When they woke up, both of the adult Bennetts gazed sadly at the portraits we had positioned so carefully near them; but I didn't sense any shift in their romantic auras. Still, I hovered nearby, keeping my bow drawn and aimed either toward the kitchen where Liz had started on breakfast or toward the bedroom where Jim was stalling before making an appearance. My arms were starting to get tired, and there was no sign of reconciliation by the time the kids slinked in for their meal.
I was invisible, but Jamie kept looking hesitantly at Jack and Sandy as if he was unsure whether or not to greet them. Sophie, however, brightened up and clapped her hands at the sight of them, then started peeking around corners and crawling under the table.
"Soph, hon, what are you doing?" Liz asked.
"Looking for the angel," she hopped up to look on the counter then turned right to Jack with her tiny fists on her hips, "Where's the angel?"
"There's no angel, dear. Now sit down and eat your breakfast," Liz carried two bowls of oatmeal to the table, and Sophie quickly trotted to her seat.
I looked up at Sandy, "You two may want to keep an eye on Jim instead. You're too distracting for the kids in here."
The diminutive spirit gave me the 'ok' sign then waved at the children and disappeared behind a sheet of gold sparkles like a magician.
"See you guys later," Jack added quietly and backed out of the room as Jamie lifted his hand in a timid wave.
Alone at last, I let down my bow and sighed. The dream had affected Liz, I could tell by the concerned looks she kept directing towards Jamie and Sophie; but I couldn't feel any opening for love at all. Soon the children were done eating and they set their bowls in the sink before running off up the stairs. A moment later I heard the squeak of the master bedroom door being opened. Liz heard it too and looked a little startled, hurrying to scoop the rest of the oatmeal from the pot into a bowl. I straightened up in anticipation, rising a little closer to the ceiling. Was she preparing a serving of breakfast for her husband? My bow was drawn and aimed again in a split second.
Nearly startling me into a wild shot, Jack Frost suddenly came skidding around the corner in a frenzy, "He's coming! He's coming!"
"Jack!" I kicked my foot at him in annoyance, but before I could say anything else, Jim passed through my lower half as he apprehensively shuffled into the kitchen.
The man froze when he spotted his wife standing near the stove staring back at him.
"This is it!" Jack gasped and Sandy glided over his head to get a closer look.
I could feel a turmoil of emotions crackling in the air, but nothing even close to affection or forgiveness.
"Come on," I growled.
Liz scooped a spoonful of oatmeal from the bowl she was holding and shoved it into her mouth, then breezed past Jim without a word and sat down at the dining table. He glanced at the empty cooking pot and a painful look crossed his face. Some kind of flashback from the dream, I assumed. He silently retrieved a mug and poured himself a cup of coffee, then dug a bagel out of its bag and carried it toward the toaster.
In my peripheral, I could see movement above Sandy's head and shifted my focus over long enough to see that he was asking why I hadn't shot yet. I clenched my jaw and anchored my fingers so firmly that the arrow's fletching dug into my lips. Before I could form an explanation, though, Liz cleared her throat and everyone turned to her in surprise, including Jim, who seemed like he would have been more comfortable with the silent treatment.
"I was thinking about the kids," she looked up from her bowl with eyes full of accusation, "We should probably put them in counseling."
"What?!" Jack cried, and even I let out a small gasp.
"This isn't easy on them; and Jamie, at least, is very sensitive," Liz continued, "They've both been coming up with a lot of imaginary friends…"
I could feel my insides knot up as Jack's mouth dropped open and Sandy hid his face behind his hands.
"That's perfectly normal for kids their age," Jim replied, turning back to the toaster.
"Oh yeah?" her tone turned sarcastic, "It's normal for them to have several imaginary friends that they 'play' with, and draw pictures of, and talk to at all hours of the night and in front of other kids? That's perfectly normal?" Then she bitterly added under her breath, "Of course you never noticed."
"Fine!" he snapped, "We'll set up an appointment with the school counselor this week."
"I don't like the school counselor," she shot back, "I want them to see a real professional."
"Judging by your trips to the nail salon, I'm sure you haven't noticed, but we can't afford to start sending them to a professional right now."
"Maybe if you got a job–!"
"Maybe it's your turn to drive around town looking for a job while I sit at home shopping online!"
Sandy covered his ears and clenched his eyes shut as the argument escalated.
Jack spun to face me with a desperate expression, "Just shoot them!"
"I – I can't," I fought to keep my voice from breaking as I lowered my bow and tried to make myself heard above the shouting, "If I inject passion into anger, it'll just become violent. There's…there's nothing we can do."
"The kids…" Jack gasped.
In a blur, Jack, Sandy, and I flew up the stairs into Jamie's room and jerked to a stop in front of the touching scene. The young boy was holding headphones over his little sister's ears as she obliviously played a computer game. As he whipped his head around in reaction to our entrance, we could see the tears glistening, unshed, in his large brown eyes.
"Jamie, are you okay?" Jack dropped his staff and wrapped the boy in a hug while fingers of golden sand stretched out to stroke the mess of brunette hair.
I sank down to the ground and sheathed my unstrung bow while I stared blankly at the embrace and listened to the muffled tones of the argument downstairs. I felt absolutely terrible, not even worthy to comfort these innocent victims after my complete failure. They probably hated me now – everyone probably did – and I probably deserved it. It was torture to be here seeing this and hearing this; but as much as I wanted to fly away and shelter myself from reality, like I'd been doing for the past four hundred years, I knew it would be cowardly not to face the consequences. And no matter what else I may be, I was not a coward. Still seated on the ground in a defeated slump, I allowed myself to become visible. Jamie's eyes peered up at me from over Jack's shoulder, but he didn't look angry at all.
"Jack," he said softly, "You're really cold."
"Oh, sorry," the winter spirit pulled away and leaned back.
As soon as he was released, Jamie walked over to me and, to my astonishment, wrapped his arms around my neck in a tender hug, "Thanks for trying to help, Cupid."
"I'm so sorry, Jamie," was all I could manage before the sound of a door slamming downstairs made us both flinch.
He let out a single forced chuckle, "That was a shorter fight than usual."
From her computer chair, Sophie finally turned and noticed what was going on. She took off her headphones and hopped down, galloping over to join the hug. Well, even if the children were willing to forgive me, I was sure my fellow guardians would not be so understanding; but I raised my eyes to find Sandy smiling wistfully and telling me that I shouldn't give up. To my complete surprise, even Jack Frost, my antagonist from the start of this mission, was simply looking back at me with a sad, pensive face rather than an accusatory glare.
"I'm not done yet," I promised, resting my cheek on top of Sophie's blonde head, "I'll keep trying to help your parents."
"Really?" Jamie sounded relieved, "Oh, thanks, Cupid!"
"And we'll play?" Sophie asked, lifting her face to look up at mine in excitement.
"Well…" I hesitated; I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd played with anyone or what we had done.
"Hey!" a voice called out cheerfully, as Tooth flitted into the room, "How'd it go?"
A moment later a hole appeared in the floorboards and Bunnymund sprang out, "What'd we miss?"
North stepped through the door at nearly the same time, "So what is big news?"
It only took them a few seconds to look at the rest of our faces and figure out that something had gone terribly wrong.
"Oh no," Tooth whimpered.