Soooo, I'm supposed to be writing the next chapter of Hope and Ruin, and then this plotbunny bit hard, so I thought, why not, it'll be a one-shot... Nope. Hello multichapter. I'm going to try and take turns working on both fics until finished, so please bear with me, and thanks for your patience.
And now without further ado...
What is to give light must endure burning.
- Viktor Frankl
The Dream always starts the same. The car, the road, the wide blue sky. Aster remembers it all vividly, his artist's eye capturing the moments leading up to the accident; preserving them like fossils of memory, the last seconds of his normal life.
The twist in the road, the oncoming car that lost control, the helpless screech of tires, the hoarse shriek of tearing metal, the tinkling cascade of shattering glass...
Aster always awakens there, at the exact instant of impact, the vision of horror fading in the thin, grey light of dawn. The demons do not flee though, no, they lurk around the edges, curled into every corner and shadowy nook, taunting Aster, teasing, reminding him of what was, what could never again be. Most days he could ignore them, could carry on chin up, head held high. Other days the struggle to get out of bed was more than just the usual physical tussle of hauling himself into the nearby chair, arranging his useless legs out of the way of the wheels before navigating around the bed to the attached bathroom. Some days, he fought with his own mind more than his broken body.
The days after The Dream were always the worst.
The insurance took care of the hospital bills, at least. Aster hadn't a clue what the damage was in the end; what the final cost was for the weeks spent healing enough for physiotherapy, and then the months spent getting himself back into shape and relearning how to function in a world meant for legs, not wheels. The insurance company had written several fat checks, and turned him loose back to the remnants of his life with little more than a couple months food and rent in his bank account and no idea how to piece things back together. Aster had always been strong, in good physical shape, which allowed him a measure of manoeuvrability that others in his position lacked, and as long as his arms worked he could still sketch and paint and feasibly earn a living. He found though, that his once-comfortable tiny flat was now a cage, too small by half to accommodate his lacking mobility. There were also no elevators for access, only stairs, so he was a virtual prisoner in his own home, unless Nick took pity and carried him down to the lobby. His immense mortification at this ensured that enlisting his oldest friend's help became an emergency last resort only. The apartment itself was shoe-box sized, and Aster was constantly banging into walls, and scraping his knuckles on the too-narrow doorways. Being a renter, Aster was not permitted to renovate for better access, not that he could have afforded it even if he had been. Coming home had meant to signal a return to normalcy, or at least the new version of it he'd have to endure from here on forward, but Aster found himself feeling restless and encumbered in ways that had nothing to do with his physical limitations. The art that had always flowed through him like a river of colour felt dry, empty. Aster had always pinched pennies, budgeting harshly, 'starving for his art' as his friends had always joked, but he was able to make a meager living doing what he loved. Mostly abstract pieces, some modern that claimed to be socio-political statements, Aster's art was always meant to have a voice, to be loud and to be heard. Now, that voice was barely a whisper.
Aster had despaired, his only source of income gone. It was Tia who'd dragged him out of it, feather earrings brushing her graceful neck, the space between delicate brows and dark eyelashes lit up in a cacophonous rainbow of coloured eyeshadow, her peacock-painted nails gently stroking Aster's arm. She'd fed him tea, the best of her special blend, but mostly sat and listened for one long, rainy Spring afternoon. She'd taken Aster's grief, his pain, his hopelessness with the grace and humility she carried in spades. Then, she'd kissed his cheek as she'd risen to leave; smudging a perfect lip print in lavender onto his skin, promising him that even in dark times, the memories of happy things could be a balm, a reminder that things would get better, as bad things always do. It wasn't much, cold comfort at most, but something about her words had ignited and long-forgotten ember in the bottom of Aster's soul.
Once, while drunk around the huge old table in Nick's kitchen; hand-made by Nick himself that had seen more home-cooked meals and friendly games of poker then one piece of furniture likely deserved, Sandy had said that dreams could not die, only transform.
That night, Aster worked himself into a fever, painting for the first time since before the crash. The hurried, almost smudged oil painting of a warrior maiden, wings spread wide and dual swords in hand, feather a riotous mass in hues of viridian, violet, teal and gold sold for more than eleven times what any single piece of Aster's art had ever sold for before. When asked by the buyer later about his inspiration, Aster had merely shrugged and declared her the Queen of Fairies, Guardian of Memories.
Will there be more, Aster had been asked.
As it turned out, yes there would be, and so, Nick became the The Inventor, Guardian of Wonder, and Sandy became The Sandman, Guardian of Dreams. The paintings sold well, and the pressure of Aster's finances eased, and for the first time in months, he felt himself begin to look forward into the future, instead of always back to the past. For the first time since he'd awoken in the hospital he began to make plans again, to set goals, to feel anticipation. For the first time since the chair, Aster felt hope. Then, Sandy came to him with an idea; and a back-story for the proud, noble creatures that had been spun from Aster's paintbrush. It took time to hammer things together and for Aster to learn to work in inks and on tablets, but time had been bought with the previous sales and slowly something new coalesced in existence. One last sale of one last painting garnered enough cash to kick-start the project into publishing, and before long, 'The Great Guardians' was the fastest-selling graphic novel in the country. As for the last painting, well, it had started as a joke, Bunnymund being the unusual name that it was, but something had felt almost cathartic for Aster, creating the The Pooka, the Guardian of Hope in his own image. Well, it had made Sandy laugh, at least.
Two years passed before Aster had even realized, the acknowledgement coming one morning as he once again skinned his knuckles on the too-narrow bathroom door. Sucking one bloody joint into his mouth, Aster found himself looking around his flat properly for the first time in a long time. Aster had always been on the poorer side of middle class, never homeless or wanting but only ever just keeping his head above water. Looking at the tiny living space, it occurred to Aster for the first time that he was successful in ways he'd never been before, and that he could have more if he wanted. Aster has a large amount of cash squirreled away, for the metaphorical rainy day, and a soul-deep loathing of perpetually bruised knuckles and the indignities of being carried up and down the stairs to his own damn walk-up. It's Nick that finds him the number, but it's Aster that makes the call. Tia sits with him, nursing a tea as he describes his situation to the woman on the end of the line. By year's end, the ground is broken and the foundation is laid for what will be Aster's new home. The smiles on his friend's faces tell him they couldn't be prouder of him, for bouncing back, for keeping himself in the face of devastating loss.
When he moves in the following Spring, Sandy gives him the entertainment system to end all entertainment systems, signing in his quick, sloppy fashion that all good artists need a chance to kick back and be entertained by someone else's creativity sometimes. Tia kisses his cheek, gifting him with a ruby-red lip print and no less than three lovely afghans she'd hand-crocheted over the last few months. It is Nick though, that brings Aster to tears when he presents the table. It's a large table like Nick's own, carved of solid wood in patterns of blooming flowers and trailing vines, with a set of six heavy chairs to match. It's a one of a kind masterpiece, and the nicest thing Aster had ever seen Nick make, and Aster knows that soon it will be the centerpiece and birthplace for a thousand new happy memories, moments of wonder and brand new dreams. Suddenly, Aster can't wait to for each new day, every dawn bringing him someplace new and exciting, perhaps even more so than his life pre-accident. The Dream comes with greatly reduced frequently now, and when it does it hangs over him with much less ferocity than it had in the past. In front of him, Aster can see a brand new future stretch on into the distance. Perhaps it is not what he'd imagined for himself ten years ago, but it is far more than he'd believed he could have lying in that terrible hospital bed, numb from the waist down.
Of course, even shiny new houses aren't perfect. Aster's small apartment had been just next to downtown, within walking distance of practically everything, and everyone he cared about. While the large bungalow boasts widened hallways and doors, lowered counters, smooth hardwood floors and even an elevator to the downstairs studio/workroom, with its large windows and walkout onto a lovely terrace, the house is located further in the suburbs. It's not a problem mostly, as there are handicapped taxies available, and Aster had been thinking anyway of purchasing a car converted for hand-operated gas and brake, but in the meantime Aster found himself stumped for the one thing he hadn't thought of.
His old apartment had been so close; his friends had just stopped by with anything he needed every couple days. Now, while not too far away to visit, he was far enough off the beaten path that asking his friend to bring him groceries was impractical and rude. The handicap taxies were expensive and never arrived on time, and Aster preferred to avoid them as much as possible, feeling they were a method of transport only slightly less uncomfortable than being carried had been, and thus were relegated to a last resort. The nearest store was far enough away to be difficult to travel to and from on his own every couple of days, considering Aster was limited to what he could carry in his lap, and possibly in a pack slung over the handles. Thus, Aster found himself caving to a grocery delivery service. It was all very simple; the order could be placed by phone or online, and delivered the next day. Aster felt a little guilty, seeing as he was much more able to care for himself then he had been those first dark days out of the hospital, and that perhaps he was taking a service away from someone how needed it more, but he quickly rationalized that he was a paying customer, he deserved the luxury of not having to roll himself up the steep hill on Shetland Street with a lapful of perishables, and he was active and social enough in other ways that the supermarket was not his only point of human contact.
Besides, not having to leave the house for something insignificant like food saved Aster precious time; time that could be devoted to illustrating volume five of his and Sandy's runaway success. Of course, it could have something to do with the fact that he was currently working on a critical plot point in The Guardian's struggle against their ancient and cunning nemesis; one Pitch Black, the King of Fear and Shadows. Aster had based his character off of the doctor who'd attended him during his stay in the Hospital. Dr. Kozmotis Pitchiner had been a harried and severe man, with the bedside manner of a serial killer, but Aster had appreciated his blunt honesty. He'd actually tracked him down to apologize after having borrowed his likeness for a villain, attempting to explain to the man that it was nothing personal, only the leftover feelings of bitterness and rage misdirected toward the most common face he'd seen during his recovery. Kozmotis had surprised him by laughing him off, telling Aster that his daughter loved the comics and that it was no hardship for him, if it resulted in such popular art. Feeling humbled, Aster had arranged for a complete special edition of the first volume, signed by both him and Sandy to be sent to one Seraphina Pitchiner, as had every volume since. Aster couldn't thank the good Doctor directly, but somehow he felt that the other man had gotten the message anyways.
In fact, Aster is so caught up in the full-page spread of the glorious battle scene he's painstakingly inking that he forgets all about his impending delivery. By the time the lift has brought him back to the main floor, the doorbell has been abandoned in favour of knocking, to the tune of "It's a Small World" of all things. Feeling slightly peeved, perhaps more with himself and his unintentional rudeness then the rudeness of his delivery driver, Aster unlocks the door, wheeling back far enough to clear the swing.
Looking up into the earnest brown gaze, even white small, and messy chocolate hair, Aster lets a friendly greeting fall from his lips, the significance of this meeting not to be recognized for some time.