Aaron Collins Parrish-Lynch was having the worst week of his life, or the best, and it was all Theo Jiang’s fault.
Someone’s pencil fell off their desk, and Aaron snapped back into reality in the middle of a sentence on the dramatic structure of Cymbeline. He chewed on the pendant that hung around his neck in frustration. Fuck, that was definitely going to be on the test. He’d have to beg notes off a classmate later. Aaron wasn’t sure why the Aglionby curriculum had included Cymbeline instead of one of Shakespeare’s plays that was actually good. Macbeth, or Hamlet, maybe. Even Romeo and Juliet; at least that one had dirty jokes all over the place. Aaron had griped about the curriculum choice with his classmates over the last week, but avoided bringing it up at home. Adam would just remind him gently that it might be more beneficial on an AP test to write an essay on a more obscure play. Aaron was already well-aware of this fact, and wanted to complain in peace. That, and he might not learn very much about Cymbeline given that he was absorbed in replaying the daily entrance of Theo Jiang into Aglionby’s main building like a movie behind his eyes.
He watched Theo turn to look at the clock now, which announced that there were three minutes till the bell. Theo’s shoulders shifted in a tiny sigh as he rested his head on his hand, and his fingers slipped just under the starched edge of his collar. Aaron fidgeted, imagining sitting right behind Theo and skating his own fingers over that same patch of skin. Aaron bet Theo would shiver at that, bet that he would lean backwards into the touch so Aaron’s fingers would slide over his throat where his pulse beat.
As if Aaron’s thoughts had tipped him off, Theo turned his head, slowly, to catch Aaron’s eye across the classroom. Aaron could only watch helplessly as Theo’s mouth quirked up in a smirk, alluring and infuriating, eyes dancing under dark brows. Electricity crackled in the air, and Aaron’s face went suddenly hot. He had known Aaron was watching, because of course he had. He could probably fucking feel it. Like a sixth sense.
The bell rang, and Aaron was off like a shot.
Damn Theo and his fucking beautiful face. He could take his perfectly arched brows and his stupidly twinkling eyes and —
Aaron collided hard with a well-sculpted shoulder and promptly bounced off into the nearest locker. The resounding crash was muffled in the myriad of other crashes filling the hallway as Aglionby students rushed into their three-day weekends without caring how many freshmen they trampled in the process. Raleigh Applewhite appraised Aaron as he realigned his bag on his shoulder. Aaron could smell his cleats even though the bag was zipped and made a face.
“Walk much?” Aglionby’s premiere lacrosse player crossed his arms over his chest, but the smile he wore was wide and too knowing for Aaron’s liking.
“I need to get out of here.”
“Theo Jiang staring at you in English again?” Raleigh leaned the shoulder Aaron had struck against the locker nearest him. Of course the collision hadn’t even hurt him.
“N-no!” Aaron spluttered, rubbing at his smarting collarbone. “I just — I’m going home this weekend and I just want to get out of here.” He risked a glance over his shoulder. Theo was not in the hallway.
“You said that already, dude,” Raleigh sighed.
“It’s fucking weird,” Aaron spat. He wanted to get to his car so he could unpack his own reactions and his theories on how amazing Theo’s ass probably was in the privacy of his own space.
“I don’t know…” Raleigh drawled. “I’m with Nina on this one. I think you just need to bang him. All this tension is killing you.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. Nina had said almost the exact same thing several times. Except she knew better than Raleigh all the reasons why starting up a relationship was a bad idea, reasons he didn’t want to get into right now. He settled for pointing out the obvious: “You don’t even know Nina.”
“I do, too,” Raleigh shot back. “We’ve talked.”
“You’ve stolen my phone to text her.”
“Because she agrees with me about this whole Theo thing and because you won’t give me her number.” Raleigh pointed an accusatory finger at Aaron’s nose. “I can’t slide into her DMs if you don’t let me talk to her alone.”
“No one needs an unsolicited picture of your dick, Raleigh. Especially Nina.” Aaron began to walk down the hallway.
“Excuse you!” Raleigh wrapped an arm around Aaron’s shoulders while keeping the pace. “Who said anything about unsolicited? Consent is hot, Ay-ayron. Remember that. Can I have a ride?”
“To where?” Aaron growled.
“Store. I need junk food.”
Aaron groaned. “Can you ask someone else?”
Raleigh sighed. “Yeah, sure.” He raised an eyebrow then, gifting Aaron with a smug grin. “Maybe I’ll ask Theo. I hear he’s got a nice car.”
Aaron shoved an elbow into Raleigh’s side, prompting a groan disguised as a laugh, or a laugh disguised as a groan. He ducked out from under Raleigh’s shoulder, walking backwards so he could call down the hallway better.
“Please go fuck yourself!”
“Well,” Raleigh allowed with a wide grin, “because you asked so nicely…”
Aaron let the school doors slam shut behind him and. The sun was warm on his face despite the October chill, and he was comforted by the fact that a short detour was all that stood between himself and home.
300 Fox Way regarded Aaron from behind its picket fence as he stopped the car by the curb. And not just in the sense that he was pretty sure there were at least two small children peering through the windows at him. It was just the way the house was, a presence filled with other presences that pressed itself against the consciousness of passers-by just a little more than another building. Or maybe that was because Aaron knew it personally. 300 Fox Way had been the gateway to his life as he knew it, and he never forgot it.
He raised his arm, fist poised to knock, and the door swung open. Guess the house knew Aaron too.
Jimi’s round face beamed up at him. Her salt-and-pepper hair was swathed in a lot of purple fabric. “Thought that might be you.”
“Hi, Jimi,” Aaron returned her smile as best he could.
“Come on in, sugar.” The bracelets on her arm clinked together as she ushered Aaron into the house. The smell of incense and old house and magic and whatever fruity thing Jimi used in her perfume enveloped Aaron in a familiar cloud.
“Nina here?” he asked.
Jimi nodded, smile still impeccably in place, although she rubbed a hand over Aaron’s upper arm reassuringly. Aaron could never decide if Jimi could sense distress on him, or if he just wasn’t as good at policing his own face as he thought.
“She’s around somewhere.”
There was a sudden small thundering from the stairs as two Fox Way kids cut Aaron off on his way to the kitchen. Overlapping choruses of “Hi, Aaron!” hit him belatedly as they breezed past.
“Is that a Parrish-Lynch in my house?” Maura Sargent glanced over her shoulder at him before turning her attention back to the steaming concoction of smelly tea she was making. Blue always called it “footy” tea. Nina just said it smelled like ass.
“Snake Junior,” Calla greeted him. “Your dads finally decide to return you?” Aaron couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t asked him that question as soon as she saw him.
“Would you take me in if they did?” Aaron buried his hands in the pockets of his slacks, but he met Calla’s gaze with a challenge of his own. Calla smirked back approvingly.
“Absolutely not,” Maura replied, placing a kiss on Aaron’s cheek. Extra hilarious as a joke, since Aaron had been one of the very few male residents of 300 Fox Way in the several months leading up to his thirteenth birthday. “Nina’s in the back. There’s tea if you want it.”
Calla smirked again as she watched Aaron fight the urge to make a face about the tea. He settled for “thanks” and crossed the kitchen to the back stoop.
As his foot touched the top step, all the air left Aaron’s lungs.
A rush of wind chased all the autumn from the air, leaving it muggy and warm, a true Virginia summer. Cicadas screamed from between the full green leaves of the towering beech tree before him. The smell of barbecue smoke singed his nose, three-hued popsicle lingered on his tongue, and sitting with his chin propped on his hands was Aaron himself. A smaller, younger Aaron, unsure of himself and afraid for the future. A fugitive in some senses, a hostage in others. Hunched over the weight of a decision that felt too big for his shoulders, though it had boiled down to a simple “stay” or “go”.
Nina emerged from somewhere and sat down beside him. Twelve-year-old Nina, also smaller, also gawky, but much more self-assured. In possession of a home where Aaron hadn’t had one. Hair in braids and made more voluminous by the humidity. She picked at the fraying end of her cutoff overalls and watched Aaron out of the corner of her eye. Aaron simply stared back at her, fiddling with the chain around his neck. He ran a finger over the embossed face of St. Anthony. The metal made a soft grinding noise as he dragged the pendant back and forth.
“My cousins think you’re weird,” Nina said.
Aaron’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. “I’m not that weird.”
“I know,” Nina said flippantly. She tossed a braid over her shoulder. “Your aura’s pretty chill.”
“Yeah,” Nina replied. “You don’t do auras?” As casual as you please.
“Uh…” Aaron shook his head. “No.”
“What do you do then?” Aaron didn’t miss the fact that she seemed to already know there was something less-than-normal about him.
He paused all the same, considering. He knew things about this house, about the people in it. Nina had just admitted she saw auras. But it was still like swimming upstream to bare his soul like that, especially to a stranger.
“If I go to a powerful place, I can…live what happened there. Kind of.”
“Psychometry/retrocognition combination, then.”
He had never seen anyone take that news so casually, but he let that surprise go in favor of “You’re a smart-ass”.
“So are you,” Nina shot back. “Your aura says so.” Her smirk said his that aura didn’t say so. Aaron echoed the smirk down at the space between his ratty sneakers.
“Ever been to Washington, D.C.?” Nina asked, eyes suddenly alight with the question.
She looked disappointed with Aaron’s frown and his flat “Yes”. He had not liked D.C. at all. Every street corner there was powerful, overwhelming, and terrible. He had been on Benadryl practically the whole trip, and it had only served to make him drowsy and anxious.
“What was Eleanor Roosevelt like?”
“It doesn’t work that way.” Aaron had barely been able to make it onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
There was a pause. The two of them breathed in more barbecue smell, and Nina scratched a mosquito bite on her ankle.
“How does yours work?” Aaron ventured after a moment. He pointed at a man in a trucker hat visible over the backyard fence who had leaned down to inspect his lawn mower. “Can you read that guy’s aura?”
“Not from here so well, but that’s Mr. Gable. He’s a little racist but he doesn’t realize it.”
“First part I know from talking to him. Second part I know from the aura thing.”
They lapsed into silence again, listening to each other carefully and keeping an eye on Mr. Gable as he frowned at his lawn mower again. Aaron chewed on the inside of his lip, worrying the skin between his teeth. Finally, he blew out a breath, and with it, a question:
“What do Adam and Ronan’s auras say?”
Stay or go?
Nina looked back at him openly, reading the importance of the question in his expression. Like she knew how much hinged on her answer. When she spoke, it was with total seriousness.
“They’re good people. They’re good for you.” She cocked her head to one side. “Do you believe me?”
Aaron shrugged. “Why would you lie?”
“Plus, your name is like theirs combined. It’s totally perfect.”
Aaron barked out a shocked laugh. “I didn’t even think of that.”
Then he disappeared.
There was only Nina sitting there. Eighteen-year-old Nina. No longer gawky. Nina of here and now. She looked up at Aaron as he caught his breath and felt October seep back into his skin. He shivered.
“How much time did I lose?”
“Only a few seconds. What’d you see?”
Aaron folded himself down onto the step beside her. “First day we met. I mean, it’s always here. I guess I haven’t come out of the house this way in a while. It caught me off guard.”
Nina smiled. “Good memory, though.”
He huffed out laugh. “Definitely.” He paused. “I’m here to complain.”
“About Theo Jiang?”
Aaron sighed. “You know it.”
Nina stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing her combat-booted feet, and leaned back on her hands. “You know my stance on your stalking, Pynch.”
Aaron rolled his eyes, both at the statement and Nina’s not-very-clever variation on his last names. “It’s not stalking, Nina.”
“You sit on the school steps every morning and watch the kid get out of his car. It’s stalking.”
“Stalking implies hiding in the bushes and being obsessive and weird. I’m just observing.” He also knew that Theo was aware of him with the same deep gut-feeling he got when walking into a powerful place. It was like he could feel a tether tug between them the closer Theo got to him on the steps. Whether Theo physically looked at Aaron or not, they both knew the other was there. That was part of the routine, too, the knowing. Hence the current disaster.
“Potato, po-tah-to,” Nina scoffed.
There ensued a staring contest. Nina broke first, a rarity.
“Fine. What’s the complaint?”
“He’s breaking the rules!” It sounded petulant when he said it out loud, but the indignation underneath the words was real. “He’s fucking up the routine.”
Aaron maintained that he had originally started paying attention to Theo’s patented morning arrivals out of a curiosity to see if he really did do it the same way every day. (Pull off his sunglasses with a minuscule flick of his artfully flopped hair, close the door with a foot, hoist his backpack on a shoulder — never both shoulders, just the one — before locking his car. At the end of the last school year, when Theo had first ridden into Aglionby on a wave of rumor and intrigue, the mashing of a cigarette under one of his shoes had also been part of the process, but he’d stopped doing that at some point.) Aaron himself was a fan of routine. There was something to be said for committing to the bit, to being comfortable in a groove. Aaron therefore told himself that his interest started off as scientific.
This was, of course, complete bullshit. Aaron had started watching Theo Jiang arrive in the mornings because he was unfathomably gorgeous, and watching him get out of his car was like walking around a Bernini statue over and over and over again to see Apollo’s marble hand touch Daphne’s tree-bark side on a reverent loop. Once you started, you never wanted to stop. (Not that Aaron had ever seen a real life Bernini, though Gansey promised he'd take him when he graduated.) Aaron knew the nature of the bullshit intimately, which is why he always dropped his gaze even though he knew that once Theo reached the main steps, his dark eyes flicked up to burn a hole in the side of Aaron’s head. Aaron let Theo take his turn to stare because it was flattering and set his heart pounding to be the object of attention for someone that beautiful. Not a bad way to start one’s day, either.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Nina told him.
“So I watch, and then he watches,” Aaron explained, as he’d explained several times before. “And then we go back to our normal lives. He’s not allowed to —“ He palmed the back of his neck. “He’s not allowed to watch in other places.”
“What do you mean, other places? Like the locker room?”
Aaron flushed, imagining it. “Mostly English class.”
“So he’s staring at you in class?”
“Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you want him to stop?”
Aaron didn’t have a good answer for that. On the one hand, it was seriously disrupting his thought process in that class, not to mention all the time he spent picking it apart later. On the other, there was a part of him that hoarded the spark of Theo’s gaze and enjoyed how it sent a shock crackling through his ribs. There was a part of him that wanted Theo to do much more than look.
No, he very much didn’t want Theo to stop. And that was precisely the problem.
To his right, Nina was waiting for an answer.
“No,” he admitted, very quietly.
Nina spread her arms wide to encompass the obvious nature of her response. “Even more reason to bang him, Aaron! He’s clearly into you.”
Aaron blew out a breath through his cheeks. “I can’t. It’s an unnecessary risk.”
“Why not?” Nina folded herself into a compacter, more stubborn position. “You don’t have to introduce him to your dads or anything. Just make out with him. Do it badly, if you only want to do it once. Text him an eggplant emoji and meet him behind a school building. Make a move.”
Aaron wrinkled his nose. “An eggplant emoji? You’re as bad as Raleigh.”
“Maybe so,” Nina agreed, “but I still think this is less about you being calculating and more about you being afraid to put yourself out there even a little bit. You’ve only made one friend since me, Aaron. You’re not really great with new people.”
This was true. Aaron wasn't quite sure how Raleigh had managed to worm his way into his life and stick there so well. Nina…well, Nina was a given. She knew Aaron better than he knew himself. Sometimes, it really grated on his nerves.
“If Theo makes a move,” he bit out. “I’ll make one back.”
Nina narrowed her eyes. “Promise?”
“Want me to spit in my hand and shake on it?” Aaron sneered.
Nina shoved him. “Shut up.”
“And if he doesn’t make one,” Aaron added, “I’m off the hook, okay?”
Nina rolled her eyes and stood up. “Oh, he’ll make one, all right. Loser.”
Aaron grinned up at her. “Asshole.” He looked back out at the beech tree.
“Call me if you need any more great advice!” he heard, right before the screen door slammed shut.
Now it was time to go home.