Disclaimer: Rise of the Guardians does not belong to me.
AN: Many thanks to NoctePluvia for the beta.

Jack had kind of been expecting to be confronted by some of the other spirits about his being named a Guardian. What he hadn't been expecting was 1) for a bunch of them to get together and confront him all at once; 2) for them to be so incredibly angry that they pretty much said hello and then attacked (Morena, Fiero, and Sam had definitely been the instigators but everyone else seemed pretty damned willing to go along with them); 3) for the Stewards of the Seasons to keep the winds from taking Jack to safety when he called for them.

That was the biggest betrayal. Sure, Jack knew he had pissed off a lot of spirits either deliberately or through ignorance over the past 300 years, but he had thought that he had at least come to an understanding with Old Man Winter and the others. Still, they were the only ones who had any type of actual control over the winds - and even so, the winds had fought them until finally the East Wind broke free and carried Jack away. After that, the other winds came back and without Jack even needing to ask, they carried him to the North Pole, depositing Jack on his usual snow drift next to a yeti guard tower.

Jack only vaguely remembered talking to a yeti and refusing his offer to be taken inside. He needed the snow and the ice to heal. They had really done a number on him. Especially Fiero (damned fire spirit). The yeti seemed to understand, and the last thing Jack remembered before letting himself black out was the yeti moving snow to cover Jack.

When he regained consciousness, he felt back to normal. He burrowed out from under the snow to see a yeti sitting right next to him. Jack blinked, and looked up to check the guard tower - yeah, there was a yeti up there, too. Jack smiled slightly. They had assigned an extra guard just to keep watch over him.

The yeti in question (Jack couldn't recall his name) growled out a question - was Jack all right?

"Yep, I'm good," Jack said, giving himself a once over. No more burns, no more cuts (it was a really good thing he didn't bleed anymore), and of course, his clothes were mended. At some point, he really had to figure out how that happened during these healing sleeps. His hoodie had practically been burnt to a crisp, but here it was, perfectly fine. Maybe the other guardians would have an explanation for it. Except that would mean telling them that he had been attacked. Jack wasn't so sure he wanted to do that. He had a feeling they'd overreact and didn't know how he'd feel about their overreacting.

Of course, the point was probably moot, since the yetis had no doubt already told North that Jack had shown up injured yet again. Jack had seriously lost count of how many times he had fled to the safety of the pole to recover from his latest encounter with an unhappy spirit. (Usually Morena. Fiero could deal him more damage, but his fellow winter spirit hated Jack with a passion and she never missed a chance to attack him.)

He was so grateful to North and the yetis for that. Sure, they had never let him inside, but they had also never turned Jack away when he was hurt, and more importantly, had never let anyone mess with him while he recovered.

Jack stood up, grabbed his staff, and smiled at the yeti. "Thanks for keeping an eye out for me," he said, completely sincere.

The yeti brushed off his thanks and told him that Phil needed to talk to him.

Jack frowned, a little confused that it was Phil and not North who needed to talk to him, but shrugged. "Okay. Where is Phil?"

Baby Tooth actually spotted Jack first, squeaking and zipping over to the form who had slipped quietly through the door. Jack only had time to smile at the small fairy before her mother flew over and caught Jack in a hug.

"Jack!" Tooth said. She let go just as Sandy and North reached them. "We were so worried! Where have you been?"

Jack looked confused. "Uh... I've been here?"

Sandy put a hand on Jack's shoulder - partly as a friendly greeting, partly to reassure himself that they weren't all just imagining things. Jack only had time to smile slightly at Sandy before it was North's turn.

"You are saying you were here? At the pole?" North asked, even as he grasped Jack's other shoulder and looked him over.

"Yes..." Jack said slowly, and why he looked so confused was a mystery to Sandy. Did Jack not realize they'd worry if he disappeared with no warning?

North shook his head. "Jack, we have been looking everywhere for you! You have been missing for almost two weeks! Why-"

"Two weeks?" Jack interrupted, his eyes widening. Now Sandy started to understand. If Jack didn't realize how much time had passed...

"Yes!" Tooth said. "We were worried sick! And you were here the whole time?"

"I was asleep," Jack said, looking honestly bewildered. "Didn't the yetis-?"

Jack cut himself off, looking at something behind them, and Sandy turned just in time to see a yeti put his hands behind his back.

North turned to look, too, and gave the yeti a stern look. "Phil. Did you know that Jack was here?"

Phil looked far too innocent as he glanced again at Jack and shook his head. Sandy frowned, looking between Phil and Jack. Something was up.

"Uh, sorry?" Jack said. "I could have sworn I talked to someone before I fell asleep. Must have imagined that part."

"Imagined- Jack, what happened?" Tooth demanded.

"Overheated," Jack said quickly. "Spent too long in a desert after the sun came up. Really does a number on me, but a nap in a snowbank and I'm good as new." Jack was smiling, and he looked all right, but there was something Jack wasn't telling them.

"Snowbank?" North repeated. "Jack! Why did you not come inside to recover?"

"Uh..." Jack said, shooting Phil a confused look that Sandy saw but couldn't decipher. "Because I'm a frost spirit? Seriously, being inside anywhere, even if it's cold, doesn't help. Snow and ice is what I need if I'm hurt."

Sandy flashed images over his head, because Jack had said he had been overheated, not hurt. Jack saw and obviously understood, because he tried to backtrack.

"Hurt or overheated," Jack said. "Either one. And overheating is no picnic, really, I ache all over when that happens." Sandy narrowed his eyes, because Jack was definitely not telling them something. Jack shrugged. "But, hey, bury me in a snowbank and give me a few days and really, I'm good as new."

Before anyone could respond, one of Bunny's tunnels formed and a very panicked pooka leapt through. "Guys, we have to find-" Bunny cut himself off when he spotted Jack, but what happened next surprised everyone, Jack most of all. "Jack!" Bunny exclaimed, then darted forward and hugged Jack tightly. Jack looked absolutely stunned. Bunny let Jack go, holding the teen by the shoulders and looking him over critically. "Kid, are you all right?"

"...yes?" Jack said. He didn't seem to know how to react to having Bunny so worried about him. Sandy just wondered what Bunny had found out. Whatever had happened, it was obviously a lot worse than Jack was letting on.

"Where have you been?" Bunny demanded, shaking Jack slightly and then letting go.

"Apparently he's been here," Tooth said. "Sleeping in a snowbank."

"And yetis may or may not have known," North said, eyeing Phil, who tried his best to look innocent.

"Jack said he got overheated in the desert," Tooth said, and Sandy knew from her tone that it was unanimous. Everyone knew that there was more going on than Jack (or Phil) was saying.

"Overheated?" Bunny said. He looked at Jack, exasperated. "Overheated. Really? Because the Groundhog just admitted to helping a bunch of other spirits ambush you four weeks ago."

"What? Jack!" Tooth said.

"Four weeks?" Jack repeated, stunned. "But- you said I was just missing two weeks."

"That is what we thought," North said. "Groundhog said that he saw you two weeks ago."

"Yeah, he was lying," Bunny said. "Admitted that today."

"Jack, why didn't you tell us the truth?" Tooth asked.

"This is serious, mate, they were trying to kill you!" Bunny said.

Jack was gripping his staff tightly, staring at the ground, and Sandy could tell he was overwhelmed. He was about to intervene, but Phil beat him to it. Phil grumbled something under his breath, brushed between North and Tooth, put an arm around Jack's shoulders, and led Jack to a sitting room, where Jack was directed to sit down on the couch. Jack immediately pulled one leg up under him and curled around his staff, then Phil moved off to give Jack some space.

Sandy hovered near the couch, close, but not too close. North and Tooth took seats while Bunny leaned against a wall. They all recognized, as Sandy did, that this was just starting to really hit Jack. So they waited, giving Jack time to process. Jack was here and safe and all right; the rest could wait.

"Four weeks," Jack said softly, not raising his head. "That's... it's never taken that long before. It's never even taken two weeks. It's usually only a couple of days."

Which implied that Jack had been very, very seriously injured four weeks ago and that Jack had been attacked often enough in the past to notice a pattern. Sandy was not happy with those revelations. Not happy at all.

"So this has happened before," Bunny said, coming to the same conclusion. "And you heal up by sleeping in the snow?" Bunny was keeping his voice carefully neutral, and Jack responded to that.

Jack looked up at Bunny and nodded. "Yeah. I'm not exactly sure how it works, but it does. It mends my clothes, too, which I've never been able to figure out."

"Magic," Bunny and Tooth said at once. That answer didn't seem to completely satisfy Jack, but while he looked curious, Jack didn't ask any questions right now. Which was fine. They could help Jack figure out his powers later. If he could affect physical objects and not just ice and snow, there were definitely things Jack still hadn't discovered.

"It figures sticking you in a snowbank fixes you up," Bunny said. "So where'd you go before you could come here?"

Instead of answering right away, Jack glanced at North. "Yes, this I would like to know as well," North said.

Jack laughed, a light and amused sound, and Sandy was glad to hear it even if he had no idea what was so amusing. Sandy exchanged looks with Tooth, North, and Bunny, but they were as confused as he was. "You really had no idea," Jack said to North. "That's... I'm sorry, but that's kind of hilarious." North was about to ask, but Jack continued before he could. "North, I came here," he said, smiling. "Phil and the rest of the yetis would toss me out if I tried to break into the workshop, but if all I wanted to do was sleep in a snowbank, they let me be."

North looked stunned for a second, then spun around to glare at Phil. "Phil! Why did you never tell me about this?"

"And what else haven't you been telling old North?" Jack asked, grinning as Phil scowled at him.

Phil looked at North and just said that the yetis thought it best to keep where Jack came to heal a secret so no one would come looking for him.

North protested. "But I can keep secret!"

"Eh, actually..." Bunny said. North glared at Bunny. Sandy smiled and Jack snickered.

Before the argument could begin in earnest, Tooth stepped in. "Enough!" she yelled. She glared at Phil, and while North's glare hadn't phased him at all, the yeti actually looked worried when faced with an angry Tooth. "I don't care why you didn't tell North that Jack came here before," she said. "I want to know why you didn't tell us Jack was here now. We were worried sick!"

Phil answered that they would have tried to move Jack, which Sandy admitted was probably true, but didn't see why it was a problem until Phil continued, explaining how the yetis had moved Jack once and how it had disrupted the healing magic, bringing back Jack's injuries.

They looked to Jack for confirmation. Jack shrugged. "I don't remember that, but it wouldn't surprise me."

Tooth was still glaring at Phil. "You could have told us that," she snapped. "At least we would have known where Jack was and that he was safe."

Phil glanced at North, who shook his head. "Do not look for me to help. She is right! You should have told us Jack was here. You should have informed me Jack was here when he first came and every time after!"

Bunny raised an eyebrow at Jack. "Speaking of... exactly how often have you been coming up here to either sleep or try to break in, anyway?"

"Oh, I've been trying to break in at least once a year since I found this place," Jack said, grinning again.

"Which was when?" Bunny asked.

"About twenty years after I woke up as Jack Frost," he said.

Bunny snorted. "That's almost three centuries. Okay, I'm with Frostbite, this is hilarious." Sandy smiled, though both Tooth and North scowled at him. Bunny ignored them, moving over to the couch and sitting down next to Jack, who was noticeably more relaxed. Bunny paused for a moment, then asked. "So. You ready to talk about it?"

Jack sighed, but nodded. It still took him a moment to speak. "I was flying over northern Russia when I got knocked-" he suddenly stopped and then frowned.

"Jack?" Tooth asked, concerned.

"I just realized," he said, his voice tight with anger. "I didn't get knocked out of the sky. They took the wind out from under me and I fell." Sandy stiffened in alarm, because if Jack was right, that meant... Jack continued. "They did more than that. They used the wind to take me right to them. That's why the trip got so rough towards the end."

Sandy floated closer to Jack, hovering at the edge of the couch, and reached out to squeeze Jack's shoulder in comfort. Jack offered him a wan smile.

North was muttering angrily in Russian. He had figured out who 'they' were, too. Tooth and Bunny, though, looked confused. "Okay, what are we missing?" Bunny asked. "Who are you guys talking about?"

Sandy flashed images of the four seasons above his head.

"The seasons?" Tooth guessed. "So, some other seasonal spirits overrode Jack's control of the wind?"

"No." "Nyet." Jack and North spoke at the same time Sandy was shaking his head.

"I can't control the wind," Jack said. "I can create little breezes, enough to move snow around and get to the tops of trees and houses, but the real winds? I can call them, I can talk to them, I can ask them nicely to take me places, but I can't make the winds do anything they don't want to do."

"No seasonal spirit can," North said. "No, only four can claim control over the winds."

Slowly, realization dawned on Bunny. "You don't mean... one of the stewards?" he exclaimed, in complete disbelief.

Jack flinched at Bunny's words. Someone saying it out loud seemed to drive the reality of it home for him. Sandy squeezed Jack's shoulder again. Sandy didn't blame Bunny for his disbelief; the idea that the stewards would stoop so low as to help attack Jack was... unthinkable. The Stewards of the Seasons were the essence of each season on Earth. There were many seasonal spirits who could influence their chosen season to varying extents, but the seasons still existed without them. The stewards on the other hand... seasons wouldn't exist without the stewards. They were supposed to be above things like this.

Bunny was still waiting for an answer, but both North and Sandy were watching Jack, waiting until he had regained his equilibrium before explaining. Jack, though, decided to explain himself. He took a deep breath, then looked Bunny in the eye. "Not one of the stewards," Jack said. "All of them." Bunny's eyes widened even more. "Each season can control one of the winds," Jack explained. "Winter has the North Wind, Summer the South, Spring, West, and Autumn, East. None of the winds came when I called."

"They were all there?" Tooth asked.

"Yes. I mean, I didn't see them, but they were there. They had to be. They can't control the winds to that extent from a distance. They were close, and I could-" Jack closed his eyes, shaking his head. "I could hear the winds fighting them. After a while, Autumn lost her grip on the East Wind and it got me out of there."

"Who else was there, Jack?" North asked.

"I don't know," Jack said, glancing at him before looking away. "Not everyone. It happened fast and I didn't recognize everyone. Morena was there, obviously, Fiero, Sam-" Sandy flashed a jack-o-lantern and a question mark and Jack nodded. "Yeah, that Sam. Groundhog, some wood nymphs and water sprites... wow, you know, there were a lot of people who got together to try and kill me," he said shakily.

Sandy reached out and squeezed Jack's shoulder again, and on Jack's other side, Bunny did the same. Sandy was just glad that Jack wasn't flinching away from them.

"You're okay, Jack," Tooth said. "You're safe now."

"I know. I know, I just..." Jack looked at Bunny. "Did Groundhog tell you why? I mean, I know me being a Guardian set off some of them, but I didn't think- some of them have hated me for centuries, sure, but the others... did he say why?"

"I wouldn't let him," Bunny said. "I wasn't interested in hearing why, mate. Just anything that would help us find you."

"We will get answers, Jack," North said. "We will talk to them." Jack looked wary, almost alarmed, at that suggestion. "Not all of them, but some, yes. The stewards. Some others. We will have answers."

"Not, uh, right now, though?" Jack asked hopefully.

North shook his head. "No, no. Not now. Soon, but not now." Jack relaxed a little.

"Jack?" Tooth asked.


She looked at him earnestly. "You know all of us would have been there, right? If we had known and could get there, we would have been there with you, Jack, to help. You know that, right?"

"I... yeah?" Jack said, and Sandy noted that he sounded mostly sure of that, just not quite sure where Tooth was going with her questioning.

"Because before, you didn't seem to want to tell us what happened."

"Oh, that. I didn't-" he stopped and visibly tried to put his thoughts in order. As was usual when Jack tried to explain himself, it didn't work that well. "I was just- I wasn't not going to tell you, it's just- well, Phil, and you guys not knowing I was here, and it just- it kind of seemed like you were going to overreact, so-"

"Jack, it's okay," Tooth said, cutting off his ramblings with a smile. "I just wanted to make sure you knew we'll be there to help if you need us."

"I know," Jack said, giving them another wan smile.

Which Bunny took as his cue to lighten the mood. "Heck, apparently he knew before we did, given that he's been coming here to heal up for nearly three centuries and North had no clue," Bunny said dryly. His attempt worked; Jack grinned. Bunny just shook his head and smirked at North. "Seriously, North, right under your nose, all this time." North gave Bunny a look and then dragged Phil off for a little talk.

Bunny was up on the balcony, watching Sandy, Tooth, and Jack on the level below. They were talking about magic, but Bunny wasn't listening to the conversation. His focus was on Jack, watching the lines of tension that still ran through the kid, even after two days. Bunny heard footfalls, but didn't look away from the trio downstairs as North came to stand next to him.

"Jack looks to be in good spirits," North asked.

"You think so, huh?" Bunny asked. "Take a look at how tightly he's holding onto his staff and tell me if you still think he's all right."

"I did not say he was all right," North said. "I said he looked to be in good spirits."

Bunny stared at Jack. He wasn't going to admit it, but North had a point. There was tension, yes, but Jack was smiling. He looked happy. More than that, he looked normal. The lingering tension was the only sign anything at all had happened to Jack. But Bunny couldn't shake Groundhog's description of what Jack had looked like. Deep lacerations criss-crossing skin, charred clothes and skin and hair... Bunny hadn't even seen the state Jack had been in and still it haunted him. "You know, Groundhog thought Jack was dead. Jack fought like crazy, didn't give an inch, but when the wind was finally able to carry him away... he went limp. He just-"

North put a hand on his shoulder and Bunny finally looked at him. "Bunny," North said. "Jack is strong. He will be all right. We will make sure of that."

"We didn't even notice he was missing for a week and a half," Bunny snapped. That particular failure still ate at him, especially when he remembered telling a worried Tooth that he was sure Jack was fine and was probably just off causing his brand of chaos somewhere in the southern hemisphere.

"We had no way of knowing Jack was in trouble," North said firmly. "This is unfortunate, but is also the truth. We will look into. Find way for Jack to call us if needed. But first, we must deal with this last attack." North paused for a moment. "It is- very disturbing that stewards were involved."

"No kidding," Bunny said. Aside from giving some direction to newly born seasonal spirits and (on very, very rare occasions) stepping in to reign in a seasonal spirit that was completely out of control, the stewards never interacted with other spirits and sprites. Bunny was still having trouble wrapping his head around the fact that they had joined up with the others and tried to kill Jack.

"More disturbing still to think this attack was their idea," North said grimly.

Bunny stopped and turned to face North fully. "What?"

"Is only theory, but... what spirit could convince stewards to take part in this, if they were not already willing?"

That was a good question. That was a very good question. Bunny didn't have an answer, but if the stewards were the ones who had it out for Jack... "We need to talk to them," Bunny said.

North nodded. "Yes."

"Soon," Bunny said. "If they're really behind this, then we can't let this sit."

"We will discuss with Jack. If he is ready, we will call them here."

Later that evening, North brought it up, asking Jack if he was ready to talk to the stewards. Jack paused, just looking at North for a moment. "You think the attack might have been their idea too, don't you?"

Bunny was surprised Jack had come to the same conclusion as North. Tooth and Sandy were surprised by the conclusion itself. North wasn't surprised. He just sighed and nodded in response to Jack's question.

"Guess it's not just me, then," Jack said. "So. When and where are we doing this?"

"Here," North said. "Tomorrow, if that is not too soon."

Jack shook his head. "No. I'd rather get this over with."

"Anything we should know before we talk with them?" Bunny asked.

"They've never liked me much," Jack said. "I'm not a typical seasonal spirit, and I'm really not typical for a winter spirit, so they've always..." he trailed off, taking a moment to choose his words. "I don't know. They didn't know what to do with me, I guess. I don't know why they'd suddenly want me dead, though."

"We'll find out tomorrow," Tooth said, her voice determined and angry. "And we'll make sure they know what happened is not to happen again."

The meeting was set. All four stewards would be here soon. Jack had slipped away from the watchful eyes of his fellow guardians with the plea that he needed some time alone with his thoughts. That was convincing enough, and so now Jack was waiting in the lounge where the meeting would occur and they would ask the stewards why they wanted him dead.

Jack had an urge to just flee. To fly out the window and get far, far away from the upcoming confrontation. He wanted to know why. He needed to know why. But the same time, he didn't want to face this. Didn't want to face people explaining why they thought he should die. As hard as it was, though, he needed to know. So he stayed put. The door creaked open and Jack relaxed a little more. And the most important thing, of course, was that he wouldn't be facing this alone.

Sandy and Bunny came into the room, and they both stopped short when they spotted Jack. Jack quirked a smile. He knew he probably made quite a sight. Perched against one wall, balanced on his staff and a shelf, his hood pulled up far enough to shade his eyes... yeah, Jack couldn't blame them for doing a double-take.

"That can't be comfortable, mate," Bunny finally said.

"It's not bad, actually," Jack said. He balanced on his staff by itself all the time; having the staff, a shelf, and a wall to lean against was easy. Besides, if he used his staff as a perch, he would be less tempted to use it to blast any of the stewards with ice.

Sandy flashed a question at him and Jack raised his head a bit to smile fully at him. "I'm fine, Sandy."

Bunny walked over to Jack, leaning against the wall next to him. "You look like a bloody gargoyle," he said as he pulled out one of his boomerangs. "Creepy as one, too."

"Says the kangaroo who just pulled one of his weapons," Jack said.

Bunny pointed at him with the boomerang. "You are still not allowed to call me that," he said. Then he smirked. "And I never said creepy was a bad thing. I am all for making our guests a little nervous." Jack returned the smirk. Sandy just rolled his eyes at both of them and sat down in an armchair.

After another few minutes, Tooth came in, and only raised an eyebrow at the picture he and Bunny presented. "They're here," she said. "Are you ready, Jack?"

"As I'll ever be," Jack said.

North stepped through the doors first and got a nod from Tooth. Then he stepped aside and let the stewards enter. Jack took a moment to identify each one of them. The stewards changed their physical appearances whenever they felt like it, so they always looked a little different. Their genders stayed the same - Summer and Winter were male, Spring and Autumn were female - but almost everything else varied. There were certain traits they always kept, though. Like Spring, her hair was always a rich, dark black, like the soil where farmers planted their seeds. Summer was always sporting a tan. Autumn's eyes were the colors of the leaves of her season. And of course, Old Man Winter, with his white hair, wrinkled skin, and grumpy disposition. The stereotypical cranky old coot.

Jack had to identify Autumn by process of elimination this time, since she wouldn't meet his eyes. She wouldn't meet anyone's eyes, in fact, and was standing slightly apart from the other stewards. She looked uncomfortable, or maybe annoyed (hard to tell with her avoiding his gaze). Mostly, it seemed like Autumn would rather be anywhere but here. Jack had no idea if that was a good sign or not, but it was more than he got from the other three stewards, who were all very obviously not happy to see him.

No one said anything at first. The guardians let the silence linger, and Jack wondered who would be the first to speak. It wasn't going to be him. He knew that much.

"I told you he wasn't dead," Winter said, speaking to Summer.

So that was how this was going to go. Fantastic. "Sorry to disappoint you," he said, putting as much sarcasm as he could into his voice. Beside him, Bunny shifted, just enough to remind Jack he was there, and he forced himself to relax a little. He wasn't alone in this. Everything was going to be fine.

"So. We were correct, then," North said, his voice as cold as Jack had ever heard it. "It was your idea to try and kill Jack."

Summer nodded. "Yes, it was."

Jack very nearly lost his balance as that horrible suspicion was confirmed. They tried to kill him. They weren't even trying to deny it. The Stewards of the Seasons wanted him dead. Oh, he was so screwed.

"If you're looking for an apology, you won't get one," Summer said, still looking at North, not even acknowledging Jack.

"How about an explanation?" Tooth said, and okay, this was weird, but she was so obviously furious - and so were North and Sandy and Bunny - that it made Jack a little less angry and shocked and hurt. "Why? Why would you do this?" Tooth demanded.

"Isn't it obvious?" Spring asked. "He's a guardian now. He's gaining believers, and with believers he'll gain power. He's much too dangerous to leave alive anymore."

"Dangerous?" Tooth repeated. "To who?"

"He's attacked other spirits before," Summer said.

"Uh, no," Jack said. "They attack me and I defend myself."

"He's started fights on multiple occasions with Morena and Fiero," Summer continued, as if Jack hadn't even spoken.

"Only to stop them from hurting people, and you know that because we hashed that out ages ago," Jack snapped.

"Yeah, I'm not seeing the problem," Bunny said. "I'll admit, I've never run into Morena, but Fiero's crazy."

"Morena is winter spirit of death and misery," North explained. "Also very crazy." North looked at Summer. "I do not see problem, either. Jack is a guardian. It is in his nature to protect people."

"For now, maybe, but that won't last," Winter said. "Sooner or later he's going to turn bad."

Jack would have asked what the hell he was talking about, but given that all of the stewards were doing their best to ignore him (Autumn, in fact, was doing her best to ignore everyone), he waited and let one of the other guardians ask.

"Jack is not going to turn bad," Tooth insisted. "Why do you think he would?"

"He's a winter spirit. Every single one of them is evil, violent, destructive, crazy, or all of the above," Summer said. "He might not be that bad yet, but eventually, he will be."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Jack muttered. Sandy echoed his sentiment, throwing up his hands in exasperation.

"That is absolutely ridiculous," Tooth said.

"It's not," Winter said. "You think I don't know what my season does to people and spirits? It's a necessary but rotten time of year. It's cold, it's dark, it's miserable, it's depressing, and it drives everyone to madness sooner or later."

Jack wanted to ask what that meant about Winter's state of mind, but held his tongue, because even if Winter acknowledged him, that kind of comment really wouldn't help at the moment.

North ended up responding. "Winter is more than that," he said. "There is fun to be had in winter with snowball fights and sledding. There is beauty in freshly fallen snow and in frost on windows. Christmas itself falls in winter."

Spring rolled her eyes. "Just because your holiday happens to fall during winter for part of the world-"

"Nyet," North snapped. "Christmas began as a winter holiday. You know this. If your theory is true, why am I not affected?"

"Because you're not a winter spirit. You're a guardian," Winter said.

"So is Jack," Bunny said.

"You know what he means," Spring snapped, glaring at Bunny. "I'm surprised at you, Bunny. How many times have you complained about him messing with your egg hunts?"

"Don't you dare," Bunny snarled. Spring blinked at his tone and even Jack was a little taken aback by how angry Bunny sounded. "Don't you dare imply I'm on your side in this even a little."

"But-" Spring said.

"No," Bunny snapped, taking a few steps forward and pointing at her. "You tried to murder him! There is no justification for that!"

Summer rubbed his forehead. "I don't think you understand the potential danger. Look, when you fought Pitch, what do you think would have happened if Pitch had decided to ask Frost to join him?"

Jack grimaced. Because in their minds, of course it wasn't possible that he would refuse to join up with Pitch. He really, really hated this.

And so did Bunny, apparently. "We don't have to think about it!" Bunny yelled. "We know!"

"Bunny-" North tried to interrupt.

"Pitch did make that offer, and it was pretty bloody attractive because we had been really stupid, but Jack refused! You think you-"

"Bunny!" North said, louder, and this time Bunny stopped and turned around to stalk back to his spot against the wall next to Jack, still muttering angrily under his breath. As soon as he was within range, Jack nudged him, and gave Bunny a thankful smile when he looked up. Bunny didn't look any less angry, but he did stop muttering.

North crossed his arms across his chest and gave the stewards an even look. "I believe it is you who do not understand. You do not understand Jack. You do not know him. If you did, you would know that he is not dangerous."

"Jack is a guardian," Tooth said. "He helps the rest of us protect the children, and he is no more a danger to the world than the rest of us."

"That's your opinion," Winter said. "You're wrong, but fortunately, it doesn't matter. He's a seasonal spirit. He's my seasonal spirit. That means we get final say over how to deal with him and you all can do jack shit about it."

Okay. That was the last straw. North, Bunny, Tooth, and Sandy all looked ready to tear into them, but he'd had enough. Jack launched himself off the wall and landed on his feet in front of the stewards. He was perversely pleased to see Summer and Spring startle and jerk back. Winter, the old crank, just huffed and crossed his arms, and Autumn was still trying to fade into the woodwork. Whatever.

Jack used his staff to point at them. "Okay, first of all? Stop pretending I'm not here. Second of all... no. No," he said fiercely. "You do not get to claim me as one of yours now that it's convenient for you." He glared at all of them, lingering the longest on Winter. "Three hundred years. Three hundred years of being told I wasn't one of yours. Of being told that the moon made me, so I wasn't your responsibility, wasn't your concern. Three hundred years of being almost completely ignored by you, and now that you think I'm a threat, now you want to claim some sort of power over me?" He paused, taking a moment to glare at each of them again. "No. That is not going to happen."

"Damn straight it's not," Bunny said.

"Now, tell me exactly what it is you think I'm going to do to you," Jack said. "Because believe me, I know you're not worried about anyone but yourselves."

"How dare you," Summer snapped, stepping forward. Jack held his ground. "You think you-"

"The winds," Autumn said, finally breaking her silence.

Instantly, the other three turned on her, snapping at her and telling her to shut up. Jack scowled and was about to use his staff to get their attention, when one of Bunny's boomerangs flew right past their faces, startling them into silence.

Bunny looked back to Autumn as the boomerang returned to his hand. "You were saying?"

Autumn actually looked at Jack and addressed him directly. "If you gain more control over the winds, eventually you might gain enough to disrupt our control, and that could be disastrous for all life on Earth."

"I can't control the winds," Jack said.

"Not to that extent, no," Autumn said. "But if-"

"Not to any extent," Jack said. "Why are you- you can't seriously think I have any control over them!"

"Of course you do," Spring said. "See how easily he lies?"

"Spring," Autumn warned. Then she crossed her arms and looked at Jack. "The winds always come when you call. They always take you where you ask. And if you and another seasonal spirit cross paths, the winds always, always do what you ask and not what the other spirit asks. You're really going to stand there and try and claim you don't have any power over the winds?"

"I don't!" Jack exclaimed. "Yes, they come when I call, but there's nothing special about that, and they don't take me wherever I ask."

"Oh, really? When was the last time they refused to take you somewhere?" Summer asked.

"A couple of weeks-" Jack cut himself off, abruptly remembering that he had lost a month. Because these people thought he needed to die. "A month and a half ago," he said evenly. "I wanted to go back home and the winds refused to take me."

He caught the other guardians giving him exasperated looks and he knew he'd get it from them later for trying to go back to Burgess during the middle of summer, but thankfully they didn't say anything right now.

The stewards, on the other hand, looked confused. "That would have been the height of my season," Summer said. "You can't handle that kind of heat."

"It was night and I wasn't planning on staying," Jack said. "I would have been fine." He caught Sandy rolling his eyes and gave him a look before refocusing his attention on the stewards. "The point is that the winds didn't do as I asked."

Autumn had a thoughtful look on her face. "Oh, don't be fooled, Autumn," Spring said. "He's still lying."

"I'm not lying," Jack said, glaring at her.

"Really?" Spring asked. "Then explain why the winds always take your side against other seasonals."

Jack didn't have an explanation for that. Mostly because he hadn't even realized the winds were taking his side with other spirits. Although it did explain some of his lucky breaks with Morena and Fiero.

"Okay, this might be a stupid question," Bunny said, "but why not just ask the winds?"

Winter snorted. "You're right, that's a very stupid question."

Jack glared at Winter. Bunny had no way of knowing what the winds were like. "The winds don't speak," Jack explained. "You can't have a conversation with them. They can understand us, and they're intelligent, to a point, but they don't really think the way we do."

"We can sense a bit of what they're feeling, though," Autumn said. "It's actually not a bad idea."

"I don't believe this," Summer said. "First you let the East Wind carry him away, now you're actually buying into his nonsense?"

Autumn looked at Summer. "I've never heard the winds so angry," she said. "If it were just his control fighting ours, why would they be angry with us, Summer?"

And now that she mentioned it, that was weird, wasn't it? Jack remembered the winds fighting to get free, to help him, and... why? Why would they be so angry? It couldn't be that Jack had been in danger of dying. The winds were far too ancient, far too disconnected, to care about individuals like that. Even seasonals. So why were they so angry? Was it just the way that the stewards had used the winds to ambush him?

Autumn looked around the room. "Perhaps we should continue this outside," she said.

"No need," North said. "Jack, open window."

"Are you sure?" Jack asked. North nodded, and Jack shrugged and went up to the window, opening it wide. The winds rushed by him and into the room, swirling around everyone. Jack hopped off the windowsill, intending to take his place back facing off against the stewards, but the winds shifted on him and he ended up between Sandy and Bunny.

Sandy caught his look of surprise and gave him a questioning look. Jack nodded. "I'm fine," he said, looking up, trying his best to hear and understand the winds.

They were howling, swirling around the room, knocking over stray books and knickknacks... but the gusts were concentrated in the space between the stewards and the guardians. The winds were trying to create a barrier between the stewards and the guardians. Between the stewards and Jack. Okay, that was weird, too.

"Don't know what they sound like to you, Frostbite, but they sure sound angry to me," Bunny said, only just loud enough for Jack to hear.

"Yeah," Jack said absently, still trying to figure it out. There was anger, but it was... different. There was a fierceness there, and something else... Jack could almost, almost place it, but it just wouldn't click.

Then he heard Autumn laugh, and Jack looked over to see that the rest of the stewards looked stunned.

"This has got to be a joke," Winter said.

Autumn stepped forward, through the winds, and Jack wondered for a moment if she had exerted her control over the East Wind to get through - but no, the winds had let her through. They were less angry now, and the gusts were subsiding along with their anger.

Autumn stared at Jack, smiling, and it made Jack nervous, because he still couldn't figure out what he was sensing from the winds. But obviously the stewards had. After a few long moments, she shook her head and looked at North.

"Am I right in assuming that none of you approached Jack after the Moon created him?" she asked.

"We did not know Jack was put here by the Man in the Moon," North said. "If we had..." he paused, looking at Jack regretfully, but Jack didn't take his eyes away from Autumn, didn't stop listening to the winds, trying so hard to put that final piece in place. North continued. "I had heard of a new winter spirit, but assumed he was one of yours."

"Of course," Autumn said. She looked back at Jack. "And we knew he wasn't ours, so we didn't approach him either. Tell me, Jack, how long were you alone before you encountered another spirit?"

Fourteen years. Jack's mind supplied the answer immediately, though he didn't say it out loud. So many years were now blurred together in Jack's memory, but those first fourteen years... It had been fourteen long, lonely years from his rebirth at the pond until a certain three foot tall talking groundhog had popped up from the ground and started berating Jack about snowstorms, and Jack remembered with crystal clarity almost every moment from when the moon had pulled him from that pond until he had met Groundhog. Fourteen years of not knowing who or what he was, of not being sure of anything but his name. Fourteen years of being walked through, of being ignored, of being completely alone except for- "Oh," Jack said, as the piece fell into place, and he looked up, stunned. Caring. That's what he felt. The winds... the winds cared about him.

"Yes," Autumn said, and she wore a knowing smile when Jack looked at her. "The guardians didn't know you were one of theirs yet, and we refused to make you one of ours, so the winds decided you were theirs."

Jack remembered. He had been so alone and the winds were all he had. Jack remembered times when the winds would leave him. When they wouldn't come. When Jack had been so, so afraid that the only entities who responded to him would leave, for good, and he would be left utterly alone. He remembered pleading with the winds, promising anything and everything if only they'd stay. And eventually, they did. They were never more than a breeze away, reassuring him with their presence, even if they didn't take him everywhere he asked... and he realized, now, that there was caring in that, too. Along with an undercurrent of exasperation, because they only ever really refused to take him places where it was far too warm for him, and that only really started after the first time he had gotten overheated in the desert.

"You understand now," Autumn said.

"I... think so," Jack said. He was having a hard time wrapping his head around this. This didn't happen. The winds didn't care about individuals. They were as old as the Earth itself. They were here before anything else, before any type of life existed. But they cared about him. Why, though? He had been alone, sure, but... why? Why him? How could he be the only one the winds cared about? He looked at Autumn uncertainly. "They really don't- it's that different, that they-" he stopped, not ready to put it into words.

"Yes. You are unique, Jack Frost," Autumn said. "For other seasonal spirits, the winds are fickle. If the mood suits them, the winds will respond to the calls of other spirits, or carry them where they wish to go. But only if the mood suits them. You are different. In all our memory, they've never cared about any spirit or mortal like they do you."

All this time he'd assumed it was normal, that the winds treated every seasonal spirit the way they did him. Jack shrugged slightly. "I didn't know."

"No," she said. "How would you? We certainly didn't offer any explanations or answer any of your questions."

They hadn't. He had to figure out everything on his own. He'd been so lost and they'd always either ignored him or treated him with outright hostility- which of course, was what had brought them to this point. Jack straightened and fixed her with a steady look. "So. Now that you know I don't have any control over the winds, what now?"

Autumn's smile faded. "Now, I admit that we were very wrong about you, Jack. You are not the threat we thought you were."

Jack glanced at the other stewards, and while it looked like it pained him to admit it, Summer nodded. "We were mistaken about a number of things," he said. Spring and Winter didn't offer any protests.

"So," North said. "We have your assurances that you will not try to harm Jack again? That you will not keep the winds from him?"

"You have our word," Autumn said. Summer and Spring nodded in agreement.

Everyone looked at Winter. "Yeah, fine, whatever," Winter grumbled. "I still say he's going to go bad eventually."

Tooth and Bunny visibly bristled at that, but Jack just rolled his eyes. More of Winter's usual crankiness. Jack was much too relieved to care.

"And the other spirits you recruited for this plan?" North asked.

"We'll talk to them," Autumn said. "We'll make sure they understand that we made a mistake and that Jack isn't a threat."

"I am not talking to Morena," Winter said. Spring and Autumn gave him a look. "She is crazy and she hates him. It won't make a damned bit of difference what I say."

"I don't think Fiero will listen to me, either," Summer said.

"It's fine," Jack said. "I can deal with them. As long as you don't help them attack me."

"You going to keep attacking them?" Winter asked.

"If I catch them hurting people, yeah, I'm going to stop them," Jack said. "Are we really going to have this argument again?"

"No, we're not," Autumn said, with a pointed look at Winter.

"I was just asking," Winter said. "Are we done here?"

North glanced at Jack, who nodded slightly, and then North answered. "Yes. I believe we are."

North went to the doors and the stewards started filing out. Autumn lingered for a moment, looking at Jack. "I realize this is probably much too late," she said, "but, if you have any questions..."

"You're right," Jack snapped, knowing he probably sounded just as angry as he felt. "It is too late." Seriously, now she offers to answer his questions? After three hundred years? After trying to kill him? On the other hand, she was the most reasonable steward when it came to him so maybe he shouldn't alienate her completely. He forced a more even tone to his voice. "But... thanks, I guess." Autumn nodded and then followed the others out.

As soon as they were out of the lounge, Jack collapsed onto a couch and leaned his head back, so relieved that was over. The stewards no longer wanted him dead. And after the stewards talked to them, most of the spirits who had attacked him would go back to ignoring him. The ones that didn't - the spirits who were going to attack him no matter what - Jack could handle them. Especially with the winds at his back.

He closed his eyes, overwhelmed again by the revelation that the winds cared about him. As if he didn't have enough changes in his life to deal with

this past year. Though this was a little different. His relationship with the winds hadn't changed; Jack had just never realized its depth before.

"Are you all right, Jack?" Tooth asked.

He didn't open his eyes or look up as he answered. "Yeah, Tooth, I'm okay. Just thinking."

Jack heard North come back into the room, but none of the guardians said anything. Jack idly wondered who would be the first to break the silence, and what they would say.

"So," Bunny said. "Want to tell us what possessed you to try to go to Burgess in the middle of summer?"

Well, there was his answer. Jack found himself smiling. "Okay, I just found out that forces as old as the Earth itself essentially adopted me. Can we save the lectures until after I wrap my head around that?"

"How long is that going to take?" Bunny asked.

And right at this moment Jack couldn't imagine ever wrapping his head around this. "Don't know," he said lightly. "A few decades?"

"Then no," Bunny said.

Jack laughed, louder and longer than Bunny's deadpan delivery really warranted. When he was finished, he looked up and grinned at his friends - his family. People who would stand by his side no matter what, people who wanted him around, people who would notice he was missing and go looking for him, people who would worry over him and yell at him when he did (or tried to do) something stupid. It was all still so new and sometimes, a bit of a struggle to adjust to it all, but Jack loved it. Of course, that didn't mean he wanted to actually sit through any lectures. Especially right now. "How about a week?" he asked.

"I suppose it can wait a week," Bunny said.

Jack smiled at his friends, but then saw something in their expressions that dimmed his happiness a bit. Guilt. Oh, great.

"Jack-" North started.

"Nope," Jack said, cutting him off. "I don't want to hear it." North blinked at him in surprise, then opened his mouth to try again. "Seriously, you guys have nothing to apologize for and I'm not going to listen to it."

"But Jack, we weren't there-" Tooth said.

He had to shut this down as quickly as possible. "You didn't know. I didn't know. You're here now. We already had this conversation, please don't tell me we need to have it again." It was working. They were giving him that exasperated, bemused look that he was getting very used to seeing. Though North, in particular, still looked like he wanted to argue the point, so Jack continued. "I'm fine. We're fine. It's the past. Can we leave it there, please?"

North stared at Jack for a long moment during which Jack held his gaze steadily. Finally North muttered something about stubbornness (and really, North was one to talk) and shook his head. "Come. We will have dinner and celebrate."

Jack got to his feet, but paused. "I'm just going to close the window," he announced, because they were still far too jumpy and the last thing he needed was for any of them to panic because they thought he was leaving.

He flew up to the window and stopped, calling softly to the winds. They came, as they always did, as they always would. The winds curled around him, just barely strong enough to ruffle his hair. Jack smiled. He wasn't used to this, just like he wasn't quite used to having the other guardians in his life, but he was grateful all the same. "Thank you," he whispered.

One more gentle gust swirled around him, then Jack closed the window and rejoined the others. North pulled him forward under the guise of clasping his shoulder, then Tooth linked her arm in his and started bickering with Bunny about desserts as they followed him and Sandy to the dining room, North putting in his two cents from right behind them. Jack's smile widened as found himself essentially surrounded. This had become something of a habit; one of their favorite not-as-subtle-as-they-thought-it-was ways of reminding Jack that he wasn't on the outside looking in anymore - that he wasn't alone anymore.

Yeah. He could get used to this.