"Come with me," Aaron said, standing in the doorway of our hotel room, looking down of my form seated on the couch.
Dusk had arrived by the time Aaron had finished his narrative in the lighthouse, and when Jason warned us that the groundskeeper would be returning soon, we had adjourned our meeting till we got back to the relative safety of the hotel room Aaron had rented for himself and Nikki and I.
Nikki and Jason were now in the back room, Jason telling his story and making known any information he had, while Nikki assisted with the recording.
Meanwhile, Aaron and I waited in the other room, talking a little amongst ourselves in hushed voices so as not to disturb the others.
The topic got onto our next move, and I reminded Aaron that I still needed to get his blood sample, to which he replied that we should take it now after shopping for the supplies we needed. As I was really the only one who knew what exactly was needed, Aaron invited me to come with him, as he scribbled a note for Nikki, leaving it on the table.
"Ready?" he asked, as I finished lacing up my shoes.
I nodded, and snagged the blue scarf that Aaron had stolen in Manila, covering my hair with it in the traditional way that women do in these parts, before I followed him out into the hallway.
He smiled, a reaction that I didn't know what for, and reached for my hand again, a familiar action that still never failed to make my heart leap inside of me.
Aaron was changed.
Ever since the fight in the rental in Manila, he was different. I don’t know exactly what was different, or even why, he just was. Often I would catch him watching me, a strange look upon his face as he seemed lost in thought. When caught, he would only smile, a small, half-smile with an expression in it that I couldn’t read, his eyes still never leaving mine in that penetrating gaze that always left me out of breath and looking away.
I noticed also, with a slight thrill, that he initiated physical contact with me more, often surprising me by suddenly lacing his fingers between mine, or laying a comforting hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t even really his touch that surprised me, but when he chose to do so—always when I was afraid, saddened, or worried at our situation. I never said a word about my feelings, only thinking about them in my mind; but then suddenly Aaron would be there, rescuing me from my thoughts, comforting me, giving me hope and a sense of safety all in one simple squeeze of my hand, or a light brush against my skin with his fingertips.
And while I wondered inwardly that I was that transparent to him, I was secretly glad of the fact.
"I'll take us to a few shops, and if you see what you need let me know." Aaron said, leading me down the flight of echo-y stairs to the ground floor.
I noticed, with a smile, that Aaron actively avoided elevators for reasons unknown to me.
When we finally surfaced out on the street, the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, but that fact did not dim the activity going on in the city. It was still as loud and as hectic as normal.
As always, Aaron took the lead, and I followed him as he wove a path through the crowds and along byways, our fingers laced together so that we would never separate.
In a market center of sorts, Aaron purchased four bowls of soup, and we sat down at a table beside a large fountain where children were playing to eat ours, packaging up the other two for Jason and Nikki.
"It doesn’t seem real that all of this will soon be over." Aaron whispered, dipping his spoon in and out of his soup uninterestedly. "To be honest, I don’t know what I'm gonna do next……"
It will soon all be over.
What a thought that was. I too didn't know what I would do. Leaving Aaron? Walking away into the unknown? Having to completely build up from scratch the life that had been burned to the ground? All were prospects I didn't really want to consider.
What would I do?
My future, once whatever plan Aaron had in his mind was completed, try as I might, was entirely dark to me. A complete and utter void that I could not pierce with a ray of comprehension, or foresight.
I only knew, only hoped, that I would not have to leave Aaron.
"My whole life," Aaron continued in a quiet tone, still staring into his soup, "I've done nothing but follow orders; from the time I was a boy, to the army, to Outcome." He glanced up at my face with an unsure manner. "I've never made my own decisions like this before. I've never had…..a choice. A choice in what life I want to have. In what life I can create." He breathed a small joyless chuckle, taking a sip of his bottled water and looking off into the crowd. "Frightening prospects." he muttered, voicing my own thoughts.
My eyes also drifted away absentmindedly into the bustle of the city around us, my gaze landing on the throng of children playing by the fountain as I sought distraction from my own thoughts.
It was a while before I realized that I was the object of someone's scrutiny, and my gaze landed on a small boy dressed in a dirty brown tunic and a black skullcap, staring blank-faced and openly at me, no doubt attracted by the sight of an American.
I smiled slightly at him as our eyes met, but he only blinked and cocked his head a fraction, before turning away, soon melting into the crowd.
I sighed softly to myself, turning my attention back to the soup I suddenly had no appetite for, my eyes flashing up to Aaron's face.
He was staring absentmindedly at the small design on the tablecloth before him, a slight furrow showing over his brow as he troubled over his own thoughts. At length he felt my eyes upon him, and his stormy blue ones flashed up to meet mine, an almost guilty half-smile playing about his lips at having being caught in his reverie.
But there was something else in that smile, and in the look in his eye. Something else that made me freeze, my breath leaving me, and something warm sparking deep in my stomach.
I was caught. Trapped in his gaze, and held there by the spell he seemed to weave over me without even trying or meaning too.
I was suddenly made aware of the power those eyes held, how easily they could manipulate and control one should he desire. No doubt they were one of his best assets when constructing some lie, or skillfully extracting the truth from one of his oblivious and hapless victims when doing God knows what in the "field", as they called it.
The smile on his face matured, before fading casually, and his eyes left mine to drop down to our backpack leaning up against one of the table legs, which he snatched up and threw over his shoulders once more, rising as he did so.
"Ready?" he asked with an innocent smile, completely oblivious to the effect he had just produced upon me.
The spell was broken.
I blinked, pushing back out of my seat with a flustered, half-hearted smile. "Yeah…." I mumbled, picking up the bag that contained Jason and Nikki's share of the meal.
Together, under his lead, Aaron and I entered several pharmacies and other drug/medical supply outlets, searching until I had found all that I required to safely and sterilely draw multiple blood and fluid samples from Aaron.
As we shopped, both of us were painfully aware of the irony of the situation, and I was frequently unable to contain a smile or a slight laugh at the faces Aaron would pull as I examined a packaged needle, or selected a multitude of small vials.
At last we had purchased all that we needed and were once more out on the streets, picking our way back to the hotel room, my hand once more claimed by Aaron's as he guided me, his head swiveling in all directions while his senses were on high alert, a fierce protectiveness practically radiating off of him.
As we waited for a traffic sign to change, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye, turning my head to look at it.
There, standing across the street was the same small boy in the dirty tan tunic and black skullcap, his eyes staring across the stretch of pavement to focus fixedly on me. At first his presence and blank-faced stare directed at me by the fountain was merely odd, but now, as the cars whizzed between us, this second meeting feeling less and less like a coincidence in this large city, I found it to be unsettling.
"Aaron…." I began in a quiet, cautious tone, tearing my eyes hesitantly away from the boy to look at Aaron.
He turned and looked down at my face quickly at my tone, catching the note of uncertainty in my voice.
"I—" I faltered, suddenly at a loss for words, as I was unsure how to explain the sudden feeling of dread coming over me. "Remember how you once told me that if at any point I felt uncomfortable, I should tell you and we would be gone?"
Aaron tensed, and I could literally feel the sudden increase of consciousness about him, all of his senses instantly on high alert.
"Well," I hesitated, my eyes meeting his sheepishly, "I feel uncomfortable."
His eyes narrowed slightly, and he did a quick survey of the area before returning his attention back to me.
"Anything you want to tell me?" he asked in a low tone, his eyes looking piercingly into mine, while he took a step towards me in a manner that was unmistakably protective.
Again I hesitated, glancing back across the street once more.
The boy was nowhere to be found.
What was I playing at? Wasn’t it all just my imagination? It was simply a chance encounter, a coincidence. After all, he was just a boy……
Still, the feeling of unrest was there.
"No." I finally answered, turning back to meet Aaron's gaze.
He watched me for a moment, trying to read me, his eyes still narrowed and his form still tensed, before nodding and turning abruptly to lead me across the street.
I noticed that during our whole trip back to the hotel room, Aaron never relaxed his guard, and he often took alternate routes as if to shake any tail we might have.
And though I too remained alert, I never saw the boy again, nor even a flash of tan fabric.
By the time we actually arrived at the hotel room, I had put the whole thing down as hypersensitive nerves from being on the run for so long, and had dismissed the idea that a child could threaten any danger towards Aaron, Jason, Nikki, or myself.
"I hope you brought food." Nikki voiced cheerily as we entered from her seat on the couch where Jason was reclining on the other end. I noticed that both her and Jason had slight happy smiles on their faces, and both of their bodies were angled towards each other, as if they had been earnestly employed in a conversation with each other before Aaron and I had entered.
"Well then, I hope you like soup," I said with a small smile, placing their two food containers on the table, my eyes glancing up at Aaron as he walked past to go peer out the window after fastening the door.
Great, now you've got him on edge. Good job, Marta.
"Have you finished recording your statement?" I asked, looking from Jason to Nikki while I still watched Aaron out of the corner of my eye.
Nikki nodded and pointed to a recording device on the countertop. "Everything is on there." She said, with a side glance directed at Jason, who, intercepting her glance, returned it with a hint of a smile playing about his lips.
"Did you get what you needed?" Jason asked, making a move towards his soup container on the table, as he raised up the small note Aaron had left for Nikki.
"Yeah," Aaron mumbled from his position by the window, still looking out from between the curtains.
Jason noticed, and raised an eyebrow accordingly.
"Something go wrong out there?" he asked in a low tone, watching Aaron closely.
For a moment Aaron was silent, pulling away from the window to meet Jason's eyes, before he gave me a sideways glance. "No…." he muttered, matching Jason's low tone. "Just….you can never be too careful...."
Jason's eyes never left his face, but after a moment he nodded.
"If you need us," Aaron continued, snagging the bag of supplies we had bought, "we'll be in the back room." He gave a nod directed towards me, before disappearing in the room in question.
With a small smile I dismissed myself from Jason and Nikki, following him and closing the door behind me.
Aaron glanced my way as I entered, before proceeding to pull his shirt up over his head, tossing it on the bed before taking a seat on the edge.
I could feel his eyes following me as I dug through the bag, opening packages as I prepared the syringes and vials. When I had gathered all I needed, I pulled a chair over before the bed and took a seat, snapping on a pair of latex gloves before preparing a spot on his arm over a nerve.
Poised over him with a needle in my hand, I hesitated, my eyes flicking up to his face, countless scenes of déjà vu flashing through my mind.
His eyes met mine, and he smiled softly, his hand moving to claim my free one, giving it a slight squeeze. "One last time." he whispered with a smile, briefly running his thumb over my knuckles before releasing my hand to allow me to finish my work.
I looked into his eyes for a second longer, before bending my head to the task at hand, breaking through skin with the point of the needle, and watching in fascinated silence as the vial slowly filled with the bright scarlet fluid of his blood.
The first syringe full, I took two more samples just to be on the safe side before wiping the area with a cotton swab doused in alcohol, before smoothing a small band-aid over the area.
This seemed to amuse Aaron very much, and he was about to make some smart remark on the subject, when I gave him a silencing glare before rising and packing away the vials of his blood beside the others in our backpack.
Still the amused smirk remained on his face, and it only grew as he flexed his arm absentmindedly, running a fingertip over the band-aid.
"Do I get a lollipop now?" he finally muttered with a smirk, unable to stay silent any longer. "Or maybe some stickers?"
"Oh, shut up!" I snapped at him, turning my back to him and going over to the window in an attempt to hide the smile that had spread on my face despite myself.
That smile suddenly vanished from my face, my whole body tensing as I stared down in frozen terror at the sight that greeted me out the window on the street below.
"Marta?" Aaron said urgently, quickly rising to stand beside me after catching the sudden change that came over me. "Marta, what is it? What's wrong?"
"We need to leave!" I cried, still looking out the window. "Aaron, we need to leave right. now!"
He tensed, his hand finding a protective hold on my arm as he reached the window and peered over my shoulder at the situation.
There on the street below us, looking up, stood a tall man, his face and body tanned and burly, while beside him, also looking up and pointing at our window, was a small boy dressed in a dirty tan tunic and a black skullcap.