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The Thing with Feathers

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He should’ve known things would have gone pear-shaped from the beginning. Since the very first day the Frost family had moved in next door and Mrs Frost had offered her son’s babysitting services if ever Aster had needed them, after finding out his current babysitter Katherine was going to college. And he should have known the letters that spelt Jackson Overland Frost also spelt disaster.

He kicked the door shut behind him, leaning against it with a sigh. It was late, far too late, and he hated working the late shift. He already saw practically nothing of his kids already, this wasn’t what he needed, but… Jobs were scarce, being a battler was better than nothing, and again he wondered why the bloody hell he’d decided to stay in Shithouse, Michigan, when he’d met her. Could’ve gone back to Queensland, but no, he had to give in and stay there… Sticky wicket that landed him in.

He threw his keys in the small basket on the little table near the door, and shrugged his coat off. A creak in the floorboards made him raise his head, and there the kid was, smirking something awful and barefoot, as usual.

“Tired?” Jack asked. Aster offered a yawn as an answer and stretched, his back cracking like gunfire in the quiet house. He didn’t miss the way Jack shifted and licked his lips.

“Y’could say that,” Aster said, wandering into the kitchen and pulling a bottle from the fridge. God, American beer tasted like piss if ever anything did. Jack followed him, watching him like a hawk as he took a long swig.

The boy perched on a kitchen chair, knees pulled up around his ears. Right little monkey, that one was. Flexible. Aster shook his head. Those were not the kind of thoughts one entertained about one’s children’s babysitter, as much as one desperately wanted to. At eighteen, Jack was still lanky and thin, like wire, but there was a spark in his glacial eyes and that smirk, well… it promised things a teenager had no right in promising.

“Mom’s heard rumours,” he said dismissively. Aster raised an eyebrow. The boy’s eyes had shifted suspiciously, a pout that was still far too childish forming on thin lips.

“What kind?” Aster prompted, if only out of politeness. He was no gossip, really.

“That you were seeing someone.”

There was a definite chill in the kid’s voice then. Aster snorted. Really, the things housewives came out with on wine and soap opera nights. Every other week, it used to be, until the novelty of having a six foot Aussie in the neighbourhood wore off. Aster wondered what Jack would have been like then.

“And when would I have the time?”

Jack frowned at that, obviously not having thought about it. Aster headed over and ruffled Jack’s hair with a grin.

“Jealous, mate?” he asked smoothly. Jack flushed and batted the offending hand away. God, the kid’s fingers were always like ice.

“Course not,” he muttered, and Aster saw through that a mile away. Bloody obvious, the kid was, really.

“How were they?” he asked, changing the subject with a glance to the ceiling. Jack broke into a smile, an honest one, which was also one of the ones Aster liked best.

“Good as gold, as usual,” he informed him, sounding proud. “Got Sophie to bed at seven and Jamie to bed at eight, usual times. Homework done, baths had, everything ready for tomorrow. Mom made us lasagne for dinner.”

“Good,” Aster said, reaching for his wallet. Jack stayed his searching with a hand to a bare arm, now standing. Too close.

“It doesn’t matter,” he murmured. Aster’s eyes narrowed.

“I’m not some beggar-” he started, but Jack covered his mouth with a cold hand.

“You know I’m not in it for the money!” he snapped. They stared at each other for far too long, the air between them thick and hot, until Jack lowered his hand, blushing again. So close, Aster thought. His hands were trembling, desperate to touch, his mouth watering. Jack looked up again, biting his lip, and then Aster lost it.

For a moment, Jack was shocked, frozen by the hands round his waist and the mouth on his, and for a terrifying instant, Aster was afraid he’d fucked everything up, that the steady pile of temptations was all him getting a very, very wrong idea. But as soon as they arrived, the doubts evaporated. Jack was pressing back just as hungrily, skinny arms winding around Aster’s shoulders, dragging him down. God, how long had he wanted this?

Jack’s mouth held the oddly metallic taste of fake mint, cold as his tongue explored it – probably some sort of ice lolly. He let his hands slide down the boy’s body, taking in the feel of him, cupping an arse that was deceptively pert, pressing them together, close as he could get.

“Jack, ‘m firsty…”

The two flew apart, Jack turning around to face the fridge, panting slightly. Sophie appeared, rubbing at sleepy eyes with a yawn. They brightened slightly when they saw her father, and Aster walked over to pick her up and hug her.

“Water all right?” he asked. Sophie nodded, snuggling up to her father’s neck with another yawn.

“Mouf all dry, Hop Hop,” she said, making snappy noises with her mouth. Aster laughed, accepting the glass of water Jack offered him with a smile.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” Aster murmured. Sophie drank, both tiny hands on the side of the glass which Aster kept a hold of, just in case, until it was half-empty. She pushed it away, shaking her head. “Back to bed, then.”

“Do you want me to take her?” Jack asked. He was drifting nervously, biting his lip, his arms at an awkward half-mast, unsure if they were going to be allowed to take the little girl or not. Clearly Jack was worried. Aster nodded.

“If you want,” he said, handing Sophie over with a reassuring smile.

.

They didn’t see each other until two days later. Jack had made himself scarce on Saturday, not allowing Aster a chance to talk. It was clear the boy was avoiding him. He’d caught kid boy taking the rubbish out and had collared him over the fence. Jack’s look was wary, eyes darting everywhere, as if he’d done something wrong.

“You look like a cornered rabbit,” Aster said, leaning on the fence, arms folded. Jack swallowed.

“Listen, I’m… I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“What’re you sorry for? I started it.” He kept his arms folded because otherwise he’d never be able to resist pulling the boy to him again. And on a public street, in clear sight of the kid’s house and his parents’ eyes… it would have been inappropriate at best. Jack raised his head, slightly tilted sideways with a frown of confusion. Well, he’d dug his grave, might as well lay in it.

“You’re a gorgeous little bastard and I’ve been wanting to do that for months,” he said, voice low. He kept his eyes trained on a woman walking her dog as she passed them, before continuing. “It’s socially indecent, maybe even wrong, but damn it I couldn’t keep my hands off you anymore.” He was aware of how desperate his tone was. He was good-looking, still in his prime. He could have any number of men and women, and yet… his heart, body and soul seemed dead set on this scrawny kid fourteen years his junior. He’d long since given up trying to explain it to himself, or even trying to talk himself out of it. It was simply too late for that now.

Jack took in a shuddering breath, eyes wide. He took a step forward before thinking better of it and moving back again.

“Same here,” he said with a bleak laugh. “I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t want this. But I do. So badly.” He sounded as if his voice would crack, and it took all of Aster’s willpower to not simply enfold the boy in his arms and kiss away every doubt and every single little drop of pain. He settled for a hand to the shoulder, friendly, fatherly. Jack leaned into the touch, and Aster squeezed.

“Helps me feel less of a perv,” Aster said, with a lopsided grin. Jack snorted, cocky smirk back where it belonged, challenging.

“I stopped being jailbait five weeks ago,” he said.

“You don’t know how much of a bloody relief that was,” Aster groaned, removing his hand from Jack’s shoulder to rub his face. Jack laughed, and it sounded beautiful in the quickly descending evening. The leaves were turning golden above them, beginning to litter the pavements, a slight breeze blowing by sluggishly. And if their eyes met for too long, or they were standing a little too close for it to be right, neither cared. The world had slowed, drawing the moment out, just the two of them, until Jack’s sister opened the door.

“Mom says dinner’s ready!” she yelled. “Hi, Mr Bunnymund!” She waved at him, and Aster waved back.

“Reminds me that I’ve got to feed my own ankle-biters,” he said, running a hand through his prematurely greying hair. Jack grinned.

“No eggs tonight,” he warned, making Aster snort. He turned and headed up the path, and for once Aster didn’t try to look somewhere that wasn’t the boy’s arse.

“What were you talking about?” Emma asked as she closed the door. Jack shrugged, trying not to grin.

.

Tuesday rolled around, and Aster returned home to find Jack on the sofa, watching something stupid and American. Not that Australian television had ever been better, but… they could really think up some stupid things, sometimes. He turned and grinned when Aster walked in and threw himself on the sofa with a groan.

“Tired?” Jack asked, tone falsely light. Aster saw right through it in a heartbeat.

“You just wanna pash on, don’t you?” he asked with a smirk. Jack raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t even know what that means,” he said.

“Snog,” Aster clarified. Jack sniggered.

“You’re lucky I’ve read enough Harry Potter fanfiction to know what that means.” Then the actual conversation seemed to catch up with him, and he was blushing and avoiding Aster’s eyes. It was adorable, really. “Um…”

Aster snorted and pulled the boy to him, pressing their mouths together. Jack had all the eagerness and lack of ability of his age, but that really didn’t matter. Aster knew from experience that the boy was a fast learner.

They paused for breath, Jack’s eyes closed. His fingers were tight on Aster’s t-shirt, stretching the close-fitting fabric, his legs thrown haphazardly over Aster’s own. Aster pulled him back into it, one hand on the back of his neck and the other on the small of his back. His lips were still cold, but this time his mouth was warm. His tongue was still learning the motions, but picking them up quickly.

Aster let Jack push him down, smirking into the kiss, when Jack’s cell phone rang. The Imperial March, no less.

“Fuck,” the boy swore, and Aster sincerely hoped he didn’t use that language around Jamie and Sophie. He reached for where he’d left it on the coffee table, stubbornly refusing to leave his position between Aster’s legs. “Yeah?” he said, somewhat short. It was quiet enough that Aster could hear Jack’s mother on the other end. That explained the choice of ringtone.

“I know Mr Bunnymund’s back, you should be home by now.”

Jack groaned, giving Aster a magnificent show of the classic Exasperated Teenager expression. It was something you lost when you turned twenty. “I was watching a movie!” he complained. His gaze became thoughtful, and he ran a hand down Aster’s chest. The older man raised an eyebrow, and Jack grinned, eyes mischievous.

“You can watch it at home!”

“I’ll miss it!”

“Fine, fine… But I want you home as soon as it’s finished!”

“Fine,” Jack said, and his righteous indignation at the injustice of the world was simply hilarious. Aster had to stifle a snort until Jack finished the call.

“You’re very at ease lying to your mother,” he stated. Jack shrugged.

“What was I supposed to tell her? ‘Sorry, Mom, can’t right now, I’m right in the middle of making out with our neighbour’.” He rolled his eyes. Aster laughed and pulled the boy down for another kiss.

.

It was Saturday, and once again Aster had no plans. He rarely ever did. He worked most nights, and usually liked to spend the free ones he had sleeping. Besides, what time he had he wanted to spend with Jamie and Sophie before they started inevitably finding him uncool and began to push away. He knew it would happen eventually. He hated missing practically all their life because the factory kept him on the tightest leash he’d ever encountered.

But now he had something else to worry him. He hadn’t seen Jack all day, really, and even though he knew perfectly well that a teenage boy had friends, schoolwork and sometimes did not want to hang out with a man nearly twice his age, he couldn’t help but feel a little empty. He lowered his pencil and rubbed his eyes with a sigh. Bed seemed a good idea.

He was surprised when he heard a knock at the door. It was late, and he had no idea who would be there at this time of night. He should have known, really.

Jack was lounging against the doorway, hood pulled up like some juvenile delinquent, and he grinned when he saw Aster. He glanced around and surged up for a kiss.

“What’s brought this on?” the Australian asked, closing the door as the boy waltzed in and kicked off his trainers.

“Boredom,” Jack said simply. He turned and walked backwards towards the living room, hands shoved in the front pocket of his hoodie and something deep and hungry in his blue eyes, beckoning to the primal part of Aster that had lain dormant for years. What else could he do but follow?

Sometimes he wished he could afford a comfier sofa. Now was one of those times. Or at least it was before Jack’s breathless kisses pushed the thought from his mind, demanding he pay attention to them. He had his hand around the boy’s waist, touching cool, bare skin beneath blue cotton/polyester. Jack’s hands, chill as ever, were taking in the contours of his shoulders, down his arms, up again, down his chest. Almost as if the kid couldn’t get enough of him. It was quite flattering, really.

Aster hummed into the kiss, pulling Jack against him by the hips. He ground down, and Jack let out a moan that echoed around the silent house far more than was wise. He immediately clapped his hands over his mouth, giving Aster an apologetic look. Aster turned his head slightly, listening for anything, the tiniest of sounds that might indicate one of the kids had woken up. When nothing came, not even a creak, Aster breathed a sigh of relief.

“Loud little bugger, aren’t you?” he said, pressing a kiss to Jack’s forehead. Jack winced.

“Sorry, just… wasn’t expecting that,” he muttered sheepishly. Aster smirked.

“If you’re like this with a little touchy-feely…” he mumbled, tugging down the collar of Jack’s hoodie to get at that thin, pale neck that always seemed to taunt him, a perfect canvas for purple bruises, careful not to leave any despite how desperately he wanted to. “Imagine what you’ll be like when we get down to doing the dirty.”

Jack shuddered with a short gasp, and Aster smirked. It was almost too easy to turn the boy on.

.

Aster had been raking at the leaves on the lawn when he’d heard the Frosts’ back door slam. He frowned when he saw Jack clamber over the fence and drop into his garden.

“Don’t go making that a habit,” he said reproachfully, but his face softened when he noticed the furious tears threatening the corners of the kid’s eyes. He hadn’t expected that. “Need to talk?” he asked.

Jack nodded, dipping his head jerkily, clearly holding himself together by miracle alone. His shoulders were tense, the set of his mouth full of pain. Aster nodded to his own back door and followed Jack through, putting the kettle on as soon as Jack had sat down. He was shocked when the boy let out a dry sob. The tea wasn’t even ready yet.

“What’s wrong?” Aster asked, sitting down beside him and rubbing his back soothingly. Jack shuddered, trying to keep the storm inside. That wasn’t going to do him any good.

“I… I can’t g-go to c-college,” he stuttered out, folding his arms and curling in on himself, dragging his legs up to his chest. Aster grimaced.

“They… they told me they don’t have enough money,” he spat, wiping at treacherous tears – a useless thing, as they simply continued to fall. “They t-told me they’ve been use… using m-m-my college fund t-to pay the mortgage.”

Well… that made sense. But Aster certainly couldn’t blame the kid for being angry. If they hadn’t told him until now, how long had they been doing it?

“Why tell me now?!” Jack snarled. “Why tell me when I should be starting applications?! WHY DO THEY TAKE EVERYTHING FROM ME?!”

And just like that, Jack broke. He buried his face in his folded arms and sobbed. All Aster could do was watch, heart torn apart as Jack continued to weep bitter, bitter tears in a house that wasn’t even his, but clearly felt more like home. Aster felt a surge of rage, hot and violent. The Frosts had always seemed so… so tightly knit. It didn’t seem right that they’d hidden this from Jack for so long.

“First the skating, now this!” the boy cried, turning and huddling into Aster’s arms. Aster had no idea what Jack was talking about, and he wisely figured this was not the moment to ask. All he did was hold Jack to him, hold him through it all, as it was all he could do, until the boy was slumped against him, exhausted and empty.

He ran a hand through Jack’s hair, kissing the side of his head gently.

.

“I’m sorry if Jack’s been giving you trouble.”

Aster looked up from the bonnet of his car. He forced down the anger that bubbled forth at the sight of Mr Frost, schooling his expression into as close to quizzical as he could get. It was difficult for a man who wore his emotions on his sleeves.

“Trouble?” he asked.

“He’s been spending an awful lot of time here when, well, there’s not really a need.” Mr Frost offered a weak, apologetic smile. Aster shrugged.

“’Sno trouble,” he said, wiping his hands on a rag. “Kid just needs some space.”

Something too shrewd crossed Mr Frost’s face, and Aster’s eyes narrowed. It disappeared when the man laughed, but Aster didn’t relax.

“Well, if he does get on your nerves, you can send him home.”

Aster smiled politely, but any fool could see it was forced. If he could have kept Jack with him forever, he fucking would have.

Mr Frost left soon after with a wave, wandering back to his own house with his hands in his pockets. How he could seem so tranquil after destroying his son’s dreams, Aster would never know. But, then again, he couldn’t read the man’s mind, or see inside him. Nor did he care to.

.

Jamie was at Pippa’s house. Sophie was fast asleep. There were two, rather thick closed doors between them. Aster hoped it was enough, but he didn’t think he could stop even if it wasn’t.

Jack’s fingers were digging into his shoulders, his head tossed back, mouth open. Aster thrust again, drawing a choked gasp straight from the boy’s throat. He bit at Jack’s shoulder, licked away the pain, smirking into pale skin as he felt nails claw down his back. He kept a tight grip on slim thighs as he continued his thrusting, loving the noises Jack made, the whimpers, the moans. He loved the feeling of thin fingers in his hair, slender legs around his waist. It seemed he’d finally found a way to heat the kid up. It wasn’t like touching an icicle anymore, at least.

Arching his back – he was just as flexible as Aster had imagined – Jack came, and a few more thrusts later Aster gave in too. He didn’t have bad stamina for a teenager, and Aster hadn’t gotten laid since forever. Not the best show he’d ever given, but it could have been much worse.

Aster kissed him, something Jack accepted hungrily, before pulling out and rolling to the side. Jack was on his chest like a shot, snuggling into it. So touchy-feely once you got him out of his shell, and the boy, well, seemed to have a thing for his chest. Not that Aster was complaining.

“Goodbye, virginity,” he said with a grin, making Aster laugh.

“Ah, so you seduced me just to rid yourself of the shackles of purity? I’m wounded, boy. Wounded.” He placed a hand on his heart and sighed. Jack sniggered.

“I think I’ll still keep you around,” he said magnanimously, and let out another laugh when Aster rolled them over, trapping Jack beneath him. He bit his way down the boy’s neck, his chest. Jack’s laughter became breathless, a thin-fingered hand carding through his hair. And if it was inappropriate, it still felt so good.

.

“You never talk about her.”

Aster looked up from the saucepan, wooden spoon in one hand, and frowned at the boy. Jack was staying for dinner, much to Jamie and Sophie’s delight, and he was lounging on the chair that by now had become his. It wouldn’t take a genius to tell whom Jack was talking about.

“There’s nothing to say,” Aster said, curt, cold.

“She’s still Jamie and Sophie’s mother,” Jack murmured. Aster snorted.

“Fine job she did of that,” he snapped, whipping the tea towel from his shoulder and throwing it on the worksurface in barely repressed anger.

He didn’t like remembering Esther, and now having Jack bring her up was… God, it just brought all the disgust and pain crashing back, fresh and hot as if it were yesterday instead of two years ago. Normally, Jack would know better than to insist when Aster was like this, shoulders all furious tension. But he wanted to be an persistent snot tonight, it seemed, and he knew too well Aster would never have the heart to turn him out.

“Seriously, what happened?” Jack asked. The kids were safe upstairs in their rooms until dinner was ready, what was Aster so reluctant about? “Jamie said she had an accident.”

Aster snorted. “If you call driving off a cliff on purpose an accident.”

He glanced at the boy, who sat frozen at the table, eyes wide in horror. “W-why…?”

“How should I bloody know? She was depressed, they said. I don’t care why she did it, what matters is that she did it. She preferred to kill herself than take care of her children. Sophie was a year old, for Christ’s sake!” He ran a hand through his hair, down his face and groaned. And this was why Esther Bennett-Bunnymund was never mentioned under his roof. Jack bent his head, arms wrapped around his knees.

“She fell,” he said tonelessly. Aster frowned.

“What?”

Jack swallowed, let out a shaky sigh. “Emma followed me. There was … there was this lake where we used to live, and every winter it would freeze. Everyone skated it on it. I used to skate then, and I was good. My coach, he had dreams of the Olympics and gold medals and… and stuff like that. And every winter I’d train on the lake, because that’s what everyone did.

“I went there one morning, and I started skating and… and the ice started to creak. I was just leaving when… when I heard Emma call for me. I turned around and there she was. She’d followed me and before I could get to her the ice just…” He made a gesture with his hands, like an explosion. His eyes were lost, gazing off into nothing, trapped in fitful memories. “I got her out, and she wasn’t breathing. I panicked, God, I was so stupid and... She was in a coma for two weeks. I thought my parents would never speak to me again.”

He lowered his head, shaking it, before falling silent. Aster let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, running a hand through his hair once again. Well, now he at least knew what Jack had meant by ‘first the skating’.

“They never let you skate again, did they?” he murmured. Jack shook his head again, let out a shuddering sigh. The Australian moved to the boy’s side, running a hand through white hair.

The moment was interrupted by the arrival of the children, and then Aster remembered the sauce and rushed to check it hadn’t burnt. Dinner was the usual affair, loud, illogical conversation, a long discussion on Transformers and Sophie spilling spag bol all down her front. It was how it was supposed to be. Jack met his eyes while Jamie laughed at something he’d said, and smiled.

Aster wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.

.

It was a Friday night.

“Can I sleep over tonight?” Jack asked, folded in on himself on the sofa. He was biting his lip, peering out from under his hood and looking far more vulnerable and much younger than Aster was comfortable with. Aster sat next to him, nursing a beer.

“Don’t you think they’ll get suspicious?” he said, taking a swig. Jack buried into his arm, hiding his face, like he needed the warmth so desperately.

“I don’t care,” he said, tone short and defiant, as if daring Aster to contradict him. Whatever was going on in that house, it was tearing the boy apart, and Aster couldn’t stand seeing him like this. He ran a hand through Jack’s hair, pressing a kiss to the side of his head, torn between indulgence and fear of discovery.

The knock on the door apparently wanted to decide for him.

Jack hovered by the living room door when Aster answered, averting his eyes from his mother’s angry ones.

“I want you home right now,” she ordered. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, Mr Bunnymund,” she added graciously, and Aster just wanted to shut the door in her face and tell her no, she couldn’t have her son back, because he was where he belonged. Instead he shook his head.

“No, no, it’s no inconvenience, really…” he said, holding up an appeasing hand. He glanced behind him at the boy in question. Jack was refusing to look at her, his gaze focused on the floor, his eyebrows knit tightly. Mrs Frost sighed and unfolded her arms.

“You can’t stay here!” she said, exasperated. “This isn’t your home!”

Aster’s grip on the doorknob tightened, and it took every fibre in his being to resist telling her it was, Jack belonged here, with him, with them, and he could stay with them forever.

“It really isn’t any trouble, Mrs Frost,” he reassured her. “He can stay if he wants. There’s no school tomorrow, after all.”

“He’s acting like a child, really. We shouldn’t indulge him.”

“Don’t talk down to me!” Jack suddenly snarled. “Don’t act as if I’m not in the room! Not here!”

She stared at him, eyes wide, and Aster realised Jack looked nothing like either of his parents. He would have called adoption if he hadn’t been shown a photo of his Norwegian maternal grandfather. The air between mother and son was prickly, electric, and Aster felt very awkward, watching a scene he had no right in being an audience to.

“Get home,” she said, her voice dangerously low. “Right now.”

Jack squared his shoulders, planted his feet, raised his chin defiantly. And his eyes just had to wander to Aster, desperate, begging. You could see everything in those eyes, every single little speck of hope, of affection. And Aster would have to have been heartless to allow those eyes to leave like that.

“Please, Mrs Frost, just let the boy stay,” he said, tone light, reasonable, and everything he wasn’t really feeling at that moment. She looked at him, eyes narrowed, and with all the intuition that only mothers could wield, Aster knew she suspected something. She probably knew.

“I don’t believe that is appropriate,” she said coldly. Her tone made Aster freeze.

She knew, all right.

He was thankful his trembling fingers were hidden by the door. “Your mother’s right, Jack,” he said, “you really should be going home.”

Jack was smart enough not to protest. With a look of deep, resonant fury in his mother’s direction, he stalked out of the door. Mrs Frost smiled as if the atmosphere hadn’t just dropped a few degrees.

“I’m terribly sorry about that, Mr Bunnymund,” she said airily. It took all of Aster’s willpower to not shiver. “He’s so difficult lately.”

“Teenagers are like that,” he said mechanically, because it was the sort of thing people said in these kinds of situations.

“Well, goodnight!” she said, and Aster closed the door behind her on her way out. Once she was gone, he pressed his forehead to the cold glass of the door window and groaned. How? How did she know? Mere guesswork, it had to be, they’d been so damn careful

.

It became clear after two days that Jack’s mother was watching her son like a hawk. As soon as Aster was home, Jack’s cell phone was ringing, demanding his return.

“She’s on my back, all the time,” Jack muttered, glaring at the touchscreen with all the hatred he could muster. “She won’t leave me alone with you five minutes.”

“She’s suspicious, Jack,” Aster murmured. It was understandable. He wondered what he would think if Sophie one day became involved with the father of the kids she was babysitting. The thought turned his stomach upside down. Oh, yes, he understood perfectly.

“I think she’s more than suspicious,” Jack said. “She probably knows.”

Finally Jack’s phone stopped ringing, and the boy pressed a kiss to Aster’s lips before he left.

“No second thoughts now,” he said sternly. Aster shook his head, held Jack’s face between his palms, kissing him again.

“None,” he confirmed. Because there were none. Jack… Jack was quickly and inevitably becoming so much more than just the hot babysitter. He’d already become so much more than that longer ago than Aster cared to think about. And Mrs Frost had no true power over her son, as much as she wished she did.

.

“Where are we going?” Jack asked, raising an eyebrow at Aster. The Australian merely smirked. He wasn’t saying anything.

“Yeah, Dad, where are we going?” Jamie echoed from the backseat, and Aster knew Sophie would ask as well if he didn’t answer.

“You’ll see when we get there,” he said mysteriously. Jack gasped.

“The plot thickens, guys!”

To distract them, Aster started up a game of I Spy, much to his chagrin and Jack’s amusement. The drive would take another hour, and Aster was more than willing to sacrifice his sanity in order for the surprise to be kept so. And because he knew the choruses of “Are we there yet?” would begin if he didn’t keep them occupied somehow.

It was also worth it, if just to see the look on Jack’s face when they arrived. At first there was shock, and then delight, and it was the most perfect expression that boy could make. He practically fell out of the car, ignoring Jamie and his knocking on the back window in the face of his wonder.

“What is it?” Jamie asked once he was by Jack’s side. All Jack could do was shake his head and laugh breathlessly.

“It’s a skating rink,” Aster explained, placing Sophie down so he could lock the car. Jamie whooped.

“Skating!? That’s so cool!”

“Cool!” Sophie parroted, clapping her hands.

Any fool could see Jack was itching to get on the ice, impatient as he helped Sophie with her skates, his own already laced tightly. He’d asked to see about a dozen size seven pairs before he’d been satisfied, much to the clerk’s irritation.

“If you’d told me, I’d’ve brought my own,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“Would’ve ruined the surprise,” Aster said unapologetically. Jack snorted. At least it being winter meant they were already wrapped up warmly enough.

“You can skate?” Jamie asked. “Oh, teach me!”

“Teach!” Came Sophie’s inevitable repetition. Jack laughed, holding onto Sophie’s hand as he gently led her onto the ice. There weren’t many people for a Saturday, but then again, it was lunchtime. Aster leant on the railing as Jack began an impromptu skating lesson, teaching the kids how to keep their balance, holding their hands as they slid forward, feet pointing outwards. They loved Jack, it was more than obvious. And Sophie… For all her terrible coordination on solid ground, she seemed to take to the ice like some sort of winter fairy.

“Hey, Jack, show us how you do it!” Jamie urged. Jack gazed out onto vast whiteness of the rink, biting his lip, clearly desperate, but still tentative.

“I’m a little rusty,” he muttered. Aster scoffed.

“Go on, mate,” he said with a nod, and with a grin Jack was off.

If this was Jack when he was rusty, Aster couldn’t begin to imagine what he would be like at full power. He flew across the ice, twirling, curving, practically dancing. He showed off all the fancy moves Aster knew no name for, took a leap and landed with the grace of a swan. He had people stopping to watch him. He spun, tight, and now Aster knew where he got the flexibility from. And the elation on his face, the sheer joy… God, he was beautiful, and all Aster could do was stare, his breath held in awe. Beautiful, and his and…

“Dad, you’re staring.”

He shook his head, clearing his throat and trying to maintain a sense of dignity where there clearly was none. His son was giving him a look, all raised eyebrows that dripped disapproval, as if he had thought better of his father. He had all the right too, after all. If only he knew.

Jack took that moment to skid to a halt near them, taking a bow, and both Sophie and Jamie clapped their hands.

“Like a pwincess!” Sophie exclaimed, her eyes glittering in three-and-a-half-year-old rapture. “Pwetty!”

“Ugh, Sophie! Not everything’s about princesses!” Jamie complained. Aster burst out laughing, only to end up glared at by his children. But that wasn’t what wiped the smirk off his face. What did that was the scheming look on Jack’s face, the kind of look that spoke of trickery and mischief: Jack’s usual look.

“Why, Mr Bunnymund, you haven’t set a foot on the ice at all!” Jack exclaimed with a mock gasp. Both Jamie and Sophie turned, and obviously Jamie had been spending far too much time in around the juvenile delinquent because his expression was a carbon copy of Jack’s.

“Yeah, Dad,” he said slyly. “Why don’t you show us what you can do?”

Aster backed away, shaking his head. “No, I don’t skate.” He also didn’t make a fool of himself. Jack grinned.

“Aw, come on, Aster, why not? Not chicken, are you?”

Aster glared at him. Jack knew exactly how to set his children against him. Jamie began clucking, and Sophie tried to copy him but ended up simply saying ‘cuk cuk’. Aster groaned. There was no getting out of this now, but he would go down with his dignity intact.

“No,” he said, making a brief gesture of denial with his hands.

“Aw, c’mon, Dad!” Jamie urged, pushing his father out onto the ice. Aster flailed inelegantly, panicking. There was nothing to grab onto, nothing but slippery ice beneath his feet, and this was his worst nightmare… until he felt those deceptively strong, wiry hands around his forearms. He swallowed, looked up from the ice to the pale face in front of him, and frowned.

“Very funny,” he muttered. Jack chuckled and slowly began to skate backwards, never letting go of Aster’s arms.

“It’s not as hard as it seems,” he said with an encouraging smile.

“Easy for you to say, ice princess,” was Aster’s mumbled answer as he looked down to his feet again.

“Hey, no looking! It’s like dancing! You look at your feet, you screw up. Keep your eyes on me.”

Aster reluctantly obeyed, raising his green eyes to Jack’s blue ones, his eyebrows drawn together anxiously. He didn’t like this one bit, but he did as Jack said, with barracking from his children, one shaky foot after another, until finally the boy deemed him worthy of a few steps on his own.

A terrible mistake.

It all seemed to go in slow motion. Aster felt the ice fly from beneath him. He went back, grabbing for Jack as he went. He managed to snatch a hand, and the boy went down with him, in a heap, and Aster was sure he was getting too old for this, if the ache in his back was anything to go by. He groaned. Classy, Aster, real bloody classy. Jack matched the older man’s groan with his own, heaving himself up to look down with a grin.

“Whoops,” he murmured. Aster offered a shamefaced smile of his own, and… and they were so close. It seemed like he hadn’t kissed the boy in ages, and it would be so easy to simply lift his arms and pull him down to him. There was heat and need, the thrum of lust raising its head between them…

“Kissy kissy?” Sophie asked, crouching down beside them. Aster practically threw Jack off him – or he would have, if Jack hadn’t leapt back on his own – and Jamie made a disgusted sound.

“Ew, Sophie, they’re both guys!”

Ok, he needed to sit his son down and talk about that, but really… His daughter was far too observant for her age. He sat up, shaking his head, and winced. The ache in his back had returned some evil. Jack caught his eye and turned away again, blushing, his lip caught between his teeth.

They didn’t look at each other again until they were sitting in the rink’s small café, with hot chocolate (“Mushmallows, Hop Hop!”) and a coffee for Aster. Jamie and Sophie were lost in a world of their own, arguing over Jack’s skating prowess. That was when Aster felt a foot slide up his leg. Jack’s face was a picture of innocence, smiling indulgently as the children bickered, but one look in Aster’s direction and Aster felt all the heat from before come flowing back. It had been far too long since they’d touched each other, since they’d made love, and as awful as Aster felt thinking about it when out with his children, he couldn’t help it.

“Thank you,” Jack murmured on the way back to the car. He gave Aster the kind of smile that made Aster’s heart clench.

“Knew you’d like it,” Aster replied with a smile of his own. Jack glanced at the children, who were skipping ahead, Jamie first and Sophie second, and slid a hand around Aster’s arm, stopping him. He leant up, pulled Aster down, pressed his lips to his ear.

“I love you,” he said on barely a whisper. The world seemed to stop, halting its spinning, time slowing to a standstill. There were only Jack and Aster those words, those glorious, terrifying words… And all of a sudden everything came surging back, the sound of traffic in the distance, Sophie singing wordlessly and Jamie kicking an empty can, and Aster’s heart pounding as if it were the first time he’d ever been told those three words.

“I love you too,” he managed to reply before Jamie turned around and demanded that the car be opened. Jack’s face lit up, and what wouldn’t Aster have given to see that face forever.

.

“Draw me like one of your French girls,” Jack warbled, throwing his arms above his head as he lounged on the sofa. He batted his eyes until Aster threw a cushion at him from the armchair. He’d taken to haunting the Bunnymund residence again, now the waters had settled with his mother, and when he was denied, he would sneak out anyway. The advantage of living next door, Aster supposed, and as much as he didn’t approve, he couldn’t help but be happy that the boy was there.

“Fool,” Aster muttered, lips twitching as he continued to draw on his sketchpad. He’d already filled one with sketches of Jack as it was: the curve of his neck, his eyes, his grin, those long thin hands… The poses the boy could bend into were an artist’s wet dream. He’d filled page after page of sketches of Jack after they’d returned from the ice rink.

“You’re really good, you know,” Jack mused, flicking through one of the sketchpads that had already been filled and now lay abandoned on the coffee table. “Am I your muse?” he teased. Aster raised his head from where he was indeed drawing Jack like one of those French girls – except he’d never met a French girl in his life, and he kept himself strictly to drawing the kid with all his clothes on – and gave him a disbelieving look.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked. Jack blinked, stunned for a moment, until his cheeks turned a brilliant red. He rolled over and groaned into a cushion.

“That’s so embarrassing!” he cried, kicking his legs. “Hot, but embarrassing.”

“Silly bugger,” Aster said with a laugh. Before he could realise it, Jack was on him like a shot, straddling his lap, arms around his shoulders.

“Perhaps more hot than embarrassing,” Jack admitted, kissing him.

“Kids are upstairs,” Aster warned. It was a half-hearted admonition at best, considering how he chased Jack’s lips with his own, how his arms circled Jack’s waist, pulling him closer. This boy clouded his judgement worse than any other substance Aster had encountered.

“Hey, Dad, look at –”

Both Jack and Aster froze. Jamie’s book clattered to the floor. The boy’s eyes were wide, his mouth gaping in shock. Jack immediately fell back onto the sofa, a hand pressed to his mouth. It was only when Aster stood, taking a few steps towards his son, that Jamie bolted, dashing up the stairs and slamming his bedroom door closed.

Shit.

“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” Jack said, standing and walking over to where Aster was running a hand over his face. He wrapped his arms around himself, shifting his weight from foot to foot uneasily.

“Had…” Aster swallowed. “Had to happen eventually. I need to talk to him.”

Aster took the stairs two at a time, coming to a stop in front of Jamie’s door.

“Jamie?” he called, knocking gently.

“Go away!” the boy yelled. Aster sighed and opened the door. All he could see was a pile of covers that was undoubtedly his son, and he sat on the edge of the bed.

He’d forgotten how hard Jamie could kick.

“Leave me alone!” he cried, and Aster could hear tears in his voice. Rubbing his side, he placed a hand on the trembling bedcovers.

“Listen, sport, we need to talk about this,” he said, firm. “Because it’s not going to go away. Jack isn’t going to go away.”

“You’re not supposed to kiss him!” Jamie said. “Boys don’t kiss boys!”

“Well… some do,” Aster said gently. Jamie sniffled.

“But you have Mom,” he said quietly. Aster winced. Oh, Jamie…

“Well, you know Mum’s not here, and grown-ups get lonely.”

“But it’s Jack! Jack is… Jack.” Jamie peeked out from under the covers, eyes full to the brim with tears. “You’re not supposed to kiss Jack.”

He knew that perfectly well. “You can’t choose who you fall in love with, sport,” he murmured, running his hands through his son’s hair. To his relief, the boy didn’t shy away like a spooked horse.

“But… But what about Mom? Do you still love her?”

He wished Jamie was old enough for the truth. Whatever love had still remained for Esther had evaporated once she’d taken a long drive off a short cliff. No, he didn’t love her, not anymore. But there was such a thing as being too young for the truth. The truth was dangerous, and painful, and he couldn’t inflict it on a nine-year-old.

“Your mother will always have a place here,” Aster murmured, pressing a hand to his heart. “Always. But… she’s not here, and Jack is.”

Jamie wiped at his eyes. “But why Jack and not a lady? I think Miss Bryce likes you.”

Ah, yes, Jamie’s teacher. He’d noticed that whenever he went to speak to her. Hard not to: the shy smiles, the hair touching, the blushing. But while Miss Bryce would have been safe territory, she simply didn’t hold what Jack held for him, foolish as it was.

“Because you can’t choose who you fall in love with,” he repeated. “Miss Bryce is a nice girl, but she’s… not Jack. You like Jack, don’t you?”

Jamie made a face. “Sure, but he’s like my big brother. He can’t be our new mom!”

Aster couldn’t help but laugh at that. He envied how simple children could be. Jamie punched him in the shoulder, and Aster managed to sober up a little, though his lips kept twitching.

“He won’t be your new mum,” he reassured the boy, who was clearly having some existential angst over the whole thing. “He’ll still be Jack. More like… a second dad, or something.”

Jamie squirmed. “But Jack’s too young and cool to be a dad!” he complained. Aster chuckled, shaking his head.

“Fine then, he’s just Jack,” he said soothingly. “I mean, he’s already practically part of the family, right?”

Jamie pouted, obviously mulling it over. “Yeah, I guess.”

“So there’s no problem, is there?”

Jamie twitched. His internal battle must have been of epic ferocity indeed. “…No,” he conceded. “But no kissing! It’s girly.”

Aster stifled another laugh. “Fine by me, sport. But you have to promise one thing.” He only continued once Jamie had nodded slowly. “You can’t tell anyone about this,” he said, taking his son’s hands and clasping them tightly. “It’s still a secret.”

“How come?”

Always the Elephant’s Child. Aster sighed. Yet another thing he couldn’t explain yet. He could cover it up with something similar, though. “Sometimes people don’t like it when two men are together,” he said. “So we have to keep quiet until the right time.”

“Ok, I get it,” Jamie said, nodding. He was sitting up now, and Aster ruffled his hair affectionately.

“Good onya,” he said, and Jamie grinned. “Love you, sport,” he added, kissing the top of his head. For once Jamie didn’t make a fuss.

“How did he take it?” Jack asked, standing up as soon as Aster returned to the living room. His arms were still around himself, and he’d been biting his thumbnail if the blood was anything to go by. Aster smiled, and Jack seemed to deflate in relief. Aster kissed his forehead and sat down on the sofa with a sigh.

“As long as you don’t try to be their new mum, it’s fine,” he said with a grin. Jack was relieved enough to laugh.

.

Well, that was it. He should’ve seen this coming, really. There had been rumours, spreading throughout the factory like bushfire, and all Aster had done had been ignore them, to his own detriment. Well, at least he was getting his last pay check.

He headed home early, leaning his head on the steering wheel once he’d pulled up in the driveway. They had enough put by to last a few months, but after that… After that he didn’t know. There weren’t any jobs: it was a brutal market, and he hadn’t even been looking. The chances were that anything going had already been snatched up fast by quicker fish. Well, fuck. He could try, and he would try, but he already knew that wasn’t going to go anywhere.

He headed to the front door, rubbing his eyes wearily, and the door opened in front of him. Jack was standing there, with Sophie and Jamie behind him, and wasn’t that a sight for sore eyes? Jack gave him a concerned look.

“Hey, you’re not usually home this early,” he said. Aster closed the door behind him, picked up Sophie and pulled Jamie against him in a one-armed hug.

“Lost me job,” Aster mumbled. Jack stiffened, expression pure shock.

“What? How could they do that?!” he demanded. Aster shrugged. Oddly enough, it didn’t seem to weigh on him too much. Maybe it was his natural optimism, but he knew they could pull through.

“It was bound to happen eventually,” Aster said. “Everyone else had shut down and buggered off to China, why not them too?”

He rubbed his face and headed into the kitchen, setting Sophie down on the worksurface and pulling out a beer.

“We’ll manage,” he said with a tired grin. Jack glared at him, but the glare softened when he was pulled into a hug. Jamie made gagging noises and Sophie giggled delightedly.

“Kissy kissy!” she chirped, clapping her hands.

.

Aster had made his decision. It hadn’t been difficult, really. He had enough money, he had his parents and plenty of friends he could trust (North would give them a hand, he was great like that, the old bastard). Burgess was a dying backwater, and held no hope for any of them. And to him, it would simply be going home.

He made the announcement over Spanish omelette with bacon.

“We’re moving to Australia.”

Sophie continued chewing a potato happily. Jamie’s cup froze midway to his mouth. Jack’s fork fell to his plate with a clatter. He looked shaken to his very core, his hands trembling slightly, his mouth quivering.

The boy was out the backdoor before Aster could say anything else. He immediately rushed after him, stopping him with a hand to the shoulder. Jack shrugged him off, eyes furious, hurt, betrayed. Oh, why did Jack feel everything so fiercely?

“Hold up a moment,” Aster said, taking the boy’s frozen hands in his own. Jack tried to struggle, but Aster was stronger. It wasn’t difficult to pull Jack closer, despite the kid’s reluctance. He ran a hand through bleached hair, and Jack jerked his head away. His chest was heaving, clearly keeping too many emotions inside all at once. He looked as if he was about to burst.

“You’re coming with us,” Aster murmured.

Jack blinked, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. He turned, slowly, incredulously.

“R-really?” he asked, voice tiny with hope. Aster grinned.

“I couldn’t leave you behind,” he said, running his hand through Jack’s hair again, cupping his cheek and wiping away one courageous tear with the rough pad of his thumb. “Not when I love you so much.”

Jack let out a noise halfway between a laugh and a sob. He threw his arms around Aster’s torso, burying himself in his chest.

“Did you really think I’d just leave you here? Don’t be stupid,” Aster continued. Jack punched him weakly in the arm before pulling away and looking up at him.

“I… This, I…”

Aster laughed and leant down, and Jack responded to the kiss eagerly, wrapping his arms around Aster’s neck.

“I said no kissing! Kissing’s for girls!”

.

“I would not have thought you would have been interested in twinks, Bunny.”

Jack managed to find the energy in him to snigger, at both the good-natured accusation and the pet name. The Australian heat hadn’t been doing him any good, but North was well worth the exhaustion even a short laugh could bring. How Jamie and Sophie managed to still be completely normal, energetic children, he’d never know. Aster shot North a vicious glower, which merely had the tattooed man laughing as well.

“Shut up, you old bear,” he muttered, crossing his legs and watching as Jamie and Sophie came rushing up.

“Hey, Dad, if we find a wombat, can we keep it?” Jamie asked breathlessly.

“No.”

“How about a koala?”

“No.”

“A kangaroo?”

“No.”

“A wallaby?”

“No.”

“A Tasmanian Devil?” Jack suggested.

“In Queensland?” Aster spluttered.

“Why do you not just get them dog, then they are happy?” North suggested, getting to his feet. “Come, children, we look for animals!”

The two children cheered and scampered off after North’s huge strides. Jack got up from his seat and went to join Aster on the large… whatever it was the piece of lawn furniture was. It looked like the unholy cross between a wicker sofa and a bed. Not that Jack was complaining, because it was comfy as hell, and the best place to snuggle, heat be damned.

Aster wound an arm around his shoulders and Jack burrowed into his side happily. Everything was quiet except for North’s booming voice and the crickets, and Jack sighed contentedly.

“Happy?” Aster asked drowsily. Jack hummed in reply, eyes closing before he could stop them.

“Very,” he answered. Aster chuckled.

“Even when you have uni to think about?”

Jack groaned. “Spoilsport,” he mumbled.

“I’m a realist, Jackie boy,” Aster said.

“Reality sucks,” Jack muttered.

“You’re still sore about the ‘g’day, mate’ thing, aren’t you?” Aster still didn’t quite believe Jack had actually thought they said that.

“I am. I am sorely and gravely disappointed in the entirety of this hellhole of a glorified island.”

“Continent.”

“Hellhole. Of a glorified. Island.”

They lapsed into sleepy silence, Aster drawing vague shapes on Jack’s bare arm. He never would have guessed, a year ago, that by May he’d find himself here, at home again, and curled up with the kid who babysat his children. And he certainly never would have dreamt that he would be happy again. Stranger things, he supposed.

“What are you thinking about?” Jack asked, raising his head with a smile. Aster grinned.

“That I’m a lucky bastard.”

Jack blushed, and Aster couldn’t help but kiss him.