The lobby of the police station smelled like the drunk sleeping next to Jack, on the stiff bench. He had been waiting a half an hour, before two constables arrived to escort the stranger away, and Pitch approached him, smiling with his hands folded behind his back, "Jack," he greeted gently, "I'm so happy you stopped in. Can I get you something hot to drink? Coffee?"
"Sure," Jack replied, standing.
"Please, follow me," Pitchner beckoned him, leading him across the marble floor, past the front desk, and toward the stairs. Jack's footfalls were soundless, like a soft and faint echo of the sharp tapping of Pitch's boots.
Jack followed Pitch and the smell of coffee in to what looked like a break room of some kind, a few similarly uniformed men lounging near a cabinet, laughing with cigarettes in their mouths. They fell immediately silent, when Pitch entered, and he only gazed at them coolly for a few moments, before they extinguished their cigarettes and hurried out, leaving them alone.
"Please, sit," Pitch motioned to the sagging sofa, and Jack flounced down on it as Pitchner went the cabinet to retrieve a cup, "sorry for the accommodations, and for this swill- I can't say how long it's been here," he passed a steaming mug to Jack, taking a sip of his own before grimacing, "it's properly awful."
"'S alright," Jack replied, taking a mouthful of the bitter, hot liquid. They were silent for a small while.
"You look cold, Jack." Pitch commented at last.
Jack shrugged a shoulder, "Yeah, well, it's January."
"Might I ask why you're here?" Pitch questioned in his normal, calm fashion, but the gleam in his golden eyes betrayed his internal excitement. Jack ignored it, instead swallowing and justifying his actions to himself once more.
It's the only way. Sandy didn't do anything, this is all my fault, and If North would only...
"I just wanted to talk," Jack replied.
"You know, Jack- have you ever considered joining the academy? You're a sharp young man, a smart young man. Toothiana says you had exceptional marks, in the home. I'm certain the entrance exam would be no trouble for you at all-"
"I need to know why you hate North so much, before I tell you anything," Jack demanded. Pitch's smiled faded, as Jack watched him, "Those are my terms." He needed to know. He needed more, to convince himself that what he was doing was right.
"That's a deeply personal question, Jack," Pitch answered after a time of silence. Jack shrugged, taking another sip, and Pitch sighed, "Very well. It's not as if it's a secret.
"I have a daughter. Well, no, that's not right," Pitch paused again, and swallowed, "I had a daughter. I had a family." He looked away from Jack to speak, his gaze distant with a soft smile, "We lived in a rough neighborhood. It was all we could afford, with the salary I was making, so new to the force. We made the best of it. We didn't even have a car; my wife would walk our child three city blocks to her kindergarten." His smile slipped from his face, dark clouds of hate gathering on his features, before he spat, "There were gangs, in the area. And a young man, feeling he had no chance of becoming a productive member of society, felt obligated to join one of them..." he looked to Jack, his eyes sharp with anger, "Do you know what 'blood in' means, Jack?"
Jack shook his head, the coffee cold in his hands.
"It means you have to kill for the gang. To become a member, you must shed blood. A young man- around your age, I'd say- shot and killed my wife and daughter in an alley two streets away from the grammar school." He was silent again, glaring at nothing.
Jack swallowed, and tore his gaze from Pitch, looking down into his black coffee.
"They did nothing to deserve their deaths. A stranger passing by witnessed the crime and tried to intercede, and they beat him in to a coma. They had used the last of their bullets on my wife and daughter, so they slit the man's throat and left his body with theirs in the rubbish." Pitch took a swig of his coffee, emptying the cup and dropping it on the countertop, "Innocents are hurt by criminals, Jack. As harmless as their intentions may seem, these Robin Hoods, these... Norths... kill people. I don't hate North, Jack..." his tone had softened again, and a smile plucked at the side of his lips, "I hate them all."
The Yetis would be out looking for Sandy, Jack had made sure, expecting Pitch to gather an attack squad and raid the warehouse. But, to Jack's surprise, Pitch had done nothing of the sort, merely gathering the keys of a patrol car and telling Jack to take him to North.
Jack sat in the back of the patrol car, ignoring Pitch watching him in the rearview mirror, listening the static code of the dispatcher over the radio. There was a car accident on fifth, and a fire somewhere. Jack tried to ignore his growing panic, swallowing as they passed the chain link front gate of the warehouse yard.
"Where is it, Jack?" Pitch questioned.
"Just keep driving," Jack answered, his eyes intent on the passing warehouses. Pitch only nodded, and they continued on in silence, before- "Stop. There," Jack pointed to a rusted door, green spray paint marking his destination.
The squad car pulled to a stop outside the double doors, and the chirp of a siren made Jack nearly jump out of his skin. Pitch shut off the engine, and kicked open his door, "Stay put, Jack," he murmured, checking his sidearm, "I don't want you ruining the surprise." He settled his hat on his head and stepped out.
"Wait, what? No! Pitch, wait a second!" Jack stammered, gripping the wire mesh that separated them, "Pitch! Let me out of here!" His blood ran cold, as Pitch strode toward the warehouse, "Oh, God, North... I'm so sorry..." he whispered, his breath fogging in the chill.
North suddenly loomed in the yawning doorway, and Pitch stilled. North was wiping his hands on a rag, and glanced between Pitch and Jack in the back of the squad car, his brows furrowing with worry, "What is going on, here?" he questioned.
"Hello, North," Pitch greeted gently, smiling, "Young Jack here has been down at the station telling me some fantastic tales about you."
North looked to Jack, "Oh?"
"North, I had to!" Jack cried, his voice muffled through the glass, "I couldn't let you hurt Sand-man, he didn't do anything wrong!" But even in his own ears, Jack's words felt tinny and hollow, "I'm sorry..."
Sadness seemed to collect on North's face, his great shoulders bowing as he nodded, "I see." He returned his attention to Pitchner, tossing the rag away, "What is it you want, Pitch?"
Pitch looked airy and elated, as he folded his arms behind himself, "Why don't we take a small ride? Jack says he had yet more to show me."
North did not look at Jack again, and nodded again, "This I will do. But if I come with you, you must promise me- my men will be left alone."
Pitch scoffed, "They mean nothing, to me. And without you, they will scatter. Done."
North stepped forward, extending his hand to Pitchner, who shook it.
Jack felt a tear slide down his cheek.
The ride to the Train yard was hell, perfect silence, as it seemed even the radio had abandoned its obnoxious singing out of respect of North's surrender. Jack stared at the huge man in the passenger seat, yearning for a glance, a word for him. But North would not move.
It was when they pulled in to the train yard and Pitch at least released him from the back seat that North spoke, and the words were for Jack, "Lead on, Jack."
They trudged through the snow, a train blasting by the trio traveled onward, and Jack shut his eyes to stop the tears. He remembered how it had been, seeing North leave him, all those Christmases, the only evidence he had been there at all the gifts he left for him and the other boys, but Jack had never gotten what he had wished for, every year; North. He remembered the way Tooth comforted him, when he had questioned why he was alone, but had never made an attempt to answer why no one had wanted him. And Bunnymund, a good man... but one that kept him on a shelf, as if afraid to touch him else he would break.
And Sandy, whom had walked with him silently on these same tracks only a few days previously, before everything in the world changed, and froze.
"What?!" Pitch demanded, breaking Jack out of his trance-like thoughts. Jack stilled, and looked back at him, before following his gaze to the thick, inky smoke that billowed up, over the snow. Pitch pushed past him, racing toward the fire, and North looked to Jack, sharing his confusion, before they followed after Pitch.
"What is this?!" Pitch cried, as they came across the train car, engulfed in flames and smoke, "No!" He raced toward the flames, before the heat forced him back, "NO!" He turned on Jack, "You!" Jack recoiled, as Pitch's lean form bared down on him like a manifestation of the smoke, "You're under arrest for obstruction of justice!"
North gripped him by the arm, letting out a low growl, and Pitch's face seized with pain and fear. North immediately released him, "It's over, Pitch. Leave him alone."
Pitch gathered his composure once more, "I will take you down, North. You, and the rest of this gutter trash," he spat, motioning to Jack, "I don't care how long it takes." he grabbed up his radio, storming away from them as he barked orders into it.
Jack stared up at the flames, the heat drying the tears on his face, "But..." he looked to North, "I don't understand..."
North grimaced, "We need to have talk, Jack."
Sanderson's hotel room had been empty but for a paper box of matches, and three empty cans of lighter fluid in the bathtub. They had all been cleaned of fingerprints. Pitch had demanded a name for the bolo, and Jack had only given him 'Sandman'.
Jack was numb, by the time he was left alone in the cold hotel room. He didn't have the energy to jump, when North called to him from the doorway, "Jack."
"Tooth is here. Are you going back with her?" North questioned quietly.
Jack didn't answer him, pushing past him and leaving the hotel room empty.
To his surprise, it was not Tooth's Saturn idling curbside, but Bunnymund's Jeep. The tall shop owner was waiting for him, hands in the pockets of his overcoat, and his gaze firmly fixed on Tooth, whom waited at his side. He nudged her, as Jack approached.
Tooth's makeup was mussed and runny, her purple eyes glossy with tears. As she spotted Jack, they welled up again, and she raised her hands to her mouth, sobbing.
"Hey guys," Jack said quietly. He stared down at his feet, as the group lapsed into silence.
The wind rushed by, pushing on Jack, and he shivered.
"Jack," Tooth announced in a trembling voice, for once being the first to speak, and Jack looked up at her from under his hood. She seemed near falling apart again, before Aster griped her shoulder, and she took a deep breath, "I'm so, so sorry."
"It's okay," Jack lied.
"I betrayed you- you're a grown man, I didn't see it before, I still thought you were a child, I was jumping to conclusions-"
"We all were," Bunnymund added softly. He pushed his bangs back on his forehead, letting out a sigh, "We did yeh wrong, mate."
"That's not true!" Tooth stammered, shaking her head, "Aster tried to stop me, Jack, but I wouldn't listen- I was so angry, so scared- I love you, Jack, I couldn't stand to think-" she covered her face again, "and now this. Pitchner was going to throw you in jail, and it's entirely my fault!"
Jack felt a sharp pain in his chest, and swallowed, "Tooth..."
"We just..." Bunnymund bit the inside of his cheek, "we just love yeh, Jack. We want what's best for yeh..."
And Jack's anger flared, "What? Best for me? Have you looked around?" He glared at each of them, even as the pain in his chest expanded and seemed to seize his throat, making it hard to breathe, "I'm fucking homeless! You can't help anyone if you just- if you just leave them alone! And when I needed you the most, all you would ever do was push me away! What did you want from me?! Any of you?! Answer me!" He demanded of them.
Tooth shook with tears, and Bunnymund watched him with a look of pain on his features, while North only hung his head.
"And then I met Sandy. None of you knew him! Sandy was just a good guy- were you scared he'd help me?! That he'd listen to me when none of you had the time?! And now he's gone!" Jack coughed, the icy air bitter in his mouth, and he shook his head to keep his eyes from stinging, "And I'll never see him again. He was my friend! Could you believe that I'd have a friend? And you scared him away... is this all that it is? Are you all scared of me?"
Silence answered him. Jack shook his head again, his anger collapsing as he shivered again. "Just let me in," he plead, "please. I know I'm not anything special. I don't know what I have to do to make you love me. I've tried everything-" he was interrupted as Tooth burst forward, wrapping him up in her arms.
"Jack," she whispered, kissing his cheek and looking into his eyes. She smiled, the tears gone from her face, "We do love you."
"We didn't want t'push yeh away, mate," Bunnymund explained quietly. He rubbed his lips on his sleeve, "I guess we just... we messed up, Jack. And we're... I'm...sorry." His eyes, having spanned everywhere else on the empty street, seemed to at last meet Jack's gaze.
Aster seemed frightened.
Jack stepped away from tooth, scratching the back of his neck, "...I just need some time, okay?" he muttered, "I'm sorry guys."
Tooth looked heartbroken.
"Hey," Jack said, and smirked as she stared at him, "I'll be back, okay?" and Tooth shared his smile softly.
Aster and Tooth left North and Jack alone in the growing shadows of the approaching night, and the big man was unusually quiet, as the streetlights flickered on. He had made no attempt to apologize, nor explain his actions, and at last asked, "What are you going to do now, Jack?"
Jack looked at him, his eyes heavy and tired, "I thought you said we needed to talk."
North balked, "Well... yes, we do. I mean, I..." he trailed off, under Jack's gaze, and at last rubbed his face, cursing under his breath in Russian. He looked up and down the street for a small while, and at last tugged in his beard a bit, giving in, "okay, Jack. Let's talk."
"Why didn't you want me?" Jack asked quietly.
North looked horrified, "I never-!"
"No, you didn't say it. You didn't have to. I mean, I get that I was an annoying kid, I just don't get..." Jack looked down at his bare feet, "I don't know why you never wanted me."
North strode forward, reaching out to touch Jack's shoulder, "Jack, I always wanted you. When I looked at you, I saw me... and I was scared of that. I was scared that you would end up like me." North sighed through his nose, and removed his hand, "but I was wrong."
Jack looked up at him, confused. North calmed him with a smile, "You are nothing like me, Jack. You are ten times stronger that I will ever be." North looked up at the streetlight that flickered overhead, "and a far better judge of character. Your friend- he did us all a favor. He opened my eyes." North delved into his pocket, drawing out something bright and yellow, and he passed it to Jack.
Sanderson's scarf. Jack felt it in his fingers for a few moments, before looking back up at North, "What were the identities for?" he asked.
"The Yetis," North answered, slipping his hands back into his pockets, "for a fresh start."
"I was trying to give them new lives. Let them start over. Jack, I'm trying to go legit."
Jack let out a laugh, then stilled, "...wait, you're serious."
North nodded, shrugging shyly, "Thanks to me, all of my men have criminal records. If I were to stop operations, they would have no place to go, and couldn't find any work. But if they had new lives... well, I don't know."
"And Ricky- you were trying to find a way to get them out of here?"
"Ricky is little bastard, but he is good. He could have found a way, but now..." Jack began to apologize, before North waved him off, "No. You cannot just forget your past. You cannot run from it, or you will never find a home," he looked to Jack, "We have to face who we are."
Jack watched him, arching a brow, wondering what he meant, "What're you saying? No, wait, hold on," Jack raised his hands, stepping back, "don't screw with me, North..."
"Jack, it's too late for me to raise you. You are a man. But I would be very happy if we could be friends." North offered his hand.
Jack eyed it, unsure, "...you're saying I can crash on your couch?"
North laughed, and lunged forward, wrapping an arm around his neck and grinding his knuckles into the top of Jack's head, "You are sometimes dumbass, Jack!"
"Watch yer mouff," Jack grumbled from North's coat sleeve, squirming away from him, "Lemme go!"
"You will have to stay with Tooth a while, until I get things sorted out. And you will have to get job," North said, still choking him and stroking his mustache thoughtfully, "you are man, you will work like man." He looked down at Jack, grinning, "You work for Bunny-man!"
"Ew, no," Jack grumbled, at last prying himself free and stumbling away. But he was smiling.
"Do we have deal?" North asked, offering his hand.
Jack considered, "You stop being a crime lord, and I get a job?"
Jack grinned back, and shook his hand; "sure," he lied.
Thank all of you so much for sticking with this story, as it was a true joy to write, and I hope it was fun to read, as well. Happy holidays, and never stop believing! :)