Zayne watched almost in awe as his party guests mixed and mingled with one another. They were scattered everywhere in his tiny apartment – some sat on his bed, some in the living room, some at the kitchen table…
It had been a bit of a tighter fit than he’d anticipated, but Zayne’s guests didn’t seem to mind very much. In fact, everyone seemed to be having a great time. Even Charlie and Ben seemed to be getting along well with his friends and neighbors. He breathed an internal sigh of relief.
A sudden cry of excitement called Zayne back to the present. “Dude, these are amazing!” Sean mumbled, his mouth full of food. “Did you seriously make these?”
Zayne nodded proudly, but kept his tone casual. “We make them down at the restaurant all the time. They’re pretty good, aren’t they?”
Of course, by ‘we’, he meant the actual cooks in the kitchen. But Zayne had been paying close attention over the past several weeks, and made mental notes of many of the recipes he’d seen prepared. Who knew that cooking could be so much fun?
“They’re great.” Victoria called to him from the kitchen table, smiling. “What if you tried throwing in a little cumin next time? That might make them even better. Of course, I’m probably biased. My dad was always a sucker for cumin. Used to say it gave an extra ‘kick’.” She laughed softly. “Chef Cotiaux doesn’t always agree though…”
Chinatsu joined in Victoria’s laughter as Zayne drew closer to them. “Oh my God, she’s so strict about sticking to every word of the recipe… You haven’t taken her class yet, have you, Zayne?” She asked. “Because when you do, watch out!”
He shook his head. “I actually decided to take a gap year.” Zayne explained, the lie coming so much easier than he’d expected. “Get some experience down at the restaurant, save up a little money… Y’know?”
Victoria nodded in understanding. “That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, actually… Too late to back out now though. My mom would kill me!”
“Nah, I think you made the right choice.” Zayne assured her. “Plus, studying abroad must be so amazing! I mean, obviously Windenburg’s home to me.” He added with a laugh, his eyes tracing every inch of the girl’s beautiful face. “But experiencing another culture must be incredible…” He paused for a moment. “Y’know, your accent… You sound a lot like my Onkel Stefan’s family… You wouldn’t happen to be from Willow Creek, would you?”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Well, my family was from there originally… Guess the accent’s pretty hard to shake, huh? Good ear.” The way she smiled sent a rush of butterflies through his stomach.
“I have a bunch of family from there.” Zayne continued, returning her smile. “My great-grandpa Josh passed away a few years ago… He used to play for the Willow Creek Ravens.”
“Oh… Uh, that’s… cool!” Victoria’s smile suddenly seemed so forced.
Damn it. She must not like sports. Zayne cursed himself mentally, then quickly turned the discussion back to cooking.
Things continued progressing well for the next hour or so, much to Zayne’s delight. The guests were giggling together, sharing stories, munching on snacks, and throwing back drinks…
Until they ran out, that is.
“Shit, that was the last beer!” Rich closed the refrigerator door, his dismay apparent on his face.
There were several murmurs of disappointment among the partygoers. Zayne felt his heart sink at the sound. Everything’s so perfect… I can’t mess this up!
“Hey, who wants to run out and grab us some more drinks?” He asked the room at large, reaching for his wallet. “On me, of course.”
“We should just go somewhere else.” Celestia’s high pitched voice called out. “It’s way too stuffy in here.” She glanced around at the tiny apartment, almost disgusted. “I’m not sure I can last much longer in here anyway.”
To his horror, Zayne caught a few of the other guests giving small nods of agreement. Oh no.
“Sure!” He smiled, fighting to hide his nerves. “This was just the warmup, right guys?” Amidst all the whooping and cries of excitement, Zayne could feel Charlie’s eyes staring at him curiously. He did his best to ignore them. “What about we head down to The Old Oak?” Zayne suggested.
One of Eun’s friends who’d crashed the party chuckled softly at the idea. “That little shithole? No way.”
“Hey, why don’t we check out Vertigo?” Laurel suggested. “They’ve got pool tables, great music, and you get a free drink if you enter one of their karaoke contests.”
“Karaoke? Sweet!” Coleen called excitedly from the kitchen. “I’m in!”
The guests nodded excitedly. Some were already heading for the door.
Fuck. Zayne couldn’t believe his luck. Vertigo was strictly 18+… He and Dom had learned that the hard way one night when they were turned away at the door. What the hell am I gonna do?! How could he bail on his own party without being suspicious?
Remi, River, and their friends seemed to be wondering the exact same thing. He could feel several pairs of eyes on him. Shit. Shit. Shit. What do I do?!
“Well, if you guys are heading to Vertigo, I guess that means Ben and I will need a ride home.” Charlie called out just a touch too loudly. “Do you mind driving us, Zayne?”
Driving? But I’m not old enough to… Oh. It took a moment for the realization to finally hit him. “Sure.” He smiled gratefully at his cousin.
“Oh, crap. Sorry.” Laurel muttered to the two 17-year-olds. “I forgot you aren’t old enough.”
“I know, it sucks.” Charlie sighed. “And my birthday’s next month too! So damn close.” She shook her head.
Ben smiled at Laurel. “But we’ll catch you guys at the next one. Don’t worry.”
“Alright, so I guess I’ll drop you guys off at home first.” Zayne nodded at Charlie and Ben, then reached back into his pocket and pulled out the wad of cash he’d received from his most recent delivery. “Remi, why don’t you get everyone a round on me and I’ll meet up with you guys a little later?” He handed a few bills to his cousin as he spoke.
“Erm… Uh… O-kay.” Remi stammered awkwardly, pocketing the cash. “But…how…?”
“I’ll meet you later.” Zayne repeated a bit louder this time.
His cousin simply nodded and headed for the door.
“Sweet! You’re the best, Zayne.”
“I’ll totally buy you a shot when you get there, dude!”
“See you later!”
The remaining guests gave him handshakes and claps on the back as they headed out the door, eager to continue the party at the karaoke bar.
A few minutes later, only Ben and Charlie remained.
As soon as they were alone, Zayne let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. “Oh my God, Charlie. I owe you for this one.”
She laughed. “Yeah, you do… Big time.”
“Dude, you are in way over your head here.” Ben joined in his girlfriend’s laughter. “How long are you planning on keeping this up?”
Zayne shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s fine.” He hoped he sounded convincing. “I’m just making friends.”
“Just watch yourself.” Charlie replied seriously. “Some of these guys might not be as ‘friendly’ as you think…”
Her cousin sighed. “Look, just… Promise you won’t tell Tante Joce about any of this, okay? You know she’d flip.”
“Oh, I know she would.” There was a strange bitter edge to Charlie’s voice as she spoke. But as quickly as it had come, it was gone. “Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.” She assured him.
“Yeah, me too.” Ben added.
“Thanks.” Zayne smiled at the pair of them for a moment. “So… since I can’t really drive you guys home…” He muttered uncertainly.
“The last bus leaves at 11.” Charlie answered his unfinished question.
“That’s in about two hours…What should we do til then?”
The pigtailed girl glanced at the discarded trash and empty cans around them for a moment. “Help pick up some of this mess?” She suggested. “And then maybe squeeze in a round or two of Don’t Wake the Llama? You still have Ur-Oma’s old set with you, right?”
Zayne nodded, his smile widening. “Sounds like plan.”