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The Crux of It Is

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Jack didn't think too much about how he felt about Bunny. It was kind of a no-brainer, really, and didn't bear a lot of thinking about after six decades of friendship. Bunny was... you know, Bunny. Really tall when he bothered to stand up all the way, which wasn't all that often, since he was generally more interested in what was growing in the ground than whatever was above his head. His accent was hilarious and awesome at the same time, and some of the things he would say were priceless. Jack's current favourite was 'face like a dropped pie', which still had him in stitches every time he passed over Ireland and thought of the Leprechaun below.

Bunny was also really grumpy, and kind of had a one-track mind when it came to his holiday – which made pranking a breeze (ha), so long as Jack didn't cause any real trouble. Hell, it had taken the poor guy two days of sniggers from the other Guardians last April before he figured out Jack had drawn a rude face on the back of his head in blue paint. Which, no lie, Jack was still proud of; one-track mind or not, Bunny was crafty (double ha), and it had taken an entire afternoon of really careful flying to accomplish. Not to mention light fingers, because Jack didn't have any brushes or paint of his own, and besides, if he hadn't used Bunny's, half the joke was ruined!

Not to mention the fact that he always had the best insult, a difficult skill to master, and his aim was superb – the one time Jack had actually tempted him into a real snowball fight, he'd nearly gotten crushed. He'd won, but only barely, and mostly through cheating (if dropping a tiiiiiiiiny blizzard on someone counted as cheating, which it definitely did not). Even if Bunny was grumpy, he was great with the kids, all of whom loved the Easter Bunny. Now that Jack was on the Guardian's side of the equation, it was heart-warming to watch – a bit of a weird sensation when he spent nearly all of his time about as warm as an ice pop.

Bunny made the flowers bloom in the spring, and made the trees green, and even though his job was basically to chase away Jack's chill, Jack never felt like he was being kicked out. Instead, it was kind of fun, to see where Bunny would push winter back and where he let it linger. Besides, one half of the world entered spring just when the other half was cooling down enough for some early frost, so Jack was never bored. And, best of all, Bunny didn't complain about the snow anymore (or at least, not as much, and not as seriously. It was like how he sniped back and forth with North over Easter and Christmas, which was the best sign of friendship with the overgrown rabbit Jack knew).

So, yeah, of course he was a little bit in love with Bunny. Everyone was, he was pretty sure. How could anyone not be? The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and the world loved E. Aster Bunnymund.

Like he'd said, Jack didn't really think about the implications of that. As far as he was concerned, life was pretty good (or whatever you called what he was now. Undead? Spirit? Who knows.) After all, he had believers who could see him – all over the world, in fact. Anywhere where snow was, you'd hear Jack's names on the kids' tongues. Names, plural, because he got different ones depending which country you happened to drop in on, which was also cool. Plus, he had friends for the first time since he'd been alive, even if they were a little weird sometimes, and he had the world's best job, hands down.

All of that added together made for a pretty sweet unlife (no, that sounded dumb), but he didn't see what about it made the Groundhog take notice, much less ask him out. Since he was – you know, a ground-hog and all.

'Um… thanks,' Jack said, because his mother had raised him with manners, but mostly because he wasn't sure how to respond in the first place. He knew he was staring a little blankly at the squat rodent, but was unsure how to make that stop. 'Uh, look – I'm sorry, have we ever actually talked? Like, ever?'

The Groundhog stared back, little nose twitching the only sign of irritation. 'That's the point of a date, Frost. To get to know each other.'

'Yeah, but I don't even know if you have a name other than the 'Groundhog'.'

The Groundhog puffed up, short brown fur fluffing in stark offence. 'I'm Phil. Punxsutawny Phil.'

'Okay,' Jack said slowly. 'Cool. Nice to meet you, Phil –' he thought of the yeti currently avoiding the party like the plague had descended and had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. 'But the answer's still no. You don't even know me.'

The Groundhog sighed, and Jack had never heard a snottier sound in his undeath (no, that was dumb, too.) 'Knew it wasn't worth asking,' he said, tone as condescending as a pre-teen telling a toddler Santa wasn't real. 'The powerful ones are always stuck up.'

'Excuse me?' Jack snapped, scowling now. 'Look, Phil, I don't know what your problem is, but where I'm from, it's nice to know someone first before you start trying to cosy up to them. And what the hell are you talking about, the powerful ones?'

'No one's told you?' the Groundhog asked, sounding delighted. Jack ground his teeth. 'Oh, wow, no wonder you didn't even think about it. Jack – can I call you Jack –?'


'Jack,' the Groundhog continued, ignoring him, 'There's only one thing a spirit looks for when we're looking for a partner. And that's power. The way you look, where you came from, who you are, that's all secondary. Power's where it's at. All of you Guardians are great catches, by any spirit's standards.'

'Uh,' Jack said, staring at the pompous rodent. 'What?'

'Like – oh, Bunnymund over there,' the Groundhog said, gesturing with a tiny, stubby paw. They were at one of North's many parties (Jack had learned pretty quickly that there was little North liked so much as throwing a party, no matter the season), and Bunny was on the far side of the room from them, chatting with Sandy. He was crouched down to have a better look at the symbols and be more on Sandy's level, and as always, a quick wash of fondness ran through Jack, because – just because, really. Bunny was great, that was all. Apparently, the Groundhog agreed, because he added, 'Bunnymund's just about the most eligible bachelor there is, here or Underhill or past the Veil or, well, anywhere you can think of.'

'Uh,' Jack repeated, because duh Bunny was the best thing since the first snow, but that couldn't just be because…

'He's a Guardian, and of so much, too. Spring, and Hope, and Life,' and here Groundhog sighed a little wistfully, which was both sort of annoying and confusing, since Jack had no idea what part of that sentence was supposed to get someone hot under the collar instead of just impressed. 'He's older than Mother Earth, and even she has to bend to him on some things. If someone killed him, everything alive would go with him. He's insanely powerful, and lord, everyone knows it, Jack.'

Jack scowled again, because this guy was getting on his last nerve. 'That's – weird. Really weird. What, you're telling me everyone's after him because he could accidentally kill the entire planet if he fell down the stairs?'

The Groundhog scowled back, before smoothing his expression into some kind of weird thing that it took Jack a minute to realise was supposed to be seductive, or something. 'You just don't get it. Too bad. You'll figure it out eventually, and when you do, the invitation's always open.' Then, he winked, which was just the last straw.

'So, wait, let me get this straight, Phil,' Jack said, putting on his best innocently bewildered face. From the patronisingly kind glance he received, it was working. 'Apparently, all of the Guardians are the hot tamales of the spirit world.'


'Because we're all more powerful than the average spirit?'


Jack tilted his head in the way that Tooth called evil and manipulative and all sorts of other untrue (totally true) things. 'And so, with these people as my friends, people I actually know that are apparently hot tamales and up for grabs, I'm supposed to be interested in you?'

The resultant fight, which ended with a deep-frozen Groundhog tossed unceremoniously from the front door by a hysterically-laughing Nicholas St. North, would be gossip fodder for weeks.

So, Jack was right. Everyone was a little bit in love with E. Aster Bunnymund. Too bad it was for all the wrong reasons.

He just couldn't figure it out. How could anyone look at all the cool things Bunny did and was (immortal, wandering warrior scholar who literally shaped the earth, hello) and think 'Oh, he's powerful, guess I want to bang that?'

It was annoying. It made Jack want to tear his hair out. Pennsylvania spent a week solid under snow in early November, way before the rest of the country, just because it gave Jack a petty pleasure to think of the Groundhog shivering in his hole in the ground. None of the other Guardians could get out of him the story of why, precisely, Jack had suddenly decided he hated the rodent, but he had two pretty strong allies in his dislike. The first was Toothiana, who harboured a deep vein of distaste for him because his teeth were crooked, and he didn't take care of them the way he should. Jack wasn't going to mention that he thought that was kind of a dumb reason to hate someone, mostly because it was always good to have Tooth in your corner. The fairies, it turned out, were actually a goddamned fairy army. Which was badass as hell, and awesome to have as a backup.

The second was Bunny, who like Jack was pretty tight-lipped about why he hated the Groundhog (Jack suspected it had to do with how inaccurate the Groundhog tended to be in his prediction of spring, and also that Bunny himself had a lot to do with that inaccuracy). Nevertheless, when North kept bothering Jack about the fight (and when Bunny was present), Bunny would head him off.

Finally, it came to the week after the snow over Pennsylvania finally subsided, midway through November, and Bunny tapped North on the shoulder.

'Leave the larrikin alone about it, Nick,' he said. 'His bizzo what happened, and 'sides, not like the wanker didn't have it coming for one thingo or another. Shouldn't ye be worried about yerself, Chrissy around the corner and all?'

With North sufficiently (and hysterically) distracted, Jack nudged Bunny in the side with his elbow. 'Thanks, Bunny,' he said, once the leftmost ear had dropped in his direction.

The ear and its partner twitched, Bunny glancing away. Jack had figured out pretty early on that most of Bunny's emotions were telegraphed to the world through the tall furry things, and while he definitely didn't know the little language fluently, he was sure they were halfway between flattened in embarrassment and – nope, there they went, flat to his head.

'No dramas, Jacko,' he muttered, still staring avidly off to the side. 'I'm always going to support icing over that tosser.'

Jack laughed, delighted as could be, because that right there – the embarrassment at being thanked for doing something, the bashfulness that hid beneath a layer of gruff grump, was a reason to love Bunny. He didn't know why no one else saw it, how his best friend was still single after all this time. Jack didn't think it was by choice, either; Aster was a closet romantic, judging by half the contents of the fiction section of his library, and so it had to be this weird fixation on power the other spirits had that was keeping him from forming a close relationship with someone.

There had to be someone who didn't care about that bullshit. Someone who was no-nonsense, who would look at him and see all of the cool things that made Aster worth loving.

The thought sat in Jack's head, and he turned it over, looked at it from new angles as he watched North dash back and forth, ordering the yetis into a frenzy and sending the elves scampering underfoot. Jack began to float to avoid the chaos, and kept thinking.

He knew someone like that, he realised, someone who wouldn't hold truck with all of this power = love nonsense. Now he just needed to figure out how to get her and Aster in the same –

The plan came together in his head like a clap of thunder, the way all his best plans and pranks did. This was no prank, though, and he had to fight a grin at how perfectly everything fit in.

'Oi, Jack,' Bunny said, and Jack looked at him; they'd both been absorbed in their own heads, surveying the chaos that was North's Workshop in full swing, and Bunny's ears were up again, tilting this way and that to avoid the tiny remote planes that were swarming past. 'Ye've been me friend for yonks now. I mean, ye don't have to –' the ears twitched again, 'but ye can call me Aster. Ye know Bunny's just a nickname.'

'I know,' Jack replied, still gleeful from how great his plan was. 'It fits you, though.'

'Not actually a rabbit,' Bunny started, but Jack poked him, cutting off the tirade.

'I know that, too. Mostly, though, if I call you Aster, I'm just going to start calling you whatever flower name pops into my head first.'

Bunny's eyebrows rose. 'Didn't think ye knew flowers at all,' he mused. 'Not very wintry of ye, to be true.'

'Duh, I know flowers,' Jack said, rolling his eyes; sometimes, Bunny could be pretty short-sighted, but since that was inevitably a source of hilarity, it really just tended to make Jack laugh. 'Spring comes right after winter, if you remember. I do see them from time to time., especially, oh, in the Warren once or twice –'

Bunny rolled his eyes in obvious imitation and shoved Jack a little. 'Rack off.'

'Plus,' Jack continued, ignoring Bunny magnanimously, 'I remember the Victorians. Ridiculously detailed about their flowers – made up a whole language, basically.'

'I remember,' Bunny said, voice gone fond and amused in a way that made Jack's smile grow whenever he heard it. 'Wasn't there a flower that said 'I despise ye'?'

'All I can think of is monkshood,' Jack admitted, racking his brain. 'Hatred. Maybe foxglove? No, wait, that one was falsehoods.'

'Insincerity,' Bunny corrected, but looked impressed despite himself.

'Right,' Jack said, snapping his fingers and trying to not preen too obviously. 'Well, maybe I should send the Groundhog a bouquet of monkshood.' He flashed Bunny a wicked grin. 'Think he'd eat it?'

'Monkshood's poisonous, Frostbite,' Bunny admonished, but his ears were in a tense tilt that meant he was trying not to laugh.

'Oh, I know,' Jack replied, and winked.

Bunny gave in, laughing as his ears relaxed to either side, and it drew North's attention on them again. Jack stayed a few minutes more, but his chest was sort of tight, the way it got around Bunny sometimes, and the only way it disappeared was if Jack went away and found a small town that looked like it deserved a snow day.

It hadn't taken Jack all that long after joining up with the Guardians to figure out that Bunny was the loneliest of the bunch of them. He was pretty proud of how far they'd all come in the last few decades, if he did say so himself; they'd all spent a ridiculous amount of time all by themselves for a group of of people who supposedly worked together. But North had his yetis and his elves, and Tooth her fairies (her fairy army, which was still the greatest thing Jack had ever heard of). And Sandy spent all of his time bringing dreams to sleeping children, so he was rarely truly alone.

Bunny, though, spent most of the year in his Warren alone, except for the egg-shaped stone guards (who couldn't talk) and the plants (that also, as far as Jack knew, couldn't talk). Jack thought that level of loneliness sounded pretty unacceptable, to be frank. He understood wanting time to himself (especially after becoming a Guardian), but Bunny apparently went months without talking to anyone at all.

That sounded way too close to Jack's first three hundred years as a spirit for comfort, and – well. Bunny was older than the planet. How many cumulative years had he spent alone? Just the idea of the number boggled Jack's brain.

The first few times Jack tried to get Bunny out of the Warren went awfully. It had been only a couple of years after Pitch's grand last stand, and Bunny had actually barred him from the Warren for a year after his third attempt; Jack hadn't been able to tell if it was because Bunny was annoyed at the interruptions or genuinely angry that Jack was there, but Jack was a persistent sort. He patiently waited through that year (most people didn't know Jack was patient at all, but hey, he'd waited three hundred years to find out who he was, he could wait a year to have another crack at getting Bunny out of his house) and tried again the day after the ban was lifted.

'What on me good green earth is yer problem, Frost?!' Bunny had roared when Jack asked if he'd like to go anywhere. 'Why are ye bothering me?!'

'I don't have a problem,' Jack had replied as calmly as he could – Bunny was the kind of person who responded best to being straightforward and obvious. 'Thought it would be nice if you'd come hang out with me, because neither of us are busy. If you really hate the idea, though, and aren't just being a pain in my ass about it, then I won't ask again.'

Bunny had stared at him for a long moment, long ears flicking back and forth. Jack hadn't known it at the time, but later, when he'd thought about it (after a few years of knowing Bunny better, anyway) he thought it was between confusion and mortification.

'What?' Jack had asked, then clueless.

'… fine. Where did ye want to go?'

Jack hadn't bothered questioning the abrupt change of heart, because he was too busy doing an internal victory dance that got a little external, judging from Bunny's snort of laughter.

Over time, it got easier to drag Bunny out of his Warren, and now, after six decades of friendship, Jack could reliably count on one free trip with Bunny about once a week, no questions asked. Any more than that might get some grumbling, but the few times Jack had been too swamped to do it, Bunny had actually sought him out, which was awesome.

Mostly, they explored. Bunny knew some of the coolest places on Earth, things that looked so strange and unearthly that Jack sometimes had trouble believing they were still on the planet, but Jack had the advantage when it came to current or upcoming things, thanks to the fact that he spent most of his time topside. He loved to rub it in Bunny's face whenever he could, but now he planned to take advantage of it.

After all, Bunny loved plants, and Greece had just opened a new national arboretum, with trees from all over the world gathered in one place. Which, while it had nothing on the Warren, was still filled with some cool specimens. And if Jack had gone scouting out (well, visiting the place with an invitation from one of the inhabitants, but still), and so knew that one of his friends had come to the arboretum with the rest of her grove, well, there was no reason to tell Bunny beforehand.

Not that Ismene knew he was coming either, but, hey. He was Jack Frost. Expecting the unexpected was kind of the tag-line to every one of his friendships.

'How ye going, Frostbite?' Bunny called cheerfully as Jack flew into the Warren. Underground and yet not at the same time, it was easy to find a hole to the sky to wiggle through (at least, if you were recognised by the wards. It had taken almost two decades for Jack to realise how big a sign of trust that was, and when he had, he'd spent a week abusing it shamelessly before Bunny got him to stop).

Bunny was, as per usual, gardening – wrist deep in a bed of brilliantly purple petunias. That was no surprise whatsoever; Jack sometimes wondered when he found time to sleep, since it seemed like whenever he wasn't painting eggs or making chocolate, he was somewhere in his fields. Of course, it wasn't like Jack was annoyed by it. Gardening was to Bunny what making storms was to Jack – as natural as flying (or running, in Bunny's case). The Warren flourished under his care, bursting with life and singing colour.

Jack loved winter (which, of course he would, it was the best season out of all of them), but he'd be lying through his straight white teeth if he said he didn't love the Warren, too, with its perpetual spring and flowers. It was Bunny, and Bunny was the Warren. Of course Jack loved it.

'Morning, Cottontail,' Jack answered, alighting on the grass and reining in his frost so that it wouldn't spill past the boundaries of his body, the way it always wanted to do when he touched plants. 'Got an hour or two?'

'For ye? Always,' Bunny replied, sitting back and casting a smile over his petunias before looking at Jack, curiosity in the way his ears cocked forward. 'What did ye need?'

'They opened a new national arboretum in Greece,' Jack said, tossing his staff from one hand to the other. 'Seemed like it might be up your alley – they've got the seedlings from the meta-sequoia, the Chinese one that they managed to get to sprout properly? And, opening day was last month, so there shouldn't be a ton of kids.'

Bunny felt weird about being seen by kids outside of Easter for all that he loved them, and Jack got it, sort of; after all, no one was really looking for Jack Frost in the middle of July in the northern hemisphere, so he tended to stay south of the Equator then. But once Bunny got over some of that shyness (and Jack thought the shyness was endearing as hell; like any kid wouldn't get excited about seeing Bunny no matter what month it was), he tended to relax, and if a kid came up, Jack could handle it.

Bunny's smile flashed, directed at Jack this time instead of the petunias, and the force of it crinkled his green eyes and scrunched up his nose. Jack grinned back, because just wow. 'Sounds bonzer, Jacko,' he said. 'Give me a mo', and I'll have these flowers all set for the day.'

'Cool,' Jack said, and took a crouching perch on the crook of his staff to watch with a content feeling.

Bunny shuffled some of the flowers around, humming under his breath, rearranging them so each got the right amount of sun and water, removing dead petals with a gentle paw, and generally fussing. Jack couldn't keep his smile in; Bunny cared so much about these flowers, and gave every ounce of that care over with no reservations. Jack loved it.

'Alright, she'll be apples 'til I get back,' Bunny said, standing at last. He really was very tall, when he stood up to his full height, of an eye level with Jack even though Jack was crouched atop his staff. Jack grinned and reached down to rest his palm on the knot at the base of the crook before swinging fluidly down to stand on the ground again. Now he had to look up at Bunny, and he slung his staff idly over his shoulder.

'Want to meet me there?'

Bunny rolled his eyes and pointed out very patiently, 'Got no idea where I'm going.'

'Then open the way and I'll show you,' Jack replied, poking Bunny with the end of his staff, and laughing when Bunny yelped at the tiny curl of frost that spread up his side.

Bunny swatted him, and opened one of his tunnels with a few taps of his foot. Jack dropped into the wide space, having gotten used to the tunnels years past. If it was just some kind of muddy hole in the ground, he'd probably hate it, but sunlight and breezes would creep in from holes to the surface, and there were green things and flowers growing from the rock. It was actually a pretty neat way to get around.

The Wind acting as his compass, Jack led the way through the tunnels towards Greece at top speed, mostly because he wanted to see if he could tempt Bunny into a race. Today Bunny didn't take the bait, seemingly fine with keeping pace, and Jack felt a brief flare of disappointment before the rest of his brain reminded him that meant Bunny was sticking pretty close to Jack's side, which was always a plus.

They came out of the earth just outside the arboretum's glass walls. It was cloudy over Greece, a bit chillier now that it was late November, but pretty balmy compared to places up north, so Jack figured Bunny was fine. He certainly didn't look cold, though he did seem pretty interested in the trees he could see through the glass.

Jack led the way around to the entrance, ducking past the ticket taker (there were definite bonuses to being unseen by adults, he'd learned as the years went on, and now that he could be seen by kids, it had lost most of the sting it had carried for hundreds of years).

A few kids were present with their families, but when they looked over, little bewildered faces seeking out the reason behind the Easter Bunny's appearance, Jack took to the air with a little curl of wintry Wind and held a finger to his lips. The few kids (two boys, three girls, and a sixth child that Jack couldn't decide was either and so settled with neither and a mental shrug) nodded excitedly at the prospect of the secret, and Jack grinned. Kids loved secrets, he'd found, and were more than happy to keep them for a short while, at least.

When he looked back to Bunny, he was gifted with an exasperated but pleased shake of the head and brief cuff to the shoulder. His attention on Jack didn't last long, as he was soon lost to examining the trees, and Jack (pretty subtly, in his opinion) slowly made their way to the grove of ancient olive trees, transplanted here when their original home was threatened by an apartment building's expansion.

'Hello, Jack Frost,' a voice said, soft and faintly musical, and a woman stepped ghostlike from the tree in the centre before solidifying.

Bunny startled, ears coming up in surprise, but Jack grinned; Ismene had that effect on people. Taller than any of her sisters, she was striking even amongst the dryads, who were famously beautiful. Her skin was the same colour as the olive wood she was all but made from, her eyes glittered golden beneath the twisting branches that made up her hair, and she wore a long, flowing robe of stitched together fallen leaves.

'Hi, Ismene,' he said, and waved, not leaving Bunny's side. 'How are you?'

'Well,' she answered, inclining her head gracefully. They'd met when Jack had frozen over a creek near her grove and was hiding from the river god that wanted his head, back in – nineteen twenty something, he wasn't sure. She'd hidden him in her branches, understanding, and they'd been acquaintances ever since. It had become true friendship in the last twenty years or so, though, and Jack was glad to know her. 'Thank you for asking,' she continued, and smiled in her charming, austere way. 'They are reverent of their trees, here. It is refreshing.'

'That's good to hear,' Jack said; when last they'd spoke, she'd only been here a few days, and was still uncertain as to how well her tree would be treated.

Ismene turned from Jack at last, her calm golden gaze settling on Bunny. 'Hello,' she said, and Jack was pleased to note that she didn't sound – awed, or whatever. Not the way the Groundhog had sounded, at least. 'It is a pleasure to meet you at last, E. Aster Bunnymund.'

'Likewise,' Bunny replied. His voice was flawlessly polite, but Jack knew that angle of ear – discomfort. It showed up whenever Tooth started ranting about the high sugar content of chocolate, too. 'Er – it was Ismene, yeah?'

'Yes,' she said, looking pleased he'd caught it. 'We've heard about you quite a bit here. I remember the springs you would bring when the gods still walked the earth. Even Persephone was jealous of your flowers.'

'Thank ye,' Bunny said, flattered ears twitching, and Jack tilted his head away, trying to hide his smile.

'Jack talks about you often,' Ismene added, and Bunny looked at her more intently, as Jack saw when he glanced back over.

'Good things, I hope.'

'Some of them,' Jack said, and gave up on keeping his smile hidden. 'Any more than that and I'd be lying, though.'

'Oi,' Bunny barked at him, elbowing him hard. 'I'm not that bad.'

'Definitely not,' Jack agreed innocently, and left Bunny blinking as he turned back to Ismene. Time to let these two talk by themselves, he thought gleefully, and asked, 'Are any of your sisters around?'

'We're always around, Jack!' called one of the others – Desdemona, he thought – and a chorus of laughter followed.

Bunny shuffled a bit nearer to Jack as more dryads, ten in all, spilled out of their trees. 'How did ye meet all of them, Frostbite?' he asked under his breath, sounding a little apprehensive.

'You make friends when you leave the house, Bun-bun,' Jack answered teasingly, and laughed at the look Bunny shot him. 'You talk to Ismene, she's calmer. I'll handle them – they're good people.'

'Didn't say they aren't,' Bunny huffed, but let Jack steer him towards Ismene, who was watching with poorly concealed amusement.

The sisters were, as ever, happy to see him (unaware as they were that he'd been to visit only a month past), and he kept them as distracted as he could whilst Bunny got into an involved discussion with Ismene about the other trees in the arboretum. Jack watched covertly with a glee that felt like light in his skin. He'd known it would go well.

Of course, that did leave him with ten of the other dryads to deal with, and he'd never been as fond of them as he was of their more mature, interesting sister.

'Oh, Jack,' one of the sisters said (Chrysanthe, maybe?), and slung an arm over his shoulder with a familiarity that kind of annoyed Jack. 'You barely come to Greece anymore! I remember when we couldn't get rid of you!'

There was some laughter at this, and it was laughter Jack could join in with honestly. 'That's because you guys took ages to figure out how I was pranking you,' he teased. 'Wasn't as fun once you could predict my every move.'

'Are you calling us boring, Jack Frost?' another sister, Philomena, declared in only a half-joking tone, and Jack fought to not roll his eyes. She'd always been especially sensitive to perceived slights.

'No way,' he said instead, and flicked her in the arm. 'I just need time to come up with some new tricks.'

'You better,' she declared haughtily, and settled right against his left side. Jack couldn't help but laugh a little when she poked one of his ribs.

'Or what,' he asked, frowning as seriously as he could at the moment, 'you'll turn me into a tree?'

'You would make a terrible tree,' Desdemona declared, and there was another chorus of laughter.

'Hey, Frostbite,' Bunny said, striding over, and Jack de-tangled himself from the dryads hastily, because that? That was not a happy-Bunny voice.

'What's up?'

'I'm going to get headed,' he said, and his ears were rigid, tilted back and out. Jack was bewildered – what had gone wrong?

'Okay, give me a second.'

'No, don't ye worry.' Bunny sounded like he was gritting his teeth. 'I'll see ye later.'

'Uh, no,' Jack frowned. 'Seriously, one second. Later, guys!'

'Come back soon!' Chrysanthe said, and Jack felt a shiver of discomfort go down his spine, because she sounded like she meant him, and probably not for a friendly visit. Which was just no.

'Sure!' Jack lied with a bright chirp, smiling falsely, and with a wave to the faintly smiling Ismene (what happened there?), began to chivvy Bunny from the arboretum. Something had gone funny, and Jack didn't like that. They ducked out into the cloudy day, and almost instantly, Bunny's ears began to relax, at least until Jack spoke again. 'Sorry, Cottontail,' he said carefully. 'They can be a bit much if you aren't used to them.'

'Are they always so…' Bunny waved a paw a bit vaguely, and Jack tilted his head. 'Touchy,' Bunny finished.

'Sometimes,' Jack shrugged. Maybe Ismene had patted Bunny one too many times – she wasn't as grabby as her sisters, who liked to drape themselves over whoever was the object of their attention at the moment, but she did have a habit of putting her hands on shoulders and forearms and elbows when she talked. She was unusually reserved for a dryad – what Jack had hoped would be one of her advantages. Damn it. 'Ismene's not like that, normally,' Jack added, then grinned. 'Guess she liked you, then!'

'What?' Bunny said, staring at Jack like he'd grown a second head. 'No, she was fine.'

Jack felt his grin become a frown once more. 'Then what's wrong?'

Bunny flinched. 'Nothing's wrong, Frostbite,' he huffed. 'Got to see to me petunias. I'll see ye later.'

Before Jack could insist on an answer, Bunny opened a tunnel below himself and dropped out of sight, closing it almost instantaneously.

Jack stared at the flower left behind – a delicately lilac aster – and wondered what the fuck had just happened. Before that thought became verbal (there were kids around, after all, and he had an image to maintain now), he took to the air and aimed himself north-west, towards the Italian Alps. He felt the sudden need to make a quick blizzard.