The morning rays of sunshine had melted through our windows about an hour before I finished. Luckily, I had already put away my gear and was only standing in the middle of the apartment admiring my handiwork. I didn’t consider myself a technology genius, but the cameras were simple enough, and unless you knew where to look for them, you wouldn’t see them. I had strategically placed them where no blind spots were left behind.
So, I just stood there, staring out the window. The dark smell of coffee circulated through the common area, and I could hear Ryker stirring awake. I decided that I owed him an apology, even if that conclusion was foreign to me. It was normal to apologize for angry outbursts, even for utterly stubborn people.
Speaking of normal, Elsie would probably want to go shopping with me today. That would be a perfectly normal thing to do. I walked over to the counter where I had set my phone and sat on the stool just in front of it. Still wrapped in my blanket, I typed out a text and sent it to the number she had given me yesterday at practice. She probably wasn’t even awake this early.
The instant ding of a reply proved me wrong, and even her texts were oozing with enthusiasm as she had graciously accepted my offer. I set my phone back down and handled my cup of coffee, sipping on it gingerly. Maybe it wasn’t so much of a cover for today, but I was really starting to enjoy having her around. You read it in books and magazines, and see it all the time on the big screen, but it normally never happens that way in the real world. Nobody instantly clicks like they’re supposed to; it always takes hard work and a major amount of acceptance. Elsie was the exception to just about any outlooks you had against the world.
Ryker nearly stumbled coming out of his room. His eyes were squinted and he held up a hand to shield himself from the penetrating sun.
“Morning!” I tried for cheerful, completely ignoring the fact the God was shirtless.
He only grumbled out an incoherent response, trudging to the kitchen.
I continued to watch him as he fumbled around and felt pity for a man that could not process mornings.
“It’s like eight in the morning.” He spoke on the uptake. “On a Saturday, Jaylyn.”
I got up and reached passed him to grab him a cup out of the cupboard. I poured coffee to the brim. “How do you take your coffee?”
“Black. What is this?”
I tried to smile. “An apology coffee.” I held it out to him.
“I realize that I was being kind of a jackass.”
“Okay, I was definitely being a jackass, but I’m not used to people knowing personal things about me.”
“Having nightmares is normal, Jaylyn.”
I didn’t blink. “Having nightmares every single night since you were eleven is not normal.”
He sipped at his coffee, but didn’t press it any further. “You want your space. I can respect that.”
“Thank you.” I tilted my head to the side. “I mean it.”
“You got any plans for today?”
“Uh, yeah. Elsie and I are going to head out to go shopping. There are some things I need to pick up for classes, and she said she would be willing to tag along and show me around.”
“Alright. Well, don’t worry if I’m not home when you get back. I’m usually busy most Saturdays.”
“Who say’s I would worry?”
“Well, you seem to freak out any time Giovanni is out of your sight.”
He must have noticed my behavior at the bar last night.
“I feel responsible for him. He is really the only family I have.” Unfortunately, not a lie.
“I’m sure there is a lot more to it than that.” He inclined his head with indication.
It took me a moment, but then my face reddened and I shook my head. “Oh, God no! It’s not like that at all. He’s my little brother!” I squeaked.
Ryker chuckled. “Geez, Jaylyn, chill out. It was just a joke.”
My face burned and I couldn’t come up with an appropriate rebuttal.
“I have to get ready to go.” He pushed off the counter and brushed against me as he passed by. “Red is a good look on you.”
I thought I had misheard him, but when I turned, he had already closed the door to his room, leaving me standing there in the kitchen scorched with embarrassment.
“Girl, he said what?!” Elsie nearly died in the seat next to me.
“I think he just likes to tease me, Elsie. It’s no big deal.”
She practically shook the car. “It is a big deal! I’ve spent a lot of time around Ryker and his friends. He doesn’t say those type of things to girls. I would know.”
She seemed so sure of herself, that I couldn’t find it in me to argue with her. She obviously didn’t see the side of Ryker that I had or she would be on my side of this. The behavior of men no longer surprised me. I had seen so many horrors, that when a fuck boy came around, it was the least of my problems or worries.
“Okay, well, that may be true, but we have been giving each other constant shit since we met, so I’m not going to think into it too much. He has a girlfriend, remember?” I rolled my eyes.
“You have to keep me updated, though! No sparing any details. I’m so lonely.” Elsie pouted and actually managed to have her bottom lip start to quiver.
“Jesus! Alright! Fine.”
The rest of the car ride was filled with pleasant conversation. Elsie opened up a little more about her family, and invited me to meet them if the occasion ever arose, to which I agreed. I tried keeping my personal life out of the conversation, but it didn’t take long for her to catch on.
“You don’t really talk about yourself much, do you?” It wasn’t an accusation, just an observation.
“No. Not really. I don’t have any friends to be honest, so I’m not really good at getting to know anyone.” Not exactly a lie. I had the capability to get to know someone. But it was usually unbeknownst to them, and it was for a job.
As we walked through the corridors of Powerhouse Mall, I couldn’t keep the look of awe off of my face. For a shopping center, it was unnecessarily elegant. Good thing Dominik sent a credit card for anything I might need, or I would be in serious trouble. Elsie dragged me in and out of stores, and by the time we hit the finish line, I had more bags than I had originally planned for. She carried her own set of bags, mostly filled with clothes and material objects that she found fascinating. I foot the bill for the day. I didn’t want her to feel guilty for bringing me here and then put herself in a position that she would end up regretting later.
We stopped just inside the entrance and sat down to have coffee. She mused into her cup, happy as a lark.
“So, Jay. Do you have any family?” She inquired gently. It was obvious she was approaching the subject gently, but that didn’t keep the pain from spreading in my chest.
“Uh, no. Actually, I lost my family a long time ago. It’s just been me.” I tried to smile, but failed.
“Oh, Jay. I’m so sorry. You don’t have to answer me. I’m just nosey and I can’t help putting my foot in my mouth sometimes.”
“It’s alright, really. I don’t mind. At least not with you. I wasn’t joking when I said I don’t make friends easy. You might actually be my first.”
“Well, I’m happy to be of service.” She giggled, reaching across the small table to squeeze my hand. “Nothing you could say could scare me away.”
“My parents died in a fire when I was little. I had a brother. But he was taken away from me shortly after the incident. A family came and adopted him, but with all the problems I caused, they didn’t want me. My brother didn’t have a choice and was forced to go. Even now, I can’t find any records of where he was taken or who had adopted him.”
“That’s so cruel.” Sadness welled in her eyes. “I couldn’t even imagine.”
“It was a long time ago, Els. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.” Lie.
“So, what were they like?”
I sighed and took a drink of my coffee to help swallow down the lump that was forming in the back of my throat. “They were perfect. I mean that in the most imperfect way possible. I was sheltered, and didn’t spend much time in the general public. My mother homeschooled me. She valued my education above everything else. She was very kind at heart, but almost always stern. She demanded absolute focus and one-hundred percent commitment to everything. My father worked long hours and that left me and my mother to our vices. He didn’t pay much mind to me. I never got the chance to ask why.
Niklaus was a force to be reckoned with. Where I wasn’t allowed outside the walls of my home, my brother had seen things I only dreamed of. He was well spoken and smarter than most kids our age. He would always bring me presents and trinkets home from his many adventures. I was his favorite person in the entire world, and he protected me from everything. He was my hero and my best friend.”
The sadness in my voice couldn’t be masked and Elsie had teared up with my small declaration. She squeezed my hand tighter and the motion was comforting. I wiped at the one tear that escaped and shook my head, trying to clear away the good memories that would soon melt into the bad ones if I continued talking. Elsie remained quiet and didn’t say anything. At least she knew this was hard for me.
“So. Anyways.” She perked. “Let’s change the subject then, shall we?”
“Do you have a boyfriend back home?”
I laughed. “Of course, not. I’m a complete mess, or haven’t you noticed?”
“Really, no one?” She teased.
“Well, there was this one...”
“Aha!” She smiled smugly. “I knew it!”
I rolled my eyes and tried not to smile. She was evil and she knew it. “It wasn’t anything serious, Els. Calm down. He was just a guy I was seeing on and off for a while. I wasn’t really into it like he was, but I had to break it off before I came to school. He expected more than I could give.”
“Well, that’s not surprising.” She huffed.
“What?” The doe-eyed look. “You can’t judge me, Jay. It’s obvious you have intimacy issues. You’re very snippy and a little too hard on everyone around you. But I can’t say that’s a bad thing. I admire it, really. You’re so honest. Even if the truth hurts.”
“I’m not sure if that was supposed to be an insult or a compliment.”
“Both.” She laughed.
I pinched her hand hard and she yelped yanking it back to her and then erupted into laughter. I joined her.
This must be what it’s like. To sit and talk about things with other people and finding a connection there. Even though we’ve both been through enough shit to last a lifetime, she was still sitting here giggling and forcing my inner self to join her.
“You’re like a campfire marshmallow, Jay.” She calmed. “Hard and burnt on the outside, but squishy and sweet on the inside.”
My eyes widened.
“But don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.” She finished her drink.
A short while later we had made it back to campus, the music blaring. Surprisingly, Elsie and I had very similar tastes musically and I could help singing along next to her in the car. It was a normal day. Normal was a rarity, and I was beginning to enjoy my small glimpses into a normal life. I hadn’t felt any anxiety since my nightmare, and I had a feeling Elsie would become a really good friend to me. Or at least a really good influence. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing out on.
“Want me to help you carry things up?” She asked, breaking away from our personal jam session.
“Nah. You really don’t have to.”
“I don’t mind.” She insisted.
“Alright, then.” I pulled into a parking spot.
We grabbed all my bags out of the trunk and made our way upstairs. The hallways were quiet for a weekend. Everyone probably nursing hangovers from the night before. Elsie kept in step beside me and took some of the bags out of my hands so I could unlock my door. We shuffled inside and nearly fell in the process, colliding into one another. We started giggling until we looked up to find a half-naked Ryker coming out of the bathroom, freshly showered in nothing but a towel.
Elsie’s jaw dropped, but I just gave a disapproving look.
“Do you own a shirt?” I snipped. “Go put some fucking clothes on.”
“This is my apartment.”
“Our. Our apartment.” I rolled my eyes.
“Sure.” He gave a wicked smile as he opened his door, pulling off his towel in one quick swipe and threw it directly at my face, closing the door behind him.
I tossed the towel aside trying to ignore the burn that swelled up my face. Elsie giggled nervously. “I don’t know how you are going to manage living with that.”
“It’s only been one night. Ask me again in a month or two, I might be better equipped with an actual answer.”
We set the bags down and went through today’s haul. Ryker didn’t make another appearance, but we were perfectly content in ourselves. Elsie dished her latest findings. She could honestly work for the FBI with all the knowledge she had on other people. Her scrutiny didn’t faze me in the slightest, at least she was genuine.
When she finally departed, Ryker peeked his head out of his door.
“Y’all done having girl time?”
“I wouldn’t call it that, but yeah.” I stretched. “Did you find a sock? Perhaps a robe?”
He laughed coming out of his room and sat on the edge of the couch.
“I was thinking food. I thought it would be rude if I didn’t ask my roommate if she wanted anything.”
“What are you having?”
“Yeah. Honey chicken and crab sticks.”
“Well, you should probably be a little more polite. I might poison it on the way back.” He chuckled as he dawned on his shoes. “I shouldn’t be gone long. Maybe twenty minutes or so.”
“Alright. Thank you.”
“Not a problem, roomie.”
I flicked through the channels on the television and couldn’t find anything worth watching. Before I could even decide, Ryker had returned and the smell of food wafted through the apartment making my stomach rumble in anticipation. He dropped onto the couch next to my feet and slouched, kicking his shoes off.
“Fooooooood.” I called.
He laughed and handed over the bag and I tore it open happily. Grabbing my portion and a fork, I dug in. In my distraction he lunged over me for the remote.
“Huy!” I muffled, trying to keep rice from spewing out of my full mouth.
He laughed and turned to Netflix. “I was watching something before I was so rudely interrupted this afternoon.”
I swallowed. “Finders keepers.”
“Well, I guess that makes me the finder and the keeper.” He wiggled the remote just out of my reach.
“Fine.” I sniffed.
“You couldn’t fake a pout to save your soul.” He smirked.
“That I am.” He changed the show to Jessica Jones and I groaned. “I hate Marvel.”
“I think you’d like this if you actually watch it.”
A couple episodes deep and I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I failed to realize that as time passed, Ryker and I had slowly drifted towards each other. Our shoulders bumped that broke me out of said distraction and I looked down at our touching limbs. When my eyes followed upwards, my eyebrows raised when his icy hues found mine.
He just looked at me and said nothing. I racked my brain for something snippy to say, but came back emptyhanded.
“Take a picture with me.”
“What?” My eyes narrowed.
“I said, take a picture with me.”
“Not everything has an ulterior motive, Jaylyn.” He rolled his eyes for a change.
“Fine.” I huffed.
“Fine.” He mimicked.
“Do you want the picture or not?” I snapped.
He dug his phone out of his pocket and held it up. “Can I get a real smile?”
“That’s asking too much.” I smiled anyways, and just before the camera shuttered, I stuck my tongue out.
Ryker inspected the photo and laughed. “Better than the latter option, I guess.”
“It’s the only one you get.” I smirked.
He shrugged and turned away from me to hide the screen.
“Wait.” I asked, sitting up to try to look over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“Ryker. Stop playing.” The anxiety I hadn’t felt all day came crashing back. “What are you doing?” I ended up on my knees, trying to climb over him.
“Nothing!” He laughed. “Just letting everyone know that Jaylyn has a fun side.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Done!” His voice rang with victory.
“What did you do?”
“I uploaded it to Instagram.” He looked smug.
“Take it down.”
“Please, take it down.”
“Nope. I’ll tag you in it if you want.” He looked over at me, humor swirling in those cerulean depths.
“I don’t.” I started and had to swallow. “I don’t have one.”
“Do I look like I joke around?” I raised an eyebrow.
Before he could answer, his phone started ringing. The laughter drained from his face and his shoulders tensed.
“I have to take this.” He shot up and went straight for his room.
I tried minding my own business. His sudden departure had left the photo a distant memory. I stood and walked into the kitchen, trying to hum over the hushed yelling that had echoed from his door. I grabbed a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water from the tap, and leaned against the tabletop to sip on it.
“Why do you have to take everything so seriously!?” Ryker roared from the other side.
I looked down into my glass, somehow trying to find the water more fascinating than anything else.
“You never take what I want into consideration!” His voice carried. “What about Emma!?”
I looked around for anything to keep me from spying, but nothing came to my rescue. Ryker slammed something inside his room and came storming out. He stopped when he realized my expression.
“How much did you overhear?” He asked.
“Nothing.” Short. Sweet. To the point.
“I’m leaving. Don’t wait up.” He grabbed his things and rushed out before I could ask him about the argument. Well, I guess that settles that. For now.