Aaron peeled off his gel-padded shooting gloves, taking a thin layer of skin and sweat along with them, and removed his earplugs and eye protection. The drive in from Delaware had left him shaking, and not just because of the emotional turmoil he’d been feeling; Natalie was a woman of many merits, but driving expertise wasn’t one of them. The range time had helped him loosen up and reground himself after the stressful events of the morning. He cleared the chamber in the Luger, removing the empty clip and turning the pistol grip toward Grace. “So am I getting better?”
Grace cocked an eyebrow at him; the younger man was clearly fishing for compliments, and while he hadn’t done badly, she wasn’t going to puff up his ego. “Better is a relative term, but I’d say you’re well-equipped to at least hit the broad side of a barn, and maybe a narrower one when you have time to line up a shot.” She cleared the chamber herself once more out of reflex and returned the gun to her weapons locker. “I’m still not gonna let you take that thing off the range, though, Mathias. You gotta log at least 20 hours in the gallery and pass a basic proficiency exam before I can submit you for firearm clearance to the brass. Sharpe’s rules.”
“I know, I know—until you feel safe with letting me shoot on my own, I’m strictly Team Machete in the field.” Aaron smiled, brushing back his sweat-matted hair with his fingers and rubbing his eyes. “Well, thanks as always, Captain. I really appreciate you putting in the training hours with me.”
“Not a problem. I need to stay in fighting shape myself, so it’s a win-win in my book—could be a pretty rough weekend for my squad. By the way, did you get my advisory about that anonymous call? You haven’t…seen anything weird lately, have you?”
“Grace, I know you can’t reveal anything that Sharpe says to keep wrapped up, but I don’t have a lot to go on. If I knew more, I could maybe tip you off if anything weird comes through in a dream, but—”
“Nope. We’ve had this conversation, Mathias,” Grace said with a stern expression of finality on her face. “Just because you have a special aptitude that others don’t, doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you. You gotta follow protocol like everyone else—and protocol on this case is, no one but me and Sharpe get to know the details until the mission is underway.”
“Okay, okay, fine,” Aaron said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I won’t ask again. And if I do get anything weird in a dream, I’ll still let you know. After all, if you die, who’s gonna train me up, right?”
“Probably someone who sucks. Look, I gotta get down to the gym and hammer some reps in. You wanna come? A little toning would do you some good, especially with all that protein you’re putting away.” They’d taken a break for lunch earlier, during which Aaron had devoured an entire rotisserie chicken by himself, and he hadn’t been fussy about picking around the bones and joints.
“I’d like that, actually, but I have to get going. Tomorrow, maybe, after range time? I do wanna start hitting the gym more often, but I’m on a tight schedule today. Doing something for Elijah. I’d say more, but—”
“—Protocol.” She nodded.
“Protocol.” They shook hands, a considerably cooler handshake than Aaron had ever managed before in his life but was getting better at performing since he and Grace had started shooting together. “See ya.” He turned toward the exit.
“Hey, Mathias—what happened to your glasses? Haven’t seen you wear them in a while. You switch to contacts or something?” Grace asked, pulling the ballcap from her head and shaking out a long, blonde ponytail that probably hadn’t seen the rough side of a brush in at least a day.
He turned back, stretching his arms over his head. “You know…this is gonna sound crazy, but ever since I got out of the hospital, I haven’t needed them. I tried putting them on when Alex and I went out Friday, and it was like looking at Wacky Bizarro Funhouse World.” He suppressed a grimace at the slight twinge of guilt that washed through his stomach at the mention of Alex’s name. “So I took them off, and everything was crystal-clear. I’ve got them in my bag in case it’s a passing fluke, but so far, so good.”
Grace arched a pale eyebrow at him. “Here’s hoping it stays that way. Be careful, Mathias.”
“Explain to me again what I’m supposed to be learning from this movie,” Lily said, sitting very primly on the sofa in her containment unit. A snug white cotton pullover dress barely covered her thighs, and Aaron suspected that her programming dictated her wardrobe choices so as to more easily manipulate the people attracted to her.
Aaron scoffed, turning his head toward the attractive robot and pausing the DVD with a touch of the remote. “You wanted to be human, right? To feel a full range of emotions like a person? Well, that’s what this movie is all about. Laughter, tears, success, failure—it’s the quintessential summation of the human experience, Lily. Learn it. Know it. Live it.”
She frowned, an expression Aaron had only previously seen when Henry had shot her in the head. “I don’t see how a silly movie about cat burglars and Leonardo DaVinci is going to teach me how to be a real woman.”
He sighed and shook his head. “It’s like this: Every man wants to be Eddie Hawkins. He’s suave, he’s witty, he bucks authority, and he makes the ladies swoon, even if he does have CGI hair. But the truth is, most guys are closer to being Tommy Five-Tone—full of bluster and stagnating in their own bad habits—and that’s if you’re lucky. Play your cards wrong, and you end up being a guy like Gates, or even Darwin Mayflower.”
She squinted, considering his thesis. “This George Kaplan character does sort of remind me of Carver, now that you mention it.”
“See? You’re learning already!” He waved his hand demonstratively and unpaused the DVD, and Danny Aiello slung a grenade launcher over his shoulder as he and Bruce Willis began singing ‘Side By Side’. “Oh man, this is the best part of the whole movie.”
As Willis and Aiello sang, danced, and lit up CIA agents with grenades in Castle DaVinci, Lily developed a pensive look. “You talked about the men, but what about the women? They don’t seem to be as important in this film.”
Aaron sighed. “Yeah, that’s the early ‘90s for you. Sad to say, Hollywood hasn’t gotten a lot better on that score over the years. You have no idea how hard it is to find a decent action figure of Black Widow. But I still maintain that the female characters in Hudson Hawk aren’t all bad role models. Take Anna Baragli, for example. She’s not a front-line soldier by any means, but she’s smart and cool under pressure. She infiltrates the friggin’ CIA, man, and makes the Mayflowers believe she’s gone crazy with curare poisoning when they try to interrogate her until she has the opportunity to strike back at them. The downside, though, is, the other strong females are all villains. Almond Joy is a badass for sure; she takes shit from nobody, regardless of the tackle they’re sporting. And Minerva Mayflower…Well, she’s batshit crazy, but you have to admit she’s a dominant woman. But yeah, neither of them are nice people.”
“And that’s what you think men want from women? Intelligent, dominant, taking no shit? That certainly hasn’t been my experience,” Lily said.
“Well, if all you’re looking for is something to copulate with, then no, those traits aren’t desirable,” Aaron said sheepishly. “But that’s sort of the point. Lily, for too long people have treated you like an object—a possession. People don’t like for their possessions to have free will and rational thoughts. They just want obedience. But if you’re tired of being an object, and you want to be a person…then yeah, smart, tough, and committed to a general lack of shit-taking is a good place to start in this world. Sure, it’ll piss people off, but sometimes that’s the tradeoff for getting to be the person you want to be.” He hit ‘play’ on the remote. “Come on, let’s finish this up, there’s only about ten minutes left. Look, Hawk’s gonna fight Kaplan and then he has to figure up how to blow up the gold machine!”
Lily rolled her eyes, an affectation Aaron was surprised to see she could perform. “I certainly hope all of your visits aren’t going to involve bad movies from the 1990s.”
“Oh, they very well could; I have a fondness for that era of American cinema. Encino Man could teach you a lot about how human friendships form, come to think of it. But no, actually, next time I was thinking Star Wars.”
“Is it a long movie?” She asked.
Aaron winced. “Depends on which one we watch…I mean, Attack of the Clones sure as heck was. But I think you’d like The Force Awakens. There’s this one character named Rey…”
Aaron stepped off the elevator onto the lab floor and turned toward Ken Yakana’s office. He was overdue to pick up another allotment of anti-oneiric serum, although he suspected he’d have a stop-order come through in the next day or so. Maybe I’ll get one good night’s sleep before the shit hits the fan again. Didn’t get much last night, for sure. The wash of guilt came flooding back into him again, this time intermixed with a warm glow of satisfaction from last evening’s series of pleasurable exertions.
As Aaron rounded the corner past a series of cubicles where some engineers were comparing calculations of neural voltage output between subjects with different strains of vampirism and quoting data from “the Cunningham study”, he saw a few familiar faces: a young Lebanese lab tech who had taken most of his phlebotomy samples when he’d been in for testing, a dark-skinned British assistant with the most fabulous purple-dyed flat-top haircut he’d witnessed outside of the 1990s who always called him ‘lovey’, two female mathematicians he had seen down at the firing range the last two days arguing on either side of a whiteboard in Castilian Spanish, and ASI’s resident medium extraordinaire and psychic prodigy, Gina Tarantino, looking every bit the Real Housewife of New Jersey in her body-hugging blue mini-dress and leopard-print Manolo Blahniks. Aaron smiled and nodded at her as he rapped on the door to Ken’s office. “Hiya Gina,” he said.
“Oh, heeeeeey, Aaron!” she tossed back cheerily over her shoulder. They passed one another without thought, just two co-workers in a hurry saying a quick hello.
And then Aaron heard Gina’s footsteps stop, the staccato rhythm of her high heels on the tiled hallway floor suddenly silenced. The subsequent quiet was ear-shattering.
Fuck, he thought. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. I am so, so fucked. No one, in the history of being fucked, has ever been fucked this hard.
He bolted through the door to Ken’s office, nearly bowling over the young scientist, who was just on the other side. Aaron pushed past Ken and shut the door behind him, dropping down into the chair on the other side of the small desk. “Oh hey, man, I was wondering when you’d be stopping by!” Ken said enthusiastically, grinning. “How you feeling? I heard all about Alexandria, that shit is wild, bro! Look at you, though—tell me your boys here in R&D don’t take good care of you, amiright?” The shorter man put out a fist for a pound.
Aaron coughed, bumping his own fist with Ken’s half-heartedly. “Y-yeah, you guys are the greatest,” he half-stuttered, through a nervous smile. “Uh, hey, Ken, I’m kinda in a hurry—got an appointment in a bit. Can we raincheck the small talk?”
“Oh, sure thing, bro. Lemme see, where’d I put that kit at?” Ken opened a drawer in the bottom of his desk and started rummaging through it. “Look, Kwan and Marisol have been at it for a few days now about the saline balance in this new batch, and I’m a little concerned that the pH levels aren’t ideal, so I want you to try taking some AlkaLife when you inject this week and let me know if you feel any—”
“Ken.” Aaron’s voice was tersely insistent. Over Ken’s head, through the small window looking out into the hallway, Gina was peering in at Aaron, staring daggers through the glass. “I’m in a hurry. If you need me to report on this batch, send me an email detailing frequency and dosage and I promise I will give you every data point you need. Now can I get my serum, please?” Aaron stood and crossed over to the window, shutting the blinds on the fuming clairvoyant Jerseyite.
“Oh, sure, man! Sorry, bro, I didn’t mean to hold you up.” Ken handed Aaron a slimline metal kit with a latch and combination lock. “Hey listen, Grace was saying you’ve been hitting the range and she wants you to start lifting, but bro, you gotta do some Parkour with me. Raw muscle is cool and all, but you can’t beat endurance if things go to shit in the field, amiright? We’ve got a beginner’s class at the Boys’ Club, I can sign you up if you—”
“Does this door work?” Aaron asked, crossing back to the other side of the office and slipping the kit into his satchel.
“Sure, man, just turn the deadbolt. But that way is further from the elevators. Hey look, if you do ever wanna try Parkour, bro, just shoot me a text and we’ll—”
“‘MmkaysoundsgreatbyeKen,” Aaron blurted, fleeing out the now-unlocked back door and slipping into the opposite hallway.
He turned the corner, hoping to quickly and stealthily cut back across the cubicles before he could be seen, and ricocheted right off of Gina’s artificially-ample 38DDs.
She backhanded him on the shoulder, hard; his still-bruised clavicle screamed at his nerve endings. “Ow! Watch where you point those things, they’re like a frickin’ bouncy castle!”
Gina scowled and snatched Aaron by the ear, dragging him toward an empty conference room a few doors down. “Owowowowowwwwww, what the shit, Gina?” he yelped. She shoved him into a low swivel chair and slammed the door behind her, locking it with a flick of her wrist, her crimson acrylic nails tapping on the doorjamb as she did so. She crossed her arms. Aaron shut his eyes reflexively and almost presciently.
“You just had to do it, didn’t you? You just couldn’t keep it in your pants! What the hell were you thinking, Aaron?” Gina fumed.
“Uhh… I guess I really wasn’t.” He opened his eyes and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, staring downward at the thin blue-gray carpet beneath his Chuck Taylors.
“You listen to me, Aaron Mathias: if you hurt that little girl’s feelings, I will freakin’ end you. You understand me? I may spend most of my time listening to spirits, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk back to them! And I got a ghost of a women’s suffrage activist just ready and waiting to go all 1919 on some male chauvinist’s ass, so don’t you make me sic her on you, young man. Natalie’s been nothing but good to you, and you owe her the same.”
Aaron threw up his hands as if warding off another slap. “Alright, alright, I get it! I’m sorry! I’m just as fucked in the head and mixed up by all of this as anyone else involved, you know. It hasn’t exactly been an easy week for me.”
The medium pointed a long red fingernail at him accusingly. “Oh honey, do not even go there with me. You don’t know the freakin’ year I have had, so don’t go making excuses for yourself just because you got shot a few times.” Gina closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding up her manicured hand, then pulled up a chair opposite Aaron’s. She yanked his chin up, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Look me in the eyes, Aaron. Just what is it you want? Do you even know?”
He shook his head. “After the thing in Denver last year, Alex was all I could think about. I knew she’d flip out if she ever found out about my medicine; that she’d probably run scared. I was so terrified of losing her, of her hating me because of what I had to do to keep a grip on things. And then she found out, from fucking Carver. Yeah, she was upset, but she still loved me. No matter how bad things sucked being cooped up for months on end until Elijah cooled things down enough for us to walk outside in broad daylight, at least I was with her.”
Gina nodded, as if she already knew what he was going to say. Which she did. “And then you both had to go back to work, and suddenly Alex’s life wasn’t about you anymore. That hurt, didn’t it?”
He frowned. “A little. Okay, yeah, a lot. I mean, I get it, I was busy too. I went off the anti-oneirics for weeks, after being on them for months. I was doing a lot of journaling to try and catch pieces of what Carver might be up to next. It was absolute hell, but I didn’t want to make Alex feel like she had to worry about me every second of the day.” He sighed and slumped backwards into the chair. “And then Natalie came back in town to work on Crime Lab: Philly, and we got to hang out again. We’d only seen each other incidentally on missions the whole year, and I thought I was over her—that I’d moved on. That maybe our lives were better off with us being apart. But it was like no time had passed when we started hanging out again. We did all the same little things we used to do to make each other laugh. I’d drag Nat out to a late movie and we’d yell and throw popcorn at the shitty acting, or she’d trap me at the Mac counter at the mall and make me up like Criss Angel or David Bowie…or both.” He smiled. “It was…nice. It felt normal. And Alex was so wrapped up getting acclimated to her routine here at ASI that she didn’t even notice. So I figured maybe she’d lost interest in me.”
The glamorous medium smirked. “And then the holiday party came around, and you decided to get all fancy-schmancy in your little Tuxedo Mask get-up. You were thinking there’d only be one girl there you wanted to see, but instead there were two.”
Aaron grit his teeth. “Yeah… and I dropped right back into Alex-mode again. But Nat seemed okay—or at least, she seemed like whatever was bothering her, it didn’t really have to do with us so much as the job. And then, after that Code Echo situation that night, she quit. Just left town and went back to L.A. Then Alex finally came out of her shell and started wanting to spend time with me again, and I…just figured that was what everyone wanted.” He rubbed his eyes again. “And then everything went to hell in D.C., and somehow I fucked it up even worse. So, what do I do now?”
Gina gave him a sad smile and rubbed his shoulder. “Aaron, sweetie, are you still in love with Natalie?”
He looked up at her, wide eyes rimmed with wetness. “Somedays I think I’m in love with them both. And I dunno how to deal with that.”
“It’s okay if you are, you know. You can’t help your feelings. But they have to choose their own paths, too. They need to do what’s right for them. So if that’s how you feel, maybe you should tell Alex and Natalie that, and then let them decide how they want to deal with it.”
“That…is simultaneously one of the smartest and scariest things anyone has ever said to me,” Aaron said.
“Ha. Welcome to my hell,” Gina said, popping a stick of cinnamon gum into her mouth and offering another to him. He took it.