This chapter was like pulling teeth but with more grunting and less anesthetic.
Also, real quick: I received some really amazing, heartful, wonderful reviews on the last chapter. And I want to say thank you. Thank you so much. It makes me so happy that you've enjoyed this story with me so far, and I hope you will continue to do so in the future. I appreciate every word you take the time to send me. I really do.
It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.
-Marianne Moore, A Grave in Collected Poems, 1951
"I need you to hide this for me." Jack shoved the bag of his treasures in Rime's arms.
Rime blinked down at the bag, then glanced up at Jack from under his lashes. He had been growing more and more cautious of Jack's behavior in the growing years. "You're up to something," he accused.
Jack's face never changed. "Am I?"
"You've changed," Rime elaborated. "For a while now."
Jack didn't respond.
"Don't think I haven't noticed. You've always liked the library, but every time I come now you're in it, hidden in those dusty books. And your eyes—"
"What about my eyes?" Jack questioned softly.
Rime looked at him and wanted to say, "They're dead." But it was those very eyes that kept him from saying that. So instead he said, "They're cold." He had to bite the side of his tongue to keep from adding, "They're like mine."
"Maybe that's a good thing," Jack proposed.
Except it wasn't, Rime knew, but wouldn't let himself care enough to admit.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Jack whispered as they circled the park. It was still early on a Saturday, and what few children were up were still indoors watching Saturday morning cartoons for now. But that wouldn't last for long.
"I think you're being too cautious," Bunny rebutted, glancing over his shoulder as he led them to a small playground within the Burgess park. He was careful not to hop too far ahead as Jack was walking slowly, dragging his feet with reluctance. "And why are you whispering?"
Jack wasn't too sure himself, but with the way his stomach felt like it was squeezing itself into a ball and bouncing around his intestines, whispering had seemed appropriate. "You said yourself, remember?" he reminded. "I shouldn't be around children."
Bunny halted next to a merry-go-round, and spun around to give Jack a look. "That was before I knew, and I was wrong. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed." He rose up from his crouched hopping position, so that he stood full-height on two legs. He placed a hand on Jack's shoulder, squeezing comfortingly. "But haven't you been around the kids already? Tooth told me you went with some of her fairies on collection detail when you last stayed with her."
Jack flinched. "That's true," he admitted. "But it was different. The children were all asleep."
Bunny looked at him for a long, quiet moment. Then, slowly, like someone who's just finished a house of cards and is worried even breathing too hard will topple it over, he said, "You won't hurt them, Jack."
Jack stared at the ground, and didn't respond.
Some of Bunny's excitement wilted. "I know you're nervous," he continued. "And that's okay. Really. But trust yourself a little. You would never hurt a child, I know that now." What he did next surprised himself, and Jack. He cupped the other's face, lifting it so Jack was looking up at him. Jack blinked, brushing his cheek with dark eyelashes. (And had Jack's eyes always been that blue? Bunny wondered. Like winter itself had solidified in his irises?) "And trust me a little too. It'll be okay."
He was surprised when Jack nodded. He was more surprised when Jack leaned into his touch, his skin cool against the pads of his hand. A tiny smile, soft and new, gentled the thin line of his pale lips. "Okay."
And maybe Bunny was a little quick to pull away after that. Because his heart shouldn't have been beating like that. His first desire shouldn't have been to pull Jack closer and nuzzle into his neck until he'd memorized every nuance of his scent. He shouldn't be entertaining such thoughts. Not for a person he barely knew, and had just begun to understand. (But they were, he was, and that was something he'd have to puzzle out later.)
"Jack," he began, but was interrupted by the sound of approaching laughter. Which was probably a good thing, because he wasn't sure what he'd been about to say.
Jack's eyes went wide, and he gripped his staff. He stepped back, and leaned against the swingset, his gaze going over Bunny's shoulder to a group of coming children. There were seven of them, six appearing about the same age, and one younger blonde girl clinging to a brunet boy's hand and dragging him forward. They were dressed in their winter gear, bundled up against the December chill.
"I wish it had snowed more," one of the kids, a black boy with his hair combed back in thick cornrows, said. He stomped the thin layer of snow on the ground disappointedly. "It doesn't even stick right. Man, how are we supposed to have a snowball fight with this?"
"We'll figure it out, Claude," a red-haired girl in a ski cap responded. She nudged him with her shoulder playfully.
"Yeah, okay, Pippa." He smiled and nudged her back.
A red haired boy known as Monty paused, rubbing at his pinked nose. He squinted through his glasses, and pointed. "Uh, guys, is that…?"
The younger blonde girl was the next to spot what Monty had noticed, and her eyes went wide. "Bunny!" she squealed, dropping the brunet's hand and running full tilt.
"Sophie!" the brunet called, and ran after her. He froze upon laying eyes on Bunny, slack-jawed with awe. "No way."
"Jamie, Bunny!" Sophie shrieked with excitement, barreling into Bunny's leg as he lowered himself into a comfortable crouch at her level.
"Hello there, little sheila." He poked her forehead.
"No way," Caleb, Claude's twin brother, echoed Jamie.
The children rushed forward all at once, crowding Bunny. Jack noticed a child he recognized, a brown haired girl with a strong jaw called Cupcake by friends, hanging back a bit with a nervous but excited expression. He remembered that she dreamed of unicorns.
While Bunny fielded questions about what he was doing in Burgess out of season, with Christmas just around the corner, Jack's stomach bubbled with nervous energy. They couldn't see him, he knew. (But he wanted them too.) Still, that didn't mean he couldn't interact with them a bit. Just a little?
Jack skipped around them to a more open area by the merry-go-round, and hesitantly poked at the magic he rarely used to work with his element. It rushed to meet him like it had been waiting for the moment. It unrolled itself like ribbon in his chest, felt like silk under his skin. This wasn't how it had felt all those years ago when he'd used it. It had been forced and desperate then, like a beast trapped in a cage too small for its size from centuries of disuse. Now it was gentler, the desperation leaked away now that he was more practiced in using it in small ways.
Jack crouched, and scooped up a handful of snow. It was pitiful stuff, Claude had been right about that. It flaked away in his hands, refusing to pack into a ball without supreme effort. It made for pathetic snowballs, much less anything else.
Half-formed snowball made, he cupped it in his hands, staff resting in the crook of his arm, and blew on it, the action almost instinctive for what he intended to do. Magic smoothed up his throat and gusted from his lips, and when it touched the snowball it grew and grew and grew until a ball up to Jack's knee had been made. It was heavy, and he dropped it on the ground with little fuss. He repeated the process, making two more appropriately sized balls and setting them in place atop the first. He dug through the layer of snow to the mulch that lined the ground around the merry-go-round, picking several dark pieces. He put three in a column on the front of the middle ball, and used the rest to make a face on the top. The final result was a rather plain, armless snowman.
Jack turned around at the exclamation, and the brunet boy was pointing at the snowman.
"What is it, Jamie?" Pippa turned as well, and gasped. "Where did that snowman come from?"
"Snowman?" One by the one the children turned to look, then began to crowd around it.
"Did you make this?" Jamie asked Bunny, fists clenched in front of his chest and bouncing with energy.
"No, not me ankle biter." Bunny shook his head, and shot Jack a surprised but genuine look of happiness. (And Jack smiled back. It wasn't much, in the grand scheme of things, that he did it. It was that Jack now possessed the will to do it that mattered.)
Jamie frowned, and began looking the snowman over thoughtfully. Jack's magic curled in his chest, wanting to be used. And Jack, encouraged by the children's happiness, decided to do so.
He moved so that he was a little apart from the children. He ran his hand over the grooves of his staff, licking his lips nervously. When he looked, Bunny was entertaining the kids, but also taking chances to glance over and see what Jack was doing. The subtle concern, and the trust he showed in not interfering, made Jack's stomach twist in Celtic knots. Even when Jack raised the staff to the sky, he merely continued to watch curiously.
Slowly, little by little, Jack funneled his magic into the staff, to the air. He cut himself off rather quickly, nervous about making snow again after the last time, but the look on the kids' faces when snow began to fall made it worth it.
"But, there aren't any clouds!" Monty exclaimed, reaching for a flake and catching it on his fingertip before it melted away.
Jamie's mouth was open in awe, his eyes scanning the sky furiously for the source of the snow. A small clump drifted down, down, down, and landed on the very tip of his nose. He blinked, previous thoughtfulness returning as it sparked a memory.
"Jack Frost," he murmured.
Jack froze. "You…you said my name," he addressed Jamie's back.
"Who's that?" Caleb asked.
"He's someone my mom told me about," Jamie explained distractedly.
"I remember that," Pippa added. "That was last Easter, right?"
Jamie nodded distantly. "He nips at your nose, and makes the frost on windows."
"You know about that?" he whispered, recalling the bright white frost he used to draw in on Pitch's cold stone floors.
"But is he real?" Cupcake wondered.
Jamie considered the appearing snowman, and the snow from clear skies, and thought those sure seemed like things Jack Frost could do, and with that simple idea in mind answered, "I think so."
Jack breathed in sharply.
Jamie blinked at the sound from behind him, turned around, and stared. "Jack Frost?"
"He said it again," Jack gasped, and turned shocked eyes on Bunny. "Bunny, he said my name again!"
A slight tug on the front of his hoodie made him look down, and Jamie Bennett stared up at him, eyes bright with joy. "Jack Frost!"
And in that instant, a missing piece of Jack Frost slotted into place as naturally and quickly as blinking.
Jack flashed a smile as bright as sunlight on fresh snow. "That's me!"
"Jack Frost?" It wasn't clear which of the children had spoken, but they all were directing their attention that way now. And each one, their own belief bolstered by Jamie's unwavering certainty and the mysterious events previous, were able to see him.
"Woah! You're different than I imagined." Claude cocked his head to the side, but seemed no less happy to see him.
"What's that big stick for?" Monty peered at him through his glasses.
"Did you really make it snow?"
Question upon question fired from the kids until they were a blur of excited and jumbled words, each of the children coming to crow around him.
Jack, overwhelmed and nervous and filled with sudden burning joy, tipped his head back, and laughed a laugh that had not passed his lips in three hundred years. "Woah now, one at a time!" he chided playfully. "I'll answer all of your questions, but first…" Jack swirled his finger in the air, and he didn't even think twice about the magic he used as a snowball formed and dropped into his hand. He smirked rakishly, eyes glimmering. "Who wants to have some fun?"
When they returned to the Warren hours later, Bunny was still reeling from the change that had overcome Jack in that short period of time. I that small handful of moments he'd watched Jack Frost become what he'd only seen hints of before. Curiosity, playfulness, boundless energy that suited Jack more than his death-like stillness ever would. Laughter bubbled from his throat as if it was the only sound he knew how to make; smiles fit his face like they were tailor made.
It was Jack Frost, as Bunny suspected he'd always been meant to be. Carefree. Light. Joyful. Seeing Jack with the kids made him regret that he hadn't spent more time with them before now.
But it had been short lived. Mere minutes after leaving Bunny had mournfully watched the smile fade away, and the laughter lock itself in his chest. The fire that had lit in Jack had died down, and Bunny was left with nothing but the embers to remember it by.
It was no surprise that Bunny was overcome with the powerful determination to see it restored, permanently.
But he didn't have much time to think on that before North arrived.
"Shouldn't you be getting ready for Christmas?" was the first thing Bunny asked after letting the bigger man into his home. Jack peeked around the doorframe into kitchen, and entered fully when North waved him in companionably. Jack gave a tiny smile in greeting, and North's eyes latched onto it like a hawk, not as used to seeing such a thing as Bunny was.
"This is true," North replied in answer to Bunny's question. "But I did some research, and I think we may have a solution."
"You do?" Jack leaned forward in the seat he'd taken at the table with them.
North nodded, his eyes glinting with something sharper than a mere thoughtfulness; this was cold intelligence. "Have you ever heard of a Soul Bond?"
Jack shook his head, but Bunny went stiff in his seat. "That's serious stuff, North."
Jack looked between them. "What's a Soul Bond?"
"Think marriage," Bunny explained, "but magical and far more permanent."
Confusion broke the calm façade of Jack's face. "Marriage?"
"A Soul Bond trumps a Consort claim a million times over," North went on.
"So does a Mating Bond," Bunny pointed out, "and it isn't taken nearly so serious. Soul Bonds are practically sacred."
"But a Mating Bond would require a more…physical relationship. Something I don't think Jack would wish to do with anyone he hasn't known very long."
They both looked to Jack, who had paled slightly. He shook his head. No, no he wasn't near ready for a sexual relationship. Not that the idea wasn't unappealing, someday, with the right partner, and when he thought he'd be able to without closing his eyes and seeing Pitch's face behind his eyelids.
"But a Soul Bond?" Bunny redirected incredulously. "Who do you plan to match him up with for something so serious, so soon?"
North smiled, like he'd been waiting for the question. "You, of course."
"Me?" Bunny couldn't deny the quick flutter in his chest before reality set in once more. "But everyone knows Jack and I have barely known each other. The moment we announce it, Pitch will contest it in an instant—" He paused as a slow smile pulled at North's cheeks, his eyes narrowing with realization and hinted respect. "You sneaky little shite."
"What?" Jack swiveled his gaze between them. "What is it?"
"Of course Pitch will contest it, and that's exactly what this bugger wants to happen." Bunny explained.
"What will happen if he contests it?" Jack asked.
"A council," North answered. "Of the oldest, most powerful spirits in this world."
"Because Soul Bonds are so serious, it's common practice to announce intent to form one before they're actually made. If anyone contests them on suspicion of coercion or abuse then a council is held to determine the validity of the claims, and if the Bond will be allowed to take place," Bunny added. "And if Pitch does so, then he will have to face them with us to prove his points."
"And we can use the opportunity instead to out Pitch and his abuses to the council." North leaned forward, hands spread on the table. "Rather than just having your word against his when the Blood Rite expires, we can show your honesty and his deceit."
Jack's brow scrunched. "How?"
"One of the oldest, best spirits to determine how strong someone's hold is on another's heart is on the council."
North's smile was sly. "Cupid."
"Wait." Jack rubbed his forehead. "Why couldn't we have just gotten him in the first place, if we need proof of my word?"
"Cupid never leaves Olympus these days," Bunny said, rolling his eyes. "The only time you can get him to come topside is for Soul Bonds, and we can't just go to him in Olympus either. The place is impossible to get into without an invitation, and since no one in it has left in over a thousand years…"
Jack nodded. "I think I get the picture."
"Either way," North rushed in, "we get him and other powerful old spirits together in one place with us and Pitch, prove his guilt and crimes, and see him punished for them. He wouldn't stand a chance of escaping from all of us."
"Won't he suspect something?" Jack murmured.
They all considered it. "Would he question his hold on you?" Bunny asked seriously.
Jack took a moment to think it over. As far as Pitch was concerned, Jack was dependent on him. He had taken the years and used them to carve himself into Jack's very bones. Even with Jack's act of rebellion, he would continue to believe that he was the biggest presence in Jack's life, the factor by which Jack based all of his decisions. And maybe on some level that was still true. But with every moment he was away from Pitch that was less and less the case, as every day Jack was allowed to be free he carved another piece of Pitch's rot from his mind, until one day it would be nothing but scar tissue.
But Pitch was too sure of himself, too certain of his position with Jack, to think Jack would stand against him—to think Jack could stand against him, and win.
No, Pitch would come. And he would come confident.
But he would not come ignorant. He would be cautious.
Jack finally answered, "No."
"Well then," Bunny leaned back, arms crossed over his chest, "I think we've got a plan."
"What will happen to Pitch if we prove his guilt?" Jack probed cautiously.
"It will depend on the level of his offenses we can prove," North informed. "At least, we should be able to get an order his immediate separation from you, and promise of retribution should he approach or try to harm you."
"And at most?"
"At most, he will be locked away in the same prison we kept General Winter during his centuries of insanity, and won't be let out for a very long time."
The announcement of intent to Soul Bond was made by North after Christmas on behalf of the 'happy couple.' While many were surprised by the development of such a relationship after so short a time, there was only one person that challenged it, and that was Pitch.
Two weeks after the new year began, a summons was sent to Bunny and the other Guardians and Jack. They were expected to face a council in the halls of Mount Olympus itself to determine the legitimacy of the Soul Bond on the last day of March, just days before the Blood Rite's protection would fade.
Time was running out, like a distant door at the end of a long footpath. And when it did, it would depend on Jack whether or not the door was capable of being opened.
If anyone is confused: Basically, it's Jack's word against Pitch's. The Guardians believe him and what they know of his abuses, but they've also had months to get to know him. To the rest of the world, Pitch is the one who is well-known and has a reputation, and his word is more likely to be believed than Jack's. They need the council and Cupid so that they can pull a few tricks and get it proven beyond a doubt to a group of powerful individuals that Pitch is the bad guy here.
Sorry if any of it was confusing, this chapter gave me trouble to write clearly. It should become more clear once we're in the thick of it.