Come on… Where is she?! Zayne glanced down at his phone. It was 10:24.
He tapped his foot impatiently, his eyes scanning the deserted road for a few moments. There was no sign of Hope anywhere. I bet she’s not coming. He thought sadly. And could he really blame her if she didn’t?
For a moment, his mind travelled back to that cool spring evening over seven years ago. Was this how she’d felt, he wondered, when he never showed up? Judging by her reaction to him the night before, Zayne had a sinking feeling that it had been even worse. Even after all this time, he still felt he’d made the right decision by walking away, but Zayne wished he’d had the courage to say something to her, rather than standing her up the way he did. What was he thinking? God, I was such a fucking idiot back then.
Even now, Zayne often caught himself thinking of those months when he’d tried living on his own. There were times when Zayne looked back on those days and was able to laugh at himself… And there were others where he longed for a time machine, so he could go back and give his younger self the sort of beating Eun had once given him. Not that it would have knocked much sense into me…
He still found it amusing that those disastrous months on his own were the closest thing he’d ever have to the true “uni experience”. Zayne never attended it himself – He just continued working at the restaurant. Eventually he got promoted to waiter, then host, and finally, after begging his boss for years, line cook.
And, with a steady job, Zayne finally moved out (for good this time) when he was twenty-one years old.
That was already a few years ago now, and thankfully, things were going much better the second time around.
“You’re still here?”
Zayne was suddenly called back to the present by a beautiful voice calling from over his shoulder. He whipped his head around, searching… And there she was, vibrant and gorgeous as ever.
His entire face lit up at the sight of her. “What? Thought I’d stand you up again?” He teased. “I assure you, I’m not that much of a dick.”
Hope rolled her eyes. “I never said you were… I just figured maybe you gave up and went back home or something.” She shrugged.
“Yeah… And I kinda figured you were gonna be the one standing me up this time.” Zayne replied, smiling. “Looks like we were both wrong.”
“Well, I definitely considered it.” Hope admitted. “But…”
At last, she smiled slightly. “Well, I’m here aren’t I?”
He nodded, his eyes drinking in the sight of her beautiful smile. “And you won’t regret it.” He assured her. “I promise.”
“Hey, I’ll be the judge of that.” She chuckled softly to herself.
Zayne smiled. “Fair enough.”
An awkward silence fell between them for a few moments after that. Zayne couldn’t explain it, but he suddenly felt so nervous… More nervous than he could remember feeling around a girl in years. He’d felt so calm and confident the night before, but now that she was standing here in front of him, his mind had suddenly gone blank, and he felt certain he’d sound like an idiot if he opened his mouth to speak. What the hell?! Get it together!
“So… Um… D-do you like coffee?” He spluttered awkwardly, finally breaking the silence.
“Are you kidding?” Hope smiled. “I love it!”
Zayne let out a nervous laugh, relief washing over him at her words. “Oh, good… Me too! There are days when I think I’d die without it.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if I qualify as an addict…”
“Same.” The beautiful young woman joined in his laughter. “I basically feel like a zombie until I’ve had at least two cups.”
“Perfect.” He grinned. “In that case, I know exactly where to start our tour – We’ve gotta hit up Aroma. It’s just this little hole-in-the-wall, but they’ve got the best coffee you’ll ever have… And best croissants too.” He finally felt his nerves starting to ease up a bit. “Just don’t ever tell my grandmother I said that. She’s French, and kind of a pastry snob.” Zayne laughed softly.
“Well, I’ve never been much of a croissant fan, to be honest… And I’ve even been to those fancy bakeries in Champs Les Sims!”
“Oh no… Don’t tell her that either.” Zayne teased.
“I won’t!” Hope giggled, and he felt his heart leap at the sound. “The coffee sounds great though… But I have to ask – How are their donuts? That’s the deal breaker, you know.” Her lips curled into a playful smirk.
“Well, it’s like you said, right?” He smiled. “I’ll let you be the judge.”
“Hey, I recognize this place!” Hope laughed as she followed Zayne up the winding path. “I thought you promised no tourist traps.”
“I know, I know.” He glanced over his shoulder, smiling. “But this is worth it. You’ll see.” Zayne promised her. He led her across the small clearing, finally coming to a stop near the edge of the steep cliff. “Alright… Stand right… there!” He pointed to a spot a few feet to his left.
“You didn’t warn me there’d be any cliff diving on this little tour of yours. Otherwise I would have brought my bathing suit…”The young woman smiled, glancing down over the edge for a moment. “Or a parachute.”
“Ha-ha.” Zayne just shook his head. “Just give it a minute or two. And you’ll see.” He assured her. “Trust me.”
Together, they watched as the sun began slipping below the distant horizon. And then, just like that, the sky was on fire. The light danced and sparkled over the water below them. It was breathtaking.
Zayne stole a glance in Hope’s direction, relishing in the beautiful vision of her smiling face bathed in the sunset’s orange glow. She’s perfect.
“Wow.” She whispered at last. “That’s amazing.”
“Told you.” Zayne smiled crookedly at her. “This is my favorite place in the whole city… I come here all the time.”
He nodded. “It’s just so peaceful, y’know? It’s a nice place to sit and think. And it makes me feel kinda close to my parents…This is where we spread their ashes, back when I was a kid.”
“Oh… Wow. I’m sorry.” Hope replied softly, her smile vanishing.
Zayne kicked himself mentally as soon as he realized what he’d said. Jesus! Nice one, Zayne. Bringing up your dead parents definitely won’t kill the mood or anything. He wasn’t sure why he’d said it… It just sort of slipped out.
“Sorry. That was… weird.” He shuffled his feet uncomfortably for a moment, watching the orange of the dirt below his feet give way to shadow as the sky above darkened. “Forget I said anything, okay?”
She stepped toward him, shaking her head. “Hey, I don’t mind. Seriously. But if you don’t wanna talk about it, it’s okay.”
Zayne hesitated. He rarely felt comfortable enough to talk to anyone about his parents… But there was just something about Hope that made it seem okay. She was so easy to talk to. He felt so comfortable around her. And she spent all afternoon telling me about her family… Might as well tell her about mine.
He took a deep breath before replying. “There was a fire at our house, back when I was really little. The firefighters were too late to save my parents, but they got me out in one piece… Minus this nice chunk of my face.” Zayne almost smiled for a moment as he gestured toward his scar. “So with my mom and dad gone, my aunt and grandfather were the ones who raised me.”
“I had a feeling.” Hope’s voice was very quiet. “I mean, I noticed you talked about them a lot, but you never mentioned your parents, so…” She paused. “I’m really sorry. That can’t be easy.”
Zayne shrugged. “Sometimes it’s not.” He admitted. “Birthdays and holidays really suck… But I think the hardest part is that I barely even remember them. I mean, I’ve got little pieces here and there, but I guess…” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “It’s almost like what I miss most is like… The idea of having parents, know what I mean?” There was a sudden stinging sensation in the corner of his eyes. “Like, my aunt loves me… But she’ll never love me the way a real parent could. I’ll never really know what that feels like.”
He fell silent then. Zayne had never said those words out loud before. He’d never told anyone how he felt. It was somehow both mortifying and freeing at the same time.
“I understand.” Hope replied seriously. “My aunt Hallie… Her parents died when she was little too. She never really talked about it much, but I know it wasn’t easy for her either. My grandparents love her like a daughter though. They really do. They’ve always made her feel like a member of the family.” She smiled gently at him. “She’s really lucky to have them… And from what you’ve told me about your aunt, you’re really lucky to have her too.”
Her words were so warm and sincere that Zayne couldn’t help but return her smile. “Thanks.”
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. He felt his heart skip a beat in his chest as his eyes drank in the sight of her. There was something about the way she was looking at him… Zayne wanted nothing more than to reach forward, take her in his arms, and kiss her…
But he didn’t. For all he knew, he may never see her again in his life. Hope could fly back to San Myshuno and never speak to him again. His only chance of seeing her face again would be in the pages of a magazine.
All the more reason to go for it. A small voice in the back of his mind seemed to say. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t worth the risk – he couldn’t chance messing everything up. They’d shared a perfect day together – they’d laughed at each other’s stupid jokes, they’d shared interesting stories from their childhoods, they’d commiserated about their struggling careers, they’d shared their dreams for the future, and Zayne had opened up to her in a way he never had with anyone else.
If only it didn’t have to end.
“Damn… It’s getting pretty late.” As though on cue, Hope broke the silence, looking up at him almost guiltily. “I’m sorry, but… I’ve really gotta go.” She said, biting her lip.
“Oh shit. Right. That dinner thing.” Zayne sighed. Hope had explained that the main reason she was in town was to talk with the modeling agency and plan her next career move. That evening, she had a dinner meeting with some kind of industry big-wigs… Not something she’d be able to miss, no matter how much he wanted her to. “Do you want me to walk you back to your hotel or something? Or to the restaurant?” He offered, trying to keep his tone cheerful.
Hope shook her head. “Don’t worry about me, I know the way… Thanks, though.” She smiled.
Zayne felt his heart sink. It was really time to say goodbye. “Well, I didn’t get to show you all the places I’d wanted to, but at least you got the highlights.” He paused. “And I’m sorry we didn’t get to do this years ago… But I hope it was worth the wait?”
“Definitely worth it, Mr. Worldly.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for giving me a chance.” He said seriously. “Glad I didn’t disappoint.” Zayne added with a wink.
Hope laughed brightly, shaking her head. “I’ll see you around, Zayne.”
She gave him one last smile, then turned and walked away without another word.
Zayne’s face fell as he watched her leave. They hadn’t exchanged any sort of contact information. Maybe he was right after all. Maybe he would never see her again.
It was worth it. He reminded himself. More than worth it. But could he really just let her walk away like this?
He still hadn’t made up his mind when Hope stopped dead in her tracks. She’d barely made it halfway back to the path. For a moment, she just stood there, silent and unmoving. Zayne eyed her curiously. Was everything okay?
At last, she turned around and quickly began closing the distance between them. “Know what?” She said, drawing closer to him. “I’m in Windenburg for about two more weeks… And I think I’d really love to see the rest of the tour sometime.” Zayne’s heart skipped a beat as he watched her pull her cellphone from her pocket. “So I’ll need a way to get in touch with my tour guide, won’t I?”