Noelle sighed, as she reached the end cover of the thick textbook. It was nearly bigger than her head, yet it only took one night for her to go through it cover to cover. Not that she needed the entire night to do so – at the speed she was reading, it was only her second re-read, and she felt she could go even faster, cover more ground in less time.
Not with this book, however. She had gleaned whatever she wanted from it. She would need something practical in order to hone her skills. There was only so much you could learn from a book.
She flipped all the way back to the front cover. Textbook of General Operative Surgery. Plenty of information she obtained from it, but she had a feeling, a bottomless pit in her stomach, that it would be useless when it would come to her situation.
There was a knock at her door. She quickly scrambled, adjusting various open books and paperwork, notes filled to the margins about possible solutions and arrangements for her and the rest of the team. When she realized that in her frenzy she had only made things even messier, she stopped herself and sighed.
"It's open," she called out.
Her eyes widened when Luke, not Krouse, walked through the door.
"Morning, Noelle," greeted Luke.
Noelle turned her head to look at the digital clock residing on the far end of her desk, the one that Marissa had bought her when they stayed in Philadelphia. The one she seemed to forget about until it was inconvenient.
"Fuck," Noelle muttered. "Morning already?"
"Up all night again?"
"Not on purpose. And good morning," she hastily added.
"Marissa is making breakfast. French toast. Want some?"
"Not hungry," she said automatically. She gave Luke a glance, and saw the slight concern on his face. It was a prepared response, one that the old Noelle used. Old habits die hard. "Sorry."
"No need to be," Luke replied, but the concern didn't disappear from his face.
"There's something on your mind."
She sighed. Luke meant well, but his subtlety was severely lacking.
"I'm...we're worried about you, Noelle."
She almost laughed. Almost, because suddenly bursting into a giggling fit wouldn't have helped her situation at all. "Even Krouse?"
"Especially Krouse. You need to eat. You need to sleep. You need to relax."
"Can't. You guys made me your leader, remember?"
"This is serious, Noelle."
"I am being serious." When Luke was quiet, she frowned, her shoulders drooping slightly. "I appreciate what you guys are trying to do. Honest. I'll try my best, alright?"
Luke nodded. "Alright." He stepped closer, until he stood behind her chair. Leaning over her shoulder, he looked at the book in the middle of her cluttered desk. "Textbook of General Operative Surgery?"
"I didn't know you wanted to be a surgeon."
"I don't. I just thought it might be useful for our travels."
She shook her head.
"Ah," responded Luke.
"I didn't say anything, Noelle."
That's the problem, Noelle thought. "How is he?"
"Fine," replied Luke. No accidents, was what he really meant. "He's been pretty docile, ever since..." His voice trailed off.
Cody. Her second failure.
"I think I'm going to talk to him."
She smiled despite herself. "After breakfast," she lied.
"Cool. Do you want to come down to the table with the rest of us, or..."
"I'll eat it here, if you don't mind."
"Suit yourself. Milk or OJ?"
"Juice, if you don't mind."
Luke started to head towards the door, before he turned to look at her. "You know we'll follow you no matter what, right? Me, Krouse, Marissa, Jess...we'd follow you to Hell if that's what it took."
He's trying to reassure me about Oliver. "I know. Thanks, Luke."
If Cody was her second failure, Oliver was her first.
Oliver blamed himself for coming along and getting injured along the way. She blamed herself for allowing him to drink half the formula.
It was stupid, to play the blame game. Nobody had been at fault that day. None of them were in the right state of mind to make any sort of decision, nor did they even know that there would be such far-reaching consequences to their actions.
She knew this. But she was the leader. Everyone looked to her for ideas, for solutions, for a strategy that would allow them to come out as the victor. In that regard she had failed spectacularly. They had all left Madison not as winners, but as losers.
Some more than others.
"Go away," a voice whimpered on the other side.
"Oliver, it's me. Noelle."
"Can I come in?"
"Yeah," the voice on the other side said, after a long pause.
She entered through the door, ignoring all of the broken furniture and forced herself to look at Oliver.
She smiled, and held up a box in her hands. "You want to play another game, Oliver?"
"You always win, Noelle. I can't beat you."
"You've been getting better. You had me at a bit of an impasse last game, remember?"
"That's because you let me." Oliver sighed, the sound low and guttural, almost animal. "I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry for."
"I do. I'm so pathetic." He paused. "I was the second-string. I was okay with that, really. I wasn't that good, anyways."
"Let. Me. Finish." The tone of his voice and the way he said it made Noelle take a step back. "I always wanted to be part of the group, though. Deep down. It was part of the reason why I stuck around with Chris. I got what I wanted, though. I'm part of the group. Even if I'm so pathetic the rest have to piggyback me. Just like in those games, right?"
Noelle was silent.
"I've tried. Tried to end it. Kill myself. Seems I can't even do that right. I even asked Marissa to kill me. That was the last time I saw her. Stupid."
"I'll find a way, Oliver. You know me. I always find a way."
"No. No, this...this is something you can't help, Noelle. I'm sorry."
"We won't know until-"
The words died in her mouth.
"You can't ask me that, Oliver. You can't ask me that."
"Look at me, Noelle. You're the only one who ever does. Look at me in the eyes and tell me that this is okay. That I'm worth the time and effort. That the world isn't better off without me."
She looked at him directly, but said nothing. After a pregnant silence, Noelle was the first to avert her gaze. "No."
"All my life, I've always asked myself 'what if'. I never took chances, I always second-guessed myself. I was a failure not because I tried and failed, but because I never tried at all. But I'm sure, Noelle. The only other time I've been this sure was when I went with Krouse that day. Please, Noelle. I want to be useful for once. Don't take this away from me."
Her mind, which had in high-stress occasions gave her the tools, the ability to get out of nearly any situation that was thrown at her, provided her with nothing.
No plans. No contingencies. No way out.
Except for one.
Noelle blinked back the tears that started to form. "Dammit, Oliver," she said, her voice quivering. "Dammit."
All of her notes. All of her books. They were all a mocking reminder.
She took her arm and swept it across her desk, knocking them over the other side. Loose paper flew around the floor, while book pages folded against each other in various positions.
There was a knock on her door.
Go away, Krouse.
When she didn't say anything, Luke stepped through the door once again, closing it behind him.
"Oh. I thought you were–"
"He was outside the door. I told him that if he smokes any more in the hallway, it'll set off the detector." There was a pause. "How are you holding up?"
Luke looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't. Instead, he said, "The PRT confirmed Typhon's death. No nasty surprises."
Noelle whispered something under her breath.
She pounded a fist on her desk. "His name was Oliver!" she screamed at him. "Not Typhon! Oliver!"
He didn't respond.
"Go away, Luke."
"Luke. Get out of my room."
Luke repeated his earlier response.
"Fine. Stay here for all I care. I'm leaving."
She got up from her chair, intent on leaving the room, Luke, and everyone else behind. Maybe she'd go to Oliver's old room. Maybe she'd just pick a direction and walk, never looking back. All she knew was that she needed to leave.
And Luke wouldn't let her.
Every avenue was blocked by a sidestep or a tilt of his large body. Noelle growled in frustration.
"Why won't you get out of my way?" she nearly screamed.
Luke didn't give her an answer.
She tried pushing against him, but it was as much of a futile effort as her earlier methods. She beat against his chest with her fists, pounding ineffectually. She didn't know when she stopped pounding and started sobbing, her body continuously racking. She didn't know when Luke wrapped his arms around her into a hug. She didn't even care that he was making physical contact.
She was a leader. Leaders weren't supposed to show emotion. They weren't supposed to weak.
They were supposed to be strong.
"Why?" she asked between sobs. "Why?"
As she continued to cry, Oliver's last words never left her head.
Did you see? I did something useful. I was important.