A/N: So this was supposed to be done by Wednesday. Honestly, I don't know why I keep trying to give myself deadlines. Because then all I do is trip over them.
North looked with thoughtful approval over the railing down to the scene below. Jack was sitting atop Bunny's shoulders, stacking what looked to be the final repaired rocket ship. Sandy, sitting cross-legged with a pair of sand-formed goggles pushed up on his brow, set down a sand hammer and screwdriver. Then he yawned and sent a plate of impeccably decorated cookies floating lazily toward the pair. It was intercepted by Tooth who, no doubt with cautions about sugar and cavities, flew it neatly and efficiently over to them. Bunny took one, talking with his mouth full, the words getting lost across the expansive workshop. Jack grabbed two, putting one in his mouth and handing the other up to the delighted Elf who was, for no reason North could fathom, sitting contentedly on top of Jack's head.
They all looked so natural. Comfortable. Jack leaned forward, resting his pointy elbows on Bunny's skull, having some sort of charm-and-giggles conversation with Tooth that went quite literally over Bunny's head while the Pooka made long-suffering faces at Sandy.
He watched the way Jack smiled so easily.
It was good, North thought. It was good for all of them to be together on this day. He thought back to a time, just a few short hours ago, when all his world consisted of offering what comfort and assurance he could to a three-hundred-year-old boy who'd had precious little comfort or assurance.
In the room with the letters, a sharp rap at the door had startled North just before it opened. And there, suddenly, were Bunny, Tooth, and Sandy. Jack immediately sprang back from North, furtively scrubbing his face and trying with all his brazen, youthful might to look as though all were well and normal.
Sandy floated in, a question mark etched in sand above his head, his expression echoing the question, and Baby Tooth flitted around Jack's head, smiling and cooing and expressing general joy at seeing him.
"Ey," Bunny said, pointing. "There you are. We been looking all over for you two."
"The Yetis told us you'd come down here," Tooth explained in her quick, smiling, edge-of-nervous-laughter way. "We couldn't imagine why…" she trailed off as she took in Jack's appearance. "What are you doing down here?"
"Not having some sort of moment," Jack blurted. He gave a short, nervous laugh and sent a rather vulnerable look toward North begging that he not make any kind of scene about it.
North had only winked. "I was showing Jack letters," he shrugged. "He hadn't seen them." And over their looks of confusion and concern at whatever was making Jack so red-eyed and nervous, it occurred to North that he was confused himself. "What you all are doing here?"
Sandy sent up a poof of sand that quickly formed into a representation of the Northern Lights.
Bunny pointed with his thumb. "What he said." He'd already had boomerang in hand when he'd walked in the door. Typical Bunny. "So what's the emergency?"
"Um…" North looked down toward the voice to see Jack raising his hand. "I might have called them. Earlier. You know with the, ah…" the winter sprite mimed the lever one had to twist in and push down to activate the Lights that would summon the Guardians. It surprised North. Though, to be fair, he'd never told Jack not to.
"So there's no emergency?" Tooth asked. "Whew! Aha. Well, that's a relief. I thought for sure…"
"Well. There's kind of an emergency," Jack had said, much to North's puzzlement.
"There is?" he'd asked. "What is it?
"You know…" And for a moment, North thought Jack would tell them about the letter. But then he said, much more nonchalantly, "The rocket ships." He looked at the others with a slight wince. "I kind of broke…Christmas a little bit. And now everything's getting behind."
North had honestly forgotten all about all of that.
"I thought maybe, if you guys had the time… Can you stay?" And of course, because he was Jack, he'd had to add something to sweeten the pot. "There'll be cookies," he'd wheedled. "And milk," he added quickly, ever mindful of Tooth's sensibilities. "You know. With calcium in it. Just…tons and tons of calcium."
North could think of one time in the past dozen centuries that he'd asked the other Guardians to come in to help him prepare for Christmas. And that had been dire—an absolute necessity. A few broken toy ships was hardly a catastrophe. It was a minor setback if ever there was one. But Jack didn't know that. He'd called in their friends to help because in his experience, that's what the Guardians did. They helped each other.
Bunny and Tooth and Sandy were all looking from Jack to North, and they seemed to gather that there was more going on than some broken Christmas presents. They knew North would never ask for help with Christmas unless he was all out of options. North hadn't realized it had become such a point of pride to him, and he felt foolish and petty for that. This was no time for pride. After all, they were family, weren't they? Families helped each other out. How hypocritical it would be for him to try to teach Jack that lesson and then in the next breath to contradict it. North gave a quiet smile and a nod. Clearly he wasn't beyond needing a few lessons of his own. "A few extra hands wouldn't hurt."
His three old friends could have made a fuss about the novelty of his asking for help. They didn't. Of course they didn't. Only they smiled at him like it was nothing strange at all.
"So." Bunny looked smugly at Jack. "You were flying around the workshop, weren't you, mate."
"Haha! Knew it." And Jack visibly braced himself for teasing or a verbal dressing down. What he got was, "All right, I'm in, but don't let me hear you bellyaching about pitching in this Easter. I've got some new designs this year. Very painstaking, intricate work."
Surprised, Jack had grinned brightly and formed a perfect snowflake, sending it floating Bunny's way. "More intricate than a snowflake?"
Bunny waved it away with his boomerang. "If you paint snowflakes on my eggs, Frosty, so help me…"
"I'll help, too," Tooth said, already moving and thinking a hundred miles a minute. "I have to fly back to the palace and square some things with my fairies—coordinate the routes—oh, I can do some of that from here if I can appoint some messengers…" She looked up at Jack and blushed only slightly. "I can spare a little time." In total agreement, her little Baby Tooth flew in close and snuggled into Jack's hood.
Sandy stepped up, too, with his warm, golden smile and indicated that he'd be in and out, but he'd love to help as much as he could.
Then Bunny bumped Jack with his shoulder. "Yeah, so come on. Show us your demolition job, Deep Freeze."
North chuckled to himself at the memory. These were special people. He loved to see how they cared for one another, and, especially at that moment, he loved to see how they'd surrounded their newest addition, how they gave him unquestioningly the love and attention he needed.
Across the workshop, Jack spurred Bunny with his heels and pointed ahead, and the word "Mush!" was unmistakable. With an indignant protest, Bunny dumped the Guardian of Fun off his shoulders with enough force that Sandy had to rescue the jingling Elf that fell from his head. Jack stared up from the floor, grinning and saying something quick and ironic that made Bunny huff and pull the boy's hood up and over his face. Without hesitating, Jack swept the hood back, revealing laughing eyes and a beaming smile he was failing to hide behind his hand.
He leaves hood down often now, North mused. When he'd first met Jack, he'd noticed that hood. It seemed to North that when Jack was happy and content and spirited and hopeful, he had that hood swept back away from his face. He only pulled it up over his head when there was something to hide from. Fears or sorrow, uncertainty or pain. It had been quite a stretch since he'd seen the boy need to hide that way, and he nodded his satisfaction.
Somehow right at that moment, Jack looked up and saw him. So often Jack's smiles were full of brash, mischievous, teenage bravado. More rarely there was something quieter, something aged and hard-earned that had its edges dipped in wisdom. Right then there was something completely different. Right then there was bare, innocent affection. Like until that point, North had been looking at him in a dark room without even realizing it, and all of the sudden somebody turned on the lights.
A forgotten letter. An overdue conversation. A solemn, unspoken promise. It could never be anything less than miraculous how much they could change things. On the surface, everything was perhaps what it had been. But underneath, it was night and day. There was brand new trust. Never-before-seen confidence. Like a little boy laughing fearlessly as he was thrown into the air because he knew his papa would catch him.
As a Guardian, North had taken an oath to protect the children of the world. There were no words to recite for this. Only the silent resolve to be there as often as he could to prove that little boy right.
Across the room, Jack pointed at the finished toys and threw a sloppy, irreverent salute.
With a little exaggerated wave and a nod, North smiled back.
Christmas dinner had been everything Jack had wanted. Delicious, colorful foods he'd never heard of and ridiculous desserts and big, bright candles and polished silverware. And, much more importantly, there was Bunny giving some huge diatribe on why eggs were the most perfect and functional naturally-occurring things on the planet—which apparently was something of a tradition. And there was North explaining to Tooth for the thousandth time that just because it was peppermint toothpaste , that did not make it a suitable stocking stuffer. And there was Sandy putting on a shadow puppet show of their defeat of Pitch to the tune of Beethoven's 5th which was frankly breathtaking.
There was laughter and bantering and an only-barely-forestalled food fight that Jack would swear blind he had nothing to do with. And then midway through the meal, as Jack was munching on some rice pudding, he bit down on something hard. "Ow." He stopped and spit out a raw, whole almond.
It wasn't odd enough to give a second thought to; probably had just landed in the pudding in all the craziness that went on while the Yetis were cooking the meal. Jack went to lay it aside on his plate, but North was already exclaiming something loudly and distinctly Russian, and it took Jack a second to realize it was about him.
"You've found almond!" North clapped.
Jack glanced down at the plain little nut and then looked around and noticed all the smiles. Clearly he was missing something. "Was it…lost?"
"It's a Christmas tradition!" Tooth said, ever excited. "We picked it up in Denmark. Whoever finds the almond in the rice pudding gets the almond gift!" She clapped her hands together twice and gave a short, high-pitched, "Yay!"
Sandy smiled and gave two thumbs up as an almond-topped trophy formed over his head surrounded by little, dreamsand fireworks.
Jack flat blinked. "What's an almond gift?"
"A gift that goes to whoever finds the almond," Bunny explained entirely unhelpfully. "Keep up."
Jack sighed his exasperation quietly. Whatever this was, he'd just have to go along with it. And if he was a tiny bit super excited, well, there was no need to broadcast that fact. "Okaaay…so when do I get this almond gift?"
North hit the table with both hands. "Right now!" And right there in the middle of the meal, these giants of legend scooted back their chairs and pulled Jack from the table with all the enthusiasm of children at the season's first snow. At some point, Sandy's arm clamped over Jack's eyes, and he was hustled forward amid heavy footsteps and half-smothered excited laughter and everyone shushing everyone else.
All at once, the air grew colder and felt familiar.
"Okay, Sandy," North called. "Let him see."
Jack opened his eyes. And didn't understand. They weren't at the Pole anymore. They were standing at the edge of his lake in Burgess. He turned around to see his friends all looking at him with matching smiles. "What just...? I don't… How…?"
North looked fit to burst. "We make road for you!" He stepped aside, and there behind him, there was a black boulder that looked like all the rest that surrounded his lake. Except that on this one, there was etched a single snowflake.
Jack still didn't understand. "What?"
He walked forward and tentatively ran his index finger over the symbol. There was a flash of white and then he was in a round, stone room with five circular portals. He looked around. There was his lake in Burgess. And the next one was Sandy's Island. Then Tooth's Palace. Then Bunny's Warren. And then there was the Pole.
"Is road," North explained again, and Jack jumped and turned to find the large man just behind him. "It connects all of us. So always you have easy access if you need any one of us."
Tooth flew forward. "Surprise!"
A road. Jack looked around, amazed, trying to let it sink in. "I...I don't..."
"It's more of a hallway, really," Tooth told him. "It's pretty simple. You see, it's our way of saying…" her smile softened and there was always such beauty in her sincerity, "our home is your home. You don't have to knock before you come in anymore."
Sandy nodded vigorously, and over his head appeared the silhouettes of each of them, hands joined.
"Yeah," Bunny shrugged and bumped Jack's shoulder. "Welcome to the family, Icebox."
Jack was overwhelmed. He managed a smile around infuriatingly watery eyes. They made him a road. All of them. An easily-traveled path that would lead him to where they were. So he didn't have to fly all the miles. They made him a road. And more than that, they made a way to let him know that they'd made him theirs. "I…ah." He laughed around the lump in his throat. "I didn't get you guys anything."
Tooth giggled. "Well of course not. Honestly. We didn't get the almond, silly. You did."
North clapped him firmly on the shoulder, eyes sparkling. "Merry Christmas, Jack."
There was a terrible moment when Jack was sure he would have to say something. And right then he did not trust his voice at all. But Bunny hopped up like a champion. "All right, all right. Come on; let's get back. I was only halfway through my first slice of carrot cake."
"Oh, yes, fine. Big rush there," North snarked. "He is only one who eats that stuff. Right Sandy?"
Tooth raised her hand. "I'm still hungry, too."
"How can I be surprised? You eat enough for pterodactyl."
She pointed at herself with a falsely demure grin. "Metabolism of a humming bird."
And Jack was swept through the portal to North's where they stepped through to one of the many guest rooms. The one Jack had sort of unofficially and accidentally claimed. With its giant, four-poster bed and wood floors and big bay window complete with window seat. The portal led here. To this room. On purpose. An open, anytime invitation. Jack could only shake his head, letting the sounds of North and Tooth bickering with an animated Sandy wash over him.
He looked over at Bunny and had to ask, "What if the almond had been in your pudding? Or Sandy's or North's or Tooth's?"
Bunny gave a sweet, crooked smile and said simply, "But it wasn't, was it, mate."
He found he could only smile.
Later that night, after Sandy and Tooth and Bunny all left, Jack stayed behind and crept away, down through long corridors until he came to the letter room. Inside, the lights were floating as they had been.
Slowly, Jack reached inside his pocket and took out his old letter. He'd been carrying it around since that day a little over a week ago when North brought him down here to show it to him. It was a weird thing, to hold onto that letter and remember in such excruciating detail everything about who he'd been. But it had helped in a way. Because back then, it had been hard; it had been really hard at times. But even then he'd convinced himself he was happy enough. But comparing that, in all it's sad, lonely detail with everything he had now...it chased away all his doubts about Is this real? Should I trust this? Is it really okay to hope? Is it really okay to let my guard down? Because, yeah. The happiness he had now made what he'd called happiness back then seem a lot like...misery. And he was grateful for that realization. But he didn't need to carry around who he used to be anymore. He thought...he thought he was ready to let that go.
He looked up at the lights. He didn't know if it would work or not, but he held out his letter, feeling a little silly and self-conscious. At first, nothing happened. But then, bit by bit, the paper dissolved into a sparkling stream of light and faded into the others, a lovely, frosty shade of blue. He smiled.
"You got everything you want for Christmas, little boy?" a quietly amused voice rumbled behind him.
Probably he shouldn't have been surprised. North had a way of showing up. "You know I did. And then some." He bit his lip. "Thank you." It felt so inadequate it was hard to say. But North squeezed his shoulder and seemed to understand and seemed content to leave it at that. Jack stuck his hands in his hoodie pocket as North stepped up next to him and they both stood watching the lights. "I think the almond thing was fixed," he said confidentially out the side of his mouth.
"Ah," North feigned innocence with a grin, "to be young and paranoid."
"What about you, 'Santa Claus'? Who asks you what you want for Christmas?"
"Oh, is not obvious?" He glanced at Jack. "Already I have everything I want." He nodded deeply. "But thank you for asking. And please. Family calls me North."
Jack smiled to himself and went back to watching the lights. This new year would be different than all three hundred that came before it. He couldn't think of anything better. The lights floated calmly, casting their gleaming colors on the walls and furniture. "What do you do with all of them?" he asked curiously. "You know, after Christmas but before they become Northern Lights?"
In response, North reached over and slid open a panel on the wall, revealing a massive icebox wrapped in layers of glowing, sparkling, shifting lights that left Jack wide-eyed and disbelieving. He pulled open the icebox door and reached inside to pull out two glass bottles of pop, popping the tops off and handing one to Jack. "What else?" he asked, and clinked his bottle against Jack's with a wink. "They go on fridge."
A/N: Thanks for reading! It's been so fun writing and posting this story. Again, it's based on a song by Steven Curtis Chapman called "All I Want" about an orphan writing a letter to Santa. It's an amazing song and really does an excellent job of cutting right at your heart and making you think about some of these kids in homes and foster care situations who don't have a family, not just at Christmastime, but all year. I would totally encourage you to listen to it. There's a link in my profile to a video I made with the song, and I'm sure there are several others out there on Youtube as well. Hope you're having a great day! Love!