It was bright; blinding whites and yellows that overwhelmed every other sight. Then there was an earth-shaking boom that made his entire body quake. It felt like the world had quite suddenly blown apart at the seams, leaving him to be buffeted around in the limbo left behind.
There was another explosion and Auggie bolted upright with a stifled scream. The light blended with the darkness, flashes of color flaring behind his eyes over the shadows that were threatening his vision now, and he was disoriented as he felt his mind being tugged back and forth between times and places. Everything was distorted and the only thing that remained constant was the heavy sounds and his fear. Even with this, he had enough sense to recognize what was going on.
It was another thunderstorm. And an anxiety-attack.
Rolling over and desperately untangling himself from the sweat-soaked sheets he'd somehow gotten caught up in, he jerked open the night table drawer. His shaking hand pawed through the contents until they closed around a familiar pill bottle. When he lifted it, it made no noise and his heart plummeted. Empty. Shit.
A whole new kind of panic swept over him now. It had been a long time since he'd suffered through one of these without his anti-anxiety meds. That time hadn't ended well, and he was really not looking forward to a reoccurrence.
Another crash made him jump so badly that he hit his head against the headboard, making more little lights blink behind his eyes and sending his stomach up into his throat. In a brief moment of lucidity, he realized he shouldn't be alone. That would be the next best way to handle this. With somebody else here he stood a better chance of staying sane. Or at least there would be someone to make sure he didn't get hurt again like last time.
The only problem was, who? There were only three people outside of his doctors who even knew he had PTSD; two were his bosses and the other lived in Illinois.
A boom made the glass in the window rattle and in an instant his hand had leapt out and seized the phone, knocking something else to the floor in the process. He jammed the speed dial and pressed the phone to his ear. It rang four times before he heard the sleepy, "hello?"
"Annie?" he asked and was scared to hear how badly his own voice was shaking.
Her voice was suddenly alert and concerned. "Auggie, what's wrong?"
He took an unsteady breath and said the only thing that his frantic mind could process. "I need you."
"I'm on my way."
The moment she hung up, Auggie dropped the phone onto the mattress. In any other situation, he would've protested against the idea of Annie seeing him like this, but at the moment he had to admit that he was basically out of options. She was his best friend, and if anyone could understand him and help him, it would be her.
Trying to keep himself going until she got there, he dragged himself out of bed and lurched unsteadily toward the living room. The disorienting twists in reality were doing a real number on him, and he suddenly found the apartment that he normally navigated without incident to be like a mine field. He jarred his ankle by not realizing the step down into the main room was so close, clipped his hip against the corner of the island counter, and kept jamming his fingers against furniture he had forgotten was there.
Once his hands found the front door – two more crashes of thunder had delayed his progress quite a bit – he flipped the locks so Annie would be able to get in and then moved over to the sofa. He collided with it and stepped carefully around. A peal of thunder, so strong that the ground beneath his feet shuddered, made him jump and he lost his footing. As he fell he caught his arm painfully against the coffee table.
Groaning, he sat up with his back to the couch, drawing his legs up to his chest protectively. He tried to muffle the sound of the storm by pressing his hands hard over his ears, burying his face in the cradle of his knees. "C'mon, August, clear your head," he ground out, although he could only hear his voice inside his head through his improvised earmuffs. He tried to focus, to keep his thoughts on one thing and out of Iraq, but each new crash shattered his defenses.
Everything was going white and yellow again, the reflection of sunlight blinding him. There were shouts, voices that sounded anxious and hurried. The world seemed to be spinning beyond control, until he tightened his hands, digging his fingernails into the sides of his face just to know that he was at least still holding onto something. The explosion only made the vertigo worse, shaking the ground out from underneath him until he was lost in the blur of color and sound.
A hand landed on his shoulder and his self-defense instincts went into overdrive. Someone was trying to attack him, get him while he was weakened by the explosions. His arm flew up and knocked away the hand, grabbing the wrist and twisting so the person fell against him. Without hesitation his free arm looped around the person's neck.
"Auggie!" The voice barely managed to cut through the rush of adrenaline in his ears, and he tensed. No, something about this was off. The colors were bleeding away, leaving nothing but darkness in their wake. The hand that he hadn't trapped was pulling at his arm, trying to tug it away from the neck, and again he heard a breathless, "Auggie, it's just me."
"Annie," he realized and instantly released her, drawing away from the body that momentarily slumped against him while she tried to gather herself. "Annie, I'm sor-" The return of the storm cut him off and he struggled to keep his mind on the person that he could hear shifting around in front of him. Even though he anticipated it, he still flinched when her hand touched his forearm.
"Auggie, what's wrong?" she asked, and the obvious fear in her voice doubled the guilt he already felt over having attacked her.
"I'm sorry," he finally finished. "I – I didn't want to wake you, but – it's just – you're all I've got." He tensed at another clap of thunder.
"It's fine," she said and he felt her other arm slide around his shoulders. "Just tell me what's wrong."
Closing his eyes, a fruitless gesture that was still somehow oddly comforting, he forced himself to take several slow, steady breaths. The hand on his shoulder was rubbing gentle circles and he focused on it, timing his breathing with the revolutions. "It's the thunder," he said, wanting to get the explanation out as quickly as possible. He wasn't sure whether it was from a desire to get it out before another thunderclap robbed him of his momentary calm or if he just wanted to admit the embarrassing truth and be done with it. "The noise. It's too much like – it's like Iraq and I –"
Somehow Annie seemed to suddenly understand because he felt her grip tighten just slightly. It was a relief, because the windows rattled again and he instinctively withdrew into himself again. "Don't you have some medications you can take when this happens?" she asked quietly, not stopping the circles she was massaging into his shoulder blade.
"I'm out," he croaked and then briefly wondered how and when his voice had gotten so hoarse. "I got caught up with that work in Russia and called in my refills late. They haven't gotten here yet."
"So much for Mr. Responsibility," she teased him lightly, and even though it was small and short-lived, he managed a tense smile in response. There was a beat of silence and then suddenly Annie made a strange, gasping noise and seized his forearm. "You're bleeding."
He winced as she twisted his arm in an effort to get a better look at the tender skin. "I fell," he said vaguely.
"We should get you cleaned up," Annie said, making to stand up.
Auggie tightened his grip before she could pull her hand out of his, a small burst of panic forming in his chest. "Wait. Don't go," he said. A split-second later a crash of thunder made him duck his head instinctively as his heart leapt.
"Okay, c'mon then," Annie said and she took him by the elbow and helped him gently to his feet. "Your arm is bleeding pretty badly, we've got to get it cleaned at least." Auggie clutched her arm as she steered him across the apartment. When they reached the step up to the next room he stumbled and nearly fell again, having been so disoriented that he hadn't known where they were at. "Oh God, you okay?" Annie asked, steadying him on his feet again and sounding anxious. "I'm sorry, I assumed you knew we'd got to the step."
"Fine," Auggie said shortly, concentrating more on the feel of her bare forearm under his hand as the noise of the storm picked up again. "I'm fine, just–" He trailed off, twitching when the wind shook the glass in the windows.
"Okay, well careful with your step," Annie said and led him up the stairs to the bathroom, which he only registered by the change of carpet to tile beneath his feet. "Where're the washcloths?" she asked as she made him sit down on the toilet lid.
"Under the sink, left side," he responded. He reluctantly let go of her arm so she could get the supplies and instead tried to focus on timing his breaths. Annie made enough noise while she rummaged through his cabinets that he was able to keep a pin on her, apart from the faint echoes coming off the tiled walls. There was the sound of running water and then he felt her take his wrist and turn it to get to the gash.
"Don't be a baby," she joked when he hissed as she wiped his forearms a bit roughly, and she bumped him with her elbow to show she was playing. He had just allowed a short smile when another ring of thunder sounded, echoing so loudly he shouted and tried to recoil. If Annie hadn't been holding onto his arms he would have wound up on the floor again.
"Damn it," he cussed violently, grabbing his head with his free hand while his body trembled. "Damn it, damn it, shit!"
"Hey, Auggie, calm down," Annie said in a rush. He felt her let go of his arms but a second later she had put her hands on either side of his face. "Focus on me, Auggie. I'm right here." She brushed the pads of her thumbs over his cheekbones slowly, resting her cool forehead against his.
"The noise," he grumbled, not sure when it had become so difficult to talk through his thickened throat. "It's worse here."
"Okay, I'm hurrying," she promised, apparently satisfied that he was still sane. The loss of contact on his face made him shiver, but he heard her opening the medicine cabinet and a minute later she had come back and taken his forearm again. She hummed quietly under her breath while she wrapped the gauze around his arm, a strange tuneless melody that he couldn't place. "You didn't hit your head when you fell, did you?"
"No, just my arm," he said. She made a small noise of assent and then she took both of his hands in hers and stood him up. They had only taken a few steps when Auggie suddenly jerked back to Iraq, the earth-shattering explosion around him blinding his every sense. He ducked down, shielding his head in his arm as best as he could and pushing his back against a wall.
"Auggie, come on," he heard a voice say but he couldn't see the speaker through the darkness left behind in the wake of the explosion. Startled, he swung out in defense and whoever it was grabbed his wrist. "C'mon, it's me, Annie. Come back to me Augs." He felt a presence directly in front of him, someone drawing his arm around their shoulders, and the sweet smell of fruit.
"Yeah, I'm here," Annie said, wrapping her arm more tightly around his waist. "It's okay, we're out of the bathroom now. It shouldn't be so bad." Auggie muttered a string of curse words beneath his breath as he let Annie lead him across the bedroom. To his surprise, Annie laughed quietly and said, "I can't imagine how much trouble you'd be in if your mother heard that language." She instructed him to sit down on the bed, and once he had she climbed up next to him.
Auggie fisted his hands in the sheets as Annie manoeuvred around on the bed, trying to figure out just what she was doing. She finally seemed to settle behind him, somewhere near the headboard. Her hands landed on his biceps and she tugged him back lightly. "Lay back and relax," she said, gradually dragging him backwards. He laid back until he felt his back collide with her body, and then she snaked her arms around his chest, still gripping his arms with her hands.
"What are you doing?" Auggie asked uncertainly as she stretched her legs out so they ran down either side of his body.
"Grounding you," Annie answered simply. "It's easier to fight it off when there's something keeping you here, isn't there? Since you can't see me, I figured this would be better than nothing."
Auggie opened his mouth to respond but a new wave of thunder broke out and instead he flinched in on himself, placing his hands on hers and squeezing her wrists. In response she brushed her fingers over his upper arms gently, making a soft, soothing noise. Even as his world shook violently and the dazzling colours flashed in his mind, he was able to focus on the thin arms around him and the whisper of her voice, and it kept him in DC instead of Iraq.
"Did I tell you about that idiot Danielle set me up with last week?" Annie asked conversationally once the noise outside had died down slightly.
"No, why?" Auggie said curiously.
"Oh he was a completely moron," she said dramatically, dropping her chin so it rested on his shoulder lazily. "He's supposedly a friend of a friend of a friend of Michael's, or something like that. And really, I think Michael needs to get some new friends. This guy was a taxidermist. He had a stuffed mouse that he carried around in his pocket like a good luck charm. And I don't mean a cute little toy mouse you give to a kid, I mean a mouse that used to be alive and then got stuffed with sawdust. It was disgusting!"
She continued on in that vein for the next ten minutes straight, raising her voice to talk louder every time the storm would pick up again, and it didn't take Auggie long to realise what she was doing: she was giving him something more to focus on. After a while he started responding to her stories, tossing in comments and opinions to help himself stay invested in the conversation, until it reached the point where he was the one sharing stories. He told her about his family home in Glencoe, and missions he'd run when he was a field agent, and his favourite books and movies. He rambled a nonstop stream of information, and whenever a crash of thunder distracted him she would gently prompt him to pick back up where he left off.
Auggie couldn't tell exactly when the storm started fading off. He also couldn't pinpoint exactly how Annie had wound up laying beside him instead of sitting behind him. She still had her arms wrapped around his waist, her head tucked into the hollow of his shoulder, as she listened to him talk. He also couldn't say just how much he liked the feel of her curled up in bed next to him, although that was a thought he felt was better kept to himself for now.
"Annie?" he asked after a while longer. By now the thunder had died away to nothing more than the occasional distant grumble, hardly louder than a truck driving passed the building.
"Yeah, Augs?" Annie asked, and he could tell that even though she was trying to hide it, she was getting tired.
"Thank you," he said. "For being here."
"That's what best friends are for," she answered and he felt her smile against his skin. "You gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Auggie said, relaxing back against the pillows and leaning his head sideways to rest against the top of hers. "You should probably get some sleep now."
"Way ahead of ya," Annie said and chuckled.
Auggie smirked. "I can take the couch."
Annie made a noise of protest and tightened her grip. "Too late, I just got comfortable," she informed him. "You're stuck." Auggie hesitated and then sank back into the bed again, his free hand pawing around until he found the duvet bundled near the lower half of the bed and pulled it up over them both. "Besides, I don't wanna have to patch you up if you fall over out there again," Annie added, punctuating the sentence with a yawn.
"Fair enough," Auggie said and grinned. Burying his nose in her hair, he breathed in the smell of grapefruit and felt the tension leaving his muscles. He still felt on edge, and it would be a long time before he'd be able to get through a thunderstorm without the pain of reliving his last visible memories in Iraq. Part of him was still embarrassed that Annie had seen him so vulnerable, and he knew come morning the shame would hit him full force. But for right now, he was laying in bed with a beautiful woman who cared enough about him to rush over in the middle of the night without explanation, and who he cared for a hell of a lot more than he dared to admit. He decided it was best to just enjoy the minute while it lasted.
He still hated those god damned thunderstorms, but eve thunder clouds have silver linings.