Pitch watches me in the following moments. I don't know if he's waiting for my reaction or an opportunity to smack me again for thinking. But I'm not thinking. I can't. I can't get beyond the word 'safe'. Safe? Safe?
Pitch sighs and clasps his hands behind his back, tilting his head. Unimpressed and worsening as each ticking second goes by. Finally my brain begins to work again; safe is able to be processed, and in relation to that smack on my nose the meaning becomes clear. I feel the blood drain from my cheeks. Pitch smiles.
"No way. Hell no! If you think you're going to use this as an excuse to beat me up and—!" I gasp as Pitch shoves me hard against the wall, one arm across my shoulders to hold me there and a hand going over my mouth. I squirm but it's of no use. My powers are useless in the world of nightmares.
"Listen to me very carefully, Jack. I have told you more than once and yet you seem unable to comprehend what I'm trying to do for you." I glare and try to push at him. For me? Yeah, right. But he holds me steady and the dark look in his eyes makes me stop. I swallow and look at him for a long minute, after which he removes his hand from my mouth. "Your center prevents you from being idle. You crave action and new discoveries. And yet you keep turning down this one—"
"Because it's crazy!" I cry out as he backhands me across the cheek. I don't know what I'm more shocked about: that he actually did that or that I can feel it.
"Do you remember when I told you there would come a time that I would not be so accommodating, Frost?" I nod sheepishly. I never thought I'd be so intimidated by him in my entire life. "This is that time. I don't care what you think you want, Frost. The fact is you need this." I go to argue but he clamps a firm hand over my mouth again. "You do, Jack. Because what other options do you have? Children who are too unsophisticated and Guardians too enraptured by their own narcissistic holidays. That is what drove you to me. Drove you to fear and to darkness, Jack. What do you expect to receive from such a thing? I am offering you an end to your miserable existence; to your bored days and your dreary nights. Heat for your chilled bones and sensation for your starving skin." He leans close to my ear. I try to turn my head away but his hand keeps my head against the stone. I shiver when I feel his breath against me; his warmth. I shut my eyes but it does nothing to fend off his whispers. "Do you dare to defy the only offer you will ever have to save you from insanity, Jack?"
I swallow again, unable to open my eyes. Fear. A fear grips my heart like nothing else ever has, not even my own death. I feel myself shaking and maybe even feel tears, small wet lines that freeze over halfway down my cheeks. Blood pounds in my ears and the air coming through my nose feels like there's no oxygen in it. It's too much. This is too much. Because he's right. Pitch is right. I have no other options; I have no one else to go to. There's nothing else I can do to feel normal again, if there even is such a thing. The hole in my heart yearns to be filled; desperate for a savior from its awful desolation. It begs me to give in, to give it a way out, a way to close up and make me whole again. And this is the only way.
It's as if he knows. As if Pitch is inside my head, able to track my every thought. I feel him smile against my ear but still he isn't satisfied. He removes his hand from my mouth and asks again, "do you dare?"
I sniff, looking out into the vast cavern with all its twists and turns and bridges and shadows. There will be no going back from this. If I say no, Pitch will desert me without a thought. But if I say yes, I have to let him have me. My mind, my emotions, …my body. I have to let him in so he can fix me. Give the cure for my utterly broken mind. My lips move; I seal my fate. But it takes a moment for me to recognize that I've whispered 'no'.
"No I don't dare." I gasp when he gives a rough tug on my hair. "No I don't dare to defy you."
Pitch smirks and finally backs off. The overwhelmed feeling fades as I feel oxygen coming into my brain. But it's coming too fast; there's too much of it. I've been cut off for so long that I can't handle it all at once. My vision swirls and I feel cold stone against my back as I slide to the floor. Pitch's laughter fills my head—or is it my ears?—and my vision blacks out only to be replaced moments later by an intense white.
I shield my eyes with a hand before opening them, greeted with daylight. I lower my hand and look around to find myself lying in the grass by the lake. The dead grass. It feels like I've been passing out and waking up in weird places inexplicably a lot lately. But this time I feel different; refreshed, almost. Like a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders. It feels so amazing that I just lie there for a while to bask in the feeling. I'm possibly on the verge of falling asleep when some short noise makes me sit up. Jamie comes walking over in surprise. "Are you… back now?"
"You said you had Guardian stuff."
"We're… working on it." I wait for the pain of the lie to hit me but it never does. "It's nothing major. You don't need to worry, Jamie."
"Of course." He comes closer and looks at me with a frown for a long minute. "What?"
"Did you change your clothes?"
I almost tell him no but I look down first. It's not just Jamie. My pants and my hoodie both look a couple shades darker than they used to. There's a little more nightmare dust on the hoodie too, but it doesn't look like Jamie sees that. "…I did." What am I supposed to tell him? A little bit of the previous worry comes back. How am I going to hide this? From Jamie is one thing, but what about the Guardians?
"Jack, are you okay?"
"What do you mean?"
"I see you sleeping all the time. Are you sick?"
"I'm okay, Jamie. Really. Being a Guardian can just be really tiring sometimes."
"…okay." He still frowns, not seemingly convinced. I don't know what else to tell him. I don't want to push him totally away because I still care for him but I don't want to lie to him. Not just because it hurts—or, at least, it used to—but because I'd have to remember the kind of story I wove, which is clearly working so well for me already. After a minute he half smiles and gives me a hug. I hug him back but it doesn't feel the same as it used to. I stand after he lets go and let him lead me by the hand away from the lake. A distant ache begins somewhere deep in my chest the farther I get from it but I still go with him, even after he stops and looks at me like he's just realized what he's doing.
"You aren't busy right?"
"I'll always have time for you."
He grins and walks back to his home with me by his side. I'm happy that he still believes; that he still cares so deeply. But I feel like I've started to lose that connection in return. This introduction to Pitch's world, as shallow as it's been, has left me reeling and trying to align it with the life I've been leading up until now. But they're at complete odds with each other. I try to give Jamie the attention I used to give him as he shows me all the new things he's learned in school and from books he's read; shows me the new tricks he's taught Abby; describes movies he's really enjoyed. I swear I try, and it's good enough to fool Jamie but it doesn't work for me. I've been disconnected from his desires as a child from all the new ones beginning to fog up my own brain. I want that to bother me; I want to be upset that I can't connect with him. But I can't find it in me. The logical part of me just keeps telling me that it's a necessary side effect to get back my center.
I tuck him into bed that night and tell him that I'll see him soon, all the while my thoughts on other things. I was made as the protector of fun in children. How are they supposed to believe in me when I can't stand to be around them? Something isn't right here. This shouldn't be happening. My desire for a more complicated relationship shouldn't clash with the ones I already have. Should it?
I fly to the North Pole and sit on the edge of a cliff with my hood pulled up, looking down at the stormy water below. By now it's dark; the stars are out and Manny is high in the sky. He's utterly silent as he watches me sit here trying to figure myself out. He's never been that communicative with me, naturally, but I'd do anything for a sign from him now. "You chose me to be a Guardian, Manny. Shouldn't you be a little worried about what's going on down here?" I try to laugh but it comes out dry; humorless.
"He's never really been the direct type." Pitch's cloak appears in the corner of my vision before he sits down beside me.
"He's never said a single thing to me. He told me my name and that was it." I draw my knees up and fold my arms on top of them. "Even after I became a Guardian and even after we defeated you, he's never said anything. The Guardians had to tell me I was chosen. They have to tell me what he says. I don't—" I clench my jaw. "It's not fair. I don't fit in anywhere."
"Well you are the Winter Prince."
Pitch glances at me. "You're a snowflake." He pulls my hood down and leans into my space. It drives me mad that he keeps doing this; that he thinks he can just do whatever the hell he wants with me like I'm his toy. "One of a kind."
"Why are you being so nice to me?"
"Because it's the only way to stop you from being so pathetically depressed with yourself."
I snort. There's the real Pitch Black.
"You need to learn that the world doesn't revolve around you, Jack."
"I already know that."
"No. You don't. All you think about is how depressing your life is and how many problems you have. How you don't fit in with anyone because you're so different. I'm going to tell you a little secret." I wince when he grabs the back of my hair, arching to try and lessen the pain.
"Stop doing that!"
He pulls even tighter, bringing tears to my eyes as he hisses, "No one cares about you Jack Frost. Not a single soul. They try but you push them all away with your problems. All you are to them is baggage. Depressing, egotistical, teenage baggage. There is no kind worse than yours."
"Stop." I close my eyes. He's hurting me. Every word etches a deeper scar inside me. "Please."
"You needn't beg." He lessens his grip on my hair. "There may yet be someone who cares for you. Perhaps, maybe, I do." He lets go completely to let me turn my head to look at him. Smiling at me darkly. "But are you willing to cling to such odds? To risk everything on someone you hate? To redeem yourself in the eyes of someone you sent to hell?" I hate what he's done. He's cut a wound so deep that only he can staunch the flow. It burns all the worse for every word of it being so true. How did I become this thing? How did I fail everyone so badly? Why couldn't I be happy with what I had? Why do I always need more?
I gasp when his fingers enclose my throat. He's not choking me but it still scares me. I still want away from it. My answer already on my lips just to get him to stop. "Do you give in, Jack Frost?"
His fingers tighten slightly. "Do you want me to rid you of this curse of solitude?"
"Do you promise me power over everything that you are so that one day you might be loved again?" He's squeezing so hard I'm starting to black out. I can barely hear what he says over the sound of my own blood but I don't care. Someone, anyone, is better than no one.
"I promise you everything!"
Spots fill my vision and gasps fill my ears. I fall to the ground coughing, now free of his grasp. I feel reality fading in and out several times before all my senses finally come back. I'm lying on cold stone, there are no waves anymore, and not a single speck of light lets me know any more than that. I run my hand over the floor; it's smooth, like Pitch's lair. I sit up and wait a couple minutes to see if he'll appear but all I'm met with is silence. "Pitch?" The room must be huge with the way my voice echoes around it. "Pitch!"
Still more of nothing. I get to my feet and finally the door opens. I only see the silhouette at first but it's too bulky to be Pitch. The shadow steps out of the direct light and I can make out his features. It's not Pitch. It's North.