The problem, as far as Aster could tell, was that there was just a discrepancy in temperature. Aster was all bright sunshine and spring-warmed grass. He was the scent of freshly bloomed flowers in a heavy breeze, and the heated thrill of hope that lay just below a Believer's breastbone. In a word, Aster was heat. And Jack Frost, well, he was more of a freezing-subzero-sweet-maker-I-can't-feel-my-toes kind of guy. The little blighter even looked like snow, what with his coloring and his deceptively fragile features. It was a bit like plunging your paw into a snowbank, Aster thought privately. It looked powdery and soft, but next thing you knew, you were yanking painful ice out of your coat.
The point was, though, that heat and cold just didn't mix well. It wasn't that Aster had never wanted to invite Jack back to his warren--he just couldn't see Jack enjoying the visit very much. He'd wracked his brain trying to remember if Jack had seemed particularly uncomfortable the only time he'd been in his warren previously, but the day had been such a blur that it was hard to remember. The small details had long since been swallowed up by memories of overwhelming grief, stunning victory, and a quiet sort of trust that he'd never, ever expected to forge with Jack Frost of all people. Instead, he was just left with an itchy feeling under his fur, the obnoxious sense of something left undone, and the fear that if he did anything to fix it, if he did invite Jack back in to see the warren in all of its healthy and complete glory, he'd just end up with a puddle of irked winter spirit.
Unfortunately, he didn't fare all that well out in Jack's winter wonderland, either. In general, Aster did not do well in cold weather, to the point where it was only stubborn pride that kept him from wearing ear warmers some Easters. He was proud of his fur, beautifully colored and luxuriously soft even for a pooka, but fur could only do so much against the harsh bite of winter wind. And it didn't help when Jack's favored greeting was a slushy snowball to the snout.
So between his distaste for snow and Jack's potential weakness to the heat, Aster was half-convinced that their paths were doomed to cross only at North's workshop, which with its snowy exterior and comfortably heated interior worked as a sort of happy medium. Which is why he was so surprised the day that Jack Frost showed up on his doorstep.
It was a typical midwinter day for Aster, early enough that he was not yet a ball of furry nerves regarding Easter, but late enough that he still had to keep a close eye on the googs' development. He'd been tending to the eggplants with particular vigor that year, and they had been thriving. His good mood was such that even the shock of a silent breath of chilly air breezing through his warren couldn't shake him out of it. Instead, he just dusted the loam from his paws and went to investigate its source.
To his surprise, he found Jack Frost lurking in one of his entrance tunnels. He took in Jack's bedraggled appearance silently. The boy was soaked from head to toe, teeth chattering, and there was a haunted look in his eyes that Aster wasn't quite sure he'd ever seen there before. Aster took a step towards him, and to his consternation, Jack seemed to shrink in on himself, looking small and lost up against the earthy brown of the tunnel walls. Swallowing hard, Aster forced himself to be still. As much as he wanted to sweep Jack up in his arms and drag him further into the warren in order to dry properly, he was fairly sure that it wouldn't be welcomed. Instead, he spoke quietly, as if to an injured animal. At this point, he wasn't sure that was so far off the truth. "G'day there, Jacko. Something I can do for you?"
Jack blinked at him slowly, as if coming out of a trance. "I--"
Aster waited for him to collect himself, taking note of the parade of emotions marching across his face. Confusion, embarrassment, sadness, and a twist of fear that made Aster's stomach clench in sympathy. What on earth?
Jack put a steadying hand on the wall next to him, and then, as if grounded by the earth beneath his fingers, let out a long breath. "I'm sorry, I just... There was a storm. Freezing rain, you know?" He paused for a moment and swallowed, likely around words he refused to say out loud. "This is the last place I could remember being warm."
Aster was missing a piece of the puzzle, he was sure, and he'd wager that it was a damned important one. He could hardly press Jack about it, though, not when the sprite looked so pathetic standing there, the rain dripping from his sodden clothing and creating a puddle of mud at his feet. What he could do, though, what he was very good at doing, was warm Jack up. After all, Aster was heat.
"That so, Jack?" he asked, voice low. He took a step towards Jack, and then another when he didn't shrink away again. He sidled up behind him and let his paws come to light on Jack's shoulders, gently, very gently guiding him further into the warren. "Let's just put the billy on, then, shall we?"
* * *
"So," Jack asked, looking up at Aster through long lashes as he sat at Aster's worn wooden table. Aster was relatively sure Jack wasn't even aware he was doing it, as much as it made his own fur stand on end. "What exactly is a billy, anyway?"
Aster gestured towards the kettle he'd just laid on the stove. "Tea. Thought a strong cuppa might help perk you up," he said, keeping his voice casual.
Jack frowned at the kettle. "Tea? I haven't had that in a long time..."
"I bet you haven't," Aster replied evenly. It was hard to tell how often Jack ate and drank nowadays. "Won't hurt you none, will it?"
Jack blinked up at him from beneath his mound of cloth. "Hurt me? Why would it?" he asked.
"Well, you never exactly struck me as the sort of bloke who'd like hot things," Aster said with a shrug, leaning back against the stove. "Then again, never figured you for a fella who'd want to be warm, either."
Jack raised one slim eyebrow skeptically. "I'm not actually made of ice, 'Roo. A little bit of tea's not going to hurt me." He looked down at the table for a moment, tracing the grain with his eyes. "And sometimes a break from the cold is nice."
Aster let that one simmer while the water heated up. Perhaps it was true that sometimes winter spirits just got the wild desire to warm up, and freezing rain was definitely nasty, but there was something else going on here. He could feel it, as North would say, in his belly. Still, he said nothing until the kettle started to clamor for his attention. He steeped the tea, choosing a strong black for fortification, and then brought the mugs over to the table. He sat opposite Jack and pushed one of the mugs his way. "So."
One pale hand slithered out from Jack's oversized robe and snatched the mug. Jack looked down into the mug, inhaled like it was the best scent in the world, and then looked up at Aster with an expression he'd have called guarded if it weren't so thoroughly ruined by his rosy cheeks. "So?"
Aster took a slow sip of his tea. It had taken him a few centuries to get used to it, but he reckoned that he could make a damn fine cup by this point. "So why are you here?" he asked. "Never thought you'd be one to be afraid of a little water."
"Ice water." From the expression on Jack's face and the way his hands tightened incrementally around the mug, it was clear that the words had come out without his consent. There was a crease between Jack's brows now, and the hollows were starting to creep back into his eyes.
"Would have thought that'd just make it better for a winter spirit like yourself," Aster replied mildly, forcing his eyebrows down in a neutral expression. Jack was just cagey enough to be a flight risk, and that wasn't what he was aiming for. Just the truth.
"Not when--" Jack stopped himself short, his breath stuttering to a stop like a bird caught tight between two hands. He swallowed, tried again. "It's--" And again. "It's nothing, Bunny, really. Nothing important."
Aster frowned. None of them expected Jack to be an open book to them. It was impossible, what with their history. They'd spent far too long not talking to immediately become good at it. But still, he'd hoped that by this point Jack knew that if he was having problems, he could go to them for help. The Guardians helped each other. Maybe they should have been helping Jack, too.
After a moment of internal dithering, he reached forward to place his paw over Jack's hand where it sat against the mug. "Jack, you know that you can tell m--us anything. You don't have to go it alone anymore," he said, his husky voice serious.
Jack's gaze flicked between Aster's eyes and his paw like he couldn't quite believe that either of them were trained on him. His fingers flexed nervously beneath Aster's, but Aster made himself hold still. He wasn't going to be pulling away from Jack Frost again any time soon, that was for sure. "I know," he finally said. "It's just..." His cheeks flushed again, and this time Aster knew it wasn't the heat of the warren. "It's just stupid."
Aster thought back to the lost expression that Jack had worn when he'd first found him in his warren, to the shadows that he could still see lurking in the corners of his eyes. He'd been shaking then, and Aster had a feeling it wasn't just from the cold. "Doesn't seem like something stupid to me, Frostbite," he said, falling back on an old nickname.
But where usually Jack would meet that with a cheeky grin, this time he flinched. And that clinched it, really. Something was definitely wrong with their Jack. He let his thumb stroke over Jack's fingers, which he noted were definitely trembling again. "And even if it's a bit silly, we all have silly things that upset us sometimes. Still not fond of dogs, myself," he said, cracking a small grin in memory of his last disastrous run-in with one. That one had been Jack's fault, too, but he'd let Jack recall that one on his own.
Jack let out a small chuckle at that, clearly remembering the same thing Aster was. His grip loosened on his mug, and he let his fingertips twine with Aster's just the slightest bit. "It was just-- I mean, it was a winter storm. I knew it was coming. But it came on faster than I was expecting. Seriously, it was torrential. It was like--it was like being submerged." Aster was nodding, knowing that that sort of business could disorient a man, when Jack let out a dark little laugh and added, "Again."
Aster stilled. "Again?" Was this something they should know about? Something he should know about?
"Yeah," Jack said, and his eyes went faraway again. "It was in that box."
It took Aster a moment to parse what Jack was telling him. Then, "Your box of teeth?" he asked.
Jack nodded. "From back before I died," he explained, matter of fact. Like this was normal. Like that was something that any self-respecting spirit went through before becoming somewhat less than mortal.
Aster could feel his eyes widening and his ears going back, but there wasn't much he could do to stop it. He felt like every hair on his body was standing on end. "You died?" he asked, hushed, and he tried not to put one and one together. If Jack was that scared of being submerged in ice water...
"I drowned," Jack confirmed with a shrug and an awkward smile hovering at the edge of his mouth, like he wasn't entirely sure which expression Aster wanted to see on his face at that revelation.
Aster sat back in his seat, still reeling from this new information. "Bloody hell, Jack."
Jack shrugged again, a little more insistently this time. "It's not a big deal. It was--it was a long time ago, and I don't regret it. I managed to save my little sister when it happened, so it was worth it. And hey," he said, giving Aster a smile that was entirely too brittle. "I got to meet all you guys."
"That's..." Aster groped for words. "It is a big deal, Jack! No wonder you were scared!"
Jack bristled. "I wasn't scared" he insisted. "I was just kind of... shocked."
"In shock, more like," Aster snorted.
Jack made an irritated sound and pulled his hand from Aster's. "Seriously! It wasn't even a big deal before I got my memories back. Before it was, well, it wasn't comfortable, but it wasn't like this. It was more like--well, you know that saying? Like someone's just walked over your gra--don't make that face at me, Bunny, it's just a saying," Jack said, breaking off with a scowl.
Aster wasn't sure what exactly his expression was at the moment, but he was willing to bet it wasn't anything good. Jack had gotten his memories back years ago. Aster had never pried much; he'd thought that it wasn't his place. But maybe he should have. The idea that Jack had been suffering with all this for so long without any of them knowing it... But then again, Jack had told him that he'd died "a long time ago" and he'd mentioned during the fight with Pitch that he hadn't had any memories during that time period. He'd been suffering for a lot longer than any of them had cared to think about.
He closed his eyes and took a long breath in, steadying himself, then let it out before fixing his gaze on Jack. "Jack, if you ever feel like that again, you come here. I'll fix you right up. Even if you're not feeling... shocked or whatnot, you're welcome to come around anyway and have a cuppa. The warren is always open to you," he said, and he could feel the magic surrounding them sitting up and taking notice of his words. From now on, Jack's magical signature would be just as welcome in his warren as his own.
From the shellshocked expression on Jack's face, he understood what Aster had just given him. Blanket permission to go in and out of the warren at will, well, that wasn't anything to sneeze at. Very, very few spirits had that honor. But as far as Aster was concerned, the warren would always be a safe place for Jack Frost. His rock guardians would see to that even if he couldn't. He wasn't about to let Jack feel unsafe ever again. Not when there was anything he could do about it.
"You... Are you sure about that, Bunny?" And then, as if Jack had just realized the way his eyes shone and his cheeks were flushed, he pasted on a grin that didn't fool Aster for a moment. "Might cause a little bit of mayhem down here."
"I've no doubt," Aster said dryly. "But there are worse things." Like blue lips and chattering teeth, or thinking about a child drowning all alone with only the Moon for company. Or the Guardian of Fun shivering through his nightmares without the promise of Hope to get him through.
Jack's eyes just went wider at this assertion, though, and he swallowed. "I didn't think you'd ever want me back here, not after what happened last time."
"Oh, Jack," Aster said, leaning forward and this time taking both of Jack's hands in his paws. "That wasn't your fault. I figured that out yonks ago. I would have known it at the time if I hadn't been quite so..." Closed-minded? Angry? Grief-stricken? Terrified?
Jack offered him a wan smile. "Shocked?"
Aster laughed shortly. "Close enough as anything." He paused, sorting through his own courage. Surprisingly, with the memory of the usually joyful man subdued by something deep and lingering still so fresh in his mind, it wasn't hard at all. "And you know, if warmth's what you want, there isn't anything much warmer than pooka fur."
Jack's eyebrows rose. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Aster said gruffly, "And you're not going to get anything softer on this earth."
And then, because if anything, Jack just looked even more confused at this pronouncement, Aster scooted his chair closer to Jack's so he could wrap long arms around him, pull him close. Jack squeaked a little bit in surprise, but he didn't pull away, so Aster kept the hug going strong. After a moment, Jack went pliant in his arms and started to return the hug with one of his own. It was more tentative than Aster might have liked, but they had time to work at it. If he had anything to say about it, there was going to be a lot more where that came from. Because Jack was surprisingly sweet in his lap, and not nearly as cold as Aster had always imagined. And maybe, just maybe, there wasn't such a chasm between what the two of them were, or what they wanted, or what they needed after all.