"Bunny bunny hop hop hop!"
Aster smiled and caught the bouncing little girl as she leapt off her chair at him. Cuddling her close, he nuzzled her wild blond hair. "Hey, there, lil' ankle biter."
"Hi, Bunny." Jamie said as he entered the kitchen.
"Ello, Jamie. How's it?" Aster replied, settling on his haunches with Sophie still in his arms. The girl may have been eight, but she was happy to sit in Bunny's lap and run her hands through her favorite Guardian's soft thick fur of his ruff. Thankfully, the lass knew not to play with the egg bombs in his bandolier.
"Going good. Jack's here, if you're looking for him." Jamie tossed over his shoulder as he started pulling things out of cupboards and the fridge. The preteen checked things off a mental list as he went along - Bread, lunch meats, cheese, peanut butter, where did Mom put that new jar of pickles...
"What's the troublemaker doing here? It's spring." Aster scowled. The kid may be a Guardian now, and great help during the Easter rush, and have wormed his way into Bunny's heart with his charm and smiles and how painfully earnest he was wanting to gain his friendship and trust... But still, if Frost decided to throw around some out-of-season snow, he was not gonna be happy. Nor would he stand up for him against Spring if she got pissed at him. Well... as long as she didn't actually try to hurt Jack. No one was allowed to hurt his - their! he meant their Frostbite.
"Oh, he visits year round." Jamie answered, spreading peanut butter on two slices of bread. Would banana slices be okay, or too much? He'd bring it upstairs with him, let Jack decide. "After all, you guys have those monthly gatherings now, so he usually stops by. Plus, he helps us with our homework."
"Us? Homework?" Bunny absently let Sophie back down to the floor, the girl scampering off into another room with the sounds of some animated television show playing. His mind was trying to work out what Jamie was talking about. Frostbite, helping with school work?
"Hm, us original believers, plus other kids who can see him." Jamie debated between ham and turkey a moment, then shrugged and made two separate sandwiches. He could eat them both. His winter-bringing big brother had mentioned he wasn't fond of meat, so he'd have these to himself. Besides, he was a growing boy, both Jack and Mom would say, and he needed to eat right. "Jack says he's been doing that with lots of his believers all over the world. He doesn't do the work for us or anything, not even the book reports."
"Book reports?" Bunny felt like he at least two steps behind here.
"Yep, Jack loves to read. I once tried to get to him do the report for me. He was halfway through the book already, said it was one of his favorites. But he said no, I had to do it myself." Jamie smiled in memory as he closed the mayo jar. "He kept giving little hints of awesome stuff happening the book, made me want to read it to find out what happened to Edmund and his siblings."
"Huh." Aster was having trouble picturing Jack, bounce around the warren Jack, always moving Jack, staying still long enough to do something like read a book.
"He's great at history too." Jamie turned to show Bunny his animated expression, gesturing with his dirty butter knife. "He's seen all these amazing things happen. Like he was really there! Battles, debates, even little things like the start of braille. He makes all the dull stuff in the textbook real and interesting with all these details and how the people were acting and saying. And he uses his frost ghosts and ice statues and stuff to act some of it out even! Like the Boston Massacre or the battle at Gettysburg! It's so cool!"
"Sounds like it." Aster said dazedly. Frostbite did all this? Seen all that? His heart sank at the thought. There'd been a lot of war and suffering over the years, and Jack, just a child, had witnessed it. Been through it, even if only as a spectator. Without anyone to help support him, to talk to about what he was seeing, to find comfort from the memories of all the blood and death. The Guardians should have been there, but they hadn't been. They hadn't been there for Jack...
Not noticing Bunny's dropping mood or drooping ears, Jamie started putting food items away. "He's helping me with an end-of-year project now. I chose to do mine on the Ojibwe people. You know, one of the Native American tribes in the Great Lakes region? Most of the class are doing theirs on tribes that are on the coasts or the Great Basin. Jack's even teaching me some of the language. He listened in a lot. I'll have to give another source to my teacher, but it's still really cool."
"Yeah, it is." Bunny replied absentmindedly, watching the boy move around his work space. Hadn't a lot of those tribes been through massacres and other horrid things?
"Okay, that's done." Jamie nodded at the tray of food in front of him. Sandwiches, fruit, water. Nothing too sweet or seasoned, Jack had told him peanut was okay so long as it wasn't too much. Blinking with a thought, he turned to his other guest. "Sorry, did you want something? I know Mom bought some carrots and other veggies yesterday."
Snapping out of unhappy thoughts, Aster held up his paws. "Naw, ya don't 'ave ta -"
"No, it's fine." Jamie reopened the fridge, digging around and pulling out a few things from their drawer. "We got carrots, celery, broccoli, I think this is rhubarb, chard, um whatever this is..." Putting the lot down on the counter, he grabbed the cutting board and a sharp knife. "Any particular way you want me to cut these?"
"Here, let me." Bunny carefully took the knife from the boy. He really didn't want the child to slice off a finger or something. He'd never forgive himself, and Jack would bring a blizzard down on his furry head for it. Having the Spirit of Winter angry at you was not fun. Hell, all four of the Seasonal Spirits were dangerous when you pushed the right buttons. "You sure it's okay to use these?"
"Yeah, I'll probably eat some. Maybe Jack too. Jack and Mom are always at me to eat more vegetables." Getting down a platter for Bunny's work and a small deep bowl, he asked "Is it okay if I bring some ranch with us?"
"I won't use it, but I got na problem with it." Aster answered, arranging the carrot and celery sticks on the large plate. Broccoli here, chard there, mmm snap peas...
Once the lagomorph was finished, Jamie quickly wiped down the knife, cutting board, and counter top. Mom would be annoyed if she found crumbs everywhere. And Jack would give this look of exasperation mixed with a bit of disappointment before cleaning it himself if he saw the dirty kitchen. Somehow, Jack's reaction made Jamie's stomach twist more than Mom's, so he tried to tidy after himself more since meeting the spirit four years ago. Mom sure didn't complain about him having a cleaner room and keeping the other rooms neater.
"You take the veggie tray, I got this one." Jamie ordered, picked up his tray, and lead the way upstairs.
Aster followed the boy to a familiar bedroom. That blasted dog gave him a long considering look before putting her head back down, lying beside the winter spirit. Jack was sitting in a tailor's pose on the carpeted floor with his back to Jamie's bed, scribbling away in a spiral notebook. Various papers were scattered around him and all over the nearby desk, drawings of Native American weapons and artwork and houses in sure strokes of graphite and pencil shadings catching the Easter Bunny's keen eyes. Huh, he knew that Jack was decent at painting eggs with him, but this was a good step up from abstract patterns and simplified flowers. "Nice artwork there, Frostbite."
Jack's head snapped up, blue eyes wide and startled. He just stared at Aster for a few beats, making the lagomorph feel a bit like he was intruding somehow. Then, a welcoming pleased smile curved the winter spirit's lips, making something relax in Aster's chest. "Hey, Cottontail. What brings you here?"
"Same as you, visiting the ankle biters." Aster answered in a causal tone, carefully putting down the tray before settling himself on the floor. Picking up a sketch with the native's ceremonial clothes, he remarked, "These really do look good."
The winter spirit's cheeks flushed periwinkle blue and he cast his eyes downward in embarrassment. He quickly started gathering up the stray papers, stacking them to one side to make room of the plates of food. "They aren't much. Not that great really. No where good as yours."
Seeing that Jack was getting uncomfortable, Jamie cut in. "Here's yours." He put one plate and glass of water before Jack. "I thought adding banana slices, since peanut butter and bananas are a surprising good match. But I wasn't sure you'd want them. So I brought these bananas and a knife just in case."
"Looks good, Jamie." Jack gave the kid a smile as he took a banana and started to unpeel it. "I'll give this a try."
"If you don't like it, I'll finish it." Jamie replied, then paused to take a bite of his ham cheese and tomato sandwich. After chewing and swallowing, he opened his mouth to say something.
Aster jumped in first. "What's with this? You gotta eat more, Frostbite."
Jamie worried his bottom lip and surveyed the scene. Him with two sandwiches, a small pile of pretzels, and an apple. A few bowls of sliced fresh kiwi, strawberries, and grapes in the middle of their little group with glasses of water and an extra pair of apples and the second banana. The platter of veggies near Bunny with a bowl of ranch dressing at the side nearest Jamie. And Jack's lonely plate with two slices of peanut buttered bread. Bunny was looking at them both with a look of mixed curiosity and confusion while Jack... Jamie wasn't happy to see Jack avoiding their eyes, curled in a bit on himself and fiddling with the end of the banana peel.
Clicking his tongue softly, the boy got his big brother's attention. With a finger wiggle and head tilt, he gestured between himself and Bunny, silently asking if Jack wanted him to explain. Seeing Jack's shoulders lower slightly and a small nod, Jamie gave a soft smile, then turned his attention to the lagomorph.
Aster watched all this with a growing sense of worry and unease curling in his stomach. He saw the defensive and unhappy posture that Frostbite had taken. He observed the non-verbal communication between the boys. He tensed a bit as Jamie turned fully toward him, noting that he scooted a touch closer to Jack as he did so, as if trying to put himself between the two spirits.
He had the feeling he wasn't going to like this.
Taking a deep breath, Jamie cut straight to chase. "Jack hasn't eaten much since he became a spirit. If he eats too much or something that his body isn't ready for, he gets sick. Like puke it up sick. He's working to adjust his body to food, but he has to take it slow. So I didn't bring him a lot 'cause I don't want him to feel like he has to eat it all." Throwing a fondly exasperated look at the eternal teen, he added, "And he would try to eat more than he can stand to make others happy. He's done it before."
Jack sulkily defended himself. "That was once, Jamie. I've been better about that."
"With me." Jame replied, brown eyes peering into blue with amused kindness. He tried to arch an eyebrow, but he didn't quite have that skill down yet. "What about Guardian gatherings? Or the parties North throws for all the spirits nowadays?"
Picking up a slice of peanut-buttered bread, Jack moodily took a bite and looked away. He knew he didn't have the answer Jamie wanted.
Jamie nodded, then turned his gaze back toward Bunny.
Aster felt like he'd been slapped upside the head with one of his 'rangs. He couldn't figure whether to feel horror, guilt, anger, or whatever other emotions were churning his gut. "What - Why?"
With a sad yet proud smile, Jamie explained. "He didn't want to steal the food people worked so hard to grow or gather. Then when he did get something, he'd see kids who didn't have food, who were hungry and living on the streets or whatever. So he gave his food to them."
Turning green eyes toward the winter spirit, Aster gazed at the teen - the child - who had now pulled his legs into his chest and was taking a careful bite of banana. Not sure it would stay down, his mind filled in. Not sure he could safely eat it.
Feeling the Pooka's gaze, Jack glanced over. Unable to read just what the Easter spirit was thinking, he curled up smaller and snapped out defensively. "I wasn't breaking any rules. No one cared about those kids, or what I did so long as I didn't get in anyone's way. I couldn't just ignore them! They were kids, some just babies! My food made sure they lived another day, another week. I didn't do anything wrong!"
Stop staring at him. Jack just wanted Bunny to stop staring at him with those eyes. Examining, judging, trying to peer into him. As if he didn't think a brat like him could do something good for others.
Blinking, Aster lifted a paw, then froze when he saw the already tense spirit flinch as if expecting to be struck. Quickly lowering it and trying to keep his posture as non-threatening as possible, he said, "Easy, Frostbite. I didn't say anything you did was wrong. I was just surprised -"
"What, surprised that the troublemaking little shit could do something right?" Jack spat out, words slipping out of his mouth in his agitation. He felt what little he had eaten so far churn uncomfortably in his gut. He wasn't sure why he was so upset, but he was, damnit. "The brat who only make messes and ruins everything did something good. So shocking, right? Well, fuck you."
Aster just stared in shock and growing shame as the teen vented.
Blue eyes glaring and filling with tears that slipped unnoticed down Jack's face, he snarled, "You've been hiding in your warren for years and barely see the world except for your holiday. I've had to drag you out these past few years to find new flowers and colors and sights. You didn't care about anything but Easter, didn't want to see what was happening!"
Jamie watched his big brother shift into a crouch, blue eyes pinning the Pooka like a predator. He doubted the other had noticed the volume of his voice was steadily rising into a shout as he let out words he obviously had been withholding for a while now. His own eyes prickled with sympathetic tears, fists clenching to stop himself from reaching out to Jack. The teen probably needed to get this out, just like Jack had urged him to do so on the anniversary of Jamie's Dad's death. Anger and hurt for the winter spirit burned in his chest, making him narrow his own eyes at the listening rabbit.
"You didn't care! I was there! I was helping those kids however I could! I'd give them food! Find them blankets and rags to keep warm! Make them experience what little joy there could be found in their sorry lives! I tried! I helped them! I didn't need to part of your special secret club or swear some fancy oath to be a Guardian! You high and mighty Guardians didn't care about them! And you sure didn't give a shit about me! So don't you dare judge me for what I did for them, because you don't know me! You don't even try! You -"
Feeling his stomach lurch sharply in warning, Jack paled then darted out of the room.
Jamie, not sure he could open his own mouth with saying something cutting, just shot Bunny an accusing glare before following his brother out of the room. As he guessed, he found Jack in the upstairs bathroom just down the hall, throwing up from the stressful situation. Silently, he gathered a full water cup and wet towel, then settled in with his big brother. Even though no one had been there for Jack before - and apparently the other Guardians weren't stepping up either, Jamie was here now. He was here now, and he wasn't planning on going anywhere.
Aster sat in the echoing silence of Jamie's bedroom. Even the blasted dog had given a huff and stalked out, leaving the lagomorph to his reeling thoughts. Shit, how long had Frostbite been holding that little rant in? All that anger and pain? And how much more was going still unsaid? He knew that the winter spirit had lived a pretty lonely life, but it hadn't quite clicked in his head just how much Jack had suffered with so little support. The kid had been putting up quite the cheerful front to the world.
Mind you, the Guardians were neither stupid or blind. They had noticed the way Jack tensed then leaned into any touch, obviously not used to physical contact. The way that Jack took even the smallest signs of inclusion to their group with a painful mix of wary hope and incredulous joy. The way he grew quiet and withdrawn at times, retreating into a corner or up in the rafters hiding in his hood with his staff held close like a security blanket. But Aster didn't think any of them had expected something like this outburst in their Jackie.
What was worst in Aster's mind - the fact that Jack was right.
Aster had withdrawn from the world, only coming out to hide his eggs and summons from North. Had buried himself in his work, ignoring just about everything else as best as he could with cruel remarks and cold shoulders. Had not wanted to see the pain and death that so many were suffering, reminders of the way his entire race had been slaughtered and the fall of the Golden Age.
And he had certainly not been interested in a mischievous winter spirit who he had refused to acknowledge was actually a lonely hurting child who desperately wanted someone, anyone to care even a little about him.
He had screwed up bad, had hurt Jack, abandoned his duty to protect children by ignoring one who just so happened to be a spirit.
With a sigh, he squared his shoulders and got to his feet.
He would do better, would be better.
And that started with an apology and some reassurance given to the youngest Guardian.
Jamie looked up at a soft tap on the door, really hoping it wasn't Mom. He wasn't sure if the woman could actually see his brother, and didn't want to try to explain things right now if she couldn't.
Thankfully, it was Bunny who opened the door and slipped inside. He watched as the lagomorph's long ears went flat against his head and his whiskers droop at the sight of them.
Aster looked over the boys leaning against the tub on the bathroom floor. Jack was sitting on his rump, curled up in a little ball, his face buried in his knees and arms hugging his legs tight. Jamie had his arms around his older brother as far as he could reach, giving the rabbit a unhappy but expectant look. Closing the door behind him, Aster dropped to all fours and softly called, "Jackie?"
Jack flinched at the sound of Bunny's voice and tried to curl up even tighter. He felt Jamie leaned a bit more into him. The comfort was appreciated, but didn't really help the mess of upsetting emotions filling him. It was taking every bit of control he had over his powers to hold back an out-of-season snowstorm fueled by his distress.
He couldn't believe he'd said those things out loud. He'd been feeling and thinking them for a while, he'd admit. Long before the mess with Pitch and his induction into the Guardians, he had wondered why the Big Four who were supposed to take care of kids never seemed to give a shit about him. Well, that wasn't right. Sandy had been kind, had smiled at him, had let him sit on his golden cloud as he worked and chattered away at the small man. But Sandy was busy, really busy just about all the time, and Jack didn't want to be a bother to one of the very small number of spirits who didn't try to hurt him or chase him away on sight. And he supposed he had lost all his baby teeth already, so Tooth didn't have much reason to pay attention to him. Plus she was very busy too. North - well, surely Jack was naughty, far too much a bad person to get any presents or a second glance from the man even when he passed him on his Christmas delivery rounds. But Bunny...
Bunny was a whole other matter.
He'd been fond of Easter for as long as he could remember. The plants and flowers blooming, the colorful eggs hidden away everywhere, the fun the children had those mornings. Jack wouldn't tell North, but he liked Easter best. But the Easter Bunny, well, that was more complicated.
Don't get him wrong, he respected the Guardian of Hope long before he actually got to know the guy. And now, having shared times of playful banter and quiet moments, fighting at each other's side and visiting the other's home, he cherished the friendship they had slowly formed.
A friendship his stupid whiny rant had probably destroyed.
"Jackie?" Bunny repeated, his voice gentle and coaxing.
"I'm sorry." Jack whispered, not daring to look up.
"For what?" The other spirit actually sounded confused. Was this a trick, Jack wondered.
"For yelling. For saying those things." He felt his breath hitch. Part of him really wanted to just run, but he had to face this. "I'm sorry."
"Aw, Jackie." A soft scuffling noise came from in front of him. Then, a large soft paw rested gently on his white hair, making him twitch in surprise. "You didn't say anything wrong."
"Yes I did!" Aster felt his heart twist when Jack looked up at him, fresh tears trailing down his cheeks, an expression of grief on his face. "I shouldn't have - have said those things! I'm sorry! Forget I said anything! Just don't - don't..."
Lowering his head to try to keep eye contact when the teen's head dipped down again, Aster asked, "Don't what, Jackie?"
"Don't hate me. I'm sorry. Please don't hate me."
At the tiny fearful little whisper and the feeble dying hope he could sense in the winter spirit, Aster couldn't help himself.
He reached out and wrapped his arms around the two boys in a hug. Bending his neck, he lowered his muzzle and spoke softly into white hair.
"Aw, Jackie. I don't hate you. I'm not mad about you about what you said."
"But you are mad." The teen whispered.
"Yeah, mad at my stupid self."
A pause, then Jack leaned back slightly to peer up at Bunny in confusion. He softly inquired, "What?"
"You were right." Aster admitted aloud, keeping the teen's gaze. "I did hide away and not pay attention to people who I coulda helped. And I didn't pay attention to you. I'm sorry for that. Sorry I left ya all alone and hurting, sorry I didn't notice what was staring me in the face until you had to yell it at me.
"You're a damn fine Guardian, Jackie. And I am damn proud that you've been taking care of kids for so long. I'm sorry I didn't realize until now just how caring you can be, how much you give up for those kids who the rest of us don't notice or pay enough attention to. If you let me, I'll work to do better, to try ya better and help ya however I can. And I'll also like to prove that I care about you, Jackie. That I like having you around and don't want ya hurting. That you can trust me to be there for ya, cheer you up when you're down, patch you up when you're hurt, all those and more. Can ya forgive a dumb ole bunny like me for abandoning ya for so long?"
Jack just blinked up at Bunny. He couldn't be hearing this right. The Pooka wasn't mad at him? Was apologizing? Wanted to make it up to him? This didn't make sense. But after staring at the rabbit for several long moments and realizing that maybe, just maybe he was being sincere, Jack started to think that this might be real.
"I - you -" The winter spirit closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, reaching up to scrub the tears off his cheeks. Bunny scooted back just a touch, leaving one paw on Jack's right shoulder, giving him some room to pull himself together. Feeling a bit calmer, Jack said, "It's okay -"
"No, it's not." Jamie piped up, stern eyes meeting his big brother's. "It's not okay. Don't lie to us, Jack."
Unable to deny his little brother's words, Jack sighed and stared at one of Bunny's egg bombs, unsure of meeting his eyes. "Fine, it's not okay. It hurt that you and the others didn't care about me. Well, Sandy did, but the rest of you... And I wish that you guys would try to do more for the kids who go without, who don't have loving families or have lost their belief in you guys so young because they've lost hope and wonder and dreams. I guess I'll understand if you choose not to - no, I won't understand, but I'll accept that's your decision. And - and I'll let you - let you do whatever it is you feel you need to do to make up whatever you think you did wrong by me."
Aster watched the tension ease out of the winter spirit as he realized that the lagomorph wasn't going to end their friendship, that he wasn't angry at him. Instead of the usually lively happy larger-than-life spirit he knew, he gazed upon a too-thin world-weary child who had seen too much and been too long without love but still held on to the fragile hope that maybe, just maybe things would get better. That hope flickered and wavered, but it was there, deep inside Jackie's heart. And Aster was going to nurture it, to take care of their Frostbite. But not right now, he had to figure how to do this right. Besides, the boy was obviously emotionally exhausted by his venting. Understanding that this was the most Jack could give right now, that he didn't really believe that things would be any different but was willing to let him try, Aster nodded and squeezed the shoulder under his left paw. "Thank ya for the chance, Jackie. I'll do my best ta not screw up again."
"Okay." Jack sighed, suddenly very tired of all this. He wasn't sure he should hope, but a tiny seed of it wouldn't hurt much, right?
Looking over the boys, Aster decided he best leave it at this. Time to make himself scarce and give the pair some room. As much as he wanted to just cuddle Frostbite and try to prove his words now, the teen was clearly worn out. It irked a bit, but he accepted the fact that Jamie could take care of Jack, and his support would be accepted far easier than his own right now. "Well, I guess I best be going..."
"Take most of the veggies with you." Jamie commanded. "I can't explain to Mom cutting them but not doing anything with them. You can leave some carrot sticks though."
Nodding, Aster gave one more sad look at Frostbite, then turned and padded out of the room. He put all the vegetables save a large handful of carrots into a bag, thumped a hind foot, and bound down a tunnel for the Warren. He had some serious thinking to do. After all, pretty promises were just words. He needed to figure the right actions to fulfill them, and the right way to do this so the winter spirit would actually believe he was sincerely cared for him.
After the door had closed behind Bunny, Jamie turned his attention back to Jack, who leaned wearily against him, blinking dull blue eyes into middle space. Withholding a sigh, he squeezed his arms a bit. "Jack?"
It took a moment, but Jack pulled his tired brain together and turned his head. "Yeah, Jamie?"
Giving a small smile in sympathy, Jamie answered, "Wanna go back to my room? I found a book I wanted to show you."
A few minutes later, Jamie was sitting on his bed, Jack curled around his back with his head on a pillow next to Jamie's right knee. The younger boy quietly read aloud the adventures of Will as he began his Ranger training, slipping his fingers through white soft hair as Jack dozed off to the sound of his voice.
Apparently, the Guardians weren't taking care of Jack as much as they should be. Jamie would have to figure out how else to help his big brother than just make sure he had food to eat and a way to relax during his visits.
After all, Jack wasn't alone anymore.
Jamie would take care of him now.