-The Promises We Make-
Christmas that year was destined to be an occasion of great magnificence from the very beginning. Not only was North determined to ensure that every shred of belief that might have escaped them during Pitch's initial attack on the children of the world was restored tenfold, there was also the celebration on the spirits' line of the divide to consider. A celebration the Guardian of Wonder had long ago resolved was going to outshine every last one of its predecessors. The Guardians as a whole had decided, long before the actual date arrived, that all those who had aided them against Pitch were friends worth keeping, and so North had gone out of his way to invite every last one of them to his traditional post Christmas Eve celebration. How the big man managed to stay on top of the preparations for both separate events was a mystery to his fellow Guardians, but none of them hesitated to pitch in as needed, and Jack had even volunteered to go along with North to deliver presents. It was an offer the Christmas Guardian had eagerly accepted, and none of the others had made any attempt to intercede.
It had been six months since they nearly lost their youngest, but none of them had forgotten the feeling invoked by the mere possibility.
It was a wonder to Bunny that they had not yet managed to scare Jack off with their well intentioned, but doubtlessly overwhelming, attentiveness. He did not even know if the winter spirit had had a moment alone since his miraculous escape from the prison forged by his own powers. He had been staying at the North Pole ever since, and when he wasn't spending his days there helping North with this and that he was in Bunny's warren, asking a dozen questions a minute and generally making a nuisance of himself. Bunny had come to realize that such visits normally meant that Jack wanted to travel to Burgess, and for entirely understandable reasons did not wish to travel alone. Sometimes he sought out Sandy or Tooth for such excursions, but the Easter Guardian had not failed to notice he was by the far the most popular choice, and tried not to feel smug over that fact. Jack himself claimed he only dragged Bunny along because Sophie adored his visits, and, whilst there was truth in that, Bunny knew there were other reasons, even if he had no inclination to dig and find out exactly what.
For now Jack seemed happy, and, after everything that had happened with Pitch, that was all any of the Guardians could wish for. And if they were overly vigilant, if they sought to guard Jack from the shadows that might still linger inside of him as much as outside, then who could blame them? What Pitch had done had been a wake-up call like no other, and Bunny still had a lot of questions about what had happened between Pitch and the winter spirit. There were things the Nightmare King had said that had yet to be explained, but he didn't want to push Jack either, and risk sending their youngest scurrying back into the shell none of them had even realized he was hiding inside to begin with. Jack was oddly guarded about some things, no matter how irresponsibly he painted himself, and Bunny was slowly learning when to push and when to let things simmer a while before he tried removing the lid. There was time to find the answers yet, and he could be patient when he needed to be.
"You know your nose twitches when you think too hard." He startled at the familiar address, setting down the laden tray he had been hauling from the kitchen to the dining room before swinging about to face the intruder. "It's very rabbit."
"Eros." He smiled despite the jab, because this was the one spirit he had been convinced would not turn up despite North's invitation. Eros had an inherent aversion to any sort of large gathering, and generally tended to avoid them and other spirits in general wherever possible. The Valentine spirit preferred interaction with people who could not see him, and, considering what he knew of the archer's history, Bunny couldn't say that he blamed him for that. "I wasn't sure you'd be coming."
"Eh, I've been wanting to see the inside of this place for years." Eros shrugged, his eyes traveling around the room in a way that was far too analytical to be the casual glance it was meant to be. Bunny could almost see him marking the appropriate escape routes, and wondered if he would ever lose that habit. "Besides, it's not often one gets an invitation from the Big Four. From North himself, no less."
"Well, you're certainly not getting an invitation from me," Bunny retorted, trying to set the other more at ease.
"Why?" Eros flashed him a smile. "Afraid I'll turn you even softer than the centre of your caramel eggs?"
"No," Bunny smirked. "I just hate to imagine the sort of damage you and Jack could cause if you teamed up on me."
"Now there's a thought." Eros paused as if truly considering the idea, before abandoning the levity of their conversation to ask a genuine question. "How is the kid, anyway?"
Bunny snorted. "Better than most of us are, I think," he admitted. "Brat bounces back like nobody else."
"That's a good thing, isn't it?" Folding his arms, Eros leaned back against the doorframe, still close enough to the way out to make a quick exit should it prove necessary.
"Depends on whether or not it's genuine." Bunny shrugged, stepping his way carefully through the elves scurrying about the floor until he stood alongside the Valentine spirit.
Eros offered him a faint smile in return. "Oh, ye of little faith."
"Yeah, well, I'm leaning to the more positive side this time around," he admitted grudgingly, before smoothly changing the subject. "Aur tells me you've been busy babysitting Willow. How's that working out for you?"
"I don't choose sides, Bunny, you know that." Eros' expression was instantly guarded, though his words remained light. "Well, unless there are crazed megalomaniacs involved."
"She was my friend too," Bunny reminded him, not without a trace of regret. The souring of that relationship had been painful for both sides, not just the sadly deluded party. "A long time ago. It wasn't exactly pleasant watching that particular downwards spiral."
"Well, in that case, she's doing better," Eros volunteered, though cautiously. "I wouldn't recommend inviting her to any of these little gatherings any time soon, but she seems content to mind her own season and let everyone else worry about theirs now."
Bunny snorted his opinion of that, his verbal reply cut off by the ringing of sleigh bells and North's booming laughter. There was a sudden clash of many different sounds as the sleigh landed and the Yetis and elves bustled forward to tend to the reindeer and the vehicle itself, that preceded by mere seconds the loud boom of the double doors flying open as North paraded his way into the dining room, Jack close on his heels and wearing a grin that normally spelt disaster.
"Bunny!" North admonished, with his usual excessive volume. "Why so slow? Table should be set for feast already! Tooth and Sandy are finished with decorations and presents, but guests will be here any minute, and… Eros, you came!"
"Hey, Big Red," Eros greeted the Christmas Guardian with a sloppy salute. "How goes the good fight?"
"Good, very good!" North clapped his hands together enthusiastically. "Delivered in record time tonight, thanks to Jack. Keep him on, eh?"
He patted the winter spirit on the back as he spoke, and Jack predictably stumbled beneath the weight of the gesture, though he regained his footing swiftly enough and swung about to face Eros with open curiosity. North, his attention distracted by some small detail or another that needed his attention, wandered off without further comment, thus leaving Bunny to watch the two before him interact with interest.
"Hi." Eros' greeting was warm and open. "I don't think we had a chance to be properly introduced before. My name is Lornán, though practically everyone here calls me Eros, unless you're Chucky, of course, and find unreasonable amounts of amusement in the titles Valentine and Cupid. And you, my friend, must be the infamous Jack Frost."
"The one and only." Jack's grin was entirely unrepentant, even as he reached out and shook the hand the Valentine spirit offered him. "You here for the party?"
"Unfortunately, no." Eros pulled a face. "I'm already late for about half a dozen appointments. I just stopped by to torment Bunny and to properly introduce myself. Couldn't have Chucky telling you all sorts of lies without getting the first word."
"Right." Jack didn't looked convinced, but he hardly missed a beat regardless. "So… Cupid, huh… Do those things work on Pooka's?"
Bunny shot the winter spirit a scandalized glance, whilst Eros simply laughed outright.
"I wish," he chuckled, oblivious to Bunny's fixed glare. "To my disappointment, however, Fearlings and Nightmare Men seem to be the only ones vulnerable to my special concoction. A shame, really. Imagine the things I could make Pitch do if he wasn't immune."
"Never mind that." Jack shook his head. "Imagine what you could make Bunny do."
The Easter Guardian felt nothing but unease upon seeing the conspiring look the pair exchanged, immunity or no immunity, and hurried to interject.
"Alright, that's enough," he said gruffly, stepping between the pair and pointing an accusing digit in Jack's direction. "You save the pranks for later, Frost, when the party's over and your antics aren't likely to cause a war." Turning back to Eros, he added, "As for you, weren't you late for something?"
"I can take a hint, Aster." Eros smiled innocently, a gesture that fooled no one, especially not when paired with an overly elaborate bow. Ignoring the way Bunny rolled his eyes in response, the archer turned to leave, but had only taken one step before he swung back around. "Oh, and I almost forgot. I owe you a thank you, Jack."
"For what?" Jack looked momentarily confused. "Saving you? I was just returning the favour."
"I didn't mean that," Eros corrected him mildly. "I meant for not dying. It makes a nice change."
Before Jack could recover sufficiently from his surprise Eros had turned and departed, leaving Bunny to deal with the bewilderment on the youngest Guardian's face.
"He'll tell you the story behind that one day," he offered. "Maybe. For now, I'd brace yourself. These things normally start off with a bang."
Bunny had not, Jack reflected ruefully, been joking about the whole bang thing. When North decided to throw a party, he really threw a party, and Jack wasn't surprised by the fact that involved unhealthily copious amounts of eggnog. He'd bet his staff that both the Christmas Guardian and the Watcher of the Seasons were at least a little drunk by the end of the first hour, and, if the way Aur kept staring with mild disapproval at the Groundhog was any indication, she would not be betting against him should he actually go so far as to initiate the wager. Mara and Bunny, though not quite as lacking in propriety as their peers, were currently engaged in a somewhat fierce argument the cause of which Jack had missed entirely, with Sandy doing his best to play referee, which left Jack lingering on the fringes wondering if now might be a good time to test that cake-launcher he and the elves had constructed whilst North's back was turned.
"Should I be worried?" The soft amusement in Tooth's voice let him know he had been caught out, and he turned to her with an innocent smile.
"I know you too well for that," Tooth scolded, her magenta eyes glittering with humour. Nodding towards the assembled company, she added, "Do you think it's safe to leave them alone for a moment? There's something I'd like to show you."
Jack cast a dubious glance around the table, before pursing his lips in false consideration. "I don't know. I'm not sure they'll be safe without adult supervision."
"You're right." Tooth nodded sagely. "Baby Tooth, front and centre!"
In a whir of tiny wings, the little fairy darted out of Jack's pocket, her all but permanent residence of late, to hover before Toothiana.
"Keep an eye on them," the Guardian of Memories said seriously, holding up a finger to emphasize her point. "We won't be long."
Baby Tooth gave a curt tilt of her head, turning around immediately to fix a narrowed gaze on the assembled party. Jack and Tooth exchanged a grin, before slipping unnoticed from the laden table. They did not go far, just beyond the grand hall into the room on the opposite side where Tooth and Sandy had assembled a Christmas tree and wrapped the various presents North had decreed were to be set beneath it. Tooth closed the door behind them, ensuring they would be alerted if anyone tried to enter, before fluttering across the room to the lit tree and retrieving a small, cylindrical parcel from beneath it. She returned to hover before him, the wrapped item clutched tightly in her hands.
"We don't normally give one another presents," the Guardian of Memories explained softly. "This," she gestured at the small pile of presents, "is because North wanted to make sure this year was special. None of us were sure what to get you, though, so in the end we settled on this. A gift from all of us."
She extended her hand, and Jack took the parcel from her with a questioning look, but his fellow Guardian simply gestured for him to open it. His stomach was twisting itself into knots before he had even fully untied the ribbon, the soft jingle of musical bells and the shape of the object giving him a fair clue as to what lay hidden inside. His instincts were proven correct when the paper fell away to reveal a memory box exactly the same as the one Pitch had used to lure him into his lair what seemed like years ago now. Save for one, small, difference.
"Your sister's," Tooth offered gently, watching him with only the slightest hint of uncertainty. "You talked about her in your sleep, after we had rescued you from Pitch. I'm not supposed to show you, really, but after everything that happened, I think you deserve this."
Jack stared at the box for a moment longer, before lifting his head to meet Tooth's stare.
"Thank you." The words were a whisper, and he knew his eyes were moist.
Toothiana smiled softly in response, resting her hand briefly on his shoulder. "I'll give you a moment," she said gently. "Come join us when you're ready."
Jack barely noticed her leave, his fingers tracing the pictures engraved on the top of the box in a reverent gesture. Walking forward, he took a seat on the large sofa set to one side of the room, curling his legs beneath him as he took a single, deep breath, then touched the button to unlock the memories contained within.
Sandy gave up refereeing the ongoing fight between the temperamental Spirit of Summer and the equally irascible Guardian of Hope not long after Tooth and Jack slipped from the room, relatively unnoticed by the celebrating spirits around them. Whilst initially concerned for the possibility of old hurts being rehashed, by the time Mara and Bunny's argument had swung around to the inconvenience of summer heat and its effect on chocolates and 'why don't you put them in the shade then, you dunderhead?' the Guardian of Dreams felt safe in leaving the two of them to their mutual disparagement.
He had not been the only one to raise doubts over North's plan of a gathering in which the seasonal representatives were included, but the Guardian of Wonder had been adamant that the Big Four had been holding themselves apart from the other spirits for far too long. It was time for unity again, the big man had determined, and no warning uttered by his fellows had been heeded once the notion was stuck inside his head. Sandy was glad to say the fears North had so adamantly ignored had proved groundless, six months enough time that tempers had cooled and buried resentments had become just that again, but the possibility of still warm embers being fanned into a flame still lingered, and he kept a wary eye on the foursome gathered around the table as he drifted across the room to take a seat beside Aur.
"You need not be so vigilant, Sanderson," the autumn spirit greeted him with a smile. "Mara has given me her word to behave for the duration of this celebration. There will be no outbursts from her." Her gaze shifted, then, to the more than slightly inebriated Ground Hog. "For Chuck, however, I cannot speak."
Sandy smirked slightly at her observation, using his sand images to form his response.
"Yes, indeed," she laughed lightly. "So long as we do not let him near Bunnymund the evening should progress without interruption."
Settling back on the cushions of North's couch, Sandy folded his hands across his stomach and let his eyelids droop, sleepily observing family and friends alike. A soft buzz of wings sounded above him as one of Aur's pixies landed in his hair, and the weight that followed a moment later let him know the others had followed suit.
"Skadi was ever a herald of destruction," Aur uttered softly, seemingly speaking to herself, though Sandy cocked his head slightly to let her know he was listening. "Even before… She always took such relish in driving the fruits of Spring and Fall back into sleep with Winter's vehemence. If there was ever a warning that her destiny would lead her to a fate of darkness, it could be found in her love for winter's cruelty."
Sandy nodded somnolently, and, with a small sigh, the autumn spirit continued.
"Pitch and Skadi lost the Winter War, but I do not believe we were victorious either. The pair of them managed to forge such a rift between us that it has not ever shown signs of healing before now. They found triumph in their loss, but we found very little in our victory."
Cracking an eye open, the Guardian of Dreams chanced a glance at his companion, finding her gaze fixed, not on the table, but instead on the door through which Tooth was just now reemerging. The Guardian of Memories glanced about the room briefly, before her eyes settled on the conversing pair, and she drifted in their direction.
"Tonight is a step in healing that has been a long time in coming, and I do not believe we need to look far to find its source," Aur concluded. "I cannot decide whether it is ironic or fitting that Jackson should be the one to undo the damage Skadi left behind."
"We all had a part in that," Tooth contradicted, having reached them soon enough to hear the end of Aur's statement. "Guardian and Seasonal alike. Jack was the catalyst, and we each had to decide how to react."
"And some reacted better than others." Aur inclined her head briefly, and there was no doubt as to whom she spoke of. "But, ultimately, no matter what purpose drove the Man in the Moon to choose Jackson as a Guardian, he provided the momentum in what has been a stagnant world for far too long. As immortals, I fear we too often forget what it is to be young, and, whilst age lends us a greater knowledge, we tend to lose the wisdom we were bestowed with as children. Jackson is yet a child, but still Guardian and Seasonal both. He has already bridged the gap between your kind and your wards, and I believe he is fully capable of doing the same for the rest of the spirit world."
Sandy was wide awake in a moment at that admission, turning to the autumn spirit in surprise, his movements dislodging the pixies that had settled in to sleep in his dreamsand coated hair.
"Uniting the spirit world?" Tooth frowned. "With all our differences? That seems impossible."
"Improbable, perhaps," Aur conceded. "Yet, somehow, Jack Frost is a name known to almost all our peers. Most have never met him, some have never seen him, and yet he is known to each and every one of them. How many others spirits who are not Guardians can you say the same of? Jackson has made an impression on nearly all our kind, good or bad. He has already taken the first steps towards uniting us."
"Uniting us against what, Aur?" Sandy started slightly, having not even noticed when the rest of their party joined their small circle, North and Chuck's eggnog induced joviality suspiciously absent. It was Bunny who had voiced the question, and Bunny who pressed for an answer. "What aren't you guys sharing?"
"Oh, please," Mara interjected, and Sandy knew whatever came next would be tinder to the fire. "Just because you high and mighty Guardians deign to invite us to your celebrations this once you think you're entitled to know everything now?"
"Not everything," Bunny snapped back. "Just the things you choose to keep from us despite knowing they could very well end in disaster if they go unchecked. Sound familiar, Ginger?"
"And what about sharing the fact Pitch was loose with a vested interest in seasonal spirits, huh?" the Groundhog leapt to his charge's defence. "Pot, kettle, black, Aster."
"Pitch was defeated," North responded quickly. "Was no need for warning."
"And look how splendidly that ended," Mara growled.
Sandy had risen off the couch by this point, waving his hands in what he knew would be yet another fruitless attempt to cool the tensions without being able to utter a sound, but before the civility of the night could complete its sharp u-turn into past arguments another voice intruded on the increasingly volatile discussion.
"Hey, guys, what did I miss?"
Jack's return was like a bucket of cold water dashed over all their heads, and Sandy watched with interest as almost every one of the involved parties visibly deflated. Only Mara looked set to continue the debate, and she subsided at once when Aur wordlessly touched her arm, shaking her head at Mara's questioning glance.
"What did you miss?" North demanded, excitement starting to brew in his blue eyes. "What did you miss? Nothing, Jack, timing is perfect! You just in time to come see big finale."
With that the big man immediately began ushering his friends outside to witness the light show Sandy himself had had a part in designing, effectively brushing the unfinished argument to the side with his usual irrepressible energy. Floating along at the rear of the group, a glance back allowed him to catch the moment when Jack pulled a surprised Tooth into a tight embrace, the gratitude on his face speaking more eloquently than words ever could. Smiling to himself, Sandy turned away, his smile fading but slightly when he realized Aur had never answered Bunny's question. A brief sense of unease swept over him, but he shook it off. Tonight was for celebration, after all. There would be plenty of time to worry on the morrow.
Settled in the corner, distant from the festivities and the roaring fire, Jack watched the antics of his friends – his family – with a small, fond smile. He had taken part in the celebration earlier, before the Seasonals took their leave and returned to their own affairs. He had talked, laughed, and joked with more sincerity than he had ever used in his prior interactions with the Guardians, but now he was content to sit and watch the joyous, familial scene playing out before him. He was content, at peace, for once not struggling to figure out how he fit into all this or fretting over some mistake he had made. It was an odd feeling, but he found he liked it, even folded away in the corner toying with his staff and running his finger repeatedly over the mismatched shard.
It was still a wonder to him that Jamie's belief had healed the shattered rod. He had been so ready to give up. To run away. To protect his family in the only way he knew how. But Jamie… Jamie was something special, and, in hindsight, Jack should have known the boy would never let him go without a fight. That was another nice feeling; the knowledge someone in the world was willing to fight for him, and he allowed himself a moment to bask in the warmth that thought brought him.
"You okay over here, Frosty?"
The gentle question startled him out of his reminiscent thoughts, and he glanced up with a grin as Bunny took a seat beside him. The pair of them were still on new ground when it came to their relationship, their bond an interesting prospect he still did not understand. Bunny had seen him at his worst, in a state far more terrifying to both of them than the other Guardians had witnessed, and that experience had formed something between them that wasn't there before. Something had clicked into placed when Bunny had chosen to comfort him at his lowest point, and Jack hesitantly named this new feeling between them a brotherly one. Jack thought he would like to have a brother. It would make all the teasing and insults and deliberately provocative mischief entirely justifiable.
"Earth calling Jack." Bunny's words reminded him he had yet to give a verbal response. "You in there, Frost?"
There was the lightest hint of concern in the Easter Guardian's tone, another lingering memento of the ordeal they had all been through. Jack was not oblivious to the surreptitious glances both Bunny and the others had been throwing at him ever since his return to their ranks, but, though it had been going on for months now, he did not feel smothered. Instead he felt comfortably cared for, the attention that had so frightened him before now a steadying influence in his life. He wasn't ready for independence just yet, and, whilst he would never have asked the Guardians outright, he was secretly grateful for the way they had closed ranks around him. How they had shattered and rendered void his fears that a single mistake on his part would lead to them abandoning him. For the first time since he had become a Guardian, Jack felt like he belonged with the Big Four, not just as a bolster to their ranks, but as a part of their family.
"Jack?" Bunny prompted again.
"Yeah, I'm okay." He doubted Bunny would take his word for it, but a response was still necessary. He considered briefly throwing in a comment about the Easter Guardian's mothering side, but abandoned the idea, too pleasantly comfortable to start a fight.
"North thought we might have overwhelmed you," Bunny offered, clearly searching for more of a response. "He reckoned we should let you be."
"Who? Me?" He threw the Easter Guardian a flippant grin, before turning back to the entirely homely portrait in front of him. "Yeah, maybe a little," he admitted more seriously. "But in a good way."
Bunny nodded without saying a word, then extended a paw. "Mind if I take a look at that?"
Jack glanced down at his hands and the staff he had unconsciously been toying with all along. He had not let the item out of his grasp since it was restored to his possession, so it surprised him somewhat that he had no compunctions about handing the staff to Bunny. The Pooka handled the stave with a care that fully justified Jack's trust, studying the mismatching shard with interest.
"You really know how to pick 'em, don't you?" he commented at last. "I've been meaning to ask you why you ever singled Jamie out in the first place."
"I don't know." Jack shrugged, watching as Bunny turned the staff over and over in his paws. "I just knew he was special, I guess."
"Special is an understatement," Bunny said. "That kid saved all of us more than once. He's the reason we managed to beat Pitch, both times."
"It's funny, isn't it?" Jack agreed thoughtfully. "The difference a little belief can make."
"Jack, mate." Bunny shook his head slightly. "Belief can save the world. Has saved the world. There's a reason we guard it so fiercely."
"Maybe you just aren't believing hard enough…"
The words pinged slightly inside Jack's mind, and he frowned, the thought that flashed through his head fleeting but important.
"…something that made her believe he could be saved, and the key to doing so lay in his daughter…"
Why? Why was his subconscious flinging these thoughts at him now? He groped for the answer, a frown working its way across his face.
"…They could still be out there, somewhere, if you only knew where to look…"
And then it hit him, like a proverbial brick wall, or that billboard Tooth had collided with in her excitement.
"…Think of someone! Anyone you care about. Focus on them, and only them…"
"I could paint this, you know," Bunny was saying, oblivious to Jack's slowly dawning realization. "Make it into a feature. The Guardians' symbol maybe? Whadd'ya think?"
"…Mother, take me home…"
"That sounds great, Bunny," Jack answered, sincere, but with only half his mind on the topic at hand. "But can I have it back for now?"
"Well, sure…" Bunny began, stopping in surprise when Jack all but snatched the staff from his hand.
"Thanks," Jack muttered, preoccupied and headed for the window.
"Oy!" Behind him, Bunny leapt to his feet, confusion ringing in his voice. "Where are you going?"
"I'll be back in a jiffy!" Jack promised, and a moment later he was out the window and being borne away on the Wind.
Pitch broke the surface with a ragged gasp, frigid water streaming from his hair and clothes as he dragged himself, hand over hand, up the snow-laden bank. It took a momentous amount of effort, and was a sure sign of how weakened he was after his long imprisonment, but eventually he had pulled himself far enough from the hole through which he escaped to be beyond the fear of tumbling back within, though even out of the water the stiff breeze swirling along the lake's edge made his situation most uncomfortable. For a moment, then, he lay still, breathing in sharp, uneven gulps of air, and hoping with all his might that there was no one nearby to witness his humiliation.
He had been beaten.
By a child.
How that thought rankled, all the more so because it was certainly not the first time such an advent had occurred. Nightlight, who had won himself eternal recognition for his part in the fight to protect the infant Tsar Lunanoff, had been considered a child at the time of his victory, but at least then Pitch had been able to ensure his nemesis suffered with him. With the frost child, that opportunity had slipped through his clenched fingers as surely as melted ice, and he had endured his imprisonment alone. A shudder wracked his frame at the mere thought, for if there was one thing the many beings that were Pitch feared, it was being sealed again in a place from which they could not escape.
It had been a mistake to allow Jack Frost to continue living, an act of sentimentality born from a part of him that should have died a long time ago. A part he believed he had killed. The part that saw pieces of his own child in the winter spirit, in both the similarities and differences Jack bore to his predecessor. He had been able to twist that sentiment, that call of familiarity to his own devious purposes, but he had neglected to go far enough, and now he was paying the price. Frost had won because he allowed himself to lose focus. It was an error of judgment he did not intend to make again.
"You done hacking lake water?"
The voice startled him, recognition sending an uncomfortable jolt of surprise through his frame. He attempted to rear to his feet, but the grace of the gesture was lost as he stumbled, his limbs still wobbly, though he could assuage his smarting pride with the knowledge the glare he leveled now upon the spirit standing before him did not waver in the slightest.
"Frost." The word was a curse in and of itself. He made it so. "To what do I owe the immense displeasure?"
"You should be thanking me," Jack retorted boldly, leaning on his reforged staff and looking for as if he didn't have a care in the world. "If it weren't for me, you'd still be enjoying all the comforts of your private little igloo."
"If you think rescuing me from a prison of your own devising changes anything, then you are bound for disappointment. I would have escaped sooner or later on my own."
"And then you would have come back to rain vengeance down on the Guardians' world, blah, blah, blah, generic evil speech, repetitive bad guy butt kicking, back to square one. That's how it normally goes, right?"
Pitch's eyes narrowed as he contemplated simply dropping Frost where he stood. He hesitated, though, tracing the moonbeam that nipped protectively at the winter spirit's heels. Jack was not so alone as he seemed, then, but was it merely the Man in the Moon who had accompanied him on whatever quest led him to returning to this lake, or were the other Guardians concealed in the woods around them, just waiting for the right moment to strike? He was not yet strong enough to risk encountering them all at once, so he held his ground, settling for pinning Jack with a look of utter disdain instead.
"I will win eventually."
"You can keep telling yourself that as long as you want, that doesn't mean it's ever going to happen," Jack answered smoothly, no derision in the words, their tone one of simple fact. "Or you can stop being so utterly feeble and start fighting the real battle."
"The real battle?"
Had Frost taken leave of his senses? Had Pitch done more damage than he realized? It was not an entirely unappealing thought, even as he realized how unlikely it was.
"Yes, the real battle." Jack nodded. "Except, I wasn't talking to you, Pitch."
Maybe the boy really was insane, because, moonbeam or not, there was no one but the two of them within hearing distance.
"I am sure the forest animals will find your little speech most inspiring," he sneered. "But I do not have the time to waste pandering to your fancies. Go find someone else to bother, Frost. That is, if any of them will have you."
Without waiting to see what reaction, if any, his words invoked, Pitch spun on his heel, ignoring the way his vision swam disarmingly as he marched away across the snow.
That single word was like a dagger, driven into his non-existent heart and twisted with the most malicious cruelty. It stopped him in his tracks with an ease that nothing else could have matched, and he stood, frozen, unable to move even a single muscle as a part of him that had not surfaced for years stirred suddenly back to life in a shock of pain and regret.
"That was her name," Jack continued quietly. "Emily-Jane. Your daughter."
"Was her name," he snarled, spinning back around in a fit of fury that easily quenched that stirring remnant. "Was, because of your precious Guardians!"
"You don't know that," Jack replied placidly.
"I do know that!" he roared, taking a step forward, forgetting his weakness as rage overthrew all else.
"No," the winter spirit contradicted. "No, you don't. And that's what finished it, isn't it? That's what made General Kozmotis Pitchiner finally stop fighting you. Because he didn't know. Was it an accident that killed her, Pitch, or did you do it as a means of fully suppressing your better half?"
Shock rippled through him, but it was deep and distant, and his harsh laughter very nearly drowned it.
"Is that why you are here?" he demanded coldly, ignoring the growing sense of unease that was not wholly his own. "You think you can redeem me?"
"I can't," Jack said simply, straightening up and giving his staff a slight whirl.
Pitch tensed, ready for the moment when the conversation ended and the true battle began. Before he could do more than brace himself, Jack had swivelled his rod around so that he was grasping it by its crook, the handle extended well within Pitch's reach.
"Take it," he dared.
Eyeing the staff with a distrustful glare, Pitch levelled a piercing stare at the winter spirit. "Do you take me for a fool?"
"What's the matter?" Jack asked, tilting his head to the side slightly. "Afraid it's a trick? Isn't that more your style?"
Pitch considered the proffered weapon for a moment longer, his eyes narrowed, before reaching out and deftly ripping it from Jack's hands. The winter spirit took a step back, and Pitch witnessed just the barest flicker of concern in Jack's eyes before his confidence reasserted itself.
"Now what, Frost?" he mocked his adversary. "Did you enjoy the experience so much the first time around you wish to repeat it?"
"Go ahead." Jack gave his head a sharp nod. "Try to break it. I dare you."
Suspicion warred with the desire to wipe that irritating self-confidence away in one, fell swoop. It had to be a trick, he was certain. There was no way Jack would hand his precious staff over to the very person who had all but destroyed his life when the item had last been in their possession. No, Frost was up to something, but not even Pitch's wicked intelligence could discern what. Keeping one eye on the spirit before him, Pitch summoned what remained of his dark powers in the wake of his crushing defeat, the remnants of corrupted energy swirling into being as he focussed all his might on rending the wooden rod in two. To his dismay his powers simply rebounded off the object, the staff flying from his hands with a crackle of frosted denial to land in the snow where it rested innocuously, looking for all the world like nothing more than a piece of wood.
Jack bent to retrieve it, the item coming to life where his hands touched it as it always had, and Pitch, still reeling from the effects of his own powers rebounding against him, allowed his sleek veneer to slip long enough for a single statement to escape him.
"You knew that would happen."
"No, I didn't." Jack shrugged, grasping the staff in one hand and running his other over the bend. That was where the shard Pitch had destroyed had once rested, another fragment now in its place. "I simply believed that you would not be able to break it, because it was reforged by belief, and I was right."
"And what purpose did that little exercise serve?" he asked derisively. "Besides proving that you enjoy gloating as much as the next spirit."
"I didn't come here to gloat." Jack frowned, looking genuinely upset by the suggestion. "And that wasn't what giving you the staff was about. I wanted to prove a point."
"Indeed." He was intrigued despite himself, and waved a hand airily as he added, "Do tell."
"I wanted to show you the power of belief," Jack answered readily. "I wanted you to see what it can do. And I wanted you to remember that there was once a young girl who believed in you, who believed in her father, and who still believes enough that she has managed to cling to existence despite everything just to try and save you."
Something pulsed in his chest, hard and fast and thick with both trepidation and longing. He crushed it beneath the weight of darkness that resided inside of him, staring Frost down with utter disdain.
"Emily-Jane is dead."
"She isn't," was the firm reply. "There's a reason why the seasonals address the Wind as 'Mother'."
The pulse was stronger this time, a lingering feeling that was not so easily quelled, though he hid any outer sign that it even existed. It had a name, he knew, this intrusive emotion Frost had awakened, but he was loath to even think it, let alone utter it aloud.
"So a small piece of her essence survives." He played down what Jack had no doubt intended to be a bombshell. "Without a voice, most likely without even a mind. If it was belief that brought her to such a state of existence, then I pity her."
"You don't pity anyone," Jack stated flatly. "At least, Pitch Black doesn't. I don't know about Kozmotis Pitchiner. I've never had the chance to meet him."
"And you never will," Pitch retorted harshly, ignoring the faintest echo of protest from within. It had been a long time since the original inhabitant of his host had dared to use his voice, and Pitch was determined that that should not change now. "That man is dead."
"He is no more dead than his daughter," came Jack's rebuttal. "I'm not here to gloat, Pitch, I'm here to warn you. I've seen the power of belief. I've seen it go up against impossible odds and win. I've seen it hold friends together when everything in the world is determined to rip them apart. I've seen it repair the irreparable. I've seen it do the impossible. And I believe, with every shred of faith I have, that it can bring back the good man – the hero – that you've possessed like a puppet on a string. Your days are numbered, Boogeyman, someone is about to shine a light on your shadows."
Pitch struggled to come up with an apt response, his normally fluent tongue deserting him as he sought the stinging rejoinder that would silence Frost forever. Jack never gave him the chance to find it. Having delivered his message the winter spirit took several steps back before extending his arms to the side, allowing the Wind to lift him and throw him bodily through the air, carrying him swiftly from sight. Pitch tried to ignore the brief tendril of air that whispered along his cheek like a phantom touch, swatting it away like the nuisance it was. But he was not the only one to have felt that fond caress, and, even as he turned in a flurry of black cloaks to skulk back into hiding, he put a name to the feeling that was swelling slowly but surely inside of his dark shell.