Quinn had arrived first, following directions on a scrap piece of paper until the Arron’s Arcade sign had caught his eye, spilling neon blue light out onto the dull side street. He had recognised the name once Mia had suggested the venue; his uncles had visited on occasion, but luckily he wouldn’t be running into them that day; they were in America for a conference-and-holiday, so Quinn didn’t have to worry.
He’d drifted inside and was pleasantly surprised to find a friendly assistant point him into a cosy room, where muted grey walls gave a good contrast to the electric lights of the arcade machines.
He turned around at a familiar voice and saw Mia laughing with the assistant, passing over a loyalty card to be stamped with a faded logo. She didn’t look any different from usual, which Quinn found himself relieved about. He hadn’t dressed up for the occasion, despite Isabelle insisting he was committing some form of social suicide. The idea of making a big deal out of what it was – two friends getting to know each other better – screwed his stomach up into knots.
“Hey Quinn.” She greeted him with ease, and he relaxed a little more when she didn’t try to dive in for a hug or a kiss. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket and wrinkled her rounded nose. “Which one do you want me to beat you at first?”
A spark of humour drew his lips into a smile. “I think you need to play with a handicap.”
Mia winked. “I’d still win. C’mon, dealer’s choice,” she said, gesturing to the machines. With a shrug, Quinn prowled around the selection before settling on a classic: tetris.
The upbeat music drowned out the monotone buzz from neon lights which they had turned their backs to; Mia hooked her chin on Quinn’s shoulder to watch, and after a second he let go of the tension coiled into his body at the physical touch. She snickered as he failed to turn a block quickly enough, and Quinn scowled and delved further into his concentration. Despite Quinn’s shoulder diving up and down as he fought the game, Mia stuck to him as if she was riding a mechanical bull.
“Damn,” Quinn muttered as the game over screen flickered up.
“Let me give you some tips, scrub,” Mia said, cracking her knuckles with a savage grin. Quinn politely stepped out of the way and swung his hand towards the machine with a flourish.
“Show me how it’s done.”
Mia leaned close to the screen and began to work her magic, eyes snapping from the top of the screen to the bottom, fingers tapping to turn blocks and accelerate their fall. Quinn fell silent, unwilling to spoil her obvious concentration, and watched as her score climbed.
Eventually the game lost his attention. Instead, his gaze slid to Mia, and he quietly contemplated her. As always, her hair was shoved back into a hybrid bun-ponytail (Isabelle would know if they had an official name, of course), and strands fell into her face. She shoved them back with impatience and spat out a curse as it cost her the game. Quinn laughed at her genuine disgruntlement.
He glanced up and rubbed the back of his neck, stiff from the angle he had been holding it, and caught sight of a stack of worn board games.
“How about we play something I might be able to win?” he asked, pointing towards the Scrabble box.
“Does fleek count?” Mia pondered, playing with her tiles. They gave satisfying clacks whenever she rearranged them on the plastic grey shelf, which she had been doing for several minutes. Luckily, living with Ayr had made Quinn ever patient.
“If it’s in the dictionary, I’ll allow it.”
“Who made you judge?” she grunted, pulling out her phone to search.
While she was looking, Quinn asked a question that had been on his mind for days. “Why did you ask me on a date?”
Without looking up from her phone, or missing a beat, Mia responded, “because I like you, duh.”
Quinn sat back and felt the hard plastic of the chair give a little with his weight. “I guess that was a stupid question,” he agreed.
“No shit,” Mia snorted. “Anyway fleek is in the dictionary, and I get a hundred points.”
Quinn glanced over as she put her tiles down. “You get twenty four points,” he corrected, reaching out to slide her word over. “Now you have thirty four.”
“Balls in your court now bud,” Mia smirked, leaning back. Quinn shared a smile with her and settled in for the game.
Isabelle had thought about Kian every day, mulled him over with a slow intensity she usually reserved for perplexing books. She’d first known him as an aloof, arrogant boy, who had then surprised her by taking genuine pride in his home and various domestic chores. She couldn’t easily add the two up, and she didn’t particularly want to return to the first option.
Would it be awkward, now? Isabelle had no idea. They hadn’t spoken about the kiss because she’d been too busy studying and then playing D&D with Quinn to go to their tree. When she finally did get a chance, two weeks later, he wasn’t there.
Isabelle tried not to be too disheartened, but the voice in the back of her head pointed out that since the first time Kian showed up, he had been there without fail. She was sure, since learning that he was no longer in school, that he read here for hours every day. She stood for a while staring at the tree, accepting that her insecurities and that little, whining voice were correct, and settled down with a morose sigh. At least she could take some joy in the growing acorns above her.
She pulled out a new book – The Angel’s City – and began to read. She was quickly hooked and barely noticed finishing the first chapter when a case from an acorn of the previous year smacked into the top of her head. She glanced up to see Kian leaning on the wall, resting his head on his hand, and yawning.
“Oh, finally,” he said breezily. “I was wondering when you were going to notice I was here.”
Annoyed, Isabelle flicked the case off her head and smoothed her hair down. “You could have said something.”
“Could’ve,” he agreed with a shrug. “Fancy dinner? I’m trying out a new recipe.”
This was odd, Isabelle thought to herself. She had expected Kian to be cocky, maybe even pretending that nothing had changed. That he was fully embracing the new openness between them surprised her – but then what about him didn’t surprise her?
“Alright,” she said, tucking her book away and sending a quick text off to her parents. With an hour of warning, they would let her get away with missing dinner. Kian waited for her this time, falling into step as she left the square, and after a moment offered his hand with a frank vulnerability. She took it, trying not to give away how fast her heart was beating. By the quick squeeze of her hand, she doubted she had succeeded.
The five minute walk to Kian’s house passed in silence, and then he opened the door for her. She shucked off her shoes without being asked, this time, and waited for him to direct her to the sofa.
“I hope you don’t have any food… diet… things.”
Isabelle snorted with laughter. “No, I don’t. Mum and dad are always cooking interesting things. I only dislike mint.”
“Mint?” Kian repeated in disbelief.
“Hate it,” she confirmed, nodding. He made a thoughtful sound, ran the hand over the back of her head in a casual gesture of – what, she wasn’t sure, but it made her flush from her head to her toes – and crossed into the kitchen.
“Good thing I didn’t make yayla corbasi,” he murmured to himself.
“Did your… parents do a lot of cooking?” Isabelle asked, quickly biting her lip.
But Kian’s voice didn’t sound strained as he replied. “My mother did, of course. We were a very traditional family.” She could almost hear him shrug. “I wish I could have written down some of her recipes.” She heard something clatter around in the kitchen. “Are you hungry now?”
“I can eat,” she nodded.
His face poked out from the kitchen door. “It can wait, if you’d like.”
“No, no. Let’s eat.”
Kian nodded and disappeared, returning moments later with a plate of flatbreads and several dips on a tray. “I’m afraid I don’t have a dining table. Not one that you’d want to sit at, anyway,” he added, without a trace of shame.
Isabelle grinned as the food was placed before her. It smelled divine. She swallowed drool and waited patiently as Kian strolled back to the kitchen for more plates, this time coming back with baked, stuffed aubergines and a grilled lamb salad. She groaned as more smells assaulted her, inching forward to breathe in the warm scent of the buffet before her. She could smell the feta cheese as it melted in the aubergine skins, the tomato-based and hummus-based dips, the thyme coating the lamb. She stacked her plate and tucked in, making appreciative noises which made Kian’s lips quirk up.
“This is amazing,” Isabelle said, as Kian sucked hummus off a finger. “You’re a brilliant cook, Kian.”
“I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, so I’ve been practicing,” he shrugged, making an obscene noise as his thumb popped out of his mouth. “It’s nostalgic,” he said, waving to the plates. It took Isabelle a moment to understand what he meant.
“This is all Turkish?”
“Mostly. Some has been altered, on my part,” he said, studying her. Isabelle ducked her head and chewed on her last piece of flatbread, wiping her hands on the napkin that Kian had provided.
“Why did you move here?”
“A friend suggested it.”
Isabelle frowned up at him. “A friend suggested you move to Scotland and you just went with it?”
“Oh – no.” Kian pushed his plate away and stretched languorously, the bottom of his hoodie riding up to show a flash of skin. “No, a friend suggested I move to this town.”
“So why did you move to Scotland?” Isabelle asked, reaching out to stack the empty plates before her. She was occupied with the task, which was why it took her so long to realise Kian hadn’t answered. He was watching her, head tilted just slightly, before deciding he didn’t want to answer.
“Let me take that,” he said, reaching out for the stacked plates. Isabelle let him. When Kian returned, he sat next to her on the sofa, curling his arm around the back. It took her two beats to realise it was an invitation, and she scooted closer to him. He smiled at her and smoothed his fingertips over the skin of her ear and neck, playing with some loose strands of hair.
“So,” Isabelle said, swallowing back panic. She had to ask. Had to. “We kissed, and now you’re not trying to keep me at arm’s length anymore?” There was a challenge in her words. Her shaking words.
Kian made a small sound at the back of his throat. “Life is short,” he murmured. “I like you. I’m not in the habit of denying myself the things that I like.” He realised how that sounded, and added, “not that I wouldn’t deny that, if you didn’t also seem to like me.” And his eyebrow quirked, challenging her to say otherwise. It would be a lie, if she did; they both knew that.
“It’s a sudden switch from my point of view,” Isabelle said, hating herself for pushing the matter. She had to know, though. Was this fake? Was she opening herself up to a man who was just playing her?
Kian oozed that sort of confidence, she knew it. Why did she think he was different just because he could apparently crochet a mean cushion cover?
“You interrupted my reading at first,” Kian acknowledged. “But I became used to you quickly. And then I was curious. And now I enjoy your company. Happy?”
Yes, she was. And yet that voice was screaming at her to be sensible. She’d been hurt before, and she’d done the hurting before plenty of times too. She couldn’t think of a single relationship where there was equal passion on both sides. And was this even a relationship? It was moving fast – and she wouldn’t have minded, if not for the niggling thought that Kian would get bored of her when he realised there wasn’t much to her.
“You’re not,” he realised, reaching out to brush his knuckles against the line of her jaw and chin. “Am I doing something wrong?”
“You’re doing too many things right,” Isabelle corrected, laughing at the absurdity of it. She could see that she’d puzzled him. Good – he surprised her far too often. Where was the aloof, magnetic boy gone? Why had he been replaced by this Kian so fast it made her head spin? She wasn’t complaining – her feelings for Kian were overwhelming her, in fact.
It was just too good to be true.
“You’re bizarre,” he said, as if it was some great revelation that left him shaking his head. Isabelle laughed again, a hysterical lilt to the sound.
“You know the early Shanna books,” Isabelle began, swallowing against the panic that her honesty was giving her, “where she doesn’t let herself fall for Ona, and the Speaker explains why? It’s… it’s that. I think.”
“I’m overwhelming you,” Kian said, pulling his arm away. “Sorry. I…” his lips thinned and he clutched at the arm of the sofa. “I’ve lost people I care about, barely days after I knew them. I think some people would have shut themselves off – and to some extent, I did. Which is why you’re used to me being so… rude. But when the line is crossed, I give everything. I have to. That way if something happens, at least I hold you in my memory; my heart.” Kian paused and Isabelle saw the grief coiled tightly underneath his skin, a spring-loaded trap. “But Isabelle, you have no reason to believe you’re inadequate. If anything, I should be questioning that,” he murmured.
Isabelle shook her head, incredulous at what she was hearing. “Kian, you cook fabulously, you’ve made all the blankets in this house, from what I can tell, and you’re interesting. Not a boring nobody from a town no one’s heard of.”
Kian assessed her frankly, his eyebrows climbing. “You brought me a book, signed by my favourite author. You didn’t have to do that. Kind doesn’t equal boring. It shows heart. It’s… precious. Not nearly enough people have it.”
Isabelle fidgeted until she could face him fully. She couldn’t help the disappointment in her voice. “You like me just because I’m kind?”
“Iz,” he murmured, wounded. “Being kind is the best thing anyone can be. And, if you must have more reasons, then here are some. I like the way you snort whenever something in a book makes you laugh.” As he said it, he reached up to tweak her nose; she smacked his hand away half-heartedly. “I like the way you cry without being embarrassed – I like the way you feel without dulling your emotions. It’s intense. It’s right. And I like the way the red in your hair catches the sun, and the way you look when you tease me and know you’ve won. I love your eyes – do you know they look like kyanite? Isn’t that fitting? I like your –“
Isabelle swallowed his words with her lips, her heart fluttering and rising in her chest. There was no faking the wonder in his voice – or at least she told herself that, fiercely, because she wanted to be wanted, and most of all, she wanted to be wanted by Kian.
He kissed her back, slow at first, tasting of the herbs and spices of their dinner. When Isabelle didn’t pull back, he snatched the breath from her by pulling her onto his lap, wrapping his fingers around her thighs. He pulled back for a second, his breath hot on her tingling lips.
“Good?” he asked, brushing his lips across her jaw.
“Very,” she answered breathlessly, crinkling the hem of her top in her fingers. She raised her eyebrows at Kian, who raised them back at her and replied by tugging her top off and over her head, his fingers burning a path down her skin. His mouth followed, pressing hot kisses against her neck, and his thumbs slipped under her bra strap. “Not fair,” she whispered, pulling at his hoodie. He made a sound at the back of his throat and tugged it off over his head, his t-shirt coming off with it. Isabelle explored his chest, indenting his dark skin with her fingers curiously, feeling the familiar want dancing underneath her own skin.
“Upstairs?” she asked, pulling back just slightly. Kian ran a palm up her back, tilting his head to the side.
“Not too fast?”
Isabelle shook her head. “For you?” she asked, the thought occurring to her a beat too late.
“No,” Kian said simply.
So they went upstairs.
“Hey, Shanna, do you think I could do with some make up to prettify me?” Ayr asked, pulling down an eyelid and the corner of his mouth up, making a noise halfway between a groan and a laugh.
Echo laughed at her ridiculous son. “We can find you make up too, Ayr.”
“I don’t know,” Shanna began in a sage voice, “can any make up save Ayr’s face?”
“Oi!” Ayr said, dropping his hands. “I’m beautiful. You’re a fartface.”
“Which one of my children is eleven, and which is sixteen?” Echo asked aloud, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. The two of them tittered like naughty school children and Shanna turned back to the rows of make up. She sighed and reached out to poke at a metallic case of eyeshadow.
“Do girls have to wear make up? What if I don’t want to?”
Echo was quick to jump in before Ayr could draw the conversation back into absurdity. “Girls absolutely don’t have to wear make up, Shanna. Do whatever makes you happy. We’re celebrating your birthday; it’s your day to do and buy whatever you like.”
Shanna reached up to tug at the old top. She made a face and caught wisps of hair stuck to her lips, and then a spark of an idea caught fire behind her eyes. “Could I have a make over?”
“Oh shit, let me find some montage music-”
“-Ayr, for goodness sake!”
“This is actually amazing!” Shanna exclaimed, playing with the fabric of her hoodie. “I feel awesome!”
“You look great, too,” Echo smiled. “The hair cut suits you.”
“Still a fartface though.”
Shanna stuck out her tongue around Echo’s long suffering sigh. “I just feel like me,” she marvelled. “I didn’t realise how much I wasn’t me until now!”
Beaming, Echo pulled her daughter into a one armed hug. “And how do you feel about ending the day with decadent food at that new dessert place?”
“Like it’s a perfect end to a perfect day,” Shanna grinned, tugging at her hoodie. “This is awesome!”
“Okay, okay, what about if I do your chores for one whole day?”
“My churros are worth more than one day of chores,” Shanna argued back, picking up one to dunk it in a pot of Nutella. She hadn’t even got to her monster-sized hot chocolate (literally, that had been the menu’s name for it), and already her stomach was bulging in her new, baggy jeans.
“And you’re not having any one else’s food until you finish yours. Which you’ve currently got your elbow in, Ayr.”
“What? Oh.” Ayr lifted up his elbow to inspect the damage. “Just some syrup for later, it’s fine.”
“You’re so gross,” Shanna giggled around a mouthful.
Ayr grabbed a forkful of pancake. “You’re gross, talking with your mouth full!”
Echo shook her head and reached out to grab Ayr’s elbow with a napkin. “Honestly, I can’t take you anywhere.”
“But aren’t you taking us to Italy because you love us so much?”
“Yes, but we’re going to leave you there at this rate!”
“Sweet, I’m going to get an Italian girlfriend who’ll feed me pizza all day.”
“You’d be lucky,” Shanna sneered. “She’ll look at your mug and run in the other direction!”
“At least pretend to be nice to each other when we’re in the earshot of the public,” Echo said, though she watched the two of them bicker together with a fond smile and hoped Italy would live up to their dreams. She checked the date on her phone with a quick glimpse and beamed – term started in a week’s time, and after another six they’d be on a plane and having some quality family time.
Hey folks! Hope all is well with you lovely people. My plan for the next couple of chapters is to release them on the 17th and 24th of march – because they’re almost part one and part two and it works best like that! Sorry for the three weeks wait D:
See you in the comments ❤