Plausible Deniability

support and lack thereof

Image


Water runs pink over the riverbed, birds quieting in the oncoming dark. Only a sliver of light illuminates the emptiness. Green dies to black. Sickly trees sway in a cold breeze—the rustling comes from something other than the branches. Her dress swirls around her bare feet as she spins to find a path.

A step forward, another, but no escape shows itself. She calls out for help. Nothing responds.

Bolting upright, Aila gasps in a breath. Her brain slowly catches up, realises she’s no longer in that hellish dreamscape but safe in reality. Ice melts in her veins, and blood pushes through, hot and real. She scrubs a hand over her face, pushes back sweat-soaked hair.

Water splashes against porcelain. Her head swivels to the right to see a strip of light under the bathroom door. She inhales, exhales, inhales again. Eventually, she climbs out of bed and pads across the room.

Niall stands at the sink, blood disappearing down the drain with the steaming water. Aila swallows thickly and lets her gaze skim across his body. The shirt he wears is darker than it was when he left, and his hair lies flat against his head. A gash interrupts the skin of his forehead. She crosses her arms over her chest, leaning against the door frame.

“Yours?” she asks softly. He twitches, but that’s the only reaction she gets. “Love...”

“No.”

Aila sighs, body slumping at the rush his curt reply brings, and drops her arms. He goes easily when she pushes him toward the toilet, lowering himself to sit while she grabs a first-aid kid. Pink-stained water drips to the floor. She shudders at the memory of her dream.

Niall doesn’t speak as she cleans blood from his cheeks, his brow, his lip. He stares at her the entire time, face set in an unreadable expression. She ignores it in favour of dabbing antiseptic onto the cut below his hairline.

“How are you okay with this?” he asks, voice a low murmur that sends shivers down her spine.

Aila shrugs and tosses the cotton puff into the bin. “Blood’s never bothered me.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he says. His fingers wrap around her wrists and hold her still. His touch is gentle, achingly so, and she decides not to speak. “I meant with the fact I’m coming home covered in someone else’s blood.”

She sighs and sits on the edge of the tub, staring at him as she tries to think of an answer he’ll accept. “Because what you did tonight is something I have to get used to, right? I mean, I don’t like that this happened, but it’s my life now. Despite what you do—the stabby bits, I mean—I know you’re an amazing guy. You may fuck up along the way, but you do more good for this city and me than you do bad.”

“You’re something else. So fucking amazing.”

She lets him pull her onto his lap, his arms snaking around her waist. Trailing her fingers along his jaw, she leans forward to kiss him. “You’ve saved me twice. Three times, if we count the drink you bought me. You’ve warned me of the perils of your ‘job’. The least I can do is be supportive after you’ve made me so happy.”

“I’m so glad you came into my life.”

“So am I. Thank heavens for you dropping your wallet. Now come on, love. You need to shower.”

Falling asleep is easier with him next to her. The dream doesn’t come again, and she wakes feeling more at home than she had last night. Niall’s face is the first thing she sees when she rolls over. His breath puffs steadily from parted lips, and she says a silent prayer of gratitude to whatever god exists. He’s an angel from Hell, but he’s hers. God, does she love that.

“Stop staring at me, you freak.”

Aila gasps before breaking into giggles. “Maybe I enjoy watching you sleep.”

“Freak.” Niall’s eyes slowly open, and he gives her a soft smile. “Morning, darling.”

“Yes, it is indeed morning.”

“Why are you the way that you are?”

“As if you’re really complaining. Now come on, I want breakfast.”

He groans, rolling onto his back, and closes his eyes again. “Can’t I go back to sleep?”

“No.” Aila bites down on her lower lip and trails her fingers along his bare chest. “It’s time to wake up.”

He doesn’t respond, but she sees the way his body tenses. The fluttering of his lashes. The arch of his back when she wraps her hand around him. She lifts herself up onto one elbow, watching him closely—intensely—before pressing her lips to his shoulder. Her body reacts to the way he responds to her touch.

Niall groans when she pulls her hand away. “What are you playing at?”

“Just shut up and relax, love.”

He does. At least, until she lowers herself on his lap, hands splayed across his chest, then words tumble from his lips. Aila lets him babble. It’s always pride-inducing to know she can bring him to incoherence like this. His nails dig into her lower back, and she moves more quickly despite the burn in her thighs. He curses as he watches her touch herself, as she cries out moments later.

His eyes darken, hands painfully tight on her hips, when he shoves her onto her back. Aila lets out a breathless giggle that morphs into a low moan as his hips snap forward. Dragging her nails along his shoulders, down his chest, she murmurs encouragement. Praise. Pleas for more. She yelps at a particularly rough thrust, gasping out a ‘Don’t stop’ that trembles in the air.

“Quiet, darling. Someone might hear you.”

She grins, pulls her knees to her chest, and raises a shaking hand to stroke his cheek. “Focus more on fucking me and less on potential eavesdroppers.”

“Gladly.”

The sheets bunch beneath her back, the pillow curving around her head as he rocks her body. Sweat collects at the bottom of her spine and along her hairline. He plants his fists to the mattress just above her shoulders, keeps her in place as his thrusts become unsteady. As his head falls forward and his hips still against her.

Niall collapses to the mattress beside her, panting heavily. “I like morning sex.”

“So do I. Now, I’m going to shower. You better be out of bed by the time I’m done.”

His chuckle follows her.

Aila scrubs a towel over her soaking skin, her hair, before hanging it on the rack. After brushing her teeth, she blows out a breath and stares at her reflection. It isn’t fair, she thinks, that he can affect her so much—even outside of sex—when the only time she can break his seriousness is during sex.

Even then, he has a one-track mind.

“Darling, that’s torture.”

She bites back a smile, shrugging, and crosses the bedroom to his wardrobe. She hoped coming out of the bathroom completely naked might make him falter. Just a bit. Just enough to reassure her he wants her. Warning him he can look but not touch, Aila searches for an outfit appropriate for breakfast with his parents.

Maura is on her feet the second Niall walks through the dining room door. He cowers under the onslaught of swats to his arm, eyes widening. She scowls even as she continues smacking him. “How dare you put your hands on a young lady? I raised you better than that!”

“I might have let it slip,” Aila admits, smiling ruefully when he turns betrayed eyes on her. “Sorry.”

“That was cold, darling.”

She giggles and takes a seat next to Tania. The sharp blue of the woman’s eyes is accentuated by the eyeliner she wears, and her near-white hair is pulled back into a high ponytail. She smiles at Aila before going back to her waffles. No one speaks as plates are set in front of Aila and Niall, as they accept coffee from Lilyen. Bobby breaks the silence.

“Where’d you get that scar?”

Niall glances at his shoulder, exposed with the tank-top he’s wearing. Shrugging, he goes back to eating. “Won’t happen again.”

His father seems to accept the answer as he settles back in his chair—the one Niall normally takes. Aila struggles to figure out why it feels so wrong, discomforting, to see Bobby there instead of her boyfriend.

“What are your plans for the day, you two?”

“I have rounds to make,” Niall answers breezily. Without hesitation. “Tania, Liam, you’re with me.”

Aila swallows her mouthful of bacon before exchanging a look with Niall. “I was going to go home and visit my friends before I go to work tonight.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

Bobby’s question brings her up short. She stares at the table as her mind races. Is it? Or will it cause problems? That’s the last thing she wants. To prove she’s too foolish to belong. The lack of chatter rings in the air. Everyone is waiting for a response. She has none to give.

She twitches at the clatter of a fork against a plate. Niall wipes at his mouth with a napkin and excuses himself. At the door, he calls for his father, and Bobby rolls his eyes but climbs to his feet. Aila watches them go then turns to Maura.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“Of course not, pet. Niall just hates arguing with his father in front of people. It ruins the illusion of a united front.”

“Do you think it’s a mistake?”

Maura sighs and regards Aila with sympathetic eyes. “I think... I think it’s only natural to want to spend time with your friends. If Niall agrees, all anyone can do is respect your decision, even Bobby.”

“I just don’t want either of them to be angry with me.”

Tania snorts into her coffee, coughing when it ostensibly goes down the wrong way. “Bobby might be, but whatever. He can be an ass anyway. But if I ever see Niall actually angry with you, that’ll be the day I die.”

“What do you mean? He’s been angry plenty of times.”

“About the situations surrounding you. Never you yourself. He’s too dopey-brained around you.”

Aila doesn’t get a chance to respond—the door swings open. Niall storms into the dining room, dropping into his seat with enough force that the chair scrapes against the floor. He clutches at Aila’s hand, and she suppresses a grimace at how tight his grip is. Bobby sighs as he sits at the head of the table.

“Stop being so petulant about this, Niall. I’ve not said anything you didn’t expect.”

Niall scoffs and stabs at a chunk of waffle on his plate. “No, you’re only trying to make impossible demands of my relationship.”

“I’m trying to keep her safe, just like you are.”

“And you know my stance on that. This conversation is over.”

Bobby opens his mouth as if to argue, but nothing comes out. Aila shudders under the icy expression on his face when he turns his gaze onto her. She swallows thickly before setting her fork down. Niall frowns up at her when she stands, and she forces a smile while turning away. No one calls after her when she leaves the dining room.

She doesn’t go to Niall’s room. Instead, her feet carry her to the guest bedroom, and she slams the door behind her. How dare Bobby do this? Niall trusts her. Isn’t that enough for his father to do the same? Unless Tania was right—Niall is blinded by whatever he feels for her, so his judgement is clouded. Unreliable.

Aila paces across the room as anger flickers and dies, flares then morphs to understanding. She absolutely does understand Bobby’s reluctance to let her leave. Danger lurks everywhere, especially now that she’s been irrevocably linked to Niall. But he shouldn’t be allowed to dictate her life. She is not one of his little minions, there to do his bidding without free thought.

“So… That was fun.”

Aila glances up at Tania then resumes pacing. “Yeah, so much fucking fun.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’ve never seen Bobby so surprised at someone walking away from him.” Tania drops onto her belly on the bed, holding herself up with her elbows, and rests her chin on her hands. “Then again, I’ve never actually seen anyone walk away from him except Maura. Niall doesn’t even do that.”

“Is he always like that?” asks Aila; she hopes Tania dispels that notion.

“Kind of? Bobby… Aila, you have to understand. Bobby is difficult to be around on the best of days. He’s been doing this since before Niall and Greg were even thought of. He sees threats and dangers that haven’t even formed yet. Niall wants to see the best in people, though. He’d be the first to admit you make him an idiot.”

“He’s plenty clever.”

Tania speaks over Aila, as if the words had never interrupted her. “He gave you an out, right? That doesn’t happen in this world. You’re in, you’re in for life. And Bobby isn’t thrilled with the idea of you leaving. Not because he really cares for you, but because if you leave, we all run the risk of you telling people who we are.”

“I would never.”

“I know. Niall knows. Bobby can’t trust that. But Niall trusts you, so Bobby has to trust his son to make the right decisions. Your safety is the most important thing to Niall, and he’d never let you run off without thinking of how best to protect you. Your relationship with him almost makes up for the target on your back.”

Aila finally stops pacing. Tania’s eyes track her every movement as Aila crosses the room to sit at the piano. Her finger taps lightly at the keys, a jaunty tune she learnt as a child, and she stares at the grounds beyond the window.

“Anything I can do to get rid of that target?”

Tania laughs shortly, pushing herself to sit up. “Unfortunately, no. It was put there the second you two were spotted together. But hey, this just means you’re almost officially part of the family.”

“‘Almost’?”

“Gotta marry the idiot before it’s official.”

“Who says I want to get married? I tried once before. Didn’t take.” Something nags at her in her brain, an inquiry she needs the answer for. She keeps her eyes on the ivory slabs beneath her fingertip. “Hey, Tania? Can I ask you something?”

“You’ve caught me in a rare good mood, so sure.”

“Do you know what happened to Colton?”

“I don’t.”

There’s a hesitation, an uncertainty, in Tania’s voice. Aila lifts her head to stare at the other woman. Tania stares back with a blank expression. Aila can find no dishonesty, but Tania said it before: Clever thinking and an air of impassive disinterest are the only ways to survive.

“Please don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not, Aila. Trust me. I genuinely, sincerely, honestly have no clue. I’d tell you the truth if I knew it.”

“Could Niall... Could he have killed Colton?”

To her surprise, Tania snorts before dissolving into laughter. She flops back to stretch out on the creme-coloured bedspread, one hand over her face.

“It’s possible,” she answers once she calms down. “Possible but not probable. It would have gotten back to you if news broke of a murder with no evidence of who did it. The most Niall would’ve done is scare your ex out of the city.”

Aila blows out a breath. It isn’t quite a definitive answer, but it’s enough. She has to trust Tania isn’t lying. “I hope you’re right. Colt didn’t do anything to deserve death. Broke my heart, sure, but that’s it.” She pauses and lets her finger pick out a slower piece. Something her mother used to listen to. “Can I ask another question?”

“My, my, you’re just full of curiosity today. Shoot.”

“How did you get into this?”

Tania lets out a sharp exhale, though it trembles toward the end. She turns her head, staring at Aila through the distance. “That’s a loaded question. You sure you really want an answer?”

“Yes. If you wanna tell me, anyway. Maura and Bobby said it was your story to tell. All they said was you had a job to do.”

“I love those two.” Sighing, Tania averts her gaze to the ceiling. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk about that with you yet. I might tell you someday, just not right now.”

It’s more than Aila expected. She imagined a quick refusal, a warning to never bring it up again. She received a half-promise of a chance. So she nods, still playing the same song from her childhood, and asks about who Niall was before she came into his life. Tania barks out a laugh and shares stories of her past with him.

“If you want the real embarrassing stuff, Lou or Haz will spill everything. We’ve always thought Nialler needed yanked down a peg or two.”

Aila smiles and swears to herself she will do just that.