The neighbour’s Christmas display is the only source of light outside as Damien follows Aster around the tiny living room. He dodges small avalanches of papers and discarded letters as the slight thirteen-year-old rampages through the house.
“You’re going to be late,” Damien says. “I told you to get ready yesterday.”
“Shut up, Damien!” Aster pushes at him briefly, wide blue eyes framed by ash-brown hair, crooked smile underneath.
“The bus is gonna go without you. You’re going to have to walk all the way up the hill to school.”
“You’re not helping,” Aster says, finally unearthing his school books from under the pile of laundry that Damien told him to put away two days ago. He shoves them into a worn-out backpack that he’s too stubborn to replace, not taking enough care to stop the pages from crumpling.
“Yeah, yeah. You got everything? Remembered breakfast?” Damien asks.
“ I remembered breakfast. Did you?”
Damien waves a hand. “I’ll eat later. Don’t start till late today.”
“Lucky you.” Aster pulls on battered high top trainers, bright green underneath the dirt. “Okay! I’m ready to go now. See you tonight.”
“I’ll pick you up.”
“No, come on. I can walk home. Everyone else does.”
“It’s dark by the time you get out. I’m picking you up.”
“Okay, Damien,” Aster says, clearly put out. “Remember to pick up new light bulbs.”
“Who's the adult here, me or you?” Damien asks, smiling down at the kid. “Got your lunch money? Homework?”
Aster snorts, “Way too late to be asking about the last one.”
“What’s that mean?” Damien stops in the middle of the hallway, remembering, and swears. “Homework. I was meant to help you with your homework yesterday.”
Aster waves a hand airily. “It’s fine. I got most of it down. I’ll do the rest on the bus.”
“No you won’t.”
The kid grins. “No, I won’t. It’s fine, I have a B in that class anyway.”
“Weirdo.” Aster flicks his hair out of his eyes as Damien throws a coat in his general direction from his position at the end of the hallway. He has his own shit to get ready for, and the mess in the apartment is getting to critical levels. Teenagers, who knew that they made so much mess?
If Damien had known when he agreed to be Aster’s foster parent that he’d end up with a house filled with random crap strewn all over his space, he would have had second thoughts.
“Weirdo you’re stuck with.”
“Well you can just make it up to me on Thursday then,” Aster retorts with a grin.
“Right. Thursday, what am I meant to do then again?”
“Don’t tell me you forgot?”
The conversation is shattered by a loud bang on the door.
“I’ll get it!” Aster calls, already skipping over to the door.
“It’ll be for me anyway,” Damien points out. He rounds the corner to find Aster looking up at a sight that isn’t physically possible. Lit up in the dull blue of the porch light and the riot of red and green of the neighbour’s Christmas display stands Mark Bryant.
Damien freezes. He watches as Mark’s expression shifts from startled and a little confused, to tracing along a line that Damien can’t see (he knows that look, it’s the same look Aster gets when he uses his ability) until he’s looking down into the hallway. It’s obvious when he registers Damien: the blood drains from his face.
Damien can’t stop staring. Time has changed Mark. His clothes are more filled out, his thick winter jacket no longer hanging awkwardly off a frame that screamed of a recent illness. His black hair’s been cropped short into an undercut, and his brown eyes are red-rimmed, wild with emotion and lack of sleep. Everything in Damien is screaming at him to close the distance, and grab onto Mark’s shoulders and shake him to make sure he’s real.
The blare of the bus horn shatters the tense silence. It jerks Damien into motion, pushing Aster out of the door, past Mark. Aster’s feet trip on the door’s threshold as he twists himself around. A quick grab at his backpack stops him from completely toppling over.
“Wait. Damien, who is that?”
“You need to get on the bus before you’re late again.”
Aster crosses his arms, stubborn. “No way. Who is this guy?”
Damien uses the leverage he has on Aster’s backpack straps to haul him up the drive to the waiting bus, half a block up from the house.
“I’ll pick you up after school—”
“I’ll pick you up after school.”
The set of Aster’s mouth tells him this isn’t over. “Fine. After school.” He spins on his heel, marching up to the bus. The fogged-up windows of the bus barely hide his worried gaze from Damien as it pulls away.
And then Damien has to turn back to his home, where Mark is still standing in the open doorway.
He drinks in the sight, like a man who hasn’t had a drink in days suddenly finding himself next to a babbling creek.
“Mark,” he repeats.
Mark smiles, crooked—sick. “Hey, Damien. Long time no see.”
“Yeah.” Because you kicked me out of your life, Damien doesn’t add, but he’s sure Mark can hear it judging by the wince. Maybe one of his neighbours is a telepath. He swallows. “Come in then.”
His heart feels like it’s full of knives.
“The light’s broken,” Damien says, tone halfway to an apology when he closes the door. “One in the kitchen’s fine.” He makes a gesture that generally indicates the right door and then he and Mark are staring at each other from either side of the too-small room.
Damien wipes his hands on the sleeves of the ratty shirt he uses for a pyjama top, hyper aware that he hasn’t had time to shower or shave yet today, and the kitchen is still full of today’s attempt at breakfast, last night's dinner, and Damien’s lesson plans strewn over the countertops.
“So you have a kid!” Mark says. It feels overloud after the silence, and he winces, rubbing the back of his neck. “I bet there’s a story there.”
“I didn’t kidnap him, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That wasn’t my first thought,” Mark says, defensive. “Though I am curious how you ended up looking after a teenager…?”
Keep being curious, Damien thinks. It’s not your information to know. “You know how it is. You just wish for them and a stork shows up. Mine was a particularly directionally challenged stork. Took it a while to finally deliver the package.”
Mark snorts. “Okay he’s clearly not yours. Even if he wasn’t too old—”
“Who says he’s not mine.”
“Uhm. The fact that he’s white?” Mark coughs, a flush travelling up his cheeks. “Right. So, are there more children around? A girlfriend… boyfriend? ...Spouse?”
“I’m not wearing a ring.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Does your sister know you’re here?” Damien interrupts. “Does anyone know you’re here?”
Mark winces. “My question first,” he protests.
“I think mine’s a bit more relevant.”
“Still haven’t figured out how to listen to other people, then,” Mark says.
There’s a flash of anger that starts in Damien’s throat, and ends in his hand clutching his wrist hard enough to make white marks appear against his skin. “Yeah, insulting me is really going to make me want to talk to you.”
Mark shrugs, red-rimmed eyes dropping away from Damien’s, turning to the rest of the room. Damien wonders what he’s looking at. The crumbs that escaped the cutting board? The notes on the fridge? The chipped mugs waiting to be washed by the sink? He doesn’t open his mouth. Stalemate then.
They break at the same time. “It’s just me and the kid.”
“No one knows. We don’t really—-talk anymore. Me and. Joanie and. Sam. Not since they decided to be part of the soulsucking, evil hellscape that is the AM. And not since I went there and managed to get even more traumatised by that place than I already was. Mostly not my own fault... So. No. No one knows I’m here.”
Mark opens his mouth. Closes it. Draws in a breath. “I really don’t want to talk about that, Damien.”
“Okay,” Damien says. Curious, but he remembers about him and Mark and questions.
Mark blinks. Still staring at the floor, a ghost of a smile just visible in the shadows of his jaw. “You know, I wasn’t expecting you to drop it that quickly.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, you know. Before you never used to let anything go. You’d just push and push until I didn’t even bother fighting you off. Until… Yeah.”
Awkward, Damien says, “A lot has changed in the last year and a half.”
Mark raises his gaze up to Damien’s, catching on the scars that riddle the left side of Damien’s face. His milky eye. People don’t like looking at it. It’s too ugly, too raw, too damaged. “Yeah,” Mark says. “Guess it has.”
Damien scratches the inside of his wrist. “What are you doing here, Mark?”
“You know?” Mark laughs. “You know, I’ve been trying to ask myself that question since I started driving. It’s been almost a day and I still can’t answer it. I just. I just really needed to not be where I was and… This felt like... I…” He shakes his head, aborted. “I don’t know,” he repeats. “I really have no fucking clue what I’m doing here.”
He stumbles forwards, towards Damien, before he jerks to a stop. Shakes his head again. Damien once again takes in the bags under Mark’s eyes, the way he’s subtly shaking, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, and comes to the obvious conclusion.
“When was the last time you slept?” he asks. “Dr B’s to here, that’s what…. Five hours if you don’t take a break?”
“About that,” Mark mumbles.
“And you were driving all night, since it’s barely 8 now.”
Damien tilts his head, says lighter than he feels, “No wonder you look like shit.”
That earns him a smile. Damien closes the distance between them, puts a hand on Mark’s shoulder. Mark flinches slightly, and Damien tries and fails to not take that personally.
“Come on,” he says, “Bedtime.”
Mark makes a joke about how Damien’s moving fast, that Damien ignores as he tugs Mark upstairs. He pushes Mark through his bedroom door, offering up a set of pyjamas as Mark stands awkwardly in the dim room. The sun’s risen now, but the curtains are drawn. No lights on.
“Nice room,” Mark says. He lets Damien push him onto the bed. Another joke on his lips.
“Go to sleep, Mark.” Damien answers.
“You’re not going to tuck me in?”
“Needy.” But he does it. Mark smiles up at him, obviously counting it as a win.
The door closes with a click behind Damien as he fishes out his phone. “Hey, Sue? Yeah. Something’s come up. I’m not going to be able to come in today after all…”
There are few things in the world Aster hates more than school. Even if it wasn’t a sensory nightmare of different ribbons connecting his classmates to each other, and teachers as a visual representation of how much every single person in this building also resents being here, the fact that he’s trapped with a group of idiots, being taught by bigger idiots for six hours and twenty minutes, five days a week, more than makes it his own personal hell.
He’s still the “new kid” around here, and Aster isn’t sure if he’s glad or not that still means no one will talk to him. He settles on being glad. Fewer people he has to talk to, the better. He doesn’t care about the teenage angst and overwrought politics that everyone else his age is obsessed with. Especially when he needs all his energy to work out what the fuck happened before Damien pushed him onto the bus.
During English he worries his pen in his teeth, ignoring the practice essay question on the board. When in real life is he ever going to need to know about the motivations of Macbeth that made him such a pussy who had to get his wife to do any of the real killing? Never. That’s when.
Figuring out the barbed wire that had looped around Damien’s arms and connected him to the weird guy that had showed up at their front door? Definitely more important.
Aster’s seen relationships like that before, in shelters and the building by the courthouse where he meets his social worker. Frayed ribbons with tangled knots that left bruises and cuts on their owners. It never means anything good, when the ribbons are dull-coloured, or dig into their owners. He doesn’t like how Damien’s relationship sinks barbs into the arms that Aster has seen Damien scratch up too many times. It’s too much like the ones he sees on the ladies and men in the shelters, running away from exes that are bad news, or chasing after someone who would be better off left alone.
One thing’s clear: If he wants to get any answers he’s going to have to corner Damien. Damien teaches some of the 7th graders violin and related instruments on Thursdays. Aster can hang around the closet he uses as a classroom until Damien has to reveal his secrets.
The plan falls apart at lunch. Damien’s closet is dark, with no sign of either the man or his violin case when Aster peers through the tiny windows set into the door. Damien never moves his case when he’s teaching. He hardly can be parted from it when it’s outside the house.
“You’re looking for Damien?” Ms. Fredrick asks, when she spots Aster loitering around her music classrooms. She’s nice, with lots of thick relationships that blanket her like a particularly fluffy jumper around her soft middle. Sometimes when Aster has to stay late with Damien she gives him cookies.
Ms. Fredrick frowns. “He didn’t tell you? He said that something had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make it in today.”
“He didn’t tell me that,” Aster says, the words escaping. Worry drumming around his ears.
Ms. Fredrick tsks slightly, one of her ribbons faltering. Aster wonders if that’s Damien’s. He can’t tell unless they’re close enough together that he can follow the trails from one person to the next.
“Must have been after I got on the bus,” Aster tacks on hastily. The last thing he needs is Damien’s boss and his teacher suspicious of both of them. “...Did he tell you what happened?”
“No, I’m sorry, Aster.”
Of course not. As if Damien would ever voluntarily give someone information. “Guess I’ll find out when I get home.” He plasters a smile across his face.
Ms. Fredrick gives him a look, silently informing Aster that he isn’t fooling anybody. Whatever. She doesn’t stop him from going back to lunch. And no one else stops Aster from walking out the door of the school, and heading down the street back home.
The house is quiet when Aster gets home. The light still broken when Aster gives it an experimental prod. He creeps through the house, not sure what he’s looking for. No discarded clothes on the floor, or kicked-in doors and walls… That’s a good sign.
“What are you doing home?” Damien asks.
Aster starts, realising that the darkened living room actually has a person in it. “Why are you sitting in the dark like a creep?” he demands.
The barbed wire is still wrapped tight around Damien’s arms and digging into his chest, the other end disappearing through the ceiling. Time has not made it look any less painful.
“The light’s broken,” Damien points out.
“Why are you home? School doesn’t end for another hour and a half at least. And don’t tell me you had a half day thanks to the holiday, I know that’s not true.”
“Fine.” Aster crosses his arms, glaring down at Damien. “I came home to make sure that the weird guy you let into our house didn’t murder you while I was gone.”
Incredulous, Damien repeats, “You came home to make sure I wasn’t murdered.”
“I was worried. I can see something’s up with you and him.”
Damien scrapes at his forearms with his thumbnail. “You skipped school.”
“...Duh. Thought we were way past that part of this conversation, Damien.”
Damien stands up. He’s not a tall man, but Aster has yet to get his promised growth spurt, so there’s ample space for Damien to loom, his eyes going hard and angry. “You can’t do that. You know that your social worker is already looking for any excuse to put you somewhere else. Every time you act out like this you’re jeopardizing this relationship.”
“Oh, and the fact that you brought your abusive ex-boyfriend into the house isn’t going to make her think things over?” It’s a shot in the dark, but Damien flinches. Bullseye.
“See? Me skipping school is nothing compared to that!”
“It’s not about that. You have to tell me so I can call in. Otherwise it’s truancy.”
“What do you mean it’s not about that! Of course it is!”
“No. This is about you skipping classes! And getting us both in trouble! It’s like you want to go back to foster care!”
“Fuck you!” Aster cries. He grabs the nearest object—a flimsy paperback novel—and throws it at Damien’s head. “You’re so full of bullshit!” The door to his room slams behind him, the house vibrating as Aster kicks the drywall.
Damien tips his head back. Does he go in and chase Aster? Or let him cool off? He always picks wrong. He walks up the stairs, thinking of knocking on Aster’s door.
There’s another dull thud from the closed door, and a muffled scream. Better let him blow off steam. No way he’ll listen to Damien if he’s this upset.
The palms of his hands itch with the want to go in there and soothe tempers. He doesn’t want Aster to be mad. It’s bad for him to be that worked up.
He squashes that thought before it can get even further away from him. He can’t control people’s feelings. Even if he could, Damien’s long since learned he shouldn’t.
But the want twists inside him. Like it always does.
When he turns to head back downstairs, he spots Mark standing in the doorway of his room, Damien’s quilt wrapped around his shoulders. He gives Damien a wan smile that doesn’t quite reach the exhaustion in his eyes.
“Hey,” Mark says.
Damien wets his lips, the book Aster threw at his head held in front of him. “Hey yourself,” he says. And suddenly everything is just so quiet.
Mark’s gaze flickers over Damien, and then follows something he can’t see, starting at Damien and ending at the wall to Aster’s room. “So he is an atypical.”
“I thought so. Before. But I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating from being up too long. Imagining things.” Mark swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. He traces the air between them. “I heard a little of that. Hard not to when you’re both yelling so loud… This is… our relationship?”
“A representation of it. I don’t really know how it works,” Damien says. “Aster says he sees ribbons that float around people. If there’s two people around, he can see if they have a relationship, and depending on the state of the ribbon or where it is, he knows what the relationship is like.”
“It looks like it hurts,” Mark says.
Damien smiles, unsure if it’s a grimace or not. “You did sink your claws deep into me.” And then ripped them out. Piece by piece.
Mark’s eyes flash. “That’s not what happened.”
Damien inclines his head.
“It’s not!” Mark steps into the room, hitching the quilt higher on his shoulders. “Remember? You kidnapped me. You spent an unspeakably long amount of time gaslighting and emotionally manipulating me into using an ability that I didn’t want anything to do with ever again!”
“And then you used that ability to rip my brain in half,” Damien returns sweetly.
“You deserved it.”
“Oh, I did, did I?” He steps closer to Mark, a small vicious part of him enjoying how Mark flinches. “Just like I deserved getting my body broken? Being locked in the AM and abandoned by everyone? Being pushed out of my life?”
“Yeah.” Mark’s head tilts back, his narrow brown eyes filled with fury.
“Then why the fuck are you here?” He’s close enough to touch Mark if he wants to. The quiet of before is utterly dispelled as Damien’s insides hum. “I wasn’t the one who decided to leave, Mark, remember? That was all you. You’re the one who said that we shouldn’t see each other anymore. Yet here you are, in my house. In my life. Why?”
Mark opens his mouth. “I don’t—”
“If you don’t want to be around me, you know where the door is!”
The shout echoes.
Damien bites his lip, breathing out slow to a count of ten. His nails scrape down his arm. Hard. Mark watches the motion, the blood draining from his face.
“ Jesus Damien, you're going to hurt yourself if you keep pulling at that, ” he says, grabbing the offending hand.
Damien stills, his wrist filled with pins and needles where Mark’s sweaty hand is wrapped around his suddenly-too-hot skin. His breath is still ragged from his shout, and the game music leaking out of Aster’s room loops on the pause screen. He swallows.
“Just tell me what you’re doing here,” Damien says.
This time Mark doesn’t look away. “I needed to know.”
“I…” Mark exhales, eyes closing for a second before they open again. Something in them is suddenly more open, infinitely more afraid than Damien has seen Mark in a very long time. “Everyone always told me that you were bad news. I mean, of course they did; you are. But Joan’s co-directors of the AM with Sam, and you know I don’t think they’re any better than the monster who used to run that place. I used to tell myself that it was some sort of fucked-up Pavlovian response. You talk, I listen… Stockholm syndrome… I don’t know. But I just got sick of not knowing. Of being this lost, scared, person who just put everything hard and complicated into the back of their mind and didn’t think about it.
“So, here I am. And I… I still like you. I have feelings for you, and I’m done with people looking over my shoulder, telling me that the things I think, the things I feel, are wrong. I need to figure that out for myself.”
His fingers smooth random patterns into Damien’s skin, raising heat all over the scratches on Damien’s arm. It itches.
“So you’re… what?”
“I’m here to see for myself if this works. If this—” Mark gestures between the two of them with his free hand, his eyes locked on something Damien can’t see. “--has a chance.”
Damien wets dry lips. His voice is rough. “And what happens when you find out the answer’s no? Then what happens?”
Mark shrugs. “Then I know.”
“Good for you.”
Mark cups Damien’s jaw, a question brimming in his eyes. Oh just get it over with, Damien thinks, and closes the distance between them.
Mark makes a muffled groan against his lips, a swallowed oh thank God as he uses his hold on Damien's chin to deepen the kiss. The book falls to the floor with a dull thud.
The game music starts up again, much louder than before. A far-off part of Damien is aware that he should care more about that. That it means something. The rest of him is too busy mapping the inside of Mark’s mouth with his tongue.
Somehow, Damien’s not sure when, they stumble back into the bedroom, Mark closing the door just to push Damien up against it.
“Quiet, kid's next door,” Damien murmurs. And that seems to break whatever spell Mark’s in because he leans back, his eyes huge and black, his lips bruised bright red. “Wait,” he says. “Wait wait wait. Do you even want this?”
Damien laughs against Mark’s shoulder. “It’s a little late to ask that.”
"It's not. If this--" his voice hitches. "If this is too much, too fast, we can stop."
"You don't actually want to stop." He doesn’t bother working out his own feelings. What would be the point? He doesn’t want to think about this, doesn’t want to think. He presses in close, and kisses Mark again, grinding their hips together.
Mark gives in, answers Damien by dropping to his knees.
By the time Mark wakes up, it’s dark outside the window again, even though when he takes a bleary glance at his phone it’s only just past five pm. Damien's still completely out of it, yellow light from the street and Mark's phone screen illuminating features that have softened in sleep. He looks happier like this. Less on edge. There isn't a furrow between his eyebrows anymore; his lips are lax in sleep, instead of pulled into a scowl.
Mark props his hand under his head, gazing down at his bed partner. The sheet shifts as he does, falling off Damien's upper chest, until he's only clad in those weird ribbons from Mark's borrowed ability. Most of them are faded, torn ragged at the edges, and somehow Mark just knows that means they represent relationships that failed for one reason or another. Between one blink and the next, staring at a ribbon that might have been a soft yellow at one time, Mark has the sudden, disconcerting sense that he's sitting opposite his sister on a squishy armchair. Joan's voice in his ear: You're just pathetic.
Mark winces. Inadvertently, his eyes are drawn to another ribbon. A bicoloured one in two shades of blue and the memory of glitter. Without touching it, he knows it’s sharp. Like the person it used to be for. Well no wonder no one likes you when you're this needy, a man's laughter echoes down Mark's back, followed by kisses before the sudden, jarring spike of pain. Don't worry. In time, all wounds heal.
Mark drops that ribbon, unaware of when he'd even picked it up in the first place. A cold sweat prickles over his skin.
He can't stop it. Can't stop the ability from revealing the next ribbon. This one is thin and shredded, whatever colour it once was completely indiscernible. The ghost sense of being thirteen and all alone and it's all his fault he did this, but he doesn't care, refuses to care. Caring is for people and he isn't people. Not anymore.
In that loneliness Mark learns how to breathe again. How to control his power so he's in charge, instead of being an unwilling follower to its whims. He lets the memory fade away, even as the loneliness sinks deep into his bones.
Damien’s chest and arms are littered with those ribbons. A dull, aching realisation settles in Mark's stomach as he takes another look at the faded, fraying—broken—bonds. They can't all be like that. Can they?
He shifts focus to a purple ribbon that looks more intact, if just as faded. Maybe... He doesn't recognise the woman that appears in the back of his mind, but he can feel the warmth of her smile and the pride welling inside his chest. Damien’s chest. Mark breathes out a sigh of relief. So there's at least one person in the world who Damien has a friendly relationship with.
Unwittingly, Mark looks down at the horrible barbed wire that stretches between him and Damien. The twisted, bloody thing that wraps tight around Damien's arms and sinks through the skin of Mark's chest. He's not sure he wants to know.
But Mark is sick of being the person who buries his head in a bottle and refuses to acknowledge what's right in front of his nose. He bites his lip, and presses his hand flat against Damien's chest.
The wire wraps around his fingers, digging in with sharp barbs, and Mark is plunged into deep, dark waters.
I just don’t understand what he is to you! Or what you are to him. I’m thinking that I don’t want to watch him die. But I also wanted to beat his face in myself. I can get drunk now because it doesn’t matter what I want. Just like you said. It makes fuck-all difference. No, you fucking don’t. God, after all this— you didn’t learn anything, did you? You’ve been out for a month and now you call and you won’t even fucking apologize. Is that what you want? You want me to apologize? God, you turned out to be such a disappointment. You were supposed to understand. You were the one person who could. But you couldn’t even do that. There was something about him. But it’s like going to take a sip of scotch and it ends up being bleach. You think it’s gonna be something that tastes good and get you drunk but it’s just poison. You think that’s what I want? To be the one calling the shots? That’s not- Damien, it’s not supposed to work like that. Then tell me how it’s supposed to work. I don’t know how to do this.
He comes out of it gasping, hand curled into a fist around the wire. This was a mistake this was such a fucking mistake what is he even doing here?
He tugs, hard, wrenching at the wire and fuck it hurts pulling at the anchor hurts it's like finding a stitch after running for too long, when your diaphragm hates you, and suddenly stopping just to reach into your chest and tear out the offending organ.
Mark’s eyes meet hazy, tear-stained hazel. Damien’s hand presses down on Mark’s against his chest.
"It hurts," Mark says.
"I don't care."
Mark shakes his head, words gone. His hands shake on the wire and the end of it flexes dangerously, making both of them gasp in pain.
“Drop it!” The door bangs open against the wall as Aster barges into the room. The line between the kid and Damien blazes, a finely woven bronze chain that loops under their arms and across their shoulders, deceptively thin and delicate, hiding its true strength.
Mark drops his own connection, self-conscious as he realises that the only thing preserving his modesty is the duvet. Damien seems to have no reservations, sitting up and pulling Aster into an all-encompassing hug.
"Hey. I'm okay. It’s okay."
Aster violently shakes his head over Damien's shoulder. "You're not okay."
"What, you turn into a telepath when I wasn't looking?"
Damien's face is hidden from Mark. But he can just see the dip of Damien's head, the swipe of his hand over his eyes. "I'll be better soon."
"Stop it," Aster says. "Stop pushing me away and lying. You promised. You're so bad at it anyway; I can see what's wrong!"
Damien draws back. Of course he does, when has Mark ever seen Damien willingly connect with a person when he’s vulnerable, only to be surprised when Damien looks the kid in the eyes and says, “Yeah? What do you see?”
Aster puts his hand on Damien’s bare chest. “It’s like chicken wire. It’s all scratched up and awful and it hurts, Damien. It has to hurt. Sometimes it looks like you’re bleeding. But you still hold onto it. How can you stand having that in you?”
“Sometimes the important things hurt.”
“Don’t you get it? You look like you’re three steps away from losing your hands.”
Damien’s hand is gentle on Aster’s back. He looks for all the world like a dad comforting their kid after a nightmare. “It looks worse than it is. I know, it looks scary. But it’s not that bad.”
As he says it, Mark wishes it were true. Aster’s right; the bond between them looks awful. As he wishes, iron flowers bloom over the wire and Mark hides a flinch. He hopes that wasn’t him messing with things.
And yet, despite the evidence in front of him, or maybe because of it, Mark’s conviction hasn’t changed. He wants to know what this is, if this will work, if his feelings have a place here.
“Really? It’s that important to you? I don’t even know who this guy is!”
“Uh. Hi,” Mark says. “Guess I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself earlier. I’m Mark. And... I think I’m going to be here for awhile.”
“You are?” Damien says.
“Yeah,” Mark says. “If that’s okay?”
The kid glares daggers into Mark. “Who gives a fuck about you?”
“Aster,” Damien warns.
“No! I don’t care!” He wrenches himself out of Damien’s hold, fists curled at his sides, practically vibrating with anger. “He’s not supposed to be here!”
“He has as much right to be here as you do,” Damien says.
Aster gapes at Damien for a second, before he visibly pulls himself back together. The thread that stretches between him and Damien quivers. The kid doesn’t say anything, just stares at Damien with huge blue eyes. He turns on his heel, and a second later there’s the slam of his bedroom door.
Mark and Damien sit in silence. Both of them hear the frustrated snarl of rage from the room across the narrow hall.
Damien tips his head back, eyes closing. “Shouldn’t have said that,” he mutters. He glances at Mark out of the corner of his eye. “You meant that? You staying?”
“Yeah,” Mark says. “If that’s okay with you?”
Another tilt of Damien’s head, this time to the side. His fingers worry at his wrist. “Okay,” he says. And before Mark can ask if he’s sure again, Damien straddles his legs and draws him into a kiss.
Mark doesn’t have enough brain space to even think about asking Damien questions after that.
The house is too small to avoid each other, but Aster does the best job he can. Damien hardly ever sees the kid. Even at mealtimes, the only sign of Aster’s presence is the empty plate in the sink in the evenings. Fine. Kid needs space. They’re not a snuggly family to begin with.
Damien’s distracted anyway. Spending all his time wrapped up in Mark, before he inevitably gets bored of his newfound rebellious lifestyle and fucks off for good. Who knows how long that will take? A day? An hour?
Damien’s still surprised when he turns around and Mark is just - there. Smiling at him, drawing him into hugs, and kisses, and sex. And it hurts. A dull aching in his bones as he feels the seconds tick away. Waiting for the knife to finally drop, and sever the ties.
On Monday, five days after Mark appeared on his doorstep, Damien wakes up to the insistent ringing of his alarm. Mark’s arm is draped across his bare shoulders, his nose buried in the back of Damien’s neck. How he can breathe like that, Damien has no idea.
There’s a muffled sound, something like a groan that rumbles out of Mark’s chest and rattles through Damien’s ribs.
Damien is not awake enough to work out how to talk back. He’s always been bad about mornings, despite being a light sleeper. He wriggles an arm out of the warm cocoon of blankets, fumbling blearily for his beeping phone. Only barely awake, he manages to knock it onto the floor instead of turning it off.
For a moment, Damien just stares at the floor, and his phone, the pieces of a puzzle that he can’t work out. Behind him, Mark buries himself further in the blankets. His arm tightens around Damien, obviously an enticement to get him to join Mark under the covers and sleep for a few hours more.
There’s a reason that he can’t do that, despite how much he wants to.
For one, he needs to turn off the fucking beeping before it drives him insane.
The floor is cold enough that the tips of Damien’s fingers go numb when he finally gets them out of bed, and around his phone. Another moment that stretches out for too long goes past before Damien remembers how to swipe right, finally killing the alarm.
By then he’s awake enough to remember why he set it in the first place: work. He blinks at the timestamp at the top of his phone, and groans when he puts together how long he has left to both wrangle Aster and get himself out of the door.
It takes longer to get out of bed than it should, thanks to Mark transforming into a limpet. By the time Damien makes his escape there’s only 15 minutes left on the clock. He bangs Aster’s door as he walks past it. “If you don’t want to miss the bus, you better get up now, kiddo.” There’s an unintelligible whine from behind the door.
Black coffee rouses Damien the rest of the way. As does the continuing lightshow from next door that splashes violent shadows picked out in blue, and green, and red across the walls of the main room and kitchen. Not even the curtains completely block out the light. Every time they flash, it digs against Damien’s temple, against the old wounds that haven’t had enough time to heal (if they ever will heal).
He rubs at his eye, fortifying himself with another cup of coffee.
“‘Bout time you got up,” he greets the quiet set of footsteps behind him. “...Oh.”
Mark waves at him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I think he’s in the bathroom? There’s muttering from there anyway.”
“Doing his hair,” Damien supplies, smirking just a bit at the ridiculousness of teenage priorities. “What are you doing up?”
“You didn’t come back to bed.” Mark shrugs. “You’re looking… very business casual.”
Damien glances down at his black button-up shirt and narrow tie. “It’s the dress code. Does it look bad?”
“No! No, it looks fine. Kind of handsome, really, though you wouldn’t be out of place at a goth party. Does everyone have to obey a dress code in this town on Mondays?”
“They do if they want to get paid.” Damien can’t help but smile when Mark presses himself close against Damien’s side, trapping him slightly against the countertop. He puts down the coffee, no longer needing its warmth. It’s only due to that closeness that he catches the flicker in Mark’s eyes.
“Oh. This is for work.”
“What else would it be for?”
“I don’t know.” Mark scratches the back of his head. “It’s weird imagining you working. What’s the job? Somewhere fancy, if they make you wear a tie.”
“It’s just the high school,” Damien dismisses. “Not that exciting.”
“Are you kidding? How did you ever get someone to think you’d be a good teacher?”
“Hey,” Damien says. He smiles, but the hurt curls under his ribs. “I am a good teacher.”
“What do you teach?”
Mark blinks. “Music.”
“I really cannot imagine you in a classroom.” His nose wrinkles slightly, and he adds playfully, “Can’t imagine you working honestly.”
“Child support doesn’t cover rent,” Damien retorts.
Mark must read something in his tone, because he says, “No. No, I know. It’s good. I’m not making fun. I just wasn’t expecting it.” The hands on Damien’s waist roll circles into his belt loops.
“You don’t expect much of me, do you.”
Mark makes a sour face. “Don’t make me sound like that. I just meant that I didn’t exactly see you willingly working somewhere surrounded by children. I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Damien draws away, indignation simmering. If Mark’s intention is to make it sound better, he just sounds even more condescending. He spits out, “I’ll be sure to put that on my evaluation.”
He can feel the fight right on the edges of the conversation, just waiting for the provocation, for this disagreement to turn into an outright argument.
Mark falters. He drops his gaze, aggressively rubs the bridge of his nose. “I’m fucking this up. Just, good job?”
He manages a smirk. Faltering, falling back on cocky sarcasm. “I’m waiting on the gold star.”
“Are kisses an acceptable substitute?”
There’s a part of Damien that doesn’t want to let it go. There was a time when Damien would have given in to that impulse, would have egged Mark on until everything was burning down in flames around the two of them.
Right now, Damien blinks slowly, and nods. Accepts the kiss.
“Sorry I’m an ass,” Mark says.
You can make it up to me later, Damien thinks. The joke is on the tip of his tongue. But Damien doesn’t trust there to be a later.
“I do need to get to work today.”
“Mmm.” Mark gives him another kiss, lingering. “See you when you get home.”
Maybe by the time he sees Mark watching TV in his living room, he’ll even believe it. He doesn’t make an attempt to move out of Mark’s hold.
There’s the loud slam of the front door. When he disentangles himself from Mark, Damien realises that not only is he late for work, but he forgot to help Aster with his homework for the second week in a row.
“So…” Mark says, drawing out the word, “Christmas trees, huh?”
Aster scowls, staring out at the highway through the car window. This is all wrong. He’d woken up this morning to Damien telling him that no, he wasn’t going to be able to take Aster shopping after all, despite the fact that they’d planned it since the end of November, but that was okay because Mark had volunteered to do it instead. Then, without any input from Aster himself, he’d ended up in the front seat of Mark’s shitty car with its tinny speakers blasting obnoxious music, on his way to the nearest mall.
Mark keeps talking at him, going on about his own holidays, and Aster resists the urge to scream that no one gives a shit about the holidays he had with ex-girlfriends or sisters or whatever the fuck he’s going on about now.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Mark asks.
Aster scoffs, not bothering to answer.
“No, come on. If you tell me you might get what you want,” Mark says. His voice lilts into a familiar tease that Aster is sick of hearing. It’s the tone of voice that heralds that Mark is about to get whatever it is he wants so much, because Damien is a blind, deaf idiot.
“You to go back to wherever it is you really live,” Aster spits.
Mark’s face falls, and Aster’s chest lights up with vindictive anger.
“You sure you don’t want anything else?”
“Well, that’s going to be difficult to wrap,” Mark says.
“That sounds like a you problem.”
There’s a bond between the two of them. A ribbon that’s plasticky from the artificial, unwanted nature of the bond. Aster’s had a few of them in his life from various potential step-parents, social workers, and teachers over the years. People who act like they want to get to know him, but really just want him to get out of the way so they can do whatever it is that they really want to happen. Aster’s sick of it.
Usually bonds like that, Aster can slip out of easily. Better the teacher that ignores him, than the one that calls him back at the end of class to ask probing, difficult questions. This bond, though, sticks to his fingers. Some tacky, sticky residue that clings to Aster whenever he tries to tear himself away.
The rest of Mark’s bonds aren’t like that. They ring the metallics of strong love, the bright colours of friendship. Tattered; something bad happened recently, but not enough to completely sever the tie. Then there’s the thick, dark black of true hatred that Aster has only seen a few times, and only on people that he’s learned to stay far away from.
That bond, plus the horrible, barbed wire thing that connects Mark to Damien, means that no matter how much Mark plays happy families, Aster cannot trust him.
Even this early in the day, the mall is sensory overload. People and their ribbons cluttering Aster’s field of vision until he has to press his hands to his closed eyes and breathe. Filter out the sudden influx of information.
“Christmas rush,” Mark explains, looking a little green himself. He mutters, “How do I turn down the volume on this thing…”
“Volume on what?”
“Your ability,” Mark says. He blinks down at Aster’s blank stare. “Oh. I guess Damien and I never actually told you what I can do, did we. I just assumed you knew because of what you said to me when I grabbed the wire between us.”
Aster says, “What are you talking about.”
“I mimic abilities. If there’s another atypical in the room with me, I can do what they do. So right now, I can do what you do.” He winces. “Not a great benefit at the moment. What do you do to make this more bearable?”
“I don’t,” Aster says. “I just get used to it.”
Mark nods. “It’s a bit like telepathy…” he mutters, and he rubs the side of his head. “With some kind of synesthesia, I guess. And instead of seeing thoughts I’m seeing relationships, okay…” He falls silent. Aster watches him, uncomprehending. Mark closes his eyes, just standing in the middle of the mall. The crowd parts around the two of them, families with little kids, harried adults with lists clutched in their hands, the ribbons surrounding everyone thick and bright.
“Got it,” Mark says. He looks down at Aster, his expression much brighter. “Imagine putting on a pair of sunglasses.”
“Okay?” Aster says.
“You know, to block out bright lights. Imagine putting on a pair of shades that just block out all the ribbons around you.”
Aster scrunches up his nose. I don’t know how to do that, he almost says, but there’s something about the way Mark is looking at him, his brown eyes curved up with his encouraging smile that makes Aster close his eyes and visualise. Like putting on a pair of sunglasses. Just over his brain instead of his eyes… right…
When Aster opens his eyes again, the ribbons are still there but they’re dimmer somehow. Not quite so present. Not in the way that means the relationship is bad, more like he’s not so close to them. There’s a veil between him and the ribbons.
“...Huh,” he pronounces.
Mark grins down at him. “You got it?”
He’s subjected to Mark’s bright laughter, and an easy, “So we should get decorations first. They’re easiest to carry. You got any opinions on the colour scheme?”
“I dunno. Something cool.”
“Something cool. Got it.”
Aster follows him into the depths of the mall, arms crossed. So maybe Mark isn’t completely terrible, if he knows how to make Aster’s power not give him a headache as soon as he’s around more than five people at a time.
“Wait,” Aster says, three stores and an argument about the importance of stockings later, “If you can see my ability, you can see the bond between you and Damien.”
Mark hums, too busy comparing the prices on Christmas lights they’re not even going to buy to pay attention to Aster.
Aster punches him in the arm. “Hey! You can see the bond!”
Even now, so far away from Damien, even with the dampening on Aster’s ability, he can see the mockery of a ribbon that stretches from Mark to Damien. The barbed wire, tangled and rusted, that wraps around Mark’s chest and throat, digging deep into his soft parts.“Why the fuck are you still here when you can see how bad it is?” Aster explodes.
Is he doing it on purpose? Is he really that much of a monster? He has to be. Why else would he still be here?
Finally, Mark looks down at him. “Aster, what—”
Aster cuts him off. “No. You don’t get to keep doing this! You don’t get to pretend that everything’s fine and perfect and you belong here when you can literally see that you don’t! How can you stand to be around Damien? How can you sit in our house and smile when you can see what you’re doing? How much you’re hurting him?”
“Aster, it’s okay.” Mark puts a hand on his shoulder, looking at him with concern, and it’s not fair, Mark doesn’t get to look like that when he’s the reason everything’s so messed up now.
“Don’t touch me!” Aster shoves Mark backwards into the store display, the rickety shelves rattling as Mark catches himself. There’s salt water pricking at the corners of Aster’s eyes. “What is your problem? You shouldn’t even be here! This was supposed to be my first Christmas with a person I actually gave a shit about. For the first time in my life I actually cared about this damn holiday but you’re ruining everything!”
“Aster, you need to calm down,” Mark says, voice pitched low and soothing. It just makes the pit of anger in Aster’s chest flare. “People are staring.”
“Like I give a damn,” Aster spits. “Why are you still here? Why are you sticking around like you care? I can see the bonds, I know you don’t!” He wraps his hand around the barbed wire of the bond and tugs.
Mark gasps, mouth gaping open in a breathless exhale. “Don’t do that.”
“Why not? Give me a reason. Why shouldn’t I just pull this out of you?”
Mark just keeps gaping at him. Hand splayed over his chest where the first of the bond’s barbs digs into his skin.
“You don’t have one, do you,” Aster sneers. “See, you don’t want to admit it, but deep down you know I’m right. You don’t belong here. And since you won’t fix it, I will.”
He pulls on the bond in earnest, letting the hateful words and images that spring forth wash over him and Mark. Some memories, some thoughts, some a mixture of the two. All of it garbage and full of hurt and bitterness and—
Mark makes a funny sound, hand on his chest, and the ribbon warps. Iron flowers blooming along the barbs.
No. No, he’s not allowed to do this, not when Aster can see how much this hurts.
He tugs back, and accidentally falls into the pit of feelings. Longing, confusion, rage, and everything.
It’s too much. No one should ever feel this much, all at once.
The ribbon blooms.
“You look like shit.”
Damien glances up from Marie’s class notes. He’s meant to use them to teach the sophomores in an hour, and he still can’t make heads or tails of what half the words here are. When he agreed to cover the class because Marie had the flu, he’d been expecting notes that weren’t written in chicken scratch. Leaning against the desk is one of his fellow assistant teachers: “Just-call-me-Lukas-Mr-Croft-is-my-grandad.” His brown hair artfully styled into something that’s designed to look like he just rolled out of bed, a tie with white snowflakes against a blue background loosely knotted around his neck. Some of the snowflakes have googly eyes.
Against all of Damien’s, admittedly not well-developed, judgement, he’s the closest person Damien has to a friend these days. “Yeah, you too.”
“Aw, fuck you,” Lukas returns with a smile. “Seriously though, you look like you really got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.”
“So would you if you had to use these to teach.” He gestures at the papers in front of him. “I’m beginning to think they’re written in code.”
Lukas slides the top sheet of notes around, showily raising his eyebrows as he peers at the spidery handwriting. “Oh, if you think this is bad, you should see what I have to put up with in the math department. Now there’s a group of people who don’t know how to write clearly.”
“Don’t you want to be a math teacher?”
“Economics teacher. There’s a difference.”
Damien raises an eyebrow in disbelief. Lukas giggles.
The smile falls, as he gives Damien another long once-over. “Seriously. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Sure.” Lukas hands the page of notes back.
“I said I’m fine.”
Damien pushes his hands through his hair, closing his eyes against the light-induced migraine when he tips his head back. The music room is one of the older parts of the building, and less loved than some of the other departments, so they still use the type of bulbs that flicker slightly when they need to be changed.
“Yeah, and if you keep saying it maybe it’ll become believable.”
“...You have a kid, right?”
“No?” Lukas says. “Where’d you get that idea—oh the pictures on my desk. No, that’s my nephew. Jackson. He’s adorable, isn’t he? I swear he gets cuter every time I see him. Why?”
Damien gets up, pacing around the classroom.
“...You have a kid, right?” Lukas says. “I remember you mentioning one going to the middle school, right?”
“Right,” Damien says. He ends up in front of the electric piano, and presses the middle key. It’s off, so there’s only the quiet yet surprisingly heavy thunk of the key being depressed.
“Is he okay?”
Damien shrugs. He sits down at the piano and switches it on, turning the volume down low. The piano isn’t his instrument of choice, but you pick up a few things when you’re teaching it to classes of thirty kids five days out of the week.
Lukas regards him for a long moment, silent as Damien runs through scales and then starts up one of the simple waltzes meant to teach someone how to use both hands at once on the keyboard. After the second repetition he jostles Damien for a share of the stool and says, “This is meant to be a duet, you know.”
Damien does know. He teaches it to classes of thirty teenagers for five hours spread over the course of two weeks. Lukas slides his arm around Damien’s to reach the right notes on the keyboard. Without a pause in the tune, he adds in the counter-melody.
“...I know you don’t like to talk about yourself much, which, fine, don’t care if you’re not up to sharing. But I am your friend. I think. And something is obviously bothering you, otherwise you wouldn’t have brought it up,” Lukas says. “So if you ever did want to talk about it properly…”
“My ex is in town and my kid hates him.”
To Lukas’ credit, he doesn’t miss a note. “That’s… a lot.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“No, I don’t mean—that’s not an insult. I just. Damn dude. When you have drama you have capital D Drama, don’t you?”
Damien shrugs, his shoulder brushing against Lukas’ side.
“...So?” Lukas prods.
Damien keeps his eyes on the keys, and tells him. Not everything - too difficult to explain the mess that is his relationship with Mark in the time he has, and avoiding mentioning anything about the AM, abilities, and the roadtrip that had ruined Damien’s life. Certain snide therapists might point out that in context, that means Damien tells Lukas practically nothing.
"And then, a year and a half after he kicks me out of town, he just shows up on my doorstep and needs to know what we are," Damien finishes. The tune has changed, Lukas' past as a jazz musician making itself known as he improvises around Damien's shaky chords.
Lukas makes a derisive sound in the back of his throat. "Which means?"
"I don't know. Something about how everyone is always telling him what to do, and how to think—especially about me—so now he wants to find out all the answers for himself."
"Well that's selfish."
Damien’s hackles rise. “It’s not selfish to try and have a relationship with someone.”
"No, it is," Lukas asserts. “That’s not a relationship, that’s forcing you to be at his beck and call so that you can impress him. You do want him to come out of this wanting to take you back, right? Yeah, so it’s on you to be the nice guy. It’s selfish. Especially when you're the one with a kid. That’s even more responsibility that you have to deal with.”
“That’s not what it’s about.”
“Of course it is.” Lukas plays a particularly snazzy riff on the keyboard. “He’s not staying with you, is he?”
Damien doesn’t answer. His silence gives it away.
“Well no wonder your kid’s upset.”
Damien’s next chord is dissonant, his fingers hitting the white keys when they should be on the black above. He grimaces, correcting it. The two of them play in silence, Damien’s chords growing more and more out of time, and more and more dissonant until he finally gives up and cedes the entire keyboard to Lukas.
“Okay, new question,” Lukas says. He looks at Damien, still riffing on some ancient jazz tune. “What do you want to get out of this? Really?”
Damien stares down at the keyboard. There's a dull pain in his chest, the ticking of seconds falling away. He wants…
It’s always dangerous when he wants.
"I don't know," he says.
The bell for next period rings. Lukas hops off the stool, and claps Damien on the back. "Well you better figure it out soon. Overprotective sons and kind-of exes are a recipe for disaster."
"Don't you have a class to teach?"
"So I do, so I do," Lukas says. "Oh. Damien?"
"You thought of some more words of wisdom?"
"You don't have to worry about me telling anyone you're gay. Thanks for trusting me with that."
Damien blinks. His mouth tugs up into a smile against his better judgement. “Go bother your students, instead of me.”
“I’m going!” Lukas laughs. He ducks out of the door to the classroom, propping it open on the jamb behind it. Lukas high-fives one of his own students outside of the classroom door, and then Damien has thirty pairs of eyes, waiting for him to teach them piano.
The tightness in his chest doesn’t go away, no matter how much Damien focuses on the lesson. The class is rowdy, every teen all too aware that the school holiday is just around the corner and there’s not even time for any last-minute exams. In the end, Damien gives up and gets out his violin in order to teach them dirty Christmas carols. After that things pick up. For almost a full quarter of an hour, Damien successfully leads the children to throw insults at the other half of the class. It would be the end of thinking entirely, if it weren’t for his phone having a seizure on the desk.
“One second,” Damien says, propping the violin under his arm. The more intrepid students boo at him for his gross hypocrisy. They aren’t allowed to check their phones after all. “Yeah, yeah, you can bring it up with the board.” Damien waves them off.
“...Your last name is Thompson?” Mark’s voice comes through the tinny speakers. “No, not important. You need to come home. Now.”
By the time Damien gets home he’s run through four red lights and almost murdered a possum which hasn’t learned to look both ways before stepping out in front of traffic. “Where is he?”
Mark meets him in the hallway. “In his room. He woke up a little bit ago, but… he really didn’t want to see me.”
“Is he ok?” He doesn’t wait for an answer before he sprints up the stairs.
“I don’t know. I think so?” Mark follows. “I can’t feel anything wrong with his power from my end of things. I don’t think it’s…”
“How would you know?” Worry and old hurt make the words sharper than he means. “Just go downstairs. I don’t want you in range.”
Mark blinks rapidly. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll be downstairs.” He reaches out to Damien, catching his hand briefly. “You okay?”
Damien pulls his hand out of Mark’s, already missing the warmth of Mark’s palm. “I’m fine. I’m not the one who fainted.”
Mark bites his bottom lip, but nods, heading back down the stairs. For a moment, Damien gathers himself outside Aster’s door. The thin particleboard doesn’t reveal any secrets to him.
“Hey, kiddo,” Damien says. “Can I come in?”
“You can,” comes the reply.
Damien pushes the door open. Inside, the blackout curtains of Aster’s bedroom filter out the Christmas cheer of outside. The only illumination comes from the pale yellow nightlight shaped like a pork bun hanging out on Aster’s bedside table. His laptop is propped up next to it, along with the dock for the Switch that Aster had begged, bartered and blackmailed for until Damien had finally relented. Aster himself is buried in his thick quilt, the glow-in-the-dark stars dotting the fabric glowing faintly in the dim light.
Damien perches on the bed, shifting the quilts until he and Aster can see eye to eye. “Can I turn on your lamp?”
“Headache,” Aster answers. He tries to pull the quilt back over his head, but Damien refuses to give it up. Aster sighs, dropping his head back onto his pillow, looking away from Damien.
“How bad’s the headache?”
What little conversation there was dies a terrible death. The silence spreads out oppressively as Damien looks his kid over. He doesn’t look visibly damaged, at the very least. Not that he would, considering what happened. He doesn’t know how to ask the questions that he needs the answers to, and Aster doesn’t seem willing to start the conversation.
Damien doesn’t even know how to reach out and brush through the kid’s hair without feeling out of place. Awkward, doing something wrong.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Aster eventually snaps out. “Just get it over with.”
“Get what over with?” A sinking feeling in Damien’s chest.
“Aren’t you going to hit me?” Aster sits up, staring at Damien, hurt brimming in eyes that have turned green in the soft yellow light. “I did a bad thing. I tried to use my ability on you. Aren’t you pissed?”
Damien swallows down the anger. It’s not helpful right now. He can’t kill people that he’s never met.
“I’m pissed. But I’m not gonna hit you.”
“Yes, right. Why’d you do it?”
“Why do you care? What’s it matter? I tried to tear out one of your relationships. I tried to screw with your head!”
Damien tilts his head, staring Aster down. If Aster hadn’t collapsed, this would be a very different conversation. If it wasn’t Mark that he had gotten into an ability contest with, Damien would be more than pissed. But as it is, his old mistakes keep him from reacting badly as well as if his hands were physically tied behind his back.
“Just…” Aster’s face twists. “You’ve been acting all weird recently. Ever since Mark showed up everything’s gone wrong. You’ve stopped paying attention to me. I don’t care. I’ve been alone before, whatever, but you’ve never done that. You’ve never shut me out like that before. You’ve always listened to me when I told you someone was bad news and the only evidence I had was a ribbon. And—and Mark’s cool. I get it, I guess. If you don’t know any better maybe you can really be friends with a guy like that. But I do know better. I can see exactly what bad news he is. He’s hurting you, and you promised. You promised you’d never let either of us get hurt ever again.
“I had to fix it. I had to, and you weren’t listening to me. I couldn’t think of anything else that would just get rid of the problem. But I couldn’t even get that right. Instead of getting rid of the bond, I just saw everything. I felt everything. It’s just hurt and pain and bad memories. Why do you want to keep this? Why is this so important to you?”
Sometime during Aster’s speech, he’d started crying, fat tears rolling over his still baby-fat cheeks, snot dripping out of his nose. He’s an ugly crier. Nothing at all like the Christmastime commercials with their wan little matchstick girls and Please Sir Can I Have Some More’s. He’s obviously embarrassed by the emotion, harshly wiping at his face, hiding from Damien.
Damien reaches across the divide and tugs Aster into a hug. His shoulder is immediately soaked through with tears as Aster buries his face into the fabric of Damien’s shirt.
“I just wanted you to listen,” Aster says. “I don’t get it, you want this so much even though it’s hurting you.” He fists a hand around shirt fabric, under Damien’s tie, over his heart. “Why? I can stop this. I can stop the hurt. I can stop you caring about him.”
“Don’t,” Damien says.
Plaintive, Aster once again asks, “Why?”
“Because I need it. I need the hurt, I need that bond. Without it, I’m not a person.”
“Since when did we care about being people?”
And it’s so much like something Damien would have said at 13, that all he can do is laugh. Aster makes a disgruntled sound and hits him, tears still streaming down his face.
“It’s not funny!”
It is. It’s hilarious. Two years ago, Damien would have said that he didn’t care about being people. He wasn’t one, he was better, apart. Then—Mark. Mark and his ability and everything else. Here he is, being people, and trying to help Aster be a person, and in the end it’s all Mark’s fault. So isn’t it just ironic that Mark’s the one thing about this equation that doesn’t add up?
He puts his hands on Aster’s shoulders, pushing him back slightly so their eyes can meet. The tears have stopped, only the dried tracks of salt left as evidence.
“Do you remember the first thing I promised you?” Damien asks.
Aster gives him a funny look, not understanding the sudden shift in topic. “That if I ate too fast I’d throw up?”
Damien snorts. “The other thing. I know you remember it.” He pushes Aster slightly, cajoling. “That first day, when we were living in that shitty flat and I was working tables in the evenings and the only reason your social worker wasn’t putting you with a more suitable family was because you made her like me? When really, the only thing we could say about the place was that it was better than the shelter? What did I tell you?”
Aster bites his lip, looking down at his nightlight. “No one is ever going to hurt us again.”
“I dunno, you promised a lot of things!” But the kid is smiling, just a little through his tear tracks.
“That you’re stuck with me.” Damien says. He pushes Aster slightly. “No matter what you do, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Ugh,” Aster groans. He flops back onto his bed. “Not if I make you go away.”
“You’re not gonna do that.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you love me,” Damien teases. He ruffles Aster’s hair, getting another groan for his efforts. “How’s the headache?”
“...Better.” Aster says. “Still kind of shit.”
“Nap it off,” Damien tells him. “Sleep helps.”
Aster hums, wriggling into his blankets. His eyes closing. “...You ever did that? Tried to use your ability too much?”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
“...What are you doing?” Damien asks.
Mark jolts. A dangerous move, considering that he’s perched precariously on the back of the couch, a string of fairy lights in his hands, and a roll of duct tape clenched in his teeth. There are three strings of lights already plastered to the walls and ceiling. The tape falls, rolling on the floor as Mark sheepishly grins. “...Decorating?”
“Because it’s Christmas, and while I wasn’t able to get a tree, I was able to get a whole lot of decorations! So I figured I’d put them up while you were talking with Aster? Here, help me put up the rest of these lights.”
Damien tilts his head. “Aster didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“I can’t be around flashing lights.”
“Since when? You were fine with them last time I was around you, weren’t you? I swear there was an arcade we went to that was half disco.”
“Well, that was before I got my face broken by a jacked teenager.”
Mark’s smile falters. He drops down from his perch on the couch and guiltily turns the fairy lights off. “I didn’t know about that,” he says quietly. “I knew that you didn’t have an ability anymore, and I’ve seen the scars but… I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
“I didn’t tell you,” Damien says. An acknowledgement. An echo. Mark always hated how much he hid about himself. “There’s a lot I haven’t told you.”
Mark rallies a smile, no doubt also remembering the last time they had this conversation. One which ended in an argument that he had won but hadn’t wanted to. “Guess there’s time now for me to learn it. And for you to learn about actually opening up, of course.”
He doesn’t want to do this. “We need to have a talk, Mark.”
The smile fades from Mark’s mouth. His shoulders drop. “Yeah,” he says, “We really do, don’t we?”
They end up on opposite sides of the same couch. Damien wants to sit next to him, which means that he shouldn't, and there aren’t many other options unless he wants to stand or sit on the floor. Mark’s hands are on his knees, feet solid on the carpet. His socks have little novelty snowmen on them. Damien can’t believe that this is what he’s focusing on. He fiddles with his tie, taking it off and undoing the top button on the shirt that suddenly feels too tight around his neck.
Even though he was the one to bring this up, Damien has no idea how to start this conversation. He breathes out, unable to meet Mark’s eyes.
“Maybe I should start,” Mark says.
Damien’s mouth twists down at the edges, his insides quivering slightly. What has he done now? He always does something wrong. He waves a hand, go ahead.
“I haven’t been fair to you. No, just, let me talk, okay?”
Damien closes his mouth.
Mark smiles, there and gone. Bites his lip. “I came here because I knew you weren’t going to tell me to leave. I mean, the stuff I told you before, about wanting to find out what you were to me, what my feelings meant, that’s still true. That’s still why I’m here. But the main reason was that you wouldn’t turn me away, and I thought that you wouldn’t have anything better in your life to make me feel guilty about just showing up on your doorstep and kissing you.
“The entire time I was driving here, I concocted all these wild stories about what your life was like. What you were doing. If you’d found someone, or gotten a job as a skydiving instructor, or were working as a fast food server. If your house was a mansion you’d won in a poker game, filled with strangers wearing cocktail dresses. But really, I thought you were hanging around in an empty house, conning people out of their rent money so you could keep avoiding the rest of humanity.
“And then I get here. I knock on the door, and a teenager answers it! You have a kid! You have a job, and a house, and hell, I can tell you’re as surprised about it as I am! Everything in this house is designed to just go in a box in the boot of your car, isn’t it? But you have it, it’s real, it’s here. This is your life, and I don’t think I belong here. I don’t think I have a right to belong here.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” Damien says.
Mark smiles at him, too bright, his eyes glittering. “Damien…”
“I don’t want you to leave,” he repeats, “but you can’t stay here.”
And Mark laughs, like breaking glass. “I don’t want to leave either!” He throws his arm across the couch, tangling his and Damien’s hands together. “I want to stay here, and listen to you complain about your job while I convince you to cook for me. I want to be here when Aster comes home from school and try and help him with his homework. I want to take pictures of you and your kid and plaster them all over the walls, and show them off at work so everyone can see how adorable my boyfriend is. And I, that’s not fair either, is it?”
“I don’t care about fair,” Damien says. He tightens his grip around Mark’s hand.
“I can see how much we’ve hurt each other.”
“You planning to hurt me more?” Damien asks. He shifts closer, settling into Mark’s space.
“I never planned on hurting you.”
“Aw, don’t lie,” Damien purrs. He winks his ruined eye, the one with the scars in the shape of someone’s nails bisecting his eyebrow and socket.
Mark’s face twists and he recoils slightly, but his hand stays tangled in Damien’s anyway. “Why do I like you?” he asks.
Damien just grins at him, showing his teeth.
Mark bites his lip, shakes his head. His gaze drops from Damien’s eyes to his lips, and then back up. “I really want to kiss you now,” Mark says.
“So do it.”
Mark does, and the press of lips simultaneously feels like both goodbye and hello. His hand presses against Damien’s chest, and he murmurs against Damien’s lips, “I want to fix this. I want to stay, and I want to fix this. Can I?”
“I just told you I don’t want you to leave.”
“Wanting and it actually being a good idea are very different things,” Mark points out. He’s drawn back, but not much. Just enough that Damien wants to chase his mouth and draw him into another kiss. So he does it, holding Mark close. Tasting salt on Mark’s lips, swallowing Mark’s sigh. The words bring reality oppressively close.
Damien disentangles them, until only their joined hands are a point of contact. It hurts; even just thinking of letting Mark out of his arms puts a deep, familiar pain in his chest.
“You freak out my kid,” Damien says. Reality. Finally out of time. “And as much as I want you here, what he needs is more important than what I want. I love you, but you need to go.” It’s his turn for his eyes to start clouding up.
“Huh,” Mark says. There’s an odd, soft look on his face.
“It’s nothing. It’s just, you’ve changed. You care about people now. It’s good, it’s really, really good.”
“It’s your fault,” Damien points out. He blinks too rapidly, wiping at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Nah.” Mark smiles. “It’s all you.” He lets out a shaky breath. “So, don’t suppose you have any friends looking for a roommate? Or have an apartment they can rent? Not sure I’ve got enough funds to live in a hotel indefinitely.”
“I… No? What?”
“Oh come on, just because I can’t live here doesn’t mean that I can’t still live close enough to see you. We could even date, like normal people for once in our lives.” His narrow eyes curve up. “You know, I turn up at your place with flowers, and a bribe for Aster so you don’t get a call halfway through the date to come home immediately… we go see a movie or a concert… I get to kiss you on your doorstep… You come back to mine sometimes and we have really amazing sex without worrying about waking anyone up…”
“You want that?”
“God. Yes, I want that.” Mark’s cheeks tinge red, and his smile turns awkward, unsure. “Do you want that?” Mark asks.
As if it’s even a question. “Of course I want that.”
“Oh thank God,” Mark breathes, and he draws Damien back into a kiss. Soft. Unsure. Still asking if this is what Damien wants. Damien holds onto Mark’s shoulders, and answers yes, yes.
They draw apart, breathing heavily, everything still tear-stained at the corners. Mark presses their foreheads together.
“We’re okay,” Mark says. “We’re gonna be okay.”
Damien leans against him, soaking up the warmth of Mark’s body. Who knows when he’ll get this again, this much. In the dark of the living room, the remaining fairy lights flicker gold and blue across the room, and Mark’s fingers are still clutched tight around Damien’s.
Damien believes him.
“You’re going to be late,” Aster says from his perch on the back of the couch. Ostensibly he’s playing his game - the speakers on the Switch blast out some battle music - but Aster’s thumbs are still and he hasn’t glanced down at the device in five minutes.
“You’re not helping,” Damien tells him. He upends discarded papers and empty Christmas card envelopes, hunting for his wallet.
“I told you to find it earlier,” Aster sing-songs. “Mark is gonna get here and you’re gonna still be wearing one shoe and have messy hair while he’s wearing his really nice jacket.”
“You’re too young to be sassing me.”
Finally. What the hell was it doing in the bookshelf? He shoves it into his worn jacket - that doesn’t need to be replaced, no matter what Aster says.
Outside, early January snow has turned into slush, and Damien hastily changes out his shoes for ones that don’t have holes in the soles. The neighbours have finally torn down their Christmas lights, but Damien still hasn’t gotten round to finding the right bulb for the damn non-traditional socket this house came with. He and Aster have both gotten used to seeing in the dark.
“I’ll be back this evening,” Damien says.
“No you won’t,” Aster retorts. “And if you are, I don’t want you to be.”
“Brat you’re stuck with,” Aster reminds him. “You got everything? Phone? Keys?”
“Who's the adult here, me or you?”
“Obviously me,” Aster grins. The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it!”
“It’s for me!” Damien races him to the front door, grinning as he jostles Aster for a hold on the handle, ducking out of the way as Aster swings it open in his face.
“Hey!” Mark says, a sight that Damien still isn’t used to. His cheeks are flushed from the cold, a thick scarf wrapped around his neck. He’s wearing his nice coat.
“Hey,” Aster says. He holds out his hand expectantly.
Mark nods very seriously, and deposits three round balls of chocolate into the waiting hand. “As promised.”
“You don’t need to keep bribing him,” Damien says. “You know he’s just extorting you because you think he’s cute.” He pushes on Aster’s shoulder. “Come on, you got your present. Scat. Go do homework.”
“What homework?” Aster says.
“I’m sure you’ll find some.” He shoves Aster back into the house, ruffling his hair when Aster finally relents and goes back to his videogame.
Then it’s just him and Mark. Standing on the doorstep, smiling at each other like idiots.
THE END FOR REAL