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Putting the Land to Rest
by K. Stonham
first released 22nd July 2013

MK looked up at the sound of tiny rap. A broad grin blossomed across her face, and she hurried to open her window. Cold air swirled inside, accompanied by a blurry tiny figure in white-and-brown winter armor. His bird--something dull-colored and wintery, not the hummingbird he rode in warmer months--fluttered up to a sheltering nest in the house's eaves and settled there. Nod rubbed his hands up and down his arms as MK closed the window again.

"Cold out there?" she asked.

"You have no idea." He stomped his feet, presumably trying to get some warmth back into them. Without the digital interface of either her father's sentry cameras or the bulky headsets, Nod's voice was small, high, and quick to MK's ears. And she knew hers was heavy, thick, and slow to him. But sometimes the two of them just really wanted to talk without technology in between. And, honestly, the helmets were ugly. "And it's only going to get colder," Nod added with what she thought was a frown.

"So why are you out, then?"

"Patrol. Always patrol."

"Sounds boring." She offered him her hand, and he stepped on, snuggling up against the heel of her palm as she carried him over to her desk.

"Oh, you're warm." It sounded like a sigh of relief.

"I haven't been flying around outside in the cold," she replied, sitting down at her desk. "Tea?" she offered.

Nod raised a dubious eyebrow as he stepped off her hand. "That's the strongest stuff you've got?"

"Hey, one of us isn't old enough to drink in their native culture," MK shot back. Not that Nod would have been old enough to drink either, if he was a Stomper. But apparently the Jinn didn't have things like minimum age.

"Tea it is, then."

She ignored his grimace and fished around in her drawer for the small basket of Jinn dishes and utensils she kept on hand, and the eyedropper she kept with them. Three drops of tea from her pot neatly filled Nod's mug, and despite his complaints about the drink, she noticed he kept his gloveless hands wrapped firmly around the vessel.

Nebulous thoughts fluttered through her head about heat loss and surface-area-to-volume differences, and how tiny Nod was, and.... MK promptly cut off her train of thought. The Leafmen clearly had survived many winters before this, and would survive many winters after, and it was patronizing of her to assume any different, no matter what thoughts science classes had put in her head.

"So... what do Jinn do during the winter?" she asked, picking up her own cup of tea for something to do with her hands. "I mean, so many of your people seem to be, like, flowers or something." And flowers died during the winter. She frowned. "Even Queen Marigold."

Nod sat down cross-legged, still holding onto his mug. "Hibernation," he replied. "You didn't see any of them, but there are huge hibernation chambers all through the forest. In Nim Galuu's tree, and there's a big one under Moonhaven...." He sipped, made a face, sipped again. "It's part of what we Leafmen do during the winter. We guard everyone after the Winter Lord visits."

MK blinked. "Winter Lord?" she asked.

***


Jamie's expression was at best dubious, at worst mulish. "You're pulling my leg," he said, voice full of doubt.

"Ah, whatever happened to that cute kid who believed everything I told him?" Jack asked, looking imploringly at the ceiling.

"He believed everything you told him," Jamie replied, "and got laughed at by half the supernatural people he met. Not falling for it all again, Jack."

"Pity." Jack hopped off his staff and sauntered over to his little brother figure where Jamie sat at his desk. Cold fingers ruffled Jamie's hair briefly, freezing it with a coat of frost that made the teenager crack a smile. "But this time, I swear, I'm telling the truth. Guardian's honor."

"Tiny little nature spirits," Jamie said, still not, by his tone, convinced.

"Sure. I mean, I'm a winter spirit, so why not, like, flower spirits and pine cone spirits and stuff?"

"Winter's a little different."

"How?" Plopping down onto Jamie's bed, Jack grinned as that question seemed to stump the teenager.

"...A matter of scale?" Jamie finally managed.

"And what's Yoda got to say about size?" Jack asked.

"You watch too many movies."

"And you watch them with me." Jack smirked. "Anyhow, visiting the forest people and helping them get to sleep's one of the things cold-weather spirits like me do. Kind of like how one of Bunny's lesser-known jobs is waking them up a few months later."

"And they're just... tiny little people." Jamie made a gesture, holding his forefinger and thumb a couple inches apart.

"Yup." Jack nodded.

"And they live in, like, every forest in the world."

"Yup." Jack nodded again. "Jungles too, I'm told, not that I've really met any of the ones who live there."

"Huh." Jamie's expression turned thoughtful. "Think you could introduce me?"

Jack grimaced. "They're not really fond of humans. Too big and slow and clumsy, according to them."

Jamie blinked. Straightened up in his seat. "Now I know I'm four inches taller than you these days, but how'm I that much bigger and slower and clumsier than you, Jack?"

"Three hundred years less experience," Jack said, straight-faced. He held the expression for a long moment while Jamie gaped, then broke out cackling and fell backwards on the bed as Jamie grabbed an eraser and lobbed it at him.

***


"Straighten up," Ronin growled, almost under his breath. He could feel, all of them could feel, the approaching frost. The cold. The winter, and the sleep.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Nod obeyed. At Ronin's side was their young Queen, looking nervous. Her mother stood behind her, looking like she wanted to put a reassuring hand on Marigold's shoulder, but valiantly resisting. Finn, Ronin's second, waited firm and reassuring by her side. It was neither of their first winters, but it would be the first time that either the Queen or her mother had met the Winter Lord.

The Leafmen, who stood part in this ceremony every year, were less intimidated... but only slightly less so. Despite his young appearance, Winter was no one to be trifled with. Their memory as a people ran deep, and though this Lord seemed to have little harm in his nature, his predecessor had not been kind.

A cold breeze tickled the back of Nod's neck. He jolted to ramrod posture, not needing to hear the creaking of the trees and the crackling of the ice to feel the forest's whisper of He is coming.

The young Queen trembled, almost biting her fingers in nervousness as a blue-and-white figure glided into view between the trees.

He looked like a Stomper, being their size, but moved with a quickness and lightness which that ponderous race could never possess. His face seemed young, younger than Nod even, but his hair was the winter-white of an old man's, and his bright blue eyes held the jaded knowledge of one who had seen all the death and cruelty the world had to offer. Still, there was something kind in his expression, something gentle and laughing. His eyes fastened on their party, and as he walked across the water, it froze under his feet, frost whorling out from his feet. The green plants on the surface crackled, caught in a rime of ice. They would stay like that, stiff and cold, until the spring released them with a thaw.

By the time he reached Moonhaven, the Winter Lord was the proper size of a Jinn.

A gust of wind blew him onto the platform, where he landed lightly, holding his staff in one hand. His head tilted to one side, though, as he contemplated the party before him. "You're not Queen Tara," he said, sounding puzzled.

"No." Ronin went to one knee. "Queen Tara has rejoined the forest, Winter Lord."

"Oh." The winter spirit seemed surprised, then sad. "My sorrow for your loss." His condolence sounded genuine. Blue eyes rested briefly on Ronin, then moved curiously back to Marigold.

Who stepped forward, clearly trying for bravery in the face of fear. "I am Marigold."

The Winter Lord smiled at her, and if it was all teeth, it was also a broad grin, friendly and honest. "Nice to meet you, your Majesty." He stepped toward her, and he wasn't tall, he wasn't tall at all, standing just a little higher than the Queen. He took her trembling hand in his, raised it to his mouth, kissed it like a courtier, and continued smiling.

After a moment, she stopped trembling. "You're not scary," she said, and it sounded almost like a complaint.

The winter spirit looked past her, an understanding glance at the queen's mother, then back at Marigold. "No," he said. "I've met Fear, and he is scary. But I'm not him. I'm just here to put the forest to sleep for a while."

"So it can wake in the spring, refreshed." The Queen sounded like she was just now understanding something from her lessons.

Winter nodded. "Exactly. Are you ready, your Majesty?"

Queen Marigold sucked in a breath, then let it out. "I'm not scared," she said, and it sounded like she was giving herself what MK called a pep talk. She looked up into Winter's blue eyes. "I'm ready."

He smiled again, took her hand in his, and kissed the Queen's brow. Her eyes closed with a sigh and she fell limp into his arms. Her mother, too, fell asleep, and was caught by Finn. In the hibernation chambers all across the forest, Nod knew, the other plant Jinn were also settling into their slumbers. Only a few of the Jinn would stay awake for the winter. He, and the other Leafmen, were among them.

The Winter Lord smoothed a hand over Queen Marigold's crown of petals, gazing at her fondly, then looked up to meet Ronin's eyes. "Winter will be mild this year," he told the leader of the Leafmen as he handed the young Queen's unconscious form over. "Long but mild." His eyes slid down their ranks. "Plenty of time for skating and playing in the snow," he promised, humor glinting in his eyes.

Several of the Leafmen grinned. A couple shoved at one another.

Ronin, humorless stick in the mud that he was, merely nodded. "Safe travels, Winter Lord."

The spirit stood. "Safe guarding, friend." And then the wind picked up, slinging stinging snow into everyone's eyes, and he was gone.

"That never gets old," Finn said, watching the barefoot form disappear into the distant skies.

Ronin, probably unconsciously, nodded, then snapped to order. "Ranks!" he barked out. "Delta squad, you have first shift on guarding the Queen. Remember, just because it's winter doesn't mean the Boggans can't try anything!"

Nod, who was in Delta squad, sighed, then hustled with his squadmates to escort the Queen's sleeping form to her chamber, where they, and all the others, would take shifts guarding her, and all their sleeping people, until the Pooka came in spring to wake her.

***


"Wow," MK said, her tea having gone cold and forgotten in her hand. "There's really a winter spirit?"

"Oh yeah." Nod nodded. "He... sometimes sneaks back after the ceremony. Starts snowball fights with us."

She grinned. "Sounds fun."

Nod sighed, thinking back on fond memories of playing in the snow with his father. "It is." Then he paused as a thought hit him. "MK--"

Her eyes widened, and clearly their minds had gone in the same direction. "I don't think we should tell my dad about him."

"No," Nod agreed, considering the careless, scatterminded Stomper who was MK's parent. "That probably would not end well."

"Yeah."

A rapping at MK's window drew both of their attentions. Ronin stood outside, arms crossed, expression unimpressed. Nod groaned. "How does he always find me?" he asked.

MK laughed, and if it was slower and deeper as a Stomper than it had been when she'd been his own size, well, it was still her laugh. "You're not exactly hard to find, Nod. You hide out with me all the time."

"You're much better company than he is." Nod drained the last of his tea, grimacing at the cold taste, then stood, jamming his helmet back on. "Back to patrol, I guess."

"And back to homework for me," MK said, nodding at the paper Nod had been sitting on. It was covered with writing that Nod guessed was the Stomper language. He certainly couldn't read it, anyway. He waved off her silent offer of a lift to the window and made his own way, throwing in as many acrobatic twists and tumbles as he could. Who was he to deny his girl a show? He did wait at the sill for her to open the window, though, and pressed his hand against her finger.

It wasn't as good as a kiss, never could be, but it would have to suffice. And maybe someday....

He cut off the thought before he could wish for too much.

Nod slipped out the window and whistled his ride down from the nest. Ronin cuffed him upside the head. "For breaking from patrol, you're on guard duty for the next three days."

Nod hopped into his saddle, looked back at the window. At the Stomper girl who had his heart. She gave him a little wave with her fingers, and he couldn't help smiling and giving her a half-wave in return.

"Totally worth it," he said, and took into the air after his commanding officer.

***


Jack... didn't usually lie, no matter how funny things ended up seeming later. Exaggerate, yes. Stretch the truth, sure. Embroider a tale to make it more daring, or funnier? All the time. But he never outright lied to Jamie.

So Jamie had to accept the possibility that maybe there were tiny people living in the forest, ones who rode on the backs of hummingbirds and fought off tiny little demons as nasty as anything Pitch had ever spawned. And that Jack visited them every year to put the plant-people among them into hibernation.

His life had gotten so much weirder since Jack Frost had come into it. Jamie wouldn't trade that for anything.

"I wonder if maybe Mary Norton, or that guy who wrote Gulliver's Travels, saw them, and that's what gave them the ideas for their books?"

"Jonathan Swift," Jack, who was a font of useless knowledge, corrected. "And, hey, maybe, who knows. I mean, people knew about me ages before anyone ever believed in me, so I have no idea how that kind of thing works."

Jamie paused. "Does that mean the talking horses from Gulliver's Travels are maybe real too?"

Jack paused too. His eyes went wide. "...Let's not talk about that," he hedged.

"What? You mean they are real? Jack!"

Jack shook his head. "Ponies are evil, no matter what your sister thinks."

"She's a girl. They're supposed to like horses."

"E. Vil," Jack repeated. "Even the Utopian pacifist ones in Gulliver's Travels."

"Jaaack," Jamie complained.

"You ever been near a real horse? Even my father's hated me."

"So you get on with tiny forest sprites, but not horses."

"I get on with whiny teenage boys, too," Jack pointed out.

Jamie narrowed his eyes. "You tortured the magic horses, didn't you?"

"They started it!"

"Oh God." Jamie's head was in one hand. "You did. You tormented the unicorns, or pegasi, or whatever they were."

"They were kelpies, they were child-stealing bastards, and they deserved to get frozen." Jack was self-righteous.

Jamie paused, mouth open, as he recalled everything he'd read about kelpies. His mouth shut. "Okay, you may have a point."

"Told you."

"So... tiny forest spirits?"

Jack sighed. "I'll ask Bunny to introduce you in the spring or something. They like him better than they like me. New life, and all that."

"Hey." Jamie sat down on his bed next to Jack. Deliberately bumped his shoulder against the winter spirit's. "I like you better. Bunny can be kind of an ass sometimes."

Jack's grin was wan, but present. "Dare you to say that to his face."

"Ha. No. I can't fly away like you can."

Jack batted his eyelashes and his voice went falsetto. "Don't worry, I'll rescue you!"

As Jamie retaliated and the two boys wrestled it out, neither of them noticed two small brown birds hovering outside Jamie's window. Nor the two Leafmen riding birdback, observing, as part of their patrol.

"Well," said Ronin, "good to see that Winter's got himself a friend. Even if he is a Stomper."

"They're catching on," said Nod. "Think they'll ever figure everything out?"

"Who knows." Ronin looked on for just a second longer, then directed his bird away from the window. "Anything is possible."

*~*~*


Author's Note: A fanfic that started with a visual of Jack walking across the water at Moonhaven. Who am I to deny a crossover bunny its carrots? Though this story does play incredibly loose with geographic continuity - Rise of the Guardians being in Pennsylvania, and Epic being in Connecticut. Well, whatever. *Jedi hand wave*

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