I felt awful that these people were being forced to leave because of me, but the alternative of them staying was worse. If they stayed, I would end up either having to talk to them- something I doubted I would ever be ready for with the amount of people that had been gathered in the lobby- or I would end up getting smacked into and the emotions I worked so hard to bury would come bubbling up.
"It was so nice of you to stop by! Thank you for being understanding! I'll see you later, Lou." As we reached the bottom of the steps I heard the sound of the door clicking shut. I breathed a sigh of relief and finally risked a glance up.
The man standing at the door was classically handsome. He had an air of glamour around him, even though he was wearing a simple t-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans. His eyes sparkled in the light, a swirl of brown that reminded me of honey, chocolate and cocoa. His smile was wide and welcoming, something that made my own lips tug upwards automatically. His hair was cropped short barely an inch long and the same colour as Arrow's. And he had a dusting of flour over his forearms and the bottom of his t-shirt that just screamed "homemaker". His presentation screamed "suburban house husband" but the vibe I was getting off of him was more like "sophisticated leader".
"Andy this is my Pop, Victor. Pop, this is Andy."
Arrow moved beside me and the man- her father- smiled brighter at me.
"Hello Andy. I've heard so much about you." I smiled and lowered my gaze back to the floor. The full force of his smile was wearing on me- warmth was tugging at my chest. His kindness was radiating beyond my comfort zone.
"I-it's nice to m-meet you too, M-r. Cardinal." My voice was quiet, but the words seemed to reach him just fine. He stepped towards me, almost like he wanted to give me a hug or squeeze my hand, but thankfully stopped. I felt his eyes on the top of my head and reluctantly looked up. His smile was softer now, and there was something in his eyes that made me feel as if I was standing naked in front of him. After a moment he shook his head, wiped his hands on his jeans and spun on his heel.
"Please, call me Victor." I nodded, not at all intending to do that.
"You girls must be hungry. Dinner isn't going to be for a while yet- all those guests kind of popped in unannounced- But i can offer you a snack if you'd like? We have popcorn, chips, cheese and crackers, sandwich meat, candy, chocolate, cookies, or if you'd prefer something else I can whip it up quickly... We've got the ingredients for pretty much anything you could think of. And if you're thirsty we've got water, orange juice, apple juice, dr pepper, pepsi, diet pepsi, ginger ale, milk, both whole and 2 %, or i think we might have some gatorade left in the garage-"
"Honey! I think you're overwhelming the poor girl!" I jumped as the other Mr. Cardinal's booming voice rang out directly behind me. I whirled around, clutching my heart, and stared wide eyed up at him. I couldn't help but note that his skin was no longer blue, though his hair still had traces of off-white weaved in his braids. He smiled gently at me before turning his gaze to his husband. He ducked beneath the doorframe, and then closed the distance between them. He beamed at his husband as he pulled him into his massive arms.
"I'm sure if she wants something she'll ask." Mr Cardinal- the one Arrow called Pop- rolled his eyes at his husband before turning back to us.
"I'm just making sure you know all the options." He smiled at me and I gave a small one in return. "It's been so long since Arrow had brought anybody home to meet us. I was starting to think that she smelled really bad or something."
Arrow scowled at her parents. "I'll have you know I know plenty of people, just most of them suck and aren't worth the gas to bring them out here. Andy is different" Mr Cardinal shook his head at his daughter and leaned back further into his husband's grip. Feeling awkward, I shifted until my back hit the closest wall. Once there I relaxed and kept watching the family.
"Whatever you say, Air. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you only shower once a week."
"Hey! I shower! And I definitely don't smell!"
"I know you do! Once a week!" His honey eyes twinkle in amusement and I find myself struggling to suppress a chuckle.
"Guys you're getting carried away again. Let's not completely traumatize Andy on her first visit here, OK?" Mr. Cardinal interrupted their spat. Arrow and the other Mr Cardinal both flushed slightly.
"Sorry about that Andy. We're just excited you're here." He smiled down at me and I lowered my gaze to the floor once again. The full force of his gaze is heavy, and having it on me makes me extremely nervous.
It was quiet for a moment, and then Mr Cardinal lunged out of his husband's grip.
"Shit! My pies!" Mr. Cardinal and Arrow both started laughing as he rushed around the kitchen, throwing open drawers and pulling five pies out of the massive silver oven. Arrow walked towards me and gestured towards the door. I nodded, and we exited the kitchen before her pop could shove food or drinks at us once again.
"Sorry about him... He talks a lot..." I shot her an incredulous look. Arrow frowned at me. "What?" I shook my head and rolled my eyes. Arrow saying her father talks a lot is like the pot calling the kettle black. In the month I'd known her, I'd come to learn that silence was the one word Arrow didn't seem to know.
I followed after her as she led me through the house, pointing things out as we passed them. I quickly realized that this house was a lot bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside. So far we had passed two living rooms, the kitchen, a bathroom, a guest room, and we were now entering a door that she said led to the basement. The door opened to a cushy set of grey carpeted stairs, and the bottom curved so that the basement couldn't be seen from the top of the stairs. Arrow flicked the light on and started dancing down the stairs.
"This is my favorite place in the entire house. It's kind of like the teenager area, and our parents let us have the run of the mess down here. They only ever come down here to get us or to check that we're still alive." She shot me a smile over her shoulder and then stepped out of the way so I could turn the corner into the room.
Looking around, it took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at. The room was massive, at least more than half the size of the floor above us- which was huge in itself. The far wall was painted a stark white and there were three massive black sofas and two matching chairs set out in front of it. I glanced up at the ceiling and realized that the wall was a screen for the projector that hung above us. I turned my attention back to the room.
Behind the couches, there was empty floor space. The wall parallel to us was floor to ceiling mirrors, and there was a ballet bar that stretched from the back wall to the end of the mirrors, which stopped in line with the back of the couches. The other two walls were padded in what looked like blue exercise mats. The floor was a shiny dark wood, and I could see a few dents in various places throughout the floor.
I turned back to Arrow, who was looking at me expectantly.
"I-I-It's... nice." Arrow just about burst beside me.
"Thanks! Pop let me and Ryker redesign it a few years ago and we couldn't agree on what we wanted! I wanted a movie theatre or a ballet studio, Ryker wanted a home gym or a lounge room, and pop and dad didn't want to weigh in so we compromised and did it all! So over here we've got the best movie theatre money can buy, and the floors are shock absorbent for when I'm dancing. And the couches all fold either out or down so we have more room if we need it, but they're so soft and comfortable it's ridiculous. We also put in all these hidden cabinets and doors, so we can store stuff away but it's still nearby! Cool huh?" I smiled and nodded and she beamed back at me.
"And we have a snack bar!" I looked around confused. I couldn't see any snack stations... Arrow ran around the couches and I followed warily. She pulled to a stop in front of the empty space beside the couches, where the mirrors ended, but slid from her speed and sudden stop. She banged into the wall and groaned.
"Ouch..."she rubbed the side of her forehead, "Anyways!" She straightened up and pressed on the wall. As she released the pressure from the wall, it swung open towards her. A light flicked on as the door opened. Rows of snacks and drinks were stacked from floor to ceiling.
"Wow." I breathed. Arrow chuckled beside me.
"Cool, huh? Dad helped us design it so it's not out in the open. It kind of makes me feel like a spy. All these secret compartments and hidden doors." She joked. She turned and gestured to the screen.
"You wanna watch a movie?" Her eyes were sparkling brightly so I nodded.
It had been so long since I'd simply sat and watched a movie, and the thought of doing so again made me a little sad but I didn't want to rain on her parade. She swung the door to the snack cabinet closed and then opened the next panel in the same manner. This cabinet had rows of DVDs, and a series of electronic devices, including a DVD player, a Playstation and two different Xboxes. Arrow selected one of the cases and went about getting it set up.
After a few minutes she gestured for me to take a seat and flicked the lights in the basement off. My breath caught in the dark, but before panic could steal me away the screen lit up enough for me to breathe easier.
Not long into the movie, some Hallmark flick about two neighbours falling in love, I felt like someone was standing behind me. I turned around to look, but couldn't see anyone in the flickering light of the TV. I turned back around, trying to ignore the goose bumps that were littering my arms and the intense sick feeling clawing its way across my stomach. I glanced back again after a moment when the feeling didn't go away, but I still couldn't see anything. I shot a glance at Arrow, but she was engrossed in the film, mouthing the words in time with the actors. I gripped my seat, resisting the urge to run for my life as I screamed. I closed my eyes and sucked in a deep breath, counting to ten before I let it out again. I repeated this a few times, forcing my heart to slow down. There's no one here. He can't get you.
I flicked my eyes open, unaware that I had closed them and focused back on the movie. My skin was tingling and my heartbeat was still uneven, but I was still rooted in my seat. I was just imagining things, and paranoid----
Two shadows flew over my head and wrapped around Arrow as she squealed.
Without my permission, my body moved. I flung myself over the back of the couch and rolled as I hit the ground. My throat closed up so that no air could get in or out. On shaky legs I sprinted for the stairs, but as I reached the bottom someone grabbed me.
Screaming echoed out of the basement and it took me a second to realize it was coming from me.
Beyond the screaming, I could hear someone shouting something, but I couldn't make out the words. Hands were wrapped around my wrists and I tried desperately to rip myself from their grip, but couldn't find the strength. Pain lanced across my body, memories of the last time he'd touched me lighting up my skin like lightning.
I tugged again and felt the fingers slip from around my wrists, but they glided up my arms and to my shoulders.
Black dots danced across my vision, and I gave into the darkness as the voice that haunted my nightmares chuckled in my ear.
"I didn't know she was going to freak out! I wouldn't have done it if I knew!" I'd never heard this voice before, but everything in me relaxed as I listened to it. I really really liked it... It was soothing- deep and musical while still being extremely manly. It was the kind of voice people wrote poetry about. Like velvet or rich chocolate cake. I pictured the man the voice belonged to as dark and mysterious. With shining eyes and high cheekbones, a jaw that could cut steel and a smile that turned a person inside out. I imagined him as sharp and angular, as dark and strong. Listening to his voice made me want to sing or swoon.
"So what if you didn't know! That's no excuse! What were you thinking?" A man shrieked. This voice seemed familiar... and homey. I would describe it as warm chicken noodle soup and bear hugs. Comforting. I struggled to place a face to his voice. I was so sure I had heard it before...
"It was just a joke! Rowan thought we'd sneak up on Arrow like we normally do! I didn't think the girl she had with her would freak out!"
"Honestly, Victor we weren't trying to scare her we were just trying-"
"To torture my daughter? How is that any better?"
"No we were just squishing her! That's it! And then she freaked out! We didn't even touch her!"
"I warned you boys that Andy has anxiety issues when I kicked the rest of the pack out of here. Why would you sneak up on them after knowing that?" This voice was dark and angry, full of authority. It rumbled deep inside his chest and had me cowering inside my head.
"I didn't think she'd pass out!"
"I told you about what happened with Mr. Dickhead the other day! She obviously has some history of fainting!" Now this voice I recognized, although it took me a moment to place the face.
"We weren't thinking!" The deep rumble of the first voice caught my breath again. "We weren't doing it on purpose!"
"I don't care! She was hesitant to come over here in the first place and now she's never going to come back and it's ALL. YOUR. FAULT." Arrow sounded angry, but there was also an undercurrent of sadness.
I couldn't figure out what had happened to cause her to sound like that. I gave up after a moment of thinking, and groaned as I focused on the pain in my head. I felt like I'd been run over by a train. My joints ached and I could feel the reminders of my past with every pulse of my heart.
"She's waking up!" Arrow squeaked. I groaned again as the noise caused my headache to escalate. Slowly, I let my eyes drift open.
The first thing I saw when my eyes were fully open was Arrow's face, not even an inch from my own. I blinked twice, and then closed my eyes again. My heart was racing, so uncomfortable with anyone so close.
"C-c-c-c-c-c" I stopped, drew in a deep breath, and then started again. "M-move b-b-b-back p-please." I muttered weakly. When I let my eyes drift open again, Arrow had moved so her head was beside me, with enough space for me to breathe easier. Tear tracks were faintly visible on her cheeks. I sat up carefully.
"T-t-t-thank you...." I glanced around, seeing four sets of legs and Arrow sitting cross-legged beside me. She gave me a weak smile before focusing on a tiny tear in her pants. She fingered it gingerly and I watched for a moment.
After a few seconds of silence, I cleared my throat and glanced up. I recognized Arrow's parents looking at me worriedly, and Rowan standing opposite Arrow, looking grim.
I looked finally at the last set of legs, and slowly slid my gaze up. They were obviously a male. He was extremely tall; taller even than Arrow's dad. I looked up, up, up, and then lost my nerve and looked down before I could see his face. This was obviously Arrow's brother, and he was obviously angry. He wasn't looking at me, so all I could see was his clenched jaw, long dark hair the colour of midnight and staggering height, but I didn't really want to see the anger on his face anyways. He had his arms crossed across his broad chest and he was clenching the fist that I could see. I stared for another second, then mentally slapped myself and forced myself to focus back on the matter at hand.
Thinking back through the last few things I could remember, I groaned. I settled my face in my hands in embarrassment. It was obviously just those boys in the theatre, and I had completely freaked out. I had lost it over nothing. And now I had to face them all. What if they figured it out? What if they asked questions? What if Arrow decided I wasn't worth it?
I mentally slapped myself again at the last question that floated into my mind. That would be a good thing, right?
"How are you feeling, dear?" Mr. Cardinal crooned. I glanced up at him through my hands, and attempted to give a reassuring smile. I don't think it worked though, because he shot a nasty glare towards the two boys across from him. He bent down slowly, obviously trying not to startle me.
He moved like he was drifting through molasses, giving me plenty of time to move away if I felt uncomfortable. I stiffened, but allowed him to gently grip my hands and pull them away from my burning face. He smiled encouragingly at me before dropping them.
"You hit your head pretty hard, but I don't think there's any serious damage. We can get a doctor out here to look at it if--""N-n-no," I cut him off, wide eyed and nervous, "No d-doctors. I'm fine, really." He bit his lip, but nodded anyways.
Slowly, I pushed myself to standing. I stared at the floor as I felt eyes burning into me. I glanced at Arrow, who looked like she was about to cry again. I gave her a weak smile, which made her burst into tears. She stood up and walked towards me, giving me just enough time to brace myself before she threw her arms around me. Even though I had been expecting it, my bones still ached where she held me- my skin still crawled at the pressure of her against me.
"I'm so.. So sorry.. Andy I-I didn't know... They were.. They were going to.. Do that! I'm so.. Sorry! I just... I bet you're wishing you'd never even come over today and I totally don't blame you!" She sobbed. I let her hug me for a minute before I gently pulled back when the contact was becoming unbearable. Arrow pulled back reluctantly and sniffed. "This has been the biggest disaster ever!" She wailed.
Behind her, Mr Cardinal was watching me carefully. I lowered my gaze back to the ground. He cleared his throat purposefully. I glanced up at him, but he was glaring at the boys again, expectant. When nothing happened, his husband stepped forward and crossed his arms across his chest, scowling in the boys direction.
Rowan cleared his throat, and stepped forward so his shoes were in my line of sight. I glanced up briefly, and he gave me a weak smile before looking down to his own feet.
"I'm sorry for scaring you. Ryker and I were trying to get Arrow with this game where you pop out of nowhere and squish the other person until they cry uncle, and we didn't think about the fact that you were there and didn't know about the game or even really know us." He paused and I felt like he was staring at me but by the time I glanced up he was looking back at the floor. "We're really sorry for our behaviour and we hope you won't hold it against Arrow as she had nothing to do with it."
I nodded and fiddled with my top shirt, embarrassed that he was apologizing for my freakout. It wasn't really his fault, if I had been a normal girl.... I stopped those thoughts before they could go any further.
"Anything to add, Ryker?" His pop iced out.
"Yeah, what he said. We're sorry." His voice sent chills down my spine. I glanced up at him, and gulped nervously, dropping my gaze again before our eyes could meet. I nodded after a second, then took a deep breath before lifting my gaze back up.
"I-I accept your apo-apology. And I'm s-sorry for fre-freaking out. I o-overreacted." I attempted another smile, trying to convey my fine-ness to them. Rowan beamed back at me, so I turned back to Arrow, being careful not to lock eyes with Ryker. He obviously didn't like me very much. That was fine though. I was already in enough trouble just having Arrow hanging around me...
Arrow was still snivelling, clutching her dad's arm. He was rubbing her back soothingly, and she was slowly catching her breath. I could see from her face though that she was bracing herself for my rejection. It would be the easiest way out.... I could pull away and no one would blame me....
But then you'd be alone again. My inner voice whispered to me.
I sighed before glancing back towards Arrow once again. As much as I was a grenade.... As likely as everything was to go to shit... I couldn't bring myself to walk away right now. I hadn't realized just how lonely I had become and now hanging out with Arrow, and having the opportunity to pull away from her... I didn't think I'd actually be able to give it up.
Taking a deep breath, I took a step towards her. She screwed up her eyes, getting ready.
"D-did I sleep through d-dinner?" Her jaw dropped in shock and her eyes basically fell out of their sockets. Mr. Cardinal laughed, and his husband joined in.
"No, sweetie, you didn't. It's just about ready though, if you still wanted to stay?" Mr. Cardinal beamed. I bit my lip, and slowly nodded. He smiled at me, and then winked. I turned back to Arrow, who was flapping her jaws like a fish.
"I-I-I-I-I... You really want to stay?" She whispered.
"I-if that's OK w-with you?" She beamed at me, and moved forward like she was going to hug me, but thankfully stopped herself as I flinched. I'd had enough physical contact for today.
"Yes, it's definitely OK with me. Come on, we can go wash up before dinner." She led me out of the basement, chattering mindlessly the entire way upstairs.
It was good to see her back to her old self. I nodded along, thinking to myself how nice it was that I had found a good friend, and that she seemed glad I was her friend as well.