The crackling fire is low, its glow gentle. North leans against the arm of the couch, Toothiana settled at the opposite end. Aster is stretched comfortably between them, leaning against Tooth and his feet propped by North’s leg. Sandy has made himself a nest on the floor, two layers of blankets and several pillows cushioning him from the hardwood.
Their voices murmur in waves, words lapping at the shores and withdrawing; it is a gentle cadence, a natural one, their drifting silences as comfortable as when they speak to another.
Curled up on another couch furthest from the fire, furthest from the cluster of bodies, sleeps Jack. His head rests on the arm of it at an awkward angle; his legs are drawn tightly to his chest, arms wrapped securely around them, and his crook sits shoved into the back cushions, nearly swallowed by the couch. He does not snore; he sleeps quietly, soundly, and he might be dead were it not for the steady rise and fall of his chest.
None of them say it but all of them think it; it is the first time he has slept in their presence. It feels monumental, in a way, after two and a half years of these biweekly meetups. No one is willing to move too much, to speak too loudly, lest they disturb his slumber and inevitably have him be on his way.
The night moves slowly forward, the clock ticking well past midnight. Their murmurs drift into longer and longer silent bouts, and Tooth finds drowsiness tugging at her eyes. She allows them to slip closed and she absently runs a hand through Aster’s fur, and North chuckles as his leg twitches a bit. “Rack off,” Aster murmurs, but there’s no bite to it and she doesn’t stop.
Time continues to slip idly by; the fire burns ever lower but she is no less warm, Pooka curled against her side. She cannot tell if North is asleep yet or not. He tends to snore, but that is not a constant.
She is nearly asleep herself when, slowly, eventually, she realizes that Aster is no longer loose-limbed and relaxed against her. There is a tightness to him that hadn’t been there before. She blinks open her eyes and peers at him to find his ears perked.
He is staring at Jack.
Her gaze flits to the sleeping winter spirit as well, glances back to Aster, and then snaps to Jack once again. Drowsiness leaves her limbs at once and she finally understands the tension running through her friend; Jack’s face is drawn, lips barely parted, and he no longer breathes slow and steady. His chest moves in abrupt, uneven hitches.
She cannot hear him breathing, still, but with every minute twitch of Aster’s ears she knows that something is wrong.
“Bunny,” she whispers, and Aster starts just slightly in surprise before settling back down. He gives no other sign of acknowledgement, but she does not need it. “Is he okay?”
“His breathin’s kooky.”
“Is something the matter?” North asks suddenly, voice low, and Tooth tries not to show how it startles her. North pops open an eye and casts an appraising look at the two of them. Aster inclines his head towards Jack, and she watches as North’s expression goes from lax with sleepiness to concerned. “Would seem so,” he murmurs.
She curls a hand into Aster’s fur. “Should we wake him?”
“I—“ Aster pauses. “I don’t know. I think he’s havin’ a nightmare.” Another pause, longer. “I’m gonna wake Sandy.” She nods and so does North, who absently murmurs, “Good idea.” Aster sits up, swinging his legs off North’s lap, and he gently taps his foot against a sleeping Sandy. When Sandy does not immediately respond, Aster shifts away from Tooth and leans down, gently but insistently shaking the snoozing spirit. “Oi, bud, somethin’s up. Ya gotta wake up,” he hisses.
It takes a few more moments, a few more shakes, and then Sandy is blinking blearily up at the two of them. Tooth opens her mouth to offer an explanation but finds at it is not needed, for Sandy’s expression goes from sleepy bewilderment to something harder and more alert. He floats upright without preamble and twists to look at Jack, and Tooth does not like his frown one bit.
“Nightmare?” she asks softly, and Sandy nods. A little lower, a little nervous, “Is it Pitch?” Sanderson casts her a reassuring smile and shakes his head and she feels herself relax just a bit. It’s a natural nightmare, then. “Should... should we wake him?”
Sandy hesitates. Without answering he sends out a string of golden sand; it twists above Jacks head in a glow even gentler than the dying fire, and Tooth and Aster and North all watch as it gains traction and begins to settle. No sooner that it starts to take a shape does the sand lose its glow, though, and then a hint of its gold. Instead of turning black like Tooth half-fears, however, the sand only stops moving; whatever dream it had been crafting is washed away, and the dull golden sand dissolves into the air.
Tooth gasps; Aster murmurs something too quiet to hear, North responding likewise; Sandy frowns further, and then he is floating towards Jack’s couch. Jack’s breathing is still odd and hitching, tight and stuttering, and Tooth is ready to fly over and wake him from whatever dream plagues him.
Sandy beats her to it. Gently, he lays a hand on Jack’s shoulder and shakes. Tooth expects there to be a delay; she is prepared for Jack to wake slowly, unwillingly, for this to be a bit of a battle against the nightmare. But that is not so.
Jack awakens with a choked gasp, eyes snapping abruptly open and the limbs once held so close and tight pushing out, and he shoves Sandy blindly away. His hands grasp at the couch as though it is his lifeline and he does not breathe in again for many aching, stressful moments, and Toothiana is starting to get truly scared for him when he finally, finally, heaves in a gasping lungful.
“W—“ he begins, but whatever he means to say is cut short when he realizes where he is. He stares at each of them with wide eyes and Tooth is startled to find that she is in the air, hovering uncertainly closer. Aster is entirely upright, ears strained forward. North, too, is sitting up, unsettled and ready to stand; Sandy hovers a few feet away, looking for all the world like he doesn’t quite know what to do.
“Jack?” North ventures finally, when the silence has grown too much.
That seems to break whatever spell Jack is under; he slumps, tension easing, leaning back against the couch cushions, and Tooth finds to her relief that his breathing evens out. He does not say anything for a long moment, and when he does his voice wavers on the single word. “Sorry.”
She doesn’t miss the looks of surprise that cross the other Guardian’s faces. For what? Sandy‘s sands ask in a single curling question mark, and Jack looks at him and then at Tooth and Aster and North and he seems at a loss for words, and finally he shrugs like he doesn’t know. “It was just—just a nightmare,” he says instead.
“Just a nightmare, mate?” and Tooth startles at the sound of Aster’s voice. It is much louder than she’d expected, and she shoots him a look. Aster is not yet standing but everything about him is tense and wary, and he stares unwavering at Jack. Jack seems to shrink beneath the intensity. “I ain’t never seen a nightmare reject Sandy’s dreamsand before.”
“What?” Jack asks, sitting up again, looking to Sandy sharply. The dream-weaver waves two reassuring hands but it is a moment before Jack leans back into the cushions. “What happened?” he asks, and no one wants to acknowledge how strained he sounds.
Patiently, giving all of them time to interpret the meaning of each symbol—Jack most of all, least experienced with it as he is—Sandy explains that his sand is not a catch-all end-all. Some nightmares cannot be banished with his golden streams; some nightmares must be weathered.
“So it dissolvin’ just means the nightmare is too strong?” Aster asks, and Sandy nods.
“Oh,” is all Jack says. He is quiet a solid moment, fingers picking idly at a loose threat in the couches makeup. When no one offers anything else, he twists a little in his seat, hand going for his crook.
A sharp tension runs through all four of the them, because they know by now what this means. Without thinking, wishing to delay the inevitable, Tooth bursts out, “What did you dream about?”
He freezes. His hand does not yet settle onto his staff, and he does not meet her gaze, and Tooth immediately regrets asking even if it was to keep him there a little longer. “I’m sorry,” she says quickly, “you don’t have to—“
“It’s okay, Tooth,” he interrupts abruptly. “It’s fine, i swear.” The smile he offers is a little tight but still genuine, and the anxious flutter of her wings cools a little. “I just—“ a breath, “—it’s nothing.”
“Did not seem like nothing,” North says.
Jack’s smile twists. “It was, really.” And his fingers close around his crook, and Aster can feel the finality in the motion. He twitches his gaze to Tooth, who looks back with wide, regretful eyes.
“Then why don’t’cha tell us?” Aster prompts, putting challenge into his words. This stops Jack again, who hesitates, who looks back at Aster, and for one moment that does not belong to him Jack looks far too young, far too uncertain, when he darts a glance between all of them once again.
“Curious about what goes on in my head?” Jack finally quips, but there is no force behind it. “Didn’t know you cared, kangaroo.”
Aster twitches at the nickname and he allows himself, just a bit, to rise to the bait. “Don’t get a full head, mate,” he snips right back. “I only wanna know ‘cuz you disturbed my sleep.”
Instead of shooting back a reply like they all expect, Jack seems to falter, seems to wilt, and he opens his mouth and Tooth has never been so certain that he is going to apologize. But then he closes his lips and he looks down at his crook, and now Tooth thinks he’s just going to leave, and then—
“I dreamt I was drowning again. That’s all.”
Silence meets his words.
He looks back up at them and he smiles, and it is weak. “Does that sate your curiosity?”
“Again?” Aster says by way of reply.
Jack’s gaze flicks to him. “Yeah, I—uh. I dream about it sometimes.”
“Why?” North asks.
“Drowning again?” Tooth emphasizes the word, feeling for all the world like she’s missing something. Sandy nods as if he shares the unspoken sentiment, and Jack looks between them all, looking both bewildered and a little cornered.
Then in a heartbeat he seems to remember something, and his expression shifts to that of unease and discomfort, and he looks to the side, to the window. It is locked; Tooth does not doubt that a well-placed blast of wind would have them easily blowing open.
But Jack does not flee. He pulls his crook across his lap with both hands clasped firmly to it and he doesn’t look at them, and he murmurs, “I got the nightmares sometimes, before—“ he waves his hand around the room. “But then... the tooth box, and I...” he huffs a breath, steels himself. “Drowning was how I died.”
And for a moment, the words do not register.
And then it is like the air snaps taut, and Aster lets out a heavy breath and North’s hand curls tight on the armrest and Sandy floats back a bit, expression twisting to something hard to read. Tooth recoils as though struck and she feels some part of the world crumble and, “What?” she breathes, or maybe she doesn’t, and she stares. They all stare.
When Jack looks up at them again, he shrinks beneath their wide-eyed scrutiny but he does not look away. His gaze darts from face to face, and then around again, and Tooth sees the realization dawn on him slowly, like waves cresting the shore, inevitable and relentless.
“Oh,” he says again. And he looks—he looks resigned, and he looks three decades older, and he looks far far too young all at once, and his shoulders bow beneath the weight of understanding. “Oh,” he echoes himself.
He abruptly looks very small in a way that Tooth isn’t. “Seventeen,” he had told her once when she had asked in passing thought for his physical age, “I think.” Seventeen. He—he had died, at seventeen, he had drowned, and he’d woken up with no memories, and he—
He spent three hundred years in social isolation, at seventeen years old, just a child with no memories of his family—his family that might have still been alive, but he had no way of knowing.
Aster breathes out again and murmurs, “Blimey.”
“None of you—?” Jack starts suddenly, and then he stops himself. The unspoken question lingers in the air anyhow. Jack swallows and he straightens, and his voice is a little thick and his smile is fragile as sheet ice when he says, “Well, that aside,” his fingers curl tighter around his crook, a signifier of the end that they all see, “I really ought to—“
“Jack,” North interrupts. Jack’s jaw clicks shut and his smile drops and he shifts uneasily, uncomfortably. He doesn’t look any of them in the eye again. “Jack,” North repeats, firmly, and Jack’s gaze finally settles somewhere on North’s shoulder.
“Yeah?” he asks.
North seems to deliberate before he stands and makes his way slowly to Jack’s couch and, rather than looming over him—Jack curls away the nearer North draws, tensing tighter and tighter—North settles down on the opposite end. There is a large gap of space between them and Jack shifts his crook in his grip. Tooth worries, again, that he might take flight, that he might blast open the windows and flee into the icy night.
But he does not, and he still doesn’t when North finally murmurs, “Are you alright?” although after that Jack looks even closer to fleeing than before.
The smile Jack pulls is so forced, and Aster’s paws curl as he watches Jack don a mask of bravado. “Yeah,” he says, and his voice doesn’t crack but it is a near thing, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You know very well why,” Aster says—snaps, nearly, and there is a hard edge to his voice that he fails to reign back, and he is left with the taste of regret. Aster attempts to soften his features when Jack darts a look at him, but it is difficult for the gruff Pooka, a struggle to face this without barbs as he ever does in unfamiliar, emotional territory. But hard words won’t work now, he knows.
“I don’t,” Jack shoots back, and it is a lie, it is a lie, but his voice has gone hard and defensive, and Aster rues opening his damn mouth. “Now if you’ll excuse me—“ he is cut off again, quite abruptly, by a golden finger shoved close to his face. Jack blinks startled at Sandy.
Several golden symbols flash by overhead, too quick for Jack to decipher, and so Sandy slows it down. When Jack only looks on in confusion (and growing irritation), Sandy turns imploringly to the others.
Tooth flits forward readily, but she does not crowd. “Sandy’s saying that you don’t have to be okay,” she relays as gently as she can manage.
For whatever reason that seems to be all that he can withstand. Jack gets to his feet and asks, “Yeah?” and his voice climbs a little too high. “Well, I am okay, alright?” A lie, clear as ice, his words brittle as it too, and it is a reminder again that he is only a child, that before them stands a child who was lost and alone for centuries and it is their own faults for it, “And I hate to cut this short but I really should be—“
“Jack,” she interrupts softly, insistently, “You don’t have to be okay.”
And just like that his defensive anger shatters and he looks so young, so very like the children he fights tooth and nail to protect, and Tooth feels another part of the world crumble. His breath hitches and he is rigid, he is frigid, he is shattered glass and icicles, and when North shifts closer and places a gentle hand on his shoulder Jack crumbles, too. His expression twists and he blinks too many times, and without thinking, without hesitating, Tooth closes the remaining distance between them and pulls him into a hug.
He goes still as a statue in her arms and she nearly draws away, terrified of having made a mistake; but then he thaws, melting like a snowbank beneath the sun in her embrace. His forehead thunks against her shoulder and she can feel the taut energy thrumming in him.
Sandy runs a tentative hand through Jack’s hair; Jack lets out a single, raw sob, and then he is silent. Sandy continues the action; North moves his hand to Jack’s back, a warm and solid presence, a reassurance. Aster deliberates—Aster hesitates—he stands—hesitates again—and then he walks up, and he draws Tooth and Jack into a hug, careful not to dislodge the others.
Jack sobs again. His shoulders shake. She holds him while he cries as silent as he can manage and Aster holds them both while she fights off her own tears, and she murmurs, “You’re allowed to not be okay,” and he only cries harder. His arms finally wrap around her and one hand curls around Aster’s wrist and he sobs, and she tries not to sniffle.
When Jack finally speaks, it is seconds and it is ages later, after his tears have wound down. “It’s—“ is all he gets out before his words catch, and he breathes in and out, in and out, and tries again, keeping his head hidden in her shoulder. “It’s a really bad dream.”
Sandy nods and does not stop carding his fingers through Jack’s hair.
He falls asleep on the couch again, this time leaning rather heavily against Sandy, and Sandy does not mind one bit. A hand remains curled around his crook and it looks as though it might slip out at any moment, and although the thought of setting it carefully aside crosses their minds, none dare to. Their places switched, Tooth curls in next to Aster, Jack’s feet tucked beneath her legs despite how cold they are. There is not enough room on the couch for North and so he has settled on the floor at the foot of it, blankets and pillows adjusted around him.
Aster cannot find sleep. Neither can Tooth. North leans against the foot of the couch and stares at the still-dwindling fire.
They are silent as the dead, and they all listen to the steady rise and fall of Jack’s breathing.