It was instinct more than anything else that had E. Aster Bunnymund raising his nose into the air and his ears swiveling to catch even the tiniest noise. Nothing smelled or sounded out of place, but that didn't mean something wasn't there. Slowly putting down his half-painted googie, Bunny turned to take in his surroundings. "You don't have to do that on my account, Cottontail."
"Frost." Bunny grunted, spotting the boy perched on a nearby stone golem. Now that he knew what to look for, he could feel the sharper bite of Jack's Northern Wind gently cooling the Warren. "What're you doing here?"
The boy shrugged, slipping down from the golem with an unnatural grace. "Bored."
"Yer bored." Narrowing his eyes, Bunny turned back around and seemed to dismiss the boy, picking his googie back up.
"And its too hot out." Bunny grunted, deciding that the egg would look good with a yellow stripe right there. What Bunny didn't notice was that Jack was steadily walking closer, one hand in his hoodie's pocket. Leaning his staff against the tree that Bunny had taken up camp under, Jack crouched behind Bunny and gently touched one furry shoulder.
"What the! Jack, what the hell? Look at what you made me do!" Holding up the now-ruined egg, Bunny turned to actually look at Jack.
The boy looked chagrined. "Sorry about that. I... ah." Words failed him and he pulled out a distinctive looking brush and comb. "You're too busy with your Easter prep and since this year Easter's pretty late..."
"Get on with it." Bunny snorted, eying the implements of torture in Jack's hand.
Sighing, Jack bit his lip, making a show of looking Bunny over. "You look like crap."
"Ta, mate. You don't look like no spring chicken either." Which Jack conceded. Normally, he'd be asleep by this time of year, especially with how the weather was heating up in preparation for spring, but he still wanted to do something to help Bunny with his holiday. To put it gently, he looked like a limp, used mop with tired eyes and bags big enough to go on vacation with. There was no way that Bunny would allow him anywhere near an egg and paintbrush being that fatigued.
"Just... Just let me at least help with your shedding before you have to go out, so you don't look like a yeti is trying to deliver Easter eggs. I'll be gentle." Bunny snorted, both at the lovely visual of looking like one of North's brutes, and the thought that Jack would know anything about grooming.
"An' what would you know about groomin'?"
Jack shrugged, absently plucking white hairs from in between the bristles. "That sometimes its hard to get between the shoulder blades without help... And I've been told I'm good at it." A wistful smile crept across Jack's lips and his eyes unfocused on the present. "Apparently, I used to brush my sister and mother's hair too. They both had sensitive scalps and sister would sit on my cot all the time and not move until I had brushed her hair..." Shaking himself out before he sunk too deeply into his memories, Jack gave Bunny a smirk. "The yeti seem to enjoy it, at least."
The Pooka looked unimpressed. "The yeti have elephant skin, and so does North."
Snorting out a small laugh, Jack nodded, plucking a tuft of loose fur from Bunny's ruff. "Still, it wouldn't hurt to try, would it?" Actually, no, it wouldn't. Bunny looked across the Warren, watching herds of unpainted googies waddling toward the various clearings, waiting to be painted. In fact, he was actually ahead of schedule for once, even with upping production to make up for the fiasco of '12.
He had meant to dig out his grooming brushes anyway, but hasn't had the time to actually look for them in the chaos he called his burrow. Holding out his arm, Bunny gave Jack an expectant look. "Show me." Blinking, Jack's mind went blank before he nodded hesitantly. It wasn't like he actually expected for Bunny to accept the offer. "Well?"
"Oh. Right." Gently taking the arm, Jack lowered it back to a comfortable position before starting to finger-comb the longer fur of Bunny's shoulder, carefully teasing apart small knots. Working in silence, Jack finished the longer hair and stroked his hands down the shorter hairs of Bunny's arms, checking tangles. In the heat of the warren, the natural frost on Jack's hands had melted somewhat, making his hands slightly clammy and perfect for picking up stray hairs. After a minute, he pulled away and brushed his hands together in a practiced motion, turning the stray hairs stuck to his hand into a small hairball and dropped it off to the side. In the same motion, Jack picked up the comb and started back at the top of Bunny's shoulder.
Taking the silence as a good thing, Jack started to hum absently as he worked, ignoring Bunny's stare. With the comb, Jack worked in short strokes, gathering loose fur as he went. The pile of blue-gray fur grew steadily as he worked, not surprising either guardian.
Silently, Bunny watched the boy as he worked, mesmerized. If he didn't know what the boy was doing, he wouldn't feel a thing except for the occasional light tug. Color him surprised, the boy was good with his tools. In fact, there were several times when Jack was doing the 'petting' step in his grooming technique where he had to consciously stop himself from grinding his teeth in a purr. Finally, Jack reached for the brush. It looked like a wire-toothed beast that would certainly hurt and Bunny tensed, closing his eyes. After a minute of feeling the same thing that he had before, Aster opened his eyes again, expecting to see more of the comb.
Meeting Jack's raised eyebrow, Bunny huffed and finally turned away.
"The brush gets rid of the most fur." Jack explained softly, pressing just hard enough for Bunny to feel the light scratch of tines on skin without hurting. "But I like to make sure all of the surface tangles are gone first so I don't have to pull and hurt anyone." Only a handful of passes with the brush, and it was full, despite the fur already sitting by Jack's knee. Using the comb, he worked off the hairball clogging the bristles and went straight back to the small section he was working.
If he was honest with himself, Bunny would have skipped straight to the brush, tangles be damned, and only gotten what he could snag with the shortest time possible. "Ok, fine, so you know what you're doing." Bunny nodded to his arm, "Where'd you learn to do that?"
Jack tilted his head side to side, thinking. "Here and there." He stopped to clear the brush yet again. "Mostly trial and error with the wolf packs and other animals I play with." Another hairball was pulled off the brush,
"And the yeti," Jack shook his head, as if it was still unbelievable. "They're suckers for a good back scratch, especially up in the pole where North keeps all those fireplaces cranked up all the time. A lot of the time I have to borrow one of their brushes though- they're huge!- or it takes too long." He sketched out the size of the yeti's brushes with his fingers and Bunny figured them to be about the size of one of his tea saucers; compared to Jack's brush, which was about half the size of a human hair brush. "It makes it easier to get away with things." He said with an impish grin, carefully avoiding Bunny's eyes.
Bunny narrowed his eyes, watching Jack. "So that's what yer up to. Wotcha want, Jack."
Blinking in surprise, Jack rocked back onto his heels. "What?" Shaking his head, Jack went back to brushing. "Nothing." Bunny didn't need to know that he had came more out of a sense of begging forgiveness than wanting to garner a favor. "I don't need a reason, do I?"
"Knowing you, yes." Bunny hissed, watching Jack like he was going to bite.
"I told you earlier." Jack would not meet Bunny's eyes. "I was bored and its hot out. Good news, Cottontail, there's not even going to be frost on the grass for Easter, the way its going."
Bunny grunted, staring for a few more minutes before turning away. He didn't so much mind the frost on the morning grass, in fact it was good for the googies, but it was more than an inch or two of snow that made him start worrying. "Ya don't have to stop waterin' the grass on my account, Frost. Just don't go overboard."
Jack snorted -or was he sputtering because a stray hair had found its way to his mouth?- and gave Bunny a final rub down on his arm. "Not that easy, Hopalong. Believe it or not, most of the time I don't actually make the weather. If there's a blizzard on the menu, I can't make it go away, just... spread it out so that it's not as bad. The weather says that its going to be hot for the rest of the month and there's nothing I can do about it. Sure, if I wanted to exhaust myself, I could probably give Burgess an inch or two, but it wouldn't stick. There," Jack patted Bunny's groomed arm, "So?"
Making a confused noise, Bunny rose his eyebrow. Did Jack want his opinion of the weather? "I'm done with your arm. Do I pass?" Jack expounded.
Pass? Bunny looked at his arm closely. It was perfectly groomed and not a single hair was out of place. The fur itself had a healthy sheen that he didn't think it could have anymore. In fact, the last time he had been groomed so well was... was when... "Yeah, mate. Its ok. Keep going if you want." Bunny muttered, refusing to allow himself to get choked up from the sudden memory, and turned his back to Jack. There was no need to stroke the kit's ego; it was big enough already.
A small laugh and light tugs at his ruff was Jack's answer as the boy dove back into his work.
Having his arm free once more, Bunny restarted hand painting a selection of googies where he had left off. "Thought you were stronger than that. What about '68 and '12?" Silence was his answer and the air thickened with unspoken tension, though Jack's hands never stopped moving.
"Things... happened. In '68. I didn't know it was Easter." Or it was more that it was bad luck that it happened to be Easter that weekend.
If it wasn't for his excellent hearing, Bunny would have missed it, "It was a bad winter and I just... gave up. It was bad luck that the storm was already there, and I didn't move it out of the way in time. I don't know about you," Jack forced a small laugh, "but I'd rather it snowed than rain enough to flood. It's easier for the ground to absorb, y'know?" Bunny tilted his head to the side, debating what meant. On the one hand, snow melted slower, making it easier to absorb into the ground, but on the other hand, it also had more volume than rain. A couple fingers of rain could equal snow up to his knees.
"So, a few extra storms in a season and you gave up. Slacking on your duties." In response, Jack iced his fur subconsciously, where it reached all the way to his delicate skin, making him yelp. "What the bloody hell was that for?"
"...You know that Jamie is my first believer, right?" Jack asked, ignoring Bunny's wriggling.
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?" Bunny shot back, staying out of Jack's reach, trying to scrub the ice from between his shoulder blades.
"I know you know what happens when you try to interact with kids when they don't believe in you." Oh, yes, he knew. He had forgotten how it felt as if your very soul was being ripped from your person, as if ice had been poured through your veins, freezing your heart and lungs. The moment when you forgot what it felt to live, for your lungs to forget how to work and your heart to beat. And he had only gotten a taste of it in '12 before he was reduced to less than the size of a kit and had to be carried by a flightless Tooth or an ancient North.
"Yeah, mate." He nodded, hand pressed to his heart and sinking into a crouch.
"And have you ever heard of 'Frosty the Snowman'?"
"What's that gumby have to do with anything?" The expression that crossed Jack's face wasn't quite a smile, but it wasn't quite an angered look either, more of a pursing of his thin lips.
Walking over to the stone golem, Jack frosted a blank patch and started to doodle something intently. "Everything. At least with '68, it does. 300 years of nobody seeing me, do you think I spent all that time doing nothing to try to get their attention?" Cupping his hands around the drawing, Jack concentrated and pulled, drawing the character out of the frost. Turning around, a miniature boy stood in Jack's hands and gave a jaunty little wave. It reminded him of Nightlight, or Jack, rendered in blue and white frost. "This is something that I learned to do recently, but animating snowmen? Yeah, I've been able to do that for what, seventy years now? The kids build them all the time, so they start playing around them. One day, the snowman grows arms and legs and starts playing back, thus Frosty the Snowman legend is born." The little figure leapt from Jack's hand and walked over to Bunny, promptly exploding in a shower of blue happy-inducing snowflakes when it reached the Pooka.
"Yeah, so they were starting to believe in you. You should be happy about that."
The ice that formed around Jack's feet cracked sharply. "No, they believed in a talking snowman. Even made a movie about him. Several movies. That's not me, that, that's... like someone seeing and believing in North's elves and not North!" Tremors ran up and down his arms and his breath shook from restraining his powers to only a small radious. "That was just... I gave up. Do you know who the kids thank for snow on Christmas? North? Snowball fights and fun times? Frosty. You know all I'm known for?"
"Woah, mate, calm down."
"You even said it: freezing pipes and messing with your egg hunts." Jack affected the worst Australian accent he had ever heard.
"Now wait just a minute!" Bunny grabbed Jack's arm, ignoring the ice biting into his sensitive paw pads. "You need to calm down."
"Before what, before I freeze the Warren? I know." Turning away and wrapping his arms around himself, Jack planted himself into the frozen grass and started to focus on his breathing.
"Jack...?" Bunny tried, his hand not moving from where Jack had wrenched himself free. "Mate, talk to me." Crouching behind the boy, Bunny held his hand out, wanting to touch, to comfort, the shaking child.
Making a full-body shudder like he was shaking water off, Jack turned around to face Bunny, a thousand-watt false smile plastered on his face. "Sorry about that, Bunnykins, I guess I'm more tired than I thought I was. Let's get back to work, ok?"
"Uh... Yeah." Bunny withdrew his hand and stood up, offering a hand to help Jack back up. "Lets go do that." After a moment of staring at Bunny's offered hand, Jack accepted, which the Pooka used to pull the boy into a hug. "I'm sorry, Jackie, about what I said" He whispered into the human's ear, pressing his nose into Jack's temple. "Both times. I'll try to listen to you before I make a judgment call next time. Just... just remind me, ok? I can be a bit of a right galah." Bunny held on until Jack nodded. If Jack had clung like a baby koala, shaking like an earthquake, neither of them would ever admit.
Walking back to Bunny's little painting station and the alarmingly large pile of shed fur, they quietly went back to their tasks, neither one quite feeling up to talking. After his tenth egg with a winter theme, Bunny called himself officially distracted. Quietly finishing up the googie, he sent it off with a small pat and tossed his brush into his glass of paint water. Shifting a bit, Bunny also closed up the various paint bottles that were scattered around the area and set them all off to one side. "Just a moment Frost." Was Jack's only warning before Bunny flopped over, stretching in the grass, wiggling and rolling a bit before settling on his stomach, head perched on his arms. "There, go ahead."
"What was that for?" Jack whined, moving to sit off to Bunny's side so he could reach things better. "I am not picking grass out of your fur."
"Don't expect you to." Bunny murmured, his ears flopping lazily, "Its more comfortable like this anyway."
All Jack did was grunt in acknowledgment and get back to the section he was currently working on with the single-minded awareness of the focused or extremely tired.
After a while, Aster couldn't even feel the mild tugs of the brush running through his fur. "...Jack?" Not getting a response, Bunny turned just enough to look behind him. There, lying in the pile of shed fur, Jack was curled up in a ball, fast asleep. "Ah, ankle biter was more knackered than he thought." Aster mused to himself, popping up to his default crouched posture. Debating with himself, Bunny crept closer, snuffling the boy's hair and listening closely. For a moment, he panicked because he couldn't hear a heartbeat, but then a beat came, worryingly slow. His breathing was equally as slow, almost nonexistent. This was the sleep of hibernation and nearly nothing would wake him up barring the changing of the seasons.
"No way around it then, up you go." Bunny carefully wriggled his hands under the snow child's body and lifted, still amazed that the boy could manage to weigh so little and have the strength to swing his staff around like it was nothing. Adjusting his grip, Bunny trekked his way to his burrow. Wouldn't do to leave the boy out in the open like that, even if he was used to it. Besides, from what he understood, he would be firmly asleep for the rest of the summer, despite Jack's effort to the contrary. He only had the one nest, but it wasn't like he actually used it that often. After Easter would be another story, but he doubted that Jack would ever know or care that he would be sharing a bed for about a week. Though, maybe he should try to wake up the boy before he left, to wish him a Happy Easter, since it was only fair.
Shouldering open his door, Bunny absently remembered that the first time Jack had been invited in, he had said that the whole place looked like a hobbit hole built for elves, whatever that meant. So he liked things egg-shaped, it was aesthetically pleasing. He had to admit, though, it was a hazardous mess at the moment. Odds and ends were strewn everywhere, his chocolate kitchen looked like someone had detonated a brown paint bomb, and it looked like his journals had grown legs like his googies once again.
Finally making it to the back room that hid his nest, he settled Jack on the edge of the glorified pile of blankets and hay with a sigh. The boy was wearing almost as much fur as Aster had shed. Nothing to it then. Carefully working off the fur-laden hoodie, Bunny decided to clean the boy up as best he could without damaging both their prides. "Ah, that looks a mite uncomfortable." He murmured, looking at a harness that looped around Jack's torso, completely hidden by the hoodie. What looked like a short sword or a long dagger was sheathed and strapped to his back with the handle pointed down. Unbuckling the series of straps, Bunny carefully hung the entire apparatus on a spare peg driven into the dirt wall. While he would toss the blue hoodie in with the blankets and paint smocks to be washed, he decided to leave the leather jerkin and wool shirt alone. Those looked nearly as old as the boy's deerskin pants and Bunny suspected the only thing holding the whole outfit together was faith and ice.
Making sure that Jack wouldn't move anytime soon, Aster gathered up the hoodie and dropped it in the hamper on his way to grab a washcloth. There was nothing as good as a good old fashioned tongue bath, but he didn't think that Jack would appreciate the gesture, so a washcloth and whatever soap he had lying around would have to do. Starting from the bottom up, Bunny was pleased and almost shocked to realize that Jack's feet were probably the cleanest part on his body. Then again, with how little the boy actually walked, it shouldn't actually have surprised him. Though, the balls and toes of his foot was definitely dirtier than the heel. A sign that he walked more digitigrade than plantigrade, which explained his silence when walking.
Moving on to Jack's hands, Bunny had to frown. Fr as well as the boy took care of his feet, his hands were a whole different matter. Dirt was caked under his splitting nails and ground into chapped cracks and knuckle wrinkles. He looked like he had been digging with his bare hands, which made Bunny curious. If Jack was digging in the dirt, should he be concerned? Leaving the matter to be until after Easter would seem to be the best course of action. On the other hand, Jack's nails were more of a concern. He knew that these types of cracks in claws would be painful and could easily lead to infection if left untreated like this. Did Jack always leave his nails in such condition? Or would something like this even be a concern with humans? Better safe than sorry, Bunny resolved to hunt down his file and superglue before the boy left in the fall.
Little smudges on Jack's nose and cheeks almost Bunny laugh. Rinsing out his washcloth, he moved to Jack's hair. It looked like he had rolled in some mud before coming to the Warren. Swiping carefully, the off-color wouldn't come out. Lathering some soap into the washcloth, he used that on the hair next, but the stubborn color was remaining. It reminded him of old snow, a brownish-gray that was hardly attractive. He could swear that Jack's hair was naturally white, but now he wasn't so sure. It could have been that his hair was frozen and the ice made it look white, but he wasn't sure. Lifting the cloth away, there were crystalline white hairs attached, unlike the darker color that now graced Jack's head.
Wait a minute...
Tilting his head in thought, Bunny plucked one of the white hairs from the washcloth and held it up to the natural light. It had definitely come from Jack's head, but holding it up, it was completely transparent. For curiosity's sake, Bunny plucked one of the hairs still attached to Jack's head, ignoring the boy's indignant snuffle, and held it up as well. In the light, the plucked hair had a small core of brown which the other hair hadn't had. "Huh." It was rare, but not completely unheard of for humans and humanoid spirits to naturally change hair colors between summer and winter. Though, usually it was because of the sun bleaching the hair, not because of a legitimate difference between a summer and winter coat. He had known Pooka that were brown during the summer months and stark white during the winter, and it was always fascinating to watch their fur transition between the two colors. He himself had a slight variation, from Payne's gray to slate in certain lights, between the seasons. Now he was curious, just how dark would Jack's 'summer hair' get?
Shaking his head, Bunny got back to work, quickly finishing Jack's sponge bath and tucking the comatose boy in. That was enough of a break. Easter was less than two weeks away and he was bound to make this the best Easter ever. And since he knew exactly where the boy was and not causing mischief, he could breathe easier. Taking what Jack said with a grain of salt, he could believe that this year's Easter would have lovely weather. Well, he wasn't the guardian of hope for nothing.
The evening before heading off to deliver his googies, Bunny crept into his nest room with a small basket in one hand. "Jack," He stage whispered, shaking the boy's shoulder, "Wake up for me, mate." It took a few minutes, but eventually Jack's breathing picked up and he managed to crack open one eye.
"Hey, Jackie." Bunny grinned the way that he usually reserved for Sophie, "Wanna sit up a mo'?" Shaking his head, Jack buried his face into his pillowed arms. "Heh, ok. Can you at least look at me then?" He got that single startling blue eye in response. Holding up the blue and silver basket, Bunny grinned. "I wanna wish ya a happy Easter before I head out." Confused, Jack just nodded, blinking heavily. Bunny figured he had about a minute longer before Jack was back under. "I'll just leave this here then." He said, hanging the basket on the brand-new peg that held Jack's hoodie next to his crook and dagger.
"Go ahead and go back to sleep now. You can stay the summer here if you want. We'll talk more in the fall, ok?" Jack nodded, practically purring when Bunny started petting his hair. In the past week, his hair had settled into a vaguely 'beaver' shade of brown, shedding the last of his transparent hairs. The Pooka didn't know if Jack had understood anything, but he quickly grew still when sleep stole him back away. This was nice, having someone in his nest. Something he could grow used too if the Path took them that way.
Standing up, Bunny gave a good stretch. He had a marathon to run.
Lookee that! An Easter special! Off to work on my next Christmas-y chapter... or whatever catches my interest to finish next.
This ended up being a sort-of prequel to Bed Mates. I didn't mean for it to happen, but... you know how it goes.
Comments, questions, ideas, please, don't be afraid to leave me a review and check me out on Tumblr under DarkInuFan!