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Tangled Oaths

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Chapter One: The Servant of Two Masters

Present Day

“Are you ready?” Jack whispered into the ear of 8-year old Jamie Bennett. Jamie silently nodded as he stared wide-eyed and excited at the steep, rock and tree-strewn hill. He was face-down on his sled and his sled sat at the very peak of the hill, one push away from certain injury.

“Ready. Set. GO!” Jack said before giving Jamie a push and taking off into the air in the same movement. Jamie screamed as Jack iced a path for his sled to follow, one that narrowly curved around several trees and threaded past two large rocks. Jamie let out a breathless laugh as he passed them, only to gasp when he realized he was on a collision course with several more, no gaps to be seen. He yelled in fear just before he hit a quickly formed ice ramp that sent him and the sled flying over the rocks and into a deep snow drift at the bottom of the hill.

“You okay, buddy?” Jack asked as he floated over the drift Jamie was shakily climbing out of.

“Can we do it again?” Jamie asked with a bright smile.

“Nuh uh, Jamie! It's my turn!” Pippa said, grabbing Jack's arm.

“It's not your turn, it's mine!” Claude said, grabbing Jack's other arm.

“No, mine!” Caleb yelled.

“Me next!” Monty cried, willing to let someone else claim the next turn as long as he got one.

“Hey, hey, calm down. Everyone'll get a turn,” Jack promised with a laugh and a grin right before the chime of a bell reached them. “Right after we answer that. Race you!” He took off with a laugh even as the kids scrambled to follow, whooping and yelling as they ran.

In Burgess, there were several acres of woods perfect for snowball sniping and a pond perfect for skating on in the winter, and right on their edge was a two-story cottage, the bottom floor of which was the best bakery in town. Several other commercial buildings, busy even now that Christmas was long over, tried to crowd the the popular little shop, but the Frosted Cookie bakery was designed to stand out. Coming from the woods, it was easy to imagine it as the gingerbread house owned by Hansel and Gretel's witch, what with it's cheerful, multi-color paint and white gingerbread molding. Above the door hung a silver bell designed with floral frost patterns that rang every time a batch of goodies was out of the oven and ready to eat. Inside were luscious displays all along two walls and a cozy dining area with dozens of pictures hanging from the walls. Opposite the entrance stood double swinging doors, ready to open at a moment's notice.

The children piled inside, shoving each other and dropping gloves and mittens as they searched their pockets for allowance money enough to purchase one of the delectable treats on display in the front of the shop. Mrs. Tildson was just finishing up at the register with Danny, one of the teenagers who eagerly offered to help in exchange for a small salary and any leftover baked goods at the end of the day. She smiled at the children and, as she turned to leave, Jack entered and hung his crook up on the hanger above the door. As soon as the staff was out of his hands, his hair and eyes turned brown and the frost melted off his clothes and Mrs. Tildson blinked up at him in surprise before adjusting her glasses.

“Oh, Jack! I didn't see you come in! Pardon me, but I'd best get this home before I'm tempted to eat it right here!” Mrs. Tildson said with a smile.

“Of course, Mrs. Tildson. I don't think Mr. Tildson would forgive you if you ate it all. But don't worry, I won't tell if you do,” Jack said with a cheeky grin as he moved to hold the door open for her.

“Jane's right, you are an imp! But you're the politest imp I've ever met,” Mrs. Tildson told him with a laugh and a cheerful smile as she left the bakery. Jack let the door swing shut even as the kitchen doors burst open, letting out a waft of hot, sweet-scented air and the owner of the shop.

Ms. Jane was a tall, plump woman who had her silver hair up in a practical bun, although the day's work had many strands of it running loose and framing her happy face. She was a pleasant, cheerful woman and everyone thought it was a bit of a joke that she dressed up as a witch every Halloween because she looked nothing like one. Her brown eyes twinkled in joy as she took in the children looking up at her expectantly.

“Here we are! Hot cocoa and cookies fresh from the oven! Don't forget to pay Danny first,” she told them even as she set the tray she was holding on the largest table in the shop.

“Yes, Ms. Jane!” the children chorused before bum-rushing poor Danny standing at the register. Jack quickly counted the servings and noting that there were enough for the kids but not for him as well, started edging towards the kitchen doors. He got caught before he could sneak through them.

“Away with you, imp! I'll not have you melt in my kitchen!” Jane said, grabbing the back of his hoodie and tugging him away from the doors before shoving him down on a stool behind the counter.

“Sit. Stay.”

“I'm not a dog,” Jack reminded her.

“No, dog's are better trained,” Jane replied as she pulled a plate of cookies out of the freezer they kept the ice-cream cakes in (and that also helped hide the door leading to the upstairs). Danny snerked, making Jack give him an evil look and move him to the top of his mental list of people who needed a handful of snow down the back of their shirts. However, he perked right up when Jane set the cooled cookies down in front of him.

“Yes! Thank you!”

“You're welcome, Jack,” Jane said as she headed back toward the kitchen, but added, “Put it on his tab, Danny,” before she disappeared into the other room. Danny dutifully wrote down the cookies on Jack's tab, which was actually a bit of a running joke. Everyone who worked in the Frosted Cookie Bakery knew Jack never paid his tab. Ms. Jane didn't hire anyone who couldn't see Jack Frost while he was holding his staff, mostly because rule number one was “Don't Let Jack In The Kitchen”. Once that was done and making sure the kids were absorbed in the cookies and cocoa, Danny turned to talk to Jack.

“Hey, Mark's having a party at his house tonight. He told me to let you know you're invited.”

Jack made a face around his mouthful of cookie before swallowing and reply, “Tell him I appreciate it, but no thanks. There's no way I'm showing my face this close to Valentine's Day.”

Danny nodded, having expected something like this. Jack had a weird relationship with the teenagers of Burgess. For some reason, despite growing up seeing him both with the staff and without, about the time the hormones hit big time, the people of Burgess stopped believing in Jack Frost. Oh, some held out for quite awhile, like the teens who helped in the bakery, and some even lasted long into adulthood, like Mrs. Worley and Old Man Greenbow, but most just... stopped. Like Mrs. Tildson just a few minutes ago, they not only couldn't see Jack when he was holding his staff, but ignored everything odd about him.

When asked about who the heck the boy wandering around the bakery was, most people came up with some weird story of how Jack was obviously Ms. Jane's grandson with the weird rare disease that made him pass out from heat exhaustion the moment it started getting warm, which was why he was home-schooled instead of attending the local high school. The “disease” was also why the “poor dear” couldn't help his “grandma” with the bakery and why he spent most of the year shut up in his room with the air conditioner running full blast. People just looked at you blankly when you asked why he ran about without shoes.

Despite most of the town thinking Jack had some weird disease, he was very well liked. Once the hormones hit, most of the girls and a few of the guys started swooning over Jack, much to the irritation of the rest of the guys and the occasional girl. Still, being able to skip school was considered “cool” and the believers made a point to invite Jack to parties because, quite frankly, the guy was a lot of fun. It helped that Jack tried to discourage his fans, avoiding the girls when possible and letting them down gently when it wasn't. The popularity of Twilight hadn't helped, though, because even the female believers had missed the boat where a relationship with a centuries-old guy was a bad idea and they were no longer helping steer their friends in a different direction.

“Afraid the fact you sparkle in the sunlight will get you more fangirls?” Danny teased. The look Jack gave him in response promised cold, snowy pain, but Danny had grown up with an attitude to snowball fights that amounted to “Bring it” and was currently the best pitcher on the high school baseball team and thus was unphased. He was so looking forward to the end of his shift. Their conversation, such as it was, probably would've continued in that vein if Jamie Bennett wasn't such a curious kid.

“Hey, Jack? How old is that picture?”

Jack and Danny both looked up to see Jamie gesturing at the oldest picture of the bunch up on the wall. The posing was stiff because back then you had to be still for a long time or you'd ruin the picture, but the people in the picture were very recognizable as a dark-haired Jack and the white-haired Ms. Jane.

“I don't know,” Jack admitted, fingers rubbing against the hair of his head as he thought. “Some time in the 1840s, I think. Photographs were still pretty new, I remember.”

Danny saw when it clicked in the kid's head. Jamie had just put together what the photographs, the gingerbread cottage, and Ms. Jane's annual Halloween costume meant. It wasn't like she tried to hide it, after all. It was all right in the open for everyone to see. But if the people of Burgess were stupid about Jack Frost, they were even worse at realizing Ms. Jane was a witch.

“Don't worry about it,” Jack said, coming out from behind the counter and giving Jamie a friendly head-rub, making the kid sputter in indignation, which was probably the point. Jack then reached up and grabbed his staff from its place above the door, twirling it like it didn't weigh a thing (and maybe it didn't. No one touched Jack's staff, so Danny didn't know), before letting the end hit the floor with a crack.

“I seem to remember promising a couple of kids sled rides.”

Danny rolled his eyes at the ensuing riot, but helped find lost gloves, mittens, and hats before cleaning up after the kids. Snagging one of the now thawed cookies Jack had left behind, Danny cheerfully went about his job. He had a snowball fight after work to look forward to.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The snowball fight earlier with not only Danny but a few other of Jack's teenaged believers had left Jack in a great mood as he went about his work. Michigan and Ontario were due a snow storm, as was Denmark. He'd even stopped to add some frost designs to the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris before heading home. He'd just gotten back to Burgess and was making especially delicate frost designs on little Betty Worley's windows because she couldn't totter outside very easily thanks to her hip replacement when he noticed the shadow moving oddly. Worse, it was moving oddly right outside Cupcake's bedroom window. With a sharp frown and narrowed eyes, Jack went to investigate. Getting into Cupcake's room was easy; like most of the kids in Burgess, she always left the window open a crack so both Jack and the Sandman could drop by. In fact, Sandy was on his rounds right now, the golden glow of his sand visible from the window. But there was no golden sand in this room. Only a little girl curled up in bed, frightened whimpers dragged from her throat by the vicious little nightmare of black sand running circles above her head. Jack froze it solid and Cupcake woke with a gasp. Cupcake's eyes darted frantically around the room before finally resting on Jack. Then he was left trying not to fumble the frozen nightmare while trying to simultaneously hug and calm down the crying girl.

“Hey. Hey, it's okay, Cupcake. I'm here. Shh.” When her crying slowed, Jack added, “That's a good girl. Now I need you to do something for me.”

“What?” Cupcake asked, arms tightening around Jack enough that he winced as his ribs creaked. Strewth, he hoped she didn't grow up to become one of his admirers. She'd break him in half like a twig if he turned her down.

“Nothing big. I want to teach you how to get rid of nightmares.”

“Really?” she said, peering up at him with eyes full of hope. “How?”

“You know how in Harry Potter they point at the monster that jumps out of the closet and call it ridiculous and it turns into something funny or something funny happens to it?” Once Cupcake nodded, Jack continued, “Well, that's what we're going to do. When you find yourself in the middle of a nightmare, you just have to point at it and laugh at it until it's a good dream again.”

“But Harry Potter and the others had wands and magic. I don't have a wand or magic,” Cupcake pointed out.

“It's your dream. Who says you can't have a wand or magic in your dream?”

Cupcake's head tilted to the side and her eyes narrow as she contemplated this, but then she shrugged, accepting his logic.

“Ready?” Jack asked, holding out the nightmare. The ice was holding for now, but he knew that if he didn't keep a hold on it, it would eventually thaw and escape back to its master.

“Wait,” Cupcake said, pulling back in fear.

“It's okay. I'll be right here.”

Cupcake eyed the nightmare warily before a determined look settled firmly on her face. She looked up at Jack and gave him a nod. He handed her the nightmare, letting it thaw as he did. Cupcake flinched but held it tight even as it whinnied threateningly.

“Ridiculous,” Cupcake whispered fiercely to whatever vision she was now seeing, “It's all ridiculous. That would never happen. …and what is Monty wearing?” The giggle was sudden and unexpected, but the moment it erupted, the black sand started turning gold. Cupcake blinked, coming out of the vision only to give her cupped hands a surprised look, only seeing golden sand. She looked up at Jack, who gave her a proud smile.

“You did it! Now it's late and time for all good little girls to be in bed.” Jack blew gently on the sand so it rose in the air and framed the girl's head like a golden halo. She yawned and laid back down on the bed, eyes closing and a happy, peaceful look on her face. Jack pulled up the blankets and tucked her in.

“Night, kiddo.”

“Night, Jack,” Cupcake managed before Sandy's new connection with the sand swept her away with a sweet dream.

Jack climbed out of her window, closing it behind him, and landed lightly on the ground, staff held tight in his hand. Looking around, he held his staff in a ready position and called out, “I know you're here. You shouldn't have come. If I find out you've gone near any of the others...”

“You'll what, Jack?”

Jack swung around and sent a burst of ice in the direction of the shadow that talked. It hit the wall and disembodied laughter rang in the street.

“Temper, temper, Jack.” Jack chased after the moving shadow, sending out bursts of ice that never quite hit. It disappeared in an alley along the backside of a building, the only light coming from the nearby gas station. Jack landed on the ground, staff at the ready, swinging every time movement caught the corner of his eye.

“You stay away from them. They're my kids!” Jack yelled even as he scanned the area for movement.

“So possessive,” Jack heard the Boogeyman murmur. He turned in the direction he'd heard the voice come from with a scowl only to be caught off guard when he was hit by something solid from an entirely different direction. Air burst out of his lungs in a huff as he found himself pushed roughly against a wall by Pitch Black. The taller spirit made sure to pin the hand holding the staff at the wrist and away from Jack's body to keep it out of play even as his other hand tightened around Jack's neck, forcing Jack to claw at it with his free hand to keep from being choked.

“Oh, Jack, have you forgotten? Everything you own is mine.”

“The hell it is!” Jack spat only to cry out in pain as Pitch twisted his wrist to just shy of the point of breaking, making Jack drop the staff. Jack panicked when it left his grip, struggling to reach it even as humanity fell around him like a cloak. Pitch moved and the next thing Jack's hysterical brain noted was Pitch pulling Jack's back firmly against him, one arm wrapped around Jack's arms and torso at the elbows so Jack's arms were pinned. Pitch's free hand moved like a caress at Jack's neck before gripping Jack's chin almost painfully.

“Have you forgotten your oath already, Jack?” Pitch asked, breath hot and humid against Jack's ear. “You belong to me.”

Jack's breath hitched when Pitch let go of his chin only to run his hand teasingly down Jack's chest, stopping above his heart. Jack started struggling even harder, uncaring that his fear was feeding the bastard because he knew what Pitch wanted – Pitch had gotten far too close to taking it before. All of the fight left him when Pitch pressed in, not physically but spiritually, in a way that left Jack aching in his very soul.

“Stop it,” Jack whispered even as a vision of a Gordian knot formed of black, red, gold, and silver threads rose in his mind. Grey fingers with sharp black nails picked delicately at the knot, making some of the loops loosen and others constrict.

“Let's untangle this, shall we?” Pitch said, voice searing against Jack's ear and echoing in his head at the same time. A finger took a loop, gold in color, and stretched it taut. “Or perhaps we should just cut through it.”

Alarm that didn't belong to Jack suddenly rang through him and Pitch cursed as the strands all suddenly tensed and jerked, gold and silver and red first followed swiftly by black as it tried to keep up. The knot compressed so fast that Jack was left without a single breath in his body and an inability to draw in more, like someone had punched him in the solar plexus. Then gold surrounded him – not the thread but a whip – yanking him out of Pitch's grip even as a second whip forced the Boogeyman back. Sandy was there, fierce in his anger as he placed himself protectively in front of Jack, who found himself gasping for air and scrambling for his staff. His fear dampened as he took hold of the rough wood, finding comfort in the cold and the immortality it offered, and he stood tall and firm behind Sandy, ready to protect the other's back. Pitch's face had twisted in anger, but, after his eyes twitched, taking in the situation, it smoothed to impassivity.

“Very well, I can see where I'm not wanted.” He gave Jack a twisted little smile as he said, “I'll see you later.” Then he was gone, all of the shadows just normal shadows.

“Thanks, Sandy,” Jack said, leaning against his staff for support as the adrenaline drained out of him, leaving him feeling shaky. A series of images appeared over Sandy's head, making Jack smile.

“Yeah, I'm fine. Normally I can take the bastard. He just caught me by surprise is all.”

Sandy gave him a look before letting it drop and bringing up a different topic, a horse growing all spiky before splitting into two and then four.

“You've noticed them too, huh? He's getting bolder,” Jack admitted. “He usually leaves Burgess alone because my kids know how to defeat the nightmares. The fact he feels comfortable coming out here is... not a good sign.” The silver thread he could no longer see but could always feel there, just under his skin, stopped thrumming in pleading worry and jerked demandingly. Jack winced as the order settled in his mind, clear and distinct without a single loophole to exploit. Jack grimaced and rubbed at his chest. Jane was tugging on the binding, demanding he come home right away. She must have felt Pitch tugging at the oaths. She always turned frantic when she became aware the Boogeyman was creeping about.

“Do me a favor, little man. I've got to get going, but you'll let your fellow Guardians know Pitch is up to something, right?”

Sandy nodded eagerly.

“Thanks, Sandy. See you later,” Jack told Sandy before leaving, walking slowly instead of flying, feeling irritated at the order forcing him home. Jack was rebellious and would have preferred to take care of things himself, but he would have to settle for the Guardians being alerted while he obeyed Jane. There were times he hated being bound and having to obey her, and now was one of them. She tried to make up for the downsides of the binding. She tried to give him as much freedom as the binding allowed and she tried to make the bakery as much a home for him as possible, even in the summer when the heat became unbearable. She did everything in her power to make things better – except undo the binding. To be fair, though, there were so many different bindings and oaths tangled together that she couldn't undo hers without something bad happening. So he rebelled in this small way, kicking rocks and glaring at empty shadows, and then felt guilty for it once he reached the bakery and saw how frantic she was first hand. Once he was safely inside, she grabbed him up in a hug, clinging desperately.

“I'm sorry about the order, Jack. I know you hate them, but what if he'd managed to grab you again? I can't... I can't lose you like that, not again.”

“You won't, Janey. Pitch can't take me while the oaths and bindings are still here. You know that.”

“I know. I know! I just...” She squeezed him harder before finally drawing back so she could look him in the eye.

“It'll be okay, Janey. I promise,” Jack said, giving her the cheeky grin that always made her smile. It worked, her lips twitching up even as she shook her head.

“Don't make promises you can't keep, imp.”

“Oh, this one I will. Cross my heart.”

After all, Jack reflected as he headed upstairs with Jane, there were much worse things in the world than to be owned by the Witch of Burgess.