Chapter 1: Sometimes, Slowly, Time Brings Revelation
Time brings revelation
For someone to believe
That the ghosts we've hidden or left to die
Have now arisen and will arrive to say what has happened
Say what has happened
Say what has happened to me
~ Trans-Siberian Orchestra - This Is Who You Are
In hindsight, Jack really would have been the odd one out among the Guardians if he’d truly been a drowned little boy. Because, comparatively speaking? A bandit king who made himself a legend before he was anything more than a mortal man, the last of the Sisters of Flight (although no one had ever explained to Jack who the Sisters were, exactly) who was practically a queen, a fallen shooting star made of the stuff that dreams were made of, and an ancient warrior rabbit who was literally old as dirt. Being a reanimated corpse wasn’t quite in the same league when it came to back stories.
Sure, Jack sacrificing his life for his sister had been noble and a sign of a pure and courageous heart, but there was nothing there to signal: “Pick this guy to protect the world’s children from darkness! Tough spirit-in-the-making right here!” Of all the people to ever give their lives for a loved one, why had the Man in the Moon chosen Jack? But if the life Jack had seen in the tooth box wasn’t his own, then that gave things a whole new spin.
In the end, what gave it away was muscle memory. Even upon awakening, Jack had been able to defend himself with the staff he had claimed for his own. His body knew how to perform different moves that Jack could not remember learning. It was only decades later, after he had discovered the joys of travelling the world and studying humans, that Jack discovered that he was using an actual combat style with his staff, one that was very similar to Japanese kenjutsu.
At the time, Jack had thought it was cool, had thought if perhaps he had been some sort of warrior before he’d lost his memories. But he hadn’t dwelled on it much, because, as far as clues went, it wasn’t much of a one. Never mind how, no matter how he might fight like one of their own, Japan had never felt quite right, the way his little lake at Burgess did.
But now it was ringing some bells. Why the heck would a regular kid from 1700s America know a Japanese martial art?
It was natural for Jack to turn to Tooth with his memory-related questions. He had to know if it was possible, if the memories he had seen could truly belong to someone else. If the images Jack had seen through the tooth box belonged to some other Jack, then why could Pitch use it to lure Jack to him? Did the Nightmare King have the power to do something like that?
These were the questions he asked Tooth, several months after officially becoming a Guardian.
Tooth pursed her lips together in deep, serious thought, before she spoke: “It couldn’t be Pitch’s doing. His magic doesn’t work like that.” The fairy pressed her palms together, like she was trying to keep them still. “He can’t make things up; people need to do it for him.”
“So he couldn’t just take a random tooth box and try to pass it off as mine?” Jack asked, wanting to be absolutely certain. “The box is mine?”
“Not necessarily.” Tooth’s face had a peculiar expression. Jack usually saw it a bit before one of the Guardians told him that, actually, their job was about more than just the material things. “I safeguard the memories of all children who’ve been, who are now, and I will continue to do it for those who will come later.” Tooth threw her hand out, gesturing to the rows after rows of teeth that had been preserved with care and reverence. “I don’t do it for the sake of those who the memories belong to alone, because who can judge what memories belong to whom?”
Jack was taking the moment to truly appreciate Tooth’s palace. It really was a grand monument to memories, with both the spiralling upside-down towers and the quickly speeding fairies sparkling in all the colors of the rainbow, all the colors of the brightest of memories.
“So, you can show someone a memory that came from someone else?” Jack asked curiously. “Why would you need to do that?”
“Sometimes, in the darkest of times, we need reminder of the important things.” Tooth’s voice lowered into a solemn tone. “But what to do about someone who doesn’t have a powerful enough memory of the important things? You have to make them able to imagine them strongly enough to begin to want them.” The severity drained away from Tooth’s face and voice and the fairy turned sorrowful. “I just can’t always tell when that’s the right choice to make.”
“So,” Jack drawled, licking his dry lips and clenching his shaking hands. “You’re saying that the memory I saw was meant to remind me of something that never was? To what end? To make me fight?” Jack felt a bit sick; the effect of the memory had been so strong. To think it was all fake…
“Something about those memories resonated within you,” Tooth replied. “Most likely you were once very similar to the Jack in the memories, but perhaps that Jack drowned in a different lake. Or perhaps he only fell in but was rescued. You simply covered up the missing links with what you assumed must have happened.”
“But what about the voice?” Jack whispered hoarsely, his emotions choking him. “I heard a voice calling my name. It came from the tooth box and I couldn’t resist it. Was she for someone else too?”
Tooth laid a hand on Jack’s shoulder in a comforting gesture. It worked a bit and Jack could breathe more easily. These simple, casual touches were Jack’s favorite part of becoming a Guardian. The other Guardians were socially awkward, like Jack, so they didn’t crowd him with too affectionate touches, even when they clearly enjoyed tactile interactions as much as Jack did.
“I think,” Tooth said carefully and Jack focused on her voice instead of her warmth again. “I think you must have had someone, in your real past life, who you would have answered every single time if she called for you. That is the voice you were truly following.”
Tooth’s words stayed with Jack long after his conversation with the fairy. The voice they had spoken of was like a ghost, haunting Jack’s thoughts for days on end. That voice became Jack’s primary motivation for recovering his lost memories.
No other memory mattered as much, but Jack felt he should remember her at least. He wanted to know if the person Tooth thought might have existed for him at some point was real, if there had been someone so important to Jack that a shadow of her would affect him even without a memory.
But none of the countless tooth boxes Tooth guarded resonated with Jack, not when he didn’t have such a burning need for motivation. It was like Jack had lived before Tooth had become the Tooth Fairy, but the numbers didn’t add up. Jack hadn’t been a spirit long enough for that to be possible; the eighteenth century was when Jack’s life on Earth began.
Jack’s search eventually led him to his birthplace. More than that, it was the place where he died. If there were any teeth to be found, they would be here. So Jack brought the one person he trusted above all others to help him with the search.
“What do you think?” Jack asked Baby Tooth, keeping his emotions in check. He didn’t want to overwhelm Baby Tooth with his expectations. “Can you sense any part of me under the water or the in the ground?”
Baby Tooth’s face scrunched up from concentration, before the expression brightened as the fairy started chirping happily while darting off among the trees. Jack followed right after her, and dug where she instructed him to. He supposed the lake must have been wider several centuries ago and he was digging through what had used to be the muck at the shore.
A shore Jack might have smacked into in his previous life and, according to Baby Tooth’s teeth senses, there was a tooth somewhere there to prove it.
It took some time and quite a bit of effort but, with Baby Tooth’s fix on the tooth strengthening the nearer they got, Jack finally lifted a rather prominent molar up for Baby Tooth to see. Jack didn’t spend much time looking into mirrors, but the tooth seemed larger than the ones in his mouth. Maybe it was just his perception being wonky over how excited he was over this thing.
Jack felt a laugh bubbling out. “It’s not covered in blood and gums but dust and dirt are pretty exciting too, right?” He offered the tooth to Baby Tooth, who chattered excitedly while zipping from side to side to get a good look at the tooth. Well, Jack supposed it was rather finely proportioned.
Despite the excitement still under the surface, Jack forced himself to remain calm. “We need to check if it’s the real deal,” He told Baby Tooth seriously. “Can you do that?”
Baby Tooth nodded her head eagerly before fluttering her wings faster than ever, the tooth in Jack’s grasp beginning to glimmer.
Jack recalled his first meeting with the Guardians at North Pole, everything about the event drawn to his mind in detail. The snow spirit shook his head. “That won’t do,” he murmured. “It’s too recent, with too many witnesses, easy to fake. Look deeper, please.”
At the last word a new scene unfolded. It had mostly likely been called up by the previous image leaving Jack at least subconsciously thinking about it. The Easter Sunday of 1968 had been the last time Jack had met Bunny before being chosen a Guardian.
It had been a rough year before that spring. Everyone had been so upset, and that in turn had worsened Jack’s mood. As the Guardian of Fun, even if he hadn’t known his role at the time, he had been influenced by the lack of joy in people all around, becoming more sullen himself.
Jack had already been having a bad day, in a long line of other bad days, when he had heard the forest spirits tittering about Easter, especially its spirit. “Oh, it’s all gloom and doom now, but just wait until the Easter Bunny gets here; he’ll sort everything out. He’s hope itself, you know!”
What had followed next had been increasingly graphic descriptions of the other assets the rabbit spirit had in addition to his hope-cultivating talents. Later on Jack would admit, even if only to himself, that he might have overreacted a bit to how fixated the forest spirits were on Bunny. But Bunny himself had also overreacted to the blizzard that had ensued of Jack finally deciding to let out some steam, so to speak. Really, holding a grudge for over half a century over one flurry? For a guy who prided himself on being incredibly old and experienced, Bunny sure had a temper on him.
“Better,” Jack commented as the memory started to fade. “But there’s still too many people this memory could have been crafted from.” Bunny himself certainly never shut up about the mess Jack had made that spring. Not even an alp flower could have handled those levels of frost.
That thought summoned the third memory, one several decades older than the previous still.
Jack had first met Bunny on a field of Edelweiss on the Alps in Austria. While Jack enjoyed winter and all its good, clean, white fun, the winter spirit would often meander around outside of his own season to get a bit of a change in scenery. While Edelweiss flowers bloomed in autumn, they were very sturdy and grew even in the deep cold of mountains where Jack was comfortable as well.
But, Bunny also liked flowers outside of his own season, and had sought out the Edelweiss to ‘immortalize them’. Jack had taken offence at first, not about to let the blooms get pressed by some overgrown forest spirit, until Bunny had shown Jack the sketchpad he had been carrying. Then the other spirit had proceeded to point out that he was “the Easter Bunny, not just any run-of-the-mill forest spirit.”
They’d decided to make peace after that. While Bunny had sat quietly on his haunches, studying the Edelweiss for his drawings, Jack had seated himself on a nearby rock and observed Bunny. It had been strange to spend so much time around someone who actually knew Jack was there, even if it had been some oddball not-forest spirit.
Later on Jack believed that if they had been able to have a conversation during that first meeting, they might have been able to become friends. But, Jack couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a discussion with anyone and Bunny was an antisocial jerk, so the result had been a deep, impenetrable silence.
Complete silence and isolation. No one would know of this memory. At least, not anyone who would freely speak of it. Jack and Bunny both avoided bringing up anything from the past that was so wrapped up in bitterness and arguments, since they were now actually trying to be friends for once. Never mind how Bunny probably wouldn’t even recall such an inconsequential meeting anymore, whereas what Jack had remembered had been how perfectly the other spirit had recreated every single bloom on paper. That artistry had been another thing to fuel the hateful jealousy behind the gales of 68.
Jack’s attention was back to observing the molar in his hand. This could really be it. “The tooth really grants access to those memories?” he asked Baby Tooth carefully, wanting to be absolutely sure. “That wasn’t just your mojo?”
Baby Tooth’s chirping took on a notably lecturing tone, and Jack got the impression that tooth fairies couldn’t get at memories without genuine teeth to use for it. Jack smirked triumphantly.
“That settles it,” he said resolutely. “Baby Tooth, let’s see if you can dig up things I don’t remember from this thing.”
Like the girl who called his name, whom Jack was so desperate to answer.
Chapter 2: Closer to the Edge
I don't remember the moment I tried to forget
I lost myself, is it better not said
Now I'm closer to the edge
~ 30 Second to Mars - Closer to the Edge
The world shattered into a kaleidoscope of colors.
The starbursts of color rearranged themselves into a new reality, one that had existed before Jack had become a spirit of winter. This new-old reality was one of war.
The scene unfurled in Jack's mind in the middle of the action, but the scene was Jack's memory and he could remember exactly what was going on. It was his greatest fear made real; the enemy forces had reached the last line of defence protecting the homeworld from them. The memory of panic in the situation was fresh and new in Jack's mind as he tightened his hold around the grip of his still-sheathed sword.
Jack was looking for someone. That someone was a comrade and a friend and Jack would have felt much better fighting with someone there to watch his back. He rushed down the long, broad hall of the battleship.
The dreadnaught Eucalyptus was the pride of the Pooka (Jack wondered what 'Pooka' meant) fleet, the largest and sturdiest ship in all of space was well worthy of its status as the Pooka flagship. Although calling it a ship was a broad definition that undersold its true might, as the Eucalyptus was more of a sailing fortress than a ship with its thick hull and enough floors to make it a space-faring tower.
The windows Jack kept passing in his haste showed little more than flashes of bright light. So far the enemy was being held back by the dreadnaught's armaments, but Jack knew their enemies were quick and wily; at some point they would break through their outer defences and then Jack would need to be ready to use his blade.
The memory dug deeper, trying to find flashes that would explain the events better. The beginning of the battle faded away, to be replaced by an image of the battle in full swing. The enemies had gotten past the defences, and Jack's present mind quaked at the nightmarish visage of these small yet immensely dark creatures that the past Jack faced with grim determination.
The dark forms swarmed Jack. Reawakened memories helped Jack recall that the creatures were called Fearlings even as Jack's past self sliced his sword through the nearest Fearling. Jack knew what he had been taught, that these things were highly dangerous, but the memory of Jack still mowed down several Fearlings before he had to lift his blade to block an attack for the first time.
The present Jack realized the skill at work here, honed for several years; the warrior Jack was now (had been) was skilled and well-trained. It was Jack's own body darting between and around enemies, yet Jack felt a strange detachment from the happenings.
The general feeling of mismatch strengthened when Jack noticed that his enemies weren't so much small, but that 'Jack' was simply tall. This memory Jack was also stronger, faster and more focused than Jack could recall ever being.
Jack's doubt towards the memory grew and finally caused the connection to snap. Jack shook his head to clear it and looked over to Baby Tooth.
"So, uh..." Jack mumbled at Baby Tooth's blank expression. "I don't suppose you saw any of that?"
The deadpan look Jack received answered that question and Jack pursed his lips as he tried to sort out the things he'd seen. The Jack in those memories had been a soldier, had trained for years for his skills. Jack knew this, but it didn’t add up. Not even these memories fit what Jack knew.
“I’m not a soldier,” he spoke, frustration turning his voice into a growl. Baby Tooth fluttered over to sit on his knee in an attempt to comfort him.
Jack frowned. He did have the skills of a warrior. Defending and protecting were second nature to him. Maybe with the right motivation he could be a soldier as well?
As that thought gained strength, it invoked a new memory, a memory that Baby Tooth strengthened with her magic, a memory of: “What are you fighting for?”
"Everyone knows that what the Fearlings really want is to get at the planet,” Jack spoke with conviction. “I have a sister. I wasn’t going to wait until they came to get her, not if my sword could make sure there was one less Fearling to try and hurt her.”
This was from Jack's years in the Pooka Battle Academy (maybe Pooka was the nationality or the planet of Jack's past?); Jack didn't think he'd ever forget these halls and getting bossed around by his instructors.
“I’m not judging you,” his companion spoke (Sage, a friend, a forgotten part of Jack supplied). “I fight for much the same reasons.” The brunet smiled. “Truth be told, I’d rather be a writer.”
"That would fit you," Jack conceded with a chuckle. "You always did seem a bit too smart for these chumps." He waved to the direction of the training mats, where Eucalyptus was, once again, wiping the floor with whoever poor soul had ended up as his sparring partner. Crazy little thing, Eucalyptus was. He was almost as crazy as the upperclassmen who kept trying to beat him.
Sage laughed. Jack had always liked that about the brunet; Sage had an easygoing attitude and could easily find the humor in things. Sage had the tolerance that came with being the oldest child of three, and he often treated Jack like a yet another younger sibling. It was a change of pace to Jack, who himself had a younger sister to practise patience towards.
Sage bumped Jack's shoulder with his own companionably. "What about you, country boy? Heading back to your family farm after we send the Fearlings packing?"
"Where else would I go?" Jack laughed, leaning over the railing that overlooked the training area. "I don't regret coming here, but I couldn't make a life out of fighting." He shot his friend a playful look. "After all, I'm just a simple country boy."
Sage laughed again. "Country boy, definitely." The brunet reached over to tug on Jack's ear teasingly. "But simple? Never." The brown eyes glimmered as they turned over to the combat training going on. "Oh, Eucalyptus is really living up to his name."
Jack looked over as well. He may not have been overly fond of Eucalyptus personally (there were many reasons for it; Eucalyptus was too stoic, too much of a typical soldier, too good at being a soldier...), but Jack did so very much enjoy it whenever one of the shortest cadets at the academy took some overconfident chump down a peg.
Eucalyptus was a hard name to live up to; it was the name given to the greatest, in both battle capabilities and size, battleship of the Pooka military. Eucalyptus was the youngest child of a large clan, and such a scrawny little thing that Jack thought they'd made a mistake in accepting him in the academy when he'd first seen the younger cadet. Then it turned out that no one could match the runt in a one-on-one fight. Dreadnaught little Eucalyptus was not, but so far he was certainly as unbeatable in battle as one.
Eucalyptus' next victim was Tansy, someone Jack knew well from his own unit combat sessions. Tansy had what could be called a toxic personality (he was a jackass and Jack would have gladly punched the guy himself if the other hadn't been built like a dreadnaught) and, unfortunately, also had the physical strength to back up any of his threats.
Except he had apparently pissed off the wrong instructor with his bad teamwork abilities, if the way Commander Nasturtium pushed him right in Eucalyptus' path was any indication. Sage swore it was some sort of punishment system the instructors had; handing over misbehaving cadets to Nasturtium to use as 'practise dummies' for his star pupil. Of course they tried to fight back in the faint hope that they might trip up Eucalyptus, but the little guy was simply unstoppable when his adrenaline got pumping.
The first scream Tansy let out when he rolled out of the path of an upcoming sweep of Eucalyptus' battle stave brought a bright grin to Jack's face. This was shaping up to be such a good day.
"I never knew you were into blood sports," Sage teased, pretending he wasn't enjoying Tansy getting his just desserts as much as Jack. "Should I be worried?"
"Hey, I'm not a violent guy." Jack grinned as he raised his hands defensively. "I'm just a vindictive guy." He sneered. "And Tansy broke my arm in our last shared training session."
Sage hummed and rubbed at his nose. "Fair enough."
Jack had been completely focused on absorbing all the information he could, so he didn't realize the one thing that was particularly off about the memory. Mostly it was because the memory Jack saw nothing wrong with the state of things; this was the normal to him. But now, as the conversation paused, Jack's present mind came to a very startling realization about the people surrounding Jack in this memory.
Commander Nasturtium, Tansy, Eucalyptus and even Sage were all covered in fur. More than that they had long ears and noses like muzzles. They all looked very much like rabbits, albeit very large ones. And Jack's ease around these beings, the recollection that he'd used to apparently be taller, led Jack to the realization that he most likely had looked exactly the same.
Jack's mind screamed in sudden horror. He most likely screamed out loud too because suddenly Baby Tooth was tittering worriedly at him and Jack looked around, trying to reassert his sense of self and time.
“What were they?” Jack gasped out when his time was fully linear again. “What was I?”
Chapter 3: I Only Did What I Thought Was Truly Right
Oh, dear brother, just don't hate me
For never standing by you or being by your side
Dear sister, please don't blame me
I only did what I thought was truly right
~ Five Finger Death Punch - I Remember Everything
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack was freaking out. He figured he had the right to, considering the things he had only just found out. Of course, the fact that the strongest memory Baby Tooth had found had been a space battle might have been some clue that he wasn't exactly human, but Jack had always thought that his human shape was the shape he was supposed to have. And now he'd found out that the case wasn't like that at all, that Jack was in fact something that looked only distantly human.
Of course there was the chance that these memories weren't his either. But, the emotional connection Jack felt to the memories and the people in them felt so much more real than the memories of the boy who had fallen into a lake. The previous memories had convinced Jack that he'd died and he hadn't been freaked out by that at all. Now, with these memories, Jack was ready to curl up into a foetal position until things started to make sense again.
"Space battles, rabbit people, how could I forget something like that?" Jack mumbled as his hands clenched in his hair (hair, not fur or ears), the ache that was seeping into his scalp from the rough treatment helping him feel more focused, more real. "Did the Moon make me forget? Why?"
Covering his face with his hands, Jack tried to calm his breathing. Baby Tooth was still making worried sounds, Jack's half-sentences and disjoined mumblings not helping her understand the situation at all. Jack would have wanted to explain, but he didn't understand it himself. He was a complete mess.
"Pooka," Jack mumbled into his hands. "I was a Pooka, not a rabbit." Okay, that was better, Jack mused. That explained the what. But not the why or the how the hell had he ended up across the universe here. Never mind how Jack still didn't know why he looked so completely different now. Was it a case of some sort of reincarnation? Or had the Moon taken his form along with his memories?
"Baby Tooth, please." Jack turned to his friend, desperate. "I need to see more, I need to understand."
Baby Tooth looked hesitant to grant Jack's request. She chirped in a worried tone and Jack's hand closed around his tooth. "Please," he murmured, and Baby Tooth sighed in resignation.
Jack needed solid answered. This time the tooth granted them. It granted him the memories of his escape from a dying planet.
Jack had been practically forced into the escape pod and launched into the Tunnel, a channel built out of magic to erode away the distances between locations. On the other end of the Tunnel would be the location determined by the preset evacuation protocols released by the Tsar. They couldn't defeat Pitch Black, but if they could create distance between the monster and his prey, they could possibly weaken him.
Jack was bleeding. He kept leaving bloody prints where ever he touched the surge pod. He tried to recall if any of the injuries he had sustained could have been infected but he couldn’t remember any teeth tearing through his flesh. There were clear shards embedded in his hands, hard to make out among the patches of blood-dyed formerly pure white fur. Those were the least of his injuries, even if they were the most annoying.
The main source of bleeding was probably on his back or leg, as those were the spots he could not get a look at. His entire body ached from the beating it had taken both fighting and fleeing, so he couldn’t use pain as a way of location any surface injuries, never mind how the dim lighting inside the pod made it hard to see anything.
A sigh escaped Jack as he groped around the pod for his partner. He pulled his sword, still unsheathed, closer to his body. He might need it if the Fearlings managed to follow him through the Tunnel.
His muscles were still alight with energy, even as his spirit felt exhausted. He wanted to still be fighting so he didn’t have to think, but he was also weary of this war. The Pookas had been battling for ages and had then finally been overwhelmed by the Fearlings. There were just too many of them, and they had seemed to grow more numerous every time they attacked.
If the things Jack had heard about the creatures were true, then it made sense that the Fearlings would grow in numbers after every battle. Jack didn’t want to think about what had become of the warriors who weren’t fortunate enough to die of their injuries on the battlefield (and what did it say about the state of things, if to die was to be fortunate?), didn’t want to think about how easily it could have happened to him.
He was clean of the Fearling taint and he was still alive, even if only barely and in unspeakable pain. If the pod could finish its journey without being intercepted, then Jack would have a chance. If the pod was harmed, Jack’s chances of survival would lower considerably. He’d have to be ready to defend himself and the pod in case of attack.
Jack had never been good at the more spiritual arts; let it be scholarly exploits, showing artistic talent or even learning the healing arts, Jack had never had the patience for them. As such Jack couldn’t treat the injuries he had sustained. He would have to wait until the pod arrived at its destination, where it would change from a malleable travel device into a hard protective shell inside which Jack could rest and heal safely.
The first harsh jolt of the pod had Jack almost thrusting his blade through the wall of the device in order to get the first hit on a presumed foe. However, the flashing glyphs informed Jack that he had simply arrived at the end of the Tunnel, the turbulence being the result of space and time reasserting themselves. Jack barely had time to draw a relieved breath before the pod finished scanning the surroundings for threats and, deeming it safe, unceremoniously spat Jack out.
The ejecting system sent Jack crashing face-first into a nearby cliff-face. Jack rubbed his smarting mouth, all the while bemoaning all the times something had hit his face within a short amount of time. The worst of it was that any untrained Pooka should have been able to bounce back against the cliff, never mind someone like Jack, who prided himself in his reaction and movement speed.
“Cruddy piece of junk…” Jack grumbled into the surge pod’s general direction while he went to retrieve his sword from a short distance away. No Pooka warrior would be caught dead without their weapon, their partner. While Jack wasn’t really the stereotypical Pookan warrior, even he held respect for the weapon that had protected him in battle against an overwhelming foe.
The surge pod, now having finished turning into a healing shell, had done its job well too. It had gotten Jack to safety from a warzone, even if the landing hadn’t been the smoothest around. And even though Jack wasn’t exactly in one piece, he was pretty sure he had lost a tooth in that last face-fault, the machine was apparently still functioning accordingly.
The shell rippled when Jack approached, a sign that it had finished its modifications and would place Jack into a healing stasis when the Pooka entered. The youth crawled inside the shell, settling down and entering a few preference commands. Jack didn’t know anything about the place he had landed in, and was in no condition to investigate.
There was a lake nearby. The pod would submerge itself and burrow itself into the wet earth underwater. There Jack would remain in a healing stasis until he was fully healed.
The memory faded away, but not the chaos inside Jack. Pitch Black! Why did everything seem to come back to Pitch Black? Pitch Black was the reason he had been chosen a Guardian, but apparently he was also the reason Jack had been forced to leave his home and people behind. What had Pitch done? What had he done to the planet full of Pookas? Had they escaped or had Pitch gotten to them?
Jack's restless heart needed something to secure itself on. Baby Tooth's magic must have sensed that, since in this new memory, older than any of the other ones, Jack was filled with a sense of belonging and family. He was sitting on top of a bed in a bedroom and Jack immediately knew that this round room with no corners and curved walls and ceiling was his room, in his home with his family.
"Do you have to go?" the small Pooka sitting next to Jack whined. This was Jack's sister, her fur a caramel brown, with white patches on her ears and face.
"Yeah, sorry." Jack smiled apologetically at his sister. Even when he was feeling bittersweet, he couldn't help but smile at his sister. She was without a doubt the cutest little Pooka out there, and just the sight of her could make Jack smile.
Poppy's blue eyes shimmered with tears that would be falling any moment now, and the girl gave Jack a fierce look. "Who's telling you to leave?"
"It's not like that, heartflower," Jack said with a sigh, bending down to be on eye-level with his baby sister. "My own heart is telling me to go. It wouldn't leave me alone if I didn't do everything I could to protect you."
Poppy pouted (and wasn't that just the cutest thing), and then blurted: "You'll make a terrible warrior."
Jack laughed. "Hey!" he exclaimed, although he doubted he could manage to sound very indignant with how amused he was. "Well, if the teachers think like you I'll be sent right back."
The night-time scene faded into white, into morning light, and into a goodbye.
"Bye!" Jack called across the walkway of the round house that had been his home. He waved to his family, who waved back. His mother was beautiful, Jack decided, pure white fur and bright blue eyes. His father was tall, the same toffee color as Poppy, only his fur was a solid color. His blue eyes were darker than mom's, and there was a silent disapproval in his gaze even as mom's eyes shimmered with pride.
Poppy was the only one who answered Jack's last goodbye with words, screaming loudly for all the neighbours to hear: "I hope you get kicked out, Jack!"
Jack's parents were appalled by the girl's words, but Jack laughed. He laughed as the distance to his home grew. It was much better than crying at leaving the one familiar place in his life behind.
The memory of Jack laughed, but the present Jack cried. Tears streamed down his cheeks and Baby Tooth's worried chirping had taken on a decidedly angered tone.
"I can handle it," Jack insisted as he wiped his tears away. "It was just a really happy memory." Jack had felt so very loved in it. "And bittersweet." The people that loved him so much, he hadn't seen them again. His little sister who just wanted to be with him, his mother who always let him do whatever he wanted, his father who, above everything else, had wanted his family to stay close and safe at home.
"Just one more," Jack said to Baby Tooth. "I promise, just one more and we're done for the day."
Baby Tooth looked unsure, but did finally relent, and Jack was whisked into another memory from his training.
Jack was excited. He'd been excited ever since that morning, when Sage had come to him with the news. Sage knew everything that went on in the Pooka Battle Academy and Jack had been about to burst as he waited for his free period, when he'd have the time to check the rumor himself. Finally Jack could storm out of strategy class and immediately rushed over to the middle floors of the Academy, where combat training facilities were.
There, Jack could see them. The one and only General Edelweiss was talking with Commander Nasturtium, and Jack felt his heart stutter in the presence of his idol. Green eyes glimmered with interest when Nasturtium told his colleague about the latest training sessions he had instructed. There was a lot of talk of Eucalyptus involved, like there always was whenever Nasturtium spoke of combat of any kind. Like right on cue, over at the training mats Eucalyptus flipped Rose over his shoulder.
"Spirited kid," Edelweiss spoke, the low voice holding touches of amusement and nostalgia.
"His parents must be proud," Nasturtium hurried to add and Edelweiss' smile turned wistful.
Jack knew Edelweiss had retired due to simply having seen too much battle, even though the General was still young by anyone's standards. Even that was something Jack admired about the other, though; he also wasn't going to make his entire life about the military.
Nasturtium and Edelweiss walked past Jack and Sage, and for a moment Jack's eyes met those of the General. The older Pooka smirked playfully.
"At ease, cadets," the dark voice rumbled, low enough that the uptight Nasturtium missed it, and then the General turned to pay more polite attention to the instructor.
Jack stared after the pair (well, half of the pair) for a moment, before mumbling to Sage: "I think I have a crush on General Edelweiss."
"No," Sage answered sternly, grabbing Jack's shoulders. "Nothing good can come from that. Stop."
"I'm just saying." Jack's hackles rose defensively. "I mean, if I was the youngest decorated general of the Pookan military and if I was dedicated to my duty enough to be called 'The Hope of the People', I bet people would be having a bunch of crushes on me."
Sage pulled Jack close by his shoulders and his deep brown eyes gave Jack a look of firm denial. "No." He pushed Jack back. "No." He started pulling and pushing, rocking Jack back and forth to emphasise how much he meant this. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no."
Knowing better than to argue, Jack stayed silent. He'd let Sage get it out of his system.
Only, it wasn't only Jack that was shaking to Sage's rhythm. It was the entire world. Everything shook and trembled and Jack realized that it wasn't part of any memory, that something was wrong, at the exact same instant that his mind shattered.
Surprise. Wishful thinking. Jealousy.
Jack frowned when he watched General Edelweiss lean over to nuzzle another Pooka. Such a private act, out here where anyone could see. Jack sighed.
"I wish I was popular," he mumbled petulantly.
"Then I guess you don't know about the fanclub?" Sage queried and Jack's head whirled around.
"General Edelweiss has a fanclub?"
"Actually, I was talking about your..." Sage trailed off and shook his head. "Never mind, it would fly right over your head anyway."
Amusement. Irritation. Resignation.
Wattle was lecturing him again. The medic's long fur (a standard for Mountain Pookas) was puffed up in irritation and Jack forced his face to stay still even as he wanted to laugh. He didn't want to be stuck in the infirmary longer than he had to.
Rejection. Sorrow. Buried rage.
"You mean you don't have any special skills?" Tulip asked in an outraged tone. Her twin, Rose, was gaping at Jack. "You can't draw or sing or anything?"
"I thought you were a Field Pooka," Rose finally added in. "Shouldn't you at least know flower arrangement as an artistic skill?"
"I don't particularly like flowers," Jack growled out. It was rather hard with how tightly he was gritting his teeth. Honestly, he was just about done with the russet-colored twins. Soon he'd be the one other students told horror stories about when Jack went around flipping those who annoyed him over his shoulder.
Homesickness. Affection. Gratitude.
"Back home no one judged me," Jack muttered sulkily. "I helped dad cultivate the land, I didn't have time for art." He was the only child old enough to help dad with work. Jack sometimes wished for more than one sibling because of that.
"Look on the bright side," Sage said as he nudged Jack's shoulder in their shared quarters. "You may not be able to sing like Rose or play an instrument like Tulip, but neither can Eucalyptus."
Jack snorted, trying to imagine the violent Pooka attempting to play the violin. He'd probably mistake it for a bludgeoning weapon.
"I bet he can do a mean war dance, though," Jack said and burst into laughter. Sage fell off his seat, he was laughing so hard.
Denial. Fear. Hope.
"Get out of my way," Jack snarled dangerously. "I have to get to my family." He didn't want to be angry, not here, not now, but this was important.
"Our entire race could be dead, Jackfruit!" the other Pooka hissed desperately. "Like it or not, you're my nearest and dearest right now, and I will keep you safe!" Green eyes darkened and Jack fell quiet.
That shade of green. Jack had only seen it a few times in eyes and was certain it was a family trait. He decided he'd dub that color Bunnymund Green.
I'm stuck, Jack realized suddenly. He was stuck in a stream of memories and he didn't know the way out. He tried to call for Baby Tooth but he was inside his own head, he didn't have a voice here. He was lost.
There is actually a tree called 'jackfruit', which also gets referred to as 'jack'. So I'm still keeping up the tradition of having Pookas named after plants.
Chapter 4: The Strangers in Your Life that You Never Thought You'd Meet
It's the strangers in your life that you never thought you'd meet
It's the hand that picked you up when you're laying in the street
It's the hand that cut you down
It's the dream that someone shared
When you thought that all was lost
It's the friend that wasn't there
~ Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Who You Are
Jack didn't know how long he stayed in that limbo of remembrance, but finally he felt the tug of magic pulling him out of recollections that went by too fast to really follow.
Pookas, names and memories flew by with speed that made it impossible for Jack to make sense of it all. But now he could turn away from the memories completely in favor of directing his attention to that magical call, that strange, gentle magic that was telling him to wake up.
Jack was in the present again, but he still felt a flash of deja vu strong enough to make his head throb (or then the pain was just general memory hangover) when his first thought was: "Wow, those are some impossibly green eyes."
"Jack, focus, mate!" a voice snapped and yeah, that was totally Bunny and Jack wondered how he'd never noticed Bunny's eyes were so green.
Hands gripped his shoulders roughly and Jack thought dazedly that Bunny seemed almost panicked, over Jack. And wasn't that a funny thought.
It was only when Bunny released a deep, throaty groan that Jack realized he'd stated giggling. The green-eyed Guardian turned to his companion and oh, when had Sandy gotten here?
"Sandy, we need ta knock him out," Bunny said and Sandy waved his fingers, preparing his sand.
Bunny looked even more disapproving than he generally did. "No more magic, ya drongo. He's been over-exposed already." Now that frown was directed at Jack. "Ya hafta job 'im."
It took Jack several moments to remember what 'job' meant in Bunny-speak. He was just about grasping at the answer when Sandy walloped him to the head, sending him into unconsciousness.
He didn't dream. That was a good thing, because Jack was sure his dreams would have been nothing but a rehash of that last frightening dive into his own memories. That was the relief that caused him to sigh softly as he lied half-awake in a soft bed. There was a cookie scent in the air, like everywhere in North's Workshop.
Jack cracked his eyes open and the first thing he saw were green eyes. At first he thought he was in a memory again, because that shade was so much like a ghost. Then Jack noticed that the eyes were set into a deeply frowning face and that was such a solid reality that it had Jack immediately realize just whose face this was.
With a huff, Jack promptly rolled around to turn his back to the ill-tempered Easter Bunny and tried to catch some real sleep. Dreamless sleep really wasn't restful at all.
"Oy!" Bunny's voice was a touch worried and a great deal affronted when he grabbed Jack's shoulder and proceeded to shake the boy. "No sleeping! You'll end up stuck inside yer head again!"
Jack groaned, but did then fumble around on the bed until he was sitting up against the pillows in a reasonably comfortable position. He turned back to Bunny and the rabbit was still scowling (although that might just be his default expression), so Jack scowled right back.
Bunny sighed, like Manny himself was testing him, and offered Jack his hand, palm up. "Let me see yer hand."
While Jack had no idea why his fellow Guardian would request such a thing, he did trust Bunny, so he slowly reached out a hand. Bunny promptly grabbed it and Jack felt a jolt.
His surprise must have shown on his face, because Bunny was smirking now. "I sometimes give spring plants a bit of a boost to get them to push through soil or snow." He lifted their joined hands and Jack was starting to feel a bit like he had a sugar rush. "I can wake folks up with it too."
"I do feel more awake," Jack confessed and Bunny's grasp released from around his hand. The frost spirit brought his hand to his lap, capturing it inside his other one in a ghost of the previous touch it had received. "Thanks."
The sound Bunny gave in response was a mixture of a hum and a grunt. It was some sort of acknowledgement, and not even a completely derisive one. Actually, Jack mused as he observed Bunny with a new awareness, it almost seemed like Bunny was embarrassed over his gratitude. Jack immediately decided that he'd be thanking Bunny for his little favors a lot more often now.
“You shouldn’t push yourself so hard.” Bunny's words at first had Jack thinking Bunny had read his mind and was actually voicing his discomfort over compliments. But then the other Guardian continued: “Whatever’s in your memories, you’ll be fine as long as you can accept how ya died.” The rabbit’s hand pressed to his own chest, over his core, and Jack paused when he realized what that must have meant.
“Did.” Jack swallowed, eyes wide. “Did you-”
Bunny blinked, dropping his hand with a surprised look, not apparently having realized what he’d been doing. He tilted his head to give Jack a regarding look. Finally, he spoke up: “Yeah, I died to become what I am.”
“How?” Jack drew the word out into a slightly terrified whine.
Bunny shrugged, smirking. “Well, they told me that to become the spirit of Easter, I had to cark it first.”
Jack stared at the other Guardian in horror.
“Mate.” Bunny’s expression turned somber. “I was joshing.”
“Y-yeah, I know” Jack said shakily. “That’s what’s so horrifying.”
"I'm an Australian, Jackie," Bunny said, his smirk now warring with an offended frown. "Of course I'm gonna have a lark about my own death."
Jack didn't really know much about Bunny. Some hastily formed images from Sandy soon after his accession to the Guardians weren't really very helpful when Jack had been unused to the Sandman's method of communication. But Jack had gathered that Bunny was apparently really old, as old as all life on Earth. Sandy had told Jack this to undoubtedly avoid Jack putting his foot in his mouth around the temperamental Guardian of Hope.
Rabbits weren't that old a species. Had Bunny been something else before-hand and then given this form? Or, maybe, this was what Bunny had always looked like and he simply wasn't a rabbit at all.
Jack regarded his fellow Guardian. Appearance-wise, Bunny really did have a lot in common with a Pooka; he had fur, long, nimble legs and long ears. His eyes faced forward, like a Pooka’s and unlike a rabbit’s. Even the shape of his face and hands was Pooka-ish. Only, Bunny didn’t act like a Pooka at all. Bunny tended to run on all four legs. He scratched his ears with a hind leg, in public no less. And Bunny didn’t wear clothes, not even a jacket.
Coats, jackets and vests were important to Pookas. The style and cut would signal to all other Pookas what type of settlement you were from, and your clothes could tell much more about you as well, all at a glance. Your age, family status, your profession and your level of mastery over said profession were all signalled in the colors and shapes used in the embroidery of your coat. For Bunny to be a Pooka and not wear as much as a vest would be the epitome of uncultured. Even more than the ear-scratching, it would be savage.
"Come on." Bunny stood up and nudged his head towards the door. "The others are worried, and you need to keep active until we're sure you're in the clear."
"Right," Jack grumbled. He'd really rather not walk about when his mind was such a mess, but he also really didn't want to have a relapse. In the long run, it truly would be better to do as the doctor ordered. Jack followed Bunny out of the room and towards the den.
“Hey Bunny,” Jack started, determined to get his question out before the other Guardians would distract them both. “You’re not really a rabbit, are you?”
Bunny stopped and turned to glare at Jack. “I’m not a kangaroo.”
“I know that.” Jack pursed his lips, considering. “I mean, just because you look like a rabbit doesn’t mean you really are one, right?”
“What?” Bunny chuckled. “You think some witch betwitched me time long passed?”
“Tooth said all of the Guardians were something else before,” Jack explained, trying very hard not to just ask if Bunny was an alien. “I don’t know how literal she was, but you were something else before you were the Easter Bunny, right?”
“It’s too ancient history to matter.” There was something dark in Bunny’s expression, his eyes clouded.
“It’s your history, of course it matters,” Jack insisted, reaching out a hand, trying to connect somehow.
“Why does it matter to you?” Bunny asked in a low voice, stepping back from Jack. Then the rabbit (Pooka? which was it?) shook his head. Bunny’s pale green eyes were cold, and Jack withdrew. “Look, if it bothers you so much, make something up. A nice story to go with North’s tales of heroism and Toothiana’s triumph over her loneliness.”
“But it won’t be the truth.” The temperature in the hall was dropping, Jack wasn't sure if the change was just in the atmosphere or in the actual space. Jack’s eyes glared into Bunny’s own unwaveringly. “Why are you being so difficult?”
“Difficult?” Bunny snapped and his eyes flashed and Jack knew this was the part where it all went south.
And it did. They argued. Insults were thrown. ‘Irresponsible.’ ‘Stuck-up.’ ‘Useless.’ ‘Look who’s talking.’ And then Bunny was storming off and Jack pulled on his hair in frustration. And then he grew more frustrated when his hands expected to meet furry ears instead of just hair. Conceding defeat for now, Jack walked the rest of the way to the den, where the other Guardians were waiting.
The floor in the den was covered in faint traces of dreamsand, which was a clear sign that Sandy was still hard at work even as he chugged down mulled wine with Tooth and North drinking in a much more subdued manner. Well, Tooth was more subdued, tittering instructions to her fairies between sips. North seemed to be trying to outdo the Guardian of Dreams.
Jack's thoughts were still on Bunny, both on the argument and Bunny's possible status as a Pooka, so it was rather absent-mindedly that he noticed the careful way the other Guardians regarded him, like he was a recovering patient (which he actually kind of was). North waved him over to sit at the table and handed him a heated mug of mulled wine, while Tooth kept patting his hand and arm in comfort. Jack was too distracted to remember to mind the coddling.
“Where is Bunny?” North asked then, and Jack sighed heavily and lifted his mug.
“He threw a hissy fit and left,” the frost spirit mumbled into the mulled wine. It was warm enough to steam ever-so-slightly, but not hot enough to burn the tongue. The others had probably been sitting awhile then.
“Bunny has been temperamental all day,” North commented with a nod. “Perhaps good night’s sleep at Warren improve mood.”
“He's been staying up keeping an eye on you while you were under,” Tooth explained to Jack patiently. “Since he had the magic to wake you if something went wrong.”
“Wait.” Jack frowned. “How long was I down for the count exactly?”
“Only week.” North swooped an arm to the side in a dismissing gesture. “Magic gone wrong usually results in much longer comas.”
“Coma?” Jack was horrified. Was that the result of the overdose of memories? No wonder Bunny had insisted he stayed awake as soon as he got Jack that way. He looked at the other Guardians. “Have you all been waiting for me to wake up? The whole week?”
“Well, you know how busy Sandy and I are,” Tooth commented with a small smile while Sandy’s head bobbed up and down in agreement. “But whenever we had a moment to spare, here we were.” She reached out and laid her hand on Jack’s. “You’re one of us, Jack. We worry and we care, and we’ll take care of you.”
Sandy’s sand formed a rabbit and Toothiana laughed.
“Even Bunny,” she finished as her purple eyes glimmered. “Despite his gruff exterior, he cares too.”
Jack lifted his warm mug to let the soft steam melt some of the frost forming over his cheeks in embarrassment, all the while thinking. It was a strange feeling, being cared about. It wasn’t quite the feeling he’d had with his family, but there was potential here.
Chapter 5: Bring up Distant Memories
Just being able to be close to you
Just being able to spend the same time with you
Would bring up distant memories, even if you can cure my sadness from it
~ Kotoko - Agony
It was decided that Jack would stay as a guest at North's Workshop for the remainder of his recovery. Jack put up the token protest, naturally, but was overruled. Apparently it was unthinkable to the other Guardians to let Jack wander off by himself when he was still at risk of getting stuck inside his own head.
The complication to that decision came in the form of Baby Tooth having decided to avoid Jack because she, for some unfathomable reason, blamed herself for Jack’s mishap. Fortunately Toothiana had been helpful enough to drag the minifairy with her for Jack to have a talk with her.
The good thing was that she understood she hadn’t been at fault. The bad side was that she had then proceeded to give Jack a very stern lecture on taking proper care of himself.
There was something of a bright side to Jack’s circumstances, however. Jack hadn’t properly spent the night at North’s before, so this was all a rather novel experience. It gave him a chance to actually stop to observe the proceedings inside the Workshop. It was all utter chaos, especially with the autumn nearing winter and, by extension, Christmas. It also gave him the chance to observe the visiting Guardians as they interacted among each other without a crisis distracting them.
The Bunny that returned from the Warren was a changed man, bunny, Pooka, spirit (Jack really needed to get to the bottom of that). It probably helped matters that autumn was the opposite of spring and it was very much Bunny’s downtime. This meant that the overly fussy rabbit was likely to have actually spent his time home honest-to-moon sleeping.
Jack still wasn't about to start prodding the guy again, though. He'd give Bunny a bit more time to forget that Jack had annoyed him. Instead, Jack spent his time giving the other Guardian petulant glares, which went to waste when it seemed like Bunny wasn't even noticing said glares.
It was actually nice to see the Guardian of Hope in a good mood for once. Jack watched the other make his way to North to greet their host and the frost spirit once again weighed the chanced of Bunny being a Pooka.
Jack's hair stood on end when he saw Bunny lean in and press his nose into North's cheek. Proper Pooka did not nuzzle people other than family or their significant others, and certainly not in public. Such an intimate and inclusive show of affection wasn't something to be flaunted. Pooka were always very private about things like that. Jack wasn't sure whether to be more or less scandalized when Bunny proceeded to nuzzle the two other Guardians as a greeting. At least the guy was consistent
Still, it was rather frivolous. Here Bunny was nuzzling all the Guardians like it was normal to do so. Like they were nestmates instead of merely work partners. That kind of familiarity just wasn't done among Pooka, not even between friends. Then again, Jack mused once his outrage calmed down, if Bunny was as touch-starved as Jack was (as all the other Guardians seemed to be), then it would actually make sense for him to play at being a family with them like this. He bumped his nose into North's cheek, he nuzzled Tooth's forehead and he rubbed his cheek against Sandy's. Although, when he tried to nuzzle Sandy he ended up trying to shake dreamsand out of his fur, spluttering and biting back curses all the way.
They'd known each other for so long, they had to be close. And if Bunny was even partially as affection-starved as the other Guardians, Jack supposed he couldn't blame the other for expressing clinginess in his own way. Idly Jack wondered if, once they became proper friends, Bunny would come up with a signature nuzzle just for Jack.
Not that Jack wanted to be nuzzled, exactly. He still had his sensibilities. It would just be nice to be considered a part of the whole, and it seemed that getting your own Bunny-nuzzle was a part of belonging into the group properly.
When it came to Jack, Bunny was the Guardian who most carefully maintained the boundaries of personal space. North could easily get carried away in both his moods and affection while Tooth's tactility mostly came in the form of hands on people's arms, on their shoulders, in their mouths. Sandy had a habit of nudging people, be it with a hand, elbow, his head or his entire body. Bunny, though, Bunny rarely touched Jack, preferring to simply be close enough to touch.
Even that was different now, though. There was a nurturing side to Bunny, Jack had known this since he'd seen Bunny around Sophie Bennett. Jack just hadn't expected Bunny to direct that drive towards himself. He came to the workshop every evening as the day started to fade away, and watched over Jack's sleep. If Jack sunk too deep in his unconscious state, Bunny would pull him back. And every morning, when Jack woke up from dreamless sleep that never seemed to be restful enough, Bunny would take Jack's hand and hold it for a moment, giving Jack a buzz of that warm energy that could wake a sleeping dragon.
Jack didn't really know how to deal with it. The Bunny he usually had to deal with was annoyed at best, downright livid at worst. The soft smiles and warm looks were something sprinkled between caustic remarks and general gruffness. Now it seemed like the gentle Bunny was turning into the default and it was creeping Jack out.
At least the worrywart rabbit didn't stay by his bedside like some nightmare version of an overly protective grandmother. No, Bunny was fortunately content enough to simply drop by Jack's room to check the state of his dreamscape every few hours. The rest of the time he most likely harassed North. This Jack determined from the fact that some of the typically plainer toys now sported imaginative and colorful patterns on them, like someone had shoved them at an anxious artist rabbit to distract him.
Not about to give up entirely, Jack kept trying to figure out a way to ask Bunny about his past without risking another explosion. It was very likely that Bunny would cease speaking with Jack entirely if Jack claimed to be his species while looking very much like a human. His effort and worry proved needless, though, when it was Bunny who breached the subject, five days into Jack's recovery.
"If you still want to know," the Easter Bunny said carefully. "It's not something I'm comfortable talking about but, if you won't mind us being in the Warren, I could manage it."
"What?" Jack blinked in surprise at the other Guardian. "Really? You mean that?"
Bunny's expression darkened. "No, I make empty offers to all my friends." He sighed, pressing a hand to his right eye and looked at Jack with just the left one. "I think talking about it might do me some good."
Jack almost made a crack about Bunny willingly admitting them being friends, but realized that it would have been too much even for him. Bunny had been taking care of him for almost two weeks now. In recognition of that, Jack skipped any smart remark and smiled at the other. "Sure."
It was almost scary how much Bunny's house inside the Warren looked like what Jack had imagined. Then again, the reason Jack had those imaginations was because he was thinking about Pookan architecture. The house was very hut-like, only with completely rounded walls. There were no corners on the outside and Jack suspected the rooms inside would be the same. Even the windows had ellipsoid shapes. The house itself was built of earthy materials and had greenery growing on the walls around the windows, and Jack could feel the homey hum of magic that held it together and kept it all looking beautiful. It was exactly the type of house a Field Pooka would build, although it was rather small. It was very much the closest Pookas could get to a so-called 'bachelor pad'.
The front door led to a hall that spread into a curving and turning hallway, all the better to go into and around the round rooms. The ceiling had glowing spots of light that illuminated the inside of the house with a gentle glow. Bunny offered to take Jack straight to the den to wait while he got some refreshments, but Jack insisted on seeing Bunny's kitchen. It was with an amused and only slightly exasperated chuckle that Bunny led Jack to the kitchen, the room closest to the door.
It wasn't a large kitchen, and the circular wall had counters propped on it, cut off in the places that were by the doorway and also where there was the sink. The natural-like sunlight from the cavern outside streamed in through the two windows and right under one of said windows was a small dining table. It actually did remind Jack greatly of the home he'd once had with his family, all the way to the hatch on the floor that undoubtedly led into a sizeable pantry. The underground rooms in Pooka houses tended to be larger than the above ground ones.
Jack leaned onto the doorway (even that was in the shape of an ellipsoid), while Bunny puttered around the kitchen. Finally the Easter Bunny returned with a tray that had a bowl of strange-looking fruit on it, along with a pair of tall glasses and a drink jug. Then Bunny led the way into the living room.
The first thing Jack noticed about the living room was that the colors were much more muted than anything North furnished with. Jack would have expected browns and greens from someone with Bunny's earthy powers but instead the furniture was in deep blues and hues of violet that reminded Jack that Bunny was very much an artist despite the whole 'Warrior Wildman of the Wilderness' theme he had going on.
The second thing Jack noticed was that even here everything was round from the windows (larger than in the kitchen) to the plush chairs and the coffee table. There were bookcases set into the wall. Pooka preferred thicker walls than humans did, because of their heightened sense of hearing, so even the wall being thick enough to allow for that wasn't something strange to Jack. Nothing about the spaces he'd seen, from the strangely curving wood of the inner walls to the floor being dry earth, was strange to Jack.
"You seem thoughtful," Bunny commented when he'd laid the tray on the table. He was giving Jack a playful look. "It's a nice change from all the mischief."
“Watch it or you’ll be seeing some of that mischief, Cottontail,” Jack taunted as he made his way to one of the large plush chairs and sat down. It was really cushy; Jack could imagine his Pooka shape sitting in this comfortably. Naturally, since Bunny also had a tail to consider when sitting. Jack directed his attention to the fruit. “What’s that?”
“Jackfruit,” Bunny answered and Jack paused to stare at the other incredulously. Bunny stared right back. “Yes, that’s an actual fruit. From the tropical climates.” He pushed the bowl closer to Jack. “It’s really nutritious and tastes a bit like pineapple.”
Jack suspected Bunny had seen Jack nicking pineapple treats from the kitchen at North’s. Whenever the rabbit was over, he watched Jack like a hawk, like he worried that Jack would vanish off down memory lane the moment he was left to his own devices.
Grabbing a bulb, Jack bit into the fruit. It was juicy, and incredibly sweet. It was really sweet and Jack recalled that his mother had grown the sweetest fruits right on the outside wall of Jack’s room. Pooka children loved sweet things possibly more than human children did, and Jack had always been a child at heart.
“Oh, this is good,” Jack said as soon as he had swallowed and reached out to grab another bulb with the hand that wasn’t holding the half-eaten one. Suitably prepared, he sunk back into the comfy chair. “So, let’s hear it, your superhero origin story.”
"Funny." Bunny's tone made it clear he didn't really find it such, but he did settle more comfortably into his own chair. There was a warning look on his face. "I swear if ya start laughing..."
"I'll stuff my face," Jack offered with a grin, lifting the fruit in his hand. "That way, if I do laugh, it'll be embarrassing for me too."
Bunny's grunt wasn't entirely convinced but, as Jack bit down into his treat, he did start speaking: "This is gonna sound a bit weird, but I'm actually from another planet. I came to Earth long ago, before there was anything else here." The other was watching Jack intently, and Jack carefully kept his expression blank. He was rather liking what he was hearing so far, but if he showed it, Bunny would get suspicious and clam up.
"My people, we were called Pookas." Bunny's expression was vulnerable and it lasted for all of a second before the Pooka (he really was one) frowned at Jack. "What are ya grinning about?"
"Nothing." Jack hadn't even realized he was grinning, but really, what else was he supposed to do? The only reason he wasn't crowing for joy was because he'd been almost certain as soon as he'd seen the house.
Bunny's frown deepened and Jack hastened to add: "You're practically Superman, then. The alien superhero."
"Hardly a superhero, mate," Bunny grumbled, but looked less angry and more wry as he grabbed his own class of cool juice, drinking it down while Jack wondered how he'd get Bunny talking again. He wanted to hear more.
"Kids these days are crazy about that alien stuff, you know," Jack commented with a smirk. "Maybe if we got the word out you'd finally be more popular than North."
"No thanks." While Bunny's voice was dismissive, there was a hint of a smile on his face. "Some stuff's too personal ta let it get tangled with work business."
Finished with his fruit, Jack reached out for the other juice glass and took a sip. Pear, a very soft flavor, but also quite sweet. He looked at Bunny and decided to take a chance. "Can you tell me about them?" he asked. "About the Pookas?"
Jack didn't particularly like dancing around Bunny and his moods, trying to avoid an explosion of temper. Today, however, Bunny had been surprisingly even-tempered. If he wasn't such an immovable, determined badass Jack would have thought Bunny felt nervous whenever he was outside his Warren and lashed out because of that.
The Bunny sitting across from Jack was calm, at peace, much like during the Easter preparations over half a year ago. Jack was rather miffed that it had taken him so long to get to see this side of Bunny again.
"Sure," Bunny finally spoke and Jack had to force back his own excitement. "I mean, that's why I invited you, isn't it? I think it might do me some good to talk about it a bit." He paused to think. "The other Pookas looked a lot like I do, but there was a lot of variation in some base aspects of our base forms, like fur texture and body types, depending on the geological living conditions around the planet."
As Bunny spoke, Jack’s mind provided the images of the things the other described. Bunny spoke of the Pooka villages, of the round houses above ground and how such villages were always built around a riverbank. He spoke of the Field Pookas that inhabited these houses, their pelts differing in thickness and shades depending on the climate of the area of the planet they lived in. He spoke of the way the very earth answered the magic of Field Pookas, how the Pookas tended to the plants, growing them not only in fields but on their houses’ earthy outer shell as well.
Bunny described the Cavern Pookas and their short fur that was less likely to get dirt in it as they dug tunnels below ground. He described the tunnel systems that formed underground villages, made out of earth and rock. He described the underground rivers that served as sources of water. He described the magic of the Cavern Pookas, keeping tunnels and homes from caving in, making distances through tunnels seem shorter.
Bunny talked about the high mountains of the Pookan homeworld, higher than anything on Earth. He talked about the housings the Mountain Pookas carved into the very stone, working ore and metal with the same ease Cavern Pookas dug into the earth with. He talked about the heavy, fluffy pelts of the Mountain Pookas, grown to keep out the cold mountain air. He talked about their small size but great strength, of their mastery of strong magic that could make metal bend to their will.
Jack could have listened to him for the whole day, talking about things that were so hauntingly familiar to him. It made Jack feel more real, made his memories seem more solid. And Jack thought, even if just a little bit, that talking about it made Bunny feel something similar.
Bunny must have noticed Jack's staring, because his speech faded away into self-awareness, and his ears, hanging back in relaxation, lowered further in embarrassment.
"Sorry," the Pooka mumbled and coughed into a fist. "I got carried away."
"It's okay." Jack smiled at his companion. "I could listen to this for hours." It was the truth, and Bunny's nose twitched in surprise. Jack's smile widened.
"Maybe some other time I will talk at ya for hours on end," Bunny finally spoke, trying to attach humor into the words. "But right now I think ya should return to the Pole."
"Do you always throw your guests out when they actually admit to wanting to spend time with you?" Jack asked with a playful sneer.
Bunny huffed, ears flopping, giving Jack a sour look that made Jack think the answer was 'yes'. "I throw them out when they wear out their welcome."
"Fine, fine." Jack stood up from his seat, but reached over the table to grab a yet another bulb of jackfruit. "No need to bite my head off."
Except Bunny was doing no such thing. Even with the annoyance that Bunny was undoubtedly playing up just to be a pain, there was contentment in Bunny’s gaze, the deep green eyes intense with emotion. It was then that Jack realized he knew that exact shade of green. It was Bunnymund Green. It figured, that the Pooka who could survive this long, could keep fighting Pitch and never give in, would be a Bunnymund.
Even if this particular Bunnymund had probably the worst manners of the bunch. And Jack should know, he’d met Hollyhock Bunnymund.
Chapter 6: I Always Thought that I'd See You Again
I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again
~ James Taylor - Fire and Rain
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A full week after Jack woke up from his coma, he had a dream. He didn't remember much about it, just that there had been a chaotic storm around him, and then Bunny had been there and everything had calmed. Jack didn't need a dream book to know what the subliminal message in that was. Of course Bunny would be the solid fixed point to Jack now; he was a living piece of the life he was now slowly remembering.
Still, as embarrassed as Jack was about the dream (he didn't need to rely on anyone), Bunny was still the more awkward one between them. Apparently he wasn't used to opening up to people and was regretting just how much he'd told Jack. Jack only teased him a little bit over it. Just a tiny bit. Apparently Pookas could be as skittish as Earth rabbits, even if it was only over sentimental matters.
The good side was that Jack being able to dream meant that he had finally recovered from whatever the overdose of memory magic had done to his subconscious. Tooth was very happy to give Jack a clean bill of health to leave North Pole. And just in time to take off to spread winter, too.
It would be the first time since Jack had become a Guardian that he'd break off most communications with the other Guardians. There was a reason myths about winter spirits had them be hermits, since the spreading of winter all over the globe demanded that Jack be nomadic for half a year. Just as well; Jack was used to being by himself and he needed the comfort of solitude to truly think about his life.
While Jack's daily work quota wasn't as rigid as that of Sandy and Tooth, it was still hard to find the time to take another peek into the memories awakened by his tooth. Not that Baby Tooth would have been too eager to help Jack again so soon after the last attempt that had ended so terribly.
The memories came on their own, though. Some of Jack's dreams felt distinctly different from normal, mainly in how Jack could recall their content perfectly. These dreams also rang with a familiarity that made Jack realize that they were his memories, trickling back to him bit by bit. They were mostly inconsequential, memories of attending classes with Sage, getting scolded by Commander Chamomile, eating together with his family. Jack always treasured the memories he received of his small family, and didn't mind their boring content in the least.
Jack liked remembering things about his family, like that his much younger sister was clingy. He was happy to remember he'd gotten his sense of humor from his mother, whose laughter had always thrummed in the walls of their house. He didn't even mind recalling the fact that his father had severely disapproved of him joining the military, having preferred to keep his family safe in their house and fields.
There was still a joyful sorrow to it all. While Jack was always glad for any new quirk he remembered, it was still painful to know he'd never witness those quirks anywhere outside his dream-memories. The grief was fresh and new, Jack hadn't had a chance to even accept the fact that his family was dead before he'd gone into stasis and woken up without his memories.
His memories hadn't been the only thing he'd lost while he'd been under, though. Jack hadn't changed his form into that of a human when he'd come to Earth; Jack was pretty sure there hadn't been any humans yet when he'd landed, even though the Space Distortion Tunnel Jack had used in his escape had most likely spat Jack out at a randomized time period. That meant that Jack's shape had changed either during his stasis or during his awakening.
The Moon had been there when Jack had woken. He had been the one to give Jack a human name, scavenged out of parts of his birth name. Thought the Moon's influence, Jackfruit Frostwin had become Jack Frost. Perhaps the Moon had changed Jack's shape as well, fitting him better into the role intended for him. Jack remembered that Pookas were shape shifters, so it might actually have been easy to alter Jack's appearance.
Not about to rely on someone else for his answers, Jack was attempting to direct his dream-memories towards memories of Pookan shape shifting. Maybe, if Jack could remember how Pookas shifted, he could return back to his own shape under his own power.
So far Jack had remembered that Pookas didn't regularly go changing their organs. It made reverting back into their base form easier. So as long as Jack's insides hadn't been changed by the Moon's magic too much, Jack should be able to claim his own shape. Among all the different organs, the one thing Pookas couldn't alter with their shifting in any way were their eyes. This was to preserve their keen sight. The fact that Jack's eyes were the exact same shade of blue as in his memories was promising.
Jack didn't spend his first winter as a Guardian only learning about his mysterious past. He also learned a few more things about his fellow Guardians, even though he didn't get to see them often during the season that had both him and North so busy.
The big new revelation was that the Guardians didn't celebrate Easter or Christmas. To them, those were work days and not holidays, and Jack understood that. He understood, but he still couldn't help but think that they should try to enjoy their own efforts, like Jack himself had always, even when he was invisible, participated in snow day revels.
Jack wondered if Bunny could perhaps see the beauty of a bright and garishly colorful holiday like Christmas if he could participate in the decoration of a party hall for it. Similarly Jack wondered if maybe North could see the true worth of colorfully painted eggs if he could participate in a hunt for them, racing his friends for who would find the most. Jack also wondered if Tooth and Sandy would see what their ability to extend their influence to everywhere at the same time truly meant if every single meeting didn't devolve into arguing. If maybe they'd see that the power to be everywhere at once was hollow if you didn't use it to be with your friends.
Jack also, very idly, wondered if maybe Bunny would stop badmouthing his ice if he tried ice skating even once. Although, Jack mused, if Bunny ended up falling flat on his face he'd probably just start complaining more.
Maybe Jack was being too harsh with the Guardians. Because, as much as they seemed like sticks in the mud and lacking in social skills, the Guardians really did care about each other. Sandy and Tooth had practically dropped everything when Jack had been hurt and North's yeti catering always included some of the other Guardians' favorite treats: anything alcoholic for Sandy to guzzle down (apparently alcohol helped Sandy pick out tastes), pretzels for Tooth (she enjoyed finger foods) and a large bowl of candied fruit for Jack and Bunny to sneak treats out of (trying to avoid getting spotted by Tooth while they were at it). And Bunny nuzzled the other Guardians like they were his siblings.
Still, after the Christmas rush was finally over halfway through January, Jack broke into the Workshop (it wasn't really very challenging anymore, since most yetis these days didn't blink at Jack showing up at random times) to commandeer the main workroom while it was still abnormally empty. Then, much to the horror of the yetis and the joy of the elves, Jack proceeded to freeze the cleared floor solid.
Phil had cursed bloody murder in Yetish, which called North over quickly. The Santa Claus, however, was very happy to have someone give a present to him, even if it was something as simple as a day of indoors ice skating.
"Should make an event of it!" North cheered as he ordered a reasonably reliable-looking elf to fetch his skates. "We need music and to call friends in!"
Naturally, Jack thought North had meant to call in the other Guardians. That was true, of course, but North's friends ended up being much more numerous than merely that. Which actually explained why North was so different from the other Guardians in his eager openness. North was very willing to meet other spirits and make friends; his occasional lack of social graces was simply due to an overabundance of excitement.
For someone who was part tropical bird, Toothiana proved to be a rather skilled skater, skating circles around a group of selkies who'd left their pelts with the yetis rather than the elves. She was soon challenged to a skate-off by North, with a spirit Jack hadn't seen before (the pink color scheme and heart theme suggested a Valentines' Day spirit of ambiguous gender) cheering loudly and gathering other hapless spirits to serve as judges.
Jack was scolding Sandy for cheating (you can't say you're a skilled skater if your feet don't touch the ice), when he saw Saint Lucia pushing a reluctant-looking Bunny onto the ice. The two light spirits didn't make it far before Bunny slipped and sent them both tumbling down to the ice. For a spirit of Christmas time Saint Lucia wasn't very good on ice, although being dragged down by the unusually clumsy Bunny was probably a good enough excuse.
Never able to resist a target so willingly given, Jack slid over the ice over to the groaning spirits and grinned widely. "Not your sport?"
"Rack off, Frost." Bunny was in fine form today, Jack mused. That growl was downright feral. Lucia, on the other hand, was still squeaking and flailing her arms helplessly, trapped under Bunny's bulk.
"Easy there, Sheila, let me get up," Bunny mumbled as he swung himself into a standing position, almost slipping again before Jack balanced him with his shepherd's crook.
"You take it easy, Cottontail." He smirked at his fellow Guardian. "Wouldn't want to break those old bones."
"You're lucky we're in company," Bunny grumbled while giving Lucia a hand up. The young woman was swiping her long blond strands away from her face to fix her eyes (more like two gleaming lights like lanterns in the distance) on Jack.
"I can leave you two for your snarkfest, if you really need privacy for that sort of thing," Lucia offered in a light voice.
Jack grinned. "In that much of a hurry to ditch Bunny as a skating partner?" he asked. "Not that I blame you since he's so terrible."
"Valentines is over at the makeshift skating contest," Bunny grumbled over Lucia's answering giggles, which prompted Lucia to skate past them. After the female spirit was far enough the Pooka pushed Jack harshly.
Jack skid along the ice, laughing rather than panicking. He made a small pirouette just to annoy Bunny further before he skated back to his companion, circling around the Pooka. "Are you just gonna stand there, Bun-bun?"
"No," Bunny growled, trying to move without slipping. "I'm getting off this bloody ice."
"Aww, I promise I won't push you back," Jack crooned with a grin. "I did already get to see you trip, after all."
Bunny hissed like an angry cat, clearly not on board with the idea. Jack hooked his crook around the other's narrow waist, keeping him upright. "How about I teach you?" the winter spirit offered. "I doubt anyone here knows as much about skating as I do."
The suspicious glower on Bunny's face was answer enough.
"We'll make a trade out of it," Jack hurried on eagerly. "You'll probably be busy with Easter preparations after today, but as soon as Easter's over I'll come over for more Pooka stories." Jack's grin widened. "And jackfruit. Can't forget about the jackfruit."
Bunny's glare lasted a few moments longer before the Pooka's shoulders slumped as the other sighed. "Fine," Bunny mumbled. He waved a finger at Jack. "But trip me up, mate, and there'll be no jackfruit for you."
"Deal." Jack grinned as he started leading Bunny further onto the ice with his crook. He noticed absent-mindedly that Bunny had not threatened to deny him the stories even as he'd denied the treats.
This is something I actually checked. Some countries celebrate Christmas as late as January 7th, due to the different calendars in use in countries like Armenia and Ethiopia. So North does not, in fact, only have one work day a year.
Saint Lucia is a bit different from the type of original characters that usually show up in RotG fics, mostly due to the fact that Saint Lucy's Day is celebrated in the memory of a real life saint. However, due to the highly traditionalized nature of these celebrations, I figured that the day could have a spirit for it (well, if Groundhog Day can have one...)
Chapter 7: Your Eyes Get Darker Every Day
You change in front of me
Your eyes get darker every day
It happens quietly
Your focus slowly burns away
And if you let me hear
The things you seem to wanna say
Though I am late
I will wait to go
Until I know you're somewhere safe
~ Caleb Kane - Once
Jack promised Baby Tooth that his New Year's Resolution was to follow her instructions from hereon out. Baby Tooth was both satisfied with Jack realizing his mistake and flattered by Jack's trust in her abilities, so she was far more ready to help Jack get a firmer grasp on his memories again during the last few months of winter.
One of the hardest things about regaining his identity were the mismatches. There was simply no way around it; Jack's body wasn't that of a Pooka, even as instincts awakened in him that demanded he be one. Rather than experiencing phantom pain, it was more like a phantom itch. Pooka ears itched easily, because of both outside irritants and mental state. Jack's anxious mental state demanded that he have itchy ears but there weren't any long, sensitive ears to get itchy.
There were other things too: the lack of fur, the weirdly-moving legs and being so annoyingly small. Jack had been primarily a Field Pooka, which meant his kind of Pooka were prone to be much taller than Cavern or Mountain variations. In fact, while Bunny was rather tall as well, there was something about his shoulders that hinted at Cavern Pooka descend. Taking that quirk of his build into account, Jack suspected his Pookan base form might have actually been taller than Bunny, even if more slender.
Jack hated losing. And he was losing a fight Bunny didn't even know existed because he still couldn't get back into his proper shape. So now he was stuck not being only scrawny but short too.
Maybe Bunny could tell him how Pookan shape-shifting worked. Jack's memories of shifting lessons so far hadn't dealt with changing back into the base form. To Pookas, it was simply given that Pookas knew how to return to the shape that served as their base.
Base forms could change with time, though. Sex was interchangeable to Pookas; even if you were born with a base form that matched only one physical sex, you could alter your base form so that it matched whatever you felt most comfortable with. This was achieved through simply holding said shape until the body got used to it.
Jack had never done it. He'd always been comfortable being a binary male gender. Because of that he didn't know how it worked in practise. He'd naturally assumed that base forms could only be Pooka-shaped. But what if this physically so much weaker (although he felt magically stronger) form had become his new base after spending three centuries trapped in it?
Just the thought was enough to give Jack a headache. He really would prefer if it was simply a case of a magical block that could be removed. Just the thought of going to Bunny for help and being told it was no good was bad enough that Jack insisted on that being the very last option he'd resort to. Instead he'd try to contact the Moon. If there was a block on his shape-shifting, the Moon had most likely placed it and would therefore be in the best position to remove it.
With that decision made, Jack could get back to thinking about things that didn't have his fingers twitching to scratch imaginary itches. One such thing was his next time seeing Bunny, which was a big thing. The winter spirit could hardly wait for Easter Sunday to come and go so he could get to the Pooka Story Time Monday.
Still, the depth of the influence of his memories became apparent when Jack entered Bunny's Warren again after Easter. Although the Warren was more overrun than Pooka villages tended to be, it really was built to a remarkable likeness of one. Jack now recognized that the stone guardians with flipping faces that had seemed strange before were actually the carvings of guardian spirits that were common in Pooka villages. Even though the ones in Pooka villages usually stayed still watching the city gates instead of wandering around like Bunny's versions did.
The thing was, the Warren felt incredibly homey to Jack, even with its peculiarities. Jack wasn't entirely sure if that was a good thing or not; he wasn't sure how to explain it to Bunny if he got too comfortable in a place that probably didn't seem his style.
"I'm still cleaning up, you know," Bunny said in an exasperated manner when Jack showed up as soon as Easter was over. "You could have waited a day longer, so I could at least have the den cleared out."
"I don't mind a bit of a mess," Jack answered with a wide grin. "I have no standards when it comes to entertaining guests."
"I don't think that's something ya should admit so readily," Bunny mumbled, but let Jack into his house regardless.
This time Jack stuck to Bunny like glue while the Pooka went around his kitchen, even getting a peek at the large storage space under the kitchen. Then the frost spirit proceeded to be a helpful guest and hold the tray of snacks while Bunny cleared the table of assorted painting utensils, tucking everything into the cupboards carefully.
"Have you decided on a topic for today?" Jack asked as he placed the tray onto the cleared space and sat down.
Bunny turned away from the cupboards, towards Jack. "How about art?"
"Art?" Jack's memories so far hadn't involved much art. "Were Pookas really big on art?"
"Like you wouldn't believe." Bunny chuckled to himself as he took a seat opposite to Jack. "Pookas live a long time, so many of 'em would practise more than one craft until they got good at 'em."
Suddenly Jack remembered a pair of twins. "Like learning to play more than one instrument?"
"Not quite," Bunny said with a wave of his hand. "What I mean is Pookas usually picked similar skills to master during their youth and often picked something completely different later on in life, so the skills usually didn't have much to do with each other." Bunny waved towards the art supply cupboard. "Interests change when you get older."
"You didn't always paint?" Jack was rather surprised by that bit of information. Bunny was the epitome of the easily distracted, moody artist. "Seriously?"
"Fair dinkum." Bunny nodded his head in confirmation. "I taught myself after I came here."
"What made you decide that's what you wanted to do?" Jack asked between bites of jackfruit.
Bunny smiled. "I had a friend back home, who could use his magic to paint the most amazing things, from landscapes and people to abstract marvels of pure colour." The Pooka sighed. "My art is a lot more mundane."
Jack thought about the Warren and its artistic marvels: stone sculptures Bunny must have learned to carve after arriving on Earth and plants growing in patterns that had to be planned. It didn't seem mundane to him.
"My family was rather high up socially and they were heavily involved with the military," Bunny went off, either ignoring or not noticing Jack's unconvinced expression. "That put some expectations on me." The Pooka shrugged. "My teaching emphasised strategy and Pookan weapons and it was pretty extensive. There wasn't much room for any of the finer arts."
Jack knew about family expectations. He himself hadn't really gotten any formal training at all, having been taught by his father out in the fields. He'd been expected to take over the plantations after his father retired. His only formal training came after he joined the Academy.
"What about dancing?" Jack grinned at the memory of his mother teaching his sister and him some Pookan folk dances. "You'd think that would fit into a family of high standing." Never mind how some of them had actually been really taxing physically, perfect for staying fit while also having letting lose.
"Not unless a war dance counts." Bunny shifted awkwardly before lifting a hind leg to scratch at one of his long ears. The reaction was some kind of nervous tick, but it also ticked Jack off. The only reason the frost spirit didn't wallop the other over the head with his shepherd's crook was because his hands were taken up by his treat and drink.
Jack then paused to consider the words instead of the gesture, eyes widening. "Really?" It had been an outdated practise by the time Jack attended the Academy, but the Pookas did use to have a dance meant to simulate the fighting spirit.
Bunny grimaced. "I wish I was joshing."
Jack watched the Pooka carefully while he sipped his drink. He couldn't help but wonder...
"What did you think about the training you did receive?" Jack asked. "You seem kinda bitter now, and I get why, but did you find it unfair or anything back then?"
"I was honoured to be a part of the Pookan military," Bunny answered easily. "I got a lot of recognition before I was even fully considered an adult. I couldn't have gotten so far if I hadn't had such intensive training from an early age." Bunny leaned back in his seat, eyes drifting over to the wall above Jack's head. "But I didn't want that to be all that I am."
Honor and recognition in combat weren't really things Jack understood that well. He remembered being proud at the Academy whenever he'd succeeded in an assignment or done well in training. However, his memories of the Fearling War held none of these feelings. There had been no room for pride among the worry for his family, the fear for his life, the determination to win and the despair at the thought of losing.
"Painting is nothing like fighting," Bunny said after a long moment of staring quietly at nothing. "I needed that after everything."
Jack drank his iced tea as he watched his companion in silence. The expression on Bunny's face and the way the green eyes clouded, they rang strangely familiar to Jack, yet he couldn't place just who it was Bunny reminded him of at the moment.
Chapter 8: What Would You Think of Me Now?
What would you think of me now,
so lucky, so strong, so proud?
I never said thank you for that,
now I'll never have a chance
~ Jimmy Eat World - Hear You Me
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was a couple of months before Jack and Bunny could meet up again. Bunny wasn't one to stay still during the spring season and the only points in time he wasn't hopping across the globe were the ones he spent crashing in the grassy fields of the Warren. After trying to poke life back into the Pooka, who slept like the dead, Jack gave up on attempting to badger the other and kept himself entertained elsewhere.
It was a fine chance for him, anyway. Winter had passed in most areas of the world that did get snow, so Jack wasn't swamped with work. Because of that he asked Baby Tooth to help him get further in decoding all of his memories.
Previously when Jack had been reliving his memories, he’d known the people in the memories without knowing them at all. Rather, Jack knew who the Pookas were and what they were to him; he just couldn’t remember any details about them. Now, however, Jack was remembering people rather than events. It probably meant that the memories were becoming more integrated, with Jack regaining lost information instead of viewing scenes like on a television screen.
Jack's best friend was among the first people Jack regained detailed memories of. Jack had met Sage on his first day at the Pooka Battle Academy. Dill Bunnymund, a tall Pooka with dark brown fur, had been Jack's guide as he got settled. The country boy in Jack hadn't been used to encountering outfits that didn't contain the markings for gender identity, and the deep blue uniform of a serving soldier had caused Jack to mistake the large female for a male.
The sound Dill had released at Jack's fumble was the most frightening one Jack had ever heard in his life so far. Then the senior had informed Jack firmly that in a city environment, if you weren't sure of the base gender of the one you were addressing, you used the gender neutral terms. That was the entire reason Pookan language had three pronouns, after all.
So, it was with his new reputation as a 'country hick' established that Jack was introduced to the Pooka who would be serving as his roommate during his time at the Academy. A medium built Pooka with brown fur that was a lot lighter than Dill's almost black pelt, and dressed in the green uniform of a soldier cadet.
Jack didn't even get a chance to say 'hi' before his new roommate was already talking.
"Okay, I really need to get this out of the way while we're still strangers and it'll be the least awkward," the brown Pooka babbled so fast Jack couldn't have followed it if it weren't for the clipped scholarly pronunciation the other spoke in. "You are, no doubt, one of the prettiest Pookas I've ever seen."
He hadn't really seen something like that coming, so Jack merely blinked in stunned silence before the other Pooka offered him a hand in greeting.
"Jackfruit," Jack mumbled as he shook the other's hand. "To be honest, that was pretty awkward anyway."
"As far as ice breakers go, it wasn't that bad, right?" Sage grinned widely. "I have to say I rather hate regular small talk."
"I'm pretty good at meaningless small talk," Jack offered. "I can fill the silences for you."
"Perfect." Sage was upfront; that was Jack's first impression of the other Pooka. It was later proven to be a rather fitting description in general as well, as Jack found Sage was quite open about speaking his mind regardless of situation, or just who he was talking to.
Sage also saw things as frankly as he spoke. This much was apparent when he'd been the only one to figure out why Eucalyptus ended up throwing Rose through a door. Apparently Tulip had not-so-discreetly been attempting to woo the younger Pooka, who'd resorted to the old-fashioned warrior tribe rejection of bodily putting a suitor that was out of turn in their place. Only, Tulip and Rose looked identical, both with russet-colored fur and bright hazel eyes, so Eucalyptus had gotten the twins mixed up and rejected the wrong one. Sage had easily gotten both the offended twins and the subtly panicking Eucalyptus calmed down when he'd taken over the situation.
It was also the first time Jack had seen Eucalyptus' face in any expression other than the general sullen expression of dumb muscle everywhere. It actually made Jack wonder if perhaps what he thought was a thick-headed face was in fact just the other's game face. The metallic blue Pooka certainly didn't seem all that stoic when he'd practically hidden behind Sage's slightly taller form to get away from the pair of twins, one amorous and the other vivid with bruised pride.
Tulip and Rose were both Pookas Jack had known well during his time at the Academy, even if they hadn't been close. They'd been on the same schooling level, sharing several training sessions. The twins were city Pookas, and it showed. They were classy and assertive and skilled with social matters. More used to small family communities, Jack had learned a great deal about interaction within a larger group from those two.
That wasn't to say the two didn't cause some headaches of their own. They had grown up surrounded by the higher class Pookas, and were rather self-entitled because of that. It was most likely the reason Eucalyptus' rejection of Tulip's advances had been so incredibly old-fashioned; it had also been as blatant as he could get while still acting within the boundaries of polite Pookan behavior.
The pair of twins also sneered at Jack as often as they helped him. He was from the countryside, and Tulip and Rose were both well-bred ladies first, warriors second. Jack hadn't judged them for the attitude. After all, he was a family Pooka first and foremost. With the Fearling threat growing in the spacescape, many Pookas who would rather do other things with their lives chose to enlist to end the threat to them all.
The instructors at the Academy were an entirely different matter. They'd been warriors even before the Fearlings rose again as a considerable threat. They were career warriors, to whom battle and the military were their highest priorities. And none of the instructors exemplified this attitude better than Commander Chamomile.
Commander Chamomile was the most hard-laced Pooka Jack had ever met. The former general's face was almost always taken up by a fierce scowl that only emphasised the collection of scars that were either magical and resisted healing and shape-shifting, or were something the older Pooka refused to shift out of sight. Chamomile was part of the generation that believed in full dedication towards a chosen art. Since he was a lifelong warrior, it would make sense for the other to consider each scar a badge of honor.
Jack's generation valued having multiple talents, even if there was more work involved in learning more than one skill. The way Jack's peers looked down on him was the main reason Jack was rather embarrassed over only knowing agriculture when he came to the Academy. The Academy was full of young Pookas from large settlements, who had at least tried out several different skills.
Large settlements had more masters willing to taken on apprentices and Pookas from large families had the connections needed to secure those positions. Jack, unfortunately, was from the highlands that were sparsely populated. He also didn't have many relatives, both of his parents coming from small families and favoring a small family of their own.
No one made comments about Chamomile like they did about Jack, though, and if they did they held hints of admiration rather than scorn. It was hard to make fun of someone who looked like he could break you in half, to be fair. Commander Chamomile was an intimidating Pooka with short, black fur and the heavy build of a Cavern Pooka. Jack, on the other hand, had inherited his mother's soft and white fur, which didn't do him favours on the intimidation front even when coupled with his father's height.
While Jack had never wished he looked like Chamomile, he did envy the respect the former general gained with ease. Even though Jack had been getting better as his skills grew and he started to impress his instructors, and his classmates soon after.
Jack had always hated being ignored or looked down on; that hadn't changed even when he'd lost his memories. The more Jack learned about his past self, the more alike they turned out to be.
It was true that out of the instructors Jack had, Chamomile scared him the most. Despite this he was also the one Jack looked up to the most. Maybe that was why Jack sort of admired North now. While the jolly man had very little in common with the surly instructor personality-wise, they both carried themselves with the air of a seasoned and wizened warrior.
Which was why it was surprising that the only other Pooka around wasn't like that. Yes, Bunny was a skilled and experienced combatant and yes, he'd clearly seen and done things that had left their mark, but he was also incredibly hot-blooded. North's exuberant personality meant that he was easily goaded into things but, according to what Jack had heard from the other Guardians, the man had been a real rabble-rouser and instigator in his youth, only to mellow out (somewhat) after the added duties of Guardianship.
Duty. That seemed a big deal to the Guardians; it was what their lives revolved around. It was what made them settle down. North wasn't counting minutes until his next brawl, Toothiana had retired her impressive swords and the Sandman kept falling asleep standing up. Jack wondered if it was only a matter of time until it happened to him too.
Although, all of the other Guardians were very excitable in their own ways, with the right incentive. Maybe it was more a matter of finding a balance between the sense of duty and eternal youthfulness that seemed to be a part of all Guardians.
Bunny was probably the worst of them on that account. Technically the Easter Bunny was the second oldest Guardian, only being younger than Sandy, who was probably the closest to being eternal. The Pooka had a sense of agelessness to himself, as his traumas were older than the planet. Still, he was temperamental, acted without thinking on occasion and in general made Jack feel like he wasn't surrounded by old fogeys even back when Jack had thought himself only three centuries old.
But maybe Bunny hadn't aged all of his years alive. Maybe Bunny had been hurt when he'd arrived on Earth. It was rather likely, especially since he'd been a warrior at the time. There was no telling how long Bunny had spent detached from time and life, healing his body.
Naturally, Jack had to investigate the matter further and brought it up as soon as spring had faded to summer and both Jack and Bunny had plenty of time to just lounge around in the Warren.
"Hey, Bunny?" Jack spoke when the two had seated themselves atop a hill overlooking the rest of the Warren. Bunny's years turned to Jack's direction as the Pooka let out a sound to signal that he was listening.
"You know how Sandy's falling asleep all the time?" Jack grinned when Bunny turned his head to actually look at him. "Is it because he's so old?"
"It could be because his job's so busy he needs to get his sleep whenever he can, don't be a galah," Bunny said defensively. Then the other huffed. "Why are ya even asking me about that?"
"I'm just wondering if you sleep a lot too, with how you're as old as dirt," Jack said with a toothy grin.
Bunny then proceeded to chase Jack around the field, the two leaping at and dodging each other while the Pooka shouted profanities in strine. Jack was slightly disappointed by the lack of Pookan in the heated shouting. Soon enough they both grew bored with the chase and flopped down to lie down in the grass companionably side by side.
"Actually," Jack spoke again after a bit of silence. "I notice you sleep really rarely. I'm not sure if that's more worrying than narcolepsy would be."
Bunny released a rude sound from his throat. "I sleep when I need it."
"More like you sleep when you crash from needing it too bad." Jack turned his head to stick a tongue out at the other, but Bunny wasn't looking. "What's the longest span of time you've ever slept?"
"That's a tough one." Bunny trailed off as he hummed in thought. "Thousands of years after I landed. I was banged up pretty badly. I hibernated in shorter periods after that, some centuries at a time, working on building the Warren whenever I woke up." Bunny's voice lowered as the Pooka thought back on times long passed. "When I realized no one else would be living here even if I finished it, I stopped waking up."
Numbly, Jack stared at the other and the Pooka covered his face with his hands.
"Shouldn't have said that, I reckon."
Jack swallowed a couple of times, trying to come up with something, anything, to say. "Is that why you don't sleep now?" he finally asked.
Bunny sighed. "I don't sleep cause I'm a workaholic." The other turned his face to Jack and his green eyes stared into Jack's blue ones intently. "It was a long time ago, I'm fine now."
Jack didn't reply in words. Instead he rolled over to cross the distance between them and pressed up against Bunny's side. The Pooka didn't protest the action and Jack released a nervous breath.
'You're not alone,' his body tried to communicate as he threw an arm over his friend's body. 'Just wait for me a bit longer.'
Other more or less helpful notes:
1) Pookas are really stuffy. Using a gendered pronoun with anyone outside your family implies you know them well enough to know their preferred gender. So most people use the neutral variant. Country boy Jack is overly familiar because he's such a friendly guy.
2) Sage's speech pattern is pretty much the 'correct' standard of Pookan. The version of a language that is taught at schools and spoken on national television instead of regional variants.
Chapter 9: We All Fall Short of Glory
Can you imagine a time when the truth ran free?
The birth of a song, the death of a dream
Closer to the edge
This never ending story
Paid for with pride and fate
We all fall short of glory
~ 30 Second to Mars - Closer to the Edge
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack had no idea how to make the situation with Bunny less awkward after the other had slipped up and admitted to attempting to sleep his life away. But, Jack could recall that whenever Jack couldn't come up with a solution to a problem, Sage had usually steamrolled whatever it was with his blunt approach.
So, Jack decided to use the Sage School of Blunt Force Trauma approach to break the ice with him and Bunny. And the most awkward ice breaker he could come up with was the Pookan war dance. Because, really, how old-fashioned was Bunny's family?
"So, you mentioned knowing a Pookan war dance," Jack said as soon as he entered the Warren again.
Bunny jumped a bit, looked pained as he thought back to whatever it was that had brought that on, and grimaced. "Yeah, what about it?"
Jack smirked. "Want to show it to me?"
The question actually managed to startle a laugh out of Bunny, who shook his head. "Maybe some other time, mate." The Pooka gestured towards some walls, which looked like they'd only just recently had the moss scraped off of the carvings. "How about a quick look at the architecture instead?"
"Well," Jack drawled as he observed the walls and realized that yes, Bunny had indeed been cleaning the carvings that depicted some very common Pookan imagery and themes. "If you went through all the trouble of cleaning up, I might as well take a look-see."
The two spent the afternoon doing just that.
Wattle was the one healer at the Pooka Battle Academy that Jack was on friendly terms with. The young healer, only an apprentice back when Jack had started as a cadet, was the one who most often ended up tending to Jack's scrapes, sprains, bruises and singed fur whenever training sessions got heated or the young cadet ended up in a dispute with one of his peers.
Jack wasn't really a trouble maker, per se, but he had an uncanny knack for wandering right into troublesome situations. Most of the situations Jack happened upon involved occasions of hazing gone too far, and some full-out bullying.
Unable to turn his back on a little guy in need even back then, Jack often jumped right in, sometimes attempting to defuse the situation, sometimes blatantly just trying to get the aggressor's attention to move elsewhere from his victim. While Jack learned the basics of dirty fighting very quickly, he did still often end up banged up in his encounters, even when the other party ended up worse off.
Except when he was facing off Tansy. Jack very quickly learned that if Tansy got it into his head to mess someone up, it would be a two-person-going-on-three trip to the infirmary. The first ones heading to the infirmary would be Jack and Tansy's original victim, and the third one would be Tansy when Eucalyptus got his hands on the guy.
Jack suspected that Sage’s jokes about the instructors at the Academy being very much aware of what the students got up to weren’t that far from the mark. How else would Tansy always turn out to have combat practise with Eucalyptus on the very same days he acted unruly? Nasturtium at the very least might have planned it and, judging from how he was much more aggressive with Tansy than others, Eucalyptus might have been in on it all.
Regardless, when Jack and Wattle first met each other after Jack had gotten into his first out of bounds fight at the Academy - which was also the first and last time anyone tried to haze him - neither of them knew that such encounters in the infirmary would become a standard between them.
Wattle was fluffed up in worry, the thick fur of a Mountain Pooka bunching up in amusing ways when it was half-constrained by the wrap-around pale red garb of a Pooka healer. Later Jack would think back on the sight as amusing, but right at the moment Jack was cringing pre-emptively at a lecture he was sure to get.
When Jack had gone through his regular health exam with the head healer Aloe, he'd been lectured on what muscles needed more exercise and what types of alterations his diet would need for him to settle into the military life as smoothly as possible. Jack had dreaded walking into the infirmary with his bleeding ear (seriously, who bites someone's ears?) because he'd been so sure that, with his luck, he'd be ushered right into Aloe's tender mercies.
Only, the healer in charge of him had been an incredibly tiny Pooka with a fluffy, bright yellow pelt and pale green eyes. The small Pooka hadn't judged Jack when he'd asked what had happened, and had even commended Jack standing up to himself when he heard the story.
Jack had immediately known he'd like Healer Wattle.
"You know," Bunny said as he drew sketch after sketch of Pookan clothing styles into his notebook. "Pookas were actually pretty stuffy."
The pair looked down at the image of Pookan formal wear. There were no less than three layers to the female version and the masculine version had even more. Jack knew it was because, generally, male Pooka base forms had shorter fur than female bases, which often had a lot of fluff. Because of that, it was slightly less uncomfortable for male forms to wear several layers.
From his own limited experiences with Pookan formal wear Jack recalled, however, that it was all uncomfortable to everyone involved. This was mostly because they styles had been developed when the Pookan home planet was colder in general, and before Pookas learned to properly heat indoor spaces.
Pookas were fond of tradition, so naturally no one had ever thought to change Pookan formal wear. Actually, Bunny estimation of the Pookan stuffiness was spot-on, although the irony of it all made Jack snort.
"What?" Bunny asked with a quirked brow.
"It's just, it's kind of funny," Jack said and released a short laugh. "I mean, coming from you of all people."
Bunny swiped his fist at Jack's head, but the strike was so half-hearted that Jack avoided it with ease.
"Again, Jackfruit?" was the first thing Wattle said when Jack walked into the infirmary cradling his sprained wrist.
"It's not like I started it," Jack defended as he jumped up to sit on one of the infirmary beds.
"You never do," Wattle mumbled in a worn tone. "It's the one reason I don't leave you to suffer for a bit, even thought I think you should learn to appreciate my efforts to keep you healthy more."
"I do appreciate you," Jack insisted. "I think you're the best healer in the entire Academy."
"Only because I don't scold you like Aloe would." Wattle crossed his arms over the pale red chest of his healer's uniform. "Did you wait until my shift started or did you actually get injured just now?"
Jack raised his hands in a disarming gesture. "I came here as soon as I could."
"Which means you waited until you were sure Aloe was gone." Wattle smiled. "She's not that bad."
"She's your mentor; of course you'd say that." Jack pouted. "To the rest of the world she's a terror."
Wattle only hummed noncommittally in response as he cupped Jack's injured hand between both of his own to pour his magic into it.
"What's the damage?" Jack asked, not really worried. He trusted Wattle's abilities and the injury was minor.
"It should be fine," Wattle answered even as warmth tingled under Jack's skin. The other released Jack's wrist. "Do a twirl with your wrist, like you were drawing." He twirled his own wrist in demonstration, creating green and red spirals into air with his magic. Mountain Pookas were especially likely to have magical talent, which was why they made for such good healers.
Jack rotated his own wrist once and felt no pain. "Seems fine to me." The white Pooka hesitated for a brief moment before speaking again: "How do you draw in thin air like that?"
"Oh, it's really simple." Wattle wiggled his fingers for emphasis, creating tiny starbursts of color. "It's pouring out power, like you do with any magic. The only difference is the job you assign to the power." The golden Pooka grinned in excitement. "You just tell it to take a color."
Jack frowned in consideration. He often used magic on the plants on the family plantations. He had simply never been encouraged to use his magic for things other than work; his father, for one, always cited it as being wasteful. But here at the Academy there wasn't much he could use his magic for, so he might as well have fun with it.
"Could you teach me?" Jack had as much magic as the next Pooka, Pookas being magical beings and all, but Wattle was clearly the one with the know-how here.
It was a statement to just how gentle and patient Wattle was that the other was, in fact, willing to teach Jack right away as long as no new patients were brought into the infirmary. And so, for the next several hours, the infirmary was filled with shapes and squiggly lines and random formations of various colors.
"Wow, Jackfruit, you're a natural at this." Wattle laughed as he watched Jack's handiwork. "That's a whole lot of blue though."
Indeed, most of Jack's shimmering magical creations were bright or dark blue in color.
Jack's ears lowered in embarrassment. "I like blue." It was also the easiest for him, but Jack didn't really feel a need to admit to that.
"So, what about your family?" Jack asked Bunny one day. "My family was really small. It was just my younger sister and my parents; my parents didn't even have siblings." Jack made a face. "My sister was a lot younger than me, so we didn't relate that well. Still loved her to little bits, though."
Bunny smiled. "I had a large family. Siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins of all shapes and sizes." The Pooka's smile faded then. "Growing up was a challenge, trying to get along with the rest of the brood."
Of course Bunny had a large family, if he was one of the Bunnymund clan. Sage had once claimed that the entire reason Pookas referred to each other by first names on all occasions was because any group was bound to have at least two Bunnymunds in it.
"Sibling rivalry?" Jack guessed. They'd talked before about the pressure Bunny had faced, about the expectation to succeed like the rest of his family. It would make sense that the siblings would be pitted against each other in such an environment.
"Like you wouldn't believe." Bunny groaned in exasperation at the mere thought. "My mother had two litters, the first one with four kits and the second one with two. I was the youngest, and the runt to boot. It gave me a lot to prove."
"Was there anyone you got along with?" Jack asked with a slight sinking feeling of sympathy over the fact that Bunny had been an outsider even among his own kind and it wasn't just the product of culture shock after coming to Earth.
"Violet, she was the second youngest after me," Bunny answered readily, smiling softly in remembrance. "Really good with a knife."
It was a strange thing to add about a sister. Jack briefly wondered if the knives referred to cooking skills or combat. With Bunnymunds, it might have been both.
"I was also the closest to our mother growing up," Bunny continued. "She was determined to raise me to follow in her footsteps." Bunny's soft expression turned into a sour frown. "I was her treasure, and my siblings hated me for it."
"She favored you over the others?" Jack hadn't expected that. His own parents had always been so careful to look to both his and his sister's individual needs while also making sure they both felt equally loved. But, such a thing was probably easier to accomplish with a smaller family.
"My mother wasn't a bad person," Bunny insisted sternly. "She was giving and self-sacrificing almost to the degree of fault. But yes, she did play favourites." Bunny sighed, sounding like he'd lost a battle. "She even gave me her name, just to drive the point further. Subtle she wasn't, even though we all loved her."
"Still kind of sucked for you, to be put into that situation," Jack said. He tried not to have his voice sound accusing; he didn't think Bunny would appreciate Jack dissing his mom. "I can't even imagine not getting along with my sister." The winter spirit paused for a moment. "Wait, you said you have your mom's name? So it's a girl name?"
"Pooka names are unisex," Bunny growled in warning. The Pooka then huffed in an offended manner. "And just for that, I ain't telling you my name."
"That's completely unreasonable!" Jack argued. "What am I supposed to call you then if not your name?"
"'Bunny', like everyone else," was the curt answer. Jack made to argue but Bunny cut him off. "I haven't gone by anything else in centuries."
Jack was left to fume after that. Really, Bunny expected Jack to call him by a nickname that was most likely derived from his last name? Pooka didn't do that. Then again, it wasn't like there were other Bunnymunds around to get confused over.
Bunny, you really need to stop, before Jack comes after you with his staff. And not in the fun way either.
Chapter 10: If You See Me Losing Ground
And if you see me losing ground
Don't be afraid to lie
I know the pain inside my heart can't break the fear inside of yours
And if you see me losing faith
In what it means to die
Don't let me leave before I know what lies behind the stained glass doors
~ Demon Hunter - Carry Me Down
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Back again, Jackfruit?" Wattle's voice rang the moment he saw the way Jack limped into the infirmary, favoring his right foot. The other's tone was more amused than annoyed, so Jack smiled at the healer as he sat on top the bed he usually frequented, his bed, so to speak.
"You know me," he said cheekily. "I just enjoy the decor here so much, I simply can't stay away."
"And here I thought you actually came to see me." Wattle released an offended huff. "But I'm only wanted to fix things." The healer looked like he would have liked to grumble some more, but then the doors to the infirmary swung open to let in Eucalyptus. The Pooka looked rather panicked as he rushed into the infirmary.
"Euca!" Wattle snapped as he clapped his hands on the other Pooka's shoulders to stop him in place. "What is it? You're not hurt, so who did you injure this time?" The brief touch of green light around the healer's hands told Jack he'd magically scanned the new arrival's health.
"Don't say that like it's something I do all the time," Eucalyptus said petulantly. The slightly taller Pooka hesitated for a moment. "It's Rose."
"Did you put her through a wall?" Wattle's tone indicated he was joking, but Eucalyptus' ears lowered like he was actually being scolded.
"I'm not that strong." The metallic blue Pooka then mumbled something under his breath.
"What was that?" Wattle asked. "I didn't quite catch that."
Eucalyptus' expression was incredibly dark when he replied: "I threw her through a door."
"I see." Wattle nodded slowly. "Did the door just happen to be there or were you aiming for it?"
Jack was trying hard not to laugh at the indignant sound Eucalyptus released. He knew Eucalyptus checked himself and always made sure not to cause too much damage to his combat partners, and he suspected that Wattle knew this too, so it was not that surprising that the healer could joke about it so easily.
"I thought she was Tulip," Eucalyptus muttered.
"Well, that would have made it okay then." Wattle released his hold on the other Pooka. "Are they bringing her here or should I grab some things?"
"Oh." Eucalyptus straightened up. "She insists she doesn't need a healer," the warrior explained. "You'll need to order her to come in for a check-up."
"Euca," Wattle spoke slowly. "Is Rose even hurt?"
"How should I know?" Eucalyptus snapped, spreading his arms in a frustrated gesture. "That's why I came to you."
Unable to hold back any longer, Jack burst into laughter while Wattle sighed in exasperation.
Eucalyptus only seemed to notice Jack's presence now that he was making noise and his entire posture shrunk and lowered in flustered embarrassment as the bright green eyes darted between Jack and the floor. Before the blue Pooka could spontaneously combust from embarrassment alone, Wattle pushed Eucalyptus out the door.
"Euca, my dear friend," Wattle spoke gently, like to a stubborn child. "I love you like a brother, but if you don't leave right now it'll be you who's injured." With that the healer promptly closed the door on his friend and walked back over to Jack, kneeling down to check the injured leg.
"That idiot," Wattle muttered to himself as his magic scanned Jack's foot for the location of the injury, his hands quickly settling on Jack's ankle. Magical warmth started to spread from that ankle into the entire limb and, when the healer released the appendage, Jack turned the joint to check its condition. The fondly annoyed look on Wattle's face could have been either from Jack's familiarity with joint treatment protocol or from the subject of his previous complaint.
"But he's your idiot, right?" Jack said with a grin.
Wattle sighed and glanced up at Jack's face. "A bit like you, yes." The healer tapped Jack's foot once to check that there weren't any twinges. "I'm constantly cleaning up after you both."
Jack wasn't half bad as a students at the Academy. Actually, he was at the head of his class in many things. Commander training, however, was not one of those things. In fact, Jack was quite certain it was the one subject he was failing. Good thing passing it wasn't mandatory, as the class was merely designed to detect any budding leadership potential in the cadets. Sage had explained to Jack that it was more of a personality test than a class assigned to teach them anything. Actual training for leadership roles came after rising through the ranks and such things were actually topical.
Of course, the fact that Jack kept skipping commander training sessions wasn't helping him 'pass' the subject, and actually flaunted Jack's derision towards authoritative positions. As such, while his peers were in class, the youth climbed all the way to the Meditation Deck, an outdoors garden elevated between the two spires that made up the Academy.
Jack enjoyed the gardens because they reminded him of his highlands home. His family grew many plant variations, some of which were quite exotic, mostly for the use of the medicine industry. But Jack's mother had always been good at caring for the flowers that grew on their surface house as well. Jack was looking forward to a few hours of peace and quiet with just him and the flowers.
Except it weren't just him and the flowers in the garden. The sound of snoring had Jack peeking through the bushes to see who else was skipping out in favor of a lazy day.
The long, red coattails identified the curled up sleeper as a commanding officer before the face did. Jack had never seen General Edelweiss as relaxed as he was when asleep and his distinctive green eyes were closed and hidden from sight. Slowly, Jack crept closer.
It was funny to see someone who was usually so collected like this, lying on his side and snoring loudly. Jack even thought the other was drooling a bit. Really, the great Hope of the People seemed a lot less unapproachable like this. Even the deep red uniform was less intimidating with the way it had been opened. The grey ruff on Edelweiss' chest whitened near his muzzle and looked soft to the touch.
Edelweiss looked the opposite of the classic Pooka general archetype. Soft instead of scarred, relaxed instead of uptight, Edelweiss's youth really shone through right then.
Jack decided to leave the general to his own devices and seated himself to focus on the plantlife surrounding them. He would do what he came here to do, and he could keep an eye on the general too on the side. It was a bit worrying that the general would pick such a place for a nap, after all.
The plants responded to Jack’s magic easily, growing more vibrant and immediately appearing healthier. It was a process that was calming to Jack; magical plantcare had bored him back home, but now it was something familiar and comforting.
There was a snort from Edelweiss and the general woke with a groan. It was only in hindsight that Jack realized that the other Pooka had most likely sensed the magical energy pouring into the plants and had been awakened by the sensation.
“Um…morning?” Jack greeted the other hesitantly. The general merely grunted in response as his sharp, green eyes judged him not a threat. The general sat up, throwing an arm around a knee and regarding Jack.
“I wasn’t expecting any interruptions here of all places,” the older Pooka murmured.
“Is that why you’re sleeping here of all places?” Jack asked, always curious. “This is a pretty unorthodox place for a nap.”
“The outdoors calm me,” Edelweiss answered easily. "I needed it, since I was up all night preparing proposals for battle plans," he explained further. His tone wasn't defensive; rather, the other was stating a fact, something that probably happened quite often.
"You should pace yourself." Jack's worry made him speak out before his common sense could make him shut up. The white Pooka froze in horror at his own presumptuousness, while Edelweiss directed a startled blink at him.
"Are...are you lecturing me?" the general finally asked incredulously.
Jack remained silent for a long moment, unsure of how to proceed. Then Edelweiss laughed.
"I can't remember the last time someone tried to set me straight," the general said. "What's your name, cadet?"
"Jackfruit," Jack answered. There was no point in lying; if Edelweiss wanted to make sure he was disciplined, he’d be easy to find since there weren't that many pure white Pookas at the Academy.
"And I am Edelweiss." Edelweiss smiled and Jack's ears flopped down in unsure embarrassment.
"I know who you are, sir." Jack was surprised he'd gotten the words out without stuttering.
"My reputation precedes me then?" Edelweiss was joking, surely. Jack couldn't help but play along.
"Well, you are this little thing called the Hope of the People." Jack's playful smile faded away when he saw the way Edelweiss' carefree expression changed.
The other Pooka looked almost sorrowful as he turned his gaze to the skyline and murmured: “Right, that little thing.” He got himself under control soon after and gave Jack a smile. “Thank you for your concern, Jackfruit. I do appreciate it.”
“Just don’t tell Commander Chamomile you saw me here. Then I’ll consider us even,” Jack replied as the pair stood up.
Edelweiss smirked. “As long as you don’t tell him you saw me”
Jack was still a bit dumbstruck when Edelweiss left. The general was skipping work? Well, Jack supposed the other deserved a break if he made a habit of working late into night.
I'll probaby include some glimpses of Jack's actual training in later chapters, for all of those wondering just what Jack's beef with commander training is.
Eucalyptus throwing Rose through a wall is actually a part of the whole courtship mess briefly mentioned in an earlier chapter. It was nice to get to show that Eucalyptus really is young for a soldier in this chapter.
Speaking of young soldiers, Edelweiss is also a bit too young for all the burdens and expectations placed on him. His coping mechanisms need work.
Chapter 11: Talk About Things to Come
Well, there's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground
~ James Taylor - Fire and Rain
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Sorry about the inconvenience," Jack spoke as he followed North through the Workshop. His fingers were tapping restlessly even as they held his shepherd's crook. He was nervous, but not of North. He really would have preferred not showing his anxiousness so openly. As a Pooka, he'd had a lifetime to master his body and its reactions; there was no such control in his human body. It was only with the memories of his previous discipline that he realized his current lack of it.
"Is no bother," North insisted with a broad sweep of his arm, which Jack dodged by ducking. "Am surprised you did not ask for such earlier."
"I guess I'm still not comfortable with asking for favors," Jack murmured. "Especially since I sort of got the impression that you don't contact the Man in the Moon unless it's really important."
"Jack." The large man stopped Jack with a hand on the smaller spirit's shoulder. "You are important and your unfinished business with Manny is also important." North steered Jack with the hand on his shoulder. "Go ahead. I'll give you privacy."
Jack entered the room and saw that the skylight was already opening and that the moon crystal was already rising from the floor. Apparently he was expected.
"Uh, hi?" Jack started hesitantly when he stopped in front of the crystal. "I was just wondering, since you're the only other guy I know was around, if you could tell me what happened to my shape-shifting."
Waiting a moment, before sighing, Jack scratched the top of his head. "This is so awkward..." he mumbled to himself.
That was when the crystal lit up with a reflected light. It showed Jack an image of a tiny Pooka bathed in the light of a miniature moon, turning into a human.
"So you did do it," Jack breathed, actually more relieved that it was a spell than annoyed at the Moon's interference. "Can you change me back?"
Another image formed inside the crystal. This new picture showed a view Jack knew well. It was his lake during winter.
"I need to be at my lake?" Jack asked to confirm his understanding of the image. The picture didn't change or waver, so Jack figured he was on the right track. "Should I just head there now or-?"
The image changed once more. The surface of the miniature lake broke, as a silhouette of a human boy rose through the ice.
"The anniversary of the day I woke?" Jack understood that stronger magic was tied to specific points in time and specific places, so this solution made sense to him. It was also the reason Jack superstitiously spent every anniversary of his awakening at the lake regardless.
He'd been hoping it would help his voice reach the Moon during his lonelier years. He hadn't known that direct communication called for moon crystals.
Regardless of his past misfortunes, Jack's life seemed to finally be turning around. The winter spirit grinned widely. Finally, everything was working out.
Jack completed his sword training exercises, and throughout each sequence he completed Commander Nasturtium remained silent. Nasturtium had a tendency to bark sudden, loud commands to the soldiers under his tutelage, just to lecture them sternly if they allowed themselves to falter from their practise. Because of this the silence seemed uncharacteristic.
Nasturtium emphasised focus in his approach to weapons training. Immersion coupled with awareness was the best combination for combat situations as well, according to the experienced warrior. If you knew both yourself and your enemy, your own weapon and that of your opponent, you were much more unlikely to get caught off guard.
Of all the instructors at the Pooka Battle Academy, Nasturtium was the one Jack knew the most about. He wasn't half as hardened as Commander Chamomile, but much more disciplined. While Chamomile sported a myriad of scars whose origins Jack didn't have a clue about, Jack knew a great deal of Nasturtium's history. Mostly because the dusty gray Pooka had served beside Edelweiss himself in the past.
Sage had even told Jack that Nasturtium had been the one to train Edelweiss, and teach the legendary general everything he knew of combat. Jack was willing to believe it; he certainly hadn't thought himself capable of wielding a sword before Nasturtium placed a light blade into his hands and told him to knock himself out.
There was of course more to fighting than just grabbing a weapon and having at it. The first time Jack had held his sword, Nasturtium had ranted at him about his incorrect grip, telling Jack that just because a sword was light, didn't mean it was held in a one-handed grip. Then he'd proceeded to show Jack the correct way to hold the sword.
Primarily Nasturtium relied on two approaches in his teaching. Firstly he allowed his students to make mistakes before correcting them, allowing the contrast to help the message sink in. Secondly he relied on example.
Jack doubted there was another Pooka alive who could wield as many different weapons as Nasturtium. He went through every blow and strike and parry with Jack, showing them at varying speeds to make sure Jack knew what was expected of him.
He also had impeccable eye for matching weapons to warriors. Jack's own light sword had been an immediate match, excellent for quick striking and a fighting style that emphasised dodging and avoiding blows instead of blocking them. Due to Nasturtium's expertise, most warriors who went through his training didn't bother learning another fighting style, settling for whatever Nasturtium recommended.
Career warriors tended to learn more than one fighting style, however, General Edelweiss being one of the more prominent examples. Now that the general was back from his early retirement, Jack was rather hoping for a chance to see just what different weapons Edelweiss had mastered. So far Jack only knew the general's most recognizable weapons, the twin short swords he most often appeared with.
Cohesion between a Pooka and their weapon was important. Commander Nasturtium couldn't shut up about how vital it was, which was why it was so strange he was being so quiet now, when Jack was performing moves that had become routine, a second nature to him. They were exercises, to get a feel of the weapon and ascertain himself that it was still in top-notch condition.
With one last sweep of his blade, Jack took a stance and glanced over to Nasturtium, half-expecting the older Pooka to have fallen asleep standing up. But the commander was wide awake, studying Jack with a careful, measuring look in the bright red eyes that always bothered Jack when he was under their scrutiny.
Red was a predator color, much like bright yellow. Sage sometimes further drove this point home, insisting to Jack that Nasturtium wasn't fully Pooka at all, but part something else. It really wasn't helping Jack's occasional nervousness around the instructor.
"Excellent, Jackfruit," Nasturtium spoke in his even, almost emotionless, tones. "I must say that the light sword was very much the right choice for you."
The way the commander spoke, it gave Jack an idea as to why this training session had been completely one-on-one; it had been a test, which Jack seemed to have passed.
"Thank you, sir." Jack straightened his back, sheathing his blade. "It does feel right."
"A warrior's best friend is their weapon." There was a tone of finality to Nasturtium's words; this truly might be Jack's last lesson with the weapons master. "Your weapon is the partner you rely on the most; if your weapon gives up on you, you are doomed."
"Understood." Jack nodded. He knew this well by now. Maintaining the prime condition of your partner was important.
There was a crack in Nasturtium's stoic expression and Jack finally faltered.
It was slight, but the commander had definitely flashed him a proud smile.
For Jack, life carried on like normal even after he'd found out that he could, in fact, restore his proper shape sometime in the future. Sure, he'd been giddy for the next couple of days (give or take a week), but he'd still made sure to take care of his other responsibilities.
Like playing with the group of children in Burgess. That was a very serious responsibility that Jack simply relished taking care of. Of course, Jamie had taken to referring to his group of friends as 'The Burgess Believers'. Pippa had at first complained about it sounding like a band name, but the others had quickly ruled that the connotation just made the title all the better, and so it had stuck.
Jack was calling some cooler bursts of wind to fend off the worst of the summer heat while he played tag with the kids in the shade of the trees. Even so, it didn’t take long for the children to get too hot to keep running around.
"Are you gonna tell us what had you so dazed last Easter?" Jamie asked when the kids were all flopped down in the shade of the largest tree, stretching their short legs out. Jack paused to consider the question.
Jack had observed the kids’ egg hunt (he wouldn’t call it something so professional as ‘supervising’), but he’d been more than a little distracted at the time by the promise he’d weaselled out of Bunny. He figured that, after dodging questions all through the spring season, he might as well be honest with the kids this time.
“Bunny made a promise to me,” Jack explained. “He said he’d tell me about his people once Easter was over.”
“There are more like him?” Monty asked the question so breathlessly that it came out as little more than wheezing.
“What, did you think he just popped into existence on the very first Easter?” Jack then realized that, while he’d been playing with the kids frequently and listened to them talk about school, family and other things that regular kids’ lives revolved around, he hadn’t actually told them about the rather significant things going on in his life.
“I thought he was just a…super rabbit,” Pippa said and Claude nodded his head in agreement.
“He looked just like a regular rabbit when he was weak,” Jamie said.
“That’s what Pooka infants look like.” Jack could say so with ease. While he had lived a rather isolated life with his family, he had been old enough to remember what his sister had looked like when her first proper pelt grew in. “Bunny’s at his weakest in that state, and Pookas don’t really age like humans do. When they get out of infancy they just keep bettering themselves. Wisdom, strength, magical power, they amass more of all of it for the rest of their lives.”
“Like dragons!” Jamie cried out excitedly and the other kids started beaming too at the thought.
“Excuse me?” Jack wondered how the discussion had turned to dragons of all things.
“I’ve read a lot about dragons and they just keep getting stronger the older they get too.”
“Huh,” Jack murmured thoughtfully. “That’s what humans write about dragons?”
“Oh no.” Jamie’s voice was suddenly low and his expression fell. Jack stiffened in worry. “What?”
“Don’t tell me they’re not real. They have to be real!” Jamie clasped his hands together. “I’ve always wanted to see one.”
“Umm…” Jack looked down at a group of pleading eyes. “I can’t, with a good conscience, condone taking you guys to a dragon.” There was a reason dragons didn’t get holidays for themselves. He’d rather take the kids to the Derelict down South than to see a dragon.
Jamie pouted, while the other kids looked only slightly less disappointed. Then Jamie spoke up again: “I’ve read about Pookas too. They’re black fairies that shift shape into horses or rabbits and play tricks.”
“I’m pretty sure the name’s a coincidence,” Jack answered, unable to even imagine Bunny playing pranks, or being anything like a ‘fairy’, even if humans could get creative with how one could look. Well, he supposed Bunny did kinda do tricks, if you counted crack pot artists that painted everything that stood still long enough as tricksters. “Anyway, they aren’t real. Really.” The irony of him asserting that something was made up didn’t escape him.
“So what kind of Pooka is Bunny then?” Cupcake crossed her arms in a no-nonsense manner and Jack had to pause to think.
What was Bunny like?
“The shape shifting is real,” the winter spirit conceded. “But Bunny would never turn into a horse and Pookas don’t have a set color.” There was another part of the mythological Pookas that didn’t match up; they sounded way too much like predators to be the kind of Pookas Jack himself was. While Pookas did have a warrior culture, that had developed in response to the threat of predator races who had been physically much more imposing than the philosophical Pookas. But that had been several generations before Jack’s birth.
“The whole egg hunt thing is pretty tricksy, though,” Caleb pointed out. He frowned at Jack. “Are you sure they’re not the same thing?”
“Pretty sure,” Jack insisted. He’d looked up Púca myths himself way back when and decided that no self-respecting Pooka would allow such inconsistent, mismatched and unorganized rumors to spread about them. Then again, Bunny wasn’t a ‘self-respecting’ Pooka exactly. He might actually find it all amusing. So, of course, it could also be that the word and only a very lose definition had come from Bunny and the rest was padding created by humans that Bunny had either never heard or was just amused by.
“What did Bunny tell you, Jack?” Jamie hung off Jack’s arm, not liking that the spirit was thinking instead of sharing his knowledge. “You can ask him about other Pookas later, now tell us what he’s already said.”
Jack considered his options for a moment. He decided that, as far as Pookas went, he at least was a trickster. And so he promptly told the kids: “Pookas are aliens.”
The winter spirit figured his days were now numbered. All the way until Jamie told Sophie what he’d heard and the little girl got a new catch phrase. Maybe she’d accept suggestions. ‘Space Bunny Zoom Zoom’ did have a nice ring to it.
Jack is a snot and isn't going to be getting any sweet treats next time a kid calls Bunny anything other than a rabbit.
Also, Jack likes to pretend Bunny doesn't have a sense of humor, because that's more funny to him, but, really, he does know better. I'm not saying the Púca myths were Bunny's idea, but it's the kind of joke he'd appreciate.
Chapter 12: Dreaming of the Things I Do
I'm sitting across from you
And dreaming of the things I do
I don't speak you don't know me at all
For fear of what you might do
I say nothing but stare at you
And I'm dreaming I'm trippin' over you
~ Mika - I See You
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
While Jack had some choice opinions on some of the things his instructors tried to teach him, for the most part he was dedicated to his training. As such, Jack couldn't take the time off from his warrior training to visit his family, since his highlands home was a great distance away from the Academy. Such a trip would certainly cause Jack to fall behind in his studies and, while he'd never truly approved of Jack joining the military, Jack's father would not hear of his son slacking off.
Still, Jack did his best to stay in contact with his family, sending them letters and pictures and sometimes even getting a call through. People weren't really joking when they commented on Jack being a real backwaters type; the family farm Jack had grown up on was extremely isolated from the rest of Pookan society. Not only was there a geological separation, but the region had a charged weather that was good for magically grown plants but not so much for reliable communications.
Jack also received correspondence back. Most of it was pictures. At first they'd been photographs of Poppy's flower arrangements, small signs of the progress she was making. Then there had started being painted images of flower in their place. Poppy's painting had clearly progressed far enough for her to feel confident enough to send her older brother examples of her work.
It made Jack proud, to cover one of the walls in his dorm in his sister's paintings. Even Sage would often pause in the middle of his evening writing to look over the pictures, and Jack felt slightly smug that something his sister had created could distract Sage from something so important to him as his prose.
Because Jack couldn't meet his own family, he understandably wasn't all too keen on hearing about his friend meeting his younger brothers during his leave. Jack's family couldn't travel such a long way, especially not for a short one-day visit. Leave time would have been longer if they hadn't been in the middle of wartime but, as things stood, they really couldn't afford not to constantly train the warriors.
So, it was because Jack was avoiding Sage, to spare his friend his own slightly dampened mood, that the white Pooka warrior ran into another visiting family member. Jack knew the other had to be a visitor, since the Pooka wasn't wearing a uniform, but rather was dressed in an ensemble of soft blue and yellow. Everything from the color choices to the cut of the flowing clothing suggested the visitor was high class and most likely hadn't wielded a weapon at any point.
The clothes on the Pooka probably weighed more then their muscles did. They were even slimmer than what was average for Field Pookas, except for the broad shoulders that seemed only more prominent with the way the folds of the topmost robe sharpened their angles.
Despite the standout colors the other was wearing, Jack very much bumped right into the other Pooka, who remarkably didn't start complaining about Jack messing up his most likely extremely expensive clothing. Instead the newcomer was giving Jack a measuring look with eyes that were such a sharp shade of green that Jack immediately realized where he'd seen it before.
"Hel-lo, beautiful~" the stranger cooed as he, definitely he with a voice that raspy, sidled close to Jack. "What's your name?" The older Pooka reached out a hand but Jack swiftly stepped back.
"Don't touch me," Jack said snappishly. "I don't even know you."
"There's no need to be like that." The other pouted and scratched the back of his head in a gesture that was supposed to be charming. On little children. Then he folded his hands behind his back. "It's not like I'm a bad person to know, y'know. I'm a Bunnymund and all."
Jack's expression was perfectly deadpan. Like the family eyes hadn't given it away. "You don't say."
"Hollyhock, you useless sack!" a new voice screeched and suddenly the offensive Pooka was yanked away from Jack by the tallest female Pooka Jack had seen. Ah, Dill Bunnymund to the rescue. "When you come visit me you're not supposed to use that time to hit on underclassmen!" The deep brown Pooka shook the more earthy-shaded one in her grip.
The tall female turned to Jack and, yeah, there were those eyes again, the exact same shade as her family member.
"I apologise for my brother," Dill spoke in her usual deadpan tones, shooting a glare at her brother, still caught in her grip. "He's not a warrior himself and, so, tends to be useless."
"At least people don't mistake me for the wrong sex..." Hollyhock mumbled, only to be shaken by the female Pooka again. "Dill, please! I'm sorry!"
Jack scowled at being unintentionally reminded of his own faux pas from way back. Hoping that Dill would get a kick out of it rather than be offended, the white Pooka spoke: "Well, not every girl has to be as delicate as you."
Hollyhock gaped in shock as Dill released him to place her hands over her face to block off the laughter coming out of her. The dark brown Pooka was trying hard to remain stoic but finally her hands fell away as she laughed rancorously.
"Oh, I see how it is," Hollyhock sniffed in a wounded manner. "I think I'll go somewhere where I'm appreciated." He didn't make it far before Dill was grabbing the back of his robe again.
"I don't think so, little brother," Dill spoke in a tone that tried to be warning, but she kept giggling slightly between words. "Everything you do while unsupervised will reflect badly on me." She pulled her brother firmly back and looked back to Jack.
"Jackfruit," she spoke, and her tone was the gentlest she'd ever used with him (although that wasn't saying much). "You really aren't that bad for an uncouth countryboy." With that the older Pooka gave him a waving salute with her free hand while the other one was used to drag her brother along as she moved down the hallway.
Jack looked after them for a bit, before shrugging to himself. Eh, Bunnymunds.
Bunny was in a surprisingly good mood the next time Jack visited the Warren. The Pooka practically skipped over to Jack and Jack rotated his shepherd’s crook in his hands in an unsure gesture.
“Hey, Jackie,” Bunny greeted and leaned in. Jack froze in place; usually Bunny only came that close when he was confrontational, but this time the other Guardian seemed happy to see Jack.
The Pooka pressed his face into Jack’s chest, his fur tickling Jack’s chin. Bunny nuzzled Jack’s chest once before pulling back and turning to head deeper into the Warren. “Come on, I wanna show ya something.”
It took Jack a moment to shake off his stupor and start moving. And still his chest remained warm.
That had been it, Jack realized. That was his personal nuzzle. He irrevocably belonged now.
Jack laughed and Bunny turned to give him a curious look, ears tilting towards the frost spirit.
“It’s nothing,” Jack insisted even as Bunny looked unconvinced. “”What were you going to show me?”
“Ya asked me about the Pooka war dance some time ago,” Bunny started, fortunately deciding to lay off any questioning. “This version’s not really a war dance, though, more like a motivational thing. It was used to inspire morale as well as generally increase motivation.”
As a countryside Pooka, Jack actually wasn’t all that knowledgeable about the war dance traditions. It would be a learning experience, hearing about it from someone who understood the intricacies of the customs.
“Are you getting pumped for something?” Jack asked with a grin. Bunny was almost buzzing with anticipation, so he suspected he was right.
“I’ll be replanting a section of the Warren,” Bunny explained. “I hafta change the plants to fit the new season.”
Jack paused to consider that. He frowned at Bunny. “I thought it was always spring in the Warren?”
“It is,” Bunny replied. Jack stared at him for a long moment and finally the Pooka saw it fit to elaborate. “There are colours for seasons in clothes; it’s the same for my Warren and the plants.”
“Like a Halloween color theme for the autumn season?” Jack smiled teasingly. “Black orchids by the color river?”
“Definitely not.” Bunny scoffed. “Bulbophyllum plants prefer a warmer climate; I should plant them in a perpetual sunny spot.”
“Well, if you’re going to start taking suggestions,” Jack drawled. “How about making it a mixed batch with both orange and back orchids? Make it real Halloween-y.”
“I don’t think Calan Gaeaf is coming over,” Bunny commented, completely serious. Right, Jack forgot the two spirits were friends, for a given value of friend since Bunny was weird about things like that. Jack supposed the two fit, spring to autumn, Easter to Halloween, candy for kids and exasperation for Tooth.
“Are you actually taking me seriously?” Jack asked, just to make sure.
Bunny looked over to him, like there was something strange about the question. “Of course, mate,” the Pooka replied. “You’re over often enough for yer opinion to matter.”
Well, Jack mused, no use arguing over that.
They forgot about the war dance completely. Apparently having company for his changing-of-the-season renovation planning gave Bunny all the boost in morale he needed.
Calan Gaeaf is the Welsh first day of winter, 1 November, and also the second say of Samhain and the day after Halloween. I still thought I’d use the name for the spirit of Halloween because, frankly, everything else has been used at least once already.
Chapter 13: I've Rolled the Dice and Questioned My Life
Many times I've walked the line
I've rolled the dice and questioned my life
Many times I sacrificed and dealt with the pain
I've been down this road before
Where the dead ends are
It rains and it pours
I've been down below and
It's the price that I paid
~ Redlight King - Comeback
One of the most startling things Jack found out about Bunny that summer was that Bunny was a geek. He had near-encyclopaedic knowledge of a subject most people or spirits wouldn’t have found half as fascinating as he did, he was passionate about said subject and said subject was a hobby he enjoyed. It also happened to partially be his job, so Jack figured he was excused in not realizing that Bunny was a plant geek.
Jack had thought that the Warren was so full of different plants because of Bunny's whole 'bringer of spring' shtick, and he'd thought new plants always popped up between his visits because Bunny was the kind of fussy type who liked constantly changing his decor. So, Jack hadn't paid it much attention.
Then Jack had encountered Bunny when the crazy Pooka had been stuck between redecorating. Bunny had then promptly asked Jack to pick which of the two different types of myrtle would look better on the shore of the color river. Jack hadn't really seen what the fuss was about, and then Bunny went on a long rant about how many different types of myrtle there were and how he always aimed to have at least one type of myrtle in each of his plant schemes.
Back on his family farm, Jack had learned to care for plants, but he hadn't exactly been taught anything about arrangements. He could spot if a plant had medicinal properties or if it was poisonous by glance alone, but that was the extent of his abilities. This was mostly due to his father's matter-of-fact nature; the older Pooka had only sought to teach his son the vital knowledge needed for doing his job.
Jack's father had never had much time or patience for frivolities, which was the reason Jack hadn't had much time for them either, being trained to tend to the entire plantation by himself. That was most likely why Jack so revelled in having fun now; he'd been that way at the Academy too, when his father's stern expression wasn't there to try to curb his enthusiasm for practically everything anymore.
Of course Bunny's focus on a reasonably simple problem (seriously, he was only going to change the whole flower arrangement again in a month or two) had Jack wondering how his friend had developed this fixation. He just couldn't imagine Bunny always having been like this, even if it did, in a way, fit him as he now was.
"Were you this fascinated by plants even during your warrior years?" Jack asked while Bunny coaxed an ʻōhiʻa tree to start sprouting from the soil by the river bend. Even with Bunny's remarkable magical power, it would take a few more days for the tree to start blooming with red lehua flowers.
"I reckon you could say I was a warrior and a scholar," Bunny spoke softly, hesitantly. "My training focused on strong arts, combat and weapons and strategy, but I also studied family lines." The Pooka touched the trunk of the tree in front of him, the tree barely taller than he was. "Belonging to a renowned family was a big thing in the Pooka culture, and my family was quite highly ranked. I was expected to know everyone's names and who they were related to."
Jack wondered what that had to do with flowers, until he realized that a great deal of Earth plants he had encountered had names that sounded phonetically very similar to Pookan first names. How had Bunny managed that? Having the very flora of Earth serve as some sort of living memorial?
"I did it half-accidentally," Bunny spoke softly, the ʻōhiʻa tree already twice his height as he poured magic into the plant. "I told you I had a bit of a dragged on kip, right? I sort of got connected to the flora while I was sleeping. I'm not sure how it worked, but almost every plant has a Pookan name."
Jack had two guesses as to why something like that had happened, one, the Moon, and two, just plain magic. There were actually many parts of several human languages that had something in common with the Pookan language. It made Jack wonder if Bunny's influence had truly touched only plants.
"You said 'half' accidentally," Jack pointed out, twirling his shepherd's crook. "How does that work?"
"I know I would have wanted to do it," Bunny replied easily (the tree had doubled its height again and was now growing a web of branches). "I thought it would be...well. I don't know how I made it happen, but I willed it to happen."
"Is your connection deeper when you're unconscious?" Jack asked as he watched the tree finally finish growing. There were only beginnings of leaves, but no flower buds, just as he'd expected.
"In a way." Bunny stepped away from the tree, looking slightly worn down and therefore most likely very much done for the day. "I'm less conscious of my body and more conscious of everything else." The Pooka flashed Jack a toothy grin. "I have really trippy dreams."
There was a joke there, but Jack didn't know it. He didn't think he was supposed to, as the statement itself held that touch of wry self-deprecation that was just generally a part of Bunny's sense of humor.
Jack smiled back. "Is this your way of telling me your studies traumatized you for life?"
Bunny actually chuckled at that, amusement making his eyes glimmer in a way that made Jack's Center twang pleasantly.
"Is it really trauma if it makes you better?" Bunny asked as he took a seat beside the young tree, gesturing for Jack to sit down beside him. After the winter spirit had seated himself, the Pooka kept speaking: "It's more a matter of what the words mean. I was pretty much raised to become a defender of my home world; I was tied to that whole. Now they're all literally tied to me."
Stuck between considering the matter morbid and marvelling at the beautiful irony the other had constructed, Jack released a short, helpless chuckle. He wondered if he'd ever look at a plain flower the same way again.
"So every flower is a dead person?" Jack leaned back to lie down in the grass. "How is that not messed up?"
"Well, if ya wanna be pessimistic about it." Bunny snorted. "Never thought I'd say that to you." The other lied down as well. "To me, it's more like each plant lives in honour or someone who didn't."
Jack frowned at the cavern ceiling, the soft glow similar to daylight but without the glare of a sun. It was always spring weather in the Warren, perfect for flowering plants. Perfect for Bunny's grand tribute to his people.
"Do you have favorites?" Jack asked before he could stop himself. It was a way too personal a question, Jack decided, but only after he'd already spoken it.
"Asters," Bunny replied and his tone wasn't offended at all and Jack rolled over to stare at the other's profile. "I really like the Asteraceae family. They mostly bloom in spring." The Pooka shrugged, as that was explanation enough.
Jack laughed again. "You really are a plant geek."
Bunny smiled at the words, then his expression turned a touch more somber. "You were probably asking if there are any rellies there, though." The Pooka turned his head and met Jack's gaze. "I'm not gonna say I never look at plants and remember people they share names with, that would be porky. But these days I do appreciate plants for themselves."
“So?” Jack gave the other a teasing grin. “Are you going to tell me, or are you just going to keep dancing around the subject?”
There was a long silence, Bunny furrowing his brows as his eyes gazed at Jack’s face in a considering manner. Jack forced himself to meet the intense stare and waited for the Pooka to come to a decision.
Finally, Bunny opened his mouth and spoke: “That fruit you’re so fond of.”
“Huh?” Jack blinked, trying to catch up to what Bunny was talking about.
“There are connotations there,” Bunny carried on and Jack wondered if the other was talking about pineapple, which was a long time favorite of Jack’s. “There was someone I knew who was…” The Pooka grunted and sat up, Jack following suit. “I mean, I sort of…” Bunny groaned and covered his face with a hand. “Never mind.”
“No way!” Jack cried out as the other stood up. The frost spirit jumped up to make sure the other wasn’t escaping. “Tell me!”
“No, definitely not,” Bunny said insistently. “This was a bad idea, terrible even.”
“Come ooooon, Bun-bun,” Jack whined as he grabbed the other’s shoulders and hung off them. “Teeeel meeeee. You can’t just start something and not finish it.”
Bunny brushed Jack’s grip off, rather roughly, and hissed in a positively feline manner. He reached up a hand and massaged his right temple, like somehow dealing with Jack had given him a migraine. “No.”
Jack kept looking at the other expectantly. Bunny growled and slid his hand to cover his right eye in its entirety. “I instantly regret even breaching this topic with ya.” The Pooka glowered at Jack. “I’m not gonna discuss Jackfruit with ya, Jack.”
“What?” Jack’s mind was reeling. There was no way, absolutely no way, that Bunny was talking about him. Jack was pretty sure he’d remember someone like Bunny. Except there had been millennia between then and now for Bunny, aeons of time that Jack had never gone through but Bunny had, having experiences and growing. Had he known anyone like Bunny before?
That train of thought stuttered to a halt when Jack realized that Bunny looked pained. The Pooka was clamping his hand over his right eye like there was something actually wrong with it instead of the gesture just being an annoyed tick like Jack had first assumed. He moved closer to his friend.
“Hey, Bun-bun.” He kept his voice low, feeling like he should be careful with Bunny. “Is something wrong?”
“She’ll be apples, mate.” Bunny attempted to grin through his grimace. “Just an old battle scar. It tends to twinge whenever I get too cross.”
Jack hummed as he tilted his head to see under Bunny’s hand, like the injury would somehow suddenly be more visible just because Bunny was feeling it. “That when you kicked the bucket?”
“Nah.” Bunny shook his head. “This happened later, when I first joined the Guardians.”
The hint of a more complex story had Jack pausing. He’d kind of thought the other Guardians had always been around as a unit, but yeah, it did make more sense that they’d have to have been assembled.
“How did that come to happen?”
“It’s not that different from your story,” Bunny insisted nonchalantly. “There was someone the others couldn’t beat on their own so Manny pointed them to my direction but I was too much of a loner hermit to go for it.” The Pooka lowered his hand from his face. “Went in on my own half-cocked and got my eye stabbed.”
Jack really couldn’t see anything about Bunny’s eye that hinted at a scar. He supposed it might have been a paler shade of green than the left one, but that could have just been a trick of the light. “That sounds way different from my story.”
“Cracked power conduit, pierced eye, it’s not that big of a difference. Both hurt when they happened.” Bunny shrugged his broad shoulders. “If ya really wanna hear the whole story, I suggest going to Tooth. She tells it much better and makes me sound less like a chump.”
“Maybe I will.” Jack grinned. “Or maybe I’ll keep pestering you until you give in.”
Bunny’s face was like steel. “Not gonna happen, mate.”
Jack knew when to change the subject. So he promptly asked what other plants Bunny had picked out for the season. That improved Bunny’s mood greatly and the Pooka’s right eye didn’t as much as twitch for the rest of Jack’s visit.
Chapter 14: The Faces Left Behind
We have had the time of our lives
Now the page is turned
The stories we will write
We have had the time of our lives
And I will not forget
The faces left behind
~ Tyrone Wells - Time of Our Lives
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first thing Jack did was seek out Baby Tooth. The naturally resurfacing memories were random; they wouldn't help him when there was something specific he needed to learn about. So, he made sure Baby Tooth had some time off before the two of them found a secluded place where Baby Tooth could use her magic to bring more direction and reason to the memories that Jack's healing mind and preserved tooth would bring out.
Jack gripped the tooth hard and tried to create a clear mental image. He knew his active thoughts influenced what memories Baby Tooth's magic brought out. That was why he was doing his best to think about Bunny. He thought about Bunny fussing over his plants, about Bunny losing all sense of time and his surrounding when painting, about how Bunny's very expression had closed off when he refused to discuss 'Jackfruit'.
'Is there anyone in my memories who's like him?' Jack thought as he remembered curling up around Bunny to try and ease the other's isolation. Jack thought about how they both enjoyed sweet fruits, how it was probably a result of the expectations they'd had to deal with a young age, the sweetness serving as a little piece of a childhood they hadn't been allowed.
He briefly recalled how he'd attempted to teach Bunny skating, how he didn't really mind doing things other than talking about Pookas with Bunny. He remembered the warmth of Bunny nuzzling him like they were family for the first time. He thought about the similar feeling he'd had when Bunny had asked his opinion on decorating his Warren.
The stream of consciousness settled and for a moment the world was a familiar kaleidoscope.
Fur brightness was an attractiveness factor among Pookas. As such, Jack's white fur was a trait that was highly sought after. And so, Hollyhock's offer had been neither the first nor the last of such offers that Jack had received during his training at the Academy. Although that was what they stayed as: offers. Queries if Jack was open to be courted, to which the answer was 'no'.
It was always supposed to be temporary, the time Jack spent in the military. He was fully intending on returning back to his home farm when the war was over and the Fearlings were locked away again. Because of that Jack really didn't want to form any commitments that would make it harder to leave.
Meaningful courtship between Pookas went beyond words and flirtation. It was customary for a suitor the give their intended a flower as a sign of devotion. The flower itself didn't matter as much as the effort that went into obtaining it. That effort, the distance travelled or the obstacles overcome, showed the dedication of the suitor. The flower didn't really matter but if the one being courted told the suitor their favorite flower, it was a sign of their openness towards the suit.
Jack had never received a flower, but he did once get to see the Pooka flower courtship in real life. He'd been getting patched up by Wattle in the infirmary (again) when Dill Bunnymund had walked in. Eucalyptus had rushed in hot on her heels before settling beside Wattle like a bodyguard.
It also brought the younger Pooka unusually close to Jack, since the position had him forcing his way between Wattle and the infirmary bed Jack was sitting on. Still, it gave Jack a fine chance to observe the proceedings.
Dill had used her time off, fully trained soldiers receiving more privileges than mere cadets, to retrieve one of the flowers that grew on the high mountains where Wattle was from. Only, she did one better and climbed to the highest peak where such flowers still survived, and brought it back to present to Wattle.
Wattle was rather speechless at the gesture, but Eucalyptus proceeded to give Dill a speech on treating Wattle right, like he was the healer's brother instead of just best friend. Dill, however, actually seemed more amused by it than anything.
"Wattle's tough as they come, he wouldn't be in the military otherwise," Eucalyptus spoke while glowering up at Dill's stoic face. "Even so, if you hurt his feelings, his gentle heart, I will never forgive you."
"Euca." Dill reached out her hand, pulling Eucalyptus' own off from the cross he'd made over his chest and held it in her own. "I know all this; you're the one who introduced us. I like his strength and gentleness. It's why I'm courting him."
Eucalyptus took a deep breath and released it, his shoulders heaving with it. "Yes. Of course."
"You can trust me," Dill insisted, hand squeezing Eucalyptus' before releasing him.
With another deep breath, Eucalyptus nodded and stepped aside to let Dill walk up to Wattle. She presented the golden healer with the mountain flower. It was a broad, white bloom with a center as black as deep space. Wattle accepted the flower with a smile.
"It's my favorite," the healer murmured.
Dill's lips quirked into a smile. "I know."
Jack was happy for Wattle in that moment, and kind of for Dill too. The female warrior scared him sometimes but she did deserve to be happy. He slid off his seat and bumped his elbow into Eucalyptus’ side.
“Wattle grew up so fast, didn’t he?”
Eucalyptus crossed his arms once more. “He’s older than me, you know.”
Yeah, well, Mountain Pookas were short. And Eucalyptus was insanely young. Especially considering what a sharp shade the blue of his fur was. It would start growing more gray and less blue when the other Pooka reached full adulthood.
Jack gave the younger Pooka a measuring once-over. “Are you even old enough to be in the military?”
Eucalyptus bristled in response, but refrained from a verbal response when he noticed that Dill and Wattle were now paying more attention to the two of them than each other.
“When’s one of you going to retrieve a flower for the other?” Dill asked and she actually smirked.
Eucalyptus huffed and stomped out of the infirmary, grumbling obscenities under his breath all the way. Not about to be left behind to deal with the love-addled thought processes of the newly-engaged, Jack rushed out of the room after the younger Pooka.
“Wait up, Eucalyptus!” Jack fell into step beside the fuming warrior. “Should someone your age really be cussing?”
He barely managed to avoid the fist aimed at his head.
Time and space reset themselves and Jack was left glaring at the tooth. Why would thinking about Bunny remind Jack of Pooka courtship?
Bunny's favorite flowers were asters.
Jack shook his head fiercely. He wasn't going to think about this. He wasn't even going to consider it. He had more important things to think about, like finding out Bunny's real name.
He tried to focus on the superficial. He thought about Bunny's fighting style, his strong voice and the inspiring optimism.
A new memory unravelled and Jack became aware of a deep feeling of: 'I'm not good enough.'
"I don't think I'm cut out to be a soldier," Jack spoke as he observed the space beyond the window in front of him. He was on his first posting, a recent Academy graduate. The present mind of Jack received the knowledge that he was on the flagship Eucalyptus and realized that this was both the first and last post he'd ever been assigned.
"Soldiers aren't born, Jackfruit," a low voice spoke and Jack straightened his shoulders at his general's voice. "Unless we're talking about figurative rebirth."
"You're saying experiences shape us, sir?" Jack turned to the Hope of the People.
Edelweiss smiled softly. "Just 'Edelweiss' will do, Jackfruit," the general spoke carelessly. "I'm here as a tactical advisor, not a commander." He shrugged, the red uniform stretching around broad shoulders. "And I owe you for taking care of me."
The green eyes gave Jack a playful look and Jack huffed self-consciously.
"More like I'm in the habit of speaking out of turn to you."
"I really don't mind," Edelweiss said softly, connecting his hands behind his back as he regarded the slightly shorter Jack. "Now, what makes you think you're not worthy?"
"I just don't have the warrior life in me," Jack explained. "I only joined the army to protect my family and I have no intention of staying in service after the war."
Edelweiss inhaled and exhaled slowly, considering. Then he spoke: "And why is that a worse reason than any other?"
Briefly, Jack wondered if Edelweiss was merely humoring him due to his position as a pillar of morality. Still, he replied: "I couldn't have fighting as a way of life, not like true warriors."
"Even lifetime warriors have a reason to fight," Edelweiss insisted. "No one reason to fight is worse than another. The only loss is a lack of reason. To fight without a reason is to fight without conviction, without stakes, without heart."
"Without hope," Jack finished softly and saw Edelweiss smile slowly, proudly. "Are you pep talking me because it's your job?"
Edelweiss frowned at that. "What do you think it means, to be the Hope of the People?" the older Pooka asked and Jack stood still. He didn't even dare breathe. There was only one right answer.
"To inspire hope in the people."
Edelweiss cocked his head to the side. "And where does the Hope get their hope, to so brazenly share it around?"
Jack didn't have enough time to really panic over such a fundamental part of their culture being questioned before Edelweiss was already continuing: "Hope is about caring. To inspire hope is to care and I care."
Edelweiss glanced through the window, but not at the infinity beyond. His eyes were focused on the planet that was the Pooka homeworld. Jack himself had been marvelling at the beauty and color of a living planet before he'd been distracted by the expanse of infinite space.
"I care for children, so they are my hope, Jackfruit," Edelweiss spoke softly, his eyes never straying from the homeworld. "Children are too young to fight or defend themselves and they rely on us to do it for them. When the fighting is done, they can grow up safe, hearts untouched by the fear and despair of fighting a war."
Edelweiss withdrew from the window, straightening his back. His eyes met Jack's once more. "I am the Hope of the People. Every child is one of mine."
"Hope," Jack's lips spoke and Baby Tooth's chirps pulled him back to the present. "Well, doesn't that just make it obvious."
Jack offered a hand and Baby Tooth landed there.
"Edelweiss Bunnymund isn't so terrible, as far as alien names go," Jack murmured. General Edelweiss was an easy Pooka to like, but incredibly intense and hard to approach. Jack scratched his head.
"Totally out of my league," he said with conviction and then frowned. What did he care? It wasn't like he'd ever look at Bunny like that. Or the general. Definitely not the general.
Definitely not Bunny.
Jack has it all figured out. Except for the part where he's in denial about wanting to court Bunny.
Chapter 15: The One I Want to Protect
Because in those frozen eyes that is resting on my shoulders
I have found the one I want to protect
At the next dawn, the fragment that has rusted to regret in my hands
It changes into light
~ Kotoko - Agony
The memories that came to Jack in his dreams took cues from the ones Baby Tooth had awakened. Jack remembered when he'd gone up to the Academy garden soon after Nasturtium had stated his training to having been completed. Jack knew that he'd be receiving his first orders as a fully serving soldier soon, and he'd wanted a chance to spend some time with the plants before that.
It was very likely he'd be positioned on a starship, Jack mused as a vine stretched out to curl around his fingers. The long distance ships had already been dispatched to counter the Fearling menace near the Shooting Star territories. Fearlings couldn't stand light, so there was naturally a deep rivalry between the Fearlings and the Shooting Stars.
Jack wasn’t expecting to suddenly sense someone standing right behind him. Startled, the white Pooka yelped before striking out with a backhand. The strike landed smack-middle Eucalyptus’ face.
“Augh!” the smaller Pooka keened as he promptly retreated from Jack and covered his muzzle with his hands. “What was that for?”
“Sorry!” Jack lifted his hands in a disarming gesture. “You startled me.” He paused and frowned at the other Pooka. “Why were you sneaking up on me anyway?”
“I wanted to see you do magic.” Eucalyptus’ ears were pulled so far back that they touched the flaring collar of his soldier’s uniform. “I thought you’d stop if you knew someone was watching.”
“What?” Jack asked incredulously. “No one’s taught Mr. Talent magic?” His eyes kept drifting to the other’s blue jacket. “And when did you graduate?”
“I have very specialized abilities,” Eucalyptus snapped. “Abilities that are needed.”
“So they yanked you out of training?” That was actually pretty terrible. Skills or not, Eucalyptus was just young enough to incite protective instincts in Jack, especially when he was hurt like this, even if it was only slightly (and because of Jack himself.).
“I’ve been trained enough.” Eucalyptus released his muzzle to cross his arms. “I was qualified for service before I even entered the Academy.”
Judging from everything Jack had learned about warrior clans since arriving at the Academy, it wouldn’t be surprising if Eucalyptus’ training had started as soon as he’d developed enough coordination to hold a battle stance. The early specialization certainly explained the lack of magical training. As such, it was very likely that the small Pooka was a more competent warrior than several of his elders who came from a different background. He’d certainly showed enough skill for that to be the case.
It still made Jack uncomfortable, the way some family lines pushed their members. Jack had always known what was expected of him, but he’d been allowed to learn at a much more sedate pace.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the least hostile look you’ve ever given me,” Eucalyptus commented suddenly, arms still crossed. “You feel sorry for me.”
“Well, it sucks, not being allowed to just be,” Jack grumbled. “I’m not a jerk. I don’t enjoy it when others have a hard time.”
Eucalyptus smirked. It was the closest thing to a smile Jack had ever seen from the younger Pooka. “I know that.”
“Really?” Jack blinked. He hadn’t known the other was that aware of him.
“Your excursions to the infirmary aren’t some kind of a secret.” Eucalyptus’ lips twitched into a slightly more genuine expression. “You’re a regular protector.”
“I just don’t like bullies,” Jack defended, embarrassed over the topic. Eucalyptus looked like he had something more to say, probably something to embarrass Jack further, but his gaze grew distant and he suddenly shifted restlessly.
“I have to go.” With that, the younger Pooka rushed off and Jack was left staring after him curiously.
“Jackfruit.” A sudden new voice speaking his name from behind had Jack once again starting and swinging his hand around on instinct. Only, this time his knuckles met against the surface of a hard folder.
“Ow.” Jack cradled his hand and raised his eyes to Edelweiss’ immensely amused face. The smile on the taller Pooka’s face was distracting to look at and Jack tried to remember if he’d seen one its like before.
“Sorry about startling you there,” Edelweiss spoke, completely ignoring that Jack hadn’t even greeted him as he flipped his folder open to pull out a sheet of paper. “I have your first orders right here.”
Jack mumbled unintelligibly in response, hoping to somehow convey ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘Thanks,’ and ‘Sorry about trying to hit you,’ in a single stream of sounds. He accepted the sheet and gave it a cursory glance. “Eucalyptus?”
“Finest ship in the Pooka fleet. It’s my favourite in particular.” Edelweiss snapped the folder shut, giving Jack a brief flash of a friendly smile. “I’ll be seeing you there.”
“You’re serving too, so soon?” Jack asked, finally over the name of the ship. “Will you be alright, being so freshly out of retirement?”
Edelweiss’ lips twitched and Jack felt like he’d only barely escaped being laughed at. “Are you going to make a habit of worrying about my health?” the general asked with barely concealed amusement.
Jack floundered a bit in embarrassment. “It’s not like it’s my place,” he grumbled.
There was no censure on the general’s face, however, when he answered: “I was called in to serve as a tactical advisor. The commanders have no intention of letting me go out on the field.” For the first time in the conversation Edelweiss’ good humor vanished. “They’d rather tote me around a base.”
Of course. Edelweiss was important to morale, so it made sense not to risk him. Jack could tell that saying so would not go over well with the general in question, though, so he kept quiet.
It was still almost like a dream come true, serving together with General Edelweiss.
Jack didn't think he was taking the revelation of Bunny's real identity all that well. He started to suspect it when Bunny's new habitual greeting of nuzzling his chest had him screeching and jumping away in response.
"Jackie?" Bunny tilted his head with a thoughtful frown. "Are ya alright there, mate?"
"Fine," Jack replied, and tried to convince himself that his voice didn't squeak. "I'm perfect. Couldn't be better."
"I'm not so sure I believe ya, mate," Bunny said, hands planted on his hips. "But you're allowed yer privacy so I won't press." The Pooka smirked. "Unlike some people, I know how to respect someone not wanting ta talk."
Jack glowered at the other spirit, not amused. Bunny just continued to look pleased with himself for a few moments longer before going back to the sketch book he'd abandoned in favor of greeting Jack properly.
"I'm in the middle of something but ya can stay and help yerself to some snacks," the Pooka said and Jack did as instructed, seating himself down next to his friend and grabbing a handful of dried fruit from a large bowl. He proceeded to slowly chew while he observed Bunny's profile, thinking.
The thing was, Jack was starting to think like a Pooka. He’d had three centuries to learn to think like a human, but what was three hundred when measured against three thousand? And Jack had been thinking like a Pooka for much longer than that, even if he had forgotten for a while.
As far as Jack had considered things strictly from his human perspective, Bunny was good company. He saw Bunny as someone he wanted as a friend, despite the anger issues the other frequently displayed. Most likely Bunny had just gone a touch savage in his isolation, as the Pooka had been acting downright mellow ever since Jack had gotten close enough.
The part of Jack that was starting to think like a Pooka wasn't satisfied with just that. This part of Jack looked at the other Pooka, and then just kept looking. Jack had first approached Bunny because he wanted Bunny to help him with his memories, even if unknowingly. Now, however, Bunny was someone he considered a friend, someone who'd been accepted by the part of him that had been wandering around lost for three centuries. A much older part of Jack, newly awakened, was growing more insistent over the fact that Bunny was his people, all that remained of them, and that Jack had to keep him as close as possible so as not to lose it all.
So, Jack watched Bunny a lot. He made note of all the things that made Bunny 'Pooka', while curious about the other things that made the Pooka 'Bunny'. The ear-scratching, the lack of clothing and the clingy nuzzling were all things that had ticked Jack off when he'd only looked at Bunny as a means to an end. Now, his reactions to Bunny's ticks were more along the lines of fond exasperation.
That much Jack was fine with. Only, it all went deeper. Jack couldn’t help but notice Bunny’s physique, and when he noticed it, he started thinking strange things. The grey Pooka was lithe and fast, but at the same time full of measured strength. It was no wonder that out of all others, he had been the one to survive the eradication of their race. Bunny was, to put it simply, a fine specimen that showed off the best the Pooka race could offer.
Just because Jack couldn’t not notice it, didn’t mean he had to stare, though. But he still ended up staring. And he ended up thinking those thoughts, the thoughts that sounded like he wanted to be more than Bunny's friend.
Jack didn't want to be like the Pookas who'd approached him back in the Academy. He didn't want to be one of those Pookas who looked at someone and judged them solely based on their physical attributes and thought: 'Yes, I want to make children with that.' It was creepy.
Then again, Jack didn't feel creepy. Not when he and Bunny sat side by side overlooking a blooming field, enjoying the forever spring of the Warren. It didn't feel creepy at all to ignore his sweet fruit treats in favor of observing Bunny's profile, of watching the peace that had only ever crossed General Edelweiss' face in sleep. He didn't feel creepy wanting to watch Bunny sleep and see what expression came over his face in the moments of waking up.
All in all, Bunny made Jack feel domestic, and that was just all kinds of weird. He didn't know if it was just because Bunny was the only other Pooka around, or if the proximity he'd been seeking out with the other Guardian had led to the softer feelings developing. For now he'd just have to do his best to keep those intruding thoughts and feelings from messing everything up for him.
Chapter 16: We Both Matter, Don't We?
You don't want to hurt me
But see how deep the bullet lies
Unaware that I'm tearing you asunder
There is thunder in our hearts, baby
So much hate for the ones we love?
Tell me, we both matter, don't we?
~ Kate Bush - Running Up That Hill
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack hadn’t really known what his easy rapport with General Edelweiss would lead to. As such, he hadn’t expected the revelation that he’d become the general’s confidant. Neither had he expected all the things the general would come to tell him during the time they served together on the Flagship Eucalyptus.
There are some things you never want to know about someone you consider your hero.
It had been Jack who'd brought the topic up, in his naïveté. He'd wanted to hear more about the previous Fearling War, the one where Edelweiss had impressed everyone with his skill and intelligence, rising first to the rank of general and then. When the Fearlings had finally been sealed away, he'd gained the moniker of 'the Hope of the People', a title of great prestige among the Pookas.
He should have known better. He'd talked enough with the general to know better than to breach that subject. At best it had only ever made Edelweiss introspective and forlorn. This time the green eyes flashed in a clear show of temper.
"How about I tell you what happened after the war instead?" Edelweiss didn't sound exactly angry as he spoke, but there was a certain unmistakably bitter edge to his voice.
"You retired, right?" Jack realized just as he spoke the words that there had undoubtedly been a reason Edelweiss had wanted to retire. He was young, insanely young for a general, and there had been no debilitating injury to explain him leaving service and vanishing from the public sphere so suddenly and completely.
"I ran away," General Edelweiss spoke in a soft voice, gaze intense. "I didn't want to be some icon. I wanted to exist for myself and live how I wanted, be with who I wanted." The older Pooka sighed, shoulders heaving and slumping. "It was selfish, but it was much later that I realized my mistake and I've been making up for it since."
Never mind risking his life on the battlefield, this kind of attitude in the Hope of the People would be the real morale killer if it got around. Which was why it was so unnerving that Edelweiss would admit to it, even if it was to teach Jack something.
"Why are you telling me this?" Jack asked with a frown.
Edelweiss' lips twitched in a ghost of a smile. "Because I trust you, even if you wear me down with this hero worship." The general's expression turned sombre. "Also, I have an assignment for you."
Jack's primary position when he'd been moved to the flagship was as a scout. Most likely the other had an information gathering mission in mind.
"I may have gained my position due to my service in the war, but there was someone else involved who was more instrumental to victory over the Fearlings," Edelweiss explained. "General Kozmotis Pitchiner. I fought beside him at several points; he was a friend. Last I heard of him he was placed in charge of the Fearling prison."
It made sense to scout out the prison to see what might have caused the Fearlings to escape their captivity. Doing a personal errand on the side for General Edelweiss - a bit of a broken pedestal due to the bitterness he hid that Jack had discovered, but still someone Jack was starting to consider a friend - wasn't really that much to ask.
"I'll find out what happened to him." Jack nodded his head.
Edelweiss sighed, a soft relieved sound. "Thank you."
Scouting out the emptied out prison was actually Jack's first mission on the crew of Eucalyptus. This was the most likely reason that Edelweiss had called Jack to his office to make his request to him; the general must have known about the orders beforehand.
It was a very standard mission; there had been no Fearling sightings around the prison since the breakout. That was the most likely reason that the mission was given to fresh Academy graduates. It would serve as a way to gain practical experience on how to work the scouting equipment while on a mission.
Still, since they were dealing with Fearlings, they did send a more heavily armed combat unit along with Jack and his fellow scout Fern. Thyme Bunnymund was a senior warrior temporarily serving on the flagship while the new graduates got settled in their roles. The grey and brown Pooka usually served as a part of the topworld forces, and would resume his usual duties after this assignment.
So they had better make the assignment snappy. Fern turned out to be really good at sniffing out clues, having finely honed senses even for a Pooka. The tan Pooka impressed Jack greatly when she easily found what used to be the prison's main control room.
The prison had been built in a confusing, asymmetrical pattern to make escaping more difficult to manage, so it was a wonder how the Fearlings had managed it with no word getting out. The first time the main worlds heard about the breakout was when the Fearling sightings had started coming in. As such, it was vital to find out exactly what had gone wrong in the facility.
As it turned out, they really needed only one video file to find out what had happened. Still, Fern proceeded to download most of the content on the mainframe, just to be sure they didn't miss any valuable data. Jack took a copy of the video file in question to present to Edelweiss while keeping an eye on the monitors and Thyme kept a careful watch at the doorway.
There were no signs of Fealings, which meant that the data they were retrieving hadn't been worth protecting. While Fearlings were more of a force of destruction and such an attitude made sense for them, Jack had been surprised that Kozmotis Pitchiner had not placed any sentries. Which meant that he didn't care if anyone found out that he had betrayed the Constellations, the Tsar and everyone else.
Because that was what the video file showed. General Pitchiner had personally opened the door to the cell that contained the Fearlings, unleashing their plague upon all of space. It was a betrayal of the worst sort, and Jack wondered how Edelweiss would take it when he found out his friend was a traitor.
The answer was 'not well'. Edelweiss had smiled softly when he'd thanked Jack for his efforts as he'd slid the data slug he'd been given into a handheld platform. A moment later the smile turned into an expression that could have felled a person, and the general's hands shook like he was moments away from snapping the data file in half in his grasp.
Jack had no doubt that if they hadn't been in a public space like the dining area, Edelweiss would have shown off just how a betrayal of this magnitude made him feel. But, here and now the general's impressive self-control held strong.
"Excuse me, Jackfruit," Edelweiss spoke in a voice too low to have a tone, which was most likely the only reason he wasn't snarling. "I need to process this."
"Yeah, I understand," Jack answered. It would be for the best if Edelweiss could deal with this by himself. Maybe flip a table when no one was looking or something. Or maybe he'd do something more downplayed. This war might have been straining Edelweiss' nerves, but so far he didn't seem to be even close to letting go of his iron control on his emotions.
It actually worried Jack a bit. His most recent discussion with Edelweiss had revealed to him that the general was very capable of feeling things deeply. His confession to Jack had seemed like a catharsis, and Jack worried that the general would bottle his emotions up. If he didn't let them out with Jack, who could he turn to?
Jack did the thing that came naturally. He followed the general through the hallways of the flagship to where the living quarters were. He was trying to figure out how to offer the other his support when he realized that Edelweiss wasn't headed for the section where the officers' quarters were. When the general stopped to knock on one of the doors, Jack quickly ducked behind a corner.
It was just too strange for Jack to leave alone. He'd always been on the curious side, so he struggled internally over whether or not he wished to spy on Edelweiss. His motivation for following may have been worry, but sticking around for longer would slide into the territory of nosiness.
Silently deeming himself kind of a bad person, Jack peeked around the corner.
"Thank you," Edelweiss spoke softly to the other Pooka he was facing. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Which is pretty much why I make myself available to you," Eucalyptus spoke back, arms crossed over his chest. "No one understands like I do."
Rather than alleviating his curiosity, finding out the identity of the person Edelweiss turned to only made Jack more keen on finding out what was going on. What kind of understanding did Edelweiss and Eucalyptus share?
"You are my treasure," Edelweiss murmured softly and Eucalyptus spluttered. "Your very existence makes me feel like there's still hope."
"Because there always has to be a Hope of the People," Eucalyptus drawled and Jack head never heard anyone use the term with such contempt. "Constellations forgive us if they ever have to pick someone who's not a specifically bred Bunnymund."
Sighing in a put-upon manner, Edelweiss reached out and yanked the other Pooka into his arms. The larger Pooka's hold on the other was intense, as was Edelweiss' voice when he whispered: "We play the parts we must, but don't doubt I love you, more than anything else."
Oh, well, that explained why neither Rose nor Tulip were up Eucalyptus' alley. Kind of tough competition.
Jack frowned as he watched General Edelweiss lean down to nuzzle the Pooka in his arms. It was an intimate, private act; it didn't belong out here in the hall where anyone could see. Realizing just then that he was seeing, Jack promptly turned around and speedwalked off until he was in his quarters.
There must have been a weird expression on his face, because Sage was giving him a curious look. Jack sighed. "I wish I was popular," he mumbled petulantly, vaguely.
Sage clasped his hands, regarding Jack. "Then I guess you don't know about the fanclub?" he queried just as Jack turned his face away to stare through a window. Jack's head immediately turned back to his friend.
"General Edelweiss has a fanclub?"
"No, I was talking about your..." Sage trailed off and shook his head. "Never mind. It would fly right over your head anyway." The brown Pooka leaned back in his seat. "Who did you catch General Edelweiss with anyway?"
"Eucalyptus," Jack grumbled. "Seriously, he's way too young for the general."
"Fully legal." Sage waved a finger. Then he paused and gave Jack a suspicious look. "Which one were you spying on?"
"I wasn't spying!" Jack snapped. "And why would you even think I'd be interested in spying on Eucalyptus? He's a jerk!"
Sage didn't look convinced. "You do know that the one who argues loudest usually argues with the least sense, right?"
"Don't recite proverbs at me," Jack growled. Still, he couldn't help but worry about Eucalyptus. He was just so young, and General Edelweiss had so much baggage. Could Eucalyptus handle Edelweiss? Could Edelweiss really rely on Eucalyptus? Jack just wanted to grab them both and lock them up somewhere safe, away from this war that was going to only wear Edelweiss down and ruin Eucalyptus' innocence.
Huh. Jack couldn't recall when he'd become so protective over either of these two, let alone them both.
Jack, you're a Guardian. It's always been a part of you. Also, you're a terrible tsundere and Sage sees right through you.
Useful note: Sage is an information officer. But he still rooms with Jack after their transfer because their superiors know they have good personal cohesion.
Chapter 17: I Wanna Shelter You
When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale
I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide
~ Imagine Dragons - Demons
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There were pumpkins in the Warren. Well, squashes, to be exact, but Jack had learned a thing or two about Bunny's plant ramblings and one of them was that squash belonged to the pumpkin family. So, yes, Bunny was very much growing pumpkins in his Warren.
Jack knew Calan Gaeaf was Bunny's friend and Bunny apparently was quite big on different kinds of gestures. Still, the Pooka didn't have to practically have Halloween decorations in his Warren, did he? It wasn't like Calan Gaeaf was going to be coming for an October visit or anything. Right?
Ceasing his glaring of the squashes for the time being, Jack directed his attention to Bunny. "Calan's not going to be showing up, is he?"
"He hasn't said anything of the like to me," Bunny answered easily. "He's pretty psyched up about his holiday, he usually shows up on All Hallow's Eve for a treat."
"Not a trick?" Jack couldn't help but ask.
Bunny frowned in displeasure. "He knows how I feel about assorted dismemberment." The green eyes narrowed further when the spring spirit gave Jack a suspicious glare. "You've not been giving him any ideas, have ya?"
"Not very likely." Jack scoffed. "We don't talk, let alone exchange ideas on mischief."
The frown on Bunny's face deepened into curiosity rather than annoyance. "You don't get along with Calan?" The Pooka looked like he was trying very hard to figure something out. "I thought ya two would hit it right off, two trickster spirits playing pranks on the unsuspecting public."
"We used to," Jack answered before he could think better of breaching the topic. He shrugged. "Then I pulled the wrong stunt and he dropped me with even less care than he does his own head."
"That doesn't sound like Calan. He's usually much more good-natured." The Pooka crossed his arms. "The way he rolls with just about anything is the reason he still thinks detaching his limbs is comedy gold."
Jack made a non-committing grunt. He wasn't too keen on having this conversation, he was starting to realize.
"What happened?" It was a sign of how far they'd come that Bunny formed the question like that, instead of immediately blaming Jack like he would have done previously. Too bad in this case the fault rested solely on Jack's shoulders.
"Easter Sunday of 1968 happened." Jack tried for an unaffected air but still flinched at the look on Bunny's face. They didn't talk about 1968. They tried not to talk about their shared past in general.
There were some hurts that a single 'sorry' couldn't fix.
Bunny sighed, deep and heavy, like he was expelling more than just air. Then he signalled for Jack to come closer.
Priming half-forgotten instincts, Jack approached Bunny carefully. The other didn't seem hostile, but Bunny also had an explosive temper that could overflow completely without warning.
As soon as Jack was near enough, Bunny grabbed him and pushed him to the ground. Jack yelped in surprise and made to struggle, only to fall still when Bunny laid his head down on his chest, making it clear he wasn't about to harm him.
There was another sigh from Bunny as he settled, listening to Jack's heartbeat or the rhythm of his startled, gasping breaths. Hesitantly, Jack lifted a hand and rested it on Bunny's shoulder. He focused on his friend's breathing. The rhythm was lethargic, but one Jack had learned was normal for Bunny. He allowed himself to relax.
Even if sorry couldn't fix it, acceptance could go a long way.
Somehow, the atmosphere reminded Jack of the last time they'd breached an unpleasant topic, accidentally stumbling on it when Jack had asked a reasonably innocent question about Bunny's sleeping habits. And now Bunny had just asked him why Jack didn't get along with his other friend, and tripped right over their shared issues.
They just kept stumbling into these situations, didn't they? For all Jack spent his time learning about Bunny, he didn't really know him all that well. While Jack knew what Bunny used to be, he knew so little about this present Bunny, who'd suffered and lived alone longer than Jack could comprehend.
"Hey, Bun-bun?" Jack spoke softly after a while. Bunny didn't move any part besides his ears, which rose to catch Jack's voice. "How did you die? If you don't mind me asking." The last part was spoken quickly, in a placating tone.
Bunny huffed, ears flopping down. "Casualty of war." Bunny's voice hitched at the end, like there was more but he'd cut himself off. A few moments later the Pooka continued without prompting. "I was ready for it and didn't regret it. It was for a good cause."
Jack's hand clutched onto the fur of Bunny's shoulder. "How can you possibly think like that?"
The Pooka had the audacity to laugh, even if it was weak and a touch breathy, partially a sigh. "Oh, Jackie." Now Bunny lifted his head and looked down into Jack's own with his impossibly green eyes. "I was born to die."
Jack did, in fact, get to see General Edelweiss lose his temper during the war. The elegance, the calmness, the self-assured gentleness, it all vanished right into the void of space when the thing he loved the most was threatened.
It was actually Tansy, of all people, who informed Jack of the situation.
“He was covering for me,” the tan Pooka had explained. “I was too slow. I never appreciated just how tough the little guy is.”
It had shaken Tansy up, to have Eucalyptus, the one Pooka who’d been responsible for all of his humiliations at the Academy, get himself injured protecting him.
Jack didn’t have time for consoling the other, however. There was someone else who needed him more, and someone who Jack cared about more. So he left Tansy to make his way to the infirmary.
Wattle was standing right outside the infirmary doors, shaking. Jack’s stomach roiled at the sight, as he briefly feared that it was already all over, that there was nothing anyone could do.
“They locked me out of the infirmary!” Wattle blurted out as he flung himself at Jack, who barely managed to catch the small Pooka. “Th-they won’t let me treat him, or even stay in the room.”
“Wattle…” Jack placed his hands on the other’s shoulders, trying to offer what comfort he could.
“They said I’m emotionally compromised.” Wattle pulled away from Jack and rubbed at his face. “Can you believe that?”
Jack observed Wattle – he noted that the healer’s thick, golden fur was bristling with emotional upheaval and his eyes were still wet with tears – and decided to stay silent. He also wondered, if Wattle was this torn up, how Edelweiss was handling this.
“Has General Edelweiss been by?” Jack asked Wattle, turning the topic away from Wattle’s upset.
Wattle sniffled, then nodded. “Only I actually got thrown out,” he mumbled.
The door to the infirmary slid open and Wattle instantly directed his attention there. Edelweiss came storming out, tall frame slouched in a posture that signalled readiness for battle. Dill Bunnymund was right at the general’s heels, but changed course for Wattle as soon as she spotted him.
Jack was quite willing to release Wattle to the comforts of his intended and turned to face Edelweiss more completely. “General?”
And to think Jack had thought that the general had looked ready to snap after the revelation of Pitchiner’s betrayal. The tall Pooka didn’t even glance in Jack’s direction as he simply stomped down the corridor with unknown intent.
Turning to Dill, Jack quickly asked: “How’s Eucalyptus?”
Dill looked torn up, squeezing Wattle tightly against her much larger body, and shook her head. “It’s not good,” she spoke softly. “The Fearlings, there’s something about them that’s poisonous to Pookas.” Dill petted Wattle’s head, who had started shaking again. “Euca’s dying, Jackfruit.”
It was no wonder Edelweiss looked like he was about to take on all the Fearling armies by himself. His emotional support was fading away, dying, being taken away from him.
“I’ll see if I can get Edelweiss to back down,” Jack spoke. Dill nodded in agreement. It wouldn’t do for the Hope of the People to self-destruct, especially in front of all the troops. The white Pooka turned away from the couple and took off in the direction where Edelweiss had left.
He had a pretty good idea of where the other was headed. If Edelweiss wanted to get off the flagship to go after Fearlings, he would need clearance from the acting general. And General Zinnia rarely left the main command centre, so Jack hurried up a staircase, taking every shortcut he knew to make sure Edelweiss didn’t go and make a scene.
It turned out that Edelweiss could still keep his cool enough to make reasonable decisions, though. When Jack rounded the last corner, he saw the crew of the command centre loitering outside the command deck doors. Fern had a large ear pressed against the steel door while Sage stood right next to her, muttering curiously but most likely just making it harder for her to hear.
Jack stomped over and more than one information officer jumped. “Alright, scatter,” Jack said while pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. The crew seemed to consist mostly of fresh Academy graduates, so they were quick to obey a field soldier’s orders and they did, in fact, scatter.
Shaking his head at the others’ antics, Jack proceeded to press himself against the doors, managing to slide them open just a crack to peer inside.
Jack’s ears caught onto the conversation just in time to hear the end of General Zinnia’s sentence: “-not supposed to have favorites.”
“Oh, we’re having this conversation?” Edelweiss crossed his arms, glowering at the acting general. “Right now? Really?”
“Yes, now,” Zinnia hissed, refusing to be intimidated by Edelweiss. “You’re placing the life of one soldier over your duties as the Hope of the People.”
“I’m a person, not a conception!” Edelweiss’ coattails swung when the young general gestured wildly with his arms. “I have relationships and priorities.”
“And you shouldn’t let the former affect the latter.” Zinnia reached out a hand to placate the other. “This isn’t proper behavior.”
“I’ll show you proper behavior when I grab the nearest chair and break it over your head,” Edelweiss snapped. “You were already considering sending me, anyway.”
“And what makes you so sure of that?” Zinnia asked, stepping out of the reach of Edelweiss’ arms in case the other general started flailing again.
“You undoubtedly reviewed the report Tansy handed in,” Edelweiss explained. “The only chance we have of getting the Light is a snap-fast operation. We need one Pooka to swoop in, grab the vessel and get out. Sending in a team would make the members divide their focus between the main objective and each other.” Edelweiss’ voice lowered into a growl again. “And seeing as Eucalyptus is in the infirmary, I’m the best operative we have.”
“You’re certainly not modest about it,” Zinnia said with a sigh, clearly giving up. The older general rubbed his forehead. “It’ll still be a miracle if we manage to recover the Light of Creation.”
Edelweiss straightened, seemingly much more cordial for having had his way. “That’s why I was brought in, to work miracles.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “How soon can you get a Warp Tunnel up and running?”
“To the Twilight Nebula?” Zinnia paused to consider for a moment. “Not long with the information Tansy and Eucalyptus were able to collect. I’m reasonably confident we can get you close enough to the core for the natural light to give the Fearlings pause.”
“Sounds good.” Edelweiss nodded in approval.
Zinnia hesitated. Then, he asked quietly: “And if Kozmotis Pitchiner is there?”
Edelweiss’ hands clenched into fists. The general took a deep breath. “Eucalyptus comes before any desire I might have to knock him around.”
Zinnia didn’t look convinced and Edelweiss released a rude snort.
“Fine,” Edelweiss snarled and raised a hand. “I, Edelweiss Aster Bunnymund swear to not let Eucalyptus down and I will do all in my power to ensure his survival.”
“I suppose there’s one good thing about your skewed priorities,” Zinnia murmured. “I will always know who comes first for you.”
“Indeed.” Edelweiss whirled around. “Prepare the Warp Tunnel and a ship. I’ll be back soon.” Then the general made to march out of the room and Jack had to quickly duck away to avoid being spotted.
Friends or not, Jack didn’t think Edelweiss would appreciate finding Jack snooping around, especially in his mood.
Coming up next: Tonight Someone Dies!
Chapter 18: The Show Must Go On
Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore
The show must go on,
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on.
~ Queen - The Show Must Go On
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack reached out to grab one of Bunny's ears and gave it a warning tug. Bunny released a sound of protest.
"Don't say things like that," Jack spoke in a low hiss. "I'm actually going to start thinking there's something wrong with you."
"I wouldn't say it's me with something wrong," Bunny replied, the ear in Jack's grasp twitching. "I blame my upbringing."
"Doesn't everyone these days?" Jack didn't know what to think. Pookas weren't supposed to be fatalistic. "What did they tell you growing up?"
"It's not that simple, Jack." Bunny rolled off the winter spirit to lie down beside him, the movement jostling Jack's grip on the other's ear off. "I was denied the right to my own identity. I was little more than a spare, made to fit a very specific mould."
Jack sat up, looking down at his friend. "That's no way to live."
Bunny laughed. "Makes dying seem like the better option." The Pooka looked up at Jack and, as their eyes met, Jack realized that Bunny was more or less at peace with his past, that he didn't think like that anymore.
"It's like starting over," the winter spirit spoke softly.
Bunny offered Jack a smile before elaborating: "I'm no one's replacement, I'm just me. I'm free."
Jack could understand that. He was a free spirit himself and could understand Bunny wanting to buck against someone else's control over him.
"It still seems harsh that you had to die to get that," he said.
There was something fragile in Bunny's expression then, like guilt.
"More like everyone else had to die," the Pooka spoke in a strangled whisper. "There's no one around to expect things of me."
Jack's hands twitched; there was something in his throat, wanting to get out, wanting to be spoken, but his trail of thought was derailed when Bunny suddenly sat up as well. Jack watched curiously as the Pooka fumbled through his bandolier's pockets for something.
"Ah, here, mate, almost forgot about this," Bunny babbled as he handed Jack a small stone carving. Jack accepted the gift and brought it to eye level. It was a miniature of the rock guardians ambling around the Warren.
"What is it?" Jack asked.
"Yer treat," the Pooka answered cheekily and Jack gave his friend an unimpressed glare.
"Halloween's at the end of the month."
"It's permission," Bunny explained, ears drawing back in an embarrassed gesture. "You're constantly dropping by. It'll save me some effort if I don't hafta be there to open the door every time."
A magical token, Jack mused as he glanced at the miniature golem. So it would lead him into the Warren in Bunny's place? The winter spirit looked back at the Pooka and commented: "This sounds an awful lot like a privilege." Jack considered the gesture a moment longer and then drawled slowly: "How many of the other Guardians have one of these?"
Bunny stayed resolutely silent and Jack felt his face heat up, which instantly caused his cheeks to frost over as his body tried to maintain his core temperature. He'd just been teasing, but to know that there was truth to his tease was something altogether different.
Of course Edelweiss could retrieve the Light of Creation. No matter how rusty he got, the general was still the holder of the title of 'Hope of the People', and would live up to it. The general was back from his mission after a whole day that had kept the entire crew of the flagship in a state of nervous energy.
When the Warp Tunnel surged again, signalling the return of Edelweiss' ship and the general himself, the starship filled with breathless anticipation. There weren't even any curious whispers among the off-duty (and even some on-duty) Pookas who gathered in the ship's docking bay to watch Edelweiss rise from the eggship he'd used to travel.
The silence turned into a loud roar when Edelweiss lifted a golden egg shell above his head, the intrinsic designs on the pristine surface marking it as the container for the Light of Creation, the greatest treasure in all of space.
Most of the Pookas were excited, exalted even, and even Jack could feel his heart make flips at this sorely needed victory. Even so, Jack could see the determined look on Edelweiss' face, and the white Pooka knew that this was but an obstacle to Edelweiss, that he'd fought impossible odds for one Pooka above everyone here, and he was only doing this for the rest in order to get to Eucalyptus as fast as possible.
Indeed, Edelweiss tucked the orb under his arm and started to march through the crowd with clear purpose. Jack could feel his heart stutter to a sudden, horrified stop when Edelweiss's steps faltered and the general started to collapse.
Jack immediately rushed to Edelweiss’ side, propping the general up with his own body. “Let’s get you to the infirmary,” the white Pooka said as the taller Pooka placed his arm on Jack’s supporting shoulders.
“Yes, a fine idea,” Edelweiss said softly. “I need to get the Light to Eucalyptus.”
Edelweiss did a remarkable job of keeping his posture straight even as Jack supported him on the way through the hallways. Mostly Jack believed it was a matter of appearance for the sake of anyone watching; the general wasn’t terribly concerned over his own pride.
There was dark grit stuck in Edelweiss’ fur and it came lose whenever the general moved, fluttering to the floor like fine dust. If Fearlings had gotten near enough to leave something like that behind, Edelweiss was most likely hiding some claw marks and other injuries.
“You’re going to need medical attention, too,” Jack spoke while the two walked. Edelweiss shifted against his side, the sword hanging on his right hip hitting against the backs of Jack's legs.
“You really do have a great deal of caretaker in you,” the general commented. He lifted the hand that wasn't grasping Jack's shoulder. “I suppose you are correct.” Edelweiss flexed his hand and Jack’s eyes widened when he realised that the specs falling off Edelweiss weren't dirt but that Edelweiss' hand was actually falling apart like a grainy image on a computer screen.
A distressed whine escaped from deep inside the white Pooka’s throat. Edelweiss let out a dismissive sound, but Jack noticed that the other was quick to hide the appendage inside a flaring coat sleeve.
“Calm yourself, Jackfruit,” Edelweiss commanded softly. “I’m not about to fade away just yet.”
"Is that what the Fearlings' poison does?" Jack asked, voice breathless. Edelweiss only hummed in response, seemingly not worried over being in the process of dying of the same thing that was plaguing Eucalyptus. It made a twisted sort of sense, though; if Eucalyptus died, Edelweiss really couldn't care less if he was following right after him.
With these thoughts in his mind, Jack was immensely relieved to get to hand Edelweiss over to the head healer Burdock. If there was one thing to be said about the flagship head healer it was that he wasn't about to let a patient fade away without him having a say about it.
Dill had been visibly startled by the appearance of Edelweiss in the condition he was in. The carefully controlled expression Dill had been wearing, most likely for Wattle's benefit, fell into stark worry even as Wattle got up from his seat to approach Burdock.
"If you can control yourself, Wattle, I could use your magical expertise," Burdock spoke gruffly to the small golden Pooka. Wattle immediately jumped at the chance to be allowed inside and moved with swiftness Jack suspected had been learned from Eucalyptus. However, Jack's entrance was barred by the heavy bulk of a cavern Pooka as Burdock took Edelweiss' weight off Jack.
"You wait out here; we won't be wanting any distractions," was all the healer said to Jack before the door was closed behind the pair. With a heavy sigh, Jack succumbed and took a seat in the hallway, sliding into a chair.
Jack waited for hours with no word from the infirmary. Either the operation was taking a long time, or no one had thought to bring Jack any news. The latter was extremely unlikely, considering that Dill was also still waiting out in the hall and Wattle wouldn't have treated either her or Jack so callously as to ignore them.
The possibility that it was a purposeful information blackout entered Jack's mind when General Zinnia suddenly appeared, walking right past Jack and Dill without as much as a glance even as the pair gave startled salutes. The general headed straight for the infirmary doors, which locked behind him.
Trying to catch Dill's eye, Jack tried to communicate his worries and suspicions with a glance alone. Dill proceeded to shake her head, signalling that she either knew nothing or wasn't about to share what she did know. Dill was from a military family; if there was some unspoken code going on here, she would know.
Fifteen minutes later the doors unlocked and Zinnia came out. He signalled with a hand for the two soldiers to stand up and Dill and Jack followed the command. Another hand movement and the duo knew to follow their general down the corridors towards the command bridge. Something big was going down and Jack and Dill both knew this was not the time to question their commanding officer.
As soon as Zinnia entered the bridge, he headed straight for the main communications console. He flipped a switch, giving the signal for a shipwide announcement. The doors to the command bridge swished open and Jack watched Edelweiss walk into the room, noting the unsteady steps and slightly wobbly posture of the general. Clearly Edelweiss was still recovering from his poisoning.
"Edelweiss." Jack stepped up to the general, unable to hide his worry. "Are you alright? How's Eucalyptus?"
The green eyes glanced in Jack's direction only briefly, but it was all the sign the white Pooka needed. Feeling his knees start to shake, Jack stepped back from Edelweiss, right into the waiting body of Dill, who placed a comforting hand on Jack's shoulder in a gesture of tenderness that was a rare sight towards anyone who wasn't her intended. Still, Jack appreciated it, even as the strength of the other Pooka's grip told him that Dill was doing this for herself as well.
Jack mused that it was actually likely that General Edelweiss wasn’t even supposed to be out of the infirmary yet, but Zinnia had insisted him to stand at attention for the sake of morale. Jack thought, a touch bitterly, that the senior general had most likely not stuck around the infirmary for any longer than it took to tell Edelweiss to get moving before he’d ushered Jack and Dill onto the command bridge.
It wasn’t that Jack didn’t understand Zinnia’s position. The latest reports indicated that the Eucalyptus was one of the last Pooka battleships still operational, which would make Zinnia the highest commanding officer they knew of. It was up to Zinnia to keep the rest of them going while the homeworld went through evacuation.
The troops’ morale was important, especially now when they were facing their biggest challenge. Still, Jack knew Edelweiss, at least reasonably well, and the white Pooka didn’t think the general was going to be in a fit emotional state to help lead troops. Edelweiss needed time to grieve; Eucalyptus had been his world and Edelweiss undoubtedly needed time to sort himself.
It was too bad that they didn’t have time. The large halberd strapped to Edelweiss’ back probably looked impressive to most of the gathered soldiers, a symbol of strength. To Jack, however, the large weapon was a weight for the general to carry, the duty the general was weighed down by unless he could manage to turn it towards his enemies.
Edelweiss joined Zinnia at the communications station and proceeded to issue the new battle plan. Or, more like a plan of defence. The information Edelweiss relayed, collected from the various scouting missions, made it very clear to Jack that they were fighting a losing battle and that all that remained was to make sure they had as much time as possible to evacuate the homeworld.
The Fearlings wouldn't be getting to the flagship easily. They didn't have Warp Tunnels like Pookas did, and the twin battle ships Dill and Laurel were still combating the main horde near the centre of the system. Eucalyptus would be moved into position in the orbit of the homeworld, to draw the Fearling forces when they eventually made it through the blockade.
There was a sickness in Jack's stomach that had nothing to do with the upcoming battle. Edelweiss looked exhausted and, while he seemed to be out of the woods, his face was set into a stern line that Jack had rarely seen on the general's face. Eucalyptus' absence echoed in Jack's chest, a grim reminder of the war that was about to reach even their corner of space.
At this point it's pretty probably pretty clear that this fic has a pretty AU setting when it comes to the pre-Earth stuff. I really thought that having your body start literally falling apart would be a fittingly horrifying effect of too much Fearling exposure, although it's also an effect that's never existed in the books.
Also, there are actually a bunch of songs I use for inspiration when working on this story. I'll probably compile a list together at some point for anyone who wants extra insight into my characterization. Some of the character themes I've chosen are quite telling.
Yes, Dill is ALSO named after a Pooka starship and yes, she does indeed have a twin sister named Laurel, who never got into the warrior business.
Coming up next: Jack questions everything he thought he knew about the Pookan society and does a terrible job of dealing with it.
Chapter 19: Inside My Head, So Loud and Clear
But inside my head
So loud and clear
Covered up with a smile I've learned to fear
~ Lisa Miskovsky - Still Alive
Jack didn't like to consider himself broody. Still, even his considerable capacity for ignoring things couldn't deny the fact that the only reason Jack would ever come to the Derelict was to mull things over.
'The Derelict down South' was what Jack called the castle of ice and snow he'd found at the South Pole. It had been long abandoned even when Jack had found it, with its walls partially crumbled and everything covered in a sensation of unlived in. Still, beyond all that feeling of abandonment was a dark foreboding gap left behind by some great presence having been removed. This castle had been inhabited at one point, and the world was most likely better off that it wasn't anymore.
There were times when Jack would wonder who'd built the castle. He'd met winter spirits after his awakening from the ice, like North and Saint Lucia, but he'd never met anyone with ice powers, at least ice powers powerful enough to create something like the large construct that had survived for centuries, for all it had fallen apart in places. There was even something like a snow garden in the castle courtyard.
The place was completely and utterly abandoned, but there was still magic lingering, for centuries on, and the sensations made Jack doubt the building and its surroundings even as it felt familiar. It was true winter magic, wild and barely restrained, much like his own. But it wasn't his, so it couldn't be trusted.
Even so, the place was as good as any for trying to get his head on straight after Bunny's latest bomb shell had lodged some unnerving thoughts loose. Jack had started to feel like the Pookan society he remembered and the one Bunny talked about were two completely different things. Getting a present had distracted him from it at the time, but later on Jack had begun to mull over Bunny's latest revelation.
What did the other Pooka mean when he said he'd been raised to fit a standard? Jack had always found General Edelweiss completely unlike anyone else, someone who was fully himself and never like another. Although Edelweiss had been the only Hope of the People who Jack had ever encountered.
Jack tried to recall. This sort of thing would have come easily for Sage; the brown Pooka had always been so bookish, remembering various tidbits of information form the large collection of things he read about. It was a trait he had in common with Jamie, and Jack wondered briefly if maybe he'd immediately liked Jamie so much when they'd met because the kid reminded him of his forgotten best friend.
Still, Jack was reasonably sure of his assumption. It wasn't like it had been a secret; for some reason no one just paid any special attention to it, most likely thinking it was just simple superior genetics. The Pookan society had been very big on the idea of some having 'superior' genes in comparison to others.
Now that Jack thought back on everything he had remembered so far, both memories of events and knowledge, he could remember one worrying thing with increasing clarity. Every single Pooka who'd held the title of 'Hope of the People' had been a Bunnymund. Jack had never put much stock in the idea of superior genes, but now he was wondering if combining desired aptitudes with a certain kind of upbringing could mass produce Hope candidates.
The very thought was horrifying on a fundamental level.
Jack thought he might have actually been better off not knowing that Bunny and Edelweiss were one in the same. Thinking about how Edelweiss had suffered was enough alone, listening to Bunny talk about the things he'd been through was also painful. To know that all of that baggage, from both of those tragic people, accumulated in one of his closest friends was almost too much to bear.
"Frost," the voice calling his attention wasn't one Jack immediately recognized. It was vaguely familiar but not one he heard often. Even the face he turned to face in the garden of snow and ice took some time to place. Then he realized that the spirit that had just showed up didn't have a set face, but simply switched it from time to time.
"Calan Gaeaf," Jack drawled, making sure his grip on his shepherd's crook was secure in case the other was hostile. "Don't you have a holiday to prep for?"
"Not so much, no." The spirit of Halloween glowered at Jack with slitted eyes. "At least not so much that I wouldn't notice someone tripping the wards around this place."
Jack blanched. "You have wards set up here?" Why on earth would an autumn spirit care about a snow castle?
Calan Gaeaf shrugged so prominently Jack was surprised his arms didn't pop off. "Who doesn't? This place is bad mojo."
That was when Jack remembered that the last time he'd come here to brood, way before he'd become one of the Guardians, he'd encountered Saint Lucia after a while. He hadn't thought much about it since the girl was a winter spirit, but this was also where he'd met Sandy for the first time. Sandy he had wondered about, since the South Pole was most definitely not a part of the Sandman's route, but that had been way before he'd learned to even try to depict sand images so he hadn't bothered to ask the other his intentions for coming.
Maybe the other spirits did have the place rigged with all sorts of sentry spells.
"It does feel a bit creepy," Jack admitted and heard Calan Gaeaf scoff. "But that doesn't explain why you'd keep such a tight watch over it. It's just some ruins."
Calan's narrow eyes widened, the yellow sclera standing out against the grey of his skin. "You can't be serious."
Jack crossed his arms defensively. "What?"
Calan ran a hand through his shaggy hair, although it still stuck into all directions after the motion. He had a couple of false starts before he managed to say: "You don't know what this place is? Whose castle it is?"
"Not really." Jack shrugged. "Should I?"
Calan's entire face became pinched, from the dark, bushy eyebrows to the thin mouth. The spirit of Halloween took a deep breath and then released it, broad shoulders slumping. "I can spot a trick, you're for real." He gave Jack an unreadable look before saying: "You should talk to the other Guardians, ask them who you look like."
"And you can't tell me why?" Jack grit his teeth. If Calan Gaeaf was just being difficult on purpose then Jack would brain him with his staff, even if it did send his stupid head flying off his shoulders.
"It's a sore subject." The other spirit shifted uncomfortably. "Speaking of, ask someone other than Aster."
"Yeah, sure." Jack noted that the choice of name Calan used for Bunny was really weird. He understood the two were close, so Calan could know Bunny by his Pookan name, but using the second name was a strange choice. Pookas didn't generally even have second names unless they signified something, so he wondered what it did signify.
"Uh, you know..." Calan mumbled, looking like he was struggling with something. Then he spoke very quickly: "Sorry about thinking you were up to no good. Toodles." With that the other spirit skedaddled off, vanishing in a flurry of autumn leaves that had no place on the South Pole.
What the other spirit had said had Jack curious. He looked like someone? With that thought Jack summoned a burst of wind to get him to the higher windows. The winter spirit ignored the bottomless feeling in his stomach and flew inside the castle through one of the large windows, arriving in the throne room.
Jack had investigated the castle before, in bits and pieces (since the place creeped him out too much to spend too long inside). He knew there was a mirror in the backroom of the throne room. He slipped through an almost unnoticeable door and came to a small room with a mirror standing in the middle of it.
The mirror had been shattered a long time ago, before Jack’s first visit to this place. Most of the shards that had fallen off had been cleared away, but some larger pieces still stuck to the frame. Jack walked over to the mirror to take a good look at his face.
He hadn’t thought about it before. What decided what he looked like as a human? He had assumed the white hair and blue eyes were carried over from his Pooka form, but what about the rest of it? He was a bit on the short side as a human, despite his Pooka shape having been quite tall, and there was no sign of the warrior’s build he’d gained fighting a war. He looked more like a spell weaver should.
Where had the shape come from? He already knew he hadn’t gained this form through his own shape shifting. Manny had been the one to alter his form, which was why he needed Manny’s help to undo the transformation. Did that mean that Manny had given him this form? And if so, had he used someone else as a model for it? Someone who’d either built or inhabited this castle before?
Jack turned away from his reflection. That someone had also hurt Bunny, if Jack was reading Calan Gaeaf’s signals right.
Someone had left Bunny’s right eye permanently scarred. Someone had injured Bunny so gravely that, even as the physical wound healed, it left behind phantom pains.
Grimacing in disgust, Jack stepped fully away from the mirror. He should have asked. He’d been told to ask. Jack turned around, a new destination in mind. He wondered when Tooth might have her next break from work. Bunny had told him that Tooth would be great at telling the story, and he really needed to know the story now.
Chapter 20: I'm at War With the World
I'm at war with the world cause I
Ain't never gonna sell my soul
I've already made up my mind
No matter what I can't be bought or sold
~ Skillet - Awake and Alive
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"You don't often come to pay me a visit," was the first thing Tooth said to Jack when Jack arrived at the Tooth Palace. The fairy kept her back to Jack as she instructed some of her minifairies and hummed thoughtfully. "Is that a slight towards me or the weather?"
"N-neither," Jack hurried to say, lifting his hands even though the other couldn't see the gesture. "I just didn't want to be a bother by hanging around."
"Bother?" Tooth turned around then, eyes wide in surprise. "You're not a bother, Jack. You're always welcome."
Belatedly Jack realized that the other had been joking with him. The winter spirit rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, three hundred years of low self-esteem acting up."
"Don't apologise," Tooth said gently, fluttering down to be at Jack's level. "We're your friends, Jack. You tell us when you feel like that and we'll show you you're wanted." The fairy winked. "Bunny certainly seems to do so often enough."
"We have an agreement," Jack replied, hoping that his cheeks weren't frosting over from his rising embarrassment. "Speaking of," the winter spirit carried on, before his companion could continue on that tangent. "Bunny advised me to come to you about a story."
"Not that surprising," Tooth said with a smile. "I have excellent recollection, after all. What is the story about?"
Jack grinned. "Apparently I'm not the only angry loner you Guardians have recruited." He swept up to perch on one of the several perches of the palace interior. "You wouldn't happen to know any stories along those lines?"
"Ah." Tooth flew up after Jack and sat down beside him. "That's a story I know pretty well, since I have two sets of memories of it." Before Jack could ask what that meant, the other started to speak: "The Man in the Moon first told North about his idea for the Guardians, and North in turn was the one who got Sandy and I into it." The fairy laughed, the sound as fluttery as her wings. "It's easy to get carried along by his enthusiasm."
"When it doesn't get on your nerves," Jack muttered and Tooth laughed again.
"North was given the moon crystal to communicate with Manny; he's always had the closest connection to Manny, most likely because he was once a child looked after by Manny." Tooth shrugged. "Sandy is what he is and Bunny spent his childhood on a planet far from here. And me…" The fairy spread her hands. "Some days I'm not sure I ever was a child." She gave Jack a thoughtful look. "I wonder why you don't have an easier time communicating with Manny. You should have that same connection."
Jack made a show of shrugging his shoulders, although he was quite sure he knew the reason by now. It was because he also had spent his childhood on a faraway planet.
"North was the only one who knew what it meant when the crystal lit up and showed us an image of a spirit we'd never seen before." Tooth trailed off. "Actually, I'm pretty sure Sandy knew Bunny beforehand, but neither North nor I had ever seen a giant rabbit spirit before." The fairy gave Jack a rueful smile. "Still, Sandy and I caught on to why we needed him when early summer turned into deep winter."
“Winter in summer?” Jack released an impressed whistle. “I’m not sure I could manage that.”
“That kind of power is dangerous to have,” Tooth said solemnly. “The Lady of the Cold has many names, and they’ve gotten pretty mixed up in stories since. But the thing that is constant is her power of winter, her cold disposition, and that she fancied herself a queen.”
Jack waited a couple of moments as Tooth gathered her thoughts. The fairy looked upset, the angry kind of upset. There clearly weren’t good memories there.
“A Snow Queen?” Jack prompted, wondering if the fairy tale line could bring the fairy her calm back.
Tooth’s eyes flashed. “A queen with no court or vassals, since she preferred to freeze them all.”
The parallel was rather glaring. The queen who’d lost the people she’d cared for due to the actions of others hated the queen who’d have a title but had no desire to look after anyone. Jack didn’t know much about what had happened to Tooth’s people, but he did know she was the last of her kind.
“So, she wanted eternal winter?” Jack thought it might be better to move the story along, to make sure Tooth’s mood didn’t sink even lower. “Do you know why she did that?”
“I suspect she wanted the world to be as cold as she was,” Tooth said with a sigh. "She couldn't feel any warmer feelings, not joy, excitement or affection." The fairy's voice was heavy with sorrow. "She could only feel despair, loneliness and envy. Even her rage was as cold as winter, downplayed and lasting."
"What did she look like?" Jack asked and Tooth froze. The fairy stared at him with wide eyes, entire body stiff. Jack scowled, turning his face away as he spoke: "I recently heard she looked a lot like me."
Tooth's hands came up to cradle Jack's face, grabbing it firmly to bring the other to look at the fairy. The touch turned gentle as Tooth spoke: "Not to someone who can remember as clearly as I do. Your face is much gentler, kinder, softer."
“Are you calling me a baby face?” Jack asked and smirked between Tooth’s hands. The hands released him as Tooth released a surprised laugh.
“Ah, the babiest,” she murmured with a fond smile at Jack. “Do you want to hear the rest of the story, or were you only curious about The Lady of the Cold?”
"Actually, I really want to hear the rest," Jack said with a grin. "Did Bunny give North one of his rants when he came knocking?"
Tooth laughed. "Bunny always has been hard to coax," she murmured, then gave Jack a thoughtful look. "I could show you. North might have lovely wall paintings of our adventures, but I can show you the memories themselves."
"Sounds good to me." Jack agreed readily.
There was a warm touch on his hand, and there weren't any kaleidoscope colors this time, most likely because the memories weren't coming from him. Instead the images came to be from gossamer strands, like someone was weaving the image into existence in front of him. Everything shimmered, most likely because of how clear these memories still were to Tooth.
The cave in Tooth's memory wasn't one Jack had seen on any of his visits into the Warren. It was narrow and the walls were covered in stones that reflected various colors. The back wall of the cavern was a solid gemstone one, its coloring an explosion of different shades from all the minerals contained. The place truly looked far removed from everything.
Bunny was standing in the cave, face severe as he faced the three Guardians who were standing at a respectful distance while giving him hopeful smiles. Jack briefly noted a fifth person in the cavern, a girl (or young woman, perhaps?) with brown, wavy hair, who was standing close to North's side and looking at the Pooka with open curiosity.
Bunny was wearing a long, deep green coat that was buttoned all the way down. To constrict the movement of your legs like that was a signal in the Pooka culture; it was a sign of mourning. The Guardians had disturbed Bunny while he'd still been in mourning over his lost people. As such, Jack wasn't surprised when Bunny scoffed derisively at his visitors.
"Give it whatever fancy name you choose, but I won't play this game again," Bunny spoke coldly, expression harsher than anything Jack could remember seeing. This Bunny was still raw from pain. "Find someone else to be your hope."
"World needs you, Bunny," North wheedled. The Pooka's ears perked and the expression hardened into anger.
"What did you just call me?" His voice was almost unrecognizable; there was no sign of the drawl of an Australian accent. Most likely Bunny didn't have it yet.
"Manny says you will be Easter Bunny; is your new title." North's expression was the exact same one he'd given Jack when the winter spirit had fought against being made a Guardian. It was pretty obvious that the man wasn't going to be listening to any protests.
"My name is Aster," the Pooka snarled, fur fluffing up and flat teeth sharpening in anger. The cavern walls gave an ominous rumble. "Aster Bunnymund."
"There are children in danger!" Tooth cut in, her voice drowning out anything North might have thought up as a response. "Everyone is in danger from this forced winter, but the children are especially being targeted." The Tooth Fairy approached the Pooka carefully. "They can't defend themselves."
Bunny turned away from the imploring fairy, stepping out of her reach. "I won't let you erase my identity. It's all that remains." He sounded less angry now, and more worn down.
"You'll still be you," Tooth spoke, so lowly it might as well have been a whisper. "Just more. It's happened to all of us."
Sandy drew some hasty shapes with his sand, the soft rustling drawing the Pooka's attention. Bunny's brows furrowed.
"No," the Pooka replied, apparently capable of deciphering the sand charades even back then. "I'm not scared of the outside, nor am I particularly interested in it." Bunny cast a longing glance back at the multi-colored formation behind him. "I'd really rather sleep some more."
"Aster, please," Tooth spoke one more time, but the Pooka was done listening. He turned his back to the Guardians, and the shining stones on the cavern walls dimmed with the rejection.
Sandy made some more forms with his sand, and Tooth nodded. "You're right," the fairy murmured. "It's best not to anger him when we're in here. It seems to be a sympathetic location."
The Guardians turned to leave. There was a risk of their surroundings turning against them. The entire cavern responded to Bunny's mood and emotions and might turn hostile if they continued to press. Still, the brown-haired girl stood back, grey eyes determined.
"I'll be there in a moment," the girl spoke with a soft voice that still held an underlying strength. "I want to have a quick word with Mr Bunnymund."
"We will be returning," Jack heard North say as he watched Bunny bend over to regard the brunette girl with vague interest. It was the last thing he saw before the threads of memory unravelled to bring them back to the present. The winter spirit took a couple of deep breaths, catching up to the knowledge and memories he'd gained from Tooth.
Jack turned to the fairy. "Bunny seemed depressed." It was weird, ironic and painful. The one who would be Guardian of Hope lacking it.
"Was it the complete apathy towards the world that gave it away?" Tooth's words might have been joking, but her voice carried an old pain that still lingered even as time had worn it away. Her voice strengthened as she continued: "But even then Bunny was a fighter. We came back the next day and he was gone. Katherine was the one who got us on his track."
Jack considered for a moment. "Katherine's the girl from your memory, right? What's her story?"
"Katherine is stories. That's her story." Tooth hummed, smiled for a moment as she thought about a friend. "She was in many ways the best of us. She wasn't one to fight with weapons, but with her wit. Nowadays she uses her power to the best effect." The fairy waved towards the murals on the castle walls and ceiling. "Katherine is the one who makes our stories; her magic is in the whispers of thoughts that become words on pages, that are repeated aloud for the ears of children."
"You're leading up to something with this," Jack said with a grin. "Spill it."
"I think you will meet her sooner rather than later," Tooth said. "She and North were always close, since they trained magic together before either of them became what they are." The fairy winked. "You'll spot the goose before her."
"Oh." Jack nodded his head. "Mother Goose. That makes sense." He gave Tooth a look. "Is she the reason people think I nip noses?"
Tooth giggled. "Oh, that's very much something Katherine would do." The fairy hummed. "She was the one who guessed that Bunny had gone after The Lady of the Cold by himself." Tooth's lips twitched in a small, fond smile. "Somehow he thought if he'd fight our fights without officially joining, he couldn't be considered a Guardian."
Jack covered his face with a hand, releasing a short laugh. "Isn't that just like Bunny, though?"
"He's been stubborn for as long as I've known him," Tooth conceded. "I'd say that more than his powers of spring made him immune to most of The Lady's tricks." She took flight then, fluttering in front of Jack. "How about I prepare us some tea before the big part?"
"Sure." Jack shrugged as he floated down after the fairy. "But I get the distinct feeling you're trying to put the rest of the story off." The winter spirit frowned to himself. "Is it that bad?"
"We're all still here," was all Tooth said. "That at least is a comfort."
Jack thought about the phantom pain Bunny still suffered and steeled his determination. He wanted to know this. He had a feeling it was important.
Merry Christmas to everyone!
Just a heads up: this story will have quite the few references to the Guardians books (especially this chapter), but it's pretty safe to say that, for the most part, this fic is slightly AU from them. Much like the film itself, actually.
Another useful note: The Lady of the Cold is actually a Moomin character. I just thought it would be a good alternative depiction of a winter creature.
Chapter 21: I'm Gonna Dig Six Feet Up Tonight
Well I know how it feels when you have to start again
Now there's no one to save me
I know how it feels when the world is gonna end
But they'll see
I'm gonna make a comeback
I'm gonna dig six feet up tonight
I'm gonna get it all back
I'm gonna make a comeback this time
~ Redlight Kind - Comeback
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"How bad was Bunny beat up when you found him?" Jack asked when Tooth had the tea boiling. "You wouldn't be half this bothered if things had worked out for him."
"You mentioned the fairytale of the Snow Queen," the fairy started as she brought over a tray of cookies to the round table in the cosy kitchenette. "You know it well?"
"Somewhat." Jack shrugged, before taking a cookie. "I'm not that into fairytales, but Jamie likes reading them to me and asking if any of it is accurate." Jack frowned. "Speaking of, there are all these stories about winter entities, so how come I've never seen one?"
"That's what this story is about," Tooth said softly. "There is a reason for those stories and there is a reason you don't see those spirits, especially not the strongest one, the Lady of the Cold."
"Yeah, okay." Jack nodded. "So, what does this have to do with the Snow Queen? She kidnap children like in the story?" It would certainly fit the vibe he'd gotten from her castle.
"She hadn't moved past spirits when we managed to stop her." Tooth scowled at the memory. "She was spreading her condition among the spiritkind, trying to make them as uncaring, as cold, as she was, so that no one would oppose her. But that's not all she did." The fairy retrieved the teapot and poured them both a cup before seating herself. "In the fairytale, the Snow Queen made Kai forget his life before with a kiss. That part is not fiction. It is a power that the Lady of the Cold had."
Tooth hummed as she blew on her tea, not yet taking a sip of the still steaming liquid. Jack thought about her words.
"She wiped Bunny's mind, that's what you're saying, right?" Jack placed several spoonfuls of sugar into his tea, ignoring Tooth's forlorn sigh at the action. "She tried to make him useless to you."
"Quite accurate," Tooth murmured, still giving Jack's sweetened tea a disapproving look. "She didn't want to risk any divine backlash for attempting to kill him, but she also didn't want to let the spirit of spring out of her grasp."
"What did she do with him?" Jack asked, frowning in concern. "If Bunny was reduced to just an empty shell..."
"She simply locked him up." Tooth tapped a finger on the rim of her cup. "But Bunny wasn't empty. That's not how memory loss works."
"Oh?" Jack raised a curious eyebrow. "Then what was Bunny's condition when you found him?"
"Have you had success with regaining your memories?" Tooth asked, instead of answering the question.
"Yeah, a bit." Jack tilted his head curiously. "Why?"
"You remember the person you were before. Were you like him when you first woke up?"
"Actually, yeah." Jack nodded. Now that he was thinking about it, it seemed rather strange that he would remain so unchanged. "Weird."
"Not so weird," Tooth said gently. "Memories influence us beyond what we can remember of them, like forgotten childhood traumas, to use an extreme example." Tooth offered Jack another cookie. "Memories shape our personalities, so our behavior doesn't necessarily change even with amnesia."
"So, I'm taking it that Bunny still kicked all sorts of ass even as an amnesiac?" Jack offered before munching on his cookie.
Tooth's lips twitched in the ghost of a smile. "He did, once he got himself suitably motivated." The fairy frowned at her tea. "That didn't come immediately, however."
Jack understood then. "The depression," the winter spirit murmured. "He was still unwilling to do anything."
"He was very apathetic when we found him," Tooth agreed. "He was devastated, even when he couldn't remember why he felt like his world had ended. And he couldn't remember what had gotten him to get moving in the first place." The fairy took a deep drink of her tea, and almost laughed right into it.
"What?" Jack couldn't help but smile. There was an upside to this story and Jack wanted his companion to share. In fact... Jack ignored his still cooling tea for now and reached a hand across the table to Tooth. "Show me?"
"Alright then." Tooth laid down her tea cup and reached for Jack's hand. "I'll show you the entire affair."
Another tapestry of memories came into being in front of Jack’s mind’s eye. The new image was first an almost blinding white before the threads arranged themselves into a winter landscape.
Jack could recognize the valley in the Transatlantic Mountains easily, even with the separation of centuries between the vision in front of him and his own memories of the site. Near a cliff face rose a castle of snow and ice that was on its pinnacle of beauty with none of the collapsed structures or the flaking that formed around impurities during the centuries. Jack also noted that the castle used to have three tall and narrow spires instead of the two it now had. The entire construct was surrounded by a bluish grey wall of ice that was a touch duller in color that the shimmering blue-grey walls of the castle beyond. The present day castle's colors had dulled as the construct was closer to snow ice in constitution. The ice visible here was clear ice, strong and sturdy.
The four Guardians in the memoryscape neared the castle, three of them wrapped up in cloaks while the Sandman simply followed along in suitable comfort. Katherine was holding on tightly to her muffler as she stared at the impressive ice stronghold and Toothiana kept grumbling in distaste as the heavy fur cloak on her weighed down on her wings unpleasantly. North, despite also being reasonably bundled up, seemed to glow with eagerness, cheeks rosy from the thrill for an upcoming battle as well as the cold wind.
The Cossack's good mood dissipated, however, as he gripped his beard and looked away from the castle. “Where is Nightlight?” North grumbled in disapproval as he glanced around. “Lousy sentry if not at his post.”
North jumped when one of the snowdrifts seemed to almost shift when the white shape of a boy appeared. “I’m right here,” said the boy, looking and sounding almost like he was made of the light that reflected off the surrounding drifts of snow. “You told me to keep watch.”
Nightlight was almost waif-like, thin as a rail and even taller than the spear he carried strapped to his back. The tip of the spear glowed in a manner that Jack briefly noted as familiar, and its gleam even outshone the rest of the boy, who seemed to have a light buried under his skin that was so bright that it seemed to light him up from the inside. Even the boy's eyes were a translucent green from the effect of the glow.
"If you keep watch you will know if big bunny rabbit came by," North said and gestured towards the castle. "Did one go in?"
"Not a rabbit," Nightlight answered, tilting his head slightly. "I did see a Pooka come go in, though." The boy gave a friendly smile. "I think that's who you mean. It's an easy mistake to make."
Sandy made a few shapes out of his sand, miming a shape climbing over a wall. Nightlight watched it for a moment before he said: "I did sneak closer for a look. There was diamond dust and the Pooka forgot why he came."
"We will have to remind him, then," Tooth said with a severe look on her face. "That's my speciality, after all."
"Can you show us the way to Mr Bunnymund, Nightlight?" Katherine asked the glowing boy, who nodded his head before taking flight towards the castle gates. Nightlight made it over easily, while Sandy gave the others a lift with a sand construct. There was a slight blurring effect when the group passed the gardens and hallways of the palace. Most likely Tooth hadn't paid much attention to her surroundings while she'd been following Nightlight to the upper floors.
Finding Bunny wasn't terribly hard, since Nightlight had been sneaking around in advance. The Pooka was in a rather average looking sitting room, sitting on a windowsill and observing the garden outside. Katherine immediately dashed over to Bunny when she caught sight of him. "Mr Bunnymund!"
The Pooka merely grunted in response when he turned his head to the brunette. "Who are you?" he asked then in an abrasive tone. "And did you just use my name?"
"Yes," Katherine gasped out. "You're Mr Bunnymund and I'm Katherine. We're supposed to help the children."
"What children?" Bunny frowned as Tooth came over. "I've been trying to remember what I was trying to do. It was important, so I suppose your claim about children in trouble would make sense."
"We're here to protect all of Earth from the winter that's spreading," Tooth explained as she pushed a thumb into Bunny's mouth, who balked at the act and tried to pull away, only for the fairy to grab his head more firmly to get at his teeth. "The children especially are our responsibility, and the master of this castle is a threat to them."
"We must do battle with the Lady of the Cold!" North declared, lifting a fist, gesturing widely with his hands in a way that was undoubtedly meant to inspire those present. Bunny actually paused in his attempts to get away from Tooth to shoot the Cossack an unimpressed glare.
"Undoubtedly the Lady will be stronger near the Mirror," Nightlight said softly from the doorway. He hadn't entered the room and was instead keeping watch of the hallway. "It'll be a hard battle if we can't restore Bunnymund."
"You are vital to victory, Bunny!" North said to the Pooka. "We will be needing your power of spring."
There were a few more attempts from Bunny to yank himself free during the short discussion, but Tooth was stronger than she looked and only released the Pooka once she was ready. Her mouth was pressed into a thin line when she turned to the rest of the Guardians.
"It's no use," the fairy said in a strained voice. "The spell is too strong for me to break. I suspect this entire castle is somehow connected to the Lady's magic and is keeping the curse from being broken."
Bunny rubbed a paw over his mouth, groaning in displeasure. "That's what that was about? You could have given me a fair warning." The Pooka turned to Katherine. "I have some power you need?" It was clear the Pooka favored the young girl over her more boisterous companions when he looked to her for answers.
"Yes." Katherine nodded. "You can bring spring and stop the Lady's winter."
Sandy also piped in with some sand images. Bunny gave them a cursory glance, but Jack wasn't sure if the Pooka understood what the small Guardian was saying.
"Will you come with us, Mr Bunnymund?" Katherine asked tentatively. "It would be a great help."
“We will defeat the Cold Lady with great heroics!” North boasted loudly before the Pooka could answer the girl. Jack stared at the visage of Santa Claus in astonishment, unable to believe that the man had actually been even worse at one point. The winter spirit really wouldn't have been surprised if Bunny had decided to simply stay put just to spite the zealous man.
As such, Jack was rather surprised when he saw Bunny stand up from his perch, even if it was with a worn sigh. The Pooka walked past the Guardians to the door.
“You’re really coming with us?” Toothiana queried as she rushed to follow after the Pooka, shoving her heavy fur cloak at North in order to move more swiftly before she came to stand beside the Pooka.
Bunny shot the fairy a withering look. “I just want to get away from the loud one, to be honest.”
“Defeating the master of the castle means that we all get to return to our homes sooner,” Katherine pointed out, skipping over to join Bunny on his other side. “What do you say?”
There was another sigh from Bunny. “Very well then,” the Pooka said in a low grumble that sounded much more annoyed than worn. It was actually a change for the better. Sandy seemed to agree with the sentiment, since the golden Guardians clapped his hands soundlessly. Even Nightlight, as he moved out of the doorway to make room for the others to get by, smiled gently at the Pooka.
My headcanon is that Bunny can literally stare at the same landscape for hours at a time. if not days, just watching lights and shadows shift.
Next chapter's gonna be a doozy. I'll actually start wrapping some of this stuff up.
Also, how any get unnerved by a lack of any opposition before boss fights in games? Makes you feel like stuff's really going to go down.
Chapter 22: Just Remember That You're Still Alive
This is an anthem for the homesick, for the beaten,
the lost, the broke, the defeated.
A song for the heartsick, for the standbys,
Living life in the shadow of goodbye.
Do you remember when we learned how to fly?
We'd play make-believe; we were young and had time on our side.
You're stuck on the ground,
Got lost, can't be found.
Just remember that you're still alive.
~ Paradise Fears - Battle Scars
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"I want to fight the giant monster," North commented as the party made its way through the palace corridors. Nightlight was in the lead, knowing the layer from scouting ahead a bit, followed immediately after by Bunny and Katherine and then the other three Guardians.
Tooth turned to give the Cossack a confused look. "What giant monster?"
"Sorcerers always summon giant monster when forced to fight," North explained, face glowing with barely-suppressed glee. "I want to try knocking this one down."
Bunny's stride paused as the Pooka shot a confused glance at the three Guardians following.
“Who are you people, again?” he asked with a frown.
Tooth released a worried sound and came closer to the amnesiac. “We’re the Guardians, we’re here to help you remember what you forgot.” She lifted a hand towards the other, but then thought better of touching him and pulled her hand back. “You’re suffering from amnesia. You haven’t only forgotten things, you keep forgetting things.”
“That explains why I can barely remember anything from before walking this hall,” Bunny murmured, then looked to Katherine, who hadn’t once left his side. “Stay close, Katherine,” he said to the brunette girl. “I can’t forget you if you keep reminding me.”
“Understood, Mr Bunnymund,” Katherine said with a determined expression and nod. “You can count on me.”
The group paused in front of a pair of grand doors, the greyish blue surface carved with intrinsic patterns of celestial objects. Bunny paused in front of the door, fur standing on end, and both Nightlight and Katherine pressed in closer to the Pooka.
"Are you alright, Mr Bunnymund?" Katherine asked. Bunny nodded.
"There's foul magic in the air; I think I now fully believe your story that this sorcerer of sorts needs to be stopped," the Pooka said with a dark look coming over his face. "I can feel how her magic has dulled away parts of my identity."
"She wants to do it to everyone in the world," Tooth said as she also came closer to the doors. "She wants to make everyone stop believing in anything, and to rule over a desolate world filled with desolate hearts."
"And we can't be having that," North piped in, walking past the group and right in front of the doors. "So, we will fight, for everyone." He gestured towards the door. "Help me open this."
"Or just knock," Bunny said as he stepped up to stand beside North. "Undoubtedly this would be queen's arrogance is great for us to come this far with no opposition."
"Bah!" North scoffed. "We must burst in, dramatically!" The Cossack lifted up his sword.
Bunny, in turn, lifted a paw and reached to pull on the rope attached to the doorway. A resounding bell chime rang in the hallway, vibrating off the walls. The doors began to open.
"Well, that's no fun," North grumbled and proceeded to sulk as the doors made way for the group to enter.
The throne room was magnificent. The one in the Derelict had turned white from the brittle new layers of ice that had formed naturally, but this throne room was a marvel of magical creation. Shimmering shades of blue ranged from the softest baby blue to almost black. All sorts of variations of turquoise glimmered in-between. The room's floor, walls, spiralling pillars and high ceiling were all constructed from all the ways sunlight could dye ice, only the Lady had most likely shone her magic through the surfaces instead. The glimmering and shining surfaces were all carved with intrinsic, swirling patterns, depicting fey creatures and animals.
Truly, the room was built to impress. It was no wonder the Lady allowed the Guardians to come this far. And she had undoubtedly been waiting for them, as she was seated on her large throne, the hues on it fading into violet in a way that suggested it might have had precious stones embedded in it instead of being made of purely ice.
The sight of her gave Jack pause.
Pale skin, high cheekbones that were perhaps a touch more pronounced than Jack's own, an angular chin, small jaw, wide, upturned eyes, a long, narrow and distinctly curved nose, all of the Lady's facial features had been repeated in Jack's own face. Even the shade of blue in her eyes was the same Jack had seen in his own reflection several times, being a bright and light color that dimmed ever so slightly around the edges.
Jack was so immersed in his observation of the Lady that he completely missed the beginning of her haughty taunting. But he caught on to the point of it rather quickly as she went on, directing her words mostly at Bunny: "You could have just stayed put; I would have gladly kept you as a trophy."
"I doubt I'd have found peace in such an existence." Bunny's words might have been cordial, but the snarl on his lips, and his sharpening teeth were something else entirely.
The Lady didn't much care for the looming rage, however, and turned to the rest of the Guardians. "You rabble enter the presence of the queen of this realm without as much as announcing yourselves? Such impudence."
"You're no queen, you would-be despot!" Tooth snarled and Jack could see how much the fairy wanted to tear into the Lady. And that outrage had still simmered after all these centuries.
"Simply because my halls are empty?" The Lady scoffed. "No matter. How did you rabble even get here? This is literally the end of the world."
"When there's a will, there's a way," Katherine said swiftly.
The Lady's face darkened. "It matters not," the witch spoke then, voice lowering into a dark pitch. "Regardless of whatever will you might have, you were fools to try and face me here, at the heart of my power!" The Lady swept her arms to her sides, summoning a freezing wind from right behind her. The current buffeted fragments of ice all around the room, the area around the Guardians beginning to snap with diamond dust.
It wasn't the kind of cold that merely froze your body. It was something that affected your mind as well. It numbed your feelings and made you lose your sense of self. It made you forget about what it was like to be warm. It made you forget your family and friends, your parents and the entire clan that were your sisters. It made you forget how much you'd loved them and how determined you were to keep living for them. But it didn't touch the feeling of loss that still festered. No, it snuffed out everything until all that remained was that feeling of loss, and you lost your will to fight.
Except Jack had only ever had one sister, not a clan. And he was fairly certain the parents he was supposedly forgetting weren't his own. That was because he wasn't forgetting. He was experiencing things that had happened long ago, and from someone else's perspective. He was currently feeling what Tooth had gone through under the Lady's assault.
Understandably, considering her baggage, Tooth was the one to go down first, trying to shield Katherine from the worst of the attack. North and Nightlight slumped to the floor after the two, and even Sandy seemed to be unable to keep floating.
"It feels like my soul is turning numb," Katherine said softly and Tooth nodded before glaring at the Lady of the Cold.
"You can't feel anything," the Lady confirmed with a cold laugh devoid of any true joy or triumph. "The feel of your bodies will go first, then the feel of your hearts as you lose yourselves and forget." The witch smirked. "So much for the pure-hearted champions of children everywhere."
There was a blur of movement, and the Lady barely avoided getting het feet knocked away from under her when Bunny swiped a kick at them. The witch shrieked, sweeping a hand up to throw a small snowstorm right at the Pooka, who somehow shrugged it off.
"It's not winter," Bunny snarled, voice strangely gruff. "It's springtime, so pack up your magic."
"I locked you away so I wouldn't have to look at your face, spring rabbit!" the Lady snapped, diamond dust whipping around her and frosting over Bunny's fur, now more of a thick mane, especially around the shoulders and chest. "Tell me, how did you break my spell?"
"I didn't." Bunny struck again, this time with a fist, and the Lady tumbled out of reach, her long, sweeping dress tails fluttering around in her icy winds. "I just really don't like your face either!" Bunny dropped his stance when he leaped at the Lady, his delicate paws widening into impressive claws as he tore through silvery blue fabric to get at the flesh below.
The Lady seemed to almost dance as she fled, trying to gain distance to her opponent. Her feet glided delicately on the smooth ice and her long dress didn't seem to hamper her movements any. Bunny followed on all fours, thick claws digging into the ice, gouging footholds as he pursued.
"Can't make me forget when my mind's empty, witch!" the Pooka roared and Jack saw that his muzzle had lengthened, to make room for all those canines he was now spouting, no doubt.
“A witch and a queen!” the Lady snarled back and, with another hand gesture, lifted one of the ice carvings from a nearby pillar to stand between herself and Bunny. The Pooka hesitated briefly in front of the icy centaur that was easily three times his size, but then another shape barrelled right into the ice centaur.
“A-ha! Giant monster! Told you so!” North bellowed between victorious guffaws as he attempted to get an underhook on the centaur. Tooth flew in right after North, only she aimed for the Lady, two pirouetted to the side like a figure skater, the movement creating a spiralling frosty wind that threw off Tooth's flight path.
"I'm not that defenceless!" the Lady declared and with a broad gesture the entire throne room lit up with a glow as the ice carvings all came to life like the centaur before. The ice creatures started to surround the three spirits facing the Lady, while Sandy, Nightlight and Katherine were left outside to try to break through the ranks.
"You didn't really think I was alone, did you?" the Lady spoke as she glided between her constructs, retreating from the Guardians. "Every queen should have a court after all."
There was a contemptuous scoff from Tooth as her feathers bristled. A moment later she used her narrow sabre to block an attack from a polar bear's claws. She turned to Bunny.
"Aster!" the Tooth Fairy snapped in a commanding tone. "Can you get after her?"
"Watch me," Bunny murmured back and lowered himself on all fours. He moved like a blur through the throngs of enemies, large claws sinking deep into the floor to keep his pace steady. The Lady had a head start, however, and managed to bar the door to the back room before the Pooka reached her. Bunny then proceeded to hammer the door with his fists, the hinges rattling under the assault of his now-increasing size and mass.
Tooth and North carried on fighting the ice sentinels and were soon joined by Sandy, Katherine and Nightlight. Sandy was the only one who grouped together with the other two Guardians, however.
Katherine was already rushing past everyone else, headed towards Bunny. "I have to help Mr Bunnymund!" the girl insisted when North started to voice a protest.
As soon as Katherine was off, there was no question of what Nightlight would do. The moonlit warrior would never allow Katherine to go unprotected.
"Ah, fighting superior odds with only two allies," North said with a laugh, twirling his twin swords. "This is what it means to live!"
Fighting spirit was an essential part of a Guardian's identity, it seemed, as Tooth and Sandy both seemed to agree with the Cossack, both smirking with varying degrees of ferocity as they began to fight with flourish. Jack noted that Sandy's whips swung differently from what he’d seen so far, with heavier and larger tips that made them look like manriki chains. The heavier weapons created cracks on the ice creatures where ever they hit.
Some of the ice creatures dropped easier than others. The ice nymphs were too narrow to have thick ice in their constitution so they fell easily to the Guardians' swords and chains, while the ice centaur resisted even the grappling moves North tried to unleash on it, until Tooth performed a thrust into the creature's narrowed legs that shattered the ice into splinters, causing the centaur to lose its balance. The monster was taken care of for good when North took advantage of this loss of equilibrium to flip the hulking ice fiend over with enough force for the impact with the hard ice floor to snap the creature's neck, sending its sculpted head rolling across the floor.
By the time the Guardians were finished with their enemies, who were left lying on the floor in icy crumbs and rubble, the other three members of their group had long since vanished into the side room of the throne room. The Guardians were still catching their breath after the intense battle when Katherine showed up at the doorway, looking windswept.
"Tooth!" Katherine cried out, voice desperate. "Nightlight said to get you! It's Mr Bunnymund! He's dying!"
Tooth flew right across the throne room, over Katherine and through the doorway, and she still didn’t think she moved fast enough when she arrived in the round room to see Nightlight knelt over Bunny’s prostate form, shattered shards scattered all over the floor around the pair. Nightlight’s hands were pressed to Bunny’s chest and a light was glowing from between his fingers, like it was coming from a source other than his natural state of constant low key glow.
“He was stabbed, but there are no wounds,” Katherine explained breathlessly. “I think it was some kind of dying blow. There was light and more of that cold wind, but no blood. The Lady just vanished-” The girl cut off into hyperventilation and North, who’d just entered the room as well, laid a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Breathe, Katherine,” North spoke in the softest voice Jack had ever heard from the boisterous man.
Meanwhile, Tooth joined Nightlight on the floor. “What do you need me to do?” the fairy asked urgently.
“I can’t bring him back by myself,” Nightlight explained, long bangs hiding his face enough to make his expression hard to make out. “He needs to want it. Remind him he’s still alive.”
There was no sign of the Lady, so Katherine’s earlier assumption of her using the last of her power to attack Bunny sounded believable. Maybe her power and life had been tied to the mirror that now laid in several pieces.
“What do I do?” Tooth asked as she brought her hands around Bunny’s head. “What if I still can’t break the curse?”
“Give him your memories, you’ve personally dealt with grief.” Nightlight glanced up, eyes a touch uncertain, showing he was mostly just throwing ideas around. “Call his name, just do anything you can think of to keep him here, with us.”
Pressing her mouth into a thin line, Tooth nodded her head once before bending down over Bunny. “Aster,” she spoke, voice a touch shaky but strong. “Aster, let me into your mind. I can help you.”
“That’s the name his mother gave him,” Nightlight murmured and Tooth hesitated. “But it’s not his first name.”
“He never told me another name,” Tooth said, voice strangled. Nighlight gave a soft smile and spoke a single word.
Jack had been so sure that Nightlight would say ‘Edelweiss’ that he only realized he’d been wrong when Tooth repeated the unexpected name.
“Eucalyptus,” Toothiana spoke to Bunny, whose mouth opened on an inhale, (Jack hadn’t even noticed that he hadn’t been breathing) and brought her face down closer to the Pooka’s. “Eucalyptus Aster Bunnymund, I won’t let you fade away.”
Eucalyptus was dead. He’d died from Fearling poisoning. Jack had seen his coffin. It had been crystalline, shimmering in a myriad of colors much like the crystal in Bunny’s cave (oh dear lord, that crystal had been a coffin). But now Jack’s mind stuttered at the half-recalled memory of Eucalyptus’ final resting place. Had it been Eucalyptus in the coffin?
Jack’s mind latched onto the dissonance in what he knew and remembered, and he could feel the memoryscape morph, the gossamer threads unravelling as a kaleidoscope took their place. The memoryscape was being overtaken by an arising memory and it swallowed Jack’s consciousness whole.
Some of you might still be doubting Bunny's identity, since I still haven't revealed anything about the relationship between Eucalyptus and Edelweiss, but if I manage to include everything I intend to, then the next chapter should clear most things up, and without a doubt this time.
Chapter 23: You Weren't Going to be Coming Down Alive
Think about the love inside the strength of heart
Think about the heroes saving life in the dark
Climbing higher through the fire, time was running out
Never knowing you weren't going to be coming down alive
But you still came back for me
You were strong and you believed
Everything is gonna be alright
Everything is gonna be alright
Everything is gonna be alright
Be strong. Believe
Be strong. Believe
~ Yellowcard - Believe
After this chapter pretty much all the reveals are out, so feel free to ask questions about absolutely anything concerning the backstory of this fic and for once I will not act coy over it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There wasn’t much time before they’d have to fight. Most of the crew were preparing themselves, checking their weaponry and the ship’s systems. For Jack, however, final preparations also included visiting the recently departed. And that was why Jack found himself in the crystal room of the infirmary.
Crystal rooms were used as deposits to secure the bodies of the dead when they were moved to the burial grounds. The ones on the ship would never be buried near the planet’s core, which was a treasure trove of lost loved ones hidden away in indestructible crystal. The only way to move a body in or out of crystal was through Pooka magic. In their crystal cocoons, the dead would be more safe from enemies than the living ever could be.
Jack headed for a specific crystal construct, one that was occupied. The crystal cache was as much a Pooka burial cocoon as they could prepare out here. Jack approached the crystal cocoon slowly, showing the proper respect. He just wished to say goodbye to his friend. Jack stepped up to the crystal surface and looked at the features of the buried Pooka.
Eucalyptus wasn't the one lying in the coffin. Startled, Jack jumped back, staring mouth agape at the face that was only somewhat like Eucalyptus'.
Edelweiss and Eucalyptus looked alike, but not enough to confuse them. The dead Pooka was undoubtedly Edelweiss.
Jack recalled the halberd the supposed Edelweiss was carrying around. Edelweiss favored twin swords as his weapons. A halberd would be much more fitting of Eucalyptus, who had always favored weapons with reach.
"Jackfruit," a voice suddenly hissed and the white Pooka whirled around to stare wide-eyed at an equally wide-eyed Wattle. "Jackfruit, you aren't supposed to be here. No one is allowed here."
"You're here," Jack hissed back. He gestured wildly at the coffin before the golden Pooka could reply. "This is not Eucalyptus."
"No, it isn't," Wattle spoke softly, walking up to Jack to stand beside him. "Eucalyptus is fine, even if a bit shaken up." The Mountain Pooka's ears twitched self-consciously. "For several reasons."
Grief. Near-death experience. Stealing someone else's identity.
"Why?" The white Pooka's voice was a desperate hitch when he voiced the question.
"It's what Bunnymunds do, what they're raised for." Wattle brushed the tips of his fingers over the crystal, a small gesture of farewell to the departed. "They always train the replacement for the Hope of the People before the previous one becomes unable to take care of their duties."
"And they just put another Pooka in their skin?" Jack snarled at the thought. "That's disgusting."
"Usually it's simply a matter of appointing a successor," Wattle said carefully. "But crisis situations, such as this one, call for more...distasteful measures."
"Distasteful?" Jack snapped. "Eucalyptus is your best friend! How can you be so calm about this?"
"You think I'm calm?" Wattle's hands clenched into fists. "Maybe I'm a better faker than I thought, then. I'm furious, of course I am. I love Euca and I would have never wanted this for him." The bright green eyes flashed as the Mountain Pooka shot a glance at the cocoon. The message was clear.
"Edelweiss loved Eucalyptus too," Jack defended his general. "I saw them together."
"Clearly not enough to stop them from ruining his life." Wattle sighed and deflated. "But, I can't make my feelings known. I understand General Zinnia's reasoning and Euca needs me to support him in this, not undermine his efforts to uphold morale." The golden-furred Pooka rubbed at his face, looking tired on more than one level. “You should go to your post, Jackfruit.”
“Showtime, then?” Jack tried for levity in his tone, wanting to seem more confident, more ready for this, than he really was. Wattle gave him a ghost of a smile as he walked past the healer and Jack squared his shoulders before leaving the peace of the infirmary behind.
It wasn't the end of his downtime just yet, but he might as well equip himself. Only commanding officers were supposed to keep their weapons on them at all times, while non-ranking soldiers were expected to leave them in the armory. It was a precaution to make sure no weapons were brought into personal disputes, although it wasn't often strictly enforced on battleships like it had been at the Academy.
It was worth it to enter the armory when it was presumably empty. A very distinct person was currently examining a pair of weapons, one a light sword and the other a heavy halberd.
Jack should have realized it the moment he'd seen Edelweiss practically wobble his way onto the command bridge. While Edelweiss was known for his prowess with multiple weapons, the halberd had always been a weapon favored by Eucalyptus. As for the wobbling, that had more likely been caused by the sudden increase in leg length rather than being freshly released from the infirmary.
Eucalyptus probably hadn't had a chance to reconsider grabbing his personal weapon when he'd reported for duty that wasn't his own. Now, however, he had a chance to measure the merits of a familiar weapon versus those of a weapon associated with the person he was supposed to appear as.
Keeping his steps light, Jack took full advantage of his scout training as he approached Eucalyptus. He truly did look like Edelweiss now, tall and thoughtful and lonely.
A quick glance behind him told Jack that he was alone with the other Pooka. He turned back around and shuffled his feet.
Eucalyptus canted his head - Jack had forgotten he had such sharp hearing - and the green eyes turned to regard him guardedly. "Jackfruit," the dark voice that didn't belong to Eucalyptus at all rumbled, and even though Pookas couldn't change their eye color Eucalyptus' matched Edelweiss' perfectly. It really was an uncanny shade of green.
“Is something wrong?” Eucalyptus asked after a moment of silently staring at Jack’s unresponsive face.
Jack floundered. Should he tell Eucalyptus that he knew he was faking it? Or should he respect what the other was trying to do here and play dumb?
“I was actually wondering if you were fine,” the white Pooka finally managed to blurt out.
Eucalyptus’ ears fell back, an embarrassed gesture Edelweiss would never have let through. The darker Pooka had a false start before he muttered: “I appreciate the concern, but I’m managing.”
Frowning in suspicion, Jack reached out and laid his hand over Eucalyptus’, the one that was holding the sword. “Honestly?” he said in a tone he attempted to have encouraging. “I think you should go with the halberd. It suits you better than any sword.”
Eucalyptus had allowed the touch, been curious of its intention, no doubt. But at Jack’s words the other Pooka yanked himself away. A dark glare came into the deep green eyes, but Eucalyptus did place the sword back on the wall, beside its mate.
“Shouldn’t you worry about arming yourself rather than me?” Eucalyptus drawled while he slowly brought the halberd around to secure it on the harness he was still wearing around his torso. “I’m quite proficient with a number of weapons, I’ll have you know.”
“But I’ve never seen you practise with twin swords,” Jack commented, giving the other physical distance as he walked down the wall to go collect his own personal sword. “I just wonder if it was a preference or because Edelweiss favored them so much.”
A silence followed, and Jack didn’t dare face Eucalyptus, in fear of a violent explosion of temper. After a moment, however, there was simply a sigh and the other said: “So you know.”
Jack turned around to see Eucalyptus giving him a considering look. The other was still firmly wrapped in the illusion of being General Edelweiss, and Jack could see him filling the role more as time passed. A more unforgiving part wondered if Eucalyptus' heart wasn't in fact as much steel as the shade of his fur.
“Did you figure it out or did someone let something slip?”
“I went to pay my respects,” Jack answered hesitantly. “It was…disconcerting.”
Eucalyptus stood stiffly and Jack wondered if the other had been given any time to grieve when he was probably the one who grieved the most. Especially if Jack’s suspicions were correct and the two had in fact been lovers.
The taller Pooka (Eucalyptus wasn’t supposed to be so tall) walked over to Jack and regarded him silently for a moment. Then, he reached out a hand and grasped Jack’s shoulder. It was the first time Eucalyptus had ever initiated physical contact between them and the novelty had Jack briefly forgetting to breathe.
“All will be well,” Eucalyptus spoke, slowly and clearly, and Jack was compelled to believe him, just a bit. Then the other Pooka released him and started to make his way out of the room.
Jack came back to his senses right before Eucalyptus could open the door and called out: “You really think we can live through the Fearling horde?”
Eucalyptus stopped, his back to Jack. Then the other Pooka turned around. “I’m going to be honest. There will be nothing here for us after this is all over.” Eucalyptus stood tall, like he hadn’t just said their way of life was practically over. “But we can start over somewhere else. We can rebuild. And I’ll make sure there are as many of us as possible to make that happen, even if I have to beat down the Nightmare King myself.”
With his final words, Eucalyptus walked out of the armory, and Jack was left wondering how he’d ever thought Eucalyptus cold. Just because his heart was of steel didn’t mean it ran cold. It could burn as hot as a smelter and still solidify into something unbreakable. That was what the word ‘eucalyptus’ meant in Pookan. Jack wondered if a prophet had landed when Eucalyptus had been born, to give him such a strong name.
With new determination, Jack strapped his sword to his waist. He wouldn’t lose to Eucalyptus in determination. He had a war to fight, yes, but at least he’d get to fight it while wearing his own skin.
It was an image straight from one of Jack's nightmares, and he'd had a great deal of those during his training. It had always been in the back of his mind, the worry that, despite everything they did and how hard they fought, the Fearlings would reach their last line of defence before they'd get at the defenceless homeworld.
Jack's hand clenched around the handle of his sword as he took off, with a specific goal in mind. He needed to get to the command bridge, to Sage. Sage was an information officer more than a warrior, but they could both deal more damage watching each other's backs than they would fighting by themselves.
The plan was to stall the Fearlings enough that they'd stay away from the homeworld a while longer. As such, the dreadnaught Eucalyptus was perfect for the job. It was impregnable, with outer armaments and a capacity to contain an entire army. The Fearlings would never be able to resist that many bright hearts, even with the battleship's armaments making picking anyone off difficult.
The Fearlings would eventually get through, however. There was no doubt about that. There was an allotted time that needed to be gained for the homeworld to be properly evacuated, after which the soldiers were instructed to retreat from battle and get to the nearest Tunnel port on the ship.
The Tunnels generated by Pookan technology were highly unreliable when used to move such vast distances as the evacuation coordinates dictated. However, no distance would be too great when it involved the Fearlings, so it was still the best chance they had of surviving the assault. Pookan Tunnels weren't compatible with the physiologies of other races, however, so most of the other evacuations were being performed by space ships. It would remain to be seen how many would make it to the relocation coordinates in the end.
Jack made it to the bridge, only to find it emptying out. Briefly panicking, Jack looked around for Sage's brown form, but caught no sign of his friend.
"What's going on?" Jack asked, practically gasping the question out.
"The general has ordered the prep work for the Tunnel generators so most of our officers are on the Tunnel deck," Fern told Jack as she made her way to the white Pooka. "They're supposed to do it manually, to make sure there are no malfunctions. We need to have them up and running efficiently when the retreat order comes in."
Sage was probably on the lower levels then. Of course Jack wouldn't know that, it wasn't his business what orders the information officers received. It was also the safest possible place for Sage to be.
"Do you need any security here?" Jack asked helpfully.
Fern smiled. "We're pretty secure," the tan Pooka replied. "However, word's just come in from the turrets section that enemy breakthrough is imminent. Everyone will most likely be ordered to the observation deck or any breach point the Fearlings create."
Just then Jack's communicator buzzed to life, delivering Zinnia's orders to head for the deck. The white Pooka took off in a run.
Jack encountered no Fearlings in the corridors, but the upper observation deck was already beginning to swarm with them. Jack couldn't see any other Pookas and immediately drew his sword. It was likely Zinnia was still keeping most Pookas strategically placed and only called in the ones that had been patrolling, like Jack. Still, there was no telling what the exact numbers here were.
The sword in Jack's grip gave a brief burst of light. Most of the Pooka weapons had been laced with pure light, to make sure they harmed creatures of darkness like the Fearlings. Going at the things with conventional weaponry wouldn't yield many results.
Jack had always been one to emphasize speed, and his movements matched and even overwhelmed the Fearlings that were trying to swarm him. He swiped and slashed, the finely honed and magically enhanced blade easily tearing the Fearlings' bodies apart. Jack tried not to face the creatures from the front; Fearlings had long and sharp claws that could wound him severely and their teeth could doubtlessly infect him with the Fearling taint that had taken Edelweiss and almost Eucalyptus as well. Instead, Jack circled around the Fearlings, striking from the sides and behind, and kept himself in motion even as his enemies tried to trip him up.
He got tagged several times as he fought his way through the hordes of enemies, trying to keep them from getting through to the levels below. He'd caught very distant flashes of Pooka uniforms, but for the most part time had blurred into a continuous stream of identical enemies. Pookas were known for their perseverance and they could technically fight for days at a time, but all such cases had been recorded on battlefields less crowded and more evenly matched than this one. It really was only a matter of time before they were overrun, and Jack was tremendously relieved when he noticed a thinning in the amount of enemies attempting to enter through the observation deck.
With that realization came another communication from Zinnia. The Fearlings had breached the hull and were now entering the ship from multiple locations. The battle was officially declared not worth pursuing any longer and the soldiers were being ordered to retreat to the Tunnel docks on the bottom levels. They had parameters in place for such a retreat, top down with the Pookas on higher levels covering the retreat of those on the lower ones. It was the best way to make sure no pathways got clogged in the chaos of battle.
Jack was on the highest level of the battleship. He briefly considered staying put to make sure as few Fearlings made it past him as possible. Then he considered the hull breaches and how most of the enemy force was most likely causing blocks to form, either intentionally or not. The white Pooka sheathed his sword and took off.
He barely made it back to the interior of the ship before he felt a set of claws tear into his back, tearing through both his uniform and flesh, causing him to lose his balance. He rolled around and brought his legs up in a kick to ward off a follow-up attack. The Fearling was sent flying, right into the end of a brightly shining halberd.
Of course Eucalyptus would be here, on the most dangerous part of the battlefield, risking himself to protect others. It would have been admirable if Jack hadn’t been so irritated over the other rushing to his rescue. Although Jack did start to lean more towards admiration when he saw the other Pooka practically cleave through a wave of Fearlings with a single broad stroke of the heavy halberd. Jack thought he actually saw some of the Fearlings fly away in reaction to that.
Eucalyptus leaped to Jack’s side and offered the downed Pooka a hand. Jack quickly grasped it and was pulled up. That was when he realized he was looking down on Eucalyptus and noticed that his fur color was back to blue and that the red jacket hung a bit loose.
“Where did you leave your other shape?” Jack asked even as Eucalyptus pushed him through the doors to make him lead the way back inside.
“I needed a familiar body to fight properly,” Eucalyptus answered back shortly. “I doubt what I look like matters now of all times.”
“If you say so,” Jack drawled as the two ran side by side. He briefly noted that Eucalyptus could actually keep up with his speed. He was fast, even injured as he was, but apparently so was Eucalyptus regardless his short legs.
They ran into a squad of Fearlings a couple of floors lower. Eucalyptus snarled as he readied his halberd.
“They’re cutting off the escape routes!” The short Pooka shouted over the sounds of shrieks as his weapon cut through enemies. “They’re coming at us strategically. No doubt Pitch Black is commanding this attack.”
Pitch Black. That was what Edelweiss had reported General Pitchiner was going by now. For all intents and purposes the Nightmare King merely wore the face of the Golden General; there was none of Kozmotis Pitchiner’s honor and justice left in that creature of darkness. Still, Pitchiner's strategic mind and battle skills seemed to have survived the transition into something else.
“I sure hope we don’t run into him,” Jack answered back as he swung his sword, thinning the horde further.
Eucalyptus scoffed as he pierced a Fearling’s chest, clearing a path for them to continue through. “Speak for yourself,” the other Pooka said darkly as he took the helm on their dash forward. “I, for one, wouldn’t mind some payback after the ship’s been secured.”
“Secured?” Jack queried as Eucalyptus purposefully led him down a path with the highest probability of Fearlings appearing, undoubtedly so that they could cut them down. Jack was touched by the trust in his abilities.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” Eucalyptus commented as he brought them around another corner, slashing through the few Fearlings that appeared. “We’re making progress but I’m taking us around the outer rim of the ship.” The other Pooka glanced over his shoulder at Jack. “It’s our job to make sure as many soldiers get off this death trap as possible.”
“So you do trust me to look after everyone,” Jack commented, allowing his pleasure to come into his tone. “I’m honored.”
“I’m familiar with your training record,” was Eucalyptus’ succinct response. “I know you prioritize others’ safety over your own. And Nasturtium considers you decent in a fight.”
Despite the situation, Jack couldn’t help but laugh at that. “For Nasturtium, that’s high praise indeed.”
The two did eventually make their way to the Tunnel docks. They’d even managed to rescue a few Pookas from sticky situations with Fearlings as they went on, even if Jack had managed to get his left leg nicked by a Fearling’s claw when shielding a soldier who seemed even greener than Jack was.
Jack made his way to one of the command boards. Eucalyptus was immediately beside him, seeming to almost hover.
“There are enough pods left, I’m sure of that much,” the Hope of the People (because that was what he was, he had proven it by now) said, his tone holding a hint of suspicion. Did he somehow know what Jack intended? And if he did, why did he care? The metallic blue Pooka flicked a switch and the command board was covered in a protective casing.
“You were trying to reprogram the coordinates,” Eucalyptus accused, leaning in and glaring at Jack. “Why?”
Jack didn’t bother answering the question. Instead, he snarled: “You do know these things are just meant to keep dust off, right?” and slammed his fist through the glass casing. There was a startled sound from Eucalyptus as Jack set one of the Tunnels for the Pooka homeworld. He turned away from the console, only for Eucalyptus to block his path. The other had taken the form of Edelweiss again, most likely to guilt trip Jack into following his orders.
"Get out of my way," Jack snarled dangerously, not about to have his emotions played with, considering what was at stake. "I have to get to my family." He didn't really want to be angry, not here, not now, but this was important. This was his family.
Eucalyptus’ hands grasped Jack’s shoulders firmly, securely. "Our entire race could be dead, Jackfruit!" the other Pooka hissed desperately. "Like it or not, you're my nearest and dearest right now, and I will keep you safe!" Green eyes darkened and Jack fell quiet.
That shade of green kept distracting him. Especially when it was in Eucalyptus’ or Edelweiss’ eyes. Jack had only seen it a few times in eyes and was certain it was a family trait, Dill and Hollyhock had it too and they were a part of the Bunnymund Clan, much like Edelweiss and Eucalyptus. He decided he'd dub that color Bunnymund Green.
”Don’t just say that to me,” Jack said as he yanked himself free from Eucalyptus’ grasp. “You don’t just say that.” To swear to fight for someone, to swear to protect them, it held meaning, and Jack wouldn’t have Eucalyptus swear his weapon to him on a whim of duty.
The next words Jack spoke he suspected he might at some point regret. Regardless, he did speak out: “You can’t bring Edelweiss back by protecting me.”
Eucalyptus froze, expression uncomprehending. “What?”
“I know you loved the General,” Jack hurried to add, not really fancying getting hit in the face. “He was-”
“What?” Eucalyptus blurted out again and Jack restarted: “He was important to you.” Jack didn’t hesitate on using a personal pronoun when discussing Edelweiss; they’d known each other well enough and he wasn’t around to be offended by the familiarity.
“Jackfruit,” Eucalyptus spoke slowly. “Edelweiss was a woman.”
Oh. Well, apparently Bunnymund women were ambiguous in appearance. This wasn’t exactly the first time Jack had made this mistake.
“And of course I loved her.” Eucalyptus smiled and he looked like himself again. “She was my mother.”
“What?” Now it was Jack’s turn to be lost.
“Bunnymunds aren’t just mass produced in a factory somewhere. We have mothers and fathers.”
Actually, this talk about parents made Jack think about his own.
“That doesn’t change anything,” he insisted. “I’m still going.”
“Don’t think so,” Eucalyptus answered readily. “I didn’t just pick to join up with you because I knew you could keep up and would protect the others.” The other Pooka scowled at him. “I started shadowing you because I knew you’d attempt something stupidly self-sacrificing.”
“Much like you, right?” Jack sneered.
Eucalyptus wasn’t impressed. “Your family has either been evacuated or it’s too late to do anything for them. It’s time to worry about yourself.”
Jack opened his mouth to argue, only to be promptly grabbed by Eucalyptus and dragged to one of the unaltered pods. Then he was unceremoniously shoved in and Eucalyptus proceeded to set off the launch sequence, effectively trapping Jack inside.
“You’re coming right after me, right?” Jack asked, although his tone added a ‘you better’ to the end.
Eucalyptus smiled. “In time,” the other Pooka promised, gripping his halberd again. “I still have unfinished business.”
Jack pressed his hands against the window of the pod, like he could somehow grab Eucalyptus through it and shake some sense into him. “What are you planning?”
“I need to do a final sweep to make sure there aren’t any stragglers, Pooka or otherwise.” Eucalyptus hefted his halberd. “Maybe see if I can find Pitch Black and put a real stop to this.”
“Euca…” Jack implored the other. “Don’t…”
“It’s alright, Jackfruit,” Eucalyptus said gently, lifting his free hand to press against the opposite side of the glass to one of Jack’s own. “This is what I was born to do.”
The Tunnel generator started roaring then, and Jack could see Eucalyptus’ lips moving but he couldn’t hear a word. Eucalyptus stepping back, stepping away from him, was the last thing he saw before the pod sealed the window off and the Tunnel launched him across time and space.
Since some people expressed interest in the stuff in this fic that served as foreshadowing and clues, I'll list most of them here. A great deal of them are in-hindsight types so yay for reread value or something. (Also included are some characterization notes and scrapped ideas.)
- Edelweiss is a woman: At first I wasn't planning on making it a huge deal that Edelweiss was a candidate for Bunny's real identity. Then I ended up writing her introductory scene without a single personal pronoun used and I got the idea that Jack was mixed up over her gender, so I had Jack refer to her as a 'him' in his narration. Then I started to wonder how long I could get away with no character besides Jack ever using a gendered pronoun for Edelweiss without someone noticing. Apparently I got away with it entirely, and the big mystery of this fic was born. Jack also has a history with mixing up the genders of Bunnymund women, considering his first meeting with Dill, who is, in fact, Edelweiss' daughter and Eucalyptus' older sister.
(Jack can make this mistake because, as established in the Dill chapter, Pooka's usually refer to each other by a gender neutral pronoun. Attaching a gendered pronoun suggests familiarity.)
- 'Wattle': Wattle is a golden-furred Pooka, while the golden wattle plant is the floral emblem of Australia. The flower named after his best friend is also the emblem of the country Bunny most strongly associates himself with.
- Art: In Chapter 7, Bunny tells Jack that he used to have a best friend who could paint with magic. In Chapter 9 Wattle, who is Eucalyptus' best friend, teaches Jack to paint with magic.
- 'Aster': Calan Gaeaf is close friends with Bunny and calls him 'Aster' in Chapter 19. Bunny also introduces himself as 'Aster' in Chapter 21. He used to use that as his name before he became comfortable with 'Easter Bunny'. Back in Chapter 9, Bunny tells Jack that he shares his mother's name. That name is actually his second name, 'Aster'.
-'Treasure': In Chapter 9, Bunny tells Jack that he was his mother's "treasure". In Chapter 16, Edelweiss outright calls Eucalyptus her treasure. It was supposed to be a habit, but I didn't manage to get enough scenes with them both in this to depict that properly.
- Heritage: Bunny talks a lot about his family life in Chapter 9, including about how he was pressured to follow in his mother's footsteps. So, Bunny was raised to become the Hope of the People from birth, which explains Eucalyptus' fumbling in personal relationships, as witnessed in Chapter 10. Edelweiss, on the other hand, is much more in control of her emotions.
Size: Bunny is shorter than Jack's Pooka form. This is something Jack notices way back in Chapter 7. Jack also notes that Edelweiss is tall at several points, but in Chapter 15 there is a particular scene where he ends up looking up at the General. Eucalyptus, meanwhile, gets called short on several occasions. In Chapter 14 Jack emphasises just how short Wattle is as a mountain Pooka, while Eucalyptus is only slightly taller.
- Bunny's flower arrangements: In Chapter 13 Bunny makes a fuss about the type of myrtle he should plant in his Warren. Eucalyptus is a type of myrtle. Bunny plants a different myrtle in his Warren every few months, to symbolise his own renewal and rebirth.
These couple of ones are very subtle and are mostly just characterization backstory.
- Dill and Eucalyptus: In Chapter 14 it is revealed that Dill and Eucalyptus know each other and Eucalyptus is the one who introduced Dill to Wattle. Still, Eucalyptus is distrustful of her and they don't seem terribly close. In Chapter 18 it's revealed that, just like Eucalyptus, Dill shares a name with a Pookan battle ship. Their parents theme named all of their children after warships. Also, in Chapter 9 Bunny mentioned not getting along with most of his siblings due to being favored by their mother. Dill is too upfront to keep a grudge going for long, but their sibling relationship has been harmed in the past.
- Dill and Edelweiss: In Chapter 17, Dill accompanied Edelweiss to the infirmary when the two visited Eucalyptus. This was strictly a family visit, as when Zinnia, the commanding officer, visited the infirmary in Chapter 18, no one else was allowed to enter. Dill also stays very silent throughout the rest of the chapter, since she was perfectly capable of telling apart her brother from her mother based on their walk and choice in weapons. Dill's worry for Eucalyptus in Chapter 17 was downplayed because they aren't that close, however, in Chapter 18 she is much more distraught, as she's just realized that her mother has passed away.
Chapter 24: Who Will Bring Me Flowers When It's Over?
Don't ever say goodbye
See my head aches from all this thinkin'
Feels like a ship God, God knows I'm sinkin'
Wonder what you do and where it is you stay
These questions like a whirlwind, they carry me away
Who will bring me flowers when it's over
And who will give me comfort when it’s cold
Who will I belong to when the day just won't give in
And who will tell me how it ends and how it all begins
~ Thriving Ivory - Flowers for a Ghost
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack came back to present to a voice calling his name. His gaze focused on Tooth, whose worried expression smoothened at the sight of him being able to concentrate again.
“Jack,” Tooth breathed out in relief. She pressed a hand to her chest in a relieved gesture, before she frowned. “What did I just see?”
“You saw that?” Jack’s eyes widened at that revelation. “Baby Tooth never saw any of my memories.”
“Baby Tooth is a tooth fairy,” Tooth explained. “I’m the Queen of the tooth fairies and the Guardian of Memories.” The fairy crossed her arms, glancing Jack up and down. “So why do you look like this?”
“Pookas are shapeshifters, actually.” Jack wondered if it simply hadn’t come up with Bunny. He spread his hands, gesturing to his scrawny frame. “This shape I didn’t pick. Manny did it, and I’m stuck.”
There was a thoughtful frown on Tooth’s face. “Manny did?”
Jack nodded, mirroring the expression. “I’m pretty sure he took my memories too. I just don’t understand why.”
Tooth pressed a hand to her chin, considering as her gaze wandered. “He most likely had his reasons.” Her eyes were drawn back to Jack. “Does Bunny know about this?” Suddenly Tooth’s expression wasn’t friendly at all.
Jack raised his hands in a disarming gesture. “I have a good reason for it!”
The look on Tooth’s face was thunderous. “Oh, you better.”
“I told you I’m stuck looking like this.” Jack made another gesture at his human body. “I can’t just tell Bunny what I am without proof, I’d just hurt him.” There might have been a touch of desperation in Jack’s voice at the end here, and it seemed that Tooth noticed, if the calming of the storm that was her temper was any clue.
“Fair enough…” The fairy leaned back in her seat. “No wonder you’ve been so curious to hear him go on about Pookas.”
Jack scratched the side of his head self-consciously. “Well, that’s not all we talk about these days.”
Tooth raised her eyebrows curiously. “Really?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah, just the other day he asked my opinion about the plant arrangement for the Warren.” Jack then noticed that Tooth was smiling widely now and trailed off. “What?”
“Nothing,” Tooth tittered in an amused manner. “It’s just really nice to see you two getting along and getting to know each other.” Her expression softened. “I have to admit, for a moment I was worried you were only spending time with Bunny because he was the last other member of your species, that you were using him for just those stories.”
Jack released a strangled sound over how on the nose Tooth managed to be. The tooth fairy shot him a poisonous look, catching on.
Jack was lifting his hands again. “It started like that, okay? But I do genuinely like him, more than I expected.” Jack’s eyes slid away from Tooth’s as he thought about Bunny. “I wish I could tell him about my experiences too.”
“You can still do that,” Tooth assured him gently. “Once you get all this cleared up.” Tooth made a gesture at Jack’s physical form, like Jack had done twice now. “You have any clues on that front?”
“Yeah, I have it under control,” Jack replied.
Tooth tapped her chin with a finger. “You know…” the fairy started, “I have…a theory for why Manny might have taken your memories away.”
Jack lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?” A theory was more than he had by himself.
Tooth’s hands lowered themselves to the table, looking for something to occupy her hands with, no doubt. “You…you do know Bunny’s not like you and me, right? That he’s been literally reborn into his role?”
Jack didn’t really think about it often, but yeah, Bunny had told him that. Jack knew Bunny had died at some point. He nodded.
Tooth gave him a searching look that had Jack wondering if she could read memories even across distances. They weren’t touching right now but the coffee table wasn’t much of a distance. “Did he tell you how it happened?”
Jack frowned. “Not really.”
Tooth hesitated. She clearly wasn’t sure if this was her secret to tell. “You saw my memories, what he used to be like.”
Tooth worried her bottom lip and poured Jack and herself more tea before Jack even had a chance to decline. As she settled the pot back down, she finally continued: “He was depressed. Manically so.”
Jack paused in filling his tea cup with sugar. He stared at the warm shade of sunny brown of the liquid as he considered the implications of Tooth’s words.
“Wait,” Jack muttered as he lowered the spoon back into the sugar bowl. “Are you telling me Bunny actually-”
“I’ve shared a mindscape with Bunny,” Tooth interrupted Jack. “When I undid what the Lady of the Cold did to him, I let him see my memories of loss in order to get access to his own.” She gestured to Jack with her tea cup. “Like how my memory just now jostled yours loose.”
“What did you see, exactly?” Jack frowned at Tooth. He was starting to wonder if there had been a case of culture shock here…
“He didn’t do it to himself, and I don’t think he actively sought to die,” Tooth hurried to correct herself, clutching her tea with both hands. “But, I’ve been in his mind, in his memories, when I brought him back from the brink. I saw how the battles wore him down, how the loss of his people shattered his spirit, how his heart broke when he realized he was alone.” Tooth took a deep gulp of the hot tea, the temperature apparently not bothering her. “He grew careless, like he couldn’t be bothered to care about his own safety. It cost him.”
The two sat in silence, Tooth chugging down her tea before pouring herself more while Jack focused on stirring his own cup. As he stirred, he thought.
Yeah, it was kind of a shock that the Guardian of Hope had once been so bereft of hope. But, it didn’t surprise Jack at all to hear that Bunny’s death had been to fall in battle. It wasn’t suicidal for a Pooka to seek battle, to not mind dying in battle.
“It’s a Pooka thing,” Jack spoke out and immediately gained Tooth’s attention. “Pookas tended to glorify the concept of a hero’s death.” He thought of Edelweiss, who’d nobly given her life to save that of her son, and of Eucalyptus, who’d stayed behind to defend the escape of his people. He thought of Bunny, who still carried on about the love and respect he held for his self-sacrificing mother, and he thought of the entire Bunnymund clan, who’d been raised from birth to put the needs of the Pooka race above their own.
“I have a bit of a self-sacrificing streak too,” Jack confessed and Tooth gave him a look that said clearly: ‘You don’t say?’ The winter spirit shrugged. “I blame my upbringing but, then again, so does everyone these days.”
Tooth merely hummed in response. “But you see what I mean?” she queried. “You understand how Manny would see such a thing and think that a Pooka would be better off not remembering or being reminded of his loss?”
“Yeah.” Jack sighed regretfully. “I get it, and I guess that would make it petty to carry a grudge.”
“You think?” Tooth giggled and the two finished their tea with some lighter conversation over some more recent encounters with children or stories of some more curious ways a child could lose a baby tooth.
When Jack left the Tooth Palace, he was finally feeling like he understood. He took flight and started heading towards a good place to open up a port into the Warren. He had a sudden urge to see Bunny, to go and have a good, proper look at him.
The winter spirit hesitated, the screeching wind draining away into a whistle as Jack reconsidered his course of action. Then the wind changed directions.
He had to take a detour.
Bunny looked up the moment Jack swooped into the Warren and got up from his seat on the grass. Scattered pieces of paper surrounded him on the ground, most likely rejected designs, but he sidestepped them with practised ease as Jack landed, coming over to press his nose to Jack’s chest in a nuzzle.
“Jackie,” Bunny murmured and straightened. Jack’s eyes met red.
All thoughts of an actual greeting left the winter spirit’s mind when he instead said: “You’re wearing clothes.”
Bunny shrugged, the slim-fitting red jacket showing off the movement easily. “I’ve been feeling under the weather, so I thought I’d wear some layers for once.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “You’re sick? Like with flu? Do Pookas get the common cold?”
“Easter Bunnies get off seasons,” Bunny drawled in an annoyed tone. “Most holiday spirits do, sometimes, when the conditions are too opposed to what they’re used to.” The Pooka crossed his arms. “Temperature fluctuations and fatigue are the most common symptoms.”
“So you’re fatigued?” Jack asked as he glanced at all the crumpled up sheets of paper littering the ground. “Is that why your creativity is suffering? Should you even be up?”
“You know I hate sleeping,” Bunny grumbled, also shooting a glance at the mess. The look on his face was a touch surprised, like he hadn’t realized how much of a mess he’d been creating. He turned back to Jack, brows lowered. “I don’t need to be coddled.”
It was weird; the coddling seemed to come naturally. Jack had often worried about Eucalyptus, far more so than Edelweiss who he’d seen as competent regardless of her more flighty moments, and somehow that worry was much easier to express towards Bunny. Eucalyptus had been small and naive in many ways, but he’d been really independent. Bunny might have been bigger and embittered, but he also seemed so much more in need of someone looking after him.
Even though he’d been surviving on his own for several millennia. Jack thought with distaste that Bunny probably didn’t need Jack nearly as much as Jack wanted Bunny to need him.
“Is that an edelweiss?” Bunny asked then, drawing Jack’s attention away from those thoughts. The winter spirit glanced at the flower he was holding in the same hand that held his shepherd’s crook, the flower safely tucked against the surface of the staff. Jack directed the whole hand towards Bunny.
“It’s for you,” he blurted out.
“Really?” Bunny reached out and tucked the edelweiss out of Jack’s grip. “Cheers, mate.”
“I came across a bunch,” Jack mumbled, partially into the collar of his hoodie. “It reminded me of you.” He lifted his free hand to tug on some tufts of hair. “We met on a field of edelweiss, remember?”
“Yeah.” There was something soft, almost gentle in Bunny’s tone as he looked at the flower, rotating it slowly between his fingers. “I remember.” He looked away from the flower, up at Jack. “’Edelweiss’ was my mother’s name.”
Huh, apparently that was all it would have taken to find that out, Jack mused a touch bitterly. If he’d just gone and picked those edelweiss flowers earlier, then he wouldn’t have almost made a huge mistake. Jack still managed to smile, despite the self-flagellation going on in his head. “Is that why it’s your favorite?”
"Actually, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be the Sky Blue Aster," Bunny replied, twirling the edelweiss flower in his grasp again. “But, yeah, I’m partial to the edelweiss.”
Jack thought for a moment and then nodded. "Alright," he said with conviction. "Next time I'll bring you one of those."
Bunny’s eyes looked at him in amusement. “Sky Blue Asters bloom in late summer,” the Pooka pointed out.
Jack gave an exaggerated shrug. “I’ll figure something out.”
Bunny merely hummed, unconvinced, and slid the edelweiss into a buttonhole on his jacket. It actually rather suited the Pooka and Jack’s heart stuttered, like it had on a ship under attack, long ago.
“You’re such a plant nerd,” Jack snapped, in lack of anything better to say.
Bunny just laughed in response and he looked so much less tired right now that Jack decided not to mind that the insult wasn’t annoying Bunny nearly as much as it should have.
At first the Hope of the People system wasn't going to be such a mess, but then ReinKuro got me thinking about the replacement potential between the members of the Bunnymund clan, and the horrible tradition was born. I thought I'd mention it, in case you guys think I don't consider your questions or suggestions at all. Parts of the story can still change if I get new ideas, either on my own or by being nudged. So take care before asking about anything that might break your hearts. *evil cackling*
Chapter 25: Here I Am, You Will Be Mine
Here, in your mind, in your dreams
I will stay forever
You will become
Less than one, after I am done
Fear, will be yours, in this world,
Full of whispering voices
Day after day, I will stay, I will haunt you
Here I am am, you will be mine
~ Nemesea - In Control
They were putting up decorations for the Annual Skating Extravaganza (it wasn’t really an annual anything, but North had really grown fond of the concept of a turn-of-the-year skating party and had roped the other Guardians into helping with the prep work). While North himself was still busy with Christmas, the other Guardians had been able to find some free space in their schedules and were willing to work hard. Or, well, three out of four worked hard. Bunny had started being unsteady on his feet until Tooth had marched him off for a nap. Currently the Easter Bunny was snoozing softly on one of the benches the yetis had set up and Jack kept shooting worried glances in his direction.
Bunny had been acting weirdly lethargic for two months now. Jack had naturally kept pressing Bunny about it, but Bunny had keeping on insisting that it wasn’t uncommon for holiday spirits to go through off seasons occasionally. That generally it wasn’t anything to worry about.
Bunny also didn’t generally spend this much time sleeping unless he was actively doing things. Time and time again, Jack’s visits to the Warren had been cut short by Bunny starting to slump while sitting down. Once or twice the blue-grey Pooka had actually fallen asleep before snapping out of it.
It was when he was sleeping that Jack could see how wrong he’d been in thinking that Bunny was General Edelweiss. To Edelweiss, sleep had been a reprieve and it left her calm and peaceful. Bunny, however, looked troubled whenever he slept, brows scrunching up in an unconscious frown. And when Bunny woke, it was with a startle, like his nap had left him disoriented. Although that was quickly wiped away from Bunny’s face when the freshly-awakened Pooka would give Jack a greeting smile, like he was happy to see him even straight from sleep.
Considering how rare it was for Bunny to sleep, it probably was disconcerting to find out he’d been unconscious. Maybe he was scared he’d gone and slept centuries away again, or maybe waking up was just an unfamiliar sensation by now. The thing that mattered was that it did unnerve him, and that worried Jack. Jack was rather used to worrying over Eucalyptus and that care had seemed to have transferred over to Bunny easily.
“You’d better not be ogling when you’re supposed to be working,” Tooth’s voice suddenly uttered right next to his ear. Jack promptly jumped and whirled in place to face the Tooth Fairy. “Tooth!”
Tooth was raising an inquiring eyebrow. “So?” she asked. “Are you just ogling Bunny or is there something on your mind?”
“I don’t ogle Bunny.” Jack huffed and crossed his arms. So what if he took every chance of Bunny falling asleep on him to really look at him? He was just making sure he had gotten the connection right this time around (all the while beating himself up for getting it wrong the first time). “Totally not my style.”
“Hmm…” Tooth hummed with a smirk. “I’m having some difficulty believing that.”
Jack scowled, then sighed. “It’s just…is this common behaviour for him?” He indicated towards the heavily sleeping Pooka. “Have you seen him like this before?”
Tooth frowned in thought for a moment. “A couple of times, when there’s an exceptionally cold winter,” the fairy replied. “I can’t be sure it’s not a common occurrence, since he tends to isolate himself, especially when he’s not feeling one hundred percent. It’s only when he has an obligation that he shows up when he’s feeling under the weather.”
Jack hummed as he thought. It made sense. Despite often wearing a light jacket in the Warren, Bunny had showed up at North Pole without as much as a shirt, like he was trying to avoid tipping the other Guardians off that he wasn’t one hundred percent. “He called this his off season. Is that, what, like suffering from some kind of flu?”
“Actually.” Tooth stretched the word in consideration. “That’s a very good way to describe his reaction.” Tooth shrugged. “He’s tired and tends to shiver. I think he’s just really not built for cold.”
A lull came over the conversation and Jack directed his attention back to the decorations for the skating rink (there was an actual rink this time; North and the yetis had set it up with much gusto, their professional pride leading to rather good results even in the middle of the great Christmas rush). Jack frowned at the garlands lining the rink, wondering if they were too colorful or tacky. Some spirits preferred a hurricane of colors, like North or even Tooth, but many others could be almost monochrome. The latter held especially true for spirits that enjoyed winter, such as selkies, but Jack had always preferred calm colors like deep blue.
It made sense that Jack wasn’t originally a wintery spirit then. Although, the thought had Jack wondering again what had happened to all the pure winter spirits. He suspected it was somehow related to the Lady of the Cold, but he hadn’t gotten a chance to get that part of the story out of Tooth yet.
"So." Tooth began speaking again in a slow drawl intended to draw Jack's attention fully to the fairy before she continued. "You never told me how you intended to deal with your shape issues." She poked a long and narrow finger at Jack's shoulder for emphasis.
Jack rolled the shoulder in question as he thought back on the conversation the two of them had shared when Jack had last visited. Tooth did have a point, and Jack didn't mind revealing the answer.
"I consulted North's Moon Crystal and Manny told me he'd be able to undo the magic back at my pond on the anniversary of my so-called rebirth," Jack explained. "Magical times and locations and all that."
“Are you planning on inviting Bunny to join you for the occasion?” There was a touch of an excited grin to Tooth’s expression, and Jack could guess what she thought of such a course of action.
The winter spirit shook his head ruefully. “Afraid not,” he said with a sigh. “I doubt Bunny would come along for a magic show without an explanation beforehand, and I really doubt our friendship’s strong enough to take me trying to tell him that there are still Pookas around.”
Tooth hummed in agreement. “Good point,” the fairy acquiesced. “I doubt anyone has a strong enough friendship with Bunny to drop that kind of bombshell on him.”
A smile touched Jack’s lips as he briefly fell into recollection. “Wattle probably.”
“And who’s that?” Tooth queried with interest. “Wasn’t that the name of the one other Pooka in your memories? The golden one?”
“Wattle was Bunny’s best friend back then,” Jack explained. “They were practically brothers, what with the way Bunny stood witness to him getting engaged and all.” Jack thought about asters, and wondered how much Tooth had absorbed about Pookan customs through memory sharing. She might be able to stand witness for a Pooka courtship.
Jack shook his head to clear it and came back to his senses to see Tooth smirking at him.
“What were you thinking about just now, I wonder?” the fairy murmured in a teasing tone. “You got really red for a moment before your face froze. Almost like you were blushing.”
“It was nothing important,” Jack insisted, hoping he wasn’t going to start flaking, because that would be really embarrassing. He glanced at Bunny again and squinted. Was Bunny shivering? He was pretty sure Bunny was shivering.
"I should make sure he doesn't worsen his condition," Jack said out loud to Tooth, pointing a thumb in the snoozing Pooka's direction. "He's so proud he'd never let us see him bundled up."
"Funny," Tooth murmured with a smile. "From what you've been telling me, he lets you see him vulnerable plenty enough."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jack babbled quickly and slid across the ice to the edge nearest to Bunny. He walked over to the bench Bunny was curled up on and gave him a critical glance.
Maybe he was shivering. If Jack squinted really hard. Still, it was better to be safe than sorry and so Jack grabbed a throw from the next bench over the bent over Bunny's sleeping form to cover him up properly.
While he wasn't as fast as a human as he had been as a Pooka, Jack was still reasonably quick, so his reflexes were enough to have him jumping back before Bunny could maul him with a set of ferocious claws that had morphed into existence the instant the Pooka entered a half-awake state at the disturbance. The throw fluttered to the floor while Jack gave his friend a startled and offended look.
Bunny still looked half asleep. He was panting heavily, eyes wide and wild, fur fluffed up in a way that suggested it was longer than usual. His ears were pulled tensely back, a typical Pookan fight-or-flight reaction and his hands were still in the shape of beastly claws.
Jack was facing Bunny's right side and he got a good look at the other’s right eye as the dilated pupil finally shrunk down as the nightmare-induced panic subsided. The lively green had been distorted in a way that made the eye look turquoise. Jack wondered if Bunny knew his eye did that and if that was the reason he sometimes covered it, instead of there being pain.
"Bunny," Jack spoke, voice low and stern. "It's me, Jack."
"Sorry, mate," Bunny murmured, eyes lowering. He was still breathing heavily as he began to curl up in his sitting position. "I mistook you for someone else."
If Bunny had actually been feeling cold, it would make sense he would startle at the sight of white hair and blue eyes. This held especially true since Jack knew the similarities didn't end there.
“Yeah, I figured.” Jack scowled. None of the times Bunny had drifted off in the Warren had led to him jolting awake in such a panic, regardless of how close Jack was when he came back to. The winter spirit wondered, not for the first time, if the Warren was literally Bunny’s comfort zone. If so, this whole shut-in recluse thing would need to stop for Bunny to learn to socialize properly. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Bunny’s answer was strained, and Jack noticed that the other’s haggard appearance still wasn’t smoothening itself out. His scowl deepened.
“Somehow I’m not buying that.”
Bunny’s breath hitched and he pressed a hand to his chest, curling up further.
“Crud.” Jack reached out for the other spirit. “Let me check your heartbeat. Can spirits get heart attacks?”
Bunny blocked Jack’s reaching hands, releasing a snort. “Won’t do any good, mate,” the Pooka murmured. “My core just doesn’t like my outside temp. I’m too cold.”
“Then why did you not put on a jacket?” Jack hissed, bending down to grab the fallen throw with an angry gesture. “I swear you make no sense sometimes.” He threw the throw over Bunny, hiding the other’s face from sight before he tried to whack him for worrying him so much.
Bunny shifted around a bit, getting himself properly wrapped up before his head poked out of the fabric burrito. The spring spirit actually looked apologetic. “Cheers, mate. Sorry.” The words were mostly mumbled into the throw and Jack crossed his arms, unimpressed. He still worried a bit.
“Should I leave?” he thought to ask then. Jack couldn’t really measure if he produced cold surroundings or not, but he figured Bunny would be honest about it if he was uncomfortable.
“Nah, stay.” Bunny pressed himself into a corner on the bench, a clear gesture that had Jack fumbling for a moment.
“You’re sure?” he asked, still worried.
Bunny gave him a smile. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he said with a nod and gave Jack a pleased look as the winter spirit sat down. “It’s not as cold when you’re near.”
“That’s so cliché,” Jack grumbled. Seriously, it wasn’t sweet at all. If Jack’s face was blushing and freezing over again, that was from second-hand embarrassment for Bunny’s sake, not because he was flattered or anything.
A weight leaned against Jack’s side and Jack grudgingly laid his head against Bunny’s shoulder. It was just to keep the appendage from poking at him; Bunny had sharp shoulders after all.
“Try to justify the snuggling somehow, I’m trying to get comfortable,” Bunny’s low voice rumbled against the top of Jack’s head, causing the other to jump.
“I’ll just file it under ‘weird alien stuff’, how’s that?” Jack stuttered out, glad that their positions partially lying on each other kept Bunny from seeing his face freezing over. Really, Pookas could be touchy-feely with people they considered close; it was a culture where nuzzling was a regular expression of affection, after all. Jack just needed to get himself used to thinking like a Pooka around Bunny, then things like this wouldn’t be weird anymore.
Chapter 26: See That Life Is Beautiful
I was waiting for my hearse
What came next was so much worse
It took a funeral to make me feel alive
Just open your eyes
Just open your eyes
And see that life is beautiful.
Will you swear on your life,
That no one will cry at my funeral?
~SIXX: A.M. - Life Is Beautiful
"I really can't say I approve of this new tendency ya have," Bunny grumbled in the deep tone that Jack had grown too familiar with to be properly intimidated by it.
The winter spirit rolled his shoulders in a lazy shrug. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he replied easily. It was his standard answer to any of Bunny's accusations, regardless of if he actually knew what the other was getting at or not.
Bunny turned his green stare to Jack to give him a disapproving glare and Jack tried to look as innocent as possible, just because he knew it annoyed Bunny. He noted that Bunny's eyes were a solid green, like they were supposed to be. Jack wondered if that was because Bunny had holed himself up in the Warren for a week.
"You've been hovering, mate," Bunny drawled slowly.
Jack blinked once, then glanced down at his feet. They were still firmly on the ground. He generally tried not to summon his winds inside the Warren, because the enclosed space in it tended to drive them a bit wild. Jack's very bones ached at the memory of the miniature hurricane he'd managed to create once; Bunny had been forced to bodily tackled him back down to get him grounded enough to tell the wind to calm down.
Bunny groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "I mean you're clearly keeping tabs on me." The Pooka knelt down to check on some saplings. He was wearing a heavier coat today, the long tails dragging in the grass while he knelt. "I'm terrible company these days. I'm busy and I'm constantly drifting off." Bunny lifted his head again to frown at Jack. "Still ya come over almost every arvo, like you're worried."
"I just like being a bother." Jack grinned cheekily. "You're looking too much into things. Imagining things."
Bunny still looked unimpressed. "I know ya like to play sillybuggers, but even you should be able to find something better to waste your time on."
"You're never a waste of time, Bun-bun," Jack said and watched with a widening grin as Bunny's ears tilted in an embarrassed gesture. He leaned most of his weight on his staff, trying to look casual. "Besides, you don't seem to mind having me around."
Clearly taken aback, Bunny spluttered for a moment before grunting. "I may not mind having a mate over, but I do mind being condescended to."
"Who's condescending?" Jack raised an eyebrow. He didn't think he'd done anything to warrant offence.
"I don't need mollycoddling, Jack." Bunny scowled deeply, standing up to pull himself up to his full height. "I've been around longer than humans know how to measure." The other's words made Jack suddenly very aware of how overrun the Warren was, even when it was obviously cared for. "And I took care of myself through all of that."
Jack still smiled. "You're saying you don't need taking care of? At all?"
Bunny huffed and crossed his arms. "I'm saying I know how to take care of myself. If I say I'm fine, I'm fine."
"I didn't mean anything like that with it." Jack got off his staff, standing up straight. "I know how capable you can be."
The sound Bunny released at that was more of a hum than a snort. Clearly Jack had said the right thing.
"I'm, um, kind of new to this friendship thing," Jack offered. "So I guess I don't recognize it when I'm being overbearing." He just hoped Bunny wouldn't make a joke about it, since Jack would have to retaliate with a crack about Bunny's own poor social skills and then they'd be arguing again.
There was a frown on Bunny's face instead of a smirk and the frown in question wasn't angry, but more thoughtful. After a moment of simply looking at Jack, the Pooka replied: "I'm kinda new at it too, so I get crowded easily."
It was rare for Bunny to admit a fault like that, and Jack could appreciate it for the peace offering it was. He went back to his relaxed posture, propped up against his staff. "You have to admit, though, you've been pretty out of it lately. I think the others have noticed something too."
Bunny's frown deepened. "My off season worries you that much?"
Jack shrugged. "Not so much since Tooth said it was a normal reaction." Now it was Jack's turn to frown. "Although I don't see her suffering from winter colds."
"Because she doesn't have a specific holiday date throwing her magical core off," Bunny said with a huff. He rubbed at his forehead, fingers pressing to his right temple. "It's usually over before I start with Easter prep so it doesn't really interfere with that." The Pooka dropped his hand quickly, giving Jack a glance. "I also experience a bit of a power surge around Easter time, so that might be what's undoing the off season. There's a pattern but I don't know how it all fits together."
Jack considered the information for a moment, before smiling. "Does that mean you were charged up when we raced before? We totally need to redo that, in that case."
Bunny laughed, a short and low sound. "I doubt Tooth wants us anywhere near her routes again in the near future."
"We'll race for something else then," Jack insisted with a nod. "You like to run around during summer, so that might do."
"Somewhere cool, then," Bunny agreed. The Pooka was actually smiling now, clearly not opposed to the idea. "Down here in Oz summer's sometimes even pleasant."
"Yeah, in the eastern highlands." Jack had heard Bunny talk about how Australian seasons worked often enough to know what areas actually got snow.
Bunny flexed his hand and Jack's eyes caught the movement.
Bunny gave him an exasperated look. "We just talked about this," the Pooka grumbled. "Stop looking into everything I do. I'm fine."
"Your involuntary reactions are the most honest ones," Jack argued. "Like that clawing thing last time we were at North's." He pulled off his staff again, twirling it before he caught it in his hand so he could cross his arms over his chest. "What was that, anyway? It kind of freaked me out."
Bunny grunted, shifting in discomfort. "I thought you were someone else. Someone dangerous." The Pooka snorted at himself, giving Jack an amused look. "Obviously you're not a danger to me."
"Obviously," was Jack's droll response. He uncrossed his arms. "I know who you mistook me for. The Lady of the Cold."
Bunny made a face and Jack cut himself off. The winter spirit watched his friend's face carefully, trying to measure exactly how the mention bothered him. Was it anger, hurt, fear? But Bunny's face was shuttered.
Finally, the Pooka sighed. "If you're calling her that, you must have been talking to Tooth."
"That's what you told me to do," Jack said. "It's not her real name?"
"It's real enough, but she had others just as real," Bunny answered. "Most stories call her 'Snow Queen', but Tooth insists that she didn't deserve the title."
Jack really wasn't surprised to hear that one. "Have you mistaken me for her before?" he asked.
Bunny scowled darkly. "What difference does it make?" The words were practically a growl with how low Bunny's voice went in warning.
"I just thought it might explain some things." Jack shrugged, trying to keep the tone of the conversation light. He was prodding at something, but he wouldn't back down until he had a definitive answer.
Bunny still wasn't biting. The Pooka's posture was defensive as he grumbled: "Such as?"
Jack paused, partially for effect, partially to consider if he really wanted to bring the matter up. In the end he went for it. "1968."
"The Easter Sunday." Bunny tugged on the sleeves of his coat, hands clearly restless. "You think I was mistaken back then?"
"The way you came at me," Jack elaborated. "I've only seen you react like that to Pitch and her."
Again Bunny rubbed his neck. A fidgety gesture he'd most likely picked up from Earth. "Maybe I'm just protective of my holiday."
"I've seen you protective," Jack said. "Your eyes aren't blue when you're protective."
"Blue?" Bunny repeated in a slow tone, the single syllable rolling in his mouth as he considered it.
"Like hard ice." Jack hadn't thought much about the color back then, other than that it was a weird color for a spirit so closely associated with plant life, so it hadn't stuck with him. But these days Jack was recalling many things and seeing them in a new light. "What do you see when you get like that?"
"'See'? What do you mean by that?" Bunny crossed his arms, grabbing his elbows. The gesture wasn't rebuffing Jack as much as it seemed to help Bunny keep himself together. Maybe he hadn't known about his eyes changing color during his 'moods'.
"You said the Lady's also called the Snow Queen," Jack rotated his staff slowly in his grasp as he considered the possibilities himself. "In the fairytale the mirror shards make you see things."
"I told you I was stabbed, but I don't think I said anything about mirror shards," Bunny pointed out.
"Tooth showed me her memories, enough for me to make a guess," Jack replied. "I know you don't like being vulnerable."
"Frankly, having my eye almost gouged out is the least upsetting thing about the whole shebang," Bunny offered with a brief smile. "I broke the mirror because I figured she might be connected to it."
Tooth had showed Jack her own memories of what happened, and she’d missed that part, so Jack didn't really know what had happened to the Snow Queen. "Was she?"
"Oh yeah." Bunny's posture was more relaxed now. "She started fading away almost completely after. But, because she was connected to the mirror, she could touch it even when she couldn't touch anything else." Bunny moved his right hand to his eye. "She picked up the biggest shards she could find and stabbed me."
Jack cringed. "It sounds to me like something that would leave a mark."
Bunny hummed. "The fairytale says the mirror shows only the ugly and hides the beautiful." The Pooka considered before releasing a short laugh. "I think I'd notice if I had that kind of symptoms." He walked over to Jack and bent down to meet the winter spirit’s eyes. "I told you, if I say I'm fine, odds are I know what I'm talking about."
"Right," Jack mumbled. "You've probably considered that option yourself before."
Bunny raised an eyebrow. Jack huffed.
"You didn't have to play along just so you could prove me wrong."
"That's hardly what I was getting at." Bunny straightened and looked down at Jack. "I wanted to make sure you didn't have anymore doubts."
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were being nice about telling me to mind my own business,” Jack commented.
Bunny snorted. “But you do know better. I’m never nice.”
“Sure you aren’t.” Jack smirked. “So, since you’re feeling so much better besides the extra layers, do you want to plot out your next masterpiece?” Jack pointed towards the myrtle of the season. “The red-flowered pohutukawa was for Christmas, right?”
“Sorry, Jackie, some other time,” Bunny answered. “There’s something I need to do, actually.”
“Eh, figures,” Jack grumbled. “The day I come over you’re busy.”
Bunny laughed, before falling silent. "Does winter solstice affect you?" he asked suddenly.
Jack blinked and opened his mouth. He thought about it. "It's doesn't really make me stronger or anything," he finally said. "But the things I do come easier then."
"Right." Bunny nodded to himself. "It's passed now." He tugged on his jacket, checking the fastenings. "I'm going to North's."
"He's still working," Jack pointed out. "Not everyone celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve."
"Neither is every day in-between a holiday," Bunny argued back. "I need to ask him something important that really can’t wait."
“Right.” Jack sighed. “I’ll just let myself out, then.”
“Ta, mate,” Bunny said before he skipped off. Jack glared after him as he kicked at the grass absent-mindedly. It rustled and Jack glanced down.
There was some gentle frost layering the grass. Jack frowned at it. Weird. He hadn’t accidentally frozen anything in years. Maybe he needed to have a talk with North someday too. The Santa Claus was the most knowledgeable about magic among the Guardians, after all.
Chapter 27: I Am More Than Memory
I am what you want me to be,
And I'm your worst fear
You'll find it in me.
I am more than memory
I am what might be,
I am mystery.
You know me
So show me.
~ Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt - I'm Alive
Jack wouldn’t have even considered calling on North if the frosting grass incident had remained the only occasion his powers got away from him. However, after the third time he’d caused the temperature to drop lower than intended, he started to make plans for requesting North’s help in figuring things out.
North really was the most knowledgeable about magic among the Guardians, so going to someone else would have been counterproductive. Still, while Jack might have been curious about what was going on, but he really didn’t want to be a bother to North until Christmas season was well and over. Jack had no idea how much knowledge North had on winter magic, and the other might need to do research to be able to answer Jack’s queries. Because of that it was better to wait until North had ample time before approaching him.
In the meantime, Jack was trying to track down Bunny to question the other about his recent strange behavior. The clothes he wore, the sudden secretiveness and the lack of interest in replanting his garden weren’t all that worrying by themselves, but when that was coupled with some mysterious conferring with North, Jack couldn’t help but grow concerned.
Or then the problem all along was that Jack worried. Maybe Bunny was trying to distance himself because Jack had come across as too overbearing. However, that sounded like a really petty reason for the spring spirit to be out of his Warren a couple of months before Easter.
As such, Jack decided to ask around first. He still wasn't about to bother North, even with this more minor thing, since the man could just decide to be unhelpful because he felt like it (he and Bunny were rather friends in crime on occasion). Sandy, however, was both easy to contact and always ready to answer questions in his own way.
Jack got along with Sandy well, but he still wasn't terribly adept at reading his sand art. As such, he actually had to ask Sandy to repeat himself before he fully understood what the Guardian of Dreams was trying to tell him. It took him a bit to recognize the highly stylized yetis for what they were, but he could recognize the more realistic depiction of the Derelict with ease.
Something had definitely changed. Jack immediately noticed a strange overbearing pressure in the atmosphere when he entered the abandoned ice castle. He could actually understand why Bunny would come here. And Bunny had been smart about it too, Jack realized when he entered the mirror room and noticed the pair of yetis bent over a handheld device that looked like something straight from North's workshop. It was making beeping sounds that told Jack it was measuring something, while Bunny ran his fingers carefully along a crack in the glass. The Pooka paused when Jack walked into the room and stepped back away from the mirror before facing Jack.
“Yo.” Jack raised a hand in a short wave, shepherd’s crook rolling to rest against his shoulder. “The mirror bite yet?”
“Nah.” Bunny shook his head. “There’s been nothing the whole day.” He made a gesture to the yetis. “Pack up, mates. We’re done here.”
The yetis actually seemed rather relieved as they turned their meter off and got off the ice floor. Jack doubted it was the cold that was bothering them; it was most likely the oppressive air still permeating the castle rooms.
“The way I hear it, you’ve been here longer than the day,” Jack commented as he watched the yetis start packing the assorted instruments and tools away into cases. “More like two days, as far as I heard.”
“You listen to goss, mate?” Bunny raised an eyebrow and Jack shrugged.
“Do our friends goss?” the winter spirit asked in return, with a teasing lilt to the slang word. “Sandy told me you were here, but I don’t know how he knew.”
“I told North what I was doing, since I was borrowing his mates,” Bunny admitted. “Either there’s a bush telegraph going on about my business, or Sandy’s got this place tagged.”
That reminded Jack… “He does have some sort of watch on the place,” the winter spirit said. “Has had for ages.”
Bunny sighed, but the sound was more fond than exasperated. “It figures you’d have been snooping around here,” he commented.
"I just bumped into this place, really." Jack grinned. "It would be hard not to." He crossed his arms. "Did you find anything out?"
"I found out the thing's as dead as it's been for five centuries," Bunny replied. "So, it's most likely going to stay dead, too." The Pooka tilted his head, giving Jack a regarding look. "I should thank you."
Jack blinked, startled. "What for? I just got here."
Bunny huffed, like Jack was being particularly thick. "For everything this last year," the Pooka replied and gave a touch of a smile. "You've been a great help."
Jack grinned at the praise. "I've just been bothering you."
Bunny shook his head, eyes giving Jack a soft look. "You've helped me come to terms with things," the Pooka said with conviction.
Jack considered the words, and then asked: "Is this about the clothes?"
"What?" Bunny blinked, startled, and then frowned. "Huh?"
Sure he looked as flustered as he felt, Jack gestured to the heavy coat Bunny was wrapped up in. "You've been wearing clothes like proper Pookas?" His voice came across as a lot more uncertain than he’d intended.
"Proper...Pookas?" Bunny's frown deepened into a full scowl and Jack realized he was quickly talking himself into a corner.
"Like those pictures you showed me," the winter spirit quickly clarified. He then tried for levity. "You're still missing a few layers."
"Right." Bunny undoubtedly attempted to scoff, but the sound really did come out like more of a chuckle. "No, I'm not wearing clothes because of some type of reconnection." The Pooka sighed softly. "More the opposite."
Jack released a hum to fill in the lull as he considered Bunny's answer. "So what are the clothes about?"
Bunny groaned, rubbing his neck. "This isn't about the clothes." The spring spirit gave Jack a deep look. "You've helped me with my guilt."
"You're not feeling guilty about your people are you?" Jack asked with a grimace. "You did all you could." Jack had seen how much Bunny had done; he'd been there, even though Bunny didn’t know that part.
Thankfully, Bunny didn't seem to be beating himself over that, as the Pooka shook his head before saying softly: "Nothing like that. I'm at peace with that." His expression hardened. "This is about something more selfish."
"Okay." Jack nodded. "Lay it on me."
"You told me that the way I was before was no way to live," Bunny said. "I really needed to hear that."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Bunny smiled and nodded. "It's much easier for me to accept the truth now." The smile, weak to begin with, waned. "I'm better off now than I was before."
Jack swore he felt a chuck of solid ice settle in his stomach. He really hoped Bunny wasn't about to say what he thought he was about to say.
Bunny took a deep breath, steeling himself before he started speaking. "While I would never think to trade my people for the sake of my peace..." The Pooka hesitated, considering his words. "I'm more free now than ever before." Bunny's lips twitched, an attempt at a smile that refused to amount to anything. Instead the Pooka shrugged. "So, you see, my clothes really have nothing to do with being Pooka. Being a Pooka would, for me, be the same as going backwards."
A scowl settled over Jack's face as he glared at his companion. "So you're just rejecting your people?" he hissed in a low voice. "Just like that?"
"There's no one left to reject," Bunny said sternly, immovably. "Even so, I've done it a long time ago." He straightened his shoulders, standing straight. "This is just me finding peace with it."
"I can't believe you!" Jack snapped, his staff almost dropping as he spread his arms in a powerful, disbelieving gesture.
What was visible of Bunny's fur bristled, and the Pooka's hands clenched into fists. "Excuse me?"
"I can't believe you'd just throw away an entire culture because you had some bad experiences,” Jack argued heatedly; he couldn’t believe Bunny was doing this to him. "You're just betraying your heritage!"
As Jack’s temper boiled hotter, Bunny’s countenance cooled. "You're judging me?" Bunny asked in a low hiss. "There is literally no one to betray." His gaze grew colder, until his eyes were less like grassy fields and more like crystals of ice. "The Fearlings took care of that."
'What about me?' an angry voice inside Jack rose. 'Why can't you just think of me?' But he couldn't say that out loud. Instead, what he said was: "You can't just respect their memory?"
"Every plant on this planet is their memory," Bunny growled, voice starting as that previous low and hollow hiss and then slowly beginning to rise. "I live among monuments of what once was. I think I've done little but respect their memory!" A guttural sound rose from Bunny's mouth but before it could transform into something more violent, a yeti stepped between the two angry spirits.
The yeti rumbled in rapid-fire yetish and, while Jack had no idea what he was saying, the winter spirit recognized the intent behind the hand pressed against his chest, pushing him back. On the other side of the yeti Bunny was receiving the same treatment. Jack hadn't even realized how much they'd been getting into each other's face. They both relented, stepping back, and the yeti rubbed the frost that had formed on his paws on the thick fur on his chest.
Bunny had a false start and shook himself before speaking out: “Right. Shouldn’t have gone off like that.” The Pooka’s eyes met Jack’s own, still a very pale blue. “Sorry, mate.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, jumping when the yeti nudged his side. “Right, um, sorry I’m so bad at this, but sorry for, you know, being a judgemental jerk.”
“Fair enough,” Bunny sighed, rolling his shoulders to release tension. “Considering how I can get, I owe you a freebie on that account.” He then turned to the yeti. "Tell North I won't be going to his after-Christmas shindig." The Pooka occupied his hands with fixing up his coat needlessly. "I shouldn't be leaving my Warren unless I absolutely have to."
"What?" Jack was startled, worry beginning to rise despite his still cooling anger. "Why?"
Bunny pressed a hand to his right temple, grimacing. "I'm in no condition to attend."
Crossing his arms, Jack gave the other a considering once over. "I thought the mirror was fine." Bunny was now shadowing his eyes with his hand, so it was hard to determine their color, if they were slipping away from blue or back to it.
"The mirror is fine, but I'm not,” Bunny grumbled, sounding a lot less enraged and more mildly annoyed now. "I have to admit this isn't just an off-season, but I'm running out of possible causes." The Pooka sighed heavily, running his hand down his face. "For all I know it could be the winter itself."
"The winter?" Jack blinked and noted the color of Bunny’s eyes now that they were visible again. They were a deep turquoise: improving then.
"I feel better when I'm in my Warren," Bunny explained. "I'm still cold, all the time, but that's helped when I'm around you." The spring spirit finally managed a smile, albeit a weak one. "You make me feel warm, Jackie."
Jack felt his face heat up, followed immediately by it frosting over. "Don't say such things with a straight face,” He snapped at Bunny, who was far too amused with his reaction to take offence.
Bunny left together with the yetis, but Jack stayed behind to take another look at the Snow Queen’s mirror. The frame was of dulled silver and it was full of carvings that depicting faeries and elves and other fey creatures. Jack wondered if that was what the Snow Queen herself had been, a dark fairy or elf of some sort.
Jack then thought about Bunny. The mood might have lightened before they parted ways, but Jack knew better than to consider things between them fine just yet. How could they be, when Bunny had trampled something so important to Jack?
Except that Bunny didn't know why it was so important to Jack. In addition to that, he wouldn't believe Jack if he tried to explain. From Bunny's perspective, Jack had no place getting on his case about his refusal to acknowledge his cultural heritage further.
‘I just wish he wasn’t such an ass!’ Jack thought stubbornly as he scowled at his fractured reflection in the shattered mirror. ‘All this time I’ve been telling myself I will show him what I am but what if it’ll just crush this friendship I’ve been working towards?’
Seating himself on the floor, the ice surface not bothering him, Jack traced the bottommost carvings on the mirror with his eyes. ‘You are the problem here, not me.’ The winter spirit sighed heavily. ‘Or maybe we both are…’
He was feeling dizzy. The air felt heavy; this entire place was wrong. The winter spirit pulled himself up and hurriedly marched out of the room, taking flight as soon as he could and as quickly as he could. Anyone watching might have thought he was spooked, but Jack was determinedly keeping anything even remotely like that emotion out of his mind.
If he never entered the Derelict again, it wasn’t because he found the place scary. Jack had simply decided it wasn’t for him. And so, he’d stay out of there from now on.
Because, really, having a supposedly non-sentient building considering you an interloper wasn’t the kind of sensation Jack wanted to get used to.
Chapter 28: I Know I Could Be Better
What would it take for things to be quiet?
Quiet, like the snow.
I know this isn't much but,
I know I could I could be better.
I don't think I deserve it;
selflessness find your way into my heart.
All stars could be brighter.
All hearts could be warmer.
~ Larry Williams, Andrew Trick, Christopher Rubey, Michael Hranica, Jeremy Depoyster, James Baney
- Louder Than Thunder
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The second skating party was a lot larger than the one the previous year, mostly due to the fact that it had been a planned event instead of a spur of the moment thing. There were many other spirits than just wintertime spirits present, since there had been enough time to get the word out those who weren't active during the season as well. As such, there really was no lack of company at the party, even if Bunny had opted out.
Jack had skated some with Saint Lucia, who actually did better this time around than the last year. It was a good thing, too, since there was no fluffy fellow light spirit to cushion her fall. Jack suspected she'd been practising. Another familiar face from the previous year was Valentines, who was going around egging people into racing each other and other such competitive things. Zhe said something about supporting tension, but Jack wasn't too concerned. As long as zhe wasn't pushing people into each other (zhe actually insisted such cheap techniques were beneath hir), zhe was free to do as zhe wished.
There were also several new faces joining the fun this year, even if Jack was hesitant to be the one to start conversations. Jack had actually been surprised when he'd choked when attempting to talk with Opis. He'd gotten so used to the Guardians and speaking to them, that he'd forgotten how much he dreaded talking to strangers.
Opis was a tall female spirit with dark skin that contrasted sharply with the glimmering silver scales covering most of her head and neck. Among all the more humanlike spirits at the occasion, Opis with her silver fin on the crown of her head was actually the most approachable one to Jack. The Nereid had a rather stiff posture that reminded Jack of a Pookan warrior.
That realization actually helped Jack ask the Nereid about other water nymphs, as he’d wondered if his lake (more of a pond now, but it had been much larger back when he'd landed on Earth) had an Oceanid assigned to it at any point. He'd never met one that had identified themselves as such, so if there had been one, they'd probably left when Jack had awakened and claimed the area, starting to frequent it. If there had been a spirit to his pond, they might know what had become of Jack's escape/healing pod. Jack himself understandably didn't like the idea of diving into the water to check for himself.
After Jack had finally managed to get the question out, Opis could only tell him that the nymphs didn't really exist in a system where they kept track of each other. Most likely, however, a Greek spirit wouldn't have wandered all the way to the American continent, especially not such a long time ago, since travelling around was a more recent thing as word of them spread. All in all, the Nereid had been very willing to help even if her knowledge wasn't useful, and Jack had politely thanked the foreign spirit, who'd inclined her head in response.
It had been farfetched to begin with. Maybe the pod, if it was still around, would be better off at the bottom of the lake. It had been fine there ever since Jack had landed, after all.
After that brief conversation, Jack skated by himself a bit before a voice called for him. The winter spirit turned to see a gangly shape that was only vaguely familiar. The human-shaped spirit came closer and the slitted eyes finally helped identify the spirit as Calan Gaeaf. Jack gestured towards the railing and skated to the sideline, out of the way of other skaters, waiting for the autumn spirit to join him.
Watching Calan Gaeaf skate was a marvel of strangeness. There was something uncanny in the way the autumn spirit's long, spindly limbs moved. Jack was certain there were either extra joints hidden there or then the spirit was made entirely out of rubber. The spirit himself could control the limbs with ease, however, and folded his arms over the skating rink railing, instantly starting to tap his fingers against the wooden surface. Calan's hands were almost spidery as they tapped a complicated pattern onto the wood, and Jack briefly considered the possibility that Calan would tap in code just for his own amusement.
"Was there something you wanted?" Jack asked, and the tapping paused. Calan's eyes squinted with the wide, lazy smile he gave Jack, giving the other's face a catlike appearance.
"Right." Calan drew the word out and Jack leaned his back against the railing as he waited for whatever it was the other wanted to say. "Did you ask about your face?"
"Yeah," Jack replied, head rolling back as he looked up at the wooden ceiling boards. "The resemblance is apparently only skin deep, though."
"Appearance is always just skin deep," Calan said and Jack could feel his fingers resume tapping again. "But for beings like us, appearance is very telling on occasion. Could be you're a replacement."
Jack jolted, almost giving himself whiplash with how quickly he turned to stare at Calan. "What?"
Calan's expression for once held none of its usual teasing hints. "None of us like to think about how important Irr-uh, what do you call her?"
"Depends on who I'm talking to, apparently," Jack mumbled with a frown, straightening himself away from the railing. "The way I understand it, 'Snow Queen' is referentially accurate."
Calan waved a hand, encouraging Jack away from the topic of names as he went on: "My point is, none of us want to admit how important the Snow Queen was to the balance of things. At the time, she held reign over winter, and all other winter spirits were subservient to her." The rhythm of Calan's fingers on wood slowed down. "We like to think she was just a despot, but she was also balance. It's actually surprising it took two centuries for you to come around after she vanished." Calan's tapping stopped entirely. "And it's not surprising at all that you'd look like her."
"I'm me, though," Jack said. He knew this for a fact. He had a life before this, a life off Earth itself. He was ill-suited for the task of replacing any native-to-Earth creature.
"It's more of a job than an identity thing," Calan said, turning around to lean his back against the railing. "There might be some compatibility issues, though."
"How so?" Jack asked. "Especially if I don't want it."
"Somebody has to have it," Calan said matter-of-factly. "Doesn't matter if you want it or not, you're the most compatible, even if you're a different type." Calan stood up straight and raised two bony fingers. "People usually know about us spirits based on two things, fairy tales and myths. It's a matter of belief hardness." The spirit held his hands horizontally like measures. "When we're myths, we can look like pretty much anything and do many different things, since it's not written down anywhere that we're one thing. When there's a fairy tale or a religious scripture, though, we're limited to the existing versions of the story."
"I'm an urban legend while the Snow Queen was a fairy tale character," Jack summed up. "So, in theory, if I really am here to take her place..?"
"You probably couldn't control her powers," Calan clarified. "At least not at first. It's supposed to be a natural transition and nature adapts."
Jack considered all of his recent troubles with his powers. Maybe he should be asking North about that.
"You look like I got you thinking about something," Calan commented. "Care to share?"
"Not, really, no," was Jack's deadpan response. He knew Calan wouldn't take offence; the other was rather abrasive himself.
Indeed, the other spirit merely laughed in response. "Whatever. That's not what I came up to talk to you about anyway." Calan grinned. "Although, you would have known about that if you'd told your friends your powers were out of control."
Jack hesitated. "What?"
Calan scoffed. "Like that wasn't what you were thinking about?" The Halloween spirit crossed his arms. "If you told your friends about yourself, you'd know what happened when there was a stand-in for spring."
"Ah..." Jack trailed off. "I've never heard of that."
"That's a safe topic, unlike Ir-hem-the Queen." Calan faked a short coughing fit. "That's to say, you could even ask Ostara's herself how Aster's existence started messing with her powers when she started gaining a believer base way back."
Jack gave the other a scowl at the trip-up on the Snow Queen's name. What had he been about to call her?
"The Snow Queen's not around to cause interference with my powers," Jack pointed out.
"Neither was Aster, technically, when he was hibernating," Calan answered. "During the modern age he was out for decades at a time, so Ostara went through a lot of spikes and falls in her power levels before she figured out the source of it all and learned to roll with it."
"You know a lot about Ostara," Jack couldn't help but comment, because he didn't want to think about why Bunny had used to sleep so much.
"Sure do." Calan grinned widely. "We're cosy."
Jack wondered if 'cosy' was Calan's way of saying 'going steady', but he really didn't want to dig that deeply into the other spirit's personal life. He crossed his arms impatiently. "You mentioned having something else to talk to me about?"
"Right, speaking of cosy." Calan's expression grew more serious. "How are things going with Aster?" It made sense the spirit of Halloween would ask such a thing. Bunny was the only thing they had in common, after all.
"We're actually friends, believe it or not," Jack answered with a half-hearted sneer. Then he actually considered the fact that Calan had approached him of his own free will. "Wait, why are you asking me this and not Bunny if you're so worried?"
Calan Gaeaf shrugged. Jack frowned.
"You're not worried about Bunny." The winter spirit uncrossed his arms to plant his hands on his hips. "What is this about?"
Calan shrugged again, this time with such flamboyance that Jack worried for a moment that his arms might come loose. "Yeah, well, Aster says we've been judging you too harshly." The ghastly spirit glanced away before meeting Jack's gaze with dark golden eyes. "I'm inclined to believe it."
Jack blinked, startled. "What?"
"You heard me." Calan smirked. "Bunny actually admitted he was wrong about something." His expression grew sombre. "And me too, I guess." The autumn spirit reached up to ruffle his shaggy hair. "68 was a bad year for everyone. It doesn't excuse what you did, but it does explain it."
"You're too kind," Jack drawled. "Such a nice apology."
"Well, I need to save face." Calan Gaeaf pinched his nose between his fingers and pulled, until his nose resembled a raven's beak. "The point is being sincere, right?"
"Your sincerity lacks a certain charm," Jack said with a smirk. "Don't you think so?"
"I'm the spirit of Halloween," Calan replied and pushed his nose back into its original position and size. "I don't do 'charming'. At least, not on purpose."
"Never on purpose," Jack conceded. Just because his face was rubber didn't mean he was two-faced in any way other than literal. Frankly, the other's upfront manner was the primary cause for his lack of social graces. Jack had related to the other because of that, as he himself hadn't been much a social butterfly after coming out of the ice. They'd bonded over the fact that not many would put up with them. Unfortunately, that was also why they'd never patched up their relationship when they'd actually had a falling out. Not even each other would put up with them.
"You really are close with Bunny, aren't you?" Jack murmured with a smile. To think Calan would swallow his pride enough to apologise to Jack, all for Bunny. Then again, Eucalyptus had been like that as well, inspiring loyalty in those he met, from Tansy to Jack himself. Jack had tried to resist it, insist to himself that Eucalyptus was nothing special. But Eucalyptus had been special, even as many of his traits frustrated Jack to no end.
"We have a ton in common," Calan replied and then grinned. "But I'm not nearly as close to him as you are."
Jack tilted his head, trying to discern any clues in Calan's face. "What does that mean?"
"Ah." Calan shook his head, dark mane falling down to cover his face. "Never mind, forget I said anything."
Jack scowled deeply. "Don't start anything you won't finish."
"Inside joke," Calan insisted, skating away backwards. "Toodles!"
“No good, droopy-faced creep,” Jack grumbled to himself, wishing he hadn’t left his staff at the racks in order to avoid hitting people while skating. He very much wouldn’t have minded hitting Calan Gaeaf.
Jack shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. Right, replacement. Not a usurper. He’d never asked for this, but maybe he should ask North about it, if that was what he was to be. Or even Bunny, since he apparently knew about these things.
No. Jack didn’t want to rely on Bunny. He’d done too much of that and where had that led? He’d been let down and he’d gone and hurt Bunny back. They snapped right back, hopefully, but Jack didn’t want to strain things more by asking things of Bunny so soon after their row.
He could even ask Tooth, actually. There was already something he needed to ask her that day.
It was a special occasion. He felt he should invite someone, even if not the one he really wanted to.
Some has mentioned that they like it when I build up the present world too, so this chapter is mostly for that.
Calan Gaeaf is such a joy to write. I try to keep him balanced between 'amicable' and 'I want to punch you in the face'.
The reason I used Ostara instead of Eostre is because I've already had a character named Eostre in a RoTG fic, and I wouldn't want to create that kind of an association.
This should be the last exposition chapter! Next the action's going to start picking up. You all know what that means. The Big Event everyone's been waiting for!
Chapter 29: Where the Water Meets the Land
Where the water meets the land
There is shifting of the sand
Like the tide that ebbs and flows
The memories will come and go
All of these years
When we were here
I'll always remember
~ Tyrone Wells - Time of Our Lives
Jack didn't need to find Tooth; Tooth found him. The fairy then promptly asked Jack to skate a round with her.
"North keeps trying to out-manoeuvre me," Tooth grumbled sulkily as she skated a section backwards, gesturing with a hand for Jack to do the same. "I'll skate circles around him one of these days."
It was really startling how agile North could be on a pair of skates. Jack rarely got to see North in anything but his heavy work boots, so it was easy to start expecting the heavy, stomping steps every time. It made sense Tooth might have some trouble outdoing him on the ice.
"If you can find some free space in your schedule, I could give you some lessons," Jack suggested with a grin.
"I'm not sure I should trust that offer," Tooth commented playfully, performing a simple pirouette. "Some say you're a Trickster, others say you're just a regular pain."
Jack shrugged, flipping around. "It's for a friend."
Tooth shot him a doubtful look.
Jack smirked. "I'm willing to put my time into you, for the fine cause of making North's jaw drop."
Tooth laughed brightly, voice jingling like a wind chime. "How can I resist an offer like that? I'll see what I can do."
"I was actually planning on inviting you to my lake before the winter's over, we can have a lesson there," Jack started, selling the idea. "The anniversary of my rebirth is nearing, so I figured I might as well share the occasion, if that's fine with you and Baby Tooth?" Jack trailed off uncertainly at the end, wondering if he'd gone right about his request.
Tooth turned to Jack with soft eyes. "Oh, Jack, I'd come without anything in return. I'd love to share that with you," the fairy said with a wide smile. "The same holds true for Baby Tooth. Thank you for inviting us."
"Yeah," Jack mumbled in a low tone, even as he truly felt grateful. "Sure."
Tooth clasped her hands together. "Even though you thought to invite us only because Bunny is a no-go."
"Ugh." Jack covered his face with a hand. "Can we not discuss this?"
The Tooth Fairy released a light laugh as she grabbed Jack's arm to make sure he didn't go off course before speaking in a self-satisfied tone: "Got you there, didn't I?"
Jack lowered his hand to give Tooth a deadpan look. "If I say 'yes', will you just let it drop?"
"You know, it's not good to let all these secrets pile up," Tooth commented. "They're really going to complicate your relationship with Bunny."
"More like keeping them secrets is keeping my relationship from getting too complicated," Jack replied. "I just can't see Bunny taking any of this well, never mind that just the thought of explaining it all to him gives me a headache."
"I suppose." Tooth sighed, coming to a stop against a railing. "Never mind how keeping it to yourself for this long just makes it harder to come clean."
Jack scoffed as he also slid to still himself by the railing. "Stop trying to find some deep meaning or self-enforcing cycle in this." The winter spirit lifted a hand to his hair, pulling briefly before releasing his hold. "Bunny and I are complicated and you're just equal parts over-simplifying the situation and looking too much into it."
"You don't think you're just going around in circles and finding excuses?" Tooth asked. "Because you get better at everything with practise, even talking yourself out of things."
"Could you stop judging me, maybe?" Jack hissed, not wanting to raise his voice even as he grew more frustrated with the needling. "I'm dealing with things the best that I can. But my relationship with Bunny really isn't ideal."
Tooth crossed her arms. "Maybe if you spent more time talking with him instead of getting him to talk at you."
"This isn't about that," Jack insisted, even as he briefly thought back on his discussions with Bunny. Their sharing was very rarely equal, but it wasn't like they weren't close because of that. Their issues ran much deeper than Jack's problems with opening up.
"Then what is the problem?" Tooth asked in a rather desperate tone. "You two will get stuck in a rut. You're both too stubborn to try to fix it on your own."
"There is no problem," Jack snapped. He then sighed, conceding: "It's not an immediate problem, at any matter. We get along suitably well and I think we're friends." He reached up to keep tugging on his hair. "He doesn't want to talk about 1968."
"What is that all about, anyway?" Tooth asked, fluttering up to seat herself on the railing. "I mean, I know you two have history, here on Earth as well, but, as you say, Bunny won't discuss it."
Jack took a moment to consider his weight in comparison to Tooth's before pulling himself up to sit next to her. "It's a big fight we had, over me causing a blizzard on Easter Sunday." Jack frowned. "Bunny hadn't really done anything to warrant it, but it was a bad year for me and I was feeling vengeful over things I didn't understand." Maybe it had been Jack's Center of Fun that had responded to the general state of things and that was why he'd been feeling like attacking anything. Still, no matter what Calan Gaeaf implied Bunny's feelings over the matter to be, Jack still felt like he owed Bunny a proper discussion of the matter.
"Did he do anything after?" Tooth's voice was gentle as she voiced the question, trying not to be leading despite the nature of the query.
Jack shuddered. "He looked possessed," the winter spirit admitted. "He was full of this righteous anger, of course." Eucalyptus had always been good at indignation and righteousness. "But there was something darker there, waiting to snap." Maybe Bunny's Centre of Hope had been eroding as well. "I can't recall the details, but Bunny was livid, so I think I was justified in focusing on fearing for my life."
"Bunny's not that bloodthirsty, though," Tooth commented. "I mean, he has a temper so bodily harm is a given, but he does draw the line before any permanent damage."
"I know," Jack insisted. "But that's how I felt then." Jack's hand tried to tug his hair again, but he clasped his hands together on his lap instead to stop the involuntary reaction. "For the longest time I thought he was bipolar." Seriously, Jack had first gotten to know Bunny as a closed off artist, so the sudden introduction to claws and canines and cold eyes had come completely out of nowhere.
Jack reconsidered it. Bunny's rapid mood swings did follow a certain pattern. What color had Bunny's eyes been when that had happened? Maybe he should look into that sometime. He had a tooth fairy and the Tooth Fairy on his side now, after all.
"I was supposed to teach you, wasn't I?" Jack said suddenly, after making his mental note, deciding he'd had enough of this subject. "I'd rather not discuss this any more here, lest my personal business become a subject of spirit gossip." He jumped off the railing, Tooth following after.
"Spirits aren't really ones to gossip, though," Tooth pointed out as she used her wings to give herself extra speed for her take off to glide over the ice. "It really takes quite the bit to get one interested in another's personal life."
"Huh." Jack considered as he twirled on the ice, shooting Tooth a glance. "Are you some kind of anomaly, then?"
"Why, you!" Jack nimbly dodged the punch that came his way. Such a thing was not hard to do when it was clear Tooth was merely doing it for show, to remind Jack that she was allowing him to have a laugh at her expense.
Jack remembered this now, having friends like this. It made him feel all the more whole.
"This is really exciting," Tooth chattered eagerly as she took a seat on a rock at the lakeside, Baby Tooth zipping in circles around her head. "I've seen Bunny's memories, so I've seen other Pookas before, but the experience is really muted when seen through someone else's perception."
Jack understood what she meant. The memories she'd shown Jack of the Guardians’ fight against the Lady of the Cold had left Jack feeling somewhat detached from the proceedings even as he practically experienced them through Tooth. There was a lot more dissonance in viewing those memories than there had ever been in viewing his own; even when he'd struggled to grasp some of the fundamental concepts, like being actually an alien, the memories still felt like things that had happened and Jack was much more capable of submerging himself in the experience of reliving them.
"Let's hope it works," Jack said and took a deep, steadying breath. The lake was frozen solid - it had been a very cold winter so far - and the full moon was shining brightly. The lake looked like a stage, and it made Jack feel self-conscious.
"Of course it'll work," Tooth's gentle voice soothed him. "This is Manny. You can trust him."
Tooth had such unshakeable faith in the Man on the Moon. Jack wasn't yet sure if it was a strength or a weakness. He really did not know enough of the entity besides that he sometimes gave difficult-to-decipher guidance to the Guardians. Fortunately the advice Jack had received had been easy enough to understand.
"Alright, then," the winter spirit said. "Here goes nothing." Light as a feather, Jack flew to the middle of the lake on a passing gust of wind and settled lightly on top of the ice. He could feel the thickness of the layer and allowed the ice to take more of his weight.
He didn't really know what he was supposed to do now that he was here. He didn't think he was doing anything wrong, though. There was a sense of anticipation in the air; the winds stood still and the woods all around were unnaturally silent. There was magic in the moment.
As Jack stood in the moon's rays, the magic wrapped around him in a way that reminded Jack of standing in direct sunlight, of the light itself bringing warmth. This light, however, was cool and comfortable, trying to reawaken something familiar.
Suddenly Jack's entire body lurched and fell. Jack felt as if his body had turned into liquid, and for a moment he thought he'd fallen through the ice into the lake. But his fall had ended on top of the ice and Jack lied there in a disoriented heap. Then his eyes found the sword.
Jack knew that sword. It was his partner. Jack reached out a hand to it but froze when he saw his hand covered in white fur. It was so strange, to see that outside of a memory. But it was right.
Standing up on shaky legs, Jack looked down at himself. It was him, the original him. He was a Pooka again, just like he remembered. He was even wearing the tattered remains of his military uniform.
Bending down, Jack picked up his sword, still in its hilt. It frosted over just like his staff would. Well, that explained that, Jack mused as another realization came to him. And with that realization a wave of magic rushed inward, settling in Jack's belly. And then the sword was a staff again and he was human-shaped once more.
Jack blinked a couple of times, startled. He was standing up and Baby Tooth was right in front of his face, twittering a hundred miles per hour.
"Baby Tooth, don't touch him!" Tooth's voice called from further back, no less worried.
Jack gasped. He wondered if he'd really changed shape after all. More likely the vision of his birth form had been in his mind, brought on by the block on his shape-shifting being lifted.
"Did I zone off?" Jack asked and Tooth flew up to him.
"Yes," the Tooth Fairy hissed, the words accompanied by a relieved sigh. "You were still for so long, Baby Tooth thought something might have gone wrong." Tooth tilted her head. "You went inside yourself. Do you feel different?"
Actually, there was a difference now. Jack didn't feel stuck anymore.
"I'm going to try shifting," Jack declared before doing just that. The magic came to him easily; the memories were fresh since he'd recalled them only a short while ago. Impatient to see whether or not the block was truly gone, Jack almost tore his pants apart with his thick Pooka legs before he remembered to kick them off.
There was a startled shriek from Tooth when Jack sent his pants flying, but Jack didn't pay that much attention as he almost fell forward when his centre of gravity shifted. He kept his feet apart for maximum balance as he gathered himself. Then he straightened himself and turned to the two tooth fairies.
"So?" he asked eagerly. "What do you think?"
He was tall, possibly taller than he had been before. Pookas did keep growing even after reaching adulthood, so it was very much possible that Jack's growth hadn't fully stopped by the time he'd landed on Earth. Bunny certainly had shot up between then and now.
Tooth and Baby Tooth were both gaping a bit, and Jack wondered if it was because of that very height or because of how different he looked. Finally, Tooth blurted out: "I can actually tell it's you."
Jack grinned. "Really?"
Tooth nodded, then mirrored his expression. "Yes. Your eyes, the shade of your fur and the way you make faces. It all looks just like you." The fairy cupped her cheek. "Hardly surprising, naturally you'd look like you in your own shape."
Baby Tooth was poking at Jack's teeth, probably checking that they were still white as can be.
Jack considered it for a moment. This might really make things easier in the long run.
“I’m sure Bunny will love the look!” Tooth cheered with a thumbs-up.
Jack made a face. “Not even remotely what I was thinking.”
Tooth merely hummed in response. “Sure.”
He was thinking it would be easier to make his case if there really wasn’t a big difference between his shapes. He hadn’t even considered if Bunny would like his shape…
He hadn’t been in this form for as long as he had been on Earth. He was a far cry from the competent warrior he had been.
He was going to need to work out wasn’t he?
Chapter 30: A Wall Between a Better You and I
For every word we never spoke
We have a tear to cry
For every silence like a wall between a better you and I
So if you see me losing sight
Of all the death in life
You'll find the peace in every time I failed to see the death in mine
~ Demon Hunter - Carry Me Down
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After Jack regained his shapeshifting powers, he realized there was an important decision to make. He had to decide what the next step was.
So far, Jack had been completely focused on regaining everything he'd lost; he'd wanted to remember everything he'd forgotten, he'd wanted to get back in touch with his Pooka heritage and he'd been aiming for the recovery of his shifting abilities. Now his memories were mostly caught up, Bunny had told him more than he probably had even really wanted to know about the downsides of Pookan culture, and he could shift between human and Pooka at will. Shifting into other things was still clumsy and ended mostly in strange chimera shapes, but he had his two base forms down.
He'd had to accept that the form the Moon had guided his body to take had become as much his 'own' as his original Pooka shape. Perhaps it was because he'd spent centuries in it, or maybe it was because of the winter magic he now had that he hadn't held before.
There were clearly still things he needed to do. He needed to find out exactly what the Moon's plan for him was, even though he wasn't sure if the Moon even talked; if the answer was 'no', Jack could hardly be expected to get the full story out of crystal images. Something had prompted him to interfere with Jack, but what?
Then there was the mystery surrounding his winter powers. Had those come from the Moon as well? In that case, again, what was the plan? Was that why he looked like the Snow Queen? Had the Man in the Moon planned it that way or had he given the magic to Jack and Jack's shape had shifted on its down because of the interference?
Jack had a few leads on solving these problems. North certainly was someone to talk to, but Jack wasn't sure if he should give some excuse for why he needed to question the Man in the Moon or if he should just tell him the truth. But, honestly, having Tooth know was bad enough, so Jack wasn't terribly keen on the thought of North making a big deal out of the revelation that he was a Pooka.
And he would make a big deal out of it. He would make the biggest deal out of it and that would be the worst possible way for Bunny to find out. If Bunny was going to find out, it should be through Jack telling him.
Before that, though, there was someone else Jack felt he should share this with. And that was why that next Saturday afternoon, after a morning of winter revels with the neighbourhood, Jack could be found sitting in Jamie Bennet's room.
Jack decided he should start from the basics, so he opened with the question: "You remember how I told you before about Bunny being an alien?" The basics on the basics. The winter spirit was straddling that back his chair while Jamie sat cross-legged in his seat on the bed.
"Yeah, I remember that," came Jamie's enthusiastic response, accompanied by a broad grin. "It was really neat!"
"Right." Jack nodded. "So, you know he's not really a rabbit; he's a shapeshifter, but that's the shape he prefers since it's the default and-"
"Jack," Jamie interrupted. His voice wasn't terribly loud, but it cut off Jack's nervous rambling easily. "Are you trying to tell me Bunny and you have a thing?"
Jack paused, staring at the child in front of him. "What?"
Jamie shrugged. "Well, it's kind of obvious you have a mile-long crush on him, and he's a pretty cool guy even without the whole alien thing." The boy rocked forward in his seat, giving Jack a steady look. "It's cool. I don't think anyone of us is going to judge you for it."
Jack groaned, lifting a hand to his face. "Why does everybody keep thinking Bunny and I are a thing?"
"I don't know about anyone else," Jamie replied, "but Monty noticed it was kind of weird how you're so interested in talking about Bunny so often."
"Jamie." Jack attempted for a serious tone, even though he knew he wasn't terribly good at taking one with kids. "Bunny and I are not a thing." The winter spirit crossed his arms. "Make sure your friends know that too. You're all too young to gossip about my love life anyway."
"Yeah." Jamie nodded. "It doesn't really matter what you and Bunny do. The really important thing is that you're getting along better."
"Right." Jack hoped it was an accurate way to look at things. He did feel more comfortable around Bunny and Bunny sometimes said things that made him think it was mutual, but sometimes Jack felt like there was almost like a wall between them, with all the unresolved issues still hanging around them.
"So, what did you really want to tell me?" Jamie asked then, all wide-eyed eagerness. "Is this about aliens?"
"Actually, yeah." Jack chuckled. "Yeah, it's about aliens."
"Okay, okay." Jamie tried to look very serious. "Are there more aliens?"
"Yes." Jack nodded.
Jamie's eyes widened with glee. "I bet it's Sandy. I mean, is he made from sand? Or does he just look like sand?"
"Actually..." Jack started to reply but then trailed off when he considered the question. "Technically, I guess? I mean, he's a shooting star."
"Shooting stars are meteors," Jamie pointed out. "And stars in general don't work like that."
"Well, they do in the galaxy I'm from," Jack insisted. "Stars like Sandy were the primary line of defence against the Fearling horde." The winter spirit expected the boy to start making comments and asking questions at that point and he directed his full attention to Jamie.
Jamie's eyes were wide and seemed kind of bright. The boy's mouth was pressed firmly shut and his cheeks were puffed up and red.
"Kid, breathe," Jack prompted and the boy blew out a breath. Jamie collected himself for a moment longer before blurting out: "You're from a different galaxy?" He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. "You're an alien?"
"Uh, yeah." Jack lifted a hand and briefly tugged on his own hair. "That's what I've been trying to tell you." The conversation just had gotten a bit out of hand, as it usually did with Jamie since the boy was so inquisitive. He tried to measure Jamie's expression, but the shock was overpowering any kind of approval or disapproval. "Jamie?" Jack asked. "You okay with this?"
Jamie jumped, brought back into the conversation. He frowned; it was the same usual frown he often had when doing homework. "You don't really look the part, especially when compared to Bunny or Sandy."
"Yeah, about that." Jack's nervous hand reached up again, and this time there was a long ear to grasp. "You know how Bunny's a shapeshifter?"
Now it really did look like Jamie was unable to breathe. Jack reached out, intent on helping his friend, but then Jamie took a deep breath and gasped out: "That's so cool!"
Jack sighed. Really, he shouldn't have expected anything less from Jamie, who faced everything the world had to offer with enthusiasm. Of course he'd find the revelation that Jack was an alien 'cool'. There had been no need to be nervous; coming clean to Jamie was the easy part.
"Glad you approve," the winter spirit said and grinned self-consciously. With the need to tug on his ears gone, his head regained a strictly human shape instead of only a partial one.
"Aw, I wanted to see you shift more," Jamie said with a brief pout. "Can you turn fully into a rabbit-Pooka?"
"I'd rather not right now," Jack answered. "It might get a bit cramped." And he'd need to take his pants off first, which was embarrassing by itself without him probably tripping over himself in the cramped bedroom adding to it.
Jamie was frowning again. "How big do Pookas get anyway?" he asked. "I mean, Bunny's already pretty big."
"Field Pookas are the tallest of the bunch," Jack explained easily. "And six foot eleven is pretty average for them." Jack briefly remembered that Edelweiss had been tall even for a Field Pooka, but Bunny was much shorter. He wondered if Bunny's father had been a Cavern Pooka; he wasn't nearly fluffy enough to have Mountain ancestry. "My Pooka form is six foot seven-ish."
Jamie mouthed the heights with an expression on his face that said that, while he barely grasped just how tall Jack was talking about, he did understand some Pookas were much taller than the already impressive-by-human-standards Bunny. Finally, the boy breathed out: "Wow."
"It took some getting used to," Jack admitted sheepishly. "I've been getting used to the size difference ever since I got my shifting back about a week ago."
Jamie's face took on that inquisitive look again. "You lost it?" he asked. "Is that why you're telling me this now?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Jack answered. "You're the first one I've actually told." Tooth's accidental snooping notwithstanding. "I had to regain my memories and abilities."
"That sounds so cool," Jamie said eagerly and Jack wondered if he'd have to make some story up that was more interesting than 'I had Baby Tooth use her memory powers restore my memory'; there was no way he was telling Jamie what was in those memories. Even if he skipped the genocide part, Jamie was smart enough to figure it out with how scarce Pookas were these days.
"So that's why you and Bunny are getting along," Jamie said with a sagely nod. "You're the same species."
"Actually, Bunny doesn't know," Jack admitted and forced himself to keep eye contact with Jamie. "It's going to be a surprise, so don't go spreading this around."
"Yeah, okay." Jamie nodded in understanding. "The others are gonna freak when we do tell them, though." The boy grinned widely. "Maybe you could shift and show them. That would really surprise them!"
"Right, so let's not spoil it before then." Jack lifted a finger for emphasis. "This is our secret."
"Right." Jamie was smiling gleefully. "Are you gonna surprise Bunny like that too?"
Jack smiled. "Maybe something a bit less startling for him," the winter spirit commented. "Wouldn't want to get boomerang-ed."
"Yeah, you're right." Jamie seemed a bit disappointed. Then he smiled again. "But we'll definitely do it to the others."
"It's a deal." Jack offered Jamie a hand, who shook it enthusiastically. Jack wondered if he'd accidentally given himself a deadline now. Jamie might not be very patient waiting for the chance to surprise his friends, and Jack wasn't sure he could properly explain away keeping Bunny in the dark. Jamie was really honest, and probably wasn't old enough yet to understand the concept of lying to someone for their own good.
I was in a real hurry this last week finishing my Master's Thesis and that's the reason this chapter is so last minute but I did finish on time so huzzah! Now I'm having it peer evaluated so that I can do some final tweaks before turning it in.
Also, according to the Rise of the Guardians Wiki, Pookas are usually six to seven feet tall. This throws a huge wrench into the fic canon that Mountain Pookas are small, so I'll just put my own height headcanons here. So, Mountain Pookas are in the lower range of the scale and range between 4-5 feet (120-150 cm), Cavern Pookas are in the middle and around 5'3-6 feet (160-180 cm) usually, while Field Pookas are 6'3-7 feet (190-210 cm) tall.
Chapter 31: A Tourist in the Waking World
Seems that I have been held, in some dreaming state
A tourist in the waking world, never quite awake
No kiss, no gentle word could wake me from this slumber
Until I realize that it was you who held me under
Felt it in my fist, in my feet, in the hollows of my eyelids
Shaking through my skull, through my spine and down through my ribs
~ Florence and the Machine - Blinding
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack found Ostara in Germany. Of course he did; the area had been a real melting pot of spirit kind ever since German Romantics had attempted to incorporate different mythologies into a new German national mythology in the eighteenth century.
Tracking Ostara down wasn’t terribly difficult. While nymphs had never really migrated all the way to the States, Jack wandered around European mountainsides enough to be on a lose acquaintanceship with some of the Oreades of those parts. Nymphs in general were always happy to help with any ‘epic quest’ they heard of, and Oreades were no different (including the word ‘epic’ was important, since it reminded the nymphs of the glory days of ancient myth). The Oreades of Feldberg were very familiar with the surrounding area, mostly because the area had so many nymphs, and could tell Jack various helpful tidbits on the person he was about to see.
Jack followed the instructions given to him and he soon arrived in northern Black Forest. As soon as he hit the ground, he felt a shift in the air as the atmosphere grew heavy. It was a sensation similar to the one he always experienced near the Snow Queen’s ice castle. He briefly considered that it might be some sort of manifestation of seasonal clout. Ostara might not be the primary spring spirit anymore, but she had always been a goddess of spring.
Jack observed his surroundings. There was a path going through the thick natural area, one made of an outline of shimmering dust that Jack doubted any human eyes could see. He followed the path, stepping carefully through a circle of mushrooms, and came up to a gate. It was a wooden gate, low and narrow, much like you'd expect to find at a cottage yard. Both sides of the gate were framed by a wall of coniferous trees that continued into the surrounding forest, while the path inside on other side of the gate was framed by well-kept bushes that kept Jack from seeing too far inside by merely peering over the red gate. In the end, Jack pulled the gate open and walked inside.
The garden gate naturally led into a garden. It was a strange combination of wild plants and the garden variety, a clear sign of its mistress’ tastes for anything she could make bloom. Jack could now see that the wall of trees he had seen outside surrounded the broad garden entirely, the distant treetops the only hint that the large area had any boundaries at all. A river as narrow as a spring crook ran across the ground in twirls and bends. The place, with the shimmering waters and colourful blooms, reminded Jack of Bunny’s Warren, and Jack realized what that meant.
It was spring here. It was possibly a lasting one, much like in the Warren. Jack suspected that Snow Queen’s castle matched with a field of eternal winter. That would certainly explain the similar feeling of the two places. And it was even achieved with foreign magic, well, foreign to a Pooka but most likely quite familiar to Earth spirits. It was only to be expected, as the permanent spring of Bunny’s Warren didn’t faze Jack in the slightest.
Speaking of bunnies, there was a bunch of rabbits in the garden, scampering out from under bushes and into thickets. Colorful flowers swung both in the wind and as rabbits hopped around them.
There were clusters of trees inside the garden as well and, when some of them shifted, Jack turned his head to look. The presence of the colors deep red and bright blue clued him faster to what he was looking at than the actual human shape, mostly because said human shape was completely outside of the proportions Jack was familiar with.
Ostara was almost as tall as the trees around her, with deeply sun-touched skin and thick proportions that made her look one with the ancient forest around her. Her dark red hair was frizzy and tangled in tree branches, although this didn't seem to bother her. She glanced down at Jack and crouched. As she crouched, she shrunk, until the height difference between her and Jack could be measured in inches rather than feet.
“I wasn’t expecting guests,” Ostara spoke with a soft accent that held a touch of many things. Jack wasn’t an expert on languages, but simply by mythological association he suspected that Ostara’s pronunciation carried hints of most if not all Germanic languages. “I don’t usually increase my height in company, but even trees need to be trimmed sometimes.”
“Not one for the purely natural look?” Jack commented with a hint of a smile, in lieu of something better to say. Of course a garden would need to look kept; Jack hoped he hadn’t offended the goddess.
Ostara merely hummed in response, mood seemingly neutral. "Why are you here, Jack Frost?" the redhead asked slowly.
Jack hooked his arms around his staff, lifting it vertically up against his back so it wouldn't accidentally freeze any of the plant life. "I have questions for you."
Ostara noticed Jack's gesture, and it prompted a smile from the goddess. "Interesting. What kinds of questions?"
Encouraged by the other's receptiveness, Jack went on: "Questions about the job you used to have, as the keeper of spring."
Ostara crossed her arms but, while her posture was defensive, she didn't appear upset. "I am happily retired."
Remembering some of the things he'd heard from the Oreades, Jack smiled. "You were happy in your job once too."
The goddess pursed her lips. "Been gossiping with the nymphs, have you?"
Jack grinned sheepishly. "How did you know?"
"You know how Calan can read you so well, you'd swear he was reading your mind?" the spring spirit spoke. "I can do the genuine thing." The goddess tilted her head. "You play games, much like Calan," she commented and Jack couldn't tell whether it was fondly or not. "I suspect he name-dropped me to you."
"Yeah." Jack shrugged. "Right after making some vague comments about the seasons apparently needing to have someone watching over them."
"In a world as filled with magic as ours, everything needs someone watching over them, lest their magic be abused," Ostara explained softly. "Fortunately such power plays rarely affect the oblivious humanfolk."
"But it does affect us spirits," Jack concluded. "So, what do I need to know?"
Ostara hummed thoughtfully. "I can't say if hearing about my experiences can help you," she murmured. "There was no genocide of spring spirits for one thing."
Jack blinked, startled. "Genocide?"
"Well, not...strictly." Ostara briefly pursed her lips as she considered. "The Snow Queen didn't kill anyone with her own hands but when she drained all the winter magic into herself, all other winter spirits faded away without their own magic." The goddess gestured to Jack. "Now all that power is yours by virtue of being the only one."
Jack blew out a deep breath. "So you can't give me any pointers?"
"Would it help if I said I didn't want the job either?" Ostara said with a short chuckle. Her expression turned considering with reminiscence. "There were plenty of other spirits who could have stepped up to the plate. I, for one, was certain Persephone would take on the mantle. However, the magic wasn't compatible with hers to enough of a degree for such a thing to be possible."
"Calan mentioned possible compatibility issues," Jack commented. "Is there any risk of that?"
"All other winter spirits have been gone for centuries," Ostara said in a considering manner. "Did this shift happen recently for you? If so, it could be because the magic itself changed to suit you, in lack of a more compatible host."
"Yeah, I'd say it's only been happening this last year," Jack admitted with a nod. "Maybe longer, but it's been noticeable only recently."
"I remember when the magic settled for me," Ostara reminisced with a smile. "The rises and falls in power were the strangest high and I loved and hated it in equal amounts." Ostara tapped her fingers against her arm. "Then I actually met the spirit I was filling in for."
It occurred to Jack to wonder what stage in Bunny's mental health that might have been.
"I didn't have the heart to force him into it. I could hear how tired he was," Ostara admitted with no small amount of empathy in her voice. "I did the job."
Jack smiled. "Any regrets?"
"Just one." Ostara lifted a finger for emphasis. "Wild hares haven't left me alone since humans thought to attribute them to me."
Now that she mentioned it, there really were a lot of rabbits mingling around underneath the bushes... Jack shrugged. "Nothing wrong with cute and fluffy rabbits."
Ostara huffed. "They get into my plants." The goddess lifted a hand to ruffle her own hair in a helpless gesture. "And lately there's been even more of them that usual."
"You're seeing Calan, right?" Jack asked as he knelt down to look at the fluff balls, placing his shepherd's crook across his lap. "Could he be letting them in?"
"Calan wouldn't-" Ostara froze as her words stilled. Jack looked up to see an expression like thunder cross her face. "Oh, he would. He constantly complains about how I spend too much time tending the garden."
Jack chuckled. "That's typical of him, causing more trouble to keep you busy when he's actually whinging for attention."
"Indeed," Ostara muttered darkly. She gave Jack a considering look. "You're pretty clever."
"Clever enough for a flower from the garden I helped protect?" Jack suggested with a grin. He'd noticed that, despite the spring theme going on, Ostara's garden held plenty of summer plants as well.
"It wasn't quite that clever," Ostara commented as her fingers brushed some delicate violet-blue blooms, the ones she had undoubtedly noticed Jack eyeing. "I'm agreeable to a contest, though. You can have one of my flowers if you can come up with something even more clever."
"Clever comes in many forms," Jack pointed out with a grin. "Can I win with a snazzy one-liner?"
Ostara gave him a warning look. "A contest of clever, not cute."
Jack's grin widened. "Is that 'cute' as in 'adorable', or..." He trailed off meaningfully.
The spring goddess huffed. "It's 'cute' as in 'insufferably smug'."
Jack finally stood up from his crouch to meet Ostara's eyes as he spoke seriously: "You do realize you're dating the king of cute, then?"
Ostara smirked. "Calan has earned some privileges on that front."
"Ugh," Jack groaned, only realizing after the fact that he'd walked right into that one. "I don't need any details on that front."
Ostara giggled at his response. "So you and Aster aren't..." She lifted her brows for emphasis.
Feeling his face heat up before frosting over, Jack scoffed. "As if! We're friends!"
"I suppose it's better than before, regardless," Ostara commented, although her tone was rather disappointed. She noticed the curious look Jack must have given her. "You're not the only one who listens to nymphs gossiping. They've told me a bit about you." The goddess planted her hands on her hips. "Especially your feud with Aster."
"'Feud' is really a strong word for it," Jack mumbled. It wasn't like they'd been actively on the warpath; it had been more of a general animosity. "And it's not a problem anymore." Jack might have been a hermit by nature, but he did know that it was generally not a good idea to outright lie to other spirits, especially god-types, so he shouldn't try to outright deny that the past bothered him.
"You should work on that," Ostara commented. "I think you'd both benefit from figuring out just what your relationship is."
"And what's your relationship with Bunny for you to tell me what to do with him?" Jack asked, mirroring Ostara's pose with his own hands.
Ostara hummed thoughtfully, and Jack scowled. The goddess' eyes flashed. "I'm not sure how to explain it, but it is clear to me." She lifted one hand to gesture to the garden. "I hold powers of spring, but he's above me in that. I acted as his replacement when he couldn't uphold the season himself. As such, I am very much Aster's knight and champion, albeit he hasn't required that of me for centuries."
Jack stiffened for a moment, before he realized that Ostara wasn’t a warrior; she didn’t carry herself like one. Even if she was magically formidable, Jack still was reasonably sure that she hadn’t meant her words like Jack’s initial reaction had interpreted them. Regardless, Jack was certain that his expression had revealed his darkening mood.
Ostara frowned in thought. "What does that phrase mean to you?" she asked.
Jack huffed. "It's just a phrase, it just means you have a duty to Bunny."
"Indeed, that is what it means to me," Ostara spoke carefully. "But to you it means something else as well. So, what would it mean if you told Aster something like that?"
Determined to keep mum, Jack clammed up, but there was a glimmer of realization in Ostara's gaze. Her direction turned purposefully to the flowers that had previously caught Jack's attention. The goddess gave the violet-blue blooms a long, meaningful look. "Our actions hold many meanings."
"Don't try to sound cryptic," Jack grumbled petulantly. "It doesn't suit you."
"Very well, then," Ostara agreed before straightening her posture. "Then, I will be blunt with you, Jack Frost. Do not live in the past, when your life in the present is finally moving ahead."
"Excuse me?" Jack frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?" He felt that they were moving off-topic.
"You don't have to pick one or the other," Ostara clarified. "Being who you were is the basis of who you are now, the solution is to be both, much like the Aster of today grew from the one that came before."
Jack remembered, too late, the detail Ostara had revealed to him so off-handedly before, that Ostara was a mind-reader. She knew exactly what troubled Jack in his new role as the keeper of winter as well as in his relationship with Bunny.
"You need to be true to yourself before you can be true to Aster," Ostara spoke firmly, as if it really was that simple.
"Aster's better off not knowing," Jack insisted, emphasising the name the goddess had been using. Jack’s relationship with Bunny wasn’t inferior to hers; the name he used didn't matter.
"That is how you justify your silence to yourself," Ostara spoke. "Yes, it's not a lie that you care about Aster but, because you care, you also fear his rejection. One fear doesn't make the other not exist; it simply makes it easier to stay quiet in the end."
"I didn't take this from my friend, so I definitely won't take it from you!" Jack snapped heatedly. "I'm doing the best I can."
The goddess sighed, deflating a bit. "A challenge, then, if you would still resist my words. Fix this, and you are welcome to a number of flowers from my garden."
As Jack considered the offer, his anger waned when he recognized that Ostara's intention truly was to help rather than to criticize. “You really care about this.”
“I care about Aster,” Ostara clarified. “And Aster seems to care about you, all the while you clearly care for him in return. To not care about that would be heartless.”
“Then, thanks, I guess,” Jack said with a wan smile.
Ostara returned the expression. “There’s something more I can give you,” she offered. “I don’t exactly have the same powers as Aster, despite us both having done the same job. I am known as a light-bringer, but Aster is the life-bringer.”
“What does that mean?” Jack asked. “’Life-bringer’?”
“It’s not that important,” Ostara said. “The important part is that the same holds true for you and the Snow Queen. Your powers won’t exactly match hers and you’re not required to be like her in order to do your best by winter.”
“Oh.” Jack was quiet for a long moment as he though the words over. “I think I needed to hear that.” He flashed the goddess a smile. “Thanks.”
“I guess it was worth the trip, then,” Ostara mused with a smile.
When Jack left the garden, it wasn’t with a light heart per se, but he did feel like his burden had lessened a touch.
Sorry this update is a bit late. Working in a rush to get my MA Thesis fit for preliminary judging drained me completely and so I had to pick between working on this chapter more slowly to guarantee the quality or serving out possibly the worst thing I've written in a long while. I understandably chose to make sure the chapter was good, because you guys deserve my best.
Useless but interesting tidbit time! Special World-Building-Basis Edition!
1) Germany as a melting pot of spirit kind: I actually had an exam on this about three months back, based on the book Longing for Myth in Germany. Mostly the German romantics were interested in Ancient Greek mythology and Nordic myths, however.
2) The Black Forest and Feldberg do exist in Germany. I thought the Black Forest was a good choice because it used to be a part of the Hercynian Forest, which has been written about in ancient texts extensively and spirits are suckers for that ancient history. Also, the Northern Black Forest as a whole is now considered a part of the Black Forest National Park. (Any German readers more in the know are free to share in the comments, as I'm just an unworthy Finn who repeats what she's read.)
3) While Persephone is seen as a vegetation goddess, she also rules the underworld, so Bunny's life attribute made her feel rather ill. As a fertility goddess, Ostara could handle it much better.
Chapter 32: I Can't Forgive You Now
I feel like running away
I'm still so far from home
You say that I'll never change
But what the fuck do you know?
I'll burn it all to the ground before I let you in
Please forgive me, I can't forgive you now.
I remember everything.
~ Five Finger Death Punch - Remember Everything
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Jack had started training at the Pooka Battle Academy, he'd balked at the long strings of physical exercises that were expected of the recruits. In addition to directed drills, the soldiers were expected to complete a personal training regime every few days in order to build up and maintain their physical condition. Now, however, Jack was repeating those exercises voluntarily.
The irony of the situation wasn't lost on Jack and, during those days that he practised, his thoughts had repeatedly drifted to his former teachers as he'd gone through his old routine. On more than one day Jack had even allowed his thoughts to wander further, enough to wonder in his mind what Commander Nasturtium might have said if he ever caught Jack working out on his spare time and acknowledging the worth of getting regular training in.
However, Jack wasn't training simply because it was good for him or, god forbid, he actually found it fun or something; he wasn't Tansy, who'd always revelled in having a chance to strut his stuff. Jack had a very specific goal for his self-determined training. He'd finally figured out why his shapeshifting was giving him trouble.
Generally, Pookas couldn't be taught shapeshifting until after the natural growth of their bodies evened out. During the early stages of a Pooka's life, they tended to grow in sudden spurts, which meant that their base form couldn't be a solid image in their mind. A solid self-image was the most vital part of shapeshifting, so Pookas who grew at a more even pace to begin with or otherwise had a strong self-image tended to learn shifting faster than their peers.
Due to his amnesia and locked form, Jack had gained a second base form. This meant that his self-image was actually more fluid than most, since he considered two completely different shapes his "own", because he identified with two different species.
The fact that Pookas and humans had a lot of the same insides was a big help for Jack when it came to coming to terms with his dual identity and Jack wondered if that had something to do with Bunny's influence or if the similarities were really a coincidence. Spines, organs and even the finer details of their eyes were very similar between humans and Pookas. It was the proportions that were all wonky between Jack's different shapes, in addition to leg shape. And the fur. Jack preferred his human form's legs and feet (the dextrous toes were great) but he also really liked having fur and long ears.
The heart of the problem was that, while Jack knew that the Pooka shape was his right form, he'd spent so much time as a human that being a Pooka felt strange. It was like he was an adolescent again, still getting used to a body that continued to feel unfamiliar.
Jack knew he needed to work up to shapeshifting, that he had to master his old body again before he could change it. He couldn't become something else before he fully understood what he was to begin with. Apparently, three centuries of amnesia and who knows how long in healing hibernation was more than enough to mess up Jack's conception of his own body.
Practising fighting forms in his Pooka form was a great way of working through the feeling of otherness of his Pooka shape and Jack had been working on it for weeks on a reasonably secluded forest clearing on the mid-European highlands.
Jack didn't want to think about the possibility that he was out of shape. While he'd never even considered becoming a career soldier, he had been proud of his skill in combat and his strength. Losing that would be a loss to the Pooka Jack had been. That made training all the more important.
The training also had an additional benefit. Practising his forms also allowed Jack to work out his frustration, and lately he'd been very frustrated.
"I'm not scared of Bunny," Jack insisted to his audience of one. "Yeah, I don't want to get him mad, but I'm not scared of rejection."
Baby Tooth chirped dutifully. She's heard this all before. Jack’s training had become a daily thing instead of an occasional one ever since his talk with Ostara, so it had been more likely for Baby Tooth's visits to fall on training days. It was now spring and Jack had missed some great chances for spring-time cold spells with how busy he was keeping himself with his training. But he needed to make up his mind once and for all. Ostara hadn't suggested anything of the like, but Jack had the impression that he was on a deadline considering his need to make some progress with Bunny, possibly until the season changed again.
"What's wrong with liking the way things are?" Jack muttered, voice low from physical exertion, before he did a backflip. "Other than the fact that it means I'm stuck on purpose?" But was he fine with that? Jack didn't really believe he could stay satisfied with something he knew was less than it could be.
However, there was also the possibility of things going spectacularly wrong. Bunny had been alone for millennia, not the paltry centuries Jack had experienced. Bunny had grieved and moved on, while Jack wasn't even close to being done dealing with the fact that he had only just remembered a planet he'd lost even before he'd forgotten all about it. What if Bunny didn't want to deal with his loss all over again? What if he didn't want to deal with Jack's grief? Bunny would, Jack now understood that Bunny was just that kind of a guy, but he still might resent Jack for that baggage. Similarly, Jack might grow to resent Bunny if he received only grudging support.
While the early springtime meant that the day was already moving into dusk, Jack considered grabbing his sword for some armed training when Baby Tooth cheeped in distress. Having spent enough time around the Tooth Fairy to know her warnings were serious, Jack ducked into the shade of the trees to grab his pants from a branch.
"Keep a lookout," Jack gasped out to Baby Tooth before he started shifting back to human. He was dressed again and grabbing his staff from the same tree right as the darkness descended. Jack immediately jumped out of the shade and into the brighter clearing, brandishing his staff in a ready position to fire a stream of deathly cold.
"There's no need to be so hostile," Pitch Black spoke smoothly as he manifested from the evening darkness. "I simply thought we could have some fun."
With the identity of the intruder confirmed, Jack signalled for Baby Tooth to get out, and the fairy sped off as quickly as her wings would carry her. The winter spirit faced the Nightmare King and considered the situation. Granted, Pitch preferred to have his opponent outmatched before he attempted an outright offensive, but that didn't mean that Pitch's idea of "fun" was in any way safe for Jack.
"I haven't heard of you flying around in a while," Pitch commented, like he was discussing the weather instead of some half-hearted attempt at stalking Jack. "Are the Guardians keeping you on a short leash?" The darkness spirit sneered, showing teeth.
"Nah, I just have people to spend time with." Jack rolled his shoulders in a gesture of nonchalance, hoping to catch Pitch off-guard. "Unlike some people."
Pitch grimaced. "How juvenile."
"Doesn't make it any less true, right?" Jack tried to grin, but he was sure the expression came off way more hostile than he intended. There was hatred boiling in his stomach, like a lump of tar. It was clingy and dark and there was no shining light on it. It was suffocating.
Pitch noticed. "My, you really are on edge today," the Nightmare King said smugly. "Is there a particular reason for it?"
Jack gritted his teeth. "You're the reason for it, you murderous maniac," he growled, voice low.
Pitch paused, but didn't seem very bothered. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Right, sure," Jack spat. "A history of genocide is so easy to forget about."
"Oh, you've been talking to the rabbit." Pitch actually sounded disappointed as he spoke the words. "I don't see why you'd take offence on his behalf."
"I can feel empathy for other people, unlike you," Jack said with a snarl. He tightened his hold on his shepherd’s crook. "Still, I do have a personal beef with it."
“What do you care about what I did to those beasts?” Pitch scoffed. “I destroyed them all long before you existed.”
“It’s because you destroyed them that I exist!” Jack screamed, and Pitch finally seemed to snap out of his perpetual state of smugness, looking startled. “My family, my friends, even the people I didn't get along with…You killed them all, you monster!”
The ice that burst forth at Jack’s exclamation didn’t touch Pitch. The Nightmare King knew to expect such and joined into his shadows to avoid freezing. The Boogeyman laughed and golden eyes shone in the darkness.
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” the monster cackled. “I knew Pookas could shapeshift but I never expected…No matter.” Pitch appeared out of the darkness and his smile was all teeth and bloody intentions. “You’re the last Pooka standing, then. I’ll get a trill out of this.”
“I’m not the last,” Jack sneered, hands clenching around his weapon. “Bunny’s still alive too.”
Pitch laughed, again, and twirled out of the way when Jack shot a bolt of ice in his direction. “Oh, that thing is no Pooka, Jack. It’s not even alive.”
“Shut up!” The clearing was cold, so terribly, deathly cold, and yet Jack could see Pitch wasn’t bothered by it. “He lives. He breathes. He has more life in him than you do!”
“Oh, Jack.” Pitch’s voice oozed insincere sympathy. “You have no idea, do you, about what I did to Bunnymund, what he let me do to him?”
“Shut up.” This time the words were a hissed whisper. “I’m not listening to this.”
“The rabbit may look alive, but it’s not a living thing, Jack,” Pitch kept taunting, darting in and out of shadows while Jack tried to tag him with a blast of debilitating cold. "Haven't you noticed how extreme he is with his emotions? It's because he doesn't feel them, he mimics them."
"You're the one with no feelings," Jack growled, tone as cold as his ice.
"Don't shoot the messenger," Pitch spoke in a false offended tone. “I'm merely telling the truth. You need a heart to feel, and Bunnymund hasn’t had one of those in millennia.” There was more laughter. “Would you like to know what happened to it?”
Suddenly Pitch was right in front of Jack, a hand resting on the boy’s chest. The shock froze Jack in place and Pitch smirked.
“I ran it through,” the Nightmare King spoke and suddenly Jack had to bring up his crook to block a blow from a long blade that would have pierced through his chest otherwise. The frost spirit roared and pushed Pitch back, and finally Pitch’s expression faltered.
The hesitation lasted only for a moment before Pitch smiled lazily: “Well done. That was a good reaction. Much better than Bunnymund; he just stood there and let me take his life from him.”
“When will you shut up?!” Jack leaped after Pitch and struck the other to the side of his head with his staff. “Seriously, what does it take? I just want you to shut up and suffer!” Jack bodily tackled Pitch and there was a chorus of snapping and creaking sounds as ice formed and shattered.
There was laughter echoing in Jack’s ears, but it didn’t belong to Pitch. The voice was more high-pitched and the laughter was more victorious screeching than any real sign of amusement. The sound howled and echoed in Jack’s head as his magic grew so cold he could have sworn it was hurting him instead of just Pitch.
Jack realized that he’d felt this before. This sensation of slipping so far his magic ran away from him and hurt him.
He’d felt this decades ago, in the year 1968.
So many twists here. Jack revealed his secret to Pitch! Jack's powers are running amok! There's an actual, honest-to-god, cliffhanger!
Also, who actually called it that Bunny mentioning that he's dead in Chapter 4 was going to come back to haunt Jack?
Chapter 33: Your Concrete Heart Isn't Beating
Your concrete heart isn't beating
And you've tried to
Make it come alive
Just red lights
Now I'm here to rescue you, oh oh...
Oh I'm still alive
I'm still alive
I cannot apologize, no oh oh
~ Lisa Miskovsky - Still Alive
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jack hadn't once truly worried about the unpredictability of his powers. In hindsight, he probably should have. His powers weren't originally his; they'd been given to him when their master had vanished. Jack had never considered the compatibility issues seriously, even when Calan Gaeaf had brought their possibility up. That was mostly because Jack's powers tended to follow his lead and there had never been any major issues.
Back on his home world, Jack had controlled plants, as was common for Pookas. Still, the winter powers had never felt foreign to him. When he'd woken up without his memories, he'd already had his powers and the discovery of those powers had made his amnesia much less frightening.
Jack knew that his powers were growing stronger at a rapid rate. That was the source of his recent problems with his powers. There was just too much power to properly contain it. Still, his powers had never gone beyond chaotic and they'd never actually turned against him.
That incredibly unlikely thing was happening now. Jack's powers over winter and cold were affecting him in addition to everything around him. Frost was covering Pitch and Jack was close enough to see the Nightmare Kind shiver. However, Jack was certain that the frost on him was less stylish now as he felt his limbs grow numb from the unbearable cold. Jack couldn't recall this ever happening before, the cold of his powers actually affecting him, so he couldn't tell whether or not the cold was going outward more than inward. If the cold incapacitated him before Pitch, Jack would be left wide open and vulnerable to attack.
Pitch undoubtedly noticed Jack weakening, as he took advantage of the situation and pushed upwards to dislodge the winter spirit from atop of him. Jack's limbs were already ceasing to function and so he could do little more than try to soften the impact as he fell down on the ground. The ground was already coarse to the touch from being frozen so deeply.
Head spinning, Jack could hardly react as Pitch got up off the ground and resummoned his scythe. The winter spirit gritted his teeth and focused as the other spirit swung his weapon in a downward sweep. With a great show of will, Jack lifted his hands, bringing his own weapon up to block the attack.
Metal scraped against metal as Jack's shepherd's crook turned into a Pookan blade to better fend off the attack. Magically constructed dark metal met moonlight-enchanted steel and sparks scattered as Jack forced himself off the ground to push Pitch back.
Pitch toppled backwards, barely catching himself. Jack, on the other hand, fell right back to the ground as his knees buckled under the effort he'd forced. It was rather apparent that there was no second wind coming for the winter spirit.
It was just as well, then, that Pitch suddenly whirled around with a curse, focusing on something Jack’s blurring vision hadn’t picked out. A metallic clang rang out before Pitch called forth more shadows from the surrounding night and vanished momentarily.
“Jack, don’t lose focus,” Bunny’s voice spoke a moment before a hand gripped the winter spirit’s shoulder. Instantly Jack felt the cold beginning to recede and wondered if that was the influence of spring.
“What? No ‘Jackie’?” Jack asked jokingly, aiming to ease any worry the other might have.
“Maybe when I’m not so stressed out,” Bunny replied and twirled a sword in his free hand, directing its blade outwards to defend against any further attacks from Pitch. “How do you get yourself into these situations?”
“Natural talent?” Jack suggested with a grimace. “How did… Did Baby Tooth get you?”
“There’s no place in the world those things can’t get into unless you go dabbling in some dark magic just to keep them out,” Bunny commented as he opened one of the pockets on his jacket to reveal Baby Tooth, who promptly fluttered over to Jack's shoulder. “We’ll talk more once I take care of Pitch Black.”
“’Take care of me’? That’s some big talk,” Pitch sneered as he manifested from the shadows again. Jack noted that he was a good distance away, though. “You sent for reinforcements, Jack?” the Nightmare King crooned in a condescending tone. “I never knew you had such low sportsmanship.”
“Stop trying to make this into some kind of epic rivalry,” Jack snapped. “It’s not.” First the completely unnecessary interruption during his training, then the admission of stalking and now the dark spirit was acting like Jack had committed some form of petty foul.
“You could have fooled me a moment ago,” Pitch replied with a grin. “You were taking this all very personally.”
“Big difference between grief and rivalry, Pitch,” Jack snarled. “You’re not worth my time. I just want you out of my sight.” Preferably permanently. Yeah, there was nothing about Jack’s hatred of Pitch that spelled ‘rivals’.
“Stop picking on the small fry,” Bunny spoke up then, cutting off the back-and-forth. “I should be your immediate concern.”
“Right,” Pitch drawled. “Nice sword. Were your boomerangs in the wash or is this some sort of knight in shining armour set-up?”
"You're really focusing on the wrong thing here," was all Bunny said in response before he rushed Pitch. He led with a thrust of his blade that had Pitch dodging to the side and followed it up with a broad slash that forced Pitch to twirl his scythe to block the blow in a movement that must have taken the Nightmare King a lot of effort. It was clear that Pitch's weapon of choice was a bad matchup against Bunny's.
Bunny's advantage gave Jack a good chance to observe the other's new weapon. The sword wasn't one that Jack had seen before and, while Jack remembered that Eucalyptus had been a master of several weapons and styles, the winter spirit wondered if this sword style was one from before the fall of the Pookas or if Bunny had mastered it while on Earth. Bunny had certainly had enough time to learn, or even invent, a new fighting style or two.
The sword Bunny had chosen was light, with a blade that was a touch longer than his forearm. Still, the sword had width, since it had two sharpened edges instead of the one that Jack's sword had. Bunny's sword was good for fast slash attacks and sudden thrusts, a style that was forcing the scythe-wielding Pitch to retreat, especially since it had become apparent that Pitch's powers were still so drained that he was restricted to the most basic uses of them.
It seemed that Bunny had noticed all of this as well, as his voice gained a taunting lilt that was rare in serious combat when he spoke: "Your weapon's useless in a swordfight, Pitch. It's dramatic, but not very good for parrying."
"Worry about your own fighting, furball," Pitch snarled back. "You're the one who decided it was a sword day after decades of nothing but throwing things at me." Pitch actually sounded like he felt cheated as he spoke those words.
"Nothing wrong with changing things up every now and again." Bunny twirled his sword, looking for another angle for attack. "Especially if it keeps you from getting too cocky."
"Maybe I should keep you from getting 'cocky'." Pitch's scythe shifted then, falling into flakes of darkness before reshaping into a broadsword. "I should turn you into a pincushion."
"Put your weapon where your mouth is," Bunny goaded as he circled Pitch clockwise, creating an opening between Pitch and Jack. The opening was so apparent from Jack's angle that the winter spirit just knew it was intentional. Most likely just in case Pitch did in fact have an ace up his sleeve; you could never be too careful when dealing with someone like Pitch.
Jack's limbs were still numb, but his magic was buzzing insistently. While the winter spirit couldn't attack Pitch with all he had, he could still shoot a bolt of ice at Pitch. And, to make matters easier, his target was blissfully unaware, focusing completely on Bunny.
It was easy to launch an attack at Pitch. The Nightmare King had only a short while ago confessed to having killed Bunny and he was now purposefully trying to recreate the occasion. The emotion Jack could turn into power was right there, and his own grounded state gave him the chance to focus that power properly.
Sensing Jack's intentions, the sword had already shifted back into a staff when Jack raised his weapon ever so slightly. The angle was enough to aim properly but less than what Pitch would notice from this distance. Then Jack coaxed the cold out.
Pitch's knees buckled when the cold bit into them, causing the Nightmare King to fall in a slow sweep backwards, long arms flailing as he went down. With the clear opening, Bunny hefted his sword.
"Should I?" the grey Pooka murmured and a wide-eyed look came across Pitch's face that wasn't quite fear. It was more foreboding than anything else.
As much as Jack wanted Pitch dead for everything he'd done and everything he might do, North had long since explained the necessity of something like Fear to Jack. Jack prepared to swallow the bile in his mouth that was sure to come when he had to advocate for Pitch's survival, when the sound of space being torn open made the question redundant.
Pitch was looking genuinely worried now as North's sleigh ploughed through the portal that appeared in the sky. It was understandable, because both Tooth and Sandy were with him.
"Looks like we have a full house, Pitch Black," Bunny taunted the Nightmare King. "Are you sure you want to keep this up?"
"I came here so that I could have a bit of fun with Frost, not to partake in a reunion," Pitch said, attempting to sound smooth.
Jack wasn't impressed. "You came to cause trouble, so don't act inconvenienced when it turns out you oversold your own strength." Honestly, Pitch should know better than to try to make his comeback by harassing the people who trashed him and his reputation in the first place. "You thought I'd be alone and an easy mark."
"Even so, I won't settle for last place," Pitch insisted in a dark tone as the rest of the Guardians jumped off the sleigh and onto the clearing. The Nightmare King smirked at North before he said: "One of your Guardians has a secret. I wonder if you know it." With those words, Pitch Black vanished into the darkness of the night.
Up until then the darkness had been oppressive, but the lightening of the mood signalled Pitch's departure and Jack could have sworn that the stars hadn't been visible moments ago.
"You two are uninjured?" North's voice asked as he walked over. He didn't seem to be paying Pitch's parting shot any mind.
Jack offered him a smile. "My powers crapped out, but I didn't injure anything."
The former Cossack easily lifted Jack up to his feet with a single hand up and Jack supported a part of high weight on his staff. "Did Baby Tooth alert you guys too?" Jack wasn't sure how she could have managed that and to have travelled back to Jack with Bunny. As if waiting for an answer, he glanced down at the fairy in question, who took off to fly over to her 'mother'.
"Baby Tooth is a part of me," Tooth reminded Jack as she petted the little fairy with her fingers. "She told me telepathically that you were in trouble and I alerted the rest of the Guardians." The larger fairy grinned. "Baby Tooth was more focused on getting you specific kind of help."
Jack was about to say something most likely scathing in response, but was interrupted by North's voice speaking out: "We should go back to Workshop and consult Manny. Pitch might have new plot cooking."
No one protested the suggestion, since it was a reasonable one, and Jack noticed that Bunny marched to North's sleigh with zero fuss and only a grimly determined look on his face. Something was up there, and Jack needed to find out what.
After all the Guardians had climbed on, with Tooth and North both giving Bunny concerned glances over his readiness to step on the sleigh, Jack used the jostling of the take-off to mask himself falling purposefully against Bunny's back. The grim-faced Pooka was so deep in his own thoughts that he barely grunted at the action and Jack pressed his ear against the other's back and listened.
Most of the bipedal creatures on Earth had similar features with Pooka, down to the hearts that beat a set rhythm.
All Jack heard was silence. Bunny had no heartbeat.
Bunny actually tells Jack it won't do any good to check his pulse back in Chapter 25. Now you all know why: he doesn't have one, period.
I've actually been practising drawing Pookas so that I could have some illustrations to accompany this story. So nobody say I never do anything nice! XD
That said, next chapter it all somehow gets worse.
Chapter 34: One of Us Is Winterhearted
I was a fool for what I thought was love
And I tried my best to keep up what we had
We had a vision, no, I had a vision
And now I've to see that the vision is dead
One of us is winterhearted
One of us is cold as ice
One of us is breaking hearts
And it's not me, not me
~Xandria - Winterhearted
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In comparison to North's takeoff speed, his landing tended to be slower. When he was supposed to dock back at North Pole, his speed was closer to what might even be considered safe. Even so, they didn't take terribly long for the Guardians to arrive at the Workshop, when Jack was instantly whisked away by the yeti to be treated. Jack swore to himself that one of these days he'd discover the source of their power. He'd find out how they were always on high alert when something was up and how they were so quick to get on top of things. The other Guardians had realized on the sleigh that Jack's beat up condition wasn't the result of any attack from Pitch, but from his own powers lashing out. However, there wasn't really any way for the Guardians to send a message ahead when they were already en route.
Jack really couldn't guess why the yeti had healing crystals, but the crystal contraption they placed on his head actually started working within minutes. Jack was actually feeling like himself again by the time one of the other Guardians came to check up on him.
It was Bunny who came to see Jack first. Of course it was. Jack knew very well by now that Bunny was an incurable worrywart, so it really wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise were the thick leather gloves the Pooka had donned that Jack was quite certain Bunny hadn’t worn during the battle with Pitch. Regardless, Bunny was very much wearing gloves while he removed the crystal contraption from Jack's head.
The hand that had touched Jack before had been bare. The gloves were actually rather ill-fitting. Maybe Bunny had borrowed them from North for something or other. Had the other Guardians gotten up to some construction while Jack was being manhandled in the name of medical science?
"Did you guys have a meeting already?" was Jack's first question.
Bunny shrugged his shoulders, the fabric of his coat stretching over them with the movement. "You know North, he breaks for nobody."
Jack nodded, understanding. “What did Manny have to say?” he asked then, the name the other Guardians used so casually still strange on his own tongue. “Is Pitch resurfacing for some sinister plot?”
“Manny didn’t seem to know anything.” Bunny crossed his arms with a huff. “That’s either a good or a bad thing. I, for one, am not happy over not knowing what the tosser might be up to.”
“Maybe he’s not ‘up to’ anything, exactly.” Jack shrugged when Bunny gave him a piercing look. “He sort of gave the impression that he was just messing with me for its own sake. I think he considers us nemeses or something.”
Bunny groaned, long and deep. “I don’t like the sound of that. Personal grudges between spirits can cause grief for ages at a time.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” Jack grinned at Bunny and wiggled his eyebrows when the Pooka’s expression turned sour.
“I don’t appreciate the insinuation,” Bunny grumbled. In that moment, Jack could very well imagine the Eucalyptus of old delivering that line in that exact same way.
Jack’s grin widened. “But you don’t deny it.”
“Regardless,” Bunny interjected. “We’re really getting off topic. What happened during your fight with Pitch?” The Pooka uncrossed his arms and walked over to Jack bed. He grasped Jack’s shepherd’s hook in one of his gloved hands and lifted it to eye level. “Your staff was a sword, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Jack studied Bunny’s face carefully, wondering if he had recognized the magic himself. “It’s a shape-shifting weapon.”
Bunny shot Jack a surprised glance before studying the staff more intently. “Where would you get something like this?”
“I got it sometime after I entered military service,” Jack replied with a smirk. “It’s completely coded to my magical signature. It’s a pretty standard Pooka weapon.”
"Pooka?" In that moment Bunny, with his careful hands and talented fingers, fumbled his grip on Jack's weapon, hurrying to catch it in his grasp before it clattered to the floor. The eyes that turned to Jack were wide with shock. "Why? How? When?" Bunny looked panicked now, clutching the shepherd's crook with both hands in a desperate grip.
Jack felt kind of bad about it, about not telling Bunny in a better way, about not being better about this. But so many people had told him he was keeping himself back, it had made Jack want to overcome that cowardly part of himself.
"You didn't wonder why I was so interested in talking about Pooka?" Jack asked. He'd never really thought about it before, what Bunny thought about it. "That's my heritage."
Bunny's brows furrowed, mouth pressed tightly shut, as he considered. "I thought it was an excuse." The Pooka cut himself off and focused on Jack again. "Those memories you were recovering. You have memories of being a Pooka?"
"You catch on quickly." Jack smiled, trying to keep the expression gentle to set Bunny's mind at ease. "I can even show you."
The silence was thick between them as Bunny thought over the offer. Then, he nodded once. "Please do."
"Sure thing." Jack jumped off the cot and began to take off his pants. Spluttering sounds from Bunny's general direction gave him pause. "These are good pants that I'd rather not tear. Look away if it bothers you, stupid."
"Frayed at the edges, if that's what you consider good." Bunny's grumbles were so muffled that Jack guessed he'd covered his face with his gloved hands. "And don't call me stupid."
"Yeah, yeah," Jack mumbled half-heartedly, shaking his head to make sure his ears were moving properly. He turned to Bunny and grinned when he saw that the other was indeed covering his face like an embarrassed child. "It's safe to look."
Bunny first peeked at Jack carefully from between his fingers (how rude, it's like he didn't trust Jack), only lowering his hands fully once it was obvious there was no nudity. He looked Jack over carefully, silently, and confusion slowly fell over his face.
"Jackf..." Bunny pressed a hand to his own mouth, cutting himself off. His expression became that same panicked look from earlier. "No, no, of course not. Stop being deluded, Aster." Bunny lowered his hand and gave Jack a shaky smile. "Sorry, for a moment you looked a lot like...but what do I know, it's been so long I probably just remembered wrong." The shaken Pooka chuckled brokenly, lifting a hand to cover his eyes. "I'm rambling, sorry. You should be past this."
Jack steeled his own nerves and stepped close to Bunny, grasping his arms tightly. He could barely feel the other through the thick fabric of the jacket and he sneered. "Come on, Bunny, chill, it's okay."
"Yes, of course, it's fine, perfectly fine. Not like I haven't grieved and let go of this." Bunny was still covering his eyes and Jack squeezed his arms tighter.
"We'll work it out, okay?" Jack was surprised, a bit, that he'd need hope here, speaking so hopefully to this particular person.
Bunny finally looked at him, eyes misty. "Right." The shorter Pooka sounded rather choked up and tried to smile up at Jack (Jack really was considerably taller, now that they were so close, Jack rarely got this up close and personal with Eucalyptus). "This is a good thing, much better than the alternative."
Confused by the statement, Jack frowned. "What alternative?"
Bunny shrugged, supposedly nonchalantly. "I thought you were so interested in me and where I came from because you had a crush on me. This is much better." Bunny smiled.
Jack was unimpressed. "And that would be so terrible for you if that happened, huh?"
Bunny's ears tilted. "Not really for me, but I'd feel really sorry for you." The pale green gaze slid away from Jack's face, the other Pooka's expression ashamed. "I can't feel love, Jack. I had that part removed."
It took Jack some willpower not to clench Bunny's arms in his grasp. "Pitch said you don't have a heart, that he destroyed it."
"Oh, yeah, that happened," Bunny mumbled distractedly. "This came after, though."
"Right." Jack sighed at how casually Bunny would drop these things on him. 'Oh yeah, mate, I'm dead.' 'I can't have heart attacks because I don't have a heart.' 'I can't feel love because I'm apparently so damaged.' The white Pooka forced his hands to release the other. "So, this heart thing..." His voice lowered into barely a whisper.
"I have a nucleus," Bunny replied, voice equally quiet. “I don’t have a heart at my core, instead I have the light of life.” Bunny’s hand reached over to wrap around Jack's own. “It’s the light of all life, and with it I’m connected to every life on Earth.” He lifted Jack's hand, placing it over his chest. "Close your eyes, try to feel it."
Jack did as instructed, closing his eyes and leaving himself in darkness. Only, there was light shining in the darkness. A light that expanded and retracted with a flow of life. And the flow of that light was reflected in the thumps Jack felt against his palm. Like a heartbeat.
"The Light of Creation was the most valuable of all artefacts of the Golden Age," Bunny's voice spoke gently, waking Jack from his reverie.
Jack released a short laugh, opening his eyes to look at Bunny, whose green eyes were focused on his face. “Pitch lied about that,” the frost spirit admitted. “He said you weren’t really alive, but you’re more alive than any of us.”
The hand around Jack’s own gave it a squeeze as Bunny’s eyes softened. “In a way.”
Jack steeled himself, making a decision. He clenched some of Bunny’s fur between his fingers as he spoke: “My magic, and my weapon, I will use them to defend the light in you.”
Bunny froze, like Jack had spoken a spell of frost instead of a Pookan phrase of devotion. Of course, Jack hadn't really meant for it to come out quite that way. He wondered what Bunny would do, how he would react.
Bunny smiled, gently. "Thank you," the shorter Pooka said. "It's the greatest treasure of our people, after all."
The moment was completely derailed when the door slammed open and North came strolling in.
"Jack, you will explain why you almost froze yourself," were the first words out of the Cossack's mouth. Tooth, who came flying in after him, made a face, while Sandy facepalmed to the side.
"Yeah, sure, march right in," Jack drolled sarcastically. "It's not like we're in the middle of a conversation here."
"Just as well," Bunny said with a shrug. "We were discussing your unfortunate habit of keeping secrets, after all."
Jack shot the other Pooka a glare before directing the expression at North.
North was staring at Jack. "...Jack is fluffy."
"That's the secret we're discussing," Bunny supplied with false helpfulness.
"Jack look like Bunny," North commented.
Bunny shrugged. "Without the physical side effects of transitioning, yes." The Pooka looked considering before turning to Jack again. "Did you die?" There was fear in Bunny's gaze, as well as grief.
Jack smiled, wanting to reassure. "I didn't die. I was in healing hibernation and woke up with my shape-shifting and memories blocked off."
The worry faded from Bunny's expression, replaced by disapproval. "Which you really should have told us about."
"Like you're one to talk!" Jack snapped. "How many of the Guardians know you don't have a heart?"
"Bunny doesn't need a heart," Tooth commented then, always glad to interfere, especially with brewing arguments. "He hasn't had one as long as we've known him."
Jack groaned. "And none of you questioned it?"
Now it was North's turn to shrug. "Bunny has always been different from us. Was not so surprising."
"Not that different," Jack said with a huff. "Pookas are supposed to have hearts!" he insisted heatedly. "I have a heart! It beats and everything."
"I thought we established I was alive regardless," Bunny grumbled from the side, but no one really paid him much mind.
North rubbed at his chin. "So, this makes Jack..."
"The last Pooka alive," Bunny finished, leaning against a wall and crossing his arms. "Quite the secret to keep."
"As is the one about his powers getting too strong for him to control," Tooth added. She gave Jack a stern look. "You're going to need some training."
"Must plan regime immediately," North said, cheering up considerably at the thought. "Shouldn't waste time with something so important."
As North and Tooth began chatting away, Sandy supplying images of suggestions for the discussion, Jack directed a helpless look in Bunny's direction. The other Pooka simply smirked, eyes glinting blue, most likely a discoloration from the infirmary lights. It was likely because, while Bunny's eyes sometimes changed color, it was only when he was moody and never a shade of blue so close to Jack's own.
Still, Jack had learned to associate the color with distance between them, and it reminded him of the test he'd attempted right before North had interrupted. Jack's thoughts turned dark. Eucalyptus would never have taken an admission of affection with so much grace. Someone really had removed the parts of Bunny that dealt with romantic love, and he was completely oblivious to the double meaning of Jack's words.
The winter spirit sighed. He'd just have to get over it, this attachment. It wasn't like he wasn't content with just being Bunny's friend. Besides, he was about to be too busy to worry about doomed romance soon, anyway, if North and Tooth had their way.
There we go! I'm not sure how many of you noticed, but while I skipped last week's update, I was actually writing a side story to this fic for Jackrabbit Week. You can go check it out now, since I've included it as a part of the same series with this story.
Speaking of series, how's that for a sequel hook? Seriously, my original plan for this story's ending was to have Jack decide that nope, he wasn't going to tell Bunny anything because they're both better off that way. After a while I started to fear you guys might lynch me if I left the revelation for the sequel, though, so I plotted out a new ending with other characters pushing Jack into the right direction. It's up to you to decide whether or not I made the conclusion better or worse in terms of Badness Level. I think I did pretty good on the cruelty front, personally.
And now for a meme from a movie I've not watched and am not going to watch! "Oh Jack, if only there was someone out there who loved you."
See you guys next time with the new installment coming out near you soon: "Wandering Inside This Night."