There was a beat of silence after Jack's bold statement. The Guardians exchanged worried looks, while the Overlands were simply surprised by the sureness with which Jack spoke about these things. It seemed that even though they had accepted Jack had returned from the dead, they weren't used the changes wrought in him by the Moon.
"Jack," Tooth said, fluttering over to him, "you make it seem so simple."
"Well it's not too difficult, is it?" Jack asked, raising his eyebrows. "We did it before. Besides, we've got tons of believers now!"
"The ice cube's got that right," Bunny spoke up. "The globe is almost entirely lit up."
"We've made an astonishing recovery in the past few months, but that doesn't mean we should be arrogant about this," Tooth reminded them. "Pitch is dangerous. He works side by side with fear, and he won't stop at anything."
Sandy nodded his agreement, his golden sand sparkling in the glow from the fire.
"Even if we are prepared, what's to say we can find him?" North asked, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
"Would he use his same lair again?" Jack asked. He looked around at everyone.
Tooth shook her head. "Doubtful. He's smarter than that. He would set up a new base."
"Still, it wouldn't hurt to check," Jack said, tapping his staff gently on the ground. "I know where it is. I could-"
"You're not going anywhere, Frostbite," Bunny growled.
"Could you two stop arguing?" Tooth pleaded.
"I think you can do it," Emma said in a quiet voice.
The Guardians went silent. They stared at the little girl, who was half-hidden in her mother's embrace.
Gently disentangling herself from Margaret's grip, she sat up straight, looking around at all the Guardians. Her gaze lingered on Jack, who had a slight smile on his face.
"You're the Guardians," she said simply. "You can do anything."
Bunny sat back in his seat and surveyed the young girl. "I like your sister, Snowflake," he said, looking at Jack approvingly.
Jack shrugged casually. "I taught her everything she knows," he said with a shrug.
North let out a booming laugh. "That is funny joke, Jack!"
Jack glared at him. "Anyways, you heard her. We can do this. So I'll go check out Pitch's lair, see if-"
"No!" Tooth exclaimed, looking concerned. Baby Tooth fluttered around Jack's head, shaking her head. She remembered what it was like in Pitch's lair; only she knew what had happened when the two of them had been alone together. She watched him, worried.
"Under no circumstances are you going to go out on your own," Margaret said firmly, narrowing her eyes at her son.
Jack rolled his eyes. "While I appreciate everyone's concern, it's really not that big of a deal. Besides, I've been slacking on my duties. I was supposed to bring a blizzard to the east coast yesterday. And I have to go visit Jamie and the kids before they throw a fit. I promised them I would come have a snowball fight with them. If I just stopped by his lair and poked my head in, I wouldn't be doing any harm."
Tooth looked reluctant. "Well…" she said doubtfully.
"I'll be fine, Tooth," Jack assured her.
"Oh, Jack, can I come with you?" Emma pleaded, getting to her feet and running over to her brother.
Jack reached down and ruffled her hair. "Sorry, Em. Maybe another time. I've got a ton of work to do, and it could be dangerous."
"Maybe you could just not go too?" Margaret offered, looking at her son with pleading eyes.
Jack gave her a half smile. Walking over, he bent down and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "I'll be fine," he said.
Margaret reached out and grabbed Jack's hand, ignoring his icy touch. She looked up at him with worried eyes. "I just got you back, Jackson," she whispered. "Please, please come back safe."
Jack swallowed thickly, hesitated, then gently pulled away. "I'll be fine," he repeated, sounding more doubtful then before.
He lightly ran over to the window and jumped onto the sill, sticking his head outside. The air was cold and sharp out there, and full of light flurries of snow. He looked back inside to see everyone watching him. His family was watching him with alarm, obviously concerned about his proximity to the window.
"Don't fall," Richard warned.
Jack grinned. "Me? I've got mad balance skills. There's no way I'll- whoa!"
He lost his balance, toppling out the window and out of sight. Margaret and Richard gasped, horrified, and Emma screamed, "JACK!"
Half a second later Jack poked his head up again, laughing. "You should have seen your faces!" he choked out, floating in midair outside. He clutched his staff, chuckling. "Ah, that was hilarious."
Emma glared at him. "That wasn't funny Jack!"
Jack just winked at her. "Bye!" he called, turning and swooping away.
Emma ran to the window to watch him go. She was awestruck by the grace with which he maneuvered. One second he'd be soaring through the sky, then he would suddenly stop and start falling. She'd have a momentary heart attack before the wind would catch him near the ground, shooting him back into the sky. She grinned, squinting at him until he was just a tiny dot in the distance before he finally disappeared.
"That is so cool," she breathed.
Bunny sighed, sheathing his boomerangs. "Of course. The kids all love Jack," he muttered. Getting to his feet, he announced, "I'm heading back to the Warren to unfreeze my eggs. I'll be back in an hour or so."
He stomped his foot, opening up a rabbit hole, and jumped in. As it closed behind him, Richard stared, looking shocked.
"Fascinating," he murmured.
Margaret pressed a hand to her forehead, shutting her eyes. "You know, when I thought of Jack getting a job, I always thought he'd be a shepherd or a farmer," she said, sounding exhausted. "Not the spirit of winter."
"Perhaps you and Richard should get some rest," Tooth said, fluttering over. She reached down and gently helped Margaret to her feet, smiling supportively. "You've had a long day."
Margaret put a hand over Tooth's. "Tooth," she said, "what's Jack like? It's just… he's been dead for so long, I feel as if I don't know anything about him."
Tooth smiled supportively. She took a deep breath. "I haven't known Jack long," she admitted. "He only joined the Guardians three months ago. But he's pretty amazing. He's funny, and sweet, and charming, and he's always getting into trouble. Not to mention he has amazing teeth!" she said excitedly.
Margaret had to laugh. "Thank you, Tooth," she said gratefully, feeling much better than before. She was overjoyed to hear someone speaking so kindly about her son. Of course, she had gotten a lot of kind words about Jack after his death, but those were said only out of grief and guilt. People who had not previously known or liked Jack would come up to her and say how sorry they were that he was gone, how they only wished to see him one more time. They didn't know, they didn't understand how empty her life had been without her son- her energetic, troublemaking son. Now, of course, she felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders, because her son is not dead.
Margaret smiled. "I think I will take a rest."
Jack certainly didn't linger in his duties that day. The blizzards he spread were half-hearted and quickly done, and he was quite sure he had accidentally put a couple of duplicate snowflakes out there. But he didn't see the point in wasting too much time doing work when his family was waiting for him back at the Pole.
Wow. That felt really nice to say, after 300 years.
He did give the Burgess kids a proper snowball fight, however. He couldn't cheat them out. He was distracted, however, and almost got himself hit- something he never did.
"Is something wrong, Jack?" Jamie asked, frowning up at him.
Jack chuckled, ruffling the boy's hair. "'Course not, Jamie. Just a bit distracted, is all." He glanced up at the sky, where the sun was starting to sink low. "Gee, it's getting late. You all better head inside."
The kids let out a simultaneous moan. Jack laughed again, twirling his staff cheerfully. "Oh, perk up. I'll be back in a couple of days."
"JAMIE! SOPHIE!" Mrs. Bennett yelled.
"That's my cue," Jack said, winking at them. "See you later."
"Bye, Jack!" the group chorused, waving as he lifted himself into the air and flew off.
As the sky slowly twisted its way into nighttime, Jack flew high above the trees, pushing himself to go faster and faster. He squinted down at the ground far below, trying to remember the approximate location of Pitch's old lair. Now that he was actually doing it, he wasn't too keen to head down there no his own after all. But he had to check, make sure there was no chance Pitch was down there. Besides, if he did run into him, he could just knock the Nightmare King out and call it a decent day's work.
When he spotted the ramshackle bed lying between the trees, he let the wind drop him. He let himself fall, not panicking, until he reached the bottom, where the wind swooped in at the last moment to place him gently on the ground.
"Thanks," he told it distractedly, not tearing his eyes off the bed.
Feeling suddenly wary, he crept over to the cracked wood remains. It was even more destroyed then the last time he had been there, and a fine layer of frost was spread across it. Surely that meant he was no longer there? Still, Jack had to check.
Getting to the ground, Jack wiggled underneath it. He dropped a foot or two down into the dark tunnel below. Looking up, he peered ahead of him into the darkness, wishing he had a light of some sort.
"I could really use Sandy right now," he muttered to himself, clutching his staff in both hands. Taking a deep breath, he started walking forward, creeping through the pitch black tunnel.
A few seconds later and he had reached the mouth of the short tunnel. Before him was a cave- a very familiar cave. From the rocky ceiling hung dozens of large cast-iron cages, once the home to thousands of helpless tooth fairies. Jack glared at them, remembering all too well how scared all the fairies had been in there. Now, the cages were empty. Their chains creaked slightly as they swung back and forth.
The chamber was, as far as Jack could see, totally empty. No glowing canisters of teeth, no chirping fairies, and no Pitch. Except for the cages and the freaky shadows that would eternally be cast on the walls, Jack was alone.
Jack immediately whirled around as a deep voice resonated through the cave. It echoed, all around him, so he couldn't pinpoint the exact place it came from. Feeling his muscles tense, Jack got into a fighting position, his staff raised.
The voice tsked at him. "Honestly, how stupid are you? You would come here, alone? Do you not remember what happened the last time you came?"
Jack glared at the shadows, slowly spinning in a circle. "Get out here, Pitch," he growled. "If you want to fight me, fight me!"
"Oh, I don't want to fight you." The voice was much closer this time, and accompanied by a soft swishing noise.
Without thinking Jack spun around and fired off a shot off ice. Pitch dissipated into thin air a split second before the ice slammed into him. Jack scowled at the spot, eyes searching the darkness.
Another whooshing noise from behind him. Jack turned around and poised his staff, ready to fire again at Pitch, who was standing there with his arms crossed.
"Oh, do stop trying to shoot me," he said in a bored voice, rolling his eyes. "I'm not in the mood to fight you. I just want to talk."
"Like you have anything to say to me," Jack said in a hard voice, not lowering his staff.
Pitch cocked his head to the side, narrowing his eyes at Jack. "Oh, I have plenty you want to hear, Frost," he said coldly. "As it's your sister I want to talk to you about. I know how much you love her." His voice held disdain for the winter spirit.
Jack's glare temporarily dropped. "My sister?" he asked, looking suspicious. Then he tensed again, pointing his staff at Pitch with renewed vigor. "She's safe. You didn't get to her in time."
Pitch sighed. "Yes, yes, the ever so clever Guardians simply thwarted me. There's absolutely nothing I can do to her now that she's here in our time, just ready for me to snatch up."
"You're not going to touch her," Jack warned.
"You've made it quite easy for me," Pitch went on, ignoring the warning. "It's like you express-delivered her to my doorstep. I could stroll over any time and snatch her up. I could even take your little parents, too, if I felt like it. But perhaps I'll just content myself with the girl."
Jack let loose another torrent of ice. Pitch dissolved into black sand again, disappearing before reassembling a few feet to the left. He looked thoroughly irritated.
"Will you give it a rest?" he snapped.
"Leave my family alone," Jack said, glaring at him.
Pitch raised his eyebrows. "You know my conditions, Frost," he said. "I've made them once before."
Jack tightened his fingers on his wooden conduit. "I heard your terms," he said, "right before you snapped my staff and left me to freeze in Antarctica."
Pitch sighed. "You're not still upset over that, are you?" he asked in a bored voice, casually strolling to one of the cages and examining it.
"My answer hasn't changed," Jack said in a firm voice. "You may as well just-"
"If you join me I will guarantee the safety of your family," Pitch said.
Jack froze. He hesitated, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "But you'll kill the Guardians," he said.
"We'll kill the Guardians," Pitch corrected. He walked closer to Jack, suddenly looking excited. "You don't need them, Jack. I know you think you're all a big happy family now, but things will go sour. Something will happen and you'll be kicked out again, out in the cold, in the snow, alone. Your believers will stop believing and you'll be back in the same position you suffered in for 300 years. They don't care about you, Jack."
Jack swallowed. "They care a lot more than you do," he said in a low voice.
Pitch shook his head, suddenly sad. "No, Jack. I understand you. I understand what it's like to be alone, to feel forgotten, to always be afraid that they're all just pretending. I understand, Jack. It won't be like that with me."
Jack shook his head, taking a step away. His mouth felt dry. "I don't think that," he said shortly.
Pitch turned his head to stare at him. "Then why do I feel that fear rolling off you in waves?" When Jack didn't respond, he continued. "It's an understandable fear, of course. And completely true. The Guardians were together for hundreds of years without you; they won't hesitate to drop you now."
"YOU'RE WRONG!" Jack shouted, swinging his staff in an arc around him. Ice shot off in every direction, too fast for Pitch to avoid, and it slammed into the Nightmare King. Letting out a soft grunt, Pitch flew backward, landing on the ground with a hard thump.
He looked up, his eyes hard. Jack was staring at him, breathing heavily, his arms shaking ever so slightly as he held up the staff.
"You're wrong," he said, panting slightly.
Pitch got to his feet, glaring at the spirit. "Why would I believe you when you don't even believe yourself," he spat. Turning around, he marched off into the darkness, calling behind him, "Best of luck, Frost. Don't let the bed bugs bite."
As if on cue, four Fearlings emerged from the shadows. Jack looked around at them, silently cursing his choice to come here alone. Taking a deep breath, he jabbed his staff at them, letting out a burst of ice.
The Guardians and the Overlands sat in North's office, worriedly nursing cups of hot chocolate. Emma stared at her dark drink, silently stressing over the fact that it was one in the morning and Jack still wasn't back.
"I don't get it," Bunny said from his spot in the corner. His ears were perked, listening for anything that would alert them to Jack's return. "Jack left hours ago. It shouldn't be taking 'im this long to make it snow in the U.S."
"Perhaps there were complications at the lair," North suggested.
Margaret put a hand over her mouth. Tooth shot North a look.
"I'm sure Jack's fine," she said pointedly. She glanced at the window, which was dark, and a worried look swept over her face. "I hope he's fine," she said quietly.
Richard put a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "I think it's time for bed," he said softly, worried about her quietness.
"I'm not tired," Emma said immediately.
"I'm waiting for Jack!" she insisted, looking at her father with determined eyes. Looking slightly proud despite himself, Richard sat back in his seat, instead focusing on his anxiety-ridden wife.
"Oh, Richard, what if he's hurt?" she moaned.
"Do not worry," North assured her. "Jack is quite adept at fighting. He can fend for himself."
Emma looked over at Santa Claus. Her excitement had wore off by now, and while she was still quite curious about all the Guardians, she felt comfortable around them. She understood why her brother hung around them.
Sighing, she looked over at the window, peering into the darkness. When she saw something move out there, she stood up so fast she sloshed hot chocolate on the carpet.
"I think I see him!" she exclaimed, plunking the cup down on the table and hurrying over to the window. Before she got there, it blasted open, and she was forced to take a few steps back and cover her eyes.
Jack flew in- well, more like crashed in. He stumbled to a stop just inside the room and the wind shut the window again, much more gently than before.
"Jack!" Emma cried, running forward. She threw her arms around his torso and squeezed. "Oh, where were you? We were so worried, you were gone for ages, we thought you might have gotten hurt-"
Jack winced and very gently pried his sister off him. Tooth fluttered across the room, frowning at him.
"Jack, are you hurt?" she asked, watching him closely. Her kaleidoscope eyes glinted in the firelight, searching him over for any physical injuries. Emma stepped back, aware that Jack wasn't returning her affections and slightly suspicious.
"I'm fine," Jack said, not meeting anyone's eyes. "I ran into Pitch."
There was an immediate outcry.
"Pitch!" Margaret exclaimed worriedly.
"What happened?" North asked.
"Did you kick his butt?" Emma implored eagerly.
"No," Jack said, crossing the room to get to the door. He kept one hand firmly wrapped around his stomach, where he had gotten a couple of hits. "He just set a couple of Fearlings on me. Said it wasn't time to fight me."
Tooth hurried after him. "What'd he say?" she asked, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder.
Jack shrugged away. "Nothing!" he said, pulling open the door.
Baby Tooth let out a little squeak and hurried over to hover in front of Jack. She looked him over frantically, aware of Pitch's twisted way of speaking, the way he uses his powers to get inside people's heads. She alone knew how much what Pitch said affected Jack.
"I'm fine, Baby Tooth," he muttered, waving her away.
Tooth narrowed her eyes. "Jack, what did he say?" she demanded. "Something's upsetting you, and you know we're-"
"I'm FINE!" he finished in a shout, rounding on her angrily. Tooth fluttered back a couple of steps, eyes wide with shock as Jack turned around, slammed the door, and disappeared.
The room was silent.
"I should go after him," Margaret said, getting to her feet.
"You won't find him," Bunny said, frowning at the door. "He's been playing hide and seek with us for the past 300 years. If he doesn't want to be found, you won't find him."
"We can't just leave him!" Margaret fretted.
"He'll be back soon," North said quietly. "He doesn't yell often, but when he does he feels guilty about it quite quickly. He'll be okay by tomorrow."
Emma stood still, staring at the door. Her face was a mixture of worry and surprise, never having seen her brother yell like that. Even though he had been angry on multiple occasions, never had he yelled like that before. Something was obviously wrong.
"I suppose we should just go to sleep," Tooth said with a sigh. "We can all meet up for a late breakfast tomorrow."
Everyone murmured their agreements. One by one they dispersed, all leaving to their respective dwellings and rooms, with nothing to do but wait until the morning.
~Thanks For Reading~