The scent of smoke – part 13

Shouting, crying, accusations and apologies – she had seen it in movies and TV shows a hundred times already and each time Jazz had known exactly how she would react if she was in the main characters shoes. But now, on her socks, she was speechless, clueless. Numb.

They didn’t talk on their way to the living room where Jazz chose an armchair instead of her usual spot on the couch. She curled up on it, pulled her knees close to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.

“Are you ready to let me explain now?”

She avoided his gaze, just rested her chin on her knees and hummed. “Can I even be ready for this conversation?”

Subaru took a seat across from her, ran his hands through his hair and exhaled deeply. “Yeah, probably not. Believe me, I’d prefer not to have this talk either.”

“Ha!” Jazz barked, bit her tongue before she could launch into a rant.

“I mean it. This – I didn’t plan it, you know? I never wanted to hurt you. Don’t want that now either.”

As long as she didn’t look at him she could keep her emotions at bay; only when she noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the stubble on his face she had to fight the tears. Which wouldn’t solve anything, so she blinked a few times and took a deep breath instead of sobbing.

“Go on, explain everything. Give me the nice, rational report you probably prepared. The one to get you off the hook.”

She had found out that anger was easier to deal with than heartbreak, masked her pain with snark.

“This is not about me getting off the hook,” he hissed back, fingers curled to fists in his lap. “I owe you an explanation and an apology. I – made a mistake.” He bowed his head, stayed like this while Jazz counted her heartbeats. Ten, eleven, twelve. When he lifted his gaze she was staring at him, unblinking and silent.

“We had split up, I stayed with Mrs. Fukuhara. She had gotten a few anonymous letters the weeks before, just like her husband.”

Despite his attempts to explain Jazz didn’t react, just held his gaze and kept her mouth shut.

“Mitzuki and Takamura accompanied Fukuhara-san. And suddenly I got a call, saying there was an incident. Mrs. Fukuhara basically went berserk, threatened to knock me out if I wouldn’t let her go to her husband.” His chuckle faded in the empty space dividing them, barely reached her ears and got drowned out by her thoughts. Jazz bit her lip, it trembled between her teeth. She increased the pressure until the pain and coppery taste occupied the part of her that had focused on the betrayal.

“It was pure chaos. When we got there, Fukuhara-san was safe, his wife cried in shock and relief and Mizuki was -” His voice broke and Subaru cleared his throat, sat up straighter again.

“Takamura was in shock, too. All of us were, but we managed to take care of the necessary steps. As the team leader I should have been there, should have protected my team.” He ran his hands through his hair and jumped up, pacing the small patch between couch and coffee table up and down.

Jazz stayed where she was, only her eyes followed the tracks Subaru took. Her fingers were cold, numb, and rested in her lap like a prop, pretty to look at but lacking substance. Her whole body was a prop, a mannequin, hollow and unfeeling.

“If I – nothing of this would have happened…” He fell into the cushions of the couch heavily, sending some fluffs flying.

Jazz made a mental note to vacuum the furniture next time she was cleaning. Maybe she could rent one of those fancy vacuum cleaners that could also wash the fabric. And while she was at it, she could also clean their mattresses because-

A quick shake of her head got rid of this train of thought. She sat up straighter, but kept her distance from Subaru.

“Listen, a few days ago I would have been thrilled if you had opened up about your issues and I do know it’s deeply linked to the whole-” She swallowed thickly, but forced the next few words out before she lost courage, “- attack and Mitzuki’s death. And while I’m shocked and grieving for him, I have to be selfish here and bring you back from your trip to Selfblameville for a mission gone wrong and to the elephant in the room: you slept with another woman and while I don’t really want to know the details, I kinda need to know them or my mind will keep coming up with all these horrible images I can’t shake and I will never, ever sleep again.” Her voice was shaking just like her hands, she gripped them tightly, knuckles already white. If she just broke a finger now, would that pain mask the heartbreak? Some more pressure made her knuckles crack.

“Should I – should I just give you a report? Just the facts?” Subaru swallowed, his voice was hoarse already.

“Facts, yes. Not too many details, though.” Her voice sounded just as hollow to her own ears as her heart felt.

“We took Mizuki to a hospital. At some point they sent us back to our hotel rooms; Katsuragi had called and given us new orders, too. Backup came to take care of Fukuhara and his wife. Takamura was – she was very calm. Until I dropped her off at her room; she broke down in tears there. I just wanted to comfort her and – I don’t even know how it happened. We just lost control.”

Just lost control.

“Control?” Jazz inhaled sharply, held her breath for a moment before she exhaled again. “You make it sound as if only your ‘control’ prevents you from jumping any woman in sight. Is that it? It’s so hard not to cheat on me that once you don’t pay attention, you find yourself balls deep in someone else?”

“Don’t be so vulgar!” From desperate to admonishing in a split second. New record. “I’m trying to be civil here.”

“You are trying to save your ass here,” Jazz objected. Anger warmed her and chased away the chills she had earlier.

“I’m not! I’m taking responsibility for a mistake I made.”

Just one more word of her, one more time of talking back – Jazz shook her head. Escalating wouldn’t solve the problem, so she closed her eyes and counted to three.

“Were you drunk?”

He shook his head no, hiding his face in his hands.

“But when you called me – you called me after it happened, right? I mean, you didn’t sleep with her after talking to me, did you?” Somehow this would make it even worse for her, would deepen the betrayal.

“After I – after I realized what I had done I went to a bar. I called you when I came back to my hotel room and I wanted to tell you everything right away but you sounded so shaken but glad I was okay and I – I felt horrible. Like the worst person ever.” He sighed and raised his head only to rest it against the couch, still avoiding meeting her gaze.

“Because you are,” she dryly pointed out. “Well, maybe some of the fanatic mass murderers and historic leaders were worse, but adulterers are definitely runner-ups.”

He stared at her, eyebrows slowly rising as his eyes widened. “Was that a joke?”

Was it? It sounded like one, even to Jazz.

“Maybe,” she replied, arms crossed in front of her and her chin jutted out defiantly. “Anyway, at that time I actually WAS glad and relieved, for some horrible hours I thought you might be the one gotten hit during the attack. I thought I had lost you, Subaru, but you came back and I was so grateful only to find out that I indeed lost you that night. For a different reason, though.”

“But you haven’t lost me! I’m here, I want to fix this! I love you and I just want us to be together again. I promise you, I will never again make such a mistake-”

“Damn sure you won’t,” she interrupted his passionate declaration before he could go down on his knees in front of her; he was halfway off the couch already.

“I won’t. It was a crazy situation and I handled it abysmally poorly.”

“And your job will keep throwing you into crazy situations. Back when we got married you vowed to be faithful, that I would be the only woman for you now. Looks like you lied; why should I believe you now?”

That was the crux; the question she had avoided all the time. Could she even believe him, trust him again?

“Jazz.” He sighed, slumped into the couch some more. “I really have no idea what to say. I know I can’t just apologize and it’s all fixed again. But if you let me, I will spend the rest of my life proving to you that you are the only one I love, the one I want to be with. I meant what I said at our wedding; I want to cherish you and honor you and spend my life with you in it. Please, please let me prove to you that I’m sincere.”

Jazz exhaled, all the anger and tension, the pain chipped away little pieces of her heart and her energy. Sleep sounded so tempting, just going to sleep and once she woke up she could deal with all this. Maybe she could sleep until Subaru made the decision to leave.

“I’m tired,” she mumbled and closed her eyes. “I’m tired of crying, I’m tired of hating you.” Tired of feeling.

“What – what does that mean?” Confusion and hope shone from his eyes as she looked at him again.

“I don’t know. For tonight it means you can stay here. For the future?” She shrugged and got up, stumbled towards the bedroom door. “One more question,” she added with her hand on the handle already, eyes on the white surface of the door. “Are you still working with her?”

He shifted on the couch, she could hear the springs creaking lightly.

“I try to avoid her. We both know we messed this up and she – we both feel guilty.”

Jazz hummed and leaned her forehead against the cool wood in front of her. “I can still smell her cigarettes on you. It’s making me sick.” With this last piece of information Jazz fled into the safety of her bedroom. Tonight, though, she didn’t lock the door.

The scent of smoke – Part 12

There was no grace period when Jazz woke up the next morning, no blissful temporary amnesia. She opened her eyes, found herself in her own bed, under her own blanket, without the man she had married.

The thought of calling in sick at work was tempting – Liana would surely understand after Jazz’s impressive display of being unwell the day before – but staying at home had lost its allure. She trudged into her bathroom; a long hot shower later she walked back out and got dressed. Routine had its perks, for example the lack of cognitive activity needed for it. Doing her makeup and hair took just enough time so she had to rush out without breakfast. She could get something on the way to the office, a coffee and maybe a sandwich. The migraine had vanished, just a dull pressure had settled in the back of her head, made its home there. For now she could ignore it, for later she might get painkillers. If only everything was so easily fixed.

On her tiptoes she sneaked to the apartment door; if Subaru was still at home he had made no sound so far, but better safe than sorry.

The weather didn’t match her heartbreak; blue skies, the sun was shining and the air was clean enough to see the skyline in the distance.

After the successful award event more work piled up on her desk so Jazz dove right in, ignored her personal phone in favor of answering the calls of potential clients and making orders for future events. When Liana came in to greet her Jazz had already diminished her to-do list by a couple of items.

“Hey, are you feeling better today?” She took a seat in front of Jazz’s desk, satisfied when her inspection showed no dark circles under Jazz’s eyes anymore.

“I slept a lot and now I’m ready to tackle this pile. And I’m really sorry for yesterday; this migraine came out of nowhere.” Jazz shuddered at the memory; she would never be able to set a foot into that store again.

“All’s well that ends well. Miss Osmond has a wonderful dress now, you had some sleep and I have a date tonight.”

This got Jazz’s attention, she leaned back in her chair and grinned.

“Is that so? Things are getting serious, huh? Good for you.”

“Hush, you are one to talk. Your husband came to pick you up yesterday because you weren’t well. That’s the level of intimacy and care I aspire.”

Jazz’s pen hit the desk, clattered and rolled down on the floor.

“You okay?” Liana’s brow furrowed but Jazz quickly picked her pen up and smiled.

“Yeah, sorry. Too much coffee. So are you going out for dinner?” Distraction, evasion, deflection – the holy trinity for people to change a topic and Jazz played all of them like finely tuned instruments.

“No, he’s coming over for dinner. I’m going to cook something and we are watching a movie afterwards.” A light blush stained Liana’s cheeks, she picked at the hem of her skirt and smoothed it down again.

“In that case, make sure you get out of the office in time. I bet it’s difficult enough to date someone who’s basically on call 24/7.” Seeing Liana happy like this cut deeply into Jazz’s wounded heart. She put on a brave mask and dropped her gaze on the papers in front of her again.

“Isn’t it the same with you and Ichiyanagi-san?” Liana got up, her fingertips brushed over the surface of the desk.

“I guess. And that’s how I know it can be difficult, so make the most of the time you have with Captain Ishigami.” Jazz found a typo in a proposal, marked it in bright red and kept reading.

“Maybe we should form a support group. ‘Dating a cop 101’ with you, Miho and me,” Liana joked and waved before she left.

Jazz stared at her phone. She could call Miho; her friend often held good advise when Jazz hit a wall. Only this time… Miho would kill Subaru. Maybe not literally, but she would not hold back her anger and disappointment. If Jazz wanted him humiliated and shunned in their social circle, this was the way to go. But as long as she hadn’t decided what to do, whether to fight for her marriage or give up, she couldn’t tell Miho. The risk of getting swept away by Miho’s temper scared her; if this marriage failed she didn’t want to blame herself for not trying everything in her might. For now, she would keep it a secret. With a sigh she returned to her paperwork, stared at the words until they blurred before her eyes.

 

Liana had long gone home when Jazz stepped out of the office building and closed her coat. Despite the sun all day temperatures dropped in the evening; typical late summer weather with chilly nights and mild days. Her gaze fixed on the pavement in front of her Jazz trudged towards the train station. She could get dinner on the way, something simple. Or maybe something fancy, a pick-me-up of sorts. Soul food. She craved the food of her home country, not the Japanese cuisine which only reminded her that she was still a guest here, a visitor. Would she be even able to stay once her marriage was over? Another thing she had to research; another point on her list to consider.

Back home she found the door locked and lights turned off; Subaru was not in the apartment, but there was a note and a pink rose waiting for Jazz. The note said: ‘Please allow me to explain tonight.’

She took it together with the rose into the kitchen, crammed both into Subaru’s ridiculously overpriced blender he had bragged about for months, and gave it a few spins. Childish, yes, spiteful even, but it made her lips curl up in the first genuine smile for two days.

With a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea she snuggled up on the couch, flipped through the channels until she was tired enough to go to bed. She didn’t even clean her dishes away, just locked the bedroom door and crawled into bed.

Later that night there was a series of soft knocks at the door but she refused to acknowledge them, just stared at the ceiling in the darkness until Subaru’s footsteps faded away in direction of the living room.

She kept the pattern up for another three days, sneaked out in the morning and locked herself into the bedroom at night. Subaru was still blocked on her phone and she threw out every note he left for her without ever replying. She was angry, hurt and confused and she showed him in every possible way without actually talking to him.

Whenever she thought of him, caught glimpses of mementos, whenever someone mentioned her husband her emotions boiled up until she felt sick.

 

“God, it’s been ages since we had a decent dinner together.” Miho browsed through the menu while Jazz stared at the same page for minutes.

“You want a starter? Or we could just order a bunch of dishes and split. Like a buffet.”

In contrast to Miho’s chatter Jazz only hummed; she lacked appetite the last few days. Eating wasn’t fun anymore, just a way to get energy.

“Are you still mad because I had no time the last few days?” Miho let the menu sink and frowned, waved for a waiter when Jazz stayed silent. She ordered several starters and a few main dishes, another drink and one for Jazz. Once the waiter nodded and left she turned her attention back to her friend.

“Subaru is the same at the moment. As if I’m keen on working with him.”

Jazz blinked, a crease between her eyebrows appeared as confusion furrowed her brows.

“You are working with him?”

“Yeah. Didn’t he tell you? I swear, he only does that to annoy me.” The dynamic between Miho and Subaru left lots of room for jabs and quips, but also for pranks and intentional neglect when it came to conveying messages to Jazz. “Turned out the attack on his golden boy had been executed with a gun from our target. Katsuragi thinks it’s a good idea to strengthen bonds between the departments and Ishigami agreed.”

Their drinks arrived and Miho took a sip, sighed in contentment and propped up her arms on the table as she leaned towards Jazz.

“So, what’s new in your life?”

Too many words rushed though Jazz’s head, got in the way of each other so she ended up shrugging.

“Work is crazy. The award show got really great reviews and now I’m swamped.”

“Oh yeah, I bet. Hey, was your stalker guy there, too?” The ice in her glass clinked as Miho swirled her drink.

“He’s not a stalker, I’m not a stalker, and yes, he had been there. Won first prize. Danced with me. Afterwards I made sure the event came to a good ending and went home – unstalked.”

The feeling of having forgotten something crept up on her, Jazz washed it down with a swig of her cocktail.

“Wait, wait, wait. Danced with you? How many times does this make? You dance awfully often with a guy who’s not your stalker but keeps running into you.” The more she drank, the louder Miho got.

“Can’t help it, you know I love to dance and he’s a great dancer. And he’s good at respecting my boundaries. Hasn’t even asked for my name yet, even less for anything more.” Another swig and Jazz’s glass was almost empty.

“Booooring.” At the arrival of their food Miho perked up, waited until the waiter was gone before she rearranged plates and bowls on the table.

“You are aware I’m still married,” Jazz pointed out. The food smelled incredible, its aroma wasted on her as she felt her throat tighten at the thought of eating.

“I am, your husband is sulking in my office all day long after all. I guess I’m seeing more of him than you do at the moment.” With nimble chopsticks Miho snatched bites here and there. “The good thing is, now I have someone for the grunt work. We are going to raid a ship soon, so there’s plenty of paperwork.”

The alcohol seeped into Jazz’s mind, muffled noises and pain. She nodded mechanically, zoned in and out of the conversation just enough so Miho didn’t get suspicious. At the end of the meal she had barely eaten.

“You wanna take the leftovers back home for Ichiyanagi?” Miho asked as they split the bill.

“No, bring them back for Goto. Tell him I said ‘hi’ and thanks for talking to Subaru.” Not that it had helped, but no one could have known.

“Hey, are you okay?”

Jazz focused on Miho and smiled. “Yeah, just – really, really tired. I feel like sleeping for a week straight.”

“Work, huh? Yeah, after this case I need a break, too. Maybe a long weekend somewhere. An onsen sounds good. Hey, about we go on a couples’ retreat? You, Ichiyanagi, Seiji and I?” With the paper bag filled with leftovers in her hand Miho marched towards the street, her free hand raised to hail a cab.

“So the guys can do whatever guys do while you and I get massages?” Jazz barked a laughter; they had done that once or twice. Fun times.

“If Ichiyanagi wasn’t so uptight I would be fine with you and I giving each other massages. But his level of jealousy is epic and I don’t want to ruin another vacation by having to listen to him ‘reminding you whom you belong to’.”

“It’s not as if you and Goto were exactly discreet,” Jazz grumbled, her stomach churning at the memory of that night, of Subaru all possessive and insatiable. Just because the barkeeper had flirted with her.

“True.” Miho opened the door and slid into the backseat of the cab, waited for Jazz to follow her before she told the driver the first address. “Hey, do you want to have dinner one of these days?”

“We just had dinner.” Jazz slumped into the cushions of the backseat, curled up so she could rest her head against the window. Tokyo at night was bright and lively, rushed past them fast enough for Jazz to get dizzy.

“I mean with the boys.”

The glass cooled Jazz’s forehead, fogged under her breath.

“Maybe once your case is solved. You don’t want to work with Subaru and also spend time with him afterwards.”

If even Miho couldn’t tell something was wrong, Jazz did a good job at acting normal. Whatever that was.

Sneaking around, avoiding the same person he couldn’t wait to see only a few days ago. Emptying her mind to not think about him, about them. This was her new normal. This was her life now.

Light spilled from the windows into the night; Jazz braced herself. Either to dash into the bedroom or to confront Subaru – both options were terrifying. She couldn’t keep this up forever, but wasn’t ready to face him yet.

“I could just leave,” she whispered, fingertips resting against the door. “Turn around and never come back.” To go back to her family, start a new life there. Europe was just a flight away.

Her keys jingled as she unlocked the door, pushed it open and stepped inside.

“I’m home,” she mumbled as she slipped out of her shoes. Subaru leaned against the doorframe to the living room, arms crossed in front of his chest.

“Welcome back.”

The Scent of Smoke – Part 11

Time stood still. Until the clock’s numbers changed to 2:22 and Jazz inhaled deeply.

“Oh.” She pulled her hands back, his grip slackened further when she distanced herself. Wiped her hands on her nightgown.

“I’m so sorry, it wasn’t planned, it just-”

His stream of words were cut off by her raised hand. Jazz got up, like a mechanical doll she moved through the bedroom.

“I need – time to think.”

“Jazz, don’t go now. Let me explain.” Slumped on the bed he watched her shake her head softly. In her nightgown she only grabbed a coat and her purse, closed the door behind her.

Only in the cab that took her to a hotel nearby she noticed that she was still wearing slippers.

 

A few hours later Jazz sat at her desk again, dressed in her emergency dress and some cheap heels she had bought on her way to work. Japanese people were too polite to point out someone was going out in sleepwear. Besides, Jazz had other problems. She had blocked Subaru’s number on her phone, had told everyone in the office to tell him she wasn’t in if he called. Excused it with a surprise she was planning for him.

Her autopilot worked well enough to get some tasks done. Easy ones, like sending bills and comparing offers.

“Good morning!” Liana’s smile slipped when she looked at Jazz, still in the doorway of her office. “Are you sick?”

“No, just had a rough night.” And no makeup to cover the dark circles under her eyes.

“Should I go and get us some coffee? Cooling gel for your eyes? Concealer?”

“You spend too much time with Miho. You start sounding like her.”

Liana rummaged in her bag, just shrugged off Jazz’s quip and let out a triumphant ‘A-ha’ when she found a small tube.

“Might not be your color, but neither is what you’re sporting today. So, about that coffee…”

“Yes to coffee, thanks. And afterwards I want to hole up in my office.” For the rest of the day. For the rest of her life.

“You mean until noon?” Liana asked and checked her phone.

“Noon?”

“The appointment in the bridal store with Miss Osmond? We agreed on it weeks ago.”

Jazz’s eyes flitted to her planner. There it was, black ink on paper, in her own messy handwriting.

“Shit.” Jazz dropped her head on the desk, the cool wood hit her forehead with just enough force to leave a reddening spot. She sat up again, ran her hands over her face.

“Okay, yeah. I forgot about it, but no problem. Coffee first, afterwards I have to make some calls. At at noon we will meet Miss Osmond and will pick out her dress. Great. Yeah.”

“You are rambling, you know that?” Under Liana’s scrutiny Jazz calmed down, forced the restless energy back. The need to move, to stay occupied so she didn’t have to think.

“Sorry. I had a crazy night.”

“Did you drink?”

Her eyes were still red and with the sloppily styled hair, only a hint of make-up, she was surprised no one had asked sooner.

“I wish I had. But no, I was just – I didn’t sleep much. Migraine.” She made a face and rubbed her temples; it wasn’t even a lie. Her head felt as if her skull would burst any second now, thumbing in time with her heartbeat.

“Give me half an hour and I will look more human again.” If she could keep herself from crying for so long. Jazz closed her eyes, took a long breath. When she opened her eyes again she smiled. ”But coffee first. I go and get us some of the good stuff.”

She grabbed her purse, rushed out of the office and down the stairs. Kept moving. Standing still meant she had time to think and thinking led to wondering, to fretting. To crying.

On her way to the coffee shop she picked up some make-up, even considered getting some booze but scrapped the idea again. It was only 10 am, not the time to drink now. Subaru had taken too much from her already, she wouldn’t let him ruin her professionalism.

Caffeine helped and so did company. In front of Liana Jazz put on her polite smile and her work personality which left no room for insecurity and brooding.

Eyedrops, concealer and mascara did a good job in covering the effects of last night and when their appointment came around Jazz greeted Miss Osmond – “Please, call me Coline” – with a smile and heartfelt congratulations.

“This is not the biggest store for wedding apparel, but the best if you ask me. From traditional kimonos to princess bridal gowns you can get everything you want here.” A shop assistant was waiting for them, another round of greetings and congratulations later they browsed the shop on their own for a first impression.

“I always dreamed of a classical bridal gown. A huge puffy skirt and a tight lace up bodice. It’s still a dream from when I was a kid” Coline laughed, ran her fingertips over the beaded embroidery on a cream colored dress. “Not sure if that’s the best look for me, though.” She was slim, didn’t have that many curves to show off.

“A traditional kimono would look fantastic on you, but I imagine that a more fitted bridal gown would also be lovely.” Jazz pulled an off-white strapless lace gown from a rack, looked at it from all sides. “A nice belt, a veil, a pair of heels and your groom won’t know what hit him.”

“What kind of dress did you wear for your wedding?” Coline asked and nodded towards the dress. “I’ll try this.”

With a tight smile Jazz handed the dress over; a sales assistant took it to the changing rooms.

“I had a classical A-line gown. A bit of beading at the bodice, a couple of layers of chiffon over thick satin. Not too poofy, rather fitted with a flared skirt. If you can get a lace-up bodice, just in case your weight fluctuates a bit before the wedding. I had no train, I wanted it to be easy to dance in.” She swallowed thickly. “Sorry, I need a sip of water. The air’s so dry in here.” The pounding of her head increased with every minute and she had no painkillers in her purse. Rookie mistake.

“How about a glass of champagne?” the helpful sales assistant asked and rushed off after Coline nodded enthusiastically. The champagne was too tart, almost sharp to Jazz’s palate so she set her glass down after and conveniently forgot about it while the bride kept fretting over the countless options.

Liana stayed in the background mostly, it was her first dress shopping appointment and she watched and learned. Not that there was much to learn, the taste of the bride was the decisive factor in the end. A good wedding planner had just to make sure the bride stayed focused and on track, didn’t get lost in the sea of bling and ruffles. So Jazz steered Coline back to the dresses whenever she strayed and stared at shoes or accessories. After they had picked out six different dresses Coline vanished in the changing room, her chatter and laughter still audible outside where Jazz and Liana sat on a couch and waited for the fashion show.

“You are looking a bit better already.”

Jazz shrugged, forced her smile to stay light. “It’s like a hangover, only without drinking first. Distraction helps, as does the coffee. And hey, what could be better to cheer a girl up than a shopping trip?”

Shoes and dresses, a trusty combination to brighten her mood, only this time they failed to excite her. There was no running from what she had to accept, not even in brand new strappy heels.

“Yeah, great shopping trip.” Liana sighed and let her gaze wander over the rows and rows of wedding dresses. “A bride, a married woman and a divorced one go into a bridal salon… sounds like the beginning of a joke.”

“And not a funny one,” Jazz agreed.

The curtain moved, and in a vision of lace and organza Coline swaned out of the changing room.

“Now that’s a great start.” Nonetheless Jazz got up, draped a part of the skirt around the beaming bride and stepped back again.

“First of all, how do you feel?”

After a tiny shimmy Coline cocked her head to the side, exhaled deeply.

“It’s beautiful, but heavy. Like, dragging me down. Too many layers for me.”

A princess gown, a huge skirt with a fitted bodice, was the perfect dress to start with; from there the bride could see if she wanted more, up to a majestic Cinderella dress, or less.

“What about the color? Pure white or a bit of a darker shade?”

“As long as it’s not pink I can imagine a bit of color. But definitely less – of all of this.” Ruffles rustled when Coline picked up the skirt a few inches and let it drop again. “Oh, but a train would be nice. Not too much, just something extra.”

“How about that mermaid dress we found earlier?” Liana suggested. “The one with the rose embroidery.”

“Sure.” After a last glance into the huge mirror Coline disappeared behind the curtain, left Jazz and Liana to evaluate the first dress.

“She’s drowning in it.” Jazz plopped down on the couch, tipped her head back and rested it against the wall. “With such a small frame she needs something delicate. Light and classy.”

“Silk?”

“Silk. One single layer of lining max. Did we choose something like that?”

“We did. Let her try it after the mermaid one.” Liana checked her notes and nodded. “Should I go and look for some more simple dresses?”

Jazz hummed, eyes closed. The light and the sea of white dresses hurt her eyes, stabbed directly into her brain.

“Try to find one with sleeves. I think we don’t have a sleeved one.” Her brows were knitted tightly together, she breathed against a wave of dizziness.

“Jazz? You don’t look too well…” Liana’s voice traveled to her like through water. Jazz opened her eyes just in time to see Coline dance out of the changing room, small steps taking her closer to the small pedestal in front of the mirror.

“So much better,” she beamed, turned here and there before she stopped and watched her reflection. “What do you say?”

It was a mistake to sit up. The headache, the lack of sleep and the dizzy spell teamed up to drag Jazz down into an abyss of utter embarrassment. The bit of coffee she had for breakfast – and any other meal this day – churned in her stomach. She only managed to cover her mouth with a hand in time to jump up and flee towards the restrooms; throwing up in a bridal store was an expensive act, and one to kill a career.

“Okay, I guess she didn’t like it,” Coline mumbled, looked at Liana for clarification and maybe a feedback.

“I don’t think it’s the dress.” Liana stared in the direction Jazz had vanished to. “I am so sorry, but Miss Mann wasn’t feeling well all day already. Must be-” She searched for a good excuse, but came up empty handed and finished her sentence with a helpless shrug.

“Morning sickness?” Coline asked, sympathy in her eyes and voice. “My cousin was suffering greatly under hers.”

“I really can’t say.” With apologetic tilt of her head Liana turned back to face the bride-to-be. “But this dress looks lovely on you. Not the perfect one yet, though. How about you try the silk one next? A simple cut, no ruffles and frills; a clean silhouette. It makes the bride shine more on her own.” She ushered Coline back into the dressing room before she rushed after Jazz.

“I’m okay.” Her head rested against the tiled wall, her eyes were closed when Liana found her. “I just wish I could die right now. There’s no way I can go back in there.”

“Miss Osmond is actually rather understanding. You just have to pretend you’re pregnant.” Liana’s brow furrowed, she sat down next to Jazz. “It would be pretend, wouldn’t it?”

“Oh god, not you, too! Miho said something along those lines the other day and I already told her, no, I’m not pregnant.” ‘At least not as far as I know,’ flashed through her mind. That would be the icing on the cake, a baby with the husband who had cheated on her. A baby.

“Help me up, please. I need a sip of water and a peppermint.”

A month ago, maybe, or even a week her only concern would have been to prevent gossip, but now a new worry hit her hard enough to stumble on the way to the sink. What if not she was pregnant? What if Subaru had knocked the other woman up? Did they use protection? Did he sleep with Jazz after sleeping with her? Should she get tested for an STD? All the questions she had banned before assaulted her now, in the tiny restroom, bounced off the walls of her mind like an echo bounced off the tiles.

“Jazz?”

“Hm? Oh yeah, I’m much better, don’t worry.” The mirror showed her a less optimistic picture. Her glassy eyes were rimmed with smudged mascara; throwing up always left her looking like a mess. A few wipes with wet tissue replaced the black with red; it would fade with time.

“Okay, let’s make sure our client gets the perfect dress and afterwards I’m calling it a day.”  For the sake of the appointment Jazz forced herself to smile, apologized to Coline and the sales assistant. Asked them to keep it a secret from her bosses and made it sound as if she really was expecting without ever saying the words ‘pregnant’ or ‘baby’. She couldn’t afford rumours.

Solidarity between women was a blessing; in exchange Jazz didn’t rest until Coline stepped out of the changing room with a blinding smile and sparkling eyes.

“See? With such a simple dress it’s the bride that shines, not the designer or the bling on the robe.” Liana, visibly satisfied with the result of her latest search, nodded. “A veil?”

“No,” Coline objected, stared at her reflection. “This dress is perfect as it is.” Flowing silk, the top covered with delicate lace that formed sleeves down to her wrists and tapered out around her hips.

“Maybe some headband?” Jazz suggested, smiled at the sales assistant who fetched a small selection.

“Something floral and light.” She picked one with silver wires, small beads and flowers woven in created the illusion of a branch from a fairy tree. In contrast to Coline’s dark curls it shone in her hair, caught the light in the store and reflected it.

“That’s it,” Jazz concluded. “That’s your dress.”

“That’s my dress.” Light fingertips brushed over the fabric, smoothed it down until Coline was satisfied. “It has to get shortened a bit, but the train is exactly what I want.”

“Shoes and a purse and you’re good to go,” Liana agreed.

It took them some convincing for Coline to change back into her clothes and leave the dress behind for the alterations.

“Have you been this excited for your dress, too?” Jazz asked Liana on the way back to the office.

“Yes, I think so. Having the dress made it real. All the planning before felt so random, but the dress was when it sank in.”

Jazz hummed; she couldn’t remember at all. Not only her wedding preparations, all her happy memories seemed to have been wiped from her memories. Spending the day with a blissful bride only made the loss worse. The lack of joy, the lack of love.

“I’ll only get some documents from my office and leave afterwards,” she announced. Talking about trivial things gave her a reprieve, a moment she didn’t have to fake.

“Get some rest and get better.” They parted at the elevator; despite her weak condition Jazz opted for the stairs. The swaying of the elevator, the strange feeling of rising and pausing midair was too much of a challenge for her stomach. One step after the other she climbed the stairs, the physical strain clearing her mind of unwanted thoughts. Or any thoughts really.

For once there was no rush; after leaving the office she would have to go home without an idea where that should be. Telling Miho would make it real, like finding a dress made getting married real. But making it real would mean acknowledging and dealing with the situation. She didn’t have the strength for that. She had barely found the strength to talk to Subaru about his behavior and before she did, several days had passed while she fretted and pondered the right approach. Last night didn’t count as respite. Lying awake and crying wasn’t thinking after all. The next steps were clear. Finding a place to stay. Getting at least some of her clothes. Wallowing in self pity and ice cream. Adopting a bunch of cats and getting bitter.

“Drama queen,” she scolded herself on the last few stairs. After a couple of deep breaths she put on her smile again and made her way into her office. The receptionist waved at her; Jazz waved back and hurried towards her door. She wasn’t in the mood for a conversation or more work; whatever it was, it had to wait until she had least gotten rid of this splitting headache. Maybe she was actually sick? Terminally ill? A brain tumor, maybe. She would die within a short time and Subaru would be left behind, heartbroken he had treated his poor sick wife like this. Or maybe inwardly rejoicing because he could openly be with his new lover.

Deep in thought she opened her office door, stumbled inside and towards the couch.

“Do you have an idea how worried I was about you?”

Subaru’s voice made her jump, pressed all the buttons to make her feel guilty for his anger. He sat on the very couch she just wanted to rest on, his tie askew and his hair disheveled.

“What are you doing here?” she asked back and swallowed down the instinctive apology his question had triggered.

“I’m waiting for you. I called you over and over again, looked for you all over town.” He came closer, stopped right in front of her so Jazz had to look up a bit. Despite her heels he was taller; a fact she used to appreciate.

“I didn’t want to talk to you,” she cooly replied and sidestepped him on her way to her desk.

“You could at least have let me know you’re okay. I called the hospitals and police stations to see if you had gotten into an accident or-” He bit his tongue, let her fill in the rest.

“You think I would harm myself just because you had sex with another woman? I’m not that weak.” The desk was a barrier between them, one Jazz used to keep him away. She couldn’t think when he was close, her mask crumbled under his sad gaze.

“That’s not what I wanted to say. I was just worried about you. You went out in your pjs, didn’t answer your phone -”

“Did you call Miho?” she interrupted him, raised both eyebrows and jutted out her chin. A challenge he backed out from.

“No. I figured if you went to stay there and told her – well, told her why you were there, she wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway. I asked Goto, though. If you were there or not.” He lingered on the other side of the desk, fingertips on the wood, turned halfway towards her and halfway facing the door. “So, where have you been?” He stared at his fingers, the contrast between his skin and the polished surface of the desk, scratched at a spot until he looked up and found her glaring at him.

“What? Are you afraid I paid you back in kind?” She snorted; this was not a conversation she felt up to. Not with her head in pain, and her heart heavy, still choking at the betrayal. “I would never do that to you. Never.”

Her bottom lip trembled, she bit down on it and looked up at the ceiling. “Can you just go now? Please?”

“Will you come home tonight?” His soft tone reminded her of whispered conversations, late at night, snuggled under one blanket. Of shared dreams and secrets.

“I can’t.” Short answers, the shorter the better. Less words she could trip over, less risk for a crying fit.

“I don’t mean you have to forgive me right on the spot, or at all. This isn’t about you coming back with me and we pretend it’s all okay. I just – Jazz, I want to know you are safe at least. You get the bedroom, and if you say I mustn’t bother you, I won’t. I promise. But last night-” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I was so scared something had happened to you.”

“I’m tired.” Jazz dropped her head and shook it slowly. “I try to think but I can’t. My head’s a mess, and all I want is my bed. My life back.” She lost the fight against the tears, allowed them to flow freely now. “Can you give me that? Can you give me back my peace? My happiness?”

When he wrapped his arms around her she didn’t struggle. His heartbeat was steady and familiar under her palm, her own fluttered like a bird trapped in a cage, strained against her ribcage and made her feel even sicker.

“Let’s go home,” he said once more. “And talk about it if you want. I would do anything to fix this, Jazz. Anything. I love you so much, I know I fucked up but I swear, if you let me, I will -”

She cried harder with each word he said, clung to him until his shirt was soaked and smudged with the rest of her makeup. Subaru held her until she ran out of tears, ran out of energy. He held her hand while he led her out of the office, towards their car – his car, she corrected herself – and helped her inside. He held her hand during the ride whenever he could, squeezed it at every red light. He only let go of her when she reached the bedroom door and closed it behind her.

Her bed was as she had left it, Jazz pulled the covers over head and fell asleep within seconds.

The scent of smoke – Part 10

The last song just faded when they reached the free space in front of the stage where other couples already were enjoying the music.

The first few notes of “As the world falls down” sounded, the slow song in a version dominated by piano and bass, topped off with an almost lazy female voice as lead.

“Okay, I got a problem here,” Yushima declared as they stood facing each other. “Either I put my hand on your back and touch your skin or I place it on the fabric of your dress and end up a bit too low to be modest.”

“And that’s your problem?” She giggled, took his hand and a step closer. “Back is fine. I don’t mind you touching me.” So her back it was. His hand, warm and firm, made her shiver lightly. They started in a sway, waiting how the song would develop.

“So you’re not bartending tonight?”

“Actually I don’t tend the bar at all. You just happen to catch me on my breaks when I hide behind counters all the time.”

He spun her, slowly, pulled her closer when she was facing him again.

“So you’re not a full time beer fairy after all? I’m shocked.”

“You’ll live. I can still get you a beer in most places, don’t worry.” Her right hand rested on his shoulder, with her heels she had the perfect height to look over it.

“What else did you keep from me? I can deal with you being married, but this? Might be a bit much.” His voice was so close to her ear, the warmth of his breath washed over her neck.

“I’d say ‘find it out’ but that’s an empty offer.” No amount of flirting would get them anywhere, only in a better mood for a while. And afterwards she would feel guilty, both for him and Subaru.

“Well, can’t expect you to work your beer magic all the time, can I? I mean, that dress is spectacular, but obviously you can’t hide a bottle in it.”

“Nope, there’s barely enough room for me.” Some strategically placed tape saved her from potential dress catastrophes, otherwise it was just her and a hint of underwear in it.

“I think you have enough magic, even without the beer.”

“That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in days,” she muttered with a wry chuckle, avoided his eyes. They moved over the dancefloor, weaved through the other dancing couples.

“So, tell me if this is crossing a line -” he said after another spin, making her stomach drop. Nothing good ever started with such an intro.

“- but I would like to take your picture.”

“My picture? Like – like what? Portrait? Nudes?” She leaned back to be able to look into his eyes, found them sparkling, the corners crinkled by his wide grin.

“You’d want me to take nudes of you?”

“No, you – I definitely don’t want that. You just made a pretty strange suggestion.” A short shake of her hair, a burst of air out of her nose dismissed any interest in getting her picture taken in her birthday suit by him.

“Well, in that case I’m glad I’m actually talking about a portrait. Keep your clothes on, all I want is your face. What do you say?”

A few questions crossed her mind, mostly ‘Why?’ and ‘Does he ask that every woman he flirts with?’ Out of her mouth came a statement, though, not a question.

“I don’t think my husband would like that.” Once again he spun her, caught her when she came back with too much momentum.

“Why not? It’s strictly professional, I promise. You get to see the picture before I publish it. Heck, if he’s that wary you can bring him to the photo shooting. Might be better anyway.”

Her eyebrows knitted in confusion she stared at him.

“It’s your smile, okay? There’s something in your smile… I can’t even describe it. All I know is that I want to capture it ever since I saw it for the first time. See? Nothing shady.”

“My smile?” How did she smile? Her face muscles seemed unable to remember the correct position, put in the spot like this. “Yeah, I don’t think my husband could help with it at the moment.” She pressed her lips together, hid her face against his shoulder.

“What’s wrong? Shouldn’t he be the one to make you smile the most?” Again his breath tickled the loose hairs, fanned her neck. She stiffened in his hold, ramrod instead of pliant.

“Thank you for the dance, but I have to go back to work now.”

“Huh? Did I say something wrong?”

A curt shake of her head and she stepped back, out of his arms and into reality.

“Congratulations on winning the award, Yushima-san. I was rooting for you.” She bowed politely, turned on her heel and made her way towards Liana without looking back.

 

“What’s wrong? Did he do anything to you?” Alarmed by the stiffness of Jazz’s back and her rigid expression Liana took a step towards her.

Jazz shook her head, kept walking until she reached a small door leading to some office space they used as storage for the event, Liana hot on her heels.

“Hey, what-?”

Once the door was closed behind them Jazz slumped down on a crate, head in her hands.

“I’m so – so stupid…” A frustrated groan and she inhaled sharply, ran her hands over her cheeks, wiped her forehead. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“You sure? Because it doesn’t look like you’re okay.” Arms crossed in front of her Liana stared at Jazz, concern and anger furrowing her brow.

“Do you know that? When someone makes a comment in passing, seemingly casual points out something and suddenly you are like: ‘Yeah, wait. That’s my problem right now!’.”

Liana tilted her head, waited for more context. “No. ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ are a bit too vague for me to relate to.” She took a seat on a desk, crossed her legs, tapped one foot in the air.

“He should make me smile, right? Not make me worry and sneak around on my tiptoes all the time. He used to, I mean, that was part of why I fell for him. He made me happy, made me smile more than anyone else.”

From her sleeve Liana pulled a tissue, handed it to Jazz who wiped her nose. “So you actually fell for that photographer, huh? And I knew you were too into him. All that smiling and glowing…”

The statement was almost an accusation, laced with disappointment and bitterness. Jazz scoffed, choked on her own sobs.

“What? No! I’m talking about Subaru! Dammit, losing Mizuki has changed him and now it’s all gloomy and cold at home. I’m not sure how much longer I can take this. I just want my husband back.” Jazz wiped her cheeks with the tissue, stained it with black streaks of mascara.

“Oh.”

Two deep breaths later Jazz calmed down, bit the tears back.

“Sorry, I didn’t want to get all mushy and emotional. It’s just – I don’t know what to do. I offered him to listen and comfort him, he didn’t want that. I try to give him the time and space he seems to need and now we only drift further apart. Everything I do is wrong and I’m running out of options.” Either being selfish or clingy and overbearing – was there no alternative?

“I need some middle course but can’t find it.” Jazz wiped her face with her hands, checked them for makeup smudges. “How bad is it?”

“Not bad at all.” With a fresh tissue Liana dabbed just under Jazz’s eyes, biting her lips. “Have you tried talking to him? About what this does to you? He should know how much this affects you.”

“I don’t want to burden him any further, but I guess I can’t keep going like this.” Jazz stood up, shook her hands and tilted her head once right and left.

“Okay, let’s finish this job. I’ll take care of my private problems afterwards.”

“No, I got this. You go home or stay in here a bit longer, I don’t care. From here on the event will be smooth sailing, don’t worry. You need a break.” One hand raised Liana stopped Jazz from objecting and squared her shoulders. “We can’t have you run away crying every time a guest says something to you.”

 

It was past midnight when Jazz came home into an empty apartment. No text, no note told her where Subaru was; she figured he had another nightshift. After a shower she went to bed, wondering how they had gone from happily married to practical strangers in just two weeks.

After an event that took as long as the award show she only had to get to the office at noon, but Subaru didn’t come home during her extended breakfast. She left him some food on a plate and decided to take a short trip to visit Katsuragi.

 

“Sergeant Fujiwara, Lieutenant Goto, we found out some interesting details regarding that vessel you investigate.” Captain Ishigami handed Miho a report, watched her read it.

“A guest? Like, a passenger? On a freight ship?”

“Not that uncommon. Nowadays with all those cruises there are still some people who want to travel off the usual tourist paths. It’s often cheaper, too,” Goto explained, took the report from his wife and gave it a read.

“Okay, but it looks as if it’s the same passenger, several times. So either it’s someone related to a crew member or…” She let her sentence trail off, looked at Goto with her eyebrows raised.

“Or it’s someone who wants to keep tabs on the ship and its cargo. We got a name?”

Ishigami flashed them a tight smile. “Indeed, we have. You look into this. Any connection is immediately reported back to me.”

“Yes, sir,” both assured, waited until he had left with a short nod before they stormed back to their computers.

“I do the background check,” Miho announced and typed furiously.

“I match the trips the person took on the ship with our schedule of suspected illegal shipments.” Goto’s typing speed matched hers, together they tapped into databases and reports until they ran out of material in the late afternoon.

 

“I’m home.”

Jazz set her purse down, kicked off her heels and sighed when the pressure on her feet disappeared. Back home it was socially accepted for women to wear whatever kind of shoes they liked, just for some occupations there was specific footwear. She had learned early that Japan had different rules. Going to work in flats? Or even sandals? Unthinkable. Heels were part of the office lady uniform and since Jazz was already sticking out, as a pale blonde European, she didn’t want to appear rude by ignoring these rules.

Still, she was glad when she could slip out of her heels in the evening.

Barefooted she trudged into the kitchen, put on the kettle for some tea and opened the fridge to see what she could make for dinner. The empty cup and a used plate in the sink told her Subaru had at least eaten his breakfast – at some point before 6pm.

She slipped out of her shift dress, made her way into the bedroom to change into something casual. A suit was lying on the bed, the note on top of it only said ‘dry cleaner’s’. It crumbled with a satisfying sound in her fist, landed in the waste bin next to her drawer.

“That’s it.” Time for wine and pizza.

Wedding magazines piled up on the coffee table, the half empty bottle of red wine and the half eaten pizza, still in its box, were forgotten while Jazz browsed through some pictures on her laptop. Subaru and Jazz at the beach, Subaru and Jazz at their wedding day, Subaru alone, sleeping on the couch. Miho, Goto and Subaru around a table laden with food. Jazz and Miho dressed in yukatas for Tanabata. Every picture of Jazz showed her with varying degrees of a smile. It was nothing special, her smile. Lips drawn up, the corners of her eyes crinkled slightly. Sometimes her nose was also wrinkled, sometimes the dimple in her left cheek was showing. There wasn’t the one true smile, she figured.

Fueled by the wine she searched his name in her browser again. Yushima Jinpachi. Photographer, traveler, hottie. There was barely gossip about him, nothing indicated his offer could have been shady. She clicked at one article about the award event. There he was, in his suit and with the hair tied into the usual ponytail, the award in his hand. Was it strange for him to get his photo taken by some reporter?

Her bosses would be pleased with the media coverage, every article was praising the event, pictures showed the decorations and band, people smiling and having fun.

For Jazz it was just another job well done. No one would remember it tomorrow, there would be a new job to care of, and another after that. In between she would come home to a husband who hid from her.

Her glass trembled when she set the laptop down on the table with a bit too much force. Another night shift. Three weeks of night shifts, of only fleeting contact, texts and barely ever a call. No reason for her to smile.

She downed the glass, the wine was tart and heavy. Made her careless. Stupid.

Setting up an email account with a neutral name was easy and quickly done. Sending the email was a bad idea. But it also was easy and quickly done.

“Take my picture. I want to see my smile from your perspective. Your personal beer fairy.”  

The cover of the laptop closed with a soft click. Jazz exhaled, took her glass and the bottle into the kitchen and got ready for bed.

 

The apartment door slammed around 2 am, startled her out of muddled dreams. If this was an intruder they didn’t do a great job concealing their presence. So it must have been her husband. She crawled out of bed, padded towards the door but jumped when this was slammed open, too.

“Are you snooping on me?” His tie was askew, his hair a mess.

“W-what? No… what – what’s this?” Sleep still clung to her, with heavy eyelids and a tired brain she stared at him, had troubles focusing.

“You came to Katsuragi and asked him to change my shifts? You went behind my fucking back and tattled to my boss?” He ran a hand through his hair, paced in front of her. Blocked the door.

“I didn’t tattle and I didn’t snoop. I just dropped by and chatted with Katsuragi because I figured it must be hard for him, too. And yes, I mentioned the number of night shifts you’re pulling because I worry about you and your health. I also asked him if you were talking to him about losing Mizuki because you won’t talk to me or Goto about it. Is that a problem? That I worry about my husband?” Getting yelled at worked better than coffee to wake her up, it drew her anger and frustration right up to the top of her head, made it spill out of her mouth without a filter.

“Worry? More like trying to control everything. I will talk when I’m ready to talk.” He snorted, crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Sure, and in the meantime you keep running from me? Don’t you even think for one second I don’t notice what you’re doing, Ichiyanagi Subaru. I know you for years already, and so far you never, never before ignored me for a whole week, let alone three.” Her voice shrilled through the bedroom, echoed off the walls. “I have no idea what you are punishing me for, but I’m sick of it. You want to go on like this? Well, don’t be surprised if you feel ready to finally talk and have to find out that there’s no one left to listen.” The trembling of her hands crept into her voice, she kept clenching and unclenching her fists, fought against the maelstrom of emotions pulling at her, dragging her towards a dark place and words she wouldn’t be able to take back once she said them.

“Is that a threat? Are you threatening me?” His hands dropped to his sides only to end up on his hips. Straightened up to his full height, taller by a head than Jazz, he glared at her.

“It’s only a threat if I don’t plan on acting on it.” She choked on her words, her throat tight and heart hammering in her chest. This wasn’t the man she had married, this was a stranger. And he was scaring her.

“Just so you know, not the whole world revolves around you,” he hissed, eyes widening when she flinched.

“I know. And right now I don’t even play a role in your world. Not even as an extra.” A careful step back, another one and she bumped against the bed. “But whatever you choose to do, it also affects me. I’m your wife, Subaru! I’m part of your life, no matter what.” And she had failed. Failed him, their marriage, her vows. She couldn’t support him, couldn’t be there for him when he needed her the most. Because she didn’t know how.

Tears forced their way from her eyes down her cheeks.

“Call me selfish for wanting my husband back, our life back. This – this isn’t us. You can barely look at me and I – it hurts when you turn your back on me like this. Do you know when you last just kissed me? Because I can’t remember. And I don’t want to live like this. I don’t want to be in the same room with you when we can’t even talk. Or touch. When you just ignore me. I can’t take that. I just can’t.” Sobs and more tears. So many tears.

“Calm down.” His shoulders sagged with his exhale, he rubbed his face with both hands. “Stop crying already.” He didn’t offer her an explanation but at least a tissue. The bed dipped  when he sat down, he tugged at her hand so she joined him. Clung to him.

“I –  I didn’t know this was so hard on you.” His hand ran up and down her back, over warm skin and the soft fabric of her nightgown. “It’s just – I have some things to figure out.”

Frantic gulps of air filled her lungs with his scent, the usual mix of his cologne and shampoo. And something else. Sharp and bitter was the lingering stench of smoke, permeated his hair and clothes.

“I get this is hard,” she pressed out, hiccuped once. “I miss Mizuki, too. Must be worse for you. All the anger and frustration – I get that. But he’s gone now and we are still here. Only that you are not. You are trapped somewhere else, far away from me and that scares the hell out of me.” A dark place where she couldn’t reach him. “Maybe… maybe you should talk to a professional. To deal with your grief.” There were psychologists and grief counselors, as a cop he had a right to see one. As a man he probably refused to do so.

“That’s – yeah, Mizuki’s death is part of the problem. But it’s not all.” The hand on her back trembled. Jazz sat up, wiped her face. He was talking. Finally he was talking and she didn’t care what it took to get him there.

“What else is the problem? Baby, you know you can talk to me about everything. I will just listen, I promise I won’t even interrupt you. Keeping it in won’t help you.” Kneeling on the bed next to him she implored him to trust her, prayed for this to be the moment to mend whatever had been broken between them. “I can’t understand it if you don’t tell me. And I can’t help you until I understand.” Both her hands enveloped his, held it tightly.

He looked tired. Dark circles under his eyes, the frown etched into his face. She wanted to take his burden, share it with him. Make him smile again. Have him back.

“After the incident – after Mizuki got shot…” His breathing was shallow, his words slow. “Things were strange. Everyone was shocked, some cried, some were just silent.” He licked his lips, shook his head. His free hand joined their clasped ones, added warmth and pressure. “I was – numb. Functioned. Ordered the search for the attacker, made sure Fukuhara and his wife were safe.”

His grip on her hands was bordering painful. She wouldn’t interrupt him, though, silently listened to his words.

“Went to see how my team was doing.” He whispered, head hanging low. “I – I slept with Takamura.”

The alarm clock showed 2:21 am in bright red numbers. Jazz would remember it later as the time her heart broke.

The scent of smoke – Part 9

“So I‘m coming back tomorrow night,” Subaru just let Jazz know over the phone.

“Good. I miss you,” she almost sang before she got serious again. “How’s Mizuki doing?”

“Still hasn’t regained consciousness.”

Jazz could see Subaru’s face in her mind’s eyes, the crease between his eyebrows, the tight line his lips formed when he was frustrated.

She couldn’t even offer him comfort; had tried so the day before but every of her attempts sounded like a platitude, worn out and shallow to her own ears.

“Take care on your trip back,” was what she said instead. “I love you.”

His tired sigh sent a burst of longing through her heart. If only she could hug him, smooth out the frown with her fingertips.

“I love you, too. So, so much…” Subaru cleared his throat. “Okay, I have to go now. I will send you a text when we leave here, but I don’t think I’ll have enough time to actually call.”

“Okay, I understand.” Only one more night. She could make it through one more night without him.

 

“Mann-san, thank you for preparing this preparation today.” Mr. Takuchi dipped his chin slightly, waited for Jazz to bow before he went on. “As you know this is a crucial event for our agency. What are your plans for it?”

Jazz launched into her pitch, showed pictures of the museum, played samples of the music.

“The overall idea is it to bring back the grande time of photography. To honor its origins and prosperity period.”

Four men were watching her, their faces the usual polite mask Jazz had gotten used to ever since coming to Japan. Mr. Takuchi, her direct superior. Yamamoto, who had lost this job in the first place. Makoto, Mr. Takuchi’s secretary. And the actual client, Professor Nozumi, head of the award jury.

“Thank you, Mann-san. This was enlightening and I’m certain we are having a lot to think about now. We will let you know what we decide, please wait for our call.”

Again she bowed and left, knowing this was a formality rather than an actual pitch. There simply wasn’t enough time to change plans again, but they couldn’t just give her free rein. She was a woman, a foreigner, with a reputation of planning incredible weddings. But only weddings. The constant check-ins would become less and less during the next few jobs, she was certain. Almost certain. She hoped for it.

Back in her own office she checked her phone only to find the notifications empty. Eight, maybe ten hours and Subaru would come home.

“How did it go?” Liana poked her head in, entered fully when Jazz motioned towards the chair.

“I think they are going to agree to all my plans. They lack alternatives anyway.” She opened a drawer, set a box with cookies on the desk.

“You want one?” Sugar was probably a bad idea, Jazz was already buzzing with restless energy, tapping her toes and fidgeting with her pen.

“No thanks, I’m going out for dinner tonight.” Liana crossed her legs, smoothed down her pencil skirt.

“That explains the posh outfit today.” Her eyebrow raised Jazz bit into a cookie, caught the crumbs with her free hand. “You are going out awfully often lately,” she mumbled, still chewing.

“And?”

“Nothing ‘and’. Just saying I noticed. So it’s going well with Ishigami?” She brushed the last crumbs off her hands and desk, threw the box back into the drawer. Out of sight, but never out of mind.

“It’s only dinner dates so far but I enjoy it. We talk a lot, he’s really smart and sophisticated. Considerate. So yes, it’s going well.” Liana’s small smile was telling Jazz the gist of a story she really wanted details of.

“Hahhh, the beginning of something is always so exciting. To find out all the new things, try out different things.” She put her hands behind her head, leaned back in her chair.

“Sounds as if someone’s missing a bit of excitement. Not enough fresh air in your marriage?”

“Nah,” Jazz objected softly, leaned forwards now. “We are good. No signs of a lull yet and I intend to keep it like that. It’s just – I like to think back to the beginnings every now and then. Subaru really drove me crazy, weak knees and butterflies included. He still does, from time to time, but there’s so much more than tingles and a racing heart now. And I like that even better.”

“Well, we are still in the ‘getting to know each other’ phase. There is a certain tension and excitement and it’s very enjoyable.” With a wide grin Liana got up when Jazz’s phone rang. “Good luck with the higher ups and have fun welcoming your husband back home.”

“Thanks and thanks.” Jazz picked up the phone, back in work mode. The anticipation would only come once she was at home, getting everything ready for Subaru’s return.

 

When his key turned in the lock Jazz was ready. Dinner was in the oven, kept warm. A bottle of wine was on the table, together with two glasses and some snacks. Also she was shaved and showered, just in case he was hungry for something else than food.

“I’m back,” he yelled through the hallway so Jazz skipped out of the living room, jumped into his arms.

“Welcome back.” He smelled familiar and comforting, she buried her nose in the crook of her neck, but pulled back when she caught a whiff of smoke.

“Let me bring my luggage away first.” He patted her head, made her frown with this gesture. He never did that before.

“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, I’ll get dinner ready for us.”

Bowls and plates piled up on the coffee table in the living room when Subaru came back, in casual clothes now.

“We are eating here?”

“I thought it’s cozier here. Come, take a seat.” She patted on the space next to her on the couch, handed him a glass of wine.

“I missed you.” Close to him after the time apart she snuggled up, tucked herself under his arm, against his side.

“I missed you, too.” Half of his wine was gone before she offered him the first snack. “But I’m also hungry.”

They passed bowls back and forth, Jazz filled the space between them with chatter, happy giggles and an occasional peck on his cheek, lips and neck. He responded mostly with grunts, kept eating and nodded every now and then when she looked at him expectantly. Another glass of wine and a full meal later he leaned back on the couch, patted Jazz’s thigh.

“Ready to talk now?” Patience wasn’t her strong point. Despite the relieve of having her husband back he still had to tell her what exactly had happened.

“Things went wrong, someone got shot and I’m still mad about that.”

He reached for the wine bottle, refilled his glass. Jazz placed a hand on his back, the tension in his muscles made her frown.

“That much I already gathered from your calls and the news. I’d like to get the bigger picture, though.”

In one swig he downed his wine, but stayed on the edge of the couch.

“That would just worry you unnecessarily.”

“And not knowing what’s going on won’t worry me?” She snorted, scooted closer to the edge, too. “Stop keeping secrets from me, babe. You don’t have to carry that all by yourself.”

He looked at her, for the first time that night took in her expression. Concern creased her forehead, darkened her eyes.

With a sigh he pulled her into his embrace.

“Sorry. You are right. Okay, what do you know about Fukuhara and his politics?”

“He’s the next big hope for Tokyo, at least according to his supporters. Safety and progress while keeping up the traditions.” She was citing some phrase she read on a flyer a while ago.

“Something along those lines. Japan, especially Tokyo, is already pretty safe. But lately Fukuhara has set his mind on clearing Tokyo of certain crimes. Gun and drug trafficking mostly. And obviously his vigorous effort caught some interest from the wrong guys. He got some death threats, a few weeks ago.”

Jazz drew a sharp breath, sat up so she could look at him.

“That’s why you are in charge of his protection now.” Not even asking it as a question she didn’t need his answer. “And here I was wondering why it takes three well trained bodyguards to keep one politician safe. Especially since he doesn’t even hold a major post yet.”

“Yeah. And he brought his wife on this trip, so that’s also a factor. He didn’t want to leave her behind, not with how he’s getting targeted at the moment.”

Fukuhara and his wife were the model couple of modern Japanese politics, even made it on some magazine covers. Young – at least in comparison –  successful, good looking.

“Okay, so far I can follow.”

“Well, we split up that day. I stayed with the wife, Mizuki and Takamura accompanied Fukuhara.” His hand rested on his thigh, Jazz grabbed it and squeezed lightly.

“You haven’t been there?” When it happened. When Mizuki got shot.

“No. They called me immediately but I wasn’t even close.”

Jazz bit back the ‘thank goodness’, someone else ended up in hospital after all.

“So we stopped the event, got Fukuhara and his wife out of there. Police was everywhere all of sudden, plus the media. Things were crazy and I needed a while to call you.”

He exhaled, squeezed her hand back.

“I’m so sorry.” And here she had yelled at him for not texting her sooner. “How – how’s Mizuki doing?”

“Not good. He’s getting weaker. Collapsed twice. They – he might not make it.”

Following her instincts she hugged him, as tightly as she could. There were no words of comfort, no promises that it would be alright in the end.

“I’m not good company right now. How about you go to bed first? I – I didn’t even have time to think about it all so far. Might want to take a quick walk.”

Her gaze flitted over to the window, it was already dark outside.

“You just came back and want me to go to bed alone again?” She jutted out her bottom lip and batted her lashes at him, but Subaru only scoffed.

“Really? One of my coworkers is basically dying as we speak and all you can think of is what? Sex?” He got up in one swift motion, almost jumped.

“What? No, that’s – I wasn’t implying sex. I just missed you and want to comfort you. Some people like some physical contact from time to time, and I’m not talking about banging.” The change of mood was palpable, his anger so intense she never witnessed before.

“Yeah, as if. You can be really selfish sometimes, you know that?” With that he stormed off, Jazz heard his keys jingle and the door slam shut.

“What the heck did just happen?” Her question, muttered into the empty room, trailed off without an answer.

 

She was still awake when he came back, some time after 3am. Lying in the bed, the covers pulled up to her nose she pretended to sleep while he stomped through the entryway, cursed lowly. Slurred. Jazz strained her ears, could tell when he went into the bathroom – and peed while standing up – stumbled into the kitchen for hopefully a glass of water and finally came to rest in the living room. After a few minutes of silence she tiptoed over, found Subaru snoring on the couch.

The smell of alcohol was strong, even from a few steps away. She took a blanket, threw it over him. Maybe he needed this, a way to let off some steam, to deal with the anger and guilt. Tomorrow they could talk about it.

She wouldn’t apologize, though. But she wouldn’t make it hard for him, either.

Back in bed she only fell asleep when the early summer sun peeked through the curtains.

 

Jazz smiled at the waitress, paused in her sentence and waited until her food was in front of her and the waitress gone again before she continued.

“So things haven’t been exactly easy and I thought, maybe Goto could have a nice heart to heart with him about this whole situation.” Her tea was already gone again so she signaled for the waitress, avoided Miho’s gaze from the other side of the table.

“And with situation you mean…?” Miho’s hand drew a few circles into the air, prompted Jazz to elaborate.

“We got the call yesterday morning. Mizuki died after collapsing again.” Jazz poked a tomato in her salad with a fork, just shoved it around in her bowl.

“Oh shit, I haven’t heard of that. How’s he taking it?” With practiced ease Miho snatched the olives from Jazz’s salad, dropped them in her own bowl.

“He refuses to talk to me. Like, at all. Not even the basic stuff, like ‘Good morning’ and ‘I’m off’. Nothing. Just broods and avoids me.” It was just an escalation from the days before.  After coming home drunk that first night back they had barely talked more than two sentences. Mostly about what to have for dinner and who would pay a certain bill. Definitely not about how he dealt with the loss and guilt. And now, with the worst case coming true, he had completely withdrawn from Jazz.

“He drinks more.” Not so much or often that she saw the need to intervene, just enough so she noticed. And worried.

“The whole attack on a politician gave our investigation a boost, though. Permits come faster, easier. We are going to inspect a ship soon, once it’s back in port. But I guess Seiji can spare an evening to check on Ichiyanagi.”

The other guests at the restaurant provided enough background noise to cover up Jazz’s sigh.

“Thanks, that would be great. I guess I just can’t really understand what it means being in your shoes, having to deal with the risk of losing someone at any given time. Except for being married to an officer of course.” Which was a private risk, not a professional one.

“Well, you know my opinion. Gotta live life to the fullest, yada yada yada. That’s why we don’t have kids, just dogs.” Miho took a piece of bread, dipped it into the dressing.

“Which I won’t take in case both of you kick the bucket. We had that discussion already.”

“But they are such good boys!” Miho whined, her own puppy eyes  directed at Jazz in full force now.

“And they are huge! Like, small ponies. No, thanks. Let your in laws have them.” Jazz shoved a fascicle of lettuce into her mouth to end the discussion.

“Fine. But you are their godmother, if you want it or not.”

“Fine,” Jazz parroted around a mouthful of greens. “When they have their First Communion, I’ll read the prayers.”

 

Superstition wasn’t a big part of Jazz’s life, just like religion. She believed in some cosmic karma, but in the end everyone was responsible for their own happiness in her opinion. So far it had worked for her, but now she came to the point where her private life hit rock bottom while she soared at work. Every single suggestion she made for the award show got praised, the suppliers were cooperative and she even found a stunning dress for that night for a cut-price. Meanwhile her husband kept staring at her without saying a word.

He was grieving, hurt, probably mad and she wanted to give him the support he needed. But how should she do that if she had no clue what exactly it was? More time and space without bugging him about mundane questions? Encouraging him to talk to her? Just being there and hugging him?

It was a week already and she had tried it all, with no success. As if her mere presence was annoying to Subaru he kept his distance, only came to bed when she was already asleep or worked night shifts to begin with.

“Okay, flowers will get delivered tomorrow, the stage is getting assembled today. Music, food and drinks are clear, too. Looks as if we got an event tomorrow night.” Liana ticked some more boxes on her list, nodded and smiled. “That was quite a feat, I wasn’t sure we can pull it off.”

“And I wouldn’t have managed without you.” With Liana’s support she had handled every bump in the road so she only had to make sure she looked presentable for the awards.

“How about a bonus, then?” Liana tapped her pen against the clipboard, batted her lashes.

“That was a good one. How about I treat you to lunch?”

Jazz shut down her computer, stretched her arms above her head. “Or are you going out for dinner again today?”

“Lunch sounds good. I have to make some calls first. How about we leave in half an hour?” The clipboard in her hand Liana got up, tilted her head to the side. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just – tired. This was all a bit last minute and I feel like glued to this desk. Half an hour works great for me. Ramen or Italian?”

Distraction was the key. The more time she spent at work or with other people, the less she mulled over Subaru and his strange behavior. No, not strange, she corrected herself inwardly. He was grieving and beating himself up. She just hadn’t seen him this way before.

“Let’s just see how full our usual bistro is and decide then.”

A suggestion Jazz could accept, especially since she didn’t care what she ate. Eating without Subaru was only half as fun anyway.

 

The black dress was still in a garment bag, but Jazz had her hair in an updo, her makeup was also done with more accuracy than normally. Catwing eyeliner and ruby red lips, matching the nail polish on her fingers and toes.

“Isn’t that a bit much?”

The first complete sentence Subaru said to her in a week.

“With the dress later it will all come together to a modern homage to old Hollywood,” she let him know, took a careful sip from her tea. A light smudge of lipstick stained the rim of the cup, she rubbed it off with her thumb.

“Old Hollywood? In your office?” He missed her glare, was pouring himself a coffee.

“I know you are a bit – occupied lately.” The cup clattered on the counter when Jazz turned to face him. “But after I kept talking about this award show I put together over the last few weeks I somehow expected you to at least remember the date. Today. So I’m going to go directly to the location from here, will make sure everything is prepared and perfect for tonight and yes, old Hollywood is the perfect theme for my look.”

“Wow.” He slurped some coffee, furrowed his brow. “Someone’s cranky today, huh?”

After tiptoeing around him for days, careful not to upset him any further, her patience was thin enough to consider it see-through.

“I’m not cranky, I’m nervous and stressed and could use some support from my husband who’s unfortunately completely unavailable for me right now.” She frantically blinked against the tears, had no time to redo her makeup if she bawled now.

“Unavailable? I’m right here.” Arms wide open he shrugged, spilled a bit of his coffee on the floor. “Oh shit.”

“You are here, but you don’t take part in our life anymore. You go through the motions, without listening to a single word I say, without even looking at me anymore. I get that the whole situation is messy and painful and honestly, it just sucks. I was so happy you came back to me, but now you are just a ghost here.” During her tirade she grabbed a paper towel, wiped the floor clean and came back up to find his smug expression gone.

“A ghost?”

“Maybe not a ghost, but you are not yourself anymore. And I miss you.” She glanced at the clock, cursed lowly. “I’m going to be late.”

“Wait.”

He set his cup down, next to hers, and took both her hands.

“You got an eyelash there.”

His face was close to hers now, with a fingertip he carefully wiped right under her eye, showed her the lash for her to blow it away.

“Make a wish.”

When they started dating he didn’t know about this childish custom. Had stared at her fingertip with his lash for a full minute while she had explained what she wanted him to do.

“Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake, you know? Just not only once a year.” A silly superstition, one of the few she had kept over the years.

He had adapted it, made sure to offer her every eyelash he found on her face.

She closed her eyes, focused on her wish – an obvious one – and sent a quick breath of air towards his finger. The eyelash vanished, carried her hopes off to whatever power in universe was in charge of eyelash wishes.

“What did you wish for?”

Her eyes found his again, so close now.

“It’s not going to come true if I tell you.” The way she bit her bottom lip and stared at his mouth was enough of a hint, at least it should have been. But when he leaned in he pressed his lips on her forehead and pulled back too soon for her to follow up with a decent kiss.

“I don’t want to ruin your makeup. You’re looking too pretty for me to mess it up.”

“Yeah, sure. Of course. After all looks are all that matters.” A step back, away from him and the false comfort, and she exhaled deeply. “I have no idea how long the event will take tonight. Don’t wait for me.” Not that he would do so anyway.

 

Hours of busy preparation later Jazz found a quiet spot to change into her dress and touch up her makeup. Black peep toe high heels showed off her nail polish, a nice contrast to the black dress and her pale skin. Glamorous, sophisticated and a hint of teasing – the perfect outfit for tonight. She put in her earpiece, grabbed a clipboard and joined Liana who had changed into a navy blue shift dress.

“Ah, Mann-san. Is everything ready?” Professor Nozumi, in a dark grey suit with a blue tie this time, greeted her, let his gaze wander through the room.

“Yes, Sensei, everything is going according to plan. We open the doors in 20 minutes, handing out the awards can start one hour later. After that there will be time to mingle and celebrate with music, food and drinks. All in this wonderful location, filled with art and atmosphere.” She bowed politely, tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear afterwards.

“I have to admit, I was sceptical at first when Takuchi-san told me about the change in personnel, but I enjoy what you came up with.”

A waiter walked past them, Jazz motioned for him to come back.

“I’m happy it is to your liking. Would you want a drink?”

After providing Professor Nozumi with drinks and giving some last instructions to the caterer and waiting staff Jazz prowled around the museum. The last minutes before an event started were the worst, nerves made her jumpy and scenarios of possible catastrophes ran through her mind.

When the doors opened she was smiling, greeted the guests and took care of smaller problems. No catastrophe so far.

This time she was prepared when he came through the door, in a dark suit but without a tie.

“Well, hello gorgeous. Not behind the bar tonight?”

“Yushima-san, hello. Welcome to our party, I hope you’ll enjoy it.” She bowed, but grinned when she came back up. That strand of hair was bothering her again, she should have brought some spare hairpins.

“Now that I see you, I bet I will. Nice dress.”

Black satin with a halter top it was tight fitted and flared out from her hips downwards. Her back was left bare, thanks to a clever bra solution without any straps at all.

“Well, it’s not appropriate for handing out beer, but I thought it’s nice enough to stand around and show off what god and my weekly 20 minutes in a gym gave me.” She turned a bit, looked at him over her shoulder. His gaze followed the lines and curves of her body, from her shoes up to the nape of her neck. A low harrumph and he looked her in the eyes again.

“Yeah, definitely nothing I would cover up with an apron and a bar counter either.”

Her heart made a small somersault, for the first time in days her smile reached her eyes.

“Your seat is over there. Should I show you the way?” Back in her event planner mode she motioned towards a table close to the stage.

“Sure, if it’s no trouble for you.”

Jazz nodded towards Liana, handed the clipboard over and turned back to Yushima.

“Follow me.” She held her head high, accentuated her nape and back this way, teasing him on the short way to the table. All nominees were sitting at different tables, mixed in with the other guests. “Your category will be last, so you have enough time to mingle and have a drink. If there’s anything you need, tell me.”

If he was aware of the double meaning he didn’t show it, just dipped his head briefly. “Thank you, I will.”

A last smile and Jazz returned to her post, greeted the guests and showed the nominees their seats.

There was a small incident with a waiter and a glass of red wine, otherwise the presentation went off without a hitch. The Emcee found a good balance between dignified and entertaining and when the last category was up Jazz was on her toes to see who won.

“Yushima Jinpachi for his ‘Impressions of a rainy country’.”

Applause filled the hall, Jazz clapped until her hands ached, watched Yushima get on stage to accept his award.

“Thank you, this means a lot to me. I’m always looking for that special image, an idea captured in colors and shapes. It honors me others see the same when they look at my pictures. Or maybe they see something else in them, but at least they are looking for something, not walking the earth blindly. Opening someone’s eyes to a new concept, a new picture is all I ever hope for and with this award I feel as if I managed. At least for a few people. So thank you very much.” He bowed briefly, caught Jazz’s eyes while she beamed up at him.

The actual party started after the award presentation, music and drinks helped getting people in an exuberant mood. Waitstaff was busy offering drinks and snacks, some journalists interviewed guests and award winners.

Standing close to the bar Jazz monitored the event, the tension now gone, replaced by fatigue and aching feet – the default setting for work.

Her polite smile never wavered, not while facing some over the top demands of one guests and not when someone spilled wine on her dress. At least it was black, impossible to notice a stain on. Even this was more appealing than being at home and getting ignored by her husband.

“Hey, gorgeous, could you do me favor?”

At some point she must have tuned out, only blinked back into reality when Yushima stood right in front of her.

“Do you need a beer?” she asked, tilted her head to the side.

“That, too. But right now I need you to dance with me.”

Or maybe she was still daydreaming.

“What?”

“This reporter keeps pestering me and I guess the only way to get rid of him is to be busy with something else. Like dancing with the most beautiful woman here.” He offered her his hand, waited patiently while she hesitated. “Come on, it’s my big night. Won’t you give me this dance?”

The last time they had danced was still vivid in her mind. How he had held her, dipped her. How much fun it had been. Her thoughts flitted to Subaru. Would he be angry if he knew about this? But it was just a dance after all.

With a bright smile she placed her hand into his. “I’d love to.”

His fingers were warm as they closed around hers, with his free hand in the small of her back he lead her towards the dance floor.

The scent of smoke – Part 8

A week after Subaru left for his latest assignment Jazz only got the occasional text message, didn’t get hold of him via phone calls at all. Leaving messages on his mailbox felt strangely intrusive so she kept up her steady stream of short texts so he knew she was okay. Early in their relationship they had established a pattern, after one time when Jazz had forgotten her phone at home and couldn’t reply to Subaru’s texts for several hours. He had been furious, worried out of his mind although Jazz was safe and sound in her office all the time. Where he could have called her, as she had pointed out.

Ever since she sent him a text in the morning, one for lunch and one wishing him a good night after dinner. Sometimes he replied, sometimes he didn’t, but she kept her side of the bargain. It was enough if one of them worried about the other.

The approval of her superior marked the begin of the busy phase for her preparations; long days for Jazz and Liana turned more often than not into late nights.

Over a delivery of Chinese food they studied the museum’s blueprints and the pictures Jazz had taken at her first visit, discussed where to put the stage and bar.

“Most of the walls should be visible, there are a lot of stunning pictures after all,” Jazz pointed out and marked several spots on the blueprint.

“How about putting the stage over there? We don’t need windows at night anyway,” Liana suggested and Jazz took a marker in a different color, drew a rectangle in one corner.

“The bar should be on the opposite wall. Between bar and stage there’s enough space for chairs and bar tables.” Jazz let the marker drop onto the desk, ran her hands over her face.

“Okay, I think that’s it for today. I will go back there tomorrow and take some measurements, but my brain is mush and I’m so tired, I could fall asleep on the spot. Let’s finish our food and call it a day.”

“Thank goodness.” Liana breathed a sigh of relief, plopped down on a chair. “Is there fried rice left?”

They passed takeout boxes back and forth until they were full, chatted about this and that.

“Someone told me a certain captain was actually caught smiling lately,” Jazz remarked over  a sip of her tea.

“Is that so?” Liana managed a poker face for whole three seconds before a smile spread on her face.

“Ah, young love. I remember the thrill of it, the excitement,” Jazz said with a nod, acting wise and regal before she erupted in giggles. “I was scared to death the first time I met Ishigami. He’s got this air of authority and questioned my presence at the PD when I was there to pick Miho up one time. Thought he’d kick me out on the spot.”

“He’s not that scary,” Liana objected, a pout on her lips now instead of the soft smile. “He’s – dedicated to his job.”

“I know, I know. He’s one of the best cops in the PD, doesn’t play around, is really straight forward. He’s a great guy. Why do you think we introduced you to him?” Jazz batted her lashes, grinned into her cup.

“I hope you don’t expect me to be grateful. I didn’t ask you to set me up with anyone.” Liana was smiling again, snatched the last fried shrimp.

“Nope. I just expect you to be happy.” The waste bin filled with empty food boxes and Jazz wiped her hands with a napkin, turned off her computer and stretched her arms above her head.

“Okay, time to go home now. You wanna share a cab?”

“Yes, please. Let me grab my purse real quick.” Liana threw the last box into the trash, rushed out to get her belongings while Jazz turned off the lights in her office.

“Great. You can give me some details of your dates on the way home. I got some bets running and I’m eager to know if I won.”

 

After a quick text good night Jazz went to bed around midnight, without a reply from her husband all day.

 

“What if the logbook is fake?” Miho rubbed her eyes, staring at the screen and the tiny handwriting in the official documents of the SS Serendipity took its toll on her. Especially since this was already the second day.

“There is always a possibility,” Goto conceded, a map with several colored routes in front of him. “But it’s all we have right now. We just have to match the information with confirmed data we got from the authorities and other sources.”

“Fine.” Her eyes focused on her screen again, the transcripts of the relevant phone calls and conversations processed to handy snippets. “Hey, what about the tour to Colombia last April?”

One finger on the map Goto grunted.

“Was that a direct trip?”

“Looks like it. Why?”

Miho exhaled, leaned back in her chair. “So as I see it a trip like that should take around 30 days. This one took 40. And no word in the logbook of any complications. No repairs or anything.”

“A trip to South America with ten extra days that don’t appear in any documentation? Sounds suspicious.” He joined her, one hand on her shoulder while he compared the dates on screen with the copies of the logbook. “We better keep looking into this. See if there are more cases of extended tours.”

Her whine made him grin. “Not today anymore. Let’s call it a day, get some dinner and go home.”

His suggestion was met with a cheer. “Chicken nuggets?”

“If that’s what you want, sure.” A quick kiss on the top of her head and he went back to his desk, rolled up the map again.

Miho shut down her computer, locked the copies away and threw some documents into her bag.

“I’m good to go.”

Together they left the PD, stopped only to get food and headed back for their apartment to celebrate the new lead.

 

“Jazz! We got a problem!” Liana rushed into the office, found Jazz buried in paperwork, samples of napkins and tablecloths strewn all over the desk.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s the Osmond/Nomura wedding. The florist just called me to confirm the changes in our order.”

Jazz took the folder Liana handed her, browsed through the pages to check the color scheme and sketches.

“We didn’t order any changes.”

“No, we didn’t. Apparently the groom’s mother called every florist in Tokyo until she found the right one and canceled our order, replaced it with some ridiculous bouquets.”

Mothers, no matter if of grooms or brides, caused more troubles for wedding planners than any other force of nature.

“Did you revoke her changes?”

“Of course. But the point is, mommy dearest is meddling and it ruins my plans!” Tired lines rimmed Liana’s eyes, she took off her reading glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose where red imprints served as proof of the long day.

“Okay, here’s what you do. Check our other supplies. Call the baker, the photographer, musicians, everyone on our list. Agree on a codeword with them. Any changes in the plan require the codeword. Tell them it’s a new safety feature you have to follow, yada yada yada. Ask the bride if there is something the MIL can do. Something to involve her in the whole planning. Like – I don’t know, designing the menus or the place cards. Small enough so it won’t matter, big enough to make her feel important. If she messed it up, we got backup. If it shuts her up, good.”

The folder wandered back over the table to Liana.

“Okay. Yeah, yeah that could work. Thanks.”

“Don’t sweat it. It’s not the first time this happened. I had a mother of a groom once who showed up to the wedding in a bright white wedding dress.” Not having a mother in law also had its perks sometimes.

“Wow. That’s low. At least this one just caused a bit chaos and confusion.” Shaking her head Liana turned towards the door.

“You better get used to it. There will always be some problem. I never had a job without someone causing trouble. You are clever, you can figure out a solution that works for everyone.” All Jazz could offer was an encouraging smile and a nod before the ping of her phone informed her of breaking news.

“Oh look, someone fucked up on nationwide so the news are covering it.”

A flick of her thumb and she read the headlines. Froze and stared at her phone.

“Jazz? What is it?”

Liana came closer again, peeked over Jazz’s shoulder.

“Oh shit…”

“Attempted assassination on Fukuhara Jun.” 

With a whisper of the name of her husband Jazz dialed his number, trembled while the call connected. She dared not to breathe until the click told her he had picked up.

“Hi, this is Ichiyanagi. Leave a message after the beep.”

 

Miho picked up her phone after the third ring.

“Hey Jazz, what’s up?”

“You have to do me favor.” The words came rushed, clipped.

“Okay… what kind of favor?” Still at her desk Miho grabbed a pen to jot some details down.

“Use your contacts to find out if my husband is still alive.”

A shiver ran through Miho, forced her into an upright position. She motioned towards Goto, put her phone on speaker.

“What happened?”

“Not sure. Check the news, that’s all I know. Someone attacked Fukuhara, in the melee one person got shot. I can’t get Subaru on the phone. Miho, I can’t reach my husband!” Jazz’s voice reached a panicked pitch.

“Okay, calm down. If anything had happened to him his superior had called you already. I’m going to ask around, though.” Miho’s eyes flitted up to her own husband, a short nod and he took his phone, dialed and turned away. “Hey, take a deep breath. Getting all worked up now won’t do you any good.”

“Is this it? The moment I regret marrying a cop?” Sobs cut off Jazz’s words.

“Bullshit. You can regret marrying him because he’s a smug smartass. And you can tell him I said that because he’s going to come back home to you, you hear me?”

Goto was still talking on the phone, his back turned towards Miho. As a couple of cops they knew the risks, but awareness didn’t fend off the fear. The panic at night when the bed besides her was empty and cold when she woke up.

“Is there anyone with you? You’re not alone, are you?”

Between Jazz’s sobs and gulps of air Miho heard the name ‘Liana’.

“Good, let me talk to her.” Miho already packed her bag, turned off her computer with one hand, her phone in the other.

“Hey, Miho.” The cries grew softer when Liana took over the phone.

“Oh good, one not sobbing person. Okay, listen. Keep an eye on Jazz, tell her this isn’t unusual, that’s how things are during a mission and all. No need to worry. I’m coming over now. You are in the office?”

“Yes, and people start asking what’s wrong.” There was the sound of a closing door and Liana moving around.

“I’m there in ten minutes. Make her drink some water, don’t let her spiral into a full blown panic attack. Distract her somehow. Play 20 questions, I don’t care.”

Goto caught Miho’s attention, gesturing towards his phone and shaking his head. No news yet.

Miho ended the call, threw her phone into her bag.

“Take the car.” Goto offered her the keys, still on the phone.

“Thanks. Keep me up to date, will ya? Love you.” She snatched the keys and rushed off.

Just a normal day in the office.

 

 

The chatter in the event agency droned out Jazz’s thoughts. She clutched her phone tightly in both hands, knuckles white and the screen smeared with sweat.

“Miho says there’s no need to worry.” A glass of water in her hand Liana sat down next to Jazz on the couch, bumped her shoulder lightly. Would that be her one day if she kept seeing Ishigami? The constant worry, always in the back of her mind? And once something happened, the total meltdown? What a scary idea.

“I tried calling Katsuragi,” Jazz croaked, her voice hoarse and eyes red. “He doesn’t respond to my calls or texts either. No one I know is telling me what happened.”

“They are probably all busy dealing with the situation.” Again Liana offered the water to Jazz who took a sip and made a face.

“My mother warned me before the wedding. And I said: ‘Mom, Japan is one of the safest countries ever. They hardly have gun violence here, cops are still pretty respected.’ And he is a cop, somehow.” It had been a lie Jazz kept telling herself to not go crazy.

“Ignorance really is bliss sometimes.” She downed the rest of the water, stood up and paced the floor.

“A minute ago you still complained that you didn’t get any information and now you miss ignorance?”

“Hey, I’m Schrodinger’s widow right now, I don’t have to make sense.” With a sniffle she plopped back down on the couch.

“You shouldn’t say that,” Liana softly chided her. “Ichiyanagi sure is fine.”

“If he is and comes back and has no good explanation for putting me through this hell he won’t be fine any longer. Honestly, is it too much to send a stupid text to your wife to let her know you didn’t die in a stupid shooting?”

The door flew open, made both women flinch, but it Miho storming in.

“Hey, how are things over here?” Breathless she took two strides, opened her arms for Jazz to throw herself in.

“We are at stage rage,” Liana informed Miho, leaned back on the couch.

“That was quick.”

“You know I’m not a woman of patience.” Jazz voice was muffled, her face pressed against Miho’s shoulder. “So don’t make me wait. Did you find something out?” She took a step back and crossed her arms in front of her chest, stared at Miho.

“Yeah, Seiji managed to get hold of someone who could at least tell us it’s not Ichiyanagi who got shot.”

“Oh, thank god.” Relief made her knees weak, forced Jazz on the floor.

“Fukuhara is also unharmed. But – someone else from the squad caught a bullet.” Taking a seat next to Jazz on the floor Miho sighed. “It’s looking bad.”

“Wow… my first thought just was: ‘at least it’s not Subaru’. I’m an awful person.” Jazz took the tissue Miho offered her, wiped her nose and sniffled. “How bad?”

“Not sure. Next 24 hours will show.”

A round of fresh tears welled up in Jazz’s eyes.

“Fuck. Do you know who it is?”

“Not yet. All I know it’s not your husband.”

Wordlessly they stayed huddled together on the floor, with Liana observing them from the couch, supplying them with fresh tissues from time to time.

 

Jazz left work early that day, restless to the point of bouncing around. No word from Subaru yet, but Katsuragi called back, confirming what Miho had already found out. He also apologized for not informing Jazz sooner but with the first rush of panic subsided she was generous, told him not to worry about it.

Now that night had come Jazz couldn’t sleep. Not the absence of Subaru kept her from finding peace of mind, she was used to that by now. But he still hadn’t called and until she had talked to him she wouldn’t be fully convinced he was unharmed.

Miho had offered for Jazz to stay the night with her and Goto but Jazz missed the comfort of her own home, where she still had shirts with Subaru’s scent.

Wrapped up in one of those she lay in their bed, stared at the ceiling above. It needed a paintjob. Maybe not white this time. Some cream color perhaps.

The ringing of her phone made her jump.

“Subaru?!”

“Hey, Jazz, I’m so sorry…”

“God, babe, I was worried sick! Are you okay?” She was wide awake again, sat up in the dark.

“Yeah, I’m – Jazz, things were crazy and I – whoa.” He chuckled, mumbled something.

“Are you drunk?” In their whole relationship she had only seen him drunk twice.

“Maybe a bit. Saw that you called.”

26 times. Plus around 50 text messages.

Bed springs creaked, the rustling of fabric was audible.

“You had a hard day, go to sleep, babe. I’m glad you didn’t get harmed. But next time, call me as soon as possible, okay? I never want to feel like this again.”

He hummed, groaned when the bed creaked again.

“Okay, I see that talking to you is not working right now. Hang up, drink some water and sleep it off. I love you.”

He mumbled something she couldn’t understand, probably a ‘love you, too’ before the line went dead.

That night Jazz didn’t sleep at all. But at least she didn’t cry anymore.

The scent of smoke – part 7

Like the good wife she could be when she was in the mood Jazz ironed Subaru’s shirt, ignored his frantic back and forth while packing.

“Do you need anything else ironed?”

She put his shirt on a hanger, waited for his answer.

“No, that should be all. Thank you.” A quick peck on her cheek and he took the shirt from her, put it into a garment bag.

“So, you are working with the future mayor of Tokyo now, huh?” The iron in her hand Jazz grinned at him, watched his lips curl up in a smirk.

“He’s not there yet, but yes. I guess in three or four years he will run for that position.” Fukuhara Jun, a 38 years old politician with a bright future was the new client Subaru and his squad worked for.

“Will his wife travel with him?”

Subaru’s suitcase was already full so Jazz carefully folded another sweater as small and flat as possible.

“The first week, yes. The second we will be on our own.”

“Guy’s roadtrip?” she teasingly asked, took the garment bag from him and handed him a pair of shoes in return.

“With less fun and alcohol.” His smile stayed on his lips only, and not for long.

“You don’t look excited about this wonderful chance,” Jazz concluded. She hung the garment bag on a hook, turned to her husband and wrapped her arms around his neck. “What’s wrong?”

His brow furrowed he exhaled deeply, put a smile on. “Nothing for you to worry about.” A quick pat of her bum later he let go again, busied himself with shuffling clothes around. “Let me get the packing done and we can go out for dinner, what do you say?”

A second of hesitation before Jazz cleared the ironing board away and wiped her hands on her jeans.

“I don’t feel like getting dressed up again. I could just order something and we have a relaxed dinner at home. And more time for dessert.”

“Or you could call Miho and ask if she and Goto would like to come over and have dinner together with us.” His head still bowed over the contents of his suitcase he didn’t look at her, stuffed more underwear into the small free spaces around his clothes.

“You are aware that I know you long enough to realize that you’re keeping something from me, do you? If you don’t want or simply can’t talk about it, fine. But don’t insult my intelligence and experience as your wife by trying to deflect.”

When he looked up again she stood with her arms crossed and a pout on her lips next to the bed. He heaved a tired sigh, sat down on the edge of the mattress, held out a had towards her.

“I can’t talk about it, it’s work related. And yes, it’s bugging me but I promise, it’s nothing you have to worry about. It’s just keeping my thoughts occupied for now so I’m not exactly good company tonight.”

She took a small step towards him, allowed him to grab her wrist and pull her closer. Standing between his legs she ran a hand through his hair, scratched the spots she had found out ages ago to be his favorites.

“I don’t expect a great show of you. Just be honest with me, okay? See, now I know it’s not something I did or said and that’s all I need to know. You are allowed to worry about your job, you are allowed to feel sad or angry. You don’t always have to be strong, you know? Not with me.”

A muffled hum sounded from where he had buried his face against her belly, crinkled the fabric of her shirt.

His “I love you”, although slurred, prompted a deep inhale and a smile from her.

“And I love you. So you better get over with packing while I order our food. I’d rather spend the night in your poor company than with anyone else.”

 

The SS Serendipity was a medium-sized container vessel, one among countless in port. So far it hasn’t appeared in any other investigations, neither the crew nor the owner suspicious before.

“I found another mention in a phone transcript. That makes six so far.” Confirmed in her suspicion now Miho leaned back in her chair. “How far are you with the background check of the owner?”

Goto came over to her desk, handed her a couple of documents and sat down on the chair next to hers.

“He seems clean so far. No criminal record, no strange activities, no traceable connections to any name we have.”

“Can we get our hands on some destination list of the last few months?” With a few notes Miho jotted down what they had so far.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. We could call port authority for a start. That’s standard procedure and doesn’t raise attention to our investigation at all.”

“Do that. I try some other sources to find out more about the vessel.”

Working together as a married couple put a strain on a lot of relationships, for Miho and Goto though it proved to be easy. Mutual respect for each other’s personalities and approaches was the key – and taking care of budding tensions.

“Take care.” He pressed a peck on her lips, nodded and got up to contact the port authorities.

Miho pored over the connections once more, wondering where she could pull a thread to unravel this mess.

 

Cooking dinner for just one person was less fun than cooking for two. It was less work and no one complained in the end about the taste or the selection, but Liana tended to prepare one dish and eat it for several days. Her freezer was well stocked with leftovers and small servings of pre-cooked dinners she often spruced up with fresh ingredients.

Which she had to buy.

Her shopping cart was filled with vegetables and fruit, some rice and condiments. After a week like hers she deserved a treat, so her next goal was the dessert aisle. Some people rewarded themselves with alcohol, Liana preferred a bit of sugar. Not too much, of course, she wasn’t 20 anymore and didn’t lose weight easily. Better not putting on any. In a country where a lot of women were petite she already stood out with her height. A pudding every now and then wasn’t a problem, or maybe some ice cream.

She turned around the corner, faltered when she spotted the tall man with the glasses.

“Captain Ishigami?”

His eyebrows raised when he saw her, just briefly before he schooled his expression back into a neutral one.

“Miss Starling. Hello.”

‘Are you shopping, too?’ or ‘What are you doing here?’ were pointless questions that neither of them asked, but the awkward silence begged to be filled.

“It’s nice meeting you again.” She pushed her cart past him, turned to inspect the pudding shelf.

“Do you have a recommendation for me? I know none of these brands.” With a wide gesture he motioned towards the shelf, tilted his head lightly.

“Actually I like the almond vanilla one. It’s not too sweet, but incredibly creamy. If you prefer chocolate, the double choc with cream over there is heavenly. As for classics, the crème brûlée over there is decent enough. Even better if you add some more sugar and caramelize it.” She took two of the almond vanilla cups and smiled, nodded in parting and turned to leave.

“Miss Starling?”

“Yes, Captain?” Liana faced him again, still a polite smile on her face.

“How do I caramelize the sugar?”

She cocked her head, brow furrowed.

“Should I show you? I have a bit time tonight and was just about to buy what I need for dinner. If you have no other plans…”

Ishigami stared at the pudding cups in front of him, back to Liana.

“Thank you, that’s a kind offer I gladly accept. Besides the crème brûlée, what else do I need?”

 

Planning and preparing an award show was completely different to a wedding or an anniversary. The theme was constricting and vague at the same time. Graphics and photographs – finding the essence of a type of art was basically impossible.

“The location is artsy enough, we don’t need to equip the waiting staff with painter’s palettes as trays or give them paint-splattered frocks or anything like that. No photo booths or fake paparazzi either, we don’t want the artists to feel mocked.” Jazz stared at the expose, scribbled some notes down.

“So basically we have the usual setup? A fancy location and some canapés? Isn’t that the same Yamamoto suggested? You know, before he lost this job?”

Despite Liana’s objection Jazz made some alterations at the expose, put the pen down after the last word.

“Basically, yes. But we give it a completely different vibe. This band I found will add some background music, we transport the whole show to a time where photography was still analog. Classy, but with a twist.”

Since Subaru was on a business trip she spent most of her time working. Miho and Goto were neck-deep into their investigation so they didn’t even have the occasional dinners together. Perfect conditions to ponder over details and come up with the strangest ideas.

“Old Hollywood or roaring 20s?” Already armed with a pen of her own Liana leaned in closer, despite the desk between the two women.

“I was thinking early 50s underground jazz club. Too specific?”

“No, sounds good. Decorations?”

“That’s the good thing about it, all we need are some bar tables and waitstaff with white shirts and a bowtie. The museum has some white walls and some with red brick. Wooden floors. We build a small stage, red velvet curtains and some wooden chairs and we are done.” Jazz stretched her arms above her head, sank back into her chair and grinned. “This hasn’t been done before, it’s simple enough not to distract from the art but fancy enough to satisfy anyone’s need for luxury and pomp.”

“I like the idea. You think the higher ups will agree?”

Jazz shrugged, hid her yawn with one hand. “Sorry, long night. Anyway, there’s not much time until the award show anymore, so either the big bosses approve or they have no concept for it at all.”

“So what’s next?”

“I’ll get the proposal all nice and shiny and take it to Mr. Takuchi for his approval. I doubt he will refuse, so once that’s through we better start with the preparations. By the way, how’s the wedding planning going? Any problems with that?” Again she fought a yawn but lost.

“All good on that end. But are you sure you shouldn’t go home early today and sleep for a change?” Liana got up, pointedly looked at the clock on the wall.

“I will, after I got this done. We lost a lot of time while Yamamoto sat on this job, can’t afford to dawdle now.” Maybe food was a good idea, it’s been ages since lunch. “When the proposal is ready I’ll go and fetch some dinner. You want to join?”

Liana dropped her gaze to the floor, shook her head. “Sorry, I got plans for tonight.”

“No biggie. Enjoy your plans.” With a smirk Jazz focused on her task again, chuckled when the door closed behind Liana. Plans, was it? She would have to ask Miho what Captain Ishigami was doing that night.

It was dark outside when Jazz printed out the final version of her proposal, took it to the office of her superior and fetched her bag to leave.

The short walk to the small ramen shop woke her up just enough to recognize the man in the back of the small place.

“You gotta be kidding me…” she mumbled, lips already turning up into a smile and feet taking her over to him.

“Hey, is the seat taken?”

Yushima looked up from his phone, eyes widened when he recognized her. “Dunno. You got a beer for me?” He pushed the chair next to his out a bit, waited until she was sitting. “Are you stalking me or something?”

“Funny, I wanted to ask you the same.” The shop owner, at the same time waiter, dish washer and chef, came over to take her order.

“One jumbo bowl, please. Make it spicy. And can I get a beer for me and one for my friend here, please?”

“Sure.”

Jazz turned back to Yushima, found him grinning at her.

“So, we are friends now?”

“I couldn’t say ‘a beer for my maybe stalker’, could I?”

He laughed, leaned back in his seat. “I thought we agreed that you are stalking me, not the other way around.”

“Nope, no stalking here. But you have to admit, there are too many chance meetings to make this feel like actual coincidence.”

“True, but you won’t hear me complain about it.”

The fell silent until the owner brought them their beer and told Jazz her ramen would be ready in a minute or two.

“You’re not having dinner with your husband?” Yushima asked, clinked his bottle against hers.

“Not tonight, no.” She took a swig, sighed in delight.

“Rough day?”

“Hard day, week, month. But that’s nothing new, so I’ll live.” She perked up when the owner set a bowl down in front of her, thanked him and picked up her chopsticks.

“Have you eaten already?”

“Yeah, don’t mind me. Go ahead, the food’s great here.”

Hunger beat self-consciousness and after the first bite of crispy chicken Jazz slurped her noodles as if her mother had never told her not to do it as kid. Sitting next to each other gave her at least enough cover so he wasn’t staring into her face the whole time. Halfway through the bowl she slowed down, picked the bites to find the perfect balance of taste and texture.

“Don’t you like the egg?”

Her chopsticks stopped moving around, she tilted her head. “Not really. Most places out egg into their ramen, but I’m not a big fan. Why? Do you want it?” She picked up half of a boiled egg, the yolk silky and still shining.

He leaned back an inch, furrowed his brow. “Are you sure?”

“Of course. I don’t eat it, I would just leave it in the bowl at the end.” Subaru often scolded her for wasting food instead of telling the chef to forgo the egg while ordering. Before he ate the egg.

“Should I get my own set of chopsticks?”

“Why? Come on, it’s just food, I don’t offer you my liver.”

“You’re not afraid of any diseases? I could have cooties,” he pointed out, grinned when she rolled her eyes.

“You want it or not?”

“I want it.” He opened his mouth, waited until Jazz fed him the egg before he closed his lips.

“See? Nothing bad happened. Oh, except for you having my cooties now.” Jazz stuck out her tongue at him, snickered when he almost choked on the egg. She stirred her ramen once again, picked up some noodles and slurped them down.

“You are quite a handful, aren’t you?” he remarked, still coughing lightly.

“Yep, that’s what people say. But at least I’m not boring,” she replied, laughed when he shook his head. The ringing of his phone cut into their banter, he excused himself and she returned to her food. The bowl was almost empty when he came back, gulped down his beer and set the bottle back on the counter.

“Sorry, gorgeous, gotta go now. Thanks for the beer. I guess I’ll see you around?”

“Like things went so far I would be surprised if not. Thanks for keeping me company. And for taking care of that egg.” She waved with her own bottle, full and lazy now.

“Hey, would you- nah, it’s fine.” With a last wave he left.

When Jazz went to pay she was told her bill was already taken care of.

 

“I like that guy,” Miho stated and turned up the volume of the TV where a political debate was heating up.

“Which one?” Goto handed her a cup of tea, sat down next to her on the couch.

“That Fukuhara. Lately he talks a lot about fighting against gun violence and drug rings.” The bitter tea was welcome after the late dinner they had. She gently blew on the dark green surface, sent ripples over it.

“He sure is popular lately.” Goto’s cup still sat on the table, cooling off before he drank it.

“True. Let’s hope it’s not only talk but that he will actually do something against crime. I’m sick of hearing politicians promise the moon but once they get the position they wanted they can’t remember any of their words from their campaign.” She drained her cup, rolled her shoulder and stretched her neck from left to right and back.

“Tensed?” With one hand Goto took the cup from her, the other rested on her shoulder.

“A bit. You wanna help me unwind?” She turned her back to him, looked over her shoulder.

“Do you even need to ask?” His hands found the knots just below her neck, thumbs rubbed circles into her tensed muscles.

She groaned lowly, her head dropped forwards while he massaged her neck, shoulders and upper back.

“That’s the spot… oh yeah… just a bit more…”

With a satisfied sigh she straightened up, just enough so she could slump against him, one hand on his thigh.

“Thanks, I needed that.” Her hand wandered higher, she looked up and grinned at him.

“So, any spots I can relax for you?”

The TV kept playing in the background while Goto and Miho got lost in their own world.