Chapter 1: You Can Count on Me
“God, why do I always feel this sense of impending doom as soon as I see that sign?”
Aaron looks over for just a second, not wanting to disrupt his view of the road, but even in that short glance he can see Carson’s upset.
“I know,” he replies softly, a little of that same feeling stirring in his gut as the familiar streets and businesses start to come into view.
Welcome to Clover.
He squeezes the soft hand in his tightly, and he can see Carson’s tiny, grateful smile in the edge of his vision. Grinning back, Aaron pulls their interlinked hands closer until he can brush his lips over the back of Carson’s. And there it is, that glowing smile just meant for him, always a little shy but more certain now than ever.
Aaron rests their wrists back on the center console, still stroking a thumb soothingly down the side of his hand. “Just remember the plan.” He flicks the turn signal for a right into the neighborhood his parents live in, slowing down to accommodate the turn.
“Your parents’ until Christmas Eve, my mom’s until the 27th,” Carson says dutifully, and Aaron can hear the change in his voice as he calms down, never stopping the soft movements of his thumb. “Strategically avoid any and all Christmas parties thrown by Clover High Alumni, visit the graveyard—” his voice drops off to a pained whisper and Aaron presses another kiss to his hand “—and finally, get the hell out and not think about it for another semester.”
“Sounds perfect,” Aaron says quietly, trying to keep his voice light.
It was a long process, coaxing the soft parts of Carson out from the hard armored shell he always wore. Aaron didn’t even know that’s what he was doing at first, but it turns out all those times he purposefully got under Carson’s skin he was also exposing another little piece of the true self he kept so carefully concealed.
“It won’t be,” Carson sighs, and Aaron cuts his eyes over, opening his mouth to argue. “But, it’ll be as close as it could be, because through it all you’ll be there holding my hand.”
Aaron sucks in a breath, hitting the brakes a little too sharply at the last stop sign before his house. It still absolutely thrills him to the core when Carson says things like that, when he lets down his guard just for him and no one else. He knows it always will.
He throws the car into park.
Tugging on Carson’s hand to bring him closer, Aaron pulls him into a sweet kiss, sighing through his nose in relief when Carson immediately relaxes in. It was meant to be chaste, just a little sign of affection, a yes, exactly and nothing more.
That is, until Carson wraps his free hand around Aaron’s neck and pulls him back in, open-mouthed and searching deep. Making a little startled noise but not at all unwilling, Aaron gives in to the kiss eagerly, sucking on Carson’s lower lip.
The first brush of Carson’s tongue against his makes Aaron shiver, that same out-of-body realization that this is real and this is happening and that somehow this beautiful boy is all his.
The car behind them honks noisily, making Aaron and Carson spring apart guiltily. Aaron makes eye contact with the driver through his rear view mirror, groaning when he recognizes the Smiths that have lived next door for as long as he can remember.
Sorry, he mouths, putting the car back into gear. Instead of scowling in disgust or at the very least shaking her head in disapproval like he would guess, Mrs. Smith is smiling. Grinning from ear to ear.
Well, that’s… Unexpected. And really really nice.
“Dont think for a second I’m complaining, but. What was that for?”
He doesn’t even have to see Carson’s face to picture the sly smile, just a tiny bit bashful, head ducked but eyes bright with mischief. Adorable.
“Because I can’t do that in front of your parents.”
Aaron stops at the curb in front of his house, turning with his mouth already open to suggest just where they can do that, but Carson is already sliding out of the car, going to hug Aaron’s mom as his dad starts pulling luggage out of the trunk.
Shaking his head to himself, Aaron thinks that even with all the shit living in Clovis put him through, put them through, he can’t ever begrudge this town for the one beautiful thing it did give him.
He looks up at a tap on the window and can’t help but grin when he sees that Carson is smiling, remembering all too easily a time when he didn’t.
“Are you coming?” Carson says, voice muffled by the glass.
Aaron nods and slides out, knowing deep in his soul that he would follow Carson anywhere.
“Merry Christmas,” Carson is saying to his dad, offering his hand to shake and surprised when he gets pulled into a hug.
A very Merry Christmas indeed.
Chapter 2: Fancy Seeing You Here
sophomore year!caaron: Carson goes to make copies by himself for the first time and finds a lot more than he bargained for.
Carson pokes his head out into the hallway, looking up and down and listening hard for the sound of an approaching hall monitor. All is silent.
He strides toward the teachers’ room, trying to look as nonchalant as possible and holding the yellow hall pass carelessly (it’s actually from 2 weeks ago when Mrs. Evans asked him to run to the office for her, but with any luck anyone in authority passing will see the bright yellow and not ask questions). In his other hand is a master copy of the advertisement form for the Chronicle, and he walks carefully so it won’t wrinkle.
“It’s no big deal Carson, just go make copies!”
“But the sign always says ‘no students allowed’?”
“And the Britains didn’t want the colonists to rebel, either, but we’d all be drinking tea and eating crumpets if everyone listened to silly things like rules or signs. Now go!”
All five of the seniors on the staff had leered at him until he went, and Carson couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a test he had to pass, his official initiation into the group.
He holds his breath every time he hears a door opening, flinching at the thought of someone less-than-savory finding him stranded alone in the hallways. He could handle them, of course, with words, but there would be no quick exit into the black hole crowds of the in-between class shuffle. He feels naked, defenseless in all the open space.
He makes it to the teachers’ room safely, slipping through the smallest space in the door before firmly closing it. Anything out there is definitely scarier than running into a teacher or two in here.
Carson slumps against the door, pressing his forehead into the wood to catch his breath, when he registers a rhythmic whirring and clicking in the room. The copier. He stiffens up, ready to make excuses and explain himself out of it.
“Uhhh,” someone stammers out behind him, sounding a little confused and… scared?
Carson says, very clearly though the wood still muffles it to his ears, “I’m a black belt in jujitsu, and nothing you can say will stop me from kicking your ass.”
It’s not true and Carson isn’t even sure they have belts in jujitsu, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind.
“Uhhhhmmmm I don’t th-think that’ll be necessary?” It’s phrased as a question, vulnerable, almost.
Carson turns, half-raising his arms just in case, but drops them quickly, along with his jaw. What the—
“Aaron,” Carson says slowly, “What the fuck are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Aaron whines, holding out his arms like he’s unconcerned but Carson can see the faint blush creeping up his cheeks.
“Uh, sitting on the copier— that all the teachers in the school have to use, might I add— with your pants around your ankles?”
“Then you would be correct,” Aaron bites out, folding his arms and grinning, an echo of that insufferably cocky smile that doesn’t quite pass this time.
Oh god, it’s awkward. Carson stands still, debating furiously between running and disappointing the seniors or staying and suffering this horribly weird situation with a boy he’s always known, yet barely knows— just enough to be familiar, not enough to be comfortable, and Carson’s never been this uncomfortable in his life.
Carson is hot at the back of his neck, both from secondhand embarrassment and from all the skin Aaron has on display, like was it really necessary to peel his jeans all the way to his stupid ratty Converses? Did he really have to roll up his shirtsleeves to the elbow and undo the top two buttons? Carson carefully does not look where his underwear is pulled down just far enough, and oh god are those Batman boxers?? He slams his eyes shut, breathing out carefully, measured, trying to center his thoughts.
The copier clacks one last time and falls silent, deafening in the room between them.
“Uh, so, could you just, uh, turn … ?” Aaron asks haltingly, finally cutting through the awkwardness so thick Carson could reach out and touch it.
He complies, keeping his eyes clamped shut until he hears Aaron’s jeans zip back up. The woodgrain of the door is blurred in his eyesight when Aaron touches his shoulder.
Carson recoils immediately at the contact, the heat seeping through his shirt entirely foreign and making his pulse thrum fast in his throat.
“S-sorry,” Aaron mutters, dropping the hand quickly.
“Um, it’s alright,” Carson says, feeling silly for saying so until Aaron’s face brightens like Carson just made his whole day. Weird.
“See you around?” Aaron offers, waving a hand lightly and slipping out the door, stack of copies clutched tightly in the crook of his other elbow. Carson pretends he doesn’t see the brief glimpse of a clear outline of buttcheeks (really roundbuttcheeks, is that normal??) and makes a note to bleach his brain later.
Finally alone, he takes two steps towards the copier, looking back and forth from the machine to the sheet in his hand, a little wrinkled and damp now from the horrific encounter.
Ugh. He’ll just say the copier was broken.
Chapter 3: Pulled My Heart Out
In Kindergarten, Carson stands up for Aaron.
Spoilers for Chapter 8 of Feel Again -- or, at least, things are revealed here that are a plot point in part 8, so read at your own risk.
Growing up, Aaron’s mom told him how special he was, just like she told Mikey and Lea, even though they always rolled their eyes and said they were too old for that (they said that about most things).
Aaron listened, though, and held the words close to his heart, because when people had a hard time understanding him or he had a hard time getting his mouth to listen to his brain, he would remember that he was just special, just a little different than everyone else. But it wasn’t until kindergarten that Aaron learned what it really meant to be different, to be special.
It took him awhile to figure it out, not the first day or the first week or even the first month. It was the Friday before a long, three day weekend— Aaron’s family had plans to go see the Specific Ocean for Collard Bus Day, he kept hearing them say— and Miss Ann was losing her patience.
Aaron watches the hands on the clock, knowing that when the short one is on the 3 and the long one is on the 1 they can go— now, the long one is on the 11.
“Why don’t we all go around and say a little something about ourselves?” Miss Ann calls over the ruckus that has enveloped the room. Aaron, in the front row because of the alphabetical seating, sits quietly, hands in his lap, packed backpack on his table, staring at the clock.
“I know!” she continues, once the room has quieted a little in politeness for their teacher speaking. “Why don’t go around and say one thing we would wish for on a shooting star?”
The roar of voices threatens to surge up again, and Miss Ann raises her hand in warning. “No, one at a time! Why don’t we start from the back? Mr. Willis?”
Aaron sits quietly, not listening to his classmates’ answers as he tries to think of his own. Miss Ann has never asked them all to speak in front of the class before— she usually only calls on people who raise their hands, and Aaron never raises his hand.
A loud voice, louder than any of the rest, makes Aaron twist around in his seat. It’s a boy sitting on the next row back. He has brown hair and freckles totally covering his face. Carson, Aaron remembers. Sitting in front of him, Aaron hasn’t seen his face as much, but he does know that voice. Carson always raises his hand, and Miss Ann always calls on him like she’s begging him not to say something bad.
“If I made one wish,” Carson is saying, “I would wish for a giant anvil of sense to drop down on the heads of our country’s government!”
Miss Ann’s eyes get real round, and all the kids are staring at Carson. Aaron has no idea about half of what he just said, but the way Carson is just so loud andsure of what he’s saying isn’t like anything he’s ever heard out of the mouth of a kindergartener. How can someone his own age sound like such a grown up?
Carson notices the quiet, finally, and says, “Well, that’s what my grandpa always says.”
Miss Ann gets the class going again, moving on to the girl seated next to Carson who wishes for new ballet shoes, but Aaron keeps looking at Carson. He’s rested his chin on one fist and is looking around like he’s daring someone to make fun of his answer.
“H-hey,” Aaron whispers, and Carson looks at him. His eyes are real pretty, blue like his shirt.
Aaron realizes he doesn’t have anything to say. He just keeps looking at Carson, and Carson keeps looking back, head a little tilted like he’s trying to figure Aaron out.
It’s a little weird, being looked at by Carson, because Aaron is always so content to make himself real small, practically indivisible, so he doesn’t have to be looked at. It’s weird because it’s easy for Carson to look at him. Aaron doesn’t squirm one bit under those big blue eyes, doesn’t even remember that he’s supposed to be staring at the clock or worrying about what he’s going to say when Miss Ann calls on him. It’s silly, really, but looking at Carson feels almost… safe. And nice, too. Carson has a face that’s real easy to look at for a long time.
He quickly turns around, cheeks heating up a little with the thought of being caught staring at Carson. Clenching his eyes shut, Aaron tries not to think about all the eyes he can almost feel on the back of his head.
“Y-yes, M-miss-miss Ann?”
Giggles behind him, and that’s the worst, the laughing. Aaron wishes he could control his own tongue, but he can’t, no matter how many hours he works with his therapist or alone in his mirror at home. He’s known for a long time, as long as he can remember, that he didn’t talk like everyone else, but why was that any different than having brown hair instead of blonde or green eyes instead of blue…?
“Aaron, would you like to answer the question, honey? You don’t have to,” she says gently, so gently Aaron doesn’t know what to do.
“I-i-i-i,” Aaron tries, and the words get stuck in his throat and get him so frustrated that he can’t speak at all.
The giggles behind him have turned into outright laughs, and Aaron is mad, mad at his own stupid tongue that doesn’t seem to be getting the right message from his brain, mad at kids who think that laughing is going to help him spit out the words.
“Stop it! Leave him alone!”
Aaron sits up rigid-straight, scared to turn around. Was that— it couldn’t be—
“I should have wished for that anvil to come land on your heads instead—”
“Carson! I should be sending you straight to the principal’s—”
The bell rings for the end of the day and Miss Ann is saved from the rest of the threat that they all know won’t amount to much of anything (if she sent Carson to the principal’s office as many times as she threatened, he would never be in class). She shakes her head and puts back on her usual wide smile, moving to the door to tell them goodbye as she always does, this time also calling out to wish a safe and fun holiday weekend.
Aaron breathes slowly, looking down at his Batman backpack and sniffing the last of the wet in his eyes away before he has to go get picked up by his big brother. He knows he has time cause Mikey has to get all the way to Clover Elementary from the high school.
A pair of green and blue Skechers, the good kind that have velcro straps and light up red with every step, appear under his nose like a magic trick.
Aaron looks up slowly, rubbing his nose on his sleeve. It’s Carson, just like he thought.
“Y-you st-st-stood up f-for me,” Aaron squeaks, still not quite believing that happened.
“Of course I did,” Carson says like it’s the easiest, most obvious thing in the world. “Everyone should always stand up for what’s right.”
Aaron can’t stop staring, words refusing to form. What could he even say?
“So you’re okay?” Carson asks again, a little confused.
He thinks about it, about how when everyone laughed only Carson tried to make them stop. Aaron nods slowly.
“Good,” Carson says, turning for the door. They’re the last ones in the classroom.
Aaron scrambles to scoop up his backpack, hurrying after him. “W-wait!” he calls, reaching forward to grab Carson’s arm if he needs to. Carson stops, turns, and Aaron almost bumps right into him.
He takes a deep breath, scowling to try and force his brain and mouth to get it together because this might be the most important thing he’s ever said.
And it’s the first thing he’s ever, ever said right on the very first try. He laughs a little, thrilled with himself. Carson grins too, toothy and wide. “You’re welcome, Aaron.”
That shared smile feels like a secret, like a promise— like maybe he would be okay, because being different didn’t have to be a bad thing, not to everyone. Not to Carson.