Aster took the long way back to the Warren. He needed the time and solitude to get his thoughts together.
He needed, much as he hated to term it so, a battle plan.
Eros and Psyche were great people, a little too besotted with one another, maybe, but he knew he was leaving the situation at their floating cloud-castle in firm, competent hands. Alone of the Great Spirits, they did rule over their sanctuary, and regarded their people as their subjects and charges.
Crazy thing was, most of the inhabitants seemed to agree. Bunny didn't hold with that for his own territory, nor did any of the other Guardians. Jack in particular was downright allergic to any hint of superiority or power over humans. Which usually led Aster to the thought, "Thank the Moon for Jamie."
But that was getting him nowhere with his own problems.
How to calmly, easily, and above all without panic, inform the three thousand-plus inhabitants of the Warren about a baby with wings...?
The easy way, he supposed, was to call a Council meeting. Telling the elected representatives of each residential tunnel would cut his disclosure burden down to mere thirty-three individuals. And then they could each spread the news to the hundred or so people that made up their neighborhoods.
And most of the representatives, he thought, were sensible people.
Most of them.
Grimacing, Aster wished he could've let himself be a little more of a coward and taken up North's offer of a drink and a retreat at the Pole.
Because he was really, really not looking forward to this.
Sanctuary: The Warren, pt. 1
by K. Stonham
first released 28th March, 2013
The fields were lush and green, ripe with warmth and growth and life. Jack Frost and Mort alike were forbidden to walk in them unless they kept the tightest possible reign on their powers. Though, really, Sophie thought, struggling with uprooting the remains of a spent cucumber vine, asking either of them to help in clearing the fields would be brilliant. They could wilt the tuckered-out plants, making them so much easier to pull...
"Let me help with that." Fur-covered hands that needed no gloves grabbed the vine above and below hers. Together, she and Bunnymund heaved the plant out of the ground.
Sophie laughed. "Look at those roots."
"Mm-hmm." The pooka nodded, pleased. "Good soil you've built up here."
"Good soil we've built up, you mean." Sophie beamed at him.
"As you say." Bunnymund straightened, looking across the fields where so many others tended the plants. "Don't think I'll ever get used to seeing life again in this old place."
"It had life before." Sophie stripped off her gloves and tucked them into her belt. The Warren was so very different now from her earliest memories of it. Human residents had worn away a good part of its lost world crumbling ruins charm. Yet it was also somehow even more itself than ever. There were still egg fields, and rivers of dye, and secret hidden passages leading to new discoveries. But now there were fields of carrots and peas and tomatoes and all the things that grew best in spring and summer, flocks of chickens and milling livestock of various breeds. And if the ambient magic helped them flourish, even more so it was the rich soil and the care of the gardeners and groundskeepers that kept them all fed and exported food to other sanctuaries.
If you wanted roast goose with all the trimmings, you went to the North Pole. If you wanted pumpkin pie and cornbread, you went to Turkey's Village. But if you wanted a sun-ripe tomato, juicy and redolent of green growing fields... you came to the Warren. Or Groundhog's Burrow, but Bunnymund's rivalry with the Groundhog had never subsided, so no one who wanted to keep their hearing mentioned that possibility.
Sophie couldn't understand how her brother could stand living at the Fortress. It was pretty, sure enough, but it was barren. The most that grew in Jack Frost's domain were the houseplants people kept in their personal quarters. It was nothing against Jack himself; Sophie loved him as another brother. But the very nature of his magic meant that everything his people ate had to come from somewhere else. And Sophie hadn't become a Master Gardener just to be shut away from green life.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply of the smell of green living things, and rich loam, and the unique chocolate/rabbit hybrid scent of the Easter Bunny.
She opened her eyes and looked up at Bunnymund.
"I love it here," Sophie said, and meant it. But her smile faltered at his expression. He looked too serious, too unsure. "Bunny, what's wrong?"
His mouth narrowed into a line. He looked like he wanted to look away, or possibly run away. But he didn't. Instead, he said, "Sophie, we need to talk."
Half an hour later, Sophie felt sick. Without a word, she stood, went to the cupboard that she knew held bottles of fruit liquers, selected one at random, grabbed two cups, and returned to Bunny's table. She opened the bottle, sloshed liquer into both containers, pushed one toward Bunny, and raised the other to her own lips, downing about half the contents.
Sophie promptly gagged, making a face. "Ugh, peach." She probably should have actually looked at the label.
Bunny chuckled, sipping his own drink with more moderation. "As you will, sheila."
Well, she hadn't actually wanted alcohol to savor the flavor, just to take her mind into a nice fuzzy state where she wouldn't panic, or, worse, throw up in reaction to what Bunny had told her. Major mutations. In the human gene pool. She knew enough about genetics to see the slippery slope coming. Sophie took another drink, shuddering at the taste. "What're the others doing?"
Bunny shrugged. "We agreed we'd tell the humans we were closest to, let you decide how best to spread the news to avoid a panic. I went and told Eros and Psyche before coming back here." He looked thoughtful, then shrugged. "No idea how they're going to spread it to their people, but I'm sure Psyche'll have some way of keeping 'em all calm. She usually does. Myself, I was thinking of a Council meeting."
Sophie stared at him, then downed the rest of the glass in one go. A second later, she started coughing.
"There, there, sheila." A broad hand, gentle and warm for all its strength, patted her back. "It won't be like the last Council meeting. I promise you that."
"You can't promise that," Sophie choked, tears blinding her eyes. "We're barely hanging on, Bunny, you know that."
"Thought we were doing okay." He sounded puzzled.
She shook her head, looked up at him. The pooka was a gray-white blur. "Physically, maybe. Psychologically? It's going to take generations to get over this. When I'm dead, when everyone who remembers the world that was is dead, maybe we'll all be healed up..."
"Sheila." The broad hand was soft on her hair now. "You didn't have anything to eat before drinkin' all that, did you? You know it's strong."
Sophie shook her head. She wasn't just upset because of his homebrew. She wasn't! "We've all lost everything, Bunny," she told him. "Even those of us lucky enough to get out with family. Our whole world's gone."
Bunny was still and quiet for a moment, then he sighed, a long, slow sound. "You don't have to tell me what it's like, Soph. I remember losin' a world, too."
She glanced up at him. Even through her tears, she could see the sadness in his green eyes.
"Manny... he probably saved me," Bunny said, glancing up at the ceiling as though he could see the moon through it. "Poor tyke, he lost his whole world too. But all he thought of was the other kids he could see, and how to save them. And when he picked me, picked all of us, to help in that... that duty's probably the best thing I've ever been given. Gave me purpose again. Gave me a reason to go on. And eventually, after a couple thousand years, I found people to go on for." His hand rested on hers, soft and so strong. "We've all got somethin' to go on for, Soph. And that gives me hope."
He ended up carrying Sophie back to her home and tucking her in like he hadn't since she was a little girl. Aster made sure to leave a glass of water on her bedside table, and a bucket beside it. Just in case. Soothing his ankle biter's hair one more time, he closed the door behind himself and went back to where her husband, Craig Pierce, waited, his dark eyes concerned.
With a sigh, Aster dropped into the seat opposite Craig.
"She's happy when she's in the gardens," Craig said quietly. "It's only when she has to deal with people and politics that Sophia starts to get down." He adjusted his glasses. "Unfortunately, she's a Bennett."
Aster nodded. "And ain't a person alive who doesn't know that name, and what it means."
"I'll stand as her proxy on the Council," Craig said. "I've done my share of the civic and economic planning too. And there's no rule it has to be a Bennett by blood." He fell silent for a moment. "Having to act as jury was hard on her," he eventually said, solemn. "She's still not recovered from having to exile those men to certain death. I'm not sure if she can, or will, ever sit on the Council again."
Aster chuffed a snort. Then fell pensive. "Still don't understand you humans, after all these millennia," he murmured, shaking his head. "How anyone could want to destroy a sanctuary..."
"If it helps," Craig said, "most of us humans don't understand extremists either."
Aster closed his eyes, remembering his own kind. Most of the time, external appearance notwithstanding, humans seemed so similar to the pooka. But then something like that small cell happened, stockpiling materials to make bombs and blow the Warren and all its inhabitants sky-high just for not aligning perfectly with their interpretations of their holy book. Or, in fact, something happened like the damned war that had caused this entire situation, though Aster laid a good deal of the blame for that at Pitch's feet. There hadn't been anything like that among his own people. Oh, there'd been disagreements and arguments and grudges, to be sure, but nothing... murderous.
"How d'ya think the Council'll take today's news?" he asked.
"That mutations are starting to show up?" Aster could practically hear the shrug. "As well as humans ever take anything. Which is to say, lots of panicking and screaming and blame games. And eventually settling down and accepting things. Because no matter what, we've still got work to do. Food to grow and preserve and ship out. Kiddies to get to school. That kind of thing."
Aster had to smile. He liked Craig. He doubted Sophie could've found a better man to be her husband and father to her children. "Soph was lucky the day she met you," he said, opening his eyes again.
"I prefer to think I was the lucky one that day." Craig hesitated, then laid a hand on Aster's shoulder. "If there's anything I can do to help..."
"Stay a voice of reason," Aster said. He had no doubt Craig was right about how people were going to react. "I'll go call the meeting for tomorrow morning, yeah?"
Craig nodded. "I'll be there, Aster."
Author's Notes: At long last, I have defeated the evil spirits preventing me from finishing this chapter. (Mainly by promising them the economics of how this world works will get put into the next part. Also possibly zoos and raiding parties.)
As an important point, please note the story does not say which religous tome the religous extremists mentioned herein clung to. This is deliberate. I'm not asking the story, because the specifics are not relevant. And from Bunny's (outsider) point of view, I suspect one human faith seems a lot like another anyway. There are a lot of survivors in this universe who have broken completely. And a lot who have broken partially. Both of which I hope to delve more into when I get to Sandman's chapter.