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One

 

The first time, Jack doesn't remember it.

 

Before he became a Guardian, Jack usually spent his summers hibernating in Antarctica. It wasn't that there was nowhere for him to go. It was that no one really wanted him around. At least, no one that he could reach. People burning up in the desert might have appreciated his presence, but he tried that once. It didn't go very well. The Wind ended up saving his life that day, sweeping him up thousands of feet in the air, so high up that a human would have frozen to death –if they didn't suffocate first.

 

Now, though, Jack has believers. He's stronger. Strong enough, maybe, to venture into the heat. He always has been a daredevil.

 

He leaves the Antarctic in the afternoon, but by the time he starts to get uncomfortable, it's evening, and he figures he can make it a little further.

 

The wind carries him over the rainforest, the Amazon, he thinks. He's heard of it before. Jamie talks about it sometimes, mentioning all the creatures that might exist there without anyone knowing. Jack's always wanted to see it.

 

He looks ahead, and the dense forest seems to stretch on and on, impenetrable and dark. At last Jack spots a clear patch ahead. "Take me down there," he tells the Wind. The Wind falters, jostles him upward, and veers away. "Oh, come on," Jack says. "Please? I'll be fine," he soothes. The Wind hitches high and begins to turn him around.

 

"Wind," Jack says firmly, beginning to be upset. "Put me down."

 

The Wind dips, and for a terrifying second, Jack's plummeting to the ground like a rock. His heart leaps into his throat as he twists around to see the tree tops rushing towards him, looking far too solid to be comforting. "Woooah—" He yells, but at the last second the Wind sweeps him back up, knocking the breath out of him. Before he can say anything, she deposits him in the clearing he saw earlier. "What the hell—" he starts to ask, but suddenly he's floating on something that definitely isn't the Wind.

 

He looks down to see himself standing on a tiny ice float sprouting from the butt of his staff. The ice is floating on a small river, maybe six or so feet wide, and –suddenly he's falling again. He twists around and finds himself tumbling down a small waterfall, followed by a tiny, glittering pool, followed by two more waterfalls, like stepping stones. He yelps and pushes off the crumbling ice float towards the pool, pointing his staff at the water as he falls and crafting another small ice float for him to land on in the nick of time. More prepared the second time, he leaps off right before the float tumbles over the next fall, and he lands nimbly in another bubbling pool before jumping off again just before the second drop. He does the same with the third.

 

Beaming, he laughs as he lands on another float in the small pool at the bottom of the third waterfall, breathing heavily. "Did you see that!?" he asks the Wind, but there's no answer. He frowns, but the Wind does that sometimes. Despite her love for Jack, Jack knows she can't be everywhere at once.

 

He takes in his surroundings, letting the murky river carry him for the moment. The trees around the river are huge and thick, their mossy trunks wider than the breadth of his arms. Lush ferns and big leafy plants make up most of the undergrowth, and a damp, earthy smell clings to the air. The temperature's similar to that of early fall in Burgess, so while Jack's not exactly comfortable, he's in no danger of overheating.

 

He expected the rainforest to be loud, for birdsong and howls and the low buzz of insects to fill the air, but instead silence falls heavy around him, the only sound to be heard that of the crashing water behind him. It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

 

The urgent need to move fills him, so he walks toward the shore, crackling ice spreading across the surface of the water as his feet touch down. A glimmer of movement in the darkness catches his eye, making him freeze mid-step.

 

Two gleaming yellow eyes peer out at him from the underbrush beside the river, and for a second all Jack can think is, Pitch, before he realizes that there's something off about them. Before he can identify the difference, the eyes disappear into the undergrowth.

 

"Wait!" Jack shouts, but whatever it is doesn't stop.

 

So he goes chasing after it. Because clearly that's what any sane person would choose to do.

 

He's been alive for more than three centuries. He'll do what he likes.

 

He dashes across the rest of the river and crashes into the forest. It's so damp out here that he can't help but leave frost trailing in his wake. Almost tripping several times as he runs, leaves slap him in the face as he chases after flickers of movement and flashes of yellow eyes. The underbelly of the forest is dark and treacherous, and soon Jack doesn't even know which way is which. While before the moon had hung bright over the river, now, on the ground beneath the thick canopy, it's so dark that Jack can barely make out the trees.

 

Jack breathes. Mostly out of habit or comfort, sometimes because he needs air to talk. But he doesn't actually need to breathe. He doesn't need to wheeze or catch his breath. He just… gets tired. Usually not in winter, but now, in summer, in the sticky air and slightly too warm temperature, he can feel himself slowing. As he runs, a painful, searing ache begins to build up in his bones.

 

He smacks into a tree face-first. "Oof." He steps back and shakes his head before scrubbing his hand over his face. "All right, fine, you got me. I'll stop chasing you," he says to the open air. He looks around eagerly, hoping whatever he was chasing will magically appear.

 

It doesn't. Instead, the forest remains still and silent around him. And dark. Very dark. Jack looks up, and not a drop of moonlight spills through the foliage. Definitely Pitch's area, Jack thinks, but it doesn't feel like Pitch. There's no smug laughter, no wicked smiles, no lilting sympathy. It has to be something else.

 

Something else that isn't showing its face. Which, really, "Fine, fine, you don't wanna say hi, make new friends, I get it. I'll just –go?" Jack looks around. It's so dark he can't even see five feet in front of him, and he has no clue which way the river is. "Wind!"

 

The air doesn't shift or change at all. His hair doesn't even flutter.

 

"Wind?"

 

Still nothing. He hops experimentally, trying to summon up a small breeze himself as he sometimes does, but the air's too stagnant and heavy for him to even stir a leaf off the ground.

 

"…Win—"

 

"You don't belong here," a husky, alto voice says from Jack's left.

 

That doesn't sound good. Jack's head jerks towards the voice as he says, "Well, hello to you, too. That's a little harsh, don't you think?" The same pair of eyes he saw before gleams in the darkness in front of him, and now that he's closer, he can see that they're definitely not Pitch's. They're wide and almost round, with a slight diagonal tilt to them. The black pupils, rimmed by irises of cat's-eye-gold, nearly fill the entire eye.

 

The low growl of an animal fills the forest around Jack as the owner of the eyes steps forward. At first glance, she looks like a regular human woman, but as she prowls closer, Jack can make out sleek, golden-yellow fur spotted black covering her body. Short black hair wreathes her face, emphasizing her slightly elongated muzzle of a mouth. Jack glances down and sees paws. She looks like she would gladly eat Bunny for lunch.

 

When the growl tapers off, sending shivers down Jack's spine, she says, "I don't care how harsh you think I am, human. This is my domain, not yours." She eyes Jack up and down. If Jack had to guess, he'd say she looked unimpressed, but it's difficult to read her inhuman eyes. "State your purpose."

 

Jack looks down, suddenly feeling embarrassed. Here he is, a Guardian, and he's just, what? Passing through? And here he thought he was turning into a responsible person. Being? Spirit? Whatever. He looks up and meets her eyes with a guilty grin. "Just exploring the world, actually. It's a nice place you got here."

 

She snarls. Not human-snarls, but full out jungle-cat snarls. "I ought to eat you for your insolence."

 

"Woah, woah, woah!" Jack says, holding up his hands, still with his staff, in what he hopes is appeasement. "Not insolence, I promise. I think this place is great!" She crouches forward, and oh, would you look at that? A tail. "It's beautiful," Jack says. Her skin begins to pulse and writhe. "'A' plus," Jack practically squeaks, eyes widening at the sight in front of him. Oh, MiM, that's a jaguar.

 

The jaguar, no longer a woman, begins to pounce, and Jack ducks down defensively, blindly thrusting his staff towards her. He sends out a burst of ice that definitely hits something, judging by the furious roar, but if anything, it only makes matters worst. Claws rip into his thighs and biceps, and burning jaws close over the back of his neck—

 

"I'm sorry!" he shouts, and the biting pressure of claws and teeth disappear.

 

He uncurls slowly and peeps out from between his fingers. The woman stands a mere foot in front of him, tail swishing back and forth behind her shoulders. Already melting, shards of ice pierce the ground around her. Jack holds perfectly still.

 

She grips his chin with one deceptively soft paw and inspects his face. After a long moment, she says, "Winter has no place here. Nor do humans. Leave now, and I'll spare your life."

 

Jack nods, not daring to speak.

 

She releases him and takes a step back, and Jack feels the insufferable urge to breathe again, despite not needing to. "The next time you come here, I won't be so kind." She steps backwards, footsteps silent as the outline of her body begins to meld with the shadows. "Your kind has done enough already," she murmurs, something old and mournful in her voice, and then even her eyes disappear, leaving Jack alone in the darkness.

 

The rainforest bursts with sound, its foreign howls and screeches and cries impossibly loud in Jack's ears. He hunches over, slapping his hands over his ears, and his knees buckle at the movement. The slashes and cuts from the jaguar-woman's attack burn, sending fiery jolts of agony throughout his body. He stumbles back and leans against the tree for support, clutching his staff to his body. It does no good. He has to move.

 

Awkwardly, he aims his staff at the claw marks on his left thigh and ices it over, only to yelp in pain as the newly formed ice melts with a sizzle. "Wind…," he tries one last time, but there is no answer.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Pitch has just rounded up the last of his nightmares when the niggling fear in the back of his mind rises to tantalizing new levels. It's the fear of a spirit –not his usual source of power, he'll admit, but at this time in his life he can't afford to be choosey, and this fear…. Oh, this fear he wouldn't be able to resist even at the peak of his power.

 

Immediately after the last glittering specks of corrupted dreamsand seep into his robes, he dips into the shadows and follows the fear to its source, a small cave tucked into one of Brazil's mountain's, where he finds—

 

"Jack Frost?" Pitch peers down at the spirit, shivering and curled in on himself with his back pressed up against the damp rock wall.

 

Pitch watches in delight as Jack stumbles to his feet and waveringly points his staff at him. The younger spirit mumbles something darkly, perhaps a threat, and Pitch can't help but laugh. "I'm sorry, what was that? You'll have to speak up."

 

"Stay away!" Jack says hoarsely, jabbing his staff at Pitch, and it must take some considerable effort because the next thing he does is stagger forward, flailing weakly for balance and just barely managing to keep on his feet. He leans heavily on his staff, eyeing Pitch warily. Sweat drips down his face, and his hair lays plastered against his forehead. A visible shiver runs through him, and he clutches his staff like a lifeline.

 

Pitch glances outside the cave. A felled tree lays bars the entrance like a warning, its rotting wood glistening from the humidity. Weak sunlight shines down through the green canopy, and heat lies over the forest like a suffocating blanket. "It's warmer than it should be," Pitch notes. He looks down at Frost. "I wonder if you'll melt."

 

Jack's only response is to glare harder, making Pitch chuckle darkly. He glides forward and begins to circle the younger spirit, enjoying the way he bristles. "I wonder how long it'll take for your precious Guardians to realize you're missing. A year? A century? Perhaps even a millennium."

 

Jack tenses, and Pitch draws a finger over the swell of his shoulders, delighting in the way Jack's fear coils in his gut, festering like an open wound. "Imagine their reactions. 'Oh, that Jack. So careless. So… irresponsible. He'll show up eventually.' They probably won't ever realize you're dead."

 

Pitch stops in front of Jack and brings his right hand up to graze Jack's rosy cheeks, meeting Jack's fierce glare with sympathetic eyes. "After all, it's not like they need you anymore." Pitch uses a foot to nudge the boy's staff out from beneath him, and the younger spirit comes toppling forward. For a split second, Pitch considers holding the boy up, but then he smirks and steps back, letting Jack crumple to the ground.

 

Abruptly the fear Pitch had been enjoying so much flickers out like a burnt out light, and Pitch feels empty, like he's been punched in the gut.

 

At his feet, Jack lies motionless. "You really are dying, aren't you?" Pitch murmurs. He slips his shadows around Jack's limbs and lifts the spirit up to eye-level. His eyes closed, Jack remains limp and malleable, his head lolling backwards. Claw marks peek out from beneath rips in his pants and hoodie, and at the touch of a shadow, the boy's head tips forward, baring the back of his neck. Pitch lets his fingers flutter over the shallow teeth marks there, and the heat radiating from the wounds confirms his suspicions.

 

Pitch has imagined Jack's death before, but he never imagined anything like this: slow and creeping and completely out of Pitch's control. Jack deserves better, he decides, and he will not die until Pitch allows it.

 

The guttural growl that reverberates throughout the forest solidifies Pitch's decision, and the Nightmare King sinks back into the shadows, taking the winter spirit with him.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Jack dreams of fire. It sweeps through him, twisting through his veins and burning every thought and feeling away until all that is left is raw and consuming agony. "Please," he begs, but he doesn't know for what.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Pitch watches expressionlessly as Jack writhes on the bed, mouth open in a silent scream. Were it born of fear, Pitch would have been thrilled. Instead, it's born of pain and struggle for survival, none of which Pitch is responsible for. Pitch doesn't like it.

 

He sits beside Frost and watches the flames do their work, burning away the Jaguar's sunlight. If Frost keeps fighting it, though, all Pitch's work will be for nothing. He strokes his fingers through Jack's sweaty hair, shushing him and soothing him in equal measure.

 

Jack doesn't get better, though. His skin remains hot and sweaty to the touch, and Pitch is beginning to wonder if he'll ever wake up.

 

"Fire with fire, Jack," he murmurs, cupping Jack's cheek and leaning in close. "Let it in," he murmurs. Or you'll burn until there's nothing left.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Let it in, a voice says, and he remembers that voice. He can't identify it, but he remembers it. He doesn't remember liking it, but he remembers that it understood. He knows, somehow, that it has always rung with truth.

 

He lets the fire in.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Pitch sighs in relief as Jack begins to scream aloud. Because now that the screams have finally started, it means that they will, eventually, stop.

 

And so they do. The screams die down into sobs, the sobs into whimpers, and the whimpers into shuddering breaths. As the spirit's breath begins to even out, Pitch inspects the wounds left by the Jaguar, and what he finds is pale, unbroken skin, dark shadows of claw marks the only evidence of Jack's most recent brush with Death.

 

Jack's breath is soft and steady, and Pitch allows himself the ephemeral illusion that the boy wants to be here. He brushes the damp white hair out of the younger spirit's face, the skin of Jack's cheek cool and smooth to the touch. Pitch is sure they'll get back to hating each other as soon as Jack's better, but in this one brief moment, Pitch finds peace in Jack's presence. He cradles the spirit's face in one hand and leans in to brush his lips against Jack's forehead, but just before he can, Jack shifts and nuzzles into Pitch's hand.

 

The contact startles Pitch, making him draw away, and he snaps back to his senses.

 

He scowls at the boy in the bed and snatches his hand away. Jack is his enemy, and worse, he's an immortal teenager who couldn't possibly begin to grasp the enormity of the life Pitch has led. What they both need, Pitch decides, is distance.

 

He contemplates giving the boy one more night of rest, but Pitch knows himself. He doesn't need to complicate this any further.

 

So he whisks the boy away and dumps him into the unsuspecting North's arms. "Take better care of your friends," he snaps drawls, and before North, narrowing his eyes as he clutches Jack closer, can attack, Pitch disappears back into the shadows.

 

And if he begins to send Jack nightmares of burning in the summer, of the Guardians and Jamie mourning his death in unhealthy ways, and if Sanderson fails to stop him, well, no one else needs to know.

 

 

 

Two

 

 

Jack wakes up freezing and pale.

 

He feels great!

 

He hops out of bed and stretches. If his dim memories are correct, he's in the North Pole. He looks around, and the warm wooden walls, heavy scarlet curtains, and broad open doorway seem to confirm his suspicions. He sees his staff leaning against the wall, and he goes to pick it up. Just as his fingers close around it, North tromps through the doorway and sweeps him up into a great big bearhug. "Jack!" Jack startles slightly then hugs back with a bright grin. "You are awake!"

 

"Hey there, big guy," Jack says roughly, his voice hoarse from overuse and his ribs aching from being crushed. "Mind letting up a bit?"

 

"Of course, of course." North sets him down and grips him by the shoulders, peering into his eyes. "How do you feel?"

 

"Great, actually. But, uh, how'd I get here? And how am I—" Jack gestures up and down his body. "You know, alive?" Jack grins. "Relatively speaking, of course."

 

And thus begins North's tale. Pitch drops off a nearly dead Jack, North and the Yetis nurse him back to health, and—

 

"Woah, hold up, why did Bunny go after Pitch?"

 

"Because Pitch did this to you, no?"

 

Jack shakes his head. "No, no, that was the cat lady. I was—"

 

"Cat lady? Cats did this to you?" North squints at Jack, brow furrowed in concern. "Did you hit head, Jack?"

 

"No –I mean, yes. Maybe? It doesn't matter. Pitch didn't do this, I mean. I think he actually…." Jack looks at the ground, trying to remember what happened. "I think he saved me," he says in realization.

 

"Are you sure?"

 

Jack thinks of fire and cool fingers stroking his forehead. "Yeah, I'm sure." He looks back up at North. "Can I borrow a couple of your snow globes?”

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

"Pitch?" Jack wanders through Pitch's domain, the cavernous tunnels dark and silent. The shadows remain unmoving, and Jack begins to wonder if Bunny scared the older spirit away for good. "Here, Pitchy, Pitchy, Pitchy," Jack singsongs, his voice echoing off the walls. It sounds like he's saying 'bitchy'. Nice. "Come on, your highness, I promise I'm not going to attack you. And I'm sorry if Bunny did," he tacks on. "I'm gonna call him off, I swear."

 

"Then why aren't you in the Warren, Jack?" Pitch's disembodied voice asks.

 

Jack spins around, but the tunnel remains empty. He sighs and leans on his staff. "Really, Pitch? You're the Nightmare King, not the King of Drama. You gonna give me a face to talk to or what?" First North and his trumpet-playing elves, then Pitch and his poetic speeches –sometimes Jack just can't believe the theatrics of the other spirits.

 

A dark flicker in the corner of his eye makes Jack spin back around, but there's nothing there. "And what would fear be without a little drama?" Pitch's voice echoes.

 

"A little more boring, I guess," Jack answers. He looks down, idly picking at his fingernails. Pitch will show his face eventually.

 

Right on cue, a warm hand seizes his chin and jerks him forward. Jack pulls back but can't escape the harsh grip. He brings his staff up defensively as Pitch looms over him. "It was a rhetorical question," Pitch sneers. He lets go of Jack's chin and begins to walk away.

 

Jack trots to catch up and begins walking at Pitch's side. "Look, Pitch, I just wanted to say thank you. For saving my life."

 

Pitch looks askance at Jack. "It's an awfully long way down just to say thank you." He smirks, and shadows wrap around Jack's limbs and waist. Jack struggles and twists, but the shadows hold him firmly. He thinks of attacking, but Pitch hasn't hurt him yet. The guy really does love his drama. "Not to mention dangerous," Pitch murmurs.

 

The shadows snap backwards, taking Jack with them. "Hey!" Jack yelps. His back hits the wall of the tunnel with a painful thud, and rock digs into his spine. Now that was just uncalled for.  

 

With a twist of the wrist, he manages to grab one of the shadows with his free hand and forces it to ice up. He points his staff at Pitch, and his own action makes him pause. If Pitch really meant to hurt him, why wouldn't he take Jack's staff away? Jack frowns.

 

Pitch ignores the staff and steps up to him, invading Jack's personal space so much so that the younger spirit presses back up against the wall. The Nightmare King eyes Jack consideringly.

 

Jack cocks his head to the side. "Why did you save my life?"

 

For a moment, Pitch seems to stiffen, but then he loosens and gives Jack a sharp-toothed grin. "Still searching for validation, Jack? Have the Guardians really ignored you that badly?" He cups Jack's cheek with one hand, making Jack flinch. Pitch tuts. "And you're still not even used to human contact. Now that is telling." All the shadows holding Jack, excepting the one he froze, shift and coil, tightening around his body just to the point of pain. It should anger Jack, but the mention of human contact makes Jack hyperaware, his skin tingling from the pressure of the shadows around him, and there's something about the feeling that makes a pleasant heat stir in his gut. Jack decides to ignore it. Pitch does not, murmuring, "Perhaps I can help you out." He seems to loom closer, his face angling downward, lips drawing nearer—

 

"Oh, I don't think so," Jack says, realizing what Pitch intends to do. Jack might be desperate, and Pitch might know it, but he's not that desperate. He twists, and the frozen length of shadow shatters as he shoots ice out of his staff, forcing Pitch to dodge and step back. The rest of the shadows release him, and he settles forward, guardedly watching Pitch, now standing in the center of the hallway with a scowl on his face.

 

Jack's heart pounds, and his skin feels oversensitive, the inside of his hoodie soft against his arms and the previously unnoticeable draft tickling his ears. His skin tingles where the shadows were wrapped around his body. Damnit, he thinks. He thought he'd gotten over the whole touchy-feely thing.  

 

Pitch watches him evenly. "You've overstayed your welcome, Jack. I think it's time you leave."

 

"Aww, so I was welcome in the first place. And here I thought you hated me," Jack can't help but say.

 

Pitch's eyes narrow dangerously, and his shadows surge forward again, pinning Jack back to the wall. This time, the younger spirit just grins, but the grin doesn't reach his eyes. Pitch had a point about Jack being touch-starved, and Jack will take what he can get. "This is gonna get real old, real fast, I can tell," Jack quips. 

 

He makes no effort to fight as the shadows twist around him. "I could keep you here," Pitch says in a low voice. "I could lock you in a cage and hide you away from the world for eternity. No one would ever know."

 

"And where would be the fun in that?" Jack asks, tensing even as he feigns lightheartedness, frost crackling up and down his staff.

 

The shadows recede, dropping Jack to the floor, and Pitch steps back once more. "Where, indeed?" he murmurs. He turns away, gaze distant, and begins to walk down the tunnel again. He gestures at Jack dismissively. "Go. Before I change my mind."

 

Jack almost snorts, thinking to himself, Drama king, but even he knows when enough is enough. He pulls one of North's snow globes out of his hoodie pockets and tosses it in the opposite direction of the Boogeyman. A portal to the Warren opens up, and just before Jack jumps in, he calls out, "See you around, Pitch!"

 

 

Three

 

It's during Jack's pointless little 'thank you' visit that Pitch makes a startling, but perhaps not surprising, realization. He wants to fuck Jack Frost. He wants to see the boy tremble and gasp. He wants to watch him shatter in the best of ways.

 

This is… new. He hasn't really wanted anyone since that little stint with Oya back in the 19th century. But now here he is, wanting Jack.

 

Pitch has never been one to deny himself, but he has to admit, he might have to deny himself this. Had he met Jack before he became a Guardian, wrapping the winter spirit around his fingers would have been easy. Now matters are more complicated. Jack would be more wary, more suspicious, and, were they actually to do anything, prolonged exposure to Pitch might make Jack quicker to catch onto Pitch's plans.

 

Honestly, a quick fuck is just not that high on Pitch's list of priorities.

 

But what if it wasn't a quick fuck? Pitch wasn't making a meaningless quip when he pointed out Jack's flinch. The flinch could have been caused by Jack's fear of Pitch himself, but Pitch has a feeling he was right about Jack being touch-starved. He could use that.

 

And imagine if he could sway Jack over to his side. He couldn't before, but he was rushing then. He was too quick to push, too impulsive and overbearing. Maybe this time, if he takes his time with it, he could actually get somewhere with Jack. At the very least, he'd buy himself some time by dividing the boy's loyalties.

 

It's a possibility, at the very least. Pitch will have to observe Jack some more before he puts any plans into action.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Pitch has always made a point of foiling the Fae. Stealing children away by emptying their heads of fear and worry and planting false joy in their hearts --it's all very crass, he's always thought. So when he follows Jack's fear and finds the spirit trying to stop a child from stepping into a fairy ring, Pitch is happy to step in.

 

The child's some twenty feet away from the ring, her eyes glazed over and her body swaying as she walks towards the ring. Jack's frosting the ground in front of her, but it's mid-summer, and the ice melts into slush beneath her feet.

 

"Come on, Justice, please, you gotta get away from here," Jack begs, blocking her way, but the girl steps right through him. "Please!"

 

"Having trouble, Jack?" Pitch asks, stepping out of the shadow of a tall oak tree.

 

Jack's attention wavers between the girl, drawing ever closer to the seemingly innocuous ring of mushrooms, and Pitch. "What do you want, Pitch?" he growls, hitting the girl in the back of the head with a snowball. She doesn't even flinch. When she returns to consciousness, cold and wet, she definitely won't be happy.

 

"Why, I only want to help," Pitch drawls. Four or five more steps, and the girl will be lost. Jack really has no choice. "If you ask nicely, of course." Jack glares at him, trying to read his expression. Pitch keeps his face frustratingly blank.

 

Three more steps. Jack attempts to draw up a wall of ice in front of the girl. The wall crumples, and the girl steps right through the puddle it forms.

 

Two more steps.

 

One—

 

"Please, Pitch!"

 

Shadows encircle the girl, filling her heart with fear. She screams and stumbles back. Her eyes widen, her lungs heave, and she looks around frantically. "Jill?" she calls out. "Malala?" She looks around, and Pitch makes the shadows of the forest deepen around her. "Chris?" she whispers, eyes darting around. Pitch drags one of his shadows across the ground, making it slither over the leaves and twigs like a great, invisible snake.

 

Pitch watches with a smug, satisfied smile as the girl turns tail and runs.

 

He turns toward Frost to find the younger spirit watching him warily. "Why'd you do that?" Jack asks.

 

Pitch's smile grows, and he glides closer. "Perhaps I was feeling like a good Samaritan." 

 

"Oh, really?" Jack asks, crossing his arms.

 

Pitch begins to circle, forcing Jack to turn with him to maintain eye contact. "It's not that difficult to believe, is it?" Pitch asks. "I suppose you know what happens when a child steps into a fairy ring…." Jack nods curtly, lips curling downward into a grimace, so Pitch continues, "Why should I allow the Fae to steal children when children are the ones keeping me alive?"

 

Something on Jack's face shifts, and he settles back and leans on his staff, grinning lightly. "So this was really all about self-preservation, huh?"

 

Pitch pauses.

 

"You had no good intentions? No 'protective impulses'?" Jack asks with a quick laugh. "It was all about you, right?"

 

Pitch narrows his eyes at Jack. "Your point?" he asks flatly, not liking where Jack's going with this.

 

"I think somebody cares," Jack singsongs.

 

A scowl flashes across Pitch's face before his expression smooths over. "And if I do? Is it really so unbelievable that I might care about a child's welfare?"

 

Jack blinks, thrown, and Pitch circles around to Jack's back, tendrils of shadow creeping around the younger spirit's feet. Now he's got Jack's attention. Before Jack can offer a retort, Pitch tsks. "The Guardians may be naïve enough to equate fear with evil, but I expected better from you, Jack."

 

Jack sighs in exasperation and turns around to glare at Pitch, now a mere two feet away. "You're not seriously gonna go on about the whole 'cold and dark' thing again, are you? Really?"

 

Pitch halts and his gaze sharpens. "I'd like to try something new, if you'll allow me. You need fear in the world." Pitch cuts Jack off before he can protest. "You saw it just now with dear little Justice. You know what would have happened had I not shown up." Jack's gaze flicks over to the fairy ring, eyes narrowing dangerously. Pitch steps closer, and Jack's gaze drags away from the ring reluctantly to meet Pitch's again. "I want to help. You just have to let me." He moves to grip Jack by the shoulders, but the moment his fingers graze the rough cloth of Jack's hoodie, the younger spirit leaps away and hovers in the air just out of Pitch's reach.

 

Too heavy-handed, Pitch thinks, resisting the urge to snatch Jack out of the air with his shadows.

 

"Damnit, Pitch, I've had enough of your games!"

 

Oh, that's just too precious. "But I thought you liked—"

 

Jack swoops down to shake a finger in Pitch's face. "Don't even—"

 

"—games, Jack," Pitch finishes innocently.

 

Jack looks torn between yanking his own hair out and shaking Pitch by the shoulders. He opts for jabbing his staff into Pitch's chest. "Damnit, Pitch. Would you just—" Jack sags. "—lay off?" he finishes weakly.

 

Pitch looks down, eyeing the cold staff still pressed against his chest with disdain. He raises his right hand and gingerly pushes it off to the side with his index finger before looking back up at Jack. Instead of following up with a retort, Pitch bites his tongue and holds his palms up in submission, waiting. For a moment, Jack stares at him incredulously, then deflates and sinks back to the ground in front of Pitch. "What do you want, Pitch?"

 

Pitch sways forward, as if to reach out, but then holds himself back. Jack's finally started to settle. It wouldn't do to scare him away just yet. "I want many things," Pitch says.

 

This sets Jack off again. He jumps forward into Pitch's space and, this time, grabs Pitch by the shoulders and shakes. "Whatdoyouwantfromme!?" Jack shouts in Pitch's face. The Nightmare King stares back, completely unfazed.

 

Jack leaps away and begins to pace and gesture, his movements quick and jerky. "First you ignore my existence. Then you try to take over the world and decide, hey, we should totally be best friends, but since I said no, you pretty much tried to kill me. And now you wanna be friends again? Or partners or allies or something?" Jack pauses and turns to Pitch sharply. His voice slows and dips downward as he asks flatly, "You're not trying to turn me into your minion, are you?"

 

"No, I'd say the Man in the Moon already has that covered," Pitch drawls.

 

Jack zips back up into the air in front of Pitch to glare in the older spirit's face, their noses almost touching. "I'm nobody's minion."

 

Keeping his expression soft and only mildly amused, Pitch reaches up slightly to wrap his hands around Jack's free hand and the elbow of the arm bearing his staff. Jack startles but warily allows Pitch to draw him closer, his feet sinking to a mere inch above the ground, as Pitch says, "Come now, what's a little banter between friends?"

 

"We're not friends," Jack growls, touching down and trying to tug away, but this time Pitch holds him close. To Pitch's satisfaction, Jack makes no more effort to pull away.

 

Pitch hums noncommittally, eyes trailing down Jack's body before meeting the younger spirit's incredulous gaze. "Then what would you like us to be?”

 

"I –what?" Jack jerks his head back, disbelief written all over his face.

 

Pitch's hands release their grip on Jack only to settle on his waist. Jack's furrowed brow and wide eyes make Pitch smile. "Perhaps I can help you make up your mind," he murmurs. He dips down, lips brushing—

 

Jack flies backward and shoots up into the sky, hovering some ten feet above Pitch's head. Pitch scowls. Things were going so well.

 

"Oh my god, you just—" Jack darts back and forth. Clearly he and Toothiana have been spending too much time together. "But you, I thought–oh my god, so last time that's what you were trying to –Is that why you saved my life!? Because you wanted to –to what? Get laid?" Jack asks, voice hitching upward.

 

"Please," Pitch drawls. "If I wanted to get laid the last person I'd see about it would be you." Honestly, Pitch may not be the fairest of them all, but he has his strengths.

 

Frost blooms on Jack's cheeks. Frankly, it's adorable. "Ohmygod, then why—" He freezes midair, eyes widening. "I have to go," he chokes out, and he's off.

 

A smirk plastered across his face, Pitch watches smugly as Jack zooms into the distance. That went better than he expected.

 

 

Four

 

Winter is not always fun, Jack laments. Too much, and it becomes harsh and biting, bitter and hurtful. Jack knows this far too well.

 

The next winter, Jack has difficulty controlling himself. More followers have given him more power, and at first, he doesn't know how to contain it. Even with the help of the Guardians, by the time he learns, it's too late. Temperatures drop to record lows, ice forms where no ice has been before, the cold touches areas renowned for being warm year-round, and winter spirals out of his control.

 

It hits the homeless the worst.

 

Jack does what he can. For the children who can see him, he does his best to lead them to safety, to warming shelters or a home kind enough to offer them a temporary place to stay. But these places are few and far between, and not all children can see him. More often than not, Jack ends up watching from a distance as their fingers blister and their lips turn blue-black and ice cakes their eyelashes.

 

He knows what he has to do. Every year, he knows what he has to do. It never gets easier.

 

Rina is twenty-two. Her son, Ivan, is six, and her baby, Lily, just seven months old, died in her arms several hours ago. Tears frozen on Rina's cheeks, she clutches the body to her chest.

 

Jack finds them huddled in the corner of a broken-down alley on the South side of Chicago, barely able to move and far from any shelter. It's midnight, and the streets are bare and empty.

 

"Ivan?" Jack murmurs to Ivan. Ivan knows him. They played together in the beginning of winter, before Jack realized how bad it was getting.

 

Ivan doesn't answer.

 

Jack bites his lip and nudges Ivan's foot lightly, holding his breath and trying to contain the cold as much as possible.

 

Ivan blinks sluggishly, eyes taking a moment to focus on Jack. "…Jack?" he croaks, squinting.

 

Jack's face breaks into a painful smile. "Hey, there, buddy."

 

Ivan swallows. "…m'cold," he murmurs.

 

Rina perks up slightly, looking down at Ivan with sad, worried eyes. "Sweetie—" she coughs, then says, voice strained, "there's nobody here."

 

Ivan looks up at her, neck moving stiffly. "S'Jack Frost, Mommy. He's gonna stop it." Ivan looks at Jack, wide-eyed and trusting.

 

Jack sucks in a shuddering breath and forces himself to smile. "Yeah, I'm gonna stop it." He looks back at the entrance of the alley, as if someone will magically appear. No one does. He turns back to Ivan. "Can you walk, Ivan?"

 

Ivan's body twitches, and he shakes his head slightly. "I can't feel my legs," he says innocently, his puffy lips thickening his words.

 

Jack's gaze darts away, and he swallows. "Ivan," he chokes out.

 

Ivan's a tricky little kid. During snowball fights, he uses trees and garbage cans as shields. He ducks behind corners and throws when no one's looking. His aim sucks, and he always misses, but oh, how he loves to play.

 

"Ivan," whispers Rina. "Please…"

 

"Ivan," Jack repeats. "It's time to go to sleep.  When you wake up, everything will be warm again. Okay?"

 

"You swear?"

 

"Cross my heart and hope to die," Jack promises solemnly.

 

"Okay," Ivan says. He looks up at Rina. "Jack Frost is gonna make it stop. He promised."

 

Rina clutches Ivan to herself more tightly, burying her face in his dark black hair. "Of course he did, sweetie." She sighs, a wisp of white vapor ghosting out of her mouth. "Of course he did."

 

Jack watches as Ivan closes his eyes and snuggles closer to his mother. He lets out a sigh of contentment.

 

He and Rina aren't even shivering, Jack notices.

 

He watches as Ivan's breath evens out, already faint and nearly indiscernible, and after a long moment of just watching, of impossible hoping, Jack steps closer. He kneels down in front of the boy and reaches out for the boy's forehead. Just before his palm alights on Ivan's skin, he looks Rina in the eyes. "I'm sorry," he says.

 

He rests his palm on the child's forehead, and a steel blue glow emits from his skin, wreathing Ivan in light.

 

The boy shudders once. Then his breath stops.

 

Rina sees and hunches over, squeezing the boy ever more tightly. "No," she sobs in anguish, burying her face in Ivan's hair. Jack snatches his fingers away as she cups the boy's face with midnight-blue-tinged fingers. "No, no, no." She rocks slightly, but she doesn't seem to have the strength to continue. "Not you, too." She keens, and she looks up at Jack through watery eyes.

 

She sees him.

 

Her eyes narrow, glistening black in the darkness, and Jack staggers to his feet and takes a step back in shock. "You did this," she says in simultaneous wonder and accusation.

 

"I—" Jack's throat closes up, and the words refuse to come.

 

"Who gave you the right?" she asks lowly.

 

Jack shakes his head. "I didn't –I'm sorry," he chokes out. "I'm so sorry. Please—" he reaches out, and she flinches backwards, making him freeze, then draw back, curling his fingers together and bringing his hand to his chest. Shame and guilt tug at his heartstrings, making him hunch in on himself. "I just wanted to make things better," he whispers.

 

Rina stares down at the bodies of Ivan and Lily, and for a second something lost and vulnerable passes over her face. But then the moment is gone and her jaw clenches. She stares at Jack hard. "Take me, too." She moves forward, as if to grab him, but the bodies in her arms hold her back. She doesn't blink as she stares at Jack. "I'm going to die anyway. Please."

 

Jack wants to say something, but anything he could say pales in comparison to what he's about to do. He watches her for a moment, taking in the cold bodies clutched to her bosom, the blackened, swollen tips of baby fingers peeking out of the thin blanket, the blistering skin on Ivan's bare wrists. Wordlessly, he sets his staff aside and steps up to Rina. He straightens, standing tall, and takes her face in his hands, sluggish tears freezing at his touch. She looks skyward and closes her eyes. Jack focuses and presses, and steel blue light sets her face aglow.

 

Breath stopping, she begins to slump forward, but the winter spirit holds her up. He kisses her forehead and whispers, "You deserved better." He settles her against the wall, arranging Ivan and Lily's bodies so that they stay in her arms, and he turns away.

 

Gaze on the grimy city snow, he walks out of the alley, feeling too heavy to walk. When he reaches the street, he turns the corner and promptly hits his back against the wall, using it like a crutch. He barely registers the pain as he knocks his head against the brick wall.

 

The wind batters against his sides, threatening to lift him into the air, and the snow picks up, quickly building into a flurry so thick he can hardly see. No, he thinks.

 

 He closes his eyes and breathes. He has to calm down. He can't do this. Not now.

 

"Jack," Pitch's voice says from somewhere in front of him, impossibly soft. Jack has seen Pitch several times since the Fae incident, but each time they've only exchanged some light banter before Jack flew away in frustration or Pitch slipped into the shadows when Jack's back was turned. Usually he welcomes the banter, in some small way, but today is not one of those days.

 

Jack's eyes snap open, and he stands up straight, seeing Pitch standing right in front of him, eyes concerned, and for once, seemingly without guile. Jack doesn't care. "What do you want, Pitch?" he snaps.

 

"I want to help," Pitch says, for once offering a straight answer. Any other time, Jack would tease him about it. Now is not that time.

 

Something seems to coil painfully within Jack, and he stiffens. "I don't want your help."

 

"Jack," Pitch murmurs far too sympathetically. He reaches forward, fingers grazing Jack's elbow—

 

"Don't touch me!" Jack lashes out with his free hand, and Pitch flickers out of the way just in time to avoid being impaled by a giant, needle-sharp icicle. It spears forward and shatters as it hits the tall brick building across the street, shaking the building and making icy, scorch-like marks on the wall. Jack backs up and presses against the wall behind him, eyes wide with horror. Pitch, now a mere foot to the side of his previous position, watches him critically.

 

Jack meets his gaze. "I –I'm sorry," Jack says. He shakes his head and looks away. "I didn't mean –I didn't want—" He runs his hand through his hair and tugs.

 

"Stop that," Pitch murmurs, gently tugging Jack's hand away, his skin colder than a human's but still warm against Jack's wrist. "Jack, look at me."

 

When Jack refuses, another hand tilts his chin up, and he looks up hesitantly. "This is all my fault," Jack whispers.

 

Pitch doesn't tell him he's wrong, doesn't say it's all going to be okay, doesn't say he'll get through it. Instead, he just says, "Some things can't be helped," and it is that, most of all, that gets through to Jack.

 

The younger spirit sucks in a deep breath. "What am I supposed to do?"

 

"You've taken care of enough people today." Pitch allows his left arm to drift from Jack's face to his shoulder, letting it slide gently down Jack's arm all the way to his hand, gripping the staff like a lifeline. It's a testament to Jack's vulnerability and fear of himself that he doesn't even flinch away from the touch. "Now it's time to take care of yourself." The Nightmare King releases Jack and offers the winter spirit his other hand, palm up. "Come with me," Pitch offers, allowing Jack to make the next move. "I promise, no tricks, no games. Not this time."

 

Jack's eyes flick from Pitch's eyes to his hand, and he bites his lip before looking back up at Pitch. Though Pitch can taste Jack's fear, whatever he sees in Pitch's gaze, it seems to convince him enough to slip his hand into Pitch's. "Okay," he says quietly.

 

Pitch nods and draws Jack into the shadows.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Pitch brings them to his bedroom, of a sort, which makes Jack stop dead in his tracks. Pitch crosses his arms and eyes Jack expectantly as the younger spirit observes the round room. There's no bed –Pitch prefers not to mix work and pleasure, in this case--, but there is a large layer of thick, firm cushions topped with pillows and blankets that takes up the majority of one side of the room. An oak writing desk and wardrobe take up the opposite side, and across from the door connecting to the rest of the tunnels, there's a bookshelf-lined alcove embedded into the wall with a small, circular window in it, one covered by a thick, black curtain.

 

Jack stares in bewilderment for a few moments before turning to Pitch and saying flatly, "I'm not sleeping with you."

 

Pitch almost smirks. There's some spirit left in Jack after all. "I wasn't expecting you to," Pitch says. "Though I can understand why you would make the assumption." This time he does smirk.

 

Jack rolls his eyes half-heartedly, but he still looks exhausted. "So what am I here for then?"

 

Pitch rests a hand on Jack's shoulder and gestures with the other at the cushions. "You're here to sleep."

 

Jack side-eyes him. "To sleep," he repeats skeptically.

 

"Do you have a bed somewhere to call your own? I can take you there, if you like…," Pitch suggests, knowing fully well that Jack lives a nomadic lifestyle and has no bedroom of his own.

 

Jack frowns, knowing that Pitch knows, but he doesn't bother with any banter.

 

"Perhaps you'd prefer something with one of the Guardians instead…," Pitch trails off knowingly.

 

Jack shakes his head. "I don't think they'd… I mean, they helped me get myself under control, but I don't think…," Jack trails off and shrugs.

 

"You don't think they'd understand," Pitch fills in for him. Privately, he thinks Jack might be surprised by how understanding the other Guardians might be of the winter spirit's actions, but, as magnanimous as he's currently feeling, he's not about to tell Jack that.

 

Jack looks down and nods.

 

Pitch grips Jack by the shoulder and urges the younger spirit to face him. Jack looks up at him, brow furrowed. "You did what you thought was right, Jack. That's all anyone can ask of you," Pitch says.

 

"But what if I was wrong?"

 

"And who's deciding this? Who gets to decide what's wrong and what's right?"

 

"I don't know!" Jack pulls away, turning his back on Pitch. "God? The Man in the Moon?"

 

Pitch scoffs. "Oh, please, the Man in the Moon wouldn't know right from wrong if it bit him in the arse, the arrogant old fool."

 

Jack turns around to give Pitch an odd look. "Who is the Man in the Moon, anyway? How do you know him? What even is he?"

 

Now it's Pitch's turn to look away, his eyes going distant and dark. "That's a story for another day, I think."

 

"But—"

 

Pitch steps forward and wraps an arm around Jack, pushing him towards the nest of cushions by the small of his back. Jack lets Pitch guide for a few steps, but then twitches and twists away, spinning nimbly on his feet to face Pitch once more. "Why do you keep touching me?"

 

Pitch stares at him innocently. "Do you want me to stop?"

 

"No," Jack replies far too quickly. Frost blooms on his cheeks. "I mean, yes. I mean—" He scrubs a hand over his face. "I don't know, it's just –it's just weird, okay?"

 

Pitch's lips quirk upward. "But do you want me to stop?"

 

"Hey, I asked a question first," Jack snaps. "Cut the rhetorical, existential bullshit or whatever and just answer my freakin' question." Jack crosses his arms and glares.

 

"I'm sorry," Pitch says, examining his fingertips. "What was it again? I seem to have forgotten."

 

"You know what it was," Jack growls.

 

Pitch looks up at Jack, grinning. "Is it really that difficult for you to ask again?"

 

Jack flings his arm out, pointing at Pitch victoriously. "Hah! There you go again, answering a question with a question!"

 

Pitch raises an invisible eyebrow. "Your point?"

 

"Oh my God!" Jack flails and stamps his foot. "You just did it again. It's like you're incapable of using regular sentences."

 

Pitch stares at Jack silently, waiting to see what else he has to say. He enjoys seeing Jack like this, all frustrated and jerking movements. It's entertaining.

 

"God, you get on my nerves so much," Jack mutters.

 

"You don't want me to ask questions?" Pitch asks. He ignores Jack's facial spasm and continues, stepping closer. "All right. Then let me tell you what I think, since you're so desperate to know." Pitch begins circling Jack (something he's quickly discovering is becoming one of his favorite pastimes), and this time Jack is too exhausted to follow his movements. Pitch smiles wickedly and walks his fingers up Jack's arm. "I think you want it. I think you want it so badly that you'll take whatever you can get, even when it comes from your supposed enemy." Jack flinches, so Pitch bends down to whisper in his ear, drawing his hand up and down Jack's back, "Oh, it's nothing to be ashamed of, Jack. The Guardians are so busy, after all, and imagine the guilt you'd see on their faces if they realized how much damage the last three centuries have done."

 

"M'not damaged," Jack mumbles, and Pitch pauses behind him.

 

He rests a hand on the back of Jack's neck and walks around him to look him in the eye. "No, you're not," he says honestly. The truth always strikes truest, after all. "But you've been hurt, and there's nothing wrong in admitting that." Pitch squeezes Jack's neck in what he hopes is reassurance. "For as soon as you start admitting it, the sooner you can start to heal."

 

"I don't have to heal," Jack says, not shouting exactly, but voice still straining. "I'm fine."

 

"You flinch when someone touches you unexpectedly. You get overwhelmed by touch far too quickly. Don't tell me that's normal."

 

Jack shrugs off Pitch's hand and takes a step toward the cushions, putting some distance between them. "Have you ever thought maybe it's just you?" he snaps.

 

"Somehow I doubt it," Pitch says dryly.

 

"You tried to kill me!" Jack yells, jabbing his staff in Pitch's direction.

 

"Oh, please, I just broke your staff, and look, it's good as new."

 

"You didn't know that would happen! For all you knew, I –I coulda turned back into a human and frozen to death!"

 

Pitch crosses his arms and stares down at Frost, unimpressed.

 

"Okay," says Jack, flushing. "That might be a little bit of a stretch. But you still didn't know what could have happened."

 

Rolling his eyes, Pitch uncrosses his arms and begins advancing on Jack, who begins backing up one step for every step Pitch takes forward. "We're immortal, Jack. What's a little fight matter when we have eternity ahead of us?"

 

Jack trips over a pillow as he takes a step back. "Would you just –stay put?"

 

"Mmm," considers Pitch. "No."

 

"Of course," Jack grumbles. "How could I possibly expect anything else. This is Pitch Black. Nightmare King. The Boogeyman. The almighty monster under the bed." Jack hits the back wall with a soft thump and glares up at Pitch.

 

"I think I could get used to you saying my names like that," Pitch murmurs, happily caging Jack in against the wall. Jack brings his arms up to hold Pitch off, his staff pressed against the crook of Pitch's shoulder.

 

"Yeah, sarcastically and without any respect. Didn't think that would be one of your kinks, but okay."

 

Pitch smiles down at Jack sharply. "You've been thinking about my kinks? How touching." Pitch presses closer, just enough to put pressure on Jack's arms without scaring him away.

 

"And you just asked another question. Wow." Jack scowls, not seeming to notice as his arms begin to give, allowing Pitch to lean in even further.

 

"And you didn't answer it. Par for the course, I'm beginning to notice," Pitch drawls, watching as Jack licks his lips.

 

"Well, aren't we just a match made in Heaven," Jack sighs, finally, finally dropping his arms to his side.

 

Pitch grins wickedly, closing in, and Jack returns his predatory look with a wry quirk of the lips. "I suspect Hell, more likely," Pitch murmurs, leaning in so close that their noses brush. But just as their breaths begin to mingle, a look of anguish flashes across Jack's face, and Pitch wants to ignore it so, so badly, but –"What is it?" Pitch asks, warm breath ghosting over Jack's lips.

 

Jack looks away. "Nothing, I was just…." Jack ducks out from under Pitch's arm, forcing Pitch to release him or risk getting hit by Jack's staff. Inwardly, Pitch curses himself for making that comment about Hell. Jack's probably wallowing in guilt, the heroic imbecile. "I'm just –tired," he just barely hears Jack mutter.

 

A proprietary feeling comes over Pitch, and he feels the urge to take Jack and wrap him up in blankets and shadows so tightly that the boy never gets the chance to escape, nor feel the desire to.

 

This feeling was not part of Pitch's plan.

 

He really should have seen this coming.

 

Well, perhaps he can adjust.

 

"Jack," he says, and that's all it takes for Jack to turn around, his exhaustion palpable.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I brought you here so you could sleep. I'm afraid I forgot that at some point." Pitch walks the several steps it takes to get off the cushions, then turns back to Jack. "You can stay as long as you like. When you want to leave, call for me, and I'll show you the way out." Pitch turns to leave.

 

"Wait," says Jack, making Pitch pause. When Pitch turns around, he sees Jack finish propping his staff up against the wall just outside the cushions and turn back towards him. Jack bites his lip, then looks up and reaches out for Pitch, palm up. "Stay?"

 

Pitch smiles faintly. "Are you sure?"

 

Jack gives a small, jerky nod, and Pitch slips his hand into Jack's.

 

Later, once they've gotten settled, Pitch's arms looped around Jack's waist, Jack buries his face in Pitch's robes and whispers, "Thank you."

 

"You don't need to," Pitch says back, and he means it.

 

(God, he actually means it. Shit.)

 

 

Five

 

Though that particular winter was cruel and harsh, it dissipates quickly and gives way to spring, and before Jack knows it the Fae are holding a party in the Guardians' honor. It's actually supposed to be some sort of diplomatic formal apology for trying to steal all the children in the world, but Jack doesn't really care to understand the technical aspects of that. What he cares about is the fact that he's required to go.

 

It's not that he dislikes parties. He loves parties. He just really doesn't like the Fae. Like, really really.

 

"Sandy can't go because he can't take a break from his responsibilities like you," Tooth repeats. "Honestly, Jack, I don't see why you're so against this," says Tooth, which, okay, Jack gets that she's a fairy and vaguely related to them, and that's great, but honestly? The Fae and Tooth are completely different in every single way. Ever.

 

"You know they have a thing for children, right?"

 

"Well, yes, of course," says Tooth uncomfortably, "But that's why this party's so important. It's their promise to leave children alone from now on."

 

"Yeah, and I totally get that," says Jack. "That's why I'm going. And I'm glad they're doing it, honestly, but that's not why I'm actually uncomfortable. I mean, you've seen me, right?"

 

Tooth gives him a weird look. "Of course I've seen you."

 

"Sooo, you've noticed that I look like a seventeen-year-old boy, right?"

 

"Oh." Realization dawns on Tooth's face. "Ohhh…. That's horrible! Did they hurt you? Are you okay? You don't have to go." She flits close around him, raising his arms and examining his eyes.

 

Jack snorts and swats her away. "Yeah, no, I kinda have to go. Like Bunny said earlier, if I don't, they'll take offence, and there goes their lovely little apology. Not exactly something I wanna be responsible for," he shrugs. "Besides, it's nothing too bad. They can just be a little overbearing."

 

Tooth hums, then looks at him firmly, clasping his face between her hands. He raises his eyebrows, but she doesn't seem to notice. "Well, you just stick close to me, then, all right? They'll think twice about trying anything while I'm around," she says darkly, her eyes taking up most of his vision. Okaaay, Jack thinks. He has weird friends. Clearly Pitch isn't the only scary one.

 

"Uh, thanks, Tooth," he says.

 

"No problem. Now," she says, gesturing at his clothes. "Let's take a look."

 

She guides Jack over to a full-body-length mirror, and Jack looks himself over. A tailored, sky-blue suit with frosted silver tie and matching buttons and cuffs –"Would you look at that guy?" Jack asks with a sparkling grin. He looks at Tooth. "I wish I could look that good."

 

"Jack," she says with a little huff of breath. She shakes her head. "Ready to go?"

 

Jack graciously offers her his arm. "Ready when you are."

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

Usually, the rule is that when a person eats food of the Fae, they're trapped in the Fae world forever. Thankfully, fellow spirits are exempt.

 

So when Jack comes back from a conversation with Rumpelstiltskin to find Tooth engaging the scary cat-lady from the rainforest in conversation about battle strategies, he goes right for the wine. Fae wine is potent, thank God.

 

After gulping down a glass or two himself, he brings over two glasses for Tooth and her… friend.

 

"—and I stuck it right from behind!" Tooth says excitedly, zipping from Cat-lady's left shoulder to her right. Cat-lady watches in amusement as Tooth zips downward to hover in front of her. "Can you believe it?" Tooth glances at her mini tooth fairies. "Central incisor, London, sector four—"

 

Cat-lady notices Jack standing uncertainly behind Tooth and begins to growl, making Tooth turn around.

 

"Oh, there you are, Jack!" says Tooth, smiling broadly. She gestures at the scary cat-lady. "Have you met Jaguar?"   

 

Jack nods meekly as Jaguar says lowly, "Oh, we've met."

 

Tooth looks at Jaguar, confused, opening her mouth to speak, but Jack quickly cuts in, "Wine, Tooth?"

 

"Oh, yes, of course, thanks, Jack."

 

Jack looks at Jaguar hesitantly and looks back  to the second wine glass, then back to her. "You, uh, want—"

 

"Lower left premolar, twenty-two, Mexico City, sector thirteen—"

 

Jaguar reaches forward and grabs the glass out of his hands, grumbling, "Yes, of course I would like a glass of wine." She glances up at Tooth, who's too busy directing her mini fairies to notice Jaguar's hostility. Jaguar turns back to Jack and bares her fangs.

 

"Right," says Jack, voice going up an octave. "Nice to see you, bye!"

 

He turns tail and runs.

 

Well, he walks away very quickly, at least, heading for the food because hey, if he's gonna be at a party he doesn't wanna be at, he might as well—

 

"Jack Frost?" a smooth baritone voice purrs, a hand grabbing Jack's free hand and jerking him around painfully.

 

"Get your hands off me!" Jack snarls before he even sees the Fae's smirking face, attracting the attention of the nearby partygoers. He rips his hand out of Bartholomew's and glares, poised to strike. "I thought I told you never to touch me again."

 

"Sira," Bartholomew, a square-jawed, handsome Fae with a narcissistic streak, curses. "I just wanted to say hello. You don't have to get all uptight about it."

 

"Hello," Jack snaps, voice taut. "And goodbye." He turns around and blindly heads in the opposite direction, not caring about his destination.

 

Bartholomew steps in front of him and crowds into Jack's space. "Jack, you always were a snotty little—"

 

Jack stabs his staff at Bartholomew, encasing the Fae in a giant block of ice. He leaves Bartholomew's face stuck in this odd, squinty-eyed aggression, his body half-way through pointing at Jack's chest. It looks kind of funny, actually.

 

Everyone stops and stares.

 

Jack crosses his arms and stares back. He jabs his thumb at the block of ice. "It'll melt in a week or so. He'll be fine."

 

The Fae do not look appeased, and the spirits dotted throughout the crowd look wary and confused. Jack sees North's giant red coat out of the corner of his eye and looks over to see North making a face at Jack and gesturing as if to ask what's the big deal. Jack looks behind him and sees Tooth watching him, concerned and sympathetic, with Jaguar beside her watching Jack unreadably.

 

"Hey, mate," comes Bunny's voice from Jack's right. He looks over just in time to see Bunny put his paw on Jack's shoulder. Bunny nods at the flowery terrace past the food. "Let's have a chat, yeah?"

 

Over bunny's shoulder, Jack sees Pitch, of all people, standing near the ornately decorated back wall and watching Jack appraisingly. He gives a little nod at Jack's look.

 

"Jack?" asks Bunny.

 

"Yeah, okay," Jack grits out, looking down at the floor.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

To Pitch, traveling through the shadows is unlike any other method of travel in the world. His body dissipates and expands, melding with the darkness. He allows his consciousness to extend and stretch until it becomes one with any and every shadow he sees fit. His awareness, however, dims the further he reaches. Were he to expand his awareness across every shadow in every nook and cranny across the world, he would lose himself completely.

 

So it is quite by luck that when he slips into the shadows, intending to eavesdrop on Jack and Bunnymund, whispers coming from the second-floor balcony overlooking the dance floor of the gold-enameled ballroom catch his attention.

 

"—taken effect yet?" one of the Fae, a princess, judging by the looks of the thin, ornately engraved silver circlet crowning her head, asks.

 

Her companion is someone Pitch has not seen for centuries, and the sight of him, of his deceitful grace and beauty, of his analytical gaze, makes Pitch's proverbial skin prickle. Pitch has mixed feelings about the Erlking. He spreads terror, which Pitch appreciates, but he also steals children and does horrid things to them, which makes something deep within Pitch snarl and beg for his blood. Even Pitch has standards.

 

"The sorcerer's protection is impressive," the Erlking says. "Give it time."

 

Sorcerer.

 

Pitch examines the ballroom from the shadows, seeking any hint of a scarlet coat, but he finds nothing. North's gone. Pitch would smirk if he had a coherent form.

 

"When the spell takes effect, do be careful not to damage the boy," the Erlking says. "I like him."

 

Jack, a small voice whispers in Pitch's head. Resting on the railing of the outlook, the Erlking smiles softly, looking down at the door to the terrace.

 

Pitch is going to destroy him. 

 

But first, he has to ensure Jack's safety.

 

He flits through the darkness and coalesces in the shadows of the apple tree embedded in the middle of the marble, right in the middle of Jack and Bunnymund's conversation.

 

Jack crosses his arms and looks skyward for guidance. "Oh, please don't tell me you're going all uber-protective, too. I left the guy a popsicle. Pretty sure that means I can take care of myself, you big furball."

 

"That doesn't mean—" Bunnymund begins to say, but Pitch decides this conversation isn't important enough to continue.

 

He steps out of the shadows, startling Bunnymund and making him drop into a fighting stance. Jack just rolls his eyes. "Jack—" Pitch begins to say.

 

"Oh, god, not you, too," Jack groans. Bunnymund's gaze flickers over to Jack in disbelief.

 

Pitch ignores them both and continues talking without pause. "You need to leave. Now."

 

"What? Dude, I appreciate the concern, although, honestly, you're being way too over the top, but—"

 

"North is missing, and the Erlking's in the process of breaking down his protection spells," Pitch says.

 

Bunnymund breaks out of his lowered stance to stand tall, eyes wide as he looks at Pitch. "The Erlking?"

 

"And he's after Jack," Pitch confirms.

 

"If you're lying—" Bunnymund says lowly.

 

"Would someone please like to fill me in on what's going on?" Jack asks. No one notices.

 

"North is missing, and Jack is in danger," Pitch says, looking down his nose at Bunnymund. "We don't have time for petty vendettas."

 

Bunnymund glares, but then turns toward the doorway and looks around the ballroom. As he does so, Jack steps up to Pitch. "Who's the Erlking?"

 

"…Someone you don't want to meet," Pitch says.

 

Jack's facial expression flattens. "Come on, dude, skip the ambiguity and give me something to work with."

 

Pitch's stiff body loosens slightly, and he bends down slightly to grip Jack by the shoulders. "Only fire can stop him, Jack. There's nothing you can do."

 

Jack sighs, shoulders drooping. "Sometimes I really hate you," he grumbles.

 

Pitch smiles and leans back, letting his arms drop to his sides. "No, you don't."

 

Jack purses his lips and looks away, and Pitch's smile grows wider. "You're awfully arrogant, you know that, right?" Jack asks, eyes flicking back to Pitch.

 

"I prefer 'observant'," Pitch drawls.

 

"Prove it," Jack challenges, and Pitch sees his moment to really catch Jack's attention. The timing isn't ideal, but this time, Jack knows what he's asking for. Jack wants it, wants Pitch, and all Pitch has to do is lean down and take

 

"What the hell!?" Bunnymund asks, voice sounding strangled, staring at them from the doorway.

 

Jack jumps backward –which is away from Pitch, unfortunately. Bunnymund will die. After the Erlking, that is.

 

The Erlking, who is getting closer and closer to breaking whatever enchantments North put on himself and the other Guardians, including Jack.

 

"We don't have time for your idiocy, Bunnymund. Did you see North?"

 

"I –but you— Jack!?" Bunnymund's nose twitches and his eyes screw up. His facial muscles must be incredibly pained.

 

"Bunny, let it go and move on. North?" Jack prompts.

 

Bunnymund sags, and his expression turns sober. "No sign of'im. I think it's best we grab Tooth and disappear, mate."

 

"I can take you where you need to go," Pitch says. "The shadows will be faster than anything you have to offer."

 

"Now you look here, Pitch," Bunnymund points angrily, "You might've warned us, but I wouldn't trust you if my life depended on it—"

 

"Oh, please, if I wanted you dead—"

 

"Uh, guys?" Jack asks. There's a commotion coming from the ballroom. "There's something going on in there."

 

"—and if you think I'm just gonna sit back and let you—"

 

"GUYS," Jack shouts, but it's drowned out by the deafening roar of a large, angry jungle cat. All three of them turn towards the ballroom, stunned.

 

At that same moment, three tiny darts zoom out of the ballroom, hitting each of them separately in the neck.

 

Then everything goes dark.

 

 

Plus One

 

Out of the five of them, Jack's the only conscious one. North, Tooth, Bunny, and Pitch are all drugged up, their bodies limp and unnervingly still. Jack isn't sure whether to be more scared for them or himself.

 

He doesn't want to find out why he's the only one conscious.

 

He and Pitch are bound to the wall by roots, of all things, right under what Jack's beginning to suspect is a miniature sun, but it's too bright for him to look at directly, so who knows. Tooth and Bunny are bound to the wall to his left, roots practically hiding their bodies from sight. North alone is chained by metal, which glistens unnaturally in the maybe-sunlight.

 

Jack isn’t sure what gets to him the most –the silence, or his powerlessness. He struggles against his bonds, tries to freeze them, tries to do anything, but he's so overheated that he can't even summon a snowflake.

 

He can't sleep, not with the heat burning his body and the light blinding him through his closed eyelids.

 

He's thirsty, so desperately thirsty. He feels so light, like he's drying up, like he's about to dissipate into the very air around him. He wishes it would happen. At least then he could escape.

 

And he's so very alone. Because no matter how often he says their names, they never stir, never wake up. Even Pitch, the Nightmare King himself, stays silent. He seems to be fading before Jack's very eyes, the light bleaching him of color. After a while, Jack turns away and closes his eyes once more, unable to watch.  

 

Noise.

 

Something padding across the floor towards him.

 

Jack opens his eyes, but the light's so bright he can't see anything anymore.

 

Something tears through the roots binding him, and Jack tumbles forward, falling against something soft and furry. Paws grab him under the arms and settle him on the floor against the wall. The light abruptly dims.

 

"Hurry up," snarls a husky alto voice.

 

Jack's eyes begin to adjust to the newfound shade, and catches a glimpse of blurred gold. He smiles. Everyone always underestimates Sandy.

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

He wakes up buried in the snow just outside the North Pole, feeling refreshed and energetic. He looks up to see a Yeti sitting on the ground beside him, dozing off.

 

Jack bounces to his feet and shakes himself off, showering the Yeti with a fine layer of snow. It looks at him, blinking slowly, then flails its arms in excitement. "Blargalarga!" It grabs his arm and tugs him into the arching doorway of the North Pole.

 

North greets him, telling him that Jaguar and Sandy saved them, and that they left him outside in the cold to heal. North, Tooth, and Bunny have been sleeping off the last remnants of the poison the Fae gave them. When Jack asks about the Fae and whether they still have to worry about them, North just shrugs, slightly awkward about, and says, "Ehh, Jaguar took care of them."

 

"Jaguar? Why? What about Sandy?"

 

"She is good friends with Tooth. She got upset. Sandy would have stopped her, but he was too busy helping us here," North says, but he sounds a little unconvinced.

 

Jack considers asking more, but the uncertain look on North's face makes him decide to leave it at that. "And where's Pitch?"

 

"Sandy dropped him off in lair. Like he left you in cold, he thought it best to leave Pitch in the dark." North looks off into the distance, thinking. "Bunny said Pitch helped. This… surprises me."

 

Jack shakes his head, throat feeling thick. "He didn't surprise me," he says, voice soft in realization. He hadn't been surprised at all.

 

North looks at Jack sharply. "Jack? Is something on your mind?"

 

Jack swallows and nods his head, feeling jittery and excited. "Yeah. I… I have to go."

 

 

o-o-o

 

 

When Pitch got all up close and personal during the last winter, he showed Jack a tunnel out and said he'd keep it open for Jack "should he ever have need of it." Surprisingly enough, the tunnel let out in Antarctica, near the monument of Jack and Pitch's first falling-out.

 

Jack goes there now, and, once he's hundreds of feet deep into the ground and well out of the way of sunlight, when he's so far down that he has to use the wall to tell him he's still moving forward, he calls out Pitch's name.

 

It takes a moment, but then Pitch's voice says softly from beside him, "I'm here, Jack."

 

Jack holds still as he feels tangible, limb-like shadows slide around him, and the next thing he knows, he's stumbling into the circular room he'd been in before, the cushions lying on the floor just as they were before. Faint white light emits from the curtained window, allowing Jack just enough light to get his bearings.  

 

He turns around and sees the outline of Pitch's body a foot in front of him. He sets his staff against the wall and steps closer, into Pitch's space, before grabbing one of Pitch's hands. He brings it up to eyelevel, examining it closely. It's difficult to tell in the dim light, but Pitch appears to be normal, to be as far as possible from the pale creature fading away in front of Jack's very own eyes. He looks up at Pitch, who's watching him intently, waiting.

 

Jack reaches up for Pitch's face and tugs him downward, examining his eyes and skin. The irises of Pitch's eyes are so silver they're almost white. "Your eyes have gotten lighter," Jack says, stroking his thumb over Pitch's cheekbone.

 

"They'll go back to normal soon enough," Pitch says.

 

"Good," Jack says. "I like them better that way," he murmurs, searching for something in Pitch's gaze.

 

"Oh, really?" Pitch smirks, and Jack smiles to himself, thinking, There's the smirk I've been looking for.

 

"Really," Jack confirms, and he stands up on his toes to meet the older spirit's lips.

 

Pitch is soft and only slightly warm against Jack, and Jack thinks he could get used to this.

 

Then Jack nips at Pitch's lips, opening his mouth slightly, and Pitch deepens the kiss with fervor, biting and tugging and nipping until Jack's lips are tingling with pain and pleasure. Pitch starts to back Jack up towards the cushions, and Jack thinks, yeah, he could definitely get used to this.