Jack perched on the back of the sleigh, watching as his pond faded into the distance. North had decided to fly far enough away that the children wouldn't see him open a portal before he used the snowglobes, rather than give more of them ideas and to keep them somewhat secret.
Besides, the kids expected them to fly off in the sleigh when it showed up. North may not have interacted with the kids in a long time, but Jack had already learned the famous spirit had a definite flare for the dramatic.
He glanced back over his shoulder and gave a soft smile, knowing they couldn't see him, as he watched Bunny nuzzling at the side of Sandy's head. Tooth fluttered from her perch on the side of the sleigh to drape an arm around Sandy and snuggle close, neither Guardian likely to let the smallest of them out of their sight – or arm's reach – for some time.
Jack couldn't blame them – if there was room, he'd like to be down there with them. For the moment, though, he kept himself to the top riser of the sleigh. He may have taken the oath, but it had been something of an impulse decision, and he still wasn't sure he could really call himself one of them. Not yet, at least. Maybe in time, he'd really be a Guardian, but for now, despite the oath and the knowledge of why he was chosen, the position still felt tenuous.
“So, where to?” North asked from the front of the sleigh. “The Pole?”
“Zzzzzz?!!” Sandy 'said', the letters appearing above his head almost immediately as he beamed.
Bunny chuckled. “You said it, Sandy. I'm bleeding exhausted.”
“I want some rest too, but...my girls,” Tooth said, wings fluttering, “and the teeth. I can feel my girls again, and they're with the teeth and used them to get the kids believing again, but...they can't get them all home, not in their boxes. I...”
“Cannot rest until all are safe and home, yes? Where do you think Pitch left them?” North said over his shoulder.
Baby Tooth chirped encouragingly from her perch in Jack's hood and he shifted uneasily, unable to keep his silence about finding the baby teeth when Tooth was so worried about them, but unsure how they would take his knowledge.
“I saw them,” he said quietly, shrinking a little into his hood involuntarily as eyes shifted to him before making himself straighten up, though he didn't lower the hood he'd unconsciously pulled up.
“When was that, Frostbite?” Bunny asked, ears tilting towards Jack, who shifted uncomfortably, unwilling to answer while still perking up at the nickname. He wasn't sure he liked it – frostbite was one of the few things he disliked about his main season – but still.
“Well...I'm not sure how to get to them now, the entrance closed,” he said instead, avoiding the question. “But I saw them, earlier. Maybe Baby Tooth can lead us there.”
Sandy twisted until he could face Jack, looking between him and the other Guardians with concern written plainly across his face.
“...Jack...was this...before we saw you this morning?” Tooth said hesitantly. “When you saw my fairies? In...in Pitch's lair?” she guessed, piecing together a few things from that morning and not quite sure what to make of the shape it was forming.
Jack ducked his head, unwilling to look at her, fiddling with his hood.
“Why were you down there?” Bunny asked, Jack's silence telling them it had been in Pitch's lair, wordless confirmation that yes, he had been with Pitch while they'd been attacked by Nightmares.
The question lacked the bite it would have had just that morning.
True, he didn't have the trust in Jack yet that he had in the other Guardians, but...Jack took the oath. He came back. They threw him out, made him feel unwanted, left him alone for three hundred years, near to broke his heart, accused him of treason, not without cause maybe but still – and yet, he came back. There had to be a reason for him to be with Pitch when they needed him. There had to be.
Uncomfortable silence ruled over the sleigh until Sandy got impatient, giving Bunny a hard poke in the side. When Bunny grunted he pointed between the Pooka and Jack demandingly.
There were no words or symbols needed to interpret that look. Sandy wanted answers, and he wanted whatever was hanging over this sleigh cleared up now, thank you very much.
Bunny sighed, exchanging uncomfortable glances with Tooth. North was only left out of Sandy's glare by virtue of driving the sleigh, and he was paying more attention to that particular task than was really necessary in open sky.
Shifting his position in the sleigh, ears flattening against his neck and wincing uncomfortably at each move of the unwieldy vehicle, Bunny turned until he could look back at Jack properly. He sighed again, searching for the words to say. Apologizing was never easy, whether he was acting as a proper, logic-driven Pooka or himself, the emotional Bunnymund he had suppressed for so long.
Actually, given a choice, he would rather show he was sorry, follow them around and prove it than use the words. Words weren't always easy, and they had power, but for an apology, Bunny would rather prove it with actions. It was hard enough to admit to himself when he was wrong. Add in Pooka culture versus human wants and, well, things used to be a lot more...interesting until he got more used to humans and their need for verbal reassurance.
There was still a little voice that tried to claim Jack had betrayed them that morning and didn't deserve any kind of apology, that he should just tell them without coaxing, but it wasn't logical, just hurt talking and he knew it.
Mostly because, despite that little voice, now that he had time to think about it, now that he wasn't hurt and scared (and curse these emotions they made everything so much more difficult at times), it was hard to reconcile the Jack who'd helped them collect teeth, thrown himself into Easter preparations with so much joy and enthusiasm, with a traitor.
...Tooth was better at this, why wasn't Sandy poking her to get her to do this?
“Look, mate, I think we all jumped to conclusions this morning,” Bunny said finally, scratching at an ear uncomfortably and setting his foot back down quickly as the sleigh swayed. “That wasn't right. Pretty poor way to start things off, and I ain't given ya a fair crack 'o the whip before that. We shoulda let you tell us what happened, an' we didn't. Mind tellin' us what happened after ya took the little sheila home now, since we didn't let ya before?”
Sandy tugged at Bunny's fur, drawing their attention. “?” he said, foot tapping as he demanded answers.
“Sophie,” Jack injected, grinning. Bunny rolled his eyes. “Sophie,” he amended, “got her hands on one o' North's globes and got inta the Warren. Frostbite offered to take her home after she fell asleep, and we didn't see 'im again until after the Nightmares destroyed all the googies and Easter was ruined, an' we...kinda jumped ta conclusions about where he'd been, an' with the little fairy missin' an' him havin' his tooth box we jumped ta conclusions about where she went to. So what really happened?” he asked, turning back to Jack, who shrunk away from his gaze.
A soft spot of warmth on his leg drew Jack's gaze to Sandy's understanding eyes as the dreamweaver laid a hand on his leg, urging him to speak. He took a deep breath, fiddling with his staff as Baby Tooth chirped encouragingly.
“Well...um...” he took a hard swallow and deep breath, hands tightening on the familiar wood. “I took Sophie home, like I said I would, but when we left I...I heard someone calling me. Baby Tooth couldn't hear it, but I had to answer. It...it was like a compulsion, or something. I knew that voice, and I...I had to answer when it called me.”
He shifted, refusing to look up at the others yet. “I...ended up in Pitch's lair. I could have sworn I was only down there for a few minutes, but when I got out...it was morning. I'm sorry,” he blurted, finally meeting Bunny's eyes, a wild, desperate look to them that cut to the Pooka's heart. “I should have been there, and...”
Bunny cut him off before Jack could make himself feel worse, this sudden change from the usually confident spirit almost devastating to watch, suddenly desperate to make it stop.
“If we'd been thinkin' clearly this mornin' we'd 'a known that even your power wouldn'ta made that much of a difference, an' that you'd never do something ta hurt Baby Tooth or the kids. We were just scared, after all'a that, an' losin' hope, but ya wouldn't have come back if you'd been workin' with Pitch.” He took a deep breath as he finished, forcing his ears to stop twitching. If there was one thing Bunny hated, it was laying everything out like this, but sometimes it had to be done.
“I think...he wanted you to think that. That I was helping him. But it's still my fault,” Jack said the last part quietly, almost too quietly for any of them to hear – but not quite quiet enough. “I should have been there. I shouldn't have listened to him. He's wrong.”
There were worried glances between Pooka, Sandman, and Tooth Fairy. Jack always acted so confident...but now...how much of that assurance, that cockiness and defiance was a mask made automatic by years of holding it on?
“How do you know Pitch wanted us to think that?” Tooth asked, reaching for Jack, pausing and pulling back at his unconscious flinch. “What did he do while you were down there?”
Jack tried to wave it off as Sandy indicated for him to wait for a moment. He floated up to North, pointing to a spot on the globe. There was a brief flurry of conversation between them, mostly consisting of “Really?” and its like from North before Sandy nodded firmly, pointing again with a sharp stab of his finger.
North shrugged and cracked the reins, urging the reindeer onward as Sandy returned to his previous spot, laying his hand back on Jack's knee.
“Look, it's not a big deal,” Jack protested. Sandy blew sand out his ears and Bunny bit back a growl. They were going to be joined for a long time, if he yelled at Jack for every little thing now it would never work out. Being judgmental had already almost lost him to them, and almost lost them all their believers in the bargain.
Sandy patted Bunny's arm, a gentle reminder to be patient in those ageless eyes, already over his own frustration. Bunny took a deep breath, nose wrinkling. He'd been wrong with every other judgment he'd made about Jack, he had to let go of those rigid definitions or it was all going to fall apart spectacularly. Sometimes he almost missed the days before he let himself be...emotional.
“Whether you think it's a big deal or not, we want to hear it, Frostbite,” Bunny said instead, wishing they could have this conversation on the nice, solid ground as the sleigh rocked again. “Pitch's tried things before, we know what he's capable of.”
Jack slung his staff over his shoulder, grin the others were rapidly becoming aware was the fake smile plastered over his face. “Jack, don't,” Tooth said before he could redirect them. “Please just tell us. What happened in Pitch's lair? What did he do? Wrong about what?”
Jack shifted on the back of the sleigh, suddenly tempted to drop off the back and fly off rather than continue this conversation. But that would mean throwing away the oath, the friendship he was being offered. So despite that overwhelming temptation, he took a deep breath, taking strength from Baby Tooth's encouraging little chirps and the soft pressure of her head rubbing lovingly against his cheek. They were listening this time...maybe they'd listen to all of it?
“It's really not that big of a deal,” he said, swallowing past the knot in his throat. “Just kept following me in the shadows and popping out at me and saying stuff.”
North scowled, directing the reindeer toward an open spot on the ground to land as images of Pitch testing Katherine rushed his mind. “What type of 'stuff'?” he called over his shoulder.
“Well...you know...stuff like how you guys'll never accept me, how I'll just disappoint you and how I always make a mess of everything.”
Three of the sleigh's occupants winced. “An' then we went and confirmed that,” Bunny said wretchedly, saying aloud what they were thinking.
Jack shrugged, fiddling with his staff some more. “If I'd been there...”
“Would have ended same way,” North said as the sleigh slid to a stop, repeating Bunny's earlier words. “Too many tunnels, too many nightmares. Could never have covered them all, even with your help. Easter would still have been destroyed. Rest of story will have to wait. Sandy, we are here.”
“Wherever 'here' is,” Bunny muttered. Sandy beamed and began sending up symbols.
*Eiffel tower, down arrow, skull and crossbones, Pitch profile*
The sleigh was silent as the other Guardians, new and old, puzzled over Sandy's symbols.
“Let's see...Paris...down...skull...The catacombs?” Jack guessed. Sandy beamed, and Jack added, “You think we can get into Pitch's lair through the Paris catacombs?”
A thumbs up greeted his guess, and Jack gave a soft “Yes!” and a fist pump. “Point for me!”
There were a few confused blinks at that while Sandy's sand swirled into a scorecard with a giant one on it and he floated up to give Jack a high five. The others decided silently to just go with the flow rather than ask questions, though they hid soft grins from the celebrating pair.
When was the last time they played with Sandy like that, anyway? Had it really been so long that they couldn't remember?
They piled out of the sleigh and headed into the city streets, North having parked in a back alley that few children saw. The reindeer could guard the sleigh from most things that would dare come near it, though there were few willing to mess with the Guardians so openly as to mess with something as obviously theirs as the sleigh.
There was an opening into the catacombs at the end of the street, behind a high wall and covered with iron bars. Ignoring the many notices warning people to stay away, North hauled the heavy top off the entrance with little more than a grunt, and they all gathered around to look down into the pitch black, echoing darkness of the catacombs, the opening suddenly looking more like a gaping mouth than a simple hole.
“Are you sure about this, Sandy?” Tooth asked, wings fluttering double time. “No one's ever been able to map out the catacombs, even we aren't immune to getting lost down there. It's supposed to be horribly easy to lose your way.”
“No worries, Toothie,” Bunny said quickly, smirking. “Pitch's too weak right now to come after us, and if we get lost I can just open up a tunnel to get us out. We'll already be underground, so it won't be a problem.”
“Oh. Okay,” she agreed. Still, none of them moved to go down, staring down into the tunnel silently. Finally Jack nudged Bunny.
“Dare you to go first.”
Bunny groaned and gave Jack a little shove back. “Ugh, I don't...fine. Fine, or we're gonna stand here all night.”
With a last look at the streets of Paris and a deep breath, Bunny jumped down into the dark tunnel, bypassing the ladder, the others floating (or climbing, in North's case) after him.