Plausible Deniability

working with the devil

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Niall paces, back and forth and back and forth. Aila’s location dot was immobile in the alley, then it suddenly cut out. A small part of him says she was phoning Paisley for a lift home, her mobile died. That’s all. That has to be it.

Any other option, he doesn’t dare to consider.

Disgust rears its ugly head when he passes in front of the mirror, catches sight of his reflection. This is his fault. He’s ignored her for over a month; the text he sent asking for time would never be enough, he knows this. She will never forgive him for this, and he can’t blame her. She deserves far more than he has given her.

This life, though... It isn’t something he’ll ever let her get involved in.

Aila is far too sweet and—dare he say it?—innocent for this.

A knock sounds at the door, and he snarls out a ‘Come in’ even as he continues pacing. Robert steps into the room, bowing slightly, and Niall stares at the valet with a brow raised.

“What is it?”

“There is someone on the telephone for you, sir.”

“Aila?”

But Robert is shaking his head before the name falls fully off Niall’s lips. “I’m sorry, sir. However, it is regarding Miss Aila.”

“Thanks,” sighs Niall, crossing the room to the handheld that sits on his nightstand. “Hello?”

“Hey! It’s Angel. Y’know, Aila’s roommate-slash-best friend? She gave us your number in case of emergency, aka when we wanted to talk to her but she was busy with your sexy self.” Angel giggles when someone shouts on her end. “Anyway. Have you talked to her today?”

Niall shakes his head before remembering she can’t see him. His hand tightens around the receiver. “Not today. Isn’t she home?”

“Hmm. No, she isn’t. She’s not answering our calls, either, which is why I decided to see if she went to yours.”

“I’ll find her.”

Angel snorts, and a smacking noise fills the line. “Fuck off, Chey, I’m talking! Anyway. It isn’t like she’s been abducted, Niall. We’re probably worrying over nothing. I mean, she sometimes stays with a coworker after a long shift, so she’ll most likely be home in the morning.”

Abducted. His mouth dries instantly. Tension seizes his entire body, but Niall doesn’t register the way he’s begun trembling. Asking Angel to keep him updated, he ends the call and lets the receiver clatter to the nightstand. He struggles to control his breathing. Gasp after gasp comes out.

“Sir?”

“Gather the others,” he growls, and Robert clears his throat.

“Is Miss Aila alright?”

Niall can’t find it in himself to scold the valet for forgetting his station. Robert has been with the family since before Niall can even remember. The man has adored Aila since the moment she came into Niall’s life. Of course he would worry.

Robert scrambles from the room as gracelessly as Niall has ever seen, and Niall follows close behind. He relies on muscle memory alone to stride through the corridors to the ‘War Room’, named by Tania after she joined. He knows it will be at least half an hour before everyone arrives. Half of them are on patrol, the others in bed.

So he paces. From one wall to the other, his sure steps echo on the marble. Whispers fill the room as others file through the doors, and he catches Clint’s worried hisses. Niall understands—the last time he’d called a meeting like this, stalked through the room like a caged tiger, it was when deliberating whether to storm the West.

He pivots on his heel, clenches his hands into fists, and plants his knuckles on the glass-topped table. Tania speaks first, her voice hesitant as it normally isn’t.

“Boss? What happened?”

Instead of answering her, Niall turns to Paul and Clint. “You two, see if your people know anything. Robert will give you a photo and the information you need. Liam, Zayn, go ask questions around the Northend. Harry, Mully, Tania, do the same with La Serene. And Louis? Do whatever fucking magic you do and find her.”

“‘Find her’?” Tania slaps a hand against the table at his lack of response, and Niall’s head snaps up so he can glare at her. “Are you saying someone took Aila?”

Niall’s gaze darts between them all. “What the fuck are you lot still doing here? Go.”

Normally, the sight of everyone sprinting from a room would be cause for amusement. A prank gone wrong, a chance to spend hours drinking and playing cards. But now, with Aila taken and Niall on the verge of burning the city down—razing it to its rotten core—there is no humour in the situation.

Tania’s hand rests gently on his shoulder. “You know we’ll get her back, Nialler. None of us will sleep until we do.”

“You don’t even like her,” he retorts with a scoff.

“Bullshit. I like her. I just don’t trust her.”

It’s such a Tania thing to say that it takes the edge off. He feels less like exploding out of his skin. The door closes behind her, and Niall blows out a breath. This is his fault. He let himself be seen with Aila. He let her out of his sight, thinking not being around her would protect her. What a fool he was.

Davenport answers on the second ring, listening intently as Niall makes his demands. Two minutes later, the telephone rings. Thirty minutes later, Niall is storming into the abandoned warehouse with Louis at his side, flanked by Yuri and Alistair. Once the pat-downs are completed, he sits at the table across from Luke and Calum.

“Louis is great at what he does,” Niall says without preamble. “I’m sure even you can concede to that.”

Luke Hemmings bows his head, a sharp dip of his chin. “Yeah, so why do you need me?”

“Because two pairs of eyes are better than one. Something has been taken from me, and I want it back.”

“And what do we get out of this?” asks Calum Hood, inspecting his nails as if this is nothing more than a monthly-meeting.

Louis snaps out, “Not killed, for one.”

Calum smirks but doesn’t look up.

“Lou. I get it, we don’t get along. I wouldn’t ask this of you, Hemmings, but it’s important. You would have my gratitude. More than that, you’d have a favour owed.”

Luke’s lips curve upward, the metal hoop gleaming in the harsh glare from the lights overhead. “I like the sound of that. Okay, deal. What do you need me to do?”

Niall lets Louis take over explaining. If he speaks, he will let loose exactly what Aila is to him, how integral she’s become even though they’ve had very little of a relationship. This task will hint at it enough. Any more, and Niall runs an even larger risk of her being used to hurt him.

Someone has already figured that out.

As he paces, footsteps echoing in the cavernous building, Niall demands check-ins from the others. Mully reports nothing happened around La Serene; Aila left after her morning shift, and that was that. Tania promises to reach out to contacts.

Liam sighs down the line, barely audible over the screech of tires. “Ewan says she was a bit nervous when she left, but she was fine. Nathaniel let her go ten minutes early. The last they saw of her, she was at the corner waiting for the signal to change.”

“Nathaniel didn’t make her wait for Zayn to show up?”

“He says he didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

“It’s his fucking job to watch over her. Was,” he amends before passing the information on to Louis and Luke. He ignores the way Calum’s eyes follow his every move. “Okay. Keep searching for answers.”

“Where are you?”

“A meeting. Let me know when you find something.”

“Of course. Be careful, Niall. I don’t trust them.”

“Neither do I, but what choice do I have?”

Hours pass. Niall paces and sits and paces again. The others take turns dozing off, but he can’t. The traitorous part of his brain, the one that knows exactly what this life brings to all those involved, reminds him of everything that Aila is possibly enduring right now. The pain being inflicted because he was reckless.

Heat flares in his blood at the thought of someone touching her. He is the only one who gets to brand her like that. His vision pulsates at the edges, and he throws a chair across the room. It’s a testament to their professionalism that neither of the tech geeks look away from their screens.

The updates keep coming. No new information, no change, they’ll keep looking. Niall runs his fingers through his hair and lets out a humourless laugh. He should have run far away when he first laid eyes on her at the bar. He should never have bought her a drink just to make the guy she was with jealous.

He certainly never should have—

“What?”

Liam blows out a breath, the sigh crackling down the line. “I think Zayn’s cracked, mate.”

Niall exhales sharply as he pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “What do you mean?”

“Had to send him home.” At Niall’s curse, Liam rushes to continue. “Don’t worry. I’m on my way to you. I’ll stay with Lou while you handle this.”

Niall hangs up without another word. Crossing the warehouse, he stands in the doorway and stares out at the city. The sun peeks over the horizon, a game of peek-a-boo with the world, and golden light spills between buildings. Birds already sing in the trees, traffic moving on the streets. It’s a song he’s heard since he was a boy.

“You’re on our side, mate.”

Luke squints at his laptop even as he mutters, “Leave him alone, Cal.”

“But—“

“Alone.”

The familiar black sedan pulls up out front before Calum can reply. Niall tells Yuri and Alistair to make no one does anything stupid before rushing to the car. He reaches it before Liam has even opened the door. Nodding once to his friend, Niall slams the car into gear.

True to Liam’s word, Zayn has absolutely lost the plot. He’s wearing a path in the marble flooring, hands shoved into his hair. Niall can see the tension in the other man’s knuckles even from the doorway. His gaze lands on the chair he usually sits in, the one to its right.

Aila was meant to be right there. At his side. If he ever involved her in this, anyway.

Aila is meant to be here right now.

Niall shakes the thoughts away and watches Zayn cross the room, then on his heel, and cross back. Niall even expects the chair suddenly flying toward the wall, shattering into pieces upon impact. Another chair, followed by a metal candelabra given to his parents as a wedding gift. A hole remains in the wall as evidence.

“You going to continue destroying my house?”

Zayn whirls around, dark eyes wide with—panic. Fear. Not for Niall’s wrath, but... For Aila. Niall would find it reassuring that one of his ‘enforcers’ cares so deeply for the woman, but all he feels is the rage that keeps him going. Zayn opens his mouth to speak. His voice cracks with each word.

“I fucked up, mate. I was—I was supposed to watch over her. You told me to protect her. I was five minutes away. Five fucking minutes. And now she’s, she’s out there, and we can’t find her, and it’s my fucking fault if something happens—“

His babbling cuts off with a strangled gasp, and Niall stares owlishly at his hand wrapped around Zayn’s throat. He doesn’t remember moving. Making the decision to walk across the room. But he uses every ounce of fury in his chest to pin Zayn to the wall. Someone shouts from behind him, and Niall ignores it. He focuses on meeting Zayn’s eye.

“Don’t speak like she won’t come back,” he spits out through gritted teeth. “We will bring her home safe and sound, and then you can deal with the punishment. For now? You get out there, and you find her.”

“Niall, let him go! Jesus fucking Christ, you’re gonna kill him.”

Niall’s fingers tighten instinctively around his friend’s throat, unmoved by Tania’s frantic tugging, then he lets go. Zayn stumbles with the abrupt release, coughing slightly. Niall trembles all over. He hasn’t dared think of any other outcome than Aila coming home to where she belongs.

He can’t handle any other outcome.

Zayn bows his head and scurries from the room. Tania growls as she shoves at Niall’s shoulders. Her pale face screws up with anger, blue eyes sparking. He blocks her next blow. His fist connects with her jaw, but she doesn’t falter. He should have expected this, he thinks when he stares up at the ceiling only seconds later. Tania’s always been a fighter. It’s what has kept her alive for so long.

He always forgets she can knock him on his arse without breaking a sweat.

“I told you, you prick, we won’t rest until we find Aila. But fucking Hell, Niall, you can’t strangle your friends.”

“He—”

“Didn’t do a damn thing wrong. Nathaniel was supposed to wait for Zayn before he let Aila leave. Nathaniel didn’t do that. Nathaniel let her go. So who deserves your righteous anger?”

“Remind me to find somewhere to hide the body.”

Tania snacks gently at his cheek with a grin sharper than any blade. “Already have one planned and ready to go, fucker.”

“Who?”

“Ivan’s ma owed me a favour.” She wraps her fingers around his hand, pulls him to his feet. “Now let’s go find our girl and bring her home. Maybe kick some ass along the way.”

Niall follows her from the room, rubbing at his shoulder as best as he can. Marble isn’t good for a body. “Tania? Remind me to apologise to Zayn.”

“He knows, Niall. Despite what he says, he adores her. He’s seen how happy you’ve been since she came into your life. He’s just as pissed—as scared—about this as the rest of us are. He’ll understand why you nearly strangled him to death. Now go upstairs and shower. You stink, and quite honestly, jerking one out can only make your mood better.”

Niall snorts and pushes her to the side before dragging her back toward him. She allows him to hug her quickly, no longer than three seconds: “It’s a rule,” she’d said way back in the beginning. He never asked, but he’s sure he can guess as to the reason.

Then he goes to his room to do as she suggested.