He heaved a sigh as he tripped through the front door. Grocery bags banging painfully against his knees before he gave up and dumped them on the bench in the hallway.
The same one he'd fallen in love with at that antique store on the outskirts of the town Aaron had grown up in. The same, admittedly ill-advised visit where his mother had waged war with perfect pie crusts and a fake smile that ended up being no match for all the fucks he didn't give when Aaron's ex-girlfriend just so happened to show up for a visit.
It had been the first and only time he'd met them and frankly, he planned to keep it that way.
Aaron often joked that the bench was the only good thing that'd come out of that trip. Ignoring the fact it'd taken forever to get it into the back of their rented SUV and they lost the deposit due to the scratches it'd gouged in the interior.
And while he was admittedly bias, he was inclined to agree.
Still, watching Sharon's mouth purse in on itself like a blackhole when Aaron shook his head and stood up. Taking his hand as he followed him out to the car, was something he'd always remember fondly.
He'd barely locked the door behind him when he realized something was off. The little hairs on the back of his neck prickling as he paused in the act of putting down his keys. Whatever it was wasn't immediately apparent. But he'd always been a believer in listening to the little voice in the back of his head, so he didn't ignore it.
"I'm home!" he called, cautiously. Slipping the keys into his pocket instead as he reached for his phone. Wincing when the last text Aaron sent him blinked.
Going to be late. Sorry, just got on the freeway.
He jumped at the sound of a glass shattering, almost dropping the phone. Hands grazing either side of the walls as he took an abortive step forward. Trying to steady himself as a sudden rush of dizziness hit him the moment he stumbled into the kitchen. Queasy with vertigo and wobbly knees. Ears popping and skin tugging, tight like he was under immense pressure, before suddenly being released again.
When he opened his eyes, what he saw didn't make sense.
The closest he could make of it through the double vision was that he was seeing a mirror image of the apartment. Only everything was wrong. It was dark. Dusty. The lights he'd turned on didn't seem to be working. And instead of daylight streaming through the blinds, it was pitch black. Night.
There was a man on the other side of the counter with a gun that was slowly lowering. Shocked. Unkempt. Pale. Surrounded in piles of canned food and what looked like part of the ceiling, which had caved in. Coating the floor and counters in musty drywall and old mold. Monotone save for the trailing rush of greenery that seemed to be growing down from the floor above. He coughed politely. Staring from the man to the cobwebs that wreathed the hanging lights at the breakfast bar. All signs no one had lived here for a long, long time.
What was happening?
What had happened?
Reality shifted slowly.
The man dropped the gun.
He blinked into the debris of neglect and- he stopped.
Because the man's voice- the way he'd said his name- no.
Horror rose up his throat like vomit.
The man had a beard. His hair was overgrown, curly and brown, starting to tint grey at the temples. One of his hands didn't move like it should - fake - fashioned with a homemade prosthetic. He had holes in his jeans and smelled overwhelmingly of sweat. There was a shotgun on the counter. The gun the man dropped was on the floor by the oven. Pointing at him from across the filthy linoleum.
But he knew him.
He'd always know him.
He inhaled unevenly, almost choking on the rank smell of decay. Death. It was clinging to the air like the world had been saturated in it. His hand raised to cover his nose in spite of himself, the only part of him not frozen. He'd only smelled something like it once before. In the middle of a war zone in Sudan. Not here. Not at home. Not-
The tinned salmon he'd just bought, that was still in the hallway behind him in bags, was somehow also on the counter - dusty and muted - like it had been years. Stacked beside an open packsack that glinted with a familiar photo frame. Him and Aaron at the beach. Sandy, sunburnt and grinning from ear to ear.
He looked up, facing the man for the first time.
Because it was.
He'd know him anywhere.
He swallowed hard, one hand coming up to stop him when the man stepped forward. Fisting his phone in his hand as he dialed Aaron – his Aaron. Hyper aware that the man was watching him hungrily – like every second was precious.
There was a strange burst of static before the call connected.
"Hey, what's up?" Aaron greeted, hearing the echo as the man put him on speaker and cranked down the car radio.
"Hey," he replied shakily. Eyes on the older Aaron who was staring right back at him. Expression twisted – somewhere between grief and relief. Finding the disparity like a tongue twister as he listened to one and watched the other. "Listen…where are you right now?"
He wasn't sure why he didn't tell him.
"Stuck in traffic," his Aaron replied, voice tinny as the distant honk of a horn blasted off in the background. There was a pause, then- "You okay? Something wrong?"
He shook his head. Lips tight so they didn't tremble.
"No. Everything is fine. I'll see you soon."
"Okay… Love you," Aaron hummed, making a sound like he was drumming on the steering wheel.
"Love you too," he replied, before ending the call.
It wasn't fine, but he was willing to be open-minded when it came to what happened next.
He didn't think he had a choice.
"Aaron?" he started. Suddenly having no idea where to start. Looking around at the debris of their home and all the plans they'd had for it. Wondering if what he was seeing was the future or something else. "I just talked to you…him. How-"
The older Aaron just shook his head. Palming his hand down the ratty chest of his shirt. Too big by at least three sizes and worn thin. Fake hand hanging awkwardly at his side, strapped with leather laces around his shoulder.
"I don't know how you're here, but it's good to see you."
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
But the man, Aaron, saved him from having to answer. Letting go of a dry, humorless laugh that sounded more like a sob than anything. Looking down at the pack on the counter, then back up at him.
"I guess it had to happen sometime…"
"What did?" he asked automatically, brave enough to take a step forward, then another. Toeing at a bit of broken tile and looking up at the ceiling by the TV. Realizing he was peering into the apartment above. The people who liked to play jazz a bit too loud on Sundays and walk around in heels on the hardwood. He caught another hint of trailing green through the gloom. Like something was growing through the decay. Making him wonder if the entire damn building was as wrecked as their unit.
"Going crazy," the older Aaron finished.
He couldn't help it.
Realizing he couldn't be afraid of him if he tried.
He was just too familiar.
Too his .
"If you are, so am I," he answered, shaking his head. Slowly coming to stand on the opposite side of the counter. Close enough they could have touched if they wanted. "I passed through something. Everything was fine and then- this… what happened?"
Aaron just looked at him.
"It's been years…" he started hoarsely, fake hand thudding against the counter in a way that made him flinch. Weary eyes flicking over to the hall before focusing on him again. "Twenty-five…twenty-six years since it happened."
"Since what happened?" he pressed, not understanding. Mind automatically going to some sort of attack or massive earthquake. Something that would change everything. Were they at war? Worse, had they lost?
"Something bad…a lot of things actually."
He believed him. Aaron had never been able to lie to him.
Still, he frowned, knowing he was being treated with kid gloves.
"You look-" he started, before trailing off. Unable to find the right words.
Aaron huffed a dry, amused sound. Pointing down at his prosthetic.
"Old and broken?"
"Different," he said, defensively.
"You don't," Aaron told him, lips lifting in a faded smile. Pulling at shallow crows-feet. "You look beautiful."
He raised an eyebrow. Fingers itching to reach for him and bring him in. Knowing he was hurting. He didn't know why. But he knew he was. Aaron had always been an open book to him.
"Charmer," he murmured. It rolled off the tongue so easy he almost checked himself. Feeling a change stab of betrayal on behalf of the Aaron that was still driving home. Who'd told him he loved him barely five minutes ago. The one who had two hands and no beard and a wardrobe that was at least starting to show improvement when it came to branching away from plaids.
There was a beat where neither of them said anything. Breathing in the quiet along with the changes. Aware that Aaron was watching him with that same sad, starving expression that was starting to flip his stomach. Making him wonder why-
"What happened?" he asked again, firmer this time.
Aaron expelled a long breath of air. Bracing his good arm down on the counter as his head lowered. Bobbing for a moment before pushing himself back up, expression pained but collected. Like the hurt had faded to a distant throb. As if it'd happened years ago.
"I lost you…"
It still wasn't an answer. But he was too stunned to call him on it. At this point, he'd had his suspicions. But hearing it out loud was an entirely different thing. Fielding a vague, ringing in his ears until he realized Aaron was still talking.
"I came back… I don't know. I wanted to see if it was still standing. If there was anything left. When we were evacuated, I thought we'd be back in a couple weeks. We didn't take anything with us. Just some clothes. I didn't even have a picture. We- the group I live with now- we were in the area. Food and supplies are scarce these days and we've had to branch out really far for the stuff we can't make or grow. You and I used to do it- we'd go out for days in an RV, looking for supplies- for good people to bring back. Other survivors…"
Aaron cut himself off, shaking his head. Leaving him more confused than ever.
"I guess I wanted to find you again… I know how it sounds, but…"
He was alarmed when Aaron inhaled audibly. Wobbling dangerously enough that he found himself rounding the counter and grabbing his elbow. Now sure what to do with himself when Aaron melted into him. Clutching his shoulder as hot tears trickled down the collar of his shirt, pebbling across his chin.
"You knew…" Aaron breathed, burying his face into his neck as they held each other tightly. Aaron's grip firmer and more quietly violent than he could remember as he breathed unevenly. "I came home from work and you- oh god. You turned on the tv and looked at me…you said- Jesus Christ. You knew…maybe this is why…"
He just held him, wordless.
It felt like an age by the time Aaron finally pulled away. Looking wrecked and red as they met eyes in the close space.
"Maybe this means we can't change it…that you can't change it. But- hell- there's a fight between this community and ours, years from now. The Saviors. Negan. I asked you to stay home. But you came anyway. You told me- you told me…"
He hushed him, hand coming up and trace his face. Getting to know the new creases and divots of old scars. Feeling bowled over by confusion and a shared sense of grief he was only dipping a toe into. Feeling a strange sense of…something ripple through him at the thought of being dead. Like he was walking on his own grave or inches from seeing it happen.
"We'll be okay," he murmured, wondering how he could make it true as they swayed together on the filthy kitchen floor. "We've always been okay. Remember?"
Aaron didn't believe him. Instead, took his hands in his and clasped them tight. Ragged fingernails rasping down the inner of his wrists.
"I love you."
He smiled softly, looking up at him through dusty lashes.
"I always had a hunch," he replied with easy warmth. Repeating the words that'd become a mantra ever since that first time, years ago, when Aaron had told him as much.
The kiss, when it finally came, was stale.
"Hey, I'm home- whoa- that's a lot of salmon. Was there a sale or something?" Aaron questioned, as he banged inside the apartment. Rousing him from where he'd been standing ever since the old Aaron and the wreck of their apartment had disappeared and left him alone.
"Yeah," he said shakily, nodding. Willing his fingers to unclench from around the kitchen counter. "Something like that."
But despite his best efforts, Aaron picked up on it immediately.
He thought about what the older Aaron had said. About how he'd known. How he'd come home from work one day and found him upset in the apartment. Turning on the tv as the news slowly came in.
He squeezed his eyes closed.
"You could say that," he agreed, after a long moment. Letting Aaron wrap his arms around him from behind. Giving him privacy as he ran his fingers over his lips over and over. Swearing he could still find the other Aaron's taste.
"I'm going to grab a shower real quick and then we can talk about it, okay?"
He took a deep, disaster-laden breath after Aaron disappeared into the bedroom. Forcing his legs to move as he walked purposely into the living room and turned on the TV. Numb and weak-kneed as the breaking news alert flashed across the broadcast. Interrupting the panel arguing about economic policy. He didn't have to read what it was or why.
Instead, he looked at the picture of him and Aaron on the beach. Drinking it in. Memorizing every inch as his attention gradually focused on the broadcast and Aaron sat beside him. Finding his hand and squeezing it gently as the world changed.
All ends have a beginning.