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188 Hugs

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--- First Hug

"That's what you want?" Bunny's eyebrows nearly touched his tall ears in surprise and disbelief as he stared down at Jack Frost.

Jack, who had his chin set in a stubborn line, his expression clearly defiant, even as his posture screamed that he was about three seconds from fleeing as fast as the winds could bear him away. "Yes." Jack said tightly, his eyes firmly looking to the side, never meeting Bunny's gaze.

Ears twitching, Bunny tilted his head to the side, trying to figure what the catch was. Things had changed since the Man in the Moon had declared Jack the newest Guardian, mostly for the good. The biggest one being in the past month since Pitch was defeated, all five Guardians had taken to getting together about once a week, just to socialise and play.

Last time they got together conversation had shifted to when they'd helped Toothiana gather teeth, and who exactly had gathered the most amount of teeth. So tonight they'd turned it into a contest: whoever gathered the most teeth got a boon from the person who got the least amount of teeth.

Toothiana was exempt, being the one directing the activity, she and her Fairies acting as cheerleaders and guides for everyone.

The race had been close, especially between Sandy and Jack, but Bunny had come in last, Jack beating him by a total of 188 teeth.

After pulling Bunny aside and making Bunny swear not to tell anyone, Jack had hesitantly asked for hugs. 188 hugs, one for each tooth.

To be honest, Bunny had been expecting something more of a mischievous nature, enlisting help in pranking one of the other Guardians, or Jack making him do or say something humiliating. Bunny'd been bracing himself to draw the line, and taken completely off guard by the haltingly spoken request.

“But ya don’t like...” Bunny waved a paw around. Hugs, pats, physical affection in general. The boy always tensed up, his breathing picking up as if he was checking a flight or fight response. Bunny had been careful to respect that, especially since North and Toothiana had no personal boundaries when it came to physical affection.

Jack shook his head, swallowing nervously, his gaze never meeting Bunny’s. “It’s not that I don’t like it.” He confessed. “It’s just... I don’t know how to react. It gets a bit... overwhelming sometimes.”

Bunny could definitely understand that. He liked his fellow Guardians... In small doses. There were reasons he preferred staying in his Warren.

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, trying to find the hidden angle or catch. Jack just shifted nervously, looking very young and vulnerable. His staff and the ground was frosting white, the boy clearly embarrassed and looking as if he were trying not to brace for rejection.

Just how old was Jack anyway? Before Manny had changed him? Old enough that Toothiana had his baby teeth, but not by much.

Now that he thought about it, Jack always seemed so surprised by any sort of physical contact, a brush on the shoulder, a pat on the back, Toothiana sticking her fingers in his mouth. Jack rarely pulled away, but hardly ever initiated contact either.

... Maybe the request wasn't as odd as it sounded.

"300 years." Bunny mused. "That's a long time ta go without hugs." Long time to go without any physical affection at all, really. Even for them.

He knew that Phil had actively been trying to keep Jack out of North's workshop for at least two centuries, and his own previous meeting with Jack in '68 hadn't exactly been filled with warm fuzzies. He wasn't sure if North and Sandy had met Jack previously to their gathering, but he knew for certain that Toothiana hadn't.

Jack flinched, his feet momentarily leaving the ground before he caught himself. "Never mind." He muttered, waving a hand, snowflakes trailing in the air as he backed up a step, obviously looking to laugh it off and failing. "Don't worry about it. It was a stupid idea anyway. I'll come up with something better later- Ack!"

The startled noise was strangely satisfying as Bunny scooped Jack up, tucking the lad's head under his chin. "Didn't say it was stupid, Frostbite." Bunny corrected. Just that hugs weren't something that Bunny considered needed to be granted as a favour. Freely given, yes.

But affection was clearly something Jack felt that he needed to barter for, as if he thought he'd be turned away. For a moment, Bunny regretted promising not to tell anyone else what Jack had requested, this was something that obviously needed to be corrected. And not just by him, but by all the Guardians.

Jack held perfectly still against him, body stiff like he was afraid if he moved, Bunny would drop him. "Now." Bunny said, trying to keep his tone light. "Did ya want all 188 at once, or didja wanna space it out a touch?"

This startled Jack into laughter, a quiet cold huff against Bunny's neck as he curled his skinny arms around Bunny's shoulders, the staff pressing awkwardly between them. "Space it out." Jack said quickly. "I don't think I could handle that many hugs at once."

"Was havin' trouble figurin' out the logistics meself." Bunny agreed, prompting another chortle. Jack was absurdly light, barely weighing anything at all, like a good stiff breeze could come and carry him away.

Actually, that did explain Jack's chosen form of transportation.

The boy took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it out, going plaint against Bunny. Jack was chilly to the touch, even through the layers of fur, but not overly so. Were it anyone other than Jack Frost, Bunny would seriously worry about his temperature.

Jack gave him a squeeze before leaning back and Bunny obligingly released him, Jack slipping from his grasp to land lightly on his feet, giving Bunny a small smile before glancing at his feet. "Thanks." He muttered, so earnestly it made Bunny's heart want to break.

"Anytime." He said, ruffling Jack's white hair, causing a small flurry of snowflakes to shake free from his hair. "And I mean that." He said seriously, catching Jack's eye. "Anytime. Don't even have to ask."

Bunny got a dismissive one-shouldered shrug in return. Winter Sprite and a Guardian Jack might be, but he was definitely still a young teenager. Bunny sighed quietly to himself. Definitely needed to work on hugs and acceptance with the kid. He gave Jack a gentle shove, herding him back in the direction of the other Guardians. Jack gave a small chortle and allowed himself to be escorted back, their arms brushing as they walked.

Toothiana gave them a nervous look that faded into a smile as she flitted between North and Sandy. A small cluster of her Fairies were not nearly as restrained, separating from Toothiana and dive-bombing them, buzzing around Jack as if to verify that he was still in one piece, making chirping noises at him and each other. One of them had a little tiny outfit on that made them look like a miniature floating white snowman.

"There you are!" North boomed, gesturing expansively at them. "We were just talking of looking for you. Agreement reached, yes?"

"Yeah." Jack nodded, ducking his head in a shy grin.

"We're golden, mate." Bunny reassured them. "No drama."

Sandy snapped his fingers, a disappointed look on his face as an image of Bunny doing 'I'm a little teapot' swirled above his head. Bunny growled in return, narrowing his eyes and the image quickly disappeared, Sandy suddenly looking highly angelic and innocent of any possible teasing.

"Oi, Jack." Bunny smoothed his face into something neutral as he held out a hand. "Snowball?"

He was leaving himself wide open for a fun-filled snowball to the face, but Jack just grinned, snow forming in his hand. "Snowball." Jack agreed, placing a perfectly formed ball of ice and snow in Bunny's hand.

Bunny reached back and quickly let it fly, smacking Sandy in the forehead. The Sandman blinked in surprise, as if he hadn't been expecting that form of retribution, North boomed with laughter as Toothiana hid a giggle behind her hand. Bunny was much more prone to occasionally bopping people on the head when they toed the line, but there was something satisfying in watching bits of snow and melting water drip down Sandy's face.

"Ta, mate." Bunny grinned, glancing down at Jack, who had a broad mischievous smile on his face, looking much more like his usual trickster self.

"Anytime."

 

--- Second Hug

"Before y'go-" Bunny tapped Jack on the shoulder, then wrapped him up in a hug when the lad turned around.

Jack snorted, then spat out a mouthful of fur. “So, is this going to be a thing then?” He plaintively asked, as if he hadn't been the one to hesitantly make the request. “Hugs when we meet and depart?”

“Only if ya want 'em.” Bunny patted Jack’s scrawny back and loosened his grip, but Jack remained leaning against him, face buried against Bunny’s fur. Bunny tightened his hold, just enough to let Jack know that he was there, Jack’s chill sinking into his fur.

Hugs were only good if both recipients wanted them.

While Jack was the Guardian of Fun, and loved to play with everyone, he did seem to enjoy his solitude as well. It was something that Bunny could appreciate and respect, being a loner himself. He could happily spend decades by himself in the solitude of his warren, growing things and painting eggs.

And while he loved his fellow Guardians as his family, his blood-brothers, sometimes they could be a bit... much to deal with.

“I’ll remember that.” Jack promised, pulling back just as the cold began to get an uncomfortable edge to it. Bunny released him, giving the boy a small smile, ruffling his hair a bit.

“Good.” He nudged Jack with his arm. “Til next time?”

“Til next time.” Jack smiled, giving him a small wave before taking off into the air. “See ya Easter ‘Roo.”

“'Oo-roo, Frostbite.” Bunny waved, watching the lad float out of sight. The kid was definitely growing on him. A flurry of movement caught his eye and he glanced over to find Sandy smirking at him. “What?”

Sandy just shook his head, the Sandman's own brightly smiling face appearing in the sand floating above his golden head.

“Yeah, yeah. Yer happy we’re all ruddy great friends now.” Bunny grumbled. “Next thin’ ya know, we’ll all be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbayah’.”

Sandy looked down at his own hands, then held one up for Bunny to take. When Bunny didn’t move, Sandy floated closer, waving his hand with a hopeful expression.

“Fine.” Bunny took Sandy’s hand, eclipsing the small man’s fingers in his paw. “But I’m not singin’.”

 

--- Third Hug

“Yo, Hippity-Hop.” Jack greeted Bunny as he jumped out a tunnel into North’s workshop.

“Yo yerself, Jackie-boy.” Bunny nodded, the tunnel smoothly closing behind him. Jack looked mostly at ease, as long as you didn't notice the nervous flex of his jaw and the way he wouldn't quite make eye contact. Bunny snorted to himself in amusement and walked over, slinging an arm around Jack and pulling him into in a side hug. “'Ow ya goin'?”

Jack huffed, a soft laugh as he wrapped his arms around Bunny, leaning against him. The nutter probably thought Bunny had forgotten their little arrangement. “M’alright.” Jack said, turning his head so he wasn't accidentally getting a mouthful of on Bunny’s fur. “You?”

“Can’t complain.” Bunny grinned back. His attention was pulled away by the buzz of hummingbird wings and he patted Jack’s back, attempting to gracefully pull away before Toothiana appeared. While he didn't mind giving the boy an occasional hug, knowing his fellow Guardians, this could turn really awkward, really fast.

Jack caught the hint a moment too late, tensing as a gleeful squeal filled the air.

“Hey!” Toothiana beamed at them. “Oh! We get hugs?! Yay!” She chirped, dive-bombing towards them. Jack panicked and flailed, twisted away to the side and putting Bunny between her and him. Bunny suddenly found himself with an armful of squeeing, vibrating Toothiana. Her Fairies kept flying, swirling around Jack and chirping excitedly.

“How’s is?” Bunny asked, awkwardly patting her back, above her fluttering wings. When she was calmer, Toothiana could give some really good comforting hugs, just the right amount of pressure and contact. But when she was excited, like now, she had a tendency to grip a little too hard, release, and repeat, not knowing when to let go. It was like trying to hug a large hyper squirming kitten.

With feathers.

Sandy was a cuddler given half a chance and gave pretty good hugs, aside from the fact that One: Unless he was floating, whoever Sandy was hugging usually ended up his face shoved in their crotch, which could get a little awkward when one didn't wear trousers. Or sometimes even when one did wear trousers. And Two: Sand, even magic dream sand, itched.

“BUNNY!” North’s voice echoed and Bunny felt his ears drop, pressing down along the back of his head. Oh, no.

North was the worst. Not only was North a large jolly man, he was a large jolly man with no concept of personal boundaries and did not know his own strength.

North was on them before Bunny could retreat, scooping up both Bunny and Toothiana in his huge arms, their feet swinging off the ground as the giant lummox hugged them. Bunny felt several vertebrae in his back suddenly pop, not all of them comfortably. “So good to see you, my friends!” North said happily, rocking them back and forth as Toothiana squealed in delight, her wings beating a fast tempo against Bunny’s side.

Bunny turned his head to find Jack safely perched out of arm’s reach just below the rafters, watching with an expression of mixed horror and barely restrained amusement. Sandy floated on a cloud of sand next to him, tiny hands clasped over his mouth, looking seconds away from bursting out in giggles. Or diving down and joining in on the love-fest.

Bunny shot the Winter Sprite a dark look. Jack just gave him a weak grin and waved, clutching his staff like it was a life line.

It did not escape Bunny's notice that Jack didn't come down and join the cuddle pile, the rotter.

 

--- Hug 7-ish

Jack was just the right height for Bunny to drape an arm over his narrow shoulders and lean on him, much like Jack did with his staff.

Bunny found this hysterical.

Jack did not.

At least not until Jack discovered he had very sharp pointy fingers and a very good understanding of where ticklish spots might be found, even on an over six foot tall giant Pooka.

Jack found this hilarious.

Bunny did not.

However, it wasn't enough to keep Bunny from using Jack as a prop whenever it was convenient. But it was enough to let him know when he needed to let go.

 

--- Somewhere in the Teens

"Oi, Larrikin!" Bunny shivered and stomped his feet against the ground to try to keep feeling in them. It was cold, colder than it was up at North's workshop, and as far as Bunny was concerned, that was one of the coldest places on earth. He froze his tail off every time he had to go running through that blasted snow.

Bunny didn't exactly visit Burgess all that often, but he did know that this weather was strange for the area. Way too cold for spring, even for the home of Jack Frost.

He knew Jack was around here somewhere, the lad hadn't moved for a while as far as he could tell, but the ground had frozen too hard for him to really pick anything up other than vague impressions from it. The others had gathered at the North Pole hours ago, but Jack hadn't shown up, prompting the others to become concerned.

And if Bunny was being honest, himself as well. Just a little bit. Not much. The brat could take care of himself.

Even if he wasn't answering Bunny's shouts.

Bunny cupped his hand around his mouth and took a deep breath. "Cooee!!!" He called, the bush call echoing throughout the trees.

Silence.

Bunny growled to himself, scanning the trees for any sign of their missing Guardian. It was past the point that this could be some sort of prank. The others were talking of looking for Jack, but Bunny wanted to find Jack and get back before North organised everybody.

Even if it was under the guise of a boon, Jack had asked Bunny for hugs, for help. He didn’t think the others even realised that Jack might be having any troubles adjusting to not only being a Guardian, but to suddenly interacting with people. And while Bunny was not responsible for the little hellion, he was going to do his damndest to watch over the boy.

Suddenly being inundated by well-meaning concerned Guardians, Fairies, Yeti, and Elves could be a bit much, Bunny knew from horrified personal experience. The Chicken Soup Incident was one that would ever remain in Guardian infamy.

Bunny stomped his feet again, getting a bit of feeling back, not only in his toes, but a faint trace in the earth. He paused, concentrating on it before bounding off.

The problem with tracking Jack was that he more often flew on the wind than touched the ground, and was still immaterial enough that he didn't leave many traces of his passing. No broken branches, no disturbed or dropped snow.

But he did leave behind his namesake... Frost.

The snow was forming a layer of ice on top of it the closer he got in the direction he'd last sensed the Winter Sprite. It crunched and broke under Bunny’s paws, slowly becoming thicker until it could almost support his weight.

Bunny paused when the ice layer evened out, no longer thickening or thinning, his breath steaming in front of him like smoke from a chimney as his chest heaved, aching from the cold. There were times he wished he still wore his old green coat, clothing would’ve been nice right about now. He cupped his hands again, releasing another bush call. "Cooee!!!"

Ears twitching this way and that, he scanned the area. He picked up a faint squeak and took off in that direction, spotting a faint flash of royal blue, nearly blending in with the stark winter forest palette. The trees started to open up, revealing a small clearing next to what looked like the stone remains of a ruined foundation.

For a moment, he nearly missed spotting Jack, the lad looked more like a statue than a person, standing stone still and covered in snow. “Jackie?” Bunny asked, cautiously approaching the Winter Sprite. “You right?”

Jack didn’t seem to have heard him, staring at a flat rock in front of him. Bunny hesitantly moved closer, flinching slightly at the arctic blast of chill that burned his skin, even through his fur. He stood up, the ice thick enough to hold his weight on two legs, reaching towards the boy. “Jack?”

Jack gave a gasp, like someone surfacing from underwater, chest heaving. He seemed to come back to himself, flailing backwards away from Bunny, his swinging staff nearly smacking Bunny’s hand. “Don’t touch me!”

“Okay.” Bunny agreed, leaving his hand outstretched, palm up in a warding gesture. He wouldn’t move closer.

“No, I mean...” Jack shook his head, snow flying from it. He reached up, pulling his hood over his head, hiding his face. “I don’t want to hurt you too.” He mumbled miserably.

He was just about to question the ‘too’ when a squeak came from the frozen tree branches above them, taking on a scolding tone. One of Toothiana’s Fairies. Jack flinched slightly, reminding Bunny of a frightened brumby, ready to run or lash out at any sudden moves.

“Easy now.” Bunny shifted, broadcasting his actions as he moved past Jack until he was under the tree the noise had come from. “You up there, shelia?”

A tiny sneeze, followed by slightly movement. Bunny stretched, reaching his hands up. “Come here girl.”

The small Fairy more fell off the branch then flew, Bunny quickly caught her and sunk back down on his haunches, curling his fingers around the Fairy. The little one was pure white, covered in a thin sheen of ice, shivering cold, limbs and wings tucked in herself. She looked up at him with a concerned look on her face, then towards Jack.

“You’re alright.” Bunny said, more to assure Jack than the Fairy, who didn’t seem to need it. “Let’s just tuck you in right here, safe and sound.” He said, pulling the bandoleer away from his chest, sliding the small Fairy between it and the long fur of his ruff. She burrowed in against his chest, giving a grateful little chirp.

“See? Everything’s apples.” Bunny assured Jack, who had shifted to warily watch out of the corner of his eye. “No one’s hurt.”

Jack nodded, his shoulders slumping slightly as if a weight had been taken from them. “I didn’t mean to.” He mumbled, rubbing his face with his free hand. “I just... Some of the kids mentioned stumbling upon an old cemetery on the outskirts of town... from the original settlers, from before it was Burgess.”

Bunny glanced around and realised that some of the snow and ice covered lumps were lined up in loose rows, much like tombstones were. There were wild trees in between, disrupting the symmetry however. If this was a cemetery, it was not a well taken care of one.

He was just about to prompt Jack into explaining when the Winter Sprite pointed with his staff at the lump he’d been standing in front of. “And then I started to remember.”

Bunny shifted closer, stretching his neck to look at it. It was a tombstone, the lead letters worn and cracked, some missing off the carved stone, but still readable.

Jackson Overland Frost

31 January 1698 - 29 January 1712

The rest was buried under the snow and frost that covered the ground. Jack’s grave, from when he was human. Before the Man in the Moon had chosen him, changed him.

Bunny quickly did the math in his head. Two days before he turned 14. “You’re just a young whippersnapper, aintcha?” He blurted out.

“Hey!” Jack protested, momentarily sounding more like his brash self. “That’s three-HUNDRED and fourteen, thank you very much.”

“Bah.” Bunny waved it off. He’d been on this planet since around the time it was Pangaea. When you got to his and Sandy’s age, every yearly rotation of the earth around the sun started to feel like a day, if that. 300 years was a mere speck of time.

“It’s the voice, isn’t it?” Jack leaned on his staff, his hood covering most of his expression, but his voice was wistful. “Mom always said I’d grow into it, but.... “

“Ah.” Bunny nodded. Jack had never gotten a chance to. Bunny shivered, wrapped his arms around his chest to try to preserve his warmth as the temperature of the air suddenly plummeted again in Jack’s distress. The poor blighter probably didn’t even realise what he was doing.

“Oh crap!” Jack backed up a step again, bare feet sliding on the ice. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to-”

Bunny held up a hand. “Relax, kid. You’re not gonna permanently hurt ol’ Bunny.” Temporary discomfort was another story. Jack made an anguished noise, legs tensing as if to jump into the air and do a Harold Holt.

“The others are worried about ya.” Bunny said, trying to keep his voice low and soothing. From the way Jack’s head snapped up, a horrified look on his face, eyes widening as he obviously belatedly remembered that they’d been planning on meeting that day. Bunny had to bite back a grin at the comical expression.

“So here’s what I’m gonna suggest.” Bunny quickly continued, motioning to the little one hidden under his bandolier. “We head on up ta the North Pole. You can process and get this-” He waved a paw around, gesturing at the ice and snow covering the area “-outta your system. I’ll drop into the Workshop, warn the others ta letcha be fer a bit, and warm up. Then when you feel like you’re not gonna freeze everything ya touch, come on in, we’ll get a blanket, and you can talk about it.”

“I-” Jack’s fingers flexed against his staff, glancing around at the trees as if realising the extent of the frozen tundra in each direction. “How bad is it?” He asked, obviously concerned.

Bunny debated. Not quite ‘Blizzard of ‘68’ bad, but worse than ‘Freak Snowstorm’ bad, especially this late in the season. “Dunno.” He shrugged, sticking to the truth.

Jack still flinched, feet shifting as if between torn between running and staying. “Alright.” He finally decided, looking as if he were facing his execution.

Bunny snorted. “It’s not bad as all that, mate.” He assured the lad, giving him a crooked grin. The Fairy chirped in agreement, adding her two cents.

“If you say so.” Jack didn’t sound convinced, but willing to go along with it.

“That’s the spirit.” Bunny grinned, stomping his foot twice, opening a tunnel under Jack’s feet. The boy let out a yell as he fell, disappearing into the earth. Heh.

The wind howled by and Bunny curled himself tighter. Now that his attention wasn’t focused on the lad, the cold was making itself known again. His bones ached from the chill of it.

“Alright there, ya little vegemite.” He held a hand to his chest, shielding the Fairy hiding there. “Hang on tight, this is gonna be a bumpy ride back.”

He tapped the ground twice, opening a tunnel and he staggered into it, more of a controlled fall than anything graceful. The temperature difference between the frozen air and the warmer tunnel was enough to be unpleasant, his cold stiff limbs locking up and not wanting to move. He started shivering as he warmed up, not realising that he’d stopped at some point.

The Fairy chirped at him as he slowly got his legs moving, limping down the tunnel as quickly as he could, using the walls to keep him upright and moving. It wasn’t a long tunnel, not nearly as bad as from the Warren to the Workshop, but it seemed to take forever. The snow and ice in his fur began to melt, soaking him to the skin.

The tunnel dropped him inside the front entrance to the Workshop and he groaned as he fell, landing in a shivering pile on the tile floor, eyes falling shut. Nice floor. Oh, he didn’t want to move for a while. A nice little kip sounded really good right about now.

A muffled horrified scream filled the air, one of the Yeti spotting him and flailing. There was the sound of many feet stampeding his way, then he was being picked up in huge warm hairy arms and carried away.

“BUNNY!” North’s voice boomed, hurting his ears, the buzz of Toothiana’s wings adding to the concerto of noise.

“Oi. Not so loud.” He groaned, teeth chattering.

“Bunny! You’re... blue!” Toothiana added, her voice high in concern. “Like, actually blue!”

“We mock about funny colour later.” North said, taking control of the situation. “Need to get Bunny warmed up first. Phil! Start a bath! Not too hot! Lukewarm! Paul! Get him there! Now! Toropit'sya!”

“Oh, I hate baths.” Bunny grumbled as he was carried away again, the footfalls jostling his aching body.

“Yes, yes. Normally we remove wet clothing, but cannot do so with your fur unless you wish to be very naked bunny.” North said from somewhere behind the Yeti. “Hence, bath. We get you dry soon after. Dingle! Fetch hot drinks!”

“Fine.” Bunny agreed, wishing he could just sleep for a bit. Probably a bad idea though. He wasn’t too concerned, North would know what to do. Despite how much he bickered with the big guy, Bunny did trust the big guy to watch his back.

He relaxed and let North and the Yeti manhandle him into a standing position, stripping him of his arm guards and leg wraps. He stopped them from removing the bandoleer, pulling out the small Fairy first, much to Toothiana’s concern. They placed the little one in a teacup of water, warming her up as they got him into the tub.

The shivering got worse as the water started to pull the cold out of his fur, North rubbing Bunny’s limbs in his huge hands, getting the blood flow back into them. Sandy arrived, holding a mug of hot cider for him as he took small measured sips, the cider warming him up from the inside.

They waited for the shivering to abate and his energy levels to rise enough for him to start feeling like a wrinkled prune before pulling him out and helping to dry him off with huge fluffy towels before pelting him with questions. Wanting to know where Jack was, how he was doing, what happened.

“Easy, easy.” He laughed, dropping to all fours to shake the last of the water out of his fur, then scratch at an ear with a hind leg. “Long story short. Found Jackie. The boyo had gotten a bit o’ a shock, things got icy. I sent him ta the Back of Bourke up here in the Arctic ‘til he’s not so frosty. He’ll lob in when he’s good and ready.”

“You sure everything is okay?” North frowned, stroking his mustache.

“As sure as Bob’s yer uncle.” Bunny agreed, taking the blanket Phil offered him and wrapping it around himself, pulling part of it over his head like a hood.

“Bah.” North waved a hand at him. “I never know what you are saying. You never speak English. I have no Robert Uncle!”

“I think he means it’s alright.” Toothiana piped up, cradling her tiny Fairy in her hands, several other Fairies anxiously hovering over her shoulder. The little one chirped and nodded in agreement, her feathers puffed up, making her look twice her size.

“Fine.” North shrugged. “But you-” He jabbed a huge meaty finger at Bunny “-are staying here, next to the fire, until I am sure that you are ‘okely-dokely’.”

Bunny sneezed, wrapping the blanket tighter around him. “Fine by me, mate.”

North grunted in return, putting a hand on Bunny’s shoulder and personally escorting him to the fireplace in front of the Globe, one of the Yeti pushing a small sofa next to it for Bunny to rest on. Bunny gratefully sank down on it, someone pulling a second blanket over his lap, covering his feet.

“I really am fine, y’know.” He muttered, pulling his legs up onto the sofa, curling up on the soft cushions. Just a bit knackered. Still, it felt good just to sit there and bask in the warmth of the fire. Just for a little while.

“Yes, yes.” North patted his shoulder. “You are strong, we know this. This is just... precaution. Make us feel better.”

“If ya say so.” Bunny agreed, closing his eyes and drifting off. He could hear the other’s voices, rising and lowering in concern, but it was just background noise, like the occasional explosion or the Yeti and Elves wandering around making toys.

He woke up sometime later to the sofa moving, shifting with the additional weight of another body. He cracked open an eye to find Jack perched on the arm of the fair side of the sofa, staff propped up on one shoulder.

“You right, mate?” Bunny inquired, startling Jack.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Jack gave him a weak grin. “You, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. I snuck in through a window, overheard the others. Sounds like you gave everybody a scare.”

“Bah.” Bunny waved it off, sitting up and pulling the blankets around him. He actually didn’t feel all that bad, just a little low on energy. It wasn’t like Guardians were prone to getting sick. Little rest, taking it easy a couple of days, and he’d be back up in top form in no time. “No worries, ol’ Bunny’s still in good nick.”

Jack snorted. “Still, I didn’t mean to freeze you --or anybody!-- like that. I just...” He took a deep breath, sighing heavily. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention and just lost control for a bit.”

Bunny tilted his head to the side. “Bad memories?”

“No.” Jack shook his head, a small broken smile on his face. “Good. Small things. Just... regular day to day stuff.”

Good memories, in some ways, could be worse than bad. Bunny swallowed, his throat tight. He hadn’t thought about his own family in decades. It hurt too much, a wound that never quite healed right, the loss of his clan, leaving him the last of the Pooka.

“I had Mom, and a little sister.” Jack said quietly, staring at his feet. “She and I.. we were some of the first kids born in the Colonies. Life was hard, and we didn’t have a lot, but we made do with what we had. And... we loved each other.”

Jack shrugged, glancing up to give Bunny a small, sad smile. “300 years. I was loved, and I had a family, and I forgot them for 300 years. They’re gone now.” Jack clutched at his staff, curling up tighter. “And I can never tell them... just how much I loved them. That I... I miss them.”

He really was just a kid. Just a kid, missing his family for the first time.

“If you were anything then like you are now, they knew.” Bunny said quietly. Jack’s head jerked up, eyes wide and vulnerable for a moment, before narrowing suspiciously, studying Bunny’s face, probing for platitudes or falsehoods.

He didn’t find any. Bunny had none to give. Not for this. Not for family.

Jack swallowed, eyes closing as he nodded, accepting Bunny’s words. Bunny gave a soft sigh, feeling old, the weight of his millennia pushing down on him. He shifted, pulling the spare blanket resting on the back of the sofa, scooting over to create a space between him and the sofa back. “C’mere.”

“But I-” Jack recoiled, shaking his head.

Bunny gave the spare blanket a little shake. “Blanket to keep ya cool.” He explained, then pointed to his own cocooned self and the fireplace on his other side. “Blanket ta keep me warm. And fire. We’re good, mate.”

“Oh.” Jack stared at the set up for a moment, then nodded. He pushed himself to his feet, then practically floating over, a slightly cool breeze sneaking in through the blankets. Bunny held himself still as Jack wrapped the blanket around himself, then settled in next to Bunny, wiggling until he was comfortable, the staff resting across the back of the sofa.

Jack shifted until his head was resting on Bunny’s chest, ear pressing against Bunny’s heart. Bunny swallowed, remembering his own little siblings doing the same thing, comforted by the sound of his heartbeat. “Comfy?” He inquired, resting an arm along the curve of Jack’s back.

Jack gave one last wiggle, then gave a soft sigh, the tension leaving his body. “Yeah.” He agreed, his voice somewhat thick, curling one arm around Bunny, as if afraid that Bunny was somehow going to disappear on him.

Bunny rumbled in amusement, closing his eyes and shifting slightly to get comfortable himself as Jack’s breathing evened out into slumber. Kid was probably exhausted, both physically and emotionally. That had been a lot of ice he’d made in a short amount of time.

His ears twitched as he heard footsteps approaching. He opened an eye to find Sandy and North at the foot of the bed, soft expressions on their faces. Toothiana had probably left, heading back to her base to gather teeth during the night.

“Rack off.” Bunny grumbled, sensing incoming teasing.

“I not say a word. Promise.” North promised, sounding very pleased with himself. The large man grinned, turning towards Sandy and giving a small bow. “Sandy?”

Sandy smiled and gave an elaborate bow back before floating towards them, golden dream sand drifting towards Bunny and Jack. Bunny could the sand take effect almost immediately, his eyelids drooping, sleep seductively pulling him under.

“However.” North gleefully continued, pulling a camera out from behind his back. “I say nothing about not taking pictures. Sleep tight, Bunnymund!”

“Hate you all-” Bunny mumbled, trailing off to yawn. “-ya bastards.”

And then he was out to the sound of a camera shutter, visions of chocolate eggs and far-off stars pleasantly filling his dreams.

 

--- Mid-20s

"Oi, Boyo." Bunny waved an arm as he stared up at Jack, floating aimlessly in the tree branches above his favourite pond. The lad looked almost transparent against the spring night sky, as if he were melting away in the warming spring air, much like the snow that had blanketed the ground just the week before.

"Kangaroo!" Jack beamed at him, performing an acrobatic flip as he came down to earth. His expression shifted to something slightly wary as he landed just out of arm's reach, staff resting on his shoulder. No hug then. Not that it was a huge surprise, the boy’d been skittish as an unbridled colt ever since he’d accidentally frozen a large section of the American Northeast. "What's up?"

"Nothin' serious." Bunny shrugged, tapping the ground with a foot twice, opening up a tunnel. "Ya got a moment?" He asked, gesturing down the hole.

Jack shot him an amused look. "... Suppose I could spare a few minutes." He drawled.

Bunny rolled his eyes. As if Jack had anything better to do at the moment than stare up at the stars. "C'mon, then." Bunny said, grabbing the back of Jack's hood and using it to shove him down the hole. Jack yelped, then laughed as he turned the fall into flight, Bunny quickly following after. They raced down the passageway, passing each other a few times before Bunny's Warren opened up around them.

"This way!" Bunny called, darting down a different passage instead of stopping. Behind him, Jack let out a small huffing laugh and put on a burst of speed to catch up, a chilly breeze following in his wake. Bunny reached the end of the tunnel just before Jack did, jumping to the side as Jack catapulted into the night sky, rising for a moment before pausing and drifting back down to earth.

"It's cold!" Jack exclaimed in delight, his frozen breath frosting in the air, perching on top of his staff as he stared enthusiastically at the mostly flat landscape, save for scraggly brush and trees. It wasn't that cold really, not yet, but there was a bite in the air that promised it would be soon. "Where are we?"

"Welcome ta Alice." Bunny gestured to the lone landmark sticking up in the distance. "That knob there is Uluru, also called Ayers Rock, the Navel of the World."

"We're in Australia?!" Jack's expression shifted from delight to a slight frown. "Wait, I thought it was hot down here. Isn't Australia a desert?"

"Mostly desert." Bunny agreed with a smirk. Some rainforest on the east coast, but not much compared to the rest of the continent. "But more importantly, this is the Southern Hemisphere, mate. Seasons are reversed. While up North it's warming into Summer, down here we're gettin' ready fer Winter."

Jack's eyes widened as the implications began to sink in. "Snow?" He asked eagerly, nearly pouncing on Bunny.

Bunny pointed. "Down south and east down toward NSW and Tassie, it does." He instructed, Jack's face lighting up. "Also the bottom part of N. Zed's South Island. They got a couple of year-round glaciers down there too."

"Reaaally?" Jack drawled, looking down right delighted.

"Sure. They get the breeze comin' straight off the ice shelf year round." Bunny shrugged. There was a reason the native Maori called New Zealand 'Aotearoa', or 'Land of the Long White Cloud'. The island chain was damp and constantly covered in clouds.

"If ya go the other way, there's snow in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, and some in Morocco. And if ya keep going in either direction, there's the Andes in South America. Tooth's somewhere around South Asia, not sure how far south. And of course, you could always go hassle some penguins in Antarctica."

Jack was practically vibrating, like he wasn't sure which direction to take off flying first. "I've never been down here before." Jack admitted, doing a slow spin down his staff until he was mostly standing on solid ground again. "The Equator usually stopped me. The winds turn away there, and it's too hot. Tried catching a ride on an airplane once, but turns out snow and pressured cabins don't mix."

Bunny snorted in amusement. "Wasn't sure what you usually did come Spring-" Other than occasionally mess with Easter. "-So thought I'd see if ya wanted ta go Walkabout. Get out and explore a bit."

"Seriously?!" Jack beamed at him, the wind briefly picking him up and lifting him into the air in his gleeful excitement. "Beats either napping in my lake until it gets cold again, or heading up to the Arctic and seeing if I can't trick Phil into letting me into North's Workshop."

"I'm sure he'd just let you in if you knocked." Bunny pointed out.

"Well, he would now." Jack waved it off, eagerly scanning the horizon. "But what fun would that be?"

Bunny barely hid his flinch. 300 years of constantly being turned away by one of the few people who could actually see and interact with him, and this was the kid's response.

In retrospect, sometimes it was a surprise that they didn't have another Pitch on their hands.

"Alright, so before ya get out there and expand your belief base-" Bunny put a hand on Jack's shoulder, bringing his attention back towards him. "-Y'need anything, including somewhere ta hang out fer a bit, or a ride up ta North or Tooth's place, just tap the ground twice and I'll come getcha, quick as a bunny."

Jack's expression shifted to one of concern, his body tensing as if for a confrontation. "Bunny... Have you been keeping track of me?!"

"Just a tad." Bunny admitted with a shrug, holding his fingers apart a fraction as he released Jack and backed up a step. "You can usually find North, Toothiana or myself in our dens, and Sandy easy enough ta find, just spot a sleepin' kid and trace the dream sand back. You? You're a bit more mobile." Going wherever the winds and his whims took him, Jack could be anywhere, or going anywhere, at anytime.

"Oh." Jack blinked in surprise, as if he hadn't realised that that was the reason Bunny was the one to come fetch him if Jack hadn't shown up by the time the others gathered.

The catch being that Bunny's abilities were grounded with the Earth and Plants, while Jack's were Wind and Water. Bunny could only find Jack when he had some sort of contact with the ground, but not when he was in the air or on bodies of frozen water. Fortunately, Jack had a habit of perching in trees, which made things slightly easier, but not quite as easy as when he was on solid earth.

"So ya got that?" Bunny reiterated. "Tap the ground twice, I come getcha."

"Got it." Jack gave him a slightly mocking salute, obviously impatient to get going. "Anything else, oh wise rabbit?"

"Just that." Bunny reached out, wrapping Jack up in a quick one-armed hug before ruffling his hair. "Now g'wan and have fun." He'd say to keep out of trouble, except that wouldn't be like Jack at all.

Jack laughed in return, idly swatting at Bunny's hand as he ducked away, hopping a few steps before launching himself up in the air with a jubilant shout. Bunny watched him go with a grin, his own heart light at the boy's infectious delight.

He watched as Jack disappeared into the night sky, then sighed, sinking back on his haunches as he looked away from the stars he had once lived among, and to the comforting red sandy ground of his adopted home, feeling the dry breeze ruffle his fur. He loved all of this green-blue planet, but ever since Australia had been formed, the island-continent had held a special place in his heart.

The fact that the past couple hundred years had given Australia a culture of transplanted people didn't hurt either.

Although he wondered if he should have warned Jack that it prolly wasn't the best idea to bring up Bunny's name to any local spirits. Rabbits weren't exactly popular in Oz, being an invasive species that was destroying the local habitat. On the other hand, he'd probably never hear the end of it. Jack still regularly refused to call him the 'Easter Bunny', making it a game between the two of them.

Speaking of the Devil- "'ROO!" Jack's voice echoed over the desert, the lad zooming back towards him like a silver shooting star.

"Jack?!" He couldn't help the flare of panic, hands automatically reaching for his boomerangs. Trouble? What happened?! What was wrong?!

Jack landed a few meters in front of him, then bounced into Bunny, the force knocking him back a few steps. "Forgot to say thank you." Jack said breathlessly, the top of his head bumping against the underside of Bunny's chin as he clung like a baby koala.

Bunny froze for a second as the fact that they were not under attack sunk in, then he laughed, joy bubbling up inside of him as he hugged the boy tightly.

It was the first time Jack had ever hugged him, instead of the other way around.

“No worries, Jackie.” Bunny grinned. “No worries.”

 

--- The one after that

Jack had a slightly wary look on his face as he glanced around the Warren, bits of snow and slush falling off his shoulders as he stepped inside the large egg-shaped room. It quickly faded, replaced by an awed, delighted grin.

“What?” Bunny waved at him with the paw holding a paintbrush. “You thought Ol' Bunny was takin' the piss?” He’d opened a tunnel just like he promised when Jack knocked twice.

“The thought did cross my mind.” Jack admitted, leaning on his staff with a smile that was just a touch rueful. “We haven’t always been on exactly on the best of terms.”

“Bah.” Bunny lightly bopped Jack up the back of his head before wandering off, returning his attention back to his task at hand. “That? That was barely a dust-up. Ya shoulda seen the kafuffle when North and I first met."

Several seconds later, Jack’s disturbed voice floated after him. “Nah, I think I’m good.”

 

--- Somewhere in the 50s

When Bunny had brought Jack down to the Southern Hemisphere, he hadn't been entirely sure what to expect from the trickster. He'd mostly figured that he probably wouldn't see much of Jack, the Winter Sprite out exploring and causing his form of mischief wherever he went.

But then Jack had a way of turning expectations on their heads.

Once Jack realised that yes, Bunny meant it when he said he'd open a tunnel if Jack knocked twice, Jack took to stopping by every couple of days, as if here were checking on Bunny. Sometimes there were hugs: greetings, good nights, surprise tackles out of nowhere. Sometimes Bunny was the one launching the surprise attacks, the two of them tussling and insulting each other like kits.

Sometimes Jack talked, regaling stories of pranks and things he'd seen.

But more often than not though, Jack would find someplace to perch, silently watching Bunny prepare for the next Easter for a few minutes or hours before disappearing up into the sky again. The tunnels needed Bunny to open them if one wanted to enter the Warren, but not to exit.

Just because it was after Easter didn't mean that Bunny was idle. There were plants to grow, seeds to collect, candy to make, colours to discover, techniques to explore and practise. Patterns that had fallen out of favour decades ago were making a resurgence, and Bunny was diligent in practising his arts, especially after the loss of the previous year.

Thankfully, Jack seemed to innately know what plants and seedlings wouldn't be able to handle his frost and stayed away from them, much to Bunny's relief.

It was nice to have a second set of hands sometimes as well. Bunny's egg warriors, strong and defensive they might have been, didn't have much in the way of arms, nor did the random eggs that hatched out of season, following him around with their tiny feet. Together, he and Jack cleared out a couple of neglected rooms of the Warren, preparing them for either storage or planting.

They cleaned out a room for Jack to stay in as well, far away from the fragile seedlings that he could frost it all he wanted, although the lad didn’t seem to spend much time there.

He showed Jack how to figure out which eggs were still good and which were bad by placing them in cold water. Bunny scooped up the eggs that sunk to the bottom with nets for use in various confections, while Jack plucked out the bad eggs that floated, automatically freezing them at his touch for disposal later.

Frozen eggs were a serendipitous blessing, there was nothing worse than discovering a batch of eggs had run off and hidden themselves somewhere, only to be found when their rotten shells cracked and stank up the place.

While neither of them technically needed to eat, food didn’t hurt and Jack seemed to delight in trying all the various fruits and vegetables in Bunny’s garden. Some of which Jack had never encountered before, and some that he hadn’t had since he was alive, delighting in familiar flavours and textures.

Bunny had been completely horrified to discover that Jack hadn't had any chocolate at all since his last Easter as a human, and set about making several eggs specifically for the boy. Autumn flavours with a bit of a wild arctic bite to them. Mint and marshmallow, cinnamon and chestnuts, maple and apples, cranberries and cardamom, pears and walnuts.

The heat needed to create and melt chocolate were highly uncomfortable for Jack, rendering him unable to help, but he did love the aroma and laughingly coming up with flavour combinations for Bunny to make. Some met Bunny's exceedingly high standards, some didn't, and the latter was promptly set aside to go to North's Elves, who didn't really care about how the chocolate tasted just so long as it was there and plentiful.

Bunny didn't eat much chocolate, more than he used to, but watching the lad's face light up as he tasted the sweet confections was a genuine treat in and of itself.

That wasn't to say that Jack was all smiles and laughter, he had dark introspective moods as well.

During one of which Bunny decided rather than dealing with the impending accidental frost, the boy might as well be useful while he moped, and taught him how to paint eggs by hand. Jack wasn't the best artist, but he had steady hands and did alright as long as he didn't accidently freeze the egg, and occasionally rinsed his brush in warm water to defrost the bristles.

Bunny made a mental note to enlist Jack's assistance for Easter this year. It was always nice to have some special hand painted eggs mixed in with the mass of brightly coloured googies.

He'd always been defensive about his space, and more recently his holiday, it was rare to find anyone actually interested in chocolate or eggs, but he'd forgotten the joy that could be found in quiet companionship.

---

Sandy beamed at him, an ornate image of a crown appearing above his golden head that he pointed to with both hands.

“Yeah, yeah.” Bunny grumbled, placing one the golden checkers he’d captured from Sandy on top of the one in front of him. “Queen ya.”

Sandy waggled a scolding finger at Bunny, adding a cape and a sceptre to his standard outfit.

"That's what I said." Bunny smirked. "King ya."

Sandy made a rude face at him, the royal accoutrements disappearing as he cheerfully kicking his tiny feet in triumph. One thing about their Sandman, you always knew how he was feeling.

Bunny hummed to himself, as he refreshed their cups of herbal tea, studying the green and gold board in front of them. Back when they’d first discovered the game, Sandy would use his sand to make the board and the pieces in dark and light gold.

But then Sandy was also a cheating cheater who gleefully cheated. Bunny had fallen for the ‘Ah! What’s That Behind You?!’ trick one too many times, finally catching Sandy changing the colour of the pieces and made the board for them instead. Gold for Sandy, green for him, and they flipped a coin to see who went first.

And now occasionally, Bunny got to pull the 'Ah! What's That Behind You?!' trick.

Sandy waved a hand over the board, catching Bunny's attention. Bunny glanced up at Sandy, who was staring over at something, his eyes wide in surprise. "M'not fallin' fer that again Sandy."

Sandy shook his head, pointing frantically. Bunny sighed and motioned to the small group of eggs that had gathered to watch the game. "Tell me if he changes anythin'." He whispered before turning his attention away from the board to whatever Sandy was staring at.

Jack was skulking by, staff over one shoulder, his clothing alternating between squelching and cracking uncomfortably with thick frost as he moved. Baby Tooth hovered over his head, alternating between sympathetic noises and muffled giggles.

He was also tie-dyed. From his pale hair now dyed pink and pale blue to his orange and green feet, Jack was a splotchy speckled colourful mess. Even his trousers and hoodie weren't the correct colours anymore.

“Bunny!” Jack beamed at him, holding his arms up. “Gimme a hug!”

“Some other time, mate.” Bunny smiled. “Ya fall in?”

"And egg did, then the current was moving too fast to hold a layer of ice for me to walk on for me to get it out." Jack shrugged and continued walking. "I'm going to go roll around in a snow bank for a while."

Jack probably should have left the egg to drift on its own, they wandered in occasionally and eventually found their way out. But that was not something Bunny was about to tell Jack, at least not while he was covered in wet and frozen dye.

Sandy clapped his hands over his mouth, as if to hold back explosive giggles. "Don't let the penguins get near the dye!" Bunny called after him. Those birds were black and white for a reason, they didn't need bright colours making them targets for predators.

Jack waved in response, heading towards the main hall, and the tunnel that would lead to Antarctica.

The thing Bunny was figuring out about Jack was that the lad had lived long enough on his own that he didn’t need or want to be hovered over as if he were a small child. Jack mostly just needed to know that he had somewhere safe he could stay, and someone he could trust to watch his back if he needed it.

And his company wasn’t bad either.

Bunny turned his attention back to the board, checking with the eggs that it had been left undisturbed.

Sandy wiggled, happy little smiley faces appearing and disappearing above his head in his version of cheerful laughter. Bunny snorted and picked up a piece, jumping it across one of Sandy's pieces, smugly collecting it.

Sandy didn't seem to care all that much, still happily chortling. "Done it myself a few times before." Bunny admitted, taking a sip of tea and trying to predict Sandy's next move on the board. Every so often the Colour Stream dammed, and he had to get it flowing again by hand, leaving him brightly coloured until the dye faded from his fur.

"-Although, it could have been worse." Bunny mused, scratching his jaw. Sandy tilted his head to the side, a blurry question mark above his head.

"There's the Glitter Pool too." Bunny smirked. "And if I've heard correctly, girls are wild about Sparkly Undead Guys right now.”

Jack’s belief base was certainly growing, he’d have more than just Tooth and her girls sighing after him.

Sandy nearly fell off his perch, body shaking with silent laughter.

---

Bunny smiled to himself as he popped out of one of his tunnels in the Warren, finding himself behind Jack. The Winter Sprite was crouched on a rock, his attention on the plants waving in the soft breeze.

Feeling a bit mischievous, Bunny slunk down on all fours, padding his way stealthily over to the Winter Sprite. Oh, this was gonna be fun....

He got up right behind Jack, rising to his full height. “BOO!”

-And then flattened himself to the ground, barely avoiding being struck as Jack swung his staff, several spears of ice flying and burying themselves several metres away in the Warren wall.

Retort on his lips, Bunny glanced up to chew Jack out for over-reacting to the same joke that Jack liked to pull on him, when he noticed Jack’s wide eyed expression, the way he was nervously scanning the area for threats or danger.

“Alright, Frostbite?” Bunny inquired as casually as he could.

Jack gave a strangled yelp. “BUNNY?!” He stared down at Bunny, his narrow chest heaving.

“Who’dja think it was?” Bunny asked, brushing himself off as he rose to his feet.

“I... uh...” Jack swallowed, his expression falling slightly as he pulled his staff to his chest, almost cuddling it. “I thought it was Pitch.” He said, his voice low.

…. Oh.

Bunny tilted his head at Jack, trying to radiate he was willing to listen if the lad wanted to speak. From watching the lad around North and Toothiana, he’d noticed that verbal inquiries were often brushed off, but Sandy’s silence would sometimes get the lad to talk.

“He... Um.” Jack took a deep breath and let it out. “I was trapped in Pitch’s headquarters, when the Nightmares destroyed all the eggs on Easter.” He said, eyes mostly fixed on the ground. “It was stupid, and my fault for following a voice from my memories instead of heading straight back like I was supposed to.”

Bunny’s ears rose in alarm. He hadn’t been thinking clearly at that point, the loss of Easter driving pretty much everything else from his thoughts. He knew that when Jack finally reappeared, he had his teeth, but no context for how he’d gotten them from Pitch.

What did he do?” The words were out of his mouth before he realised he’d growled them.

Jack stared at him, mouth opened, eyes wide as if in surprise. Bunny stared back, it taking an act of will to stay where he was and not physically check the lad over, his fingers twitching with the urge to strangle Pitch.

“It wasn’t...” Jack shook his head, adjusting his grip on the staff. “He kept coming out of the shadows, it was so fast, so dark, I couldn’t track him. And he kept talking... taunting. That I was failing you. Then suddenly, the box was in my hand and I was in your tunnel, all the eggs were smashed, and I couldn’t get back to Baby Tooth....”

He trailed off, looking embarrassed. “And in the end, it turned out he was right.” Jack turned his head to the side so he wasn’t looking at Bunny anymore. “I failed.”

It had been a setup. Bunny took a breath, the worst of his thoughts fading. Mind games. Pitch had played mind games with Jack, but he hadn’t hurt him.

It could have been so much worse.

“The Warren’s not like the Tooth Palace or North’s Workshop. Pitch can’t get inside the Warren.” Bunny said quietly, Jack glancing up at him with interest. “There’s too much Light here. Hope, Light and Spring are all connected.”

There was more to it than that, it had more to do with Bunny being a Pooka and the protections he’d placed here before he was a Guardian, but that was the simplest answer.

“But he can get in the tunnels.” Jack said quietly.

Bunny shrugged. “I’ve got thousands of tunnels goin’ every which way in the world, even I can’t keep all of them lit all the time.” It’d draw too much attention. Although might be something for him to look into. Motion activated, perhaps?

He paused, a stray thought hitting him. “You’ve been comin’ down here ta check the tunnels fer him, haven’t ya?”

So that was why Jack kept stopping by to check on him, he was making sure that Pitch wasn’t attacking Bunny. He’d be willing to place bets that Jack checked up on the others as well for the same reason.

Jack grimaced, looking embarrassed. “Partly, yeah.” He admitted, looking at Bunny from under the pale fringe covering his face. “It’s also comfortable down here. Little warm, but nice.”

Bunny laughed. Spring wasn’t Summer, with its heavy heat, but it was warmer than Winter. “C’mere you.” He said, stepping close to put a paw on the back of Jack’s neck, pulling the lad in for a hug. Jack made a muffled surprised sound, then leaned into him, arms wrapping around Bunny’s shoulders.

“Don’t let the others know I said this, but you’re a good kid.” Bunny informed him, pressing his muzzle to the top of Jack’s head. “And don’t let anyone tell ya otherwise. Not even me.”

Jack huffed, clinging tighter. “Thanks.” He said, voice thick.

He’d need to talk to Jack about Pitch and what happened the tunnels later, when the boy wasn’t so tense and apt to flee, and Bunny was feeling a bit more rational. He still wanted to rip Pitch’s shadowy head off his shoulders.

In retrospect though, there hadn’t been that much time between Jack departing to put Sophie to bed and the Nightmares attacking. They’d been so completely overwhelmed, Bunny hadn’t seen anything like it since the end of the Golden Age, never here on Earth.

Having Jack in the tunnels might have helped more eggs get to the surface, but it was all conjecture at this point. They’d never know for sure.

“So no more ‘Boo’?” Bunny drawled.

Jack laughed. “No more ‘Boo’.” He agreed. “-Surprise hugs still okay?”

“Yeah.” Bunny agreed. “Definitely okay.”

---

"Ya don't have to keep mum on my account." Bunny said, not looking up at the silent boy as he untangled some vines that had gotten twisted together. He could see Jack out of the corner of his eye, perched up on one of the walls like some sort of frozen gangly bird, watching without comment. The lad had been there for a while now. "The plants like it when they're talked to."

Jack startled slightly, giving a small gasp as he broke out of his thoughts. He caught himself, shaking his head with a small smile. "I'm not."

Bunny tilted an ear in his direction, a silent inquiry. Jack huffed in return, shifting his weight and resting his cheek against his staff. "It's just... Nice to be alone for a bit." Jack said, relaxed and unguarded. "And know that if I do want to talk, someone will respond for a change."

-The best of friends didn't need words when they were together.

Bunny closed his eyes, missing his old friend Ombric, the way he and the last Atlantean would spend hours together, pouring through books to find a way to defeat Pitch without a word needed between them. He spared a thought towards Katherine, Ombric's daughter, and Nightlight, wishing them the very best, wherever they were. Ombric's spell, the basis for all his magic: 'I believe, I believe, I believe.'

It hit him with a pang, it had been over 400 years since he had spent any time in silent companionship. Until Jack had joined them, whenever the Guardians met, it was strictly for business. But even now, he wasn't comfortable enough to just sit in silence with any of them. Except for maybe Sandy, who would just fall asleep, floating around like a lost balloon.

It had been over 400 years since he'd even made a new friend. But then prior to his meeting the other Guardians, he hadn’t bothered to actually interact with anyone since Helen of Troy. He hadn’t been unhappy, but he couldn’t say that he’d been happy either.

Behind him, Jack made a slightly strangled sound, slipping and falling to the ground. "I mean, not that I'm alone when you're here, I just..." He babbled, voice slightly higher in a panic.

"Jack." Bunny said, rising to his feet, absently dusting the dirt off his knees before turning towards the boy. Jack shut his mouth with a snap, his body language defiant but with a panicked apologetic look in his eye.

“Oi.” Bunny said, and Jack’s attention snapped up to look him in the eye. The wary look faded, Jack just staring at him. Bunny walked over to him, lowering his head so their foreheads were touching and closed his eyes. “I get it.” Bunny said softly.

"Oh." The word was a soft exhalation. Jack leaned forward, pressing his forehead against Bunny's, the cold tickling the leaf pattern there, the only point of contact between them.

At least until Jack let out a huff, pulling away to hug Bunny tightly, hiding his face in Bunny’s ruff. Bunny rumbled in a mix of amusement and contentment, rubbing his jaw across the top of Jack's head.

Family. That was what North called it. They were family.

The Guardians were his friends and fellow warriors, Brothers-in-Arms, but Bunny didn’t think he’d looked at a fellow Guardian and actually accepted them as his family until right now.

They broke apart after a few minutes, Bunny going back to working on his plants, Jack perched on a nearby rock, attempting to form flowers out of frost in his hands.

The rest of the afternoon passed in comfortable silence, no other words needed between them.

---

BUNNY!” Bunny found himself backing up a few steps from the force of the projectile impacting into him.

A very cold projectile, by the name of Jack Frost. A vibrating Jack Frost, who was gripping just a bit too tight, arms wrapped around Bunny’s ribcage making it hard to breathe.

“Oi.” He poked the lad, trying to get some breathing room. While he was happy Jack was a bit more openly affectionate, he liked his ribcage.

Hiiiiii.” Jack rubbed his face against the long fur of Bunny’s chest with a giggle, then grinned up at him, his eyes wild and slightly manic. Bunny nearly choked on the sharp scent of peppermint as Jack started chattering three times normal speed.

Gladyou’rehere,hadSOmuchfunSnowandElvesandYetiendedupinthesnowbankLAUGHedandthenhe-

Bunny wrapped his arms around the boy, keeping him where he was. “NORTH!” He bellowed at the top of his lungs. He could see several snow-covered Yeti and Elves peering
at them from the doorway, the Yeti looking nervous while the Elves cackled in delight.

CocoaandCandycanesandsweetstuffdon’tknowwhatitwasbutitwasGOODoneoftheelvesfellinthetoffeeToffeeandicedon’tmix-

A few of the more responsible Yeti mumbled frantically at him, pointing down the hall. “NORTH!” Bunny yelled again. “GET YOUR BLOOMIN’ ARSE DOWN HERE.”

“I am coming, I am coming!” North’s amused shout echoed back. “Keep your ears on!”

FunFunFunJOYandFunFun-”Jack giggled again, a high pitched manic sound to it before continuing his ramble, each word bleeding into the next in an incomprehensible jumble. Oh, this was not going to end well.

“Alright, Jack.” Bunny poked the lad, getting his attention. “Need your help mate. Was workin’ on egg and lost it somewhere around here. Can ya find the half-painted egg fer me?”

The torrent of words slowed down as Jack frowned, as if recognising that there was something wrong with the request, but couldn’t quite figure out what. “Blue and yellow, Jackie.” Bunny extrapolated. “Probably down towards the ground floor. Won’t take but a minute.”

“‘K.” Jack nodded, pulling away. He hovered slightly in air, shooting Bunny a broad grin and a playful salute. “BRB!”

Bunny waited for the lad to disappear down below before pulling out an egg, quickly painting it yellow with a pale blue spiral. “Don’t make it easy for him.” He instructed the egg, its little feet popping out and kicking, eager to get going. He tossed it down after Jack, trusting it to make its way down without any damage. His little googies could be smart like that.

“What is with shouting?” North demanded, walking in. “And my arse is not delicate flower. It robust! And manly!”

Bloomin’. Right. Bunny rubbed his forehead, trying to ease the pressure building up behind his eyes. “Ignorin’ that...” He muttered, getting back to the topic on hand. “Just how many Candy Canes didja give Jack?”

“Is that what this is about? Bah.” North waved it off. “One or two. Dozen. Maybe.”

“Blimey, mate.” Bunny groaned. “What were ya thinkin’?”

“That Tooth is going to murder me in sleep for introducing boy’s teeth to sugar.” North said with gleeful delight, not quite rubbing his hands together in true diabolical fashion. “Oh! And do not forget the cookies! And the candy! Delicious candy!”

Bunny made a mental note that in the extremely unlikely event he ever had kits, North was off the babysitting list.

“He’s never had a sugar high before.” Bunny said as calmly as he could.

North paused, his expression fading to one of confusion. “Never?” He asked, his voice deepening into a low rumble.

“Not from what he’s told me.” Bunny rubbed his head. He’d seen kids on sugar highs before, the meltdowns were rarely pretty. There was a reason why he’d given Jack small chocolates to try, with normal food to eat as well.

He’d finally gotten out of the kid that one of the reasons he found Bunny’s vegetables fascinating to eat was because he had no memory of eating any of them. Not much edible grew in the winter, and people weren’t inclined to share what precious food they had during the non-growing season with an entity they didn’t know was there.

“Ooh. Sugar crash. Not always pretty.” North grimaced, making a face. Said the man on a perpetual sugar high. North held up a finger, expression brightening slightly. “But. Jack does have room here. I carved bed frame of ice myself. He can sleep it off there.”

Bunny’s ears flickered at North, surprised by that. North smirked back, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes. “You all have rooms here. Even if you choose not to use them.”

That was true, Bunny had forgotten about that. North, whenever given the opportunity, was an fantastic host, enjoying having the company. Personally, Bunny felt more comfortable sleeping in his leafy Warren than in North’s arctic fortress, so he’d never used his.

“Found teh eggie!” Jack’s cheerful shout disrupted the conversation as the lad appeared, holding the kicking egg aloft, his feet never touching the ground.

“Cheers, mate.” Bunny nodded, holding his paws up. Jack grinned, tossing him the egg. Bunny caught it, looking it over. It appeared to be sulking slightly at having been caught. Good googie.

“Come, Jack!” North boomed, patting the lad on his back and escorting him back out the door. “The Yeti have more dishes for you to try! Phil!”

A brown Yeti grumbled at North, but helped herd the bemused Jack away. “I will return shortly.” North pointed at Bunny, motioning for him to take a seat and not vanish.

Bunny sighed, leaning up against the side of the fireplace, soaking up the warmth. He didn’t count on Tooth to see anything non-tooth related, and Sandy tended to sleep whenever possible, but he had hoped that North, with his eyes that saw Wonder would catch a hint or two when it came to the lad.

He pulled out a paint brush and finished painting the egg, setting it down to go scamper off. One of North’s Elves was still painted like an Easter Egg, lugging an egg around, and the rest of the Elves were torn between jealousy and wanting an egg for themselves.

North reappeared, a mug of something steaming in his hands that he passed to Bunny. “Cheers.” Bunny said, putting the brush away to cradle it in his hands, enjoying the heat. He took a deep breath, enjoying the spice of the apple cider.

“Yeti are feeding Jack a good dinner.” North said, taking a seat near the fire. “Help with sugar crash, make not so bad.”

Bunny nodded, quietly relieved. He wasn’t Jack’s caretaker, but Jack was still just a lad, and one learning his ways around not only his Guardianship, but being around the other Guardians.

If nothing else, hopefully this would teach Jack to limit how much sugar he ate at one time.

He huffed quietly to himself. Could have been worse, North could have wound him up and set him loose on the Southern Hemisphere. Snow would be in places that never had snow
before. The adults would probably blame it on ‘Global Warming’.

“You have been thinking thoughts that are deep lately.” North said, with a knowing look on his face. “I see it in your eyes. You share these thoughts with me?”

“Not just yet, mate.” Bunny shook his head. North raised an eyebrow, a silent inquiry that Bunny was free to ignore. Bunny extrapolated slightly, it wasn’t his intent to be keeping secrets. “I noticed somethin’.”

“About the boy?” North motioned out the open door.

“Among other things.” Bunny hedged.

North made a thoughtful sound, stroking his beard. “Jack spends much time in your company.” He observed. “Jack trusts you.”

“I’d like ta think so.” He ventured. It certainly seemed like it.

I trust you.” North said emphatically, then leaned back in his chair. “Talk when you are ready. I will listen.”

Bunny closed his eyes and nodded, North’s boisterous support leaving a warm feeling in his chest.

“Soon.” Bunny promised. He wasn’t ready to talk yet, give words to the thoughts lurking in his head, to give them form and shape. He didn’t like the patterns.

And he didn’t want to put those thoughts in his fellow Guardian’s heads without having a plan to fix it. They couldn’t change the past, but they could keep it from repeating. They could make things better.

North hummed in return, the two of them falling into a comfortable silence that Bunny was grateful for as they sipped their drinks. He and North could talk each others ears off, debate about if water was wet or not for hours on end, but they could occasionally sit in silence and not have it turn uncomfortable. Bunny appreciated those rare moments.

When Jack made his reappearance, he had his feet on the ground and was actually putting a bit of weight on his staff to stay upright.

“Oh! Hey Cottontail.” Jack grinned at him. “Thought I saw you here- *yawn* -earlier.”

Bunny had come because he thought he’d gotten the summons for a tunnel, then had been concerned when Jack never made an appearance. Although now in retrospect, it had probably been accidental on Jack’s part, running high on sugar.

“Just chewin’ the fat with North.” Bunny smirked.

“There was no fat to be chewing!” North protested, right on cue. “Honestly, you make no sense.”

Bunny was actually pretty sure that North knew what Bunny meant with the colloquialisms, but it always gave them something to bicker about.

Jack chuckled, used to their back and forth by now. “Headin’ home any time soon?” He ventured.

“Bit knackered?” Bunny asked lightly, exchanging a look with North, who gave him a small apologetic smile and shrug.

Jack shrugged back. “I could sleep.”

“You have room here if you wish to rest.” North spoke up, drawing Jack’s attention to him. Jack seemed a little surprised to realise North was there.

“Thanks, but I sleep better at the Warren.” Jack said, sheepishly running a hand through his hair.

North and Bunny exchanged a surprised look. Jack glanced between them, eyes wide as if he realised that he might have accidentally offended North by turning him down.

North smiled at Jack, blue eyes warm. “It is alright.” He assured the lad. “Just keep in mind, you have room if you want it.”

“I...” Jack’s jaw moved for a moment. “Thanks.” He settled on, with a grateful smile.

North nodded, his smile fond. “See you soon.” He saluted with his mug. Jack grinned and nodded back.

“‘Oo-roo, mate.” Bunny gave a small wave to North, opening a tunnel at his feet. He could feel the cool brush of air at his back that meant that Jack was following him, abet with a little bit less flair than usual.

The tunnel opened back up by Jack’s room, the lad immediately heading there and falling backwards onto a snow drift nestled between some boulders in the back, sinking down into it with a sigh. It was probably an odd bed to anyone else, but it appeared to work for the Winter Sprite. At least, that was the impression Bunny got after Jack turned away his offers for something a bit more traditional.

The only decoration Jack had added to the chilly cavernous room was a tilting pine tree that took up most of one side, the branches curving overhead, forming what felt like a forest cavity. It was also a decent hiding spot, especially for one who was as fond of heights as Jack.

Bunny smiled, noticing that some of the crocus bulbs he’d planted on the edge of the room were starting to bloom, poking their yellow and lavender heads out of the half frozen ground. Crocus needed six weeks of frost before they bloomed, so he’d made sure to plant them in waves, so that there’d always be some colour leading into the room.

There were a couple of other varieties of plants that grew in winter, sweet smelling honeysuckle, jasmine, winter rose, but he wanted to talk to Jack before planting those outside the lad’s room.

“I don’t tend ta sleep at North’s.” Bunny commented. “It’s too cold, not enough growin’ things. But that doesn’t mean you can’t.”

Jack hummed in response. “It’s not that.” He finally said, wiggling deeper into the snow until he was completely buried except for his head, feet, and dark crook of his staff. “It’s just... I don’t like windows. Especially ones I can't open. They always frost over whenever I try to look through them. Makes me paranoid when I’m on the other side.”

The glass keeping Jack Frost trapped on one side or the other.

There was no window glass in the Warren, not even in Bunny’s house, just holes to let the air and the light in and out.

And while North had undoubtedly kept the temperature of Jack’s room cold to suit his arctic nature, he probably hadn’t anticipated that.

Jack cracked one blue eye at Bunny, the only vivid colour against the paleness of his skin and the snow. “And seriously? A bed? In this lifetime?” He laughed, his tone skeptical, nearly mocking as his eyes drifted shut, his breathing slowing down. “That’s just a little weird.”

Bunny snorted. He used to have a bed, years ago, before he’d met the others, before he’d changed. Now he had more of a nest, stuffed with branches and sweet grass.

Although he’d kept the blankets. Those were nice. North gave him one every couple of years, whether he wanted it or not.

Speaking of blankets... He walked in and picked up the thick blue one that was folded on top of a rock and unfurled it with a flick of his wrist, covering Jack and the snow with it. It wasn’t like it would keep Jack warm, but hopefully it’d keep the snow from floating away.

And sometimes it was the thought that counted. “Sweet dreams, Frostbite.”

Jack’s eyes drifted halfway, a flicker of blue. “You too, Kangaroo.” He smiled, a broad sleepy grin stretching across his face before it went lax in sleep, the lad looking practically dead, almost blending into the white snow.

“You’re finally gettin’ the hang of Aussie Rhyming Slang.” Bunny quietly complimented him, just watching for a moment before he walked off.

Jack didn’t respond, but then Bunny hadn’t been expecting him to either.

---

“Keep up, slowpoke!” Jack cheered as they dashed through the desert landscape.

“I toldja, mate.” Bunny asked, putting on a burst of speed and pulling ahead with a wild grin. It felt good just to get out and run, the solid feel of the ground beneath his paws, the wind in his fur, and someone to play chase with. “Ya don’t wanna race a rabbit.”

It was a fine clear night, the moon was full, and the highway was straight and empty, just in case. Jack let out a triumphant howl next to him, the wind picking up just enough to push him ahead of Bunny by half a step.

“Now see-” Jack gleefully pointed at Bunny as he spiraled in the breeze. “-I always heard in the stories that the Turtle beat the Rabbit.”

“Oh, ya did not just-”

“I think I did.” Jack grinned like a shot fox.

“That’s it.” Bunny glanced ahead, noticing they were nearing their intended finish line, a tree by the side of the road. Jack did as well, gaining a serious look, his flight levelling out and eking out a bit more speed.

Bunny smirked, quickly calculating speed and angles before gathering his legs under him and leaping into the air.

Jack had a millisecond to catch Bunny’s shadow above him. The lad started to turn, eyes going wide as his mouth opened to shout, and then Bunny pounced.

He grabbed Jack and twisted so that his shoulder took the brunt of the impact when he hit the ground, the two rolling tail over tit across the ground until they came to a stop, Bunny sitting up straight on the ground with his legs stretched out in front of him. Jack echoed his position, his back against Bunny’s chest, hands clutching his wood staff.

It was silent for a moment, aside from the wind through the trees as Bunny did a quick mental inventory. Yup, still intact, nothing broken or bruised. Not quite how he meant to stop though, he hadn’t quite countered for the staff correctly. “I win.”

Jack made a huffing sound, ribcage flexing as he took a deep breath before laughing, loud and joyous. “You cheated!” He accused, reaching up and poking Bunny’s cheek.

Bunny snickered. “Warned ya.” He smirked, releasing the lad and ruffling his hair. “Ya don’t wanna race a rabbit.” Or any trickster, for that matter.

“Oh no, I do.” Jack assured him, with a fierce grin using Bunny’s shoulder as a prop as he rose to his feet. “One more time.” He challenged, waving a finger in Bunny’s face.

Bunny made a show of thinking it over as he got to his feet, dusting himself off as he did so. Jack probably had some idea of payback in mind, now that Bunny had turned it into a game instead of a race. And he did have work he wanted to get done...

“One more.” Jack repeated, proud and defiant, still holding that finger in Bunny’s face, although he did have to lift his arm above his shoulder to do so.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see what Jack pulled out of his bag of tricks this time.

“Alright.” Bunny agreed, rolling his shoulders and shaking out his limbs. “One more.”

“Yeah!” Jack gave a small fist pump as he bounced across the empty highway, pausing to spin on one heel as he lined up next to the tree. “Race ya back!” Jack announced, and then he was gone, his laughter ringing high and free on the wind he was flying down the highway on.

“Oi!” Bunny snapped, quickly chasing after. “Now who’s cheatin’?!”

---

“Oi, Jackie!” Bunny hollered into the Warren, his voice echoing. He knew the lad was around here somewhere. He listened, not hearing anything for a moment, then followed it up with a bush call. “Coo-ee!

This time he heard Jack, coming in from one of the farther off rooms. “What was that noise?” Jack demanded for greeting as he came flying in.

“Bush call.” Bunny shrugged. “Ya can hear it from a distance. It’s good fer gettin’ attention.”

“So basically, dog whistle.” Jack said, leaning against his staff.

Bunny shrugged. “Or a call for help. Keep an ear out fer it the next time you’re in the Bush.”

Jack mused this over then nodded. “What’s up?”

“Gotta head ta the Tooth Palace for a bit. Wanna come?” Bunny motioned to the tunnel behind him. He’d only remembered Jack was in at the last minute, otherwise he would have just tracked the lad down.

Baby Tooth poked her head out of Jack’s hood and chirped excitedly. Jack laughed and grinned. “I think that’s a yes.” He translated.

Bunny shook his head, amused at the pair. He motioned for them to follow him, doing a last minute check on the basket on his back before dropping to all fours and running. There was a whoop behind him and Jack flew after, his chill chasing Bunny’s tail.

Jack was learning to not always make it a race however, there were many tunnels and only Bunny knew where they all went. He took them at seemingly random intervals, taking the various twists and turns, then suddenly they were out in the bright sunlight of the Tooth Palace.

“Whoa.” Jack said, shading his eyes with a hand as he landed next to Bunny. Baby Tooth flew off his shoulder, releasing a loud chirp.

And then suddenly they were swarmed. Bunny had to fight the instinct to duck and run, having been on the wrong end of angry bees while on the search for honey couple too many times, but they seemed to be more interested in Jack than him and he relaxed slightly.

It was just getting to the point that he was wondering if he should try to pull Jack out of there, mostly due to the fact that he couldn’t quite see the lad through the buzzing bodies, that Toothiana stepped in. “Girls! Girls!” She scolded, clapping her hands. “Give him some air.”

The swarm parted, leaving a very dazed looking Jack standing there. Bunny hid a snicker as Jack seemed to realise he was free, giving himself a small shake, then coughing, spitting out a few tiny iridescent feathers.

“Sorry.” Toothiana gave Jack a weak smile. A few of the fairies started chirping and Toothiana nodded, her smile becoming more sincere. “Although I am pleased to hear that you’re taking good care of your teeth.”

“Wouldn’t hear the end of it if I didn’t.” Jack assured her.

“Speaking of which-” Toothiana was suddenly in Bunny’s face, prying his jaws open.

“Aaugglh! Murglefft!” Bunny protested as she peered inside his mouth, fingers tapping his teeth. He could hear Jack chortling in the background, probably pleased that he wasn’t the only one to get this reception.

“Your molars look fine, but your front teeth are looking a little long.” She mused, releasing him. “Girls, tree branch.”

Several zipped away. “Citrus flavoured!” He shouted after them. He’d been around Toothiana to know that it was easier, and healthier, just to go along with it than fight her. Bunny moved his jaw around, rubbing his tongue against his teeth to get the feeling of fingers out of his mouth. Jack took it with a better grace than he did.

“Tree branch?” Jack asked, face twisted up in an incredulous smirk.

“Rabbit teeth never stop growing.” Toothiana said, patting Bunny’s cheek, and the teeth underneath. “Both incisors and molars. They need to be constantly ground down to keep the proper alignment.”

Both of Jack’s eyebrows rose, but thankfully he didn’t say anything.

“Ready, Darl?” Bunny asked, changing the subject.

“Oh, yes!” Toothiana’s feathers puffed out in delight. “I’m so glad tonight’s going to be a quiet night, I’ve been needing this for weeks.” She sighed, fluttering back up towards the main towers.

Bunny chuckled, dropping back down to all fours to follow. The Tooth Palace wasn’t really designed for people who couldn’t fly, but he did alright. And it was fun to climb for a change, rather than using his Rabbit Holes.

“Needing what?” Jack trailing after him just before Bunny leapt into the air, pausing on an out cropping. Jack hovered below him, probably to catch him, just in case Bunny fell. Not that Bunny would, he was an old hand at this.

He pushed off from the small landing there, leaping from tower to tower until he landed on a platform, halfway up. “Groomin’.” He explained as Jack landed next to him, twisting to scratch his ear with a hindleg.

“Grooming?” Jack echoed, with a curious look.

“Birds have beaks, right?” Bunny held up a hand, mimicking a bird’s beak with his fingers. “Which they use to preen, clean the feathers, keep them healthy, right? Well, Toothiana doesn’t have a beak. Neither do her Girls. And she’s a lot larger than the others, so they can’t always help.”

“So you’re here to groom Tooth’s feathers?” Jack said just as Bunny pushed off again, jumping from tower to tower in a zig-zag formation. Jack followed, the two of them landing on the central platform at the same time.

“Normally, North’s the one to do it.” Toothiana said with a smile, having heard their conversation. “But I haven’t seen Bunny in a while.”

“Oh!” Jack glanced between the two of them. “I can leave-” He awkwardly offered.

Toothiana buzzed around, putting her hands on Jack’s shoulders and keeping him there, before Jack could finish that thought. “Stay.” She said firmly. “You’re family.”

“Family?” Jack glanced between the two of them again, an odd look on his face as she released him, hovering to his side.

“Groomin’s a bit personal.” Bunny explained, pulling the basket off his back and setting it down. “Birds, Pooka, Humans, we’re all social creatures, used ta livin’ in family units and takin’ care of each other. Includin’ makin’ sure we stay clean.”

“I can’t soak in the water like humans do.” Toothiana said with a small crooked smile. “I did before I had feathers, but... I’m not that kind of bird. And there’s some spots I can’t reach to take care of the feathers. So I rely on my family members to help me out.”

“Oh.” Jack blinked, looking surprised to come to the realisation that he really was included in that ‘family’ part.

Several of the fairies suddenly returned, carrying a branch as long as his forearm between them. “Ta.” He said, taking the branch from them and biting into it. “Mmm. Apple.” He ground it between his incisors for a moment. Much better flavour than willow, and without the chewy sap of pine.

Other fairies appeared, chirping questioningly at Tooth. “Oh!” She started rattling off teeth and locations, fairies zipping off to collect the teeth.

A few others appeared, hauling a stool between them. The top was narrow and rectangular, more like what could be found on a swingset than a barstool.

“Ta, Sheila.” Bunny took it, setting it down on the ground, before offering the basket. “Fresh fruit for y’all.”

The fairies cooed in delight, hauling the basket away with a lot more enthusiasm than they’d brought the perch in. There were a couple of large nectar heavy flowers in there as well. Sugar may have been bad for their teeth, but it was a good treat for the girls.

“Seat’s ready.” Bunny called up to Tooth, who floated down in their direction. He put his hands on her hips, trying to avoid getting a mouthful of feathers as he directing her to the perch. She spared him a glance, stilling her wings as she continued to direct.

“What can I do to help?” Jack asked, coming up behind Bunny.

Bunny shot him a grin. “Talk.” He said, running his fingers through some of her longer feathers in the back, separating them out.

Jack made a face. “That all?”

“It’s a lot.” Bunny said softly, motioning to Toothiana with a tilt of his head. She had a tendency to get caught up in her job, not see what else was going on around. Understanding crossed across Jack’s face and he launched into a story about helping to free some orca trapped under a ice shelf in Canada.

Bunny was silent, chewing on the stick as he worked, his attention mostly on the feathers. He tugged the old loose feathers away so that the new feathers had room to grow. Unlike birds, Toothiana didn’t have a moulting season, shedding and replacing feathers throughout the year, like how humans lost the hair on their heads.

He stroked his fingers across some feathers that were starting to get ratty but weren’t ready to fall out yet, holding them at the base and ‘zippering’ the feathers back into shape. Feathers were remarkably strong in their own way, they just needed a little bit of care.

“May I try?” Jack asked, watching over Bunny’s shoulder.

Toothiana glanced back with a smile before turning back to her job. “Sure.”

Bunny showed Jack what he was doing with the feathers, then moved over so Jack could have a try. Jack mimicked him, putting a hand at the base of a feather and Toothiana gasped, wings flaring out and knocking them both flying across the floor

“Oh, my gosh!” Toothiana hovered, her hands over mouth, her feathers puffed out so she looked almost twice her size. “I’m so so sorry! I didn’t mean to!”

Bunny shook his head, to clear it. “What was that ‘bout?” He inquired, standing up from where he landed in a crouch. He glanced over to find Jack sitting up in the opposite direction, confused but unhurt.

“I think... I’m so sorry, but I think maybe it would be better if Jack didn’t try to groom me.” Toothiana said, sounding miserable as she drifted back down towards the ground, the fairies gathering around her, chirping worriedly.

Bunny walked over, giving Jack a hand up to his feet, even though he knew Jack didn’t need it, pulling the winter spirit towards him. “Why not?” He asked, watching Jack wrestle for control of his crumbling expression. Baby Tooth flew over and landed on Jack’s shoulder, giving a sympathetic croon.

“Well... It’s... I’m tropical.” Toothiana grimaced. “And Jack... I love you honey, but... You’re really cold. Even when you don’t mean to be.”

The feathers offered some resilience, just like Bunny’s fur did, but an icy cold shock directly on her bare skin....

“Sorry.” Jack murmured, looking like he wanted to cry, the temperature dropping down to uncomfortable around him. Bunny pulled him in for a hug, cradling the back of Jack’s head in his paw. Jack didn’t fight it, leaning forward willingly and hiding his face in Bunny’s ruff. Bunny lightly scratched the back of Jack’s neck, icy hair sliding through his fingers.

“Me too.” Toothiana floated down, draping herself across Bunny’s back, her wings vibrating her occasionally. Warm feathers on his back, cold teenager on the front. Nothing said familial units like massive differences in core temperatures.

Jack took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders, the air thawing around him. “Okay.” He said, pulling back from Bunny a bit, his face determined. “So what can I do to help instead?”

Bunny grinned back at him, then glanced up at Toothiana to see her grinning as well. “Tell me more stories.” She instructed, pushing off of Bunny’s back to flutter above them. “Tell me something that Bunny wouldn’t talk about.”

“That, I can do.” Jack grinned, giving Bunny an evil grin.

“Oh, no.” Bunny held up his paws. “No sharin’ stories about me in front of my face.”

“Then turn around, Cottontail.” Jack taunted. “So we can talk behind your back.”

Toothiana laughed, sitting back down on the perch and launching several orders to the hovering fairies, who zipped off again. Jack picked up his staff, flipping into the air and landing on top of it in front of Tooth, crouched down like a bird.

Bunny glanced around and found the stick he’d been chewing on, brushing it off before sticking it in his mouth again. Wasn’t like anything on the floor was going to hurt him. He started preening Toothiana’s feathers again, resolutely ignoring whatever Jack was saying, no matter how much the other two giggled.

It was several hours later when they left, Toothiana looking relaxed and mellow, which in turn calmed her fairies, the Tooth Palace taking on less of a frantic air. It wouldn’t last, it never did, but it was always nice while it lasted.

Jack and Bunny left with a grin, promising to catch up with Toothiana in a few days with the rest of the Guardians and headed back through the tunnels. Jack was more sedate as he flew, none of his usual hollering.

“Alright, Frostbite?” Bunny asked as they reached the slightly cooler and more comfortable temperatures of the Warren.

“Yeah.” Jack nodded, then leaned on his staff, tucking his chin against it. “Just kind of curious though, I don’t think you’ve ever tried to groom me.”

“I do it all the time.” Bunny chuckled, reaching out and ruffling Jack’s hair, making it stick up, then running his paw over it, smoothing it back down. “Ya just never noticed.”

Jack blinked, reaching up and tugging on his white hair, confusion shifting to awe. “Oh.”

Bunny laughed in return, Jack running a hand through his own hair with a small smile on his face.

“C’mon. Let’s go have something sweet.” He motioned towards the residential area with a grin, trusting Jack would follow him. “Visitin’ Tooth’s place always makes me crave a lolly.”

---

"Ah! Jack!" North boomed, waving at the lad standing in the door, cider sloshing out of the mug North was holding. "Join us!"

"Ah! Watch the cider, mate!" Bunny snapped, cradling his own mug to his chest. It was not something to be casually sloshed around like North's vodka.

One of the things he'd found when they'd cleaned out some of the old rooms was several casks of fruit he'd set aside to ferment, to turn into chocolate liquors later. And then forgot about for about 200 years.

When he found it, he did use some of the resulting liquor for special not-for-children chocolates, and then brought most of the rest to share with North. The two of them had been emptying the bottles he'd brought with him, cheerfully arguing back and forth about various topics for the past several hours.

North gasped in horror, glancing down to see how much he'd lost. In reality, it was just a few drops, but Bunny still glared at him anyway. North shot him a contrite look, ducking his head in apology.

He and Bunny hadn't kicked back and drank in ages. North got louder and more expansive as he drank, Bunny tending to get mellow. Drinking sometimes turned him retrospective, and with as long of a lifespan as Bunny had, that was generally not a good thing. North was good at distractions and keeping dark thoughts at bay with loud fiery arguments.

They'd learned early on not to drink with Toothiana or Sandy. Sandy tended to just go straight to sleep and Toothiana was a lightweight, turning giggling and strangely flirty. Not with them, but with their teeth. Keeping a tipsy Toothiana from crawling in their mouths wasn't entirely enjoyable, although she was highly apologetic about it once the hangovers wore off.

Jack leaned against Bunny's back, his face cold where it pressed against the side of Bunny's neck. He wasn't cuddling exactly, one hand was still holding his staff, the other lax at his side, just resting his slight weight against Bunny like a small child did with a family member.

"Jack?" Bunny reached up and gave the top of the boy's head a scratch, shooting North a look that the lug had better keep his gob shut. "Sandy head out for the night?"

"Umm-hmm." Jack sleepily agreed, his cheek rubbing Bunny's fur as he nodded. Jack had hung out with Sandy that evening, watching the Sandman weave happy dreams for children and send them off.

"Alright then." Bunny agreed, and went back to arguing with North. The toymaker thankfully picked up the thread of their argument, but there was an amused twinkle in his eye as he did so, his smile just a little bit wider than it had been before. Bunny pointedly ignored it. North would be North and always found the humour in the slightest things.

After a while, he noticed that his fur was starting to get cold, uncomfortably so. He held up a paw, pausing the debate and nudged Jack with his elbow. "Oi, Jackie?" He turned towards the lad. "Yer kinda frostin' my fur there."

Jack startled, then yawned. "Sorry." He mumbled, sliding off Bunny's back and standing next to him, rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand.

Down Under, the lad was bursting with energy, but they were firmly in the grasp of Summer up in the Northern Hemisphere. Even while in the Arctic the season seemed to take its toll on the Winter Sprite. And then to add Sandy to the mix, it wasn't a surprise that the boy was barely keeping on his feet.

"No worries." Bunny wrapped an arm around him, intending to give the lad a quick hug before sending him on his way, but Jack leaned down, wrapping an arm around Bunny's waist, tucking his face against Bunny's neck. Bunny turned his head to nudged him with his chin, catching the scent of the night air, ice, and sand in the Jack's hair.

Jack seemed to doze there for a moment before giving a small jerk, waking up. He gave Bunny an apologetic squeeze and pulled away with a yawn. "Lemme know when you're ready to head out?" Jack requested, words slurring together.

"Too right, mate." Bunny promised, letting Jack go. "Not leavin’ without ya."

Jack nodded, pulling up his hood. "Thanks." He mumbled. Jack nodded politely at North, then made his way to the window seat, where he stretched out on his side, cuddling his staff to his chest. He was asleep almost immediately, a layer of ice covering him like a blanket. Bunny chuckled to himself, turning his attention back towards North.

North was smirking at him, eyebrows crooked upwards. "For someone who protested young Jack joining us, you seem to have taken shine." He drawled, his words rolling with barely restrained amusement as he swirled the cider around in the mug. "You are good with the boy."

"Yeah, well, it turns out we got a bunch in common." Bunny glowered, shifting in his seat. Their fierce pride in their work and stubborn temperaments was what had them butting heads the first time they met. But once they got past that, the similarities in their personalities made them good friends as well.

Actually, not entirely unlike himself and North. Bunny frowned, reaching up and brushing what melting snow he could reach off the back of his shoulder, where Jack had been resting. "Now are we gonna argue or not?"

"We are arguing! We are arguing!"

---

Bunny watched the sleepers with an amused smirk. It wasn't quite what he'd intended, but it definitely worked.

Jack was fast asleep against the rocks, bonelessly sprawled like only the young could, head tilted back and soft snoring sounds coming from his wide open mouth. Sandy was resting against his thin chest, loosely formed images of happy stars and clouds floating above his head as he slumbered as well.

Jack's frost couldn't effect Sandy's sand, and vice versa. The two would sleep for a while.

Bunny had been waiting for Jack to crash as soon as they stepped into the Summer warmth of the Toothiana Palace. But the kid had been a real trooper, being a huge help and staying awake longer than Bunny had expected.

Toothiana and her little Fairies had done a bang up job working double time to fix up the Palace and put back all the boxes of kid's teeth while still collecting teeth from around the world. There were millions of boxes, Bunny wasn't going to forget helping to toss all of them through North's Snowglobe Portals after defeating Pitch anytime soon.

It had been a downright circus, North's Yeti and Elves, Bunny's Eggs, Toothiana's Fairies all running back and forth trying to move as many through as they could before the portals closed. Sandy and Jack had been the greatest help, Jack freezing large sections of boxes together to be rolled through in giant snowballs, while Sandy formed bulldozers, pushing them through en masse.

And while they were all pretty much back up to full strength, the Toothiana Palace still had some repairs that needed to be taken care of that she couldn't handle on her own. North and his crew had gleefully taken to the heavy physical repairs and re-enforcing various structures through non-magical means, with Sandy, Tooth, and Jack all helping to lift pieces into place in the soaring structure. The larger details were now done, North and some of the Yetis were now taking great delight on working on the smaller decorative bits.

Bunny wasn't so good with the height thing, so he'd been working on things he was skilled at, repainting the damaged murals and repairing the gardens on the ground. A few of his eggs and some of the Fairies had fetched and carried for him, but for the most part he'd been left alone to work in peace. It'd been nice to practise his talents somewhere other than the Warren. He'd kept an ear out for the lad though, noticing his high spirits slowly lagging in the balmy weather, until he was constantly yawning.

Once the yawns had faded away, Bunny had set his paints down and gone looking for Jack. The lad had fallen asleep, curled up on top of some building supplies, several worried Fairies squeaking above his head. He'd gently shoo'd them away as he'd picked up the lad, carrying him to the cooler shade by the ponds, a trail of ice forming between him and the water.

Bunny had set about looking for the others to warn them that Jack was down for the count when he found Sandy also asleep. Knowing Sandy still had a work to do that night, Bunny had picked up the sleeping Sandman and placed the floating Guardian next to Jack to catch some rest. He hadn't quite expected the two to gravitate towards each other, one of Jack's arms looping around Sandy, the two cuddling in their sleep.

He briefly debated closing Jack's mouth, but the Fairies were all a flutter at having a chance to look at Jack's partially exposed pearly white teeth without any interference. Although Bunny wouldn't be surprised if Jack woke up to find tiny feathers on his tongue, a couple of Fairies had barely been prevented from crawling inside his mouth by their sisters.

Bunny’s ears twitched as he heard the hum of Toothiana’s wings, unsurprised when he felt her slight weight resting against his shoulder. “You’re so sweet.” She commented.

“Ain’t nothin’ more than any one of ya would do.” He grumbled, crossing his arms across his chest.

“Nice try, but we know you.” She flicked at one of his tall ears with a playful finger, making it twitch. “And...” Toothiana added, lowering her voice. “I happen to know of a certain request that was made.”

That caught his attention, turning to glower at her. She patted his cheek and smiled merrily at him, holding a hand up for silence. He bit back the angry comments on his tongue as she daintily floated towards Jack and Sandy.

Toothiana leaned over them, gentle fingers pulling something small out of Jack’s hood, cupping it carefully in her hands as she floated back to him. She held her hands out for him to see.

It was a Fairy, blinking sleepily at them, dressed from head to toe in a little tiny snow suit, little black buttons down the front, making her look like a miniature snowman. The only parts of the Fairy that were visible being the iridescent wings out the back and her tiny face.

“He named her Baby Tooth.” Toothiana said fondly as the Fairy decided that they weren't interesting and curled back up to sleep.

Named her?” Bunny echoed. “As in-?”

Toothiana nodded, looking pleased, but wistful at the same time. “Her left eye is ice-blue now.” The rest of the Fairies had violet eyes, like Toothiana.

Names were important. Names had a power and a life of their own.

When they had first met, Toothiana’s Fairies had been parts of her, one large Toothiana and six tiny ones split off from her, all working together to collect the children’s teeth. But humans bred quickly, and more than six were soon needed. Toothiana had pushed her limits, but there was only so far she could split herself.

E. Aster Bunnymund had been around for a very long time, and seen a great many things. Rabbits were a fertility symbol for a reason, and he had lots and lots of eggs. Eggs that he was willing to use to help a friend.

Her flock of Fairies were now closer to her children than parts of herself. They were all connected, but no longer one mind in many bodies. Her Fairies had their own thoughts and personalities, but they had a job to do, much like bees in a hive with Toothiana as the Queen directing her workers.

But a name... None of her Fairies had names. They didn’t need them. He remembered when Jack had saved this little one from Pitch’s Nightmare, cradling the Fairy in his hands and calling her Baby Tooth. He probably didn’t even realise that he’d just separated her from her sisters, giving her a name and an identity of her own.

“She’s bigger than the others, isn’t she?” Bunny mused, glancing up at the Fairies hovering around. Not by much, a few millimetres, but enough. Her wings were paler too, leaning more towards opal than emerald.

Toothiana nodded. “She’ll get bigger. Grow up.” Unlike her sisters. Toothiana smiled at Bunny. “But for now, she likes to ride in Jack’s hood wherever he goes. That’s why the Yetis made this outfit for her, so she doesn’t freeze. She heard what Jack asked for.”

“And she told you.” Bunny sighed, rubbing his forehead. He’d actually forgotten about the bet until Toothiana brought it up.

“188 hugs. One for each tooth.” Toothiana’s smile grew bigger. “Although you’ve taken it above and beyond. We were wondering for awhile, you’re not usually so tactile, but then suddenly you were all over Jack. Not that he was complaining.”

Bunny ducked his head. It wasn’t that he was embarrassed by it exactly, it was just private. Between himself and Jack. “M’not the only one.” He grumbled back.

Everyone else had started following his lead, hands on shoulders, ruffling Jack’s hair, standing in each other’s personal space, even if they weren’t touching. Jack had been a little wary of it for several months, but he seemed to be accepting it more often of late, greeting casual signs of affection with smiles rather than suspicion.

Or like now, Jack reaching out in his sleep for Sandy. It was the first time Bunny had seen Jack seek contact with anyone other than Bunny. He couldn’t help the burst of pride and fondness in his chest over that that. Jackie was changing from a good kid into a great kid.

“Just following your example.” Toothiana smirked at him before zipping back over to Sandy and Jack, putting the sleeping Baby Tooth back in Jack’s hood. She hovered above the sleeping Guardians, a soft look on her face as she watched them for a moment before glancing at Bunny and giving him a small smile. "He looks so young when he's asleep." Toothiana whispered fondly.

Bunny felt his mood sour a bit. Toothiana seemed to pick up on it, floating back in his direction. "Bunny?" She asked, looking concerned.

He shook his head, rubbing at his eyes. "What's our Oath?" He asked. He'd been thinking about this for a while, it was probably time to discuss it with the others. Especially while he knew Jack wouldn't be able to accidentally listen in, considering the lad was one of the topics of conversation.

Toothiana gave him a look that stated she had no idea where he was going with this but was willing to play along. She straightened up, closing her eyes as she recited.

"We will watch over the Children of Earth." Toothiana said proudly, the words taking on something more than mere sounds as she spoke."Guide them..." She faltered slightly, long eyelashes fluttering as she slowly began to turn away from Bunny, turning to face the slumbering kid and Sandy. "-Safely from the ways of harm. We will.... guard..."

She swallowed, unable to go on, one hand coming up to cover her mouth as she stared at Jack.

"-Guard with our lives their Hopes and Dreams." Bunny softly picked up the thread, unwilling to leave the Oath unfinished. "For they are all that we have, all that we are-"

"-And All That We Will Ever Be." North's voice joined his, finishing the oath together. Bunny glanced back to find the large man walking towards them, a curious look on his face. "We are having gathering?" He inquired.

"We cocked up, mate." Bunny gestured at the sleeping Jack and Sandy.

North made an inquiring noise, one of his eyebrows rising in question. Bunny glanced at Toothiana, silently gesturing for them to find somewhere else to talk and let the slumber ones continue their rest undisturbed. She nodded, tail feathers swirling as she lead them into the palace, up into a room that overlooked Sandy and Jack.

"You have been thinking deep thoughts as of late." North said, his voice subdued, even though chances were Jack and Sandy couldn't hear them from up there. "I have seen it in your eyes the last few times we meet. Now you are ready to discuss?"

"Reckon ya could say that." Bunny agreed, leaning against the wall by the window where he could keep an eye on the two below. It was high enough to be uncomfortable, but still low enough that he could jump down safely if he needed to.

He scratched his jaw, trying to think of the best way to phrase things, and decided to go straight for the jugular. "I don't think Manny made Jack a Guardian justa help us defeat Pitch. I think he made Jack a Guardian ta help us."

North and Toothiana exchanged a confused, slightly worried look. "What you mean, 'help us'?" North drawled.

"Think about it." Bunny pushed off the walk and started to pace, pulling out a boomerang and idly spinning it in his hand. "Before all this, Pitch makin' a reappearance and Manny chosin' Jack as a Guardian, we were pretty content just doin' our jobs, right? We take pride in what we do, we enjoy it."

"Right." Toothiana agreed, she and North nodding.

Bunny spun, pointing the end of the boomerang at them. "But were we happy?"

Toothiana opened her mouth, floating higher for a moment before deflating again, sinking back down towards the floor with a contemplative look on her face. North thoughtfully stroked his long beard, pondering it over before speaking.

"I think... I am more filled with joy now, than before." He said slowly. "I was not unhappy, but..." North trailed off with a shrug.

"-Not precisely happy either." Bunny finished for him with a nod, retracting the boomerang. That's what he had thought, but it was nice to get the confirmation.

"I think things are better now." Toothiana mused, a thoughtful wrinkle across her forehead. “We’re still doing what we love, bringing hope, dreams, wonder, and joy to children, but we’re doing it together now.”

Bingo.

Tooth continued, her words gaining speed and enthusiasm as North nodded in agreement. “We never would have gathered teeth together, or painted eggs to hide before. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m looking forward to the plan for this Christmas, being with everyone and riding on the sleigh!”

“I mean... I’ve spent more time in the field in the past several months than I have in over 400 years! I actually see the children, watch their sleeping faces for a bit.” Toothiana practically was wiggling in delight. “And Jack! Jack gets to spend time with the kids and he’s got these great stories about what they’ve been up during the day, especially if they’ve lost any teeth, and it just... It just makes me so happy!

“And there’s me point.” Bunny gestured at them with the boomerang. “Before Jack, we were too busy bringing hope and wonder ta kids to actually spend any time with them. And now we’ve got one.”

Toothiana and North exchanged a confused look. “Got one what?” North asked.

“A sprog of our very own.” Bunny motioned out the window where Jack still kipping, covered from the waist down in golden dream sand, courtesy of of the dreaming Sandy. With Jack, they had a reason, an excuse to get together. To take breaks and have fun. The brat wouldn't allow for anything else.

“A child?!” North boomed, then started laughing.

“Oi.” Bunny glared. “He’s the age we lose most of them." The age hormones started to kick in and they started transitioning into adults. When things like dating, cars, and social lives became more important than Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Dreams.

Bunny gestured at Toothiana. “Ya got all his chompers, don’tcha?”

She stared at him blankly for a moment before giving a small gasp, momentarily covering her mouth with a hand. “His left upper second molar.” Toothiana said quickly, glancing between them. “It’s not at the same level with the rest, it hasn’t completely emerged. But he lost his baby teeth later than most children do.”

One of North’s eyebrows rose, a thoughtful look on his face, as if he was rolling Bunny’s words around in his head. Bunny was the logical one, wanting facts, data. But North worked on a more instinctive level, going with his belly. Different routes, but often coming to the same conclusion.

“Children like Jack because he’s just a kid himself.” Bunny said quietly, leaning against the side of the window sill. “Bein’ chosen as a Guardian.... Bein’ immortal’s not gonna change that. We don’t age, we don't 'grow old'. He’s going to be 14 forever.”

Well, two days shy, but close enough. Age didn't change the fact that Jack was still a Guardian, still a protector.

“He has been child for over 300 years.” North mused gravely, tugging on the end of his beard as he come to the same conclusion Bunny had. “Jack will never be adult.”

“A Child of Earth.” Bunny extrapolated. As was North, and to some extent Toothiana, with her human father. Which was why when their belief base was stripped away, Toothiana and North were still mostly intact but Sandy hid as a speck of sand in a sleeping boy’s mind, and Bunny was shrunk down to a kit.

“And in 300 years, did he get a single googie?” Bunny closed his eyes. “A gift? A dream?”

No.

No bolstering of Hope, no gifts of Wonder, no Dreams of comfort to chase away the dark. No Memories either.

And himself as the Easter Bunny was just as guilty of that as the others. If not more so, because of his reaction to the Blizzard of ‘68.

“We failed as Guardians.” Toothiana’s voice was quiet, her toes barely touching the floor. “We’d all heard of ‘Jack Frost’ before, knew he was out there. But none of us thought to check on him.”

“We were so busy bein’ the ‘Guardians of Childhood’, none o’ us had so much as talked to a kid for hundreds of years.” Bunny pushed himself away from the wall, making a curt gesture out the window. “Meanwhile, he was actually out there, havin’ fun with them, bringin’ ‘em joy.”

“He’s the playful, protective older brother ta every kid he meets.” Bunny turned and lifted his head, staring first at North’s, then Toothiana’s eyes. “And we’re his older sibs.”

Toothiana gave him a confused look back, but North looked contemplative. “What you are saying makes some sense.” He admitted.

Bunny wasn’t entirely surprised. Toothiana had been raised by her parents until they were killed, but North’s family had always been one of choice. Ombric had not only been Bunny’s friend and North’s mentor in magic, but the closest person North had ever had to a father. And blood-relation or not, Katherine was North’s sister.

"I-" North gestured towards himself, then in a circle to include all the Guardians. “-We were too full of pride. That Pitch would not return. That we were on path of right. We are, but were sliding slightly... off.” North made wiggling gesture with his hand. “Jack is, as you say, child, but also Guardian. He is constant reminder, to gather together, have fun, to enjoy what we do.”

“He’s also ours, mate.” Bunny glared. Not just a reminder.

“That is family, is it not?” North gave him a questioning look. “To protect and watch out for one another in all ways? Yeti and I have not missed scent mark on boy’s head.”

Bunny flinched, glancing away, boomerang spinning in his hand.

“Wait.” Toothina glanced between them. “What?”

“Pooka, just like Rabbits, have a scent gland right here.” Bunny sighed, rubbing the underside of his chin with the point of the boomerang. “Just like cats. Jackie's head rubs there every time we hug, and he picks up some of my scent, markin’ him as part of my Warren.”

“As Family.” North smirked triumphantly, crossing his arms across his huge chest.

“As Family.” Bunny echoed in agreement. He hadn’t meant to originally, it was mostly by accident, Jack being just the right height to fit under Bunny’s chin. But after they’d started spending time together and talking, it just felt natural to do so. He wasn’t sure if Jack was aware of the marking or or not, but the lad had a habit of tucking his head under Bunny’s, even if he had to stoop to do so.

On the bright side, this meant Bunny barely had to sense where Jack was to open a tunnel for him, the Warren recognising Jack as belonging there.

“Oooh.” Toothiana nodded. “I thought that’s what the covering of rabbit fur all over his clothing was for.”

“Oi!” Bunny glared. "Can we get back on topic here?"

"I thought Jack being family was topic." North said guilelessly, aiming a playful shrug at Toothiana, who hid a giggle behind a hand.

"My point is, we failed once." Bunny scowled. "Who's ta say we're not failing elsewhere too? Other Spirits, other potential Guardians? We won cause Pitch thought o' Jack as a 'Neutral Party', and ignored him, at least at the beginning. Next time, we might not be so lucky."

Jack had once made an off handed comment about Pitch trying to get Jack to join him, something that it had taken a lot of control to keep Bunny from raging in rage and panic. If Jack had met Pitch before he met the Guardians, there was a chance that he might have willingly joined the Master of Fear out of loneliness. Or not so willingly, Pitch had once transformed people into shadowy Fearlings.

Although since Pitch's first defeat at all of their hands, the Boogieman had tended to fight solo, by himself. Warping Sandy's dreams into Nightmares not only was a disruption from the previous status quo, it had given Pitch the advantage of numbers. Something that had worked, and worked well for him. If it hadn't been for Jack figuring out what his centre is when he did, Pitch could have destroyed them all.

Pitch had been a General before he was the Boogieman, he knew battle tactics, strategy. If numbers had worked before, it would work again. And next time, they might not be so fortunate as to have him stage a show to pull them all together. If Pitch had the ability to get inside their lairs, there was nothing from keeping him from taking the Guardians out one by one. Previously to their weekly get togethers, no one would have even noticed until a job wasn't done.

While that would be quickly apparent if Tooth or Sandy didn't do their job in the night, it could have taken almost a year for the other Guardians to notice if the Warren or the Workshop were destroyed. It was bad strategy, especially for protectors, to be so isolated. And yet that's just what they had done.

"What are you suggesting?" North asked, his tone turning serious.

Bunny sighed, scratching the back of his head with the boomerang. "Trust me, I can't believe that I'm the one suggestin' this either, but... Boxing Day."

Toothiana and North exchanged a confused look. Toothiana held up her fists, pretending to punch an invisible person.

"It's the Day after Christmas." Bunny explained. "If Christmas is for family and presents, then Boxing Day is for food and friends. Down Under, it means enjoyin' the sun, friends gatherin' around the barbie, possibly a game o' footy or cricket, or surfin' if yer on the coast."

"I... am not seeing point." North confessed. "Surfing?"

"Not the surfin', the gettin' together part." Bunny tugged on an ear in irritation. "We invite everybody, everybody together for a big ol' party. Even the ones we don't like. Open invitation. Get the word out. Actually meet people fer a change instead o' randomly runnin' across 'em when we're on business."

Toothiana lit up. "And if there's any other kids like Jack-"

"We can put them on our lists." North rumbled. "Presents and 'googies', as you say. Watch over them, keep them also safe from Pitch."

"Even the ones who aren't kids still have eyes and ears out there." Bunny nodded, pleased that they were catching on. "Someone sees somethin', they can pass the word on. Open the lines of communication. No one's isolated, no one's vulnerable to Pitch."

Toothiana excitedly bounced at the idea. "We can all help each other!"

"And it is PARTY! I LOVE Parties!" North boomed enthusiastically, throwing his hands in the air. He paused, lowering his arms with a hesitant look. "... Is there Spirit assigned to this day?"

"Actually-" Bunny grimaced. Oh, North was never going to let him live this part down. "-It's considered a second day of Christmas."

"Even Better!!!" North cheered. "We have it at North Pole! Yeti love to cook, and Elves to boogie down! There is plenty of room for everybody! We have food, and drink, and music! Lots of Music! And SINGING! Karaoke!"

"I've always wanted to try that!" Toothiana bubbled. Several Fairies that had been hovering outside the window suddenly zoomed in, chirping excitedly at the idea. North rambled on, his plans getting more and more elaborate, more festive as he talked, Toothiana and her Fairies occasionally agreeing or adding ideas.

"Oh, bloody 'ell." Bunny groaned, covering his eyes with a hand. He'd created a monster.

---- 22 September, Autumn Equinox

“WoOOWwww....” Jamie gasped as he stared up into the Australian night sky, his face light up with admiration and delight. Jack’s grin was wide and bright, echoing the small boy’s joy as well, the tunnel Bunny had opened for them closing behind.

Hidden behind Jack was a shadow that Bunny couldn’t quite make out, slinking as if uncertain of their welcome. It wasn’t Pitch, whoever it was didn’t reek of fear, just nervousness.

“Stay close ta the light.” Bunny couldn’t quite help but to smile at the kids. “Australia’s got some o’ the most poisonous creepy crawlies in the world. Got this area cleared, but this is their turf.”

‘Here’ being a depression in a remote area of the Outback, out of sight of any human towns. The chances of one of the venomous snakes, spiders, centipedes, or scorpions that inhabited the area actually biting one of them was remote, but better safe than sorry.

Jamie glanced around with a worried look on his face, and Jack frowned, the ground at his feet frosting up. Which was a sure-fire way to discourage any surprise guests.

“What about Dingos?” Jamie asked, moving closer to the large glowing egg Bunny was sitting in front of. “Don’t they eat babies?”

Bunny laughed. “Naw, mate.” He assured the kid with a grin. “Dingos are shy, don’t like gettin’ around people.” It was the packs of Feral Dogs, domesticated pets gone wild, mistaken for the native canines that gave Dingos a bad name. Feral Dogs had no fear of humans at all.

The Feral Cats were even worse, taking out large numbers of the native rodent, marsupial and bird populations, driving many species to extinction. Some cats even growing to the size of leopards, although those tended to be harder to find.

“Don’t pick a fight with any o’ the natives, and you’ll be apples.” Bunny ruffled the boy’s hair, then motioned to the other side of the glowing egg. “Pull up a rock. Who else do we have here?” He asked, glancing at Jack, then behind the lad.

Jack smiled down at his shadow, nudging them forward. It was the large girl who’d been the first to back Jamie up against Pitch, the one dressed in the tutu skirt.

“I had a dream last night.” The girl said, her voice kind of low and rough, a wary look in her eyes, as if expecting to be turned away. “That you were tellin’ a story. Then when I woke up, I found this next to my bed.”

She held her hand up, a glowing golden statue of Bunny resting in it, made of Sandy’s Dream sand.

“Then I’d say it looks like ya were invited.” Bunny said with a grin. “Join the circle. Anyone else?”

“Just Cupcake.” Jack said, plopping down on the ground, leaning his back against the rock Bunny had put there for a seat. Bunny was glad that he'd already checked it for anything that might bite or sting before they arrived. Jamie sat down next to Jack, grinning as he leaned against the Winter Sprite.

Cupcake. That was the girl’s name.

“I have to admit, I’m kind of curious.” Jack smiled, looking happy. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do story time.”

“Yeah, well, it seemed like a good night fer it.” Bunny looked up at the sky, where the Moon was curving towards the west. It was a waning gibbous moon, a couple of days shy of full, so Manny should be able to see them.

“Today’s 22 September.” Bunny extrapolated. “Autumn Equinox. First day o’ Spring down here, first day of Autumn up there.”

“It’s not midnight down here, is it?” Jamie asked, pulling back the sleeve of his longsleeve shirt, checking his watch. “It’s like 1:28 in the afternoon back home-?”

“Middle territories of Oz are a half hour off of the East and West coasts.” Bunny shrugged. When he was younger, he'd worried about hours and minutes, but now he didn't care quite as much. Sun up or sun down, that was what he worried about. “But even accountin’ fer that, no, it’s not Midnight here. Almost 3am.”

“The Dead Hour.” Jack said, draping a protective arm around Jamie, who leaned in closer.

“Dead hour?” Cupcake questioned, sitting down on the ground next to Bunny so she was leaning against his Bunny’s legs.

“That’s what they called it, back when I...” Jack trailed off with a shrug. Back when he was still human. “It’s hour that Spirits are supposed be able to walk the Earth.” He explained instead. And the hour people were more likely to pass away in their sleep, but they’d leave that part out tonight.

“Which means people are more likely ta be in bed catchin’ some Zzzs.” Bunny agreed as Cupcake gingerly pet his knee, stroking the soft fur with an awed expression on her face. He flicked an ear at her, amused by her enchanted expression.

“Oh.” Jamie nodded, accepting the logic.

The golden Bunny in Cupcake’s hand began to dance around and Bunny looked up. “And it looks like our other guest is here.” He said, spotting the gold blur that looked like a shooting star.

“Ooh!!” Cupcake gasped, clasping her hands together in delight as Sandy came into view. “It’s the Sandman!”

Sandy either heard or saw his welcome, smiling broadly and waving hello as he floated down. Cupcake got up, cradling the Dreamsand Bunny in her hand, trotting over to him as he landed. "Thank you for the dreams." She smiled broadly at him, handing him the Bunny back.

Sandy sketched a fancy bow to her, making her giggle and curtsy back.

"Cupcake loves horses." Jamie leaned forward and whispered with a grin so that they could both hear him without being overheard. "All of them, including the Nightmares. She watches for them, then hugs them when they get close, which turns them back into good dreams. Everyone in school knows she's the best person in the whole town for preventing bad dreams, she gets invited to a lot of sleep-overs."

Jack and Bunny exchanged a look, their eyebrows going up. News to Jack as well. Interesting.

Sandy offered Cupcake his arm, which she giggled and took, Sandy escorting her back to the group as if she was a fairy princess. "G'evenin', mate." Bunny nodded as they approached. Sandy tipped an imaginary hat to them, Cupcake giving a small bob of a curtsy. Jack chortled in delight, he and Jamie scooting over so that there was room for Sandy to sit as well.

"Ya on visuals tonight then?" Bunny inquired as Sandy conjured up an elaborately curved bench for himself and Cupcake to sit on. Sandy nodded back with slightly apologetic look that morphed into a shy smile. "Alright then." Bunny nodded back. He'd had a small device ready to project images, but Sandy could be more flexible with his Dreamsand.

Bunny had originally planned for it to be just Jack and himself when he told this story. But the thought had come up that Jamie deserved to know how it had all started, what he had protected when he'd kept his belief. And now there was Cupcake and Sandy.

He hadn't wanted a large audience, it wasn't an easy story for him to tell. Hopefully this would be the limit of their group.

Baby Tooth climbed out of Jack's hood, settling on his shoulder with a small chirp.

Okay, Now hopefully that would be the limit of their group.

"Ready?" He asked, glancing around the circle. Cupcake seemed happy, Sandy looked content, Jack smiled back at him, expression curious, and Jamie looked eager. "Questions at the end, please." Bunny said, giving a nod to Sandy, who raised his hands, images of sparkling swirling gold galaxies glistening above the glowing egg. "Once upon a time-"

It was a story that hadn't been told on Earth in hundreds of years. Of a Golden Age of Peace and Prosperity, ruled by regal families of Constellations, of which the most beloved was the House of Lunaoff. Back when airships travelled through space like butterflies on the wind.

It hadn't always been as such, before it was the Golden Age, there had been outlaws, bands of Nightmare Men, Fearlings, and Dream Pirates who threatened the people of this burgeoning glorious age. The Golden Armies lead by the hero General Kozmotis Pitchiner had fought against them, capturing them and entombing them in a dark prison of lead.

A General who had sacrificed much to create this peace, then volunteered to guard this prison's lone entrance, and the Constellations had been pleased, for with this hero at the door, not a single one would escape.

But General Kozmotis Pitchiner was just a man, and men have weaknesses. The nightmares constantly whispered to him, looking for freedom, trying to get him to open the door. Pitchiner stayed strong, for he had a daughter, a daughter he wished to protect.

A daughter that lead to his downfall. The shadows took her voice, calling for her father to release her from the darkness, and in his love for his daughter, he did so without a thought. The Fearlings, Nightmare Men and Dream Pirates, little more than shadows themselves rushed out, devouring everything the good man was, changing him into the villainous Pitch.

Pitch, the King of Nightmares, sailed through the once peaceful universe, spreading misery and fear wherever he went, killing stars, looting planets and destroying any ship he came across. He hungered for dreams, especially those of the pure of heart, of children.

Such as the son of the Tsar and Tsarina Lunaoff, a boy so innocent that he'd never had a single nightmare. Pitch saved the best, the most delectable treat for last, and when he'd ravaged everything else, he turned towards them. Unable to stop Pitch, the Lunaoffs fled, racing across the cosmos a small uncharted planet to protect their son in a special ship, the Moon Clipper.

A planet that Bunny was hidden on, hiding a precious relic given to him by the Tsar to protect.

Unfortunately, Pitch caught up to the Lunaoffs before they could safely hide. The Moon Bots and the Moon Mice on the ship were prepared to fight, with their swords made of shooting stars and meteorites, known for their ability to dispel the darkness.

Pitch's forces overtook the ship, and he was just about to kill the Tsar and Tsarina when there was a mighty explosion.

When the air was cleared, Pitch was gone, and so was the Tsar and Tsarina. The son's bodyguard, a spritely fellow named Nightlight had driven himself towards Pitch, driving a dagger of tears into Pitch's heart, driving both Pitch and his frightship ship to the Earth, trapping the King of Nightmares.

Fear broken, the son grew up on the Moon, raised by the Moon Mice and the Moon Bots, from a boy to a man. It was a bit lonely as there was no one else around, no one except for the people on the planet below. The Man in the Moon, or Manny watched them, especially the children, to whom he felt a kinship with. Sometimes balloons and things would fly away and he could listen carefully, hearing their wishes. He loved the children, sending Moonbeams down to protect them and guard against nightmares.

At least, until one of them found and accidentally woke Pitch.

Pitch, who went after the children and their dreams. The dreams of the children of the magical village of Santoff Claussen were especially tasty, the children never having known fear.

This set off a chain of events. The Man in the Moon sent aid to the children in the form of a Cossack swordsman and adventurer, Nicholas St North. North was eventually taken in by the leader of Santoff Claussen, an ancient wizard and the last Atlantean, Ombric, and his adopted daughter, Katherine.

Guided by the advice and assistance of the Lunar Lamas, high up in the Himalayas, they began the search for the five scattered relics from the Lunaoff family. Which is how they met E. Aster Bunnymund, then later the daughter of the Sisters of Flight, Toothiana, and later the fallen wishing star, Sanderson Mansnoozie, the Sandman.

As they fought, Katherine discovered Pitch's weakness. For that he no longer had any memories of his daughter, a distant part of his mind did remember her. And that knowledge slowly gave him back his human body, trapping his memories once more.

His Fearlings dispersed, beyond his control, and the Nightmare Men and Dream Pirates vanished from the Earth, fleeing back to the freedom of the stars.

Leaving a greatly weakened Pitch behind.

Fear had been diminished, but not destroyed.

All of them: Nightlight, Katherine and her great Himalayan Snow Goose Kailash, Ombric, North, Bunnymund, Toothiana, and Sandy, swore an Oath, to protect and watch over the children, to protect them from fear.

Which is what they did, still to this day.

His voice was rough when he finally finished speaking. There was more to it of course, there were always details, but those were for other stories.

“Um, Mister Bunny?” Cupcake said hesitantly. “... There are people watching us.”

Bunny glanced around, realising that yes, they had attracted a crowd. “It’s alright.” The physical and the nonphysical were all connected in the Dreaming. “There are a times when a story is worth more than your weight in gold.” And a good yarn was appreciated anywhere.

The kids gave him confused looks back, but Sandy nodded wisely.

Bunny reached behind him, pulling the water skin off his back and took a quick swig, easing his throat. “Here.” He said, pulling out eggs from the bandoleer and passing them to the others. “Careful, they’re liquid filled.”

Desert meant low humidity, even on a comfortable autumn night. Even sitting around could be dehydrating.

The kids thanked him and eagerly peeled open their eggs, biting the chocolate off the narrow top and sipping the liquid. Sandy silently toasted Bunny before doing the same in a slightly more dignified manner.

Jack had a little bit harder of a time, accidently freezing the chocolate, which made the insides all slushy. He didn’t let this stop him however, biting into the frozen treat with delight, the chocolate crunching under his teeth. He broke off a piece and offered it to Baby Tooth, to took it with a happy chirp.

Bunny made a mental note to make sure they had tea later, to counter the sugar.

He offered some to the people on the outskirts of the light, but they shook their heads. Probably a smart thing, there were legends about taking food from spirits for a reason. Even if Bunny was one of the benevolent ones, instead of a malevolent.

“What is this?” Jamie asked, peering at the egg with a surprised expression. “Chocolate and... Orange?”

“Jaffa flavoured.” Bunny said, sipping some more water. “-It’s a type of local lolly.” While anything orange and chocolate had come to be referred to as ‘Jaffa’, the original round candies were chocolate on the inside, orange on the outside. Bunny had used the chocolate to contain the orange.

“S’good.” Cupcake beamed at him, her mouth stained with the chocolate.

Bunny smiled back, always getting a thrill seeing someone enjoying chocolate he made. “Ta.”

“So what I don’t get-” Jamie said, staring at the chocolate as if he wasn’t so sure about it. “-Is why you don’t destroy Pitch once and for all. Wouldn’t that get rid of Fear?”

Sandy quickly shook his head, but to Bunny’s surprise, it was Jack who answered. “No more than getting rid of me would make it stop snowing.” Jack said, flicking his fingers, a few small snowflakes appearing and melting before they hit the ground. “There was Snow and Ice before I was born, and I’d be willing to bet there was Fear long before Pitch came into existence.”

Bunny pointed at Jack, indicating the lad was right.

“We didn’t originally mean ta symbols of Wonder, Dreams, Hope and Memories when we first started.” Bunny said, giving Jack a small smile. “But that’s what we are, in our centres.”

Tooth was the one to figure it out, that they were connected to the children through their centres. Sandy’s centre was easy to figure out, but Bunny and North’s had taken a little while longer. Bunny the longest.

Hope could be such a nebulous thing. Too much and it could lead to False Hope, which could destroy just as easily as Fear could. Not enough and it couldn’t help.

“Centre?” Jamie piped up, something like recognition dawning across his face.

Sandy closed his eyes, placing a hand over his heart with a sweet expression.

“What we are, deep down. What we bring out and protect in the world.” Jack said, and Bunny could hear the echo of North’s words in it. A sparkling snowflake appeared in Jack’s hand, rolling in between his fingers, like Tooth played with the coins she gave. “Mine’s Fun-”

“-Joy.” Bunny said at the same time.

Jack blinked at him, mulling the word over before shrugging and nodding. Sandy waved at Jack, eagerly bouncing and Jack sent the snowflake in Sandy’s direction. Sandy grabbed the snowflake and sent streams of sand through it, sending blue tinted golden streams into the air.

Cupcake and Jamie gave coos of appreciation and Bunny grinned. So that’s why Sandy loved it when Jack rode along with him. He could mix Jack’s element in with his sand, producing really good dreams.

“Sometimes centres cover overlap into than one area.” Bunny winked at Jack.

“Like how the Easter Bunny brings Spring and Spring Break?” Cupcake ventured.

“I invented Spring.” Bunny gave a slight salute. “Along with most of your trees, flowers, grass, jokes. Summer vacations, recess and chocolate. I spent many years tryin’ ta spread Light.”

And it turned out the most effective method was hiding eggs one day a year. The joke was on him.

“Jokes?” Jack smirked at him, mock disbelieving. Bunny pointed a finger at him, silently motioning for Jack to shut it. Jack quietly chortled in return.

“But ta get back on topic, no, we can’t destroy Pitch.” Bunny looked at Jamie, who was watching him with curious brown eyes. “Because we’re not Pitch.”

Jamie gave a little gasp, eyes widening as he got it. Pitch would destroy them all given a chance. But as Guardians, they were the good guys. There were lines that they could not, would not cross.

Such as destroying Pitch, once and for all.

“A little bit o’ Fear ain’t a bad thing.” Bunny said quietly, knowing how blasphemous it sounded. He had no love at all for Pitch, even if he understood Fear’s purpose. “Can keep ya safe, that little tremble in the tummy when you’re looking over a cliff that says it’s dangerous and back away.”

“Or not to go sledding into busy traffic cause you could get hurt.” Jamie gave Jack a pointed look, Cupcake nodding wisely. Jack ducked head, laughing nervously in response. There was a story there, one Bunny made a mental note to ask Jack about later.

“Self-preservation.” Bunny agreed. “But it’s when Fear tries to take over-”

“-Then it’s bad.” Jack finished for him, jaw set grimly. Jamie nodded

“Nightmares.” Cupcake rumbled grimly. Sandy smiled at her, reaching down and taking her hand, giving it a friendly squeeze. Cupcake smiled back at him.

“Nothing wrong with being afraid, as long as you don’t let it stop you.” Jack grinned at Jamie, ruffling his hair.

“You said... North said at the lake, that you’d be waiting for him, when he comes back.” Jamie said with a frown, smoothing his hair down. “When Pitch comes back.”

“Yes.” Both Sandy and Bunny nodded in agreement. Sandy waved a hand, Dreamsand shifting to show hammers, screwdrivers, pencils, and nails above his head and Bunny translated. “We can’t physically protect every child, not matter how much we want ta. But we can give children the tools they need ta combat fear themselves.”

“Hopes, Dreams, Wonder, Joy.” Jack grinned. “Fear can’t stand up to Laughter. And when kids grow up, they become adults, and they teach it to their kids.” He added proudly. And so each generation became a little bit brighter.

That earned Jack skeptical looks from both children.

“What? It’s not just kids who play in the snow.” He added puckishly.

Adults had fears as well, different fears than children did. Theirs weren’t of Boogiemen under the beds, but generally of a more day-to-day nature. Was there enough money? Food? Shelter? Clothing? How would they survive school or work?

But learning how to master one fear often meant learning how to conquer others.

Cupcake nodded, a thoughtful look on her face. She was a year older than Jamie, with a glimmer to her eyes that said she’d seen more than the other boy had, so Bunny wasn’t entirely surprised that she seemed to grasp what they were talking about a little better than Jamie.

It was one of the things that Bunny loved so much about children, they had so much light, so much untapped potential in them. Like little seedlings, waiting to sprout and turn into something magnificent.

And these kids were were definitely going to grow into something great. He could feel it, as North said, in his belly.

He could feel a shift in the air, and glancing to the east saw that it was starting to lighten slightly. Pre-Dawn. Their crowd was beginning to fade, the Dreamers either waking up, or continuing their journey.

“Time?” Bunny asked, looking at Jamie.

Jamie checked his watch. “About 4:30.” He reported.

“We should get you home before Five.” Jack said, making a face. Sandy reluctantly nodded, rising to his feet, giving Cupcake a hand, which made her smile.

“Bummer.” Jamie said, rising to his feet. He shivered a bit as he rose, adjusting to the change in temperature. Jack noticed, a rueful crooked smile crossing his face. The desert air wasn’t that chilly, and Jamie was certainly dressed well enough for the climate, but Jack was always cold.

“I have a sleepover to get to.” Cupcake turned towards Bunny. “Can I give you a hug?”

Bunny grinned, slightly surprised by the request. “Yeah.” He said, holding an arm out. Cupcake squeaked and rushed over, burying her face in the longer hair across his chest.

“You’re so soft!” She said with delight, petting his shoulder.

Well, of course. He grinned. “M’a bunny.”

Jack snorted, amused. “The Easter Bunny.” He said, echoing Bunny’s words for so long ago.

“Oh!” Jamie stared between them, head flickering back and forth. “I just realised something!”

“Yeah?” Jack asked with a grin, leaning on his staff.

Jaime pointed at Bunny. “The Easter Bunny is from Outer Space.”

Jack clapped a hand over his mouth, obviously trying not to laugh. Bunny exchanged a look with Sandy, who smirked and shrugged.

“No one’s ever going to believe this!” Jamie added, with a huge grin. “Wait until I tell Sophie! She’s going to love it!”

“And on that note-” Bunny opened up two tunnels. “Jack, Sandy? You escortin’?”

“On it!” Jack grinned. Then raised his hand with his fingers spread in a v-shape, pointer and middle finger together, ring and pinky finger on the other. “‘Live Long and Prosper.’” He intoned before ruining his straight face with giggles. “-Be back in a bit.”

“Bye!” Jamie waved, taking Jack’s hand. “And thank you for the story!” He shouted as they disappeared down the tunnel, a gust of wind carrying them along before the tunnel closed after them.

Sandy lit up, an image of what appeared to be an odd looking spaceship floating above his head.

“I have no idea what you’re on about.” Bunny admitted.

“It’s an old TV show.” Cupcake deadpanned, her expression stating that she thought it was decent, but not great. She patted his arm. “It’s okay. Thank you for the chocolate.”

“Anytime, Darl.” Bunny smiled back. “Safe travels.”

“You too.” She smiled at him. “See you in the Spring!”

Sandy’s dreamsand shifted from the bench back to the usual cloud, Sandy offering her a hand up. Cupcake beamed, climbing up and kneeling on it, smoothing her skirts like a lady. They waved to him, then disappeared down the tunnel, Cupcake shrieking with delight.

Bunny huffed to himself, the second tunnel closing up after Sandy and Cupcake. The quiet pressed in around him like a blanket, wrapping around him.

Bunny usually welcomed silence, but tonight it was oppressive, the ghosts of the past hovering too close.

He sighed, staring up at the Moon hanging low on the horizon. “Hi, Manny.” He said, not expecting a response. The Moon sailed on, silent and serene.

The stars sparkled overhead and Bunny picked out familiar shapes, mentally filling in the points of light that were either invisible from the planet, or gone forever thanks to Pitch. Nightlight, Katherine and Kailash were somewhere out there, spreading the story of Pitch’s demise, bringing light, hope and stories back to the ruins of the former Golden Age.

The double tap of Jack’s staff was a surprising, but welcome distraction. He’d been expecting Jack to hang out in Burgess longer, spend time with his favourite believer. Bunny opened a tunnel for Jack into the Warren.

Above him, the stars started to twinkle and fade out, dimmed by the Sun’s brilliance, bringing his attention back to this planet. Pinks and yellows hovered on the edge of the sky, dark black fading to dusky blue. Magpies started singing their pan-pipe flute greetings to the morning, a laughing kookaburra answering it. Other birds and animals started to wake up, greet the dawn.

“Bunny?”

Bunny jumped at the sound of his name, turning around to find Jack leaning on his staff, a worried look on his face.

“Right there, Jackie?” Bunny asked, giving the lad a concerned look of his own.

Jack opened his mouth, then shook his head, restarting his words. “You didn’t have to tell us that Fear, that Pitch, was necessary.” He pointed out with a confused look on his face.

Bunny thought it over. “Prolly.” He agreed, turning to stare at the glowing egg. “But my hatred o’ Pitch is just that... Me own. And Pitch didn’t kill your families.”

“You said that Pitch now isn’t the same as he used to be.” Jack mused.

“Yeah.” Bunny agreed. Scare them a little, yes. But this Pitch was a far cry from the terror he had been. “And... When ya get down ta it, my job is to pass on Hope, not Hatred.”

It was up to Jack to make up his own mind about Pitch, based off his own experiences. Granted, Jack’s encounters with Pitch hadn’t been a pleasant one, but with new life, there was a potential for new starts.

Even for Pitch.

North had once wanted to bring Pitch in as a Guardian, before Bunny had joined. Sometimes, in the quiet moments, Bunny wondered how different things would be if North had succeeded in doing so.

And then the old hurt would well up, and that ended that.

But Jack... Jack was new, and young. He didn't have the cycle of hatred behind him. And he was curious about Pitch, sometimes sympathetic. If any of them were going to build bridges between Pitch and the Guardians, it'd be Jack. And while Bunny wouldn't exactly be pleased about Jack spending time with Pitch, he wouldn't argue either.

Well, much.

Jack made a thoughtful sound, thinking it over. He was quiet for a moment, his next words making Bunny jump slightly, not realising that Jack had moved closer. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Bunny sighed, running a paw down his face. Jack didn't say anything, just stood close enough so that Bunny could feel the chill that accompanied him everywhere. He didn't feel old, precisely. Just... weary.

“Sometimes... I miss who I was.” He said slowly, leaning down to pick up the egg that had been glowing steadily the entire time. “I wasn’t a ‘Bunny’ then, a ‘Rabbit’. I was a Pooka. E. Aster Bunnymund. The last of the Brotherhood of the Pooka, Protector of Light.”

They hadn't been a huge clan, but there'd been a sizeable number of them. Friends, family. He and his wife had been been blessed with a tiny little kit. Sophie reminded him of his kit in many ways, the way their eyes sparkled with unrestrained laughter and curiosity, the trusting way they curled up in his arms to sleep.

But Pitch loved the dreams of children, and the dreams of a young Pooka were very tasty. Bunny hadn't been able to save either them, only flee as his wife was slaughtered and his son devoured, changed into a Fearling, one of Pitch's terrifying minions. He'd barely escaped with his life, carrying this egg.

It was a special egg, one his clansmen had died to protect. A relic containing the last bit of the purest light in all of creation, the Light from the Beginning of Time. Light which all Pooka were sworn to protect and wield.

Or what little was left of it, after using to to defeat Pitch.

He hadn’t so much as looked at it in centuries, tucked away, kept hidden and safe. But Light liked being shared, so he had brought it out tonight in the company of friends, even if no one else knew what it was. It still hurt to look at, to touch.

He'd built the Warren when he first arrived on this planet. Not just the tunnels, but houses, homes. A town. Places for his clan to live, and thrive. He'd scanned the skies for signs of other survivors. The Lunaoff ship arrived and taken orbit, but of any others, there'd been no sign.

After several million years, he'd realised they weren't coming. He'd shut down, guarded his heart with his intellect, turned his eyes away from the skies and towards his creations.

“I was inventor.” He continued. “I had trains before humans built them, clockwork mechanical Eggs of all shapes and designs, warriors, cooks, gardeners. I helped North build his workshop, the second Santoff Claussen. Even his first sleigh.”

And now he hated flying. His fingers, his brain could not grasp the concepts he’d once bandied about without so much as a care.

“What happened?” Jack asked, then flailed slightly, quickly amending his question. “-If you don’t mind me asking.”

Bunny huffed. “Chocolate is very bad for Pooka.” He looked up at Jack with a bittersweet smile. “It makes us illogical. Makes us care.” Before the fall of Troy, the Hellenic age had given him hope for the birth of a new Golden Age. After which, he'd lost all interest in dealing with humans again. He’d been safe, solitary.

But perhaps not necessarily content. It truly had not taken much for Katherine and North to convince him to come along to the Earth’s Core to fight Pitch and save their friends. Complement to his chocolate making skills, an implication that Pitch hated chocolate, and off he’d gone.

It had been a downward slope from there. Ombric. Companionship. Friendship. Laughter.

The occasional heartbreak that came with it. He didn't deal well with it, as Jack could attest to after two interrupted Easters.

He stared up at the Moon, the silver glow fading as the sky lightened. “-And then there's the Oath.” He sighed, closing his eyes.

Jack made a surprised sound. “The Oath?”

‘To watch over the Children of Earth’, is what we swore ta do.” Bunny shook his head, dropping his head back towards the ground. “I... The Pooka were a Space faring race. Across the universe, findin’ and protectin’ Light. I'm bound ta this planet now."

He couldn't leave it, not without breaking the Oath. Neither could their Sandman. Sandy didn’t seem to mind too much. Or if he did, he never let it show.

“You said Pooka are shapeshifters.” Jack shifted slightly closer. “Being bound to the Children... Being bound to the Earth, it changed you? From-” He gestured at where Sandy’s image of how Bunny used to be had hovered, coat, glasses, and all. “-to how you are now?”

"Not the inside so much, but the outside, yeah." 'Oh the old grey hare, it ain't what it used to be-' Longer fur, more animalistic in appearance. Wilder.

The ability to actually feel the Earth, open tunnels, grow things at a touch, that was all new.

But he was still himself, explosive temper and all. He shot Jack a sly look. "-I've always been a bit o' a nurturer."

Jack laughed, the carefree sound of the young and mostly innocent. Jack stepped closer, leaning down to press his forehead against Bunny’s. “That you are, Old Man.”

Bunny huffed, closing his eyes as he arched his head into the contact. “You’re not gonna let that go, are ya?”

“You’re older than the dinosaurs.” Jack’s voice was laughing. “You’re older than North and I thought that guy was ancient.”

Bunny laughed. “I’m tellin’ him ya said that.” He taunted.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jack pulled away, rolling his eyes. He held a hand out, offering his help up. Bunny made a face but took it anyway, his legs creaking at the movement. He’d be back up to his usual spry self in no time, but certainly didn’t feel it at the moment.

Jack watched him, a worried wrinkle between his dark eyebrows. Bunny smiled, tugging the lad into a half-hug, resting his chin on top of Jack’s head. “You right, Jackie?”

“Yeah.” Jack nodded, his fingers digging into Bunny’s fur. “Just thinking.”

“Ya know where ta find me for questions.” Bunny closed his eyes, resting some of his weight on Jack. It felt good to hold on to someone, know someone was near to chase away the ghosts.

Jack hummed an affirmative. They stayed like that, propping each other up, as they watched the Sun rise, bringing light to the Australian desert.

---

"Oi! Flopsy!" Jack's called from the doorway at North’s Workshop. "I'm gonna go roll around in a snowbank for a bit, get clean."

Bunny raised a paw to signal that he'd heard. "Won't leave without ya." He promised, frowning at his cards. It wasn't entirely a surprise, Jack had worked up a bit of a sweat running around tonight, and they were in the Arctic which had plenty of Jack's favourite form of water.

Although Bunny couldn't quite figure out how Sandy was managing to cheat at Gin Rummy. Did he memorise the decks, or deal off the bottom somehow? Sandy always shuffled too fast for Bunny to actually be able to follow the movement, maybe it was something in his technique...

Eh, he'd figure it out eventually.

At least they weren't trying to play Poker this time. That never went well, they both automatically counted cards. And they knew each other’s tells too well, Bunny couldn’t keep his ears from moving, even if he wanted to.

"OH MY GOSH!" Toothiana's scream echoed. Both Bunny and Sandy perked up, turning to look out the wide open doors. It wasn't a shout of fear, that much was obvious. Bunny glanced over at Sandy, who had a large curled question mark over his head.

"What is it, Sheila?" Bunny called.

Toothiana buzzed into the room, flailing in excitement. "Jack's naked!" She joyfully squeaked, then flew out.

Bunny exchanged another look with Sandy, who looked as confused as Bunny felt. Bunny smirked. "Naked or Nekkid?"

Sandy looked down at his glittering self and shrugged, looking lost. Right. Sandy didn't exactly wear clothing.

Course, neither did Bunny. "Nekkid's naked with intent." Bunny extrapolated.

Sandy just gave him an even more confused look. Bunny sighed and shook his head. "Never mind."

Toothiana darted back in. "His teeth aren't the only thing the colour of freshly fallen snow!" She cheered. In the background, several Fairies squealed in delight. Toothiana gasped and quickly went back to the windows she and her girls were looking out of.

Sandy gave Bunny a slightly disturbed look.

"Ah! Rolling naked in snow!" North's voice boomed. "Very refreshing! Have not done that in long while!"

There a sudden lull in the ambient noise of the Workshop. Then the high-pitched screaming started.

"Was that Phil?" Bunny inquired, not bothering to hide his amusement as he glanced back at Sandy.

Sandy, who had a very disturbed look on his face.

"Right." Bunny cleared his throat. North. Naked. Bunny loved the guy like a brother, he had no interested in getting an eyeful of a starkers North. "I'll just shut the door then, shall I?"

He got a rapid fire nod in return. Bunny got up and shut the door. It helped muffled the noise level by quite a bit.

He and Sandy returned to playing Gin Rummy, Sandy winning most of the rounds. Bunny really was going to have to figure out his secret eventually, just so he could cheat back.

After a while, there was a cold weight on his back, the smell of water hitting his nose. "You'd better have clothes on, mate." He informed Jack, picking up a card.

"I've been informed in no uncertain terms by Phil that the Workshop is definitely not a 'No Pants' environment." Jack's petulant voice was slightly muffled, his face buried against the top of Bunny’s head, arms draped over Bunny's shoulders. It wasn't quite a hug, but it still made Bunny smile.

He could feel Jack turn his head, the sharp point of his chin between Bunny’s ears so he wasn't talking into the fur. "It's not fair. I never had to worry about if I was wearing pants or not before." He complained.

"Not as many people could see ya, mate." Bunny gently reminded him, reaching up and lightly scratching the back of Jack's head. His hair was colder than normal, snowflakes making it stick together in clumps.

Oh, the woes of responsibility.

"So?" Jack grumbled, leaning into the scratching. "You don't wear pants. Neither does Tooth. Or Phil."

Sandy pointed to himself. "-Or Sandy." Jack amended, with a touch of humour.

"Yes, but we're not runnin' around with our bits danglin' out." Bunny barely kept a straight face.

Jack made a rude noise. "I was just getting clean." He grouched. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to take a bath when the water freezes solid on contact?"

Bunny and Sandy stared at each other, something that looked like a cross between an exclamation point and a light bulb forming above Sandy's head.

"Can't say that I do." Bunny said slowly. But then he wasn't a great fan of getting wet or swimming either. "But when I do bathe, it's not in front of a glass-fronted building with hundreds of people inside of it either."

"Oh, is that why North came out?" Jack momentarily brightened before slouching on Bunny again. "I'm also not allowed to start naked snowball fights anymore." He added morosely.

Sandy covered his mouth with a hand, shoulders shaking from the force of his silent giggles.

"Which means that since North's the only other one who actually wears clothes, I'm only allowed to start snowball fights with him when he's dressed." Jack complained.

Sandy lit up, several small golden children wrapped up in coats, scarves, and hats tossing small glittery snowballs at each other appearing in the sand above his head.

"-And the kids." Jack nodded, a thoughtful tone to his voice.

"Think it's probably more of a 'no snow fights while there are delicate bits on display' type of thing, Frosty." Bunny smirked. Although Phil might have also be trying to limit snowball fights in the Workshop. Jack didn't gloat about those to Bunny, probably out of a sense of avoiding trouble, but they certainly did happen.

Jack sniffed dismissively, probably finding the idea boring. Although now that Bunny thought about it, Jack had never started a snowball fight in the Warren. Which was a good thing, it'd wreak havoc with some of his more fragile plants.

And there was certainly more snow at the Workshop for a prolonged snowball fight than in the always-green Warren.

Speak of snow, Jack was starting to drip cold water on to Bunny's fur, the snow he'd rolled around in melting in the warmer air of the Workshop. Bunny was just about to shoo Jack off for something to dry off with when the lad made a curious noise.

"I thought you supposed to take cards off the top of the deck?" Jack inquired, sounding confused. Sandy blinked, looking innocent.

Overly Innocent.

"HAH!" Bunny abruptly stood up, Jack dangling off his shoulders like some sort of frosted cloak. He pointed a finger at Sandy, the cheating cheater. "I KNEW IT!"

---

“Gaarrgh.” Bunny growled to himself, flexing his shoulders, trying to get his shoulder blades to reach and take care of that itch.

He hated the quote ‘Autumn’ months. While he shed to some degree every couple of months, it was always worse when sun started staying out later in the southern hemisphere. There were just some places he couldn’t quite reach on his own.

Being the last Pooka sucked.

“You okay?” Jack asked, making him jump. He’d forgotten Jack was in, catching a brief kip in his snowbank between painting the autumn leaves in the northern hemisphere silver with frost. The lad had obviously just woken up, traces of snow melting off of his clothing. Jack didn’t have his staff in hand for a change.

“Sheddin’.” Bunny grumbled, motioning to the large bag next to him, full of fluffy pale grey and white fur.

Jack yawned, then stared sleepily at him for a moment. “Need a hand?” He asked, tilting his head to the side.

Bunny froze, torn between impulses.

A second set of hands would definitely make things easier. But grooming also took a great deal of trust, and he hadn’t let anyone help him in centuries. It wasn’t easy, quieting the instincts that said someone at his back was a potential threat, especially after the last few attempts.

Jack stuck his hands in the front pockets of his hoodie, like he’d just fall back asleep if his assistance wasn’t required. However, there was a tense set to his shoulders that said he remembered trying to help Toothiana.

“.... Yeah.” Bunny finally decided, holding out the broad toothed comb he was using. “Just need my back done, got the rest.”

It wasn’t terribly bad, he always brushed himself at least once a day to keep his fur from tangling, and he’d already hit the trouble spots where the fur was more prone to mat: the thick ruff at his neck, armpits, groin, and tail. It was just this one spot between his shoulder blade he couldn’t quite twist enough to reach.

He had a long handled comb that he usually used to take care of it, but it was currently in hiding.

Jack nodded and took the comb, walking behind Bunny and crouching down. Bunny tensed slightly as he felt Jack’s cold hands on his shoulders, then Jack gently picked up a chunk of hair without actually touching his skin with his cold fingers. Jack brushed the undercoat out first, working his way up to the outer layers without trying to yank Bunny’s fur out.

Oh. Bunny let out a breath, relaxing as Jack moved on, dropping handfuls of long fur into the bag. That was nice.

“Done this before?” Bunny asked.

“Nope.” He could feel Jack’s arm change angle, probably shrugging. “... Maybe. Kind of?” He ventured.

Bunny flicked an ear in his direction.

“... I used to help my little sister brush her hair.” Jack said slowly, as if testing out the words. “It was kind of long, so I’d comb it from the bottom up, pick out tangles before just brushing it. If I pulled too hard, she’s scream and punch me in the arm.”

Bunny chuckled, eliciting a small laugh from Jack in return. “I kind of figured this was similar, only with a lot more hair.” Jack confessed.

“Close enough.” Bunny agreed, closing his eyes. “-The others tried help brush me before. It didn’t work quite so well.”

Jack made a surprised sound. “Oh?”

“Tooth’s used to feathers, different way ta groom.” Bunny shrugged the shoulder Jack wasn’t brushing. Collecting teeth was also a full time job and she didn’t have the time to sit down and really do a proper job of it either. “Sandy’s not used to it at all, and his sand got everywhere, it took me weeks to brush it all out. And the Yeti have hides like rhinos, you don’t want North anywhere near ya with a comb.”

Rabbit skin was thinner than human skin, and much more delicate than Yeti. There had been blood involved, and panicked screaming on North’s end. The toymaker had been the one to swear to never do it again. North was surprisingly sensitive to blood for someone who used to run around waving swords and robbing people.

Jack laughed. “I’ll remember that.” He promised, dropping another handful of fur in the bag. Jack paused and poked it the mostly full bag. “Collecting it for something?”

“North takes it.” Bunny tucked some loose handfuls into the bag. “There’s someone at the Workshop mixes the fur with a bit of wool, spins it in ta yarn, dyes it and weaves it. Some of the blankets at the North Pole and all the blankets around the Warren were made that way.”

“The blankets are made out of your fur?!” Jack sounded surprised.

“Sure. It’s soft and warm. Better than lettin’ it go to waste.” There were also things people could do with their fur and feathers. Bad things. Curses tied to them by their castoffs. Much better to use it for something useful. “Some o’ the pillows and duvets at North’s are filled with feathers from Tooth and her girls.”

“Huh.” Jack made a thoughtful sound. “Makes sense. Alright then.”

They sat in silence, Jack quietly brushing his fur as Bunny fell into a half-doze. It felt so good to be groomed, to be able to trust someone to do it without pain.

He held up a hand as Jack finished his shoulders and started working his way down Bunny’s spine.

“Hold on a tic.” He said, then flopped over on his side on the grass with a contented sigh. He wiggled a bit, flattening the grass out before rolling onto his belly, folding his arms under his head, ears lazily flickering around as he sighed in contentment. “Okay.”

Jack made a choked muffled sound. Bunny opened an eye, peering at him. Jack was biting his lips to keep from smiling, eyes crinkled in merriment. “What?” Bunny grumbled.

“Nothing.” Jack squeaked, then moved closer on his knees to continue brushing. “It’s just... I’ve spent a lot of time in the forest, watching animals.” He said carefully.

Bunny raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“And, well. Rabbits. I know what it means when a rabbit does that.” Jack ran a hand down Bunny’s back, fur sliding between his fingers, his voice soft. “They only do it when there’s no predators around. When they’re Safe. Happy.”

Bunny thought it over. “Yup.” He agreed. That summed it up nicely.

Jack made another noise, like he couldn’t quite catch his breath. Bunny lifted his head, turning to look at the lad, who had a look of wonder in his eyes. “Hey.” Bunny sat up enough to twist around to bump Jack’s arm with his head. “You know what it means when a rabbit does that?”

Jack huffed, then laughed. “Yeah.” He grinned. “It means stop yammering and get back to brushing.”

Close enough. Bunny lay back down with a smirk. Jack chortled for a minute more, then went back to brushing him.

Ah, humans. They could be taught.

 

--- Beginning of December

Not that Bunny would ever admit it, especially not to North, but December, about the time people’s Christmas plans started to really get rolling, tended to give him a jolt of incoming hope. It was the ending of the old year, and eeking towards the beginning of the new one. And new beginnings always brought the hope that things would better than the past.

Which was why the sudden jolt, the sudden loss of hope across North America came as such a large surprise.

It hit him like a punch to the gut, him curling up into a ball as he held his chest, trying to breathe through it. He didn’t need a glowing globe like North had to know that something had just happened to children, something bad.

The stone sentinels rumbled, gathering in a defensive circle around him, their angry faces shifting outwards, looking for danger.

Bunny closed his eyes and concentrated, ignoring the physical world, diving into himself to find his centre and holding on to it.

Where there was life, there was Hope. Sometimes it took a little while to remember that.

People got pissed, people reached out, to help, to aid on each other. Little flickering lights grew into clear steady glows, beacons against the darkness.

When he was able to open his eyes again, he was aware of a bone-deep ache in his body. And his inability to move, plants and vines having grown over him like a protective cocoon.

“Cheers.” He rasped, his voice as ill-used as the rest of his body.

Oh, he was getting too old for this. He hadn’t had a hit like that in a while.

Bunny tugged the plants off of him, the tendrils tangled up in his fur as he tried to figure out how much time had passed. A couple of days at least.

He caught a glimpse of white out of his eye and turned towards it, Jack’s name on his lips. It was just a flower. Jack hadn’t been in the Warren when it happened, taking advantage of the season to hang out in Burgess.

Buggering fook.

“Sorry, plants.” Bunny stood up, the last of the vines tearing away. He groaned as he started moving, leaning on the Sentinel eggs until he got his balance, then crouched on all fours, dashing towards his house. He grabbed two blankets and hit the ground with his foot, opening a tunnel.

It was snowing in Burgess when he got there and he wrapped one of the blankets around him like a cloak, getting his bearings before heading off in the direction of Jack’s pond. It took a moment to find the Winter Sprite, curled up at the base of the small cliff that formed the back edge of the pond, his hood pulled over his head.

“Jack.” He croaked, dropping the other blanket on top of the lad. Jack startled, peering up at him with shadowed blue eyes.

“You don’t look so good.” Jack seemed surprised.

Bunny shrugged, pulling the blanket closer around him as he sank down on the ice, keeping the material between him and frozen pond. “Not as bad as Easter.” He shot Jack a small smile. “But definately an ow.”

With Pitch, he hadn’t been able to anything, it was like all the light inside of him had been scooped up and hollowed out. But not this time. This time he could hold on to those lights and feed them.

“You felt it too.” Jack exhaled, as if that was a weight off his chest.

“Oh, yeah.” Bunny nodded.

“I wasn’t... I wasn’t sure if I should call or not.” Jack grabbed the blanket draped over him, tugging it around his thin body. “Baby Tooth took off, something about the memory boxes, and I can’t reach the Tooth Palace by myself, it’s too warm. North’s going crazy getting ready for Christmas, and Sandy’s streams are different. Not so... happy.”

“Comfort.” Bunny closed his eyes, leaning back against the cold earth, silently grateful that he hadn’t accidentally ignored Jack’s summons. He wasn’t sure if he would have felt it at all, or if the Warren would have just opened for him automatically. “Dunno what happened, but the kids need comfort right now.”

“It was all over the news. Some guy was shooting people in an Elementary School.” Jack said quietly. Bunny reached out, putting a paw on the lad’s icy shoulder and tugging him closer. “I had to find out. It was like... something was suddenly leached from me. I’ve never felt like that before.”

Joy was Jack’s centre, but he’d never been tied to the children before. There was power in their belief, but it could just as easily taken away.

“Fear took over fer a bit.” Bunny said, Jack leaning against him without further prompting. “And Hate.”

Leaching Joy away from people. “It hurts.” Jack whispered, shivering as if cold, and he was never cold. “The adults won’t let the kids come out and play right now either, they’re keeping them in the houses.”

“Give it a little while.” Bunny said quietly, giving Jack a squeeze. “It’ll get better.”

“Gotta have Hope, huh?” Jack said, his tone a little lighter, slightly amused.

“Always, Jackie.” Bunny cracked open an eye to find Jack giving him a small smile. People sometimes needed to grieve a little bit, process before they could experience Joy without feeling guilty.

Jack nodded in return, then patted Bunny’s blanket covered knee. “Come on.” He said, rising to his feet, his blanket still wrapped around him like a shroud. “Let’s get you back to the Warren, this cold can’t be good for you right now.”

“I’d argue with ya-” Bunny held a paw up, Jack taking it and pulling to his feet. “-But you’re right.”

“First time for everything, I suppose.” Jack teased. Bunny hurmphed in return, raising a foot to kick the frozen cliff, opening a tunnel in the earth there. The two of them staggered inside, helping each other through, more to keep in contact than because they needed the help to keep moving.

Jack stuck close to Bunny as they got to the Warren, following him to his sleeping nest, making sure that Bunny laid down and was comfortable before covering him with the blanket.

“Stay.” Bunny instructed with a yawn. “Just need a brief kip and’ll be aces.”

“You sure?” Jack questioned. “Cause I’m not exactly a space heater here.”

Bunny snorted. “Second blanket.” He motioned to the one still draped over Jack shoulder.

Jack stared at it for a moment, before catching Bunny’s meaning. He nodded, wrapping it around him so that the only part of him that was visible was the curve of his pale chin, then curled up on the edge of the nest, close enough that they could reach an arm out and touch if needed to.

Sleep pulled Bunny under as quickly as if he’d been hit by Sandy’s dreamsand. He didn’t dream, or remember any of his dreams if he did. But when he woke up, Jack was still there, snoring slightly, the corner of Bunny’s blanket clenched in one frozen fist.

 

----

“What the heck happened ta ya?” Bunny asked as Jack strode through the Warren, hardly anything visible of him or his staff in the ribbons, tassel, tinsel and other assorted gift wrapping memorabilia that was covering and trailing behind him.

“Oh? This?” Jack pulled a handful of tinsel off the top of his head, revealing his cocky grin. It barely made a dent in the amount of covering him. “Okay, so long funny story short-“

“Oh, Strewth.”

“-One: Still on the Naughty List.” Jack seemed particularly gleeful about this. “Two: North’s Elves really WILL eat anything, including tinsel. And Three: Phil’s banned me from North’s workshop for the next week.”

One of Bunny’s eyebrows rose. “Phil did? What did North have to say ‘bout that?”

“Nothing.” Jack shrugged. “The Yeti just let him think he runs the place.”

Bunny opened his mouth to comment, then thought about it, scratching the back of an ear as he did so. “Always did wonder…” He finally mused. ‘Christmas was the better holiday’, his cute fluffy tail.

“Yeah, so need any help decorating eggs?” Jack waved the handful of shiny tinsel. “Got plenty ribbons to wrap them with.”

Bunny thought about it for a minute. “Eh, sure. Christmas is comin’ up. Paint ‘em red or green, we can give the tinsel back ta North that way.”

 

---- 25 December, Christmas

“BUNNY!”

Jack’s jubilant shout echoed through the Globe Room, and for one brief moment, Bunny had a horrifying flashback to Jack being sugar high. Then he realised it was Jack, returning with North from dropping off presents around the world.

The Winter Sprite latched onto him, giving Bunny an enthusiastic squeeze before releasing him, bouncing in exuberance. “Heya, Twinkle Toes.” Bunny grinned, reaching out and running a paw through Jack’s cold messy hair. “Ya have fun?”

“Hey! My toes do not-” Jack paused, looking down and wiggling the mentioned digits. Ice crystals sparkled slightly as he did so, only slightly dirty from running around on rooftops all night. “-Okay, I’ll give you that one.”

“BUNNY!” North boomed, and Bunny was suddenly picked up and squeezed. “You are still here! Jack was most helpful tonight! I will steal him every Christmas I think.”

Jack didn’t even bother to hide his laughter or his glow of pride at North’s words as Bunny was unceremoniously released. Ow.

“Glad ta hear it.” Bunny grunted, arching his back and popping several vertebrae back into place. Although he didn’t know why North was so surprised that he was still here, even if it was early in the morning. Bunny said he would be when he’d waved the other four on to have fun.

Riding all night in a flying sleigh was not his idea of a good time. Much better to curl up in front of the fire and enjoy the rare moment of quiet in the Workshop while he waited for them to come back.

Moi deti and I make sure Jack return in one piece.” North clapped him on the cheek. “No need to sit and fret like a Dedushka.”

Bunny wiggled his nose in annoyance, then frowned. “Wait, did you just call me a ‘Grandmother’?”

“‘Grandpa’, actually.” Jack cheerfully supplied, perched on the back of a chair, out of reach. “Pretty sure ‘Babushka’ is Grandma.”

Bunny and North turned to stare at him. “You speak-?” North exclaimed, working his way up to a jubilant proclamation.

Jack cut off North by holding up his hand, a small gap between thumb and forefinger. “Nemnógo.” He said with a shrug, settling his staff against his shoulder as Baby Tooth chirped. “Little bit. Hung out there often enough to pick some up. Mostly people shaking their fists and shouting Hvatit! or Stoy! at me.”

“‘Stop’.” North whispered, quietly translating for Bunny.

“Ah.” Bunny nodded. “Ta.”

“We discuss this later!” North boomed. “But for now, it is time for bed. Today is down day before party tomorrow!”

“Right.” Bunny nodded, straightening up. “Frostbite? Stay or go?” He inquired, Jack launching himself off the back of the chair to float towards him.

Large hands clamped down on both of their shoulders before Bunny could open a tunnel. “Before you make choice, something I want to show you.” North informed them, push/pulling them out of the Globe Room.

Jack traded a concerned look with Bunny as they were escorted into an elevator. Bunny lifted a paw, silently saying ‘what do you do?’. It was North, he always did this.

The elevator stopped, North pushing them out into the hall. Bunny was pretty sure it was the residential wing, but it’d been a century or two since he’d been anywhere in the Workshop other than the Globe Room and North’s office.

“I make changes.” North said as he released Jack’s shoulder long enough to open a door. It led... to another door.

“Fancy.” Bunny offered, wondering if North had gotten it mixed up with a broom closet.

“Hush.” North scolded, pushing Jack inside it. “Open other door.” He instructed to Jack as he pulled Bunny along. A few steps down, North opened a door on the opposite side of the hall. “You, look in there.” North said, shoving Bunny inside.

Bunny momentarily dropped to all fours to keep his balance before turning around and shaking his fist at North, who had already left.

The smell of grass and dirt caught his attention and he turned, expecting to find the same room that he’d seen the last time North had tried to have him spend the night. It was nice enough for a human, in relaxing shades of green and brown, but mattresses and fitted sheets weren’t exactly comfortable to him.

This... was not that room. Instead, it was almost a cave, rocks covered in moss and ferns. A small waterfall trickled in the back corner into a tiny pond, just the right size for a bathtub. The bed that had dominated the room was gone, replaced by a nest like the one back in the Warren.

Bunny could feel himself relaxing, surrounded by nature, lush green growing things. It was warmer in here too, not so chilly. A veritable oasis of calm, deep in the chaos of North’s Workshop.

… He could sleep here. Actually sleep here, and get some rest.

Which meant... He walked back out into the corridor, opening the door for what he guessed would be Jack’s room. It lead to a smaller room, almost a closet, which was much colder than the hallway. He stepped inside and opened the second door, bracing himself as a blast of frigid cold air hit him.

Like his room, Jack’s room was mostly stone, a large glittering sleigh bed made of ice taking up the centre of the room. North was leaning against one wall, looking pleased with himself as Jack leaned out the balcony style window, apparently chattering with the breeze that was blowing bits of snow into the room.

“Windows that open.” North smiled at him. “Little bunny mentioned that might make room more comfortable. Different bunny mentioned that traditional bed might not be so comfortable for you.”

Bunny ducked his head. “Thanks, North.” He muttered.

North laughed and slung an arm around Bunny’s shoulders. “Cannot believe I did not realise before.” He admitted, flicking one of Bunny’s ears with his other hand. “So simple! None of you are me. I change Tooth’s room too. She see it tomorrow. Sandy? Bah. He sleep anywhere. No need to worry about him.”

Bunny chuckled. “True enough.” Although he was pretty sure he remembered that Sandy’s room had a hammock in it instead of a bed. Sandy always prefered to be up off the ground whenever possible.

“You sleep here today?” North inquired, raising one bushy eyebrow. “We have waffles for breakfast.”

“Reckon I can stay.” Bunny agreed. “Oi, Jackie?”

Jack pulled his head out of the window, grinning as he saw both North and Bunny. “Stayin’?” Bunny inquired.

“Yeah.” Jack nodded with a shy smile. “-If you don’t mind.” He added, almost hesitantly.

“I’ll be across the hall.” Bunny assured him, pointed over his shoulder. Jack nodded and grinned back. “Night, Jackie.”

“Night, Bunny.” Jack pushed himself off the wall, gliding over to give Bunny a hug, then giving North one as well. “Thanks, North. Spasibo.”

Puzhalsta. You are most welcome.” North grinned back, his blue eyes twinkling with something other than merriment as he released Bunny to give Jack a bearhug. Bunny noticed with some pride that Jack didn’t tense up, just hugged North tighter with a happy sound.

The kid had come a long way in less than a year.

Sladkikh Snov, my boy.” North rumbled, giving Jack a kiss on the forehead before releasing him.

Jack grinned back, blushing slightly in delight. “Sweet dreams to you too.” He said, almost shy.

Bunny waved and stepped into the small room, North following. Once the inner door was shut to keep the cold air from filling the rest of the Workshop, Bunny opened the outer door and walked into the hallway.

“Thank you for staying.” North said quietly, shutting the door. “I do not think he would have if you did not.”

Bunny shrugged in return. He wasn’t in charge of Jack, no matter what the others thought. Jack was a free spirit and made up his own mind about things. “One night away from my googies shouldn’t hurt them.” He waved it off.

“Still.” North took a deep breath, looking at the door, adorned by snowflakes and Jack’s name. “I did not realise before you said anything, but boy has never had proper Christmas morning. I wish to give that to him.” He said gravely, a weariness to his face.

Bunny smiled quietly in return, recognising the sorrow North felt, a mirror of his own. “I think Jack’ll like that.” He said, bumping his shoulder against his friend’s arm. North nodded.

“Good. I keep this secret, but Tooth and Sandy will be arriving in 9 hours for breakfast. And presents.” North gave Bunny a small smile. “They could not stay over tonight.” Their jobs being more involved than one night a year.

But what a night it was, for both of their Holidays.

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Bunny promised. “May hafta duck back to the Warren ta fetch some things, but I’ll be here.”

“Thank you.” North gave Bunny a hug, not as tight as his usual ones, more gentle. “Spokoynoy Nochi, Pasxál'nyj Aájac.” He said fondly, as if delivering a benediction.

“... I have no idea what you just said.” Bunny confessed as he was put back down on his feet. North could be promising to roast him over a spit for all he could tell.

North’s teeth flashed in a smile as he turned and walked down the corridor, to his own rooms to sleep. “‘Good Night, Easter Bunny.’” His voice followed. “-I will send Elves to wake you if you are not up by breakfast.”

“Right, like that threat’ll help me konk out faster.” Bunny grumbled, then snorted with amusement as he found the door to his room, pressing a paw to it. It had his name on it, decorated with Spring flowers and Easter Eggs.

It was probably the best and most thoughtful Christmas present he’d ever received.

With a quiet smile, he opened the door and stepped inside.

 

--- 26 December, Boxing Day

“Shhhh.” Bunny whispered as he lifted Sophie over the rail to look down upon North’s workshop. “You’re not actually supposed ta be here.”

To his right, Jamie, held aloft by Jack, nodded in acknowledgement. Jack flashed Bunny a smirk and a quick wink. They’d both get in trouble for bringing the kids along if they got caught, but the look of Wonder on Sophie’s face was totally worth it.

“Oooooh....” Sophie breathed, her green eyes going wide as she stared down at everyone milling around. “Pretty....”

A small group of huge brightly colored koi swam up past them, circling to the top of North’s workshop before gliding through the air back down, light glinting off their polished scales. Each fish was easily large enough for any one of their small group to ride. “They usually fly on Children’s Day in Japan.” Bunny whispered to Jack and Jamie. “It’s called ‘Kodomo no Hi’.”

North, his Yeti and Elves had really outdone themselves in getting the party together. It was more sedate than he’d originally pictured, mostly the ‘hey, how are you doing’ stage right now but he figured the liquor would come out later and liven things up.

No sign of Pitch. He wasn’t sure if he was pleased with that or not, but the night was still young.

“Scary!” Sophie gawked, pointing to a weeping woman dressed all in white, flanked by a pair of cheerful looking skeletons. The skeletons were dressed in their colourful sunday best, bright flowers on their clothing and hats.

La Llorona.” Bunny said, as Sophie pressed back against him, not fleeing, just making sure that he was there to protect her. “The Weeping Woman. She keeps children from drowning in rivers with her wails. The skeletons are Calaca, the Joyous Dead. They’re celebrated on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead in Mexico.”

“You know a lot of them?” Jack asked, raising an eyebrow.

Bunny shrugged, running a hand over Sophie’s tangled hair as she was distracted by a nine-tailed Fox running over to hug Coyote. Raven and Anansi the Spider hovered nearby, a conglomeration of tricksters. Perhaps this party wouldn’t remain quiet for long.

Yup, there was Bilious, the "Oh God of Hangovers". Bunny hadn’t seen him in eons, Earth wasn’t his world or belief base. Hopefully this meant that there were others out there whom Pitch hadn’t gotten to. But if Bilious was here, at least one person would be calling upon him by the end of the night.

“Reputation mostly.” Bunny smirked at Jack. “Like how we all knew who you were.”

“Huh.” Jack looked less than thrilled at that.

“That old lady’s riding a soup bowl.” Jamie piped up, clearly confused.

Bunny pulled Sophie away from the railing, Jack echoing his movement with Jamie. “That’s a mortar and pestle, which Baba Yaga uses to grind people’s bones before eatin’ them.” He said softly, leaning away from Sophie, who was distracted by a Wyvern and a Shenlong flying by. “And that’s Zao Jun, the Kitchen God with her.”

Which could be either really good or really bad, seeing on how a family’s fortunes could change on Zao Jun’s report to the Jade Emperor.

And if he wasn’t mistaken, they were heading towards the kitchen. Oh, he hoped they weren’t actually going to cook anything.

… Or anybody....

Jack nodded, his eyes round and slightly alarmed. “Hey! Oh, is that Cupid over there?” He said, clearly aiming for a distraction.

“The blond stud in the leather kilt?” Bunny deadpanned. Yeah, he hadn’t changed much since the time of Xena. “With the white wings and gold arrows?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jack made a face. “Guess I answered my own question, huh? So who’s the buff lady in spandex he’s talking to? The Goddess of Fitness?”

“Goddess of Victory, actually.” Bunny hid a snicker. “Nike.”

“Nah-uh.” Jamie protested. “Nike’s a shoe.”

“-A shoe named after the Goddess of Victory.” It was certainly one way to keep your belief base up, Bunny had to give her points for adapting to the times.

Although he hoped they didn’t remember him. While completely pissed during one of Dionysus’ parties he’d tried shapeshifting into a human, to better blend in. That was the last time he tried that, shapeshifting while stonkered was a bad combination.

Couple of years later, rumours of a half-man, half-goat travelling with Dionysus had started, and it had taken him ages to get them to stop calling him Pan, the God of Spring.

Half-Goat. Hah. He was a Bunny, dangit.

“Elf! Elf!” Sophie cheered and giggled, pointing in the other direction as a wave of little people went by. It was a miniature tide of Leprechauns, Tomte, Haltija, Duende, various Goblins and Imps swarming past the larger spirits, carrying the Groundhog over their heads like some sort of prize.

…. And they were heading towards the kitchens too. The Groundhog caught Bunny’s eye, shooting him an annoyed glance. Bunny just merrily waved back as the Groundhog and his escorts disappeared from view behind a Golem’s legs. Couldn’t have happen to a nicer fellow. Sophie let out a happy coo.

“Oh, Snow Bunny.” Bunny motioned to a young woman in a white dress, a crown of flowers over her head who was talking to Toothiana. “Y’might wanna avoid that one, the May Queen.”

Jack and Jamie craned their heads to look, Jaime commented about her being pretty. “Who?” Jack inquired, confused.

“The Queen of Summer.” Bunny grinned, thoroughly enjoying Jack’s blanch of discomfort. The May Queen and Toothiana burst into joyful peals of laughter over something, appreciative heads turning in their direction at the bell-like sound.

“Is that... Death?” Jamie asked, motioning to a tall figure in a hooded black cloak in the background. He talking to Curupira, a protective Brazilian rainforest spirit who looked like a man with bright red hair and his feet on backwards, and a fiery Arabic Jinn.

“Yup.” Bunny agreed. “Nice bloke.” Death had a wickedly dry sense of humour too. One of his favourite tricks was to hang out at masquerade parties, until just after Midnight, when everyone unmasked.

“But-” Jamie made a face. “He’s...”

“He’s got a job ta do, and he does it.” Bunny paused. “-Although sometimes he’s a she and carries around a black brolly instead. It’s complicated.”

Jamie made a wide-eyed face that wasn’t quite confused disbelief, but close. “Death’s a crossdresser?” He whispered to Jack. Jack shrugged back, shooting Bunny a helpless look.

“That’s... Befana talking to North, right?” Jack asked, motioning to a wrinkled old woman laughing with North, effectively distracting Jamie yet again. “He mentioned her before, Italian version of him?”

“Yeah.” Bunny nodded, re-arranging his grip on a wiggling Sophie. From Jack’s hood, Baby Tooth chirped, motioning to Bunny. “They’re old friends. Come on, then. I think our times up. Just a peek, I promised.”

“Awww.” Jamie whined, but turned away as Bunny opened a tunnel back to the boy’s room.

“See ya in a minute.” Jack grinned, crouching down for Jamie to climb up on his back, wrapping his legs around Jack’s rib cage, clinging like a monkey. Once Jamie was secure, Jack jumped up in the air, hovering for a moment before diving down the tunnel, cheers coming from both boys.

“Silly.” Sophie giggled.

“Yup.” Bunny agreed with a grin, opening a second tunnel for himself. “Come on, Darl, bedtime for ya.”

“Aww.” Sophie curled closer to him, pressing her face against his chest as he jumped down it, running on three legs down the tunnel back to her room.

He’d been both surprised and delighted that she’d remembered him. Her running into Jamie’s room, to stop and stare up at him with wide round eyes before grinning and wrapping herself around his leg with the cheer of ‘BUNNY!’.

Bunny paused at the entrance to the tunnel, ears craning for noise, checking the room for any unexpected occupants before stepping out. Sophie made a surprised noise, staring around her room before latching on to him again. “Nooo.” She protested. “Bunny.”

Bunny closed his eyes, other arm reaching up to cradle her head. So tiny, so trusting. He missed this with his own son, cradling his tiny kit. He curled slightly around her small form, not wanting to let go either.

But Sophie was not his, she had a mother and a brother who loved her. Technically, Bunny shouldn’t even have this much, these stolen moments of joy that hurt like physical pain.

“You’ll see me at Easter.” Bunny promised roughly. “With the googies.”

Sophie whined, holding tighter.

Bunny felt a soft touch on his arm, glancing up to find Jack right there, watching him with a soft apologetic look. Jack reached out, his hand glowing with golden sand, dropping a few grains over her head. Sophie let out a small whimper, her eyelids drooping, then she went boneless in his arms.

Bunny stepped forward and reluctantly placed the small girl on her bed, pulling the blanket up over her shoulders, and tucking a fuzzy grey rabbit plushie next to her. She gave another high-pitched whine, then latched on to the rabbit plushie, rubbing her face in its soft fur.

He sighed, turning his face away from the girl to look at Jack. “I didn’t want to let go either.” Jack admitted softly.

Bunny nodded, his nose wrinkling for a moment before reaching out towards Jack. Jack glommed on to him without hesitation, Bunny’s nose pressed against the lad’s cold hair.

It hurt, knowing that the kids would grow up and probably forget about them, living their own lives. There was a reason he distanced himself from everyone, the moments of stolen happiness were not always worth the pain.

Sometimes, but not always.

There was a thump from beside them and Jack stiffened in his arms. “Sophie just fell off the bed again, didn’t she?” He deadpanned.

Bunny lifted his head to peer over Jack’s shoulder. “Yeah.” He nodded, spotting the tyke sprawled face-first on the ground, drooling into the carpet. “Yeah, she did.”

Jack giggled, hugging Bunny tighter as he tried to muffle his chortles against Bunny’s fur. It didn’t quite work and Bunny huffed in amusement.

“We should probably head back.” Jack finally said, pulling back and wiping his eyes.

“Yeah.” Bunny agreed, running a hand over his head, smoothing the fur out. He opened a tunnel, pausing as Jack tossed a blanket over Sophie, then added the rabbit.

“The rabbit’s new.” Jack gave Bunny a crooked smile. “Guess what she wanted from Santa?”

Bunny paused and took a second look at the rabbit, belatedly realising that it was a small kit version of himself. Right down to the bright green eyes and the markings in the fur. “Oh.” He breathed.

She really didn’t forget about him.

Jack lightly punched him in the arm. “Come on, Old Man.” He grinned. “We’ve got a party to go to.”

“Yeah.” Bunny agreed, then grinned. They did. With old friends to see, and new friends for Jack to make.

Oh, the others were going to eat Jack up with a spoon. He was both fresh meat, and a new Guardian.

This was going to be SO much fun to watch.

--- New Year’s

Bunny nudged Sandy. “Pay up.”

Jack tore his gaze away from Tooth and North to shoot him a confused look. While Bunny had never really been big on having other people invade his Warren, he’d invited the Guardians and their assistants to the Warren for New Year’s.

There had been a lot of changes in the past year, and New Year’s was a day full of Hope. He felt it was appropriate to make one more change for a holiday filled with his aspect.

The Fairies loved it, Toothiana playfully complaining that he’d been hiding this amazing place the entire time as her girls played Hide-And-Go-Seek in the brightly coloured flowers. The Yeti weren’t so fond of the heat, mostly just snoozing under trees while the Elves ran amok in the Colour River, splashing dye and sparkles everywhere.

Bunny had made a mental note to check the river later for any stragglers. He still hadn’t quite gotten rid of the one that had come with North last Easter.

Australia wasn’t the first Time Zone in the world, Samoa had that pleasure, followed by New Zealand, but it was still pretty far ahead, which meant that they could countdown to Midnight a little early.

Sandy grumbled as he dug into his clothing, pulling out a pack of cards and slapping it in Bunny’s paw. “Cheers.” Bunny grinned, shuffling the cards.

Jack grinned, even as he glanced over at Tooth and North before looking back at them. “Cards?”

“Ain’t like we use currency, Snowflake.” Bunny smirked, tucking the deck into his bandoleer. Jack snorted in amusement, tilting his head in an inquiring gesture, silently asking for more information. Instead, they’d bet on who would hold on to the cards until the next time they met.

“We bet on if North would make a pass on Tooth.” Bunny said, lowering his voice. “He’s adored her for centuries, but the Big Bad Bandit King and the Queen of Punjam Hy Loo-?”

Jack’s grin grew fond as he took in North and Toothiana kissing. Toothiana was floating, heels literally above her head, the only points of contact between her and North being their lips and palms pressed against each other. North had a wondering look on his face, as if he hadn’t quite expected this conclusion to what had been a slightly less than chaste kiss.

Toothiana looked happy.

That in turn, made Bunny happy. They both deserved it.

“I take it you won?” Jack smirked at Bunny.

“Too bloody right I did.” Bunny grinned back, making Jack chortle. North and Toothiana started to giggle, pulling away to look at each other with sappy looks on their mugs. Toothiana looked at North under half-lidded eyes, whispering something in his ear that made North boom with laughter.

“Is tradition, is it not?” North smiled broadly, the Guardians of Wonder and Memories turning to look at them with mischievous looks on their faces. “Who is next to get kisses?” North beamed at them, striding forward.

“Quick!” Bunny turned, grabbing Jack’s head and pressing a quick kiss against Jack’s forehead, more of a brushing of whiskers against the pale hair than anything else. “Pass it on!” He hissed, releasing Jack.

Jack glanced around, eyes wide and comical for a moment before he ducked down to kiss Sandy’s cheek.

“Bunny!” North cheered, his arms open wide for a hug.

Bunny backed up a few steps, stammering as he did so. “Urgh... Now, North....”

A golden blur distracted him, Sandy floating up and kissing Bunny on the nose. Bunny breathed a sigh of relief. “Ta.”

Sandy silently laughed, fluttering his eyelashes at Bunny before floating away with an amused smirk.

“Begin year as you mean to go on, yes?” North asked, patting Bunny on the back, not quite successfully hiding his snickering.

“Fair enough.” Bunny agreed, momentarily leaning his weight against North in return before pulling away, North dropping his arm. Taunting, teasing, teasing and taking care of each other, as they had always done.

Speaking of which, Bunny wiggled his shoulders, feeling slightly off weight, like the bandolier had shifted. He resettled it, running his fingers over everything, doing an automatic inventory.

The deck of cards he’d just won from Sandy was gone.

“SANDY!” Bunny shouted as Jack, North, and Toothiana laughed. From the other side of the room they were in, Sandy waved the cards with an overly innocent smile. “YA CHEATER!”

--- 2 February, Groundhog’s Day

“Bunny!” Jack practically vibrated with barely restrained enthusiasm as he appeared. “Got a riddle for you. What’s invisible and smells like carrots?”

‘The Easter Bunny’ was the obvious answer, so Bunny didn’t chose it. “Dunno. What?” He asked, gamely playing along.

Jack’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “Carrot Farts.”

Bunny gave him an unimpressed look. Jack just grinned back, leaning against his staff.

"Cute." Bunny drawled, turning his attention back to the migrating eggs.

"Speaking of carrots." Jack poked him with the staff, giving him just a brush of cold. "Seriously, when was last time you ate?"

"I just..." Bunny stopped and stared up at the ceiling, noting where the light source had moved to. When had it gotten that late?

"It's Saturday." Jack helpfully supplied.

Bunny shot him an annoyed glare. He wasn't so absent-minded that he lost track of days. Much. Anymore. Not since Jack had taken to checking on him every so often to make sure he took breaks. "I had brekkie." He grumbled. Yesterday. Although he'd had a bite of chocolate since then, just to make sure it was up to his standards.

"And now it's 'arvo' and time for 'tea'. Dinnies. Dinner." Jack frowned, tripping up over the slang. He poked Bunny with the staff again. "End of the day meal." He over-pronounced.

"Fine." Bunny stood up and stretched, Jack grimacing as various joints popped. Bunny twisted around, silently promising himself he'd do some Tai Chi forms before he went to sleep for the night. He scratched the back of an ear with a hindleg, realising how stiff he was. A small break was probably wasn't a bad idea.

"What 'bout ya?" Bunny asked, moving back towards his living quarters, Jack automatically falling into step at his side. "'Ow ya goin'?"

"Frosty." Jack smiled back, which Bunny interpreted as 'doing well'. "Groundhog came up today. Didn’t see his shadow."

He hadn't realised that it was Imbolc, or Brighid's Day, already. The first day of Spring on the old Celtic calendar, which meant the birthing season for ewes in the Northern Hemisphere. The Vernal Equinox, when day and night were the same length wouldn't be until the 20th of March, nearly Easter this year.

Although there was something about today's date... No wait... A few days prior.... What was it? It was like an irritating tickle at the back of his head, trying to remember what it was. Eh, he'd remember sooner or later.

"Oh, yippee." Bunny muttered sarcastically. Early spring, which meant Jack wouldn’t be able to hang out in Burgess for a while.

Stupid Groundhog thinking he could stupidly decree the weather for Bunny's holiday, the stupid tosser. Even if it meant a warm Easter, which meant tonnes of kids out.

And after last year, he needed the numbers to build his personal belief base back up.

Jack smirked, following his train of thought. "No blizzards on Easter Morning." He said, holding up a hand. "Promise."

Bunny noticed that Jack didn't say anything about the rest of Easter Day, just the morning. "I hope not." He said, draping an arm over Jack's shoulders, causing Jack to stumble slightly as he leaned into Bunny. "Cause I'm countin' on your help with the googies."

Jack blinked at him in surprise, then smiled, wide and radiant, like he hadn't been expecting that. Bunny was pretty sure he'd already told Jack that, but the reiteration probably wouldn't hurt. "Speakin' of ya.... When was the last time ya ate?" It'd been about a week since he'd seen Jack, who was busy with the Winter season.

"I'm good." Jack assured him with a grin.

"Didn't ask that." Bunny gave Jack a suspicious look. Just because Jack was used to not eating for long stretches of time, didn't mean it was a good habit for the lad to keep. Jack stared back for a minute, then sighed.

"Last time I stopped by North's." Jack shrugged, a complete non-answer.

"Which was-? Nevermind." Bunny caught himself and shook his head. That could have been anywhere from a couple of weeks ago to a couple of hours ago. Although if it had been more recent, Jack would have said so. He draped an arm over Jack's shoulders, ruffling his hair. "You're grabbin' a feed with me."

Jack rolled his eyes, his expression clearly stating he thought that Bunny was being over-bearing, but was willing to go along with it for Bunny's peace of mind. This time.

Peace of mind... "Strewth! It was yer birthday!" Just after Easter last year, when Jack had found his tombstone. His birthday was at the end of January. And the day he died.

Jack momentarily froze in Bunny's grip, then continued moving. "...Yeah."

"Sorry, mate." Bunny apologised, feeling like a total twat. "Completely forgot. Happy Birthday. Belated."

Jack looked at him for a moment with large eyes, then let out a small huff, shaking his head with a soft smile. "No. You're good." He said, shifting to rest his weight against Bunny’s side in a half hug. "Thank you for remembering."

... First time in over 300 years someone had wished him a Happy Birthday. Bunny scooped him up off his feet in a bear hug, because he could. "Next year, we'll celebrate." He promised, chinning Jack. "Cake and all that."

30 January, he made a mental note. The day between Jack's birthday and deathday, since technically Jack was a spirit anyway.

"Only if we celebrate yours too." Jack protested, hugging Bunny tightly before patting him on the shoulder, Bunny releasing him. Jack bounced a few times before stopping. "When is your birthday anyway?" He asked, a broad grin on his face.

"Uh..." Bunny thought it over. He'd been born in a different galaxy, with completely different units of time. He wasn't even sure how ‘Clucks’ would calculate over. And it wasn't as if he'd ever celebrated it it before. He frowned, thinking it over. "...End of September." He said, slowly sounding it out.

"September?" One of Jack's eyebrows went up, looking confused.

"Vernal Equinox for the Southern Hemisphere." Bunny smirked, warming up to the idea. "First Day o' Spring for Oz."

And not within his hectic busy period, which meant he could relax and enjoy a small party.

Jack nodded, a slow grin forming. "September. Alright." He nodded, looking like he was committing it to memory.

Bunny grinned, feeling pleased, herding Jack towards his residence and food. He was pretty sure that none of the others had birthdays either, or if they did, they'd certainly never celebrated them before. It'd be interesting to bring it up to them, have another reason to get together and celebrate.

---

"Frosty! Perfect timing!" Bunny grinned and hugged the Winter Sprite as he appeared, trailing snowflakes that melted quickly in the heat of the main rooms of the Warren. It was warmer than it had been the past several months, a combination of it being summer in Australia and the heat needed for much of the dyeing, but was still much cooler than if they were on the surface.

He got a broad grin in return and a pat in return, Jack's expression turning suspicious as he pulled away. "What's up?" Bunny hadn’t been quite so enthusiastic to see Jack the past several weeks. Easter season in full swing, and while Bunny wasn't trying to ignore the lad, he wasn't quite as attentive as he usually was.

"Come on!" Bunny grabbed Jack's wrist and tugged him along, Jack laughing at his enthusiasm. Bunny led him out of the main working rooms and towards Jack's room and some of the more experimental dyeing, which he had purposely left cooler than the main rooms. Partly for Jack's comfort, and partly because of the dyeing technique he was experimenting with.

He released Jack, motioning the lad to perch on a rock above a tiny creek of colour, leading into a small pool. A small gathering of eggs hovered beside it and he encouraged a single one out of the group and into the dye. It dove in, narrow end first, then walked to the other side, shaking the excess blue dye off. "Tap it." Bunny instructed Jack. "Just enough ta cover without freezin' it solid."

Jack raised a skeptical eyebrow, then did as instructed, poking the blue egg with the end of his staff. Delicate white filigree patterns spread out over the egg, who appeared to look around in confusion.

"Wait for it..." He instructed. Usually at this point, the ice melted, taking the dye with it, leaving behind a splotchy egg. Jack leaned forward as the ice vanished... leaving behind a white frost pattern on the blue egg.

"Yes!" Bunny scooped up the egg, scooping up the egg and inspecting it. "Oh, you beaut!" His fingertips smudged it a bit, he needed to let it dry a bit longer before touching, but other than that, it worked! He held it up to Jack to see, the lad's eyes widening in delight as he realised that he'd managed to paint an egg with frost without destroying it.

"That... that's.... How did you do that?!" Jack demanded, not quite touching the egg.

"We did that." Bunny corrected with a broad grin that Jack mirrored. "Different dye base and lowered the temperature."

Jack raised an eyebrow, making a curious face and Bunny extrapolated. "Ice is a resist, like wax. The dye won't take where it's really cold. The trick is ta lower the dye temperature, which means the colour's not so vibrant, but it doesn't melt the ice before the dye sets."

Powdering the eggs, patterning them with vines, and sealing it with a layer of sparkle was faster for mass quantities, but sometimes it was good to go back to the old ways, liquid dyes.

And it was a pattern that couldn't be commercially replicated, unless they had a winter elemental of their own. Hah! Take that, Paas!

"That's brilliant!" Jack cheered, bouncing slightly. Bunny grinned back and reached up to ruffle Jack's hair.

"Got a month ta Easter." Bunny said, holding up Jack's egg. "If you're willin', would like to mix some of these googies in with the mass. And then after Easter, play around with it, would try some under or over dyeings."

They could mix colours with under and over dyeing, getting different colour combinations, although the frost filigree would always be lighter. But to get a darker contrast of colour on these googies would really make them pop.

"I've got a bit of time currently." Jack smiled, although Bunny noticed there were some slight bags under his eyes, he'd probably lobbed in for a kip. Channelling storms took a bit out of the lad, just like growing the huge quantities of plants for Easter was draining for Bunny, no matter how accustomed to it he was.

Bunny checked the position of the 'sun' in the room, he'd been working for quite a while, he could take a break. "Tea's in almost an hour." Bunny said. "Join me?"

Jack's smile turned soft. "I'd like that." He agreed. Jack had stopped by a few times to bully Bunny into eating or napping, turnabout was fair play. It was the busy season for both of them after all.

"Right then." Bunny whistled at the flock of eggs, who all 'turned' in his direction, nearly shoving the ones who were closest to the pool into the dye. "Out of the pool one at a time, you lot." He warned.

The eggs took this to mean that it was open season, pushing and shoving into the dye, a few of them doing flips as they did so. His googies were a combination of smart like a whip and dumb as a box of rocks sometimes.

"Light touch, Snowflake." He reminded Jack as the first egg climbed out, getting tapped with the staff. Jack nodded back, a small smile on his face, his attention on the egg he'd just decorated as it shivered and strutted off.

Bunny grinned and left Jack to it.

--- 17 March

“On your mark! GO!” Bunny shouted gleefully, watching the latest batch of eggs scatter into the underbrush. Next to him, the egg timer counted down, ticking away the seconds. A spirally egg spun around in circles, looking for somewhere to hide before dashing under a giant leaf.

Bing! The timer went off. “Good on ya!” Bunny praised. “Good on all ya!”

From a nearby stone pillar, Jack applauded and cheered the little googies, who creeped out of their hiding places and preened under the approval.

This year’s batch was a bright group, but not too bright. The kids were going to have a good time chasing them around. Nothing was going to spoil this Easter.

Please don’t let anything spoil this Easter...

“Hey.” Jack remained crouched, but straightened up, reminding Bunny of himself as he peered at something in the distance. “Since when do you get rainbows in the Warren? It doesn’t rain down here, does it?”

Bunny looked around, spotting the glowing arch on the far side of the large room. “No, it doesn’t.” He growled, launching himself off the rock. “OI! YA YOBBOS!” He shouted, aware of Jack following him.

Jack swooped high, landing next to a shimmering pile of gold with a wide eyed expression. “What the-?”

“Don’t touch it.” Bunny warned, landing next to him.

“But what’s it- YEOW!” Jack made a cat-like scream as the hand that had gotten too close to the glowing pot was bitten. By a tiny little man wearing a red coat, who hung on with his sharp little teeth, even after Jack pulled away.

Bunny grabbed the Leprechaun by the scruff of the neck. “Release ‘im, ya Ocker.” He rumbled.

The Leprechaun slowly opened his jaws, giving Bunny a wide-eyed look of innocence as he did so. Jack hissed, waving his hand, which had dark blue tooth marks on it.

“Right. Now.” Bunny nodded, pointing to the pot of gold. “Get that outta me Warren.”

The Leprechaun released a stream of what was probably English, but was nearly incomprehensible due to his thick Gaelic brogue. And people thought Aussie Strine was hard to understand.

“I don’t care how many people are after ya.” Bunny snapped, cutting him off. “Ya lost th’ right ta hide it down here after ya tricked that O’Toole fellow in ta thinkin’ me Warren was the ‘Land o’ the Little People’.”

He got a grunt of annoyance before the Leprechaun nodded in agreement. “Good.” Bunny set him down, not precisely gently, but not harshly either.

The Leprechaun grumbled as he stalked over to his pot of gold, putting his hand on it and snapping his fingers, the Leprechaun, gold, and rainbow disappearing in a small flash of light.

Jack stared at the empty spot, for a moment, then glanced up with a confused look at Bunny. “I thought they wore green.”

“Common misconception.” Bunny shook his head. Red had been traditional up until about a century ago. “Ya right?”

“Fine.” Jack held up his hand, the marks already fading. “Didn’t break skin.”

Bunny grunted, debating getting something to disinfect it anyway. The little drongo could have been anywhere, who knew where his mouth had been?

Jack rolled his eyes, blowing into his other hand, getting a handful of snow that he used to pointedly scrub at the marks. Bunny chuckled, inclining his head in thanks as the marks faded to Jack’s normal pale skintone.

He got a huff and a laugh in return, Jack shaking his head with a fond grin. “Man, first the Groundhog, now Leprechauns. You really don’t get along well with many do you?”

Bunny shrugged. It was mostly by choice, he’d spent enough time alone that he generally prefered it. With a few exceptions.

“What can I say?” He smirked. “It’s me charming personality.”

It was a just a bit annoying how long it took for Jack to catch his breath from laughing.

 

--- 31 March, Easter Sunday

“YAH-HOOOOO!!!” Jack cheered as he bounced around like a kangaroo on a sugar high. “We did it! We DID it! Did you see their faces?!” He demanded, gesturing wildly as he beam at Bunny. “They just LIT up! It was... That was... That was AMAZING!”

Bunny chuckled, stretching his arms out, feeling brighter and more spry than he had the past year. He’d almost forgotten how good it felt to be personally believed in again, not just generally believed.

And Jack was right, it was amazing. He’d let himself linger a little bit, watching the kids faces as they found the eggs, the shrieks of delight.

Sophie’s cry of ‘BUNNY!’ when she spotted the eggs had been especially heart-warming. He hadn’t had the time to stop, but Jamie had smiled and waved at him, whispering his thanks.

Their jubilant cries that their eggs having Jack’s frost pattern had been extremely satisfying as well. Jack had lit up like a candle, his grin nearly stretching from ear to ear during the rest of the mad dash to hide the eggs around the world.

The others had joined in for the beginning, but Tooth and Sandy had work to do, and they’d accidently lost North somewhere around Madagascar.

Mostly accidently. Partly accidently. Liiiiiitle bit accidently. Maybe.

Eh, North could find his way back home from there. The lion didn’t look all that scary.

“Up for more?” Bunny asked with a smirk.

Jack spun, his eyes lighting up. “More?”

“Special delivery.” Bunny smirked, turning to whistle at a batch of eggs that had been clustered around the openings but hadn’t gone through. “You lot! Everyone into the baskets!”

The little googies jumped and bounded off, scurrying as fast as their little feet could carry them into a couple of large baskets waiting next to some tunnels.

“Need ya ta carry, if you’d be willin’.” Bunny turned to look at Jack. “Need to move faster this time than the googies can handle.”

“Can do.” Jack nodded, bouncing across the grass before landing next to the baskets. He carefully stuck the ends his staff through two of the basket handles, balancing them on the ends as he picked it up, resting the middle of the staff on his shoulder, like a milk-maid.

“Can ya fly?” Bunny asked, landing next to him and picking up a third basket, which had two straps on the back. He slung it over his shoulders, adjusting it to fit him while he was running.

Jack pushed off, hovering for a moment. He wobbled, the wind picking up force as he smoothed out.

“I’m following?” Jack inquired, landing back down on the grass as Bunny hopped up and down a few times, checking the fit before deciding he was satisfied.

“Yup.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Think we can get around the world in a half hour?” That would give them a few minutes to spare before the others showed up, helping to herd the eggs through the tunnels.

Jack grinned, a feral expression. “25 minutes.” He countered.

“You’re on.” Bunny agreed, doing a quick stretch to limber up. “In and out, Frostbite. We’re not pausin’ ta chat.”

“Got it.” Jack nodded, his own legs bending in anticipation of flight.

“Good.” Bunny whistled, pointing at some stone Sentinel Eggs, who turned to look at him. “We’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!”

The Sentinel Eggs moved to stand in front of the giant entrances, guarding them. Easter wasn’t over yet and most of the tunnels were still wide open. It’d never been a problem until last year, and this year he wasn’t taking chances.

He dropped to all fours, taking off running down one of the main tunnels. The cold touch of air behind him told him that Jack was on his tail, keeping up with his speed.

Which was good, because they’d be taking a few short cuts today.

He opened up a side tunnel, darting through, Jack letting out a yelp as he nearly overshot, then put on a burst of speed to catch up.

“Out and In!” Bunny shouted, the tunnel opening in front of him. They appeared in Mexico, next to the Rio Grande, La Llorona looking surprised as they appeared. “Hoppy Easter!” Bunny grinned, dropping a couple of eggs on the ground before diving through the open Rabbit Hole two steps away from the one he’d just come out of.

He glanced back to see Jack do a flip around his staff, keeping the baskets steady as he dove back down, following Bunny with a wave and a cheerful “Hi!” to the weeping woman.

“Wait, was that-?” Jack asked, his voice trailing off.

“Yup.” Bunny ducked into a side tunnel, hopping out into an underground burrow. “Oi! Punxsutawney!”

He pulled an egg out of his bandolier and chucked it at the Groundhog’s head. The Groundhog threw an arm up, blocking the egg from striking his head, then fumbled for it, nearly dropping it before catching it on the tips of his claws.

“Nice catch, Phil.” Bunny smirked, dropping a second egg on the floor for the Groundhog to find later, already diving down the tunnel. Jack followed, his muffled giggles floating through the air. “Happy Easter!”

Oh, that one had felt good.

“Eggs for the other spirits?” He could hear the grin in Jack’s voice.

“Yup.” Bunny opened up another tunnel, this one opening up to a large underground green cavern that rivals his own, except for the large piles of gold laying around. He stopped at the threshold, holding a paw out behind him. “Basket!” He hissed.

Jack swung his staff, one of the baskets sliding off the end of the staff and into Bunny’s paw. Bunny nodded his thanks, tipping some of eggs out of the basket, onto the ground where they immediately scurried off to hide.

He could hear the angry rumble of the Leprechauns nearby. “Go!” He ordered, tossing Jack the half-full basket, bouncing back down the tunnel, glancing back to make sure that they weren’t followed and that Jack wasn’t lollygagging behind.

Technically, none of his tunnels were supposed to enter into the Leprechaun's territory because they were possessive little bastards, but then they weren’t supposed to hide in his Warren on St. Patrick’s day either.

Although it was a slight pity that they couldn’t stay and watch the Leprechaun chase the googies around though. The little guys were always being chased for their gold, it was probably be a nice change of pace for them to be doing the chasing.

“Got googies fer everyone who showed up at North’s party.” Bunny explained, ducking to one of the big tunnels again. “-And a few others.” The ones who hadn’t shown up, but had been mentioned.

There was a quote about Hope having two daughters, Anger and Courage. Anger that things were they way they were, and Courage to change them to how they should be.

Bunny had plenty of anger, and Jack was full of courage. And the Guardians had changed, learning from their previous mistakes, the ones they’d made before Jack had joined them.

Not all the spirits slept, but now the ones who did got Dreams. Everyone got a little bit of Hope and Wonder. It meant a little bit more work during their holidays but it was worth it.

Bunny had saved the best of Jack’s frosted eggs for this, accenting the intricate patterns with lines of additional colour and bits of cut up shiny tinsel for gems to make them extra special.

Well, except for the one for the Groundhog... It was a good thing Punxsutawney had caught that one...

“Cool.” Once again, he could hear the grin in Jack’s voice. He glanced back to see Jack’s smile had changed from the sharp exuberant grin to one that seemed almost silly and fond.

Bunny bounced off one of the walls, flipping over Jack's head long enough to ruffle the lad's hair before leaping forward again. "Step it up, Frostbite!" He cheered. "Clock's tickin'!"

Jack laughed, high and gleeful as they picked up the pace. Bunny ran out of eggs in his basket first, shouting how many he needed back to Jack, who would toss them to him, the two of them sort of juggling the eggs back and forth as Bunny would chose which ones went where. There was a bit of a knack to getting which eggs to the right people, who would enjoy which patterns, colours and flavours more.

It was something that North was more known for, but that didn't mean that Bunny couldn't do it.

They pushed themselves, both of of their chests were heaving, trying to catch their breath when they got back to the Warren.... 24 minutes and 47 seconds later.

"25 minutes." Jack wearily grinned, leaning at an absurd angle against his staff, the baskets at his feet. "I win."

"Think we both did." Bunny rose to his hindlegs, leaning his hands on his knees for a moment as he caught his breath. He straightened up, shaking out his limbs to keep them from seizing up. He hadn't done a run like that for a while, much less right on top of delivering eggs for Easter. "Reckon we can beat it next year?"

"You're on." Jack pointed at him, wobbling enough to make it look like he was about to fall over. "But... Next year."

Bunny laughed, reaching over and ruffling Jack's hair. "C'mon. Got a snack waitin' fer us. And the walk'll do us good."

Jack playfully groaned as he followed Bunny's lead, the two of them meandering back towards the house, lacking the energy for anything more than a slow stroll. Bunny stretched his arms out as he did so, making Jack chuckle as he fell into a couple of loose kata as he walked.

"You laugh-" Bunny growled, mock-threateningly as he wrinkled his nose at Jack. Jack ducked his head, holding a hand up in silent apology. Bunny continued the kata, eyeing Jack thoughtfully."Should prolly teach ya some of this." He mused.

"I'm good! I'm good!" Jack protested, shaking his head.

Bunny huffed and let the subject drop, as he continued the sweeping movements, although he made a mental note to prod Jack about it in the future. The lad was quick and agile, but that wasn't always enough in a fight. A few extra tricks up his sleeve couldn't hurt. And it'd be nice to practise with a partner again, he'd been doing it solo for a long time.

Come to think of it, while they frequently raced and fought with words, they didn't spar. Hmm. Something else to think about. He was all for anything that would help keep Jack around for a good long time.

They were almost to the house when Jack spoke up again, watching Bunny move with a fond smile on his face. "It looks kind of like you're dancing."

"Can be a deadly dance." Bunny corrected, doing a couple of slow strikes.

Jack hummed in return, but didn't comment further, content just to watch. Bunny ended the kata as they stepped inside the house, Jack setting his staff next to the front door. Bunny hid a smile at that, pleased that Jack was comfortable enough to leave his staff out of reach.

"Carrot cake." He announced as he entered the kitchen, picking up the box with the cake inside and setting on the table, undoing the sides to pull top off. "North brought it with him this morning." They'd hidden it from Toothiana as a matter of principle, although he was pretty sure she'd spotted the exchange and decided to ignore it.

Baby Tooth popped up out of Jack's collar with an excited chirp. "No telling." Bunny pointed at her. "It's still my holiday."

He got a giggle in return, from both miscreants. Jack went and automatically fetched plates and forks for them while Bunny grabbed a knife and started carving two good sized pieces out of the cake. He wouldn't admit it very often, but whichever Yeti made their carrot cakes had a definite flair for it that Bunny had yet been able to reproduce.

Jack slid the plates right where Bunny needed them in order to keep the pieces from falling apart, setting them in their usual spots with a grin, forks hitting the plates with a musical sound. "Water." Bunny reminded Jack, pulling a pitcher from the wash basin and giving the pump handle a couple of good hard yanks, the pitcher filling up with sweet cool water while Jack got the mugs. They could probably both use it after all the running today.

He wasn't that hungry at the moment, the cake would suffice for now, but they'd both probably be starving tomorrow.

Bunny poured the water into the mugs, and a small bowl that Jack had set out for Baby Tooth to drink out of before sitting down and raising his mug. "Ta th' rebirth of Spring." Bunny said, holding the mug up in salute. Jack blinked in surprise, quickly grabbing his mug and clinking it with Bunny's with a grin.

"To the start of Autumn." Jack grinned with an ironic smirk on his face and Bunny laughed.

They dug into their cakes with gusto, Jack setting aside a small bite with frosting on it for Baby Tooth to eat, getting a chirp of thanks in return. "You're gonna get fat." Jack teased, poking her lightly with the end of his fork, eliciting squeaks and flailing hands.

"Nah, the little sheila's growin'." Bunny smiled at her. "Gettin' ready for a growth spurt, aren't ya?"

Baby Tooth shrugged, dismissing it in favour of shoving more cake back into her mouth. Bunny could feel it though, just like he could feel the flush of growing plants. She was going to get bigger, a lot bigger. With a little bit of a push she could probably get to the size of Toothiana.

Thoughts for another day. She was still just a seedling at this point.

He focused on the cake instead, enjoying the flavours and texture. It was just the way he liked it, a bit on the heavy side, still moist, with nuts and sultanas mixed in. There an underlying sweetness to it without being too cloying, enhanced by the slightly tart cream cheese frosting.

The perfect end for a good day. It felt good to have Easter back on track again.

Speaking of which. "Congrats on your first year bein' a Guardian." He raised his glass in salute again.

Jack gave him a confused look. "But Easter was in April last year." He protested.

"Trust me, Frostbite." Bunny took a quick gulp of water. "It'll be easier ta count it by Easters than th' actual date in the long run. Give it a couple of decades." It wasn't as if they remembered the actual date of 'The Blizzard of '68', just the year.

He got a shrug in return, Jack returning to devouring his cake with obvious enthusiasm. For someone who claimed he didn't need to eat, he was hungry when he did so. It never failed to amuse Bunny.

Then Jack suddenly paused, his laden fork hovering in mid-air, eyes going wide. "Has it really been a year?" He asked, something almost tremulous in his voice.

"Yeah." Bunny's ears rose in concern.

"Huh." Jack said, looking introspective. Bunny watched him for a moment, then glanced down at Baby Tooth, who was also watching Jack with a slightly worried look on her face. She turned to look at Bunny, giving a small chirp and a shrug. Baby Tooth didn't know what was going on either.

Bunny shrugged back. They fell into silence, Jack staring thoughtfully into the distance.

Jack stayed silent as they finished their cake, and quickly washed the few dishes. Bunny walked him to the door before speaking up. He didn't mind silence between the two of them, but something felt a little off about it at the moment. "Jackie?" He questioned, hovering just out of arm's reach.

"I'm okay." Jack gave him a smile, but it was hollow, there was none of the usual gleeful spirit behind it. "Just remembered something."

"Alright. Just remember, ya can talk if ya wanna." Bunny reminded him, shifting close enough to ruffle Jack's hair. Jack closed his eyes, leaning into the contact, a the hint of a real smile curving his lips. Bunny used it to pull Jack into a hug, noting with alarm when Jack tensed at the contact, like he hadn’t in months.

He was just about to release Jack when the lad glommed on to him, wrapping his arms around Bunny’s middle, clinging as if he was trying to soak in as much physical contact as he possibly could.

Bunny leaned his head down, his muzzle pressed against the top of Jack’s head, wondering what was going through the Winter Sprite’s mind.

“It’s over 200.” Jack said quietly, his voice muffled by his face being pressed into Bunny’s ruff, as if he were afraid he was going to be pushed away.

Bunny made a curious noise back, not having a clue what Jack meant by that. 200 what? It was 365 days in an Earth year, wasn’t it?

Jack didn’t respond and Bunny rubbed his narrow back, feeling the individual knobs of his spine. The lad was still far too thin.

They held on for minutes, Bunny ignoring the feeling of cold that started to soak in, until Jack finally pulled away. He glanced up at Bunny’s face long enough to flash a small smile, more bittersweet than happy. “Thanks.” He said, gaze dropping as he put his staff on his shoulders and stepped away.

“No worries, Snowflake.” Bunny smiled back, watching Jack go, trudging back to his room. “Sleep well. Happy Easter.”

“You too!” Jack waved a hand in the air, but didn’t turn around. “I’ll see you later!”

Bunny waved, watching until Jack was out of sight before going back inside, climbing up the stairs to his nest. Teenagers. They still made absolutely no sense to him.

Still, it made a strange end to what had been a very good day.

---

Sandy glanced around, a confused look on his face. Bunny gave him a skeptical look back, expecting it to be some sort of trick. They were playing a card game after all.

But then a snowflake appeared above Sandy’s head, Sandy pointing to it in question.

“Dunno where the Snowflake is.” Bunny admitted with a shrug. He hadn’t seen Jack in two weeks, since Easter Sunday. The lad had been gone when he’d gotten up and he hadn’t seen Jack since.

He’d checked in with the others a few days ago, Jack had been making fairly constant appearances with them, just not with Bunny. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what he might have done to set the winter sprite off.

‘Over 200’ what?

And despite what the others thought, he was not responsible for Jack. Jack was entirely his own person and quite capable of watching out for himself. Bunny just provided a quiet place for the lad to hang out occasionally.

Okay, a lot occasionally. The Warren was feeling echoingly empty at the moment. The horde of googies were gone and there was no one else around.

It had been a long time since Bunny had felt so alone, lonely. He didn’t care much for it. So much so he’d actually considered hanging out at North’s for a bit, just to hear voices other than his own.

… No insult to Sandy.

Sandy looked surprised, gaze flickering around as if he wasn’t sure what to say. Illustrate. Question.

“He was apples until after we sat down fer a bite before hittin’ the hay.” Bunny extrapolated for Sandy’s benefit. “He got quiet after I congratulated him on bein’ a Guardian fer a year. Said he was rememberin’ somethin’. Ring any bells ta ya?”

Sandy shook his head, looking confused.

“Me either.” Bunny frowned, shifting the cards in his hand before setting two face down on the pile. “Speakin’ o’ Frostbite, Pair o’ Jacks.”

Sandy shuffled through his cards, setting some down in the pile and held up three fingers, a feminine crown appearing above his head. Three Queens.

“I call Bullshyte!” Bunny jubilantly pointed at the stack of cards between them. “Show ‘em!”

He got an annoyed look as Sandy flipped over the cards he had just set down to show two kings and an ace. “Hah!” Bunny grinned as Sandy picked up the pile of cards, shuffling the mass into his hand with a disgruntled air.

-It helped that Bunny had two Queens in his hand, to catch Sandy in his bluff.

Best way to deal with a cheating cheater? Play a card game based entirely on lying and cheating. Bunny couldn't keep his ears still, they kept moving in his amusement.

Bunny grinned as he set down two cards, stuck together. “One King.”

---

Bunny wasn't quite sure what to think when there was the sudden bright white light and the woosh of one of North's portals opening up in the main hall of the Warren. Part of him was annoyed, even he didn't open up his tunnels into North's house unless he had permission to, opening them up from outside North's wards out of polite courtesy.

On the other hand, he was... bored. Maybe a little bit lonely, not that he'd admit to it. But definitely bored. It just wasn't the same, relaxing in solitude the way it had been previously, knowing that he'd have quiet companionship in a few days.

He ran for the main room, arriving just in time to see the portal fading away, leaving behind a large green box tied up with a large white ribbon in the middle of the room. Ears and nose twitching curiously, he circled around it before approaching, giving it a quick kick with a hind leg.

The box shouted in response and jumped, white frost appearing on some of the corners.

Bunny grinned as he undid the bow, pulling off the lid. He peered inside, finding Jack tucked in one corner, glowering back up at him. Jack's staff was tucked diagonally in the box to fit, Jack underneath it. "Oh, look." Bunny said brightly. "A Jack-In-The-Box."

"Oh, rack off." Jack grumbled, clearly unamused.

Bunny snickered, offering his hand. "What'd ya do? Dye one o' the Yeti pink?"

"Tempting, but no." Jack admitted, taking Bunny's paw and giving a little hop. Between Bunny's strength and how light Jack was, the winter sprite ended up standing next to Bunny instead of just rising to his feet, like Bunny had intended. Bunny smiled, reaching up and ruffling Jack's hair, pleased when Jack leaned into it before pulling away to retrieve his staff.

"So?" Bunny asked, his curiosity growing. The box and wrapping required a little bit of forethought, which meant that someone had to plan to get Jack into the box before tossing him through the portal. It wasn't a spur of the moment thing.

"I'm... kind of grounded-?" Jack muttered, trying the words on for size. "It's summer in the northern hemisphere now anyway." He added defiantly.

Bunny's eyebrows rose. "Grounded?"

"Until you throw me out." Jack nodded, turning away so Bunny couldn't read his expression.

.... Huh.

"Ya could just take off if ya want." Bunny said slowly, motioning to the tunnels behind him. "I'm not gonna trap you here." Jack was certainly free to come and go from the Warren whenever he wished.

"Can't." Jack turned just enough to shoot Bunny a brief flash of a smile. "You know North's whole 'Naughty and Nice' thing? Right now, I'm on the 'Nice' list. If I do, I'll switch over to 'Naughty', and he'll know."

And both Jack and Bunny would probably have an irritated Santa Claus on their tails. "Lovely." Bunny rolled his eyes. "Well Snowball, ya know you're welcome to stay as long as ya like." He said, slinging an arm around Jack's shoulders.

Jack tensed up, holding himself stiffly and Bunny paused, growing concerned. Jack usually relaxed and leaned against Bunny when he did that, turning in to wrap his arms around Bunny for a hug.

Instead, Jack ducked under his arm, stepping away. “Thanks.” He said with a shy bob of his head. Bunny stared in confusion as Jack took it as his cue to glide away, disappearing into the other caverns.

Okay.... What?

---

The first couple of days of Jack’s return, Bunny hardly knew Jack was around. He’d hear a soft footfall, a whisper in the air, and turn to catch Jack retreating to another part of the Warren.

Then Jack stopped retreating and started lurking, a silent shadow like he had been when he’d first started staying in the Warren, watching from atop a pillar of stone or on top of one of the Sentinels, not saying anything. Jack seemed to be thinking, and waiting, so Bunny let him be.

Bunny did occasionally coax Jack into eat, mostly by either throwing food at Jack when Bunny stopped for a snack, or twice getting Jack to come inside for a sit down meal. Jack would get close enough for Bunny to ruffle his hair, but never quite enough for a hug.

It was really very peculiar. Bunny wracked his brain, trying to think of what could have set it off. The only thing he could think of was that Jack was under the misimpression that he’d done that run for the other spirits before. But when he brought it up to Jack, the lad shrugged and said he knew, North had told him it was the first year for it.

So it wasn’t that.

Then the lurking had changed, turning into sulking. And the sulking turned into snowballs. While it was true that he didn’t have as much to do during this time of year, it wasn’t as if there weren’t things that required his attention. Mostly prep work, making sure he had seeds to plant towards the end of the year.

But a snowball was a snowball, and busy or not, cold and wet was not something he enjoyed. He turned to glower at Jack, only to find the lad apparently ignoring him. So Bunny ignored the first snowball.

And the second. The third started to get on his nerves. By the fourth, he had to remind himself that he was not going to strangle the other Guardian, no matter how tempting it was.

The fifth one, he snapped. “That is IT!” He roared, stomping to his feet and charging towards Jack, who had a quixotic expression of relief and fear on his face. “YOU! You’re driving me CRAZY!!!” Bunny pointed at him. “GO TO YOUR ROOM!”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Bunny couldn’t believe he’d uttered them. It had taken the death of his entire race, a good portion of the universe razed into darkness, and several hundred millennia later, and he finally sounded like his father.

Jack just stared at him with wide eyes. “That’s it?” He finally asked, his tone more disbelieving than shocked.

“What’s it?!” Bunny snapped back.

“Why aren’t you throwing me out?!” Jack practically shouted, arms waving. “It’s over! It’s done! Why are you still acting like it isn’t?”

“Like what isn’t?” Bunny frowned back, shaking his head. He pointed a finger at Jack. “Make sense!” He commanded.

Jack made an irritated noise in the back of his throat as he hopped off the rock, landing in front of Bunny. “This!”

“Oof!” Bunny grunted as his ribs were suddenly squeezed tight, almost to the point of pain. He winced, patting Jack on the back. “Easy, lad.”

He got a muffled sound in return, Jack easing his grasp, but not releasing Bunny. Which was fine. Bunny let out a soft hum, resting his chin on top of Jack’s cold head, hugging him back.

“Mind explainin’ this from the beginning?” Bunny requested, purposely catching his claws on the fabric of the hoodie. “Not followin’ your logic here, Frostbite.”

Jack sighed, turning his head so he could speak clearly. “We made a bet, remember? Collecting teeth, right after I became a Guardian. 188 hugs, one for tooth I beat you by.”

Bunny thought about it. It’d been months since he’d thought about the bet, Toothiana bringing the topic up. “Huh.” He finally said. “... Plumb forgot about that.”

Jack made a strangled noise, leaning back to stare at Bunny. “You forgot?!”

“I don’t keep track o' hugs.” He shrugged. Well, not past the first couple, when he was remembering to hug Jack. After that, it’d become habit and he’d forgotten.

“You...” Jack stared at him incredulously.

“Toldja.” Bunny pulled him in and rubbed his chin across the top of his head again. “Anytime ya wanted one.” At least he was pretty sure he’d told Jack that, at least a couple of times.

“So... The whole inviting me to the Warren, the room and everything.... Wasn’t part of the bet?” Jack asked, sounding heartbreakingly timid.

“Wouldn’t do that fer a bet.” Bunny scoffed. “I like ya. And you’re family.”

“... Oh.” Jack kind of sagged against him, Bunny easily supporting his weight. He rubbed Jack’s back, humming slightly as he did so. The little nong had thought he’d been doing it as part of an obligation over a bet?

The only thing he could think of to do was wait. Between the Blizzard of ‘68, and Bunny’s own reaction to last Easter being ruined, he could understand Jack’s hesitance to trust him on this. Trust him that they were friends, family. And that he wouldn’t push Jack away.

Well, on purpose anyway. Accidently was another story, Bunny didn’t always have the best control over his temper.

Fortunately, with both of them being pretty much immortal, time was one thing that they both had plenty of.

“So you’re not going to kick me out, even though the bet’s over?” Jack reiterated, as if checking to be sure.

“No, I’m not.” Bunny said into his hair.

Jack nodded, his body losing the last of the tension he’d been carrying.

“Seriously though, I’m still sendin’ ya to your room.” Bunny added, giving him a squeeze. “I wasn’t kiddin’ about ya driving me crazy.”

Jack laughed in return, which turned into a sort of hiccuping sound as he stayed where he was.

Well, in a little while anyway.

--- Epilouge

“Count ‘em and weep.” Bunny said smugly, holding up the bag of teeth. The much larger bag of teeth than the one Jack was carrying.

“I... uh...” Jack glanced between the bags with a surprised look, then glowered at him. “... Ooh.”

So Bunny may have cheated, just a little bit. Age and treachery always beat youth and enthusiasm after all.

Especially when he may have passed along Jack’s reaction to the bet to North and Sandy. Who in turn had been doing their sneaky best to keep Jack from collecting teeth, leaving Bunny in the clear to grab as many as he could.

He’d been careful to keep his lead down to a certain amount, with the assistance of Toothiana.

“How many?” Jack grumbled.

Bunny grinned. “191.” He’d been going for 189, but he’d had to do a quick dive to make up numbers when Baby Tooth had started helping Jack find teeth and over-calculated by a bit.

Jack paused, glancing around at the other Guardians suspiciously. Other than North’s giggle, the others did a decent job at keeping a straight face at Jack’s loss. “Alright.” He crossed his arms, smirking up at Bunny with an expression that said he knew he’d been set up and was accepting it gracefully. “What do you want?”

Bunny’s lips twitched and he couldn’t quite hold back the grin as it got wider. “Guess.”

“Snowflakes?” Jack said with mock innocence, sarcasm colouring his tone.

“Nah-uh.” Bunny shook his head. “Guess again.”

“I dunno.” Jack shrugged, idly twirling his staff. “Snowballs?” He smirked.

“Nope.”

Jack stopped, looking up at Bunny, his head tilted to the side. “Hugs?”

“One for each tooth.” Bunny nodded smugly. “And this time, you gotta hug me.”

Jack glanced back at the other three, who were barely keeping on to their straight faces, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. “Might take a while.” Jack drawled, turning back to Bunny with a sly look on his face. “Specially if I accidently lose count.”

“Eh.” Bunny shrugged, holding his arms out. “We got time.”

Jack gave a bark of laughter, shaking his head. He stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Bunny, giving him a squeeze and Bunny could feel Jack’s ribcage vibrate with muted laughter. Bunny huffed in return, hugging Jack back.

“I protest.” North said, sounding just slightly sulking. “I am not getting hugs out of this deal. I think we should all get hugs.”

“Hugs for everyone!” Toothiana enthusiastically seconded. Bunny glanced up to see Sandy nodding vigorously. From Jack’s hoodie, there was a small chirp from Baby Tooth, adding her vote as well.

“Think we may have started something, Jackie.” Bunny had just enough time to whisper before they were pounced on, arms and bodies twining, pressing against them from all sides.

Jack just laughed, loud and joyous as he attempted to hug everyone back.

-fin-