There is an egg in Bunnymund's hand, and he turns it one way and then the other, considering it from different angles. It is his last of the morning, an experiment in new colors and dye techniques, and he wants it, as he wants them all, to be perfect. He debates highlights – ponders glitter – weighs the merits of sheen. Carefully, he dips his brush into the green paint, and everywhere the bristles touch, a miniature masterpiece appears in oval.
Beside him, awaiting the conclusion of his work, rests his lunch. The carrots are freshly-steamed, evenly sliced, fragrant and piping hot; the plate that they sit upon is balanced with care upon the rock beside him. It is not until he has finished the last of the delicate vines on the egg's detail work that Bunny sighs and lowers the brush, reaching absently for a carrot.
He finds that they have gone cold. Crystals of ice rim the plate, and the vegetables themselves feel as though they have been packed in snow.
Beside him, the newest Guardian is munching appreciatively on a slice of his lunch.
"Pretty tasty, cottontail," Jack proclaims, and pops the rest of the morsel into his mouth.
He reaches for another, but Bunny snatches up the plate before he has the chance. "Oh, rack off," he says, and there is genuine irritation in the tone. They have become friends, of a sort, but their personalities mix poorly, and arguments and apologies come in cycles like the seasons. "I didn't heat them up so you could make carrotpops of em."
"You never know. It could be the next big thing." Jack is fast; his fingers dart in to seize another slice. "Carrot ice cream in Easter baskets – just picture it."
Bunny glares, holding up the frostiest piece of carrot. "Yeah, mate, Tooth'll love it. Little blighters'll need dentures when they get through with these." He taps the carrot on the edge of the plate, as though to prove the point. "Rock solid, these are."
Jack considers the one in his hand – bites into it, as though testing the claim. "They are not," he protests, looking oddly offended. "And anyway, they taste fine cold." The boy eats the remainder of the slice - chews it slowly - and it occurs to the pooka fleetingly that he has never seen anyone eat a slice of carrot in two bites before.
It is a thought that doesn't last long, for already Jack's smile is creeping up at the edges, growing wicked. "Oh, I get it. You wanted me to check and make sure they're okay for your pretty buck teeth. Don't be shy, Bunny, you only had to ask." Jack reaches in again, intent upon snitching another bit of carrot, but this time his efforts earn him a swat with the paintbrush.
"Blow through already," the pooka huffs. "All I want's a fair go at eating my lunch in peace."
The Guardian of Hope is busy frowning at his plate, more annoyed than ever at the fact that he has just splattered green paint over the remnants of his own meal. Consequently, he misses the moment when Jack's cocky grin flickers, when something more complicated clouds the boy's eyes.
By the time he's looking up again, Jack has recovered – is seizing his staff in both hands and stepping up into the air to let the wind catch him. "No wonder you're no fun," the winter spirit says. "Four months till Easter, and you're already tail-deep in work."
"Not all of us get to do what we want all the time, ya dag." But Jack has already gone, carried away on the breeze.
Light and noise, motion and excitement – these are the things that Jack associates with the wonder of North's workshop, and they do not disappoint as he trails in the man's wake. Everywhere there are brightly-painted toys and hard-working yetis. Everywhere there are elves underfoot, climbing into gift boxes and scaling trees and munching candy canes.
And for everything they pass, North has a comment. "Make much bigger," he advises the sculptor of a sleek toy rocketship. "Use model! How many times must I say?" he demands of the carpenter of a crooked dollhouse. "Is just right," he enthuses over a set of connecting blocks, a sea of little rainbow cubes.
In the kitchen, there is no less activity - and here, too, North passes by with words of correction or encouragement, for there are wonders of a different sort to be made. Fruitcake sits cooling on the counter; mince pies line a long table of dark wood; gingerbread, thick and spicy, is being cut into slices. A yeti is taking a tray of freshly-baked cookies from the oven, and the smell is mouth-watering, warm and enticing. The ones in the center of the tray are golden-brown with dark, gooey drops of chocolate; they are sculpted into fanciful shapes, trees and stars and stockings. They are miniature works of art – cookies straight out of a child’s picture book – but in the back corner of the pan, the cookies that were nearest the flames are not so idyllic. The warm brown of the dough has gone to black, and char sticks them to the cookware as the yeti attempts to pry them free.
"I will not be eating burnt cookies," North reminds the yeti, and it blows out an exasperated sigh. Hairy fingers pry up the three that are unrecoverable, toss them toward the trash.
A pale hand catches them before they hit, juggling them awkwardly until contact with icy skin has cooled them enough to hold without burning. "Whoa," says Jack, "Hold up." He glances down at the cookies in his hands, black as night but still good – still fresh, even. He bites into the first and it crumbles like charcoal, spreading bitter crumbs over his tongue. "They're just a little crispy."
North gives the boy an appraising look, then shakes his head and laughs. "Too much crispy for my taste. Cookies must be making happy medium."
Jack takes another bite, and then a third. He licks the char from his lip and starts the second cookie, and his grin is all straightforward affection. "Lucky you I'm around to take them off your hands, huh?"
"Lucky you are around for more than that, my friend." North claps the boy on the back, an off-handed gesture, as he turns for the hallway that leads to his private workroom. He misses Jack's smile, crooked and openly fond; he misses the way the spirit of winter regards him with something very like adoration.
In the doorway of North's workroom, where the greatest toys the world has ever known are crafted, Jack eats the last of the cookies. When they're gone, he licks his fingers absently, twice each just to be sure. "What's on the agenda today?" he asks.
"Is castle," North tells him. "Catapult, moat and crocodiles. You will like – I show you later." The old toymaker’s eyes are already twinkling at the thought of it.
"Will the catapult work?" asks Jack. There is still much of a child about him, and it shows in the way the boy's eyes light up, the way his face is transformed with excitement. "Can I load it with snowballs?"
The Guardian of Wonder pretends to consider – takes a long moment to do it, as though he has not decided already. He strokes his beard and rocks back on his heels, hiding his smile. "Only if you do not bother yetis too much," he says at last, as though it was a great deliberation. "The Nice List, this suits you more."
"I wouldn't go that far," says Jack, and his grin is very much a Naughty List grin, all mischief and intentions, full of plans within plans. He waggles his fingers in a quick farewell as he reaches to close the door, intending to grant the older Guardian the concentration he needs to work. "I guess I can try, though."
"Try? Pah! You can do." North has already selected a tiny chisel from his set of tools – is beginning to turn his attention to his craft.
Jack watches him for an instant, impressed as always by the dedication that goes into each of the man's toys – by the idea that someone loves the world's children enough to spend his life making gifts for them. "No promises," he says, and closes the door behind him.
There are never any promises when he comes here, but Jack keeps them all the same.
He doesn't fill rooms with snowmen in elaborate tableaus, doesn't ice the floors or put out the fires. He keeps his hands to himself, and he doesn't take what is not his, and he stays well clear of the Naughty List. Occasionally he freezes an elf or two, but only very occasionally. There are a great many things to do in North's workshop that have nothing to do with getting into trouble, and Jack finds that discovering them keeps him busy.
Among all the many nooks and crannies – amidst all the grand rooms – only one remains unexplored. The kitchen Jack stays well clear of, for he has found, in the months since he has begun these visits, that it is always harder there to remember the promises he has not made.
It is several hours later when Jack reappears at the workroom door, leaning carelessly against the doorjamb. "Hey," he says, seemingly at random. "What'd you ever end up doing with that fruitcake?"
North pauses in his work, tiny hammer poised above a rampart sculpted all of ice. Ice flags ripple in an invisible breeze; the ice catapult stands, half finished, intricate and ingeniously designed. "One in kitchen? Is still in kitchen."
"Nah, the other one. From when I first joined up." The boy's arms are folded across his chest; he stares idly out the window, watching the snow fall. "Those things last forever, don't they?"
"Ha! Made to last forever, yes." Beneath expert hands, the spaces in the ice portcullis grow deeper, more firmly delineated. "With elves to eat them? Much shorter time."
"Oh," says Jack, and there is something odd about his tone – something flat that makes North glance up to look at the boy's face. An unfamiliar expression lingers for just an instant before a wicked smile floods in to take its place. "Bet it would be rock solid by now. Could've made an awesome drawbridge with that thing."
He shuts the door on North's laughter – and when he returns an hour later, fidgeting as though impatient, it's to say that he's got to get going a little early.
"Before snow catapult?" the toymaker asks, eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"I'll wait till you give it a test run," says Jack. "Make sure you've got all the dents hammered out first."
The fastest way to the door leads by the kitchens, but Jack takes the long way, instead.
Children lose teeth every day, and it is always night somewhere in the world, and so Toothiana is busy – chronically, vibrantly busy.
But when Jack comes to visit, she makes the time to welcome him. She chatters to the boy in snatches between directing her fairies and asks what mischief he’s found himself in lately. And he always promises her, with a cocky smile that says exactly the opposite of his words, that he’s been good.
She cannot spare him undivided attention, of course; there is too much to do. But Jack doesn’t seem to mind. When the calamity of nightly collection distracts her, the spirit of winter finds his own entertainment. He ices her pond and skates upon it bare of foot. He creates mounds of snow and coaches the fairies currently off-duty in the construction of snow forts. He examines the elaborate details carved upon her towers, and he makes angels in the snow, and he hangs upside-down from her rooftops, just to see whether he can.
And in those moments when she only half pays mind to what the boy is doing, Jack makes snowballs. He packs them from the dusting of white he’s left upon the ground, shuffles them from hand to hand before biting in. He munches almost absently as he goes about his play, not every time he visits, but often. He snaps icicles from the eaves and crunches them between his teeth like candy, and Toothiana is reminded of the way that human children do the same.
It is the little things, Toothiana finds, that are most endearing about the boy, and this one especially so. Perhaps it is because she never has to remind him to brush his teeth when he has finished.
He comes often enough that it has become usual – the moments of companionship, the way the boy turns portions of her home into a wintery playground. Today, however, Jack arrives to discover something that he has never seen before. Today the palace is all a-flutter; decorations hang between the towers, streamers of gold and violet, lanterns of paper. Long, narrow tables have been laid out, and upon them sit tiny cups – the caps of acorns – perfectly sized for the creatures that drink from them. The fairies zip to and fro, laden with platters, and each plateful is held in twenty tiny hands to share the burden.
The foods that they carry are as exotic as the sweeping spires and gilded finery: now mango stewed in coconut milk, now chilled cantaloupe mousse, now segmented loquat with candied rose petals, now starfruit in honeysuckle nectar. Each that passes is more impressive than the last, more extravagant than the last, and Jack does not seem to notice that his mouth has fallen open, or that several small fairies have gathered near to appreciate the view.
“What’s all this for?” he asks, bewildered, as Toothiana spots him and offers an exuberant wave, flitting over to greet him.
“Dental Hygiene Month!” Partly shy and partly proud, she admits: “It’s kind of a big deal here.”
Jack lets out a low whistle and watches as a new regiment of fairies buzz past, near to the ground with the weight of their burden. “I guess so.”
"We don't do it the whole month – that would be a little much – but I like to put something together." Toothiana's eyes are alight; her smile is infectious. "You know, to say thank you to the fairies."
"You did all this?" Jack does not mask his surprise; the admiration colors his expression like paint on a canvas, bright and evident. He spreads a hand, encompassing the whole of it – the decorations, the oncoming feast, the tables and cups and celebration.
"Maybe I went a little overboard." The Guardian of Memory laughs, perhaps self-conscious, but the boy only shakes his head.
"No way," he says, genuinely impressed. "This is great."
"You think so?" Tooth is never in one place for long, and she flits in closer now, reaches to take Jack's hand. He is her friend, and she has come to love the time he spends here; the fairies adore him, and she finds herself thinking that it is the best of fortune that he has come today. In all the chaos of planning, the manic rush of her nightly duties, she has forgotten to ask him, forgotten to extend an invitation – but there is time now, and she beams, beginning to lead him to one of the tables. "Why don't you-"
She doesn't get to finish the offer, for the plate that is passing by is supported by only six fairies. They struggle under the weight, tip sideways, begin to lose their grips. "Whoa!" says Jack, and reaches out a hand to catch it – but he is too slow, just barely, and the dish shatters upon the ground, spilling a long slice of muskmelon drizzled with honey onto the floor.
"You guys okay?" he's asking, but the plate-bearers are plainly not. They wail in their high-pitched voices; they press small hands against their faces. They hover about the fallen melon as though it is a catastrophe.
"Don’t worry," Toothiana tells them. "We'll just make some more."
They chirp and twitter, speaking in the language that is exclusive to the tiny creatures, and they are not comforted by the assurance. They dart here and there, distraught; they clutch their little fingers together and wring their hands.
"Hey," says Jack. "No harm done." And the boy seizes the fallen melon between his thumb and forefinger, turns it over speculatively. He brushes dirt from the bottom with his other hand, picks free a shard of plate and a tiny iridescent feather, and bites into it without further preamble.
Toothiana stares; so do the fairies. "Jack," she says, and finds that she is touched by the gesture. "You don't have to do that."
Jack waves her off, and his grin is flippant - unconcerned. "Five second rule," the spirit of winter proclaims. "Still good."
She almost tells the boy that there is something to be said for spending too much time around children, but the fairies are looking at him as though he has reconstructed their world from scraps and cardboard, and she she is smiling, too, as he finishes the last of the melon. "Why don't you go play with the girls for a little bit?" Toothiana says instead. "I'll clean this up and get some more melon ready."
"You got it," Jack tells her, and licks his fingers clean. "Hear that, baby teeth? We're gonna have a full-on snow war." The fairies chitter and chirp; they hover about his face, excitement drowning out the recent tragedy. He's up in the air like a leaf caught on the wind, keeping pace with them, voice receding into the distance as he makes for the pond: "Who's been practicing their forts?"
They play for long hours; snow falls in bright clusters to grace the decorations, turning the palace gold and white. And it is not until much later, when the spirit of winter has gone, that she realizes she never did ask the boy to join them at the table.
The moon is not full, but on a night as lovely as this one, Sanderson finds that it hardly matters. The stars spread out in every direction, tiny pinpricks of white intermingled with the sparkling gold of his dream sand. Far below, the houses stand picturesque in the snow, most of the lights long gone dark. Inside, the children sleep nestled warm in their blankets, and he sends them dreams of whatever they desire, offers hints that their minds can make of what they will.
He does not know that he is not alone on his nightly vigil until he hears the voice beside him. “Hey, Sandy.”
It is Jack, of course. Sanderson turns to discover that the boy has settled upon his cloud, lounging with all the careless disregard of youth. When the Guardian of Dreams offers him a wave in greeting, he returns it with a smile – but it is a wan smile, not quite as animated as usual, and it gives Sanderson pause.
The boy does not often slow down – does not often pause in his rush to experience all the world has to offer – but he looks oddly drained this evening, as though the day has been too long. Sanderson watches for a moment longer, considering, and forms a question mark above his head.
“Just tired,” Jack tells him, and he sounds exactly that, worn down and already half asleep. “Mind if I catch a ride?”
The Guardian of Dreams shakes his head, for he doesn’t mind, and Jack settles back into the cloud of sand. “Thanks,” he says, and folds his hands behind his head. Above him, the sky stretches black as ink, the stars on stunning display, and Jack contemplates them. “Nice night,” he adds.
Sanderson comes nearer so that the boy doesn’t have to rise to see the images he forms. He creates a crescent of sand, and then half a circle, and then a full one, and he punctuates them with a question mark.
“I dunno,” says Jack. “We’re kind of under contract, aren’t we? Don’t we get kicked out for not saying full moon?” He grins, but the expression is pale and drawn – bleached like bright clothes left too long in the sun.
Sanderson frowns down at the spirit of winter. Above him, a thermometer forms, and another question mark. When he reaches to touch Jack’s forehead, he discovers that it is chill, as it should be, with no hint of a fever - but the boy is trembling, just a little.
“I told you,” Jack says, as Sanderson sits beside him, concern creasing the little man’s brow. “I’m just tired.”
This time, the sand forms into a pillow. Sanderson points at it and then at Jack.
He expects that Jack will protest. He expects that Jack can find too much to entertain himself on such a beautiful night to waste time in sleeping. But to his surprise, the agreement comes after only a beat of hesitation. “Yeah,” says the boy. “Yeah, maybe I will.” He yawns then, jaw-crackingly wide, and shifts upon the cloud of sand, settling in to get more comfortable. “Mind if I stay?”
Sanderson shakes his head for a second time, and he wonders. He wonders at this sudden lethargy, which he has never seen of the boy before. He wonders at the ease with which his suggestion was accepted.
“Gimme good dreams, okay?” Jack offers up a smile, but it is a wavering thing. It slips away quickly, just before he closes his eyes.
And perhaps, Sanderson finds himself thinking, Jack is only tired, after all - for it does not take long before he begins to doze. Deeper sleep comes fast behind, and the Guardian of Dreams lets golden sand trickle down over the boy, lets it settle in to bring whatever visions his newest companion wants the most.
The images that drift into focus above his head are of ice cream, and Sanderson does not find it strange; Jack is a child still in many ways, and he spends his time among children. It is the kind of dream that children have.
And for a time, all is well. For a time, the Guardian of Dreams turns back to his work, ensuring that his sand reaches each of the sleeping children below – that it crafts the sweetest of tales.
But the night lapses onward; the moon drifts in the sky; the ice cream of Jack’s dream gives way to chicken. When the chicken has gone, it is pie; and when the pie dissipates, a sandwich appears.
Sanderson thinks little of the first change – even of the second. But by the third, he has taken notice. By the third, a suspicion has begun to form in the little man’s mind.
Cautiously, he nudges Jack’s dream into another direction. He replaces the sandwich with a sled, with mounds of snow and brilliant sunlight, with a wintery world in which to adventure. But the next time he glances back to check upon the boy, the scene has altered itself; the sledding has come to a close, replaced with cocoa and cookies by a fire.
By the time Jack shifts in his sleep, pressing an arm reflexively against his abdomen – by the time he makes a small sound in his throat, something akin to a whimper – by the time Sanderson knows for certain that they have miscalculated, he is drawing in his strands of sand, cutting short this night’s work. The children will have dreamless sleep for a few hours; that is all.
They will have to wait, for Sanderson has important questions to ask.
His cloud rolls and undulates; the dream sand lifts more gracefully than any bird in flight, drawing up and forming together, making the broad, round shape of a hot air balloon. He stands in its basket as he turns it toward the North Pole – and beside him, curled up near his feet, his passenger sleeps on.
Their work is important to them, for the things they bring are important to the children of the world. Wonder and dreams, hope and memories – these are the precious gifts that the Guardians imbue, and near to their respective days, they cloister themselves away, intent that everything be perfect. But of late, since the newest Guardian has joined their number, they are less opposed to small breaks. They have gathered more in the past four years for frivolous purposes than in the past four hundred for serious ones.
Although Easter is scarcely a month away, it is not as hard as Sanderson expects to draw them here. Jack has changed the way they once thought of their duties - perhaps irrevocably, but undoubtedly for the better.
The boy himself still sleeps, curled upon a bed of golden sand in one of the grand guest rooms of North’s workshop. It is better, Sanderson thinks, that he remains so – better that suspicions are confirmed before drawing Jack into what will surely be a commotion of impressive proportions. When the Guardian of Dreams leaves him to his slumber, a loaf of bread composed all of gold drifts above the boy, crafted in loving detail.
“This had better be good, mate,” says Bunnymund, as Sanderson joins the others – and the little man nods, for although it is not good by any stretch of the imagination, it is very much a valid reason.
He forms a small snowflake of sand – his sign for Jack, as the other Guardians know well by now.
“Jack?” Toothiana glances about with eyes gone suddenly wide, flutters first one way and then the other. “Is this about him? Where is he? Did Pitch-”
A nod comes in answer; a pointing finger; a vehement shake of the head. Before she can go further, provide more than he can keep up with, Sanderson raises a hand in the universal symbol for “stop.”
“Oh,” says Toothiana, and she runs a hand absently through her feathers, smoothing them nervously. “Sorry, Sandy. Go on.”
And so Sanderson does. He crafts the snowflake again, and adds to it a house. When both have faded, he punctuates them with a question mark.
North considers the symbols; he strokes his beard. “Burgess is his home, is it not?”
“That pond of his,” Bunnymund agrees. “Nipper loves that place.”
Sanderson nods, and he holds up a single index finger - an interjection. Above his head, he flashes a series of symbols that quickly come and go: a frying pan, a stove, bowls and spoons. They are followed by the snowflake once more, and again the question mark.
“Cooking?” Toothiana guesses. “A kitchen?”
Sanderson nods. He repeats the snowflake, and then the question mark.
“Crikey,” says Bunnymund. “I hope not.” The pooka makes a show of shuddering, of rubbing his arms as though chilled. “Can you picture the mess? It’d be a bloody disaster zone.”
Sanderson spares him a look that is pointed, disapproving. It is a look that is rare on the little man, and it makes his usually serene face solemn. The golden sand begins to shift again, drawing more shapes into being: the house reappears, and it is crossed out with an x. The kitchen implements flash by, and when they have all faded but the spoons, those are marked off with an x, as well. He dispels both images, and they are replaced by a stack of pancakes. Another question mark follows.
“Sandy,” says North. “We are needing more than pancakes.” The big man has taken the cue from his fellow Guardian, for it is clear from his expression that he no longer believes this to be a social gathering. That he believes this to be serious. “Give us better explanation, my friend.”
Sanderson blows out a long breath, schools himself to patience. The pancakes come again – but they are followed, this time, by steak. By green beans, and by tarts, and by sausages and potatoes and pudding. When they have gone, the snowflake appears again, and a question mark.
It stymies them.
“I was just having a bit of a joke about the disaster,” says Bunnymund. “I bet he can make a couple of things.” But Sanderson is quick to remind him, with the no-kitchen sign, that the boy has nowhere to do it, even were he capable.
“Not whether he can, then. Are you worried about where he gets it?” Toothiana is watching Sanderson’s face closely, and he nods at the suggestion, hasty to confirm. She thinks a moment longer, pretty face clouded with uncertainty. “Does he – well, does he take it? I mean, he does have a reputation.”
Sanderson starts to answer, but North is one step ahead. “For four years, Jack is clear of Naughty List,” the man admits. “He makes show - but is show only.”
“The frostbite? On his best behavior?” Bunnymund rocks back on his heels, as though the surprise will knock him over. “I’ll be stuffed.”
Sanderson raises a hand in the air; he waves it, hard, to get their attention before the conversation can derail. The food flashes by again, more quickly this time, and the snowflake lingers after. The question mark remains longest of all.
They take another moment to think, but no answers are forthcoming. “I don’t know,” Toothiana admits at last, and the other two nod agreement.
It is no more than he has expected. Sanderson is not surprised, not truly. From gleaming tendrils of gold, he conjures up the last of the images, the pudding. This, too, he marks off with an x. He lets it remain floating in the air - lets them consider it, and the implications behind it.
It takes them a beat to decode his intentions, and when they do, they speak all at once, words a jumble. “No bloody way,” and “You can’t mean that,” and “Is not possible.”
They do not wish it to be so – this Sanderson knows. They wish to deny it altogether, for there is something crushing in the very idea of it. It is unbelievable to them, because to believe is to accept an accidental betrayal. To believe is to know that, after having failed their newest Guardian for three hundred years, they have done it again.
Sanderson holds up his hand – the gesture for “stop.” They continue to speak, however, voices rising, words becoming more jumbled as they intermingle. He is just beginning to think that he will not be able to rein them in – that he will not be able to get a thought in edgewise – when the matter is taken out of his hands.
The conversation comes to an abrupt standstill as the door to the room opens and Jack steps inside, still groggy with sleep. “What’d I miss?” the boy asks.
It is Bunnymund who reacts first, a relieved little laugh slipping from him as he crosses to the spirit of winter and elbows him companionably. “You’re gonna love this, mate,” he says. “Sandy thinks you’re starved half to death cause you’re not holed up in a kitchen baking all day.”
“What?” Jack laughs, too, and it’s a startled sound – as though this line of conversation is the last thing he expects. Perhaps it is. “Nah,” he says, and the look he spares Sanderson is composed of honest confusion. “I get by. Baking’s out cause of the whole ice thing, but there’re ways around it.”
The words work a charm upon the Guardians; Sanderson can see the relief in the tension that goes out of their shoulders. It is the confirmation they have hoped for, and it eases them.
“Ya see, Sandy?” Bunnymund is saying. “Quit your worrying. The kid says he’s fine.”
And almost, it ends there. Almost, they go their separate ways and let it stand for another four years, or another three hundred, for even Sanderson wonders whether he has been mistaken, after all. But Jack is agreeing with the Guardian of Hope, carrying obliviously onward. “Am I ever,” the boy says, fervently. “The 21st century’s great. You wouldn’t believe what people just throw out these days.”
The admission comes like a wave striking rocks on a stony shore; it raises icy splashes of dread wherever its spray hits. Three horrified stares – and one that is not so terribly surprised – turn to the boy’s face.
The spirit of winter falters to a stop, the reaction not the one he had anticipated. “What?” he asks.
Toothiana opens her mouth and closes it again. “You’ve been eating what people throw away?” Carefully, she raises one slender hand to press against her lips, as though she wishes to keep something inside. “That’s not what you meant by ‘getting by’ – is it?”
Jack’s gaze ventures to each of the Guardians in turn, and Sanderson watches as the boy gauges them, judges them, interprets what he sees. His reply, when it comes, has just a shade of defiance to it. “So what?” he demands. But they do not reply. There is silence, and it grows too long – uncomfortably so.
Jack shifts, awkward under the weight of their attention. “It’s not like they want it anymore,” he says at last, and there is something wary about the claim, as though he suspects they think otherwise. The boy has made the wrong assumption entirely, Sanderson realizes – has seen an accusation where none was meant to be.
He is just beginning to form a series of images to explain – to reassure – when Bunnymund steps forward. The pooka’s ears are back flat to his head, paws fisted at his sides. “That ain’t the problem, mate.”
Jack is not good at deception – has never been – but he smiles all the same, a smile meant to hide what lies beneath. “I quit swiping stuff, if that’s what you mean.” It is like glass, this smile. The anxiety shows through its transparency, and it is a thing that might break if handled roughly. The boy turns it on North, words an appeal. “Wiped clean the slate, right? You don’t get that kind of chance every day.”
“So this is what you are doing instead?” The expression the big man wears is very like horror. His face, usually ruddy with good cheer, has gone pale.
“Not all the time,” the spirit of winter is quick to assure. “Just when I have to.”
And that, Sanderson decides, wincing, is enough. He forms a flag above his head – waves it hard to gather the attention of his companions – and is soundly overlooked.
Toothiana’s voice is barely a whisper, but there is an edge to it. “But – but that’s terrible.”
The glass smile cracks; Jack’s eyes flicker from face to face again, and Sanderson can see the moment when the boy decides their grim demeanors mean disapproval. “Look,” he says. “It’s all stuff they weren’t gonna eat anyway. Okay? No harm done.”
Bunnymund looks away sharply, as though he cannot bear to match that claim to the boy that stands before him. He folds his arms across his chest and takes a long breath in. “Bloody hell,” says the Guardian of Hope.
“Jack,” Toothiana says – and she has to pause and begin again. “Jack. Wasn’t there anything besides that?” The buzzing of her wings draws her nearer to the boy, and she lifts a hand to set it carefully on his shoulder. “Not – not scraps. When was the last time you had a meal?”
Jack shrugs free of the touch, rounds on her equal parts belligerent and defensive. He responds as though to a reprimand, and Sanderson aches for the boy. “I don’t do that anymore. How many times do you want me to say it?”
Sanderson does not want to wait for them to make sense of the response. He does not want to let them understand the terrible sort of logic that lies behind it. He is adept, as he has ever been, at seeing what is not expressly said – at interpreting the ideas far beneath the words. It is too easy for him to piece together this chain of thought: that there are, and have always been, only the two ways for Jack to see himself fed. That the denial of one means, necessarily, an accusation of the other.
The flag of golden sand forms into an exclamation point, and the Guardian of Dreams waves both hands. Again he is ignored.
Bunnymund’s voice is low. He does not turn back to face the boy – only speaks, tone flat and somber. “Just answer the question, mate.”
“It was Christmas, okay?” Jack throws it out like a challenge – like a shield. He is glaring at the pooka in a way he hasn’t since he first joined their number.
“Shostakovich,” North breathes. “At my party?”
Tooth’s gaze shifts between them, each in turn, as though hoping that someone will dispute the boy’s words. As though hoping Jack will admit that this is some elaborate prank, and that none of it is true. “But that was three months ago,” she says, very softly.
He seems not to hear them. “Look,” the spirit of winter is saying, “I know I’m new to this. Maybe I’m not all Guardian material all the time – but I’m trying.” Jack breaks off midway through the sentence, falters to a stop. When he begins again, there is something earnest in his inflection, something almost proud. “I’ve been good about it. It’s just Christmas. Okay? For four years now.”
Sanderson closes his eyes. He does not want to recall North’s Christmas party, but it comes to the forefront at the admission, thunders in as though summoned. It comes in intricate details: the roast goose and fig pudding; the mounds of cookies and goblets of eggnog and warm, moist stuffing. It comes in a recollection: Jack, wolfing down everything he lays hands on with so much enthusiasm that Bunnymund teases him for it – with so little pause that Sanderson recalls thinking a human child acting the same would surely have made himself ill.
Perhaps Bunnymund recalls it as well, for the pooka’s voice is rough and unsteady. “It’s a far sight from okay, ya dill.”
Sanderson’s eyes fly wide once more. He shakes his head, and above him, a mouth zipped shut dances urgently.
But Jack is reacting already, pride and challenge swept away in an instant to be replaced by something that is closer to hurt. It lingers for a moment before the boy draws himself up – before he finds it in himself to be offended, instead. “Yeah?” he demands. “So then what?” The spirit of winter laughs, but there is nothing of joy in the sound. It is flat and forced. “I’m kind of out of options, in case you didn’t notice. I’ve got to eat something.”
And that – that is the final straw. It has gone beyond too far, has crept into the realm of something Pitch might have crafted to horrify sleeping minds. The idea that the boy might think it – might believe for an instant that they would bar him from not just one but both of the available choices – is enough to leave Sanderson momentarily light-headed. Momentarily queasy.
“Jack-” Toothiana is saying, but the boy isn’t done.
“So then what?” he says again. “What do you want me to do?” He makes the words a dare, but they are an entreaty, as well. He is at a loss – has been pushed as far as he can go – and though his posture screams defiance, there is something vulnerable about the way he sets his shoulders.
It is North that Sanderson strikes, North who stands the nearest. The big man’s knee is hard and solid, and probably Sanderson’s fist is not large enough nor strong enough to hurt, but the blow serves its purpose. It gets the man’s attention. The Guardian of Dreams forms the golden snowflake above his head, and he points toward Jack with concern that borders on urgency.
And North, thank all the stars in the sky, reacts as he is meant to. Brash, straightforward North steps to stand before the boy, and Sanderson has never been more grateful for the way the man speaks, and acts, and lives: without preamble or ambiguity. When he places a hand on either of Jack’s shoulders, they are swallowed up, dwarfed by comparison. “Come to friends if you have need,” he says in solemn answer to the winter spirit’s question. “This is what you should do.”
The boy is drawing himself up to push on, to lash out, but the response derails him. His brow knits together in confusion. “What?”
“Bloody well tell us if you need help,” Bunnymund bursts out. “Stands out like a shag on a rock, but I guess when your brains’re iced solid, it’s too much to hope for common bloody sense.”
The boy does not even respond to the jab, and that tells a story in and of itself. He has a strange look on his face, a look that is trying to be both astounded and elated but cannot quite be either – not yet.
“But,” he says. “But you-”
“Didn’t know,” Toothiana tells him, and she takes the winter spirit’s hand in her own. Her violet eyes are suspiciously over-bright. “Oh, Jack – I’m so sorry.”
The boy’s gaze darts about again, as though it cannot quite stay still – as though he cannot quite believe what he is seeing. He lands at last on Sanderson, expression bewildered and oddly beseeching, and the Guardian of Dreams nods his encouragement. Above his head form a golden snowflake and then a loaf of bread, the one so lovingly crafted in Jack’s dream. A question mark follows.
The boy looks away too quickly – embarrassed, perhaps, or afraid he has misread. But there is a smile beginning on his lips, unsteady and wondering. “Seriously?” Jack says.
North is the one who responds, for he sees the offer as it is made, notes Sanderson's signs and Jack's reaction both. The man does not waste time; he throws an arm about the boy's shoulders and uses it to steer him toward the door. "Is most serious thing," he says, and Sanderson does not know if he has ever seen the Guardian of Wonder look so protective, so grimly sincere.
Toothiana flutters alongside them, delicate hands pressed together. She wrings her fingers, face drawn as though recalling things now, in retrospect, that it is too late to change. "You shouldn't even have to ask," she tells the boy.
"He wouldn't be, if he thought things through once in a while," Bunnymund says, gaze still resolutely avoiding Jack. The pooka is bad at expressing himself; this Sanderson has learned through long centuries of experience. He will grouse and complain – will hide his true intentions behind a gruff surface – and though the Guardian of Dreams can read his meaning well enough, can take in the folded arms and averted eyes and see guilt as plain as the Milky Way in a clear night sky, now is not the time for words and meanings to say different things. Sanderson floats up and pinches him, hard, on the shoulder.
"Oi," Bunnymund says, "That stings." He is poised to add more – but Sanderson fixes him with a pointed look, eye to eye, and holds it. And holds it.
"Crikey," he relents at last. "Fine. If the bloody icicle needs it spelled out." Bunnymund does not come up to keep pace with North and the boy. He remains trailing behind and does not so much as look their way. But he says, at last: "You shoulda said something. We're here to look out for you, ya gumby."
Sanderson cannot see Jack's expression from here, but the boy's laugh drifts back to them, breathless and glad, and an instant later he is twisting around to fix the pooka with a grin that is pure pleasure. "Aw," says Jack. "Who knew? There's a great big soft heart under there to match all the fluffy fur."
Bunnymund sputters, indignant. "Fluffy till you get down to the rock-hard muscle and the paws that're trained in three types of hand-to-hand combat."
But Jack stops listening midway, just about the time they reach the kitchens. At the smell – gingerbread and roast duck, pumpkin pie and fresh-baked bread, chocolate chip cookies and honeyed ham with cloves – the teasing smile on the boy's lips slips away, and he turns to stare as the yetis bustle to and fro, arms full of platters piled high with food. Sanderson exchanges a long glance with Bunnymund, and he does not miss the way the pooka's ears droop flat against his skull.
"Later, there is time for your contest of insults," North chides, gently. "Now we handle more important things."
Toothiana is already moving – demanding that the yetis clear one of the side tables and darting from the room to secure a chair. She returns with it an instant later, and in a flurry of movement she rushes forward to seize Jack by the hands and pull him toward it.
"Whoa," says the boy, laughing, "hey." But he does not protest, and he does not pull away, and although there is something self-conscious about the way he slides into his spot at the table, he allows Toothiana to seat him. The boy picks absently at the fingernails on one hand and tries not to look too anticipatory, and Sanderson floats down to sit upon the table – because they are hovering, and he can see that it sets Jack ill at ease.
North is seizing random platefuls of food from the yetis, and as he does Sanderson glances Toothiana's way. He taps the back of Jack's chair and lifts three fingers - and perhaps she has noticed the winter spirit's disquietude, as well, for her expression softens, and she's gone from the room with a, "Sure thing, Sandy." By the time North sets the first of the platters down in front of the boy, there are chairs for all of them.
It is striking, how much the scene resembles the party of three months ago. Jack knows no restraint; he takes mouthfuls of mashed sweet potatoes and buttered green beans; he helps himself to rich bread and mushroom stuffing as fast as he can swallow it; he slathers the turkey with gravy and goes back for seconds. It is a phenomenon they have become accustomed to – the way the boy eats. He approaches life with an absolute lack of decorum, with an enthusiasm that knows no bounds; Sanderson had not been surprised, the first time, to see that he approaches meals the same way.
Now, in the warmth of North's kitchen, he sees another meaning entirely, and Sanderson is ashamed.
A human would surely have been sick – but Jack has the body of a spirit, and so no one warns the boy to take his time. They allow him to do as he will, to fill himself to satiety, and Sanderson cannot help but wonder, as the newest Guardian at last begins to slow, whether Jack would have survived this long had he not had the physical resilience of an immortal. The boy's off-handed praise for this century – and its wasteful habits – reminds the Guardian of Dreams that food was not always as plentiful as it is in this day and age.
As hungry as the boy is now, he has had three hundred years to fend for himself. Not all of them, Sanderson suspects, were kind.
"Thanks," Jack says at last, and tucks a final bite of biscuit into his mouth, openly grateful. "I needed that."
"Is standing invitation," North tells the boy, and reaches over to tousle his hair. "Come any day. Come every day."
Toothiana swipes one palm briefly against her eyes while Jack's attention is drawn away. She clears her throat before she speaks. "Make that two standing invitations," she says. "North makes way too many sweets. You'll get cavities."
Sanderson gives Bunnymund another of those looks – the long, pointed sort – and the pooka shifts and tries to affect indignation before relenting with little actual resistance. "Three," he says at last. "You're welcome in the Warren, too, if you quit freezing my bloody flowers."
When he has caught Jack's eye, the Guardian of Dreams gives a friendly, encouraging little wave. Above his head appears a snowflake all of golden sand, a loaf of bread, and then the number four. He lifts one hand and raises his thumb, just be sure he's made the point clear enough.
Jack's answering grin – for each of them in turn – is like the first breath of air after the first snowfall of the year: unexpectedly brilliant, refreshingly pure. It is not, Sanderson thinks, the sort of smile that they deserve for an offer like this one. It is not the sort of smile they deserve for having gone so long without doing anything at all.
But now, at least, they know. Now they can begin to make amends. And they have all the time in the world to do it.