In the Golden Age, everything had been simpler.
At least, that was how Bunny remembered it, when he risked remembering at all. The memories were rosy through the lens of several thousand millennia, much of which he'd spent sleeping rather than face what had happened. He knew he had trouble recalling the minor annoyances of life as one of many Pooka, rather than the only one left; he knew he tried to remember the good things about their lives, rather than the full truth of them.
But then, he didn't have to remember the Golden Age often. Sometimes, when he looked at Sandy, he remembered small things, like the gold of the ceremonial uniform of the Pookan Warriors, or the vast plains of his homeworld, shifting yellow bright in the white sun. But for the most part, he was wrapped up in the work of being a Guardian, in nurturing belief and protecting the children of Earth.
He didn't want to talk about it, is the point here, and one he didn't intend to waver on. A curt "I'm the last one" and a scowl was enough to send off any curious yobbos with their tail between their legs. He was perfectly happy to do his job, do it well, and pretend that he was just a giant rabbit leaving googs for the kids.
So of course, Jack Frost came along to fucking ruin it.
Two weeks after Easter and all was quiet in the Warren.
Everyone thought the work of Easter ended with Easter, but not hardly. For at least a week afterwards, he had to tend to the Warren's gardens, which were always neglected as the prepwork for Easter picked up pace, and clean his own den, which he generally wrecked in the course of said prepwork. It had taken longer this year; Easter had come early, and the gap between it and Christmas had been significantly shorter than he would have liked.
Still, he was done at last. Now he could relax for an hour, maybe, before he started the work of cataloguing his paint stores. Or sleep for a few days; that was an option, too. It was two years since Pitch Black had nearly destroyed his season, his holiday, and all of his believers, and belief was still shaky, Bunny'd tell you that for free. He'd gone all out, these last two years, and it was enough to make a rabbit want to sleep for two more.
He wandered into his nest, fully intent on sleeping until he didn’t feel like his bones were trying to break under the weight of his muscles, and flopped down onto the soft cotton pile. He was just wiggling his way into the middle of it when something changed in the fabric of the Warren: an addition, some kind of magic, he noted, ear cocked in its direction. Cold, but not bitterly so, and effervescent like champagne.
‘Oh, of course,’ Bunny grumbled, and wiggled his way back out. ‘Barely see anyone for two years, and when I do…’
He didn’t really blame the other Guardians; for all their weirdness, he actually did like them. North was a jolly sort, and Tooth was sweet in her devotion to the children; Sandy was an old, old friend, and Bunny wouldn't trade him for all the world. In the aftermath of Pitch Black, though, they were all scrambling, building back up belief bases that had stood strong for centuries. No one had the time to visit, God knew, and so if it stung a little bit, well, Bunny could just suck it up.
He broke free from his nest at last, and with a mournful glance in its direction, he headed towards the disturbance.
Here in the Warren, it was spring year round, ignoring the change of seasons that took place in the Australian continent; though autumn had just begun outside, everything here was in the first flush of life, and it showed. Sprawling ivy and crawling vines, blossoms heavy and nodding their heads in the breeze off the River of Colouring, sunlight glinting off of the ancient river of dye; it was home, had been for a count of years Bunny wasn't quite sure of anymore, and he breathed in the air with a smile he couldn't help.
'Good Easter then, Cottontail?'
Bunny scowled and turned around.
He still wasn't sure how to handle Jack Frost. He had been an immeasurable help during the crisis of two years past, and Bunny had to admit, he was very, very powerful. Not just any spirit could pick up and help out the way he had without a single believer.
The problem was that even with a grudging mutual respect, Frost was still a mouthy bastard, and spent all of his time smirking and pranking and generally mucking about. Now that mucking about was essentially his job, Bunny had no doubt his smugness was worse.
But Bunny wouldn't stoop to his level. He was an adult, damnit.
'If yer listening to the anklebiters tell it,' he said, and managed to settle into what (he hoped) looked like a relaxed posture. 'What's got ye so far south, Frostbite?'
'Winter isn't just for the northern hemisphere, Bun-bun,' Jack said, a laugh hiding behind his words; Bunny grit his teeth. Like he didn't know that. 'Thought I'd stop by, see how my favourite kangaroo is doing.'
'Too bad ye don't know any,' Bunny shot back. 'Seriously, Frost, what're ye here for?'
Jack tilted his head, like he was considering the question, but the laughter was still etched on his face. 'Seriously, Bunny, I'm here to visit,' he said. 'Knew Easter was over, thought I'd check in. You seen the others?'
'No,' Bunny said sharply, and then bit his tongue. 'Not in a while,' he added, because that sounded less pathetically lonely.
'Huh.' Jack twirled his staff in his hands, and there was a look on his face that Bunny didn't know how to read. Big surprise, that, Bunny thought as he waited for Jack to elaborate. Barely know the bloke, 'course I don't know what he's thinking.
'Is that how it usually is, then?' the boy finally said.
Bunny paused; of course. Jack didn't know. The Guardians were certainly friends, but they tended to get wrapped up in their own affairs. Once, half a century passed before Bunny realised he hadn't seen North, and when he visited, North had thought it had only been a decade. Jack wouldn't be used to this at all.
If there was a part of Bunny that was glad it wasn't only him that had spent the last two years alone, then he didn't have to acknowledge it.
'That's how it tends,' Bunny admitted. 'Guardianship's hard work, Frostbite. Strewth, there's not much time for hols other than our own, if we got one, and if we don't, it's an every day bustle.'
'Huh,' Jack said again, frowning. 'Good. Glad it's not just me.'
'If that's all yer needing from me,' Bunny said, resisting the urge to twitch his ears back towards his den, 'I've got some things to do.'
'Jeez, Bugs, barely finished with one Easter and onto the next?' Jack said with a wide grin. He set his staff firmly against the ground and leapt up onto the crook, crouching comfortably; Bunny eyed him suspiciously, forced to look up to do so. 'Don't you ever relax? You're so twisted up I'm surprised you don't pop.'
I was trying to, before ye arrived. 'Hope's a year round thing, Frost,' Bunny said shortly. 'I don't really get days off.'
Jack frowned again. 'What, you think I do?'
Bunny scoffed. 'Please. All ye have to do is ice over a playground once in a while. I can't imagine it's a strenuous kind of job.'
Now the frown was a scowl. 'You think my job is easy?' Jack snorted, and it wasn't really laughter; it was too ugly. 'Frost and snow across entire continents? Studying weather patterns, knowing when to interfere and when you can't?'
Jack was leaning forward now like gravity had no hold on him, face contorted in an angry snarl. Bunny flinched back as he snapped out, 'Knowing how much ice to use so that you can bring a snow day without leaving black ice on all the roads? Preventing deadly whiteouts in northern towns when I can get there in time, and hating myself when I -' He bit back his words, surprise flickering across his face. He'd clearly not meant to say so much.
Bunny's ears had slowly drooped over the course of Jack's tirade, until they were at last pressed flat to his skull. Bloody oath. That was a lot of responsibility for – anyone, really. A lot of that didn't even sound like Guardianship, to be honest.
'What on earth are ye doing all that for, Frostbite?'
Jack's face shut down, a blank look like a field of snow settling into place. 'You know what? Fuck you, Bunny.'
'Frost, wait -'
Jack had already snatched up his staff, and the Wind had reached down and snapped him up, flinging him into the sky. The sudden gale toppled Bunny off his feet, and he doubted that was an accident.
Bunny sat there a moment more. Finally, in silence, he returned to his den and crawled into his nest.
He tossed and turned for hours before he could sleep, though.
Bunny crouched over his sketchpad, protecting it from the fine drizzle of an Irish morning, and sketched very carefully the delicate lines of a patch of purple heather. The flowers were tiny, but this precise shade of grey-violet was perfect for an egg design he was considering for next year.
Finished with the sketch, he plucked two minuscule blossoms for reference, and tucked them next to the sketchpad's spine. He wrapped it shut with the attached leather thongs before sitting back and gazing over the misty hills.
He loved Ireland, for a fair number of reasons, but right now the foremost one was the million shades of green it wore in late spring. April was turning to May, and it showed in the leaves and hedgerows; out it went, and out, and if he pretended there was no sea beyond its edges, that it went on forever, it was familiar in a way much of this world was not.
Carefully, he turned away from that train of thought; long ease banished it quickly. Instead, he simply looked at the land, and felt it living beneath his paws.
A wisp of cooler air floated by him, and he turned to his left, expecting to see heavier rain on the horizon. He sucked in a startled breath and near leapt out of his skin when he came nose to nose with Jack Frost.
He scrambled backwards while Jack laughed merrily, and threw Jack a scowl for his efforts. 'What were ye thinking, ye bleeding show pony?' he snapped, and Jack laughed harder.
'You looked so brooding, Bunny,' Jack said, and furrowed his face in what he clearly thought was a matching expression; it looked instead as if he was trying to crush his eyeballs beneath the weight of his eyebrows. 'Just like that,' he added, and twisted onto his back, floating effortlessly on the gentle winds off a calm sea. 'Ridiculous.'
'I did not,' Bunny said, a little affronted, but dropped it at Jack's snort; he wasn't going to get anywhere with him. 'Ye got a reason for lobbing in, or are ye just here to “check in”?'
Jack shot him a glare. 'You can hold a grudge forever, can't you, Bun-bun?'
Bunny thought about how long he'd been alive, the vast expanses of ages, and had to admit that was probably one hundred percent true. Nevertheless, he couldn't let Jack know he was right. 'Rack off, Frost, and go have a chinwag with someone else,' Bunny said crossly. 'I'm busy.'
'What are you doing?' Jack said, drifting around Bunny to his right and peering at the sketchpad still clutched in Bunny's right paw.
'None of yer business, stickybeak,' Bunny snapped, but paused at the look on Jack's face; still laughing, but there was an undercurrent of something that looked an awful lot like hurt. 'I was gathering,' Bunny offered grudgingly after a moment.
'Gathering what?' Jack asked as if there had been no pause in the conversation (that's fair odd, Bunny thought, has it really been two years since my last convo? Two years since I just talked to someone?) He nodded at the patch of heather in front of them. 'Flowers, right?'
'Partly,' Bunny said, shifting uncomfortably. 'Looking more for the colours than the flowers, if I'm honest.'
'Colours, for the eggs? Don't you have that crazy kaleidoscope river?'
'That's for base coats, and even then, it doesn't always give me the colour I was after,' Bunny pointed out. 'Better to do it meself.'
'Wow,' Jack said, and sounded genuinely impressed. 'So, wait, you really hand paint every egg?'
'Every one I can,' Bunny said modestly. 'Last two years I have, and before that, it was mostly by hand, too.'
'No wonder you were so cranky when I dropped by,' Jack said, flipping onto his stomach again and sprawling out on the air as if it was a massive pillow. 'You're forgiven, Cottontail,' he announced magnanimously, crossing his arms and resting his chin on his forearms. The crook of his staff was hooked over his arm and hung below him, swinging hypnotically in Jack's constant breeze. Bunny tried to ignore it.
'Oh, good, it was keeping me up at night,' he sniped, and carefully didn't mention that it, in fact, had.
Jack quirked an eyebrow. 'So is this what you do in the off season? Collect colours and mope around?'
'Oi, watch it,' Bunny said, juggling his sketchpad to his other paw. 'I'm not moping, I'm...' he gestured with his now-free paw to the vista that stretched out in front of them. 'Watching.'
'Not a lot going on, Flopsy,' Jack said, but he turned and looked too. 'I guess it's not awful,' he said after a long moment, and Bunny grinned; it was easy to tell that Jack liked the view just as much as Bunny did, and was trying to hide it.
Jack grinned back, and Bunny realised he was smiling. At Jack. Bugger. He shifted into a scowl, and Jack laughed, long and loud.
'Come on, Bun, you can tell me,' Jack finally huffed out between chuckles. 'Seriously, what do you spend your time doing?'
'What do ye care,' Bunny muttered brusquely, but there was no real heat in his voice.
'I'm curious what a giant rabbit finds to do with all the time in the world,' Jack said, and then his smile turned mischievous. 'You can't spend it all eating carrots and painting eggs.'
'Yer arse I can't,' Bunny said flatly, and fought his own laughter when Jack's jaw dropped open.
'You're kidding,' Jack said. 'Oh my god, you have to be kidding -'
'You'll never know, Frostbite,' Bunny said, and grinned again (I've got to stop encouraging him) as he tapped into his tunnels.
That could have gone worse, he thought as he made his way home, sketchpad tucked safely into his bandoleer. At least he wasn't such a bleeding wanker this time.
'What is wrong with ye?'
Jack reared back a bit, which was a little impressive, given that he was sitting on his staff again. Unnatural, that balance, Bunny thought peevishly, and crossed his arms.
Bunny waved his arm a bit, in an attempt to convey the past two months, where Jack had been bothering him. Australia was well into autumn, with winter nipping at its heels (helped along by Jack, of course). Instead of doing his bloody job though, the whacko had been down in the Warren every other day, teasing and pranking and making a right nuisance of himself. 'Why the hell are ye here?' Bunny finished lamely, and scowled.
'Uh, because I want to? Duh,' Jack said, and rolled his eyes. 'You're fun to bug, Bun-bun.'
'Don't ye have a job to do?' Bunny said snippily, returning to weeding his patch of petunias.
'Sydney's under a foot of snow,' Jack said, sounding very proud of himself, the brat. 'I'd be pulling overtime, if I got paid for this.'
'Really,' Bunny said a little dryly.
'What, you don't want me here?' Jack asked, settling back down into his crouch. 'I'm hurt, Cottontail, I thought we had something special.'
'Ye're a ruddy brat, that's what ye are,' Bunny said, carefully not answering. 'If ye want to be a nuisance, can't ye go bother Perth? At least those hoons deserve it.'
Jack's eyebrow arched. 'Are you encouraging me to cause mayhem, Bunny?' He sounded delighted.
'If it'll get me a moment's peace,' Bunny said under his breath, but not because he thought Jack wouldn't hear it.
'Well, who am I to say no to a special request?' Jack said, standing abruptly and sweeping a deep bow that should have toppled him off his staff, were the world fair. 'I'll do my best, Mr. Bunny.'
Jack snatched his staff out from under himself and shouted joyously as the Wind took him. This time, at least, the Wind didn't trip up Bunny, and he watched a moment as the small speck that was Jack disappeared into the blue skies of the Warren.
'What have I done,' Bunny thought aloud, the horror in his voice a little too real for his own tastes. At least Jack was gone, he consoled himself, and went back to his weeding in (strangely quiet) peace.
The next time Bunny saw Jack, it was deep into the Australian winter. It was freezing everywhere, more so than it really should since most of the continent consisted of the Great Australian Fuck-All, and snow was a constant hazard every time he stepped out of the Warren. It was enough to make him consider a winter den somewhere up north. By all accounts, Mexico was wonderfully warm in August, and the flowers there were weedy and thriving. Hell, he could spend time in Belize, gather in the rain forest. Fuck mugginess, this was worse.
He finished noting down his personal paint stores (for things other than eggs, of course) and straightened a stack of canvas. He sighed as he looked at his storeroom forlornly – it had been a while since he could paint something other than eggs, and while he loved the medium, it was a bit temporary. But August was moving towards the end of the year he'd be busiest, and the plants that grew his googs were beginning to bud. It would be a few months more before they dropped, but until then there was a great deal of tending they needed.
He left his den and made his way towards the first of the goog patches, humming slightly under his breath; an old dancing tune at first, a favourite at the winter festivals, but when he realised what he was humming he switched to something considerably newer, some American ditty from the fifties.
The patch was a riot of colour, each flower wrapped tightly around the tiny egg it held: they would swell as the months went by until they were large enough to fill the palm of Bunny's hand. He smiled fondly at them. He really did love the little blighters.
'You're way less grumpy when you're all by yourself, Roger Rabbit,' Jack called as he floated his way over, and Bunny sighed, long and low.
'Ye planning on causing trouble, Frosty?' he said back, and hated that he was getting used to these constant invasions of privacy. 'Cause if ye touch a single flower, I'll have ye in pieces before ye can yelp.'
'So cheerful,' Jack said, but he held both of his hands palms up, a universal sign of peace. 'I swear I won't touch your garden, jeez.'
'Better not,' Bunny said darkly, and bent to his work.
'I've been seeing Sandy,' Jack said conversationally after a few minutes, and Bunny tilted an ear in his direction, to show he was listening; good, at least he wasn't the only one ruddy Jack Frost was bothering. 'We were talking about the old days, or something like that. He can be hard to understand, though, so I might have things wrong.'
Bunny tried very hard to hide his sudden tenseness, but his ears refused to listen, flattening themselves against his head like they were trying to burrow into his skull. Jack was oblivious, of course, and kept talking.
'Apparently, he's been around longer than the planet, which is really cool, though a little weird. How old are you, Bunny? He said something about you two knowing each other way back?'
'I'm old,' Bunny said curtly, and tore up a weed a touch more viciously than he intended.
'But, like, how old? Are we talking old coot, or are we getting into geezer range -'
'Old enough to want ye to not ask,' Bunny snapped, and Jack laughed.
'God, you're crabby,' he said, and floated around Bunny's back to the left. 'I bet you're older than him, and you just don't want to admit it. You sure act like an old guy.'
'He's a star, practically no one alive is older than him.' Another weed, but this one was more gently pulled up. 'If ye want to know more about him, he doesn't mind talking, in a manner of speaking.' Take the hint, Frostbite.
'I know that,' Jack said. 'That's why I'm here, instead.'
'That makes no sense, ye gumby.' The next weed was all but shredded.
'No, it totally does,' Jack floated in front of him, back over to his right. 'I know I can get Sandy to tell me all sorts of stories about back then. I want to hear stories about you.'
Bunny froze. 'What.'
'You're so weird, Bun-bun,' Jack said with the air of a parent explaining a very simple concept to a toddler. 'I want to know why. Where are you even from?'
Bunny's ears were so flat, he worried he might strain one of them. 'None of yer business.'
Jack frowned, as if beginning to realise that something was wrong, but barrelled on. 'Sandy said Bunny isn't even your name. What's your real one?'
Bunny whirled to the right, snarling, and Jack jolted backwards in surprise. 'Back off, Frost,' he snapped. 'When I say it's none of yer business, it's none of yer business.'
Jack's frown was heavy on his brow, like distant storm clouds. 'What's your problem, Bunny? I'm just asking you questions.'
'I don't want to talk, whacker,' Bunny growled. 'Mebbe ye can't hear over yer earbashing, ye brat, but when someone tells ye to back off -'
'Jeez, if I knew asking was just going to make you pissy, I would have kept my mouth shut,' Jack said sharply, and Bunny snorted derisively.
'Ye've never been able to keep yer mouth shut.'
'How would you know?' Jack asked, but it wasn't a question. 'Not like you would've ever noticed something like that, the way you're all depressed and angry, all the goddamn time -'
'Who says I'm depressed?'
'Uh, anyone who looks at you? You've got a stick up your ass the size of a log, and I'm sick of it. Why can't you just relax once in a while and be less of a prick?'
'Because I have actual work to do,' Bunny said, and took a visceral pleasure in Jack's scowl.
'We've talked about that, you asshole. My job is just as important as yours -'
'I doubt that.'
'Of course you wouldn't think so, you never fucking leave this place,' Jack said, and he was floating at a height that made Bunny have to look up. If he thought that the height advantage was intimidating, he had another think coming. 'You just hole up in here like a wounded animal -'
'I'm not an animal,' Bunny crossed his arms, the jab stinging more than Jack would know. 'I have responsibilities, not that ye understand that, with yer flitting around like a demented flurry -'
'I'm not demented!'
'Yer something, all right,' Bunny taunted. 'Ye don't pay attention to anyone else or their lives, coming in and wrecking it all with ice to spare -'
'Is this about '68? Is that why you're being such an asshole?'
'That's got nothing to do with -' Bunny snapped, but Jack interrupted with a glare,
'Because if it is, you're fucking childish – that was almost fifty years ago, you'd think you could get the fuck over it by now.'
'Ye destroyed me holiday and ruined the belief of thousands of kiddos,' Bunny defended. 'It wasn't a joke, Frostbite!'
'I didn't mean to make it snow that hard -'
'Yer control needs work, then.'
'Fuck you,' Jack snarled. 'You think I did it on purpose? Fuck you.'
'Ye know what? This isn't going anywhere. Go cool off, Frost,' Bunny bit out. 'Get out.'
'Was that a goddamn pun? Because holy shit, now is not the time for you to grow a sense of humour –'
'Piss off, and get out of me Warren.'
'Your precious fucking Warren, of course,' Jack simpered, his face twisted and malicious. 'Yeah, I'll just leave you to your crushing misery and loneliness -'
'Ye don't know what lonely is like, arse,' Bunny snapped, and goddamn, he did not need to sound so bitter, millennia had passed and he was still so bitter –
'Oh, of course not,' Jack shouted, his face alien in its fury. 'I wasn't fucking left alone without any answers or anyone to talk to for three hundred years, of course not, you're so alone in all of your fucking pity, no one could possibly understand you –'
'What do ye even want?' Bunny said loudly over Jack's tirade, and Jack shut his mouth with a click.
'Fuck you, Bunny,' he said, and added, right before he rocketed off into the sky, 'or whoever you are.'
The Wind knocked Bunny over again, but at least it left the googie plants alone.
Four months later, Bunny still hadn't seen Frost.
Good riddance, he thought, and pretended he meant it.
Easter was hectic as always, but for the first time, he didn't have enough to do.
He painted every egg and wrapped every chocolate, but he still had time in the day to tend his garden and herd the googs where they needed to be; when the big day came, he hadn't slept in about a week.
What is wrong with me, he wondered, and ignored the wondering. He set to work, and Easter went off without a hitch. It was one of his best yet, lovingly detailed, more eggs than some years; his belief base swelled, not at an all time high, but much greater than the year before.
Instead of the strength he should have felt, Bunny just felt tired. It was too bad he couldn't sleep.
He cleaned the Warren and tended the gardens and prepared next year's plants, and still had time. It felt like he was made of time, endless hours of it; he didn't think the days should be this long, stretching out endless and weary.
Bunny found himself in front of his store room, canvas tempting in a way it hadn't been for a long time. Since before last August, he thought glumly, and dug out a small one, tucking a bag of paints under his arm.
Four hours later found Bunny asleep at last, a winter ocean spilling across the canvas panel and a guilt like ashes in his mouth.
He looked at his paws, the grey fur marked with familiar patterns, ovals and diamonds, waves and sharp angles, and he prayed that he was strong enough to open the door in his head that he kept closed for good reason, prayed that he would live through the opening.
He looked up, and the vast, cold Chilean mountains waited, patient and steady. It was June, and winter lay snug on the peaks; he'd followed a faint whiff of magic here, one that he didn't have to reach hard to find. He worried that he wasn't worried about how familiar the scent had become.
Here, at last, was a recent trail, and shaking himself to hide his shivers (it was cold this high up), he took off, loping through the snow. His large paws like snow shoes, he managed to avoid sinking too deep into the freezing powder, and he closed his eyes, tracking by scent. Like blue, he thought, twisting between a gnarled thicket. Glacial blue. Wish I could gather it -
The trail was a few hours old, but the freshest he'd come across so far, so he followed it, over crag and crevasse, until he came to a summit that was wreathed in clouds. He looked up at the hidden mountain, and sighed, before beginning to climb. Got to make everything difficult, doesn't he.
He emerged from the clinging mist into brightness and light; it bounced and danced from the snow and blinded him. It was some minutes before he could see without sunspots in his eyes, but his quarry took no notice.
'Oi,' Bunny said quietly as he approached. Jack stiffened, and when he turned, through his annoyance shone the look of someone hunted.
'What do you want.'
Bunny winced, his ears drooping. 'I guess I deserve that,' he said, and sat down next to the other Guardian. 'Mind if I pull up a rock?'
'You already have,' Jack pointed out flatly.
'I'll leave, if ye want me to.'
Jack stared, and Bunny worked hard not to twitch under his incredulity, but it was hard.
'Look, Frost – Jack,' he said after a moment of silence, his hands twisting together in his lap. 'I'm – sorry. About before. It's a bit of a – that is to say, it's not easy –' he sighed, struggling to find words.
'Wait, did you just apologise?'
'I'm not that bad, am I?' Bunny frowned, then held up a paw. 'No, don't answer that.'
Jack grinned, and even if it was a weak, pale thing, Bunny was glad to see it.
'Well, apology accepted,' Jack said, and bumped their shoulders. 'I guess I'm sorry, too. I just got curious, but I should have left off when you asked.' He made a face. 'Sandy yelled. Sort of. There were a lot of angry gestures, anyway.'
They sat in silence some time more, looking out at the ocean of clouds. At length, Bunny sighed again, and turned to face Jack.
'E. Aster Bunnymund,' he said clearly. 'Don't ask what the E. stands for, ye really don't want to know.'
'What's that?' Jack asked, head tilted to the side.
Jack's grin was so much stronger, blinding as the sun and bizarrely warmer. 'Well, it's nice to meet you, Mr. Bunnymund.' He stuck out a hand, and Bunny shook it gingerly. 'I'm Jackson Overland.'
'Ye can call me Aster,' he said, taking in Jack's living name and memorising it for later analysis. It wasn't a distraction technique against the panic in his chest, he told himself; it was important on its own. He was proud that only half of the thought was a lie. 'If ye want,' he added after a second where Jack stared at him.
'Aster,' Jack said, and it was the cold that made Bunny shiver, he'd hold until his grave.
'So where are you from?' Jack paused, and rubbed the back of his head as he added awkwardly, 'If you want to say, anyway.'
Bunny sat back from his orchids, their heads gently bobbing in the cool breeze that followed Jack everywhere, and thought about it. Could he even remember how to say the word?
It took a few tries, so long had it been since he'd spoken Pookan, but he finally managed to get the chirruping right, and Jack was staring.
'Not Earth,' he finished.
'What was that language?' Jack asked, leaning forward curiously. His eyes were wide in delight, and Bunny felt a pang of the guilt, that Jack had been so innocently interested and Bunny had crushed it beneath his heel.
'Pookan,' Bunny said. 'Me native language.'
'Pookan, huh,' Jack said, and tried to mimic the clucks and chirps. Bunny chuckled at the nonsense syllables, and ignored how much it hurt to hear anything that sounded like it, even from a human throat. 'That's cool. So, what, you're an alien?'
Bunny rolled his eyes. 'Yes, I'm an alien, ye gumby.'
'So there are more of you?'
There it was.
It felt like Jack had jobbed him in the chest, so bad did it hurt, and he didn't even realise it was on his face until Jack hovered in front of him, face worried and pained in sympathy. 'You okay, Bun-bun?'
'I'm the last,' Bunny said flatly, and said no more.
Jack talked about other things, and Bunny hummed in agreement or nodded as appropriate, but he couldn't find any words; they'd all fled him in the wash of old grief.
Bunny jolted and turned, and Jack was looking at him.
'I know it doesn't count for much,' he said slowly, clearly, as if trying to make sure Bunny would understand, 'but I'm sorry, Aster.'
Bunny's chest hurt, and he nodded, before returning to his work.
Jack left a moment later, and Bunny focussed on the tingle of his magic, the trail he left behind, long after he was gone.
Bunny felt a shock go through the Warren, and turned towards the disturbance, frowning. It was Jack, the effervescence of his magic said as much, but something was wrong. It carried a cold metal tinge now, like frozen chain link fences, and Bunny took off towards it without thinking.
'Jack?' he called as he ran. He thought he heard an answering cry, but it was faint, and he fair sprinted the last distance. He could smell the blood, now. 'Jack!'
'Over here, Cottontail,' Jack said weakly, and Bunny nearly tripped over himself when he saw him.
He looked like he'd been twelve rounds with a prizefighter, bruised and bleeding where his skin was visible, and it was a lot more visible than usual – something had near cut his clothing to shreds, and he was only just on this side of decent. Bright violet blood was stark against his white skin, the colour strange on his human shape where it should have been red. His left ankle was swelling up, and he held his left arm close to him.
'Got a band-aid,' he asked jokingly, and Bunny scowled.
'Got better than that, Frostbite,' he said, and bent over, scooping Jack up from the right to avoid jostling his left too badly. Jack yelped, and then clung with his right hand.
'Give a guy some warning, man,' Jack said, sounding pained, and Bunny adjusted his grip.
'Could say the same to ye,' Bunny pointed out. 'What the hell happened to ye, Jack?'
'Yuki-onna, over in Kyoto,' Jack muttered. His fingers were petting through the fur on the back of Bunny's neck, which was distracting and rude besides; Bunny chose to let it slide, because he wouldn't be surprised to find Jack had a concussion. He set off for his den while Jack continued, 'It was trying to get this kid – couldn't have been older than seven. Couldn't let her have him.'
Bunny frowned. 'Course not, Frost,' he said. 'I'm guessing ye won, then.'
'Skin of my teeth, but yeah,' and though he was exhausted, Jack managed to be deeply proud. 'Won't be a problem for that school district anymore.'
'Good on ye,' Bunny said, and ducked into his den with long practice. He headed to the room where he kept his medicines and other supplies, shifting Jack in his grip. 'Ye know that's not yer job, though,' he said gently, or as gently as he ever managed to be. 'There's gotta be someone higher up to keep the riffraff under control. The Snow Queen?'
'Ha,' Jack said, and gave Bunny a derisive look. 'She's too obsessed with her own court to look outside it.'
'Then Old Man Winter?' He set Jack down on the table that filled the centre of the room, and poked him in the right shoulder. 'Stay there, I'll get me things.'
'Not really around much, anymore,' Jack said, watching Bunny as he bustled; Bunny could feel his gaze on his fur. 'Haven't seen him in decades.'
'So who's in charge of winter?' Bunny said, dumping a few jars of salves beside Jack and turning to fetch the bandages.
'Me, I guess.'
Bunny almost tripped onto the floor.
'What?' Jack asked, and it was a little defensive. 'You think I can't do it?'
'That's not it,' Bunny choked out, having caught himself on a cupboard, and turned around. 'It's just – that's a big thing, Jack. Being a Season's avatar.'
Jack scowled. 'So you do think I can't do it. Thanks a lot, Bugs.'
'I said that wasn't it, ye drongo,' Bunny snapped. 'It's just big. And not nearly as surprising as ye think it is. I'm ticked that I didn't realise it, that's all.'
Jack watched him suspiciously, and Bunny held his gaze, refusing to move from his spot until it got through the brat's head that he wasn't lying.
'And you don't...' Jack said slowly after a moment, still watching Bunny. 'Y'know, hate me now?'
'Why would I hate ye?' Bunny asked, bewildered.
'Because I'm Winter?'
'Do ye hate me 'cause I'm Spring?' Bunny shot back, and Jack blinked.
'Wait, you're Spring?'
'Course I am,' Bunny snorted. 'Have been for a few thousand years, if I'm reckoning properly.' He laughed a bit at Jack's gaping. 'It's been yonks since anyone else held the title.'
'Wow,' Jack said, and grinned. 'That's so cool. So who's Summer? Or Fall?'
'Well, Eve – Hallowe'en,' he explained at Jack's blank look, 'has been Autumn for the past few centuries. And Lugh has been handling Summer since the Romans tried and failed to take Ireland.'
'That's so cool,' Jack said again, and went to gesture before wincing. Bunny sprang into action, then, wrapping and dabbing and cleaning and ranting , by God , Frost, how do ye get into this state -
Jack laughed. 'Let's see you handle fighting a snowstorm!'
'I could,' Bunny snapped. 'Ye're too careless. How are ye still alive?'
'By being very, very careful,' Jack said, 'and also, being dead already. It helps.'
'I'm already dead,' Jack said, and wiggled his fingers in front of Bunny's blank face. 'That's how Manny picked me.'
'Uh huh,' Bunny said. 'Pull the other one.'
'No, really,' Jack said as Bunny went back to work. He kept talking as Bunny finished up, explaining how he'd gotten his memories back, how he'd saved his sister at the cost of his own life, and if he hadn't looked so serious, Bunny would never have believed him.
'Christ, Jack,' Bunny said when the other Guardian had wrapped up. 'That's...' he shifted uncomfortably.
'Oh, what, now you know I'm a corpse you hate me all of a sudden?'
'What's with ye and thinking I hate ye today?' Bunny snapped. 'Ye'd think I didn't just pick ye up off me doorstep and stitch ye back together.'
Now it was Jack's turn to shift uncomfortably. 'I dunno, Bun-bun,' he said. 'You hated me for a long time, it's sort of weird to see you... not.'
'Shut up, Bunny, or I'll punch you.'
'I'd like to see ye try,' Bunny taunted, and stepped out of the way when Jack's right fist shot out. He laughed again, but paused at the look on Jack's face. 'What?'
'How'd you move that fast?' Jack asked incredulously. 'You blurred, I swear.'
'Training, Jackie,' Bunny said. 'Ye think I'm this way naturally? Buckley's. Gotta practice.'
'Where'd you train?'
'Home,' Bunny said wistfully, and for the first time, the thought of home didn't hurt like hell. It still hurt, but not as badly. 'When I was a soldier.'
'You were a soldier?'
'Too right I was,' Bunny said. 'Takes a lot of skill to be a Pookan warrior.'
'Could you show me?'
Bunny looked at the open fascination on Jack's face, and weighed how much it would hurt to remember the old katas and routines against how happy Jack would be.
'I can do that,' he said slowly, and Jack beamed.
'That looks dorky,' Jack said, watching as Bunny slid through one of the simplest routines. 'You look like such a nerd, oh my god.'
'Yer the one who wanted to see it,' Bunny snapped.
'I'm just pulling your tail, Bun-bun,' Jack said cheerfully, and floated over, mindful of his still healing injuries; it was a week or so after he'd stumbled into the Warren, and he'd finally wheedled Bunny into keeping his promise. 'So touchy,' he said, and jostled Bunny's shoulder with his own. 'How do you do it?'
'What, the routine?' Bunny asked, squinting at Jack.
'No, be so sensitive. Of course, the routine, you overgrown marsupial.'
'I'm surprised ye know the word marsupial, with all the emptiness in yer head,' Bunny said crossly. 'What's with yer curiosity, eh?'
'Come on, you're an alien, Bunny,' Jack said, and shook his head. 'Of course I'm curious.'
'They won't work for ye anyway,' Bunny insisted. 'Yer limbs are all wrong.'
'I bet you could figure it out,' Jack said brightly. 'Come oooooonnnn, Aster.'
Bunny jolted, and gave Jack a glare; Jack just grinned and cocked his head.
Bunny glared harder, and Jack grinned wider.
'Assssssteerrrrrr,' he said in a sing-song voice that would have tried the patience of a saint.
'Yer not even healed up!' Bunny said, sharp and annoyed that his weakness was so obvious. 'I'm not teaching anyone anything when they can't even walk upright without wincing!'
'Your medicine's crazy, I'm already way better than it normally takes!' Jack protested. 'I'm fine, I can handle it!'
'Liar,' Bunny accused. 'Yer still flinching when ye move around, don't think I don't see it, ye whining blighter.'
Jack gave him a weird look. 'You pay that much attention?'
'When yer as hurt as ye were last week?' Bunny said, ignoring the flush that had to be visible in the short fur of his nose. 'Course I do, mate.'
'Ugh,' Jack sighed. 'You're such a worrier, god. I'm fine.'
'I'll just bet ye are,' Bunny muttered, and dusted his palms off. 'Are ye gonna bug me all day or do ye have someplace to be?'
'It's autumn in the north,' Jack admitted. 'But it's not time yet. Early October, it's still pretty warm.'
'Eve warning ye off her season?' Bunny guessed as he strode back towards the den, Jack floating and keeping pace beside him.
'Nah, apparently frost is an important part of the season, and she's been busy getting ready for Halloween, so she's happy for the help.' Jack shrugged. 'It's sort of weird, being Winter. It's like – the Wind tells me when it's time to frost things over, you know? Like a weird sense of cold in my head.'
'Yeah, sounds about right,' Bunny admitted. 'The ground lets me know right quick when she's ready to start blooming.'
'That's cool,' Jack said, and flashed an American peace sign. 'Flower power,' he added with a grin, and Bunny snorted and nudged him in the side, where there weren't any bruises.
'Yer a laugh and a half, Frost,' he said. 'Cleverest bloke I ever met. Really. I swear on me boomerangs.'
'Your sarcasm wounds me,' Jack said, clapping his hands over his chest and wincing when it pulled on his left side.
'Stop it, ye gumby,' Bunny scolded, eyeing Jack with the long-suffering patience of someone who had spent the last week chasing the bloke all over the Warren. 'You need new wraps again, or are ye gonna make it?'
'Worrywart,' Jack said, and it was fond. 'I'm good. Good enough to learn –'
'Don't start, Frostbite.'
Bunny sighed to himself; it really was his own fault. Jack was clearly an 'inch, meet the mile' kind of nut, and Bunny had all but handed the keys to the kingdom over. He was never gonna be rid of the blighter now.
Bunny leaned back, watching critically as Jack snapped his wrist out in the tossing movement he'd been trying to get right for twenty minutes. 'Ye're relying on yer arm strength again,' Bunny sighed. 'What did I say? Forearm, wrist, release, not chuck it and hope fer the best.'
'Ugh, shut up,' Jack moaned, and sat down on the grass. 'How can you even tell – I'm not throwing anything, yet.'
Bunny looked at Jack until he was squirming. 'Thousands of years of practice,' he said, for what felt like the sixth time this morning. 'Get up, mate, yer not done til ye get it right.'
Jack made a whining noise. 'Ten minute break?'
Bunny glared, but nodded. 'If all yer gonna do is throw a wobbly when ye can't get it right,' he said as Jack flopped down, 'then why do ye want me to show ye so bad?'
Jack opened his mouth (probably to complain more, the bleeding quilt, Bunny thought flatly) when a very familiar shattering sound, followed by a whoosh, echoed through the Warren.
'No way,' Jack said, shooting up into the air. 'Not with Christmas next week –'
Nicholas St. North bounded into view with what had to be all the red and white fur he owned swirling after him, looking delighted. 'Bunny!' He shouted again, barrelling into Bunny and crushing him in a hug that had probably killed rival thieves during his bandit king days. 'Almost four Christmases, no sign of my giant rabbit friend! I say to myself, “North, did you let another decade go by?” but no! Tooth would have my head if I had!'
'Leggo of me, ye prancing Cossack.'
'Ah, I have missed your voice. Come, I have finished early this year, I am throwing party to celebrate! Many guests! Much food! Can't be missed!'
'Hey, North,' Jack said, and when Bunny finally escaped Nick's clutches, he could see Jack was stifling laughter. 'How's it go – urf.'
Bunny had to hide a chuckle or two of his own as Nick grabbed Jack, as well. 'Jack Frost, my flighty friend! Years, now, years! I told you to stop by more, no?'
Jack's reply was muffled, but North scoffed.
'Never too busy for my fellow Guardians!' He boomed, and squeezed Jack once more before releasing him.
'Thanks,' Jack wheezed, and Bunny frowned.
'How are yer ribs?'
'They're fine , you done playing nursemaid?' Jack shot back. 'Come on, there's a party !'
Nick was frowning now, too. 'Are you hurt, Jack? Did you have poor landing? It happens to best of us, I promise you.'
'Oh my god, not you, too,' Jack scowled. 'No, I'm fine, your hugs are a little – exuberant, that's all.'
'If you say so, Jack,' Nick said, looking cheerful again. 'Come, we only have few hours to prepare, many guests! We hurry!'
Bunny shuffled a bit. 'I'd rather not, to give ye the good oil,' he said slowly. 'Easter's late this year, but I'm a bit behind on me preparations, and –'
'Won't take no for answer, Bunny!' Nick laughed and tossed one of his snowglobes.
'Don't ye dare - ' Bunny began to warn, but Nick just grabbed his shoulder and shoved him into the portal.
He stumbled out into the middle of Nick's workshop, scattering a pile of boxes. One of the yetis yelped in dismay, rushing forward and beginning to pick them up.
'Sorry,' Bunny said, feeling more than a touch mortified as Nick strode through with Jack floating behind him. He knelt down and started to help pick up as well. After a moment, there was only one package missing from the neat pyramid, and Bunny cast around for it.
'Found it!' Jack shouted, soaring from the other side of the pile. 'Got caught in an elf's sack it was toting around.' He placed it delicately atop the pyramid, careful to not dislodge it again, and landed next to Bunny. 'You okay, Aster?'
'Just fine, mate,' Bunny said, ears flat to his head. He turned to Nick, and they swivelled back up and around in aggression. 'You daft jumbuck, what was that for?'
'Sometimes, we all need push,' Nick said, but there was a strangeness to his features, as if he was puzzling through something. After a second, though, it cleared, and he clapped his massive hands. 'Alright, Tooth will be here any moment, and Sandy won't be long after! Jack, decorations are in closet to your right, put up highest ones until Tooth can get here! Then, your prettiest frost patterns, if you please!'
'Never took you for the interior decorating type,' Jack said as he ambled over towards the closet. 'About time you asked for help.'
'I resent implications you just made,' Nick shouted after him. 'And Bunny, you will help me with refreshments.'
'Glad to see yer bowing to me superior chocky skills.'
'Between two of you, who needs enemies?' Nick said, and Bunny laughed, because he dared anyone to not when faced with a massive Cossack bear of a man who was pouting. 'Come on, Bunny, much to do.'
'Yeah, yeah,' Bunny rolled his eyes, but followed Nick into the large kitchen, normally staffed by yetis.
It was familiar work, the melting and mixing and cooling on parchment, so much so that it took Bunny a while to realise Nick had stopped. 'What's on yer mind, North?' Bunny asked, twitching his ears over as he poured the red dye into the white chocolate.
Nick was silent a moment more. He'd talk when he was ready, and not a moment sooner, so Bunny just focussed on his work for the moment, drizzling the red chocolate in little swirls on the sugar cookies.
'He calls you Aster.'
Bunny's ears went flat again, and he wished (not for the first time) that he didn't have two bloody antenna on his head broadcasting every emotion that went through him. 'So what?'
'How does he know?'
'Well, in me experience,' Bunny huffed, setting down the chocolate, 'when ye want to know something, ye go and ask about it.'
'Bunny,' Nick chided. 'You know. I know. Let us not play games, yes? You do not speak easily of your past, this I understand.' He chuckled a little. 'It took how many years before you told me you were not giant rabbit, and instead you were giant space rabbit?'
'So I told him,' Bunny said shortly. 'He asked, I answered, I don't know what yer problem is.'
'No problem,' Nick said. 'I am happy you have new friend at last, Bunny. Too long it has only been Tooth, Sandy, and I. You must learn to speak new ways, for these new times. Jack will be helpful, I feel it in my belly.'
'What are ye on about?' Bunny asked, bewildered.
'He's good man,' Nick said, 'For all that he is still boy! He has deeps, Bunny, I can see them. You two are good match, I think.'
Finally, Bunny got it.
'No, ye've got it all wrong,' he said. 'He's not – we're not – that's not what's going on, ye great idiot. He's not cracking onto me, and I'm definitely not cracking onto him. He's just curious, that's all. When he's got his fill of me stories and such, he'll find new people to bother.'
'Maybe so,' Nick hummed, 'But I think your stories could take many years in the telling. Why not be happy while you can, if you're so sure?'
'That's not even what's happening,' Bunny said, picking up the chocolate with more force than he perhaps needed to. 'Keep yer nose out of it, Nick – and don't go giving the show pony ideas, he doesn't need something like that .'
'I do not think you are good judge on what he needs,' Nick said bluntly. 'But I will hold my tongue.'
'There's nothing to hold yer tongue about , ye meddling...'
Tooth flew into the room, all bright smiles and chittering laughter, and Bunny let himself get swept away in the preparations. He ignored what Nick had said with all the might of several thousand millennia's worth of practice.
If he slipped up once or twice, somewhere around midnight and the fifth glass of Christmas punch, when Jack's head was thrown back in delighted laughter and the lines of his pale throat glimmered beneath the fairy lights, then that was no one's fucking business.
Jack floated off the ground in response, and Bunny rolled his eyes.
'Ye knew what I meant, mate,' he said, turning the egg in his hand and adding a delicate line of white to the dark purple. 'Higher kick, not higher altitude.'
'But if that's something I can do,' Jack argued, 'Shouldn't it be incorporated into how I move?'
'That's for after, Jack,' Bunny sighed. 'Master the basics, then ye get fancy.'
Jack stuck his tongue out, but tried again. He looked over again two tries in, though. 'Hey, Aster?'
Bunny nearly dropped the egg he was holding, and cursed a bit under his breath. He had to get that reaction under control; it was ridiculous that he was always surprised by his own name.
'What can I do for ye?' He said, looking over.
'Did you learn to paint on Earth? Or elsewhere?'
Bunny couldn't help it; he laughed.
Jack looked shocked, and he floated over. 'What? What did I say?'
'Of course I learned elsewhere, mate,' Bunny said, and tried to not sound as fond as he felt. 'Every warrior is a scholar too, in his own way. When I was at the Academy, we had to choose two arts to master in addition to our martial training. I chose gardening and painting.'
'Wait, they did that?' Jack asked. 'Weird. Human armies don't do that.'
'No nowadays, I don't think,' Bunny hummed. 'But they've got academies and things.'
'I guess,' Jack said and floated to his left, the paw that held the egg. 'Did you always paint on eggs?'
Bunny gave him a funny look. 'Don't be thick. Course not.'
'I don't know, maybe it's a weird alien thing,' Jack huffed. Careful not to jostle the egg, Bunny nudged Jack's shoulder with his elbow, a silent assurance that Jack hadn't misstepped. 'Could you show me that, too?'
'Huh? What, painting?'
Bunny sat the egg down to his left and rinsed the paintbrush off in his rinse jar. 'Why?'
Jack shrugged and floated behind him to his right side, picking up the brush and looking at it. 'I like drawing,' Jack said, 'I thought it might help me with my frost patterns.'
'Ye don't need any help there,' Bunny said thoughtlessly.
Jack's face flushed, the skin going some kind of pink-purple colour that would have looked unhealthy on anyone else. Instead, on Jack, it looked –
Damn ye, Nick.
'Thanks, Aster,' Jack said, sounding pleased. 'That means a lot.'
'Go practice yer kicks again,' Bunny shoved him none too gently back left towards the flat paddock, 'and leave me to me work. Only got a month, ye know.'
Jack looked so hopeful that Bunny had no choice.
'Yeah, Jackie. After.'
After never came.
In Bunny's defence, it happened the day after Easter; he was plum exhausted from all his work, but glowing from the renewed belief. He'd got home to the Warren and dropped straight into both his nest and the deepest sleep he'd had in two years. The only reason he woke as soon as he did was a bothersome sense of wrongness.
It crept into his dreams and coloured them with shadows, leeching out all the vibrant colours he'd always dreamt of and left deep grey hollows. He finally, groggily fought his way back to wakefulness, and found his nest in much the same light; twilight had fallen on the Warren.
He tensed. Even when the sun sank past the horizon, it was never so lifeless here; hell, he was the Guardian of Hope, of Life, of Spring. Nothing should be so dull when it was so near his heart.
Bunny ventured out into the Warren proper, steps careful in a way they never had been, and walked out in time to run into Tooth.
'What's wrong?' he asked; she looked frantic, her eyes wide and her feathers twitching this way and that. 'Are ye okay?'
'I'm fine, Bunny, but,' she took a deep breath, as if she was winded by the weight of her news. 'Jack's missing. Been missing since a few hours after you set out, we think.'
'How do ye know?' Bunny asked, ears snapping forward. 'He's not exactly easy to find, if yer just looking around.'
'Jack was visiting Nick,' she explained, and if anything, she was more frantic now. 'He asked to lay down for a few hours, and when Nick went to check on him two hours ago, the windows were all broken and there was blood on the floor.'
'How do ye know it was Jack's?' Bunny insisted, because no. Not Jack.
'It was purple, Bunny! It was Jack's.' She started crying in earnest. 'It was Jack's.'
'No,' Bunny said, but it wasn't so much a rejection of what she was saying as it was a rejection of the whole situation.
One of her fairies flew between them and chirped loudly, waving her hands in front of Bunny.
Normally, he would say each of the fairies was much the same, but there was only one that would be so involved, if Jack was gone.
'Baby Tooth,' he said gently, and cupped his paw beneath her so she could land. 'Are ye alright?'
She tittered, and her tiny hands clutched at the short fur of Bunny's palm.
'We'll get him back,' He said, and transferred her to his shoulder with as much care as any googie whilst he thought. There was very little that could harm a Guardian, particularly one as powerful as Jack, and the list was even slimmer when he thought about how many might have a grudge against him. His eyes narrowed.
'Tooth, get Nick and Sandy. We've got three targets – Sandy can handle Old Man Winter, and ye take Nick and find General Winter, ye know he and Nick get on, maybe he'll have answers.'
She straightened under her orders; she was a queen, but a warrior queen, and like hell Bunny was letting anyone else run this. She understood. 'Got it,' she said. 'You?'
'Me and Baby Tooth are going to pay a visit to the Snow Queen,' Bunny said grimly, and turned to fetch his bandoleer.
Bunny paused on the icy outcropping, ear tilted to the west as he listened. Below him, the wide, glimmering courtyard of the ice palace was filled with statues, the white marble depicting the twisted faces of those the Snow Queen had defeated. He wasn't sure if she simply magicked them into being, or if they were the bodies of the defeated themselves.
He just prayed Jack wasn't among them.
Baby Tooth chittered quietly, curled in the warm soft hollow of his ear, and he hummed back. Into his other ear crept faint tinkling sounds he struggled to identify – the closest he could think of was the sound of far off icicles smashing on the ground. He perked up, hoping that it was the sound of ice cracking under strikes of a sturdy staff, but knew not to assume. Assumptions could wreck battlefields and end wars before they began.
There was a vast booming noise, and the tall doors that were set gracefully in the front of the main keep bulged outwards before settling back into place, groaning like icebergs scraping together in the ocean, and Aster made an involuntary step forward, paw outstretched.
'Is that -' was as far as he got before the massive doors exploded outwards in ice shards, and he ducked back under the spray of shrapnel.
Jack burst out, his blue sweatshirt standing out against all the white, but he was closely tailed by vicious snow flurries and a tall, brown thing that Bunny shuddered to see. Wendigo were unpleasant at the best of times, and if the Snow Queen had one, who knew what it could do under her control –
'Stay a while, my boy!' the Queen herself laughed, voice ringing out like glass bells. She walked out behind her small army, flanked by two more Wendigos; Jack whirled midair and shouted back,
'Lady, you have got to work on your marriage proposals!'
Bunny's paws curled into fists as she said, 'You could be great under my tutelage, Jack Frost.' With a wave of her hand, two more flurries sprang to life and flung themselves at him. 'You could be a Winter that never ends!'
Jack dodged with a familiar, smooth twist that froze what Bunny had been about to call out in his throat. 'I happen to like what comes after Winter, thanks,' he said, and shot an icicle through the two flurries at an angle that was near impossible. They fell apart with shrieks, and Bunny flattened his ears to save his eardrums. Baby Tooth hid beneath his left, shaking against his skull.
Then Jack was off, and it was – Bunny didn't realise that he'd taught Jack this much, that now Jack moved in short spurts and long leaps, twists of spine and economic flicks of arm, and dodged with a grace that rivalled the stars' dance. Bunny couldn't even feel Baby Tooth tugging on his ear, so stunned was he at seeing a Pookan Warrior in action.
Bunny realised abruptly that whatever good his lessons had done Jack, he was losing:though Jack focussed on the Wendigo, trying to take out the heavy hitter as quickly as possible, the flurries were too many in number. They worried at his weak spots, and the wounds were adding up quickly, sapping Jack's strength.
Before he could so much as move to help, his shock thrown to the side, the worst happened.
A flurry tore Jack's staff out of his hands, and Jack collapsed with a cry, swatted to the earth by the Wendigo's pitiless claws.
The Snow Queen laughed again, and walked forward. 'No one will come for you,' she said, as if she was discussing the price of biscuits at the market. 'You tried, and you failed. What now, my boy?'
Jack murmured something while Bunny was frozen, and the Queen tilted her head forward. 'What was that, dear one?'
Jack threw his head back, and screamed, 'ASTER!'
And Aster answered.
He leapt down, farther and further than he would have under normal circumstances, landing hard and rolling to diminish the impact. Baby Tooth shrieked, tucked under his ear, and he let her out once he stood between the stunned Snow Queen and Jack.
'Check on him, yeah?' he said, and popped open one of the eggs he kept on his bandoleer. 'I'm afraid I won't be in the right state of mind.'
The Snow Queen sneered, but it was a pale shadow of before. 'What could you possibly do, Spring?' she asked. 'I can freeze you in place before you move.'
Aster shrugged and shook out the item in the egg. 'Chocky?' he offered, and she looked confused. 'No? More for me. Bad for ye, but that's alright.'
And he popped the chocolate in his mouth.
Loud screaming. Feminine. Unimportant.
Chirping birds. Good birds, quiet birds; they didn't eat the seeds. They planted other things.
Sunlight off the ground, mirrored earth.
Cool skin. Warm blood. White. Violet.
Gentle, was thought. Most important thing ye'll ever carry.
When Aster came to, it was dark and warm. It wasn't his nest he lay in, the cotton sheets not piled around him but rather tucked tightly in. He opened his eyes slowly, but the room he lay in wasn't much brighter; he could see the red and green, though.
Nick's place, then, he thought, and sat up. He felt remarkably good for what had to have been a hell of a tussle, given the numbers he was up against. But if he was here, and alright, then that had to mean…
He hopped out of the bed and felt his way to the door, careful to not knock anything over. It opened with a quiet latch, and he looked left and right down the dark hall. No one was around that he could see, but he could hear breathing, so he wasn't alone around here. Whoever it was had to be noisy, to be heard through the walls. Nick, maybe.
Or it could be quiet and nearby.
Aster shook away the bad shock and looked down.
Jack was scrambling up from where he'd been sitting, rubbing sleep from his eyes and stretching. Aster watched carefully, looking for injury, not daring to move and check for himself. Jack was gingerly reaching above his head, indicating at least bruised, if not cracked ribs, but he was standing on his own two feet, and neither of his arms were in a sling. It took Aster a moment to realise that Jack was watching him back.
Jack finally smiled sheepishly. 'I don't think you'll be able to teach me that last trick of yours.'
Aster grinned back, relief like sunlight on his fur. 'Yer doing alright, Snowdrop?'
Jack blinked, but nodded. 'Yeah, I'm fine,' he said. 'Better than you, since you've been asleep three weeks.'
Aster flinched. 'I've been what?'
'Asleep. Three weeks. North's started calling you Sleeping Beauty, which is ridiculous, since I'm pretty sure Aurora didn't go and kick Maleficent's ass.'
Rolling his eyes, Aster rubbed the back of his neck. 'It was right after Easter, course I was tired,' he said defensively. He sighed at Jack's twitched eyebrow and held up his paws placatingly. 'I was worried about ye – can ye blame me, mate?'
'I figured,' said Jack with a smile like sunlight off snow. 'You came.'
'I've got to tell you something,' Jack said, and for the first time in a long time, looked nervous. 'You've got to promise not to hate me afterwards, even if you need time to deal with it.'
'I'm not gonna hate ye, Jack,' Aster said firmly. 'No matter what. I don't go after the Snow Queen for any rando off the street. Yer me cobber, yeah? A good mate,' he explained at Jack's blank look. 'A best friend. The best I've ever had.'
Jack looked bewildered for a moment, like he didn't know what to do now; Aster frowned. 'Ye didn't think I didn't like ye, did ye?'
'Just, hold on,' Jack said, holding up a hand. 'Let me say what I was going to say, you mutant koala, and don't interrupt.'
Aster rolled his eyes again, but waited.
'I didn't know you were there, at the Snow Queen's court,' Jack said, his eyes on the ground. 'I had no idea. It was after Easter, and you were going to be conked out – I think she planned for that. She took me and kept me in a little room, talked all about the winter we'd make, and all I could think – no, don't interrupt, I'm fine now, what did I just say? – was that if she had what she wanted, I'd never see flowers again.'
Jack was twisting his hands in his hoodie's pockets, now. 'And I couldn't let that happen. So I fought free, and I was doing better than I'd ever done before – you made sure of that. I lost anyway.' His shoulders hunched up as if in shame. Aster fought to remember that Jack had asked him to not interrupt, because he wanted desperately to shake him, to tell him that he'd done better than anyone could have expected him to. 'And then she said – she said no one would come. I thought she was right, and I was ready to give up.'
Aster broke a little inside. 'Jack –'
'Said no interruptions, you asshole,' Jack snapped. 'So I did the only thing I could do. I shouted for you, because even if it didn't work, at least my last words were something I l–' Jack shut his mouth, shook his head, before continuing. 'But you came, Aster. You tore them apart, which, we are totally talking about the six-armed hulking out thing at some point, because that's awesome. And then you – this giant raging monster – turned right around and picked me up like I was light as air, like I was one of your Easter eggs, and brought me here. You were bleeding and I'm pretty sure one of your arms was broken, but you didn't let me go.'
Jack took a deep breath. 'So I owe you my life, and the truth, even if it ruins everything.' He straightened up and said, clear as a noontime sky, 'E. Aster Bunnymund, I love you.'
Aster held very still, and looked at Jack. A few seconds passed, in which Jack's eyes, bright and hopeful, began to dim, and then Aster managed to stammer around the heart in his throat, 'A-are ye talking like brothers, or cobbers, or are ye –'
'You caught me, Aster,' Jack said flatly, rolling his eyes and relaxing. 'I totally just confessed my bro-love to you, one hundred percent no-homo, besties.'
'Yer ridiculous,' Aster said, still stunned.
'See,' Jack said, 'That's where you're wrong, because at least I had the balls to say it. Guess you're handling it well, I kind of expected you to punch –'
'I'd be handling it better if ye were over here,' Aster interrupted, brain finally booting up.
'Uh.' Jack's face was blank. 'What?'
'Get over here, Jack,' Aster said, and spread his arms wide.
Jack wasted no time, leaping into the air and into Aster's arms, dropping kisses all over his face, his own arms wrapping around Aster's neck. For his part, Aster just focussed on holding Jack up, careful of his ribs and settling his legs around his waist. Once he was sure Jack wasn't going to be painfully jostled, he set about nuzzling Jack's throat and listening to the sighs that travelled up it.
'Jack,' Aster said quietly into the skin over his collarbone, 'Ye're still ridiculous.'
Jack's laughter was breathless when Aster pulled away, looking at him closely from his temporary height advantage. 'You love me anyway.'
'God help me, but I do,' Aster said, and Jack kissed him full on the mouth.
The shape of Aster's lips wasn't quite right, but they managed, trading kisses and gentle nibbles and touches of their tongues like live wires. Aster felt like his colours, bright and vivid, like his chest was full of all the rivers of the world and still filling, still flowing. Before he quite knew what was going on, they were back in the room he'd woken in, and Jack shoved him back onto the bed, glowing in the darkness.
'Hi there, Cottontail,' Jack said, and Aster felt himself begin to emerge from his sheath, embarrassment flattening his ears until Jack shifted and he could feel the hardness hiding in the deerskin pants.
'Oh,' he breathed, and Jack chuckled, a sound like ice shifting in the night. It made the back of Aster's neck prickle, the fur standing at attention.
'Can we?' Jack asked, voice tight with eagerness. 'If you don't want to, it's fine, but I'm literally an immortal teenager, and I've been watching you move for months.'
The air caught in Aster's throat as Jack leaned down and kissed the wide bridge of his nose. 'It was torture, Aster, you have no idea what you look like, the shapes you make –'
'Christ, Jack,' Aster sputtered. 'Do ye want to finish me off before we get anywhere?'
'Is that a yes?'
'That's a hurry up, I'm not actually a rabbit,' Aster snarled, and caught Jack's mouth with his own before ripping back and panting out, 'I can only go three or four times.'
He swore Jack's eyes glazed over. 'Three or four?' Jack said. 'You know I can manage like three when I'm out of my mind, right?' His hands smoothed over Aster's fur, fingers tangling and anchoring him to Aster's body. 'And that was like once, because I was thinking of you, you, you asshole –'
'Really?' Aster asked, and smiled, with what he knew had to be a wicked edge. He had known Jack had no trouble with spitting blue out his gob when he was angry, but it was much prettier out of his mouth when he was turned on. 'Well, then. Guess me work's cut out for me.'
Jack shuddered, but it was the good kind, judging from the way his hands tightened in the ruff of Aster's fur. 'Oh, god.'
Carefully, Aster rolled his hips up, sliding his exposed cock up between Jack's legs and alongside the bulge in Jack's pants, lifting him off the bed. Jack keened, pressing down, but Aster was stronger and only fell back to the bed when he wanted to.
'Oh, fuck,' Jack said shakily, and reached down to his sweatshirt's hem. 'Help me get these off, fuck –'
'Thought ye'd never ask,' Aster said, and worked at the laces of Jack's pants as he threw his hoodie to the side. They were easy enough to loosen, and Jack sat back to shimmy them off, growling deep in his throat when they fought him, and finally he just floated into the air and kicked them off. Sighing in relief, he sank back down to straddle Aster's hips, and the slightly cool weight of his cock against Aster's was almost more than Aster could bear.
'Man, oh man, Aster,' Jack said, shifting back and forth. 'I thought it'd be – but it feels – you're so goddamned –'
Aster gripped Jack's right hip in his left paw and wrapped his other around their cocks together. Jack whined and slumped forward, holding himself up with his forearms on Aster's chest. 'Do ye have any idea,' Aster said quietly, amid Jack's pants as he tried to get some friction, 'what ye look like right now?'
'Probably like a huge slut, I don't even fucking care,' Jack said, voice rough with the effort to speak. 'Aster, I can't – you have to –'
Aster rolled his hips the way he had before, and stroked firmly. Jack choked, his hands scrambling in Aster's fur, his skin glowingly white in the darkness and his eyes wide, blue, unseeing in pleasure.
'Ye look like winter, Jack,' Aster murmured, and stroked Jack through his orgasm with singleminded intensity.
Jack whimpered, cock pulsing beneath Aster's palm, and he twisted over, pinning Jack to the bed. 'Hold on, Jack,' he said, and sped up his paw. Jack near shouted with the overstimulation, but his cock twitched and grew harder in Aster's hand. 'That's it, love,' Aster said, and when Jack moaned, long and low, Aster spilled onto his stomach with a heartfelt groan. Another stroke and Jack came again.
'Holy shit,' Jack said a minute later, breathing hard. 'Just...'
'Ye alright,' Aster asked, nuzzling behind Jack's ear. He could feel himself stirring already, but that was much less important than the man whose thighs he lay between.
'Give me a second,' Jack said, and kissed Aster's cheekbone, right below his eye. 'We are never leaving bed,' he announced. 'Never ever. This is your new job. You'll just have to hire someone else to be the Easter Bunny for you, okay, because I am never letting you go –'
Aster laughed, chest rumbling against Jack's, and kissed him again. 'I've got a few days off coming up,' he said. 'We could try it out then, but I think ye'll get bored eventually.' He shifted a bit, and from Jack's little intake of breath, he could feel that Aster was ready to go again. He seemed pretty okay with that, given that his hands clenched down in Aster's fur before smoothing down his side.
'Not of you,' Jack said, managing to leer at Aster and convey a great fondness all at once. Then he frowned. 'Wait, I thought Guardians didn't take days off?'
'I didn't take days off,' Aster admitted. 'The others did. Ye should, too. I'm just stubborn.'
'Pretty set in your ways for an avatar of Spring,' Jack teased, but his voice was a little cracked; that was probably from the way Aster was rocking their hips together, though.
'I'm old,' Aster protested with a bit of a grin. 'Rack off.'
Jack kissed him, and Aster imagined that was what delight tasted like.
'So what, you're saying I'm an honorary Pooka, or whatever?'
'No, ye gumby,' Aster said. 'Honorary Pookan warrior, or at least a cadet. Ye've got a lot of training to do before ye've earned the full title.'
'How much training?' Jack asked, eyes squinting. They were sitting on a cliff in Svalbard, a tiny island north of Finland; it was bitterly cold, but Aster was okay with that, as Jack was redirecting the Wind around them.
Aster smiled, wearing his old name and his heritage like a warm coat, Jack's presence beside him singing in his heart. 'A few thousand years,' he said cheerfully, and Jack snorted.
'Guess I'm stuck here until I'm finished.'
'Oh, well, then, I can think of a few other things ye've missed.'
Jack laughed, the Wind scattering the sound to the four corners of the earth, and Aster kissed him, whole at last.