The story starts small.
(They always do.)
A boy drowns in a pond, plunging through thin ice and into the freezing waters, and no one can say if it was deliberate or not.
(His shoes were left by the side of the pond.)
Winter comes hard and cold the next year, and there is a voice on the wind that sounds almost human. The adults shiver and cross themselves and pretend they hear nothing.
(But the children, oh, the children, they hear, and they know. In their hearts, so small and so frail, they know.)
It is a cold and hard world, one that has little time or patience. Time marches on with grim determination, always moving forward to the end, whatever that might be. Some are spared, wrapped in the gossamer-spun pillows of privilege, or coddled in the embrace of Lady Luck.
(She is an angel, but she is fickle; she will not come if you call her. If she has her eye on you, you'd better make the best of it while it lasts, because sooner or later she'll leave you again, and you might be worse off than when you started.)
Long, long ago, a great black bird flew from out of the depths of space and took roost on the highest tree in Heaven. It made its home there, to lay eggs that hatched horrors that spilled across Heaven and took the attention of all of the angels and the saints, but there were so many that they could not be counted, and some escaped to earth. While the guardians of the world were distracted, things crept into the shadows cast by that great battle and began to wait.
They are the things in the dark; they are cold and hungry. They are things that are born of things deeper and older than fear, or even the makeup of the world itself. There are things that would just as soon keep you alive to feast on your pain forever, rather than see fragile flames flicker out. There are things that the adults of the world don't notice, too lost in the haze of their lives, weighed down by the burden of their years.
(But the children know. The children see those eyes in the dark and they know.)
What am I afraid of? A little girl shrugs, drawing spiralling patterns against the sidewalk with a stick. There is a mottled purple bruise over her left eye and her right arm hangs oddly. I'm afraid that when I grow up and I forget, that's when they'll get me. She holds up her stick; it is long and there is a gentle curve at one end, almost like a shepherd's crook. But as long as Brother Frost loves me, I'll be fine.
The story grows with time.
(They often do.)
As the war against the great bird waged on, there were those who took notice of the trouble on Earth. And they were the ones who descended to bring relief to those who suffered endlessly.
There is the White Lady, who is sister to Lady Luck, but far gentler, who soothes your pain and gives you strength. There is the Red Man, who looks like a demon but frightens them off instead, so you may pass through the shadows without being touched.
And then there is Brother Frost. They say that he is the only one who did not come from Heaven, but was a child himself, nearly destroyed by a demon until the White Lady saved him, and gave him the power to bring relief to those younger than him.
At first they say you have to summon him at a body of natural water -- a pond, a river, the ocean itself -- you have to move until your ankles are submerged, and then you have to call for him, tell him that you are frightened of what you know exists in the darkness, waiting for you.
If you confess your fears in the water, he will come.
From there it grows -- first it is water, then it is mirrors (you must be sure that the lights are on, and that you call his name before you speak for your fears, for there is a bloody-eyed woman with a dripping mouth who will steal your soul forever if you are not careful, and then there will be nothing to save you and there will be no end), and then it is simply winter itself you need. The Brother is made of ice itself, but he will not hurt you with his frost; his cold is a blessing and it is a comfort.
During the winter, if you go out with your feet bare and your head uncovered, if you call his name (his true name), then he will come to you.
If he opens his arms to you, then you are safe; you can step into them and he will carry you away to safety; nothing will be able to hurt you any more.
If he kisses you, then you are safe; he will pull your breath and your soul out from your body and carry it to heaven on the wind; you will be able to rest.
If he weeps for you, then you are safe; this is his love and even if you must endure, you are not alone; and someday, if you are patient, he will come for you to take you home.
I've seen him, says a boy, holding hands with his sister, who nods solemnly in agreement. He wasn't here for me, he was for our friend. Our friend got hurt real badly and couldn't walk no more. So he called for the Brother and he came. He came and I saw him, and then he made everything better. He looks at his sister and she looks at him, and they both nod. He always does.
The story spreads further.
(The true ones always do.)
Soon it is not just the unfortunate that know his name -- he spreads from the lowest streets, where the shadows are thickest, all the way up to warm houses and solid walls, where the shadows are weak and thin. After so many years, the monster bird's brood have grown clever; they have adapted with time on this strange world they have made their own. They can turn themselves into pale wisps, barely noticeable against the harshness of electric light; they can transform from shrieking on the wind to insidious whispers, so full of hate and spite that even a few lines can leave a strong person shaken and weak.
Sometimes you can fight them off yourself, if you're very lucky -- maybe if the White Lady graces you with her presence, or the Red Man happens by to scare those monsters away. The people who have heard them once are never quite the same again, but there can be some measure of peace in life.
But for those who cannot wait, or who are too tired, then the Brother is there.
Brother Frost, Brother Frost, please help me.
It is the early hours of Christmas morning. North is at his very last house when he sees the boy.
At first he almost calls out -- it is not an unusual thing to see Jack Frost, even if he does not accompany North on his yearly journey. Jack likes to split the bulk of his time between his beloved Burgess and the Workshop, and North has never had such an appreciative and enthusiastic assistant. He stops before entering the chimney and takes the breath, and then he sees, and it makes his breath catch in his throat.
Of course Jack is always pale: he is an ice spirit, after all, and his namesake frost blooms from his touch with hardly a conscious thought. He is normally pale, but even then there is some warmth to him -- in his ears, in the tip of his nose, along his knuckles and fingertips, there is always a faint blush of red, the blood roaring through him strong and healthy.
On this morning, though, there is none of that: he is blue instead of pink where he is not white, and it is so much of a change that North can only watch. He does not say anything now, and he does not need to: Jack is headed his way, and sees him after a moment. He smiles, but it is not its usual wide self; it is sickly and there is nothing but teeth in it, but North does not think that even Tooth would be able to swoon over them in this moment.
"Jack," he says gravely. "What are you doing here?"
"Hi to you too," Jack says. His gaze flickers to the bag on North's shoulder, the sleigh behind him, then the chimney. "I'm here on business, like you."
"Business?" North raises an eyebrow. "I thought you were being snowballs and fun times, not business."
"Well." Jack shrugs. It is a sharp hard gesture, graceful in a way that is different from Jack's normal limberness. "It happens every now and then." His gaze flickers to the chimney again. Perhaps it is simply the paling light that comes with early dawn, but his eyes are flat and colorless, the color of a slate-gray winter sky. "... I don't know if you're going to be needed here, big guy."
"What?" North's brows draw together now. "There is child here, yes?"
"... Yeah ..."
"Then I am needed. Always, I go where I am needed. I have checked list; is very good child who lives here."
Jack's lips close over his lips and twist into another sort of awkward smile. "Good. Yeah. Trust me, North--"
"I always trust you, Jack."
"--it's not going to matter in a bit." And Jack drifts past him, towards the chimney. North frowns but follows. It is not a challenge, not like the sort of thing Bunny fights with, or even the sort that Jack likes to toss out, casual as breathing. It is just a statement, full of a weight that North has never heard before, not from this boy -- this boy who is so light that the wind carries him wherever he wishes, who taps the chimney with his staff and steps into the opening left behind.
"You're really not going to like this," Jack says without looking at him as they walk to the child's bedroom.
"Many things I do not like in this world," North says, keeping his voice to a low rumble. It is early enough that people might be waking soon.
Jack shrugs again and opens the bedroom door without knocking.
The girl on the bed is fourteen years old -- on the cusp of no longer believing, wavering somewhere between childhood and inevitable adulthood. She has long dark hair that reaches all the way to her hips and she is wide awake as they walk in. North stops in the doorway, but Jack continues forward, casual and easy. In the light coming through the window, all of his clothes look drab gray.
At first the girl looks confused, and then her eyes light up, with a freverence that North has only seen in the faces of true believers. Jamie Bennett had that look; so did his young friends. They had looked at Jack Frost this way--
--no, not quite this way. There is something else to it, something that is sharper, something that tastes of blood and frustration and anger. In a silence that is punctuated by the hiccuping sounds of a little girl's breathing, North can hear the echoes of ugly things -- accusations, expectations, demands, all things that are too heavy for an adult, let alone a child. There is a growing sense of unease in his gut, but he cannot make himself move.
"Brother Frost," the girl breathes, and her eyes are shining brighter now, on the verge of tears. "You came."
"I came," Jack says to her, and his voice is softer now, higher; less of the near-man he is and more of the boy he must have once been. "I'm here for you."
He opens his arms, and the girl flings herself off her bed and into them. It is not like when young Jamie hugged Jack; then, Jack had looked shocked and moved, as if he couldn't imagine that someone so small and tender could show such affection to him. He'd returned the embrace hesitantly, as if he'd thought everything might disappear like a grand illusion; that had been the moment North had decided to take the boy under his wing, to allow him all the affection he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
But now: Jack embraces the crying girl with the same tender care as he had held Jamie, but if anything, he holds her more delicately, more gently, like she is something spun out of paper-thin ice, to shatter or melt with a single wrong breath.
"I've got you," he murmurs, and North watches as the paleness of his skin spreads -- watches as the warmth leeches away from the girl's skin, as she slowly goes as pale as the boy holding her. "Shhh, princess, it's okay. We're going to rest, and then have some fun. Okay?"
She nods slowly, sluggishly, as if just that small movement is a great effort. She brings her small arms up around Jack's neck and hugs him hard, with what must be the last of her strength, and she breathes I love you.
And then, just like that, she is gone.
Jack continues to hold her for a few long minutes, his face against her hair, and then he shifts, slides an arm under her knees, and carries her to her bed. North can see an orange prescription bottle on the bedside table, its cap off and empty of its contents. He says nothing as Jack lays the girl down, then passes a gentle hand over her hair a few times.
When Jack turns back to him, there is a winter storm in his eyes, so bleak that it makes North's bones ache just to see. After a few seconds he tries to dredge up a smile, one that tries to be more like his normal one, but it looks more like a grimace of pain instead.
"I told you," he says, and in his voice is that same weight as before, that heaviness that had pinned his feet to the ground, that made him into a support for a frightened little girl in her last minutes. "Let's get out of here."
He drops his eyes and does not look at North as he brushes past. North follows him up to the roof again. In the distance, the sun is rising, a sliver of orange and red on the pale horizon. He half-expects Jack to simply fly away, to run from the scene once it's over, but Jack remains in place, staring at his feet. He does not move and he does not speak, so North goes to him and puts a hand on his shoulder.
"Come home," he says. "We talk."
"Talk? Talk? What's there to talk about?!" Jack moves with sudden ferocity, striking North's hand away. The movement is so openly telegraphed that any child might see it, but North allows it, watching as Jack begins to pace, running a hand hard through his hair. "I just, you saw that! I killed a little girl! In front of you -- in front of Santa Claus! What is there to talk about, North?"
"How long?" North asks quietly.
"How-- I don't know." Jack spins on his heel to face away. His shoulders are hunched up. There is color returning to him slowly as the sun rises. He looks warm again, like the Jack Frost that North knows. "A long time, okay? Longer than I've had -- real believers. People like Jamie and his friends. I don't know when it started, okay, that's not the sort of thing you really pay attention to--"
"I don't want to do it!" Jack whirls around again to face North again. There is a hard flush in his face now, anger and terror plain in his bright blue eyes. "I don't want to, but those kids -- they don't want me to tell them that things will get better! They've already heard it before, and it hasn't gotten better! Or maybe, I don't know, they're impatient, or they just hurt too badly, and I, sometimes I can save them, but that's not what they want--"
North approaches him again. He does it slowly, carefully, the way one must approach a wounded wild animal. Jack stares back and flinches a little, but does not flee when North puts both hands on his shoulders and holds on. He is relieved to see that the Jack Frost he holds now looks as he always has known him, pale but still warm, with eyes that are bright and colorful rather than flat and dull.
"It is the job of the Guardians to watch over children," he says, and Jack looks away sharply.
"Yeah, yeah, I know -- just go ahead and do it, I'm not --"
"But," and he raises his voice just a little, to cut through Jack's recriminations, "sometimes ... to watch over them means something you do not always like."
Jack sets his jaw hard. He does not answer.
North sighs. "Ah, it is maybe too much for an old man," he says, a bit sadly. "But Jack, you are more than that. You are Jack Frost, Guardian of Fun! You are not murderer."
Jack still does not answer. But he does not protest when North draws him closer, until his face is pressed in North's beard. North keeps one hand on Jack's shoulder and puts the other on his back to support him. He says, in a low voice, "World is a very old and very strange place. Man in Moon is not always the one who decides our existence. Sometimes, belief is enough."
"I don't want it," Jack says, in a voice that is small and muffled; he sounds almost like "Brother Frost" again, a child facing something greater and more terrible than he wants to understand. "I don't want it, I don't want to hurt them--!"
North does not try to soothe him, or even comfort him beyond the offer of his presence; he knows, in the way he has always known children, that his words will not do anything for Jack. He knows, deep in his belly, that it isn't comfort that Jack wants, but that presence, that feeling -- even if only for a second -- that he is not alone.
In the distance, the sun continues to rise.
Brother Frost, Brother Frost, please help me. I've lost the way, I want to go home.