that hypnosis that came with exhaustion at the end of a long day.
"Clara?" He asked, continuing when she snapped to life to look at him. "You can go to sleep if you're tired, I'll keep watch."
"Are you sure?" She questioned, though the tiredness in her voice and the half-lidded look to her eyes strengthened Hans's resolve to follow through on his earlier stated plan. Clara had been through enough already today.
"It'll be fine, Clara. I already got the firewood so I'll be here for the whole night. I won't go anywhere."
"Alright." She eventually conceded. "Though if you have any more trouble with your joints, don't hesitate to wake me up, okay?"
"I won't." He promised, though part of Hans had already made up his mind that the only way he'd be bothering Clara at this point was if the mice were bearing down on them from the forest. "Thank you, Clara."
With a tired, but full smile on her face, Clara had wished him goodnight, heading back into the tent and bedding down for the night. It didn't take long for her to fall asleep, silence encompassing the small campsite, only broken by the crackle of the fire and the occasional whisper of wind through the tops of the trees. In the quiet hush, and with nothing else to do, Hans kept an eye on the fire and tried to ignore the impulse to get up and move every few minutes so as not to freeze up again. He wasn't, however, able to suppress a twitch or two running through his limbs at the thought of his body simply locking up like it had. That had been a completely new level of horrifying, and given what he'd been through recently that was saying a lot. But what stuck even more in his mind, and with more insidious whispering that mulled on whether or not he was really capable, was the image of Clara lying silent and still in the snow with her skin blanched an unsettling red.
With a clatter Hans shook the memory from his mind, though he couldn't help but glance over at the makeshift tent to his left, just in time to make out a small shifting as Clara moved in her sleep. Even though he knew that it had just been a memory, the nutcracker had to take a moment to…not quite breathe, but to let some of the tension flow out from his frame. Even as he tried to tell himself that everything was fine, they'd overcome the obstacle, part of Hans couldn't help but wonder when his and Clara's luck would eventually run out. The images that the dismal thought conjured, every little instant of things coming a little too close or the overarching worries, like the one of 'what if I don't wake up the next time I fall asleep?', made him feel small, harkening back to the days of childhood where if he curled up small enough or hid and didn't make a sound the monsters and fears of his younger days wouldn't find him. Except these were very real, and he while he wasn't facing them alone Hans…wasn't sure he wanted to burden Clara with his worries and fears. It wasn't like with his uncle, the man brimming over with wisdom and patience for even the circling, abstract ramblings of a child. Clara was the outsider here, and she depended on him.
And Hans wasn't sure he was ready to be depended on. He hadn't been some warrior or lord, he was a clockmaker's nephew. Not brave, wise, or really anything great or noble, just lucky. Whether or not that was good or bad luck he'd yet to really determine, but from where he was standing, it all looked like it was on the cusp of being bad.
"It's not fair." Hans whispered, if only to hear someone say it. Even if it was just him commiserating with himself. "I never asked for this. I was only trying to help. I didn't want to cause this much trouble…for anyone. I never wanted to be a problem, for Clara or my uncle.
"But I am, aren't I?"
He wasn't sure if he felt better or worse upon letting the quiet confession out in the air, though the lonesome silence of the woods around him made a heavier weight settle onto Hans's shoulders. And, wrapping thickly around him like a curtain was a suffocating feeling that made that shrinking, intimidatingly-childlike mindset grow stronger. If it wasn't despair outright, then the blackest darkness only felt a few short steps away.
Suddenly, a wind blew through the campsite, strong enough to cause the fire to flicker and the branches overhead to rustle with a newfound intensity. The noise was loud enough to shatter the depressive thoughts, Hans peering up with surprise as the wind carried on. It drew his eyes to a collection of blue, glowing points scattered about the trees, out of the reach of the fire's heat. Despite himself Hans stood, about to step away from the fire so that his friends could speak with him more freely. Albeit, he only had to take a few steps before a fairy immediately flew down, whizzing about his head in a movement that almost made Hans dizzy before plastering herself to the left side of his face in what seemed like a hug. It was a little difficult to see, though after a moment a slight chill began to permeate his wooden skin. Without really thinking, Hans raised a hand to his face to steady the smaller being, though as he did, a whisper finally managed to reach his ears from the winds and forest around him.
"Friend Hans, friend Hans…" All his time, admittedly not very long but still, Hans had never heard the fairies sound so dismal, so broken down and upset. The winds themselves seemed to echo what they were feeling, whistling almost sorrowfully through the trees as though it too were in a state of lament. It suddenly struck the nutcracker that his declaration had not gone unheard, that his oldest and dearest friends had been listening to even those darker, desperate thoughts that had quite simply tumbled from his mouth. For a few moments, Hans was frozen, caught between relief at idea that someone else was privy to those emotions, but at the same time not wanting to cause the fairies any strife with his troubles. They were his, after all, started and only really able to be fixed by him.
"…I'm sorry." Hans finally murmured, not quite sure who he was apologizing to or for what. The fairy pressed to his cheek however shook her head, a nearly silent admonition drifting to Hans's ears on the wind, mournfully empathic in tone.
"Friend Hans should not be sorry. Friend Hans was only trying to help." The quiet affirmation of what he had been saying before loosening something inside. Hans didn't quite sob, but in the next moment, his eyes had begun to brim over with helpless, terrified tears. The fairy thankfully moved from the nutcracker's cheek to his forehead before being splattered with the hot drips, though still Hans could just barely feel the cold touch of a hug against his skin.
He did eventually make it back to the fire before the sun rose, though for a long time, he stayed just beyond the reach of the flame's heat, the cold winds of winter gently blowing around and overhead as the lights of the fairies danced on the gales, creating their patterns in the snow for the nutcracker to see.