The fire was beautiful. Red and yellow, dancing against the dark night sky, the faint hints of smoke visible by the light of the inferno beneath. It flickered, appearing almost gentle at a distance, in and out of the already blackened windows and doors. Firemen busied around, shadows against the light. Ants wresting a chunk of sugar, breaking it down, guiding it to where they want it to go, always almost just out of control; the cube always threatening to fall and crush them.
"Hey man, you got a place to go?"
Zayn broke out of his trance and looked at the speaker. The policeman had been the one who'd stopped him from rushing in: Now all he could do is stand and watch as everything he owned burned to the ground. He took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Yeah… I can get a motel room or something. No problem."
"Ok. If you're sure." It was a question, really.
"Yeah. No problem. I'll be fine." He'd just run out for supper. Not even good food: A burger. Because he didn't feel like doing dishes. When he came back... "Any idea what caused it?"
"Impossible to say at this point. They'll have to take a look once it's out. Look, why don't you find a motel room or something for the night. I've got your cell number. We'll find you, get you a report you can get to your insurance people. No need to stand around here."
"Sure. Ok." He stood watching for another few minutes, then wandered off. He didn't feel like mentioning that his cell phone was in the house, which had just burned down. As was his car.
All he had were the clothes on his back, and whatever was in his wallet. $17, cash, and a few credit cards.
It was going to be a bad week.
It had been a bad week. He'd found a cab, and gotten a room in a dive of a motel. It'd been cabs to work as well, until he managed to talk the insurance into paying for a rental.
They were being nice, apologetic, and not releasing any money until the investigation had completed.
Until then... He'd been lucky to find that house when he moved into the area a few years ago. Housing in the area was scarcer than just about anyplace he'd ever seen. And at the moment, he couldn't afford anything.
But he couldn't afford the motel room for more than another week or so either. So, newspaper in hand, he was starting at the cheapest. It was on the seedier side of town, although the house itself was impressive.
Zayn's first impression of the person who opened the door was basically 'bouncy' and 'boobs'. "Hi! My name is Aurelia! What's yours?"
"Um, hi. My name is Zayn. I've come to see about the room…" Should he be asking for her parents? Or was she old enough to be on her own?
"Oh, yay! I was afraid no one wanted it!" The fact that he was still on the doorstep made the crushing hug quite a bit softer than it might otherwise have been. On the plus side, he was now sure those impressive breasts were real. She let him breathe again as she bounced away, saying: "Here, let me show you them!"
He followed, feeling dragged by a bubbly whirlwind.
"Here they are! It's a full suite, really. No separate entrance, but it's got it's own bath, bedroom, and even a small living room. There's even a kitchenette! Although you'd be welcome to use the full kitchen as well; this one's a little cramped."
He looked around, and had to agree with her. Although that was the only thing about the suite that was cramped. This was larger than some apartments that he'd been in, and the description he'd just been given completely ignored the other small room. Although, to be fair, it didn't really have a door; it was just set off the 'living room' as his guide called it.
"Oh! And there's space in the garage! You can park a car as well! And I can get rid of this furniture: It's just some old junk I've left sitting around."
That 'old junk' was better furniture than he'd had in his house.
"It looks nice. You live here all by yourself?"
"Uh-huh. That's one reason I'm renting the rooms out: It gets lonely by myself."
Ah, so that was the catch. A bubbly landlord who wouldn't leave you alone. Best to be polite. "I can see how that could be."
He looked around a bit more, while Aurelia manged to not bounce in place. Zayn could tell it was a struggle for her. "Well, thanks for letting me take a look around. I've got a couple more places to look at before I can make any decisions, but I'll keep you in mind."
"Ok! I hope you find a place you like! Talk to you soon!"
Zayn sat on the bed in the cheap hotel room and thought over his options.
Cheap housing was not available in this town.
Most of the places he'd looked at were barely livable: tiny, dingy, basement or attic rooms, a bedroom barely large enough to fit himself into, and one place that he arrived at just behind the 'condemned' sign's arrival. That was the sum result of what he'd looked at all day.
If his insurance would kick in, he'd be able to look at something better, but they were dithering over the fact that the police report hadn't come out yet; something about needing to see the cause of the accident first.
Of the places he'd seen, the only really good place was the first. It had the downside of the landlady (and the location), but it had good furniture (if she hadn't thrown it out yet), and was both larger than anything else he'd looked at, and well kept-up.
He still hesitated a moment, before picking up the phone. As nice as the place was, having Aurelia poking her nose in all the time would be almost enough to keep him away.
Only almost though, and he didn't hesitate long before picking the phone up.
"I'm so glad you liked the rooms! And you wanted to move right in!" Aurelia was ushering him in the next day. Mid-afternoon, actually. He'd checked out of the motel in the morning, grabbed lunch while doing some shopping, then headed over.
"I can honestly say they were a bargain at the price."
"Oh? You think I should have charged more?" She sounded suddenly worried, then moved to reassure him. "Oh, never mind, it's not like I need the money! And I'm not going to change the price <em>now</em>!"
Since he'd been worried a moment that she was about to do just that, he sighed in relief.
"You said you wanted me to leave the tables and stuff, so I did. Didn't move a thing. If there's anything that needs to be taken out, just say so! And can I help you carry anything?"
Zayn smiled a bit sadly, and raised his hands: Brand-new suitcase in one, a couple of shopping bags in the other. "This is everything. My house burned down, with everything I owned."
"Oh, how terrible!" She was wide-eyed, and still for about the first time Zayn had seen her.
"Thanks. I…" He really hadn't had time to process it yet. He'd been running, trying to get to and from work, trying to get clothes, get insurance started, find a car, find housing… He hadn't even discussed it at work. Never came up, somehow.
He wanted to say more. He wanted to brush it off, and to start the process of moving in.
That was the plan. The reality was that he just zoned out as the past week hit him.
He came to sitting on the couch, his face wet. It took him a moment to realize it was his own tears.
"Here, have some of this." Aurelia handed him a glass. He drank.
It was alcoholic, and like nothing he'd tasted before. He took another sip, this time to taste it. "Thanks. I'm sorry, I just… Haven't had time to handle it yet. I didn't mean to break down on your doorstep…"
"Hey, it happens to everyone. And, you're safe here! No problem."
He looked up. No one that chipper should be able to understand. Her face said she didn't: It was smiles and beams, despite the hints in the voice.
She noticed something over his shoulder. "Oh! I'm sorry. I've got to go: Got to get the club opened up. I'll see you tomorrow, ok? Feel free to finish the bottle if you feel like it."
Before he could reply she grabbed a few things, and fled to the garage. The sound of the car engine showed how fast she'd fled. Zayn wasn't surprised: No one like that wanted to be around a basket case.
He reached for the bottle. The label was hand-written, and faded. 'Mandeira' - 'Vinho Da Roda' - '1745' were all that were legible.
The label looked newer than the bottle. Zayn looked at his glass.
Whatever it was, it was superb. He finished the glass, and found a stopper for the bottle, then finished moving into his apartment.
Zayn dumped his breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, and searched for the few essentials he normally carried in his briefcase.
Something else he'd need to re-buy.
Aurelia was waiting for him. In her kitchen, just on the way to the front door. "Hi! Sorry about running out on you like that. I didn't want you to think it was intentional or anything like that. I just had to leave right then. But, if you ever want to talk about it, just say so. I'll be away most evenings, and I normally sleep in a bit, so it may be hard to catch me, but I'll always be willing to listen."
Zayn's spent a moment wondering how someone could stay up as late as she must have, get up earlier than normal, and still be a morning person. He wasn't, and even the sight of her in what was probably her nightdress (shopped for at porn-stars-r-us, although it was technically opaque) wasn't enough to fully wake him up. "It's not a problem. I just…" He had no idea what'd 'just' done. "Thanks for the drink. I hope I closed it up right."
"Oh, no worries. I've had those for ages! And even if you'd left it open, it'd be ok for a while. It's nice that they've finally started making them again."
"Yeah, I'm sure. Anyway, I've got to get to work. See you later, ok?"
He'd managed to miss his landlady all week. Although Zayn wondered if she'd instead managed to miss him. An uncharitable thought, but people at the office had been avoiding him. Or at least he thought so.
He slept in on Saturday, but still managed to just barely beat Aurelia up at 10:30. "Hi there! Sorry I've been missing you all week. Normally I take Tuesday and Wednesday off, but we were short-staffed this week."
"Oh, hi. Really, it's no problem. I hope you don't mind I've been using your kitchen: I don't have any cookware at the moment."
"Please! Go ahead. If you ever need any help cooking, just ask."
Zayn looked at the blond in front of him: It was 10:40 in the morning, she'd just gotten up, her hair was impeccable, she was in what could be charitably called a tank-top and shorts, and had high-heeled sandals. She was out every night at some 'club', and she hadn't had breakfast yet. He estimated the chances she'd be a better chef then him as marginal. "Thanks." He put away the remnants of his bowl of cereal.
"Really, I feel like I'm being a horrible host." She moved to fill the kitchen space he'd recently vacated. "I mean, it's like I'm just ignoring you."
"It's fine. I'm not a guest, after all. I'm a renter."
"Still. I should do better."
Zayn started to head back to his rooms, but stopped to watch Aurelia make an omelet. Maybe she'd be a better chef then him after all.
Zayn stared at the ceiling. His TV was gone, his books were gone. There was a good chair he could sit in for a while over in the corner, but then he'd just be staring at the wall.
He tried to calculate in his head when he could afford a new TV, and failed. Not enough data. If his insurance kicked in, he'd be able to start rebuilding. He'd spent his savings when he bought the house. They'd regenerated some, but a new car was going to be top priority. The rental fees were close to what he was making a week at work.
He should be doing that. He should be working on any of a dozen things that had become problems since his house had burned down.
It was a good ceiling.
There was a knock on his door.
"It's not good to sit around moping you know."
He shouldn't have to deal with this. "What makes you think I'm moping?"
"You don't have a TV, or a radio, or even any books, and you left your briefcase out here. What else are you doing?"
Zayn sighed. "So, what do you think I should be doing?"
The door creaked open, just a bit. "Not moping."
Zayn didn't say anything, and the door opened the rest of the way. Aurelia, as normal, looked like an ad out of a men's magazine. "It doesn't get better just lying there. You have to do something."
"Something. Solve a problem. Have fun. I know! Let's go shopping!"
"I don't have any money. Not until my paycheck comes in." There was a slight texture to the ceiling...
"Up!" Aurelia was surprisingly strong. Zayn found himself sitting up before he had a chance to resist. "I'm going shopping. You are coming with." He was out of bed, and on his feet.
Luckily he was dressed.
Zayn managed a few feeble protests, but he found himself in Aurelia's car, riding to the mall. From there it was useless: he might as well follow her in.
They went straight to a clothing store, as Zayn expected. Aurelia put him in a chair, appeared to grab a few things at random off the racks, then disappeared into the back.
"What do you think?" She came out in a silver number, half body-suit, half dress.
Zayn shrugged. "It looks like most of what you wear."
She grabbed his head and turned him to face her. "So? Is it good? Bad? Too tight? Too loose? Say something."
Zayn found himself unable to look away from the tattoo on her chest. A blue rose, nestled between her breasts. In the dress, it looked like it was in a vase. "Oh, no, it's fine. You look good. Not too loose, definitely." He managed to look up at her face. "But, honestly, I can't imagine something you didn't look good in."
She released him. "Hmmf. Don't worry, it exists." She glanced back, and gave a small smile. "But you think it looks ok?"
Zayn found himself smiling in return. "Yes, it looks ok. More than ok, on you."
She gave another small snort, and sashayed back into the changing rooms.
Aurelia didn't hold him there for long. Just five or six outfits. She bought some; Zayn didn't see which.
Next was a jewelry counter. Where she bought a new bracelet.
And the shoe store.
They grabbed a bite to eat in the food court, and Zayn was wondering where she'd drag him next, and found himself being led back to the car.
"Done shopping. Besides, it's almost time to open the club!"
"You're not dragging me there as well, are you?"
She looked at his worried face, and laughed. "Nope! You'll have to take care of yourself!"
"Good." He leaned back in the seat and made a show of relaxing, getting the expected laugh from the driver.
"You'll be fine!" She said.
He wasn't sure which surprised him more: The knowledge that he knew he would be fine, and his down mood had vanished, or the slight disappointment he felt when she said she wasn't dragging him to the club.
While his landlady was out for the night, Zayn had looked over his finances, and worked out what was possible and what wasn't.
Sunday, he bought a car.
It was used, it wasn't much, and it took most of his savings (what he'd managed to scrape together since he bought the house) for the down payment, but it was cheaper than running a rental non-stop. And it meant he felt more in control of his life, a bit.
Which lasted until Monday morning. When the boss chewed him out for misplacing a couple of digits in one of his customer's files, and then dumped a new load of files on his desk to 'look over'.
But not touch, was the implication.
He still hadn't managed to bring up the fire at work.
An error he'd nearly missed spotting in one file made him stop dead and go back to the beginning, to try to focus a little better. The number of errors he found on the second pass was depressing.
And then the police came in.
They went to his boss first, who led them over to him. Just one officer, really, with a folder. "Hey man, we've been trying to get these to you for a while now." He dropped the folder on Zayn's desk. "They were about to get lost, when I spotted them. Not a good idea to loose track of those, ok? Anyway, there's probably some paperwork down at the station for you as well." The officer looked over his shoulder. "Didn't mean to interrupt, but I know how important those things can be. Anyway, I have to get back to patrol."
And he left.
Leaving Zayn in a circle of curious co-workers.
"It's nothing. Just some paperwork they owed me." And he went back to the stack of files on his desk.
Zayn knew it wasn't the best approach, but he just couldn't deal with them right now. He wanted to be left alone to work. Discussing it was too painful, and false sympathy was worse.
After a few minutes, people started drifting away.
Aurelia caught him as he came home. "Hi! It's nice to see you during the week! Sorry, I can't stay long. Got to get back."
"Don't worry about it." He dumped his stuff on his one little table, then pushed the papers into the pile.
"Want to talk about it? I have a few minutes..."
"No, thanks. Just had a bad day at work."
"If you say so." She finished grabbing whatever she was home to grab, but stopped again as she went past the door. "Is there anyone you aren't pushing away?"
Zayn just stared at her in response.
"That's what I thought. I have to go now though. Talk to you later!" She beamed a smile at him as she left.
Zayn stared at the door for a while after she left.
"Hi Zayn!" Was Aurelia's welcome as he walked through the door after work the next day. Well, he also got treated to another hug. Where he was allowed to breathe at least.
"So, was today better than yesterday? At the office."
Zayn tried to escape into his apartment. "A bit. No real problems at least."
Aurelia however was maintaining a deft block. "Have you told them?"
"We have work to do."
"Uh huh." She dragged him to the couch. "Zayn, people will help if you let them. But they have to know that you need it.
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