A/N: Well, this has been fun. Please know that I appreciate all of you reviewers, alert-ers, favorite-ers and anyone else out there reading this. You all make writing this worthwhile. But as soon as this is done, I must get back to doing more productive things. Like work. And college exams. And sleep. Yes, sleep. There is something seriously wrong with my priorities here but I hope you all enjoy the consequences of my actions anyway.


I brought children into this dark world because it needed the light that only a child can bring. - Liz Armbruster


Jack had never tried hot chocolate before, although he thought he might enjoy it if did.

He had seen enough children drink it that he could only imagine what it tasted like. It always seemed better with a handful of marshmallows sprinkled on top because the soft candy would melt slightly and create a sweet, milky foam on top that when sipped, never failed to fill those same children with something warm enough to chase away the winter cold.

Hot chocolate had to be good though because it was usually enough to draw children away from even Jack's best snowball fights and under the warming glow of christmas lights instead.

But when Jack finally tried this delectable drink for himself, he discovered the taste was nothing extraordinary. It was like swallowing muddy, hot water.

That was the thing about dreaming.

The thing about a dream was how someone could exist in a world so similar to their ordinary one. It was as painless as escaping into a fantasy world, except one that was so impossibly real it was difficult to remember what was real or what was not.

And when you finally reached that point in your dream where you realized that everything you were experiencing had only been a dream, waking was not always easy because to discard a fantasy world where you weren't suffering was often too hard to leave behind.

What reason did Jack Frost possibly have to abandon that comfort?

This fantasy of drinking hot chocolate, Jack knew, was not a real one. He had never had it in reality so how could he possibly know its taste?

It was enough of an incentive to want to wake up and once Jack understood he was only dreaming, the fantasy world quickly lost its appeal. Realization hit him.

Jack!

Someone was calling out to him.

#

"Jack!"

Tooth listened to Bunnymund call Jack's name and when he called his name a second time, she cringed, trying to ignore the desperation in his voice. But it was impossible to ignore. She could not bring herself to look at either of them. Instead she swallowed hard and tried to breathe evenly.

Be rational, Tooth. Be calm. Think. Come on, think...

Jack was immortal like they rest of them, was he not? It was not possible for a Guardian to be bled dry or to be killed by other ordinary means. She refused to believe it. And yet she had just bared witness to what vibrant life had once been Jack's spirit be violently torn out of him.

"Tooth," North drew her attention around. "Look."

The sound of North's voice startled her and she quickly turned. The Sand Man was hovering close. A stream of golden sand circled around Jack's immobile body.

Which meant Jack was dreaming and if he was dreaming that meant he had to be...

"He's alive!" she realized, and darted toward him. A knot caught in her throat. Something was still very wrong. The black veins crawling across Jack's body were undeniably more visible.

"Barely," Bunnymund reinforced to her. "He's not waking up."

Sandy continued to shake another wave of golden sand over Jack's eyes, attempting to ward off the nightmares trying to penetrate his current dreams. Jack's eyes remained eerily parted, revealing a dim emptiness under his eyelids that was reminiscent of stale water.

"His staff," Bunnymund reminded everyone. In his mind, he was already bracing himself for an encounter with Pitch. Actually, Bunnymund would prefer it this way. Confronting Pitch would be a necessary step toward correcting the wrong he had done against the young winter spirit, who remained in a comatose state.

Jack's breaths came in small doses, thready and weak. The breathing was barely noticeable.

Bunnymund eventually stepped away and Tooth caught sight of the blood matting his fur. The sight of Jack's blood on him made her ill. She flew to stand beside Bunnymund then. "You're leaving?"

"Well there's no way I'm staying here and doing nothing."

"I'm going with you."

Bunnymund dropped his jaw in protest, but decided against it. By the tone of her voice, it wasn't something to be argued. She was coming with him.

"Keep watch over him," Bunnymund instructed North and Sandy. Not that they needed to be told, but as circumstances would have it, they had been elected to stay behind. "If anything changes about his condition, let us know. Got it?"

Sandy nodded in acknowledgment and North knew if he objected now, it would only jeopardize Jack's survival. "Go," he said.

That was all the permission Bunnymund needed to reopen his portal and leap through with Tooth, flying close behind.

#

"So it begins."

Pitch voiced the statement out loud to no one in particular, with the exception to Jack Frost whom he knew without a doubt could hear him. He could feel the boy succumbing to the effects of his poison — his essence — and it would only be a matter of time before his darkness completely consumed him.

A smile curled the corners of his mouth then. Pitch remained in his stronghold, running a crooked, skeletal finger across the mortar melding together heavy stone surrounding his domain.

The beauty of being an entity of darkness was it allowed him omniscient viewing of any part of the world currently enshrouded in shadow and after the sun went down, the whole world became cast into it. As long as the moon avoided casting light across his darkened haven, the world became his sanctuary by nightfall.

In his other hand, Pitch dragged Jack staff across the ground, scratching the floor of his stronghold with an empty, hollow screech.

The Guardians were coming for him, Pitch knew. It was inevitable. The only question remaining was what their plan would be to stop him. All Pitch needed was time. Time would ultimately be Jack's undoing.

They, on the other hand, needed something more. What they needed was a cure to reverse the poisonous effects rapidly eating away at Jack's existence. All Pitch needed to do was stall them. It would be easy. The events of tonight had gone by much too easily. Everything was going according to plan. Pitch laughed.

"Let them try to stop it."

#

"There's something you're not telling me," Tooth finally said to Bunnymund once they were alone by the river. After having scoured the river banks, Tooth was hovering over the river itself. The depth was low enough that she could reach the bottom of the riverbed only to have the icy water submerge her arm only as far as to her elbow. If the staff was here, surely she would have seen it by now.

"What more do you need to know!" Bunnymund demanded. "You need me to tell you an apology, is that it? You want me to admit that this is because of me? That I let this happen. That it's my fault."

Tooth was very quiet. None of that had been in her mind, but the fact that Bunnymund was suspecting her of saying it made her realize that whether he wanted to admit it or not, Bunnymund was blaming himself for what happened to Jack

"Listen to me. It's not your fault," she said. "What I was going to say was I suspect you know where Jack's staff really is. Because it's not here."

There was no doubt in his mind about it now. "Pitch," he told her finally. "He must have it. Either we wait for him to come to us or we go to him and I doubt he will be the one to come to us. If we go after him, we'll be confronting him on his terms and the chance we walk into a trap will be likely."

"Open a portal tunnel just for me then. I'll go first," Tooth said.

"Not happening."

"Yes it is," Tooth argued. "You stay here. Wait a few minutes. Then come after me. It'd be better to avoid both of us walking into the same trap, if there's one at all."

Bunnymund crossed his arms over his chest. He withdrew a boomerang and tapped it impatiently against his arm, not happy at all with this this arrangement but circumstances were less than ideal and their plans were limited.

"Fine," he said.

He reluctantly agreed and opened a portal for her. There was nothing on the other side but pitch black and Tooth hovered in front of the portal, inspecting what was on the other side. She hesitated.

"Want me to go first?"

"No," Tooth insisted.

Then she disappeared to the other side, leaving Bunnymund alone still standing in the river. He would give Tooth no longer than a minute before he went after her. The idea of parting with her for even that long to confront Pitch alone was a thought that did not sit well with him at all.

#

Trouble began almost immediately following Bunnymund's and Tooth's departure.

The Sand Man furrowed his brow and attempted to spread an additional wave of golden sand across Jack's eyes but his effort was proving futile. Despite his best ability, he watched powerlessly as the delicate gold dust around Jack's eyes shifted violently and morphed into course, black sand.

He was helpless to stop the nightmare that was materializing and in that moment, the Sand Man saw into Jack's dreams.

All he could see was an endless ocean of dark water.

Jack was drowning.

There was no land in sight. Jack kicked desperately to tread through the deadly liquid and stay afloat, but all he managed to do was flail. With every second it became harder to resist the temptation for him to stop struggling and sink below the surface. Jack took gasping breaths, trying to latch on to something, anything, but there was nothing to save him.

He couldn't scream because that would be a waste of precious air. He resisted with unwavering determination but a voice in the back of Jack's mind was whispering to him that maybe this was pointless. Maybe giving in to the inevitable and relaxing would make the end a little less painless...

Sandy closed his eyes. He could no longer tolerate to watch the nightmare as it tortured and slowly consumed the young winter spirit.


A/N: I realize this was a less intense chapter, but it was necessary. Think of it as a bracer for the chapter about to come. Thoughts? Rants? Please tell me all about it!