A/N: This is the last chapter! Thank you all for reading and we hope you enjoy the next story in the series, The King of Cold Mountain, the first chapter of which is already up.
Also, if you've been reading so far and haven't reviewed yet, we'd appreciate some feedback on the story and especially Anansi, since we plan to include him in future stories. Since this is a series, we want to try to learn from any mistakes as we go and want to know what to keep doing if we're doing it right.
Last but not least, I started a Jack ask blog on tumblr, with the username "guardianofscrewingup" and he comes from the background of the series. Feel free to toss me some asks!
The Frost Spirit and the Honey Tree
by Anders and Saph
North and Tooth were waiting when they arrived. Tooth was flitting to and fro as the sand-cloud came in for a landing, but the smile on her face faded as she saw how bedraggled the group was.
"How was mission?" asked North in his usual boistrous tones. "Are those upset faces or are those very fierce, triumphant faces? Hard to tell difference sometimes."
"It was a grootslang," said Bunny. "We stopped it before it killed another kid, but we probably wouldn't have survived it if Anansi hadn't stepped in. Someonegot it in his head to run ahead and showboat every time we told him not to."
"What happened to Jack's shirt?" asked Tooth. Two of the minifairies with her were blatantly oggling. She blocked their view with her hand and added awkwardly, "Not that I noticed the lack of shirt beyond there being no shirt where a shirt usually is."
"The grootslang ate it," said Jack, "now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going somewhere to sulk shirtlessly like I belong in a soap opera while Bunny tells you how much of a screw-up I am."
He spoke without bitterness towards Bunny - just with a phlegmatic acceptance of his own failure.
He took to the air, which brought his bandaged foot directly into view. North asked "Jack, you are hurt?"
"I'm fine," Jack said sullenly, disappearing into the depths of the workshop.
Bunny waited until Jack had gone. "It was a disaster," he said, once the frost spirit was out of sight. "Tooth, I wish you'd been there. What are you doing here anyway? I thought hockey season had you flat out."
"Well I got caught up, and I just wanted to be here in case you needed backup. And to see how it went if you didn't," Tooth said, still gazing in the direction Jack had gone. Concern clouded her face.
"What is my worry," said North, rubbing his beard, "is this was grootslang, yes? Last of grootslangs was killed decades ago. Only chance one could be there is if it was down in the earth, sleeping for many a year."
"Right, that was my thought," said Bunny. "If there were two left sleeping..." He looked at each of the other Guardians. "...what woke them up?"
Jack floated aimlessly through the workshop. By now, he'd spent enough time at North's to notice the patterns of the shop, and to duck out of the way of the working yetis when he needed to, even when he was preoccupied by stressful thoughts.
They're not discussing kicking you off the team, they're not discussing kicking you off the team. North said it was forever.
The fear telling him otherwise was the same fear that got him into this mess in the first place.
A furry hand grabbed Jack by his good ankle and yanked him down to floor-level. Jack landed face-to-face with Phil."What? Come on, I wasn't doing anything."
Phil barked some noises in the garbled yeti language and pointed at Jack's torso.
"It's not my fault my shirt got eaten!" Jack protested. "Besides, I didn't know this was a no shirt, no shoes, no service kind of place. None of you guys wear any pants."
Phil barked something else that sounded like an irritated "grooblegurble" to another yeti and held Jack in place. Jack sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Fine, if you want to play pretend at kicking me out just for old time's sake, I'll..."
He stopped when one of the other yetis ran over, carrying a blue sweatshirt in his hands. It was almost identical to his old one. The yeti handed it to Phil, who handed it to Jack. Somebody must have wanted a blue hoodie for Christmas, for the yetis to have had one lying around. It wasn't thatsurprising – they made pretty much everything here at the pole.
"Thanks." He took the shirt, looking at Phil, oddly touched.
Phil garbled out a set of noises that probably meant 'You're welcome' and clapped him on the shoulder just a little too hard before letting him go.
He pulled it on, feeling as cozy in it as in the last one, as the edges of the fabric iced over on contact with his skin. At least the yetis had accepted him as something that belonged there and it didn't seem like anything could shake it.
They're not discussing kicking you off the team, they're not discussing kicking you off the team...
Jack sighed and settled in the same window where he'd after Sandy's "death," pulling his hood up like it could protect him from the world. It wasn't that long before Tooth flitted over with her usual darting grace, wringing her hands.
"Jack, are you okay?"
"Oh yeah, I'm fine," he assured her. "You know how it is. Kinda just needed to hole up and lick my wounds."
"I can leave you alone if -"
"No no, it's fine," he assured her quickly before she could fly off, scooting over to make sure she had enough room. "How's hockey season going?"
"Oh, busy as ever." Tooth beamed with unavoidable dental enthusiasm. "I got the most beautiful canine this morning from a little boy in Colorado. It wasn't as nice as yours but it's one of the best I've ever seen, and it was his first tooth! I expect good things from him in the future, especially if he keeps flossing." Her enthusiasm was practically oozing all over. Jack wasn't sure if he'd be able to get the enthusiasm out of his new shirt.
Her enthusiasm was one of the things that made her so fun to be around, though, even if it was primarily focused on all things dental. His mouth quirked into a little smile.
"So, pretty busy, yet you're here all the way up at the North Pole. How about that?"
Tooth had the look of someone caught in a lie. "Oh, well, you know, I got caught up and I thought it would be nice to stop by. Show some support for the team."
She flashed him a big, strained smile, and Jack decided he had never seen a worse liar in his life.
"Mmm hmm. Had nothing to do with seeing how the new guy did on his first mission, huh?"
She just smiled at him, knowing she was caught. Her expression went soft, the feathers around her face twitching just slightly.
"What we do is dangerous, Jack." She gestured to his bandaged hand. "Case in point. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Both of their joking moods were gone, replaced by something a little bit more serious. It was like the air itself had changed around them - or at least it felt that way to Jack. The idea that people actually cared about what happened to him now was new and, well...moving. He was moved by her concern, that really was the best word for it because to be moved meant that the world shifted around you and he liked the way the world was now.
"I'm..." He trailed off, deciding 'fine' wasn't quite the best way to describe the complex bundle of pain and wisdom he was processing just then. He settled on, "I'm still here. That's, uh, not the worst it could've gone, right?"
Tooth reached out and gently took his wrist, looking at his bandaged hand.
"It could've gone better, too."
"It's my own fault."
"Bunny told us what happened but that didn't explain everything. What happened, Jack? I don't just mean the order of events, I mean - "
"Why did I act like an idiot?"
"I would've picked slightly nicer words, but yes."
Moment of truth. Did he tell her why now that he'd figured it out, now that Anansi had given him the words for it? Or did he keep his guard up? That was what he'd always done, stuffed everything down so deep that even he didn't know it was there sometimes. Being open with himself would've made the desire to be open to others stronger - perhaps unbearable.
Anansi's words came to him, unbidden.
'Don't starve yourself.'
He'd been throwing himself head-on (and alone) into everything to show that he could do it, and that "everything" had included handling his feelings. That used to be out of necessity, but now…maybe it wasn't.
That meant being open, though, and Jack didn't know how to do open. He barely knew how to deal with people in general. He'd spent so long living in the immediate moment and the world of his own head that he didn't know how to live in the world where other people wanted to know what he was feeling. It was scary opening up and leaving himself vulnerable.
To overcome one fear, though, he had to let go of the other.
"I acted like an idiot because...because I was scared."
Tooth looked at him, gaze concerned, waiting for him to explain.
"I didn't handle things well at first, and then I worried about how it was making me look, and each new time I messed up, I kept trying to fix it on my own to make up for the other times I'd messed up or not listened. By the end, though, I just dug myself into a hole I couldn't climb back out of."
"What made you so scared that you felt you had to deal with your mistakes that way?"
"I'm afraid to mess up as a Guardian, because if I do it too badly…then I won't have anywhere else to go. So I…I just kept trying harder and messing up more and -"
Unexpectedly, his eyes started watering and he closed them tight.
"- And I'm scared. I didn't used to be scared, because…because before I became a Guardian, I didn't have anything to lose."
He was afraid to open his eyes to see her reaction, but he had nothing to be afraid of. He suddenly felt her strong arms wrap around him, pulling him in close. At first, he was tense, unused to the contact, but then he relaxed and leaned his head against her shoulder. Her feathers were smooth and comforting against his face. After a moment, he wrapped his arms around her in return.
"Jack, do you really think that we'd just stop talking to you? For any reason? You'll learn how to be a good Guardian because you've already been a good Guardian, but even if you didn't, even if you couldn't, we'd still be friends with you. We'd still talk to you. You do know that, don't you?"
"I do now," he said, his voice a little raspy. "It's good to know. Definitely good to know."
For the moment, he just leaned against her, enjoying the contact.
"I'm not used to this."
"Which part of it?" she asked, and he smirked against her neck, because she had a point.
"Aside from, you know, uh, human contact in general, being able to get reassurance for things. There was always one thing I needed to know and whenever I asked, I never got an answer."
Tooth leaned back, laying her hand along the side of Jack's face. Her eyes were warm with understanding. "All of this is new for you. It'll take time to get used to it."
"I don't really know how to do it," Jack said. He drank in the understanding in Tooth's expression, but had to look away, surprised by just how good seeing that look on someone else's face felt after never having seen it before. "All I know is that I'm way more messed up than I thought."
Tooth laid both her hands over his. She paused, and her voice was solemn. "The years add...layers to us," she said softly. "Each new layer changes how we see the old ones. It changes the things we think we know about ourselves."
She lifted her hand to his cheek again. "You're not broken, Jack. You're just growing and sometimes there are growing pains - trust me, the first few centuries are always the hardest."
Jack looked at her again with gratitude, again drinking in the sight of her. He couldn't get over how different her face looked at different times. He'd seen her at her most ferocious before, teeth bared, eyes narrowed, but right now, she was at her most gentle, her eyes half-lidded, lips curved into a serene smile.
She brushed her thumb against his cheek again.
"Now how about a smile?"
It was easier to smile, after this talk, with Tooth's hand feeling soft on his face.
The smile quirked into an even bigger grin as he realized -
"...You're just trying to get a good look at my teeth, aren't you."
Tooth pressed her lips together, looking impishly guilty in that she didn't look like she felt guilty at all. She lifted her hand, shaking it in a fifty-fifty gesture.
Jack grinned and opened his mouth. Tooth heaved a sigh of adoration that was maybe only mostly exaggerated.
He laughed. "I'm really starting to think you might have a problem. Do we need to run an intervention? You don't watch my teeth sleep at night, do you? Could you at least buy them dinner and a movie first?"'
Tooth dug her fingers into his side in a tickle attack. "It's not my fault you have nice teeth!"
"I know you're in love with my canines, but I do have to warn you that they're currently - ha ha! - in a very serious relationship with my molars."
"Jack, I'm not sure you have the relative maturity to allow your teeth to date, when you're still letting someone else pick out your clothes. Maybe your canines and molars should be asking the yetis for a chaperone," she said, her mouth quirked in a mischievous grin.
"Hey, I couldn't stop them! They're kinda forceful, you know. Personally, I really was looking forward to angsting shirtless like a soap opera star."
"So was I," Jack thought he heard her say.
"Nothing!" She stood up and took to the air. "You should come back down, when you're ready. North wants to tell us about his mission with the yetis. It'll be entertaining. But first," she said, the levity slipping a little from her expression. "There's something else we have to do. All of us."
She held out her hand. It took a few moments for the last bit of conversation to register in Jack's mind, and he fought from allowing his confusion to show on his face. She hadn't been trying to get a better look at more than his teeth, had she?
Come on, get real, he thought, as he took her hand and followed her back to meet with the other Guardians.
It was time to get out of that stupid honey tree.
"Ah, Jack, there you are!"
North hadn't begun telling everyone about his adventure just yet, and everyone seemed a touch somber. For a moment, Jack worried that they were about to break the bad news that he was off the team, but then he saw six candles on the plaque on the floor that had once been Sandy's memorial.
"This is something we do sometimes," said North, rubbing his hands and then gesturing to the candles. "When there is death on a mission – when children are lost - sometimes is good to be confronting this rather than ignoring it, yes?"
Jack immediately felt guilty again. He'd been so concerned with his own troubles that he'd already forgotten the six lives that had been lost. Now that his focus had shifted back to them, he realized that North was right about confronting it. His fear of getting kicked off the team ran hand in hand with his fear of failing someone he was trying to save.
Failure didn't exist in a vacuum. It existed because you failed someone else. But there was nothing he could do now for the six who were lost but remember them.
Tooth held a long match out to him. "Would you like to light the candles, Jack?"
Jack nodded and took the match, lighting it on a candle North held out to him. He lit the six candles, their wicks sizzling, and stepped back quickly before the cold from his hand could put the fires out. An elf reached up and took the spent match from his hand.
Jack stared at the flickering candles. He could almost imagine each light as the light that had shone inside the children they represented – could almost see the vague shapes of the children that they had been, dancing in the flames.
They shouldn't have just been a passing thought. They should have been the priority. He should have listened to the briefing, should have asked Bunny and Sandy the right questions, and should have done better on that mission for the other children like them.
North spoke the childrens' names, one by one, as Sandy showed some of their dreams. Jack felt the urge to say something himself, though for a long while, he wasn't sure what to say.
"I'm sorry," he said eventually, when Sandy was finished. The others looked confused, as if they were wondering whether he was apologizing to them, but he was still looking at the six lights.
"I'm sorry I was so focused on myself when I should have been thinking about you. I'm sorry we weren't there; we would have been if we'd known."
He hoped the children had gone on to something better. In all his years of watching the pain and joy of the human race - the children especially - he'd always hoped that. He couldn't have endured watching slavery, child labor, and two world wars without that hope.
Speaking of hope, Bunny was watching him out of the corner of his eye. His expression was reflective, but also softer than it'd been before.
"You'll be missed and I promise we won't forget you," Jack finished, knowing that it was the truth.
He hadn't forgotten a single child he'd played with in the snow. North could recite from his lists from memory. Tooth had remembered, specifically, that Jack's teeth had been in her palace. That was just how it worked. Maybe it was just part and parcel of what they were.
Aside from the general, though, Jack knew that he'd remember this because it had taught him more about what being a Guardian meant.
He was jarred from his thoughts by Tooth slipping a warm hand in his and by North's large, weathered hand grasping his other.
They stood for a moment in silence, unified in purpose, and Jack felt his worries about belonging melting away. North clapped Jack on the shoulder when they finally broke apart.
"Well said, Jack. Those were very good words." He waved at the elves and they darted in to extinguish and remove the candles. "This is always sad moment, but life goes on."
Jack knew North was right. Life always had gone on. They had to go on as well, to prevent some of the suffering, even if they couldn't prevent it all.
"We go back to work –" North continued – "and I still must tell you of my mission with yetis."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Jack said, hopping up to sit on the railing.
North started his tale and Jack half-listened, lost as he was in his own thoughts. He knew now that he'd learn. He'd stop being afraid. He'd figure himself out, figure out this whole thing with friendships and connections with other people, figure out how to do this Guardian thing right.
He'd do it all because he could choose to do those things – and more than anything, because the kids deserved it.
Jack glanced at Bunny, who was still ignoring him. He even felt a little bit less hopeless about that particular bridge – maybe it wasn't so much burnt as it was damaged and in need of repair.
"-so there we were in mountains completely surrounded. I had out my swords and Phil - Phil was there - swung down from a rope and – poof! Lights out. We fought them in the dark, because if we lit up a torch, we'd see their eyes and be turned to stone!"
For the moment, Jack sat and listened and willed himself to believe that this could keep being his world. If he believed it, then in the future, maybe he wouldn't be so afraid to lose it that he'd act the fool.
In a cave in Zimbabwe, a creature slithered out of the dark. It was not a grootslang but like the grootslang, it intended to cause harm to the world as soon as it could run free. Like the grootslang, it had woken up because something else had been making noise deep in the underground of the world.
Like the grootslang, it died, because Anansi decided it should not live before it ever left the cave.
He shook the remains of the foul creature from the hard spike of his spider leg and stood listening at the entrance of the cave. Far off, down deep, he heard his laughter, it was nearly as old as the world itself. Unlike his own, it was not joyous.
Anansi took his leave, flying by web parachute to his cave. Inside, he became again the spider that he was, and looked at the stories etched in his webbing. Another story had been caught, and hung unformed. He quickly wove to see what sort of story it would become.
When he finished, there was the outline of a spider in the webs.
He crawled out of his cave and again became a man. He looked up at the moon as it cast its glow over the world.
"The boy is precious to you," he said to the moon. "I can see why. He is a fool, but he is a fool with a strong heart. That's why you asked me to fix up your mess - as you have always done. Even you have your vanity, my old friend, and what better way to reflect your light into this world than with the ice and snow? I must admit, it's powerful imagery: little boy blue with his crook, a child protecting other children, a shepherd guarding his flock."
Anansi shook his head. "But you have harmed him, as is more often your way than you realize. Your distance blinds you to the wounds human hearts can take, my friend. You forget in your solitude that others do not take to it so well."
He raised a hand to gesture at the sky. "Take it from someone who understands the webs that make up the world. You have forgotten that many have a need for connection with others."
Anansi sat for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "You have forgotten my own need for connection."
He held up his hand, encircling the moon with his fingers, staring at it with one eye.
"Nyame, whose eye is the moon, long ago, you told me there would be a price to pay for the stories I requested. Even after I brought you Onini the Python, Mmoatia the goblin, Osebo the Leopard, and the Mmoboro Hornets - killers of children all - you said that was not enough. You said that another price had to be paid for the stories, but that price has become too steep. Always, I have only pushed and prodded at the story from afar. Always, I have been a guide, showing others how to be wise and how to avoid foolishness. Always, I have done this from the shadows, never complaining, when others like Pitch have not been so patient about dwelling in the dark."
Anansi dropped his hand and looked up at the moon, his expression contentious.
"Restraining myself to indirect action is too great a price for one who has a heart like mine, always breaking at the evil in the world. Now I wish to be my own agent of change, and the stories tell me this can be so. It's time the other Guardians knew the truth, that there has ever been another of their number, hidden from them. It's time I took my place beside them. You can either choose to work with me or against me - which will it be?"
Anansi waited for an answer. His teeth flashed in the moonlight when he got it.
"Good call, old friend. I'll pack my things."
With that, he crawled back into the dark to make his preparations. The webs still vibrated, etched with the story that had sent him to join the fight against the grootslang in the first place. It was told in two deceptively simple images.
One: a tiny rabbit, surrounded by snowflakes, holding the single shoot of a plant in its paws.
The other: a young man with a staff, grasped by an old man with a clawlike hand of jagged ice, his mouth opened wide to swallow the youngster whole.
Anansi felt the tension in the air of the oncoming story, heard in the vibration of the webs how much closer it had come, how great the impact would be when it happened. He heard how much they, whom the story most concerned, would need guidance from one who knew stories as only he did.
"Yes," he said quietly to himself, "it's time they all met the Guardian of Stories."