Hidden Costs
by K. Stonham
first released 26th December, 2012

Jack had always been a lesser spirit. One whose name might be jokingly invoked by humans, but one who was never seen. One whose touch was never felt. One who was, quite simply, not believed in.

Many lesser spirits were fine with this. Some even preferred it, not having to deal with mortals. Those were the ones who were the most clannish, and who generally retreated into niche realms the humans could not reach, places called Valhalla or Underhill or a dozen such others.

Jack never understood them. The company of his own kind was never what he craved, what he needed. It was not what would make him real. And so very, very few spirits were interested in fun and games. They were all so adult, so serious.

So boring.

So he spent centuries yearning, trying, wishing and working with all he was to get just one child to see him. To believe in him.

For the rest of his life, which he knew would be a very long one indeed, he would never forget Jamie Bennett. He would always be grateful to the boy who believed in him.

So when North asked him if he was ready to make it official, to take the Guardian's Oath, Jack looked back at Jamie, and let everything he'd seen, done, and learned over the past three days flash through his mind.

He did not hesitate.

Pitch was right; the Guardians did have a weakness. If they weren't believed in, they lost their power. That was something Jack would have to watch out for, in the future.

But being what he was born to be, being believed in...

It was worth the weakness.

The Guardians were, to a one, great spirits. There were other great spirits, of course, but they were scattered and did not have the mandate that the Guardians did. They were not organized. Thus it was the Guardians who were the more-or-less central authority of the spirit world. They had agency, authority, and jurisdiction.

Jack had not been kidding when he said that he must have done something really bad to get the four of them together.

He found out about the other side of this authority the first time North told him to bring in a will'o'wisp that had been leading children to their deaths.

It was by far the most onerous task Jack had undergone. He couldn't freeze the ethereal creature, couldn't cage it, and it stubbornly refused to be tricked.

In the end, he resorted to using the wind: to simply blowing the wisp to Santoff Claussen.

Many of the books that lined North's walls, Jack discovered that day, were actually legal ledgers. They recorded the actions, transgressions, and punishments of the spirits. He watched as North banished the wisp to a century of roaming the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

North, with the full authority of the spirit world behind him, was downright terrifying.

Jack resisted the urge to hide. He forced himself to stand straight, to act in solidarity with North. He was a Guardian; this was part of his task and duty.

And he was belatedly glad that he'd never come to North's attention as more than the record-holder for the Naughty List.

Toothiana, he soon discovered, was likewise terrifying. Bunnymund... well, he'd always known to be smart enough to hide from him. And Jack had long since realized that he never, ever wanted Sandman to be ticked off at him.

The more he learned about being a Guardian, the less sure Jack was that he fit.

He was, believed in or not, a lesser spirit at heart. He protected children, yes, but he was still snowballs and fun times. He fought Pitch before he was a Guardian; he would do it again, because it was the right thing to do. But Jack was, to his core, not an authority figure. He was a little winter sprite, and that was still all he was.

He didn't know how to express this to the other Guardians. Bunny would take offense, Sandy would pat him on the hand, Tooth would try to reassure him...

North surprised him.

"Of course you are not like us, Jack!" North rested a hand on his shoulder, blue eyes kind and serious. "If you were, Man in Moon would have declared you a Guardian ages ago! But no, being like us is not what is needed."

"Then... what is?" Jack didn't know how to take what North was telling him. On one hand, it was what he'd already known. On the other hand, he'd been hoping that there was just something he was missing.

North smiled. "You are hidden knife, Jack. Everyone else sees you as lesser, as weak. Not something to be scared of."

"This is an advantage?" Jack's voice was flat.

"Yes! Because if something happens again, something like Pitch... you are the one who is strong without belief. Without that magic, Tooth and I are weak, and, well, you saw what can happen to Sandy and Bunny. But you?" North shook his head. "You have had to fight, alone, for centuries, to learn your skills. You are strong, Jack. Lightning ice is not to be sneezed at! But everyone forgets that, because all they see is little Jack Frost, who only wants to play. But Manny, he plays deep game."

Jack was trying to keep up, really he was. "The Man in the Moon chose me because I look weak?"

"No." A thick, callused finger rested on Jack's breastbone. "He chose you because of what is in here. Jack Frost is clever; Jack Frost is strong; Jack Frost does not need belief to win a fight. The rest of us?" North shook his head again. "We do not have that advantage."

And that? Actually made Jack feel better about the whole thing.

"But still!" North waggled a finger at him. "You are not to be getting out of helping with judicial activities, Jack!"

Jack smiled. "That, I can handle. As long as you're not making me the one handing out the punishment."

"Ha!" North's laugh was loud and amused. He beamed down at Jack. "No such chance. Now, come! I have new racecar prototypes I need second set of eyes to look at."

Jack was, in the end, a great spirit with the outlook of a lesser spirit. He loved play and fun. He loved children, and protected them.

He was not the leader of the Guardians. That was the Man in the Moon, and Santa Claus, Manny's general. He was not the most versatile; that was the Sandman. He was not the quickest, or the best fighter; that was the Easter Bunny. And he was not the best-loved; that was the Tooth Fairy.

But what Jack was, was the one children saw the most. The one who was their friend, their playmate, their older brother. They saw him, and believed in him in a way the others seldom experienced. And because he spent so much of his time in the mortal world, other spirits overlooked him. They didn't think on the fact that Jack spent all his time working with snow, with ice, with children's hearts.

Jack's powers and role were different than the other Guardians'. He was a complementary force, the childhood to their adulthood, the lesser spirit to their greater, the thumb that allowed the fingers to grasp.

He was the one who, when the others were weak, fought with a strength no one else believed he could possess.

Jack Frost was the Guardians' knife against the dark.

Author's Note: This is based, very obviously, on Jack saying, "I must have done something pretty bad to get you four together." The line implies that, in addition to protecting children, the Guardians both individually and collectively act as an authority force within the supernatural community. Also, Jack's line (and accompanying body language, OMG) about "You're all hard work and deadlines. And I'm snowballs and fun times. I'm not a Guardian," implies a huge status/power discrepancy between them and him. Which we learn later doesn't actually exist, but the mere fact that he says it like it's so obvious means that he, and everyone he's interacted with, believe it does. And the rest of the story comes from that price that Pitch talked about. But even if Jack's power is now tied to belief, he's starting from a significant advantage. He can match Pitch without kids believing in him; this baseline gives him an advantage that the other Guardians do not have, should that belief ever fail again.