No excuse for the lateness of this chapter, other than Real Life concerns, and the massive plotbunny known at 'Walk the Long Road' that is currently eating my soul...

Also, important notes about the future of this fic at the end of the chapter.

Joy is of the will which labours, which overcomes obstacles, which knows triumph.
- William Butler Yeats

Aster made it down the hallway to open the door in record time. The sudden burst of happy adrenaline put butterflies into his stomach as he unbolted the door, swinging it open to drink in the sight of the younger man. It had been less than a week since their last meeting, and yet to Aster's starved eyes it felt much longer. The boy looked... more polished than usual. His youthful face was shy but open, returning Aster's pleased, welcoming smile. His hair had been tamed, carefully brushed down and styled artfully, compared to its usually more playful tousling. He was wearing a short-sleeved button up shirt in a pale blue with white geometric designs across the shoulders. His jeans were a dark wash and looked new, or at least rarely worn. Even his sneakers looked a sight better than the ratty, well-worn ones he'd sported previously. The crowning glory though, was the stylish silver glasses perched on his narrow face, lending him an air of sophistication and maturity. All in all, he looked a treat, and Aster was almost painfully aware of the heavy weight of his scrutiny on the boy. Not that Jack seemed to mind, or notice, content as he was to give Aster a similar once-over. Aster had opted for ultra-casual, something he had been told was a good look on him. In deference to the heat, Aster was in a black wife beater which showed off the spectacular shoulders and arms he'd earned hauling himself in an out of the chair. He'd also donned his favorite jeans; a pair worn and washed so often they were practically white, with large rips in the knees and fraying hems. Not the most fashionable choice, but Aster loved how comfortable they were, and comfortable meant relaxed which meant confident which meant sexy, in his opinion. Jack didn't seem to disapprove, if the interested glint in his eyes was to be believed.

"I gotta ask you Jack, you plan on working your way through all the nursery rhymes on my front door?" Realizing he'd been too long to greet his guest, Aster found himself sassing Jack, hoping to loosen some of the surprising sexual tension and recapture their earlier playful banter.

It worked, because Jack's grin turned positively mischievous as he replied. "Well what can I say, I thought about the Disney classics, but 'Whole New World' and 'Part of Your World' just don't translate well into knocking. Although..." And here, Jack got an adorable, pensive look on his face, "'Under the Sea' and 'Be Our Guest' have promise..."

Aster laughed before replying. "Well, I look forward to all your future creative musical endeavors." His smile was wide an earnest, hoping Jack understood the sincerity behind hi statement. The boy's eyes softened and his grin settled more into a true, joyful smile. Without further ado, Aster gestured the boy into his home, shutting the door behind him.

"Nick's out back already fighting with the new grill and the rest are yet to arrive; didja want the ten cent tour first then?" Aster offered as casually as he could, strangely hoping that Jack would take him up on it. The thought of walking the other male around his house, through all the spaces he lived in was a happy one. Seeing Jack in his home made some primal possessive part of him dance with glee, actually.

"Sure Aster, I'd love too." Jack said cheerfully. Aster gave Jack the walkthrough of the main floor first, feeling slightly shy when it came to his bedroom. He couldn't be sure, but it had felt a bit like Jack's eyes might have lingered for a moment too long on his neatly made bed, like maybe he was thinking about all the ways they could mess that bed up. Of course, Aster couldn't help but think ruefully, it was probably just wishful thinking on his part. They wandered downstairs next, and this was what Aster had really been hoping to show Jack; the studio. The studio was the heart and soul of Aster's home, never mind being the source of his livelihood. Aster was hoping beyond al hopes that Jack liked it.

The moment the boy walked through the door he lit up, eyes darting here and there at the various sketches and prints that covered the wall. Aster changed them out frequently, archiving them all in various portfolios, but his favorites were all framed, including originals that had become the covers of all his graphic novels to date. On the desk in progress was actually going to be the cover for the newest volume, once it was coloured properly; right now it was just a black and white ink piece. Jack made a slow circle of the room, admiring each piece individually, until he hit the framed prints and stopped, stunned. He turned and stared at Aster hard, then turned back to the prints, like they held the truth of the universe. When he caught sight of the desk, his eyes went comically wide, his mouth working soundlessly.

"Jack..." Aster started, feeling a sudden stab of alarm only to be ruthlessly cut off.

"Oh. My. God. You're HIM, aren't you?" Jack wheezed, whirling to point an accusatory finger at Aster. "E. A. Bunnymund, right? Artist and Creator of 'The Great Guardians'? Which is only the most popular graphic novel this decade, winner of umpteen awards and generally all-around known for his awesomeness, right?"

Aster blinked in slow surprise at the clearly heartfelt description. "Um, yeah, that would be me?" He said, aware it sounded more like a question that anything. "The writer, Sandy, is an old friend of mine. He's coming today, so you'll get to meet him too."

This might have been the wrong thing to say, because Jack just stood there, pointing and goggling for another moment, then burst out into a second deluge of words. "Oh hell, I can't believe I didn't see, it, you even look like the Pooka! That was deliberate, I assume. Wait, do the rest look like other people too, then?" At Aster's wary nod, Jack groaned and buried his face in his hands. "Are some of them going to be here too today, then?"

"Er, yeah Jack, all of them in fact." Aster felt his gut tighten, suddenly terrified that this was the worst idea he'd ever had. Jack seemed to be supporting that hypothesis, if his startled fish expression was anything to go by. He'd thought at first that Jack's glowing words had been positive, but now he was really starting to wonder.

"Aster, Is there a bathroom down here?" Aster blinked, caught off guard in the middle of his thoughts. The kid wasn't about to try and drown himself in the toilet or something, was he?

"Yeah sure, next door on the left." Jack nodded, resolute, striding past Aster, the bathroom door banging shut behind him. Aster had about two seconds to panic when I high-pitched squealing wail echoed from the bathroom Jack was currently occupying. Aster was in front of the door in a flash, rapping on the wooden surface, calling out to Jack in concern. The door swung open almost immediately, and Jack looked calmer, collected.

"Sorry about that!" The boy practically chirped. "I had to get all the fanboyish excitement out in a safe environment so I wouldn't burst into little bits of over-excited Jack all over the place." He said, in the most matter-of-fact tone Aster had ever heard from him. "Or even worse than that," Jack continued, "I'd say or do something and make of fool of myself, or make your friend uncomfortable and that's just not cool, y'know? So, yeah. Calming maneuver performed. I'm ready to head upstairs now, unless you have any more secret chambers of excellence hidden down here?"

Unable to prevent his chuckles, Aster smiled at his guest. "Naw mate, that's all. Reckon we wander out back and see how Nick's coming with the grill, yeah?" Jack nodded, and with all the drama behind them, the pair boarded the elevator for the main floor.

Nick had arrived early and was already lighting the grill, cursing heartily in his native Russian as the new barbecue's stubborn refusal to cooperate. Aster was just about to introduce Jack when, with a loud WHOOMP the grill ignited, sending and impressive burst of flames skyward. Aster cursed sharply and Jack jumped back, squawking in surprise, but Nick only laughed, both eyebrows and beloved beard miraculously intact.

"And that, my friends, is how we cook outdoors over fire!" Nick cackled, arms flung wide to indicate the now-lit grill, a madman's smile firmly in place. Aster gaped mouth half open, wondering whether to apologize to Jack for the insanity first, or if it was more prudent to phone the asylum immediately and make his apologies after the nice men in white coats hauled his obviously completely barking mad friend away. He was saved from making the decision though by Jack's nearly hysterical laughter.

"OOOOOOOOOHHH MAAAANN! That was SO AWESOME! How'd you make the barbecue do that anyways? My dad usually just spends half an hour pretending he isn't swearing under his breath until my mom comes over and lays her hand on it and it suddenly decides to cooperate... Women!" Jack says, sobering suddenly and leaning in close like he's about to impart the wisdom of the universe. Despite himself, Aster leans in too once it become apparent that Nick is doing the same. "Women had crazy voodoo magic, I swear. Don't make them mad my friend; or your grill will never light, your car keys will disappear and every toilet in the house will clog simultaneously." Jack nods sagely, about as serious as Aster had ever seen him. Nick straightens up, equally serious.

"Ah, there is much wisdom in the youth these days. Never fear, my new friend, your word shall be heeded." Nick grins and winks, and then they both collapse into laughter like the pair of goons they are, and Aster feels something tight inside him unclench. Jack fit right in, shaking Nick's hand and casually introducing himself. They immediately launch into a conversation on the best ways to barbeque steak; Jack prefers his well done, Nick likes is better when it's rare enough to fight back as Aster makes his way back into the house, summoned by the doorbell. It's both Sandy and Tia, the two having carpooled. Tia drifts in, leaving a bright orange smudge of lipstick on Aster's cheek where she kisses him in greeting, and he can see the remnants of the same on Sandy's cheek too. How she managed to paint them in all color of the rainbow with her lips and yet never get caught re-applying her makeup, Aster would never know. Sandy signed a quick greeting of his own, offering Aster the homemade cheesecake he'd been strong-armed by everyone into bringing. While next to useless at cooking anything other than deserts, Sandy made the best cheesecake ever, and had been gang-pressed into baking it for just about every large gathering they had, so it's was an expected, but wholly appreciated treat. Aster settled the cake into the fridge and following his friends into the backyard. Tia practically floated across the brick patio to Jack and Nick, giving the Russian one of her signature lip prints, then doing to same to Jack, much to his startled surprise. Her effusively affections introduction didn't appear amiss though, Jack taking her enthusiasm in stride. His introduction to Sandy went just as well, although Jack did apologize for not understanding sign language, but both Tia and Nick leapt in and promised to translate as required, with Jack thanked them profusely for, declaring that it would be a travesty if he couldn't chat up his newest friend properly. Watching them together made Aster's heart leap into his throat; his family welcoming Jack they way he knew they would, and even better, Jack sliding right in like they'd been unknowingly saving a special, Jack-shaped spot for him this whole time. For his part, Jack had kept this promise to keep the fannish gushing to a minimum, and while he did compliment Sandy on his writing, it was done with grace and poise and no hint of the flailing antics Aster had witnessed in the basement. It was incredible to see them all together like this, and Aster wished the moment would never end. Then, he shook himself, called himself seven different kinds of a sap in his head, and set about throwing the burgers onto the grill. He could have his moment without making his family go hungry, thank you very much.

The food was top-notch, if Aster did say so himself. Which he didn't have to, since everyone else had said so at least twice, Jack once with a low, appreciate moan so suggestive that even Tia had laughingly offered to leave Jack and his burger alone for some privacy. Jack had blushed that darling, intriguing blush of his, but had come back with a quip about preferring and audience for his food porn so unexpected that Sandy snorted his beer out his nose, which of course sent the whole gathering into stitches of laughter. As the sun went down and the night cooled, they wandered inside for cheesecake, which stated up a whole second round of food over-appreciation jokes until they were all laughing so hard that Aster's sides legitimately hurt. The traditional poker game came next, although since Jack had never played, he would up on a team with Sandy; the pair of them making ridiculous, over the top and downright silly 'poker faces' to throw the rest of the, off their game. It nearly worked, until Tia kicked up a royal flush and thoroughly trounced them all. After, with the lateness of the evening pressing upon them, the guests rose one by one and departed. Jack was last to go, offering to help with the last of the dishes before leaving, and while Aster usually prided himself as host and declined such offers, he accepted it this time if only to keep the boy close for another few minutes. Jack washed and Aster dried and put away, trying desperately the whole time not to be too obviously captive by the soap bubbles clinging to Jack's delicate, fine-boned wrists. The boy was unspeakably lovely, and Aster wanted to run his wide, blunt fingers over all of Jack's sharp, sweet edges and watch the boy squirm with delight. Fighting back the sudden onslaught of undeniable arousal, Aster set the last of the dishes into their places and escorted Jack to the door, container of leftovers tucked into his arms to take back to his family. Aster watched with melancholy as the boy tucked his perfect slender feet back into his shoes, tying the laces into two neat bows. They said their goodbyes and Jack stepped out the door, lingering for but a moment before turning away. Aster barely had time to draw a single breath after though, before Jack had spun back around, taken two steps forward, leaning down and pressed his lips to Aster's with all the youthful determination he possessed. Aster reeled in shock for only a moment until instinct had him surging up into the kiss, one strong hand cupping the back of Jack's head to hold him in place while Aster's lips and teeth and tongue coaxed the chaste kiss into something full of attraction and promise. The angle was awkward with Jack bending down; plastic container of food still clutching to his chest and hampering their motions somewhat, but Aster was still convinced that this kiss would go down in history as one of the best, hottest first kisses of all time. Jack seemed to this so too, if his dazed expression after Aster finally released him was anything to go by.

"Wow." Jack said, still looking stunned. "That was... Wow. Can I say it again? Wow." Aster laughed softly, heart clenching in joy at the rapture on Jack's face. "We get to do that again, right? Next time?"

"Next time," Aster promises gently, genuinely, "I will take you out on a proper date, just you and me, okay?"

"Okay." Jack says, eyes shining with joy. He turns back three times as he makes his way to the car, as if he can't quit believe that Aster is really, truly real, that maybe he'll disappear if Jack turns his back for too long, or blinks too much. The van take far too little time to round the corner out of sight, even though Aster knew that Jack had been driving deliberately slow, waving through the window as he'd gone. Tucked into the box of leftovers though was Aster's phone number, and with Jack's taste still on his lips, Aster knew it was only a matter of time before the boy called and they could see each other again.

So, the bunny for this fic has taken an unexpected turn. For those that want happy endings, you might want to stop reading here. For those willing, then keep on reading. Consider yourself warned my dears.