13 GOING ON 30 (April 2020).

He already knew how problematic, if not downright annoying, the day would be as soon as he had awoken that morning, no time given to lift his head from the pillow as he wiggled his feet around and tried to swim out of the blankets and sleepwear that felt extremely oversized - not in an intentional way, but in one that suggested his height had changed and his frame had shrunk, and, with that, his expected his voice had gained some levels in tone, no longer carrying the depth of the previous night. Face still buried in the pillow, it was all he could do to kick his feet and flail his hands for a moment, a quiet tantrum he didn’t so readily throw, before his body settled again.

Looking in the mirror - at least attempting to - only confirmed his suspicions, not that spying his small feet and equally small hands hadn’t done that for him. Of all the bodies he had to wake up to, this one had been the most annoying and the most problematic to work around considering the fact that no one in their right mind would believe that a child of his age would be able to work in a kitchen.

Still, it was Mugunghwa that he found himself once he had pulled himself together with some help from his mother who, however aware of his situation as she was, still found it a welcome break from a grown son who could put on his own clothes and tie his own shoes and didn’t have to be carried or coddled everywhere he went. It was like slipping back into a childhood once so riddled with trouble that could not be lived, even if only for a day, with a better head on their shoulders even though, as always, there had been an alibi. Instead of her son, he had been her nephew she could talk about and fawn over with the customers while he, playing the part, sat patiently at one of the booths closest to the counter with his phone in front of him and a cartoon playing across the screen, feet clad in kid’s sneakers dangling over the side of the bench seating where he kicked them back and forth.

Unfortunately, no amount of entertainment rid him of the frustration he was sure had spread over his face - a grown man trapped in the body of a child with nothing to do who, even if he had wanted to and had been able to do something for the restaurant, was far too small to do anything. It allowed boredom to set in and, just like a restless child, he started searching out other forms of entertainment in the restaurant when the video had stopped and the app had been closed off, eyes scanning the crowd for anyone of particular interest or - the better of options - familiarity that he could, for lack of a better word, bother.

Small feet hit the ground when his searches turned fruitless, walking around restaurant patrons and waiters making the rounds with care not to find himself trampled underfoot, before he rounded the corner of the counter and stepped into the back of the kitchen where he felt he truly belonged - one body or another. “엄마! Can I go outside?” He all but shouted, a tiny voice in the middle of a busy kitchen, until his mother, with her warnings to “be careful” and “don’t go too far”, ushered him out - not that he needed to be told twice, quickly turning on his heels and all but running towards the door, pushing it open with a hefty push of small hands and most of his body weight against it only to slam right into someone’s legs.

Aiden had been curious. Since the night before, he had been curious about the young man with the shaggy hair and the wide eyes that had been recently employed at Mugunghwa. He hadn’t thought to ask Sandra that morning about any new hires. Clearly, it wasn’t his place to, but if there was wait staff to be trained, Aiden could have easily been considered a very capable mentor when it came to navigating around the front of the house which was where he usually stayed unless another set of hands that could handle a knife would prove beneficial, especially during busy weeknights.

If his drive from the offices of Warren Aviation to Mugunghwa was any indication, tonight would be one of those nights. Part of him dreaded the hustle and bustle that came with the comings and goings of restaurant staff - front and back of the house - and the patrons - new and loyal - that would cross the threshold of the main entrance, but in the same vein, he welcomed it, a restless knee bouncing while he stretched a stiff neck, staring down a green light that wouldn’t let him and the traffic before him go. He wouldn’t be condemned to a chair nor would his eyes and mind have to be focused on a screen for hours at a time. He’d be able to move around, talk to people about food, be around the vile temptresses that went by the names of the various menu items in a look-but-don’t-touch sort of waking torture while he complained about his break not coming soon enough so he could eat. The mere thought almost made him snort a laugh, but he could deal with that...or simply steal a bite here and there when no one was looking.

There was some level of assurance that came with breaking down the pros and cons of something like the change in mentality when it came to preparing himself for his second job. It wasn’t one that he didn’t think he needed given his day job, nor was it one that he thought he would have considered under different circumstances, but despite the hours already logged elsewhere and the hours that accounted for getting ready or winding down, he couldn’t say that there was a level of tiredness or stress that made him consider calling out on any given night or quitting altogether. If anything, his second job at Mugunghwa didn’t feel like a job. It felt like coming home to warm food, entertaining conversations, and familiar company even if the faces of the restaurant’s patrons would change on the daily. As far as he knew, the line between ‘stranger’ and ‘familiar’ blurred the moment food was set on the table, a phenomenon that never really ceased to amaze him no matter how many tables he had already served since his initial employment, a simple volunteer effort turned into a paying job. Thinking on it only briefly the moment he shifted his car into Park at the restaurant’s lot, Aiden made a face at the fact that he was getting paid to torture himself being surrounded by food. “Well that’s just cruel,” he scoffed at himself around a laugh, but it wasn’t enough of a deterring thought to keep him from work. Checking his hair in briefly in the rearview, Aiden grabbed his things and locked up his car as he made his trek toward the main entrance. His attention was briefly stolen by passing faces - Mugunghwa patrons or otherwise - when eye contact was made to which he nodded and offered a smile in passing ‘hello’ as the distance between himself and the front door shrunk.

In his peripheral, Aiden caught sight of the door to Mugunghwa’s main entrance swing open, still stuck in mid-greeting. While he expected the door to be swung open, especially for a restaurant as busy as the one Sandra Armitage ran, he expected someone to come out, Aiden stopping just short of it lest he wanted to get smacked in the face. When no one - at least at his height - came walking out, he blinked once he faced the door fully only to be taken aback with a yelp by the push that came at his legs. His hands grasped tiny shoulders as he planted his feet and the tiny human that took him by surprise. “Whoa, hey there, Speed Racer. What’s the rush?” Aiden asked, glancing down at the child before him. He expected his family to be close by, likely tailing him after paying the bill for their meal so they could head out to wherever else they needed to go if home wasn’t it just yet. Briefly, he glanced at the door - glass through and through - and no one in sight. Not yet at least. Thinning his lips in consideration, Aiden crouched down and met the child’s eyes. “Shouldn’t you be with your family?”

It was frustrating how readily he had been jostled around on such flimsy and small legs just as it was frustrating to be stuck in such a weak body, not yet grown or with enough muscle memory to be of a more coordinated form, and it was even more frustrating, this turn of events, that had him bowling right into the legs of Aiden - the late night customer from the previous night who he had met on much taller, albeit still perhaps as shaggy and potentially awkward - though admittedly that was all on Connor’s behalf simply by existing in a form reflecting such - circumstances. Now here he was, his hands on his shoulders, holding him still - a welcome, if not also frustrating, gesture if it meant keeping him up on his own two feet - and asking about where his family was. They were inside, naturally, and that answer wouldn’t have taken much energy to give, but the frustration...

“Eomma said I could go outside,” he said, realizing how negligent it sounded: A busy mother letting her child go outside where the city was alive and bustling with the evening crowd, still light enough to avoid any problems but slowly, and surely, darkening. It was a potentially dangerous place to be in with the news coming out of nearby neighborhoods, the location of Mugunghwa relatively safe while, but a few streets away, there had been a few newsworthy stories of gun violence, perpetrated by gangs who, with their wild shots, seemed to take out more innocent bystanders than their intended targets - assuming there were even those to begin with; but Connor had no intention on crossing busy streets by himself or even leaving the vicinity of the few stores that were around Mugunghwa’s building, and, with a fully adult ego intact, even he was still stubborn enough to believe size didn’t matter when it came to taking care of any trouble. He was sure it showed on his face even as he all but pouted, pushing out his lower lip in some sort of childish snear, brow furrowing as he looked up at Aiden.

He was a six foot man. Looking at someone this way was quite different and, well, frustrating, head craning back to an almost vertigo inducing distance and, had it been any bigger or perhaps any further and if Aiden hadn’t placed his hands on his shoulders, he may have very well toppled backward; but he had knelt down eventually - a far easier posture for discussion - which brought his head right back forward, situated properly on his neck and shoulders, even though the scoff still remained, an expression meant far more for his hatred of being stuck in a child’s body than it was by being stopped by someone he ran into.

“I am sorry I ran into you,” he said, hands resting on his stomach for a second as he bowed, still indignant even though the apology had been genuine, nostrils flaring a little bit in his blanketed frustration; because it hadn’t been just about being a child. It had been the whole situation - the changes that came with such physical shifts, the clothing mix ups which made him keep a wardrobe of considerable size, the fact that sometimes he couldn’t do anything that he wanted to do just because, as in this case, age said otherwise; and keeping it all secret, even with slip ups here and there, was far more a chore than anything else, and he couldn’t explain how tiring it was - perhaps not unless he cried, all too fitting of someone so small, but the tears remained to himself.

As animated as he knew he could be at times, Aiden’s features remained soft as he listened to the boy. He wanted to ask whether she was going to follow shortly after he had made a break for the front door, but he figured that would be a wasted question, dark eyes staring back behind the tiny human for some sign that his mother wouldn’t be too far behind her son to offer the supervision he hoped any parent would have over their child wanting to wander around the busy streets of San Francisco. Briefly, he had been hopeful that the set of guests that were departing the restaurant consisted of the familiar company the boy kept, but when they didn’t stop, barely acknowledging him, Aiden watched them go, lips thinned in contemplation, though it barely kept his amused smirk down.

He knew this card. Although the boy said he had permission, Aiden wasn’t so apt to readily believe him, nor was he about to let him wander off by himself when there clearly wasn’t anywhere a child would want to go or could go within a storefront or two of the restaurant. It had rarely worked with Nathan despite his juvenile attempts at trying to be sneaky, weaving this he-said-she-said tale with that of another to make it seem only semi-plausible, but it only got him in more trouble later on. Being the responsible adult on this side of the equation now, he wasn’t going to let the boy leave without his family regardless of what his mother allowed him to do, true or not. The last thing he wanted to hear was Sandra yelling at him for letting someone’s child leave the restaurant unaccompanied and whatever laundry list of chores were sure to follow with that offense.

Then the child bowed in apology. “괜찮아요,” Aiden assured him, his smile softening from the almost smirk that had come about from a memory. “Just be careful next time.” If his smile wasn’t assuring enough or he hadn’t lifted his head from his bow soon enough to notice it, then it was the physical act of lightly rubbing the boy’s shoulders or lightly patting his back that did. The obvious flare of his nostrils when Aiden was able to look at his face drew his amusement back and he lightly shook his head as he reached out to lightly tap the tip of his little nose. “Hey… What’s that face for, huh?” He asked, though he wasn’t really looking for an answer. He could have been embarrassed for running into him, disappointed that he wasn’t able to leave the restaurant fast enough, or simply over the fact that he got caught. Whatever the case, Aiden was going to make sure he went back into the restaurant and rejoined his family so that no one ended up getting yelled at - himself or the boy - over anything.

“Come on,” Aiden encouraged with a nod, the warm smile still on his face, rising to his feet as he held out his hand for the child to openly take or refuse. “Let’s go find your eomma so she can take you somewhere more fun. You know, like a park or a toy store where she can watch you and not worry about you wandering into one of the questionable alleyways around here.” He muttered the latter, briefly reminded of a confrontation gone sour as much as it was confusing when it happened, certainly not wanting a child to fall into unfamiliar company where he wouldn’t be seen.

While the assurances were fine and wonderful, an ease off his shoulders where running into his legs had been concerned since Aiden hadn’t been necessarily injured - not that he could really do that in this form unless he was poking people in the eye, biting them or pinching them with small fingers - or insulted - something he was sure he could do if certain words started falling out of his mouth, words that weren’t even appropriate for an adults mouth never mind a child’s - the inevitable path was clear: He was going to go back inside and he was going to be bored because, unless there was someone else to take him to the park or home or somewhere he could do something more than just sit around and wait for the work day to end, there was no one who would be able to. Sandra could take the time at the risk of leaving her staff to their own, something that she did more often in the evening when there weren’t so many customers. This was not such a moment - not yet, at least not for another hour once the staff for the night settled in.

“아이구,” he whined as he reached out to take his hand to be ushered back into the restaurant, hanging his head back once again in what was now seething frustration in the wake of defeat, something Connor wouldn’t have stood for if he could do anything about it, but things being what they were and secrets being so readily kept, it wasn’t like he could do a thing - except whine. He could definitely whine and especially when they were back in the restaurant, charging a path now instead of attempting to linger behind in a quick break to the counter where Sandra had been.

“Don’t tell me you already got in trouble?” Sandra said, looking down at Connor who had, as children often did in cases where they were embarrassed or scared, all but hidden behind her legs. Though a part of him was, hands gripping onto her pants until she had picked him up from the ground, there was a careful eye extended to Aiden from where he had once been standing. A pat on the back would surely fix that attitude, Sandra shaking her head as he took to the more childish antic of burying his head against her shoulder.

“감사합니다,” Sandra said to Aiden, finishing up what she had been doing at the counter before she could settle more readily into conversation, however slight it was likely to be in the business of the restaurant. “I think he is getting restless even though I keep telling him it won’t be much longer,” she explained. The flow of patrons into the restaurant had been a welcome problem as far as interjecting into the time she could have taken off to take care of her unfortunately smaller-than-usual son, now acting like a child because, well, he could. She supposed he needed no more reason than that, but thankfully, it didn’t come with tiny fists of fury this time around, just a fair amount of whining and restless running around.

He tried his best to hold back that snicker of laughter that he wanted to let escape, listening to the boy whine even though he took his hand freely as he led him back into the restaurant. Yeah, he definitely knew this card. Easily one he played numerous times in his childhood that, at least in his experience, didn’t really get him anywhere he wanted to go fast. Perhaps he had to attribute that to his mother’s militaristic and steadfast attitude or his father’s uncanny ability to read his bluffs. The same could have been said about Nathan, too. Not the type of old man he wanted to cross, but as a child, it wasn’t like he knew any better until he got older.

In time, he’ll know, Aiden thought to himself, giving the boy’s hand a gentle squeeze here and there in hopes to calm him down until he could no longer hear his whines over the conversation and clatter of dishes against countertops or otherwise, the commotion of a busy restaurant drowning out his tiny voice as Aiden scanned the tables. He had expected to see at least one person - namely the mother the child had spoken of - to be looking around her immediate area for her son, but upon first and second glances around the expanse of the room, Aiden didn’t notice anyone of the sort and that was a bit unsettling. Still, he moved through the restaurant and made a third sweep. When he still turned up with nothing, just satisfied patrons enjoying the meals and their company, he moved to the counter where Sandra was, about to let her know what was going on with the boy he had in tow, but she beat him to the punch, the words that fell from her mouth only making the expression on his face more confused than before.

Blankly, he stared at her and the small warmth at his hand disappeared. When the source of warmth hid behind Sandra’s legs, all Aiden could do was squint in question when she thanked him and he couldn’t begin to understand why. With the boy now in her arms, clinging to Sandra shyly like a baby koala, Aiden attempted to piece together the puzzle, but his logic wasn’t making sense. He knew the Hwangs and the Armitages - a lot of that knowledge hearsay passed on from his family in addition to what he had learned and experienced for himself - and he knew pretty damn well that there couldn’t have been a little boy anywhere in the picture, especially not when Nathan didn’t have any kids of his own and, for as long as he lived with the Armitages, he and Mochi were the only children that ran around their Marina District home unless Connor and Peanut came by.

Aiden chewed at his inner cheek as his gaze shifted from Sandra to the boy in her arms. He could understand his boredom, stuck in a place as busy as a restaurant with the hopeful promise that he could leave soon with his mother and go somewhere more fun. He could also understand where Sandra needed to be; running an establishment built upon and fueled by her own passions. If the amount of guests in the restaurant currently wasn’t any indication that the crowd wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, he’d hate to be in Sandra’s shoes having to break the news to the tiny tot.

“Yeah, um,” he began, barely bowing his head at her thanks, his mind still confused and his gaze still stuck on the boy. “I don’t think he’ll be able to keep believing that for much longer,” he told her a little softer, recalling just how frustrated the child seemed when he had caught him outside. “Who-who is he, exactly? ‘Cause I haven’t been in Seoul that long for this to make any sense,” he said, glancing again at the child for emphasis.

There was a moment of fussing with the child in her arms while Aiden sat in his confusion of the situation; and why wouldn’t he have been confused? There was everything to be confused about, but Sandra simply sighed when the questions came up, her head shaking side to side. It was a means to bide some time, the odds and ends of whatever alibi there had been weaving themselves together in her mind as readily as they could with the commotion of the restaurant around her, pulling one way while her thoughts pulled to another and her phone, buzzing in her pocket, only seemed to continue to ring with an urgent sort of intensity no matter the standard ring. Overwhelmed was hardly the word for it as someone who dealt with this on a day-to-day basis, but it might as well have been close.

“A family friend is visiting the city and she needed someone to watch him while she took care of some things,” Sandra said, punctuating the sentence with a quick aside to the kitchen to address matters there, ushering one of the wait staff to the counter to take a tray of dishes out. “And since I should be out of here shortly,” he said, juggling Connor in her arms so she could hold him with one arm and check her phone with the other, namely for the time, “I was hoping he would just sit down and behave, but no, I don’t think he’ll keep believing that with how things are going around here.”

It was then that she answered the phone, the call ringing once more while it was in her hand, and her face seemed to grow stark all at once with the news on the other end. There was only so much she found herself able to say in that moment, lip pursing in a thin line that attempted to keep her face in order, concealing the worry across her expression except for what had been found in her eyes - those dark windows into everything that might have been going on in her mind. Connor, too, picked up on it, his brow furrowing as he glanced over to Aiden, wholly expecting another series of questions about what was going on in his stead. After all, what was a child going to know or be told about such an emergency matter as someone in the hospital?

“Yes, yes, I understand. I’ll be right there,” she said, ending the call and setting Connor back down on his feet. He knew well enough what was going on as she explained the situation to Aiden - that there had been an accident and her husband was in the hospital though the details of which had been kept vague - even as he peered up in seeming confusion to the two adults far taller than he was; she was going to gather all of her things and race out of the restaurant, perhaps without time to take him home and the last place anyone wanted to be, never mind be with a fussy child, was the hospital. Through the haze of sadness and urgency, she apologetically addressed Aiden again, motioning down to Connor.

“Can you take him home?” A simple request though not one that fell into the line of usual duties of the restaurant, never mind to someone who might as well have been a stranger to Aiden, but emergencies were emergencies and, at the moment, he had been the one available, fresh into the restaurant and not yet settled into the busy pace she hoped the restaurant would be able to maintain while she was gone - however long that would be. “I can make it a paid day, but I need to get to U.C.S.F. as soon as I can,” Sandra said, nodding; the decision to pay him had already been decided and there wasn’t going to be any argument about it, at least none that she was inclined to listen to when her mind was floating quickly elsewhere.

The explanation of the child, thankfully, was one that logic could agree with and he breathed a short sigh of relief at that as he nodded his head in understanding. Her supposed promise to leave the restaurant shortly though, he didn’t believe so much, his mouth thinning as if telling her that she was taking on too much too quickly when it was clear she was being pulled in multiple directions. She had her hopes - that the boy would behave and wait - but if the child was anything like Aiden had been - and truthfully, he found some traits in him that he easily saw reflected in himself - he wouldn’t be able to wait, not after the same promise to go somewhere he wanted to be was delayed repeatedly. He knew how that felt.

Aiden wasn’t a stranger to the busyness that went on about them; he had worked through them before, and others had unfortunately been on a darker and more isolated level, but between this commotion, that clatter, and all the chatter in-between, he could feel everything get amplified as more and more new sounds seemed to enter the room. The emergent ringing of her phone just made his skin crawl, a shrill of a cry forcing the furrow of his brows as he watched her try to juggle this conversation, the boy in her arms, and the communication with the voice at the other end of the line now that she had her cell phone to her ear. As if his intent to focus made him otherwise begin to absorb all the stresses around him, his body was feeling heavy and suddenly fatigued by it all. The weight of the world that Sandra had built weighing on her shoulders as she handled this and that with as much finesse and pose as she could - or as she was able - given everything that seemed to be attacking her all at once.

He wanted to help; to alleviate some - if not, all - of the stress and responsibility that was demanded of her so she could tend to other things that she wanted to make time for. Easily, his eyes shifted back to the child and how spending time with him would probably be the most ideal end to this conversation. Gaze turned to the floor, he considered it, though he didn’t need much time to make up his mind. Between her conversation on the phone and his conversation with himself, he still had to wait until she was able to address him, not at all wanting to interrupt.

Something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong, but he couldn’t begin to place what it could be. The muffled words that came from her phone were words that he could barely pick up and he couldn’t be a hundred percent sure on the voice either, unable to narrow it down, though it wasn’t like he had familiarized himself with those she had normally been in conversation with; his hearing was just that good.

He wanted to know what was going on, but with the way that Sandra was speaking - rushed and frantic beneath a shaky calm - he doubted he’d get much information. Where he hoped he could help her though, that came in an unexpected form. It might not have been the best indication that perhaps his silent plea had been heard, but it was something. The words that came out of Sandra’s mouth in that moment sounded more hushed and urgent. Panicked even, but she seemed to be struggling in keeping that hidden from him. The worry on his face was difficult to miss and his heart pounded with growing anxiety, a different set of worries settling in; the hand on the strap of his backpack tightening as if the action would cause the thumping in his chest to slow down simply out of sheer will. Sandra’s words did when his own attempts seemed to fail, but only temporarily.

Aiden didn’t think. He didn’t need to. His gaze fixed on Sandra even when she was looking everywhere, but at him trying to sort things out before she bolted for U.C.S.F. What awaited her there, he had no clue, but whatever it was, he’d do anything he could to make sure she could get beyond the restaurant’s threshold without anyone else trying to tug her back. “Anything,” he responded without a breath instead of a typical ‘yes’ which would have sufficed. Would it have mattered to him if she hadn’t mentioned making it a paid day for him? No, not in an emergency and truthfully, not even under normal circumstances. If it would help, he’d do what needed to be done. No questions asked.

“Go,” he encouraged, not wanting to waste more time to tell her not to worry about the pay as he finally tore his gaze from her to look down at the boy who looked just as confused as Aiden had been earlier about his relation to Sandra. Carefully, he took him into his arms just as Sandra had, mentally sorting through what he could do for the restaurant in her absence and what she had tasked him with. “조심하십시오,” he told her as he followed her toward the door. “Call me if you need anything else.”

There were a few words that filtered through the ether before she was out of the restaurant and, with her, the panic that she had been exuding into the immediate area. In a way, it made the space they were standing in quiet though the restaurant was nothing of the sort between the sounds of the kitchen, the talking of the patrons, and the music playing over the speakers somewhere in the building, something nice that should have instilled a sense of enjoyment in the patrons with the hopes they would stick around a little longer and enjoy their meals a little slow, perhaps purchasing something extra because of the nice time they were having. There was very little, unfortunately, that felt happy and pleasant in that moment, Connor wrapping an arm around Aiden’s shoulder once he was hoisted up while he tried to crane his head after his mother while she disappeared from view, the sinking feeling in his chest and stomach something far more adult with worry than someone his supposed age might have been inclined to.

“Can we go?” He asked, speaking to that unsaid and unknown thought that Aiden would help out at the restaurant while she was gone. It wasn’t spoken impatiently or with the same frustration of moments before when childish antics might have gotten him somewhere in the generalized chaos of the restaurant and not the very real and very worrisome situation that had presented itself. Someone, he knew, would pick up where Sandra hadn’t been, taking over the till or organizing the kitchen - anything to keep the operations at the pace they were while Aiden took care of the supposed nephew or child of the family friend, whatever story they had been told, and got him out of there before long, but he would have much rather been at home where he could do something other than sit around like some idle being - be it making sure there were fluffed pillows on her bed or a snack ready for her if she felt like eating, not that he could be so sure she would when she did get home.

There had been little he could do from the hold Aiden had on him; very little he could do otherwise to help the restaurant, and so it was all he could do to sit there, calm and at ease in some respects, without causing a fuss. He didn’t need to fuss or fight or push himself out of Aiden’s arms though there had been some squirming in an effort to move the body carrying him into action - one way or the other, whether it was to do with the restaurant or in heading home - instead of standing still. “형,” he said, “if we go home, we can make sure it’s ready for her when she gets home.” Whether that would be with the subject of the emergency call, he didn’t know, but he was thinking far less about the patient than he was his mother.

His heart felt heavy as he watched Sandra speak a few more parting words to him before she was gone. Like a rock, his heart sunk further into the depths of his stomach and he didn’t think he would have the strength to pull it back up again. Not with the way her eyes looked at him or what sort of anguish he found when he tried to search behind them for a sign of what it was that had her so worried. It was a familiar look; one that he remembered seeing on the face of his grandmother the night of his parents’ death, but he didn’t want to believe that it was anything that dire or troubling, nor did he want to be reminded of the memory. She was trying to be strong - she had to be - if she was going to make it from Point A to Point B as safely as he hoped she would, his silent admiration for her left to the silence as he looked to the child in his arms. With the baton passed, now it was his turn to make sure the things she cared about - her restaurant, her staff, her patrons, and the child left in her care - were taken care of without her.

Although he didn’t know the first thing about running a restaurant, he knew what it meant to have an established order, a cool head, and a chain of command; his mother’s career had taught him that much. He couldn’t let himself get emotionally overwhelmed when there were other matters to take care of even if the worries that came with the phone call didn’t leave him or the air of the restaurant. In fact, they lingered - almost hauntingly - as he scanned the room for the Sous Chef he knew to be working the kitchen that very evening before he spotted the telltale patch he always wore on the sleeve of his chef’s coat; a badge of honor for all his culinary accomplishments. “We’ll go home soon. Let me take care of something first,” Aiden told the child softly, shifting his weight to rest more comfortably in the crook of his arm as he moved behind the counter and into the bustling kitchen, beelining for an empty corner to get the chef’s attention.

Aiden exchanged words with the older man who was far more seasoned in terms of running a culinary army than he was, and although Aiden barely carried any sort of rank as far as the territory of the kitchen went - stoves set alight, stainless steel blades amputating and dismembering everything that crossed their paths, and puffs of steam, seemingly harmless attacks to anyone unaware of the temperature they held - the older man before him could respect someone who had his tactics in order. The commands weren’t as direct as Aiden made them seem; he could only gather so much from Sandra before she left, but the rest he tried to piece together with as much effective efficiency as he possibly could to make sure - at least to some manageable degree - that, given his understanding of the roles of the restaurant’s staff and how he observed how every area functioned, everything would run as smoothly as possible on a busy night such as this. “If anything comes up that you might need her for, call me, and I’ll do what I can to help.”

There was an exchange. A knowing look shared between the two men as the chef left his company to bark a few orders to a couple of other senior cooks and the maitre d who ran the front of the house, catching wind of the tail end of conversation among those in the chef’s whites as he settled into the huddle as the odd man out, but only in terms of dress code; to hold the line. It was a command that filled his heart with anticipation - hope even - that things would be taken care of in his own absence. The faint tickle of anxiety beneath that momentary sense of power made his heart skip with the vague insecurity that he may not be ready to handle a situation if it spun out of his control. The kitchen almost looked dizzying with the thought, Aiden taking a second to blink his eyes and find focus, the need to move a simple motion of his hand as he lightly patted the boy’s back as he maneuvered his way out of the kitchen and back out into the dining area.

Around the general area where Sandra had been, he looked around for anything that might have belonged to the child; a bag that had some snacks, a picture book to read, or a jacket in case he got cold. He even did as much to crouch down and allow him to reach for anything that might have been obviously his to take before he got to his feet again. When there hadn’t seemed to be anything out of place at the counter, he exchanged some words with the host, eyes flicking to the child the moment he called him ‘형.’

It had taken him aback for a moment as he adjusted his hold on him after he had twisted this way and that, speaking his suggestions to how they could help Sandra. Silently, he considered them, the words that this boy who seemed pretty close with Sandra, even for being the child of a friend of the family, made his heart take pause. The realization that Aiden was no different than him made him hug him closer, a light fluff of his hair a motion to encourage a little lightheartedness when his thoughts were feeling heavy. “We will go home,” he told him again, nodding slowly, his mouth trying to curve into a reassuring smile. “We’ll make sure the house is nice and welcoming for when she gets back.”

Unfortunately, he couldn’t promise him when exactly Sandra would return, the urgency in her voice made him doubtful, but he would smile through it and give both himself and the child in his arms something to take care of in the meantime.

“Let’s start with...a yummy dinner? Maybe her favorite dessert? If any of the shops are still open, you could help me pick out some flowers that she might like. What do you think?” He made sure his questions were out of earshot of the restaurant’s commotion, finally crossing that threshold, this time with the child in tow, as he carried him to his car, carefully helping him buckle up and making sure he was comfortable.

Through the commotion and the rush of making sure things were in order before they left, Connor was simply there as a weight on Aiden’s shoulder, watching everything that was going on in the kitchen with keen interest as to how things were going - how things were being prepared, how the knife work was, how the oven was holding up against the orders that were coming through. It was a symphony in a way, one that on any normal day, he would have been happy to be a part of even if it was just in a miniscule sort of way, but today… today just wasn’t a normal day, not that any of them particularly were. It just wasn’t everyday that he had to be toted around, carried on someone’s shoulder because his legs were too small to keep up with the longer paces of his older cohorts or waiting in the wings because of the likeliness size would play a part in him hurting himself; so he waited, he watched, and he silently contemplated the short jokes from the night before which, while not anything insulting when Aiden had been so self-effacing himself and Connor threw his own height in the mix, and just how obnoxiously ironic it was now to be so small.

In due time, however, he was pulled away from the kitchen and the noises of the restaurant, leaving the business behind him while Aiden carried him out towards his car. “I think she’d like that,” he said with a few nods once he had gotten into the car - another frustrating thing about being so small, the clearance a bit too much for him to actually do it himself without some struggle - and was buckled in, momentarily flaring his nostrils again with a huff of air from his lips when Aiden had the door shut again. His eyes curiously followed him as he had rounded the vehicle to the driver’s seat, feet kicking where they hung across the seat, unable to reach the floor of the car, and fingers fiddling with themselves in his impatience - be it to get going or to be in a form that could more readily check on his mother.

There were bound to be a number of places open in the area, even en route to the Marina District where the Armitage home sat empty save for the dog, Mochi, and Connor thought about what she might have wanted for something that wasn’t necessarily a celebratory affair. One such bakery came to mind: Lotta’s. “This place has a good chocolate cake,” he said, “just chocolate on chocolate on chocolate, or a strawberry cake with whipped cream,” he started to explain while he continued to play with his fingers, picking at the edges of them with some sense of awe about how small they were - it was something other to think about than what might have been happening at the hospital and just what sort of accident might have happened.

“But she likes - we can get dim sum, since those can be small bites if she isn’t very hungry,” he said, still running over options in his head. “The Dim Sum Club has a good duck too, and other things, or pizza. Pizza is always good too and it’s easy. Someone can deliver just in case, so it can be hot when she gets home,” or whenever they got hungry which was likely to come first over Sandra coming home, especially if it was particularly dire a situation at the hospital.

The quieter air of the San Francisco streets were a lot more welcoming than the ruckus he left behind at the restaurant. While he had been numb to it while he worked, serving tables and having conversations with diners, it was different when he was in a different mindset. The noise had been rattling and annoying. It all tested his patience, but the buzz of cars in the street, the clacks of foot traffic, car horns, passing conversation, or birds chirping were a lot more tolerable, though none were as tolerable as the agreement that the boy voiced to him at his suggestions to the one he had posed to him only moments ago. “Yeah? Alright then. Let’s go so we have enough time to make sure everything gets done.”

Getting him situated in his car didn’t take long, but Aiden did wonder about the deep bucket seat and the size of the child that sat there. For a couple of seconds, he had stared at how comical he looked, almost engulfed by the chair. Shooting a glance at the height of the dash in comparison to where the boy sat, he doubted that he’d be able to see the traffic beyond it unless he had something for him to sit on. Unfortunately for the cleanliness that he maintained in his car, Aiden didn’t have much lying around that could help with that so he hoped that the munchkin could sit tight, at least, during the short commutes between each of their prospective locations to not be horribly bothered by his lack of a view.

Once he slipped back into the driver’s seat, Aiden wasted no time setting them on their way. Although he was unable to readily keep his attention on him as he drove, he stole glances here and there, watching the child kick and swing his short legs to and fro as he sat there offering suggestion after suggestion of all the places they could go and the foods that he thought Sandra would like. It brought a smile to his face much in the same way the child’s small huff of frustration had at the beginning of their drive just as the way he was picking and playing with his fingers. The fidgeting made Aiden wonder about what he could possibly be thinking, no doubt that there was some worry in him after Sandra had left them, but he wasn’t going to start any degree of sombering conversation if he could help it. Not when they were determined to create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for when she did finally return home.

“Chocolate on chocolate on chocolate does sound delicious. Strawberry and whipped cream isn’t bad either,” he said in consideration of cake flavors. At the first sight of the first suggested storefront, Aiden navigated the car to sidle up along the curb when traffic allowed, eyeing the hours listed on the door to make sure they would have some time to make their selection. “I hope you’re not trying to trick me into feeding you a pound of chocolate before your bedtime,” Aiden warned jokingly as he recalled his cake suggestion, killing the engine and moving around to the other side of the car to help the kid out before locking up.

With a quick glance this way and that, he allowed him to scamper off ahead of him and toward the entrance where other cakes sat pretty behind glass. Easily, he took to the casual window shopping for cakes, keeping a watchful eye on the tot should he decide against the two choices he had suggested while he considered some of the other selections silently to himself. “So which will it be?” Aiden asked him when one of the shop’s employees asked if he needed a little more time to decide on a cake. “Chocolate, strawberry, or something else? If you can’t decide, we can play a game to help us choose.”

The view, suffice to say, had not been a good one, only able to look up at the roofs of the taller buildings and street features that passed by the window as Aiden drove. He couldn’t see anything beyond a certain point and on a couple of occasions, he had attempted to lift himself from the seat to see if only to avoid thinking too long and too hard about what might have been going on at the hospital. Chances are she wasn’t even there yet given the commute it would be to get from the restaurant to the hospital, longer a distance from the restaurant and their Marina District home, but what would happen when she got there? What sort of situation was she walking into? Would she be home late? The latter was likely a ‘yes’ as hospitals didn’t exactly have a reputation for speed for such things, but Connor tried not to dwell and instead shifted his thoughts to what they could do for her before she got home, the source of all the suggestions he had to give.

“It’s perfect for just diving into when you’re unhappy,” Connor considered with a small bounce of his eyebrows as he thought more on the strawberry and cream option and just how much closer to home that might have been, similar to Korean sponge cake and far less decadent - just another word for stomachache-inducing if one were to eat too much, “but strawberry and cream is lighter.”

“But if I was trying to get you to let me eat a bunch of cake before I have to go to bed-” a time that was far later than age suggested though he had no doubts he would probably pass out sooner rather than later with some pizza in his stomach, “-I think I would be able to do it. I can be very persuasive when I want to be.” Circumstances being what they were, the size of his stomach included, he would’ve found it far more difficult to keep a pound of chocolate down, richness and all, than ushering Aiden in the direction of the dessert to begin with.

As soon as he was unbuckled and out of the car, he took a few strides forward, doing much the same as Aiden before he moved over to the window to see what may have been readily available. Thankfully, the shop had been open and, equally so, Connor wasn’t apt to change his mind on the two despite the options there like a child might have been. It was just making the final decision that seemed to be an issue, pursing his lips a bit, nearly pouting, as he eyed the chocolate cake and the one topped with strawberries. “I think we should go with strawberry,” he said, looking back over to Aiden before looking back to the cakes, another spell of mental dilemma occurring as he shifted his attention between the two. “Or we play the game,” he said when surety wasn’t exactly on his side.

Chocolate was pretty good for that, turning frowns upside down, though too much of it could easily be a bit nauseating. It was chocolate, though. Who could resist chocolate? Unfortunately for him, Aiden didn’t discrimination much when it came to food so the strawberry cake with the whipped topping was still in the running as far as their cake options were concerned. More often than not, he was more partial to the lighter cakes with the simple or otherwise unique flavor profiles as opposed to the rich decadence of something as luxe as chocolate. Truth be told, he did go to chocolate for that comfort, but any other given day, he went light; he could have far more of those without getting tired of them after all. It wasn’t his cake that he was shopping for though, his nose scrunching in thought as he listened and considered the reasoning that the child was laying out for him. He needed to stop giving him options. Then his eyes narrowed as an amused smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth, appearing more at the driver’s side window than toward the child at which this smirk was directed toward. “Oh yeah? He asked him, the latter portion of his question chuckled out. “We’ll see about that later.”

Leaning against the counter, Aiden watched the child debate with himself and the two contending cakes behind the glass, looking at him with pouty lips and a second - maybe third - instance of careful contemplation. The look on Aiden’s face with the raised brows, slight smile, and the minor tilt of his head indicated he was waiting on a decision, reacting accordingly when one choice only seemed to be made before it was retracted and the child was stuck in that dilemma again. Laughing, Aiden stepped in close and crouched down before him. He hadn’t thought too much about the game that they could play to help him decide on cake. He actually thought that another cake flavor would enter the competition for his stomach once they were in the shop, but when none had snagged his interest, playing the game with just two was a little more difficult. Well, not difficult, but there’d be less to do. Spinning him in small circles and stopping him after some time was out of the question now.

“Turn around,” Aiden instructed, making sure his back was to the cakes. “Now close your eyes.” Lightly, he smoothed down the boy’s hair, no doubt mussed to some degree from their trip to the shop from the restaurant. What he had picked up on about the boy was that he knew his food. While he wasn’t sure if that had something to do with being around Sandra and the restaurant or if his own family consisted of foodies or simply people who enjoyed and appreciated a good dish when they had it, the kid knew his tastes. The problem was, his tastes covered a spectrum that Aiden wasn’t sure he even had at his age.

“Close them tight! If I catch you peeking, you’ll face the consequences,” he jokingly warned, making sure the child’s feet were planted should he be tempted to try and look at the subjects of his indecision. Once he made sure the boy’s eyes were, indeed, tightly shut, he cleared his throat. “So the game,” if he could even call it that, “is simple: I’m going to describe both cakes without mentioning anything obvious like flavors or colors. Based on those descriptions alone, you tell me which one you want to bring home for 엄마, okay?”

So he did exactly that once he was given permission to. One was described as a warm hug on a cold night. Rich and complex. The feeling that it would leave behind was something that would linger long enough to comfort. The other was airy and refreshing. Though simple, there was a different sort of complexity that was fleeting in the way that the feeling it would leave behind wouldn’t linger as long in the stomach as the other, but would stick in the mind as something to come back to.

The boy wouldn’t have been able to see the face Aiden made as he thought about how difficult that had been to describe cakes in such a way even with the subjects in question sitting in plain sight, but if there was something to be said about what someone wanted, it was usually based on what that person felt, not what they saw. Denying the boy sight would, he hoped, help him come to a decision.

It was a dilemma that would have been difficult no matter what the circumstances had been - whether he was short or tall, a child or an adult, girl or a boy, right body or wrong one - and having more options, perhaps considering the notion of trying something new never mind what had brought them into the bakery in the first place, was only making him that much more indecisive on something potentially indulgent enough to be stomachache inducing - something he didn’t want - and something much lighter that might not. His resolve on keeping to one of the two options had at least stood firm even with some distraction in something with colors of citrus and perhaps a flavor to match or the tight roll of a raspberry and cream roulade which might have almost tipped the scales until he turned around to indulge in this game Aiden had been putting together on the fly.

Flavors and colors were out, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to identify one from the other when the profiles were so particularly different, a considerable contrast from one another when one spoke of winter feelings, something warm and welcoming that one could sink right into, and the other could have very well lifted any potential sadness from her shoulders with its equally light build, fruity and refreshing like summertime. For as young as he seemed, he certainly did know his food, something that could have been associated with spending time with Sandra or perhaps even his own “mother” who, as far as Aiden knew of this falsified individual, could have very well been in a similar industry, teaching him all she knew as Sandra ultimately had. His hands still pressed up to his face, eyes closed beneath, he considered both options as presented to him, his head tilting this way and that as he worked out the dilemma in his head, comparing and contrasting to what his mother might have been feeling versus other other considerations like, in the event she passed on the dessert when she got home, how long it could keep in the fridge.

“Strawberry!” He announced when he had come to a decision, turning himself back around so he could step up to the counter once more, eyes on the prize as the employee at the counter went through the motions of pulling it out of the case and boxing it up with care, sealing it all at the top with a branded sticker.

“Is there anything else I can help you with today?” The employee asked, looking more to Aiden who was, of the two, the older of the two customers in front of her and presumably the one who was going to pay for the cake. Had it not been particularly suspect - a child paying for something with a card he wasn’t old enough to have in his possession - Connor would have considered it, but with a wallet far larger than any pockets he had on his body, that, along with everything else he possessed on a regular basis, had been left at home with the exception of a phone that, for the moment, was in the car.

“You have no idea how difficult that was,” Aiden muttered with light laughter and a brief shake of his head, a hand rubbing the back of his head as he rose to his feet. He watched as the tiny human turned around excitedly with his exclamation to approach the cake he had chosen sitting pretty behind glass and he couldn’t help the smile that came easily to his face. Approaching the counter, he dropped his hand down to the back pocket of his jeans to finger through his potential method of payment, temporarily eyeing the receipt from Mugunghwa from the night before as the cake was being carefully packaged away for them to take home. When the question was posed to him, Aiden first glanced up from his wallet and considered, eyes flicking this way and that to see if there was anything else in the store that might make something more out of the cake that the child had picked out. Then, he looked to the boy, asking him with a look if there was anything else he wanted.

“No,” Aiden drew out slowly, giving the child some time to interject if there had been anything else in the shop that he might want, his eyes on him as if saying, this is your last chance. Once I pay for this cake, we’re going to hunt down some dim sum. “No, I think this will be it for today. Thank you,” he said with a smile, as the exchange of cash came and went, the excess change dropping into a tip jar on the counter to make way for the bagged packaged cake that would occupy his hands. Precious cake in tow, Aiden patted the boy’s back to usher him out of the shop and back to the car where he climbed in and headed to their next destination.

It wasn’t a terribly long drive to the next destination on their impromptu list of places to go. A real short four-minute drive was all it took which was really convenient considering what they were setting out to do. With this potential delicious dinner order placed, they could head to a flower shop, pick up a nice bouquet, and be back in the Marina District in no time to get started on tidying up the house before sitting down for dinner. At least, they would have a delicious dinner order of dim sum, duck, and all the dumplings if the place didn’t give off the impression that it was closed.

“Huh,” Aiden uttered, killing the engine as he leaned over the center console to squint at the front facade of the building, unable to read the dinky sign that was hanging on the door. Lights out could have hinted they were close, but there were a number of restaurants that were open only to service lunch and dinner which wasn’t too far fetched of a thing for a dim sum restaurant. “Maybe they’re not open yet,” he thought aloud, getting out of the car and circling around to let the boy investigate the front door while he followed closely after him.

He did his share of peeking in, hand cupped near his face so he could better see the interior without the glare against the glass. The place was deserted. Clean, but deserted, littered only with hints of construction or remodeling. With that in mind, he took to the door and read the sign, disappointment apparent on his face. “Ah...looks like we won’t be having dim sum tonight,” he said, frowning. The excitement of looking forward to dim sum and duck deflating. That just left their second option of pizza to take the place of it and cut their drive home down significantly. “More time for tidying up then, I guess,” he mused with a slight pout.

While he did have a sweet tooth from time to time, this hadn’t been one of them that held a particular fervor to eat up everything in the store if he could get his hands on it when the cake was sure to be just fine. Each gaze to him was met with Connor’s eyes shifting to him before giving the bakery another glance around, spying items here and there, but otherwise not acting on impulse to head to the cookies or try a smaller slice of the larger cakes in the form of their cupcake cousins. It was just the cake as suggested by his eventual return to watching Aiden from where he stood quite a distance from the top of the counter where everything was being paid for, patient as the transaction was taken care of before their inevitable return to the car.

It hadn’t been long of a drive before they were stopping again and Connor, small legs and all, was hopping out of the car with considerable speed - at least considerable to him given his stature and just how many steps made up one of his on a much larger body - to the door. He peered in much like Aiden had when it seemed the windows were off, hands cupping his face so he could see inside with difficulty or distraction and spying the same construction markers of a restaurant in a remodeling phase, bound to be closed for some time until they finished and everything had been verified as up to code. Naturally, it had been disappointing, Connor taking a couple steps back at the door only to throw his foot forward to kick the door - a childish motion like no other, something akin to a temper tantrum had there been any yelling and screaming involved, but certainly an expression of frustration when all he had wanted was to get his mother something good.

Not that pizza was a terrible option either. It just hadn’t been the first option and though he knew there were more dim sum restaurants in the city - in fact, San Francisco was probably brimming with options in certain neighborhoods - he also knew quite a few were further out than he imagined Aiden wanted to drive to place an order. He huffed, again with a flare of his nostrils, as his fists went to his sides in what was accepted defeat by both the door and the restaurant it was attached to, spinning on his heels to stomp back towards the car, surely a sight more humorous than it was worrisome that he had done something to damage the door - well within his ability had he been of normal size and muscle mass.

“Those are two very different options and I think I like the first one better,” Connor commented as he reached for the door handle, pulling at it with just enough strength to at least pop it open though he didn’t get much further than that. Who wanted to clean? No one wanted to clean, but it was safe to say that Aiden was right: There would be much more time to tidy up so the household wasn’t in any sort of disarray and Sandra could just as easily, as much as a worried mind would be able to, kick up her feet to relax.

The thud of foot-to-door startled Aiden from his mini investigation of the restaurant, his head shooting up with a jolt and wide eyes, staring at the child post mini tantrum - if he could even call it that - as he caught his breath. “야! What did the door ever do to you?” Aiden laughed, though he was sure he could guess what the child’s reply would be as he shot a glance back at the restaurant, following after those tiny stomping footsteps back toward the car.

“Omo,” Aiden commented, understanding the child’s frustration about wanting to get something delicious and filling such as dim sum, duck, and dumplings for Sandra. While he, too, thought there were numerous other restaurants in the city, there was no telling how busy they were, how much farther they would have to drive, or how long they would have to wait for the order to be ready. He could make estimations all day long, but nothing ever really goes according to plan. “I liked the first option, too,” he easily agreed, disappointment in his tone which only lightened with a promise. “We could always try somewhere else tomorrow. Order ahead to make up for a longer drive and save us some waiting time.” He thought on it for a little longer, grasping the top edge of the door and pulled once the boy had propped it open, allowing him to climb in and get himself buckled, only aiding him when he needed it.

“Or,” he began again, drawing the word out just as he had similarly at the bakery. “We could eat there. All three of us,” he suggested, offering a smile as he leaned into the car, double checking his seatbelt and giving the interior of his car another glance over for anything that might serve as a booster seat for him in case he missed anything the first time. When he still hadn’t found anything, he frowned, but only temporarily. Giving the roof of his car a couple of taps with his hand. “Alright. Flower shop and then we’ll head home,” he told him, shutting his door as he rounded the car and hopped in, back on the road again in a matter of seconds.

There was no rhyme or reason to what flower shop they were headed to. Really, any flower shop that was still open at this hour would suffice and since such places weren’t normally on Aiden’s list of Frequently Visited Places in San Francisco, the first one he was able to spot was the one they went to since he had no idea how many there would be en route to the Armitage’s Marina District home unless he bothered to ask Google. He didn’t which made trying to park in front of the place a little more comically frustrating than it would have been had he had the navigation in his car telling him which side of the street the building was on.

Like at the bakery, Aiden let the boy run ahead of him and get a head start on picking out something that Sandra would like while he took to his own browsing of the place. “So,” he began when he found himself standing next to the tiny human, “how long have you known 엄마? I mean, 산드라씨?” He quickly amended, genuinely curious.

There were plenty of options to ensuring there would be a dim sum meal in the future though it did little to shirk his frustration then and there about not only the closed, soon-to-be renovated restaurant, but the circumstances of the evening so far and all that was happening around him that, as someone so small, he had little to not control over. Even as an adult, he was sure that he wouldn’t have had any control over what happened in his life - not at a level such as sudden accidents and such urgency in action - but he could at least do something other than be a tiny burden, only apt to be pulled on way and sent another, though the notion that his time with Aiden thus far had been anything bad was false. It had been perfectly fine, wonderful, not how he had hoped to spend the evening hours that had been told to him the night before, but still made him feel a bit more in the way of promise that he wasn’t just an idle party while the world moved around him at a faster speed than his little legs could keep up with.

His arms crossed in front of his chest once he had settled in his seat, buckled in, lips pursing in a duck-like frown that was only further bolstered by a flare of his nostrils as he huffed out frustrated air from his lungs. Though he could have done something other than kick the door, something that was immature at best, it had felt like the more satisfying response in the moment, leaving only the small smudge of dirt from the bottom of a small shoe on the glass that, much as they had the prior night, would inevitably be cleaned out of existed as he expected his ire would eventually subside, already feeling it wash away in part once they drove away from the dim sum restaurant for the other stops on the list.

There were other things to take care of, after all, like a selection of flowers for his mother. There was quite the selection, some bypassed due to the inherent meanings attached to the bouquet of bright red roses or the sympathy of funeral lilies in start white while others he took keen interest to with careful regard to the price tags if he could see them from his shorter stature in the likely event he paid Aiden back for the money he was fronting. The presence of closed buds were also addressed mentally, opting for those who seemed to have more in hopes of seeing them last longer as the flowers were given some time to bloom. Of course, to anyone else it looked like a child just staring off into oblivion, perhaps drawn into the colors or the shapes or something far simpler than the complex thinking buzzing around his head in those moments he found himself squared up with a bouquet.

“What about these?” He asked, pointing to one before pointing to another, “Or these?” He turned his eyes up to Aiden at his question, for a moment foregoing the decision making for an answer that wasn’t wrong, wasn’t a lie, but casually danced around how long it might have actually been compared to his supposed age.

“All my life,” he nodded curtly, looking back at the flowers as he found himself in, once more, that dilemma of this or that.

With a tilt of his head, Aiden considered the two options that the child had pointed out to him. He had figured that any flower, at least to a child, would suffice. Something nice. Something pretty. Someone’s favorite color. Those were all reasons that could have validated the choice of flora to be gifted to someone without anything else to take into consideration. Yes, the stark white lilies were pretty, but there was something mournful about them. Yes, roses were just as appealing to the eye, the numerous petals making up their fullness and expression of something everlasting even if the reality of all living things followed a particular cycle that never broke. Their meaning didn’t seem to fit either, at least from Aiden’s own perspective, but it certainly didn’t mean that he would disregard them if the boy had chosen them to give to Sandra.

Instead, the boy pointed to two very vibrant bouquets. Their colors, in their own schemes - different, but still similar - felt uplifting when he saw them, but they, too, had their differences both seen and unseen. Silently, he considered the boy’s choices, only glancing at him when he responded to his question. “She’s a great person to know for that long,” he responded in earnest, his hand finding the boy’s shoulder to give him a light pat, turning back to the bouquets to consider them a little more thoughtfully. “And she deserves something nice. Something that’ll lift her spirits and think of you every time she sees these flowers.”

Loosely, Aiden crossed his arms across his chest, his face scrunching into something akin to deep thought. At one point, a loose fist met his lips as he huffed a sigh, trying not to be subjective to this flower decision making, but simply to offer his thoughts. Inevitably, he thought that he was failing in that, though he supposed the child could sort things out based on his reactions as well as his own.

“Well,” he began, looking at one bunch of flowers to start. “I smiled almost instantly when you pointed out this one,” he gestured to the rounded and fiery bouquet. “I don’t know if it’s because of the colors or the choice of flowers, just made me happy. The other one,” he continued, drawing out the words as he shifted on the balls of his feet to direct his attention to it. “This is really nice too, but it gives off a slightly different feeling. looks comforting to me. Like a warm blanket. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s my reaction to them.”

Glancing down at the boy, he wondered what his thought process was in honing in on these two particular bouquets and what he, too, felt when he saw them. There had to be something more than just that they were pretty. Otherwise, he’d be trying to convince him that he couldn’t afford to buy out the entire flower shop. “If you still need help deciding, show me the prices of each of these and I’ll end this in a heartbeat.”

“I think so too,” he said, thankful that it also gave him an edge on what his mother might have liked even though the decisions came no easier than they ever did. There was always something to consider and Connor had considered all of them; and bright and uplifting had seemed to be the name of the game when it came to cake choices and, now, flowers, a stark contrast to the heavy darkness that she might have been experiencing. It couldn’t have been easy and it still wouldn’t be easy even with everyone doting on her, but he could at least hope it would be something to ease the dread of an unfortunate situation. It would be a ray of hope, he supposed.

To that tune, it made picking the bouquet easier than he thought, the concept of a warm hug welcome when that was what many people may have wanted in such a situation, but it was far more grounding than the vibrant happiness that Aiden had so wonderfully described as feeling. It had been similar to the cake, the strawberry cream lighter than the chocolate on chocolate decadence that had been the other choice, so why not continue with the theme? He more readily moved in front of the round bouquet with its yellow roses, red carnations, and amber lilies, all further punctuated with bright yellow and light pink daisies.

“This one,” he said, straining his head for a second to look at the price without so much as picking it up from the counter - one, because reaching it would have been difficult and, two, because he didn’t want to risk small hands and equally small muscles possibly dropping it - before stating, “and the price isn’t as high as the other one.” While it was a mere five dollar difference, it was still the cheaper of options and, in Connor’s head, for far more flowers to the arrangement and far more hopeful impact on his mother.

The snicker of a laugh couldn’t be helped when the child’s voice mentioned the price difference between the bouquets. It had been part in jest to think that price would be the end-all to picking which bouquet they left the shop with when in reality, Aiden would drop whatever amount of money necessary - within reason - to get whatever arrangement of flowers the child wanted. A five-dollar difference was still within reason as he eyeballed the price tag of the bouquet the boy stood in front of now, confident in his choice. “I didn’t think I’d ever meet a kid that was so money-conscious,” Aiden commented to no one in particular as he picked up the chosen bouquet before he started to trek to the counter.

With a quick glance around the store, he spied a card rack, pausing in consideration as he set the flowers on the counter, briefly speaking with the flower shop employee before he addressed the child again. “If you want to pick out a little something extra, there’s some stuff over there,” he suggested, speaking of the assorted cards, gift baskets, stuffed animals, and balloons that could have been paired with a gift of flowers. Although he didn’t think it was entirely necessary, it could have been another uplifting addition to the bouquet even if its uplifting powers had already been proven.

Aiden left the child to his own devices as far as picking out a card, balloon, or stuffed animal while he proceeded with paying for the flowers at the register. Anything that he may have brought up thereafter tacked onto his bill without much consideration for price despite his earlier comment. The gifts they were getting were for a good cause; money was no issue in that case. With everything paid for, Aiden took care of the flowers while anything else they may have gotten he left to the boy as they piled back into the car. With care taken to making sure the flowers were secured whether in the lap of a small child or packed in the small backseat of his car, he made every effort to make sure they wouldn’t be disturbed on the drive to the Marina District neighborhood.

He didn’t think they had been out that long, the sky already darkened and a cool marina breeze setting in by the time they were parked in front of the Armitage residence. He made a face at the realization, killing the engine and circling around the car to help the boy out, handing him his keys so he could go and unlock the front door while he unloaded the car of the gifts they had purchased. “There should be a pizza menu on the coffee table,” he told him, sliding the front passenger seat forward so he could retrieve the flowers. “Pick out whatever you want. I’ll be in shortly.”

Given the opportunity to pick something else, something small that might not have been necessary, but might have been a nice reminder once the flowers had long passed, petals falling off until there was no choice but to throw them away with the vase becoming a more permanent fixture in the house, Connor moved over to the selection of stuffed animals in search of something that would have had similar uplifting, if not slightly humorous, qualities. There were plenty of options - plenty of teddy bears and stuffed animals that were standard in such a place - but he had gone for something out of the box, opting for one in red to match the colors of the bouquet without everything being such a bright yellow. As soon as he had it in his hands, he raced back over to the counter, stretching upward to set it with the flowers that were eventually paid for and schlepped back to the car to join the cake, a variable treasure trove of gifts that would hopefully cheer his mother up.

With the keys in tow once they had parked outside of the family home, he took what he could - the stuffed animal at this point - with him as he walked over to the front door to unlock it. Given the familiarity of surroundings, it felt a lot easier even though the height restrictions and balance were an issue once tippy-toes were included in his reach, but once the door was open, he was free and clear of any more struggle beyond the obvious and encroaching hours of sleep that he knew would be problematic with the size of clothing he was wearing.

He would worry about it another time, another hour, instead kicking his shoes off at the door and sitting himself in front of the table where the pizza menu was said to have been. Sure enough, he found it easily enough, drawing it in closer to him so he could look over the different options, most of which seemed to follow a more traditional faire of pizza in the area. Looking up from the menu once he had given it some thought, he sought out Aiden with his eyes only to call out, “how about an Italian combo? It has pepperoni, salami, green bell pepper, olives and onions, and pepperoncini; but there is also a chicken that sounds good. Chicken, spinach, bacon with red onion and brie.” The last mention got a small curl of his lips into a frown though didn’t seem to dissuade him any from considering it an option.

“I think she might like either of them,” he added, which was going against any notion of him picking what he wanted, but their tastes weren’t dissimilar and chances were if Sandra liked it, Connor had taste buds for it as well. “So now you get to decide,” he said, beaming a smile since he had been making all of the decisions when it came to cakes and flowers. It felt like time to turn the tables.

He hadn’t taken a good look at it before, the choice of the second uplifting gift that he invited the boy to pick out. The top of it was a blur of red and not much else, allowing the child to take charge of it once it was paid for while he took care of the flowers and the bill. Now that he was in the house with the flowers in tow to join the boy at the coffee table, Aiden eyed the plush suspiciously. It was cute, this caricature of a sea creature, but that hadn’t been the reason for his particular gaze that was often reserved for a related and currently absent party.

Its shape and fellow undersea relative immediately came to mind and although his Japanese wasn’t as up to par as he would’ve liked, he hoped that the headband said something about sushi. The irony in the possibility for that, at least, left Aiden with a humored grin as he shook his head, leaving the boy’s presence a second time, now with his keys in tow, to head back out to his car to fetch the cake and lock up for the evening. There was no doubt in his mind that the eight-legged plush would get some smiles, laughs, and offer three more extra hugs when comfort was sought, the unlikely animal easily one that would be forever ingrained in Sandra’s - and now, their - memory for reasons that were all their own.

Crossing the room once his own shoes were kicked off, Aiden made his way to the kitchen with the cake in his hands, slowing in his stride only when the boy’s eyes stopped on him and he had posed yet another decision dilemma when it came to picking the toppings to their pizza. His trek into the kitchen continued, but the look on his face was pondering, eyes to the ceiling temporarily as he tried to imagine both choices and what flavor profiles he was feeling hungry for. Sandra, being the food connoisseur that she was, would probably like either the Italiano or the chicken pizza that the boy was debating between, but when the tables turned on him to make a decision, Aiden peeked from behind the now open fridge door to playfully narrow his eyes at him and the beaming smile the child gave him in return.

Me?” he asked in mock disbelief, shutting the fridge door to cross the floor into the living room where the child sat. On the floor, he joined him, leaning in to look at the choices again as he lightly fluffed his bowl of a haircut. “I guess I could decide on dinner,” he sighed, the playful narrowing of his eyes at the boy ever-present as he considered the two thoughtfully. The Italiano was a robust selection of flavors. The choice of seasoned and cured meats in all their peppery and smoky goodness were tempting, and as if there weren’t enough things with ‘pepper’ in them - in word or spice - there were also the ‘peppers’ of the vegetable variety, thinly sliced or diced and sprinkled about with the tangy olives and sweet onions. On the other hand, there was the chicken to consider, a colorful pie if he could imagine it with the pops of green spinach, the red-purple hue of the red onion, and the creamy white of the brie standing out against the baked or grilled golden brownness of the chicken that was kissed by a searing heat, and the crisp brick red of bacon.

“Let’s try...the chicken pizza,” Aiden decided after a few moments, the subtle flavors of its ingredients and the sort of complexity they could bring when eaten together left him curious and would, he thought, help in taking worried thoughts somewhere else to focus a little more on the feeling that a new and delicious dish often left someone in: elation and satisfaction.

Leaning his head back on the couch with their dinner decision made, he eyed the boy just as suspiciously as he had eyed his eight-legged plush friend. “Hang on… For every decision you’ve made, I paid. Is this your sneaky way of trying to pay for dinner and, if so, with what money?” The smile on his face was light, but just a little weary. It’d be a first to assume - let alone have - a child pay for something for him and Sandra, but he didn’t think it was impossible. Sandra or his parents could have given him some cash allowance for little things like snacks or toys while he was in her care, but he continued to eye him, waiting to be proven wrong and he’d just end up paying just like he had been which he was completely fine with either way.

You.” He assured, looking back to the menu to review the choices that he had picked out. While there were others that were sure to sound good, sure to be good if his stomach had dragged him in such a direction, those had been the two that his appetite took to more and were, as Aiden’s thoughts confirmed, sounded like options that his mother would like even if it may have been some time before she got home. Hopefully, whatever was picked would reheat well again no matter how it was decided to do it, but for a slice or two, he doubted she would wait for the oven to heat up. He continued to read as Aiden continued to ponder, flipping the menu around in his hands to see what may have been on the back or among other folds. When he had decided, his hands lightly smacked the top of the table when he set it back down, standing himself up back on his feet.

“Chicken pizza it is,” he announced, triumphant in his turning of the tables which would save him from dilemma number three and launch him right into dilemma number four as the question of who was paying came up. Aiden had indeed purchased everything, but now that they were in his own home, now that he was where his belongings were, he could make at least some effort to pitch in for everything that they had purchased. Not that there was such a vast amount of cash in his wallet, but there were still a few bills that might have come in handy, not so much allowance as it had been an A.T.M. withdrawal from days prior.

“I have money,” Connor said indignantly, his small feet carrying him towards the stairs which he navigated a bit slower than longer legs would have allowed. Once he had found himself at the top, he all but scuttled down the hallway towards his room - not that Aiden needed to necessarily know that right yet, apt to play it off as if he had been simply napping there when his mother was visiting with this unknown friend of the family and he happened to be tired. Digging around through his nightstand, he found his wallet, flipping it open to dig through the larger pocket for a couple of ten dollar bills and some singles, dumping out the change back in the drawer since they were just annoying to carry around - whenever he could actually carry it around again.

With everything secured up that needed to be, he headed back downstairs and over to the couch, climbing up on it only to hand out the money to Aiden. “See? Money,” he pointed out as if it wasn’t obvious.

Aiden stared after him, the smile he had less weary and more amused as he watched the child head for the stairs, scaling them as a small child with short legs would with an equally short-legged pup following after him excitedly. Folding his arms loosely in front of him, Aiden leaned his head back onto the cushions of the couch, staring up at the ceiling while he waited. The symphony that was the sound of tiny feet galloping through the hall made him chuckle. The sound only ceased somewhere in one of the rooms that Sandra might have assigned to him to rummage through his things and it was in that silence that he closed his eyes for a moment to allow whatever prior stressors of the day leave him until the pitter patter of little feet came charging down the hall and down the stairs a little more carefully. In Mochi’s case, ‘carefully’ hardly applied, the light thud of a bump that was his bum bumping into the wall made Aiden flinch, the scampering of nails against smooth flooring paving a path toward the kitchen and the sink of the cushions next to him pulling him from this temporary darkness.

Peeking from behind an eyelid, Aiden glanced at the boy and then at the money he held out to him, slowly sitting up a little more than the comfortable slouch that he was currently in. “So it is,” he replied, taking the collected bills to count them up. “For a second, I was sure you were going to come down with Monopoly money,” he joked, satisfied with the amount before he set the money on the coffee table next to the menu, using his keys as a paperweight. “When the delivery guy comes with dinner, you may do the honors, 동생,” he told him with a light fluff of his hair. “In the meantime, though…” He let the word trail as he scanned the room. The house wasn’t messy by any means, but a little more tidying up wouldn’t hurt. A fluff of a pillow here, a more organized stack of magazines or the day’s mail there. Some round up of Mochi’s toys was definitely in order, Aiden’s eyes narrowing slightly at the Corgi pup who, after tailing the boy while he was in search of money, emerged from the kitchen after a drink at his doggy bowl only to resume the chewing of some rawhide he had been busying himself with at some point earlier on in the day. “Let’s get the place cleaned up for 엄마, okay?”

His eyes took to the menu as his hand blindly reached for his phone in preparation to place their order on top of a couple of extra sides that he thought that Sandra and the boy would like when his stomach complained about the pizza not being enough. It seemed like a curse, this endless appetite that hadn’t been as prominent as it had been in recent months, but it wasn’t like it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be remedied. An order of hot wings, some tempting dessert cinnamon roll things, and a salad to cut through all that richness or otherwise lighten the palate between bites was a decision thoughtfully considered when everything else seemed, in their own right, heavy in some way. He’d handle the bill for the extras, another set of bills discreetly added to the stack, but the boy’s contribution was for the star of their dinner.

With dinner on its way between prep and delivery, Aiden took to what sound system there was in the house, hooking up his phone to play something to aide in their cleaning efforts. Glancing over at the boy, he chuckled a bit. “They’re way before your time, but hopefully you don’t mind a little SuJu,” he said as the song queued up and began to play. “I could always play Baby Shark if you prefer,” he suggested, moving to one area in the room to clean up, picking up one of Michael’s jackets from a chair only to find itself in the closet, and some loose change that joined its brethren in some dish or jar shortly after being found.

“There would have been a lot more racket if I had,” he said, lifting his hand up to pantomime the presence of a shelf in front of him, far out of reach. “I think all of those are kept in the top of the closet since I never see them stacked anywhere else,” and he couldn’t say how long it had actually been since there was a board game pulled out of its lifelong storage unless there actually had been younger family members present and, well, there weren’t exactly many of those either. More often than not, it had been friends and family made within the community to come over, and even then, those gatherings were more appropriately in the warmer months when being outside was easily preferred over sitting around a table to get mad over Monopoly.

The money relinquished, Connor got himself back off of the couch so he could start tidying up - not that there was much of anything that did need it. Some dusting, maybe, but that was hardly as important as just making sure things were picked up and everything was in order, displacement perhaps the more noticeable thing when there were other things on her mind. It would make it easier to sit down and eat if there weren’t couch pillows strewn about, the work of a rambunctious dog or perhaps child that was restless - not that Connor didn’t have it in him to calm down - and if she didn’t have to worry about what she had to do the next morning, be it preparing the rice cooker and getting it started for Connor whenever he woke up or taking care of the dog, something that might not have been her responsibility, but she would’ve been happy to do, it would make it easier to rest.

That was the intention in it all: Making sure she came home and could feel rested, if not have a little sunshine in odd octopus plush toys, a delicious cake, and what he hoped was a good slice or two of pizza though there was the ever-present thought that she might as well have just gone to sleep - not because of a lack of appreciation for it, but because of just how long of a day, even night, it would inevitably be.

Oh no,” he nearly groaned when Baby Shark was mentioned, almost shooting a glance to Mochi to make sure the dog didn’t start singing even though singing, at the time, was hardly what Mochi was doing. At least he had been more on time with the beat and the direction than Peanut had, zipping around the backseat of a car that Connor, currently, had no means of driving without some elaborate set up made for sitcom instances of children driving. “We can stay with this,” he said, shaking his head as he did what he could in pushing in the chairs at the dining room table and making sure they were squared up nicely, and picking up loose toys here and there that the dog had left behind. “I don’t need that stuck in my head all night because you can bet it is already there and I am probably going to go to sleep with it there.”

There would have easily been a lot more racket than what he listened to earlier if Monopoly money was the currency to be exchanged. Thankfully, it hadn’t been since the last thing anyone needed was a child to be sent to the hospital because he was in search of money to pay for dinner. Aiden could only imagine how that story would have unfolded and with Sandra already worried over what situation was going on at the hospital, he didn’t need to give her another one.

“What? You don’t like Baby Shark either?” His question had come out in a baffled laugh, the memory of a Fourth of July weekend outing swimming to the forefront of his mind, manifesting a number of feelings that he couldn’t very well place outside of the playfulness and the encouragement that came with the childishly catchy tune and the reaction he got out of the pups that were present even if Peanut’s reaction was either delayed, off time or just ignored altogether in favor of bouncing around in the backseat when he knew their car ride was coming to an end and their weekend adventure could begin. “Well good,” Aiden began, feigning hurt as he crossed the floor behind the half pint to poke-tickle at his side. “I hope you end up singing it to yourself come bedtime.”

While there really wasn’t much by way of cleaning up the house as there could have been, Aiden suspicious of the rotund Corgi pup who found himself a new chew toy to gnaw at and the lack of a mess that he was used to cleaning up after, on this night, that was totally fine with him. That left more time to relax, wind down, and hopefully worry less as the night went on as they awaited Sandra’s eventual return from the hospital. Among what little cleaning there was left to do, Aiden snuck a discrete glance at his phone, void of any new texts from Sandra or from the restaurant as he had earlier instructed. No new updates outside of I’m here timestamped a few hours ago and a couple of marketing emails from a few of Aiden’s frequently visited online shops.

Thinning his lips, Aiden stared worriedly at his screen. Tapping Sandra’s last message, he sent a quick reply: I hope everything’s alright. As quick as the swipe of his thumb went, his phone was just as quick to disappear back into his pocket, his hold on it lingering a little longer in case there was a reply that traveled back just as fast. When a reply didn’t come as quickly, he let go, collecting this book or that magazine to have them join others like them on his way to the kitchen where he soon collected some plates and glasses to lay out before each of the chairs that sat vacant, awaiting the dinner that would soon arrive.

Stepping out into the living room, he observed the result of their clean up, glancing back into the kitchen only to remember to fix Mochi’s dinner. “동생,” he called, when he hadn’t so readily spotted him behind whatever counter or other piece of furniture he might’ve been just the right size to be unseen. “Why don’t you get changed? Dinner should be here soon.” With that, Aiden found himself in the kitchen again, whistling for the pup to head outside to take care of his business while he went to fix his food.

“It is an earworm that doesn’t need to be, and now it is at stores and everything with plush toys and I’m sure I saw a cereal once,” he explained as he started to clean up, recalling seeing it as an adult though he had yet to go down at a cereal aisle at a height where it seemed all the cartoon characters on the front, just so placed on the shelves, were looking down at him in a beckon to buy; but just because he was small in stature didn’t mean his mind had gone, reverted to a point where childlike mentality was more real versus a construct of someone pretending. “I will blame it on you if it does though,” he said, speaking of the song getting stuck as he headed for the stairs at Aiden’s insistence that he put on something more ready for comfort, if not for bed.

After a day like today, he was sure sleeping would be warmly welcomed, if not hard to come by while he worried about whatever was going on with his mother who had been strangely silent. He was tired. He did want to sleep, but he didn’t want to miss her arrival home if it meant figuring out what was going on.

Back up to the top of the stairs, his footsteps weren’t as urgent as they had been prior in his hunt for his wallet, Connor now faced with the task of trying to get into his own drawers which, save for the bottom, towered over him. Naturally, they had been prepared for this, and Connor needed only to open the bottom to find an oversized shirt and basketball shorts that he could attempt to tie tightly about his waist even though they looked more the part of pants than they did anything else. The shirt too hung oddly off his shoulders compared to the usual broadness of a grown adult, and it took quite a bit of adjusting to get it to hang just right - enough to fill the time between the quiet of the house settling and the sudden ring of the door bell that signaled the pizza had arrived.

Down the stairs again he went, careful not to trip over his own two feet or swathing fabric, retrieving the money where it had been set on the table and going through the motions of paying the pizza delivery driver and retrieving the pizza, an almost monumental effort in small hands. “Thank you,” he said with a bow of his head before he was spinning around on his heels, backing up into the door so he could close it again before triumphantly heading into the dining space where it could be put on the table, safe from any tripping or falling or dropping that could have occurred.

“Smells good,” he said, climbing up on one of the chairs after he had pulled it out again, sitting up on his knees so he could see it with his own two eyes once the box was opened.

He didn’t know about the cereal, but the plush toys and apparel were things that he had been more familiar with when it came to the catchy children’s song as their clean up was coming to a close. A passing thought on whether or not there’d be an adult sized Baby Shark onesie floating around on the Internet kept him in silence for a moment before his mouth quirked into a light smirk when the child threatened to place the blame on him for the earworm. “That’s a blame I’d gladly take,” he admitted, glancing toward the stairs briefly when the pitter patter of little feet grew distant with the distance, shaking his head a little in amusement.

Aiden prepped Mochi’s food in silence with the scratch of his nails against the smooth flooring trailing him whenever he moved through the kitchen. When the pup’s food was finally ready, there was no ceremony to how he would go about having his dinner, snout already sniffing and nudging about his bowl the second it had been within reach. With a light scratch behind the pup’s ears, Aiden straightened and leaned against the counter, staring out into the yard and toward the marina, stuck between hope and worry about whether or not Sandra would return his text or call just to check up on them.

His hand went to his phone, eagerly drawing it out to check the screen. When all that stared back at him was the time, he sighed, an involuntary muscle twitch in his hand unlocking the screen and tapping into his list of messages. His thumb hovered over Sandra’s name for a moment before choosing another thereafter. He hadn’t spoken his name in what felt like months, further indication in the date of their last text, but it didn’t mean that had to always be the case. He had a reason to - more of a reason to - outside of the same old greetings. Although he supposed that Sandra would’ve contacted her own son the moment that she left Aiden with the child at the restaurant, it didn’t keep him from tapping into that message history to skim the string of conversation there before opting to call instead.

One ring. Two rings. Three rings… Voicemail. Slender fingers curled around the body of his phone - the one that had been gifted after a threat to call Connor’s uncle one night hadn’t been the best choice of words when alcohol fizzed and bubbled in their systems and the signs of a street fight were obvious in their hands and faces - as his recorded message played. As if in time with the beep on the phone, a ring at the doorbell sounded. Temporarily taken away by the noise, Aiden turned to glance at the front door only to see a pool of clothing and the bob of a familiar bowl cut descend the stairs, retrieving the money to exchange for the dinner presented to them.

“Hey…it’s me,” he began as he watched the child carry the pizza and whatever small bags of extras came along with it toward the table, slight amusement in his face apparent as he tried to mask the worry beneath. “Call 엄마 when you get the chance if she hasn’t called you already.” There had been a couple of things that he could have continued the message with, but none rushed to escape his mouth. Instead, silence filled the beat until he decided on words that would sound less concerning: “She misses you.”

Hanging up, Aiden moved to join the boy at the table, serving him a slice before he placed one on his own plate, proceeding thereafter to open up anything else that he might want to eat. Whether it be the appetizer portion of wings or sweet dessert bites, they were all out for the pickings. “I hope you plan on eating enough to fill out those clothes of yours,” Aiden commented with a nod toward the clothes he was swimming in, crossing to the fridge to pour a couple of glasses of juice. Soda would’ve been the top choice, but the last thing he wanted was for the kid to be bouncing off the walls on a sugar rush when Sandra returned home.

Trust me,” he said with all assurance and perhaps a glimmer of hope, “I am going to grow big right before your eyes.” Granted, the definition of such a statement was largely different from the context with which the comment had been presented to him. It wasn’t so much growing as it was finding another one; one that was surely larger and surely older, but by how much was anyone’s guess. As far as Connor knew, there had been no pattern to it and eventually it had become far more troublesome to keep up with it than it had been to simply stop worrying and let the chips fall where they may.

But he supposed that wasn’t the most problematic feature of the evening versus the lack of his mother around, focusing more intently on the pizza and the toppings that had been upon it rather than the echoing message to call his mother. He would - undoubtedly he would - but it would be under different circumstances, be it hidden in his own room or hiding out in the bathroom so he could address her readily rather than under a veil of incorrect identity. Of course, she missed him. It couldn’t have been easy to see him growing up as a dozen different people and having to adjust perception to tell her that this was her son all along even if form didn’t say as much.

Instead of mentioning it, he focused on eating instead and devouring a piece of pizza along with some of the appetizers, his stomach surely nothing of the sort that would have held the same amount of food had he been bigger. Everything was significantly smaller as a kid, the most obvious of which being just how he fit in his own close - rather, didn’t fit which was becoming quite the inconvenience as he made sure there wasn’t any fabric hanging over the food or dipping onto his plate as they ate. In a way, it made it grateful for the time they had wrapped up, Connor doing his part - arguably not much - to box up anything that had remained and put it away before dropping himself back on the couch where the inevitable food coma would take him over.

But maybe, just maybe, Sandra would come home first.

“I hope she doesn’t end up staying there overnight,” he said while he lulled into a far more tired demeanor, glancing to the clock on the cable box considering his watch wouldn’t exactly fit anymore; but while he hoped, he certainly knew it could be the case depending on what was going on, and if his uncle had been called, at least there was someone who could convince her at home is where she needed to be, if only for her own sake.

“Sure you are,” Aiden replied, watching the boy place a couple more bits of food on his plate to join his pizza before he began to dig in. A light smile tugged at his mouth as he watched the food disappear, Aiden casually going about his meal with no real rush even if his appetite demanded it as a thought of those tightly compact towels that would grow and expand with the addition of water came to mind. He humored the idea - that the boy would grow with food consumption - but with his plate now clean and his attempts at tidying up without getting anything on the material he was swimming in, there had been none of that spoken miracle growing action.

With his own portion of their dinner devoured, Aiden downed his juice as he watched the pool of fabric with the bowl haircut puddle upon a spot on the couch, obviously tired and full. Sliding off his seat, he crossed the room to join him, glancing at the clock when the child voiced his thought. He knew that was a possibility. Depending on the severity of what it was that Sandra was faced with when she arrived at the hospital, yes, she could have very well decided that she would stay there overnight. On the other hand, she could just end up staying late and decide to come home to get some rest. Between both options, Aiden couldn’t say for certain which would be taken as he sank into the cushions beside him.

“I know,” he began, having trouble finding words that would be the most reassuring. “But she will come home.” Would she come home tonight? He couldn’t say when she hadn’t returned his text, but if she didn’t, Aiden would stay with the boy for as long as he needed to until she did. “All we have to do is wait.”