I didn’t ask. “Here, help me with this.” I offered her one end of the lights and deftly undid the knot. “Now go around to the back—don’t step on the ornaments! Yes, just like that.”
She held still as I arranged the lights, though I had to use a hook to decorate the highest branches. “What are you and Henry going to do tonight anyway?”
“My secret,” I said, and when I walked around to see the look on her face, I rolled my eyes. “Not that. What are you and Xander going to do?”
“That.” She gave me an impish look, and I scowled. “What? I’m dead. It’s not like it matters anymore.”
“Don’t screw with them, Ava.” I bent down to collect some of the delicate glass ornaments and ignored the image of Henry and Persephone that rose to the forefront of my mind. I needed to believe that Ava wouldn’t do that to someone she loved. “I mean it. This isn’t a game. Henry doesn’t react well to people messing around like that, and the last thing you want to do is piss him off. Please. For me.” I was already teetering on the edge of failure as it was. “Here, take some of these.”
Ava took the ornaments and started hanging them haphazardly, clustering them together or placing them on branches that bent dangerously with the added weight. I grimaced and started to rearrange them. We continued on like that for a few minutes, until finally Ava whirled around to face me. Startled, I dropped the ornament I was holding, and it landed on the bit of carpet I’d put down for exactly that reason.
“You think I’m a slut, don’t you?”
“What?” I said, taking in her flushed cheeks and red eyes. She was seconds away from crying. “Why do you think I think that?”
“Because.” She turned back to hanging ornaments, shaking the whole tree as she tugged. After another ornament fell, she sat down heavily on the floor. “I think Xander only likes me ’cause I’ll sleep with him.”
“Why do you think that?” I said carefully as I knelt down beside her. Chances were good that she was right, but that didn’t mean it was the only reason. Except for Henry, all of the guys eyed her everywhere she went, so I wasn’t sure what else she’d been expecting.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He never talks to me. He’ll talk at me or show me things or kiss me, but if I don’t sleep with him, he suddenly finds other things to do. Or he’ll try to make me jealous with other girls.”
“Then he’s a jerk,” I said flatly. “And you’re better off without him.”
She sniffed. “You think?”
“Yeah, I think.” I paused. “What about Theo? He was nice, wasn’t he?”
Ava rolled her eyes. “He was so protective, it was like he never let me breathe. But yeah,” she added softly, “he was nice. Sensitive, but nice.”
“Then why don’t you break up with Xander?” I said. “Especially if you’ll be happier without him.”
“But I wouldn’t be.” She looked at me tearfully. “It’s lonely here, Kate, you know that. You’re so busy all the time, and Ella doesn’t like me, and I don’t like Calliope, and—if I don’t have Xander, who else do I have?”
I tried to think of the right words to say, but nothing came. Ava was as alone here as I was, and while we had each other, sort of, she’d suffered just as much of a loss as I had when she’d died. She’d lost her parents, and even though she was hiding it well, it was moments like these that reminded me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, hugging her. “Even if I’m busy sometimes, I’m always here for you, and you’ll always have me. I promise. Just be careful, okay?”
She didn’t react for several seconds, but when she did, she buried her face in the crook of my neck and wrapped her arms around me. Her shoulders shook and her breath came in gasps as she started to cry properly, and I rubbed her back as soothingly as I could, wishing I were better with this sort of thing. No one I’d known back in New York had ever broken down like this in front of me. But it seemed to help, so I stayed still, waiting for her to cry herself out.
Finally she loosened her grip and pulled back enough to look at me. When I saw the pout on her face, I knew that the worst had passed. “How can we be friends when you won’t even let me teach you how to swim?” she said, delicately wiping her eyes.
“That doesn’t work on me, Ava,” I warned. “I don’t care how much practice you’ve had on your boyfriends.”
Her shoulders slumped again, and I sighed.
“I don’t want to learn how to swim—not because I don’t like you or want to spend time with you, but because I’m afraid of the water. It isn’t some easy thing for me to jump on in and learn, okay?”
Her eyes widened. “You’re afraid of the water? Honest to God afraid?”
She was determined to make this as embarrassing as possible. “Terrified,” I said. “When I was four or five, I thought it’d be fun to swim in the lake at Central Park, and I jumped in and sank like a rock. My mother had to jump in and save me. Ever since, I can’t bring myself to try.”
Speaking about my mother so casually made my throat tighten, but luckily Ava didn’t seem to notice. Instead she eyed me calculatingly, and I knew I was in trouble.
“Tell you what,” she said, straightening up. “When the weather gets warmer, I’ll teach you how to swim, and you can…I don’t know. I’ll owe you a huge favor, how about that?”