teeth bared they look the same
Jack lashed out, his crook catching on the ankle of the snarling snow goblin, and he snapped it up. The bone made a cracking noise like ice in spring, and Jack took a vicious pleasure in it.
He'd not come into these woods looking for a fight; he'd been trying to find some solitude, as a matter of fact. The forests of Poland could be eerily abandoned in the night, no creature stirring, and Jack had intended only to float through the trees and let his anger boil away.
It was way more responsible than burying the crook of his staff in Bunny's stupid face, anyway. Sure, the other Guardians would start worrying if he was gone too long – they'd gotten irritatingly hover-y since Pitch, and if he didn't check in with one of them at least once a week, they'd come looking for him. Right now, though, he didn't want to see any of them.
They genuinely cared, he could tell, and that was part of the problem. They wanted to be friends now, to adopt him into their weird codependent family, and while Jack was pretty fucking glad to have believers, to have someone see him, it was too much. They expected him to go from three hundred years of isolation and antagonism and misery straight to – what? He wasn't even sure most days what they actually wanted from him.
In some ways, Bunny's continued dislike was actually kind of comforting; Jack knew he could count on the asshole to want exactly one thing, and that was for Jack to be gone.
What little cameraderie they'd managed to forge in the rapid onslaught of Pitch's attempt to devour them all had melted away like frost in spring. Bunny still distrusted him ( thank god , a tiny part of Jack thought), and certainly still disliked him. A few sniping remarks had been enough to convince Jack of that, and instead of snapping back, Jack had done his best to keep silent. The taunts had gotten darker, though, and Jack had done the right thing, in his opinion, and loudly told the other Guardians that he had some prep work to do for the southern hemisphere.
There'd been some confusion, and Jack had bit his lip pretty hard not to laugh; what, did they think snow was only a thing on the northern half of the world? Please.
They'd let him go, and that had been two days ago. Now, he just wanted to spend some time completely alone, like it used to be, and then...
Well. He'd not really expected this, but he had to say, he enjoyed the challenge of it.
Winter spirits, on the whole, tended to be either pretty unfriendly or downright dangerous. He'd never been pulled into the fold, and was kind of happy for that; a lot of the winter spirits tended to try and make a meal of the kids Jack was so fond of.
These snow goblins hadn't done anything to any kids, but they'd been perfectly happy to try and split Jack's skull open.
The snow goblin shrieked in pain, and Jack swept the long handle of the staff behind him, catching two of them and knocking them to the ground. He leapt up into the nearest bough and eyed the battlefield as the pack began to rally.
Twelve in all, he counted, and none of them looked happy. The problem with winter spirits was that they didn't tend to take a defeat gracefully. The few times Jack had gotten into a scrape with some other kind of spirit – most notably that one time three ghosts tried to eat him the day after Halloween – they'd taken their defeat in stride. One of the damn things had actually apologised , like this was a usual thing. 'Hey, so we just tried to literally eat your face, no hard feelings, right?' At least they could talk.
But there was a really unpleasant fact of life as a winter spirit, and that was that when a brawl started, which was about once a month or so when it came to him, the last person standing tended to be the last person breathing, too.
Jack had no idea how the other spirits worked. He was kind of avoided on principle by anything that wasn't half-made out of ice, and anything half-made out of ice tended to full-on intend to murder him. He'd always hated killing though, and tended to try and knock them unconscious long enough to split.
The twelve snow goblins began to fan out, and no fucking way was Jack getting surrounded in a tree. He leapt down and caught one in the temple with his staff before pivoting left, knocking the snow goblin into his neighbour hard enough to send them flying. He went with the momentum, leaping back into the air and landing softly behind the line of goblins, eyeing the limping goblin in the centre of the line. They probably thought that keeping him in the throng would keep him safe.
Jack bared his teeth gleefully and kicked up the snow into their eyes, blinding them, and reached out, jabbing the one with the broken leg right where the swelling was largest.
There was a great howl as he toppled to his right, grappling with his neighbour for balance, and Jack stepped back out of the reach of one of the other's range. The claws caught the fold of his sweatshirt and he stumbled a bit, but caught his balance.
He twisted the staff in his grip, catching one under the chin as it tried to sneak around his side, and spun in place, his crook spitting out a great wave of ice. It knocked the rest of them back, and he leapt backwards over the wall, catching a branch in his hand and swinging up out of sight.
The snow goblins cursed loudly, harsh grunts of their language spilling up as they began to hack at the ice wall, convinced he was still inside. Jack watched, and rolled a snowball in his hands, breathing on it until it glowed a cheerful blue.
Surprising, what a little unexpected happiness could do, he thought, grinning as he tossed it.
It smacked one goblin firmly in the nose, and sent it stumbling backwards, before a disturbingly high-pitched giggle came from its ugly face. It shoved its neighbour, still laughing, and before long, the remaining eight were engaged in a free-for-all that seemed to have entirely replaced Jack in their minds.
Jack grinned and leapt back again, spidering his way up the next tree's and stepping lightly from thin branch to thin branch in the bright moonlight, the sounds of the fight fading behind him. He hummed a little under his breath.
'Coulda gone worse.'
He was in the air before he had time to think about it, silent and twisting midair to face the noise. He fired a splinter of ice and then swore when the voice registered; luckily, Bunny leapt out of the way easily, landing on a different tree and standing fully, weirdly graceful despite his inhuman limbs.
Bunny watched him with a blank gaze, neither judging nor approving, and Jack bristled.
'There a reason you're stalking me, Roo?' he asked flatly, mostly because he knew it would annoy Bunny, maybe enough to send him off in a huff.
The giant rabbit-thing scowled, but didn't take the hint. 'Shoulda known ye'd get in trouble sooner or later,' he said.
'That's what I'm good at,' Jack returned, remembering the accusation from a few days past. 'Apparently all I'm good at, either,' he continued. 'So, if you don't mind, I'm going to go do that.'
Bunny followed him when he went to fly away, leaping past him to a tree taller than the others and holding up his paws. 'I didn't come to pick a fight with ye,' he said.
Jack bit back the retort that wanted to come up, because as much as it irked him, Bunny was right. Everything he'd said had been pretty tame, so far. Didn't mean Jack wanted to stick around for the inevitable blow out. 'Then what do you want?' he asked as non-aggressively as he could.
'The others were starting to get worried.'
'Of fucking course they were,' Jack muttered, and Bunny's ears twitched forward, his scowl deepening.
'What bug crawled up yer date?' Bunny asked. 'They just want to see ye safe.'
'I know,' Jack replied, because no . He didn't want to talk about this convoluted mess with anyone, much less the judgemental, stuck up Easter Bunny. 'Tell them I'm fine. I'm going to be out of contact for the next few days.'
'And why is that?'
'Well, gee, Mom,' Jack snapped, 'because I have a job to do. Don't worry, I'll call home before curfew.'
Bunny was watching him blankly again, but it was a different quality. 'Why do ye do that?' he asked, and suddenly Jack realised it wasn't blankness, it was curiosity. 'Ye're always lashing out. Thought ye were older than ye look, Frostbite.'
'Don't call me that,' Jack snarled. 'And I'm old enough, thanks. I don't need you guys to – to watch me like I'm about disappear. God,' and now he laughed, the sound harsh against the walls of his throat. 'Not like I did in the three hundred years past, not going to start now.'
Bunny's expression changed, and Jack bit his lip. Too close , he thought. 'Okay, I've had about enough of this. If they have to know, I'll probably be in South America. They can start out past Punta Arenes if they have to get hold of me, but unless it's an emergency, I'm busy.'
'Shove it, Bunny,' Jack cut off. He flung an arm out, and the Wind caught him up, dragging him into the sky, and it felt like she had to try harder to keep him up than usual. Like he was heavier.
Knowing your centre was all well and good, he thought in the Moon's general direction, but wasn't much a centre if all he could do was give it to other people and keep none for himself. He wondered if that made him selfish, and then snorted. Who cared? Not like anyone was going to hear something like that out of his mouth.
Now it was starting to get annoying.
Jack could deal with the occasional fight – had since he'd been revived, and hell, he'd enjoyed the one with the snow goblins until Bunny showed up and ruined his good mood, – but four in three days? This was ridiculous.
A river spirit, chilly water and weeds too pricklingly familiar now that Jack could remember his own death (and wow, wasn't that just something else to throw on the pile of not-telling-a-single-goddamned-Guardian-about), on a tributary of the Rio Paraguay. A frost troll in the mountains of Peru. Some seriously angry shifters down on the southern tip of Argentina – cousins of selkies, he was guessing, since that species of seal wasn't natural to the area. And just now, lying unmoving in the tattered remains of a white dress, the bones of a Pucull ó n, her deadly nails clutching at the spear of ice through her chest.
Jack panted, and tried to keep his weight off his left ankle, leaning on his staff. He had no idea what was going on, and was seriously considering just hiding out in a city until it passed – so far, all the encounters had been in the wilds.
Some of these spirits weren't precisely winter spirits by nature, either – the Pucull ó n was some kind of scorned ghost, something about her kids having been murdered and she driven to insanity. Jack would feel for her if she hadn't just tried to claw his heart from his chest.
He sat down hard in the nearest snow bluff, and packed some snow over the deep gash in his chest. Not sure what a long dead heart would have done for her, anyway, he thought bitterly, his own blood – a slick, bizarre purple – staining his sweatshirt. He'd have to pinch a sewing kit to fix it.
He thought briefly about going to the other Guardians for help, but squashed the thought quickly. Sure, they might know what was going on, and surely one of them had to have a needle and thread, but just the thought of their worried questions and glances over his head were enough to put his teeth on edge.
There was a faint crackle of steps through snow, and Jack leapt up into the tree above him, the needles pricking at his skin and his ankle screaming at the sudden movement.
'He was here,' a familiar Russian accent said, and North – Santa Claus himself, jiminy cricket – stepped into the clearing. 'Recently.'
Beside him, wings making a faint humming sound, Tooth hovered over to the Pucull ó n's body. 'This is the third body we've found,' she said, clucking in a clinical way that was so at odds with how she'd been before, lighthearted and caring. She sounded more like a doctor, or a soldier – someone who had seen bodies so often that they hardly fazed her any longer. Jack supposed that she might have. God knew he didn't actually know any of them. She turned to North, and asked, concern in her voice, 'You don't think he's picking fights like this?'
'Not Jack,' North said firmly, which was kind of nice. 'We know him some now – he's not violent, not like the other winter spirits.'
That wasn't entirely true, Jack thought to himself. He'd certainly taken a visceral delight in the broken bones of the snow goblins, the way the frost troll's face had crunched against his heel as he kicked high and swept low.
'Bunny said he was upset,' Tooth said. 'We've all done things when upset.'
'Why would Jack be upset?' North asked, mystified. 'He has believers now – the children of Burgess are spreading word faster than winter wind.' He chuckled at his own joke. 'He should feel good!'
'I don't know,' Tooth said. She got near to the tree, and made a sound like she'd been kicked. 'Oh, goodness. Nick – there's blood.'
'Whose?' North asked, all business once more.
'I don't think those spirits bleed,' Tooth said, her voice gone clinical. 'He's hurt.'
'Will he come to us?'
'Not on yer nelly.'
Jack stiffened as Bunny popped up out of a hole in the ground that sealed up behind him. 'He's more than a bit cranky, judging from how the troll and this sheila carked it,' he added, nudging the ice buried in the bones with a ginger foot.
'Why would he be angry?' Tooth asked, turning to Bunny.
'This isn't him.'
Jack watched, perplexed, as North turned to Bunny, eyebrow raised.
'Something's after him, reckon,' Bunny continued. 'A whole lot of somethings. Bet ye me bottom zack that if we traced his steps for the past few days, we'd find more than just a troll, a Pucull ó n, and a river nymph.' He scowled. 'And after the snow goblins? Nah, this isn't Frost.'
'What are you speaking of?' North asked.
'Not sure, meself,' Bunny shrugged. 'None of the rest of ye are Seasons, though.'
'You think this might not be about recent Guardianship?'
'Might be,' Bunny said, holding up a hand. 'Like I said, not sure. I'll need to do some reading. Might reach out to Lugh or Eve. They might have a better idea.'
'But you don't think he'll come to us?' Tooth asked, and her voice was plaintive in a way that made Jack's chest tighten with guilt.
'Again, not on yer nelly,' Bunny nodded. 'I've got me suspicions, but...'
'Will you not tell us?' North pressed.
'Not 'til I'm certain. If he proves me wrong,' and there was a tone in Bunny's voice that almost made Jack want to go find Sandy or something, just to spite him, 'Don't ask him about it. He might scarper before ye can blink.'
'I wish he'd trust us,' Tooth sighed, 'but no use crying over spilled milk. I've got to get back to work. I'll tell my fairies to keep an eye out.'
'Pass word to Sandy to do the same,' Bunny advised. 'He and Frost seemed to get along. Frost might think he's the safest option.'
Jack made a face. Great. It was like Bunny was a mindreader, or something.
'Understood,' she said, and took off to the west, the opposite direction of Jack's tree.
'Nick,' Bunny asked, crouching beside the bones of the Pucull ó n, 'can ye do me a favour?'
'Anything, old friend,' North answered.
'Ye still got that encyclopaedia I made ye two centuries back?'
'Yes, yes, place of honour in library.'
'Look up some classifications for me, me memory's not what it used to be. Winter, cold, night, death, and loss. List the spirits that fall under that, if ye could, and bring me the list.'
'Your memory is fine,' North argued, 'but no matter. I will do as you ask.'
North strode off towards the east, passing under Jack's tree, and Jack caught a glimpse of his face – concern blended with determination, eyebrows scowling.
Jack shifted minutely, his ankle aching, and frowned. He didn't like the idea of any of those things Bunny had listed off, because other than winter, none of them sounded like good news. And he definitely didn't like the idea of anything after him. He hadn't done anything wrong, after all.
Jack held very still, not even breathing; had Bunny heard his movement? Fuck. Fuck .
'If ye're still here, I can smell yer blood,' Bunny said. Fuck, he might actually be a mindreader. When Jack glanced down, Bunny hadn't moved from his crouch. 'Don't rightly know what's got ye on the run, but it's nothing good.'
Jack had to bite his lip pretty hard to keep the no shit unsaid.
'I know I bodged this up pretty badly,' Bunny continued. 'And the others – I don't know what yer problem there is, but I reckon that's yer bizzo.' He visibly shrugged, and then moved to the base of the tree, unbuckling his bandoleer from around his shoulders. He fiddled with some of the pockets, then slung it back on, leaving something beside the trunk. 'If ye aren't going to trust them, at least, then keep yerself safe. And don't go near Rio de Janeiro, either. Word's been there's a pack of vampires picking over the streets, and if I'm right, ye might not be able to handle that.'
Jack swallowed soundlessly. Wow, okay, avoiding the cities, too.
'Of course,' Bunny muttered, 'blighter might be miles away by now. Fast when he wants to be.' He sounded exasperated, but weirdly – nah. Jack was hearing things. 'Either way, something'll make use of those.'
He tapped a tunnel, and dropped out of sight. Jack waited a long, tense five minutes, before he drifted gently back down to the earth, curiosity about what the hell Bunny had been doing overruling his caution.
To his surprise, beneath the tree, he found a few pads of gauze, a long bandage, and a little glass jar of some kind of cream. He picked them up wonderingly, before tucking them into his hoodie's pocket and taking to the air once more, trying to not jostle his ankle.
Whatever the hell Bunny had left him in that little jar had to have been some kind of magic, because the deep cut in his chest was scabbed over by the next morning, and his ankle could actually bear his weight. He kept it tightly wrapped nevertheless, clumsy knot keeping it in place, and kept moving. His logic was that if he didn't stay in any one place longer than a few hours, he would be fine.
He left South America behind and headed north, but the heat of oncoming summer in the US was too much for him. Nervously, he kept to the upper reaches of the continent, around the Hudson Bay and the Arctic Circle, and for two full (if exhausting) days, nothing came after him.
Like an idiot, he began to think that might mean he'd get a break, and tried to sleep for more than two hours.
He smashed the crook of his staff into the wendigo's face, all snarling teeth and crackling bone, and sent a chunk of its cheekbone flying. He spun up and out of its claws' reach, and scowled.
'I thought you guys hated each other,' he said conversationally, forced to duck and twist around a tree in order to dodge the other wendigo's lunge. 'What's with the tag-team act all of a sudden, huh?'
These two were clearly older wendigo – newly turned still looked faintly human, their skin stretched tight over their bones and their teeth hidden behind thin, cracked lips. There was nothing human left on these bones, though. Tall, brown, skeletal and skinless, the wendigo snarled and leapt up again, flanked by its buddy.
Jack waited for his moment, stumbling backwards, faking exhaustion, until he saw an opening. Then he stabbed the end of his staff into an empty eye socket and wrenched up with all his might.
A faint ripping noise – like wet paper – and the wendigo's head separated entirely. He'd still have to burn the bones and scatter the ash, but it was out for the count, and he tossed the head to the side, turning to the other.
'Heads I win, tails you lose?' Jack asked with a grin that felt a little mad, and smashed the crook of his staff through the wendigo's chest.
It fell, unmoving, and he panted, staring at the two. Bizarrely, he kind of wished Bunny was here. He seemed to have some idea what was going on. If it hadn't been such a blow to Jack's pride, he'd try and seek Bunny out.
'Thought I heard fighting. Are you quite alright?'
Jack whipped around, staff tensing, and was confused as hell to find a middle-aged, human woman step out from between the trees.
...wait, scratch the human part. Her skin, now that she was closer, was a thick, brown bark, and her hair wasn't hair at all, but long willow branches with copper leaves, bound back from her head in a bushy ponytail.
'Spring said I might find you here,' she continued, and crouched beside the headless wendigo's body. 'I apologise. Had I known a new Winter was coming in, I would have come sooner.'
'Uh,' Jack said, staff still held at the ready, because who knew who the fuck this was?
'My name is Eve,' she said gently, 'Though, much like you, I had a different name once.' She smiled at him, and her teeth were a dull, mossy green, strangely at home in her face. 'I am the spirit of Halloween, and of Autumn.'
'Okay.' Jack lowered his staff, but kept his grip tight, just in case. 'So, uh, any reason you didn't help out?'
'Two, as a matter of fact,' she replied, still grinning her eerie grin. 'First, I was too late to provide any aid. Second, I would not be allowed.'
Jack frowned. 'Wouldn't be allowed?'
'This is your trial to bear,' she said, as if that explained anything. She went and picked up the wendigo's head, studying it with a curious gleam in her eyes.
'Okay, look,' Jack said when she was silent for some time. 'I have no idea what's going on here, care to maybe explain something?'
She laughed. 'I apologise twice,' she said, and dropped the wendigo's head. Her voice lost some of the arch formality, her smile relaxing. 'I'm afraid I've spent too much time with the witches lately, and they have a terrible propensity for riddles.' She stepped dispassionately on the Wendigo's head and, to Jack's surprise, it crumbled to dust. 'It does rather make for some annoying double speak.'
She turned and smiled. 'None will attack you for a bit now, I don't think,' she said, and held out her hand, the palm looking like smooth wood. 'Come. Let's walk.'
Jack nodded, but didn't take her hand. She laughed again – she seemed way more cheerful than Bunny, he thought privately. It was unnerving, actually.
'Oh, please don't be frightened,' she said. 'I'm afraid I have that effect on most.'
'The, uh, creeping out thing?'
'Yes,' she nodded. 'I was Fright, once. It got swallowed by Pitch Black.' She tilted her head. 'Your Guardians defeated him, and I feel it trickling back. I'd thank you, but I suspect you won't share the sentiment.' She shook her head. 'Enough. I ramble too much. Come with me.'
Jack took to the air and followed her warily. She tapped the other wendigo and dissolved it, as well; she blew, and a Wind – a different wind than Jack's, a Wind from the east instead of the north – swept away the dust.
'Handy trick,' Jack remarked.
'It comes with the job,' she shrugged. 'Decay. It's an important part of the death of things.'
She set off towards the north, walking briskly, and Jack floated along behind her. As they walked, the trees began to change, from the evergreens to trees in the last great gasp of autumn, orange and yellow and red. Jack frowned.
'We passed between,' she explained. 'Much faster than flying to my home.'
'We're at your home?'
'Yes. There is someone you should meet.'
'Uh,' Jack said, frowning now. 'I kind of just joined up with a team. Not really looking to join another roster.'
She laughed, and it sounded like a cackle. 'I'll just bet!' she chortled. 'It's not like that. We tend to be solitary folk, us Seasons. Do not worry.'
She led the way deeper into the forest, and after some minutes, they arrived in a clearing, carpeted in bright, warm colours. Trees grew into the shape of furniture, and sitting at the table was a tall man, golden-skinned and fair-haired, and to his left –
'Oh, great,' Jack groaned, and Bunny had the audacity to grin.
Beside him, Eve cackled again, and when Jack shot her a glare, she only laughed harder. 'You think you're the only one who plays tricks?' she gasped out. 'My goodness, your face was spectacular! I knew you two didn't get along –'
'How do you know that?' Jack asked, scowling.
'The enmity between the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost has been a great source of amusement for many years,' the man at the table said, and stood. His skin glowed faintly with sunlight, and he nodded his head. 'I am Lugh the Almighty. Summer, and the harvest. No, I didn't name myself.'
Jack grinned. At last, someone with some humour. 'Seems everyone knows my name already,' he said, leaning against his staff and grinning. 'No one told me I was famous. Seems like the kind of thing a guy should be warned about, huh?'
'After this past Easter?' Lugh said, blond eyebrow raised high. 'There isn't a spirit here or Underhill that doesn't know your name.'
'Nor past the veil,' Eve added, taking a seat on Lugh's opposite side, leaving the only spare seat the one beside Bunny. 'You're very popular right now.'
'I've noticed that, at least,' Jack huffed, ignoring the obvious hint and taking a perch atop his staff's crook. 'With all the wrong people, apparently.'
Bunny rolled his eyes. 'Do ye know what's happening, Frost?'
'Something about seasons, I'm guessing,' Jack said. 'I thought one of the big three was Winter, though.'
'Big three?' Eve asked, tilting her head.
'Uh, yeah. The big bad winter spirits? Old Man Winter, General Winter, and the Snow Queen,' Jack said, counting them off his fingers. 'Hell, two of them have the word in their name.'
'I'm afraid you've been misinformed, then,' Lugh said gently. 'There's not been a Winter amongst our number for –' he looked at Eve. 'Three hundred years this past Yule, correct?'
Jack flinched as Eve nodded thoughtfully. 'That's when the Snow Queen bowed out,' she said. 'There's been no real inkling since then of who's supposed to take over. All the other winter spirits have pitched in, essentially, but there's been no figurehead for the past three centuries.'
Jack swallowed hard. Eve and Lugh looked pretty oblivious, but Bunny was watching closely, and holy shit was Jack not explaining this. His memories were his own again, thank you very much, and that was the way it would remain.
'Any ideas?' Eve asked Jack, who shook his head a little too quickly, judging from the way Bunny leaned forward.
'Sorry, I've got nothing,' he said, and then, both because it would distract them and because he was genuinely curious, 'But why would it be happening now? I've been around a while, and it's not like I've been busy.'
...that didn't sound bitter, or anything. Lugh was looking at him now, too, so Jack just focussed on Eve. 'It could be that you've come into your Guardianship,' she was musing. 'Perhaps you weren't strong enough until recently.'
'Maybe,' Jack said, then frowned. 'So, wait, if I'm Winter, then why the hell is everything wintry attacking me?!'
'That's how it works,' Eve said. 'Lugh's been Summer since before I was even born, and Aster –'
'I told ye not to call me that,' Bunny said, turning his gaze at last from Jack and scowling. Jack had to fight to keep his grin from showing; so Bunny's real name was Aster, huh?
'Sorry, Bunny,' Eve said apologetically. 'It's a bad habit.' She turned back to Jack. 'Anyway, Bunny's been Spring since – well, since there was a Spring to be had!'
'Not Persephone?' Jack asked, racking his head for spring deities. He knew they existed, but none others were coming to mind.
'Oh, others were affiliated,' Eve assured, 'but no one else held the title.'
'Huh,' Jack said, and grinned at Bunny. 'So if I say you're old as dirt –'
'Ye'd still be wrong,' Bunny snapped back. 'Rack off.'
'Chill, Bunny,' Jack said, rolling his eye. 'You're so uptight.'
'Ye're annoying, is all,' Bunny sniffed.
'Gentlemen,' Eve said, eyeing them both. Jack subsided, but not without a quick raspberry in Bunny's direction. Eve just grinned, and continued, 'So, these two either don't know anything about the transition –' Bunny waved a paw in acknowledgement. '– or went through one so long ago, and so different, that they won't be very helpful.' Lugh nodded wryly.
'And you?' Jack asked.
'I became Autumn almost six hundred years ago, around the same time I became Halloween,' she said peaceably. 'And while Spring and Summer are gentle seasons – well,' her grin grew somehow more frightening, though Jack couldn't say precisely why. 'Autumn and Winter? Not so much.'
'What do you mean?'
'I fought,' she explained. 'Forced to. Goodness, but there was a lot. The first two were some witches who had recently been burned – fire ghasts, the poor dears. Then there was the ghoul outside London, the vampire inside London, the dullahan near Bray's Head –'
'Wait, you're saying you were attacked?'
'Oh, certainly,' Eve nodded. 'That's how it works for us, you know. Spring and Summer? They get sworn to. Apparently it was like a big party, in Lugh's case.'
'It was my mother's funeral feast,' Lugh admonished. 'And it isn't as if I haven't fought. The Fomori –'
'I won't argue that point,' Eve said, reaching over and patting his cheek familiarly. 'But you didn't have to prove yourself to your domain, like I had to. And like Jack.'
'Are you serious?' Jack asked, a little horrified now. 'I have to – fight everything? What the hell?'
'Not quite,' Eve said, patting him, too. Her hands were cool, like tree trunks in the evening air. 'Just the major representatives. Unfortunately –' she made a face. 'Winter is, ah, a touch more violent than the rest of us. Whereas I just had to knock them unconscious, or have them concede defeat –'
'I have to kill them,' Jack finished, a little hollowly.
'I'm sorry, Jack,' she said, and sounded very much like she meant it. 'I'm so sorry. I wish someone could help you.'
'Wait,' Bunny interrupted, frowning. 'No one can help him?'
'It won't count as a victory,' Eve nodded. 'The attack would just be repeated.'
'What if he loses?' Bunny insisted, and Eve winced.
'Er,' she said, and looked at her hands. 'I lost once, and it wasn't pretty. But by our rules of engagement, I needn't be killed. Winter, however...'
'Are ye saying we're supposed to just let things try to kill him?' Bunny demanded roughly. 'That's – there's gotta be something, ye can't expect –'
Jack grit his teeth. 'Thanks for your confidence,' he snarled. 'But they've been trying to kill me forever, and I'm still alive.'
There was silence.
'How long has this been happening, Frostbite?' Aster asked, voice calm in a way that Jack didn't like.
'Since forever, I just said that,' Jack replied sharply. 'It's just picked up lately, that's all. I try not to kill things, though.'
'So you've been on trial for how long?' Lugh asked, looking curious and faintly concerned.
'Well, uh,' Jack said, disarmed by the phrase on trial, 'the first time something tried to kill me was three days after I –' he paused, and rephrased I died into '– woke up as a spirit. Some kind of ice lady. I knocked her out and ran.'
'And you came into being when, again?' Eve asked, visibly disturbed.
Jack swallowed. 'Three hundred years ago, just before Easter,' he admitted into the silence. He didn't bother looking up, just hopped down from his staff. 'Guess I have to, uh, kill things, then.' he tried to shrug nonchalantly, and was pretty sure he didn't succeed, from how the silence continued. 'Thanks for showing me your home,' he directed at Eve, 'but I'd kind of like to –'
'Oh, goodness, yes,' she said, standing up. 'I'll show you out, if you'd like –?'
'If I just fly out, where will I find myself?'
'We're in Maine, dear. I moved here from Scotland about two centuries ago.'
'Thanks. Just – uh, thanks,' he said, awkwardly.
Bunny chose that moment to speak up. 'Frostbite –'
'Don't call me that, Aster,' Jack snapped, stepping into the air. 'Just – leave me alone for a while, alright? Keep North and Tooth off me. I don't – I don't want them to –' Jack swallowed. 'Just, yeah. Bye.'
He rocketed off before anyone could say anything to him, his Wind curling around him and flinging him up, and he tried to pretend the fear hiding in his bones was just vestiges of Eve's Fright and not actually his own.
He'd made a mistake when he'd told Bunny to keep the others off him. Not in asking, and not in actually expecting him to do it – he'd seen neither whisker nor feather in two days, which was kind of nice. He'd sort of thought Bunny would send them after him in spite.
No, his mistake was in not including Sandy in his 'leave me alone' edict.
He hid now beneath a bank of transformers in Oklahoma, trying to stay completely still and silent as golden sand drifted over him. He'd tried to avoid the cities, but he hadn't thought Sandy would be so persistent. He'd been tailing Jack for the past six hours, and Jack had only managed to stay one step ahead because he was very, very used to being on the run.
He grit his teeth. Now that he knew that was unnatural – that not every winter spirit spent their lives running and fighting and being hated – he was angry about it. He'd never wanted to be Winter. Hadn't the last three hundred years of refusing to kill except in dire circumstances proven that?
He should have asked Eve if there was a way to reject being a Season. He just wanted to be Jack Frost.
The gold dust faded away at last, and Jack relaxed a smidge.
He ventured out from under the transformers, and looked around; no sign of Sandy. Maybe he'd given up?
Something tickled at his nose, and he realised a second too late what it was.
'Oh, come on,' he said mid-yawn. 'No – fair...'
He felt himself begin to drift down to the ground, but it was lost in the dreams that were starting to cloud his vision.
For a while, he dreamed of a scene of utter peace – his lake, mid winter, ice skating children and laughter, snow fights and steaming cups of hot drinks. He played with the kids, Jaime and his friends, and others he'd not met, all of whom could see him. There was nothing coming after him, nothing frightening or dangerous. Just a sunny, snow-filled day.
Then he began to wake up, the dream fracturing, and he kept his eyes closed a moment more, listening. He knew these bustling sounds pretty well now, and so, without opening his eyes, he said, 'Sandy, for the record? Putting me to sleep and kidnapping me is just as bad as stuffing me in a bag and throwing me through a portal. Just a hint.'
'I thought you liked being stuffed in bag,' North's voice said, sounding petulant and confused in equal measure.
'Someday, jolly-man, you and I are going to have to sit down and have a long, long talk about sarcasm,' Jack sighed, and sat up, eyes still closed. 'You're all here, aren't you?'
'We were worried,' Tooth's voice chirped. 'You've been out of reach for days.'
'Sort of on purpose, Tooth,' Jack said, and rested his forehead against his knees. 'Well, now you guys know I'm alive. Can I go?'
'Of course not,' North said, a bit scolding, and clapped his hand on Jack's back. 'You are Guardian! If Guardian is in trouble, we all pitch in! Just like before.'
'Yeah, that's great, hoorah and all that,' Jack muttered. 'But, uh, you can't help with this one. Sorry.'
'Nick, ye great gumby, what did ye call me here for?' Bunny's voice called out, getting nearer, and Jack flinched, curling into himself. There was the sound of a door opening, and then silence, followed by a long sigh. 'Ye didn't.'
'Did not what?' North asked innocently.
'Ye kidnapped him again, didn't ye.'
'It was Sandy this time,' Jack supplied, and grinned to himself when Bunny sighed again.
'Ye use that power for evil more than ye think ye do, mate,' Bunny said, and there was the sound of footsteps nearing. 'I told ye lot to leave him alone.'
'You told myself and Toothiana,' Nick said firmly. 'You said nothing about Sandy.'
'Yeah, next time I'm including him,' Jack muttered. 'You didn't do this on purpose, Bunny?'
'Slipped me mind, too.' Nick's hand was lifted off his back, and for a second, Jack thought that Bunny's paw might replace it. He was relieved (and weirdly – disappointed? Nah, that couldn't be right. Maybe confused) when it didn't. 'Strewth, thought he'd be above all this.'
Jack chanced a peek, and was a bit dumbfounded; Bunny's back was to him, but he stood between Jack and the other three, who all looked more than a bit chagrined.
'I get it,' Bunny said, and whatever his face was saying had to be surprising, because North and Sandy were trading a look and Toothiana was staring unabashedly at Bunny's face. 'Ye're worried. We're all worried. But if we interfere, it's never going to get any better, ye hear?'
'We just don't understand what's going on,' Toothiana placated, her tiny hands held up and she hovered nearer. 'Why can't we help him, Bunny?'
'If you are hindering us because of temper with Jack,' North began, and Jack scowled, sitting up fully as Bunny stiffened.
'Wow, even I know that's a low blow,' Jack snapped out. 'Come on – Bunny's not like that.'
North looked over at him. 'Then what is going on?'
'Maybe it's my business,' Jack spit out.
'Then why does Bunny know, Jack?' Tooth said, zipping to his side. 'Is he right? Is it a Season thing?'
'Lay off him,' Bunny said, and caught Tooth's shoulder gently, towing her away. 'Ye weren't always a Guardian either, Toothiana. Give the bloke a fair go at his own bizzo before ye start roasting him alive for the drum.'
Sandy was watching with a curious gaze, and Jack grit his teeth.
'Well, as absolutely swell as this has been,' he said loudly. 'I'm going to head out.'
He began to float, and the others let him go, Tooth's face miserable.
'We're sorry, Jack!' she called after him, and he paused.
'When this is done, I'll explain,' he said, and could feel four gazes on his back. He hated it. Funny, he thought. I spent so long wanting someone to see me and now that people are looking... 'All of it. I promise.'
'Okay,' Tooth said. A gentle hand touched his, and he turned, startled, to see Sandy floating beside him. Sandy gave him an encouraging nod and a grin, and Jack returned it as strongly as he was able.
He floated out the door, and then it was upon him.
A great gust of wind – not his own, she was never this cruel in how she snatched at him – and it slammed him into the nearest wall, shrieking.
He could hear distant cries over the scream – the other Guardians – and he struggled back against the gust's grip, because ahaha no he wasn't going to die here, not now, not ever again –
Out of him, from a core of surprise and joy and anger, fuck there was so much anger, exploded ice, and the wind shrieked again, recoiling.
'What the fuck is this thing?' He shouted over his shoulder, and moved smoothly out of the way of another lunge.
'A boreas!' Tooth called, soaring over and standing in the door as Jack danced out of the thing's reach. 'A Northern Wind, like yours! Hold on, Jack, I'll –'
'No, don't!' Jack shouted, distracted, and the boreas flung him sideways, sending him into a tailspin that ended in a spectacular plume of snow as he was driven into the ground.
'Why?' Tooth shouted, frozen when Jack struggled to his feet.
'I've got to –' Jack swallowed back the word, because god. He could remember North's words back in Chile, his belief that Jack wasn't as violent as all of the other winter spirits, and god, he didn't want to have to break that faith. 'I've got to defeat it on my own!'
'Tooth, come here,' North commanded, having reached the door himself, Bunny hot on his heels and Sandy shortly behind them, and Jack turned his back to them, because he couldn't think that they were watching, god, what if he fucked up, what if this thing won –
'Don't cark it!' Bunny called distractedly, and Jack laughed, startled into it.
'That is an actual possibility, you know!' Jack shouted back, and swiped at the boreas experimentally with his staff. Like he'd thought, it had no effect.
Leaving Bunny to explain (hoping that's what he was doing), Jack held out a hand. He had no real idea how to use this magic. It was too new, too wild. But he knew it had come from him when he was angry. Maybe anger helped him use it?
He thought as hard as he could about how fucking unfair this was, that he couldn't go anywhere without being attacked and hurt and making the only people who worried about him have an actual reason to worry –
From his hand came more of the ice-blue explosions, splinters of frost fragmenting as dangerously as glass, and the boreas howled in pain, recoiling again. God. He was hurting this thing, was it even its fault it was attacking him? What if it was only doing this because it was in its nature to challenge him? Worse, what if it was compelled, what if it wanted this as little as he did?
The ice faded, and he was smashed into the ground once more, sent bouncing and tumbling into a heap.
There was a strangled cry – Jack couldn't tell who it was from – but then there was warmth at his side, gentle and soft.
'Up ye get, Frost,' Bunny said, and pulled him up none-too-gently. Jack tried to jerk away from the touch, because fuck what if that ruined it all – 'I'm not fighting it, ye dill. Shouldn't ruin anything.'
'That was out loud, huh,' Jack said rhetorically, and Bunny snorted.
The boreas had retreated a bit, worrying at the ice buried in its invisible body, and Jack realised Bunny's paws were still braced on his shoulders. It wasn't as weird a feeling as he'd thought it would be.
'Listen, here's what Sandy thinks, and I reckon I agree with him,' Bunny murmured urgently. 'We can't help ye fight this. But we can help ye in other ways – if ye get hurt like ye did after the Pucullón, we can patch ye up, and we can teach ye what we know about fighting.' His paws tightened, and his thumb rubbed circles on Jack's right shoulder. That was actually stupidly comforting, and Jack had no idea whether he should lean into it (no, that'd be weird) or sprint in the opposite direction (also weird, fuck.) 'Let us help ye, Frostb – Jack. Please.'
If it had been anyone else, Jack would have refused on principle. Good sense or not, he'd been taking care of himself for three hundred years, and if that wasn't enough time to figure out how to wrap a sprained ankle or splint a broken bone, then he didn't know what was.
But this was Bunny. Bunny, who didn't like him very much, who found him annoying, and wanted him gone half the time. Bunny, whose paws were the first warm thing Jack could remember in ages, warmer even than the hug Jaime had given him. Bunny, who said please.
'Yeah, fine,' Jack said reluctantly. 'But, uh, can you get them to go? I don't want them to see –'
'Jack, North was a bandit king, Tooth commands the fairy armies, and Sandy and I were part of the war that ended the Golden Age. If ye think any of us are going to judge ye for killing something trying to kill ye, don't worry yer pretty head about it. Go.'
Bunny gave him a little shove as the boreas began to move forward again, and Jack almost tripped. He caught himself and used the momentum to roll under the boreas' lunge, landing on his feet and spinning around. He could see Bunny loping back to the others, who watched with wide eyes or concerned glances, and then the boreas was on him again, and he forgot about them.
He spun up, sliding around the boreas' invisible body, and the anger was there, tempered with a more righteous sense of irritation now; if he was Winter – apparently had been for three hundred years – then who the fuck did this boreas think it was? Hadn't he proven himself, again and again? A frustration rose in him. Fuck these rules of engagement. If he was Winter, then he was in charge, and like hell he was going to be forced to murder.
The ice was rising in him, and his own Wind rushed in, shrieking. She wasn't interfering, only making her displeasure known, and Jack felt that annoyance jangling down into his bones.
He snapped his staff out, hooking it around the thin body of the boreas, and twisted up, lobbing it high. The Wind launched him up after it, and he began to send tiny flurries here and there – biting cold and sharp ice, herding the boreas up and up.
The boreas went, snarling, and Jack grinned, teeth bared.
'Sorry, buddy,' he said, twisting his staff around. 'I've killed a river spirit, a selkie, a frost troll, and a white woman. I think I'm done killing.'
He caught the boreas in his crook again, and spun once, twice, building momentum before letting go.
The boreas crashed into the ground hard, its thin ice bones in its see-through body cracking and groaning, and Jack followed, pinning it to the ground with his crook.
'You done?' he asked it. It thrashed beneath him. 'Cede,' he commanded, and pressed down harder.
A wintry voice, faint and far off, hissed aloud. 'No. Kill me.'
'My game, my rules,' Jack replied. 'Cede.'
Jack's frustration sent ice crackling down the staff, encasing the boreas; now visible by the thin shell around it, he could see the slim, weasel-like body, the long neck. There would be teeth, he knew, and he pressed the crook into the neck.
'You won't kill me,' the boreas bit out. 'Why should I do what you say?'
Jack grit his teeth. 'If I have to beat every single one of you, I will. One by fucking one. Cede.'
The ice crackled inward, splintering sharply, and the boreas whined, high and whistling.
'I cede! Winter, I cede!' the boreas yelped.
Jack leaned back. 'Awesome. Now get out of here.'
'You don't intend to kill me, even now?' the boreas asked, and it sounded less rebellious. Jack was kind of tempted to call it a grudging respect.
'I don't care what you think,' he told it, and cast away the ice with a flick of his hand. 'So long as you assholes don't attack me anymore, I don't care.'
'You are a gentler Winter than any we've had,' the boreas whispered, and slithered away, invisible once more. 'I will carry word.'
The boreas shrieked away, racing over the cliffs and away. Jack watched, the Wind settling over his shoulders.
'Did you win?'
He started – the other Guardians were still there, still watching, solemn expressions on three out of four faces. Tooth was the one who had spoken, and she flew to him, checking for injury. 'You didn't kill it,' she said, hands in his mouth again to see if he'd cracked a tooth. 'Bunny said you needed to kill it!'
'I 'i'nt wan' 'oo,' Jack mumbled. 'Ooth, han's ou' of ma mouf.'
'Oops, sorry!' she skittered backwards.
'You did not want to?' North asked, stepping forward as well. 'It attacked you.'
Jack shuffled. 'Not that kind of Winter, I guess,' he said uncertainly.
Sandy signed a snowflake and a set of concentric circles he'd used as a shorthand for Joy before. Jack grinned a little. 'Yeah, I think that's part of it.'
Bunny was watching him, and Jack really didn't want to think about that, about his paws or his please or the weird, sort of earnest way he was trying to help. 'What? Do you think I fucked up?' he asked, and Bunny shook his head.
'Nah, she's apples, Frost,' he said. 'Was just thinking we probably don't have to show ye anything about fighting after all.'
Jack coughed, because that was better than flushing violet, which he could feel was a danger. Huh. Bunny had almost complimented him. That was – that was new.
'You did very well, I am thinking!' North announced, smashing through any awkwardness with his characteristic obliviousness. 'I am also thinking, deserve reward! After we make sure you are all right!'
'Maybe later,' Jack said, floating. 'I, uh. Kind of need some – some time, okay?'
North's face fell, but he nodded. 'Tonight,' he said, and wagged a massive finger. 'You must return, da?'
'Okay,' Jack said, because, well, he could manage something small, he thought. 'Nothing big, alright?'
'Cookies! Hot chocolate! Only Guardians, I promise.'
'Sounds great. I'll be back.'
He let the Wind carry him off, and when the North Pole was far in the distance, barely even a speck, he let himself relax.
'I did good, huh?' Jack asked the Wind, who nuzzled him. He laughed when she dumped him in a snow drift, and splayed out, sinking into the snow. This was – nice, he thought cautiously. He'd not made an idiot of himself in front of the Guardians, and he'd not killed the boreas. He'd made it give in. He'd done what he wanted to do, and not what he was told.
He looked up at the sky, and sighed, a bit happily.
Then he heard the sound of one of Bunny's tunnels opening, and tensed.
'I said I need time,' he said loudly, certain the overgrown marsupial could hear him, what with those giant, nosy ears. 'Twenty minutes? Doesn't count, Bun-bun.'
'I know,' Bunny replied, striding over. 'But I needed ye alone for a minute.'
'Why, what's wrong?' Jack said, sitting up. 'Did I actually –'
'No, ye're fine.'
'Then what's up?'
Bunny drew himself up, and looked like he was preparing to say something pretty important, so Jack leaned forward.
'Ye fought well,' he said clearly. 'Ye fought well, and ye didn't kill. Eve was certain ye'd have to, and ye did something no Winter's done in me experience – ye beat the system. Ye have a lot to be proud of, after that, and I wanted –' he swallowed, his throat visibly moving beneath the fur, and Jack had no idea why he noticed that. 'I wanted to say I was wrong, before,' Bunny continued. 'I've misjudged ye from the beginning, Frost, and didn't give ye a fair go. Worse, even after ye helped us out, I gave ye trouble. It was rotten of me.'
Jack's throat was tight, and he felt tight all over, too – like there was too much in his body, like he was about to cry, and wow he didn't want to cry in front of Bunny, especially over something like this. 'Thanks,' Jack said, and swallowed, too, trying to talk around the lump in his throat. 'I, uh – I mean, you too. I've been an asshole. I –'
'Ye've got yer reasons, I expect,' Bunny said, shuffling, ears laying flat. 'No dramas. Someday ye'll tell me. All of us. Ye'll tell all of us.'
Jack grinned, and hoped it didn't look as wobbly as it felt. 'Yeah,' he said, nodding. 'I will.'
Bunny grinned back, and Jack suddenly understood the whole 'hope' thing, because apparently when Bunny smiled at someone, they felt like they could take on the world. Maybe that was just Jack, though. God, he hoped not.
'Ace. Alright, I'll leave ye to yer walkabout.'
He dropped back down into a tunnel before Jack could respond, and left Jack in a silence that felt – more lonely, than it had before. The Wind nuzzled at him, and he lay back into the snow again.
He wondered, for a moment, what it would have been like if Bunny had stuck around a little longer. What they would have talked about.
But that was a dumb thing to think about, so he just breathed, lying tiredly in the snow, and enjoying the sensation of a victory that felt like a win at all.
He let himself be drawn in by the warmth, the hot chocolate and the cookies and North's cheerful chuckling. He'd been right – it was nice, this kind of friendship. Maybe in small quantities, he could learn to deal with it?
Tooth was laughing at a story Sandy was telling, something about – North, Jack guessed from the candy cane that kept popping up, and a sleigh crash, from the occasional explosive motions. North was arguing hotly over the details: 'It was off Venezuelan coast, I put it on globe – look, 'fucking rain', right here –'
It was really nice.
He sipped at his hot chocolate, and watched, grinning.
'Ye good, then?'
'Yeah, I'm fine now,' Jack replied, and didn't look over. At the moment, he wasn't sure he could look Bunny in the face without flushing, remembering the way he'd apologised, the words that still rang in his head.
'Only ye're quiet,' Bunny added softly, 'and I've learned to be wary when ye get quiet.' A chuckle. 'Tends to end with someone on the wrong end of a prank.'
'Hasn't been you, lately,' Jack pointed out.
'Well, no,' Bunny admitted. 'Strewth, I didn't see ye after '68 until a few weeks ago.'
Jack hunched a bit, good mood beginning to evaporate a bit. Bunny seemed to notice this, because a furry fist knocked into Jack's shoulder.
'Hey, none of that,' Bunny said. 'No dramas, yeah? Past is past.'
'I'm still sorry,' Jack muttered. 'It was meant to be a prank, but I... it got out of hand.' He looked over at last, Bunny's green eyes trained on him, ears tilted forward as he listened. 'I didn't get it. I had no idea how important it was. I'm –'
'Reckon there might be too many sorries going around, if we apologised for every blue we've made,' Bunny said, tilting his ears back in embarrassment. 'Don't worry, Frostbite.' he winced. 'Well, one more sorry.'
'It's okay,' Jack said, trying not to wince himself. It wasn't like Bunny knew , after all, knew that when he heard the word frostbite now, all Jack could picture was waxy white skin and cold, blue green water, ice cracking above him and the Moon, dispelling the fear but remaining distant, silent. The silence that followed after. The silence that persisted for three hundred years of loneliness and danger and the constant refrain of whywhywhy .
Bunny was watching him again. He did that a lot – watched people, cautious, as if they would explode. Jack had done nothing but explode lately, so he figured that was fair (he wondered now how many of their falling outs in the weeks after Pitch were due to Bunny's distrust, and how many due to his .)
'I don't think I'm entitled to yer true name, is all,' Bunny said at last, quiet. Jack blinked.
'It's just a name, Bun-bun. I don't care if you call me Jack.'
'Ye humans are so carefree with them. It's not like that with me.'
Jack tilted his head, curious. He knew Bunny wasn't human, had never been so, but he'd never heard tell of what he was, exactly. He'd heard all sorts of wild stories. Shapeshifter, he'd heard said. Time-traveller. Púca, and Pooka, pronounced ever so differently. Alien, he'd heard, and elf, ghost and god, and something beyond even those. Mostly, he'd ignored it; whatever he was, he was an asshole , which was really about all the information Jack needed.
Now, though, he was curious. He bit back on it, because yeah, he might not be the brightest bulb in the box sometimes, but even he could put two and two together. Older than just about everything, and no one had ever seen anything else like him? Jack thought that, maybe, here was someone who knew the meaning of loneliness better than even him.
'Names are things ye earn,' Bunny was explaining. 'Ye only give them to people who ye trust to not use them wrong.' he looked down at his paws. 'I go by Bunny, usually. Easier for people to remember, these days, and I can keep me middle name for meself.'
'So, wait,' Jack said, frowning. 'Ast – I mean, uh, the thing Eve called you? That is your name or it isn't?'
'It's one of them. I told it to her once, and asked her to only call me it in private. She's terrible about remembering.'
'Huh,' Jack said, blinking, then remembered with a dazzling flare of shame that he'd called Bunny that when he'd been mad, without knowing. Wow. That was way ruder than he'd meant it to be. He was a bigger asshole than he'd thought.
'I know that face,' Bunny said, and knocked him with his fist again, gently. 'Ye're fine. Ye didn't know.'
'Doesn't make it okay.'
'Now, what did I say about the apologising?' Bunny pointed out, and when Jack looked up again, Bunny was smiling again, a real, full fledged grin. 'Someday, ye'll get to call me it, too, I reckon.'
Jack stared. Him ? But – 'the others call you Bunny, don't they?'
'When we're all together,' Bunny agreed. 'On their own? Course not. They've saved me hide more times that I can count, and bloody oath, I've done the same for them. Ye're one of us now, Frost – Jack. Ye'll get there.' He patted Jack's shoulder and then left his paw there, the spring warmth sort of – nice. Really nice, actually, and not as heavy as North's hand. His thumb was rubbing circles again, and Jack guessed that was just something he did, because he really didn't feel at the moment that he deserved that kind of comfort.
Jack's throat was tight again. 'Uh – thanks, Bunny,' he said, dropping his gaze, because what the fuck why did he want to cry all day today? What kind of Guardian of Joy was he?
From the others, he could hear 'For the last time, Nick! We use that globe for the very important task of keeping track of the children! You can't curse on it!'
Jack snorted at the same time as Bunny did, and he turned his head, grinning. 'Come on, before they get into a real fight,' he sighed, and set down his cup. He stood, and Bunny stood with him, and for a second, he thought that was how it always should be.
But that didn't make a lot of sense, to him, so he just lobbed a snowball at the back of North's head and let the mayhem commence.
The peace didn't last.
Jack hadn't expected it to; there were an awful lot of winter spirits, and when he'd questioned the whole 'river nymph' thing, as well as the Pucullón, he'd not liked the look North and Bunny had exchanged. There hadn't been any solid explanations, but from the general muttering and cursing, Jack had gathered that the long time in which he'd been under trial (Lugh's phrasing had stuck in his head) had drawn the attention of a lot of spirits. Things that were only tangentially connected to winter were just as likely to rear their ugly heads; anything connected to cold, and by extension, water and ice, were going to come after him. Not to mention dead.
But like hell he was going to share his suspicions with anyone on why the dead wanted to test his mettle.
He crouched now in a great tree above Lake Memphramagog, the pine branches swinging back and forth in a stiff breeze. It was a sunny day, early May, and the waters were too cold to swim in, but there were boats on the water, ranging from little canoes to small watercraft. He liked watching them enjoy themselves, and relaxed a little as the sounds of laughter rang out.
Normally, when he came to New England, he tended to stick to the coastal states, or the shores of Lake Champlain; but at the moment, he didn't trust his luck that one of the ghost ships wouldn't come after him, and he knew for a fact that Champ was over forty feet long, and had wicked teeth. That was not an encounter he wanted to instigate.
The lake waters rippled in the sunlight, green and brown where the silt was stirred up, and tall grasses, cattail and others, waved gently from the edges. He wished, not for the first time, that he could have remembered the circumstances of his choosing without having the actual memory. He'd liked swimming in cold water before he'd become a Guardian, the loneliness of it, the brisk, chattering feeling in his bones as he laid out and dried in the sun after. Now, cold water was – not his favourite. Definitely not his favourite.
It couldn't hurt to float above the water, though, he figured. If he kept his ice to himself, there wouldn't be any suspicious ice floes, and he could stay away from the boaters, so he wouldn't be splashed.
He took to the air, and grinned; now that not being seen was something he could actually change, he thought it was great fun to be in plain sight and completely invisible. He walked down to the water as if the air were stairs beneath him, and laughed under his breath at the faces he imagined the boaters below would make if they could see him. Humans (he'd long ago resigned himself to the fact that he was no longer one of them) had great reactions to surprise these days. No one flung accusations of witchcraft around like the world was over. Now they just took pictures and yelled and made fools of themselves on television.
Maybe another day, he'd come and make a bunch of icebergs here, and watch the resultant chaos. Even Vermont wasn't used to snow in the middle of summer.
He frowned, and resolved to check with Lugh first. He knew the saying went 'better to ask forgiveness than permission', but he didn't want to piss off another Season right now. He frowned further. Maybe it's the other way around? Permission instead of forgiveness?
Jack was so preoccupied with his scheming, visions of bewildered weathermen dancing in his head, that he didn't notice the water beneath him begin to darken.
He looked around as he realised the boaters were beginning to clear out, and he tensed. Like animals, humans knew when something strange was happening, and often made to leave without really thinking about why. And with the speed some of them were going at, he didn't want to think about what was coming.
He scanned the skies, and wondered dully what would come for him now. The mountain ghasts that lured hikers to their snowy deaths should all be asleep, the thick winter snows months away, and he'd already faced down a river nymph. Besides, he was certain nothing lived in Lake Memphramagog –
With a great roar of water, something leapt up into the air from beneath him, and Jack tumbled back through the air, out of reach of the massive snapping jaws.
'Are you serious right now?' he shouted in frustration, because god damn it, the only lake monster in Vermont was supposed to be miles to the south.
The massive serpent hissed in fury, skin scaled and gleaming rich brown and blue. Jack thought idly that it might have been pretty, in a wild sort of way, if it wasn't straight the fuck up terrifying. Its eyes were massive and a mad yellow, skittering over him like it was starving, and though Jack could only see maybe half its body above the water, it had to be almost as big as Champ.
'Where the fuck did you come from,' he muttered, and then his ears registered the screams. He whipped around, and realised the humans could see the lake monster, and they were rushing away with all haste. 'Not a spirit, then,' he continued, and turned back. 'Not completely.'
The monster flicked its tail up in the air, sending water spinning in a high arc, and opened its mouth wide, wide enough to swallow Jack whole.
Jack felt a bitter taste flood his mouth as he dodged back out of range of its next lunge. The humans could see it, and at any moment, it could decide to go for an easier, warmer snack than Jack. He wasn't sure he could make this thing surrender the way he had the boreas.
I have to try, he thought, resolve steeling his spine, and changed his grip on his staff. Holding it parallel along his body (less wind resistance, I'm going to need to be fast, this can't take too long), he took a deep breath, and grinned.
'Want to give up before this gets out of hand?' he called down to the monster, which was turning for a third try.
It answered with a growl that seemed to emanate from the lake bottom, and Jack heard one or two of the screams turn to whimpers.
'Thought not,' he said, and dove as it leapt.
He slid down, past its snapping jaws, past its eyes the size of his palms, and hooked the crook of his staff around the long neck, catching it on one of the lateral fins that ended in wicked looking claws. He then rocketed up, ending the growl in a choked noise, and strained to carry almost thirty feet of writhing lake monster into the air. The Wind surged to life and boosted him up, faster than he could fly on his own.
In his grip, the serpent flailed, making screeching noises that could wake the dead, and the screams from the humans renewed, louder than before. Jack grit his teeth and kept rising, thinking as hard as he could about the one time he'd tried diving out of a tree into water, and the way the water had felt like stone when he'd hit it wrong.
'Higher,' he grunted through his teeth, hissing when one of the claws nicked his forearm and cut deep. 'Come on, come on –'
The Wind gave him a final push, unused to carrying this much weight, and Jack levelled out, the parabolic path he'd cut through the air having sent him almost four hundred feet in the air.
'Hope you're a worse diver than I was,' he muttered, and put his back into it.
He screamed with the force it took, the pain racing through his muscles and burning hotter than he'd felt himself go in ages; using his own arms as the fulcrum and the crook as his lever, the Wind holding steady beneath his feet like solid earth, he threw the lake monster over his shoulder, back towards the lake. It went, screaming in terror, and squirming as if it could right itself in time. It was falling dorsal fin first, its body curved around the central point of Jack's staff, and Jack ripped it back up, releasing the monster from the hook.
He felt for one blissful second the first inklings of triumph; at this height, and the speed at which the serpent was hurtling down, he could rely on it to knock the damn thing unconscious, he thought. He'd have to figure out what to do with the thing – move it away from this lake, at the very least – but he knew this would do some serious damage –
Then the thin whipcord of its tail wound around his ankle as it flailed, and dragged him with it.
He screamed again as the weight dislocated his hip, cracking the bone out of the joint, and he let go of his staff in shocked surprise, the wood twirling in the air and falling after him. He scrambled with trembling fingers, breathless and throat burning with the pain of his cry, but it was out of reach, and the water was rushing up.
The serpent's body struck the water with a great cracking sound, as if it had slammed into rock instead of water, and its thrashing increased, though Jack was certain that bones had to have broken, organs crushed. It jerked him to the left, his leg's nerves shrieking in pain, and he gasped almost soundlessly as it dove down, and pulled him beneath the water's surface.
For a moment, he wasn't Jack Frost anymore; he was newly eighteen-year-old Jackson Overland, disappearing down into freezing water, the cold rushing down his throat and the world growing distant above him. He tried to scream, but the water was in the way, and it was so cold it was like fire.
Then he was Jack Frost once more, and he was angry. How dare anything – he didn't deserve – this was such bullshit –
He screamed truly, the anger spilling out of his throat with the water and the last of his air, and ice raced down the serpent's body, so cold it was freezing the water around him. The serpent was screaming, too, the ice freezing it solid, and Jack kicked at its tail with his still working leg, the flesh cracking and breaking.
Then it was nothing more than frozen meat, dead and sinking to the bottom, and Jack was done.
He could feel blackness creeping in like it had a solid presence, and wished with all his might that he'd not screamed, that he'd kept some air for himself. Maybe he could have kicked his way to the surface – but then, with his leg...
Maybe this was how it was supposed to go, he thought hazily, and closed his eyes, beginning to drift. Taken from the water, and now returned to it.
He'd always liked symmetry, he thought lastly, and then there were no more things to think.
It was warm.
Having died once before, Jack was sort of confused about that. Dying was cold, in his memory. Then again, he thought, he'd not permanently died then. Maybe dying for real was a warm experience.
This kind of warmth was sort of – strange, though. It carried a tinge of newness to it, an inherent quality of something just made, but it also felt a little familiar. He didn't know it, though. He'd spent more time being cold and dead than warm and living, after all. Three hundred years outweighed eighteen, easy. But he thought he could remember this warmth as –
Right! He'd been a kid, with his little sister tottering behind him, hadn't he? And the snow was gone, and the trees were just green, and they were looking for – something, he thought.
The memory fractured, as his memories of his time alive tended to. He'd kind of hoped, on the odd occasion he'd had to think about dying for real, that he'd remember everything as crystal clear as if it had just happened. He figured there had to be some kind of trade off for being dead.
Instead of that, he was... warm.
And on something soft, he realised. Soft and warm, though something was holding him down. Not dangerously, not as if he was pinned in place, but as if he was tucked in. That was nice. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept in a real bed.
Did being dead mean he got to sleep in a bed? Was that heaven – a place to rest his head at last? Sounded pretty heavenly, he thought, and snickered under his breath.
There was a clattering noise nearby, and he frowned as the sound made him jerk – awakening aches and pains he didn't know he'd had. That sucked. Being dead shouldn't hurt. The dying? Yeah, that had sucked. But the actual dead part was supposed to be pretty peaceful, he remembered from boring Sundays at church, sitting on a hard wooden pew and listening to Reverend Bakerson drone on.
His back hurt as if he'd strained all the muscles down the left side, and his right leg ached down into the bone. He wondered if he'd broken it, right before...
God. That was a shitty way to die. Drowned by a lake monster in front of a bunch of terrified humans.
For an awful moment, Jack didn't understand – if he was dead, and that was Bunny's voice, then god had Bunny died too? How the hell had that happened? Did – whatever Bunny was – even go to heaven? Or were there, like, different heavens depending on what you were?
'D'you think Tooth would go to heaven?' he asked, voice tripping and slurring over the words. He sounded a mess.
'If there's differen' heavens,' Jack tried to explain. He tried to open his eyes at the same time, and found he couldn't focus on the twin tasks, so he just went back to explaining. 'Is she human? Enough to go to human heaven?'
'Ye're delirious,' Bunny's voice said, and a soft paw, the pads feeling like – like suede, maybe, landed on Jack's forehead. 'Ye have a fever, still.'
'Bu' then how are you here?' Jack continued, because Bunny's voice was being ridiculous. 'You're no' human. No' tha' tha's a bad thing,' he rushed to assure, because wow, that could be really rude. 'Jus'. Y'know. Differen'.'
'Is that so?' Bunny's voice replied, sounding amused and not offended, which was way better than Jack had been doing lately.
'Yep,' Jack managed, after finding he couldn't nod. 'S'ill. Sucks you died. Hope i' wasn' m'fault.'
'Ye're not dead,' Bunny's voice said, firm. Jack would have been surprised, had he the energy.
'Took some work to make sure ye weren't, but no, Jackie. Ye're not dead.'
'Tha's new,' Jack sighed. 'Congra's, then. Didn' think you could do tha'.'
'What, keep ye alive?' A snort. 'Think I preferred ye when ye were asleep.'
'No' tha', Bunny,' Jack protested, and managed to roll his head a bit to his right, where the voice was coming from. 'The – the no' dead thing. Though' tha' was a perm- perma- fuck it.'
'Permanent?' Bunny asked indulgently, and the paw returned, though this time it had a cool wet cloth. Jack wanted to flinch back from it for a moment – cold water, not his best friend. But if Bunny was holding it, then it had to be fine.
'Yeah, tha',' Jack agreed. Now that he wasn't freaking out about the cold water, it actually felt nice. 'Though' the whole dead thing was permamanen'.'
'Good thing ye didn't die then, huh?'
'Too late,' Jack answered. 'So, if'm alive now –'
'Too late? Too late what?' The paw had paused, and Jack whined, only distantly aware that the thumb had been rubbing gentle circles into his hairline and very closely aware that he hadn't wanted it to stop.
'Too late, already dead,' Jack said impatiently. 'So if'm alive now, very impre- impressive.'
'Really tired at the momen',' Jack sighed. 'Can I sleep?'
'Ye're delirious,' Bunny continued, but it sounded uncertain now. Jack wasn't used to Bunny sounding uncertain. Embarrassed, yes, annoyed, oh, certainly; but the last time he'd heard him so surprised was when he'd been standing beside Jaime and Bunny had been staring up at him, disbelieving that Jack had made someone believe in him.
'Okay, fine,' Jack said, because the paw still wasn't moving, and it was warm, and comfortable, and maybe if he agreed Bunny would start again. 'Sure. Good nigh', Bunny.'
Bunny huffed out a soft laugh, but his thumb was moving again, no longer in circles, but in long strokes down Jack's hairline, past his temple and behind his ear, and Jack was asleep before he could make his approval known.
Time passed. Jack was uncertain how much, lost as he was in the dark haze of sleep and dream, but when next he woke, it was a bit cooler in the room. When he opened his eyes, it was dark, and he was alone. Beside him lay his crook, and he took a moment to just grip it in his right hand, hazily remembering that he'd thought it gone.
'Where –' he started, and then fell silent. The memory was distant and staticky, but enough of it was present that, um. Well. 'I'm not sure that could have actually gone worse,' he thought aloud, and struggled to sit up.
His back ached, but it moved, so he shuffled back to lean against the – it wasn't precisely a headboard, he thought, in much the way as this wasn't precisely a bed. It curved up at the ends, creating a shallow bowl of soft fabric and pillows, and the not-headboard curved to match it. Jack snorted loudly when he realised the bed was loosely egg shaped. 'Of fucking course it is,' he muttered, and ignored that the exasperation he felt was almost overwhelmed by amused affection. Which was. Uh. No.
His leg was back in place, and unbroken, but a bandage beneath his pants wound around up past his hip and down past his calf. His left forearm was wrapped tightly, too (guess that cut was deeper than I'd thought, he thought, remembering), and there were mottled bruises all down his left side when he lifted away his shirt to check. That battle had done a number on him.
Well, he was alive, or at least not double dead. Point to team Frost.
The door opened, and he looked up in the dim light that flooded in from whatever hallway was outside. He wasn't as surprised as he ought to be to see North stride in, but he still wasn't quite prepared for it.
'You are awake,' North said, pulling up in shock.
'Hi to you too,' Jack said with a grin, and gave a sanctimonious little wave with his bad hand, precisely because he knew it would irritate him.
'You, put that back down,' North scolded, looking very much like he'd like to slap it down but refraining because injury. Jack immediately began to think of what he could get away with if he played the 'but I'm hurt' card, but ultimately resolved not to use it; he'd probably just end up confined to bed.
The bed was nice, though.
'No funny business,' North said, pointing a finger in Jack's face. 'You have expression, it concerns me. Do not try prank at moment.'
'Fine, fine,' Jack sighed, mostly because he'd already decided not to. 'So what's the diagnosis, doc?'
'Dislocated right hip, strained muscles, fractured radius, several lacerations,' North rattled off, then shrugged. 'According to Bunny.'
'So what happened?'
'You do not remember?'
'Not really,' Jack admitted, and had to work hard to keep looking North in the eye and not squirm. 'Last I knew I was underwater.'
'That was four days past. I know very little of how you were found – I was not on duty at time.'
'Duty?' Jack asked, frowning, and North smiled a little sheepishly.
'We have been keeping track of your whereabouts,' he said. 'Bunny was on duty that day.'
'That's not creepy, and I'd totally yell at you for it, if it hadn't saved my life.'
'It is not creepy? Good!'
'Sarcasm, North. You, me, loooong conversation,' Jack said, but he was grinning now. 'So Bunny found me. That's – ugh, great.' There went the awesome Bunny-being-impressed-by-his-fighting-skills thing. That hadn't lasted long. He'd probably seen the entire fight, from the tail snatching Jack out of the air like he was Gandalf at the bridge of Moria, to the screaming (Jack really hoped he'd get a pass on that because of the whole dislocated hip thing), to the –
Jack swallowed. He'd killed the lake monster. Bunny had seen that. Bunny had seen that, fuck.
'I look forward to it,' North said, dragging Jack back, and his twinkling eyes suggested that he probably knew way more about sarcasm than he'd ever let on. 'For now, story! Bunny brought you here, wrapped you up like Christmas turkey, and then came for us. He has been very worried!' North looked at Jack with an expression halfway between proud and amused. 'Knew you two would be friends! Much too alike to dislike forever.'
'Dunno about that,' Jack said, a little uncomfortable (because yeah, they got along now, he guessed, but he was pretty sure he didn't deserve to be Bunny's friend after all of this). 'But, I'm okay, so it's all good.'
'Indeed!' North said. 'When you are able to move around, we will have celebration for another victory!'
Jack flinched, and North's cheerful face softened. 'It was victory, Jack,' he said, and his voice was sure. 'Maybe not victory, way you wanted. But you lived, and that is always success.'
Something in his gaze was a little painful, like he was remembering something, and Jack wanted to ask, but was pretty sure he shouldn't. It was like with the Bunny-older-than-dirt thing, and his own no-I-totally-didn't-drown thing. Some things you didn't really talk about, he guessed.
'So do not worry,' North continued, and patted Jack's left shoulder much more gently than he usually did, meaning it only twinged in pain instead of shrieking. 'None of us think less of you. You are still Guardian, and if Bunny tells truly, you guarded humans until there was no breath left in you. That is something to be proud of!'
Jack went violet in the face, because 1) Bunny had told the other Guardians that? and 2) wow. It was kind of a rush to have Santa Claus proud of you.
'I always give the fair drum,' came Bunny's voice from the open doorway, sounding offended, and North laughed loudly. The noise sort of hurt Jack's head, but before he could tell North to shut it, Bunny had already strode inside and pulled North to his feet. 'Come on, give the bloke some quiet,' he commanded, and began to push North from the room.
'See, what I tell you! Very worried!' North called over his shoulder, and it was only by pinching himself discreetly that Jack managed to roll his eyes instead of turning a bright purple in his embarrassment.
Bunny's ears snapped flat to his head, and he argued loudly, 'Was nearly dead by the time I reached him, wasn't he? I'm allowed to be worried about him!'
Jack flinched, because other memories were bubbling up – the fever haze, the dumb things he'd said, and the one thing that hadn't been dumb at all. Fuck. Fuck. He'd said – okay, okay, have to stay cool, he thought as calmly as he could. Let on that anything's wrong, and he'll – they'll – be on you like white on rice. Just breathe. As far as he knows, it's fever rambling.
He looked up again as the door closed, and for a moment, sitting there in the darkness, he thought he was alone again. Then a lantern, small and egg-shaped, flickered to gentle life, and Jack could see Bunny had lit it, and was now silhouetted by it.
'What's with all the eggs, huh?' Jack asked, amused more than panicked now.
'I'll have ye know,' Bunny said, turning a bit as he lit the lantern on the other side of the door, 'that eggs are a very interesting shape. Remind me to show ye me shell collection. I've got just about every kind there ever was.' He turned fully to face Jack.'It's an aestheticism thing,' he shrugged, and in the warm glow, he looked – weirdly content. 'Ask any of the others. Used to be worse about it, though I have to admit, I prefer the way it is now.'
'Huh,' Jack muttered, squinting a bit in the light. 'How could you have been worse?'
'Oi,' Bunny said, but he was grinning. 'Became a bit of a wild thing in me old age, and that's all ye need to know.' He pulled over a chair, and sat down. 'How are ye feeling, Jack?'
'Like I got beat up, but I think that's normal,' he said cheekily, and Bunny's ears flicked a bit in amusement, at odds with the frown that settled on his face. Jack chose to trust the ears.
'Ye're not wrong,' Bunny agreed. 'Yer leg?'
'Sore, but back in its proper place.'
'A weirdly pretty blue colour at the moment. Didn't know I bruised blue.'
'Well, ye blush violet,' Bunny pointed out, and Jack didn't know which was worse, that he'd blushed enough around Bunny that Bunny knew that, or that Bunny had noticed. 'Yeah, just like that.'
'Shut up,' Jack muttered, because – he wasn't sure, anymore. 'I'm fine. When can I get moving?'
'Tomorrow, if ye behave,' Bunny said, 'but another two or three days before ye're racing around like ye're used to. How's yer memory?'
Jack jerked. 'What?'
'Ye were underwater for a while. Do ye – are ye having trouble remembering things?'
'Other than what happened over the past few days where I was barely awake?' Jack shook his head. 'I remember the fight, and everything before that.'
'Good, no brain damage then,' Bunny said. Then his ears flicked around. 'At least, no more than –'
'I knew it,' Jack groaned, and Bunny laughed. 'Cheap shot, making fun of the guy in bed.' He swallowed as Bunny's laughter slowed, and then asked, 'What happened? I tried asking North, but he didn't know.'
'Well, I was a few minutes late on the scene,' Bunny shrugged. 'When I rocked up, all the people were screaming bloody murder and fleeing, so I'm guessing the lake monster's going to be all over their news. Jaime should be pleased.'
'No he won't,' Jack said quietly. 'It's dead.' He shrank back against the headboard. His hands twisted over each other in his lap.
Bunny's paw entered his field of vision and landed firmly on his fiddling hands. 'That's a good thing,' he said firmly. 'Who knows how many drownings in that lake have been its fault? Ye saved lives, Jack. Any kid who sees that news and believes in ye will see ye protecting them.' he shook his head. 'Death's part of life, too.'
'Not at my hands,' Jack murmured. 'I didn't want to kill it.'
'Ye gave it every chance ye could,' Bunny insisted, paw tightening on Jack's hands and stilling them. 'Don't beat yerself up for that. The lake monster did a good job of that on its own.'
Jack snorted, but couldn't force himself to look up. Instead, he studied Bunny's paw in his lap, and tried not to think that Bunny was holding his hands.
'Ye dragged it up in the air,' Bunny continued after a moment, 'which is how ye sprained almost every muscle in yer back. Good trick with the boreas, not so good with a several ton monster.'
Jack shrank into himself, and Bunny sighed. His paw left Jack's hands, which Jack thought he deserved, then settled on his right shoulder, which Jack thought he didn't. 'Jack, look at me, please.'
'Don't say please, it's weird,' Jack muttered, but did as he asked.
'Sorry I'm polite,' Bunny said, and rolled his eyes. 'I'm not judging ye. It's a good strategy, and I had no idea ye could carry that much weight.'
'It wasn't just me,' Jack protested. 'The Wind helped –'
'Not at the beginning, she didn't,' Bunny argued. 'Bloody oath, can't ye just take a compliment?'
Jack stared at Bunny, who looked frustrated. 'Um.'
'Reckoned not,' he sighed. 'Anyway, damn thing hooked ye and dragged ye down. Thought it would rip yer leg right off.'
Jack winced, and Bunny's paw left his shoulder and patted his knee.
'Ye hit the water, and I wasn't sure what to do – if I went after ye, I might just cause more trouble. Then there was light, blue and white, and ice on the surface that crumbled after a few minutes. Almost all the people had fled, though some stuck around with their cameras, and I was on the shore, dithering like the tosser I am, and then something floated up.'
Jack swallowed hard.
'Ye were face down, and not moving. Water was so cold I near froze me fur off, but when I got ye on land and ye choked out half the damn lake, ye were still breathing. Took ye home and patched ye up. Ye had a nasty fever for the first three days. Broke last night at last. Me and the others've been trading off watches.'
'Sorry,' Jack said, and started as Bunny's thumb began to rub gentle, insistent circles on his knee.
'Don't be,' Bunny was saying when Jack's brain was working again. 'Get some sleep, Jack. We'll talk more tomorrow.'
'What time is it?' Jack asked as Bunny stood, paw leaving him.
'Half past two in the morning, local time,' he said. 'Now we know ye won't cark it in the night, we should all get some sleep. No, don't say sorry,' Bunny said, shaking a paw at him. 'We'd always look out for ye, and ye'd look out for us too, even if ye won't say it. Just sleep.'
'Uh, Bunny?' Jack said as Bunny extinguished one of the lamps. Bunny paused, and turned to him, ears tilted expectantly. 'I really would. And, um, thank you. For – you know. Keeping me alive. And stuff.'
Bunny just smiled at Jack's halting gratitude, and as he turned back to extinguish the other lamp, Jack realised that the feeling in his chest probably wasn't Hope at all.
He was fucked.
Two days later he was free of the Warren, and he damn near sprinted to the other side of the world as quickly as he could, because he knew exactly what Bunny's probing questions and glances were aiming at.
The giant probably-not-a-rabbit suspected something was wrong, now, and Jack cursed himself, cursed the fever. He'd been so unguarded that he'd actually said something about being dead. What the hell was his problem? Why the fuck had he ever thought that was an okay thing to allude to, much less joke about?
He didn't stay long anywhere, no more than half an hour in any one place, and found himself floating at last over a suspiciously orange patch of trees in Northern Maine. He wondered for a moment if he should descend, if he'd be welcome – he sure as hell wouldn't just drop into the Warren unannounced, or the Workshop, or Tooth Palace, but there wasn't exactly anywhere to knock.
He was saved from the awkwardness when a voice, warm but distantly eerie, called up.
'Hello, Winter! Come on in!'
'Not sure I'm Winter officially, yet,' Jack called back, and dropped down into the fiery foliage. Eve was waiting for him, watching with smiling eyes and green grin, perched in a tree branch. The Wind whistled and settled beside her, where Jack could just make out the ripple of an east wind at her side. 'A – zephyr, right?'
'And a boreas, yes,' she said, gesturing to his Wind. 'She's significantly politer than most I've met. Rather like you.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well,' she said, eyes twinkling faintly orange. 'Winter spirits tend not to be quite so chummy as you.'
Jack made a face. 'Tell me about it,' he groaned, and she laughed, before patting the expanse of branch on her other side.
'Sit with me,' she said, and Jack floated over, before settling down.
'Can I ask you some questions?' he asked.
'Of course you can,' she nodded. 'I expect you have many of them. I saw the battle with the Memphramagog Monster on the telly. You did well.'
Jack winced. 'You saw that, huh?'
'I like to keep up with the humans as best I can,' she nodded. 'Was a bit of a trick to get the reception through the magic, but I think it's important to treat yourself from time to time.' She cackled at her own joke, and though the laughter was unnerving, it was also bright with the sharp taste of Joy.
'About that,' Jack said, and frowned at her. 'Why would the monster attack me – it's not a winter spirit.'
'It is a water creature,' she said, and nodded. 'Winter is the season of water. And I expect it has a lot to do with the fate you escaped.'
Jack froze, and Eve looked at him, and made a distressed noise. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to spit it out like that.'
'You know, then?' Jack said hollowly. 'That I'm –'
'Oh, you're not dead,' she said, and smiled. 'Believe you me, I'd be able to tell. Comes with being Halloween, not to mention Autumn. You're not like me.'
'You're dead?' Jack asked, aware that it was rude, and unable to bite the words back.
'Oh, yes,' she nodded, and sounded supremely unconcerned about it. 'And you? You are definitely not. You were once, though.'
'So I did die,' he whispered.
'After a fashion,' she nodded. 'It was –' she placed her hand on his, and the palm was smooth as the wood it looked like. 'A brain death, briefly,' she said, eyes gone wide and unseeing, orange. 'But not a soul-death. You are as you should be.' she pulled her hand away, and her eyes faded to a more normal brown. She blinked, then cringed. 'I'm sorry, that was rude of me.'
'I don't mind,' Jack said, and stared down at the ground. 'So I'm really not dead?'
'Definitely not. You'd know.'
'Would you like to hear how I died?' she offered, and Jack paused again, shocked. 'I find it helps spirits come to terms with their own deaths, and even if it wasn't permanent for you, it might help.'
'If – if you don't mind,' Jack managed to stutter out.
'Oh, not hardly,' she said, flapping her hand. 'I've told the story so many times that I've practically got a standardised version.' She grinned her moss-green smile. 'I wouldn't offer, dear, if I minded.'
Her face took on a far off cast. 'I was Scottish, once,' she began. 'I was a spinster. Imagine, a single woman at my age? I was the scandal of the town. This is before the English, of course, swept in, and just before the burnings started.'
'The burnings – oh, like the witch trials?'
'Exactly,' she nodded. 'They started much earlier than most people today know, and though they didn't pick up their fervour for a while, they were certainly around. And there I was, a middle-aged woman, no children, no husband, and I lived on my own in a forest. I wasn't a witch at the time, of course, but it's impossible to tell an angry mob that and be believed.'
'So they burned you?'
'Goodness, no,' Eve shook her head. 'They came to accuse me, but there was nothing to pin to me, and I was spared through the mercy of the priest. A good man, a kind man. When he passed, he apologised that there hadn't been more he could do. A decade or two passed before that happened though.
'So, I was spared. But there was a man in the village. He was afraid. Men are always afraid – not like you'd think,' she said, when Jack opened his mouth to protest. 'And maybe not in the same ways now. But then? There was a great deal of fear, and no safe way to express it. Women could cry, could scream and rage and weep out the fear, but men had to act. Just about the only advantage we women had at the time.
'I thought I was safe. But then came All Hallows Eve.'
She looked at him. 'I was baking. Brave children would come to my house for little cakes and sweets on All Saints' Day, and I didn't want to disappoint them. Their parents might keep them back this year, but if any came, I wanted to show them that there was nothing to be afraid of, not really. That being brave still meant something. But then he came.
'He kicked my door in, and began to set fire to my home. I was no fool – I ran. He followed me into the woods, screaming like an enraged bear, and I was no spring chicken. Life was hard, then. I worked hard, and my body was growing weak. I couldn't run for long, and then he was upon me.
'Stabbed me in the back, the coward. Too afraid to see my death with his own eyes. I was angry. Angrier than I'd ever been in my life. The sword he'd used had pinned my body to a tree – a willow. It began to grow around me, and turned me to wood, living wood. He held still, terrified, and I was something new.'
Jack was a little speechless. That was horrifying.
'A wind from the east sprang up, and all the leaves of the tree turned blood red. I pulled the sword from my body, and dropped it at his feet. He was staring at me, and do you know what I said?'
'What?' Jack asked, leaning forward.
Eve turned abruptly to face him, eyes massive and orange, and shouted, 'BOO!'
Jack, startled, fell out of the tree, and it was only the Wind's quick catch that saved him from landing squarely on his ass. Nothing could have masked his surprised yelp, and above him, Eve was laughing uproariously, bent in half and cackling as loudly as any witch.
'He did the same thing!' she shouted, absolutely lost in mirth. 'Ran all the way home, screaming like a child! So I went home, put out the fire, saved my little cakes, and passed them out the next day.'
'You just – went home?' Jack asked, startled.
'Yep! Took me a good three weeks to find out only the kids could see me, but then I didn't mind once I did. They got to be brave and go meet with the witch-ghost who lived on the outskirts of town, and I got to have some company. Of course, the village eventually withered to nothing – small towns like that have a tendency, you know. I moved here, then.'
'And you're okay?' Jack asked, looked at her. 'Like, no one hates you because you're dead?'
'Well, technically I'm also half-willow tree now,' she said matter-of-factly, 'which is far stranger to most. But no, Jack. No one hates me because I'm dead.'
'They might hate me, though,' Jack said, hanging his head. 'I mean, I haven't told them.'
'You'll tell them in time,' she soothed, jumping down to sit beside him on the ground and pat his hand. 'I only knew because I'm – well, me!' She laughed again. 'And none of them will hate you for keeping your secrets. They all have secrets of their own.'
Jack grinned at her. 'Thanks, Eve,' he said. 'It did help.'
'Always does,' she said, and winked. 'Everyone loves a good ghost story, after all. And, may I just say? Excellent job on the Memphramagog Monster. Not one person died!'
'Does that happen often?'
'Oh, winter spirits cause deaths in their tiffs all the time. You're the first one I've ever met who's not been responsible for a human death.' Her smile grew jack-o-lantern wide. 'Saves them, actually.'
'Shut up,' he said, going a little violet, and she laughed again before standing.
'Come on,' she said, and grinned. 'You Guardians don't have a monopoly on the sweets of the world yet, and I've always wanted an impartial observer to tell me if my chocolates match up to North's.'
'Not Bunny's?' Jack teased, and she rolled her eyes.
'Come on, no one is as good as the Easter Bunny,' she replied, chivvying him along towards a break in the trees, the clearing he'd sat in before. 'The berk invented the stuff.'
'Always room for improvement, right?' Jack said brightly, and she laughed again.
Jack felt kind of stupid at the moment, because if anyone knew what was going on he would get the scolding of a lifetime. 'Please don't let it be Tooth on Guard duty,' Jack prayed under his breath, and took a second to grin at the double-meaning. 'She'll kill me.'
Any of the Guardians would kill him if they knew what he did now, but the others might let him get a word in edgewise before they broke his neck. He looked around the landscape, and convinced that no human was within sight, sat down on a rock.
Mt. Fuji was stunningly gorgeous no matter the time of year, and below him, hidden in the haze of fog, was the sprawlingly green Aokigahara Forest. He'd kept well out of reach of its labyrinthine branches, because even he'd heard about the number of people who committed suicide there. He didn't want to provoke those spirits ever.
But here, on a tall mountain where it was chilly even in late June, he was looking for something else, and though it was probably a touch suicidal, he had a plan.
Holding his staff in his lap, eyes closed, he reached for the magic in him.
He refused to believe that the only thing that would activate it was anger. It helped, certainly, but anger wasn't his centre. He didn't want to be an angry Winter, he knew. He wanted to be a joyous one, a merciful one. Death and violence didn't have to be tangled up with winter. People died no matter the season. Anger came and went like the tides. So too did joy and mercy, and he wanted them woven into the fabric of his Season, too.
This thought sitting at the centre of him like a seed carved from ice, he began to breathe in and out slowly.
Above him, the Wind was moving, circling higher and higher. He pulled ice crystals into her path, knotting them together, the bonds of water strong and pulling more ice after them. The electrons and neutrons, the spin ups and the spin downs, positive and negative charges – he held it in his head like it was breathing. Storm-making was something he knew how to do naturally, same as those first curls of frost he'd made when he'd woken above the ice. It was natural, but not easy, and he took a bone-deep delight in it, a joy in the hard work of making something new and temporary, wild and wide-flung.
The Wind was joined by more natural winds, blowing fiercely, and she joined the chorus with a glee he could feel from here. To his surprise, another boreas joined her, then a second, and a third; he realised they were coming to help, and grinned, even as their breezes whipped his hair around his head and tore at his clothing. The world was darkening through the curtain of his eyelids, the sun being hidden behind thick clouds, and he felt the first touch of a snowflake just beneath his left eye.
Holding his staff with both hands, he lifted it, horizontal as an offering. His grin grew.
'Let it snow, let it snow,' he hummed under his breath, and opened his eyes.
A blizzard, localised to the top of Mt. Fuji, was racing around him. Snowflakes flew thick and fast, and he pulled his hood up, to keep them from his eyes. He could hear the boreas above, his Wind and the three who had come to his aid, and felt proud. Maybe he wasn't like any Winter who'd come before, but that didn't mean he didn't know how to Winter properly.
'Haven't any told you,' a voice, sweetly feminine and as lovely as sunlight through ice, said from behind him, 'that it is dangerous to go out in blizzards such as these?'
'Not if you know what you're looking for,' Jack replied, and turned, bowing his head as respectfully as he could. He hoped it wasn't taken the wrong way. 'Yuki-onna-sama.'
'You remember the honorifics,' the woman said, sounding faintly surprised. She hid her face behind a hood of white fur, and her traditional, thick kimono rippled in the winds. 'You are a polite American.'
'I aim to please,' Jack replied. 'I thought you might prefer a more traditional arena.'
'You thought I sought to fight you?'
Jack paused. 'Uh,' he said after a minute, 'That's kind of been the song and dance routine for the past weeks. Do you not want to fight?'
'None of the yuki-onna would seek to fight you, Fuyu-sama,' she said. 'It has been long since any of us have spoken to you, but we remember.'
Jack didn't want to be rude and say he had no idea who she was, but he didn't want to lie, either. She seemed to pick up on this, and pushed her hood back.
Her face had been beautiful in some long forgotten year, but her face was twisted now, gone sharp and hungry with years of winter hunger. She smiled, and though the actual expression was disturbing, her eyes were kind. Though that was disturbing in its own way.
'You saved my life long ago,' she said, inclining her head deeply. 'Japan had suffered a mild winter. I had not eaten in months. Then you came, bringing the snows, and with my last strength, I found a man who had gone to seek his death in Aokigahara. I gave it to him, and he his life to me. You saved many of my sisters from starvation that year.' She lifted her head. 'We continue because you were merciful. We would never seek to challenge your claim.'
Jack had no idea how to respond to that. On the one hand, she'd eaten some guy. Which was pretty high on his list of 'not the fuck okay'.
On the other, here stood a thinking, feeling being. One who did only as she was made, as she'd become. Could he really fault her, that their centres were so different?
'That's good,' he managed at last. 'Sorry for waking you.'
'You are uncomfortable,' she said, and smiled again. 'Good. A Winter like you should be uncomfortable with death.'
'Why?' he said, caught wrong-footed by her words.
'You are a Guardian as well,' she hummed, and walked past him to take a seat on the stone he'd abandoned. 'You will, by necessity, be at odds with parts of Winter, and at peace with others. So it has been with all Winters. The last was quite uncomfortable with certain aspects. The peace, most notably. The cheer.'
'The Snow Queen,' Jack said, and the yuki-onna nodded.
'She is a bitter woman,' she explained, which was a little rich, Jack thought, considering what was speaking. 'She loves no being but herself, and she loves herself not as well as she should. She sees only terrible things in the mirror, and the winter spirits of the world have modelled themselves in her image.'
'It wasn't always like this?' he asked.
'She came into power just before the last Ice Age,' the yuki-onna nodded. 'I know few spirits who were walking more than ten thousand years ago, who would have interacted with her. But the one I do know, the only kami who still walks amongst men, has told me stories. Winter was hard, but it was not the end of things, the way the Snow Queen shaped it. It was rest and sleep, hunts and strength, games and plans and celebration. You are, in many things, a return to the old ways.' she smiled her twisted smile. 'Amaterasu-sama will be pleased. She has ever loved to shine on the hearts of good men.'
'So, I'm not messing everything up!' Jack crowed, leaping up. 'I'm just – doing what I'm supposed to do. There aren't rules. There's just –' he grinned. 'Remaking things. Fixing things. I'm pretty good at that, I've been told.'
'I would believe it,' the yuki-onna agreed. 'After all, what is Winter but a clearing of the canvas?'
'Thanks,' he said, and held out his hand. 'Don't think we've been properly introduced,' he said at her confused look. 'My ma would be appalled. Jackson Overland Frost.'
'I am Tsumiko,' she said, and smiled once more, talking his hand and shaking it firmly. 'Please, use it freely. I owe you my life.'
Jack nodded, thinking of other names he might someday earn, and shook back.
'Much of the world's winter has been tamed,' Tsumiko said. 'You have only one last obstacle to clear, Fuyu-sama.'
'What would that be?' he asked, bewildered; as far as he was aware, he had a lot of spirits left to tackle.
'The Snow Queen herself.'
He paused. 'Uh. What?'
'She is displeased,' Tsumiko continued serenely. 'When she gave up her title of Winter, she trusted it would go to one such as herself – she had carefully groomed every winter spirit for the last ten thousand years, after all. Then Tsukiyomi-sama ruined her plans.'
'The Man in the Moon,' she said. 'Though I've always thought it looked more like a rabbit, myself.'
'So – how did he ruin her plans?'
'He chose someone new to be a winter spirit, where most of us become one through experience. He took you from death and made you live anew. He made you breathe air where before you had been doomed to be swallowed by water.'
'How does everyone know this?' Jack demanded, frustrated. 'It's not like I walk around with a damn sign saying 'this guy right here? Resurrected and undrowned', is it?!'
'To us, those of us who are connected to life and death,' she said, 'and the act of ending it? We always know when our prey has escaped. You carry –' a word in Japanese, one she was having trouble translating. 'A light, around your body?'
'That,' she nodded, looking satisfied. 'You are different. And you took the gift Tsukiyomi-sama gave you and made of it something new. Your natural happiness and bravery and determination made you what you are, and you are something she cannot corrupt.'
'So she's angling to cut me down, then,' Jack said, leaning on his staff. 'Rude.'
Tsumiko laughed, the sound like far off icicles cracking and shattering into the earth. 'Very much so, and frowned upon by those of us who are civilised, or already convinced of you. Two stand with her, though, and they are dangerous. The Frost Giants of the far north, and the Ice Wraiths of the far south.'
'Oh, great,' Jack groaned. 'Money says they won't attack one by one, huh?'
'Indeed,' she said, and stood. 'But in doing so, she breaks her own rules. You should be free to ask for assistance of your own. Defeat her, and the frost giants will bend, the ice wraiths will break.' She smiled. 'We stand with you, Fuyu-sama. Always.'
That hit his heart hard, in a weird way, and his throat felt a little funny. 'Thank you, Tsumiko-san.'
'Just Tsumiko, for you,' she said. 'Now, someone comes. Meet him. Gather your allies. The Snow Queen will make her stand in her palace, at the South Pole. And when you return, my sisters and I will look forward to many fruitful winters.'
Jack winced. 'Try to stick to – I dunno, assholes or something?' he asked. 'No kids. Just people who – I don't want to say deserve it, but –'
'We'll do our best, because you have asked,' she said. Her smile was somehow less twisted now. 'Goodbye, Fuyu-sama.'
She dissolved into snowflakes, and the last of the winds came and scattered the storm, revealing the sun once more. The Wind descended and lifted him up a bit, buoying him. 'That went really well,' he told her, finding the head of her invisible, weasel-like body and scritching at her chin. 'Nice to have someone not want to kill me for a change.'
'Wouldn't know what not wanting to kill ye feels like, mate,' said Bunny's voice, deeply murderous. 'Seems to be me natural state of being right now.'
Jack of three days ago would have panicked, but then, Jack of three days ago hadn't spoken to Eve, hadn't spoken to Tsumiko.
Jack of right now just flipped backwards, floating upside down and grinning at Bunny's furious face. 'Hi there, Bun-bun,' he said cheerfully. 'What's got your ears in a knot?'
Bunny stalked over, and Jack rose in the air, hopefully out of Bunny's reach.
'Ye sprint off, then when I do find ye, ye're hidden in a blizzard with a cannibal spirit all by yerself,' he spat out. 'Couldn't see ye, couldn't hear ye, could have been a pile of bones for all I knew – get down here, lemme see if ye hurt yerself again –'
'We didn't even fight, Bunny,' Jack said, floating a bit higher than before, just to be safe. Now that they were friends (who'da thunk? Jack thought a little giddily), it was a different kind of fun, pissing Bunny off. It didn't feel mean-spirited in either direction. 'No reason I'd be hurt.'
'Ye didn't fight?' Bunny repeated. His eyes were wide, ears up in surprise. 'How'd ye manage that?'
'Apparently I saved their lives ages ago,' Jack said as casually as he could, and was delighted when Bunny's ear notched forward a few degrees. 'Even got her to agree to only try to eat, you know, people who sort of deserve it. Can't make her not eat people, but I can definitely keep her away from kids.'
'Ye did what?'
'So surprised, Bunny,' Jack said, floating down a little daringly. 'I can talk to people, you know. Make them listen to me. Turns out I'm kind of sort of in charge of a lot of people now.'
'Ye made the yuki-onna promise to not eat –' Bunny seemed a little stuck on this. 'Really?'
'What can I say, very persuasive when I want to be,' Jack said, grinning.
'Ye've got a lot of tickets on yerself, I'll give ye that,' Bunny said at last, but it was a little weak. Jack was pretty pleased with himself, and flipped upright again.
'Well, there's still a little thing,' Jack said, and held his thumb and forefinger apart a smidge. 'Tiny thing, really.'
'I've kind of got to defeat the Snow Queen,' Jack said, bland. 'Who's apparently got all the Frost Giants and Ice Wraiths on her side. So. You know. That.'
Bunny's ears flattened, and it wasn't in embarrassment for once. This was visibly fear. 'Jack,' he said, and reached out for him. Jack, surprised, let his wrist get caught, let Bunny's paw envelop his hand. 'Ye – ye're not walking away from that. No one could. Ye can't do this.'
'Kind of have to,' Jack said, entire being focussed on Bunny's palm in his. 'She's apparently real pissy that I'm not following her rules.'
'Jack, ye'll die,' Bunny insisted, his grip tightening. 'If it was just her, maybe ye'd – what am I saying, ye'd blow her out of the water.'
Jack went violet, but Bunny seemed not to notice.
'But a frost giant is no laughing matter, much less all of them,' he continued. 'And ice wraiths are fast, and sharp, and an army of them – ye'll get torn to shreds –'
'Good thing you'll be with me, huh?' Jack asked brightly.
'Too right I will be!' Bunny snapped, then froze. 'I'll what?'
'Tsumiko – the yuki-onna, nice girl, actually – said the Snow Queen's breaking her own rules. Which means I can have help.' Jack grinned sunnily at Bunny, who was staring at him, ears twitching between two unidentifiable emotions. 'So let's go gather my army, Bunny! Time's a wasting!'
'Aster,' Bunny said, which wasn't the answer Jack was expecting.
'Aster,' Bunny said, looking at Jack, ears settling at an angle Jack had never seen. 'Me name is Aster.'
Jack stared back, because – 'I haven't done anything, though,' he sputtered. 'I haven't saved your life, or even been very nice to you –'
'Names were earned a few different ways, Jack,' Bunny said, and Jack noted in some distant part of himself that he was being towed in closer, but he didn't really understand. He wasn't understanding at all. 'We gave our names to people who'd fought beside us, who'd saved our lives. We gave them to friends, or people we swore loyalty to. And we gave them,' here Bunny (Aster, Jack thought dazedly, his name is Aster) took a deep breath. 'We gave them to people we admired, and cared for.'
Then the towing made sense, because Aster had pulled him in, in reach of his arms, which he set on Jack's waist. Admittedly, it only made sense to Jack's brain for a minute, because then holy shit was that Aster's mouth on Jack's mouth –
Jack snapped to attention, hands digging into Aster's fur and burying deep, dragging him in tighter, and pressing his lips as hard as he could against Aster's without drawing blood.
He'd only kissed one other person before – some girl when he'd been alive, blond-haired and brown-eyed, whose name was as out of his memory as the sensation of his first kiss. This was so new in comparison, in so many ways – Aster's fur and Aster's warmth, his paws pressed flat to Jack's back and his chest flat to Jack's, his breath damp and hot on Jack's lips, and he was making a high whining noise that was immediately Jack's favourite noise in the world. It was like Jack had never kissed anyone before at all.
Jack dropped into Aster's hold, trusting his weight to Aster's grip, and hooked his legs over Aster's hips. Aster didn't even stumble, just moved his paws to hold Jack up by his thighs, and kissed like he'd been dying for it.
He pulled away at last (or at least, pulled away and Jack didn't immediately follow with his mouth), and looked at Jack, fur mussed, eyes wide. 'I'm not going to lie,' he said, ears falling flat. 'Not sure what to do now. I expected ye to punch me.'
'Now, we do what I said we'd do,' Jack said, and realised he was grinning, so hard and so wide that he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to stop. 'We're going to go get my army. Mini army. Cavalry? Rouse the troops, yadda yadda yadda. Then we're defeating a Snow Queen. Then, once everything is all sorted out, and we've survived North's big bash –' Aster's eyebrows were rising, so Jack let go of his fur, trusting him to hold him up, and forced them back down. 'Don't make that face,' Jack said, grinning widely at the disgruntled set of Aster's mouth. 'You know he's going to insist on one.'
'Probably,' Aster agreed, sounding confused. 'But what does that have to do with –'
'Then I'm going to use 'holy shit that was a long battle, wow I'm super tired, I bet I got hurt somehow, Bunny come make sure I'm okay' as our excuse,' Jack interrupted, 'and then you and I? We're going to have a long talk. About a lot of things. Also, a lot of this.'
He kissed Aster again, the feeling just as surprising and new and lovely as it had been before. Aster's mouth curved into an understanding grin under Jack's lips, and then he made the whining noise again, probably because Jack was petting at his ears, which haha knew it.
Not that, you know, Jack had ever thought about it. Ever. Really.
'You're just a giant rabbit at heart, aren't you?' Jack murmured as he pulled away, trailing his fingers down to Aster's jaw. 'If I scratch under your chin when you're big like this, are you going to do the same thing you did when Jaime did it, or –'
'Don't even start with me, Jackie,' Aster warned, visibly warring between pressing into Jack's hands and leaning away from them. 'M serious. I don't want to scent mark ye by accident.'
Jack frowned for a minute, then the grin was back. 'Wait, like a real rabbit? That's hilarious.'
'It means a bit more than it does with an earth rabbit, Jack,' Aster said, deadly serious. 'It's the kind of thing ye give people who – aren't going anywhere.'
Jack thought about that. 'Maybe later,' he said. 'We'll see where we are.'
Aster managed to look both relieved and regretful when Jack moved his hands back up to the massive ears that he had a feeling were going to become his favourite thing to fiddle with. 'And ye're okay with this?' Aster asked, and bizarrely, there was the sound of anxiety in his voice – which, wow, no. Jack wasn't going to be the cause of that, not if he could help it. But if he wanted to be clear, then he'd have to say – and then he'd know – but who else was Jack going to tell first? Eve didn't count, she'd known already.
'I, uh,' Jack said, stumbling a bit over the size of what he was going to admit, but determined to get it out. 'Kind of figured out it wasn't hope I was feeling when you looked at me. Recently. Like, woke up in the Warren recently.' He shrugged a little helplessly. 'Kind of figured I was fucked about it all, though. I mean, there's you,' and now he grinned as helplessly as he'd shrugged, 'and then there's me. I'm kind of an asshole. A moody asshole. Who stands a good chance of dying in the next twenty four hours.' He took a deep breath. 'Again.'
Aster looked a little stunned, and Jack gave him some time to sort through all of that, because he had just dumped a lot of information on Aster's metaphorical lap.
'Hold on,' Aster said, and sat on the stone Tsumiko had left clear of snow. This left Jack sitting on Aster's literal lap, which was kind of making his brain not work. There was a long moment, in which Jack guessed Aster's brain wasn't working either (point to team Frost AND team Aster, he thought smugly, because it was always better when everyone could win), and Aster's thumbs were rubbing circles into Jack's hipbones. Which was. Oh, wow, that was awesome. And distracting. 'Ye've said that before.'
'The already dead thing.'
Jack swallowed. Of course that was the part Aster zeroed in on. 'Yeeeaaah,' Jack drew out the word before sighing. 'I, uh. Well, I'm not dead anymore. Eve said so.'
'Ye were ever dead?'
'Not for very long,' Jack tried to say lightly. 'It's... sort of not a great story. I don't want to talk about it right now.'
Aster nodded. 'That's fair. But ye died?'
'And then the Man in the Moon brought me back,' Jack agreed. 'To be Jack Frost. It was in my box of teeth.'
Aster's paws tightened on Jack's waist, and before Jack could lean away, could try to escape, Aster wrapped him in the warmest embrace Jack could remember. 'I'm sorry, Jack,' he said softly. 'That it happened, and that ye felt ye couldn't tell us.'
Jack couldn't respond, his voice stilled in his throat, and very slowly returned the hug. In some ways, a hug was easier to return than a kiss. In others, it was harder.
'I'm okay, Aster,' Jack said at last, and Aster's paws tightened further. 'I am. The, uh, the lake monster wasn't a great experience, but I'm okay, and I'm alive.' He hugged back harder for a moment. 'I didn't know. I thought I was dead.'
'Course ye're alive,' Aster said, voice muffled a bit from how his mouth was pressed into Jack's shoulder. 'I could've told ye that.'
'Well, just assume I'm not the brightest star in the sky, okay?' Jack huffed.
Aster kissed his shoulder – a lingering warmth Jack could feel right through the sweatshirt – and pulled back again.
'Let's go get yer army, then,' he said. 'Who are they?'
'So, big awkward get together time,' Jack said cheerfully, and the six spirits he'd gathered managed, by dint of a miracle, to all give him the precise same look at the precise same moment. 'Oh, come on, this is like the worst idea I've ever had,' Jack sighed, putting his hands on his hips. 'The least you guys could do is look nervous about it.'
'Nervous?' North boomed. 'I haven't had such fun in ages!'
'Ye would be rapt about a war on,' Aster muttered.
'You'd think the battle with Pitch would have gotten it out of my system,' Tooth said excitedly to Eve, 'but my goodness, there's nothing quite like a big battlefield to get the blood going.'
'Literally,' Eve said, eyes flashing orange. 'Nice to meet you, Sandman!'
Sandy's hand waved, but he didn't stop with his litany of excited signs to Lugh, who was looking a bit bemused, at least.
'My last big battle was against the Fomori, some time ago,' he said, and hefted a spear that looked both very heavy and very golden. 'Though that whole 'throwing it between the toes' thing didn't happen. The early bards tended to be drunk all of the time.'
Jack looked at them all, squabbling and sharpening swords and helping one another with buckles, and grinned. He still understood where he'd been only – god, less than a month ago. Too many people could still be overwhelming, and he still worried that the four of the six who didn't know about his death might be upset when they learned.
But above them shone the noon-day moon, present now in the sky above the North Pole, and Jack could accept that these people made him happy. Maybe they frustrated him, too, and drove him crazy, but since the happiness was the bigger part, it was okay.
Aster looked up from where he was tending to his boomerangs, and caught Jack's gaze. He grinned softly, and Jack smiled back. They still had to talk. They were going to fight, a lot. But things were good, again, and would keep being good, so long as Jack could survive what was coming.
The thought sobered him some, and he swallowed. Aster's face grew concerned, but before he could turn on mother hen mode, North stood at last, bristling with swords and looking as though Christmas had come early.
Jack snorted under his breath at that thought, mainly because if he laughed aloud, he'd have to explain the joke.
'Are we all ready?' North asked, a manic gleam in his blue eyes. 'Hurry, hurry! I haven't had opportunity to use some of these beauties since the last great War!'
'Which one?' Tooth asked curiously, taking flight and hovering above them all.
'Whichever one was most recent, I do not remember,' North said dismissively. 'I do remember fire sprites, and my ship was on fire –'
'So not one of the human ones, then,' Jack muttered. Eve beside him cackled.
'Oh, you'd be surprised,' she said. 'Seems like just about every spirit enjoys joining in with those from time to time. At least, mine do!' Her grin was wicked and green. 'Goodness, it's the witches who kept Hitler off American soil, haha! And you wouldn't believe how involved the mkole-mbembe became during the Belgian Congo era – they're half the reason that any of the natives survived unscathed, the way they defended the rivers.' She paused, then gave Jack a distinctly orange look. 'Might be that the Mkole-Mbembe are yours now, though.'
'God, I hope not,' Jack said fervently, and she laughed again, the sound eerie and reminiscent of cold nights and cracking branches. Jack looked at her curiously; she bore no blade, nor any other weapon he would see. 'What do you use?' he asked, gesturing with his staff at the various weapons about.
'Oh, you'll see,' she said cheerfully. 'I'd hate to spoil the surprise – it's so rare that I get to show off for new people!'
Tooth smiled down at her. 'When we've finished up,' she said, dropping to hover in front of Eve and Jack, 'I wanted to talk to you about some sugar-free alternatives you could use for your sweets this year.'
Eve's gaze turned calculating. 'Fat chance, Ms. Dent-O-Fresh,' she said, stepping back a bit. 'You Guardians don't have a monopoly yet, and I'm not letting you get a foothold in my hol.'
'But even the fruit is candy-coated!' Tooth exclaimed, setting her hands on her hips. 'Couldn't you just –'
Jack stepped away hurriedly, because Eve's eyes were beginning to glow like a jack-o-lantern and Tooth was starting to scowl. His steps knocked him into Aster, who was padding over, and nearly sent both of them into the ground.
'Sorry, A – Bunny,' Jack said, catching himself in time.
'Don't ye worry none about that,' Aster chided. 'If ye all have me permission to use me name, I'm not going to spit the dummy if ye slip up. Are ye ready?'
'About as ready as I can be,' Jack agreed, and shifted his staff from one hand to the other in emphasis. 'Looks like everyone else is, too.'
'Alright then,' Aster nodded, a strange look settling into his eyes and a new (or old, Jack suspected) angle in his ears. 'All ye bludgers, come over,' he called out to the others. 'Last minute check of strategy.'
'Must we?' North sighed. 'You know as well as I, Bunny, that plans always end up thrown out of window.'
'Better to have something to chuck out the window than nothing at all, mate,' Aster pointed out. 'Flyers?'
Tooth and Sandy stepped up.
'Ye know what to do,' he said. 'Keep high, move fast, and keep the rest of us in the loop. Take out what ye can, but don't get wrapped up in it – I'm looking at ye, Sandy.'
Sandy rolled his eyes, making Jack snort.
'Close up fighters?'
North and Eve traded nods, both looking way too eager for this, in Jack's opinion.
'Stick close to one another, keep each other to yer back, and don't get separated. Ye're clearing the way, understand? Our goal isn't to wipe everything out, Nick. And Eve –' he sighed a little. 'Don't go too troppo, yeah?'
'I have no idea what you are talking about,' she said brightly.
'Then, Lugh, ye and me are in charge of the long distance. We're going to flank Jack, keep as much of the riff raff off him as possible.'
Lugh nodded, and Jack eyed the spear. 'Seems like a one-shot kind of thing,' he said dubiously.
Lugh grinned, glowing with all the brightness of an August sun, and lifted the spear high. In answer, shimmering into being like sunbeams, arrived about a dozen shining copies, floating about his head.
'Haven't run out of ammunition yet,' he said, dismissing the copies with a wave of a golden hand.
Jack grinned back, impressed. 'Cool trick.'
'Are we good, now?' North said, and Aster nodded. 'Excellent! To the sleigh!'
'Er,' Aster said, 'I'll be taking me tunnels, thanks.'
'Oh, I've never ridden in the sleigh!' Eve said, sounding excited. 'Must be fast, to get around all in one night!'
Jack gave Aster a sympathetic look as he shuddered. 'You could say that,' Jack told her. 'Just, uh, no seatbelts. Might want to hold on.'
'Now, why would I do that?' Eve said, mischievous grin firmly in place. 'Come on, let's go!'
The others began to make their way out, but Aster caught Jack's elbow in a warm paw. 'One minute, Jackie,' he said softly, and Jack turned back, head quirked to the side.
'Yer job is to take out the Snow Queen.' Aster's face was earnest and solemn, and stilled the 'no fucking duh' that wanted to rise out of Jack's throat. 'As quickly as possible. No matter what happens to the rest of us, ye need to focus on that.'
'I'm not going to ignore it if one of you gets hurt,' Jack said, frowning. 'That's – nuh-uh, sorry, Aster, but if one of you gets hurt, I'm coming after you.'
'The best thing ye could do is to finish it quickly,' Aster insisted firmly. 'The faster this is over, the more likely we are to come through right as rain. And –' his eyebrows drew down, his ears tucked themselves down in something partway between determination and fear. 'Ye win, alright? She's not going to give in. I admire that ye've managed to do most of this without killing, all of these years, but she'll just keep coming back. She's – stubborn, in her ways.'
'If I can win without killing her, I will.'
'That's what I'm saying, Jack,' Aster said, stepping forward and looming, scowl of epic proportions on his face. 'Ye can't. She won't let ye. She'll agree to surrender, then stab ye in the back. She's the only Season I've never given me name to. She won't stop, Jack, until she's won, even if it takes another three centuries or three ages.'
Jack took to the air, cancelling out Aster's height advantage. 'Maybe not,' he said. 'But I'm done, Aster. These are rules she made up, you get that? She made them up because they made it easier for her to win. Not the Moon. Not Winter itself. She's been cheating since the beginning. And so if I can make new rules, then I will.' He tried to sound as serious as he ever could, as absolute. 'I'm not like her, Aster. Her game's rigged, and I'm not going to play it.'
Aster looked at him for a moment, green eyes heavy, and then he sighed. 'Worth a shot,' he said, sounding resigned. 'Then ye win, ye got it? We just got ye into the fold, ye know,' and now he smiled. 'Took some work, and I'd hate to see it all go to waste.'
'Me, lose?' Jack said, grinning. 'Have I ever?'
'Not that I've seen,' Aster replied, serious again, and that was – Jack felt warm inside, without Aster's paws or his mouth, just warm because Aster had faith in him.
Aster believed in him.
'Come here, you overgrown rabbit,' Jack said, and pulled Aster into a hug.
Aster buried his face in Jack's neck, the height advantage going to the flyer for once, and Jack, in a wave of ridiculous affection for someone who pissed him off so much, kissed Aster's left ear.
'Come on, before one of the others comes back looking for us,' Jack said quietly. 'If they find out before we tell them, we'll never hear the end of it.'
Aster chuckled, breath warm against Jack's skin, and stepped away. 'Absolutely not,' he said, looking at Jack fondly, exasperatedly, a million things in his eyes and if Jack won, he'd have all the time in the world to learn them all. 'If ye win, I'm kissing ye, whether or not they know beforehand.'
'Celebratory sex will have to wait, though,' Jack said thoughtfully, for the pure pleasure of watching Aster choke in surprise. Jack grinned at Aster's sputtering, and after a moment, Aster was grinning too.
'Then let's get cracking,' Aster said, and fell into step beside Jack as they went to meet their friends.
Jack kept pace with the sleigh, instead of sitting in it; the Wind was all but plastered to his side, and he was grinning. He felt good.
Aster, who had once again been thrown into the sleigh against his will, looked like he wanted to punch everything in sight, especially when North cheerfully threatened more loop-de-loops.
Eve was delighted with it, and chattering to Lugh, who looked somewhere between amused and nervous himself.
'S'not natural,' Aster was muttering over and over again when Jack perched on the back of the sleigh near his head. 'She doesn't fly. She's a tree, she shouldn't be so rapt about it. Whose crackpot idea was this –'
'To be fair,' Jack said, 'I was all for letting you use your tunnels. You need to stop letting your guard down around North.'
'Don't ye think for one bloody moment that I didn't hear ye and Eve cackling when he threw me in,' Aster snapped back. 'Ye all were in on it.'
'Keep being such an old grump and I'll be forced to make you happy,' Jack threatened, joy-flake swirling to life between his fingers.
'Ye don't need that to make me happy,' Aster said tersely, and Jack was torn between flushing violet and hitting him with the joy-flake anyway.
Now that he could touch Aster, it was sort of hard to not touch him, Jack was finding. Only the thought of Tooth's face when Aster planted one on him after all this was enough to keep Jack's hands away from Aster's ears, which were laid as flat as they physically could be against Aster's skull. If he shifted a bit to his left, though, and dropped his hand...
Jack began to gently stroke the ends of Aster's ears, and slowly, very slowly, Aster began to relax a bit. Which was awesome. It was going to be so hard to not use this new power for evil, god, but Jack knew this was a fragile, new state of affairs; the last thing he wanted was to have the touching privileges revoked because of a prank.
None of the others seemed to notice, and Jack grinned, satisfied. They were passing over the southernmost tip of Argentina, and a tension was at last beginning to eat away at the enthusiasm – even North was quiet now, the gravity of the situation setting in. The further south they got, the deeper into night it became, until the quarter moon and Sandy and Lugh's glows were the only light. They were going to face down two armies of magical creatures and one pissed off Snow Queen. Jack dug his fingers into the fur at the back of Aster's neck.
Aster pressed back into the touch, just the slightest bit, which was awesome, and did a lot to ease some of Jack's tension. Eve looked over at him, and smiled curiously.
'You're very cheery,' she remarked as they left the last of the land behind. 'Nervous?'
'A little,' Jack admitted, rubbing his fingertips into the skin beneath the fur. Aster shuffled closer, as subtly as he could, and the idea of the great trick they were going to play, this excellent joke, was enough to make Jack grin wider. As it turned out, playing pranks with Bunny was just as awesome as playing them on him. 'But I've got all of you with me. This is going to be a piece of –'
Something, fast and freezing, smashed into him from his right, knocking him off the sleigh. He tumbled through the air, startled, before the Wind caught him and tossed him back up to the sleigh's level, and his flight stuttered a little before it stabilised.
There were cries from up ahead, where the sleigh was still speeding onward, and Jack could see North turning it around, but it wouldn't be in time.
His attacker was – segmented, like a scaled worm, and snapped this way and that with cracking noises like glass hitting metal. An ice wraith, he realised. And not one that was happy to see them.
'So I'm guessing you're the scout,' Jack said cheerfully, dodging a hissing bite. 'Sorry, but I can't let you run off and tell her where we are, precisely.'
He reached for the ice magic, the little seed inside him that he'd first envisioned when he'd crafted the storm over Mt. Fuji. He didn't want to hurt anything, and the magic knew that; he wanted to make people and spirits and just about anything that could be happy, happy. The magic knew that, too.
But so too did the magic understand that there had to be consequences for bad actions, and while pain and death were not within its reach, the way it had always been told, restraint was.
The magic leapt from his fingers, deceptively fragile and thin, and looped around the ice wraith's neck before tightening.
The ice wraith shrieked in fury when it realised Jack had collared it, and began to thrash, diving and bucking and trying its best to snap the lead now wrapped around Jack's hand.
Jack laughed, and let it wear itself out, towing him this way and that until its meagre strength faded; ice wraiths were fast and sharp, he knew, but they weren't made for endurance. By the time the sleigh had returned, Tooth flying from her anxious perch and Aster as close to the edge as he dared, Jack was patiently floating and waiting for them.
'Think I might name it Spot,' he said brightly as he dropped into the seat between Aster and Lugh, not even winded. The ice wraith made a faint whistling noise, not unlike a whine, and slumped tiredly over the curve of the sleigh's back.
'Spot?' Lugh repeated from his right. 'Like – a dog?'
'Less furry,' Jack agreed. 'Better trained. The Wind will help me out. You okay, Bun-bun?'
'Ye're bleeding,' Aster said, staring at Jack's right shoulder, which actually stung a little, now that Jack realised. He looked over, and the blue fabric of his sweatshirt, so recently mended, was stained a growing purple.
'Great,' he muttered, and poked it with a finger; ice spread over the abrasion, sealing it up, and he carefully froze the edges of the fabric in place, so that later, he'd actually be able to fix it. He looked back over, where Aster was still staring. 'What?'
'That can't be good for it, mate,' Aster said, looking both like he'd like very much to wrap it up himself, and like he wanted to smack Jack a bit.
'Hasn't done me any harm in three hundred years, Bunny,' Jack replied, and nudged him with his shoulder. 'It's temporary, don't worry.'
'Oh, Jack,' Tooth sighed, and Jack jumped; for a solid thirty seconds, he'd actually forgotten there was anyone in the world other than him and Aster. 'Next time, just let us bandage it, please.'
Jack made a face, but nodded; that was easier than protesting. He set his left hand down on the bench beside him, unwinding the lead a bit, and frowned. It wasn't a big deal, really, was it? It didn't hurt – it actually soothed the stinging – and kept him from bleeding more. He'd done it hundreds of times.
Aster's paw settled atop his, casually enough that no one noticed, and Jack looked up.
'It doesn't hurt ye?' Aster asked, and Jack shook his head. 'Then she's apples. Don't worry about it.'
The ice wraith made the whining, whistling noise, and Jack turned to look at it. 'You okay, Spot?'
There was a moment of visible confusion in the way the ice wraith twisted, and the way it cringed away from Jack's hand. 'Hey, hey,' Jack said, alarmed, and turned completely, kneeling on the seat. 'It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. Didn't hurt you before, did I?'
The ice wraith was clearly unable to speak in any way, but it made the whining noise again, and that sucked. 'Look,' Jack said, holding his hands out. 'I'll let you go, okay?'
'Not good idea, Jack!' North called back, but to Jack's surprise, Aster shushed him.
Carefully, Jack broke the lead he'd caught the ice wraith with, crumbling the ice to snow in his fingers. The ice wraith held still, even when it was free, and Jack leaned away, to give it space.
'See? Not going to hurt you,' he said softly. It may be a spirit of some kind, a magical creature, but it was an animal, and Jack had spent three hundred years with just about only animals for company. 'No one's going to hurt you.'
The whining noise, and it shifted a bit; Aster's paw landed on his forearm, as if to jerk it back, when the ice wraith lifted its sharp head and nuzzled gently at Jack's fingertips.
Jack grinned, feeling like light was spilling out of his skin, and carefully picked up the ice wraith, minding the sharp edges. 'See, what'd I tell you?' he crooned, the Wind coming to investigate. 'Like a dog. Less furry. Way more nervous. Poor Spot's probably never had someone be kind to him.' Jack paused in his absent-minded scritching and turned again to sit properly. 'Or her. Or it. Whatever it is.'
'Jack?' Tooth said faintly. 'Did you just – tame an ice wraith? The things that tear planes to shreds in the air and rip tents and leave hikers to freeze to death?'
'Yeah, no more of that,' Jack scolded, frowning at Spot. 'It's rude. You could hurt kids.'
Beside him, on either side, were twin snorts. He looked at Lugh and Aster, scowling. 'What?'
'Suddenly I believe you,' Lugh said to Aster over Jack's head.
'Told ye he'd told off the yuki-onna,' Aster replied, sounding proud. Jack went purple. 'And none of ye believed me.'
'It's one thing to be told, and another to see it,' Eve said, staring. 'Is it – purring?'
There was a low-level chittering noise coming from it, which Jack noted got stronger the more his scratched under its chin. 'Maybe closer to cat?' he thought aloud. 'I'm not changing its name now, though.'
Sandy was visibly laughing, trying to sign something but unable to get the coherence together. Jack grinned at him, and Spot stirred in his arms.
'Jack,' Aster said, and nodded towards the white mass they were drawing up on. 'We're almost there.'
Jack swallowed, and only kept from trying to get another hug (man, those things are addictive) by remembering that he could get a kiss later. From the way Aster was looking at him, it was a mutual feeling. 'Cool,' he said, and let Spot take to the air again. It spilled around and let the Wind study it, from the way it would get buoyed occasionally, as if nudged around. 'You don't have to come with me,' he told Spot, catching its head with gentle fingers. 'I'm not dumb. There's a reason you thought I'd hurt you, and I'll bet anything that it's because she would. You don't have to go back.'
Spot whined again, and nudged forward, rubbing its cheek against Jack's nose. Jack felt like he'd lit up again, and so took a moment to realise it was a literal thing.
Blue light was spilling out of his fingers, where they rested on Spot's body, and shone through the ice, shifting and gleaming. The segments became smooth, the spikes melting away; the face grew softer, the eyes kinder. After a moment, the light faded, and he had no idea what he was holding.
'What just happened?' Jack asked weakly.
'I haven't seen one of those for five hundred years,' Eve said, reverent. 'That's an ice dragon.'
Spot twisted and gamboled around him, the Wind singing her approval, and Jack stared at his own hands.
'Ice wraiths started showing up around then,' Lugh remarked, sounding curious and distantly disturbed. 'Do you think –'
Sandy interrupted him with a quick flash of symbols – a tall, thin figure in billowing robes, taking an ice dragon in her hands; something that looked kind of like lightning; then the sharp, grotesque figure of an ice wraith.
'She changed them?' Jack demanded, an anger rising in him. 'Into – that's so fucked up.'
Ice crackled up his arms in his frustration, thickening on his sleeves, and he grit his teeth. 'What was even the point of that? Why would she do that?' he asked through his teeth. 'They didn't – they didn't do anything!' He paused, looked at Eve. 'I've never even heard of them.'
'You wouldn't have,' she said heavily. 'They were few in number, and quite peaceful. They were known to guide people lost in snowstorms to safety.' Her eyes were orange. 'They were good, kind creatures.'
The ice on his arms was getting thick, and he could feel it creeping up his neck, into his hair. 'And – what, she did it just because they weren't like her?' he said, voice low and furious. 'Because she thought –' he growled under his breath.
Jack turned his head and looked at Aster, who wore a strange look on his face. Jack lifted his eyebrows, waiting.
'Later,' Aster sighed, and cuffed his shoulder. 'Just – rein in the ice, yeah? Ye're getting cold enough to give a bloke blisters.'
Jack flinched, horrified, and Aster's eyes widened. 'A joke, Jack,' he said hastily. 'Just a joke.'
Jack relaxed a little, but the ice had already retreated, thinning on his sleeves and melting away from his skin. 'Sorry,' he said, and Spot whined again, nuzzling at his cheek comfortingly.
Aster visibly bit back a reply, and there was an aborted motion of his arm – Jack was pretty sure that he was fighting back the need to hug Jack again, which was almost as good as the hug in question.
'We are arriving!' North called back, and they made a sudden jerk downwards. Now it was Aster whining, high in his throat, and it wasn't a whine Jack liked. The hand not clutching his staff shot out and hooked around Aster's waist, fingers wrapping tight at the notch of Aster's left hip, and then they jolted to a landing. He let go before anyone could see, but the grateful look Aster shot him was worth the brevity of contact.
Jack hopped into the air and grinned wide at him. 'Come on, Bun-bun,' he said, and held out the free hand. 'Let's go make her pay.'
Aster's grin was dangerous now, and he let Jack tug him to his feet. Jack winked back (careful, Jack, don't get too obvious now) and let go before spinning up into the air and getting a good look. The Wind screeched up and away, Spot following her, and though he couldn't see where they had gone, he trusted them to be safe.
He, the Guardians, and the Seasons were perched atop a great ice-shelf, a sheer drop separating them from what looked like the most roiling fog Jack had ever seen. Amidst the tumultuous snow and ice, though, he knew there would be the lithe bodies of the ice wraiths – the dragons, he corrected himself, because while he couldn't ask his friends to not fight them, anything left over would be his job to fix. He would untwist them, the way he had with Spot.
Behind them were what seemed like the entire population of frost giants, and these, Jack knew, had needed no twisting to follow the Snow Queen – having been scorned and hunted, they probably had gone with her willingly. They were almost twenty feet tall each, thickly built, with pale blue skin and dark blue tattoos. Their grey hair were bound back in complex braid patterns – symbols of status and clan, preferred weapon and litany of deeds. They were intelligent and wise, when they chose to be, and he didn't know what the Snow Queen had promised them to keep them in her service, but he prayed that her defeat would be enough to win their loyalty.
The Snow Queen herself was making her way through the fog, gaze trained on him, and though she was hundreds of feet below him, he could still feel her eyes like pinpricks of glass in his skin.
He flew to the edge of the drop, landing just on the lip of the cliff.
'You come at last, Jack Frost,' she said, and though she did not speak loudly, her voice rolled through the valley her forces were gathered in and echoed as if she had been screaming. She wore a long, rippling gown beneath a thick white cloak. Her arms were bare to the air, and in her left hand, she held a thin, jagged sceptre. It gleamed white-gold in the moonlight.
'The Guardians, I expected,' she continued, 'but the Seasons? Spring, Summer, Autumn,' she tsked. 'I expected you to know better than to meddle in Winter's affairs.'
Jack raised a hand, silencing the outcry he could practically feel building behind him, and shot a grin over his shoulder. 'I got this,' he said quietly, and turned back to the Snow Queen. Still grinning widely, he planted his staff firmly in the snow at his side and lounged against it, hooking an elbow over the crook and letting his weight hang off it.
He was good at a few things. He was good at making storms, and bringing joy. He was good at fixing things, and finding new ways to make things work when they weren't working at all.
And he was very, very good at being annoying.
'Let's cool it on the whole meddling thing, huh?' he asked conversationally. 'Since between your hilarious misconception that anything we do is any of your business and your idea that you aren't meddling, you've got less than a leg to stand on.' He cast an intentionally unimpressed look over her armies. 'So, uh, that's a lot of guys on your side,' he said. 'Bit much for just little ol' me. What, you're not scared of Jack Frost, are you?' He fluttered his eyelashes.
He was pretty sure he could hear her teeth grinding from here, and he was definitely sure he could hear Eve stifling giggles behind him.
'The stories did say you enjoyed babbling,' the Snow Queen said at last, sounding very much like she was trying her level best to remain calm. 'They did not say how much.'
'What can I say,' Jack replied, 'Always did like the sound of my own voice. Though, I blame that squarely on the whole 'never able to stay in one place too long before I get attacked' thing, which makes making friends kind of hard.' He flashed a grin, all teeth and feral anger, down at her, and had the distinct pleasure of watching her take an involuntary step backwards. 'You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?'
'Are you so inconvenienced, then?' she asked, seemingly annoyed with herself. 'Perhaps you'd prefer if I took back the title of Winter. Irresponsible child that you are, you might be relieved.'
'Three hundred and eighteen isn't much of a child,' he said, and flicked his fingers. 'Wait, sorry, forgot you're like ten thousand or something. Must be hard for you to keep up with me, being an old hag and all.'
That was definite laughter from behind him, and from the scowl that was spilling over the Snow Queen's stolid features, she could hear it.
'You are an abomination,' she murmured, stepping back into the cloud of ice wraiths; though she was no longer visible, her voice still rang out. 'A mistake. Interference. The Man in the Moon has overstepped his bounds for the last time.' A freezing laugh. 'You should have stayed dead, Jackson Overland.'
Jack didn't bother flinching, though he could hear Tooth's gasp of dismay loud behind him. 'See, so far, you're the only person who thinks so,' he said. 'I kind of like being alive, myself. Get to meet some interesting people, have some adventures –'
'Do you intend to talk at me until I am too tired to continue?' the Snow Queen snapped.
Jack grinned. 'Is it working?'
The Snow Queen shrieked in rage, finally driven over the edge, and the ice wraiths swirled up like the bottom half of a massive tornado.
From overhead, singing a high pitched war cry, came an avalanche of boreas.
Jack flinched back, startled, and saw Spot – the first of his kind in five hundred years – leading the charge.
'Come, no time to waste!' North shouted gleefully, and leapt past Jack, over the cliff's edge. As he fell, he threw three sparkling orbs at the ground (snowglobes, Jack realised) and from the portals poured a good thirty or forty yeti, each armed to the teeth. Eve was hot on his heels, leaping after him, and in her wake burned green and blue and orange flames. With a triumphant cry and a higher leap than he thought she should be able to make, she dove at the first line of frost giants, and as she went, she changed. Claws like great splinters of wood grew from her hands, and her shoulders shuffled backward, her hips sliding up. When she landed, she was a great wooden lion, burning with the flames that followed in her footsteps and snarling with a fierce joy Jack could feel from here.
Tooth soared past him, Sandy at her side, and they split, Tooth taking the left and Sandy the right. Golden sand wound around the frost giants' ankles and tripped them up; Tooth's swords flashed and left violet sparks in their wake.
Lugh stepped up beside him, shaking his head. 'Always the lion,' he sighed. 'She can take any shape, and she always chooses a lion.' He lifted his spear over his head, and the golden copies sparkled to life, shining down on the battlefield like sunlight. 'Get going, you two,' he advised Jack as Aster came up on his other side. 'Let's not take too long.'
'You got it,' Jack said, and turned to Aster. 'Ready?'
Jack didn't even see Aster grab his boomerangs, so quickly did he spin them into his grip, and the grin he gave Jack would probably haunt his dreams for weeks. 'Let's show her what she's messing with,' he said, and leapt down. Jack followed, and the smile on his face felt like it would never leave.
Jack soared above the heads of the frost giants, trusting Aster to care for himself, and judging from the number of giants toppling in Jack's wake, he was right to put his trust there. He could hear North's laughter and Tooth's shouts, Eve's roars and Lugh's wild calls as he struck down warrior after warrior, and even Sandy's whips of dreamsand made a noise, whistling through the air and lashing out. But loudest of all was the screams of the ice wraiths tangling with the boreas horde, and it was to this knot of shrieks and wind that Jack aimed himself towards now.
The Wind raced to him, screaming her joy, and he couldn't help the fond smile he gave her. 'My little wild thing,' he said, and chucked under her chin. Spot followed her, leaving the boreas to their pitched battle, and whined for his own scratches. 'You two ready to go after the big bad?' he asked, and got one screech and one whine in answer. 'Awesome. Let's go.'
He skirted the great cyclone of boreas and wraith, the sounds of ice crashing into wind like great cymbals in his ears, and floated down gently before the Snow Queen, who waited with an impassive face.
Up close, she ceased looking human, only human-shaped; she had to be at least eight feet tall, and looked brittle-thin. Her eyes were clear as pure ice, and her hair, twisted up into a complex-crown-like style, glittered blue in the moonlight.
Spot and the Wind flanked him, keeping an eye out for anything sneaking in to strike him from the back. She smiled at that, and Jack had the feeling that once, in a far off day, she had perhaps possessed a kind face.
'Perhaps this is how it always should have been,' she said, lifting her chin. 'None but you and I, and your inevitable and deserved death at the end.'
'Lady, no one's dying today,' Jack said, shifting his grip on his staff. 'Not even you, if I can help it.'
'You still cling to your false ideals,' she simpered, circling left. 'Joy and mercy. There is nothing of either in winter, save the mercy of death to the weak and the joy of feeding to the strong.'
'You know, I'm sorry you feel that way,' Jack replied, feeling an angry possessiveness rising in him, locking into place between his joints and behind his teeth. 'But that was your Winter. Mine's a little different.'
She didn't bother replying, only struck out with a stabbing thrust of her sceptre; Jack twirled to the side, out of reach, and tried to hook his staff around the edge, to jerk it out of her grasp. She dropped it and caught it in her other hand, ducking back from his swipe. Wherever she stepped, diamond dust arose, and Jack's Wind blew it away from his skin.
Jack focussed on this trade of blows, this complex dance of struggle, his teeth grit tight and all laughter gone from his face. The Snow Queen wore a permanent snarl now, her face as grotesquely twisted as any Yuki-onna, and she was fast. She didn't land any of her slashes with the blade of her sceptre, but neither could Jack so much as give her a good whack, which was quickly becoming his dearest wish, because she wouldn't shut up.
'Little Jack Frost,' she taunted, not even sounding winded. 'Didn't any of these so-called friends of yours ever reach out to help? Didn't they care?' She caught his staff with the edge of one of her sceptre's jagged spines, and he was forced to roll forward and past her or lose his grip entirely. 'Or did they leave you alone? Did they hate you, Jack?' Her snarl was beginning to curve up into a smile, as if she was trying to be sympathetic. 'Don't you know that's how we are?'
'Wow, and you said I talk too much,' Jack snapped, then yelped as, when he blocked one of her slashes with his staff, she shoved with all her might. He tumbled backwards, head over heels over head, and caught himself in a tight crouch twenty feet away.
'That's what it means to be Winter, Jack Frost!' the Snow Queen declared, holding her sceptre out and pointing at him. 'To be alone, and hated! We are as we have been made, and that will never change! You want to be Joy? You want to be a Guardian?' she laughed, the sound like the cracking of ice floes and howling blizzards. 'Then you should never have tried to be Winter!'
'Lady, I didn't try to be anything!' Jack shouted back, baring his teeth. 'But this is how I am, and even if I could choose to be something else, I wouldn't!'
'You wouldn't choose to be happy? To be safe?' she asked, then cast a sly glance behind him. 'For the ones you love to be safe?'
'They'd be just fine if you'd fucking let it go already!' He growled, and gathered his magic in his hands, and shot it out from the crook of his staff.
A great spear of ice, two feet long and as thick around as his palm, crackled into being and flew at her. She was forced to swirl to the side, disappearing in her perpetual diamond dust and reappearing, gasping, a few feet away; an expensive trick, Jack was guessing, and took aim again.
'Cede,' he said, 'and I won't freeze you solid.'
'Freeze me solid?' she said, sounding bizarrely – amused, which put Jack on edge. 'Let me show you what freezing solid means!'
She stabbed her sceptre towards the sky, and from the needle-like tip poured cloud and snow, flying up into the air and growing thicker as it climbed higher. Jack braced himself against the snow, staff held up defensively.
'I will make of this world something new!' she called out as the storm began to groan and rumble, a mad light dancing in her clear eyes. 'A new Ice Age, more terrible than any before it! All that is weak will die away, and all that is strong will remain!'
Jack realised with a sickening clarity that Aster had been right – she wouldn't stop, she wouldn't give in. There was nothing he could say or do to convince her to back down. She was in this to the death, even if Jack wanted to spare her.
From the storm (how did she make that so quickly, fucking hell what is that sceptre) came a great roar, and green sparks, sickly looking and sharp, leapt from cloud to cloud. Jack stepped back against his will, because that was thundersnow, and he could do a lot of things, but lightning? That was going to fuck him up just as much as it would anyone else.
The scent of ozone grew sharp, and he rolled to the left as the first bolt struck where he'd been standing. Then, he had no time to think – he was just dodging, trying to outpace lightning, the fastest thing on earth. The Snow Queen was laughing, high and wicked, and Jack grit his teeth, because she wasn't going to win. Everyone was depending on him. He'd led them here, and they needed him to win. Hell, he needed him to win. She'd made it abundantly clear what she thought of his desire to not kill.
Finally, the lightning subsided, though the storm still rumbled above them, and he leapt to his feet. 'Is that all you've got?' he asked, falsely cocky, and pointed his staff at her. 'Didn't even hit me.'
'Perhaps,' she said, her face smug (why what is she planning what is going on), 'I wasn't aiming for only you.'
Jack froze, feeling like all of his bones were made of ice, like he was about to crack. The silence he had taken to be the aftermath of the deafening thunder was suddenly forbidding, and he turned slowly.
There was no cyclone now, only a cloud of wraiths and the frozen, still bodies of now visible boreas. And beyond them, being picked up as if they were only toys, were the brave yetis, stone-still, and his friends.
North, frozen mid-strike with his swords, face curled forever in bright laughter. Eve, her flames as thin as glass and as colourless. Tooth, her eyes wide and unseeing. Sandy, pale as snow, all of his gold sand turned to nothing. Lugh, no longer shining, just dully glinting in the final green sparks of the thundersnow.
Aster, paw held out, as if he'd been reaching for Jack one last time.
Jack stared, unable to move. The frost giants brought them around, their eyes a dull, milky blue as they arranged the statues behind the Snow Queen, and Jack –
They couldn't be dead. They couldn't be. But even Jack had heard of the marble statues kept in the Snow Queen's courtyard, forever unmoving, eyes trained on the last sight they'd ever seen – the Snow Queen, claiming yet another trophy. And he'd never heard of any of them coming back.
There was a noise, a broken whimper, and Jack realised with some horror that it had come from his own throat.
Lastly, the frost giants laid before him the long, thin bodies of the Wind and Spot. He didn't know when he'd fallen to his knees, only that he had.
'Do you see what friends have done for you?' the Snow Queen asked gently. 'They have made you weak. Look at you, unable even to stand with the weight of their loss.'
The ice wraiths spilled forward around him, gathering in a thick wall around him and the Snow Queen, the statues and the vast numbers of the frost giants.
'Little Jack Frost,' she whispered. 'Unable to save himself. Unable to save anyone.'
Jack flinched, but it wasn't in pain.
'You're wrong,' he said, voice flat, unwavering. He'd never heard himself sound so – not empty, empty wasn't the right word. He sounded like nothing. He sounded like stillness. 'I saved one person.'
'Who is that?' the Snow Queen asked indulgently. She could afford to be indulgent. She had all but won in deed.
'Didn't you ever wonder why the Man in the Moon picked me?' he asked in lieu of an answer. It was hard – so hard, he had no idea how he did it – but he stood, propping himself up on his staff.
'Everyone has wondered,' she said, and a predatory curiosity took over her face. 'Won't you tell me? Won't you tell someone before you die at last?'
Jack had wanted to save this. He'd wanted to tell Aster first, to tell the story from the beginning. To explain what had happened, the sensations, to finally have someone else to bear the weight with him.
That was never going to happen now, he thought, grief-stricken, and so took a deep breath.
'It was almost spring,' he said. 'The lake was still frozen over. We wanted to go for one last skate on the ice – soon it would be too thin to bear our weight, we thought. So I took Emma with me, and promised Ma we'd be careful, and we left the house.
'We didn't know it was already too late in the year, that it was already too warm. The ice held up for a while, and it was – it was great.' He was smiling wistfully now, he knew. The Snow Queen's gaze was trained on him, unfaltering as she watched and waited, and the hint of an idea came to him, born from the seed of magic he'd only just begun to cultivate. It wouldn't be enough – nothing would be enough now – but maybe, just maybe...
'Then the ice cracked under her,' Jack continued, and within him, the idea grew, climbing up his insides like the first frosts. 'She was so scared. She was just a kid – of course she was. And I was her big brother – I couldn't let her fall through. So I played a game with her. Hopscotch,' he said, and his smile grew, swelling with the idea and the magic inside him. The Snow Queen seemed unable to look away, unaware of what was happening. 'She moved just forward enough that I could catch her with my crook, and I sent her flying to the thicker ice.
'But I fell through.'
She was looking at him hungrily, and within him, the magic was rising. He was certain he had to be shining by now, all the snow and ice within him pressing up against his skin, but she didn't seem to notice.
'It didn't matter. I drowned, but I didn't care – I'd saved her. It was worth it, because she got to grow up, and smile and laugh, and – she got to live, see,' he said, and there was such a wild burst of Joy in him that he could feel it sparking from his eyes. 'She got to live! So don't tell me I didn't save anyone!'
'One child,' the Snow Queen tutted. 'Only one. That seems so little.'
'It was enough for the Man in the Moon,' Jack said back. 'And it's enough for me. And if I don't walk away from this, if I never get to keep another kid safe, I did good once. And that's – that's enough.'
'If you don't walk away?' the Snow Queen said, and her face was grinning, flush with triumph. 'My dear boy, this is it. You're done here.'
Jack grinned, all of his magic and his joy and his grief and his anger making him feel light. 'Wouldn't be so sure of that.'
And he let it go.
Out of him, spinning and screaming and singing, high voices shrieking in a great chorus of war, came a storm that made hers look like a quick flurry that melted in the early spring sunlight. He rose with the power of it, the snow swirling off of his skin, frost climbing up his throat and over his cheeks, into his hair, and it didn't feel quite like a crown. It felt like horns, just a touch, then a wreath, then a cloud.
The flakes each gleamed blue, glittering and glowing, and where they touched her bare skin, she screamed, as if they burned. When the blue flakes fell on the frost giants, the milky-colour of their eyes cleared to a bright, vibrant blue, and they blinked around, confused.
And when the Joy – for that was what Jack had made, a joy-storm – fell upon the ice wraiths, they shuddered and changed, became what they truly were once more.
Jack collapsed to the ground, panting, his magic almost completely spent. The Snow Queen kept screaming, and screaming, until even that faded, and when he could lift his head, all that was left of her was a small, dark blue chunk of ice, in the shape of a human heart.
He stumbled to his feet, nearly landing on his face, and with the help of his staff, hobbled over to it. He picked it up, and it was cold in his hands, even to his frosted-over skin.
'Please,' he whispered, falling to his knees again. The storm still raged around him, and the frost giants were still waking from whatever spell the Snow Queen had placed them under, and the ice dragons were still awakening, but his world was still.
'Please,' he begged this little frozen heart. 'Please. Anything, please, anything but this. They deserve to live. The world needs them. The world needs them so much more than it needs me, so please, if I don't care what the price is, please bring them back.'
A faint, far off light struck the heart, and Jack looked up. The joy-storm was clearing, and the last quarter of the moon was shining through, lighting him up. For the first time in a long time, Jack could hear the Moon, could hear words.
'You have done well,' it whispered. 'Do not give up. You hold the key to their lives in your hands.'
'I don't know how to use it,' Jack whispered back. 'I don't know how to do this. Please, I don't care that you left me alone, I don't care that you made me Winter, I don't care that you made me a Guardian. If I can't bring them back, I'm nothing.'
'It is as it has always been,' the Moon said. 'To gain a heart, you must give a heart.'
The words faded, and no matter how Jack strained, he could hear no more. He stumbled to his feet, aching and bruised, and looked at the statues of his friends. 'I only have one heart to give,' he said, looking down at the Snow Queen's heart. 'I can't – how can you expect me to choose?'
A hand, larger than any other he'd ever seen, landed on his shoulder, and he spun, scream rising in his throat.
The frost giant stepped away, head bowed. 'Winter,' she intoned, and her voice was the only thing that told Jack she was female. 'We beg your pardon. The Snow Queen bewitched us. We had intended to come to you and swear fealty.'
'That's – that's okay,' Jack said, heart beating hard in his chest. 'That's not your fault.'
'We have done much damage,' she said. 'Please, let us make it up to you.'
Jack swallowed hard. 'Unless you've got a way to make this –' he held up the heart, 'work for all of the – the statues, then it's fine.'
She frowned, blue eyes the same colour as the dark blue tattoos etched over her face. 'That heart is only ice,' she said. 'What will it do for them?'
'The Man in the Moon said that it could fix them, but I don't know how!' Jack said, fighting against the tightness of his throat. 'I don't know how.'
'What did he say?' she asked, crouching down; even at half her height, she was still four feet taller than Bunny, and that was including the ears. 'Exactly.'
'To gain a heart, I must give a heart,' he said, and she frowned. Then she smiled. Then, she was laughing, and the sound was so bright that Jack managed a wobbly smile in return, no matter how little he actually felt like smiling.
'Oh, little Winter,' she chuckled at last. 'That heart is worth nothing – it has never loved anything but itself. But your heart –' she smiled, and Jack realised that her teeth were literally made from ice. 'It loves them dearly. You have already given your heart.'
'What?' Jack asked, startled.
'Look, little Winter,' she said kindly, and Jack scrambled, turning in time to see the marble begin to crack.
It fell away from their bodies like thin shells of ice, and Jack got to watch, humbled and in awe, as they each came back to life. North, dropping his swords with a curse; Eve, standing on her hind legs and shifting down until they were her only legs; Tooth, her wings whirring to life once more; Sandy, turning gold and brushing the remaining stone from his shoulders; Lugh, beginning to shine once more, looking over the other Guardians and his fellow Seasons with a concerned eye.
Aster, shaking the marble from his fur and staring at Jack like he was the sun.
Jack took a single step forward, and then he was running, staff abandoned behind him, flight forgotten until the moment where he leapt at Aster, who caught him with warm paws and strong arms.
'Aster,' Jack breathed. 'You're alive.'
'So are ye,' Aster murmured back. 'And in a moment, we're going to talk more about the circumstances of that. But first –' and then his mouth was closed, and pressed up to Jack's.
Jack buried his hands in the thick fur of Aster's neck, and wrapped himself as tight around this infuriating tower of warmth and Hope as he could and still be a separate being.
Tooth's face of utter surprise when they broke apart was as satisfying as Jack had imagined it to be.
'So, wait,' Jack said after gulping down half his mug of tea, 'you guys were still – awake, when you were statues?'
'Too right,' Aster said, his thumb rubbing circles on Jack's waist, through the sweatshirt. Jack settled more firmly against his side, under his arm; it was warm, and about twelve different kinds of awesome to be able to just – be near Aster. He still had brief flashes of grief, where he was certain that if he just turned around, they'd all be frozen still once more. Having Aster right there was doing wonders to dispel the fear, though.
They sat in a wide parlour-style room in North's Workshop, and though there were platters piled high with treats and great carafes of hot chocolate and coffee, Jack had asked for a simple mug of peppermint tea. He didn't trust his body to keep down much, with how shaky he felt in the aftermath of the adrenaline.
'It was awful,' Eve agreed, watching them with a self-satisfied amusement, though her voice was solemn. 'To be still, and unable to help. And the things she was saying!'
'Which means, uh,' Jack began, then stumbled a bit over the words. 'Which means you all heard what I said.'
No one spoke, and Jack looked down at his mug. 'Well,' he said, trying to sound upbeat as he looked back up, 'at least I only have to tell the story once?'
North chuckled, but it wasn't mocking. 'Indeed, Jack,' he said. 'We need not speak further on it – I can see, is not good memory. But we wish you to understand,' he said, and settled his large hand on Jack's forearm. For some reason, it didn't feel heavy the way it had before. 'Man in Moon made good decision, day he chose you. You have been Guardian and Season from beginning. And there is no one who could say choice was poor one.'
Jack swallowed. 'Thanks, North,' he said.
'Anytime!' North chuckled. 'But –'
'Oh, no, you had your turn!' Tooth snapped, and Jack looked at her, startled. Her wings were whirring a mile a minute, and she looked fit to burst.
'Are you okay, Tooth?' Jack asked cautiously.
'I'm fine,' she said, flapping a hand. 'But how long has this been going on?!' she waved the same hand emphatically at Jack and Aster.
'Less than twenty-four hours,' Jack shrugged. 'It's not that big a deal, Tooth.'
'Not a big – not a big deal!' she exploded. 'After all this time!'
Jack frowned, both at the words and the way Aster went still beside him. 'What do you mean?' he asked slowly.
'Tooth...' Aster said warningly.
'Don't you Tooth me, E. Aster Bunnymund!' she scolded, flying right up into his face. 'After the way you treated him, all because you couldn't figure out how to say you thought –'
'Tooth!' Aster interrupted hastily, but didn't seem to know what to follow it up with.
'Wait,' Jack said, piecing it together. He turned, and looked at Aster. 'How long have you –'
'Think this might be a convo we should have in private, Jack,' Aster said, but the glare he gave was all for Tooth.
She sniffed and settled back into her seat. 'Well,' she said, 'as long as Jack's happy.'
'What just happened?' Jack asked, a little lost, but Tooth didn't look inclined to answer, and Aster's ears were tight to his skull, so he wasn't getting anything from him, either.
'Is there anything else I should know?' he asked wearily.
Phil chose that moment to poke his head in and say something loudly in Yentish.
'Er,' North said, looking a little sheepish. 'There is small group of frost giants insisting they speak with you. They are accompanied by – many others.'
'Great,' Jack sighed. 'Can you have some tea for me when I get back?'
'Ye still have some in yer mug,' Aster pointed out.
Jack threw back the last of it, and set the mug back down. 'Not anymore, I don't,' he said, and stood. 'I dunno if any of you want to come with, but, you know. You're free to.'
Aster stood too, like Jack had known he would, and Eve and Lugh followed. Tooth, Sandy, and North remained in their seats.
Sandy smiled and signed a snowflake, a flower, a sun, and a leaf within a circle.
'Indeed, is Season business,' North nodded. 'We will be here when you are finished, da?'
'Okay,' Jack said, and smiled. 'Thank you, guys. Just – thanks.'
'We'll always be here when you need us, Jack,' Tooth said, and her smile was kind and welcoming. Jack could remember his mother smiling like that.
Sandy gave him a thumbs up.
Jack left the room, but before they could leave the Workshop, Eve stopped them. 'Hold on,' she said. 'We should do this properly.'
Aster groaned. 'No,' he said firmly. 'I haven't done it in yonks, I'm not doing it now.'
'Come on, Aster – oh, drat,' she said, and made a face. 'Sorry, Bunny.'
'It's fine,' he said. 'Not like anyone here doesn't know me name. And I'm still not doing it.'
'Doing what?' Jack asked curiously.
'Oh, as Seasons, we can – spruce ourselves up, a bit. Ceremonial looks.' She gave him her eerie green grin. 'Would you like to see what the Halloween Queen looks like?'
'Oh, this I've got to see,' he said, and leaned on his staff.
'Don't overdo it,' Lugh advised. 'And none of the flames, you know I don't mind you using them for fighting, but Autumn is the season of –'
'Wind, I know,' she sighed. 'Not like I make a fuss about Jack's boreas, honestly.' She closed her eyes, and began to shimmer.
Her hair – branches, whatever – unbound and spread down, rippling in an unseen breeze; from her bark sprouted massive leaves, covering her usual clothing, arraying her in bright orange and red, a gown that wrapped tightly around her arms and throat but flowed loosely around her body. Around her head, little white flames formed a halo – will-o'-the-wisps, Jack realised. And when she opened her eyes again, they glowed like jack-o-lanterns on Halloween night.
'Very impressive,' Jack said, and her grin was as green as ever.
'Lugh, do yours,' she urged, and leaned over to Jack. 'It's great, when he does the full ensemble.'
'It's not us they're coming to see,' Lugh chided, and eyed the will-o'-the-wisps. With a put upon sigh and a flick of her fingers, she dismissed them.
Golden light crept up and down his arms, settling into a simple white-gold robe, and shimmering amid his blond hair was a circlet, looking like it was formed entirely from sunlight and dustmotes.
'Oh, come on, a little more flashy,' Eve urged. 'At least the torque about the neck!'
'Not a chance,' Lugh shook his head. 'I hate that thing.'
Jack grinned. 'Looks fine to me.' Then, he turned slowly to Aster.
'No,' Aster said immediately. 'Not a chance. Lugh's right, they're not here for the rest of us.'
'There's different levels, I'm guessing?' Jack said, glancing at Eve's complex gown and Lugh's simple robes. 'So just the littlest bit. I'm curious, Bunny,' he said, and ducked his head, biting his lip so as to not ruin this with how much he wanted to laugh. He looked up through his lashes at Aster in what (he hoped) was his best innocent look. 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours?'
There was a sputtering laugh from Eve, a startled chuckle from Lugh, and a thunderstruck stare from Aster, which was the only one that mattered. Jack couldn't fight the laughter and so gave in, knowing it was coming out in stupid giggles and utterly helpless to make it anything else. After a moment, Aster managed to shake himself, and gave Jack a weak glare. 'Fine, ye bleeding show pony,' he huffed. 'If only because ye'll bug me about it later.'
The marking on his forehead glimmered a faint green and thin, gentle vines grew forward, twining around his ears and curling down over his brow. Nestled delicately in the centre grew a single bloom – a pale pink aster, Jack realised with delight.
'There ye go,' Aster said. 'Looks ridiculous, if ye ask me.'
'I think it looks great,' Jack said honestly, and smiled at Aster's look. 'Really. It suits you.'
'Rack off,' Aster said, but his nose and the soft interior of his ears were starting to go red.
'So, how do I do that?' Jack asked, turning back to Eve.
'You did it before, remember?' Eve said. 'When you defeated the Snow Queen.'
Jack did remember, now that she mentioned it; the light touch of ice in his hair, up his throat. He'd no sooner recalled it than he could feel it, the fern-like curls of frost spreading up his skin and twisting into his hair. He could feel it curving up and up, and finally it settled into the shape of a wreath, from what his questing fingers could tell him.
'A little more!' Eve insisted, but Jack understood now why Aster and Lugh had kept it simple; it felt a little strange, when he'd gone so long in only his sweatshirt and pants, crook and bare feet.
'Nah, I think I'm good. What do you think?' he asked, and Lugh smiled.
'It fits you.'
'Thanks,' Jack grinned, and turned to Aster. 'Any good?'
Aster was silent for a long moment, during which he just looked at Jack – and Jack had to fight not to squirm under his gaze.
'Ye'll have to do that again later,' Aster said, and Jack flushed a little violet at how hoarse his voice sounded. 'I've never wanted me paints so bad.'
Well, that was. Um. 'Thanks,' Jack said, ducking his head for real now.
'You two are ridiculous, I swear,' Eve sighed. 'Look at you, only in a crown when you go to meet your entire dominion.'
'Not a crown,' Jack said firmly. 'I'm not a – a king, or something. Or anything else. I'm just me – just Jack Frost.'
'Not a lord?' Eve said teasingly.
'Nope. A Guardian, and apparently a Season, but nothing else,' Jack insisted. 'I don't want to be anything else.' He shook his head. 'So can we get this over with? It's going to be a great big thing, I can just feel it.'
Eve laughed at him, Lugh smiled, and Aster took his hand in his paw. 'Lead the way, Winter,' he said, gesturing with his free paw, and Jack stuck his tongue out before doing just that.
It was over faster than Jack had thought, but he'd been right – it was a big hullabaloo. He was happy to see the frost giants free, and the ice dragons returned; the yuki-onna were there, along with their distant cousins the snyegurochka of Russia, and there was even a wendigo, hulking near the back and terrifyingly quiet. Jack thought they'd expected him to make a speech of some kind, but he'd ignored that, choosing instead to go to each group individually, in order of proximity to the door. Each was brief, a remark of congratulations from them and a promise to meet more extensively in the future, and then each group left, one by one, until there were only three individuals left.
Standing tall and proud was the frost giant who'd helped him before, and beside her, impatient and joyous, were the Wind and Spot.
Jack opened his arms, grinning wide, and let the two of them bowl him over, singing and whistling as their natures dictated. 'Missed you,' he said to the Wind, who wrapped herself around his neck, and he cradled Spot's blue, serpentine body to himself. 'And man, am I glad to see you're okay, Spot,' he said. 'I saw the way you led the charge – you kicked ass.'
Spot whistled happily, and twined down his arm. Jack looked up at the frost giant, who was waiting patiently. 'Thank you,' he said, solemn as he got to his feet. 'Without you, I – I don't know where I'd be. You saved all of our lives, I think.'
'And you saved all of ours, little Winter,' she said. 'I am Leka Kividottir, of the Highcliff clan. I would offer you my service, as it may be, until you see fit to release me or until death takes me.'
'Uh,' Jack said, blinking. 'Thank you, but you don't have to do that.'
'I want to,' she said. 'I can do what I wish to again, thanks to you. And I doubt you are a Winter who would ask me to do something against my will. That is the sort of Winter I would be proud to serve.'
'Thanks,' Jack said, and grinned up at her. 'Dunno what you think I'm going to ask you to do, though.'
'Well,' she said, smiling back. 'I am a – delegator, of sorts, for my people. Assigning tasks, and such. I would offer my service as steward, to assist you with your duties, and with keeping the wilder spirits in line.'
'That's actually really helpful,' he said. 'I'll take you up on that, in like a week. Until then, I think I'm going to go sleep. The entire week. I think I've earned it.'
Leka laughed. 'That you have. Where should I seek you?'
Jack frowned; he didn't exactly have a base of operations.
'The Warren,' Aster said abruptly, and stepped up beside him. 'Until he's got his own place, he's with me.'
Leka gave Jack an appraising look. 'Very well,' she said, and then smiled again. 'It will be interesting to see the winter spirits and the spring spirits have to get along at last.'
Jack didn't bother with correcting the assumption she'd made, because it was right. 'Pranks and tricks are always good in my book,' he said. 'No need to stop those.'
'Oi,' Aster said, annoyed, and Jack laughed.
'Thanks, Leka,' he said, and she murmured a goodbye before leaving. 'And thanks, Aster,' he said, once he was sure she was gone. 'You didn't have to do that.'
'I wanted to,' Aster said, echoing Leka, but his paw in Jack's hand was a statement all its own. 'Now, we should get back to North before he does his block. He gets crank when he wants to throw a party.'
'Party?' Eve asked, perking up. 'I love parties. Especially loud parties.'
'Pass along my regards,' Lugh said apologetically, 'but my Season is just around the corner. I should go.'
'We will,' Eve chirped. 'Give 'em a nice summer.'
'Always do,' Lugh said, and his smile was gentle with light. 'Until next time, Autumn. Spring, Winter.'
He dissolved into sunlight, that then diffused and disappeared fully.
'Okay, that's cool,' Jack said.
'Come on, no time to waste,' Eve sang, and began to make her way back to the others.
'Actually, Eve,' Jack said, and shot Aster a smile. 'You're going to have to tell them sorry from us, too.'
'Oh, come on,' she huffed. 'Don't make me have to explain you two ran off for your own celebration. I don't even know these folk that well.'
Jack had gone a little violet, and Aster coughed beside him. 'That's – uh, not it,' Jack managed at last. 'It's more like –'
'I want to make sure he's not hiding an injury,' Aster said firmly. 'Brat's done it before.'
Jack scowled. 'Excuse me? Brat?'
'Brat,' Aster confirmed.
Eve cackled. 'Oh, fine. Only this once, though,' she said, and wagged her finger. 'Because you deserve it, Winter. Spring, be gentle, would you?'
Jack went purple again, and Aster growled.
'Goodbye, Autumn,' he snapped out, and tapped twice on the snow. They dropped into a tunnel that closed up behind them, and Jack took a deep breath of the significantly warmer air, the scent of living things, the way green light shone around them.
'Brat, huh?' Jack asked, and let the frost melt away from his skin, the wreath crumbling to snow in his hair. Aster rolled his eyes and carefully removed his own circlet, setting it on the ground. Within seconds, it was rooted, the vines climbing up the side of the tunnel and the solitary aster joined by a number of other blooms.
'Yes, ye brat,' he said.
'Whatever, old man,' Jack said, and Aster rolled his eyes.
'Come on, I meant what I said – I want to check ye over,' he said. 'Follow me,'
Jack took the air and kept to Aster's pace, turning something over in his head. 'Hey, Aster?'
'Have you already seen me naked?'
Aster nearly tripped over himself. 'Have I what?'
'Back when you found me up at Lake Memphramagog,' Jack said, 'when I woke up, I was all bandaged up. But it was under my clothes.'
Aster didn't reply, and Jack laughed. 'You did! You totally did!'
'It was to keep ye healthy,' Aster said gruffly.
'I don't care, Bun-bun,' Jack hummed, and dropped nearer, flying just above Aster's back. 'I just think it's funny.'
'Ye don't care?'
'It's not like being naked in front of you is going to be a problem from now on,' Jack said pragmatically, and snickered when Aster nearly tripped over himself again. 'Specially since it's going to happen again soon.'
Jack counted it as a point to himself when Aster picked up speed a bit.
'How ye came through that with only a handful of bruises and the cut on yer shoulder, I'll never know,' Aster sighed, and Jack grinned up at him. He was sitting sans shirt on a medical table that looked like it had been grown out of the wall, and Aster rolled his eyes at him.
Jack hadn't had the slightest idea how big the Warren was, how many halls and rooms and wide open spaces there were. The brief visit with the Guardians to help with Easter had, apparently, only been in the space Aster kept for the eggplants, and the Warren itself was actually far more extensive. Jack thought it might actually cover half the continent of Australia, but when he'd asked, Aster had just given him a mysterious look and said nothing.
Jack wasn't about to admit to how the hooded look had made his mouth dry out, so he let up.
'See, I told you I was fine,' he said, and leaned forward a bit, placing himself firmly in Aster's personal space. 'I might play pranks and joke around, but I don't actually lie all the time.'
'I didn't think ye did,' Aster replied, refusing to either lean in nearer or away. 'I just think ye have a bad habit of not telling people when ye're hurt.'
'Didn't have anyone to tell for a long time,' Jack pointed out off-handedly. Aster winced, and Jack felt a flare of guilt in his gut. 'That came out wrong,' he said, and reached out, lacing his fingers through Aster's. 'I just meant –'
'No, ye're right,' Aster said. 'Ye didn't. That's our fault.'
'It's not anyone's fault,' Jack insisted. 'How were you supposed to know? Manny didn't tell anyone. He's not a big talker, I'm guessing, since it took him three hundred years to say anything to me directly.'
'He spoke to ye?'
'He's the one who told me how to save you.'
'I'm still a little fuzzy on that, to be honest,' Aster admitted.
'You're a little fuzzy all the time,' Jack said, because he had to, the joke was right there.
Aster snorted, and leaned back into Jack's space at last, less than a centimetre between them now. 'How did ye do it?' he asked quietly. 'No one's ever come back from becoming part of the Snow Queen's statues.'
'Manny said that to gain a heart, I had to give a heart,' Jack answered. 'Apparently, because I cared about you guys, and probably because I'm just that bad ass, our friendship could break the spell.'
'Friendship, eh?' Aster said, ears twitching forward.
'Well, I'm assuming. Since you're the only one there I kissed after all.'
'Better have been,' Aster muttered, possibly intending for Jack to not hear it, but they were practically cuddling for all that Aster was still standing and Jack was still sitting on a cot.
Jack grinned up at him. 'Definitely just you, Bun-bun,' he said. 'If you haven't noticed.'
He could see Aster's nose going red. Which was just precious, god, he'd never realised back when he'd thought Aster was just the world's biggest dickhead that he was also the world's cutest thing. Giant, muscled warrior rabbit, and all it took was some words from Jack to turn him into an embarrassed dork.
'Speaking of not noticing,' Jack continued, resisting the urge to kiss Aster's nose, 'you want to tell me what Tooth was talking about?'
Aster's ears drooped instantaneously, and he looked to the side.
'Aster,' Jack said, and let go of his paws to set hands on his waist. Aster startled at the contact – or the name, Jack wasn't sure – and Jack took the opportunity to reel him in, parting his legs so that Aster stood between them. He tried not to think too hard about that last part, though. 'What did she mean?'
'She meant that I've – er,' Aster said haltingly, his paws finding purchase just beneath Jack's bare shoulders, the pad of his thumb gently tracing the edge of the cut on Jack's right. 'Well, I've sort of – well, had a bit of a pash for ye. For – a while.'
'How long?' Jack asked, frowning; he'd never even suspected. 'Not since before Pitch?'
Aster's ears flattened.
'Oh my god, really?' Jack said, staring. 'I thought you hated me. After '68 –' and here Aster twitched. 'No,' Jack breathed, delighted. 'No way.'
'Rack off,' Aster said, trying to step back, but Jack held on tighter, fingers hooking under the fur.
'But we got into a fight, in '68,' Jack said wonderingly. 'I played that – god, stupid prank, and we got into a shouting match –'
'Dunno if ye've noticed this,' Aster said, still not looking at him, 'but when ye get angry, ye become –' he was red right up to his ears, and Jack would never get enough of this, never ever. 'Ye know.'
'You think I'm hot when I'm angry?' Jack translated, and Aster twitched again. 'That's – oh man, that must have sucked for you. Or, wait – did you keep pissing me off on purpose?'
Another twitch. 'A bit of both,' Aster admitted at last.
'You're so sneaky, oh my god,' Jack laughed, and gave in, kissing Aster's nose. Aster startled, but Jack didn't care, kissing his nose, his chin, the corner of his mouth in quick succession. 'You're hilarious. I'm sorry.'
'I mean, even if you'd told me, I wouldn't have believed you,' Jack said peacefully. 'I wouldn't have believed anyone. The only people who would talk to me were people who were trying to kill me. No one wanted to be my friend, much less anything else – actually, I bet I would have thought it was a really awful way to get even for '68. Two and a half centuries of fighting were kind of enough to make me pretty sure everyone hated me.'
'I didn't hate ye before, and I didn't hate ye afterwards,' Aster replied, voice quiet. 'I didn't know what to make of ye, at first. No one did. No one knew where ye'd come from, only that ye seemed to be stirring up the winter spirits, and that was never good news. Then '68, and ye were so angry, and rude, and still so damn pretty. I was mad,' Aster shook his head. 'But I never hated ye.'
Jack was a little caught up in the 'so damn pretty', which he'd probably be offended by, if he was less secure in his masculinity. Being a skinny guy, he'd been a little resentful of it when alive, but he'd spent three hundred years proving he was stronger than he looked. He didn't care.
Besides, Aster thought he was pretty. That was way more important than some wounded pride.
'So that's – what, forty years of crushing on me?' Jack then frowned. 'Wait, so why were you such a prick when I was chosen to be a Guardian? And after?'
Aster's ears couldn't have been flatter if they tried. 'I didn't know how to talk to ye,' he said at last. 'And I thought – if ye weren't a Guardian, then ye'd be safe. From Pitch, and from other things. By the time Pitch was dropped, I didn't know how to change our tune.'
'So you were being protective?' Jack asked, surprised. Then, he hit Aster in the shoulder.
'Oi! Ease up!' Aster yelped, and then yelped again when Jack grabbed him around the neck and dragged him down to eye level.
'I can take care of myself,' Jack said sharply.
'I've noticed,' Aster said, looking distinctly contrite.
'Good,' Jack said. 'Now all we have to work on is your communication skills. But, you know,' and he could feel his face going a little warm. 'The, uh, the sentiment is appreciated.'
Aster rolled his eyes. 'Are ye going to let me up?'
'Not a chance,' Jack replied, and kissed him full on the mouth.
Aster fell into him a little, surprised, and Jack took advantage of his stumble, hooking his legs behind Aster's hips and his elbows over his shoulders. His hands he buried in the fur at the base of Aster's ears, and Aster's mouth opened in a surprised gasp.
Well, Jack wasn't going to let a golden opportunity like that go to waste. He might have had a grand total of three kisses to his name, but even he knew what to do here. He licked at Aster's bottom lip, because just trying to shove his tongue down Aster's throat sounded like a dumb thing to do, and Aster's response was amazing. His paws snatched at Jack's waist, hauling him up off the cot and resting all of his weight against Aster's body, and the pads of his fingers felt really, really good on Jack's bare skin.
In retaliation, Jack tugged gently at Aster's ears, and in response he was pressed to the wall, Aster's tongue slick and lovely where it slid past his own. Jack tightened his legs around Aster's waist, and could feel his half-hard cock press against Aster's abdomen. Aster groaned loudly and pressed nearer, and Jack could feel a different hardness joining his, so much warmer and weightier to his mind.
Aster's lips slid to the right, and mouthed at Jack's jaw, leaving Jack free to pant in the open air. 'See, what did I say,' he murmured, once he felt he could manage to pronounce the words correctly (it took a moment, because Aster had nipped at a spot just below his ear that had scrambled his brain). 'Celebratory sex.'
'This? This isn't sex, mate,' Aster murmured back, voice low and thrumming, as his tongue lapped at the line of Jack's throat. 'Not yet.'
'Can't wait,' Jack replied, fingers flexing in Aster's fur. 'Always wondered what it would be like.'
'Sex in general.'
Aster paused, and when he glanced at Jack, his eyes weren't so much surprised as they were – curious. 'Never?'
'My hand doesn't count, I'm guessing,' Jack replied cheekily, and Aster laughed, the sound rolling over Jack's skin and leaving goosebumps in its wake.
'Not even close,' Aster hummed, and if his voice went much deeper, Jack was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to hear it at all. 'Bloody oath, then we're moving.'
'What's wrong with the wall?' Jack said, mostly because he knew it would annoy Aster.
'I'm not letting yer first time be up against a wall,' Aster asserted. 'Buckley's chance, Jack. Ye'll just have to deal with me bed.'
'Woe is me,' Jack replied, trying his best to sound disappointed, but clearly failed, from the way Aster laughed again.
Aster slid his paws down from Jack's waist to his ass, hitching him up, and Jack made a noise at the way that put pressure on his hard on. 'Tell me it isn't far,' he said, tightening his fingers and rubbing a circle with his thumb into the edge of Aster's ear.
'It'll be farther if ye don't stop that,' Aster warned, voice a little wobbly, and Jack relented, because he really did want to see Aster's bed.
It wasn't a long walk at all, even with the way he was perched on Aster's hips and the way that meant their groins rocked together with every step, and when Aster opened the door, Jack began to laugh.
'What?' Aster asked.
'This is where I woke up,' Jack said, and poked Aster in the shoulder. 'You had me in your bed days ago, and you didn't tell me?'
'Not entirely me fault, mate,' Aster said, closing the door behind them. 'Instincts are a hard thing to ignore, and with the way I feel about ye –' he shook his head. 'Would've given me an ulcer if ye weren't in the safest place I could think of, and that's me bed, in the middle of the Warren.'
Jack swallowed a bit. 'Instincts?'
'Don't know rightly how it works for humans,' Aster said, striding over to the bed. 'Ye're animals, but it seems ye've lost some of that natural instinct. Or maybe it's because we're different kinds of mammals. But with me heart set on ye, I wasn't going to put ye anywhere else.'
'I think humans do the same thing,' Jack said, and shifted a bit. 'Just – we don't really call them instincts? They're feelings. When we like someone, we worry about them, try to keep them out of harm's way, try to give them nice things and show off for them.'
'Not so different after all,' Aster agreed, and knelt on the edge of the bed. Jack let go of him with his arms and flopped back onto the blankets, but he wasn't sure he could make his legs let go. 'Look at ye,' Aster said, sounding admiring, and Jack flushed. 'Never met someone who made me want me paints as badly as they made me want to job 'em.'
'I'm going to ignore the insult part of that,' Jack said magnanimously, and Aster snorted. 'Come here, you're too far away.'
'Just a second,' Aster said, and reached over, rummaging in a nightstand, and setting something nearby. Before Jack could ask what it was, Aster was upon him, settling his weight gently over Jack's.
Jack rolled his eyes and tugged at Aster's arms. 'I can pick up a lake monster,' he said to Aster's look. 'You think you're heavy?'
Aster replied by laying fully atop him, his hips spreading Jack's thighs wide, his cock hot even through Jack's pants. Jack groaned, hands sliding up Aster's back and digging into his shoulders, and kissed Aster's bottom lip. 'Finally,' he said, and then got to the very important business of kissing Aster until their brains were gone. It didn't take long.
Aster was fond of using his tongue, Jack was realising, and his teeth, which was actually something Jack liked, too. He hadn't realised he'd liked it, precisely, until he found himself burrowing under Aster's jaw and nipping at Aster's jawline.
'Jack,' Aster said, and sounded both dazed and reluctantly cautious. 'The scent mark –'
'I want it,' Jack said, and Aster's hips jerked against his when he kissed the underside of Aster's chin, nuzzled in before beginning to lave attention to the other side of Aster's jaw. 'I'm not going anywhere.'
Aster's paws dug into Jack's waist, whining as his hips rolled forwards, and Jack met it, his body knowing how to speak this language where his brain didn't. Aster began to nuzzle anywhere he could reach with his chin, and though Jack couldn't smell it with his human nose, he could feel it – like little traces of green light on his skin, half natural, half magical. Aster ducked his head and licked at the cut on Jack's shoulder, comforting and mindblowing all at once, and Jack whined back, the sound high in the back of his throat.
Aster rolled them so that Jack was splayed out atop his body, hips rocking up, and when Jack ran his hands down Aster's chest, finding a row of nipples beneath the fur, Aster moaned loudly and flung his head back, hips shuddering under Jack's as he came.
At this angle, Jack could Aster's cock at last, and it might have been a weird thing to think, but he thought it was pretty. It tapered from a thick base to a marginally thinner tip, with no head to speak of. It was pale and pink, and twitched as it spilled. It didn't, however, grow soft, and Jack realised what that meant with a sensation not unlike being hit in the head with a pillow.
'How many times can you go?' he asked, sliding his fingers back up over the hard points of Aster's nipples again.
'Never – never found a limit,' Aster huffed out, breathing hard. 'Until I'm tired, which can take a while.'
That sounded amazing. Jack looked up at Aster through his lashes. 'Funny,' he said, 'Same here. I'm pretty sure that's because I'm perpetually in the body of a teenager, though. A magical, immortal teenager.'
Aster began to grin, and the curve of his mouth was dangerous, promising. 'And here I thought I'd have to get used to short sessions,' he said, voice rolling and low. 'Ye're full of surprises, Jackie.'
'So I've been told,' Jack replied blandly. Aster laughed and caught Jack's face between his two paws, pulling him up and kissing him firmly. The swipe and slide of his tongue was breaking Jack's brain, and he didn't even notice when Aster rolled them over again, when he straddled Jack's legs, when he reached for whatever it was he'd pulled out earlier.
Jack was really just focussed on the way Aster picked apart his pants' laces with one paw, like he'd spent so much time imagining how to do it that now it was second nature, and the way it felt when Aster rolled the soft leather down Jack's thighs. Then the paw that had been fiddling off to the side came into play at last, and Jack moaned really, really loudly when it gripped his dick, slick and warm with –
'Is that oil?' Jack gasped out, rocking his hips up into Aster's grip. Aster was unmoving, just watching as Jack fucked into his paw, and that did something to Jack, he wouldn't lie. He found himself rocking bodily up into the friction, thighs straining, abdomen and shoulders rolling in time with his hips. Aster made a soft noise, and Jack would bet anything that he would say he wanted his paints in a moment, because Jack couldn't say he thought his own body was anything special, but the image of Aster perched above him and wrecking him was one he thought ought be preserved.
'Ye'll be glad it is,' Aster murmured in reply, and leaned down, dragging his tongue over Jack's left nipple. Jack's rhythm stuttered, and a moan louder than before tore free from his throat. 'Should've known ye'd be a screamer,' Aster continued, 'but for some reason, I never did. If I had –' he made a noise like he was swallowing back a groan. 'God, Jack, the noises ye make.'
Aster's paw tightened, and Jack couldn't help it – he dug his fingers into the sheets on either side of him and arched up, bracing his feet and throwing his head back as he came, harder than he ever had by his own hand. He sank back to the bed, throat twinging at how high he had just whined, and then Aster shifted, higher and over Jack's hips, and it was an instantaneous interest that hardened Jack's cock again – no slow swelling, just bam, yep, that was Aster hovering over his dick like he intended to sink down on it, and wow, that was a thought to keep him up at night.
Aster reached down past his own cock, deeper pink now and canting just the tiniest bit to the right, and began to do something Jack couldn't see.
'What are you doing,' Jack asked when he felt he had enough air in his lungs.
'Str – stretching meself,' Aster said, voice breaking a little on the words as he began to rock backwards – on his own fingers, Jack realised with a swallow. 'Ye've got a head on ye, it's not just going to slip in, even with oil.'
'You want me to – to you?' Jack asked, stomach tightening pleasurably, because god. Oh, god, Aster was so warm when he was just touching him, what would he feel like around him –
'Course I do, ye dill,' Aster said, sounding hazy. He made a tiny whimpering noise as he rocked back harder, and then withdrew his fingers from himself. 'Next time, I'll do ye, and ye can see what it feels like from the other end. Thought this might be easier, yer first time 'round.'
Jack settled his hands on Aster's thighs, thick and trembling just the tiniest bit, and tried to form a sentence that didn't just consist of 'fuck, yes' repeated at least twice. His fingers dug beneath the fur, and then he jerked a bit as Aster picked up his cock off his stomach.
'Hold on, s'been a while,' Aster said, and began to drop, thighs spreading wider as he went.
It was warm and wet, and Jack couldn't see anything anymore, though if that was because he'd closed his eyes or the feeling had just blinded him, he didn't know. Aster's paws had fallen to Jack's hips, holding them in place as he sank down, and Jack couldn't help the way he strained against Aster's hold. Aster didn't seem to mind, the way he would rock further down when Jack did it, and when Jack could see again (turned out he had closed his eyes), Aster was flat against his hip bones, head tilted back.
'Aster,' Jack managed, but he wasn't entirely sure that he got out little more than a garbled groan.
'Good, then?' Aster asked, his voice annoyingly level, like he didn't have Jack's cock up his ass. That was so unfair. Aster laughed. 'Don't ye worry none,' he said, running his paws up Jack's chest and cupping his jaw lovingly. 'Give me a moment, and I'll sound just like ye.'
'Are you a mind-reader, too?' Jack asked, voice cracked down the middle.
'If I was, we wouldn't be here,' Aster said, and levered himself up just a bit before dropping down again. Jack scrabbled at his thighs with desperate fingers, keening a higher note than he'd known his voice could reach, and his orgasm was bright in his skin.
'Jack, ye just lit up,' Aster said, sounding surprised. The depth of his voice sent a shot of arousal straight back to Jack's dick, and there was nothing in the world that could have kept Jack's moan from flying from his throat.
'Think that – that might be the Joy,' Jack panted. 'Just got a – a lot of it, fuck, Aster, please –'
Aster jolted, and Jack suspected he knew why. If Aster thought he was above begging, then clearly he didn't understand that Jack would do just about anything to get Aster moving again, to feel the light and the happiness race along every nerve.
'Please,' he breathed, trying to put as much desperation in his voice as he could. 'Please, Aster, it feels so good, please –'
Jack had no idea how he survived the next few minutes, the way Aster felt on the inside when he came, fluttering muscles and loud groans and warm wetness splashing onto Jack's skin, the slick sliding of Aster around his cock, the three freaking orgasms Aster wrung from him before Jack had enough.
He pushed Aster over, knocking him flat onto his back, and moving with pure instinct, guided himself back inside Aster's heat and rocked forward, finally able to move his hips the way they were always meant to. Aster was whining and rolling up, unable to make words, and Jack spared a few braincells to be proud of himself, that on his first time he was able to reduce Aster to incoherence.
Jack lost count of who came how many times, but when they finished at last, gasping and exhausted, they were filthy with come and sweat.
'Bloody oath, Jack,' Aster groaned, swiping ineffectually at his own stomach. 'I – ye're fantastic.'
'Good,' Jack panted back. 'Great. That's awesome. Don't make me talk right now, I don't think I'll make sense.'
Aster bundled him up in his arms and nuzzled at him all over with his chin, leaving more of the green-traces. Jack returned the favour, focussing his magic in his fingertips and tracing them through Aster's fur, leaving behind little blue sparks that shone in the low light. Aster shivered and his eyes went dark when he saw them, and Jack grinned.
'Tell me you've got, like, a bath somewhere in here,' he said. 'We are so gross right now. Let's go get clean.'
'Won't last long,' Aster muttered, and Jack laughed in delight, kissing Aster's mouth. Aster returned the kiss with interest, and it probably would have gone somewhere if Jack didn't feel like he was falling asleep on top of Aster.
'Later,' he said, and sat back with a pleasurable creaking of muscles. 'Come on.'
Jack woke up to loud shrieking, and so couldn't be blamed for the way he snatched up his staff and spun into a defensive posture. At least he was wearing pants, he thought as he realised the shrieking was coming from Eve.
'You – you two!' she was yelling, pointing menacingly as she stalked into the centre of the room. Behind him, Aster was stirring, and they traded confused looks. 'This is your fault! All your fault!'
'What's going on?' Jack asked, and then flushed a bright violet as the Guardians entered the room. 'What the hell?'
'We have good news!' North boomed, then gave Jack a look. Jack realised he was still glinting faintly green around the collarbone, and flushed harder. 'As do you two, clearly!'
'Rack off, North,' Aster yawned, and sat up beside Jack. 'Ye can drop the staff there, love.'
Jack lowered his staff, but went still further purple. Love? He wanted to protest it, but – well, suddenly a lot of things made sense, he realised as he saw his own little sparks of ice blue amongst Aster's fur. Give a heart, gain a heart, huh?
'This! Your fault!' Eve continued to screech.
'We have big announcement!' North continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted. 'Man in Moon has chosen new Guardian!' he paused. 'Again!'
'What?' Jack and Aster said in unison, and looked at Eve.
'Me! Yes, me, you imbeciles, and it's your fault!' she hissed, eyes orange.
'Wait, Guardian of what?' Jack asked.
'Bravery,' Tooth said helpfully.
'Of nothing, thank you very much! Where do I complain? How do I resign?!' Eve demanded.
Jack just leaned back against Aster and laughed, long and loud, and felt Aster laughing with him. 'Can't resign,' he said at last. 'It kind of... creeps up on you.'
Aster groaned beside him, but it startled a chuckle out of Eve. 'You are a menace, Jack Frost,' she said, but it was a little calmer.
'You're a Guardian, Halloween Queen,' he replied, and laughed all over again at the face she pulled.
Things were changing, he knew, and some things would stay the same. He still wouldn't be comfortable in large groups, and he'd still need time alone. There was a lot of work to be done, repairing the Snow Queen's handiwork.
But he had the Guardians as a ragtag family – one that was still growing, clearly – and he had Aster, who was just the right mix of irritating and loving to help balance him through the transition.
The Joy around him would wax and wane, and he'd be around to see it.
He couldn't wait to see where it went.