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Bloody winter spirits were going to be the end of him.

That was it; that was the only sort of explanation there could be.

First he'd met Nicholas St. North and what a grand old mess that had been -- a mess that continued to this day, in spite of his best efforts. He'd gone from quoting poets to cracking skulls, and his dear old dam would faint if she could see the sort of shenanigans North had gotten him into over the centuries! The business with the bansidhe, that wasn't anything anyone had to live through once, let alone three times!

Then he'd met Jack Frost, and everything had just gone from bad to hell on a silver plate. There'd been the whole Blizzard of '68 business, and everything had spiraled out from there, until Easter nearly made him gunshy about leaving the Warren -- Easter! His own bloody holiday!

The booby-trapping of parks was where he had to draw the line -- let Frost do whatever the hell he wanted, that sort of thing was just outright dangerous for the kids. They'd gotten into a right row then, a full knock-down dragged-out brawl that had ended with him catching an actual genuine cold (and you didn't know the meaning of true terror until you had North trying to play nursemaid to you when all you wanted to do was tell the world to piss off and sleep) and -- from what he'd heard through the grapevine -- that smug little showpony had developed something that sounded remarkably similar to hayfever. It was something that gave him some measure of satisfaction, in between the racking cough and pounding headache.

(Though half of that had been North's fault, because the idiot had no idea of the concept of volume control.)

And after all the mess with Pitch, with Jack being installed as an official Guardian, things hadn't gotten any better, ohhh no. Because now, now that irritating little troublemaker had free run of their homes -- their sanctuaries -- and all without so much as a by your leave! As long as he knocked -- or did whatever equivalent of it was possible -- then he could come and go as he pleased. To make things even worse, the others were quick (too quick) to adopt the same behavior; where once he could expect nice long stretches of peace and quiet to do his work, now he had to keep an ear out at all times for the sound of voices in his tunnels just in case someone decided to "surprise" him with a "friendly visit." He'd been dragged out (against his will) more times in the past decade than he had in the past couple of centuries combined.

If he never had to play diplomat for another angry dragon again, it would be too soon in his long life. It wasn't quite the level of the bansidhe incident, but that was probably only because it had just happened the once.

(And the once was quite enough, thank you!)

But to top it all off -- the cherry to crown everything else -- North and Jack took to each other like birds of a bloody feather, so if you had to find Jack "off-duty," as it were, you'd best check first at his little pond, and then at Santoff Clausen, where he was sure to be causing some kind of trouble and not only getting away with it, but probably getting praised for it, too!

Naughty and nice his cute little cottontail arse. North was just as much of a troublemaker as Jack; he'd just had centuries more to figure out how to play innocent, and who knew what the hell sort of things Jack would learn from him. If another bansidhe came knocking, he was disowning them both on the spot.

To add insult to injury -- as if the list weren't already bad enough! -- Jack would just. Not. Shut. Up. About Christmas this and North's workshop that and hey, Bunny, you should add some red and green to your eggs, bet that'd look cool, huh? Kind of festive, right? The kids would like that!

So not only did he have to deal with that sort of trash from North all the time, it had to get parroted at him by his little protege, too! It was enough to drive a fellow mad.

He'd tried bringing it up casually with the other two, but Sandy just smiled serenely (in that secret little way that always made it seem like there was some great joke being played on the world and he was the only one who got it) and shrugged, and Tooth had launched into some excited monologue about how wasn't it so nice that the two of them were getting along, she'd been a little worried there might be some territorial clashing with them both being winter-affiliated and all, but they were already so close! like a father and a son! wasn't that so nice, Bunny, and Bunny don't grind your teeth like that, you know it's not good for you, I don't care if you're shaped like a rabbit--

Aster growled low in his throat, holding up the egg he'd been working on. He'd initially intended it to test some of the initial designs he'd sketched out for the next Easter, but somewhere along the way he'd gotten distracted in his irritation, and it showed. What should have been a delicate gradient of sky-blue to seafoam-green was solidly a dark and stormy teal color, so the most he could do with it now was to add lighter designs on top of the darker and hope he could brighten it a little. This would be one for his own collection, then, so he could at least do as he liked with it.

He was about halfway through a rather complicated fern design, curled around the egg with no easily discernable beginning or end, when an icy breeze ruffled through his fur, leaving it on end. Another growl rose in his throat, but he tamped most of it down, setting his brush aside and keeping the egg balanced in his claws. If nothing else, Jack's wind could help the paint dry faster. That was the one good thing about his occasional visit.

"Hey, Bunny!" Jack's shout seemed to echo through all the tunnels of the Warren, a moment before the devil himself appeared, shooting out of the entrance that came from -- where else? -- Santoff Claussen. He twirled a few times in midair, the bloody show-off, then touched down on the toes of one foot first, then remaining balanced like that, as if poised for flight again at a moment's notice. Whatever he'd meant to say, though, seemed to be derailed when he saw the egg in Aster's hand, his eyes lighting up. "Oh, hey, that one's nice! Let me see!" And then he was flowing forward, like he really was some kind of unstoppable force, until he was poised in a crouch in front of Aster, looking at the egg in question.

"Didja want something," he grumbled, wrinkling his nose against the smell of snow and ice -- Jack could bring both with a single throwaway thought, but even when he was reigning it in, the smell of it never went away. "If North sent you for another stupid favor--"

"They're not stupid, you just need to loosen up a bit." Jack glanced from the egg up to Aster's face, and there was the cheekiest grin on the little bugger's face. "Just because he knows how to have fun and you don't doesn't mean you've gotta take it out on us."

"Fun," Aster said, dragging the word out as long and slow as he could, so that it sounded like some sort of unpleasant disease. "I wouldn't call it fun so much as I'd call it a bloody health hazard."

"Aw, c'mon, Bunny." Jack rocked on his feet, using his staff to help balance himself. "You liked the sledding too."

"If you thought that was 'liking it,' you've run into one too many trees, mate."

"I saw you, you were laughing!"

"North was laughing, because that man's as much of a menace as you are!"

"You love us." Jack's smile never wavered, and when the hell had he gotten so confident about something that was so blatantly untrue? "And you'd miss us if we left you alone to your silly little egghunts."

"Silly?" Aster drew himself up, eyes narrowing. "You think this sort of thing's just silly?"

Now Jack looked a little unsure, as if he'd somehow not expected that -- and seriously, had he not? was he really that impossibly thick? -- rocking back all the way onto his heels. "Bunny--"

"Maybe it's silly to you," he said, jabbing a finger at Jack's chest, hard enough to topple him onto his arse, "and maybe to a kidlet getting presents handed to you is the better thing. But things've gotta start from somewhere, mate, and if there weren't any hope of it, then you couldn't bandaid it with all the presents in the world."

Jack was staring at him now with round startled eyes, and he had the gall to actually look confused, as if he really had no idea where this sort of thing could come from. "Bunny--"

"Not everything's just about 'snowballs and funtimes,' Jack," Aster said. "Now, whatever it was North wanted, no. No. And also, no. And furthermore? No." He picked up his paintbrush again and shifted a little, turning partially away from Jack, focusing hard on his egg again. From the corner of one eye, he saw Jack shift a little, and heard the soft click of a mouth opening without words. He refused to acknowledge it, though; he'd said his piece, and be damned if North or Jack was going to guilt trip him into going along with their schemes again.

"Right," Jack muttered after a moment, then stood. "Sorry. I'll come back whenever you've got that stick out of your ass."

Aster rolled his eyes, but kept his mouth shut as Jack stalked off, back to the tunnel that had brought him here, stepping into it and out of sight. Only when he was completely gone, and the last of his chill had dissipated, did Aster turn his attention back to the egg in his hand. The fern pattern he'd been so proud of a moment before looked too much like Jack's frost now, and just the sight of it irritated him beyond all words. He had half a mind to just crush it -- his paints were plant-based anyway, and the proteins in the eggshells would be good fertilizer -- but even when he wrapped his fingers around it completely, he found he couldn't apply the right amount of pressure to just do it.

For long seconds he stared down at that egg, and then he sighed and put it down, holding it there until its little legs popped out again, and it scurried off to the drying room to wait for when he wanted to work on it again.

If he wanted to work on it again. Maybe when he was a little less peeved, he thought, he'd be able to deal with it properly.

Bloody winter spirits were really going to be the end of him.

+++

Jack was sulking.

He didn't say so much about it in words, but North had a good number of centuries on the boy and enough familiarity with Bunny to recognize a good and proper sulk when he saw one. Though he sampled everything from the kitchen with the same enthusiasm as always (which had earned him the affection of the head chef and her assistants), and he still continued to freeze the elves in semi-compromising positions when North's back was turned, he was most certainly sulking.

Instead of a tantrum, like a human child might have, or making some dramatic show of it like a teenager, Jack just got ... quiet. There were places where he would normally have some sort of fast-slung joke, like a verbal snowball, that went quiet, and an extra heartbeat of pause as he sorted out his own thoughts from the actuality of the world around him. He walked on the balls of his feet and kept to his toes, and while his staff was never far from him on a good day, in a sulk, he was more reckless of its relative placement to others -- he would twirl it, or make sweeping gestures with it, and it didn't matter if there were elves in the way or that a yeti might get clipped in passing. A sulking Jack talked as much with his staff as his words, and he'd already knocked over several groups of elves in the past twenty minutes.

Someone who didn't know him very well might have not even noticed, or let it go as his moods fluctuating with the passing seasons -- North himself always lagged a little whenever winter gave way to spring anywhere in the world -- but after so many years, he knew what to look for.

He'd given Jack a week -- not too long by their standards -- and when Jack had said nothing, he decided it was time to take matters into his own hands.

After dinner, when North would normally launch into stories of his youth (it was good to relieve those times again, with someone who hadn't been there and who hadn't heard the retellings so many times, and Jack was always an appreciative audience), he instead watched Jack, who in turn sat tucked in his chair, knees close to his chest and staff balanced across them. Instead of pestering North for stories, he seemed content to stare into the fire without blinking, and that was where simply sulking was beginning to slide into an actual mood.

"So, Jack," he said, and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his belly, "what is it that troubles you? You are quite long in the face, as they say."

"I'm fine," Jack mumbled, which really was rather pathetic. North had known actual children who were better liars. "Just tired."

"Ah," North said, knowingly. "So tired that it has lasted for full week?"

Jack sank lower in his chair, and the movement dragged his hood up until it draped partially over his face. He glared from under it, and that was a true petulant frown on his face, the sort best suited for children denied a favorite treat after vegetables. "Yeah, so? It happens."

"It happens," North said. "It happens when young Jamie goes away for his college things. It happens when your Baby Tooth is so busy with work she cannot play."

"She's not really 'my' Baby Tooth--"

"And." North held up a finger to cut off the rest of Jack's protest. "It happens when you fight with Bunny."

Jack's frown deepened into an outright scowl. Aha. "So? What of it? You can't get along with everyone all the time. Just because some guys don't know how to have any fun doesn't mean I need to worry about them, either."

"No, no," North said agreeably. "Is only fair. After all, is only Bunny, yes?"

"Yeah." Jack slid lower in his seat for a moment, then seemed to catch himself, straightening a little. "Wait, what?"

"Bunny, bah!" North shook his head sadly, as if mourning the very thought of their fellow Guardian. "Is always so very strict, is he not? Never knows how to relax ever."

Jack's frown deepened and took on a different edge, more confused than sulky now. He pushed himself up further with his elbows, narrowing his eyes. "That's true, but ..."

"But nothing! I have known Bunny for many years. Many, many years." North shook his head again. "Always, we are arguing like cats and dogs. Or perhaps it is rabbits and hunter! Hah!" He smiled, but Jack didn't return the expression. "Always he is so very strict, and for what? A single silly egg hunt every year and nothing more."

The flinch was small -- it could have easily been passed off for a twitch. But North's eyes were sharp no matter how old he was, and there was very little he missed when he was paying attention. Jack's chin sank almost to his chest, not quite touching, and he jerked his head to one side, staring fiercely at the fire.

"Silly egg hunt that means all of the world to him," North said quietly. "Is the one thing that is guaranteed to make him smile, even when other things are not so good."

Jack set his jaw in a fierce scowl. On his staff, his fingers tightened until they were trembling faintly. When he remained quiet, North shrugged his shoulders and said, "You did not show him thing you were working so hard on, did you?"

"... No." It sounded like the admission was dragged out by hooks. "He didn't want to come, so I just ..." He began to fiddle with the drawstrings of his hoodie, the rest of the sentence lost in a mumble. Just when North thought he was done, though, he straightened up a little, a new and fierce frown on his face. "But you make fun of Easter all the time--!"

"Bunny and I have known each other for many, many years," North said. "Is old topic between us. No need to get angry, no need to defend, not for real. A comfortable fight. We have seen too much together otherwise. But with you, it is different."

Jack's scowl deepened. He pushed himself further back in his seat, curling even his toes in as he did. "Different how?"

"You are not me," North said. "So of course it is different."

There was more to it, of course, but there was a time and a place, and this was neither. For a moment he thought Jack would continue to hold out -- the boy could be remarkably stubborn when he set his mind to it -- but then Jack sighed and his shoulders slumped.

"I don't get it," he said. "After all this time, you'd think he'd know when I meant it and when I didn't."

"Do you always know when he is serious?" North raised an eyebrow. "Is not always such a clear-cut thing, is it?"

"No, but ..."

North sighed and waved a hand, as if to clear the air between them. "Is thing to remember, in future."

Jack muttered something under his breath, sinking low into his seat again. He looked more thoughtful than sulky, now, working his jaw like there were words there, just on the verge of being spoken. North settled back himself, content to watch. Jack was a clever boy, but sometimes it took a little more nudging than others.

Then he nodded and pushed himself up. He had his staff gripped between both hands and his eyes were bright with determination. "Right. North, I'm--"

"Say hello to Bunny for me," North said, indulgent from his reclining position. "Remind him we are meeting for svoyi koziri in week's time."

"Svo-what?" Jack raised an eyebrow, a smile quirking his mouth.

"Is card game. You might like; I teach it to you later. Go on."

The small smile blossomed into a larger one, bright as the sun on the snow. It took ten steps to cross from the fireplace to the window, and North squinted against the sudden blast of cold air as Jack opened them and climbed onto the sill.

"Close those after you!"

Jack laughed and jumped. For a moment the windows remained wide open, and as North thought about seeing if any of the yeti were around to do him a favor, a sharp gust of wind rattled past, slamming the windows shut. He blinked and then chuckled, settling more comfortably in his chair. The fire was warm and his belly was full; he would consider this a successful night.

+++

Aster sensed Jack's approach before he touched down; there was a chill in the wind that smelled like fresh snow and settled in his gut with the knowledge. North smelled like snow too, but it was deeper and heavier: like midwinter instead of its beginning, without the sharp bite of ozone at its edges. It gave him enough warning to set aside his current egg -- and this one was a success, a lovely soft gradient of warm dawn colors at its base and flowering vines in white wrapped all around it -- and cross his arms to wait.

Like last time, Jack blew in roughly from the direction of the North Pole, spinning neatly in the air before touching down, this time with both feet nearly at once. It was a more grounded gesture than before, like the punctuation to a statement that Aster hadn't heard. His expression was set, too, his jaw set in a certain way that generally meant trouble.

"Hey, Bunny," he said. "Busy?"

"Would it matter if I was?" He crossed his arms. His voice was perhaps a bit sharper than he meant it to be, but sometimes, being blunt to the point of exaggeration was the only way to get through to stubborn idiots. It really shouldn't have surprised him so much that North and Jack had taken to each other so strongly; they were cut out of the same cloth down to the individual threads.

"Actually? It would."

Aster just stared until Jack coughed and glanced aside with a shrug. "I mean, if you were, I wouldn't want to interrupt, especially if you were working, but since Easter was a month ago, I figured that maybe ... you know ..."

He trailed off with a loud sigh, fixing his gaze on the ground by Aster's feet instead. His mouth was set in a petulant scowl that would have done any brat in a tantrum proud. It looked like there was something else he wanted to say, pressing against his lips, but refusing to quite make it out. After a few long beats, Aster sighed.

Winter spirits! They really would end him someday, and be damned if he wouldn't let it happen.

"Apology accepted," he said. "If North put you up to that, I don't want to hear it."

"Hey!" But Jack was smiling now, his shoulders straightening. He could be pretty easy if you struck just the right note. "But seriously, are you busy? There's something I wanted to show you."

"Me?" Aster raised both eyebrows at that. "Like what?"

"It's a secret!" Jack's smile widened and sharpened into a grin, and Aster thought he was pretty well doomed, though he wasn't quite ready to simply given in, just like that. "You'll see it when we get there."

"We're going somewhere?"

"It's too big to move." Oh, and now the little bugger was going for the soulful look, all big earnest eyes like they might actually work. "So we're gonna have to go to it." And Aster must have had such a look on his face, because Jack held up one hand in a placating sort of gesture. "I promise it's not anything bad! But I think you'd like it. For real."

"And how are we gonna get there? If you think I'm going anywhere on that ridiculous breeze of yours, you've got another think coming--"

"It's wind, thank you, and c'mon!" He held out a hand, and for a moment he was so hopeful that Aster's heart skipped a beat. Whatever it actually was, Jack was keeping it below the surface, just out of reach, but he wasn't good enough to hide the feeling itself, and be damned if he couldn't help but give in to that, just a little.

"I hate traveling by air," he said morosely. "And besides, maybe it can carry a twig like you, but for me--"

"It's not that far," Jack said, and he reached out to seize Aster's hand himself, tugging insistently. "Come on, you'll see!"

To Aster's surprise, though, instead of calling up the wind and blowing them both away, Jack pulled him to one of the Warren's many tunnels -- the one that specifically led to the Alaskan tundra, far away from any of the larger cities. He was still grinning too, that curious spark of hope bubbling and rustling under his skin and always maddeningly out of reach.

It was a quick enough journey, and more comfortable than it could have been otherwise; Jack never let go of his hand the whole time. There was a brief moment, when they stepped out of the tunnel and into open air, that Jack's feet left the ground, as if the wind wanted to snatch him away, but even then, his hand remained firmly grasping Aster's own, as though it could tether him to the earth.

Aster rather thought it would take more than that to catch and hold Jack Frost, but kept that to himself.

"It's this way," Jack told him, tugging them into a half-jog, up over the sloping rise of a hill, and then--

Aster was a critic (in his own words) and sometimes a snob (in North's words). Art was something that came to him as easy as breathing, but even that took practice, whether on the blank slate of a canvas or the curved side of an eggshell. Over the years, he'd developed an eye for the practiced and for the spontaneous, but he'd always had an appreciation for honest effort.

Stretching out in front of him, contained within the gentle curve of a shallow valley, was an entire forest made of ice. A heartbeat later, he recognized it as emulating part of the Warren -- the coolest place, where the trees grew closest together, leaving long shadows across the grass.

"Not bad, huh?" He could hear the grin in Jack's voice, the smug edge of pride that usually had him bristling in automatic response. "North helped some, but that's all me. What do you think?"

He sounded a touch more breathless with the question, and again Aster felt a small rush of hope at that, and he rocked back on his heels, rubbing at his nose with his free hand.

"Well," he said, and if his voice was a bit deeper than normal, he wouldn't clear his throat to draw attention to it. "It's not bad, I guess."

"Not bad? Not bad?! Bunny, come on!" Jack tugged at his wrist again, this time pulling him down the hill, towards the forest. "At least get a better look before you decide to pass judgment."

"Don't ask a question if you don't want the answer," he shot back, but he didn't protest being led along, careful on the snow as it began to grow slick with ice. Jack slowed almost automatically as he began to pick his steps, walking more on his toes than anything else, barely leaving any footprints in the soft snow.

Up close, though, the ice forest was just as impressive as it had been from a distance. The details broke down somewhat on the closest level -- there was no way to completely perfectly emulate a living thing in any medium -- but the frost patterns on the ice leaves was good, and an artist was allowed to take liberties, now and then. Among the roots there were tiny flowers strung on hollow stems of ice: lily-of-the-valley, foxgloves, lilies, and others -- and scattered among those, as if shyly hidden, were tiny eggs. Most of them were the right size of his standard googie, but some were as small as quail eggs, and some even smaller, barely distinguishable from pellets of frozen snow.

They walked the length of the small transplanted piece of forest in silence. Jack's fingers were still wrapped firmly around Aster's wrist, mostly cool with the barest hint of warmth. Whether he'd forgotten or he was doing it deliberately, Aster couldn't tell, but it was charming in its own way, so he figured he would let it slide.

For now, at least.

At the end of their path, Aster half-turned again to look back the way they'd come. Even without the vibrant color that he associated so strongly with his home, there was enough exact detail in place that he could feel affection for this place, too, beating quietly in his chest. Nothing would grow here except for scrub and small desperate flowers during the fleeting summer, but that didn't make it any less beautiful.

"Yeah, all right," he said, keeping his voice hushed. "It's not bad at all."

"Yeah?" Jack's face lit up with a sudden bright smile -- not even a grin now, but an honest to goodness smile that warmed his eyes. His fingers squeezed against Aster's wrist for a moment, and it seemed like that gesture reminded him that they were still holding hands, because he pulled back at that, tucking his hands into his pockets and balancing his staff in the crook of his elbow. "So you were happy with it."

"I just said that, didn't I?"

"You said it wasn't bad!" But Jack's smile didn't falter; if anything, it seemed to grow even brighter. "I worked on it forever, you know. It was going to be just a little thing, and I guess ... maybe I got a bit carried away." He stepped lightly forward, reaching to rub an ice leaf between his fingertips, spreading a fresh layer of curling, delicate frost over it.

"You do this for the others, too?" Aster asked. He was beginning to feel the cold again, no longer distracted by Jack's creation -- no less lovely for exposure, but less overwhelmingly in the forefront of his thoughts. "North?"

"North can make his own stuff," Jack said, with a snort. "Tooth's home floats, and so does Sandy's, and I'm good, but I'm not that good." He turned lightly on one foot, tilting his head just so in order to make his posture nearly a challenge. "Anyway, yours had the most interesting stuff."

"Interesting?" Aster raised an eyebrow.

"Shapes and things." Jack shrugged a little. "I like the way the forest looks, okay? It looks like it was grown, not built. I liked that."

"Mmhmm." Aster looked over the forest again, rubbing absently at his arms. It wasn't nearly as windy as it was up near Santoff Claussen, but it was enough that he could feel the chill now, seeping through his fur and into his bones. "Frost and all being a natural thing."

"I only play favorites sometimes," said Jack. "I just ... wanted to do it this way instead. Okay?" He dug his toes into the snow now, meeting Aster's eyes almost defiantly. The tips of his soft round little ears were pinker than normal. Aster almost smiled, but bit it back at the last moment.

"It looks good, Jack," he said, softer now, more genuine, and he saw the hint of challenge seep out of Jack's posture. "You've got a real skill for it."

"Yeah, well." Jack turned back to the forest now, tilting his head back to look up at the canopy, where the ice leaves clinked together like tiny crystal bells in the breeze. "With enough effort, anyone can get good at something, I guess."

Aster was silent for a moment. Then he took a deep breath -- and sneezed. And as if that itself was a trigger, he began to shiver, rubbing harder at his arms.

"Crikey, it's cold," he huffed, when Jack turned to look at him in wide-eyed surprise. "It's lovely and all, and I wouldn't mind stayin', but next time, give a body some warning, yeah? It's too early in the year for m'winter coat."

"Aww, you're cold?" Jack drifted closer again, and Aster didn't like the mischievous look that had lit in his eyes. "But you've got all that nice fur, you can't tell me that you're really feeling it--"

"Didn't you just hear what I said?" he snapped, just short of being actually peeved. "I get a winter coat just fine, but that depends on when it's winter around the Warren, not-- oi!" He dove down as Jack tossed a snowball at him -- he'd tried to be sly, but he wasn't terribly good at hiding his movements when someone knew to be careful of him. "Have a heart, you menace!"

"I do!" Jack laughed. "And it's crying out for a bit of fun, c'mon, Bunny--"

"Come on my cute fuzzy arse," he snapped. "If you're going to be this ridiculous, I'm going back."

"All right, all right! Hey." Jack drifted back to him, and there was that odd hopeful look in his eyes again, all that emotion still bubbling just out of reach of clarity. "Thanks for coming to look, all right? It means a lot."

Still somewhat caught in his irritation, it took Aster a moment to shake it off. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then said, "You're not always so bad. I guess."

Something went even brighter in Jack's eyes for a moment. He gripped his staff like he could draw strength directly from it, staring intently up into Aster's face. "What's it take to get more than a 'I guess'?"

Aster blinked. The question, for all that it had come lighthearted and playful, had a deeper note to it, buried so low that he wondered if Jack himself was aware of it. For just a moment he saw what lay under it, stretched out so sudden and wide that it was like thin ice under his feet. He looked past Jack to the forest again, listening as it whispered to itself in the breeze in soft chiming voices.

"Don't rightly know myself," he said, quiet again. "But you might be on the way there."

He heard Jack draw in a sharp startled breath, and he didn't have to look to know the expression on Jack's face -- bright wonderful treacherous hope, the sort that was so sharp that you didn't dare hold it too tight, for fear of being cut to shreds.

"Bunny?"

"You're all right, Jack," he said, and then: "I'm not going anywhere."

For a moment everything was still and silent; even the wind in the ice trees had stilled.

Then Jack laughed and it was a bright open sound -- one that echoed through the trees made of ice and snow, one that the wind snatched up and carried high, one that resonated almost unfairly in Aster's quiet steady heart. He flowed forward, and his feet left the ground again, buoyed by an icy wind, and his lips brushed over Aster's cheek, cold and fast, and there was another laugh that was breathed directly into his ears.

"I'll keep trying," Jack told him, bright-eyed and already half-gone -- and then he was completely gone, carried away lighter than a leaf on the wind.

And Aster, grounded and solid as he had always been, old as the hills under his feet and still reborn every spring, snorted and rubbed his nose. It was on the tip of his tongue to complain -- shouldn't I be the one worrying, with you blowing off everywhere, you idiot gadabout? -- but even thinking that sounded like an excuse. Even though there was no one around to see him, he disguised his smile with a cough, thumping a foot against the ground to open a tunnel to take him home.

Winter spirits. They really would be the end of him.

But perhaps -- just perhaps -- it might not be such a bad thing.