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Naughty and Nice

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The problem with being the Guardian of Wonder was that Wonder was not Awe. That feeling of surprise and admiration was certainly part of Wonder, but so was the unstoppable desire to know things. To learn, to explore, to understand.

North did not understand. And that unrest, that constant wondering kept him awake this night.

He wandered the wood and stone hallways of the Workshop, his booted footsteps making no sound in the quiet hallways. There was much to be done for his holiday, but both he and Yeti needed rest too. The yeti worked in shifts, but every full moon, they took the night off as well, to spend time with loved ones, to do things that had nothing to do with the Workshop or Christmas, safe in the knowledge that Pitch Black would not stir from his lair when the light of the moon was shining down on the Earth.

It was something that had once brought North great comfort, but did not currently.

The jingling of bells alerted him that he was not alone and he stopped, waiting for whomever was up and scampering about to find him. It did not take long, a elf dyed bright cheerful pastel colours scampering up to him and offering him the round object it carried.

It was an egg. It was painted a bright cheerful blue with snowflakes of various sizes all over it. “Thank you.” North rumbled, taking the offered egg with a small sense of relief. “You may join the others. There are cookies.”

The elf made a pleased squeal, clapping his hands together before rapidly toddling off. North watched him go with a small fond smile before turning his attention to the egg in his hand.

He did not know how Bunny got the egg to the elf for the elf to bring it to the Pole, and he found he did not worry over the question as much as he once had. The important thing was the message it brought with it.

It was something they had started a few months ago, as of Easter. Little messages, checking on each other as they should have been the entire time. One of Tooth’s Faeries stopping by, a dancing golden Dreamsand dolphin swimming through before wandering off again, walking eggs wandering around as if lost.

Pitch’s latest attack had shown how vulnerable they had become in their isolation. It would be too easy for one of them to disappear, and none of the others to notice until it was too late.

A blue egg with snowflakes… That meant that Jack was currently with Bunnymund in the Warren.

He sighed as he put the egg in his pocket, a touch regretfully. He had wished that Jack would stay here with him, at the Pole. Jack Frost and Santa Claus, two Winter Guardians, it was logical that they would get along.

And yet Jack was not comfortable staying in the Workshop. He stopped by frequently, enjoyed his visits, even. Had his own rooms in which to sleep and stay. And yet whenever North found him on the cusp of slumber, it was always pressed up against a large window, as if unable to bare to be parted from the wind and sky outside.

Out of all the Guardians, it was with Bunny that Jack seemed to be the most comfortable. They were an unlikely pair, the two constantly snapped and snarled at each other, but it was like the playing of wolf cups, to bond and entertain.

Snow and frost were just as much a part of Spring as the warming East Winds that brought Summer.

As much as North would have liked to be the one that Jack turned towards as a friend and mentor, he could not find it in him to begrudge Bunny that honour. After all, it was with Bunny’s image that Jack had restarted the belief in the Guardians, turning the tide in the Battle with Pitch.

North patted the egg as he resumed his sojourn around the Workshop. Jack would most likely be in the Warren for a while, which meant that North need not worry about their newest Guardian this night. He had someone else to focus on tonight.

The lighting of the sky above him heralded his old friend’s appearance. Silver moonlight trickled down from above, moonbeams petting his head and shoulders in greeting.

“Hello, Manny.” North smiled up at the moon. It had been a long time since he had seen the Man in the Moon in person, but he still remembered Manny’s round face, the kindest expression North had ever seen on it.

It was that kindness that had originally gotten North to gather the Guardians together to fight Pitch, four hundred years ago.

Manny sent back a soft inquiry, worrying about North and how subdued he was.

“I have question, old friend.” North said, fixing his eyes on the silver globe of the full moon.

He got a flash of light, Manny’s version of a nod.

North took a deep breath. “How many others are there?” He asked, his heart heavy. “How many other children did you turn into spirits and left them alone?”

Manny was silent for a long moment, long enough that he passed most of the way out of the landing where they could speak to each other clearly.

Finally Manny spoke again, his message muted in confusion.

He did not understand why being alone would be troubling.

It was as Manny passed out of range that North remembered that other than a handful of robots, mice and moths, Manny was by himself on the Moon.

He’d never known anything different.

For the first time, North wondered if they were doing the right thing.

“Ya mean there might be more kids like Jack?” Bunny demanded, his teeth flashing as he gave a low rumble of anger as soon as North finished relaying his short conversation with Manny.

Behind him, Tooth exchanged a worried look with Sandy, not pausing in her soft whispering, relaying where her Faeries needed to go. They were in the Tooth Palace, Jack busy playing with his new Believers before the the last of snow disappeared for the summer.

There was still much work for them to catch up on. The globe was still not as bright as it had been before Pitch attacked, and their jobs were vital to that.

And North was coming to realise that there was no need for them to always be coming to him, when he could just as easily visit his good friends. The Yeti knew their jobs and did not need that close of supervision.

“I think it possible.” North said, not liking the thought anymore than Bunny. “Manny… Does not see anything wrong with being left alone for 300 years.”

Tooth and Bunny recoiled at the thought, and even Sandy, who was used to being by himself for great lengths of time, looked disturbed.

In retrospect, it was amazing that Jack was as friendly as he was, that he had not gone loopy after being by himself for so long, people walking through him, unseen.

North had been walked through a few times. It felt as if someone was treading on his soul each time. And Jack had been subjected to it every time he was on the ground. Their little snowflake was stronger than he appeared indeed.

“But… He… Argle….” Bunny tripped over his words before making a growl of frustration and turning away, looking as if he wished to hit something repeatedly. “Ya Don’t Do That Ta Kids!” Bunny finally roared, shaking his fists to the air.

Tooth put her hand on Bunny’s shoulder, leaning slightly against him as Bunny huffed, shaking as he wrestled to bring his temper back under control. “No.” She agreed, looking first at Sandy, then at North, her eyes dark with muted rage. “You don’t.”

Bunny’s temper was like a string of fireworks. Long, with a great many small explosions before he finally cooled down. In contrast, Tooth’s fuse was much longer, but when she went off, it was unexpected, sharp and precise.

Out of all of them, Sandy had the most even temper, but even his normally cheerful demeanour was pinched and upset. Images flashed above his head, North catching about half of them before they shifted into something else. Venting, mostly. A lot of question marks. Attempting to figure out how this was possible.

“My friends.” North extended his hands out, his words soft. He too had ranted and thrown stuff when he realised the implications of Manny’s confusion, and now he was left empty, weary. “I have request to make of you.”

Tooth shifted so she could keep the hand on Bunny’s shoulder and rest her other one on North’s large palm. “What is it?”

“Sandy, you and Tooth’s Faeries roam the world at night.” He curled his fingers around her small palm, grateful for the contact. “Bunny, your tunnels go far and deep. Keep open eyes and ears. Rumours, whispers. Find the others. Bring them in. We will protect them. We will not allow what Man in Moon did to Jack to happen to others.”

They were not helpless, useless, remaining ignorant in the light. They were Protectors, Fighters. They could not change history, but they could make things better for Jack and the others they found.

They had heard of Jack by his reputation. There were others that had reputations, reputations that had possibly been exaggerated, warped. If they had, the Guardians would adopt them in. The Workshop had plenty of room, and North would enjoy having someone to care for again.

If they were as naughty as the reputations stated, well, they could keep an eye on them as well. The world did not need anymore boogiemen in it.

Sandy took North’s other hand, Bunny holding both Tooth and Sandy’s, completing the circle. They were the Big Four, the ones who had kept the darkness at bay for centuries, and would for centuries more.

They had lost their focus, before Jack Frost had come into their lives. Forgotten that there was more to watching over children than secretly leaving gifts. But no more. Children came first.

All of them.

“A question for you, Jack Frost.” North said, holding up a hand before Jack could disappear. He thought it might have been Bunny’s urging, but Jack had been stopping by the Workshop more often the past few days, giving North the opportunity to talk. A conversation North feared slightly, for hurting Jack with the both his questions and the reminder of past wrongs, intentional or not.

But Nicholas St. North had never been one to let fear rule either his thoughts or his actions.

“What’s up?” Jack asked as he paused in mid-flip, resulting in him doing a single armed handstand on the top of his staff. North paused, momentarily distracted by the display of agility and balance, then shook his head, resuming his train of thought.

“Are there any others?” North asked. “That were like you?

Jack tilted his head to the side, making him look like an owl for a moment, before he seemed to slowly drift sideways, landing on his feet, staff tucked against one shoulder. “Like me, how?” He asked slowly. “Weather Phenom? Dead Guy? Devilishly good looking?”

“Alone.” North rumbled, the word heavier than he intended.

He had not realised how open Jack’s expression had been until it shut down, barriers slamming shut, leaving Jack looking stiff and cold.

North held up a hand, hoping to forestall the inevitable flight he saw coming. “We did not realise that Manny had a hand in your becoming Jack Frost, only to abandon you. And for that, we are eternally sorry.”

“And you want to make sure I’m the only one.” Jack said, his voice flat.

“I did not get answer from Man in Moon if there were others that he made, potential Guardians.” North sighed. “That leaves me… wondering.”

And worrying, and angry. Very, very angry.

Jack nodded, tapping his staff against the ground and leaning on it, his expression turned thoughtful. Guardian, Jack may have been. But he didn’t trust them completely, not yet. Trust would take time to earn, on all sides.

“There are a couple of other spirits that I know of.” He said slowly, hesitantly. “Not many.”

North let out a soft breath, relief and worry tangling at the confirmation that Jack may not have been the only one.

“Can we talk with them?” He asked.

Jack frowned, his dark brows coming down in a stormy expression. Outside the windows, North could see the clouds churn, turning grey and dark. Not snowing, just threatening to.

“Maybe.” Jack finally said, sounding ancient. He looked up to meet North’s eyes, and North was reminded that for all Jack looked like a teenager, he very much wasn’t. “I might be able to arrange something. But I need you to understand something.”

North nodded, realising he was squaring his shoulders as if to prepare for bad news.

“There are other things out there other than Pitch.” Jack said, his voice rough with experience. “Things that don’t just want to scare you. Things that will maim, eat, then kill you. Or worse. And there are a lot more of them, than there are of us who don’t want to do that.”

Lightning crashed in the distance and North could hear some of the yeti calling to each other, scrambling to close windows and doors that had opened with the force of the wind outside.

Jack Frost, who could fight with the same strength as a Guardian, without the backing of millions of children who believed in him.

Because he’d had to learn how to be strong, to survive.

… North was going to slaughter Manny.

Jack took a deep breath and let it out, the sky lightening behind him, the relieved shouts of the Yeti echoing through the Workshop. “So they tend to be a little shy, and may not want to talk.”

“Understood.” North nodded, moving closer to Jack. When Jack didn’t pull away, he put a hand on Jack’s shoulder, noticing the tension in the light frame. “If you would open conversation, we wish to offer…” He hesitated, uncertain if the word he was looking for was ‘protection’ or ‘sanctuary’.

“You wanna help.” Jack finished for him with a smirk.

Da.” Very much so.

Jack nodded, pulling away. “I’ll pass the word on.” He said, swinging his staff up and on to his shoulder with a reassuring grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Thank you.” North nodded, his heart heavy. Jack clapped him on the shoulder and threw himself out the window, which the wind opened and closed for him.

Phil came up and rumbled at him, informing him of the opening doors and windows, and that there had been no intruders found. North absently thanked him, stroking a hand through his beard, his mind filled with heavy thoughts.

“Jinny.” Jack called, his voice soft and gentle as he leaned over the green murky water of the pond. Between the rotting vegetation and the dark grey fog that surrounded the bog, it set North on edge. Jack hadn’t told North anything about who they were meeting, just that they were a little shy. “It’s me, Jack. Jack Frost.”

North could see the duckweed across the surface of the water shift. “Jiiiiinny.” Jack drew the name out, almost singing it. “Jinny Greenteeth~”

The duckweed seemed to come alive, flailing like the many limbs of an octopus, as a huge misshapen figure rose from the middle, a hag with long sharp teeth. North stepped forward, one hand on his swords. He recognised the name and knew the legends of Jenny Greenteeth, how the hag pulled children into the water and drowned them.

Jack held a hand up to stop him and North obeyed, following Jack’s lead. His hands did not leave his sword hilts however.

“I’ll eat you alive!” The hag growled and snarled, voice low and crackling.

Jack straightened up, giving the hag a big grin. “There you are Jinny!” He said cheerfully, arms stretched wide as if to greet and old friend.

The hag growled, in response, the duckweed tendrils moving ominously as she stared past Jack towards North with deep suspicion. The long sharp green teeth ground together in an ominous rumble.

“It’s alright, Jinny.” Jack said soothingly. “He’s a friend. One of the Big Four. This is North, otherwise known as Santa Claus. He won’t hurt either of us.”

“Santa?” Jinny’s voice suddenly changed, no longer old and broken with age, but high and incredibly young with a Gaelic lilt. The duckweed parted, revealing the hag to be a puppet made of sticks and duckweed. Operating it was a young girl of about seven or eight with pale green skin and long dark green hair, dressed in what looked like a poorly tied sack.

She stared up at him with luminous swamp green eyes that seemed impossibly big and North did his best to project being harmless and innocent.

“That’s right.” Jack said soothingly, holding a hand out to her. She hesitantly stepped forward, taking his hand and letting the hag puppet drop into the water. Jinny shyly pressed up against Jack, hiding herself from North’s gaze. The water she dripped froze as soon as it touched Jack, covering them both with ice, but neither seemed to notice. “This is Santa Claus. North, this is Jinny Greenteeth.”

North knelt down on one knee, getting down on her eyelevel as he held a hand out towards her. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Jinny Greenteeth.”

Jinny’s cheeks darkened as she pressed her face against Jack’s leg, making a small embarrassed sound as Jack petted her hair, shooting North an apologetic look. She whispered something to Jack, who crouched down to listen to her her better.

North patiently stayed where he was, afraid she might flee if he moved, although he took in every detail that he could with his eyes. Like Jack, she seemed waifishly thin, as if she didn’t have nearly enough to eat, and he resisted the urge to shove cookies in her direction.

Worryingly, there seemed to be a rope wrapped tightly several times around her neck.

He caught a flash of teeth as the two children talked and realised that Jinny lived up to her name. She did have a mouthful of razor sharp green teeth, like a shark’s mouth in a child’s body.

After several moments of whispered conversation, Jinny nodded and Jack picked her up, her tiny arms wrapping around his neck as she tucked her head under his. It put the young Guardian in a worryingly vulnerable position, her sharp teeth next to his throat, but Jack didn’t seem to worry about it.

“You seem nice, but you also look like the man who killed her.” Jack said apologetically. “So I talked her into visiting the Tooth Palace, so she can meet Toothiana. I think she and the girls will get along well.”

Jinny warily peered at him through her dripping hair, as if expecting an argument. North nodded and rose to his feet. “I think that a fine plan.” North said as reassuringly as he could, directing his words towards the girl. “Would it be alright if I accompanied you to the Tooth Palace?”

Jack had mentioned having a couple of extra portals along with might not be a bad idea, in case they needed to change location in a hurry.

She thought it over for a moment, then nodded, giving Jack a squeeze. “Alright. Hold on tight, Jinny.” Jack instructed as North pulled out a globe and gave it a shake, whispering the name of the Tooth Palace before throwing it.

He didn’t need to look to hear Jinny’s gasp as the portal opened up. “Ready?” Jack grinned, wide and mischievous, hopping on his toes. Jinny let loose a soft squeal as Jack leapt into the Portal, North quickly following after.

The sudden change from overcast clouds to the bright lights and vivid colours of the Tooth Palace was slightly jarring. As soon as North had his feet, he located Jack, who was still holding Jinny, motioning up at the Palace above. The girl’s hair was so long that it trailed down to Jack’s knees, dripping water.

Tooth’s Faeries buzzed around them, chirping cheerful greetings as they continued on their work, promising to pass the message on Toothiana that they were here. Jinny was leaning forward in Jack’s arms, watching the Faeries with an expression full of wonder.

“Come on.” Jack said, motioning for North to join him. “Jinny's not too comfortable out of water for long.”

North nodded, motioning that he would follow. A small cloud of Faeries trailed around, chattering excitedly about how pretty their guest was, and look at all that hair! Jinny seemed to relax, giggling softly at the attention.

Jack lead them out to the pond, giving a hop to get to one of the round rocks that stuck up from the water, then sat down crosslegged, careful to keep his feet and staff out of the water. Jinny slid from his shoulder to his lap, holding on to him as she put her feet in the water. Jack tugged her hair over her shoulder, dropping it into the water as well, where it fanned out in the gentle current.

“I heard we had company!” Tooth’s voice rang out as she floated down from the Palace above, wings sparkling incandescently. Jinny’s expression turned awestruck as she stared up at Tooth, her shark-teeth showing.

“Ohhhh!” Tooth squealed softly. “You have the prettiest teeth! May I take a look?”

Without further ado, she stuck her fingers in Jinny’s mouth, cooing at what nice shape they were in. Jinny let out a confused high pitched noise as Jack laughed, neither making any effort to stop her. North hid his own smile behind a hand.

“Tooth.” North gently chided his friend.

“Oh! Sorry.” Tooth winced. “I get a little carried away sometimes.” She confided to Jinny.

Jinny let out a little giggle, that turned into a full blown laugh, high and innocent in a way that only a child’s could be. Tooth and her Faeries seemed delighted at the reaction.

Jack made the introductions as she wound down. “Toothiana, this is Jinny Greenteeth. Jinny, this my friend Tooth.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you.” Tooth said briskly, holding a hand out for Jinny to take.

Jinny paused, then took Tooth’s hand with a grave air. “Pleasure.” She said politely.

Tooth grinned broadly in return, prompting another smile from Jinny.

“Alright.” Jack said, tickling Jinny’s sides and making her squirm. “Will you be okay with Tooth if I go talk to North for a few minutes, Jinny?”

Jinny nodded, obvious entranced by Toothiana. She scooted out of his lap and onto the water, standing easily on it as if it were solid, except for her hair that continued to fan out into the water. Jack patted her on the head as he flipped to his feet, walking over to North.

“She is child.” North rumbled quietly, moving slightly away so the others couldn’t overheard.

“Jinny’s older than I am.” Jack sighed and ran a hand through his hair, looking ancient again. “She doesn’t know by how much though. The only thing she remembers from when she was alive is being tied up and thrown into the bog as a sacrifice.”

-And North looked like the man who had done it. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, both his head and his heart aching.

“From there, her story is much like mine. Waking up underwater with the full moon above us, being told our names.” Jack said quietly. “She lives in ponds and lakes, freshwater. Tries to keep the kids safe from drowning. At least until an adult notices, then she can’t keep the duckweed solid enough to keep them from falling in.”

“And the costume-?” North inquired.

Jack gave him a sideways look. “Pitch isn’t the only thing out there.” He reminded North. “I’m nomadic, they have to catch me first, but she can’t do that. If she looks big and scary, pretty much everyone leaves her alone. Kind of surprised you didn’t spot that with your Naughty/Nice lists.”

“She is not on it.” North confessed.

Jack recoiled slightly. “What do you mean she’s not on your list?” He demanded, angry. “Sure, she’s green, but-”

North held up a hand. “Magic for Naughty and Nice lists was set up by Man in Moon.” He rumbled, not happy at himself for overlooking this essential bit of information. “Like how Tooth knows where teeth are. Your believers in Burgess on on list. You are on the list. Jinny is not. Tooth’s girls are not.”

“But…” Jack’s brows came down as he mulled North’s words over, picking up the one thing they had in common. “I could pass for human. They can’t…”

“And are not on list.” North growled. In fact, the only spirit who had ever showed up on the list was Jack Frost. “I will be changing this.”

He was not a sorcerer for nothing.

Jack gave a frustrated growl, turning away as he tugged on his hair. “I thought… We thought the Guardians knew about us, and were purposely ignoring us as being beneath you.” He said quickly, pacing slightly back and forth. He stopped suddenly, peering up at North’s face with something akin to surprise. “But this… You guys didn’t even know about us, did you?”

“No.” North admitted, allowing Jack to see his own frustration and anger at their ignorance. “We did not. Nothing past occasional rumour, that is all.”

He got a brief bark of laughter in return, Jack spinning on his heel and pacing again. “Never credit to malice with what can be explained with stupidity.” He said, obviously quoting something.

North snorted, partly in amusement. “One spirit overlooked is accident.” He said, motioning to towards Jack, then towards Jilly was talking with Tooth. “Twice is coincidence.”

“And three times is-?” Jack drawled. “Paranoia-?”

North rested his hands on the hilts of his swords. “Enemy action.”

He didn’t have a battle plan yet, but one thing was for sure. Manny was definitely on the ‘Naughty’ list from here on out.

“We need ta talk.” Bunny’s voice startled North, causing him curse as he bumped his head on the machine he was building. North had powerful magic had his disposal, yes, but he was not the kind that could wave his hand to focus that energy. He had to building something to form it first, in wood, glass, and metal.

To cast a spell that touched everything on the globe took a lot more work than merely folding space to get from point A to point B. More like the spell he had crafted that every letter addressed to him found its way to the North Pole, without address or postage.

Before he started, he’d studied the spells that Manny used to form the Naughty and Nice lists, and discovered something of interest.

Jack Frost wasn’t supposed to be on his lists at all. It was a fluke, a mistake that had Jack appearing on them, which had probably been why he’d permanently manifested on the ‘Naughty’ list. Doing something you weren’t supposed to do was ‘Naughty’ after all.

“Bunny!” North snapped, turning around to scold his friend for surprising him. The words stopped on his lips as he took a look at Bunny, at the white bandages tied around his limbs, some stained with magenta blood.

Bunny may have looked like a giant version of an earth rabbit, but he really wasn’t. And sometimes that leaked out in the strangest ways.

“What happened to you?” North asked instead, wondering if he needed to call for a medic. Bunny gave him a dower look, his fur bristling angrily, and North set the medic thought aside for the moment, Bunny wouldn’t let anyone near him when he was like this.

“Since you’ve been busy with that there contraption, I talked Jack into introducing me ta another one of his friends.” Bunny crossed his arms across his lean chest, green eyes irate. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“What do you mean, worse?” North asked, motioning for Bunny to move. “Wait, we talk in my office.”

Little ears were less likely to listen in there. That didn’t mean that they wouldn’t, but that chances of their conversation being passed on wouldn’t be as great.

Bunny growled and nodded, uncurling his arms to stalk forward with wide arm swinging movements that sent both Elves and Yeti scattering. North followed, silently gesturing to the concerned Yeti that it was alright, and any hospitality could wait. The Yeti nodded back, but eyed the irate Guardian of Hope with wary eyes.

“Would you like anything to eat? Drink?” North asked anyway as they reached the relative silence of his office, shoo-ing the elves inside out.

“Later.” Bunny waved a paw. “I’m too riled up at the moment.”

“Alright.” North agreed, locking the large door, sealing them inside. He sat down in his chair, motioning to Bunny. “Talk.”

Bunny grunted in return, pacing back and forth across the office floor. “Ya ever hear of the ‘Big Bad Wolf’?”

Da.” North nodded. “Large wolf, tricks and eats little girls and piggies.”

“Hah.” Bunny snorted, a dark expression on his face. “Alright, then how about Kobolds? Redcaps?”

North ran a hand through his beard. “Goblins, yes? Like leprechauns and brownies. Helpful around the house.” He spared a brief thought for his Elves, who were most likely lurking outside the door, looking for cookies. “Mostly.”

“Goblins! Bah!” Bunny growled, low in his throat as he threw an annoyed hand up in the air. “Redcaps are closer to miniature Ogres.”

“Ogres?” Goblins tended to be on the nicer, if mischievous side. Ogres however, ogres ate people. North eyed the oozing bandages around Bunny’s arms and legs. Defensive wounds, preventing injury to vital areas of the body. “You were attacked?”

“We were bloody well swarmed.” Bunny bared his teeth. “Blighters are fast and mean, carry long iron pikes with jagged tips. Like to bite too.”

Bunny’s fur was only so much protection. “Do you need infirmary-?” North asked, half rising from the chair. “Jack and his friend-”

“Are lickin’ their wounds in the Warren.” Bunny held up a hand, and North sank back down in his seat, worried about infection. Bites tended not to be clean. Bunny took a deep breath, settling down, his fur smoothing slightly. “Y’can look me over in a tic, need ta have a chinwag first.”

North nodded. “Start from beginning.” He instructed. “You got Jack to introduce you to friend-?”

“His friend the ‘Big Bad Wolf’.” Bunny made air quotes around ‘Big Bad Wolf’. “Kid’s a bit feral, looks a little older than Jack when he shifts inta a human. Involuntarily changes into a large dark wolf when the Moon’s out.”

“Manny?” North inquired, a dark feeling taking up in the pit of his stomach.

Bunny nodded, a sharp jerk of his head as he leaned against the worktable, crossing his arms over his chest again. “He can’t remember how he died, just that Manny brought him back. When I left, he and Jack are talkin’ about creatin’ an ‘Abandoned By the Moon’ club.”

“Cannot say I blame them.” North muttered, mostly to himself. Bunny snorted in response, silently agreeing with him.

“Turns out the kid’s been tryin’ ta protect travellers from the Redcaps and other Bogies on the trail. He snarls, looks big, people go home, avoid gettin’ eaten.” Bunny flicked an ear, looking slightly contemplative. “Bet a couple o’ carrots that he’s where the stories of Grims come from.”

Large black dogs that heralded the death of someone near to the unfortunate person who spotted them. “And his reputation of Big Bad?”

“He can be seen by humans in Wolf form.” Bunny frowned. “‘Cording to Jack, humans spotted him a coupla times in the aftermath him breaking up a Redcap feast. They find a dead girl, a red hat, and a large bloody wolf. Little Red Riding Hood, run afoul of the Wolf.”

North sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Does he have a name?”

“That’s just it.” Bunny shook his head. “Manny didn’t give him one. Or if he did, the kid don’t remember it. He’s older than the Jinny-girl, but don’t remember much o’ anything at all. Like I said, he’s gone a bit feral.”

Three children, left to fend for themselves. One fought, one hid, and the other brash and reckless.

Jack was the youngest. North wondered if the reason he was so spirited was because he had been left alone the least amount of time.

… If 300 years could be considered a ‘short’ amount of time.

“Do you know if Jack knows of more children?” North asked heavily. “He speaks more with you than the rest of us combined.”

Bunny was quiet for a moment, rubbing the underside of his chin thoughtfully. “Reckon I heard the boys mention one more, but not a child.” He said contemplatively. Bunny paused, looking up at North with an odd expression in his eyes, almost uneasy.

North tilted his head back, waiting for Bunny to decide to speak or not.

“Jack trusts me cause I didn’t eat him.” Bunny said quietly, as if he wanted to choke back the words he was speaking. “Back in ‘68.”

North’s breath caught in his throat, caught between horror and incredulity. “You didn’t…”

“I pushed him inta a tree and yelled at him.” Bunny stared down at the ground, his voice raw with guilt. “And then I left ta salvage me holiday. If I didn’t kill ‘im fer accidently wreckin’ Easter, he figures he’s safe enough with me. Few bumps and bruises don’t mean a thing ta him. When I left, the two were swappin’ stories of the worst things they escaped from.”

Bunny felt guilty over the Blizzard of ‘68, how he’d lost his temper and possibly hurt Jack, but the difference in reactions gave startling insight to what Jack’s life must have been for the past 300 years.

And they had two other kids with the same story, who had been left alone for much, much longer.

North closed his eyes and took a deep breath, striving for calm. “Jack says there are other things out there than Pitch Black.”

Things with claws and teeth, that devoured before they killed.

“Yeah.” Bunny agreed. “There are. We’re big enough that they don’t mess with us, and the human kids we can protect. But the ones that wander off the path or the small fry like the kids Manny’s turned? They’re lunch.”

The old tales said to stay indoors at night, to stay out of the forests and keep to the paths, not to talk to strangers. To always be polite and courteous. And to help others whenever asked, because assistance came from the unlikeliest places.

The old tales were meant to warn, educate, and protect. Which they did, unless they weren’t followed. And then there was nothing they could do.

Nice kids were rewarded. Naughty kids were punished.

But the children who Manny had abandoned didn’t have anyone to tell them the old tales for protection, they could only stumble blindly, and then were punished for their naivety.

“I fear you are right.” North said heavily, the weight of their previous ignorance weighing heavily on him.

Bunny nodded, the two of them lapsing into silence for a long moment, each lost in their own dark thoughts.

Finally North took a deep breath and let it out. There was nothing they could do to change the past, they could only to attempt to heal what had been rend. “Come.” North finally said, tapping the table with his knuckles, then slowly rising to his feet, his joints creaking. “Let us get you to the infirmary. Food and Drink, we will send some back with you to the boys.”

Bunny sighed, his shoulders slouching as he wearily allowed North to escort him to the medics, a sort of broken air around him. Not from his wounds, but the same heart-sick that North felt, that all of the Big Four felt.

North attempted to contact the Man in the Moon as the the date of the full moon approached, but clouds covered the sky, hiding the Moon from him.

North was uncertain as to if he was relieved by this or not. He still wished to believe in his friend’s kindness, in his goodness, but the more they learned, the more difficult it was to do so.

North’s first impression of the Big Bad Wolf was that of size. The Wolf was easily the size of one of his reindeer, large and charcoal grey with ragged fur that hinted of scars underneath.

And Teeth.

Very large, sharp pointy teeth. In North’s face.

It was only Bunny’s warnings of Wolf’s general twitchiness that kept North from grabbing his swords and removing the threat in front of him.

“Oi!” Jack appeared out of nowhere, landing on the Wolf’s head and thumping him on the muzzle with the butt of his staff. “That’s North. Santa Claus. He’s a friend.”

The Wolf growled, closing his jaws to sniff at North, eyes the colour of molten gold staring at him suspiciously before sneezing and nonchalantly turning away, as if North was suddenly beneath his dignity to acknowledge. Jack stayed perched on the Wolf’s head, quietly chiding him for trying to scare North, when they all knew that he was coming.

North huffed quietly to himself, amused at the display of power. Now that the teeth were away from his face, anyway. He could understand why the stories of the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ had spread now, with an appearance like that, it was almost as if the lad was made to terrorise.

“Sorry about that.” Bunny drawled, hopping next to him before rising to his hindlegs, not sounding apologetic at all. “He greeted me the same way.”

“Best way to deliver message that he is not to be trifled with.” North shrugged. Hit them hard and fast, it was good strategy.

Bunny made an amused noise in the back of his throat, and North took a moment to look Bunny over. It had only been a few days, but the bandages were gone, aside from one bandage around a particularly vicious bite on an upper arm. North could see the dark purple scabs showing through pale grey fur, but they didn’t look infected. It looked like Bunny was healing well, which was a worry off of North’s shoulders.

“Question, if it is not rude.” North said, raising his voice slightly. “Would our Volk wish to have name other than ‘Big Bad Wolf’?”

Volk?” Bunny echoed, confused.

“‘Wolf’.” Jack explained, still on the Wolf’s head. The Wolf looked up upwards at him, then shrugged his giant ragged shoulders before plopping down on the soft grass of the Warren, his huge head on his paws. Jack smiled as he reached down and scratched the between the eyebrows, the wolf grunting in return.

“Then I will gift him one.” North declared. He had been wondering and thinking about this since Bunny’s visit, finding the name ‘Big Bad Wolf’ to be strange. It was more of a title than a name. “In Russia, there is story of large grey wolf who is very clever and very loyal to his friend. How does ‘Ivan’ sound?”

He got a low growl in return, Jack tumbling to the ground as Wolf suddenly shrunk. Sitting in place of the huge shaggy canine was a teenager, on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there yet. The Wolf’s golden eyes glared under a mop of long dark wild untamed hair. He had the features and dark olive skin of someone native to Greece or Southern Italy, scabs and deep scars that covered every bit of skin North could see.

… And the large white canine teeth of a carnivore. North noticed with some amusement and pride that the Wolf had managed to keep himself between the Guardians and Jack, as if to guard the youngest.

“I remember Tsarevitch Ivan.” Wolf spat, crossing his scarred arms over his chest. “Jerk was an complete idiot, couldn’t follow directions to save his fucking life. Every time I told him ‘don’t touch something’, the fucking bastard had to go and touched it. I get him out of those scrapes, set him up with gold and a sweet wife, and then he got himself killed taking a fucking nap and I had to bring him back to life before I could get rid of him.”

Wolf paused for a moment, obviously sulking. “Most work I ever put in for a damn meal.” He finally grumbled. “Swore off eatin’ horses after that.”

Next to him, Jack snickered. He quickly turned into a cough, glancing away as the Wolf glared at him.

“Not Ivan then.” North agreed, sharing an amused look with Bunny. “Pytor?”

“Pytor…” Wolf rolled the word around his mouth before nodding, a grudgingly pleased expression on his face.

“Wait, wait wait.” Jack held up a hand. “You’re not honestly trying to name him ‘Peter the Wolf’, are you?”

“What?” North shrugged. “I like the music.”

“But Peter tricks the wolf into getting caught, and then the hunters kill him.” Jack frowned at North, as if North had just suggested that they kill their Wolf.

“So this Pietro is tricky.” Wolf grinned, showing off his shiny teeth, pronouncing ‘Peter’ the Italian way. “I like it.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “So ‘Peter the Wolf’ it is then.”

“Pietro.” The wolf, no, Pietro corrected with a low warning growl.

“-Pietro.” Jack acknowledged and Pietro grinned, looking pleased.

North smiled as well, pleased that their newest child had a name now.

Names had power, symbolism. Names meant identity, and a place in society. By giving Pietro his name, North had fixed him as part of their group, symbolically giving him the protection of the Guardians.

Protection he should have had all along.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Pytor Volk.” North smiled, keeping his lips over his teeth.

“Pietro Lupo.” Pietro smirked at North as he said his name in Italian, and North could feel the tug of magic settle over their canine shapechanger. The wolf had always been acknowledged, now the human was as well.

“English, people!” Jack threw a hand in the air. “I’m just going to start calling you ‘Petey’.”

Pietro, North, and Bunny all exchanged an amused look. “Americans.” Bunny quietly drawled, fondly insulting, and they nodded in response.

Jack huffed, slouching down in an obvious sulk. “Fine. Pick on the youngest.” He grumbled. “But am I the only one who noticed that Peter needs pants?”

The quiet chuckles stopped as North realised that what he had mistaken for a loincloth were actually shadows and hair. Pietro glanced down at himself, clearly unconcerned. “Why?”

North motioned to Bunny. “All yours.”

Bunny sighed and ran a hand down his face, muttering a quick prayer for patience.

Ah, the joys of child rearing.

Pietro worried about children and the Redcaps, so North gladly promised to walk through the forest they had met before returning to his Workshop. The Wolf seemed conflicted about it, reluctant to give up duty, but clearly wanting to relax with Jack and Bunny for a little while, which made North wonder just how often he got a chance to do so.

He arrived just before sunset, walking a little ways on the trails to get a feel for the land before stepping off the path. North could hear tiny little malicious cackles as he did so, knowing that he had just made himself a target.

North put his hands on his swords, smiling slightly. ‘Volkov boyat'sa — v les ne khodit’ the old saying went. ‘If you are afraid of wolves, don’t go into the woods.‘

NIcholas St. North, the former Bandit King, had never been afraid of a fight.

As the path disappeared behind him, he heard the sound of flax seed over stone, a constant low noise that spoke of his not being alone. North strained senses, listening for any sounds of attack.

He heard crunching instead, and turned in that direction, his booted feet silent across the leaf covered forest floor. The crunching get louder, accompanied by louder giggles and what sounds like minor scuffling.

The dark red of drying blood is the first thing he saw of them, slowing his footsteps as he approached. If he could talk with them, he’d rather take that method first.

Then he spotted a glimmer of white among the shifting pile of Redcaps. It was a bone, a day old at most, not yet completely devoid of flesh.

It was the femur of a small child.

The rest of the skeleton was lost under the mass of deformed blood splattered bodies, who were cracking the bones open and slurping out the marrow.

His swords were in his hands without a thought, past the point of reasoning with them. “You-” He growled, a feral edge to his voice, of a blood thirstier time that he’d thought he’d left behind. “-Have been very Naughty.”

He swung his sword and the first Redcap head of many went flying off into the distance.

Sandy ended up coming to his rescue, the sheer number of Redcaps overwhelming even North’s fabled sword skills. Much to his horror, he realised that Jack had not been exaggerating, the Redcaps had attempted to eat him alive rather than going for a killing blow.

Fortunately his coat, the heavy fabric reinforced with protective and cleaning spells, had taken the brunt of the attacks he had been unable to repel with his swords. The only damage to his person was a few scraped knuckles that could be easily explained away.

Phil got so annoyed whenever North returned to the Pole with visible injuries. The Yeti were such worriers.

“Thank you, my friend.” North breathed as he leaned against the tree, the colony of Redcaps decimated between the two of them. Their Sandman had originally merely provided defense, sending the Redcaps flying, until he stumbled upon the scattered remains of more children piled up over years, possibly decades old.

And then his sand had turned deadly.

When North was younger, there had a time when coming down from a fight like this would have felt like triumph. And while a part of him was pleased that they would cause no more harm, mostly he just felt old and weary, tired of pointless deaths. He did not revel in the fighting any longer.

Sandy gave him a sideways look, then shook a scolding finger at him.

Da.” He sighed, pushing his hat higher on his head. “I know, Sandy. I will not seek any more fights on my own. I just…” North trailed off, then shrugged.

He had been angry, and needed a way to burn off that rage, and the fight had helped with that. It also felt as if he was doing something useful for the children, something more than sitting at the North Pole, happily oblivious to what was going on.

Sandy patted his arm, nodding sadly. The dream-maker’s first thought was rarely violence, but sometimes even he felt good with mindless violence.

North gave Sandy a half smile before it faded away again. “Any sign of more Children?” He asked quietly.

Sandy paused, then shook his head with an apologetic look. Images flashed above his head, a miniature Sandy looking, time passing, finding nothing. Sandy spread his hands wide, signalling his uncertainty as to what to do next.

North rubbed his forehead with the back of one hand, still holding his swords. “I think it is time for another meeting, talk to our Children about other one they mentioned.”

Sandy thought it over, then nodded in agreement, forming his cloud of sand around him. He needed to get back to his evening duties.

“Thank you.” North gave Sandy a small salute. “I will set up details and let you know.”

Sandy waved back, floating back up into the sky, beams of golden dream sand spiralling off to the distance, granting children pleasant dreams. North sighed, feeling weary and watched him go before opening up a portal back to the Workshop.

“Pietro.” Jinny said, leaning backwards to stare at the grey wolf upside down. The two had a staring match, communicating silently while the Guardians waited. Finally, Pietro sighed and nodded, looking annoyed at his acquiescence.

North reigned in his triumphant shout. The Guardians would finally meet the last of the Children Manny had made and abandoned.

North exchanged a gleeful look with Bunny and Tooth. They had gathered together at the Tooth Palace, Jinny sitting with her feet in the water as they talked, Jack bouncing back and forth between the two groups, as if uncertain as to where he should be.

He felt sort of bad for putting Jack in such a position, torn between the two who were like his siblings and the Guardians, his brothers in arms. It was clear that Jack felt more comfortable with his little seen brethren than the Guardians, something that North hoped would change with time.

Pietro looked at Jack and whined, motioning to the Guardians with a tilt of his head and Jack held his hands up. “Nah-uh. You’re the one who best knows where xie is. I can’t get that far south into your range.”

“Range?” North inquired.

“Wolfy usually sticks closer to home, in the Mediterranean.” Jack motioned towards Pietro, who was silently broadcasting that he didn’t care that they were talking about him as loudly as he could. “The only time I’ve ever met hir was the last time it snowed on the Pyramids.”

“1901!” Tooth cheerfully filled in, with her gift of recall.

“Pietro came north to protect me from the Redcaps.” Jinny added softly, slowly kicking her feet in the water.

In the wintertime, North would easily place bets on Jack winning against a horde of Redcaps. But the summer heat seemed to drain his snow abilities. They were still there, just not nearly as strong. Meaning that the odds were less in his favour, making him more of a target than a protector.

Which was why Jack probably had been staying with North, in the Arctic, or in the eternal spring of the Warren, where snow was still a part of the season.

“Would they have moved, or will they still be where you saw them last?” North asked, trying not to rub his hands together.

Jack, Jinny, and Pietro exchanged a look. “Xie doesn’t move around much.” Jinny supplied. “They’re usually asleep.”

“From what I understand, xie tends to cause a bit of a panic when xie goes wandering.” Jack supplemented with a shrug. “Kinda like Wolfie here.” He added with a teasing grin.

Pietro growled in annoyance, but didn’t show his teeth, making Jack’s grin grow.

Bunny cleared his throat, a pensive look on his face. “Gotta question that’s been buggin’ me for a bit.” He said, as hesitant as he got. Jack tilted his head in Bunny’s direction, clearly welcoming it.

“Why didn’t ya come ta us for help?” Bunny asked, his voice aching. He waved a hand in Jack’s direction. “After talkin’ ta Frostbite, I get why ya wouldn’t come to me, things that look like they shouldn’t have teeth often doin’ so, but at least North or Tooth shoulda been safe-?”

Jack ducked his head, shifting nervously. “I guess…. For me at least, I got used to being alone.” He said quietly. “Every time any of the three of us would try to meet, something would attack, so it was safer not to hang out. It was just the way things were.” He added with a shrug.

Bunny nodded, shifting closer to Jack so that the two of their arms were brushing against each other. Jack nudged Bunny with his elbow, then leaned against him. Bunny leaned back, losing some of the tension in his body, Jack’s action was more to comfort Bunny than Jack himself.

“We knew there was something wrong.” Jinny said, leaning back towards Pietro. “But we couldn’t…” She gave the large wolf a pointed look and a shrug.

Pietro sighed as he sat up, his large grey mass shifting to the scarred teenager. “Ever hear of the story of ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’?” Pietro asked, stretching his front arms in front of him, his claws extending to show off their shiny tips.

Tooth and Sandy shook their heads, while North and Bunny nodded.

“I have.” Bunny said, raising a paw. “But it’s been a while. Why dontcha tell it?”

Pietro nodded, licking his lips before starting. “A wolf stumbled upon a scrumptious little lamb drinking water from a creek. To justify eating it, the wolf accused the lamb of various crimes, all of which the lamb was able to refute, being innocent. Finally the wolf lost patience and ate the lamb up.”

“-The moral of the story.” Pietro grinned, a lupine smirk. “Is that a Tyrant will always find an excuse. And the words of the innocent will be left unheard.”

Silence followed the story.

"That's..." Tooth awkwardly cleared her throat, a horrified expression on her face. "Rather depressing, actually."

"Really-?" Pietro drawled, to all appearances indifferent. "I hadn't fucking noticed."

“The Man in the Moon has been known as a watcher of children for longer than we have been alive.” Jinny said, leaning forward so her long green hair covered her face. “Who would believe us? That we hadn’t done anything wrong to make him cast us out?”

North wanted to refute it, but remembered his first reactions to Jinny, with her sharp teeth so close to Jack’s throat, and realised with some shame that she was most likely correct. If Jack had not been there to smooth the way, he probably would not have reacted as kindly.

Bunny had his head down, arms crossed over his chest, and Tooth was biting her lip, the same disappointment he felt on their faces. Sandy had a thoughtful look on his face, then waggled a hand back and forth. Maybe.

Sharp teeth could not hurt the Sandman the same way it could the rest of them.

Pietro snorted. “What’s done is fucking done.” He said, shaking his head. “I’ll talk to hir and let you know about meeting them.”

He turned back into a large grey wolf, and that put an end to the discussion.

It took North another month to work out the magic and finish building everything for the Naughty and Nice lists.

And then he slept for three days.

Once he woke up, he tested the magic, discovering rather than a list that he got at the end of the year for toys, it was like another sense. Like a cross between sight and hearing as to how far the person swung on being Nice or Naughty.

Unsurprisingly, most of the Yeti were on the Nice list. Most of the Elves were not. Cookie theft, most often.

The Guardians, Jack, and Jack’s siblings were all firmly on the ‘Nice’ list.

All of the comments and hesitation the Children had about introducing the Guardians to their other sibling became immediately clear upon entering the deep warm caves under Delphi, illuminated by a multitude of Will O'Wisps, and seeing ‘hir’.

The fourth child abandoned by the Moon was large, their shoulder blades about the height of North’s waist, even while laying down. They had the body of a golden lion, the wings of an eagle, and the face of a human, although impossible to tell what their gender was.

A Sphinx.

North had heard legends of such creatures, they were known as being highly intelligent, fierce protectors, and man-eaters when riled.

And was quite firmly on the ‘Nice’ list, which did much to soothe his nerves. Some of the glowing Will O’Wisps, he wasn’t quite so sure of.

“Oh, my.” Tooth whispered next to him, her wings fluttering nervously. North was aware of Bunny shifting to a defensive stance, ready to grab the kids and run, but he didn’t reach for any weapons, willing to wait to see how it would play out.

Pietro and Jinny had no such reservations, the two darting forward to press themselves against the Sphinx, Jinny wrapping her arms around the large neck. Pietro made happy rumbling sounds as he rubbed the side of his wolfy face on the underside of the large chin. Giant golden paws curled in, carefully hugging the children back.

From Bunny’s other side, Jack let out a laugh, then launched himself forward, landing in front of the other trio and waited until the Sphinx acknowledged him before joining in on the hugging with a gleeful shout.

The Children abandoned by the Moon, all together.

“It is good to see you alive and well.” The Sphinx whispered, tilting their head to see the smaller spirits better. Their voice was accented with a strange accent that North could not quite pinpoint, high for a man, but low for a woman. “And you bring guests-?”

“The Guardians.” Jack said, releasing the Sphinx and stepping back to be able to look them in the face. “The Big Four chosen by the Man in the Moon. Five now, with me. This is Nicholas St. North, Bunnymund, Toothiana, and Sandy.”

The Sphinx turned to stare at them with eyes that were as dark as Pitch’s shadows.

“We have questions.” Tooth said, her wings fluttering.

“We seek understanding.” Bunny added, inclining his head in greeting. “As to why ta why Manny did what he did. And what we can do ta help ya.”

“You did not talk to Man in Moon?” The Sphinx asked.

“I did.” North said, stepping forward. “When we realised implications of Jack’s history. The answer I got back was…. worrisome.”

Sandy flashed several symbols over his head, attempting to explain, but North wasn’t sure how well the Sphinx would understand it. “Manny did not understand how being alone might be bad thing.” North extrapolated.

“And I don’t have any answers to give them.” Jack added as the Sphinx nudged Jinny away, and towards Jack. Jack took Jinny’s hand, the two curling around each other. Jack’s frost froze Jinny’s water, forming a cold pool below them. Given the warmth of the underground chamber, it would keep both the ice and the water elementals comfortable. “Or any answers for me.”

The Sphinx sighed, breathing a small fireball that dissipated before it hit the ground. “Four riddles, one for each of the Guardians.” They said. “Answer true, and I will tell what I can. Answer false and I will allow you to leave unharmed.”

North stroked a hand down his beard, mulling over the Sphinx’s words.

“May we leave unharmed after we have our answers?” Bunny asked suspiciously.

“My oath on it.” The Sphinx nodded.

North exchanged a look between the other Guardians. It cost them nothing to venture. The other three nodded. “Agreed.”

The Sphinx looked pleased. “As beautiful as the setting sun, as delicate as the morning dew, an angel's dusting from the stars, that can turn the Earth into a frosted Moon?”

North stroked his beard, trying to think. Tooth and Bunny also looked puzzled. After a moment, Sandy started jumping up and down, a broad grin on his face.

The Sphinx turned their dark gaze on their smallest member. “Your answer?”

Sandy pointed towards Jack. Then he formed a snowflake above his head, his grin getting larger.

“Snow, yes.” The Sphinx looked pleased. Jack grinned and waved at them. “Next riddle. I can be smooth as silk when you touch me, yet hard as rock when you hit me. I can be crystal clear, or dark as pitch. I can be still and silent or I can rumble and roar. What am I?”

“I got this one.” Bunny stepped forward with just a touch of swagger. “Water.”

One of the Sphinx’s eyebrows rose. “Are you certain?”

“Yeah.” Bunny nodded with a smirk. “The answer is Water. It can turn into ice and be hard, it picks up the colours around it, and it can be silent when motionless, or roar like an ocean.”

“Correct.” The Sphinx inclined their head. “Next one. I can be found on a mountain, yet you can hold me in your hand or walk over me. I will outlive you. What is my name?”

Tooth put a hand on North’s arm, giving him a reassuring look. “My turn.” She said quietly. North nodded, giving her an encouraging look. Tooth squared her jaw and floated forward. “A rock.”

“I see my riddles are too easy.” The Sphinx drawled, amused. They turned their dark eyes towards North. “Final riddle.”

“I am ready.” North stepped forward, squaring his shoulders. He needed to get this riddle correct to get their answers.

“You got it, North!” Jack cheered. From his lap, the green girl waved in silent encouragement. North smiled and nodded back.

The first riddle corresponded with Jack’s abilities, the second with Jinny. Pietro meant ‘rock’, which meant that this riddle most likely had something to do with the Sphinx.

“If you have it, you want to share it.” The Sphinx tilted their head to the side, smug like a cat. “If you share it, you don’t have it. What is it?”

North thought it over, stroking his beard. It wasn’t fire, or the Sphinx itself. It didn’t sound like something physical, which meant something non-physical… It wasn’t a riddle…. It was something…

“Secret.” He blurted in a flash of inspiration. “The answer is a Secret.”

He got a small smile in return. “Yes.”

North let out a large breath, the feeling of relief nearly making him dizzy. “Thank you.” He said quietly.

The Sphinx twisted, scratching the back of their head with a hindleg, Pietro ducking out of the way. “I will need to come up with harder riddles.” They grumbled.

“No, no.” Tooth assured the Sphinx. “They were plenty hard. Really tricky. Honest.”

The Sphinx hummed, shifting slightly and getting comfortable. Pietro snuggled against the Sphinx’s side, one of the golden wings curving over his dark grey body.

“Once upon a time-” The Sphinx began and North found his shoulders relaxing. Most good tales started with such a phrase. He sat down on the ground, crossing his legs in front of him. Tooth sat next to him, leaning against him, which made North smile. Bunny huffed and remained standing, Sandy forming an oversized couch out of his sand.

The Sphinx smiled, lips curving like the Mona Lisa’s.

“Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived on a Moon. He was raised by Moon Mice, Lunar Moths, and a legion of Robots that kept him clean and educated, and kept the nightmares from his dreams.

But the little Boy grew up lonely, and would watch the planet below with his great big telescope. He watched the children like him, the ones who laughed and fought and played, and felt a kinship with them, for all that they were separated. The children buoyed his spirits, and so he wished to do something to protect the children, to protect them from the darkness and the fear that stalked their dreams.

And so the Boy came upon an idea. A Guardian for the children, one that would watch over them when the Moon hid its face, to bring them light and scare away the shadows, like his robots and Lunar Moths did for him.

The Boy created the first Protector, a giant fiery wyrm. With eyes that shone like lanterns, and scales like polished stone, and teeth to tear nightmares to shreds. He looked upon it and was satisfied, at least for a while. There was only so many places the wyrm could be at once, and the planet below always had half her face in shadow.

So he created others. The bright Phoenix, the Golden Bull, the ferocious Dragon, the fearsome Tiger, and other Sacred Animals. And still, he was not happy. The creatures could not understand his words, his wishes, and did what they wanted, sometimes protecting, sometimes terrorising.

And so the Boy began to create creatures with human features. Human bodies with animal heads, animal bodies with human faces, human bodies with scary features to chase away the evil spirits.”

The Sphinx paused, tilting their head to the side thoughtfully. “I miss Bes.” They commented as an aside. “But he faded away thousands of years ago.”

“These Protectors were better, they were intelligent, they could speak and think, but they were also sometimes scary to children. How could they relate when they had never been children themselves?

The Boy watched a child sacrifice himself for his siblings and hatched upon an idea. He sent his moonbeams down to infuse the dying child with light, changing them to have the power of a Sacred Animal, and the intellect of a human.

It worked, for a little while. Then the child was devoured by the darkness. And so the Boy tried again. Every few hundred years, he would bring one child back, trying to find the perfect balance between a Sacred Animal and a human.

Different combinations were tried. Too old or too much light, and the child would warp, altering their bodies and minds. Too young or not enough light, and they were too weak to do much more than survive.

Many children were brought back to fight the darkness, each appearing more and more human. Eventually he began to give them names, which gave them power, but erased their mortal life from their memories. But still, most did not survive against the darkness and some lost themselves to anger and rage, turning into monsters that preyed on their Moon-brought brethren. All shared the same fate, unable to move from this world, cursed to watch over the children.”

The Sphinx motioned up towards the multitude of Will O’Wisps that illuminated the caverns. Hundreds of tiny flickering lights. Hundreds of children that Manny had changed, created, and abandoned.

Trapped for all eternity as a glowing orb, with no way to interact with the world, and no end in sight. Hell on earth.

North squinted, peering at the flames closest to him. It was almost as if he could see faint faces in them. One of them had the twisted face of a Redcap, and with a sinking feeling he realised that one of the Redcaps he had slaughtered had been one of the Children, who was now stuck as nothing more than a night light.

“Four hundred years ago, the Boy, who had grown into a Man, gathered together a group of volunteers who vowed to watch over the children of the world, to guard them with their lives, their hopes, their wishes, and their dreams. Those of us who survived prayed this meant an end to those the Moon brought back and abandoned.

A hundred years later, he brought back one more child, one whose appearance was the most human yet. Who was not quite a child, but barely a teenager. One who did not succum to the darkness and loneliness for three centuries, and was given to these Guardians as a gift.

One, that we hope, will be the last one to be resurrected and abandoned by the Moon.”

All eyes were on Jack, who was staring up at the Sphinx with his mouth open. “A gift?” Jack asked softly.

The Sphinx blinked their giant dark eyes. “A weapon, for when the Guardians needed assistance fighting against the darkness, yes? Would that not be a gift?”

North’s breath stuck in his throat, a sick feeling overcoming him. The Man in the Moon had not been creating Protectors, he’d been making Child Soliders. Ones that had been drafted into a war against the Boogeyman.

The Guardians had stepped up and volunteered, they had known what they were getting into.

These children had not. They had not been given any choice, to have their lives, their deaths, their very forms taken and warped to serve Manny’s will.

“Jack.” Bunny whispered, his tone low and sorrowful. Jack shook his head, hiding his features in Jinny’s long hair. The small girl turned to curl into him, comforting and taking comfort.

“This stops now.” North growled, his hands clenched into fists. “No more children. No more.”

The Sphinx turned her dark eyes on North, as if weighing both him and his words. “You seek to protect children? All children?”

“These children too, yes.” Tooth spoke up. Sandy nodded in agreement, seconding it.

North was not expecting the Sphinx to laugh. It wasn’t quite in their faces, closer to a muted chuckle than an outright bray, but it was still a surprise.

“The Rabbit is old, as is the Star, but you… You are what?” The Sphinx shook their head with a smile that revealed a set of teeth similar to Jinny’s. “Five centuries old? The Sister of Flight is a thousand?”

Tooth exchanged a confused look with North. “Da.”

“I am one of the first.” The Sphinx said. “Over 10,000 rotations around the sun I have seen. The one you have named Pietro was once an abandoned prince saved by a she-wolf, later killed by his twin during the founding of a city that would form one of the greatest civilisations this planet has seen.”

“Remus?” Bunny exclaimed, and North remembered that Bunny had walked the surface during the Roman Era, nearly 3,000 years ago. Romulus and Remus, the twins who had founded the city of Rome.

Pietro huffed and turned his head to tuck it between himself and the Sphinx’s body, hiding his face from them.

“And Jinny was one of the first to be named.” Sphinx motioned towards Jinny, who nodded, tucking in closer to Jack. “Offered by her family as a sacrifice to end the drought killing her land, the year the missionary Patrick arrived on her emerald isle, nearly 1,500 years ago.”

North stared in shock. The children… were much older than he was.

To them, he was probably the child. A child who was insisting on protecting them, when they had survived for millennia with out his aid. Their aid.

… That did nothing to change the fact that they were still children. Children who had been abandoned, and left alone for far too long. Children who wanted, and needed, their family. Each other.

And maybe somebody who could help make that happen on a regular basis.

“That changes nothing.” North decided firmly. “The Guardians are here to protect and watch over children, all children. You may not need or want our assistance, but it is still freely given.”

“At the very least.” Bunny said, crossing his arms, a cocky swagger to his posture. “We offer a chance not ta be alone.”

Four pairs of eyes, the Sphinx, Pietro, Jinny, and Jack, all turned and looked at the Guardians, with something akin to hope.

“Manny.” North said heavily as he stared up at the silver glow of the moon. “We need to talk.”

Silver light touched him, friendlily inquiring how he was doing, it was not like North to contact him so often, or to be so subdued.

“Manny.” North sighed. “You need to stop.”

The moonlight flickered, confused.

“The Children. Your bring them back to life, you give them these abilities, and then you abandon them without any protection. No stories, no guidance, no safe place for them to be.” North shook his head. “It is not kind Manny.”

Manny didn’t understand. He was being kind, saving them from death. Giving them a chance to protect their families.

“They do not remember their families!” North wailed. “They do not remember anything of their life, save that they are alone, and there are things that are trying to kill them. You bring them back and they have NOTHING. No love, no friendship, no memories, no dreams, no hopes. It is not Good, Manny!”

Manny’s light flickered uncertainly. He did not-

“No. More.” North growled. “You are hurting them. You are giving them a fate worse than death. Even Pitch Black granted the victims he transformed the mercy of death when he was defeated!”

The Moon was silent.

“Our oath is to watch over and guard children, Manny.” North said, his voice a low hiss. “And you have broken that oath with your actions. The Guardians will take orders from you no more.”

The glow from the moon flickered frantically, Manny trying to convince him otherwise, and North realised that it was much like listening to a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar trying to talk their way out of it.

… The Man in the Moon was little more than a child himself.

If Manny was a child, he needed to be watched over and guarded as well. But they were adults. Or at least the Big Four were.

And adults didn’t take orders from little children.

“We are not cutting off communication.” North sighed, shaking his head. “Should Pitch show his face, we will rise to defeat him. But we are done.”

The light flared, and North stepped away.

He wondered if to Manny, the Guardians and the Children they watched over were little more than dolls to play with.

“Santa Baby~" Jack crooned quietly in the background. He’d been following North around the Workshop, sometimes helping, sometimes just watching, but singing that same blasted song all day.

Bunny had sent a message that Jinny and Pietro were hanging out in the Warren, as they often did now, revelling in a chance to spend time with each other without the risk of something eating them.

“Think of all the fun I’ve missed~”

According to Pietro, the Sphinx was thinking of stopping by the Warren for a visit, to see for themselves that their younger siblings were well minded. Bunny was looking forward to it, there weren’t many out there as old as him that the Pooka could talk to, much less may have known some of the same humans.

They had not heard anything from Manny. They were all keeping as close of an eye on him as possible.

Next year I could be just as good-”

Jack!" North finally bit out in a tone that would normally send the Yeti and Elves running for the other rooms. He liked songs, especially christmas carols, but this was getting to be a bit nuts.

A glance out of the corner of his eye revealed Jack to be grinning like a cat from Cheshire. North softened his tone slightly. “Is there something I may assist you with?”

Jack smirked at him, as if he knew just how much he’d been annoying North. Which had probably been half the plan. “Am I still on the ‘Naughty List’?” He asked, body language loose and casual.

The question was anything but.

The Naughty or Nice magic flared, Jack still firmly on the good list. Fun was his nature, his centre, and that often lead to some unexpected naughty mishaps, but overall, Jack was a good kid.

The reason for North’s hesitation was the fact that Jack had turned holding the record on the Naughty list into a source of pride, when Jack hadn’t had much at all. North understood having pride in misdeeds, with his own checkered past as a Bandit King, but at the same time, it bothered North to tar Jack with such a brush.

And as he had said when they had brought him to the Pole to make Jack a Guardian, they had wiped the slate clean.

“Do you wish to be?” North asked quietly, curious as to Jack’s answer.

The youngest Guardian took a moment to consider it. “Not really.” He confessed. Jack probably intended to be casual and nonchalant about it, but he seemed very young and vulnerable to North.

"You are not." North said fondly, reaching out and ruffling Jack’s hair, making him duck and laugh. "But even if you were, you still get present from me." As North, Jack’s friend and the Guardian of Wonder, not as Santa Claus.

If North had his way, all of the Children the Guardians had taken in, even the Sphinx, would get lots of presents. It wouldn’t make up for the past, but North liked giving presents.

"Cool!" Jack said, his tone bright. He stepped forward, wrapping his thin arms around North’s chest, giving him a hug, cool even through the layers of cloth he wore. North laughed, wrapping Jack up in a bear hug, sweeping the tinier Guardian off his feet and making Jack giggle in delight.

North waited until Jack pulled away before releasing him. It took a while, and that was alright. When Jack needed a hug, he knew where to get them. He’d noticed that all the Guardians were being more touchy-feely lately, and the kids seemed to be thriving under the contact.

“Thanks, North.” Jack smiled at North, patting him on the arm. North nodded and smiled back, watching Jack wander off, as he if he hadn’t been stalking North for hours.

North was still grinning as he turned back to his work, going over the Naughty and Nice list, making sure that names and actions were correct.

He found himself humming the song Jack had been singing as he did so. He paused, momentarily annoyed, before continuing to sing it.

So hurry down the chimney tonight-