AN: Well, this was a bit unexpected. I couldn't leave the idea alone after reading yet another prompt by dreamingperson at ROTGKink. This one is a sequel to This God Did Shake and Thou Bleeding Piece of Earth, and won't make much sense without at least the latter of the two. And again, I've cribbed from Shakespeare for the title.
Disclaimer: I don't own Rise of the Guardians; just the twisted ideas that make me no money.
With Half So Good a Will
E. Aster Bunnymund ambled across the frigid forest at a pace that bespoke the dread he felt for the task at hand. He was in no hurry to revisit Pitch Black's cave, especially when North's belly had confirmed that his quarry would be found there. Still, this duty had fallen to him as the one best equipped to handle the tough-love approach. All of them had tried several times over the years, individually and jointly, but he had been elected for the last-ditch effort.
However slow he walked, the cave approached far too quickly for his liking. Soon, he was at the entrance.
Reaching deep inside himself, the Guardian of Hope tried to focus on his center. It didn't work as well as he would have liked, but it would have to do. This wouldn't be any easier later.
The cave appeared almost untouched since his last visit, but the clammy feeling of despair that permeated the air was thicker than it had ever been during Pitch Black's lifetime. The irony was not lost on the Easter Bunny, though it likely was on the cave's inhabitant.
When his eyes adjusted to the dark, Bunny saw a gaunt, bearded man seated on the bed that had once belonged to his nemesis. His trademark hooded sweatshirt had faded to gray, but otherwise, his garb was unchanged.
"Thought you might be home."
There was no response. The figure merely stared with sunken blue eyes.
"Look, Jack, I'm just gonna get down to it. This is your last chance to come quietly. You need to snap out of this, and I'm not leaving here till you do." Bunny ran a hand through the fur on his head, sighing. "We've given you ten years, but we can't keep picking up your slack. We just can't handle this on our own. Not with Sandy the way he is now."
The man blinked, taken aback. "Is that all it's been?" His voice was harsh from disuse, and his words had lost their sharpness, having no teeth to aid his pronunciation.
"Ten years is a long time for a Guardian to be AWOL, pal. Jack Frost needs to make a comeback, and quick."
"Stop calling me that."
"What, Jack?" Bunny gave a derisive snort. "Just because you grow a beard and throw tantrums all winter, that doesn't change who you are. At least some of us still remember Jack Frost."
The hooded figure looked at the ground. "That's not my name anymore."
"Yeah, so I heard. Seriously? Old Man Winter? You couldn't get any more creative than that?"
Bunnymund planted his feet, hands on his boomerangs. "No. You're gonna remember who you are. Sandy already sacrificed enough for Pitch Black, and you having a decade-long pity party is doing fuck-all to honor Pitch's memory."
Faster than the pooka could blink, the winter spirit was on his feet and roaring. "Don't you dare talk to me about honoring his memory! You hated him!"
Grabbing a fistful of his old friend's sweatshirt, Bunnymund screamed in his face. "You're goddamn right I did! He tried to kill us off, Jack! Don't you remember anything? Or did the one time you finally got some action fry your frosty little br—"
Whatever else Bunny might have said was cut short as searing pain shot through his paw. Releasing his hold on Jack, he stared in horror at his reddening fur and the blade in Old Man Winter's hand.
"No, Jack, you didn't. Please tell me you didn't..."
The chuckle that came from the pale man's mouth was anything but good-natured. "What? North's old hunting knife? Yup. Tracked it down in Siberia. Turns out it wasn't quite as lost as he thought... and it can definitely still cut a Guardian. Tested it out a few times just to be sure. See?" He lifted up his shirt to display a scrawny torso ravaged with scars. Pale skin was marred by paler lines, covered over with new additions in vicious shades of red.
Mouth working, the Easter Bunny tried to form a sentence, but his mind was locked into a constant loop of a single word. "No..."
A cruel smile slithered onto Jack's face. "Y'know, I had no intention of using this on anyone but myself, but you just wouldn't stop." Sitting back down on the bed, the man wiped the blade on his pants leg, staring at the dampness staining his clothes as his blank expression returned. "I'm not going back. Not now. Not ever. Tell everyone whatever you have to, but stay out of my life." He looked up, eyes drilling into Bunny. "Now go. Jack Frost is dead."
Gazing at the blood running from the gash in his paw to drop on the stone floor, Bunny's face hardened. "Yeah," he said, looking up at his former friend. "I guess he is. Too bad. He was a good guy... a good friend. I liked him."
With a stomp of his hind paw, Bunnymund opened a hole to somewhere. One last look of remorse, and he was gone.
A sigh blew from Old Man Winter's cave, rushing through the trees and into the nearby town. Most of the citizens shivered and cursed the winter's chill, but one young man stopped to stare in the direction of the forest.
When tragedy breaks a man, he has two choices: run to escape it, or let it twist him and sculpt him into something new. In the wake of Pitch's death, Jack had chosen the latter. No matter how complete such a metamorphosis may be, though, there will always be remnants of the past, small details that are ingrained too deeply to be stripped away.
Jack Frost had loved to perch in the trees; Old Man Winter still found comfort in their moonlit branches.
Lost to the world in his brooding, he failed to notice a young man making his way through the snow. Perhaps in the back of his mind, he was aware, but it made no difference; since Pitch's death and Jack's subsequent transformation, he had become invisible once more.
And he had welcomed it.
He was understandably shocked, then, when the youth stopped directly under his tree and began speaking softly.
"I can still see you, you know." Jamie Bennett's voice had deepened somewhat with age, but it was a mere hint of the rich baritone it would become. Like the boy himself, it was caught between childhood and adulthood, both eager and frightened for the future.
Old Man Winter peered at the young man, an undecipherable swirl of emotions running through him. Still, he made no move to speak.
"It's been a long time. A really long time. And I'm gonna be honest; I'm mad at you." Jamie Bennett shifted his booted feet as he searched for words.
"I don't know what happened to you, and right now I don't really care. When you left, it hurt. At first I thought maybe you were just having some trouble, figured you'd be back to normal by next winter. Then I saw the other Guardians trying to fill in for you, and I thought the worst." Jamie looked down, but the winter spirit caught a glimpse of a rueful smile. "When Sophie lost a tooth, I hid it under my own pillow and didn't give it to Toothiana until she agreed to tell me what was going on. She said you were okay... just having a hard time." He gave a snort and looked up, eyes boring into his old protector. "Like the rest of us weren't. Ten years without real, honest fun... do you have any idea how many children's lives you've screwed up with your selfishness?"
Old Man Winter flinched as the words flew up at him, cutting to pieces every excuse he might have offered. "I'm... sorry," he offered, acutely conscious of the words' inadequacy.
Jamie waited for a moment, then let out a bitter bark of a laugh. "That's it? Ten years and that's all you have to say? I mean, don't get me wrong; it's been a blast trying to cope in a world where fifty percent of your dreams are guaranteed to be nightmares, especially when you know that's more alive than you'll ever feel when you're awake. And it's no picnic dealing with a lack of hope, wonder, and memory, seeing as how they're all scrambling to generate enough fun that kids don't grow up emotionally stunted. By the way, in case you were wondering, they're failing. Miserably. But hey, I laughed my ass off the first time I saw Bunny trying to start a snowball fight. Come to think of it, that was probably the last time I laughed like that. Once every nine years ain't bad, right?"
Pale blue eyes filled with tears. "Jamie, I..."
"Shut up and listen!" In the wake of his shout, Jamie's voice softened. "You told me you'd always watch over me, then all of a sudden you were gone." The boy swallowed hard, fighting a losing battle to keep his voice from breaking. "I think the part that hurt the most was that I believed you... really believed." His hands began waving without direction, occasionally touching his face or raking through his hair. "I don't know why. I mean, my dad used to make promises like that all the time, and I learned not to trust them." Coming to a halt, he stared up, eyes too watery to see anything. "But it came from you, Jack."
There were no words, no coherent thoughts to penetrate the shame that permeated the spirit's very being. Saltwater poured down his cheeks to freeze in his scraggly beard.
The young man bit his lip and scrubbed at his face. "Know what? I only have one more thing to say to you, Jack Frost," he said after a moment, voice hardening. "If you can't manage to pull yourself together and start fixing some of this mess you've made, I want you to do us all a favor and just kill yourself. No matter who the Man in the Moon picks next, the world will be better off without you." Without another word, Jamie Bennett trudged away, leaving the broken spirit alone with his thoughts.
It was dawn by the time Old Man Winter stirred again. With grim purpose in his eyes and Jamie's final exhortation ringing in his ears, he returned to his cave.
He knew what had to be done. However vital Jack Frost had been to the children of the world, Old Man Winter was of no use to them. They deserved better.
Clutching North's hunting knife in trembling fingers, he stared at the blade, turning it over in his hands.
It was such a simple thing, really; the work of moments. Why, then, was it so hard to go through with it?
He knew why, if he were to finally be honest with himself— he was afraid.
Dropping the knife on the bed beside him, Old Man Winter wept. For Pitch, for Jamie, for the children, for his friends... for himself.
When hot catharsis had once more given way to cold determination, he was ready.
Steeling himself, he brought the knife up.
This was the right thing to do. It was time to let go.
With a deep breath, he drew the blade across his skin.
"I'm telling you, he's not going to change, Nick! He's trapped in this little hole he's dug himself, and he's never gonna crawl out, no matter how much we beg or threaten him!" Bunny was pacing, irate that his friend clung so doggedly to his belief in Jack Frost. "I'm the Guardian of Hope, for crying out loud, and even I don't believe he'll come back!"
Nicholas St. North was resolute, tattooed arms folded across his chest. "I feel it in my belly, Bunny. Soon Jack will return to us. You will see. It is just matter of time."
"Time?" Bunnymund spat. "We've given him a damn decade, Chuckles. How much more time does he need?" He pointed at the dimly flickering lights across the globe. "Are we really heartless enough to make the whole world suffer because we can't admit that one boy is a lost cause? Is that really the right choice?"
"Maybe it was a mistake, but I'm glad you did it anyway," a soft voice said from the rooftop.
With no flair or fanfare, Jack Frost floated down to rejoin his friends. His face was still marred by wrinkles and his eyes remained hollow, but the beard was gone, and his gray sweatshirt was beginning to regain a bit of a bluish tint.
"Jack, I..." Bunny looked down at his hind paws, suddenly ashamed of his words.
"No, Bunny," Jack said, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You were right. I gave up on me a long time ago; I'm just grateful you all held out long enough to help me find my way back."
The pair's reunion was interrupted by a shadow that dwarfed them both. With little warning, North seized both in a gargantuan hug, squeezing them until they gasped for breath. "Jack Frost has returned to us! All will be right with world once more... and with our family." Releasing them, he looked down at Jack and touched his cheek. "You are bleeding, Jack."
A rueful but mischievous grin came across the man's face. It was disconcerting with no teeth, but the sentiment was a joy to see. "Yeah... I, uh, cut myself shaving a couple times." He reached to his side and produced an object. "Oh, by the way, I'm pretty sure this belongs to you."
North's eyes went wide at the sight of his old hunting knife. "Jack..."
"Yeah, I kinda... umm... I was in a pretty bad place. But... here." Placing the knife in North's hand, he stepped back, looking relieved to be rid of it.
The knife slid into a long-unused sheath on the inside of North's left boot, and he once again wrapped his arms around his friend. "From now on, we stay together no matter what," he said quietly. When he let go, he began pacing back and forth, arms making grandiose gestures. "We need feast to celebrate! Music! Food! Decorations! We will summon Toothiana and Sandy and tell them good news!"
"North, I..." Jack's voice was timid, but it was enough to still the giant man. "Before we get carried away, there's something I've got to do. There's a lot I need to fix, and I'll need you guys to help me with most of it... but first, I need to do one thing on my own."
The Guardian of Wonder's eyes were kind and understanding. "Jamie."
Jack swallowed and nodded.
North smiled. "Go, Jack Frost. Set things right."
"We'll be waiting here when you're done, mate," Bunnymund said, standing next to North. "Glad to have you back, Frostbite."
Jack gave a shy, lopsided salute. "Good to be back, Fluffy." With that, he flew out through the hole in the roof and shot toward Burgess.
Jamie was too old for tears, too jaded. However much he hoped for them, they eluded him. Tossing and turning on his bed, he stared at his window, memories of happier times coming unbidden to his mind. He could almost imagine the patterns of ice slowly creeping across the glass panes...
Blinking and rubbing his eyes, the boy looked again. There was indeed a pattern weaving its way across his window.
It was a sled.
Jamie bolted to his feet and opened the window as fast as he could. He shivered as the cold air rushed in, bringing with it a penitent winter spirit.
"Hey," the man said, giving an uncertain wave before letting his hands drop down to his sides. The apprehension in his gaze was nearly tangible.
Biting his lip, Jamie nodded. "Hey."
Toothiana had took the news of Jack's return as well as expected, which was to say that she had screamed and shot off like a green lightning bolt to parts unknown. She returned shortly after, though, holding a small box that she refused to open or discuss until Jack arrived at the workshop once more. And so the three Guardians stood together, talking in hushed voices late into the night. Sandy flew in a bit before sunrise, having left the last flows of dream sand to play out and dissipate. Though his nature was more aloof and taciturn since taking on his new duties, he was more animated than they had seen him in years, joining in the conversation whenever he could.
They did not have to wait as long as they had expected; just as dawn crept over the workshop, a blue-hooded figure floated in on the breeze, spinning around Phil before dropping into a chair they had left open for him.
"So, how'd it go, mate?" Bunny asked, noting with satisfaction that many of the man's wrinkles had disappeared, and his eyes had begun to regain some of their spark.
"It'll be okay," the winter spirit said after a pause. "There's a lot of hurt... but it can be fixed, I think." He smiled, close-lipped, staring at nothing in particular. "I'd forgotten how powerful fun is."
North nodded and rested his hands on his belly. "It will get better quickly, Jack. And we are here to help you however we can. We are family, all of us. It is good to have whole family back together."
Black and gold sand swirled together over Sandy's head to form a picture of the five of them in a circle, watching over a group of children at play. Jack's face clouded briefly at the sight of the black sand, but Toothiana's understanding hand on his arm brought him out of his reverie.
"Yeah," Jack said, smiling once more. "Those kids are our responsibility, and we're gonna keep them safe."
The other Guardians all conveyed their agreement, and with that, North clapped his hands and called for the celebration to begin.
As the others began talking amongst themselves, Tooth motioned Jack aside. "J-Jack," she began, wincing at the stutter that had plagued her for ten years, ""I went b-b-back to the lake after you..." Her hands began to shake, and she closed her eyes. The tremors subsided. "After that."
Opening the box in her hands, she showed him a set of thirty-two bright white teeth, polished and gleaming, catalogued and gently nested in silk.
"There's a way to... pu-p-put them back. It's p-painful, but—"
The Tooth Fairy's offer was cut short as Jack seized her in a hug, mindful of her cargo as thanks and apologies and promises poured from his mouth. Neither of them kept track of how much time passed, but both of them were crying when they pulled apart.
"Thank you, Tooth," he whispered, and turned to look at the rest of the Guardians.
Each of them had suffered over the past decade, but fate and determination had brought them back together. They could never return to the way things were, but they were finally ready to let the wounds close.
It was time for the healing to begin.