(Content Note for sex talk and trauma)
Noah had planned to go straight up to his own apartment when he got home a little while later. But as he was walking in, Olivia’s front door opened and Andrew walked out. Noah stopped short, but apparently still caught Andrew off guard as he turned around and jumped.
“Sorry,” Noah said, stepping back toward the door. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine,” Andrew said. “What were you doing out so early?”
This was exactly why he’d hoped to go upstairs without talking to anybody. Not that Andrew had any interest anymore. He’d made that obvious. Nor did Noah, at least as far as he could tell within his own tangled mind. But there was no need to advertise to everybody that he’d just come from having hours of sweaty sex with a very nice man he had no plans of settling down with. But here he was, in full walk of shame mode.
“Um, nothing,” Noah lied, trying to inch past Andrew toward the escape of his own stairwell.
There was a flash of concern on Andrew’s face and Noah immediately felt like a jackass. He wasn’t sure if Andrew even realized he’d shown it, but Noah knew that three months of sobriety was nothing. Of course they were going to worry if he was secretive. So instead, he tried to gather his dignity and tell the truth.
“Fine,” he admitted. “I spent the night at a friend’s house.”
The concern morphed into something else that was quickly squashed, but Noah’s chest felt tight with shame. He hadn’t even considered the fact that it might look like he’d been drinking. As much as he was still tempted to stop and buy whiskey every single time he was driving, the risk of losing everything he’d gotten back was too much.
“Where are you going?” he asked, reluctantly staying where he was.
“General store,” Andrew replied. “We’re out of bread.”
Don’t offer, don’t offer, don’t offer. But Noah’s dignity meant nothing when Mia’s breakfast was at stake. “I’ve got some,” he said. “Come on.”
“I won’t finish it before it goes bad, and it’s too frigging cold to go outside right now.”
He started up the stairs and heard Andrew’s footsteps following after. It had been nearly a year since Andrew had returned to Noah’s life after leaving him behind seven years earlier. By now, the shock of having Andrew back, especially living right downstairs, had faded enough that Noah could focus on other things. But every so often, like right now, he couldn’t help wondering how the fuck they ended up the way they had.
Noah’s apartment wasn’t quite as sterile as it had been when he’d left for rehab a few months earlier. Between his own need to move on and Olivia’s unsubtle decorating tips, it had become much warmer and more comfortable. Though, as he opened the door and stepped inside, Noah could see that it still screamed being owned by a thirty-four-year-old man.
He walked into the kitchen and picked up the untouched loaf of bread from his counter, where he’d left it with the intention of putting it away when he got home last night.
“Here,” he said, handing it to Andrew.
They stood awkwardly in the kitchen for a moment. Noah wasn’t sure if he actually smelled, but he felt like he had cartoonish stench waves coming off of him. But he also couldn’t bring himself to make Andrew leave just yet.
“Do you want breakfast?” Andrew asked. “I’m making her French toast, I’ll put on some extra.”
“Is Liv home?”
Not that he expected Olivia to do all the cooking. But Andrew cooking Mia’s breakfast set alarm bells off in Noah’s head. And his suspicions were confirmed when Andrew’s face fell.
“She is,” he said. “But she said she didn’t sleep at all last night, so I insisted she do so. Especially since she’s adamant that she’s going to work this afternoon.”
It hadn’t been long since the horrible night when Olivia had been possessed by one of the many ghosts that tried to use her to complete their earthly missions. She insisted she was alright, that she was getting over it. But Noah could tell from the way she hesitated to leave the house and the way her gaze would sometimes go to the middle distance during a conversation that things weren’t as alright as she tried to say they were.
Shower. Bed. But Olivia needed her friends right now, even if they were just in the other room. Plus, Andrew was a halfway decent cook and he and Jude had skipped dinner last night. So Noah nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, if you don’t mind. I’ll take a shower, then come down and scramble some eggs.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“No, I can-”
“No, you really don’t need to do that.”
Maybe Noah should have been offended. But the number of times he’d set off the smoke alarm made him shut his mouth and not offer up the retort that had tried to get out. Instead, he just nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Andrew smiled, but it looked a little stiff. Then he took the bread and walked out of the apartment, leaving Noah alone in the kitchen.
As he walked toward the bathroom, Gray Lady slinked out of his bedroom and wound around his legs. He reached down and scratched between her ears. “Hey, pretty lady,” he said.
She meowed, and he reluctantly turned back to the kitchen to feed her. Once her bowl was full, Gray Lady slipped away and headed over to eat. Finally, Noah got to the shower. Muscles aching pleasantly, he undressed and climbed under the steaming spray.
Shower. Food. Then maybe a nap before work. Unless he found something that needed to be repaired in Liv’s house. Then he’d just do that instead.
Olivia wasn’t sleeping. Andrew had all but forced her into her room about an hour ago, but even though she’d been up all night, she still wasn’t able to drop off. Instead, she was lying under the covers on her bed, gripping the amulet around her neck and trying to keep her breathing under control.
She had to go to work later. She couldn’t miss it. Bret would be pissed if she called out today. He still hadn’t hired someone else to fill Noah’s part-time spot, and that was only the tip of the lack of help she had there. Andrew would come fill in in a second if she asked him to, but she couldn’t set that precedent. Noah would too. But she’d never ask him, not when he’d looked so heartbroken telling her he had to leave the job for the sake of his sobriety.
So it was her, Charlie, and Hugh. Hugh thought she was crazy. She’d worked with him multiple times since he’d dismissed what happened to her as stress. She could tell he felt bad. He kept trying to engage her in conversation. But the humiliation was still burning inside of her, along with a simmering anger that she refused to let boil over.
He hadn’t believed her. He hadn’t trusted her after the scariest moment of her life. So now she could barely look him in the eye.
Maybe she should let Bret fire her. Would she get unemployment if he did? Knowing him, he had some dirty trick to keep it from happening. She wasn’t hourly, so he couldn’t just cut down her hours to make her quit. But there was something he could do, she was sure of it.
She heard the door open and froze. Then Andrew and Noah’s voices drifted into the room and she let herself relax, just a little bit. As long as they closed the door, the protections Celine put up would be completed. She wished she knew how to do these things. She’d feel so much less helpless. But the idea of putting one more thing into her brain right now made tears prick at her eyes.
She reached up again to touch the medallion around her neck. She needed a medallion like this for Mia too. Was there a way to get one? Not that Mia left the property all that much these days. She’d stopped bringing her to playgroup temporarily so she really only went to Olivia’s mother’s house, which was also protected. But what if this ability was genetic? It was her mother’s cousin that could do it too, right? So what would stop it from appearing in Mia? And Mia was too little, too innocent to fight off something that wanted to hurt her.
Olivia’s stomach turned, a mix of fatigue and anxiety. This wasn’t healthy and she knew it, but it wasn’t like she had a way out of it. Her antidepressants couldn’t work miracles.
She needed to sleep. That would help.
Olivia closed her eyes and tried to keep her breathing deep and even. Thoughts crowded into her mind, but she blocked them out, keeping things blank. Blank. Just breathing. In and out. In…
Just like when the ghost took hold of her and shoved her thoughts and everything that made her her out of her mind.
Olivia’s eyes snapped open. She could remember what had happened, but it was hazy. She’d been trying to scream. She tried to push out this thing that was filling her entire existence, except for one tiny part of her mind where her own soul was screaming. Olivia didn’t remember leaving her house, didn’t remember going to Celine. And she was terrified to ask the others what had happened and what they’d seen her body do. Everyone was acting normal, but she knew they were trying to make her feel better.
There was a knock at her door, soft but solid. So it had to be one of the adults. A second later, the knob twisted and the door cracked open. Noah poked his head in.
“Hey, why are you awake?”
She looked over at him, knowing she looked like shit. “Can’t sleep.”
“Are you hungry?”
She shook her head, and he stepped into the room, letting the door close behind him. “Do you want some company?”
She wasn’t sure if she did or not, but she nodded anyway. He walked over and sat down next to her on the bed, leaning his back against the headboard. “Want to talk?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said.
He wasn’t going to push. If anyone here knew what she was going through, Noah had the closest idea. And in the same way she didn’t want to think of the things the spirit made her do, she knew he didn’t like to talk about the things he’d done in the grip of alcoholism. So instead of saying anything, he just wrapped an arm around her.
Noah was warm and solid and she slipped her own arm around his thin stomach and held on tightly. He smelled like the soap she’d bought for him when he got home, a crisp woodsy scent. Now she felt safer than she had even a few minutes ago and she let her head rest against his torso. “Were you gone all night?” she asked.
She laughed softly, and he squeezed her gently. “Do you like him?” she asked.
Noah shrugged. “Yeah, he’s great. But it’s not like that,” he said. “We’re friends.”
“Friends who sleep together?”
“I’m happy for you.”
He was quiet and she let her eyes close, feeling more relaxed now that he was here with her. His arm seemed to get heavier on her. She opened her eyes for a second and glanced up to see that his eyes were closed now too, as he rested his head against the headboard.
“He invited me to a threesome tonight,” Noah said without opening his eyes.
“Are you going?”
“No. Too much to do here.”
He seemed to be falling asleep as he spoke, and Olivia realized she wasn’t far behind. Noah’s hand slipped up to her hair, stroking gently, and the other reached for her hand. She fell asleep a second later, still holding onto him.