Two years later.
JACKSON FROST was watching his breath fog in the mid-December chill when Jamie called to him, "Jack! Can we go inside, now? It's freezing!" the boy rubbed his arms, looking unhappy in the cold, overcast day.
Jack chuckled at him, shaking his head, "You think this is cold? It's warm, for Burgess in the winter."
Jamie rolled his eyes, "You just say that because you've been living in Arizona. Trust me, its freezing."
Jack ruffled his hair, "Going by that logic, I'd be colder than you," Jack pointed out, "now come on. As soon as we get the rest of this split, we can get back inside. Your folks expect you to do your chores."
"But you didn't do your chores," Jamie pointed out.
Jack pretended not to hear, and returned to his place crouched over the electric log-splitter.
He had become something of a legend, to the boys at the home, from Toothiana's telling. And his absence hadn't helped matters, either- he'd become a veritable Peter Pan, while he was away. It amused Jack, a little, to know that he had had such an effect on the boys, but also felt a little bad about the trouble it sometimes caused Tooth.
Jack helped Jamie cart the rest of the split firewood up the steps and on to the back porch, piling against the siding and covering it in a half-frozen tarp. They made a game of shuffling the snow off of their boots, before the racket caused the back door to open, Tooth frowning at them behind the screen door, "Boys," she warned with a single word.
"Sorry, Tooth," Jack grinned.
"Sorry, mom," Jamie agreed.
They left their boots by the back door as they carried on past her in to the kitchen, joking and prodding and laughing, "Don't be two loud, you two. And don't break anything. Jamie, go and get washed up for dinner," Tooth pestered them fondly, "and Jack, Aster's out in the garage with the animals, he wanted to talk to you after you got back in." Jack nodded, and pushed Jamie in the direction of the stairs, heading off down the hall.
The cement was chill against his bare feet, but Jack ignored it as he descended the steps and pulled open the garage door, letting himself inside, "Bunny...?" he questioned.
"'Told yeh not ta call me that," Aster grumbled, dumping a plastic cup full of feeder pellets in to the porcelain feeder for the guinea pigs. He emptied the cup, and tossed in back in the open feed bag, clothes-pinning it shut. He dusted his hands, and continued on to the next animals; a pen of snoozing turtles, "Come on in, you're letting in the cold."
Jack shrugged, shutting the door behind himself. The garage held no car or tools, and smelled like a clean barn, "Looks like your own personal petting zoo is coming along nicely," Jack chided gently, "What's next, boa constrictors?"
"Not legal, in this state, mate," Aster grinned. He tossed the turtles a few leaves of lettuce, along with few sticks of carrot, "But I can admit that I've looked in to it."
"Well, just don't go getting a kangaroo or something crazy," Jack commented. He hopped up on a barrel filled with bird seed, perching comfortably, "what'd you want to talk to me about?"
Aster sighed, pushing his bangs back from his face and stretching, "It's Jamie, Jack. He's been gettin' some crazy ideas in 'is head recently, and I can't imagine where they're comin' from. I need yeh to talk to 'im, okay?"
"Talk to him about what? What sorts of ideas?" in Jack's understanding, ideas were always good things.
"It's the boys at school. You might have notice, but the kid's missin' teeth. We've been gettin' calls from the school; they're sayin' he's been gettin' in'da fights..." Aster trailed off, sighing again, "Tooth's worried sick, an' every time I ask 'im about it, he goes off claiming it's the other boys that started it first. 'E's a good kid, Jack, an' I know 'e's tellin' the truth, but I just can't..."
Jack held up a hand to stop him, "Loud and clear, bunny-man. I'll look in to it, and see what's going on. Maybe I can even give him a few pointers-" Jack laughed, as Aster was glaring, "I'm only kidding!"
Aster's expression broke in to a smile, "I can't tell him 'r' his mum, but... I'm actually a little proud of 'im. My little brumby," Aster nodded, his eyes bright, "see what yeh can do, Jack, I'd be much obliged."
Jack watched him for a few moments, before he shook his head, grinning, "You're turning out to be such a softy, in your old age."
Aster balked "Old age?! Now what the hell is that supposed teh mean?" he demanded, his face heating.
"Next you'll be asking to cuddle and read us all bedtime stories-" Jack dodged a handful of lettuce, skipping from his perch, "planting azaleas in the spring time, telling fishing stories-!" he was laughing as a carrot bounced off his shoulder.
"You're a terrible influence on my son!" Aster growled fondly, taking aim with a fistful of chicken scratch.
"Jack!" Tooth called, "Phone for you! Oh, and hun? Jack and Jamie finished cutting the wood, could you see if you can get a fire started up in the den to burn off the chill?" she shut the door without waiting for an answer.
Aster and Jack called a silent truce for the time being, and followed up the stairs after her call.
"Hello?" Jack questioned in to the receiver of the kitchen phone, wedging it between his ear and his shoulder as he hoisted himself up to sit on the counter.
"Jack," came a familiar voice, cheery, "Happy Christmas!"
"Hey, North," Jack replied, a smile spreading on to his face, "Merry Christmas! How's everything in... where are you, now?"
"Oh, here and there," North replied, his traditional accent gruff at the edges with a smile, "You know how this shipping business can be. It's so much more face-time, being legit," he complained, and Jack laughed.
"You said it yourself; a man's got to work. Sorry you won't be here for Christmas."
"Me, as well," North replied, sounding slightly forlorn, "but maybe I visit you in Snowflake, when I get back in the states for spring, da?"
"You sure?" Jack questioned as he watched Tooth pestering Jamie down the hall for his dirty nose, while Aster narrowly avoided them with an armload of wood, dropping a stick or two, "it's pretty hot, in Arizona. Your beard could combust."
North laughed, "I risk this! Hey, maybe when I get there you have cutesy little girlfriend, eh?" and he laughed again.
Jack rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Hey, do you want to say hi to everyone else?"
"Ah, no, they are busy, I can hear. But I did send presents- did they get there?"
"No," Jack admitted, "Sorry, Santa Claus. The post office is terrible, this time of year. I'm sure we'll get them soon, though."
North tsked, "Never trust Christmas to the post. I fix." and the line went dead.
"Hello?" Jack questioned, confused. He tapped the receiver, "North? Hello?" Before he sighed, hanging up, "talk to you later, I guess..."
The doorbell rang, and Jack's eyes widened, "No one uses that stupid doorbell..." he whispered, his heart speeding up as he leapt down from the counter, "except..." He raced down the hall, flawlessly avoiding the staring family in his wake, and wrenched open the door, snow and icy air rushing in with the sound of booming laughter.
North hauled Jack in for a bone-crushing hug, "Surprise! Happy Christmas, Jack!"
Jack was laughing, "You jerk! You could have just told me- wait-" Aster put his arm around Tooth, the both of them smiling, "How long did all of you know? Why didn't you tell me?"
"It wouldn't have been a very good Christmas surprise if we did, duh," Jamie replied, crossing his arms with a matter-of-fact smile.
"Little jerk," Jack taunted him warmly, ruffling his hair again.
"Don't just stand there letting in the cold, it's freezing," Bunnymund grumped, "come inside, shut the door."
North shook his head, "I have presents, to bring to the home. But I will be back," he said, jamming his thumb back at the red truck parked at the snowy curb, "I don't want to be late!" he smiled down at Jack, "would you like to come?"
Jack nodded, and started to follow North out into the snow, before Toothiana stopped him, "Jack, you can't go out in to the cold dressed like that," she reprimanded, "at least take a scarf."
North was chuckling as Jack shut the passenger door of the tuck, "they do not even notice the shoes anymore, do they?"
Jack tucked the sunshine-yellow scarf onto the neck of his jacket, smiling back, "They're used to it."
SANDERSON MANSNOOZIE slept amongst his paperwork; a clutter of postcards, old snow globes, torn pieces of letters, medical records. It may have seemed disorderly, but Sandy held pride in his very strange ordering system, and he knew what each doodled-on scrap meant, the secret meanings behind a nibbled pencil, where each stamp came from, or the destination it was meant for, anyways.
Face-down in the mess of his memories, the smell of rain was giving him nightmares. Mute gunshots rang out, and his words made no sound, gasping for air through blood. He struggled for the safety of light beyond his shut eyelids, unable to move, before his eyes snapped open, and he immediately pushed himself away from the tabletop and back in his chair.
The waitress looked concerned at him, a pot of coffee at the ready, "Sir? Are you okay?"
Sandy nodded, rubbing at his eyes with a wary smile. He began to scoop up his mess, and the waitress could not help but scan the newspaper clippings and various other photographs and articles as he swept them in to a large manila envelope, "Are you a detective or something?" she questioned.
Sandy laughed silently, and shook his head. He stooped under the table to reach for his briefcase under his feet, unzipping it far enough to stow the lumpy package inside. He righted himself, and the waitress looked further concerned, "Are you waiting for the Greyhound transfer to Denver?" She asked hesitantly.
Cocking a brow curiously, Sandy nodded.
"Sugar, that bus left ten minutes ago," she informed him sadly. Sandy blinked slowly, his eyes spanning the tabletop before him as the fact struck home, "I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?" she bit her lip as Sandy shook his head, letting out a sigh. She watched, as he delved into his coat, drawing out his bus ticket to examine it. She brightened, "Hey, let me get you a cup of coffee, okay?"
Sandy looked up at her again, a smile dawning across his features, the feeling of loss vanished. He held up a hand to stop her, however, and made a few motions with his hands he hoped were translatable.
"Tea?" she immediately summarized, and Sandy beamed, nodding. She echoed his smile, "You got it," and hurried away.
Sandy seized the moment to examine the print on the back of his bus ticket, hurriedly scanning the computer-printed dates and departures. The next available bus, he gathered, was in a week.
Sandy's mouth flattened, and he looked around the empty diner. It looked so much like a million other diners he had fallen asleep in... where was this place?
Sandy felt a sheepish grin creeping up his face, and he raised a hand to scratch his nose.
What did it matter?
His tea arrived, a Mayfair 139 ceramic mug filled with steaming hot water, and a small, square, paper-wrapped Lipton teabag. The waitress seemed to hesitate again, "We don't get many orders for tea-will this be okay?"
Sandy nodded, setting to his steeping rituals, ripping open and dropping the teabag into the cup. She watched him for a few moments, before returning to herself, slightly flustered, "would you like some honey?" Sandy smiled appreciatively, and she cocked her head to the side, "You can't talk, can you?" she asked somewhat bluntly.
Slightly surprised, Sandy shook his head.
The waitress nodded, "I figured. Sorry, I didn't mean- I mean-" She seemed to be realizing her blunder quite abruptly, and took the opportunity to scamper off, "I'll get your honey."
Why was everyone always sorry? Sandy certainly wasn't. He shook his head as he watched her hurry about the waitress station, searching for honey that no one ever wanted.
Sandy plucked up his menu, and sipped his unsweetened tea, a bitterness of over steeping creeping into the delicate flavor. He reached for his spoon to fish the teabag out, his gaze lost in the blue-plate special when she arrived, setting a plastic bear on the tabletop before him, "Here you go. Sorry again, I guess I've always asked too many of the wrong questions." Sandy waved away her condolences sagely, and a smile returned to her young face, "I actually wanted to be a police detective myself. I guess that's why I thought you were. Or something, I don't know. I took some courses, over at the JC... but then I got married..." A sad look had been moving across her features, and she sobered abruptly, smiling and offering a hand, "I'm Cherie."
Sandy shook her hand, his fingertips slightly sticky with honey. The light of the full moon through the open blinds of the booth seemed to push away the false lighting overhead and see past her cover-up, applied so carefully around one of her lovely eyes.
Sandy nodded, and plucked up his napkin, scrawling out Sanderson Mansnoozie, and beneath it, Sandy.
He would be staying a while, it seemed.