A/N: That's a wrap! We'd love to hear what folks think of the story now that it's done.
As for the next one in the series, it's going to be called "The Boy Who Found Fear At Last" and we're going to take a brief break to recharge our writing batteries. We'll likely be posting the first chapter three weeks from now on May 6.
The King of Cold Mountain
by Anders, Kaylin, and Saph
There was no need for Jack to melt all the snow at once. A few strategic tunnels leading to aquifers meant that the warming temperatures could take care of naturally what Jack was becoming too tired to get rid of.
"So, uh, what day is it anyway?" he asked, when he and Bunny paused back in Burgess, their circuit of the North completed.
"March the 25th. Only a few days left till Easter," Bunny said, scenting the air. Jack briefly wondered how exactly this let him know what day it was. "You know what that means, right Frost?"
"Yeah yeah," said Jack, grinning, waving his hand and leaning on his staff to mask his exhaustion. "Southern hemisphere or bust."
Bunny stamped the ground open. "Need a ride?"
Jack shrugged. "I guess I could use one.
The trip to the other side of the world was a long, gentle slide, and when Jack tumbled through the tunnel into the Warren, he didn't get up, sprawled on the green grass.
He was surprised when Baby Tooth zipped to his cheek, a few more mini-fairies with her. They crowded around him before Tooth's businesslike voice cut into their cooing.
"All right ladies, you can snuggle the gallant hero after we're all caught up. Two bicuspids in Phuket, three in Memphis - that's Tennessee, not Egypt! Those are backdated and just about every set of monkey bars in the world is still icy! Let's go, go, go!"
The mini-fairies dispersed, but now Tooth was hovering over him, her beautiful face beaming with pride.
"What was that about getting caught up?" Jack teased, sitting up on his elbows.
"I've got just enough time to thank the gallant hero." She hugged him, and he hugged her back, glad to be alive and feeling her silky feathers on his cheek, smelling her scent again.
Then she zipped away, snapping out more assignments - "Three in Antwerp! Four in Nurenberg! And take a whole flock to Valparaiso, I don't even know where to begin -"
Jack lay back on the grass, leaning up as he heard North's voice. He and Anansi were talking to Bunny, and Jack caught the occasional "Easter" and "Christmas." Holiday shop-talk. Jack started to push himself up to join the discussion. Christmas was going to need major Guardian support this year, after all, and Bunny had a missed Easter from the previous year to make up for - but Sandy floated up beside him, shaking his finger in a gentle "nope."
Sandy held one hand up, golden dust swirling above it, patting Jack on the shoulder with his other. He came to children when it was time for them to sleep - and in many ways, Jack would forever be a child.
And just then, in every way, he was exhausted.
"You sure I can't help -" Jack said, as Bunny, North, and Anansi suddenly moved off, Anansi and North into the tunnels, Bunny deeper into the warren. Sandy just patted him on the shoulder.
"All right," said Jack, glad to lie back. "Mr. Sandman, bring me a dr-"
Sandy might have rolled his eyes just before knocking Jack out.
He slept for a long, long time, waking only occasionally to roll over and fall asleep again. The noise of Easter preparations reached his ears, the rumble of many tiny egg-feet and the silky rustle of dye-plants and grass growing thick. It was soothing, like a heartbeat, lulling him back to sleep twice as fast as it woke him up.
At one point, he even woke up to find North snoring on the grass beside him, the yetis and elves snoozing in piles, all tuckered out from the war they'd just fought, and the rebuilding they now had to do.
The Warren felt so suddenly like home in that moment, as a safe place to snooze on the grass with people who had become his family. Jack's heart was warm in a way that had nothing to do with the balmy spring temperature.
Each moment of waking was a moment to revel in being alive, in the simple pleasure of being able to hear and feel and slip gently into warm, soft sleep. In the luxury of rest, Jack slowly got his strength back.
The Warren was busy for a while, between the yetis and elves staying there temporarily, all drawing up rebuilding plans with North, while Bunny made his usual Easter preparations. They tried to keep the noisiest activity away from where Jack slept, and that was how Tooth managed to get some time alone with him.
The hum of her wings didn't wake him, even though she hovered right above him. She thought Jack looked best when he was awake and active, when he was laughing and smiling and treating the world as his own personal playground. Just then, though, as he lay there sleeping, he was beautiful in another way - and beautiful was the only word that felt right.
His face finally looked peaceful after all the time it had recently contorted into expressions of pain and sadness. There was even the softest curve of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Clearly, whatever dreams he was dreaming were happy ones.
His lips were just slightly parted, soft and inviting. Tooth bit her own lip gently as she gazed at them, his breath just slightly ruffling the grass as he breathed in his sleep. Slowly, she reached out to caress his lip with a feather-light touch.
Ever so carefully, she pushed his top lip up, inhaling to contain her glee as one glimmering white tooth came into view.
The lateral incisor. Tooth had no words for how she felt about Jack's lateral incisor.
It was so wrong of her to sneak a glance while he was vulnerable like this, but oh how they sparkled -
Bunny landed next to her with a thud, egg and paintbrush in paw, startling her away from Jack. "Y'know, you could wait for him to wake up and I'm pretty sure he'd let you stick all the fingers you want in his mouth."
Tooth jerked away from Jack. "I was, uh - I was just -" she cringed, wringing her hands with embarrassment.
"So what is that one, a bicuspid or a molar?" Bunny gestured with the paintbrush at the seductive tooth before flipping it back around to continue painting. "Or is it an incisor? We all know you have a lot of feelings about incisors."
"Oh, hush," she said, fluttering over and whapping him gently on the arm.
Bunny just chuckled at her, putting the egg down and watching it trot off, then picking up another unpainted one as it trundled over. "If you came to check on him, he's fine. Still asleep, but after his week, he's got a right to be tuckered out. I'm going to sleep like a log myself, once this Easter's done with."
Still flushing with embarrassment, Tooth flitted over to Jack's side, kneeling in the grass next to him.
"I don't know how he does it sometimes."
"Is this about his teeth, or something else?" Bunny quipped, setting another egg down to run.
Tooth looked over at Bunny. "What he went through, seeing the world the way he was forced to see it - I don't know if I could've gone as long as him."
Bunny paused in his painting long enough to look at Jack again. "He had a lot going against him, too. If there had ever been a situation to fold, he was in it."
"Why didn't we reach out to him sooner?" Tooth said sadly, the tone in her voice making it clear that it wasn't just for his sake that she wished she'd met him before she had.
"Uh -" Bunny paused, pointing from himself to Tooth with the paintbrush. "Your answer would be different from mine."
One of them had been too busy - the other, too biased.
"I just wish that I'd known..."
Bunny chuckled again. "How pretty his teeth were?"
That got him a cross look at first, but it devolved into a happy sigh. "They are beautiful."
"He's really done a number on you, hasn't he?"
"Hmph!" Tooth replied, not refuting his statement, but avoiding it. "I think it's safe to say that he's had a reasonable impact on us all."
"Not what I meant and you know it," Bunny said, finishing the last detail on the egg he was painting and handing it to her. She took it automatically, glancing down, and-
"I told you I was gonna paint it on the googs." Bunny's expression was too pleased with himself and not even remotely repentant.
A tiny painted Tooth sat on an equally tiny, painted Jack's lap, his hands at her hips as if resting them there was the most natural thing in the world. The painted couple gazed into each others' eyes in peaceful, pleased silence, just as Bunny had caught them back in the icy tunnels of the Pole when Jack had been recovering from his surge in belief as a new Guardian, and Tooth had taken it upon herself to reassure him that none of what he'd done had angered them.
Tooth put the egg down and chuckled nervously to herself, smoothing back a feather that didn't need smoothing. "Well you know - I mean, you've seen - he's a very good person and I appreciate the Guardian he's growing into - even you see that now, right?"
Bunny raised his eyebrows, nodding thoughtfully.
"I saw him refuse to freeze Tikitere," he said, "out of respect for the things that lived there, and the spirits that protected it, even though it meant forfeiting the first challenge to Old Man Winter. Then staying behind to unfreeze it when the old man did, anyway. What was it he said? Ah, that if the old man got his heart, it would be a heart he'd choke on?"
He picked up another blank egg. "And at Kilauea." he paused before going on. "He said that if he hadn't made it across, he was going to let himself burn up. Just to stop the old man from getting his heart. And you know something? I didn't doubt him for a second."
Jack would have done it. He would have died if living meant that the world would be in danger because of it.
"Back at the Tooth Palace, when I said he was a good Guardian, did you already know he was that good?"
Bunny's question caught Tooth off-guard, and she paused before answering.
"I hadn't thought ..." she trailed off, pausing again. "I honestly hadn't thought about...about a situation this dire, I suppose."
She hovered, silent for a moment, and the expression on her face was like the moment a flower stops being a bud, and becomes an open bloom. It was like a landslide, or a wave - unstoppable and altering.
"But if I had ... I know the Man in the Moon chose us, all of us, because we were willing to do anything for the children. Jack couldn't have been an exception ... but this, what he went through, what he was willing to give up ..." she swallowed, nodding. "That's exceptional."
Her smile was subdued now - but it was laced with much more admiration, and something a little - but not entirely - like fear.
"Aww now," said Bunny, pausing in his egg-painting long enough that the next unpainted egg in line butted up against his foot. "See this?" he gestured at Tooth with his paintbrush again. "This is adorable."
Tooth sighed at him. "This is payback, isn't it? For that talk at the Tooth Palace. You're paying me back for that, aren't you."
Bunny just smiled at her. "You've been telling me what I needed to hear for a while, Tooth. It's about time I returned the favor."
"And what is it that I need to hear, exactly?" she asked.
"Maybe that the only people who can't seem to see you've done numbers on each other are, well, both of you."
Tooth's mouth hung open just a little at that declaration, and she blushed.
Bunny pushed the painted egg back over to her. "That one's for you to keep. Happy Easter, mate."
He bounded off, back to work, the unpainted eggs toddling after him.
Tooth looked back at Jack, still sound asleep, her expression melting to one of pure tenderness. This was almost too big and frightening to deal with. A simple crush and a desire to get a peep at his teeth was one thing, but she'd spent a very long time mostly keeping to herself and to her fairies, and she'd never once had a chance to truly care for someone in this way. It was completely unknown territory.
Reaching out hesitantly, Tooth brushed a lock of hair out of Jack's face with a gentle caress.
At that, Jack's eyes fluttered half-open and he peered over at her with all the laziness of the half-asleep that want to be whole-asleep. His face broke broke into a broad, beaming smile at the sight of her. He reached his own hand up and brushed his fingers against her cheek, then withdrew and closed his eyes again.
Tooth allowed herself another blush and a smile before zipping through the tunnels back to her own work.
When Jack woke up - actually woke up rather than just briefly opening his eyes before rolling over and going back to sleep - he was a lot warmer than he was used to. At first he thought that it was just that he wasn't quite used to not being almost frozen solid, but then something kicked him in the head. He reluctantly cracked open an eye, and found himself inches from a drooling elf.
They were piled all over him, in various states of sleep. Ugh. Yeah, not getting back to sleep now.
He sat up, brushing the elves off, and spotted Anansi and Bunny sitting a little way off, talking in quiet voices. Waves of painted eggs were rollicking back and forth in the open space before them, where the warren diverged into the tunnels that lead to the open world. Bunny was still painting, a line of blank eggs filing behind him, but there was a sense of ease about him, and about the warren, that suggested Easter was soon, but well-prepared-for.
Jack left the quiet corner where the yetis and elves still snored (North was nowhere to be seen, but neither was Phil so they were probably back at the Pole rebuilding). He bounded up behind Bunny, scattering the line of eggs and laughing as they toddled around on their unsteady little feet.
"Well, look who finally decided to wake up," said Bunny, looking over his shoulder. "And just in time for Easter. Welcome back, mate."
"Tell me truthfully," Jack said, flopping on Bunny's back like he was a particularly furry couch. "Did the elves do anything to my mouth? Like crawl in? My tongue feels like I licked an elf."
"Wouldn't fit," Anansi answered while Bunny grunted and (reasonably gently) elbowed Jack in the stomach.
"Off," the rabbit said. "I'm not done painting, and your breath stinks."
"No. You're really soft." Jack considered for a moment. "Well no, your fur is soft. You're all sinew. Like a brick wrapped in gossamer softness."
Bunny heaved a sigh. "Sandy broke him, Anansi," he said mournfully. Then, before Jack could add anything in, he spun the brush around in his paw and without even looking back, swept it across Jack's face.
"Ackpth!" Jack recoiled and Anansi and Bunny both laughed.
"Enjoy your mustache," Bunny said as he went back to his eggs. "It matches your jumper."
Jack leaned behind Bunny to look at his reflection in Anansi's shiny carapace, though it was difficult to see properly with the way the Spider was still shaking with laughter. "What - how did you - that's a perfect mustache, how did you do it so fast?"
Bunny spun the paintbrush artfully between his fingers before returning to the egg. "Centuries of practice."
Jack was amused enough over the mustache to not bother trying to wipe it away. He placed his staff down gently and crouched to look at Anansi's eggs.
"Wow, you are nowhere near as good at this as Bunny is." He tilted his head as he looked at Anansi's work. His eggs had web patterns on them - printed with actual webbing - but some of them were overdyed to the point of being mud-colored. "Looks like the Spider found a competition he can't win."
Anansi casually reached over, picked up one of the bowls of paint he was using, and tossed it all over the front of Jack's shirt in one fluid movement.
"That took no practice," Anansi said with a grin. "Isn't it beautiful?"
Jack stood there for a moment, completely aghast at his paint-smeared hoodie. Then his expression turned to one of deviousness. Throw paint on him, would he? Anansi didn't realize he'd just triggered a war that would result in mutually assured destruction.
Jack kicked his staff up to his hand, flying off in an upward burst of wind.
Bunny spoke, distracted, without looking up from his work. "Don't have too much fun. I've wanted to watch the two you have a go at each other for years, but I can't watch a prank war right now."
"What could he possibly do to out-mischief the great Anansi?" Anansi said, going back to his work.
Anansi rocked forward as the snowball hit him in the back of the head. Some of it dripped over his shoulders and down his shirt, and he looked with a bewildered expression at the brightly colored liquid dripping over his clothes.
Anansi turned, but it was already too late.
Three more snowballs made from the dye river covered the front of his dashiki. Then - splut! - another hit him right in the face.
Bunny smirked, still not looking up from his work.
"Lots of things, really," said Bunny. "Like that."
That was when the situation devolved, for lack of a better word, into chaos. Into shoving, kicking, paint-splattering chaos, rife with noogies and headlocks.
"No no, you can't make me eat it. I hate marshmallow, I hate - aaaaugh."
"Hey! You got it in my dreads, you little -"
Anansi wound up a dye-loaded web ball and threw it, hard. Jack ducked and the ball splatted Bunny upside the head.
Bunny froze for a moment, then kept painting, covered in dye and web. "I'm working, you brumbies."
"Ah, come on," Anansi wheedled. "You've been working all week. That's much too long."
"I only get one week," Bunny snarked. "And Anansi, if you don't get all this web out of my fur, I will stop working to dunk you in the dye river."
Anansi considered this, then meekly scuttled over to pluck the sticky web off of Bunny.
"Hey," said Jack, already bored without someone to throw multicolored snowballs at. "When you're done grooming each other, come find me. I'm gonna try to teach the elves to play monkey-in-the-middle."
"Try" being the operative word there.
Jack bounded off, his laughter filling the vaulted, open space of the Warren as he lept from rock to rock. Bunny set down another egg as Anansi picked the last bits of web from his fur.
"- so you get my worry," he finished, slipping straight back into the conversation he and Anansi had been having before Jack woke up. "Something about him's got Pitch obsessed, in a way I've never seen Pitch obsessed with anything. Meanwhile Jack hasn't even noticed." He watched Jack fly around the tops of the pines on a ridge across from them. "He doesn't know Pitch well enough to realize the things Pitch said to him in the foundry are unusual."
"Remind me," said Anansi, spreading some of the web he'd plucked from Bunny's fur, and briefly looking at a picture in it before crumpling the web into a ball with a disappointed frown. "What were his words?"
"He said -" Bunny paused, scratching behind his ear with the handle of the paint brush. "That it was always about Jack. He woke Old Man Winter up to manipulate Jack into joining him -" here he paused, disbelief coloring his voice. "He was using the whole world as ransom to get Jack on his side. Since when does Pitch try to get people to join him?"
"There are stories," Anansi said. He flicked his hands open, and a web cascaded between them like a cat's cradle. "Unfortunately, they're incomplete." He frowned at the half-formed shapes in them. "I know enough to anger Pitch, but not enough to say why he would fixate on one lonely boy ..."
The spider crumpled the webs beneath his hands. "But I can guess. And what I guess is that Jack has more to fear from Pitch Black than he knows."
Bunny snorted. "That's what I'm saying." His bright green eyes tracked Jack as he lead a line of elves to an open field, inciting them to chase him around for a wadded-up hat that served as a ball. "Pitch is changing somehow. He knew waking Old Man Winter up would mean people would die - not to mention poor Frosty - and he was willing to let that happen just to get Jack to join him. The fear Old Man Winter brought wasn't even his primary reason for waking him up. I don't know what to expect from Pitch next. It just looks like whatever it is will involve Jack."
Anansi nodded, and they watched Jack in silence.
"So." Anansi broke the silence. "How badly are you going to scare him?"
"I'm not," said Bunny. Jack was laughing, dogpiled by elves, and that was exactly how the Guardian of Fun ought to stay. "Pitch is weak right now and Jack is a powerhouse now that Old Man Winter's out of the picture forever. He doesn't need to be afraid. But I'll keep an eye on him - andyou keep an eye out for those stories."
"Nobody tells the Spider what to do."
Bunny just laughed. "The Easter Bunny just did."
Anansi laughed as well. "You know, after so many years in the shadows, I think I am looking forward to being bossed around by an old friend."
They smiled at each other, and there were centuries of stories untold as they both went back to work on their eggs.
Anansi added, "Not that it means I'll listen. I'll just like hearing it."
Bunny snickered, but kept painting.
When spring was born, so goes the story, custodians were born to attend it.
Rabbit-shaped and rabbit-quick, the pookas maintained the warren that was their home, that was the home of spring, and under their care that sacred center teemed with life and order. And so it was in the rest of the world.
"You're not going to go into the disturbing details again? I mean, anything that could be considered gratuitously unfortunate –"
The spider-legged Guardian of Stories rolled his eyes at the snow-haired Guardian of Fun. "I will keep it inner-child friendly."
Jack settled into his snowbank on Kilimanjaro. He was comfortable there in that snow that never melted, enough not to mind in the slightest that spring was unfolding in full force throughout the northern hemisphere.
It was Easter Sunday. Spring should have been unfolding.
He nodded to Anansi, sitting beside him on a snowless rock. "Okay, so, what happens next?"
"Where was I?" Anansi scratched his chin with a spiderleg. "Ah yes - and so it was with the rest of the world."
They were accustomed to the belief waxing and waning with the year. Like the moon, its effects were not always visible, but its presence was always with them. Even the timid ones who never left the warren felt it, the replenishing undercurrent of human belief in their existence causing the tiny spring fairies to flourish as spring itself caused plants, children, creatures of all kinds, to do.
The warren was a well of life beneath the surface of a part of the world so dangerous, the few that dared to surface there were either spoken of as legend - or with regret for their passing. Life does not go without death - even for those whose work is to attend life itself.
Back then, the myth of a singular Easter Bunny was still only that. There were many pooka, and together they moved and were moved by the seasons, covering the world with the treasures of spring. Even so, there were some who ranged farther, who saw more, were seen more, who inspired the lion's share of the belief. And there were some even the boldest looked up to.
One ranged farthest and fastest. He was young, but old enough to have had the rashness of youth raked out of him. Fear was not his master, because that which was small, that which was almost defenseless, as were they all, needed the warning of fear - but needed not to be paralyzed by it.
He braved the company of the Centzon Totochtin, whose belief was soaked in blood, and brought back the cacao that would become Easter chocolate. In summer, when belief made hares of the bold, he covered the continents of Africa and Australia, escaping the jaws of predators as often by trickery as much as by speed. And every tale of survival, told to the timid who rarely left the warren, to the young who were itching to stretch their legs in the dangerous world, be it a tale of humor, of guile, of the triumph of the small and quick and clever over the large and slow and strong - every tale cultivated the same thing. Hope, hope for a new day, for a next adventure, for survival in a dangerous world. And on that hope, they thrived.
And that hope, they cultivated. Every one of them, to a number, knew how it felt to be cold, or hungry, or afraid - or all three. Every one of them knew the value of hope. Children, small and vulnerable, were as much like them as humans got. They could be the most hopeful, or they could need hope the most. And so they brought hope, when they followed spring across the world, leaving gifts in shoes and on doorsteps. Our friend was not the first to think to leave gifts, but he was the first to hide them, to make a game and a lesson of it as well as a sign that spring had come again.
"Yeah, I never told anyone this, but I always liked Easter. The kids have a great time, get all sugared up, run around screaming -"
"Thank you for that essential observation. May I continue?"
So it was for ages - the little society flourished under the dry desert, and winter and spring came to the world in their time.
When winter grew ambitious and thought to end spring forever, our friend was alone, as was the way of rangers such as him, beneath the brilliant stars. Why he sought solitude in the open outback that night, instead of safety in his snug home, I will not say - but it involved an argument that was never to be resolved.
He was there to -
"Wait a minute. You told me how many Trickster Hare stories without permission, hit me with that...that piece of gratuity in the coral cave when I was already this close to giving up on life, and now you have a sense of discretion?"
"Ah, you have observed a contradiction in my character! Yes, Frost Spirit, good sense of narrative. You're very smart. Now shut up."
"'He was there to -'"
- to see the skies darken and the full force of winter bear down upon his home, and he was fast, but not fast enough to reach them in time for a warning, or to be caught as one of the casualties. The sight he found when he reached the wreckage was grotesque - but you know that tale already.
"Thanks a lot for that."
The Guardians, newly formed by the Man in the Moon, found him and heard his story. Their fight against Old Man Winter was renewed at this reminder of the scope of his cruelty, and that battle lead them to Antarctica, to a battle to test them to the edge of their skill.
Jokul Frosti's Antarctic fortress withstood the onslaught of the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and Nicholas St. North, and Old Man Winter himself was delighted to keep them at bay. Despair had made him strong. Many deaths had made him stronger, and hopelessness reigned. For fear, when it sets in, is hard to overcome, and there is no adult alive who doesn't worry, just a little bit, when the cold starts to bite too much.
As they fought, the last survivor of the spring warren did his best to cover ground that was too great for a tiny creature, to bring hope to people who had too much hunger, too much cold, and him with not nearly enough for all of them.
But that is the beauty of hope - fear spreads fast, but so does hope, from the open hearts of one child to another.
He, who was as changeable as the belief that made him strong in the summer and small in the dark cold, could feel it in the softness of himself, in the towering of even grass. Hope was very weak.
But it was not dead yet.
The Guardians fought bravely, and to their last breath, when hopelessness began to touch even their hearts.
Jokul Frosti fought as if the battle were already won, and in many ways, he had - so all three Guardians were that much more surprised when, mid-battle, the mighty Old Man Winter simply lay down and slept.
The Tooth Fairy and Nicholas St. North looked at the Sandman for an answer, but he had none for them. Old Man Winter had simply made good on his taunts that the fight they put up was so boring, he would do as well to nap as he would to continue fighting.
Their surprise continued when they returned to a world that was no longer snowed over, but bursting with spring - with vines overgrown and flowers springing from the cracks between pavement, and the pollen - oh, the pollen. And eggs - eggs, everywhere.
Jack snickered. "I heard about the eggs. Tooth said they started to smell after a while."
"I am ever so impressed by your ability to remember things somebody told you. Did you come here to tell a story, or hear one?"
"By all means. Do continue," Jack said with a slight flourish of his hand, utterly unphased by Anansi's barbs.
"I just will." Anansi settled onto his rock, dusting some stray snow from it. "Back to the eggs - everywhere - yes, Frost Spirit, starting to smell."
The Guardians picked up a new chase - to find the source of the spring that was overgrowing the world, and bring him back to senses that an overabundance of belief had bowled over.
They caught up to him and he was not as they remembered. Where the stubborn pooka they recalled had been small enough to fit inside the boot of Nicholas St. North, the pooka they found was nearly two meters from his hind feet buried in the grass to the tips of his long ears swinging in the pollen.
He'd had the work of a thousand to do. And the faster he ran, the harder he worked to do it, the more children he had reached - the more children had believed that he could.
And so he had.
"Are we sure is same Bunny?" North asked, of Sandman and Toothiana, when they spotted the grey blur shooting across the Mongolian plains. The reindeer had to run very fast indeed to keep up, but North pushed them as only he could.
The last pooka, catching sight of them, spared them only a short glance and a shout.
"Shouldn't you be fighting the old man?"
"Old Man is fought!" North crowed. "Sleeping in the ice, like frozen head of fish. Is good work you have done! Now maybe, is time to rest? Before smell of rotten egg is covering all the planet, phoo."
The Easter Bunny didn't break stride as he raised an eyebrow at North. "Yeah, good one. Look, I said it was an honor but I've got to do the work of a thousand, and in case you haven't noticed, there's only one of me. I don't have time to talk."
The Tooth Fairy shouted after him - "But you already have!"
"Talked too much! I know!"
He put on a burst of speed that none of them could match - and would have gone on, if the Sandman had not cut off his path with a wall of sand. He skidded to a stop, stamped his foot in frustration, and paused with surprise as the ground opened up for him. In that pause, the Tooth Fairy had zipped to his side.
"No, you've already done it," she insisted, hovering over the tunnel that lead to the other side of the sand wall, blowing away in the wind of the plains. "There's spring on every continent, even the ones where it's supposed to be fall. You need to give the world a rest, now."
"How can I stop?" the last pooka refrained from jumping down the rabbit-hole, only because doing so would mean pushing the Tooth Fairy out of the way first, and there had not been a single bringer of hope who did not regard her and her work with the utmost respect - for hope rides so heavily on memory. "The Old Man is going to notice any minute. The people need food. When he comes back, they need to be ready -"
"Old Man Winter is asleep," Toothiana insisted, "He went to sleep because of you. Because you did it - look at you! You've done the work of a thousand," she persisted. "Everyone believed you could. You gave them a reason to believe"
The Easter Bunny glanced at himself, as if only just noticing that he was six feet tall, that his weapons no longer fit his hands.
The Tooth Fairy put her slim hands over his paw.
"You need to rest now," she said, her voice gentle, plying him down from the madness of being so suddenly, so solely believed in. "You can. You did it."
For a moment he was still, but when he looked up, there was a deep fear in his eyes.
"I can't stop," he insisted. "If I stop, if the work is over, then I have nothing to do but -"
The Sandman and North stood by, their distance respectful. Death had touched their lives - murder had taken their acquaintances - but not so personally. And not at such a scale.
But the Tooth Fairy had reasons to understand the weight of working alone - and the sorrow of loved ones taken before their time.
"You will always have your memories," she said. "Whenever you need them. That's a promise."
In the quiet of that moment, coming down from the rush of power that comes with suddenly having the belief of a thousand, the Guardian of Memories' consolation finally stopped him long enough for the grief he had outrun to catch up.
With no work left to distract him, he broke like a blade of grass bending to a strong wind. Toothiana caught his shoulder as he fell, half from the downslide of being overbelieved, half from grief.
He did not ask, as he wept and she tried not to in sympathy, how he would endure. He already knew how - with memory, and with hope.
The broken moment was short. When he stood again, unsteady, the Sandman and North stepped forward in concern as he stamped another tunnel open.
"I do have more work to do," he said, but quiet and calm. "Just - not here."
He left them, returning to the task of clearing his home of his dead.
"And then, after hundreds of years, came a frost spirit-"
"You can skip this part," said Jack. "I already heard it."
"Oh but I had more to say," said Anansi. "And it was so nicely worded."
Jack considered. "Okay - fine, I guess you can say them."
"You are kind to give me permission."
And then, after hundreds of years, came a frost spirit, laughing as he undid the work of spring.
'Boring,' Jack Frost said, as if the seasons were a game he could decide not to play, 'I think I'm just going to ignore it.'
And it was a long time before he was able to see Jack Frost as anything but a potential threat to everything being allowed to happen when it ought.
But that, too, came, in its time.
"After that," said Anansi, drawing his story to a close, looking out over the African savannah with almost a sort of wistfulness, "My friend was never the same. But I would not say that tragedy had broken him - I would say that in the face of hardship, he had become more himself. But at the same time, he had lost something of himself - or buried it, in the face of responsibility."
He turned to Jack. "But sometimes, fate plays a long game. I do not believe the ending of my friend's story has been written yet, but if I were to hazard my expert guess -" his eyes twinkled behind his lenses - "I would say the ending has a better chance now than it did three hundred years ago of being a happy one."
Jack sat silently in the snows of Kilimanjaro, the African countryside unrolling around and below him as small flurries danced in the breeze. The sun had set on Africa, the story told, and the last of the light was fading from the sky.
After a moment, he stood up and nodded to Anansi.
"Thanks," he said. "Thanks for the story. I'm glad it's not over."
The wind rose up and blew him into the sky, carrying him south and east.
The evening was passing over the world, bringing Easter Sunday to a close, and Jack reached the entrance to the Warren under cover of darkness, in the welcoming cool of the Australian outback at night.
There was a back entrance that Bunny had finally told him about, one only the Guardians could get through. It took him some time to find it, hidden at the base of an acacia tree. He slipped in, and nodded at the Sentinel egg on guard there. It stood aside, acknowledging him as a friend, and he followed the winding tunnels until they opened up to the bright space of the warren.
Bunny lay on the grass, awake, but seemingly lost in thought. His ears perked up and his nose twitched as he sensed Jack's presence in his home, but he didn't get up, and he looked pleased to see him.
"You just missed Bilby," he said, as Jack landed on the grass beside the reclining rabbit. "She stopped by for a bit of shop talk. Five minutes earlier and you coulda said g'day."
"Too bad - wait, hold on, she?"
Bunny tilted his head to raise an eyebrow at Jack. "You didn't know Bilby was a Sheila? What rock were you sticking your head under?"
"She's a bilby. I didn't even know what a bilby was until I met her, how would I know the difference between male and female ones?" Jack said, sitting down in the grass and laying his staff down. "Why do you call ladies 'Sheila' anyway? How does that work if their name actually is Sheila?"
"It's an Aussie thing, Seppo," Bunny chuckled. "That's up to whoever names their kid Sheila."
Jack sprawled out shoulder to shoulder with Bunny, digging his toes into the grass.
"I'm surprised you aren't in a coma right now.
Bunny inhaled a deep, satisfied breath. "With all these kids busy Believing? This was a good one. Maybe good enough to make up for last year. I feel like I could do a week of Easters."
"I saw 'em having fun out there when I flew up to North's earlier." Jack had been doing his part helping with the rebuilding, and of course, had been reveling in North's company. (His very alive company.) "I'm pretty sure most of the parents of the world are never going to forgive you for the worldwide sugar rush pandemic going on right now."
"They'll have their vengeance through Tooth," Bunny chuckled. "Every year, the same lecture - always about caramel." He shrugged. "I try to deserve it." He paused, his expression distant. "They were having fun, weren't they?"
Jack turned his head to smile a wide smile at him.
"They were. I think - for once - you put me to shame. Kinda reminded me of -" Jack stopped for a second.
"Easter of 1707," Jack went on slowly. "I remember - I had to climb up into the trees to shake the eggs out of the branches for the other kids. That'd been a hard winter that year. We'd been having trouble just getting regular meals but then Easter came and it was like sweets were actually falling from the sky."
Bunny sat up to look at him thoughtfully.
"That was back when you were - whoever you were before you were Jack Frost? A kid?"
"Jackson Overland," Jack said. "My name was Jackson Overland. I lived in Burgess - before it was Burgess, anyway. When it was still a colony. Before..." He swallowed thickly. "Before. Like I told you guys, I remembered a lot of it when I opened up the puzzle box of my teeth. The rest has been coming back to me ever since."
"Those were hard times," Bunny mused. "Tough people. Needed a lot of strength to get through those winters. Always tried to give them something to really look forward to." He paused, thinking. "Can't say if I remember seeing you. I never get to stop to watch the fun very long."
Even for him, the whole world was a lot to cover in a day. He didn't always get to hang around to see how his work was received.
He sat in silence for a moment, then suddenly went on, "Anansi said something about you that was out of turn, even for him, back on Vancouver Island. It's not my place to pry, and none of us will, but you know, if you ever want to talk about your life before - about how you became Jack Frost -"
He caught Jack's eye, looking solemn. "You ever want to talk about it, I'll listen. We all would."
Jack shrugged. "There's not much to talk about. I wasn't lying back when I told you guys I saved my sister and got turned. We went ice-skating and the ice was too thin and I got her off it, only it meant I slipped over where she'd been standing..."
"She was lighter than me and it'd been cracking under her. I was heavier - you do the math. I woke up later and didn't remember anything. Who I was, where I'd come from - what I was... I was confused and - and scared. But I saw the moon looking down at me and he told me 'Your name is Jack Frost.' And then that was it."
Bunny frowned, but not at Jack. "That doesn't make a lot of sense, on the Man in the Moon's part. He really ignored you for three hundred years?"
Jack nodded and looked sidelong at Bunny. "He...did he talk to you guys? At least sometimes?"
"He hasn't talked to me much, but he didn't wait three hundred years to make me a Guardian. You know the others were the first, right? He picked 'em all together, minus Anansi, but I didn't join up 'til later. 'Course I was already trying to protect the kids and whatnot - what with one thing and another, they were all I had. When he added me to the team, it was probably because I was making it my business anyway. He didn't talk to me before that. And I gave him a lot of chances. Spent some time moon-gazing after the, ah. After the old man."
He trailed off.
"Anansi told me," Jack said. "He told me your story."
"Ah." Bunny paused, with a sigh. "Well. I said you could ask for It. Old bounce didn't traumatize you too much, did he?"
"No, this time, he emphasized the bits about how absolutely awesome you were and how the story was probably going to have a happier ending than it might have had before."
Bunny laughed, then looked thoughtful again. "A happier ending, huh? Can't say I have a problem with any of that." He settled back into the grass. "So your sister - you don't wanna talk about it, you stop me any time but - she must've really known you cared about her. Something like that, you take with you all your life."
Hopefully she'd been able to make something positive out of it, instead of being overwhelmed by the loss of her brother. It was what he tried to put into the world - hope that let the kids bounce back from tragedy, but mortals could be so easily overwhelmed by despair.
"That's something to be proud of. But you've got a lot to be proud of."
"I hope she knew. She had to have known, right?" Jack asked, craning his neck to look at Bunny again.
"She had to," Bunny agreed.
"Sometimes I think -" Jack paused. "Maybe Manny took my memories because he thought I'd be too unhappy if I knew she was my sister, but she couldn't see me. Maybe he thought starting over was best for me."
"Do you think that?"
"I don't know," said Jack, frowning at the ceiling of the warren. "Maybe. It would have made me sad, but -"
But three hundred years was too long to go without giving him anything - but they could second-guess Manny all year.
"How does that work?" he asked. "When something that bad happens - when you lose someone so important, and you know they're important, how - how do you just go on?"
Jack hadn't done that himself - not first-hand, not with immediacy.
Bunny paused again before answering.
"When the worst thing happens," he said, speaking an answer he'd already given a lot of thought - "once you make it through that - you know you can make it through anything." He paused. "That doesn't mean it won't be hard, when terrible things happen again. You just know that you can come through to the other side of hardship. No matter how much it feels like you'll never have reason to smile again, you will. You'll find it, or it'll find you. You make new reasons - new family."
Jack seized on that. "That's one of the things I came here to talk to you about, actually." He sat up again. "I wanted to thank you. Not for all the other stuff - you already know I'm grateful for the magical unicorn tears of healing. For the other stuff."
"Hey. Those were magical pooka tears and you know it." But Bunny grinned. "What other stuff?"
"Before all this, for a while, I was feeling kind of lonely. I felt like I needed more time from you guys than you had to give. This last year, it's the been the first time in all the time since I - that I had people."
"Ah." Bunny paused, considering. "Well, you're welcome. Sorry it took a mortal enemy and a near-death for me to get there."
"I'm not finished. I just... the thing is I don't need to be around you guys to stop feeling lonely now. Because of what you did. Because you made it clear that you..."
Jack just trailed off into silence.
"Yeah, feelings. Not used to talking about feelings. Fill in the blanks. Treat it like emotional MadLibs."
Jack just shook his head. "It's a kid's word ga - never mind. Just -" he smiled, digging down deeper for some feelings words. "You guys are - you're the most like a family I've ever had, in three hundred years, the most like having a family that I can completely remember." He shrugged. "Now that I know the feeling's mutual, I don't feel like I have to cling as much to... to anyone who'll pay attention to me."
He wasn't afraid of losing the good things that had come so suddenly to him, in the form of being a Guardian. He wasn't afraid he'd be cast out for his mistakes. He wasn't afraid that he'd never truly belong.
Those worries had nagged at him so long, but now, it was like they had drifted away like snowflakes on the wind, never to be seen again.
"But I still like being around you guys. So I was thinking," he went on, glancing over at Bunny. "I don't know if you've noticed this, but Easter - it's a day for the kids, yeah, and they have a good time, but afterwards, I always saw them go back to their families. After the egg hunts and the candy and everything. It's not just a day for kids, it's a day for family. So I was thinking ... maybe after you're done working, each year, once all the eggs are hidden and the kids have found them, maybe I could come back here. You know. For Easter evening. If you wanted."
He glanced hopefully at Bunny, but he didn't have to wait long before getting a smile from the rabbit.
"I'd like that," Bunny said, with a soft smile and a grateful nod.
Jack smiled too. The feeling of being home - of having a home to come back to - was starting to feel wonderfully familiar.
"So, ah -" he said, glancing around the warren, his eyes landing on the pictograms that he'd mocked once. Now that he was looking with an informed eye, he could see they obviously weren't Bunny - none of them had his markings, and each had individual characteristics marking them out from each other. "I had my sister. Did you have any sisters?"
Bunny chuckled. "A dozen."
"Bunnies," said Bunny meaningfully, raising his eyebrows. Jack nodded with a silent 'oh,' in understanding. "Lotta big families lived around here."
It was strange to think that the Warren, which already felt like it teemed with life, could have been teeming with more - and yet once it had been a near-dead tomb. "So, they're buried here?"
Bunny shook his head. "After all this time, no. You bury anything in Earth, after enough time, it becomes Earth. They aren't buried in the Warren anymore. They are the Warren."
Jack tilted his head back to look at the green, growing space beneath the desert, the soft light shining through the cavernous grass and leaves were alive with the whirring of insects and the sound of was nothing tomb-like about it.
"Do you do anything for them? Like, a memorial of some kind?"
"Every year, mate. It's called Easter."
And he'd snowed Easter out before. A slight barb of guilt pinged Jack again.
"Well," he said, stretching, his tone lighthearted. "Don't expect any more snow days for you. You better bring your A-game, from now on, 'cause I'm not giving you any more breaks."
Bunny snorted. "I'll try to contain my disappointment."
Jack stood up, looking at the pictograms some more. "Are you okay with talking about them?" he jerked his thumb at a repeated individual, the rabbit with the lab coat and goggles. "Who's this guy, anyway?"
"Him?" Bunny sat up, and his smile was proud. "I guess if you were going to call anyone the Easter Bunny before me, it would've been him. Taught me everything I didn't make up myself."
"Did he make up the exploding egg trick, or was that you?"
"We worked on those together. Different variations, you know?"
"And, uh -" Jack paused. "Did either of you ever think to trick each other by replacing the explosives with glitter?" he grinned wickedly. "Because I did that. I was gonna let it be a surprise, but all this time and you've never even used it -"
For a moment Bunny stared at him, half perplexed, half indignant.
Then he burst out laughing - real, deep, gut-busting laughter. Like he'd never laughed at one of Jack's pranks before.
Jack only grinned back. "I tried to be patient and see if you'd use it. I really tried, but patience isn't exactly my center."
"Imagine if I'd pulled it on Pitch," said Bunny, wiping a laughter tear from his eye. "Good luck to that old ratbag spreading fear when he's shinier than Tooth -"
He whipped an egg - the last of the ones he hadn't used in all the fighting they'd done previously - from his harness and threw it at Jack, nearly too fast for the eye to follow. Jack didn't have time to dodge before the egg exploded in a glimmery, glittery cloud all over him.
"Oh this is too good," Bunny kept laughing. "We're keeping this one. Pitch won't have an ounce of dignity left."
Jack stood there, covered in glittered, blowing it out of his mouth.
"You're dethpicable." Jack went on, "And also furry. I wonder how hard it'll be to get glitter out of fur, huh?"
He launched himself at the rabbit for a full body hug, aiming to rub the glitter off like Bunny was a giant walking towel.
Bunny flipped him over and onto the ground with a practiced, fluid movement, stepping back with his arms open, a minimal amount of glitter stuck to him. "Mast of t'ai chi, Jack - you're gonna have to be a little faster than that."
Jack scrambled to his feet and laughed as he hurled a snowball in Bunny's face, darting through the air towards him again.
Bunny zipped off at not-quite-full speed, trailing snow and glitter, leading Jack in a mad chase around the Warren.
Shouts of challenge and gleeful laughter filled the space, as it had not in centuries, as the spirits behind winter and spring played, really played, as one was born to do - and as one had not done in centuries.
As they did, a sense settled on the world of some deep rightness, a sense that had not been there for many centuries. Other spirits felt it, and marked its significance, understanding that a change was taking place, for the better.
It was in the earth, in the water, in the air - a balance that had been missing from the world, that had been struck off by evil and ambition, that had endured on the pain of wounds that had never had the medicine to properly heal.
Winter and spring were in balance - playing in the sacred place where all life in the world had risen.
Even the mortal humans felt it, in varying degrees, and for a few moments, that sense of rightness permeated the world.
The world was far from perfect - but things were better now. From loss and loneliness, hope had risen - and fun had caught up to stand with it.
And to be dunked in the dye river.
There was a dark place underground that the light of the world hadn't touched for centuries. Unlike Pitch's lair, which had never been touched by the sun, this place had once been open and bright. Long ago, it had stood alongside a river and its cavernous halls had been alive with story and song. Now its bright walls were dingy and gray and its tapestries were fraying and falling apart where they hung on the high walls. They should have long since completely disintegrated but there was magic in this place that preserved them somewhat. It was old magic.
It had taken Pitch quite some time to find it. Though he knew of many places that had been swallowed by the dark - and though he knew what could be considered the "back entrance" in the shadows - what he'd needed was to find where this place opened up to the surface world and how to get there that way.
He'd finally found the way in.
He already knew the way out, because it was only through the dark.
That meant it was perfect for his purposes.
In the biggest room, there was a table, large and round, with thirteen seats. One was meant to remain empty until the right person sat in it. Death had been thought the punishment of whoever sat there if they were unworthy - and in a way, a kind of death was - but Pitch knew better.
It was not an instant death. It was not a kind death. It was not even a physical death. If the wrong person sat in that chair, they were consigned to the dark. To many, physical death was a much less frightening alternative.
Humans always did like to rewrite their reality to something more pleasant than it was.
A warning had been left on the wall, carved in with magic fire. Ombric's wizard apprentice had always been such a killjoy. Pitch supposed he'd done it long after the glory of this place had faded, after it had been swallowed by the Earth.
"You'd think he'd have had better things to do than graffiti the walls after being trapped under a rock for that long," Pitch said to one of the night-mares that was with him.
Then again, he'd likely been mad by then. It certainly would explain the shoddy job he'd made of properly locking this place up.
At least it was all to Pitch's benefit.
With a wave of his hand, nightmare sand poured forth and scoured the message from the wall, sandblasting the words away until a flat surface remained. Then it went to work, scouring new words in their place.
"That should do it," said Pitch. "It's time to deal with him properly. I should have thought of this ages ago."
It was right then that he realized he had reached into the depths of his robes, in the darkness there that acted like a pocket, and that his hands touched cold metal. Somehow he'd done it without realizing he had. That was always the way it worked; he never remembered reaching his hand for the little metal object - he just found himself holding it without knowing why.
It happened so rarely - centuries had passed before in between times he'd taken a look at it - that sometimes he almost forget he carried it with him. Pitch drew the locket out of his pocket and stared at it like it was some alien thing that had fallen from the stars; and as always, he didn't understand why he'd unconsciously reached for it.
It was such an unremarkable thing, a simple oval made of gold, the surface etched intricately, the chain gold as well. It was beautiful, but not remarkable in any way.
He didn't know why he kept it. He didn't know why he sometimes had the desire to open it and why he feared what he'd find inside. He didn't know why, during those many times that he'd tried to make himself throw it away, he'd always found himself putting it back safely where he carried it.
He also didn't know why he sometimes had the urge to take it out whenever he was about to do something that some people might have considered irrevocably and horrifically irredeemable.
Just like all those other times, after staring at the locket and repressing the urge to open it, he tucked it away again.
The night-mares stared at him and he felt anger rising - at them, at the locket, and above all else, at himself.
"What are you looking at?" he snapped and they whinnied and drew away.
Pitch looked back at the wall and smiled.
"You know what they say: if you can't join them...beat them," he said. "We're going to have my kind of fun this time."
Then he and the night-mares melted into shadows that were older than nations.