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The Center Cannot Hold… But It Can Change

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The children were playing, throwing snowballs, chasing each other about without a care in the world. They were playing right in front of him, as if he didn't matter, as if he'd never mattered, as if they'd forgotten him, forgotten they'd ever been afraid of him. Hands clenched into fists, Pitch railed at them, screamed, menaced, begged when all of those failed… and still they played. The greatest insult of them all, though, was Jack. Jack Frost. The invisible, infuriating boy. He played among them as though he belonged among them, as though he had a place among them… as though he always had.

Jack Frost had never had a place among children, never been believed in, just as Pitch had never been believed in. He'd counted on that fact, banked on it bringing them together. He could see now, how wrong he'd been to do so, how fragile a hope that must have been… and how hope had no place in the heart of the Boogeyman. Jack had belief, now. He was a Guardian, now.

He had new friends, now.

Perhaps that was the coldest cut of all. Jack had a family and he no longer needed what Pitch had to offer… but Pitch still did. He needed what he had offered Jack -- a family, a friend, a brother… a playmate. He needed acknowledgement, some hint that his existence had meaning, that if he were to suddenly disappear off this Earth, that at least one soul… somewhere… would be sad that he'd gone, would even notice that he'd gone.

Driven by that fear, Pitch stumbled into the middle of the game, desperate for the attention that even a collision with a child would provide… but the child ran right through him as if he wasn't… even… there. A frission of cold shivered down Pitch's spine at that. The child ran through him -- the child who believed in everything, the child who'd believed long past the time when all other's beliefs had crumbled to dust… that child no longer believed in him. Pitch's heart skipped a beat. Logic dictated that surely somewhere in the world, some child still believed in the Boogeyman, still believed in terrors that haunted the dark. Not all children were as protected, as well-adjusted as this one, but… Pitch didn't want to be banished to those cold, dark corners of the world where human evil still had free reign. Pitch might be made of darkness, might be the stuff of nightmares, but he had never once caused true harm to befall a child and the thought of a life bearing witness to those atrocities on a daily basis… He didn't want that! He wanted to stay here! He couldn't keep the look of horror from his face.

One by one, the Guardians took note of what had happened. One by one their expressions shifted from innocent joy to a darker kind of glee. Perhaps that glee was mixed with a hint of sadness, but Pitch could tell by looking at each and every one of them that they believed he deserved what he'd gotten. How would they know? Each and every one of them had been created with "good" at their center. Each and every one of them had had belief handed to them on a silver platter. None had ever had to fight to be believed in, had to fight to find a purpose that they could stomach -- none, except… Jack. Pitch turned slowly to meet the boy's gaze, afraid at what he would see there, but determined to get it over with just the same. If he found that same unholy glee in Jack's eyes as in the other Guardians, then so be it. It would be like ripping off a bandage, like--

Pitch froze. There was no unholy glee in Jack's eyes, no satisfaction that Pitch had reaped what he'd sown. In Jack's eyes there was only horror -- the horror of one who knows intimately the breed of rejection it takes for a child to walk through you as if you don't exist. Pitch's heart gave another painful lurch, then, and began beating harder than before. No. No. Jack had cast him away and then dared pity him? No. He'd not have it. He ran.

Months later, Jack finally felt like he was settling into his new life as a Guardian. The one thing he'd been afraid of -- that being a Guardian would take him out of the world -- had proved to be an unfounded fear. If anything, being a Guardian had put him more in the world than he'd ever been before. Nick and Bunny had preparations to make for their holidays that took them all year and required some form of focused seclusion to get it all done. Toothiana had her fairies and -- let's face it, kids lose teeth every minute of every day -- if she tried to go out and personally hand-retrieve every tooth… well, it just couldn't be done. But at least she now did her coordinating from the field and got to witness those sleeping children's faces whenever she wished. And Jack… Jack was the coming of winter, the cold North wind, the virgin dusting of snow and ice. He had to be out in the world to do his job, to give winter his personal touch. And Jack being out there gave the Guardians a serious advantage -- Jack could travel anywhere as fast as the wind could get him there. He became their advance scout, just as Manny had known he would. That was why he'd been chosen -- the Moon had told him so.

So, Jack flew high and free, wherever the whim took him. He still came home often, still looked in on Jaimie and the others, still visited the North Pole -- and entering with a VIP pass was nowhere near as much fun as trying to sneak in had been, but the sight of all those toys still filled him with joy -- but he ranged farther and wider than he'd ever been before. Winter might be his domain, but children who lived perpetually in summer months needed joy, too. He couldn't stay long in such places -- it weakened him too much -- but he could visit from time to time. He couldn't produce snow -- it would instantly melt -- but the resulting water from the melt would bring more joy to the hearts of those children than any snowstorm Jack had ever caused.

It was on one such visit that Jack noticed something… different. The children were afraid. It wasn't that these children didn't have cause to be afraid. They never knew from one minute to the next if they were going to starve or die of thirst… or be killed, or worse, by marauding warlords. And they had so little joy in their lives to counterbalance it. Most of them weren't Christian -- didn't have reason to believe in Nick or Bunny -- and Toothiana didn't dare leave gifts here, anymore. She'd seen what happened when adults found those quarters and accused the children of stealing and she did not want to be responsible for that ever again. Jack couldn't blame her. So, yes, these children had plenty to fear and precious little hope… but this fear was different. It was unreasoning, irrational, and Jack had the most difficult time chasing it away. Worse… it had a familiar feel. Jack had felt this fear, before.

It felt like Pitch.

Jack didn't tell the other Guardians. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't trust them with this. They were good people, every single one of them, but when it came to Pitch… Frostbitten Toes, they just weren't rational. Pitch might not have been a Guardian, but he had Guardian-like strength. Jack couldn't help thinking about what a powerful ally he would make if the others could just look past their differences long enough to help him find his center… the way they'd helped Jack. For Jack had no illusions -- before he'd found his center, he hadn't really much cared if he hurt anyone… because no one had cared when they hurt him. He'd been the cause of snow days, snowball fights, sledding and skiing… but he'd been the cause of black ice, power outages and collapsed roofs, too. So, what he really couldn't understand was why the other Guardians had been willing to overlook that malevolent mischief in him… but not in Pitch. Surely even the Boogeyman must have a shred of good somewhere in his heart -- and that one shred should be enough.

The other Guardians didn't understand that, though. Toothiana was centered around the youthful love and peace of children, Bunny around the joy of rebirth and new life, and Nick around the wonder of possibility… Jack's center was different. On the surface, fun is snowball fights and hot chocolate and sledding… but there is also an unholy glee, a maniacal amount of fun in seeing someone evil get their come-uppance, or in a group of bullies convincing some poor kid to stick his tongue to a frozen flagpole. Those things were fun, too -- hurtful, maybe, "good"… definitely not, but they were still fun -- and Jack's center was fun. And the look on that kid's face when he realized he was stuck… It had had Jack laughing for hours. Of course, he'd arranged for the ice to melt off the roads so the ambulance could get to the kid quickly and safely, but that hadn't diminished the enjoyment he'd gotten from the look on the kid's face.

So, things weren't so black and white for Jack as they were for the others. Instinctively, he'd known that Pitch understood that the first time he'd met him. He saw the world the same way Jack did. He saw that not everything was black or white, but that the world was really made up of shades of grey, because people were all shades of grey. Jack wondered sometimes, if he should have gone after Pitch then, when he'd been defeated. Jack's heart had certainly gone out to him when Jaimie ran through him. He'd been on the other end of that horror and he'd not have wished it on anyone, not even Pitch.

But, he hadn't done it, hadn't gone after him. It was too late to change that, but he could handle things differently this time around. He started approaching the children directly, asking questions, trying to ascertain Pitch's plans for the area. He hadn't had much luck. It was maddening really. Pitch seemed to be acting without cause or reason… and that wasn't like Pitch, at all.

Jack started spending more time in those hot desert climates, the jungles of Africa, trying to track Pitch down, to find a way to talk to him directly, if he could. The rest of the world had a milder winter that year and even Nick started teasing him that he might have to put wheels on his sleigh if this kept up. Jack could take a hint -- and didn't want to get caught, besides -- and made sure to make his presence known Christmas Eve. The children woke up to presents and a very white Christmas and Jack spent the day with Jaimie and his friends.

The next day, he was right back to Africa tracking the elusive, meandering trail that Pitch was leaving in his wake. It shouldn't have surprised him, though, that in the end, he didn't find Pitch… Pitch found him.

Jack shot up from his crouched position, instinctively put himself between Pitch and the little girl he'd been speaking to, as a shield. Pitch nearly laughed, "So noble, Jack Frost… were you always this noble?"

Jack brandished his staff at him, and said, "I don't know what you're up to, Pitch, but I'm going to find out and I'm going to put a stop to it."

This time, Pitch did laugh. He bent over and laughed until he wheezed. Jack slowly lowered his staff, a look of concern on his face -- no, let's be honest. It was the look one wears when one realizes that one's companion has gone completely round the bend and one would like to edge slowly away, but can't, in good conscience. It was an apt comparison. When Pitch finally caught his breath, he waved a hand around himself and said, "What I'm up to, dear Jack? I'm not 'up to' anything. See for yourself."

Jack frowned at him and slowly relaxed. He planted his staff on the ground and leaned against it, one foot cocked up by his knee as he stared at Pitch in confusion, "But the children… they're so afraid. It has your touch all over it."

Pitch shrugged, walked across the clearing to lean against a boulder that sat there. He said, "I breed fear wherever I go, Jack. I was born of darkness and it is part of what I am. I can no more stop it than I can stop breathing." He lifted an eyebrow in Jack's direction, "But you knew that, already… didn't you?"

"I did," Jack said. The Guardian stared at him for a minute, then seemed to come to a decision and deliberately came to perch beside Pitch on the rock. The girl took the opportunity to run back to her playmates and enjoy the waterhole Jack had created when he'd arrived. Jack said nothing for several more minutes as they watched the children playing. Eventually he said, "You really can't help who you are, can you? The Man in the Moon made you the same as he made the rest of us, didn't he?"

Pitch nodded, "He did. Just as humanity, the moon has two faces, you know -- light and dark, full and empty -- and he shows them both to mankind. The others were born of the fullness of the moon while I was born of its void. The secret, though, Jack -- what you and I comprehend that the others do not -- is that the moon shows those faces but two days out of every month. The rest of the month, he lives somewhere between the two, neither wholly light nor wholly dark. There is a wealth of life between those two absolutes and those shades between are where most of the Earth dwells."

Jack frowned, but nodded, "But what about Nick? What about Bunny and Toothiana? Nothing negative in what they do, is there?"

Another roll of laughter escaped Pitch as he shook his head, "Oh, please. How many humans kill themselves on Christmas because they have no one with whom to spend the holiday? And Bunny? The human's Christ had to die a horrible death, betrayed by his fellows, in order to enact the rebirth of which Bunny makes so much. And Toothiana… she would never say it was so, but how many of those teeth hold the memories of children who never had a proper childhood or had one filled with pain? For every moment of light, there is a moment of darkness, Jack. North and the others simply choose to ignore that that side of life exists." He paused, then added, "I simply don't have that luxury."

One of the children pushed another into the water and the one shoved let out a scream of indignation and pulled the one who'd shoved him into the water with him. Both Jack and Pitch laughed at their antics. A companionable silence fell over them both.

Jack was the one to eventually break it. He said softly, "I see it. What you're saying. My center… it's the same. We both laughed just now, right? But did you laugh because the children were having fun playing in the water… or because it was funny as hell when the girl pushed the boy in?"

Pitch smirked, shrugged his shoulders, "Someone being unexpectedly pushed into a pool of water is always funny."

Jack nodded vigorously, "I know, right? It's hysterical!" He subsided, then added, "It's funny… but, Pitch… it's not nice. What if the boy couldn't swim and the water was deep? What if it was winter and the pond were covered in ice?" He trailed off for a moment, lost in memory, before finishing quietly, "He could have drowned." A moment of melancholy was all Jack would allow himself, however. He chanced a look at Pitch out of the corner of his eye, "…but that wouldn't have made the initial moment when he hit the water any less funny."

Pitch gestured expansively in Jack's direction, "Of course, if he were in any real danger, you'd have leapt to his rescue."

Jack bowed at the waist, "Naturally, I would have. I'm a Guardian, right? That's what we do. But, you want to know a secret, Pitch?" At Pitch's raised eyebrow, Jack winked, "I still would have enjoyed that moment when he hit the water." Jack stood, stretched his hands over his head and cracked his back. When he turned back towards Pitch, he said, "You were right, Pitch. All those months ago, you were right. You and me… we're more like each other than we're like any of the rest of them. I didn't really appreciate what that meant until you'd gone." When Pitch moved to talk, Jack lifted a hand and shook his finger, "You didn't give me a chance to understand what it meant."

Pitch sat there, a dumbfounded look on his face as Jack edged closer, leaned in to breathe his next words right into Pitch's face, "I get it, now."

Pitch jerked away from him, heart racing with an emotion that… well, it definitely wasn't fear. He paced the clearing several times before shooting back, "And what difference does that make, now? I've been banished to this hellhole corner of the world, terrifying children who already have too much to be afraid of." He laughed bitterly, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen, yes? There is no grey here, Jack Frost. It's black…" he all but spat out the next words, "…black as pitch, and no end in sight. Are you happy, Jack? To see what your victory has cost?"

Jack stepped closer, again, and Pitch shivered with far more than the cold as the boy placed a hand on his shoulder. Jack said softly, voice full of regret, "No. I'm not. I wasn't happy when you were defeated, either, thought I should go after you, then, but couldn't think how to do it. Pitch… you're one of us. Guardian or no, it doesn't make one damned bit of difference. You're still one of us… and no one should have to go through life invisible and with no one believing in him. Not even you… especially not you."

Pitch's breath caught at the open empathy in Jack's voice and he said simply, "What on Earth are you blathering on about?"

Jack rested his staff against himself and gripped Pitch's other shoulder, forced the other man to look him in the eyes, "It's cruel, Pitch. You were created for a purpose, with a specific center, and you've been punished your whole life for being exactly what Manny made you. It isn't right and I don't like it. If I have anything to say about it, it's damned well going to stop."

Pitch stared at him for a moment more, then jerked away, breathing ragged. What Jack was offering… Pitch hadn't even dared dream that Jack might come back to him with that very same offer of friendship held out to him in two open hands. He choked on his reply, "Jack… that's easy to say, but not so easy to do. Just look at what I've done here. I can't change who I am."

Jack walked back over, wrapped his arms around Pitch from behind in a hesitant hug. When Pitch stiffened, but didn't resist, Jack laid his head against Pitch's back and said softly, "No… you can't. And you shouldn't, Pitch." He paused, then breathed out, "But you can change how you express it."

Pitch stiffened again, then harshly spit out, "How?"

Jack let him go, lifted off the ground and floated around to alight on the boulder facing him. The smile on his face was one of dark satisfaction, "Are children the only ones here who should feel fear, Pitch?"

They stared at each other, Pitch Black and Jack Frost. They stared at each other, those words reverberating between them. They stared at each other as the puzzle pieces of Pitch's life rearranged, found a new pattern. And once they had settled, Pitch's smile spread wide in a match to Jack's own. He turned to look at the children, and in that moment, a look of fierce protectiveness settled over his features. He said quietly, menacingly, "Jack… you are absolutely right." He laughed and that laugh was cold, dark and full of promise, "I can think of many in this gods-forsaken land who could use a new nightmare… and would deserve it."

Jack smiled as he watched Pitch, could almost see it as the man's center re-oriented around this new purpose. He stalked over next to him and leaned over to whisper in his ear, "Just think what fun we could have here, Pitch… just think of what we could create here working together."

Pitch shivered as Jack's cold breath ghosted over his ear and down his collar, but smiled, nonetheless. And when he dared wrap an arm around Jack's shoulders to pull him close, the other pressed into the warmth of his side and slid an arm around his waist in return. They stood like that, watching the children play until the sun went down. And as the wind picked up and acquired a chill that Pitch knew all too well, he turned to smile at Jack and said simply, "Jack... let's play, you and I."

And Jack responded with a gleeful smile, "Why, Pitch... I thought you'd never ask."