A bright tone rang through the darkness, clear as the one note sounded by an ice-bell before it shattered. Cold wind howled in answer, heavy with snow. It billowed once around the Guardians before leading the way through the blind passages, a few of its snowflakes glowing with blue light to mark the path.
Bunny twisted after the sound, whiskers twitching, ears at the ready. A scent flew on the wind, one he knew as well as his own. But it couldn't be, it couldn't…
Sandy took first flight, dashing after the wind on his golden cloud. Aster followed only seconds behind, bounding off dark walls and shining constructs without care for distraction save to answer the call. The fearlings that burst from the walls told them that they were getting closer, each monster cut down by the Guardians' weapons as they raced after the sound.
A cry of pain from up ahead echoed in Bunnymund's ears. His heart nearly stopped before he realized that the voice didn't belong to Kaffir. It was Pitch. As Aster leapt from Sandy's cloud to the apex of a fallen bridge, he finally saw them, his son's bright white fur standing out against the darkness.
Kaffir scrambled backwards, hind claws digging into the soft ear, only the glowing staff in his hands keeping him from toppling onto his back. Pitch loomed over him, clutching a hand encrusted with jagged crystals of ice. The shepherd's crook illuminated them both, soft and steady as the light of the moon.
In all his centuries, Bunnymund had only known two beings to possess that kind of magic. One had been Nightlight, the spritely child-Guardian blessed by the parents of the Man in the Moon. And the other…
"Jack," whispered North, coming to a stop at Bunny's side. The same awe that filled his voice threatened to overflow in Aster's mind. His throat tightened. In his wildest dreams, he'd never imagined that he would see that magic again.
Their surprise could only be brief. In that next second, Pitch stripped the ice from his hand with a hiss of pain and advanced on Kaffir, tarnished silver eyes flashing with fury.
As all his instincts screamed to guard the kit, Aster leapt from the broken bridge and bounded to the edge of the lake that separated them from the Nightmare King. Brandishing a boomerang, he hollered, "Kaffir!"
Pitch stopped in mid-advance as the kit jerked towards the sound of his name. As the Sandman swept Bunny and North across the lake on golden clouds, the Nightmare King sighed. "Now, this is just typical. And here I'd hoped you might outgrow your collective taste for flash and heroics."
"Dad…" Kaffir tried to meet his father on the shore, but as he struggled to change direction the Boogieman swept him up in one arm. Pitch pinned the white pooka from behind with an arm across the chest, careful to only allow clothed skin contact with the freezing crook.
"Ah-ah-ah," he said. "I wouldn't do that if were you."
Bunny saw red. Snarling, he leapt from the cloud into the shallows, ignoring the nasty sludge that stained his hindquarters in favor of flinging his boomerang at Pitch's head. "Get your hands off my son!"
Pitch ducked the boomerang and quickly side-stepped its backswing, pushing Kaffir more firmly in front of him as a shield. North and Sandy hurried to back up Bunnymund, the old cossack brandishing his saber at Pitch's head. "Release the boy, now."
"And why would I do that?" Pitched leaned over Kaffir until the hold more resembled a hug than a grapple. "So your Guardians can ignore him until he fades away, like you did Jack Frost?"
Aster's ears burned with rage. He'd have taken the Boogieman's head right there, if the coward wasn't using his son as a shield. "Shut yer trap. You've got no right to talk about him."
"I have every right," snapped Pitch, venom dripping from his every word. "I have more right than you, rodent. You're the reason he's dead."
A furious cloud of gold sand burst from Sandman's body. The former wishing star was normally so in control of his emotions, even in the midst of battle, that seeing him enraged startled even his allies. In answer, the remaining fearlings scurried from their holes, racing to their master to flank the Guardians from all sides.
The part of Bunnymund's mind that would always be a warrior knew that, despite the numbers, the fearlings did not have the power to defeat three Guardians at peak strength. But its reasoning quickly drowned in horror, because no shock registered in Kaffir's eyes. They contained only sorrow and fear.
Pitch's smile curled cruelly. "Oh yes. You worked so hard to keep that little secret under wraps, didn't you? You used every trick in the book to make sure your children remained in the dark."
He brought his other arm to join its partner, lay his cheek atop Kaffir's head, and stroked the white ears. "Well, now the darkness is whispering back. And dear Kaffir's heard every word."
It wasn't Bunnymund's worst nightmare – he could only thank MiM for that – but it still hurt like a kick to the lungs. It hurt even worse that Kaffir refused to meet his eye, cringing away each time he made an attempt.
The fearlings' chatter grew louder, the new surge of dark feelings wetting their wicked appetite. The coils of frost on Pitch's arm became hoarfrost, blossoming into a tiny forest of icy trees. Rather than anger, the Boogieman regard the ice with pure affection. His eyes trailed to the staff's crook and his smile grew wistful.
"Oh Jack," he whispered, as though he'd forgotten the Guardians were even there. "If only you had chosen more wisely, so long ago. You could have lived forever. We could have ruled forever."
He reached for the staff, leaving only his left arm to hold the unresisting kit. The super-cold air that surrounded the wood froze his fingertips an inch from the weapon's surface. The Nightmare King shivered, half in pain, half in something like delight.
"You should have chosen me," he muttered, sending the Guardians a foul glare. "But now we'll put everything to right."
Aster lurched a step forward, but the threat of fearlings looming over his son stopped him in his tracks. Kaffir lifted his head ever so slightly, staring with those sad blue eyes that looked so much like Jack.
Then, without warning, Kaffir bit the Nightmare King with all the force his lagomorph jaw could muster.
Pitch howled in pain and instinctively flung the little poke away. The wind caught Kaffir in mid-leap, carrying him over the sand and straight into his father's arms. The old rabbit nearly fell down with shock. It felt and sounded and smelled so much like catching Jack that his mind blew fifty years into the past.
Aster came back to himself with a gasp, dropped his weapon, and clutched his son, unable to tell whether the trembling came from him or the kit. Jack's staff – still glowing faintly, but no longer frigid to the touch – stuck up between them as Kaffir buried his little paws into his father's fur.
"It's okay," Bunny whispered, unsure of who he was trying to comfort. "It's okay, I've got you. Daddy's here."
He heard the burst of a sword through sand and realized that the fearlings had followed, howling with their master's rage. Sandy and North circled the two pookas on opposite sides, cutting the monsters down with whips and blades. One broke through their barrier and met with Bunny's claws, the old pooka growling as he curled protectively over his son. Another came from behind, only to be dispatched in a blast of ice so smooth and easy that Aster couldn't tell if it came from Kaffir or the weapon itself.
In the midst of all this, Bunny caught that scent again, the smell of winter and laughter and fun. Kaffir's natural scent held a hint of the same, but only a hint, whereas this was pure and concentrated, like an extract.
As quickly as it came, the smell and fearlings were gone. The staff's moonlight faded to the dimmest of glows. Pitch charged forward, his bitten hand oozing black blood, but was brought up short by North's saber in the small of his throat.
"It's over Pitch," the toymaker said. "You do not have the strength to face the Guardians now."
Despite the fearlings, the illusions, and the twisted space of the cave, Bunnymund knew that North was right. He could smell Pitch's weakness. The Boogieman had taken over three hundred years to save up the energy for his last major bid for power. He didn't have a fraction of that power now. He'd hedged all his bets on corrupting Kaffir. With that failure, he had no choice.
Pitch snarled and arrogantly tossed his head, but lower his arms, admitting defeat. "Fine. I suppose you've won again, if you want to call it that."
He scanned each of the triumphant Guardians' faces until his gaze settled again on Kaffir. Bunny glanced at his son to find him peering fearfull over his shoulder and right at the Nightmare King. Pitch smirked.
"Farewell, little bunny," he said with poison sweetness. "Should you ever chane your mind, you'll know how to find me."
Bunnymund snarled. Guardian standards of mercy be damned, he would have ripped Pitch's arm off right then and there if the Nightmare King didn't choose that moment to summon the darkness with a sweep of his arms. The shadows rushed to meet him, swirling around the Guardians like a hurricane. North wrapped his arms around both pookas to keep them all together as Sandy erected a barrier of gold. The wind howled and the pressure grew and grew until…
At last, it was all gone.
The Guardians and their charge found themselves standing right outside the cave they'd entered, safe beneath the watchful eye of the moon.
The moment Pitch was confirmed gone for good, Kaffir wriggled out of his father's arms. The sleigh remained right where they'd left it, but he didn't rush to greet the reindeer or leap into the back as he usually would. Instead, he turned his back on them all and cuddled with the staff, which had now returned to plain wood adorned with frost.
Bunnymund glanced to his fellow Guardians, unsure of what to do. Sandy shook his head – they could offer no advice – and North motioned for Bunny to go speak with the little rabbit himself. Resigned, Aster approached his son in silence, settling behind him as quietly as he could. "Kaf…"
"Is it true?"
Bunnymund swallowed. Was what true? What had Kaffir heard in his time along with the Nightmare King?
The kit turned back to stare at him, unshed tears clinging to his eyes. He sniffled. "Pitch said it's our fault Dammy's dead. Is that true?"
Aster tried to speak, but failed. Kaffir said our fault, not yours. That was the worst part.
At his silence, Kaffir's sniffs turned into an all-out sob. "It is true, isn't it?" He hiccupped and rubbed at his face, which only spread the tears across his muzzle and face. "Then it's all true. We're the reason he's gone and you hate me and it's all true."
"What? No, I –"
The sobbing kit tried to make a break for the forest. He made it three steps before Aster caught him from behind, wrapping both arms around the youngster's waist and dragging them both to the ground. Kaffir kicked and struggled with all he had, clinging to Jack's staff for dead life. "Let me go! Let me go, let me go!"
"Not on your life." Bunny grunted as a kick found his stomach. "Not ever."
He dragged the kit back and turned him, holding the kit's face steady in his hands. "Now you listen here. I have never and could never hate you. If you're going to blame anybody for what happened back then, you blame me. But your dam, in spite of everything, never once regretted bringing you into this world. And neither have I."
Kaffir whimpered. His nose twitched and his whiskers trembled. Bunnymund pulled him closer and rubbed their noses together. "I love you, son. And I am so, so sorry."
Kaffir stifled another sob. He flung his arms around his father's neck, buried his eyes in the fury shoulder, and cried. "Dad…Daddy, I wanna go home."
Bunnymund drew his son into a tight hug and nuzzled his head. "Home is where the heart is, kiddo. We'll be back before you know it."
The moment the white kit stepped into the globe room, Coralberry's cheer rang through the Pole. She tried to wiggle free of their nest, but to everyone's surprise, Jasmine beat her to it. The silver-furred sister tackled Kaffir off his feet, sending them to the floor in a pile of fur, happy trees, and babbled apologies.
Coralberry came soon after, the three siblings piling together as they had in infancy. Toothiana and her fairies flew over to check their fellow Guardians for wounds but, finding them unhurt, descended on Kaffir to welcome him home.
Bunnymund retreated across the room to hover beside the fire, observing his children from afar. His heart warmed to see his family reunited, but all was not as it should be. Kaffir was quiet. He didn't joke and his laughter was forced. He didn't even try to rile up Jasmine, just nuzzled between her and Coralberry and let Toothiana fuss over his teeth.
North, having hung up his jacket and swords, came over to Bunny to offer him some eggnog. Bunny passed his glass to Sandy, too pensive to even indulge in his love of eggs. North followed the pooka's gaze and nodded in understanding. "Your boy is unharmed, my friend. You must be thankful for that."
"I suppose." Aster ground his back teeth, unable to drag his eyes from the reunited kits. "Do you think he'll ever…"
The words 'get over it,' caught in his throat. Abduction by the Boogieman wasn't something that kids 'got over.' Even the luck ones couldn't slip away without a little bit of change.
He swallowed and started again, his voice trembling. "Is he going to be okay?"
Sandman swirled his eggnog in its mug and raised a finger into the air, forming a clock.
"It will take time," North agreed. "But he possesses Jack's spirit. He is strong and joyful. Eventually, that nature will shine through."
In his center, Bunnymund knew that they were right. There was always hope. But still, he couldn't shake the image of Kaffir's sad gaze out of his mind. He lay his ears against his head and buried his eyes in his paws. "MiM, I've messed everything up. I should have just told them. Now it's too late."
North patted his shoulder. "No such thing as too late, my friend. You should know. Our stories have great power, most especially those of the dead. They heal as easily as they can hurt."
Sandy smiled and raised his glass in an encouraging toast. Bunny looked between them, then back to his children, coming to a silent conclusion: they were right.
He sighed. "I'm gonna need to borrow some paint."
Bunnymund gathered his children in the old guestroom, the very one that housed them when they first came into the world. On the floor he laid out a clean canvass, a set of brushes, some water, and several pots of paint, their colors carefully chosen: snow white and ice blue, a frosty silver sheen and the soft brown of aged wood.
He gathered the kits around in a half-circle with the canvass before them and a plate of elf-made cookies to one side. They stayed quiet as he carefully cleaned his brushes and set out his paints, before taking in each of them in turn. Jasmine sat with her head held high. Coralberry pawed nervously at her long ears. And Kaffir sat at the head, cradling his dam's staff and staring at the unmarked canvass, waiting intently for its story.
E. Aster Bunnymund took a steadying breath and lowered his first brush to the page.
"It all started with a frozen lake, on a full moon night long ago…"
Some hours later, a concerned yeti cracked open the door to find the three kits asleep in the bed with their exhausted father right alongside them. Tear-tracks stained the fur on either side of their muzzles, and the eldest pooka's paws were covered in paint, but all seemed well, or at least on its way to becoming better.
On the floor lay the drying portrait of a young man with snow-white hair and moon-bright eyes, laughing with joy in the arms of the wind. For a brief, ridiculous moment, the yeti thought he saw that same smile reflected in the window above the bed. Then it was gone, and only the wind and snow remained to watch over the sleeping family.
Quietly, the yeti closed the door once more and crept away, leaving the father and his children to rest until the sun rose over the frozen pole and called them to begin a new day.
Aaand, that's all folks! Thank you so much for all your support. It took me longer than I thought it would to complete, but it feels good to have a full story under my belt. ^_^
If anyone's interested, I've got a lot of background information that I wrote up on each of the kits that never made it into the story. I'm thinking of putting them on my tumblr (soleminisanction) sometime in the next few days. Hopefully you'll find them at least a little interesting. And most of all, I hope that you've enjoyed the story!