Artemis McKenzie was not having a good day.
She, personally, did not believe in Karma and its cycle of cause and effect. She believed that hard work paid off in the long run; she believed that, sure, life wasn't always nice and peachy. Sometimes things happened which you didn't always like… but in the end, what was there left to do but accept it and try to move on?
So she frequently told herself that God was testing her.
But today was a peculiar day, and as the day progressively worsened, she began to seriously rethink what she did and didn't believe in.
"Artemis, table two is summoning you," her co-worker and friend, Jean Thomson, said briskly as she passed by her towards the kitchen. Artemis felt her stress; she was about to throw herself over the counter dramatically if the night didn't speed up.
Frustrated, Artemis ran a hand through her hair. Brown wisps framed her face, falling out of her bun, and overall added onto her frazzled appearance. Her mug of tea was left untouched on the counter as she got to her feet and quickly fixed her ponytail – all employees had to look their best or else there would be complaints – before pivoting in the direction of said table.
Her customer-friendly smile pulled at her lips automatically. "Is everything alright…?"
"No, I'm sorry to say," the woman with her white-blonde hair said rather tautly as she practically stuck her nose in the air. Artemis vaguely thought that she didn't even look remotely apologetic. "This is supposed to be a high-class restaurant. The food is acceptable, I suppose, but the service is not." Artemis received a rather pointed look, and all she could do was stare back dumbly. "Now, would it be too hard for you to fetch us a full pitcher of iced-tea?" she said sweetly.
Artemis nodded robotically, allowing the insult to roll off her skin. The rest of her family looked unimpressed, if not a little amused, at her expense. They had the expressions that they had witnessed similar displays from the mother in the past so any embarrassment or guilt normal humans would feel for the poor, defenseless waitress dissipated with its constant recurrences.
"Anything else?" Artemis said, clenching her hands at her side.
"Yes." Her tone was disdainful. "I would like to speak to the manager."
Artemis felt a surge of anger and embarrassment, but all she could really do was clamp her lips and nod in agreement. She maintained eye contact with the woman for two more seconds before she spun on her heels and imitated the brisk pace that Jean had moments before.
She supposed? Artemis thought furiously as she tried not to stalk away. The food was delicious! Mouth-watering! Absolutely scrumptious!
And her service was excellent – well, so she mistakenly gave the plate of ribs to the blonde woman – Artemis apologized. She didn't have to look so horrified.
"Where is Terry?" Artemis asked without preamble as she neared Jean. The older girl looked up from her pad with furrowed eyebrows.
"He's at the back; why do you ask?"
"Someone wants to speak with him."
Jean followed her line of sight to the family of four. "You get all the rude ones," she said plainly. Artemis didn't deny it. With a sigh, Jean pushed herself off the bar stool. "I'll get him. You have a party of seven at tables five and six anyway."
Automatically, she craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the party…
…and this was the point where Artemis wondered what she did to deserve such unfortunate treatment.
"Oh, teenagers," Jean clucked with amusement, completely aware of the devastation on her face. "I really hate to be you right now. They look like the snooty, elitist, social-hierarchy-is-everything bunch." Jean grinned. "It reminds me why I was the way I was in high school."
Artemis grabbed a pitcher of iced-tea with a frown at Jean.
"Please get Terry before I lose all inhibition and pour this over the woman's expensive looking dress."
Jean walked away laughing.
With a sigh, Artemis masked her expression to one of polite amiability. Her ponytail swished with every step she took and she made sure not to trip on her heels in case her subconscious decided to take (vengeful) matters into its own hands.
Artemis wanted to face-palm in that moment. She was going crazy.
She placed the pitcher on their table and smiled tightly at the expectant look she received. "Mr. Coleman will be with you in a moment."
"I'm glad you are able to do something right," she said with a quick dismissive flick of her wrist. "Leave us."
Artemis felt her eyes widen, but she quickly dipped her chin and nodded curtly.
Like she said… God was clearly testing her. She straightened, inhaling sharply as she prepared herself for the stereotypes of high school. They were a glamorous collection; the males in casual but formal attire and the females in sophisticated yet revealing outfits. The sight was quite stunning, and to be honest, a little intimidating.
Weston High was especially known for its elites and social drama around the city. Of course, its academic profile was also brilliant – her only reason for attending the school, go figure – but the people in it made her wonder why she chose the prestigious school instead of the safe and perfectly normal school much closer to her house… at least, according to her friends attending there, it was normal.
The price of education, indeed.
It was rather unfortunate, then, at that moment, she knew that the senior high school students seated at tables five and six attended Weston High. It was also unfortunate that they happened to be at the top of the social hierarchy. Artemis made very little effort to know what was happening – social wise – within her school, so the fact that she even recognized their faces made her want to simultaneously roll her eyes and bang her head against the wall.
If getting a zero for her essay this morning wasn't enough of a punishment…
"Hello, welcome to Riveria – my name is Artemis, and I'll be your waitress this evening." She smiled as pleasantly as she could, compressing the preconceptions she had about the customers… despite the information she gathered while observing them the off-chance she had on school grounds.
She also believed that from what she saw, there wasn't much of a leap from 'observing' and 'knowing' these people personally, so she eased on the guilt towards herself for judging before getting to know them as a person because… well, they annoyed her – a lot.
There was a chorus of greetings as her eyes sifted over the group of seven – and before she could stop herself, she realized she just did a double take on Xavier Cohen.
And he was staring right at her.
She looked away quickly.
"Are there any drinks I can get you?" she asked, her pen poised over her pad, eyes carefully avoiding the scrutiny of his irritatingly intense gaze.
"I'll have an iced-tea," a blonde with warm brown eyes smiled. Artemis recognized her as Sadie Kenna: tall, voluptuous, and a perfect mix of her German father and Spanish mother. She was also known for being a great… bed warmer. If you caught her drift.
"Water for me, please. I'm on a diet."
Artemis couldn't help but cast a droll look in her direction. Thin as a twig – what, did she want to degrade her bones somehow too?
"Hey, don't you go to our school?" Sadie's hand was on her menu, staring at her in a rather blatant manner.
"Yes," she answered simply.
"Really?" One guy she didn't know the name of leaned forward and leered at her legs covered with tight black slacks. "Are you a junior?"
"No." She didn't cast him a glance. "Is there anything else?"
"What – you're a senior?" he laughed, as if he didn't believe her. Eyebrows rising at her silence, he tilted his head in contemplation. Artemis supposed the neurons in his brain didn't fire as often as they should – then again, there really was nothing to think about it. She hardly thought racking his brain would make him somehow recognize her.
"Is there anything else?" she repeated.
"Oh, I know you," a redhead said. "You're part of that tutoring club."
"I am," she said with a slight smile.
"That's… cool," the boy that went by the name of Brody said awkwardly after the group's pregnant pause at her admission.
"Very much so," she agreed.
A few eyebrows rose – she was actually surprised they caught onto her perfectly delivered comment – and she realized she should've played the sweet, nice waitress instead of allowing her annoyance to sink into her words. Some lost their amiable expressions.
Why was this happening to her?
"You're not very talkative, are you?" Sadie said, leaning her chin on her palm. Her eyes lost its warmth as she stared at her. Artemis wanted to chuck her pad at her huge forehead.
"Let it go, Sadie," Maya Justice said from where she was sitting next to Xavier. Artemis resisted the urge to set her jaw defiantly. She didn't need to be defended – but then again, Maya Justice was probably the only girl in the group who she remotely liked – if you even wanted to call it 'like'. It probably had to do with her (reluctant) awe at discovering Maya's score for one of their chemistry tests… which was higher (albeit by two marks) than hers.
Artemis was disgustingly shallow, she knew.
"It's okay," Artemis said with a tinkling laugh. "I'm really not. I'm sorry," she apologized to Sadie. "I'm not having a very good day."
"And we care, because…" a dark-haired male muttered under his breath as he disinterestedly flipped through the menu.
Artemis ignored his comment. It almost hurt to keep her expression so neutral and polite.
"That's all," Xavier's voice reached her ears, and her gaze landed somewhere over his head.
"Alright!" She smiled brightly. "I'll be back in a few with your drinks and to take your order."
Walking away, she didn't have to strain her ears to know they were talking about her.
Xavier had a feeling they were waiting until she was out of earshot to make their unguarded comments – then again, since when were his friends known for tact? They talk about people all the time in their presence. Amusedly, he cast a glance at the twist of Joanna's face. The redhead's expression was surly as she glared in the obvious direction Artemis McKenzie disappeared to. She was the type of person to judge and hold a grudge quickly.
The criterion to make it on her favourable list wasn't very long. Were you popular? Were you beautiful? Did you worship the ground she walked on?
If you had a two out of three, then you were safe. It was clear which category Artemis fell under… categories, he should say. If you failed to meet the first two measures, than your only hope with Joanna was to kiss the ground she walked on, and Artemis obviously had no intent on doing so.
"Who does she think she is?" Joanna practically sneered.
"Our waitress?" his friend, Sven Michaels, said with a blank look towards the redhead.
"Thank you, Sven. She was such a bitch. Did you see her face the whole time she was standing there? Like she was better than us?" Joanna laughed lightly with a roll of her eyes.
"She looked tired," Brody put in mildly with a shrug of his shoulders. "Maybe she's having an off day."
"Right. She's a waitress," Sadie Kenna giggled.
"Hey, being a waitress is hard." Mariel Mallone had her eyebrows raised challengingly. "Not everyone has the pleasure of having a rich daddy, alright? Leave the girl alone."
Sadie rolled her eyes. "Come on, Marie, even you have to admit she wasn't very nice."
"Like I said, they have to put up with customer's bullshit." She cast a very pointed look at Sadie who, in return, merely turned her head away.
"She likes to keep to herself," Maya said with a frown. "Besides, did you see those heels? I would be pissed if I had to be in them all day."
There was a tacit agreement on the comment, and the conversation steered onto a more amiable topic. He listened with one ear, allowing his gaze to roam around the new restaurant. The lights were dim, and there was a calm, relaxed atmosphere about the whole site. His parent's recommended the place, and he figured what better way to check it out than with friends?
"You're finally eighteen," Maya said, her tone strange. Xavier glanced at the girl and saw her eyeing him in her usual assessing way. The expression eventually melted and she sighed. "It's just… I feel –" She stopped herself and smiled wryly at him. Chuckling, Xavier shook his head. Maya was never one to express her thoughts eloquently. Neither was he.
"Yeah, how exciting," he said dryly. "To leave the claws of high school and enter college life. I can't wait."
"Kind of scary, don't you think?" she said, absentmindedly playing with the golden locket she had around her neck. It was a gift from her mother a few years ago, and she rarely took it off. She liked to touch it when she was nervous or edgy.
"Not really." He half-smiled when she looked up. "I mean, what's the big deal?"
Maya opened her mouth to answer – but promptly shut it closed when Artemis arrived, balancing their drinks on a black tray expertly.
"Thanks," Maya murmured as Artemis placed her glass. Xavier nodded his thanks, but he doubted she saw. She was too busy asking for their orders.
"I'll be back in a few with your orders." Artemis took the menus from the table without further ado, and promptly left their presence.
He watched Maya's eyes follow Artemis before she looked back at him. "She's smart," she said in a matter-of-fact tone, eyebrows furrowed. "It's like she doesn't even care. Sometimes I see her in class sleeping."
"You watch her too?" He smiled smugly. "I know what you mean. It's pissing me off."
"Of course it would piss you off." Her voice was dry. "You're such a closet academic."
He made an exaggerated gesture of keeping it quiet that made that smile form on her face. Xavier felt himself relax, and a familiar longing formed in his chest before he could catch himself. At the moment, he wanted nothing more than to pull Maya into his arms and kiss her until she was breathless. Everything about her was hypnotizing and sometimes he didn't even want to acknowledge what he was feeling, especially considering their circumstance. He tried not to feel too bitter; after all, it wasn't like they haven't tried talking about it. The agreement was made… but sometimes he managed to "forget".
She was hard to resist, and he knew without a doubt that she knew this.
The next few minutes involved trying to ignore the girl next to him and enthuse himself with his other friends. Xavier managed not to whip to her direction, even when he felt her hand on his thigh. She was obviously testing his patience, but he wasn't going to be the first one to break.
He did manage a little glare at her, however. Her responding smile was sweet.
"I'm bearing your morals here," he casually told Maya.
The look she gave him almost made him pull her towards his chest. "Are you really?" she said challengingly.
"…Um, the creamy chicken linguine for you," Artemis's voice made him snap his head forward. He noted all his friend's amused looks, but all he was really focused on was the way Artemis was staring at him. It made his back tense and he felt the most unfamiliar burn rising from his neck to his face.
Fuck his life. Was he seriously blushing?
"Thanks," he said shortly.
The smirk in her voice was clear. "Not a problem. Enchiladas for you," she said as she gave the last plate to Maya who smiled meekly at Artemis. Artemis stepped back, and Xavier could almost feel the pressure lift from him as she turned her face away from his general direction. She was dressed in a form fitting pair of pants and black stilettos that made him wonder how long it would be until her legs gave under. Her shirt was crisp black that hugged her trim body… and it was when his eyes travelled up her neck and to her face, when he realized he was staring blatantly.
It was silent now, and he could see Maya looking between them from the corner of his eye.
"Is there anything else?" she said politely.
He looked away. "No."
Just as his friends said, "It's his birthday!"
He shot daggers at Brody who smiled enthusiastically. Mariel was grinning at Artemis.
"Can you sing him a song?" Brody said. "I'll pay extra if it's necessary."
"Oh yeah," Sadie smiled, whipping out her cell phone. "I'll take a picture!"
"No," Xavier managed to protest whilst trying to kill off Brody's life form with his eyes. "It's fine," he said calmly. "I –"
"Nonsense," Marie dismissed. "You can do it, right Artemis?"
He found little comfort in the fact that Artemis probably looked as stricken as he was. No way in hell was he going to get some girl he hardly knew – excluding the little scenarios of his life where he was hell bent on kicking her ass in their classes or the fact that he made her nose bleed and acted like a complete asshole about it – to serenade him… so other than those two measly, hardly-accountable pieces of information about her, she was a stranger.
A stranger who probably wanted to get out of his situation as much as he did. Bonding moments certainly formed during the most awkward moments, he thought a little sullenly.
"You don't sing? I'll pay extra," Brody insisted. The gleam in his eyes made Xavier realize what he was doing.
Brody was a dead man.
"I – I –" Artemis almost looked like she was going to be sick, and maybe he felt a little sorry for her, but… well, okay, he felt nothing looking at her except for the human instinct to blame her for causing this scene. He felt people looking over.
"It's fine," he said again to the girl. "Don't worry about it."
"I'd like to speak to the manager," Brody declared with a glare to Xavier. "I'm trying to elevate the spirit of your special day and you're being an asshole about it."
The girls around the table tittered.
"Well?" Sven said, annoyance in his voice. He was looking at Artemis impatiently. "Can we speak to the manager?"
"Oh, of course," she said quickly and turned her heel. Xavier couldn't help but think this wasn't going to end well.
Artemis wanted to die. There was no question about it, except maybe how she wanted to die. Quick and painless sounded like a dream right now and – okay, she was being dramatic. She was fine. She was okay.
She was completely lying.
She felt the horrible sense of déjà vu as she approached Jean coming from her own tables. "Where's Terry?"
Her friend's eyebrows rose. "He's popular tonight," she said, a question in her words. Artemis looked over her shoulder to see the group in a seeming heated discussion. It looked more like Xavier was giving them a piece of his mind, but she didn't have the time to care.
"They want to speak to the manager."
Jean's expression slowly fell and Artemis shot her a dark look of warning. The older girl held her hands up as a sign of defence, a silly grin on her face. "You are so lucky Terry loves you."
"It's not my fault," Artemis exclaimed. "They – they want me to sing to the birthday boy."
Jean tilted her head to one side. "Well, why don't you?"
Her gaze was dull. "He's the same boy who I ran into the other day."
"Ah," Jean said. "Awkward."
"…I still think you should sing to him."
"I can't sing," Artemis said dismissively, squinting her eyes around the restaurant in case Terry wasn't in his office.
"Black haired guy in blue? Looks pissed off… good-looking too," Jean said as she peered rather shamelessly at Xavier Cohen.
"That's him," Artemis said distractedly, catching sight of Terry walking in their general direction. Artemis missed Jean's amused glance as she tried to calm her erratically beating heart. Oh God, she's never had to call Terry over for customers so many times in one night. Granted, it was only twice, but it was two times too many.
She almost felt like the little girl she was, so long ago, waiting to blurt her blunders to her mother in guilt.
She shook her head, quickly intercepting Terry. "Sir," she began, her back stiffening when the middle-aged man stopped and look at her curiously. For a while, Artemis had to remind herself to breathe. Dear lord, this was taking a toll on her health. "Tables five and six would like to… have a word with you."
His face was vaguely amused. "Is there something you want to let me know, Artemis? I haven't been… beckoned this many times from you."
Her face flamed as she followed him to said table. "I know," she said quietly. "They have a question, and asked to speak to the manager… I –" she stopped, trying not to seem like she was whining, even when she really felt the need to. It wasn't her fault. She didn't even know what she did – all she knew was that she didn't want to sing. Did the restaurant even do that?
"Hello, I'm the manager. My name is Terry." His voice was pleasant, warm even, and Artemis found herself relaxing… until she caught sight of Brody's brightened face and Xavier's murderous one. Her eyes drew together in confusion, wondering if he was really glaring at her… and she decided, yes, he was, so she narrowed her eyes back fiercely. He was seriously blaming this on her?
"It's our friend's birthday today, you see," Mariel said rather enthusiastically, her face completely mischievous. Dryly, Artemis thought at least someone was getting a kick out of her misery… not to mention Xavier. "We were just asking our waitress if she could sing for him."
"Yes, it would be quite a show. We are very willing to pay extra, but only her," Joanna said almost lazily. The curl of her lips made Artemis stiffen.
"We don't usually do this, but…" Terry glanced at her curiously, and she could feel her face just about to explode from the heat. Oh God. What was she supposed to say? It was obvious she didn't want any part of this, but would it look bad for the restaurant if she rejected these social elites? Their parents were influential in most parts of the city, and she could practically imagine the comments about her behaviour…
In her moment of desperation, she looked at Xavier Cohen. He looked as pained as she felt.
"It's okay," she heard him saying through the pounding of blood in her ears. "It's fine if she doesn't want to do it. I don't even want the attention."
She wanted to kiss his shoes – and then she realized her thoughts and immediately pulled herself together.
"It's a little too late for the attention," Terry commented dryly, and Artemis casually looked to her side and saw a few other people peering curiously in their direction.
"You're such an ass," Brody said huffily to Xavier who ignored him. Artemis added him onto her hit list. This was his entire fault.
"I would say it was the waitress's. She didn't have to make a big deal about it," Joanna said dismissively, so casually that Artemis couldn't even call her on it.
It was silent as she stared at someone's half-filled glass of iced tea.
"If that's it," Terry said evenly.
Xavier nodded. "Yes, sorry about that. Thank you for your time."
Terry nodded shortly and jerked his chin to the side to have her follow him. Once they were out of ear shot, he muttered, "People like them remind me why I hated high school."
Artemis couldn't help but laugh, her tense muscles relaxing, and the nervousness in her chest disappearing at Terry's comment.
With a wide grin, she turned to her boss. "Jean said the same thing."
It was Karma. That's what it was. There was no other explanation – other than maybe she had been secretly planning this all along and timed the moment to perfection – but even to Xavier that sounded ludicrous.
A hushed silence fell upon the restaurant, and he could practically feel all eyes burning through his body. His muscles were tense underneath his stained clothes, and he had to remind himself to keep breathing. The back of his head was beginning to ache, not to mention the pain in his neck…
Xavier Cohen was not having a good day.
Which was rather unfortunate… to put it in mild terms; after all, it was his birthday. So maybe he was a little more self-absorbed and egocentric on this particular day – but he had the right to be. But he always wanted the attention on him in an adoring and worshipping sense – not 'I'm staring at you because you have four plates of food stuck to your body, and oh shit, that sucks for you' kind of way.
Slowly, he looked down at the broken plates and delicious looking food scattered on the floor that didn't make it on his chest. Then he looked at her.
Sure enough, it was Artemis McKenzie in all her beet red glory. She reminded Xavier of a pig.
"Oh, shit," she muttered.
In the distance he heard the howling laughter of his friends. Muffled sniggers swept throughout the restaurant.
Oh, shit, indeed.
Their stare seemed to last for an eternity, when he knew realistically it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Her hair was falling out of her ponytail, and her own clothes were splattered with the remnants of food she managed to stick onto her when she collided with him – after dropping all her tray's contents on him, that is. She no longer sported the vague, haughty look on her face, and instead in its place, was an expression of embarrassment, shame and humiliation.
Good. She deserved it.
"I – I –" Actually, she looked like she wanted to die. Curiously, he watched her turn a darker shade of red. "I'm so sorry, sir," she said. "I –" and she stopped, probably because he wasn't talking, to look at him with wide, fearful eyes.
He continued to stare.
A moment later, she wiped her forehead with her arm.
"What's going –" A girl who looked a few years older than them stepped onto the scene. Her eyes widened appropriately before her face smoothed over. "Artemis, how about you help this gentleman clean up? I'll take care of this."
Said girl automatically nodded and mutely led the way. Xavier was too tired, annoyed and pissed off to argue so he followed her.
She led him to the back, the staff's washroom, where he wasn't surprised to see it was as lavishly decorated as the rest of the restaurant. She pulled out her card to open the door and held it open for him, her face down and clearly avoiding his gaze. He could only imagine what his expression was at the moment.
And then he glanced at the mirror and saw. He looked murderous, and rightly so, of course, so she didn't have to look like he kicked her puppy.
The door shut, and he suddenly found himself bombarded by incoherent apologies. He gazed on blankly, managing to catch, "I'm sorry," at least five times, and "I couldn't step away on time," and let's not forget the ever so apologetic, "and next time watch where you're going!"
That set him off.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he snapped. "It isn't my fault that the waitresses here are ungraceful idiots who don't bother to watch where they're going! And in case you missed my point, I was talking about you."
She looked stricken before her own pissed off expression slipped into place. "For your information, I was watching where I was going, but you happened to be making sex eyes at Maya, and it isn't exactly a piece of cake to suddenly side step some moron the last minute with a heavy tray filled with food!" She was yelling, her face an unattractive shade of red with sweat and some orange looking sauce on her skin that finalized the moment… and subsequently made Xavier wince.
For a while they glared daggers at each other. The blood was pumping in his ears, and his headache was intensifying. It was obvious he was getting punished for treating her like a jackass the day she ran into him. But obviously little facts like that were overlooked, and in the end, it was his fault. Again.
"This is just great," he said, his words saturated with annoyance. Tearing his eyes from her shit-coloured brown eyes (he now had the right to act like an asshole, so therefore he felt no guilt for his thoughts), he yanked off his shirt.
Her annoying yelp was heard. "What are you doing?"
"Cleaning up. Obviously." He didn't bother to grace her with an irritated glare. He just wanted to get out of here.
She didn't reply, but he heard shuffling as he stuck his shirt underneath the running water as he rubbed hand soap onto the stains.
He looked up and saw her sticking out a pile of hand towels. He took them without a word.
He practically sensed the hesitation radiating off her. After patting his chest and face dry with the towels, he squeezed the water from his shirt and made his way to the hand dryer.
He glanced at her disinterestedly. "You can leave now."
She was standing there with her crusted hair falling out of her ponytail, her face repulsive with the drying sauce and the sheen of sweat… her clothes were ruffled, and to be honest, she looked completely haggard. She looked horrible.
"You look like shit," he said bluntly, expecting her to spit fire and retort with a vengeance. He didn't exactly care much for Artemis McKenzie, not so much because he didn't know her, but the fact that he knew her and he… just didn't care. Communicating with her tonight confirmed his suspicions that she was a judgemental bitch who automatically assumed he was an idiot for being rich and playing sports. Why would he care, let alone watch his words around her?
He held tightly onto that thought, but looking at up the unexpected silence, he felt an unfamiliar twinge in his chest at the look on her face.
With wide eyes, he watched her smile slightly, her gaze trained somewhere over his head.
"I'm sorry again," she said, quietly this time with sincerity in her words that practically knocked the wind out of him. He gaped. "Consider your entire bill taken care of." She pivoted towards the door, but right before she was out of the room she turned her head to look at him straight in the eye with a genuinely apologetic smile. "Happy birthday, Xavier."
He was left in silence. She knew his name? His mind raced as a hollow heavy feeling settled in his chest that made him wince. Running a hand through his hair, he realized his guilt and his annoyance doubled.
This day was just bloody brilliant.