A weary group was trudging laboriously up the hill. They were all dirty, exhausted, and battered, but there was not a face among them that didn’t carry the glow of hard-earned victory.
They had done it. It was really only just now sinking in, as they felt the wind on their faces and saw the rising sun peek through the trees. They had gone down into the maw of darkness itself, faced Pitch Black in his own territory, and come out the victors.
The yetis and the rest of Toothiana’s faeries met them at the edge of the forest, the yetis grunting and fussing over their worn and torn appearance, while the faeries mobbed their ‘mommy’ and some even Jack, and the elves jingled merrily underfoot.
Jack especially was practically passed from one yeti to another, all of them expressing their dismay over his appearance. Meanwhile, the faeries were chirping and trying to pick the remains of nightmare sand from his hair, one tiny handful at a time. The prince surrendered to the pawing with a laugh, simply too glad to be back where he most wanted to be to really mind.
Finally, the group was mostly settled into a clearing, the yetis bringing out fresh fruit and rough, but oh-so satisfying baked goods from who knows where, while attending to their various injuries.
Jack looked around him at the mottled group, all of them laughing and joking in between destroying their impromptu breakfast picnic, and the last bite of the cookie he was chewing on caught in his throat.
“Everyone… “ the prince started, his voice trembling just a little. He hesitated when a number of curious eyes turned on him, but plowed bravely on:
“I… Thank you. For coming after me. And for believing in me, even in the end.”
The Sandman responded by raising his wooden goblet first at Jack then at the rest of their friends.
“Jack, we came, because we wanted to.” Toothiana’s voice was soft, but there was no mistaking the steel underneath.
The frost sprite’s brows furrowed. “You all could’ve gotten hurt, or worse. By the Moon, you DID get hurt!”
“And we could’ve done nothing, and lost a good friend. Two, in fact. Would that not hurt? Jack…” North held up his hand to show his bloodied knuckles. He had briefly lost his other blade during the battle, and been forced to improvise. “This, is good hurt.”
The leshy laid the huge, callused hand on the frost spirit’s shoulder. “Is good to have you back.”
“Even if you weren’t really needing that rescue there in the end.” Bunnymund added, grimacing a little as a yeti dabbed ointment on the cut on his ear. “I think even Pitch would agree that was pretty impressive what you did back there.”
The prince couldn’t help it. His frown melted into a smile. True compliments from the pooka were rare and treasured.
“Yeah, guess I don’t make much of a princess after all. Can’t even let myself be rescued properly.”
Good natured laughter filled the air, but Bunnymund didn’t join in. He found himself looking the frost spirit over, the joy now radiating from the young prince drawing him in like the sweet smell of first spring grass.
Jack’s vestments of dark royalty had melted away like swirls of smoke in the breeze the moment he had stepped out into the light. Now he stood before the pooka attired in tattered remains of clothes that once were fine enough for a prince, but now barely showed their original color and form. His feet were smudged with soot and mud, he was bruised from the fight and his hair stuck to his forehead in dirty clumps, but his eyes were sparkling and his smile was just a touch fierce.
Bunnymund honestly couldn’t pinpoint when he first had fallen in love with the frost prince, but he had the feeling he was doing it all over again.
“Nah, mate. You’re just fine as is.”
Jack blinked, almost startled, then looked aside with a small smile, both confused and tender. The wind ruffled his hair for a moment, dislodging some black sand, though a healthy dusting of it remained, turning the usual whiteness of the unruly mess into snow-flecked silver.
Suddenly remembering, Bunnymund reached into the largest pouch on his belt, and dug around for a moment, before pulling out a hoop of silver.
Jack’s eyes widened. “The crown…”
The spring spirit huffed a little, but his smile was soft and even a little bashful as he rubbed a pawpad over the snowflake at the center of the circlet. Then he held up both hands, to offer the crown to the prince in both palms, ignoring entirely Toothiana’s delighted gasp and the knowing look North and Sandy shared.
The frost spirit stared at the circlet for a long minute, before looking up into the green eyes that were pouring all the hope in the creation at him. His own eyes were a little blurry, probably shining with unshed tears. “It’s not like I was serious about the whole challenge thing… Why did you even…?”
“I had a point that needed making.”
With that, Bunnymund gently lifted the circlet and with the highest care placed it on the prince’s head. Then he let his hands run down along the younger spirit’s temples, claws ever so softly carding through the matted white hair, until he was gently cupping Jack’s face in his hands.
Finally finding himself in this moment, Bunnymund found himself hesitating. So much had happened in such a short time. Were either of them even the same people they were that sunny morning by the stream?
Jack, noticing the hint of worry in the pooka’s expression, couldn’t help teasing: “Are you afraid to kiss me, Bunny?”
“I’m afraid you’ll break my heart.” the forest guardian replied softly, for a moment looking as timid as the small furry forest creatures he so much resembled.
With a chuckle, the frost prince reached up to run his own fingers through the pooka’s cheek ruff. “Then still your heart, E. Aster Bunnymund. You’re dear to me as life itself.”
And with that, Jack and Bunnymund kissed for the first time, earning a round of cheers (and some dream-sand fireworks) from their friends.
When they parted, a slightly dazed, dreamy look lingered on Jack’s face for a moment, much to Bunnymund’s satisfaction. But in just a moment, there appeared a familiar spark somewhere in the winter prince’s eyes.
“You know,” Jack started deceptively casually, “my father and everyone else at the palace must be worried sick by now.”
The pooka cocked one large ear. “Oh?”
Jack stepped back from the embrace, but his hands slid down to slip into the pooka’s paws. Now there was definitely mischief dancing in the blue eyes. “Yeah. There’s going to be a lot of explaining to do when I get back. And well, once I tell the whole story, I imagine the king will be only too eager to meet the ones who saved his son.”
Bunnymund had to bark a laugh at that. He could just see in his mind’s eye the looks of the king and all the courtiers when the prince appeared with a colorful entourage of forest creatures, looking like he’d been dragged through hell backwards, and hand-in-paw with an equally ruffled looking pooka.
“Are you gonna tell the whole thing about the crown and the challenge and whatnot? ‘Cause I hate to break it to you, mate, but that wasn’t your most thought out plan ever.”
“I suppose I have to. You did win the challenge, so my father is pretty much honor bound to give you the promised prize.” Jack tried to mock-pout at the admission, but his grin soon shone through. “Though after everything else that happened, I don’t think he would say no, anyway.”
“Ha ha! A party!” North threw his arms above his head, startling the new couple who had all but forgotten they weren’t alone.
“Celebrating the prince’s engagement and the second defeat of Pitch Black in one go! This is going to be EPIC!” the giant of a man bellowed with all the remarkable power of his lungs.
Bunnymund glanced at his – dear gods above and below – his fiancé, bit more than fondly exasperated. “Do we really have to invite him?”
“Might as well. You know he’d just crash the party if we didn’t.”
The spring guardian wrapped a long, furry arm around Jack’s waist with a hopeful look. “We could still just elope, right?”
“No such luck for you, Bunny.” Jack grasped the pooka’s paw, tugging eagerly. “Now, let’s go! I still may not be a princess, but I think there’s a half a kingdom in it for you, anyway.”
With a laugh Bunnymund laced their fingers together. “Make it the half with my forest in it, and you got yourself a deal, mate.”