There was a child's laughter on the wind, high and wild and delighted.
It shouldn't have been strange. It was a sound Sandy had heard thousands of times, a sound he never grew tired of. A sweet sound, chiming straight to all that was good about what he did, a sound to stir warmth in any Guardian's heart. A sound like that should not have been strange.
But in a dark and frozen forest, far from civilisation, and in the small dark hours of the morning as dawn swept inevitably closer ... A little strange, yes.
Without any real thought, he found his cloud of sand drifting downwards, sweeping just above the tops of the trees as he followed the long threads of his dreamsand closer to the noise. The wind gusted high and fierce around him, wild and full of snow, and the edges of his cloud ruffled gently against it, a soothing hum. Sandy was tired. It had been a long night, and dawn wasn't more than an hour or so away. If it weren't for his curiosity, he would have already been drifting home, he thought.
But that was the thing about dreams. They made one terribly curious.
And perhaps, he thought, as his cloud floated around a giant fir and he caught his first sight of the lake, perhaps that curiosity was no bad thing. Not if it brought him to sights like this.
The lake was painted blue and silver, hoarfrost and moonlight spread in glowing arcs across the icy surface, pale and vivid in the darkness while the wind sang in the trees around it. But not as vivid as the dancers. Not as vivid as the white, insubstantial figures that ghosted across it, the wind their musician and dancemaster both, filling them and floating them and whirling them about each other in spirals as intricate and dizzy as the frost tendrils beneath their feet.
And not as vivid as the child at their center, white hair bright and glowing, his arms flung out to his sides as the wind plucked playfully at his spinning form and his laughter echoed out across the silent forests.
Sandy stared, almost tumbling forward off his cloud in distraction, and blinked down at the sand beneath him, squinting almost accusingly at it for a moment. Surely he hadn't fallen asleep himself, somewhere along the line? That had happened, once or twice. He'd dozed off, somewhere near the end of his rounds, still cradled by his sands, and had a pretty dream or two himself before he was done.
And woken up some odd places, too. Not that that was anything anyone needed to know.
But no, he decided. Watching the frost spirit -it had to be, nothing else could weave wind and snow like that- grin giddily to himself, watching the child spin out of his stationary revolutions, and move instead to embrace his ghostly creations. Watching the silver-haired boy swoop out across the ice, painting frost-patterns behind him as he went, bowing and whirling with the snow figures as though he were at a real dance, and they real guests, and he no more their master than the wind or the moon or Sandy himself.
This wasn't a dream, the Sandman thought softly to himself, finding a smile all unlooked for on his own features. It would do well as one, a spontaneous wonder that would delight many a child, should they see it. But not a dream, for all that. Sometimes, such wonders were as much of the waking world as the sleeping, and no less for it.
But maybe ... Oh, he shouldn't. Mustn't, probably. Seasonal spirits could be so temperamental. And more importantly than that, more important than any personal consideration, it might be an intrusion. A rude slap across the face of this private wonder, this delicate delight in empty forests. Sandy shouldn't interfere, no, of course he shouldn't. But still ...
He couldn't really help it. His sands, the threads of them golden and bright against the slowly lightening skies, had flowed to his touch without conscious thought. Always the danger, with dreams. Always the danger, with his power. But they came, and they acted, and Sandy couldn't quite find it in himself to regret it.
The golden dancers glided down, elegant and delighted as their snowy counterparts, and slipped inside the arcs of the dance with barely a ripple. Bowing to wind-borne compatriots, old-world ladies asking permission and tall-hatted gentlemen offering shining arms to paler partners, they slipped inside a dream of another's making as though they belonged there. For a moment, a second as the dream-dancers landed, shining gold and white in the moonlight, it looked like his intrusion might pass without comment.
Until the boy stopped. Until the frost spirit froze still upon the ice, pale gaze darting skywards in shock, and the snow-dancers quivered in the wind's embrace like they might fly apart. Sandy sucked in a breath, held it warm inside his chest as he stared back down. As he met those wild, startled eyes, and waited for the hush to break and the violence of a shattered dream to rush up at him.
They held for a moment, golden eyes to silver in dark forests just before dawn. The boy-spirit stunned and amazed and, Sandy thought, just on the edges of afraid, and Sandy with eagerness and anticipation, and a strangely heavy rush of hope. For what, he wasn't really sure, the emotion not really tangible enough for examination. But for something, something wild and heavy and sweet in his chest, while their dancers linked arms on the ice and the dreams of the world drifted slowly home around them.
And then the boy laughed. Hitching, surprised, and wonderous. Utterly delighted, his face open and aglow beneath Sandy's dreams, a sound of pure and utter joy. The boy laughed, the sound of it breaking something open in Sandy's chest, and the figures poised across the ice leapt into motion. He spun among them, head tilted up to hold Sandy's gaze and the wind almost ecstatic around him, snatching him half-off the ice for moments at a time, and all the while he laughed, that whooping, delighted sound, the clear, pure joy of a child granted wonders.
Sandy tumbled downwards before he'd even noticed himself tipping forward, tripping off the edge of his cloud without a thought and dropping towards the dancers. Half-way down, he thought to be startled, to wonder at the sensation of falling, and then there were arms around him, cold and soft where the frost crackled gently against him, and the frost spirit was staring down at him in utter bemusement, a smile curling almost shyly across his lips, and those silver eyes twinkling in the kind of humour that would be mocking, were it not still so full of wonder.
"Ho, Sandman," said that laughing voice, wry and bemused and with all the wonder of someone who's not quite sure they're not asleep and already dreaming. "Uh. Fancy meeting you here?"
Sandy beamed at him. Bright as bottled sunshine, raw and expansive and as utterly enchanted in his turn, he reached up to grab hold of the spirit's arm with tiny hands and near bounced in the air in his enthusiasm. He spun them to a stop mid-air, tugging the child almost absently still just above the tops of the ghost-dancers' hats, and let his face and his arms spread open in so bright and real a joy that he was practically vibrating with it. Above his head, sands were flickering through images he knew without doubt were too fast for the other spirit to follow, but his arms and his smile should say it anyway, he hoped. They should say Thank you and I love you and Isn't it beautiful.
"... Oh," the boy whispered, his grip falling suddenly lax, a flurry moving through his expression. Shock and pain and fear, for no real reason Sandy could understand, and then joy. Then a joy like the sun rising behind them, somewhere over wooded hills, then a joy like dreams and wonder and all the bright things in the world. The most complicated emotion Sandy had ever seen, and the most beautiful too. "Oh," he said, and crushed Sandy close, a hug Sandy thought might have shocked the giver more -so much more- than the recipient.
Because the recipient, for his part, found it the most natural and elemental thing in all the world to wrap stubby arms around a thin frame in turn, and hug this bright, wonderous thing as close to himself as could be borne. Sandy found that as easy as breathing, because he was the Guardian of Dreams, and moments like this, this pale-gold wonder in a dark stillness, were all that was sweet and good about his world.
"... Thank you," the boy whispered, the sound of it muffled in Sandy's hair, in the whistle of the wind and the purr of the sand around them, but clear as dreams despite them. Clear as the shock, and the tears, and the bright, pained joy beneath them. "Thank you," the frost spirit said, hoarse and desperate above him, and that bright, sweet thing in Sandy's chest broke open once more. Warmth and love and pain, joy and hope and all the wonder in the world, and Sandy decided, there and then, that he loved this child, this strange spirit spinning silent dances on an empty lake. Sandy decided, promptly and with no hesitation at all, tumbling into the realisation as easily as he'd tumbled off his cloud, that this nameless creature against his chest was worthy of adoration.
It was, he thought much later, the best and easiest decision he'd ever made. Centuries distant, remembering back to that night and to later ones, remembering courage in dark times and joy that forced back the darkness, watching Jack Frost as he grinned before them and smiled with some softer wonder just for Sandy alone. That moment, centuries ago, that love that had sprung all unthinking in his chest, had been the most elemental choice he'd ever made, in a lifetime of fear and dreams and wonder.
He beamed, linking a golden arm through a paler one, silent dancers on the ice beneath North's workshop, and smiled up into the joy in Jack's face.
"... Yeah," the frost Guardian agreed, slowly. Not to the sand images flickering above Sandy's head, but to the words embedded in his smile, to the whispers of Thank you and I love you and Isn't it beautiful that still lived there, all these years later. "You know what, Sandman?" said Jack, grinning down at him in turn, the simplest and most wonderous joy in the universe. "It's not bad at all."
And in this darkness and this dawn, the wild delight of his laughter no longer seemed strange at all.