The last day of Story a Day, and today’s prompt was to “Go Big”. Taking everything we’ve done this month and put it toward something new. This takes place shortly after “Put the Brakes on“.
Gabriel opened the door, not sure he’d ever been this nervous. Which was rather silly. It was Lora. His friend’s little sister. Who he’d talked to enough times through the computer. No screen, or thousands of miles, between them now, but it didn’t have to be any different.
And then he saw her. Gabriel imagined she thought the outfit was professional, and he was sure it was. But, it clung to every curve, giving him just a taste of what was under it. Stop it, he scolded himself. She was here for business, and he’d promised himself he wouldn’t let his thoughts go there. He’d made a promise to Aaron, and just because the man wasn’t here to make sure he’d keep it didn’t mean Gabriel would go and break his word.
“Come in,” he said when she looked at him curiously. He must look like an idiot just standing in the doorway, staring at her.
She stepped inside and let out a little shiver as she slipped off her sweater. “I thought it was warm when I left the bed and breakfast. I would have grabbed a coat, too, if I’d realized the temperature had dropped so much.”
He couldn’t say he was too disappointed that she hadn’t. Then, he reminded himself, again, that he wasn’t going to think like that. “We’ll get you warmed up,” he said and hung her sweater on a hook by the door.
He caught the way her eyes darkened as the words slipped out of his mouth. Shit. He hadn’t meant it like that, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Roommate threw some soup in the slow cooker this morning. House has smelled amazing since I got home.” Which had been fairly early since there wasn’t much to do, even in the office. And he’d needed to clean the house up anyway.
Her face tilted up, her nose twitching as if smelling the air. “You’re right,” she said, “it does smell good. Is it ready?”
“He said it would be whenever we wanted to eat.” Had he told her who his roommate was? He couldn’t remember now, though he wracked his memory for it.
“Is he joining us?”
“I don’t think so.” Actually Erik had made it pretty clear he wanted to be anywhere but near them tonight. And he knew his roommate had reasons upon reasons for that.
Gabriel led her into the kitchen. “Have a seat,” he told her. “I’ll get the bowls.”
He took a moment to draw and release a few breaths as he took the bowls out of the cupboard. Being here with her shouldn’t be dragging this response from him. They were going to eat and go over the proposal. That was it. And yet, this felt awfully close to the panic he’d found himself fighting off nearly daily when he’d first come home. He hadn’t dealt with that for a while now, though. He’d thought he was over it.
“Gabe, you okay?” Lora asked from over by the table.
He drew in another breath and said, “Fine,” on the exhale. And he was. This wasn’t a typical panic attack. It had felt like it at first, but the feeling was changing. Still, he breathed through the feeling as he dished out the stew Erik had made then cut a few slices of the bread he’d brought home.
When he carried the first of the bowls to the table, she still looked vaguely concerned. “I could have helped you with that. I should have. Your hand-”
“It’s fine,” he said, almost snapping the words. Even though relief nearly flooded him when she did. His father and brother nearly refused to acknowledge that anything was different and he had to make certain accommodations because of it. Having someone note it without acting like nothing had changed was a relief.
She jerked back, and he winced. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a little rough. Had an argument, I guess, with my roommate. Did I tell you who that was?” He rubbed at the side of his head, it was aching a little. Like it always did when he felt a small detail escaping from him. The blast had done more than take part of his arm, though most of the time the other issues didn’t affect him as much.
“Yeah,” she said, that curious look on her face again. “You’d said Erik was living with you.”
He cringed at the way she said that. But, she had to know. If they were going to be working together, she’d hear what everyone else in town said, so he should set her clear now. “We live in the same house, yes,” he said, testing his words carefully. “People may tell you there’s more going on, but that’s really all there is.” Except those few times. But, he wasn’t going to mention those. It wasn’t anyone else’s business how they both managed to cope late at night.
“I never thought any different,” she told him, still with that slightly curious look on her face.
Of course she hadn’t. Aaron had known, but he’d never told anyone. Not even his sister, despite how close they’d been. He turned and grabbed the other bowl of stew, but before he had turned back, Lora was reaching around him for the bread. He had to stop and take a breath, calming himself at the feel of her so close.
By the time he’d set his bowl on the table, Lora had taken a tub of butter out of the refrigerator and was heading back. It was like she belonged there. No. He couldn’t think like that. She didn’t belong here, not with him.
But, when he looked up after taking a bite of stew, she was watching him. He couldn’t exactly say what the look encompassed, though. Some curiosity, certainly. He was acting strange. He knew it, even as he couldn’t do anything to stop it. But, there seemed to be something else, too. He dropped his gaze again before he could think too much about it.
He couldn’t let himself go there.
But, she reached across the table and laid her hand over his. As if she knew the thoughts were bouncing around in his head, and that touch was the one thing that seemed to slow them down. How could she know that, though, when he’d never told anyone else? Still, there was something there between them. He couldn’t deny it, even if he’d never act on it.
He owed his old friend that much at least.