(Surprise! ...I'm back.)

I want to thank everyone who has been reading, reviewing and following this story in my absence. I know it can be frustrating to find a story you like that seems to have been abandoned, because I have a few faves of my own that will probably never be updated again. I don't know how many of my original readers are still around, but I do know there are at least a patient few, and I know new people find this fic every day, according to the notifications I get.

If you're curious about what happened-why I said I'd update in "a day or two" and then proceeded to go on a two year hiatus-basically, I had chapter 7 written and in the editing process when I posted chapter 6. Which was a relief, because it meant I didn't have to re-write and re-re-re-rewrite it a dozen times like I had for chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It would be a simple upload and post.

And then... my computer ate it. I lost the entire chapter and had to start from scratch. And I got so frustrated, because although I love writing this fic, it's fought me every step of the way—so I threw my hands up in the air and went on hiatus till I cooled down.

A lot has happened since then. A death in the family, a long vacation, and a job editing and illustrating a book (a real book, with a real paycheck attached! Exciting, right?) that kept pushing fanfic and my fandoms back in my priority list. Thankfully, the book is almost ready to be published, and I can get back to focusing on my hobbies! I'm honestly stoked.

Anyway, this chapter is... not the same as it used to be. I cannot for the life of me figure out how I got all the necessary info down for Bunny and Jack's confrontation scene in one chapter, the first time around. It's longer now. Following my bf's advice, I've split the chapter into two to keep things smooth. Though it's not as perfect as my first draft was, I think it turned out pretty well! So, for those of you still reading this story, thank you for sticking with me! I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 7


Hope and Trust

Bunny, Jack, and the children touch down in Burgess sometime close to midnight, toppling out of the spinning portal and into the crisp night air.

"Wo-oah!" Jamie exclaims with a laugh as he tumbles out, still spinning a bit from their roller coaster ride. Jack grins and puts a steadying hand against the boy's back, chuckling slightly.

The other kids look equally exhilarated, if slightly dizzy. Claude and Caleb plant themselves in a nearby snowbank, breathless. "Let's do that again!" Caleb shouts, throwing his hands into the air.

"…Let's not," Bunnymund says, looking a bit green around the gills.

Monty is the last one out, his glasses nearly falling off his nose from the bumpy ride. He pushes them back up the bridge of his nose, then turns to look behind him. The portal starts to shrink and vanish. All seven kids suddenly sit up and take notice.

"It's closing?" Monty asks, confused. "Aren't the others coming?"

"Oh, sorry," Jack says. After the kids woke up, they'd left in a rush, and so hadn't had time to explain the game plan to the kids. Jack leans on his staff, his smile apologetic. "Tooth and Sandy are putting North to bed. He's had a really long day."

North is a notoriously heavy sleeper. Once he falls asleep, no amount of noise or activity can wake him. Bunnymund had known, as soon as he'd laid eyes on North's sleeping, snoring form back at the workshop, that Santa was officially down for the count. Christmas had exhausted him. Nothing short of a bucket of water would have any effect on waking him now.

In the end, the Guardians had agreed to just let North sleep it out. They'd been planning to put him to bed anyway—why go through the trouble of waking him up only to tuck him into bed minutes later?

Well, okay, one compelling argument—North was heavy. If they'd been able to wake him, North could've simply walked to his room. As it stood, both Sandy and Tooth (and a yeti or two) were needed to cart him away. Jack and Bunny could've helped too, but taking the kids home was their top priority, and they simply couldn't stay.

So the others couldn't come. Secretly, Bunnymund is thankful for the privacy. It might actually be easier to get the full, true story out of Jack if the boy doesn't feel cornered by all four of them.

The kids, however, aren't pleased with this turn of events at all.

"Whaaaat?" Monty asks, dismayed.

"We didn't even get to say goodbye!" Claude says.

"Or give them a hug!" says Pippa.

"We have to go back!" Cupcake announces, and the others nod to this decision.

"Woah, woah there, slow down you guys," Jack laughs, shaking his head. "It's not the end of the world, you know. As long as you believe, you'll see us again. No need to be worried." Despite his scolding, his eyes are shining with a soft fondness, touched by their loyalty.

"But it'll be ages before we see you guys again!" Jamie protests.

Jack raises an eyebrow. "Sandy'll be here tonight to give you good dreams," he points out.

Jamie pouts. "Promise?"

Jack crouches to eye level and ruffles Jamie's hair. "Promise." Jamie sighs and nods.

Claude and Caleb choose that moment to stand up. "Well, I'm saying my goodbyes now, before either of you two can disappear! Like you always do." Caleb declares, and without hesitation, the twins tackle Jack in a hug.

Before Bunnymund can react, two pairs of arms latch around his midsection as Cupcake and Pippa decide they want hugs too. Monty runs over to join them, and Sophie, not wanting to be left out, latches on to his leg.

Bunny nearly falls over. Startled, he laughs, placing a paw on their heads with a smile. He's forgotten how genuine and earnest children can be with their emotions. After centuries of self-isolation—producing things for children but never spending time with them—Bunnymund is just now rediscovering what he loves so much about kids.

He supposes he has Jack to thank for that.

Bunnymund smiles and looks up, over to the Winter Spirit. Jack is smiling too, having regained his balance, and is returning the three hugs he's receiving from Caleb, Claude, and Jamie. When they break apart, Jack gives a deep chuckle, and ruffles Jamie's hair.

Bunny's not sure why, but the behavior makes Jack look like a big brother.

Jack looks at the three kids, something distant in his eyes. Then, at last, he smiles.

"Alright, guys, come on," says Jack. He stands, nudging them forward with his staff, towards the nearby houses.

"Let's get you guys home."

.


Taking the kids home is, in short, not fun.

By the time Jack and Bunnymund manage to deliver the children to their respective doorsteps, their parents are already waiting. It's several hours past curfew, and though no one has called the police—yet—it's clear that they are not happy. The adults lay out reprimands like 'Where have you been!' and 'Your mother and I were worried sick!' and 'You are so grounded, Mister!' And the kids, who have no good excuses prepared— ("…I was with Santa?") choose to take it all in silence.

Each house is a veritable storm of lectures, and Bunnymund and Jack can't help but cringe and apologize at every turn. The kids, however, take it in stride. They expected nothing less. Even after the first encounter at Cupcake's house, they remain unfazed. Everyone crowds to the window to watch Cupcake's parents read her the riot act, and afterwards, Caleb just sits back and shrugs. "Still worth it," he declares, and the other kids agree.

Between the chaos and the guilt, Bunnymund's attention is scattered, so it takes him a while—a house or two—to notice that Jack is doing something odd.

At each house, Jack pulls the child aside, says his goodbyes, and offers a hug. Then, for the briefest of moments, Jack summons his magic to his fingertips. With the utmost care, he presses his thumb against their forehead, pressing a blue, glowing snowflake into their skin, which fades some moments after.

He does this to every child, at every house. As their company thins, Bunny watches in silence and says nothing until they come to their final destination.

"And here we are," Jack says to Jamie, nodding towards the last house on the block; The Bennett household, sitting on the cusp of a lakeside park.

Jamie groans. "Do you hafta go?"

Sophie whines in agreement, tugging at Bunny's fur. Bunny smiles and pats her blonde head.

Jack laughs. Instead of answering, he kneels in front of Jamie and Sophie. "You guys were great today." He says quietly. "Thanks for sneaking into North's workshop with me—" his eyes sparkle with mischief, and he grins like an imp. "…Even if we did get caught."

"It was fun!" Jamie says.

"Fun! Fun!" Sophie agrees.

Jack grins. "I'm glad. Oh, and by the way," he says, and pulls Jamie's camera from his hoodie pocket. He hands it to Jamie, eyes twinkling in mischief. "Bunny and I left you a surprise on your camera. Make sure you get it developed. And, uh," Jack takes a furtive glance around, grins, and whispers, "…Don't tell North."

"…Don't tell North what?" Jamie asks, confused.

"Exactly." Jack agrees. He taps his and Sophie's nose. They both giggle, surprised at the sudden nip of cold.

Jack smiles. He reaches out, as if to ruffle Jamie's hair, but then he simply rests his hand atop Jamie's, and Sophie's, heads. He looks at them for a long moment, then pulls them both into a hug.

"Merry Christmas," he whispers into their ears. Both the kids hug back, and they stay like that for a long minute.

At last, Jack lets them go. "Now, go on, I'm sure you're mother's worried sick," Jack says. "Get on inside, and—stay safe." he orders. Bunnymund watches as Jack presses another blue snowflake to Sophie's—but not to Jamie's—forehead.

Curious.

Once the kids have been ushered inside, Jack crouches at the ground floor windowsill to watch the two get scolded. And now that they're alone, Bunny finally decides to ask.

"So," Bunnymund says, leaning against the wall. "…What's with the magic?"

Jack looks up, startled. "Oh, that?" he asks with a shrug. The snowflakes, right. "Those were just protection charms."

Bunny shakes his head. Jack's being oddly overprotective. "What," he teases, "You're worried that the kids'll take after you, and start bein' reckless?"

Jack gives an oddly humorless chuckle. He looks down. "…I'm worried about Pitch."

Bunny halts.

"Pitch?" he repeats, suddenly serious. After Christmas preparations, and entertaining the children, and especially after the letter, Pitch has been put far out of his mind. A thousand questions pop into Bunny's head, but he pushes them away to listen to Jack's concerns. "What about Pitch?" he asks.

Jack lingers a moment longer, watching through the window. When Ms. Bennett finally takes Sophie and Jamie upstairs, out of sight, Jack sighs and stands. "Well, I hate to be the downer here," he begins carefully. "But… North's right. It's… really weird that Pitch didn't attack during Christmas."

This again? Bunnymund scratches his chin. Of all the things for Jack to bring up, why this? "I agree, it is weird," he nods, because a successful attack from Pitch would have been a real blow to the Guardians' powerbase—it's very odd Pitch didn't even try to take advantage of that. "But, so what? Like I told North, Christmas is over. There's no way for Pitch to ruin it now."

"…Maybe Pitch's target wasn't Christmas," Jack says. "…Maybe Pitch is only after us."

They stand there for a moment, letting those words echo in the cold night air, and then Jack continues.

"Bunny… Pitch is smart. And vindictive. And cruel." Says Jack, emphasizing every word. "After this Easter, he'd want revenge. He wouldn't miss the opportunity. We're still recovering from the loss of believers. It's the perfect time to strike. Except…" Jack frowns, looking off into the darkness.

"Except it isn't, right? It's not the right time at all." Jack continues. "Taking Christmas down would've been ideal, but it was also impossible. We were expecting him. We had the Sandman nearby and the Fairies on standby and snowglobes waiting to be used. If Pitch attacked anywhere—the sleigh, the children, the Workshop—we would've been ready. North was at peak power, too, and we weren't close behind.

"Pitch isn't stupid. No general worth his salt is dumb enough try a head-on attack when his enemy is powerful, alert, and prepared. But… if all he wanted was revenge—to hurt us—It would be smarter to attack at another time, don't you think?" Jack looks at Bunnymund. "When we let our guards down. After North's gone to sleep, and we go home, and the children are in their beds—"

Jack stops at that, looking a little terrified. He swallows hard and, gently, leaps up to the second story to peer through Jamie's window. Even from a distance, Bunnymund can see Jack's shoulders shake.

Jack's logic—makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. Pitch could've just let the Guardians "Win" Christmas, in order to make the Guardians think they were in the clear; so they'd let down their guard. And when they least expected it, Pitch would attack—aiming to cause the most damage.

Bunnymund lets out a slow breath to steady himself. Why hadn't he seen it before?

He crouches low and leaps upwards, gently landing on the roof. Bunnymund crouches there on the edge, looking down at Jack. The winter spirit stares intently through the glass, worry etched onto his face. After all, Bunnymund realizes, what's the best way to hurt Jack? …By attacking his first, and only, believers.

"Do ya think they're in danger?" Bunnymund asks. He tries to calculate it out in his head—if he needs to, he can probably stand watch over Burgess tonight.

Jack lingers there a moment longer, then sighs. "No," he says. "My spells will protect them. For a few days, at least. As long as I'm safe, they're safe."

Bunnymund nods, thinking of the charms Jack pressed into each child's forehead. Then he frowns.

"Why didn't you give one t' Jamie?" he asks.

"Jamie has a permanent one," Jack explains, pointing through the glass. "I gave it to him weeks ago."

Bunnymund leans down and peeks through the window. Jamie's in his pjs, now, crawling into bed—and now Bunny can see there's an addition: a fine, silver chain hanging from Jamie's neck, bearing a hexagon charm made of silver-blue metal, infused with Jack's raw power.

"Why not give 'em all permanent charms?" Bunny asks.

Jack makes a face. "Uh, cause they take like three months to make?" he answers flatly. "I'm still only halfway through Sophie's."

"Sophie's?"

"Yeah." Jack shrugs. "Thought I'd get her next. You seem really attached to her, that's all."

Bunny sputters a moment, because they both know it's true, but a Guardian is not supposed to play favorites. "Hey, I'm attached to all the kids—"

Another light chuckle from Jack helps Bunny to abandon his argument. All right, so he's a little attached to that blonde anklebiter. No use denying it. He still loves them all.

"And they'll all be safe," Jack promises. He seems calmer now, watching through the window. He sighs. "I'm just—worrying over nothing."

Bunny nods. "All right, Frostbite. I trust ya." And he means it; for all his recklessness, Jack would never let them get a single scratch.

As if startled, Jack looks up, eyes wide. And there's something in his expression—something in those eyes—that Bunnymund just can't quite place.

Quick as it came, it's gone, and Jack looks away.

They sit in silence for a long moment, before Jack finally breaks it with a sigh.

"So," he says reluctantly. With the kids in bed, safe and sound, there's only one thing left for him to say. "I suppose you want to talk about the letter, now."

Suppose? Bunny snorts. "Mighta' crossed my mind."

They linger for a moment longer, and Jack looks away and nods.

Jack stands, balancing at an impossible angle on the narrow windowsill. One hand braced against the house for support, Jack leans out, looking towards the horizon, eyes sweeping once more over the houses of Burgess.

"Alright," he says at last. "Let's go to my lake. It should be private there."

Lightly, Jack taps his staff against Jamie's window, setting a spark of frost to crawl its way across the glass. Then, with nary a flourish, Jack falls back against the wind, letting it catch him and sweep him off towards the lake.

Satisfied, Bunnymund hops down from the roof, watching Jack go. He lingers a moment, doubts on his mind. Concerns about the Burgess children's safety still echo in his head, and though he trusts Jack's judgment, surely it can't hurt to add just one more layer of protection. He knows the charms will hold, but it can't hurt to ward the house, and the parents too.

Bunnymund reaches for the pouch that's stocked with wards and protective magics, and turns back to the Bennett household to place them.

And he stops, surprised by what he sees.

Jack's tap at Jamie's window has coated the glass in frost, and the ice didn't stop spreading there. It is spreading outwards, rapidly now, across not just the glass but also wood and brick and stone, swirling on the siding, racing across the gutters, coating the roof and shingles. Soon the house is covered in a thin layer of swirling, fernlike frost that seems to almost glow.

A thin layer of magic. Another layer of Jack's protection.

Bunnymund blinks in shock. "Well!" he laughs, "Nevermind, then!"

Jack thought of this too. Bunny doesn't need to worry. The kids are safe in Jack's hands.

Bunnymund shakes his head and tucks his own magic spells away in his pouch where they belong. When they're back in place, he pauses, then looks towards Jack's lake, absently patting the pouch on his bandolier that contains the letter.

The kids are tucked into bed, safe and out of harm's way. There's only one thing left to do.

Moment of Truth, Bunny thinks. He takes a deep breath to steel himself for the confrontation. Then, after one last glance back at the houses behind him, Bunnymund turns and follows Jack to the lake, determined to get his answers once and for all.


What a night this is shaping up to be, Jack thinks to himself, trying to swallow his fear. Gently, he lands on his lake and glides on the ice, moving further away from shore.

Bunny doesn't follow. He isn't here, actually—for some reason, the Pooka hung back. Probably saying goodbye to Sophie, or checking on Jack's protection charms, who knows. Either way, he isn't snapping at Jack's heels, or asking questions, or demanding answers, and Jack is grateful for the moment of peace, the calm before the storm.

Jack banishes the wind, and at once he is alone with nothing but the sky, the lake, and his thoughts.

All things considered, it's a beautiful night. Crisp, cold, clear. Mim's quarter moon hangs high in the sky amongst a backdrop of stars, silent as ever as he watches the Earth below.

Jack's lake shines like a polished mirror, reflecting the sky above. Standing here, at the center, the effect is ethereal. He takes a moment to breathe in the silence, drinking in the light. With stars shining above, and stars reflected below, he can almost imagine that he's adrift in space.

It's comforting, in a way. Always has been. Even before he knew Heimdall was out there, watching from afar.

Jack turns his face upwards, eyes distant, lost in the stars above.

He could be there right now. On Asgard. Jack could snap his fingers, say the word, and Heimdall would fetch him there. Bunny would notice the bridge, sure, but he wouldn't be able to follow. Can it be that simple?

Jack turns the thought over in his mind—no talk, no explanations, and no threat of a fight erupting after. The thought does seem appealing. All he'd have to do is ditch his friend and make a clean getaway.

…And then what?

Jack holds on to the thought a moment longer, then releases a heavy sigh and thrusts the temptation away.

Jack knows he can't do that, even as the bitterness sets in.

He knows, because just now, in his head, he'd called Bunnymund his friend.

And, even further back in his mind, Jack can almost hear Bunny's voice, words from only minutes before echoing in his head.

All right, Frostbite. I trust ya.

With a frustrated huff, Jack kicks off on the ice, gliding forward on one foot. No. No, he certainly can't betray Bunnymund, not after a gesture like that.

Friends. Trust. Jack is still getting used to it.

It just seems so much safer to keep his secrets under wraps, Jack thinks as he glides to a stop. Safer, and less complicated. But that isn't a choice any longer. If only he had a few more months—

Well. He doesn't have a few more months, so there's no point in thinking like that.

"I always meant to tell them, you know," Jack says… to the moon, to Heimdall, to the wind—or maybe just to himself. "The Guardians, I mean. I would've told them. Just, you know, later? After I settled in? Once I knew them better—once they knew me better. So maybe they'd give me a chance."

Jack falters, staring up at the sky.

"So that, maybe, they'd understand."

His confession hangs in the empty air, quiet and unanswered.

"Well," Jack says, shaking his head. "I suppose it can't be helped."

The talk is coming, one way or another. At least it's with Bunnymund, Jack thinks. They've known each other the longest. There's still a chance that Bunny will let him make his argument, lay out all the pieces and explain himself; there's a chance Bunny will believe that Jack had meant no harm.

Deep down in his gut, though, Jack fears the talk will end in a shouting match. That Bunny won't understand, that he'll threaten to revoke Jack's guardianship—That Bunny might call Jack a monster, and he wouldn't be entirely wrong.

No. Jack scolds himself. Bunny's not like that. He wouldn't do that to me.

Jack's stomach clenches with dread, though, and he can't quite banish the fear.

He spins on his heel, turning to look at the stars.

"Hey Heimdall," Jack calls, just above a speaking voice, not loud enough to shout. "If this goes South, I might need you to pull me out. Can you promise to do that for me?"

Jack is met with a vast and vacant sky, and nothing seems to come. But Jack has faith in Heimdall, the man who is always watching. Even halfway across the universe, miles and lightyears away, Jack knows the demigod heard him, and that the answer is yes.

He takes a deep breath, calmer now, and smiles at the stars above. His attention shifts some moments after as he hears the padding of paws on snow.

Bunnymund has arrived.

Friendship. Jack reminds himself. Trust.

Time to put it to the test.

Jack takes a deep breath and turns to face his guest. There's nothing he can do now but hope.


.