I sat on the cold roof and stared up at the moon in frustration, daring him to send me words of comfort; but he just stared back at me silently. Minutes passed without a sound or a movement. Fear and desperation tightened painfully around my heart as my mind raced through all the consequences of my failure. I needed advice or help. I needed a miracle. I needed the moon to tell me what to do.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I said out loud, the threat of tears causing my voice to waver, “After all our years as friends, why would you be silent now when I need you most? I have no idea what to do; I don't even know what went wrong. Why is this happening to me? Just tell me, and I'll fix it!”
“Why won't you talk to me?!” I cried.
After the echoes of my outburst had faded away, a soft voice spoke into my mind, Behind you.
I turned my head and caught a brief glimpse of unmistakable snow white hair ducking behind the ridge of the roof. I frowned up at the moon again. My very existence was probably at stake, and he only spoke to me to warn me about an eavesdropper?
“Jack,” I called, “I know you're there. What are you doing?”
The winter spirit stood up and strolled down the slope of the roof, trying to look casual and not like he had just been caught spying, “Look, angel, I know you said you wanted to be alone, but I don't think that's true. I figured I'd stick around in case you needed anything.” He sat down next to me and gazed up at the sky for a couple quiet minutes before commenting, “So I heard you and the moon are pretty close. That must be nice.”
I glanced at him in surprise when I heard the tinge of bitterness in his voice, “It is nice, thank you very much. He was my first friend and the only one who's always been there for me throughout my whole life as a spirit.”
“Well, he went three hundred years without speaking to me at all,” Jack's voice was softer now, “It was awful.”
“I'm beginning to know the feeling,” I muttered.
Again a long silence stretched between us before Jack turned to me with an encouraging smile on his lips, “You know, sometimes he hides things from us because he wants us to discover them for ourselves.”
“What could I possibly discover without my powers?” I ran my thumb over the engravings on my arm guard, feeling quite unworthy of the beautiful equipment right now.
“That love can work without your powers, for one thing,” he said earnestly, “I mean, look at Sandy and Star...love can still happen without an arrow, so you don't have to be so serious about it and take it so personally. Let yourself enjoy it for a change.”
“That might be easier if it were a routine case,” I argued, “But there's so much at stake here. If I fail, you're all going to lose something precious.”
“What do you mean?” Jack frowned.
If he hadn't realized it already, I hated to point it out now, but it was only fair to warn him, “You heard what Jim and Liz were talking about. If this situation stays as bad as it is, they're going to put the kids in therapy. They will be counseled into a healthier way of coping, which means they will have to stop believing in you – in all of you. I know you'll never forgive me, so how can I take it any way but seriously and personally?”
The news seemed to knock the breath out of Jack, and he stared with wide eyes down at the roof for a long time. As he struggled with his thoughts, his eyebrows furrowed more and more until he finally slumped forward to mirror my pose by hugging his legs to his chest and resting his chin on his knees.
“They were bound to grow up and stop believing eventually,” he mumbled, “I've always known that I'd have to deal with it someday.” He tilted his head to look at me, then forced a softer expression onto his face and reached over to playfully punch the wing that I was covering myself with, “And nobody is going to blame you, Cupid, no matter what happens. We're all in this together, so stop thinking that it's only up to you. We just happened to need someone with your specialties to help out. We thought you'd be excited to work on a love case with us.”
“The truth is, I'm not excited by it anymore,” I confessed with regret, “Love is not what it once was. All too often, it comes easily and quickly and with so little sacrifice that its value has been lost. It has become an emotion of convenience, and when it is no longer convenient, it is discarded. People are selfish now. They substitute infatuation for love, because it's simpler. What happened to lifelong passion? What happened to joy and selflessness and dedication? My job is harder now, and to be honest, I don't like it as much as I used to.” I shook my head vigorously, “But this isn't even about me! Whether I'm happy or not, the important thing is the mission. I know you're just worried about Jamie and Sophie, so who cares how I feel?”
“I think your feelings matter a lot,” Jack responded sincerely, then cleared his throat, “I mean, how can you go around spreading love if you're miserable? Maybe that's why your powers are weak – you need to reconnect with your center.”
“My center?” I raised my eyebrow, “You've been talking to North?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “But it's a good point. The values at our center are important, powerful things to this world; otherwise there wouldn't be guardians for them. You were right to get ideas from everyone for Jamie and Sophie's parents. You tried dreams, memories, awe, and hope; but you never really asked me for help...”
I folded my wings back behind me so I could study him clearly, “Why? What is your center?”
A broad smile spread across Jack's face and he shrugged, “Fun. I'm the guardian of fun. And frankly, I think that's what you've been missing. So what do you say? Can we do this my way from now on?”
“You mean can we get Jim and Liz to have fun together?” I looked at him like he was crazy, “Jack, they can't even have a conversation, how are we going to make them have fun? It's hard enough to just get them in the same room. And even if we did, would it be enough to strike up love again without help? It's not like I can shoot them anymore.”
I hugged my knees tighter to my chest and glared back up at the moon. Had it really come to this? Had my options run so low that I was actually going to let the guardian of fun, of all people, take over a case as serious as this one? I was certain that Jack was only doing this to gloat over my failure. Surely I had suffered enough embarrassment, and the moon would take pity of me and tell me how to get my powers back. But still he said nothing.
“I guess you're right,” Jack sighed after a while, “And since you can't shoot anyone, I guess you won't be needing this anymore.”
I felt quick a tug on my back and turned just as Jack jumped into the air, hanging from his staff with one hand while the other held my bow out tauntingly.
“Give that back!” I gasped and hopped to my feet, snatching at the weapon, but he pulled it just out of my reach, “That is not a toy, kid!”
“You can have it back,” he gazed down at me with that impish smirk, “But you'll have to catch me first.”
He twirled the bow once around his hand, then shoved it down the back of his pants so he could hang from his staff with both arms. The look of horror that crossed my face must have been very exaggerated, because Jack burst out laughing so hard that he nearly didn't react in time as I leapt up to pounce on him. At the last second he flipped around his staff like a gymnast, and I found myself hovering behind him. I whirled around to try again, but he took off with a gust of wind, disappearing into the dark sky. Beating my wings against the air, I shot off in pursuit; and the race was on.
We both knew that I was faster than Jack in a race from one destination to another, but my weakness lay in changing trajectories at high speeds and somehow he discovered this and took advantage of it. Every time I caught up with him, he would fling around to be carried off another direction and I would be forced to slow down for a less than graceful turn. After zipping across miles of sky, he angled up and I had to chase him into the dizzying blindness of a cloud. No matter how wily he was, though, he couldn't completely lose me, since all I had to do was follow the wind. Moisture beaded across my skin as I blasted through the haze, already twisting in the direction to which I anticipated Jack would try to escape. Sure enough, my outstretched hand clutched something solid and we burst through the top of the cloud into the illuminating moonlight with my fingers firmly gripped around his ankle.
He cried out in surprise and tried to corkscrew out of my grasp, but I tumbled with him, determined not to let go. Suddenly my grip became slick and our momentum flung me to the side with nothing but a fist full of ice. I could feel the water droplets against my feet as I skimmed the top of the cloud, trying to come about in pursuit of my bow again.
Jack's hearty laughter carried across the chilly stratosphere and the sound of it almost made me smile – or perhaps it was because I suspected I was actually having fun. I hadn't flown around doing tricks like this since my first hundred years as a spirit, back when I felt younger, more adventurous, and enjoyed my life a lot more. Back when love really meant something to me.
As I chased Jack higher towards the stars, recalling and longing for the days when I used to be fun, I finally admitted something obvious to myself. I truly had lost my center. Whether the world had changed me or I had changed the world, the fact was that I no longer believed in love.
I let out a sudden gasp as I dropped a dozen feet before catching myself in an unsteady glide. My wings were working harder than ever, but it felt like the air was growing too thin to push off of anymore. Thin air had never affected my flight before, but I realized with a growing sense of panic that something was making it pass right through my feathers. I simply couldn't keep myself aloft any longer; and no matter how vigorously I flapped my wings, I could no nothing to stop my downward drift. Amidst the struggle, I began to notice white feathers float past my face before tumbling away on the wind, and then it hit me – I was losing my power of flight. With a sickening lurch, my gliding form broke apart and I fell straight down like a stone.
In stubbornness and anger, I fought the fall, still trying to catch myself with my useless wings, but all this did was send me into an uncontrollable topple. Stars spun through my vision in one direction and moonlit clouds in the other, making me dizzy and frustrated. For a brief second I caught a glimpse of the moon before I was swallowed up by a thick, cold cloud; and I didn't hear his voice, but I knew it in my heart that he was not going to save me this time. Resigning to my fate, I stopped struggling and righted myself into a proper free-fall position – arms outstretched, knees bent, back arched, and battered wings tucked tightly behind me.
As I fell through the bottom of the cloud, my mind was racing so fast that everything else seemed to be moving in slow motion. I used to let myself fall like this for fun back when flying was still new and exciting to me. When I went out with the cherubs they used to race me down, trying to fly faster than I could fall. I wished I could see them again. I wished I could see the moon again – I already knew it was the most peaceful thing to look at while one was dying – but a glance over my shoulder revealed that everything above me was obscured by dark clouds. I would never see the face of my old friend again. The black earth below me was only spattered with a few lights here and there, so I knew I had to be falling over a very rural area, though I had no idea where exactly it was that I would be dying my second death. Spirits could definitely die, we all knew this; but I wasn't sure if the impact would be the thing that killed me or if the lack of belief would cause me to disappear before I even hit the ground. Either way, I knew I had no business existing anymore. I deserved this.
The ground was closer now, but it was too dark to estimate the distance exactly. I clenched my eyes shut and tried to steady my breathing, which was difficult with the wind driving hard against my chest. I knew the roaring sound of the air ripping past my face would soon be replaced with a heavy crunch, and I braced myself for it.
Instead of a crash, I felt a tightness clench around my waist, followed by the sudden jerk of my downward momentum being pulled into a spin instead. A moment later there was stillness and my feet gently touched the cold ground, sinking into a couple inches of wet snow. I opened my dizzy eyes and gazed down in disbelief at the blue-sleeved arms wrapped around the front of me.
“Are you all right?” came Jack's shaky voice from over my shoulder.
I tried to turn around to look at him, but my legs were suddenly so wobbly that I dropped to the ground instead. Jack stepped around and knelt in front of me, bringing me to eye-level with a face so full of fear and concern that it brought me out of my shock. I had no words. Collapsing forward, I planted my face into the soft fabric of his sweatshirt and started to sob.