It was a really nice chrysanthemum. The leaves were veined in silver, and when he breathed on the petals they glittered and refracted the light like a whole lot of broken glass. It looked pretty awesome. He snapped it off at the base, which made a loud cracking noise.
"Jack," said Tooth, "do please be quieter - there's oh so many mandibular lateral incisors to audit, and I need to concentrate!"
"I could help," Jack said, getting bored of the ground and stepping up into the wind a little, rooting his staff in a puff of vapour and holding the glasslike flower up to the sunlight. He turned it this way and that and it would almost be too dazzling to see if he had problems with that kind of thing. Midday light flashing off of ice had always been a favourite of his. "I just gotta put 'em in your book, right?"
Tooth paused a moment, quirked her head to look at him, her eyes glittering bright and round. Her teeth showed when she grinned at him cheerfully, and he could see they were almost worryingly white. "Oh, that's no trouble, really it would take far too long to teach you the categorisation system," she said earnestly. "But I sincerely appreciate the offer! I do appreciate you, Jack!"
"Oh," said Jack awkwardly, "good. I wasn't worried, really - look. How long have we known each other?"
"Not long at all, I think?" Tooth said absently, flipping a page forward and then back again almost too fast for him to register.
He looked at the flower closely. There; a ladybird crawling up one of the petals. He examined it curiously, reaching out a finger, bluish-white next to the insect's vivid splash of red. He touched it and watched avidly as its outer shell and wings froze, its legs stopped wagging and its insides shut down. Its miniscule antennae speared out in a last twitch, tiny rods of ice.
"Jack," Tooth said reproachfully, skimming through the entire notebook in one hit and dropping it.
"What?" he said, turning the flower upside down and shaking it to see if the bug fell off. It stuck until he poked it. It was always interesting to see how long insects lasted when exposed to cold. This one praying mantis in - when was it now, 1925? - had lasted a surprisingly long time before finally giving out. Ladybirds, though, ladybirds went really damn quickly, one way or another.
The slow way, just watching them live, that was pretty fast too though. Probably more painful than if he just froze them. Funny how things turned out that way.
Jack had once decided to see what would happen if he just –watched, all their life. He'd picked a person, actually, not a bug. He'd never tried it again after that. It had been a girl from a poor family with shiny black hair and freckles and a gappy grin, because one of her premolars had been knocked out when she was fourteen. He didn't remember how, and Tooth didn't collect adult teeth, so there's no one alive who'd know about it. Her teeth were yellow and her eyes were brown and almond shaped, and they didn't glitter at all, they just …were.
She'd died from a bad fever at the age of sixteen and three-quarters. In the end he'd been sweating himself, watching her, and he'd finally made the decision – forty hours and far too much pain for her later – to swoop in, past the family and everyone whose gaze slid past unseeing when they looked at him, reach out and cradle her face in his cool hands, and kiss her on the cheek; her eyes had widened for a moment – and she'd smiled –
It's you, she had whispered, in those few seconds before she'd slipped away, or maybe they'd been minutes or hours, Jack didn't know - he wasn't very good with time. I know you.
He'd breathed ice into her mouth - which had felt like it was on fire - shushing her, but she'd tried to tell him anyway. He couldn't remember the exact words now, but they had shaken him. He'd remembered.
Blue eyes, blue skin. You watched me. The boy who drew things with ice - you made me laugh when I was little, you hugged me after I had nightmares. You – you had white hair like an old man, smooth skin like a child, and they never believed me when I said you were…
He'd blinked and pulled back. Her lips had turned purple. You – you could see-?
She'd been gone by then, dead of cold, and he was left wondering if maybe he'd imagined the whole thing like a fever dream. The sensation of maybe, possibly, of being seen, had not been pleasant at the time. It had washed over him in a wave of hot panic, making him feel naked and exposed and utterly shaken. He'd convinced himself it hadn't happened. Maybe things did change somewhat from one century to the next.
Tooth flew up to meet him where he was, brilliant green feathers slightly twitching here and there in that way she had, that she always had and had never really changed since he met her - how long had it been now?
Things must have changed. The winters up north now weren't as blisteringly cold as they had once been in - was it the nineteenth century? - but he might be feeling it wrong, because he'd been human a very long time ago, and what did he know, he was just Jack Frost.
The guardians were the same. They went about their duties every year and it rolled along perfectly, and the children liked it - not the same children, though, he thought maybe the children had probably changed over at some point. Like Jamie - when had he last visited that kid?
Tooth grinned and seized his face. "You are so cold, Jack," she said, and kissed him twice, once on each cheek; he felt them like sharp little touches of fire. "I'm so glad you're visiting! You have to come by more! Oh, please, Jack, do visit more often?"
"Hey, I visit! I visit all the time."
"Twice a year."
"That is all the time."
"I know it feels that way," she said sincerely. "You haven't been a guardian long. I know it must be strange having friends."
"Oh – shut up." Sometimes he wondered if she was laughing at him. She couldn't be, though. She was too…Toothiana. All nice, all the way down. Right?
"Go play with your children where it's winter! They must be missing you terribly!"
"What, do you want me here or not?"
"I'll always have you," she said, laughing. "They won't. Next year the older ones won't want to play outside anymore. Less of them do all the time. You must be there to show them snowball fights."
"There's always gonna be more to play with," he said.
"You're thinking too human. A little selfish." She looked at him sideways. "You're there for them. Not the other way around, you know."
"Huh," Jack said.
Tooth blinked. "It's snowing, Jack," she said.
"So it's not meant to snow here. Turn it down, please?"
Jack laughed and leapt up, did a pirouette on the tip of the smallest snowflake he could find. "See you later, Tooth. The kids are waiting." He let it melt and climbed into the wind, whispered at it a little.
It took him through Michigan and he soared through cold gardens, skimmed across frosted lawns, drew pictures on windowpanes. He looked at each one of their faces and felt love well up in him like a bright cold shining lake, but as soon as he looked away he could feel it slipping out of his mind, ready to make room for the next one. He thought maybe things hadn't always been like that.
He did remember one face in particular. A special one. A little kid, fair skin and brown hair like Jack himself used to have. He was heading there, of course, to that kid's house – like there was any other way this could go. Crossing the state border, he stole a pineapple popsicle out of a kid's hand, took a bite and gave it back covered in fernlike tracery.
It was nearing evening by the time he found Jamie's house again. Grinning, Jack dipped down to the kid's window and looked in. He frowned.
Jamie wasn't there, just some tall guy in a suit – black pants, snow-white shirt. There was a black jacket lying on the desk, which was covered in piles of books and a silver laptop. The guy was standing in front of a mirror, straightening his tie.
Jack puffed out a breath and it turned into jagged thorns of ice on the window. The guy stiffened at the crackling sound this made, turning his head. His eyes slid past Jack, as expected, which made his stomach turn uneasily for some reason – but then they snapped back. Locked on him. The guy dropped his hands and strode forward. Jack stayed in place. Invisible, he reminded himself. You're not there.
The guy opened the window. Jack, who had been leaning on it, tumbled forward into the room and fell at the guy's feet. He shot up into the air immediately and ended up balancing on the corner of the desk, hunching like a startled animal.
"Hey, Jack," the guy said, shutting the window and turning to him. Jack went still as a statue, feeling heat pricking his skin. "Your timing sucks. I'm picking up my prom date in half an hour. You got something to say?" He grinned. "It's – I'm not dreaming, am I?"
"Um," Jack said. "Am I - at the right place?"
"Uh, I think so," the guy said. "You were looking for me, right?"
And Jack realised he hadn't known Jamie's face quite as well as he'd thought, maybe he'd even been projecting that inked image of his ownface onto the memory, because this was him, and he hadn't even realised. He could feel his eyes widen, his mouth drop open, and he shrank back, clutching his staff. Kids he could deal with. Kids he knew. Adults, though, nearly-grown men – he could feel waves of heat washing over him, making him feel embarrassed and exposed. He didn't know this person and it terrified him a little, perching there on Jamie's desk on top of books he couldn't read because he'd never bothered to learn, looking into the face of the person Jamie had become, had always been heading towards, the man he was always meant to be. Children grow up, Jack realised, that's where they go. Each and every one of them becomes a person.
"Yeah," he said finally, voice cracking a little. "Yeah, I was looking for you."
"You're just like I remember," Jamie said, stooping a little, a grin spreading across his face. "Huh."
"Yeah, I …no aging, comes with the, uh, the contract," Jack said. "How long's it been now? I swear, it was only last year you were just this high –"
"Hmm," Jamie said, like there were a lot of things he wanted to say but was too polite to. Children were a lot easier than this.
Jack twirled his staff awkwardly. "What…" He waved his arms around vaguely. "What happened?" How'd I miss all this?
Jamie stared at him for a moment. "Eight years," he said finally. "And a psychiatrist."
Jack frowned. "A psychiatrist?"
"I wholeheartedly believed in the Easter Bunny when all my friends were playing videogames and dating." Jamie shrugged. "Does time really pass that differently for you? I last saw you when I was ten years old, that holiday up in Minnesota. Thought you got bored of me." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Then I grew up."
"I, didn't I just…" Jack paused. "I…"
"You forgot about me?" Jamie said with a small smile.
"No! Even now you're the only human who's seen me in a while." Jack shook his head and went over to the bed.
"Whoa! Hey hey hey!" Jamie stumbled back, eyes wide. "You floated."
"Nothing you haven't seen before," Jack said.
"Yeah, but…not since I was a kid!" He laughed, ducking his head. "Feels so unreal now."
Jack grinned. "Unreal, huh?" He twirled the staff a little, tugging moisture out of the air and freezing it. A light powdery snow began to fall.
"Okay, feeling realer," Jamie said quickly. "But it's gonna ruin the carpet. Just saying."
Jack's smile slipped off his face.
"Okay, uh," he said, sitting down and laying the staff across his knees. The snow stopped. "I s'pose. I think."
Jamie stood there patiently, a half-smile on his face.
"I owe you an apology, I guess," Jack said.
"Uh, thanks," Jamie said.
"Kid, look –" He paused. "You've gotta understand. I've been around for a long time. Like. Hundreds of years. I've seen a lot of kids. You're the one I've seen the most of." The lie came easily because Jamie wouldn't ever know a lot of things about him. "I'm sorry I left you. It really didn't seem like much. I just…played with other kids for a while and didn't think it would take that long. Time doesn't…mean a lot to me." He shrugged. "I'm sorry."
Jamie watched him quietly. "You really aren't human," he said. Jack flinched, and there was a strained silence. Things used to be so simple. Jamie's right. Tooth's right, he thought. I'm not human, I'm not meant to be, ever since I failed to die a human death. They're not for me, I'm for them.
"Maybe I could try to be," he said.
"Why was I so special then?" Jamie said finally, with a guarded expression. "I'm just one guy."
Somehow, you believed in us. You were a lucky kid. "You were the first one to see me," Jack lied.
Jamie let out a breath, pasted on a smile. "Look, don't worry about it. It's just your job. There are millions of kids out there."
"Yeah, Jamie, there are! And don't you look at me like that, don't you do that." He stood up abruptly. "It's not like I can settle down and say hi to every kid who passes me on the street, it's not like I can – have a family, like - you – do you know how lucky you are?" He glared at Jamie like he hasn't glared at a human for a long time. "You're right, I'm not human, and this is my job. This is how things are for me. Do you know how many children there are in this country alone?"
"Nearly sixty-three million. Sixty. Three. Million. I don't count, so I don't know how many of them I've never seen and never will. They missed out, I guess. The rest I've probably thrown a snowball at once or twice. So I pick favourites, and it's not fair." Jack realised he was standing in front of Jamie, now, craning his neck to look up at him because damn that kid had gotten tall. "Could you do better?"
Jamie looked down at him defiantly, and Jack thought that maybe he wasn't a kid anymore, but he wasn't an adult either. "Maybe I could try."
Jack's breath hissed out sharply in a cloud of mist. It froze and dropped to the floor with a soft thud, where it proceeded to melt. "Why – Jamie, just, why are you like this?"
"It's called growing up," Jamie said. "Arguing. Asking questions. And no one calls me Jamie anymore."
Jack almost laughed. "You think I never - you call this – Jamie, you have no idea what it is like being me. No. I'm not human. I died when I was fifteen years old, Jamie, I spent three hundred not talking to anyone –"
"No wonder you're so emotionally stunted," Jamie said, nostrils flaring, though he was starting to shiver. The room was icing over. "You're still a goddamned child. And Jack, it's James."
"Shut up," Jack said. The window froze over and cracked down the middle.
"You're throwing a tantrum." Jamie waved his arms around wildly. "Look at this, I mean – you can't control yourself, you're just freezing everything because it's the only way you know how to deal with things!"
"I can't believe this. You," said Jack, "you treating me like a kid –"
"Maybe I should be," Jamie said. "You're my childhood hero, Jack, but those aren't ever perfect. Look, do you wanna be human or not? If you do, you've gotta grow up. That's how it is."
Jack started to laugh and Jamie blushed furiously.
"Sure, kid," he said.
"I gotta go," Jamie said, grabbing the jacket and brushing the coating of frost off it, shrugging it on. "Like I said. Picking up my date. I am going to go to the prom and dance with Amelia Richardson and you are going to stay out of it."
He headed for the door. Jack was there blocking it before he could blink.
"Jack," Jamie said, "get out of my way."
Jack didn't know what he was doing, but he thought maybe that even if Jamie had always been heading this way since he was born and it was always going to come to this for every child, they were always going to walk away, and he realised that if Jamie walked out that door he wasn't coming back, not to Jack Frost, who was frozen at fifteen, three hundred years locked in the bluish skin of someone dying of cold. He knew he didn't want that to happen, really. But he didn't know how to stop it. He knew Jamie was going to push past him, walk out that door, out of sight, make his own life; dance with his girlfriend, kiss her in a way that maybe wasn't innocent, not like Jack, and Jack for some reason wanted to hold on, hold him back, keep him in some way frozen in time like he was, if only a little bit. But he didn't know what to do.
Jack stepped into the air and grabbed Jamie roughly by the shoulders, then reached up further, took his face in both hands, leaned in and breathed ice into his mouth. Jamie's lips blazed hot and dry, vaguely rough and uncomfortable.
Jamie pressed back into it, but only for a moment, and then he was pulling away, grabbing Jack's wrists in hands that could encircle them completely and shoving him back.
There was a moment of silence before Jamie spoke.
"Jack. That was really creepy."
"I was just trying," Jack said weakly, "trying …" - but he didn't really know. He was pretty much clinging on and lashing out with anything he had.
"You were just telling me you were over three hundred years old," Jamie said. "I'm. Just saying."
"And you were just saying I was like a child," Jack said. He felt like one right then for some reason.
"Yeah. Makes it even weirder. I mean, so were you." Jamie grimaced. "Jack, you wanna be human, this isn't how. You've gotta figure out your own way."
"But I don't know how," Jack said quietly.
Jamie shrugged. "Well, neither would I. Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said…and I don't wanna shut you out of my life just because I'm not eight years old anymore. But, you know."
"Yeah," Jack said.
"It can't be the same. Because I'm not eight. I'm eighteen. I gotta do…" He hesitated. "You know. What I gotta do. And you can't, like, stalk me. That's just creepy."
This wasn't some bug crawling around inside a flower, never knowing he was watching it, that he could kill it in an instant. This was a person, this was. Jamie.
Jack nodded after a long moment. He stood aside and Jamie moved forward, stood there with his hand on the doorknob.
"You can still see me," Jack said after a moment. "I just realised, you didn't stop –"
"Believing?" Jamie said. "Oh, right. Well…I did, actually."
Jack watched him for a moment, frozen.
"I stopped," Jamie said, "because I didn't need to anymore. I just knew." He shrugged. "Maybe that's weaker, I don't know. I don't think so, actually."
"Oh," Jack said.
Jamie smiled at him and walked out the door. Jack stood there for a long time.
In the wee hours of the morning Jack went out into the nearby park, drawing patterns on the ground that melted almost as soon as he made them. Occasionally a bat flapped overhead.
After a while he caught a strange flickering movement in the corner of his eye, and looked around. It wasn't there, but he thought he knew what it might be.
There was a stone next to him. Jack crawled over and lifted it up with a grunt. Shadows spilled out of the hollow underneath it and swam around in the leaf matter, chirruping anxiously. Jack felt around in the hollow, dug a bit, and found an ant nest. They weren't dead, but none of them were moving, though some of their legs still twitched. He gently froze them to death. A mercy, though he wondered if Jamie would see it that way.
The shadows writhed. He lives under the bed, Jack thought. "Pitch?" he said.
The shadows stopped moving instantly.
"That's you," Jack said. "I know it is. Scaring ants now, huh? Really?"
"Go away, Frost," they hissed in a high voice.
"It's okay," Jack said, "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Reluctantly, the shadows coalesced into a humanlike figure. It wasn't a cloaked man though, tall as a tree – in his diminished form, Pitch Black was just a boy. Younger than Jack, even, maybe nine or ten years old, with dark hair and sallow skin and baleful eyes. Jack wondered how Pitch died, what his name was, how he ended up like this.
"Hey, Pitch," Jack said. "Is this who you used to be?"
"Apparently," he snapped.
"No need to shout."
"You did this to me."
"I'm sorry," Jack said. He shifted awkwardly. "Just, you know – you were wrong. You shouldn't have tried to hurt the kids."
"But that's what I'm for," Pitch said. "I can't do anything else. That's what the man in the moon made me to be. I scare them. I am the monster under the bed! Fear me." He made halfhearted claw gestures with his small hands. Jack realised that maybe he wasn't the only one who had a bit of thinking to do.
"Ever think you were trying too hard?" Jack said. "Don't be so aggressive. Just…do what comes naturally. Be there. Under the bed, in the they won't need to believe in you."
"What does that even mean?" Pitch said glumly, kicking at a rock.
"They'll just…know," Jack said.
"That you're right there with them. They should be afraid. Even with the way the world is now." He waved up at the dull stars, drowned out by streetlights.
Pitch eyed him. "Bit of a turnaround there, Jack. Are you abdicating?"
"Might've considered it once, but nah." He smiled lazily. "Wouldn't leave the guardians for you."
"Jack," Pitch said, "do you realise what you're saying to me? You are encouraging me to scare children."
"Hey, it's healthy," Jack said. "I remember you, the nightmares, y'know. From back when I was human. It was okay, because there were good things too." He thought about the girl he had watched over once, how he had sat with her when she woke up from a nightmare, comforted her with cool hands on her forehead. "I guess it all…balances out."
"That's not what the moon said." Pitch picked up a twig and snapped it.
Arguing. Asking questions, Jack thought. Growing up.
He had a lot to think about – a lot to figure out. He wondered how he was going to do this. He didn't know, really, but he could make a start.
"Well, Pitch," he said, "I wouldn't believe everything the moon tells you."
If you enjoyed 'Rise of the Guardians', you should go read Terry Pratchett's 'Hogfather'. Your mind will be blown.
The title is after the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, check it out!