“I…” Pitch looked down at Jamie’s grinning face, then up to Jack’s. “There’s no way this can end well. And you,” he said to Jamie. “Aren’t you…aren’t you old enough to not need a babysitter?”
“I’m only eight,” Jamie said. His grin reminded Pitch too much of Jack’s. “And Sophie’s only barely three.”
“Sophie?” Pitch said, pronouncing the name with all the fear and awe of an explorer deciphering the runes under difficult-to-look-at-directly bas-reliefs found under a thousand feet of Antarctic ice.
“Oh, did I not mention her?” Jack put his hand on his chin, looking exaggeratedly thoughtful. It looked like something he had picked up from Sandy in one of Sandy’s least genuine moments. “Well, it’s extra important to keep her safe. She just wandered off into the Warren once, you know.”
Pitch felt an ominous tugging at his robes near his shins. He looked down to find an unreasonably small girl wearing fairy wings over her clothes staring up at him. “BOO!” she yelled, once she was sure she had his attention, then ran off giggling to hide behind her brother.
“Can I forfeit?” Pitch asked, noting that for some reason Sophie’s hands had been contaminated with fake maple syrup when she grabbed his robe.
“Aw, Pitch, but isn’t this so much better than a thousand years in a dungeon? We all voted, and if you can do this, then you’re halfway to rehabilitated! I don’t know if you’d want to risk forfeiting, after all, Sandy was the holdout for the dungeon. I think he’ll be in charge of your prison if you fail, and honestly, I doubt that’d be good for you.”
Pitch raised his nonexistent eyebrows as high as they could go. “Jack, what were his exact symbols? And—you know what, never mind.” He rolled his shoulders. “Knowing that information has indeed focused my mind.”
“I thought it would,” said Jack, his grin returning in full force. “Now, have fun!”
“Right,” Pitch said, turning to the children. To their credit, or maybe Pitch’s credit, both Jamie and Sophie looked significantly less blasé about being alone with the boogeyman now that Jack had gone. Pitch crouched down and folded his arms over his knees. “Let’s establish some facts here. One. By the standard of every real adult you know, you’ve been left home alone. If other people find that out, it causes problems not only for me, but for you and your mother, too. Two. When you give your report to the Guardians after today, one of those people will be Santa. He’ll know if you’re lying to make me look worse than I am, so don’t plan on it, no matter how amusing you find the image of me locked in a dungeon to be.”
“Well…” Jamie frowned. “How are you going to keep us busy, anyway? If we’re bored the whole time, that means you’re not a good babysitter.”
Pitch stood up and brushed down his robes. Some dog hair had gotten stuck on the syrup handprint. “I…hm. I don’t know. But if the dog needs to go out, that’s your responsibility. An invisible person can’t credibly hold a leash.”
Jamie groaned. “Fine. But you still have to come up with stuff for us to do. And not scary stuff.”
“Why?” Pitch asked. “I’m an immortal being of darkness tasked with being your babysitter for a host of reasons ranging from the ridiculous to the legitimate. I’m not your teacher. What do you want to do?”
Jamie looked taken aback for a moment before his expression changed to one of amateur craftiness. “Can I play a computer game? Can I get a new computer game and play it?”
“Curiously enough, I don’t have a credit card to buy you one,” Pitch said.
“I have enough account credits for the one I want,” Jamie said. “I’ll show you.” He hurried off towards the house’s office nook, leaving Pitch and Sophie behind.
“Well, um, let’s go follow him,” Pitch said to Sophie, circling behind her in an attempt to herd her after her brother. “Come on now, there are too many things you can climb on in here.”
“Climb?” Sophie repeated hopefully, edging toward a rocking recliner.
“No. Well. Definitely not with syrup on your hands. And you probably shouldn’t be running loose by the computer like that, either. Should I tie you up and put you on a leash? That wouldn’t go over well.”
“Climb,” Sophie said again, with more determination, and showing with a great deal of painful enthusiasm that she had decided that if Pitch would not support her efforts on the rocker he would support her in some other way.
“What are you—oh,” Jamie said, letting his question fall upon getting a clearer picture of the situation. If Pitch hadn’t reacted to his hair being styled with syrup yet, he probably wasn’t going to. “Well, your hair was weird already.”
“Pretty now,” Sophie said, yanking a few locks with a sticky hand, now that they were easily accessible from her perch in Pitch’s arms.
“So what is this game?” Pitch asked. “And why do you need to show me it?”
“Um, well, here’s the purchase screen,” Jamie said, turning the monitor towards Pitch.
“The Sound in the Valleys,” Pitch read. “Please note that this game is rated blah blah blah blah blah for etc etc whatever and get your parent or guardian to verify this purchase.” He turned to Jamie and gave him a somewhat smug smile. “But I’m neither one of those,” he said sweetly. “Also, I don’t have a verifiable identity. Wait, is it just clicking a button? Oh, but yes, that’s it. That would be a mark in the Naughty column for you. Anyway,” he said, moving back from the screen, “I don’t even approve. That laundry list of content means they have no idea what they’re doing.” He closed the purchase window and glanced at a list of games that came up as also-related.
Now this was interesting. He could somehow tell a few things about the games, even in this medium. Did that mean that they counted as objects? A subject for another time, when his hands and hair were free, no doubt. “What about that one?” he said. “Don’t Look Back.”
“That’s just about walking through the woods,” Jamie said grumpily. “It’s the lowest-rated thing in the list.”
“It has nine out of ten stars? Oh, excuse me, we were talking about different sorts of ratings. But look. If you’re really determined to get scared so you can cause problems for me later, I’d recommend that one.”
“I wanted The Sound in the Valleys for a while now,” Jamie said.
“Well, you’re not getting it today. I’m being responsible. You can still play any others you have, or that other one I pointed out, until your eyes turn square. That doesn’t bother me. Now I’m going to do something else responsible and wash Sophie’s hands.”
“With bubble bath!” she yelled in his ear.
Pitch paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
“Why aren’t you acting like the boogeyman?” Jamie asked suspiciously.
“Because I don’t want to go in a dungeon? Isn’t that reason enough? Also,” he said, “both of you already know I’m here. And it’s broad daylight. If you think I’m going to try and frighten in those conditions when I can’t even keep my own robe clean without conscious effort, think again.” He turned to Sophie and tilted his head. “Should I wash my hair in bubble bath, too?”
“You’re still not a very good babysitter if you’re going to let me play video games all day.”
“That’s my problem, not yours,” Pitch said.
“Make it like the movies,” Sophie commanded.
“But you’re not actually taking a whole bath and neither am I,” Pitch said.
“Never got a movie bubble bath.”
“Hmm.” Pitch looked around at the bathroom that was definitely not his own. “I can’t argue with that.” He plugged the stopper and poured the entire nearly full bottle of bubblegum scented bubble bath under the hot running water.
“So…what number popsicle is it that Jamie’s eating?” Tooth asked in alarm.
Jamie shoved the item in question further into his mouth to avoid answering.
“Well, minus the lime, because that flavor, and I quote, “is gross,” I believe twelve, because the box hadn’t been opened yet,” Pitch answered. Tooth went pale, and Jamie sidled guiltily behind Pitch.
“And the dog. Why is the dog pink?” Bunny asked. “Most dyes are pretty harmful to animals, and I don’t love greyhounds, but if she tries to lick—”
“Beet juice,” said Pitch. “I know nothing about modern dyes, and I thought it would be good to leave a can that once contained vegetables around, visibly empty.”
“But the dog makes it clear what it was used for!”
“Just the juice. The rest—”
“Tested the toilet!” said Sophie.
“It was the only thing I let her flush,” Pitch said calmly.
“Sophie, what did you eat today?” North asked.
“French toast! Pancakes! A tomato!”
“Yes, she wanted to be a wild animal and I was able to convince her that a tomato would be equally satisfying as prey as actual raw meat.” Pitch sounded very proud of himself.
Four of the Guardians exchanged a Look, while Sandy cast his eyes up to the ceiling (which could not look back at him and risk his poker face).
She didn’t take a nap today, Sandy pointed out once his composure was stronger.
Pitch placed a hand, now with neatly trimmed, neon blue nails, over his heart. “I was trying to make sure I wasn’t tempted to give her a nightmare. And she didn’t want to.”
“Jamie,” Jack said. “Okay, so…did Pitch scare you today?”
Jamie slowly took the red popsicle out of his mouth. “Um…he recommended the game Don’t Look Back, and that scared me. It’s actually really cool! You can’t actually look back, and you have to figure out what’s following you from the sounds, and then use your items to stop it, but you can’t go back for items if you miss them while you’re walking, and if you’re running you can’t pick them up, and sometimes you have to run to make sure you don’t get caught in the trap you made for the monster, and, but, anyway, I had to stop playing for lunch, and that wasn’t scary. But Pitch did tell me about the Jersey Devil! And the Mothman! And the Hopkinsville Goblins, and—” Jamie caught Pitch’s look. “But, I, um, asked about all of those things.”
“Lunch was pancakes?” North asked, and Jamie nodded. North looked to the other Guardians. “So, we have to decide whether Pitch was successful or not today.”
“The children are alive, that is an unqualified success,” Pitch said. “The terms of the deal as Frost gave them was not that they had to be in a state that made their mother happy.”
Jamie grimaced and wiped ineffectively at the popsicle smears around his mouth.
Jack folded his hands just in front of his chin. “I thought things were going to be clearer-cut.”
But? signed Sandy.
It was Jack’s turn not to meet anyone’s eyes. “Uh, the thing is, it’s clear that Pitch should not be responsible for raising children. But we did only ask him to babysit for a day and…I admit that if I had been the one babysitting…there would probably have been more physical danger involved. It would have been fine thanks to my powers, but…”
“We can’t let him go after one day of babysitting and not being scary!” Bunny said.
“True, fear is still my raison d'être,” said Pitch. “Today wasn’t a good gauge of that. In absolute truth I cannot change that part of myself, so if you want to argue about it, which could take a very long time, we should go before the children’s mother returns. And you probably have something to do to her memories, don’t you, Tooth?”
“Yes, well, it was the only way…”
“You’re going?” Sophie asked.
Tooth was about to explain that of course they couldn’t stay long, when she, and everyone else, realized that Sophie was only looking at Pitch, and looking him in the eye, too, as he knelt.
“I have to,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather have them around?” he indicated the Guardians with a gesture.
“Don’t know them!” Sophie cried.
“But I’m scary.”
“I was in the egg garden and everyone was scary,” Sophie said.
“Oh, they never told me that,” Pitch said with a sly glance toward the Guardians. “They must have thought you were very dangerous.”
“Rrrraar!” Sophie agreed.
North sighed. “Pitch, we do need to figure out how you fit in with the world as protected by the Guardians. And for you to actually take the discussions seriously this time. But as for now—”
“You’re going to hand me over to Sandy because he has the most direct grievance with me, as usual?” Pitch asked.
“As usual,” North said, shaking his head.
“See how nice I can be when I’m not invisible?” Pitch said, relaxing in the bindings that Sandy was using to transport him to Dreamland. “If the moon didn’t put up such a fuss about me, I wouldn’t put up such a fuss about him and all of you.”
Still…I’m surprised by how good you were with them. Especially Sophie.
Pitch was silent for a long moment. “Ah,” he said dismissively, “it’s not like I had anything else to do today. And I don’t think I treated them like people are supposed to treat children. I don’t know how to do that. I treated them like two people who could see me, albeit with a great deal of oddities and eccentric communication.”
I heard that you threatened to kill Jamie a few months ago, though.
“Oh, that threat. Of course, you’ve never known me to make exaggerated or theatrical threats ever in my whole existence, right Sandy?” He paused. “I don’t hate children. Not at all. I hate being unseen.”
We’ll talk about that, just us, once we get to my palace. Sandy turned and met his eyes. But I might have you spend time in a regular dungeon while we do. Until you explain how you stole the dreamsand.
“Half the reason I was such a terrible babysitter was because I thought the other dungeon was on the table, when I heard you had voted for it.
Sandy raised an eyebrow and Pitch’s bindings changed slightly. If you want them to be prettier than that, we’ve still got to work through a LOT. A pause.The room still exists, though. And you were good today.
“I’m just glad no one asked me why I ever learned to make breakfast food.”