The clock in the lobby read half past seven by the time Trixie had trudged her way up the stairs from the basement. The sun had been up more than an hour but it had taken her that long to muster the strength to face the walk back to her apartment. The night had been harder than she’d expected – a result of the close call, no doubt. She could still feel the tell-tale thrumming under her skin, and her hands, shoved deep as they would go into the pockets of her coat, clenched into fists. The right one curled around the note that had been left for her on top of a set of clean, very conservative pajamas. ‘You’re welcome’ it read simply in the chicken scratch that Jack passed off as handwriting.
She tossed the paper scrap in the trashcan by the front desk, unmanned as usual, and briefly entertained the idea of lying right down in the lobby. Her shoulder hurt something fierce – which probably explained the new dent in the Quiet Room – and her legs felt a little like jello, but the concrete floor was cold and uninviting under her bare feet. There was a bed three stories up that belonged to her, and a bathroom and bottle of whiskey. It was all she could do to keep her eyelids from sliding shut at the thought. Of course with her luck if she were to lie down in the lobby it would get back to Jack, and knowing he would never let her hear the end of it was enough to keep her moving.
Halfway up the last flight she paused. The building was always a complex blend of scents, but there was coffee wafting strongly down the staircase, along with baked goods and a very particular blend of soap and aftershave. She couldn’t stop the huff of annoyance that forced itself out of her mouth. This wasn’t at all what she wanted to do with her morning.
She had reached the top of the stairs and taken a few steps down the hall by the time Theo noticed her. He scrambled to his feet, a tray of coffees balanced in one hand. There was a takeout bag by his feet that smelled distinctly of cherries and chocolate. Her stomach rumbled.
"I see we've progressed from the occasional office visit to you sleeping on my doorstep," Trixie said as she approached. "Working a little fast, don'tcha think?"
"Am I?" Theo asked. "I just... I thought you might want some coffee. And some fresh chocolate cherry danishes. Did I mention I brought danishes?"
That ridiculous red cloak he always wore was laying on the ground next to the paper bag. He scooped both up while she watched and offered the bag to her. Instead she reached for the tray and took one of the coffees. It was fresh, and perfectly drinkable if not as good as Jack's.
"Theo," she said carefully after a few more sips, "did you... actually sleep on my doorstep?"
"I brought coffee," he said quickly, eyes going wide. He'd never been a very good liar. She stared pointedly until he looked away and said, "And yes, maybe I slept on your doorstep."
"Now why would you do a thing like that?" she asked, reaching past him to open her apartment door. It was unlocked. "You could have slept in the waiting room. Or inside."
"Jack suggested that," Theo replied. "But I didn’t think you’d like it, so…”
A long moment of silence passed before Theo realized she was waiting for him to get out of the way. He nearly spilled coffee on himself in his haste to make room for her in the doorway. "You might as well come in and sit down," she said when he didn't follow her in. "You've already slept on the doormat and all, might as well get a feel for the rest of the place."
She was already in the kitchenette, downing a glass of water, by the time she heard the front door shut. Leaning her hip against the counter, she listened as he bustled around the living room. The springs in the couch groaned. He was probably sitting with his hands on his knees, peering around at the putty-colored walls and wondering how he could plead his case with her – a case that would probably involve never seeing her again in a romantic context. There was a time, not long gone, when that would have pleased her. Now it only annoyed her. At least he'd brought coffee and pastries.
On her way back into the living room Trixie caught a glimpse of herself in the decorative mirror by the kitchen door. The face that stared back at her was pale and drawn. Her hair looked like someone had combed large sections of it the wrong way. To say she looked like hell would have been a generous assessment, but there was nothing in her that could be bothered to care. All she wanted was to sit down and drink her coffee and deal with Theo.
He was staring off into the middle distance when she came back into the living room. She settled down on the opposite end of the couch, coffee in hand, and said, "You've got questions."
"No," he said quickly, face stricken. "I mean yes, but - you don't have to-"
"Just ask," she broke in before he could swallow his tongue. "You might as well. You've plied me with pastries and I'm too exhausted to keep my guard up, so this is your best chance for real answers if you want them."
The look he gave her was heartbreaking - or it would have been if she’d had any heart left to break.
She sighed. "Don't make that face. Why are you making that face?"
He handed her a danish wrapped haphazardly in wax paper. "I'm not making a face. This is just my face."
"Ask, West," she said, nudging his leg with her toes. "You've got until the end of this danish before I'm trading your company for beauty sleep."
He took a bite of his own danish, and stared off into the middle distance while he chewed. She nudged his leg with her toes, and he tried to swat her away but just wound up sort of cupping her ankle with his free hand. He squeezed a little before he let go.
He took a sip of coffee then finally asked, "Is it always that bad?"
All Trixie could do was shrug. She could almost remember Jack dragging her out of the passenger seat of his car. "More or less. The close call didn't help."
"Does it hurt as much as they say?"
"No," she said tartly, giving him a look. "I was just doing all that screaming for my own edification."
"Jack had to carry you down the stairs," Theo said defensively.
"Yeah, I loved that part too."
He was frowning now. "You said I could ask."
"I didn't say I'd be nice, did I?"
Theo didn’t have anything to say to that. He relaxed back into the couch, still frowning, and took another bite of his danish. The silence stretched between them.
"Theo, why are you here?" she asked.
He was obviously picking his words carefully when he said, “I just wanted to make sure you were all right. That’s all. Scout’s honor.”
“Of course you were a boy scout,” she muttered into her coffee. Well. It wasn’t the answer she’d been expecting but it was something she could work with. “You know,” she continued gently, “I have been doing this for a few years now, and mostly alone.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it alone,” he said easily, but the words were barely out of his mouth before he was blushing clean up to his hairline. Even the tips of his ears turned pink, and he rubbed a hand across his eyes to cover his own embarrassment. Looking at the carpet, he said, “Sorry. Late nights make me chatty.”
Trixie climbed to her feet with a put-upon sigh. “All right, fine.”
“All right, fine, what?” Theo asked, staring up at her like a cow gazing passively at an oncoming train.
“Fine, you can stay – but!” She held her hand up for silence when he opened his mouth to interrupt her. “We are sleeping, sunshine. For the first few hours anyways.”
He smiled, still blushing. “You’re not going to wake me up halfway through my nap and kick me out, are you?”
She smiled back and shrugged out of the coat she was still wearing. “As always, I reserve the right to do whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want, and to blazes with anyone who can’t handle it.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Theo replied. Loosening his tie, he followed her into the bedroom.