Summer in San Francisco

Jack had seen fearlings before, but hadn't ever actually fought any. Unless Pitch's nightmares counted as fearlings. He wasn't sure about the classifications. It didn't make much difference to him either. While before he had ignored Pitch's lesser minions, and they'd ignored him, times had clearly changed. The fearlings had clearly sought him out and attacked him with no provocation. Okay, a little provocation . . . Well, okay, to be completely honest, Jack had started it. But he planned to finish it too, so what did it matter?

It was summer in San Francisco, but that made little difference to Jack. The ocean, its currents, and his friend the wind kept the area phenomenally cold, making it one of the few places in the US that Jack could stand to be during the summer months.

Jack had come here specifically because he knew there was fear lingering in the fair city. A small earthquake had rocked the Bay Area that morning, and aftershocks had continued throughout the afternoon and evening. No one had been hurt and damage had been restricted to a few busted pipes and such, but Jack knew that in times like these, people couldn't help but worry. He'd gone to San Francisco to bring a little more fun into the peoples' lives.

He'd frozen a few pipes that were busted, to give the people a hand and stop them from flooding the buildings and conjured up a bunch of ice statues in random places, to give people a mystery, since no one knew how they got there. He did caricaturized versions of well known people in the city, like the mayor and the local weatherman. Igloos sprung up at playgrounds. Swarms of ice statue penguins appeared in the subway stations. People laughed to see them even if they were kinda in the way.

By the time darkness started falling the people of San Francisco were smiling a little faster, their steps a little lighter, the fear retreating from their hearts. Children laughed over dinner, telling their parents about the ice statues they'd seen, and taken pictures of with their cell phones. The phenomenon had gone viral and was now rivaling that morning's earthquake for the biggest news story of the day in the city out of San Francisco.

When children began making their way to bed, Jack started frosting windows. It was a little early but he figured no one would mind. He wanted to take his time tonight, make the patterns more beautiful than usual. Little things held great power sometimes, Jack firmly believed. Small, everyday things could keep the darkness and fear at bay. A little bit of beauty, a little bit of love or care, or something a little out of the ordinary could bring a smile to someone's face, and that was where fear and sorrow lost its power.

Jack paused a few times to wave to passing mini-fairies as they flitted about collecting teeth, and once took a break to reach out and touch one of Sandy's dreamsand streams, teasing out a golden seahorse that swam in circles around him several times then kissed him on his nose before going on its way. He was glad for the presence of the other two Guardians in the scared city. Where there was ground for fear to take root there was a greater chance of running into Pitch. Jack wasn't scared of him, but neither was he so arrogant and reckless that he thought he could protect every child in the world on his own and be everywhere at once. If Pitch decided to make a move, the more Guardians that were around, the better their chances of catching on to him as fast as possible, and stopping him.

It was a little after midnight when Pitch struck. The mists that blew in off the ocean darkened and fearlings began crawling out of it. Jack was on them in an instant, despite their number.

It was one of the rare nights that the city was quiet, even after dark. Usually the city had a pretty lively night life, but the earthquake that morning had dampened it. Which was probably for the best. It meant Jack didn't have to worry about any human bystanders getting caught in the crossfire. Now he wouldn't have to hold back.

He dashed over the ranks of fearlings as they formed, raining down ice liberally on them and freezing them before they could fully materialize. Cold and dark did indeed go well together, but the dark clearly got the raw end of the deal now. The dark particles were left suspended and trapped in the ice, immobile statues. When some of fully formed fearlings he hadn't iced yet attacked him, Jack summoned a circle of icy stalagmites out of the ground, every way around him, by slamming the end of his staff against the ground, much like he'd done to disrupt the Guardians's first attempt at inducting him into their ranks. He wondered what his friends would think if they knew how devastating that little action could have been if he'd put even a touch of malignancy into it at the time, like he was doing now. The icy spikes impaled the fearlings and spread more ice. Then Jack began darting through them at top speed, striking them with his staff, sending out streams of ice in bursts and spurts, keeping it unpredictable. It didn't take long for all that ice to start building up. Within minutes, the streets looked like a frozen wasteland of dark icy statues.

Jack laughed as he kept his attacks up. This was fun! He'd never done anything quite like this before! Before becoming a Guardian, he hadn't done too much fighting, and certainly never on this scale of level. It didn't take too much ice to freeze the fearlings. When the sun eventually came up at dawn, the light would melt the fearlings away, and with nothing to hold the ice up, it would crumble into dust, so he didn't have to worry too much about causing destruction. Which was good, because at a glance, he was creating a winter cursedland rather than a winter wonderland. It looked much worse than it actually was. But he was in his element quite literally, so Jack had no worries. He continued fighting on through the increasingly cold night.

Bunny made tracks for San Francisco as soon as he got Sandy's distress call. He was not expecting what he found. Sure he knew the city was cold but what he found when he got there was beyond ridiculous.

There were thousands of fearlings, all of them frozen solid. Thin sheets of ice encased the surface of some of them. Others just had a coat of frosting over them, the fernlike swirls making them look particularly creepy. Bunny gaped at the site, unable to believe his eyes. He'd known Jack was powerful but this . . . this went overboard. How one person, even a Guardian, could take out this many fearlings was just so far beyond him that all he could do was stare.

Finally a sneeze roused him out of his mesmerization. San Francisco was cold at the best of times, but now it felt more like Antarctica.

"Bunny!" Tooth swooped down like an overgrown, very colorful bat.

"Tooth," Bunny greeted her.

"Have you seen Jack?"

"Nope. I just got here," said Bunny

"Me too. I was expecting a fight. Instead I find this."

"There's nothing to say there won't still be a fight," realized Bunny. They had no idea how many fearlings there were. Bunny couldn't see how there could possibly be more than what he saw frozen around him now, but experience taught him to expect the unexpected.

Then they saw Sandy send up a golden flare to draw them to their position. It was a softer flare, a gentle sort of firework, meant to signal to his missing comrades to come to where he was, but to let them know that it wasn't urgent. If he'd been fighting, the sparks would have exploded faster and it would have popped more.

Even so, Tooth and Bunny wasted no time hurrying to Sandy's position. When they got there, they found that North was already there with Sandy. And with Jack. Jack was leaning heavily on his staff, a sleepy look on his face, but he was talking animatedly to North and Sandy about what he'd just done. Then he noticed Tooth and Bunny.

"Guys! You missed the party!"

"Party? You call this a party?!" Bunny demanded.

"You don't?" asked Jack.

"It's too bloody cold to be a party! Doesn't this city know it's nearly summer?"

"The coldest winters are summers in San Francisco. Or something like that. Some poet said that once," Jack said with an easy grin. Then he stumbled exhaustedly and nearly fell. Would have fell if North hadn't grabbed him.

Anger surged through Bunny. "What in all bloody get out did you think you were doing here, Snowflake?"

"Making a mess, of course."

"I can bloody well see that!"

"Bunny," Tooth tried to calm him, but Bunny stalked forward, her words falling on deaf ears.

"Hey, I was just kidding about that! It's not as bad as it looks, I swear. As soon as the sun hits those fearlings they'll dissolve, right? And the ice will break into dust," said Jack. The boy looked alarmed and he backed away from Bunny.

"They've only got a light dusting on them. The real damage to the fearlings was the temperature, not the actual ice. Bunny . . ."

"I don't give a yolk about the city! They've got road salts and all that for ice! What I care about is that you took on this many fearlings by yourself! And don't tell me you had help from North or Sandy, I know their handywork and I know yours and this is all yours!" shouted Bunny.

"I wasn't going to deny it. But I don't see what the problem is," said Jack. He warily took one more step back then stopped, and decided to hold his ground.

"The problem is you could have made a mess of yourself! And you're not so easy to fix! Have you ever fought fearlings before?" demanded Bunny.

"No, but they weren't so hard."

"But you had no idea what they were capable of, no idea what they could do!"

"Not true! I had some idea of what they could do!"

"Oh, yes, wonderful. That makes it perfectly alright for you to dive headfirst into masses of them and try to take on an entire army of them by yourself!" Bunny screamed sarcastically.

"No, what makes it alright for me to do that by myself is that I know I can do it by myself!" Jack shouted back.

"And if you suddenly realized midfight that you couldn't?" Bunny wanted to know.

"That doesn't matter because that didn't happen!" Jack said coldly.

"It could have happened!"

"But it didn't!"

"But if you keep this up, someday it will. What are you going to do then?" demanded Bunny.

"The same thing I've done every time I thought I couldn't do something by myself. I'd find a way," Jack said angrily.

"And if there is no way?"

"There's always a way."

"Not always," Bunny insisted.

"How many times are you guys going to make me say it? I can take care of myself!" Jack shouted.

"But you don't have to anymore!" Bunny yelled right back.

North stuck his two cents in, finally. "Bunny is right, Jack. We are a team now. When job is too big, you turn to us. We help you."

Jack looked at them in disbelief. "What is wrong with you guys? Do you not see what I did? On my own! How many fearlings I took out? Why are you acting like I did something wrong?"

"That's not how we're acting, mate," Bunny said quickly.

"Yes you are," Jack argued.

"No we're not."

"The heck you're not! You came and started yelling at me for no good reason!"

"He was worried for you Jack," Tooth put in.

"Then he should stop! All of you should stop! I don't need you to worry about me! And I especially don't need you yelling at me for some imagined, hypothetical, nonexistent weakness! I can fight on my own and as you can see by all the iced fearlings here, I do it pretty darn well! What I can't do is this! This . . . argument. Over and over with you four!"

"We can stop this argument just as soon as you realize something's got to change," Bunny said angrily.

"Why?" Jack asked.

"Why what?"

"Why should I change? I'm not doing anything wrong!" shouted Jack.

"You're worrying us sick!" argued Bunny.

"Then the people who need to change are you!" Jack sniped back.

"Easy, easy, my friends! There must be a compromise!" North put in.

"I don't see how," said Jack. He felt childish saying that, but funnily enough, didn't feel childish at all being defiant to Bunny's demands. If there was some way to compromise, he might have considered it, but the way he saw this, it was either all or nothing. Either the other Guardians recognized that he could take care of himself, or they didn't. Or alternately, either he fell in line and went against three centuries worth of instincts and conditioning, or he didn't. He didn't see what middle ground there could be, and judging by North's pause, neither did the older Guardian. Or any of the Guardians for that matter.

Deep down he knew Bunny and all the Guardians were concerned about him, and while it was a warming feeling, it was also extremely frustrating. It felt like they were trying too hard to make up for the years they knew he'd spent alone, while completely ignoring how those centuries spent on his own had made him independent and strong.

Of course, that might also be the root of the problem too, he thought. He was a loner. The other Guardians were a team. You couldn't just toss a loner in with a team and expect them all to gel.

"This . . . this just isn't working." Jack hated to admit it, but it was true.

"Wait, wait, wait!" Bunny said quickly, panic overtaking his expression. Sandy gestured frantically. North looked at him in alarm.

"What are you saying, Jack?" Tooth asked, a tremor in her voice.

"This teamwork thing. Or lack of teamwork. Or I don't know." Jack shook his head.

"It's not not working," Bunny said, using a double negative and causing more confusion.

"You are Guardian," North agreed.

"I'm not saying that I'm quitting. I'm just saying what we're trying to do now isn't working. I'm not going to suddenly start being Mr. Team Spirit. I'm not going to suddenly start waiting for backup that I don't need, or asking for help when I can do something on my own. And I doubt you guys are going to suddenly get off my case for doing things the way I always have," said Jack.

"Then . . . where does that leave us?" Bunny asked.

Jack shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. I just . . . don't know."