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Loneliness, Bloodstains & Conflicting Loyalties

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The boy was sitting on the steps up to his apartment again when Eret came home from the gym. Even in the dim light from the flickering streetlight, he could see his guest, and a box of pizza, about halfway up the stairs. The lean, hooded silhouette was hard to mistake.

Jack was twenty-two, almost twenty-three, but Eret couldn't think of him as anything other than a boy, though he was only three years older.  Maybe it was the haunted eyes, which always gave him the look of a lost puppy, no matter what color they were.

"What took you so long?" Jack asked, as Eret got out of the car.

"Gobber had a rare fit of organization," he said, grabbing his gym bag from the passenger seat of his truck before slamming the door shut. "He made me stay late." As he approached the stairs, he saw that Jack had already pulled a slice of pizza from the box next to him. "You couldn't wait?"

"I've been here half an hour," he said, standing up.

"Sorry." As he passed Jack on the stairs, the boy held the box open. He nodded thanks as he took a slice of chicken, tomato and spinach. He wasn't totally sure how they had ended up with those three toppings, but that had become their usual.

The pizzeria, a few blocks over, was a small family-owned place that he had found within the first few weeks of living here. Restlessness had driven him out of his small apartments to pound the streets of the city, and had lead him to a few out of the way places. He had taken Jack there when the boy had first shown up outside the garage. Saying that he had the night off, and… he had trailed off, though Eret had correctly guessed the boy was trying to ask him to hang out. The loneliness in his eyes had made it kind of obvious. After an awkward moment of trying to figure out what to do with him, Eret had asked if he was hungry, and Jack had nodded.

A beat later, he had practically burst out with "I want pizza." He's grinned sheepishly. "I haven't had pizza in years."

"Pizza is it," Eret had said, grabbing his hoodie and keys. "Let's go."

A little further on there was a diner that made fish and chips almost as well as some of the places in London. It was where he took Merida whenever she was homesick, or thoroughly rattled. She would talk about her parents, and her brothers, about riding her horse around the Highlands as a child, and he would tell her about growing up in London with his mother, before his father had taken him up north to train as a dragon trapper.

But he tried not to think much about Merida when he was around Jack. If he did, he was just reminded that she would think his friendship with Jack was some kind of betrayal of her trust. And that was something he felt more acutely with each passing month.

Since the first time Jack had shown up, almost nine months ago, he usually showed up with a box. On the rare nights he was let off Pitchiner's tight leash.

"Pitchiner gave you the night off?" he asked, biting into the pizza, which he was pleased to find was still warm. He unlocked his door, and pushed it open.

"No use for me," Jack said.

Inside, they both kicked off their shoes, while Eret dropped his gym bag, and tossed his hoodie over the chair at the table near the kitchen. Jack kept his hoodie on as he went over to the couch, setting the pizza box in the middle.

Eret hadn't failed to notice the way Jack was keeping to left side of his face away from him. He was casual about it, of course. He was casual about almost everything. But attention to detail was one of the few skills Eret could claim that actually helped in the real world.

Maybe he should have left it alone… but he found he couldn't. Still standing by the door, he flipped the switch for the living room light.

Jack was so startled, he looked over, revealing the two bruises. One above his brow, one on his cheekbone.

"There are only two people who could do that to you."

Jack glared at him, eyes shifting from brown to blue at the small betrayal.

"It wasn't your girlfriend," he muttered, grabbing the remote with more force than could ever be necessary. "Let it go."

Eret turned the light off, scowling as he went to take a shower. He hadn't yet figured out if it was better if Jack showed up bruised by Merida, or by Pitchiner. If it was Merida, it was a reminder of his conflicting loyalties. But at least he would know it had been a fair fight. (For the most part.) Not Pitchiner's abuse.

When he came back out, Jack was watching Avatar the Last Airbender.

"How is Braveheart?" Jack asked, as Eret sat on the other side of the couch, the pizza between them.

He used the codename because he didn't know Merida's name. Eret had tried to keep his betrayal to a minimum, so he never told Jack anything about the four. He had let Rapunzel's name slip, but Jack had told him that was the one he already knew. Asking after Merida/Braveheart was his way of making small talk.

"I saw you two outside the garage the other day," Jack grinned. "If she wasn't so angry all the time, you two would be ridiculously cute."

Eret had just picked up one of the napkins Jack had brought to wipe grease off his fingers. Wadding the thin paper up, he threw it at Jack's head. He only laughed as it bounced off the blue fabric of his hood.

"Shut up," Eret muttered. Glad the room was lit only by the TV, so Jack couldn't see the color he could feel warming his face.

He knew exactly what Jack meant.

Merida had demanded a piggyback ride out of the shop the other day. He had opened the passenger door of the truck for her, but she had refused to unwind her limbs from around him. She would probably use him for target practice if he dared to say it out loud, but she had giggled as she tightened her arms around his shoulder.

Giggles that had turned into laughter when he had decided drastic measures were needed, so he had reached around to tickle her sides. At first she had just tightened her hold on reflex… but after a few moments she had slackened just enough that, without thinking, he had been able to shift her around so they were pressed chest-to-chest.

Without him tickling her sides, she had sighed into a hug. Legs still wrapped innocently around his waist. And he had returned it, arms coming up around her slender waist.

"Why do I like you so much?" she had asked, sound a little annoyed, but a little resigned, as well. And maybe, he dared to hope, a little happy.

"Well, how could you resist?" He hadn't had to try to inject smug confidence in his voice.

That had made her pull back, smack his shoulder, and slide down to her feet.

"You and your ego," she had muttered, climbing up into the passenger seat.

Thinking about it, he grinned. The comfortable weight of her, warm in his arms, had been… well, he didn't have a lot of memories that could compete with it.

"You know she's not my girlfriend," he muttered, once the heat had faded from his face.

"You wish she was."

"Shut up."

"Hey, I brought you pizza," Jack said. "I'm allowed to point out the obvious."

"I'm twenty-six, and she's nineteen," Eret reminded. Though it was a fact he tended to forget when she smiled, or when she touched him. The touches were all innocent and casual… but that didn't stop them from sending a zing up his spine every time they happened. It was why he would cave every time she asked for a piggyback ride, since he would never mind having her that close.

"Please." He didn't have to look to know Jack was rolling his eyes. "She doesn't seem to mind."

Eret wasn't really sure how to respond to that.

#

Gobber was apparently meeting the Haddock family to watch Astrid Hofferson race. The first race of the season, so Gobber did was he rarely ever did, and closed up almost two hours early.

Later, when Eret would think about it, it would be one of the things that served to convince him fate existed. Merida had been working on him for almost a year, debating his "life is what you make it" philosophy against her own belief in Fate, and destiny. He might have been able to agree to disagree with her… but it was the small things that wore him down.

Like the fact the one day he got off early was the day Jack showed up on death's doorstep, and his own.

Eret was a creature of habit, so he had still followed his routine. An hour and a half at the gym gave him a chance to watch the fight between Jack and the Big 4 on the news while he worked out his own frustration with not being able to help.

Merida had been studying for finals, so she hadn't shown up either at the garage, or his apartment, for the past three weeks. And there hadn't been anything remotely like that hug, which they hadn't spoken about.

No sign of Jack either. Save for a week earlier, when there had been another fight with the Big 4. A skirmish, really.

Not like tonight's. Rapunzel had hung back. Her few attempts to take part were halfhearted. As they usually seemed to be against Jack. But Hiccup and Merida had gone all out. Honestly, Eret was impressed. They were pulling together as a team, their skills improving through trial and error. He just wished he wasn't watching it against Jack.

He moved effortlessly. Though Eret spotted several gaps where he was obviously holding back. None more so than when Merida tossed her bow aside and lunged at him. Jack parried every punch she threw at him. But he didn't throw any of his own. A few kicks grazed her. But Eret's trained eye could pick up that that had been done on purpose. Instinctually, he knew the boy was holding back because of their friendship. They both knew, if he hurt Merida (any of them, but especially Merida) it would be a wedge in their friendship. Since neither of them had a lot of friends, it was something they both wanted to avoid.

Eret had run his hands over his face. He was going to get one of them killed. Him and his conflicting loyalties. He was going to get one of them killed.

He prayed Pitchiner wasn't watching.

When the broadcast, and his workout, were done, he headed home. And tried to settle in for the night, despite the fact his stomach was twisted in knots.

The knock on the door was so weak, he almost didn't hear it over the TV. Where the news was covering Kozmotis Pitchiner's decline in health. He barely paid attention, knowing from Jack that it was a show.

But he heard the knock from where he was reheating some of the leftover Rapunzel somehow got to him at least once a week.

He opened the door, and a wave of cold washed over him. Jack swayed dangerously. Eret smelled blood, and his eyes went to where Jack pressed a hand to his side. Over a massive stain that extended to the hem of his hoodie, up his chest, almost to his shoulder.

Jack tried to grin. But his eyes were brighter than usual, the liquid close to spilling over than Eret had ever seen.

"Help," he murmured, deep voice weak.

He stumbled forward when Eret stepped aside, but his legs gave out. Eret barely managed to catch him, to lower him to the ground so he didn't crash onto the off white carpet.

Slamming the door shut, Eret reacted on instinct. Moving on muscle memory from a time in his life when skin ripped by dragon claws was as common as anything else. His own scars were a testament of that.

He went into the bathroom and grabbed his towl. The only thing he had that could absorb the blood. Pressing it to Jack's side, he ignored when the stuff seeped through the fabric. Thourhg his fingers. There was so much of it.

He reached into his back pocket, pulling out the Swiss Army knife he kept there. The blue fabric of Jack's hoodie, and the black tshirt underneath, were frozen from the frost his body was producing in a vain attempt to do… what, Eret didn't know. But it made the clothing easy to cut away.

Eret hissed when he saw the pale skin, bruised in a way that he knew meant the ribs weren't just cracked, but broken. The skin over Jack's stomach was lacerated, from near his navel, up his ribcage. He didn't want to think about what could have done that kind of damage. And that was in addition to the blackened left eye. And black fingerprints around his throat. There were probably other injuries still hidden behind the hoodie. Sure enough, when he cut the fabric away, he found several more handprints around Jack's arm.

Looking at the shredded skin, which continued to bleed, Eret but back the bile that rose in his throat. Even if he could staunch the flow, there was almost guaranteed to be internal bleeding that he could do nothing about.

He pulled his phone from his pocket and called Rapunzel. Only as it rang did he realize what he was doing. But Jack didn't stand a chance without Rapunzel's help. If he was going to lose Merida over this… well, he wasn't entirely sure he could be happy, even with her, if it had to be bought with Jack's life.

"Hello?"

"I need your help," he said, pressing the towel back to Jack's side. "Now!"

"Where are you?"

"My apartment."

He heard laughter in the background.

"I'm on my way."

"Are you at the house?" If she had to drive from the ranch, Jack would be gone by the time she got there.

"No, I'm in the city. We were having dinner with some friends. We'll be there in a few minutes."

"Hurry."

He moved Jack away from the floor, which caused the bloodstain on the carpet to spread.

"Stay with me, Jack," he said, checking the boy's pulse.

It was weak, and slow. Like his labored breathing. His body shuddered violently, and he coughed up a spray of blood.

Finally, after what felt like ages, the door was thrown open. Rapunzel, dressed up for some special occasional, blew in on a waft of perfume that smelled like sunshine and flowers.

Eret barely heard her gasp as she fell to her knees beside Jack. His throat tightened as Merida followed Rapunzel into the apartment. She was dressed up as well, actually wearing a dark blue-green dress that fitted her slim torso, with a wide leather belt slung low around her hips. She looked amazing. But he could hardly register that.

Instead, he saw the shock in her eyes as she looked at Jack, then back to him. The hurt in her blue eyes an accusation that hit him hard.

"What happened?" Rapunzel asked, startling Eret out of thoughts he couldn't even process fully. Her voice was horrified as she looked over the damage. Gasping again when she lifted the towel away from Jack's side. "Who did this to him?"

"Pitchiner," Eret said, through gritted teeth.

"I thought Jack worked for the Nightmare King," Merida said. She leaned forward slight, and Eret saw her face twist when she saw the damage.

"Reluctantly," Eret said. "He's never beaten him this badly, though."

"How would you know?" Merida snapped.

Eret opened his mouth to answer, but stopped when Jack coughed again.

"I'll explain everything later, just heal him!" He swallowed. "Please."

Thankfully, Rapunzel didn't seem to notice his harsh tone. If she did, she paid it no mind. She was already pressing her hands over the damaged skin. Not seeming to pay any attention to the red stains appearing on her fingers and dress.

It wasn't the first time Eret had seen the glow of her powers. But he still rocked back on his heels in awe as the strands of light unfurled like solar flares around the damaged skin.

#

Jack wasn't exactly sure how he felt about dying.

When he had been twelve years old, lying in a snow bank after the crash that had killed his parents, he had resigned himself to dying. He had accepted it. After an experience like that, Jack expected that a part of him would always be resigned to his own mortality.

Even in his darkest moments, he had never been suicidal. He had never looked for death. But for a few years, he had been fascinated by it.

Until a high school English class, when he had read the poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. Somewhere between "do not go gentle" and "rare, rage against the dying of the light", some sense had been knocked into his thick skull. His love of life had been reinvigorated, even if it had continued to take a beating from his circumstances.

His training had improved enough that Pitchiner had noticed. Emily Jane had cornered him in the kitchen late one night, demanding to know what had changed. To this day, he doubted she believed that it really had been a poem.

If he died, okay. But he wasn't going to just roll over and let it happen.

As soon as Pitchiner left him on the floor, turning his back without a second thought, Jack's brain had commanded his body to get up. To move. They had been in Obsidian Tower, thankfully. He never would have made it to the city from the manor house.

His thoughts had raced as he staggered, leaning on the wall for support, to the service elevator. He needed to get somewhere safe. A hospital was out of the question. Pitchiner had too much control over them, and someone would call him as soon as Jack stepped through the foor. Even if he managed to avoid anyone on Pitchiner's payroll, his mutated blood would have raised too many problems.

Emily Jane crossed his mind… but he didn't actually know where she lived.

His brain latched onto Eret's apartment. His one safe haven. He knew there wasn't much Eret could do. In the back of his mind, he knew he would just be making a lot of trouble for the one person he thought of as a friend… but his body was moving before he could actually make a decision.

He was fading in and out so much he couldn't even remember how he got there. Blackness engulfed him, and he couldn't resist.

At least the pain dulled as he fell.

He sank deeper into something stronger than sleep. Vaguely aware of Eret urging him to stay… but by that point, the tides had sapped him of the strength – or knowledge – of how to do that.

Then the darkness started to fade. Cast off by a golden glow that seemed to turn the world upside down. He was still falling. Only now he was falling back into his body. Back into pain, and labored breathing.

That was just mean.

No sooner had that thought formed, than the pain was overtaken by heat. Warm, then hot. Filling him. Like the vague memories of his mother's gentle touch. Like the nightlight that kept the monsters at bay, and the blankets that blocked out the morning chill when you woke up on a winter's morning. It built to a blinding white that raced through his veins. Intense. As if the sun was flooding through him.

But not painful.

As the heat began to ebb, Jack became aware of two things in rapid succession. One, was the tingling at the back of his neck that meant only one thing.

Rapunzel was close by.

Which always explained the second realization: that there was no pain in his body.

Jack opened his eyes slowly, feeling as if he was surfacing from a deep sleep.

She knelt over him, green eyes wide, earnest, and bright. He was acutely aware that one of her hands still rested, warm-almost-hot against his stomach. But that last thing he wanted for for her to move it.

"Hey, Blondie," he murmured, reaching up to brush a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

She smiled, but snuffled. He wondered if she had actually been crying for him. "Are you alright?"

"I think I'll survive," he said, the corner of his mouth twisting in a weak grin.

"Great," a Scottish accent said. "Now that the blazes are you doing here, Frost?"

He had been so fixated on Rapunzel, he hadn't noticed anything about his surroundings. But now his attention expanded to the world around him. The familiar, sparse furnishings of Eret's apartment. Eret himself still kneeling on the floor nearby.

And Braveheart. Arms crossed over her chest as she glared down at him. This was the first time he had seen her up close without her mask. Watching from a distance while she and Eret flirted shamelessly in the garage's parking lot didn't count. To his amusement, she was actually dressed up.

He looked at Rapunzel again as she sat up, and realized she was dressed up as well. Though the soft, lilac colored dress was now stained red.

After another glance at the angry Scot, Jack looked back at Eret, feeling a wave of guilt.

"I didn't think you would call them."

He knew Eret hadn't wanted them to find out about their friendship. It was something he had totally understood.

Eret shook his head. "I wasn't going to let you die. Not like that."

"Thanks."

"Eret!" Braveheart snapped.

"Jack saved my life when Drago ordered his men to kill me," Eret said, not looking at the red head.

"After he saved you," Jack said, knowing Eret would never say the words. But Jack felt she should know.

Eret had admitted to Jack that he still wasn't sure why he had saved her that day. He had just known that he couldn't let Drago's men kill her. But when Braveheart had gotten away, Drago had ordered his men to kill Eret for his treachery. Of course, Jack hadn't exactly thought before he had jumped in to save Eret. He didn't know if Braveheart knew about the second order. But, hey. Ignorance wasn't actually bliss.

She glared at him… but the expression faltered. However mad she was in that moment, Eret's life mattered to her. Well, Jack would give her points for that.

"We became friends after that," Eret said.

"Why didn't you tell us what Pitchiner was doing to him?" Rapunzel asked, before Braveheart could respond. "We could have—"

"Could have what?" Jack asked. "Eret's been trying to get me to leave as long as he's known what's been going on. I was too scared to leave."

"What about now?" Rapunzel asked, turning green doe eyes back onto him.

"Now… I don't know," he admitted. "I'm not going back to Pitchiner. I'm not that pathetic. But I don't exactly have anywhere else to go."

The door opened, and jack looked up in time to see Braveheart's lion's mane of red curls vanishing through it. Slamming the door behind her.

"Merida!" Eret was on his feet, pulling the door open, and following her out.

"Merida, huh?" Jack asked, looking over at Rapunzel. "Nice to finally know her name. It's weird to think of someone as 'Braveheart'."

"You didn't know her name?"

He shook his head. "Eret never told me. I only know your name from overhearing Pitchiner and Gothel. And because you told me."

She blushed.

#

"Merida."

She was already halfway down the stairs by the time Eret got out the door. And she reached the ground before he caught up with her.

"Merida."

"I trusted you!" she said, rounding on him. "I trusted you, and all this time you've been friends with him ? You lied to me!"

The accusation hit that much harder because it was true.

Merida hadn't trusted him a year ago, back when Jack first showed up outside the garage just as he was getting off work. She had been hanging around because she didn't trust him, and he had just wanted to live his life. And having her on his back, just waiting for him to mess up, hadn't exactly been conducive to getting his life together.

When he had looked at Jack, he had known this was exactly what she expected him to do. Fraternize with the enemy, or something like that. But somewhere between Jack's puppy gaze, and the memory that he owed this boy his life… Truth be told, he had been lonely. He wasn't a member of the Big 4 – and didn't want to be – but his past as a dragon trapper also put him so solidly in their world that making friends had proved difficult. Jack was a part of the strange world Eret couldn't escape. He had empathized with the loneliness in Jack's expression.

Sharing a pizza made sense, from that point of view. And the friendship had grown between Jack's jokes, which made him feel normal for a while, and the fact he didn't have to lie about his past.

At that time, he hadn't valued Merida's trust all that much. Hiccup's, yes. But he hadn't thought about whether or not Hiccup would approve of the friendship.

Now, he couldn't meet Merida's eyes.

"I can't believe I thought I—" She stopped herself. When he dared to look at her, she shook her head.

"I didn't tell him anything," Eret said. Though he knew it wouldn't help.

"That's not the point!" she snapped.

He supposed she was right. In her mind, it was the principle of the issue.

"Eret?"

They both looked towards the stairwell, where Rapunzel was coming down. Her dress was hopelessly stained.

"I'm going to talk to Hiccup," she said. "We'll figure out what to do. Can Jack stay here tonight?"

He nodded. "Of course."

"Thank you," she said, touching his arm lightly as she paused next to him. "And thank you for calling me. It was the right thing to do."

Merida snorted, already turning towards Rapunzel's car. The blonde followed a few steps behind her.

When Merida had pulled the passenger door open, she started to slide it, but paused. Only for a moment as she met Eret's gaze. The pain in her expression was the worst part.

She hadn't trusted him when he and Jack first became friends. And he hadn't loved her. But now he did.

#

The Haddock house wasn't usually quiet. But right now, it felt like there was a thunderstorm happening inside the walls.

"He's Jack Frost!" Merida said. "We can't trust him!"

"That's what you said about Eret!" Rapunzel argued, her voice raised in frustration.

"Aye. And I was right!"

Hiccup stared at the two girls. He and his parents had come home from dinner with Gobber, after watching Astrid's race, to find the two deep in a heated argument that had Toothless curled up in the corner to be out of their way.

Until now, Hiccup knew Merida and Rapunzel weren't exactly best friends. But had had never seen more than the occasional tiff between the two. Nothing serious, just the little things that came up when two people with such different personalities and upbringings lived in the same house.

It had taken a while to figure out what was going on. Mostly because Merida was terrible at explaining almost anything, but kept interrupting Rapunzel to make her voice heard. Her complete about face regarding Eret still left him dizzy, though he thought he finally understood the situation, at least. (Though he had never fully understood exactly what the situation between Merida and the former dragon trapper was. One minute she was going to the garage because she was convinced he was going to betray him, then they started hanging out, though she never said what caused the change. Hiccup was left scratching his head, convinced that women just didn't make sense.)

"Both of you: Enough."

Hiccup looked over at his father gratefully.

Rapunzel frowned a little (though her frown looked more like a pout), but fell silent. Merida opened her mouth as if to say something… but seemed to think better of it when Stoick looked at her. Her jaw snapped shut with an audible clicked. She collapsed back onto the unoccupied couch with a huff, arms cross over her chest.

"Where is this Jack Frost now?" Stoick asked, looking at Rapunzel.

"Eret's apartment," she said.

Merida muttered something under her breath, though Hiccup was fairly sure he caught the word "traitor".

Stoick leaned back in his armchair, obviously thinking the situation through as he ran a hand over his beard.

For the time being, Valka was quiet, observing. Eventually she would probably have something to say. But for now, she seemed to be waiting to hear what her husband had to say.

Without Stoick leveling her with That Look, Merida regained her confidence, and turned to glare at Rapunzel.

"What was with the way you were hovering over him?" she asked, the challenge in her voice almost painful. "You looked ready to kiss him when he touched your hair. Don't tell me you've fallen for those lines he spews at you."

Something about her tone… she was looking for a fight. Hiccup couldn't begin to guess why, but he knew her well enough to be convinced that was the situation.

He looked over at Rapunzel, and saw her blush. Her hands clenched around the fabric of her light purple skirt. The dress was beyond repair, the large stains already darkened from red to a sickly brown.

"We… we've talked," she admitted, eyes fixed on the fabric she worried between her fingers. "Sometimes during a fight, when no one's watching, he'll… stop. And—" She hesitated, biting her lower lip, and Hiccup sighed, knowing that whatever came next would probably be huge. "Last Christmas we had a – a soldier's truce, he called it. He recognized me when I went shopping at the mall."

" And you hung out with him??" Merida all but howled, her voice strangled.

Toothless, who had come to sit next to Hiccup, made a pleading ' aroo ' sound, as if pleading for the red head to calm down.

" No, I will not calm down!" Merida snapped at the dragon.

Rapunzel, at least, had the decency to appear sheepish as she looked down at the carpet.

"Rapunzel, do you have any idea how dangerous that was?" Stoick asked.

"He's not… like that," she finished lamely, obviously knowing that none of them were going to accept it.

Hiccup almost wished he was more surprised. But considering the way he had seen Jack Frost and Rapunzel look at each other… he couldn't be. In the back of his mind, he suspected he had known there had to be something going on that he wasn't aware of. And it also explained why, when he had come to pick her up from that mall that day, she had been so cagey. It hadn't been enough for him to think much about it afterwards. But enough that, now it was brought up, he remembered noticing it.

Eret and Jack, though. That struck him as an odd friendship. They were both cocky braggarts. One who took himself too seriously (though he had learned a bit of humility lately), while "Serious" didn't even seem to be in Jack Frost's vocabulary.

"I wish you'd told me," Hiccup said.

"I knew what you would say," she admitted.

"Did you know he and Eret were friends?" Merida asked.

She shook her head, earnestly. "No. It's not like we talk about our lives. We don't actually say much."

She bit her lip. "But…" She shrunk back a little when they all looked at her. "I think it makes sense. Eret said Jack saved his life, when Drago ordered his men to kill him after he saved Merida."

Merida huffed, pointedly looking at a blank spot on the wall, rather than at any of them.

"Maybe they were both lonely," Rapunzel went on, after a moment of hesitation.

"How could they be lonely?" Merida challenged.

"Even I know our world is… strange," Rapunzel said. "Most people have no idea what our lives are like. I feel it sometimes when I'm talking with my friends. Even tonight, there were a few moments where it felt… odd. Their lives are different. Simpler, in a way. They don't have to worry about patrol schedules, or what Drago, or Mor'du, or Gothel are doing.  Eret's not one of us. But he's still kind of a part of the world of the Big 4. Maybe he wanted a friend who understands our world."

"A villain," Merida muttered, slouching back into the couch.

"It could have been worse," Rapunzel pointed out.

"Yeah? How?"

"He could have been friends with Heather."

Faster than Hiccup could blink, Merida had grabbed one of the throw pillows on the couch, surged forward, and thrown it at Rapunzel.

"Merida!" Stoick scowled.

"I'm going to bed," she said, already walking away from them without a backwards glance.

Toothless lifted his head, making another soft ' aroo ' at her retreating figure. She didn't respond, but Hiccup rested a hand on the dragon's head.

"It's okay, Bud," he murmured.

When he heard Merida's door click shut, he looked at the others.

Rapunzel held the pillow on her lap, looking down at it as though trying to read something in the weave of the threads.

"I don't get why she's so…" Angry wasn't the right work. He knew Merida's anger, and this wasn't it. But he wasn't sure what it was .

"She's hurting," Valka said softly. "She loves Eret, whether she realizes it or noth. Trusting him was a risk, and he betrayed that trust." She turned to Rapunzel. "So did you."

Now Rapunzel really did look sheepish. "I'm sorry. I didn't… I'm sorry."

"Rapunzel."

She lifted her eyes from the pillow to meet Stoick's gaze.

"Do you think he can be trusted?"

She nodded. "I think so. If Pitchiner did that to him… I don't think he had a choice."

#

Rapunzel followed Hiccup and Stoick up the stairs to Eret's apartment the next day. Aware that she almost hadn't been allowed to come. As far as the others thought, she was compromised when it came to Jack.

Maybe she was.

She wished she could explain why she had done what she had. Why something about Jack drew her in. Why, even though she had tried not to, she trusted him.

In the past, Merida had accused her of being naïve, and overly romantic. Maybe she was that, too. Maybe she was foolish to fall for sad eyes and lonely words, no matter how earnestly they were spoken. Maybe she really was too trusting.

Eret himself was at the garage, but he had told Hiccup over the phone that Jack was still in his apartment. Stoick opened the door without knocking, and stepped inside.

The apartment was clean, the few possessions put away and organized. It had surprised Rapunzel the first few times she had been here, since Gothel had always told her that men were slobs, along with a whole laundry list of other sins. Most of which she now knew were false. (Though Hiccup's room was almost always strewn with things.)

As she followed Hiccup inside, she saw Jack on the couch. He lay on his back, tossing a soccer ball up in the air, and catching it with his fingers.

"If you were trying to take me by surprise, you should have been quieter on the stairs," he said.

He tilted he head to look at them. Or at least, at Stoick. One brown eyebrow quirked.

"Stoick the Vast," he said. "The world just keeps getting weirder."

His eyes slid to her, and she thought she saw the corner of his mouth start to pull in a smile… but he looked back when Stoick spoke.

"You're Jack Frost?" the older man asked. His rough voice as serious as Rapunzel had ever heard it.

Jack caught the ball a final time, then set it on the couch as he sat up. He still wore the brown skinny jeans he had been wearing the night before. Though the faded bloodstains suggested they had been put through the wash. The tshirt he wore – a dark blue V-neck – was far too big for his lean frame. Since his hoodie and shirt had already been cut away when she arrived to heal him, it seemed safe to guess this one belonged to Eret.

"Jackson Overland, actually," he said.

It was the first time she had ever heard his real name.

His warm brown eyes slid to Hiccup, looking him over. "You really are just a kid."

She glanced over in time to see Hiccup's scowl.

"What are you?" Jack asked. "Sixteen?"

"Eighteen."

"I'm twenty-two," Jack said. "Finding out I've been getting my butt handed to me by a bunch of teenagers isn't exactly fun."

Rapunzel would be twenty in just a few weeks, but she didn't think she should mention that right now.

"You've been holding back lately," Hiccup said.

"I wondered if you noticed," Jack said, rubbing his jaw.

"Why?"

"Long story short?" He stretched his arms over his head. "Eret's in love with Merida. He's also the only friend I have. If I hurt her – really hurt her – I can say goodbye to that friendship. Rapunzel's one of the few people who's been kind to me. So I can't hurt her. And I doubt she would look at me the same way if I hurt you. And the dragon… well, I kind of like living.

"Obviously," he lifted the hem of his shirt to reveal the feint network of scar tissue that had been left even after she had healed him the night before, "you weren't the only one who noticed."

"That's why he did that to you?" Rapunzel asked. "Because—"

"Because he was watching the news last night, and saw every chance I wasted at taking Braveheart out."

"Why should we trust you?" Stoick asked.

Jack met the man's gaze for a moment, but looked away first. He picked the ball up again, passing it between his hands. Thinking about his next words.

"Because I could have killed all of them at least five times over," Jack said, nodding to Hiccup. Then to Rapunzel. "Her more than that."

She had to look away, even as Hiccup took a half step closer to her.

"I tried to warn you guys about the Nightmares," he said. "I was too late, but I tried. I wanted to help, but I didn't know what I could do."

Rapunzel shivered, and felt Hiccup do the same, at the memory of the Nightmares.

He looked at Hiccup. "Who tipped you off to that weapons shipment down at the tracks last October?"

"Eret," Hiccup said.

"Who told him?"

Hiccup hesitated. And Rapunzel remember that Eret had dodged the question of where he had gotten the information. Saying that it didn't matter, but that he trusted the source.

"Not to bring up Eret's past sins. But when he captured your dragon last year, who freed him?"

Again, Hiccup hesitated.

"Okay, I can't prove that one," Jack admitted, running a hand through his already messy hair as he looked away.

"No." Hiccup raised a hand, thinking. "No, I believe you."

"Hiccup," Stoic cautioned.

At the same time Jack asked "You do?"

"Yeah. I've been trying to figure out why Toothless has been reluctant to fight you ever since I got him back."

"I thought I was imagining that. You know your life is pathetic when you start imagining that a dragon has pity on you."

If Toothless had been there, Rapunzel suspected he would have laughed.

"Look, my parents died in a car crash when I was twelve. I was found in a snowbank three hours later. I should have died of hypothermia, but instead I mutated into… this." He made a swirling motion with his hand, a delicate blossom of frost appearing in the air above his fingertips. It followed the motion, before it dissipated.

"Pitchiner's been studying genetic mutations for years, and he has eyes in all the hospitals. When he found out about me, he took me in as his ward." He went to put his hands in the pocket of his hoodie as he scowled, only to find that the shirt he wore didn't have a pocket. "As long as I was his lab rat, he figured I might as well double as his minion of chaos, and trained me."

"And you just went along with it?" Hiccup asked.

"I was twelve," Jack said. "I'd just lost my parents, and discovered I had the power to create blizzards with a thought. I didn't have a lot of mental defenses when he started telling me how amazing I was, and how he was the only person who understood me, and he wanted to help."

Rapunzel's heart twisted, and she had to resist the urge to reach out to him. The pain in his voice was so raw it would have bled if it were a physical wound. This was something couldn't heal, and it broke her heart to see.

"About the time I started developing a conscience, he learned a right hook to the jaw did a good job of keeping me in line." He rubbed his jaw again.

"So what are you going to do now?" Stoick asked.

"I wish I knew."

#

A week later, Hiccup found himself pinned down in an alley by Ryker Grimborn and some of his men. Merida was preoccupied with some of the others, Rapunzel wasn't there, and Toothless was tied down twenty feet away.

His eyes darted around, searching for a way out as they bore down on him.

"Coming through!" a cheerful voice called… seconds before a streak of blue barreled into the men, knocking them down.

Hiccup blinked, looking over to see Jack sitting on the edge of a nearby dumpster. He wore a dark blue hoodie, the hood pulled low, and a mask over his eyes.

"Hey," he greeted. Grinning. Without looking ober, he flicked a finger.

The man who had been about to attack Merida from behind found himself stuck in a block of ice from the neck down.

Hiccup stood up carefully. His prosthetic had been damaged when he'd been yanked from Toothless's saddle, so he had to put all his weight on his right foot.

"Thanks."

"I was in the area."

Merida, who had just come over to them, snorted.

Jack looked over at her for a moment… but seemed to devide not to take the bait. He turned back to Hiccup.

"With Pitchiner's declining health, the Grimborns are trying to make a grab for his territory. All the crime lords are, but it's going to come down to a turf war between them and Ratcliff." He grimaced as he said the name. "It will probably go to Viggo."

"Probably," Hiccup muttered, bitterly.

"His girflriend's dragon is kind of an advantage," Jack said.

Hiccup met his gaze, and saw the unspoken question there. How had a seemingly random girl gotten a dragon? He supposed, as the only other person with a dragon (to Jack's knowledge), he was the logical person to ask.

He hung his head. "I never should have trusted Heather. It was a mistake."

"I'll bet," Jack muttered. "This will all just escalate when Pitchiner dies."

"You sound sure he's going to," Hiccup commented. He didn't exactly sound mournful, either. Though, if the beating Jack had taken as been as bad as Rapunzel and Eret said, Hiccup probably couldn't blame him.

"You guys have dealt with the Nightmares," Jack said. Not a question.

Hiccup and Merida exchanged grim glances… and nodded.

"He's developed a formula to trigger mutation," Jack said. "From my genetics," he added bitterly. "But the process left him transfigured, so he can't maintain his public presence. And I think he's satisfied with the power. For now. The whole illness is fake."

This time, the looks Hiccup and Merida exchanged were concerned. It had never been said out loud, but Hiccup knew they had thought Pitchiner's death would mean they wouldn't have to deal with him anymore. Even a turf war was preferable to the Nightmared.

"Look, I know you don't trust me," Jack said. "I don't blame you. But I want to help. It's not exactly like I have anything else to do."

#

Jack had been living at the Haddock house almost a month, and Merida was… accepting it. She wasn't happy about it. But he had proved himself useful in a fight, she had to admit.

She was heading to her room one night when the door of Hiccup's bathroom opened, and Jack came out, with a towel wrapped around his waist.

"Put some clothes on, Frostbite!" she cried, stumbling as she tried to avoid walking into him.

"Sorry!" He took a step back… and started grinning. "Sorry."

Merida rolled her eyes, passing him to get to her room.

"Merida."

"What?" she snapped, turning to glare at him.

His grin had faded, but it didn't seem to have anything to do with her glare.

"Look." He scratched the back of his head with the hand that wasn't holding the towel around his waist. "Eret… he really respects you. There aren't a lot of people he respects, either. Now we talk openly, I think Hiccup might be the only other one. Well, Hiccup and Stoick."

She had stilled when he said Eret's name. It slipped under her defenses, hard as she tried to keep it out. Even more since she knew what he was saying was true.

"If you have to be mad at something, be mad at me. But, he misses you. And he hates that he let you down."

"How is that your business?" she snapped. Not wanting to admit that his words had gotten to her. Though it was hard to keep being mad and distrusting of him when he kept talking earnestly, with words she knew were true.

"'Cause it's my fault."

Merida scowled in annoyance. "Get some clothes one," she said, and continued to her room.

She hadn't seen Eret since that night in his apartment. And the truth was… she missed him, too. Missed the way they talked, and the way he made her laugh even when she tried not to. The fact he called fries "chips", and soccer "football". She missed his stupid Dragonberry scented body wash, which she suspected she would never be able to forget the smell of. Even his smug grin when he knew she knew he was right. And the way that grin softened when their eyes met, and they both knew she would never admit it.

She missed him.

Truth be told… she wasn't really mad anymore, either.

#

"Hey, Eret. Your probation officer is back!" one of the mechanics called from the garage. From his grin, he had obviously won the bet of how long it would be before Merida came back around.

Eret fumbled in surprise, nearly dropping the clipboard he had just picked up. He had managed to catch it, and set it back on the counter, just before Merida came into the show.

He hadn't seen her in more than five weeks. Longer than he had gone without seeing her since he had started working in the shop. And, quite frankly, he had hated it. Understood why she refused to see him. But still hated it.

Though he didn't think he would change what he had done. He had had plenty of time to think it over, and play it out in his head a thousand different ways.

Suddenly, there she was. Red curls as wild as ever, hands buried deep in the pockets of her black leather jacket as she came to stand on the other side of the counter. The silver owl pin she had "stolen" from him months ago (one of the few family relics he had inherited from his father) was still on the collar. Or had been put back. Either way, he suspected it was a white flag. As much of one as Merida would ever wave, at least.

"Hey," she greeted, awkwardly."

"Hi."

The door to the garage opened, and Gobber came through. "Eret, where's—" He stopped, looking at Merida, then back to Eret. "Never mind. It can wait."

When the door closed behind him, Eret looked back at Merida. She seemed more unsure than he had ever seen her.

He decided he should man up and meet her halfway. She had come all the way here, and his mother had told him all relationships were built on an ability to meet each other where you were at.  Not that he was any better at apologies than she was.

"I'm not sorry I'm friends with Jack," he admitted. This whole situation was because he hadn't been honest with her. There was no point lying now.

"He's the one that told me to come," she said, before he could say anuthing else.

Eret arched an eyebrow. He couldn't resist. "And you still came?"

She shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

There was an awkward pause.

"He saved my life the other night," she said.

"I saw."

She nodded.

"And Stoick and Valka seem to trust him," she went on. "They're usually pretty good judges of character." A pause. The space of a heartbeat. And she finally met his eyes. "They were right about you."

Eret knew Merida well enough to understand that that meant he was forgien.

"I have to get to class," she said. "Do you have plans tonight?"

"When do I ever have plans?" he asked. Which was true. His life consisted of work, the gym, and tracking the Big 4.

Merida grinned. "I want chips."

Eret nodded.

Considering they had first bonded over fish 'n' chips, there was no better olive branch she could offer.

"I'll pay," he said.

"I'll be here at five-thirty."

"Six," Eret said. "Gobber has me closing."

She quirked an orange brow. "You've been promoted."

"If that's what you want to call it."

"I'll be here at six." She turned to go, with a wave over her shoulder.

"You two have made up, then?" Gobber asked, the moment the door had closed behind her.

Eret didn't bother hiding his grin as he turned back to his bodd. "Yeah."

"Good. You've been sulking around long enough. Now where's that order slip from last week? I coulda sworn I ordered more than six quarts of oil."

Eret knew for a fact that Gobber hadn't ordered more than that. (He had wondered about it when he signed off on the shipment, and even checked the invoice.) But Gobber wouldn't believe that until he saw the slip for himself, so Eret would have to find it.