This is a new piece, with some older characters…I wanted to play with Dini in a new setting, and Aaron’s an old friend that I wanted to bring in. I’ve got a bunch of backstory that I do want to put in, so I’m going to be interested to see where it goes!
“She’s been a bit depressed recently,” Lizzy said as she knocked on the apartment door.
“So what do you actually want me to do?” the young man stood behind her asked nervously.
“She just needs some company, really,” Lizzy said vaguely. “A cup of tea, someone to talk to. She used to be a reporter so tell her about some of the cases you’re helping with. That sort of thing.”
The door opened, but he couldn’t see the person on the other side. “You are welcome to enter as my guests,” a flat, tired voice said from the other side, fading as it moved off into the apartment.
“And maybe some cleaning,” Lizzy added quietly as they entered.
The flat wasn’t exactly that it was a mess, Aaron thought. Just that the few things that had been used from a once-neat home hadn’t been put away, and nothing had been swept, or cleaned, or put out in the bins for…he sniffed. Weeks, certainly.
“There’s tea somewhere, but I don’t have any milk.” It was a woman’s voice, coming from the bedroom, and it sounded uncaring.
“Well, there’s your first task, Aaron!” Lizzy said brightly. “Shop’s two minutes round the corner.”
He opened his mouth, nodded, and took the cash she was holding out.
The shop was only a thirty-second jog, and he got the milk easily. He wondered about biscuits, too; he’d have to check what food she had. Maybe someone else did the shopping…
The door was shut again, and he knocked politely. After a minute, it swung open again. “Please come in, guest.”
This time, he got a look at her. Slightly below his height, with grey eyes that were accentuated by deep, dark circles, and a rat’s-nest of tangled white hair. Her t-shirt hung from her shoulders, and the bones of her thin hand stood out as she held the door. She smelled of sweat and tiredness, and something that he couldn’t place; something acrid and unsettling.
She was giving him a thorough once-over as well, and he suddenly felt very exposed – and very bulky, compared to her thin frame. And then she shocked him out of his embarrassed thoughts. “Which pack?”
“Which pack?” she repeated.
A faint smile twitched the corner of her mouth, and he knew that he was going bright red. “You look like a cub.”
“I’ve been Changed since I was fifteen!”
“And you still act like a cub?” The faint smile was still there; he wondered if it was meant to be as cruel and mocking as it seemed.
“I’m here to train…”
“Stop baiting him, Beth,” Lizzy said from the kitchen. “He came from York.”
“And that explains everything.” The woman let go of the door, the animation fading from her face, and turned away. “He got milk.”
“He’s going to come round every few days. Just to have a chat.”
The woman sat down in one of the armchairs, ignoring the two books, pile of discarded clothing and a half-full coffee mug resting on the arm. “Sure.” It was said with a tired sigh.
“He wants to be a detective. He’s been helping ____ out with some of her cases.”
Beth took the mug of tea that Aaron held out and immediately put it next to the coffee on the arm of the chair. He wondered if she was planning on ignoring it, as she obviously had with the other. “Anything interesting?” she asked him.
“Uh, well, um, we had a case that-”
“They got to investigate… [something that went all wrong and messed up for Aaron].” Lizzy butted in. “Oh, and last week they-”
Aaron sat down and cringed.
“It sounded from Lizzy,” Beth said three days later, as they sat with mugs of tea, “ that you’ve rather made a mess of everything so far.”
Aaron felt his stomach shrink. He’d seriously considered not going to visit again, but Lizzy’s face kept intruding whenever he thought about it, and he knew he’d have to answer a lot of awkward questions if he didn’t. Besides, it looked like Beth could use having someone dropping in. “Um, well.”
Her grey eyes were watching him with more sympathy than he’d expected. “Why don’t you tell me how you landed up here, and what you’ve been doing?”
He looked anywhere but at Beth as he tried to give a few details about his pack in York, his move to Oxford, his training with ___. She’d obviously made some effort to clean, or at least put a few things away – the coffee mug had moved from the arm of the chair to the pile by the sink, although as he’d suspected, the tea mug had remained where it had been put when he last came.
“So you’re not part of the pack here?” her voice asked. She still sounded sympathetic.
He knew what she was asking, and he didn’t want to answer. “I prefer being on my own.”
Silence. He risked looking up, and found her watching him thoughtfully. She wasn’t judging. Wasn’t asking anything else. She was just considering it.
And then she said, “I know the feeling.”
“You’re not a werewolf?” he risked asking. She hadn’t smelled like one, but she’d clocked him as soon as she saw him…
“No. Grew up around them, though.” The smile wasn’t so faint now, and he felt obscurely pleased. “So what have you been up to this week?”
He started going over every few days, in between investigations for ___ and talks with Lizzy. Beth was always there – he still wasn’t sure who did her shopping – and he found that, as he started talking to her about the investigations, she seemed to know a lot about it all. But then, if she had been a journalist…
He risked asking her about that as he tried to collect some of the books scattered around her flat and get them back into the shelves. Beth was curled in the chair, not drinking yet another mug of tea.
“I…yes, I was a journalist.” She’d shut down again, arms curled around herself. “Then I had another job for a bit, and now…I’m here.”
“Where did you…journalist?” Usually his awkward turns of phrase would bring out that half-smile, but she just looked…blank, almost. Tired.
“It’s not something I want to talk about.”
“Ok. Um. How about your other job?”
She just shook her head.
“Um. Ok.” And he went back to sorting books. “So, um, I found out more about that robbery…”
The next time he went over, he was greeted at the door by a pale, exhausted Beth, but one who was draped in clean clothes and had wet hair – albeit still in a tangled mess. She was holding onto the doorframe, and managed a half-smile. “Please, come in, guest.”
“Hi.” He stepped in and shut the door, and automatically put out a hand as Beth turned, one hand on the wall. She was visibly shaky today, he thought. “Let me make tea?”
She went through to the kitchen anyway, but conceded to sit on the floor while he made tea. He handed the mug down to her, careful not to let it go until he was sure she’d got it, and then sat down opposite her with his own mug.
Beth put a hand up to her head. “So…can you help me shave my hair?”
He blinked. “Um. Sure. Why?”
The grey eyes looked into his for a moment, frustration and despair warring behind the uncaring mask. “Because I can’t wash it.”
“Um, yes. You might want to wait for it to dry, though. I’ve always shaved it dry…”
Something crossed her face; a flash of annoyance. And then she froze, and he saw pain – just for a moment – before she went to stand, shoving herself up from the wooden floor. Her arm gave way, sending her sprawling; her tea mug tipped, sending liquid across the floor, and Beth landed hard on the wood.
Aaron quickly put his own tea mug down and reached out. “Are you…”
Her shoulders were shaking and he saw her crumple, resting her forehead against the floor as the first sob broke free.
He rested a hand on her shoulder, ready to take it away if she didn’t want him there. “It’s ok. It’s just tea.”
He made out something akin to, “it’s not that,” amongst the sobs.
“Your hair? I’m sorry. I’ll help you. Of course I’ll help you.”
Nothing but sobs from the curled heap on the floor. The hot tea was soaking into her slacks, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”
“It won’t take long to do, and we could probably do it wet too. I’ve just never tried.”
“Please go away.”
He would have missed the words without his sensitive hearing. “No. Lizzy asked me to be here, and-”
“I’m asking you not to be.”
He shrank back. The words had enough snap and bite to have come from a pack leader; how had she learned to put that much command into them? “Ok. I’m sorry. I’ll see you soon.”
He left her sobbing on the floor, wondering how much more of a mess he could make of everything he touched.
He asked Lizzy about it, wondering if she could shed any light on Beth – either her hair, or her job, or why she lived alone in a small flat and didn’t go out. Lizzy just shrugged. “She left her last job, I think – it didn’t end well. I know her as a friend of a friend, they asked me to keep an eye on her, and they knew her as a journalist. That’s pretty much it. I don’t know why her hair would be such a problem. It’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it? She obviously hasn’t brushed it for weeks.”
He trailed back to Beth’s flat a few days later, wondering if she’d let him in. She did, with her usual greeting, and then followed him into the kitchen. She seemed a bit stronger today, he thought – and she’d made another effort at cleaning. The draining board was full of washed crockery.
“I…I’m sorry,” Beth said as he filled the kettle. “For last time.”
She shook her head. “No. Ok. Look. I…I used to be able to do a lot of things, and now I can’t. And…I’m not ok with that yet. Thank you for…sticking around, I guess.”
“I brought my razor,” Aaron said. And he got the half-smile in answer, the one that was slowly spreading towards a full smile again.
The white hair came off in clumps; Beth wanted it down to the skin, with only a stubble left. The razor did a decent job, and when they’d finished, Beth gathered up all the hair into a plastic bag and then caught his hand. “Aaron…can you do me a favour? I’ll have to owe you. I don’t really have anything to repay them with at the moment.”
He blinked at her. “Are you kidding? You’ve been helping me with the investigations!”
Beth stared at him.
“Um. Everything you’ve said about the stuff I’ve been looking into has been…really helpful.” More helpful than ____. “If anything, I owe you…”
Beth was still staring at him. And then she ran a hand across her eyes, suddenly looking tired again. “Who suggested that you come here?”
“Not ___? Do they know each other?”
“Well, yes, they meet at…”
“That….conniving bitch.” Beth turned away, fists clenching.
Aaron blinked. “I’m sorry…?”
“Not you!” Beth spun back, looking more alive – and more frustrated – than he’d seen her in the previous few weeks. “That was their plan? Send me some rookie wolfcub to get me interested in life and get me out of the house? For fuck’s sake!”
She waved a hand at him. “I know you didn’t.” And then she seemed to catch his expression. “I’m not angry at you, Aaron. Or them, really. I just detest being manipulated!”
“How long have you been here?” Aaron asked quietly, following her into the living room.
Beth turned, and the anger was suddenly swept away to be replaced by a lost, frightened look. “I…don’t know. What…what month is it?”
“Fall.” The word had a curious longing. “I…six months, I suppose. Thereabouts.”
“Then it sounds like you needed me.”
She looked at him, then, a proper look that took everything in; baggy sweatpants and t-shirt that skimmed his muscles; cropped hair and serious brown eyes; faint flinch and hasty apologies; quick smile and easy laugh. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I did.” She hesitated, then, and added, “Do.”
“What was the favour?” Aaron asked, wanting to push away the lost, frightened look.
“Oh.” Beth looked down at the plastic bag. “Can you burn this?”
He nodded, but Beth was giving him a frowning, worried look. “I will,” he said, trying to reassure her. “Don’t worry.”
“It’s not that. You don’t know why I’m asking?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, for…” She turned away, and then half-turned back. “Your alpha. The one who sent you away, told you that you were useless. He never told you any of…any of the important stuff?”
Aaron couldn’t help the flinch. You’re useless. “She.”
But Beth was already running a hand over her shaved head, looking frustrated. “But you wouldn’t know what was important until you knew it. You don’t know what you don’t know.” She made a noise of disgust and turned away again.
“I’m…sorry.” It came out as a whisper to her retreating back.
And Beth spun back again. “Don’t – you – dare! Don’t…” She shook her head. “Aaron, you are not to blame. You are not the one who failed. You’re not the one who didn’t teach a cub what they needed to know to fucking survive! Your alpha…” She was still shaking her head, and he wondered where the life, the vitality had come from. She suddenly seemed twice as alive. “Your pack failed you, and don’t you ever blame yourself for that.”
And then she seemed to shrink again, folding back into the too-thin, tired lines. “Come and have tea, and we need to talk.”
Fifteen minutes later, he had his hands wrapped around a mug of tea, and was feeling a little scared.
“You see why I was…I’m not angry at you, Aaron,” Beth said, running a hand across her shaved head again. “But you should know this stuff. It’s basic! Is Aaron your real name?”
Beth made a noise of disgust. “Please tell me you’ve never told anyone else your full name.”
He tried to think. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, don’t. It’s currency to control you. Same as the hair. If anyone got hold of that and some of your name, you wouldn’t even realise you were being controlled.”
“Yes. It is. And now you understand why I’m angry. Have they taught you about wizards?”
“I mean, I know they exist…don’t make them angry?”
“Soulgazes? Don’t look at a wizard’s eyes for more than a few seconds.” Beth sighed again. “I wanted to shave my hair so I could go out. But…” she looked down, into the tea. “I want to be interested again. I know I can’t live my life here, and I think ___ knows that too. She sent you to talk to me, get me interested…and it’s worked.”
“You want to help?”
Beth managed a smile. “If you’ll have me along, Aaron, I’d like to come and see what you’ve been up to.”
Crime-investigating duo to the fore! I just need something for them to investigate now…