The sleigh skids to a stop on the lake’s surface, the skis leaving long white marks on the ice.
Above you, the tired stars begin to fade as the first light of day breaks over the horizon, giving themselves over to sleep until the night returns to reign once again.
North scoops the limp Jack back up into his arms, and the three of you wordlessly disembark from the sleigh.
You follow North off the lake, trying hard not to fall on the slippery surface. You breathe a small sigh of relief as you step onto the snowy bank, then continue after North, forced to jog a little to keep up with his long strides.
He stops in front of a tall tree with a thick, sturdy trunk, its leaves and branches dusted with white snow. It’s quite a few yards from the lake’s edge, but its view goes uninterrupted by other foliage. He crouches down and sets Jack in front of it, sitting him down so his back is propped up against the trunk.
He really does look like he just nodded off, his head bowed, arms crossed over his stomach, his staff hanging loosely in his hand and lying across his body, resting along with its owner.
North straightens up and nods in approval at his work.
“I had best be off, then,” he says as he turns to you. He smiles wide. “Just came up with new idea for toy. A train…thzat flies!”
You break your gaze from Jack and return the Guardian’s smile. “I’m not on the Naughty list, am I?”
He laughs heartily, his voice echoing throughout the clearing. He claps his left hand on your shoulder, the one attached to the arm with the “Nice” design tattooed across its front. “Would you like me to drop off at your house?”
You shake your head. “I’d like to walk, if that’s all right. Don’t worry,” you add, responding to his now-raised eyebrow and quick glance over at Jack, “I won’t do anything.”
As much as it hurts, I won’t risk reversing everything that just happened, you think as you look over at Jack’s sleeping form. I won’t put him into that kind of jeopardy again.
North lifts his hand from your shoulder, his face expressing his confidence in you. You follow him back to the edge of the lake, at which he lifts you up and off of the ground into a hug so tight that you are struggling for air.
With a final jovial laugh as he sets you down, he hops back into the sleigh and waves goodbye, a gesture that you return.
A whip of the reigns later, he and the sleigh are flying high in the sky. A portal opens up before the reindeer, elongating into a funnel-like form as the first one enters it. A flash of stunning light later, he’s gone.
You slowly lower your hand, still looking up at the spot where North vanished.
You then turn around and face Jack.
A small smile makes its way onto your face.
You run into the woods, in the direction of your house. But you aren’t leaving just yet.
You stand behind a tree, its thick trunk hiding you from sight, the low branches of others further camouflaging you. You have a clear view of Jack, but he won’t be able to see you where you’re at.
This is the real reason why you turned down North’s offer. Sure, you still want to walk, so you can enjoy the scenery and have time to yourself, to let things sink in and such. The truth be told, though, you just want to make sure he’s okay. Then you’ll leave.
Just as your legs begin to grow tired, you see Jack start to stir.
He slowly lifts his eyelids, blinking away the sleepiness. After a big yawn and a stretch, he stands up. He puts his free left hand on the small of his back and bends over backwards a little, cracking his backbone to rid his body of slumber. He rolls his head around a bit, then sighs, satisfied as he looks around at his surroundings.
As far as you can see, he finds absolutely nothing wrong with where he’s woken up. It fits right into his tampered-with memories.
But wait…he’s holding his arms out in front of him, looking at them curiously.
You squint a little in hopes of getting a clearer view of his expressions.
What is he doing…?
He appears to be utterly confused. He rubs the right cuff of his hoodie between two fingers of his left hand, brow furrowed.
You begin to understand what’s going on.
He doesn’t remember how he got the hoodie.
You begin to panic. This could put everything—put him—in danger if he somehow manages to trigger a lost memory of you. You’re pretty confident in Tooth’s abilities and that this isn’t possible, that he just has a hole in his memory that will now forever bother him, but it makes your heart race nevertheless.
As much as you want him to, he just can’t remember you. He can’t turn into that awful kind of entity…
You see him let go of the cuff, his fingers now lightly touching his cheek. It’s red.
His fingers then trail down to his lips, which are curled into a soft smile.
“What…?” you just barely see him mouth.
He doesn’t understand why he’s smiling or blushing.
His hand drops back down to his side as he shakes his head vigorously, symbolically shaking off the out-of-nowhere feelings. The blush gone, he shrugs and looks up into the morning sky, smiling wide at the world of opportunities.
You relax. He’s doing great, full of life and that customary mischievousness. He won’t remember you. Tooth did a great job with his memory.
You see him bend his knees a little. Then, with a gust of wind and flurry of snow, he leaps into the air, flying off at an incredible speed, leaving behind nothing but a few disturbed snowflakes that are now drifting back down to the earth.
Goodbye, Jack, you call out to him in your mind as he leaves your field of vision, smiling slightly as tears begin to roll down your cheeks.
You’re going to make a great Guardian.
You turn your back to the lake.
And start the long, lonely walk home.