“Do you think he’s awake?” Jean asked.
“The chapters just started so that’s probably the case.” Zev said.
“Lo! He stirs!” Beardface spake.
Jack’s eyes opened slowly, tremulously. The cold wind stabbed and ached. With the numbness gone the sensations came many-fold. He squinted to protect his sensitivity. Jean, seeing this, moved her hand to his face to block his eyes from the nippy wind. At the moment that her skin touched Jack’s an electric surge erupted through his body. He exploded out of his prone position and onto his feet. The others were taken aback (and moved in a similar fashion). They called to Jack but his ears heard only noise. He staggered. His vision was blurry and his balancey ear juices were all a-swish and a-swosh. He probably would have vomited had his stomach not been as empty as the head of a first-year wizard (or a particularly inept second year, or in some cases even a course convenor). He looked around in every direction, waving his emaciated arms limply as he did so, then he set his eyes on Jean.
“Jack…” he coughed.
“…is Jack.” Jean finished. Jack’s wild expression softened and he passed out. Zev scratched her chin thoughtfully. “So, are we going to continue with our conversation or is this just going to be a segue into the next…”
A while later:
Jack’s eyes opened for the second time, this time suddenly.
“I hoped it would be me that got you when you woke up.” Jack’s eyes were still blurry. He squinted, trying to focus on the misshapen blur talking to him.
“Who are you?” Jack asked in an unkempt voice.
“I guess my hair is a little different. It’s me, Jean.” Jack squinted hard, waiting for his eyesight to clear up.
“Jean, huh?” Jack said. “Okay.” His head slumped back down.
“Do you remember any…”
“How do I know you’re not like the rest?”
“Jack’s seen this a thousand times. His friends come to rescue him. Felix comes to save him. Yamma comes to save him. Mother comes to save him… Jack gets rescued and he’s happy. But, then the dream never ends. It goes on forever. Jack doesn’t realise that it is a dream at first. It’s little things that don’t make sense at first. Impossible things, careful perfection that could only exist in dreams. It couldn’t be real. Then Jack knows its fake and he has to live in it. Then things rot. Friends die and become monsters. Jack sees them die. Jack sees them kill…”
“I’m real!” Jean said. “I’m here.” She took his hand and put it to her chest. “Can you feel my heart beating, Jack? Open your eyes and look at me. I’m not as you remember. I wouldn’t be like this in your dreams. Look at me.” But Jack’s eyes were still out of focus. So Jean took his hand and moved it up to her chin. “Do you feel this scar? This is from where Djinn cut me. It’s totally ruined my romantic prospects.” Then she took off her jacket and placed his hand on her hip and moved it upwards diagonally towards her opposite shoulder along a deep angry scar. “Can you feel this, Jack? Djinn hurt me. He hurt me badly. I might have died if not for the others. But, so many people did die! So many of my people.” Jean’s chin started to wobble and her voice wavered as she fought back the emotion. “The Jul are all but gone. The only ones left are a few stragglers that tried to escape with us. We went to the old Jul’Dor on a ship. The Jojoji are here now. Then we went to the capital but there was nothing left. Nothing. The curse the Dragonish placed on us came true! But, why is bloodshed’s punishment bloodshed? It’ll never end!” She sat silently next to Jack and stared out blankly.
“Do you know what day it was last week, when we rescued you?”
Jack said nothing.
“It was our anniversary. Do you remember…”
“The meet comet!” Jack cried.
Back in the day.
Jack sat glumly in the back of the wagon with a rope tied around his foot. His bottom lip was sticking out so far that it was just about dragging on the floor.
“Girls are the worst.” Jack said bitterly and wiped a tear out of his eye. There was a rustle and the back cover of the wagon parted at the bottom corner.
“Jaaaack?” It was the little fish girl. The nerve! Coming in here to gloat, no doubt! He shot her an angry look.
“I’m sorry, Jack.” The little girl said. Jack turned his head away. “Please, forgive me, Jack.” She said and climbed into the wagon. Jack sat there sulking with his nose in the air. The little girl crawled towards him over the other crates and sat next to him. “I’m sorry, Jaaaack.” The girl said again.
“Hmmph.” Jack said.
“Please, don’t be mad, Jaaack.” She said and gave him a hug. Jack sat stoically as the little girl hugged him and continued to sulk. She let go and sat glumly next to him and started getting tearful. Jack snapped out of it right away.
“Please, don’t cry!” Jack said. “Yamma will hang Jack upside down!”
“But, I’m sorry.” The little girl said tearfully. Jack did a quick calculation in his mind.
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” he said.
“Do you forgive me?” the little girl asked.
“Yes.” Jack said.
“You’ve got to say it. You’ve got to say: ‘I forgive you’!” she said.
“I forgive you!” Jack said, cringing at the use of “I”.
“Yay!” the little girl said and suddenly she was all smiles. “Now, I’m going to hug you, but you must hug me back.”
“Wha…?” This was all too much for Jack. The little girl hugged him.
“Hug me! If you don’t, I’ll cry.” she said indignantly. Jack flinched and hugged her back.
“See, now we’re friends.” The little girl said.
“Yeah.” Jack said, although he couldn’t help but feel a little emotionally manipulated.
“Friends know each other’s names.” The little girl said.
“But, you know…”
“Say it! If you don’t, I’ll cry” the little girl said.
“Jack is Jack.” Jack said.
“Jack is Jack, but who are you?” the little girl said.
“No. Jack is Jack.” Jack said pointing to himself.
“Oh, Jack is Jack.” The little girl said, getting it. Then she stood up proudly, put her hands on her hips and proclaimed: “Jean is Jean.”
A sparkle caught their eye through a small hole in the wagon canvas.
“Wossat!?” Jack said incredulously.
“Let’s go look!” Jean said, making her way over to the covers.
“But, Yamma!” Jack said fearfully. Jean poked her head outside. “Don’t worry she’s busy with my uncle. Come! Quuuiiick!” She pulled Jack outside. He tiptoed as if death itself were behind him.
“Jaaaack come here, Jaaaack!” Jean called. “Loooook!” she pointed up into the sky. A dazzling comet flew through the sky. Its frosty tail extended far and shone spectacularly. The two children looked on it with wonder.
“Meet Comet!” Jean yelled. “It’s our Meet Comet! We meeted today.” Jean smiled toothily. Jack felt like he was getting into something here and that it was far too late to turn back now.
“Friends…” he began.
“…is friends.” Jean said. Jack forgot all of his doubts and they both smiled stupidly.
“Friends is friends!” They yelled excitedly and started dancing around.
“Meet Comet! Meet Comet! Today we Meeted!” They sang gaily.
“Yamma hung Jack up by his toes after that.” Jack said. “But, she was sort of happy. She said she was glad Jack had finally made a friend. So was Jack.” They were quiet for some time.
“Are you back with us, Jack?” Jean asked after a while. Jack furrowed his eyebrows.
“Jack doesn’t know if he’ll ever be back to the way he was. How can Jack pretend it never happened and go on with life. How can Jack ignore these experiences?”
“You can’t.” Jean said. “You’ll never be able to go back to the life you lived before. None of us can. We’ve been set on a new path by forces outside of our control. But, its up to us where that path leads.” Jack blinked a few times and everything became clearer.
“Jean!” he exclaimed. “What happened to your hair?”
“So, you do recognise me.” Jean laughed. “You should see yourself, Jack. Both of your eyes are red.”
“What?” Jack said. “Jack’s beautiful jet black eyes!? Dyed?”
“One of mine’s also gone red.” Jean said. “It happens when you get exposed to the mist.”
“And you were worried about your romantic prospects!” Jack said. They laughed. Jack got up on one of his thin elbows and looked around. “Jack will admit. In the nightmares, Jack never went anywhere like this. Where are we?”
“Oh, we’re going to go into that in the next chapter. You can ask another question before this one ends, if you like.”
“Hmm.” Jack said. “How long has Jack been gone?”
“It’s been about a year since I saw you outside Flockboast.” Jean said.
“A year!? How is Jack alive!?”
“We’re not too sure, ourselves. We got a few others from where you were. A few wizards and some knights too. They’re all in the same state as you. Thin bodies and red eyes.”
“You said there were knights. Do you have Responsibility? Did you find her?”
“Oh, that really big one? Yes, we have her. She’s sleeping like the rest.”
“Okay.” Jack said. With some effort he sat up. He wiggled his big toe but his legs were having none of it. He looked down at them and then to Jean. He reached out his arms towards her.
“Jack still isn’t sure any of this is real. Show Jack around and he might believe you.” Jean looked at him. “You should probably stay in bed.” she said. “But, some fresh air will do you good.” She gave him a piggyback and headed towards the door. Jack felt the part of Jean’s head that had been shaved.
“Carry on like that and I’ll drop you in the ocean.”
“Jean, your E’ni. It’s red.” Jack said.
“Like our eyes.”