Mattias spent a few minutes cleaning up his apartment. With a resounding three rooms – well, four if you considered the Kitchen and Living room separate, which he didn’t – it took almost no time. Then he put on some water. One thing he had picked up from Olivia was enjoyment of pressed coffee. It saved him a little space on his countertops and made single cups a little easier than a pot. More importantly, it made him look fancier than he was. After a few minutes, he was ready for her to arrive. He couldn’t imagine why she had wanted to come here, much less as to why she wanted to talk to him.
It worried him. His business brain assumed that she was going to quit on him. That whatever chance he had at coming out of this Holiday season was about to go up in smoke. He supposed that was okay. Maybe his worry had been right. He checked the clock on his stove, trying to keep himself from worrying too much when she didn’t arrive as swiftly as he assumed she would. It was one of those days with no traffic, so there should have been no delays. It should have only taken a few minutes. Eventually, she did get there. He heard the buzz and walked over to hit a button on a console next to his door.
“Hi boss,” Ashley’s voice came through quietly.
“I’ll buzz you in,” He said in his best sitcom comedian voice. She didn’t respond, though he didn’t know if that meant it was a bad impression or before her time.
He just waited by the door for a few minutes. He was just awkwardly leaned against the frame, waiting and listening for her to arrive. It was silly. He felt like he had to be at the door when she arrived. It was taking longer than he expected to. She had entered his building, it should have only taken a minute or two. It took about five. He finally heard footsteps outside, and then a soft knock on the door. When he heard that, he twisted around and opened the door.
Seeing her, he realized why it had taken her longer than he expected.
She was not looking well. She was not sickly, but she was visibly bruised. A black eye and a large bruise on the same jaw. She gave a weak smile as he looked over her obvious wounds.
“Christ, what happened to you?” He stammered as he realized he was staring.
“Hello to you too,” She said quietly.
They both stood awkwardly at the doorway for a minute. Neither said anything. That snark normally would have been something they bonded over, but right now it was clear that it was forced. She was not in a good place mentally, and the quiet shadow of a voice she was using was more than enough to bring that to his attention. It made his stomach sink.
“Yeah, sorry. Just surprised,” He opened the door wider and waved her into the apartment. “Welcome to Casa de Holland,”
“I can see why Olivia left you,” She said a bit cruelly as she stepped in. He recognized she was just trying to defuse, but still.
“Ouch,” He said as he closed the door. “And this is all post-Olivia.”
There was a sudden flurry of little plastic taps on the fake carpet as Lunchbox came bounding around the kitchen counter. It had heard a familiar voice and like any pet, it was excited. It rushed over to Ashley, who bent over to give it a quick pat on the top. “Yeah, sorry. Just lashing out,”
“I get it. And it was kind of low-hanging fruit for you,” He said walking past her towards the kitchen, “How do you like your coffee?”
“Oh, I don’t… actually need coffee. It was just a thought.”
“Fair enough,” He stopped and spun around to look at her again. She was picking up Lunchbox by that point. He took a breath, “So, what happened?”
She didn’t say anything for a second, hesitating. That was all he needed to hear – or not hear in this case.
“That bad, huh?”
She nodded a few times and concentrated on playing with the little animated satchel. It wasn’t something she seemed to want to talk about, at least not yet. Which cued him into what it actually was even more. It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to delve into or push her on, at least if he was right. It was just something you couldn’t do. So, he wouldn’t try. What she needed was something else.
“Well, I don’t have much other than coffee to offer you. Coffee, water, blood, some leftover bones, and my Chinese food spread for the holiday,” He spoke, each item having a light point towards it before one final broad wave over the entirety of what was left on the table.
She gave him an awkward glance, “Chinese food?”
“It would have been racist to order Vietnamese,” He joked. It was one of the first things that brought a little smile to her lips. At least the first time it was a genuine one. That was what he hoped to see something to bring a little smile. He gave a shrug and motioned over, “Relatively freshly nuked, so you are welcome to any you might want. I got more than I can physically eat anyway.”
She paused for a few minutes before she finally relented and moved around to his couch. “I might have an eggroll or two,” She said with a smirk. “Can I?” She spoke as she pointed with her elbow over to the couch.
“Sure, make yourself at home,” He was quick to reply before moving into the kitchen. “Want a drink?”
“Just water will be fine, I think,” She spoke as she sat down and let Lunchbox rest on her lap. It circled about like a cat for a moment and then folded itself down onto her as if sleeping. She patted it lightly.
He moved about in the kitchen and prepared a glass of water for her. He paused and grabbed himself one of his red bottles from the fridge shortly after, then joined her on the couch. He set the water down on the table in front of her. She had already procured herself an eggroll and was nibbling on it – trying to decipher if it was any good or not.
“Where’d you order Chinese food from?” She asked, casting a glance over to him.
“Really? There’s somewhere with that cliché of a name?”
“You should see the inside. All red lanterns and gold dragons, with stereotypical crane prints on the walls. Has a buffet too,” He said leaning forward to grab a plate of moo-shu pork. He gave a grin over to her. “And one of those weird koi ponds just inside the foyer.”
She chuckled, “Not very authentic then, eh?”
“I mean, If I wanted authentic I wouldn’t order from a place called Dragon Palace. Especially one that’s in a small little strip mall with a thrift shop and a check-cashing place,” He gave a smirk as he took a bite, “But you’ve gotta love the crappy stereotypical Chinese food, right?”
She gave a nod and smirked back, “Yeah. My grandmother would hate this – but,” She took a larger bite, “I have to admit I do like MSG crusted cabbage,”
“So, a gamer?” She said with a nod towards the console under the television, which was currently paused and showing a home screen.
“Used to be, but not a lot of time for it now,” He admitted. It was nice for her to try to make small talk, and she would continue through the visit. The two had small conversations for a little bit, and she slowly but surely warmed up over time. The discussions were mostly harmless but they did not delve into anything resembling a deep conversation. For the most part, they talked about pop culture and nerdy things.
He quickly realized that she just wanted to keep her mind off of the situation that had befallen her, whatever that was. He had gleaned a bit of information. She was hurt, there were bruises he couldn’t see, it was keeping her from her family, and she was staying at a hotel during the aftermath. All of that pointed to the same thing. He didn’t need to push on that. She just needed someone she could trust, and for the moment that was him. The closest her conversation came to being anything similar to deep was when she asked if he thought Olivia might give her some pointers on animating things.
Of course, he thought she would. As much as she probably would have hated to be signed up, he was sure that his ex-wife would adore bringing another witch into the animator’s lifestyle. After all, she seemed to want to animate everything, and the teaching other witches to do that would spread that ability wider into the world. Not to mention she loved the different perspectives and imagination brought by others to her workshop. It would be worth asking at the very least.
Then came a question he didn’t expect.
“Do you know what you want to do with life? Or… whatever?” Ashley asked, seemingly unsure about even asking the questions. “I mean, you never seemed like you wanted to be a customer service manager long term.”
“No, I definitely don’t want to do that,” He shook his head a bit, “I was originally planning on just coasting on Night Shift until something better came along, or I figured that out.”
“There must be something you want to do though. Like a dream or something.”
“Not really. I lost a lot of them when I came down with the bloodlust,” He admitted, “I mean, I suddenly couldn’t have a family and a few years later me and Olivia didn’t work anymore. She kept moving and I was frozen in time, you know.” He took a long deep breath and glanced over to her. He saw for a few seconds that sad look on her face returning. She needed him to be honest and open with her, and to help her remember that there were people out there willing to not abuse her trust. He couldn’t believe he was going to admit to this, but she needed him honest. “Olivia always reminds me there is one thing I could do. One dream I had before, but it’s kind of a long shot. And I don’t know…”
“But…” She encouraged him to continue.
He let out a long breath, “After I was turned… I just wanted to live a normal life, you know how it is,”
“Yeah. Not quite non-human, but witches do get a bad rep.”
“Exactly. We are treated differently, have to live differently. Society just isn’t built for us. And I don’t want to change it, or anything. Just… a place where you could get help and learn to understand how things work, and how to deal with others when they don’t. It would’ve helped me. Or Olivia,”
“Or me,” Ashley said with a soft breath, “Or Lindsay.”
“Yeah. So, I just want to figure out how to make that sort of place a reality. Somewhere non-humans can go when they need help, or want to learn how to live with this bullshit,” He shook his head. “But, it’s a bit idea – way beyond me.”
She shook her head back, “No. Not beyond you. I mean, you are giving up a day to help me out, and you don’t really need to.”
“Not really. Just expand on that. You like helping people,” She nodded, “Why not go for it? What’s the worst that could happen?” She smirked, “You are already dead.”