Plausible Deniability

long-forgotten faces

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Wednesday finds Aila in the shelter again, but her mind is far from her task of ladling food onto plates. She’s tried her damnedest to not think of Niall. He’s everywhere she looks. Every time she turns a corner, he’s there—the slightest glimpse of a ghost, but still so real to her mind. She followed a man who looks like him down three blocks before she realised it wasn’t him at all.

She breathes Niall in, the scent of him and the city mingling in the air. She hears his voice in the whispers of the wind, soft as his breath along her skin. The blue of the sky that’s no match for the blue of his eyes. The heat of his hands in the sunlight soaking the city.

Nighttime is hardly easier. She lies awake in her bed and stares at the ceiling, counting the minutes she’s been apart from him. Her heart aches for him to look at her as he had on their date—warm and interested. As if she was the only person in the room who mattered.

Tania appears in the doorway, and Aila watches the other woman head into the back office with the founder once more. Blood roars in her ears as her mind tries to formulate a plan. Could she talk to Tania without judgement? Or will Tania scoff and tell Aila what Niall can’t?

Tania raises a thin brow when Aila approaches. “What?”

“Uh, have you heard from Niall?”

Evidently, this isn’t what Tania expected to hear. She frowns and stares at Aila for a long minute, relaxing her stance to something less dangerous.

“I figured he’d have called you by now.”

“What do you mean?” Aila asks, her voice quiet under the uneasy chatter around them, and Tania snorts.

“Dude missed you bad while he was gone. He came home about a week ago, so I thought he’d already demand you come over.”

Aila swallows thickly, though the lump in her throat makes it nearly impossible. “Oh. Well, maybe he’s resting up. I know he’s usually busy, so he’s probably taking the chance to relax.”

“Wouldn’t put it past him.” Tania glances over Aila’s shoulders; her posture shifts back to intimidating, her eyes growing icy, and her face turns to stone. “You better get back.”

Aila nods and shuffles back to her post, though all she wants to do is go home. Tania told her everything Aila needs to know: Niall is no longer interested in pursuing a relationship, and she can’t change that. She exhales unsteadily as she stands behind the counter.

Hiding her emotions takes all of her concentration, but she doesn’t miss the almost fearful looks shot her way. People, both volunteers and homeless, stare at her from the corners of their eyes. Aila is too hurt to question it. Or care. She got her hopes too high over a man. Once again, a man has let her down.

An hour later, she stands outside the shelter, staring down at the screen of her phone. The pain of Niall ignoring her mingles with the rage of knowing he’s too much of a coward to end it himself. She deserves to hear it from him, not have it implied by one of his friends. He’s an asshole.

Good riddance. Except it isn’t. Her anger can’t drown out the self-doubts and the voice asking what she did so wrong. She thought they’d had a great time on the date—and after. Maybe Zayn was right: Aila will be Niall’s downfall, and he’s realised it and cut his losses. Just another point of business, deadweight he is tired of dragging around.

Someone says her name from her right, and Aila locks the phone before looking up. Aubrey stands a few feet away. Her blonde hair dances in the gentle wind, big blue eyes widened infinitesimally, and she chews on her lower lip. Her outfit is as impeccable as ever: Fitted jeans to accentuate her long legs and a blouse that gives her more cleavage than she has naked.

“Hey.”

Aila scowls but dips her chin in response. “Hi.”

“Uh, I know it’s been a while, and... I’m so sorry for hurting you.”

“Okay.”

Aubrey brushes her hair from her face, pinning Aila with a flat look. “I’m trying to be nice here.”

“Yeah, woulda been great about two years ago, before you started sleeping with my fiancé.”

“Trust me, Aila, I wouldn’t even say anything to you, but I have to know. Have you seen Colton around?”

“You check some other girl’s bed? Heard he likes hanging out there.”

“He’d never cheat on me.”

Aila can’t help it. She dissolves into giggles, folding herself nearly in half with the force of her laughter. “Are you fucking kidding me, Aubrey? I was with him for ten years, and he still cheated on me. He’s always gonna cheat. It’s what he does.”

“At least I would sleep with him.” Aubrey sighs and scuffs her shoe on the concrete. When she looks back at Aila, there’s something on her face—something lost and dark. “I didn’t want to fight. I just need to find my fiancé.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?” Aila asks despite her better judgement.

“Not since Christmas.”

“You haven’t seen Colton for five months, and you’re just now asking if I’ve seen him?”

“Well, it isn’t like we live in this part of town,” protests Aubrey, and Aila resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Why would I think he’d be here when we live up north?”

“Because I ran into him at a bar on Seventh Street.”

“Why the Hell would he be there?”

Aubrey doesn’t seem to expect an answer. She waves a goodbye and walks away. Aila watches her ex-friend disappear into the afternoon crowd. She snorts. Of course Colton would be engaged already.

Not since Christmas. She thinks back to that night in the bar, when he’d given a terrible apology for the affair. Scrolling quickly through the thread with Paisley, Aila scans the dates of each message until she finds the one asking her friend to pick her up.

The night she met Niall.

The twentieth of December.

She was the last person—besides Aubrey—to see Colton. Her skin crawls with the knowledge. Where could he have gone? Even with his infidelity, Colton always made sure Aila knew where he was going. He wasn’t always honest about his stops along the way, sure, but he always ended up where he said he’d be. She doubts he would ever change his personality that much.

Aila shakes herself from the thoughts. She knew him a long time ago. Years morphed him into someone she hardly recognised by the end. Knowing him, he most likely ran back home to his parents.

Still, a shiver runs down her spine in the heat of the day.

From: Niall (11:29)
>
I just need some time. I have a lot to think about

Aila snorts. A week has passed since she ran into Tania at the shelter, and there had been no contact from Niall. She’s felt eyes on her the entire time, even caught sight of Liam once or twice, but nothing came from the man she’s attracted to.

From: Aila (11:30)
<
Yeah, so do I.

From: Niall (11:30)
>
What do you mean ?

Aila reads the text but doesn’t respond. He can have a taste of his own medicine. She is far past the point of caring about how he feels.

Her evening shift at the Northend goes horribly. Customers curse at her for mistakes she never made, Lavender ends up going home early with a stomach bug, and Josh finds fault with everything the staff does. Aila is accustomed to the stress of working in a restaurant, but this is too much even for her. When she’s finally relieved to go on break, she storms through the back door and spends fifteen minutes crying in the alley.

The worst part happens after hours. She’s mopping the floors when a soft bell chimes. Glancing up, she takes stock of the two bulky men in the doorway.

“Sorry, gentlemen, but we’re closed for the evening.”

“That’s fine,” the dark-haired one says. He flashes a badge, and Aila pauses. He’s not an officer she’s ever seen before. His smile falls short of his cold eyes. “We just have a few questions about your relationship with a Mister Horan?”

Her grip tightens around the mop handle. She swallows down the bile and forces herself to calm down. “No relationship at all. He dropped a wallet in the street, and I returned it. We went on one date. That’s the last I heard from him.”

The man hesitates, exchanging a look with his partner, then nods. They wish her a good night before leaving. Aila stares after them, heart in her throat. The mop slips from her grasp, clattering to the floor. Ewan pokes his head out of the kitchen.

“Oi, everything okay?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, everything is fine. Just clumsy today.”

As her coworker goes back to his own tasks, Aila wonders if she should tell Niall. He should know someone’s been asking after him, right? Could those men want to hurt him—or worse, her? You’re being paranoid, moron. Right. Paranoid.

Besides, Niall made it clear he doesn’t want to talk to her. He asked for time, but that isn’t time she is willing to give him. So she draws in a steadying breath and picks the mop up off the floor. She won’t put herself where she isn’t welcome.

The next two weeks are the most uncomfortable weeks of her life. A heavy weight lingers on her shoulders, even at home—eyes watching her every move. She can find no cause for concern, but she can’t relax.

From: Unknown Number (10:21)
>
Z will be there to pick you up tonight. N wants to talk.

Aila frowns down at the message as she hefts her bag further onto her shoulder. If Niall wants to talk, he knows where she works. Where she lives. He can find her himself. She sighs and tucks her phone away. Every time she thinks she’s over him, something happens to drag her back in.

Just someone speaking his name sends her spiralling back into the want for him.

She wishes she’d broken the ‘no-contact’ rule. Cold brick presses against her shoulders, shadows tall and wide in front of her. The same alley Niall once saved her from. She gulps when the dark-haired man steps closer.

“Just tell us where he is.” He stops two feet away, crossing his thick arms over his barrel-chest. “No one has to get hurt. Least of all Priscilla, Wendell, Celine, or Cayden. I’d say even Honeysuckle, but you buried her when you were nine, didn’t you?”

Aila gasps at the mention of her childhood cat—no one here knows about Honeysuckle. “Look, I told you before. I don’t know! We went on the date over a month ago. He obviously had a bad time, because we haven’t spoken since.”

“See, I don’t believe you. You’ve called him multiple times since then.”

“Because he’s a fucking coward, and I was angry that he wouldn’t just tell me he didn’t want to see me anymore.”

He stares at her for a minute that stretches for eternity. He doesn’t blink, and neither does she. Her eyes burn with the need to close, but she doesn’t dare. His partner hisses down the alley—‘We can’t stay here’—then the man grabs Aila’s arm. Sausage-fingers grip tightly to her bicep, yanking her toward the end of the alley.

Why did I take this way? I’m an idiot. God, Niall, where are you now?

She stumbles over a cardboard box; he gives her a second to right herself but drags her further out of the depths. As soon as the glow of the streetlights hits her face, Aila lashes out. He snarls as her fingernails scratch down his cheek, and she tugs her wrist from his hold.

She screams while running along the street, but no one is around. There’s no saviour here. Shops are closed, black eyes in pale stone faces. Fingers twist in her hair, and Aila cries out with the vicious yank of her head. Brute One spins her until she faces him, then the flesh of his hand lands on her cheek. The sting of the impact brings tears to her eyes, and she whispers pitifully. Her head swims as Brute Two grabs her other arm.

Oh, God, I’m going to die. Niall, where the fuck are you? She flops across the backseat of the SUV, the door slams closed, and Aila prays for a quick death. The first man, the one she fought against, demands she give him her phone. She does.

No death comes. Her brain tells her it’s only a temporary reprieve. It’s a matter of time. Her heels scrape on cement while she’s half-carried through a heavy steel door. Grey blocks surround them, boots thumping rhythmically on the floor. Spices linger in the air—a restaurant? Aila can’t place where they are, but she supposed it doesn’t matter.

Brute One shoves her toward the bed closest to the windows, while the second locks the door behind them. A hotel, then. She glances toward the thick floral-print curtains. The dark-haired man doesn’t miss it.

“Don’t bother trying, girlie,” he chuckles, the scrape of his laugh sending shudders through her. “They’re sealed up tight. Even if they weren’t, we’re six floors up. Really wanna jump to your death?”

Aila musters up the rest of her courage—the strength that fled in the alley—and spits at him. “If it gets me away, I’d kill myself without second thought.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“I don’t trust you not to defile my corpse before it’s even cold.”

All he does is chuckle again before turning away. Aila watches him unload two pistols and a knife from his belt. Something hard bounces off the mattress next to her. She gasps in a breath and stares at the remote. Brute Two grunts when she looks up at him.

“Watch whatever you want. You can use the toilet whenever. We’ll even buy you food if you’re hungry. But don’t you try to escape.”

“Yeah. Actually, go ahead and try. I’d love to have a reason to kill you myself,” Brute One smirks as he sits on the other bed.

It isn’t the warning that frightens her so. It’s the implication they aren’t calling the shots. But if they aren’t, who is? Who’s the one behind the gun?

Please, Niall, don’t let me down now.