Plausible Deniability

finally

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Aila stumbles as Louis shoves her into the lift. Harry slams his thumb onto the ‘Doors Close’ button, and she leans against the railing. Clinging to anything solid to keep her on her feet. The doors slide shut with a pleasant ding—the cheery chime sounds so out of place in the tension.

“Is he going to be okay?” she whispers, gasping in breaths. Her knees buckle when the lift starts its descent.

Harry doesn’t answer. He only apologises before pushing her shirt up to her shoulders. His hands run gently over her torso, peel away the edge of her bra to check her skin, then skin down her sides to her waist. The lift judders to a stop as Harry crouches down. He murmurs another ‘sorry’ before patting her thighs. She shivers, jerking away from his touch, when she realises what he’s looking for. His gaze cuts to her face.

“I’m okay,” she rasps out, and he nods as he goes back to checking her over for injuries.

Aila loses her patience, stepping to the side. “I said I’m fine. I swear. I’m hungry and exhausted, but that’s all. They didn’t do anything to me.” She swallows thickly and wipes a tear from her cheek. “Crude comments, but they didn’t even look at me. I have no idea what’s going on, and I’m fucking terrified. So tell me. Is Niall going to be okay?”

Harry rises to his full height in one smooth motion; Aila melts in his warm embrace, and he holds her as tightly as her bones can handle. His lips press to her hair.

“Don’t worry about him, love. The others will make sure he doesn’t get hurt.”

“He’s going to kill them, isn’t he?”

The lack of response tells her more than their words ever could. She was afraid of this. She shoves Harry away, tries to get past him. The button for the sixth floor is so close to her outstretched hand but so far. Harry pins her to the wall, an immovable pressure keeping her in place. Aila sobs as she smacks at his chest.

“Let me go. He promised! I thought it was a joke, but I made him swear never to kill someone. Not for me. He—”

“Aila, stop!” Harry grabs her wrists and presses them to her chest. His voice softens, face speaking volumes. “He knows what he’s doing, okay? He knows what needs to be done.”

“But they didn’t do anything!” she cries, even as she lets her head rest against him.

Louis steps closer and lays a hand on her shoulder. The soft squeeze does nothing to comfort her. “They put their hands on someone he cares about. They put fear in the heart of someone he loves. They kept you captive for three days. He can’t let that slide.”

Aila slumps against Harry, shaking in his arms. It makes sense. She’s been so petrified over the last two and a half weeks—first, from being followed and watched. Then the days and nights spent in the hotel room with two men who would willingly slit her throat just as soon as look at her. She hadn’t dared to sleep except for dozing when they did.

Though she refused to dwell on it while it was as happening, she can’t deny the reassurance of closure. A sick, twisted pleasure rises in her chest at the fact Niall is killing the men who could have taken her life. He’s wreaking vengeance for the terror they have put her through.

Harry pushes her into the backseat of the car before she can collapse. He must have seen her swaying dangerously. Louis clambers into the passenger seat while Harry sits beside her. She closes her eyes and listens to the whispers coming from above her head, the heartbeat under her ear. She focuses on the warmth of his body.

If she thinks of anything else, she will fall apart.

“It’s for you.”

When had his phone rang? Aila slowly pushes herself to sit upright, hand quaking as she takes the device. A tightening sends a sharp pain through her gut. The absence of food is taking its toll.

“Aila? Darling, are you okay?”

Aila gasps at Niall’s voice. Gentle, sweet, nothing like what she’s heard before. “No.”

“Tell me they—”

“They didn’t do anything. They were… nice, considering the situation. They told me I could do whatever I want as long as I didn’t try to escape or contact anyone. Niall, I’m tired and hungry and I’m scared.”

“I know, darling,” he whispers. Aila’s eyes widen at the tremor in his voice. “And I’m— Fuck, I’m so sorry. Please keep talking to me. I, I need to hear your voice right now.”

“I told them you had a horrible time on our date,” she says quietly, picking at the dry skin on her lower lip. “And you were too much of a coward to tell me.”

Harry snorts at her side, but he doesn’t comment. Niall’s laugh is too breathless, too shaky. “Smart choice. For what it’s worth, I had a wonderful time. Both during and after.” He exhales sharply, sniffles. “Aila, I need you to be honest with me. Can you do that?”

Aila promises.

“Tell me if you want to walk away. Okay? If you don’t want this, tell me now. You can leave whenever you want, and I’ll do my best to keep you safe.”

Pressing a hand over her eyes, she leans against Harry once more. His arm wraps around her shoulders, and she draws comfort from that. Her mind wars with itself—one part of her never wants to leave Niall’s side again, but the other… The other tells her staying will only kill her.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I was—Niall, I was so scared they’d get bored or tired of babysitting me for whoever they worked for. That they’d kill me, or worse, just to pass the time. I’m terrified that if I stay with you, it’ll be worse. I really don’t know if I can handle that.”

“Okay, we can talk about this later. You’re home now, right? So go inside, and I’ll meet you there.”

Aila hangs up and hands his phone back to Harry. He slides out of the car, reaching back to help her out, and Mully takes up post on her left while Harry stays to her right. If they notice her listing to the side as she walks, no one mentions it. Louis leads them into the house, occasionally looking back over his shoulder. Just inside the door, Harry tugs her to a stop and kisses her forehead.

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

He and Mully disappear into the parlour, and Aila blows out a breath before following Louis up the stairs. His hand stays on her lower back. A firm pressure keeping her in the moment, on her feet. When they come to a stop, Aila blinks at the familiar door in front of her. Of course he’d bring her to Niall’s room.

There is nowhere else on Earth she’d rather be right now.

“How bad do you think the smoke would be if I set these on fire?” she asks, gesturing toward her uniform.

Louis laughs and shakes his head. The haunted darkness has left his eyes. He looks more like the man she’d seen in the pool. “You’ll have to fight Niall for that honour.”

“What? Why? I’m the one who was abducted. I should get that honour.”

He winces at her words. “Maybe refrain from saying something like that around Niall. He’s been... worried.”

Aila stares for a moment then nods. Louis’s tone implies ‘worried’ doesn’t begin to cover how Niall has felt. He hesitates before hugging her. Promising there will be plenty of alcohol in the parlour, he walks away. Alcohol will be good. It’ll keep her from reliving the last few days in vivid Technicolour. She pushes open the door, steps into the room that once astounded her.

A shriek tears from her at footsteps nearing, and she scrambles to turn around. She can’t be caught off-guard. Not again. Robert freezes instantly, the pile of clothes in hands quivering with the motion. Aila claps a shaking hand over her mouth.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I’m just— I’m sorry.”

“Never worry, Miss. I understand you are on edge after your... ordeal.” He holds out the clothing with a gentle bow of his head. “It is wonderful to have you back safe and sound, Miss Aila.”

“Thank you,” she whispers. A feeble smile tugs at her lips.

He bows again before turning on his heel. Aila realises he’s making noise—for her. He’s let his footfalls be audible simply to put her at ease. To not frighten her further. Tears prickle in her eyes. She never would have dreamt that something so small could affect her this much.

She never imagined these people would care enough to come for her. Least of all Zayn and Tania.

It isn’t until she’s in the shower that his words register: ‘Miss Aila’. She’s only ever been ‘Miss’. For some reason, Robert adding her name to the form of address makes it seem more formal, as if he’s accepted her role in Niall’s life. She doesn’t even know what that role is.

She follows the shower with a soak in the tub. Her body aches, her thoughts hazy. This is the first time she has relaxed in over two weeks, and everything is quickly catching up to her. As she lies in the too-hot water, Aila lets herself think about Niall’s question: Can she handle this?

She was abducted because of him, whatever he does. She was a victim because he has enemies. She very nearly died because of his life. He hasn’t told her a damn thing, but it didn’t seem to matter. The men held her captive anyway.

“Get the truth,” she mumbles to herself. “Demand the truth. Then decide.”

If Niall doesn’t explain what the Hell is going on, she will leave and never look back. If he does... She will cross that bridge if it comes.

Niall sits on the bed when Aila steps out of the bathroom. The thick, fluffy robe she’d donned is a million times better than the polyester she’s worn over the past three days. She pauses in the doorway to watch him.

His dark hair lies flat on his head, and a drop of water trails down his temple. She resists the urge to pout when she sees his freshly shaved jaw. His eyes follow her every move. He’s not put on a shirt, though he wears a pair of grey sweats.

“I’m sorry.” She shrugs and sits on the other side of the bed. He glowers at her nonchalance, snapping, “No, don’t you dare brush this off.”

Aila rolls her eyes as she rubs her hair through the towel. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Niall shoves to his feet, pacing in a tight line across the room. Aila continues drying her hair. She truly doesn’t know what to say. She may have made up her mind in the bath, but that means very little when face-to-face with him. A voice tells her she should blame him for what’s happened.

“I want the damn truth,” he announces abruptly, hard voice breaking the silence.

“So do I. You promised two months ago to tell me the truth. You avoided any contact so you wouldn’t have to tell me.” She lets out a humourless laugh as she drops the towel to the mattress. He glances at her then stares at his feet. “I was taken outside of my work by people I don’t even know, and the only thing I’m certain of is you’re involved somehow. So tell me your truth first, then I’ll talk about mine.”

Niall frowns then faces her. The apology in his eyes adds fuel to her anger. “Aila…”

“You already broke one promise tonight.” His mouth opens, but she pushes on with wavering words, “Don’t break another. Don’t make me regret the faith I had that you’d come for me, even if you don’t care about me anymore.”

“Are you daft? Of course I care about you! Christ, Aila, I care more about you than I’ve cared about anyone I didn’t grow up with.”

“Then tell me the fucking truth!”

His head snaps back at her shout. She can’t find pride in the action—her blood rushes hot through her veins. He will never get to lie to her again. When he speaks, she can barely hear him.

“Or what? You’ll walk away?”

“Yes. I told you, Niall. I won’t be in a relationship with lies. If you’re going to keep lying to me—and yes, omitting things is still lying to me—I won’t stick around.”

“And if I promise?”

“You already did. Make good on that promise. Please.” He doesn’t say anything, his expression stays the same. Closed off, blank. She nods slowly, ducking her head so he can’t see the tears. “Thanks for proving me wrong.”

“Don’t you dare leave.”

Aila snorts, pushing herself to her feet. She rushes through dressing in the pyjamas Robert gave her. They aren’t meant for outdoor wear, but they’ll do for now.

“You said I could, so I’m doing just that. I was too trusting, Niall. What can I say, I’m not the smartest person alive. I’ve trusted the wrong man twice. You know what?” She whirls to face him, lifting her chin and steeling her spine. “Maybe you should’ve just left me in that hotel room. Then you wouldn’t have to pretend anymore.”

Before she knows it, he’s in front of her. His thumb and forefinger press into either side of her chin—too hard, too unyielding. He jerks her head up so she can see his eyes. The fire there sends a shiver down her spine. There is no sign of the sweet, kind Niall who’d been in her bed that night.

“This isn’t funny. Don’t joke about this. This isn’t a mindless, childish prank gone awry, and you certainly shouldn’t be treating it like one. And you will damn well never insinuate I’d leave you to die like that.”

Ice creeps through her body, matching the chill in his voice. She drops to sit on the mattress again. Her legs won’t hold her up anymore. Niall falls to his knees before her, and his hands cling to hers. Aila swallows down her anger at the sound of tremulous breathing.

“I know it isn’t funny. And I trusted you to come for me. I did. But I have to think of it as a prank because otherwise, I’ll fall apart. I know it could’ve been so much worse, love. I just… I can’t focus on that. It was my life on the line, and all I could do was wait and pray you cared enough.”

Niall blows out a breath, reaching up to wrap his hand around the back of her neck, and she goes where he leads. His forehead presses to hers. She aches for a time machine, to go back to four days ago so she could tell him what was happening. Maybe then she would’ve been safe.

“Aila, I’m sorry. I let you out of my sight for one fucking second, and this happens. You’re the one paying for my mistakes.” He sighs and stares at her. The bedside lamp washes his eyes golden-blue, his cheekbones sharp with shadows. “If you want out, tell me now.”

“I don’t know. You’ve been hot and cold, and you ignored me for a month. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“You didn’t deserve it. I wish I could take it back.”

“Why did you even do it, though?” She pushes him away, dragging her knees to her chest. “Do you realise how horrible I felt thinking maybe you were only in it for the sex and tossed me aside when you were bored?”

“Oh, darling, it wasn’t that. Please believe me, it wasn’t because of anything you did.”

She sniffles and wipes her cheeks dry. More tears take their place. “Then what? What could have made you leave me alone without any warning?”

“My father knows about you. He knows we were seen together.” He shakes his head when she goes to speak, and his hand tightens on hers as he sits next to her. “You told me your truth. It’s my turn.”

Aila listens with rapt attention as he explains: Primden is split into three sections—North, East, and West. His family has held control over the east for decades. This is all Niall has known. He was raised on this lifestyle, and he’s only ever had six months away from it once he was of age.

He remembers clearly stumbling into the family room after a bad dream and finding the room full of people he didn’t know. People with scars and missing fingers and so many blades. He was six at the time and confused. His mother bustled him from the room, tucked him into bed, and told him to call for her if he had another nightmare: “Don’t get out of bed again. Whatever you do, stay here, pet.”

He was thirteen the first time he was invited to stay for one of the meetings. He was fourteen when he was given a sliver of control; he’d proved himself worthy of that. He was barely eighteen when he was given his own domain. East Primden.

“I never wanted you involved in this, Aila. Trust me when I say I only had the best of intentions when it came to you.”

“So... You’re a mob boss?”

Niall huffs out a laugh, pulling her into his side. “This isn’t The Godfather, but I suppose that’s as good a comparison as any. Yes, I am. The others, they help me. Nothing happens without us knowing.”

“You’re also Batman, I guess.” She catches the downturn of his brows. “You protect the city, too, right? Your own personal Gotham.”

“You’re delirious.”

A memory flickers in the recesses of her mind. Aila pushes away and frowns. “The man who owns the shop. The one who told me he’d keep his word. You had him watching over me, too.”

“Maurice. Yeah, I did. He’s the one who alerted me about the guys cornering you in the alley, the night you stayed here for the first time. He knew who you were but had never had a chance to speak with you.”

“What’s wrong?” she murmurs when he falls silent, when he stares at the floor.

“I don’t want to lose you. I really don’t. But this life... It isn’t for everyone.”

“Can I have some time to think about it?”

“Absolutely. This isn’t something you should rush into.”

Aila nods, a slow dip of her chin, then stands so he can turn down the blankets. Once they’ve crawled between the sheets, she breathes out relief when his body presses to hers. The warmth, the solidity, reminds her that he’s here. He saved her—again—and this time, he may never let her go.

She stares at the canopy above and thinks about the situation. The truth he’s entrusted her with. She doesn’t know if she can bear this happening again. All she knows is she had faith in him, in his arrival. In the fact he was going to burst through the doors and rescue her.

Even after he’d ignored her for so long, she didn’t doubt he’d save her.