Olivia had a fire going a couple hours later. They sat around it in the backyard, holding steaming cups of hot cider in the chilly March air.
“This is nice,” Cleo said, taking a sip and wincing as she burned her tongue.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back?” Olivia asked, glancing over at the baby monitor beside her. “I could have made dinner or something.”
Cleo shook her head. “No, God, I wouldn’t expect you to do that. Sorry, I should have texted though. Especially since I don’t have anywhere else to stay. Well, maybe my mom’s but I don’t think she’d be comfortable with that.”
“No, you’re welcome here,” Olivia said quickly. “I’ve got plenty of room.”
“It was kind of impulsive,” Cleo admitted. “I just…I felt like I should be back here.”
Andrew’s stomach sank a little at those words. Cleo felt obligated to be here because of him. She was risking getting stuck too because she felt guilty. Not that she was ever going to admit it, but it was obvious.
“I’m happy you’re here,” Olivia said with a smile.
The moment was broken by the familiar sound of Noah’s truck pulling into the driveway. Cleo stood up and set down her drink.
“I’m going to catch him before he goes upstairs and locks the door,” she said.
When neither of the others said anything, she cringed. “So I wasn’t far off on that?”
“He’s…” Andrew began.
“Distant,” Olivia finished.
Cleo nodded. “I’ll go drag him back here,” she said, then walked to the front of the house.
Noah was getting out of his truck as she rounded the corner. He turned, saw her, and nearly fell backwards.
“Jesus!” he exclaimed. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry,” Cleo said. “Uh, come out back. We’re having a fire.”
Noah shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m wiped. I’m going to head upstairs and shower.”
“Just for a couple minutes,” Cleo argued. “And I can’t smell you, you’re fine.”
Noah huffed a laugh, but didn’t say anything.
“Seriously, I missed you. Liv and Andrew are already back there. Come sit with us.”
Noah shifted awkwardly. “They don’t want me there,” he said.
Cleo looked at him. The porch light threw the front yard into shadow, but she could tell the shadows weren’t the only reason Noah looked haggard.
Impulsively, she threw her arms around him. He flinched, froze, then melted into her arms, his own sliding up her back to grip her tight.
Neither said anything. They just stood in the front yard, holding each other for a few minutes. She rested her chin on his shoulder as he leaned a cheek against the top of her head.
He felt thin. He’d never been particularly built, but he felt like he’d lost weight in the weeks she had been gone. Cleo felt a wave of fear. Had things gotten so out of control so quickly?
She didn’t want to let go, but thankfully he seemed in no hurry to either. He gripped her desperately. Like on some level, one deep under the denial, he knew how close he was to the edge. And instead of saying it, he just gripped her so tightly that it almost hurt.
“I missed you,” Cleo repeated softly.
“I missed you too.”
“Come out back and sit with us.”
Noah tensed up a little. “Please,” Cleo added. “We want you there. Five minutes.”
Finally, she felt him nod against the side of her face. He started to pull back and she let him, the cold air rushing in between them.
“We’re out at the fire pit, come on.”
For a second, it looked like he might not follow her. But after a moment’s hesitation, he started walking beside her as she led them out back.
Olivia turned as they approached. She smiled in the firelight. “Hi!”
Noah smiled awkwardly. “Hi.”
At the sound of his voice, Andrew also turned. “Hi, Noah,” he said with a wave.
From her spot right next to him, Cleo could see Noah turning red. “Hi, Andrew,” he said.
Cleo took her seat, and Noah sat in the empty seat on her left. No one on the other side and an easy escape once it became necessary.
“You want some cider, Noah?” Olivia asked. “I was about to go get a refill.”
“Um, sure. Thanks,” Noah said quietly.
Olivia got up and Cleo followed, saying something about needing to use the bathroom. Andrew and Noah sat silently by the fire.
Andrew picked up a stick and poked awkwardly at the fire. He wasn’t quite sure what this was supposed to do to the fire, but he’d seen Olivia doing it and it seemed like as good a way as any to keep his hands busy.
And not think about the last time they sat out here alone. When Noah was drunk and Andrew was still in shock.
Now he was more acclimated than he honestly wanted to be. And Noah was sober? Maybe? He looked vaguely sick, so he probably was.
The fire popped, a spark jumping out at Andrew. He jumped backward, brushing the ember off his chair.
Noah didn’t seem to notice. He was staring into the fire like he was hypnotized by the crackling flames. Was he also trying not to remember last time? When he’d taken his coat off and offered it to Andrew?
At least he was keeping it on tonight. It was still way too cold to be outside without one.
The fire popped, logs collapsing in on each other. The flame shot up for a second, then receded. Noah picked up another stick and stirred at the glowing embers at the bottom of the pit. The logs shifted and the rekindled fire evened out.
Oh. That’s what that was supposed to do. Andrew reckoned it made sense.
He yawned and covered his mouth. Noah yawned a second later. They made eye contact, then both quickly looked away.
Cleo and Olivia came back a few minutes later. Olivia handed a steaming mug to Noah, who took it, hissed in pain, and immediately dropped it on the ground.
“Shit, are you okay?” Olivia said, jumping out of the way as the hot cider hit the snow.
“I’m fine, sorry,” Noah said.
“Did you get hurt? What happened to your hand?”
Andrew looked at Noah’s hand before he had a chance to hide it in his pocket. In the firelight, it looked puffy.
“Nothing, my hand just slipped,” Noah said. “I’m sorry about your mug.”
“I got the mug for a dollar, I’m worried about your hand. Come inside, let me take a look.”
Noah kept his hand firmly in his pocket. “I’m fine,” he said, a tinge of warning in his voice. “Don’t worry about it.”
Olivia made eye contact with Andrew, who grimaced helplessly. Then she shrugged.
“Fine,” she said. “Do you want another cup?”
Noah’s smile looked fake. “I’m good,” he said. “Thanks. I’m going inside soon.”
Olivia shrugged. “Fine,” she said shortly.
She sat back down and everyone was silent. Olivia picked up the stick Andrew had discarded and poked the fire with it. Cleo looked at her like she wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure how it would be taken. Andrew stared at the fire.
A minute later, Noah stood up and walked silently up into his apartment. A moment after that, Olivia got up and walked into her own.