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The Consequences of Carrot Cake

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The first time E. Aster Bunnymund (don’t ask what the E stood for, there’s a reason he went by Aster) met Jack Frost he really would have preferred he hadn’t. To make a long story short it had involved a small arsenal of snowballs, a busted fire hydrant (that had turned the intersection at 6th and 8th into an ice rink,) and a large crate of fresh flowers. Aster felt his left eye twitch just thinking about it.

The second time Aster met Jack was entirely North’s fault.

Nicholas St.North owned a toy store that Iana (affectionately known as Tooth to her friends) had often compared to Mr.Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Santoff Clausen was closed that day, but North had hired him to paint a mural on the back wall so here he was. It wasn’t until North had clapped him on the shoulder (and thank goodness he hadn’t had his brush to the wall because he jumped at least three feet in surprise) that he realized just how much time had passed though. “Come my friend! I am wanting cookies and eggnog, and you have not taken a break all day.”

Aster rotated his head, trying to work the kinks from his neck. “Nick I should really keep working, you know I can only take so many days off.” Aster was a painter by trade, had a MFA in painting and everything, but he made his rent working at The Warren, a local nursery. It wasn’t a bad job; Aster had always liked plants, and the constant balmy temperatures suited him, but it made taking jobs like this one for North harder to fit in his schedule.

“Bah! I am paying for this; if I say you should take break, you take break.” North scoffed, waving off his concerns. “Come, you must east. My treat.” He insisted, pulling Aster up. Aster sighed, he couldn’t argue with that and when North got an idea in his head it was better just to go along anyway. The man was like a steam roller.

“Fine, fine.” He agreed, grabbing his bomber jacket. “Where to?” Aster had no doubt North had somewhere in mind.

North clapped him on the shoulder as they left; if he wasn’t so used to North he’d have flinched. “There is excellent café just down road. Very good cookies” he said, nodding to himself. Aster stuffed his hands into his pockets, winter’s chill still clinging to the March day. Aster hopped the weather picked up soon. He was more than ready to see the end to winter. North wasn’t lying about the café being just down the road; soon enough they were entering the small shop. There were tables and various arm chairs scattered about. A few large coffee machines blocked the register from view, but he could see the line was short. Aster was surprised they had a line at all at (he check his watch) two forty-three on a Sunday. Aster browsed the display case as they waited, and North seemed to already know exactly what he wanted as he wasted his time on line loudly greeting those he knew that sat around the store.

“Eggnog latte and a couple lingonberry cookies?” an unfortunately familiar voice asked with a laugh.

Aster froze. No. Oh there was absolutely no bloody way.

North laughed boisterously. “Ha! I must change order soon if I am getting so predictable” he said good naturedly. Suddenly North was stepping aside and pulling him forward. Aster was a solid six feet and North really shouldn’t have had such an easy time man handling him around as he pleased, but North was deceptively strong. Behind the counter Aster was greeted by a crooked smile, and familiar pair of laughing blue eyes.

“You.” Aster couldn’t help uttering in annoyance. Of course Jack would be a barista at North favorite café. Bloody typical.

“Oh hey!” His crooked smile didn’t waver for a moment, and if anything it grew larger. “Long time no see cottontail.” Aster scowled. “Aw what’s wrong, you aren’t still mad about the thing with the snowballs are you?”

The little shit didn’t even sound the least bit repentant. If anything he sounded proud of all the chaos he’d caused. “Thing with the snowballs my arse, you shut down 6th and 8th for a week!” He glared. Little white haired punk.

“Hey the police cleared me of those charges.”

“I did not know you two were friends.” North cut in with a smile, having watched their interactions a moment before like it was some kind of verbal ping-pong match.

“We’re not.” Aster snapped, unreasonably (well he didn’t think it was unreasonable at least) annoyed at the suggestion. “Chocolate mocha and a piece of carrot cake” he ordered, just wanting to get out of there already and back to painting. “He’s paying” Aster added, jerking his head toward North.

“Huh, wouldn’t have pegged you has the type to have a sweet tooth.” Jack mused as he rung them up. Aster scowled.

“Yeah well I wouldn’t have pegged you as the type to have a job.” he shot back. It was only as they were walking back to the toystore that Aster noticed the frowning bunny scribbled on the side of his cup with the words ‘Cheer up Grumpy!’ next to it.

--

The third time Aster met Jack was similar to the second in that it was at the café.

After he’d found out that Jack worked there he’d made a mental note to avoid the place like the plague, Nick’s whims be damned. Or at least that had been the plan until he’d tried the carrot cake. The stuff tasted fantastic, and Aster was tempted to make sure it wasn’t laced with some kind of addictive substance. Which was how a week and a half later Aster found himself back at the café, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets and shoulders hunched. He let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding in when he realized it wasn’t Jack behind the counter at all; instead some teenage girl with braces he’d never met before was standing behind the register. With nowhere to be and no Jack in sight he’d felt comfortable enough to have his coffee and carrot cake at one of the small tables in the sitting area. He didn’t know what it was about Jack that got under his skin so much (besides the incident at 6th and 8th, and his unrepentant attitude, his cocky little grin, and—okay so he could think of a lot of reason Jack got under his skin;) the kid was like an itch he couldn’t scratch that just kept bothering him despite only having met twice before.

“Mind if I sit down?” an increasingly familiar voice asked, and Aster was tempted to slam his head against the table. Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Jack seemed to take his silence as an agreement, and before Aster could say otherwise he was plopping down in the seat across from him. Aster glared. Jack didn’t seem to notice. “So what-cha up to Bun-Bun?” Jack asked with his normal crooked, shit eating grin.

“Well I was trying to eat.” He said dryly. Jack lifted his legs to sit cross legged in the chair, and Aster rolled his eyes. Had no one ever taught this brat the proper way to sit in a chair before?

“Got addicted to the carrot cake huh?”

Aster didn’t dignify that with a response. “Don’t you have anything better to do than bother me Frostbite?” He noticed that Jack’s hoodie, a deep navy blue, seemed frayed at the edges, the plastic covering at the end of one of the pull strings was bent oddly, like it had been chewed at.

“Not really,” he shrugged “ten more minutes and then I have to get back to work.”

“So you decide to grace me with your presence. Lovely.” Aster rolled his eyes. He didn’t know why Jack seemed to enjoy bothering him so much, maybe he’d just recognized his natural ability to get under Aster’s skin.

--

Meetings four through sixth all happened at the café. Four of them coincided with Jack’s breaks and Aster damned his love of carrot cake every time. When Tooth suggested that he just bake his own cake he dismissed the idea out of hand for no reason he could think to give.

--

The seventh time Aster visited the café Jack wasn’t there and Aster ignored how strange the place felt without Jack’s mindless chatter or his voice calling out orders.

--

Winter gave way to spring and Aster sighed happily as he walked to the cafe. The temperatures had finally picked up, the trees were blooming, and the world smelled fresh. A flash of soft brown caught his eye and Aster was surprised to notice an envelope on the ground. Picking it up he was surprised to find there was no address on it, sending or return, though it was sealed tight. He debated opening it as he continued along until a block later he was distracted by what sounded suspiciously like someone kicking a lamppost followed by a string of swears.

“Jack?”

Jack looked as surprised as Aster felt though Jack’s scowl was still partially in place as he looked up. Aster was tempted to ask what the lamppost had ever done to him. Before he could though Jack eyes lit up, scowl turning into a smile he’d had never seen from Jack before, and Aster’s breath caught in his throat. “You found my letter!” Jack exclaimed, and it was only then that Aster realized Jack’s gaze was locked on the envelope in his hand.

“Oh, um, yeah. Found it about a block ago.” He said, feeling suddenly awkward as he handed over the letter.

“God I don’t know what I would have done if I lost this, Pippa would have killed me.” Jack said with a laugh. “Open the package, but lose the letter.” he said with a shake of his head. Jack had what looked like a small care package under his arm, and that explained why there was no address, the letter must have been inside the box.

“Pippa?” He couldn’t help asking and Aster wondered at his own curiosity.

“My little sister.” Jack’s smile was indulgent and fond. Aster found himself holding back a chuckle at the image of Jack as the doting older brother. He’d have imagined him as more of a tricky younger sibling if anything; the kind who was forever getting into mischief, but was always forgiven because he was the baby of the family. “She loves real physical mail. We email too, but she always saves the best stories for her letters.” They were headed the same way and Aster was surprised at his own interest as Jack explained that he and his sister had a six year age difference, but had still been incredibly close until their parents’ divorce. Neither saw the other as often as they’d have liked after that, especially now that Jack was in college, but they talked constantly. It was clear how deeply Jack loved the little shelia just from the way he talked about her, and Aster felt himself sympathizing with Jack. It must have broken his heart when their parents had separated them.

And if Aster grabbed the table closest to the register so that they could keep the conversation going, well, it was only because Aster knew what it was like to be far from family, and talking about Pippa seemed to put Jack more at ease than Aster had ever seen him.

--

The twenty-third time Aster met Jack wasn’t at the café to both their surprise.

Aster had been teaching children’s art classes at the community center for two weeks. It didn’t pay much, but he did it just as much to see the looks on the ankle bitters' faces as he did for the money. There was just something about seeing their little faces, splattered with paint, lighting up that just warmed his heart like nothing else did. It was on his way out that he heard it.

It had been two years since an anonymous donation had allowed the community center to build an ice rink. Aster hadn’t paid much attention to the announcement even then (he didn’t mix with cold) but he knew it had made a lot of people happy. Jack, if he was recognizing that laugh correctly, was apparently one of them. He didn’t know why but Aster found himself slowing down, and hesitating. Sure he and the brat had been on better terms as of late, but there was no reason to go see if it really was him. It probably wasn’t even Jack (it was ridiculous to think he could actually recognize him just by his laugh.) Of course it wouldn’t hurt anything just to peek in, he reasoned, and so with only slight hesitation Aster slipped into the stands of the ice rink.

He felt his eyebrows rise as he watched Jack (and it was Jack) lead a small group of children around the rink. The ankle bitters followed him around like a pack of ducklings. While some of the children were shaky on their skates Jack seemed perfectly at ease, skating backwards with the kind of grace that some people didn’t even have on solid ground. After a moment Aster realized that Jack was giving the children instructions. ‘He’s teaching a class’ Aster thought in surprise.

“Okay guys!” Jack said with a clap. “That’s it for this week, you all did great which means…” Jack trailed off with a grin.

“Lollipops and game day!” The kids chorused with a cheer. Aster felt his lips twitch. Clearly Jack had, had this class for a while.

“That’s right. Now don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and I’ll see you all next week.”

“But Jack you promised to show us a jump!” One brown haired boy that Aster was surprised to recognize as Jamie Bennet piped up. Jamie’s mum had worked with Aster at The Warren for a little over a year, though he’d only met the boy once or twice. He was much better acquainted with Jamie’s little sister Sophie who their mother frequently brought with her to work. Aster wouldn’t admit it but it was obvious to everyone that he had a soft spot for the little blonde tyke. The rest of Jack’s class chorused in to back Jamie up, and Jack quickly raised his hands in surrender.

“Okay, okay I know when I’m beat.” Jack laughed with his usual crooked smile. “Right, give me a second.” With that Jack was off. He skated once around the edge of the rink gaining speed before moving to the center. When he was parallel with his class he jumped. Aster held his breath as he watched Jack spin midair before landing on one leg, the other outstretched behind him. Aster whistled, low and long, impressed despite himself. He knew that Jack was athletic (the incident at 6th and 8th had proved that) but to Aster it seemed that being able to do a trick like that with such ease must have taken practice. His whistle must have carried despite the children’s cheers and applause because Jack looked up at that moment, catching Aster’s gaze. Jack grinned and nodded before his attention was drawn back to his kids.

After getting them all off the ice and seeing them off to their parents Jack jogged over to him. Aster wasn’t sure why he waited, but it seemed rude to just leave after Jack had noticed him there watching. “Judge assign you community service Frostbite?” Aster asked with a raised brow and a smirk, though the jab lacked the heat it might once have carried.

“Nah, that’s next week Cottontail.” Jack shot back. “This is my second job actually; textbooks are expensive” he explained with a shrug, and Aster wondered how Jack wasn’t cold in just his frayed old sweatshirt. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you hated the cold.”

Aster shrugged. “I teach an art class a couple hallways down actually.” He pointedly didn’t mention why he’d come inside the rink, suddenly embarrassed that he’d investigated just because he'd thought he heard Jack’s laugh. He wasn’t sure when exactly they’d become friends, but the whole thing still felt too new and fragile.

“Seriously? I knew you painted a little but I didn’t know you taught.” Aster had downplayed his art just a bit. He’d worked in The Warren since he graduated college with nothing to show for an art career besides a few sold paintings and a couple murals. It was disheartening and a bit of a sore subject to explain. It was easier to let people think he was a florist who painted on the side than an artist who worked in a nursery to make rent and keep food on the table.

“I didn’t know you could skate.” Aster shot back, changing the subject.

It was Jack’s turn to shrug. “I grew up near a lake that seemed to be frozen seven months out of the year so I got a lot of practice. I even taught Pippa to skate when we were kids.” Jack’s eyes lit up the way they always did when he talked about his sister and Aster fought down the urge to smile. “Been awhile since I skated though, luckily I got a class full of beginners so they didn’t notice how rusty I was at first.”

“Didn’t seem rusty to me.” Aster commented as he held open the door for Jack.

“Yeah but it’s been months since I got my class. Before that it’d been years since I even put on a pair of skates.”

“Why’d you stop skating if you loved it so much?” he asked in confused curiosity.

Jack stuffed his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I, um, there was a bit of an…incident when I was fifteen.” He said, half muttering and not looking at Aster.

Oh there was definitely a story there. “Incident?” he prompted.

Jack bit his lip hard and Aster almost regretted asking. “I, sort of misjudged the ice thickness. It was too late in the year to be skating, but like I said that lake was frozen more often than it wasn’t. I got careless.” Jack sighed in agitation, running his hand through his hair. If Aster wasn’t so horrifyingly engrossed in the story he would have told Jack he didn’t have to keep going, but the words didn’t seem to want to come. “The ice started cracking under Pippa. I managed to get her onto a thicker spot, but I fell in instead. Paramedics said I was lucky I didn’t drown, or die of hypothermia.” Jack pulled on his hair sardonically. “My hair started going grey a couple weeks later. Doc said it probably wasn’t related, but I can’t help wondering sometimes…”

“That’s natural?” Oh of all the stupid details to focus on…

“Hundred percent.” Jack said with a nod, and maybe it was the right thing to say after all as Jack seemed to relax slightly. There was still a tension to his shoulders that Aster didn’t like though. “Apparently going grey early runs in the family, though I hold the current record for youngest.”

Silence hung between them as Aster struggled to find something to say. What did you say to someone who'd just confessed they'd almost died when they were fifteen? “Do you want to grab some dinner?” Aster blurted out after a moment, breaking the uncomfortable silence that hung in the air.

“What?” Jack blinked at him.

“Dinner. Food. Do you want to go eat?” he rolled his eyes like Jack was the one being ridiculous.

The tension seemed to ease out of Jack at last as a crooked grin spread on his face. “You’re paying.” Aster grunted in response, but he didn’t object, surprised at his own relief over calming Jack.

--

They settled on pizza (half green peppers for Aster, half anchovy for Jack, and a half of mushrooms that covered a quarter of both their halves. It was the only topping they agreed on.) “How can you eat those little buggers.” Aster asked rhetorically, wrinkling his nose.

“I ordered them as a joke once to freak out Pippa.” Jack said with a shrug before biting off half a slice in one go. He paused just long enough to chew and swallow. “Mom made me eat all the anchovy slices as punishment, but I ended up liking them so that sort of backfired.” Jack laughed. Leaning forward to grab another slice of pizza Jack tried to catch his straw with his mouth. The straw didn’t cooperate, forcing Jack to chase it with his tongue. He made a triumphant little noise when he finally caught it, and Aster hid his smile behind his slice of pizza.

“I never asked but what are you studying anyway mate?” Aster knew Jack was a freshman at the local college, he’d complained about everything from the food to his roommate, though he seemed fond of his advisor. Despite being mute the man still managed to hold the title of Jack’s most interesting professor.

“I’m Undeclared.” Jack said with a shrug, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I’m supposed to declare something soon, but I just…” he gave a frustrated sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “How the hell am I supposed to know what I want to do with my life?” he gestured in aggravation. “I barely know what I want to eat for dinner most days.”

It was clear he’d hit a sore spot, and Aster wondered when he'd gotten so good at putting his foot in his mouth. Advice wasn’t really his strong suit to begin with, and who was he to give advice on career choices? He barely even used his degree nowadays. “Mate nobody knows what they’re doing, and the ones that think they do inevitably get a kick to the face from life somewhere along the way.” He eventually settled on with a sardonic smile.

Jack's shoulders had slumped and he’d started to stare moodily at the table in the silence that stretched between his confession and Aster’s reassurance. “Yeah?” he asked head tilting up just slightly with a growing grin. He looked up at Aster through his lashes, and Aster realized there were white hairs scattered through his dark eyebrows.

Aster resisted the sudden urge to swallow, hard. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is a bloody liar.”

It was dark by the time they left the pizzeria and they walked together until their paths split. Jack’s grin was the slightest bit shy as he turned toward Aster. “So, um, thanks Cottontail.”

Aster wasn’t sure if Jack was talking about the pizza or the talk, but this time he did swallow around the sudden lump in his throat. “No problem Frostbite.”

“I’ll see you around?” he asked, and Aster suddenly wished there was some way he could make the evening last just a little bit longer.

“Yeah, I- yeah.” He said with a nod, hands shoved into the pockets of his open jacket.

“Cool.” Jack said, slowly walking backwards. He turned around only once he reached the edge of the sidewalk, and after checking for cars, he jogged across the street. Aster stood watching him go even as he tried to will his feet to take him home. There was no reason to stand there watching Jack go, but even as he thought it he stayed rooted to the spot. Somehow it felt worth it when Jack glanced back and grinned at the sight of him still standing there. Aster waved to do something, and Jack’s smile widened.

Aster didn’t move until Jack was out of sight.

--

As March gave way to April visiting the café (Jack, if he was being honest with himself) quickly became one of the highlights of Aster’s week. Of course it was inevitable that he’d run into North there eventually; he went there enough that Jack had Nick’s order memorized.

“Aster!” Nick bellowed, and even without the accent Aster would have recognized him by the volume alone.

“Hey mate.” Aster said, raising his paper cup in greeting.

“Am surprised to be seeing you here my friend. You seemed quite grumpy when we came here together.” Nick said as he sat down without bothering to ask. Aster was surprised by the momentary discomfort the action gave him, and it took him a second to realize it was because he thought of that as Jack’s chair. It was a bloody ridiculous feeling really; Jack was working, he wouldn’t have the time to sit even if he wanted to.

“They have good carrot cake.” Aster replied evasively, taking a sip of his drink; it was a caramel something or other Jack had suggested he try and Aster had to admit it was good. He didn’t know why he didn’t want to admit that he was here to see Jack as much as he came for the carrot cake (the cake was good,) but he supposed it was because he’d so violently objected to the idea of being friends with Jack the one time North had seen them together. It was hard to admit that perhaps he’d judged Jack a little too quickly (even if Frostbite was an unrepentant Trickster he was never malicious.)

"Very good cake" and North smiled like he had a secret.

--

Meetings thirty-seven through forty-two taught Aster that Jack's hair used to be brown, his favorite holiday was Easter (that had been an interesting moment of bonding) and he liked obscure indie rock but told most people he listened to whatever because he didn't want to sound pretentious. His favorite food was plain snow cones with honey, and if he could he'd never wear shoes.

Jack learned that Aster had grown up in Australia with a large extended family (but had moved to the states when he was seventeen with his parents,) that he’d been dyeing his hair since college, usually some variation of blue or grey, but that it had been pink for a few short months (Jack had met that tidbit with a confession that he used to let Pippa paint his nails when she was little.) He admitted that he wanted to paint for a living but was still working out the kinks there, and was an unabashed bookworm; his favorite food was week old peeps, and he'd never been ice skating.

Jack insisted on remedying the last part.

--

"This is an awful idea." Aster deadpanned as he clung to the side of the ice rink.

Jack skated circles around him and grinned. The wanker. "This is a great idea." Aster got the distinct impression he was being laughed at.

"No it isn't Frostbite, I don't mix well with cold." Aster felt his feet slipping from under him and he clung tighter from the wall. The borrowed skates felt unnatural on his feet, in part perhaps because of the fact that he was wearing three pairs of socks.

"Oh Come on Aster I literally get paid to teach people to skate every week, will you just trust me please?" he said holding out a hand. Aster eyed it dubiously. Jack wasn't that much shorter than him but he was thin, and Aster seriously doubted his ability to keep them both from crashing to the ice. Jack made an exasperated noise and grabbed Aster's hands prying them from the wall. Aster floundered for a moment but managed to catch himself with Jack's help. "Alright, now we're going to just shuffle forward a bit." Jack said with a grin, eyes darting between Aster's face and his feet. Jack's hands were surprisingly warm, though Aster wasn't sure why it was such a shock. Jack had the appearance of winter personified with his pale skin and stark white hair, and Aster supposed that however irrational it was he’d expected Jack to be cold to the touch.

Aster tried not to look at his feet as he shakily shuffled forward, and instead found himself watching their clasped hands. Jack’s hands looked even paler against Aster’s dark complexion, and he found himself wondering how badly Jack must burn in the summer. “See you’re doing it.” Jack said. Aster’s eyes darted to Jack’s face, and despite his reservations Aster found himself smiling back. Jack coughed oddly. “Okay so now let’s see if you can do it without me holding your hands Bunny.” Instinctively Aster’s hands tightened around Jack’s at the suggestion. “Scared?” Jack taunted his smile turned teasing.

“Not on your life.” Aster scowled, loosing his hold on Jack’s hands. No matter how unsteady he felt Aster had no intention of admitting it. If Jack could do this backwards then he could manage a few steps forward on his own he told himself. Slowly Jack pulled away, and before Aster could examine the stab of disappointment he felt he was distracted by the arduous task of trying to stay balanced. To his credit he managed to make it almost two feet on his own before he felt his legs slipping out from under him. Jack reacted quickly, hands darting out to try to steady him, but in an uncoordinated flail of limbs Aster hit the ice and Jack hit Aster. Aster groaned and he knew he’d be feeling this for days to come; he also now knew that Jack had a splattering of very faint freckles across the bridge of his nose.

Cold seeped through Aster’s coat at his back while Jack’s heat warmed his front. Jack braced against the ice, pushing himself up slightly and with a breathless laugh said. “So maybe I should have held your hand a little longer.” Aster could feel Jack’s breath on his face and their legs tangled together, and for one irrational moment Aster wondered what it would be like to just stay this way for awhile.

It took only a moment for Jack to disentangle himself and get back on his feet; getting Aster back up proved to be far more difficult a task. After ten minutes, three false starts and two instances of falling on his ass Aster was standing and sore.

--

 

Aster collapsed onto his couch with a groan, and Jack had the nerve to laugh at him. Aster curse was muffled by the pillow smash against his face but he was confident flipping Jack off got his message across loud and clear. “You’re not gonna be able to eat like that.” Jack pointed out, amusement coloring his voice while the smell of Chinese take out filled the room.

Grumbling Aster pushed himself up, and glared at Jack as he sat cross legged in the lumpy chair that one of his neighbors had given Aster when he moved. “Remind me to shoot you if you ever suggest anything ever again” Aster said pointing his chopsticks at Jack as he grabbed a carton of vegetable lo mein.

“Got it.” Jack snickered. “You actually did pretty good for your first time” he said before stuffing a dumpling in his mouth. The ache in muscles Aster had forgotten he had strongly disagreed with Jack.

“I need alcohol.” Aster decided pushing himself off the couch. “Want anything?”

Jack shook his head as he grabbed a carton of rice. “I better not. I’m kind of a light weight and my RA’s been in a mood lately. He’d kill me if he caught me even tipsy.”

“R-right.” Aster swallowed hard, thrown off balance by the reminder that here in the states Jack wasn’t actually old enough to drink yet. It was easy to forget sometimes just how young Jack was Aster decided as he leaned back against the counter, eyes closed tight, and unsure why the idea suddenly bothered him so much. With a sigh he pushed himself off the counter, grabbed a beer from the fridge and, after a moment of hesitation, a root beer for Jack. It just made him feel old he decided as he went back to the couch, that was all. He tossed the bottle to Jack with a grunt, and he nodded in thanks as they went back to eating.

That was all it was.

--

Jack was already on break when Aster got to the cafe and he sat down across from Jack. Though to say Jack was sitting at the table would be a generous. Aster raised an eyebrow as he poked Jack. “You alive mate?” Jack groaned weakly into the table, sprawled across it as he was.

“Finals.” Jack explained as he pushed himself off the table. His left cheek was slightly red from where it had been pushed against the table and Aster resisted the urge to laugh. He doubted Jack would appreciate that right now.

“Already?” Aster asked instead taking a sip of his iced drink (that he was only a little sure actually involved coffee.) It was early May and Aster realized with a start that it was almost time for the college to break for the summer. He shouldn’t have been surprised, it was the same schedule every year. Then again he supposed that it had simply never mattered to him before now.

“Yep.” Jack said sleepily, resting his head on his arms like a pillow.

Aster tried to ignore the sudden lump in his throat. “Got any plans for the summer?”

“Got a month per parent then I’m back, second week of August I think?” he said eyes still closed, but there was a smile on his face. “Mom's going to take us out to the beach. It’s all Pippa’s been able to talk about for weeks.”

“Sounds great. Hey, I-I should get going.” Jack made a noise of confusion, finally opening his eyes to stare at Aster as he sat up.

“What?”

“I need to get back to work, besides you look like you could use the rest.”

“Oh, um, I guess I’ll see you later then?”

“Yeah I- yeah.” Aster said with a nod, acting like the axis of the world didn't suddenly feel off-kilter.

The feeling didn’t go away for the rest of the day.

--

The two weeks following their awkward meeting in the cafe Aster saw less of Jack than he’d grown used to, and it left him feeling restless in a way he didn’t entirely understand. With a sigh he wiped the dirt he'd gotten his hands covered in (from a crate of petunias) on the back of jeans, mentally counting the hours until his shift would be over.

“Nice apron.” Aster felt himself turning to look at Jack before he’d even completely processed the words. “The bunny pin is a nice touch. Are those sequins?” Jack snickered.

The pin in question had been one of Sophie’s arts and crafts adventures. The kid lit up anytime she saw him wearing it, and given the unpredictability with which she seemed to appear in The Warren Aster had decided he was better off just leaving it on.“It was a gift.” he said, and despite the scowl on his face Aster suddenly felt lighter than he had in days. “I take it your tests are done?”

“How could you tell?” Jack asked pushing off the wall he’d been casually leaning against.

Aster snorted. “Well for one thing you don’t look like death warmed over anymore.” Mindful of the fact that he was still on the clock Aster grabbed the crate he’d come over to move.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Jack said following after him, hands shoved in the pockets of his sweatshirt. Aster was starting to understand why the thing looked so ratty.

The silence was comfortable as Jack walked with Aster, examining the flowers they passed, before finally with a grunt Aster put the crate down. “Is something wrong? You don’t usually come around here.” Aster asked reluctantly. He was glad to see Jack, gladder than he was comfortable admitting really, and while he hated to ask and give Jack the impression he didn’t want him around it was odd.

“Huh, oh, no nothing’s wrong.” Jack said scratching the back of his head, not quite looking at him. “I just, um. I wasn’t sure I’d run into you before I left tomorrow and I wanted to make sure I got a chance to say goodbye.”

“Oh.” Aster said, feeling his stomach drop. “I didn’t realize you were leaving so soon.”

Jack kicked at a pebble on the ground. “Yeah, they’re closing the dorms the day after tomorrow so...” he trailed off. “But hey I’ll be back before you know it.” Jack said, finally looking up at Aster.

“Who says I’m going to miss you anyway Frostbite?” The joke was weak at best, but Jack still smiled.

“Oh we both know I make your life way more interesting Cottontail.” The past two weeks had proved to Aster just how true that was, and he wasn’t looking forward to the next two months.

“You wish you ruddy show pony.”

The silence this time was tense and awkward, but neither of them seemed prepared to break it. It was Jack who finally did, blurting out “I never got your cell number.” Aster blinked at him. “Figured if I can’t bother you in person I might as well spam your phone.” he continued with a false bravado Aster had come to recognize.

Aster nodded like he didn’t notice.

“Might as well.” He said it like it didn’t matter, like he wasn’t relieved that Jack wanted to keep in touch with him while he was gone. “What’s your number? I’ll send you a text.” Jack rattled off his number and Aster sent a simple text, just his name.

The phone buzzed in Jack’s pocket and with a few clicks Aster assumed his number had been added to Jack’s phone. “Cool. Now I can subscribe you to Cat Facts Hourly.” Jack said with his crooked grin.

“Just don’t forget I have your number too.” Aster said crossing his arms in what would have looked like annoyance if it wasn’t for the smile he couldn’t keep off his face. The moment, if one could call it that, was broken when Aster heard his boss calling for him.

“I should let you get back to work.” Jack said taking a step back, hands shoved in his pockets. “See you around I guess?”

Aster was struck by the urge to pull Jack into a hug, but he aborted the motion at the last moment. “Yeah I-, yeah.” He rubbed the back of his head feeling awkward. “Have a good summer Jack.”

“You too.” Jack said though neither of them moved. For a second it seemed like one of them would say something else, but it was again the voice of Aster’s boss that broke the silence. “I’m gonna just...” he said pointing vaguely behind him.

“Yeah I should...” Aster gestured in the direction the shout had come from.

Aster didn’t watch Jack as he left, but he wanted to.

--

Aster didn't see Jack's first text until he got home from work though it was time stamped hours earlier. 'Cats have been used to deliver mail: In Belgium in 1879, 37 cats were used to deliver mail to villages. However they found that the cats were not disciplined enough to keep it up.'

--

'dad making me go fish w/ him helppppppppp' Aster blinked as his sleep addled mind tried to process the text.

'Not sure what you expect me to do about it mate.' Aster typed back not bothering to get out of bed. It was (he glanced at the clock) eight thirty-three, and he had at least another half an hour before he had to be up.

It had been a strange two weeks since Jack had left. Every time he went to the cafe he'd be struck once more by the realization that for the next two months Jack was going to be gone; it'd been so off putting that Aster had found himself avoiding the cafe entirely (despite the fact that he'd become something of a regular.)

Equally strange had been adjusting to the text messages that now flooded his phone. Most of Aster's friends were much more likely to call than text, and even the ones inclined to (like Tooth) rarely found a reason to. With Jack he got everything from random cat facts (not hourly thank God for that, he'd have tracked Jack down and strangled him if he'd been serious about that) to games of hang man, to the kind of discussions they'd have had if they were together in person. There wasn’t even a pattern or rhythm to the texts, sometimes they’d come while he was at work and other times he’d be woken from a painting induced daze at three am. It seemed like Jack would text him whenever a thought struck him, and for some reason that thought had Aster smiling softly up at the ceiling.

’distract me :(’ The reply made him chuckle and roll his eyes. With a sigh that was half huff and half resignation Aster pulled himself out of bed.

’And how exactly do you suggest I do that?’ he texted back with one hand while trying to make coffee.

’tell me a story’ was the reply he got before he’d even been able to put sugar in his coffee. He left his phone on the counter as he finished preparing his coffee, and despite himself he started considering stories he could tell Jack. Leaning back against the counter he sipped at his coffee thoughtfully until sound of his phone broke him out of his musings. Aster was surprised to realize five minutes had already passed. ’pleaseeeeeee im dying of bordom here’

Aster felt his lips twitching as he read the text. 'You spelled boredom wrong.' he sent though he quickly followed it with ’Fine.’ After a long moment of hesitation he started typing. ’I got my first tattoo with my cousins before I left Australia. I was too young to get one without my parent’s consent though, and my mum would have flipped her lid if I even asked, so first I had to get a fake ID.’ He sent the message before he could second guess it. This hadn’t been one of his finer moments, but it was certainly one of the best stories he had.

’you’re kidding?! you had a fake id’

He wondered if he should be offended by Jack’s disbelief. ’Wasn’t hard to get. Once gave a schoolmate half a sandwich, and to thank me he told me he’d be able to get me a fake ID if I ever needed one’

’okay now i know you’re shitting me’

’It’s the God’s honest truth. Apparently he knew a guy.’ Aster had been as disbelieving of the offer as anyone, but he’d seemed bloody serious at the time. ’So he managed to get me a pretty decent ID (gave him another sandwich to be safe) and the next thing I know I’m on my way to the shop with my older cousins. Then it turned out one of the artist’s mums was friends with our aunt.’ That had been awkward; apparently he’d even babysat the lot of them once or twice when they were younger. Aster didn’t remember it, but then he’d been young enough that the guy had probably had to change his nappies.

’oh god please tell me theres more’

’Unfortunately’ They really should have just stopped there, but they’d stubbornly insisted on all getting tattoos together before he moved. There were times he really missed those wankers, the occasional holiday card just wasn’t the same. ’So we pretended we were just there to look and then hightailed it out first thing. We decided that we’d be better off driving to the next town, and so we all piled into this shitty little car one of them had borrowed from their mate.’ To this day Aster wasn’t sure how they’d all managed to fit into that blue death trap or why they’d thought it was a good idea to try. ’The car was too small and the air conditioner was broken so by the time we got there we were all melting.’ He still remembered the overwhelming smell of sweaty teenage boy, and it made him shudder just thinking about it. ’Took us another hour to actually find the bloody place. Honestly getting the damn things was the easiest part.’

’oh god i’m dying i’m pretty sure my dad thinks i’ve lost my mind i’m laughing so hard XD did your mom ever find out?’

’Of course she bloody found out, she’d have to have been blind not to notice eventually.’ Aster took a sip of his coffee and he realized it had gone cold in his distraction. With a shake of his head he poured it down the sink and made his way to the large section of his living room devoted to canvases and paint. The living room took up most of his apartment, the bedroom was little more than a glorified closet, and the kitchen was lucky to be able to fit a dishwasher, but he liked the set up well enough. There was nothing in the room besides his old couch, a coffee table and the lumpy arm chair his neighbor had left him so there was plenty of room for him to paint.

’dad is confiscating phone says im scaring the fish ttyl?’

’Yeah.’

Aster put down the phone, picked up a paintbrush and realized he was smiling.

--

Blinking at the unexpected explosion of color mixed into his normally monotone mail Aster curiously turned over the postcard that enthusiastically exclaimed “Wish you were here!” ’Hope you’re not too bored without me Cottontail. -Jack’ Out of habit Aster jumped over the squeaky stair as he made his way back up to his apartment.

’You sent me a postcard?’ Aster typed while trying not to drop his mail.

’oh it got there already cool the cards were pips idea we bought a bunch of them last week’ It took him a minute to sort Jack’s text out, and not for the first time Aster wished he’d use punctuation.

’How the beach?’ he asked as he unlocked his door.

’awesome hope you like seashells Aster wasn’t sure if Jack was joking or not.

--

Two days later Aster got a box of seashells and another postcard.

--
Aster saw Pippa for the first time when Jack sent him a photo of the pair of them posing with a statue. She had the same crooked grin as Jack, and brown hair. Aster couldn't help wondering if Jack’s had been the same color before it went white.

They looked absolutely ridiculous, but that seemed to be the point, and Aster couldn't help but laugh.

--

It was a perfect day to be outside, not too hot or humid, and just a hint of a breeze; a perfect day for sketching in the park. A few hours later Aster dropped his pencil, and it hit the grass with barely a sound as he stared at his sketchbook in disbelief. The entire page was covered in sketches of Jack that he’d only half consciously drawn.

He’d have been less worried if this was the first time that it had happened.

--

’can you pick me up from airport next week?’

Aster got the text as he was brushing his teeth, and he raised a brow before typing back. ’I don’t have a car.’ Spit, rinse, try not to get any water on his phone.

’thought you had a bike’

He wiped his face. ’Motorcycles don’t exactly have a lot of storage space mate.’

’just have a duffle bag’

Aster sighed as he flopped back on his bed. ’What time do I have to be there?’

--

With a sigh Aster realized his leg had started bouncing again without him noticing. Jack’s flight should have gotten in forty-five minutes ago, but according to the board it had been delayed. He really shouldn't have been surprised. He debated getting another coffee, but somehow he couldn't see a cup of caffeine making him less jittery.

“Cottontail!”

Aster looked up at the call (and God help him he was answering to Cottontail now) to see Jack grinning at him, duffle bag thrown over one shoulder. He met Jack halfway, and before he could think about it, was pulling him into a hug. A tension Aster hadn't even realized he’d felt eased as he hugged Jack. “Welcome back Frostbite.” he muttered, just managing to catch himself from sayinghome. After a beat Aster pulled away, clearing his throat. “How was the flight?” he asked, feeling only slightly awkward.

“Lots of turbulence” though Jack said it like it was a good thing. “Totally ready to get out of here though.” Aster nodded, more than ready to leave; a hour waiting in the airport was a hour too long. “Oh hey so I got you something.” Jack said, digging through his bag as they walked. “Pippa wanted to go to Build a Bear” Jack said by way of explanation as he held out a grey stuffed bunny. He did his best to keep a straight face, but Jack cracked the minute Aster took the toy with a raised eyebrow. The rabbit was wearing a brown bomber jacket, and a pair of glasses that reminded Aster suspiciously of his reading glasses.

“How about you keep it for now.” Aster suggested dryly, trying to pretend he wasn't a little amused. “Wouldn't want him falling off the bike.”

“It’d be a tragedy.” Jack agreed, grinning like a loon as he put the bunny back in his bag.

“Here, the last thing you need is more head damage.” Aster said pushing his spare helmet at Jack. Aster had gotten his motorcycle second hand from a friend of a friend. He didn’t have reason to use it much, but it was good to have around, and ran well enough for him. If he was being honest the truth was he mostly kept it around because he loved the adrenaline rush he got anytime he found an excuse to take the bike out.

“Aw, you do care.” Jack teased as he adjusted the helmet.

“You’re going to need to hang on tight,” Aster told him swinging his leg over the bike, smirking just a bit. “I like to go fast.”

Jack met his challenging smirk with a grin. “Bring it Bunny.” Aster felt Jack’s arms tightening around him as he started the bike. Despite his warning Aster found himself going slower than he’d have normally preferred, mindful of his first time passenger and the duffle bag slung across Jack's chest.

That went out the window the minute Jack yelled “You call this fast?”

Aster hit the gas, just barely catching Jack's whoop of joy over the roar of the wind. He could feel Jack laughing as he tightened his hold, and Aster couldn't help but grin. They weaved in and out of traffic and Aster found himself taking wrong turns on purpose to make the ride last just a little longer. Eventually though they made it to Jack’s new building. Jack looked slightly breathless as he jumped off the bike, helmet under his arm. “We are so going to an amusement park together some time, and going on all the roller-coasters.” Jack insisted, face flushed and eyes bright.

His hand twitched, and Aster realized he wanted to reach out and touch, to see if he'd be able to feel the warmth of Jack's flush. “Deal.” Aster chuckled, ignoring the urge and the increasingly clear implications of it.

“Thanks for the ride man, I owe you one.” Jack fiddled with the helmet still in his hands. “So I have to get a bunch of stuff out of storage tomorrow, and, like, actually move in, but after that I’m free for a week 'till classes start back up. Up for, I don’t know, getting pizza or maybe watching some movies?”

“Day after tomorrow, my place?”

“I’ll bring the movies if you get the pizza.” Jack said tossing back the helmet.

--

The smile Jack gave Aster when he saw that half the pizza was covered in anchovies made Aster realize he might be well and truly doomed.

--

“So you are finally realizing you like Jack?” North asked as he whittled away at something that looked vaguely like a cross between a train and a fighter jet.

Aster choked on his own spit. “You-- what-- how-- You knew?!” he spluttered once he could breathe properly again.

“Of course.” North said with a shrug, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Jack mentioned how often you come by cafe. Besides, I see you both together often; you just rarely notice.” With a groan Aster buried his face in his hands. Bloody perfect. “I do not see why this is problem.”

“How about the fact that he’s fourteen years younger than me?” Aster bit out. “Or that he’d probably want nothing to do with me if he knew I wanted him?” God Jack would think he was some kind of ruddy pervert. Hell he was some ruddy pervert, lusting after some barely legal college kid the way he was.

“You are being too hard on yourself, you would make good couple!” Nick insisted, waving around the tool he’d been using to dig a groove in the side of the fighter-train. “I feel it in my belly.” Aster gave North a withering glare.

--

“My psych TA is such a douche.” Jack moaned as he collapsed in the chair across from Aster. “I’m serious, he’s always wearing these super deep v-necks and aviators and shit.” Jack’s hand darted forward to steal Aster’s iced chocolate something or other.

“Hey!” Aster objected halfheartedly as Jack sipped at his drink. Jack gave it back with a crooked grin, but not before taking another sip. “Wanker.” Aster rolled his eyes, though he couldn’t quite keep the amusement from his voice.

Life post-realization was surprisingly similar to life pre-realization.

--

“Tai chi?” Jack asked dubiously. Aster rolled his eyes, but it was a wonder Jack was even up and reactive at eight on a Saturday, so he let it go. Then again Jack actually being up might have had something to do with the fact that Aster had agreed to another skating lesson in exchange for Jack’s presence.

“It’s good for stress relief.” Aster replied pointedly. Jack might have been only a few weeks into the new term, but it was clear that classes were already getting to him.

“Right.” he said evasively. “So what do I do first?”

--

’ok tell me this guy is not the biggest looking douche youve ever seen’ Aster got in the middle of work, accompanied by a covertly taken picture of Jack’s psych TA. According to Jack the class had nicknamed him “The Boogeyman” behind his back, because he got his kicks deducing students’ biggest fears in front of their class.

’You weren’t kidding about the deep Vs’ Aster texted back. He couldn’t help wondering if the guy waxed his chest or if it was naturally that hairless. The mental image came to him with a shudder, and on second thought he really, really didn’t want to know.

--

“Jesus Christ your feet are freezing!” Aster exclaimed while Jack laughed, movie forgotten in the background while Jack tried to get Aster with his ice feet.

--

’do you want to go get waffles’

’It’s 2am.

’yeah so do you want waffles’

’...I’ll pick you up in 10 minutes’

--

“...I mean I’ve talked it over a lot with Professor Sanderson, but I just, I don’t know.” Jack sighed loudly. “Do you think I’d be any good at it?” Jack asked hesitantly, shoulder hunched in as he played with his straw, burger ignored.

Aster ignored Jack’s question for the moment, and instead cut to what he saw as the heart of the issue. “Do you think it would make you happy?”

Jack was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke his bangs shielded his eyes, but there was a wistfulness in his voice that made Aster smile. “Yeah, yeah I think it would.”

“Then that’s all that matters.” Aster took a long sip of his drink. “And for the record I think you’d make a great nursery school teacher.”

--

“Come on you promised!” Jack laughed as he tried to pull Aster onto the ice.

--

“Trick or Treat!” a witch, Princess Merida, and a power ranger chorused as Aster opened the door. The Red Ranger giggled at the sight of him and Aster realized all three of his trick or treaters were little girls.

“And what’s so funny?” Aster asked kneeling down to eye level.

“You’re a bunny! Bunnies aren’ scary!” Red said, referring to the pair of bunny ears Aster was currently sporting, and slurring over her ts.

“Clearly you’ve never seen Monty Python.” Jack pipped in, leaning over the back of the couch, a zombie movie paused on Aster’s laptop. “He” Jack said pointing to Aster “is the killer rabbit of Caerbannog.”

“Alright, alright which of you ankle-bitters wants candy?” Aster cut in, and all questions of scariness were forgotten in the face of sugar. Once the trick or treaters were gone Aster pulled off the rabbit ears, and gave Jack a look.

“Hey you lost the bet.” Jack grinned crookedly, holding up his hands in innocence.

--

Aster tossed the spare helmet at Jack when he opened his door. Jack raised an eyebrow as he looked between the helmet and Aster. “Come on, we’re celebrating.”

“Celebrating what?” Jack asked in confusion even as he grabbed his shoes.

“Your change of major forms were approved today weren’t they?” Aster asked like it hadn't been all Jack could talk about for the past week. Jack’s head shot up and he stared at Aster in confusion for a long moment before he ducked his head. Aster managed to catch Jack’s soft smile though, and he pretended it didn’t make his heart beat just a little bit faster.

--

The problem with being neighbors with someone who was in essentials of personality a disney princess with a weird love of teeth was that it was hard to say no when she asked for a favor. Even if that favor was babysitting three of her cousins while she ran off to perform an emergency root canal when you were already babysitting your coworker’s four year old.

“Remember that favor you owe me?” Aster opened with, sounding frazzled.

“Yes.” Jack said slowly, clearly not expecting the abrupt question at eleven-thirty on a Sunday.

“I need help babysitting.” Aster said, a child under each arm, cell phone tucked between his head and his shoulder. “Sophie no get down from there!”

--

“How did you end up with two kids under five and a pair of six year olds?” Jack asked as he stared at the chaos that had once been Aster’s apartment.

“Tooth.” Aster said simply.

“Ah yeah, I can see the resemblance-- is that Sophie?”

“Her mum works at The Warren.” he explained shortly.

“I’ll break out the story books, you get the arts and crafts?” Jack suggested, shedding his signature hoodie.

 

--

As it turned out Jack was a fantastic storyteller, using different voices for each character, and acting out the parts he could. In just a few minutes he had all four children enthralled, watching intently as he stomped around the room. Halfway through the epic tale Jack pulled Aster into the act (much to the girls’ delight.) One over acted death and a magical resurrection later they were sending each other covert grins as they took their bows.

--

Sophie squealed as the paint squished between her fingers, and Aster thanked God for tarps, he didn’t know how parents could make it through finger painting without them. Adya and Devi, Tooth’s six year old cousins, were happy being left to their own devices so Aster helped Sophie while Jack took Shri. Shri (who had been dubbed Baby Tooth due to her overwhelming resemblance to Iana) had taken to Jack almost instantly, and rather than paint she decided she'd rather climb on Jack like he was a jungle gym.

“Faster!” she giggled, riding on Jack’s back like he was a horse. Jack complied to Baby Tooth’s utter delight, even making horse noises as he made his rounds around the room.

--

“I don’t like crusts!” Devi complained.

“Can I have milk?” Adya asked, kicking her legs against the table. Aster looked to Jack for help, but he shrugged helplessly, Baby Tooth planted firmly in his lap, chattering between bites of peanut butter on white. With a sigh Aster grabbed Devi’s sandwich and brought it into the kitchen to cut off the crusts and get Adya her milk. At least Sophie seemed content to eat her peanut butter and jelly as it was.

“No crusts,” Aster said as he came back into the living room. “and milk.”

“Thank you!” the girls chorused, and Aster felt his lips twitch. At least they were sweet.

“All done!” Sophie cried happily. Aster was torn between the urge to laugh and sigh, and as he caught Jack’s eye it looked like he was fighting a similar battle; Sophie’s entire face was covered in jelly.

--

Aster did his best to peel Sophie off of him and get her into bed with the other girls. It had taken them a few hours, but he and Jack had finally tuckered out the little balls of energy. Now he just had to get Sophie into bed. Somehow that was proving more difficult than he’d imagined; he was starting to wonder if she was part octopus. When he finally managed to get her off and into bed Sophie immediately turned and latched onto Adya. Thankfully it seemed Adya was just as much of a cuddler as Sophie was, and she sleepily returned the hug. Aster resisted the urge to run for a camera.

Biting back a laugh Aster realized that Jack was having even more trouble with Baby Tooth than he’d had with Sophie. Every time Jack managed to unlatch one of her arms it seemed a different one would get a tighter hold on him. Aster just watched for awhile, silently laughing until Jack mouthed "help me." With an amused huff Aster moved to help him. Between the two of them they finally managed to untangle Baby Tooth and get her tucked in with the others. Catching Jack's eye in a sidelong glance they shared a soft smile; for all the chaos they could cause the kids were still pretty adorable.

Quietly they made their way back to the living room (the girls were cuter when they were sleeping) and collapsed into the couch. Jack gave a satisfied sigh as he sunk into the cushions, and Aster smirked. "You know this is what you're gona be doing for a living right?" he pointed out.

"I'm gona need to invest in a really comfortable bed." Jack said, eyes still closed. Aster barked out a laugh, and Jack peeked a eye open, grinning crookedly.

"You were good with them." he said bumping their shoulders.

"You weren't so shabby yourself Cottontail." Jack said, bumping back. "Sophie's crazy about you." They were leaning against each other now, and Aster wasn't sure if Jack even noticed that he hadn't pulled away.

"Wouldn't have been able to handle them all on my own." No reason to pull away and draw attention to it Aster justified to himself. "We made a good team."

"We did." Jack agreed and Aster swore he was leaning further into him. Huh, Jack had more freckles than he'd thought, 'course they were so light he couldn't be blamed for not noticing could he? If Jack was even a little bit tanner they'd probably have disappeared completely. Aster thought they suited him.

If asked later Aster honestly wouldn't be able to say who kissed who, only that one moment they'd been sitting shoulder to shoulder on his old couch and the next they were kissing. Jack's lips were clumsy and chapped and perfect; any chasteness the kiss might have started out with quickly disappeared. Jack's fingers curled into the short hairs at the nape of Aster's neck,and Aster grabbed his hips to pull him closer. By the time they heard the knock at the door they'd somehow ended up horizontal, Jack sprawled on top of him.

The sound brought their sense back from where ever it had disappeared to, and for a moment they just stared at each other. Jack was flushed a bright red, his breathing slightly uneven (though it was quickly returning to normal,) and his hair was even more mushed up than it normally was. The sight made Aster swallow hard, and if the knocking hadn't grown more insistent Aster might have pulled him in for round two. Instead he got up to get the door, hoping that he didn't look like he'd just been making out on the couch.

Tooth's relieved face greeted him as he opened the door, and he'd never hated her timing so much in his life. "Finally! I was starting to worry something had happened to you. Thanks again for letting me dump the girls on you like that." Shit, right, the girls. Maybe it was a good thing they'd been interrupted. "You know I don't normally work on Sundays, but it was a real-- oh! Jack! What are you doing here?"

"Hey Tooth." he said, face only slightly flushed, though his hair was still mushed up. "I'm the cavalry."

"Oh good, I'm glad Aster had help. I know the girls can be a bit of handful." she said smiling apologetically at Aster. Tooth's fingers twitched as she looked back at Jack and Aster tried not to laugh. Since the minute Tooth had met Jack she'd had a mildly unhealthily obsession with his teeth. Before she could get her hands in Jack's mouth (and Aster tried not to flush as he remembered what he'd just been doing with that mouth) Jack was pulling his lips up so she could look at his teeth. “Oh they’re just so white! Like fresh snow. You’ve been remembering to floss haven’t you?” She questioned sternly.

“Everyday,” he said “scout’s honor.” Aster caught him crossing his fingers behind his back and he had to cough to hide his laugh.

“So where are the girls?” Tooth asked, turning her attention to Aster.

“Napping, just got the ankle-biters down.”

“Oh good. I always have so much trouble getting them down for a nap.” she shook her head. “They’ll miss it someday, I wish I could take a nap at five in the afternoon.”

“Whoa, wait, five?” Jack cut in, suddenly looking panicked. “Shit I am so going to be late for work, I have to go now.” he said, rushing around to grab his stuff. He stopped in front of Aster looking suddenly flushed. “So I’ll, um, call you? Maybe? Later, I mean, if that’s cool? We can talk about-- stuff.” he said rubbing the back of his neck, and not quite looking at him. Aster felt his stomach drop.

“Yeah, I-- yeah.” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly.

“Cool.” Jack said. He stood there for a moment, looking like there was more he wanted to say. “Oh shit I am going to be so fucking late” until he remembered why he’d been rushing around in the first place.

Aster stared after him long after the door had slammed (and how that hadn’t woken up the kids he’d never now.) He wasn’t sure he liked the sound of talking.

Tooth looked between the door and Aster in confusion before a looking of dawning realization crossed her face. “Oh my God did you guys have sex?”

--

“So you didn’t have sex?” Tooth asked for clarification as she sipped at her tea.

“We did not have sex.” Aster said for what felt like the hundredth time, and he had to resist the urge to slam his head against his kitchen table. It had seemed a waste to wake the girls up when they'd just been put to sleep. In any case Iana had insisted on hearing all the details on what was up with him and Jack. Which was why they were now sitting in his kitchen while Aster tried to explain that he and Jack had not had sex. Tooth didn’t seem to believe him.

“But you did make out with him?” she said narrowing her eyes slightly.

“...yes.” he admitted, suddenly feeling embarrassed. Oh God what was Tooth going to think of him: he’d just made it sound like he was one of those teenage girls who invited their boyfriends over when they were suppose to be babysitting.

“Well, finally!”

“What?” Aster deadpanned.

“Oh come on Aster he’s always over. And when he’s not you’re visiting him at work!” she said, ticking off points on her fingers.

“Hey now I don’t spend all my time with him! I work, I paint, I hang out with you and North.”

“You text him constantly.” she continued, smirking around the rim of her mug as if Aster hadn’t said anything. “You’re practically dating already.”

“We are n-- how did you know I visit him at work?” he asked suspiciously, brain finally catching up with their conversation.

“Nick and I talk.” she replied casually, though there was a hint of smugness there.

“You talk about my love life.” he deadpanned. When Tooth didn’t contradict him, he groaned loudly, sinking down in his chair. “Unbelievable. Ruddy busybodies, the both of you!”

“Aster I don’t see what the problem is here.” Tooth said, putting down her mug and pinning him with a hard stare. “You like him, and he clearly likesyou so what am I missing here?”

“You’re missing the fact that I’m fourteen bloody years older than him!” Aster yelled, slamming his hands down on the table. “He’s still a teenager!” Before Tooth could reply they both heard the bed creak and the girls stirring. Aster checked his watch. “It’s almost six-thirty and I told Amy I’d could bring Sophie home. You should get girls.” he said standing up.

“Aster--” she protested.

“Don’t, just-- just don’t.” he warned, running his hand through his hair.

“You deserve to be happy Aster.” she said quietly as he left, and Aster pretended he hadn’t heard her.

--

Jack tried to call twice before Aster turned his phone off.

--

After just barely managing to stop himself from punching a hole through his wall Aster decided it might be a good idea to go to the gym to work off some steam.

--

Aster grunted, hands aching as continued punching the bag in front of him, trying to forget how right it had felt to kiss Jack.

It wasn’t working.

--

Freezing mid sigh Aster tried not to drop his duffle bag as he left the gym. “What are you doing here?” he asked hoarsely.

“Well when I couldn’t find you at your apartment, Tooth was nice enough to buzz me into the building since you never seem to be there when I buzz anymore, the cafe, or the Warren, I figured I’d try here.” he said with a shrug, hands stuffed in his sweatshirt pocket. It was clear he was trying for nonchalant, but there was something tense in his voice. “You turned off your phone.” he accused.

“My battery died.” and Aster tried not to wince at how lame it sounded even to his own ears.

“For three days.” Jack said, and it wasn’t even a question, sounding equal parts angry and hurt. “What the fuck Aster, we kiss and then suddenly you decide to drop off the face of the planet?”

“It was a mistake.” he said, shoulders tensed, and not looking at Jack. "The kiss was a mistake."

Jack stepped back like Aster had slapped him. “A mistake?” and this time there was more hurt than anger. “Bullshit.”

Aster’s head whipped up to stare at Jack “Excuse me?”

“I said that’s Bullshit!” Jack’s said, voice raising as he stepped closer. “We’ve been dancing around this for months, and you know that as well as I do! This wasn’t some heat of the moment, drunken make-out!” he yelled accusingly.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“The fuck it doesn’t!” he yelled.

“I’m thirty-two Jack! I’m thirty-two and you’re eighteen!” Aster yelled back, finally losing his cool. “It doesn’t matter if I want you, I shouldn’t want you,that’s the bloody point! And I’m not going to stand here in the middle of the street arguing with you when it isn’t going to change anything! You’re a teenager Jack.” Aster deflated quickly running out of steam, and he felt like he was going to be sick. “You’re better off finding someone your own age.” he said, tiredly walking away, trying to pretend it didn't hurt like hell.

It wasn't working.

“Oh no, you don’t just get to walk away from this conversation.” Jack said angrily, grabbing his arm and forcing Aster back around to look at him. “You think I don’t fucking know how old you are? You think I haven’t thought about it?” Jack demanded, running a hand through his hair. “I have okay, I have,” Jack waited until he caught Aster’s eye to go on. “But I’ve also thought about the fact that you’re the person I call when I want to get waffles at two in the morning and when I’m scared as hell, trying to sort out my fucking life, and when I’m doing stupid shit with my sister.” Jack laughed, but it was a painful sound, hurt and self-deprecating. “Nobody else. Nobody my age; just you. You’re acting like this is just something we can both walk away from before it happens, but it’s not Aster. Whatever this” he said gesturing between them “is, we’re already in the middle of it.”

Aster swallowed, and it felt hard to breath. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out for a moment. “You’re a kid.” But the argument sounded weak even to Aster’s ears.

“Last time I checked eighteen means I’m an adult. And hey, only a month till my birthday.” Jack said with a weak grin that quickly dropped from his face. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if we try? It doesn’t work out and we break up? Isn’t that better than never knowing?”

The silence hung between them, and Jack looked more vulnerable than Aster had ever seen him, hunched in on himself. “How is it” Aster said slowly, voice cracking just slightly “that right now I’m the one who sounds like the immature kid.” Jack’s head shot up, and Aster could see the dawning hope in his eyes. “And you’re the one that sounds like the adult.”

“It’s because you’re acting like an idiot.” Jack suggested helpfully with a growing smile. “And I am an adult, thank you very much.” he said poking him in the chest.

“Come here you.” Aster laughed pulling Jack closer until he could see his freckles in the light of the street lamps.

“No take backs this time.” Jack warned, eyes darting between Aster’s eyes and lips.

“No take backs.” he whispered leaning closer.

The second kiss was even better than the first.

--

“Oh hell you’re not even old enough to take to a pub.” Aster groaned covering his face with his hands. There was a playfulness to the statement that wouldn’t have been there a month ago though. “What is wrong with me?”

“Welcome to the dark side, we have chocolate.” Jack teased, rolling over onto Aster.

“Chocolate huh?” he said, hands slipping down Jack’s sides to rest at his bare hips.

“Yep” Jack murmured against Aster’s lips. “Now no more complaining, it’s my birthday remember?”

“I might vaguely recall something along those lines.” With a grin Aster flipped them over, and muffled Jack’s laughter with a kiss.

--

Aster met Pippa for the first time over skype. It hadn’t actually been planned, but with Jack home for the winter holidays nightly video chats had become a common occurrence. “Jack mom says-- Who are you talking to?” Pippa asked, peering curiously at the screen over Jack’s shoulder.

“Oh, um, Pip this is Aster Bunnymund.”

Before Jack could reverse the introduction Pippa’s eyes lite up, apparently recognizing his name (and wasn’t that interesting.) “You mean your boyfriend?” There was more than a note of teasing to her voice as she poked Jack.

“Yeah, actually.” Jack said, sounding not the least bit embarrassed.

“Wait you mean you actually made a move? You jerk why didn’t you tell me!” she said hitting Jack with a nearby book. “He’s all you talk about all summer and you don’t even tell me when you start dating!” Aster suddenly felt like his presence had been forgotten entirely. Though considering what he was learning it was almost worth it.

“Pip! Pip, hey, I’m sorry! Pippa stop!” Jack laughed as Pippa chased him around the room with a notebook.

“Shoulda brought popcorn.” Aster said to himself, and Pippa stopped chasing Jack, apparently reminded that he was there.

The thirteen year old stole Jack’s seat and stared unblinkingly at him. Aster felt uncomfortably like he was being examined. “Pippa leave him alone.” Jack laughed, but she ignored him for the moment. Eventually though Pippa gave a sharp nod and got out of Jack’s seat without another word.

Or at least not another word until she stuck her head back into the room. “Oh right. Jack, mom wants you to empty the dishwasher.”

“...your sister is weird.” Aster said long after she'd left. Jack just laughed.

--

Whatever criteria Jack's sister had been examining him for that day he seemed to have met because a week later Aster got a thick envelope that's return address read Pippa Frost. It was full of embarrassing pictures of Jack from when he was little, and some much more interesting photos from that summer’s beach trip. There was also a letter detailing exactly what would happen to him if he hurt Jack. Aster had to give her points for creativity.

--

“Draw me like one of your french girls.” Jack said as he laid out on the couch.

Aster threw a pillow at him.

--

When Aster finally met Jack’s dad, he was (despite his best efforts,) significantly less intimidating than his daughter.

--

“Oh unbelievable!” Jack yelled at him. “How is it I’m the one from the broken home, but you’re the one with commitment issues?”

--

With a groan Jack collapsed back against the couch. “Moving sucks.”

“Could have been worse.” Aster said sitting next to him.

“I do have a better roommate.” Jack agreed with a salacious grin, swinging his leg over to sit himself in Aster’s lap.

--

“You still have this?” Aster asked, holding up a vaguely familiar grey stuffed bunny. Jack flushed brightly and Aster laughed.

--

Five minutes into their first meeting Aster’s mom decided Jack was too skinny, and needed to eat more. She piled his plate high at dinner, and insisted that he couldn’t leave the table until he ate it all. That, Aster assured Jack, was a good thing; she only overfed people she liked.

--

Jack laughed, and there was a spot of whipped cream at the corner of his mouth. He was wearing his blue hoodie that had looked ragged before Aster had even met him, and jeans that were covered in paint that Aster was entirely to blame for. “I love you.” Aster said without thinking, and Jack almost choked on his iced peppermint mocha. As his brain caught up with his mouth Aster wanted to kick himself. Of all the times to tell Jack he loved him he picked his fifteen minute break at the cafe.

Jack knocked his drink onto the floor when he pulled Aster across the table for a sound kiss. Neither could really bring themselves to care about the mess as Jack murmured into the kiss. “I love you too.”

--

"I'm sorry." Jack called from the other side of the door. "I was being a dumbass. Can we just talk? Please?"

Aster sighed and unlocked the door. Jack fell backwards into the room, clearly not expecting the door to open behind him, and mad or not Aster couldn't help smiling.

--

“Congratulations Jack!” Tooth squealed hugging him with such force that his cap nearly fell off his head.

“Thanks Tooth.” he said, fixing the red graduation cap.

“So how’s it feel to be a college graduate?” Aster asked with a smile.

“Like I have a piece of paper.” he said, though after a moment Jack couldn’t help the smile fighting to break out. “It feels great,” he admitted bashfully “really great.”

“I’m proud of you.” he said, hugging him. Jack grinned crookedly and pulled Aster into a kiss.

--

Jack fell face first into their bed with a loud groan. “Rough first day?” Aster asked, trying for sympathetic but sounding more amused than anything else. Jack covered his head with a pillow and flipped him off. Aster laughed.

--

“‘The Secret of the Pooka’ illustrated by E. A. Bunnymund.” Jack read proudly, sitting on their kitchen counter with a wide smile. “Congratulations Aster.”

“They’ve already called me about illustrating another book.” Aster choked out, burying his face in the crook of Jack’s neck, and wrapping his arms around him loosely. It was almost overwhelming how happy he was, and Aster had to choke back tears. Jack ran his fingers through Aster’s hair, scratching along his scalp just the way he knew Aster liked. For awhile they just sat in the kitchen and held each other.

--

“I really, really hate moving.” Jack groaned.

“Yeah, well hopefully we won’t be doing it again anytime soon.” Aster said, wrapping his arms around Jack from behind.

“Mhmmmmm.” he agreed, leaning back against Aster. “We have a house.” he said in wonder, as if the building had just suddenly appeared, and hadn’t taken months of paperwork, and bank meetings to get.

“Yeah.” Aster said, kissing the top of Jack’s head, and he realized he sounded as in awe of it all as Jack did.

--

Aster snuck quietly into Jack’s classroom. It was nearly nap time he knew, which meant Jack’s lunch break would be starting soon too. Jack sat on a frayed rug surrounded by a semi circle of enthralled four year old as he read from a story book with stubbed edges. Aster leaned against the door frame just watching Jack. He loved seeing Jack like this, perfectly content and in his element surrounded by children. It sent a thrill through Aster as he remembered the phone call he’d gotten just that morning. Jack caught his eye, and gave him a slight nod before returning his attention to his audience. “And they lived happily ever after.” he read, and all Aster could think of was the fact that Jack didn’t know the adoption had finally, finally gone through. They were going to be dads. “The End.”