Elsie was shaking as she death gripped my hand; the vibrations causing my own arm to shake. I couldn’t really feel the fear anymore; it had been replaced with the cool calm that always followed my angry outbursts. I felt depleted, like I would need to recharge before I could rejoin the living. The walk back to our apartment was silent. Elsie stayed near my side, Gio flanking our rear, and Ryker’s looming presence still sat upon my shoulders, not giving me the option to turn any other way, even if I had wanted to. He had all but thrown a fit when Elsie and I split away from the boys to gather our things from the locker rooms.
His anger rolled off in waves, but I remained unaffected. Angry men were a highlight to my life, and for better or worse, they controlled everything in my life. Ryker would just be another chip in paint. Each of his strides were taking up three of my own, and I found it hard to keep up; only a little. Elsie’s eyes were glued to the ground, and I felt sympathy for her. Violence was common enough for me, for Gio. Ryker was still a mystery I hadn’t yet solved, but Elsie was the purest kind of soul.
Ryker pushed our door open, and I couldn’t keep myself from flinching when it bounced off the wall. He slid his arm off my shoulders and I paused where I stood. His long strides took him to the kitchen and Elsie gave my hands a quick squeeze before she followed Gio and sat down on the couch. Her dead stare caused a feeling of unease in my chest, but Gio sensed her discomfort and offered his shoulder for her to lean on.
I make a quick turn and hid in the bathroom. Trying to sort out my own feelings on the timeline of today. I stared in the mirror, and the woman there was unrecognizable. I knew who I was, who I had always been, and I hadn’t been keen on changing. They say that animals change their behavior according to their habitat, the environment whether hostile or peaceful. I had fallen into the puzzle of a normal life, and the woman in the mirror was adjusting to her new environment, but the woman in her mind still resisted to the change.
My eyes followed the path of my jawline, the hollowness of my sleepless eyes. The hard stare I was used to seeing was barely softening around the edges, bright and inviting. My usually flaccid hair was curling around the ends and those closest to my skin. The woman in the mirror had a life, was able to make friends, was able to feel.
The woman in the mirror had a future.
The woman in the mirror had a growing bruise wrapping neatly around her throat. I touched there fleetingly and was only mildly surprised at its tenderness. I had always been alone. I had always handled things on my own. I was a one man show. But not tonight. Tonight, I had them. The people in the other room, even if they were new, even if it hadn’t been much time, and even if there weren’t very many. I still had them. They cared. It was a strange revelation to feel alone and not actually be alone.
Would Niklaus feel betrayed? Would he even care? Would he wonder how his broken twin managed to find a way to be a fully functional human? Would he approve of my surroundings, of the friends I was beginning to make? Would he still love me even if I wasn’t the dark and twisted little girl he left behind anymore? Could I really change for them, for me?
I was broken out of my endless cycle of thoughts at Ryker’s intrusion at the door. He had his fist held in his other hand, flexing out his fingers. His knuckles were bruised and bloody, clear and concise gashes decorated the parts closest to the bones.
“Oh, sorry.” I moved to the side, abandoning the mirage in the mirror, allowing him space enough to move around me and sit on the closed toilet.
“The fucker’s teeth got me.” He shook his wounded hand vigorously.
“Here.” I reached across him and pulled out a rag, soaking it in cool water from the tap. I turned and closed the small space left between us. “Let me help you.”
“No.” He snapped, and yanked the cloth from my hand. Obviously, his anger hadn’t subsided. “I got it.”
“No?” I snapped back, jerking it back, and pulling his hand up for inspection. “Just shut up and let me do it.”
He said nothing to further protest, and thankfully I had a long history of taking care of injuries. Large and small. I cleaned his wounds thoroughly, and began to apply antibiotic ointment when my line of sight brushed with his. He was watching me carefully, studying the way my hands worked around his.
I cleared my throat. “That was a stupid thing you did. You know that, right?”
He offered nothing, so I continued.
“Regardless.” My eyes flicked back to his. “Thank you for doing it anyways.”
He still said nothing, but the anger was slowly seeping out of him; his muscles were beginning to relax back to their normal state of being.
“It’s been a long time since someone has come to my rescue. It’s an odd feeling, so I’m sorry if ‘thank you’ isn’t proper enough. Like I said before, I don’t really do people. But I’m trying to learn. I’ve never had someone do what you’ve done and I really owe you one.” The flutter in my chest expanded as I came to full circle. My thoughts were easily falling from my lips and I couldn’t control them.
“Jaylyn.” His low rumble soothed the pain in my chest, absorbing the sweet undertones and allowing them to heal the hurt. “Who hurt you?”
“Excuse me?” I stopped my diligent work to look at him fully.
“Who hurt you?” He repeated.
My lip quivered and tears brimmed my eyes. “Life.” It was lower than a whisper.
He stood and cornered me against the sink, inching achingly close little by little. His free hand reached out and gently cupped the side of my face, his thumb catching the one tear that managed to overflow. His icy stare no longer radiated anger; it had been replaced with a low hunger as he trailed his thumb along my bottom lip, smearing the tear across my skin. He watched as my body opened up to him, our breath mingling together in the tight space. He lowered his head and my eyes drooped closed, ready for the pivotal moment that his lips would overtake mine.
“Hey, guys?” Giovanni came around the edge of the doorway and my eyes flew open, Ryker taking a step back faster than I had expected.
“Yeah?” Ryker took the lead.
Gio looked down at the blood covering my hands and the cloth now thrown in the sink, forgotten. “You good?”
“Yeah.” I piped up quickly, trying to hide the flush I could feel on my face. “He won’t need stitches or anything. Minor cuts.”
“Good.” His curious stare bounced between the two of us knowingly and that bothered me. Maybe not as much as him ruining what could have been an extremely sensual kiss, but tomato, tamato. “Elsie is still kind of shaken up.”
“Alright.” I sighed, feeling more and more guilty. “I’ll be right there. Just finishing up here.”
I finished by wrapping his hand artfully. It would heal. All wounds did, at least the physical kind. Mental and emotional ones took longer, if they even healed at all. I washed my hands and dried them on the skirt of my uniform, caring little for appearances. When I exited the small enclosure, Elsie was stock still on the couch, her face a little paler than normal. I sat down next to her quietly and didn’t say anything for a long time. The silence stretched on, but I wasn’t sure what words of comfort I could offer her.
“Are you alright?” I finally asked, my throat dry.
“Hm?” She snapped out of her daze and looked over at me.
“Elsie, are you alright?”
“Oh, um...” She paused, mulling over what to say. “I don’t rightly know.”
I scooted closer to her on the small couch and let my body warm up against hers. Her hand unexpectedly found mine and she squeezed it. It would be okay. She would be okay.
“He just had you...” She swallowed hard. “...up against the wall. I panicked. I...”
“Hey, now.” I squeezed back and tried for a simple smile. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Are you, though?” Her eyes searched mine for something I couldn’t place and then it dawned on me. It wasn’t normal to see that kind of violence in the flesh. It could be traumatic for some. Even if I was used to it.
“I promise you, I’m fine.” I stated. “I could have put him in the ground, Els. Trust me. I was going to, but Ryker ended up throwing the first punch. I can take care of myself. I’m not scared of men like Aiden.”
“But, Jay...” She started.
“No buts.” I hesitated, trying to find enough to say without giving anything away. “I know how to fight, Els. I was trying to give Aiden a chance to do the right thing. I’m fine. Really. I could have ended it before it got to where it had, but I wanted to be sure it was the right thing for me to do first.”
“You know how to fight?” She looked confused.
“Being in foster care, I took self-defense classes.” I shrugged slowly, but understanding washed over her face.
“Oh.” It was like it all fell into place for her.
The color was slowly coming back to her cheeks and her dead stare turned sheepish. “I was worried for nothing?”
“Not nothing. It was still a scary thing, but I could have handled it. I just waited too long. It’s okay. There’s no need to fuss over it, okay? I care about you too.” I wrapped my arms over her shoulders in a tight hug.
She returned it with a sigh of relief.
“Let’s go get a drink, hm? Calm down a little and loosen up. Sound good?”
“Sure.” She smiled and got up to brush off her uniform. “I should probably change though.”
“I have clothes you can borrow.” I laughed. “We can drink a little and forget about everything for a night.”
“You guys want to come?” Elsie looked over at Giovanni and Ryker standing in the kitchen. “We can go to Tony’s.”
“Yeah, Els.” Gio answered first. “We’ll join you.”
The bar was packed as expected. There were some other students from the college lounging against the walls, playing pool, or drinking at the counter. There was an unusual number of older patrons, so we had chosen the only empty corner left. Elsie threw back more shots than anyone and I still felt terrible. She was worried and I knew it would take her a while to shake it off. I could feel Ryker’s eyes on me, even as Gio had tried to get his attention in their conversation. I kept silent next to Elsie and willed enough self-control not to openly stare back at him.
Elsie eventually came out of her shell and strangely asked me to dance with her. I laughed as she pulled me away from our table, swaying her hips dramatically. She couldn’t dance to save her soul. I swayed with her, moving against her hips as she giggled. I joined in on her laughter at our ridiculous moves, but she was beaming by the time the music changed.
“Oh, I love this song!” She laughed.
I tried not to shrivel my nose at the country twang that came over the speakers.
“Line dance with me!”
I shook my head laughing. “Hell no! I don’t even know how.”
I couldn’t say no to the look of pleading on her face, so naturally, I caved. I fell in step beside her, watching her feet as she moved. I took it back; line dancing might be the only dancing she could do. I think she made it easy on me. About halfway through the song I was able to carry on without watching her every step. She giggled next to me, causing me to laugh with her. When it was over, I had to bend to catch my breath.
“You good?” She breathed next to me.
“Yeah.” I laughed. “I need a break, though. Give me a second to use the bathroom.”
“Want me to come with you?”
“Nah. Stay. Have a drink or something. I’ll only be a minute.” I assured her.
I knew she watched as I walked away. If she had a thought in her mind that I was someone that needed protecting, let alone worth protecting, she was wrong. I silently wished that she would find something or someone worth her time in the small journey to the bathroom. I didn’t pay much mind to how long I was gone, but I paused in front of the dirty mirror just before exiting.
It was another moment of dread as I tried to find the woman staring back at me. She couldn’t possibly be me.
I opened the door curiously, Ryker leaned up against the wall.
“Elsie was worried.” He explained.
But I already knew.
“We have a moment before she comes looking herself.” His rumble was beginning to affect me in ways that I wasn’t completely used to.
“And?” I asked, frozen under his gaze.
“I wanted to talk about earlier.”
“No. About us.” His stare was on fire.
“Ryker, there is no us.” I breathed out.
“What happened back at the apartment?” He questioned.
“Was a fluke.” I twisted my fingers together awkwardly. “It was nothing.”
He didn’t say anything but just watched me as I twitched under his scrutiny.
“Hey!” Elsie saved my skin. “I thought you said you wouldn’t be long?” She pouted.
“Sorry. Ryker distracted me.” I lied.
She smiled like she didn’t notice the building tension between Ryker and myself. Grabbing my hand, she pulled me back to the table and we continued on like nothing had happened. When it was finally time to leave, I drove us back to the dorms. Giovanni offered to walk Elsie home and I allowed it. He was so wrapped in Sarah, there was little to mull over when it came to Elsie.
Ryker was silent as we made it upstairs and I didn’t offer any conversation, trying desperately to avoid anything that was remotely related to our previous conversation. I didn’t even know how to approach it if I wanted to. How would I explain how broken my emotions really were; how indecisive I was, or how feelings made the least bit of sense to me? I wasn’t used to the idea of being attracted to someone. People were so different from myself when I put up a comparison. I know the usual routine. Everyone is unique in their own special way. I call bullshit. Everyone is practically the same, maybe wired a little different. Whereas, my wires were a shredded mess.
To my luck, he went straight to his room without saying anything. I sighed as I watched his door close and stepped into the kitchen. I hopped onto the counter and leaned over to grab a glass from the strainer and filled it with water. The apartment was quiet. I sipped on the water, trying to not ruin the buzz of alcohol in my head entirely. This is what I was comfortable with. The loneliness. It was easy to keep up with, and nothing unexpected would tear me to pieces. I wasn’t going to render myself vulnerable to a guy I didn’t really know, who happened to also be taken by a girl who’s face I hadn’t even seen.
I shook the thought away before it could consume me. I couldn’t afford to put myself in a situation that could ultimately distract me from my real purpose for being here. He had no idea who I really was or what I’m really like. He only could see what I had painted myself as. He didn’t know what demons I faced, or anything about why I am the way I am. He was interested in the girl in the mirror. Not me.
“Jaylyn?” Ryker had his door open and I hadn’t heard it.
I frowned to myself before I turned to look at him. “Yeah?”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” He approached me and I calculated his distance.
“I didn’t mean to assume earlier.” He stopped in front of me, one step and he would be against me.
“It’s fine.” My breath hitched trying to ignore the burning that spread from my stomach straight down between my legs.
“It did seem like...” He inched forward, his gaze never leaving mine, and the desire that pooled between my legs expanded. “...you and I...” He trailed one hand carefully up my knee. “...had a moment...” He stopped between my legs; his chest pressed against mine.
I was lost. Every brick I was using to build a wall was dismantled in a second. The swirl of spice dazed me over and when he bent forward and paused right before his lips would touch mine, I wanted to moan out my frustrations. He waited patiently, but the burn inside me pushed me up to close the distance, consequences be damned. His lips dominated my own in a battle of wills. One of his hands gripped me by the nape of my neck and forced me up into a higher state of being, his other forcing my body to crush against his, refusing to let me inch away.
I wanted him more than I wanted to admit it.
I couldn’t keep my hands from exploring up under his shirt, feeling the solid planes of his back as his muscles rippled under my touch. But when his hand wandered from my back, his fingers trailing the line of my jeans, I panicked and pushed him slowly away at his chest.
“We can’t.” I panted, trying to ignoring the longing coming from my own body.
“Jaylyn.” That damned rumble.
“No.” I said firmly and slid off the counter. “No. No Jaylyn. We can’t. Regardless of the circumstances, you have Emma. This is wrong.” My body protested as I walked away, forcing myself into my room.
I collapsed on my bed, a heated mess. I ran my fingers across my bottom lip, feeling the swell of his harsh and demanding kiss. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it had meant something. I tried to force it from my mind and between the internal argument, I could feel myself drifting, the lull of sleep calling.
I woke up coughing, which didn’t make sense because I was laying comfortably in my own bed. I sat up and covered my mouth with my hand, just like mom said to do. It’s not polite to not cover your coughs. I looked down at the smoke billowing from the crack underneath my door and my eyes widened.
Something was wrong.
I gathered up my nightgown and hopped out of bed, my bare feet hitting the floor with a thud. That’s weird. Usually the floor was cold. It was really hot now. I reached for my doorknob and pulled my door open. A wall of smoke greeted me and almost knocked me down.
I didn’t know what to do.
Mom and dad would know.
I walked down the hall, searching for where the distant roar was coming from. The hallway was nothing but smoke. It was hard to breathe. Their door was hard to see, but the roar was coming from inside their room. And then I could hear it, just above the loud thunder.
Mom and dad were screaming.
The smoke didn’t cause the tears as I pounded my fists against their door.
“Mommy!” I cried. “Daddy?”
“Get out, Jaylyn! Run! Get your brother!”
I awoke to Ryker shaking me awake, yet again. It was becoming a twisted routine, but he never complained. He simply stayed until my body calmed down and would wait until I fell back to sleep. It was the only real thing he knew about me, and I didn’t want to let him in any further than I had. But when I woke the next morning, I was surprised that he had never left.
He was stretched out on what was usually the empty side of my bed asleep. His snore; the only sound in my room. I was even more surprised that I had curled up against him, yet again. His arm was wrapped loosely around me and I tried to move out from under, but he pulled me tight against his chest and I gave up. Listening to his heartbeat stirred something inside of me.
“Stop moving.” He murmured sleepily. “It’s comfortable.”
“I have to get ready to leave.”
“Absolutely not.” He yawned, refusing to open his eyes.
“I have lunch plans with Elsie today.”
His chest vibrated with a low growl of annoyance. “Cancel them.”
“No.” I forced away my growing smile. “She’ll come looking for me.”
Defeated, he lifted his arm granting me freedom. I grabbed my clothes and left Ryker laying in my bed. It was going against everything my body wanted, but my mind was practically made up. Dressing quickly in the bathroom, I made a quick escape from the apartment.
“See you later!” I belted out right before the lock hit home.