Jack would always call it his "tickle" urge, because that's what it felt like: a tickle that would start out ignorable then slowly press on his mind until it began to hurt, and eventually there was no other thought except to get it to stop. It had actually started as a desperate attempt to get everything to just stop. Now... he wasn't sure what it was.
After being made a Guardian, things changed. Kids saw him now – actually saw him! They could see him and talk to him, and it was so glorious after centuries of loneliness that Jack never tired of their company. The other Guardians warned him that he wasn’t supposed to actually be seen, but North had a twinkle in his eye and waved it away claiming it as no matter. Taking it as silent permission, Jack carried on with snowball fights and sled roller coasters. So he didn’t understand why he still had his urge, constantly tickling at the back of his mind.
He was a Guardian now. He had to set an example for the kids – if they saw the scars running up and down his arms, they’d be disappointed. Jack feared they may even stop thinking he was a good Guardian… or stop believing altogether. He couldn’t go back to that. But the tickling at the back of his mind kept at it. He never rolled up his sleeves, he never mentioned it, and tried to bury the urges underneath interactions with the kids and his fellow Guardians.
North had been the best about welcoming Jack into their daily routines. Tooth was always, constantly busy, and while she always took the time to say hello and ask Jack how he was doing (and if he was brushing), she never really stopped working. Sandy was his usual smiling, silent self and always good for races through the air via a dreamsand plane. Jack and Cottontail had reached some kind of truce that still involved half-veiled threats and sarcastic comebacks. It was a weird, but welcome change. But North always seemed genuinely pleased to have Jack around. Jack had free run of the workshop now, and even his own room kept cold just for him.
North loved his ice sculptures and toys, and lots of them found their way into Jack's room. Jack didn't mind one bit.
So when the urge crept up on him while visiting North, he did his best to ignore it. He stayed crouched on North’s desk, icing over a new run-way that would defy the laws of physics if he wasn’t there to tend to the impossible loops. North was hunched over, chipping away at a delicate racecar, humming around cookies in his mouth.
Jack kept checking and rechecking with North that it was okay he was there, he was helping, that North was sure he didn’t want to do this on his own… then checking to make sure his questions weren’t a bother on their own. North just laughed and replied, “Wanted to try new run-way, but ice wouldn’t hold. Broke every time, no matter how much support! You are perfect ice run-way architect.”
Jack smiled, but his tickle urge complained that he was being annoying. The pressure built and built, making him rock back on his heels and rub at his arms. When he reached for a new cookie and found the empty plate, his mind seized upon the chance.
“Hey, we’re out of cookies,” Jack realized, giving North a sideways glance. “I thought there was a whole pile here!”
“Wasn’t me,” North said with an utter lack of conviction, and cookie crumbs in his beard.
Jack snorted and picked up the plate. “I’m going to go get some more.”
“More milk. In favorite mug!”
Jack nodded, skipping around the track towards the door. The run-way would hold until he got back in a minute. North kept his office near enough for cookie runs.
Jack glanced around the kitchen, noting the yeti in the chef hats were busy. He pretended to be preoccupied with studying the fresh batch of cookies as he tugged up his sleeve. Just a really quick fix, that’s all he needed. A little burn he could blame on the hot stove and he’d be good as new and no one would know –
His elbow went into the flames, the resulting fizzle and pain releasing the tightness in his chest and quieting the tickling. A loud yell and a crash made him jump.
Suddenly he was snatched back from the fireplace, North’s massive hand firmly clenched in his hoodie. Jack barely acknowledges that it’s North’s mug smashed on the ground before he’s being scolded. “Jack, not supposed to play in fire! Too much like children, sometimes!”
North snatched up Jack’s arm by the wrist, shouting at a yeti to bring burn medicine while Jack struggled to get his arm away. He clawed at North’s grip, tugging frantically. “I’m fine! I’m fine! Really, I’m fine!”
Jack saw North’s eyes widen. Shame and terror flooded him as North started, “What is this…”
Jack’s throat tightened as he looked away, turning his face into his shoulder. He pressed his lips together tightly to keep the sob that rose in his chest from escaping. North was pushing his sleeve up further, revealing more of Jack’s scars. He heard North’s breathy exclamation, and screwed his eyes shut to keep the humiliation at bay.
The kitchen was left behind in a blur as North pulled Jack through the workshop behind him at a speed that scared the boy. Jack realized North was going to throw him out, lock him out of the workshop and the first place that he had felt accepted, all because of his stupid, horrible secret.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Jack forced out, trying and failing to sounds casual, “I’m sorry, okay? I won’t – I won’t –“
North’s grip only tightened on his arm. The tears leaked through, hot in Jack’s eyes and freezing on his cheeks. He had messed everything up. Again.
North pushed him through a door, Jack unresisting now. Jack blinked to see that they weren’t outside as the door shut behind them. North was going to yell at him first, which was even worse than just being thrown out. Jack grabbed his hood and pulled it up, biting his lip and trying to get himself to stop crying – just stop crying for one minute, get through this with some poise and then he’d, he’d –
“Jack.” North’s voice was soft, and unexpected.
Jack choked on the tightness in his throat, his whole face tense from trying to stop crying, trying to not beg North to still like him. He had some dignity left, and he wasn’t going to let his pride die over his stupid urge.
“Jack.” There was more insistence in North’s voice as a hand slowly turned Jack around to face him. His resolve failed.
“I’m sorry,” Jack’s voice cracked. “I’m sorry, please, please don’t-“
“Don’t what? I’m not going to do anything, Jack. Except ask you to talk. To me.”
Jack dared to open his eyes, looking up at North from under his hood, willing his tears to keep at bay. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, not sure of what else to say.
“Jack,” North started slowly. He fetched a chair and sat down in it, so he was lower than the shaking boy. “This… is what I think?” North carefully, gently, took Jack’s still-exposed arm and pushed the sleeve up to Jack’s shoulder. Jack flinched, but didn’t fight as North inspected the scars. His long lifetime ensured that all the scars did eventually fade – some they were formed in layers of various shades and sizes all down his arm.
Jack didn’t reply, just swallowed hard. “Please don’t hate me,” Jack whispered before he can think it. He suddenly realized that was his fear – that North would hate him for this weakness. He couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing the man who had filled the void of being wanted.
Then he was being crushed against North’s chest, held tightly with his head cradled. “Oh, dorogoy malʹchik, I do not hate you. Scared for you. Sad for you. Worried. But not hate.”
Jack blinked through the tears, but didn’t say anything as North continued to hold him. It hit Jack all at once, and suddenly the tears were a lot less quiet, sobs and pained keening rising as he buried his face into North’s shirt. The release of tension was as good as burning himself, better even.
North just let him cry it out, and when the sobbing gave way to messy hiccups and sniffling of a runny nose, Jack stepped back. North produced a massive monogrammed handkerchief from one of his pockets and gave it to Jack to clean himself up.
“When this start?” North asked, his usually gruff voice still low.
Jack gave a one shouldered shrug before blowing his nose. “A – a few years after I died, I think.” Jack remembered it so well. He had been all alone, unseen, untouched, and still so confused. He shied away from the memory of discovering the Guardians – people who could see him and touch him and talk to him – who completely ignored him.
It was worse than being unseen.
He tried to skim over that, but North was never a fool. He can see it in the bitter gleam of North’s gaze, but if Jack tries to stop and explain more, he’s afraid of breaking down again. He doesn’t want to linger any more on the dark moment than he had to.
“One night I was in a village and they were having some kind of celebration and people were falling asleep around the bonfire and I saw Sandy’s dreamsand and and – “ He felt utterly, horribly, alone and rejected. “The fire was there and I was there and I was just looking at it and wondering and I thought – I thought – “ He choked on the words.
“Jack?” North prompted cautiously. Jack gave a laugh that bordered on the semi-hysterical.
“I thought, would I melt or would I burn?”
Silence. Jack’s heaving breaths slowly came under control. North attempted to reign in his reaction and failed. “Jack, you tried – “
“I tried,” Jack interrupted him quickly. “I tried, and it hurt too much, but - but my feet were burned and it felt good, like I deserved it.”
The release in his chest felt even better than burning himself. “I lost my cape,” he said, with a hint of humor back in his voice. “Stupid thing to get upset over, huh?”
North didn’t rise to the bait.
Jack’s eyes wavered a moment before rising to meet North’s.
“Do you still… try?”
Jack promptly shook his head. “No. I don’t… I mean, I don’t want to die,” he clarified. “But sometimes, sometimes the pain… feels good.” Jack thought that sounded stupid, and waved vaguely at the air. “It helps me, I dunno, think better.”
He expected North to be upset or confused. But the large man only nodded, and eased back into his chair. “I understand.” He folded his hands thoughtfully across his portly stomach. “Before I was Santa, I was young…well let us say adventurer.”
Jack snorted. That wasn’t exactly how Tooth described him.
“And old, wise friend told me once… most people in pain, get lost in it. Get distracted. Can’t think.” North motioned to his head and rolled his eyes, causing a quick laugh to erupt from Jack, surprising the boy.
“But for some… pain helps concentrate. Helps focus. It clears the mind, empties all the senses. They think better.” North nodded. “Now, not saying pain is good thing! Physical pain and emotional pain, both very strong. Both very powerful. But, it helps some. Because a person who handles pain, can keep head while in pain, whether from his body or his mind… is a very, very strong person.”
“Pain is body keeping you alive, Jack. Pain is mind telling you when to rest.” North leaned forward, and placed his hands on Jack’s shoulders. “Jack, you are very strong. Strong to shoulder so much alone. But you are not alone anymore.”
Jack couldn’t look away if he wanted to. “…yeah.”
“You do not have to believe me now. I did not when I was told.” North shrugged. “But help is here. No need to be in pain any longer.”
Jack took a moment to process it, rolling North’s words over in his mind. “So… just to clarify. You’re not mad at me.” North shook his head. “And you’re not telling me to… stop?”
“I am telling that you have other options. Friends. Who would like to help… if you want them to.” North patted Jack’s shoulder before removing his hands. “But is your choice. Always your choice.”
Jack felt the new burn stinging, the pain causing a pleasant buzz in his mind. Focus. Strength. He liked thinking of it like that.
North clapped his hands together, startling Jack out of the moment before he could linger too long on it. “So, run-way broke while we were gone. Think we can remake?”
Jack nodded, eager to let the matter slip awkwardly away. North steered him back towards their work, but gave a quick squeeze to his shoulder first.
And if it took a while longer before his tickle urge rose again, well, Jack would count that as getting just a bit stronger.