I apologize in advance for any typos. I'll be editing it tomorrow. Xx
“I know it’s hump day, but I’d love for you to put a little hop in your step,” Amie hollered at Meghan over the noise of pots and pans in the kitchen. “You look like you haven’t slept in days, Darling.”
“That’s because I haven’t,” she mumbled, retying her apron around her waist. The blonde-haired girl had always looked a little worse for wear to me, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask about it. She kept to herself for the most part, so I hadn’t thought much of it until Amie pointed it out.
“What table?” I asked her, pulling out my pad of paper.
Meghan slicked her hair back into the fourth bun I’d seen her do that night and gave me a confused look. “What?”
“I’ll take your next table,” I told her. “Take a breather; use the loo or something.”
She gave me an exhausted smile. “Thirty-five. Thanks.”
With that, she darted toward the locker room. I tucked a piece of hair that hadn’t made its way into my ponytail behind my ear and reached for a tray of filled orders in my zone. I pushed out of the kitchen and crossed the floor to one of my tables. The couple thanked me as I set their plates in front of them, then tucked the tray under my arm before stopping at table thirty-five. A pair of guys who looked to be in their early twenties were leaned back in their chairs, talking casually as I smiled.
“Can I get you two anything to drink?”
The one to the right of me shamelessly cast his eyes down my body before meeting mine again. I tried not to wrinkle my nose as he smiled sweetly, sitting up a little straighter. The other stayed leaned back, but his eyes traveled nearly the same path.
“Just a water for me, Love,” the first said.
“I’ll have an iced green tea,” the other told me. I wrote it down quickly, noticing their vision drifting out of the corner of my eye.
“I’ll have that out for you in a minute,” I smiled tightly, then strode back into the kitchen.
I filled one glass with iced tea and another with water, then rushed back out to set them in front of the pair. After telling them I’d be back in a minute, I took orders from a few tables before making my way back to the men.
“What’ll you have?” I asked, forcing cheer into my voice.
They ordered a light meal, taking turns staring at me when I was writing down their choices. It was obnoxious, and I felt uncomfortable standing in front of them. I was glad to finish writing and tell them I’d have their food in a little while, and escaped back into the kitchen. Meghan came out of the locker room as I pinned up the order slips on the line in front of the cooks.
“Do you think you can just take that table for me?” she asked breathily on her way past. “By now I’ll have at least three more tables to deal with. You’ll get the tip, obviously.”
Now within the protection of the kitchen walls, I scrunched my nose. “Be lucky I’ll do it for you,” I said. “Those boys have no consideration of who can see where their eyes are going.”
She laughed softly before pushing out onto the floor. Knowing all the tables in my zone were full and either eating or waiting on food, I was able to lean against the counter for the first time that evening. I’d gotten my normal work schedule on Monday, which had turned out much the same as it’d been last week. Every week night I worked from four until closing at half-past ten, but had weekends off. Despite the late hour at which I actually left LJ’s, I had come to enjoy walking home in the dark. After much protesting on Eli’s end, he’d finally agreed to let me learn the hard way if I got into trouble like the first night I’d worked.
I still hadn’t told Eli the story behind last Monday. Thinking it’d only make him more paranoid than he already was, I’d casually avoided the subject. All he knew was that I’d been in trouble, and Zayn had come to save me. Reluctant though he was to the idea of Zayn not causing harm, I knew my brother had seen some truth in what I was saying. I had yet to figure out what had gone on between them, but I had every intention of doing so.
“Eleven,” one of the cooks called above the bustle of the kitchen, pulling me out of my thoughts.
I snagged the tray and pushed out onto the floor. The family of six, whose meals I was currently carrying, sat around a large circular table near the middle of the room. As I knelt down to push the first plate in front of one of the kids, I noticed a large pool of fizzing liquid on the table. He looked guiltily at me while his mother admonished him, but I only smiled.
“Don’t even worry about,” I said after setting down the last meal. “I’ll be right out with a rag, and we’ll get it cleaned up.”
I hurried back into the kitchen and replaced the tray on the counter before striding to a sink full of cloths. My nose wrinkled at the intense smell of cleaner. Wringing out a short rag, I saw one of the bus boys step up beside me.
“Cleaning’s not your thing, is it?” I glanced at him, a brown-haired, blue-eyed boy who stood about five inches taller than me. A playful smile graced his features.
“I do just fine,” I rolled my eyes, flicking the extra water from my hands. “I can handle a spill.”
“If it’s a coke, it’ll run away from your efforts to mop it up,” he said pointedly.
I bit my lip. Cleaning really never had been my thing. I didn’t deal with dust well, and my mum had never let me do any of the dishes or laundry. The last thing I needed was to push a drink into my customer’s lap.
“I’ll help you,” the boy said in a fake exasperated tone. He threw me a grin before wringing out another rag. “What table?”
“That’s really unnecessary–“
“I’ll find it,” he called over his shoulder as he brushed past.
I stood, a little shocked. It was just a spill, a small mess I could clean myself. A week here hadn’t given me enough time to get to know everyone I worked with, but they hadn’t been overly kind like this boy. I didn’t even know his name.
“Eleven,” I told him, smiling a little when he glanced back with a dimpled grin.
Figuring he knew what he was doing, I tossed the rag in my hand back into the sink. By the time I made it there, he’d have it cleaned. I decided instead to fill another glass with coke and take it out to the table. Finding the boy mopping up the mess with ease, I slipped the glass in front of the child and took his empty one.
“Thank you, both of you,” the his mother said apologetically.
I waved her off. “No trouble at all.”
The busboy and I walked back into the kitchen, and I tossed the sticky glass with the others. “How am I ever going to learn how to clean,” I said, spinning to face him with a smile. “When someone else is taking care of it?”
He shrugged. “Call it a one-time favor.”
I studied his sarcastic atmosphere before crossing my arms over my chest. “What’s your name?”
“Jonathan,” he told me.
“Natalie,” I said in return. Another table number in my zone was called out suddenly. “I’ll see you around,” I nodded, then walked off to collect the tray.
After depositing the food off at its table, I sighed and checked the wall clock. It was half an hour until closing, and I’d still be here for at least another half hour after that. Ducking back into the kitchen, I carried back and forth trays of food and empty dishes until most of the crowd had dissipated. At ten minutes to closing, I made my way to an unoccupied table to clear it.
A nice tip and a slip of paper sat waiting for me. My forehead pulled together in confusion and I tucked the wad into my apron. After gathering a couple plates I strolled back into the kitchen and leaned against a counter. I opened the folded slip to reveal a number written on it. My nose wrinkled as I realized it was from table thirty-five, where the two men had been obnoxiously staring at me.
“Smell something bad?” I heard a voice next to me. I looked up to find Jonathan, playful smile back on his face.
“Just a couple of jerks,” I told him, putting my neutral expression back on. Spotting a bin nearby, I made a point of crumpling it up and tossing the slip in. He shook his head with a laugh before I turned on my heel and went to collect more dishes.
By the time every customer had cleared out, it was a quarter past eleven. As per usual, Meghan, Lily, Amie, and the busboys cleared the tables of all dishes and wiped down all the chairs. It was my turn to vacuum the floor, which usually took about ten minutes. When I’d finished, Meghan, Lily, and a majority of the kitchen staff had left for the night. I tucked the vacuum into a closet on the right side of the cooking area and pushed my way into the locker room.
I rubbed my temples as I stood in front of my compartment, tired from the long shift. During the hours I worked I was allowed a few breaks — one for dinner, two or three for loo — but I only ended up using one, even on slow days. The last few days had been busier than last week, which had been even more tiring. It didn’t help that Micah and Eli liked to wake up early and make loads of noise, either, so I’d been constantly exhausted.
The knob on the bathroom door jiggled as I pulled out my bag, and after gathering my things I found Jonathan standing in his normal clothes. I smiled politely before closing my locker. He shrugged a backpack over his shoulders and waited while I walked toward the door leading out.
“How often do you have this shift?” he asked as we passed through the mostly empty kitchen.
“Every week night,” I said.
“That’s rough,” Jonathan clapped his hands with a chuckle.
I raised my eyebrow. “It’s reasonable if I don’t have school to worry about. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
He blinked at me. “You’re not attending a university? You can’t be older than me; are you taking a gap year?”
“And how old would you be?” I joked.
“Nineteen,” he answered with a wider grin.
“You’re right,” I nodded. “I’m not older than you. I’ve decided to hold off on university,” I admitted, thanking him as he held the door leading outside for me. “Until I decide for sure what I want to do.”
“Well, until you do decide,” Jonathan said, “I look forward to seeing you at work.”
We shared a smile and said goodbye, then headed opposite directions down the walkway. The night air was cold on the skin of my forearms. I’d only brought a light jacket to shield be from the chilly temperatures earlier that day, but hadn’t planned ahead for the night. I rolled my sleeves down over my hands and hugged my body, looking down the road ahead. It was dark, but my eyes had adjusted enough already to at least see past four or five street lamps.
I’d changed my route home to avoid the street of prostitutes, afraid another incident would happen. See as I’d avoided a run-in since then, I felt somewhat comfortable. The shops I was walking past on either side usually closed around eight, and the shadowy storefronts seemed to vacant to be full even during the day.
I muffled shout made me jump, and I stopped mid-step. Another groan coming from the same mouth seemed to echo down an alley just ahead. My heart began to pound as the sound of a fist connecting with flesh was followed by another noise of pain, and I reflexively took a step back. There was a man getting beat up just ahead of me.
Oddly enough, my first instinct wasn’t to call for help or to turn the other way. I wanted to see it for some reason. It was then that I realized this was where I’d run into Zayn and the man last Monday; maybe I was curious to see if it was the same person who’d assaulted me. Another thought sparked, and I was even more intrigued to see if it was Zayn beating someone up. Maybe that was the trouble Eli had been talking about.
Despite my speeding pulse, I edged closer to the alley’s opening. I couldn’t hear the skirmish anymore, but I was certain they couldn’t have left that fast. My lungs inhaled a deep breath before I peeked around the corner, squinting into the darkness to find any signs of the two people I’d heard. But even under the dim lighting of street lamps at the other end of the alley, I couldn’t see even a silhouette of a man.
I bit my lip, my interest tugging at my legs, begging them to move forward into the dark gap. Slowly, they complied, moving me toward the other street. I made a point of watching where I was stepping, not wanting to scrape up my knee again. The fact that I couldn’t see well made me nervous, especially when it’d been clear a fight had just happened. Suddenly a shiver ran up my spine, and I wasn’t so sure it was from the chilly night air.
A frustrated sigh left my lips as I neared the end of the alley, not finding any evidence that anyone had actually been here. All that was behind me was darkness, and I couldn’t see anything directly ahead either. My hands gripped tight to my bag as I crept up to the left wall, looking around it hesitantly, but all that met my eyes was an empty road and walkway. I huffed and turned my head to the right — and almost let out a scream.
Zayn stood directly in front of me, dark jeans hung on his waist and a black hoodie covering his torso. His face was shadowed under the hood, wild tufts of charcoal hair poking out from underneath. He rose only about three inches taller than me, but the difference seemed so extensive in the ominous night atmosphere.
“You’d think you’d stay away from alleys,” he chuckled, gesturing toward the dark expanse I’d just come down.
I sighed nervously. “I heard someone getting hurt,” I told him honestly. The fact he’d appeared right after, though, made me feel uneasy. Had my brother really been right about Zayn being a bad person?
“I did too,” he nodded, taking a subtle step toward me. My heart quickened, as if it could go any faster. “I wanted to see if I could do anything to help. But apparently I missed them.”
I watched him carefully as another step followed his first. “Apparently.”
There was a long silence between us before I spoke again, my voice sound only slightly less uneasy than I felt. “I feel like I haven’t even seen your face,” I laughed dryly. “We always meet in dark places.”
“So it seems,” he agreed. This time, when he stepped forward I took a step back, but my heel hit the brick wall of the alley.
I bit the inside of my cheek and watched him come closer, now only about three feet away. I couldn’t move from where I was, could only watch as the shadows changed over his facial structure and disturbed the lines of his face. My breathing was becoming ragged, and I did my best to control it. Before I knew it, he’d closed a large portion of the distance between us, our chests only a few minor inches from touching. I was afraid he could hear my heart pounding from where he stood, but he showed no sign of knowing he had this effect on me.
“Maybe we could meet in the light sometime?” I suggested a little breathlessly, taking in the smell of lavender from his body.
He looked down at me, only inches from my face as he studied it carefully. I couldn’t help but feel the action seemed almost protective, rather than threatening. A glance down revealed his fingers twitching, as if he were about to reach out and grab my own. My bottom lip was taken between my teeth as I looked up at Zayn.
“Maybe someday, Love,” he said vacantly, eyes flicking back and forth between mine.
A shaky breath left my lips, my eyes searching the curves and angles of his face. Even in the dark — it seemed I’d only seen him shrouded by shadows — I could tell he had a handsome complexion; beautiful, maybe, if I had a better way to see him. Why he’d approached me that first night in Bradford, I had no idea. Had he been interested in me? I wasn’t gorgeous, or anything like what kind of girls went after boys like him, for that matter. But wherever I went, I felt like Zayn appeared, almost as if we were drawn to each other from the start. It almost had a sense of foreboding, seeing as everywhere we came face to face it was because of a dangerous situation.
“Do you really know my brother?” I blurted. I almost smacked myself, my jaw going slack as my chest heaved with anxiety. If Eli had been that upset about me just speaking with Zayn, then whatever happened must have been bad. I didn’t know Zayn, couldn’t know how he’d react to the question. What if he was just as unpredictable as my brother had made him out to be? There was no telling what Zayn’s temper was like, or his boundaries.
He studied me for a long second, staying just as close. The expression he’d been wielding seconds before had dissipated, leaving behind only a calculating stare. I tried to catch a glimpse of what he was thinking through his eyes, but they were guarded. His jaw clenched, then released.
“Yes,” he finally said, voice calm and quiet.
I waited for him to say something more, but when he didn’t, I breathed deeply in hopes of calming my heart. He hadn’t freaked out, at least. But if Zayn had given me at least that much without a production, I was willing to pry for more. “How?”
He suddenly took a long step back, opening my path to lead out of the alley. The air around me chilled, no longer heated from the two bodies standing so close. I stood straighter, pushing away from the wall in an attempt to not seem as on-edge as I was. Zayn observed closely as I kept my eyes trained on him, backing far enough onto the walkway that I was under the light of a street lamp. He stayed silent as I waited, arms crossing over my chest as both a defensive gesture and a way to keep me warmer in the night.
“How do you know Eli Ross?” I asked again, tacking in our last name to jog any memory Zayn may have been missing.
“It’s late,” he replied, dismissing my question.
My jaw nearly dropped. “You’re not going to tell me?”
His calculating gaze fell over me again. “Not right now, Love.”
My jaw tightened. I wanted to know, and just when I’d found the one who could tell me, he refused. I knew I shouldn’t test his patience, not when I’d spent a limited amount of time with him. My lungs took in a deep breath, trying to calm myself.
“It’s a story for another time,” he continued, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
“One for a time we can meet during the day?” I asked hopefully.
A small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Potentially.” A long silence landed between us, neither looking away as we both tried to read each other. After about ten seconds, Zayn said, “You should get home.”
“Same for you,” I told him, but smiled shortly.
He nodded. “Maybe I should.”
I thought about saying something more, something along the lines of questioning if he really was going home, but thought better of it. He didn’t know what I did in my free time, and I didn’t know if I wanted to figure out what he did in his. Though I didn’t think he was as dangerous as maybe I should, I was still uneasy with the fact I’d found him where I’d sworn someone was being beaten. Something about it didn’t feel right.
“Goodnight, Natalie,” he said, turning away from me and stalking down the alley.
I watched as the shadows consumed him, and I could no longer makeup his solid form. My feet stayed in place until he came out on the other side, where he cast a look back over his shoulder, then took of down the walkway to the right. The realization hit me that this was almost exactly how we’d parted the previous time we ended up here. I chill ran up my spine thinking of how he’d vanished when I tried to follow him.
It wasn’t until I began to shiver from lack of adequate clothing for the temperature that I decided to move, continuing down the road I hadn’t started my walk home on. My bag was clutched tightly in my hands, teeth chattering as I neared the end of my journey. I breathed deeply, still trying to bring my heart rate back to normal from the encounter with Zayn, and soon was able to pick my brother’s townhouse out from the others in the row. The comfort of a warm shower beckoned to me, and I sped up my pace to escape the cold faster.
As I climbed the stairs leading to the front door, I cast a look back up the street where I’d come. Maybe it was in hopes that Zayn had followed me; seen me home safely, as proof that I’d really seen a sense of protection toward me in his gaze. But as I swooped my vision back and forth, looking for his silhouette, I caught no glimpse of anyone outdoors.
My attention was drawn back to the townhouse, where I saw the living room light turn on, muffled by the thick curtains covering the windows. I watched as a small form grew larger, and soon Micah’s concerned expression appeared between the pieces of fabric. Leaning over the rail, I rapped lightly on the glass panes, startling her. She flashed her eyes over to me and smiled, relieved.
My hand turned the knob and I pushed in the door, enveloped in a hug as soon as I’d kicked my shoes off. I patted her back as she embraced me tightly, attempting to hike up the bag the was slipping from my shoulders.
“You’re later than usual,” she told me, holding me at arms length. “I was worried.”
I stole a glance at the lock mounted on the wall, my forehead pulling together in confusion as I realized it was, in fact, about twenty minutes later than I normally reentered the townhouse. I was further confused when I realized she hadn’t said anything about my brother expressing concern, which would be uncharacteristic of him considering the last few days.
“Where’s Eli?” I asked, moving with Micah into the kitchen.
“He’s not home,” she admitted, filling a cup of hot tea for me. “He went out with a few friends about two hours ago.”
I nodded, sipping lightly on the liquid. It filled my nose with an earthly smell and I sighed, glad to be home. I hadn’t noticed the unease in Micah’s expression until I looked her in the eye, intending to thank her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked carefully. “I’m home; there’s nothing to worry about anymore.”
“It’s not that,” she shook her head. “Though I am glad you’re back. It’s just…” She trailed off, moving toward the stove to pour her own mug. “I’m all for your brother having friends, because it’s healthy. But this is the first time he’s been out since… And that’s been about six months, and I’m worried. He said he was done getting mixed up in everything, but I’m not so sure he’s with the right people at the moment.”
My eyebrow rose. “Since what? Who is he with?”
She bit her lip. “Eli’s never really had the right kind of friends here. From the moment he moved in, people were coming at him from every angle to get him in on what they were doing. It’s not right, and thankfully I was able to coax him out of it. But he didn’t leave them on good terms, and they’ve been begging him back ever since. I’ve been adamant about reminding him to let me know who he’s with at all times — just in case, you know.”
I watched her carefully, though she was making herself hard to read with her back turned to me. Eli had said that he’d known Zayn before. What if these were the people he was talking about? What if Zayn was involved in whatever she was talking about — which seemed distressing to Micah, to say the least. She might be my way of asking how they knew each other, and what they were doing.
“Who is he with right now?” I asked quietly, first wanting confirmation of the crowd he ran with.
She hesitated, then turned around and looked me in the eye. “I don’t know.”
I gnawed in the inside of my cheek as a sick feeling stirred in my stomach. I didn’t like the idea of Eli being in danger, no matter how bitter I felt toward his overbearing actions toward me. Maybe this was how he felt, sickened by the thought of me making my own dangerous bed, falling into it next and having no guarantee of when I would get out.
“Do you know what they’re doing?” I prodded, setting my mug on the counter beside me.
She opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by the loud opening of the front door. I spun to see Eli traipsing in, shrugging his coat off as his foot kicked the door closed. He looked up to see the to girls living in his house gaping at him, wondering where he’d been the whole night.
“What’s got your knickers in a twist?” he asked with a laugh, though Micah and I didn’t seem to think it was funny. He strolled into the kitchen and pecked Micah’s cheek, her eyes following him carefully as he filled a glass with water and downed it.
“I’m heading to bed,” he said, squeezing Micah’s waist before walking out just as quickly as he had in.
I stood, my mouth parted as he ignored both of our questioning stares. Was he completely oblivious? Probably. But he knew better than to just walk out on us. My eyes followed him, glaring at his back.
Something just above his collar caught my eye, and I recognized the mark of a forming bruise peeking out from under his shirt. A feeling similar to a punch in the gut hit me as I looked after him, incredulous. Meaning to say something, I started out by saying his name, but he was already around the corner and jogging up the stairs.
He wandered just out of earshot, and I turned to throw a horrified look at Micah.