Stained {z.m. au}

Wanting no part of the life her mother has started with a new husband, Natalie Ross moves to Bradford, West Yorkshire to live with her brother. As she begins to settle into her own new life, constant encounters with danger are putting her off from the happiness she wishes to pursue. Coincidentally — or maybe not — a boy she meets within her first day of moving is around every run-in she has, always coming to her rescue. "Mysterious" doesn't even begin to cover it as she tries to find more ways to see him, hoping to uncover some of the memories stained in ink on his arm.

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3. Three.

    Another layer of makeup was applied to the fading bruise on my cheek.  After deciding the memoir from Monday night was concealed well enough, I answered Micah’s call to me from the main level.

 

    “I’ll be down in a minute!”

 

    She’d decided earlier that we were to go shopping that afternoon, a bonding experience for the two women that now lived under Eli’s roof.  Normally I would’ve complied without hesitation, but the week at work had worn me out and all I really wanted was a drink.  Consequently, Eli had agreed to a night at the bar if I humored Micah for a few hours.

 

    I slipped on a pair of jeans, careful to avoid too much pressure on the scab decorating my knee.  I’d managed to avoid being found out by Eli.  He had no idea of the events that took place on my way home from work, nor would he ever.  I didn’t need him babying me, especially now that I was an adult and could fend for myself.

 

    A blue top was tugged on and I threw my hair into a bun before striding out of my bedroom and meeting Micah in the kitchen.  She was wearing a sun dress and a cardigan, red shoes adorning her feet as she walked over and gathered me into a hug.  Her attire was hardly appropriate for the soppy weather we’d had over the past few days.

 

    “Thank you so much for coming with me,” she said.  “I know you’re tired, but I thought since we both had the day off…”

 

    Micah quieted herself before pulling away, and I caught on that she was looking for assurance.  “I’m glad you asked me,” I smiled, squeezing her hand before walking to the closet for my shoes.  “I need to get to know the area better anyway, and if walking around a shopping centre for a couple hours is what it takes, then I’m willing.”

 

    “We’ll be over in Leeds,” Micah called from the kitchen.  “It’s quite nice over there.”

 

    I heard the fridge open and close, and when I turned she held a bottle of tea out to me.  After kicking my heels into the back of my flats I took it and nodded a thanks.

 

    “Nothing like a cold tea in the midst of a September rain,” she smiled.

 

    The front door opened abruptly and I turned to find Eli stood in the doorway with a wet windbreaker held in his arms.  He jingled the keys to his car and tossed them to Micah, who approached him with a kiss on the cheek as a greeting.

 

    “I think the point of a rain jacket is to wear it,” I told him, shying away from his embrace.  “Don’t touch me, you’re dripping!”

 

    “Love you too, my dear sister,” he rolled his eyes, shucking off his shoes and walking into the kitchen.  He dropped his jacket onto the counter and smiled at Micah and I.  “You girls have fun today.  I’ll see you in a bit.”

 

    We said our goodbyes before pushing out into the rain and jogging to the car.  Micah squealed as she fumbled with the lock, pressing the wrong button a few times before finally allowing us to collapse onto the seats with water soaking into our clothes.

 

    “At least we’ve got about twenty minutes to dry,” she giggled, turning the key in the ignition and pulling away from the curb.

 

    We sang obnoxiously to songs on the radio the whole way there and shared quite a few laughs.  I really did like Micah.  She was a good fit for Eli, and I enjoyed being in her company for the most part.  A few times her ever-present cheerfulness had gotten on my nerves, but my annoyance had never lasted more than a few seconds.  Micah felt like the sister I’d never had.

 

    After Micah pulled into a parking space, we counted to three before pushing out of the car and running into the shopping centre.  Laughing, we shook the water out of our clothes and slung our bags over our shoulders before beginning to browse the stores.  Micah pointed out a few she wanted to look in, and we decided to start furthest away from the entrance and work toward the front, where we’d parked the car.

 

    The first store we entered was a furnishings and home accessory outlet.  I was at Micah’s mercy, being dragged around to ever dinner set, rug, or lamp she felt was interesting.  Picture frames seemed to be her thing, three in her hand at any given time while I pushed smiles onto my face.  She held up a wooden one about ten inches tall and eight inches across, her enthusiastic grin reaching well into her eyes.

 

    “My mum has a frame like this back home,” she told me.  “It makes a lovely family portrait holder, don’t you think?”

 

    I smiled.  “Of course.”

 

    She gazed at it for a long moment before setting it back on the shelf.  After checking her phone, Micah took my hand and dragged me toward the store’s entrance.  “I found a few things the other day I think would look lovely on you,” she cheered, then pulled me into another store, clothing this time.

 

    I didn’t recognize the name of the shop, but the clothes on the front racks caught my attention.  It was a store meant for people like Micah, who dressed nicely for every occasion, whether sitting at home or going out to the bar.  I definitely couldn’t say I was like that, but I did like wearing a skirt every once in a while.  Micah seemed satisfied with my interested expression, because she clapped her hands and led me to the back wall of the store.

 

    I ran my hands through the various blouses and dresses, admiring the floral and aztec prints.  My fingers closed around a particular dress with a solid coral top and navy-and-white chevron skirt.  After holding it up, I received an eager nod from Micah.  She pushed another dress and a blouse into my hands before turning me to face the fitting rooms.

 

    “Go try them on for me,” she instructed.

 

    I did as she said and pulled the curtain of the first room closed.  After hanging my bag on a hook, I slipped off my clothes and pulled on the first dress I’d picked out.  Turning every which way, I inspected my reflection in the mirror on the wall.  I pulled out the tie in my hair for good measure, adjusting it to look slightly styled against my shoulders.  The outfit made me smile, and I twirled.

 

    “Do you like this one, Micah?” I asked, pulling back the curtain.  She stood outside with her arms crossed.

 

    “That looks really good on you,” she gushed, reaching out to adjust the hem.  “I didn’t peg you for a girl who liked that color, but you look amazing in this dress.”

 

    I smiled.  “I think I’ll buy it.”  I reached back to find the price tag, grimaced, then shut myself back in the fitting room.  “Maybe not.”

 

    “It can’t be that much,” Micah said through the heavy fabric barrier.

 

    “It’s more than I’ve got in my pocket right now,” I laughed, shrugging the dress off.  “It’s alright.  I’ll come back for it when I get my first pay.”

 

    Micah sighed.  “I hope it’ll still be here when you come back.  They change stock regularly.”

 

    My lips pouted as looked at the dress in my hands.  “I hope so too.  If not, I can live without it.”

 

    There was a pause before Micah’s hand jutted through the curtain.  “I’ll take it back to the rack for you.  In the meantime, why don’t you try the other two on?”

 

    I gave her the dress and turned to the next.  The hem reached the floor in a waterfall of baby blue, scrunched around the waist and just above the chest to hold it up without sleeves.  I slid it on, throwing my hair back into its bun when it got in the way.  The dress was nice, but I wrinkled my nose at the way it made my backside look and let it fall to the floor.  My jeans were tugged back on and the blouse Micah had picked glided onto my torso.  It was a faded purple, sheer enough to need a camisole underneath, and comfortable.  After turning in the mirror a couple times, I checked the tag.  A smile spread on my face when I realized I could actually afford it.  I slipped it off and put my own shirt back on, then adjusted my bag on my shoulder and carried the purple blouse out of the fitting room.

 

    “Oh my gosh!” I heard an unfamiliar voice gasp.  My head turned in the direction of the sound, finding a blond female who looked about twenty-one and wore clothes about a size too small.  “Is that you, Micah Gronwall?”

 

    My gaze flashed to Micah, whose face had feigned happiness written all over it.  I watched the girl approach and engulf her in a tight embrace, squealing about missing her beyond belief.  Nearly laughing when Micah’s enthusiastic expression seemed almost pained, I walked up to the counter to buy the blouse.  After mumbling a thanks, I shuffled over to where Micah and the girl were standing.

 

    “Ah, Nat!” Micah breathed, sounding relieved.  “This is Tanya Grey, an old friend of mine.  Tanya, this is my boyfriend’s sister, Natalie.”

 

    “So good to meet you,” Tanya said, grasping me in a vice-like hug.

 

    “You as well,” I practically choked for lack of air.

 

    When she pulled away, I adjusted my bag and tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear, looking toward Micah for some kind of signal that we could leave.  She didn’t have the chance to give me one, because Tanya plunged right into a long-winded story about how things were “back home in Darlington”.  I bit back a smile when Micah groaned at a certain story about an old enemy of hers.  Tanya didn’t seem to have a filter, not even leaving room for replies.  I let my eyes wander around the shop and to the entrance, where people were passing.

 

    Suddenly, I flinched.

 

    I blinked once, twice, making sure I’d seen what I thought I had.  It was gone now, but I could’ve sworn I’d seen a flash of tattoos — familiar tattoos.

 

    “Excuse me,” I said to Micah and Tanya, then walked as fast as I could toward the main hall of the shopping centre.  My heart sped up as I neared the doors.

 

    As soon as I reached the noisy atrium my head jolted right, where I’d seen him pass.  My eyes searched all along the walls, but I couldn’t catch sight of him.  Unable to resist, I weaved my way in and out of people in hopes of finding the boy I was looking for — Zayn.

 

    Had it really been him?  It may have been pure coincidence he was here the same day Micah and I were, but given the circumstances under which we’d previously encountered each other, I found it hard to believe.  From what Micah had told me, not many people came to this shopping centre during the day, especially on a week day.  It definitely wasn’t a hotspot for hanging out, particularly for people who put off the same aura as Zayn.

 

    Did Zayn really have any reason to follow me, though?  We’d only met twice, and given that the second time was to defend me from someone about to take advantage of me in an alley, was I really the kind of person he’d seek out?  Zayn couldn’t feel obligated to protect me, because he barely knew me — could he?

 

    The answer was no, that I was just being paranoid.  There were plenty of people in the area who had tattoos, some more than I could count.  The chances of one of those other potentially thousands of people being here were incredibly high, and I needed to calm down.  Why was I so worked up in the first place?

 

    I turned and headed back to the store I’d left Micah and Tanya in.  I could tell Micah wanted out as I approached the pair, and decided to help.  Slinging my arm around her shoulder, I pretended to show her a message on my phone.

 

    “Eli says we should head back now,” I said, looking apologetically at Tanya.  “It was nice meeting you, but my brother wants to meet us for a bite in a little bit.”

 

    Tanya waved me off.  “No problem at all.”  She pulled both Micah and I into another hug.  “Do keep in touch, Micah.  I’m always open for a conversation!”

 

    “I’ll keep that in mind,” she smiled.  “See you, Tanya.”

 

    Micah grasped my arm and lead us out of the store, speed-walking past several shops she’d said she wanted to hit.  “Thank you for doing that,”  she breathed.  “We should get out of here.  I can’t survive another run-in with that one.”

 

    I chuckled.  “She seemed nice.  What’s the matter with her?”

 

    Micah rolled her eyes and puffed out her cheeks.  “She doesn’t know when to shut up.”

 

    I smiled, then held up the shopping bag in my hand.  “Hey, I got the top you wanted me to try on.”

 

    She beamed, holding up a bag identical to mine.  “And I got you the dress you wanted.”

 

    My jaw dropped.  “You didn’t!”

 

    “I did,” she nodded.  “I’m not taking it back, and you’re not getting the receipt to return it.  Think if it as a housewarming gift.”

 

    “It’s not even my house I’m living in,” I laughed.

 

    Micah shrugged.  “Then it’s just my gift to you.  Take it — I’m not letting you leave it.”

 

    She held out the bag and I slid it onto my wrist with the other one.  “Remind me to do something like this for you the next time we go out.”

 

    Micah rolled her eyes again and began talking about alternate plans for the afternoon, since staying here was no longer an option.  We agreed to try to find a restaurant for a late lunch, and passed by a few more stores she looked longingly at.  I followed her gaze, smiling until another movement caught my eye.

 

    There it is again, I thought, my eyes blindly chasing the ink-stained arm I’d seen too many times in the past week.  How could I see him one second, and lose sight of him the next?  My head twisted to try and catch a glimpse of Zayn, but I was met with nothing but unfamiliar faces.

 

    I sighed and continued walking with Micah, unable to shake the chills prickling at the base of my neck.

 

 

••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••    ••

 

 

    By the time Micah and I had returned home, the sun had long began to set and my head had started to throb.  At that point, a drink was really all I needed.

 

    I groaned as Eli pulled me into a head lock, attempting to tickle my sides.  “If I’d have known you hadn’t matured past sixteen,” I laughed painfully, “I wouldn’t have left Dundee!  At least mum has a sense of personal space.”

 

    He reluctantly let me go, and I snuck in a jab to his side before taking off for the stairs.  Up in my room I changed into black leggings and a long knitted sweater, completing the look with a brown necklace that matched the color of my eyes.  After slinging a purse over my shoulder I galloped down the steps and met Micah in the kitchen.  Sighing, I slid onto one of the counter stools and rubbed my temples.

 

    “I wouldn’t have dragged you around all day if I knew you’d be miserable,” she said sadly, pushing a glass of water in front of me.

 

    “Don’t worry about it,” waving her off and thanking her for the drink.  “I had fun, I promise.  It’s just been a long time since I’ve had to work this hard, especially waitressing.”

 

    She smiled.  “You’ll get back into the swing of it.  Do you know your set hours yet?”

 

    I shook my head after taking a drink of water.  My throat took it willingly, begging for hydration.  “Amie and LJ have to set up my schedule.  They said they’ll have it done by Monday and asked me to pick it up over lunch.”

 

    Micah clasped her hands.  “They seem like such kind people.  It was awesome you were able to get the job that quick.”

 

    “I know,” I laughed, recalling the hectic first night I’d had.  “She put me on the spot, really.  I had about twenty minutes to memorize the menu before Amie sent me out onto the floor.”

 

    She gasped.  “You must have quite the memory!  I could never do that.”

 

    I shrugged.  “I worked in foods when I lived with my mother.  All menus are the same in some way.”

 

    “Enough talking about food!” Eli called out as he stomped down the stairs.  “Let’s go, ladies.”

 

    We rolled our eyes at each other, then moved to the front door for our shoes.  A few minutes later we were in the car, joking about how the rain seemed to clear whenever we weren’t going to be outside.  The darkened sky held sparse clouds, though I could see many in the distance — at least a steady drizzle tomorrow, as far as I could tell.  A few minutes later, we pulled up to the bar they’d taken me to last week; the Telly.  By then, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a bottle of beer.

 

    Eli let Micah and I off at the door and went to go find a spot along the street to park.  We waited for him to jog up, then he took Micah under his arm and lead us inside.  Music was pounding again, but it didn’t seem as loud as it had last week.  The dancing mob was still in the middle of the room, plenty more drunkards swaying sloppily off-beat.  My eyes swept along the bar counter, about thirty feet away as we made our way through a few clumps of people along the walls.  Only a few people were sitting, all at least four chairs away at the bar.  After glancing over the ones seated, my eyes landed and stuck on one form, furthest away from me.

 

    He was resting atop the end stool, hands fiddling with a half-empty glass mug.  As I moved my vision up to his shoulders, my heart gave a jolt as short sleeves revealed a trail of tattoos staining his arm.  His face was shrouded in shadows, but I was almost certain it was him — Zayn.  My mind immediately flashed back to that afternoon at the shopping centre, where I’d sworn I’d seen him.  Twice, even.  Why was he here now?

 

    I mentally shook myself.  Zayn had been here last week.  He probably came to the Telly every Friday, and it was actually me who had shown up again.  Nonetheless, I was still a little thrown off by seeing him for the third time today, especially after what had happened Monday night.

 

    I suddenly got the urge to approach him, to ask him about earlier that day.  What had he been doing in Leeds the same time I was there?  Was it a coincidence I’d seen him twice?  And how often did he come to this bar?

 

    “Are you coming, Nat?” I heard Eli call, looking back over his shoulder.  I suddenly realized I’d been standing in the same spot for about ten seconds, staring blatantly at Zayn.

 

    My face grew hot, even though Zayn hadn’t seen my gaze.  I shifted my vision to Eli and shook my head.  “I’ll catch up with you two in a bit.”

 

    Eli shrugged and continued with Micah to a pair of stools right in front of Jeremy, the barman I’d met a week ago.  He welcomed them warmly and immediately began mixing a drink, which I presumed was for Micah.  Eli had never been one for fruity blends.

 

    My eyes snapped back to Zayn as his motion caught my attention, but he had only been adjusting his stool.  I inhaled deeply and shook out my hands, as if prepping for an audition.  Taking note of the increased pace of my heart, I rolled my eyes at myself.  Zayn was just another person, who happened to have potentially saved my life on Monday.  I’d talked to him before, and I could do it again.  Plus, he owed me a drink.

 

    Feet carrying me faster than I would’ve liked, within ten second’s I’d made it to him.  I pushed myself into the stool to his right and leaned my chin in my hand.  “I swear you’re following me.”

 

    I tried not to act taken aback at my own words.  Why had I been so straightforward?  It might not have even been Zayn at the shopping centre earlier.  Plus, wouldn’t it have been odd for me to even notice him?  Granted, he was hard to miss with all of his tattoos, but it still didn’t seem normal to be able to pick someone out of a crowd like that.

 

    A small, amused smile fell over Zayn’s features as he turned to me.  “And what would make you say that?”

 

    He hadn’t missed a beat, which was plenty more than I could say for myself.  It seemed almost wrong that he was that smooth, as if he’d expected me to approach him.

 

    “I can name two times I’ve seen you already today,” I answered, deciding to go the direct path with our conversation.  “In Leeds.  What were you there for?”

 

    “I’ve been in Bradford the whole day,” he replied, a neutral look appearing on his face.

 

    “Must’ve been someone else with a whole lot of tattoos,” I teased.  When his expression went unchanged, my forehead pulled together in confusion.  Had it really been Zayn today?  I decided on a different approach.  “Tell me about your day — I’m curious to know what you’re up to when you’re not coming to my rescue.”

 

    An entertained look graced his face, but he didn’t answer my inquiry.  “How about that drink I owe you?”

 

    I decided to let his avoidance of my question drop, and smiled.  “I’d love a drink.”

 

    Zayn watched me for a long second, then shouted down to where Jeremy was leaned against the counter, talking to Eli and Micah.  I watched as all three looked our way, Jeremy making his way over and Eli letting a grimace fall onto his face.  Before I had the chance to send my brother a questioning look, Zayn’s voice caught my attention.

 

    “What’s your favorite?” he asked.  I turned to face him and my eyebrow rose.  “Drink, I mean.”

 

    I shrugged.  “I like everything, really.  I had this one drink back in Dundee, though, from a bar near my mum’s.  It was fruity, but it packed a punch.”

 

    “What’s it called?”  Zayn’s hand grasped the glass mug in front of him and brought it to his lips for him to take a long sip.

 

    “Don’t remember,” I said.

 

    “What’ll it be?” Jeremy’s voice made me avert my eyes from the black-haired boy beside me.

 

    I glanced back at Zayn.  “Surprise me.”

 

    Just like Eli had last week, Zayn smiled slyly and listed off a drink in addition to a few other ingredients, and Jeremy got busy mixing it.  I wondered what it was when it took on a blue tint, and even more so when it blended into a dark purple.  A few seconds later it was set in front of me, and Zayn slid money across the counter for the barman to take.  Jeremy then headed back toward my brother and Micah, and I looked back at Zayn.

 

    “Is it any good?” I asked him, tapping the glass with my fingers.

 

    “I wouldn’t know,” he chuckled before taking another swig from his mug.

 

    I rolled my eyes.  “I should take a picture of it, as evidence to use in my autopsy if I end up dead later.”

 

    Zayn laughed.  “It’s not going to kill you.”

 

    “How do I know that?” I joked, pulling out my phone.  I flicked to the camera app, actually intending to send the picture to a friend back in Dundee who could tell what every drink on the face of the earth was.

 

    “You’re serious,” he stated, looking from me to my phone.

 

    “Of course I am,” I told him, and pressed the “take” button.  The flash was bright and lit up the area around us, but a clear picture appeared on my screen.  I was about to put it into a message before I felt a touch on my cheek.

 

    My head turned abruptly, causing the touch to press further into my cheek, making me wince.  It was the one that had been forced into the wall when the man had attacked me in the alley, and was still incredibly sore.  My hand reached up to swat the touch away, but Zayn’s hand caught my attempt.

 

    “There’s a bruise,” he said absentmindedly, using his free hand to brush over my face.

 

    My lashes involuntarily fluttered at the softness of his fingers and I felt my heart rate raise again.  “I know,” I told him.  Despite the touch that shouldn’t have been comforting, I turned my face away.  “It’s nothing.”

 

    He shook his head.  “It’s from Monday, right?”  When I nodded, he simply shook his head again.  “Some people in this city are fucked up, and you met just one of them.”

 

    I looked down at my hand, still trapped in Zayn’s.  Pulling away after I felt an awkward pause coming on, I turned toward the counter and picked up my drink.  After taking a long sip, I smiled at the sensation of alcohol slipping down my throat.  It was tangy, almost like a pineapple.

 

    “It’s good,” I told him, glancing at his face.  He was watching me carefully, making me a little uncomfortable.

 

    “I’m sorry your first real taste of Bradford was a sour one,” he said, ignoring my comment about the drink.

 

    “It’s okay,” I nodded, shifting in my seat.  “It taught me not to stop for random men on the street.”

 

    The hint of his smile was back.  “Even me?”

 

    Glad the atmosphere had passed awkward, I returned the smile.  “Especially you.”

 

    Zayn put his hand to his heart, the muscles in this biceps flexing as he mocked hurt.  I laughed and took another sip of my drink, watching as his expression pulled into a wider grin.  His fingers tapped against the glass of his beverage, not really interested in the alcohol anymore.  The music seemed to play louder in that moment, and I watched out of the corner of my eye as several people joined the mob in the middle of the room.

 

    “Do you like dancing?” Zayn asked.  He gestured toward the drunken mess, a sarcastic smile plastered to his face.

 

    I rolled my eyes.  “That’s not dancing; that’s writhing.  If this is a bar, though, I’d love to see what a club looks like.  I’d probably get a bigger laugh out of that.”

 

    “The clubs around here actually have decent dancers,” he said, swirling his drink.  “They’re just too drunk to show it.”

 

    I laughed, picturing men and women stumbling all over each other and trying to impress strangers with sloppy movements.  Though I like the feel of alcohol running down my throat, I had never enjoyed the after effects of being pass-out drunk.  One day of vomiting and a migraine had been enough to steer me clear of it for the rest of my life.  Plus, being completely judgement-impaired was dangerous, especially in a city like Bradford.

 

    “Nat,” I heard a voice say behind me.

 

    I turned from Zayn’s eyes to find my brother walking toward me.  He didn’t look happy, which confused me.  He’d been fine when we walked in.  Micah in tow, her expression was worried and almost apologetic.  I adjusted a piece of hair that hadn’t made it into my bun and gave the two a questioning look.

 

    “We’re leaving,” he said over the music as he approached.  Just like the week before, his eyes cast behind me to Zayn.  “Now.”

 

    My forehead pulled together in confusion.  With the look Eli was giving him, he had to know Zayn from somewhere.  My brother wasn’t one to throw dirty looks without reason, but he was doing a great job of it then.  I wondered what the connection was.

 

    “I haven’t finished my drink,” I pointed out.  A spike of annoyance flared up in me and I gestured to Zayn.  “I’m not going to waste it when it was bought for me.”

 

    Eli made a tangible effort to control his reaction.  “Micah and I are leaving.  I don’t want you walking home in this weather, so the only other option is to come with us now.”

 

    “What weather?” I asked incredulously.  “There was hardly a cloud over the sky when we came in, and I doubt that’s changed in the fifteen minutes we’ve been here.”

 

    My brother seemed flustered and Micah looked exasperated.  “Just come on, Natalie.”

 

    I blinked.  Eli never called me “Natalie” unless he was incredibly angry.  If it was Zayn who got him this fired up to start with, it was impossible to think they didn’t have history.  Zayn had obviously lied to me about not knowing my brother, but I didn’t know whether to be angry with him for not telling me, or my brother for being rude around a boy who was kind and had saved my life.  The only problem was that Eli didn’t know he’d rescued me from the man.

 

    “It’s alright,” Zayn said from behind me.  I glanced behind me to see him stand.  “I was on my way out.”

 

    Liar, I thought at him, my temper suddenly rising at Eli.  Who was he to be hostile without reason, especially when Zayn was composed around him?  The only one giving evidence of a previous conflict was Eli, who was most likely extremely overreacting.

 

    “Please excuse my brother,” I told Zayn, rolling my eyes.  He needn’t leave just because Eli had a few anger issues.

 

    He nodded.  “I’ll see you around, Love.”

 

    As he passed, I felt his hand trail lightly across the small of my back.  My heart quickened as I watched him go, toward the back door.  I didn’t have time to question his choice of exit because Micah tugged at me hand.  I turned to face her, finding Eli about twenty feet in front of us and heading for the door.  I sighed and took a last sip from the drink Zayn had bought before following after Eli with Micah.

 

    When we got to the car I slid in and slammed my door, remaining silent toward my already unspeaking brother.  Micah climbed in and turned on the radio, providing a little noise for the awkward situation we’d put her in.  I’d been here a week and Eli had already instigated our first head-butting.  Since she’d never witnessed one of our fights before, I could imagine it would be uncomfortable for her to be in our anger-induced silence.  This was how Eli and I always sorted things out, of course — stay silent until neither of us could remember what we’d been arguing about.

 

    The drive home was filled only by the sound of soft music playing over the speakers.  When Eli parked in front of the townhouse, I was the last to leave the car and followed them up to the door.  Once inside, Micah quickly dashed for the stairs, probably wanting to escape the situation we’d put her in.  I watched her go as Eli banged around in the kitchen, probably looking for a glass for water.

 

    Maybe it was the way he was acting now, different than I’d ever seen him before, that made my anger rise to the point of saying something.  It could’ve also been the fact that he’d been rude to the boy who’d saved me, and the first one to show me kindness in Bradford.  Either way, it was definitely a first for me to make the first move in talking so soon after an incident.

 

    “What the hell was that all about?” I shot, coming to a stop behind him.

 

    Eli didn’t answer for a moment.  “What?”

 

    I scoffed.  “You know what, asshole.  He was being nice, and you had to go and get your knickers in a twist!  What has he ever done to you?”

 

    He stood stick straight, facing away from me.  “He’s not good news, Natalie.”

 

    I narrowed my eyes, annoyed at the superiority in my brother’s voice.  “So he did lie to me.  What connection do you two have?”

 

    “It doesn’t matter,” he fired back, spinning to face me.  “The fact of the matter is that he’s not a good person.  I don’t want you near him.”

 

    “The hell with what you want!” I shouted, stomping my foot.  “I’m not avoiding a kind boy without a viable reason!”

 

    Eli’s jaw tensed.  “Sticking around until you have one is idiotic,” he bit.  “Zayn Malik is a dangerous person.”

 

    I shook my head, my nails digging into my palms from clenching my fists.  “I’ve seen no reason to stay away from him.  All he’s been to me is nice.”

 

    “I can’t believe you’re being so dense!”  He slammed the cup he’d grabbed onto the counter.  “Do  you even hear yourself?!  You’ve seen him twice, in a bar, where he can’t openly do anything.  That’s hardly enough to base someones character on–“

 

    “He saved my life, dammit!” I exclaimed, putting all of my energy into the one statement.  There was a long spell of silence as Eli tried to gauge my expression.

 

    Suddenly realizing I’d just admitted to being in danger, my face fell.  Now he knew I hadn’t been completely honest in saying I’d made it home alright, and had a reason to mistrust me.  I took a step back, wanting to avoid the impending shouting match that would make the one we’d just had seem quiet.  Being babied was the last thing I’d put on my list of goals when moving here, and I’d do everything in my power to give Eli a reason to let me fend for myself.

 

    “What the hell does that mean?”

 

    I shouted in frustration and spun on my heel, exiting the kitchen just as quickly as Micah had dashed away.  Eli called after me but I ignored him, locking myself in my room and falling back onto the bed.  I rubbed my temples, trying to calm down.  My brother never got this mad.  Had he changed in the time he’d been away from home?  I doubted it.  Whatever he was mad about was a big deal.

 

    Which only made me wonder — what had Zayn done to ignite this much rage in Eli?

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