So, not quite sure what I've started here, or where it's going. Guess I'll be as surprised as you guys, yeah?
After the Easter that never was, the repair of the Tooth Palace was tantamount. Firstly, because the memories were too precious to be left unprotected in Pitch's lair, of all places, and secondly because Tooth's job was an around-the-clock commitment. Since Easter was seasonal, Aster's domain had been prioritized as second. It stung a little, as justifications aside, Aster could still remember what it felt like to be invisible, to be walked through, and he ached, no, he burned to have his home set to rights again. But he was nothing if not practical, and Tooth's home needed to take precedence, so it did. They all pitched in, Yeti's and mini-fairies and guardians alike, until, at last, every last box was back in place. Tooth had been effusive with her thanks and praise, gushing over every attendant worker, stuffing them all full of tropical fruits and other teeth-friendly snacks, giving out hugs and handshakes like they were going out of style. Aster took his own fair share of the affection with the good-natured grumble everyone expected from him. He couldn't help but notice though, that Jack, skinny, pale little Jack, seemed both overwhelmed and yet starving for the attention Tooth lavished on him every time she flitted by. The boy seemed not to know what to do with his hands during each awkward hug, or how to respond to a casual touch on the arm, first tensing in surprise, only leaning into it when it was being taken away. He looked a little lost, a little out of his depth, and while he kept the same mischievous expression on his face, it did not reach his eyes, and Aster wondered if anyone else had noticed. Even at the end, when Tooth offered him his teeth back, for a longer perusal, he'd declined more politely then Aster had thought him capable of, assuring Tooth that he'd already had all his questions answered, as he gently handed the golden box back like it might have bitten him. No one else found the act strange at all, but to Aster the boy's reassuring smile was positively false.
Jack was wrong, there were more answers to be had, and Aster intended to find them.
The opportunity presented itself a few days later, after their combined attentions had been turned towards the Warren. Slowly, the devastation from Pitch's attack was reversed. At least, as much as was possible to accomplish in just a few days; Aster would still have his work cut out for him for the next few months, carefully replanting what was killed and coaxing everything else back into full bloom. The Warren, unlike the Tooth palace, was a mostly living thing, and like all living things, only time and tenderness could restore it truly. Aster had dismissed is friends, thanking them no less, but perhaps more conservatively than Tooth had for their aide, preparing himself for the long, grueling haul that would remain solely his to attend too.
Until the very next day, when Jack showed up again, unannounced. Aster had been ready to dismiss the boy, still wary of Jack's intentions, or at the very least his aptitude, but something in the boy's hollow eyes begged him not to, so Aster consented him to stay. The boy was thrown straight into the deep end with the hardest work; the replanting. It was hot, tiresome and filthy, digging bare-handed into the soil to the proper depth, laying the seeds, patting the soil back just right, firmly but not too tightly. No tools could be used as they disrupted the flow of magical energy, and not shortcuts could be taken for the same. When the whole field was done, Aster would summon a rain to fall, just heavy enough to wet the earth and encourage the growth, the magic of the Warren and Aster himself feeding the delicate new greenery as much as any water could. As difficult as it was, Aster had always found the planting soothing, although now he found himself stiffer, more exhausted then he remembered, every bit of discomfort reminding him that he was still weak from lack of belief. Sandy's return and the subsequent good dreams he'd been spreading of his fellow Guardians had certainly helped, but Aster suspected he wouldn't feel any better until he'd had a couple of successful Easter's under his belt. It was his usual gruff demeanor combined with his frustration at his own newly-defined limits, and likely a predisposition against the boy that found him snarling at Jack the third time the boy accidentally frosted the little mound he was trying to pat down. In retrospect, Aster was the worst sort of asshole for it, considering the boy had been the only one who'd extended help above and beyond what was expected, and he was new to this, and was also likely suffering from the power influx and subsequent control issues that came from having believers for the very first time, but It was so second nature by now to yell at Jack, that Aster had gone off on the kid before he'd even realized he'd done it. In the sudden silence after his outburst, Aster watched Jack fidget, face down, a suspicious glimmer in his eyes that Aster had seen twice before, once in North's workshop barely a week earlier, when Aster had taken a dig at the boy's lack of believers, and once many years ago, Easter Sunday 1968, their disastrous first meeting, as Aster had torn the boy to shreds. It brought his up short, and he floundered for a moment, casting about in his head for the suitable words for an apology, before Jack decided to make for his staff and bolt, but instead the boy surprised him, but straightening his shoulders and continuing, brushing the frosted soil off the top and repacking it with moist, cool soil.
"Like this?" He'd said, simply, but with a roughness in his voice that had made Aster wince in guilt.
"Yeah, Frostbite, like that." Aster had said, after swallowing a couple times to clear his suddenly dry throat. The boy had nodded; his eyes still downcast and moved on to the next hole, carefully scooping at the dirt with pale hands stained black. It was somehow moving to Aster, to see those slender fingers working so diligently at his command, and he'd felt his throat dry again for an entirely different reason that he was loathe to name. It was this sudden tightness of his larynx that be blamed for his lack of apology, or even the explanation that a little bit of frost could hardly hurt the seeds, hardy as they were. They worked in silence after that, tense and awkward. When Aster finally called it quits at sunset, Jack had accomplished far more then Aster had thought he'd be able to in a day, and most if done near-perfectly, with no other little slips of magic after the one that had earned him the scolding. Jack climbed to his feet slowly, obviously sore from the day's work, grimy and looking a trifle to warm for the comfort of a winter elemental. It was on the tip of Aster's tongue to offer Jack a place to bathe and rest, but he swallowed it, merely inclining his head towards the boy as he gathered his staff. Jack responded in kind with a wordless salute, gestured with the curved end of his staff as he made his way back towards the tunnels that would take him home.
Aster figured that would be the last he'd see of the boy, until either the next crisis or Jack felt like causing trouble, but the boy returned the next day, unbidden and almost shy, asking once again with some phantom scent of desperation to help. He was nearly as dirty as the day previous, like he had rubbed at the most visible of dirt but hadn't properly washed up, and Aster couldn't help but wonder if the boy even had a place to wash up in. Suddenly uncomfortable at the thought, he pushed it away and beckoned the boy forward. They returned to the field they'd begun earlier, the soil freshly wetted from the rains Aster had summoned overnight, tiny green shots already breaking ground from the newly planted seeds. Aster almost thought he'd caught a tiny smile on Jack's lips at the sight, but if he had it was gone, buried beneath a face of concentration Aster hadn't ever seen on the boy prior to now. In quiet agreement, they'd begun where they'd left off; working alongside each other again, unspeaking but less tense then the day before had been. They accomplished even more together this day then the last, and although they hadn't said a word, when Jack left things between them seemed somehow better then they had earlier.
Jack came back the next day, looking and acting much the same. They made some small talk today, mostly about the Warren, and the rest of the work that would be required to restore it. Jack returned again the day after, and the next, and every day things smoothed between them, just a little bit further, until Aster could almost mistake the quiet moments between them as companionable, even if Jack still seemed ready to flinch and flee at any sudden movement.
On the fifth day, Aster had taken pity on the bedraggled boy and had offered him a shot at the washbasin, to rinse the worst of the dirt. Jack had blinked at him wide eyed for a moment, then delicately accepted, like the offer was made of glass. Aster had watched as the boy had fumbled about his kitchen, bent forward over the bowl and clumsily splashing water onto his face, rubbing at his cheeks with fingers still blackened in the creases, then practically shoving his whole head forward into the bowl to wet his hair, one hand bracing himself on the tabletop, the other hurriedly scrubbing through his short hair. When he finally pulled back and accepted the offered towel, he somehow still managed to look more like a drowned sprite instead of the clean-cut boy he'd been only days previous. His hair was a washed out grey from the remnants of dirt, the filth ground into the creases on his palms, under his nails and between his bare toes. There was still a smudge of black in the delicate whorl of one ear, and his clothes were practically ruined, the knees of Jack's ancient pants stiffened with caked on mud with practically the consistency of concrete. Aster watched Jack scowl down at his grubby hoodie, but the boy made no move to take it off for washing, nor did Aster offer the service of his laundry tub, currently kept for the sole use of washing his linens. In truth, Aster was already uncomfortable having Jack in his personal space as it was, even if it was the mannerly thing to do, and the sooner the boy left, the better. Eventually jack just sighed, giving perfect cleanliness up a lost cause and retrieving his staff to leave. Aster walked him out the door, watching the boy give a crooked tilt of his lips and the same salute as always as he made his way to wherever it was he went when he wasn't here.
Back to Burgess maybe, to the lake he seemed to frequent? For some reason, not knowing the answer rattled Aster, just a little, and he vowed to ask Jack. Eventually, perhaps, if it came up in a conversation, he'd ask.
Wouldn't do to show he cared or was worried or anything, at least not yet, not until he'd figured out what it was about Jack that made him want to peel the boy open like the petals of a flower until he could see all the secret, hidden things that he was made of.