Would you just get out?" I demanded, shoving Aaron towards the bathroom door with one naturally weak arm, my right hand holding the towel against my frame as he chuckled and raised his hands over his head in a casual surrender, eyebrows toward the ceiling.
"Alright, alright. Sheesh. At least take this." He waited until my persistent pushing stopped before he grabbed the bottoms of his black V-neck and stripped the shirt off right then and there in front of me without any trace of hesitance. I blushed a deep shade of crimson, my eyes briefly running over his toned arms, muscled torso and the V line at his hips before I averted my gaze in a quick motion and felt the blush now spreading over my nose and down the sides of my neck. He grinned broadly and handed me the shirt, which I reluctantly reached for with a inquiring expression, eyeing it instead of him.
"Your clothes are wet," he informed me, nodding towards the wet pile on the tile floor and then putting his eyes back on his own shirt wadded up unattractively in my hand. "You'll probably be more comfortable in something dry and warm."
"Uh-hmm…thanks," I stammered as I cleared my throat, tucking my dripping hair behind one ear and dropping my arm to my side. The pink in my cheeks was starting to die down, but I still felt self-conscious as Aaron continued to stand there, unmoving and observing me in my cheap motel towel.
"Anything else?" I asked impatiently, my tone insistent that he had better leave soon so that I could continue on with what I had been doing before as soon as possible. I really just wanted to be alone, no matter how much Aaron's presence distracted me. Gathering my own thoughts together was a challenge enough, and having him around only made the task that much more difficult.
He looked like he wanted to add more, but was cut off short as he faintly shook his head and jabbed his thumb toward the exit leading to the bedroom. "I'll just be waiting in there. Take your time."
Shoving him out the bathroom door had been my plans from the very start. Never did I think he would leave so calmly, so smoothly, and without so much as another sarcastic and witty remark. It shouldn't have surprised me that Aaron was so unpredictable though.
Once he was out, I was able to blow out a breath and look at my reflection in the mirror. I looked pasty and ill in this lighting and the thought made me cringe away with a shriveled nose in disgust at my smeared remains of makeup. Why would Aaron want to stick around in here to possibly interrogate me further?
I let the towel drop to the floor, a cool breeze instantly hitting my bare frame, causing me to shiver from the temperature change as I ran my fingers through my hair and hurriedly reached for my wet undergarments, using the inexpensive and miniscule motel hairdryer to dry them off as well as possible to some point of comfort. I slipped them on along with Aaron's black V-neck. My legs felt vulnerable and exposed as I finger combed my hair once more and blow dried it, realizing this was about as good as it was going to get. Who was I trying to impress anyway?
Draping my wet clothes over the shower rod, I creaked the door of the bathroom open and peeked into the dim room, the bright light seeming much too vibrant from the lack of light in the bedroom. Aaron was lounged on the queen sized bed, his face set into a mask of undisturbed concentration as he flipped through the pages of the ancient book Zander had granted upon him. He was too focused to even notice my presence as I stopped to lean up against the wall across from him, folding my arms over my torso until he looked up at me, his face changing as if he had just woken up from a tacit trance.
He ran his eyes over me once, nodding in approval with a small signature smirk. "That's better. You should wear my clothes more often."
"This," I said, waving my hand over my body once, "will not be happening again. So don't get used to it. You have a lot of explaining to do. Starting with that creepy book your friend gave you."
Aaron shut the book and laid it aside, sitting up on the bed and patting the spot next to him. This was like a déjà vu moment of when we had been in his apartment, lying on his bed as I tried to figure out how I had gotten there and why I had fainted in the first place.
"This book comes from a long line of…ancestors."
"Who's ancestors?" I asked, raising an eyebrow as I moved over to the dirt colored bed and settled in next to him, crossing my legs and pulling the shirt down over my knees. I hoped this wasn't his favorite shirt, because it was going to be stretched out by the time I was done wearing it like a nightdress.
"His name was Adros." Aaron let out a breath, pinching the area in between his eyebrows in frustration as he shut his eyes and then reopened them to stare at the television set in front of us, the antenna pointing upward. He was noticeably looking anywhere but my gaze. I was genuinely surprised to even witness him answering my questions and opening up to me, seeing as though he never had a history of doing so before.
"Many knew him as a...prince," he continued, choosing his words carefully as he measured my reaction. I wasn't sure what my face was exposing, but I bit down on my lip hard and waited for him to continue on with his story. "In the Other Realm."
"The Other Realm?"
"Yes. A place where people like him lived in quiet, serene peace. He stood alongside his father, Keyon, and his mother, Maida, the king and queen of the town.
"Adros wasn't your typical story hero. He was…different . Both blessed and cursed with magic that was very dangerous if granted to the wrong person. Luckily he lived to be a very trustworthy man and many highly favored him, seeking his personal help in situations where his talents were needed."
"What kind of so-called magic did he have?" I asked curiously, tucking my hair behind one ear and propping my elbow up on one pillow, slightly angling my body towards him. I watched him as he ran his hands through his ridiculously impeccable hair, a habit he constantly did when he was irritated, upset, or at a loss of the right words to say. A muscle jumped in his jaw and it took everything in me not to reach out and smooth my hand over the tense area, to calm him down and bring him to look at me, back to this time and setting. He seemed so ashamed to be sharing such a history of ancestry with me, but I genuinely wanted to know everything he could tell me, and I tried so hard to tell him that by gazing into his eyes once I caught his attention.
Aaron's face turned ashen, the first real sign of any genuine emotion that I had ever seen cross his face in my presence. "He had the power to reach inside of your mind. Place thoughts or frightening images there or create the feeling of fear. This was the cursed part of the gift. He had such powers that he could reach into your mind and place the idea that you wanted to jump off of a cliff. And you would gladly do it because you thought it was your idea and there would be no questioning your motives because the action would seem relatively normal in the moment."
My stomach flipped over at the dark thought of it all. "What were the blessings of it?"
"He could put your mind at ease. Erase any unnecessary pain, but not all. He could create the feeling of peace and tranquility.
"Aside from everything else, in other words, Adros was capable of far more darkness than the people of the Other Realm ever could even imagine or care to believe, aside from the small indication of light that shone in the midst of it all. They trusted him with their lives and he took that trust into his hands so that he may never abuse it or dishonor them, as well as his parents, the king and queen, and his sister, the princess. His whole family possessed similar talents, but Adros and his sister, Anaeis, had an extra power that was granted to them at birth by the Guardians so that they may be protected when their parents...passed."
"And who were the...Guardians? Like guardian angels?" I asked dumbly, feeling as though I should know all of this already by the way Aaron was freely speaking of it. I shivered and pulled the shirt more firmly around me.
Aaron noticed my shivering and hopped off of the bed momentarily, setting the book on the nightstand before peeling the covers back and settling me into the envelop of the soft fabric. The mattress wasn't very comfortable, but the warmth that the blankets were bringing to my bare skin helped me to feel more at home in such a foreign place, as well as sheltered and hidden. I gathered the sheets in my hands and pulled them up to my chin, turning on my side to watch Aaron as he settled in next to me once again, pausing in his story mode for a second to appraise my form under the covers.
"Better?" he asked, reaching out to tuck the covers around me a little tighter. This was the second time he had asked me that same question.
I nodded faintly, in awe of his kind and genuine gestures, completely at a loss for words. Since when had Aaron become so placid and caring? When merely before he had seemed like he didn't want to touch me, he was now making a solemn effort to keep me content and happy. I just couldn't wrap my mind around his sudden personality changes.
"Anyway," he continued, settling his hands behind his head. "I suppose you could call them guardian angels, but not the type of angels you're thinking. Mortals have such a way of telling those stories and twisting them up into some child's fairytale..." Aaron chuckled quietly, seeming lost in thought of his own inside joke before looking deep into my eyes. "They didn't have these big fanning out wings or radiant halos above their heads, marking them without sin and saved. What they had was much more deadly and powerful. They were the Guardians of everyone around them, and those who lived there had their own assigned Guardian. Someone who was always there to protect them, but there was a catch.
"A Guardian was able to save you from danger, but one could not interfere with fate. If the royal court saw that it was the person's time to go, then the Guardian would have to painfully step back and watch the mortal suffer to the bridge of death, stuck with enduring the physical pain that was inflicted upon them from their mortal's bodily state. It wasn't an easy job, but it was a life sentence they did not have the opportunity in choosing. Nor did they have a choice in who they watched over and whether or not they could protect them. There was a bond between a mortal and their Guardian, the Guardian feeling the mortal's pain if something was ever to happen to them, or their silent prayer for help, even though they did not know of the royal court's existence."
"Wow," I said breathlessly, letting all of the newfound information sink in. "So then, was Adros a Guardian?"
"Not in the literal sense," Aaron explained, drawing his eyebrows together as he shifted in his spot to bring one knee up against his still bare chest. "He was more like the Peacekeeper on earth. He settled the problems that were brought to the king and queen, and his younger sister stood by and watched her brother, knowing that someday it would be her job to take over the kingdom alongside him at the coming of age, twenty-one, unless one of them married, which marriage was not a common thing in the Other Realm, especially not a matrimony sealed so young."
I must have looked stricken as he spoke that last line, because Aaron humorously grinned a smile that made my heart melt in spite of what he was telling me. The thought was absolutely dreadful and horrible. Preposterous!
"No marriage? Why not?" I demanded incredulously, getting more into the story then I had ever planned or wanted to.
"It wasn't a necessity back then. Many did not believe in having to settle down with that one person for the rest of your life. Love was surely there, of course—it's human nature, in every sense. But work was just more important to the mortals, as was surviving."
I chewed on my lip. "You keep referring to the people as the mortals. Were Adros and his family...immortal then?"
"Claire, I just told you about a whole different realm, kingdom, and royal court that existed in Heaven itself, and you bite that pretty lip of yours at the mere mention of immortality?" He laughed out loud and shook his head, running his hand through his hair and I blushed, looking down in embarrassment at his mockery and what I guess was supposed to have been taken as a compliment from him. I was surprised I was listening to anything he had to say at all. This story was absolutely ludicrous, if anything.
"Yes, they were undeniably immortal," he grinned in spite of me. "There was only one thing unworldly that could kill them, but it wasn't a death that lasted forever without the hopes of bringing them back to life one day. The mortals lived in fear under the protection of their royal wardens." Aaron's eyes clouded over with dismay, closing his eyes as though he were seeing the time and place behind his eyelids as the corners of his tight mouth turned downward. "Soul annexation."
"Annexation?" I straightened myself from my balled up position, his words grasping my natural curiosity with a sudden abysmal jolt, prickling up my spine and causing my toes to curl into the mattress.
"Not even the most powerful can overcome the shadows. You know what they say…Most corrupt and errant mistakes happen in the dark," he winked, trying to lighten up the moment, but I shook my head at the thought of it all. The story he was telling me was so dark and twisted—so evil and sinister—that I knew I would not be able to sleep tonight without the thought that Aaron would be there to comfort me. Even if he was often times arrogant and rude, I was starting to see that there was more to him when he and I were alone. He was a whole different person hidden to the human eye, and I couldn't help but start liking what I saw as much as it scared me as well as irritated me beyond belief.
I was silent for longer than necessary, unsure of what to say. Aaron sounded crazy, but the fact that all of this information was coming from this book, made it seem just a tad more believable. Nothing about Aaron Safford had ever been registered as relatively normal, in the given sense. There was a portion of me that wanted him to tell me everything, but then the other half had my mind reeling. Where did this book come from, other than this rundown, ancient motel? Why was he acting so protective and where did I personally fit into all of this? Was he truly just nonsensical? The thought that nearly made me groan out loud was that I still had yet to discuss the package with him, the original reason why I had contacted him in the first place.
I felt Aaron's arm slide around my waist, drawing me nearer to him as I stiffened slightly in shock. This was the first real time he had ever made any move to touch me since the incident at my party. So obviously it was okay if he touched me, but I was not allowed to touch him or be close to him on my own personal accord? My eyes narrowed. Aaron was like a ruthless whip lash you just could not get rid of, no matter how hard you desperately tried—a leech that stuck to you and wouldn't go away, even after the constant avoidance on your part until contacting him was rightfully necessary.
"Why are you telling me all of this?" I murmured, refusing to meet his gaze as I allowed myself to slump into his side a little, enjoying the feel of his warm body against mine and the sentiment of comfort and protection that radiated from his arm around me alone.
"You asked about the book's ancestry."
I met his eyes, raising an eyebrow as a challenge that I knew that wasn't the only reason. It was difficult to tell when a guy like Aaron Safford was lying, but right now I could irrefutably tell that he was not telling me the full truth and that part irritated me to its peak.
Aaron let out a sigh and reached to gently cup my chin, as if I was going to break in any given moment if he were to move too quickly. Using his other hand to brush the hair away from my face, he ran his thumb over my cheek, leaving a burning trail of fire every time his skin made contact with mine. "I can't tell you right now. At least not everything. But someday…" He took a deep breath and looked into my eyes, a spark of emotion burning beneath his gaze. "Someday I'll tell you everything. You'll see just how important you really are."
"I'm hardly important," I shook my head, looking down. Gwendolyn's words echoed through my mind, talking to my nine year old self as she went on about Richard. Ever since she had told me of the way that Richard had treated her, I had been unexplainably afraid. While I had never taken on the physical pain from him myself, I was frightened that someday I would grow to love someone with everything I had and then they would treat me in such a way without explanation or fault on my part. There had to have been a reason why my biological parents hadn't wanted me and I had had a hard time growing close to anyone aside from Gwendolyn ever since that revelation.
Aaron made a sound of protest and renunciation, moving his hand down my arm as I involuntarily cringed and backed down, lost in the memory of Gwendolyn's words, in another time and place. I hadn't meant to react that way, but I could see his eyes cloud over with dismay as he processed my actions, forcing me to move closer to him and look him head on.
"You're important," he murmured, his lips a breath away from mine as he brought his hand up to run it through my hair. His fingers trailed down my back and settled on my hip, moving away so that he could look into my eyes. "I won't let anything happen to you."
"You keep speaking that way, but I still don't know what you mean. What's happening?"
"Someday…" he reminded me before taking my hand in his broad tan one. I looked down at our intertwined fingers and my eyebrows furrowed, a marathon of questions playing in my ocean blue eyes. Aaron brought his other hand up to tilt my face up towards him and his thumb ran over my cheek bone slowly and gently as a smile tugged at his lips, although it was not happy or genuine in any sense.
"I'm scared," I truthfully admitted, looking into Aaron's eyes before shamefully looking down due to my own pitiful declaration of weakness and fright.
"I won't let anything happen to you," Aaron promised in a barely audible murmur without looking into my eyes, his gaze focused just below my frowning lips. His solemn vow was almost believable. Why wasn't he looking at me anymore? Why couldn't he look at me when he said that? Did he simply not like the thought and idea of having to put my protection from God knows what in his hands? Perhaps he could not handle the reality of having to be stuck with me for so long with no way out. He almost acted like it was a silent sworn duty of his he couldn't just duck out of.
Then why was he touching me this way?
"I swear," he murmured, moving his face closer to mine as he reached up to cup my neck. He no doubt could feel me swallow as my pulse quickened and my palms started to sweat, before his lips sealed over my own.
I sat there in shock at first, trying to process the thought in my mind of what was happening. The feelings and sensations that I felt as he kissed me, my arms involuntarily sliding around his neck, were overwhelming and unfamiliar. The passion that I felt which enveloped me was almost unbearable, his charisma and desire nearly too much for me to handle. He pulled his lips away from mine for a moment as he brushed the hair back from my forehead, his breath hot on my cheek, grazing my jaw as he gazed deep into my eyes, before he pulled me back to him.
I breathed in the taste of him, his lips sweet and warm as they moved with mine, almost naturally, his tongue making me jump as it skimmed my lower lip. I clutched him tighter to me—if that were even possible—and felt the desperate need to make him a part of me. I knew once this was all over that everything would be confusing between us once again, but for one moment more I allowed myself the pleasure of his kisses before I pulled away, my breathing shallow and deep. A breathlessness I was not familiar with.
But this place, here and now, was far from safety. I was heading into dangerous territory, and I think Aaron could sense it as well. None of that mattered to me right now, though. It was as if all of my senses of right and wrong were colliding together so violently that I was just blind with everything I saw. There was no right or wrong where Aaron was concerned and I could see that now.
Aaron's fingers trailed down the sides of my face, tracing over my lips and cheeks, as he memorized every feature there, like I would soon disappear from beneath his burning fingertips and he needed this memory of me.
I looked into his eyes, emotion so hidden in the darkened pools of black other than a glimpse of ever-present pain. I almost could not believe what I was seeing. I could sense the feelings that were present, matching the need and longing of my own as he quickly and briefly pulled me to him. I inhaled the scent of him—pine and mint—as I buried my face in his chest, tears running down my cheeks as I cried and wept with everything inside of me. It had been a while since I had liberally let the tears run—had let myself copiously cry in the presence of someone other than Gwendolyn, especially a man, with such vulnerability—and I forgot how abundant it felt to let go of such a burden as his hands trailed up my back, crushing me to him, our hips and bodies connected, before he slightly pushed me away from him and looked at the wall next to him, putting up that unseen barrier once again that I could never comprehend. Aaron took a deep breath, briefly tucked me in, and shut off the lights before murmuring a quick apology.
"We'll continue the discussion in the morning. Get some rest. You've been through a lot," he said in a strained voice, moving to lounge in the chair across from us and he shut his eyes.
In the briefest of moments, he had looked so pained. Physically as well as mentally, like he would fall apart and break if another instant had passed between the two of us before he could get away. I laid there in the dark, praying and yearning for sleep to take over as I was thoroughly exhausted and drained, but all I could do was watch Aaron's idle form. His frame was lit by the dimmest of lights coming from the doorway, exposing the tense muscles jumping out of his neck and the pinched lines in between his dark eyebrows. I liked to hope and convince myself that his obvious ache and discomposure hadn't been from myself alone, but I just could not bring myself to believe it.
I honestly did not have the answers to any of the questions I so desperately wanted to know. And as much as the weight crushed me, I was not sure if I rightfully wanted to know the hidden pain inside the mysterious boy I had yet to understand.