At first, Jack paces. He chews his thumbnails past the quick, heedless of the pain. He stares at the wall, he sighs, he stares at the floor. He heads to the vending machine in the corner and spends five whole minutes trying to choose something he'll never be able to keep down. His stomach's a writhing mass of nerves, he can't stop his leg from twitching. Every time he glances at the clock, only a few minutes seem to have passed. He can see the nurses giving him dirty looks.
Eventually he pulls out the book he brought, but he can't even concentrate on A Dance with Dragons. He places it to the side, leans back, and prepares for a long wait.
He wonders what Aster will be like once he's out of the chamber. How much will he have changed? Will he be taller, darker, a complete stranger or still himself, just… different?
He can't imagine it, in all honestly. He'll see it when it comes, he supposes.
In the end, he curls up on the bench and falls into an uneasy, agitated sleep.
He's woken up by the same doctor from before, who's smiling. That's a good sign. Jack sits up, rubs his eyes and doesn't even bother with his hair.
"Everything went ok?" he asks, his voice like gravel in the back of his throat.
"See for yourself," the doctor says, leading Jack to Aster's room. He needs a moment to compose himself before he enters. A deep breath, a hand run through his hair, and he walks cautiously in.
Ok, it's… he doesn't know how to describe it. All he can do is laugh nervously and stare.
Aster looks pretty tired, but he gives Jack an obvious smile, lopsided and so perfectly Aster it's painful. And Jack smiles back, automatically, even though he can't stop staring.
He's still handsome, that's for sure, and Jack wonders whether that says more about his tastes or the depth of his affection. He'll analyse that later. For now, he just takes in the ears, the fur-covered arms, the paws, the huge feet (which actually look adorable where they poke out from under the sheets), the nose, the whiskers (whiskers!)… did he mention the ears?
He slowly wanders towards the bed, sits down, lets his jaw drop a little, covers his mouth. "Wow," he murmurs. Aster laughs, and it's still the same laugh as ever, which is such a relief Jack trembles with it. Aster stares at his own han- paw. It's a paw. It takes a lot to clench it closed, his fingers trembling violently.
"It'll take a while for that to go away," the doctor says, and Jack almost jumps. He hadn't noticed he was still there. "And we'll need to see how your diet has changed. I can give you the number of a good instinct suppression class, and your physiotherapy will start soon. It's not a quick process, a species reassignment."
Aster nods, and he looks so proud and determined that maybe Jack falls a little in love again. Because… it's still Aster.
"I'll leave you two alone, I'm sure we can discuss all the details tomorrow," the doctor says, taking his leave.
When they are alone again, Aster turns to look at Jack again, smiling and his eyes… they're exactly the same. They're still that vibrant green they've always been, warm and full of affection. And Jack is reassured.
"You look… different," he murmurs, chuckling. Aster joins in, holding out his paw, and Jack takes it. The fur is short, coarse, a dark, stormy grey, the pads black with a texture like buttery leather, weird, because rabbits don't have paw pads. There are claws there, sheathed, sharp at the tips. From the wrist down the fur grows softer and lighter, it feels nicer to run his hands through, but Aster makes a face.
"Gotta go with the grain, Frostbite," he says. Jack jerks his head up, eyes wide, because he's just realised this is the first time Aster's spoken since he entered the room. His voice… oh, it's still exactly the same, too. Still rich and rough and hot, the accent still thick and perfect on his ears, enough to make Jack shiver slightly.
"Sorry," he mumbles, flushing slightly. "Just…" He stills his hands halfway to Aster's face. "C-can I?" Better to ask permission, right? Aster, paws still trembling, takes Jack's hands in a weak grip and presses them to his broad, furry cheeks.
The fur is even softer here, and all Jack can do is touch, run his fingers through it. He gives a slight tug on the whiskers, which earns him a reproachful twitch from them. The eyebrows haven't changed much, still thick and expressive, and Jack can still see Aster in this face. He's still in every twitch and tic, in every grin and frown, recognisable.
"Show me the teeth," he urges, and Aster complies with a familiar roll of the eyes. Aster's always had a slight overbite, and now it's just really pronounced. The second pair of incisors is a little weird, but not unexpected. The fur around his mouth is shorter, like that of his paws, but much smoother.
"What are you thinking about?" Aster asks.
"Wondering how we're going to kiss," Jack says absently, studying Aster's mouth. It's elastic enough to easily form words and expressions, so…
"Wanna give it a burl?"
Jack looks up, raises an eyebrow. Why the hell not?
He leans forward, closes his eyes, and leaves Aster to do the rest. It's… still Aster, he could tell Aster's kisses in a million, but it's still bizarre to be kissing a creature with fur instead of lips. It's not bad, but it'll take a while to get used to.
When they pull apart, they look each other in the eyes for a long time. Jack's hands fall to Aster's shoulders, where the fur is thick, whiter and glorious, the kind of fur that you want to rub your face in because it feels so good. He's stroked a few rabbits at petting zoos, and Aster's fur is no different. He reaches up, hiding a mischievous grin, and pecks Aster on the nose.
"You can't make me stop calling you Bun-Bun, now," he says cheekily. Aster scoffs at him and drags him closer, though not very firmly, giving the weakness of his limbs. He holds Jack against his chest, places his chin on his head and sighs.
"I don't have to leave, do I?" Jack asks warily, kicking off his All-stars and tucking his legs up beneath him. He doesn't want to move now he's comfortable, back where he belongs, even though the feeling of soft fur against his cheek is something he'd never imagined.
"Nah, got it all sorted out," Aster reassures him. And they fall asleep like that, together, like they always do.
Aster's rehabilitation starts two days after his species reassignment therapy. He looks exhausted when Jack visits him in the evening, massaging his huge feet while he grumbles under his breath.
"Hey, babe," Jack says, throwing his bag in the chair and bouncing as he sits on the bed. Aster grunts a greeting, wincing as he slowly stretches his legs out. "Want some help with that?" Jack asks. He's given a look that's quite relieved, and he lets Aster lean back as he takes the huge paw in his lap and rubs, hard, with his thumbs. He's secretly wanted to touch them for two days, and now he has the perfect excuse to do so. The pads are rather the same as his hands', if larger and already slightly rougher. The fur is paler, but coarser, and thicker. He has claws here too, which Jack studies closely, touching the tips tentatively.
He continues with his massage, humming some earworm he heard on the radio at work, glancing at Aster every now and again. His boyfriend's eyes are closed and he finally looks relaxed.
"Your arms seem stronger already," Jack muses quietly, unwilling to disturb him but wanting to talk. Aster hums.
"Yeah. Doctor says it's good I was already fit, means rehab'll go quicker." He yawns, and it's far more rabbit-like than Jack had expected. It throws him for a moment, and his hands still, long enough that Aster opens an eye and raises an eyebrow. "Something wrong, Snowflake?"
Jack shakes his head, he shakes his hands as if they're cramping from the massage, and goes back to his work, taking the other paw now. "I hope they're not overworking you," he says warningly. "Or asses'll be kicked."
Aster chuckles, settles in a little bit more. "Ah, well, I'll tell you if they are," he promises, yawning again. "Can't wait to see you go mad and start threatening people, that's always fun."
It's then that the nurse comes bustling in with Aster's evening meal. Jack makes a face.
"Salad?" he exclaims, aghast. Aster shrugs, sitting up a bit more and tugging up his pillow so he can settle better. The nurse gives Jack the stink-eye as she leaves, which is rather disheartening.
"I think we'll be getting that a lot," Jack muses gloomily. Aster makes a strange, loud grinding noise and glares at the door through which the nurse disappeared.
"Bitch," he mutters. Jack snorts his laughter and squeeze Aster's toes affectionately. "Anyway, doctor says I probably won't be able to digest meat anymore."
Jack makes a face. "I'm not going veggie for you, Peter Cottontail. Meat tastes way too good." He adds a lewd wink, just for good measure, and Aster makes a sound halfway between an affectionately incredulous snort and a laugh. Then he seems to realise the pet name.
"Peter Cottontail?" he echoes, shaking his head in disbelief. Jack smirks.
"I got more. Benjamin Bunny, Hop Hop, Thumper, Mr Skipperdoo, Easter Bunny…"
Aster's expression is priceless. It screams of deadpan exasperation. Jack wishes his camera wasn't in his bag on the chair by the bed, too far away to reach. He'll have to make do with committing it to memory.
"Would you prefer Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo?" he enquires innocently.
"I'm never telling you about my childhood ever again," Aster grumbles. Jack just laughs, makes his way up the bed and kisses Aster on the nose. He has a feeling it's going to become their new thing, like forehead kisses were their old thing. It's lucky Aster can't resist his self-proclaimed puppy-like charm for long, because now he has an arm round Jack's shoulders, and Jack's curled against his side, and all's well except for the fact that his favourite hoodie's going to be covered in rabbit fur.
"You know what I was just thinking?" Jack says after a while, biting his lip to stop himself from laughing again. Aster hums in acknowledgement, blessedly ignorant. "Y'know what they say about guys with big feet…"
Aster pushes him off the bed.
Saturday is when Sandy, Kozmotis, North and Tooth come to visit for the first time. Tooth is the only one who doesn't need to take a moment to get to terms with it. She chirps her congratulations and offers Aster some sugar-free snacks, hovering around like a mother hummingbird. She straightens the sheets, comments on the lovely colour Aster's fur is, and then snaps at the other three men she came with.
"Really! It's just Aster! I haven't even known him as long as you have!" She places her hands on her hips and scowls at them. Even Kozmotis looks suitably guilty.
"I take it all went well, then?" North asks, sitting in the chair by the bed and smiling. Aster nods.
"Yep, without a hitch. A month for physiotherapy and I'll be home before spring."
Jack gives him a broad grin from his cross-legged perch on the edge of the bed.
What was it like? Sandy signs, expression curious.
"Can't remember much of it, really," Aster replies thoughtfully. "I was under most of the time, didn't feel anything. Last thing I remember seeing was the inside of the chamber, a glass window and that's it. Woke up like this." He shrugs apologetically. Sandy shakes his head with a smile.
"It's… bizarre," Kozmotis remarks. "You still look exactly the same, just… like a rabbit." He leans forward, studying Aster with great concentration from the end of the bed. "Eerie," he mutters under his breath. Jack scowls, and Aster just rolls his eyes.
"Right, right, got the message, pom." He waves Kozmotis away irritably. "Right, so… anyone else want to say something positive and constructive?"
"How about the fact we brought you food?" North suggests, lifting up a basket and waving it.
"What's in it?" Jack asks warily. "He can't have meat or fish, and we're still on the fence with dairy products and eggs."
"Calm down, Mum," Aster scoffs, taking the basket and sorting through it anyway, muttering 'yes' and 'no' at intermittent intervals. North looks vaguely disappointed, which earns him a pat on the shoulder from his girlfriend, at least.
"So, how is rehabilitation?" Kozmotis asks, peeling off his greatcoat and folding it over the end of the bed.
"Ace," Aster says, very interested in the bottle of home-brewed vodka North has brought. Jack pulls it out of his paw and places it out of Aster's reach, much to the latter's exasperation. "Mostly just stretching, then faffing about on those bars, and that's it. I'm in good shape so they say I'm adapting quickly."
"Have you started the instinct suppression classes, yet?" Kozmotis continues, and he asks this question very seriously.
"Not 'til next week," Aster replies, equally serious.
They end up leaving an hour later, when things start getting a little too noisy between Aster, North and Tooth and the nurse pokes his head in to tell them off.
They order new clothes for Aster over the internet. Jack takes his measurements, and thank God there are decent things in the online shops, like jeans and t-shirts and all things you take for granted when your body shape is basic Homo Sapiens. They even have band shirts and leather jackets, which Aster is happy about. Jack laughs.
"What would you do without your Acca Dacca tees, hm?" he teases. "Hell, what would I do without your Acca Dacca tees? What would I wear to bed?" He pretends to be seriously baffled by this, as if it's a life-changing query.
"Nothing?" Aster suggests hopefully. Jack blushes and pushes at him, huffing as Aster laughs. He ends up glaring at the screen as Aster scrolls through, humming softly.
"I like that jacket," he remarks. "It's like the one you've already got."
The jacket in question is a sandy colour, suede, with dark laces at the wrists and shoulders. Jack's always found it pretty awesome, because it suits Aster very well. He's had it for years, since before they met, and he was wearing it the day Jack first saw him in that diner, three years ago. Jack still remembers the way he swallowed and nearly over-filled some woman's cup, staring at legs a mile long and a five o'clock shadow he wanted to rub his cheek against. He'd been smitten, stupidly so, and had gotten tongue-tied when he'd had to take Aster's order.
He chances a look at Aster as his lover grumbles over the size of the keys and how they don't really work well with his new fingers. It's only then that the change truly sinks in, seeping under his skin and hitting his brain like a sledgehammer.
Aster is… nothing like he was. And he can't get out of there fast enough.
He stumbles to his feet, ignoring Aster's concerned question. He hitches on a mockery of a smile, gathers his things and says he has to go home, he promised Sandy something, he should do it before it gets too late, and visiting hours are almost up anyway.
He doesn't kiss Aster on the way out.
At home, he sits in the middle of their bed, a futon Aster is far too attached to, photos strewn around him like a peacock's fan of memories. He wraps his arms around his bare knees, staring at every single one, as he makes noises that are embarrassing for a twenty-one-year-old to make. He wipes away furious tears, burns the moments in the photos into his mind and relives them all, one by one: the trip to San Francisco, the one to New York, the farewell party for Katherine and Lucas when they left for Europe, Aster sketching, Aster painting, Aster dozing on the couch… He picks up one of the first he ever took, when he was young and stupid and selfies seemed like a clever thing. Three dates in and he was already in love, they were already in love, pressed together to fit into the tiny frame and grinning like it wasn't a cloudy day in suburban Pennsylvania.
It had been his phone wallpaper until it broke and he realised the idiocy of owning an iPhone, and his profile pic on Facebook for six months. He remembered the encouraging comments of his friends and the not-so-nice comments of jerks he'd known at school. He remembers when his parents found out, and demanded explanations, and he'd given them. He remembers the shouting and the accusations and the harsh words, the disappointment and "you're no son of mine!". He remembers stuffing his duffel bag haphazardly and barging from the door, eyes filled with tears.
He remembers sleeping on Elsa's couch, on a mattress on the floor of Merida's bedsit. He remembers getting a job and paying what he could towards their bills, despite the protests. He remembers Aster bursting in after a whole year of this, furious and demanding why Jack hadn't come to him first. They'd had their first argument, but also their first heart-to-heart. Jack still remembers the way Aster held him, told him everything was alright, the way he hadn't minded getting snot all over his shirt. He can still feel those warm, strong arms around him, the kiss on the top of his head.
He remembers taking his stuff to Aster's, carving out a niche in the closet and the bathroom and the kitchen, finding places which his stuff hasn't left for a year and a half. His toothbrush is still in the cup on the cabinet, his sugar-packed cereal still in its dwelling in the cupboard above the microwave, his clothes still tossed on the floor of the bedroom.
There's still a sketch of him on the wall in the den.
Slowly he wipes away his tears. He gathers the photos, finds an old shoebox and puts them in as if they are the greatest treasures he's ever held. Then he closes the lid, writes BEFORE in black marker and places the shoebox on a shelf in the closet, hidden enough. Once that is done, he crawls into bed, turns off the light, and sleeps.
And the Aster he dreams about is the new one, not the old one.
It takes every scrap of courage in him to enter the hospital the next day. He and Aster just look at each other, and he can taste the hurt on the air, the guardedness. He wonders if Aster can sense the mortification. Aster is afraid, and Jack is ashamed of himself. Don't they go well together?
"I'm sorry," he murmurs, and Aster visibly flinches, not in shock, but in pain. Then his gaze turns resigned, turns away, and he says nothing for a long time. Jack scuffs his feet on the floor, rubs his arm. He never can stand still for too long, he fidgets like a child, full of nervous energy.
"Shouldn't you be going?" Aster says, his voice toneless, empty. It cuts Jack like a knife, because Aster thinks Jack's going to leave, that he can't do this, and it's clear that he'd been expecting it.
Jack strides forward, wraps his arms around Aster, and feels the other turn rigid against him, not a twitch of a nose or an ear, a statue.
"I'm sorry I left like that yesterday," Jack clarifies in Aster's shoulder. "I was scared, I was stupid, and I hadn't realised what this really was." He pulls back, gaze locked on Aster's, which is wary now, with a glint of hope. "I forgot just how much I love you."
Aster stares. Jack lowers his head, humiliated. He takes Aster's paws, holds them, slides sideways onto the bed so his legs still dangle.
"I'm going to be here. I'm not going to run again. I'm not going to be scared anymore." He raises his head again, and this time his expression is determined. "I hurt you, and I'm disgusted with myself. I swear I'll never do that again." He's said it, now he has to prove it.
Aster is still for a moment longer, his face mellowing into such gratitude Jack is humbled beyond belief, and they throw their arms around each other.
"I love you," Jack says. He tries to imbibe the intensity of his feelings into those three little words, even though he knows it'll never be enough.
"Thought you'd gone for good," Aster mumbles, squeezing gently. "I just… I didn't stop to think how much this changes everything. I didn't think about how much it could affect you. Only thought about myself, as usual. Forgot we have to work on this together. I'm sorry, Frostbite."
"I love you," Jack replies fiercely. They stay like that for what seems like an age of the Earth itself, wrapped in each other.
Jack has Thursdays off, and one of the parcels of clothes has arrived. T-shirts, jeans and track pants which miraculously aren't ugly, hallelujah. Now Aster can wear something other than innumerable one-size-fits-all monstrosities they call hospital gowns. He'd been going to ask if they had one with giraffes.
Jack thinks it's awesome he doesn't need underwear anymore. It takes him a moment to realise how bad that actually sounded. He suppresses that thought, because it might go to naughty places and that's not the best destination for his mind when he's using public transportation. The old lady sitting opposite him might whack him with her cane.
He doesn't find Aster in his room. Which means he's probably in the gym for his daily rehab session. It takes him half an hour and three pit-stops to ask for directions until he finally gets there. He pokes his head in, and sees two humans going through the motions with physiotherapists, although he's not quite sure what the motions are. There are only two anthros: one is Aster, the other is a female physiotherapist who seems to be some sort of feline. Aster's on the bars, supporting himself with his arms and taking slow steps along a dark blue mat. He has an expression of great concentration and determination, and when he reaches the end of the bars he lets out a breath of relief.
"Awesome!" says the physiotherapist, clapping her paws. Her ears are tufted and she hasn't got much of a tail: a lynx, perhaps? Aster drops himself on the pile of mats next to the bars with a sigh and a weary grin. "This is great progress, you know," she goes on cheerfully. "If you keep this up, you won't even need to take additional sessions once you're home!"
Jack decides that now is the time to head over. "Does that mean I won't be able to get him out of the house? We'll end up killing each other!"
Both anthros turn, the physiotherapist's ears twitching warily, but Aster beams at him, and Jack can't help but smile back, broad and warm. Then the physiotherapist seems to realise something.
"Oh! Oh-ho!" She nudges Aster conspiratorially. "So this is the infamous Jack I've heard so much about!"
Jack can't help but blush at that. Even Aster looks somewhat guilty, if the tilt of his ears and the twitch of his whiskers is anything to go by. Jack can't quite read the more lagomorphic expressions just yet, but he's trying.
"It's nice to finally meet you," she says, holding out her paw and shaking Jack's hand. "I'm Sue."
"Jack, obviously," Jack replies, grinning. "Thanks for… this." He waves a hand, encompassing Aster, the gym and basically everything that doesn't involve the doctors. She waves a dismissive paw with a smile.
"It's my job, and Aster basically trains himself." She laughs. "So, when will we be seeing you here?"
It's meant well, Jack knows, but he meets the question with stunned silence all the same. Aster's no different, wincing. Sue catches on pretty quickly, because she gasps, presses a paw to her forehead and groans.
"Oh, my God, I am so sorry, I had no idea you weren't… I'm sorry."
Jack grins weakly. "No, it's ok, don't worry, I can, uh, get why you'd ask that," he mumbles. He and Aster exchange a quick glance.
"Sorry, it's just… well, it's not often you get an interspecies romance." She chuckles weakly. "It's unusual."
"Yeah, we'd noticed," Aster mutters darkly. The atmosphere grows thick and awkward, a silence bloated with the unspoken accusations of people who are sick and tired of being told they're different, and Jack clears his throat when it all gets too much. He hates silences like these.
"Guess what, Bun!" he begins jovially. "You can officially be dressed like a decent person again. I mean, not like I was complaining before, hospital gowns are revealing, but… yeah, I felt for your non-existent dignity."
Aster shoves him as Sue sniggers into her paw.
"We're pretty much done for the day, so I'll leave you two boys to it," she says graciously, taking her leave. Jack wheels Aster back up to Aster's room, resisting the urge to go all Scrubs and do a wheelchair race with an old man and his granddaughter who share the elevator with them, and Aster pulls on the pants with great relief.
"Are they ok?" Jack asks, biting his lip. They don't look that bad for just track pants. Aster stretches his legs and nods.
"Not too tight on the fur. Good room for movement, too."
Jack tries not to stare. Somehow, seeing Aster shirtless, albeit covered with fur, is pretty… hot. "I brought you some t-shirts, too," he mutters, pulling one out with a triumphant 'ha!'. Aster pulls it on, rolls his shoulders and tugs on his arms, and he nods again.
"Ace!" he exclaims. "Finally."
Jack takes his usual place on the edge of the bed and talks about Tumblr. He's been wondering whether he should talk about his relationship with Aster. Maybe an ask blog, some shit like that? Aster shrugs and picks up his sketchpad.
"S'up to you," he says, cracking his knuckles before starting erratic movements all over the page. It seems he's had to relearn how to draw to his best abilities all over again. "Got nothing to hide, after all."
Jack nods, pouting pensively. He stays two hours, until visiting hours are over, and then he leaves, with a kiss on the mouth and a promise to be back tomorrow. As he heads outside to the bus stop, he overhears a familiar laugh. It sounds like Sue, he should probably say goodbye… He stops in his tracks when he hears what she says.
"Know that hot guy in room 128? The rabbit dude?" she asks. There's a murmur of affirmation from a few voices. Jack can see them huddled under an awning, three anthros, one a bull, one a cat, and Sue. They're all smoking, and the first two have nurse's scrubs.
"Easy on the eyes," the cat nurse says, smirking. "Pity he's gay and taken."
"Yeah, well, I met the other half today," Sue says, relishing her words as if they are absolutely delicious. "Turns out he's human!"
The cat nurse gasps. The bull says nothing.
"No, really? Still, or…?"
"No, a human human!"
"That's some kinky shit right there!" the cat nurse says fervently. The bull snorts.
"Yeah, because it's your business what other people do in bed," he says gruffly, and Jack is silently grateful that at least someone isn't making a mockery of them. Sue stubs her cigarette out on the wall before throwing it in the bushes, blowing her smoke into the cold, early March air.
"Dude, come on…"
Jack doesn't want to hear anymore. He turns on his heel and leaves, feeling livid. Can't anyone just accept what they have and move on without passing judgement? For God's sake, what are he and Aster doing that's so wrong?
He wonders about it all the way home, feeling miserable, and he's grateful when Tooth and Sandy drag him out for pizza and conversation. It's nice to be with people who understand and don't care, don't judge. It's like a dysfunction junction, Jack muses. All six of them have their own issues, their own problems, and together they make a decent sort of family, able to hold the others up through them.
There's himself, the twink who seems to age slower, with the freakishly low body temp and the naturally white hair, who's twenty-one but looks barely legal. There's Aster, and, well, he's now a giant rabbit. There's Sandy, mute, a dwarf, never truly wanted, not even for his amazing books. North, the ex-juvenile delinquent, the one who fought tooth and nail to get out of the Mafiya unscathed, a whole school of hard knocks to unlearn. Kozmotis, a psychiatrist with a decided lack of empathy, a daughter and a wife already lost, alone and lonely and never admitting it. And Tooth, a hybrid, an anomaly in the natural world. They're all weirdoes in their own ways.
Don't they all just complete each other?
He listens to Tooth's voice, eyes glazing over at Sandy's signing. He hums, nods, not truly listening or reading. It's enough to be here, in the tiny pizzeria they always go to, bathed in the lull of conversation and the affection of friends, and forget the shit the world's heaping on them.
When Jack walks into Aster's room three days later, Aster's skyping. Jack can hear a half-familiar female voice with a much more familiar accent, thick and broad like Aster's own. He waves silently, Aster waves back, and there's a demand to see.
Jack sits on the bed next to Aster, and grins at his mother-in-law in everything but legal terms. "Hi, Mrs B!" he says cheerfully. Mrs Bunnymund ("Daisy, Jackie dear, call me Daisy!") beams back at him. She's still the same as ever, even through the bleached grain of the webcam: a pleasant, warm face, the same eyes as Aster, as blond and pale as her husband is dark as night.
"It's nice to see you, Jackie dear," she says, and Jack can tell she means it. "How are you?"
"Pretty good," Jack replies, because he is. "Hey, what do you think of the ears?" he asks, reaching up and tweaking one gently – he's learnt how sensitive they are, and Aster does not take kindly to them being yanked. Mrs Bunnymund laughs.
"I think they're very smart," she says proudly, and once again Jack's grateful Aster has such a wonderful woman for a mother. She beats his own, that's for sure. "Of course, I'd think he was handsome whatever he looked like." She winks, makes Aster splutter, and Jack laughs at the whole pantomime. "I have to go, dears. Aster, love, remember, you'll always be my son, and I'll always be proud of you."
The call closes, and Aster turns away. Jack knows just what he's trying to hide – a thirty-two-year-old man's man like himself can't be caught crying – and he snuggles into Aster's shoulder, and once again he thanks the universe for just how awesome Aster's mother is.
The rest of the month travels more or less along the same lines. Jack visits Aster, the others visit Aster, Jack works, he gets deliveries of necessities for Aster's new life, and they begin to iron out the kinks this change has made. They start turning this into something new and bright, something beautiful and sacred, and Jack likes it. He likes the novelty and the routine all rolled into one, the new and the old, the perfectly imperfect.
Until, finally, thirty days after his admission, walking on his own, head held high, Aster leaves the hospital. He takes a deep breath of the tasteless air, wrinkling his nose at the smell of exhaust pipes, asphalt and choked vegetation. North is waiting for them, just North, standing beside his large red Range Rover they call the Sleigh, and he takes them home again.