Jack Frost was still getting used to this whole “people believing in him” thing. Adjusting to being a Guardian was relatively easy in comparison.
Protecting children? That was easy, even if he still had to learn the finer points of heroism. In all his years since he became Jack Frost, he’d never caused anyone to come to harm and never let anyone come to harm when he was around. Not hard wrapping his head around that one.
Getting used to people believing in him? That was something else entirely.
Now he had to be careful he wasn’t seen, for one, because people could actually see him. Oh sure, the Guardians and every other myth in the world had to make sure they had enough of a presence in the world to be believed in by people but that didn’t mean they just went walking down a busy street in broad daylight. It was something of an unwritten rule that they all made sure they were seen in glimpses, at best. A silhouette against the moon, a flash of furry movement in the corner of your eye, an impish laugh coming from the copse of trees at the end of the rainbow...
They all dealt in “almosts.” They were almost seen, almost tangible, almost able to be proven to exist.
The alternative, making their existence 100% known, wasn’t really something any of them wanted to deal with. People could be suspicious and afraid of things that were different and the fact that all of them had fantastic powers and abilities probably wouldn’t have smoothed any feathers. Then there was the fact that faith, real faith, real belief, the kind of belief that sustained them wasn’t really the same if they were right there standing in front of everyone. There was a chance strange things could happen if the nature of that faith changed and none of them were really keen to experiment and see how it would pan out, not when one of the risks was fading away.
Jack had to be careful now.
Boy, oh, boy was it difficult to be. Especially since there was a part of him that wanted to be seen and that part of him was absolutely giddy lately. It felt good to be believed in, made him feel stronger, and sort of made the world go a bit fuzzy around the edges.
Jack flattened himself against the side of the school bus, concentrating as hard as he could on being invisible until the gleeful preteens stampeded past, arms linked in a human chain. He stooped to scoop up a handful of snow and flipped up onto the top of the bus. With practiced movements of his hands and a quick puff of breath, he formed the loose material into the perfect snowball and flung it at the back of the green-coated girl in the middle of the line. She squealed when it hit and fell face first into a snowbank, bringing the rest of the chain down with her. Jack sat back on his heels and laughed as they all piled over on each other like excited puppies.
“Hey! Kid! Get down from there!”
There was snow on the top of the bus, too. Jack scooped some up and rolled it in his hands, looking about for another target.
“Kid, I’m talking to you! Get down!”
Okay, yeah, had to be Principal Mc-No-Funsies, shouting at--
--Oh. Him. Crap!
“Not invisible!” he squeaked, lobbing the snowball at Principal Surprisingly-Childish-at-Heart in a sloppy overhand that a preschooler would be ashamed of and tipped himself backward off the roof of the bus. Thank goodness for the North Wind that did double-duty delivering the payload and in getting Jack’s frosty behind out of the metaphorical frying pan. At least Jack was always invisible while flying. At least always so far.
Jack dropped out of the Wind a few blocks away from the school, tumbling down onto the roof of a coffee shop. He sprawled out in the snow, eyes closed to better enjoy the belief of children surging and washing around him, the smell of ice and snow and...dry dust and fur?
Jack’s staff nearly caught a long floppy ear as Bunnymund dodged out of flail range.
“Watch it, mate!”
“What are you doing here?”
“Just happened to be in the area. Thought I’d stop in.” It sounded like a lie to Jack but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why Bunnymund would be lying.
"Yes, because you always like to drop by for scones and carrot juice.” Suddenly, something fun occurred to him. That was happening a lot lately. “Hey, I bet I can freeze your nose hairs!"
“How about you don’t?”
“I’ll let you off just this once,” Jack said, rolling around giddily in the snow. Ha ha, nose hairs, nose hares.
“Listen, Jack, just as a matter of curiosity, how many believers do you have now? After Jamie spread word around, quite a few, I imagine. You’ve been a fair bit busy lately reinforcing it; saw that little snowstorm in Johannesburg the other day.”
“Lots now, all over. Jamie and his friends told their school and someone there told their cousin who told their school, and people went on the internet, and so on and so forth. It’s spreading like wildfire. Only replace the fire analogy with someone colder. Is Frosty the Snowman me? No, if I was, kids would have seen me, he has his own song. I don’t think I’ve met him, I should meet him and we should do stuff. Can snowmen make snow angels? They don’t have legs, but they could wiggle their bottom third around, right?”
“Oooh boy. Here we go.” Bunnymund pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sandy was right.”
“Right about what?” Jack started making snow angels. “Hey, look, look, I can make snow angels now! Don’t even have to use my powers."
“Think you can you pay attention for more than five seconds?”
“Dunno. Are you going to say something fun?”
“Look, what you’re feeling right now is fairly typical. Every time one of us got our first bunch of believers, we went a little...”
“A little what? What what what what?” For good measure, Jack added, “What?”
“We went ‘round the bend a bit, is what I’m saying. Just for a little while. Happened to all of us. We're sure it even happened to Sandy, but the Man in the Moon's the only one who would have seen it, and he's not talking."
“I feel just fiiine, what are you talking about?”
“Sounds to me like you feel a little too fine. You’re acting like a bit of a wally at the moment. It’s all that belief; goes to your head at first, ‘til you get used to it. It’s a big rush, more than most can even handle at first--”
“Look, if this is about the principal, it’s fine. It’s totally covered. She didn’t see me get on or off the bus.”
“Yes, you can clean up after yourself, that’s great.” Lickity-quick, Bunny slammed a forepaw down on Jack’s shoulder, pinning him to the rooftop. “But how long until you miss the spill, Jack? Before people who aren’t kids start believing in you too?”
“That’s not going to happen,” Jack said, rolling his eyes and pushing free of Bunny’s grasp.
“Yeeeah, that’s what Leprechaun thought, too,” Bunny said, pinning him with the other paw. “And adults still tell kids to build Leprechaun traps today. How d’you think the whole business with trying to catch him for his gold started?”
“Flashed his cash in a bad neighborhood,” Jack joked.
“What happened was he got his first surge in believers, lost his head, took a walk on the beach in plain sight of the King of Ulster, and next thing you know, everyone and their Aunt Gertie is trying to catch him for his gold.”
“Good thing I haven’t got any gold, huh?”
“No, but you got a magic stick, and--” Bunny clapped a paw to his forehead and Jack took the opportunity to wiggle out from beneath the other one. “Look, adults believing in you doesn’t end well for anyone. So how about you and me head up to see North and talk to him until you’ve overcome the urge to stuff snow down all your clothes, yeah?”
“As much as that sounds like a good idea right now, I kinda have to go,” Jack said. “Things to do, people to see, schools to close, buh-bye!”
He somersaulted backward off the roof and landed squarely on his staff, surfing the Wind with a wild whoop of joy.
Bunnymund sighed and then turned to go lean over the edge of the roof to the backup hiding below in the alley. “Sandy was right, he’s not listening, and I can’t fly. Snow Bird’s left the nest, people; I repeat, Snow Bird has left the nest. Let’s move!”
“Up we go, ladies! We have to bring him in before he does anything rash!” said Toothiana, and she and her fairies swarmed into the air after Jack.
Sandman was right behind her, flying with a jetpack made of his dream-sand.
“Jack!” Tooth called after him. “Jack, slow down!”
“Heeeey, Tooth! Sandy!” Jack spun around on one heel so he could look back at his pursuers. “When did you get here? Are we having a party?”
“Can you slow down for just a minute so we can talk to you?” Tooth called after him and he stopped, floating in the air to face them.
“Is this about what Bunny was saying? Because I feel just fine.”
Tooth and Sandy shared a worried look.
Looking back at Jack, Sandy made some dream-sand appear over his head, showing a beach, snow, and a question mark. The images and the expression on his face made it clear he was asking, “What’s up with that?”
“Oh, what, the Bahamas? Come ooon, it was just a few harmless flurries and it melted pretty fast. They deserve a little wintery treat every now and again, don’t they? They were loving it, too, you should have seen the kids playing in it on the beach. Sandy, you’d have liked it, it was a sand and snowball fight.”
While Sandy rubbed his chin and reflected on that, Jack turned to fly away again but found himself running into a wall of mini-fairies. Tooth zipped around and through the cloud, which parted so she could face him.
“Jack, please listen to us. I know you’re used to working alone and that you’ve always had to use your own best judgement to look out for yourself, but you’re not thinking straight right now and we’re just here to help. You’ve already closed down multiple international airports and--”
“No offense, but you guys barely even talked to me before the thing with Pitch. You’re my friends but I think I know myself better than you do. I know for sure that I’m absolutely fine right now. There’s nothing at all different about the way I’m thinki--hey, is that Brisney World?!”
The wind had carried them a long way by now. Jack immediately dropped away from the other two to fly down to Brisney World, which was sprawled out below him.
Sandy and Tooth looked at one another with a joint wince and immediately followed Jack.
His peals of raucous laughter echoed down Main Street and while the children and their parents bustling happily up the street didn’t exactly hear them, they felt them, joy vibrating through them. They also felt a chill wind sweep up the street, and then, just like that, it was snowing.
“What in the world?” asked one woman, holding out her hands and catching snowflakes as her daughter bobbed excitedly around her, getting snow all over her princess dress as she knelt and started playing in the snow.
Jack perched on a signpost, held out his hand, and blew a snowflake through the air. It landed on her nose and she started laughing.
“Let’s make a snowman, honey!”
“There you go!” Jack called, swooping down from the signpost and doling out snowballs. “Everybody join in! Ha haaa!”
“Oh no, he’s even getting the adults involved!” Tooth fretted to Sandy, bopping worriedly in place. “He doesn’t usually do that, he knows adults ask too many questions.”
Sandy flailed slightly and made the sand over his head appear in the angry-looking silhouette of a cartoon mouse’s head.
“Oooh, I didn’t even think of that. You’re right, he’s not going to be happy about this.” Tooth and her fairies fluttered towards him. “Jack, you have to stop this!”
“Stop what?” Jack asked, knocking a whole dusting of snow all over a little boy so that he laughed and turned to throw snowballs at another kid right near him. “Creating fun? That’s my whole shtick, remember? I’m just getting into the spirit of things now that I know what my deal is.”
Jack twirled around in the air, creating a small cyclone of flurries then spread them over the crowd with a cold wind. “Besides, most of you do your stuff year-round, right? Other than Bunny, at least--I guess he just spends the rest of the year trying to get his hands on some Trix. I’m a Guardian now, so I’m just trying to do the same as you guys.”
“Yes, but do you have to do it in the wrong hemisphere or this close to the equator? There’s a time and a place, and we all have to respect the natural order of things. I take a tooth when it falls out, not while it’s still in the mouth of the child. Do you understand? How you’re feeling right now isn’t normal.”
“No no, you’ve got it all wrong. I have to do it here more than ever! You guys--you have no idea.” Jack flailed slightly with his free hand, rubbing at his hair. “I just have all these ideas, all these places--there’s lakes to freeze over for ice skating and storm fronts to cause and--and--schools to close. I have to close every school! Every single one will get a snow day! North can do it all in one day, right? I bet I can too!”
Sandy was flailing at Jack, his sand-pictures showing various symbolic images of total disaster but Jack wasn’t paying attention. He was throwing more snowballs.
“Might as well test everyone’s generators, right? Down the power, turn off the TVs, get all the kids outside to play in the snow?”
Jack took the air again and quickly called up the wind to grab him and fly him off, crowing, “This is gonna be great!”
“M-mommy, it’s c-cold,” a little boy said to his mother.
“This weather is unbelievable. We’ll just have to go back to the hotel for now.”
“But mommy, I w-wanted to go on the rides!”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” the mother said as she picked up her child, “but we don’t have any winter clothes. Looks like we’re snowed out today.”
“Did you hear him, Sandy?” Tooth said, floating after Jack, as she saw disappointed kids start to get carted back to their hotels. “This is starting to get out of control.”
Sandy mimed punching his fist into his hand, a questioning expression on his face.
“You’re right, we’re going to have to bring him in by force. It’s for his own good.” Tooth fluttered up into the winds, her fairies right alongside her. “I don’t know why he’s struggling so badly with it, though; I don’t remember it being this bad for the rest of us.”
Sandy joined her on a cloud of sand, a concerned expression on his face, and the image of a hooded young man appeared over his head. The young man was standing in the middle of a crowd of sand-people. The figures in the crowd moved away from him and left him completely alone so that he hunched in on himself miserably.
“His being alone. Of course. After three hundred years of not being believed in, to get so much attention at once...” Her eyebrows furrowed together. “Poor Jack. If only we’d known back then.”
Sandy nodded, looking rueful.
“It’s all the more reason we have to help him now. We have bring him in until he comes down from it, before he does anything he regrets.”
“Helloooo Cancun! What you need is a good snowstorm, I think. Or--ooh, ooh, a blizzard! I bet you’ve never had a blizzard before...”
Now this would take some concentration to get a proper one going. The heat here was intense and really not his element. Thunder cracked as he created a stormfront, using his staff to stir the cold air.
“Now!” shouted a familiar voice and he caught just a quick glimpse of Tooth nearby before his vision was obscured by a cloud of fairies. They all grabbed him, little tiny feet grabbing at his clothes.
“Hey! What are you guys doing? I’m working here!” He thrashed. “Get your little grabbyfeets off me.”
He managed to thrash free, only to find a tendril of sand around his ankle. The sand-whip dragged him all the way down to street level. Instead of being slammed into the ground though, he found himself landing in a cushion of soft sand.
“You guys can’t be serious.”
Tendrils of sand started to wrap around him but he tapped his staff on them before they could, freezing them solid. They collapsed to snowflakes as he broke free, taking to the air again, facing down Sandy and Tooth.
“C’mon, guys! I’m just trying to have some fun. Nothing wrong with that.”
“We’re taking you to North,” said Tooth, “at least until you cool down.” Tooth paused. “Or is it heat up? How does that expression work with someone who’s cold all the time?”
“I don’t know about that expression but I know another one that’s totally appropriate for our current locale: Hasta la vista!” With that he tried to dart away but shimmering yellow sand was whipped towards him.
Jack did a backbend to duck under it. “Hate to limbo and duck out but--”
When he got to the other side, something suddenly exploded in his face and he was left coughing in a cloud of pastel smoke.
“The only ducking you’re going to be doing is for cover if you don’t come with us willingly,” said Bunny, who was standing on a nearby roof. “You’re out of your gourd right now.”
Jack just laughed, “For wanting to bring a little fun? I’m not the one out of my gourd, okay?”
“Cancun isn’t used to cold weather,” Tooth pointed out. “If you create a blizzard here, people might get hurt.”
“It’s just a teeny blizzard. A Teeny tiny one. Multiple snow days! I’m telling you, they’ll love it!”
Bunny pointed one of his boomerangs at him. “You mean they’ll love you. That’s what’s got you acting like a show pony right now. You went pat malone for so long that having everyone believing in you now--”
“That’s not what this is about,” Jack interrupted, irritated. “This is about me trying to do a good job and you worrying too much because you think that just because something happened to you--”
“Fair suck of the sav, mate. How about actually listening to us? It happens to everyone.”
“Well, it’s not happening to me, okay? We’ll have to agree to disagree.” With that, Jack darted up into the air again, but found himself surrounded by a swarm of fairies once more. Baby Tooth was getting up in his face and chirping worriedly at him.
“Baby--nngh--Tooth. Stop worrying! Everyone’s got their undies in a bunch over this, but--”
Jack managed to pull free and started to fly through the Mexican streets, laughing. “--there’s nothing wrong with me!”
How could there be anything wrong with him when he felt this good?
The others gave chase, trying as best as they could to not be disruptive to the local-goings on. It wasn’t entirely possible, though, when Jack didn’t seem to care.
A sudden swing of his staff had fruit from a fruit stand flying in all their faces on a gust of freezing air. The sight of Bunny covered in overripe mango reduced Jack to complete hysterics but still he flew on, whooping, laughing, and tossing the occasional snowball at either the people in the street or at the other Guardians as he went.
“If he keeps this up, he’s going to slip and be seen by the adults,” said Bunny as he hopped from car to car in the street. “He’s barely keeping himself invisible.”
He noticed people looking up at Jack as he passed, as if they were catching something moving out of the corner of their eyes.
Jack was equal parts giddy and irritated at his friends trying to stop him. Couldn’t they see that he was just doing what he was supposed to do? He was being a Guardian and that meant working to bring joy and wonder to the children of the world and there was nothing wrong with trying to do it for the whole world. Sandy and Tooth covered the entire world every single day with their work, and North and Bunnymund did the same in one day.
There was nothing wrong with what he was doing right now and heck, if they really thought there was, they wouldn’t be holding back the way they were doing. If it was serious, Sandy alone could kick his frosty butt.
Every child in the world deserved a good snow day. Or two. Or ten! Just think of how happy they’d be! He couldn’t wait to see it. Heck, he couldn’t wait to feel it.
The others were definitely cramping his style, though, Jack thought as he zipped between buildings, the sight of the bright blue water of the gulf flashing between each one. Cancun was no go.
“Unless...” he muttered to himself and his face brightened. Veering a hard right, he shot up into the air over the Gulf.
“Go big or go home, right?” he said to himself, surveying the vast expanse of bright water.
He’d give everyone in every state and country around the gulf the biggest skating pond in the world. Just for one day. It’d be great! That was, like, thousands of kids that’d get to ice skate that probably never had before! Very briefly, thoughts of the consequences of doing it passed through his head but they flitted off just as quickly as they came, chased away by the sheer joy he was feeling right now.
Jack flew out onto the water, briefly hitching a ride on the wind to get a head start on the others and then landed, freezing over the surface as he did. Bringing his staff down on the ice, it started to spread out over the expanse of water, smoothing down the waves as it went.
“Jack, what are you doing?” came Tooth’s voice as she and the others flew up. Sandy was in a little motorcycle made of his sand, flying through the air, with a disgruntled and nervous Bunny in the sidecar.
A clear dome of ice appeared around Jack so he couldn’t be interrupted.
“I had the best idea! I’m going to let them all ice skate! All of them, every kid along the coast of the Gulf!” he called out, the ice amplifying his voice.
“You’re not thinking it through, mate!” called Bunny as the motorcycle came in for a landing on the ice. “That’s going to kill the aquatic wildlife, cripple all the ships in gulf--you’re talking bringing whole economies to a standstill and causing permanent damage!”
“Everything’ll recover soon enough, and they’ll get to ice skate when they never have before. Can you imagine how that’ll feel?”
“For them or for you?” Bunny asked incisively as he hopped out of the sandy sidecar and hopped over to the dome, his paws slipping slightly on the ice.
That finally gave Jack pause and he looked confused. “I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it for the kids.”
“We don’t cause harm, Jack,” said Tooth, flitting over to the dome next to Bunny. “It’s not worth bringing a child joy now if it means they’ll be miserable because they go hungry later.”
“That’s not--” Jack was confused. “That’s not what I’m--”
Sandy shook his head and pointed up at the sand floating over his head. In the sand, there were outlines of little children crying and holding their bellies, shivering with cold.
“You keep this up and you’ll make them afraid of you, just like Pitch,” said Bunny, though his tone was more matter-of-fact than judgemental, as if he was trying to tell Jack the hard truth because he knew he was a good enough person to not want to cause harm.
“Hey!” Jack declared angrily, finally looking up from his work, floating up into the air inside the dome. “I am nothing like Pitch! I’d never hurt or scare kids to get them to believe in me!”
“You’re not like him, not at heart,” said Tooth. “We know you aren’t. We know you think you’re helping them right now, but you’re going to hurt them if you keep doing this. We’re trying to help you. Please, listen.”
Now Jack was confused. Maybe they were right, maybe he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he thought. Jack drifted downward, lowering his staff and looking between the other three Guardians.
“NOW!” Bunny shouted, and suddenly there was the sound of one of North’s portals inside the dome behind him and the world was less blue sky, ice, and water and more brownish-gray spun cloth.
“Seriously?!” Jack flailed wildly, but his fingers touched nothing but cloth. “Again with the yetis--”
Sandy’s head popped in through (presumably) the opening of the sack. He smiled almost apologetically at Jack, and blew a handful of sand in his face.
“--and the sa--ssss...zzzz...”
Jack’s vision went dark, but far be it from being cold, the entire world seemed to go all warm and comfortable and golden as he nodded off into dreamland.
“Jack!” called a familiar voice. It was a woman’s voice. “Jack, it’s almost time for dinner!”
The world was soft around the edges as he walked in through the door, dripping mud all over the place. It was all over his breeches, all over his shirt, and his cloak probably could grow plants off it, there was so much mud on it. He tried--and failed--to sneak past his mother, who was bustling around the kitchen, trying to get their meal together. It smelled like a stew and it looked nice and thick in the pot. When she heard him trying to sneak past, she turned around, got one eyeful of him, and immediately placed her hands on her hips.
“Jackson Overland! What in the world have you done with yourself?”
Jack looked guiltily down at the floor. “I fell.” He peeked up through his bangs and found her staring back at him with raised eyebrows. “...Off a tree,” he continued, hoping that would be the end of it.
“Into what, the bottom of the lake? If I didn’t know better, I might think you were some sort of golem, escaped before he was fired in a kiln!”
“Not the bottom of the lake,” Jack protested. “It’s just muddy around the lake because the snows melted and it’s been rainy. It’s just mud, and everyone else was impressed how high I climbed.”
“Oh Jack, what am I going to do with you?”
“Feed me dinner?” Jack suggested impishly and his mother laughed despite herself.
“I hope you realize that you’re cleaning your own clothes. Why in the world would you risk breaking your neck like that?”
“So that the older kids would see.”
“You don’t have to try so hard, you know,” his mother pointed out.
“Try so hard at what? I was just having fun.”
“At getting the other kids to like you.”
As usual, his mother had cut right to the quick and he suddenly looked awkward. He felt awkward.
“Tell that to Jacob. And Elias. And William. I just--I just wish they’d pay attention to me. I can’t even say it’s that they’re bullies, mom, they’re good fellas but they just don’t seem to like me, no matter what I do,” Jack said, and his mother took the stew off the fire, put it down and then turned to face him.
“Jack, you’re a good boy. The source of many a sleepless night for me, many a headache, and many a gray hair,” she said and he grinned in response, “but a good boy nonetheless. A very likeable boy. You don’t have to try so hard to get people to like you--you just have to be yourself and it’ll come all on its own.”
With that, she stepped forward, took him by the shoulders and pressed a kiss to his forehead. He squirmed away with an exaggerated “blech.”
“Somebody doesn’t want seconds tonight,” his mother said, turning back to the stove.
“On second thought, c’mere, mom. How’s about a biiig hug?” Jack said, dripping mud as he stepped forward, muddy arms outstretched.
“Jack, don’t you dare, don’t you--” He hugged her tightly, smearing mud all over her dress. “Ooooh, you are the devil’s own, I swear.”
Laughing, he retreated, before she could grab one of his ears, though she managed to whip him in the rear with a dishrag.
“For that, you’re going to wash up and go help Molly churn the butter.”
Doubling back, he snagged one of the pasties off the counter where they were cooling and his mother went after him with the dish rag again.
Laughing again, he darted off, enjoying his stolen treat, a warm glow diffusing through his whole world.
It’d been so long since he’d felt this warm.
Everything was fuzzy and there was a hole in his chest that felt empty and filled at the same time. There was a moment between sleeping and waking that Jack wondered if the fuzzy feeling was still caused by the dream or by something else. When his eyes finally flicked open to see a bunch of tiny eyes staring at him, he realized it was something else.
Some of Tooth’s mini-fairies were laying on his chest. Baby Tooth was among them.
“Aww, hey there,” he said, raising a hand to pet Baby Tooth on the head. “You guys gotta be cold, sitting there.”
Baby Tooth twittered at him, lifting off with her wings so that she could show him the tiny round rug that she’d previously been sitting on. The rest of them made twittering noises as well, some of them gazing at him with their habitual adoration and others with fond irritation. None of them followed Baby Tooth’s example, and even she settled back down on his chest, apparently trusting that he was too fond of them to tip them off.
Jack sighed and shifted a little so that he could fold his hands behind his head. “Where did you even get those things anyway?” Jack asked.
“North made them,” Tooth's voice answered from a few feet away, and Jack barely restrained himself from yelping and tossing all the fairies off in a wild flail. “He noticed they seemed cold when they were sitting on you, so he had some yarn and crochet hooks brought up. Aren’t they cute?”
“North crochets?” Jack asked, because that was obviously the most important part of that sentence. Tooth laughed softly, moving into visible range.
“North’s tried just about everything once or twice,” she said, casting a fond look back the way she’d come. “Ask him about his thoughts on interior design. Or, well, maybe not, unless you want him to build you a house.”
“He’s mentioned that,” Jack said, settling back down on the -- oh, he was on a bed. “The I-should-build-you-a-house thing. I think there was gingerbread involved.”
Now that he was awake and not having a staring contest with a couple dozen fairies, Jack took a look around the room he was in. It was definitely somewhere at North’s place -- pine and cedar everywhere. He could smell gingerbread and cocoa wafting in from somewhere else and hear the hustle and bustle of the elves and yetis, the whirring of the toys in the shop.
It looked as if they’d taken pains to make sure he couldn’t leave the room. The door was shut tight, the window looked like it was barred, and his staff was nowhere in sight.
Tooth gave him a gentle smile. “Are you feeling more like your usual self?”
“Not really,” said Jack. “My usual self doesn’t typically feel like it’s been hit by an airliner.” Jack held a hand to his head. “I feel like someone tried to puree my brain.”
“No urges to freeze anything in sight?” Tooth asked.
“My only urge right now is to possibly find a bucket so I can lose my breakfast.”
He hadn’t felt this nauseous since...ever.
“You can let him up, ladies, I think he’s back to his old self again,” said Tooth.
The mini-fairies seemed reluctant to get off of his chest. Tooth flapped her hands at them and they all sighed as one, picking up their tiny rugs and flittering off in the direction of the fireplace.
Jack sat up then immediately regretted it, but didn’t want to lay down again because it’d mean having to sit up again as well. It was not an experience he wanted to have more than once.
“How long was I out?”
“Are you serious?” Jack looked up suddenly (and then regretted that, too).
“Sandy kept you out for a while so your body would have time to adjust to all the belief pouring in. Do you remember everything that happened?”
“It’s all a big blur. All I know is I went viral in China, then wham! The world started moving at a hundred miles per hour and I was speeding up right along with it. I don’t even know how belief in me got started over there. I think it was through the internet but how that got through the firewall...”
“That snowstorm in Shanghai probably just reinforced it,” Tooth pointed out.
Jack looked taken aback, eyes darting back and forth, and he rubbed at his head. “I was in Shanghai?”
“And a looot of other places, too,” Tooth said, knocking in a specific rhythm on the door. Jack heard it unlock from the outside and one of the Yetis opened it.
“Oh, so you’re keeping me in now, huh, Phil?” Jack said as he walked past, snagging his staff from where it leaned against the wall outside the room.
The Yeti grumbled out a response and shrugged.
When he and Tooth got up the hallway, he was greeted with a sight that quickly stripped the amusement right off his face. The others were gathered around a table and they turned to look at him the moment he walked into the room. North and Bunny’s expressions were stern and Bunny’s arms were crossed. Sandy didn’t look quite as dour but did have a “Boy, you are in sooo much trouble” expression on his face.
“He’s awaaake,” Tooth said lightheartedly with a nervous grin. “And he’s feeling like himself again!”
“Did you tell him what he did?” North asked, leaning over and putting both hands down on the table.
“Not all of it. Just a tiny bit of it. I told him about Shanghai.”
“There’s more?” Jack asked nervously.
“Oh yes, mate. There’s more,” Bunny said. “In fact, where do we even start? You made it snow in South Africa--Johannesburg hasn’t had a snowfall like that in years.”
Sandy made the same image of a beach and snow appear over his head as before and pointed at it.
“Oh, right, and same for the Bahamas,” said Bunny.
“You make blizzard in Serengeti,” continued North.
“Which, by the way, has Anansi getting his webs all in a twist,” said Bunny. “You might want to steer clear of him for the next, oh, couple of centuries.”
“And the airports,” said Tooth. “You closed down ten international airports. Ten.”
“During the holiday season, at that,” pointed out Bunny. “After that little adventure in infrastructure inconvenience, you iced over Brisney World.”
“Also tried to turn entire Gulf of Mexico into ice-skating pond with no regard to consequences,” added North.
Sandy showed an image of penguins.
“--and you imported some penguins from Antarctica to a children’s hospital,” finished Tooth.
“North almost brought them back here, but we made him take them back to the Antarctic,” said Bunny.
“Though he did make them little bowties to take home with them,” said Tooth gleefully.
“Busy week for you, wasn’t it.” said Bunny, tapping his foot. “What d’you have to say for yourself?”
As they said all this, they hadn’t noticed the expression on Jack’s face, which had gone from nervous amusement to something more akin to mortal embarrassment to an expression of pure misery. That last part happened quickly so that it wasn’t until they’d finished that they realized something was wrong. North was the first to realize it, his own expression dipping into earnest concern.
“Jack?” he asked.
Wordlessly, Jack took several steps away from them, looking panicked, and then his lip even started quivering, something that gave them all cause for alarm.
“Jack, what is--”
North didn’t get to finish before Jack took to the air and flew towards the sleigh room like a shot.
“Where is he going?” North asked, turning to Bunny, who looked just as perplexed as he shrugged.
Tooth, however, was fretting. “Guys, I think we maybe hurt his feelings.”
“How?” Bunny asked. “We were just telling him about the mess he made. He may be embarassed now but he’ll have a good laugh about it later.”
“He’s been one of us for only a few months now,” Tooth pointed out. “What if he thinks it was too big of a mess?”
All of their eyes widened. Wide-eyed, Sandy then pointed at North and Bunny, as if to say, ‘they broke it, not me.’
Jack darted through the exit in the sleigh room as fast as he could fly, then zipped through the winding ice tunnels that led to the outside of North’s fortress.
Of course it would end this way. Of course. He vaguely remembered something from what had to have been the Gulf. Bunny’s voice resonating through the ice, telling him he was like Pitch.
Ten airports full of people trying to get home to their relatives for the holidays. Streets closed, a day at Brisney World ruined for some poor kids, and possibly ecosystems messed up for a little while. He hoped he didn’t ice up too much of the Gulf; it was bad enough it’d already been battered by that oily little mistake on the part of DP.
All because, what, he’d let the belief go to his head? He’d gotten so caught up in feeling good because of it that he was willing to cause actual harm to people?
It was pretty ironic. He’d been so enthused about finally being believed in, about finally belonging somewhere, that he’d gotten caught up in it and ruined his chance of being a Guardian. He’d made it so that the others had to stop him like he was a threat to the world.
At least he’d figured it out now, instead of when he’d been farther along into being one of them. He could just go back to his lake in Burgess, cause the occasional snowball fight, keep his head down, and make sure he didn’t bother anyone else again.
Jack was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the buzzing sound of wings coming from ahead of him in the tunnels until it was too late. Tooth flitted around a corner and the two of them slammed right into each other bowling each other over into the ice. Jack slid down a well-worn track in the ice to rest in a little ice hollow.
“Jack!” Tooth crawled over towards him. “Jack, you--”
Jack tried to take to the air again but Tooth grabbed his foot, yanked him back, and tackled him, the two of them rolling over in the snow until she’d managed to knock his staff out of his hand and pin him to the snow.
“Jack, where are you going?”
“Uh, I got the message, okay?” he said, trying to wriggle free.
“Exactly what message do you think that is?” she asked, trying to figure out what was wrong.
Trying fruitlessly to get up and collapsing back to the snow as Tooth slammed his wrists back against it, he said, “The message that--wow, you are stronger than you look--that I messed up. Just a few months into being a Guardian and not only have I already dropped the ball, I punted it into the yard of the neighbor with the really scary dog.”
His face had the same miserable expression as it had back inside.
“One little jump in believers and I went completely out of control. Who wants that kind of person calling himself a Guardian?” Jack jerked his head back and forth as he talked. “Guess what, I’ve found my new center and apparently it’s Screwing Up. I’m the Guardian of Screwing Up. Line up, true believers, and I promise I’ll shut down Brisney World so you have to stay at the hotel.”
Letting his head drop back into the snow, he closed his eyes tight. “Tell the others I’m sorry I wasted all your time.”
Tooth’s reaction to all that was staring at Jack with wide eyes and then saying, “Wooow, I didn't think anyone could actually be more down on themselves than Bunny when he's bummed."
Now Jack opened his eyes again and looked confused. “But you guys--”
“We were telling you what you did because you asked. We aren’t actually mad at you.”
“You did the same thing we all did once. Maybe to a more extreme degree, but it’s still hardly different.”
She let go of his hands, but didn’t stop sitting on him, clearly not trusting that he wouldn’t still try to bolt.
“Do you remember me talking about how we can’t disrupt the natural order of things?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“You know how I said something about I don’t take teeth while they’re still in the mouths of the kids?”
“Yeeeah?” Jack said, eyebrow raised.
“I may have drawn that example just slightly from actual experience,” she said, twiddling her fingers together.
“You tried to take someone’s teeth. While they were still in their mouth.” Jack reflected on this for a moment, to the time he had to shove her out of his own mouth. “Actually, I can’t say that it’s hard for me to see...”
“I got a teeny, tiny bit carried away and that ballooned into some stories where tiny witches fly in on egg-shell boats and steal teeth to put curses on children.”
Jack sputtered in surprise. “Egg-she--were they even loose?”
“Yes! I was helping. I wasn’t...seeing things clearly and the poor things were at that stage where the tooth is almost out but it’s hanging on with just a little bit of gum and it hurts but they’re too afraid of how much it’ll hurt if they pull it out and it’s all bloody--”
“You can forgo the detailed imagery, I get it.”
“By the time North came around, we realized it was something that happened to everyone, so when it happened to him, we locked him up for a little while. Inside a mountain. By the end of the week, he’d hollowed it out and created his workshop. Right here.”
“In a week?” Jack said, gobsmacked.
Tooth nodded. “And he decided to make friends with everyone. Ever. That’s how the yetis and elves were brought in.”
Thinking of the elves, Jack said, “I imagine there was some friender’s remorse after that one...”
“When it was Bunny’s turn, he left eggs everywhere and I mean everywhere. Which doesn’t sound like a problem, but he was hiding so many of them that they didn’t find them all and in a lot of places, they started rotting. The smell was pretty awful.”
“And Sandy, we don’t know what happened to him. The Man in the Moon won’t say, but every time you bring it up, he looks really, really embarrassed.”
“Why was it--” Jack stopped, trying to figure out how to put it into words.
“Why was it so bad for you?” Tooth finished for him.
Jack nodded, looking as if he feared it meant something about himself.
“Jack, you were alone,” Tooth said gently. “For all that time. The rest of us talked, we had each other, we had the children, we were at least seen not long after we turned into what we are. To go from being alone to being a Guardian, to being loved by that many children...anyone would lose their head for a little while. We’re not mad at you. It’s because you were alone for so long and we didn’t notice, didn’t take time to make sure you were okay, that we wanted to make sure you were taken care of now. We didn’t want you to get into trouble or do anything you’d really regret. Everything you did, we cleaned up. No real damage done.”
Jack could only look up at her with something akin to wonder on his face. She smiled down at him.
“We didn’t stop you because we thought you were some kind of menace. We stopped you because we’re your friends.”
He was quiet for a moment longer, before clicking his tongue and saying quietly, “I'm not used to having those.”
“Well, get used to it because we’re not going anywhere. And neither are you.”
He had friends now. Friends were a thing in his life. He was possibly going to have just as much trouble getting used to that as he was trouble getting used to having believers. As far as trouble went, though, he had a feeling this trouble would be well worth dealing with.
By now, both he and Tooth seemed to realize that she was still straddling him and apparently his hands had wound up slipping up around her waist without either of them realizing.
“Maybe I should--”
Suddenly there was a bright flash and they looked over to See Bunny standing on a nearby ice embankment, a camera in his hands.
“Hey!” Jack shouted, immediately letting go of Tooth’s waist.
“Too late for not being awkward. I have a camera and a vindictive streak,” said Bunny. “This is so getting painted on the eggs.”
“It most certainly is not!” insisted Tooth indignantly, as she fluttered up into the air.
“Are we going back inside now or what?” Bunny said, gesturing back up the tunnel with his thumb. “Did you explain things to this gumby or is he still having an existential crisis?”
“I wasn’t having a--”
“Yes you were~” Tooth said in singsong.
Breaking off into a grumble, Jack picked up his staff, face burning blue with embarrassment, and took to the air, “Let’s just get back inside.”
Apparently, there were even more details to the little stories Tooth had shared with him and they were pretty funny ones. Sitting at the table, drinking eggnog and cocoa, they shared them all, making very sure that Jack understood he’d just joined in on a long tradition of acting like an idiot.
“Think of it as initiation,” North had said, “Only instead of us making you feel like numbskull by way of hazing, you do it all to yourself.”
He was grateful, though, and he did feel welcome, and he kicked himself for ever doubting that he was. That did a disservice to the others that they didn’t deserve.
In the end, it turned out that all was right with the world.
...At least until there was a knock at the window.
One of the Yetis took it, bringing over a slip of paper to Santa, grumbling something in the indecipherable Yeti language.
“He says flying elephant bring to window,” said Santa and then he winced as he looked at the paper, holding it up, and looked over at Jack. All of them looked over at it and then looked to Jack with genuine horror on their faces.
It looked like a black cutout of a mouse’s head and ears.
“Uh oh,” said Bunny.
“What? What is it?”
“The Mouse wants to talk to you,” said Tooth nervously. “Probably for icing up Brisney World.”
“Is that a bad thing? It’s just Ricky Mouse, right? Funny little guy, big ears, only believed in because lots of little kids think the people in the costumes are the real thing...”
They were waiting for him as he walked out of the Brisney Castle. Jack was paler than usual as he took to the air to join them on the roof of the shop they were sitting on.
“What did he say?” asked Tooth, biting her lip.
“He said that we have very similar goals in bringing joy to children and part of why we have a mutually-beneficial arrangement is because of mutual non-interference.”
“And?” North prompted.
“He said that we both take care of different needs for children and that I did something that interfered with the way he and his people take care of their needs...”
Sandy waved his hand for Jack to continue.
“And he said that if I ever messed with a Brisney property like that again, he’d trap me on the It’s a Small Planet Ride for a week,” Jack said weakly.
“Oooh, he gives me the willies, he does,” said Bunny, hugging himself.
“Lesson is learned,” said North, nodding at the seriousness of the situation. “Never mess with the Mouse. Is one we all had to learn.”
“The way he chuckled,” Jack said, voice ringing with quiet horror. “It was like it was echoing in my soul...”
In the end, It turned out there were some things Jack could get used to. Eventually. Having believers, for one. Having friends, too.
Getting a threateningly cheerful talking-to from a cartoon mouse just wasn’t one of them.