It’s funny, really, the way things work out. It comes out ways you don’t expect, bursting out in tiny bubbles or cracking through delicate glass. Sometimes, it’s both. And in those rare moments, you learn to hold reality at the tip of your fingers, ready to let it go when it’s time.
In the dim light and fading blue of where the Killahead Bridge used to stand, Claire cradles her baby brother, tears staining her cheeks. And it’s bittersweet, one wins and one loses, at the same time. Her brother is here, he’s safe and in her arms, and he’s okay—which, coincidentally, is everything Jim isn’t. Jim, who’s still stuck in the Darklands after saving her brother, and after all of this, he’s still down there. He’s still trapped, and he might be forever.
She can hear Toby, screaming and kicking, and she wants to as well, but screaming won’t do anything. It won’t fix the bridge, it won’t protect Jim, it won’t bring him back to them. But Jim isn’t dead—can’t be dead. No. She refuses to believe that. He’s survived two weeks so far, hasn’t he? They’ll find a way to fix the bridge, just a little bit longer, Jim just has to fight for a little bit longer.
Everyone else leaves, but they stay. It feels like before all over again: all three of them crying and worried about Jim. Except now they had been so close; he was right there. She’d even touched his hand, and maybe if she had held on a little bit tighter, he would be here.
He would be here, with them, alive and well. He’d tell them that he’s okay, and then talk about his adventures and what he’d learned. He would make them laugh, hold them close, and promise never to let go ever again.
But he’s not here. He’s not here and the world is still spinning on its axis. The ground is still underneath her feet, but she feels like she’s falling. She’s dangling on a tightrope and she can’t see the bottom, Jim is on the other side, but she knows she’ll never be able to reach him.
And she misses him, wants to wrap him in a hug and never let him leave ever again. He’s the world, the stars, the moon, and he deserves it all. A sunshine laugh, starlit eyes, and a heavenly heart. He deserves happiness, deserves to smile every day of his life.
(There’s the lingering truth at the very core of all of this, and Claire knows it: Jim will never receive the peaceful and relaxing life he needs because of his duties as the Trollhunter. And it’s lifelong, and it won’t ever give him a break until death’s cold fingers snap his life line into two.)
She wants Jim to be safe; she needs to know he’s okay. That he’s alive. That he’s still out there, fighting to get back home.
“Claire?” a voice asks from behind her, and she turns around to see Blinky, worry written all over his face. It’s what all of them seem to look like nowadays. He points over to Toby, who stands near where the amulet lies, unmoving and still. “Perhaps Tobias could use some of your assistance. He doesn’t seem to be responding to anything I say.”
She nods mutely before getting up on her feet and slowly moving to where her friend stands. “Toby?” she calls out, but it’s soft still. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she says, “Toby? Are you okay?”
It takes him a moment to answer, and his words only make Claire’s heart drop. It’s raw and pained, the way he says it, like he truly believes in it. And she might, too, but she’s not going to give up.
“They killed him.” Toby looks at her with an anguish she’d never seen before, his eyes filling up with tears. “They killed him, Claire! They killed him!”
“Toby, Toby, hey, it’s okay,” she says, but she’s trying everything not to let her voice crack. She needs to be strong for both of them right now. “Jim is still alive. He’s okay. I—I saw him. He’s still alive.”
She doesn’t mention that there had been Gumm-Gumms behind him, that there had been desperation in his eyes when he tried to reach her hand, that he’d been dragged away from her. Toby doesn’t need the hurt, but he does need the truth—and she’s more than sure Jim is still alive.
If there’s anything she’d learned about Toby these past two weeks, it’s that he’s more vulnerable than he seems. There are cracks behind his toothy grin, pain hidden underneath layers of laughter. He’s hurt by Jim leaving the Darklands the most—he’s Jim’s best friend, and they’ve done everything together until he’d left them all alone. Without Jim, Toby’s only half of a dynamic duo, and while Claire’s been trying to fill that space to make him feel better, there are edges she can never soften, stories she cannot keep to arm herself with.
Instead, the best thing she can do is make her own space, build new stories and more inside jokes, help heal the wounds Jim had left until he’s there himself to clean up the mess. She’s there for Toby on nights they both miss Jim, on afternoons when Toby needs a player two, and on mornings when he forgets his homework and needs help. Claire builds a castle for both of them and puts the bricks gently while making sure that nothing can ever bring it down. She holds down the fort on days Toby can’t handle the stress, on days worry fills his lungs and it’s the only thing he can breathe in. She stands strong and never lets go, because in the end, whether they get Jim back or not, they need to help trollkind.
They’re the guardians, the saviors, the protectors—and it may be that no hero has never had a happy ending, but they’re ready to swear that they’ll be the first.
“Jim is going to be okay,” she murmurs, and she wraps an arm around Toby, the other still carrying Enrique. “We’re going to get him back. There has to be a way to get him back.”
Toby nods, but sadness still ghosts around his edges. He wipes a tear from his eyes, sniffling.
“Jim is strong,” she tells him after a moment. “He’ll get through this. We just—we just need to keep going and fix the bridge. We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
And Toby looks up at her and nods again. “Jim will be okay,” he says, but it’s more to himself. “He’ll—he’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” she says, and her eyes look at the rubble. She wonders how on earth they’re supposed to fix this, but they will, they have to, for Jim. “He’ll be okay.”
Enrique lets out a little cry in her arms and she sways, humming a little lullaby. He quiets down after a while, more content.
Claire turns to Toby. “Do you—do you want to hold him?”
He blinks at her in surprise. “Claire, no, I don’t know—”
She doesn’t wait for him to finish, gently holding out her brother for him to take. “You can do it. Think of it has holding a huge burrito.”
Hesitantly, he takes Enrique and swings him slightly. Her brother smiles at Toby, trying to touch his nose. “Hey, little guy,” he murmurs. “Claire’s told me a lot about ya, says you’re a real misfit. Is that true?”
Enrique giggles in his arms and Toby grins, looking up at Claire. She smiles.
Everything is going to be okay.
They get Jim back eventually, and the world is still spinning on its axis. It never stops, not when they make it out of the portal before the bridge collapses, not when Jim changes back into his Daylight armor, not when he kisses her, not when they all hug because they’re reunited once again.
The world keeps spinning and the sun still sets, and things have gone back to normal, to the way things used to be.
They all go home, after hiding the remains of the bridge and cleaning up the mess they made. Blinky and AAARRRGGHH!! head for Troll Market, and Draal takes the tunnels, leaving the three of them alone. They joke on the way home, telling Jim about what he’d missed. Before heading in the other direction, Claire presses a kiss to Jim’s cheek.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she says before waving. He smiles at her, cheeks a little pink. Toby is grinning and waves.
That night, she sleeps in peace.
“You’re going to have to ask him eventually,” Claire tells Toby. Her hands are full as they place books into her locker. “You can’t avoid it.”
“Well, if it’s so easy for you,” Toby says with a huff as he stands up and shuts his locker door, “then why don’t you do it?”
Claire shuffles her feet before crossing her arms. “You’re his best friend!”
“You’re his girlfriend!” Toby shoots back, and it does hit her quite more than she expected (girlfriend—it’s new, they’re still new, but Claire wouldn’t have it any other way, really).
“He’ll listen to you, TP. Besides,” she says as she adjusts the strap of her bag. “It has to come from you. You’re the best one to say it.”
“Fine,” he mutters after a moment. “But I’ll say it when I say it. I don’t want to pressure the guy, he just came out of the Darklands. Who knows what trauma he’s been through?”
And Claire knows this. Based on his stories, it seemed like a lot. Too much, even. He and Nomura had seemed to be in bad shape when Claire had seen both of them. She wants Jim to just rest for a bit, but a Trollhunter’s duties are never finished. And the Tribunal gives them hell every time they go to Troll Market, so there isn’t really time for a break, unfortunately.
“Just—lay it on him gently, okay?” Claire tells him. “He doesn’t need the extra guilt.”
“I know,” and it’s softer than before. “I know. I just—I want to know why. We deserve to know why, don’t we?”
She nods, biting her lip. “As much as I want to forget it all ever happened, we deserve to know why he went to the Darklands.”
And later that night, they get their answer. It’s clouded in deep violets and blues, and it becomes too much for them to handle. But finally, they know why. They understand.
And Claire might’ve chosen to stay, might’ve taken a different road if she were the Trollhunter, but she understands. She’s seen nightfall too many times not to.
It’s around two in the morning when she hears a tap on her window. Her eyes blink open, and it takes a while to adjust to the dark, but when she does, Jim is standing on the other side of the glass, waving sheepishly.
“What are you doing?” she asks as she opens the window. “If my parents find out you’re here—”
“Yeah, I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he says, and he really does sound apologetic. “I just—I couldn’t sleep.”
Her eyes immediately soften, and she smiles a bit. “Fine, you can come in, but we better stay quiet, alright? They already don’t approve of you enough.”
Jim smiles weakly. “Sorry about earlier. Again. Maybe there’s a reason there’s only one Jim Lake in the whole world, huh?”
Claire laughs softly. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m just lucky he’s my boyfriend, then.”
And it’s hard to make out in the dark, but she sees a faint blush spread on Jim’s cheeks. His hand goes to rub the back of his neck. “Yeah, I—I guess so.”
She finds a spot on the bed, and taps on the space next to her. “So,” she starts, “was it—was it nightmares?”
Jim nods grimly as he makes his way next to her. The bed shifts with the added weight, and it feels surreal, to have him here with her. And it’s not the ideal time to be with him, but hey, some things can’t be helped.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
A beat, and then— “Yeah. I think so.”
“Okay,” she murmurs, taking his hand. “I’m here for you.”
“I don’t really—it’s dark, I think, and I’m in my armor. I don’t know why, but something is out there, waiting. I can feel it—feel it all around me, it’s there. I don’t know what it is or what it wants or what it’s going to do. It’s just…dark.” Jim pauses and Claire squeezes his hand. He smiles. “Then it shifts, in a way, and I’m standing in front of Gunmar. He’s saying something, but the sound never reaches my ears, and before I know it, he’s using his blade against me. Then he—he—”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to,” she comforts, and she takes his other hand. “It’s okay.”
“No, I—” he pauses, taking in some air, almost like he’d been drowning in his fear this whole time. “I want to.”
“Okay,” she whispers, and she watches him breathe. “Okay.”
“He makes me kill all of you.”
And it’s so soft Claire almost missed it, but the words bring her heart to her stomach, and she can only wonder what Jim must be feeling.
“Oh, Jim,” she says, and she doesn’t hesitate to wrap her arms around him, holding him close. “It wasn’t real. You know that, right? That will never happen, I promise you that.”
“I know,” but it’s a whimper, a cry, and tears are running down his cheeks. “I know, I know, but what if? I’m scared, Claire. What if I can’t defeat him? What if I can’t do it?”
“Never. You were always brave enough for the both of us.” Claire presses a kiss to his cheek, lets it linger so the feeling ghosts around both of them. “You’ve always been brave for all of us. And you won’t be alone when you do it. We’ve got your back, Jim. We won’t let that happen. I promise.”
He nods, and she lets him lay his head on her shoulder, rubs his back while his shoulders shake. It all comes down, and he cries, not holding back a single sob as the moon rotates the sky. The stars shine bright, but even then, in the darkness of her room and in the glow of the night sky, white pinpricks on a dark canvas, he’s the brightest star she’s ever seen.
She hopes he never fades away.
Jim is dead, but the world is still spinning.
He’s gone, in the Deep that no troll has ever escaped from, and she’s never going to see her again. The rope has been cut, the one holding the cage to the sky, the one keeping him alive, the one holding the space between them.
She only wishes she had held on just a little bit longer.
You saved my brother. Let me save you.
It’s in her, through her, and all over her. The power, the dark magic, it seeps through her until it’s the only thing she can feel. She can’t see, can’t hear, only feel—the raw power within, it’s summoning her. Maybe it always has and she just hasn’t felt how strong it was until now.
Welcome, my child.
It’s strong, maybe even a little too strong, but she holds on, tight and hard. She keeps focus on the forest, where they need to be, where Steve and Eli wait for them. Hold on to the power, she tells herself, don’t lose your grip. Don’t let go.
She knows of the consequences, knows the dark magic could kill her. But she’s willing to do it. She focuses on her fear, her anger, her love. She wants to protect her friends; she wants to keep them safe. She thinks of Jim and his starlit promises, of Toby and their shared sunrises and downfalls, of Blinky and his intellect and wit, of AAARRRGGHH!!! and his passion, and of NotEnrique and his brotherly love. She thinks of her friends—her family—and hopes that her love for them is strong enough to save them.
But then, slowly, she’s not the only one holding onto the power. They’re all there with her. The power surges within all of them, and Claire can feel it. It’s time.
She lets go.
It’s over, quick as it came, and Claire feels the power release her. Her senses come back, and she’s being shaken awake, and she sees Jim.
Everyone is safe. Everything is okay. They’re okay, they’re alive, they’re safe.
My child, we are linked now. Now and for all of time. Your essence and mind, we are one.
Claire wakes up from the nightmare, but she has a feeling she was never truly dreaming to begin with. She might’ve let go, might’ve released the power, but the magic is still within her. It’s still there.
It holds on.